The damp, salty smell of the ocean breeze cut through the fog in her head, an occasional chilling spray of water drenching her legs. She wasn't sure how she'd gotten there, standing on the bare rocks overlooking the water. Faint memories - smells, images, and words - flew through her mind.
Blood on her hands as she hugged Tara, like the fawn she'd sacrificed. Giles collapsing in the Magic Box. Xander standing in front of her, his eyes old and sad as his body shook from the force of the magic she hurled at him. The smell of roasted flesh seconds after she killed Warren. Buffy's cold expression, staring at her from across the room. Prying her hand loose from a sleeping Xander and slipping out of the house. Getting on a bus.
But everything else was just a blank. She wasn't even sure what day it was, or where she'd slept the night before. Her last clear memory was kissing Tara but now, whenever she tried to think about her, her head would begin to ache and a black, impenetrable cloud would cover her memories.
But there must be a reason she was here and not hiding under her covers, she thought. She needed to be somewhere. Somewhere that wasn't Sunnydale. That wasn't California. She wasn't entirely sure that the bus had been her own idea. Or that any of the other thoughts that drifted through her head were her own anymore.
Looking down at the raging water as it crashed against the rocks, she knew that all it would take was several steps and she would be able to join Tara. But it was a clinical knowledge. Her mind knew exactly what would happen if she entered the water at that point. Down to the last second. But the suicidal impulses, the emotions that had engulfed her on Kingman's Bluff were missing. Left behind somewhere in the fog.
Something was controlling her emotions. And had been since leaving Sunnydale. She was aware enough of how her own mind worked to know that.
Time was a fluid thing, inside her head. Willow wasn't sure how long she'd been standing there before she realized she wasn't alone. Between one empty moment and the next, something was added to her awareness of the world. She had no name for what was suddenly behind her. It was like sitting at the foot of an enormous stone wall in the blazing sun, and being afraid to look up.
There was a soft, inhuman snort. Willow reluctantly turned around, her inner voice waking up just enough to gibber in fear. Standing several yards away was a tall old woman with a large black bird on her shoulder. There was a faint fey quality to her face. Her clothes seamed to be a unique blend of Shinto priestess and Native American medicine woman.
Willow stared at the exotically dressed woman, unable to look away. She seemed to glow, the light making her appear insubstantial. Willow idly wondered if it were Tara's goddess, finally coming to make her pay. It would be a relief, she thought, for someone to make the decision she couldn't. Something not even Buffy could give her.
"Umm, hi," Willow finally mumbled, after losing the eternity long staring contest. The woman scrunched her nose and stepped into Willow's personal space. With no place to go, Willow stood her ground, even though one of the only persons she'd ever allowed that close was dead and the other was hopefully far away. The woman reached down and patted Willow on her right cheek.
"I am not your judge," the woman said gruffly, her voice clear over the roaring wave. "They will judge you."
Images flowed through Willow's mind of things she'd never seen before. A mountain that she almost recognized. A large stone ring with symbols along its rim, guarded by armed men. A string of those same symbols, like a phone number. And a small group of women greeting her on the other side of the ring.
"Who?" Willow asked, her voice hoarse after weeks of silence.
"They call themselves the Nox," she said, her disdain clear. "They turned away from their path, hiding their guilt. You will remind them that not all things can be buried," she added cryptically.
"No, you!" Willow said, trying not to shriek to be heard above the sound of the waves.
"You may call me Aunt," the woman said. "Come. We must find the one called Oma Desala. She will introduce you to them."
Before Willow could get her thoughts together, the woman turned into a large crow and took off, the other bird following in her wake. Willow shivered as a stray thought poked through the fog in her head, showing her what would happen if she didn't follow her.
She could feel him somewhere nearby as she stepped down from the bus. He'd been a faint presence in the back of her head since her encounter with that wendigo in Oregon. He never spoke to her directly. He seemed to be guiding her in her search. Some times it was just a vague feeling to go in a direction that she knew wasn't her own thought. Other times she would hear a faint sound of a raven crying far above, telling her which direction to take.
Lifting her bag over her shoulder, Buffy took a look around. Silver Creek Junction was like any number of small rural towns she'd passed through since leaving Sunnydale. She would never have guessed she was in Minnesota if she hadn't been looking out of her bus window as it passed a large sign at the state line welcoming all visitors to the state.
All of the other places she'd followed Willow to had made sense. Eventually. She hoped she wasn't still more than a week behind, that finally Willow would stop long enough for her to catch up. It was only August but she felt like she'd been on the road forever, always just a step behind. The two weeks spent recovering from her encounter with that wendigo hadn't helped.
Willow seemed ready to wander forever, like some Biblical character, but Buffy knew she couldn't keep it up forever herself. She didn't know where he was getting it from but she was sure Giles would run out of money at some point. Then she would have to head back to Sunnydale and her sister, whether she had found Willow or not, or get a job to support herself, slowing down her search even further.
Buffy had developed a fairly simple procedure for finding traces of Willow as she travelled. Giles' original spell had faded to the point that it only detected Willow if she'd recently done any strong magic in the immediate area. It usually worked but it took some concentration. Fortunately, over the past few months Willow had developed a pattern.
When she ate it was at the cheapest 'hole-in-the-wall' diner in a town, like the one just up the street. If there was a bar with a demonic clientele she would visit that also, leaving chaos in her wake. And holy ground, of any sort, seemed to attract her. After checking the local paper for any strange things happening, Buffy would visit these places. If she was lucky, she could be in and out of a town, and back on the road, in two days, assuming she hadn't caught up with her nomadic friend.
If Willow had been there, she would know it. She was becoming an expert in reading Willow-sign. If not she would move on in whatever direction Raven guided her in. When she wasn't questioning her own sanity, she often wondered why he didn't just tell her where Willow was. It would make things a lot easier.
She sometimes suspected, late at night on a bus headed to the next town, that something more was going on with Willow. She hadn't blindly run away. She was heading somewhere. In at least a quarter of the towns Willow had stopped in she'd acted like the Scoobie she'd been in high school, fixing things for someone before moving on. And in several others, Buffy herself had been roped into dealing with some local rampaging demon or some supernatural situation that was getting out of hand.
After carefully brushing the dust and dirt from her clothes, Buffy walked into the small diner. Plopping down into an empty booth, Buffy looked around while she waited for the waitress to get to her. In one booth, two older women and a teenager were quietly talking while they ate. At another, a skinny old man stared at her across a cup of coffee.
A man at the counter seemed to be surreptitiously watching the women. It wasn't the gaze of a stalker but his posture felt familiar to her. There was something predatory, in a trained hunter way, about him, setting off alarms in her head.
Stepping out onto the sidewalk, Buffy looked down at the map scribbled onto the scrap of paper. The waitress had been happy to tell her where the lake was and the shortest path to it. She hoped it was the same one she'd overheard the women talking about on their way out of the diner.
In the back of her head, Buffy could feel Raven urging her to find them before the hunter did. Settling her knapsack onto her shoulders, she started walking briskly towards the lake. By the time she reached the hiking trail outside of town, she was almost running, loping along with a deceptively quick gate.