While Willow and the others were studying books in Diagon Alley, a paranetter called in an alert to the council’s British dispatcher. The paranet was Xander’s project, copied from the Dresden Files (of which he had been a big fan before he’d started living them). A network of trustworthy, supernaturally-clueful people with little power of their own but solid observation and communication skills. The background data they gathered was often useful, and when one called an alert, the council responded.
By a combination of chance and motorcycle ownership, Faith was the closest slayer to the scene. She parked the motorcycle half a block away and around a corner from the scene of the alert, and proceeded on foot. Over short distances, she could run almost as fast a a motorcycle, and with far less noise.
The house was in ruins. There didn’t seem to be anyone left inside. The family was scattered on the front lawn. A man was lying unconscious in a pool of blood, with his legs at odd angles. A young girl (presumably his daughter) was sitting absolutely still in the middle of the yard. Only her terrified eyes showed life. A woman (presumably her mother) staggered toward the child with a chef’s knife. Two figures in black robes and white masks watched the situation passively. None of them had noticed Faith arrive.
Faith’s first instinct was to tackle the woman, but she stifled it. Something was wrong
Wrong and involving magic. Silently, she uncapped her bottle of chloroform and soaked a rag. It wasn’t exactly safe, but it was safer than a blow to the head, or than leaving a dark mage conscious and desperate. If there was a dark mage behind this, Faith would stop him, but she wasn’t going to kill another human being unless she absolutely had to. She also drew a throwing knife, just in case.
“NO!” the woman screamed. She stopped staggering and turned to charge the robed figures. One of them waved a wand at her and she flew backward and fell to the ground.
“You were too weak,” one robed figure said to the other. He had an old, gravelly voice. “You let her get free.”
“I wasn’t weak,” the other said, a much younger voice, “she’s strong. Stronger than the others.”
“Let’s see. Imperio
“No!” she screamed again, with little pause. She pulled herself to her feet.
“I guess she is strong. See what you can do to weaken her.”
The woman fell back to the ground and screamed. No words, just pain.
For a fraction of a second, before Faith’s throwing knife penetrated the younger attacker’s right wrist, disrupting the spell.
The older attacker turned to see where the knife had come from. Seeing Faith, he pointed his own wand and declared “Avada Kedavra
But Faith was charging diagonally from “va”. She didn’t know what the spell did, but it couldn’t be good. The green light missed her by a wide margin, blasting a massive hole in the street. He turned and tried again, but only made “ke” before Faith closed. She slapped the wand out of his hand at full speed, breaking several of his fingers, and followed up with a clumsy left fist to his face. The mask cracked, revealing an unremarkable chin. The nose beneath it also cracked, spilling blood.
The exposed nose made chloroform an option, but it would leave her vulnerable to the younger attacker. Faith looked over at him and saw he’d gotten his wand into his left hand. He waved it at the fallen wand, which flew to him (an awkward catch, but he managed it). He then waved his wand the same way at the oldster himself, who also flew into the his arms. Faith charged, but as soon as the two were in contact, they vanished.
Faith scanned the environment. No attackers. One girl still frozen like a statue by magics that Faith didn’t understand. One woman curled into a ball and crying. Ordinary trauma reaction or delayed damage from mental magic? No clue. One man still bleeding. Unlike wand-magic, Faith had studied first aid. Being able to help one out of three wasn’t good, but it was a lot better than nothing.
Faith had barely started applying bandages when the ambulance arrived. Most likely called by the same paranetter who'd called the council. Faith gladly released the man into their care. Normally the woman and girl would have been of concern to the paramedics, but the man needed to get to a hospital immediately, so they drove off.
Faith stood for a moment in indecision. The one victim that she knew something about was gone. She could try to comfort the woman or she could call for advice on spell-breaking. Neither seemed likely to go well, and both seemed to be abandoning one she should be helping. The dilemma was solved for her as another wand-wizard popped into existence.
Faith spun to face him, drawing another throwing knife. But she didn't throw. This wizard wore a red robe, and no mask, and he surveyed the scene in a way that seemed more police officer than criminal.
"What happened here?" he asked.
"Two guys with wands like yours attacked. They froze the girl and put the other under some sort of mind control to make her attack her. She fought it off. Do you know how to unfreeze her?"
"Of course," he said, waving his wand at the girl. She unfroze and ran over to hug her mother and tell her it was all right. The mother uncurled a bit. It looked like she was going to be all right.
"Did you hear the incantation for the mind control?" the man asked.
"Sounded like 'imperio', more or less. Just the one word."
"That's very dark magic. Can you describe them?"
"Black robes and white masks. Pretty concealing."
"Death eaters. Thirteen years the ones who slipped through our fingers laid low and now this. Damn Dumbledore for stirring them up. He's trying to create a panic, but he forgets that some people are feeling encouraged
"You don't -- You're not a witch?"
"Then I need to wipe your memories."
"Don't even think about pointing that thing at me."
"Oblivi- ARRGH!" The man screamed as Faith's throwing knife entered his wrist.
With only one enemy, things were simple. Faith charged, cross-drawing her rag. Her right shoulder drove into the man's chest, knocking him to the ground and the air out of his lungs. Then her left hand clamped the rag over his nose and mouth. His empty lungs left him no choice: he inhaled hard, gasping chloroform. Faith put her right hand gently on his carotid, and waited for the slow steady pulse of unconsciousness, then she removed the rag.
"Th- Thank you," the woman said, "that's twice you've saved me now."
"Just what I do," Faith said with a shrug. She still felt uncomfortable being identified as one of the good guys. "Any idea why the first pair targeted you?"
"No. Nothing. I've never heard of them before. I never even believed in magic."
"Probably random, so you're safe now. Just in case, though, here's my card. If anyone else comes after you, call this number and one of us will get there as fast as we can. Oh, and here's my therapist's card. She's good and she knows about magic. After what you've been through, don't feel bad about needing help."
"Thanks again," she said, taking the cards, "is there anything I can do for you?"
"Nah. Just look after yourself. Meanwhile, I have a prisoner to take back to base before he wakes up."
"Right. Good luck."
"You too," Faith said. Then she threw the prisoner over one shoulder and walked off to her motorcycle.* * *
Walden Macnair finished his report, and knelt beside Marcus Flint, begging his master's mercy. He told the story plainly, holding back nothing. To fool the Dark Lord was impossible, and to attempt it was to increase his anger.
"Rise, both of you," Voldemort declared, "I do not blame you for this. And I will find another opportunity for young Flint's induction. Meanwhile, if any of you again face an enemy who can do no magic, but moves with magical speed, use wordless spells, even if you must use weaker ones. And if you cannot manage basic violent spells without incantations, practice until you can. That is all."
Before the death eaters scattered far, Snape spoke up, "If you cannot manage the spells even with practice, come to me. I do enjoy teaching well-motivated students."
Voldemort smiled. It was good to be motivating.* * *
When Willow finally returned from Diagon Alley, she was met by Faith, who anxiously described the unconscious obliviator she had in the council's jail. Willow double-checked the man's health and the soundness of his unconsciousness, stripped him of all remotely magical items, and left him there. Then she went back to her books and her wand.
A few hours later, confident that she had shut down his every option for magic, she woke him and began the interrogation. He spoke freely. Willow used several subtle magics to catch lies, but they stood idle.
His inability to apparate meant he was being held by wizards, so there was no need to keep anything secret. He tried to play up his importance to the ministry. He didn't actually say "they will pay a high ransom for me", but he tried to imply it. He only hoped they would.* * *
Snape reported the death eater meeting to Dumbledore. Dumbledore sat back in thought for a moment before beginning to ask questions.
"Do you know who did this?"
"I have no idea."
"Did he order you to search my files for the information?"
"Then he knows."
"Most likely. Shall I attempt to get the information from him?"
"Not yet. It would be risky. Let us see what my other information sources can turn up first."
Albus Dumbledore had accumulated many information sources over the years. He reached out to all of them now. It took time, but less than it might, as many of the relevant informants were nocturnal, so the investigation proceeded both night and day. Eventually it was discovered that Remus Lupin knew an uncivilized werewolf who knew a wizarding vampire who knew a less ethical wizarding vampire who knew a muggle vampire who recognized Macnair's description.
Dumbledore went to meet the vampire personally (while Dolores Umbridge was busy personally supervising detentions). He went cautiously. When a wizard is turned into a vampire, human and demonic souls struggle for control of the body, and so wizarding vampires are defined as beings. But when a muggle is turned, the soul goes on to its destination and only the demon possesses the body. In addition to being pure evil, muggle vampires stood outside the bounds of secrecy, so they would not fear the reputation of Albus Dumbledore.
The precautions were unneeded. Dumbledore brought money (a thick stack of muggle 50 pound notes) and the vampire had the long-term self interest to stay bought. He described the slayers in detail. Not just Faith (whom he was confident was the one in the story) but the entire organization. His descriptions of Buffy and Willow particularly caught Dumbledore's attention, as they matched the Azkaban attackers. And the vampire agreed that the two of them could have carried out such a thing (at least in the vague secrecy-preserving terms that Dumbldore described it in). The vampire refused to carry a message to them, though. He had survived this long by staying away from such people.
For the first time since Cedric Diggory's death, Albus Dumbledore began to feel hope. There were heroes beyond the ones he knew, and they had taken an interest in Voldemort. The attack on Azkaban could have been an attack on dementors rather than on the ministry. Albus had been tempted to do that himself. The attack on Hogwarts was harder to explain, but perhaps it had not been what it seemed. He didn't actually know what they would have done had they made it past the wards.
Perhaps a friendly overture was in order.* * *
“I don’t know what to think about Dumbledore and Voldemort,” Willow said, “Nothing adds up. I think someone’s doing a very thorough job of deceiving someone, but I don’t know who or how.”
“We’ll get it,” Faith said, “Think how much less we knew this morning.”
“Meanwhile,” Willow went on, “I know exactly what to think about people who cover up crimes by wiping memories
, and do it so much that they have an entire bureaucracy
to assist them.”
“Um, Will? Before you get all veiny on them, remember these are humans. Souls and everything. If you kill them, you’ll regret it. Trust me on that one.”
“Human, right,” Willow said, calming herself with an effort, “And they probably grew up hearing that this was normal. No one ever taught them better. So I know what to think, it’s just a matter of figuring out what to do. I can manage that.”
“You’re still kind of scaring me here.”
“Good.”* * *
After that it was just a matter of research. Visit the bookstore again. Interrogate the prisoner some more. Back to the bookstore. Experiment with the wand. Check the council library. Plan. Sanity-check with Giles and Althenea. Repeat until ready. And then it was a just a matter of preparation.* * *
Willow walked into the fake phone booth almost giddy from absorbed magic. Her hair would have been colorful and flying if she weren't maintaining a specific spell to keep it damped. An small gem in her right earring relayed sound to Buffy, Faith and Vi, who were waiting at a nearby coffee shop. They'd wanted to come with her, but her magic defenses didn't extend to other people, so they were the emergency backup. Her other earring would take her home if she fell unconscious. She didn't expect to need it. She dialed MAGIC on the old-style rotary phone and waited.
"Welcome to the Ministry of Magic. Please state your name and business."Tell the truth
she reminded herself. The book had been emphatic on that. "My name is Willow. I'm here to teach your obliviators the difference between right and wrong."
"Thank you. Visitor, please take the badge and attach it to the front of your robe.'
A badge reading "Willow, Ethics Instructor" slid out of the slot. With amusement and a bit of pride, she pinned it to her robe (a plain black semi-formal robe from Madam Malkins in Diagon Alley).
"Visitors to the Ministry, you are required to submit to a search and present your wands for registration at the security desk, which is located at the far end of the Atrium," the spell-voice said, and the phone booth began to sink into the earth.
She presented her wand to the bored security wizard, who made a note of it. What this was supposed to protect the ministry against, she couldn't tell. Still, it wasn't quite as pointless as the office buildings that required you to write a name in their book before entering the elevator, and she'd been to plenty of those (usually writing her real name, or at least initials).
Walking as if she belonged and reading signs, Willow made it into the obliviators' office, a large space of cubicles that, except for the moving photos and lack of computers, wouldn't have looked out of place in an insurance company. Somehow, that made it seem worse. A skulls and flames motif and cackling madmen would have made Willow more sympathetic.
Here she first met suspicion. She was no longer on her way somewhere, and they knew she didn't belong there. If there had been an ethics training scheduled, they'd have been told already. Still, she had the right clothing and the right attitude, which should buy one question. "Is this everyone?" she asked, as if there were no doubt she was entitled to an answer.
"Just about. Wycombe didn't come in again today, and Stavely's in the field. Who are--"
Willow released most of the magic she was holding as a single wave. It was concentrated ley-energy: the magic generated by two hundred thousand acres of wild moorland over the course of a day. Even if they had been expecting a magical attack from an officious-looking woman who wasn't holding her wand, it's unlikely they'd have been able to block it.
The spell did three things: it knocked the obliviators unconscious, vaporised any large inanimate objects that could block sightlines (mostly the cubicle partitions and the desks), and it established tough magical barriers around the room. It also did a fourth unintended thing: set off every alarm the ministry had. Sirens wailed; bells tolled; lights flashed, and a dozen recorded voices spoke at once, ensuring that no one could understand any of them.
A dozen aurors tried to apparate to the center of the disruption and bounced off Willow's defenses. Then they apparated to immediately outside the ward and began working to take it down. This they proved good at, grabbing energy and pulling it away in a manner that Willow hadn't known possible. She was going to have to work very fast.
Skipping the usual circles, she pulled out the sigil she had brought, put a drop of blood on it and tore it in half, focusing her will on containment.
Gachnar appeared promptly. "RELEASE ME!" the minuscule demon demanded.
"When you have accepted my terms," she replied calmly.
"I AM THE LORD OF NIGHTMARES!" he proclaimed, "RELEASE ME!" So saying, he smashed his will against hers. It did him no good.
"These are your prey," she said, gesturing to the fallen, "they are near to you already, and this is what I allow you to do to them," she added, bringing forth a pearly-white thought globe, "on those terms and no others I will release you."
The demon drank the thought globe. "Oh, that is good," he said, "I see why D'Hoffryn admired you. Yes, I agree."
She looked at him.
"I agree! I agree!"
She released him. His physical form vanished as he entered the minds of the sleeping obliviators. Willow gathered papers indiscriminately while she waited for the first whimper. Once she heard it, she air-traveling out. Mere seconds later, the aurors broke does the wards and entered the room. But they could not wake the obliviators, nor banish the demon.
The obliviators dreamed. Each dreamed something had gone wrong -- a loved one was missing or a catastrophe was blamed on him -- and he did not know the details. If only he knew, he might be able to set things right, but he could not remember and no one would tell him. Surely he had been obliviated. But no one he told found this plausible. They accused him of lying, and it only made everything worse. Everything in his life cycled to incomprehensibility and brokenness. Eventually he concluded he was having a nightmare, and he was allowed to awaken. To dream of awakening, that was. Into another dream of much the same sort.
Three times the pattern repeated, and then they were allowed to wake for real. And discover Gachnar's final cruelty: unlike normal dreams, or even normal experiences, the memory of these torments stayed ever-fresh in their minds.
When all had completed the pattern, Gachnar returned to his native plain. That was part of Willow's terms. She had no intention of allowing the demon free reign of earth. But he left swollen and contented, for he had absorbed more fear that day than in many a year before.
The obliviation department was devastated. More than half of them resigned, either from guilt of from a new crippling fear of all things obliviation-related. One even took his own life. Most who remained were less then effective: competing for the assignments where they could likely avoid actually obliviating anyone and trying to push the real work onto someone else.
The ministry did not change its ways. Other ministry officials who were proficient in obliviation were shuffled, leaving gaps in their departments, especially the aurors. Mind healers were directed to restore the old obliviators, but found it difficult. Gachnar's enforced memories proved ironically obliviation-resistant. Perhaps if the mind healers had been more enthusiastic they would have done better, but mind healers generally detested ministry obliviators, who routinely violated every rule of safe mind-alteration practice. Or maybe it wouldn't have made a difference -- the wizarding world had essentially forgotten demons existed, and had little knowledge of how to counter their power.* * *
"My lord," Lucius Malfoy said, "it seems the auror department has lost many vital people. Shall we strike while the ministry is weak?"
"No. I have a better plan to make use of that weakness. We will lie low. Meanwhile, stir the flames of fear. Use the Daily Prophet. And lend Scrimgeour your copy of Ars Prohibia
. That's respectable to own, but should provide him enough clues to recognize the nightmare-curse as demonic. See if you can impress him with your civic-mindedness in the process."
"I will do my best, my lord. Though Scrimgeour distrusts me greatly."
"I know. But opinions shift, and this will start his in that direction."* * *
Scrimgeour did not come to trust Malfoy, but he did accept the book. And soon the ministry announced that the attack had been demonic in nature. This fit in neatly with the Prophet's speculation of what dark force might be taking aim at the wizarding world. Each day, the atmosphere of fear gathered.
After a weak of tension-building, the Prophet led with a headline of hope, though some found it cause for greater panic:Dark Lord Offers Alliance to Ministry