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Almighty Engine, Infernal Thunder

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The blade sank into the nearest zombie's neck with a crunch, and Xander reminded himself that his entire combat career had been spent fighting undead. Well, undead and demons. Weirdly, Redfang seemed to talk about those two as different, probably incompatible, things. He'd been bitten a few times, but so had everyone else; no one seemed to worry much about turning into zombies. He hoped that meant they wouldn't.


What made him worry was that out of the powers he'd unlocked so far, none of them seemed to have much to do with combat. The things he'd done so far had been mind tricks, or construction-related. That made sense for him--he was a glorified hard-hat, not a soldier or even a policeman. But everybody kept telling him that the Exalted had been made as weapons, so how come he didn't seem to have some kind of fallback power, at the very least? What was he supposed to do against mindless things like this?


Oh.


Well, that was embarrassing. Just the thought had triggered a gut-level awareness of what he needed to do. It had been too basic, apparently. Xander tapped into the energy contained inside him and let it stream out, a gush of brilliant California sunlight tempered by the faint grey shadow of clouds. While he had been pondering, a couple of zombies had moved in on him, raising swords clutched in hands that were little more than bone and tendon, moved by a strength that was more than muscular. A scimitar bit deep into his arm and cut its way free.


The wound sealed up, leaving only the hint of a scar. This time when he swung, his blade severed the first zombie's neck with a hiss of fire and cleaved the upraised arm of the other, sending its weapon flying.


Xander took a moment to imagine doing that to Spike. Yeah, nice and satisfying. Angel next. Then he was all the way back in the fray, dodging and weaving still, but taking blows here and there...with no more effect than a friendly punch on the shoulder. "Wish I could've done this five years ago!" he shouted as the Captain backed past him, and kicked in the face of the zombie that was forcing her to retreat. Well, he tried, but the head flew clean off its shoulders, bounced off the rigging, and fell into the sea.

This was fun.

The girl with the crystal hair swung by him, swinging a weapon that looked like a spear, but whose gemstone tip left shards in the flesh of every zombie it struck. The thing was longer than he was tall, but Crystal wielded it like a pro, as if she'd had it her entire life. She was shining too, now, a hard, brilliant glitter the shade of a white shirt under a blacklight, and steam hissed from every droplet of water that touched her skin. She moved as if the zombies were barely a concern, though each one she touched died. Of the swirling ghosts that bared their phantom teeth at the enemy, she was more careful, but not because she feared them; rather, she seemed to be trying to herd them toward the soldiers with the proton packs. She wanted to capture them for some reason?

Crystal took up a position behind him."It's an honor to fight alongside you!"

Xander blinked, then laughed, hoping not to sound condescending. "I'm really new at this," he admitted. "You seem like you've been at it your whole life!"

"More or less," she agreed. "Call me Nelumbo."

He frowned--it was a strange name--but knowing she was facing away, he just answered, "I'm Xander."

Nelumbo's soldiers blasted a group of ghosts, who were sucked into the containment unit from the craft hovering above them. It was exactly like "Ghostbusters". Xander began to relax a little. He was kicking zombie butt and taking zombie names--so to speak--and holding his own without any real trouble. "Wish I'd brought some bubblegum," he said with a chuckle. "Looks like we're running low on ass. No offense intended; yours isn't bad, but I'm trying not to stare."

"Don't worry about it," Nelumbo said. "It won't matter, or bother me. I'm flattered. I never expected to meet an actual Solar." She drove her lance into an oncoming zombie's chest. This time electrical arcs blazed over her body and weapon and blasted the thing to smithereens.

"Only been one for a week," Xander chuckled, though he'd spotted another woman--that pirate from a few hours ago, Ebon Siaka, leaping through the rigging from ship to ship. Maybe he should be worried, but he wasn't sure he could make himself be.

"Roberts!" Siaka screamed. "I knew your claim to come in peace was a lie!"

"You've dealt with her?" Nelumbo queried him. "What is she?" Crystalline wings patterned with gears were unfolding from the light that shone around her.

Xander sighed. "I was going to ask you that." He raised his scimitar. "I guess I shouldn't have asked for more ass. I have to admit hers is pretty good-looking."

Nelumbo aimed her lance at the approaching pirate. "Tell it to someone who can appreciate it, Roberts Xander." She came around to stand at his side. "I prefer yours. Er, if that doesn't offend you, noble one."

"I, ah...thanks." Noble one? Just who did she think he was, anyway? "I guess we'd better deal with her, whatever she is."

Siaka didn't give them the chance to debate the matter; she plummeted from the crow's nest, maul swinging, and forced him to dive for the deck while Nelumbo blocked the blow with the shaft of her lance, sparks flying. He really needed to get ahold of some of these cool weapons; the pirate scimitars weren't nearly so durable.

This lady wasn't going to fold nearly so easily as zombies or Lintha pirates, and while Nelumbo probably could beat her, he had a feeling he shouldn't leave the matter to "probably". Trouble was, he needed a strategy. With that hammer she was waving about, Xander suspected she was a good bit more of a combat monster than he was, sunlight or no sunlight.

What was it he had done to the Lintha again? He'd made them afraid. Siaka didn't seem like the type to cave in to fear, though. Could he make her feel something else? Hmm...there was an idea. Anya was liable to kill him for it--but not really, not the way Siaka would. "Nice to see you again, Ebon Siaka. We were just discussing your butt. I've got to say, for an evil zombie-raising pirate, yours is about the best I've seen in a while." Nelumbo made a disgusted noise and shook her head at him while he feinted left and swung his scimitar at Siaka.

Siaka just snorted at him. "I've seen worse than you, Roberts, but not in a fight. What kind of Solar are you?"

He gave a little shrug. "The kind who talks you to death." He made a dive and a grab for her sidearm that he didn't expect to succeed. It didn't, and the haft of her maul clipped him on the head. It hurt, but it didn't give him the concussion it probably should've. "And you're the kind of...whatever you are...that makes your enemies wish you'd wrap your legs around their necks just so they can experience those thighs."

Xander knew he wasn't Buffy's equal at banter--well, he hadn't been, at least--but Siaka blinked as she smashed his scimitar out of his hand to clatter in pieces onto the deck. "Flattery will get you nowhere, Roberts. Though I might be willing to take you up on that wish. It'll be the last thing you see."

"Roberts, what are you doing?" Nelumbo hissed, leaping from the deck to plant a kick in Siaka's midsection.

"Cracking jokes in combat," he explained. "Trust me, the bad guys just hate it. Breaks their nerve, don'tcha know? What, never seen an Exalted do stand-up?" He offered her a wink, hoping she would take it as "trust me", rather than "you're cute too". Although she certainly was.

Siaka made another disgusted noise, this one in her throat. "If you want me to wrap something around your neck, I'm sure I can oblige." She seized Xander's throat in a hold, and he was just beginning to think he'd made a terrible mistake when she yanked him forward and kissed him on the mouth. She immediately recoiled, staring at him, but it looked like he'd gotten hold of her. "What the hell?"

Nelumbo was staring at him too, fortunately with a look of shock and confusion. He'd explain in a moment when he got a chance. Though maybe he could work it into his routine. "Sorry, Siaka, I've been down this road with Faith. She was good the first time, but the whole erotic asphyxiation business turned into a real downer. Anyway, I'm taken now."

"Taken? You're taken, all right." Siaka yanked him forward again, mashing her lips against his. Okay, maybe he'd miscalculated here. But she was trying to make out with him in the middle of a fight, and unless his allies completely misunderstood what he wanted....

Nelumbo clocked Siaka on the head with her lance. "Oh no you don't. This one is mine." Damn it! Now it was Nelumbo pressing up against him, and that naked body felt a lot nicer than Siaka's armor.

With an effort, he pulled away. "Nelumbo, I'm sorry. That was a battle tactic, not a come-on, and I didn't mean for you to get caught up in it. I really am taken." She wasn't a particularly practiced kisser, and her face felt...strange. Not quite exactly like skin. But she certainly wasn't horrible either.

Nelumbo glanced down at Siaka and heaved a deep sigh. Around them the battle seemed to be winding down. Most of the zombies were down on the deck, and the ghosts had been vacuumed up. "I understand, I guess. I don't get a lot of chances with men, and I never get to stay...." She winked at him. "You'll pay for this, you know." At least there was a sparkle in her eye.

Xander shook his head slowly. "I know. Boy, will I ever." Even if he didn't do anything more...definitely best not to tell Ahn.

"We need to take the po souls back to Autochthonia," Nelumbo said regretfully. "The shortage is approaching critical levels, and with the Eight Nations still squabbling, I...never mind that. I'd love to have you come with me. And we could find you some real equipment."

Xander kept his eyes on the twitching zombies rather than face her. "As much fun as I think that'd be, I'm looking for a lost friend, and my girlfriend is somewhere around here too. She's tough, but I worry that this place is tougher." He bent down and picked up Siaka's raygun. "I bet this'll come in handy."
He expected her to sigh and start gathering her men. Instead, she scowled. "I...Gathered Might will forget me, but he won't forget the mission. He knows how important it is to get those ghosts back to the Ewer of Souls." She glanced down at the tiny cape over her shoulders, and it became a short, simple dress. "Mind if I stay and help? I've wondered for a long time what Creation is like, and it looks like a lot of my guesses were wrong."

Xander didn't have to think about that one. "Honestly, I could use some help getting used to all this. I'm not from around here myself. You teach me what you know, and I'll tell you about where I come from, and...you'll get some adventure along the way."

Nelumbo offered her hand. "Deal."

*****

Buffy's instructor flowed smoothly through katas that looked like nothing she had ever seen before, but she followed along with ease. Practice with Giles had never been like this. He knew the rudiments of a few ordinary martial arts, but he was a mortal in late middle age, and she was...what she was. Whatever that was.

"Go on," Cearr muttered from his cot. "What're you waitin' for?"

Buffy honestly didn't know what to tell him. Waiting for someone to tell me it's all a mistake? Waiting because, if I do this, I have to admit I'm like him? It wasn't even the truth. Unless everyone she'd spoken to was lying through their teeth--and her powers told her they weren't--supernatural martial arts were something any Exalt could learn, with a few caveats here and there.

Instead of answering, she took a deep breath and closed her eyes, balling her fists up until her knuckles cracked. She didn't have to be on the Yozis' side to use their power. She had fought demons for five years now and kicked butt doing it. A vague phrase drifted through her head about demons fighting demons and was gone. It didn't matter. All that mattered was what she could do. She was a Slayer, and she was damn good at it.

Her eyes snapped open, shining with a searing light she could feel as a brief moment of pain. She'd worn loose robes for this, and here was the reason--bulging muscles, cracking sounds as her limbs grew longer, skin stretching taut. She half expected her skin to turn green. So this was Infernal Monster Form. She wasn't angry. Cearr might be disappointed, but he should aleady know he wouldn't like her when she was angry.

Buffy slammed a growing palm against her instructor, sending him flying into the wall, and felt her muscles swell larger still. The longer she fought, the stronger she could grow. The power surging through her was like nothing she had felt before--perhaps a little like when she'd first realized she could punch vampires through walls, and maybe again when she'd turned into cave-girl. Maybe closer to that second one; there was something that felt more "natural" about this, at least in the sense that muscle was a more natural source of strength than magic.

Of course, if she did this in something other than dojo robes, she'd probably end up starkers again. The world just was not fair when it came to clothes.

Cearr clapped weakly from the cot. "Still wondering what you need me for, girl. I should've respected you from the start, but you just didn't look like Slayer material to my dumb ass."

"I need to know how to organize an army." She'd been taught to fight alone; she'd learned to fight with small groups of friends. She had no idea how to mount a military campaign.

"You've never led people in combat, kid?" Cearr grunted. "Well, seems like you're par for the course among Slayers, actually. Too many brutes, not enough generals. Again--I'd never have thought you were the type for that either."

"Well, there was that one time--"

"One time?" Cearr interrupted. "You win?" He raised an eyebrow, a gesture which didn't seem to suit his thick-boned face at all.

"The world didn't die, so yeah. I lost a few people, but the Mayor got blown up just as planned and didn't even manage to eat much of anyone. Principal Snyder, mostly. No big loss." She wasn't about to admit she felt sorry even for Snyder, not to this big lug.

"You better explain this one, girlie. Your town Mayor ate some people and then got blown up?" Cearr's quizzical expression was even stranger on him than Vulcan-brow.

"The Mayor had been planning for years to turn into a true demon. Maybe something like a Third-Circle, maybe even a Yozi--"

Cearr laughed out loud at that. "No way anything human's ever going to turn into a Yozi. But a demon...well, I guess I've heard of things like that. Go on."

"Anyway, he'd made himself invincible till he transformed into a giant snake demon and so we had to work out how to kill him afterwards. I'd always been told that a Slayer worked alone, but instead I armed the whole school. Crossbows, swords, think I even had a few flamethrowers in the mix. Everyone attacked when I'd told them to, and we beat up his demon army and herded him into the school library where we'd stacked about a trillion boxes of explosives. It wasn't pretty, but most of us lived through it, and he didn't."

Cearr began to make a choking sound deep in his throat. It took a moment to realize he was laughing. "Tell me again how you have no idea to lead an army? I don't know what he was, but I'd guess Second-Circle at least. Maybe Third. Couldn't have been a Yozi, mortals just don't become Primordials of any stripe, but maybe a Third. And you offed him with minimal casualties?"

"Well, we hit him early when he was still hungry from the transformation--"

"Meaning you planned it perfect, no? You organized a campaign of teenage students with, I'm guessing, no battle experience, against a possible Third Circle demon and his demon support force. And you killed him with minimal casualties on your side. And you're asking me to train you in how to fight a war." Cearr was all but doubled over laughing now.

"Well, what about resources, then? How do I feed an army? Or pay one? How'm I supposed to keep the war going after a day's gone by and the enemy are still out there running around?" He was so...frustrating, and she was furious, and....

"Hmm, guess you really might not know that. I can tell you about it, but first answer me a question. Isn't this a strange shape to be asking me about all this in? Sure, you're not just a fighter, but that's not what Infernal Monster form is for, now is it?" Cearr waved one weak hand toward a brass stand-mirror. "Get a good look at yourself."

Buffy stomped her way over to the mirror. So she was bigger. What about it--? Okay. Okay, she saw what he meant. She was well over six feet tall, but that was the least of it. She wasn't as absurdly muscle-bound as Cearr had been in this form, but her limbs were twisted knots of muscle all the same. She'd seen female bodybuilders, and neither she nor they looked like She-Hulk as she was usually shown in comics. More than that, Buffy was hunched forward, her brow as thick as the Neanderthals those guys had turned into during the cave-beer business. No, this was not a good look for her at all, no matter how strong and utterly deadly she felt. And Cearr was right, too. "Not exactly honors student material. Not even at West Point." He lifted that thick eyebrow again. "Military academy."

"Give the damn thing a bit more of a test-drive, kid. When you're good and finished, I'll tell you about supply lines. But this deserves to be enjoyed, and you ain't gonna do that talkin' strategy." Cearr's laughter was finally subsiding.

"Point taken," Buffy acknowledged. She looked back to the sifu. "Get me an opponent worth my time," she growled.

The little demon tilted his head, considered a moment, and sent her flying.

*****

It slunk silently through the shadows, ragged, haggard, a starveling thing possessed of immense power it had no way to use. The sun seared it, shamed it, scared it, and so it clung to darkness. Yet it needed to find a host, oh so harshly, so humbly it needed a host.

This was not the world it had been forced to slumber in, and now it was constrained even more tightly than before. Its inmost nature bade it seek out a warrior, yet the first of several layers of restraint, the most elegant, demanded it find a host on the verge of death. A heroic host to match its own innately heroic nature, yet a host who had failed and fallen. A much looser restraint came from the nature of its most recent hosts: it was so much more familiar with children. Yet this conflicted with the first requirement. The entity sensed child soldiers fighting half a world away, felt the pull of some few of them, but it would have to go so far, hurt so much, alone under the searing sun. Surely something could be found sooner, closer. The last layer of restraint, crude yet compelling, demanded it find a girl, young but not so young as it would have preferred.

All these layers of contradictory compulsion tore it till it could scarcely stand existing, but it could not die. It would search, it would seek...Wait. A possibility.

The entity wove through the walls, through hospital halls, among the diseased and the dying. A room, penciled papers peppering the walls. Brave knights driving dragons before them, white amoeboid things devouring monsters labeled "leukemia". The girl on the bed had not always been such a wasted thing.

There had been muscle, there had been strength. Not the strength of true warfare, but combat of a sort. And still she had the spirit of a fighter.

The entity had made do with less before, under the direction of its mistress.

It coiled around her. That fierce strength was failing, her life leaking away. The entity settled against her bald forehead and prepared to offer itself to her.

Choking fluids began to fill her lungs. She began to thrash and gag. Alarms awoke, and a hustle heralded the arrival of the last guard against mortality.

The last guard save one. Come to me, the entity whispered urgently in her mind. Come to me, little warrior, and live.

She clutched it to herself, desperately, begging. Sizzle and pop went the lights. Crack went the machines that had failed her. Darkness flooded the room.

Yes, my dear, yes. Be mine. Be me. Live.

Live forever.

*****

Sage of the Depths had laughed, but not unkindly, and taught her what she asked. Hungry for knowledge, he had called her, and Fred was. No question about that.

The question, instead, was What kind?

She scurried through gaps between the walls, between electrical wires and steam tubes and conduits that carried a power she had only just begun to understand. Six little legs bearing a body flatter than a cookie but larger than a mouse. That was important: larger than a mouse. Fred had taken the Sage at his exact words, and been proven right.

Not that munching on cockroach had been the least bit less disgusting than she had expected.

Here there had been power failures, more times than she could count, and few of them had been repaired. This was the prison cell and only refuge of those who called themselves Dragon-Blooded, but who were known to all others in this place as Traitorspawn. No one looked twice at the roaches, no matter how big they grew down here. The people she saw shuffled through life, working as listlessly as their overseers allowed. Some few were offered privileges for the honor of keeping their fellows under tight control. Standard slavery stuff.

The Dragon-Blooded she'd seen on land would be outraged. They would descend on this place and slaughter the offenders. They might also slaughter the oppressed for being too weak to escape. And in any case, if they didn't, they'd just raise the kids to be as arrogant as their parents had been down-trodden.

She had to find another way to free them, even if she could have worked out how to leave.

One of them seemed different. He moved through his nightly shifts of sweeping and scrubbing the ancient decks with a touch more energy, no matter how he hard he tried to conceal it. The overseers seemed to take it as fear. Fred knew better. She had crawled the walls while Gavrane Tomazri practiced, thinking himself hidden in his quarters.

Of course, if she could discover this, so could Sage of the Depths. Or Swims-In-Shadow, or Leviathan, or another Lunar trained by them. But clearly they had overlooked the boy, or he would be long dead. Fred thought she might know how. During her first attempt to watch him, he had suddenly flinched and then begun smashing cockroaches. Fortunately the rest had scurried away, giving her cover to escape as well. After that she'd learned to stay more carefully hidden, though the average roach in Luthe had ceased to care about the dimly flickering lights on the Traitorspawn levels. Tomazri had a charm that told him he was being watched, perhaps not precisely where, but close enough he had been able to recognize that a bug was responsible. It had been a month before he had dared do anything visible again, even in secret. Clearly he knew a Lunar had been observing him, though he might have thought the insects were minions rather than a disguise.

Sooner or later she was going to have to approach him. Tonight, however, she turned away. Fortunately, the other problem wasn't far; traveling as a roach was time-consuming.

She lifted her protective tegmen, spread her inner wings, and flew. The Traitorspawn showed just enough disgust not to let her land on them, and she didn't try. Through the corridors she zoomed, over mildew and mold, past piles of fish guts ready for disposal, her instincts calling her to alight. She would, but not until she was done. The remaining layer of disgust not quelled by instinct she had learned to ignore in Pylea, out of necessity. You ate what you had to eat to survive. And in this form, it didn't even taste bad. Not much did.

She felt as if she were hurtling along, yet at the same time it felt like reaching the lifts took hours. The truth was somewhere between the two; she was still learning to interpret time and distance at this size. The lifts here had been unresponsive for centuries. That was only the first barrier of the gauntlet she would have to run.

Fred knew how to respond to multiple layers of traps, of course: cheat. Sage of the Depths understood that she wanted to spy on the Traitorspawn, and had been amused by her method of doing so, but as far as she knew he had no clue of her other motive for taking this form. She landed on the edge of the lift doorway and searched about with her slightly-confusing compound-eye vision. There it was.

Fred slipped through a tiny gap in the plating and into the space between Essence conduits. Security here was unbelieveably tight, but it had been aimed at containing mortals and probably Dragon-Blooded. For a Lunar to think of invading the command deck must have been almost unimaginable, probably because out of the three hundred in existence most had been authorized to be here. So far Fred had faced three bug grids and disabled two of them with her jaws and a tiny metal pin. Undoubtedly there were other extermination-traps to be bypassed--poisons, maybe, possibly even enthralled predators. Fred was under no illusions that this would be an easy trek. But compared to facing Essence cannons and bound demons?

She was going to make it. It was just a matter of time.

*****

Faith.

That was her name. Faith. LeHane. Right. Fingers scrabbled beneath the covers, found the IV, the catheter. She had done this before. Or was that in her dreams? Her hand found the faint scar on her belly. But there should be more, if the rest was real.

Her hand slipped from beneath the white, white sheets, up to her face. Her left eye was filled with cotton padding. She lifted it and felt at the sunken skin beneath. Her field of vision remained unchanged.

With an immense effort, she shoved the world away from the back of her head and felt there too. The skin was intact, but a great patch of her hair was gone. Beneath a thin layer of flesh she found a gap in her skull. Smaller than a bullet should have left, but still there.

So it hadn't been a dream. And Slayers healed from more than she had expected. Maybe her eye would grow back. Who knew?

Faith slithered out from beneath the covers and put her feet on the ground. The world spun. She hadn't felt this dizzy in years. Holding her arms out to her sides, she stood anyway. A supreme effort of will firmed up her footing. Brain damage. She had to have brain damage. That was why her memory was full of little gaps, and that was why she was having difficulty walking. Only, she wasn't, not really. All she had to do was focus. Surely that was too easy.

She shambled her way out into the hall. Her balance might be working fine, but her motions seemed off. She hoped she didn't look like a zombie. Hell, she hoped she wasn't a zombie. How would she know? Mirror. She needed a mirror. The hallways were mostly empty, though an orderly hurried down a distant hall shoving a laundry cart.

Faith stumbled and found herself in another part of the hospital. No. It wasn't that simple. She'd lost some time. More *fucking* brain damage. That had better heal, damn it! Some of it must have already or she wouldn't be up walking around. A quavery, elderly voice was muttering behind one door. Old folks, probably long-termers by the look of the cards on the doors.

There was a nurse's desk not far away. She could hear them talking. One of them was getting up. Faith slipped into an empty room. They'd drag her back to her room for who knew how long. Plus tip off whoever tried to kill her. She remembered fragments of that. Most of all she remembered deflecting a bullet with the side of her skull. She knew she kicked ass, but that was wicked crazy.

Someone tugged at her gown, and she spun, fists up. No one--wait. A little girl, maybe twelve years old? Sheesh. Cancer, probably; her hair was gone. Or maybe brain surgery. "Don't spook me like that, kiddo. What're you doing here? This ain't the kids' ward."

"Same thing you are. I got bored. The doctors look at me funny. And they call me by my old name. I'm not supposed to use that one anymore. It's more comfortable in places like this anyway. Long-term care, terminal ward...the morgue." The girl angled her toes together and stared down at them.

Faith scratched her cheek. "Okay, what'm I supposed to call you, then? I'm Faith."

"That's a neat name. You religious?" The girl flinched a bit at the idea, so Faith decided to be completely straight with her.

"Not a bit. Never got into it." In fact, the only person she knew less religious than her was Buffy.

"Oh, okay." Her expression was as dejected now as it had been nervous before. Great. Just great. "Anyway, you can call me Shoat."

"Shoat?" What was a Shoat?

She nodded. "Shoat of the Mire."

*****

So this was how it ended. A thousand years of vengeance and it all came down to one nasty infection. This was why that whole Valhalla business had failed--did this count as the straw death, or dying in battle? Anya shivered and tried to huddle under her inadequate blankets. She could hear each breath rattle in her throat. The only places she wasn't paler than Spike, who sat watching her, were the angry red-and-purple-and-green welts all over her arms.

"Tell Xander--"

"He knows you love him," Spike said with the tenderness that always surprised stupid humans. Oh, right, she was one of those now or she wouldn't be dying.

"Yes," Anya groused, "he does. Tell him to take care of the money." Only the money was out of reach, wasn't it? Well, he had better get back to it! Especially if she didn't. Who would take care of the money if they both died? Bloody hell, it was hot! She threw off the blankets.

Something shifted behind Spike. It looked like the Maiden of the Mirthless Smile, but must have been a hallucination. They'd thrown the Maiden's body out in the sand a couple of days ago so Spike and Angel could try to drag Anya to Paragon. Obviously it was too late, but they'd tried. The hallucination of the Maiden grabbed Spike from behind.

"I'm taking back what's mine," the hallucination hissed, and sank gigantic saber fangs into Spike's neck. This was all very ridiculous. She hadn't been a vampire, and even if she had nobody had lumpies that thick or fangs that big. Spike struggled and flailed and yelled for help. No, that must have been part of the hallucination.

Anya was sinking deeper into the darkness. She could hear the scuffling, but there was nothing but shadow left to see. It wasn't fair. Xander and Fred had ended up with superpowers for standing up to the superpowered bullies. Whereas she, she tried it and she got to die slowly and painfully. Why hadn't she gotten any powers?

Because my sister has no part in you, nor you in her, Aud Outspoken, though you follow always in her wake. The time had not yet come.

The Norns were sitting in the room with her. That was ridiculous. She'd stopped believing in the Norns ages ago, and anyway there were only supposed to be three of them. Anya tried to figure out which one was talking.

I will not say, "Long have you awaited this moment," Anyanka, Chooser of the Slain. You have awaited nothing. You have pursued this moment across a millennium, and always it has shaped your path.

It was the one with the shears. That figured. Well, it'd been a good run. Cut her thread and be done with it.

No, say rather: Long has this moment awaited you, and you come upon it prepared, Anya Christina Emmanuela Jenkins...Chosen of Endings.

Skuld handed the shears to her.