Author’s Note: You might recognize, if you’re a game geek like myself, that the description of Iw-n-sisi matches pretty closely to certain parts of Act 4 of Diablo II, as do some of the creatures everyone fights in this chapter. This is not a coincidence. Still don’t own anything but the disjointed, fever-dream plot and Corinne. Sure wish I did, though.
To Nimacu: good suggestion, but if I put the footnotes at the top, 1) they’d be headnotes, and that’s just weird; and 2) they’d clue people in to what I want to be a surprise.
This chapter dedicated to everyone who voted for me at the Crossing Over Awards… thanks, guys! You rock.
Without Part 20
Spike blinked. “Well, this is different,” he thought. He’d always imagined that existence, after being staked, wouldn’t be quite so… hot.
When that Polgara had gotten in a lucky stab with one of the bone skewers characteristic of his ‘people’ (and no, the irony of succumbing to one of the same demons that had killed Angel wasn’t at all lost on him), in the split-second between wood-entering-heart and body-going-poof all he’d had time for was the briefest thought of Buffy and Dawn before consciousness shut off with the sudden snap of a light-switch being flicked.
And now, with the same suddenness, he found himself standing on a rather sticky patch of what appeared to be melting asphalt as it bobbed atop what was, if Spike weren’t mistaken, a sea of lava. Above was not so much a sky so much as a single, solid blob of roiling black and grey clouds. The glowing embers were all that illuminated the space around him, and he was very glad of his vampiric sight while at the same time marveling that he was still, evidently, a vampire (he switched to game face momentarily to make certain). “Am I dead, or undead, or what?” he wondered aloud.
“You’re not dead,” a female voice informed him, and he spun around to find a short woman standing there. “Don’t know about the undead part.” She glanced around them at their environment. “As for the ‘or what’, well, yeah. I think we’re both ‘or what’.”
She had the sort of plump, curvy body that had been all the rage back when he was alive in the 19th century, but it wasn’t displayed to its best advantage in the jeans and shirt she wore. Her hair was darkish—the low light proved to thwart even his keen eyes—and fell to her shoulders in a rather rumpled mess. Her face, while plain, was intelligent and when she removed a pair of wire-rimmed glasses from atop her head and perched them on her nose to study him more closely, he knew that standing before him was a scholar.
“Ah,” he replied noncommittally. “Where are we? Is this hell?” Wouldn’t surprise him one bit—killing thousands of people and two Slayers, no matter how many years of playing with the good guys, didn’t exactly add up to the place of harps and fluffy clouds.
“Iw-n-sisi,” she replied, gazing around at the swells and flows of magma around them. “The Isle of Fire,” she clarified when Spike gazed at her in confusion. “Where the dead roam, as per ancient Egyptian legend.”
“Egyptian, huh?” He fished around the interior pockets of his duster for a pack of cigarettes and lighter; as the flame ignited the end of the fag, causing a wreath of smoke to rise over his head in a wavy (and ironic) halo, he gestured at their surroundings. “That’s new.”
She gave him a half-smile. “So you’re used to this sort of weird shit happening all the time, huh?” Beginning to walk along the strip of blackened ground, she motioned for him to join her, and they began to stroll in the direction of the orange-red glow in the distance.
He laughed, exhaling a blast of smoke into her face. She didn’t complain, only continued to watch him, so he decided to be honest with her about the nature of her new companion. “Every day’s a weird day when you’re a vampire, luv,” he commented, watching her closely.
“Vampire. Of course. Because my life’s not strange enough as it is,” she muttered, more to herself than to him. Then she peered through the gloom at his face, or more particularly, at his mouth. “You going to eat me?”
Spike took a long drag of his cigarette and tilted his head to the left. “And if I am?”
She sighed, shoulders slumping. “Then get a move on. I hate suspense.”
He surprised her by laughing. “You’re probably the type who flips right to the end of a murder mystery to learn whodunit.”
“Like I had any time to read murder mysteries,” she snorted. “With teaching, grading papers, my own classes, working on my dissertation…” That line of thought seemed to depress her, and she cut herself off abruptly. “Doesn’t matter anymore,” she said flatly. “I doubt there’s such a thing as mystery novels in Arda.” Then she looked around them again. “That is, if I ever get out of this hell-hole.”
“Arda, huh?” Spike inquired. “Where the bloody hell is Arda?”
“That’s what I wanna know,” she replied with a hint of spirit, seeming to think that if he were going to eat her, he’d have done so by now. “I was just there an hour ago.” She tripped over what looked to be a charred, dismembered hand, shuddered, and skipped to catch up to Spike, who’d just kept walking. “How did you get here?”
“Got staked,” he replied succinctly, not exactly relishing the memory and wondering idly what the reaction of the Scoobies would be when he never returned to the Hyperion that night. With a pang, he realized he’d miss them. Hm, he thought, amused. Didn’t expect that. “You?”
“Did a spell to break the power of an evil cartouche,” she replied, stumbling again and this time clutching his sleeve to keep herself upright. At his pointed look, she released him and stepped back. “It made me sleepy and when I woke up, I was with a goddess in the mother of all libraries.” The wistfulness in her voice confirmed his suspicion that she was a perennial student. “She offered me my dearest wet-dream— eternity with all those lovely, lovely books—“ she clarified at his sharp glance sideways at her “—but it would mean a dirty deal for my friends, so I had to refuse.”
“Regretting the choice?” Spike lit a second cigarette off the butt-end of the first and took a deeply satisfying drag whilst wondering idly where he was going to get his next meal in this deity-forsaken land. Apart from the schoolgirl, he’d not yet seen a glimpse of anything alive.
“Only a little,” Corinne admitted. “Never be able to live with myself afterwards, knowing what I’d done to them and their world.”
“Ah, a hero,” he replied mockingly. “Can’t get away from you white hats. Like a bloody infestation, you are.”
“I’m no hero,” she protested, her voice low and almost angry. “Heroes do things because it’s right. I only did this to avoid feeling bad. Still selfish, just less so.”
Spike quirked a brow again and, after a moment, held out the crumpled pack of cigarettes to her. “Well, Ms. I’m No Hero, fancy a fag? It’s all the rage with us evil types.”
She grinned and plucked one from the pack; it was slightly bent but didn’t seem to bother her as she allowed him, suddenly seized with an urge to be gentlemanly, to light it for her. She even curtseyed awkwardly in response to his courtly bow. “My thanks, kind sir,” she said, making him laugh.
“Spike,” he introduced himself, offering a grubby paw to shake and wondering why her eyes—green, he thought—would have sharpened at that, as if she recognized the name.
“Corinne,” she told him, shaking it before surreptitiously wiping it on her jeans, which weren’t much cleaner than his hand. Wasn’t his fault the Polgara’d bled all over him before staking him. All right, yes it was his fault, but he couldn’t just stand there and let it slaughter him, could he? ‘Course not.
“So, Corinne,” Spike began conversationally, “where the hell are we going?”
“Dunno,” she replied, almost cheerfully, pointing in the direction they’d been walking. “That way, it seems.”
Spike sighed. “You’ve no plan at all, do you?”
She sliced a glance at him. “Wasn’t exactly expecting to end up inside a lava lamp, you know.” She waved around them. “I came from the other direction, a few hours ago. There was a firestorm, looked like a meteor shower… lit the sky up pretty well. Thought I saw a building or something in the distance, so I began to head this way.”
Spike nodded at her sound reasoning. Squinting very hard, he could just make out the silhouette of some sort of structure, as well as some odd shapes that seemed to be moving. “Sodding hell,” he muttered. “Can you fight at all?”
“Nope,” she replied, still cheerful. “Not a bit. I know how to stop, drop and roll if I’m on fire, but that’s about it.” Her gaze sharpened on him. “Why, is there trouble?”
He sighed and scavenged through his duster pockets once more and coming up with a machete with chipped, but still very effective, blade as well as a pair of brass knuckles. “Here,” he said, dumping them into her outstretched hands. “Anything comes at you, you punch ‘em with all you got, hear?”
Corinne nodded, but didn’t say a word. As they drew closer, Spike was able to see that the building was actually a burnt-out shell, and milling about it was a pair of strange creatures with many long, stalk-like legs supporting its body as a spider’s would. At their feet squirmed about a half-dozen slug-things with arms but no legs, which at first sight of the newcomers began to propel themselves forward eagerly.
When they drew abreast of Spike and Corinne, he began to kill them with a single chop severing the head from the rest of the wormlike body. “Ugh,” Corinne yelled, extracting her fist from one’s doughy body, “Punching doesn’t do anything. And,” she continued, snatching her hand away from another’s mouth, “they bite! Ow! Dammit! You creepy little bastard!” She drew back her foot and kicked it so hard it sailed through the air to land on the far side of its parent. It shook its head briefly, then rushed back at her.
“Just step on them!” he shouted back, lopping off another head. “Oh, bollocks,” he added a moment later when one of the big ones advanced and, with a mighty belch, vomited forth another half-dozen of the sluggy things. He began moving more quickly, and when spider-thing number two expelled yet more of their wriggly foes, started to stomp on those he couldn’t get to with his machete.
“Ew! Ew!” Corinne was chanting with each crunch of bone and splat of innard under her runners. “Oh, god, this is just nasty. This is worse than when that homeless guy hocked on me…”
“Shut it, you!” Spike snapped as the larger of the two spider-creatures started forward. “Here comes daddy!”
Upon closer inspection, it had rather dangerous looking pincers and Spike had to dodge nimbly out of their way for a full minute before he could find the precise angle to reach between its forelegs and sever its head from its thorax, but once he did, it slumped to the ground and moved no more. The smaller of the spider-things wasn’t acting aggressive but he went over and killed it on principle, before it could spawn more slug babies. “Got ‘im!” he crowed, looking back at Corinne only to find she was stomping on the worms so quickly it looked like she was dancing a particularly strenuous version of the hokey-pokey.
“I wonder,” he said, sauntering up, “if that’s what it’s really all about. When people die, do they go to heaven and learn that it was just the hokey-pokey the whole time?”
Corinne sent him such a look of ire and disbelief that he had to laugh. She looked about as fearsome as a drowned kitten. “Why, of course I’ll join you!” he cried in the tones of a Victorian gentleman. “How delightful of you to offer!” And he grabbed her brass-knuckle-sporting hands and began to waltz her over the slug-things, laughing as they splooshed beneath his booted feet.
She began, reluctantly, to laugh. “You are such a freak.”
The portal deposited them at the peak of a mountain. Not a very interesting mountain, mind; mostly just brown dirt and scrub pine. The interesting thing about it was there was a path, upon which all 10 of the travelers stood; following it down one side would lead you to a rather pleasant-looking area of meadows and gently rolling hills, the occasional stream winding like a lazy silver ribbon.
Down the other side of the mountain, however, was a bleak landscape leading to a black, dreary horizon; the odd boulder stood forlornly every few acres of so, but mostly there was just the path wending its way progressively deeper into the thickening gloom. The entire valley was lit with an eerie, flickering red light that seemed molten somehow, as if it had shape and volume.
Dawn sighed deeply. “Corinne’ll be down that way.”
Boromir glanced at her. “Why do you think that, sweet?”
“Well, she seems determined to get herself in as much trouble as possible. Do you really think she’s on her way down the yellow brick road to the Emerald City,” she waved to indicate the bucolic scene to the north, “or is it more likely she’s about to be boiled in oil by a tribe of murderous pygmies, or whoever lives—“ she waved to the murky land to the south “--there?”
“But what if you are wrong?” asked Legolas, his fair brow creased with concern. “It would be disastrous to seek her in one direction when she has gone another, for we know not what provision she has… she is not suited for battle, not in a world such as this.”
“No, she’s hopeless by herself,” Buffy said, looking puzzled, as if she could not comprehend how a woman could allow herself to be so clueless about keeping herself alive. “So, we break into two groups, huh?”
“That might be most wise,” Thranduil opined, squinting at the red haze. His voice, low and throbbing, sent a shiver up the spines of all the females present.
“Along what lines shall we be split?” asked Elessar. “Each group should have both sword and bow.”
Radagast looked suddenly at Arwen, and her head snapped around to return his gaze. “Yes,” she replied, “I do have some of my grandmother’s gift.”
“Excellent,” he said, and surprised them all by grinning widely. “I can amplify your powers; we can thus communicate.”
“So, Radagast in one group, Arwen in the other,” Buffy stated. “And where Arwen goest, so doth Elessar, right, Strider?”
“Indeed,” he agreed with a faint smile at her feeble attempt to speak Olde Westronne.
“I shall not be parted from my son,” Thranduil commented idly, ambling over to a pine and staring fixedly at its skimpy branches.
That son glared at his father. “I am more than capable of protecting myself and my wife, Father,” he replied testily. “And stop trying to talk to the trees, anyone with a teaspoon of brains can tell they do not speak to the Eldar, not in this place.”
“Be that as it may,” was the king’s indolent response, and Buffy thought she could actually hear her husband grinding his molars together. She sympathized with his plight—who wanted an overprotective parent along on a dangerous mission, fussing about each scrape and bruise, after all?—but she also remembered how many times she’d longed for her mother over the past eighteen years. Someday Thranduil might be gone, and this was an opportunity that Legolas would not get back again.
“That’s good,” she found herself saying, steeling herself against the faint expression of betrayal in Legolas’ crystalline eyes. “It’ll give you two time to bond.”
At the mention of the word ‘bond’ Haldir jerked, lifting his gaze from the stump he’d been contemplating. He’d not spoken once since entering the portal, and Buffy easily recognized the agony on his face—guilt, anguish, pain, despair, and a profound loneliness—because she’d once had that expression herself. She stepped to his side and gave him a swift hug. He stood stiffly, arms at his side, making no effort to return the gesture.
“We’ll find her, Haldir,” she whispered as the others carefully avoided watching them.
He blinked hard a few times, then turned his face down to hers. “I was merely concerned about being teamed with Thranduil, if you must know it, Dagnir,” he drawled with the barest hint of his old snooty tone.
“Looks like you’re with Elessar and Arwen, then,” she said cheerfully, squeezing his arm comfortingly. Elessar looked vaguely alarmed but resigned to the idea.
“That leaves us and Gimli,” Dawn piped up. “We don’t want to be separated, so we’ll go with Elessar and Arwen. You’d prefer to stay with Legolas anyway, wouldn’t you, Gimli?”
The dwarf nodded firmly. “I would not leave him alone to the tender mercies of his father,” he grumbled, and Buffy pouted.
“Alone? What am I, chopped liver? And Radagast is with us, too.”
“Certainly not,” Gimli replied heartily, clapping her on the shoulder so she staggered, needing the grinning Legolas to haul her upright. “But one’s wife is not the same as one’s comrade.”
“Is she not both?” Thranduil asked, his voice insinuating itself at the base of Buffy’s skull and almost making it itch. Lethal, she thought, and catching Dawn’s eye, knew her sister was thinking the same thing. He’s lethal. But what a way to go…
“We are here to destroy our foe,” Radagast interrupted repressively, beginning to walk the trail toward the ominous south. “Not play counselor to a marriage that is—thus far—untroubled. Though,” he continued, nailing Thranduil with a gimlet glance, “how long that trend continues has yet to be seen, if you are to be your usual meddling self.”
Thranduil fell into step beside him, hands clasped behind his back in a posture Buffy recognized as the original to Legolas’ own taking of the posture. It was clear that, with his silence, he was merely humoring the wizard, perhaps even waiting for the best time to mount a counter-attack, and Buffy heaved a sigh.
“Those two,” Dawn said worriedly, “are gonna be trouble together.”
Buffy shrugged her pack back onto her shoulders. “Yeah,” she agreed. “But at least they’ll keep each other busy, and the three of us—“ she indicated herself, Legolas, and Gimli “can actually find Corinne.” Then she turned toward the south. “Hey, you two!” she called after them, “don’t get too far ahead!” Each raised a hand in acknowledgement, the gesture so similar that she couldn’t help but laugh.
“They will either murder the other, or become closest friends ere we see the end of this quest,” Arwen said sagely, nodding when the others turned to her in surprise. “It is always the elven way,” she continued. “Erestor and Glorfindel—ai, how they despised one another when first Glorfindel was returned by Mandos— Ada and Gil-galad, Legolas and Gimli. It happens all the time. There are many songs sung about it.”
“Elves and their songs,” grumped Gimli, somewhat embarrassed to be included in such a group of illustrious warriors and counselors. “Always wailing away. A dwarf can find no peace.” He began to stomp down the path after Thranduil and Radagast.
“Oh, did Galadriel’s singing disturb you when last we were in Lothlórien?” asked Legolas, sauntering after his friend. “I will be sure to tell her that her ‘wailing’ pains you; I am sure she will trouble you with it no more.” Then he darted nimbly to the side to avoid the axe that came sailing through the air toward his head.
“If they don’t kill each other, I might,” Buffy said darkly, and tromped along behind them.
Erestor = Elrond’s advisor
Glorfindel = died slaying a Balrog, was returned by the Valar of the dead, Mandos, to continue his fate as a warrior
Ada = father (i.e., Elrond)
Gil-galad = last high king of the Noldor; killed in the first war of the ring