Author's Note: This fic is slightly Alternate Universe, so (in answer to Eledwhen and haz2080's review) Connor is not a "vampire" vampire, but having two vampire parents makes him more vampire than human, in the sense of heritage. In appearance, though, he's mostly human, with a vamp's heightened senses and reflexes. (I don't know if this is true for the TV-series, but this is, like I said, a slightly AU fic, so it doesn't really matter.)

Going to the Sunnydale perspective, I've already returned Spike from Africa to Sunnydale, and although he and Buffy are not an item anymore, he does have a full-fledged new soul, which makes for a slightly (but not very) different Spike altogether – but the catch is, he doesn't know he has a soul, so he has no idea why he starts behaving so strangely...

And Tara's dead, but Oz has returned to take her place as Willow's sweetie. There might be a few storyline-twist-ups here, but let's just call it artistic license, shall we? 

Oh, and Sonora probably did appear too much in the first chapter (tracey, thanks for pointing that out, by the way) but, like I said, I'm a detailoholic and can't help perfecting all of my own characters. But I know that trying to create perfect, flawless characters can be a severe fault as a writer and I'll try to improve on that point.

And (in answer to Tariq's review) I don't know Wesley's character too well, so I don't think he'll be a feature character in this fic, but I'll try to have some dialogue for him.

I think that covers most of the review requests (thank you, by the way: it's always great to have some input for a fic – it shows that I did something right) so, without further delay, we'll get on with the chapter.

~ The Trials of Destiny ~

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Chapter II: The Trials Begin

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Sunnydale, CA

"Oh my god...." Xander stared at the TV screen, face slack and frozen in something near paralysis.

"It looks like... Well, it sort of looks like a dance, if you tilt your head at the right angle," Oz commented, tilting his own head to the side.

Willow popped a crisp into her mouth and gazed at the screen, brow furrowed. "What I don't understand is, where does the cow come in?"

"No, that's a bull," Dawn said, eyebrows raised, "but I have no idea what it's doing at the wedding."

"That's a wedding? I sort of thought it was a harvest festival." Buffy shrugged, eyes riveted to the TV. "I mean, look, they're all wearing orange... No, wait, there's some guy in white..."

"Oh, he's about to shoot the groom!" Willow cried, drawing her head back in surprise. The sound of gunshots came from the TV, then screaming and a loud, wailing moo --- and then silence.

"Well, there goes the bull," Dawn said bluntly. Anya shook her head in amazement. "I have no idea what just happened. Can somebody please translate?"

Xander grinned and took a handful of crisps from Willow's packet. "That's the beauty of Indian movies, Anya. You don't understand them, you can't pronounce any of the names or the title and usually the images stay etched in your mind forever." He sighed contentedly. "Hard to beat the classics."

Oz gave a lopsided smile and raised his hand. "Everyone who thinks that was the last time we let Xander choose the Friday night movie raise their hands."

"Hey!" Xander protested as the whole group waved their hands simultaneously, "it's not like you guys could pick anything better."

Buffy snorted. "Well, it would be hard to pick anything worse."

Giles came into the room just as the movie ended, carrying an armful of candles, spice bags and assorted bottles and jars, and looking as if it cost him an incredible effort just to keep the pile from toppling over. Oz instantly climbed out of the sofa to give him a hand, while Xander got off the floor to make space for the supplies.

"Thank you. Willow, are you ready?" Giles and Willow were preparing to perform a spell that would enable them to communicate with the goddess Nemesis. They were hoping to get some solid information from her, because, as Xander so eloquently put it: "This is the Hellmouth. Anything oogie has to be investigated."

Willow left her seat on the couch and helped Giles set up the supplies, muttering to herself as she did so. She was reciting the words of the spell to make sure she got them right; after her last few encounters with magic – killing Warren in cold blood being one of them – she had become extremely cautious in all her spellcasting. She had been devastated after Tara's death, but gradually her wounds had healed and she had realized that she could once again find happiness with Oz, who had come back to stand by her when she needed him the most. But the memories of her descent to the dark side were still etched in her mind, so she had decided to be especially careful whenever she dealt with Wicca. 

Dawn, Buffy, Anya, Oz and Xander grouped on the couch, watching in fascination as Willow and Giles joined hands, standing in a circle of candles. They had drawn a five-pointed star in chalk inside the circle and were chanting an invocation slowly, their voices flowing with a rich bass tone that was never heard otherwise.

The chant lasted for about five minutes, when a gauzy shape suddenly began to materialize in the room. Buffy instinctively took a defense stance, ready to fight anything "oogie"; but she relaxed when she saw the welcoming smile on Willow's face. When Will has that face, she thought, things have definitely gone right. So, eyes fixed on the strange, glowing figure in the middle of the room, she waited.

The figure became solid, transforming into a tall, regal woman with clouds of white hair an iridescent silver eyes, like ethereal glowing orbs of power. The contours of her shape were slightly blurred, like a figure in an unfocused photograph, and when she spoke her voice was distant and dream-like.

Everyone in the room was surprised when the figure spoke, not to Willow and Giles, but to Buffy. "Slayer," she said, in a tranquil, almost friendly tone, "it is an honor to finally come face to face with you." And with that, she inclined her head gracefully in a half-bow.

Giles coughed uncertainly. "And you are the goddess Nemesis? The one who sent Willow her vision?"

Nemesis smiled appreciatively. "I am indeed. And, although the one you call Willow was responsible for passing on my message, it is the Slayer I have come to see. The Powers That Be wish her to be tested along with the undead formerly known as William the Bloody." She smiled again, looking slightly brisker, more businesslike. "They are expected, and I cannot keep my masters waiting."

"And what if I don't want go?" Buffy asked sharply. "What if Spike doesn't want to go?"

Nemesis' expression did not change. "That, my dear, will not be a problem."
"Oh yeah? And why's that?"

"Because the Powers have complete control over your fates. You will be tested, or you will perish. The choice is yours to make." Nemesis waited easily while Buffy glanced sideways at Oz and Xander, who nodded, and at Dawn, who shrugged and then looked down at the floor. She took a deep breath and turned abruptly. "Giles, you'll take care of Dawn while I'm gone?"

Giles nodded, swallowing whatever protests he had been about to make. Buffy knew what was best for herself, and along with that, best for the rest of the world. "Of course."

"Will, Xander, Oz, Anya – you guys'll cover the slayage?" She didn't even have to ask: all four nodded, and Xander even smiled confidently. "We've done it before, right? So we can do it again."

Buffy forced a smile. "Knew I could count on you." Then she hugged Dawn, briefly. "Take care of yourself," she whispered mildly, and her sister nodded, taking Willow's hand. 

"All set, then. Let's go."

Willow couldn't help remembering afterwards how very strange it had been. No smoke, no glitter, no crying or surprised faces or sudden outbursts. One minute Buffy was there, then the next she was whisked into thin air and gone without a trace of ever having been there. Everybody stood in silence for a minute, then drifted off to find something else to do, trying to ignore the strangeness of it all.

After all, they lived on the Hellmouth – strangeness was something they were used to.

~ ¤ ~

Connor was beyond confusion. If there was another word for "huh?", it would probably be my motto right about now.

In Angel's living room there stood a strange woman – some sort of deity or spirit or something in that direction – and she was talking to his father and Cordelia about being tested and traveling between worlds... Connor was having a hard time taking it in, but one thing he understood for sure.

He wasn't liking it.

"And what about Connor?" Angel asked, cutting Nemesis' explanation short. "What happens to him once me and Cordelia are gone?"

Nemesis smiled patiently. "Your son will stay here. Who takes care of him is entirely up to you."

Angel looked at Connor, his face pensive and worried. "You could always stay with Fred and Gunn... Or – or even Wesley..." He said the last part reluctantly, as if he wished there was some other option.

But Connor shook his head firmly. "No. I want to be close by, so I can be here when you come back. Besides," drawing his head up confidently, "I can take care of myself. I'm almost seventeen already, so no problems on that score."

Cordelia looked as if a thought had suddenly struck her. "You can't stay on your own – I mean, you're hardly adjusted to this place – but you can stay close by. We could ask the Parkers to let you stay with them for a while –"

But Connor shook his head violently. "No way!" He'd rather stay alone than with complete strangers.

Cordelia sighed and turned to Angel instead, shrugging helplessly. "It's the only option we've got."

Angel nodded, looking relieved. "Yes. Curtis will probably be able to keep an eye on him while... while we're away." Connor was about to protest heartily when his father gave him a piercing look, stopping him in mid-word. "You stay with Curtis, period. Fred and Gunn will check in on you from time to time, and you'll be able to get by until Cordelia and I return. When Sonora goes back to school in a week, you'll go with her –" Angel ignored Connor's loud groan "- and stay out of trouble that way. Explain everything to them and tell Curtis I'll repay him when we get back."

He said "'when' we get back", Connor noted, with relief. Not 'if'.

Not "if."   

He was silent, unmoving, when Angel and Cordelia took their places on either side of Nemesis, and mustered a smile and a would-be-cheerful goodbye for them in the few minutes before they left. He did not move when they melted into air and disappeared. He even remained silent and still – almost paralyzed - several moments after they'd gone.

Then he finally forced himself into his new bedroom, flopped onto the bed, still fully clothed, and meticulously inspected the ceiling, his eyes searching for cracks or smudges – anything he could concentrate on besides his whirling thoughts.

There was nothing. It was completely blank, a bland white color that gaped back at him, making his eyes sting.

Completely blank.

~ ¤ ~

"Stay the bloody hell away from me!" Spike's voice was a low, warning growl, coming from a mouth now armed with vicious fangs. His eyes, now the feral yellow of a vampire in full hunt mode, blazed with smoldering anger and acute suspicion.

Nemesis tilted her head and smiled, as calmly as she always did. "At least the Slayer and the Angelic One were willing to accompany me. You, I see now, will need some persuasion." She sighed and tipped her staff forward so that it was facing Spike. Then she waited, almost idly, while a throbbing aura of power collected around the opal set in the golden staff and started to erupt from the gem, like water gushing from a tap.

Spike watched, mesmerized, as the aura wrapped itself around him, froze his body with one quick ripple and started to melt into air, taking him with it...

 Hold on just one bloody minute. Taking me where?!

But struggling – which Spike took to doing with a vengeance - had no effect whatsoever on the staff's power, and it continued to break down Spike's molecules, removing them to another time and place – another dimension altogether, while he tried vainly to shake it off, or scratch it away, or do anything at all that would get it off of him.

"Really, the struggling isn't necessary," Nemesis' tranquil voice called, from across an empty void. She was already on the other side, waiting for the staff to bring Spike to her. "It'll only waste valuable time, child."

Spike growled, eyes flashing. No one had called him "child" in over a hundred and twenty-two years, and he wasn't about to let some freaky witch-woman start with it now. Once his feet touched solid ground again, he swung round ferociously, perfectly ready to tear Nemesis' throat out –--

except it wasn't Nemesis that he saw first.

"Slayer?" Spike was dumbstruck, appalled. He was even more appalled when he saw who was standing next to her. "What is this, some sort of bloody family reunion?"

"Hello, Spike." Angel's voice was icily frigid and ever so slightly hostile. Cordelia just nodded at Spike, seeming slightly dazed, and slipped her hand through Angel's on a nervous impulse.

"Where the hell are we, and what are we doing here?" Spike didn't try to change his features back to normal, knowing that it annoyed Angel to see his vampiric face, since it reminded him so strongly of his own. 

"Seems like you didn't get the supernatural memo, Spike," Buffy said casually, tucking back her honey-blond hair. "The truth is, we're going to be here for quite a while." She shrugged, inspecting her fingernails. "In fact, we might never get out at all. There is a serious risk-factor involved in this, right?" She turned to Nemesis, looking almost bored with the prospect.

"What risk factor? I didn't come here to die!" Cordelia was starting to sound slightly panicked, and Angel pressed her hand reassuringly. Unfortunately, Buffy saw the move and her face became even more indifferent, even more closed in and confident.

"I've already died twice," she said lazily, "and honestly, three times would be too much even for me."

Spike was both amazed and puzzled. Buffy was acting as though she couldn't wait to get it over with - whatever it now was they were there for – and somehow she had turned... different. Cocky. And then he started wondering why the hell he would notice – If the slayer wants to go on one of her power trips, she can go ahead. I don't give a bloomin' damn. I just wanna get out of here.

"Here" seemed very much like ordinary landscape – hills in the distance, grass waving gently in the wind, tall dark trees – when Spike suddenly noticed the sky. It was a pale, watery yellow, like someone had covered the sky in yellow paint and let it wash over the blue in an uneven, blotched layer, turning green in some places.

But that wasn't the strangest part. It took Spike's mind a while to confirm it as a solid fact, but he gradually came to realize that he was staring right at the sun – a vast, blazing sun, ten times larger than the Earth's, wreathed in brilliant blue flame.

It was a strange sun, an alien sun – and a sun that won't fry me into an extra-crispy Happy Vamp Meal. Inwardly, Spike rejoiced; outwardly, he still demanded an explanation. Nemesis provided that explanation, calmly repeating what she had told Angel, Cordelia and Buffy and pausing patiently whenever Spike took the liberty to swear and utter various muttered comments, none of them by any means complimentary. 

"So let me get this straight. Somewhere out there, in a different dimension, there is another version of me –"

" – several other versions, actually," Cordelia interrupted.

" – several other versions," Spike repeated impatiently, "and one of those versions might actually be stronger than I am. So I'm supposed to fight these other versions, save the worlds they live in from whatever mess they've fallen into, and if I manage to win over all of them I get to come back home, but if I don't I'm pretty much left to die while one of them takes my place." He stopped, running a hand through his platinum hair. "Now, where is the part where I can just say no bloody way and walk the hell away from here?"

Nemesis' only response to that was a smile. "Ah, but you left out a very important part. The Trials of Destiny do not only revolve around you."

Nemesis slashed her staff vertically across the air four times, and four doors materialized in front of her. The doors were carved in dark stone, and they all had a different emblem and design to them. One was black, with the carved image of an angel, one was a deep gold and embossed with an image of a sword underneath a shining sun, one was grey-blue and had an eye set in a triangle engraved on it, and the last was a deep crimson and held the image of a black dove with a blade through its heart.

"You will travel through most of the worlds together, but when you encounter these doors, you are to enter through them alone. Behind each door will be a challenge that you must face, and each of you must be ready to do this on your own. If one of you does not emerge from the door he or she has entered, it means that your battle has been lost and the others will have to move on without you."

There was a tense silence, during which Nemesis again smiled, her tranquil look unchanged. "But these doors," she indicated the four lined up next to her, "are not challenges. Behind them are your trial consorts.

"These consorts are the ones you were ultimately meant to have – the ones destiny chose for you – had your lives not changed they way they have. They will travel with you as companions, and eventually they will have to choose between keeping you alive and keeping alive the consorts they had in their home realities. So, ultimately, your lives are in their hands. They must deem you worthy of survival before you can return home."

Buffy's hands were clenched so hard her knuckles were turning white. "So... Whoever's behind that door is our true love? The ones we were meant to spend eternity with?" She didn't even turn to Angel, didn't even glance at him, but somehow he instinctively felt she was talking about him.

"They will be different from how you used to know them, but yes," Nemesis said, "they are who my masters chose for you from the beginning."

Spike eyed the doors, then turned and grinned at the group, flashing an impressive set of fangs. "So, who wants to be the lucky one and go first?" When no one answered, he shrugged. "No volunteers? Well then, I guess I might as well just bloomin' go for it."

He darted forward, wrenched at the crimson door and flung it open.

He froze, his already waxy skin turning a ghastly white, his face shocked. He couldn't believe it. It can't be... There's some sort of mistake...

But there was no mistaking her, mistaking that face with its fresh beauty and childish innocence. There was no mistaking the spark of recognition that lit her large violet eyes and the sweet smile on her face - a small, petite face framed with dark mahogany curls - a familiar face, like the face of a long-lost friend.

"William?" She looked amazed, her hands clasped in startled joy. She even reached out to touch the now-human face, (Spike having returned to normal features in his surprise) only shocking Spike even further into silence.

Spike could hardly force out the name, but it finally escaped him in something barely above a whisper. "Sarah..."

When a stony silence ensued, not even Nemesis ventured to break it. But finally, Buffy raised her hand falteringly. "Okay, let me be the first to say it...

"What the hell is going on here?"       

TBC...

~ ¤ ~

Author's Note: Okay, "Sarah" is not an original character – I saw her on an episode of Buffy when they showed exactly what happened when William was turned into Spike. I can't remember the name of the episode, but I can remember a girl who William read poetry to, and was promptly snubbed by, which caused him to run away and stumble into Drusilla, Angel and Darla. "Sarah" is probably not even her real name, but I'm trying to find out her real name, or else find a more suitable name to give her.

Anyway, as always, reviews are welcome.

Oh, and I uploaded this in a hurry, so please forgive any spelling mistakes or typos.