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Backstage 04 - Shadow and Substance

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Shadow and Substance
by Aadler
Copyright November 1999


Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.


As always, her first thought on returning to consciousness was that she was cold. It generally took her a few seconds to come back to herself, to remember and understand, and sometimes she would try to hug herself against the cold; then she would find she had no arms, no body, no breath … It was better when there was something to distract her, and awareness could seep into her without that moment of paralyzing terror. Tonight it was a guitar riff, the piercing chords catching her attention for the brief, vital interval of transition, and she settled into herself with a mental sigh that compounded pain, weariness and resignation.

“Sandy.”

There was no ‘behind’ in her current state, but her focus had been on the stage, and Nika’s voice came from the opposite direction. In another moment she had the psychic integration that gave her the internal sense of a body, and she mentally ‘turned’ to where her friend stood. “I’m here,” she said. “It’s time, then?”

Nika nodded, keeping her face toward the stage and making it a motion that could have been a response to the music. “I know her normal routine now, and I’ve made such preparations as I could. It’s really up to you. If you say yes, we can go tonight.”

No one else could hear her; her voice was as much mental projection as actual vocalization, and directed specifically to Sandy. Masked by the noise of the band, it wouldn’t have been even audible to a bystander, much less intelligible. Sandy’s own speech was pure thought, and until recently only Nika could perceive it. “I don’t need to think about it,” she replied. “I’m ready.”

The older woman turned and made her way toward the door, her movements effortlessly attuned to the shifts of the crowd so that she passed through it as easily as a seal sliding through water. Sandy drifted in her wake, unseen and intangible, and moments later they were together on the street outside. Away from the crush of living flesh, Sandy found it a simple matter to summon the necessary concentration, and her body shimmered into focus beneath the streetlights while Nika watched with critical approval. “Very quick,” she said. “The first time you needed nearly half an hour to tune in, and you went transparent every time you tried to talk. Now you look perfectly normal, in barely ten seconds.”

“You were right,” Sandy told her. “It’s all in how I think of myself. I still have to make the effort, but it’s getting easier.” She looked down. “Now if only I could think of myself in some other outfit …”

“You look fine,” Nika said brusquely. She was all but indifferent to appearance … but then, Sandy thought, she could afford to be, striking as she was. Though she seemed to be in her early thirties, there was something ageless about her: probably because of her hair, pure white without hint of shading, plaited into thick braids that should have looked Native American but somehow evoked Renaissance Europe. Her eyebrows were similarly pale, her skin almost translucent, so that the crimson slash of lipstick made a startling contrast. Her outfits varied, the one constant being the ornate silver crucifix on a finely wrought chain around her neck … and she wore sunglasses, indoors and out, with small round opaque blue lenses. Sandy had never seen Nika’s eyes, and wondered sometimes if they were pink, and her friend an albino.

Her own persona was far more prosaic: black wraparound blouse, over a blue print skirt; dark blonde hair pulled back away from her face, with the inevitable stray wisps escaping at the front; gray eyes, wide and trusting and stupid. She had no reflection now, but that was how she had looked when she did a quick check in the mirror before going out, the night she was killed, so that was how her appearance manifested when she gave herself one.

She was pleased to see that she had matched Nika stride for stride while she let her thoughts run on. Maintaining the illusion of a physical body was coming more and more naturally, and the initial heartbreaking difficulty made her proud of what she had accomplished even if the need for it would soon be gone. “Where are we going?” she asked Nika. “Her place?”

“No,” the older woman replied with ill-hid annoyance. “She was too careful for that, and she would have spotted me if I had tried to follow closer. But she makes the rounds of a small number of clubs, and the place we’re headed is her favorite. It’s a rare night she doesn’t show, so we should be able to pick her up without much effort.”

It took them over forty minutes to walk the required distance, and an attentive observer would have noted that only one set of heels echoed on the night sidewalks. They talked little, having made their plans weeks before and discussed them often; execution, now, would probably require adjustments as they proceeded, but the basic pattern was set. Sandy looked to her own dissolution without foreboding, the only pang concerning the loss of her association with Nika, the questions that remained unanswered. The woman’s companionship had made all the difference between sanity and hopelessness, and yet she still knew almost nothing about her.

The time before their first meeting had been nightmare. Coalescing into consciousness every night at the same moment — 10:14, the time of her death under the fangs of the red-haired vampiress in dominatrix leather — she had endlessly run the same gauntlet of confusion, horror, memory, and sickening despair. Buffeted by the music, locked to the spot where her life had ended, fading with the dawn only to be ‘reborn’ the following night … Worst of all, in the beginning, were those evenings she saw the girl who so frighteningly resembled her killer; but over time, unable to flee, she had observed enough finally to recognize that this was a totally different person. (And was it her imagination that the girl sometimes glanced her way with a little quizzical frown, as if she had almost seen —?)

Then came the night when the woman with thick white hair and hidden eyes had passed within arm’s length of her place of bondage, paused, then turned back to survey the spot where she ‘stood’. Sandy had watched, refusing to let herself hope, until, though the scarlet lips barely moved, the woman’s words came clearly to her: “You’re there, aren’t you? I don’t know how, but I can feel you.”

Relief, and impalpable tears, and an end to the terrible loneliness. Nika had returned night after night, and in their near-silent communion Sandy had gradually learned how to expand the heretofore intractable limits of her existence: to move, using her friend as an anchor, from the place of her death; to resume the semblance of her old form; to make her voice heard, and — lately — her touch felt. Meager blessings, compared to all she had lost, but after weeks of unrelenting deprivation they were precious beyond measure.

She heard the first threads of music while they were half a block away, and as the distance diminished the sound became unmistakable. “Disco?” she asked Nika, incredulous.

“Oh, yes.” The woman’s lips quirked in the hint of an uncharacteristic smile. “Our girl is a regular Dancing Queen. I’d think she was brought over in the Seventies if I didn’t know better.”

Sandy grimaced. “I thought we just had to deal with plain old evil. You didn’t mention disco.”

Inside, the noise level really wasn’t any worse than at the Bronze, though the music selection was abominable, and those patrons who had dressed to match the theme made a sight that was nearly stomach-turning; Sandy could only hope they knew how dreadful they looked and were treating it as a joke. She had seen tonight’s target only once, fleetingly, so rather than scan the crowd she simply watched Nika. “Two tables over from the ladies’ room,” her friend told her, their internal communication easily undercutting the din. “The blonde with the velvet choker.”

The one thus indicated didn’t appear threatening; in fact, she looked seventeen and trying to seem older, dressed and made up in exaggerated Goth style, with dramatically overdone mascara and black lipstick. Her hair was a reddish gold rather than strictly blonde, and hung shoulder-length with little permed ringlets at the sides. She wore fingerless lace gloves, and her fingernails too were painted black. Excessive, Sandy thought, but nothing overtly sinister.

“How do we get her out?” she asked. Forget appearance, her trust in Nika superseded her own judgment by a sizable margin. As she spoke, the girl turned slightly to survey the milling crowd, and her teeth showed in a jarring grin; the expression was sassy and ironic, and she suddenly looked more punk than Goth, but still not frightening …

“If I’m right,” Nika said, “we’ll be following her in just a few minutes.” They watched together as their quarry stood and started across the teeming interior of the club. At a table across from the bar, a bespectacled young man in gleaming white Saturday Night Fever polyester stood in mute misery while two college-aged girls laughed freely, pointing at him and clutching one another in their hilarity. It was obvious that he had nerved himself to ask one of them to dance, and equally obvious that he would have welcomed death as an escape just now. In a lull in the music, their voices rang silvery and heartless …

The Goth girl pulled at his elbow. “Okay, lover, you had your joke with these two,” she announced in tones loud and amused and pitched to carry. “Now come on and dance, before you scare off their customers.” The girls at the table had fallen silent to listen; now one of them turned pale, while high spots of color flamed on the cheeks of the other, and suddenly they were the object of the laughter that bubbled up around them.

“Well,” Sandy remarked as the relieved young man was led out onto the dance floor. “She may be evil, but I didn’t mind seeing that.”

“She does have a crude kind of style,” Nika agreed.

It got better. So neatly that Sandy wondered if the deejay too had observed the scene, and tailored his timing and selection to accommodate it, the music began just as the pair reached the floor: not another disco classic, but Exile’s sultry, throbbing Kiss You All Over. The white-clad young man began to shift tentatively in the patterns of a modified box step … and the Goth girl moved in instant response to his first motions, with a subtle exaggeration that somehow made it seem as if his movements were controlling hers. He caught it, too, and his steps and gestures became more assured as he settled into the dominant role she had assigned him.

She was unmistakably light-years beyond him in her skill as a dancer, but part of the cunning of her performance was that she didn’t overshadow him; if she covered more distance, moved more elaborately, it was because he controlled and she was helpless but to obey, or so the illusion ran. Nor was she a reluctant puppet, but rather eagerly in his thrall. She undulated before him, she twined herself around him, she shuddered at his touch, every nuance of movement and glance and posture and expression crying that all she had to offer was his for the taking if he would please, please bless her by accepting it … It was a breathtaking display of blistering sexuality and frantic need, and would have fallen to comic parody if the young man had allowed himself to strut; but he played it perfectly, responding with the offhand calm of one receiving his just due, which made the girl’s seeming adulation all the more poignant and potent.

When she finally sagged in his arms as the music faded out, the two of them were met not with applause but with gaping silence. Sandy couldn’t see her cue him, but he led the girl to the door, and she paused at the threshold to turn her face up to his, her eyes beseeching and her lips a-tremble with yearning and desire …

“Whoa,” someone breathed as the closing door cut off the two of them from view, and the interior of the club erupted in an excited babble of competing voices.

“When you told me she liked to keep a low profile,” Sandy observed to her friend, “that wasn’t the image that came to mind.”

Nika shrugged. “She really does try, but sometimes she can’t help showing off. That’s how I spotted her in the first place.” She started for the door. “At any rate, she’s outside now. We’d best make this quick.”

Sandy, at her elbow, asked, “Do you want me to scout?”

Nika paused at the door. “It’s a good idea, but do it fast. We don’t want to lose her.”

Sandy stepped back into the shadows and let her body dissipate, then shifted through the closed door to the exterior of the club, immaterial and undetectable. The parking lot was empty, and she called mentally, [ I don’t see her, you’d better hurry — ]

She caught the movement as Nika emerged from the club, and had only a fraction of a second to blast, [ Your left! ] with all the force in her mind. Nika dropped instantly to one knee, shoulders and head bent low, and the Goth girl tripped over her and went flying, her rush turned into a tumble that became a roll, and she was back on her feet, eyes wolf-bright and blazing, and started for Nika again.

Nika’s hand swept out, something curving from it in a glittering arc. The girl checked at the unfamiliar motion, and Nika twitched her arm sharply over, the silver line changing direction to loop around the girl’s wrist. She jerked back with a harsh exclamation but Nika went with the pull, and a second twitch snared the girl’s other hand. Wisps of steam rose from the trapped wrists, and the girl gasped, “Son of a bitch!”

Nika stood up as her captive yanked and strained at the glittering strand that leashed her, shoulders bunching and teeth bared. “Fighting it only makes it hurt more,” she told the girl.

The reply was a guttural snarl, vampiric ridges rippling across the girl’s features before her face settled back into human shape. It made little difference; her expression was feral and vicious. She glared at Nika, hissing, “This won’t hold me forever.”

Nika’s voice was even. “It doesn’t have to. It’s only meant to keep you in one place.” She reached inside the thigh-length open vest she wore and withdrew a Tec-9 semiautomatic pistol with a silencer the size of a beer can. “This is to make you listen.”

The Goth girl let out a bark of laughter. “You think that’ll stop me?”

“Yes, I do,” Nika replied, calm and chilling. “Use your brain for a second. I’ve already shown that I know what you are and how to deal with you, whereas you don’t have the least idea what you’re facing.”

The girl was silent for long seconds. Then she said, “You want to talk, get this thing off me. It burns, damn it!”

Holding the pistol steady in her right hand, Nika snapped a whorl into the line that ran to the girl, and it slid loose from the blistered wrists. The girl shook her hands, swearing under her breath. “How the hell did that … sheez, those are crosses!”

“Hundreds of them,” Nika agreed. “None over a quarter of an inch. It took me hours to braid them into the cord.” The girl stared at her, eyes wary, and Nika went on conversationally, “As for why you couldn’t break it, it’s deep sea fishing line. Six hundred pound test strength.”

“Wonderful,” the girl said with obvious disgust. “I got the whole Hellmouth to party in, and I hafta run into MacGyver.” She rubbed her wrists, studying Nika. “So what do you want from me?”

“What’s your name?” Nika asked.

“Leila,” the Goth girl replied after a long moment. “And I’ll say it again: what do you want?”

“There’s a ritual,” Nika said. “Done properly, it confers power … and more important, it opens the way to greater knowledge. You can help me complete it.”

Leila guffawed. “Ritual? Get real. Witches don’t carry machine pistols; you’re a tech-head, not a chicken-chopper.”

“Think of me as well rounded,” Nika answered, an arctic note edging into her voice. “I don’t expect you to take me on faith, however. You’re one element of the ritual, or will be if you agree; here is another.” She threw back her head and spoke a dozen words in a language Sandy didn’t know.

All the same, it was her cue. Sandy willed herself back to form, materializing at a point equidistant from the other two. Trying to sound insolent and amused, she said, “You summoned me, O ambitious one?”

Nika kept her eyes on Sandy and the pistol on Leila. “Watch your tongue, Yrisande. What are the auspices for this night’s enterprise?”

“You’ve got maybe three to one in your favor,” Sandy said breezily, lips set in the mocking, contemptuous smile Nika had made her practice. She hooked a casual thumb at Leila. “I’d say seven to two, if you can get Vampirella to play along. And, hey — call me Sandy.”

“Don’t think you can bait me into carelessness, Yrisande,” Nika said coldly. “Your service to me has yet to run. Begone until I call on you again.” With her free hand she made a complicated and meaningless gesture, and Sandy let herself fade back to incorporeality.

Leila tilted her head to one side, staring at the space where Sandy had appeared, and still invisibly waited. “Are you gonna try and tell me that was a demon?”

“No,” Nika said. “Yrisande is an afreet, one of the lesser djinn. She’s bound to me until her obligation has been fulfilled.”

“Djinn?” Leila repeated doubtfully. “She looked like something from the Brady Bunch.”

“Yrisande plays with her appearance, hoping to lull me into underestimating her.” Nika dismissed the matter with a flick of her hand. “When the ritual is done, she and I can sever our association. Do you believe me now?”

Sandy watched, relaxed only because her formlessness could hold no tension. Leila had to think Nika had formidable allies and abilities, so it had been necessary to explain away Sandy’s unthreatening appearance. If the vampire girl believed, the plan could proceed; if not, the alternate plan was more risky and less sure …

Leila shrugged. “Okay, so you’re Rambo and Sabrina rolled into one. Why should I play along? What’s in it for me?”

Good. Good. “The ritual involves an … adjustment of the balance between dark and light,” Nika explained. “Your participation will facilitate that, because of the particular stellar alignment at the time of your creation —”

“How about that,” Leila mused. “So there really was something to that St. Vigius stuff? I thought the Annoying One was just giving the troops a pep talk.”

“The Night of St. Vigius is a primal focus for your world,” Nika agreed smoothly. She returned the pistol to its place of concealment beneath the long vest and went on, “Through you I can access that focus. As a result I will gain insights into higher levels of awareness, control of certain potent spirits, and perhaps immortality. You, in turn, will be enabled to move freely in sunlight and, if I’m right, may be able to enter homes without invitation. Are those advantages worth your cooperation?”

Leila weighed the question, then favored Nika with that jarring grin. “What the hell, I might as well give it a shot. What do I do, put on garters and paint myself blue?” She laughed suddenly. “If we have to sacrifice any virgins, you might as well forget it, this is southern California.”

Nika didn’t seem to share the vampire girl’s amusement. “We won’t need virgins,” she said. “But we will have to fight.”