An Eternal War
Chapter Eighteen
Written by IceWing

Disclaimer: See Chapter One
As she opened the door from the garage, Faith felt more exhausted than she could ever remember. Training with a spirit, one who was a hell of a lot more proficient as a Slayer than she or Buffy had even dreamed of being, wasn't easy on one's body, or ego for that matter. The young Slayer's mouth twitched as she remembered somebody telling her that Death was Nature's way of telling you to slow down. Apparently, it wasn't a permanent reminder though…

Before she had even taken a couple of steps into the kitchen, her nose detected one of the most delectable scents she had ever encountered. Dropping her gear, she softly kicked the door closed, slid her shoes off and headed towards the kitchen. She'd have to remember to toss all the contents into the wash, as well as remember to grab a fresh change of clothes and towel to clean up with after tomorrow's workout. But right now, she wanted to find out what was producing such a delightful aroma.

Padding silently, she made her way to the kitchen, where she found Xander moving quickly around the kitchen. He had apparently made himself quite at home in the kitchen of the house they had moved into. Which was good, because although the kitchen had been equipped at great expense by the Mayor, Faith's cooking skills weren't much past the mac and cheese phase. As she watched, he skillfully flipped the contents of a cast-iron wok up and over, before gravity took hold of them and they fell back to the bottom of the pan. The smell of garlic, one of Faith's favorites, filled the air, mixing with chicken and an assortment of vegetables.

Faith was amazed by his actions. The gawky teen he had been when she had first come to town was gone, replaced with the young man who held himself with confidence and radiated an inner strength. She once again counted herself lucky, that things had gone the way they had, and she had found him. Saved him as he had saved her. Her thoughts turned slightly towards the present, towards the future, as she wondered just what was evolving between them. She knew that he had found his way into her heart, as she had found her way into his. But neither knew quite what to do next. Both had been wounded, literally in Xander's case, in the past by people they cared deeply for. Neither wanted to risk the bond between them, but both of them knew that it was just a matter of time before they had to face the music, discuss their feelings, and take they next step in their relationship. Faith sighed slightly.

Hearing her sigh, Xander turned from the chopping block where he was preparing a large salad and saw Faith standing in the doorway and grinned. "Couldn't have given me a couple of more minutes? Dinner's almost ready."

The dark haired beauty simply smiled and responded that she just couldn't standing being away from him a moment longer. Both the young adults laughed, but Faith knew that her words had been more true than she had let on. "Anything I can help with?" she asked.

Xander responded that she could get out something for them to drink. Faith agreed and padded over to the massive fridge. Opening the brushed steel door, she tried to figure out what would go with garlic chicken stir-fry. The fridge was fully stocked with a variety of food and drink. One additional feature they had discovered was that the Mayor had contracted a service which would come by every couple of days and restock the fridge and pantries throughout the house. Faith was thrilled by the prospect of good, fresh food everyday, while Xander had berated the manager of the service until two boxes of Twinkies showed up with each visit. Her eyes moved over each beverage in the fridge, trying to decide what would match well with the dinner Xander had prepared. Not pop, somehow Coke or Pepsi products just didn't seem adequate tonight. Same with milk. Iced Tea maybe? Then her eyes fell on the 3 bottles of organic white wine, from the Frey Vineyards. Perfect.

She pulled the topmost bottle from the wine rack in the fridge, and moved across the kitchen, a soft smile crossing her face as she brushed her hips against Xander's. Rummaging through a couple of the drawers, she located a corkscrew and opened the bottle. From one of the cabinets, Faith retrieved a pair of crystal wine goblets. Glasses in one hand, the wine in the other, she moved to the small table where they had agreed to eat at. The main dining room was just to impersonal for either of their tastes. Carefully, she poured the wine, careful not to spill any. Before she was done, Xander was approaching the table, carrying salad for both of them. As soon as he set them down, he deftly moved behind Faith's chair, pulling it out for her then gently pushing it in.

That small action amazed Faith. Never before had anybody done something like for her. Well, nobody except for Xander. He was always holding doors for her, always taking that extra little action to make things easier for her. Chivalry isn't quite dead, she mused.

"Hang on, I'll be right back with the rest of the food."

Faith simply nodded, not sure what else to say at that moment. As Xander made his way back to the kitchen, Faith sighed, overwhelmed by everything. Never before had anyone taken the time to make dinner for her, much less something as special as what Xander would be bringing back to the table in a couple of moments. And for no other reason than to make her happy. It still felt a bit surreal to her, know that somebody cared for her, about her. It made her feel good about herself for the first time in a long while.

Xander had the steaming plates balanced carefully as he walked back into the room. Quickly, he set them down on the table and moved to his own chair. "Well, dig in!" For a moment, the two of them began to eat in silence, before Xander asked Faith how her training went with Buffy and Katrina.

Around mouthfuls of salad, Faith told him how the morning had started, mentioning Buffy's hostility but trying to make it seem more toned down and innocent than it was. After the training had actually started, Katrina had set up a training regimen, which would be followed for a couple of weeks at least. The mornings would be spent with Buffy and Faith working together, sparring with each other and, at least Katrina hoped, teaching and critiquing one another. The afternoons would be a bit different, with one of them working out one-on-one with Katrina all afternoon, while the other worked out or studied up on a variety of topics that Katrina felt would round out their education. "Would you believe that she actually wants us to take up some kind of art or music lessons? Says that it will help us reveal our inner selves to our own eyes."

"Any idea what you might want to take up?" asked Xander as he served her a portion of the garlic chicken.

"Well, I'm kind of bouncing back and forth between some kind of carving, I mean, I can already carve a wicked stake…"

Xander grinned. "Faith, somehow I don't think carving stakes is what she has in mind for you to be able to express yourself. What about something musical, or dance maybe?"

A slow smile rolled across the dark hair Slayer's face as she retorted that the kind of dancing she would probably end up doing would involve high heels and poles… Xander smirked wickedly and told her he would be more than happy to watch her perform. His face turned a bit red when Faith leaned over and told him that if he played his cards right that she might be willing to arrange a special performance for his viewing pleasure. The tension in the air was palatable as both of them took a moment to compose themselves, aware that the feelings they had for each other were bubbling just under the surface….

Faith regained her composure first, a massive feat unto its self as a large part of her didn't want to back down from the situation before her, but she knew that now wasn't the time. But that didn't completely silence the voice at the back of her head, telling her to grab him, plant a lip lock on him and tell him exactly how she felt about him. Leaning back, she took her first bite of the chicken. The taste was unbelievable. It was like nothing she had ever had before… "Oh my god Xander!"

"What's wrong?" he asked worriedly. "Its no good, is it?"

"This is the best food I've ever tasted. Where did you learn to cook like this?"

"Well, when you're as much of a TV junkie as me, you clock a lot of hours watching food network. Couple that with the lack of anything resembling parenting from my folks and I pretty much had to fend for myself. After six months of raman and mac and cheese, I decided if I was going to have to feed myself, I might as well feed myself well, or at least tasty. I did pretty well with stuff from the day old stores, and now that I have good ingredients to work with.. Well, what you see is what you get."

"Does anybody else know that you can cook like this? I mean, you're like a gourmet chef or something!"

"Nah, it was something I picked up in high school. Not too many people ever wanted to visit Casa Harris, not that I can blame them. So, believe it or not, you're the first person I have made dinner for."

"Then I guess I'm the first to offer my compliments to the chef," she said. A few seconds passed in silence before she continued. "So," said Faith between bites. "How did your training go today?"

"Well, it started out a bit weird to say the least. As soon as I walked in the door, Sonja tried to put some kind of whammy on me. Said she was impressed that I managed to resist her, not many guys, or gals she said, managed to do that."

Faith felt a twinge of something, jealousy perhaps as she asked Xander what he meant by resisted her. He somewhat embarrassingly responded, telling how Sonja came out like some kind of sultry vixen and tried to seduce him, not to mention all the innuendo during their training. Faith recalled how hot Sonja was and hoped that Xander wouldn't leave her for the red-headed bombshell.

From across the table, Xander realized from her expression that Faith was upset about this, although she was trying hard not to let it show. He rose from his chair and moved around the table, taking Faith's hands in his. Looking her in the eyes, he began to speak. "Faith, I swear to you, nothing is going to come between us. No matter what anybody does, no matter what evil comes after us, I am going to be here for you."

Faith smiled as she squeezed his hand. "I know Xan. It's just that nobody as special as you has ever been in my life before, and I don't want to lose you."

"Wild horses couldn't drag me away from you, Faith." His fingers brushed across her cheek, softly caressing her face.

In response, Faith leaned into his touch, which was like electricity to her. And in the process, placed her elbow in the remains of her chicken. Both of them looked down at Faith's garlic sauce covered arm and began to laugh. "Guess the dishes need done," said Faith as she moved to take the dishes. "I mean, only fair that if you do the cooking then I'll handle the dishes." Gathering them in her arms, Faith began to shuttle them to the kitchen.

Xander watched as she balanced an entire dinner's worth of crockery and cutlery on her arms and carried them into the kitchen. Trailing behind her, Xander couldn't help but realize just how much better his life had become. And as he looked at the dark haired beauty who he was living with, he realized that for the first time in his life, Xander felt like he was home.

When Sonja walked into the room, Xander let out a sigh of relief. Gone was the skin tight outfit from the day before, replaced instead by a simple pair of sweats. Her long red hair was pulled neatly into a ponytail which nearly reached to the small of her back. Soft black leather soleless boots which matched the color of her sweats and completed the outfit. Her long strides took her to the center of the room, where she sat on the woven tatami which was currently laid over the padded mats. With a gesture, she beckoned Xander to sit opposite her.

Settling to the floor, the young man looked distinctively uncomfortable. Several long minutes passed, and Xander's nervousness seemed to get worse and worse.

"Xander," said the red haired warrioress. "Is something bothering you?"

"Nope," he said, trying to keep his voice level. "Just…"

"Alexander," she said in a soothing tone. "If I am going to teach you, then I need for you to be honest with me, in all things." She paused for a heartbeat, trying to figure out what to say next. "If you do not wish to tell me your thoughts, then I will respect that, but do not try and deceive me. Those who are far better at it than you have tried and failed. Now, I ask again, is something bothering you?"

The dark haired youth looked into the green eyes which bore into his. There was something in her tone, in her posture, which let him know that he could trust her with his thoughts. That she would listen, not judge him. His mouth opened, then closed, as he tried to figure out how to start. "I'm just nervous. I'm new to this whole destiny powers thing. I'm… I guess I just think I'm going to let everybody down."

Sonja nodded slowly. "Alexander, you… You care for your friends, yes?"

"More than anything," came the response.

"Do you think that they're better than you?"

"Well, they've all got their own mojo going. Oz, he's got the whole wolf thing. Giles, he's a Watcher, not to mention the whole mage thing back in his day. Wills, hacker and Wicca. And Buffy and Faith, they're Slayers. Me? I'm just the normal guy."

"Alexander!" came the disbelieving response. "No matter what abilities your friends have, that's all they are, abilities. Being able to cast spells or master weapons just by touching them, or bay at the moon, none of those things make YOU any less special. You have your strengths, just as they have their weaknesses."

"Yeah, but oddly, my weaknesses are a couple of orders of magnitude magnified when compared to their strengths."

"Bushwah!" came the dismissive response. "No two people are ever identical, no matter what. Let me tell you, every person on this planet is precious. And do you know what makes them so precious? The fact that no matter what, every individual is just that.. An individual. With unique outlooks and perspectives and responses. And yes, unique strengths and weaknesses. But how we see the world, makes the difference. In fact., its that very difference that gives us our abilities. And learning to accept and embrace that viewpoint is more important than you can even imagine."

"Take Terral for example. To him, and those like him, everything is about the underlying logic. Seeing repeating patterns, being able to break everything down into smaller and smaller pieces so they can understand the entire puzzle. Being able to KNOW how everything relates, being able to know that moving this here will cause an effect there." She laughed as a memory came to the surface. "Let me tell you, when the Scientific Method was introduced, he was just tickled pink."

"My brother, Kylar… Everything is about Nature and all of its nuances. The breath of the wind through the trees, the cycle of life, watching the fury and peace that is nature, learning from it and being one with it. To him, watching the sunrise has never lost its appeal. Seeing a newborn deer shakily stand to its feet for the first time will always amaze him."

"For me, life is a never ending competition. You're always tested to see how well you can do, if you can best others, or more importantly yourself. The contests I'm faced with, the challenges I rise to, the fields of competition, they always vary, but that's what life is, at least to me."

"And elf dude?" asked Xander after a moment of silence.

"The old man?" Her voice sobered, but she continued. "Harlequinn, he's a bit different. To him…. At times, he sees life as a cruel joke, other times a tragedy. But, believe it or not, you and he share a lot of the same traits."

"Obviously," joked Xander. "I mean, thousands of years old elf, and a California teenager. We're practically long lost twins…"

"See, that's what I mean. You both use humor as both armor to shield yourself, as well as a weapon to riposte people's thoughts away from areas you don't want to delve. And, most importantly, you both use laughter to buoy the spirits of those around you. Keeping morale high, no matter how dark the night."

"But Harlequinn…" Sonja paused, searching for the right words. "The biggest problem with living as long as we have, is that we're forced to watch the rest of the world pass us by. Harlequinn, he's had it worse than most. He has watched his native land of Shosara be torn apart from within out of greed and lust for power by a handful of beings who cared not what they did. He has watched his adopted homeland of Sereatha be destroyed from outside, when the warning he and his fellow Knights raised was ignored. His tears fell on blood soaked soil as the Order he followed was turned on by the very people who they strove to protect, as they were setup and betrayed by those who saw them as a line of defense that could not be bought or bribed to look the other way. He has fallen in love, and watched those same loves slip through the hourglass of time. No one deserves to see what he has been forced to see… The journey of his life has made him strong, but… At times, I wonder if his strength now is what is was in days past. We all have our good times and our bad, but I worry that his strength these days has become brittle… That all of our strengths have, over the years…" She looked up, her eyes focusing again on the here and now, instead of the past, and in that moment, Xander could see the many layers that she hid behind, but for the briefest of seconds, he had seen her core. Caught a glimpse of the young human woman who had herself been through the fires of life, watched her family slaughtered and been raised by a trollmoot, all those millennia past.

But then the moment was gone, and the past, relegated once more to being a specter which would never leave anyone alone, but was always present.

"Remember Alexander. As life weakens our steel, it also reforges it. And that, is the joy and power of life… As long as you have life by the throat, as long as you never let go, you shall conquer all that you face. And that is the core of your power. No matter what the Passions throw in your path, you never falter. And you never let your friends fall when you are at their side. Your strength, its not in your arm, or any weapon you may wield. Your strength, strengths in fact, are in your heart, and your ability to see what those around you cannot. Your strengths protect them, protect all who are in need, from that which they cannot face, cannot see, or cannot feel. And those, Alexander, are the most dangerous enemies of all."

"You already know how to feel and to see… That's the hardest part. Teaching you what to do once you see, once you feel, that is what we shall work on next."

"So, let me get this straight," said Willow as she attempted to summarize the lecture she had just received. "Magic permeates the entire world, that much I already knew. But you're telling me that the level of magic rises and falls as time passes."

"Correct. Like the sine wave we discussed. At the low point, there is no magical energy at all, and at the high point…." He let the sentence trail off.

"And this takes how many years from peak to peak?"

"About 7,885 years, give or take."

"And right now?"

"Right now," he said ominously. "Right now, we're on the upswing, with most of the world just around the midpoint."

"But not here."

"No, here, due to the presence of the Hellmouth. Here, its much, much higher. The rest of the world has more than twenty, closer to thirty years, before the magical background count is as high as it is here, today. Certain areas have higher background counts. Sunnydale is one of them. Others occur due to certain rituals, spells or events that happened there… "

"And when it gets high enough…"

"When it gets high enough, the bridge will be built, from the other side, and the Enemy will breach our world once more. The Scourge will begin anew."

"Unless we can stop them…"

"A group as small as yours, as small as mine, we can only stem the tide, push back the date, but in the end, they will arrive, and arrive in force. And if mankind is not ready…."

"Then we better be ready," said the young redhead.

"With those like me, like my friends, who have survived. With new blood like you and your comrades in arms, then we will have a chance… No more, no less…"

Faith looked up from the ancient tome she was studying as she sat against the wall outside of the training area they were using. "Morning B.," she said as warmly as she could.

The smile which the blonde haired Slayer responded with brought the word 'Feral' to the Boston native's mind as she flowed up to her feet and gently slid the book into the satchel which she slung over her shoulder. Following the elder Slayer, Faith felt a bit of disappointment inside, but she wasn't really surprised that her fellow Slayer was still so cold to her.

As soon as they walked into the training area itself, Katrina was standing there, hand on her right hip as she watched with a predatory look in her eyes.

"So, princess, since you finally decided to join us, am I going to have to take you task again, or are you done with your little pissing contests now?"

Buffy swallowed as she tossed her training bag to the ground. She realized that although she was pretty evenly matched with Faith on the mats, Katrina had already proven she was more than able to toss her around like a rag doll.

It was a thought that didn't exactly calm her down. 'Fine,' thought the blonde. 'I'll learn everything I can from this stone aged pain in the ass and then we'll see who's tossing who around…' Then, out loud, she spoke. "Umm.. Yeah… Sorry about that…"

Saying that the look which Katrina shot Buffy was disbelieving would be generous to say the least. Contemptuous would have probably been closer, but Buffy's eyes were downcast and so she missed it. The ancient spirit pressed on though. "First, it seems I must teach you both something which you have somehow missed during your training to date…"

The two teens looked at each other as they both tried to figure out what is was that not one, but both of them, didn't know.

"The most important thing that any Slayer should never forget, is their true purpose."

"To kill vampires," responded Buffy in a tone which was halfway between snarky and unsure of herself.

The manifested spirit looked at the golden disc which was mounted above the door to the training area, almost as if she longed to return to the slumber from which the Ghost Master ritual had summoned her. "Your knowledge is as lacking as your Talents. Both of you, sit," she commanded as she pointed to the eastern wall. When both teens had complied, Katrina sat on the floor opposite them and began to speak.

"You are Slayers. Vampires are, right now, the most prolific of the Darkness against which we stand. As Slayers, you are a vital part of the line that Name Givers…" Seeing the confused look at the term, Katrina elaborated. "Humanity, human beings, are only one of a variety of races we called Name Givers. Humans, Dwarves, Elves like Har'lea'quinn, Trolls like Kylar, Orks, Windlings which are little folks with wings, and T'skrang, a species I only saw twice while I was alive. Oh, and dragons, but that is a debate which was going on long before my birth and I'm sure continues long beyond even today."

"What, dragon's aren't quite up on the chart you mean?" asked Faith.

Katrina looked at the dark haired Slayer and laughed. "So young and unknowing. No, Faith. Dragons aren't below Name Givers. The debate is how much ABOVE us are they."

"Oh," came the response.

"But that is not of what I was speaking. The Slayers are one line among the brave souls who stand against the Darkness, against the Horrors. But," and her eyes bore into Buffy. "They are not the only line. Warriors and Wizards, SwordMasters, Thieves, Horror Hunters, Archers, Blood Wardens, Watchmen, Knights, Elementalists, Slayers. Each one has their own strengths and weaknesses but only when we stand together do we have a chance against the Horrors…" She paused. "That is something that some of them, the heroes who are closest to the Essence of the Slayer, the Horror Hunters. That's what they forgot." The long dead woman stood and began to pace the padded floor. "You have to understand, it was a dark age which bred the Heroes who fought, and still fight today. The Horrors had devastated the lands, and no one knows how many were lost to their fanged maws, how many were turned against their friends and families. How many killed themselves rather than confront a fate worse than the Dark Lady. The Horror Hunters, they were a sect of Heroes who had looked into the pitch black soul of Oblivion and screamed 'No More!'. They decided that the darkness would take no more souls, not while they stood. Not unopposed." Katrina paused, as if remembering something. "There was a man who I heard about. His name was Edalb. His family was killed by the Horrors when he was but a child. He was forced to watch the entire thing, but he could not cry out, for something was feeding off of his emotions as he watched his family's blood spray across their home. It was something he never forgot, could never forget, as those images were burned into his Pattern for the rest of his days. And, after the Horror had left, Edalb was left along in that bloody home, and he swore that he would die before he watched anything like that happen again. So he buried what little he could find of his family and set out for the horizon. In time, he became one of the mightiest of the Horror Hunters, and he dedicated his entire existence to seeking out the Horrors who roamed the land and during his time, he slew countless of them. But, along the way, as he stared into the Darkness, the Darkness stared back at him. Everything was about cleansing the land, removing the taint which had befallen the people. In time, he stopped caring about the people who he was trying to protect, instead focusing on that which he was trying to destroy."

"I've been told that along the way, his legend had grown so powerful, that he could do no wrong in the eyes of the people, and at terrible cost. He began taking risks, using the innocent as bait, or when he couldn't tell who was Corrupted… Well, the cost was deemed acceptable by those who watched from outside, burn a house to save a village. But what they all forgot was that in many cases, there was no need for any to be lost." The dark skinned spirit turned her ancient eyes to meet first Buffy's, then Faith's. "And that is what makes the Slayer different. The Slayer is not supposed to be separate from those she protects. That is why the mantle is always passed to a young woman, who is not wise to the world, who can be there, surrounded by her Elders and her companions, her friends. Without those balances, she will lose her way and be lost to the Darkness as sure as if she was Marked. If that lesson is forgotten, then the Slayer shall fight, albeit valiantly as the Horror Hunters did in their day. But in the end, without the connection to those important to them, they will give their lives in a futile, symbolic gesture, against odds which no sane person would consider, simply because they know nothing, save the Mission itself. Losing a fight they could never win, instead of saving those who truly matter, all in the name of Honor."

"So," Katrina said as she moved to the center of the room. "Remember what is truly important in your life. That shall keep both you and those you care about alive. Now, both of you… Onto the mats. Because before I can teach you to fight, I have to teach you how to stand…"

"Think of them as…" Terral closed his eyes and thought. "Think of a car."

"What kind?" asked Willow.

"Doesn't matter," came the response. "Just think of a car. Visualize it completely in your mind."


"Now, no matter what kind of car you picked, I can tell you some things about it. It has four wheels, inflated with air. It has an engine, which uses fuel, it has doors, windows, pedals and a steering wheel."

"A gestalt in other words," said Willow proudly.

"To a degree, but its not only a gestalt of the item, the person or the place, but the core of the gestalt is the gestalt of all, of every thing which is similar. Every sword, has the same base pattern. Each person as well, shares a pattern that looks like every other person's pattern. Then, as things happen, as they have experience, as things are done to them, the pattern changes, evolves, becomes more complicated." With a gesture, he manifested a glowing image which hung in the air between them. "That which you see, is a representation of your pattern."

Willow gasped at the beauty which she saw before her, the twisting arching and curving beams of light, held in a mass the size of her heart. Another gesture brought a second representation into existence.

If Willow's pattern was beautiful, then this was like looking onto perfection. The pattern was the same, yet vastly different. Millions more strands composed it, fluctuating in color, brightness and intensity, as they ebbed and flowed across and through it. "And this is a representation of mine." He paused for a moment. "As you can see, the base is the same, but mine has far more in it, representing more experience. More skills, more talents, more memories, loves won and lost, pain, conquests and defeats. All are represented in your pattern."

"And everyone has one?"

"Every thing, every person, every place, every animal. The world itself has a pattern, and it is a truly magnificent sight."

Kylar sat on the end of a moss covered tree trunk which had fallen long ago, and looked at the young man who was opposite him.

"Nature," began the massive being, "Nature isn't any one thing. It's not this tree, or that flower, or your owl up there. Nature is all of what's around us, encompassing the whole of the world. Nature is the gentle doe and the rabid wolf, both at the same time. It's the mountain spring, and the raging hurricane, and it is that difference, that similarity which is so difficult for those who do not walk our path to understand. And that lack of understanding, that is the Veil which hides the true nature of the world from their eyes while they stand there trying to see it."

Oz, who was listening as he sat Indian style on the moss, nodded without hesitation. "Duality. It's not the leaf of the tree, or the moss," he said as he gently ran his finger over the textured green surface. "It's the tree as a whole, from the roots to the berries and everything in between."

The BeastMaster smiled, his large fangs glinting in the light. "You have already pierced the Veil on your own. You understand that the rabbit is not the wolf, but they are forever woven within each other. One with one set of strengths, with one set of weaknesses. The other, a different set of strengths and weaknesses. Neither is superior to the other in nature, for if one was, they would both vanish from the world, as their natures are interwoven within each other."

"I understand," came the response.

"Now, one who follows our Path, they are at one with nature, not opposed to it. We are not the miners, we are the rock. We are not the woodsmen, we are the oak. We are not the fishermen, we are the ocean. We are in tune with the world around us. The mountains, the canyons, the wilds and the wastes. With time, understanding of even the ebb and flow of the cities of Man shall be yours. Listen to my words, young one. The Beastmaster is the protector of nature, but nature is also our protector. We are one with the world around us, and the world grants us boons which those who cannot see through the Veil shall never be blessed by." The troll took a deep breath and stared into Oz's eyes, and beyond. "Now first, we will teach you to breath, then we will work on showing you more of the world around you."

"Now, since we have gone over the basics of patterns, we now move on to the next aspect. That is of course, assuming you have no question."

"Nope, I think I've got this part down. At least the basics…"

"Very good. Now, if you think of the pattern as a tapestry, comprised of the various threads which represent your abilities, strengths and weaknesses, experiences and memories. Each thread is an important part of the tapestry." He paused and reinvoked the image of his own pattern, bringing a representation of the intricate mass of light and energy into view. "Now, as you can see, I have threads leading from my own pattern…" he waved his hand and several smaller patterns winked into existence. "Into other patterns. Tying my energy into their energy. As you can see," he pointed at on of the threads, "I have tied threads from my pattern to the patterns of things which are important to me."

"Why would you do that?" asked Willow inquisitively as she compared this concept to some of her computer knowledge. "Open ports are always weaknesses which can be more easily exploited."

Although he didn't understand the exact nuance of her words, the words themselves were clear enough. "You are correct in that there are risks involved in tying a thread to your pattern. And, remember, when you tie yourself to another pattern, that pattern in turn is bound to yours. If an enemy should come into possession of an item you are bound to, or that is bound to you, either by thread or by action, then they have a better chance of breaching your defenses."

"Like they've got a passcode maybe? Or are trying to hack you from a trusted address? OK, that makes sense…"

Terral looked at the young redhead. "You and I are going to have to have a discussion about this, hacking, you keep referring to. But, if that makes sense to you, then it sounds like you understand what I am trying to get across. So, there is a risk, but there are also benefits. By tying a thread you can bind an artifact to yourself, allowing control over its powers. You can enhance the abilities of yourself or a trusted ally. Or bind yourself to your friends so that you are far more as a group than you can be individually. But, such things can only be done with people who trust each, who are willing to stand side by side, no matter the cost."

"You, Kylar and Sonja formed such a group, didn't you?"

Terral peered at her. "You're more observant than I gave you credit for." He paused as he rubbed a ring he wore on his right hand. "Yes, we did. Many years, many lifetimes ago. It has great benefits," he said. "And great costs as well."

"Is that how you managed to stay alive these years?"

The magician chuckled. "No. Although the magic which welded us together for our lives is strong, it is not nearly formidable enough to hold off the Dark Lady. It was not our group's magic which sustained us through the rivers of time. All that took was a drop of blood on a rose which will never die, never lose its beauty…" His voice drifted… "Never lose it's thorns…." For a moment, the ageless man was lost in his memories before he shook himself free of the past. "But that is another story… Now, about this, hacking…"

Willow grinned. "Well, where do you want to begin?"

Harlequinn sipped the tea thoughtfully as he tried to determine where best to begin in today's discussion. Yesterday had pretty much just getting to know one another and having Giles tell him more about his youthful charges. Today was going to start the real meat of the discussions. With a sigh, he realized there was really no way to skip a lot of the background for this and just dove in head first. "I'm going to preface this by saying there is a hell of a lot that modern historians don't know. A lot of knowledge, tragically important some of it, that has slipped from man's collection knowledge and even myths. You said before that the world used to be the domain of demons and monsters…."

"Yes. The Horrors, you called them. They lost their claim on this world and retreated back to their home dimensions." Giles glanced at the collection of tomes lining his bookshelves, wondering how many of them would be invalidated by what he was now learning.

"True, but only to a point. The height of the magic cycle, a period of several hundred years when the Horrors were at their strongest, we call that The Scourge. During the Scourge, as well as for a period of a few hundred years on either side of it, there were still Horrors around. The weaker ones, after the Scourge anyway, well, we killed some of them, banished others… But the most powerful ones, they weren't forced back by warriors of light or mankind's tenacity. They needed the high magic levels to survive, and so when things got too low, they bailed on their own. But they'll come back…. They always come back."

"And the people at that time, they just watched as these Horrors ran rough shod over the lands?"

The elf looked at Giles, shaking his head slightly. "You're not getting the scale here. These aren't easy things to kill like vampires. Hell, with some good training and weapons, a regular person could stand a decent chance against a vampire. The Horrors are far worse, well some of them anyway. That demon you mentioned, the Judge I think his name was…. That sounds like a Horror of about medium strength. You guys had to use a rocket launcher, something not really around a few thousand years ago, to take him out."

Giles looked a little pale at that assessment. "The Judge could wipe out entire crowds of people, burn the humanity out of them. And you mean to tell me that a creature such as that is no big deal? Frankly, I find that difficult to believe."

Harlequinn's visage hardened for a moment. "You may find it difficult to believe, but that really has no relevance on the truth of my words, now does it! You don't get it Rupert. The things you're fighting, for the most part, are either extremely weak, or magic starved. That's why so many of the more powerful demons flock to the Hellmouth. The level of magic in this area is a couple of orders of magnitude higher than just about anywhere else in the world. That's why the Judge was getting stronger the longer he was here. His system was being recharged by the energy which permeates everything around here. You want to think about truly frightening beings. Verjigorm, one of the most powerful Horrors we know of, hunts great dragons, sometimes it kills them, feasting on their souls, sometimes it tries to corrupt them. We're not even ants to it. Artificer, which makes elaborate labyrinths of tunnels and passages, then loads them with traps and treasures beyond description, simply to lure Name Givers in so that it can feed off their pain, suffering and deaths in the insidious traps it has laid. GiftBearer, who's kind of like the storekeeper in Needful Things… Sets entire towns at each other's throats and waits till friend turns against friend, and family's murder each other. Ristul, who drove three of the Passions, what you might call Gods, insane. Twisting them into cruel parodies of themselves." With this sentence, Harlequinn's fingers moved slightly towards where an amulet would fall against his chest, but the gesture was cut short as he continued. "Those are the kinds of things which are powerful. How do you stop a creature who uses our own flaws against us. Or who is so powerful that hundreds of years of preparation by dedicated magic users can only delay them breaching a citadel?"

Giles tried to imagine the amount of power that a magic user, much less a group of them working in concert, could harness over a hundred years, then pondered something powerful enough to breach those wards. Strong wasn't nearly a good enough word. "I believe I understand things a bit more now…" Taking a sip of his tea, he asked what Harlequinn could tell him about Ezekial.

"Ezekial, although we tended to call him Zeke a lot these days, was a great hero. He's a bit younger than me, about five hundred years or so…

"Now, focus on the astral, like I taught you. Can you see it?"

Willow Looked across the warehouse, seeing not just the physical world, but seeing the astral signatures of everything present within the steel walls. "I see it. It's still so weird, being able to see the magic instead of barely feeling it."

"Indeed, it is a complex and beautiful sight. Now, for today's lesson. When you look in the air here in the warehouse, what do you see?"

"Umm, nothing?" said Willow, confusion evident, as she sat beside Terral inside of a mystical circle.

"That's right, its clear. Not much of anything in it. That's because, for safety, I cleansed this area before I warded the building. The astral space is clean, pristine as a mountain spring, within this building. Now, we're going to do something a little more dangerous, but do not worry, I shall protect you. Let yourself loose of your physical form, just like I've shown you. Start with your breathing…"

A moment later, Willow found herself drifting in space, Terral's astral form hovering beside her. "Very good," 'said' her teacher as he made a small gesture with his hands. "You are doing very well when it comes to projecting yourself into the Astral Space. But remember," he said as he gestured to the silver cord which connected her to her body. "While you are here, you are more vulnerable in two realms instead of one, so we shall make this a quick exploration for now." Reaching out, he took her 'hand' and the two floated towards the ceiling of the building. There was some resistance as they passed through the wards the ancient mage had prepared, then Willow found herself floating high above the city she had spent most of her life in. "Now, look here, and tell me the difference between what surrounds you here and what was in the warehouse…"

The young practitioner looked around her, trying first to get her bearing on where exactly they were, and then to actually study her surroundings. "The air, the space itself, it seems… I don't know… Dirtier? More chaotic?"

"Very good! What you are seeing is the effect that the Hellmouth has on the surrounding area. Can you see the school from here?" When Willow indicated she could, Terral continued. "I don't want us to get to close to the Hellmouth, so, I will ask you, can you see it from here?"

Willow glanced over at Terral, almost as to say, 'are you kidding? That's like 10 miles away!' but decided she should see what happened if she tried to look. Focusing her vision, she willed herself to be able to see the high school. "I… I don't know… It's… Hazy… Like there smoke billowing up from deep beneath the school… It." She tried to find the words. "It's coming from underneath the school, rolling out but it gets thinner pretty quickly once you get up to the surface, but its still kind of murky."

"That, unfortunately, is Corruption. Its focused primarily around the Hellmouth itself, but the effects encompass this entire town. Its why people forget. Why its so easy for the demons and monsters to find prey so easily. Why not all the monsters in this damned town aren't demons."

"But we went to high school over it? How come it didn't effect us."

"It did. One of the reasons that you and your friends were able to fight the darkness for so long is that each of you has been acclimated to that kind of power. But, something I noticed when I inspected the ruins of your school was that sometime in the past, wards, very powerful ones, were erected to filter the darkness out of the school itself."

"Like you did at the warehouse?"

"Similar. It was halfway between a cleansing, which cleans the Astral until the Corruption slowly changes it once more, and one of the spell matrixes which I have shown you. Do you understand what I mean?"

Willow pondered this for a moment before responding. "Well, you taught me that spell matrices are used to filter the astral space, to give clean power to a spell caster so they can cast spells safely instead of with the danger that is present by casting raw, where they force the power through themselves to power the spell instead of through the matrix. So, in this case, the entire school was set up to work like a filter, taking the energy which was going to go up through the school anyway, but filtering all the corruption, like a line conditioner or a UPS for a computer."

"Something like that, but remember, no ward is perfect, especially when it is subjected to this much magical energy. Some of the corruption always gets through over time, which is probably why some of the darkness which happened in your school happened. Now, let us return to our bodies before some denizen of the nether regions decides to come investigate our presence."

The clock on the wall read seven past six when Buffy looked up from the book she was forcing herself to read. Although she had been the Slayer for over four years now, her time training had usually been spent working on more effective ways to dispatch whatever demonic type of thing she came across. Apparently, and this was something that the gang had never really had to deal with too much, there were hundreds of species out there other than humans, who were living on the planet with her. A slew of em were demonic in nature, but all that really meant, she was discovering, was that they came from a different home dimension from her. Ugly appearance didn't automatically mean evil intent, so she was being forced to read up on some of the more common species. Unfortunately, some was being defined by a stack of a dozen thick heavy books.

Across the room, Katrina was sparring with Faith, who was at a severe disadvantage due to being blindfolded. Surprisingly, Faith was able to block a good percentage of the incoming attacks, while dodging a significant proportion of the rest. Buffy smiled a bit as she watched Katrina snake through the younger Slayer's defenses and grab her by the sleeve, then pivoted and threw Faith over her hip. The smile faltered a bit though when, as she was falling, Faith managed to grab Katrina by the other arm and fling her to the ground as well. As the ghost master recovered, Faith tumbled forward to her feet, where she dropped back into a combat stance.

"Good recovery Faith," said the long dead Slayer. "I believe you show improvement, although there is still much to teach both of you."

Faith pulled the silken scarf from her eyes, a smile on her face. "Feels good too. Pretty soon I'll be the one coming after you, Kat."

"Perhaps… Buffy, I see you were watching the end of our practice. Do you have anything to add?"

The blonde bit her tongue. She really didn't want to say anything nice to Faith, but she had to admit the dark haired Slayer had been working her tail off the past two days. Truth be known, she was probably almost to the point, ability wise at least, where Buffy herself had been after being Slayer for two years. "Well," she hesitated, but continued after Katrina gestured for her to go on. "She's definitely picking it up quick. I was surprised when she grabbed you during that throw. If she hadn't thrown you down as well, you would have been able to follow up while she was down, but she was able to recover fast enough to take your shot away from you."

"Anything you think Faith could benefit from hearing from a slightly," she emphasis was subtle but both Slayers picked up on it, "more experienced Slayer?"


"Tell her, not me," scolded Katrina slightly.

Buffy scowled a bit as she turned her attention toward the other Slayer. "Well… You're fast, but a lot of time…" The blonde paused, not really sure how to say something in a non scathing way to the brunette. After a moment, she decided to just be brutally honest and blunt, about this anyway, and not let anything else affect what she was saying. "Faith, a lot of the time you wade in and stand there while you get hammered on. I mean, you're a Slayer, so you're a hell of a lot stronger than most folks, but a lot of demons out there can bench press tanks. Come in at the edges, take your shots, then move back. What was it that boxer dude said, about a wasp or something?"

"Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Said by the Great One, Mohammad Ali," Faith grinned. "But you're right, B. I do tend to walk right into the kill zone. Probably not the brightest move, but its worked for me in the past. I'll try to work on that though. Make it tougher on the bad guys at least…" Inwardly, Faith was feeling pretty damn good about herself. She'd been working her ass off, Kat was pleased with her performance and Buffy was at least being civil to her, which was a major step forward.

Katrina smiled. She devoutly hoped that the two would be able to get past the troubled history between them. And although this wasn't much, it was at least a start. "Buffy, why don't you take a couple of those books home tonight and keep going over them. I expect you both back here by nine am, ready to work. Faith, if you have a moment, I need to ask you a couple of questions before you hit the showers."

Even as Faith was heading to the side of the practice mats for a towel, Buffy had slid a couple of books into her backpack and was headed for the door. A quick goodbye to both Katrina and Faith, and she was outside.

It took her a second for her eyes to adjust to the bright sunlight. As she raised her hand to shield her sight from the sun, her eyes fell upon Xander, who was leaning against the side of his car, thumbing through what looked to be an army field manual.

Cautiously, she approached him, determined not to waste this opportunity the Fates had lain before her. "Hi Xander," she said softly.

Closing the book, Xander slowly looked up at her, as if he was unsure of how to respond. "Buffy."

'Well, at least he's talking to me,' she thought. "Swinging by to pick up Faith?" she inquired, trying to keep her voice level and not give him any reason to snap at her.

"Yeah, Sonja let me out early. Said I was doing pretty good. Couldn't prove it by me, considering how she's knocking me silly around the mats." He looked past her at the doorway. "You guys just finished up?"

"Well, I did… Was my afternoon for book study while Faith was doing hand to hand with Katrina." 'Say something positive, show him you're not a bitch,' she thought. "She's doing pretty good… Faith, I mean."

"I heard you two had a pretty intense sparring match the other morning… I hope you're both being careful in there, I wouldn't want to see either of you get hurt…" Even as he said it, Xander knew that somebody was probably going to get hurt, sooner or later. And there was no guarantee it would be a physical injury. A deep sigh preceded his next sentence. "Buffy, look, I know things are kinda weird right now…"

Buffy laughed ruefully. 'Xander you have no idea…' She took a breath before launching into her own speech. "Xander, look, I'm sorry that I hurt you. But you have to believe me when I tell you that I finally realize just how much you mean to me. I hate this! I hate how you head the other way when I'm around. Or how tense things have become between us. I know I've been an arrogant self centered brat and that I never could see what was standing right in front of me for the past three years. And what's even more horrible is that as I was coming to realize it, I just about killed you in the middle of a fight."

'Let's see, you drive a stake through my heart, you send Angel to hell. Your ex from Hemery wants to be a vampire. Just racking up the romance wins aren't you Buffy?' Xander tried to keep his face from displaying his emotions. Even as he thought it, he knew he was being overly harsh. But just as he thought that, he also knew that the heart doesn't always make decisions based on what the head says, and as a result people get hurt sometimes when they didn't mean to do anything wrong.

They stood there in silence, Xander trying to sort out his emotions and thoughts, for a heartbeat before Buffy continued.

"I miss you Xand," said the blond as she closed the distance between them to almost nothing.

"I miss you too Buffster," replied the young man. "But," he continued as he stepped back. "But honestly, I don't where… Two weeks ago, yeah, I would have loved to have heard you say all this. But now?"

"But I was too scared to tell you how I felt… Now I'm not, and you…" Her eyes started to show the first signs of tears welling up. "I want to be with you now Xander, and you don't even want to be around me anymore. I want to make this better and I want to be with you, and now you don't even want to hang out with me anymore… I hate all this… Why can't you see what you mean to me?"

Xander reached out and wrapped his arm around her shoulders, giving her the very touch she was begging for, but after a moment, he pulled away again. "Buff. No matter what, you're still my friend. That's not going to change. But right now, no matter what you're feeling, and god don't I see the irony here, right now that's not what I'm feeling. You've said it to me before, we can't change how we feel about people. And the fact is, that right now, we don't have that same connection we used to."

"But I do… I swear to you, I do Xander!"

"Yeah, but Buffy… I don't. I'm sorry, more than you'll ever know, that what happened happened, but it did. And we can't change it. And even if we could… I don't know that I'd want to. Since that night Buff, I've gotten to know Faith, the real Faith. Something none of us had ever taken the time to do. If we had, maybe things would have turned out differently. But we didn't. And so, only now, am I getting to discover the amazingness that she is, and I wouldn't trade that for the world. She makes me feel like nobody else, and I want to know more…. She's…"

Buffy stopped Xander by leaning in and preparing to kiss him on the lips. Only to find herself pushed away. "Buffy, don't."

"But I'm trying to show you just what it is that I'm feeling here and what you're keeping us both from having…"

"And if you keep it up Buff, all you're going to do is completely destroy anything which is left between us. If I mean that much to you Buffy, then you have to let me figure out what I want, and what makes me happy. I did…"

As she heard those words, the tears which had been filling her eyes began to roll down her face. Before the first drop could hit the ground, Buffy was running down the block as fast as she could, sobbing uncontrollably.

Xander watched as she ran away, part of him wanting to run after her, part of him glad he had stood firm.

And behind him, a figure silently slid back through the door to the training area and quietly closed it behind her.

End Chapter 18

Coming Soon
Chapter Chapter 19
(really... I'll try not to take another two years before I release the next chapter)