Kaleidoscope

 
 

The light bounced up and down the tree trunks ahead as Annie pushed the cycle over the uneven ground. They’d been silent for a while, but her head was buzzing with questions.

“So what did you mean, ‘a reformed vampire’?”

Ripper glanced at her as they walked, side by side. “Just that. He doesn’t kill to feed anymore.”

“How can it just stop?” she frowned at him. “How can you trust it?”

He has a soul. And with it, a conscience,” he answered. “I trust that as well as any man’s.”

She snorted, and Ripper looked at her sidelong. “I’m not much for trusting conscience in men, much less— hey, did you say ‘ex-demon’?”

He smiled. “Just catching that now?”

“Lot on my mind,” she returned, lips twisted in a grin. “So, what, another soul? Do those things grow around here or something?”

“Actually,” the ex-Watcher ran a hand through his sandy hair, “that’s a long story.”

“Sounds like you have a lot of those. But I’m not going anywhere.” She caught his look. “At the moment.”

He stepped over a cluster of roots and around a tree, eyes picking his steps carefully in the dimness. “Anyanka was a vengeance demon. She was drawn to Sunnydale when one of my young lady friends was in a weak moment, dealing with some considerable emotional pain.”

“Young lady friend?”

Ripper’s lips quirked. “A young friend who is a lady.”

“Lady friends?”

“The plural. Standard usage when there is more than one.” He paused for a beat. “Not that I don’t mind the jealous tone—”

“Don’t start presuming, mister, I’m just gathering information.”

He shrugged, still grinning. “Then for your information, you’ve met this friend. Her name is Cordelia.”

“Ah, the bartender. Can’t say I’m surprised: a vampire boyfriend would definitely wave the ‘bring on the pain’ flag for me.”

He considered. “Well, you’re a Slayer. That’s certainly a natural reaction.”

“Vampire, Slayer, dead vampire. S’all I’m sayin’.” Annie looked over at him. “So what happened?”

His voice took on a sad tone. “A clairvoyant vampire gifted Cordelia with visions, just before we sent the vampire to Hell.”

“Visions?”

“Of coming evils.”

Annie quirked an eyebrow. “Wouldn’t that be pretty useful?”

Ripper sighed. “They are. They are also extraordinarily painful, physically and mentally, to Cordelia. As a gift, they were intended to burden her soul, drive her away from her friends and her own humanity, and eventually to kill her.”

“Okay, that part’s way harsh.”

“Harsh indeed. Drusilla — the vampire — had kidnapped and tortured Cordelia before as well, simply because Angel loves her.”

Annie was silent for a long moment. She knew this kind of pain. Finally she shook her head and moved on. “What happened with the demon?”

“With Anya? Well,” he continued at her nod, “the power of vengeance demons lies in The Wish, cast using a magical amulet. Cordelia wished that Kendra,” he swallowed past the lump in his throat at her name, “my Slayer, had never come to Sunnydale. Quite altered the reality here, I surmise, from how she describes it.”

“Altered it how?”

“An old and powerful vampire whom my Slayer had killed in this reality, wasn’t killed in the other. Sunnydale had gone rapidly downhill. Fortunately, Anya’s amulet was destroyed, and that reality was spun back off.”

Annie stopped the bike. “Uhm, huh?”

Rupert paused as well, facing her. “The Wish uses magical energy to pull another dimension, parallel to this, into contact with this reality. The other dimension superimposes on this one. Or perhaps it shifts the wisher and the demon into the other reality — the quantum mechanical details are not entirely clear. But then they wouldn’t be, would they?” He smiled, pleased at his joke.

“For future reference,” Annie blinked, “physics humor will be lost on me.”

He grinned sheepishly. “Anyway, destroying the amulet reversed the effects. The other reality is no longer linked with this one.”

“But it could still exist?”

“Possibly.”

She shivered. “Gives me the wiggins.”

“I’ll presume that’s bad.” He gestured ahead. “Shall we go? It’s not much farther.” As they started walking again he continued. “In any case, with her amulet destroyed, Anya was powerless, trapped as a high school student. And flunking math,” he smiled, thinking of Willow tutoring her endlessly at the store.

“You didn’t kill her?”

“She’s human now, Annie.”

“Technicality.”

He stopped again. “I’m afraid, Miss Summers, that if you do choose to stay, you’ll find that ‘vampire, Slayer, dead vampire’ won’t work as a universal credo.”

Annie paused the cycle again, looking at him in the dimness that was beginning to brighten with the coming of dawn. Unbidden came the thought that he was very cute when his back was up. “It does most of the time though, right? Like when they’re evil?”

He found his indignation fleeting. “Yes, you’ll find your fill of evil things in Sunnydale.”

“Home of the unmistakably bad, check.” She smiled. “Man, did you sound like a Watcher then.”

“When I was scolding you?”

“Mmm-hmm.”

“I do apologize. Thought I’d gotten over that.”

They moved on, silent for a while. Reminded, Annie fought to keep her mind from going there, but she couldn’t stop it. Unable to hold back, she blurted out the question. “Did you know?”

“I’m sorry?” Ripper puzzled.

“Did you know I was a Slayer when you… when we…?”

He froze, horrified. “Annie, no. Why would I? The Council thought you were dead.” His voice quieted. “It was thought you died with Lothos.”

She said nothing. The woods about them were still. She could see the trees thinning out ahead and, silhouetted against the lightening horizon, the boxy form of a cabin. She frowned.

“I know we haven’t yet talked about that…” he began, hesitantly.

Annie flipped off the cycle’s light. Rupert immediately stepped beside her, and with her superior vision she could see him turn his head towards her, his question unspoken but obvious.

“Cabin empty?”

He followed her gaze. “Supposed to be.” But through a window on the near side, the flickering light of a candle told him that this was, clearly, no longer the case.

*   *   *   *   *

Oz pulled back the collapsible gate that separated the freight elevator from his loft, and waited for Faith to step through before he followed, walking past her to toss his van keys on the counter in his small kitchenette. The Slayer took in the large open space.

“Nice digs,” she offered.

“Functional,” he replied. “Space for Dingo practice, not many neighbors to bother.”

She had stepped over to the corner where the amps and drum kit were set up. “That’s your band?”

Oz nodded. “Thirsty?” he asked, pulling a bottle of water from his fridge.

Faith shook her head. “Not really. Hungry though… slaying does that.”

“Leftover Chinese if you want some,” he replied, leaving the door ajar for her at her nod. He pulled his cell phone from a pocket. “Gotta check in.”

The dark-haired girl felt a little trepidation, but said nothing. As he walked from the kitchenette, she leaned into the refrigerator, drinking in the cold for a moment before starting to peek into the white cartons within.

“Hey, Wes,” Oz spoke into the phone, flicking on the light in the bathroom. “Slayer in hand. Heard from Ripper?”

Faith found some sesame chicken and began looking for a fork among the drawers.

“Nah, I’m staying in ’til morning. But I have more bad news.” He stepped back out into the loft, phone cradled at his ear, hands prying open a first aid kit. “No, not now. Just get out word to meet at the R & W in the morning, say nine-ish.”

The Slayer frowned as she swallowed a bite, watching him.

“Okay, see you then,” he said, and hung up.

“That the Watcher? Wesley?”

Oz nodded, re-pocketing the phone. He sat on the couch, rolling up a pant leg to expose several ugly gashes. Faith had forgotten about them, but he hadn’t uttered a single complaint.

She wandered closer as he began applying disinfectant, kit on the coffee table before the couch. “Those are nice ones.”

“Par for the course,” Oz offered the faintest of grins, “right?”

Her silence was an acknowledgement. She took a breath. “Has — Wesley — heard anything about my friend?”

“Nothing yet.”

“Look,” Faith said, putting down the carton on the coffee table, “I appreciate the rescue and all, but I still have to find Annie.” She stepped around the couch and headed back for the elevator, but Oz stood and followed, catching her arm.

“Faith, come on,” he soothed, “I’m sure she’s okay. She’s a Slayer.”

She looked at him, eyes a little haunted. “So am I, but you weren’t too happy about me facing that thing back there.”

Oz gestured to the loft’s windows. “It’s getting light out. That means she’s safe for now. We’ll find her in the morning. Rip may have her by now anyway.”

She wasn’t comforted by that thought. “I’m just…”

“Worried, I get it,” he let her go, and leaned back against the couch. “But also exhausted.”

“Long couple of days,” she answered, eyes lowered.

“So rest up,” he leaned down to catch her gaze. “I need to, for one.”

Faith gave him a brief nod, then stepped back to reach for the carton again.

Oz moved across the apartment and flicked on a lamp in the far corner by a neatly made bed. “You can sleep here. Sheets are actually clean.”

“The couch is fine. I’ve had worse, trust me.”

He offered a crooked smile. “Not worse than my couch, trust me.”

She swallowed another forkful. “So who was that? I mean, it was a werewolf, right? I had thought it was you.”

He came closer once more and sat on the couch again, facing her, taking a long moment before answering. “That was Veruca.”

The Slayer kept her voice neutral as she walked back to the kitchenette. “Old friend?”

“Old girlfriend. From a long time ago.”

Faith swallowed the last bite of chicken and dumped the carton in the trash. “Don’t wolves mate for life?”

He looked at her ruefully. “Yeah, I’m hoping she doesn’t hold me to that.”

Inexplicably, Faith found herself hoping the same thing.

*   *   *   *   *

Leaving the bike on its kick-stand, Annie and Ripper moved closer to the cabin, the Slayer making no noise and the ex-Watcher very little as they inched through the grass and remaining trees. They saw no movement outside the structure as they approached, and the back door to the left rear was closed. There was a slight breeze rustling the leaves, but Annie’s preternatural hearing could discern low voices coming from within the building.

The two split, one to either side of the lone window on the cabin’s rear, each one’s back pressed to the plank wall. They locked eyes, and Annie wordlessly indicated she would look first, Ripper nodding his assent. She took a breath, then a quick glance.

The interior was awash with the amber light of candles, placed at various points around the visible main room in addition to the one on the windowsill in front of her. The cabin’s furniture had all been pushed aside, a couch leaned vertically up against one wall, and five figures knelt in the vacated space. They were vampires, already in game face. One knelt in front, shirtless, his torso covered in crudely rendered symbols Annie couldn’t identify. The four behind him were spread out in a line. All were chanting, and they all faced the same direction, to the left from her vantage, towards a pentagram drawn in red on the floor, more lit candles placed at the five points of the star. The symbol was painted before an unlit fireplace.

Annie could see three doors within, in addition to the one coming out the back on Ripper’s side of the window. Two were to her right, both ajar; one leading to a bathroom, the other to a bedroom. The third was straight across and closed, presumably out the front of the cabin.

She drew back and nodded to Ripper, who leaned in for his own assessment. He frowned. “That better not be oil-based paint!” he whispered harshly.

Annie smiled despite herself. Ducking down, she passed beneath the window and around to his other side. “What are they doing?”

“Looks like a summoning.”

“Probably not conjuring up Santa Claus.”

He turned back to her from the window, his lips curved into a smile. “I imagine not.”

“I’d like to take two angles if you’re up to it,” she said, voice low. “But this door,” she gestured to the one on the cabin’s rear, “would come out in front of them.”

Ripper leaned down, face inches from hers. “There’s a window into the bedroom we might use. Though it’s probably too small for me to maneuver without making noise.”

Annie grinned wryly. “Look at you, trying to get me back in your bedroom already.”

His eyes twinkled. “I rather enjoyed the first time.”

She turned her head, feigning a look for trouble, rather than let her flushed cheeks reveal her agreement. “You armed?”

He slipped around her and over to the door, her eyes following him. His fingers worked a plank by the doorframe, and it popped open silently. From behind, he withdrew a sword and twirled it comfortably. “Always.”

Without responding, the Slayer slid along the cabin wall silently, ducking under the window and heading for the corner. Ripper followed.

At the side of the cabin, Annie paused by the bedroom window and peeked within. The door to the main room was closed just enough that she couldn’t see the vampires — and they wouldn’t be able to see her. Pressing her fingers to the middle of the horizontally split frame, she pushed gently upwards, and the window rose in response. “You don’t lock your windows?”

Ripper rolled his eyes. “Bears usually just use the front door.”

When the window was open far enough, Annie vaulted up and through without a sound. Slayers would make excellent burglars, the ex-Watcher thought.

Annie’s face reappeared at the opening. “Is this bed goose-down?”

He sighed. “How long should I wait to come in?”

“Count of thirty.”

“One… two… three…” he acknowledged, setting the pace with her, “and starting now.” With a nod, she vanished into the room again.

Ripper ducked to pass beneath the bathroom window, then paused at the corner. He glanced around it, and discovered another obstacle: a sixth vampire was posted outside the front door, where it faced a clearing and the path down towards the main road. He knelt quickly to paw the ground, and located a palm-sized rock. Still out of sight of the front, he took two steps back and tossed the stone over the cabin’s roof to the other side. Already at ten in his count, he sprinted around the corner just as the rock bounced into the brush beyond the cabin, grabbing the vampire’s attention. The creature had its back turned as Ripper came up behind and took off its head in one stroke.

On thirty he went through the door just as Annie barreled out of the bedroom. Three quick steps and she turned a foot and her body sideways, sliding to a stop, stake out, behind one of the four vampires in the rear line, the second from left. It exploded into dust. She shifted her weight to her back foot and donkey-kicked the third in the side of its head, then the leg lashed forward again to kick the furthest left. Both went flying.

Number three tumbled across four and both ended in a heap just as Ripper reached them. He lashed down with the sword and the creature on top disappeared, but the one beneath grabbed for his leg and Ripper dodged backwards. It flipped to its feet to face him.

Annie went for the kill with the last of the rear vamps, but it scrambled away and under the coffee table which, like the rest of the room’s furniture, had been shoved to the walls. As Annie stepped in again, the vamp flipped the table’s surface in front of itself like a shield, and holding the legs in its hands, knocked her backwards.

The shirtless creature in front hadn’t moved, and the candles were glowing brighter. Ripper wondered what lovely beast would await them in the pentagram if they didn’t hurry.

The ex-Watcher swung the sword in a quick arc, but his vampire pulled back easily. Annie glanced over her shoulder at him, then back at her own.

The vampire with the table shoved it outwards again, and the Slayer kicked right at the table’s center, knocking the beast back once more. It ducked behind the edge of the couch that had been leaned up against the wall, legs facing outwards.

“Careful,” Ripper called to her. “That table was a gift.”

Annie glared at him. “Yeah, I’ll be sure to protect the furniture as I fight for my life.”

He swung the blade again. “No need to be snippy.”

The vampire behind the couch stuck his head out. “What a poof,” he snickered.

Annie reached for the table and yanked it backwards. The vampire came with it and she ducked out of the way. The table slammed into the back of the undead facing Ripper, knocking him forward right onto the ex-Watcher’s blade. The table fell to the floor, and Annie grabbed the vampire by its shirt. She spun him around, lifting by the garment, and slammed it back first against one of the exposed legs of the couch. Dust went flying.

“There’s a poof for you, jackass,” she said, eyes narrowed.

The last of the rear vampires was eye to eye with Ripper, and swung an arm out, knocking him away. It then pulled the sword from its gut with a growl and lunged after him.

Ripper brought up a leg and planted it in the bloody wound. The vampire snarled in pain and recoiled. The ex-Watcher followed and snapped the creature’s head to the side with a right hook, then backwards with a left jab. He pressed in, launching a series of punches, well-timed to keep it off balance. Annie took a moment to appreciate his fighting form before the shirtless vampire rose to its feet and turned towards her. She could see a swirl of light forming behind it.

The vampire was muscular, dark-haired with a light beard. It didn’t wait for Annie to close on him; with a foot it shoved forward the coffee table her other vamp had dropped, banging Annie’s shin. She stumbled backwards, and before she could catch herself, the creature crossed the space between them and slammed her over-balanced body to the floor hard. Straddling her, the vamp bent at the waist and unleashed a quick round of lefts and rights that had her struggling to cover up.

Ripper wanted to help, but his own opponent had caught a second wind and was driving him backwards with wild swings of the sword. He glanced over his shoulder as he retreated, and as a thought hit him, he began backing towards the open bedroom door. He feinted in and out of the sword’s reach, alternately drawing the vampire’s ire and frustration. The ex-Watcher kept one hand behind him, and when his fingers brushed the open doorframe he stepped forwards and spit directly between the angry yellow eyes.

As the creature growled and came at him, enraged, Ripper slipped straight back through the doorway. The vampire swung wildly once more, lunging at the same time. The blade slammed into the wooden frame and stuck fast. Ripper grabbed his arm and yanked him into the room, then grabbed the sword grip and pulled it around and out of the wood, spinning into the room with it just as the vampire stopped his forward momentum and turned about. The blade’s swing took his head neatly off his shoulders on its way around.

Back in the main room, Annie guarded her face with her forearms as the muscular vampire struck at her repeatedly. The space inside the pentagram was very bright, and Annie thought she could see a large form solidifying within it.

This sure was a fun town. She wished she could rewind time, have kept Faith from opening that rail car door. Have figured some other way to relieve her dark angel’s boredom, preferably one that involved snuggling and languorous kisses and not getting smacked about the head and neck by the undead and having big bads pop into the room out of swirly bright nowheres.

Alas.

Instead, Annie reached down, grabbed the back of the vampire’s calves, lifted her feet, and with a pull slid herself through his legs and behind him. He instinctively grabbed after her, and Annie snagged his wrists and pulled. He somersaulted over and landed on his back. She flipped to her feet, then reached over and grabbed the coffee table by the leg. Before the vampire could sit up, Annie yanked over the table and put one leg on his chest, then pivoted away from him and sat on the tabletop heavily. She blew out a breath as the creature exploded to dust beneath her.

She had time for three seconds of rest before a sallow-colored, man-shaped demon with blood red eyes and loose, sagging skin formed whole inside the pentagram. It wore a long, flowing garment. Foam dripped from its mouth, and it looked about with great irritation. Sighing, Annie climbed to her feet and strode forward quickly, then slammed a fist directly into the creature’s nose.

“Ow!” it yelled, bringing a hand up to cradle the injured feature. “What’d ya do that for?”

Ripper stumbled back into the room, sword at the ready. At the sight of the demon, he pulled up.

“Clem?”

Annie watched as the demon turned towards the ex-Watcher, and its irritation evaporated into a surprised grin.

Ripper cocked his head. “I thought you were heading to Cleveland?”

“Hey, hi Rupert,” he answered. Then his face crumpled, and he tilted back his head. “Oh, man! I’m back in Sunnydale? My car’s in Omaha!”

Annie’s jaw dropped. “You know him?” she asked the Englishman.

He stepped closer. “Well yes, Clem and I are old friends.” He looked to the demon, gesturing at his foaming mouth. “You’re dripping, old friend.”

Clem frowned, then held up the toothbrush in his hand. “Can I spit?”

“Bathroom,” Ripper answered, hiking a thumb over his shoulder. Clem nodded and headed that way. Annie realized its garment was, in fact, a bathrobe.

She hung her head. “This just gets weirder and weirder.”

Ripper shrugged at her. He turned towards the bathroom and the sound of gargling. “What are you doing in Omaha?”

“Sightseeing,” the demon answered when he had finished rinsing. “Well, not sightseeing in Omaha,” he corrected, returning to the main room, and wiping his mouth on a towel slung over his shoulders. “I’m doing kind of a ‘Hellmouth 2 Hellmouth 2K’ tour, little bit at a time.”

Ripper sighed. “Sounds lovely.”

The Slayer gave him a dubious look. “Been doing that in the other direction. It ain’t that great.”

Clem frowned at her. “Girlfriend, you need to stop and smell the moonflowers.”

The ex-Watcher grinned. “So what’s in Omaha, then?”

“I’m staying with my sister,” the demon answered. “Not that that’s too pleasant, but she’s family. She’s married to a chaos demon.” He leaned in to Annie. “They’re not very attractive, all slime and antlers.”

“And you are?” she returned.

Clem pulled back, offended. “Hey!” He indicated his face. “I like to think I have character.”

Annie rolled her eyes, but couldn’t help smiling.

“You do, my friend,” Ripper soothed, “you do indeed.” He looked about the room, hands on his hips.

The demon followed his gaze. “So, uhm, looks like you’ve been redecorating, Rupe.”

“Not intentionally,” he answered, moving to start resetting the furniture.

Annie moved to help. “Vampire party, whole big thing.”

“Huh. Always the swinging time in Sunnydale.” Clem watched Annie sling the couch to its feet with ease. “Hey, are you the Slayer?”

“In the flesh.”

Ripper looked to them. “Oh, I’m sorry, my manners have escaped me, what with all the violence. Clem, this is Annie Summers, the Vampire Slayer. Annie, this is Clem.”

The demon held out a paw with at friendly grin. Annie took it reluctantly. “Sorry,” she said, “I’ve never been formally introduced to a demon before. Usually their death precedes the greetings.”

“Glad to be your first exception.” He leaned over to slide the coffee table back in front of the couch. “So, vamps shacking up in your love n— er, your cabin, Rupert?”

“Yes,” the man replied, reddening slightly, “my fault for not coming out here more often.”

Annie nodded her head at the pentagram. “We thought they were planning to conjure some big bad.”

Ripper frowned. “Why were they summoning you?”

The demon looked aghast. “What, is this pick on Clem night?”

“Sorry. Just… bad things coming up here. You haven’t heard anything, have you?”

“Giles, I’ve been in Omaha. What would I hear about Sunnydale?”

Ripper nodded. “Right.”

Clem shrugged. “Well, unless Toronto means something to you.”

“Uh, a city in Canada?” Annie offered, eyebrows raised.

“That may not have been it. Eldor’s cousin – Eldor’s my sister’s husband—”

“Antler boy,” the Slayer nodded.

“Yeah,” Clem duplicated the nod. “He’s Italian, and he’s got a pretty thick accent.”

“I thought he was a demon?”

Clem looked at her. “So am I, but I was raised in California, so I speak English. Eldor’s cousin is visiting from Palermo. Demon, raised in Italy, speaks chaos demon and Italian, with a smattering of English.” He puzzled. “And garnok demon, for some reason.”

“Clem…” Ripper prompted.

“Oh, yeah. Anyway, Eldor’s cousin kept talking all last week about Toronto for some reason. But I don’t think they have any close relatives in the Great White North. Does that mean anything to you?”

The Watcher thought. “Could he have been saying tramonto?”

The demon put one index finger on his nose and pointed the other at Ripper. “That’s it!”

At Annie’s raised eyebrows he responded. “It means nightfall.”

She raised her hands. “Which means…?”

“I have no idea.”

She smiled. “What, you’re not going to run off and consult books or anything?”

He returned the smile. “In the morning.”

Clem held up his toothbrush. “It is morning.”

“After we get some rest,” Ripper amended.

“So is that bed goose-down?” Annie raised an eyebrow.

The demon coughed discreetly, and the eyes returned to him. “Uhm, not that I wouldn’t want to stick around and have a bagel with you two after your, uhm, ‘resting up’, but if there’s another apocalypse coming to Sunnydale, I’d just as soon be on my way.”

The ex-Watcher sighed. “If only we all had the luxury.”

*   *   *   *   *

Spike started awake as the crashing of mausoleum door shook the granite and marble high above. It took him a moment to orient himself in the unfamiliar surroundings.

He lay in an uncomfortable bed in a room barely brighter than pitch. There were the mingled smells of stale air, old books, and sex. It was the latter that brought the memories home.

“Ver— er, Drusilla?” he called out tentatively when his searching hand found only empty sheets beside him.

His feet touched the cold stone floor and he strained his preternatural vision to find the burned out stub of candle on the table nearby. Match in his fingers, its relit glow was just touching the bed-chamber walls when the door swung open and the familiar form with jarringly different but equally familiar eyes stalked in, her body naked as his own.

“Horrible people want to ruin our party!” she pouted. “Mean Wolf-boy and pretty dark girl, bright as the sun.”

“Gonna catch your death, goin’ out like that,” he gestured to her lack of attire.

She wrapped her arms around herself. “Had a nice fur on, so soft and cuddly, daddy!” Then she frowned again, holding up one hand, crimson tipping the fingers. “But blood tastes all wrong in this body!”

Spike closed the distance between them and put an arm around her waist, pulling their bodies tight against one another. “Daddy can keep you warm too, love.” He turned his head and licked her fingers, one by one. “And there’s always someone wants to ruin the fun, ducks. But I won’t let them.”

Her smile became as pure Drusilla as her eyes. “Silly daddy, I won’t let them. The lights are falling, Spike, and all around us the beasties are coming home to roost. I have them calling.”

“Gonna have to be a little more specific, pet.”

As an answer, the bifurcated girl raised her small hand to the shelf over the table nearby, and ran her fingers over the leather spines of a row of dusty books there. She walked two up one and tilted the book out from the others. Spike reached over and drew out the volume, stepping away from Dru and opening the book on the table. He flipped through the pages.

“Never much for the book learning, Dru. Lest it was poetry.”

She pulled the book to herself, then lifted it in her hands, pages still open. Her eyes closed, she let her head drift back and side to side, as if listening to some unheard music. The hair on Spike’s arms stood up, an energy seeming to filter into the room. Drusilla lifted the book up level with her face, and at some invisible cue, her eyes opened, her head snapped forward and she blew across the pages. They ruffled violently and lifted, then fell back in place to a new spot in the book. She presented the volume back to Spike.

He turned it back to face himself, then scanned the words. His eyes widened, and he looked back up. “How did you find this?”

Her lips twitched to a crooked smile. “Talked to the demon himself,” she glanced up and behind her, twiddling her fingers in the air, “on the other side. Said I could come back if I helped him open the gate.”

The vampire puzzled. “You mean the Hellmouth?”

“No, love,” she replied. Picking up the candle, she crooked a finger at him and turned away. Stepping through the door once more, Dru led him into the hall beyond. Passing the ornate bronze ladder that led up to the mausoleum, she moved to a door he’d overlooked before in the darkness and the haste of lust. It was heavily carved with wards and runes Spike couldn’t identify. The girl before him touched several symbols in a seemingly random pattern, and the door slid aside.

“I meant the gate,” Versilla finished.

Immediately, the light of the candle seemed to magnify. Straight ahead of them, but some distance off, a hundred or more yellow stars danced in a line in perfect time with the small flame. But more interesting still was the flickering column of light in the middle of the line, illuminating a dais at its base. The girl stepped aside, and Spike moved into the room past her, at once drawn and repulsed by the play of light and shadow.

He walked slowly across the chamber, noticing only distantly how thick the air felt, how unnaturally cold it was, how the oddly shimmering lights revealed horrible figures seemingly embedded in the walls all around. Spike had eyes only for the dancing sparkles themselves.

He reached the dais itself, and stood at its edge, transfixed. He lifted one hand into the column, almost expecting to grasp a flicker in his fist. He barely started when Veruca’s hands slid over the hard muscles of his back and gripped his arms, the candle now placed on the floor.

“It’s beautiful, Peaches,” Spike said.

She ran her lips and tongue up his spine. “Almost as lovely as you, daddy.”

He closed his eyes at her touch, drawing his hand back and laying his fingers over hers on his shoulder. “How soon do we open it?” he asked. “How soon do I get you back for real?”

She spun him around to face her, eyes seductive and smile wet. “Soon,” she whispered. She shoved him backwards, and with his heels at the raised edge, he tripped to his backside on the stone dais. She climbed astride him. “Almost soon enough.”

The last thing Spike saw before he only felt, head arched back as she rode him in the shadows and light, was a ghostly image in the great curve of mirrors, of Drusilla and Veruca both, eyes glazed in rapture. And behind them, something very big, and very dark.

 

XII: Conversations