DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course.  And the chapter titles are courtesy of Miles Davis.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY:  Buffy and Spike have arrived at Sira Sommeil, while Stella and Freddie have summoned a djab to perform some type of spell on an unsuspecting Willow…

*************

Chapter 20: Yesternow

Pain.

Like someone had hooked a white-hot claw into her chest and yanked it downwards, splitting her open and leaving her exposed before dragging its talons back up into her throat.

Screaming had been reflex.

All Willow had wanted was for it to stop, the fleeting question---I wonder if this is how Buffy feels when she gets hurt---the only statement approaching rational thought flickering through her mind.

When it came, its cessation was welcomed, respite offering a moment’s peace before she felt herself being hurtled---was that real?  Was her body actually moving?---through an ebony void, a cacophony of voices hammering against her ears.  Men, women, children…some whispering, others speaking as if nothing was wrong, the occasional scream of terror…

…and one, louder than the rest, laughing in madness as it grew in volume until it was the only thing Willow could hear.  Female, with a shivery drawl that made her skin feel sticky, hers and yet…not hers.

Its words when it spoke made the pain seem like ashes compared to the sense of dread that now suffused the witch’s being.

“Goodbye, little girl…”

She could see then, but when she tried to move her body, it refused her wishes, acting out of synch with her thoughts, as if someone else was pulling its strings.  Horrified, Willow watched the world tilt as she stood up, looked to the heavens before turning her gaze to her companions.  Freddie, and Stella, and some blonde vampire that gave Armani a really bad name.

She heard her voice then, the words Willow’s gone eliciting a silent scream of denial from her throat.

I’m not gone! she wanted them to hear.  I’m right here! 

But they couldn’t hear.  Nobody could.  Not even whoever it was…

…And she realized then that she could sense the other’s thoughts, remember the other’s memories, and knew then just what this whole kidnapping thing had been about.

Holy Hecate, she thought, and felt the void around her swirl in panic as what remained of her existence reacted to the truth.  They’re crazy.  She’s crazy.  This can’t be…Buffy.  Need Buffy.  Buffy will fix this.  She’ll stop this Sandrine.  She has to.

*************

Her gaze never wavered as Iris stepped into the circle Stella had created, her pale features cast in orange from the flicker of the dying flames.  “Well, I certainly didn’t expect a welcoming party of more than two,” Sandrine said.  Green eyes swept over the vampire’s form in mild contempt.  “Are we consorting with vampires now?  Please tell that’s not the latest and greatest trend.”

“This is---,” Stella started.

“Iris,” the vamp cut in, her voice cold.  “The reason you’re safely here in the first place, so it would probably suit your best interests to be just a tad nicer to me, little girl.”

Sandrine grimaced.  “I don’t have to be nice to anybody,” she said.  “Especially a second-class mongrel such as yourself with the fashion sense of a…”  She stopped, eyes focusing off to the side as if she were listening to some unheard voice.  “…Pretty Woman wannabe?” she finished with a curious question.  Her scowl faded into a small smile.  “Interesting.  I have her memories, her…vernacular, her…”  The grin widened as her gaze dropped to her hands, watching them flex and turn in the moonlight.  “…power, as well as my own.  I’m me, and more.  Oh, I think this is going to be fun.”

The crashing through the trees captured their attention, and four heads swiveled to see the two blonds appear in the distance, mud-spattered and bedraggled.  “Buffy,” Sandrine murmured, recognition springing from the font of Willow’s memories in spite of the changes in the Slayer’s appearance.

“Spike,” Iris hissed, her eyes glowing golden in the dark.

The new arrivals stopped, and across the distance, the group could see the confusion clouding Buffy’s eyes as her gaze flickered over them.  “Willow?” she asked tentatively.  “Are you all right?  They haven’t hurt you, have they?”

She doesn’t know, Sandrine thought and was about to smile in victory when more images from the redhead’s past flooded into her head.  The Slayer…dangerous, and powerful, and willing to do anything to protect those she loved…must be stopped.  She would do everything she could to prevent Sira’s rise, and that just…wouldn’t…do.

The smile she affected was saccharine sweet, and she took a small step toward the pair.  “I’m fine, Buffy, really,” she said, and raised her hands as if in surrender.

Nobody expected the golden blast of magic to explode from the redhead’s palms, flying across the space to slam into the chest of the Slayer.  They were even more surprised when the energy bounced away, deflected by some invisible source, scattering like a million fireflies into the night.

“Well, that didn’t work out like I thought,” Sandrine said with a scowl.

“Go for him, you idiot,” Iris hissed.  “He’s the threat here.”

“Spike?”  She turned with widened eyes to stare at the female vamp.  “You’re kidding, right?  He’s harmless.  Well, to me at least.  As long as he has that chip in his head, he can’t lay a finger on me.”

Iris closed the distance between them and glared down at the smaller woman.  “I don’t know anything about a chip,” she said tightly, “but I do know that if you can’t touch the Slayer with your magic, you can still get to her by going for her boyfriend.”

That was information she didn’t have, and for the first time, Sandrine looked at the demon with a speculative interest.  A long moment passed, and she finally shrugged.  “Let’s just see,” she said, and turned back around.

*************

Seeing her best friend standing there had sent a flood of relief throughout Buffy’s body as she skittered to a halt inside the clearing.  That reprieve, however, was quickly dispelled when the beam of Spike’s flashlight revealed the casual way Willow was standing amidst the group, as if there was nothing wrong in spite of the numerous scrapes and scratches that scarred her exposed flesh.

“Willow?” she asked, her voice tentative.  She felt Spike’s hand curl around her elbow, holding her back from advancing further.  “Are you all right?  They haven’t hurt you, have they?”

“That’s not Red,” Spike murmured, only loud enough for her to hear.  He was trying to pull her away, but she held firm, knowing he couldn’t move her without fear of his chip getting set off.

“I’m fine, Buffy, really,” Willow said.  It sounded like her, it looked like her, and why was she raising her hands like that?

The magic that erupted from the redhead’s palms startled Spike into tugging harder than he’d meant, setting off a twinge inside his head that he chose to ignore as the threat hurtled toward Buffy at breakneck speed.  His instinct to throw her aside never had a chance to act, however, as the magic crashed into the power of the charm that hung around her neck, dissipating in a shower of sparks to the ground around them.

Buffy looked down at the pouch in wonder, slim fingers stroking the leather.  “Well, good job, gris gris,” she commented.  Her gaze lifted to Spike’s curious one.  “Guess we know why she wanted me to have it now, huh?”  She didn’t give him a chance to respond, sliding her eyes back to look at the group around the fire, as the realization of what had just happened dawned on her.  Willow had attacked her, except, she wouldn’t…  “If that’s not Willow,” Buffy murmured, “then who is it?”

“Someone with some serious mojo,” he replied grimly.  A snap from his right turned his head, his flashlight following suit, and his eyes glittered as he caught the skulking shadows of a set of vampires trying to approach.  “We’ve got more company,” he said.

Buffy’s gaze followed the light, her hand tightening around her stake.  “Somehow, I’m feeling like monkey in the middle here,” she said.  “Who should we---?”

Her question was cut off with a choked scream as she saw the magic flare brightly in the side of Spike’s face, a brilliant flame erupting along his skin as it caught hold, sweeping down his neck and onto his chest faster than she could blink.  There was no time for words.  Instinctively, Buffy threw herself at him, tackling him to the ground and using their rolling to help tamp the flames that were scorching his flesh.  Her hands beat at the fire that the ground didn’t reach, her stomach in her throat as fear that she would be too late and he’d burst into a big pile of dust beneath her spurred her to go even faster.

Distantly, she became aware of giggling from the other side of the clearing, and shot a dirty look over her shoulder to see Willow laughing in glee.  “Now that’s more like it,” she heard the witch say.

“Who the hell are you?” Buffy snapped at her, the anger sharpening her words to a dangerous level that caused even the approaching vampires to hesitate.  “And just what do you think you’re doing?”

Willow’s hands were tracing discreet patterns in the air, and the smile she offered the Slayer glowed in menace.  “My name’s Sandrine,” she said lightly, “and I’m just getting started.”  Her hands came together then, a sharp clap piercing the air, and in a flash, she and the others around the fire had disappeared.

The Slayer didn’t have any time to contemplate the sudden absence of the quartet as the vampires that had been hanging back suddenly descended.  Five of them, and she was on her feet, a whirl of leather and lace as her leg swung around, sending two of them flying away, while a lithe twist of her torso landed her behind two others, grabbing their heads and slamming them together, not even waiting for them to crumple unconscious to the ground before turning to the last. 

He approached with a clumsy gait, awkwardly lunging at her.  She sidestepped him easily, driving her stake into his back, and settled back to the pair on the ground.  They dusted just as quickly.  When she’d straightened, ready to go after the two she’d kicked, Buffy caught only the flash of their backs as they scurried away into the depths of the swamp, the absence of their leader and the death of their comrades stripping them of their bravado in the face of the Slayer.

Instantly, she was back at Spike’s side, crouching in the mud as she rolled him gently onto his back.  The flashlight had been smashed when she’d been trying to extinguish the magical fire, but she could still see the marks it left behind by the faint light of the moon trickling through the trees.  The left side of the vampire’s face was an oozing scarlet mess that made her heart ache in sympathy, his skin abnormally hot, while half of his shirt was seared away, the burns trailing crimson rivers down his neck and onto his chest, shallow channels that seeped in blood.

Hot tears prickled Buffy’s eyes, but she furiously blinked them back, forcing herself to concentrate on the practical matter at hand.  He was unconscious, which was probably a good thing because the pain from the burns was most likely enormous.  But unconscious meant unable to move on his own, which left her no other alternative but to try and carry him back to the car.

She grimaced.  Crap.  The car.  No way was he going to be able to drive like this.  Could she remember how to get back to town on her own?  She wasn’t entirely sure.  For that matter, she wasn’t sure she’d be able to manage being behind the steering wheel of the Desoto in the first place without sending it crashing into the nearest immovable object. 

“Spike,” she said softly, placing her hand on his good shoulder and nudging him gently.

No response.

“Spike,” she said a little louder, her shake a little firmer, but still, the vampire never even stirred.

“Damn it,” Buffy muttered.  Rising to her feet, her gaze scanned the swampy area, assessing the demon situation just to be safe.  Nothing going off on the Slayer radar, not funny neck tingles, no hair standing on end on her arms.  The only thing that was running rampant through her body now was all the bells and whistles screaming inside her head about Spike.

The panic that had exploded across her nerves was only now receding, but it was the recognition of how stricken she’d gotten that rattled Buffy more than anything else.  How could she have done it?  How could Willow have attacked them like that?  And where the hell had she gotten such power behind her magic?

Except it wasn’t Willow.  If she’d had any doubts of Spike’s assessment before her little magic show, they were now completely gone.  She had called herself Sandrine, and Sandrine was the one who had attacked them.  No way could gentle Willow have been so vicious.  She was the one who’d stopped Spike from trying to kill himself before he realized he could still hurt demons.  She was the one who baked chocolate chip cookies to make everyone feel better.  It just wasn’t in her to turn so viciously against her friends.  Not the Willow Buffy knew.

But who this Sandrine was left a huge question to be answered, an answer she wasn’t going to get standing in the middle of a stinky swamp with a bleeding, unconscious vampire at her feet.

As carefully as she could manage, Buffy hoisted Spike up and over her shoulder, feeling the blood from his various wounds---the burns, the puncture in his thigh---seep into her clothing, sticking the fragile fabric of her top to her skin.  Job number one was to successfully find her way back to the car without his help.  She’d figure out where to take it from there once she found it.

*************

She had teleported them to a spot inside the French Quarter, and smiled instantly as a rash of young men hurried past them, their hands in various pockets, undeniable swaggers announcing their sexuality for anyone caring to pay attention.  Raucous laughter poured from the club behind Sandrine, and she twisted in her place on the sidewalk, green gaze hungrily surveying the thriving populace.

“Looks like my town has grown up a bit while I’ve been gone,” she purred in delight.  A pair of twenty-something lovebirds stumbled drunkenly through the exit, lurching awkwardly against her without even taking their hands from the other’s body.  Her smile widened as she watched them stroll away, oblivious to the slight disruption they had just caused.  “Although some things certainly haven’t changed,” she added.

“You should rest,” Stella said, but when her chocolaty hand lowered to rest on the redhead’s cheek, Sandrine swatted it away with a frown.

“I’ve been resting for far too long,” she growled.  “I’m ready to wake up.”  She leveled a dangerous gaze at the singer, her mouth thin.  “And why’d you bother bringing me here if you’re not going to let me have any fun?”

“You know why,” Stella crooned.

“Your little parlor tricks might’ve worked on the little witch,” Sandrine said, and her voice chilled even Iris as she spoke, “but she didn’t really know what a traitorous bitch you are, now did she?”  Her nostrils flared as she fought to repress her anger.  “Whereas, I have firsthand experience on how you deliberately sabotaged all our hard work the first time around here, Bettina.”

Stella blanched at the use of her previous name, but held her chin high.  “That wasn’t me.  I’m only interested in getting back the voix mortelle.”

“Funny.”  Sandrine’s gaze swept over the woman in disdain before turning away and starting to stroll down the sidewalk.  “That’s what you said the first time.”

She had placed several feet between her and the others, when she felt Iris fall into beside her, cool gaze appraising her from the corner of her blue eyes.  “You don’t need her, you know,” the vampire said, her voice barely audible above the din of the crowd.  “She wasn’t able to retrieve the voix mortelle without you.  Who’s to say you can’t get it without her?”

For a moment, Sandrine’s eyes softened as the memories of the past bobbed to the surface.  Bettina had betrayed her, and though it would be impossible for Sandrine to do it completely on her own, she wasn’t convinced the other woman knew where the other half of the voix mortelle actually was.  Someone else did, though, and her mouth hardened as the witch’s memories merged with her own.

“I have a place not far from here,” Iris continued, the cajoling wheedle in her voice slithering over the smaller woman’s skin like a snake.  “I also have employees who would appreciate a nice snack.”

Sandrine smiled.  “I have a better idea,” she replied, but before Iris could respond, she had whirled and darted to force herself between Stella and Freddie, looping her arms conspiratorially through theirs.  “Let’s not fight,” she said brightly to the pair.  “I’m just all cranky from this whole re-emergence thing.  Being brought back from the dead can really do a number on your head.”  She deliberately ignored the puzzled frowns the pair shot at each other over her head, forcing the smile to remain on her face even as she wished to tear their arms from their sockets.  “Let’s go clean up, get some food, and have a look around town.  We’ll have time enough to worry about that silly staff tomorrow, right?”

*************

Willow could only watch in growing horror at the scene being played out before her.  Sandrine’s thoughts came through to her in bits and pieces; it seemed the stronger the feeling, the clearer it came, and right now the other woman was sitting on about a kegful of anger and hatred directed at this Bettina person. 

That was Stella, she knew that much.  Seeing Stella now was like seeing her through a wall of water with someone else standing in the middle of the stream.  She was clearly the statuesque singer she’d met back in Sunnydale, but at the same time, there was a ghostly image superimposed over her, a curvaceous blonde with dimples that never ended.

Freddie wasn’t just Freddie, either.  Over him hung the specter of a young man named Percy, who surprisingly enough, actually closely resembled his current incarnation in many ways.  Tall, bland, forgettable.  Except for the depth of anger in the black pools he had for eyes.  She realized now why she’d never really warmed up to Freddie from the beginning.

They had gone back to Iris’ place, and Sandrine had immediately collapsed onto the overstuffed couch, entertaining herself by dragging out a dagger that had been on display on the end table.  Willow watched helplessly as she turned it over and over in her hands, regarding the others across the elegant living room as they waited nervously for some type of guidance from the redhead.

“You know, I’ve changed my mind,” Sandrine announced loudly.

This was it.  It was coming.  Willow only wished she had eyes to close so that she didn’t have to watch.

“It’s really too late to be worrying about the staff tonight,” Stella said, glancing at Iris warily when the vampire sidled closer to her.  “We have time.  You said so.”

“Not about that.  I’ve changed my mind about you.”  She pointed the tip of the blade at the singer.  “The way I figure it, you’ve done about all you can in this little adventure by bringing me back, so I think it’s time to cut you loose.”

Freddie jumped when Iris grabbed Stella’s shoulders, a strong arm wrapping firmly about her chest, pinning her arms in place so that she couldn’t move, her other hand covering her mouth.  He grimaced when she cried out in pain as her cracked ribs grated against each other, his eyes darting between her and Sandrine.  “You’re not going to kill her, are you?” he croaked, fear etched across his face.

“No.”  Willow could almost feel the malice drip from Sandrine’s smile as she held out the knife.  “You are.”

He paled.  “No,” he said.  “You can’t make me.  We’re in this together.  Stella’s been the one to organize this from the beginning.  She’s---.”

“---blah, blah, blah.  Save your little speech, Freddie, because I’m very much not interested in hearing it.  And you’re right.  I can’t make you.  I could kill her myself, but then I’d be so frightened of losing your loyalty that I’d have no choice but to kill you as well.  So.  It’s really up to you.  Kill her, and you live.  Don’t kill her, and you both die.”

Their gazes were locked, his beseeching, hers ice-cold.  “Please don’t make me do this,” he begged.  “Anything else to prove my loyalty to you, but not this.  Not Stella.”

“But don’t you see?” Sandrine argued.  “That’s why it has to be this.  Because I know how much you love her.  Show me that the power means more.  Show me that I mean more.”

No! Willow screamed inside her prison.  Don’t do it.  It’s not worth it.  Stand up to her.  Help me fight her.  But she knew even as she thought it that it was pointless.  She could see the fear in his eyes, could practically smell it coming off his skin.  Even if she could figure out how to fight against Sandrine, it was going to be too late for Stella.  She was going to die, one way or another that night.

Please, Buffy, you have to stop her, she thought as Freddie lifelessly took the dagger and turned toward the captive Stella.  She saw the silent regret jump between them, two sets of eyes moist with tears about what was to come.  You and Spike.  Find a way.  Please.

But even her frantic entreaties were silenced when the blade sliced cleanly through the singer’s throat, her lifeless body falling to the floor in a spray of blood as Iris released her from her grip.

*************

With a heavy sigh, D’Hoffryn closed the portal through which he’d been viewing the events at Sira Sommeil.  So near, and yet…so far.  A close eye on Sandrine---and how right had he been about the power housed within young Willow Rosenberg when he’d visited her the previous fall, so rich, so strong---and he was sure that the staff of the voix mortelle would soon appear.  Then, it would just be a matter of retrieving the crown and it would be his again.  Whole.  In his collection.  Where it belonged.

Provided, of course, the Slayer didn’t intervene again.

She was persistent, and her devotion to her friends immense, and he had no doubt that she would pursue this to the bitter end, even if she didn’t know exactly what was involved.  He could conceivably send some assassins after her, but that would be costly and would very likely fail to distract her for long.  No, he needed a more serious threat to get her nose out of this business, something that would cut more deeply, something…

His smile was slow as it came to him, its simplicity appealing.  Oh, that would be delightful, he thought maliciously.  Because why kill when he could wound?  And wouldn’t the world be such an interesting place again should those wounds be allowed to fester...

It would need to happen quickly, of course.  No time for dillydallying.  The sooner the better, because there was no telling how long Anyanka was going to keep her mouth shut.  For all he knew, she’d already blabbed the entire thing; it wasn’t as if she had any doubts any longer about what this was all about.

Time to get Halfrek.  He had another job for her to do.

 

To be continued in Chapter 21: Star on Cecily