the plot thickens...
It had taken Francis until the sun was preparing to set over Sunnydale before she finally found the place she was looking for. Skidding her bicycle to a stop before the seemingly unremarkable corner lot, the old woman took a moment to revel in how much the tall, narrow farmhouse on the small property had changed since last she had last laid eyes on it. The dark blue shingled roof was now sallow and sloped, and the once dazzlingly lime green walls she recalled had faded and cracked with the long wear of time.
If the physical conditions of the place were different, the witch couldn’t deny the familiar prickle of magical energy washing across her skin, emanating quite strongly from the house. This was the place all right.
Francis dismounted and started up the potholed gravel driveway towards the sagging porch, her gaze sweeping critically over the unkempt grassy yard. Despite the strong presence of magic, she wondered if her former acquaintance still lived here. Or if the woman was even still alive.
The hellmouth was no serene picnic clearing in the woods, after all.
The porch groaned underfoot as she walked the bike up the steps and leaned it against a large potted plant. Stepping up to the cracked and peeling red oak door, she paused for a long moment before rapping sharply on it three times.
There was the muffled sound of movement from within, and then the door was flung inwards to reveal a tall, thin woman almost completely enveloped in flowing black robes, a fierce scowl stretched across her pale, weathered face. She was clutching a beaded talisman in her hand that Francis recognized as some sort of summoning charm.
The woman’s mouth dropped and her angry blue eyes widened in visible shock as they fell upon on the shorter witch.
“Francisca?!” she inhaled, clasping a thin hand to her chest. “Why, why, what a surprise!”
Old lady Hackmore smiled broadly, giving an overly dramatic sweep of her cloak and a small bow.
“Rezzilda, my dear, it’s been an age.” she crooned sweetly. “I do hope you don’t mind the intrusion, especially at nightfall, but I’m visiting the area, and thought I might pop in for a quick visit…?”
For a moment the women stood there, just blinking down at her, before snapping back to life with a shake of her wispy white-blonde haired head.
“Oh yes, please come in! I was just boiling some tea.” Still seemingly taken aback, the tall willowy witch ushered her through the door, closing and quickly bolting it. Francis frowned in grudging approval. One could never be too careful with security, even if one was a powerful witch. Francis herself had learned that the hard way.
If the exterior had changed, the main floor of the farmhouse was just as she remembered it from all those decades ago; a cluttered but cozy hovel, the walls buried floor to ceiling behind overflowing bookshelves and full-sized oak cabinets- probably stocked full of herbs and potion ingredients, Francis mused. A well-worn couch and a few cushioned chairs sat strategically around a large fireplace built into the wall. It was currently smouldering, which for some reason seemed entirely appropriate despite the warm California night. The farmhouse was unnaturally cool and drafty.
Rezzilda waved towards the couch. “Sit, sit, make yourself at home. You must be tired, riding that thing around. Just like old times, if I recall. Now how do you prefer your tea? Wait, let me see if I can remember what you drank when last you were here.”
Her eyes narrowed in concentration and then widened in delight as she snapped her fingers.
“Ah yes! You had Black Dragon Pearl with a touch of crow beak and mint, yes?”
Francis nodded. “Your memory is sharp as ever. But if you could replace the beak with a spot of shredded Rattler scale, that would be just lovely.”
Rezzilda turned to one of the open spice cabinets, snatching up a small bottle from the forth shelf. She turned to Francis, who had politely taken a seat on the couch.
“I’ll just prepare this, please excuse me.”
As soon as the woman had disappeared out of sight, Francis rose from the couch and stepped towards the closest book case, scouring over the aged leather tomes with intensity. Many of the books she saw also graced her own collection at home. Many others did not.
She had made her way through half the tomes in the room but still hadn’t come across a copy of the book she was searching for when Rezzilda returned with a tray of two steaming mugs, placing it carefully on a small side table. Francis took her mug with a gracious nod of thanks and sat back down on the couch.
For a long moment neither spoke, softly blowing on their tea in the comfortable silence. Finally Rezzilda took a tentative sip and carefully set her mug down on the table.
“I trust that you are not simply on the hellmouth for reasons of personal leisure?”
Francis sighed. “Hardly. Ill occurrences bring me this way. Twelve days ago someone or something broke into my home and stole a book from my private study.”
Her dark eyes flicked up to lock with Rezzilda’s pale blue.
“Whoever broke in knew exactly where the book was to be found, and how to slip past my wards to take it. Nothing else was touched.”
Silence once again hung between the two witches, now suddenly less comfortable then a moment before.
Rezzilda took another slow sip of her tea. “And which, may I ask, of your books was taken?”
Francis hunched forward, her face drawn.
“A book of troll lore. Particularly the tome that contains the Trantor Prophecy. I was hoping that you might have one of its sister copies, or else a copy of the prophesy itself. I would be more than willing to pay handsomely for it, of course.”
Rezzilda ruefully shook her head. “I’m afraid that I can’t help you there, as I’m no longer in possession of the Trantor Prophesy. I lent it to Brunhilda about twenty years ago and haven’t seen it since. In fact when I finally heard about that wretched Troll’s demise in Briarville, I even wrote her a letter asking about the book myself.”
“Foul blasts!” Francis hissed, her mug rattling as she set it irritably back on the table. Last she heard, Brunhilda had long since moved back to Europe. Who knew where the former coven priestess was now? Well, finding a second copy of the prophesy had been a long shot in the dark anyways. No matter.
She picked the mug back up and took another long sip of the deliciously bitter drink. It wasn’t so piping hot now. She quickly finished the rest off, then put it back down and gave a tight smile to her host.
“That really was quite good. The blend of scales and mint was perfect.”
“Thank you my dear. Is there anything else I can help you with? It would be a shame to think you came all the way to Sunnydale for nothing…”
“In fact, you can. Not long after the theft of my book, I discovered that the oak tree which had held the accursed troll imprisoned for over a century and now stands as his grave had recently been tampered with.”
Rezzilda’s finely plucked eyebrows arched questioningly as the wild-haired woman continued.
“This was no teenage foolery, either. There had clearly been a ritual. A dark and vile ritual. I believe that someone is planning to resurrect Trantor using the Prophesy.”
Francis leaned forward.
“You’ve lived on this hellmouth longer than anyone I’ve known, which is the main reason I came here tonight. I require the best ingredients and advice for a powerful scrying spell to help me locate the seventh Worrell son. He’s here, somewhere in Sunnydale, and I need to warn him about this Troll business before he gets himself killed.”
Rezzilda nodded briskly and stood up, smoothing her black cowls. “Of course, this I can easily help you with. Scrying can be difficult in the best of circumstances on the hellmouth, but I’ve nearly perfected a few variations over the years. At least one of them should work for you.”
Over the next half hour, both women rummaged through the cupboards and cabinets of the kitchen and living room, gathering a variety of necessary ingredients. By the time they were done, Francis was confident that at least one of the spells would succeed in locating Earnest, if not his general location.
Hefting the bag of supplies over her shoulder, Francis waited as Rezzilda unbolted the front door. She looked up at the tall woman and gave a satisfied smile.
“Thank you again for all this, Rezzilda. The tea was delicious.”
Rezzilda laughed and embraced her in a warm hug. “Oh, it was my pleasure, my dear. I do hope you find Worrell soon, the hellmouth is no mere trifle. And please drop by again if you’re in need of anything else!”
Francis nodded one more time, setting the bag onto the wide basket now bolted between the bike’s handlebars. She carefully walked it down the steps and then deftly hopped up onto the seat. It would be a long ride back through town to that demon bar.
Francis hoped it would be uneventful. *
Rezzilda stood on the porch watching the other woman peddle off into the darkness, the smile on her lips fading into a grimace. She quickly swept back into her home, locking and bolting the door behind her.
Wasting no time, the witch strode through the living room and past the back kitchen until she reached the basement door, murmuring a soft charm and blowing on the doorknob to release the magical lock that kept the entranceway sealed shut.
The door silently swung open, and Rezzilda stepped onto the narrow landing, immediately hit by the stench of death rot that filled the old farm cellar, kept contained to the basement by magic ward.
Flicking on the basement lights and making her way down the narrow creaking staircase, the witch carefully made her way across the room until she had reached the smaller set of steps leading up to the storm doors. With a simple wave of her hand she unlatched the bolts and sent the heavy doors flying open, letting in streams of moonlight to shimmer over the concrete steps.
Turning back around, Rezzilda surveyed the seven mounds of earth scattered around the dirt-floor cellar, rubbing her chin in thought.
“Now, which of my loyal children shall I make use of tonight?”
Her gaze fell to the mound closest to her feet. “Ah, Cornelius. It has been a while since I’ve let you out for a romp.”
Stepping over to the mound of damp earth, the witch spit into her palm and crouched beside the dirt pile, whispering the familiar incantation before gently pressing her hand to the mound. Immediately the dirt began to tremble and fall away to reveal the skeletal being within. It sat upright, thin flecks of rotted flesh and strips of ragged clothing clinging to its boney form.
Rezzilda stood and half turned away, nearly gagging from the putrid stench as the corpse flexed sinewy limbs and slowly struggled to its feet, gnashing its broken teeth in a silent eternal scream.
Gazing intently into the hollowed sockets of her unwilling undead servant, the witch produced from her robes the single strand of hair she had taken from Francisca. She placed the hair in the corps’s outstretched emaciated hand.
“Follow her.” she commanded frostily. “See where she goes and who she meets. Remain undiscovered. Go now!”
Without hesitation the skeletal being closed his hand over the witch’s hair and turned away, clumsily scrambling up the steps and out into the night.*-*-*
Ernest glumly pushed the wide-headed broom down the empty hallway, sweeping up an assortment of dust and litter as he went. Even though it was well past sunset, only now was he making his final round of the school’s second floor. Despite being almost finished for the day, his mind was barely on the task at hand.
“I just don’t know, boy. How the heck could a room just up and disappear like that?”
Rimshot was trotting silently beside him, keeping him company now that Snyder and most of the other teachers had finally vacated the building. After Mr. Giles advice, Ernest had wisely decided to keep the dog safely out of sight in his basement office for the remainder of the day; he didn’t want to take any chances with the unpredictable principal.
Rimshot barked, the sound echoing down the empty hall.
“I’ll tell you, it’s the weirdest thing. If I didn’t know any better, I would have sworn that wall just appeared there by magic!”
At least Giles seemed to believe him -which wasn’t exactly something Ernest was all that used to, truth be told. After lunch they had talked in the library for a good hour, and Ernest related in detail everything he could recall about the mysterious room.
Ernest really liked the library, even though he hadn’t yet seen any students actually using it for studying or borrowing books or the like. Not that he had used his own school’s library all that much when he was in high school either; no small thanks to the presence of Mrs. Mcrae, the meanest librarian in the whole County.
No, what he really liked about the Sunnydale Library was the quiet seclusion, and the musty old book smell that brought him back to his great-uncle’s den. And he really liked Mr Giles too. The man made a fine librarian, even if he did seem strangely uneasy about Ernest’s ambitious renovation plans for the school basement.
The janitor’s thoughts drifted back to the mysterious room. Channelling the great Sherlock Holmes, he retraced the steps of his exploration, trying to think of any little details that might give him a clue. The spider-webbing calligraphy, the eerie, glowish lighting, the weird-feeling material of the floor and walls, the icy coldness of the handle when he closed the door…
The broom clattered to the floor as a sudden comprehension clicked into place in Ernest’s mind. He nearly jumped up and down.
“That’s it! That’s got to be it! The door handle! It must have something to do with the door handle! Maybe it was like a, a trigger! Like a trap door! Only, not a trap door, but a hidden wall! You know those ancient Aztec sure were protective of their sacred chambers, well I’ll bet that it’s just like in Indian Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark! When he was trying remove the little golden statue, and he had to dodge all those poisoned darts and that giant rolling stone…”
Rimshot stared up at him while he stood in the middle of the hall, miming a giant boulder barrelling down on the fictional archaeologist while giving a rambling, emotional commentary.
Finally he sputtered to a halt, out of breath, his chest heaving. He looked down at the dog, his eyes bright with excitement.
“Come on Rimshot, we have to go tell Mr. Giles before he leaves!”
Rimshot gave an uncertain growl, but reluctantly took off after the gangly custodian towards the main stairs. *
Giles slowly sank into the chair, absently pulling the cleaning cloth out of his breast pocket and removing his glasses with a heavy sigh. He looked back up at Buffy.
“And you are positive that Ernest is the man that you’ve been dreaming about?”
“Yes! I’ve had the same stupid dream with the same guy like seventeen times! I would recognize him anywhere, even dressed in a school janitor’s uniform.”
Giles conceded her point with a nod. He didn’t bother mentioning that Ernest dressed that way entirely of his own volition.
“And in this dream…Ernest is fighting
off this demonic horde?”
Saying it aloud sounded even more preposterous to Giles than the thought itself.
“Yeah, fighting and cleaning up pretty good, too.”
From where he was standing behind willow’s chair, softly massaging her shoulders, Oz smirked. “Literally.”
Buffy grinned sheepishly at him. “No pun intended. But yeah, this guy is seriously up to some heavy duty slaying, with a sword and everything. He always cuts this one especially ugly demon’s head right off, holds it up in the air, and yells something that I can never seem to hear. That’s where the dream usually ends, but then a few times it’s gone longer, and all the other demons sort of melt away after the head chopping. Then the guy with the sword turns and stares right at me, and I wake up.”
“That last part sounds kinda’ creepy.” Willow said with a sniff, bringing her knees up to her chest and hugging them. Oz leaned forward, slipping his arms over his girlfriend’s. He had yet to meet the new Janitor, having been away on a week-long trip to visit family, but he was definitely curious to see what he was like.
“Yeah, tell me about it,” Buffy muttered, fidgeting with the wooden stake tucked in her pocket.
In the chair across the table from her, Xander closed the tome of colourfully illustrated anatomical drawings of monsters he had been browsing and looked up at her.
“Well Demon-decapitating and creepy staring aside, it can’t be a good sign that you’re even dreaming about this guy at all, Buff. Think your slayer-sense is trying to warn you about him?”
Buffy made an exasperated noise and flopped her arms against the table as she sat down.
“That’s the problem; I don’t know what
it’s trying to say, or whether it’s even a slayer dream in the first place.”
Giles finished polishing his glasses and slipped them back onto the bridge oh his nose. He glanced around the table at the students, trying to choose his words carefully.
“To be honest, while I find Ernest to be probably one of the oddest people I’ve ever encountered, he doesn’t quite strike me as a demon-slaying warrior, nor a threat to anything but his own personal safety. That being said-” he continued, cutting off Buffy’s indignant objection, “I also believe that we should take these dreams very seriously, and do our best to find out what -if any- are Ernest’s ulterior reasons for being on the hellmouth. For the time being though, I recommend that we maintain a low profile and keep a close eye on him, at least until we have a better idea of what the dreams mean.”
There was a long silence at the table as everyone mulled over his suggestion.
“Or we could just ask him,” Oz offered with a shrug.
Buffy opened her mouth, then closed it again, frowning in thought.
“No,” she finally said, “Slayer dreams are too unpredictable. I mean, we don’t even know if these events are from the past or the possible future, or if they’re even real. For all I know, this guy could be some kind of telepath and he’s just projecting out these crazy dreams and lucky ol’ Slayer me gets to pick up the broadcast.”
“Good point,” Xander added. “Definitely weird, but entirely possible.”
“Aside from the disturbance in the hallways the other day-” Giles began, only to abruptly stop as Buffy rose from her seat and turned towards the library doors, her hand motioning for silence.
“Someone’s coming.” She said, moving between her friends and the entranceway, stake already in hand. The others scrambled from their chairs, hovering around the table, all eyes locked on the single set of doors.
Sure enough the slapping of shoes against tile flooring echoed from the hallway, and then, suddenly…
Ernest’s familiar form toppled through the doorway in a flailing heap of denim and arms and legs. Even before he had fully untangled himself and started getting back to his feet, the janitor was breathlessly babbling a mile a minute.
“Giles! Mr. Giles! I think I found the answer! The room didn’t disappear at all; it’s behind a trap wall! It’s a – hey, what are students doing here so late?”
Between the ridiculously comical entrance and the expression of slack-jawed, baffled astonishment written across his face, Buffy felt the sudden urge to burst into laughter. She managed to contain it to a suppressed snicker. Wow. Giles wasn’t kidding about this guy being a danger to himself.
The watcher stepped forward, clearing his throat. “Well, ahem, these students are, ah…”
“Studying.” Willow supplied. “We’re doing a group project.”
“Oh, neat!” Ernest said, flashing a brilliantly wide smile that she couldn’t help but return. “What’s it about?”
“The power of dreams,” Xander said, quirking an eyebrow suggestively. “You know, projection
, psycho-transference, telepathy
…all that weird Freudian stuff.”
Giles rolled his eyes. So much for keeping a low profile.
For whatever reason, Ernest didn’t seem to notice the not-so-subtle hints. His grin grew wider.
“Ah, Freud, I think I learned about him in high school. Isn’t he the therapist who recommended that his patients sleep with their mothers?”
Willow looked horror-struck. “Eww, no! That’s not what he said at all!”
“But he did recommend that they take lots of cocaine,” Oz pointed out.
“Yes, well this is all quite fascinating,” Giles broke in, “Sorry Ernest, but what were you saying?”
“Right! Well see, I realized that when I left that room and closed the door -it was all icy cold like I told you- it must have been some sort of trigger for the wall to come into place! The room didn’t vanish, it’s just blocked off!”
Giles slowly nodded. “Yes, that could be a real possibility,” he conceded.
“But even if that’s the case,” He cautioned the obviously excited caretaker, “I still think you should keep well away from that area of the basement all the same. As I told you before, it’s dangerous!”
Ernest dismissed the warning with a wave of his hand. “Aw Mr. Giles, I know you don’t like the basement, But I’ve explored a pretty good chunk of it already with Rimshot, and we haven’t seen anybody down there at all!”
“Rimshot?” Buffy asked, throwing her watcher a curious glance.
“Yeah, he’s my dog.” Ernest explained with a frown, turning around to look through the door. “He was right behind me…”
Figuring that she might as well introduce herself, Buffy caught the man’s attention with a little wave and stepped forward.
“I’m Buffy, by the way. It’s nice to meet you.”
Beaming, Ernest reached out and clasped her hand in between both of his, pumping it up and down.
“I saw you coming out of the Principal’s office the other day, and he gave me a little speech about you. I don’t think he takes too much of a shine to you, KnowWhutImean?”
Buffy gave a derisive snort.
“Yeah. There’s a pretty mutual lack of shininess between me and Snyder.”
Ernest noticed the wooden stake still held limply in her other hand. He pointed at it.
“I see Mr. Giles has given you the talk about the hallucinogen-drug addicted criminal gangs that wander around at night too.”
Buffy’s face scrunched up in confusion. “Huh?”
“Yes!” Giles stepped up, a forced smile on his lips. “Buffy and the others are well aware of the, ah, criminal element present in Sunnydale. But it’s getting late now, and the students still have to work on their project. If you don’t mind, would we be able to finish this conversation about the basement room another time?”
Ernest nodded amiably, stifling a yawn. It was pretty late anyways.
“Sure thing, Mr. Giles, I just wanted to let you know about my theory. And if it makes you feel any better, I promise I won’t go back to the room on my own.”
“Thank you, it truly would.”
Ernest turned to Buffy then to the other students, giving everyone a wide wave. “Good to meet you, Buffy. And I’m sure I’ll see all you folks around school too. Good luck on your project!”
“See ya, Ernest.”
Turning and ambling out into the hall, Ernest narrowed his eyes to laser-sight slits.
“Now: where the heck did that dog run off to…?”*
Buffy turned to her friends with a bemused shake of her head. “That was way too weird.”
“In what way?” Willow asked, hopping up onto the table.
“He just seems like an entirely different person from how he appears in the dreams! In the dreams he’s just this cold, hardened demon-killing machine. But in real life…”
“He’s a lovable, zany custodian with a huge smile and a southern twang?” Xander solemnly quipped.
“Yeah! I just get two completely different vibes. It’s weird.”
She suddenly turned to Giles with a glare, socking him ‘lightly’ in the arm.
“And you! I can’t believe you told Ernest that bull crap about drug addicted gangs! You’re feeding right into the Sunnydale Syndrome!”
“Oww!” Giles cried in pain and surprise, visibly taken aback and clearly affronted by her accusation. “I had to tell the man something to warn him, what else was I going to say?! That vampires and demons roam the town at night, and that the basement he works in happens to sit atop a vortex of unspeakably evil energy? He would have laughed in my face! At least this way hopefully he’ll be more careful.”
“Well,” Buffy conceded ruefully. “Yeah ok, I guess you have a pretty good point.”
She offered him an apologetic pout. “Sorry for punching you.”
“You bloody well should be,” he muttered testily under his breath, rubbing his aching arm.
Running a hand through her hair with a tired sigh, Buffy turned to her friends.
“So what do you guys think of him?”
Willow bit her lip thoughtfully. “He seems pretty nice to me. Kind of has this whole nervous energy thing going on though.”
Xander nodded in agreement. “Yeah, he doesn’t really throw up any big red danger flags for me either.” He gave a lopsided grin. “But as we all know, Alexander Harris isn’t exactly the best judge when it comes to judging people of danger.”
He nodded towards Oz, who as usual, had a calm contemplative look on his face.
“What about you, wolfman? Any stoic pearls of wisdom on our mysterious janitor dream situation?”
Oz shrugged coolly.
“He seems like a pretty rad dude. But I can’t really picture him making sushi out of a bunch of demons, to be honest. There is one thing about him that is kind of bugging me though…”
A truly quizzical look passed over his features.
“Is anybody else getting this really strange feeling that they’ve seen this guy before in a ton of commercials?”