Chapter 1: March 3, 2007
Dawn Summers was not a slayer.
For all the good that did her.
It wasn’t like anybody cut her any slack because of it. “Oh, look! No super strength. I guess you better hang out at the mall while we patrol!” Oh, no. She was still here in the dark, in the snotty Seattle rain, hunting stray demons like everybody else. Her shoes were all gummy, and she would never get that purple goop out of her hair.
A patrol car eased onto the street in front of her, light bar dark, and she tucked her sword into the folds of her duster. She would also never live it down if she got arrested.
Like a lot of cities, Seattle had a shiny new Hellmouth, and they needed every last body—warm or cold—to get it under control. These were Vi’s old stomping grounds, so she took point. Geoff walked beside her, a shade too easy in the urban night to be as harmless as he looked.
You could hardly tell he was a vampire.
“How are they doing?” Buffy slid into the empty space on her left without disturbing the air. She didn’t look harmless. She looked like a blade in human form, all gleam and polished edges. Deadly. Dawn added ‘Call Harmony’ to her mental to-do list. Some time away might be in order. Maybe for both of them.
“He’s a dweeb,” she said, just loud enough for Geoff to hear, and grinned when he flipped her off without turning around. She wasn’t a slayer. She didn’t have their wired-in antipathy for vampires. To her, they were just people with bad teeth and weird diets. “I like him.”
“But?” Buffy lagged a little and lowered her voice.
“I think he’s about to try something stupid.” She matched Buffy’s undertone and blunted her consonants. Vampire hearing made gossip tricky.
“What?” Dawn let her gaze rest on Vi’s back meaningfully, and Buffy’s eyes widened. “Oh. Wow. I guess that’s....” That flash of humanity subsided in a heartbeat, and then The Slayer was back. “That’s her problem. How do they look?”
“You know how they look.” Like you and Spike.
Buffy nodded, lips bloodless as a gash in the belly of a starving vampire. “And they’re fighting as a unit? Not getting in each other’s way?”
“Buffy.” Dawn stopped her, pulled her up short with a hand on her shoulder. She wasn’t a slayer, but she wasn’t quite human, either, and she was tough as hell. Maybe literally. “They’re seamless. You threw them at each other, and they stuck. Congratulations.”
“Oh.” That sound was too pitiful to have come out of Buffy the Legendary, larger than life in kevlar-lined leather, brown hair buzzed into a high and tight that hollowed her yellow eyes.
Vampire yellow. Maybe nobody else had noticed that, but Dawn had.
For the people around them, only four years had passed since the first Slayer Army socked Hell in the mouth, and everybody knew what happened—even the new girls. Spike the Nuclear Option was as much a legend as Buffy herself, and if Buffy still mourned her vampire...well, who had any right to judge?
But it hadn’t been four years. Not for Buffy. Not for Dawn. And that scared the hell out of her.
The L.A.pocalypse was the beginning of the end. Buffy barely reacted when she found out Spike had come back, and everyone—Angel, Andrew, Giles, even Spike himself—had kept it from her until he died again. Not even when Giles said, “It was for the best, Buffy,” in that oh-so-paternal tone that made Dawn want to tear his throat out. With her teeth.
Yeah, so maybe she did spend too much time with Spike during her formative years. Or the monks did. Or something.
But over the next few months, Buffy’s death wish gradually got the better of her, and frikkin’ Giles helped it right along, with his, “We really need this, Buffy,” and his, “Nobody else has the experience for this, Buffy,” and his, “You’ll have to do without backup for this, Buffy.” She volunteered for stupid stuff, every assignment riskier than the last, until she finally hit something big enough to hurt her, and barely made it out alive.
“And I wouldn’t have, if it hadn’t been for Ethan.” Buffy sat cross-legged on top of Giles’ desk, chaining his paperclips together. “Did you know he could dreamwalk?”
“Ethan...the Initiative still held...Ethan?” His face sagged.
“Yup. Same drill. Cells. Demons. Soldiers. I guess they have mages on staff, too, ‘cause I walked right into their trap. Glad a couple of Sunnydale girls came along.”
“Ah...yes. It’s clear you needed backup.” He pulled his glasses off and passed them back and forth between his hands, like he couldn’t figure out what to do with them. Andrew reached down, tugged his handkerchief out of his pocket, and dropped it into his hand. “Yes. Thank you.” He polished them slowly and stared at a spot just over Buffy’s shoulder. He didn’t meet her eyes. “And where is Ethan?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Dead. Gone. Kaput. Expired. Extinct. Not living.” She shrugged. She wasn’t looking at Giles, either. “They shot him. By the time I got to him, he was cold.”
“I thought....” He licked his lips. “That is, I didn’t think they’d hold him.”
“Completely unexpected.” Buffy’s shoulders slumped. “He was always so slippery.” Giles had stopped cleaning his glasses. He’d crushed them in his left fist.
“I think what bugs me is that he saved my life—for the first time ever, he was on my side—and I couldn’t save him back.” She sighed and hopped from the desk in one supremely athletic arc, like an Olympic gymnast. Or a slayer. “But I can’t save everybody. What’s next?”
He plucked a red folder from the standing file on his desk and handed it to her. She flipped it open. “Zuni, New Mexico. Desolate, but isolated.” She tucked the folder under her arm and headed out the door. “Middle of nowhere, here I come.”
“Andrew,” Giles said. He hadn’t unclenched his fist yet. “Please cancel my appointments for the remainder of the week.”
“Ah. Then cancel them for next week.”
“Okay. Um, Giles? Your glasses are—.”
“That will be all.” He dropped the broken glasses in the wastebasket. “Please close the door on your way out.”
“Uh...kay. Right. Cancelling appointments.” Andrew made a beeline for the empty hallway, muttering under his breath. Dawn stepped into the office to let him pass and closed the door behind her.
“Giles?” He bent over his desk with his head in his hands.
“Dawn, please. Just leave me be.”
“No.” She walked around behind his desk and poked him in the shoulder. “Are you the dumbest Scooby or what?”
“I don’t expect you to understand.”
“Right. ‘Cause nobody I care about has ever died before we could make up. Except—oh, yeah.” She rolled her eyes.
He finally looked at her. “You fought with Spike?”
“I said I’d set him on fire.”
There was a long pause. “I am not entirely certain you’re human.”
“Me, neither.” She sat on the edge of his desk, not so close that it was pervy, but close enough that he couldn’t not look at her. “So...Ethan.”
“Destructive, amoral...callous. He called himself a degenerate as a point of pride. He incited chaos for his own amusement. He was not a good man.”
“Got that. What else?” She stared him down.
“You’re so young. I can’t—”
“Oh, shut up. I am way older than you are.” Yup. That was the are-you-an-idiot look he usually reserved for Xander. “I’m old enough to listen,” she protested, and that seemed to work.
He closed his eyes. “He was the last person in the world who knew me as something other than a watcher. Everyone else is...is...gone.”
She slid off the desk and wrapped her arms around him as tight as she could. He was an uptight, sanctimonious asshole who was definitely going to get Buffy killed, but he was the closest thing she’d ever had to a father.
Although I borrow an element or two from the comics, here and there, the consequences of activating the slayers were much more dire in my world. Just assume that nothing in the comics happens the same way here.
Chapter 3: November 5, 2004
“Hey, Giles?” she asked, looking up from the Etruscan scrolls spread across her desk. “What does this mean?” She handed him her phone. Open on its screen was a text message from Buffy. It contained a single word: Cibola.
When she’d tried to call back, she got an out-of-service-area message. “I’m afraid I don’t know,” he said, but there was a funny hitch in his voice.
“Cibola?” Andrew said, peering over Giles’ shoulder. “What’s Buffy doing in El Dorado?”
Dawn wrinkled her nose. “Isn’t that in South America?”
“That is the great mystery, young Padawan. Intrepid explorers have sought the fabled Lost City of Gold on two continents for five hundred years, and for five hundred years it has eluded them.” Andrew swept his open hands out in expansive arcs, and took a breath to start talking again. Dawn kicked him in the shin. “Ow! Nobody knows, okay?” He rubbed the bruise. “Don’t kick! We talked about the kicking.”
Dawn snatched her phone back from Giles and punched in a number. “Willow? Could you do me a favor? Find out where Buffy sent her last text message from.” She glared at Andrew. “That’s in Arizona, right? Thanks!” She snapped the phone closed. “Giles? What was Buffy’s assignment?”
“Er...I’m sorry?” He blinked up at her from his own stack of scrolls. If he’d been wearing his old wire framed glasses, she might have bought his muddled librarian shtick, but he wasn’t. He wore the heavy black plastic frames he’d replaced them with, and they gave a different impression. His jaw was square, his cheekbones sharp, and his words were calculating steel.
“Her assignment? I need a copy of it.”
He made one more attempt. “Well, I’ll have to dig it out of my files. I can have it to you by tomorrow aft....” She unscrewed the lid on her water bottle—it was filled with a mixture of Orange Crush and root beer—and began drizzling it onto the scrolls she’d spent the last two weeks translating. “Dawn!” She kept pouring. “Yes! Fine! Yes. I’ll get you a copy right away. Just...please...stop.”
She capped her soda and nodded toward his office. “After you,” she said.
“You are a pitiless little horror, aren’t you?” he said, once the door closed. She might have been offended if he hadn’t sounded so impressed.
“Well, someone’s gonna have to keep the Council running. You won’t live forever, you know.” She dropped into his chair, propped her feet up on his desk, ankles crossed, and sighed. “You’re already slipping.”
“Is that so?” He bent over the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet, rifling through papers until he came out with a plain manila folder. He stood and passed it to her.
“Yeah. The scrolls on my desk are copies. I emailed you the translations half an hour ago.” She flipped through the papers. “Wait...a portal? You sent her to Bumfuck, New Mexico by herself to investigate rumors that an interdimensional doorway was opening?”
“Rumors. Yes.” He fidgeted for a few seconds before he stuffed his hands in his pockets and leaned, way too casual, against the wall. “Buffy had strict orders to report back if she found anything.”
“You use the words ‘Buffy’ and ‘strict orders’ in the same sentence and you think I’m gonna take you seriously?” She slammed the folder down on his desk. “Why didn’t you send backup?”
He pursed his lips. “It was a scouting mission. Time sensitive. She wasn’t supposed to do anything but look.”
“Uh huh.” She slid out of the chair and stalked toward him. The stacked heel on her favorite mahogany suede boots made her right about six feet tall. He was still taller, but the advantage was small. She stopped right in front of him, folded her arms across her chest, and loomed. “Now the real reason?”
Guilt and grief flickered across his face almost too quickly for her to see and, for just a second, he looked old. Behind their aggressive black frames, his eyes were water-gray and weary. “I was...not...thinking clearly.” She nodded.
“Is this about Ethan?”
“No!” he said too quickly, too loudly, and then he sighed. “Yes. Not just...but yes. I told you before, Dawn—.”
“Get your bag. We’re going.”
“I have afternoon appointments.”
“Reschedule them. Look—you’ve been a zombie for two weeks. Enough is enough.” Before he could protest, she stuck a finger in his face. “Do you know who I am?”
He shook his head. “Some days.”
“Well, Andrew—.” She arched one eyebrow. “Yes. You’re right.”
“Damn straight. It’s up to you whether it’s a clean handoff or a coup. Ya feel me?” He nodded, almost smiling. Some life was coming back into his eyes. “Good. We’re going to Arizona to find Buffy. I’ll drive.” She reached around him to open the closet door, pulled his packed overnight bag from the floor, and pressed it into his hands. Hers was already in the trunk of her car. In addition to her clothes and toiletries, it contained some basic spell components and a dozen or so carefully separated locks of hair. “We can talk about your ex on the way.”
She rolled her eyes. “The Council’s archives were digitized, remember? I’ve read your personnel file.” Then she turned on her heel and left his office. After a heartbeat, he followed.
“Andrew?” he said. “Could you—.”
“Already on it.” Andrew answered without looking up from his computer. “You’re free through Wednesday.”
“Very good.” He was quiet until he slid into the passenger seat beside her. “Dawn, I want you to know that I’m pleased and proud and...and grateful...that you’ve chosen the Council as your....”
“Calling.” She backed out of the parking space and turned onto the street in one smooth motion. She wasn’t a slayer. She didn’t have the kind of reflexes that spun all but the highest of high-performance vehicles up onto two wheels. And she’d been driving since she was fifteen.
“Really?” She nodded once, firmly, and he smiled, blinking fast behind the lenses of his black framed glasses. It lit his face. He looked almost like the Giles she remembered from before the world split at the seams. “That’s...you’re remarkable. When the time comes, I’ll gladly leave all that we have built in your capable hands. Might I make a suggestion, though?” She shrugged and turned onto the freeway. “Keep Andrew.”
“Make Mister ‘already on it’ my lieutenant?” She floored it, took her little blue Toyota to eighty, heading east. “Oh, yeah.”
Chapter 4: November 6, 2004
They drove straight through from L.A. to Flagstaff and stopped there to rest. Since they took turns at the wheel, they weren’t too wiped out to get up early. They watched the sun rise over black coffee and blueberry waffles, checked out of the hotel by seven, and arrived in the freeze dried brightness of Zuni, New Mexico by ten a.m.
“You keep spell components in your go bag?”
“Doesn’t everybody?” She drew a careful circle around herself in powdered chalk and laid a map in its center. At her gesture, Giles passed her a lock of hair from the baggie labeled ‘Buffy.’
“I wouldn’t know. I haven’t looked in that bag in six months. I rarely leave the office, these days.”
Well, that was true. He crouched like a sallow, squishy spider in the center of his New Council web and threw slayers at his problems. There were so many of them, now, that he didn’t have to worry about losing a few, here and there. She poked him square in his expanding middle. “Maybe you should reconsider your life path.”
“I do.” He hunkered down onto the frozen ground just outside the circle and winced. “More, lately.”
That was true, too. “Tell me about Ethan,” she’d said, an hour out of L.A., and, to her great surprise, he had. It was the most she’d ever heard him talk in one stretch. She matched each of his Ethan stories with a story about Spike. His stories were worse, but he still managed to be shocked by hers.
“You are such a hypocrite. Hand me my Slurpee.”
“He taught you to pick locks?”
“And pockets. Plus how to hotwire cars and—and a bunch of other stuff. Slurpee. Now.” He passed it to her, wrinkling his nose. She’d gotten the big cup and layered an inch of each flavor gently onto the flavor below. It had horizontal stripes that disappeared from the bottom as she sucked them through the straw.
“Does Buffy know that? Why on earth would—.”
“Relax.” She rolled her eyes. “He was scared someone else would try to take me. Wanted me to be able to get away.”
“That was remarkably...prudent...of him.”
“He was like that.” He cleared his throat pointedly. “Not with his own life, Giles. That summer, he didn’t even want to—I was the only reason he stayed.”
“There’s something I never understood. Why keep company with us rather than his own kind? Even with the chip, surely he could have—.”
“He promised Buffy he’d take care of me. Promised. He loved her.” Giles turned to stare at the passing scenery. “He loved me. And don’t even start that thing about how demons can’t—.”
“I hadn’t planned to.”
“Well...good.” He glanced at her but didn’t meet her eyes. “‘Cause he did. Only I think it was more because he was a vampire. Like...off-kilter. All the stops pulled out.”
“Or perhaps that was just him.” Giles pulled his much sturdier black glasses from his face and polished the lenses on his shirttail. “Given his background, it wouldn’t be surprising if—.” She bit her lip. He blinked at her, slid his glasses back on, and blinked at her again. “It’s wrong, isn’t it? Everything about him in the Council records is wrong.”
She gave up on the poker face and smirked. “William Henry Pratt. His family spent half the year at their house in London and the other half at their country estate.”
“I knew it! Saint Crispin’s Day—he was educated?”
“That insufferable little berk!” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “So the impulsiveness—the poor planning—was it some kind of ruse?”
“Mmm...no. Mostly, he was just drunk.” Giles’ lip curled. “No. Listen. That chip went off based on intent, right? Buffy smacked him around. Broke his nose a lot. If he even thought about hitting her back....”
His mouth softened to a horrified o. “He was in pain.”
“All the time.” She thumped the steering wheel with the heel of her hand, and the car lurched to the left a little. Thinking about the Initiative still pissed her off. Those goddamned butchers thought they could keep tame demons in boxes. If Adam hadn’t taken that place down, she would have done it herself. “Plus he was starving—at least until we got him back from the Turok-Han and Buffy started sneaking her blood to him.”
“She started—.” At her glare, he surrendered, hands up, palms out, and shook his head. “Never mind. Her trust was clearly well-placed. He...reformed...for her.”
“He’d swipe your wallet just because you said that.”
“Hmm. I was never any good at picking pockets. Haven’t the hands for it.” He spread the fingers of one massive, manicured paw out in front of him. “I can pick locks. I learned from my grandmother, who always said a watcher was more effective with a variety of skills.” Giles smiled. “But Ethan taught me how to hotwire cars.”
“You were a total delinquent.” She slurped through the layer of blue raspberry and waited for the rest of the story.
“Dawn?” His voice startled her, harsh among the subtle sounds of a deep autumn New Mexico morning. A spot on the map pulsed phosphorescent green and shocked outward to the boundary of the circle before retreating back in and glowing gently. When Willow did this spell, it glowed orange, and it didn’t try to escape the circle. Her magic was always green and always wild. It was powerful—everyone said so—but weird. Beyond the basic stuff, nobody even knew how to teach her. “Is that her?” She drew an X over the glow with a Sharpie marker, and banished the spell. Then she dispersed the chalk with the little straw whisk broom she carried in the trunk of her car.
“I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a location spell quite like that.”
“I’m unique.” He frowned. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to sound that bitter. Here.” She passed him the map.
“It’s about a thirty minute drive and then—.”
“Then we run out of road. Good thing I brought my hiking boots, huh?”
Chapter 5: November 6, 2004 Noon
People are afraid of the dark for really good reasons. Nighttime is full of monsters, after all, and vampires lurk in every shadow. If years as the slayer’s kid sister hadn’t drilled that truth into her, then months in the care of her very own monster did the trick. Everything bad happens after the sun goes down, and the arrival of dawn—man, was she ever tired of that joke—meant things were going to be okay.
Here in the goddamned desert, the only shadows were the ones they cast themselves. Nothing else was tall enough. There was no place for anything to hide, and that bright white sun lit every object to exaggerated relief. She could see everything.
So why was she so nervous?
“Is this Arizona or New Mexico?” She kicked a rock into a clump of dried up scrub grass. Its tiny shadow skittered across the hardened ground, growing as the pebble rose, and vanishing beneath it when it landed.
Giles consulted his GPS. “You, I believe, are in Arizona, while I’m still in New Mexico.”
“Are we close?” She had an itch between her shoulder blades, the sort of feeling you get when you know someone is staring at you, but you can’t figure out who. She tried to shrug it away.
“Quite. We should be within just a few hundred—Dawn?” There was a note of something in his voice. Something she didn’t recognize. He stopped walking.
“What?” He pursed his lips but didn’t respond. “What’s wrong?”
And then she saw it. A thin shell of green light encased her body. It pooled in the palms of her hands and pulsed in time with her heartbeat. It felt alive—and opinionated. She lifted one hand and let the light trickle through her fingers. It wanted her to run, to rush forward, downward, like water running downhill.
Giles reached out like he was going to touch her shoulder, but stopped a few inches short. “How are you doing that?”
The light droplets drifted to the ground at a diagonal. “I’m not.” She turned in the direction of their descent and started walking again, faster, this time. “Come on.”
When they’d gone about a hundred yards, the itch exploded beneath the surface of her skin. “Come on, Giles! Jeez, would you just come on!” She broke into a sprint and he jogged, breathless, behind her. The light around her expanded until it swathed the world in shades of green, and she couldn’t tell empty sand from sky, or rock from the abrupt edge of the narrow gully she tumbled into, end over end, before she even realized it was there.
She landed with her left arm folded backward at the elbow. She could see her own fingers, limp and waxen, over her shoulder. Blood drizzled into her eyes. She heard something crack, and hoped it was her water bottle. She was afraid it was her ribcage. Her body throbbed with blinding pain every time she took a breath, but the green light still dragged her forward. She rolled to her belly and inched in the direction it wanted her to go.
She moved toward a vortex—another pocket of that same green glow—swirling sedately against one wall of the gully. She had just enough time to glimpse two human figures standing near it before the light leapt outward from her center like water from a fire hose. It met the light of the portal and filled it up.
The portal pulsed once, twice, and then rippled, before shocking outward like the blast from a nuclear bomb and hurling her with a crunch against the far wall of the gully. Green fell away to black.
Chapter 6: November 7, 2004
“My god, it’s full of stars.”
“Thank heavens.” Giles peered into her eyes. “You’ve been out for hours.”
“Seriously. Are there always this many?” She shivered. A campfire crackled a few feet from her, its warmth just out of reach. She rolled toward it, tried to lever herself up, and floundered. “I can’t move my arm.”
“It’s immobilized—strapped across your chest. I don’t believe it’s broken, but a dislocation will still take time to heal.” She tried again to sit up, bracing herself with her right arm, this time. Pain stabbed through her middle, and she grimaced. He lowered her gently back to the rocky ground. “Your ribs are broken.”
Oh, yeah. “I fell.”
“You jumped. Let me look at your pupils.” He shown a pencil-sized Maglite into her eyes, one at a time. “No concussion. What on earth possessed you to jump into the—.”
“I didn’t jump. Where’s Buffy?”
He sat back on his haunches. “You saw Buffy?”
“I think...yeah...but only for a second. There was someone with her.” She folded her right arm across her left and hugged herself. There was a nagging absence in her gut—a hollow place. It made her nervous. “I’m cold.”
“I know. We need to get help, but I didn’t want to leave while you were unconscious, and this blasted thing,” he brandished his cell phone, “doesn’t work down here.”
The only light came from the camp fire—and from the stars. They were tucked against the wall of the gully, sheltered from the wind, for now, but they had no camping gear, and she could see her breath in the air. The night was eerily silent. “How hard would it be to get back up?”
“The trail isn’t steep, but surely you can’t think traveling—.”
“I don’t.” She heaved herself upright, swearing under her breath in Akkadian—dead languages had their uses—and reached tentatively for her power. Nothing. “But I don’t think I have a choice. It’s getting colder, and I’m pretty sure I’m in shock. We need to go.”
He zipped her coat around her injured arm, tucked its empty left sleeve in the pocket, and rubbed her right arm briskly. “You’re shaking.”
“I...yeah.” She closed her eyes to focus, and attempted the very first casting she’d ever mastered: a will-o’-the-wisp guide light that didn’t do anything but go where she told it to. Nada. Not even a ripple in the aether. “I think I’m drained.”
“Magically?” He reached inside the hood of her coat and pressed his fingers to her pulse. “What happened down there?”
“I keyed the hell out of that portal.” Dried blood caked her hairline and one of her eyebrows. The cut was superficial, but head wounds always bled. She’d protected her skull from real damage by curling up and covering it with her arms—like she’d been trained to do. Buffy would be proud.
“Keyed? Dawn, you need to see a—.”
“I know.” If they left right now, it could be hours or even days before anyone else took up the search. By then, the trail would be cold. Buffy would be lost. She was probably already lost, and Dawn couldn’t summon even a glimmer of power to help her. “Giles, can you do a location spell?” He blinked at her, open mouthed. “Please check.”
He unzipped her pack with trembling hands—she wasn’t the only one too cold to think—and sifted through its contents. “I believe I can manage it. You want me to look for Buffy? Right now?”
“Pretty sure you won’t find her, but...yeah.” He hesitated, and she lost patience. “Humor the wounded, would you? Do the goddamn spell!”
His version was a lot simpler than hers, mostly because he didn’t have to keep his magic from jumping the fence and scampering off. A well-behaved aquamarine spark, half the size of a dime, coalesced above the map, circled briefly, and then winked out of existence.
Giles smoothed the paper absently, staring fixedly at the spot where she’d marked it with an x. His face was very still. “You think she went through the portal.”
“No.” She closed her eyes and tried to focus—losing it would only make things worse—but her ribs ached every time she took a breath, and she felt empty, a green glass shell hardened by phosphorescent flame. Her voice sounded high and very far away. “I think it took her and—and everything else. Listen, Giles.”
He cocked his head and listened. “I don’t hear anything.”
“You hear the fire, right?” A gentle crackle, close and reassuring. He nodded. “You hear the water?” It was a tiny trickle of a stream, running down the center of a gully that was barely more than a crack in the desert. It was the only running water for miles. There should have been bugs, birds, and rodents, all manner of nocturnal critters skittering, hopping, or buzzing on its banks. Beyond fire and water, the night was silent. “Do you hear anything else?”
His eyes widened. “Nothing.”
“Yeah.” Her heart thundered in her ears.
He glanced uneasily around. “So what happened?”
“I lost Buffy.” She clenched her jaw to keep her teeth from chattering, and closed her eyes.
“Dawn, you can’t think that—.”
“It was just a portal, Giles. Big enough for one person, maybe. Buffy and...” Willy. Strange shades of Sunnydale, it looked like Willy. “...and someone else...a guy...were next to it—not walking through it. They were just standing there.” She breathed in and out, steady and slow and controlled. It kept the pain at bay. It muted the panic. “Until I unlocked the door and hell broke loose.” One sharp breath and a stabbing pain in her back, on her left side. Cracked vertebrae, then. Not just ribs. “You know how we wondered if I was still the Key?” She sighed. “Yup.”
Chapter 7: November 14, 2004
“Well—she claims she fell, but....”
The voices were hushed, almost lost in the whir and beep of machinery. “I didn’t jump!” she yelled through the hospital room door.
“Oh!” Willow banged the door open and skittered to her bedside. “She’s awake!”
Giles entered more cautiously, and he didn’t come within arm’s reach. He’d learned. “She’s been in and out for days, now. I’m not sure how coherent—.”
“She’s right here.” Dawn pushed the button on the side of her bed. The little motor buzzed to life and ratcheted her up to a sitting position, eye level with Willow. She pinned the girl with a glower. “Glad you could finally make it.”
“She was out of the country.” Giles examined the faded art print on the wall of her room with inordinate interest.
“You know she can teleport, right?”
“Dawnie, that takes a whole bunch of energy. It’s not something you do just for—.”
“For Buffy?” The regular beeping of the heart monitor sped up, and Willow flinched.
“I didn’t see Buffy.” He took out his handkerchief and polished his glasses.
“That’s because you’re out of shape. Jeez, Giles. We’ve had this conversation like a hundred times.”
“Yes. And that’s a hundred times I’ve told you nobody was there.”
“Uh huh. And you were wrong. Every. Single. Time.” Her heart was beating so fast it was hard to hear the spaces between the beeps. “I felt the portal. I am the Key.” Dawn pointed one finger at Willow as she took a breath to speak. “I don’t know what that means, and neither do you.” Willow’s mouth clicked closed. “But my magic...my...my keyness, I guess...it wanted me to go toward the portal. So I did. But it was big and green and distracting. I didn’t even see the edge of the gully until I fell down into it.” She glared at Giles. “Twenty feet away from Buffy.”
“I know that’s how you remember it.” He stepped towards her, but it wasn’t enough. He was on her left, and her reach was limited by the stupid arm brace the doctors put her in after the surgery. If he came just a few inches closer, she’d be able to slap him with her right hand.
“But you heard the weird silence, right? So you know something happened.”
He nodded just once, like he didn’t want to. “I did.”
“And you know I’m not hurt bad enough to be down this long. Not physically.”
“Dawn, I don’t—.”
“She is drained, Giles. Way drained.” Willow chewed on her lower lip. “Like she slung some major mojo an hour ago.”
Dawn nodded. “Instead of last week.”
They were interrupted by a clatter in the hall. The door swung open to reveal Andrew dragging a huge rolling suitcase with one broken wheel. “Fear not, Mistress Dawn of House Summers! I bring thee glad tidings and arcane tomes to aid thee in thy quest!”
Everybody stared at him.
“What? I brought her laptop and some books on Cibola. We’re gonna look for Buffy, right?”
“Yeah.” Willow smiled. “We are.”
Chapter 8: December 21, 2004
“So I heard you jumped off a cliff.”
“I didn’t—Xander?” The silhouette in the door shifted a step closer to her and she could see the smile lines around his good eye. “Oh my god! Xander!” His hair curled to his collar and he hadn’t shaved in days. There were bruises on his face. “I didn’t jump.”
“I figured.” He clomped on crutches over to the armchair in the corner of the room and sprawled into it, right leg extended. “You wanna sign my cast?”
“What happened to you?” The cast covered his entire leg, ankle to hip.
“The slayer I went to Cameroon to recruit? She tried to beat me to death.”
“What? Why?” She held up a hand. “Never mind.” If she’d learned anything since Sunnydale, it was that slayers didn’t really need a reason. Who’d have thought Buffy would turn out to be the nice one? “How did you survive?” Now that was a better question.
He laid his head back against the wall and let his eye drift closed. “Another slayer shot her.”
“She rescued you?”
“No.” He chuckled. “Oh, no. She took me prisoner. The slayers in central Africa offed the warlords and took over. Slayer-led civil war. There’s one for the history books.”
“Willow came when I didn’t report in at the end of the week.” He watched her through the lashes of his one good eye. “They had me for...five days? Something like that. I lost eight pounds. But—no fear. I’ll put it all back on like that.” He knocked twice on the plaster of his cast. “I won’t be running any time soon. Or...ever. Maybe.”
“Xander, I’m so—.”
“Since I’m not fit for fieldwork, I came for the research party. I’m told this is the place?”
She nodded. “It’s mostly just me and Andrew. Giles and Willow have been....”
“Busy. Do you know what’s going on out there, Dawn?”
“No. Nobody will tell me.” She loathed the whine in her voice. It made her feel fourteen again. “I hate being stuck here.”
“Beautiful downtown Flagstaff? What’s not to love?” He cracked his neck. “Hellmouths. Hundreds of them. More every day. Giles and the Sunnydale slayers are fighting just to keep North America from becoming Demon Central.”
“What?” It was about a month after the destruction of Sunnydale that they started hearing things. Frogmen in Ohio, fish people in Massachusetts, hairy hominids in Washington—an obvious uptick in demonic activity.
“Like popcorn, but with Hellmouths. Slow, at first, but faster and faster until—.”
Until it was all the time, with no space between pops, like her heart monitor. If it kept up, the nurse was gonna come in and chase Xander away. She took a deep breath and tried to relax. “But...why?”
He rubbed at the eye under the patch with the heel of his hand. “Willow thinks it’s the slayers. I didn’t understand it all. She can give you specifics when she gets back. In the meantime, priority one is finding Buffy. Where do we start?”
“The books are there.” She pointed to the stacks on and around Andrew’s cot. “Andrew’ll be back soon. He went to pick up more. I’ll help you in a bit. I just need to....” The rest of her words were lost to a yawn.
“They said you weren’t awake much.”
“Couple hours at a time.”
“Sleep. I’ll get started.”
She fell back against her pillow. Her eyelids fluttered closed. “Xander? I missed you.”
“Missed you too, Dawnie.”
Chapter 9: March 14, 2005
“You ready to get sprung from this joint?”
“Yo, Metalman.” She slung her pack over one shoulder and hugged Xander sideways. “How’s the new hardware?”
“Same clank, different day.” He still walked with crutches, but the plaster cast had been replaced with a complicated mesh and aluminum brace. “Giles is bringing the car around.”
Trapezoids of sunlight lay across the hallway at regular intervals, dappling as trees brushed the windows in the late winter wind. She felt like skipping. Twenty feet later, she felt like dying. She leaned against the wall to catch her breath.
“You’re still tired.”
She nodded. “They think I have brain damage.”
“I channeled more magic than a human body ever should.” A frazzled nurse sprinted toward her with a wheelchair, and she dropped into it gratefully. “So...maybe.”
A New Council transport van idled in the loading zone outside the hospital doors. Willow hopped out of the passenger seat to help her in. “Willow! Wow...your hair....”
Willow fluffed the back of her hair self-consciously. Her strawberry bob was flecked with white. “That’s from Cameroon. I’ve been calling it cinnamon and sugar. You know, like salt and pepper?”
Dawn nodded. “But sweeter.”
“Everyone in?” Giles waited until they settled. Then he locked all the doors.
“I have small news on the Buffy front and big news on the Dawn front. Which do you want first?”
Xander slumped on the seat beside her and pulled his hood down over his face. He got almost as tired as she did. “Um...is there any question? Buffy news! Gimme!”
“Okay. She’s not here.”
“Shh.” Willow held up one finger. “She’s not on this plane—not anywhere—and neither is her body.”
“Oh.” Dawn let out a shaky breath. She’d had a recurring nightmare in which her out-of-control magic scattered Buffy’s molecules over the Arizona desert in an electric green mushroom cloud. “That’s good.”
“So. A location spell has a limited range, and you need a focus—something that belongs to the person you’re trying to find. I had a lock of Buffy’s hair, but....”
“She was living out of her backpack.” Buffy started running when Sunnydale fell and hadn’t stopped since. She rarely slept in the same place twice. Everything she owned went with her.
“I had one shot. I rewrote the spell to find her even if she wasn’t...um...and I rewrote it for range, but then it needed a ton of power, so I got the coven to help. It took us six hours to be sure she wasn’t here.”
“Thanks, Willow. That’s...it’s pretty big small news.” Something was strapped to the back of the driver’s seat. It looked like a gun.
“I wish I had more. I’ll find more. But the Dawn news? Ready?”
An identical object was fastened to the back of the passenger’s seat. She tugged it out of its holster.
“Dawn?” Giles glared at her from the rear view mirror. “Don’t play with the Taser.”
“Sorry.” She put it back. “Ready.”
“I know why you’re not getting better—or you are, but it’s slow.”
“Did I fry my brain?”
“Goddess, no. After I got back to the states, I spent some time poking around in your aura.” Dawn blinked.
“You slept through it. Anyway, I found a leak.”
“You’re funneling energy to something. It’s hard to see ‘cause it’s not in a straight line, but I think I can—Giles, maybe we should just roll through this light.”
“Noted,” Giles said, and accelerated. A Fyarl demon smacked the side of the van with the palm of his clawed hand as they passed. It rocked on its shocks. “I am truly tired of those things.”
Xander lifted the edge of his hood and peered out the window. “Demon?”
“Demon. Let’s...take the left lane.” A hulking form with iridescent blue scales gestured obscenely as they swerved out of its reach. “Lot of big ones out today.”
“It’s broad daylight. In the middle of town.” She pulled the Taser from its holster and held it in her lap. “Why are there demons?”
“Hellmouths,” Xander said, and pulled his hood back down.
“I’m getting there. You’re sending energy to something in a slow trickle.”
“I filled up the portal.”
“‘Filled up?’ That’s how it felt?”
“Like aiming a fire hose at a bucket.”
“Huh.” Willow tugged her laptop from the bag at her feet and flipped it open. Her fingers flew over the keys. “We didn’t notice the Hellmouths at first—just a spike in demonic activity.”
“American egocentrism.” Giles clenched his jaw and zoomed up the onramp. “At least the freeway is clear.”
“That was pretty much the problem. Hellmouths opened wherever there were a bunch of slayers close together. It started in India.”
“There are a lot of slayers in—oh. A lot of people.”
“Yeah. Then China, Japan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Uganda—it’s worst in places without a lot of infrastructure. People get scared. But we only figured it out when it started happening here.”
“So slayers make Hellmouths? That’s...ironic.”
“Sort of. Here’s where you come in.” She was pretty sure she didn’t want to come into this at all, but Willow kept going. “We know squat about slayers. They’re strong and they heal really fast, but where does that come from? They started out as regular people, so it’s gotta come from somewhere. I figured it out when I was looking at your aura. Each of them has a trickle in like your trickle out. I couldn’t get to the other end of yours, but I followed theirs back to the source.”
“Eeyeah.” Willow grimaced. “It’s the fabric of reality.”
“That...can’t be good.”
“Picture it like a bubble. Bubblegum. There are thick spots, thin spots, and spots where the gum is so thin you can see through it. Those are Hellmouths. Slayers are made of...this may be the wrong metaphor.”
“Slayers siphon energy from the world to be fast and strong. It leaves less to hold the world together. One slayer is not a big deal, but—.”
“Eighteen hundred,” Giles said.
“Eighteen hundred—wow. That makes a very thin bubble.” Dawn’s heartbeat echoed in her own ears. “This is our fault. We did this.”
“No, Dawnie.” Willow’s face crumpled. “I did.”
Chapter 10: June 6, 2005
“We could kill all the slayers.”
Giles glanced up from his paperwork, examined her coolly over the rim of his glasses. “Don’t think I haven’t suggested it.”
“How’d that go over?”
“As well as the last time I said we should kill someone.”
“I was the only one who agreed with you then, too.” She lifted the curtain. On the street below, two slayers in girly garb chattered animatedly on a bench. They were the door guard, dressed to blend in. That ploy worked on civilians, but Dawn could pick a slayer out of a crowd every time. They didn’t move like people. “When’s Willow coming?”
“Any moment now. Dawn, would you please sit down? You’re pacing.”
“I can’t!” She folded her arms across her chest, glaring. “Buffy’s out there—somewhere—who the hell knows where—and I couldn’t help because I was trapped in that goddamn hospital!”
“Your heart kept stopping.”
She threw her hands up. “I know why I was there. Do you hear me bitching? I didn’t even try to take the heart monitor off.”
“Well, once we figure out where Buffy is—.”
“She’s in Cibola.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Cibola, province of. There are seven cities. The capitol is Cibola, too. That’s the one the Spanish explorer dudes were all looking for. I know the basic geography, some customs—probably outdated. They’re from the last time the portal opened, like sixty years ago. And I could get by in the language.”
He blinked. “Your downtime was well spent.”
“Yeah. Me and Andrew. He’s one hell of a researcher, by the way. Should give him a raise.” She curled her arms over her belly. “We learned everything this world knows about Cibola. We just don’t know how to get there.”
“Dawn.” His hands neatened a stack of papers without his apparent attention. “Have you considered...that is, you understand that Buffy might be....”
“You can’t still hold out hope that—.”
It felt like a punch to the throat. “You stopped looking.”
“There are more pressing problems.”
“So you just gave up?” She took two long steps toward his desk, fists clenched at her sides. “You asshole!”
He stood up, too, and crossed his arms over his chest, glaring down at her.
Their standoff was thwarted by a knock at the door. Willow opened it and peeped in, eyes wide. “I’m here. Is everything okay? The energy is oogy.”
“Giles is a jerk.”
“Uh...is he talking about killing slayers again?”
“No,” Giles said. “She sided with me on that issue, as a matter of fact.”
“He thinks Buffy’s dead.”
“Well...that’s what we’re gonna find out.” She set her bag down and spread her supplies out on the floor. “If she’s out there, Dawnie, we’ll find her.”
Willow drew a circle on the floor around Dawn in chalk. She ringed it in symbols and drew another circle just outside them, the way you would to trap a demon. Giles raised his eyebrows. “That looks secure.”
“You ain’t seen nothin’ yet,” Willow said, and proceeded to draw a larger circle in coarse black sand that glinted metallic in the light. It enclosed Dawn, both smaller circles, and Willow herself. Then she lined its inner edge with salt and sat down, cross-legged, facing Dawn. “Now that’s secure,” she said, grinning.
“Will that keep it from...you know...exploding?” Willow had tried to stop the magical trickle draining Dawn’s life away. They didn’t get to the actual spell. Wild green power filled the circle and blasted outward, knocking Willow unconscious and shattering the windows. Then it was back to the drawing board and weeks of waiting.
“That?” Willow pointed at the double circle around Dawn. “Maybe. That?” She made a circular gesture in the air with her fingertip and spoke a single word under her breath. Black flame sprang up from the outer circle. “Definitely.” Giles retreated to the far corner of the room.
Dawn sort of wanted to go with him. “What do I do?”
“Relax,” Willow said, and started chanting.
The theory was simple. Buffy fell into the portal, Dawn keyed it shut, and that’s what started the leak—her trickle out. Therefore, the trickle-in end was probably wherever Buffy was. Willow would climb into the trickle, float down it to some other world, and call on the power she’d borrowed from the coven to locate Buffy, using Dawn as her focus. In her astral body, that is. Willow’s physical body would stay in this dimension.
Simple, right? Sure. Unless the trickle stopped.
“Please don’t get trapped,” Dawn whispered.
Willow’s chant trailed to silence, and her eyes went glassy. “Time to go,” she said.
Agony threaded Dawn’s flesh, rage and ambition like forge-heated steel drove it apart, left it in tatters. “Stop stop stop stop stop,” she whimpered. “Please make it stop!” And it did. Willow’s orange surrendered to her own green light, magnesium flame in sea water—still bright, still hot, but isolated so it could no longer burn.
“Goddess,” Willow said, and then they were somewhere else, immeasurably far away.
Spray from a fountain shivered pinpricks on her sun warmed skin and her heart beat counterpoint to a distant flute duet. Lips pressed against hers, soft with longing. They tasted of mint and berries. She smiled into them and stretched.
Someone called her name-but-not-her-name, white flower with spines. A black haired toddler with solemn eyes clasped a kit in chubby hands. It squirmed and yipped. An equally black haired man, bare back bronze and glistening, took the frightened creature, smoothed its calico fur, and set it down to scamper across the tiles.
She wanted to stay in the garden forever, doze in the sun eating tiny sweet cakes with tart fruit centers, soothed by music and the laughter of children and the hush hush rush of the fountain.
When Dawn opened her eyes, the outer circle was dark. So was the sky outside the window. “How long?”
“Nearly fourteen hours,” Giles said, and there was something off in his tone. He didn’t approach to offer water or a hand to help her up. He wasn’t looking at her at all. He was looking at Willow.
“Dawnie?” Willow said, pale face mottled with tears. “I can’t help you anymore.”
Chapter 11: June 8, 2005
Dawn drove. She didn’t know where she was going.
“‘‘She’s happy there, Dawnie. I won’t make that mistake again.’” She sneered Willow’s words, sing-song, at the empty passenger seat. It was unfair and a little childish, but she was too mad to care. Willow lobbed magic in every direction right up to the moment Buffy needed her help and then she grew a frikkin’ conscience? “Happy isn’t Heaven, moron. Ditching her on the other side of a portal won’t make up for bringing her back.”
Xander had shaken his head all slow and sad, like the people at her mom’s funeral. Tsk tsk. Such a tragedy. So young. Like it had nothing to do with him. Giles had hunched at his desk, losses cut and eyes dry, so old Council that she wanted to make him bleed. When she started toward him with her fists clenched, he moved one toe to the panic button on the floor. Faith appeared at the door to escort her out.
“Don’t,” she’d said, and pinned Faith to the wall with an undulating mass of green filaments. Her heart lurched in warning, but it worked. Everyone froze. “So that’s it? The Slayer is dead—long live The Slayer?” Nobody would meet her eyes. “See, I didn’t resurrect Buffy. Not my trauma. Not my fault. Choosing you over her, though? That’s the mistake I won’t make again.” To her credit, Willow flinched. “And Faith? You’re just as disposable as Buffy. Remember that.”
But that wasn’t what sent her tearing off into the miserable predawn, dodging demons on the freeway—take a second with that: There were demons on the goddamned freeway. No, she’d stormed home and screamed herself to sleep, determined to tackle the problem later, when she could do it without killing anyone, but that wasn’t why she ran away.
It was because of Andrew.
There was a lot not to like about Andrew. He was weird, annoying, and prone to panic attacks at exactly the wrong moment. He’d argue about the stupidest detail in some obscure comic book until you just wanted to smack him. He was such a dufus that everybody rolled their eyes when he talked about redemption.
They shouldn’t have.
She’d faced real evil too many times to count, and she knew it when she saw it. It didn’t always drink blood or wear black leather. It didn’t necessarily lurk or slither or roar. It could rubber stamp death camps from behind a mahogany desk, for instance, or repeal safety regulations in a tailored suit. Star Wars action figures didn’t disqualify someone. Neither did oven mitts and an apron. Evil was not required to look monstrous.
Andrew had killed his best friend. He’d lured him away, sliced him open, and bled him for a chance to be a god. That was evil, full stop. Even with Hobbit references.
It shouldn’t surprise her that Willow and Xander didn’t get it. They thought evil was something the bad guys just were, and they were the good guys through their innate and chipper Scoobiness, no matter what they did. But Dawn was a bright green swirly shimmer, created to break down the barriers between dimensions, and she understood: Evil was a choice; Andrew was a murderer.
He understood that, too.
That’s why he was loyal to Buffy. She took him in, shook him, and showed him who he really was. Then she gave him a chance to be something better. It was a slim chance. He thought he’d have to die to do it, but he tried anyway. On the way out of Sunnydale, tear streaked and solemn, he made a list of names. “They deserved to be here,” he whispered. “Not me. It doesn’t make any sense.” His hands shook. “I have to be good enough. For them.”
For the last eight months, he’d spent every moment he could spare—and a few he couldn’t—searching, right next to Dawn, making good on that promise. There was nobody left in this world she trusted as much as Andrew. So when he said, “I...uh...I don’t think I can help you anymore, either,” she lost it.
He covered his head with his arms and let her yell. When she stopped for a breath, he said, “I want to help!”
“Then why the hell won’t you?” Her fingers dug into his shoulders, and he whimpered.
“Because there’s nothing I can do!” He peeled her hands away and held them.
“You’re gonna give up now? We’ve made progress!”
“You want to learn more songs? More stories? We can do that. But what’s the point?” He put his arms around her. “We can’t get her back without Willow.”
He was right, goddamn it, stupid fucking Andrew, so weird and so smart he’d find a way even if everyone else thought it was hopeless, even if it was a million to one shot—even if they’d all die trying. If he was out of ideas, they were screwed. She pounded on his chest with limp fists and cried until she couldn’t anymore. Then they’d curled up on the couch together with middle-of-the-night Thai delivery and argued about comic books.
When he lost his train of thought four times in the space of a sentence, Andrew finally said, “I’ve gotta get some sleep. You gonna be okay...uh...Dawnie?” She smiled at his attempt to sound like the rest of the Scoobies. He hated nicknames.
“I’ll be alright. Go to bed.”
She waited in the dark for a few minutes, until she was sure he was asleep. Then she packed her big duffel, made her bed, and wrote a note. It said, “I’ll come back. Don’t worry. Don’t look.”
On the way out of L.A., she filled the tank and bought a six pack of Red Bull. That’s how she wound up in the Arizona desert, headed, if she had to guess, toward the last place she’d seen Buffy.
The world was overrun with demons.
She hadn’t understood the extent of the problem, ensconced as she was in the hospital, first, and then in her room at the Hyperion, guarded in shifts by a roster of slayers. The further she got from the city, the more demons she saw, clumped up alongside the road or crossing in unpredictable trajectories. This world wasn’t human anymore.
She was somewhere in the Petrified Forest when she hit the road block. Some big demons—a handful of Fyarl, a few M'Fashnik, and one lonely M'Shub—had stopped traffic in a chaotic knot. They were walking from car to car, poking their heads in windows, yanking people out of their seats, and searching for something. A flower? Maybe. She didn’t speak enough Fyarl to know for sure.
Whatever it was, she didn’t have it, but that didn’t mean she was gonna let them get their claws on her. She popped it into reverse and tried to back out of the line of traffic. Unfortunately, she wasn’t alone.
Half a dozen cars cranked hard into the left lane all at once. There was a great crashing and honking, followed by the rumble of demon voices and clomp of massive hooves on blacktop. They were coming straight toward her.
She killed the dome light, snagged her duffel from the back seat, and slid out the passenger side door, closing it behind her quietly. Then she crouched and wove between the idling cars to the edge of the road and belly crawled through the scrub.
After a few hundred feet, she stopped at the base of a wire fence to catch her breath and lay flat, hoping the dark and the uneven terrain would hide her. It didn’t work. A roar went up and four figures broke away from the rest to chase her, a Sleipnir thunder across the hardened earth. She pitched her bag over the fence, slithered under it, and ran.
They were too fast.
Or she was too slow. Pain shrieked through her muscles with every spasm and jerk, and there was a hitch in her side. She'd blown off physical therapy. At the time, it seemed more important to find Buffy. But now? Now the demons were closing on her, and she should have used that goddamned treadmill.
She tripped over a rock, righted herself, and lost precious feet of her lead. Her ankle throbbed with each step. Sprained, probably, which meant more goddamned physical therapy, but that didn’t matter. Nothing mattered if those things caught her.
A house stood in the distance, brightly lit and cheery against the moonless sky. She ran towards it. Not to knock on the door, of course—nobody sane would let her in—but for cover. All she had to do was hide for a minute and catch her breath so she could gather enough power to cast an obfuscation spell. Thank god she’d done that part of her rehab.
Behind the hedge, around the truck, and through the gate, into the darker shadows under the eaves, and to the shed at the back of the house. A glance behind her confirmed that she’d lost them. They’d have to search for her, now. They couldn’t just run her down. She slipped into the open door and pulled it closed behind her.
Her mistake was immediately obvious.
From their roosts along the walls, a dozen geese began flapping, honking, and hissing, pinpointing her location with ear-splitting accuracy. She had a minute, maybe two, before the demons found her. There was no time to find another hiding place, so she did the only thing she could: she slung her duffel over her shoulder and climbed.
Up the roosts and to the rafters, into the corner by the door—the one they’d have to turn around to see when they walked in. She braced herself, feet against the beam, back against the wall, and cast her spell.
It was not a moment too soon. She’d hardly gotten the words out of her mouth when one of them ripped the door off its hinges and strode in, scattering geese. It roared and turned in a full circle, sniffing the air.
The spell scrambled the senses. If he hadn’t known she was in here, he would have walked right by, oblivious. As it was, he knew she was here; he just didn’t know where. Fyarl were, by and large, not very bright. If he were any other demon, he’d give up and go, angry and confused. This had to be the only genius Fyarl on the face of the goddamned planet.
He picked up a rake—the rattan kind you used for leaves—and, working in a grid beginning at the far wall, swept it floor to ceiling, floor to ceiling. Her heart raced.
He’d find her, eventually, and she’d be toast. She slid from her seat, hung by one hand from the crossbeam, and dropped. Pain slashed through her injured ankle and the spell wavered for just a second. The demon spun around, and she ran.
She got her lead back, and picked up speed. The Fyarl was still following, but more slowly, using external cues—footprints, crumpled grasses. She made it harder for him by jumping and zigzagging, and she might even have gotten away if it hadn’t been for the other three demons.
There they were, without warning, right in front of her. She pivoted right and crumpled, her vision white with pain. The spell fell apart, leaving her exposed and injured in the Arizona scrub. The Fyarl reached for her.
“Oh, hell,” she said. “Damn damn damn. I really...need...Buffy!” She reached into her power like she had to bind Faith, hoping she could stop them, maybe hurt them. A swirling cloud of vivid green gathered, intensified, and burst outward like a nuclear blast. She expected to die.
“Dawn?” Buffy’s shock lasted only a moment. "Dawn!" She knelt and pressed Dawn to the ground, ran practiced hands over bones and muscles, joints and belly, checking for injuries. “Sprain,” she said when she found the ankle, and then raised her voice to say something else in a language both strange and familiar.
“Cibola,” Dawn said, and in that same tongue, “Hello.”
Chapter 12: Day 1
The walls were the periwinkle blue of a desert sky in summer. So was the bedding. Breathy flute music drifted into the room from some unidentifiable source. There was no mechanical beeping or buzzing, no scent of disinfectant, no bustling staff. Her ankle, which had been pretty seriously wrenched, was neither bandaged nor sore. She didn’t have an IV.
Despite all that, she thought she might be in a hospital room.
She pushed herself to a sitting position, and the lights came up—gently, like they were on a dimmer switch. That was weird. Was she being watched? Maybe it was a motion sensor. She reached back to rearrange the pillow so she could lean against it, but it was gone, replaced by a firm surface that was...even weirder. The bed wasn’t flat, anymore, but ergonomically bent, raised at head and knee to support her body. Like a hospital bed. She couldn’t find the pillow.
There were no buttons or levers. She’d heard no whirring servos. There was no visible way for the bed to move at all. She was on her knees peering at the place where it met the floor when she heard footsteps. “Do you wanna break your head, too?” Buffy wore an ivory shift, floor length and flowing. Her hair was loose, very blond, and past her shoulders. It was brighter at the ends, like she’d spent a lot of time in the sun, but her skin was even more nocturnally pale than usual. She looked like an angel.
Buffy lifted her by the shoulders and set her back into the bed, which rearranged itself around her. That was creepy. She filed it away for later. Now, she had a more pressing concern. “You have an accent.”
“I’m surprised I can still speak English.” She sat down on the edge of the bed, which made space for her, a little ledge with armrests. “How’d you get hurt?”
“Which time?” She asked the question in Cibolan.
“Stupid monks,” Buffy said in English, throwing her hands in the air. “Didn’t anyone tell them I was supposed to keep my older sister edge?”
“I’m taller than you, too.” There was a glass of water on the bedside table. She seized it and gulped it down. As she watched, the empty glass slowly refilled itself. “Buffy,” she said, “how is it doing that? Is it magic?” Her heart thumped in her chest, but the familiar warning twinge was gone.
“Oh no. It’s....” She said a word Dawn didn’t recognize, and then, “‘Bugs’ is the closest word I can think of.”
“Bugs?” She set the glass back down with a clink. “This is bug world?”
“They’re teeny, tiny machines. Robots? Everything is made out of them.”
“Nanites?” Her voice squeaked.
“Is that what they’re called?” Buffy shrugged. “I didn’t know our world had a word.”
“Only if you read science fiction.” A brief zing of guilt roiled her stomach. If she’d brought Andrew, instead of ditching him with some lame ass note, he would already have had the bed stripped down to its component bots and scattered all over the mud brick floor. “Is this a hospital?”
“Huh uh. It’s Willy’s house. This is the guest wing.”
“Willy. Sunnydale Willy?” Buffy nodded. “Wing?” Buffy nodded again. “So it’s like...like a mansion?”
“Sorta. Not really. Everybody even a little related lives in one big house—compound? I dunno.”
“Bingo! See? English all gone.”
Something horrible occurred to her. “How long have you been here?”
Buffy shrugged. “The timelines are synched. First thing we checked. So I’ve been here as long as I’ve been gone from there. That’s....” She bit her lip. “Seven months? More or less.”
“Okay.” Dawn let her breath out and relaxed back against the bed, which snugged in around her. “That’s good. I was afraid....” Time passed differently, dimension to dimension. She’d been worried Buffy would age and die before she got to her. “So...you like it here? You’re happy?”
“Who wouldn’t be? Have you seen this place?” She smiled but her eyes focused on something off in the distance—something Dawn couldn’t see. “Way ready to go home, though. When are we leaving?”
Dawn blinked. “I...uh....”
“Sorry,” Buffy said with a sheepish grimace. “Sorry. I get it. You need to rest. They fixed your ankle, which was broken, by the way, and your heart—I am gonna wanna hear that whole story—but they don’t know much about magic.”
She reached into the well of power at her core. The ragged rift that had siphoned it away before it could gather was smaller, nearly gone, and her power rolled like waves in open water. “I was drained,” she said. “It’s better, now.” She pushed against the wound until it sealed like it had never been. “Whoa. All better.”
“Good,” Buffy said. “You up for a tour?”
“I guess....” She flexed her ankle. “It was broken?”
“Among other things. They said it looked like you had a heart attack.”
“Pretty much. I’ve been on medical lockdown for months. Xander was, too.”
Buffy stiffened and her expression went flat. “Were you attacked? What happened?”
She took a deep breath and dropped her legs over the side of the bed. “Here goes nothing,” she said and stood. She bent her knees, tested the stance. It was stable. She took a few experimental steps across the room, and turned back to Buffy, smiling. “Good as new. How’d you swing that?”
“Huh?” Buffy had her slayer face on, brutal and ultra-focused. It was great for battle, but less useful in a conversation that ranged over a variety of topics. You had to address a slayer who’d fallen into her calling one concrete thing at a time. They didn’t do subtle.
Dawn sighed. “Xander was attacked. I had an accident. He’s still in a leg brace. I’m all better. Why am I all better?”
“They injected you with...uh....” She watched the slayer drain from Buffy’s eyes as realization hit. “Dawnie...don’t freak, but....”
“They injected me with nanites.” She laughed. It was funny—or not. She didn’t want to think about what effect that might have on her ability to get back home in one piece. Would it come with as part of her body, or would it stay behind when she jumped? If she could jump. “Oh my god, this place is weird. So you inject the bugs, and they repair damage, right? Down to a cellular level?”
“No fair!” Buffy stuck her lower lip out in a pout. “How do you know this stuff?”
“I read. You should try it.” The blanket snaked from the bed to the floor and slithered up her leg. “What the—.” Before she could step away, it climbed over her shoulders and settled into an off-white shift identical to the one Buffy wore. Her feet stayed bare. “That is so frikkin’ cool,” she said. “Weird, but cool.”
“It’ll change, if you tell it to. People don’t have a bunch of clothes, here. They have—.” She spoke another unfamiliar Cibolan word. “Patterns? Blueprints? I don’t know.”
“Configurations,” Dawn said. This was some un-fucking-believable sci-fi shit. She really should have brought Andrew. “Like computer programs.”
“I guess so. Anyway, you have all of mine. This is the indoor default. I’ll get you set up with a catalogue after dinner. You ready to see the outside?”
“Ready and strangely able.” She followed Buffy to the door. “How long was I out?”
“About six hours—not long enough.” Buffy shot her a disapproving look. “They were worried about the amount of caffeine in your bloodstream, but they decided not to strip it out. Because of everything else, they thought you might go into shock. What did you....”
“Red Bull. Six pack.”
Buffy scrunched her pretty face up into a fair approximation of Mr. Yuk, and opened the door.
Brilliant sunlight flooded the windowless room. As they walked out into it, Dawn braced herself for a wall of heat that never came. The light in the densely landscaped courtyard was warm but wrong, somehow. Unresponsive. Not alive. She pulled her arms around herself and shivered.
“We don’t belong here,” Buffy said, squinting up into the desert blue sky. “I can lay out all day long and never tan. It’s like laying under a heat lamp.”
“But it bleaches your hair?”
“Strips it right out. Go figure. You wanna be a blond?”
“Mmm.” So whatever passed for ultraviolet light here still destroyed melanin in hair—and probably skin—cells, judging from Buffy’s whole flax and buttercream look, but it didn’t trigger melanin production. So...radiation exposure with no filter, which was probably bad. Hopefully, the nanites fixed that damage, too. “I think I’ll pass.” She couldn’t remember if she’d packed sunscreen. “What happened to my pack?”
“It’s in your cubby. I’ll show you that after dinner, too.” They walked along a curving dirt pathway through a manmade oasis. A fountain burbled at the edge of her hearing. Despite the strangeness of the setting, the garden was restful and she found herself relaxing.
“It’s nice, here.”
“I guess,” Buffy said.
They walked past tiny pools and benches, strange long-limbed birds with speckled feathers, purple eyelids slitted against the afternoon sun, and chubby calico foxes with white collie faces. They finally came upon a circular brick dais, raised perhaps eighteen inches from the garden grounds and thirty feet across. A single step up surrounded the whole structure. In its center stood a fountain.
Dawn was mesmerized.
It was a nanotech triumph. Nothing else could explain it. It shifted from shape to random shape, retuning the sound of the water with every incremental change—an alien symphony. Sometimes it spired up, silver spears piercing the sky. Sometimes it branched out, autumn gold and glistening. It never exactly repeated a shape. It never exactly repeated a song.
“Uh...wow.” She whispered like she was in church. It would have felt blasphemous to shout.
“Yeah,” Buffy said. She whispered, too. “When I first got here, I came to this spot every day, stared at it for hours. Do you know what it is?”
“Sacred,” Dawn said.
“Pretty much.” Buffy tugged her forward so she could see into the fountain’s center. “Look,” she said. “It’s a solid mass. It goes straight down into the ground. See how those go way up?” She nodded at the spires and branches. “They also go way down—a lot further down than up.”
Since they went up sixty feet or so, down was pretty deep. All the way down to the water table? “What does it do?” she asked, but she already knew.
“It’s kind of like the glass on your bedside table. It pulls the water out of the ground, out of the air—wherever it can find it—filters it, and sends it to the house. Otherwise, this place would be empty desert. Like it is outside the walls.”
“So it is sacred.”
“Yup. This place is paradise in a bubble.”
“Isn’t there supposed to be a city? Like—a city of gold or something?”
“There was. There still is. Sort of. About a hundred people live here. There are thousands of bubbles just like it scattered all over the desert. A few hundred years ago, it was an actual city. I don’t really know what happened.”
They walked down another path, followed it out to the house gate. Beyond the gate lay a road—not an eight lane superhighway, but a narrow dirt road, barely bigger than the pathway through the garden. All the rest was sand and gray green scrub. “‘Boundless and bare,’” Dawn said.
“‘The lone and level sands stretch far away,’” Buffy said. When Dawn raised an eyebrow, she added, “What? I can read. That’s Shelley.”
A child, maybe six or seven years old, bounded up to them. He said something too fast for her to parse and ran away. “Dinner time,” Buffy said and pointed her toward an open arch. “Brace yourself. They all eat together.”
In the dining hall, she sat down to a banquet with a hundred people, men, women, and children. There were mounds of food.
Most of the people in the room looked like Willy—hawk nosed and olive skinned, with deep set dark eyes—but some were round faced with prominent cheekbones. Asiatic? Not exactly. They all chattered in a dialect she could barely piece together, so she mostly just smiled and nodded.
She thought she saw Willy, at one point, but there were several people who looked so much like him she couldn’t be sure. “Does Willy have brothers?”
Buffy grinned. “Three of ‘em. Stair steppers. That messed me up for weeks. Here. Try the squash.” She tried the squash—and the beans and corn, the peppers and tomatoes, and the sour berry tarts served for dessert. They were all better than anything she’d eaten since Tara died.
After dinner, Buffy walked her back to her room. “I’m next door.” Her cubby was behind a nearly invisible hatch on the internal wall, and the catalogue—a sort of on-screen closet—was completely invisible until you asked for it to appear. It had a couple of dozen outfits in it. “I don’t have to shop as often when the clothes repair themselves,” Buffy explained.
Dawn sat on her bed—now a couch—and yawned, sleepy with food and waning caffeine levels. Her shift changed immediately to a soft blue blanket and the couch melted away to the cozy bed she’d woken up in. She relaxed into it and patted it for Buffy to sit down. “This’s wonderful. How come you don’t like it here?”
“I do. It’s just...complicated.”
“Uh huh. It’s a guy, isn’t it? There’s a guy.”
“Two little love birds sitting in a tree, kay i ess ess—.”
“I will hit you.”
“Come on,” she said, wheedling deliberately, “who is it? Tell me tell me tell me! Is it Willy?” Buffy looked away, and her stomach dropped. “Whoa.” That was unexpected. “It is. That’s like when I found out you were seeing Spike, but a lot weirder.” After one awkward moment, she said, “So...it’s like grade school. You beat up on the ones you like?”
“He’s different, here. He’s—.”
“Buffy. Willy’s alright. I just didn’t think he was your type.”
“He’s not. It’s not—he’s my friend, and I need to leave. Staying is just...wrong. Can you get me home?”
She nodded. “I can try. Not making any promises. I mean, we could end up living out the rest of our short and miserable lives as slaves in some hell dimension that—.”
“Good enough for me.” Buffy’s jaw hardened.
“Things aren’t the same. We have bigger problems than we did when you left.”
She nodded once and folded her arms across her chest. “Then I have to go back. They need me.”
“Yeah,” Dawn whispered. “They do.”
Chapter 13: Day 2
Willy had that look.
Soft mouth, softer eyes, just a little too attentive when Buffy spoke, no matter what inane thing she said. His eyes followed her when she moved. But Buffy treated him like she treated Xander—or Willow. She clearly cared about him, but it was the same way she cared about any of her friends: firm and warm and one step distant. Whatever hopeless crush he was nursing, Buffy wasn’t crushing back.
No wonder she wanted to run.
She was right, though. He was different, here. He held his head up, for one thing. Sunnydale Willy always seemed to snivel when he spoke. Here he delivered directives in rapid-fire Cibolan and people hopped right to. It wasn’t just power, either. He was relaxed and open in a way she’d never seen—even allowing that most of what she’d seen of him had been manufactured by monks. His hair was shoulder length, thick and black, swept back from a strong-boned face that was, like the rest of his frequently uncovered body, suntanned to an enviable bronze. He reminded her of the guys in an oil painting she’d seen on a fourth-grade field trip to the Getty: Conquistadores.
Was the sunlight of their world as wrong for him as this light was for them? If she stayed here for decades, would she shrivel like he had? She wouldn’t find out. Buffy was dead set on leaving. “As soon as possible,” she’d said.
Only dinner, served midafternoon, was a group event. Otherwise, it was every mouth for itself. Willy and Buffy showed up together together to take her to breakfast. Willy and Buffy was weirder than Riley and Buffy and an order of magnitude weirder than Angel and Buffy. It made her miss the minor weirdness that was Spike and Buffy. They had bad history, but at least they made sense. This needed a whole other weirdness scale.
Throughout breakfast, Willy pretended he wasn’t watching Buffy, while Buffy pretended not to notice Willy flinch every time she mentioned leaving, and they both pretended their stupid stilted small talk was anything other than deflection. By the time Willy left for work, Dawn wanted to smack their heads together.
Still, it felt good to be whole again. Her Keyness, awake and back to full strength, was getting, as Giles would say, stroppy. She could feel thin spots in the world—props to Willow’s bubblegum analogy—and it was tough to keep from punching through them on instinct, which would be all kinds of bad. The magic of this world was as skewed as the sunlight. Beyond those would-be portals, it was even weirder. No telling what would happen if it leaked in. Add to that the explosive nature of her power, and she might leave a wasteland in her wake.
She’d better be damn sure she had the right door before she kicked it down.
“Where’d you land?” she asked. Buffy stared blankly at Willy’s retreating back. Dawn touched her shoulder, and she blinked. “When you got here, I mean. Was it outside the walls?”
“Couple of miles. You need me to take you?”
“Yeah.” She stole a sliver of squash from Buffy’s plate and nibbled on its edge. It was even good cold. She was going to miss this when she was eating microwaved minimart burritos back at demon central. “You sure you don’t want to stay?” Buffy’s face crumpled. “God, Buffy.” She pulled her sister into a hug. “What did I say?”
“Sorry.” Buffy wiped at her cheeks. “Sorry. It’s just...you keep asking that.” She sounded very small. “Don’t they want me to come back?”
“Of course they—.”
A flash of golden slayer fury. “Then why are you here alone?”
“Because I’m the only one who can....” Buffy tilted her face up, and even though her jaw was clenched, tears spilled out the corners of her amber eyes. “They gave up,” she whispered. “I’m sorry.”
“They all had different reasons.”
“Oh.” She stacked the dishes and stood. “We should get going. We’ll need supplies.”
“Buffy—it’s not like that.”
“Then what’s it like?” Dawn flinched from her glare. “Thought so. So is Faith in charge?”
“Faith’s a tool. Giles is in charge.”
Her forehead crinkled, and she headed toward the kitchen. Dawn followed. “Well, that’s new.”
“Yeah—not really.” Buffy slid the dirty dishes into a cupboard and closed the door. Huh. “He’s been building power since you stepped back. Giles is...not okay, Buffy. He’s drinking a lot.” And eating a lot. Pretty soon, he was going to be a portly Quentin Travers clone. “He sort of went off the rails when Ethan died.”
“Ethan?” Buffy wrinkled her nose. “As excuses go, that one bites.” She dug into another cupboard to bring out a pair of water bottles, which she filled from a tap. “What about Xander and Willow?” She slid them into a woven shoulder basket, along with some dried fruit and...was that cactus? Then she headed out to the central path that led to the gate.
“Willow did a spell.”
“Of course she did.”
“To find you, I mean. Not to defend Willow or anything, ‘cause she and I aren’t on speaking terms, but it took months to research it, and the whole coven to cast it—it was a big deal.” Dawn shrugged. “Then when she found you here, you were happy. Like, really happy. And...uh...with a friend.”
“Ah.” They walked for a while in silence. When they reached the gate, Buffy laid her palm, fingers spread wide, over a shiny spot on the near side of the arch. “Yours, too,” she said, and Dawn followed suit. Then they headed out the arch and down the little dirt road. “So...she got into my head.” It wasn’t a question. “She didn’t ask if I wanted to stay here. She just decided for me.”
“I didn’t say she was right. I just said she tried. Xander agreed with her.”
“But you didn’t?”
“This is not Heaven. It’s not the same.”
“No, it’s not. Take a left, up here. That’s...west? Pretty sure it’s west.” It was west.
After a while, the terrain started to look familiar—the way a gradual rise resolved at the horizon, a sequence of gentle dips, like sand ripples on a grand scale, that she’d noted on her trip through the desert. But a hundred yards before they would have reached the green portal gully she’d fallen into, they came to the edge of a sunken piazza half a mile across.
The piazza was circular and several stories deep. A paved road—cracked and worn—spiraled from its top edge to the floor of the circle. As they descended, they could see pueblo style buildings lining the walls. “Ruins,” Buffy whispered. “This was the center of the city.”
“They just abandoned it?”
“It’s very old. Made of....” Buffy used an unfamiliar Cibolan word. Dawn puzzled it out.
“Dead...rock?” And then she got it. “Oh. No nanites. Just rock. Then the other stuff is live rock?”
Buffy’s shoulders sagged. “I am not cut out for this explorer gig.”
“Ooh—a pity party! Can I come?” She balled her fist up and punched Buffy’s shoulder as hard as she could. Buffy didn’t break her stride, but she turned a withering glare on Dawn. Better. “Slayers have to hit first and ask questions later. It’s in the job description. You—Buffy you—are smart. Smarter than most slayers, anyway.” She paused just long enough for the compliment to settle in. “Well...except for this Willy thing. What the hell is that about?”
Buffy’s nose pinked up and her eyes got watery, which was not the effect she was going for. “You don’t understand.” Her lip trembled. Damn it. “I didn’t think anyone was coming.” Double damn it.
“But you sent me a message! Cibola. I got your text.”
“That was months ago.”
“Yeah, well. I got delayed.”
“With a heart attack?”
Dawn didn’t plan to answer that question until she had Buffy safe at home, and they had time for a fight. “I came as soon as I could.”
“Dawn—.” She stopped so abruptly that Buffy walked into her. “Ow! What are you doing?”
“Oh my god.” There were thirteen of them, arranged in a circle at the center of the piazza, thin spots like she’d seen before, but more. Thinner. Eggshell thin and ordered. “They’re too regular,” she said. “Somebody made these.”
Buffy turned in a slow arc, scanning the crumbling stone. “Somebody made...what?”
Dawn walked the perimeter of the circle, touching each one in turn, illuminating each with a thin green outline. When the circle glowed like a digital Stonehenge, she turned to Buffy and smiled. “Doors,” she said, and pointed at one of them. “This one goes home.”
Chapter 14: Day 3
“Provisions,” Buffy said. “What for?”
“For our long and arduous journey home. What else?”
Buffy rolled her eyes. If they came out on the other side of that doorway into the gully like Dawn hoped they would, it would be eight hours—tops—before they curled up, toasty warm, on hotel sheets in Flagstaff, and the real frikkin’ city of gold would be a half-forgotten dream.
Well, except for the twenty pounds of spiced baked squash she’d talked the kitchen people into giving her for the trip. And the little tarts. And the chocolates.
It was a good thing they’d been outfitted with expedition packs. They had to carry all that food, plus bedrolls, an ultra-light-weight tent, cooking gear, water grabbers—you name it, they had it. Willy’d spared no expense.
Well, first he’d fluttered around them for most of an hour, saying over and over again how welcome they were to stay—even for a few more days, just to make sure Dawn had recovered—and then, once he accepted they were really going to leave, he started snapping orders. That’s when all the gear arrived.
With everything they were carrying, they could survive in the bare desert for a month before they needed to think about moseying on home. Which was good because the closer they got to their noon departure time, the tighter her chest felt. “What if something goes wrong, Buffy? What if I can’t get us home?”
Buffy shrugged, like it didn’t matter to her at all—and how messed up was that? She and Willy stayed close together, fingertips touching, but they didn’t look at each other, not once the whole morning. Not even on the two mile trek to the portal.
“Hey, kid?” He tugged on her sleeve. She slowed down to walk next to him while Buffy ranged ahead.
“You two are bonkers. What gives?” He gave her that shifty look that Giles got when her questions cut too close. She stuck a finger in his face. “Don’t you dare tell me I’ll understand when I’m older.”
His shoulders slumped. “I hope you never understand.”
“It’s that bad?” He opened his mouth like he was going to say something and then closed it again and looked away. When he finally spoke, his voice cracked.
“This is for you.” He handed her an object the size and shape of a toilet paper roll, made of some kind of heavy synthetic, dark green, and closed at both ends. “And for her. If you’re careful, it’ll last you. Don’t,” and here he pointed a finger in her face, “flood the market.”
“What is...?” It took her a second to figure out how, but she twisted it open. It was almost full. “These...are these diamonds?”
“Close it up, would you? Do not spill them out here.”
“Where did you get these?”
“It’s about half of what I saved in Sunnydale.” He grimaced. “Worthless, here. They grow them.”
“They have lab-grown diamonds?” She couldn’t quite take a whole breath. “As good as these?” This wasn’t gray-green industrial grit, diamond in name only. These were big, honkin’ gemstones, the kind you made into jewelry.
“Who knew?” He rubbed his palms over his eyes and then let his hands fall. “They couldn’t when I left.”
Half his life savings. “God, Willy. I’m sorry.”
He shrugged. “Take them back with you. Buy—something useful.” A second’s hesitation. “Take care of her.”
She hugged him. What else could she do? He was just another passenger car in the train wreck of Buffy’s love life. Or something. “You know it’s not your fault. She’s still screwed up from Sunnydale.”
“Aren’t we all?” He scuffed the sand with his toe. “Nah. I’m not what she wants. I’m just here.”
Jeez. “You sound like Spike.”
“If I were Spike, she wouldn’t be leaving.”
What? “That’s what Spike used to say about Angel.”
“Angel?” Willy’s brow furrowed. “Didn’t they have a thing when Buffy was in high school?”
Dawn yanked Willy to a stop and waited until Buffy was a few more yards ahead of them. Then she whispered, “She hasn’t mentioned Angel?” Willy shook his head. “In seven months?”
“Not once.” He cocked his head. “Why?”
“Oh...no reason.” Seeking: card-carrying member of the bloodsucking undead. Turn-ons include gypsy curses and death threats. Must be completely unattainable, preferably dust. “My sister’s crazy. That’s all.”
“She’s just...grieving. For what she lost.”
Sure. And while she had it, she’d pined so hard for Angel that Spike was certain he wasn’t what she wanted. Just like Willy. It had to stop. “She’s an idiot.” Willy didn’t seem inclined to argue.
They descended into the piazza in silence. Buffy stood next to the central circle where the doors would be once Dawn brought them to life. “We’re burning daylight!” she yelled as they approached. Willy flinched. Without comment, Dawn began her walk around the circle.
Something was wrong.
Where the portal in their world months ago had been big enough for two people to pass through side by side with space between them, and the portal here—just yesterday—had been just big enough for one, this would only be wide enough if they turned sideways. They’d have to pull their packs through separately. When she checked again, stomach knotting in disbelief, the portal had drawn incrementally smaller.
“Uh...Buffy?” She tried to keep the panic out of her voice. “If we’re going, we should go now.” But Buffy wasn’t paying any attention. She and Willy stood close together, eyes shut, foreheads touching. “Buffy? Jeez, now you grow a heart? We have to go.”
She gave Willy one gentle kiss and moved to join Dawn at the circle. Reluctantly. Dawn muttered Akkadian curses under her breath. If they squeezed through that portal back to their own world and Willy became Buffy’s next great lost love, she would smother her in her sleep.
“What’s the what?”
“It’s getting smaller.”
“It does that.”
Dawn closed her eyes and let several heartbeats pass. “And you didn’t think to tell me?”
“How was I supposed to know? Before you came, it didn’t matter how big it was when someone opened it.” Buffy frowned. “Nobody could open it. According to the histories—and we read everything—it should have been gone already. I don’t even know why it’s still here.”
Because she’d funneled enough energy into it to stop her heart, and then.... “I fixed the goddamned leak,” Dawn said, “the day before yesterday.” She rubbed her temples. “Now or never. Are we going?”
Buffy contemplated the green-edged rectangle, tugged her pack from her shoulders, and turned sideways. “Can we still fit?”
Dawn stomped her foot. They didn’t have time for Buffy to waffle. They didn’t have time for her to cast longing looks back over her shoulder towards Willy, towards the house, towards spiced squash and tranquil gardens, sacred fountains and beds that made themselves around you. If they were going to go back to their own disintegrating world to battle monsters on every front while sustaining themselves on partially hydrogenated vegetable oil and white flour, they had to go now.
Dawn pulled her own pack down and made a decision. “We’ll find out,” she said, took Buffy’s hand, and stepped through the portal.
What’s the worst that could happen?
Well, for starters, the whole circle of doors could rotate counterclockwise one notch before they got all the way through and pitch them into the void and blackness. For starters.
Then there was the howling, the rush and roar like they’d slipped from their backwater into a river unfathomably deep and wide. They ricocheted off rocks, eddied, riffled, and spun in competing currents, battered at their seams.
For just a moment, she saw home: The little gully in the middle of the desert, tiny stream coming back to life after being scoured clean, but then the current whipped her away again past other places, over other worlds.
She didn’t let go of Buffy, and she didn’t let go of her pack. She couldn’t. If things were bad now, well...that would be a thousand times worse. “Don’t let go don’t let go don’t let go,” she chanted, over and over again. “God damn it, I just want to stop!”
And they did.
They fell down and through the current, somehow. Into and under it, like a blade in flesh—and that image was gonna stick for a while—but they landed on cracked green stone beneath rose-black skies shot through with lightning, in a courtyard ringed by ruins.
Buffy checked all the closures on her pack and settled it back over her shoulders. Then she helped Dawn with hers. “You okay?”
“Not even bruised.”
“So...” Buffy spread her arms to take in their surroundings. “This is Hell?”
“Huh,” Buffy said. “Prettier than I thought it’d be.”
Chapter 15: Day 4
This sun burned.
They made it to the ruins just before sunrise and set up their tent. As she was climbing inside and closing the front flap, a stray sunbeam landed on the back of her hand.
Like bacon sizzled. Like those little drips beside the main pancake sizzled. Like a vampire sizzled in sunlight. Buffy reacted first. She grabbed Dawn by the collar, yanked her into the tent, and zipped it closed behind her. “You’re as bad as Spike!” she said. “Give me your hand.”
Blisters bloodied a stripe across her knuckles.
“What were you thinking?” she snarled.
“That I’m not a vampire!” Dawn snarled back. “Did you think I was?” She stared her sister down. “Put it away.”
“Your slayer face. Put it away.” She waited a beat. “Right the hell now.” Buffy looked uncertain for a second. Confused. And then she took one slow, deep breath and closed her eyes. When she opened them, they once again held something like human intelligence.
“Is it...it’s that obvious?”
“It is to me.” Dawn spread the fingers of her injured hand. Several of the blisters burst, trailing rivulets of serum to her wrist. It hurt. “If we can’t keep it together, we are screwed. Like...really screwed. We’ve got to think, so I need you to be Buffy for a while.”
“I guess I didn’t take my SATs in slayer mode, huh?” She rummaged around in her pack and came out with small box. It was made of the same material as Willy’s diamond case, maybe five inches by eight, with rounded corners. “First aid kit,” Buffy said. “Let’s get that cleaned up.”
“Why did Willy give us all this stuff?” she asked as Buffy lanced the blisters one by one and covered the area in some kind of clear cream, more efficient than gentle. Even non-slayer Buffy was not very touchy-feely. “He knew where our door was, right? A few hours from civilization?”
“That’s just him,” Buffy said. Her smile was soft. “Mister Contingency. And you gave him an excuse by asking the kitchen for provisions.”
“Hey!” She grinned. “That stuff is tasty. Besides,” she sighed, flexing her hand. That cream had anesthetic in it. “It’s a good thing I did. Looks like we’re vacationing in Hell.” Something occurred to her. “Does the sun burn you?”
“Dunno.” Before Dawn could stop her, she unzipped the tent flap and stuck her arm out into the light.
“Are you stupid?” Dawn yanked her back inside.
“Nope,” Buffy said. “Not flammable, either. See?” Her skin was totally undamaged.
“No fair.” Wait. “It’s because I’m not real.” That had the potential to be a problem.
Buffy’s forehead crinkled sympathetically. “Dawnie, you’re—.”
“I’m over it. And I’m a construct—like a vampire. I was made magically.” She dug into her pack and pulled out the stack of notebooks she’d brought from home. One of them was labeled Key Stuff in block letters.
“Well...so was I. Slayer, remember?”
“But your body wasn’t. It was made the old fashioned way.” She pulled the pen out of the spiral binding and began making notes. “Two people, bound together by fear of public embarrassment and the laws of the state of California, have drunken hate sex and—.”
“Am I wrong?” She didn’t look up from her work. Good that the sunlight had only scorched her left hand.
“Okay. Probably accurate.” Buffy frowned. “You really don’t know what you are, do you?” Dawn bit her lip and gave her head one short, sharp shake. She didn’t know on a regular day, and she really didn’t know here. And here could mean life or death. “I guess we have something in common.”
“Ya think?” She turned her face toward Buffy. “Do I look different?”
“I don’t know. What am I supposed to—oh, my god.” She leaned in close. “Your eyes. Whoa.”
Dawn dug around in her pack again, came out with her makeup kit, and popped open a compact. She held it right up to one of her eyes and saw...the wall of the tent behind her. “Whoa.”
“Dawnie,” Buffy said, making faces at herself in the mirror through the back of Dawn’s head, “you’re not...hungry...or anything, right?”
“For squash, sure.” She snapped the compact shut. “I’m not a vampire. Arm wrestle me?” She shoved her pack down and braced her elbow on it. “Don’t hold back. It’s important.”
“You got really weird while I was gone, didn’t you?” Buffy said, but she clobbered Dawn in an arm wrestling match anyway.
“Nope.” She jotted a few more lines in her notebook and then put it away. “What do my eyes look like?”
“Green—magic green. No pupils. Dawn, what’s wrong?”
She summoned her guide light, tiny and green, let it hover in front of her. It was too easy to get it to behave. Much too easy. And it required more concentration than it should have. “Like that?” Buffy nodded. “Goddamnit.”
Buffy grabbed both of Dawn’s shoulders in her hands. “What,” squeeze, “is,” shake, “wrong?”
Where to begin? “Sunlight dissipates magic. So does running water. And thresholds. So does—never mind. A bunch of things do, but sunlight is a big one. It’s why some spells can only be cast at night.” She shrugged Buffy off. “Vampires don’t have trouble with sunlight, specifically. It’s not ooh, scary dark bloodsucker magic the daylight chases away. It’s just magic that’s not strong enough to stand up to the sun.”
“I guess that makes sense.” She wrinkled her nose. “Did you learn that from Willow? Slayers aren’t much for theory. We just stake ‘em.”
She was officially out of patience. “It’s in the goddamned Slayer’s Handbook, alright? If you did your frikkin’ homework, you’d know it already.” She rounded on her sister, glaring. “D’you know how much magic I’m made with? Boatloads. Ocean liner loads. World-altering amounts of magic went into making Dawn Summers, the mystic portal-opening key.” She thumped her chest with her palm. “But here? There’s so little magic that a sunny day unravels me.”
“And that means—.” Buffy spoke slowly. “There might not be enough magic for us to leave.”
Chapter 16: Day 15
“What if I didn’t want to be right?” She scuffed her boot on the hardened earth.
“At least the directions are easy,” Buffy said with irritating optimism, “and we have the compass thingies.” And the water grabbers. This place made the Cibolan wastelands look lush. Traveling at night helped a little. They supplemented the remainder of their provisions with strange rock-like cactuses and the occasional lizard. Yum.
The directions were west. Due west. West until they hit water, however long that took. West along a broad green road through almost-Arizona. She had a paper map of the U.S. left over from her Buffy-locating trek. The terrain matched, mega-feature for mega-feature, minus any signs of civilization—or recent civilization, at any rate. Ruins littered the landscape as far as she could see.
It felt ancient. Dead. The roads cracked, the buildings crumbled, and only lizards lived among the city’s bones. Was that what made a hell world? When the last of its people died, did the world die, too? Would it come to the close of its life, fold in on itself, and wink out of existence? Or would demons take over, make it a playground of torture, mayhem, and death?
Whatever. As long as she was somewhere else when it happened.
But that was the hard part. Barring divine intervention, or some sign of sentient life, they planned to walk the roughly seven hundred and fifty miles from the center of this world’s non-existent circle of interdimensional doorways to the Hellmouth. If it existed.
Yeah—no. It was a long shot. But it was better than sitting still. At least it kept Buffy busy.
She looked for the thin spots she’d found scattered all over Cibola, but there weren’t any. This whole goddamned world was encased in a rock-solid, magic-cancelling shell. Every casting she tried just fizzled. She couldn’t even repeat the guide light she’d cast the first day.
Only her flailing panic in the...the...world stream...had forced her into this death trap. An adrenaline rush, like when moms lift cars off their kids, stuck her behind a door with the handle on the other side. She didn’t have the strength to punch through.
Her last remaining hope was that something would try to kill her and give her a push.
“The ground is weird,” Buffy said. “Listen.”
It was early evening, just after sunset. Vampire time. People always thought vamp time was late night, after midnight, but it wasn’t true. Like everyone else, they woke up hungry.
She and Buffy made their breakfast of dried lizard and Cibolan berries, and pulled up camp. Buffy paced like a puma, muscles coiled and bunching, but she had her human face on.
“What did you find?” She shouldered her pack and joined her sister.
“Listen.” She stomped her foot thud on the ground, moved two feet and stomped it thud again, but when she moved two more feet and stomped again, there was a hollow thonk. “There!” Buffy pointed triumphantly.
“A basement, maybe?” Probably not. They’d chosen this spot because it was away from the buildings by several hundred yards. None of the walls in the area were solid enough to give them cover, and some of them were dangerously unstable. Out in the open was better. This had to have been a park or a playfield or something—open ground, no pavement.
“But get this,” she said, and jogged another dozen feet away. This time, the thonk was big.
Dawn walked over to her and stomped. There was an echo. Whatever was under there was huge. “This...we aren’t standing on land,” she said. “We can’t be. A natural ceiling on a space that big would have to be thicker.” She knelt and touched her fingertips to the dirt. “It can’t be very deep, either.”
“Let’s find out,” Buffy said, and started to dig. Dawn helped.
No more than three inches of packed earth down, they hit something smooth. “Glass?” Dawn said. They cleared the dirt away in an area about a foot square. “It’s glass. Weird.”
“I wonder what’s down there,” Buffy said, and pulled out one of the little square controllers that changed their clothes, monitored their vital signs, tracked the distance they walked, and served as a compass—among dozens of other things Dawn was not entirely familiar with. She ran her finger across the screen, shoving tiny glowing pictograms away until she found the one she was looking for. She tapped it, and the back of the device produced light.
“It’s a flashlight?” Dawn pulled hers out and stared at it. “You coulda said.” They hadn’t needed a flashlight, so far. Between the perpetual lightning storms and the glow-in-the-dark markers alongside the road, it was never really dark. But it would have been nice to know.
Together, they leaned over the exposed section of glass, and Buffy shone her light down into the space beneath it.
A pair of slit-pupiled yellow eyes stared up at them.
Chapter 17: Day 15 - Part 2
They poured out of the ruined buildings from all directions, dozens of bantam terrors, just over three feet tall, pale skin iridescent as deep-water fish, yellow eyes gleaming. At her gasp—she clamped a hand over her own traitorous mouth, but it was already too late—their ears swiveled toward her. They opened mouths filled with awl-sharp teeth and screamed.
She and Buffy backed away, fumbling for their hunting knives. There was no place to hide. “Was it worth it?”
“Getting away from Willy—was it worth all this?”
Buffy squared her shoulders and dropped into a fighting stance. “Every second.”
“There are too many. We can’t fight them.”
“Then we die trying.” That little muscle jumped along Buffy’s jawline. She narrowed her eyes and slid into slayer face, advancing with slow menace on the creatures. Damn, she was impressive. One girl in all the world. Those other slayers were counterfeits. Buffy was the real thing.
Lot of good that did them.
They would still die on a burnt out hell world in the backwaters of the multiverse, eaten by fairy tale goblins, because she wasn’t strong enough to get them home. Her life would end at nineteen. Or five, however you wanted to look at it. No purpose. No reason. No rhyme. And nobody would ever know. The Key appeared, and then it was gone. She sniffled.
Well, that was pathetic.
She was The goddamned Key made flesh, an incomprehensible primordial power created before there were words to describe her and crammed, damn the consequences, into the body of a child. She’d felt that power, in the World Stream. It belonged to her. She was meant to swim those waters. And she was the way—the only way—Buffy the frikkin’ vampire slayer, the one, the only, was gonna get home to save the world.
“Screw this,” she said. “And screw your goddamned death wish. I plan to survive.” She sheathed her knife, raised her hands, and stepped forward into the throng.
They tugged on her clothes, poked her skin with tiny goblin fingers. They climbed to her shoulders and stroked her hair. They hissed and mewed and clacked, in consonants her human mouth was never meant to speak.
“Hello,” she said. “Hello. My name is Dawn.”
Miracle of all miracles, it worked. They didn’t hurt her. They herded her toward the ruins. They used no force, but she couldn’t escape, either. They surrounded her to her hipbones, moving like river water.
Buffy, on the other hand....
“Dawn!” she yelled. “What the hell are you doing?” Buffy swung her knife toward the creatures, who backed away, hissing. “Come back!”
“There are too many.” She tried to say it evenly, but Buffy doubled down on the hostility. “Put your knife away!” She sighed. “Buffy! Put it away!”
A muted caw, and the empty circle around Buffy got bigger. One of the creatures forced its way through the crowd to the circle’s edge. Buffy advanced on it and snarled, “Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?”
The creature raised something that looked a like a water pistol and fired it, point blank, at Buffy. It ejected a sticky liquid that wrapped her whole body in thin white filaments, closely but irregularly spaced. Buffy hit the ground like a sack of potatoes. Several of the creatures hefted her, pallbearer style, and the whole group moved on.
Whoa. The goblins weren’t screwing around.
She felt the sound before she heard it, a rumble like a diesel train, and the group fell silent. Those at the edges scanned the horizon, and one pair stacked—one on the shoulders of the other—to look around. “What’s that?” she whispered. The smallest goblin shimmied up her body to hold her lips together with its fingers.
She heard that. Whomp whomp! Like one thing, the goblins ran, scrambling over broken stones and down into their shadows. Whomp! She ran, too. She had no choice. Whomp! They grabbed her pant legs and hurried her along.
Whomp! Whomp! Whomp!
Then she saw it bounding over the ruins toward them. Whomp! It landed. Whomp! Whomp! It jumped and turned toward them, midair, and landed. Whomp!
Armored plates glistened orange-gold beneath the strange demon skies. If it stood, it would be six feet at the shoulder, but it crouched low and watched them, dagger fangs extending out its closed mouth, making it look like an unholy amalgamation of ankylosaur and smilodon. It smelled like dead things, like rotting meat. The scent sweltered off it and stuck to her. She wanted to vomit.
One of the goblins hissed. The others hissed in answer. Then, with no more warning, they rushed the beast—all but those carrying Buffy and the one on her shoulder. They waited without turning their backs on the monster.
The attackers swarmed, dodging clattering jaws and deadly swipes of its massive forelimbs. Once they were in under its belly, they broke—like pool balls—and took its legs in four different directions. It snapped and roared, slashing at them with claws the size of short swords, but they had their own claws, their own sharp teeth, and they shredded it to bloody ribbons where it lay, monstrous shrieks rebounding off the dead city walls.
Only when it went silent did the goblin on her shoulder point the way to a hatch in the ground.
Chapter 18: Day 16
The room was small but comfortable, with two piles of cushions and an assortment of quilts. It had a low ceiling of pale gray glass, like the one they’d uncovered, which looked out onto a daytime sky that did not burn her skin.
A vampire sunroom. Neat.
As soon as they were alone, she freed Buffy from the sticky trap. It wasn’t difficult—just time consuming. The individual strands of the stuff were easy to break, but breaking one or two or ten of them didn’t seem to impact the strength of the mesh, and each piece had to be peeled from Buffy’s skin before it could be broken. “Are we prisoners?” Buffy asked, picking shreds of the web out of her hair and glaring at the doorway.
“You know,” Dawn said, “I’m really not sure.”
The door wasn’t locked, but it opened onto a dizzying maze of unlit tunnels about four feet high. She wouldn’t be able to run through them, and the goblins would. And finding her way back to the surface would be next to impossible even with their controller flashlight thingies. For all practical purposes, they were stuck.
Every few hours, the little goblin brought them a tray of food. For breakfast, there had been something like oatmeal—although it didn’t quite taste like oats—with slices of some pinkish fruit with bumpy skin. Lunch was thick stew and bread that wasn’t, exactly. It was all edible. Whatever these things were, they knew what humans needed to eat.
“Well,” Buffy said, “they’re not trying to kill us—unless this is supposed to fatten us up.” She ate all her own stew plus Dawn’s leftovers. When she finished, she sighed, leaned back into her cushions, and said, “Okay, fine. You were right.”
“We couldn’t have fought our way out.”
No shit. “Yeah. Probably not.” Especially not if Buffy threw the frikkin’ fight.
The door opened and the little goblin came in, pushing a cart. It held an assortment of objects—a small leather bound book, a cluster of crystals, piles of candles, a black feather quill pen, three vials of herbs, and one large piece of chalk. The goblin removed it all from the cart and replaced it with their dirty lunch dishes. Then it approached them. While staring steadily at Buffy, it stroked Dawn’s hair, making tiny squeaking kitten noises.
Then it backed away slowly and left the room, pulling the cart along behind it.
“What the hell?” Buffy said. “Why’d she do that?”
“The little demon? Pretty sure.”
“Huh.” Dawn flipped the book open. It was empty. “You think they’re demons?”
“What else would they be?”
“Goblins. Like, ‘The Princess and the Goblin’ goblins.”
Buffy shrugged. “You say tomato—.”
“I say unidentified variety of nightshade. Whatever she is, she brought us presents.”
“She brought you presents,” Buffy said. “Nothing I can use.” There wasn’t really anything anyone could use. They gave the appearance of being useful things, like dollhouse miniatures, but there was no way to light the candles, no ink for the pen, and no spells in the book. They were toys.
“Probably ‘cause she thinks you’re gonna bite her.” Dawn snickered. “They had to sic animal control on you.”
“Oh my god.” You could almost see the gears moving behind Buffy’s eyes, painfully, miserably slow. Tick tock tick tock. What broke when a slayer was called that left her so completely concrete? Buffy was smart—really smart, as smart as Dawn smart, and that was saying something. She had SAT scores that could have gotten her into pretty much any college she wanted. She should have caught on to this by now. “Are we lost pets?”
“I bet they’re out stapling posters to telephone poles as we speak.”
Blink. Blink. “You’re serious.”
“Yup.” She dug into her pack—they’d been allowed to keep their things—and came out with a pen. Then she opened the leather book and started writing.
“What are you doing?”
“Catching up,” Dawn said, and flipped the book around for Buffy to read the title page. It read, “Watcher’s Diary: Dawn Summers 2005.”
Buffy caught her breath. “Are you gonna be my watcher?”
“Since I’m the only watcher in the whole frikkin’ world, I’m what you’ve got—so yeah.”
“Good.” Buffy leaned back against her cushions and smiled. “That’s good. Not that you’re the only one in the world, I mean. Good that you’re mine.” She poked at the pictograms on her controller for a moment, and then closed her eyes. “I missed having a watcher.”
Chapter 19: Day 47
“Thtah!” the little creature yowled. “Thtah?”
“Right here,” she said. Lstascht skittered around the open door, ears thrust backward at an anxious angle.
“Damn it. Is she hurt?”
Lstascht grabbed her pant leg and tugged. She had their names down, more or less, but a simple yes or no was beyond her. Dawn knew the goblins had the words. They used them with each other. But there was something about the way she phrased her questions that confused them. Like they didn’t know what the meaning of is was.
She followed Lstascht to the main hall. Unlike most of the compound, this space was tall enough for humans to stand up in, and then some. “Thtah?” Tug. “Thtah!” Tug tug.
Buffy was wrestling with the kids.
Ten or fifteen teeny tiny toothy monsters dog piled on the slayer, snapping and snarling. Buffy’s whole body was smudged with blood. It caked her hair, ran in rivulets down her bare legs, and puddled on the green stone floor. She tossed the children away, again and again, and laughed as they bounced like superballs from the walls and ceiling, double rows of sharp teeth bared.
Her behavior was beginning to concern Dawn.
So far, Buffy had been unable to convince their captors to set them free. This had stopped bothering Dawn a week ago. Once she understood the situation, free didn’t look like such a good idea, anymore. Free was the ruined world topside, where sunlight and pale pink skies would tear her magic-bonded molecules apart. Free was a diet of lizard and cactus scavenged a mouthful at a time by the light of the unending storm. Free was where the giant scaled predators hunted.
Captivity, on the other hand, was warmth and comfort and plenty of food. True, it was not as tasty as the stuff from Willy’s kitchen, but it was better than anything they’d get at home. And after Lstascht saw her using the book she’d brought, more books had appeared. Dawn’s half of the room she shared with Buffy contained a library of forty or so volumes, written in as many languages.
No, she was content to stay in her comfortable cage, petted and coddled by indulgent goblins, until she was sure she would wind up someplace better.
But Buffy was restless.
“Pffeee,” Lstascht whimpered.
“Eeyeah.” The goblins—or Hsshthk, as they called themselves—hunted in packs, taking down large prey with sheer and overwhelming numbers. It was a skill they began practicing young, judging from the jumble of two foot tall Hsshthk children trying to force Buffy’s ankles to buckle in different directions. “But she looks happy.”
“Thtah....” Lstascht’s ears stuck straight out to the side, rigid with consternation.
“I don’t know what to do about it,” she said. “At least she’s not trying to hunt, anymore. That was bad.” The goblin let out a hiss of esses, kays, and tees that couldn’t be anything but a string of obscenities. “You’re telling me.”
The longer Buffy spent away from humanity, or a Cibolan facsimile thereof, the less human she seemed. To a point, that wasn’t surprising. Most creatures could go feral, under the right circumstances, even people—and Dawn had lost some of her polish, too—but Buffy went feral more like a cat than a dog. Like something that hadn’t been completely domesticated in the first place.
“She’s not hurt, if that’s what you’re worried about.” They’d only been with the Hsshthk for a few days when Dawn stopped trying to find common linguistic ground. They understood as much English as they were going to. There were concepts that just didn’t translate. And she suspected that some of the sounds they made were out of human hearing range.
That wouldn’t stop her from learning this language.
“If I say she’s training, do you understand what I mean?” Lstascht cocked her head, blinked her inner eyelids slowly. She wasn’t sure if it was a part of their formal language, but with two sets of eyelids, and ears that were practically prehensile, they could convey a lot of meaning even without the hypothetical words she couldn’t hear. “Yes?” She nodded her head. “No?” She shook it.
The goblin raised her right ear and let the left one droop. That was new. “Sssss,” she said, and bobbed her oversized head.
“Sssss?” Dawn repeated. “Does that mean you understand? That’s a yes?”
“Sssss.” She nodded, but then her right ear dropped to match her left. “Pffeee,” she said mournfully.
“Yeah,” Dawn sighed. “Tell me about it.”
Chapter 20: Day 112
“Ng.” The goblin shook her head emphatically.
“Why not?” Dawn pointed again to Sunnydale on her map.
Lstascht raised her inner eyelids half way up and scrunched the outer ones. That meant she was trying to find the right words. She shook her head again, and let her ears droop. “Ng,” she repeated.
So. Too complicated to convey with their limited shared vocabulary. Goddamnit, this language was kicking her ass.
She’d gotten Lstascht to give her books written in Hsshthk. It had been less than helpful. Each teardrop shaped “book” was fastened together at its point with a clear plastic? acrylic? barrel so that the pages fanned out into a circle—like a flower. The pages themselves were extremely thin but rigid transparent sheets separated into sections with opaque dividers. Within the sections, each page varied in only minor details from the ones in front of and behind it.
They were printed written? etched? in raised characters so small she needed a magnifying glass to read them. Buffy showed her the sequence of pictograms to press on her Cibolan controller to activate the magnifier (“Frikkin’ hell! What else does it do?”) but it didn’t help. As far as she could tell, every single one of the ten thousand or so characters on the first page she looked at was unique. It never repeated.
Worse, when she couldn’t figure out how to begin translating, Lstascht had read them to her, tracing the characters one at a time with a clawed fingertip, the way you would for a child.
Well, first she’d carefully selected a page somewhere in the middle of a section, and then she’d talked for a full five minutes on each character. “I do not understand,” Dawn had said after listening for most of an hour. That was how she’d been introduced to Lstascht’s scrunched eye expression.
“Yeah, I know,” she said, pointing again to the map. “I’m the slow kid. I still need to get here.” She tapped Sunnydale. “To the Hellmouth.”
Lstascht hissed something in Hsshthk, and her spine tightened all the way down. The goblins were friendly. The goblins were kind. The goblins were nightmare and horror and blood. They were the metal hook scraping the top of the car when you ran out of gas on a deserted country road. They were the monster under the bed. They were the movement you caught out of the corner of your eye when you were walking home alone late at night, and like the vampires of her world, they lived on blood.
More to the point, they lived on the blood of the k’heh’ch—the ginormous saber-toothed dinotigers on the surface—swarming over them, peeling them apart, and licking their shredded flesh dry.
She swallowed hard. “Is that a no?”
“Sssss.” Her inner eyelids slammed all the way closed.
“Oh, come on. You can’t keep us here forever. We need to get home.”
Lstascht grabbed the tips of her ears and tugged downward. Then she closed her outer eyelids. They tensed around the edges. It was the same look her mother used to get every time Buffy came home bleeding. Dawn smiled. Sure, the goblin was scary. She was also worried sick. It was like having a miniature Spike around. “Everyone who cares about me is a monster,” Dawn said. Lstascht cracked her eyes open and let her arms fall. “Look. I’ll drop it, for now, but you have to figure out how to tell me why. Deal?”
They shook on it, the goblin’s tiny clawed hand dwarfed by her own. “You’re going to learn English way before I learn Hsshthk.”
Lstascht blinked her inner eyelids once, very slowly. “Sssss.”
“Hey! Can the attitude, Missy. I’m smart for a human.” She folded the map up and stowed it away on the bookshelf in her room. When she began to infringe on Buffy’s space, Buffy put her foot down, and was moved to a room three corridors over. This was a win for Buffy—the room had more natural daylight—and it gave Dawn a lot more room for her library. She’d discovered that Lstascht was happy to bring her books in specific languages—and even on specific topics. She didn’t know where the goblin got them, and she didn’t know how to ask. Where was even trickier than is, which took her weeks to crack.
It turned out that every is had to have a context attached to it—a name. She didn’t understand why, yet, but if she wanted one of the goblins to answer, she had to specify that she meant this particular is.
“Buffy is this main hall training?” she asked in her broken Hsshthk.
“Ng.” That was Lstascht’s accented but English no, which meant she’d messed up the syntax, somehow.
“Buffy this is main hall training?” she tried again.
Lstascht’s ears perked. “H’ch.”
Still a no, but this time it was the right no. That was progress.
Did where need a name, too? It was worth a shot. “Buffy this where training?”
Lstascht’s ears stood straight up like Bugs Bunny. “K’heh,” she said. The surface. Bingo! It was a principle. It had to be. Anytime you wanted to know about the location or existence of something, you had to specify which...what? Which context, clearly, but what the hell did that mean? So far as she could tell, this context covered the whole goddamned world. What would you need another—.
“What’s Buffy doing on the surface?”
Lstascht’s ears dropped limply to the sides of her head, and she let out a very human-sounding sigh. Then she tugged on Dawn’s thumb.
Dawn followed her down the dark tunnels, as familiar to her, now, as her room in the Hyperion, up the ladder, and out the western hatch to the surface. It didn’t take them long to find Buffy. You could hear the screaming for miles.
Eight—she counted—young adult Hsshthk battled Buffy with murderous ferocity, hurling themselves at her singly and in groups, only to be picked off, one at a time, and pitched away against the crumbling bricks and blocks of the dead city. Then, with caterwauling battle cries, they leapt on her again.
“Wow,” Dawn said. “She’s getting better.”
Chapter 21: Day 200
“Surprise, surprise. There’s something wrong with Buffy.”
“That’s not what I—.”
“Why not? It’s true, isn’t it?” Buffy spun and aimed a flat-footed kick at her punching bag.
“I didn’t say—.”
“No.” Smack. “Big.” Punch. “Deal.” Elbow. Uppercut. Spin. Elbow. Spin. “I’m used to it.” Jab. Jab, jab, jab, jab, jab, jab, roundhouse. Except for three inches of dark at the roots, Buffy’s hair was still corn silk pale, and it was longer than Dawn had ever seen it. Beaded plaits a dozen hairs thick were scattered through it, added by the nimble fingers of adoring Hsshthk children. When she fought, she fought naked, like the Hsshthk warrior caste. She’d been naked for days.
“I don’t know what to do, anymore.”
Kick. Punch. Kick. Spin. Kick.
“If I do what I want, it’s wrong. Bad Buffy.”
Punch. Punch. Kick. Kick. Kick.
“If I do what everyone else wants, it’s still wrong. Somehow. Bad Buffy.”
Punch. Kick. Kick. Elbow. Kick. Punch.
“No matter what I do—wrong.”
Kick, kick, kick, kick, kick, kick, kick.
The bag broke from its makeshift moorings, sailed across the room, and split against the wall, spilling green-gray metallic sand in a heap on the floor. Buffy glowered after it like it had run away when she wanted to finish the fight.
“I only said that going through the initiation might be taking things a little far.” She tried to keep her voice neutral. “That scarification thing they do is permanent.”
“And this isn’t?” She flung her arms out, fingers spread. “We’re stuck here. Settle in.”
“That’s what I came to talk to you about.”
“You know—no. Don’t tell me.”
“You’re either gonna tell me that you’ve learned a new word in their language so you can ask another question or—.” She walked up onto her hands, arched her back, and did pushups. Slowly. Dawn’s shoulders ached just watching. “You’re gonna tell me your goblin queen brought me something—some cool new weapon or toy or whatever.”
“Her name is Lstascht. Look—I get that you’re busy channeling some primal slayer juju, and I’m on board with that. Cope however. But she is trying to help. Every time you go outside, she thinks you’re gonna die.”
“She’s not my mo—.” Even Slayer-Buffy couldn’t go that far. “I don’t want it.”
“You don’t know what—.”
“I’m stronger than I’ve ever been.” She was in great shape physically, sure. But emotionally? Thin frikkin’ ice. “I don’t need it. If you have some overwhelming need to give it to me, leave it in my room. I’ll look at it later.”
“Why don’t you let me tell you what she brought?”
“Fine.” She completed a walkover and stood, all sinew and grace, but vibrating with anger. “What did she bring?”
“Godiva chocolates, and a Harlequin romance novel.”
And just like that, Slayer-Buffy was gone. Buffy-Buffy looked out at her with naked hope in her eyes. “World walkers,” she breathed. “You were right.”
“And you’re crazy. Put some frikkin’ clothes on, and let’s go.”
Lstascht waited in Buffy’s room, book and candy in her little goblin hands. Her ears twitched. When she spotted Buffy, she made the kind of chittering noise cats make when birds land outside the window, and held them up.
“For me?” Buffy accepted the gifts with the first smile Dawn had seen in weeks. “Thank you, Lstascht.”
Buffy examined the fine print on the back of the novel. “I checked and triple checked,” Dawn said. “As far as I can tell, Lstascht walked to our specific world to get you chocolate.”
“And ‘The Englishman’s Bride.’” Buffy waved the book and giggled. Actually giggled.
“And that.” A romance novel. That’s what it took to bring her around? “Have you read it?”
She shook her head. “It’s new. I’ve been busy.”
“Well, you’ve got some time, now. It’ll be at least a week until we can leave.”
Buffy nodded. “Wait—what?”
It had been their language that tipped her off. For every place you talked about, you had to include an extra thing—this weird contextual signifier she’d never seen anywhere else. Which training room? This training room. It sent her into a spin, made her feel stupid, and Dawn Summers was anything but stupid.
She researched the problem, but there was nothing in her books—in the ones she could read, anyway. There could be something in the ones she couldn’t read. Dawn had books in languages she would probably never decipher, Hsshthk among them. Whatever else she might be, her mind was human, and some of them contained concepts beyond human understanding.
She speculated to Buffy one morning that the goblins weren’t limited to this single world. As evidence, she compared the languages in her books. The strangest ones didn’t even look like they were written with the same appendages. “Well, this world is old,” Buffy’d said doubtfully. “Maybe a bunch of different demons lived here. Do they have a cache of this stuff somewhere?”
So Dawn had crawled up and down every inch of the tunnels they called home. There was no stash of human-friendly goods. She’d gnawed on the problem until this morning when Lstascht brought the chocolates, which she knew definitively did not come from the same world as the books in her library. Then, with this first tangible evidence, she pressed her point.
What do you mean, this training room? Do you need latitude and longitude? Did the Hsshthk navigate magnetically, like birds? Lstascht had responded with her slow-blink and described—like she was talking to a child—the structure of the multiverse. And that’s when she knew for sure.
This training room. The training room in this universe, as opposed to the nearly identical training room one dimension over. Once she got that, everything else fell into place.
Lstascht hadn’t even been hiding it. She’d brought toys and trinkets back to them from dozens of worlds, sometimes in the space of a day. Because they’d traveled to this world under their own power, the goblins thought they could leave whenever they wanted. When she explained that she needed a door, and pointed to Sunnydale on her map, Lstascht’s ears drooped, but she agreed—finally, reluctantly—to help them get there.
“We’re going to the Hellmouth.”
There was a brilliant smile, an instant of Buffy-Buffy, before Slayer-Buffy snapped back into place. “In a week, you said?”
“Good.” The slayer’s shoulders squared. “I have time to finish my initiation.”