A Gift by Starlight
by Mina Martin
Chapter 6: Hallways
Everywhen ∞ Everywhere
Something was in the dreamspace with them.
For a split millisecond, something changed. Went rippling sideways, or slantways, longways and backways. It wasn’t to the left or to the right, and it wasn’t right either. But still not exactly wrong.
His companion, well, she hadn’t noticed a thing, but the vellus hair on the back of his neck raised as if a ghost were passing by. Which it might well have – ghosts could certainly exist here. Almost anything could exist here, with enough time and effort, magic and luck. It was waking up that was the hardest trick.
The frisson of magic could end up being just his kind of thing, the ace up his sleeve that even he didn’t know was hiding there. Or it could be a spanner down his trousers, same difference.
Either way, warlock Ethan Rayne stilled. How gloomily fitting.
The memory-dream they were presently wading through was that of a pet’s cage. Something designed for a hamster or a gerbil, but they experienced it from the downsized point-of-view of the caged animal. It still wasn’t the most bizarre memory-dream he’d experienced over the last few hours. Or maybe days? Time wasn’t exactly the same here as it was in the waking world. But having been kidnapped out there as well, Rayne felt far too much like an animal of prey for his own tastes.
“Wait,” he said, to his unlikely companion. “Do you feel that?”
She was petite and blonde, and she looked both ways as if standing at a crosswalk for his question. She wore a sweet white sundress-style nightgown, a pretty young thing even when standing ankle deep in memory-dream hay bedding, and had a right jab that he could personally attest to feeling like being hit with a brick. And she just shrugged, lightly.
“I feel a little hungry? I could go for a midnight snack. Ooh, can we dream up a taco stand?”
The adorable and deadly Buffy Anne Summers, California girl to the core, last Slayer standing with a capital S even among the group of new-age slayers with their lowercase titles, and stronger in more ways than any of her enemies could ever guess, let out a wistful sigh. Where she lived now, carne asada with fresh guacamole was rarer and more mythical than a shellycoat, aka the Bigfoot of rural Scotland.
“The dreamspace is a primordial dimension of human subconscious, not an invisible genie that grants your wishes. Sometimes I truly do wonder how you’ve survived this long at your calling.”
Buffy pouted. Who didn’t like tacos? Evil enemy bad guys, that’s who, case in point right here in front of her.
“Well, what can I say? I sting like a bee, and I float like one of those colorful sink-y rings you throw in the deep end of the pool. I’ve never been that in tune with the psychic part of the whole Slayer gig. Look, I’ll punch whatever needs punching, and you can feel up the dreamy aura of this place.”
“That is a gross oversimplification and profound misunderstanding of your own abilities.”
Buffy looked down and made a slight motion with one foot, kicking away dream-hay bedding. “Now you sound like Giles. The back-when, Dewford Dingus Decimal System version of Giles.”
The pet cage they’d been standing in – the secret dream/nightmare of whoever was currently scheming against them – faded away to the black nothingness of the dreamspace.
She made a sharp inhalation of breath, ready to move on. “So, are we finally ready to blow this popsicle stand?” Buffy stopped, sent a thousand-yard stare out into the black dreamspace, then said, “And I was today years old when I realized how dirty that phrase sounds.” She shook her head. “Ugh. Seriously, though – I know the girl that lived in that cage. Amy accidentally self-trapped herself as a rat and decided to go Darth Wicca once she was turned back into a human. So, she’s the big bad that’s behind all of this?”
“Or just the right-hand-woman. I saved you from the maelstrom of an endless nightmare she used to capture you, so we could learn more about whoever’s attacking you, and by extension me. Let me rest after besting the minotaur before I attempt to escape the labyrinth.”
This was why he had chanced reaching out to Buffy Summers through the dreamspace once the information of an attack against her wormed its way to his ears. He already had more intel after a brief sojourn with her than he’d gathered in months previous. That, and he was banking on the great Champion of Light feeling charitable enough after this little tour to come rescue him in the physical, waking world.
His other, earlier prayers had gone unanswered.
Well, Ethan Rayne wasn’t the type of chap to sit around on his arse waiting for a miracle. Sure, his previous encounters with the girl included transforming her into a helpless 18th century lady-in-waiting, or brainwashing all the adults in her town to act like reckless sex-crazed teenagers, or going out for pints and reminiscing with Rupert Giles only to drug the man and temporarily spell him into the body of a Fyarl demon. All in good fun, and Buffy had always been kind enough to merely beat the stuffing out of him afterwards instead of outright killing him.
Whoever the current enemy was, they were just a minion of the latest doomsday group to reach the top of the wretched pile. He mentally scoffed; this “Twilight” cabal. What kind of a name was that, anyway? However powerful it was growing – far too much, too strong, and too quickly in his opinion – it still sounded like something a sparkling poufter of a vampire might think up.
Meanwhile, a different half-dream burbled into existence all around them from the blackness. Ironically, their irritation at each other coagulated in the dreamspace to form an image of the man that connected them: one Mr. Rupert Giles, exasperated, taking off his glasses, pinching the bridge of his nose, wiping his glasses, pushing up his glasses, a dozen pairs of glasses and a Giles for each.
The man had been Rayne’s friend, once upon a time in adolescence, but he’d been Buffy’s Watcher, mentor, and painfully obvious father-figure for years now.
“Ah, yes. Our favorite librarian’s come a long way ‘round from all that tweed and upper-class sensibilities, hasn’t he? Still a little further down to go, to get on my level.” Or back to Rayne’s level, but she’d never listen to him about that.
“You’re a third-rate magician who loves to make a mess of peoples’ lives, including mine, because you’re all up in your Victorian self and you get off on the horrible consequences. Also, you call me ‘pet’ and ‘my love’ despite being as old as the dinosaurs. Giles could plummet to the center of the Earth and never land on your level.”
Rayne sneered, but she had already turned and walking ahead through the blackness of the dreamspace.
“You know,” said Buffy, “I had a pretty good day today. Woke up in the magical Citadel we all helped raise in the high sheep lands of Scotland that would make Hogwarts jealous. Highlands? Sheeplands, Shetlands? Wait no, that’s a pony, right? And not like an actual species of sheep that gets high?”
“You don’t actually need to narrate your bizarre thought process out loud whilst I attempt to guide us through the dreamspace.”
“Oh, but I’m super proud of my burgeoning inner Englishwoman. I’m not up to casually dropping words like ‘whilst’ in general conversation, but I’m able to eat, like, 80% of an English Breakfast now. This morning I swallowed one whole bite of black pudding without gagging and I only needed a dozen waffles with syrup to wash it all down. One day I’ll even make it to tea instead of orange juice, and then a magical owl will deliver a letter of commendation to mark the event.”
Rayne tried to dream up noise-cancelling headphones. No such luck. And there was no room for a biting comment on how English the girl felt while in Scotland, because she just kept on going.
“It was a bright and sunny training day, for once. In between missions, monsters of the week, the last and the next apocalypse. Just me and the girls getting a good workout.”
Yeah, the new girls. But the baby slayers could never replace the girls. Tara. Kendra. Jenny Calendar. Anya. All the classmates Buffy couldn’t save – drained of blood, or of youth, or their energy, dismembered and decapitated and eaten alive. There was a new monster every week.
Now Willow had been gone for more than a year too, although she wasn’t dead. Just off on her own solo adventure, less Eat Pray Love, and more – well, Buffy had no idea what a Witch’s Journey consisted of. Meditating with those sing-song bowls, throwing weeds in a cauldron for diet potions, getting those terrible massages where you pay $200 for someone to put rocks on you and wave their hands over your aura? They hadn’t heard anything from her except for some postcards from places that didn’t exist on Earth and one generic phone call last Hannukah.
It was a fantasy that only first loves broke your heart, left you older and wiser. Friendship breakups were a thing too, and Buffy was tired of missing all the people she loved.
As for little sis Dawnie... Buffy didn’t even want to think about the giant mess going on there.
Ugh, when had she gotten so obviously broody? Broody was supposed to be the domain of a certain ex-boyfriend only. On a Tall, Dark, and Handsome type the broodiness was alluring, but it wasn’t exactly the look Buffy wanted for herself. Pretty yet sophisticated, and occasionally cute despite being smack-dab in her twenties and no longer a teenager – that was the goal.
As long Buffy she didn’t think about the Citadel’s dreaded monthly utility bills or the side jobs needed to pay for them all. Slayers these days, they could take down a grappling hook demon no sweat, but they can’t find the light-switch on their way out of a room?
She started up again. “Also, we’ve got the best gym this side of Hadrian’s Wall: open 24/7, lots of aerobics, and no bro’s getting their ogle on while you’re trying to get through a round of ab crunches. We’re working on the free t-shirts – fitted scoop in something breathable – but post-shower movie nights with dinner are every night, and Indian take-out Tuesdays are growing on me like a happy barnacle.”
“I beg you to stop.”
“So soon?” Buffy tilted her head and looked up at Rayne through her eyelashes. She made sure to project extra cuteness just for his ugly benefit. “You’re getting old and soft, Ethan.”
He stepped right into her personal space. “We’ve all gotten older, pet,” he just about purred. “Are you the same girl that wanted nothing more than to play dress-up for her much-older suitor on All Hallows’ Eve? I could check to see if you still dream of silk petticoats and a candle-lit bedchamber. Though in your case, that would be like trying to un-bake the biscuits before they burnt the whole house down, hm?”
Buffy punched him in the kidney. Rayne stumbled almost all the way over and started wheezing. Then she grabbed him by the lapels of his (admittedly stylish and probably vintage leather) jacket, looming even though she was at least a foot shorter. “Didn’t you say earlier that time was of the essence, even here in dreamy-land? What exactly are you stalling for?”
Rayne shook her off and took more than a few moments to clear his throat. As much as he disliked it, he owed her some information in return – the big bad was definitely coming for her. “I’m not stalling, I’ve been trying to get a feel for whatever skimmed over what little defensive magic I can handle in this place. You’re welcome for the helping hand out of the nightmare your caged friend caged you in. Anyway, try to remember this when you wake up: Twilight is falling. You need to be ready.”
Buffy was about to quip on the cryptic when something caught her eye. Her mind narrowed in attention, like a lens focusing in place but without the rest of the world going blurry to compensate. She asked a question, as endearing as she could fake it, and already knew the answer. “Is that a firefly?”
Both of them watched the faint, flickering point. “A little speck of light,” Rayne semi-quoted, not remembering the rest of the song. A few steps in the light’s direction confirmed that it was not something small and close by, but something large and far away.
It did not grow bigger they walked closer. It stayed a will-o'-wisp for a long time. Suddenly, it was like the rubber band of a slingshot pulled it back, and then warp-snapped the light towards them. Kind of like the 80s style, fade-in logo effect from a VHS home video intro. But there was an anti-climactic lack of sound to the act, not even any eerie background music to match the radium-like light emanating from it.
‘It’ was a statue. Not exactly a bust, or a full standing figure, which was weird because even though it started at the torso it also hovered in place at torso-level, while rotating. Something about it seemed like the rest of the piece was missing. Not like one of those statues with arms missing, but like it was supposed to be resting on a pedestal but someone kicked the support out from underneath it, and contrary to the natural law of gravity the statue hadn’t fallen. Completely unnatural.
The open eyes and the open mouth glowed, but it was the rotating that made the light seem to momentarily disappear in a repeating pattern. The eyes and the mouth didn’t shine together. It was two-headed, back-to-back: one face had eyes that glowed but a closed mouth. The opposing face had a mouth that glowed with both eyes shut.
Buffy crossed her arms and rolled her eyes. It was her signature move when dealing with murderous minion creatures that wanted to proselytize and do a little ritual sacrifice for whatever demon lord was hot that week, or annoying younger teenage sisters. She told Dawn that there was something up with that Ken guy, but did new college freshman Dawn Summers take any advice from her older and wiser elders? No, she dove headfirst into a situation sandwich, getting mayo and mustard and little pickles everywhere, and now that everything had dropped on the floor Dawn was suddenly complaining like she was one of those gluten-freebie people.
Why, WHY couldn't Dawn learn from Buffy’s mistakes? Wasn't that what older sisters were for, to give an up-close-and-personal model of how things could go wrong so they could spare the next generation? Wasn't that what little sisters were for; to make those mistakes bearable, and give them meaning?
Rayne fit right in between ‘deadly monster that can spit 20 feet away and it’s acid saliva melts human flesh’ and ‘super annoying little sister’. “Oh look,” she said. “Your old friend Janus.”
Technically, only Willow saw the statue and the respective altar dedicated to a god of chaos at Ethan Rayne’s pop-up shop all those years ago, when he decided to play a deadly prank on the entire town. But she and Xander hung out at Buffy’s home that whole weekend, hyped up on leftover candy and Blockbuster rentals, talking about the holiday night’s craziness. The only movie she could remember was Broken Arrow, because it was action for Xander and Christian Slater for the girls. Or maybe just her. Or, honestly, maybe her and Xander after all. Someone brought up two-headedness, which led to two-faced-ness, which led to Xander combining their high-school queen bee Cordelia and Batman’s enemy Two-Face into a single sentence, which led to Willow wondering if a penny with two faces was extra lucky. God, but it was amazing what she could and couldn’t remember from high school.
Just like when she and Rayne thought of Giles earlier, now Buffy was getting lost in her thoughts and they manifested in the dreamspace around them. It was easy to get lost here. But the statue stayed where it was and didn’t disappear, like a threatening voyeur to her memories. It was too solid of a thing, and Buffy was starting to get the feeling that it was wrong of it to exist here.
Murky, nostalgic images made of shadow and smoke formed in the dark dreamspace from a time that seemed ancient now – Xander with both of his eyes, Willow still timid in herself, Giles with a stronger stutter that she’d forgotten he’d had in the first place. The first time she met Spike, wit as sharp as his cheekbones. Mom, alive and healthy. And Angel, eternally youthful and handsome, who had no idea what kind of evil would be unleashed on the world just for loving her.
Buffy easily washed away the memories with a wave of her arm. Dawn Summers, aka little sis, hadn’t featured in any of them – she didn’t want to dwell on whatever that meant.
“Planning on turning us into Sleeping Beauty and Rip Van Winkle?” she guess-accused Rayne. “‘Cause that’s so very 1997 and not a direct-to-video sequel I care to watch.”
He chuckled, and stepped in closer to examine the double-headed stone figure. “I’ll say one thing for my English education in all its repression; it included a fine study of ancient Rome. Interesting... despite the two faces this isn’t Janus, but his lesser-known associate and embodiment, Portunus.”
“Port-oonus, Port-ahhnus,” said Buffy, popping her P’s. “It’s all Greek to me.”
“I just said ancient Rome – ugh, never mind.” Rayne stepped in closer to look, but not touch. He wouldn’t dare. Each side held an object in their raised right hand; an elaborate key in one, and a strange wand in the other.
A shudder went through his body at the possibility of a message just for him; personal salvage from his god.
Rayne grinned. And he thought, oddly and fondly, of the plastic glow-in-the-dark vampire fangs he’d sold at his Halloween shop years before.
Then the first tremor of the reality-quake hit.
This time it was Buffy who stumbled, but she steadied herself faster than him. She grabbed him in a hold that, even in the prime of his young twenties, Rayne wouldn’t have been strong enough to break. With no wall to slam him against, Buffy forced him to his knees instead. “What did you do!”
“Oh, I didn’t do anything, pet. This isn’t me - this is way bigger than anything I could craft on my own. Something out there in the real world has made a delicious mess of strings and things.”
Of course Ethan Rayne would love a situation going to hell in a handbasket, he was all about chaos. What even was a handbasket – a medieval fanny-pack for your tiskets and taskets? The thing that Little Red Riding Hood carried? Why couldn’t anybody go to hell in a Little Red Corvette instead?
Time to get some actual answers. The bulk of her fist made a satisfying crack against his nose. “Try again, this time with the helpful CliffsNotes version. What do you know about whatever dangerous magic is obviously going on?”
Another tremor growled all around them. Even though they were in a black nothingness of dreamspace, Buffy could feel a rumble under her feet, reverberating through her body and soul, and in the air around them. There was finally an eerie audio to go with the visuals – a riving, unravelling sound like static over a crunchy rumple. That was the best way Buffy could understand it even in her own head and wow, her description sounded like a type of chef’s special sushi roll. Which was yet another delicious food she couldn’t get while living in a remote Scottish castle.
Rayne only laughed like some stereotypical cartoon villain even while blood trickled out of his nose, and she knocked him into the only other solid thing in existence near her. The statue stayed where it was, still slowly rotating in space, and Buffy slammed his face to the few inches of marble pedestal holding up the figures.
Over Rayne’s hiss of pain, she said, “Here’s the latest threat from a simple Valley Girl at heart: an all-natural exfoliation from hell, and I don’t mean because you used a coupon for the place at the end of the mall that ended up failing their health inspection.”
The blood leaking from his broken nose stained the stone as it turned, smearing under his cheek as it came back around. Rayne wasn’t laughing anymore.
“The world is being unmade,” he bit out. “But we were in here when it started, even if our bodies weren’t, so we’re unaffected. Everyone and everything outside? Well, you ever pull a thread and unravel the entire thing, either by accident or just morbid fascination?”
She shook him hard enough to rattle his middle-aged-bones. “I should’ve known better than to risk trusting you. How do I escape, save my friends, and stop the weird earthquake apocalypse!”
“Have you already forgotten what I first told you, when I grabbed you from the rip tide of your nightmarish arrival into this place? It’s one thing to forget after you wake, but the dream isn’t even done yet. Bad form, Slayer.
“Here’s my advice: you can run, and you should definitely hide. You’re on your own.”
Buffy punched him once more for good measure, and then looked around. The sound was back again, making her unsteady on her feet, yet there was nothing but inky blackness in the dreamspace. She picked an imaginary cardinal direction and then ran as if lives depended on it. Which they just might.
As Buffy ran away, Rayne noticed through a fresh black eye that what she wore wasn’t her flimsy nightgown anymore – she was already starting to gain a measure of control in this place. Not that her new outfit made any more sense, but that was Buffy the Vampire Slayer for you.
Alone with naught but the totem of his god, Ethan Rayne prostrated in the dark and waited for instructions. The statue stopped rotating, and the uncanny light from the open-mouthed face fell over him.
Rayne stood up to peer through the gateway. He saw himself – slumped against the wall of a military brig cell.
“Why Alice,” murmured Rayne, “You’re asleep!”
His real body made no movement as the door began to open, and a man in uniform stepped through. The man was alone, and he had his sidearm already out in one hand. Even Rayne knew that was hardly protocol, especially for someone with that many stars on his shoulders.
“Yes, yes of course I accept,” said Rayne. He was a faithful servant, as always. Oh, but it was going to hurt – as always. That was the nature of truth, the flipside to chaos that people never wanted to acknowledge.
The statue’s mouth grew larger – or he grew smaller – and it ate him up in a single gulp, bones and sinew and all.
In the real waking world, where it was early spring 2005 and inside of a hastily set-up base near a hellish stretch of the California coast, a zealous man called General Voll decisively aimed his gun at the center of his prisoner’s forehead and pulled the trigger.
It clicked. Voll examined his weapon for a moment, trying to find the cause of misfire, and when he looked again Ethan Rayne’s eyes were open and staring right back at him.
He immediately fired again, and the gun exploded in his hand. Voll flew back from a cloud of gunpowder and fire into the metal doorframe. The force of his head against the wall, only for a moment, was hard enough to splinter open the skin under his thinning hair. Voll could feel his own blood gushing out and down the wall. It made for a morbid kind of slip-and-slide for his body, lubricating the way for him to slowly collapse down to the floor. Even minor head wounds bleed heavily, he remembered from some long-ago conversation. But it was nothing compared to this hand he was looking at – this poor sod’s appendage, it looked like a lump of cooling lava or something out of a zombie flick – who’s hand is – it belongs to – it’s—
He started shouting just before the horrible pain set in. The false numbness of shock wasn’t long after.
Rayne stepped through the black, sparking cloud. If Voll still had the ability to pay attention, he would have seen that the explosion’s sooty aftermath was lingering too long to be normal. He would have seen that the particles and the sparks moved to part around the warlock as he stepped forward, never touching any skin.
Another reality-quake roared through, shaking the ground under their feet but also fizzing the molecules of the air, and the sound was like the zippers of the universe, rusted and caught on fabric, being forced open.
“What do you think?” Rayne said to General Voll. “5.1?”
All throughout the super-secret, government conspiracy, I-want-to-believe bunker base the klaxons rang, lights went dark and emergency bulbs tried to stay on, and all outside communications stopped. Losing your pen all the time was normal enough; holding it while it changed into a live ribbon snake and your clipboard disappeared in front of your very eyes and out of your very hands, well, that was cause for a little panic.
Music of the spheres, it was music to his ears.
The earthquake-like tremor rolled through the entire military space. The orders were hard to make out over all the incoherent shouting, even when they weren’t cut silent in midsentence. As if the person had suddenly turned to stone. Or – Rayne struggled to listen at this one – as if they were suddenly speaking old Xiang Chinese and couldn’t understand anything else, even if they were originally Iowa-born-and-raised. Brilliant!
He summoned a cigarette from his confiscated items, the stick simply appearing between his fingers, and let the sparks from the cloud light the end for him. As Rayne moved to leave his one-time prison, the rattling voice of General Voll called out to him.
The warlock focused on many things – only one of which was the sensation of nicotine entering his bloodstream. He wanted to hear if the man would get his last words.
“Falling... you won’t... stop him...”
Rayne crouched down to face him. He wiggled the cigarette in front of Voll’s nose. “Fancy a fag?”
The general’s face contorted in rage, and his cursing quickly devolved into a spasm of wet coughing.
“Ah, that’s right. I’m not supposed to ask.” Rayne took a drag, then blew smoke into the other man’s face.
“I don’t need to stop Twilight, mate. The apocalypse has been co-opted. Far more interesting than being outright cancelled, don’t you think?”
Voll’s gaze was heavy and iron-willed, even as he lay dying, and summoned a strength Rayne wouldn’t have guessed he still had. Just to tell the Englishman off.
He said: “You can’t stop him. Twilight is coming for you, and all those goddamned slayer girls. He’ll put them down like the rabid bitches they are.”
Rayne grinned. “Is that so?” He leaned forward to whisper in the General’s bloody ear, and casually spoiled the ending for him.
Voll’s eyes widened, and for a moment the pain of the truth was far, far worse than his fatal injuries. Then, he simply refused to believe. A lie of his own righteousness was too appealing in his final moments. Being a martyr was better than being a duped idiot, damn the consequences and casualties.
“Liar!” he called after Rayne, who was already gone, gone like laughter on the wind. So was the gunpowder cloud.
He was still dying and still denying when the wave crashed down, and then there was nothing but the delicious sizzle of everything unraveling.
* * * * * * * *
One of four. And the Hand can hold another’s or make a fist.
* * * * * * * *
to be continued...
* * * * * * * *
Buffyverse, finally! How did I do writing the girl in question? :D
I know what you’re thinking: “You spent two years writing just this bit?!”
Fear not, gentle readers. This was originally just the first scene of a full Chapter 6 that was even longer than Chapter 5’s 17k! I decided that super-long chapters are not the way to go, and I broke it up into sections.
So, read and digest this bit of Buffy. Let me know your thoughts and theories.
return to Index / go to Chapter 7
The Nephrite and Naru Treasury