Chapter 1: prologue
Our story begins with a valiant knight, struck down in battle—
“Hey, Giles?” said Faith, tossing the manuscript to the side.
“Do be careful with that,” said Giles reprovingly, moving to collect the aged parchment from where it had fluttered down to the floor. “These are very rare and very valuable—”
“—yeah, yeah, I know the drill,” said Faith, waving her hand dismissively. “I have a question.”
Giles looked off into the distance with that dramatic-as-fuck resignation in his eyes that meant that he was steeling himself for whatever it was Little Miss Trash Girl had to ask (Faith, very used to this expression on adults’ faces, had gotten pretty good at recognizing it), and then he said, “Yes, Faith?”
At that point, Faith didn’t feel a whole lot like disappointing him. “Are all of these just knockoff fairy tales?” she asked, putting her sneaker-clad feet up on the table. “Boring shit about knights and dragons? I could just watch a Disney movie if I wanted to read about random dudes in armor getting stabbed or whatever.”
“The knight is an allegory,” said Giles, now visibly exasperated. “Please get your feet off the table.”
“Hi, Giles!” sang out Buffy, breezing into the library to set her backpack down in the only clear spot on the table. “Whoa. What’s going on here? I thought spring cleaning was, y’know, during the spring.”
“Prophecy day,” said Giles.
“Is that a thing?” said Buffy, frowning.
“A large abundance of old prophecies and texts are shipped over to me every month by the Council,” Giles explained to Buffy. Faith, who had already heard this before, picked up another manuscript and pretended to care about what it said. “Things that they think might have some relevance to us in coming days. My job is to sort through them, find the ones that are actually of use, and discard the ones that aren’t.”
“So what about this one?” Buffy inquired, peering over Giles’s shoulder at the manuscript he’d taken from Faith.
“I haven’t gotten a good look at it just yet,” said Giles. “I had asked Faith to look it over—”
“—but I got bored,” Faith finished, delighting in Buffy’s wryly amused little smile. “Sorry, G. Research just might not be my thing.”
“Ooh, let me!” Without waiting for Giles’s permission, Buffy tugged the manuscript out of his hands. “Whoa. Were all the important prophecies in the olden days trying to win a prize for ‘Most Ornate And Illegible Handwriting?’ Because this one should’ve won.”
“I mean, I could read it,” said Faith casually.
Buffy squinted at the paper. “Nope,” she said, popping the P. “Can’t make a thing out. Here, Giles, throw that in the too-scrawly-to-read pile.”
“There isn’t a specific pile for that,” Giles protested, but he did put it in a growing stack of manuscripts after Buffy had turned away.
Curious, Faith got up from the table, wandering over to the pile in question. Though the handwriting was definitely a little fancier than it had to be, it was also definitely legible. Ornate and illegible weren’t words Faith would personally use to describe it. “You guys sure you can’t read it?” she said.
“You sure you can?” said Buffy doubtfully.
Faith squinted again at the manuscript. “Whatever,” she said. Sunnydale was just like that sometimes. Weird shit happened and you had to roll with the punches. “Hey, B, we’re still on for patrol tonight, right?”
“When are we not?” Now with her feet propped up on the table, Buffy grinned cheerfully up at Faith. Giles pointedly tapped her boots, and Buffy obliged, pulling herself into a more polite sitting position. “I mean, I still have some homework to do during my free period—”
“Isn’t that now?” said Giles.
“Eh,” said Buffy. “It’s English. I speak English. I can take my time.”
Giles gave Buffy a Look.
“Fine,” said Buffy, pulling out her backpack. “But can you at least clear a space for me on the table?”
As Buffy and Giles went back to whatever the fuck they usually did, Faith went back to what she’d been doing a lot lately: feeling weird, and sad, and out of place. Everyone here seemed so happy and cozy and okay in their lives—Giles with his books, Buffy with her warm house, hell, even Xander with the friends that would throw down to protect him. It had been a few weeks since she’d arrived in Sunnydale, and Faith still didn’t know where—or how—she fit into this whole Vampire Slayer equation.
She’d always been the One Girl In All The World, back in Boston—the one her Watcher had fussed over, the one everyone had said was strong and powerful and street-savvy in a way that would keep her alive longer than most Slayers. She’d gotten used to being the One Girl in all aspects of her life. Now, though, she was playing second fiddle to the prettiest, smartest, kindest, most talented girl in the world—and while Faith liked Buffy so much it was hard to breathe sometimes, it still didn’t do wonders for her ego.
Jealousy burned hot in Faith, sometimes, and it made her feel worse about everything. The One Girl In All The World was supposed to be above that kind of crap.
You’re not the One Girl anymore, said a voice in the back of her head. With a frustrated huff of breath, Faith leaned back against the wall.
“You okay, Faith?” asked Buffy, giving her a worried look.
“Just all this dusty library bullshit,” said Faith reflexively.
“Well, thank you very much,” said Giles.
Faith couldn’t feel all that bad about hurting Giles’s feelings—mostly because she didn’t think he cared about her enough for her accidental insult to stick. The guy was so clearly Buffy’s Watcher, and so clearly not hers. “I should get going,” she said. “Got some stuff to do today.”
“Oh,” said Buffy. “Okay! Um, have a good day?”
Faith felt herself smile before she’d decided to do it. Fucked-up as Faith was, something about Buffy just…always made her smile. “Yeah, you too, B,” she said, and couldn’t help the way her voice softened. Picking up her bag from the floor, she slung it over her shoulder, sauntering out of the library with her best give-no-fucks stride.
Technically, Faith hadn’t actually had anywhere to go. The only people she knew in Sunnydale were Buffy and her friends, and Sunnydale wasn’t exactly the most exciting town to skip school in. She wandered down to the cemetery in the hopes of finding some vampires to kill, realized that it was the middle of the day, broke into a few crypts to see if she could find any nests, and didn’t really find anything at all. It was a pretty boring day, and the fact that it was blue-skies sunny didn’t really help Faith’s mood. She was more of a night owl. Days weren’t really her thing.
She ended up going back to the motel and watching a lot of TV on the TV that only kind of worked. Around sunset, the audio cut out, so Faith started making up dialogue for the movie she was watching.
“I love you, Dan, but I love my best friend more. No, not John—” Faith pointed dramatically to the other woman on the screen. “Her! We’re lesbians in love and we’re gonna ride off into the sunset and—” There was a banging on the door. “Shit, give me a minute!” shouted Faith, and went back to her narration. “We’re gonna ride off into the—”
“Faith, it’s patrol time!” said Buffy impatiently from the other side of the door. “You said you’d be ready!”
Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck. Faith jumped up from the bed, checked her hair in the mirror, reapplied a fresh coat of lipstick, checked her hair again—
“C’mon!” called Buffy. “What’s going on in there?”
“Sorry, B, I got totally trashed,” Faith called back. “Today was wild. Sucks that you missed it.” Throwing on her leather jacket, she ran a hand through her hair to give it a casually tousled look, then opened the door for Buffy. “Patrol time?”
“Patrol time,” Buffy confirmed, looking a mixture of exasperated and amused. “For someone who got totally trashed, you look pretty well-coiffed.”
“Aww, shucks,” said Faith, grinning sharply and hoping like fuck she wasn’t revealing the butterflies in her stomach.
Buffy turned a little pink. “It’s not a compliment, I’m just—you know what, never mind. We should get going.”
Rolling her eyes a little, Faith stepped out of her room, shutting the door behind her and falling into step with Buffy. “You’ve got the weapons, right?”
In answer, Buffy hefted the large bag she was carrying. “Giles has to drive us to today’s cemetery,” she said.
“Isn’t, like, everything in this town in walking distance?” said Faith, surprised.
“Well, yeah, but the path to this cemetery is on the witch’s turf,” said Buffy with a shrug.
“The witch?” Faith repeated.
Buffy blinked, turning to look at her. “You know about the witch,” she said. When Faith’s expression didn’t change, Buffy said with some surprise, “You do know about the witch, right?”
“I mean, I know witches exist, if that’s what you’re asking—”
“No, the witch,” said Buffy, as though that clarified anything at all.
“So, like, one witch to rule them all?” quipped Faith.
“Yeah,” said Buffy seriously.
That took Faith by surprise. “Wait,” she said. “Really?”
“Can we talk about the witch after patrol?” said Buffy with some frustration. “We kinda do have to kill some vampires at some point.”
“Okay, B, jeez,” said Faith, startled at the force of Buffy’s indignance. “I was mostly just a little distracted by how fuckin’ cryptic it sounds when you’re like, the path to this cemetery is on the witch’s turf.”
To Faith’s relief, Buffy cracked a smile at that. “That does sound kinda cryptic, doesn’t it?” she said. “Sorry about that.”
“No problem, I guess,” Faith replied with an awkward smile back. “Just so long as I get an explanation eventually.”
“And you definitely will,” Buffy agreed. “Totally. I guess I just forgot that you’re not native to Sunnydale, y’know? Anyone who’s been in Sunnydale and knows about the supernatural knows at least a little bit about the witch.”
Faith was definitely more curious than she had any right to be, but Buffy was right: patrol was more important than a spooky ghost story. God, trying to be responsible sucked. “Okay,” she said, imbuing more resolve into her voice than she was actually feeling. “Patrol. Then you tell me all about this witch.”
Buffy grinned, giving her a thumbs-up as they reached Giles’s shitty car.
Faith had promised not to ask any more questions, but she’d never promised not to make observations. As the car trundled through one of Sunnydale’s spookier districts, she noticed that the shadows seemed to close in around them, hugging the car and blurring the view through the windows. Pressing her nose up against the glass, Faith squinted, and thought she could make out a strange, huge building in the distance—
“Faith,” said Giles reprovingly from the driver’s seat. “Eyes away. Buffy, did you tell her nothing of the witch?”
“I thought it wasn’t as important as patrol!” Buffy objected.
“It isn’t as important as patrol,” said Giles, “but that’s only if we follow the protocol. We don’t look towards the witch, and the witch doesn’t look towards us. Remember?”
But Faith continued to scrunch up her face in an effort to see the building more clearly. Ramparts, towers, battered banners—if she didn’t know better, she might think that that was an entire fuckin’ castle half-hidden in shadows and mist. “What is that?” she mumbled.
“Nothing but shadows,” said Buffy flatly. “Look away, Faith.”
“I will if you tell me why I need to,” said Faith stubbornly.
With a frustrated breath, Buffy tugged Faith away from the window, holding her in place so that they were face-to-face. This close, Faith smelled a floral-fruity smell that was definitely Buffy’s shampoo, and it distracted her enough not to object at her observations being interrupted. “Okay,” she said. “The witch showed up pretty recently. Totally decimated a nest of vamps downtown—”
“Sounds more like a good guy than a scary shadow lady to me,” said Faith doubtfully.
“I’m not finished,” said Buffy grimly. “The witch decimated a nest of vamps downtown by blowing up an entire city block. People’s homes were destroyed. A few people were even killed. We tried to face off with her, but she made it clear that that was only a demonstration: if we left her alone to do her thing in her castle, she’d leave us alone to do our thing in Sunnydale. If we went up against her—”
“She’d do worse,” Faith finished.
“It wasn’t a deal we were inclined to take, but the magnitude of her power…” Giles trailed off, sounding more rattled than Faith had ever heard him. “It’s inhuman,” he said. “I’ve only ever seen demons with that level of power, which likely means she’s tied herself up in some nasty business to acquire it.”
“Meaning that the witch is bad news,” said Buffy, “and we should count our blessings that she’s agreed to stay as uninvolved in Sunnydale as she has. She’s kept to her word. We need to make sure we keep to ours.”
“Okay, hold on,” said Faith, holding up a hand and moving (reluctantly) back from Buffy. “This sounds like some shady bullshit. Why would either of you agree to a deal like this? If she’s powerful enough to blow up an entire city block, what makes you so sure she’s trustworthy enough not to do it again while you two are leaving her alone?”
“She and Giles made some kinda weird vow thing,” said Buffy, pulling a face. “In blood. It was icky.”
“Icky,” Giles agreed, “but binding. So long as we adhere to our word, she’s forced to adhere to hers—and vice versa.”
“Gross,” said Faith. She’d had enough of blood pacts and blood-suckers and blood to last a lifetime. Glancing one last time towards the shadows—which were fading away as the glow of the streetlights illuminated the road ahead—she turned back towards the front of the car, leaning back into the poor-quality seats. “Man, you need a new car.”
“I keep telling him!” laughed Buffy, and Giles grumbled something about two Slayers being too many Slayers, and things felt like they were getting a little bit back to normal. Weird, sure, but witches and manuscripts and old stone castles were par for the course in Sunnydale. You had to roll with the punches.
And speaking of punches—
“Shit!” Faith reeled back, hand pressed theatrically against her face. “That fuckin’ stung!” She pulled her hand away from her face, grinning. “Nah, I’m just kidding. Come at me, bro.” As the vampire lunged, she pulled her not-so-secret weapon out of her sleeve, neatly shish-kebabbing him on her stake. Watching his indignant face dissolve into dust, she felt that smug sense of power and control wash over her. One girl in the world or one girl of two, she still had a power that no one could take away from her: fucking up vampires every night without breaking a sweat.
“Faith, quit showing off and help me over here!” demanded Buffy through gritted teeth, wrestling the other vampire for control of her stake.
“Happy to oblige, m’lady,” said Faith (what the hell, she was on a medieval kick today), and vaulted over a tombstone to deliver a flying kick to the vampire’s face. The vampire pulled back, lunging for Faith instead of Buffy; this gave Buffy the opportunity to plunge her own stake into the vampire’s back. “Damn, B!” said Faith appreciatively. “We make a good team.”
“I don’t think that was ever in question,” said Giles, who was giving the both of them a small smile. “Well done, you two. I believe that’ll be all for tonight, if you’d both like to head home early?”
Faith didn’t particularly want to head home early, largely because she didn’t have one. The motel was getting colder as winter came closer, and she still had to figure out what to do when the owner inevitably got sick of her half-assed seduction attempts in order to delay the money she owed him—that, or tried to follow through on what she was promising. Either way, sooner or later, she was kinda fucked, so she opened her mouth to say something about more patrolling being a good thing sometimes—
“Home sounds great,” said Buffy blissfully. “I can’t wait to snuggle up in bed with some hot cocoa.”
“Or do homework,” said Giles, but there wasn’t much bite to the reprimand.
“Or do homework,” Buffy agreed with some reluctance.
With a barely-audible sigh, Faith followed them out of the cemetery, shoving her hands into her pockets and trying not to think about scratchy motel sheets.
Up ahead of her, Buffy’s hair caught the moonlight in its honey-blonde strands, making Faith’s heart soar awkwardly in that way it always seemed to around a pretty girl—and lately, around Buffy in particular. She wasn’t stupid enough not to know what it meant, feeling like this—but she also wasn’t stupid enough to think that B, still so cut-up over her ex, would even look her way for more than half a drunken second.
Faith thought she could stick around until that second showed up. It wasn’t like she had much else better to do with her life, anyway.
Our story begins with a valiant knight, struck down in battle for the sake of the kingdom he had sworn to protect. He died an honorable death, and those who had fought at his side grieved him as one would a brother or a father before lowering him into the ground. His story was one that ended sadly, but still one that ended naturally—one who lives a dangerous life will eventually find themselves on the wrong side of a monster’s bite or a sword’s sting.
But there are those who are unhappy with those endings, authentic as they are. The knight was powerful in all regards—a scholar as well as a fighter—and if turned to the side of evil, he would be more than powerful enough to strike a heavy blow against the forces of life and light. Throughout his battles, a disciple of darkness had been biding her time, waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike—and his death was more than perfect. She had the chance to bring him back as a man reborn—a great warrior for the forces of evil.
The disciple donned her magic cloak, called upon all the demons and monsters in the world, and brought back the knight anew.
Part One: The Beast, the Traveler, and the Little Red Rose
Breathing heavily, Faith stared down at the body as it slowly sunk down into the water. Blood stained her hands, her pants, her shirt—everywhere. Everywhere around her, there was blood. She could go back to the motel and scrub all she wanted, but she didn’t think she’d ever really be free of—fuck. Of seeing the life drain out of that guy’s eyes. Of the way the stake sunk into his chest in a sick, fleshy way it had never done with vampires.
His eyes, his eyes, his glassy eyes—
Faith dry-heaved, pressing her hands to her mouth without thinking. She felt something wet and sticky around her face, and gasped, pulling her hands back—god, now it was on her face. How the hell was she supposed to walk back to the motel like this? What would happen if someone saw her like this? She had to clean herself up before someone saw her and started asking questions she couldn’t answer. She was gonna be in jail for life.
It was that thought that somehow snapped her back to reality. Jail. Jail was what happened to people who got caught, right? Jail was for bad people who did the shit that Faith had just done. Well—fuck that. Faith wasn’t gonna whimper and whine and cry over being a bad girl. She never had, and she never would. She’d always been bad. She’d always be bad. This was the kind of shit bad girls did, and now wasn’t the time to be a scaredy-cat about it.
She wiped her hands on her pants (though it didn’t make much difference), watching the rippling water until it just looked like water again. She reminded herself that she was the kind of trash who killed people, and getting all blubbery about it wouldn’t change anything. What she needed to do now was figure out what the fuck she was going to do next.
Start small, she decided. She’d walk back to the motel, she’d clean herself up, and she’d start thinking about what the hell to tell the Scoobies—if she told them anything at all. She’d have to see what Buffy had told them. Maybe she could convince them that Buffy did it. They’d forgive Buffy, she knew—that evil ex of Buffy’s had killed Giles’s girlfriend, and Buffy still got to smooch him on the regular. And yeah, she did know about that Jenny Calendar chick, even though no one had told her. Most of her knowledge had come from a pointed line of questioning directed at both Angel and Xander, which itself had come from Faith just being a nosy bitch in general. Had to be, since that stupid Scooby club never seemed to want to tell her anything.
God. Buffy had probably already spilled the beans already. Faith might as well start building herself a coffin, because those white-hat Scoobies would probably wanna put her in the ground with the guy she’d killed. In the water, her brain supplied, and she flinched involuntarily. Hugging her elbows to her chest, she began to walk away from the docks, refusing to look behind her. Bad girls didn’t look back. Bad girls didn’t need to.
I’m a bad bitch, she reminded herself. I’m a murderer.
The darkness seemed to hug her close as she walked down the street, winding around her like a cloak or a cozy sweater. Faith had to squint to make out the streetlights in the distance, and with every step she took towards them, they seemed to dim. Weird, she thought, with a sense of déjà vu. Where have I seen this before? She remembered a night, months ago—Buffy’s hair, and a rare smile directed at her from Giles (even if it was mostly meant for Buffy), and—
And the witch.
With a horrible jolt to her stomach, Faith realized: this was the path Giles and Buffy had driven their car down so as not to disturb the witch. This was the tiny two-block walk that they’d told her fell under the jurisdiction of the baddest bitch in Sunnydale, and she’d put herself right in the middle of it. The darkness was thick and inky black—not like the normal Sunnydale night—and when Faith stuck a shaking hand out in front of her, she could only see its faint outline.
God, it was so cold. It wasn’t supposed to be this cold. Suddenly, Faith didn’t feel as big or as bad as she usually did—she just felt small, and very much like the darkness might eat her alive. It was easy to slay vampires and demons and humans, but witches? That was a whole other ballpark. And this was a witch that scared even the Scoobies—
Wait a goddamn second. The Scoobies. Buffy and her crew were so scared of this witch that they didn’t so much as set foot in an area under her control, and they definitely didn’t interfere with the shit she was doing on her own time. And sure, maybe Faith wasn’t bad enough to scare the Scoobies, but killing an innocent guy was definitely bad enough to at least get this witch’s attention. If she could win over the witch and prove she was just as evil as any old spellcaster, she’d have a safe place to stay, free of things like jail and Buffy and washing blood out of her nice white shirt.
Well. Not really safe. Not if this witch was as bad as Buffy said. But Faith didn’t have any better options: there weren’t a lot of people willing to take in a wanted fugitive, after all. Some risks you just had to take.
“HEY,” she called into the darkness. “HEY, I’M BAD TOO! LET ME THROUGH!”
The darkness didn’t let up. Trying to remember that night, months ago, it came to her: the distant outline of a castle through the window of Giles’s car. Where had it been? Faith turned, slowly, on the spot, using every Slayer sense she had to try and figure out where the hell that castle might be. Darkness, darkness—wait.
Faith squinted again, moving towards the place where the darkness had let up just a little. As the inky blackness parted, it revealed a narrow, winding path, framed on either side by a thick, dark forest.
Yeah. That hadn’t been there when Giles had been driving them down the normal suburban street. The forest looked eerie and very much like it wanted to eat her alive, which made Faith even more convinced it was the right way to go. The world had turned upside down the moment her stake had sunk into that guy’s chest. All the safe things and good people were gonna land her in jail if she turned to them for help: the only things she could trust were the bad things—the ones you had to fight to prove yourself.
Squaring up, Faith took one step forward, then another, until she’d once again fallen into her give-no-fucks stride. As she stepped further into the forest, the soft buzz of Sunnydale at night faded away into a creepy, clearly-magical silence. Her feet didn’t crunch on leaves or twigs, the tree branches didn’t rustle in the breeze—
“Yeah, fuck this,” said Faith, and turned to go.
Except there was no Sunnydale in sight.
Faith stared. Feeling as though she must have lost track of something, she turned around again—but from either side, all she could see was the cobblestone path extending into that same inky darkness. The trees flanked the path, closing her in, and nowhere was there any sign of anything familiar. No dim streetlights, no sidewalks, no houses all in a row—
“BUFFY!” Faith shouted, giving in to the clawing panic in her chest. “BUFFY, PLEASE—” But Buffy was probably tucked up snug in bed, not even thinking about the guy’s life snuffed out like a candle. Buffy couldn’t hear her now. No one could.
This is what you wanted, isn’t it? That terrible voice in the back of her head always seemed to get louder when she was on her lonesome. You’re the One Girl. You’re the Only Girl.
But it wasn’t—it hadn’t been what Faith had wanted. She’d wanted to be like Buffy. Hell, she’d wanted to be with Buffy, side by side, hand tucked into Buffy’s the way Buffy’s hand tucked into Angel’s. Trapped in the middle of a path going nowhere, all alone save for the darkness around her—this had never been what Faith had wanted.
She stared ahead. She stared behind her. She couldn’t remember which way she’d been going.
“You know what?” she said, gritting her teeth, and turned to face the trees. “Fuck this.”
And with that, Faith charged into the thicket.
The trees swallowed her up almost immediately, scratching at her face and arms, tearing her clothing until new blood was drawn. Pissed as hell, Faith fought back, hitting through branches and brambles until every part of her body ached. With her eyes squeezed tightly shut, she could almost pretend that the darkness wasn’t swallowing her up, that she wasn’t going to die tonight, alone and forgotten—
Abruptly, a last branch gave way, and Faith tumbled flat on her face, hitting soft grass instead of hard, poky wood. She lay there for a second, shaking, before she slowly opened her eyes, pulling herself awkwardly up into a sitting position.
She was sitting in the middle of a grassy field, under a starless night sky. This time, the darkness around her wasn’t magical or weird, it was just…kinda dark, the way it always was late at night. To her right, Faith saw the continuation of the path, this time leading out of an expansive forest that looked way bigger than the entirety of Sunnydale. It led up a grassy hill, then towards a staircase that wound up and around what looked a little like a small mountain. Atop the rocks—Faith squinted, and then her eyes widened. That was the same silhouette she’d seen through the car window: a huge, spooky old castle.
God, Faith thought, rolling her eyes. This witch lady was dramatic as fuck. Pulling herself up, she dusted herself off, still wincing a little at the cuts and bruises she’d sustained from her tussle with the forest. Shivering in the chilly night air, she headed back over towards the winding path, this time gratified to notice that she could see where she was going. Wherever she was now, it was a place with light enough to see by, and she could hear the wind rustling through the trees.
Though the first path had been impossibly long, this one somehow felt longer: it was worse when Faith could see where she was going and know that it was still a long distance away. Reaching the staircase took her a good fifteen minutes, and by that point, she was starting to get really fucking bored with her little adventure. But she was also achy, tired, and pretty fucking miserable, and walking distracted her from having to think about what she’d have to return to back in Sunnydale—jail time, probably. Buffy’s disapproval, definitely. The Scoobies turning her away, absolutely—
Faith gritted her teeth, tears in her eyes, and pressed on.
The staircase was long too, which was to be expected; it did, after all, wind entirely around the fucking mountain. As Faith climbed higher, it got colder, and the lack of any railing or banister made her stomach turn whenever she looked down. One wrong step would send her falling off the face of the mountain, neck snapped—she clenched her fists tightly and kept going. She didn’t have anywhere to turn back to, and there was no fuckin’ way she was just gonna lie down and die after fighting those trees. There was a castle up there, and there was a light in the window, and it would probably be warmer in there than it was out on the side of the mountain. She pressed on.
It took her over forty-five minutes to finish climbing the stairs. Reaching the top, Faith stepped forward onto a patch of grass, then collapsed flat on her back, staring up at the sky again. “Fuck. This. Shit,” she gasped, very out of breath: the night had been extremely emotionally taxing even without the whole fighting-trees and nonstop-hike stuff.
She probably had to get up, now: the castle wasn’t too far ahead. But her vision was beginning to blur, and the exhaustion of battling vampires, demons, and trees all in one day had finally started to catch up to her. Faith tried to pull herself up to a sitting position, almost blacked out, and jumped up as fast as she could, attempting to shake off the exhaustion. “It’s right fuckin’ there,” she said through gritted teeth. “You’re gonna get yourself there if it kills you, sister.” Clenching her fists until her nails dug into her palms, she continued forward.
The castle walls were high, but the big wooden doors that should’ve kept intruders out were standing wide open, revealing a dusty-looking courtyard full of a whole lot of nothing. Faith stepped through the doors, hurried through the courtyard, and made her way to another big wooden door. She pulled on it, found it locked, and pulled with full Slayer strength, breaking the door open.
The inside of the castle was lit with spooky candelabras on the walls, cobwebs in every corner. The candelabras didn’t do a whole lot to actually illuminate the room, which meant that Faith ended up tripping over a lot of stuff—an end table, another end table, a chair leg, and something weird and round that felt magical in nature—before finally reaching a soft-feeling surface. Sitting down and running her hands over it, she found that it was a very comfortable-feeling couch, and let out a sigh of relief. Awkwardly, she shifted her position so that she was lying on her side. Though it was still kind of cold in the castle, it was cold in the same way the motel was cold, not in the way that being out on the side of a mountain was cold. Small improvements were still improvements, Faith thought, and she closed her eyes, finally succumbing to exhaustion.
A clatter woke Faith up. Jolting awake, it took her a moment to remember where she was, and another moment to scan the room—which, once poorly lit, now wasn’t lit at all. The same inky darkness obscuring the witch’s turf in Sunnydale now surrounded her once again, but where the first darkness had been passive, this one sent a chill down Faith’s spine. Something was in this room with her.
“Who are you?” she demanded.
The darkness vanished as quickly as it had come. A cool voice responded, “Bold of you, asking questions of the lady whose castle you’ve intruded upon. I think I’m entitled an answer before you: who are you?”
Standing directly in front of the couch was a woman in a hooded black cloak, the same inky color as that weird, magical darkness. Her face was in shadow, but Faith thought she could make out pursed lips that reminded her a little of Giles, or Gwen Post, or the Prof. “Shit,” she mumbled, rubbing the back of her head. “Is this just another Watcher trick? I’m kinda sick of those.”
“Who,” said the woman, a note of danger to her voice, “are you?”
Long tendrils of darkness began to spread out from the woman’s inky black cloak, moving slowly and deliberately towards Faith. “You can’t scare me!” she snapped. “I’ve killed a guy before, and I can kill you too! I’m Faith the Vampire Slayer, and I—”
Abruptly, the darkness dissolved into nothing. Violet eyes narrowed, the woman lowered her hood, long hair spilling free down her back. “Don’t lie to me,” she said shortly, and her eyes flashed with a color that reminded Faith a little of lightning. “I swore a blood oath with the Vampire Slayer present. I know you’re not her.”
“Uh, duh,” said Faith, indignant. “I’m sure as shit not trying to say I’m Buffy. I’m the other Vampire Slayer.”
“I’m sorry, do you think I’m an idiot?” said the woman shortly. “One girl in all the world, remember?”
“Buffy died one time, but her friend brought her back,” said Faith with frustration. “But since she was dead for a second, a new Slayer got called. Kendra. Then Kendra died, for real, and I got called. Happy?”
The woman’s face hadn’t changed. “Prove it,” she said.
“What?” said Faith.
“Prove that you’re the Vampire Slayer,” said the woman.
Faith lost her temper. Moving with lightning speed, she grabbed the woman by the neck, throwing her up against the wall. “Does this prove anything to you?” she snarled, digging her fingernails into the woman’s throat. “Or do you need—”
Magic coursed through Faith’s body, white-hot, as an invisible force picked her up off her feet, dragging her away from the woman and throwing her roughly to the floor. Landing hard on a whole lot of cuts and bruises from the trees, she cried out, tears stinging her eyes. “Don’t you dare lay a hand on me,” said the woman coldly. “Maybe you are who you say you are, but that doesn’t mean I have to care if you bleed.” Taking a few steps forward, she stood over Faith, looking down at her with some very real anger. “God only knows how you got past the wards—”
“I saw the castle,” said Faith, pulling herself back up to her feet.
The woman’s face changed. “What?”
“I saw the castle,” said Faith again. “Giles and Buffy were driving through some witch’s turf, and they were telling me not to fuck with her, and I saw a castle through that weird darkness shit you’ve got going on.”
The woman stared at her for a moment, a strange frown on her face. Chewing on her lip, she said, “My turf.”
“You said the witch’s turf, didn’t you?” said the woman. “Well, I’m the witch.”
Faith wasn’t too surprised by this. Violet eyes, spooky powers, dark-as-night magic cloak: if this lady hadn’t been the witch, Faith would have been pretty fuckin’ scared of the lady who was. “Cool,” she said. “Well, I’m Faith, and I’m evil like you, so I was thinking I could crash here for a little bit till I decide what I wanna do with my life.”
The witch stared at her. “You’re not serious,” she said. “There’s no way in hell I’m letting you stay here.”
“Kinda figured you’d say that,” said Faith. “Most people do. But here’s the thing: having a Vampire Slayer on your side could be really beneficial to whatever the fuck you do up here. You want a quick and easy murder? I’m your gal. You want a demon slice-and-diced? I’m at your beck and call. All I’m asking for here is…” She swallowed, a lump in her throat. “A place to stay. ‘Cause I head back to Sunnydale and I’m a dead girl walking.”
“That’s your problem,” said the witch with indifference. “Not mine. Get out before I do something worse than just throw you against the wall.”
“No,” said Faith levelly.
The witch gave her a Look. “What was that?” she said.
“I said no,” said Faith, feeling a strange, terrible calm wash over her. “I’ve got nowhere else to go. Sunnydale’s got a whole lotta monsters that I can team up with, and I could, but it took me long enough to get here. I think here’s where I’m supposed to be.”
“Do you not understand me, you fucking moron?” said the witch furiously. “I am going to kill you.”
“So do it,” said Faith with a sharp smile, looking up at the witch and hoping that the other woman could see the fire in her eyes. “I face death every day. I’ve never been afraid of it. From what I figure, it’s what I deserve—and I think I’m tired of running. Strike me down, witch bitch.”
It was a gamble, she knew, and not even a particularly smart one. If this witch was as dangerous as Giles and Buffy said, Faith was probably about to die for real. But the thing was, Faith didn’t have anywhere to go back to. She didn’t even know the way back to where she wanted to be. What was the point of fighting her way back through the trees just to get shunned by the Scoobies and locked up in jail? Dying seemed better than that.
The witch raised her hand, her dark cloak raising along with it. The cloak seemed to expand, this time, enveloping Faith in a darkness that felt tight, this time around. GET OUT, hissed a voice in her ears. RUN AWAY, LITTLE GIRL, AND DON’T COME BACK.
“FUCK YOU,” Faith shouted back, but as she opened her mouth, she felt something steal the breath from her lungs. She made a desperate, wheezing noise, but she couldn’t seem to find any air—
“LET HER GO!” screamed the witch.
The darkness fell away. Gasping, Faith collapsed to the floor.
Furiously, the witch undid her cloak, throwing it hard against the floor. She stood there, staring at Faith with those violent, violet eyes, and then she turned away, storming out of the room and down the hall.
Struggling to catch her breath, Faith pulled herself up again, now feeling dizziness on top of all the aches and pains. The witch’s cloak was still puddled a few feet away from her, and the way it shifted resentfully on the floor made Faith think that it wasn’t just a cloak at all. She didn’t feel a whole lot like exploring that further, though, so she looked around, then decided that following the witch was probably the safest bet.
Well. Probably not safest. But maybe Faith would be able to find some kind of empty bedroom, and some clothes that weren’t covered in blood. The witch seemed to have lost interest in her for now, and Faith was a good hider if it came to that.
The witch was gone from the hall, though Faith could hear footsteps stomping furiously up a nearby spiral staircase. She waited until the footsteps weren’t quite as loud, and then she snuck over to the staircase in question, creeping carefully up the steps with the skill of someone who had had to step lightly around angry parents as a kid. Upon reaching the first landing, she looked down the hallway: a door was ajar, and the witch was slipping inside.
Okay. Not that floor, then. Faith went up the stairs some more.
The next floor really was deserted, though the torches in the hall illuminated things much better than the paltry candelabras in the front room. Warily, Faith stepped onto the landing, then started trying doors, making sure to shut them once she had ascertained the room’s purpose. Library, indoor garden, weird witchy room with no clear purpose—aha! Slipping through the doorway, Faith shut the door behind her, leaning heavily against it once she was done.
The bedroom was medieval-y in a Renaissance Fair kind of way, but it wasn’t all fluffy-princess bullshit; this room looked like it had belonged to someone cool, like a knight. Another open door revealed a small bathroom (modern-looking, thank god), there was a mirror and wardrobe near the comfortable-looking bed, and a fire was crackling in the fireplace. The entire room was so, so warm that it made Faith want to start crying right then and there. But she didn’t, obviously, because she wasn’t the kind of person to cry in a knight’s bedroom. Or anywhere, for that matter.
Moving towards the bathroom, Faith caught sight of herself in the mirror and drew in a sharp breath. This wasn’t the girl who had gone patrolling with Buffy that night. Her bloodstained clothes were badly ripped from the trees, she was covered in scratches and bruises from head to toe, and there were leaves and twigs stuck in her hair. She looked like she’d been in a fight and lost. She hadn’t seen herself this fucked up since—
Since I got my powers, she thought. With every muscle in her body protesting, she carefully undressed, shoving the ruined clothing under the bed. Entering the bathroom, she found it fully stocked with shampoo, conditioner, soap, towels—and a comb.
“Thank god for magic,” said Faith aloud. “If this was some normal medieval castle where I had to use a fuckin’ washtub, I’d lose my shit.” Carefully, she picked up the comb, doing her best to pick out the leaves and twigs before running it through her hair. It wasn’t the best hair day she’d had, she thought, but it was still better than it had been.
She ended up spending a good few hours taking a long bath, soaking slowly until all the cuts and bruises began to hurt a little less. After that, she awkwardly wrapped herself in a towel, ran a hand through her hair, and headed back out to the bedroom, opening the doors to the wardrobe.
Medieval gowns. What was it with this place?
“Listen up,” said Faith to the wardrobe. “Do you know what tank tops and jeans are? I’m gonna need some of those. Hell, maybe some sweats and a comfy T-shirt—and definitely some underwear.” She closed the wardrobe, waited a second, hoped against hope that this castle was magic enough to understand her, and opened the doors again.
The wardrobe was now stocked with modern clothing, but it was all terrible. Blouses, pencil skirts, stockings—what was Faith, a middle-aged mom? “No,” said Faith indignantly, shutting the doors. “Dude, see the clothes I took off? I want clothes like that! Except not fucked up and bloody and stuff.”
This time, when she opened the wardrobe doors, the stuff she found was more like stuff that Willow Rosenberg would wear. Dorky overalls, soft sweaters, and were those fuzzy hats? “I have pride, man,” said Faith. “We’re not doing this shit. Listen, I am too tired to handle this right now, and I just wanna go to bed!”
And when she opened the wardrobe, she found an array of warm pajamas, fuzzy socks, sports bras, and clean underwear.
“Fair,” said Faith with relief, and picked out a set of green flannel pajamas. They felt dryer-warm against her skin, and when she got under the covers, she felt practically enveloped in cozy heat. This could work, she decided. She could just stay in this room, keep quiet, and maybe the witch wouldn’t notice her. All she needed was some rest and relaxation to recharge, and then tomorrow she could start working on food. Or—she glanced out the window, noticing that it was still night outside—since there was no tomorrow here, exactly, she’d just have to settle for whenever she felt better again. That would probably be fine.
Closing her eyes, surrounded by warm, snuggly blankets for the first time in years, the One Girl in All The Castle drifted off to sleep.
every time i let a chapter of this out into the world i'm like "AAAAH NO MY GOODNESS" because it's spent a month here with me? wild. anyway, this fic is gonna update weekly, but from the next chapter onwards, the updates are gonna be every friday bc that's the day i will arrive at home! looking forward to posting from a more comfortable place :D
When Faith woke up again, it was still dark outside.
“It figures,” she said. Snuggling further under her blanket, she debated whether or not she actually wanted to get up all that much. Though the bath had helped a lot, punching a whole bunch of magic tree branches apparently took a whole lot out of even a strong Vampire Slayer. That thought made her feel a little better, though, because it meant that any normal person probably couldn’t have gotten past the witch’s wards at all, which Faith thought could be a genius argument to convince the witch she was worth keeping around.
Obviously, however, she had no intention of seeking the witch out to plead her case anytime soon. Faith intended to live in the shadows full-time until she had a better understanding of what the fuck the witch’s deal was—
Her stomach rumbled. First order of business: figure out where the fuck the witch kept her food. It wouldn’t be too hard to steal some and sneak it up to her new safe haven, especially since she’d slept uninterrupted for long enough to feel completely rested. With some reluctance, Faith pulled herself out of bed, crossing the room to pull the wardrobe doors open.
This time, the wardrobe had gotten the memo. Faith pulled on a tank top and jeans, found a pair of sneakers tucked into a barely-noticeable compartment, and tied her hair up with an elastic from the medicine cabinet in the bathroom. Though cuts and bruises still covered her arms and face, she didn’t look as fucked-up or terrible as she had the night before, which made her feel kind of better. Food, she thought, would probably help the situation even more.
Opening the bedroom door just a crack, Faith first surveyed the hallway: empty and silent, with no sign of the witch or her weird cloak. Carefully, she slipped through the doorway, making sure to shut the door behind her. She stepped lightly and stealthily, kind of enjoying the strange mixture of terror and adrenaline that came with the thought of being caught by the witch. This, at least, was familiar: she was used to fearing for her life. She knew what it was like to live in unsafe places. She could do this.
As Faith headed down the stairs, she strained her Slayer hearing, making sure she was listening as best as she could for anything that might sound like a pissed-off witch heading up to finish the job she started. The castle, however, remained eerily silent, just as it had been before the witch had found Faith sprawled on the couch in the front room—and this time, when she reached the landing of the floor she’d seen the witch on previously, the room the witch had been stepping into stood with its door wide open. Nothing but darkness could be seen in the doorway.
More curious than wary, Faith stepped forward, doing her best to peer inside—
“I really wouldn’t recommend that,” said the witch from next to her.
Faith jumped back, stumbling over her feet and nearly falling flat on her back. “Shit!” she gasped, heart pounding as she braced herself against the wall. “Fuck, I—fuck, I—”
The witch was looking at Faith with a curiously furrowed brow. “I don’t—” She let out a frustrated breath. “You may be the Vampire Slayer, but you’re still young enough to be afraid,” she said. “You should have left when I threatened to kill you. I threw you down, I stole your breath, I showed you I’m not fucking around when I say I could kill you without breaking a sweat. Why the hell are you still here?”
This didn’t seem like a lady who was going to kill Faith without talking to her a little more first. Faith could work with that. Waiting until her breathing had evened back out a little, she said simply, “I didn’t have anywhere else to go.”
“Plenty of people don’t have anywhere to go,” said the witch, frowning at Faith like she was a puzzle that needed solving. “They’d still choose life over death.”
“Lady, if you’re saying shit like that, then you don’t know what it’s like to not have anywhere to go,” said Faith flatly. “Some people say that they’ve got no one to count on, no one to go to, but they know in their hearts that they do.” Her thoughts went to Buffy, then, Buffy who always claimed to be so lonely and so lost, Buffy who was surrounded by friends at this very moment. “Me,” she said, her voice catching, “I’m not like that. I’ve got no one, and I know it. The only times I kid myself are when I say there are people I can trust.”
Something in the witch’s expression had changed.
“And you’re a bad bitch, right?” said Faith. “I know you’re not someone I can trust. I like that. I’d rather have someone who’s honest about what they think of me than a whole bunch of people pretending they love me.”
“Leave,” said the witch. Her voice sounded different, now, and the lightning shine to her eyes was completely gone.
“No,” said Faith simply. “I told you. I’d rather you kill me on the spot.”
The cloak around the witch’s shoulders hummed with a strange impatience, beginning to expand into an inky darkness. But just as Faith was starting to think she really was going to die right then and there, the witch undid her cloak, letting it fall to the floor. She was still wearing a black dress under the cloak, but it was less medieval and more Morticia Addams. “You can do better than staying here,” said the witch almost tiredly. “And I don’t want a roommate.”
“Listen, witch,” said Faith, “I’m not asking to be your best pal or anything. I’m just asking to stay in one of the many rooms in your creepy castle, eat some food, and be left alone to do my own thing. I’ll do whatever it takes to convince you—”
“Stay out of my way,” said the witch.
“I will not—”
“You’re misunderstanding me,” said the witch. “That’s what it’ll take to convince me. If you’re going to stay here, my magic will send food up to your room, you’re going to keep yourself away from this room,” with a wave of her hand, the door to the room Faith had been trying to snoop on slammed shut, “and you’re going to stay entirely out of my way.”
“Wait,” said Faith, a bewildered indignance washing over her. Never in a thousand years had she expected the witch to agree to her proposal—and she was just now beginning to realize that a big part of her had hoped the witch would strike her down on the spot. “Seriously?”
The witch smiled grimly, as if she knew exactly what Faith was thinking. Damn, Faith thought. Maybe this woman was evil in a magic way and a mind-games way. “Seriously,” she said. “But let me be clear: if you decide that you want to stay here, my magic will keep you here for six weeks. I’m not in the habit of letting my secrets escape, and anyone staying here on a permanent basis will inevitably pick up on some things that need to stay hidden.”
“Whatever,” said Faith. “I already said I’ve got nothing to lose. Do I have to swear on the Unholy Bible, or—”
A strange chill ran up her spine, and though she couldn’t see it, she felt a tendril of something wrap itself quietly and pointedly around her throat. “Your word alone is binding,” said the witch, eyes glowing lightning-bright just for a moment. “Your promise binds you to my castle for six weeks.”
And Faith could feel it, then: the shivery, shifty feeling of magic tying her to this place. She’d chosen it, she knew, but it was still a little scary to know that she couldn’t back out now. In an effort to distract herself from what, in hindsight, kind of felt like a pretty stupid decision, she said, “But why six weeks?”
A shadow crossed the witch’s face. “By my calculations,” she said, “in six weeks, my secrets will be a moot point.”
“Evil plot,” said Faith immediately, giving the witch a thumbs-up. “Got it. Listen, do you have a first-aid kit? I’m covered in scrapes and bruises and stuff and I—”
With an extremely put-upon expression, the witch waved a hand. For a moment, every ache and pain in Faith’s body flared to its worst possible extreme—and then, abruptly, all of it was gone. Looking down at her bare arms, Faith found her skin clear and unmarked, free of any kind of injury. “Wait,” she said. “What the fuck—”
“Put on a fucking jacket,” said the witch. “It gets chilly in the castle, and I’m not taking care of you if you catch a cold.” She stooped to pick up her cloak, pulling it again over her shoulders, and turned away, striding down the hall without looking back.
Faith watched her go, stunned. Logic said that the witch probably hadn’t wanted to hear her whine about her injuries, but instinct…was saying something else. There had been no need to heal Faith. Bad bitches didn’t do shit like that. If someone had turned to her for help, and if she’d had the kind of magic power that the witch was able to use, Faith might have hurt that person more just for laughs.
“Six weeks,” she repeated thoughtfully. If she was guaranteed to be stuck in this castle for that long—probably longer, considering that she didn’t have anywhere else to go after that—she was probably going to figure at least a little bit more out about the witch. It was only natural. Despite the witch’s claims that they’d never see each other at all during that time, they were still living in the same building. Faith was sure to run into the witch at some point or another.
Except she didn’t.
Since there was no sun to rise and set, Faith didn’t have any way to tell how much time passed—but she could still roughly estimate that three days in, she hadn’t seen a single sign of the witch. She’d stealthily explored the castle, she’d peeked through every doorway except the one the witch had told her not to, she’d found libraries and bedrooms and even a musty, dusty old kitchen, but not once had she found the witch. It was like the witch knew what Faith was trying to do, and was actively being terrible about it. Which made sense, but that didn’t mean Faith had to like it.
She spent most of the third day clattering resentfully around the hallways and being as loud as humanly possible. “LA LA LA LA LA,” she sang, banging a helmet she’d stolen from a suit of armor against the walls, “STAYING OUT OF THE WITCH’S WAY, LA LA LA LA LA,” but that didn’t seem to get the witch’s attention either. “LA LA LA—”
The helmet hit the wall a little too hard, bending in a weird direction.
“Ugh,” said Faith with frustration, letting the helmet fall to the floor, then all but falling to the floor herself. Flat on her back in the middle of the hallway, she glared up at the ceiling: she was bored out of her mind. Staying with an evil witch wasn’t half as scary or dangerous as she thought it was: the biggest risk at the moment was her dying of boredom. She hadn’t seen another person in a solid three days, and all the castle had was books and dust. Giles would have liked it here, she thought, but she didn’t.
Thoughts of Giles brought back thoughts of Buffy, and that brought back thoughts of blood on her hands. Suddenly, boredom felt a whole lot better than thinking about the reason she was in this castle in the first place. Picking up the helmet, Faith jumped back up, using her Slayer strength to force the metal into a less dented form. It took a good ten minutes to get the helmet back to its natural roundness, but the methodical work sufficiently distracted her from thoughts of Buffy and Sunnydale and the kind of person she knew she was.
Work might be a good idea, Faith thought. If the witch wasn’t going to pay attention to her, she was gonna have to do something to occupy her time—and this castle was straight-up gross. Whether it was an attempt to create a spooky aesthetic or just the witch being too lazy to clean, Faith felt bizarrely grateful for it: at least it would be something for her to do. “Hey, castle,” she said loudly. “Do you have any cleaning supplies?”
The castle groaned disapprovingly.
“Huh,” said Faith, grinning sharply. “You don’t wanna be cleaned, do you?”
The floor shuddered underneath her.
“Well,” said Faith, feeling instantly better. Having someone to antagonize—even if it was only a semi-sentient castle—made her feel a little more like somebody was aware of the fact that she existed. “Fuck you. You’re getting cleaned.” With that, she yanked open the nearest door on a whim, stepping into one of the many stuffy libraries.
The place was old, dusty, gross, and probably hadn’t been aired out any time in the last century. Opening the curtains, Faith dislodged a whole lot of dust; eyes streaming, she opened the windows as well to air the room out.
Almost immediately, a serious breeze picked up, rushing through the room and blowing books and papers around. Old scraps of paper went flying, worn-out books were tossed around in the wind, and a stack of manuscripts were blown directly out the window. “Shit!” gasped Faith, running forward to try and grab at some of the papers: this wasn’t at all what she’d been trying to do. She tripped over a chair leg, somehow managing to knock even more books flying. “Shit, shit, shit—”
“Fucking seriously?” said the witch from the door. “I ask you to do one thing—”
“I’ve stayed out of your way!” Faith objected. “I was in this library first! And for the record, lady, you keep a gross castle! Have you ever thought about cleaning this place up a little?”
“Okay,” said the witch. “First of all, you’ve been screaming down the halls for the last twenty minutes, and that is the exact opposite of staying out of my way. Second, this is my castle. I was in every room first. Third, I have never thought about cleaning up the castle, for fear of, oh, I don’t know, damaging the books I keep in these libraries.” With a hand wave, the papers were put to rights, manuscripts flying back in through the open windows.
“You can clean shit up without damaging it,” said Faith stubbornly.
“Is there ever going to be a point where you stop picking stupid fights?” said the witch irritably.
“Nope,” said Faith. “I’m not afraid of you, remember? Kinda a side benefit of not being afraid of stupid shit like death.”
The witch looked like she had some kind of a migraine. “Just—stay away from me,” she said, sounding more like Giles telling Faith to keep her feet off the table than a scary lady with the ability to magically punch Faith through a concrete wall. “Seriously. I don’t need this shit.”
“Listen, lady, I’m bored.”
“How is that my problem?”
“Isn’t this your house?” Faith persisted. “Didn’t you say I could stay here? Last I heard, good manners mean making sure your guests have some actual shit to do instead of being cooped up in a bedroom all day.”
The witch buried her face in her hands. Voice slightly muffled, she said, “You are the most annoying little pest I have ever had the displeasure of meeting.”
“Love you too,” said Faith with a winning smile. “So listen—”
Raising her head, the witch fixed Faith with a withering look. “What am I going to have to do to get you to stop bothering me?” she said. “I haven’t gotten a moment’s respite since your arrival. My solitude is important to me, and I find it deeply frustrating that it isn’t respected.”
“I’m not a very respectful gal,” Faith countered, her smile sharpening. “Thought you kinda figured that one out.”
“Ugh!” said the witch, throwing up her hands in a surprisingly petulant gesture, and stalked out of the library.
Faith followed her, falling into step with the witch’s long, elegant strides. “So anyway,” she said, “you still haven’t answered my question.”
“You didn’t ask me a question,” said the witch through gritted teeth.
“That’s not a question.”
“Jeez, you’re a stickler for technicalities,” said Faith. “You know, I think there’s a guy you’d get along pretty well with? Librarian dude, not even slightly chill, stick shoved so far up his ass it could—”
“SHUT UP,” shouted the witch, her cloak flaring up and around her into a cloud of darkness.
But boredom had made Faith dangerously unafraid. “Nah,” she said, grinning up at the witch’s angry-lightning-flashy eyes. “I don’t think I will. See, the question I want you to answer is pretty important: is there anything around here I can do that isn’t sitting around or reading books or trying to clean your castle?”
“IS THAT WHAT YOU WERE TRYING TO DO?” demanded the cloud of darkness.
“Damn right it was, which is a pretty solid piece of evidence to prove how fuckin’ bored I am!” Faith countered indignantly. “I hate cleaning! I like making big messes and leaving ‘em lying around for other people to deal with. But you’ve got me so bored here that cleaning is better than just lying around doing nothing. Like, is there anyone else who lives here? Someone who’s less boring than you?”
The witch yanked off her cloak, the cloud of darkness dissipating once again. “I AM NOT BORING!” she shouted.
Faith blinked. Then, a little disbelieving, she started to laugh.
“WHAT?” demanded the witch, eyes flashing. “WHAT? STOP LAUGHING, IT ISN’T FUNNY—”
“You sound like a fuckin’ toddler!” Faith wheezed. “How the fuck are you so pissed off about me calling you boring? Shouldn’t some all-powerful witch have thicker skin than that?”
With a furious screech, the witch turned on her heel, storming down the hall and away from Faith. She donned her cloak again in a dramatic swoop as she walked, and it swung over her shoulder into its usual dark cloud, now looking more resentful than scary.
Unable to stop her laughter, Faith pressed her hands to her mouth, eyes streaming for a completely different reason. She hadn’t expected to get on the witch’s nerves so easily, but it had proven to be the most fun she’d had in…god, how long? She definitely hadn’t laughed like this since long before she’d shown up in Sunnydale. Falling back against the wall, she wiped her eyes, grinning exhaustedly up at the ceiling.
So, she thought. Looks like I do have something to do after all.
“And for the record,” said the witch fiercely, yanking open Faith’s bedroom door a few hours later, “I’m pissed off because you’re resorting to schoolyard taunts instead of being an actual adult regarding what’s bothering you. If you wanted to ask me for something to do, then just ask me! Don’t start insulting my entertainment value.”
“Jesus Christ,” said Faith, torn between indignance and amusement. “Have you been thinking about that all this time? I’ve moved on, sister. I’m eating a very nice dinner in a room that isn’t a shitty motel or someone else’s house.”
“THIS LITERALLY IS SOMEONE ELSE’S HOUSE,” said the witch, her dark cloak flaring up again. “IT’S MY HOUSE.”
“You gotta get used to having a roommate,” said Faith conversationally. “I’m an equal partner in this castle, right? You’re keeping me here with magic, but it’s more ‘cause you wanna be careful, less ‘cause you really want me here. Technically, I can leave in six weeks, which makes me more of a roommate than a prisoner.”
The cloud of darkness at Faith’s door let out a muffled scream.
“And for the record,” Faith continued, “you’re way less scary than you were when we first met. When are you gonna start throwing me up against walls and trying to kill me? Isn’t that kind of your thing?”
“I COULD IF I WANTED TO!” said the cloud of darkness. “I’M ADHERING TO OUR CONTRACT.”
“Doesn’t mean you can’t toss me around,” said Faith, pulling herself up off of the bed and grinning sharply at the witch. “Maybe I’m your roommate, but that doesn’t mean you have to play nice. Don’t you wanna just squash me like a bug? Isn’t that what someone evil like you would kill to do?”
And then something strange happened: the darkness went away. The witch took off her cloak again, holding it carefully against her chest and looking at Faith with eyes that suddenly seemed…tired. Without a word, she turned and left.
It took Faith a moment to process what had just happened. “Hey, wait!” she said, hopping up off the bed and following the witch out of the room. “What the hell was that? Aren’t you gonna fight back?”
“Slayer,” said the witch, “I am getting legitimately sick of your death wish. You so clearly want me to strike you down and kill you, and that’s not something I’m interested in doing.”
“…why not?” said Faith, feeling strangely insulted. “You’re this big bad witch, right? Don’t you kill a whole bunch of people all the time? Giles said you blew up an entire city block.”
“That was—” The witch did look at Faith, then, hurt and indignant. “Never mind. Look, I just don’t feel like killing you, okay? And I don’t appreciate your obvious attempts to try and get me to kill you. It takes time out of—”
“Out of what?” Faith demanded, insulted. “You don’t do anything in this castle. And for the record, I’m not trying to get you to kill me—”
“Then what are you doing?” said the witch, crossing her arms and giving Faith a firmly pissed-off look right back. “What do you want from me?”
“Tell me, Slayer,” said the witch. “I’ve got magic at my disposal. I can make and unmake the world any way I choose, if I so desire. You showed up here because your life in Sunnydale is missing something—well, what is it? Why do you think that I have it in my castle?”
The question hit Faith like a punch to the gut. Gaping like a fish, she struggled to find an answer, but the witch was already turning away again. “W-wait!” she called.
The witch looked back over her shoulder.
“I want—” Faith swallowed, hard, and realized what her answer was. “I want to know what I want. Is that enough of an answer for you?”
Slowly, the witch turned around all the way, facing Faith in the empty, torch-lit castle hall. She was looking at Faith with the same frustrated expression, but there was also a strange, sad understanding in her violet eyes. “Not really,” she said, “but I guess it’s as good of an answer as you’ll be able to give me right now. Listen, I…I know you’re bored. I understand that. But if you don’t know what you want from me, how can I give you whatever it is that you expect me to have?”
Now that was a question Faith didn’t have an answer to. She shut her mouth, keeping her eyes on the witch’s.
“I value my solitude,” said the witch. “I don’t appreciate having it disturbed unnecessarily. If you have something that you want from me, I can’t promise I’ll give it to you, but I can promise I’ll at least hear you out.” Her mouth twisted. “It’s better than hearing your cacophonous shrieking all down the halls of my castle.”
“Our castle,” Faith corrected.
“Mine first,” said the witch. “Don’t forget that.”
Faith hesitated. Then she said, “I’m still really fuckin’ bored—”
“Then go outside,” said the witch with some exasperation.
“Wait. I can do that?”
“You didn’t know that?” said the witch disbelievingly. “You said yourself that you’re a roommate, not a prisoner—” She stopped, looking livid. “Have you been bored out of your mind and bothering me at every chance you get because you thought you couldn’t go outside?”
“You’re an evil witch!” Faith objected. “I didn’t want to push my luck!”
“You’ve literally been trying to get me to kill you.”
“I haven’t been—” The witch gave Faith a Look. “Okay, fine. Maybe I’ve been trying a little.”
“A lot,” said the witch. “It’s deeply annoying. But just to be clear: as long as you don’t go into the forest again, you’re allowed to go as far outside as you’d like to go. Down the mountain, into the valley—hell, I’ll even throw a few monsters down there if you want to fight some things.”
“Seriously?” said Faith.
“Seriously,” said the witch.
“You’re supposed to be evil,” said Faith. “Isn’t all of this…kinda nice of you?”
“I will do literally anything if it means my castle is quiet again,” said the witch flatly, her cloak flaring up around her. “Don’t call me nice if you know what’s good for you.”
“Got it,” said Faith seriously. “You’re secretly a total saint.”
“I’m going to flip you through a wall, Slayer,” said the witch.
“Fuckin’ do it,” said Faith.
With another huff, the witch turned on her heel and left. Grinning, Faith headed back into her room.
i was gonna post this when i got home but uh. i am impatient. anyway this chapter is dedicated to the wifi in this airport: thank u, airport wifi.
Chapter 4: well, if you hadn’t—
this is one of those chapters where there definitely should be a warning for violence, as well as some relatively suicidal behavior/actions from faith.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“So you said I could fight, right?” said Faith, sticking her head down the hallway of the floor she usually saw the witch on. The witch was nowhere to be seen, but Faith had learned pretty quickly that that didn’t mean the witch couldn’t hear her. “I’m really raring to fight lately. Can you make me some monsters to kill?”
“I mean, you wouldn’t really be killing them, per se,” said the witch from next to her. Faith jumped, lashing out; she wasn’t good at people sneaking up on her. Deftly stepping to the side, the witch continued, “They’d be artificial constructs instead of actual monsters—”
“Skip the theoreticals,” said Faith impatiently. “I don’t need to see the lady behind the curtain or whatever. Can you make me something to punch?”
The witch considered. “Not in the courtyard,” she said finally. “I don’t want them fucking up the cobblestones. Those take work to maintain.”
“By maintain do you mean look dusty and gross?” said Faith solemnly. “Cause you’re doing a great job with that.”
“Just—if you’re gonna fight anything, it’s gonna be down in the valley,” said the witch firmly, already starting to walk away again. “And I’m not helping you with transportation up and down the mountain. Climb it yourself.”
“Love you too!” Faith called after her. “Can I go down now?”
“They’ll come out as soon as you’re down there,” the witch called back. “Take your time.”
“I’m going down now,” said Faith decisively. Heading back up the stairs to her room, she opened the wardrobe doors, pleased to find exactly what she was looking for. Cozy jackets perfect for the chilly night air, warm winter boots designed for comfort and fighting—hell, even a stylish little pair of gloves. Cordelia Chase would probably kill a man for this closet.
Faith’s stomach lurched at the thought of Sunnydale, and she suddenly felt a deep-seated desire to hit something until her knuckles bled. In her expert opinion, it was definitely time to throw down with some monsters. Anything to quiet the hints of…
God, how could she possibly describe it? She still didn’t know how long she’d actually been with the witch, but it apparently wasn’t long enough for her to stop thinking about what she’d left behind. She didn’t at all want to head back—she didn’t know what she’d end up with if she ever decided to face Buffy and the gang again. Anger, resentment, hell, even hatred—but whatever it was, Faith couldn’t imagine it being anything good.
Still, some terrible, lonely part of her almost wanted that anger directed at her. It would feel more real than the perpetual night, the magic wardrobe, and the scarily overpowered witch who could kill Faith with a flourish of her definitely-not-normal cloak. Faith felt a little bit like she was living out some extended, weird-ass dream, and she kept on expecting to wake up in her shitty motel room, Buffy banging her door down with demands that Faith turn herself in to Giles or to the cops or to the people who could help her. And that would be what Buffy would want, wouldn’t it? For someone to help her—
There was a ripping sound, and when Faith looked down, she realized that she had torn the sleeve off of one of the winter jackets. The wardrobe creaked reprovingly. “Listen, man, I’m dealing with some shit,” snapped Faith. “You’re lucky you’re not splinters.” She shoved the jacket somewhat violently into the wardrobe, picked out another one, and slammed the doors shut, ignoring the wardrobe’s outraged rattling as she donned her jacket. Looking in the mirror, she no longer looked as downtrodden and pathetic as she had when she’d shown up: she looked well-fed, cheeks red and warm from the jacket and the ever-burning fire in her room. Her hair even seemed to have an extra luster to it—and all of this paled in comparison to the angry fire in her eyes.
“I’m a bad bitch,” Faith reminded herself, hating that dangerous girl in the mirror with all her heart. “I’m a murderer.”
It was dark outside when Faith, clad in a winter jacket and boots, headed down the mountain steps. Granted, this didn’t say a whole lot, considering that it was dark every fuckin’ second in the land around the weird little purgatory castle the witch called home, but it still felt worth noting. Faith was going out to fight, after all, and fighting was notoriously harder in the darkness. Anything could jump out, from any angle, and push her off the mountain.
It was the most alive Faith had felt since showing up at the castle. The safety had been fun for a few days, sure, but this kind of thing was much more her style. She didn’t want to get soft, after all—and being out in the dark, in danger, on unfamiliar terrain? That kind of thing was sure to keep her Slayer senses sharp.
Going down the steps was much easier than going up, and took a much shorter amount of time. This time around, when Faith reached her destination, she didn’t feel at all exhausted by the journey—which was definitely for the best. The witch had said she’d set up some monsters for Faith to fight, after all, and that lady wasn’t fucking around in terms of dangerous bullshit. Whatever she had up her sleeve was probably more than ready to kill Faith if given the chance.
It made Faith’s blood sing.
“HEY, MONSTERS,” she yelled. “IT’S A NICE, TASTY SLAYER, RIPE FOR EATING. OR FIGHTING. OR WHATEVER YOU FEEL LIKE. WANNA COME ON OUT?”
A rustle from the trees. Faith pulled out her crossbow and pointed it towards the sound.
Then, unexpectedly, something grabbed her from behind. Instinctively, Faith elbowed whatever-it-was as hard as she could. Its grip let up, and she wrestled herself free. Whirling to face her assailant, she saw a strange, faceless shadow-dude that reminded her a whole lot of the witch’s cloak. “Wow,” she said. “Not exactly imaginative, but at least you’re givin’ me something to work with. Maybe a few vamps, next time?”
The shadow guy lunged, mouth opening to reveal rows and rows of teeth. Its claws (it had claws?!) scrabbled at Faith’s arms and stomach, tearing at her winter coat. Laughing with exhilaration, Faith fought back as hard as she could, landing a few hard blows before kicking the guy in the stomach. It fell back, hissing with malice, and she pushed it back onto the ground, straddling it as she held her crossbow to its face. “Nice try, buddy,” she said, and shot it. It dissolved. “It’s gonna take more than that to kill m—”
There was another rustle from the trees—a bigger one by far—and then three other shadow guys descended upon Faith, weird shadowy claws extended. Raising her crossbow, Faith beamed.
“HEY, WITCH,” Faith shouted when she came back into the castle, scraped up and cheerful from her fight with the shadow guys. “WITCH! HEY—”
“Just—stop,” said the witch from behind Faith.
Faith jumped, then lunged, again throwing a punch at the witch on instinct. Again, the witch nimbly side-stepped it. “Jesus, can you stop doing that?” Faith said, affronted. “I don’t like it when people sneak up on me!”
“Just to be clear,” said the witch, entirely ignoring Faith, “I gave you all those shadow guys to fight so you wouldn’t antagonize me, and now you’re coming up here begging for my attention? I really don’t appreciate that. Leave me alone.”
“What’s up with you?” said Faith, genuinely curious. “It’s like you don’t want a single thing to do with me.”
“Gosh, what gave you that idea?” said the witch sarcastically, already beginning to walk away.
“That’s not what I’m talking about,” Faith persisted. “You’re this big evil witch, right? Doing evil usually means you kind of have to have something to do with other people, but Buffy and Giles said you made a deal with them to leave Sunnydale alone. I’ve been here long enough that I should’ve seen you do evil shit, but you haven’t.”
“Have you ever considered that none of this is actually any of your business?” said the witch coolly. “Maybe you should count your blessings that you haven’t seen the things I’m capable of.”
“See, you talk the talk, but I still haven’t seen you walk the walk,” said Faith. “Nothing you’ve done yet has been evil. Grouchy as fuck, sure, but I’ve tried to strangle people when they show up in my house.”
“Didn’t you say you’re evil too?” countered the witch. “If it’s something you’ve done yourself, then it should probably count as evil.”
This was a frustratingly fair point. “…whatever,” said Faith. “You’re still dodging the question.”
“No, I’m just dodging you,” said the witch. “Seeing as you showed up in my house and decided that you don’t want to leave.”
“Get a smaller house next time,” Faith advised. “If this had been a shitty one-bedroom apartment, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to stay. And you haven’t distracted me just yet from the question I’m asking you: are you a good witch or a bad witch?”
“Cut it out, Dorothy,” said the witch flatly. “Good witches don’t throw little girls up against walls. If that isn’t enough evidence for you, I’m gonna have to come up with something a little more convincing.”
“Then do it,” said Faith, grinning up at her. “Convince me. ‘Cause right now, all you’ve done is opened your home, healed my injuries, and given me cool shit to do.”
“Wh—that’s—” The witch’s cloak flared up, inky and outraged. “YOU ANNOYED ME INTO IT!”
“Well, a real bad bitch doesn’t cave to an annoying little girl,” Faith countered. God, today was feeling good. A good tussle, a witch to piss off—she thought she could count the day as a real success. “And speaking of—this annoying little girl is hungry. Your spell’s got some good food waiting for me in my room, right?”
The darkness in the room was spreading. “DON’T PLAY WITH FIRE, SLAYER,” said that eerie, whispery voice. “YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU MIGHT EVOKE IN ME.”
“Whatever,” said Faith, and headed out of the room. Over her shoulder, she added, “Those shadow guys are gonna be there any time I wanna fight, right?”
“YES, THEY ARE,” said the voice. “TREAD CAREFULLY. THEY HUNGER FOR BLOOD.”
“I’m the Vampire Slayer,” scoffed Faith. “I’ve got a history of taking down bloodsuckers.” Ascending the stairs to her room, she found herself practically sauntering: once again, she’d managed to effectively annoy the witch. She’dannoyed the baddest bitch in Sunnydale, and she was alive to tell the tale. Buffy had nothing on her—
The thought of Buffy cut through her good mood like a hot knife through butter. Yet again, Faith found herself needing a distraction more than ever. On an impulse, and even though her muscles were crying out for a hot bath and a lie-down, she turned and headed back down the stairs, hurrying back into the front room.
The witch was still seething where Faith had left her. “I’m going out to fight again,” Faith informed her. “Make sure your shadow guys are there.”
“I AM NOT YOUR FUCKING SERVANT,” said the witch.
“Love you to-o-o,” sang out Faith, and headed out the door, thinking determinedly of the battle ahead. Shadow guys, she thought. Shadow guys with teeth and claws and eyeless, merciless faces. Not Buffy. Not Sunnydale. That wasn’t her life anymore, and it never would be again. This was all she needed: a safe place to rest her head between battles. Not friends. Not family. Not—
She stopped. A horde of shadow guys were standing in the courtyard, forming a half-circle around her and blocking her path to the mountain steps. “HEY, WITCH,” Faith called over her shoulder, “YOU FUCKED UP. THEY’RE SUPPOSED TO BE AT THE BOTTOM OF THE MOUNTAIN, NOT IN THE—”
One of the shadow guys let out a terrible screech, raising a broadsword up high. The others followed suit—wait, Faith thought, were they all armed?—and rushed Faith, swords and claws and teeth all slicing at her from every direction.
YOU WISHED FOR EVIL? The voice rang out through the courtyard. HERE I AM.
And a sense of deep, profound relief washed over Faith: she’d done it. She’d finally tested the witch’s patience to the point where it wasn’t there anymore. The witch didn’t have time for an annoying little brat like her, and she was evil enough that she didn’t have to make time for Faith. These shadow guys were going to kill Faith right then and there, and quite frankly, Faith couldn’t give less of a shit. She fought back—even if she knew how this was gonna go, she sure as hell wasn’t going to go down without putting up a fight—but they were too many, and sharp things were biting into her hard from every angle, and god, was that her blood on the floor? There was so much of it—
Quick, rough hands pushed her hair away from her face. Someone picked up her arm, beginning to haphazardly wrap a bandage around it. “I know,” the witch’s voice was saying, as if from a distance. “I know, okay? But this wasn’t your call to make, this was mine, and I’m saying you do not get to do things like that. Did you even listen to me when I said I didn’t want blood on the cobblestones?”
WE ARE AN EQUAL PARTNERSHIP, LADY WITCH, said the whispery voice. YOU ARE NOT THE ONLY ONE WHO MAKES DECISIONS HERE.
The bandage tightened almost violently around Faith’s arm, and Faith felt her arm all but dropped down to fall against the cobblestones. A shock of pain shot through it, and she had to stifle a gasp. “I don’t care,” snapped the witch. “We agreed that the Slayer fell under my jurisdiction.”
SHE DISRESPECTS US, said the voice. SHE DISRESPECTED OUR POWER. WILL YOU STAND FOR THAT?
“Goddamn it, Umbra, do you ever listen to a single thing I say?” the witch retorted. Faith’s other arm was picked up. “I told you that she was entirely my responsibility, and you agreed to that—which means you don’t get to step in and do things like this on my behalf! You’re supposed to adhere to the promises you make.”
I DID WHAT NEEDED TO BE DONE, said the voice. YOUR TIME IS NEARLY UP. DO YOU REALLY WISH FOR THIS GIRL TO JEOPARDIZE WHAT YOU HAVE WORKED SO HARD FOR?
“She’s a traumatized idiot,” said the witch coldly. The hands bandaging Faith’s other arm weren’t anything close to gentle. “She’s no threat to us.”
SHE WOULD NEVER BE A THREAT TO ME, said the voice. YOU, HOWEVER, ARE STILL AS WEAK AS YOU EVER WERE.
“Oooh, scary,” said the witch irritably. The bandages now tied off, purposeful hands set Faith’s other arm down against the cobblestones. “You think you’re telling me anything new? We’ve done this whole song-and-dance before.”
YOU ARE NOT HER SERVANT, said the voice. YOUR LIFE IS MINE, TO DO WITH AS I WISH. LET HER ORDER YOU ABOUT AGAIN AND THE CONSEQUENCES WILL BE WORSE.
The witch made a derisive noise. “I’ve given you everything,” she said. “What the hell do you think you can still take from me?”
I CAN SNUFF OUT THIS GIRL’S LIFE FOR GOOD.
“Cross me like that and I’ll kill you myself,” said the witch.
YOU AND I BOTH KNOW YOU WILL NEVER DISOBEY ME, said the voice. DO THAT, AND YOUR KNIGHT LIES STILL EVERMORE.
Faith couldn’t make out the witch’s response to that. The words and sounds around her were fading fast as her injuries began to catch up to her again, and with some relief, she succumbed to unconsciousness.
Faith woke up a few times after that, only catching disjointed flashes of the world around her. Cool hands splashed water onto her face. Someone spooned soup into her mouth. A blanket was tucked—surprisingly gently—around her. A hand tucked her hair behind her ear when it fell into her face. She wasn’t surrounded by the effortlessly comfortable warmth of her room in the castle, but wherever she was, it was still cozy enough in its own right.
When she finally managed to open her eyes all the way, she found herself in a room she didn’t recognize at all. It was a small, circular study, with lots of weird bookshelves, dusty knick-knacks, and a huge crystal ball on a display stand in the middle of the room. Faith herself was in a strange, haphazard nest of pillows, lying next to a large, circular bay window that overlooked the courtyard, the mountain, and even the far-off valley below. She tried to pull herself up—
“Absolutely not,” said the witch, and Faith felt a firm hand on her shoulder, pushing her back down into the pillows. Sitting carefully down next to her, the witch pressed the back of her hand to Faith’s forehead. “Your fever’s dying down,” she said.
“I have a fever?” said Faith.
“Umbra was a dick about you wanting to fight again,” said the witch. “I think its monsters had some kind of toxin imbued into their claws or something.” Her cloak rustled angrily. “No, you know what?” said the witch to her cloak. “Shut up. You are a dick.”
“Are you…talking to your cloak?” said Faith, rolling onto her side to get a better look at the witch.
The witch let out a small, frustrated breath. “Umbra’s where I get my power,” she said. “It’s pretty pissed off at you.”
“And you’re not?”
“Don’t push your luck,” said the witch. “Mostly I’m just pissed off that Umbra decided to act on something I specifically told it not to.”
“You could have let me die,” said Faith hesitantly. “Why didn’t you?”
“God, do you ever stop bothering me?” said the witch somewhat acidly. “Roll back over and get some sleep already. You’re injured.”
“I’ve been asleep long enough,” said Faith. “Why didn’t you just let me die?”
“Honestly?” said the witch. “Because I can tell you really, really, really want to die, and it’s starting to really piss me off.”
Faith stared at her. “So you’re saving my life out of spite?” she said slowly.
“Pretty much,” said the witch.
“Man, you’re cool,” said Faith, grinning up at her. “I could learn a thing or two from you.”
It was more of a mouth twitch than a smile, and the witch turned away almost immediately, but Faith could have sworn that something about her expression had softened for just a second. “Get some sleep,” the witch said. “I have no intention of dealing with your usual bullshit right now. There’s some stuff I have to do.”
“Like what?” said Faith. “Brooding? Moping? Yelling at your cloak?”
The cloak let out a rustling snicker. “Shut up,” said the witch to her cloak, flushing a dull shade of red. “Don’t you dare side with her.”
“Your cloak’s pretty cool,” said Faith.
“It tried to kill you,” said the witch disbelievingly.
“Yeah, well, you won’t, so I’ll take what I can get,” said Faith, and sat up, grinning in the cloak’s direction. “Hey, Umbra. What’s shaking?”
I WILL GRIND YOUR BONES INTO DUST, said the cloak.
“Jesus Christ,” said the witch. “I hate both of you so much. Slayer, lie down. Umbra, the next time you threaten her, I’m going to take you out into the sunlight.”
YOU NEVER WOULD, LADY WITCH, said the cloak. YOUR KNIGHT—
“God, do you ever stop making empty threats about that?” said the witch. “I know my rights. It doesn’t say anywhere in the deal we struck that I’m not allowed to kill you.”
“Kill it,” said Faith, enthused.
“Lie the fuck back down before I make you,” said the witch.
MAKE HER, said the cloak.
“See, that guy I like,” said Faith. “Really respectful of my needs.”
The witch once again looked like she kind of wanted to punch Faith through a wall. She took off her cloak and set it aside, revealing yet another clingy, long-sleeved, low-cut black dress. How many different black dresses did this lady have? “I’m going to do some spellwork,” she said. “Both of you behave yourselves.”
YOU’RE NOT THE ONE IN CHARGE HERE, LADY WITCH.
“Yeah!” Faith agreed. “Umbra’s the one in charge, Lady Witch.”
With a frustrated exhalation, the witch turned to the crystal ball, passing her hands over it. An image swam to the surface, and Faith’s stomach lurched: it was the Sunnydale High library, complete with the Scoobies all clustered cozily around the table. “Ostenditis militi mihi,” muttered the witch, passing her hands over the ball again. The image shifted, zooming in on the group.
“Stop,” said Faith, her voice catching. “Please.”
The witch turned, looking honestly surprised. “What—”
“I can’t—” This injured, Faith couldn’t fight. She couldn’t punch until she bled, because she already was bleeding—too much to distract herself with the usual tussle. “Please don’t make me look at that,” she said. “Just—I know you’re not gonna kill me, but please. Please just put me to sleep.”
The witch’s eyes flickered from her crystal ball to Faith and back again. Then she crossed the room, placing a hand on Faith’s cheek. “Somnus,” she said, and the world faded away.
“Why don’t you want to look at them?” said the witch the next day. She’d woken Faith up to try and make Faith choke down some boring, flavorless vegetable soup, which (at least in Faith’s opinion) was more torturous than actual torture. Expressing this to the witch, however, had only gotten her an unsympathetic stare and a “fluids help your fever, Slayer,” so Faith had had to reluctantly give up on getting some KFC or something. She still wasn’t eating that shit, though.
“Why don’t I wanna look at who?” said Faith, not sure if she really liked this line of questioning.
“Them,” said the witch, jerking her head towards the crystal ball in the middle of the room. “The ones who fight for good. Why don’t you want to look at them?”
“Does I’m evil answer your question?” said Faith waspishly.
The witch shook her head. “Whether you’re a good person or a bad one, it’s wise to keep tabs on the people you’re up against,” she said. “If it was as simple as you not being on their side, you wouldn’t have had such a strong reaction to seeing them in my crystal ball.”
“Y’know what?” said Faith. “Absolutely no one fuckin’ asked you. I’d rather eat the soup than answer that.”
The witch gave her a small, smug smile. “I guess now I know how to convince you to eat,” she said, taking another spoonful of soup and holding it in front of Faith’s mouth.
Indignantly, Faith pressed her lips tightly together.
“Oh, is this a hunger strike?” said the witch. “Tell you what—either you take another spoonful of this soup, or I go back over to that crystal ball and take a good, long look at our friends in Sunnydale.”
“They’re not my friends!” Faith objected—or tried to. What actually happened was that she opened her mouth to argue, found herself with a mouthful of soup, and choked on the spoon, spitting broth and overcooked vegetables all over the witch.
The witch reeled back. “AACK! Oh my god, you little brat—”
“What,” Faith coughed, “you think I’m doing this on purpose? You fuckin’ attacked me!”
“I’m trying to get you better!”
“Well, you suck at it!”
“PURUS,” said the witch, sounding very ready to kill Faith. The soup vanished into thin air, leaving the witch’s face and dress perfectly tidy. “What the fuck will it take to get you to eat this soup?”
“Make it taste better,” said Faith.
“Have you never been sick in your life?” the witch demanded. “This is the kind of self-care shit you have to eat when you’re sick! I know it doesn’t taste good, but it’s good for you, and if I have to, I will make you so magically hungry that anything will taste good, even this shitty, overcooked soup!”
“Don’t you make everything with magic?” Faith shot back. “How come this soup tastes this bad?”
To her surprise, the witch didn’t immediately respond to this. After a good few moments of seething in silent antipathy, the witch finally snapped, “I made it myself, okay?”
“…what?” said Faith.
The witch’s cheeks had gone weirdly black, and it took Faith a moment to realize: she was blushing. “My magic is fueled by dark forces,” she said. “If I used it to create food, there was always a chance that the magic in the food might react badly to the magical poison in your body. I didn’t want to run the risk of—”
“Killing me,” Faith finished. Something oddly soft was unfurling in her chest. “Y’know, you’re putting a helluva lot of effort into keeping me alive.”
The witch pressed her lips together. “Umbra wants you dead,” she said. “I like being contrary.”
“Yeah, but there’s contrary and then there’s making me soup.”
“Don’t fucking push it,” said the witch, shoving the bowl of soup in Faith’s direction.
the amount of people who are into this fic after only a few chapters? big :D. many thanks to everyone reading this, and even bigger thanks if you've left a review! you are making this writer's day.
Chapter 5: sweet and almost kind
my laptop is refUSING to charge, so y'all are getting this chapter at 12am on the dot before this thing dies on me. do not fuss over my plight, tho: i'm gonna get it fixed & it will be back in commission before the weekend is up, & even if it's not, i've got this fic backed up on google docs. weekly updates bring everyone an inordinate amount of joy (myself included) and i intend to follow through!
DEFINITE warning for character(s) being textually suicidal in this chapter.
Apparently, all those times that Faith had looked for the witch and not found her, the witch had been in this weird, definitely-magical tower room, studying the black arts—at least according to the witch. From what Faith could tell, all the witch did was read old books, eat from a never-ending bag of peanut butter cups, and watch the Scoobies in her crystal ball, mumbling weird things about militi mihi. It was definitely creepy, but it didn’t seem evil, at least in Faith’s expert opinion.
“And I’m supposed to listen to you?” said the witch without looking away from the crystal ball. “I wouldn’t call you evil. You just hate yourself so much that you’ve decided that you are evil.”
“I didn’t come here to get psychoanalyzed by a creep who never goes outside,” said Faith, snuggling back into the pillows and watching the witch work. She hesitated, then said, “Can I have some more soup?”
“I’m heating it up,” said the witch, jerking her thumb towards the cauldron. “Do you feel a little less hot?”
“Man, I’m always hot,” said Faith with a grin.
The witch gave Faith a deeply exasperated look. “Is your fever breaking, smart-ass?”
“No fuckin’ clue,” said Faith. “What are the Scoobies doing down in Sunnydale, anyway? You seem really into it.”
The witch didn’t answer that. Crossing the room, she sat down next to Faith among the pillows, resting the back of her hand against Faith’s forehead. A small, lonely part of Faith’s heart did a little hop-skip at the touch, even if it was more clinical than maternal. “You’re still a little warm,” she said absently. “Are you drinking water?”
“Not thirsty,” said Faith.
The witch gave Faith a look. “I’m not going to fucking fight you every time about this,” she said. “It’s not even soup, Slayer—”
“Not thirsty,” said Faith. If she still wasn’t well enough to distract herself by picking fights with monsters for no reason, she’d sure as shit pick fights with the witch for no reason—and not drinking water was usually the easiest way to piss the witch off. “Let me sleep.”
“Sit the fuck up and drink some water,” said the witch sharply, tugging hard at Faith’s shoulder with some definitely-magical strength. Faith, pulled into a sitting position, attempted to flop back down, but was held up by the witch. “My god, Faith, how old are you?”
“Sixteen, witch bitch,” said Faith, sticking her tongue out at the witch. “Still got two years before I gotta pretend to be all adult—if I even make it two years after this.”
The witch did a double-take. In a very different tone of voice, she said, “Sixteen?”
“The fuck you lookin’ at me like that for?” Faith demanded, annoyed. “I’m sure not a grown-up, but I’m not some little kid!”
“Sixteen,” said the witch again, her cloak flaring up around her again—but this time, the darkness seemed to be curling inward. She removed a shaking hand from Faith’s shoulder, pulling back to stare at Faith. “You’re a kid,” she said. “You’re—you can’t possibly be only sixteen?”
“Seventeen in July,” said Faith, annoyance becoming genuine anger. “Stop looking at me like that. Why should you give a shit about how old I am?”
“I thought you were some baby-faced twenty-something,” said the witch. Umbra was closing in on her. “I’d never have—if I’d known—”
“You’d never have what?” Faith demanded, infuriated. “Are you telling me you’d have tried to mom me? Braided my hair and kissed my Band-Aids and shit? I must be in the wrong fuckin’ castle, sister, ‘cause I thought I was talking to an evil witch—”
The witch’s eyes flashed, electric and angry, and Umbra’s cloud of darkness was violently discarded. Hair crackling with static energy, she pulled herself furiously out of the nest of pillows, looming over Faith with eyes that had gone entirely white. “When will you get over yourself?” she shrieked. “What is wrong with you? You are sixteen years old and even after getting pummeled into the ground, it is abundantly clear that you won’t stop annoying me until Umbra ends your life for good!”
“YEAH?” Faith shouted. “WELL, WHEN WILL YOU FUCKING KILL ME LIKE YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO?”
Abruptly, she heard the way those words sounded out loud. And it had been different when the witch had said shit like that, talking about Faith’s death wish, talking about the way Faith pushed all her buttons—because someone else saying it still wasn’t the same thing as Faith finally admitting exactly why she had come to this castle in the first place. She hadn’t come here for a safe place to stay. She hadn’t come here because she wanted to be bad like the witch. She’d come here because—
“Kill me,” said Faith. Saying it out loud for the first time felt right. “Kill me. Please, please, I—I swear to god I won’t annoy you anymore when I’m dead, it’s all I want, just—”
DO IT, said Umbra, the discarded cloak rising from the floor and wrapping itself around the witch. DO IT. SHE WANTS YOU TO.
“Kill me,” said Faith, almost crying. “Fucking—you’re evil, you’re bad, you’re the only one who’s gonna do it the way I deserve—”
YOU HAVE THE POWER, said Umbra. STRIKE HER DOWN WHERE SHE LIES. KILL HER, LADY WITCH—
And the witch collapsed.
Faith stared, horrified, as Umbra enveloped the witch, who had curled into a wordless ball in the middle of the darkness. “No,” she said, but Umbra didn’t seem to hear her. It was growing, now, filling the room with that same inky blackness, and all of a sudden Faith’s fever and injuries felt less like an annoyance and more like a legitimate hindrance.
USELESS, Umbra was saying. POINTLESS. WEAKER THAN ALL OF THOSE WHO HAVE SERVED ME. I WAS THE PATRON OF GREAT MAGICIANS—THOSE WHO WOULD USE MY POWERS TO ENHANCE THEIR OWN—AND YOU CANNOT EVEN KILL ONE GIRL? PATHETIC.
Faith sat up in the blackness, ignoring the way her head spun, and closed her eyes, calling upon every Slayer sense she’d honed in training with the shadow guys.
THEY HAVE FORGOTTEN ABOUT YOU, YOU KNOW, Umbra continued. WHY, THEN, DO YOU HOLD THEM IN SUCH REGARD? TURN YOUR BACK ON THEM. USE WHAT LITTLE TIME YOU HAVE LEFT TO MAKE YOUR DISGUSTING LIFE WORTH LIVING. KILL HER. KILL HER. KILL—
There. The sounds of ragged breathing, only a small distance away from Faith. She shot out her hand and managed to latch onto the witch’s sleeve, holding on as hard as she could in the darkness. “I gotcha!” she shouted, and she felt the witch’s shaking hands on her shoulders, clinging to her like a lifeline. Faith grabbed the witch, hard, holding her tightly as Umbra continued to try and pull her away. “C’mon, dude,” Faith added, her raised voice hoarse and aching, “this shit is not cool!”
LET GO OF HER, said Umbra. SHE’S MINE!
“Let go,” the witch whispered, sounding very different from the way Faith had heard her before. “It’s what Umbra wants. I need to—”
“FUCK YOU!” Faith shouted at the top of her lungs, and launched into a coughing fit.
And then—Faith heard a soft, half-laughing intake of breath, and the witch’s arms tightened around her in return. “Faith,” the witch murmured, and Faith realized with a small jolt that this was the first time the witch had used her first name. “Don’t exert your voice like that. Let me get you some tea.”
The darkness in the room began to dissipate, though Umbra’s anger lingered for a few seconds longer. Faith had to blink to readjust her eyes—even though the light in the tower room was still relatively dim—and when she did, she thought that the witch’s eyes looked less electric-scary than before. Without a word, she snuggled further into the witch’s arms, realizing that she was definitely shaking.
“Faith?” said the witch.
Faith swallowed, hard, then pulled back a little bit from the witch, settling again into the pillows. She didn’t let go of the witch’s sleeve.
The witch waved a hand, conjuring up a mug of tea, and handed it to Faith. Without a word, Faith drank it, barely noticing the way the hot liquid burned her tongue. “Careful,” said the witch quietly, and reached out, stroking Faith’s hair with a still-shaking hand.
Faith swallowed again, staring at the cloak puddled on the floor. “Umbra—”
“Shh, shh, shh,” the witch murmured, taking the mug from Faith and gently pushing her back down into the pillows. “Get some sleep. I’ll deal with that jackass in a minute.”
“Don’t—” Faith grabbed at the witch’s sleeve again. “Please—it’s gonna—”
“I’ve known it a lot longer than you,” said the witch, “and it’s done a whole lot worse than that to me. Don’t worry about it, okay? Get some rest.”
There was a strange unguardedness to the witch as she looked at Faith. Quietly, she said, “There’s not a whole lot you can do about Umbra’s power over me, and I need to make sure you understand that.”
“Thank you for trying to help me,” said the witch, and the ghost of a smile flitted across her face. “It means more to me than I can say. I hope you now understand that I have no intention of killing you at any point in time.” Her almost-smile faded into a stony sadness. “I’m sorry that I can’t give you what you came here looking for.”
Something about the witch—her misery, her fear, Umbra’s voice ringing through the room with accusations of pathetic and weak, reminded Faith very distinctly of that night at the docks. Suddenly, Faith was remembering what it had felt like with blood on her hands: the crawling, desperate feeling to wrap herself in evil like…
Her eyes flitted to the cloak puddled on the floor. Then she looked back towards the witch, a new comprehension rising in her. “Oh,” she said, and her grip tightened on the witch’s sleeve. “Well, I’m sorry too, then, ‘cause I’m not gonna let anything kill you. Even if that’s what you want.”
The witch’s expression flickered. “What?”
“About that death wish,” said Faith. “I don’t think I’m the only one in the room with one.”
The witch drew in a breath, trying to pull her sleeve away from Faith. Faith grabbed the witch’s wrist instead. “I’m going to get you some soup,” said the witch, her voice level—but Faith could feel her shaking.
“Listen,” said Faith. “I’m not exactly into the idea of living right now, but I’m also not into the idea of leaving you as chow for your magic cloak. So here’s my deal: if you promise me you’re not gonna let Umbra win, I can promise you that I’m not gonna keep trying to get you to kill me. Okay?”
“Faith,” said the witch tiredly. “Umbra’s already won.”
“Not fuckin’ yet, it hasn’t,” said Faith. “Not until the both of us are dead. And you don’t look dead to me—so.”
There was still that sadness in the witch’s eyes—it never seemed to leave—but then a small, reluctant smile crossed her face. “I don’t think you’re going to let me get away until I agree, are you?” she said. “Fair enough. I’m not giving anything else to Umbra—besides what I’ve agreed to give it—and you’re not going to try and push me into killing you.”
“Besides what you’ve agreed to give it?” Faith repeated.
The witch fixed Faith with a look.
“Fine,” said Faith, reluctantly letting go of the witch. (The witch winced and rubbed at her wrist.) “I guess I’ve kinda pushed a lot today. But don’t think I’m not gonna keep asking!”
“I’d expect nothing less,” said the witch. “Now. Soup or sleep?”
Faith considered. She was still a little hungry, but the exhaustion of the last few minutes was beginning to catch up with her. “Sleep,” she said. Then, awkwardly, “I-I don’t have any nightmares when you put me to sleep. Can you do it again?”
She knew it was probably wishful thinking, but she thought that the witch’s expression might have softened just a little. Sitting down next to Faith on the pillows again, the witch placed a hand on Faith’s cheek. “Somnus,” she murmured, and this time, Faith felt herself lowered gently down onto the pillows as the world faded away.
When Faith woke up again, the witch had donned her cloak again and was in front of the crystal ball. This time, the scene was Giles and Buffy walking through a cemetery together, Giles with a bouquet of daisies in one hand and a bag of weapons in the other. “Sorry for intruding on this particular cemetery, especially today,” Buffy was saying. “I know this day is important to you.”
“Her birthday,” Giles said absently, then kind of shook himself. “But—no, I, I understand. Though the timing isn’t ideal—you’re still looking for her, aren’t you?”
“Faith,” said Buffy, and Faith’s stomach twisted. “Yeah. Giles, I know she’s gotta be out there somewhere. I thought maybe…” She trailed off, tilting her head up. “Maybe she’d be in a place with some vamps, you know? Aching for a good fight.”
Giles glanced sideways over at Buffy. Then, tentatively, he said, “Buffy, I understand you care very deeply for Faith, but you must know—”
The picture shifted sideways. “No, no, not that,” the witch mumbled impatiently, waving her hands across the crystal ball. “Just let me—”
“Wait, bring it back,” said Faith, her voice shaking. “Witch? Bring it back. What was Giles about to say?”
The witch jumped, black dress flaring out a little as she turned to face Faith. “You’re up!” she said, sounding a little like she’d been caught doing something she wasn’t supposed to. “What—um, do you need anything?”
“What was Giles about to say?” said Faith, sitting up.
The witch bit her lip. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t know. My crystal ball can only show what’s happening at this very second.”
“Just—bring it back,” said Faith. “Maybe they’re still talking about me.”
After a moment of hesitation, the witch passed her hands over the crystal ball again.
“—miss her?” Buffy was saying.
Giles let out a soft breath. “You don’t want to know the answer to that.”
“I mean, I kinda do,” said Buffy. “What happened to her was all because of—”
The picture shut off. “Hey, what the fuck?” said Faith indignantly. “I was watching that—”
“They’re not talking about you,” said the witch matter-of-factly. “They’re talking about that dead girlfriend of the Watcher’s. I think it’s her birthday today.”
“Shouldn’t an all-knowing witch like you know all instead of just think?” said Faith, but she was more irritated than genuinely upset. Lying back down, she rolled onto her side, watching as the light in the crystal ball faded into nothing. “Do you ever sleep?”
“I don’t need sleep,” said the witch.
YES SHE DOES, said Umbra.
“Shut the fuck up,” said the witch, sitting down next to a laughing Faith. “And Faith, that goes for you too. You still have a sore throat.”
“Umbra called you out!” Faith wheezed. “Get some sleep!”
“I’m not tired,” said the witch flatly.
YES SHE IS, said Umbra.
“For all its murdery tendencies, I think that shadow dude is definitely on my side,” said Faith, and held up her hand for a high-five. The cloak rustled disapprovingly around the witch’s shoulders. “C’mon, man, don’t leave me hanging—”
Deadpan, the witch high-fived Faith instead. Faith almost toppled over in shock. “I’m going to make you some soup,” said the witch, and Faith saw a spark of smug amusement in her eyes. “Try not to get yourself more injured in the five minutes it takes me to do so.”
“Did you just fucking high-five me?” said Faith.
“I don’t know,” said the witch, stirring the small cauldron of bubbling water on her desk. “Did I?”
“You suck,” muttered Faith, settling herself back into the pillows and watching the witch continue to work on the soup. “Can you at least turn on the crystal ball again? I need something to watch.”
Without turning away from the cauldron, the witch waved her hand in the direction of the crystal ball again. It fizzled like a staticky TV, and then some cheesy cartoon showed up in the middle. LADY WITCH, said Umbra, THAT IS AN IRRESPONSIBLE AND RIDICULOUS WAY TO USE THE UNENDING POWER I HAVE GIVEN YOU—
“Umbra, you said you wanted me to use your power, right?” said the witch, tugging sharply at her cloak. “Well, I want to use the unending power of darkness to watch Pokémon on my crystal ball. Give me a fucking break and let me make some soup.”
Faith snickered and snuggled into the blankets, feeling—if she was being honest—much warmer and cozier than she had in her firelit room, even with this tower room’s drafty chill. She was only half paying attention to the show; most of her time was spent watching the witch. Suddenly, the cold, severe figure didn’t seem quite as unapproachable or unreachable as she had before.
After a few minutes, the witch came over with two bowls of soup, sitting down next to Faith. Faith sat up and took one. “I’m trying not to be a hypocrite,” said the witch reluctantly. “If I’m holding you to certain standards, it seems reasonable that I should make some compromises myself.” She took a spoonful of soup, then pulled a face. “Oh my god that’s bad. Oh god. Okay. Umbra, it won’t hurt Faith too much if I use dark magic to make better soup, right?”
I MAKE NO PROMISES, said Umbra.
“Bastard,” said the witch, and took another reluctant spoonful of soup.
Faith, who had actually started to kind of like the soup, took a spoonful herself. It warmed her up from top to toe. “Thanks, uh—” Calling her witch didn’t seem as appropriate anymore, especially now that the witch wasn’t calling Faith Slayer. “So what is your name?”
Around the witch’s shoulders, Umbra rustled, seeming weirdly anticipatory.
“I don’t have a name,” said the witch frankly. “Calling me witch is fine enough.”
“Bullshit,” said Faith. “Everyone’s got a name. I’m not just Slayer, and if you get to call me Faith—”
“Eat your soup,” said the witch.
“You eat your soup!” said Faith.
“Goddamnit,” muttered the witch, taking another spoonful.
They ate in relative silence, after that. Faith was hungrier than she realized, and the witch wasn’t exactly a Chatty Cathy even when soup wasn’t there to be eaten. When they’d finished, the witch waved her hand, vanishing both of their bowls, and said somewhat awkwardly, “Do you—should I leave the crystal ball on for now? I think I’m going to try and get some sleep.”
“Wait, seriously?” said Faith.
The witch chewed on her lip, then said, “You seem to be doing better.”
Faith blinked. Slowly, she said, “You haven’t been sleeping because you’ve been keeping an eye on me?”
“I’ll leave the crystal ball on,” said the witch very fast, getting up from the nest of pillows before Faith could pull her back down. Waving her hand, she created a strange, filmy net of magic next to Faith’s nest of pillows, then clambered somewhat awkwardly onto it, pulling Umbra over her to use as a blanket.
“You sure that dude won’t strangle you in your sleep?” said Faith.
“It’s in its contract that it can’t kill me,” said the witch, snuggling into the magical cloud and letting it envelop her. Her long hair unfurled slowly around her head like a weird, dark flower, and with her eyes closed, she looked kind of like one of those creepy old paintings at the museums that had always bored Faith to tears.
Faith stared at the witch, fascinated. Without the tenseness to her mouth and the angry violet eyes, the witch looked less scary and more like a person. This didn’t seem like someone who would throw Faith up against a wall—or even someone who could.
The cloak rustled. Quietly, in a voice that was clearly for Faith’s ears alone, Umbra said, SLAYER, I AM SURE YOU HAVE MANY QUESTIONS.
“I mean, yeah, but not for you,” said Faith, who wasn’t super interested in talking to the demon that had basically tried to kill the witch. “Aren’t you supposed to be her blanket right now? Blankets don’t talk.”
I CAN ANSWER ANY QUESTION YOU WISH, said Umbra. ANYTHING AT ALL.
“Yeah?” said Faith. “No such thing as a free lunch, as far as I’ve learned. What’s in it for you?”
The cloak rustled again, thoughtful and a little pensive. IT SEEMS YOU ARE BEGINNING TO UNDERSTAND THE RULES OF THIS WORLD, it said. I WILL ADMIT, IT IS MORE THAN I THOUGHT YOU WOULD ACCOMPLISH. YOU ARE A VIOLENT, RECKLESS SLAYER. I HAD HOPED TO CALL YOU MY ALLY.
“And I’m not?”
THE LADY WITCH TRUSTS YOU IMPLICITLY, said Umbra, AND YET YOU HAVE NO INTENTION OF ABUSING THAT TRUST.
Faith blinked. The thought hadn’t even occurred to her—largely because she hadn’t even realized that the witch felt anything towards her. “She trusts me?” she said, unable to keep the small tremble out of her voice.
THE LADY WITCH HAS NOT SLEPT FOR NEARLY A YEAR, said Umbra. THOUGH SHE KNOWS I CANNOT KILL HER, SHE DOES NOT TRUST TO CLOSE HER EYES, FOR FEAR OF WHAT I WILL DO IF LEFT UNCHECKED. THIS IS THE FIRST TIME SHE HAS LET HERSELF SLEEP, AND IT IS BECAUSE SHE KNOWS THAT A SLAYER WATCHES OVER HER.
“What can I do against you?” said Faith, a mixture of skeptical and genuinely curious.
The cloak rustled one last time, and when Umbra spoke again, its voice faded slowly away. MORE THAN YOU KNOW.
When the witch woke up again—around the time that Faith herself was beginning to feel sleepy—some of the blank hardness had dissipated from her face, and her violet eyes seemed a shade murkier than Faith remembered them being. A little closer to looking actually human, Faith thought. “How was Umbra?” she said, and despite the lightness to her tone, Faith could tell that the question was pretty damn serious. “Make you an offer you couldn’t refuse?”
“Your cloak is a jackass,” Faith informed her. “I think you should set it on fire.”
“Yeah, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” said the witch.
The witch seemed to have to consider this one. Finally, and with deliberation, she said, “It keeps us safe.”
“Us, huh?” said Faith, leaning over to knock her shoulder against the witch’s. “You and me. A crack team.”
“I definitely would not call us that,” said the witch. “Also, you look tired. Get some sleep.”
“I think Team Rocket’s gonna win this time,” said Faith, trying to peer over the top of the witch’s head.
“Team Rocket never wins,” said the witch, pushing Faith gently back down into the pillows as she clambered out of her dark-magic nest. “Get some sleep. How long have you been awake?”
“Listen, Misty, if there’s no sunrise or sunset, there’s no bedtime,” Faith shot back.
“Misty?” said the witch.
“Is your name Misty?” said Faith.
“I don’t have a name,” said the witch irritably. “Go to sleep. Aren’t you done annoying me in an attempt to try and get me to kill you?”
“Well, yeah,” said Faith. “This is just me annoying you ‘cause it’s fun.”
Once again, a small, reluctant smile flitted across the witch’s face. “Go to sleep, smart-ass,” she said.
“My name is Faith,” said Faith. “What’s your n—” She started coughing.
“Will you let me do the sleep spell?” said the witch.
Eyes streaming, Faith nodded, already moving forward towards the witch’s outstretched hand.
Chapter 6: to have someone understand
very nearly forgot to post this, lmao. this is the first chapter from my new laptop, tho, so that's cool!!!
“Eat your soup.”
“So it is Diana?”
“Take a spoonful and I’ll tell you.”
Delighted at her victory, Faith obliged, taking two spoonfuls of soup for good measure. “So—”
“It’s not Diana,” said the witch, looking annoyingly smug. “None of your guesses are going to be right. I don’t have a name.”
“But you said—”
“Take another spoonful and I can tell you another name I don’t have,” said the witch.
“Listen, Elise, I’m not letting this one lie,” Faith persisted. “If you don’t give me a name, I think I’m just gonna have to pick one for you—and you do not want me to pick one for you.”
“I honestly couldn’t care less,” said the witch. Then, “Elise?”
“You kinda look like an Elise,” said Faith. “Or, uh—hmm. Maybe I’ll call you Charity. Y’know, ‘cause you opened your home to me and made me soup.”
“I don’t have a name, Faith—”
“Umbra,” said Faith, “why is Charity being such a stick-in-the-mud?”
NAMES HAVE POWER, SLAYER, said Umbra, AND THE LADY WITCH DOES NOT WISH TO LEAVE ANY AVENUES BY WHICH SHE CAN BE OVERPOWERED.
“Wait, seriously?” said Faith. “That’s why you don’t have a name? Is this some kinda Rumpelstiltskin dealio?” She blinked, then grinned. “Hey—”
“My name isn’t Rumpelstiltskin,” said the witch, spooning some soup into Faith’s mouth. “Largely because I don’t have one.”
Faith swallowed the soup, considering. “Wanda,” she said. “Like wand. ‘Cause you’re a witch, get it?”
“Eat your fucking soup,” said the witch, but Faith could see that her eyes were sparkling with a reluctant mirth. “And if you ever call me Wanda again, I really will flip you through a wall.”
LADY WANDA, said Umbra. Faith fell over laughing and quickly transitioned into another coughing fit.
“You are a little asshole,” the witch informed her cloak, taking it off and dropping it on the floor. “Both of you. Faith, sit up and drink some water—at this rate you’re not gonna get better for weeks.”
“I am feeling better!” said Faith earnestly. Slayer healing did wonders. “I bet I could be up and at ‘em tomorrow.”
The witch gave her a doubtful look.
YOU CODDLE HER, LADY WITCH, said Umbra from the floor. THE SLAYER HAS LONG SINCE HEALED FROM HER INJURIES.
“Well, yeah, she’s not bleeding,” said the witch, glaring in the cloak’s direction, “but when she still can’t laugh without coughing, I hesitate to let her fight things again.”
“Uh, I don’t need to fight,” said Faith, feeling an awkward nervousness as the witch turned surprised eyes in her direction. “I-I’m good just, y’know, staying up here.”
“You don’t need to fight,” the witch repeated disbelievingly. “Are you sicker than you’re letting on?”
“No, I, I just…” Faith trailed off, embarrassed. “I just like it up here,” she said a little shyly. “Y’know, watching stuff on the crystal ball, having soup…” She trailed off. “It’s a lot warmer up here than down in the castle,” she said.
“It’s drafty,” said the witch, evasive and awkward. “Your room’s got a fireplace to keep you warm. And if you want a TV to watch movies on, I can magic you up something way bigger than my crystal ball.”
Faith let out a breath, feeling strangely disappointed. “Yeah,” she said. “That’d be cool.”
After a moment of hesitation, the witch said tentatively, “I mean, Faith…you can’t have expected to stay up here all the time.”
It took Faith a moment to fully understand what the witch was saying, and another moment to respond. “When I get better,” she said slowly, “you’re gonna go back to living up here by yourself and ignoring me, aren’t you?”
The witch didn’t answer. She didn’t seem able to meet Faith’s eyes.
There was a strange lump in Faith’s throat. “Yeah,” she said again, settling into the pillows. “Yeah. Obviously. Y’know, I actually do feel…pretty sick, I think. I’m gonna just go to sleep.”
“What happened to I bet I could be up and at ‘em tomorrow?” said the witch quietly.
“Well, right now I feel like throwing up,” said Faith, unable to keep the venom out of her voice. Rolling away from the witch, she curled into the pillows and blankets, staring out of the tower window at the starless sky, the rocks surrounding the castle, the valley below the mountain. It had felt homey, looking down at that view, but now it just felt…isolating. Miserable. She’d thought—she’d thought the witch liked spending time with her. She’d thought that the witch would want to spend more time with her after this. She liked the way it felt, up in that tower, the witch asleep in a nest of magic while Faith watched cartoons and sitcoms and black-and-white movies.
“Faith,” said the witch, reaching out to place a hand on Faith’s shoulder.
“Just leave me alone,” said Faith, curling inward. “That’s what you wanna do once all of this is over, isn’t it? I’m just some fuckin’ inconvenience.” She let out a small, harsh breath. “Don’t know why I thought you were different,” she mumbled.
For a moment, the witch’s hand lingered, and Faith thought that she might say something. But then the touch retreated, the pillows shifting as the witch got up, and Faith was left alone to her own devices. Well, not alone, not really—the witch was now stepping up to the crystal ball, whispering her usual incantation as a picture flickered to life—but the distance between them felt vast, more so than it had been even at the beginning.
Some part of Faith had always kind of thought that the witch liked her at least a little bit, in the way you liked a cheesy cartoon. A fun distraction, even if parts were a little annoying or a little boring or both. But the witch had clearly been telling the truth when she’d said she didn’t want anything to do with Faith. Even after they’d promised to hold each other to not dying—even after the witch had held Faith and stroked her hair and fed her soup—
Faith buried her face in a pillow, doing her best to muffle her sobs. She thought she was doing a pretty great job of it, all things considered: if the witch was listening in, it would probably have sounded like Faith was just breathing really heavily or something. A-plus, Lehane. Great job. God, she was getting really fuckin’ good at crying like this.
“—don’t know,” Buffy was saying. “It would have been easier if—”
“Yeah, yeah, we get it,” said Xander, his voice thin and exasperated. “This whole thing would have been so much better if Faith was here. God, do you ever talk about anything else?”
“You know what?” snapped Buffy. “I’m getting kind of sick of all of you pretending she never existed! She was just as much a part of the Scooby Gang as the rest of us, and all of you are acting like—god, I don’t even know. Like she was only ever important because I liked her! She was a person, and she was afraid, and you should have seen her face when she killed that guy—” Her voice broke. “I just want to know she’s okay,” she sobbed out. “I just want to tell her how sorry I am for—for letting that happen—”
“Turn that the fuck off,” said Faith into the pillow.
“Buffy,” said Giles softly.
“It was an accident!” Buffy was crying very hard. “She didn’t mean to—”
“TURN THAT THE FUCK OFF,” shouted Faith, pulling herself out of the pillow nest and lunging for the crystal ball. The witch blocked her, stepping sharply in front of it and catching Faith as she sobbed. “No—no—turn it off, please—”
Holding Faith tightly against her, the witch waved a hand. The picture shimmered and changed, the voices blurring, and the crystal ball moved in on Giles and Cordelia instead, cutting Buffy out of frame.
“Turn it off,” Faith persisted, trying to squirm out of the witch’s arms. “I can’t—don’t make me look at them. Don’t make me—”
“Shh,” murmured the witch, raising her hand to Faith’s face the same way she always did before a sleep spell.
“Get the FUCK away from me!” Faith screamed. “I don’t want your fucking spells, I don’t want your fucking soup, and I don’t want ANYTHING to do with YOU!”
The witch flinched back, dropping her arms. Her violet eyes had darkened into a deep, hurt brownish-black, and Umbra was rustling on the floor in that way it had the last time it had darkened the room, and Faith could not fucking deal with this bullshit anymore. Not the witch, not Umbra, not this fucking castle—she pushed past the witch, yanking the tower door open, and tumbled into a dark, endless void.
For a moment, she thought she could feel Umbra wrapping itself around her—but then she realized that this darkness was simply darkness, with nothing malicious about it. This, Faith realized, was why she hadn’t been able to find the witch: whatever the tower room was, there was no way of getting in or out without the witch’s magic. The void wasn’t trying to steal her breath or kill her or anything, but it was also completely impossible to find her way back to the door she’d opened. All that existed was darkness, devoid of sensation.
Strangely, it was actually starting to calm Faith down. Away from the witch and the Scoobies, floating in the endless darkness, she didn’t really have to think about anything. She could just stay here forever, if she wanted—
The darkness began to clear, but slowly, and Faith found herself standing in an unfamiliar room, blood puddled at her feet. “What—” she began, and then heard the witch’s voice, as if from a distance—but with more emotion than Faith had ever heard from her.
“—no, no, baby please—oh, god, th-this is all my fault—” The witch was sobbing.
A rattling gasp. Faith followed the bloodstains—or tried to. Moving through this apartment was a little like walking through water, and the closer she got to the source of the blood, the more resistance she felt from the air around her.
“Come on. Hold on. Look at me, I l-love you, I—”
And then Faith felt a hand close firmly around her arm. Dread curling in her stomach, she looked up into the witch’s eyes, and saw nothing but electric anger. “What are you doing here?” said the witch harshly, her fingers digging into Faith’s arm. “What the fuck do you think you’re trying to do?”
Broken sobs echoed through the room, and Faith craned her neck, trying to catch a glimpse of the source. Sure enough, now that she was looking, she could see the witch sitting on the floor, her face anguished and tear-stained as she cradled—someone. The dying person’s face was obscured by a strange, dark mist, and with a last gasp, they stilled in the witch’s arms. “No,” the witch sobbed. “No—no, please no—”
Darkness wrapped itself around the both of them again, and when it cleared, they were once again standing in front of the crystal ball. The library was empty now, Giles filing books as usual—no sign of a more tearful and repentant Buffy than Faith had ever dared to imagine. The witch snapped her fingers and the ball went out. “How dare you?” she hissed, sounding as though she might boil over with rage. “This is exactly why you need to stay away from me. You’re putting everything at risk.”
“Who was that?” said Faith softly, unable to remember how angry she had been.
“Why should you care?” said the witch bitterly, dropping her hands and stepping away from Faith. “You don’t want anything to do with me, remember?”
“I don’t fucking care,” said the witch. “I’ve had enough teenage melodrama from you to last me a lifetime. You blow hot and cold and expect me to coddle you—well, fuck that. Umbra was right about you being a major threat to what I’m trying to do.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” Faith demanded. “Umbra said you trusted me!”
The witch smiled—a quick, miserable twist of her lips—and stepped back into the shadows, letting Umbra wrap itself around her yet again. “That’s the problem,” she said, her voice fading into nothing as the darkness filled the tower room.
When the darkness cleared, Faith was lying on top of the covers in what had once been her medieval, firelit bedroom. But the room was more modern and chic than she remembered it: a big TV, a PlayStation, a cozy bed with fitted sheets and a nice comforter, a glossy black dresser full of clothing—hell, even a mini-fridge. Someone had clearly gone to a lot of effort to make sure she’d feel comfortable—or, more likely, to distract her from something she shouldn’t have seen.
It wasn’t working. All Faith could think about was the way it had felt to hear the witch cry like that, even if it had only been a memory. After seeing that—the deep anguish on the witch’s face, the way she’d cradled whoever it was that had died in her arms—Faith felt sure that the witch shutting her out wasn’t as cut-and-dry as the witch just not liking her. The witch was hiding something big from Faith—but why? Didn’t she know Faith would want to help?
No. Faith was too much of a mess to help, at least according to the witch. The witch didn’t want Faith trying to help and fucking things up. That part made sense, at least—and it did also explain why the witch hadn’t wanted to associate with Faith. The witch did trust Faith—she just didn’t want Faith involved in whatever it was she was working on.
God, Faith felt like shit.
“Witch?” she said, sitting up. Her voice trembled. There was no response. “I-I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—I know I’m not—I know I’m kinda annoying and I know you don’t want me here. But I…” She swallowed, sniffling. She felt suddenly very glad that the witch probably wasn’t listening. “I just wanted you to know that I think you’re pretty cool. You make shitty soup, but I’d probably make worse soup if I tried. So. Uh. Thanks for the soup, I guess.”
There was no response.
“I just—” Faith sniffled again. “I don’t think anyone’s ever taken care of me like that,” she said. “And even if you weren’t all gentle and shit, you still got me better, and that means a lot to me.”
There was no response.
“Thanks,” said Faith. “For everything. I mean it. I hope you’re okay, and I’m really sorry about seeing that stuff. I didn’t mean to—” She exhaled, lying back in her bed and curling up on top of the covers. “I’m sorry,” she mumbled, hiding her face in the pillows. “Really sorry. I don’t hate you.”
The room remained silent, just as it had before. And now Faith was right back where she’d been when she’d entered the castle: recovering from some pretty serious injuries, in a lonely, silent bedroom full of everything she could possibly need. She wanted to feel as warmed and cozy as she had that first night, but all she could think about was the drafty chill of the witch’s tower room, and the soft glow of the crystal ball, and the witch herself—weird, abrasive, strangely gentle when she thought Faith wasn’t paying attention. She hadn’t expected to miss that, and she did, and she hated herself for missing it.
Faith snuggled into the covers, wishing more than anything that she could just fucking sleep—
“Somnus,” whispered a soft, shaking voice, and a hand at Faith’s temple was the last thing she felt.
Faith woke up with a gasp, throwing off the covers and looking all around the room. “WITCH!” she shouted, heart pounding, convinced that the witch was lurking somewhere in the shadows—and if the witch was, if the witch still wanted to put her to sleep and tuck the covers around her, even after Faith had said all of that embarrassingly sappy bullshit—
But the room was still empty, though the lights were now on—and a large platter of food sat on a breakfast tray atop her dresser. Bread, butter, jam, eggs, orange juice…all the room-service fixings of a five-star establishment. The spell that had given her food had never been this extravagant or generous before, and something about that made Faith almost feel like the witch was trying to apologize.
“Witch,” she said again, a little softer, a little more hopeful.
But after a good minute or so of anticipatory silence, Faith decided that she must have been wrong. Don’t be ridiculous, she told herself firmly. If she’d wanted to apologize, she’d have fucking apologized. This is just her giving you some better food. With reluctance, she pulled herself out of bed, picking up one of the pieces of bread and taking a large, ungraceful bite. It tasted way better than the witch’s soup, but it still left her feeling frustratingly empty.
Maybe it wasn’t the food, Faith thought. Maybe it was something else.
God, she wished she felt like fighting. It had been so fucking easy to distract herself before the witch had started meaning something to her. She’d been alone in a big castle, she’d had someone to piss off, and her only goal had been to find a way to finally get herself killed. But now she knew the witch, well enough to know that the witch was never gonna let anything bad happen to Faith in this castle, and she knew that fighting wasn’t going to distract her from that.
Faith needed a distraction.
After getting dressed and eating an unholy amount of food, Faith exited her room, finding herself once again alone in the empty house. She missed the witch, but didn’t want to call attention to how fucking much she missed the witch, so she crossed her arms and began to wander aimlessly down the hall.
A door to her left swung open. Warily, Faith peered into it: all she could see was darkness.
“So wait,” said Faith, tilting her head back to glare up at the castle. “Are you tryin’ to tell me something? ‘Cause if this is some of Umbra’s usual bullshit, I’m not interested.”
The air shimmered. From the doorway, Umbra said, THE LADY WITCH HAS FORSAKEN YOU, SLAYER. SHE WILL NOT GIVE YOU THE ANSWERS YOU SEEK.
“Well, I’m not really seeking any answers,” Faith shot back.
DO YOU NOT WISH TO KNOW THE LADY WITCH’S GREATEST SECRETS? persisted Umbra. DO YOU NOT WISH TO KNOW OF THE SACRIFICES SHE HAS MADE IN HER DARK CRUSADE? DO YOU NOT WISH TO KNOW HER NAME?
“Not from you I don’t,” said Faith.
I, AT LEAST, AM HONEST ABOUT MY MOTIVES, said Umbra frankly. CAN YOU SAY THE SAME ABOUT THE LADY WITCH?
Faith gave the question about as much consideration as she felt it deserved: absolutely none. “She’s never lied to me,” she said. “Keeping secrets isn’t the same thing as being dishonest, and if she has a few to keep, why should I be pissed off? I’ve got secrets of my own.”
I WILL MAKE YOU THIS OFFER ONCE MORE, said Umbra, AND THEN NEVER AGAIN. ANYTHING YOU WISH TO KNOW ABOUT THE LADY WITCH—
Faith shut the door.
About two seconds after shutting the door, Faith began to kind of rethink shutting the door. The witch hadn’t told her all that much, after all, and it was pretty clear that all Faith would get from her was weird scraps of accidentally divulged information. Umbra had been offering to tell Faith anything, and Faith had turned Umbra down—why? Out of loyalty to a lady who hadn’t given her any reason to be loyal?
That’s not true, said a new voice, one speaking from a part of Faith’s heart long-buried and long-ignored. She took care of you.
Faith chewed on her lip, torn. She wanted to know more about the witch, but she definitely didn’t trust whatever it was that Umbra had been offering to tell her. There had to be a way to figure this puzzle out without anyone else’s help—
God, Faith was an idiot.
One Girl in All the World, remember? she thought to herself, beginning to grin. This kind of weird detective-research shit wasn’t exactly Slayer terrain, but Faith was more than used to doing stuff like this on her lonesome. If she was gonna figure out why the witch was so hell-bent on icing her out, of course she’d be able to do it alone—and she wouldn’t need some weird, shady demon’s help to do it, either.
Chapter 7: certain as the sun
boy, some weeks rlly hit harder than others for me. but it's always a joy to post a chapter of this, and i hope all of you enjoy this one as well!
The concept of snooping in the witch’s private business didn’t feel as illicit or dangerous as Faith had expected it to—certainly not as illicit or dangerous as it would have felt when she’d first arrived in the castle. She’d imagined the usual anticipated exhilaration she felt upon taking a dangerous risk, but the most prevalent emotion as she tiptoed around the castle was an unusually heavy sense of guilt.
It threw her a little bit off-balance. Guilt wasn’t an emotion she was used to feeling. Sure, sometimes she felt a little bad about the shit she’d done, but she was always able to justify it: she was bad, after all, and bad people did bad things, so why feel bad about one thing on a long list of bad things? All or nothing, in Faith’s opinion—and she usually liked to go with “nothing” in terms of what she wanted to feel guilty for.
But Faith couldn’t shake Umbra’s whispery voice in the back of her head: THE LADY WITCH TRUSTS YOU IMPLICITLY. She honestly didn’t know how the witch might react upon finding out exactly how Faith was using that trust, and it made her miss the days that she’d been so certain the witch would just fucking kill her. If Faith had the witch’s trust, then Faith had the power to genuinely hurt the witch, and Faith didn’t ever want to do that.
That felt important. Faith decided not to think about it. Unsure where to start looking, she decided to do what she always did: improvise. Turning to the nearest door, she tugged expectantly at its handle.
It didn’t open.
Faith frowned. She’d tried that door during her first exploration of the castle, and while she couldn’t entirely recall what she’d found, she’d definitely been able to open it. Tugging at it again proved fruitless: even with her added Slayer strength, it didn’t so much as budge.
Eyes narrowed, Faith squared up, then kicked the door as hard as she could. She felt the impact in her still-healing leg and howled, falling back on her ass. “What the fuck!” she demanded hotly, pulling herself up to lean back on her elbows and glare at the door. “You opened last time—”
“Are you fucking serious?” said the witch, pulling Faith into a sitting position and dusting her off. “Don’t try and kick the doors in if they won’t open, don’t antagonize the castle, and don’t hurt yourself like that! You’re still getting better, even if you’re able to be up and about.”
Faith’s heart leapt. She hadn’t seen the witch in—well, if her math was right, nearly two days. “Hi,” she said, grinning up at the witch.
The witch flushed. “What’s that smile about?” she said indignantly. “I’m lecturing you, Faith—”
“It’s good to see you outside the tower,” said Faith. “Though it kinda sucks that I have to get myself hurt for you to notice me. Honestly, I think you’re just givin’ me incentive to try and kick in more doors.”
“Oh my god,” said the witch, pinching the bridge of her nose. “I’ve gone from a force of darkness to a glorified babysitter.”
“You’re kind of a shitty babysitter,” said Faith helpfully. “I’ve been alone in this castle for like two days. That’s more than enough time to burn this place to the ground.”
SHE WANTS ATTENTION, LADY WITCH, said Umbra. I WOULD ADVISE YOU GIVE IT TO HER.
“No,” said the witch. “You know what? No! I am a lady of solitude, and I have no obligation to have my life plans turned upside down by this—this—child!”
“So what are your life plans?” said Faith. “Live by yourself in a castle and then die?”
“YES!” said the witch, as though this should have been somehow obvious.
Faith crossed her arms, staring the witch down. The witch stared back, violet eyes sparking with electric anger. “Two words,” said Faith. “Death wish.”
The witch flushed again. It was weird, seeing her blush—instead of red, a strange inky blackness rose to her cheeks. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said unconvincingly.
“Listen, lady, I’m making efforts,” said Faith. “I’m not goin’ out picking fights with anything that looks at me funny, and I’m not annoying you—” at the witch’s huff, Faith pointedly continued, “—out of an effort to get you to kill me. But I’m doing that ‘cause we struck a deal: I work on my death wish and you work on yours.”
“I don’t need to work on anything,” said the witch stubbornly.
“Thing is, I think you kinda do,” said Faith. “Like it or not, your life plans got shifted when you made that deal with me.”
At that, the witch’s expression shifted. The righteous anger in her eyes flickered out, replaced by a hollow sadness. “There’s only so much you can change, Faith,” she said.
“Oh, stop being so fuckin’ edgy,” said Faith impatiently. “I don’t give a shit about the mysterious deal you made with Umbra. I get that it spells bad news for you, but y’know what? I don’t think you should use that as an excuse to hide in your castle and never talk to anyone again.” Heart pounding a little, she added stubbornly, “Plus, you said you’d take care of me, and you’re not doing a good job of it if you’re not there, are you?”
Quietly, the witch said, “I don’t know how good I’m gonna be at helping you, Faith.”
“I don’t know,” said Faith, giving her a small smile. “My standards are pretty low. Sometimes my mom would forget to buy food and not come home for a week and I’d have to shoplift shit from the convenience store down the street.”
“That’s not what I mean,” said the witch uncomfortably. “I’m just—I’m not good with—” She let out a frustrated breath. “I’m not good with kids.”
“Well, that works!” said Faith cheerfully, crossing her arms and giving the witch a pissed-off smile. “We already talked about how I’m not a kid, right?”
“Ghhghg,” said the witch, burying her face in her hands—but when she looked up again, she was almost smiling back.
“I’m not asking for much,” said Faith, and found herself strangely nervous. “I’d just—it’d be kinda nice to not wander around the castle without ever running into you. I like you, Abigail.”
“Yeah, well—” The witch stopped. “I’m sorry, Abigail?”
“Kinda went for something Salem-y,” said Faith. “Did I get it this time?”
“I don’t know why the fuck I let you into my house,” said the witch. Her weird little half-smile hadn’t gone away. “Okay. Honestly, I really don’t go down into the castle that much, so the whole avoiding-you thing was only kind of intentional. I’m sure you’ll run into me in the library once every so often, but I basically live in my tower room.”
“Don’t you go stir-crazy?” said Faith skeptically.
The witch shrugged a little uncomfortably. “The castle’s…” She trailed off. “Too big,” she said. “Way too empty.”
“Well,” said Faith, “it’s not way too empty, is it?” She held out her hand, pinky extended. “There’s us.”
The witch looked down at Faith’s pinky with a bemused frown.
“C’mon,” said Faith persistently. “If we’re gonna be bros, we gotta have some kind of secret handshake—and nothing beats a good old-fashioned pinky swear.”
“What are we pinky swearing on?” said the witch skeptically.
Faith considered the question, then said, “I think we’re pinky swearing that we’re gonna hold each other accountable for our bullshit—”
“Didn’t we already agree to that?”
“—and,” said Faith, “that we’re gonna listen to each other when we do it. You don’t shut me out anymore—”
“—and you don’t get yourself hurt trying to get someone’s attention,” the witch finished, then gave Faith a tight, awkward smile. “God, we really are a pair, huh?”
Faith exhaled, almost a laugh. “You can say that again.”
The witch linked pinkies with Faith, shaking their hands with almost comic solemnity. Then, almost shyly, she said, “You kinda distracted me from what I was trying to say. If you really do want to run into me more than just every so often—” And she entwined their fingers, holding Faith’s hand as the darkness surrounded them again.
This time, when the darkness cleared, the witch was still standing right in front of her. Faith let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding, then looked around, feeling something she hadn’t felt in a long time. The cozy warmth in her chest, the tension draining from her body…being in the witch’s chilly little tower room felt like coming home after a long day. “Any particular reason you brought me here?” she asked, trying to keep her voice light and laughing.
“A small one,” said the witch mysteriously, letting go of Faith’s hand to head over towards her desk.
“Gonna finally strike me down?”
“Faith, what were we just talking about?”
“…don’t think it was about me not being able to make jokes,” muttered Faith, her cheeks heating up.
The witch turned away from her desk, holding a thin rope tied in a loop to make a necklace. The weird purple stone in the middle caught Faith’s attention. “Amethyst,” said the witch, pressing the necklace into Faith’s hand, and gave her that weird little almost-smile. “If you put it on, it’ll take you straight to my tower.”
Faith blinked, all thoughts knocked out of her head. THE LADY WITCH TRUSTS YOU IMPLICITLY—and god, more and more, it was starting to look like Umbra was right. Though she was prickly and weird and kind of a loner, the witch did care about Faith in her own weird way. Was going behind the back of the one person who actually cared about Faith really a good idea?
After a few expectant moments, the witch seemed to give up on Faith having a response. “Okay,” she said. “I’ll take that as a thank you for the crystal, lady witch, I’ll use it responsibly and not just bother you at random hours to watch Pokémon on your crystal ball.”
“Man, I wouldn’t do that,” said Faith, hastening to come up with a quick, quippy reply. “There are other shows besides Pokémon that I can watch on your crystal ball.”
“You’re a nightmare,” said the witch, but this time, Faith really could hear the subtle affection behind it. “Listen, I still have some work to do, but I can unlock a few doors for you if you need to check in on something. What was it you were looking for?”
Now, Faith knew, was the time to come clean—to honestly ask the witch about whatever it was that Umbra knew and Faith didn’t. The witch might appreciate her forthrightness and answer honestly—that, or the witch might not answer her honestly, and the questions might make the witch correctly suspect that Faith was planning some kind of investigation on her lonesome. Which was more important—the truth, or the witch’s trust?
And then Faith thought of Buffy, in a way that couldn’t be pushed away. The secrets that Buffy had kept, the ones that Faith hadn’t asked about, that had culminated in Faith almost killing Buffy’s boyfriend. Secret-keeping could only ever lead to pain—and hypocritical as it was for Faith to keep secrets of her own, she couldn’t sit by again as someone she cared about kept secrets from her.
“I was looking for the library,” she said.
The witch’s mouth twitched. “Please don’t tell me you were planning on trying to clean it up again.”
“Well—” Faith let out a breath. “I was bored,” she said. “I wanted to see if there was anything worth reading.”
And the witch lit up. A full-blown smile appeared on her face, her violet eyes alight with something that wasn’t angry magic. The genuine joy in her grin was transformative—turning her from a strange, forbidding specter into a woman who—Faith realized with a jolt—couldn’t possibly be any older than her mid-thirties. “Really?” she said. “Okay! I can—I’d love to share that with you! It’s been so long since—gosh, I’m so sorry, I’m just so happy that someone else wants to read!”
Faith found herself speechless. Her first thought tumbled out of her mouth almost as it came to her mind: “You look…really happy.”
The witch’s smile didn’t vanish. It softened into something more familiarly awkward, but the happiness in her eyes hadn’t changed. “My books have remained untouched for a very long time,” she said. “I’ve read them all, you see, and…it’s nice to think of them being appreciated again.”
Huh, Faith thought. Maybe her pursuit of the truth might have accidentally earned her more of the witch’s trust. She’d definitely learned a tiny bit more about the witch, that was for certain. “I’ll do my best to be gentle,” she said, grinning awkwardly. “Definitely won’t be opening up any windows.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” said the witch, waving a hand. “This is a magical pocket dimension. I can call any lost papers back to me with a snap of my fingers.”
Faith grinned. “Awesome. So does that mean I can dump all the books out the window?”
The witch rolled her eyes. “You really do like pushing my buttons,” she said.
“Can’t help it,” said Faith. “You’re easy to push.”
The library was still kind of musty—but this time, the witch noticed Faith holding her breath, and waved a hand, vanishing the dust. The books shone, the wooden shelves gleamed, and the windows would have let the light in if it wasn’t still pitch-dark outside. “Pick a book, any book,” said the witch with a laugh in her voice. “We have research, romance, resurrection—”
“The only R’s that matter,” said Faith seriously.
The witch’s cheeks went black—one of those strange blushes again. Weird, Faith thought, and filed it away for later contemplation. Turning to one of the bookshelves, she picked the first book she saw, then informed the witch, “Random is a pretty good R. Can I read this?”
“Like I said,” said the witch, who was already settling into a chair with a battered old tome. “Any book you want.”
Faith opened the book to a random page.
The Girl Who Brought Back the Sun
Once upon a time, there was a beautiful young maiden with sunshine in her heart. The life and light she held inside her was enough to eradicate any trace of darkness—and though she herself did not recognize it, she had the capacity to bring light back into the world.
For the little town that the maiden lived in was shrouded in a miserable darkness, one so pervasive and powerful that those inside it had forgotten what the sun even looked like. People had adjusted with ease to the moonlight, the misery, and the strange, terrible monsters that preyed on those who strayed too far from the village. They built warm, happy homes, they stayed in after dark, and they didn’t think anything of the oddities that plagued their sleepy lives.
But the maiden was different. A child of summer, she remembered what it had been like when the sun shone brightly in the sky, and she was not satisfied with a world of darkness and deception. So she left her sleepy town behind and set off on a quest to find the sun again.
The next page was ripped out.
“Wait, what the fuck?” said Faith. “Hey, Melody, why’s this book missing a page?”
“That had better not be another guess at my name,” said the witch without looking up from her book.
“Did I get it?”
“I don’t have a name,” said the witch. “And I don’t know why the book’s missing a page. Probably just Umbra being a dick.” She shook her cloak. “Umbra, give Faith the page back or I’ll set you on fire.”
EMPTY THREATS DO NOT FRIGHTEN ME, LADY WITCH, said Umbra. AND I CANNOT GIVE THE SLAYER WHAT I DO NOT HAVE.
“You hear that?” said the witch to Faith. “That’s its lying voice. That’s the voice it uses when it’s being a little lying bastard.” Faith snorted. “Listen,” the witch informed her cloak, “I put the library back in working order. I repaired every single book. If there’s a page missing, then that means that someone fucked with this library, and I am not—”
MAYBE YOU JUST NEED TO WORK ON TAKING BETTER CARE OF YOUR BOOKS, said Umbra.
Snickering, Faith went back to the book. The middle page was missing, but the page after that wasn’t.
The maiden raised the Sword of Sunlight high and proud. Then, with a flash of gold, she sunk it into the darkness, ending the endless night.
“God, that fairy tale fucking sucks,” muttered Faith. All it had done was remind her of the child of summer she couldn’t help but miss. A beautiful young maiden with sunshine in her heart—how come every heroine seemed so much like Buffy and her sweet, bright smile? Was it just because of her useless crush? It was probably just because of her useless crush.
And now she was thinking about Buffy, and that sucked. Turning to another page at random, Faith was relieved to see that this story didn’t remind her of anything at all.
The Traveler, the Beast, and the Little Red Rose
Once upon a time, there was a traveler, who had made it his purpose in life to answer the questions that needed answering. But after he had answered the queries he had arrived to assist with, he found that he was no longer needed, and so he moved along on his own. Village after village left him feeling more and more bereft, and as he neared the end of his life, he began to feel as though he had entirely wasted all of it. The people he saw in the villages were young and fresh-faced, excited to begin their own journeys—and it made him more and more aware of the fruitlessness—and the loneliness—of his.
But because the traveler was a good man, he was not bitter, and he tried to be kind and gentle to all the young children he met in the villages he visited. “When you find your purpose,” he told them, “when you know what you want to do—pursue it. Believe in it. Nothing is more important than knowing that you have made the world a better place in your own special way.”
One day, when wandering through a forest, the traveler saw a little red rose.
“Hello,” said the traveler.
“Hello,” said the little red rose.
Because it was the question he asked all the world, the traveler asked the little red rose, “Do you have a purpose?”
The little red rose thought about the question. Then it said, “Well, from what I’ve gathered, roses are supposed to look pretty and make other people happy.”
The traveler frowned. “Yes,” he said, “but that doesn’t really answer my question. Do you have a purpose?”
The little red rose hadn’t expected to be caught out. Reluctantly, it said, “I don’t think I’m a very good rose. I look pretty, but I’ve been told that I ask too many questions—so I can only assume that I’m not making many people very happy.”
The traveler found himself smiling. “Well,” he said, “perhaps my purpose can be answering all the questions you have.”
“Then you would not be a traveler!” said the little red rose. “You would be my knight.”
“Does one really earn knighthood by answering questions?” said the traveler.
“No,” said the little red rose, “but if I call you a knight, then you won’t ever have to travel away from me.”
And so the traveler built a little house, with a little garden for the little rose, and they lived together in the forest. The children of a nearby village visited the traveler’s house for tea, and he answered their questions about the wide world outside their window, and he began to feel truly happy for the first time in his life.
But one day, a beast showed up at the traveler’s door. It saw the little red rose, and because it was an evil thing, it decided that it wanted the little red rose for its own. So it stooped down in the garden and said, “Little red rose, do you ever wish for a life bigger than this? Do you ever wish you can be better, and do more, and help your traveler be happy?”
“Oh, I will always strive to be the best rose I can be!” said the little red rose. “I love my knight. He possesses more knowledge than I could ever hope to, and he made this lonely, terrible forest into a warm home for us to live together. But I do not need a life bigger than this, for my knight makes my life feel full.”
This was not the answer the beast had wanted. “If your life was not full,” it said, “would you wish for a life bigger than this?”
“Never,” said the little red rose. “All I need is my knight. Without him, I would be bereft.”
Now, Faith’s childhood hadn’t exactly involved a lot of fairy tales, but she knew enough about them to know that usually they weren’t this…weird. Wasn’t the traveler supposed to be the hero? Why were they talking about the rose all of a sudden? And what the fuck was this whole thing about purpose?
“Hey, Lana?” said Faith.
“Not answering to that,” said the witch.
Faith rolled her eyes, then said, “This one doesn’t make narrative sense.”
“Did you finish it?” said the witch.
“…uh,” said Faith, and went back to reading.
This was not the answer the beast had wanted. Anger in its heart, it knocked on the door of the traveler’s cottage.
The traveler answered the door, and because he was a good man, he answered the door with a smile on his face. “You are welcome in my home, my friend,” he said. “How may I ease your burden today?”
And with a slice of its claw, the beast slit the traveler’s throat.
Faith nearly dropped the book. “What the FUCK,” she demanded, slamming it shut. “What the FUCK IS THIS BOOK.”
“Okay, give me that,” said the witch, a laugh in her voice. “That can’t possibly be as bad as you say.”
Obligingly, Faith jumped up, handing the book over to the witch with a dramatic shudder. “Your fairy tales are bullshit,” she informed her. “Is this Umbra fucking with me again? Because shit, man. That thing is fucked up.”
“Which page?” said the witch.
“Uh—” Faith leaned forward, opening the book to the page in question.
The witch squinted. “Faith, this is about sustainable farming,” she said. “I can agree that it doesn’t exactly have a narrative structure, but it’s not exactly fucked-up fairy tale bullshit.”
“What?” said Faith, staring indignantly down at the clearly printed title. “Man, what the fuck are you talking about? It’s about—a beast! And some knight dude getting his throat cut!”
The witch flinched. In a very different tone of voice, she said, “Umbra. What the fuck are you doing.”
NOTHING, LADY WITCH, said Umbra. TRULY. THIS CASTLE IS YOUR CREATION, NOT MINE.
“Don’t fucking lie to me,” hissed the witch, yanking the cloak up with unusual violence. Tossing the book to the side, she took two steps towards the nearby fireplace, holding Umbra above it. Immediately, the cloak began to writhe, attempting to curl itself away from the flames. “Don’t you dare fuck with me like this,” the witch snarled. “Don’t you dare. You have no right—”
“What’s going on?” said Faith, unable to keep the quaver out of her voice.
Looking back at Faith, the witch’s face softened almost imperceptibly. “It’s not your problem,” she said, then turned back to Umbra. “It’s your fucking problem, Umbra. Pull shit like this again and—”
AND WHAT? said Umbra. YOU ARE NOTHING. KILL ME, AND THIS YEAR HAS BEEN FOR NAUGHT.
The witch’s hands trembled.
YOU ARE TOO WEAK, said Umbra. I TELL THE TRUTH WHEN I SAY YOU ARE YOUR OWN WORST ENEMY. IF THE BOOK SHOWS THE SLAYER AN UNCOMFORTABLE TRUTH, IT IS PERHAPS BECAUSE YOU DO NOT TRULY WISH IT HIDDEN.
“No, I—” The witch’s voice broke.
Slowly, Faith picked up the book, tucking it into her jacket.
Stepping back, the witch set down Umbra a safe distance from the fire, then knelt down, awkwardly, on the floor. “Please leave, Faith,” she said, staring down at her skirt. “I-I need to be alone right now.”
For a moment, Faith honestly considered going up to the witch’s tower room—cuddling into the nest of pillows and reminding herself that the witch had trusted her in bigger ways than she’d ever dreamed possible. But the weight of the book under her jacket reminded her that she still had something that needed hiding, and so she backed out of the library and headed up to her room instead.
Setting the book on the table, Faith found herself afraid to open it again. While she didn’t entirely understand why mentioning the knight had evoked such a huge reaction from the witch, she was getting the sense that this was a hell of a lot bigger than she’d anticipated. Umbra had taunted the witch about a knight before, hadn’t it? And—hadn’t there been another instance, forever ago? A manuscript that only Faith could read, talking about a valiant knight struck down in battle?
Something was up. Something big. And whatever it was, Faith needed to fix it—for the witch’s sake.
Chapter 8: finding you can change
happy valentine's day!!!! part of me is like "valentine's day is arbitrary and ridiculous" but uhhhh the other part of me loves my girlfriend very much and is very excited to go to a cat cafe with her. so.
The book’s blue-green cover was worn, its pages thin and fragile, and the script—though readable—was just as intricate and weird as the prophecy from Giles’s collection. Faith was getting the sense that random flipping was the kind of thing this weird book appreciated, so she let the book fall open in the middle of the bed. Glancing over her shoulder—she didn’t want the witch walking in on her with this, after all—Faith sat down on the bed, beginning to read whatever it was that the book wanted her to read next.
The Sun and the Stars
Lady Guinevere, who ruled over the small province of Many Days in the Kingdom of the Stars, was a woman of extraordinary talent. Though it was her beauty that ensnared her many suitors, it was her intellect that kept her from becoming ensnared herself—as she had vowed that she would never marry a man who could not best her in a battle of wits.
Many men demanded to know what this battle would be. Lady Guinevere would simply smile a beautiful smile, tug her hand away from the gentleman who had taken it, and say, “If you are asking me that question, you have already lost.”
Some men—usually kings—would become enraged at the woman’s audacity. Others would fall back, flustered and miserable, well aware that they had no idea what was going on in the incorrigible Lady Guinevere’s head. It was a general consensus throughout the kingdom that a man who managed to fluster Lady Guinevere had at least struck a blow in their battle of wits, but no such man seemed to exist.
As the years went by, Lady Guinevere’s stance on the matter began to change. What had seemed like a brilliant idea when she was young and independent now trapped her from making any lasting romantic connections. She had been a novelty, once—the whip-smart beauty just waiting to be tamed—but now she was older, and therefore much less interesting to the men looking for a wife. Though she now wished to share her life with another, she still had yet to find someone who would treat her like an equal. Once playful and carefree, Lady Guinevere became sharp-tongued and miserable, and malicious whispers traveled through the kingdom and across the sea about the old maid who would surely die alone.
On the other side of the ocean, in the Kingdom of the Sun, a disgraced knight served the royal family in an attempt to make up for the wrongs he had done the land. As a young man, he had been violent and unpredictable, starting a rebellion against a kind and noble queen simply because he could. Older and wiser now, he carried with him all of the young lives he had led to the slaughter—and they weighed heavily on his conscience. No woman would have a monster such as him, he thought, and so he had never made any attempt to court—not after he had pledged his life to serving a just cause, and certainly not now.
But when he heard tell of a terrible, horrible woman, a woman who had trapped herself in her loneliness, Sir Bertram felt a call to action. He had given up on ever finding love for himself, and he doubted this Lady would want anything of him, but perhaps his attempts to court her would catch the attention of other competitive suitors. It would, after all, catch the attention of the Kingdom of the Stars—a lowly knight crossing the treacherous seas to come calling at Lady Guinevere’s door. She might not seem as terrible to the rest of the world if there was at least one person who thought her worth pursuing.
And after obtaining the permission of the Queen, Sir Bertram set off for the Kingdom of the Stars.
Lady Guinevere heard tell of Sir Bertram’s journey to see her, and was entirely unsure how to feel about it. This, she knew, was her last chance at love—but her pride would not allow her to settle for any random man after all this time. Finally, she came to a decision: if the knight was able to best her in a battle of wits, she would marry him on the spot. But if he was lacking, like all the rest, she would turn him away without a moment’s hesitation.
When Sir Bertram finally arrived at Lady Guinevere’s lavish estate, he was indeed struck by her beauty—but what truly drew him to her was the look in her eyes. She was indeed a smart woman, he realized: smart enough to know the trap she had made for herself, and gentle enough to feel terrible that she would never share her life with another.
Sir Bertram smiled, and he took Lady Guinevere’s hand, pressing a soft kiss to her knuckles as though she was still a maid of eighteen. Unlike the many men who had come before him, he was in no hurry to win any battles: his years at war had taught him the fruitlessness of an impetuous crusade. Instead of demanding to begin their battle of wits, he asked if they might set their weapons down and retire to her lovely outdoor gardens.
And just like that, Lady Guinevere knew that her years of waiting had not been pointless after all. But she had no intention of conceding the fight just yet—it was still a matter of pride, after all—and though she agreed to join him in the gardens, she did remind him that they would have their battle of wits in due time.
“In due time,” Sir Bertram agreed. “I am in no rush.”
And so Lady Guinevere and Sir Bertram walked together in the gardens, trading stories about the lives they had led before meeting each other. Lady Guinevere taught Sir Bertram the wonders of a good book, and Sir Bertram taught Lady Guinevere how best to handle a sword, and for the first time in both of their lives, they found themselves nowhere near lonely—for Lady Guinevere’s hand was always in Sir Bertram’s, and she never tugged it away.
At the end of the walk, Sir Bertram informed Lady Guinevere that he had a question for her—and the Lady’s stomach turned over, for if he was asking what their battle of wits would be, he had already lost it. Instead, her knight politely inquired as to who had won the battle, which took Lady Guinevere aback.
For Sir Bertram knew a simple truth: falling in love was a battle of wits in its own way. But in love, with the right sparring partner, there would never be a clear winner. True love meant compromise, and finding common ground.
“A stalemate,” said Lady Guinevere.
“Exactly,” said Sir Bertram.
And taking her true love’s hands in hers, Lady Guinevere tugged him into a tender kiss.
The next page was ripped out. Faith felt almost glad. Nothing good seemed to happen to knights in this book, and Sir Bertram seemed exactly like the kind of guy who’d die horribly in battle or something. Kind, gentle, caring—those were the kind of people who got their throats slit by asshole beasts.
“Lady Guinevere,” said Faith quietly, trying the name out. She could kind of imagine it fitting the witch. And if Umbra was right—if some of these books really did hold half-hidden truths—then maybe this Sir Bertram guy was the whole reason the witch was so weird and sad. Her one chance at true love, snatched away—that’d be enough to drive absolutely anybody crazy. Especially someone as guarded as the witch.
There was a knock on the door. Hastily, Faith slammed the book shut, stowed it under her pillow, and called, “Come in!”
The witch entered. “Hello,” she said uncomfortably.
Faith was really fucking nervous that the witch might somehow be able to sense the book. “What’s up?” she asked, trying her best to look Not Shifty.
“I didn’t mean for you to see that,” said the witch, sitting down on the edge of Faith’s bed. “Especially after—I don’t know. You just…” She trailed off. Then, stilted, she said, “Just because there are things I can’t change, deals I can’t take back—that doesn’t mean that I have to spend the next few weeks locking you out.”
The witch was sitting, like, two centimeters away from the book. “Yeah, sure,” said Faith, trying her best not to flip the fuck out. “Totally. Hundred percent.”
The witch frowned, looking a mixture of concerned and guilty. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah, I’m great,” said Faith hastily. “Seriously. I’m just catching up on some reading—I mean TV—so if I could maybe have the room back to myself? If that’s okay?”
“Oh,” said the witch, cheeks going black. “Of course. I’ll be up in my tower if you need anything.” She got up from the bed, hesitated a moment, then left the room, looking less terrifying and more…miserable.
Now that there wasn’t any risk of the witch discovering the book, Faith felt kind of terrible. The witch had been trying to reach out to her, and what had Faith done? Acted all shifty and panicky and weird and probably made the witch feel worse. Somehow, she had to fix this.
“That’s what the book is for,” she reminded herself out loud, and it made her feel a tiny bit better. Though it was clear she’d never admit to it, the witch was in a tight spot, and somehow, this book held the key to piecing her secrets together. “Hey, wait,” said Faith suddenly. “Castle. Can I have, like, a notebook? And something to write with?”
A pad and pen fell through the ceiling, bonking her on the head. “Ow!” said Faith, laughing. “Thanks, man.” She picked up the pen, scribbling down her notes.
Guini Gueni Guinn Gwen = witch?
Sir Bertram = knight?
witch in love with knight
knight died — killed by a monster, probably
Okay. That seemed like a pretty good starting point. Faith opened the book again—or tried to. It was pretty much glued shut. “Seriously, dude?” she burst out, shaking the book. “You were working two seconds ago!” God, she fucking hated magic.
But then she remembered what Umbra had said to the witch. YOU ARE YOUR OWN WORST ENEMY. Maybe the witch wasn’t intentionally trying to reveal all this stuff to Faith, but it was beginning to seem like the witch’s magic had other ideas about what Faith was allowed to know. In her own weird way, the witch was sending a distress call—and it was up to Faith to put the pieces together.
And right now, it kinda seemed like the book wasn’t where Faith was supposed to be looking. Right now, it seemed like Faith was going to have to go back to her usual strategy of random guesswork. Tucking the book back under her pillow, Faith exited her bedroom, finding herself grateful—for the first time ever—that the witch was nowhere to be seen. Trying the door nearest to her, she found it stuck—but this time, she knew what that meant. Dropping her hand, she tried the next door. It didn’t open. She continued on.
Boring work? Definitely. But every time Faith felt even a little bit frustrated, she thought of the witch sitting on the floor of the library, dark skirt spread out around her like a flower as she stared down at her hands. The memory of the tears in the witch’s eyes reminded Faith of a simple truth: she was doing this for a bigger reason than an attempt to distract herself, or prove herself, or make herself feel bigger than she was—and because of that, she couldn’t afford to get angry. Anger meant she got sloppy, and nothing more than perfection was gonna cut it if she was going up in her own battle of wits against the witch. Reaching the stairwell, Faith descended the stairs—
—and noticed something weird. The landing to the first floor looked just as well-lit as always, but now the stairs seemed to go down farther than before. At the bottom of the stairs, Faith thought she could make out the beginnings of a dimly lit hallway that none of her castle explorations had ever revealed to her.
She found herself more nervous than she’d expected to be. “Thanks,” said Faith softly, patting the wall, and continued down into the darkness.
Instead of being lit by torches, this hallway was lit by floating globes of strange violet light—the same color as the witch’s eyes, Faith realized—and had no doors but one. At the very end of the hallway, a single door stood open, full of only darkness.
The witch would never let anything bad happen to me, Faith reminded herself. It was kinda hard to convince herself of that in the face of the endless darkness, though. Gritting her teeth, Faith strode forward, continuing through the hallway and into the dark room.
The door swung shut behind her.
Well, great, Faith thought. This is how I die.
But then, out of nowhere, a single pinprick of violet light appeared in the middle of the room, expanding slowly into another one of those weird little orbs. As Faith’s eyes adjusted to the light, she took in the room around her.
The entire room was shaped like a perfect circle. On the floor was a weird mosaic that looked a little—no, a lot like one of those magical circles, complete with runes, sigils, and complicated lines that all converged in the middle of the room. And in the middle of the room—Faith squinted, and then her stomach turned over. In the middle of the room was some kind of big stone bier, and on top of it was something covered in a bloodstained blue sheet: something shaped exactly like a body.
“Fuck,” Faith whispered. Suddenly, this seemed way scarier than she’d expected. Why had she thought she’d be able to fix this? She wasn’t Buffy Summers—she wasn’t the Chosen One. No matter what the Slayer lineage said, Buffy was still the one all the prophecies were about. Faith was just some dumb kid from Boston who could punch things hard enough to break them. How the fuck was she supposed to help a witch with a body in the basement?
The door opened again, and Faith felt a hand on her shoulder. She turned, eyes wide, and saw the witch—and the witch didn’t look mad. Carefully, she tugged Faith out of the room, waving a hand to make the big door swing shut. “You know, you really shouldn’t be down here,” the witch said, almost conversationally. “I’ve got a lot of warning flares set up around this place. Pretty much all of my magical alarms went off.”
“Whose body is that?” said Faith, her voice shaking.
The witch’s mouth trembled. “You know I can’t tell you that,” she said.
“I don’t think you want to be down here for much longer,” said the witch matter-of-factly. “It’s not a very good place to be.”
“Why aren’t you mad?” said Faith tentatively.
“Faith,” said the witch, a dry laugh in her voice, “in the short time I’ve known you, you’ve shown up in pretty much every single place you weren’t supposed to be. I assumed it was only a matter of time before you found your way down here.”
Faith swallowed, hard. She kept on thinking about that one fairy tale—or maybe it was both of them. The traveler and the rose, the lady and the knight—whoever it was, somebody very important and very loved had died in the witch’s arms. “I’m sorry,” she mumbled, and without really thinking about it, she stood on tiptoe to pull the witch into an awkward hug.
The witch stiffened in her arms. Faith’s stomach turned. Obviously the witch wasn’t gonna want to hug her. This had been such a stupid idea. But just as Faith was about to pull back, she felt the witch’s arms wrap clumsily around her in return. It was only for a second, and the witch pulled back almost immediately—but the witch had hugged her back.
“Boundaries, Faith,” said the witch, who was blushing furiously. It made her look kind of like a corpse.
Faith grinned. “You hugged me,” she said, well aware of the fact that she was pushing her luck. “You lo-ove me.”
“Jesus Christ, I’m never gonna live this down,” said the witch, hurrying down the hall as quickly as she could.
Faith fell into step with her. “You think I’m amazing,” she continued happily. “You think I make good points—”
“I am never complimenting you again.”
“Now that’s a lie.”
“I’m evil! I’m allowed to lie!”
“So you’re saying you are gonna compliment me again?” said Faith innocently.
“…we’re going to go get some food,” said the witch.
Apparently, the musty, dusty old kitchen could become a whole lot less musty and dusty really fast with the witch around. With a wave of the witch’s hand, the kitchen was spotless and sparkling, enough so that Faith could swing herself up to sit on the counter without getting dust all over her nice jeans. “Nifty,” she said. “What’s for dinner? Can it be pizza?”
“I don’t think anyone in Sunnydale delivers to the pocket dimension,” said the witch dryly.
“I could go and get some,” said Faith impulsively. At the witch’s surprised expression, she elaborated, “I mean, you’ve spent a good chunk of time in this castle, right? Doesn’t allow for a whole lot of time to pig out on pizza, and honestly, I think you’re missing out. Especially since—”
“Faith,” said the witch, looking a little guilty. “You’re…you can’t leave this castle.”
“Huh?” It took a moment for Faith to remember. “Oh,” she said. Then, hopefully, “But what if I promised that I’d come back?”
“It’s not really my choice,” said the witch quietly. “The magic’s pretty binding. There’s really no loophole.”
I AM A LOOPHOLE, Umbra offered. I AM THE MAGICS. LEAVE THE CASTLE WITH ME AROUND YOU AND YOU MAY ACQUIRE ALL THE PIZZA YOU WISH.
“Sure thing, Umbra,” said Faith, rolling her eyes. “I totally trust you not to murder me as soon as I put that cloak on. I think I’ll take my chances with the witch’s cooking.”
“I’m sorry, you think I’m going to cook?” said the witch, an incredulous laugh in her voice. “You’ve had my soup. Whatever we’re having right now is definitely going to be helped along with magic.”
“Chicken,” said Faith.
“Listen,” said the witch, pointing at Faith. “You should be thanking me for sparing us all from the horrors I might wreak if left alone in this kitchen.”
“Shouldn’t witches be able to brew shit?”
“I missed the day they were teaching brewing in witch school,” the witch volleyed back, crossing the room to open what—now that the dust and grime had been removed— looked a hell of a lot like a modern refrigerator. “Okay. You want pizza, right?” She screwed up her face, concentrating, and pulled an entire pizza box out of the refrigerator. “It’s going to be a little cold, but I can try and warm it up.”
“Yeah, I’m never leaving this castle,” said Faith. “I’m just gonna live here forever.”
As she placed the pizza box down on the counter, the witch gave Faith a small, sad smile. “You’d get bored of that in no time,” she said.
“Never,” said Faith, and meant it. “You’re the coolest, Elaine.”
The witch’s smile became a smile-eyeroll hybrid. “Elaine?”
“Kinda Camelot, right?” said Faith, testing the waters. She didn’t know a lot about King Arthur, but she did know his wife’s name—and maybe guessing something a step away from Guinevere might elicit a telling reaction from the witch.
“I’ve always liked Arthurian legends,” said the witch distantly. “A little before my time, but…” She trailed off.
“Before your time?” said Faith, trying to keep her tone as nonchalant and non-suspicious as possible. “You live in a fuckin’ castle. I wouldn’t exactly peg you as a twentieth-century gal.”
The witch arched an eyebrow. “The castle’s mostly an aesthetic choice,” she said. “It’s not exactly like I went around wearing clingy, witchy dresses back before I was a witch.”
“So you weren’t always a witch,” said Faith slowly.
Around the witch’s shoulders, Umbra rustled in a way that seemed almost like a warning. The witch tugged sharply on it, adjusting it until it was still, and said, “I wouldn’t say that. More like…I used to practice part-time, and when I decided to step into the big leagues, I thought that my image needed a little bit of an upgrade.”
“A bad bitch,” said Faith.
“Precisely.” The witch opened the pizza box, then pointed at the pizza. “Incendium,” she said. The pizza caught on fire. “Oh, fuck—”
“Points for the not-from-the-nineties theory,” said Faith helpfully, watching with amusement as the witch attempted to stifle the flames. “Doesn’t have a microwave to reheat the pizza like a normal person.”
“I don’t usually have to reheat food!” said the witch. “It’s not like there are spells that are able to only slightly warm things up—”
I CAN HELP, said Umbra.
“Fuck you,” said the witch. “I have this under control. Aqua!” A jet of water shot out of her fingertip, and the flames fizzled out, leaving a slightly burned, slightly soggy, definitely-warm pizza. “Goddamn it. Okay. This is still…this is definitely not edible.”
“So,” said Faith. “If you’re not from the nineties and you’re not from medieval times, when are you from?”
“Hmm,” said the witch. “When do you think I’m from?”
“I flunked out of history, Gwen, give me a break,” said Faith.
The witch gave Faith a funny look. “Gwen?” she said.
“What?” said Faith, heart pounding. “That name ring a bell?”
With a small shake of her head, the witch turned back to the pizza, still looking a little bothered.
Faith’s stomach flipped over: the book had been right on the money. Lady Guinevere, she thought to herself, trying it out again. Lady Guinevere. Lady Gwen. It didn’t exactly fit the witch, but Faith guessed that that might be because she’d just gotten used to calling her the witch. Still, she had to move on from the name, or the witch—Lady Gwen—might get a little suspicious. “Am I ever gonna get it right?” she inquired.
“We keep on circling back to this,” said the witch, who Faith refused to think of as Lady Gwen just yet. “I don’t have a name.”
Guinevere, Faith thought again, but the name was too distinctive and dangerous for her to throw in the witch’s direction just yet. “And I’m not gonna give up on figuring it out,” she shot back, bumping her shoulder against the witch’s. “Pass me a slice?”
“God. Don’t eat that.” The witch shut the box. “We’re having something else.”
“I’ve lived off of worse than warm, soggy pizza—!”
“Not under my roof, Faith. You’re a growing girl.”
Something about the reproving, half-exasperated way the witch said that made Faith grin, ducking her head and staring down at her knees. When she looked up again, the witch was kind of smiling too. “Whatever,” said Faith. “As long as it’s not a salad.”
“I’m hearing kale,” said the witch. “Am I hearing kale?”
“You are evil,” said Faith disbelievingly, and the witch actually laughed at that.
Chapter 9: it doesn't matter now.
LOTS of stuff this chapter. even more NEXT chapter. this is where things start going pretty definitively off the rails.
Faith went up to the witch’s tower room after dinner. The witch was looking at the Scoobies through her crystal ball again, but it didn’t really make Faith’s chest seize up anymore—she had bigger fish to fry than her unfinished business with Buffy. Right now, all she was thinking about was how the hell to best help the witch—which was pretty fuckin’ difficult, given that she was only getting bits and pieces of information from that cryptic little book.
“What’s goin’ on with them?” Faith asked, peering over the witch’s shoulder.
The witch looked somewhat surprised. “You were a hell of a lot more upset the last time you saw them.”
“Yeah, well.” Faith knocked her shoulder against the witch’s, and received a crooked smile in return. “I had some time to cool off. What’re they doing?”
“Who do you want to see?” said the witch.
Faith bit her lip.
“I can show you Buffy,” said the witch, almost gently. “If you’d like.”
Not trusting herself to speak, Faith nodded.
Murmuring yet another weird Latin phrase, the witch passed her hands over the crystal ball. The image shifted, then zoomed in on Buffy—wearing a pastel blue tank top, her hair swept up in a high ponytail, her eyes full of determination as she spoke to the group. “We’re gonna have to take the fight to him if it continues like this,” she was saying. “Now, we don’t know a lot about any weaknesses he might have—”
“Here’s a take,” said Xander from the background. “Maybe he doesn’t have any weaknesses. We ever thought of that?”
“Xander,” said Willow’s reproving voice.
Faith felt the witch’s hand on her shoulder. Almost unconsciously, she turned her face away from the crystal ball, tucking herself into the witch’s side. Again, she felt the witch freeze—and again, she felt the witch tentatively reciprocate, tugging Faith closer into a careful hug. “It’s okay,” said the witch quietly. “I can turn it off, if you want.”
Faith sniffled, a lump in her throat. All of a sudden, she didn’t feel like a bad bitch—she just felt like Faith. “I miss them,” she said, clumsily; she was on the verge of beginning to really cry.
“I know,” said the witch.
Faith sniffled again, then said, “Don’t you get lonely up in this castle?”
She felt the witch’s fingers card gently through her hair. “I mean, you take up a lot of space in this castle,” said the witch. “Kinda hard to be lonely when there’s someone banging on the walls with a metal helmet.”
That made Faith laugh a little wetly. Raising her head to look at the witch, she saw no trace of electric violet in the witch’s eyes: the eyes looking down at her were brown, and soft. “You’re not really all that evil, are you?” said Faith.
“Well,” said the witch. “Neither are you.” She squeezed Faith again, then stepped back, turning off the crystal ball with a wave of her hand. “You must be getting tired. Do you need to go to sleep?”
Honestly, the day had been pretty fuckin’ taxing. With some relief, Faith nodded, half-staggering over to the familiarly comfortable nest of pillows in the window. Sitting down on the edge of said nest, she said tentatively, “Are you gonna get some sleep? You probably need some too.”
The witch gave Faith a wry smile and waved her hand again. Faith felt a rush of warmth as she watched the net of magic form itself next to her little nest: she hadn’t realized how much she’d missed this little routine. “Hold on,” said the witch suddenly, and snapped her fingers, surrounding herself in a rush of dark magic.
“Witch—!” said Faith a little more loudly than she’d expected, panic spiking.
The darkness cleared: the witch was now wearing a tank top and sweatpants, her long, raven-black hair swept up into some kind of weird, braided updo. “Faith, I’m fine,” she said, amusement giving way to genuine reassurance when she saw how affected Faith was. “I’m a creature of darkness, remember?”
“You said you weren’t always a witch,” said Faith. “And…” She trailed off. “And I worry about you sometimes.”
The witch’s smile softened as she sat down on the magical net. Reaching out, she carefully tucked a strand of hair behind Faith’s ear—and a small, lonely part of Faith’s heart did a little hop-skip at the gently maternal touch. “It means a lot to me that you do,” she said, “but I’d prefer if you didn’t. I’m an adult. I’ve made my choices.”
Faith swallowed—and then she said what she’d been thinking for the last few days. “But what if they end up killing you?”
The easy smile on the witch’s face flickered. Without a word, she let her hand drop, lying down on her side so that she was facing Faith. Absently, she said, “You should get some sleep, Faith. No need to worry about me.”
“Yeah, but no one else is here to do that but Umbra,” said Faith. “And Umbra’s psychotic.”
SAY THAT AGAIN AND I WILL CONSUME YOUR FLESH, said Umbra.
“Case in point,” said Faith.
The witch smiled—just a little—and moved forward on the net, resting her arm on the pillows. Faith hesitated, then moved tentatively forward as well, resting her head on the witch’s arm. When the witch didn’t pull away, Faith felt something—something bigger than simple warmth. It took her a moment to label it, and when she did, it knocked her sideways.
THE LADY WITCH TRUSTS YOU IMPLICITLY, Umbra had said—but bigger than that, Faith thought, was the fact that she trusted the witch just as much. “Hey, witch?” she mumbled, snuggling into the blanket. “Can I stay here after the six weeks are up?”
The witch was silent for a long time. Then, a catch in her voice, she said, “You can stay here as long as you want, Faith.”
“As long as I want?”
“As long as you want.”
“Mmkay,” said Faith, and she was still smiling as she fell asleep.
The witch’s sleep spell usually held off all dreams, good or bad—but Faith had fallen asleep so easily and comfortably that she hadn’t needed the extra help. She’d felt so happy about it, at the time: she’d thought it meant that she was getting better. She’d thought it meant that maybe she was closer to being less bad-bitch and more…Faith.
Which was why it fucking sucked to find herself once again standing in the castle courtyard, sword in hand, surrounded on all sides by dead shadow guys.
“Seriously?” said Faith indignantly. This kind of lucid dream meant a Slayer dream, and she fuckin’ hated those. It almost always meant that something big was on the cusp of going down. “Man, I’m off the clock! This shit is Buffy’s job now.”
A beam of unnatural light hit Faith in the face. Squinting, she looked up, and saw a bright purple glow emanating from the window of the witch’s tower. “Witch?” she called, but her voice came out distorted—it sounded a little like she’d said something else.
The scene changed, and suddenly Faith was standing in front of the witch in the tower room, Umbra rising up from around the witch’s shoulders. The witch’s eyes were full of darkness, her face twisted in a horrible, plastic smile that didn’t look like her at all. When she spoke, it was Umbra’s voice: FULFILL YOUR DESTINY, SLAYER. DO WHAT MUST BE DONE.
Faith’s sword arm moved of its own volition. In one swift motion, as neatly as she staked vamps, the witch was speared on Faith’s sword—and for just a moment, her eyes flickered back into that now-familiar brown. “Faith,” she said softly, almost tenderly, and dissolved into nothing.
“No,” said Faith. “NO—”
“NO, NO, I WON’T!” Faith screamed, jerking awake and getting tangled in the blankets. She didn’t care. She couldn’t erase that dream from her mind. A Slayer dream, too, which meant that it meant something, and god, what if it meant—what if it meant that she had to be the bigger, better person and kill the witch for the sake of the world? What if it meant that the witch was a danger—or, worse, that the witch was in danger, and Faith would have to kill her to protect her? “NO—” She was sobbing, now, big ugly sobs that shook her entire body.
“Faith. Faith!” The witch pulled her into a fierce hug, rocking her and stroking her hair. “Shh-shh-shh, it was just a nightmare—”
Faith buried her face in the witch’s shoulder, inhaling—dead flowers, and old books, and home. “Don’t go,” she sobbed. “Don’t go away. I need you. Please.”
The witch drew in a sobbing breath, tangling her fingers in Faith’s hair. “Shh,” she whispered. “Do you want me to put you to sleep?”
“No—” Faith pulled her tear-stained face up to look at the witch, then bumped her forehead against the witch’s. “Just don’t go,” she whispered. “Just—just don’t leave me. Everybody leaves or dies or both a-and I can’t—”
Slowly, the witch lowered Faith back down into the pillows, then lay down next to her, letting Faith huddle against her under the covers. She was holding Faith just as tightly as Faith was holding her. Then she said, “I can tell you a story, if that helps distract you.”
“I don’t want some happy-ending bullshit,” Faith spat, the vitriol of her words lessened by the fact that she was still crying pretty hard.
“Okay,” said the witch. Her voice trembled. “Then I’ll give you something a little more realistic.”
“…okay,” said Faith, and hid her face in the witch’s shoulder.
The witch was silent for a few minutes. Then, very carefully, she said, “Once upon a time, there was…a knight.”
“A very brave, very kind, very good knight,” said the witch. “He wasn’t fighting dragons for the glory, or the attention, or to be the hero: he was fighting dragons because he wanted to keep people safe. And…the world he lived in wasn’t a world that let good people stay alive.”
Sir Bertram, Faith thought, raising her head to look at the witch. It had to be. The miserable, wistful expression on the witch’s face was one Faith knew all too fuckin’ well: the expression of someone who knew they weren’t half as good as the person they loved. “What happened?” she said quietly.
“He died,” said the witch. She swallowed, then corrected herself: “He was killed. A monster killed him.”
Faith swallowed. “Shit.”
“Yeah,” said the witch.
“This is kinda a fucked-up story,” said Faith. “Is that where it ends?”
“…no,” said the witch. “There was—a lady. The knight’s lady.” She sniffled, running a hand through Faith’s hair. “She was…she loved the knight more than anything. He’d come to her when she’d expected to spend the rest of her life alone. Losing him the way she did…” She trailed off.
“What happened to the lady?” said Faith, well aware that she was pressing her luck.
The witch was quiet for a moment. Then she said, “I killed her.”
That took Faith aback. “What?”
The witch let out a tired breath. Carefully, she said, “Faith, I think you should go to sleep.”
“You so didn’t kill her,” Faith grumbled, annoyed. “You just don’t wanna tell me the rest of that story. I bet it’s some kinda Darth Vader thing or something.”
“Darth Vader?” the witch repeated.
“All oh, Luke, your father was killed by Darth Vader, and then it turns out that the dude’s dad is Darth Vader, which only technically counts as—”
“Am I gonna have to put you to sleep?” said the witch.
The thought of some properly dreamless sleep really appealed to Faith. “Yeah,” she said, tilting her head up. “Do that.”
With a small, exhausted smile, the witch gently bopped Faith on the nose with her fingertip. “Filia mea,” she said. Then, “Somnus,” and everything faded away.
When Faith woke up, she was still thinking about the half-finished story the witch had told her. It wasn’t anything new—it had only confirmed her already well-supported hypothesis. Once upon a time, the witch had been a lady in love with a knight, and the knight had died in a way that had broken her heart. But there was still a big gap between then and now: Lady Gwen hadn’t been described as a witch, and she definitely hadn’t had a weird, annoying demon cloak that wanted to kill pretty much everything.
Faith needed to fill in the blanks.
The book had always served her well, so after breakfast with the witch, Faith took off the amethyst necklace and found herself back in her room. Opening the book, however, she was met with an unpleasant surprise: she couldn’t seem to open to a fairy tale in the book that didn’t have the first page ripped out. “What the fuck?” she muttered, paging through—and suddenly she noticed something else. Every single page in the book was the same page.
But the disciple’s attempt to bring back the knight was flawed: only true love’s kiss could call back the dead. With evil running through her veins, there was no way she could restore the knight to full strength—as she would die in the process.
Foolhardy and reckless, the disciple pressed an impetuous kiss to the knight’s lips, and the darkness within her was burned alive by the goodness of the man she had attempted to pervert. As the disciple fell to her knees, the knight awoke, just as good and kind as he had always been.
Darkness will never triumph over light.
Wait A Fucking Second.
Rapid, disjointed concepts flashed through Faith’s mind. The stories: day and night, dark and light, witch and knight. The witch’s black blush. Umbra’s tendrils closing in on the witch, consuming her. Umbra’s deep, whispery voice: DISOBEY ME, AND YOUR KNIGHT LIES STILL EVERMORE. The witch’s frustration with Umbra, even as she let it shame her for being weak, powerless, pointless. The witch saying Faith was a risk to what she was trying to do.
The body in the basement, wrapped in a bloodied blue sheet.
“Oh, god,” Faith whispered, and felt like she was going to be sick. The witch was trying to bring back her knight. The witch was trying to bring back her knight, and it wasn’t going to work, and Umbra was going to consume the witch entirely and get the witch killed in the process. And there was no way for Faith to reason with the witch, because it was very fucking clear that the witch wasn’t able to be reasoned with when it came to her knight.
Six weeks, the witch had said. Faith didn’t know how many of those weeks had passed, but she’d bet that most of them were up—and if she was right—if this book was right—
“Fuck,” Faith whispered tearfully. “Fuck, fuck, motherfucking fuck—” She pressed her hands to her face, doing her best to stifle her tears. She had no idea how to fix this. She knew she wasn’t going to be able to convince the witch to stop—she’d never been all that great at that. She knew that Umbra was probably involved in this somehow—hell, Umbra was probably the entire reason that the witch had enough power to bring back the dead in the first place. She knew—
She knew that the witch probably knew that this attempt to bring back her knight would kill her, because the witch had as good as said it. By my calculations, in six weeks, my secrets will be a moot point. And suddenly, all of their time in the castle made sense in the worst of ways: the sadness in the witch’s eyes. The way the witch had kept on trying to push Faith away. Maybe Faith had promised not to make good on her death wish, but the witch had never had any intention of keeping her word.
Something about that hurt more than any spell the witch could have thrown at her. In a matter of days, the witch was going to throw away her life for a knight long dead, and Faith would be alone all over again. Faith would be alone, again, because she wasn’t good enough.
“Fuck that,” she whispered, lowering her hands. Rage was boiling within her. If the witch wasn’t willing to save herself—well, then, Faith was going to fucking drag the witch to safety, and she didn’t care what the witch thought. “Fuck that.”
Slamming the book shut, Faith yanked open her dresser, changing into an outfit that made her feel a little more badass: jeans, a muscle tank, a leather jacket, and some extra-stompy combat boots. Checking her reflection in the mirror only made her feel worse: she looked like she had in Sunnydale. Angry, hurting, and about to knock some fuckin’ heads, and—that wasn’t the person she liked being anymore. She wanted to be the kid who got fussed over by the witch. She wanted to be the witch’s top priority. She wanted—
Faith let out a hiccupy breath and almost started crying again. She wanted so badly to pretend that she was the witch’s kid. But there wasn’t time to pretend anymore.
The witch was asleep in the tower room, curled up in her usual nest of magic. It occurred to Faith that the witch might not have gotten any sleep after her nightmare, and that made her stomach twist: that seemed like something that moms might do too. She leaned down to tuck Umbra closer around the witch—
YOU LOOK UPSET, SLAYER, said Umbra. IS SOMETHING THE MATTER?
“Don’t fuckin’ taunt me, asshole,” Faith spat, and couldn’t stop the tears from springing to her eyes again. “I know what you did to her.”
AH, said Umbra. I SUSPECTED YOU WOULD PIECE IT TOGETHER. THE LADY WITCH SEEMED TO THINK YOU MIGHT NOT—
Faith yanked Umbra up and off of the witch. It felt weird and slippery in her hands—more like Silly Putty than a cloak—and she had to remind herself not to drop it. “Don’t fuck with me,” she hissed, trying to mimic the witch’s vicious fury from the library. “I don’t need any more of this cryptic bullshit. The witch is gonna die because of you, isn’t she?”
ALL THINGS DIE, said Umbra.
Faith tightened her grip on it. It didn’t seem as fazed as she wanted it to be. “Tell me!” she demanded.
AND WHY DO YOU WANT TO KNOW? said Umbra. TO HELP HER? SAVE HER?
Faith’s hands shook; she clenched her fists tighter around Umbra. “I-I,” she stammered, a lump in her throat, and did her best to steel herself. “So what if I do?”
I CAN HELP YOU, said Umbra.
“Like I’d take your help,” Faith shot back. “You’re the reason the witch needs help in the first place!”
THAT MAY BE TRUE, said Umbra, BUT HOW WOULD YOU KNOW FOR CERTAIN? ALL YOU HAVE ARE BITS AND PIECES OF INCONCLUSIVE EVIDENCE.
“But I—” Umbra’s words had hit harder than Faith had expected them to. “She said—”
FAIRY TALES AND TEARY EYES, said Umbra. NOTHING THAT MIGHT GIVE YOU A WAY TO SAVE THE LADY WITCH.
“There’s no fuckin’ way you’d help me save her,” snapped Faith. It came out almost sobbing, and she hated that. “Don’t you want her to suffer? Haven’t you said she’s your—your faithful servant or whatever?”
I INDEED WISH FOR HER TO SUFFER, Umbra agreed. BUT UNLIKE YOUR LADY WITCH, I CAN PROMISE YOU FULL HONESTY IF YOU ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS.
Faith swallowed, daring a glance in the witch’s direction. But the witch, still plainly exhausted from the previous night, still hadn’t moved from her magical nest. “Okay,” she said, loosening her grip on Umbra. It pulled itself up in her hands, and her stomach turned over: glowing violet eyes had appeared in the shadowed hood of the cloak. “You say you’ll answer all my questions honestly? What’s the witch gotten herself into?”
YOU DID NOT TAKE MY EARLIER DEAL, said Umbra.
“What—” And then Faith remembered: slamming the door, hard, in response to Umbra’s offer. “So you’re just not gonna tell me anything?”
NOT IN REGARDS TO WHAT I KNOW OF THE LADY WITCH, said Umbra.
Faith pressed her lips together, resisting the temptation to just start squeezing Umbra again. It wouldn’t do that much, after all. “Fine,” she said through gritted teeth. “If you aren’t gonna tell me anything about the lady witch, how the hell am I supposed to find anything out about her?”
AH, said Umbra, and its violet eyes glowed, bright and malevolent. AND NOW YOU ARE ASKING THE EXACT RIGHT QUESTIONS.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
HERE IS A QUESTION OF MY OWN, SLAYER, said Umbra. WHEN YOU WORKED ALONGSIDE THE OTHER CHOSEN ONE—THE GOLDEN-HAIRED SUMMER CHILD—WHERE DID YOU GO WHEN THERE WERE QUESTIONS THAT NEEDED ANSWERING?
“That’s a stupid fuckin’ question,” said Faith irritably. “I’m stuck in this castle. I can’t exactly go to the Sunnydale High library and look for answers—”
Dark tendrils wrapped themselves purposefully around her, and suddenly, Umbra was resting on Faith’s shoulders. She swayed, feeling raw, powerful magic course through her in a way she had never felt before.
I AM A LOOPHOLE, said Umbra. I AM THE MAGICS. LEAVE THE CASTLE WITH ME AROUND YOU AND THE LADY WITCH’S SPELL WILL NOT BIND YOU—YOU WILL STILL BE WITHIN MY DOMAIN.
Faith looked apprehensively down at the slumbering witch. Tentatively, she said, “What happens if she wakes up?”
SHE WILL BELIEVE YOU GONE, said Umbra. SHE WILL THINK YOU HAVE BETRAYED HER IN AN ATTEMPT TO PROTECT HER FROM HERSELF. WHATEVER AFFECTION SHE HARBORS FOR YOU—SHE WILL HARBOR IT NO LONGER.
Faith swallowed. She stepped over to the witch, extending a shaking hand, and lightly touched the witch’s cheek. The witch stirred with a sigh, and mumbled something Faith couldn’t make out—and she didn’t look scary or all-powerful. She just kind of looked like a person.
WHATEVER AFFECTION SHE HARBORS FOR YOU—
“Somnus,” said Faith.