A bit more horror, I think...
Chapter Fourteen – Night Terrors
Buffy’s sleep came that night with disquieting dreams. Not Slayer ones rising up from the depths of her psyche; these contained no prophesies or warnings of horrors to come, but were instead, a collection of jumbled pictures - faces, voices, places - that shattered into a rush of images that made no sense at all.
For hours she tumbled in her troubled sleep as she surfed the waves of this subconscious tide, swept along like flotsam on the chaos. Turning restlessly, over and over again, this tempest tossed her across a turbulent ocean of fears and doubts before washing her up on a shore of calm, where the dreams cleared and sharpened into a smooth digital clarity…
Spike’s hand shone like a winter moon across the dingy shallows of her basement, his white skin pale and luminous in the darkness. The amulet swung from his long fingers in a loose, lazy, trajectory; back and forth, back and forth, like a metronome keeping the steady beat of her heart. As the crystal swirled on its chain, the facets caught the light streaming in through the open door above and scattered it, like a brilliant glitter ball of tiny diamonds. They circled the walls when it turned, this way and that, chasing away the gloom that drowned the room in its inky shadows.
This was no ordinary dream of nonsense and shifting Dali-esque landscapes, Buffy realised. She was lucid and in control; awake while she slept on. The setting felt real and solid, almost as it had on that night before the battle with The First, but the details were different, or sharper somehow, as if only now she could notice them. The basement was cold; as frozen as her heart had been for a very long time. This was her dark place, the room where she kept her secrets from the world, safe amongst the boxes of junk. Here were the things she’d left behind but couldn’t bear to part with; like her childhood toys, once cherished and full of memories, now stacked up and forgotten; and her mother’s possessions, stored here, useless but too precious to throw away. These tarnished treasures bulged from boxes of saggy, mildewed cardboard crammed between rusting tools, old tatty books and Christmas lights that would never see another holiday tree - all human things, mundane and trivial. It was an incongruous place for a vampire to dwell.
As she approached, Spike looked up. He regarded her steadily, the sparkles from the amulet glimmering as they flashed across the dark depths of his eyes; those same clear pools she’d once refused to drown in. In this dream he was open to her, in a way he’d never been since the new soul had smothered him in shame. She could see the smaller, subtler clues to his mood in how his posture lay heavy with regret and a quiet resignation. There was a gentle world-weariness in his eyes that hung solemnly over his longing for her that still burned in his gaze, despite all his guilt and belief in his own unworthiness. She’d thought they had reached a chaste understanding, no longer weighted with the bricks of past mistakes, the future had began to blossom with possibilities, but he didn’t seem so sure. But this was the real Spike, she was positive. Underneath their comfortable familiarity, she could feel the tension that she’d always denied and suppressed, continue to crackle between them; tight, almost tangible and a little exciting, highly charged like everything they’d done together. Here was the one that had tried grasp her heart as it slipped through his fingers, that had brought her his soul as a gift, not some obscene copy that used his face to menace her.
Yet Spike had known. He’d known all along that the amulet would destroy him, and she realised now that he’d been ready to die. Not suicidal, just prepared, accepting that this was what he had to do. Caught in the enchantment of fond memory, she found herself breathless, not wanting this moment to end. She wanted to tell him that a spark had kindled in her heart for him, that a love had ignited into flame too late. She wanted him to believe her. But the words would not come, fading to silent ashes upon her tongue without breath to form them.
She waited. The spell of the moment remained unbroken; their eyes locked in a gentle regard, communicating volumes without speaking, until her breathlessness became more than an anxious desire not to spoil this, but a real struggle to inhale.
“It’s almost time,” Spike said softly. His voice was sepulchral, rich, low and foreboding. Was he warning her or was he telling her to let him go?
She wheezed as her chest constricted. “Spike…”
She tried to take a deep breath, but there was nothing to fill her lungs. She gasped anxiously, “I don’t want to die.”
“Then you need to wake up.”
Buffy opened her eyes; it was few hours before dawn, when the night was at its darkest and its most potent. Still dreamy and half-awake, she saw she was back in her cold, lonely room at The Retreat. Spike and the basement were gone, returned to her memories of leaking pipes and empty chains.
A dread, terrible and leaden, jolted her into sharp awareness. She couldn’t breathe. Around her neck something held her tightly, a hand she could not see, while another smothered her mouth like a hard seal. She could feel each of those strong fingers, squeezing her throat, pressing into her face, digging in with fingernails like claws, but above her, where her assailant should have been, there was only empty air.
She lifted her arms to fight back. At least she tried to. She couldn’t move or feel anything. Her limbs were frozen and numb, held immobile in paralysis. Struggling made little difference, her body didn’t respond, all movement lost to an overwhelming lethargy. Her chest felt crushed and airless, as if a heavy weight, like a body or a stone, was pushing her against the softness of the bed. She could already feel the black arms of death reaching out to receive her, insidious and seductive, a cold menace that flowed like ice along sluggish arteries that remembered the grave too fondly. She resisted them as they beckoned her towards their embrace; it was a long time now since she’d wanted to die.
Seconds felt like hours as the ghost took form; its ethereal body as thin as smoke but making its weight up in dread. First, the spectral eyes appeared, glittering wildly in the darkness as they gained substance. A hollow, ghastly skull framed them in a grotesque mask of fury, its flesh indistinct in shadow for a moment before brightening into a rough sketch of some haggard thing that could once have been a man. The hand on her throat squeezed harder. The pain was terrible, in her neck, in her head, in her bursting lungs. Paralysed and in pain, she looked up into the hostile stare as its eyes bored into hers, the set of its jaw angry and intent. They blazed with a cool hate, icy and piercing, floating so close to her face that the malice was intensified by their proximity. Even in the darkness, she could see them clearly, and she shrank from the appalling measure of their loathing.
The hard, empty pain of asphyxiation gripped her chest as Buffy held the last of her breath tightly in her lungs. She tried to scream, for whom she did not know, but her voice was hoarse and weak, squeezed through her constricted throat. The spirit, ghost, or whatever it was, smiled, a grim mockery of mirth. Then it released her, breaking its silence with a savage laugh - a terrible, gurgling, death rattle that seemed to freeze her inside. She sat up abruptly, gasping like a drowning soul breaking the surface of the water. She grabbed at the malevolent spirit, but her grasping hands passed through its ethereal body as it began to fade. Flesh melted in front of her, peeling from bone that crumbled away into dust as it vanished.
Pulling herself from the tangle of sheets, Buffy tried to stand. Her legs bore her weight for a few seconds as she staggered towards the bathroom, but after a couple of steps they crumpled beneath her. She collapsed heavily onto her hands and knees, not noticing how her knees grazed along the worn Oriental rug, as she fought against a rising nausea that doubled her over. Her head was pounding, and each ragged breath she drew in through her bruised windpipe was dry and sore. She retched violently, unable to resist the tight clenching pull on her aching stomach any longer, and puked into the delicately patterned weave.
Trembling and hunched on all fours, her head hung low between her quivering arms as she tried to regain control of her body. Her loose hair trailed over her face and where it touched her perspiring skin it stuck in limp, damp clumps. The bathroom had never seemed so far away, and she waited until her head cleared a little and the nausea eased to a nagging discomfort before stumbling to the shower. She didn’t care that the water wasn’t heated or even that she was still clothed; she needed to wash, right now. She stood beneath the freezing spray for as long as she could endure the icy water; the shock brought her back to herself as the dirt sloughed away. The water spiralled down the plughole in a cleansing whirlpool, clear and pure, and her horror washed away.
Back in the cold bedroom, she began to shiver; great quaking tremors that spasmed through her cold muscles. She was exhausted, drained of energy; the ghost had sucked it out her, as it had what little heat there’d been in the room. The mute apparition had used her life force, stealing it from her living flesh to fuel its own manifestation. Despite its cosy temptations, she avoided the bed, too alert and too shaken to sleep. Peeling off her wet pyjamas, the skin beneath them was damp and clammy, icy to the touch and she was glad of warm, dry clothes. Seeking more warmth, she checked the grate; the ashy embers glowed dully, almost out. Stoking them into life again, she added more logs and huddled in close, shoulders hunched and closed, getting as near to the fire as she dared. The flames caught the fresh wood and they leapt high, driving away the darkness with a light wholesome smoke. The glowing heat prickled her skin, but it failed to soothe away the chill that gnawed inside. She longed for a hot bath, but the best she could do was pull the arms of her sweater over her frozen fingers.
She wanted to go home, back to the warm places where the sun actually shone and where evil pursued its plans on nights that never saw rain or snow. She wanted someone to talk to. She wanted Spike’s dark, dry humour and his strong, comforting arms. She wept. This time not just for herself, but for everything, for Spike, for Anya and her mom whose graves were the ruins of a city that could never be rebuilt, for all of those who’d lost their lives in her battle. She wished she’d gone to Brighton with Willow, Kennedy and Dawn, and forgotten for a while the malice that lingered in the evil things of the world. She even wished, for the first time in a long time, that she were still in the soft comfort of heaven.
Unwilling to place her trust in sleep again that night, she sat and waited for the dawn, listening to the fire crackle and spit. A weighty silence had enveloped the house. Not a total absence of noise, but one that seemed to press in like the darkness; brooding, suggestive, secretive. Buffy had never feared the dark or the creatures that stalked it, but the dead of night was the playground of the imagination; where solitude turned to loneliness, concern became paranoia and shadows concealed hidden threats. The night took the worries of the day and made them into mortal fears; every sound was amplified in the dim light and reverberated through the walls in distorted and strange shapes. Creaks became ghostly knockings from souls seeking release from the earthly plane, as the sighs of the breeze outside formed pitiful whispers that begged for forgiveness for their living sins.
The window rattling shook her from her wild imaginings; the latch had come open and the pane swung and crashed against its frame. The tasteless porcelain vase on the windowsill tottered for a moment, before it toppled from its high perch and smashed on the floor in a blizzard of potpourri. The fire’s warmth was pierced by a sharp chill brought from outside by the strong breeze, yet the atmosphere had become heavy and oppressive, as if a storm were brewing. She got up and pulled it closed again, almost glad of having something to do to break the monotony.
It was as she turned away, that she first heard the hunting horn in the distance, bugling an urgent call into the night. Accompanied by the sound of many hooves, drumming along at a furious gallop, it seemed a strange, incongruous sound this late; somehow out of place in the darkness. She knew little about hunting, but she’d seen a hunt once, clattering down the lane outside Giles’ house early one morning. If they hunted at night, she didn’t know, but she was convinced she’d seen a few twisted demonic faces amongst the huntsmen.
She returned to her place by the fire and ignored the clamour outside. The horn sounded again, and this time she heard voices, keening and shouting words she could not make out, but knew instinctively were sounds anything living should never hear. The voices echoed through the empty rooms of The Retreat, twisted and discordant, weaving a spell of fear within her, primal and unrestrained, filling her up with a rising terror that felt like the clench of dark hands around her heart. This was no ordinary hunt.
She stood up, looking for some kind of defence, as they made their relentless approach, not knowing how they would attack. Close now, the hooves of the horses made a cacophony of a thousand beats, thundering across the heavens, nearer and nearer until they finally clattered along the parquet of the Long Gallery; the infernal voices whooping over the racket, harsh and terrible, yelling profanities in languages straight from hell.
The Wild Hunt burst through the walls of the room; spectral hounds, giant ravening beasts of the pit baying for the blood of the living, and an unholy host of skeletal horses, ragged nags with red demon eyes and limp dead manes, whinnying with fear as they were cruelly whipped by their riders - horrid corpses, still in their funereal finery though they hung in strips of faded fabric, stained and torn, from hollows were flesh should be. The empty sockets in their cracked skulls stared sightlessly forward and their jawbones lolled as if still in their graves.
The field flew past her, inches away, disappearing through the outside wall into the night. A stray hoof caught her, clipping her with a powerful kick that threw her aside. She crouched low for safety where she fell, her hands over her head to try to shut herself away. She could feel the air, disturbed by their passing, rushing against her skin. A wind of turmoil, reeking of death; of bones lain in stone tombs, sealed against forever, of the putridity of decaying flesh, of the familiar dry mustiness of the coffin. She struggled to keep them out of her head, whispering a mantra of ‘they aren’t here, they aren’t here' as her face and hands caught the sharp lashes of the rider’s whips. Slavering hounds snapped at her, biting her with stinking, drooling fangs. And still they kept coming, hundreds of them, the rush, the clamour, the terror so deafening it drowned out all thought.
When the field started to thin out to the stragglers, she could think again. Hers was not the blood they were after, though she pitied those souls they hunted each night. She opened her eyes and sprang up in time to see the bony tails of the last few horses vanish through the curtain. The grip of fear lessened and dissipated. She ran to the window, fumbling with the stiff old-fashioned latch again before throwing it out wide so that she could look out across the grounds. The trees ahead of her, masking the house from the lane with great boughs of oak and sycamore, rustled with the brisk wind. The horn blew from somewhere over the hill, but there was nothing left to be seen except the turbulent clouds were forming on the horizon. Dark against the bright blaze of the Milky Way, they gathered like crows during a battle, hanging there, looming, threatening, waiting for their cue.
For a second, Buffy could have been in Sunnydale, looking out from her bedroom window over Revello Drive at the lonely, lovesick vampire in the front yard leaning casually against their tree. But the curtains she’d pushed aside were of heavy brocade and the vampire staring up at her smugly from the disordered lawns wasn’t a vampire at all.
“Is that the best you can do?” she shouted defiantly into the night.
The First smiled. Even though it was too dark to see its features clearly, she knew the borrowed smirk it wore as well she knew The First’s sneering, insidious tongue. She slammed the window shut and hauled the curtains closed. The ghost and the Wild Hunt had been The First all along, using the entities over which it held dominion, drawing them forth from some dark dimension to toy with her, to break her will.
She didn’t sleep again until sunrise.
Previous parts are here.
Thanks to myfeetshowit, calove, frimfram, hesadevil for the beta.