THE SISTERS OF PARADOX

TITLE: The Sisters of Paradox
AUTHOR: Robert A. Black / bbovenguy@mindspring.com
DISCLAIMER: All things Buffy are the creation and property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy Productions, the WB Network, etc. Certain guest characters are property of the BBC.
RATING: PG
TIME CONTEXT: Set between the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes "Superstar" and "Where the Wild Things Are."

| Parts 1-3 | Parts 4-6 | Parts 7-9 | Parts 10-12 | Parts 13-15 | Parts 16-18 |

 

Part Ten

Colin watched as the red-haired girl walked across the UC Sunnydale campus, heading for the dormitories. Two kinds of hunger burned within him - hunger for her blood, and hunger to avenge what he had lost the last time their paths had crossed.

Oh, yes... he remembered this girl. She had changed her appearance considerably, but he still recognized her. She was one of the four sacrifices who had been taken from him, on the night he had planned to celebrate his Masterís reawakening. He had been ready to take the knife to her throat himself, to spill her blood on the Masterís bones so that he would rise again. Now the Master would never return, and the girl still lived.

For a moment, Colin thought about following the girl, trapping her in a small room and burning her to death slowly with the magic field that kept him whole. The thought was almost too tempting. Almost.

His new masters, the Faction, wanted the girl alive. She was important to them. She was the key to everything they wanted here, or so they said. They would hardly approve of him killing her, and considering that they held his unlife in their hands, their disapproval was not something he sought. The girlís death would have to wait.

Reluctantly, Colin turned away and prepared for the task his masters had given him for the night. The thoughts of the girl lingered in his mind as he did, though. Perhaps, when his masters no longer had any use for her, they would let him kill her after all. At least he could hope.

******

"Iím sorry for interrupting you so late," said Willow. "I know youíve got that exam tomorrow and youíve been cramming all night, but I just had to come over."

Tara hadnít been able to keep from smiling when sheíd opened the door to her room and found Willow standing there. After all, she hadnít exactly been thinking about Ancient Mythology the entire night. But the look on Willowís face and the tone of her voice quickly took Taraís smile away.

"Whatís wrong?" Tara asked.

"I donít know," Willow replied. "I mean, it might be me thatís wrong... or everything else is wrong. Thereís this girl who showed up tonight, and she thinks sheís me... or she thinks she should be me... or I should be her. I donít know what to think any more."

Taraís initial concern was quickly turning to worry. She normally found Willowís tendency to babble endearing, but tonight it frightened her. Something was wrong with the flow of Willowís life-energy, too, and that couldnít be good.

She summoned up the courage and confidence that Willowís presence always gave her. "I finished studying a few minutes ago," she said. "Whateverís going on, you can come in and tell me about it."

Willow smiled at last. Tara led her over to the bed and sat down, motioning for Willow to sit as well. Ancient Mythology would have to wait. There were more important things to think about now.

******

Willow wasnít sure whether she had actually fallen asleep or if her brain had simply decided to stop processing information. Whichever had happened, it was obvious that some time had passed when she became aware of her surroundings again. She opened her eyes to find herself lying on Gilesís couch. The smell of pizza in the air told her a full-blown research session was in progress.

"Are you there yet?" said a voice. "Because theyíve taken all the chairs and I need a place to sit down."

Willow looked up and saw Anya staring at her. The ex-demon had a plate full of pizza in one hand and a drink in the other.

"Whatís going on?" Willow asked as she struggled to a sitting position.

"Theyíre going over the Watcher diaries," Anya replied as she sat down. "Willow had them in her computer. The other Willow, I mean."

Willow grimaced. She definitely did not like hearing her name attached to the other girl. If Anya took any notice of her distress, she said nothing about it.

"So," Willow began a bit nervously, "you lost your powers in this reality too, didnít you?"

Anya nearly choked, but managed to swallow in time before turning to glare at Willow. "How do you know about my powers?" she demanded.

"You came to me, when you were still a demon," Willow replied. If Buffy and Xander remembered the real world, maybe Anya would remember as well. "I was heartbroken, because I realized that Xander was in love with Amy and would never love me."

"Amy?" Anya repeated. "You mean that witch who turned herself into a rat, and now Willow canít change her back? Um, thatís the other Willow, I mean."

For the first time all day, Willow smiled. "Amyís a rat?" she said. "Well, at least somethingís right about this world."

"Hey!" Anya exclaimed. "I know what youíre thinking, and you can stop right now. You canít have Xander, no matter what Amy is. Now tell me more about what I did."

"Donít worry about Xander," Willow said reassuringly. "Iím totally over him. In fact, it was the wish you gave me that did it. I wished for a world where Amy had never gotten her body switched back with her mom. You gave me a world where Amyís mom had killed Buffy and Giles, and was ruling Sunnydale as the Masterís vampire witch queen."

"Wow," said Anya. "I was really on that day."

"If you say so," said Willow. "Except that world didnít last. Angel and Faith broke your necklace, and that set everything back to normal."

"Well, duh," said Anya. "Thatís how the Power of the Wish works, as you can see from my powerless state now."

"Do you think thatís how Faction Paradoxís power works, too?" Willow wondered. "Do you think thereís a way I can get the world back to normal again?"

Anya shrugged. "They certainly didnít think so," she replied.

"Yeah, but they want the world like this," Willow countered. "They want - " She couldnít bring herself to call the other girl by her own name. "They want... her... to do something for them. Something I canít do. If I stop her, do you think the world might switch back?"

"I suppose itís possible," said Anya. "But thatís really not my field. I was a vengeance demon, not a temporal demon."

By now, Xander had broken away from the research group and was coming over to join them. His look told Willow that he still wasnít sure about her, but he was trying to be friendly anyway. "Youíre awake," he said to Willow in a tone that matched his expression. "Are you feeling any better?"

Before Willow could replay, Anya was on her feet and in Xanderís face. "Xander," she said, "I just want to make one thing perfectly clear. If Willow ever makes Amy human again, she canít have you. Uh, thatís the other Willow, I mean. No! I mean Amy... canít have you... well, neither of them can have you! Do you understand me?"

Xander clearly did not understand Anya, which prompted the ex-demon to take him aside for a more thorough discussion. Willow paid no attention to them. Her mind was busy thinking about her predicament. There was still a chance - a small chance, but a chance - that she could go home to her world. All she had to do was stop the other girl from doing whatever the Faction wanted her to do. It was a long shot, but it was better than nothing.

******

"...and so thatís how I ended up here," said Willow. "I donít really know what to do. I just feel numb all over."

Tara had listened to Willowís story in stunned silence. She knew all about the weird things that could happen to a person when magic was involved, and she knew about the dangers that Willow had faced as one of Buffyís friends, but this was beyond anything she had ever heard of. She didnít really know what to do, either.

"Willow, I..." she began, but faltered, unsure of herself.

"I mean, even if these Faction Paradox guys did change things so that I would be born," Willow went on, "which I donít completely believe, by the way, that still doesnít mean Iím some kind of puppet, right? Iím still me, arenít I? I donít have to do whatever it is they want."

"Well, I think..." Tara began again, but she could tell that Willowís mind had gone into overdrive and probably wouldnít slow down for her.

Sure enough, Willow wasnít quite finished. "But then," she continued, "what if I canít help helping them? What if theyíve set things up so carefully that Iíll help them no matter what I do?" Her eyes widened as another thought occurred to her. "Or... what if I have to help them or Iíll disappear or something?"

Tara frowned. She didnít like where Willowís thoughts were going. Not at all. "What do you mean?" she asked.

"Well," Willow replied, "itís not like we havenít seen alternate universes before. Anya was able to create one with her powers. And we were just in that one Jonathan created. Both of those disappeared as soon as the spell was broken."

"Willow, Iím sure those times were different." Tara was even more worried now.

"Iím not!" Willow exclaimed. "What if this universe is going to disappear if things donít go right? What if I disappear and... and that other girl is the one you all know as Willow Rosenberg?"

Tara couldnít help gasping at the thought. It didnít help Willow, who was now on the verge of either tears or panic.

"I donít want to go poof!" Willow cried. "I donít want to disappear like some dream that doesnít belong here. I mean, a few months ago, right after Oz left, I would have said, ĎSure, poof away!í But now... I canít stand the thought that Iím part of something thatís not real."

Willow drooped her head and stared down at her hands as they lay on the bed in front of her. Tara watched for a moment, wishing she could make the pain go away. She would do what she could. She reached out and took Willowís hands, holding them in her own.

"Willow," Tara said. Willow looked up, and her tear-stained eyes met Taraís, faltering a bit but not turning away.

Tara gripped Willowís hands more tightly. "You," she continued, "are the m-m-mmost real person Iíve ever known."

Tara grimaced inwardly, wishing that she could be articulate enough to express what Willow meant to her. Willow was the one who had no problem with words, and now Willowís obvious need left Tara feeling inadequate.

On the other hand, Willow didnít seem to think as little of Taraís expressiveness as Tara did. Visibly moved, she sank to the bed, as if she was a balloon having its air let out slowly, until she was lying across Taraís lap, sobbing quietly.

Tara wrapped her arms around Willowís body, holding her gently. It was going to be a long night, and her Ancient Mythology professor would have no sympathy, but at the moment Tara didnít care. If she could help Willow at all, it was worth it.

******

The sun was coming up by the time Buffy finished her last patrol. Admittedly, she had made some stops along the way. They still didnít like her at the Initiative, but at least they were civil enough to tell her that Riley was being cared for and that his hands werenít seriously burned. She had also stopped at Stevenson Hall to see how Willow was doing, but she had found their dorm room empty.

It made sense, Buffy thought. Willow had found a good friend in Tara, a friend who had helped Willow finally get through the pain of her breakup with Oz the previous fall. If Willow was too upset to help with the research, it figured that she would seek her friendís company again.

Taraís dorm wasnít too far off the route back to Gilesís apartment, so Buffy decided to swing by and pick Willow up. She was on her way there when the sounds of panicking people got her attention instead.

Something was going on at the Sunnydale Mission dig site. The protesters had been setting up tents the day before, so they could try to block the archaeology team from getting back to work. Now then tents were a mass of wreckage, and the protesters were screaming and running in all directions.

Buffy rushed into the middle of the chaos. There wasnít a vampire or a demon in sight, but obviously something had the people terrified. She was still trying to figure out what was happening when a large man ran headlong into her and they both fell to the ground. Buffy was back on her feet and ready to attack when she realized that the man was Professor Kane from the Archaeology Department and not some kind of demon.

"Professor Kane!" Buffy exclaimed. "Whatís going on here?"

"Iím not sure," Professor Kane said breathlessly. "My translator and I came down here to get some work done before the protestors were too awake to get in our way. We had just started in on the new relics - the ones that didnít match the Chumash artifacts - when some... some thing attacked us!"

"Some... thing?" Buffy repeated.

The Professor shrugged. "I didnít get a good look at it," he said. "But itís fast and itís dangerous. Somehow it managed to burn straight through the leg of my assistantís pants."

Buffyís eyes widened. "Is your assistant all right?" she asked.

Professor Kane nodded. "We think so," he answered, "but we still donít know what did it. My translator said it looked like some kind of fire demon from Chumash mythology - except that there are no such things, of course."

Buffy forced a smile. "Of course," she replied.

By now the protestors had fled, leaving their supplies behind in scattered heaps. The Professor excused himself as well, saying he needed to check on his team. Buffy let him go. She had more important things to think about.

Obviously, the Anointed One was in the Mission. He wasnít there to hunt, either, or he would have killed the Professor and anyone else with him. For some reason, Faction Paradox had sent him there to create a highly visible ruckus. One the Slayer would be sure to see.

So, they were inviting her to be a part of their plan, were they? Buffy knew she had to take them up on the offer - but she wasnít planning to go alone. She quickly turned and ran for Gilesís apartment.

******

Part Eleven

Tara awoke as a loud thud sounded in her ears, followed by whispered curses muttered in an ancient tongue that she wasnít conscious enough to identify. She opened her eyes and saw Willow standing in the middle of the room, holding a shoe in one hand and limping slightly.

Once again, Tara found herself unable to keep from smiling. "Good morning," she said.

Willow looked up. "Oops," she said sheepishly. "I didnít want to wake you up. Youíve got that exam today, and you were already so good to me last night..."

"Iíll be fine," Tara assured her. "I... I wanted to be up this early. I wanted to be sure you were okay."

Willow smiled. She was trying to be reassuring, but Tara could see that she was still frayed around the edges. "Iíll make it," Willow said. "I guess I have to, donít I? I mean, whatever happens, I should go out there and face it, shouldnít I?"

Tara pulled herself out of bed and stood to face Willow, taking her hand. "Do you want me to come with you?" she asked.

Willow dropped her shoe and took Taraís other hand. "You should go take your exam," she insisted. With another slight smile, she added, "After all, I wouldnít want you flunking out of school over someone who might not even exist tomorrow."

Tara felt the bottom drop out of her stomach. She knew Willow was trying to make light of the situation, but it wasnít working. Tara had been the strong one all night, and now the strain of it was taking its toll. She tightened her grip on Willowís hands and looked into Willowís eyes. Despite Willowís seemingly light mood, Tara saw the same strain and worry looking back at her. She drew closer, as if their shared anxiety was pulling them together.

"W-w-wwwillow," Tara stammered. "I... I..."

The phone rang, making both girls jump. Tara whirled around and looked at the phone briefly. By the time she turned back, Willowís face was full of grim determination.

"Thatís got to be Buffy," Willow said. "Somethingís happened."

Tara looked back at the phone. Its ring was starting to sound like a funeral bell.

******

The Sunnydale Mission looked very different from when Xander first saw it the previous November. Back then, when heíd accidentally fallen through its buried roof, no one had been inside for almost two centuries. No one living, anyway - Chumash vengeance spirits didnít count. Now it had been cleaned up considerably, as the archaeology teams had picked through the debris and worked to restore the artwork on the walls, but Xander didnít feel any more comfortable going back into the place. Not even the work lights that illuminated most of the interior were very reassuring. Too many shadows remained, where things like burning unkillable vampires might be lurking.

As Xander stepped off the ladder and onto the Mission floor, he switched on the blaster they had "borrowed" from the Initiative a while ago. Ahead of him, Riley switched on the blaster he was carrying as well. The commandoís hands were still bandaged, but he had insisted on joining them.

"You know those arenít going to do any good," Buffy said as she led the way into the Mission.

"Just taking precautions," said Riley. "They may not kill that thing, but they can give us cover if we have to get out in a hurry."

By now, the entire group had made it down into the Mission. Willow and the other girl who was somehow also Willow hurried forward to join Buffy, each girl eyeing the other warily. Samantha Jones brought up the rear of the group.

"Any idea what weíre looking for?" the brown-haired other Willow asked.

"My guess is that it has something to do with those new artifacts they found," Willow replied. "The ones that didnít look like they came from the Chumash."

"Thatís what Iím thinking, too," said Buffy, and Xander caught Willow giving a slight satisfied smile in response.

"All right, then," said Riley. "Where would those be?"

"Good question," said Buffy. Turning back to the group, she asked, "Xander, is there anything that looks different from when you were stuck down here before?"

Xander shrugged. "Just everything," he replied. "Theyíve really done a lot with the place." He looked around, trying to remember how everything had appeared when the Mission was in its former dark, musty condition. Finally, his eyes spotted a hole broken into the far wall, just past the Missionís altar. "There," he said, pointing toward the hole. "I donít think that was here."

The group picked their way across the Mission, and with Buffy leading the way, stepped through the hole. Xander gave himself the job of covering the rest of the group, just in case the Anointed One was planning to sneak up behind them. Once the others were through, he took one last look around and stepped through himself.

The hole led into another chamber, and even someone who knew as little about archaeology as Xander did could see why the UC Sunnydale team was so interested in the place. A large statue stood in the center of the room. It was about eight feet tall and was most definitely a demon, although not like any demon Xander had seen before. Apparently, it was supposed to walk on two legs, but it had four arms instead of two, and a pair of large wings sprouting from its back. Its face was long and narrow, like a lizardís. All in all, it reminded Xander of a gargoyle, like the ones on the churches in Europe or on that Disney cartoon series from a few years back. A circle of nine green stones surrounded the statue, and each stone had a narrow copper strip running from it to the statueís base.

"Wow," Buffy remarked. "Iím glad there arenít any of these in the neighborhood."

"This is amazing," said Willow. "Chumash mythology..."

"...never had a creature like this one in it," the other Willow finished. Willow glared at her brown-haired counterpart. "Hey! I did the research back at Thanksgiving, too," the other Willow said defensively.

"So whatís it doing here?" Buffy asked, apparently trying to get the two Willows refocused on the task at hand.

"Thatís probably what the archaeology team was trying to figure out," said Sam.

"Does any of this look like something connected to Faction Paradox?" Buffy asked the Englishwoman.

Sam shook her head. "Not that I can tell," she replied.

"Hey, look at this," Riley called from the far wall of the chamber. The group hurried over to join him. The wall next to the commando was covered with strange symbols and pictures.

"These are Chumash pictographs," said the other Willow.

"Not all of them," Willow countered. Pointing at a section of the wall, she added, "I donít think the Chumash used this one very often."

Xander followed Willowís hand to the wall and immediately saw what had gotten her attention. In the middle of the symbols was an unmistakable human figure with a batís head, just as Cousin Lawrence and Cousin Miles had appeared.

"Well, that answers the question of what the Faction is doing here," said Sam. "Looks like theyíve got some unfinished business."

Buffy looked back at the statue. "So this is what they want Willow for?" she said. "Is she supposed to do something to this statue?"

"Trust me, Buffy, I donít want to go anywhere near that thing," Willow replied.

Sam was still looking at the pictographs on the wall. "If we could figure out what this means," she said, "we might be able to guess what the Factionís up to."

"Sure, no problem," said the other Willow. "Did anybody bring their Chumash-to-English dictionary?"

Xander was about to make a comment, when he suddenly heard something move. He brought his blaster around quickly, but he couldnít see anything. The end of the chamber where the noise had come from contained a number of old chests and other objects, all casting plenty of shadows and providing a number of convenient hiding places.

"Did you hear that?" Xander asked the others.

Buffy nodded and slowly crept over toward the chests. Riley followed, covering her with his blaster. Xander moved that way as well. As he approached the chests, he saw a number of old papers and books lying on top of them.

"Well, thatís certainly convenient," Buffy remarked. "Nothing like leaving an obvious clue in an easy-to-find place."

As Buffy reached down to pick up one of the books, Xander noticed a slight orange glow shining from behind one of the chests. "Buffy," he called, "I think you should wait a - "

Before he could finish, the Anointed One leaped out and grabbed Buffy by the arm. Buffy cried out in pain and surprise and tried to fling the small vampire away, but the Anointed Oneís grip held.

Xander tried to aim his blaster, but he couldnít get a clear shot. Neither could Riley. Fortunately, Buffy was far from beaten. She jerked her arm toward herself, sending the Anointed Oneís head crashing into the chest. Before he could recover, she brought her other hand around and punched the vampire on the jaw. His grip failed him and he went flying back into the shadows.

Now Xander had a clear target, and he made the most of it, hitting the Anointed One squarely in the chest with a burst of blaster fire. The vampire was knocked against the far wall. He lay there for a second, but was soon on his feet and approaching the group again.

"Get the books!" Riley shouted. "Weíll hold him until everyoneís out of here!"

Both Willows ran forward and grabbed as many books as they could, while Sam ran forward to help Buffy. As Riley and Xander took turns blasting the Anointed One against the wall, the rest of the group beat a hasty retreat. Xander followed the women out, while Riley brought up the rear.

By the time they reached the top of the ladder leading out of the Mission, it was clear that the Anointed One wasnít following them. Xander was relieved, but the look he saw on Buffyís face made it clear that she didnít share the feeling.

"Okay, does anyone else feel like a rat caught in a maze?" Buffy asked.

"What are you talking about?" Xander asked.

"The whole thing was a setup," said Sam. "The Faction wanted us down there, and they wanted us to find that stuff. Whatever theyíre up to, weíre following their plan perfectly."

Xander looked over at the two Willows. Both had paled noticeably at Samís remark. Trying to preserve some sense of optimism, he looked over at Buffy and said, "But we can still beat them, right? We can still figure out their plan and stop it, canít we?"

"With Faction Paradox, itís never that simple," said Sam.

"Then I say we make it simple," said Buffy. "Letís find a way to take out the Anointed One. If he canít run any more errands, maybe the Factionís plan will fall apart."

"Sounds like a plan," said Riley.

"Except for the part about not knowing how to take out the Anointed One," Sam countered.

"There are rituals that can counteract Vodoun spells and curses," said Willow. "Iíve never heard of any that involve time travel, but we might be able to adapt something."

"Sounds like itís time to head back to Giles and his books," said Buffy.

The rest of the group agreed, and they quickly started back. Xander couldnít help noticing, however, that the brown-haired alternate-universe Willow was now looking at her counterpart even more suspiciously than before. That couldnít be good. Not good at all.

******

"You know, Mister Giles," said Sarah Jane Smith, "these Watcher Diaries are fascinating reading."

"Really?" Giles replied. "I always found them to be rather dry and long-winded myself."

"I donít suppose youíd consider letting me make some copies?" said Sarah. "If Iíd known you still had all this, I wouldnít have bothered with having Sam sneak around to find your Slayer."

Giles sighed. "In light of the present situation, Iím going to ignore that remark," he said. "But once thatís done..."

Unfortunately, before Giles could say what he had in mind, he was interrupted by a commotion from the other room.

"What are you doing?" cried Spike. "Give me that bloody remote! You canít just flip away from Passions in the middle like that!"

"I already told you weíre watching Divorce Court," Anya shot back. "You wouldnít believe how much business I used to get out of that show."

It was times like this that Giles wished he still had a job, so he could take a vacation and get away from it all.

"Hang on a minute," said Sarah, her eyes fixed on the computer screen.

"Ms. Smith," Giles replied, "I would really prefer if youíd stop suggesting..."

"Never mind that!" Sarah cried. "I think Iíve got something. Come over here and look."

Giles hurried back to the computer and quickly studied the screen. "November 1844," he read. "The Council has finally translated a set of mysterious documents that were found in London almost one-hundred years ago. As impossible as it may sound, the text was written in the language of the American Cherokee Indian tribe, despite the fact that their written language was created only recently by Mister George Guess, also known as Sequoya."

"Sounds like a paradox to me," Sarah remarked. "Donít you think?"

"Do the diaries say what was in the text?" Giles asked, grabbing the computerís mouse and moving it across the mouse pad.

"Itís on the next page," Sarah replied as she took the mouse back and clicked on the appropriate icon.

Giles quickly scanned the screen. "There," he said, pointing to a paragraph near the bottom. "That looks like a prophecy. Or at least a plan of some sort." Scrolling the screen down farther, he began to read:

"As the Spirits have decreed, so shall our actions be. The handiwork of those who opposed us in the land of the Hokan people shall be undone. When the way has been cleared, we shall send forth the Sisters of Paradox, and by their hands shall chaos be unleashed."

"The Hokan people?" Sarah repeated.

"Hokan was the language of the Chumash," Giles replied. "Whateverís going to be happen, it will happen right here."

"Right," said Sarah. "All we have to do is find these Sisters of Paradox, then."

"I thought you said the Faction members you saw were brothers," said Giles. "And that they referred to each other as cousins."

"Faction members refer to each other by all sorts of family names, right up to Grandfather Paradox himself," Sarah replied. "The two we saw may have been some kind of advance scouting party."

Just then, the front door opened and Buffy raced through, followed by the rest of the group that had gone to the Sunnydale Mission. Both Willow and the other Willow were carrying several old books.

"Does everyone still have their research hats on?" Buffy asked. "Because weíve got something youíre just going to love."

******

Willow was determined not to take her eyes off the red-haired girl. Between what they had found in the Mission and what Giles and Sarah had found in the Watcher Diaries, the puzzle pieces were beginning to fit together. It was only a matter of time before Willow learned what Faction Paradox expected the red-haired girl to do. Once she knew, she would do whatever she could to prevent it from happening.

Giles was busy looking through one of the volumes from the Mission. "If I read this correctly," he said, "one of the old friars attempted to translate the Chumash pictographs that were on the wall. They tell the story of a terrible beast that appeared in the Chumash hunting grounds. Wherever it went, the earth itself was thrown into chaos."

"That must be what that statue represents," said Buffy. Turning to Anya, she asked, "What did you say that was?"

"From the way you describe it," Anya replied, "it sounds like a temporal demon. A servant of Eryishon, the Endless One. I ran into a couple of them back in the sixteenth century."

"Just the sort of thing Faction Paradox would be interested in," said the red-haired girl. "How did the Chumash stop it?"

Giles looked through the book again. "It says here that some kind of mysterious stranger arrived. I donít think the friar could translate the pictograph properly. The text identifies the stranger as some sort of clown or trickster. A pale man with curly hair, dressed in brightly colored clothing."

Sam stifled a laugh. Looking over at Sarah, she asked, "Does that sound like anyone you know?"

Sarah smiled and nodded. "Except I never saw him looking like that," she replied.

"Neither did I," said Sam. "But that doesnít prove anything."

"What are you talking about?" asked Riley.

"Nothing," Sarah replied. "Just a... mythic figure... Sam and I are familiar with."

"So what did this mysterious stranger do?" Buffy asked.

Giles read further. "According to this," he said, "the mysterious stranger taught the local shamans how to bind the creature and turn it to stone. Their incantation was so powerful that Ďthe bat-headed peopleí - Faction Paradox, obviously - were unable to break it."

"So that statue isnít really a statue," said Xander. "Itís the temporal demon, still bound by the spell."

"And now the Faction is back, hoping that these ĎSisters of Paradoxí will set the demon loose again," Buffy concluded.

"So it would seem," said Giles.

"The Anointed One must be guarding the demon," said the red-haired girl. "Keeping everyone away until the Sisters show up."

"But that doesnít explain why he led us in there and let us get away with these books," Willow objected, finally deciding to speak up. Looking over at the red-haired girl, she added, "Or what the Faction wants with her."

"No, it doesnít," Giles agreed. "But at least we have a starting point. Somehow, we must keep the temporal demon from being freed. Thereís no telling what will happen if we fail."

******

Part Twelve

"Willow, do you think thatís enough mandrake root? I have more if we need it."

Willow looked over at the mortar Tara was using and felt her brain start to lock up. The past couple of days had been filled with far too much information even for her sharp mind to process, and now she was having trouble wading through it all to find the facts she needed.

"I... Iím not sure," she replied at last. "Maybe we should add a bit more, just to be on the safe side."

Tara nodded and turned to the pile of ingredients sitting on the counter beside her. As she did, Willow turned back to the book sheíd been trying to read. The words started swimming in front of her eyes, and she had to blink to bring them back into focus.

Things were not going well, and Willow could hear a part of her mind chiding her about it. Earlier that day, they had spent several hours trying to research the Vodoun religion, hoping that perhaps they could find a way to contact some friendly loa to oppose the loa that Faction Paradox followed. Little did they realize how many loa there were. There would be no way to sort through the many hundreds of sprits in time. Instead, they were now going back to their Wiccan knowledge, hoping that the magicks would be able to overcome the powers they faced.

"So, whatís supposed to happen when I add the sulfur powder?" Tara asked.

"You mean other than making the whole room smell bad?" Willow said with a slight smile. "Once we put the whole thing in solution and boil it with the proper incantations, we should have your basic all-purpose unbinding potion, good enough to break the Factionís spell on the Anointed One. At least, thatís the idea."

In reality, Willow was improvising and she knew it. She knew that Tara knew it, too. Taraís face was quickly dropping into that expression she always got when she had to say something she didnít want to say.

Willow shoved her book aside and gently put a hand on Taraís arm. "Whatís wrong?" she asked. "Did we miss something?"

Tara looked up and into Willowís eyes. "Itís not that," she said. "I just donít like the idea of you w-w-wwalking back into that chamber. W-w-wwhat if thatís exactly what Faction Paradox wants you to do?"

Willowís grip on Taraís arm tightened a bit. "I thought about that, too," she admitted. "But that thing Giles found in the Watcher Diaries might mean Iím okay. If the temporal demon can only be freed by these ĎSisters of Paradox,í we might be able to get in and get back out before they show up."

Tara looked away again. Willow could see her trying to steel herself for something. When she looked back, her eyes were full of the determination that Willow knew lurked deep inside her but seldom came out.

"I want to come with you," Tara said.

"Are you sure?" Willow asked. Tara had never gone into a fight before. By her own admission, she wasnít any good at it. "You know this stuff is dangerous. If anything happens..."

"If anything happens, I want to be with you." Tara tried to sound insistent, but her resolve was already faltering slightly. Willowís concern had thrown her off. "I could... um, be your anchor," she continued. "In case... you know, Faction Paradox tries to... um, take over your brain or something."

Willow gave a stunned smile, momentarily at a loss for words. She was still concerned, of course, but how could she turn Tara down? Especially considering that if things went wrong and she really was about to go poof, she wanted to spend as much of her remaining time... No, better not to think like that.

By now, Tara was looking away. "I know, itís kind of a dumb idea," she said hurriedly, turning her attention back to the mortar and the ingredients inside it. "Iíll just f-f-fffinish the potion."

Willow gave Taraís arm a reassuring squeeze. "Good," she said. "Because weíll need it when we both go face the Anointed One."

Tara stopped what she was doing and looked back at Willow, her eyes full of both joy and fear. "Right," she said, nodding her head slightly in a nervous fashion. "We will."

****

The worst part about being thrown out of your own universe, Willow decided, was that you didnít have any clean clothes waiting for you in the new universe. She couldnít very well go get something out of her dorm room or her house. Trying to fit into the clothes the red-haired girl wore probably wouldnít accomplish anything other than making her more depressed.

Fortunately, Willow could be thankful for British journalists and their expense accounts. While Buffy, Giles and the others went into research mode, Sarah and Sam had whisked her off for a round of shopping, then taken her back to their hotel to get cleaned up. By the time they were ready to go back to Gilesís apartment, Willow was actually starting to feel human again.

"Are you sure you want to come with us?" Sam asked, turning around to look back at Willow from her place in the front seat of the car. "I mean, you donít have to. You can sit this one out if you want."

"And do what?" Willow replied. She tried not to sound angry, but some of her emotions must have slipped through, because Sam immediately looked pained. "Iím sorry," she said quickly. "Itís just... difficult. Not knowing where I belong in the world any more..."

Willow had meant to be conciliatory, but the Englishwoman looked more troubled. "Believe me, I understand," she said quietly. "More than you might think."

Willow thought about asking Sam what she meant, but changed her mind and said nothing. There were already too many things on her mind for her to think about anything else. Besides, if she did too much more talking, she might slip and let someone know what she was thinking about most.

Something - instinct perhaps, or maybe even the pull of her home world, even though it was supposedly gone - something told her that tonight was the night she had to stop the red-haired girl. Forces Willow couldnít even pretend to understand were coming together, and the red-haired girl was playing right into their hands. If Willow could stop her from fulfilling her role in it all, things just might return to normal and Willow could go home again.

By the time they arrived at Gilesís apartment, things were already in full swing. Giles, Riley and Xander were going over strategy while Anya tried to look interested. Despite the fact that night had fallen and he was free to leave, Spike still sat in a corner of the room, trying to look uninterested. The red-haired girl was there as well, involved in some kind of discussion with Buffy. A blonde girl Willow didnít recognize stood next to the red-haired girl, holding a large flask with some sort of liquid inside it.

"Are you guys sure you both want to go?" Buffy was asking.

"Weíre sure," the red-haired girl replied. Indicating the flask, she added, "The potion will be a lot more effective if Tara and I both do the invocation. Weíre a couple of badasses when we put our powers together."

So that was it. Willowís instincts were right. Somehow, she had to stop the red-haired girl and - what was the other girlís name? Oh, yes - Tara from using the potion they had concocted.

As Willow watched, she noticed something else as well. The way the red-haired girl and Tara looked at each other, smiling broadly, with their eyes twinkling. It was almost as if...

Oh, dear God, no.

It was bad enough that the red-haired girl was going around with her name. It was even worse that the red-haired girl was casting spells and mixing potions and making everyone think that Willow Rosenberg was some kind of witch. But was Willow now supposed to believe that this imposter was also...?

"Ms. Smith!" Giles called, breaking Willowís train of thought. "I trust you didnít have any problems getting back here?"

"No people in bat-skull masks out roaming the streets, if thatís what you mean," said Sarah. "It looks like the Faction is still lying low."

"Splendid," said Giles. "In that case, we might still be able to stop them in time."

"Youíve got a plan worked out?" Sam asked.

"Itís nothing fancy, but it should work," Buffy replied. "We go in, we find the Anointed One, Willow and Tara hit him with their mojo and then we stake him. Whenever the Sisters of Paradox show up, theyíll find us waiting for them."

Willow fumed. Buffy hadnít even bothered to mention which Willow would be casting the spell, as if there was only one worth her thinking about. The indignities were piling up fast.

"Right," said Sam. "Letís get started, then."

Buffy shook her head. "Not this time, Iím afraid," she said. "Weíre going for minimum risk, here. Just the basics. Willow and Tara to work the spell, and Riley and Xander to keep them covered with the blasters. Thatís it."

Now Willow had had enough. "Wait just a second," she shouted, stepping forward. "Youíre not leaving me out of this."

Buffy turned to face her, and their eyes locked for a moment. Willow could see the recognition in Buffyís eyes, lurking just out of her reach, and she tried to stare it into the open. She was Buffyís best friend! Somehow, she had to make the Slayer remember that.

But her efforts did no good. After a moment, Buffy looked away again. "Iím sorry," she said firmly. "I feel like there are too many people in danger already. If the spell doesn't work, the Anointed One might not be so willing to let us go this time."

"These people took my world away!" Willow cried. "Donít tell me I have to sit here and do nothing about it!"

Sarah turned back toward Willow with a sympathetic look on her face. "Willow," she said, "I know itís difficult, but I think theyíre right this time. I know you want to go, but..."

"Donít tell me what I want!" Willow snapped angrily. "What I want is to go home! To walk into my dorm room and have it be my dorm room. To walk into here and have all of you recognize me. To have my friends remember that theyíre my friends. But I canít have that, can I? And youíre all so busy that you canít even bother to think about it, can you?"

She burned her angry gaze into each one of them in turn, daring any of them to speak. None of them did. "Thatís what I thought," she said at last. "So until you decide youíre not so busy after all, donít you dare tell me what I want."

There was only one thing left that Willow could do, and she knew what it was. Sooner or later, they would all try to stop her, but she didnít care any more. Let them try. She would rather go down fighting.

Before anyone could react, Willow turned and stormed out of the apartment. She didnít have much time before the red-haired imposter was on the way back to the Mission, ready to do the Factionís bidding. Willow had to stop her. Somehow.

****

"She was right, you know," said Sam. "You canít know how she feels. None of you can."

Giles took off his glasses and rubbed his weary eyes. It had been almost half an hour since Buffy and the others had set out for the Mission, promising to be on the lookout for the other Willow and to do all they could to keep her safe. The brown-haired girlís tirade still weighed heavily on them. Or most of them, at any rate. Spike seemed thoroughly entertained by it all.

"Maybe we canít know how she feels," Giles finally said, "but that doesnít mean we couldnít do more to help her. After this is over, perhaps. By that time, her anger will probably have subsided, and then..."

"Youíre assuming Buffyís not going to find her dead at the Annoying Oneís feet," Spike interjected.

"You donít think Willow would go attack that vampire all by herself, do you?" said Sarah.

"Just trying to look on the bright side," Spike replied. "Well, from my point of view, anyway."

"As always, Spike, your insight is unparalleled," Giles said dryly.

"All right, then," Spike countered. "What do you think Brownieís going to do? What would Red do in Brownieís place? They are the same person, arenít they?"

"Actually, theyíre not," Giles replied. "They have the same name and the same parents, but they obviously have different genetic combinations. You might almost say they were like..." He trailed off as a realization suddenly struck him.

"Oh my God."

"What?" Sarah asked.

"The two Willows," said Giles. "The one we know and the one from the other universe. They have the same parents, but different genes. Essentially, from a strictly biological standpoint, theyíre sisters."

Sarahís eyes widened as she caught on. "But they canít be sisters," she said, "because they were conceived only one month apart. Thereís no way they could come from the same timeline."

"The Sisters of Paradox," Sam gasped. "Itís them. Theyíre walking right into whatever the Faction wants from them."

"Not necessarily," said Giles, looking for a shred of hope to cling to. "We donít know where the other Willow went. She might have gone to some familiar place to collect her thoughts or vent her anger. The Bronze, maybe."

"No, she didnít," said Anya. "She went to stop Willow. The other Willow, I mean."

"How do you know that?" Giles asked.

"Last night she was talking to me about it," Anya replied. "She said something about how if she could stop the other Willow, the world might change back to the way she knows it." The ex-demon looked around the room, curiously staring at all the glares directed at her. "Did I not mention that before?" she asked.

There was no time to scold Anya for her forgetfulness. There was no time for anything, in fact. "We have to catch them," said Giles. "Before itís too late for any of us."

End Of Part Twelve

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