Part 4

The prophetic dreams, Buffy decided, were getting out of hand. It was bad enough when they were telling her she was going to destroy the world. They were worse still when they ended with friends and enemies alike consumed in the fires of an Apocalypse she couldn’t seem to ever quite prevent.

Now, though, they were just getting plain silly. Maybe the doomsday muses who had nothing better to do than prevent her from getting a good night’s sleep were getting bored with rehashing the same litany of death and devastation and were looking for something new. Whatever, Buffy knew she was dreaming, and this one was really, really odd.

She found herself sitting in a comfortably upholstered, velvet chair in a room that looked like a cross between a hunting lodge and a baroque manor house. A fire burned silently in a large stone hearth to her right, and on the wall a pendulum clock ticked loudly. The clock had no hands. Fellini would have been proud.

She looked down from the clock to see Cordelia Chase sitting across from her, wearing a black Yves Saint Laurent evening dress and pearls.

“Cordy?” Buffy asked.

Cordelia looked around at the surroundings, then said, “Excuse me, but exactly why am I in your dream? I mean, wasn’t it enough you ruined my very promising high school social life? I do not appreciate being dragged into your little dreamworld after all this time. I have a life, you know, and it doesn’t involve corpses, or vampires, or anything at all involving risks to my soul — at least I don’t think it does.”

“Cordy, just hold on a second, okay?” said Buffy. “You must be here for a reason. There must be something you’re supposed to tell me, some clue about these serial murders and how they fit in with the Apocalypse.”

Cordelia stood and put her hands up as if trying to push the whole vision away. “Whoa. I’m sorry, but this is just too ‘Twin Peaks’ for me. Serial killers? Ick. I’m out of here.”

And with that, she was gone.

She was replaced a moment later by Principal Snyder, appearing suddenly through the wall in all his gnomelike glory. He was dressed in a gray suit and didn’t appear happy. Of course, Buffy couldn’t remember him ever appearing happy, except when he was giving her grief. Which, come to think of it, was pretty frequently.

“Principal Snyder?” she asked.

Snyder scowled. “Believe me, Miss Summers, this is no more fun for you than it is for me. I should have known that Chase airhead wouldn’t be able to handle this. Now, where was I?”

He produced an index card from his breast pocket and squinted at it.

“I was kind of expecting a backwards talking, dancing dwarf. I guess one out of three isn’t bad,” said Buffy. It was mean. Petty. It made her happy.

“Charming as ever, I see,” said Snyder. “But if we could get this over with? I have tickets for Die Walkure and I’m running late. I’d hate to miss Act I because of some trivial metaphysical errand on your behalf.”

He turned back to the card. “Now it says here I’m supposed to tell you to follow the path of death to find life. Whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean.”

“That’s it?” asked Buffy.

“Well, I’m not going to dance for you, if that’s what you’re waiting for.”

“No, I mean, that’s the whole message? That’s all I get to work with? What is this, ‘Zen and the Art of Vampire Slaying’?”

Snyder turned the index card over a couple of times to drive home the point that there was nothing else on it.

“Sure looks that way,” he said. “Look, I don’t write this stuff. Don’t give me grief about it. I’m not the one who daydreamed through four years of high school, thus failing to develop even a rudimentary ability to think beyond the latest fall fashions.”

“Why are you obnoxious even in my dreams?” asked Buffy.

“What can I say? You bring out the best in me,” said Snyder. Then he was gone amid the raucous twang of the local country-western station, the only station the clock-radio could receive in Pine Crest. Blearily, Buffy turned the alarm off.

Principal Snyder in her dreams. If this is the shape of dreams to come, somebody please shoot me now, she thought.

*                              *                              *

“I had the weirdest dream last night,” said Hancock as he buttered his toast. He sat before a large plate of eggs, sausage, and hash browns. Buffy had no idea how the man’s arteries could stand it.

But damn if that sausage didn’t look good, she thought as she idly skewered a piece of cantaloupe with her fork. The mention of a dream snapped her thoughts away from food, though.

“What about?” asked Buffy. If he was still angry about the day before, he didn’t show it. Buffy was relieved. She respected Hancock, even liked him, and she felt bad enough about not telling him everything.

“Well, it started out as my standard Gillian Anderson dream number four, variation B — that would be the Egypt scenario where we’re tracking down the Ark of the Covenant. Anyway, midway through, this gorgeous brunette in a black evening dress and pearls walks in, rolls her eyes, and says, ‘Ugh. You men are all the same. Don’t you ever think about anything else? I should have stayed in Buffy’s dream.’ Very odd.”

Buffy decided not to pursue the Gillian Anderson angle. It probably wouldn’t do her appetite very much good, and besides, there was that old, recurring, sadly un-prophetic Antonio Banderas dream of hers …

“But no short, annoying guy, looks kind of like a Ferengi but with an even more obnoxious personality?” she asked.

“No, not that I recall. I probably would have remembered something like that,” said Hancock. “Why?”

“Umm … no reason,” said Buffy.

“Oh. You two are up already. It’s only like five-thirty in the morning.”

It was Willow, just now entering the little all night dinette next to their motel.

“You sound surprised,” said Buffy.

“Well, it’s just that I don’t remember you ever being exactly a morning person. But then, you were always out until three or four in the morning, so I guess you wouldn’t be. Unless being up until four a.m. means you really are a morning person? And I’d better shut up now before I get myself in trouble,” said Willow, sitting down and somehow managing to look perfectly vivacious and charming despite the early hour.

Buffy herself definitely didn’t feel vivacious and charming. She just felt tired, although her third cup of coffee was beginning to have a noticeable effect. She idly wondered what the long-term effects were of getting three hours of sleep a night for sixteen years straight. Probably nothing positive.

Movement by the door caught her eye. Giles. He was dressed in tweed suit under a gray greatcoat. At five-thirty in the morning, at breakfast, the man was dressed in a tweed suit. With an Oxford tie. It simply was not natural, Buffy concluded. The Watcher approached their table, his attention preoccupied with a couple of ancient texts that looked remarkably similar to just about every other ancient text Buffy had seen over the years.

“Ah, Buffy. I’m glad you’re up. There’s some research I’d like to discuss with you …”

Buffy glared at him and made a slight motion with her head toward Agent Hancock.

“Oh, good morning to you, Agent Hancock. Lovely morning. Brisk. Well, as I was saying …”

He gave Buffy a look that told her he was not about to reveal something he shouldn’t. It also told her that he was a Watcher and was a good deal more careful about such things than she was giving him credit for.

“… I think I’ve finally tracked down the meaning of the symbol found on the victims.”

Hancock perked up. “This is very encouraging news. We’ve had no luck at all with it at the Bureau. It must be an extremely obscure reference, which is actually a very positive thing. It means that if we can isolate how the killer learned of the symbol, we might actually begin to put together a useful suspect pool.”

“Yes, perhaps,” said Giles, shrugging out of his coat and pulling a chair up to the table. He laid one book open on a free spot on the table. “Now the reason we’ve had so much difficulty is that I’ve been looking for a glyph or rune, or a perhaps even a combination of runes. But that’s not what this is at all. It’s a signet, a personal mark — like a signature.”

“Whose signature?” asked Buffy.

“Unfortunately, that’s where things get a bit vague. Most mystical texts shy away from using the personal signets of powerful entities for fear of inadvertently summoning them — a common fallacy, but one which has held on with considerable tenacity through the centuries. However, sometimes we do get lucky. I was correct in thinking there was a connection with Gnosticism, but it’s rather more complicated than that, as it turns out.”

He indicated the open page. “This text is Von Rivenstadt’s Hierarchical Cosmogony of the Ophitic Pleroma. The Mannheim edition, mind you, not the rather inaccurate Stuttgart translation.”

“Oh. I thought it looked familiar,” said Buffy, but the sarcasm escaped Giles utterly.

“As you see, our symbol bears a more than passing resemblance to the signet that this particular sect of Ophitic Gnosticism associated with Leviathan, the great universal serpent that supposedly encircled the seven spheres of Creation.”

“Yeah, but we’re not dealing with a serpent here, Giles, except maybe in a kind of Garden of Eden sense.”

Giles blinked at her. “Interesting association. Very interesting, actually. It may be worth further scrutiny.”

“Whoa. You mean I actually picked up the spare this time?” she asked.

“Picked up the spare?”

“Bowling, Giles. You know, it’s sort of like croquet, except with much bigger balls, and no mallets, and where you have to knock things down? Come to think of it, it’s nothing at all like croquet. Forget I even said anything.”

Giles shook his head and returned his attention to his books. He placed the second one on top of the first. “Now, I traced the Ophitic tradition of Leviathan back further …”

“Giles, where the hell did you get these books out here in the boonies? What did you do, bring your entire library out on the Gulfstream?”

“Most of it, yes,” said Giles matter-of-factly, ignoring the fact that almost every conceivable text of either occult or religious significance had long since been digitized and placed on the DH Group’s secure server. “Please, Buffy. This is rather important.”

“I know. These little history lessons usually are. I’ll tell you what, though: they’d be a lot more fun if they didn’t usually end up with some vague suggestion of my premature and grisly demise,” she said, choosing for the moment to ignore Hancock’s rather questioning look.

“Well, I wouldn’t take any of it personally, Buffy. Most of the core texts go on at great length about such things, and they tend to take a rather encompassing view of who shall reap a fiery reward. I suspect it most often simply served to pad cult coffers with bribes to whatever god was being worshipped at the time,” said Giles.

“Wow, when did we turn cynic?” she asked.

Giles gave her his best school librarian Baleful Gaze of Authority.

Buffy put up her hands in mock surrender. “All right, all right. Let’s us be gettin’ on with the book larnin’.”

The Watcher pointed to the open page and an etching of a tablet that was depicted there. To one side of the etching was a magnified view of one of the symbols on it. “This is a piece of a clay tablet known as the Al-Haziz Fragment. It’s the oldest known reference to anything resembling a sort of universal force of evil.”

“The devil?” asked Buffy.

“No. Lucifer is merely a fallen archangel. The most powerful demon in the descending hierarchy of the hells, certainly, but still just an archangel. This, on the other hand, is an intrinsic force of death, decay and corruption, a fundamental and elemental force of the supernatural world.”

“Another one, huh? I notice I never get to deal with intrinsic forces of happiness and joy. So, what does this mean to us? How does this tie in with our killer?”

Giles paused, then said, “Beyond giving us a more explicit link between the Cabal and our killer, I don’t really know. But it is fascinating from the perspective of intellectual inquiry, at the very least.”

“Giles, at five-thirty in the morning, it’s not nearly as fascinating as you might think. Trust me.”

Hancock finished up a bite of hash browns.

“Somebody want to clue me in here, or is this going to be another one of those ‘let’s ignore the FBI agent and maybe he’ll go away’ things?”

The Watcher looked at him in mild surprise, then said, “Forgive me for saying this, Agent Hancock, but I do believe you’ve been spending entirely too much time with Miss Summers. I’m afraid she’s starting to rub off on you.”

“Hey,” said Buffy. “What am I, some communicable disease?”

Willow nodded. “Sure. But in the good kind of way.”

Buffy looked down and jabbed at her cantaloupe in consternation. “Oh. Well, as long as it’s in the good kind of way, I guess.”

She looked up at Hancock. “So, when do you want to head out to the cabin?”

“As soon as we get some daylight.”

Buffy smiled a secret smile. “Oh, but the dark is so much more interesting, Win.”

*                              *                              *

The cabin was accessible from a long, rutted dirt track that forked off the county road about three miles north of town and wound snakelike through the basalt mountains. It was an old, overgrown logging road that passed by a crumbling lumber mill before disappearing into the dark forests of the Cascade range. It was also profoundly unsafe, edging along deep, rocky ravines and crossing streams at places that had once been fording points but which had become deeper and more treacherous with each passing thaw.

Buffy downshifted the Cherokee to negotiate a particularly rough section of trail, then smoothly upshifted as she got past it to gather enough headway to plow through some drifted snow. It had been like that the whole way. Downshifting, upshifting, nursing the clutch, trying to hit the larger obstructions at the correct angle to avoid bottoming the truck out or snapping a tie rod or doing something else that might get them stuck out in the woods with snow approaching.

“Where’d you learn to drive like this?” asked Hancock.

“Oh, I had a good teacher,” said Buffy. It was one skill she hadn’t learned from Elisa or one of the other Hunters. She’d picked it up from a formidable-looking Navajo named John Five Coyotes in Arizona years before, during her solitary wanderings through the world and through her own fears and doubts. Unwillingly at first, she’d found herself helping with a particularly troublesome changeling demon that was bringing death to some tribal lands. From there, things got a little complicated.

It had turned into an adventure and a half that included a peyote-induced vision quest, a legend of her being the Monster Slayer of Navajo myth reborn, and three months of tracking the demon through the desert mountains with little more than a Bowie knife, a hunting bow, and John Five Coyotes. It was not a story she ever intended to tell Angel. Willow, maybe, but definitely not Angel.

She smiled to herself. Come to think of it, her ten years of self-imposed exile hadn’t been all bad.

Buffy was brought back from her reverie as she was forced to do a quick slalom through some debris. Then, with surprising suddenness, they emerged from the dark, confining forest to skirt the edge of a little clearing. In the middle of the clearing was the cabin. The trail continued past the clearing and disappeared once more into the woods, where it resumed its meandering journey toward its mysterious destination.

The cabin was small, probably no more than three or four rooms, but it was clearly well-maintained. It also had a shortwave radio mast and a small satellite dish out back. She’d spotted those from the air, but didn’t think them unusual, not for someone living in such a remote location. Solar panels, a wind-powered generator, and a small diesel generator covered all the bases for power. At the moment, the place appeared to be running under the windmill, and its harsh whine was loud in the silence of the woods. From the stone chimney, thin wisps of smoke curled up into the sky. There couldn’t have been too much of a fire in the hearth.

She exited the jeep and approached the door, with Hancock taking a covering position several yards behind her and to one side. There was no expectation of trouble, but they were far from help, and precautions were only prudent.

Buffy knocked on the door several times before concluding there wasn’t going to be an answer. She tried the handle and the door swung inward easily.

“Summers!” snapped Hancock.

“It was open. It’s not breaking and entering if it’s open, is it? Besides, if there are armed militia men or cultists in the area, the owner could be in trouble and in need of assistance. In fact, I think it would be the height of irresponsibility not to enter and verify that everything is okay,” said Buffy.

“That’s really cutting semantics a little too fine, Summers,” said Hancock. But it was too late. She was already inside.

Nobody was home.

It was immediately clear, though, that whoever did live there was not exactly the standard-issue Grizzly Adams or Unabomber type. The owner might have wanted to be isolated, but he didn’t want to be without the comforts of civilization. Well, Victorian English civilization, anyway, to judge from the furniture and the china.

The decor wasn’t primarily what drew her attention, though.

One wall of the cabin was covered with page upon page of magical formulae and computer-generated schematic diagrams tacked to a full-length cork board. The schematics depicted something resembling a modern Stonehenge, and comprised drawings bearing titles such as “isometric views”, “force line projections”, “gauge field study”, “Geist topology”, and “standard morphology — third iteration”, among others. The formulae were inordinately complex, and Buffy was a little surprised to find herself understanding at least some of what they showed. Whatever else it might have been, the Dark Hunter entity inside her wasn’t dumb.

One equation, an admixture of magic symbology and calculus, caught her attention. It was labeled “Matrix transform — Klein variant”. Another equation, spanning several additional pages, had a lot of illegible margin notes and mathematical scribblings on it. It bore the cryptic legend “Saber expansion! Ref saber16.doc”.

“What’s all this?” asked Hancock.

“All this is either evidence of a complete lunatic, or the life’s work of an absolute genius,” said Buffy.

She was frowning over the matrix transform. She didn’t understand all the underlying physics, but she knew what it was referring to. “Klein variant” or no, it was the magical and mathematical expansion that defined the multiplanar topology of a Gehenna Matrix. A slight smile broke through the frown. If Giles could hear her thoughts, he’d be proud. Multiplanar topologies, indeed. And to think high school geometry had once stymied her!

She turned her attention to the imposing Saber Sequence. That one she didn’t understand much at all, but nevertheless there was some strange symmetry buried in all the calculus, a symmetry that resonated in the complex mind of the Dark Hunter entity. Somehow, buried in that maze of derivations and symbols was an elusive meaning that tried to tease something from the depths of her collective unconscious.

“You know what all this means?” asked Hancock, distracting her and sending the vague feeling slithering back into the dark places from which it had come.

“Not entirely. Enough to know that some of this is big, big trouble. We need to get this stuff back to Giles and Willow, have them take a look at it.”

Hancock shook his head. “Sorry. We don’t have a warrant to be here to begin with, no less to remove anything.”

Buffy looked around the room and her gaze came to rest on a fax machine and small Xerox copier. “So, let’s copy it and take the copies. This is important. More important than you realize.”

“You’re going to get me fired. Maybe even brought up on charges.”

Buffy fixed him a hard, cool look. The look was an echo of Elisa Hunter, who had so often chosen to hide a sensitive and caring heart behind a mask of glacial harshness.

“Win, if you don’t help me, you may end up a lot worse than fired. If you want to save your kids and everyone else on this planet, you have to let me do my job. You catch the son of bitch who’s carving up girls. Let me handle this.”

Hancock obviously saw the resolve and seriousness on her face. He hesitated a moment before saying, “I think you’d better explain.”

“I’ll try, but I’ll tell you right now you won’t believe me.”

*                              *                              *

“You really are crazy,” said Hancock.

Buffy wondered what he’d have said if she told him about the really weird stuff, like Dark Hunters and her seven months in Hell itself. She’d just stuck to the basics: vampires, the Apocalypse, the Slayer, the Gehenna Key — the sort of things that seemed so mundane to her after so long.

But in all honesty, it all still sounded pretty insane.

“Yeah, believe me, there are days I’d like to think it’s all just in my head, too. But it’s true. All of it. Look, are you a religious man, Win?”

“I’d like to think so. Hard to do this job for too long without some faith that there’s some plan behind it all. If there isn’t, that would be pretty scary.”

“Well, I can’t tell you one way or the other about that. But the point is, you believe in a set of tenets that have far less empirical evidence for their existence than any of the things I’ve just told you. Yet you still believe. So I’m asking you to do the same with me. I can prove this to you, given time. In fact, unless I miss my guess, you’ll probably get more proof than you ever wanted soon enough,” said Buffy.

“I don’t know. This sounds just so … so …”

“Nuts? How do you think I felt the first time some guy came up to me in high school and said ‘Hello, Buffy, nice to see you. And by the way, there are these vampires, and you’re the Slayer, and you have to go kill them now’? Believe me, I was real open to the Loony Tunes theory myself.”

“You’re asking me to believe a lot. Like this … Gehenna Key was it?” said Hancock, gesturing at one of the schematics of the Stonehenge-like structure. “You want to run that one by me again?”

“As I said, it’s a machine. A really big machine. It’s essentially designed to precisely manipulate very high-level magical energies,” said Buffy.

“And this thing can really destroy the world?”

“Oh, yes. If there’s one thing you’d better believe, it’s that.”

Hancock looked at her as if he were trying to come up with a psychological profile of her for one of his files. Eventually, he said, “I can’t say I buy this story of yours. But I do think you and Giles are right, and that our killer is somehow connected with this Cabal and perhaps with this place, too. I’ll give you some latitude on this, but just keep in mind that if we break the evidence chain on this stuff, everything in here could get thrown out.”

“We won’t need it to nail our boy. Trust me.”

“It’s not a matter of trust, Summers. I want this guy. I want him before he kills again. And after it’s all said and done, that’s more important to me than dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s.”

Buffy smiled. “Better watch it. I think Giles is right. Maybe I am rubbing off on you. You’ll lose Agent of the Year with talk like that.”

“I’m all for the rules, Summers, but what good are the rules if they get another kid killed?” asked Hancock.

They were both startled by the cabin’s phone. The answering machine picked up.

“I’m not available to take your call. Leave a message at the tone,” said the machine’s terse, English-accented greeting.

The machine beeped and the English voice was replaced by one that sounded more like Harvard than Oxford.

“Iain, it’s me. Be there a couple of hours late. Look, we have to move soon. I don’t know how much longer I can put them off. It’s starting to get a little tense. One way or the other, we have to end this before it ends us, okay? I mean it.”

The line went dead, and Buffy and Hancock exchanged a meaningful glance.

“Now that sounded more than a little ominous,” said the Slayer.

Hancock just nodded and said, “Let’s get to work.”

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