Chapter Eighteen – The Woods
It’s not real… It’s not real… It’s not real…
The blood bubbled as it poured into the phantom coffin, the flow never stopping and its level steadily rising. Her body submerged, Buffy kept her head high and her eyes closed, holding her face above the surface to breathe, refusing to look as small waves lapped at the shoreline of her chin. The sides of the coffin were shifting. Even with her eyes closed, Buffy could feel them moving, pressing inwards, squeezing tight; she could barely move, barely breathe, caught in death’s wooden embrace. Perhaps the blood was hers, being wrung out of her like juice…
It’s not real… It’s not real… It’s not real…
She focused back on reciting her mantra, steering her mind away from grim thoughts that would unravel her mind. It wasn’t her blood; she was real and whole and she wouldn’t drown in this illusion. She clasped the axe tight, clinging to the only solid reality she was sure of. The blood, the coffin and the metallic tang on her tongue were figments of her own imagination. She had to remember that.
It’s not real… It’s not real… It’s not real…
“Buffy! You’re hallucinating!”
Buffy opened her eyes. The coffin had gone and Amanda was hovering at her side, unable to touch her, but anxious to get her attention. She took a deep breath, taking a second or two to adjust to reality. She was standing at the bottom of the attic stairs; as she should be, yet she found her hands, her clothes, her hair, were still streaked with scarlet, a reminder that not all of these tricks were imagined.
“I…” she stammered as she inspected her bloodstained axe. She’d tried to use it to hack her way out, but the blade had barely chipped the wooden walls. “I tried to…”
“It’s okay, Buffy.” Amanda pulled her arms tightly around her injured stomach, her long bony limbs keeping her innards together. “It’s okay, but we haven’t got much time.”
Buffy nodded, finally shaking off her shocked daze. The ghosts hadn’t finished with her so easily. She could feel them, just beyond the invisible veil between the living and the dead, waiting for her, ready to reach out and snatch her back if she was weak.
Gritting her teeth, she gripped the axe tighter. “Let’s get this done.”
Buffy took the lead, bounding up the stairs as she led the ghost upwards. The walls were bathed in a pale radiance, dim and softly diffuse, coming from the room above, and it grew stronger as they ascended until, as they turned into the attic, it became so intense that Buffy had to cover her eyes.
The sigil was throbbing with energy. Amanda, drenched in its deathly glare, shrank away from it, but something grabbed her as she’d backed away, gripping her throat in a choking hold and pushing her back towards the sigil. A ghastly face, chillingly memorable as Buffy’s own grim visitor from the night before, phased into view, it’s haggard death-mask pressing against Amanda’s cheek as it smothered her mouth with a skeletal hand, stifling her scream.
Amanda looked petrified, yet she struggled, bravely trying to break the other spectre’s hold even though her Slayer strength, new-found and not fully honed, was not enough to free her.
“Put her down!” Buffy warned as she lifted the axe into position above the sigil.
Its voice was dark and dreadful. “Destroy it and I will take her soul with me.”
Those hollow eyes brimmed with malice and it gave Buffy a grin full of dirty, broken teeth as sharp as razors. “Exactly what I had in mind.”
Amanda wriggled. She managed to get her hands free and peel the bony fingers from her mouth. “Buffy! Do… Do it! Please. He’s bluff…”
Amanda’s words were cut off in a strangled gurgle. Buffy brought the axe down onto the centre of the sigil where it wedged in tight. As the axe pierced the magical field, the circle hissed and steamed, causing Buffy to drop the handle with a yelp as it became too hot to hold. The air hummed, rumbling with a deep bass tone that she felt constrict the organs inside her chest. With a threatening creak, the house shuddered, a violent trembling that made her grab for a roof joist to steady herself as floor beneath her lurched. A bright flare erupted from the sigil, filling the room with a sparkling amber flash before the light ebbed and twisted into a narrow, skittish funnel like a waterspout. Buffy could feel it pulling at the very fabric of reality, rolling against her skin as it ripped the spectral entities from the timbers of the house, spinning them into a mist looped around the circumference of the circle. It spiralled slowly clockwise, creating a whirlpool vortex of angry energy around the funnel. Within it she could see all those faces she’d seen earlier reappear, the lost Slayers amongst them, each bursting from the wispy ectoplasm before winking out one by one as the suction drew them in.
When all the mist had gone, the funnel whirled around, focusing on the two ghosts locked together. The spectre resisted the pull, dragging Amanda away from the circle; but the tug of the funnel sucked at them, stretching them until they blurred. Amanda screamed again, but the other ghost kept its hold on her. As the two forces struggled, the light intensified, until it was almost too bright to see. The hum became deafening, shifting in pitch to a piercing whine.
The storm outside answered the clamour with its own thunderous clashes, sending lightning arching around the high attic window. Buffy held on tight, trying to shut out the noise and concentrate on survival. When the noise and the light were almost too much for her to bear, the centre of the vortex opened out and reality rippled. The funnel split into lashing, blood red cords that whipped wildly in every direction, passing through her body with a tickle of magic. They caught Amanda and her captor and tore them apart, tossing them into the maelstrom. Their essences dissipated as they faded, vanishing into soft, smoky clouds before being assimilated into the threads.
The vortex suddenly shut. Buffy fell to her knees as the energy retreated, blinking to adjust as the room returned to blackness. Outside the uncanny storm gave a last grumble and receded, the clouds parting for the stars to shine in through the window with a calm reassurance.
Buffy released her grip on the joist and got back to her feet. She reached out for the axe, which was now cool again as if nothing had happened. Wrenching it free, she pulled it from the circle. It had been scrubbed clean, polished to a bright shine. The sigil was hardly scorched, but the atmosphere of the house already felt lighter, as if no longer bearing the weight of the dead. Still, it had to go. She lifted the axe again and smashed it down, breaking the sigil into fragments of patterned wood.
When she’d finished, Buffy stood back and stared at yet more destruction she’d made. The broken floorboards gaped like a wide mouth swallowing the darkness. She wiped a layer of blood and sweat from her forehead, The First Evil had made her dig yet another hole and she’d paid a high enough price for the first. She wouldn’t let it happen again.
It was time for a real confrontation.
Sunday broke into a grey mournful day as a jaundiced sun rose pale and sickly through a lingering fog. Barely a beacon to guide lost travellers to safety, it’s disc hung low and limp, held above the horizon by wispy ribbons of startling vermilion cloud.
Red for Warning.
Watery vapours rising up from the damp ground smothered the landscape in thick scrolling mists. The distant hills had gone, lost to whiteness, as if all the world had shrivelled away and left the rest shadowless and blank. Through the rolling brume, breaking and crashing silently against the walls of the house, the Retreat towered like a dark island citadel, a forgotten Avalon in a shifting, formless sea, held at siege against the rising threat of evil on its borders, but Buffy turned her back on her sanctuary, venturing out into the mists for her revenge.
It was chilly outside; the ground was hard with frosty crystals of ice that sprinkled the path, fallen stars glittering in the weak morning sun as she walked. The frigid English air rasped in her chest and the freezing fingers of the wind clawed at her face with a bitter crackle of cold on her cheeks as it desperately sought out her warmth. Buffy paid the temperature no mind, even though her gloveless hands found it hard to grip the handle of her axe. Her purpose was clear.
The woods stretched out before her like an advancing army; an undisciplined regiment of scattered Entish soldiers arranged in tight formation across the gently rolling slopes. As Buffy approached, the trees reared up into tall sentries. They were waiting for her, watchful. Bare and skeletal, there were only hints of their summer boughs, with branches marked out in soft pencil against the ivory sky, but below them, the shadows loomed dark and ominous, as tense as the house had been before the exorcism. She wrapped her coat tightly around her body, more for comfort than for warmth.
The going was easy at first. The mist tarried low beneath the trees, clinging to the ground in lazy drifts that masked nasty traps of gnarled, curling roots. Buffy could avoid them if she was careful. The path cut a straight line through the woodland, taking her towards the village, yet skirting its leafless depths. But it was its dark heart that she needed to reach, and she left the safety of the path once the edge of the trees was lost to sight, taking a fork onto a narrow muddy track. It wound its way through a low, overgrown thicket of nettle bushes and seemed to peter out in a tight tangle of saplings and knotty briars. The young trees here were dark and twisted; evil was gnawing away at their roots, killing them from the inside, stunting their trunks into rotten husks and making them look hunched, bony and aged.
The dead trees confirmed that she was getting close and she pressed on, occasionally using the axe to cut through the withered branches. The thorny briars made grasping hands, closing in, grabbing at her coat with twiggy fingers, pleading for her to help them or lashing back into her face like whips. As she walked, she noticed how quiet the wood was, the only sounds she heard were her own footfalls and the dry snaps of the twigs under her boots. Nothing living stirred and no birds sang. The silence was deafening, as if the trees were screaming from mute throats.
By now the fog had condensed enough to obscure the ground and make it difficult for her to keep her bearings. All around her was white, like walking blind into a thick, milky, soup. No landmarks remained; everywhere was nowhere all at once; north, south, east and west were a muddled jumble on her internal compass. She reached out, probing the mist with her hand, feeling for shadows, guiding herself from tree to tree. She was lost and it was all getting a little too Blair Witch Project for her liking. The fog had started to close in around her. There was a tang to it, a hint of sulphury herbs and magic that made Buffy wrinkle her nose with distaste.
The wiry trees thinned and then stopped altogether. She could tell by the roughness of the ground that she was still in the woods, perhaps in a clearing or a break in the trees, but it was hard to be sure. She moved forward slowly, following the pungent reek of the magic and letting her instincts guide her careful steps. She could see something on the periphery of her vision now, not trees, but something else - shadows, a flicker of movement in the murk just beyond the screen of mist. When she stopped to listen, she could hear several footsteps, tracking her, stalking her, herding her onwards just out of sight.
Buffy tried not to worry about them; yet after a few shuffling and cautious steps, her hand hit something solid, not a tree but the soft give of cold, clammy flesh. The skin she touched was wrinkled, pocked and waxy. She looked up into a face, but one distorted and ruinous. A Bringer.
But not a normal one.
Up this close, she could see that the robes it wore were made from a coarse cloth, but where the others had been wearing a muddy brown; this one wore black like a blasphemous priest. Its arms were raised, forked in supplication and it chanted like a Shaman, but making silent words that its tongue-less mouth could not form. In a shamanic trance, it showed no signs of recognising that Buffy was there, appearing unaware and immobile, the thick fog billowing from its hands before curling in on itself like smoke.
Buffy had barely retracted her hand from the Shaman’s face, when she was grabbed from both sides. She sprang up, using the Shaman’s chest as a springboard to flip over the shoulder of her attackers and break their hold. As they all vanished back into the fog, she closed her eyes; it was easier to judge where they were when she shut off her deceiving sight and used her other senses to guide her. She could hear their movements now, not far away, three or four of them, circling her, hovering at the edges of her perception. Moving in…
A punch came out of nowhere - just a fist emerging from the gloom. It glanced off the side of her jaw as Buffy ducked and delivered a mighty kick of her own. Her target reeled, fading back into the mist and she sharpened her focus again. Behind her a Bringer started to run, charging her from behind. Warned, she dodged in time, cutting it in half with her axe before turning to meet another blow from the side. Easy.
Buffy pulled the blade from its gut. Everything had gone quiet again. She stopped and listened for movement. There were still a couple left. They were strong, but no match for a fully trained Slayer. To stand a chance of defeating her they needed to rush her together…
Instead, a loud sound, like ice cracking in warm water, split the air, was followed by a blast of magic from the Shaman that hit her in a sapping wave that left her feeling drained and weak. Her strength gone, she staggered and was snatched from behind, strong arms circling her waist, pulling her back as the axe slipped from her grip. A fist struck her face, one, two, and she felt herself sliding downwards as the Bringer let her fall. She flopped onto her knees, collapsing forward as her legs buckled beneath her and she struck the earth face first, a foot pressing down on the back of her head, grinding her face into the sodden leaves. Groaning woozily as unseen hands lifted her legs and dragged her across the clearing, she tried to resist, but all her freezing fingers could do was rake the soft dirt beneath them.
She was dumped down at the side of an open grave. There was no strength left in her to resist, even as she tried to stand her limbs could not support her. Instead, she tried to crawl, inch by inch, to a safety she could not reach. A pair of rough, gnarled hands checked her escape, seizing her by her coat. Then a hard shove sent her world tumbling into darkness.
Buffy woke in her second grave. This time she wasn’t buried six feet under rich, earthy soil, but lay exposed to a night sky painted with stars and dark, fast moving clouds edged with silver. Sitting up, still a little confused from the Shaman’s spell, she rubbed her head to clear it of the dizzy fug that lingered there. In the pallid light, she noticed how her fingers were coated in blood and mud. At least a day of grey mists had passed and faded into a bright, moonlit darkness, and the mixture had dried into dirty streaks. She was in dire need of an emergency manicure.
Her inspection was cut short by a blanketing shadow. She glanced up; a shape loomed above her, a man looking down on her with a scrutiny so intense she didn’t need to see his eyes. There was nothing to see of his expression, but she knew him better than herself. Compared to the real Spike, The First was only a cheap, poorly reproduced photocopy. The truth was impossible to mistake.
The moon emerged, shining like a pearl against thin oyster grey clouds and he shifted his posture, his face suddenly catching its light. Spike, standing against the moon, dark, shadowed and otherworldly, was brazenly beautiful; the lunar glow a halo around his pale head and his coat a cloak of darkness. From her viewpoint far below him, he looked tall and imposing, belying his stature - a creature of the night indeed.
This couldn’t be real. Spike was dead.
He nodded. "Evenin', Love."
Previous parts are here.
Thanks again to myfeetshowit for the beta.