yet-untitled Chapter 6 of Edge of Sorrow, Heart of Truth (it’s that new!), “One Link in the Chain of Destiny”, which concludes the story segment that begins in Chapter 5.
Chapter 6 One Link in the Chain of Destiny
It is a mistake to look too far ahead. Only one link in the chain of destiny can be handled at a time.
— Winston Churchill
Willow was getting nowhere with the Book of Soyga. She had selected and analyzed what looked to be a representative sentence in length and construction preceding the figure. Nine word-like segments, the shortest of which had two letters, the longest eleven, interspersed in a reasonable fashion. The words did not look artificial, as would a foreign work transliterated to be Romanized in appearance.
The text also demonstrated adherence to a set of complex orthographic rules, characteristic of a real language. The letter groupings exhibited a number of patterns over and over again, with a somewhat regular distribution of vowels to be phonologically sensible. Some words, specifically a few short ones, showed up in high frequency, also true of most Latin-based languages. The punctuations, for what it was worth, were all the regular, familiar ones. In summation, she found plenty of evidence of a pronounceable language with a reasonable spelling convention, not statistically likely to be one of fabrication by anyone short of an expert linguist.
Willow idly wondered which word of this mystery language mapped to the equivalent of the English “the”, the most common English word by far. Was it like Middle English to its modern derivative, as in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, where the words looked funny, but made sense once pronounced? Inspired into trying a phonetic approach, she read a paragraph out loud according to Latin pronunciation rules, and the words rolled off her tongue in an unfamiliar clip, alternatively wispy and sharp. She struggled over back-to-back consonants, double vowels, and words with de-emphasized ending syllables. The resulting cacophony didn’t sound like any dialect she recognized.
Willow was starting to sweat, figuratively and literally. Sneaking into the Magic Box after hours had the disadvantage of having the central air conditioning shut off. She’d come prepared with essential supplies: water, flashlight, notebook, Latin-to-English dictionary, laptop; but an electric fan would not have fit into her backpack. She shifted her weight uncomfortably and considered her next move.
If the book had been encrypted using a cipher, the most common algorithm would have been a substitution cipher, which replaced one or a group of letters with another. Cracking the code required performing frequency analysis and mapping high frequency letters in the encoded text to those in the target language.
Willow flipped to the back of her notebook to scan through her cheat sheet of useful data: In the Latin alphabet, the letters of the highest frequency were i, e, a, u, t, s. She quickly entered a couple of pages from the middle of the Book of Soyga into her laptop to calculate the character distribution. She stared back at the results: right at the top of the frequency matrix were e, u, i, a, s, t, pretty much the same letter frequency as Latin. That suggested that the letters were not substituted, but merely scrambled.
A transposition cipher? Sucking air through her teeth, Willow leaned back on the bookcase. That would be decidedly more challenging. A solution could take days. It might continue to elude her. And if this turned out to be another dead end–
She would not give up a second time. She rubbed her eyes furiously, refusing to allow the stinging she felt there to turn into tears. Tirelessly she had worked, relentlessly she had pursued, while everyone around her moped and sighed and wept and fled, regretting the past, wasting the present, and giving up on the future. It all added up to a big heap of heart-felt, touching, miserable, pathetic nothing. Down a slayer and everyone suddenly forgot how to live on the Hellmouth, as if all those cemeteries Buffy used to patrol held only daisies and not corpses. People died all the freaking time in Sunnydale, usually attributed to supernatural causes. That was the brutal truth. The only thing that improved their chances was the presence of the Slayer.
And the only solution to their current predicament was to bring Buffy back.
Was she the only one who was clear-eyed and clear-headed enough to realize that? She wanted more than anything to once again see the old Scooby Gang spring back and jump into action, the way they always had in the face of adversity. Instead, the only action going around seemed to be a downward spiral of wallowing in self-pity, leaving her working out the details of the solution on her own.
Come to think of it, the whole thing had been terribly unfair. How many times had Buffy saved the world? And the world apparently wasn’t going to lift a single finger to help save Buffy. Willow had had no luck with the search for the resurrection spell; everything had to be done the hard way. She had no doubt she could do it, but she thought that all the karma points Buffy must have accumulated bailing out the world should account for something.
Distilling rage into focus, Willow grabbed the Book of Soyga and once again, studied each word in the open spread, scanning for anything that sparked recognition. She brightened when she saw, sprinkled among passages that meant nothing, esse (“be”), tenet (“holds”), rotas (“wheels”), and ibit (“go”). She had to blink to read ibit, though–her eyesight must be failing–because at first, she thought she’d read tibi, Latin for “yourself”.
Then a lightbulb went off in her head. Rotas backwards was sator, or “sower”, and esse and tenet were both palindromes, the same forward and backward. Could it be…?
She tested her theory on a random gibberish word, eallets, which when read from right to left revealed itself as stellea, “stars”.
Grinning from ear to ear, she tore through her backpack to come up triumphantly with a compact mirror, and pressed it–with a trembling hand, whether from excitement or nerves she couldn’t tell and didn’t care–perpendicular to the opened page. Like magic, familiar Latin phrases, whole sentences, no, the entire page flew out of the mirror image to form a cohesive narrative. Willow fell back laughing like an idiot until she was lightheaded and beginning to see stars. It appeared that portions of the book had simply been recorded backwards.
“Am I good or am I good?” She asked the book. She was so ecstatic she forgave on the spot the grandstand scribe who must have either sought relief for his boredom or had one hell of a twisted sense of humor. Either way, she took it as a sign of divine approval. Her efforts had paid off.
Boosted by her victory, she traced a finger down her notebook for the next grimoire on her list: the first volume of Mafteah Shelomoh, or the Key of Solomon. Purported to be authored by King Solomon himself, which was highly dubious, it was irrefutably held as the origin of numerous rituals for invoking spirits and summoning the dead. Her Hebrew was a bit rusty, but she would manage. She had muddled through all those texts on practical Kabbalah just fine, and they had been long-winded and equally high on the cryptic meter.
If the Key of Solomon truly dated to medieval times, however, a modern copy might prove to be unreliable due to errors and omissions through generations of duplication by hand, and due to mistranslations based on secondary or altered sources. The result was not unlike a game of Chinese whispers, with each step departing further and further from the origin, until it was all but unrecognizable. This, more than the true identity of its author or authors, worried Willow.
She sighed, lips pressed into a thin line of determination. Beggars could not be choosers. She needed to find a copy first, then make a judgement call about the trustworthiness of its content once she’d reviewed it. With that thought, she shifted onto her feet, stretched her legs, and stepped in front of the “K” section of Giles’ books.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“Getting back to the matter at hand”–Giles paused, waiting for his thoughts to catch up–“there may well come a time when–when my resources may yet prove to be of assistance.” His impending departure did not change his force of habit to be thorough. He tried to recite the 7 Ps from training. Was it “Prior Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance”? He tried to think of other P words in their stead: practice, proper, patience, potential, prophecy, prayer, plight, plaintiff, predicament, pounding pain…
He massaged his temples and reigned in his digressing thought. “Until then, I would not object to, uh, being kept abreast of the potential dangers, albeit from five thousand miles away.” The Council blended military discipline with academic rigor, encouraged youthful optimism while drilling age-old practices into its operatives. And Giles had been the crème de la crème. He was not in the habit of leaving situations unwatched, business unfinished. He rooted around in his pockets and felt out a business card, and laid it on the table between them.
Spike glanced at the card intently, as if beholding a curio, but didn’t pick it up. Giles considered what this lack of action meant.
“Am I to be a spy for you, then? On my own comrades? For a deserter?”
The jibe was expected, juvenile and befitting of Spike, Giles reminded himself. He was really off his game if he let Spike get to him. Staring suspiciously at the glass in his hand, its content the seductive hue of honey, he felt rather than saw the swirling motion. It beckoned. Giles blinked slowly. He could’ve sworn it had been empty just a moment ago. “Do you consider them your comrades? Now that the battle’s ended?”
“Not going anywhere. Told Buffy I’d protect li’l sis ‘til the end of the world, as you well know.” Spike’s pain and regret were laid out in his face like an open book. How did he manage to cheat at poker with a face like that? Giles wondered idly. Didn’t seem fair that a demon should appear so…human.
“Reckon I’ve the rest of my unlife to atone for that buggered rescue on Glory’s tower with acts of contrition,” Spike continued, and Giles rushed mentally to catch up. “And this being the Hellmouth, Rupert, next battle’s jus’ ‘round the corner.”
Yes, and the next one, and the next one, and the one after that. Endless as waves, the Hell’s army lay in wait, while the Hellmouth stirred, pulsating with its evil energy, bubbling with rife potential for disaster. Giles felt like a boy trying to turn back the tide of evil with a child’s water bucket, one scoop at a time, laboring ceaselessly, feet wet and freezing on the belligerent shore. He let his eyes close for a second, begging that mental image to dissolve. “Quite right.”
Reassurance from Spike eased Giles’ own conscience about his pending desertion. He realized, as a surge of relief washed over him, how much he had needed it, depended on it. In Buffy’s absence, in her place, the Slayer of Slayers was to be their best chance at keeping evil at bay–how inexplicable yet oddly appropriate! He would drink to that.
Something was gnawing at his consciousness, some important detail he must not allow to slip away–a matter, potentially, of life and death. Then it dawned on him–
Spike gave him a long look. “What ‘bout the Nibblet?”
“You’ll do all this…because of a promise?”
“Told you I–” Head tilted, eyes narrow, Spike started again, “What’re you getting at, Watcher?”
Giles considered an oblique inquiry, then abandoned the exhausting exercise as rather unbecoming of their little tête-à-tête. “I need to ascertain that you have not transferred your previous affection for Buffy to Dawn.”
“Transferred–”, Spike might’ve blanched if vampires could. “Are you off your bloody rocker?!” Giles thought he heard a rumbling growl. “She’s fifteen!”
“No younger than Buffy when Angel–”
“I’m no sodding pedo! That’s Angel’s MO. Come to think of it, I’ve a bloody bone to pick with you. What kind of Watcher sits back and allows my grandsire, a two-hundred-and-forty-year-old vamp with a history for kiddie kink and torture to become a fixture in the life of his teenage Slayer?”
Giles bit back a ready-made response about the soul, considering present company to not take too kindly to it. Keenly aware of his failures, he let the remark go unchallenged. Spike was cursing under his breath, something about turning over a new leaf only to be met with cynicism and distrust, while the Great Poofter, with an unproven track record, had enjoyed undue good will and–
“Shut up, Spike!” Giles said automatically. “Quit being so melodramatic. It’s my duty to be certain of your intentions. If you’ll stop whingeing for a second, you’ll have noticed that I trusted you enough to ask you face-to-face, instead of proceeding with the full presumption of your ill intent!”
“Well, thanks ever so!” grumbled the vampire unconvincingly.
“If you will set aside your indignation for a moment, I would like to set up, with your assistance, a contingency plan for the duration of my absence. And–” finally catching Spike tipping the whisky bottle over the glass in his out-stretched hand, he said, “I’m going to ask you a very serious question, and I need an honest-to-God answer: just how many times have you refilled my glass?”
With a smirk, Spike started counting, bending his fingers one at a time. When he got to his other hand, Giles groaned.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
She had the distinct sensation of floating in mid air. Weightless. Guiltfree. Calm. Safe. No wind whipping her hair against her face, strands sticking to tear tracks, as on Glory’s platform. No burden to sink her under, leaden limbs propping up a helpless body, equating her life with the world’s death. Not enough forward momentum to be flying; too soothing to be stationary. Was she…being rocked? Cradled like a baby? … Mom?
As soon as the thought entered her mind, the peace shattered, and she was falling, falling…
She gasped, an arm shooting out to latch onto something, anything. “Mommy?” Her desperation came out between a shout and a sob.
“Shhh– It’s me, Nibblet.”
Disappointment battling relief, Dawn opened her eyes. It was pitch black.
She blinked. It took a moment for the grogginess to recede. Spike was lowering her into bed, the feeling of cold mattress pressing into her body rather unassuring. She must’ve fallen asleep downstairs, and he’d just carried her up. He continued to hover awkwardly, until she noticed the fistful of leather jacket in her hand and relaxed, then tried to smooth out the rumpled lapel. “Sorry,” she mumbled.
“Don’t worry about it.”
She didn’t hear him move, and in the low light, she could barely make out his outline. “Okay, creepy much? We do own lights in this house.”
A soft click, and then she was shielding her eyes from the abundant light that poured over her from the nightstand, squinting at Spike. She sat up and leaned away, retreating into the shadows.
Spike dragged a chair next to her bed and sat astride it, his arms resting on the back. “You wanna talk about it?”
Dawn didn’t. She was sulking and wanted to go on sulking on principle, continuing to stew in anger about being neglected and abandoned. Coming home to an empty house was one thing, returning dejectedly to the same house after a bout of pointless-because-unwitnessed teenage rebellion, only to find it still empty and careless, and now dark, triggered a new wave of hurt. Then, adding insult to injury, she had fallen asleep on the living room sofa without dinner like a most pathetic latchkey kid… Was it too much to ask for a constant, responsible adult in her life? Never mind that Spike was there now. His presence did not remove the sting she still felt so vividly. She wanted to lash out.
She went on the defensive, “What are you, Dr. Phil now?”
“Oi! I’m much better looking than that pillock!”
Dawn suppressed a giggle but couldn’t stop a smile.
Spike smiled, too. “Where’re the witches? Dinn’t know I was s’posed to show earlier.”
Dawn put on her woe-is-me look. Her bottom lip might have trembled in conjunction. “Out. Summer jobs. Wiccan meeting. Hot date. Pick one.”
Spike seemed to be studying her. Tenderly, he said, “You eat yet?”
Great. Now the vampire was pitying her. “I’m not hungry.” Her stomach, having not gotten that memo, growled all too disobediently at that moment.
“Right,” he said, then jumped up, full of energy. “C’mon, I’ll make you dinner.”
Spike, the very flammable vampire who had only mastered the microwave last year without making a bloody mess, was going to cook for her? This she got to see.
“Okay,” she said, forgetting that she had resolved to mope and languish. She bounced down the stairs after Spike, ignoring the smirk at his lips.
I have no real working knowlege of Latin outside of what’s commonly known to English speakers. For those who do (*cough* *cough*), please forgive me of any glaring mistakes that appear in this story, despite my and Google Translate’s best effort. (Do please let me know, though!)
Previous chapters on LJ:
Or read on AO3 (here) if you prefer.
Originally posted at http://seasonal-spuffy.livejournal.com/502193.html