The battle had been swift and fierce, and the small company was still intact. No major injuries had occurred to any of the group, only Legolas had a small gash in his arm that he probably would not have gotten had he not been concentrating on Buffy's welfare rather than his own. Buffy was quick to point this out as he was being stitched up by Elrohir.
"See, the thing is, that unlike you, I don't seem to need stitches anymore, so maybe next time you can watch your own back instead of hovering over mine," Buffy told him with serious concern.
Legolas winced at the pain of Elrohir's needle and the truth in Buffy's statement. He was well aware that Buffy was able to heal from deadly wounds, but that didn't stop him from being terrified of seeing her so wounded as she had been a few days ago, hovering near death. He didn't care to go through that again, so whenever they engaged in battle, he was ever watchful for her welfare. He was also worried that she might become unnecessarily reckless, taking risks and testing her newfound healing ability to outrageous limits.
He did not bother speaking any of these thoughts to her, however, for he did not wish for anymore altercations with her either. He had thought his observation had been subtle, but she had noticed, especially when he got a slice on the arm from an orc blade.
After the battle was over, the four of them made doubly sure all the orcs were dead. They were, save one, a badly injured Uruk-Hai, which they quickly subdued by binding him to a tree with Elven rope. Legolas glanced back at it, wincing again as the needle pierced his skin once more.
The creature was not moving much, having lost quite a lot of blood, and had exhausted itself struggling vainly against its bindings. They had kept him alive in order to find out why these large parties of orcs and Uruk-Hais were traveling and where they were going. This party had been carrying treasure, presumably out of Moria, on the backs of ponies as well as on their own. This bespoke of something very sinister, and the group felt bound and determined to know to whom this treasure was going.
The sacks were full to bursting with mithril, bejeweled weapons, uncut stones and coins. Gimli took charge of the spoils, and by the light of his torch, he proudly displayed the wealth of the Dwarves to a very incredulous Buffy.
"Impressive, is it not, Slayer?"
Buffy stared at Gimli in speechless astonishment.
"Wow," she said as she slowly shook her head from side to side, never taking her eyes from the display. The pure size of the sight before her was starting to cause her brain to short circuit. "I mean…just wow."
"Your eyes are about to pop out of your head, girl."
"I can't help staring at it…there- there's just so much of it!"
"It's the legacy of the Dwarven race, you know."
"I've never…it's…you don't see this kind of thing, you hear about it in legends, myths, really…"
Gimli looked at her warily. Her eyes were taking on a glazed look the more she stared. "Perhaps I ought to put this away…" He reached for the flap, intending to close it, but Buffy was too quick for him. She grabbed the corner of the cloth, and pulled it open further to gaze upon the spectacle.
"This is the…you know what that is?" She looked up at Gimli sharply, her maniacal tone making the Dwarf jump back. "That's…that's what you call booty. As in actual, real booty without the hyphen and the 'licious'…"
"Now you're just jabbering nonsense!"
Gimli closed the flap to the sack filled with treasure. Buffy let out a little whimper of disappointment. "No wanna say 'bye' to the pretty, shiny things," she whined.
"I think it's having an ill effect upon your wits, dear," Gimli said as he secured the ties of the satchel together. "I should bury this before it drives you mad."
"No," Buffy replied a little forlornly. "I'll be okay." She turned reluctantly and headed over to where the Elves were gathered near their captive.
"So, what has our friend got to say about all this?" she asked the twins.
"A few grunts, and some growls, but not much else. Typical Uruk-Hai responses," Elladan replied with a disgusted glance toward the dark creature.
"Let me see what I can do," Buffy offered cheerily, and began to walk to the tree where it was bound. She turned when she felt a staying hand on her shoulder. "Let me guess," she sighed wearily. "Legolas doesn't want me to go interrogate the prisoner because…I'm a girl and girls don't do that sort of thing here, or oh! Maybe he's feeling all protective and doesn't want me to risk getting hurt, even though I'm the only one here who is pretty much unkillable. Wake up and smell the orc, Leggo. I'm capable." She met the Elf's gaze defiantly, challenging him to speak or stand down.
Legolas dropped his hand, exasperated. He knew perfectly well she was capable even though he didn't like the idea of her approaching that unpredictable creature by herself. He only meant to offer her his aid, but it was clear she wanted none, especially his. He turned away from her silently and joined the gwenyn by the campfire. He ignored their stares, but kept Buffy within his sight, though he tried not to look like he was looking.
If that is what she prefers, let her alone, he told himself sullenly. 'Wake up and smell the orc', he repeated to himself derisively. He didn't need to smell the orc. All he had to do was stand downwind of her and the odor was enough to wake up an army of orcs. This thought stopped Legolas in his tracks, and he stifled a laugh. He was being petty! He was never petty. He thought it beneath him, but just now, it was a good release for his annoyed state of mind.
It wasn't fair of him, he knew. She hadn't had the opportunity to bathe during this leg of their journey, and he knew she was embarrassed by her un-cleanliness. But he was so irked by her constant hostile attitude, that he just couldn't help having a jibe at her expense.
Legolas was very glad that he had not thought of that jest during their exchange and spoken it aloud. As funny as it was to him, she would certainly not have found it so, and he would have succeeded in increasing the animosity between them. That was definitely something that did not need to occur.
In the meantime, Buffy, satisfied with her unmet challenge, headed towards the injured prisoner and muttered to herself, "It's time to bring out the Jack Bauer in Buffy." Buffy really related to that character very well. 24 was one of her favorite shows, when she had time to see it. It was kind of embarrassing actually, because she had this fantasy of meeting up with Jack and kicking butt alongside him and then making out. Silly dream really, since he was old enough to be her father, even her stepfather, plus he was fictional and all.
Focusing her attention on the task at hand, Buffy shook off all thoughts of Agent Bauer, and fixed an aloof expression on her face as she sauntered up to the bound Uruk-Hai. The creature had put up quite a struggle against his bindings after the twins had first tied him up, and he shouted obscenities at them for quite awhile before running out of steam. The guys told her that they had used a special rope made by the Elves which was deceptively strong for it was very light and silky. It also tended to make beings like orcs extremely uncomfortable, which was the reason, along with his mortal wound that the orc gave up his struggles so easily.
She stared at it for a few moments before speaking. It was bleeding slowly from an injury to the femoral artery, (assuming it had one) in its thigh, so Buffy guessed it had an hour or two to live before it bled out completely. She shifted her gaze from its face to the wound and back again, sizing up the stakes. Buffy sat on her haunches, looking the creature square in the face, although it did not look at her.
"Got a name?" she asked quietly. The orc did not reply, it only growled softly. "Well I can't just call you 'Grr Arrgh'."
It still did not answer her or look at her. "Fine," she said resolutely. "If you don't wanna be friends, I'll come up with my own name for you. How about…Ugly?" No response. "Smelly?" No response. "Sunshine?"
At that, the Uruk looked up and snarled. "There you go!" Buffy cheered. "I'll call you Sunshi-"
"Razgnasch!" the Uruk barked at her testily.
"Hey, what do you know, it talks," Buffy replied with a self-satisfied grin. "Raz, uh Razgash it is."
"What do you want, bitch?" it spat.
"Woah, language! Gonna have to wash that mouth out with soap. Then again, no thanks." Buffy tossed her hair over her shoulder insolently, and began her interrogation. "So Razgarn," she said absently, examining her dirty fingernails, "Where were you and your buddies headed to with all the treasure?"
The Uruk only growled in reply.
"See, now we could go on like that all night, me asking politely, you growling, it gets old. So how about we change things up a bit?" Buffy went for her axe, and brandishing it at the creature, she continued. "We could, I don't know, play a game of which part should I cut off next every time you don't answer me. How's that sound?"
"You could cut off every limb, I don't care! I'll never tell you!"
Buffy was truly baffled for a moment. The thing in front of her seemed awfully sincere with its last statement. And Buffy really didn't have the stomach to cut off body parts for the sake of torture. She thought for a few seconds. "Okay, let's get real, like Dr. Phil. Torture's not really my thing, although I will do it when necessary. How about I just point out the reality here? You're bleeding out. You're going to be dead in a few hours." She gestured to the bodies of slain orcs strewn around them. "Your buddies, they're all dead. What difference does it make to them to tell me what you were up to? What difference does it make to you?"
The Uruk, who had been eyeing her surreptitiously, looked away from her with cold indifference.
Buffy continued despite its apparent inattention. "I can tell you what the difference would be. Would you like to know?" She went on without waiting for a reply. "It's the difference between a really slow, agonizing death, such as the one you're experiencing now, or a nice quick death, courtesy of Mr. Axey here."
"So whaddaya say?"
This time the Uruk summoned all its remaining strength to roar at her savagely. Buffy took a step back out of surprise, but gathered her wits in time to manage not to look intimidated. Instead, she got a little angry.
"Augh, you are so stubborn! What does it take to get through to you?" If only I could speak its language- she thought, and then cut herself off, suddenly struck with a brilliant idea.
Buffy sat back down on her haunches in order to be on eye level with the Uruk. "You're fighter, right? I mean, look at you, you were built for it. You're wired to fight, and you probably don't know much else besides that. Well, I guess we have that in common, don't we?"
It turned to look at her in surprise, and Buffy took that as encouragement. "Yeah that's right. You and I, when we go down we want to go down fighting, not quietly bleeding to death or given a merciful send-off by an enemy. So here's the deal: you tell me where you were headed to with all that treasure, and I'll cut you loose. Then you and I, we're going to have a battle to the death. Preferably yours, since you're not going to last much longer anyway, but that's neither here nor there." Buffy stood, twirling the axe around her fingers, waiting for the Uruk's agreement, because she knew she had him.
"We were headed to the mountain fortress of Angmar, Carn Dûm where the son of the Great Goblin dwells, making an army of whoever's left," it said in a resigned voice.
"And this treasure was some kind of a tribute to this son of the Great- wait a minute, son of the Great Goblin? You guys procreate? Ew, bad, bad visual!" Buffy shuddered at the picture forming in her mind. "There are girl goblins? And you- ew, that's just gross!"
The Uruk uttered a foul laugh that encompassed everything Buffy was trying not to think about. "I was formed by a union between a goblin man and a human woman," it told her lasciviously and then laughed again at her horrified expression.
"Okay, enough!" Buffy held out her hand to silence him, but he just kept laughing. "Is that it then, bringing goodies to the new leader and then you're going to, what, march on some nice place and unleash hell on humans and Elves just because?"
It stopped laughing at that. "How did you know?"
"Lucky guess. Well, I guess a deal's a deal." She sighed, and raising her axe over her head, she brought it down to cut the creature's bonds.
Legolas, Elrohir and Elladan had observed the entire exchange, and were not happy with Buffy's decision to strike a deal with the orc. Before she cut the creature free, one of them shouted for her to wait, but it was too late. The bonds were cut and the Uruk-Hai was freed.
It staggered to its feet, weakened by its blood loss. Buffy backed up a few steps, making ample space between her and the hostile creature as it drew up to its full height. She pulled a weapon from the stiff hand of a dead orc, and tossed it to the Uruk. It caught the blade deftly and gave it a few practice swings.
The yellow eyes of the Uruk gleamed in satisfaction, and he stuck out his chest and threw his head back, letting out a terrible battle cry. It lunged for Buffy, and in one swift move, she sidestepped it and took its head off with her axe.
"Done and done."
Dawn Summers took a huge, overflowing bite of her chocolate pudding, making sure she got at least three Gummi Bears in one mouthful. Tara had suggested banana, or maybe some sprinkles, but Dawn couldn't help but enjoy the look of disgust on the witch's face when she dumped an entire bag of the gooey candy into the bowl.
Besides, weird food combos were her thing, her mark of distinction, really. There were only so many ways to let off some steam and express herself creatively and this was one of the best. She couldn't hang out with a bad crowd, start smoking cigarettes or skip school in order to proclaim her teenager-ness, so why not Gummi Bears and chocolate pudding?
Taking another bite, she sighed inwardly, thinking how hard it was not to put even a toe out of line these days. She had to be Miss Straitlaced and a model student as well, so that child services and the principal of her school would have no reason to contact Buffy. It was difficult enough, making up illnesses and "business" trips as excuses for her sister's absence at parent teacher meetings without adding to it with delinquent behavior.
It was normally her habit to act out when things got super-hard, and considering her life so far, no one could really blame her for it. Discovering her Keyness the year before and also losing her mother on top of it was traumatic enough, but her present situation could have driven her over the edge. Buffy had died to save her and the world, and then suddenly come back to life, only to disappear again into a parallel universe.
Dawn missed Buffy intensely, as much as she missed her mother and sometimes she wanted to explode with anger at the unfairness of it all. But instead, she simply spooned more pudding into her mouth and headed to the living room to see what was on TV. She'd done her homework so she was entitled to a little R and R.
As she rounded the corner from the kitchen, Dawn noticed something out of the ordinary. At first she couldn't put her finger on what was wrong, but then she heard the noise, and then saw the tiny light, shimmering in the middle of the air almost right in front of her face. It seemed to be making a high-pitched tinny sort of noise.
Dawn stared at the light, her spoon frozen in mid-air. It was like the reflection of a watch on the wall, but not on the wall and moving erratically like she would expect. It was just hanging there, and as she watched it, it started to grow bigger and glow brighter and the noise got louder and more piercing.
Dawn gripped her spoon tightly, transfixed by the glowing orb of light, her heart racing, but unable to move. Without warning, the light exploded, sending her and her pudding flying backwards into the wall. She screeched, blinded by the white light, and flung her arms over her eyes.
"Tara!" she cried out, still unable to bear the whiteness of the light or the piercing blare that seemed to come from the heart of it.
And just as suddenly as the light had flared, it disappeared, leaving a strange echo in Dawn's head. Slowly, she uncovered her eyes, blinking them to clear away the spots. She drew her arm across her face, wiping away the tears the light had induced, and looked around.
The first thing she noticed was the pudding and the Gummi Bears. It was all over the carpet, and pieces of the shattered bowl lay nearby. She was still holding the spoon. Then she looked to where the light had been, and directly underneath it, clutching a large round object, laid Willow. The spoon dropped to the floor.
Willow lay on the floor, completely unconscious. After Tara had responded to Dawn's distressed cries, they had stood frozen in shock and uncertainty. Eventually, Tara recovered, and tentatively approached her ex-girlfriend's prone body, checking to see if she was alive. To her vast relief, she was with her breathing and pulse was both strong and steady.
"What is that thing she's got?" Dawn asked shakily as she stood up to brush herself off. "It looks like a giant marble."
Tara looked at the object in Willow's arms, noticing it for the first time. "I have no idea," she muttered, and reached down to take it from her. At her touch, the thing let out a faint flash of light, and Tara immediately drew her hands back. She looked up at Dawn, who was staring at the orb with something like fear.
"Get that thing out of here," she said apprehensively. "Get rid of it or put it away or something, I don't want to look at it!"
"O-Okay," Tara said reassuringly. "But I'm not sure I should touch it." She looked around for something to wrap around the orb.
"Well, I'm not touching it!" Dawn exclaimed as she backed up nervously. Something about that orb frightened her to her very core, but of course she had no idea why. She just needed to get away from it.
Tara ran to the china hutch, and grabbed a tablecloth. She unfolded it and picked up the orb with the cloth masking her hands. Looking for a good place to stash it, her eyes fell on the weapons chest.
"Open it for me, would you?"
Dawn reached over from her position near the wall, and opened the chest by a corner, staying as far away from Tara as she could without falling over. As soon as Tara placed it inside, Dawn slammed the lid down and quickly flipped the latches closed, backing up fearfully as soon as she was done.
Tara looked at her in alarm. The orb made her nervous too, but only because she surmised it gave Willow the power to teleport all the way from Oregon to Sunnydale. Anything that could do that was something to be very careful around, but Dawn was acting like it was going to bite her.
However, Tara chose not to question her at the moment, because they needed to take care of Willow immediately. She approached the unconscious witch again, this time gingerly turning her over onto her back. When she saw Willow's face, she drew back with a loud, shocked gasp. Willow's grayish and drawn appearance horrified both her and Dawn. It looked like someone had tried to suck the spirit right out of her, so hollow and gray was her skin. If she hadn't checked Willow's vitals earlier, Tara would have thought she was dying.
"Help me get her to the couch, and then go get a blanket," Tara ordered. Dawn forgot her fear from before, and rushed to help. She got a blanket from the linen closet and a glass of water with a straw.
"What do we do now?" Dawn asked as she stared at Willow with concern.
"I think we should call Giles," Tara answered assuredly.
The next ten hours waiting for Giles and Xander to return were grueling. Willow's condition didn't change much in that she never fully woke up. They got her to take a little liquid, and helped her to the bathroom where she was almost always violently sick, but for the most part, she stayed on the couch and slept. Her color did not improve, and Tara and Dawn had nothing good to report to Xander who kept phoning every hour for updates.
At last, Giles and Xander came wearily through the front door, accompanied by a strange and fascinating personage. Xander had warned them that they were bringing a very angry Elf home with them. They had a lot of information to convey, but first the Elf wanted his property back.
The Elf stormed through the doorway, having endured a ten-hour ride speeding down the interstate with the people who had disrupted his solitude and peace of mind. Tara and Dawn stepped backward awkwardly as he seemed to search the room. His piercing, grey eyes fixed on Dawn's eyes sharply for a moment. He looked her up and down with a fierce curiosity before resuming his search and landing finally on Willow's exhausted and wilted form.
Giles and Xander came forward as well, gazing sadly at Willow, looking almost afraid to do so. Giles looked at Tara, and she screwed up her courage to speak in front of this enigmatic Elf.
"She's been sleeping nearly this whole time. I can't wake her. Not even when we get her to take a little water or take her to the b-bathroom. S-she's been really sick. I think we need to call a doctor," Tara's voice broke at the last of this, and Dawn put her arms around her comfortingly.
"No doctor will be able to cure what is wrong with her," Doran stated softly. Looking at her haggard face, Doran's heart had softened, and he took pity on the witch. What she had done to him was reprehensible, but what she had done to herself was even worse, and he resolved then and there to help her.
He looked up at Tara and Dawn who were still quite apprehensive of him. "The palantír. Where is it?"
Dawn shakily pointed to the weapons chest. "Please, take it. I don't like that thing."
The statement caused Doran to glance at her sharply again, which caused Dawn to get more jumpy, and she backed up a few steps before her fifteen-year old stubbornness kicked in and refused to be cowed.
"Why do you keep looking at me like that? It's giving me serious wiggins."
Xander, weary to the bone, went to Willow's side immediately and took her hand. "She's cold. Shouldn't we get her to her bed?"
"I will take her, if someone will show me the way," Doran volunteered.
"No way, buddy. You've been jonesing for a vendetta all the way from Oregon, and I'm not letting you touch her!" Xander cried accusingly.
"Xander, I think he just wants to help," Tara told him quietly. Even though the stranger intimidated her, she could tell by his aura that he could be trusted.
"Yes, that is precisely what I want. I promise you that I only wish to help your friend." With that, Doran gingerly picked Willow up in his arms and waited for someone to lead him to her room. Tara stepped forward and led him up the stairs.
Silence pervaded the room like a dark cloud. No one seemed to have anything to say, or perhaps they were all too drained from the days' events to talk. That didn't stop Xander from saying something irrelevant.
"Why is there pudding everywhere?"
Before anyone could answer, or smack him, Tara and Doran came down the stairs together, the Elf looking thoughtful and somewhat worried.
"Mr. Giles, I understand from Lorne that you run a shop for magical paraphernalia and sundries," Doran stated rather than asked. When Giles nodded, he asked for an assortment of healing herbs and potions, and Giles went to the telephone to ask Anya to gather the items and set them aside for him.
"Giles, what's wrong with Willow? What happened to her?" Dawn asked hesitatingly. She almost didn't want to know.
"Nothing good, I'm afraid, though that's painfully obvious," Giles told her with a sigh. He removed his glasses, and pressed his hand to his eyes.
Quietly, he began to tell them of Willow's involvement with the warlock named Rack. "She's been going to him for some time now, I'm sorry to say," he said with a worried glance toward Tara. The blonde witch's face had turned terribly white, and she sank into a nearby chair, weakened from shock and disappointment.
"I've heard of him," she said, her voice laced with despair. "I never dreamed she'd go to him in a million years." Tara's voice broke and she buried her face in her hands.
Dawn moved to comfort her, but she looked at Giles in puzzlement. "What did this guy, this Rack do to her?"
Giles hesitated before answering, but he figured Dawn was old enough to know the specifics. "He's a sort of black magic dealer. Much like a drug dealer, but instead of taking money, he takes something from his clients. Part of their essence, I suppose, and replaces it with his own twisted brand of magic. It gives them a charge or a sort of high, I think, but over time it becomes like a disease."
"We will need to thoroughly cleanse her of that refuse before she can be truly well again," Doran added solemnly. "But I assure you, I know many healing methods from my homeland, and I can make her well. She only needs to stop going to this magic dealer."
"Oh, she'll stop alright. She'll stop even if I have to kill her," Xander vowed vehemently.
"But what about her just appearing- 'poof' in the living room?" Dawn queried. "Isn't that what knocked her out?"
Giles stood up and began to pace. "To a certain degree, I should think so. Traveling through space like that is extremely tricky and certainly packs a wallop."
"What was that thing she was holding?" Tara had recovered her senses for the moment, and was sitting back in the chair.
Doran took this question, explaining what the palantír was, and why Willow had taken it. "She believes it could help her open a doorway into Arda, where your friend is. I do not know whether she is right or wrong, but I do know it's power is unstable, and trifling with it is extremely dangerous-"
"But if it could help bring Buffy back…" Dawn whispered. "I mean, I don't know why I don't like that…pal-thingy, but if it's the only way, can't we try something?"
Doran heard the desperation in the child's voice and he was instantly sorry that he had no good news to bring her. He was sure it should not be he who told her that it was unlikely that her sister was ever coming back, and he hoped that someone here that she trusted would tell her the truth.
He looked significantly over at Rupert Giles, who shifted uncomfortably before standing up and clearing his throat.
"Dawn, it- it may be that-"
"Giles, don't!" Xander interrupted. "We don't know anything for sure. Don't break her heart."
"She needs to hear the truth," Doran said firmly.
"How do you know what she needs?" Xander snapped. "She's just a kid, and if you knew everything that's happened to her the last couple of years, you'd want to keep quiet."
"Guys!" cried Dawn. "Standing right here, and I kinda already guessed that you've got something bad to tell me, so you might as well go ahead. I can take it." Dawn stood bravely, crossing her arms and taking in a deep breath, wanting to appear stronger and more grown up than anyone thought she was.
Giles nodded, feeling that the truth or what they had surmised of it needed to be said. "We don't know all the facts, but we have here an authority on the realm that Buffy was taken to," he said, gesturing to Doran. "He believes that a very powerful entity, a benign deity really, offered Buffy a place in that world in order to provide relief for her suffering. As far as he knows, that is the only way to gain entry into that place."
"So, what you're saying is, Buffy got this offer- to leave this world and live in that one…and she took it?" Dawn's voice broke a little bit, and she tried to keep up her brave façade. She felt Tara reach for her hand, and she took it gratefully.
"You must realize Dawn, that the trauma of her death and subsequent resurrection, not to mention being torn from heaven had put her in a very deep despair," Giles gently reminded her. "Whatever she was feeling at that moment, it must have been completely overwhelming, and the offer of a haven from those emotions must have been a welcome relief. She obviously didn't think it through."
"Okay," She turned tearful eyes to Doran. "Are you sure about this? I mean, we don't really know what happened, so you could be wrong."
Doran nodded slowly, carefully measuring his words. "I only know this: I was in great despair when I was offered a place in this world, and it was given to me by one of the Valar. I suppose you would refer to them as gods of some sort. Her compassion reaches beyond the confines of her world and this one, and she is the only way I know to travel between them.
"If your Willow attempted to open a door, I don't know that she would be successful. The palantír is a powerful but unstable tool, and I don't know exactly how it would work. She seems to think it is the key to your sister's return, but you have to consider-"
"The Key!" Dawn gasped aloud, gripping Tara's hand a little too tightly. "I'm the Key! Giles, what if- what if Willow could somehow use me-"
"No way, Dawnie!"
Tara, Giles and Xander all spoke their vehement denials at the same moment. No one wanted to see Dawn sliced open in a vain attempt to bring Buffy back. Only Doran remained silent.
"Guys, it's not like she has to bleed me dry. Maybe-maybe only a little of my blood, Buffy's blood could help-"
"Dawn, what you're saying makes sense, in a way, but let's not be rash," Giles admonished. "We don't know enough about the Key to make use of it, or even if in fact you still are the Key."
"Let's do some research, then. What about the Council? They knew stuff about Glory, they might know about me."
"Woah, Dawn. The Council? Think about what they'd do to you if they knew," Xander warned her. "It's like the FBI and extraterrestrials. They'd probably stick you in a cage and perform experiments or something." He looked around at the incredulous faces about him. "I saw Alien Autopsy. I know what I'm talking about."
"Will someone tell me what this Key business is all about?" Doran asked, completely lost.
"Uhh…well…?" Xander replied uncertainly. "Anyone wanna take this one?"
Giles stepped forward, ready as always to be exposition man. "Dawn…is an ancient, well, her original form was not that of a human girl, in fact she was um, a mystical sort of energy with the power to tear down the walls between all existing dimensions. No one knows how or why the Key was created, but an ancient order of monks protected it for centuries."
"I see, and how did Dawn become…what she is now?"
"Well, the monks grew fearful of a hell god named Glorificus. She had been banished from her dimension, and she sought the Key in order to return. The monks transformed the Key into a human girl, and sent her to the Slayer, Buffy, that is, in the form of a sister, complete with altered memories for all. Astounding, don't you think?" Giles replied with some whimsy. It still sounded rather ridiculous even now after all that had happened.
"Yes, and mind-boggling. And did this have something to do with why your Buffy died?" Doran asked.
"She died because a bloodletting ritual had been started by one of Glory's minions, and the walls between dimensions were beginning to break down," Giles replied.
"Buffy and I realized that the only thing that would stop it, was if my blood stopped flowing," Dawn broke in. "But she wouldn't let me jump. I saw her face change almost the second she knew that it would close if she died. She looked so peaceful. She knew our blood was the same. The monks made me out of her, and if she died by jumping into the portal, then everything would return to normal. And it did," Dawn's control of her tears was beginning to break down. "Except there was no more Buffy."
"Ah," Doran could not think of much else to say. The ultimate sacrifice had been made, and Buffy had been given the ultimate reward. And these foolish people had taken it away from her. He was more than certain now that his theory about Nienna was correct.
"But can you be certain that another bloodletting would not yield the same result?" Doran asked.
"It had to be performed at a certain time and place," Giles said. "If Dawn were to get a paper cut, it wouldn't cause reality to fall apart."
"What if…" Tara spoke up so suddenly and unexpectedly that everyone turned towards her in shock. "What if we did a spell in the exact place and time that Buffy left. Would that work?"
Giles contemplated her suggestion for a few moments. "We'd have to be exactly sure about where and when. And I think Willow is our first priority in any case. She needs to get better, for her own sake but especially if we're going to attempt to retrieve Buffy. I think Buffy is safe enough where she is, so we needn't worry about her at the moment. What's most important is that Willow recovers."
"I agree," Tara said. "But it wouldn't hurt to do a little research and start planning something. I'll help Doran with Willow and do some looking through the books on the side. If you want my help, that is." She looked at the Elf questioningly.
"Of course. After all, you know her much better than I do, and as soon as I have what I need, we can start helping her to get better." He turned to Giles with a look of foreboding. "I cannot help but caution you against attempting to retrieve her. Research if you must, but there is no information here about the palantír. You'll have very little to go on."
Giles nodded curtly. "I understand. But I agree with Dawn. We need to try something. And now that Buffy has been in your world for some time, she may regret her decision. She may even be searching for a way to return."
"That is possible," said Doran. "But if you want to open a door into Arda, you need to know exactly where in Arda Buffy is."
The ponies laden with sacks of treasure had slowed them down somewhat, but at last the small company arrived at the Ford of Bruinen. The rushing waters slowed and made a barely-discernable path to the gorge on the other side, and Buffy could see it would take some time to cross it with all the animals.
She gripped the reins of the pony she had been leading, barely believing they had nearly reached their destination. She was dying for a glimpse of it, but had been told that it was hidden deep in the valley between two cliff faces, at which point she had made a silly remark that it should be called the Hidden Valley Ranch, but of course no one understood that.
When they had finally crossed, making several trips for both the animals, and for Gimli, whose footing on the slippery rocks was unsure, Elrohir sighed with happiness. Buffy just sighed with discomfort, because her jeans were absolutely soaked, and she hated wearing wet jeans. But even she could not escape the joy with which the twins expressed themselves at being home again.
"At last," cried Elladan. "We have reached the Edge of the Wild, and shall be home soon, drinking wine in the Hall of Fire."
"Sounds toasty," quipped Buffy. And really nice, she thought to herself. She had been repeating three things in her mind as they had neared Rivendell. Baths, real food and beds, oh my! Her longing for these things increased with every step, and she didn't even have the energy to be mad at Legolas. Buffy was so looking forward to taking a long, leisurely hot bath, and chowing down on something other than Lembas, then curling up on a soft mattress to sleep, that her brain didn't have room to contemplate anything else. Once she achieved those goals, she'd worry about what came next.
However, in some small corner of her brain, something did nag at her. She didn't know how long she would keep punishing Legolas or if it was worth it anymore, as it was giving her pain to keep doing so. Buffy needed him, but she couldn't see much past her anger at this point, so once they were safely aground in Rivendell, she'd give it some time.
The four travelers plus the horses and other beasts of burden trekked on through the canyon. As they neared the bridge, Buffy could hear waterfalls on either side of her, and the sound lifted her heart.
At last, they stopped, just across from the most magnificent house Buffy had ever seen. Lush trees with leaves just beginning to turn red and gold surrounded a palace with white columns and levels upon levels of balconies. She could hear voices raised in song and tears stung at her eyes, but she wasn't sure if it was the light breeze or the sight before her that caused them.
"Behold, Buffy," said Elrohir. "The Last Homely House East of the Sea."
Rivendell, at long last.