Disclaimer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lord of the Rings belong to their respective creators, Joss Whedon and J.R.R. Tolkien.
Dead, it was a pathetic pile of skin and bones, nowhere near as unnerving as it had looked when alive.
Strangling the thing had not been pleasant. She wiped her hands on her legs but couldn't quite rub away the nasty feeling. The lake water was stagnant, colder than ice, and almost as slimy as whatever it was that she had just killed, so that her whole body felt nearly as disgusting as her palms. The thing's eyes had been huge and round in the dark, bulging whitely as it choked and finally died, grasping, sinewy limbs beating at her arms, hisses and gurgles and gulping noises swelling the clammy skin against her fingers. The corpse slapped against the rock like a dead fish when she finally dropped it.
She took a deep, steadying breath, swallowed the bile that stung the back of her throat at the smell of dank water and foulness and death, and, preparing to stand, put her hand down into a thick growth of lichen only to feel the chill of metal beneath her fingers.
She scraped it up, picking it out of the fungus, and found that it was a ring.
It was so dark that she couldn't really tell what kind of metal it was. What was this thing doing with a ring? Or, actually, what had
it been doing with a ring? No clothes, no anything that she could immediately see but a ring? In the dark, in a...cave?
She dragged herself farther up onto the rock, pulling her legs out of the water with a churning slosh. Parts of her body were beginning to go numb—she was losing feeling in her smallest fingers and toes. That noise, that noise was her teeth, her teeth chattering. The condensation on her nose and cheeks was her breath, blowing back into her face as she exhaled.
The rock was covered in lichen, mold, and fragments of bone that scratched at her like sand. She forced herself to move, to crouch, to rub at her arms and legs, to huddle for warmth.
Everywhere was water. Cold, still, black water, a lake—a lake in the dark, stretching away to every side of her into—into dark and more dark. The air was stale and putrid, stank of slime and filth—but that was from the rock, the corpse, the waste and scum under her feet. The rock under her feet—there wasn't much of it, only a bit of stone rising up out of the water, an island in the middle of the lake in the dark.
She looked up, and saw only black. Cave,
she thought, and knew instinctively, in her bones, that she was underground, that this was a lake and an island below the surface of the world, and a frisson of atavistic fear made her clutch, white-knuckled, at her own arms.
Her right hand clenched into a fist around the ring, the metal growing hot against her flesh. What,
she thought frantically, a trace of panic sharpening her thoughts, panic that was somehow heightened by the frozen smear of her wet hair over her head and face and neck. What. What. What.
Where was she? What was she doing here? How...had she gotten here? Last thing I remember,
she thought, and closed her eyes, tried to think, tried to see...
Water. Water trickling, dripping, rippling. She opened them again and looked back into the water, stretching her neck out to put her head over the edge.
A lake, a lake of black, cold water, a well beneath the world. There,
she whispered to herself, I came up out of there.
“There,” she rasped, and her voice was so loud that she startled herself into sitting up and from the ceiling she heard a cacophony of thumping wings and high-pitched screams.
Stiffly, with some teeth-gritted effort, she managed to stand. She couldn't feel her toes.
It was too cold. She was either going to move or begin exhibiting second stage hypothermia.
Ten shaky steps, and she came to the opposite end of the island. There, pulled up onto the rock, was a small, ramshackle boat.
The closed fist of her right hand seemed to pulse.
“Boat,” she muttered. Her head was aching now. With the cold? Can't go down. Can't go up. Can't stay. Got to use the boat.
The dead thing was back there, still and lifeless. It hadn't moved, had it? She turned, but nothing had changed. The island, the corpse, the crushed lichen beneath her feet. The silence of the lake, the air. She couldn't feel her fingers.
She had to do something.
“Boat,” she said, and her voice echoed from the ceiling, the water, the rock.
She pushed the boat out onto the water with a foot, and then nearly went headfirst into the lake anyway as she tried to get in it. It was almost too small for her, and barely afloat, rocking precariously as she tried to adjust her weight. There weren't any oars.
She looked at the ring in her hand, in the dark only a faint shape against her skin.
The boat was drifting. From below, from the depths of the lake, came tiny, drifting flecks of luminescence, white and green and hungry, circling the boat like the few remaining stars still alive in a dead galaxy, where the only noise was the movement of water and the susurrus of her own breath.
Without warning, the bottom scraped stone. She almost overturned the boat, felt her balance beginning to give way, and lunged. An ungainly jerk, her legs splashing up to the knees into water again, the soles of her feet finding slick, slimy rock, and she was clambering awkwardly up a slight incline of stone, hands immediately coated with dust, crawling into a small, dry space, dragging her legs back out of the water.
Curled on her side on the stone, breathing harshly, she lay facing the water, pulse racing. The boat was drifting slowly out onto the water again, into the dark, and she could see nothing beyond it, not the island or anything, and then the boat was gone, too, straying back into the lightless black, taking its muck and smell with it, and here all she could smell was dirt and stone and silence.
Behind her, stretching away into the dark, was a narrow, empty space, a space through which the air was sluggishly, listlessly—moving
she cried, in her head, out. Out.
Her fingers tightened around the ring.
She pushed herself standing, leaning against the wall of the tunnel. For some reason she was thinking about Willow and the expression on Willow's face as she read aloud from a book. The image stayed with her as she staggered down the tunnel, needles of pain creeping up her legs as the feeling returned to them. Willow reading aloud from a book, and how was that connected to this? To here? To her, underground?
Willow's face, bright and smiling as she read.
Willow's face, white and distorted with pain as a snake slithered out of her mouth.
Willow's face, and her black, black eyes.
The tunnel seemed to go on and on and on. It sloped down, at first, but then started to rise, and then it climbed steeply, precipitously. She began to hurry, dodging bits of jagged stone and outcroppings of rock without noticing them, desperate with the heightening smells of fresh light and air. She hit a corner where the slope stopped, rounded it, leaped down another short incline, and took another corner. Here, she realized, it was much lighter than it had been only a few feet back, so light that she could see everything and easily now, as if she were already out, everything illuminated by a pale light like from dawn or twilight, and she rushed recklessly around the third corner.
The creature that turned to face her was large, filthy, and ugly. A big, disfigured thing, all knotted skin and flesh and hanks of tangled, dirty hair, it wore what looked like bits of armor, and was raising something over its head with sinewy one arm, a wide, eyes gleaming yellow, broken-teethed mouth stretching open—but that was all she saw before her free hand struck out, seized its knot-fleshed jaw, and wrenched its head brutally to the left with a terrible crack.
Howls and shrieks filled her ears.
The next few moments were a confusion of screams and teeth and blades and broken necks. She didn't think—she only moved
, snapping and breaking and twisting savagely, the ring a circle of hot metal in her palm. Bodies charged at her—she thrust away corpses. Creatures, inhuman, the faces of monsters and abominations, rushing at her in the dark, biting and snarling and hot with life—
—and then she staggered, gasped, grinding to a halt, the right hand with the ring pressed against her chest, the left out and open and reaching for a throat that wasn't there, and she was standing in cold, gray light.
The doorway and the door itself were made of stone, huge blocks of hewn stone standing wide, and the door had been left shoved to one side. Through the opening spilled that leaden light, wintery and clean, filtering through tall, snow-covered trees and glinting off of the frosted ground.
She sucked in a breath of raw, frozen air, body afire with blood and violence and returning feeling, and that was when she realized she was naked.
Closed her eyes. Breathed. Opened them again.
Felt the ring throb through her fingers and against her breast.
“Willow,” she said, eyes wide, “Willow.”
But Willow's face was fading already, sinking into the water, and that strange feeling of anxiety, that vague panic, that sense of distance and numb, deadened flesh, was draining away, its cold grip burned away by the band of metal heating her skin.
She opened her hand and looked at the ring, small and golden.
—and closed her hand again, turning to go back inside.
The things she had killed were each one nothing she recognized. Deformed, repulsive creatures, things that put her in mind of the monsters that crawled through small dark places, the nightmares of children and mothers. There was something about the contorted bodies that seemed grotesque to her, and she felt no remorse at having killed them.
She felt nothing at all.
The cave behind the stone door was a crude, craggy hole, full of smoke and sputtering torches and the smell of spoiling meat. She scavenged through the trash and the corpses, and found that nearly everything was too disgusting to want to touch. Eventually, she managed to come up with a dirty but serviceable knife, wood-handled, and a bundle of ratty cloth that looked as if it could be a long, loose-stitched shirt beneath the grime. From one of the bodies she stripped a threadbare leather belt, the buckle of corroded iron, and then she left the cave, without looking back.
Outside, she crouched in the frost and washed as well as she could. By the time she'd wiped the worst of it off with handfuls of melting snow, her skin was blue and white again.
The cloth was
a shirt, poorly made of some kind of thick wool, and it was revolting. Pulling it on over her head was a trial by itself, but it was winter (Is it supposed to be winter?
), she was naked, and there was nothing else. The belt she tied around her waist, the knife tucked against her hip, and then she stopped, still on a knee, and looked at the ring.
Turned it 'round and 'round in her fingers.
With her nails, she stripped a long fibril of leather from the belt. Twining it through the ring, she tied the loose ends at the back of her neck, and then tucked the ring beneath the shirt, where it lay, hot, against the skin.
She stood up. The sky had brightened as she worked, and now she could see the sun glimmering on the horizon straight ahead, through the trees. The ground sloped away downward from where she stood, the stone door open and silent behind her and a dirt path in front.
“Willow,” she called, and her voice rang out on the cold air, a high, girlish voice, like that of a lost child, and died on the wind.
A hand on the knife hilt, she began walking down the path.