In the soft light of a solitary candle, a can of spaghetti simmered on a small camping stove, bubbling like a witch's brew of lurid tangerine gloop. Beside them, cut into jagged doorstops, indulgently thick wedges of bread waited on a plate for the tangy potion to cook. But Buffy's thoughts were elsewhere.
The search for the sigil had proved to be trickier than she'd expected. She'd looked for hours, searching every corner of the first storey of the old house, long after the light had faded and the night had rolled in early. However, she'd found found nothing during her explorations, except bricked in fireplaces, small rooms tucked into the spaces between walls and a wall at the end of the Long Gallery that seemed to shorten the length of the corridor, but she'd found no way into the attic that she could see.
Eventually she'd given up looking. It was getting very late and she'd become hungry again. Sleep was tempting, but there was little chance of that. The wind had changed direction and was now a noisy, blustery westerly. It had blown away the low rain clouds which had smothered the daylight hours and replaced them with waves of dark, grumbling thunderheads, roiling and billowing in the ether.
As she listened to the thunder breaking in the distance and rumbling through the house, gave the contents of her little pan an impatient stir. She was still thinking about how to get into the attic, working out ways to break through ceilings or climb through windows, but knew there had to be a better way.
She started to slice some cheese and jumped, startled as something hit her arm. It bounced onto the steel worktop with a sharp metallic clunk before dropping onto the floor. Puzzled, she picked it up. It was a brass Chubb key, perfectly normal except that it was strangely warm to the touch. She figured it must have fallen from the cupboard above her, so she put it down and thought nothing more of it.
"Ow!" Another object struck the soft pad of her cheek, a coin this time. Its trajectory suggested it had been thrown from somewhere close to the pantry door, but Buffy couldn't see anything unusual.
"Hello?" She picked up the candle, illuminating each corner of the kitchen in turn. Everything was as it should be and there was no one lurking in the deep shadows. Yet she felt she wasn't alone. "Okay, this is getting way creepy now."
Sighing, she returned the candle to the counter and went back to slicing her cheese. As she picked up the knife, the candle blew out and a cascade of metallic junk pelted her upper body, forcing her to duck down and cover her head with her hands. She drew herself in as much she could, curling herself into a tight protective ball as the objects continued to fall in a hard, sharp, bruising rain.
The metallic shower stopped as suddenly as it started. With relief, Buffy slowly lowered her arms and scrabbled around in the dark for the matches and the fallen candle. When there was light again, she found she was kneeling at the centre of a small collection of old coins that had scattered around her like a small sea.
Buffy looked up, holding the candle higher to penetrate the gloom. In the flickering shadows, a tall, thin girl stood with her hands held across her belly as she tried to hold together her mortal wounds. Runnels of blood flowed through her fingers and dripped from her hands in dark pearls, only to vanish as they hit the floor.
Buffy gasped as she got back to her feet. "A… Amanda?"
The ghost of the dead Slayer spoke in a weak voice, as if forming words was difficult. "You... You have to follow me."
"What? Why? What's going on?" Buffy asked. "And what's with the coins? Because I know we all dream of being showered in money, but the reality? It's not so funny."
Amanda looked down at the coins with little recognition. "Not us. Them. You have to stop them."
"Huh? Stop who?"
"We're all stuck here. Us. Them," Amanda checked the room before adding, "they're mean."
"I think we've met," Buffy rubbed her neck. "Amanda, there's some Sigil thingy. I couldn't find it."
"I know it," Amanda nodded. "You have to destroy it."
Buffy looked ruefully at the ruined spaghetti and switched off the camping stove. "Okay. Show me."
Amanda drifted out of the door, leading Buffy through the quiet house to the upper storey. Occasionally, the ghost would lose cohesion and disappear, only to re-manifest at the other side of the room. Eventually, she guided Buffy to the wall at end of the Long Gallery that Buffy had discovered before, where the corridor seemed to suddenly stop. Amanda paused before a small table where a small Chinese vase was poised upon a lacy white doily.
"In here," she urged, floating through the table, the wall and a rather drab still life painting of bored looking fruit.
"Hey! Wait! I can't…" Buffy protested, but Amanda was gone.
Buffy waited for her to realise that she couldn't follow and return for her. When she didn't come back, Buffy banged on the wall to get the ghost's attention; only to find that her hand passed right through, disappearing up to her wrist.
She drew her hand back with a start. The wall remained exactly the same, no gaps or holes where her fist had gone through; it wasn't real, only some clever glamour. Cautiously, she reached out again, waving her hand through the vase. It toppled over as her hand stuck the solid ceramic of its delicate neck and rolled to the edge of the table, where Buffy caught it before it crashed to the floor.
Embarrassed, she righted it again. "Okay, just the wall then…"
After pulling the table out of the way, Buffy tried passing her hand through the wall. It fought against her push with a mild resistance, sucking like a rubbery membrane, which rippled tightly over her skin as she slipped her whole body through. It released her with a gentle pop at the foot of a set of stairs that wound upwards into the eaves of the house. They were only a short climb and they opened out into a bare attic room. The flicker of her lone candle, its light a small glimmer of hope in the darkness, cast soft, warm shadows across the bare rafters and the large occult symbol laid out across the bare boards.
Amanda was standing as far from the sigil as she could get in the room. "It brings in the ghosts. Ties us here. There are so many."
Buffy bent down. The sigil was drawn out in a wide protective circle containing twisted, ugly shapes and spells snaking between them in a twisted, hideous knotwork. It had been cast in blood and another substance she didn't want to think too much about. It had soaked deep into the floorboards and there was charring where the magic of the spell had seared the wood. It wasn't going to be easy to remove. She picked at the blood; it was dry and dark. It flaked and crumbled to the touch, but there was no way it was going to come off even if she scrubbed. She wished now that Willow was with her; she didn't know enough about magic to know whether it was better to leave well alone or try to get rid of it. She had no idea if she would make it stronger.
Amanda looked at her bloodied hands, horrified. "Buffy, I want to go."
"I'll get to it. I promise," Buffy nodded and made her decision. "Stay here and watch this."
Buffy returned to the ground floor. As she walked, the house was lost to the velvet cloak of shadow. The gloomy shades of night spread out from the dark corners into every room, as if drawing forth from the very fabric of the walls. The house felt tense inside, still and quiet, but pensive. There were no sounds apart from the inexorable ticking of the Grandfather clock and its chime as it reached the top of the hour, but the violence of the storm outside crashed through the silence. The wind howled madly in strong gusts around the eaves of the house, carrying ghostly voices through the ether, calling for lost lovers never to be found again. The roof tiles rattled, the slates protesting against the icy onslaught that whistled between the chimney pots. The gusts made bare trees in the gardens shake and shimmy to their ethereal tune and next to the house, the branches of the ornamental conifers drummed against the windows as if demanding her attention. A heavy torrent of rain lashed like whips against the windows as the sky cried, leaving tracks down the diamond panes like the saddest tears of heaven.
She found what she was looking for in the bar, a bottle of clear Russian Vodka, which she thought would burn nicely. She grabbed it and headed back to the attic. By the time she returned the entrance hall, the storm had strengthened, the wind furiously shaking the house's ancient timbers. The thunder punched the sky, a booming explosion of sound that tore though the ether as elemental forces, positive and negative, duelled in the thunderhead above. Lightning lit the room for a moment with a flash of pale white light and she thought she caught faces, all around her, watching her, only to vanish again into the dark.
Buffy climbed the staircase cautiously, the sense of forbidding building within her with every step. The air felt thick, oily, suspicious, crawling against her skin, and the house felt like it was holding its breath. When she reached the top, it was with relief.
Then something hit her in the chest.
It shoved her backwards. Hard. She grabbed the banister and dropped the candle. Whatever it was, it was strong, stronger than her, and it pushed again, harder this time and she lost her grip and her footing. She fell, backwards, tumbling down across the hard steps, each one digging into her back as she slid over them, too fast to stop herself. She landed heavily at the bottom, banging her head and scraping her arms on the hard floor. The vodka bottle smashed on the parquet, shattering into a shower of glass in her hand.
Buffy scrambled to her feet, shaky and sore from her fall. Looking up at the staircase, it disappeared into an inky gloom, twisting upwards into the heavens, wide, empty and lost. She snatched up the candle. Fortunately, it was still alight and had been missed by the splashes of vodka that now filled the air with the stench of alcohol.
"Buffy, over here!"
Still a little dazed, Buffy turned in the direction of the new voice. A girl with her hair braided into long, thick pigtails stood by the door. She clutched a stake nervously, turning it over in her hands - another of the potentials Buffy had trained. Sally? Emily? Molly.
Molly was pointing to a decorative axe fixed to the wall above the Reception counter. Buffy lifted it from its fixing and tested the engraved blade with her thumb, sliding it along the honed edge; it was still good and sharp at least. The heft and the balance of the weapon were excellent too. Despite its highly polished shine it was a proper weapon made to kill; Watchers didn't take chances.
Just as well. It was time to end this.
The house shook again. The front door blew open, sending a spray of rain and hail through the insubstantial ghost and across the hall, before banging shut again as the wind outside sucked the air from the room.
Molly didn't react, but shouted, "Quickly! You have to destroy the sigil!"
This time when Buffy tried to climb the Grand Staircase, she found that her legs felt heavier with every step she took. By the time she had reached halfway she was staggering, pushing against some malevolent force that didn't want her to reach the upper storey. She held tightly onto the rail, juggling the precious candle and the axe, pulling herself along when her legs couldn't support her. She ducked her head; more coins were lobbed at her from above, but she kept going. Her progress was slow and each step was a struggle; the stairs seemed endless and the axe weighed so much she could barely hold it.
Buffy was on her knees, gasping, by the time she reached the top. The force had released her, but still the heavy air felt as if it was about to snap. As she staggered to her feet, the walls loomed in and shuddered as another boom of thunder broke the sky.
She dragged the axe into the Long Gallery; the wide corridor was colder than the rest of the house, as though someone had left a window open in midwinter. Strangely, all the doors to bedrooms were open wide, each inviting her in. Curious, she looked inside the nearest room, casting her candle around all the quirky nooks. Nothing unusual caught her eye, but when she returned to the gallery, she was still suspicious.
The door swung shut behind her.
Buffy tried the handle, but it was locked and wasn't going to budge. With a shrug, she walked to the next door. It slammed as she approached.
"Okay," she told the house, "this is not funny."
Buffy gave up. There were more important places she needed to go. She turned away and found herself walking through the apparitions of several young women that had manifested beside her. A cold, shocking chill slivered along her nerves. Looking from face to face, she wished now she had made more effort to remember the potential's names. There was one she thought she recognised; dark hair and dark eyes; her neck held with a strange kink where it was broken. Chloe? The others, both gutted by a large knife, she had no idea what were they called.
Chloe looked at Buffy and shook her head, movement strangely awkward and bone-crunchingly loose. "Keep going! Help us. Let us go! We'll hold them."
Buffy nodded. The weight of the axe felt suddenly lighter in her hand and she ran, sprinting down the corridor with a renewed strength. The candle flame flickered madly as she passed the bedrooms. She tried not to look at the tormented faces that stared at her from within them, each slamming the doors in turn as she passed. They couldn't hurt her. They wouldn't intimidate her.
She skidded to a stop as she reached the far wall, and looked behind her. The Long Gallery seemed to stretch forever into a black void, the floor falling away into a black, empty pit. The dead potentials were gone. The floor began to feel soft under her feet, as if it was beginning to melt away. There was no time to stop; she took a cautious breath and stepped through the wall.
Sensing that this could not be good, she turned and tried to walk back through the wall, but it was now just smooth wood under her fingers. Her fear started to rise; a claustrophobic testament to waking in her coffin, and her first attempts to escape were panicked, frantic, as she tried to force her way out, pushing against the walls, the ceiling, anything she could touch.
Even using all of her enhanced strength, nothing would give.
She didn't hear it start; the first drop was inconsequential, just a sickening drip in the dark, but soon another fell, and another, and another still. Then a faster flow, hissing like piss onto concrete.
Oozing through the wall itself by some spectral osmosis, its source nowhere, it ran down the walls, over her fingers and it stank, reeking like an abattoir on a sunny day. She covered her nose and mouth, trying not to be ill, as it started to pool at her feet, soaking into her boots and rising slowly over her ankles, uncomfortably warm against her legs. She kept telling herself that it wasn't real, that it was only the spooks playing with her, trying to scare her, but it was hard to remember when it was pouring in past her knees with no sign of stopping. She needed to get out.
Previous parts are here.
Thanks again to myfeetshowit for the beta.