Chosen, p.1
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       Chosen, p.1

           Nancy Holder
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Chosen


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  For Joss

  Acknowledgments

  My sincerest thanks to Joss Whedon, Marti Noxon, and the cast, crew, and staff of Buffy. You opened your doors to me many times, and I am grateful for the opportunity to have worked with you. To my editor, Lisa Clancy, thank you for this brill gig, and thank you to the other Simon & Schusterians past and present, who’ve worked so hard on the publishing program, long may it continue to wave: Liz Shiflett, Micol Ostow, and Lisa Gribbin. Debbie Olshan at Fox, thank you for your generosity and expertise. To my angelic agent, Howard Morhaim, his daughter, Rebecca, and his assistants, past and present, Lindsay Sagnette and Ryan Blitstein, you rock my world. To my friends, Debbie and Scott Viguié, Brenda and Scott Van De Ven, Kym Rademacher, Karen Hackett, Barbara Nierman, Linda Wilcox, Allie Costa, Angela and Patmom Riesnstra, Katherine Ramsland, Elizabeth Engstrom Cratty, and Dal and Steve Perry—and of course the Bronzers and the PBP’ers—here’s looking at you. To my sister, Elise Jones, and to Cap’n Hank Chase, mahalo with one kiss always. And of course, to my daughter, Belle . . . my little darling, you make it all worthwhile. Thank you for blessing my life.

  Part One

  Chapter One: “Lessons”

  Istanbul

  I can’t die!

  The beautiful Turkish Potential had raced through the entire city, from the modern high-rises to the old quarter, and the assassins were still gaining. She had no idea how long they had been chasing her, but she knew what they wanted: her death.

  As she glanced over her shoulder, panting from her exertion, her momentum threw her down an embankment. Two of the many robed figures saw her, and came after.

  A door opened, then was quickly shut. No one was going to help her. No one had helped her Watcher, either, and he was dead.

  This alley, then that: She was trapped in a dead end. Her breath came in shallow, panicky gasps. Then she saw a drain pipe and grabbed at it, using it to clamber up the side of the whitewashed building.

  One of the assassins grabbed her foot, but she shook him off and made her way to the top of the building. She got to the roof.

  I’m going to live through this, she thought exultantly.

  But another one was waiting for her. Before she had a chance to elude him, he rushed forward and pushed her off the building.

  Screaming, she tumbled to the ground, landing on her back. Still alive.

  But only for one moment longer.

  Two held her down; she fought, but the third raised his curved dagger into the air; it flashed like the crescent moon.

  And then it cut the life from her, and another one was dead.

  Sunnydale, a cemetery

  The night was damp, and there was a chill in the air. An owl hooted, and tree branches rustled.

  Other sisters watch TV.

  The Summers sisters strolled in graveyards.

  Tonight, the newly rising vampire that was Dawn’s assigned practice target was middle-aged and in his burial suit . . . and bursting halfway out of his grave.

  “It’s about power,” Buffy said to Dawn as they watched him. “Who’s got it. Who knows how to use it.”

  She tossed a stake to Dawn, and Dawn caught it, swallowing. Buffy reminded herself that Dawn had acquitted herself well when they had been stuck in the pit with all the root monsters. She had a streak in her, some fighter’s blood. She had wanted this training, and Buffy had agreed that she should have it.

  “So who’s got the power, Dawn?” she demanded.

  “Well, I’ve got the stake,” Dawn said tentatively, raising it a tad for emphasis.

  “The stake is not the power,” Buffy shot back.

  “But he’s new,” Dawn argued. “He doesn’t know his strength. He might not know all the fancy martial arts they inevitably seem to pick up.” She was less sure now, a little more frightened. Exactly how Buffy wanted her to be.

  “Who’s got the power?” Buffy pressed.

  “He does.” Dawn was grumpy.

  “Never forget that,” Buffy said, going to her. “No matter how well prepped you are, how well armed you are, you’re still a little girl.”

  “Woman.” Dawn straightened her shoulders.

  “You’re a little woman,” Buffy amended patiently.

  Dawn added, “I’m taller than you.”

  “He’s a vampire,” Buffy reminded her, putting the focus back where it belonged. “Okay? A demon. Preternaturally strong, skilled, with powers no human can ever—”

  “Excuse me,” the vampire said. “I think I’m stuck.”

  Buffy and Dawn both glanced over at him. His smile was pleasant as he indicated his predicament: he was still only waist level out of his grave.

  “You’re stuck,” Buffy deadpanned. Why couldn’t a slightly more intimidating vampire rise tonight, to help me prove my point?

  “My foot’s caught on a root or something,” he continued, a bit sheepish. “I don’t even know how I got down there. If you girls could just give me a hand . . .”

  Dawn couldn’t resist a . . . well, dig. “So he’s got the power.”

  “Zip it,” Buffy snapped as she crossed to the evil demon of evilness-lite.

  “I really appreciate it,” the vamp prattled. “It’s just so dark, and I don’t know what I’m doing here—”

  While he yammered on, Buffy yanked him up by the collar of his jacket and set him on his feet.

  “Whoa, thanks. That was a help.” He grinned evilly. “Unfortunately it was the last—”

  Bored now, Buffy thought. She clamped her hand around his throat and gave it a big hug.

  “—thing you’ll ever do,” he concluded in a rasp that sounded eerily like Donald Duck on helium.

  “Listen up,” Buffy instructed him. “I’m the Slayer. You don’t want to get into it with me. You want blood. You can have hers.” She gestured to Dawn. “She’s not the Slayer. She’s the one to go after. Not me.”

  “I was thinking along those lines,” Vampire Donald croaked.

  “Okay, then.”

  Buffy let him go and stepped back, essentially quitting the field so Dawn could have a shot. The vampire lurched forward toward her and Dawn got ready to rumble, although her bravado had evaporated. She was scared, and good thing, too.

  “Power,” Buffy reminded her. “He’s got it, he’s gonna use it. You don’t have it.”

  The demon rushed Dawn—who ducked, and Donald smacked directly into a tombstone.

  “So you use that!” Buffy said. “Perfect!”

  Flush with her momentary success, Dawn scrambled for her stake, leaped at the vamp, and staked the sucker.

  He did not dust. Solidly still there, he backhanded her. Like a stuntwoman hooked up to a wire, she flew backward. Blood dotted her lip, and then the vamp was on her.

  Buffy held back, making Dawn fight, making her see that this wasn’t about executing a few clever moves and then figuring you were gonna get the trophy and the best lines, too. Dawn slid forward to get free of him, and showed the bad guy the stake.

  He jerked back and hissed . . . then promptly grabbed her arm and twisted it until she dropped the stake, wincing with pain.

  He came in for the bite, and still Buffy held back. Dawnie had to see that this was reality, this was what death looked like when it rose from the grave and traded jokes for a while.
Those fangs, that saliva; the sharp first prick on one’s neck. . .

  “Buffy!” she screamed.

  Just in time, Buffy grabbed his suit jacket from behind. He dropped Dawn, and she went into her moves, kung-fu-Slayer, giving far better than he gave. Then she grabbed the sword from her weapons bag and whacked off his fangy, drooly head.

  Dawn lay sprawled on the ground, her hand to her neck. There was blood; the vampire had started his bite. She looked stunned. . . and accusatory.

  “It’s real,” Buffy said evenly. “That’s the only lesson, Dawn. It’s always real.”

  She held out her hand, and Dawn took it. As Buffy helped her up, she moved to examine Dawn’s neck.

  “Let me see.”

  “It’s nothing. Just a scrape.” Dawn was trying to be brave. Her face was ashen. “Plus, I had a plan the whole time,” she added.

  “Really?” Gotta admire her pluck.

  “Yeah. I planned to get killed, come back as a vampire, and bite you.” Her voice carried an undertone of embarrassment. Buffy knew that feeling well. But that was not where to put the power, and she couldn’t let Dawn leave it there.

  “You wanted to be trained,” she reminded her sister.

  “Well, the next time you’re gonna disappear—”

  “You did pretty well,” Buffy cut in.

  “I did?” Dawn asked, all attempts at machisma dropped. Now she was Buffy’s little sister, eager for her big sister’s approval.

  “Yeah,” Buffy said.

  Dawn brightened. “ ’Cause with the rolling thing, I was using his strength. It got very tai chi, plus I nearly got the heart.”

  As Buffy moved to gather up the weapons, she said, “My first time out, I missed the heart, too.”

  Dawn’s eyes got huge. “No way.”

  “Just the once,” Buffy fibbed, basking in the hero-worship.

  “Well, the next vampire I meet—”

  “The next vampire you meet, you run away,” Buffy ordered her.

  Then she thought about what was to come, and pitied her poor little sister. Something far worse. . . far, far worse . . . something from which Dawn could not run away, could never hope escape: her first day at the brand new version of Sunnydale High. Different stucco, new principal. . . and same old Hellmouth.

  “Then we’ll never know what’s coming next,” Buffy murmured.

  * * *

  But what was coming was inevitable. The morning dawned a beautiful day, perfect weather for the ribbon-cutting ceremony—reporters, grandstand with city officials—all focused on Robin Wood, new to Sunny-dale, and here on business.

  “It is my great pleasure and privilege to announce the official opening—on the very ground it first stood upon—of the brand new, state-of-the-art, Sunnydale High!” he announced.

  Then Principal Wood cut the large red ribbon with an oversized pair of scissors.

  Let the games begin, he thought wryly.

  England

  England was a land of rolling green hills and Druid groves, villages and medieval graveyards. It was a place Willow had come to understand, and to regard as her safe haven. Now, as she urged a Paraguayan flower to take root, to sprout, and to blossom, she felt a connection to the universe that had not been with her for a long, long time.

  The first time I ever felt like this . . . was the first time I held hands with Tara, back when the Gentlemen arrived in Sunnydale and stole all our voices. When Tara was murdered, it was like my goodness was stolen . . . like all that was left was a connection with evil. But that’s gone now, or lurking . . . and hey, growing things. That’s good, right?

  She became aware of a shadow. Giles stood beside her, gazing intently at the flower. It was not a native English plant; he knew that, and he was intrigued that she had chosen to bring it to this place, this time. And that she could.

  “That doesn’t belong here,” he ventured.

  She was pleased with herself. “No, it doesn’t.”

  “The flora kua alaya. A native of Paraguay, if my botany serves,” he added.

  She glanced up at him and smiled. “Is there anything you don’t know about?”

  “Synchronized swimming. Complete mystery to me,” he confessed. He drew closer, studying the flower. “Yes. Paraguay.” He looked at her. “Where did it come from?”

  “Paraguay,” she said breathlessly.

  “You brought it through the earth,” he commented.

  “It’s all connected,” she told him. “The root systems, the molecules, the energy. Everything’s connected.”

  “You sound like Mrs. Harkness,” he observed, referring to Willow’s Coven Mistress. She realized he’d been sent to find her, that the Coven had been concerned that she hadn’t shown up at her lesson. Afraid, more like.

  “The Coven is . . . they’re the most amazing women I’ve ever met,” Willow told him. “But there’s this look they get, like I’m gonna turn them into bangers and mash or something. Which I’m not even really sure what that is.”

  “They’re cautious,” Giles said gently. “I trust you can understand that.”

  “I don’t have that much power,” Willow murmured. “I don’t think.”

  “But everything’s connected,” Giles reminded her, gesturing to the flower, using her own words back on her. “You’re connected to great power, whether you feel it or not.”

  “You should just take it from me,” Willow ventured, rising, crossing toward the place where she lived.

  As they walked, he said, “You know we can’t. This isn’t a hobby, or an addiction. It’s inside you now. It’s magic. You’re responsible for it.”

  “Will they always be afraid of me?” she asked him.

  He considered. “Maybe. Can you handle it?”

  She felt a little lost. A lot lost. She had no idea how to answer him.

  “I deserve a lot worse. I killed people, Giles.”

  They stopped walking and regarded one another.

  “I’ve not forgotten,” he said soberly.

  “When you brought me here,” she confessed, “I thought it was to kill me. Or lock me in some mystical dungeon for all eternity, or with the torture . . . instead, you go all Dumbledore on me. I’m learning about magic, and energy and Gaia and root systems. . .”

  “Do you want to be punished?” Giles asked.

  She felt terrible guilt and pain, and still some anger, too. I killed Warren. . . but he killed Tara.

  “I want to be Willow,” she answered.

  “You are.” Giles voice was still calm, still gentle. “In the end, we are all who we are . . . no matter how much we may appear to have changed.”

  Does he mean to comfort me with that? she wondered.

  Sunnydale

  It was Dawn’s first day at the new and completely rebuilt Sunnydale High.

  “Dawn! Xander’s here!” Buffy bellowed.

  “Just a minute!” Dawn bellowed back.

  “You’re going to be late.”

  “I’m comfortable with that!”

  She opened the front door to let Xander in.

  “Good morning,” he said warmly. He was carrying rolled-up blueprints in a tube.

  Buffy gave him a nod then yelled to her sister, “Well, you have to eat something. I made cereal.”

  “Okay!” Dawn sang back.

  Buffy said to Xander, “You’re unconscionably spiffy.”

  They walked into the kitchen. Xander had come to pick them up, dressed up now that he was a general contractor.

  “Client meeting,” he told her, glancing around the kitchen. “How exactly do you make cereal?”

  She flushed a little, shrugged, gestured. “You put the box near the milk. I saw it on the food channel. Want something?”

  “I ate. I’m good.” He cocked his head. “How are you?”

  She shrugged. “My sister’s about to go to the same high school that tried to kill me for three years. I can’t change districts, I can’t afford private school, and I can’t begin to pr
epare for what could possibly come out of there.” She put on a smile. “So, peachy with a side of keen, that would be me.”

  “Well, here’s a little something for what ails ya,” he told her. He gestured to the tube.

  They went into the living room.

  He unrolled the blueprints and said, “Take a look.”

  Dawn sailed past, saying, “Hey, check out double-O Xander.”

  “Go,” Buffy ordered her. “Talk with your mouth full.”

  “I’ve got two crews working on this diabolical yet lucrative new campus,” he told her. “One here, finishing the science building. And one here, reinforcing the gym. There are no pentagrams, no secret passageways. Everything’s up to code and safe as houses.”

  “Nothing creepy? Strange? From beyond?”

  Dawn appeared, and said with her mouth full, “Maybe you’re just paranoid.”

  “Well, there is one interesting detail,” Xander conceded. “I managed to scare up the plan from the old high school. You remember the very center of Sunny-dale’s own Hellmouth?”

  He took both sets of plans over to the window, putting one set over the other so they could make comparisons.

  “Under the library,” Buffy said.

  “Right.” Xander nodded. “So I lined up the plans, new and old. And right exactly where the library was, we now have . . .” He looked to her to fill in the blanks.

  “Principal’s office,” she said.

  Dawn was intrigued. “So the principal’s evil?”

  “Or in a boatload of danger,” Buffy said.

  “Well, the last two principals were eaten,” Xander pointed out. “Who would even apply for that job?”

  “Guess we’ll see,” Buffy said. She checked the time. “Oooh, we have to leave, though.” She turned to Dawn. “You have everything? Books, lunch, stakes?”

  “Checked thrice.”

  * * *

  Buffy gave Dawn a present—a cell phone—and Xander dropped them off. After Buffy warned Dawn to stay away from hyena people, lizardy-type athletes, and especially invisible people—to which Dawn retorted that it was pretty safe to say she was not going to be seeing any invisible people to stay away from—Buffy concluded her cautionary lecture by saying, “This place is evil” just in time for the new principal to overhear her.

 

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