White Cube – Chamber – Continuous
Young Joyce and Giles crashed to the ground in a crumbled mess, just clearing the pillared entrance. She looked up from the spot where she sat, lifting her head from her hands. Tears streaked her cheeks. “What was that?”
The echo of a bestial scream faded, and they turned to see the centaur-gorilla monster pushed away by an unseen force field.
“Something meeting its maker, I assume,” said Skye, sitting down beside her.
“Hey,” Joyce said, noticing all the friendly faces around her. “How did you guys…?” She trailed off from her question as she took in her surroundings.
Above them stood a vaulted ceiling with a spiral pattern, not unlike some sea shells. It and the walls were mother of pearl. Yet the floor was rough-hewn, like a cave. Fixed into the walls, which made a circle almost ten yards wide, were various oversized masks. A circular entrance, black as pitch, was on one side.
From that entrance emerged the original Joyce, face pale. She staggered. Buffy rushed to her “Mom!”
Joyce swallowed before saying anything. “I’m all right. Really.”
“No offense,” said Giles, off to the side, “but you hardly look it. Quite understandable, from what I gather.” He gave a meaningful look to the rest of the chamber. Tara was on her knees, crying, with Willow holding her from behind. Rowena hovered behind, looking exhausted. Jeff paced in a tight circle a few feet away, jaw clenched.
Xander suddenly emerged from the opening, almost falling. Buffy reached him and held him tight. “It’s okay,” she said fiercely. “Whatever test you had, it’s over.”
“Buffy?” He stared at her. “Is this you? Is this me?” He touched her face with trembling hands.
Nodding, she smiled. “Cross my heart.” They went into a tight clench.
Calendar and Anya walked up from another part of the chamber.
“That was very unpleasant,” said Anya.
“You can say that again,” Calendar agreed.
“That was very unpleasant,” Anya repeated. The two women then smiled at each other.
“For us all,” said Robin, a few feet away. “But it looks like we all made it. At least we’re all here, except for…” He ran his eyes around the chamber, lit as it was from the glowing spiral ceiling.
“Where’s Alex?” Liz asked quickly.
Virtually on cue, Alex emerged from the round entrance, running as if in terror. He was gasping and fell over as he entered. Looking around him, he nearly screamed, then stared at them all with wild eyes.
“You…” he said between gasps, “…none of you are…but…but…”
Liz knelt down and took his face in her hands. “Feel,” she told him, as he reached up and took hold of her arms. “We’re real. Whatever it was you felt, it was…”
“A test,” Giles said. “One of character, I gather.” He looked around at the haunted expressions on every face. “A deeply personal test for each of us.”
“You don’t say,” muttered Faith. “I don’t know how many more of these tests I can take.”
“I…don’t think we’ll have to worry about the demons following us,” Tara said, rising to her feet. She swayed a little. “The Place of Holding…that’s what the inscription said, right? Well, the Sisters of the Glow did a real good job.”
“Explain, please,” Jen said tightly. Her arms were crossed, and she kept looking at all the others as if she were afraid. Her mother, Rowena, gently put her arm around her, and she seemed to relax slightly.
“They wanted to keep anyone and anything susceptible to the Loathestone out forever, right?” Buffy asked, still holding Xander in her arms.
Tara nodded. “Especially demons.”
“So,” Kennedy speculated, “they put up a barrier that would only allow someone virtuous through. Clever, I guess.”
“Then how do you explain the fact I’m here?” Faith said, and then pointed to Shannon, Jen, Nikki and Joyce. “Or them, for that matter. We’ve been affected, or infected, depending on how you look at it, by this stone. So what gives?”
“The larger question that I’m still trying to figure out,” Kennedy began, “is how come anyone can pass through at all? Why not seal it forever so no one can get in or out? ‘Cause obviously somebody got the thing out, am I right?”
The voice was both male and female, a whisper that echoed through the chamber like thunder. All of the slayers, watchers and family, living and dead, turned in the same direction. The largest of the masks embedded in the mother-of-pearl wall had opened its eyes. Cobalt swirls of blue regarded them. Its lips – not quite human, not quite feline – moved and the voice came forth again.
Those Who Made Us Did Hope To Give Us Rest One Day.
It was Jeff who broke the silence that followed. “How? When would you rest?”
Upon The Day They Learned How To Not Merely Hide The Horror, But Somehow To Unmake It.
“Didn’t exactly work, though, did it?” asked Anya.
Skye chuckled. “I really like her.”
“Hush,” Dawn warned.
Since Before The Walls Of Ice Advanced Upon This World, And Long Before They Retreated And Shaped The Lands You Know, We Succeeded. The Horror Was Contained. Over The Ages, It Even Grew Weaker. We Dared To Believe It Might Die In The Fullness Of Time.
“But something happened,” said Xander. “Right? Somebody else came and took the Loathestone away.”
None Who Were Purely Evil Could Do It. But One With Wisdom But Not Enough, He Could And Did.
Liz strode forward. “Right. But here we are, we’ve made it. Passed all your tests. We can put this damn thing back–”
More Tests Await.
At those words, Liz blinked. “More?” she asked with open dismay.
“Did the menacing voice just say more?” Faith asked Robin.
The Sisters Of The Glow Were Wise. We Are The Place Of Holding. Our Wards Are Three, And To Enter Here Is To Face All Three Or Never Leave.
“But…” Liz took a deep breath that sounded more ragged than before, “but we’re on the same side! We’re trying to get the Loathestone back to where it can’t do any more harm.”
Our Nature Is That Which We Cannot Change, Even Though We Might Wish It. Just As You Cannot Exist Without Air, So We Cannot Disobey. Behold.
At that moment, the walls of the chamber began to move. One third of the wall facing the round opening began to slide away to either side.
Your Second Trial Awaits. To Return Is Impossible. To Remain Is To Ensure Your Own Slow Deaths From Want. Forward Alone Lies Salvation.
Before them now lay a rectangular room with low ceilings. Floor and ceiling looked identical, composed of black and white squares. Yet flickering across each black square shimmered a symbol. Some glowed green, others blue and a few red.
Liz looked up and down. “The symbols above and below don’t match.”
Giles pointed. “But sometimes they do – see!”
Skye nodded her head. “I see it. And does anybody recognize those symbols?”
“I do,” said Andrew. “Or at least I know some of them. Ancient Egyptian, Nyzerian, Ok’takapapa.”
“You made that last one up,” accused Xander.
“Ok’takapapa was the native tongue of the Flar-Flar Tribe,” Anya said. Xander looked at her. So did Buffy. So did most of the people there. “Little green guys? With tails? Ate small dogs and mated on the new moon? Nobody?”
“That is rather obscure, you must admit,” said Rowena.
“But real!” Andrew noted.
“Well,” said Giles finally, “yes.”
“All the symbols I recognize mean death,” said Jeff, whose eyes hadn’t left the forward room.
“Yeah, I noticed that,” Andrew said.
“Which has got to be anything but good news, right?” Kennedy asked.
“There’s no way we can all get across that,” Tara said, with a sense of finality.
“You’re right,” said Liz. “No way.”
“Some of us are already dead, though,” said the elder Joyce. “We wouldn’t be in any real danger.” She looked around. Jeff, Andrew, Kennedy, Tara, Willow, Althenea and Skye looked back at her, their faces all grim. “Or would we?”
“Magic at a certain level can threaten, well, anyone,” Giles said. “Magic at this level, in fact.”
“I really wish Jason were here,” Willow said, not quite under her breath.
“Oh, yeah,” Faith agreed.
“Really?” Alex said. “I mean, I know he was smart and all that, but…really?”
“The man was exceedingly brilliant,” said Giles. “I gave up trying to beat him at chess. I remember he seemed very disappointed.”
“So then why isn’t he here now?” Alex looked at Liz. “Couldn’t we summon him or something?”
“No,” Tara said. “He’s gone on.”
“All of us present, we still have ties here,” Tara continued. “Most of us have unfinished business, one way or another. For many of the virtuous dead, that is all that has been holding them back. Our lives were interrupted, or something remains undone, or we have loved ones we feel the need to watch over.”
“Right,” Rowena agreed. “Jason Felix, all his loved ones went before him, or soon after. And he accomplished everything he set out to do. So…” She gave a little shrug.
“Right,” said Liz. “He’d be great, but he’s not here, and he’s not going to be. There’s just us. And I think maybe I’ve figured this out.” She nodded in the direction of the room. “It is all about the symbols matching up, above and below. There’s a pattern, I’m sure of it. Once we crack the pattern, then we know when the symbols match up.”
“How we gonna get in?” the younger Nikki asked.
“Right. What do we do?” Andrew added.
“We walk on the squares that match up!” Anya said.
“Or…we avoid those, because they mean death,” Xander countered.
“That doesn’t make any sense!”
“Actually,” said Buffy, “they both make plenty of sense.”
“We must be missing a clue, then,” said Jen.
“No,” Giles said, shaking his head.
“Of course we are!” Faith said. “Aren’t we?”
“I don’t think so,” said Willow. “This isn’t just a test of intelligence, but of nerve. We have to figure out the pattern, then take a gamble.”
“So what happens if we’re wrong?” Jeff asked.
Robin reached into his pocket and pulled out a set of keys. “One way to find out.” He tossed the keys onto one of the black squares.
Eldritch lightning arced from all four corners of the room, lancing out and striking that square, time after time after time. Sparks from the square flew off and struck Rowena in the hand. Her reaction was to scream and pull away in obvious pain. All of them took a step back until the lightning died down. It took nearly a full minute. Then Rowena held up her hand.
It was withered and gray. More, it looked desiccated, like that of a mummy. “I can’t move it,” she said with gritted teeth.
Willow and Tara were instantly on either side of her. “It-It isn’t spreading,” Tara said after a moment.
“Some good news, anyway.” Rowena grimaced. “Not healing either, it seems.” She looked at Willow, who slowly shook her head. Then Rowena glanced over at Buffy’s mother. “Sorry, I don’t think being deceased is much protection on this one.”
“It might be worth it,” said the elder Nikki. “At least in the long run. If I ran across–”
“No!” said Robin and Faith together.
“I second that! Or third it. Whatever,” Buffy added. “We need a better plan to get everyone across.”
“That’s it – we don’t need everyone across,” Jeff said.
“Huh?” Faith asked.
“Only a few of us need to get across,” Jeff explained. “Just to the other side of the room, to that door over there.” He pointed to a diamond-shaped opening on the far side. “Three magic users, enough to teleport the rest of you to us once we’re on the other side.”
“We?” Liz arched her eyebrow.
“I’m a seer. And, with respect, one of the most experienced magi present.”
“He’s right,” Willow said. “He gives us an edge. It should be me, Jeff and Althenea.” She looked at Tara. “Sweetie, I can’t let both of you be hurt like that.” She indicated Rowena’s maimed hand. “Besides, I’ve had decades more experience working with Jeff and Al.”
Liz nodded and turned to the room before them, with its glittering and shifting glyphs. “Tara, you, Ken and Andrew will lead the second team if they fail.” She focused on the glyphs. “First, though, we need to figure out the pattern.”
Cleveland – Watchers Council – Grace’s Office – Same Time
An image flickered on the telephone’s screen. The man who appeared there wore a dark gray suit and a burgundy tie. His hair had begun to turn a premature salt-and-pepper, but his eyebrows remained jet black.
“Madame Chairwoman,” he said politely.
“I don’t have a lot of time, Mr. President,” Grace replied.
“A quick précis of the disaster taking place inside a major American city would do,” he said without blinking.
“Demons are attacking the tower,” said Grace. “We’re holding them back.”
“Why are they attacking? Or do you know?”
“Long story short, there’s an evil talisman of enormous power. We’re going to destroy it. They want it for themselves. So Cleveland is all Minas Tirith for a while.”
“And the dead people?” For a moment, the president’s eyes wandered off screen.
“Long, involved side effect that will be coming to an end very soon.”
Grace looked over at her mother, seated in a chair and smiling at her, looking somehow both amused and proud. “Too soon for some,” said Grace, “not soon enough for others. If this isn’t taken care of within another few hours, I’ll be surprised. And extremely worried. Not to mention terrified.”
From off-screen, a once-familiar voice drawled, “Now, you’re gonna need a lot more reassurance than that.”
The president looked unhappy.
Another voice off-screen whispered, “You, Sir, are the reason no one names their children ‘George’ anymore, so let the man do his job.”
“It was my job, too,” said a third voice witha distinct twang to it.
“And mine, so stop interfering.”
The current chief executive met Grace’s eyes. “The National Guard is evacuating the civilians,” he told her.
“Good. Hopefully, I’ll be able to give you a more thorough briefing within two hours.”
“You expect things to settle down by then?”
“Or at least move into a whole new phase.” The sound of a massive energy discharge, muffled but still distinct, echoed through the room. “Hell, I might even be dead by then. Which might mean I’ll still be giving you that briefing.”
“Hardly reassuring,” the President replied.
“No more than on this end. Believe me.” The weapon fired again. “Look, I gotta go. Demons to stop. World to save. Same old, same old.” She flipped a switch, and the telephone went dark. She sighed and turned away, her eyes resting on a framed holo of her husband. Her lips moved, but no sound came. But the words her lips formed were clear enough: Come back to me.
White Cube – Chamber – Some Time Later
Liz, Willow and Giles all knelt on the ground, tracing patterns in the dust. Several of those around them, including Nikki Wood, Shannon and Andrew, wrote notes on scraps of paper, including business cards and receipts. All, including Jeff, Althenea and Jen, kept looking at the shifting images on the floor and ceiling before them.
“Any variation?” Liz asked.
“None,” said Jeff.
“Confirm,” said Robin. “That is one hundred percent for a cycle of two hundred changes.”
“Good to know one’s logic and mathematical skills are still present,” Giles remarked.
“Now the hard part,” said Liz.
Kennedy nodded. “Figuring out if the pattern means life or death.”
“I don’t suppose either way is particularly easier?” Calendar suggested.
“Nope,” said Andrew. “Whichever way we go is bound to be equally complicated.”
Faith turned to Jeff. “So make with the soothsaying. Which way?”
“Sorry, I’m not getting anything. Been trying for almost an hour, and it is as if we’re in a no-prediction zone. Or maybe in some weird way cut off from some aspect of time itself.”
“Whoa,” said Andrew.
“That would be on the scale of fairly awesome in the mystical department,” Althenea muttered. “Logical, but still awesome.”
“But not helpful,” said the younger Nikki.
“Let me see if I understand this,” Calendar began. “There are two mirror patterns, right?”
“From what we see,” Shannon offered.
“One is the absence of any glyphs, the other is the presence of the Nyzerian word for death,” Calendar said. “Both match up in the same pattern, but opposite to each other.”
“Correct,” said Giles.
“One of them begins on the right,” said Althenea. “The Sisters of the Glow were essentially benevolent. They were trying to save the world. In mystical terms, that is the right-fold path.”
“But that just makes it a test for cleverness,” Tara said. She pointed at the room before them. “This is already the mother of all brain teasers. No, this is a test of courage, of character. Kinda like the first test.”
“That does make sense,” said Jeff.
“Yeah,” Liz said with a sigh.
“I agree,” said Willow. “Which means there’s only one way.” She walked forward to the edge of the patterned floor. Taking a deep breath, she put her hand into her pocket and pulled out a five dollar coin. “Figuring it out isn’t the point,” she said, voice low. “Or at least not at this point.” She flipped the coin into the air. With one smooth move, she caught the coin and slapped it onto the back of her other hand. Then she looked. The face of Martin Luther King, embossed on the metal, looked back at her. “We go left.”
“Uh…Will..?” Buffy started to speak. Everyone else was holding their collective breaths. Hardly a one of them dared move.
Jeff and Althenea joined Willow on either side of her. As one, they stepped onto the floor with the shimmering glyphs.
New Orleans – The Dome – Same Time
A slayer team, in full battle gear, approached Jackson Square as stealthily as possible. Four girls, each with a Watchers Council patch displayed proudly on their uniforms, listened as the sounds of a fight could clearly be heard from beyond the wrought iron fence.
Above them, the duraplass dome held back the Gulf. Fish shadows were barely visible, the sunlight obscured by several feet of water. Elsewhere in the city, special lamps flooded whole neighborhoods in a warming glow, but the French Quarter was different. Here, ordinary street lamps provided the lights, save for a few hours every midday to help the trees. The tourists liked it this way.
So did the vampires.
When the team turned the corner, they saw three vampires becoming two, as one of the trio was quickly becoming dust. A slender young Black woman in a retro outfit was fighting them all, and she didn’t hesitate after dusting the one. She had a wooden stake in each hand and proceeded to demonstrate a series of advanced martial arts moves. One vampire was tossed five feet while she spun, went to the ground and wielded a scissor kick that sent number two to the ground, as well. A stake was plunged into his chest less than half a second later.
The remaining vampire tried to escape, but practically ran into the waiting stakes of the slayer team.
Now that the fight was over, the young Black woman in the old-fashioned clothes turned toward the slayer team to reveal she was Siobhan Hartley. She walked up to the slayer team.
“Council’s still slower than mud, I see,” she said in her thick English accent. Then she looked around her, staring for a moment at the dome. “Blimey. Still, nice to see the city’s still here in spite of, well,everything.”
White Cube – Crystal Cave – Minutes Later
Jeff, Willow and Althenea emerged from the diamond-shaped doorway into what could only be described as a cave. It was a fairly large space, several times the size of the conference room back at Watchers HQ. Crystals embedded in the walls gave off a mild glow.
They looked around. Jeff pointed to the far wall. “That looks like Sanskrit.”
Willow and Althenea gazed over at the carved symbols in the rock face. “Not quite,” said Willow. “But I think it says Samael.”
“Samael was supposed to have been a fallen angel,” said Althenea.
“Not good news, in my experience,” said Jeff.
“Let’s get the others here,” Willow said. She motioned for them to join hands, and then all three bowed their heads. “Hermes, you who are the guardian of roads, and Wotan the Wanderer, hear our plea.”
All three took a sudden deep breath and shuddered. They lifted their heads and opened their eyes, finding themselves surrounded by those they’d left behind.
“Welcome,” said a voice upon their arrival, cutting off their short lived celebration for the trio. “Am I to assume you are the arrivals?”
It came from a figure seated on an outcropping of stone. In many ways, he resembled an old man in long robes. He had a beard, a certain dignity and his voice gave hints of being less strong than it once had been.
Yet he also had a pair of wings sweeping out from his back. His eyes were dark, more like bottomless pits than means of vision. And he didn’t really have hair atop his head so much as an elaborate set of antlers, which looked not unlike a crown.
“Depends, who the hell are you?” Faith asked.
“I am Samael,” said the figure.
No one said anything for the longest time.
“The fallen angel?” It was Giles who broke the silence. “Or at least that is how legend describes you.”
“I fell, but I was not cast down,” said Samael. “I am, or was, a Grigori.”
Tara laughed. Everyone looked at her. “Sorry. The Grigori are also known as Watchers,” she said.
“Just so,” said Samael. “We refused to serve the Dark, but also we were not acolytes of the Light. Rather, we sought to worship that which lies beyond and within both. You,” he pointed to Giles, “bear the signs of one who has met one of us before.”
“I don’t believe so.”
“Many do not recall such encounters. We dedicate ourselves to higher truths than mere questions of morality.”
“You’re not making a good case for gaining our trust,” Buffy said. “You know that, right?”
“What need have such as I for trust?” The strange creature smiled, which somehow seemed both very comforting and inhumanly sinister at the same time. “Grigori brought the Grail to this earth following the war in heaven. We joined our lore with that of the Sisters of the Glow, creating this place.”
“Angels and demons, working together?” the younger Nikki asked.
“Which would explain just how impressive this place is,” Jeff noted.
“Some of us even wed,” continued Samael. “There were children.”
“This is fascinating,” Liz interjected, “and I mean that, sincerely. You know, given a chance, I’d love to simply sit here and listen to all you have to say.”
“You may have more time at your disposal than you believe,” said Samael.
“No, because I’ve got something to take care of once and for all.” Liz held up the Loathestone. “You know what this is?”
“Know what we want to do with it?”
“As a matter of fact.”
“So? What’s next?”
Samael nodded. “A riddle.”
Liz sighed. “Please tell me you’re joking.”
“Not at this particular moment. To enter into the true Place of Holding, the sanctum from which we hoped the Loathestone would never emerge, requires more than character or intelligence or even courage. At the end, it requires wisdom as well. Hence, a riddle. One riddle.” He made a gesture, and before him appeared a large hourglass, nearly two feet tall. Within were crimson grains of sand. “I will ask the riddle and you will have until the grains run out to give the correct answer. For purposes of this contest, all of you are but one petitioner. One correct answer will do for all.”
“Okay, let’s hear it.”
But Samael was not finished. He lifted a hand in warning. “The Dead may not speak. If they offer an answer, the contest is forfeit forever. One answer and only one may be offered. Should you fail, these forms in which you live will be destroyed, your souls scattered to reform in the fullness of time.”
“What about the Loathestone?” asked Alex. “If we fail, what happens to that?”
“You are members of a Council, are you not? Officially or by proxy. Should you fail, the Loathestone will return to the hand of she who leads the Council.”
Jeff visibly paled. “Grace…”
“Who the hell wrote these rules?” yelled Faith. “I mean, c’mon!”
But Samael did not answer her, simply picked up the hourglass and turned it over. The white sand, however, did not begin to fall. Samael took his seat and gazed at them all. “Are you ready?”
“No!” said Faith.
“Yes,” Liz stated. “We’ll never be readier. And we’re not going to change the rules, are we?”
“No,” said Samael. “Not even I can do that. Nor could all my brothers and sisters combined. Here then is your riddle, the test of your wisdom.” He paused for a moment.
“Children I have many – art and tombs and lives and war. Some claim I am a God, others point and call me Whore. Who has me least is in control, who have me not true monsters are. For my sake they kill and die – tell the truth, who am I?”
The sands began to fall in the hourglass. For an eternal ten seconds, no one said anything. Every person who was dead remained absolutely still, not even daring to open their mouths. Samael simply watched and waited, while the sands continued to fall.
Rowena began to pace and ran her good hand through her hair. Seeing her behavior, Kennedy whispered to her, “You know it, don’t you?”
Rowena only nodded and began to nervously chew her good fingernail.
“Children I have many,” said Liz under her breath.
“Art and tombs and lives and war,” said Alex.
“Some claim I am a God,” said the younger Nikki, her brow furrowed.
“Others point and call me whore,” muttered Jen.
“Who has me least is in control,” said Willow.
“Who have me not true monsters are,” said Xander.
“For my sake they kill,” said his daughter, Joyce.
“And die,” said Buffy, looking grim.
“Now tell the truth,” said Jeff, barely audible.
“Who am I?” said Faith, frowning.
Liz looked at the hourglass. It had barely been five minutes, and a third of the grains had run out. “What happens if I try to turn that thing around when it nears the end?” she asked idly.
“You fail,” was Samael’s answer.
“I’ve got it.”
Everyone in the room turned to look at the person who spoke.
Shannon stepped forward. “I know the answer.”
Samael gestured to her. “Speak, and so save or damn yourselves.”
“Shan,” asked Liz, “are you sure about this?”
“Sure she is!” said Dawn, loudly. Then she turned to Shannon. “You are sure you’re sure, right?”
At this, Shannon smiled.
“Sure,” she said. Then she turned to the fallen angel Samael and opened her mouth.
End of Act Four