"How long've we been cooling our heels in here?" Charles Gunn wanted to know.
"I think no more than a few hours," Rupert Giles suggested, "but certainly I would prefer to be finished and move on. Unfortunately we are at the mercy of the Perfect's bureaucracy."
"If we attempted to break out, even if we succeeded, we would still be in the heart of Paragon," Wesley said. "Much as I want to be away from here, I fear we must wait our turn."
"Well, what if we don't want to wait?" Cordelia grumbled. "We've got our own lives to get back to! I for one just want to go home to Los Angeles where I never have to worry about anything except the occasional...vision!"
"The occasional vision?" Giles began. "Or are you having a--"
"It's got a waxy face," Cordelia said, "kind of like a skull. And--ow!--a big spike or stinger or something!" She peeled back her sleeve to reveal the stigmata the imaginary sting had created on her arm.
"Oh dear," Wesley said. "That sounds very much like a Glarghk Guhl Kashmas'nik! I was hoping there were none here."
"A gargling upperclassman?" Cordelia wondered. "Sounds harmless to me."
"No," Gunn warged her. "It's called a Glarghk Guhl Kashmas'nik. They have a poison that makes people hallucinate. Nasty stuff, you don't wanna run into one."
"Thank you," Wesley said. "I think your pronunciation was better than mine."
"What's this about a Glarghk Guhl Kashmas'nik?" asked the slender woman walking up to them. She was pale and curvaceous and generally beautiful and Gunn had to remind himself to keep his jaw shut. Wesley seemed to have forgotten that himself, and even Giles had to shake himself a bit. "Surely not here in Paragon."
"I couldn't see much but the demon," Cordy explained, "but there was an expensive-looking chair, and silk curtains."
"Someone important then," the woman said. "That worries me. I can't imagine anyone loyal to the Perfect summoning Oramus' spawn here."
"Then you are loyal to him, I'd guess," Cordelia said. "It's what I saw in my vision, and I've never known them to be wrong."
The stranger shrugged. "I don't know about your visions, though perhaps I should. But I'm here because you say you know the Despot of Gem. Is that so?"
"She was my student," Giles said, "and I'm very worried about her. Taking over a city is very unlike the Buffy I watched grow up."
"People change," the girl said, "especially when they Exalt. Case in point, me. I'm Paragon's Minister of the Arts, Scarlet Whisper, and I'd like it very much if you told me all you knew about Buffy Summers."
Chapter 58--Mansion, Robe, and Crown
"Queen Winifred," Gavrane Tomazri said urgently, so she fell back a few steps. "Would you please walk with me?"
"Of course, Tomazri," she said to him. "We have some time."
"The people are shamed," he said bluntly. Queen Winifred did not appreciate flowery language, not when a matter was urgent. "We dwell in one of the few--perhaps the last--First Age cities on the face of Creation. It was one thing, during the revolution and for a short time after, to be a woman of the people. We understood your solidarity with us. But now your rule is secure, and too much solidarity may endanger it."
"I'm not sure I understand," the Queen said. Well, her culture was truly alien.
"You may of course wear--or not wear--clothing in any style you choose, even a jumpsuit if you need to for work. We would hardly choose to keep you from your repairs. But we have noticed that even the finest clothing you wear can be sullied or torn, and that you generally go undecorated. We can do so much better for you, my queen. Luthe can produce First Age fabrics for you and for your friends in great quantity, and the Luthea now have tailors of supernal skill."
Winifred frowned. "How do my clothes put the city in danger, Tomazri?"
"People will begin to whisper that the city is weak, my queen, if you live so far below your station. We can produce finery aplenty for you, and fine food in quantity, now that our hydroponics issues are resolved. No one is going hungry to feed you. Even if you do not need to eat, you should be seen to enjoy yourself, as should your friends. It is well that you have begun taking consorts, too, and though we do not wish to rush you, it would be well to see that you are choosing more. Luthe, even in its damaged state, is well able to support you and your friends lavishly as Exalted should be. It should not be whispered otherwise."
"I see," the queen said slowly. "Well...it wouldn't do to trigger unrest. Make me an appointment for the afternoon and we'll all get a proper makeover. Right?"
"Very good, my queen." He would feel so much better with this done. "One more thing. Our stores of hearthstones are low. Many were destroyed over the centuries by damage to their manses. But we have adequately equipped the troops. It is unseemly for you or your friends to do without. In particular we have noticed the Despot of Gem has no stone for her daikalbar. We have one or two remaining. Would you look at them?"
"Of course," the queen said uneasily. "I'll take a gander at them."
"It would be especially wise to dress well to meet the Feathered One, the monarch of Wavecrest," Tomazri suggested, "though the maps we were brought suggest it may be a little while yet."
The queen nodded, and Tomazri felt a little more at ease. Proper order would soon be restored to Luthe, and to the world.
"So that's the sitch, then," Fred finished. "It goes against my instincts, but it seems like everyone agrees: if the Exalted look poor, the city looks weak. If the city really were weak it'd be different, but all my reforms go pfft if there's a coup. Or if the city gets conquered, which sounds unlikely but I did it so it can be done again if the circum...I'm babbling, sorry."
"Happens to the best of us," Willow acknowledged. "What're they going to find that looks good on me?" she asked unhappily.
"They'll figure something out," Fred said as the jewelers examined her hands. "They're not used to dealing with Abyssals."
A pair of amused servants were busy measuring Xander. A tailor began comparing swathes of cloth to Willow's poor dessicated skin. A shoemaker all but manhandled Tara, Exalted or no, into a chair to examine her feet.
"I just wish I knew where Dawn was," Shadow said. Buffy made a face, but she went on, "She should've brought them out of the Wyld by now, unless something went really badly wrong."
"It's the Wyld," Anya said while a hairdresser worked on her. "Something probably did go wrong, or at least different from what they expected." She frowned at the attendants, Dragon-Blooded and mortal alike. "You know I'm headed back to Yu-Shan today. I've got a ton of paperwork to file."
"All the more reason for you to look your best," the hairdresser said, sounding scandalized. "Heaven itself and you want to go in old, unfashionable clothes?"
"Could be worse," Xander said. "Leviathan likes to talk about the old days when it would've been a scandal to wear anything not made for us, or better yet, by us. Exalts used to go out dripping in jewelry to quest for a daiklaive that matched their ensemble. "
"I wouldn't mind being a fashionista again," Buffy and Shadow said in unison. They didn't do that as often anymore, but it served as proof that both Buffies were still Buffy.
"I just hope they get back all right," Shadow finished alone. Everyone except Buffy nodded, and her expression seemed more irritable than outright disapproving.
"Anyway," Fred said at last, "I've got an old manse on this map that also appears to be a tomb. It's isolated, and even if someone has its hearthstone there should be other stuff preserved there.".
"Also traps," Xander said.
"Traps," Fred acknowledged, "but--"
A neomah burst into the room, only to be immediately seized by Shadow Swimmer guards. "Buffy!" she shouted.
"Marzi?" Buffy said, jumping up and carefully pushing her pedicurist away. "I thought you were killed in the invasion."
"Release her," Xander said at the same time Fred said, "Let her go."
"I was," Marzi said as the disgruntled guards stalked off without her. "Ipithymia brought me back because I'm your servant and so I could send you a message."
"Who killed you?" Buffy grumbled.
"A shapeshifter," Marzi said, "but it might have been a Lunar or a raksha, I dunno which. Anyway Ipithymia sent me to warn you that there's an Eclipse caste coming from Paragon on a diplomatic mission. Your human self won't be able to handle her. Ipithymia says follow her and she'll get you back to Gem in time."
Buffy put her head in her hands. "Great timing. Well, I might come back with a consort at least. Ipithymia's a living red-light district."
Marzi raised a bare brow at her. "Am I not your consort already?" she asked with a wink. "Also, if you hurry you will have time to stop at your mansion in Malfeas. It's complete and has grown a hearthstone."
Buffy stumbled and nearly fell back into her seat. "I didn't design a manse. Did I?"
"Coulda fooled me," Marzi said. "Did it look good? A building that looks good is usually pretty good geomancy to start with. Now it still needs a demesne, but why would we put a Green Sun Princess's palace somewhere else? At that point it's a matter of degrees, not of yes or no. I've seen better manses, but yours is passable."
"I didn't even know I was making one," Buffy floundered.
"You've done a lot you didn't know you were doing," Willow pointed out.
"Okay, no," Marzi said. "I thought I'd see how far I could lead you on. There's a manse because we had a proper architect take your plans as inspiration. They weren't bad, but no one designs a manse by accident." She began to giggle.
"You little--" Buffy broke off and began to snicker too. Soon the room was filled with gales of laughter. "You just better have something good to show me!"
Dawn was still stuck in the mud. Had she been there for ten minutes? Hours? Weeks? She was starting to have trouble remembering when she'd been free.
"All right," TARA stated. "This has gone far enough. I understand the legends now." A pair of bulky components like vacuum tubes half-slid, half-accreted from her shoulders. "This might hurt a little, Dawn, but it's better than staying stuck there."
The tubes flared with intense yellow light, and Dawn gasped as a sensation like an electric shock jolted her. But the mud was suddenly just mud, and she'd only been there a couple of minutes. With an effort---her feet felt like lead, but that was whatever TARA had done--she pulled her feet out of the mud and clambered aboard the ship, tracking goop after her.
"The Wyld may be your home, Dawn," Stephen said, "but somebody needs to clean house."
"Y'know," Dawn said grumpily, "I'm not even going to disagree."
"I have four hearthstones we got from Ebon Siaka's leftovers," Shadow said once Buffy and Marzi had gone. "I'm not actually sure what they are, but Will, if you're taking that bustier then you can keep it in the socket to attune. If we split those between us two, who's that leave without marbles?"
"I'm supposed to be getting a Celestial manse," Anya said. "It's probably nothing good, but I'll have it after I get back from Yu-Shan. Xander has a couple already too. That just leaves Tara and Fred."
"You should definitely have one," Tara said. "The more powerful one if there's more than that."
"You might need it more," Fred argued. "You're newer at this."
"I have my spells," Tara pointed out. "I'll...wait. I'm not being honest, and I'm not doing what Luna told me. I have to stop being afraid of power."
"I never thought of you as being afraid of power," Shadow said. "You're a witch, right?"
Tara shrugged. "There are degrees. My mother gave me some hard limits to follow, and I set others for myself after seeing what the witches in Sunnydale were like. Some of them I still think were right, like not messing with the boundary between life and death. Some I had to give up in less than a month, like never using magic as a weapon."
"Oh sweetie," Willow said, and ruffled her hair.
"Anyway, just...the degree of power the Exaltations gave you guys, and the responsibility that came with it...it freaked me out. After a while I started trying to not be a hero so I wouldn't get one, and that...well, it could've had some bad consequences." Tara shuddered a bit at that.
"Like getting an Infernal Exaltation?" Shadow said, hoping to lighten the mood a little.
It might have worked. "Buffy seems to do all right with one when she's not running from it herself," Tara said more thoughtfully. "That part might have gone all right. But if I have to be honest, I think I'd have said no even if I died from it. It's just...."
"You don't have to justify that, baby," Willow said. "We understand about your family."
"Anyway," Fred asked, "what do you say about a side trip for the two of us? We'll have time to talk about things."
Tara couldn't conceal a side glance at Willow. "I think that's a good idea."
His head hurt, the throbbing ache that came of being too long waterless in the sun.
"Mister," the cracked old voice said again, "I say it looks like you're comin' round at last. You've been delirious for days now."
Delirious? But from what? There had been a demon.... "My good man, I don't know you, but I promise to reward you handsomely for your help. Do you know who I am?"
The old man scratched at a head increasingly shorn of its wool. "Can't rightly say that I do. You look like one of them scavenger types as operates out in the desert here lookin' for old time stuff. Fool business, but every once In a while I s'pose someone gets lucky."
How...curious. The old man had guessed correctly, after a fashion. "I am the Perfect of Paragon," he said weakly. "I rule that city with justice and peace. If you can help me return there--"
"Son, I have to tell you: you look a mite short of perfect to me, and I never heard tell of a city called Paragon." The old man held out a cup of water. "I can't prove you wrong, I s'pose, but my way of thinkin' is that the heat's gotten to your head, an' you ain't thinkin' straight."
"I...I encountered a demon. A...a Garg...a Gargekhl--" His parched throat would not shape the words. He clutched at the cup and swallowed its contents down.
"Out there, I'm not gonna call you a liar. All sorts of nasty things runnin' about. But all I c'n actually see is a poor sunsick fella whose brain's a little addled. Don't worry," the old man said kindly. "I put no blame on you. I'll look out for ya either way."
It was the truth, he wanted to scream. He was the Perfect of Paragon, Creation's most wonderful city. But how was he to make this old desert-dweller believe?
"It's the strangest thing I've ever heard," Scarlet Whisper said. "I wouldn't believe you, except that there is precedent."
"Really?" Giles said, startled.
"There's a legend I heard once--the Time of Cascading Years, where Creation split into multiple worlds, one for every Exalt down to the lowliest Dragon-Blooded." The Eclipse turned a corner in the huge palace corridor. "I don't think Buffy can be a late arrival--every Exalt who survived remembered what they did to save Creation, and appeared at essentially the same time. Supposedly those who didn't make it were all accounted for. Still, perhaps your world somehow split off from ours--" She broke off. "Guards, why are all of you here at this hour?"
One of the dozen standing before the great double doors stepped forward. "M'lady, the Perfect is in seclusion and is not to be disturbed until he emerges."
Scarlet Whisper shot Cordelia a worried frown. "I thank you for your loyalty. However, I must invoke Standing Order Number Three: the Perfect may be in danger from forces beyond Creation. Your sentry duties are superceded. Please come inside with me."
The guard mulled that over for two or three seconds--clearly wary of breaking the law either way--then turned, unlocked the door with a large key, and peered inside. "Quiet," he muttered, and hurried inside.
The Perfect's apartments were far more tasteful than Giles had expected. Clearly the man was modest, perhaps comparing himself to the Exalted--either in deference or as a show of ostentatious humility. The wall hangings were colorful but abstract or plain, there were only a few simple sculptures, and the seating and bed were comfortably soft but lightly decorated.
They made the rounds of the small sequence of rooms and had returned to the door when Wesley collided with something in the corner and cried out.
"Are you all right?" Scarlet Whisper asked him politely.
"I...." Wesley rubbed his hands. "Something...waxy. Um...more to the point, I...saw images. My father's old house...I was a boy being scolded for...for a foolish fantasy that demons and magic were real."
Giles stared at the corner where Wesley had been. It certainly appeared empty. He strode forward with his right hand extended--
--struggling against his bonds.
"I'm afraid we've got a folies a deux situation," the doctor was saying. "We let him speak with the Summers girl--she seemed to respond to him--but now he's incorporated her delusional system into his own--"
--and abruptly backed away. There was definitely a sheen of wax on his right hand. "Something is certainly here," he said. "We can't perceive it directly, but it is present."
"Leave us," Scarlet Whisper said to the guards. "Speak of this to no one, and return to guard the door." After they had filed out, she spoke again. "I'm not publicly known to be a Solar. Some think I'm Dragon-Blooded. I told you because I don't believe I'll be able to hide it when you take me to Buffy. I have no idea what this is, but it's clearly connected to the Perfect's disappearance. Do you have any idea what might have happened to him?"
Giles shook his head. "I'm afraid I don't know."
"You know how to sail a ship?" Dawn scowled at Angel.
"Well enough. I've been around a good long while, in case you forgot." He struggled very briefly with the tiller before wrestling it into submission.
"He's not telling you it's because there was this time he ate the whole crew and had to get us back to shore," Spike chortled.
"Just raise the sails, Spike," Angel muttered. Spike growled under his breath, but he did as he was directed.
"The question now is, 'How do we find Luthe?'" Dawn wondered.
"I've never navigated anything but the Pole of Oil," TARA said, scanning the horizon.
"I'll get us there," Stephen said. "I've never sailed before, but I can tell you where to go. I can track the city wherever it goes."
"Across the ocean?" Dawn asked skeptically.
"Exalted," Stephen said defensively. "Get a clue."
"Be nice," TARA warned. "The raksha have their own rather disturbing powers. You could wake up tomorrow and discover she's your sister and your girlfriend."
Dawn began to snicker. "As if!" Connor gave her one look and scurried off into the rigging. "He's not bad looking," she said. "But I think I still like my relationships one at a time."
The skiff set ground on the shore of a (fortunately) charted desert isle. The scrap of beach looked warm and pleasant enough, but quickly rose into a grey volcanic peak that smoldered and smoked continually. Carved into a solid rock were a pair of stone doors with no obvious handles.
"We're lucky it hasn't been buried in lava," Tara said absently.
Fred scoffed. "Lava is a minor inconvenience, remember? Buffy can swim in lava now. Well, as long as it's still liquid."
"She couldn't do that when we met, could she?" Tara eyed the volcano nervously.
"Well...no, probably not." Fred took hold of Tara's hand. "Come on before it becomes an issue? We've got a Solar tomb to explore. Just remember this isn't a video game. The obstacles aren't designed to have clever ways around them. No one was ever supposed to go back in."
"So we have to work out how to pass them ourselves." Tara took a step forward and stopped. "What's that inscription say? I...see an aura of some kind."
"On the door?" Fred stepped up to examine the writing. "It's Old Realm. Um. There are Sidereals involved. That's good and bad. Good because they didn't trust the site to the Dragon-Blooded. It must have something important inside."
"Bad because the Sidereals are more powerful?" Tara took a deep breath.
"Also it might be something that really should stay locked up," Fred admitted. "I think you're seeing a fate tied to the tomb. The inscription says 'Whoever enters here shall die without mercy.' Which sounds awfully straightforward but there's usually some way of bypassing destiny to avoid these things."
"But you said--"
"It's not intentional. It's just the nature of semantics. No man of woman born and all that." Fred poked at the door, which didn't open. "Any guesses?"
"Find another way into the tomb?" Tara suggested. "It says 'here'."
"Might work," Fred agreed. "Not sure how to find another entrance. We might have to make one."
Tara touched the carvings. "You said you could animate a corpse?"
"You want me to do that?" Fred said with a little jump.
"Not thrilled with the idea, but it's not really necromancy, you said. You could send it in to look around, and the curse couldn't kill it because it's not alive."
Fred mulled that over. "We'll have to find one. Any other ideas?"
Tara spread her hands wide and called out, "Mellon!" The doors remained closed. "Figured it couldn't hurt."
Fred giggled. "Worth a try. Want to sit down and talk it over?"
Tara nodded. "Let's be sure we get this right. We don't get any save points."
"Nope," Fred agreed. "We're working this one without the net."