Midsummer 15, 6107 RTR (May 17, 2008) Olivia joins Natasha, Qing and Parsley to venture into the Chalk catacombs to solve the mystery of Buffy.
(Blood From A Stone) (The Legend of Buffy) (The Light of Nala) (Madame Natasha) (Necropolis) (Olivia) (Qing) (Spheres of Magic) (Stonebarrow) (Sylvania) (The Return of Valicross)

Morning passes quickly for Olivia Weaver, and soon enough it's time to rendezvous with Parsley Chalk in the sub-basement of Dr. Pike's castle. Since the Doctor herself is still busy preparing some odd experiment that requires Igor's assistance, there isn't anyone to interrupt her. When the Skeek arrives at the ritual room, she finds that she's actually the last one to arrive: Natasha and Mage Qing are already there, and the Lapi maid is beginning to look a bit panicky.

    Ritual Room
    The room inside is dark, mainly because it's been painted black. Slightly fluorescent symbols cover the walls, ceiling and floor, along with a pentagram inscribed in a magic circle, with even more strange symbols within it. Bowls and jars full of colorful powders line the side of one wall, and tall candle holders stand at each corner.

Olivia goes over to greet Parsley first, since she looks ready to jump right out of her skin. "Thank you again for coming," the Skeek tells her quietly. "Are you going to be all right?"

"As ve do not know exactly vhat ve may face below, it is best to have at least one defensive and one offensive spell ready," Natasha explains to no one in particular (and in her 'gypsy accent') as her fingertips dance over the crystal set into the top of her rough-hewn staff. With each tap, the crystal glows a little brighter. "I do not expect any danger from the vampire; but that vhich binds her may be quite dangerous."

"Oh… sure, Olivia," Parsley says, with a wavering grin. The Lapi doesn't seem able to actually stand still, between the nose twitching and shifting from foot to foot. "It's… uh… just a little trip into the forbidden catacombs to talk to a vampire… Nothing to be worried about, right?"

Olivia puts a comforting hand on the Lapi's arm and gives her an understanding half-smile. "Since it looks like we're going to have two magic-users with us for this visit, I think we'll be just fine. We just have to stick together down there."

The Rokuga witchdoctor sits coiled in a circle he's drawn himself into. Here, in the murk of the ritual chamber, he is a nearly blinding white instead of the faintly yellowish color of bone he arrived to Stonebarrow as. His ruby eyes are clear and intent, though not focused on anything in particular, as if seeing into some world of his own. Pale blue wisps circle the brim of his broad hat. Most notable, his once-familiar acrid chemical smell is… well, it's not quite gone, but it's faded considerably to something no longer outright unpleasant, just… odd; strange hints that never really settle on something. Getting too close to him causes skin to prickle under fur, as if he carried a charge, but when he speaks, his voice is its customary soft murmur. "As I understand it, we will be along as projections rather than ourselves, correct? I hesitate to prepare an exorcism or dispel, lest we upset mechanisms in place. I will prepare rituals of control and identification, and I will represent myself with a guardian spirit."

"B-But… how do we get there?" Parsley asks Olivia in a whisper.

"Ve are going directly, no as projections. The Lapi is our guide, and as long as she is with us, the vampire will not react violently. The vampire vishes us to awaken old memories lost in the flow of magic, so that she may understand what she is," Natasha explains, satisfied that she has the slow drain localized to her staff tip to act as light for the journey.

The snake nods slowly. "So be it. The spirit I have prepared will attend to me."

Olivia's smile gets a little broader this time. "Let's just say that we're going to take the back way in… and this time, we don't have some crazy Kadie yelling at us about inflatable boats!" When Parsley gives the Skeek a very odd look, she clears her throat in embarrassment. "Er… you'll see," she finishes lamely.

"Boat?" the Lapi asks, and looks around. "We're underground though… " Parsley's confused look will hopefully not become permanent.

"There's an underground waterway that runs beneath the castle," Olivia explains. "That's how we're going to get there."

With the mages ready, Olivia leads them all to the end of the hall, where a pile of bricks stand next to a partially completed wall. The doorway in the center leads to the last two rooms of the basement, along with a small dock along a somewhat stagnant underground canal. A flat-bottomed chitin canal boat is moored there. Everyone piles in, and there is some difficulty getting all of Qing inside without sinking at first, but it gets worked out eventually. At the rear, Olivia takes up the pole and starts pushing them along, with Natasha at the front to light the way.

Qing coils as efficiently as he can manage, his body looping over itself in places. He keeps his guardian at the fore of his mind in case he actually does manage to swamp the skiff and needs to buoy it somewhat.

Natasha cups her hand around the crystal embedded in her staff. She whispers to it and the low light it gives off flares brighter, revealing the dark waterway ahead and the old stone walls. "Memory runs deep in this place," she says as the butt of her staff makes a dull thump against the floor of the boat. "A low muttering of old voices in the mist of magic. Much must have happened here long ago."

Parsley has to actually sit on Qing's coils, which isn't doing much to calm her down. Passing by the hideous gargoyle 'canal marker' doesn't help either. "You mean it's haunted?" the Lapi asks Natasha.

Olivia finds it somewhat difficult to pole herself, Parsley, and two adults along in the same little boat, wishing now that she had some of Zahn's wiry strength or Amelia's muscles. But she manages without too much huffing and puffing, at least.

The pallid serpent cocks his head as if listening to something only he can hear. "The whole of Sylvania is haunted. What matters are the details… magic is especially strong in this place." Whether it's for Parsley's benefit or not, he seems to make a point of not noticing the Lapi perched on chilly loops of scaly white.

"To expand on vhat Mage Qing said … haunted, but not in the sense of a ghost, child. A true ghost is a focus of magic shaped by the strong memory of one who once lived, or an event that scarred the magic of a place. Ghosts are reflections of what once vas. These are not strong memories, so they are simple echos. To those sensitive to magic, vell, ve hear such echos in our minds. And as a minor point, the deeper one digs into the ground, the stronger magic is and the more it takes on the shape villed by the living."

"That doesn't sound any more reassuring you know," the Lapi complains. By the time the boat reaches the next underground dock, Olivia can barely feel her arms. Parsley is only too happy to hop off first and tie the boat into place. "This is it, right Olivia?" she then thinks to ask.

"It better darn well be," the Skeek mutters as she rubs her aching arms. Then she peers into the distance and says, "Yes, this is the place. I can see the door to the passage we need from here."

"Qing should disembark next. Our veight vill steady the craft," Natasha notes.

Qing nods and hefts himself up, the boat rocking as he supports himself on the dock with his myriad arms. He shuffles his coils across, the motion looking something like unloading cargo rather than a conscious disembarking.

Natasha, for her part, waits for Qing to exit the small craft. Even with the boat rocking considerably at times, she looks … unconcerned. Nodding once the Naga is on shore, the Khatta now stands with the aid of her staff and steps onto the dock. She pauses for a moment, eyes distant, then nods. "There is considerable power ahead," she comments.

As the last, Olivia replaces the pole in its niche within the boat and hops out onto the dock.

The door in question is big, heavy and attached to the stone walls with iron fittings. The bolt is on the outside, and a small barred window is set in the middle of it.

"A cell?" hisses Qing. "Do we knock?" Parsley asks. The door doesn't scare her as much as other things have so far – or else she's just starting to run out of adrenalin finally.

"Iron would be appropriate to cage a creature of magic," Natasha says as she slowly approaches the door. The Khatta raises her hand as if to ask the others to wait a moment, then reaches out and lightly traces her fingertips upon the door, feeling for unevenness in the surface that might indicate there was once writing.

The ironwood door seems untouched by time. If there was anything written on it, then the paint has long since turned to dust or been thoroughly scrubbed off… and then the door re-varnished afterward.

"No obvious vards," the feline notes after her inspection. With a quick glance back to Qing, Natasha asks, "Vhat do vou sense? I sense a focus of considerable power ahead, but nothing specific about it."

Qing's brow ridges crease, and he concentrates. After a moment, he hisses, "Mm… nothing specific. Perhaps we should send a spirit to announce us. Or scout, at least."

"I thought we were expected?" Parsley asks, and looks to Olivia for guidance.

"If we're going to announce our presence, I think Parsley has to do it," Olivia says, giving the Lapi an apologetic glance. "That way, Buffy won't be too startled. But I can at least go up to the door with you, if you like?"

"As Olivia says, vou must go first," Natasha comments to the Lapi, brow arched a bit as she looks at her. The feline then stands to the side and with a flourish of her hand, presents the door to Parsley. "Open the gate and allow us villingly into vour lands, please."

"Please!" Parsley says, and her ears fold back as she undoes the bolt and pulls the door open a crack. There's slight gust of dry air when the door is opened, but nothing else. The tunnel beyond is still stone, but the scent of chalk is heavy.

Olivia nods and sidles up right behind Parsley as she opens the door, just to offer a comforting presence.

Qing moves to bring up the rear, wisps trailing after him, huddled close as if worried they might be closed outside the door.

"De young are so … jumpy," Natasha comments to Qing as she watches Parsley and Olivia make the first steps into the unknown.

"Mm," says the snake, noncommittally.

"Hello?" Parsley calls out quietly. Really quietly. "Maybe nobody's home?" she says hopefully, just before a voice calls out from the darkness, "Come forward, Parsley Chalk, and have no fear."

"Go ahead," Olivia whispers to Parsley. "I'll stay right behind you."

"Have no fear? That is the scariest thing you can be told you know," the Lapi mutters, but leads on into the tunnel.

"Vou are safe. Ve kin protect you," Natasha reminds the Lapi.

"Hey, it's… the Chalk!" Parsley announces after several paces, and then actually rushes ahead a bit.

Shaking her head a bit, Natasha follows after the Lapi.

Olivia sighs and starts after her friend. "So much for caution… " she mutters.

The Rokuga at the back looks on intently. He doesn't offer words of encouragement, but he seems to be paying close attention, his tongue occasionally flicking. He follows along behind, staying close enough to cast his shadow over the mammals from what dim light his wisps offer.

Indeed, the stone gives way to bare chalk. Parsley and Olivia step into it without any problems, but as soon as Natasha touches it – well, it's a bit like walking into a fully charged Major Ritual in the middle of a lightning storm on top of an erupting volcano. The stored energy makes her momentarily lightheaded.

"Nngh," Natasha grumbles and staggers forward. Her staff butt digs deep into the ground as the Khatta steadies herself. She remains motionless for a moment, drawing and releasing several deep breathes. "Vhomever cast this … it vas not a solo effort. Much power is stored here. This place is dangerous," she says slowly.

Qing looks on, tilting his head slightly. He gingerly passes a hand over where the chalk begins, laying just his fingertips on it.

Now, Qing is more familiar with the feeling of overlapping and stacked Major Rituals, having been on Caroban during the major phases of construction. But this is still something else – it's like raw Spirit or Life magic, saturated into the chalk. If it were used to draw a ritual circle, there'd be no need to gather energy for the ritual itself.

Surprise is not an expression commonly seen on the Rokuga's face, but his brow ridges lift, and his mouth opens very slightly, just the tips of needle teeth showing as he whispers. "Hssss… so this is it… saturated, concentrated. Almost… intoxicating. I have felt something akin to its like before, but yet nothing of this scale. Sss… perhaps this is why… "

"Why what?" a black Lapi asks. She's wearing layers of cobwebs in the approximation of a wedding dress, and looking at Qing from around Olivia.

"Inexperienced mages could become lost in this," Natasha comments, pushing back to her full height. Her eyes now drift to Buffy and her left brow cocks upward a bit.

"Where did you… " Parsley asks, noticing the Lapi that appeared behind her, and then just covers her mouth in shock. Buffy winks at her, which is a bit odd looking when you have glowing red eyes.

Olivia yeeps and startles, not realizing that Buffy had just materialized in front of her until she spoke. She places one hand over her heart and closes her eyes for a few seconds, to regain her equilibrium.

The reptile stops, bringing his long neck back up to twist it around and regard Buffy. "Ahh… it is you. You were there, within Valicross' prison, with us. You could tell me… why would a necromancer… or rather why would something controlling that necromancer wish to come to this little place?"

"You mean to Stonebarrow?" Buffy asks, and scratches an ear. "Well… lots of people are drawn here. The Kadies and Lapis came on a sort of religious vision thing way back when. The Skeeks have always been here though. And the otters I don't know about… "

Qing's mouth closes… it would purse, if he had lips. "That was nothing to Valicross and to Aeztepa. But had they found these chalk mines… " His eyes have a faraway cast. "Why, the possibilities… "

"It's just chalk," Buffy notes. "Well, chalk and me I suppose. She pats the wall of powdery white mineral.

Natasha taps her staff on the floor, causing a small dust cloud to rise up. she touches it with her finger and twirls it slowly, creating a small spiral of chalk in the air before her. "This place may have been a focus for magic once. The stories I have heard vhile here are of ruins that betray a once great civilization vas once here. Perhaps this place was their center of magic … " she says then casts a wary eye to Qing. "Ve do not need to burden these people with Aeztepa and its black touch," she comments.

Olivia snorts lightly and glances at Qing. "Too late," she says softly.

"Aeztepa chooses who it will burden, Dame Natasha," hisses Qing. "I believe any remaining taint is far away from here now, but to consider what might have happened should it have come here… it is not pleasant to consider." He shakes his angular head. "Still, we came here for other reasons."

"Well, maybe if you can figure out why I'm here, you can figure out the rest," Buffy notes. "And you didn't know about this place's power until you stepped into it, right?"

"Ve could sense power, but not on this magnitude. It did not seem any stronger than any other place in these damaged lands," Natasha answers. "Can ve proceed to the last place you remember before awakening as you are now?"

The reptilian mage rubs his throat thoughtfully. "Not the fullest extent. But I have known of your presence, had some inkling of your power for some time. It would be enough to draw the curious and the avaricious… I believe it may have, in fact."

"Well, I suppose that makes sense, if I'm a guardian," Buffy notes with a curt nod. "Gotta make them come to me." With that, she turns and starts walking down the passage, deeper into the chalk.

Qing follows along. At first, he has no other comment to offer, but then something seems to occur to him. "So then, spirit. What of the ones you brought away from Valicross' prison?"

"Did you want to see them?" Buffy asks, as she leads them into a dome-shaped chamber that branches off into a dozen different tunnels, and includes an opening in the ceiling that leads up to another level.

Natasha is content to walk along for now. At Qing's question, she casts a knowing glance to Olivia.

Olivia returns the Khatta's look and smiles a little.

The snake's back stiffens, as if he didn't expect quite that answer. "N-… " he begins, but clenches his jaw.

"Might as well, since I need to show you something from that time anyway," Buffy says, and turns down one of the tunnels. Parsley shrugs and follows after her.

Qing doesn't have a response, but having the decision taken out of his hands seems to make his jaw relax a little.

Natasha pauses to look upward through the hole in the ceiling. But, when Parsley and Buffy head down the passage, she resumes following. "They are happy," she comments to Qing though her eyes remain forward. "I hope that eases your heart."

Now finding herself at the rear of the party, Olivia just trots after the rest, although she looks around her with great curiosity.

    Rows of vines holding giant, dark grapes spread out for acres across low, gently sloping hills. At the base of the wide, shallow valley runs a river, which bisects a large village in the distance. The sun shines down from a clear sky, making the manicured lawn around the small gazebo shine a vibrant green, while the latticework of the gazebo itself shows the fine details and filigreeing common to Sylvania.

Somehow, the chalk corridor leads to… the gazebo, and then vanishes behind Olivia, replaced by more rolling hills. The orphans are running about and playing in the sun, chasing Creens or raiding picnic baskets, much as Natasha and Olivia saw before in spirit form. This doesn't feel like that spirit world though – it feels more solid. A Khatta kitten spies then, and shouts out, "It's Uncle Qing! He's back!" En-masse, the children begin to converge on the group.

"They never seem to get tired anymore," Buffy comments. "And I'm not letting them eat lots of sugar either!"

"They are dead, Natasha," hisses Qing with a dismissive sweep of his arm. His hat held low over his face, obscuring it but for the tip of his nose. "Well enough that they are remembered… it is all we can ask for in-… " He stops, drawing himself back, disconcerted when their surroundings seem to change, and all the more thrown off when they're approached. "I-… no, wait, let's… "

The kitten reaches them first, and climbs up onto one of Qing's arms. Soon enough the others are clamoring to be held, or asking for candy. They don't seem the half-starved things from the staff any longer. There is a lot of laughing and giggling involved. "Where did they all come from?" Parsley asks Olivia.

"Their memories are not dead. In the end, all of us will just be just that, a memory. What we can hope for, is that we are happy ones, Zhu Ye," Natasha says to Qing as the Khatta steps aside and lets her accent fall away. "We live on in those who remember us, for good or for bad."

Olivia seems to notice the Naga's discomfiture and moves forward to intercept some of the pack. As she goes, she explains to Parsley briefly, "That evil necromancer we took care of a while ago had them trapped." Then she goes down on one knee to offer hugs to some of them.

"Trapped? Wait… " Parsley finally begins to comprehend what's going on. "You mean they're… ghosts?" she all but whispers.

The Rokuga's halfhearted retreat is brought up short, and he holds still when the children… or what were children… gather around him, and cling to myriad arms. Eventually, he moves, still saying nothing but gently swinging his arms and the kittens that hang from them. All but one arm, a spidery hand laid over a spot on his chest.

"Yes!" Buffy says cheerfully, and pats Parsley on the back. "I just overlapped their playground with the chalk for a bit so we could visit. I'd have to give them blood to make them more physical, but there's no reason to, really."

"Oh, no blood… " Parsley says, sounding relieved.

"I plan to eventually put them into bunnies, once I figure out exactly how," the vampire continues. "It's either that, or find some grown-up ghosts willing to adopt them."

"The prison that held them … affected Mage Qing greatly, even if he will not directly speak of it," Natasha tries to explain quietly to Parsley as she now crouches down to greet the children. "Valicross' memory cut deep."

"Well, he's dead now," Buffy says, rubbing her paws together. "Deader than dead, even! Anyway, I figured this could be a bit of a shortcut to where I wanted to take you next," she explains. "Soon as you're ready!" The black Lapi gestures to a doorframe standing at the back of the gazebo that wasn't there a moment ago. It looks fancy, possibly made of mahogany and featuring the carved Gothic designs of Sylvanian woodcraft.

Qing almost seems to want to say something to Buffy, misgivings on his face, but he can't really seem to bring himself to speak, at least to her. Instead, he simply lowers himself, murmuring… inconsequential things, idle chit chat with the kits, the simple things children talk about that he thought he'd forgotten. Eventually, he disentangles himself with arms and promises reminders that he needs to go along with Buffy.

"We'll be here when you want to come back, Unca Qing!" the spokes-kitten says, and helps herd the others back to the lawn.

"Where exactly are you taking us, then?" Natasha inquires as she draws back upright, then pats a nearby child atop its head. "Your old home?"

Upon hearing Buffy's words, Olivia pants and looks up from the tickle-fight she was having with the children who veered off to hug her. "Guess I have to go now," she tells them, standing up. "Be good, now!"

"We will, 'Livia," one little girl promises before abandoning the Skeek to her comrades.

"Dead… " murmurs Qing, when they're out of earshot again. But his fists tighten, and it seems evident he's talking about something else entirely now. "Valicross was already dead when I dealt with what he'd left. If I could have… if he'd been in my clutches… I would have suspended him in the air by wraiths and had them break his bones one by one."

"No, my old home is underwater," Buffy says, and then opens the door onto a fancy parlor room. A long bench rests under a series of windows that look out over a garden, and several girls are seated on it, embroidering dresses. Two Kadies, a Skeek, and two Lapis – one of which is clearly Buffy, working on her wedding dress. "This is the Manor."

"It would not have brought back those he killed, Zhu Ye. Would you truly want to start down a dark path of vengeance?" Natasha asks the Naga quietly, then pats his shoulder. "Come, other issues await. Perhaps this story will teach us something we can act upon," she offers, then heads through those ornate doors and into the parlor.

Bringing up the rear again, Olivia peers into the Manor room but doesn't quite know what to say.

The seated girls don't react to the presence of the visitors. "I'm glad we get to stay here until the wedding," the Skeek girl notes. "I'd never be able to keep my dress clean in the tent with my brothers." "At least you aren't stuck in an old chalk tunnel," the other Lapi notes, while then-Buffy laughs and says, "I don't envy you that! But I miss the old houses already, even if I wasn't going to be living in them… " She seems to trail off, and all of the girls look out of the window, at something hidden by the trees that border the garden.

The moody snake has no good answer for Natasha, and so he simply nods curtly and follows along. Some of his moodiness gives way to curiosity, his tongue flicking as new echoes are seen. He takes the manor in thoughtfully.

Buffy – the present one – explains, "The Upheaval flooded the town and vineyards. Everything we just saw was washed away. It didn't affect the Kadies much, but the Skeeks had to rough it while a new town was built, and the Chalks all moved into the mines."

For the moment, Natasha reminds silent. Her eyes flick about, then go to the window. "The dam was built during this time, was it not?" she finally asks.

"It was begun," Buffy says. "Everything had to be rebuilt, which is why… " she stops suddenly, as a new figure enters. Tall, handsome and dressed as a noble, a black Khatta goes down on one knee before Buffy and kisses her hand. "Do not worry," he says. "Silverheath is only a few hours ride from here, and I'm sure everything will go well with our neighbors."

"I still wish you'd wait until after the wedding, Wulfgar," then-Buffy says, sounding worried. "We've not heard anything from that town since the flooding. They may not be able to help us anyway."

Natasha's head tilts as she looks to the arriving noble. "A handsome man," she observes.

"Lord Druagh is an old friend of the family," the man explains. "Everything will be fine, I promise. Without the vineyards, we need to borrow money to rebuild the town."

"Druagh was a vampire, was he not?" Natasha asks. "I seem to remember hearing that from the townsfolk," she adds and frowns slightly.

Qing glances over at Natasha. "Hm. A natural one, or a spiritually infected one?"

"The latter, I believe," Natasha answers, then looks to Buffy.

"At the time… he was just a cousin of the Snapfish family," Buffy says. "We were so busy dealing with the flood that we never went to check on our neighbors to the north before this."

The black Lapi waves her arm, and the room goes dark. Light returns dimly, in the form of some candles, and there is a lot of yelling and stomping going on somewhere else in the manor, drawing closer. Finally, the door bursts open and Buffy enters, followed closely by an odd looking Skreek. "Forvive me, Marthter, but thee inthithted on theeing you… " the Skreek says.

"It is alright, Igor," a figure says from a shadowed corner of the room. "We will be married on the morrow, after all, and I doubt our luck will suffer for me seeing her now."

Natasha's lips flicker to a frown again and she reaches up to rub between her eyes, as if a headache was beginning. "Your husband to be … changed," she asks of Buffy, her eyes locking on the shadow in the corner.

Present-day Buffy remains quiet. Igor closes the door to give the two privacy, and then-Buffy loses her temper. "Where have you been? Igor's kept me locked out since you got back, and I haven't even been able to see your sister or my bridesmaids!"

"My family is… indisposed," Wulfgar says. His silhouette can be made out now, looking out of the window. When he turns to face the Lapi, his eyes are hidden behind dark glasses. "Things did not go as planned with Lord Druagh, but it doesn't matter. We… the wedding should be called off," he says.

"No!" Buffy cries, and rushes to hug her groom to be. "Not after everything we've suffered through! Nothing can be so bad!" she sobs. And then Wulfgar Snapfish removes his glasses to reveal glowing red eyes. "Yes, something can be so bad, Buffy. Everything has changed. Stonebarrow will be converted to serve Lord Druagh, but you will live! You must leave now, and never look back!"

"No! No no no!" the Lapi replies, beating her fists against the Khatta's chest and sobbing. "I don't care! I'm going to be with you forever, just like we promised each other!"

Natasha closes her eyes now and rubs over her eyelids with her fingers. The feline dearly looks as if she wishes to say something, but cannot find the right words.

"You cannot be with me, Buffy," Wulfgar says, and tries to pry the rabbit away from him. "My future is set in stone." "I'll break you free then!" Buffy claims, still in tears, and then runs from the room.

"So, did Lord Snapfish turn all the rest of his family into vampires, too?" the Skeek asks in a small voice, from where she is watching this scene in one corner of the room.

Everything blurs as the room changes. Now it is a large bedroom, decorated with a tasteful, feminine hand. At the center is four-poster bed, overstuffed in Sylvanian fashion. Buffy bursts into face her bridesmaids, all of them with glowing eyes and bloodied chins as the crouch over the body of a female Khatta.

"None of his family," Buffy explains to Olivia. "He spared them that, but used them to feed the ones he did create," she notes, gesturing to the corpse on the bed. "That was his sister."

Olivia makes a small 'oh' with her mouth before covering it with a hand, horrified.

Qing looks on impassively, but his face is tight.

"How … kind," Natasha mutters darkly. Her hand visibly twitches on her staff as she resists the urge to use magic right now; reminding herself this is just a memory.

"You aren't supposed to be here!" the Skeek vampire hisses. "You have to leave, Buffy! This isn't for you." The black Lapi bends over and vomits at the sight of the dead woman, and says, "How… how dare you! My friends… how could you betray me and become vampires… "

"He drank from us," one of the Kadies says proudly. "And gave us his blood in return! You never deserved him, Buffy!" At that, the Lapi bride screams and leaps onto the bed to attack the Kadie girl! The struggle is brief, as the vampires easily pull her away and the insulting Kadie just laughs.

"Let me go!" Buffy demands, and the other girls actually release her. After taking several deep breaths, the doe says, "Clean yourselves up. The wedding is happening tonight."

"Foolish," Natasha mutters and sighs. "Blind. The man you loved was already gone."

The vampires do nothing to stop Buffy from leaving, and the Lapi pauses next to a writing desk. She picks up the ornate letter opener, and then continues out.

"Foolish and blind are good descriptions of being in love, aren't they?" Buffy replies sadly. "He was everything to me. I had no reason to live without him."

Qing flicks his tongue guardedly. "And yet, I do not think she was so blind that she was going to continue exactly as she had planned."

Once more, the room fades and returns to the candle-lit parlor. Wulfgar sits before the now-blazing fireplace, looking tormented, when Buffy slips into the room behind him. "You haven't left, Buffy," the man says. "We have no life together anymore."

"That doesn't mean we can't be together," the doe says, and hugs Wulfgar from behind. "Don't you want me to be with you, Wulfgar?"

"Of course I do," the man says, and turns around to embrace the Lapi. "I always will, it's just… GACK!" The letter opener plunges into the side of the man's throat, and when Buffy pulls it out she locks her own mouth around the wound.

"This, I admit, was not very well thought out," present-Buffy notes.

The reptile's nose wrinkles. "I should say not."

Natasha's whole body heaves with her next sigh. In the low light, the Khatta looks ever so much older as she watches the tragedy unfold before her. "You had no idea the amount of pain you were about to feel," she says quietly. "The touch of necromancy on this scale burns."

Buffy waves her arm, and everything vanishes. A chamber carved out of chalk is all that there is now. "I know," she says. "He was going to marry me though, right then. Igor was ready to conduct the service, the bridesmaids were at hand… and Wulfgar was going to bite me and complete the curse so we could be together. But then the Sheriff and a mob broke in and… well, that was that."

"It would have been kinder if he had just killed you at that moment," Natasha comments and turns away from the black Lapi. "Living as that is not living at all."

Qing studies Buffy with renewed interest now, his tongue flicking again. "And now you are not what he would have made you, the curse incomplete. Something different… "

"My memories became… hazy, after that," the dark Lapi notes. "I would have died anyway. But… something happened. Come on, I'll take you to where everything changed." She leads on through the dark tunnel once more.

Natasha shakes her head slightly and once more follows after Buffy. "Something different. Can what was done still be undone, then? Can this child be given back her life, since it was never completely removed?" the Khatta wonders, "And would she wish it back?"

Still trembling a little from the scene with Buffy's bridesmaids, Olivia falls silently into step behind the Khatta, wondering what could be much worse than what she's just seen.

"I liked the dresses," Parsley mumbles, focusing on the one bright spot so she can block out the rest.

    The Heart of the Chalk
    This chamber is deep underground near the center of the vast chalk deposit. Glowing crystals embedded in the walls provide a flickering rainbow source of light, and the chalk walls themselves have been carved into the likenesses of pillars, arches and bricks to give the room the feeling of a temple. A circle of engraved symbols sets in the floor, the chalk dust that fills them is obscuring some of the marking, while at the very center of the floor there is spider-web crack that hasn't completely filled in yet.

A pair of shadowy figures are also present in the center of the room; two transparent Lapi does. One is wearing a wedding dress, and lying on her side on the floor with her head resting in the lap of the other, which is bent over and apparently weeping while cradling the supine one's head in her hands.

"What is this place?" Natasha asks their vampire guide as she cautiously enters the room. Her eyes flick from the ghosts in the center to the partially obscured markings in the floor.

"This is where my family brought me, to keep me hidden from the town after the raid on the manor," Buffy explains, appearing as a slightly deeper shadow except for her glowing eyes. "That's me and my mother on the floor. She kept telling me to fight the poison… "

Qing lets his colleague ask the question for him, and his head angles to study the two ghostly does with a certain detachment.

Parsley stays close to Olivia, and frowns at everything she sees. The doe is constantly muttering, "I shouldn't be seeing this. I shouldn't be seeing this… "

Natasha steps away from he living and starts to circle the room slowly. As she passes around the circle, she pauses now and then to try and clear away the dust on the floor from the markings to try and make better sense of them. "A parent should never have to witness the death of their child," she comments quietly.

Olivia follows after the rest. When she hears Parsley's muttering, she takes the Lapi's hand firmly in hers and tries to give her a reassuring smile. She doesn't say anything at the moment, since the Skeek figures that it's better to keep one eye on Parsley and the other on the action taking place in the room.

The markings are clearer after brushing some of the dust out of them. It at first appears to be a standard ritual circle, except that the runes of Spirit and Life are mixed in together. Inside is another diagram, more like a pentagram, and a second circle of older symbols like those seen in the ritual chamber beneath the castle.

"No, they shouldn't," agrees the snake. His expression is faraway, but his detachment is forced, and after a minute or two he has to look away, turning to what Natasha is looking at.

"I'd already given up by then though," Buffy explains, kneeling down next to the hazy memory of her mother. "I didn't have any reason to live, or so I thought. But she made me realize how much pain I was putting her and the rest of my family through."

Natasha's head tilts. "A mixture of life and spirit magic. Not an unexpected finding, though the skill is far better than the town has demonstrated with their witches. But the mixture of runes that match those of the homunculus laboratory is … curious. I have a theory now. Perhaps the room itself can tell us more," the Khatta says as she taps the side of her foot with her staff to knock the dust off.

"Can you turn back time, Natasha?" Buffy asks. "I remember so little, since… well, I was pretty far gone as you can see."

Qing spies the crack in the center. He tries to follow it with his eyes further out from the center, and dusts at an area of the floor where he thinks it might continue.

The crack seems centered near the shadowy figures, and while it spreads in a circular area, the main crack itself seems to follow a straight line, as if an axe was used to split the floor. Beyond a few feet, however, it fades away to the solid chalk once more.

"Mm," says the Rokuga to himself. He turns back to Natasha. "So then. Do you think perhaps the gathered spirits here will remember what the fragment that is this Buffy does not? What are your thoughts?"

"Time is one thing constant even in the face of the greatest magic. What has passed can never be undone," Natasha explains with a small shake of her head. "Memories can be brought back for a time, energized to play out their moments, to offer explanation for what happened." The Khatta then turns towards Qing and nods, adding, "This place has such power that the event is likely burned into its very essence. Such is the effect of emotion on magic, after all. The power here would also make summoning it quick … but that is also its curse. Now, for the benefit of Olivia and her Lapine friend so that they understand … controlling such concentrations of power is difficult and a mistake can be costly. The best explanation of the difficulty would be … a dam can control the flow of a river … but the slightest crack in it and it will shatter it. The wave of water pressure would then destroy all in its path."

"You mean the room could collapse on us?" Parsley asks in a voice filled with dread. Cave-ins and tunnel collapses are probably the worst fears of Lapis that live underground.

"Not so much as a physical catastrophe, but one of the spirit. We could find ourselves possessed by the very echoes of memory we sought to excite," Natasha explains. "I will not lie to you and say there is no danger in it. Any time concentrated magic is at work … well. I heard stories of a great ritual in Babel not so long ago and the creation of some very powerful spirits." She glances again towards Qing, brow arched a bit questioningly.

"So you run the risk of making your own memories real again?" Buffy asks.

"Or nightmares," Natasha adds.

Olivia swallows hard and looks at Parsley. "Well, I'm prepared to stay," she says, with more bravery than she actually feels. "Will you be all right, Parsley?"

"Oh… I… " Parsley begins to say, then just nods. "Clover is the one who has nightmares, not me."

Qing threads the fingers of all three pairs of hands together, palms out, the joints cracking. "A worthy test, then." He glances back at the center of the chamber for just a moment, then flicks his tongue. "Would that we could always simply risk our lives to deal with memories than to spend a lifetime hardening one's heart to them."

"What do you need me to do, besides watch for unwelcome spirits?" Buffy asks, moving back towards Olivia and Parsley to give the mages more room.

"Just so," Natasha comments, "Since I believe you have long since eclipsed my skill, Zhu Ye, I ask of you to manage the defensive barriers to protect Olivia and Parsley and keep the spirits from seeping out of this room. I will handle the excitation of the ghosts of the pasts. Combined, there should be a far less chance of the magic running uncontrolled." The Khatta then turns her eyes towards Buffy, her expression drifting a bit … sad? "You I have to ask the hardest duty of all, Buffy," she apologizes as her fingers uncurl towards the hazy figures in the center of the room, "You must relive the last moment of your life … as her. The room remembers, but so do you. It needs the focus of the memory to be part of it."

"So be it," Buffy says, and lies on the floor until she merges into the hazy shadow of her former self.

The witchdoctor nods grimly. "So be it." Strangely, there's a relief in him that's visible in how his shoulders untense.

"Olivia," Natasha asks, "Did you carry any needles with you… ?"

Olivia gives the Khatta a look of disbelief, then smiles. "Remember who you're asking, Natasha," she says lightly, then lets go of Parsley's hand long enough to extract a few sewing needles (with colored threads still attached) from the hidden pocket within her flowered hat. "How many do you need?"

"They aren't for poking us with, are they?" Parsley asks nervously.

"I don't need them. I … well, I will need a few drops of her blood, as she guessed," Natasha says a bit apologetically as she waves towards Parsley. "This is the Lapine world down here. To call forth their memories, a bit of the living would help." The Khatta then crouches down and scoops up a handful of the chalk dust.

Olivia glances at Parsley again. "Would you rather I did that?" she asks quietly.

Qing goes over a mental inventory, tugging the wisps down that were orbiting his hat and looking at them as if he didn't already know what he was holding. "Will the warrens take offense to outsider spirits?"

"I… I guess it's better if Natasha does it," Parsley says, squeezing Olivia's hand once before letting go. "I don't want to put you through any stress too!"

"That depends on their intentions," Buffy says from the floor. "If they are here to protect, then I will allow them."

Natasha walks over to Parsley and Olivia, her hands cupped around a pile of chalk. "I need Olivia to do it. I do not have enough hands. It is these times that being such as Mage Qing is would be most useful," she says. "Just a couple drops in this chalk should be enough, Olivia.

"Very good. It will aid us, fear not." The reptile closes one of his hands around a wisp, and it vanishes.

Olivia nods, then selects her finest and sharpest needle, so Parsley won't feel much pain. She holds one of the Lapi's hands over the chalk and murmurs, "Tell me when you're ready."

Parsley closes her eyes tightly, and mutters, "I hate the sight of blood. But I'm ready, Olivia."

Olivia quickly jabs the needle into the tip of Parsley's ring finger and waits for the blood to well to the surface. Once it does, she lightly squeezes that finger until three drops fall into the chalk Natasha holds. "Do you need any more?"

"That will do, thank you Olivia," Natasha says with a slight bow of her head. Cradling the chalk in her hands she walks closer to the specters in the middle of the circle and there she waits, waiting for her counterpart to establish the defense of the room…

Olivia quickly puts her needles away and says to Parsley, "I'm done. You can look now."

Qing brings his hands together, his voice a low hiss. "Hearken to me, Disciples of the Alabaster Tower. From the twenty-third tier of the Crystal Spire, I call upon Volo'thess the Cleaver. By the laws of the Old Realm, I bid you serve me." Plumes of hazy white splash into being and coalesce into the ghostly armored form of… a Lapi? Qing himself looks momentarily as perplexed as his reptilian face will allow as the rabbit, clad in ornamented Imperial plate armor, ears tucked down under a chain coif, hefts a double-edged axe to rest it on his shoulders. The Lapi flicks its tongue, revealing it to be forked.

The doe pops the pricked finger into her mouth before opening her eyes, thus avoiding having to see the pin-prick as well. "Thank you, Olivia," Parsley mutters around her finger.

From her spot on the floor, Buffy pays close attention to what Mage Qing does, as she's never seen a spirit summoned before.

"Tell me when you are ready and I will begin," Natasha says to Qing. Her attention shifts over to her hands where she begins muttering softly to them. It's not a language either Lapi would likely know; delicate and flowery in sound. Almost a sing-song in the way it is spoken.

The witchdoctor eyes his creation thoughtfully, and mutters a few things, hands working at the air as if he were stretching and rearranging things that can't be seen. Volo'thess doesn't change visibly, simply glancing around alertly, but eventually Qing seems satisfied. "You may proceed, Madame."

"He's kinda cute," Parsley notes to Olivia. "I don't know about that tongue though."

Olivia regards the spirit Qing has just summoned with some curiosity. "Maybe he was really meant to be a Naga but turned out as mostly Lapi, instead?" she theorizes to Parsley in a whisper.

"The Chalk likes Lapis," Parsley replies with a knowing nod.

Natasha nods once as she resumes speaking into her cupped hands. The chanting grows from a soft mumble to one where each word is spoken with a force behind it. After each word, both Olivia and Parsley feel as if a light breeze just passed through their fur. Within a minute, Natasha draws down into a crouch. Then with a dancer's grace she draws upward, spinning in a spiral as she releases the chalk in her hands out into the air. It billows outward in a sphere; a shimmering, glowing, mass of dust that threatens to coat the visitors. Natasha's hands strike downward and her fingers snap loudly; unnaturally so as the sound seems to echo in the room. The sphere of chalk dust suddenly stops expanding. And there … there the glowing dust just hovers as if frozen in time. To Olivia and Parsley … it's like looking at a painting. Everything is so … still.

Olivia was about to cover her nose and mouth when the chalk dust came hurtling her way… but when it suddenly stops in midair, she blinks.

"I'm not seeing this," Parsley says, and covers her eyes with her ears.

As Natasha draws in a breath, her arms roll and curl as she slowly reaches upward. As her fingers pass through the floating dust, they brush it aside. In their wake they leave lightly glowing trails that twist and curl like vines. Her chanting resumes as the Khatta starts to dance around the ghost pair in the center of the room. At first, the chanting makes no sense to anyone who doesn't know Khattan … but then something strange happens. Somehow, Olivia, Parsley, and Buffy begin to understand the words she speaks. "Forgotten sorrow buried away, please release the child you embraced so long ago. Allow her memory to tell the story of her life and of her death. Let us understand the curse she bore as the cost of her love," Natasha sings softly as she twirls. Her fingers cut and streak through the dust, leaving behind more and more arcs … no, symbols, that flow in the sphere of dust that surrounds them. "Take form once more; find a moment of life in this dust of time. Find a moment to tell her story. Let her, her mother, her friends, and those who tried to save her, to live within this land of dust. Find form in it, find solace in it. Follow the lift of spirit etched upon it and by my will show us." The words seem to vibrate in the air and through the bodies of everyone present.

Olivia doesn't move, she just follows Natasha's motions with her eyes. I didn't even know she could dance! she thinks to herself, somewhat awed by the sight.

Parsley also seems momentarily hypnotized, peeking out from behind one ear, but she remains silent.

On the floor, Buffy convulses in pain, while her mother – now seen to be a black Lapi with white patches – keeps stroking her hair. "You can beat this, daughter," she says, although her voice catches and she sounds hoarse. "You are a shrine maiden. You are stronger than the corruption within. You… " the woman breaks off and looks up, seemingly at Olivia. "Have you brought them?"

"I have, River," says a masculine voice, right behind Olivia. "But… " "But nothing!" Buffy's mother interrupts. "She's going to live!"

The air in the room feels charged as if standing on the edge of a storm. The fur of Olivia and Parsley feels as if it wants to stand on its end. For Qing … it's intoxicating. The raw energy in the air swirls and dances in an array of colors in the room. Streaks of it snake and whip about in the confines. Even the reptile feels … something dance across his scales … and the pendant beneath his robe feels oddly warm.

Olivia yeeps and spins around to see to whom the voice belongs…

"Ahhh!" Parsley cries, and crouches down behind Olivia, hugging the Skeek around the waist.

And through this… Natasha continues dancing around those in the circle, her voice now a low chant to sustain the focus. Streaks of light continue to follow her fingertips.

A Lapi man walks through Olivia, and behind him are two hazy figures which seem to stand just outside of the dancing chalk. "River, I… " the man begins to say, but is once again interrupted. "Leave us with her," one of the hazy figures says. River looks like she's about to argue again, but then seems to collapse. Her husband helps up her up after she lays Buffy's head back on the ground. "Please, just save her… " she says, as the buck ushers her out.

After the two Lapis leave, the newcomers step forward and become clearer: a black Khatta man dressed as a Sylvanian lord, and a tall, somewhat gaunt-looking human in the robes of a monk. "We don't have time for this, Phelix. She's clearly beyond saving," the human says quietly. "If we're going to stop the Upheaval from spreading, we need to keep moving."

Qing stands up a little straighter, his white robe fluttering around him, the black mark on the front stark. His mouth is slightly open, just the tips of his pointed teeth showing as the sensation of unseen energies passes over him and through him, at once familiar and alien. It takes some concentration to focus on what's happening around him, but he looks on and listens to the new arrivals.

"The Akwavi saved us a day of travel, Fyodr," the Khatta says, "so we can spare some time." His left hand rests on the ornate ivory pommel of his saber, made to resemble an open flower. "Scribe the runes."

Olivia shudders against Parsley's arms as the figures pass through her. "Well, that was… unpleasant," she mutters. "It's making my fur ruffle!"

Although still grumbling, the human uses his staff to carve the symbols, circle and pentagram into the chalk. Finally, he rearranges Buffy so that her head and limbs are aligned with the points of the pentagram. "I know you need practice, but this is not some disease or injury," he tells the Khatta.

"I have an idea I want to test," Phelix claims, and then draws his saber. The blade is made of light, and for a moment after the first flash of it, the Khatta's head turns to follow Natasha's dance.

If the arrivees are noticed by Natasha, she makes no indication of it. She is lost in maintaining the magic's focus; keeping the memory whole. Qing can feel that the tension in the air and hoe each of her touches are to push back a bulge forming in the sphere of spirit energy. The power is pressing outward so much against her … at any moment it is a hair's breath away from exploding outward.

The Khatta touches the tip of his blade to the circle etched into the floor, and the symbols, curves and lines light up with power. "It would be easier to wait until she's dead, and try a resurrection," Fyodr suggests, looking uneasy about the way things are going.

"You've never had a broken heart, I wager," the Khatta replies. "This girl doesn't want to live, and nothing could drag her back once she's gone. But she's the town's shrine maiden, and her duty isn't over yet." With that, the Khatta stabs down with the saber, right through Buffy's heart and into the chalk beneath her. The light grows blindingly bright then, and the chalk itself glows.

Volo'thess looks on emotionlessly, while Qing… it's more difficult to tell with him. But the sensation that the force of Natasha's ritual surging outward brings him to lift his arms, hands out. He mutters under his breath, nothing that can be understood easily, with a vaguely Imperial sound to them as he tries to lend some of his will to his Khattan peer in restraining the energies threatening to overflow. The creases in his face deepen as he's forced to witness the story unfolding, a jerk passing through his body when the sword comes down.

When the blaze of light subsides, the saber has been sheathed and the Khatta is lifting up Buffy's body. "That was too much, Phelix!" Fyodr complains. "And you've pinned her spirit to it as well! Why?" the man demands.

The sphere of chalk visibly vibrates when the light flares. Were it glass, fractures would be forming all over it now. "It may not hold," Natasha says towards Qing, her chant momentarily halting. Her dance intensifies as she continues to reinforce the barrier. Even with both mages acting, the power pushing outward is incredible. Beyond anything either have ever felt in their lives. The power doesn't hurt … it somehow makes them feel more alive. The warmth coming from his pendant is growing hot.

"Why? Because we have to move on, that's why," the Khatta says, cradling the doe in his arms. "So I'm leaving behind a guardian. When this girl wakes up again in one hundred years, the corruption will be gone from her, and she can have a new life. In the meantime, let her spirit guard against the Shadow that spreads through the land."

"A fine sentiment," Fyodr says, a bit sarcastically. "But what good is a guardian who is bound underground, eh?" To that, the Khatta just laughs. "Have you forgotten how to think like a witch already, Fyodr? You carry the answer to that in your pockets!" And then the two figures, along with the sleeping image of Buffy, leave the room.

Olivia thinks furiously about this last statement. "In your pockets?" she repeats, puzzled. "What does that mean?"

"I don't know what wizards keep in their pockets," Parsley whimpers.

The Rokuga's face twists with his focus, and muscles begin to stand out along his neck, his long arms cording as well where they're visible from under his mantle. One hand feels at his chest where something seems to burn against his scaly skin, but his red eyes continue to stare ahead. He doesn't answer Natasha, continuing to hiss in that strange language.

There isn't much time to ponder that question for as the pair leave the sphere … it finally fractures and explodes outward. The moment is silent … but everyone feels the pressure from it. Natasha and Qing feel the brunt of it having been attuned to it. They are shoved backwards and pinned against the wall. As for Parsley and Olivia, it's as if they're trying to walk against the wind of a fierce storm. The sensation is strange though, because it doesn't feel like wind; not exactly. Wincing, Natasha calls out, "We must disperse the wild magic before it goes too far and awakens things in the dark!"

Kneeling in the center of the room, the present-day Buffy seems… lost. With her hands in her lap and her ears down, the red-eyed guardian may as well be praying or waiting for bread to bake; completely oblivious to the chaos blowing around her.

Using an ear to protect her nose and mouth, Parsley clings to Olivia with her free hand. "I don't know what any of that meant, but should we be worried now?" she asks.

"Uhhf!" Several yards of Rokuga thump to the far wall of the chamber, momentarily winding the mage. He raises his voice to carry it across the tempest in a shout. "B-… bleed the energy off with your exorcism! I will try to direct it!"

Olivia holds on to the Lapi to steady both herself and Parsley. "Only if Natasha and Qing can't contain all this magic!" she calls back, then coughs violently in the spinning of the chalk dust.

"Agreed," Natasha calls back and pushes against the wall. Somehow, he pushes herself off of it and drops to her knees. Crawling along the floor, she reaches her staff. Fumbling with it amongst the onslaught of magic, she pulls the crystal free from the top. "Try to direct it towards this," she calls out and whips the glowing crystal upward. It shatters against the ceiling in a spray of fragments of light. They dance and spin in a wild ball of color. Some of the spreading chalk dust suddenly is sucked up towards it and as it does, each fragment grows brighter as the contained exorcism begins to absorb the wild magic and burn it off as light.

"Hhhnn… " It doesn't look like the witchdoctor is having an easy time of it, the force of the chaos battering him against the wall, his mantle plastered against the chalk and a dusting of the stuff powdering his lidless eyes. Still, he somehow manages to keep his arms held out. His mouth moves, as if he's shouting into the din, but he can't be heard… still, the chalk dust begins to flow rather than explode, streams of it forming and being carried upward in a vortex.

As dust is sucked into the vortex to make it glow, the flashes of light leave odd afterimages. Olivia can see the vague outline of a Skeek in them. "Olivia," it whispers, using Olivia's own voice. "Can you hear me?"

Natasha's head is turned away from the vortex of chalk and light, though her arm is outstretched towards it, chanting and trying to keep the released exorcism going for as long as she can manage. Like Qing, her voice cannot be heard either in the din.

Olivia still holds on to Parsley, but she takes a staggering half-step towards the strange form. "W-what… who are you?" she asks, almost soundlessly within the din.

"I've always been with you, Olivia," the shadow replies. Parsley gives Olivia a look and says, "I'm Parsley, don't you remember?" But the shadow goes on, "You know in your heart who I am. Find the Bleeding Stone, Olivia. I'm trapped there, and… " Whatever else the shadow was going to say is broken off, as it vanishes into the vortex.

Olivia's eyes widen and she reaches one hand after the dispersing image. "Wait! Don't leave yet!" she cries. "What Stone? What are you talking about?!"

"Ahhh!" Parsley cries, grabbing onto Olivia's reaching hand. "Don't go into the light, Olivia!"

The pendant on Qing's chest is burning now as he forces the wild magic back and to oblivion. As the chaos wanes the chalk ripples in front of him. It takes shape; the shape of a young Naga; a face he has never forgotten. She reaches out with thin hands and for a moment, Qing could swear he feels a light touch on his face. There's a flash of a sad smile … and the chalk is violently ripped away and spirals upward; the young Naga vanishing into the vortex. There's another blinding flash and everything goes dark and silent. As the eyes of all those gathered begin to recover, all they can see are the two glowing eyes of Buffy … and an iridescent flicker of something resting lightly in the palms of her cupped hands.

Olivia swings back to Parsley when the doe grabs her, her eyes still wide and her gaze unfocused. "Wh-? No… I'm fine," she says finally, shaking her head to clear it. "I must have been seeing things, all this dust… "

The crystals in the walls begin to flicker back to life, once again providing prismatic illumination.

"I am going to have a horrible headache in an hour," Natasha mutters as sits back up, "And I do not want to think of how long it will take to make a new crystal. But … such are the costs of knowledge." Louder, she now says, "Is everyone all right?"

"I'm glad I didn't drink anything before we came," Parsley whimpers, still holding onto Olivia.

The Rokuga's red eyes blaze even through the chalk dust coating them. Even through the howling wind, his scream can be heard. "N-… NO!!" All six arms claw forward into the ethereal wind, and suddenly it lets up, throwing him to the floor of the chamber. His fists clutch around handfuls of chalk dust as he hisses again, lost for the moment in another lifetime. "… No… "

Buffy stands and walks over to Qing, then takes one of his hands and presses something into it. "We are both creatures of duty, aren't we?" she whispers to the reptile, and then actually kisses him on the cheek.

Qing's bowl hat lies upside down next to him. Buffy's voice and the brush on his face brings him back to the here and now, and he stares numbly, then begins slowly picking himself back up. His hand closes around the object in his palm, and after a few moments it occurs to him to open his hand to look at what lays in it.

The Skeek gives Parsley a quick hug, glad she's all right, then says to Natasha's question, "I'm not hurt and neither is Parsley… but there was something more in that chalk than images of the past, I think."

"M-maybe you just got some in your eyes, Olivia?" Parsley suggests, not wanting to accept that her friend was either hallucinating or worse; not hallucinating.

Curled in the center of Qing's palm is a delicate piece of crystal that shimmers in a multitude of colors. Shards of Natasha's former crystal, no doubt. Somehow, they have been melted, perhaps from the chaotic magic, into the small coil of a young Naga sleeping peacefully. It feels warm in his palm, almost like it was being kissed by a ray of sunlight.

"Keep her safe, Zhu Ye" Buffy whispers to the Rokuga, before backing away from him.

"What you experienced was … hopefully the closest you will ever come to a forbidden zone," Natasha says a bit tiredly as she forces herself to her feet using her staff. "What you saw was wild magic. Chaos. Any thought, any emotion, and it will take shape."

"Buffy," Natasha now says and motions for the vampire to come to her.

"Parsley, give me your chalk knife," Buffy says, holding her hand out to the cowering doe. "What?" Parsley replies, but still fishes out the hooked stone blade from her belt and hands it over. Knife in hand, Buffy goes over to Natasha.

The reptile stares quietly at the loop of crystal in his hand for several long minutes as everyone recovers. Eventually he closes his fingers over it, feeling its warmth, and lets his arms disappear under his mantle again.

"What are you doing with that knife?" Natasha asks the vampire when she comes close. "Do you remember anything?"

"Maybe it was just swirling dust, and maybe it was something in my mind reflected back at me," Olivia says, shaking her head again, "but why would I think of something that I've never even heard of before?"

"I remember everything," Buffy says, and looks at the knife in her hand. "You're a mage. You don't work for free. I'm going to pay you the only way I can," the doe replies.

Natasha waves her hand. "I left that life a long time ago when Valicross … killed me. I do not need payment for what I have done here," she says gently as she reaches out and brushes her hand along the Lapi's cheek. "But if you want to pay me, then I have something I would ask for."

"Name it," Buffy says.

"Protect this town. And when your time is up and you are free from these bindings, I ask only this of you," Natasha says, then draws the Lapi into a hug, whispering to her, "Live. You were given the most precious gift possible by the man who ended the necromancer war; you were given a chance at a future. I know how it feels to lose everything and pray for the peace of death … but somehow life will surprise you and find you a new reason. Don't give up on it."

Awkwardly, Buffy hugs back. "Thank you," she whispers to Natasha. "But will you accept some chalk as a gift?" she asks. "For your pockets."

Drawing back, the Khatta says, "I would be honored."

Smiling, the not-quite-vampiric black Lapi lets go, and goes to cut some small bricks of chalk from the center of the floor, using the deeper cracks as a guide.


GMed by BoingDragon & Jared

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