“The devil takes a hand in what is done in haste.”
- Kurdish Proverb
New England , 1701
She knew not to do anything without salt. There was no rhyme or reason to such knowledge—only the knowledge itself. Salt was invaluable. Salt bade witches away. Salt shielded hallowed grounds. Salt was the only mineral that offered pure, unadulterated protection.
Even with the Powers in her corner, salt might well be the only thing that could hope to keep her alive.
However, the circle of salt would not protect her if she had a stake in hand. Salt required a tacit contract of pacifism. She could leave the book open and on the table beside her sacred circle, but she could not bring it into the circle itself. No, save for the clothing on her back and the ritualistic dagger needed for the sacrifice, nothing synthetic could enter the circle.
She thought it odd that she could hold a dagger but not a stake, and decided not to dwell on it.
She felt so alone here, in her watcher’s abandoned cottage, surrounded by the very symbols that had betrayed her. She’d stopped weeping if only out of exhaustion, her tears rubbing her skin raw. If she paused, if she allowed reality to catch up with her, she was certain the rest of her would break.
He was gone. He was gone.
Resolution hardened her veins. She shook her head.
Nothing is ever set in stone.
The thought only offered a blink of peace. No matter how many dimensions she battled, no matter what sacred part of herself she had to forfeit, no matter the cost of his return, she knew nothing in the world could eradicate the sensation of his dust on her fingers. The ghost of his hand against her cheek. The soft smile on his face, telling her he’d known his time was ticking to an end but gazing into her eyes with such loving trust that she knew he would trade nothing in the world to save himself.
“Don’t cry, sweet girl. Don’t cry.”
She shook hard, her trembling hands struggling to light the first of her three candles. Her vision blurred with tears, a storm of sobs crashing against her chest.
If she stopped—if her thoughts caught up with her—she wouldn’t be able to function.
She would dissolve.
“I c-call thee,” she muttered softly, “oh spirit of shadows, giver of darkness. I beseech you to heed my prayer.” She expelled a deep breath and raised her left hand to her eyes, swallowing hard before applying the blade in her other hand to her wrist. “I offer blood for your mercy.” It didn’t hurt too badly—one little flick of the knife and a dark crimson line stretched across her skin. She blinked hard and twisted her arm until the cut was facing the floor, then pressed her thumb against the incision to encourage drops of blood to spill onto the wooden planks below.
Physical pain was secondary. She was no stranger to bleeding.
“I swear upon the fates,” she continued, turning her wounded wrist back to her eyes so that she was gazing at her open hand. She inhaled sharply and pressed the tip of the blade against her roughened, splinter-laden palm, and carved an upside-down crucifix into her flesh. “To honor my vow. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
She shivered impossibly against the moist, hot air, and turned to face northwest.
“Paimon, King of Hell, servant of the Legion, I beckon you. Appear before me.”
There was nothing for a long minute aside from the chirping of crickets outside the cottage doors. She didn’t know what to expect—this was, of course, her first demon summoning. The only one she had ever, or would ever attempt. A hysterical scream in her head forewarned in advance she would regret any bargain made, but the part of her that cared had died alongside her lover. The part of her that cared had abandoned her, along with every other human comfort.
Kenneth Travers had betrayed her. The townspeople would have her head if they knew she had returned to her watcher’s home. Poison had ripped Will out of her life. She was left gutted, hollow and charged with grief.
Losing her soul mattered little against these odds. It was the only thing of value she had left.
Kenneth had betrayed her. He was dead now. A victim of his own deceit.
But he’d taken Will with him.
A great, thunderous roar pierced the air, reverberating through the walls and sending shock waves under her feet. She cried out in surprise and stumbled back, nearly tripping over the protective circle of salt, but balance returned before she toppled over. Blind panic speared her veins; she seized control of herself before her emotions spilled into pure terror. A blink of nothing and the entry to the Travers’ home burst open with a great gale of wind, a tall, solitary figure silhouetting the doorway.
The air around her crackled and the hair on her arms stood at attention.
Elizabeth Travers was accustomed to facing demons. Battling vampires. Washing inhuman blood from her clothing and learning new techniques by which to banish the unholiest of creatures back to the bowels of Hell. Her watcher had taught her everything. Had adopted her, raised her as his own, and instructed her in the old ways of the world. In the manner by which her destiny determined she live.
She was the Slayer. This was her cause. Her existence. Her everything.
Only Kenneth was dead, and he’d taken Will with him. He’d murdered the only man in her life she’d ever truly loved, and he’d tried to end her life in the process. Her surrogate father had betrayed her, and thus everything he’d ever taught her was now in question.
Will was dead. Nothing else mattered.
“Do you know who I am?” the demon asked.
Elizabeth had imagined several incarnations of a Hell Demon’s voice, but whatever expectations she’d had were washed away. Despite the booming roar of his entrance, the demon’s words rode out in a cool, elegant timber. There was a sliver of malice, deadly but deceptively calm, edged in the underlying rhythm of his greeting. It was fashioned to send shivers down her spine—to keep her perfectly aware of whom she was dealing with. This was a demon who cared not that she was the Slayer, even if some had called her the best in history. This was a demon who cared not that her career consisted of sending his friends back to Hell. This was a demon molded of a caliber she had never before encountered.
This was a demon old as time itself. He could blink her out of existence without actually blinking if he so willed. No amount of salt would protect her.
And yet, even knowing this, she refused to tremble.
“You are Paimon,” Elizabeth replied, sounding strangely composed to her own ears. “King of Hell. Servant of the Legion.”
Paimon inclined his head. He was tall—nearly seven feet in height. She was surprised he didn’t have to crouch inside the cottage, but then, demons could likely bend the laws of reality to their particular whim. He was dressed extravagantly, complete with a great jeweled crown atop his head. Elizabeth sensed the movement of others outside the lodge walls. He had not arrived alone, and she was not surprised. The books Travers had left behind had indicated that no figurehead of Hell traveled alone—at least not those of truly noteworthy significance.
“You accept the consequences of my summons?”
She nodded. “I do.”
“You understand it is my right to ask whatever I desire?”
“You understand it is my right to demand whatever I desire as payment for services rendered?”
“You understand that failing to adhere to any request will result in the immediate acquisition of your mortal soul?”
A beat. Elizabeth swallowed hard and thought of Will. “I do.”
Paimon gestured as if to give her the floor, a curious smile playing across his lipless mouth. “By all means,” he offered softly, “make your case.”
“I seek the release of a demon.”
“Ah,” he replied, his red eyes flaring with immediate recognition. “A certain vampire, if I am not mistaken.”
“William,” she agreed with a nod.
Paimon arched an eyebrow—or what would have been a brow had he possessed one. His strikingly feminine facial features were void of emotion. The only indication as to the nature of his reaction came in the unnerving tone of his voice. “Does your vampire not possess a surname?”
She swallowed hard. Her wounded wrist ached. Her head felt light. She was aware of the muted splatters of blood striking the wooden floor, but made no move to hide or tend to the cut. “William had no use of his surname,” she replied. “At least none that he shared with me.”
“Mmm, yes,” Paimon cooed. “William was a rare breed. He left his past in his past. Didn’t even bother to slaughter his family, as so many vampires are prone to do.”
“He was unique.”
“Others might call him weak.”
Elizabeth narrowed her eyes, defiance strengthening her tired body. “They would be wrong.”
Paimon smiled. “A woman prepared to fight for her man,” he said, his eyes trailing down the length of her and focusing on her bleeding wrist. “And sacrifice anything to acquire what she wants.”
She flexed her hand. “It’s only blood.”
“Of course,” he replied politely. “And you’ve sacrificed your fair share of blood for dear William before, haven’t you?”
“I love him.”
“A slayer in love with a vampire.” The devil’s eyes twinkled. “I must admit, I am fascinated. What did you find so…how do you say…appealing about this particular species? I’ve known many vampires, as you might imagine, and they are quite a sloppy race. All fang, no courtesy. Many won’t pause long enough from ripping one’s throat out to ask civilized questions.”
“William was different.”
“Ah. Amore. It affects all, yes?”
Elizabeth couldn’t imagine the Hell Demon being at all affected by love, but wisely bit her tongue, fighting the urge to glance down. She wasn’t afraid. She truly wasn’t. And in honesty, her lack of alarm was what truly terrified her. She stood before a minion of the Legion without fear. Losing William had stripped her of concern for herself. She just wanted him back, and if dark magic and bartering with the devil was the way to do it, she would navigate the necessary channels and sell what of herself she needed to sell.
William might have been a vampire, but he was a good man. She couldn’t abandon him. She wouldn’t.
“You do know what you ask is highly unorthodox,” Paimon continued. “It has never been done before.”
“Resurrecting the spirit of a demon…would you like him just as you remember him?”
She would give anything to see her love’s blue eyes again, but would similarly accept William in any form. “Yes,” she replied. “Yes, please.”
“The scar above his eyebrow. The uncouth twang of his underclassman accent. Yes, you’d want it all. Right down to the sneer on his lips, unless I’m mistaken.” Paimon nodded, his blood-red eyes narrowing into two thin slits. “And I am not mistaken. You truly would sell your soul for a vampire. A demon.”
Elizabeth swallowed hard. She hoped to whatever Powers existed that it would not come to that, for she knew she would. A rash move undeniably, but one made out of grief and devotion. If she came to regret it, she would find solace in the knowledge that anything was worth saving her William. Anything. Even at the cost of herself.
“I would,” she replied.
Paimon studied her for a long minute.
And she knew without question he believed her.
“Foolish,” he decided after a long, quiet beat, “but noble. It is a worthy man who earns such devotion, or in this case, a sublimely fortunate vampire.” He paused. “And perhaps you are fortunate as well. You see, I have no interest in your soul.”
Elizabeth blinked, but she did not question him.
“You are surprised?” Paimon chuckled and waved dismissively. “Yes, I’d imagine you are. Believe it or not, child, slayer souls hold little value in the underground. Certainly, there are demons that would bloody each other to tiny bits—rather redundant of them, I must say—to get a taste of you down there. As it is, the Powers set you loose in this world with a handy clause which makes you utterly useless. You, my dear girl, are untouchable. That soul of yours. Even if I dragged you kicking and screaming to the gates of Hell itself, Lucifer could not so much as blow you over.”
A potent rush of relief flooded her veins. If her soul could not be touched, she was in no danger of losing it. No danger of losing herself, and committing that ultimate act of self-betrayal.
And yet, if her soul could not be touched, William might be lost to her forever.
“There is something, though,” Paimon continued, “that you have. Something I want.”
“Don’t you want to hear what it is?”
“It can’t be anything of consequence. Not if my soul is off-limits.” Elizabeth shuddered, her arm going numb. “I will give you whatever you want. Just return William to this earth.”
He fell silent again, considering her. “You truly desire this?”
“No matter the cost to you?”
“It could be years before I could reconfigure his existence into this realm. A vampire can not simply disappear and reappear without throwing the whole of the universe out of order.” He shook his head gravely. “No, it must be planned. He must be born again. Right into the blessed womb of his mother, grow up and be shaped into the man he was before he was sired. And ultimately, yes, sired again. There will be remnants of this life, of course. One cannot simply exist, not exist, and exist again without some…mark carrying over. He might hate you.” Paimon chuckled. “He might hate what you’ve done. What you’ve made him relive. He might wish you dead.”
“William would never.”
“He loves you so?”
Elizabeth nodded, her heart full. “Yes.”
“And you trust the word of a demon?”
“I trust the word of my William. There is nothing else but that.”
“Mmmm.” A few beats of quiet settled between them. “And I suppose, in this perfect universe, you would be reborn as well.”
“As I said, it might take some time—”
“Time does not concern me.”
“I will find him. He will find me. Of this I am certain.”
Paimon fell silent again, considering. It seemed an eternity passed in those few endless minutes. As he watched her, debated her—as though tossing stones into a murky sea of knowledge beyond her understanding.
When she thought she might lose her mind for the silence, he offered a solemn nod.
“I accept your bargain. What you ask shall be done.”
Euphoria raced relief as her balance wavered. The blood-stained planks beneath her feet heaved as the air around her head grew even heavier, her vision beginning to dim. There was nothing but understanding—a golden promise for the cosmos to grasp and make into reality.
She would not have to live without him. He would be coming home.
A long sigh rolled off her shoulders, carrying with it a relieved sob. Elizabeth lurched forward, her feet coming dangerously close to the barrier of salt, her voice crackling.
“Name your price.”
Sunnydale, California, 1997
Somewhere distantly, a bell was ringing.
And someone was nudging her. Pushing her. And…okay, waking her up.
“Buffy? Buffy! You can stop pretending to be…ummm…” Willow took in her appearance and offered a lop-sided grin. “Studying? The bell. With the ringage? Time for munchies.”
Buffy blinked wearily and sat up. She had no idea when she’d fallen asleep—likely sometime around the Boston Tea Party. The endless droning of Mrs. Hatfield’s old, scratchy voice had proved yet again to be a nice relaxant. So she caught up on all the sleep she missed in slayage, rather than learn anything that would be constructive on, oh say, the final or SATs.
Not that her life was compiled of moments of studious panic. She didn’t have time.
She had a Calling.
“We going shopping after school?” Willow asked as the girls filed into the hallway. “I don’t have anything resembling a Halloween costume at home. And I doubt Snyder’ll consider jeans and a sweatshirt as acceptable attire for marching the kiddies around.”
“Shoppage,” Buffy confirmed with a nod, her mind racing to catch up with the day’s events. Snyder. Halloween. Mandatory trick-or-treating. Shopping.
Right. Because Halloween was dead day for the dead. No demonic tricks or treats. Just good ole fashioned fun.
And hopefully some scheduled smoochies with Angel. After she found a period-appropriate dress.
Oh yes. Buffy was determined this was going to be a Halloween she wouldn’t forget.