Unbidden the Day
Copyright June 2010
Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.
Acknowledgment: Special thanks to HonorH, for help with Japanese terminology in Part 2. Any mistakes are entirely my own.
The battle had spilled outside the hospital, though ‘battle’ wasn’t the best term under the circumstances. Glorificus — Glory — was simply too powerful. Years fighting alongside the Slayer should have accustomed them to the seeming incongruity of supernatural speed and superhuman strength being housed in a deceptively petite, feminine frame, but Glory was well beyond all their reference frameworks. Nothing harmed her, nothing truly caused her pain, and nothing slowed her down. She couldn’t be beaten, couldn’t be stopped: only harried, distracted, delayed.
Xander had delayed her by bringing the fire hose to bear. With all her strength, she still weighed no more than the average anorexic runway model, and the stream of pressurized water had bowled her over, robbed her of her footing, blinded and disoriented her. All of which had lasted for as long as it took her to tear out enough wall, flooring, and support structures to eventually destroy something that fed the water. After that, much running.
That was okay. Getting Glory outside had been the main aim all along.
After some prompting, Willow and Tara had produced a refinement of an ordinary glamour spell, and they triggered it now. As Glory emerged from the latest wreckage she had produced, still shaking water from her eyes and several steps beyond pissed off, there were suddenly dozens of them, multiple versions of Buffy, Xander, Willow, Giles, Tara (for some reason, the spell refused to include Spike), darting in all directions, squealing and tripping over one another, gesticulating and shouting for attention. Glory ground to a halt, looking around in exasperated bewilderment, unable to pick out her prey from the clamorous doubles that flooded the parking lot.
Captain Morgaine Ainesreath, watching through an IR scope, did not have that problem. She tracked the ‘Scoobies’ by their heat images, and — seconds before they reached safety — barked into her comm, “Engage.” The mortars thumped in instant response, the ex-Initiative troops were superbly trained and had adjusted with brusque professionalism to the unexpected change of mission and change of commanders. As always, Ainesreath’s timing had been dead on the mark: Xander, the last of the core group, reached cover a tenth of a second before the mortar barrage began exploding around a still confused Glory.
“Shot centered,” Ainesreath announced through her comm. There hadn’t really been any doubt, but you made sure of these things. “Fire for effect!”
A mortar team that knows its business can wreak slaughter on a horrendous scale. Artillery is more devastating, missiles more surgically precise, but nothing better combines the two for versatile, quick-readiness, on-the-spot destruction. With the right application, six mortar tubes and their crews can wipe an area the size of a football field clear of any life larger than a cockroach. Ainesreath had eight tubes firing, and even as the first explosions tore into Glory with stupendous impact, she was already commanding Captain Graham Miller, “Ready the AT-4 teams.”
Miller snapped a salute — “On it, ma’am!” — and began issuing orders into his own comm. Technically he out-rated her, both by time in service and by time in grade (for that matter, he’d gotten private assurance that he was on the short list for Major), but this was a woman whose achievements and sheer command presence had light colonels listening respectfully. He watched her as he confirmed placement of his teams, and as she watched their target. Blue-black hair cascaded to her shoulders beneath the rakish beret, defying any attempt to confine it; eyes paler than Antarctic ice surveyed the field of fire with pitiless appraisal. Yes, he would gladly follow this woman into hell … and was, perhaps, doing exactly that right now.
“Tubes off!” Ainesreath commanded. “AT-4 teams, relay fire!”
As Miller passed on her order, he saw what Ainesreath had already picked out through the savage chaos of the mortar barrage: slammed about like a pinball by the concentrated concussive force of the mortar shells, Glory was essentially unharmed. Her clothing had been torn away, even her shoes obliterated, but her naked skin showed no marks, and as the echoes of the last blasts faded away, he thought he heard laughter.
Then the rockets began to hit. The AT-4 had replaced the Light Antitank Weapon (itself a replacement for the venerable bazooka) almost a generation previously, with greater accuracy and immensely more destructive force. Ainesreath had correctly predicted that Glory might prove impervious to mortar fire; now, it was time to see if she fared as well against something designed to punch through tank armor.
She did, as it turned out. Ainesreath had called for relay fire, so that each AT-4 team took its shot in succession, rather than the massed fire that the mortar crews had laid down perfectly but to poor effect. Again, Glory was smashed one way and another, too light to resist the detonations that couldn’t seem to pierce her skin … but the third rocket missed, these things were made for use against vehicles and two consecutive hits on a single individual attested to the consummate skill of the former Initiative soldiers, but the instant’s respite was all the recovery time Glory needed. She caught the fourth rocket — caught it, in one dainty hand — and then threw it back with a wrist-flick impossibly quick and powerful, and suddenly everything was going to hell, she moved with a speed the eye couldn’t track and three teams were snuffed out before anyone could react.
“Abort!” Ainesreath ordered, both into her comm and to Miller. She turned to reach for the weapon she had stowed as a last resort — and was now resorting to it, which meant they were thoroughly screwed — still shouting, “Abort! Withdraw, fall back, reform and exfil! I’ll keep her occupied, but GO!”
“Captain!” Miller protested. “Ma’am —!”
She turned to him, and those pale, fierce eyes struck him mute. “Follow your orders, soldier!” she raged. “Do it NOW!!”
Miller nodded and stumbled away, momentarily clumsy as he tried to blink away tears. To lose Captain Ainesreath like this — Morgaine! — but this was combat, and he wouldn’t dishonor her by refusing her command on a battlefield.
Ainesreath took a prone position, readied the M82A1 Barrett .50-caliber sniper rifle. She switched her comm to the PA setting, and called out, “Glory! I’m the one you want, hellbitch! Come and get me!”
The PA echoes rolled away, and then Glory’s reply came. Teasing and snotty at the same time, trademark Glorificus. “And where might you be, soldiers’ whore? You call me out, but you’re still hiding.”
“Meet me in the middle of the parking lot,” Ainesreath said, still through the PA to mask the source of her voice. “We’ll settle this face to face.”
“While you still have a face, you mean.” And just that quickly, Glory was in the center of the lot, peering about for the owner of the taunting voice. She didn’t look menacing at all, just naked and tousled and impatient. “Getting bored here,” she announced. “Come out, come out, wherever you are —”
Ainesreath cut the comm, said, “Here,” in her normal voice, and fired the Barrett as Glory turned toward the sound.
The woman (or woman-shaped whatever-she-was) had been unfazed by everything brought to bear against her. Ainesreath knew, however, that no armor can be impenetrable at every point. The Barrett was the most powerful non-explosive man-portable precision weapon in any military inventory anywhere, and Ainesreath had chosen to gamble her life on the effectiveness of nearly 15,000 foot-pounds of energy delivered, in a single instant, against the center of Glory’s left eyeball. Let’s see her bounce back from this —!
Unfortunately, that was exactly what happened.
Then pain, much pain, shattering pain, delivered in a very brief time, not skillful but brisk and relentless and unendurable. Then the end of pain, and thought, and life.
* * *
Damn. I really thought that might work.
* * *
The sitting room in Rupert Giles’ apartment had been the scene of many extraordinary gatherings over the years, but had never before held so remarkable a visitor. “I cannot fully explain to you how I came by this information,” she was telling her spellbound audience. “Some parts of it are from sources who insist upon confidentiality, and others rely on prophecies whose provenance and underlying meaning I haven’t the time to explain. Be assured, however: Glorificus will make an appearance in that hospital, in roughly the area I have described, just before ten o’clock this evening. This gives us an opportunity to prepare for her, as you have had no possibility of doing until now.”
Giles shook away the fascination that made it difficult to think clearly (Buffy and Amy, he saw, were likewise enthralled, and — disconcertingly — Xander and Willow wore near-identical expressions of awe and yearning; understandable, but still rather embarrassing), and framed a careful reply. “Given the result of previous encounters, one would anticipate that our best use of this warning would be to avoid the area for so long as she occupies it.”
The Honourable Rosamonde Camilla Blackpoole-Travers, her hair like russet wheat in its thick single braid, fixed him with eyes of so bright a green as to render her gaze almost luminous. “A prudent course,” she acknowledged, her voice holding a husky timbre that made Giles think longingly of the guitar upstairs: he would never dare suggest such familiarity, but he ached to hear that voice in song, to accompany it to the best of his limited ability. “Against this foe, however,” she went on firmly, “prudence will not carry the day. We must be bold, seize the chance fate has brought.”
From any other speaker, such a statement would have been greeted with marked skepticism, if not severe doubt, but the visitor’s mien and résumé — which Giles had confirmed for the others, knowing it from avid gossip among his contemporaries — commanded attention and respect. Descended from generations of Watchers (the oldest families intermarried almost as habitually and determinedly as royalty, so that she was not only Quentin Travers’ grand-niece but also a distaff relative of Wesley Wyndham-Pryce and of Giles himself), Rosamonde Blackpoole-Travers had rejected the family calling and struck out on her own path at an early age. Almost immediately, however, her genius at ancient and demon languages, and her unparalleled intuition at gleaning the meaning of notoriously obscure prophecies, had the Council of Watchers regularly seeking her aid. That she had come here, unsolicited, to offer her services in the current crisis was … overwhelming.
“You have a plan,” Willow said, eyes all but devouring their visitor. “I know you do. I just know.” Beside her, Amy Madison nodded eagerly; any small doubt regarding the newcomer’s qualifications (Tara had raised brief dissent, before falling silent) had been dispelled when the emerald-eyed scholar had supplied Willow with the incantation that summoned the scroll holding Amy’s cure. The now de-ratified witch was still somewhat nervous and given to starts, but seemed to derive a calming effect from the charisma radiating from her deliverer, which same charisma gripped them all. “What do we need to do?” Willow went on. “Just tell us what to do.”
“Very well,” Rosamonde said. Even at her ease, she projected a formidable authority, but a gracious smile softened that edge, made her seem less forbidding if no less regal. “As Mr Giles has indicated, Glorificus’ physical capabilities are simply too daunting for any direct force we can bring to bear. There is precedent for dealing with such entities, however. Don’t worry, Buffy —” A nod, and an extra note of warmth in her voice, and pleasure and gratitude blossomed on the Slayer’s face. “— you shall have a role to play, but it shall be primarily diversionary, to keep Glorificus occupied and unaware. The main effort must come from our three enchanters, with some support from Mr Giles and of course under my guidance.”
They nodded their understanding and agreement, even Tara, and Giles cleared his throat. “What, erm … what do you propose?”
Again he found himself pierced by that near-luminous gaze, and hoped he wasn’t sweating or (worse) blushing. Lord, how could such severe professional attire, not at all suggestive in itself, cling so alluringly to a woman? A small tilt to the corner of her mouth made him wonder if she could read his unseemly thoughts, but she spoke evenly. “Centuries ago, an enchantment was effected to shift the entire race of Granok demons very slightly out of phase with this material reality. Their martial abilities were undiminished, but they could no longer be applied against the human peoples the Granok had thought to conquer. With a very minor adaptation, the ritual which accomplished this can be used to work the same result upon Glorificus. She will remain, in a sense, but will no longer be able to reach us, to affect us in any way —”
She went on, describing the ritual, describing the process, describing the tactics by which it was to be applied. She spoke with the pure, unwavering certainty of one who knows her subject and knows her own competence, for whom the correct path is clear and beyond question. Not that any of them would have dared dream of calling her to question …
Nine hours later, dying with a crushed chest, Giles blamed no one but himself. Banished from one realm, Glory seemed to have developed some type of internal resistance to having such an action repeated upon her, and had reacted to the attempt with instant, untrammeled savagery. Buffy was lost under a pile of rubble, Willow and Amy were dead … He didn’t know the fate of the others, nor had he leisure to consider the matter, for from where he lay he could see Glory humming gaily, “I love me, I love me lots, I love me …” while she tore off Rosamonde’s arms and legs, in sequence.
The fallen woman gave no cry under the treatment, though those lambent eyes showed the enormity of the torment being inflicted, and with his last breath Giles cursed himself for failing her.
* * *
* * *
“Don’t have to take her word for it,” Spike told the assembled group. “I’ve heard of ’er myself, all kinds of rumors back when I was still sloggin’ through the backwaters of Europe with Angelus and Darla. The Sunwalker, they called her: not human, not vampire, both ’n’ neither. She didn’t mess with vampires, long as they left ’er alone, an’ they bloody well learned quick enough to do exactly that.” He hooked a thumb at the woman he had brought to them. “Well, this is her now. In the flesh, or whatever you want to call it.”
They all regarded her with interest, curiosity, and some wonder. She wore a simple, straight-line gown that would have looked natural during the Renaissance or any age thereafter, for some things are so eternal as to never be fully out of style. Her hair was a bright cloud about her face, cornsilk shot through with streaks of titian, so that she might almost have worn a rose-gold halo. Her eyes were enormous, dark and depthless, her lips as red as the most perfect winter cherries. Her complexion was flawless, and so pale that only the faintest flush attested that this was a living woman and not some ivory goddess. She returned their gaze with absolute, unruffled equanimity, an ageless patience.
“Human and vampire?” Buffy asked doubtfully. “How can she be both?”
“Well, she is, okay?” Spike replied, with — even for him — unusual belligerence, as if he felt some protective instinct toward this new presence among them. “Vampires can recognize other vampires, even better’n most Slayers. This one ’ere, she’s got that vibe … but at the same time, I can hear ’er heartbeat if I listen close. Slow, slower’n any human, but strong. I’m tellin’ you, this is her.”
“I’ve heard of her,” Anya interjected. “I mean, we laughed about it in demon circles, thought she was the vampire version of the bogeyman. But the stories were remarkably consistent, now that I think of it. Starting about … six hundred years ago?”
“Yes,” the newcomer confirmed, for Anya had directed the question to her. “Sunwalker is the name vampires gave me. In my first life, I was Amarantha Ariadne Xenakis. My people were wiped out by Kakistos and his followers; I saw the slaughter, but as one who had been sheltered from the world’s harsh realities until that time, I knew of no means by which to fight them. They tried to kill me, too, and turn me, but I had been the favored child of my clan, gifted with many protective enchantments; the attempt failed, and I became what I am. They feared this, as something new and unknown, but feared also what I might further become if they succeeded in ending my life, so they kept me as a captive for more than a century. I was their plaything, subjected to endless degradations, foulness beyond your ability to imagine …”
Her voice shook at the memory, a heart-rending tremolo; then her chin came up, and she continued with a new forcefulness. “But they could not break me. Eventually I escaped, and set out to live on my own terms. I found that, by mixing the blood of animals with holy water, bolstered by a blessing of my own devising, I could maintain my strength while keeping my appetites under control. That also made it difficult for any vampire to fight me, for I could burn one with my touch if I but wished it. As their name for me attests, I can move about in the day — though I will admit that the brightest sun so hurts my eyes that I prefer to remain indoors — such that I essentially have a vampire’s strengths without the weaknesses. I taught them to fear me … and then, satisfied that they would not dare disturb me, I withdrew into centuries of study.”
“Huh?” Xander said. “Study what? Wasn’t this before … you know … schools?”
Yes, Xander would want to know. Beautiful woman, part demon (or the next thing to it), of course it would catch his interest. Spike glared — Back off, Droopy Boy! — but without any visible effect.
“I am not truly a vampire,” she told him, with a smile of such sad, haunting sweetness as to soften the stoniest heart. “But neither am I fully human. I have spent five hundred years searching for a way to return to the world of the living. To welcome the sun as a warm companion, rather than merely to endure it. To bear children, and grow old next to my love, and die alongside him in the due course of days. Only you who live with death can know the true fullness of life, and I would have that again.”
“Yes, well …” Giles paused, and automatically removed his glasses, pulling out his handkerchief to begin the comforting routine of polishing them. “You’re welcome among us, of course. We can always use effective allies, though I fear we’ve little to offer in return —”
“I do not seek your aid,” the halfling woman told him. “I came to offer mine. I know the enemy you face; I know the Beast has returned. And, if such can be done, I would help you to vanquish it.”
“Wonderful idea,” Buffy said (oh, great, now Xander and Spike were making faces at each other, didn’t men ever grow up?), “but we’re not so solid on the ‘how’ of that. Glory has comprehensively kicked my ass every time I’ve met her, and I think the only reason it hasn’t been worse is because she hasn’t really been serious about it yet. If you happen to be carrying any handy Beast Kryptonite, haul it out, I’m on top of that action.”
“The Beast is powerful, yes,” the newcomer said. “But it is also arrogant, and not quick of wits. I am strong as any vampire, but not stronger; even together, we could not prevail in force of arms. If we were, however, to set a trap instead, lure the Beast to ground of our choosing and then open a vortex to carry it away from the lands of men —”
Opening the vortex was, indeed, as straightforward a task as Amarantha Ariadne Xenakis had promised. Controlling it, different matter. Glory clung to one of the trees in the park where they sprang the trap, then drove her fingers into rock in the surrounding ground to drag herself away from the voracious dimensional whirlpool. Buffy, unanchored and unprepared, was sucked in within the first moments, and the others — Xander, Giles, Willow, Tara, Spike — as the insatiable suction continued and grew. Last of all was the halfling vampire-human Sunwalker who, as she lost her final handhold and was pulled in by the vortex, could be heard shouting words that did not at all seem to have originated in the Renaissance, but rather in some more recent (and considerably less refined) era and locale.
* * *
Son of a bitch.
Even with the proof in front of them, laughing and vibrant, it still was almost impossible to believe. “I never knew I had a brother,” Alissandra Sofia diBianchi explained to them. “My adoptive parents are wonderful people, loving and supportive and perhaps too indulgent of their headstrong daughter. They did not wish me to feel any lack, any absence in my life, and so they kept this one small secret from me. On my twentieth birthday, however, they told me the full truth, so that I might follow out this part of my past if I wished. And so I am here.”
Xander looked as pole-axed as the rest of them, but he at least was spared the tennis-match effect of looking back and forth, unbelieving, from him to the dazzling new arrival. “I knew,” he admitted, his eyes fixed on her. “Knew I had a twin sister, anyway, I ran across her birth certificate when I was still in grade school. But my folks told me she had died a few days after she was born …” His laugh was the melancholy reflex of one long schooled in hiding pain. “I guess they figured one of me was all they could handle.”
“And you were the one they wished to keep!” she assured him, with all the impetuous passion of her Italian upbringing. “This is not a time for sadness, fratello mio. We are together now, and there is no past for us, only such future as we create.”
This must be the year for new siblings to pop up, Buffy thought, still staring at the newcomer but also watching the others’ reaction to her. She had told them the truth about Dawn only yesterday, but didn’t want her sister’s true nature to become more widely known, so she was hampered in any doubts she might have wished to express about the unlikelihood of such an improbable coincidence …
… but then, did she actually have any doubts? Just looking at them, the kinship between Xander and Alissandra was unmistakable. They had the same face, the same wavy dark hair and hazel eyes, the same mobile, expressive mouth, but in every instance the feminine modification turned ‘appealing’ into ‘stunning’. Alissandra’s lips were fuller, her eyes fringed with dark lashes thicker than Xander’s, the lankiness of his frame smoothed into graceful elegance by her curvier contours. The Neapolitan sun had tanned her complexion to a warm, mellow apricot hue, and she wore the latest Milanese fashion with an easy assurance that would have reduced Cordelia Chase to seething envy. Every familiar feature, altered but instantly recognizable, and the totality imbued with an eager, happy vitality. Who ever would have suspected that Xander could be so hot as a woman —?
Her mind snapped back to the immediate moment: Xander was saying something about how he really wanted to get to know his new sister better but this was kind of a tricky time, he had pressing obligations and for that matter Sunnydale was maybe not the best tourist spot right now … Alissandra waited until he paused for breath, then inquired coolly, “Has this to do with your town being situated on la bocca dell’inferno? the Mouth of Hell?” Then there were explanations and other questions and surprise revelations, and it ended with Alissandra insisting, “But I can help! I learned many things from my mother and the other wise women of Hecate’s Circle, and due to my father’s influence I was allowed since I was a child to study secret documents in the Vatican archives, knowledge too dangerous for common use but of vital importance in time of peril. The rites used to bind and imprison Moloch the Corruptor … I found a flaw in them, the priests should not have attempted to work the ritual at a distance, but if we can track this Glorificus to her home ground and do the binding there, strengthened by the power of this amulet from my mother —!”
She was able to help with the tracking spell, too, suggesting refinements that had Willow nodding eagerly and babbling delight, while Giles exclaimed, “Of course!”, and Tara simply sat dumfounded. They confirmed Glory’s presence in one of the new high-rise condominiums, and at Alissandra’s suggestion they set up a pentacle in the courtyard to concentrate the power of the binding ritual, one of them — Giles, Tara, Willow, Anya, Xander — anchoring each point of the diagram, leaving Buffy free to call Glory out and keep her busy while Alissandra herself carried out the binding. And everything went as planned, Alissandra timing the focus of the ritual to hit Glory within seconds of the hell-demon’s appearance. Glory shrieked, seemingly more from outrage and vexation than from any sign of pain, as the binding force seized her and began to pull her toward the vessel they had prepared. It was as if she was being drawn out of herself, tugged inexorably to imprisonment and banishment …
… but there was something else, something that seemed to hold her, a shadowy outline (larger than Glory, and of a less obviously feminine form) that held its place as she was being pulled away. Filmy bands stretched between them, firmed and resisted, and then snapped Glory back to where she had been. Alissandra cried out as the mystical backlash from the failed ritual rebounded into her, and she went up like a torch while the echoes of her voice still hung in the air. Then Glory was among the others, vindictive and irresistible and terrible, and the world dissolved in a welter of chaos and carnage, blood and screams and agony.
* * *
* * *
Xander had picked the site of the showdown-to-be. Sunnydale High School had been the scene of any number of apocalyptic battles (almost literally, in several cases), so the recently-laid foundations of the new school being built in its place had a symbolic meaning even apart from its advantages in terms of seclusion, obstacles and hiding places that could be strategically utilized, building materials ditto … Xander also had some ideas about bringing power machinery into the mix, but their new general had brushed away that thought. This battle was not for civilians, however desirous to be of aid, but of those born to be warriors.
Miyake Sayomi was both warrior and thief, and the planning for this day’s confrontation called for the fullest application of all her abilities. Only a master thief could have penetrated the caverns of the Nezzla demon guardians and emerged with the fabled Orbs of Nezzla’khan within a matter of hours, and only a consummate warrior could have designed the strategy they were now setting into motion. It was to their fortune, then, that fate had brought her to them in this time of direst need.
As ninja were to mundane conflict and deception, so were the Mahou no Kage-shi, the shadow clans of sorcery, to the darker world of demonic entities and magical forces. As a female, Miyake Sayomi would have been forbidden to learn the more robust arts and play the more forceful role relegated to men, permitted only the theoretically complementary (but in practical terms less respected) arts of seduction and espionage, misdirection and intelligence-gathering and manipulation. Sayomi (“night-born”, in the old tongue) had rebelled against her clan’s strictures, demanding that she be allowed to follow out her own talents rather than submissively walk the road laid out for her by others. They had subjected her to the same harsh initiation as prospective boy students, thinking to break her spirit and turn her to a more submissive course of behavior by first-hand experience of the excruciating demands one must meet in order to stand in the ranks of the Shadow Masters. To their consternation, she had not only withstood the ordeal, which culled seven of every ten even of those who had been prepared since earliest childhood, but had surpassed all the other candidates. Which amazement she continued to perpetrate throughout every subsequent phase of her instruction, training, and testing.
A novice requires a dozen years of preparation before being deemed ready to serve without disgrace in the rigors of the shadow company. In only four years, there was no more they could teach Sayomi, for she had already mastered every art. She could have been the next clan leader, for the stupendous extent of her talents had long since replaced resentment with awe and respect … but again she had chosen a different path, going out into the world alone to carve out a new place for herself. Only those of her clan, and the few she allowed to be close, now knew the name of Miyake Sayomi; to the rest of the world, she was Kaminari, named for the goddess of thunder, the Heavenly Noise.
And she had come to Sunnydale, because this was where the greatest challenge was to be found.
Glory had been lured to the construction site from the hospital where Sayomi had correctly predicted she would appear. In the maze of partially completed rooms, it had been simple to surround the demon-creature without her being aware of the forces being arrayed against her. Now, they sprang the trap.
Spike, weakest of the three, swung at Glory with the Dagon Sphere, secured in the folds of a net so he could strike with it as with a morningstar. Buffy, next most formidable, drove the demon female to her knees with a blow from the troll hammer that no lesser strength could wield. And Sayomi, at the third point of the triangle, unleashed a flurry of kicks, chops, punches, weaponless techniques but powered by the Orbs that magnified her strength to past Slayer levels, so that each blow hit almost as hard as the troll hammer itself, but many more such blows in much less time.
Glory reeled from the assaults blasting her from three directions … but she was strong, and she was resilient, and pain angered her more than it weakened her. She caught the net the fourth time Spike struck her with the sphere weighting it, and before he could let go (if, in fact, he could have been prevailed upon to do so), she swung him into the nearest half-finished wall with such force that he went completely through the concrete structure. Sayomi nailed her five times while she was doing that, blows that could have shattered steel girders, but gods! the bitch was tough! Glory kept going, a swinging arm catching Buffy in the torso and hurling her outside the building — through an empty window, fortunately — and then it was down to just the two of them.
Face to face, one on one, it was more nearly even. Glory could not begin to match Sayomi for skill, and the supernatural speed she could call on seemed to require a moment’s concentration that Sayomi would not allow her. Glory’s hardiness was almost as incredible as her strength, however — which even now was still greater than Sayomi’s — and full-power strikes to throat, jawline, clavicle, breastbone, knees, lower ribs, any vulnerable area, hurt and staggered but did not fell her.
They fought in the center of the unfinished structure, by now as much half-destroyed as half-completed. Sayomi drove into Glory with blow after blow, trying to chisel away at her adversary, wear her down by sheer accumulation of punishment, each strike carrying not only physical impact but also the supernatural equivalent of dim mak, the Penetrating Force. Glory swung back, clumsy but undaunted, and Sayomi turned some attacks with easy skill and let the power of the Orbs of Nezzla’khan soak up others, she wasn’t being hurt but neither was Glory, not really, she could have demolished a tank with the damage she was pouring out and it still wasn’t enough —
She had secreted the Orbs in a pouch between her breasts, so that her own enchanted flesh would protect them from any harm. Now a diffuse but growing pain broke through Sayomi’s battle-focus: the Orbs were hot, and becoming hotter. She had demanded too much, even their vast power wasn’t limitless, and something told her they would disintegrate under the stress of thirty more seconds of such intense combat.
As Glory struck at her again, she caught the demon female’s arm and, with a lightning pivot of her body and all her augmented strength, flung Glory over the walls and out of sight.
She turned at a sound: Buffy was back, pushing through a doorway with the troll hammer raised. As Buffy stopped, seeing no target, Sayomi reached down the front of her tunic and withdrew the Orbs which, though briefly less taxed, still glowed with a sullen heat. “You must use these,” Sayomi told Buffy. “I have forced them to their limits, and can go no farther. They will not increase your strength by as much as they did mine, but you are stronger at the beginning, so perhaps it will be enough.” She shook her head. “The battle is yours now.”
Buffy took the Orbs, and was automatically stuffing them into the pocket of her jeans even as she protested, “But … what are you going to —?”
“She is here,” Sayomi said, and stepped back.
Buffy spun as Glory appeared in the ruined doorway, then she charged to the attack, hammer lifted. In that moment of total focus and commitment, she looked like a warrior goddess herself: Norse, perhaps, or Saxon. Sayomi turned and began to walk away, disregarding the sounds behind her.
The Slayer would fight; surrender was not part of who she was. With her will and her weapon and the power remaining in the Orbs, she might win. Or, she might fail, and fall, and die, as she had done every other time. Regardless of the outcome, she would face it alone, for Miyake Sayomi — Kaminari, the Thunder Queen, the Heavenly Noise — had done all she could, and it had proven inadequate to the task.
* * *
I hate this shit. I hate this shit.
* * *
There are all kinds of places I could go, even within the limits of a single day, and I’ve gone to most of them, many times, depending on my mood. Somehow, though, I keep winding up back at the Bronze.
I don’t know why. It wasn’t my kind of spot even when I belonged to the age group that had nowhere else to congregate. And of course, the way things are now, I’m always dealing with the same crowd and the same people, the same band, the same acts … Okay, that last I can affect easily enough, and as I’ve done dozens of times before — maybe hundreds, maybe thousands — I arranged in advance to have a playlist and an unsigned $1,000 check delivered to the band, advising that I’ll sign it gladly if they’ll stick to the songs on the list. That at least introduces some change into how the evening will proceed, and by now I need some change in my routine more than I need anything else on God’s green earth.
All the same, tonight it’s not entertainment I’m here for, or even diversion. I find him at the back, right where he usually perches; sometimes the different songs I arrange (or other divergences introduced during the day) will alter his placement in no pattern I’ve been able to establish yet, and I long ago got sick to death of trying to figure it out. I slide into the seat across from him in the booth, and address him briskly. “Jonathan.”
He goggles at me, doing the double-take I’ve seen so many times I just want to gouge out his eyes. “Nancy?” he stammers. “Nancy Doyle?”
Why does he always sound surprised? Granted, we didn’t have much to do with each other in high school, but why should it be such a surprise that I would speak to him? Maybe it’s something in my face, I’ve been through a continent-load of crap since high school and some of that may show in my expression … but no, he acted the same the first time I looked him up here, long before said crap began to pile up as high around me as it is now.
Keeping in mind, naturally, that for him it’s still the first time.
“Tell me about the paragon spell,” I demand of him. “That thing you did a little over a year ago.”
The goggling increases, which again is right on schedule. “You, you know about that?” he says. “You remember? because, most people, it just sort of faded right out of their memories after a few days.”
“I’m not most people,” I tell him flatly. “Lay it out for me. Ingredients, chants, timing, phase of the moon … hell, what kind of deodorant you wore that day, I want everything. Go on, start talking.”
“That’s, uh, that’s maybe not such a good idea.” He looks around nervously, probably to see if anyone else is listening. (As if anyone else would care.) “A lot of people got mad at me over that, and, and I think they weren’t wrong. It’s just not nice to manipulate folks like that —”
“Jonathan,” I say, and fix him with the freezing glare I’ve polished through several changes of identify, “tell me what I want, everything I want, right now and with no back-talk, or I will make you one sorry monkey. Trust me, I am the last person you want to screw with right now.”
So he spills it, the whole business, and I’ve been through this enough times that I know exactly where to prompt him for further details, for clarification, for any sign that he might have left out or forgotten anything. I get it all, every bit of it, and none of it is new. Not one single shred.
We both sit silent, me from anger and depression and total lack of any notion of what to do next, him probably from nervousness and uncertainty. Then he says, “You already tried it, didn’t you? Tried it and didn’t get what you wanted.”
This is new, or at least a little new; generally, he’s needed more explicit info before reaching that conclusion. “Yeah, you could say that.”
“But it sounds like you did everything right,” he says. “I mean, from the questions you asked, I’d say you know that spell better than I did. So what went wrong?”
“What went wrong?” I repeat. “What went wrong? What do you think all those questions were about? What do you think I’ve tried so hard for so long to figure out? I don’t know what went wrong! If I did, maybe I could change it!”
He went back in his seat a little when I started ranting, and he may have gone a little pale, it’s hard to tell in this light. He sits still when I finish, probably watching for danger of some further explosion; when it doesn’t come, he ventures hesitantly, “Well … what happened when it didn’t go right, then?”
My growl of disgust carries even above the music. “I never got to finish the damn thing, and every time I’ve tried it since, big fat nothing. It’s like … it’s like hitting PRINT on a document a dozen times, only it doesn’t do any good because your first try is still bottlenecked in the memory buffer. It’s driving me crazy … and believe me, these days that’s a trip you could make on a five-dollar skateboard.”
I can see him thinking about it. “Well,” he observes slowly, “maybe that’s a sign that you should, you know, give up on the idea and try something else with your life.”
“Oh, if only I could.” I sigh heavily. “Look, explaining it never does any good, but neither does anything else, so here goes. The spell didn’t work, at least not the way it was supposed to, but it sure as hell did something. I was about two-thirds of the way through it, bringing in the part about limiting the effects to the immediate environment, I guess ’cause it would overload it or spread it too thin to try to cast it over the whole world. I had just set the first limits around myself, and was beginning the part where I would expand the effect over the area I wanted to cover. I was going to start with just UC-Sunnydale, and if that felt solid I figured to extend it over the whole town, like you did —”
Jonathan nods understanding. “And?”
“And I bounced,” I tell him. “That’s the best way I know to describe it. Before I could go past the limits I set on myself, I hit something and I bounced backward.” I make a mouth. “Backward being seventeen hours earlier. And I’ve been reliving that same fucking seventeen hours, over and over, ever since.”
“Whoa,” Jonathan says. Then, “How long?”
“Christ only knows,” I answer. “Centuries, maybe.”
He nods again. “And you don’t know what’s causing it?”
“What else?” I reply. “An apocalypse.”
He gets that nervous look again. “You mean … another one?”
My laugh is real, but there’s no humor behind it. “Buddy boy, you wouldn’t believe how often they pop up. Best I can tell, once or twice a year, maybe more, since we were sophomores. That big ‘Class Protector’ thing you did for Buffy at Prom? Turns out you didn’t know the half of it. None of us did.”
Jonathan’s twirling his drink straw while he thinks. It’s something I’ve noticed about him: he has to keep his hands busy to let his mind run free. “So what is it? This … this year’s apocalypse?”
“Calls itself Glory,” I tell him. “Prophecies call it Glorificus, or the Beast. Seems to be about five-four, curly hair, sharp eyes, sharper mouth, fashion sense runs to high-end slutty … It looks female, but I’m thinking that’s not its true form, because this bitch is hellacious strong. Not to mention damn hard to kill. In fact, impossible to kill, at least so far.”
“Oh,” Jonathan says. “So … you’ve tried.” He gives me a sidelong look. “You mentioned centuries, so I’m guessing you tried more than once. And you’re still alive?”
“She’s killed me over and over,” I correct him. “And sometimes I die while I’m working at gathering power for my next go-round; I got scragged eight times before I figured out a way to get past the Nezzla demons’ barrier, and that was after I’d learned a lot of nasty tricks. Dying doesn’t stick to me, I just wake up again back on the wheel.”
There’s a lot more to it than that, but there’s no point in explaining it all to him, because he’ll be just as gape-mouthed clueless the next time I talk to him. Dying doesn’t stick to me, but knowledge doesn’t stick to anyone else, I start (restart) every day with people who haven’t learned anything. Gives me a lot of advantages in dealing with them, but it’s also damnably frustrating … because every day, every single day, I have to do a cold start with the same incurable ignoramuses, and bring them up to speed for a knock-down fight in less than seventeen hours. Which is why I got into creating so many super-woman aliases: in the end, it takes less time to sell Buffy and her crew on an awesome newcomer than to convince them that Nancy Doyle knows what she’s talking about, no matter how much juice she’s collected in the meantime.
Sometimes — lots of times — I get so sick of it that I just give it up. Like now.
Jonathan watches me as I stand up again. He must see the new purpose in me, and isn’t sure he likes what he sees. “So, so what are you going to do now?”
I laugh again, with just as little humor. “Do?” I say. “I’m going to blow off the whole business, and just enjoy myself for awhile.”
He checked his breath, checked for armpit sweat, checked to make sure nothing gross was hanging from his nose hairs. Then, taking a deep, steadying breath, he knocked on the door.
She opened it, nodding approval. “Xander. Exactly on time. Good.” She turned and walked away from the door, leaving it open but without invitation. Which, considering that 1) this was his apartment, and 2) this was Sunnydale, made perfect sense.
He followed her to his living room, took the seat she indicated. “Uh, ma’am ... Captain —”
“Morgaine,” she corrected briskly. “You’re not under my command. Not even military.” She gave him a flashing smile that vanished even as it registered. “Not technically, at any rate.”
“Uh, yeah, sure, right.” He closed his mouth firmly over the hysterical babble that was trying to fight its way out. Truth was, Captain Ainesreath (Morgaine, he reminded himself) was shaking his foundations in more ways than one. She was still in uniform, but had removed the crisp BDU top, revealing not the brown t-shirt that the Army currently favored as an undershirt, but one that was solid black. Some Special Ops perk? She looked no less martial without the immediate display of rank and insignia, but then she had looked no less female while in full battle dress. And precisely as impressive — intimidating — both ways.
She set a pair of small glasses on the coffee table between them, poured a finger of bourbon in each, then nudged one glass toward him. “You’re wondering why I asked you to meet me here, two hours before the mission kicks off,” she told him. She picked up her glass, waited until he followed suit, and then tossed back the bourbon. “In fact, you’ve been wondering why I chose your apartment as my field headquarters.”
Long experience in various forms of humiliation kept him from trying to down his drink in one gulp as she had done. He took it in three measured swallows instead, and then, wheezing only slightly, said, “If I had to guess, well, I guess I’d guess you were going to be considerate and tell me in private that I’m a no-go for tonight. That I’m being benched for my own good. And, and I appreciate you not just spitting it out in front of everybody —”
“No,” Morgaine interrupted. “You won’t be scrubbed. I can see the part you play, even if the others let it slip by them. I asked you here for the same reason I chose your home as my quarters: because I have more in common with you than with any of your friends.” Her mouth twisted wryly. “More, in some ways, than with my own people.”
Xander was nodding, not because he understood but just to indicate that he was following the words. Now, however, he asked, “Uh, say again?”
“They all started with advantages,” she explained. “Mystical power for Buffy and Willow. An expensive, exclusive education for Giles, plus the backing of an international organization. Even Anya — yes, I know her origins — may be physically unthreatening now, but she can call on the memories of, what? a thousand years of demonic experience?” She leaned toward him across the small table. “Of them all, you’re the only one who’s had to cope purely on his own merits. And you’ve done it. And, speaking as someone who’s clawed her way up every step of a deeply gender-prejudiced rank structure, I can relate to what you’ve accomplished.”
Xander could feel a light sweat beading on his forehead. Her words were heady praise, but she was … was somehow more here here, more physically present, than she had been in the series of lightning briefings. He forced back the hormonal tide he could feel beating at him, and croaked, “I can see that, yeah. I have my own experience with macho power games, and I can just bet that they look at you in uniform and see Barbie dressed up like GI Joe —” Oh, God, kill me now! “— and, and, uh, tell me again why I’m here exactly?”
Morgaine set down the empty glass she had continued to hold. “As I said, the mission roll-out is in two hours. I can spare an hour of that for personal time, and I want it to be with you.” Without looking at her watch, she added, “Five minutes of that is gone already, but I believe I can trust you to stay on point for the rest.”
And once again with the hysterical deafness. Except, no, he’d heard her perfectly, and the light in those frost-pale eyes left no doubt as to her meaning. Through a tight throat he heard himself saying, “I’m … I’m with Anya.”
“You’re with her,” Morgaine agreed. “But the two of you aren’t together, not really. If you were, you wouldn’t feel the way you do about me. The way I can see you feel about me, felt the moment we first caught sight of one another. Not just desire — we’ve both been there, and we both know this is something deeper. So the only real question is, do we want to waste any more of the little time we have?”
And there was so much he could say to that, so many things he wanted to say, but that would just run out more of the clock and the part that mattered most right now was, “No. No, we don’t. Not another minute.”
“Good.” She stood and started toward his bedroom: objective identified, course of action chosen, proceed to implementation. “Only, remember: just because I like to be on top, doesn’t mean I want to do all the work.”
“No, ma’am,” Xander said, following. “As you say, ma’am. Lead the way, ma’am.”
* * *
“He is dear to you, is he not?”
Willow jerked in startlement, as much at that lyrical voice — so familiar, yet so totally different — as at the words. “Uh, huh, whuh, y–… you mean Xander?”
“Fratello mio, my brother, yes.” Alissandra was standing very close (for privacy, yes, yes, she wanted to keep this a private conversation, that would also explain why she was speaking so softly), and her eyes held Willow’s. “It is in your face, whenever you look at him, whenever he speaks. You love him. I see this.”
Willow desperately gathered her composure — oh, goddess, I could go swimming in those eyes! — and said, “I, we, yeah, I’ve known Xander basically my whole life. We bonded practically in kindergarten. Maybe in the womb. But love, no, not love, not like that, nuh-uh.”
Alissandra regarded her through thick-fringed lashes. “I am not jealous, if this is what alarms you. I am happy, yes, to think that he has not been alone all this time.” Her nose wrinkled. “I saw his home, and his … our birth parents … before I found him at his site of construction. I think it would have been better if they had given us both for adoption.”
Memories of what she had seen of Xander’s home life over the years made Willow compress her lips in disapproval. She was pretty sure his parents had never been abusive (except maybe verbally), but that had by no means been a nurturing environment. “Won’t hear me arguing with you on that one,” she answered, her tone clipped.
Alissandra considered, still holding Willow’s gaze with her own … then, with a glance around, she murmured, “Come walk with me.” Then, raising her voice: “Mr Giles, Alexander — I will return soon, your Willow is going to show me where is to be found the best gelato in this town.” A laugh, again disconcertingly like Xander’s but rich and melodious. “Or perhaps one of your marvelous chili-dogs!”
Before she really understood what had happened, Willow was outside with Alissandra, and the two of them were strolling (gulp) arm in arm down the sidewalk. “Truly,” the taller girl was saying, “you cannot make me believe that he and you were never lovers. My own eyes tell me this is not so.”
“Lovers, no, no,” Willow insisted. “I mean, sure, I had a sort of a crush on him when were both little. Which, yeah, kinda hung on for maybe a dozen years. And, and we kissed a few times, just a little, and didn’t that just turn into the biggest stink bomb ever you could imagine! But not lovers, not the way you mean.” She could feel herself beginning to blush, and of course that only seemed to make her blush even worse. “That’s, you know, if you mean it that way. Which I don’t really know.”
Alissandra eyed her doubtfully. “Indeed? The two of you never —?”
“We got caught in flagrante,” Willow admitted. “There was flagrante all over the place. But it was all lips and, and maybe hands that shouldn’t have been where they were being. And that was years ago and it’s all over now. Xander’s in a new relationship, and so am I.” She had forgotten that until just this second; how could she have forgotten? “It turns out … it turns out Xander and I both like girls.”
In one of those Sunnydale transitions that could carry you from a cheery residential cul-de-sac to a warehouse district within only a few blocks, Willow and Alissandra had come to the entrance to Weatherly Park while they talked, and now the Italian girl firmly steered them inside. They walked for several more minutes in silence, Willow at first fearful of the pause and then cautiously hopeful as Alissandra showed no sign of unlinking their arms. “You are a lover of women,” Alissandra observed as they came to the duck-pond that this park boasted. In one spot, the blossom-laden branches of one of the trees bent almost to the ground at the pond’s edge, making a fragrant screen; Alissandra stooped to make her way inside, pulling Willow with her, and sat down within the natural shelter. “That is … most fortunate.”
Beside her, Willow felt her heart thumping. Xander, in a female body: it was like a dream too wonderful for her to have imagined. “So — you’re gay, too?”
“I do not make favorites,” Alissandra told her. “I like some women. I like some men.” She leaned in, took Willow’s face in her hands and kissed her resoundingly, and the world caught fire. “And I like you.”
Then they lay back together on the grass, under the shower of blossoms, and it was lips and tongues and hands in places they absolutely should be, and it was skin and moans and rapture and oh goddess oh goddess —
* * *
There are matters you and I must address in private, Rosamonde had told Giles in a quick moment between group planning sessions. Find errands for the others — valid tasks, but timed to our benefit — so that we may deal with these issues without interruption. Her assurance, her reputation, the force of her personality made her one not to be gainsaid, so Giles had done as instructed. Rosamonde had withdrawn to the small upstairs room set aside for her use, while he handed out assignments. He tapped politely at the door now, and her voice came in immediate response. “They’ve gone, then?”
“Yes,” Giles confirmed. “The arrangements I’ve asked them to make, the ingredients they’ve set off to gather, these should occupy them for the next few hours. You didn’t specify, I hope that time is sufficient to your purpose —”
“I am confident,” she said, and opened the door, “that it shall prove to be ample time.” Her hair was unbound, and fell around her shoulders, past her waist and hips and almost to the level of her knees. She had also, clearly, taken advantage of her time alone to dispense with the encumbrance of clothing.
“Ah,” Giles said.
Rosamonde nodded. “We are neither of us blushing virgins, and coyness would be insincere and tedious. Best, I thought, to address the matter directly and without ambiguation.”
“You most certainly have done that.” She had chosen to expose herself to him, so Giles studied her body with clinical thoroughness, if not detachment. It was magnificent, a prince’s plunder. Despite the racing of his pulse, he felt his thoughts fall into a cool, settled order. “Very well. Are we certain that this is an … advisable course of action?”
“I know what I want,” she replied crisply. She glanced downward, arched an eyebrow at him. “Obviously, you want it as well.”
“I won’t deny as much,” he said. “There is still the fact that I am roughly twice your age.”
“Which will mean precisely sod-all if neither of us live to see the morning, as could quite possibly occur.” Her voice was hard, but then her eyes and mouth softened. “No life is without regrets. I prefer to regret the mistakes I have made … not those I failed to make when the opportunity presented itself.”
He favored her with the barest hint of a smile. “I am a mistake, then?”
“One I quite look forward to regretting.” She assessed him with a rather unsettling directness. “Given the nature of the occasion, Mr Giles, you are severely overdressed.”
“Ah,” he said. “Yes, quite. Well, Ms Blackpoole-Travers —”
“Miss,” she interrupted. “I’ve no objection to modernity, but I loathe faddishness.”
“Indeed. Then, Miss Blackpoole-Travers, if you will make yourself at ease —” He gestured toward his bedroom. “— I shall join you once I have suitably adjusted my attire.”
“Don’t dally,” Rosamonde said. She stepped past him, her hair flowing about her like a russet curtain, and the sudden lewdness of her smile was a jarring contrast to the schooled formality of her tone. “The kettle has been simmering long enough already.”
Giles watched her — that brave vibration each way free — until she had disappeared into his bedroom, then attacked his recalcitrant clothing with hasty fingers. It wouldn’t do, no, it wouldn’t do at all, for the kettle to boil over before he could arrive … He did, however, take an extra moment to fold his garments, for he could see that she had folded hers; then, having matched her for propriety, he moved toward the bedroom, prepared to cast himself once more into the breach.
* * *
“I am pleased to be able at last to speak with you in some privacy,” Amarantha Ariadne Xenakis, also known as the Sunwalker, said to Anya Christina Emanuella Jenkins, once known as Anyanka. “Your companions are warriors brave and true, but I cannot feel entirely comfortable with them.”
“They’re not too bad,” Anya said. “I stopped wanting to kill them long ago.”
“Yes, but after my … treatment, by Kakistos’ minions, I cannot bear the thought of a man touching me, and my long seclusion, in study, has left me ill-suited to any closeness with human women as well —”
“Wait,” Anya interrupted. “Is this about sex? because my human body seems to be pretty solidly heterosexual.” She thought for a moment, shrugged. “But on the other hand, there are lots of things I like that don’t require a penis … okay, we can give it a try.” She unzipped her skirt and stepped out of it, peeled her blouse off over her head. “You probably don’t know much about girl-girl stuff, locked away all this time in your ivory tower — ebony? obsidian? whatever — but I’ve done some studying of my own. Porn, and Cosmo, and you’d be surprised how much overlap there is …”
“I …” Amarantha blinked. “… these things are not familiar to me …”
“— and if it works out okay, maybe we’ll have time to set up something with Xander. Don’t worry, you won’t have to do anything with him, and I wouldn’t want to share him anyway, but I’m sure he’d be glad to just watch us together —” Anya stopped in the act of unhooking her bra. “Well? Why aren’t you taking off your clothes?”
* * *
I must know your capabilities, Sayomi had said, and so she and Buffy had repaired, alone, to the workout room Giles had set up in the back of the Magic Box. There, they began testing themselves against one another: bare-handed, sparring rather than combat, but with increasing speed and power and commitment as each became sure of the other’s capacity to keep up.
To Buffy, it was a new and unsettling experience. She had fought many things stronger than herself, and some (rarely) that were faster, but this … Sayomi was perfect, every move was flawless, delivered to the precise instant and millimeter intended, there was no transition between techniques because the execution of one always somehow formed the beginning of the next, a seamless uninterrupted fluency. She — Buffy — had the greater speed, she had established that early on, and the other woman wasn’t using the Orbs, but it didn’t matter: everything she tried to do, Sayomi was already there, reading each attempt before it was launched and intercepting or forestalling it with something that broke her rhythm, forced her to re-orient, kept her scrambling to catch up. They dueled back and forth across the dojo floor, twisting and weaving, ducking and spinning and leaping in attack and counter and follow-through, stretching it out in a ceaseless, unbroken sequence.
At last Sayomi stood back. “Enough,” she said. Perspiration glistened on that saffron skin, but her breathing was slow and deep and even. “I wished to know, and now I do.” She regarded Buffy, her eyes pure Asian in their shape but not in their color: like deepest amber, darkest honey, a shade impossible to fully define but striking and altogether unique. “I could kill you, I believe, with a weapon, but not without; you are too swift, too powerful — you withheld your full strength, as was suitable in this circumstance, but I marked it — and your focus is that of the higher bushidan. Yes, I can rely upon you in the struggle to come.”
“Nice to know I measure up,” Buffy said. Her tone was flippant, but that was more pretense than would normally be the case. Something about this woman had made her want to impress her, and simultaneously wonder if she could. Get a grip, she warned herself. However extraordinary, Miyake Sayomi was still only human —
“There is a very slight hitch in your left side,” Sayomi observed. “Almost imperceptible, but it might cost you a tenth of a second when you could least afford it.” She tilted her head. “You sustained a belly wound, did you not? Not too long ago, but you heal quickly, except you came to favor that side in anticipation of a pain that is gone, and now your muscles have aligned to preserve and prolong this misperception.”
“Uh, yeah, I guess,” Buffy admitted. “I mean, yes, I took a stake to the gut a couple of months ago — not a highlight of my Treasured Memories collection. And it’s, what, slowing me down now?”
“It is a very, very small thing,” Sayomi told her. “Perhaps insignificant, but also easily remedied.” She gestured toward the mat. “Sit in anza — cross-legged — with your forearms resting on your thighs, palms up.” Buffy did as instructed, and the other woman added, “And remove your top. The friction of cloth on skin would work against what I wish to do here.”
Topless (she’d had to take off the sports bra, as well), Buffy relaxed as much as possible while Sayomi’s cool fingers touched and probed the muscles of her bare back. This wasn’t massage or acupressure or anything like that; Sayomi seemed to be following the muscles to their insertion points, tracing lightly, and then stroking, coaxing, teasing them into new and easier conformations. It was an odd sensation, and actually a little disturbing to feel as if her body were under someone else’s control, but it wasn’t actually uncomfortable.
“Do you really think we can win this one?” she asked. It was the first time she had spoken since taking her position as directed.
“On the path I have chosen,” Sayomi murmured in her ear, “I have not the luxury of facing easy foes. Had I lost a single battle since I struck out on my own, I would have died. I have not died.”
That puts me one up on you, Buffy thought, but she didn’t voice the words. Perhaps having concluded that she had achieved her goal, Sayomi was doing something else with her fingers now, kneading lightly along Buffy’s shoulders and up her neck, sensations sensuous and languorous and delicious. Above the tang of perspiration she smelled of sandalwood, and perhaps faintly of jasmine: rich, intriguing, exotic.
Something was happening, something slow and unexpected and inexorable, she felt Sayomi feel it as well and respond to it, and the awareness put a tremor into her voice. “I’ve been through apocalypses before, and every one is different. How would you get ready for something like this?”
“For warriors on the eve of battle,” Sayomi said, “there are various ways to prepare.” Her hands were moving up and down Buffy’s arms, over and along her shoulders, tracing along her collarbones. “It would depend on the warriors, and the battle, and the moment.”
Buffy felt, paradoxically, as if her body were both slack as a strand of boiled spaghetti and taut as a violin string. As if she were ready to burst, or melt. Faintly, unsteadily, she asked, “So — for here? for now? … for us?”
Sayomi moved around to kneel in front of Buffy, their faces inches apart. “For here,” she said, “for now, for us … I might suggest … this.”
And then their lips met, and there didn’t seem to be any further need for speech.
* * *
And so on, and so on. At one time or another, I’ve had all of them.
Okay, not all. Dawn is a kid (and not getting any older), and I don’t go there. And Spike … forget it. Chiseled cheekbones and washboard abs are one thing, but let’s face it: gorgeous or not, he’s basically a reanimated corpse, and I’m no more into necrophilia than pedophilia. Plus, he’s kind of an asshole.
And Tara …
That one makes me feel not so good. I never get Tara. What I do isn’t mind control, it just fiddles a little with their judgment, so that they uncritically accept my presentation of myself in various identities (false memories, strategically placed, help with that), and in the process of seduction it relaxes their inhibitions so that I can get them more quickly to a place they would go, without artificial easements, if I ever had more than a single day to work with.
But not Tara. I can tempt her, I can make her waver, but I can never get her to betray Willow, not just in one day, not even when I up the pressure to the point where, for anybody else, it might qualify as mind control. Which, eventually, weirded me out enough that I stopped trying. A few times, I rebounded by arrowing in on Jonathan and giving him a hell of a surprise (not that he objected) in one or another of the back booths at the Bronze. For a nerd, he’s not that hard to get along with … and sometimes, after too much top sirloin, you’re just in the mood for a hot dog.
Don’t think, though, that I haven’t noticed how hard it isn’t to get Willow to betray Tara.
I’ve tried other combinations, and most of them are successful once I iron out the kinks. Alissandra is a hit with all of them (except, I’ve never aimed her at Xander; I’m not his real sister, but he would think it was incest, which is just skeezy). Giles is too cautious to get entangled with Amarantha — the whole semi-demon thing, I guess — and on the other side of that, Anya is just as resistant to the too-much-like-a-Watcher Rosamonde. Willow definitely prefers Alissandra (and is distinctly cool toward Morgaine), and Buffy does okay with most of them but clearly responds most strongly to Sayomi …
The funny part is, I was still a virgin when all this started. And may be again, if it ever ends.
I’ve watched and re-watched Groundhog Day until there’s no need to watch it again; every moment is set into my memory, every shift of expression, every word and breath and intonation, every note and resonation of music, every detail of costume, each and every play of light and lighting. I started watching in hope of some kind of inspiration, to see if it would give me any idea at all as to what had happened and what I might do about it. I kept watching because there was no explanation, none, Phil Connors found himself outside the trap without ever knowing what had caused it, and something about that gave me hope even though I’m not really sure why.
One thing that did bother me, though: why did Phil kill himself so many times, and never kill anyone else?
Because it’s tempting sometimes, let me tell you. Go on a bloody rampage, see how many I could take out in just seventeen hours … why not? It’s not like it would matter, not like it would mean anything. Finish the day, and they’re all right back, never knowing: no harm, no foul, right?
Of course, with my luck, the universe would decide that was the release switch, would finally let the world start turning normally again but with lots of nice gory dead bodies and me to deal with the consequences. Still, that wasn’t what stopped me. Ultimately, I backed away because I’m scared of what it would do to me. Something tells me, Don’t get used to killing people unless that’s what you want to keep doing. It isn’t what I want to keep doing, no thanks, so probably a good idea not to start.
Because blowing off tension by engaging in questionably-consensual sex with multiple partners is SO much healthier.
Except, yeah, it really is.
Okay, back on track. One place the movie definitely veered away from my situation: physical skills. Think about it, you increase strength by tearing down muscle and letting it get built back even stronger (not gonna happen with me), you hone coordination by establishing new neural pathways with repetition (also not happening, not when I get set back to zero every seventeen hours). Regular memory is one thing, even without the chemical-neural basis of long-term memory storage, I can hold onto increasing amounts of knowledge — which is another way I know that my situation is bound up at least as much in magic as in physics — but ‘muscle’ memory, just not possible. Same basic principle for magic, once you get past a certain point you can’t accumulate any further magical ‘mass’ without layering it onto what’s there already, and starting over fresh kept putting me back to nothing being there already.
So, I dealt with both problems by learning how to bundle up what I needed, and store it. The original idea, believe it or not, came from a fortune-teller who called herself Madame Tiphaine and claimed — and, even more unexpectedly, turned out to actually have — half-demon ancestry. It took me forever to work out how to do it, but it was worth the effort (and the time didn’t matter, obviously I’ve got time out the wazoo). Store it where? Well, there was only one place, really: the ‘wall’ itself, the Wall I hit every day at just over seventeen hours. I can’t really feel it, but eventually I got to where I could feel myself getting closer to it, and after endless experimentation I finally found ways of attaching what I wanted to keep (deeper memory, acquired physical skills, accumulated mystical potential and spell-forms) to the barrier that always throws me back. It was then, and not until then, that I really started to pick up momentum.
The original paragon spell would have simply made me the best at everything, essentially because it said I was. In the current approach, if I want to excel at something, I just keep working at my chosen subject until, with eternal repetition and magical augmentation, I actually am the best. Attaching all this knowledge, all these skills, all that accrued power to the Wall means it can’t be lost, it’s always there for me to access and, if necessary, increase. (That might also mean I’ll lose it all if I ever manage to break the barrier … but, honestly, I wouldn’t care, just as long as I’m out.)
I’m a better fighter now than Buffy. I have more occult knowledge than Giles. I can use magic more skillfully than Willow, Tara, or Amy, and can call on more power than all of them combined. I can surpass them, command them, seduce them, dominate and lead them.
I just can’t beat Glory. Can’t stop the coming apocalypse before its back-wave somehow hits my first attempt at the paragon spell, and kicks me back into this endless repeating loop. With all I can do, I can’t do that.
* * *
Willow felt small, and cold, and afraid. Helpless, powerless, defenseless … lots of less-es, actually. What she didn’t feel was hopeless. Hope soared within her, because it was impossible to see, and hear, and not believe.
Most magic users called on their own power, and tried to strengthen or increase it. Others borrowed or channeled power from elsewhere, accessing it without ever actually incorporating it. A very few found ways to collect power, to acquire it from various sources and seal it into a central and growing repository within themselves. Willow had, at various times, followed all three routes, working to find the optimum balance among them.
It had never occurred to her that it was possible to become power. But she was seeing it now.
Veronique Solange Desjardins was everything Willow Rosenberg would never be: tall, beautiful, self-assured, commanding, and effortless mistress of every form of magic a human could possibly control plus a few that should have required demon heritage. The coming of the Beast was long foreseen, she had explained to them. My mother, and her mother and their mothers’ mothers, knew this day would come, and worked without ceasing in order to prepare for it. I am what they prepared.
Her voice had carried the ring of authority, as did everything else about her. Nearly six feet tall, regally slender, dressed in shimmering silks; her hair was mahogany shot through with silver, and her eyes had seemed to change hue with every tilt of her head and shift of light, until Willow had at last decided that they were responding to the movement of magical currents within the woman herself. Her voice was clear, mellow, perfect, the kind of voice you would expect to hear from Galadriel or Athena. She was, in every way, in every sense of the word, overwhelming.
Your valiant service has preserved the earth to this day, she had told them. It can do no more. All your power, all your courage, all your will cannot defeat this foe. Then, her smile stern and thrilling: Not alone. If you but add it to mine, however, the Beast will fall.
It was asking a lot to trust this much to a stranger, after all they had been through together. Yet, in the end, trust her they had. With their consent, Veronique had siphoned all the mystical force from Willow, Tara, Giles. She had restored Amy to human form, then taken her energy as well. She had drawn the Slayer essence from Buffy, and the last tiny resonant remnant of demonhood from Anya, and … something, from Xander. Stopping finally at Dawn, she had shaken her head and smiled sadly. You I cannot touch, World Shatterer. You are the most potent vessel of all, but not for my hands. Rest and be safe.
For the purpose, they had all gathered in a meadow at the edge of Breaker’s Woods, secluded from anyone who might be harmed in the coming conflict. Now Veronique stepped away from them and, as they watched, sketched patterns of fire on the grass of the meadow with deft, sure gestures and focused will. Her chant was pure and clear and completely unintelligible, not as of a tongue unknown but as if human ears simply could not recognize the sounds being made. The patterns flared and etched themselves into the earth, there was a crescendo of wind and a single crack of thunder … and abruptly Glory was there before them, blinking surprise with her mouth open as the fires banked and died.
An indescribable shift in the tempo and timbre of the chant, and bands of light appeared around Glory. As the demon female gasped, “What the f–…?”, Veronique splayed her fingers in front of herself and then drew her hands apart, and Glory yelped as the light-bands tightened around her and began to separate as well.
At first Willow thought Glory was being torn apart … but then, blinking to make out details through the light, she saw that something else was happening. Glory was being … sifted, somehow, strained away from something else, another form whose screams of pain drowned out Glory’s howls of fury. The form was too vague, too insubstantial, too blurred by the light; but, as the separation increased, detail sharpened, and the second shape was revealed as a tall, rather handsome young man who seemed somehow familiar, and Buffy and Dawn blurted, “Ben?!!” simultaneously, and Willow thought dizzily, It’s like with Toth, Veronique did just like the ferula gemina was supposed to do to Buffy, separated Glory from some human alter-ego … a male alter-ego, and how does that work exactly —?
Veronique clenched one hand with an inchoate shout, and the young man’s — Ben’s? — screams were cut short; he clutched at his throat, unable to speak, his face darkened, and he dropped where he stood, and with one final shriek Glory collapsed as well.
And suddenly, it was very, very quiet.
Buffy took a hesitant step forward, Giles an instant behind her; yet he went to Glory, while she knelt beside the young man she had called Ben. “He’s dead,” she said faintly after a moment. “I don’t … I don’t understand.”
“Glory —” Giles cleared his throat. “Glory seems to be … deceased also. At least, so much as one can be certain in a case like this.” His eyes went to Ben. “I suppose they must have been, been connected somehow.”
“I did it,” Veronique said, and they all stared at her, for her voice was suddenly different: not just the absence of the lilting trace of French accent, but the voice itself. “I don’t believe this — I did it!” She grinned at her gaping audience. “You don’t know why, you couldn’t know why, but trust me, folks: it’s party time!”
And then, still grinning maniacally, Veronique Solange Desjardins clapped her hands together and vanished.
* * *
And, six and a half hours later, while I was dancing at the Bronze with a mug of Heinekin in either hand, I hit the Wall again, and bounced again, and the whole thing started all over again.
* * *
I kill her four times more, just to be sure, and then I take off for awhile. Rio, New Orleans, Aruba, Cozumel, up and down the Riviera. Spend all day getting drunk or getting laid or both, then do it all over again the next day (the same day), and on and on and on. Keep at it for … I don’t know, a month, maybe. Or maybe a year. What the hell, I’m not destroying any brain cells — I wish! — or wasting any time I won’t get back ad infinitum.
I always start out back in Sunnydale, though, and always dead sober, and after the thirtieth or eightieth or four hundredth time of asking myself Where do I go today?, I stop being able to deny that there’s just no point to it. If killing Glory doesn’t work, neither does running away. So … now what?
That’s the question I put to Jonathan, except this time I look him up in late morning instead of catching him at the Bronze in the evening. After the inevitable period spent bringing him up to speed, he gives the matter some thought. “I don’t know,” he says finally. “Except … well, are you sure it’s even about you?”
“It has to be about me,” I point out to him. “Even if it didn’t start with me, I’m the only one even aware of what’s happening, so it’s up to me to make whatever difference there is to be made.”
“I thought like that once,” Jonathan observes carefully. “Turned out I was wrong. I mean, sure, my situation was tailor-made — the problem I was facing was one I’d created myself, so it really was all about me — but even so, Buffy was the one who worked it out, and it was her who made the difference in the end.”
What he’s suggesting is something I can’t do, though I’m not willing to tell him why. I don’t know how to deal with those people as an equal. By the time I’d learned enough to realize how much they amounted to, I’d got so used to doing everything for myself — with others as tools rather than as genuine allies — that I wound up treating them the same. Part of me, even knowing better, thinks of them as puppets rather than as people; another part is so conscious of how I’ve used them (as cannon fodder, as spear carriers, as sex toys) that I’m genuinely reluctant to face them as individuals. “Honestly, Jonathan, by now I’m so far beyond them, I can’t see what they might possibly have to offer me.”
He looks troubled at that. “But you talk to me,” he says.
“Jonathan, I … I like you. You knew me When, back in the days we were both SHS Nobodies. And talking to you helps me think.”
I can see that what I said has meaning for him, both the words and the tone. He draws a breath, sets his shoulders, and locks his gaze with mine. “If you’re asking my advice, that’s it. Anything happening in Sunnydale, Buffy is who I’d talk to.”
He’s right, especially when I’ve already tried every other single thing I can think of. It’s hard, though. The way I’ve treated them all —
No. Not all.
It’s ridiculously easy to catch her between classes; I know every moment of their schedules for today, all of them, and I mastered teleportation long ago. The glamour that allows me to show them whatever guise I choose is a thousand times simpler, and by now almost as automatic as breathing; the only tricky part is the selection. I want her to listen, but I don’t want to awe or overwhelm her; I need her engaged, I need her interested, I need her to give me the benefit of her intuition and imagination. So, not one of the foreign personae, nothing so exotic as to distract her, or so forceful as to inhibit her natural responses. Someone who can prompt sympathy, interest, I don’t need her trust so much as I need her to take me seriously. So which —?
Well, it’s worth a shot.
“Tara?” I say. She stops, looking my way, and I step forward. “My name is Nancy. Nancy Doyle. I was … I was hoping we could talk.”
* * *
I don’t tell her all of it. After God only knows how many iterations, I wouldn’t have time to tell it all. But I sketch out the basics, and I answer some questions, and I do a few power demonstrations to show that there’s actual substance behind what I’m saying. She takes her time thinking about it once I’m done, her eyes never leaving mine. She’s always been so quiet, so willing to stay in the background, it’s been easy to underestimate her, but now I’m feeling the weight of that deep, silent assessment. “We need to take this to the others,” she says at last. “To G-Giles, and Willow.”
“I can’t,” I tell her. “I’ve … I’ve gotten them killed, so many times, I can’t face them now.” Which carries some of the underlying flavor of the truth, without including any of the truth part of the truth. “I just — for whatever reason, you’re the one I can talk to, so here I am.”
She nods, and is quiet again for another good while before speaking again. “I think that … maybe you need a different perspective,” she tells me.
“I’ve gone at this every way I can think of,” I point out. “That’s why I’m here, because I ran dry and it still wasn’t enough. You’re supposed to be a different perspective.”
“That wasn’t what I meant,” she cautions. “It’s … You’re caught up in the middle of this, and you’ve tried so hard, I can just see how someone in your position could get … tunnel vision. If — … okay, this is just an example: if someone told you there was a mystical symbol drawn out somewhere that held the answer, you might look all over the world without ever thinking to check if it was drawn on the back of your head. Or to ask yourself if the symbol might … might be the DNA structure, or the Fibonacci sequence, something you already knew about but weren’t looking for. Do you see what I mean?”
I do, but I can’t see how it’s supposed to help. Open out the possibilities to include anything and everything, and that’s just another way of saying I have no earthly idea. I want to spit out something savage, biting, but following my impulses hasn’t really accomplished much. “Even if you’re right, it doesn’t tell me where to look.”
She sighs. “I know. Okay: you’ve searched for the answer, and haven’t found it. Maybe you should just … just sit for awhile, and see if the answer comes looking for you.”
“I’ve tried crazier stuff.” I stand up, because I can tell Tara has said all she could think to say. Who knows, it might lead to something; at worst, it’ll leave me no more stumped than I already am. I’m about to turn and leave when something stops me, at least for a moment. “You’re special,” I tell her. “You know that, right?”
She looks surprised, and not necessarily encouraged. “Special? How?”
I chuckle. “I can’t tell you, because it’s embarrassing.” Because you’re the only one I couldn’t suborn into sleeping with me. “But take it from somebody who knows, okay?”
She nods, still uncertain, and I leave her.
I could go anywhere in the world, folding dimensions to take me there, and I’ve done it often enough before. This time, though, distance isn’t necessary. I transition to Dodson’s Beach, a few miles outside Sunnydale, and find a comfortable place where I can sit and watch the ocean and think.
I spent all this time working to take Glory down before she could bring in an apocalypse, whatever end-of-the-world cataclysm that forms the Wall that I keep running into. I finally made it, and beat Glory … and nothing changed.
Tara’s right, I got so focused on one answer that I stopped being able to think in any other terms. So, make the effort, concentrate on thinking outside the box I unknowingly built around myself. What do I see?
I stopped Glory. It didn’t stop the bounce. That’s a fact. So, clearly, Glory’s continued existence is no longer necessary to bring up the Wall. Did she already set something else in motion, elsewhere, so that I now have to locate and short-circuit it? If so, what? and where? Now that I know where to find her, now that I have sufficient power to deal with her, I suppose I could capture her and torture her for the information —
No, that’s a new idea (and may even be right), but I still haven’t broken the paradigm. It’s like, if I were a Palestinian, I’d have to fight inside my own head to NOT see everything in terms of the struggle against the cursed Zionist oppressor. It might never occur to me to look outside the Middle East, to consider that the End Times could begin in some nondescript little southern California town that I’d never heard of …
… Damn. I was right on the edge of something there, I think, but I just can’t seem to get hold of it, it skitters away every time I think I have it. Looking outside your own neighborhood … checking the back of your own head … keeping your eyes open for the obvious …
Still don’t have it. And it’s gotten dark while I was trying to cut my mind loose. Which means only a few more hours till my next bounce.
I fold reality to take me back into Sunnydale proper. It’s too late in the day to really accomplish anything, so I might as well use it for a little light me-time. I’ve pretty much burned out on binge drinking and reckless sex, but something lower-key might be nice. UCSunD isn’t having any parties ‘today’, even Porter Dorm came up short, and I’m in the mood right now to stay local. That means the Bronze, so that’s where I appear —
The Bronze is on fire.
Fire, and screams, and panicked bodies dashing in all directions, and gunshots, and above it all a familiar voice attempting to bellow except that it cracks on every third word: “Nancy! Nancy Doyle! I’m calling you, Nancy! Nancy, come to me! Nancy, here I am —!”
It’s coming from the second level, which is where I am in the next second, and I telekinetically yank away the pistol so hard, it crashes through one of the walls, and then I have him by the shoulders and I’m yelling, “Jonathan, WHAT THE HELL?!!”
His eyes are wild, face strained with desperation, but his expression slackens with relief as he recognizes me. “Nancy,” he blurts, grabbing me back. “Get us out of here, I have to talk to you but not here —”
He’s right, I can hear the sirens. Hit the place with a vampire gang or a demon biker crew and you’d be lucky to get an official inquiry by morning … but fire a gun and the Sunnydale PD does an all-out scramble, three years later there are still wanted posters up for the Han Solo / Indiana Jones pair who shot up the joint during Halloween ’97. I slap a field around us both and shift, and Jonathan screeches and covers his eyes. Oh, right — sun, bright sun, things like that don’t really bother me anymore, but the sudden switch can be hard on strictly human eyes, and then he pitches onto his knees and starts horking onto the sand, which reminds me that teleportation’s a bitch all by itself.
He’s mostly okay in a couple of minutes: still sweaty and pale with nausea, but he wipes his mouth with his sleeve and blinks at me. “So … where are we?”
“Florida,” I tell him. “First place that occurred to me. Sorry for the bumpy ride, but you said jump so I jumped us quick. Which brings me back to Jonathan, what the hell?”
I’m used to intimidating Jonathan, dominating him, and from the hunch in his shoulders I haven’t lost my mojo, but he doesn’t back down. “I had to,” he tells me. “I had to reach you, I tried to call you, I tried to get to you through Buffy and the others ’cause I’d sent you to them but she didn’t know anything, and you said you bounced backward every night but I didn’t know when at night. And I was so scared I wouldn’t be able to reach you in time, because I might never think of this again, so I just made the biggest mess and noise I could to get your attention —”
“Jonathan,” I interrupt. “Stop. Chill for a second. We still have time, the bounce isn’t for another couple of hours. Take a breath or two.”
He does, obediently, solemnly. Once I’m fairly sure he isn’t about to give himself a stress coronary, I ask, “So, what’s the big news?”
He locks his eyes with mine, and tells me earnestly, “I think you have the wrong movie.”
That’s what he says, as if it’s this huge surprise. I wait a moment, then another, and then I say, “Jonathan, I’m going to drop you in the ocean. About a mile out into the ocean.”
“No, really,” he protests. “All this time, you’ve been thinking Groundhog Day. But what if it isn’t? What if it’s actually 12:01?”
“I take it back. Two miles, at least.”
“I’m serious,” he says. “Just listen.” So he explains, and I listen, and then I move us back to Dodson’s Beach, being careful with him this time. We talk some more, and make long, slow love, and he’s still holding me when I bounce.
* * *
Each day starts for me at 3:23 in the morning. Sometimes, if I’m still carrying enough of the psychic equivalent of adrenaline, I jump straight out of bed and get started, try to take advantage of every last moment of the time available to me. Usually, though, I sleep for another four or five hours, and the intimate session with Jonathan left me so relaxed that this time it’s past nine before I wake up.
Even then, I’m in no hurry. I have a new path to follow out, and it doesn’t matter how long it takes me to get it right, as long as eventually I do. I dress and get breakfast and then make my way to the public library, my laptop was glitching when this all started and so I use their Internet terminals when I need to look up something and am not ready yet to commandeer Willow’s system. Spend some time reading and tracking, and then more making phone calls, with a lunch break in the middle. (In Buenos Aires; there’s a restaurant there that does things with beef that you have to taste to believe.) Eventually I find a video store in L.A. that has a copy of the movie, and I transition there to pick it up. Then, still without any rush — if I have anything, it’s plenty of time — I get myself a luxury hotel suite with a VCR, order some delicacies from room service, and settle in to watch.
Made in 1993, 12:01 stars Jonathan Silverman, Helen Slater, Martin Landau, couple of other familiar faces. It has the same premise as Groundhog Day, a repeating time loop with only the central character aware of it — in fact, while I was tracking it down I caught a mention of one movie suing the other over the similarities, but didn’t care enough to chase down the details — with some important differences. In 12:01, the cause of the loop is known (a scientific test gone wrong), as is the reason for the protagonist keeping his memory of each repeating day (accidental electric shock which coincidentally hit him at the same moment as the bounce). Biggest of all, there’s a reason time stops looping: once our hero knows what’s going to put the universe on a treadmill, he’s able to keep it from happening.
I can see it. The opening stages of the paragon spell, that could have made me different, put just enough of a protective bubble around me to keep my memory unfrozen while the rest of me continued to be recycled every seventeen hours. More than that … what if the guy in the movie had been living in Cleveland, or London, or, hell, Buenos Aires, when the loop started? He might have never figured out what was going on, just his luck that he worked in the same building as the big universe-freezing generator he had to stop. I live in the world capital for the freaky and supernatural, we actually are moving toward an apocalypse … but what if the Wall I keep hitting, the source of the bounce, is a different apocalypse taking place somewhere else?
If that’s the case, I’ve been just as clueless as the theoretical guy in Buenos Aires, and might have stayed that way indefinitely. Out of all the times I repeated my own loop, ‘yesterday’ was the first time I looked up Jonathan in the morning, giving him the rest of the day for that geek-king brain to make connections that would never occur to me. (At which point he gets the bright idea to go totally postal just to draw my attention. Sad and pathetic, except for the part where it worked.) If this really is the key to what’s going on, Tara was right: I was looking in the wrong direction all along.
I’ve watched the movie three times, not that much of a chore since it’s barely over ninety minutes, with breaks between for champagne and munching and thought. I’ve used up almost all of the day, there’s less than an hour left, not really enough time for me to accomplish anything, but I’m just restless enough to want to do something. This close to bounce-time, maybe whatever sets it off will give me something to track, an idea where to look when I tackle the issue again tomorrow.
I phase just enough to pass through the wall, give myself a light cloak (not actual invisibility, but it keeps people from noticing what they see), and rise up into the air, letting my senses range outward. Not looking for anything in particular, just getting a feel for the ambience. I’m not catching anything in the high registers, nothing so big you’d feel it halfway around the world, so I guess I’ll spend a few weeks or months checking out various locations, trying to hone in on something capable of setting time on infinite loop. Meanwhile, I can work on refining my mystical senses, building the necessary subtlety of awareness …
I’ve chosen a destination and am moving toward it before I fully notice what it is that’s drawing me: there’s a tinge in the atmosphere, the barest whiff of otherness, and as I spiral in, the sense impression firms. There’s quite a bit going on in L.A., even if it’s not as concentrated as in Sunnydale, you can definitely find items of the supernatural variety, but right now I’m catching a mass of signatures. Demons below, moving to converge on one of the lesser-used streets, they aren’t heavy hitters but there are nearly two dozen of them. Even if this is unlikely to be a major event, it’s enough to serve as entertainment; I alight in the middle of the biggest clump of them, calling cheerfully, “Hey, guys, what’s up —?”, and they instantly whip out bladed weapons and jump to attack me.
Aw-w-w, that’s so cute.
I don’t even have to think about it, it’s not worth the effort to access any magic or summon up any special weapons (though it might be interesting to see the effect a mist dagger would have on these characters). I slide in among them, at first glance they look like old men, grey-haired and dressed in old-fashioned suits with string ties … but their faces are white, they have pointed ears and dark raccoon-like circles around the eyes, Lubber demons, I drop one with an elbow-smash to the throat and stop another with a two-fingered Three Stooges poke to the eyes, wrest his weapon away. Dip and spin and arch away, three more strikes miss me, and then I go to work with the confiscated weapon, a small curiously-shaped hand-axe of some type.
They don’t have a chance, even though I’m only using my immediate physical abilities, but they don’t give up, either. At least, not until they do; one of them calls out something in a language that sounds Slavic but isn’t, and the others pull back, break away and take off. Those who still can, that is to say; I killed nine or ten of them in a hair under a minute, which is far from my best performance but not bad for when I’m just kicking back and enjoying myself.
I’m wondering if I should bother pursuing the survivors, when one of them steps out into the street, stops there, and is hit square by a fast-moving black convertible. The car screeches to a stop, and the passengers hop out to check on the pedestrian they just mowed down, and okay, party crashers: one of the newcomers wears a dazzling white suit that contrasts sharply with the lime-green skin and the red eyes and horns; the other one, all in black (of course), his first motions scream vampire! to the senses I’ve gradually developed. The Lubbers go straight at them, and in moments there’s a demon street-brawl going down in the middle of the boulevard.
I could take them all out while they’re gathered in one place, but what’s the point? I’ll run into the Wall in less than twenty minutes now, and we’ll all be back where we started. I float away, leaving them to work it out among themselves. If I cared, my money would be on the Lubbers; there’s more of them, they have weapons, and they seemed pretty determined, I got the impression they didn’t so much run from me as break away because their main aim was something else, which they decided to get back to once they realized they couldn’t kill me quickly. I thinned them out some, so a skilled and desperate vampire might be able to take them on, but the odds right now don’t look so good for the Odd Couple.
I don’t really care, so I rise back into the air, opening my senses again to anything that might be significant.
Actually, it might be worth giving the Lubbers a closer look on my next go-round. They’re bit-players, but like a lot of fourth-tier demons, they dream of scouring humankind from the earth. Sure, most of that is wishful thinking, dedication and tradition, but there were rumors once that some of them tried to sabotage the Manhattan Project, shift a few equations around in hopes of setting the atmosphere on fire. Even if it’s hard to get excited by guys who dress like grampas and fight with little chopping tools, that equations bit is a subtlety you don’t see from most demons, plus the technical side would go along with …
… well, with the scientific end-of-the-world scenario that featured in 12:01 but hasn’t been proven or even suggested for the current situation. I mean, it could happen, but I don’t see any supercolliders around anywhere, and — once again going with the odds — a supernatural apocalypse remains the hands-down favorite.
I’ll work it out eventually. As already noted, if I’ve got nothing else, I definitely have time.
I never thought about it before, but … if I ever find a way to break the loop, will I keep the memories I’ve accumulated, or will I just start back at the beginning and finally, blessedly, proceed with the life I would have had if the loop had never happened? I’d welcome the escape, but I’ve learned a lot I’d hate to lose. Not just power, but things maybe even more important. How to look at other people, for instance: I dismissed Tara for ages, and that definitely was a mistake. Jonathan … Jonathan … Jonathan was nobody to me, and he’s come to mean considerably more than I ever would have suspected.
Usually I can feel myself getting close to bounce-time, but I guess right now I’m too caught up in new thoughts. No problem, it comes whether I’m ready or not. First thing in the ‘morning’, I’ll get to work on a way to make sure I keep the memories I want: lock them into an amulet or something, maybe, that I recharge every day, something along those lines. There are several different approaches I could try, and I’ll take the time to get it right.
I haven’t actually achieved any solutions, just a new line of approach … but, for the first time in a long time, I’m actually looking forward to ‘tomorrow’.