Part V

The form of Beth MacLay had changed since Nolan had seen her last: still nonhuman, but no longer the thing he had called to him by the offering of his blood. More squarely built, but approximately the same size, which would tend to rule out what Travers had called the "heavy armor" version, and the shape of the mouth too was different. What Nolan had seen had seemed to combine feline and reptilian characteristics (and from Travers he had gotten an impression, regarding the heavy armor form, of something comparable to the physiognomy ascribed by paleontologists to the long-vanished ankylosaurus); the creature before him now might have been a massive wolf, sheathed in something like broad quills, powerful rear legs for propulsion and lighter, more supple forelegs terminating in slender, clawed toes that looked very much as if they might be capable of holding and using a weapon. The "line infantry" model, still unconscious but stirred by regular tremors that pulsed through the thick-muscled frame.

Travers had prepared him with the prescribed fluids and incantations, and Nolan had augmented that with holy water and inward recitation of the 23rd Psalm. Now he seated himself in the folding chair next to the bed and laid his hands on the slumbering body stretched out in captivity, and reached out from within himself toward the young woman submerged inside it.

Are you there, child? I can feel you, yes, but are you aware of me? You're confused, and hurt, and unsure of your way. I'm here to tell you you're not alone.

Perhaps with study and instruction he might have been able to accurately measure and analyze the tangled emotions roiling through the substrata of that blurred consciousness, but he knew of no one who could have provided such instruction. Still, his own past experiences gave him a benchmark by which he could assess the fleeting perceptions, and his assessment told him that his attempts at communication were, at worst, causing no harm.

Rest, child, and be calm. Your recovery has been arranged, and Quentin Travers would seem to be as capable as he is confident. Your humanity is reasserting itself, I could feel the echoes of that from the other room, and I'll wait here while you travel most of the way remaining.

What shall we talk about, while I open to you that portion of my essence that you can use for self-healing? I'm in an unaccustomed position, you see: while you can sense only the basic outlines of my feelings, rather than the thoughts behind them, even that is more than I've had till now. Limited and truncated as it is, this is the closest I've ever come to being able to communicate below the level of speech. And, in this area at least, I've been something like lonely.

You might compare it to looking through lit windows, from outside in the dark. I can see in, but the people inside can see only their own reflections. It allows me insights and advantages, of which I have tried to make use in a worthy manner, but in some ways it's more lonely than if I had no such view; I can see within their hearts, but mine is never known. Here, with you, enough of the light has been masked that you can catch glimpses of me, as if through curtains — "through a glass darkly" — while remaining more hidden from me than you would be without your affliction. A small irony: your vision of me is increased by the same state that dims my sight of you, yet just the awareness of being seen reduces the isolation I have felt.

I welcomed it at first. It was confusing, of course, and more than a little frightening, to find myself peering past the walls that hide the soul; but it grew gradually enough that I could become acclimated to it, could discipline myself. As a shepherd of Christ's flock, I found it a precious gift to be able to see and understand the pain that people bore, and lead them to speak of it and come to terms with these things. For anyone else it would be an unconscionable intrusion, but for one in my office — confessor, counselor, healer — it made me better able to carry out the role I was placed on this earth to fulfill.

Your uncle is a perfect example. He was being consumed by guilt, yet much of what was killing him was undeserved, or at least misplaced. He is guilty of much — as are we all — but not of the thing for which he has most deeply condemned himself. He never consciously knew of his daughter's choice of sexual orientation, but part of him was uneasily aware of odd currents moving between her and Willow Rosenberg; felt it, recoiled from it, allowed it to influence his decision to surrender and leave her to her life, and blamed himself ever after for abandoning her in response to knowledge he never knew he possessed.

He's a good man. His guilt is real, but his sense of guilt is disproportionate and incongruent with the facts. He was justified in his concern for his daughter's soul, but has never admitted to himself just what caused that concern. If he had let himself see the truth — that her attempts to adapt to an unwelcome existence had moved her to accept a female lover — he would have disagreed and disapproved but continued loving her nonetheless. It was his deliberate blindness, and the deep-buried awareness of what it led him to do, that forced him into such destructive self-blame. Perhaps he can come to terms with it now. I've done what I could, and I'll continue to pray for him.

Some people I can't help. (I can help you, child. Have faith; I'll not leave you until you come home to yourself.) Some have no sense of guilt, no conscience that can be stirred; some are so positive of themselves that I can find no means of awakening in them any consideration of need for repentance; some move in circles where I have no pretext to reach; and some, a very few, are closed to me.

I can only think of three. You knew one of them. Undoubtedly there are more, but my psychic awakening is still fairly recent, so it's little surprise that the number should be so small. The number of people, I should have said; demons — full demons, those who have no souls for me to discern — are completely opaque to me.

The pale woman was like that, the one who came to me now and then to have silver bullets blessed, and who once — a week or so before I first began to sense the thoughts of others — intervened when I was accosted near one of the parks by a quick-moving figure, driving him (or it) away with shots from a silenced pistol and leaving me with a quivering heartbeat and an odd stain on my coat that seeped through my sleeve and made my arm itch for days. I saw her twice after my new sight began to manifest itself, and she was totally invisible to it. I would have suspected her of being one of the undead — by then I had learned that this particular non-reflectivity was characteristic of them — but she still wore the crucifix around her neck and still sought my blessing on silver bullets, and there was an air of sorrow about her that didn't match the carefree viciousness exhibited by vampires. I wondered, and might someday have asked her, but I haven't seen her since some weeks before the near-apocalyptic Graduation.

She was the first. The second was a young woman I met at the hospital while I was visiting a parishioner there; she wore a pair of slacks, and a loose top of the same color, that weren't actually scrubs but gave that impression, and a generic plastic name-badge that read SANDY. I would have accepted her as a nurse's aide or volunteer and thought no more of it, but her mind had the smooth, impenetrable power of a contained tornado. She smiled at me, unaware of my awareness, and observed casually that she had been surprised to learn that holy water was chemically just water with a touch of salt, no different from the saline solution in an IV bag. If it was a hint, it was a subtle one, but I've been blessing IV bags at Sunnydale General ever since, and with that small bit of added protection against the things that dwell in the vicinity, long-term patient outcomes have trended upward now for more than two years.

I watched for her after that, but the next time I saw her … the psychic force was gone, but so was everything else: no hint of a soul, and her smile held an amused, dreadful secret knowledge.

The third was your cousin, Tara. But only at the beginning, and it wasn't then that my heart opened to her.

Her mind … where the pale woman cast no thought-shadow whatsoever, and Sandy was hidden behind the psychic equivalent of a force-field, Tara was surrounded skin-close by a barrier of something like turbulence, a latticework of seething currents that forbade access. Something about it made me distrust her, though her demeanor and behavior were subdued and shy. When I saw her weeks later in the company of the Slayer's supporters, I gave serious consideration to making an anonymous call to warn them about her.

Was that the effect of the demon her father labored so heroically to keep suppressed? It would seem plausible, but I don't believe it; partly because of the contrast between what I felt then from her and what I feel now from you, and partly from what came next. And even that was framed and accentuated by yet another contrast.

Despite what I've allowed Travers to believe, I don't actually encounter these people on a steady basis. They have their lives and pursuits, and I have mine, and there are occasional points of intersection but little cause for consistent contact. I went for something like six months without again crossing paths with your cousin; and then I returned to the rectory one day from a nursing home visit, and was told I had a caller who had elected to wait out on the grounds.

I felt her long before I saw her. She was in the grotto in the garden, immersing herself in the beauty and peace of her surroundings in a way that had nothing passive about it: it was surrender and embrace and celebration all together, with a quality of knowing and acceptance that I had never seen in another mind. I hastened my step, eager to greet this ecstatic soul, and when I saw her, the recognition of her identity was almost as great a surprise as the recognition of what lay beneath that surging tide of joy.

Regret. Sadness. I came within sight of her, and the seething wall of violent exclusion that had surrounded her was gone as if it had never existed, and for perhaps two seconds before she knew I was there, I could see her face and her heart as she gazed at the statue of the Blessed Virgin and the smaller figure that represented the adoring Ste Bernadette. She … resonated, in concert with the holiness depicted there, and I felt her understanding that this could have been her own faith if she had met it earlier, linked to a sighing determination not to relinquish the allegiances she had already given.

She was wrong. She had pledged herself to animism, to paganism, and it was wrong. But her wrongness took the form of an awareness and love of all creation that the most devout servants of our Lord Christ struggle to achieve. She was human — more to the point, a twenty-something human in the twenty-first century, meaning that the flaws in every human nature had been warped and magnified by the effects of an increasingly fallen culture — but with it all, she was made of the stuff of saints.

I loved her from that instant, and continued to love her until she died.

In the next moment she saw me, and blushed, and stuttered ever so slightly as she explained that she worked with Mr Giles, and had come here on his behalf to pick up the latest installment in a continuing supply of blessed crucifixes and holy water. That was something that he usually saw to himself, or sent Willow to do, but —

The second contrast I mentioned? This was it.

A fanciful mind might make a comparison to dolphins and sharks: living in the same element, similar enough in form to be mistaken for one another at a hasty glance, yet of natures utterly alien to each other. This was what I felt when I realized the link between Willow Rosenberg and your cousin Tara: an exaggerated but not inaccurate impression that had somewhat more truth to it than I knew at the time. Even the circumstances of my first sight of her inner self were like a deliberate inversion of what had happened with the same first view of Willow Rosenberg.

Who could have failed to be impressed and delighted by that girl? The quick, eager intellect, the courage, the humor, the pulsing life and optimism that seemed to come out of her very pores? At the time my unexpected gift began to appear, I had been coming into contact with her infrequently but regularly for almost three years; I knew her to be among the small band of crusaders who had gathered around the Slayer, and regarded her with affection and admiration.

Meeting her again, after my mind's eye had been fully opened, was like being slapped in the face with a wet towel; no, by one that had been dipped in slime. The girl was a white-hot cauldron of rage. Her courage, her love for her friends, her commitment to their cause, these were real, but underlying them was a quicksand swamp of envy and fury and resentment, no less potent for being unfocused. The face, voice, speech patterns were the same, nervous and humorous and self-effacing, and they were a paper skin over a furnace-blast of emotions and sense-impressions and even snatches of memory.

The most powerful was, I think, the most recent: her weeping in a bathroom stall, unable to contain the pain she had been unable to express to the young man who had caused it. And that, also, was the seed of the other thing that had begun to build in her: the black, molten determination to never again be so vulnerable that she could be hurt in such a way … and, beneath even that, the first whisper that someday she would show them all, make them PAY —!

And it got worse.

Even from the beginning, the force of her psyche was remarkable; after that first exposure, I could track her easily, could tune in on her at a distance, sometimes had to make a conscious effort to tune her out. I felt her grudge against the second Slayer grow and harden, and then without warning metastasize into active, corrosive hatred. I got flashes of her standing over the other girl's hospital bed, fists clenched into frozen chunks of murder, yearning to strike but held back by something she herself didn't understand. I watched that passion diverted into purpose: scouring computer files, altering records, channeling funds, counterfeiting official state directives, choosing and applying a name, and then meticulously concealing all her handiwork. I saw and felt her devote all her secret dedication both to protecting the issue of the man she loved above all, and to robbing him of it, forever denying him even the knowledge of its being.

I saw when she moved from application of mystical principles for practical effect, to actually (and casually) invoking the name of a pagan goddess to achieve her ends. I saw when, ignited by betrayal and jealousy, she began to work a spell that called on Satan himself. I saw when the search for power to bolster her own self-image became a greed for power alone.

Dolphin and shark, swimming in the same seas and yet enemies down to the last cell of their blood. And these two didn't know one another for what they were; or, perhaps, the shark didn't yet know herself for what she was …

Sad. I can feel your humanity becoming more sure, opening you further to me and closing me further to you. So, while I still have the last remnants of what I can feel to be a conversation — or even a confession, for these are matters I certainly can't afford to confess to anyone else — I'll have to hurry to conclusion.

Your cousin and Willow Rosenberg were opposites in all the things that mattered. Tara's paganism, however mistaken, sprang from good soil and put down healthy roots, and I wasn't deceiving your uncle when I said I believe God will forgive her error and transfigure the motive behind it. (She wanted communion with the ultimate reality of all creation. Now she has it.) Willow's sprang from an arrogant heedlessness — she was Jewish, daughter of the people to whom God first revealed His nature; how could she have blithely shrugged away the millennia of her ancestors' testimony? — and progressed to explicit diabolism. One sought to honor the earth that had nurtured her, though her path was wayward and looped by misunderstanding; the other sought to exploit, to dominate, and ultimately to annihilate.

This is a rather sour joke: when Quentin Travers asked my advice about Willow Rosenberg, I framed it in a way calculated to nudge him toward precisely the opposite course (just as I forestalled your uncle's refusal of Travers' magics by demanding that Travers explain himself) … and yet, what I told him was a true summation of how I felt. A part of myself will never forgive that I couldn't be telepathically present at Tara's death, and yet couldn't avoid the psychic fallout from her lover's resultant rampage. Willow Rosenberg was blasting out death and hate and fury with a force I couldn't block or evade. I was there for all of it, an unwilling prisoner, so overwhelmed by the power she was pouring out that the paramedics had to restrain and sedate me. They thought I was hallucinating, having a seizure. By the time it was all over, and my bludgeoned consciousness could retreat into sleep to recover, I had learned much that I never would have wanted to know.

Why, you might wonder, did I carefully redirect Travers' tentative consideration of her execution, if I believe as I do? Several reasons, actually. First, because Tara loved her, and believed in her, and I'll honor that love by giving its object her best chance to find a cure for the blackness inside herself. Second, because letting the Watchers try to kill her would be dangerous beyond description; for all the occasional paramilitary trappings, it's essentially an administrative institution, and when academics try to carry out wet work, the results can be catastrophic. Third, because I could be wrong; my abilities let me see farther and deeper than other men, but I'm still just a man, and — though my love for Tara was purely of the spirit — I can't be sure that even spiritual jealousy might not color my understanding and lead me to act from the wrong reasons.

And fourth, because of all that, if it has to be done, I'll want to see to it myself.

I was locked to her mind for an eternity. For all her power — maybe because of all her power — she couldn't feel my thoughts at all, but I couldn't get away from hers. I learned many, many things in those awful hours. I learned of something called a penance malediction. I learned of something called a mist dagger. I learned of persons who can work magics in a way I would never be able to master, and others who can extend and augment powers they themselves don't possess, and others yet who can sift and layer illusions as skillfully and delicately as a pastry chef. I learned of someone with a grudge, who can — with the right approach and the proper control — be manipulated into crafting a hex with aspects she doesn't even realize, and then believing she cast it herself.

It will require time. It will require patience and caution. It will mean putting myself in debt to people I would rather never knew of me.

But it can be done, and I'll do it. Willow Rosenberg is in England right now: Westbury, Travers thinks, and he should know. So long as she's there, she's monitored and under treatment; we're safe. It's when she leaves that the danger will return, and it's then that I'll be able to reach her.

She can't feel me, that's my advantage. For some reason, my gift operates on a wavelength she doesn't receive. I can stalk her, pick my moment, plant the trap for which I already have mental blueprints drawn up, and then depart without her having been aware of my presence. Maybe I'm not the only one who could do it — I've been given a glimpse of just how much is possible in this world of shadows — but I know I'm one who can.

I won't kill her, or order her execution; I might be wrong. But I can weave something next to her beating heart, to be activated by a trigger from her own mind. She will choose. She will judge herself. If she ever again turns to that bottomless fount of life-devouring hate, a part of her will know, and mist will become steel.

Your cousin was the brightest soul I have ever known, and I mourn her in a way her own father can never equal. Willow Rosenberg took the memory of that soul and perverted it, used it to drive an engine that would have brought an end to human existence. For love of Tara, she tried to destroy the world; for love of Tara, I will do what I must to preserve that world, while giving a chance — the best chance I can — to the woman she loved.

Sleep, child. Dream, and heal, and may some part of you remember the things I tried to share with you. Live your life, and cherish such children as God grants you, and — if you can — offer a prayer someday for me: that I may, when I face the judgment that awaits us all, be given the mercy I need, rather than the justice I deserve.