What Can Change The Nature Of A Man?
Black briars curl around her heart, send their roots deep into her soul. Cold water drips from their thorns like blood from her fingernails, turning the soil muddy and grey like her memories. A hundred mortal lifetimes has she waited here, at the heart of the maze that is her prison, her hiding-place. The snare she has woven to capture him
. Her body may be caught here, but her withered fingers reach far into every plane of the multiverse, laying her traps, her puzzles, her bait. She will draw him here again, where he came once before, and where Ravel loved him. Loved him as she has no other, in all her long aeons of existence; and he loved her back, she knows
he did. He gave his life into her hands, and she did all he asked. And when it was done he turned from her, and knew her not, and walked away as if she were nothing to him.
But he will return. Ravel knows this, clings to the belief with all the fire in her black, shrivelled heart. She has her dark wisdom, the answers to a thousand puzzles locked in her treasure box, and hunger for knowledge was always his weakness. He will find the clues she has scattered, trace her back here to her lair, and come to her again as he did once before, to learn at her feet.
Of course, her carefully spun webs sometimes catch other flies. It amuses her to bargain with them, a diversion from the long years of waiting; and she promises to teach them her secrets of magic and power. Naturally there is a price; one last test, she cackles, before they can learn from her. They must answer her riddle. A simple thing, she tells them, so easy to answer, and it is always the same question she asks:
"What can change the nature of a man?"
She has heard a hundred different answers, and none of them satisfy the hunger in her heart. None of them explain the mystery, the one secret she has never learned. How could he leave her? How might she win his heart again? They cannot answer her; and in her rage and frustration she turns on the petitioners, seeking to drown her misery in their blood. Some die quickly; others she keeps as playthings, their warmth and life bringing a temporary light to the eternal gloom of her prison. Their screams are the only music she hears.
Her latest catch promises many hours of pleasure. Oh, she is a fierce one; the power within her burns bright and strong. Stronger even than Ravel's own, perhaps; or might have been one day, had she never stepped into Ravel's maze. But she is young, and naive, and her clumsy magic was no match for Ravel's ancient, twisty wisdom. Now she is bound fast by briars, her power quenched and hooded, awaiting her captor's will.
Ravel smiles evilly, picks a morsel of flesh from between her yellowing teeth with a long, gnarled fingernail. Perhaps it's time to pay her guest another visit... Wait.
A disturbance? Something moving in the distance...
She laughs out loud. Two intrusions in the same month? Her secret prison is becoming quite crowded. As always, a flare of hope burns in her heart. Perhaps this time.
Perhaps her centuries of waiting are over. Perhaps it's her beloved man come back to find her. She sends her senses out, into the maze of briars that spirals out from her, to see what she can see.
There are many of them this time, a group of half a dozen or more, and they are cutting through her defences with such burning determination that hope pounds in her chest. Surely such fire, such spirit can only be his! He was always a leader that others would follow, even to the bottom of the Nine Hells, and who else would dare venture into Ravel's maze? Her guardians are closing in from all sides, but she does not fear. No barrier she can raise would ever keep him from his goal. He will force his way to the heart of her maze as he forced his way into her heart when they first met, and soon she will welcome him once more. Her lips curve in cruel, hungry anticipation, moistened by her darting tongue.
She senses pain flash though the network of roots towards her; one of his companions has fallen. A small price... but wait? What!? The intruders are falling back, stopping their onward advance! They cluster around their fallen comrade as if to protect him. Such weakness! Such indecision! His
chosen followers would never display such cowardice; they would sacrifice their lives willingly to speed his progress. As she
would. As she has
. This cannot be him.
Ravel screams her rage into the blank grey sky. They must die. All of them.
***"'The hell was that?"
Buffy barely looks up at Leah's question, concentrating on the monsters that seem to be springing up constantly out of the thornbushes all around her. "Dunno." She swings low, slicing one of them in half at the waist. "Something nasty, but a long way away. Time enough to worry about it when - Rowena! Behind you!"
The young Slayer turns barely in time as a gnarly root-limb cleaves the earth where she'd been standing. Before the demon can recover a sword slashes down and the arm lies twitching on the ground. But there are more of them coming, all the time. Buffy whirls the Scythe around in a sweep that kills two at once, but three more pull their way out of the undergrowth towards her. Off-balance, she can only twist out of the way of their blows, but then a furious hurricane of movement dashes past her, lays about with a axe until a demon-free circle of space has been cleared all around them. Kennedy stands at its centre holding the dripping axe in both hands, and gestures impatiently at the path onwards.
"Come on! We're wasting time here!"
Buffy's just as keen to keep moving, but she turns back to the two figures on the ground at the centre of their group. "How's she doing?"
"I've got the wound bandaged, ma'am. But - " Satsu bites her lip apologetically, hating what she's about to say. "She's not going to be walking out of here. She needs a week in bed..."
Before Buffy can reply, Kennedy butts in angrily. "She's a Slayer. She damn well better start walking, fast!"
"I'm sorry, but she can't." Satsu sounds diffident, but then she surprises Buffy by looking up and staring Kennedy straight in the eye. "Unless you're prepared to carry her?"
"That'll just slow us down. You've seen how many of these things there are..."
"Wait." Buffy's voice cuts through their argument. "We're not leaving anybody behind. But you're right; Donna will slow us down. So I'll go on ahead by myself; you guys follow me as fast as you can."
"That's crazy! This damned maze twists and turns for miles and there's more of these things coming all the time. On your own you'll be dragged down and killed!"
Buffy grins. "Yeah, but I'm not going to follow the maze around, am I?"
And she sweeps the Scythe up and around, and branches and thorns fly everywhere as she hacks a path straight through the impenetrable hedgerow and takes off at a run.
Weak they may be and cowardly, but these intruders know how to fight. Ravel has lost count of how many of her guardians they have slain. The enchantments of this place can always create more, but for the moment its power is almost spent. No matter. The circles of her maze twine around her like a serpent wrapped around her bosom, and she is safe at its heart. Not one visitor in a hundred has ever penetrated her fortress - not unless she gave them leave to pass. Unless she opened the way to them, led them on with false hopes to the centre of her web, where she waited with her question. Ravel's riddle, always the same, never yet answered. What can change the nature of a man? Perhaps these mortals could tell her. Yes. Perhaps she should...
One of the intruders suddenly breaks away from the invading group and heads inwards. Impossibly fast, heading like an arrow directly for Ravel's heart! How...? For the briefest instant, a cold breath of terror turns her chest to ice. A second mortal is following quickly behind the first, and Ravel reacts instinctively, forcing down her panic as she summons all the power of the maze to repel this thrust into her vitals. The earth and the trees themselves react to her desperate call, sending out roots and twisting thorny branches to trap and confine these invaders.
***Was that the sixth or the seventh hedge she's cut through? Buffy's lost count. At least she seems to have left the demons behind... but then she hears running footsteps and panting breath, and she wheels instantly, lifting the Scythe...
Then lowers it again. "Kennedy, I told you to stay with Donna."
"She's got three Slayers guarding her, she's fine. Thought you might need some help."
Whatever objection Buffy is about to raise fades as she takes in the fiery determination in Kennedy's eyes. So without another word she turns and sprints across the muddy path towards the next hedge. Kennedy is right beside her, matching her stride for stride.
The Scythe curves around in a flashing crimson arc to cleave through the thornbushes as it has so many times already.. and then without warning the branches are moving, whipping towards them. Fingers of scaly bark are clawing at her feet. Kennedy yells in fury as she is caught round the waist, lifted up; and then Buffy too feels the hedgerow seize her in its thorny grasp. Desperately, she twists and tries to pull away; but there is demonic strength in the bonds around her, drawing its power from the earth itself. A branch three inches thick starts winding itself impossibly around her arm, pulling it up and away from her body, immobilising it. Desperately she flicks her wrist backwards, letting the Scythe fall towards her, then shoots forward her head and catches its handle in her teeth. A twist of her head and it drops again, into her waiting left hand...
Then it flashes up, cleaving through the roots and branches and leaving them flopping and twisting on the ground like landed fish. Three more sweeps and she is free once again.
But more of the wooden claws are reaching towards her, and she is forced to hack at them constantly to remain free. And raising her head she sees Kennedy hanging there on the hedgerow, her arms spreadeagled and immobilised despite her frantic struggles. Crucified. Buffy starts back in towards her, forcing her way inch by inch into the heart of the living thicket as more of the thorns tear at her flesh, try to wrap around her.
"Buffy, forget me!"
"I'm not...ugh... leaving any... ow... of my Slayers behind."
"Don't be such a fucking idiot!" Buffy stops then, blinking in surprise. It's been a long time since anyone dared to speak to her like that. But Kennedy isn't finished.
"Get yourself trapped again and you'll be useless to all of us. Keep going! Damn you, keep going. Please..."
And Buffy meets her eyes, and nods. Then turns from her to run straight for the heart of the maze.
Ravel doesn't need her magic senses now to feel the intruder approaching, even though her maze screams in anger and agony at its violation. She can hear running footsteps, the crash and splinter of falling branches, the ceaseless metronome thud of axe against wood. In a flurry of controlled panic she prepares her defensive enchantments, forcing open the rusty gates of her memory to recall spells she's not cast in a dozen lifetimes. The last one is barely in place as the final barrier falls and an armed intruder bursts uninvited into the heart of her inner sanctum.She's just a girl.
That's the first thought that crosses her mind. A tiny blonde girl, not a warrior. Not even wearing armour; her bare arms and legs are criss-crossed with scratches from the thorns, but she doesn't seem to notice any pain. She just hefts her axe and stares at Ravel. And as their eyes meet Ravel feels a chill reaching right down to the darkened depths of her blackened soul as she recognises what she sees there. This woman is a killer.
This woman is more dangerous than anyone she's ever encountered in a hundred lifetimes, anyone since...
Anyone since him
With a scream of frustrated loneliness and rage she unleashes her most powerful magics at the intruder. Razor-edged ice crystals and fire as bright as the sun slash down from the sky to freeze her and burn her; but incredibly, impossibly, she leaps and twists her body out of the way, and then she's running straight at Ravel. Who frantically hurls a conjured seed at her, and black briars spring from the muddy soil to wrap around her feet; but the red-bladed axe glitters as it swings and the intruder barely breaks stride as she leaps forward then carries her momentum up into a flying kick that sends Ravel staggering back, more stunned by the shock of anybody actually daring to strike her than by the physical pain.
She tries to fight back, all wiry strength and poisoned claws; but the woman's blows are coming with incredible, inhuman speed, more force behind them than her mortal form has any right to possess. Ravel's protective enchantments are keeping her unhurt, barely - but with each sweep of the axe, each punch and kick, their power is weakening. Soon she will be laid open and exposed, and then...
"I give up!"
"What?" The intruder freezes in place, axe already raised to strike.
"Poor weak Ravel, you've beaten her, you've beaten me. Please don't hurt me anymore."
." But for all her suspicious tone the woman lowers her axe again. Ravel forces a smile.
"Congratulations, dearie. It's been a long, long time since any mortal was strong enough to reach me. Tell Ravel what you want."
"I want my friend back. Don't give me that 'long, long time' crap. I know she's here."
"Your friend? Ah, you mean the tasty little fly that blundered into Ravel's web. So sweet a morsel."
"If you've hurt her I will end
"Hurt? Perhaps a little, yes. But not dead. Ravel is a lonely old woman, her lover has gone away, so long ago. Poor Ravel, she enjoys her visits from strangers, she never wants them to leave her."
The woman stares at her, disgust and scorn and perhaps a faint glimmer of pity in her expression. Ravel smiles inside. She can feel the power of the maze seeping back in around her, dripping down like the constant rain from the featureless grey sky to refill its deep wells of strength. Soon, soon...
"You have a lover? Is he as ugly as you? Whatever. Just give my friend back to me and let us all go in peace and we'll call it quits."
"Of course, of course. Nobody ever stays long here. Poor Ravel, they always leave her. But before you go you must do one thing for me. Such a small thing, a favour for a favour, yes."
"What is it?" The woman sounds suspicious, but also somehow expectant. She knows. Oh yes, everybody knows about Ravel and her riddle.
"I'll release your friend, yes, and let you go, yes, if you answer my question. Just one question, then you can go." She takes a deep breath, then intones the words she's spoken so many times before.
"What can change the nature of a man?"
***"What can change the nature of a man?"
Buffy hears the words click into place like a bullet into the chamber of a gun. For all she's been expecting them they make her just as uncomfortable as, well, as a gun would. They've heard the riddle whispered in the back alleys of Sigil, seen it written on the wall of a burned-out temple in the Wastelands, as they followed the trail that led them finally to this place. To this confrontation. To this question.
What is the answer? She and her Slayers argued about it every night as they huddled around their campfire. Each had her own theory, her own suggestion. They'd discussed and debated and assessed each one in turn. Rowena had suggested "Time". Donna thought "Belief" might be the answer. Leah offered "Getting out of your face drunk", and Kennedy countered with "Who cares about changing the nature of a man anyway?". Satsu had put forward "Remorse" as her solution. As for Buffy, she herself had considered "Having a chip installed in your brain, falling in love with a Slayer then going on a quest to get your soul back", but suspected that it was probably not the answer Ravel would be looking for.
Or maybe it is. Certainly none of the other answers feels right to her.
She looks up into the face of the hideous old witch facing her. Ravel's eyes have a hungry gleam in them.
Come on, Buffy. Think. You've got to get this right, or -
Or what? Well, Ravel will probably try and kill you again. Sure, you beat her once, but she almost got you with those green dripping talons of hers at least twice. I'm thinking a scratch from them would be of the bad. So come on. What's the right answer?
She opens her mouth to speak, closes it again. Which answer? Maybe Satsu had it right, she's pretty insightful. Remorse? Regret?
Buffy is just about to speak when a premonition makes her glance down. Tiny black shoots are budding up from the muddy ground like a perversion of springtime; the hedge behind her is starting to rustle in the windless air...
And Ravel has a look of evil expectation in her eyes, her hands are hooking slowly into clawed talons...
And Buffy suddenly knows what her answer must be.
So close now. Ravel watches hungrily as the girl struggles for an answer. Some of them blurt one out straight away; some need time to think. Some try and cajole her into telling them the solution; she takes special pleasure in killing those ones slowly. But all of them get it wrong, and all of them die. Sooner or later.
This one will die quickly. She's too dangerous to play with. Ravel feels the power of her fortress prison building up around her, flowing into her. Soon, so soon. Only keep her guessing for a moment longer...
And then without any warning she is hurled backwards, crashing down into the dark, sticky mud, a weight on her chest crushing the air from her lungs. Panicking she tries to rise, but then something hard and sharp is pressed against her throat. She looks up into cold green eyes, senses arms of solid corded muscle coiled behind the glittering axe, knows with sharp-edged clarity that the slightest downwards pressure from the woman straddling her torso will send the blade straight through her neck into the mud beneath her.
Knows she is closer to death than she has ever been.
And then at last the woman speaks. But it isn't an answer. It's another question.
"Forget about the nature of a man. What you should be asking yourself right now..." and the axe presses down just a little, just enough to send a thin trickle of blood flowing down into the moist ground, "Is what can change the nature of Buffy? Because right now, not exactly overflowing with mercy or patience."
In fear and anger and spite, Ravel almost spits in the woman's face, dares her to push the axe home. But if she dies now... she will never see him again. He will never return to her, she will never be able to welcome him back into her arms, her heart. She will never know his
answer to her question.
And so the light fades from her eyes, and she crumples in surrender. A gesture of her hand and the briars release their grip on her previous guest. The former prisoner spills out onto the ground below with a thud, bleeding and broken. But in an instant Ravel can feel her drawing power from the very earth and air around her, healing her own injuries, knitting her shattered bones together. Such powerful magic, used with such contemptuous ease that Ravel feels almost jealous. Oh, a few decades, a century or two of training and this one will surpass even her. Ravel's shrivelled womb has never borne fruit; but for a glimmering moment she wonders what it would be to send a daughter out into the world. Flesh of her flesh to experience the life that has passed Ravel by, face the joys and torments that she has hidden herself away from.
Maybe. Maybe when her lover returns to her...
The two strangers are exchanging words now. Light, almost casual conversation, not at all what Ravel would have expected from such a great hero rescuing her comrade from unspeakable tortures. She just wants them gone now. Wants to be left to her solitude and her memories.
***"Hey, Buff. Nice to see you again."
"Likewise. Sorry we took so long."
"It's no big. Uh, when you say 'we'..."
"Don't worry, Kennedy's here with me. She's fine, she just got hung up on kind of an animated hedge thingie back there aways. It was a thing." Buffy looks back down at the supine form of Ravel beneath her. "Remember your promise to let all of my friends go?"
Ravel almost nods, remembers the Scythe and blinks her eyes in acknowledgement. In the distance there's a sudden crash, followed by loud cursing. Willow grins.
"Yep, she sounds fine. By the way, we'll need one of Ravel's fingernails to get out of here."
"What? Oh, one of those magic portal key things." She looks down at Ravel. "We can do this the easy way, or..."
Ravel doesn't hesistate. She lifts her hand to her mouth, bites off one of her own talons and spits it out onto the ground. Buffy pulls a face of disgust, but Willow steps past her and picks it up.
"Okay. The sooner we get out of here the happier I'll be."
"Did you get what you came for? Why did you come, anyway?"
"Because I was an idiot. Because I thought I could learn stuff, learn to use my powers better. I thought I could get Ravel to teach me... but I couldn't answer her stupid riddle. How am I supposed to know anything about changing the nature of men?
Buffy snorts with laughter. "You know, you and Kennedy make the perfect couple."
"I'll explain later. Come on, let's go."
Ravel watches them leave, making no attempt to hinder them. She won't see them again, she knows. She feels almost wistful at the thought. Their youth and strength and power brought a flicker of light into her cold, dreary existence, and she thinks about the life outside her maze that they will return to, and she will never know again.
They will experience it for her. She feels weirdly possessive of them - the first mortals ever to face her and survive intact and whole. Whatever mark they make on the world outside now after this - whatever slaughter and destruction they wreak, whatever acts of kindness and beauty they commit - Ravel will be in some small way responsible for that.
She wonders if this is how a mother feels.
So the red-haired one wanted to learn magic from her? Ravel has nothing to teach her now, but she still has some few contacts outside her prison, some favours owed her. She will send a message out; perhaps the serpent queen will be willing to take another pupil, if Ravel asks. She wonders what the witch will do with such power and learning. Will she use it for good or evil? Ravel smiles wickedly. Either way, it will be interesting.
Even here in her prison, Ravel can still shake the world around her. She still has power.
But what use is it when she has nobody to share with? She is alone; her beloved man is gone, leaving her with nothing but regrets and memories. Will he ever return? Will he be the next one to step through the portal, speak to her again as he did before? She can only be patient, and hope, and endure the long lifetimes without him.
At the heart of her black briar maze, Ravel sits and waits. Alone.
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