Part V

I'm not happy about this. Not one little bit.

At the time, it seemed like the perfect solution. I had to get out (the life of a princess isn't all shrieks and goulash, no matter what they say), and physical escape just wasn't in the cards, what with Daddy's toads always half a step away whenever we weren't closeted and warded at home. There's more than one way to skin a puppy, though, and I picked up a few little offbeat tricks during my last unsanctioned walkabout among the humans. And it was a good idea: go incorporeal, attach myself to a suitable mount, and let the masking soul screen me from the hounds Daddy would send to find me. Stay in Sunnydale, of course, all that Hellmouth energy keeps me perky, and besides, why take on learning my way around a new campus when I'd already made my start at superfun UCSunD?

It should have been the simplest thing. It should have been a walk. My life just sucks.

It went smoothly enough at first. I knew, once they weren't able to fix on me by absence-of-soul, that Daddy would have his hounds range for traces of my psychic signature. If I could find someone with a little mystical potential of her own, though, her aura would help blur the trail, so I screened my prospects with that in mind. There were several that showed promise … and then, jackpot! I could hardly believe it; we'd actually met before, briefly, but I hadn't been aware then of how potent she truly was. This one had some definite juice to her, but was just unsure enough that she'd be easy to dominate; no one would pay too much attention to her, and the dissonance between her and her parent-authority would mean fewer external ties I'd have to break or work around. No two ways about it, this one was an utter gem. So I put my mark on her, curdled the right fluids and tore open the requisite small helpless creatures and did all the dreary chants and self-degradations, and settled easily into her while she was sleeping.

(Wonder how many of the toads Daddy killed when he learned I'd got out again? Screw 'em, and serve 'em right. Girls just want to have fun.)

I played it very, very cautious at first. Part of it was just lying low while the first phases of the hunt ran past me. Part of it was learning the facts of my mount's history and daily routine, so I could operate her without slipping up, and the topography of her mind so I could control her with minimal damage when the time came. Sport riding is one thing — burn 'em out, jump to another one, all you care about are pace and performance — but I had a different aim here, so I was ready to use a light rein.

It was actually kind of fun, doing the long stalk instead of going for the fast kill. Her insecurity and social ineptitude were comical, and her crude attempts at mystical practices were as entertaining as watching a klathwaer try to dance. I made mental notes, and enjoyed, and lined out exactly how I'd take her over and what I'd do with this promising surrogate body when the time came …

… and then she joined hands with the other witch, and eldritch force sizzled through them like a river of blue lightning, and my plans changed on the spot. This was way too interesting to pass up, I had to see more. So when I first began to guide her, it was a thousand times softer and more careful than I'd planned at first.

Things got very complicated very quick, but I thought it was worth it. The moment I settled on a different course, it brought in three issues I'd have ignored or brushed away otherwise.

First, the power that whetted my interest was embryonic, just beginning to peek out, and bound up in something indefinable between the two women. It would never be realized unless I let it develop at least semi-naturally, so I scrapped the notion of planting my flag in her upper brain and ruling there like a potentate; instead, I had to lie so far back she'd never know I was there.

Second, in order to let things flow along the necessary course, I had to accept the two women's involvement with the Slayer. Ordinarily I would have discouraged it — grudges much? — but that was how the forces were aligning, so I had to swallow it as part of the cost. (I got a big shock the first time I ran into Anyanka: bad-tempered, self-righteous nouveau diable harridan, but we'd always had to treat her with respect because of the unearned power she bore. She had no way of recognizing me, but I almost gave myself away from sheer surprise. Once I got past the first jolt, though, seeing her stumble around powerless and humbled in mortal flesh was a never-ending treat.) And, I could draw advantage from being able to watch a potential foe's camp from the inside, get advance warning of any developments that might cause me problems.

Third, not the hardest but certainly the oddest: it became clear that the other witch was making hesitant sexual overtures, and — this is the mystifying part — that my mount was interested. Okay, all human sexuality is a little strange (their matings are almost never fatal, which makes me wonder why they bother; where's the thrill if there's no risk of dying or prospect of conquering?), but the same-gender pairing made it even more of a confusion to me. Really, is there any kind of sense to that? It's one thing to go against your own nature for power, status, gain, novelty, or even sheer spectacle — I'll contest with the best when it comes to putting on a show — but this girl chose to use her body in a manner clearly contrary to its design, for no advantage at all. The sex itself is curious, and usually intense (if Daddy knew I'd accompanied my mount through body-rubbings with another of these grunting tubes of meat, and not even tried a little vivisection for decency's sake, he might not be in such a lather to get me back; really, he can be a total prude), but this deliberate purposeless self-twisting should have given me some warning as to what might be in store.

Looking back to the beginning, the craziest part of the whole business is that I ran away in the first place because I was tired of having to always follow someone else's orders … and then suddenly there I was, holding myself to a more brutal regime than anything Daddy ever laid on me. Watching, cataloguing, staying secret and silent and barely touching the reins, ever, for fear of disrupting the intoxicating energy gradually building between my mount and the other girl. My choice, done to follow my goals, but still nothing I'd ever have let anybody else force me to do. And I don't think I'd have had the patience if I had known how long I'd have to wait; it was just, every few days there'd be some new exciting little extrusion in the reshaping of my mount's internal conformation, and I was always eager to see what came next —

Also, I got a thoroughly unpleasant scare a few months after I first started my watchful waiting, about the time I was thinking I might try to tweak the process along a little quicker. We were out on one of those group sweeps of various Sunnydale areas, which sweep doubled as a social outing for the 'Scooby Gang' (a name so moronic it suited them perfectly), and for once it was the entire roster: the Slayer and her brawny mascot, Anyanka and the self-deprecating buffoon she let capture her heart (he's lucky I didn't remove his when he hugged me, without invitation, the first time we met), even my mount and her giddy blissful lover. Only the researcher and their gelded vampire were missing, no loss either way. I was bored but still keeping an eye out, if action blew up unexpectedly and my mount was killed, I could take some psychoplasmic bruising before I managed to exit her broken carcass, and wouldn't that just totally piss away all the time I had invested? So I was noting the shifts in activity around us while she was all caught up in her simpering paramour, and that's when I felt it.

Mind probe! Near-miss at first, it brushed past me without quite touching, but the force of it was stunning. Not one of Daddy's hounds, they're keener but a lot more subtle, and not made for fighting at all, while this was huge and irresistible and vaguely curious, like one of those shaggy omnivores that dig through campsite trash in the national parks: not actively malevolent, but of uncertain temperament and capable of devastating ferocity if roused. I pulled back even deeper, tucking everything in and at the same time coiling myself into position for the one good strike that was all I'd get. Here it came again! and I felt it catch my presence and veer toward me, and I lashed out with everything I had at … not a weak spot, but the only area I could feel not bristling with spines and armor, struck and waited to be torn away from my mount and ripped into screaming bits —

Only it was gone. Whatever it was, for all its awful massive strength it hadn't learned the first thing about psionic combat, that single strike sheered straight through and disrupted some central vital nexus, and the thing just came apart and fell away. I was frantic for the rest of the evening, certain that Daddy's hounds would trace back to the spot where their specialized retriever had disappeared, but it never happened.

The contrast there, between the power that almost rooted me out and the power growing in my mount's belly, power I could have if I nurtured it properly and seized it at the right moment, kept me focused. This wasn't vacation anymore, this was survival and freedom and a chance at girding myself for vengeance and dominion.

Better, maybe, if I had just gone home. I still hate being ordered around, but I do miss the mucus pools. And the way my little project developed has been SO not satisfying.

I should have known. I saw all the stages, recognized them as they were happening and placed them into context with all that had gone before. I saw it all, and still missed it all, because I just didn't make that imaginative leap that would have warned me of the next obvious step.

First stage: I watched, learned what I could, and occasionally gave my mount a little nudge to shift her more in the direction I wanted her to go. Hints, not steering, she and the other witch were supposed to find and build that inner force themselves, I just wanted to keep her on track.

Second stage: guidance, firmer now but still long-range and indirect enough to escape detection. The girl had a tendency to go off on tangents, get caught up in other pursuits (her deviant lover was a constant unwelcome influence there), and it required more and more effort to keep her on the course that better suited my own purposes.

Third stage: by now I was exerting all the control I could apply without being detected, just trying to keep us within safe boundaries. Heedless with love and the exhilaration of mutual discovery, the two women were in repeated danger of taking things too far, letting that still-gathering mystical strength carry them into areas that could have posed some danger to me, either by immediate threat or from the risk of calling attention to us. (The seeking trance they did to ferret out the renegade Slayer was the first such example, but that came early enough that I was able to safeguard us all — and keep myself hidden — with only the lightest touches of redirection. If she gets any such notions now, I could be in trouble. But, Lords of Hell! the demon detection spell they attempted! It took all the artistry I could muster to quietly jinx that one, and even then I had to go at it indirectly.) I should have given it up and moved on, and I would have if the promised payoff hadn't been so sweet and seemed so close.

Fourth stage: completely removed, standing off doing nothing but watch. The two women's power was still growing and developing, feeding and reinforcing and looping from one to another in ways they'd never be knowledgeable enough to track. They had become so strong that I couldn't control anything significant without bringing enough pressure to bear that I couldn't help making myself known, and if my mount panicked and fought, I might break her before I was able to harvest all that lovely, scrumptious mana.

I saw all that, and never saw the last step coming. Not until the Slayer and her hangers-on went head-to-head with Glorificus, not until my mount and the other witch traded glances and started a chant I didn't recognize, not until I decided this had gone too far and clamped down with a forcefulness I'd avoided before now, going for the adrenals and lower brain functions, meaning to trigger an uncontrollable flight response that could be passed off as a panic attack but would still serve to get me out of there —

— and nothing happened. Nothing.

Stage five: when the still-building power couples with the unexpected innate stubbornness of the witch to forge a synergistic binary that I can't rule or guide or suppress or claim for my own.

I don't understand it. I don't even know where it comes from, the two witches make such different contributions, and then mix and trade and reweave all they share, I can't say which one is the ultimate source of magic. The redhead usually serves as the hands, the blonde as the heart and foundation, and it didn't really matter, because as long as I held the one I controlled both.

Now I don't have any control at all. A year ago, the blast I hit her with would have laid her out jerking and near-catatonic. Not only did it not do that, I'm not even sure she felt it. Are they so much stronger? or I so much weaker? or is there something else at work, as invisible to me as I am to the two witches?

Be nice to think that. I'm still trying to puzzle out how the Slayer's ersatz sister figures into everything. My memories of her go back a solid year, but she's only been around half that long, so my brain was messed with, too, as if I were one of these sweaty, mind-blind pinkskins. Even knowing now, I still can't see her as anything but a barely pubescent human, the internal energy that's supposed to compose her true nature just doesn't register to my blinkered human vision. It's tempting to blame her for my problems, and to take a stab at exacting retribution; I'm just not sure that would be a good idea.

I'm not sure I could pull it off.

I operated so lightly, for so long, deliberately interwove my consciousness with my mount's on the deepest levels I could reach, and now it turns out I'm nearly powerless in the creature I should be dominating. (Powerless in dealing with her, that is to say. I can still affect others, though I have to be careful about it.) Worse than that, I may not be able to leave now. I spent an entire year entrenching myself, and never considered that I might ever need to get out, or have any difficulty with it if I tried.

It's infuriating to have waited so long, sacrificed so much, and then find that I've just been digging myself into a tarpit. What's more infuriating is the suspicion that part of what's holding me here, and resisting my inborn right to command, is my mount's aberrant infatuation with the other witch. The whole concept is nonsensical — you subjugate those below you, grovel to those above you, and jockey for position with the rest — but even among humans her commitment would be seen as pathetic if they weren't afraid any objection would slot them as homophobic (meaningless) or intolerant (as if it mattered).

I can see the truth because I understand the truth: she may be sincere, in her own brainless fashion, but the other girl isn't. For that one, the whole business is just a means of escaping a self she learned to hate. And who can blame her? her status has risen, her influence has increased, her natural role as a stammering nonentity has been supplanted by one in which she's actually a functioning part of an established social unit; what surprise that she'd want to keep all that and get more of it? It's a lot more practical than the moonbeam delusions my mount keeps feeding herself — and, on that basis, even deserves a little respect — but it has nothing to do with love or loyalty or mutual devotion. It's power, pure and simple.

She likes the direction she's headed, and wants to keep going that way. She escaped the suffocating dominance of her family — know the feeling! — and never wants to return to it. She buried all that she used to be (or thinks she did), and wants it to stay buried. Why else would she have used astral communion as a subterfuge to shift shared interests into sexual/emotional involvement? Why else would she continually risk herself and my mount in these mystical ventures? Why else would she keep the third witch locked in a cage when the key to release is so obvious?

Why else, in choosing a lover, would she go to such lengths to select one even shyer and plainer and less impressive than she believed herself to be?

I got rooked. I traded one prison for another; even more offensive, I worked hard to screw myself so royally. I left home for freedom, and sublimated freedom for power, and wound up with total zip to show for it. I'm not finished yet, I'll find a way out, but there's just no way to turn any personal profit from the past year.

It gets worse. I'm going to have to become one of the "good guys".

There's no getting around it. I've practically turned my brain inside-out looking for another way, but I don't see one. If love for the other witch is what's keeping me so tightly bound to my mount, I'll have to undercut it at the source. That means driving a wedge between the two of them. That means gradually forcing her, and the rest of the Slayer's entourage, to recognize exactly what's happening with their beloved Willow. That means helping them.

Maybe I should have gone with the redhead after all. I thought I was playing it safe. Who would have suspected that the blonde would turn out to be the stronger of the two?

I'm not happy about this, not at all … and I have an ugly feeling that I'll be a lot less happy before it's all over.