Godless Provenance: Chapter 11
See Chapter 1 for disclaimers and ratings. Due credit given to BtVS episode 6.01 (Bargaining Part 1) and SG1 episode 3.12 (Jolinar's Memories) and 3.13 (The Devil You Know) for a few great lines and descriptions.O o O o O o O
It was strange being here at the foot of her best friend's empty grave. Not that she hadn't been here before, for she had. Many, many times. There was the night when they buried an empty casket - an empty casket because they hadn't even been left with a body to bury. Buffy had made the ultimate sacrifice that night, just as deep down, they all knew that she eventually would, and yet the portal had stolen her life, used her own blood to seal it, and then disappeared, taking Buffy's body with it. And so they had buried an empty casket a few nights later - a night chosen in deference to Angel and Spike and also because... well, somehow it just seemed right. Buffy had spent so much of her time fighting in the dark, it only seemed right somehow to remember her there as well.
Willow had also come back many times since that night to talk to the cold granite that marked a spot where no body rested. She had come to ask for forgiveness for not doing enough to stop Glory, to give thanks for believing in her and for encouraging her to do everything in her power to restore Tara's mind, and to beg for her best friend to hold on just a little bit longer.
Giles believed that because Buffy was dead, the battle was over. He believed that Buffy must finally be at rest, her burden lifted, and her soul at peace. He said that it didn't matter where her body had landed, for Buffy was in a 'better place.'
Willow thought he was so full of shit he had to be drowning in it.
Yes, deep down Willow admitted to herself that the watcher could be right. Perhaps all of Buffy's sacrifices hadn't been in vain, and maybe she had finally gotten what she deserved. Peace. Happiness. Heaven. But what if she hadn't? There were so many questions and possibilities, for when push came to shove, Buffy hadn't died a normal death. She had died a supernatural one - one ladened with magic and energy. In Willow's mind, that meant that there could be no certainties. What if her soul had ended up in whatever hell dimension a living and breathing Angel had been sent to? What if her soul had been trapped in someplace worse? Could damage be done to something that wasn't corporeal? Could Buffy suffer when her body was dead and all that remained was something so transient?
Willow wasn't willing to take that chance, and after much bullying, neither were Xander, Tara, or Anya. Buffy was her best friend, and while Willow was willing to die for her, she hadn't been given that chance. So instead, Willow would do better. She would delve far deeper into the black arts than she should ever dare venture, as long as it meant saving Buffy from even the possibility of eternal torment. After everything that Buffy had done for Willow, it was the very least that she could do. It was the least that any of them could do.
"Does everybody have their candles?" she asked as she finally tore her eyes from the tombstone that loomed before her, Xander, Tara, and Anya helping to finish the semicircle around Buffy's grave. Xander and Tara already held their flickering candles, their stances uneasy as Anya continuously flicked the lighter.
"I'm trying. My lighter won't stay lit," the ex-vengeance demon stated, causing a thrill of alarm to creep into Willow's voice.
"Well hurry, it has to-"
"What time is it?" Tara demanded, her girlfriend also feeling the crush of passing time.
"A minute till midnight," Xander returned as he quickly checked his watch against his flickering candle.
"C'mon, Anya, do you have it?" Willow probed, her eyes narrowed on her friend.
"I got it, I got it. I got it," Anya repeated as the wick caught fire and added its own circle of light to the small group of friends.
"Okay. Start the circle now," she commanded, and they all knelt, holding their candles aloft as Willow cradled the Urn of Osiris in her hands. Already she felt her nervousness melt beneath the awareness of the heavy magicks that she was about to use. This kind of spell was more advanced than anything she had before tried. It required an innocent sacrifice, and ignoring any memories on how it had been obtained, Willow produced the small jar of fawn's blood and poured it into the urn.
If the others had been nervous before, now they looked downright panicky. You can't have lived on the Hellmouth this long without being able to recognize the blood for what it was, and yet Willow forced her scattered thoughts to focus on the only thing that mattered: getting Buffy back.
"Osiris, keeper of the gate, master of all fate. Hear us," she commanded as she dipped her finger into the urn and anointed her forehead and cheeks with the blood of the innocent. "Before time and after, before knowing and nothing," she murmured as she poured the remaining blood onto the earth. "Accept our offering. Know our prayer," she murmured - and then paused. According to the extensive research that she had done in preparation for this night, this was the point at which she would be tested. She wasn't sure exactly how the testing would take place, but the illustrations made her believe that it wouldn't be pleasant. In fact, it was guaranteed to be painful.
Unnerved by the continued silence, Willow shot Tara a questioning look before shrugging her small shoulders and continuing with the ritual. "Osiris!" she called out, her voice strong and clear. "Here lies the grave of the warrior of the people. Let her cross over!" The command had been sharp and powerful, the words ringing in the quiet night - and yet it was utterly anticlimactic as nothing happened, and once more the silence stretched.
"Um... should something be happening right now?" Xander asked, breaking the tense quiet.
"Shhh!" Tara hissed as Willow glared at her best friend. "Willow said not to interrupt her, no matter what. If we break the cycle now, it's over."
"What cycle?" Xander returned in a loud whisper. "Nothing's happening," he pointed out, and even though Willow tried to desperately ignore her friend's words, she couldn't help but feel that he was right. Something was wrong. It was as though she could feel the magic, ready and waiting to do her bidding... and yet something was missing.
Suddenly a loud rumbling broke the night quiet, and it took everything in Willow's power to remain seated as everyone turned back towards town with equally startled expressions. "Oh god, what's that noise?" Anya demanded, but Willow tuned her out as she renewed her focus on Buffy's tombstone.
"Osiris, let her cross over!" she demanded, her voice raising in intensity as she frantically wracked her mind. She had to be missing something. There was some key element that she needed. "Osiris, release her!" she ordered, that missing element so, so very close and then-
She understood why the spell wasn't working, and the realization both filled her with wonder and horror. "Oh my Goddess," she whispered, her quietly uttered words enough to draw her friends' attention away from the growing roar of whatever monster surely approached, and back to where she knelt upon the grass at Buffy's empty grave. Suddenly it all made some kind of horrible, wonderful sense. "Buffy... Buffy, she's not... she's not dead," she stammered, meeting her friends' incredulous gazes. "The spell. It won't work because Buffy's not dead
," she ground out, only to be interrupted as the BuffyBot pushed her way into the clearing, sparking madly and waving her arms frantically.
"Willow! I need service!" she cried out as the noise finally evened out into the deafening roar of revving motorcycles, seconds before a series of large bikes carrying very scary looking demons into the clearing. That was, of course, when all hell broke loose.O o O o O o O
With a soft, languid sigh, Buffy stretched her petite frame against the hard, lean planes that had grown familiar in the slow crawl of time unnumbered. She felt rested, content, and peaceful in a way that not even the ever-present screams of the tortured, insane, or dying could ruin. Not that she really noticed the screams on a conscious level anymore. In this place, you either had to allow the screams to become your soundtrack, same as the crashing waves of the Pacific back in Sunnydale, or the ever-present hum of traffic in Los Angeles, or you went bug-eating crazy. Personally, she opted for the soundtrack, for while she had been forced to eat some questionable stuff while vacationing in hell, she flat-out drew the line at bugs.
Vacationing in hell.
Whoever thought that such incongruous words could be paired together? She certainly hadn't - especially when she and Jack had first stumbled out of the narrow tunnel that led from Netu's surface and down into a cavern that stretched as far as she could see. The discerning eye could see that at one point, long, long ago, there had been a civilization here. There were walls carved amongst the rock, broken stairs, crumbled chambers, and barred cells.
You couldn't forget the cells.
The rock floor wasn't as hidden under blankets of ash this deep below the surface, and so the scattered bones and skeletal trees were more visible. The darkness was off-set by magma flows that lit this underground world with hellish red light, the heat nearly intolerable and the fumes almost visible to the naked eye. Then there were the people - the fellow prisoners, or denizens, as they called themselves. They were everywhere - men and women, old and older, scarred, dirty, and looking as evil as they came with hand-fashioned clubs that they bared as much to deter attacks as to make them."Well, it's certainly not the Emerald City," Jack stated, dryly summing it up as the denizens slowly gathered in a tight circle."Definitely not Kansas, either," she agreed as Bynarr stepped forward to welcome them to Netu
As far as welcoming committees could go, Sokar's snake-in-charge hadn't been all that bad. Lord Bynarr was a large, bullish-looking man - a good 6'4" without a lick of hair on his head, muscles to spare, and a fresh scar that wept pus and looked as though his eye had been carved out with a spoon - and poorly carved, at that. He wore the only hand device to be found down here, while his ox of a first prime carried a staff weapon - at least he had until the new guy, Na'onak, killed him and took his place. While it was obvious that Bynarr usually used this display of force to inspire terror in the hearts of his prisoners, it also quickly became evident that he and Ass-Hat went way back.
While this fact had been cause for initial worry, it seemed that Ass-Hat's reputation preceded him. Jack had later said that a goa'uld could sense another goa'uld, and yet she apparently had enough naquadah in her blood stream to fool Bynarr into believing that while Ass-Hat was still alive and well, he was such a sissy that he had let her take over the reigns while he hid in a corner of her mind and wept over his sentence.
Buffy's real surprise was that somewhere along the way she had become an effective liar. She honestly didn't know when that
had happened, but then again, a lot had happened in the years since she had been called as Slayer that lying had probably become a necessity. Seriously, only people who were bug-eating crazy could have dreamed some of this up. Master vampires, rabid hyenas, demon soldiers, snake mayors, hell goddesses... who came up with this stuff? And now she could add classified government projects, aliens, and hell-prison-moons (oh my!) to the list.
What a stupid list.
What a stupid pastime to make up aforementioned lists.
Yep, truly bug-eating crazy.
"Mmph - would you quit wiggling?"
"Sorry," Buffy murmured, taking unnatural delight in Jack's low voice - still gruff from sleep. With a small smile she relaxed her body back into the colonel's loose embrace, waiting for his breathing to even out to signify his slide back into sleep. For the briefest of moments, she felt a flutter of unease as her sharp hearing detected a slight rasp in his breathing - like a hiccup in the system - before she allowed her worry to slip away. While her body didn't appreciate the harsh climate of their little getaway, namely the heat, near-toxic fumes, or the lack of proper nourishment and occasional beatings, at least her slayer nature helped her ride out the worst. Jack wouldn't be so fortunate, and so far it was only his status as her 'slave' that kept him from experiencing firsthand some of the nastiness that went hand in hand with being a personal guest of Sokar in his little version of Hell away from home.
Then again, for the Hell that it was purported to be, Netu really wasn't all that bad once you got used to it - and it certainly had its advantages over the last Hell that she had visited. Los Angeles' hell dimension had been nothing but brutal, back-breaking work coupled with the isolation of the hopeless. On Netu, the only work was in keeping out of Bynarr and Na'onak's way, finding food, and protecting whatever piece of home you could claim. The real bonus, however, was having Jack for company. His sarcasm was refreshingly familiar, and his stilted outlook on life mirrored her own to such an extent that even the most brutal, horrifying aspects of their surroundings were mocked until they no longer seemed so scary or heartrending.
Not that it had all been puppies and daisies, for she freely admitted that the first few days or weeks in Hell had sucked beyond the telling. After their arrival, it had been a vicious game of survival - a game in which neither she nor Jack knew the rules. It had nearly taken them too long to figure out how to get the spoilt-looking food and tepid water that was dropped on the moon's surface - Sokar's cast-offs, she had no doubt - braving the deadly toxins and heat only to battle fellow inmates for a share of the load, then to hoard your spoils, ration them as long as possible, and repeat as necessary - which hopefully wasn't often. Matters hadn't been helped by the fact that back then, she had still been out of commission as her body desperately tried to combat whatever poison Haremakhet's snake had leaked into her bloodstream when he had been forcefully removed from office.
Those first few days were a haze of sickness (the messy kind) and being comforted, moved, and protected by Jack as he shuffled them from one location to another. They had never stayed in the same place more than once, for nothing had been defendable or even remotely safe. Once she had gotten over the worst of it, it had become a team effort to find a place where a constant watch wouldn't be as necessary. If there was one real thing that Netu lacked, aside from everything
, it was accommodations.
Unless you were one of Sokar's favorites, which in this case was a really, really bad thing, you were on your own. The favorites, however, were treated to the special accommodations of a rank cell in full view of everyone and whoever they were shacking up with that day, as well as a daily, or sometimes hourly
visit to Bynarr. Those visits accounted for the majority of the screams that made up the soundtrack by which she now slept, ate, chatted, and struggled to survive. And to be honest, there were many different kinds of screams. There were the screams of the currently tortured, the screams of the recently tortured, and then the screams of those who were tortured until their minds broke before their bodies even had time to. In a way, those ones were the worst for they just kept going and going and...
"Buffy," Jack sighed, his arm tightening slightly as his whiskered chin nuzzled against the back of her neck. "Wiggling. Stop."
"Sorry," Buffy returned, a playful grin pulling at her lips as she briefly contemplated turning over and wiggling in such a way that sleep would be very, very slow in returning to the man who held her possessively against him, spooning her from behind with nothing but the hard, hot rock to cradle them. Not that she could blame him. In those first few days, Jack had been given no choice but to stake his claim on her. This was, after all, a prison, and when there were all these people with nothing to do but suffer... well, most chose to find pleasure wherever they could. So, Jack had staked his claim on her in a purely chivalrous way, and by the bruises that had appeared in-between bouts of lucidity, she had no doubt that Jack had defended that claim a few times over. Since then Buffy had returned the favor, for when dealing with the goa'uld, there was no such thing as the fairer sex. It didn't matter if the host was male or female - add a symbiote and you quickly found that they could pack a punch.
"Wiggling," Jack groaned with a slight whine that had no place in the voice of a man who had to be nearing fifty.
Buffy contemplated her earlier idea for a moment more before dismissing it for the act of someone desperately bored, and severe boredom in no way made it okay to cross a line that she wasn't sure they were ready to cross - especially while vacationing in hell. And vacationing was, in her mind, all that they were doing for she had no intention of making this permanent. True, Sokar had given them a 200 year sentence, but without a symbiote and with the harsh environ, she knew that neither of them would survive even half that long. Heck, they'd be lucky if they made it a quarter of the way through their sentence. So no, this wasn't a permanent locale - merely a temporary gig until they figured out how to check out of Sokar's hellish resort.
"Buffy, you're not going back to sleep, are you?" Jack sighed, and this time Buffy didn't hold back her smile as she twisted and turned until she was laying on her other side, her head tilted back until she could see his drowsy brown eyes. Now that he was fully, truly awake, his hold was looser around her waist, and she took advantage of that fact to lift her hands between them, her fingers playing with his tattered black tee-shirt.
"I'm bored," she admitted with a small smile, not at all abashed at having woken him.
"Bored?" Jack repeated, and she could hear the frown in his voice.
"Yes, bored," Buffy confirmed as she dared a look through her lashes before returning her attention to his ratty tee-shirt. "At least in the last hell I visited there was all sorts of manual labor to keep me from going crazy."
"So... you're saying that you want to do some manual labor?" Jack hazarded as one of his large hands rubbed her back, his fingers sliding beneath the hem of her vest and caressing the hot skin beneath. "Because you could always add another boulder or two to the front step while I check on the burglar alarm," he suggested in that way that always caused her to smile. This time was no different and Buffy found her grin matching his own as she playfully slapped his shoulder and then allowed him to pull her close so that she could nuzzle her cheek against that special place against his chest, feeling like a contented cat.
It had taken days and days of fruitless searching before Jack had finally stumbled upon their own little hidden bungalow. Well, perhaps bungalow was putting it a little too grandly. He had found a narrow tunnel that was littered with obstacles from massive boulders to scattered bones, the stunted corridor twisting in such a way that it was shielded from the red light of the open lava flows that filled Netu's caverns with hellish light. The rare darkness made it seem as though the corridor ended in a collapsed wall, never once revealing the small opening that led to another smaller cavern. It was this cavern that she and Jack now called home. Here they had the dim light of a magma flow that shown so briefly in a nearby wall that the fumes were manageable, and the heat sufferable. There was room enough, once the larger rocks had been cleared, for Jack to stretch out, and for Buffy to curl against him.
It was everything that they had been looking for and more, for here they had a place away from the other denizens, safety with nothing but walls surrounding them, and after Jack had rigged an ingenious alarm system at the small opening, they could even sleep without fear of being surprised. Together they had settled into a routine of sorts, for while Buffy didn't know how long exactly they had been there, she knew that it had been a long, long time. As was only natural, they had both become familiar and less wary of their surroundings. Both she and Jack moved among the other denizens without fear, never really socializing, for honestly, most were either goa'uld or depraved monsters, or both, but still mingling with ease. And while they didn't exactly have a social circle, they still had contacts - and rumors were forever ripe in this demented little community.
"So Pishtik was telling me that he heard from Ash'tar that Na'onak used to be some kind of V.I.G.," Buffy murmured, filling the comfortable silence as Jack rolled onto his back, pulling her with him until she was sprawled half on top of his lanky form, her head still pillowed on his chest.
"V.I.G.?" Jack returned as one hand continued its gentle caresses on the sweaty skin of her lower back, the rise and fall of his chest and the steady beat of his heart a comfort to her.
"Yeah, Very Important Goa'uld," Buffy explained, a slow frown pulling at her lips as she detected another hiccup in the system that was Jack's breathing. The older man was human, through and through, and as she had begun to learn, humans just weren't made to survive in Netu's harsh environment. Without moving, she listened closer to his breathing and decided then and there that he wouldn't be joining her on the planet's surface for any future scavenging trips for Sokar's dinner leftovers. The only problem would be convincing Jack of that necessity.
"Makes sense," Jack agreed, his distracted caresses massaging lean muscles and causing Buffy to unconsciously arch into his touch, a contented purr slipping past her lips as all worries once more slipped away. She had decided long ago that the man's fingers, so long and narrow, were the best kind of magic. "He'd have to be pretty confident in his own standing in order to off Bynarr's goon without worrying about reprisal," he continued, as though oblivious to Buffy's increasingly distracted thoughts.
"Arrogant," she nodded before another random thought caused her brow to pucker. "Oh, Pishtik also mentioned that our newest denizen, Bynarr's new favorite, is a Tok'ra. Poor bastard," she added as an afterthought, idly noticing the way Jack's fingers stilled for the briefest moment before the caresses continued.
"Huh. Wonder if it's someone I know," he mused, and Buffy shrugged again in response.
"Seeing as how you know maybe two Tok'ra, I'm thinking that the odds are against it," she returned, all the while refusing to voice what they were both thinking - that no matter how nice it would be to see a friendly face, Netu was no place for a reunion. Even worse, that made their soundtrack far too personal if Jack knew the person who was doing at least some of the screaming. "Besides, Pishtik heard from Clos'ta that the new guy is being kept down in the Pit," Buffy continued, referring to the Pit-Of-Absolute-Doom in which only Sokra's most hated were housed. It was a cell buried even deeper within the ruined moon, heavily guarded, and a location from which once placed, you never returned. "No matter how many times you've kicked Hoftan's ass before, he still won't be bullied into letting you go down to take a peek."
"And who said I wanted to take a peek?" Jack returned, the false innocence in his voice causing Buffy to snort indignantly.
Rolling her eyes, she slithered forward until she was straddling the colonel's lean form, one hand planted on either side of his head with her long, dirty blonde hair hanging in a tangled veil around them. She was moments away from berating him for thinking she could possibly be so stupid when he turned his head to the side and coughed roughly into one closed fist. It was a short cough - something that could be waved away as nothing more than something caught in his throat, but Buffy knew better. Each hitch in his breathing that she had been powerless to ignore for weeks now came back to haunt her, and Buffy felt her heart clench with the knowledge that whatever was wrong was getting worse. Jack's body wasn't made to withstand this kind of brutal environment, and already this fact was taking its toll. And yet, as inevitable as this was, what was worse was the knowledge that when Jack died, she wouldn't die with him. Her body wouldn't succumb nearly as quickly as his, and then she would be alone. She would be alone in Netu and when that happened, this vacation would be cruelly cut short and her real prison term would begin.
"Sorry," Jack gasped, a wry smile lifting his lips as he finally returned his eyes to hers. "You were saying?"
In that moment, Buffy's face became shuttered, her worry hidden away as she instead returned his smile with one that was coy and free from the fear that caused her heart to thud wildly beneath her breast. Jack couldn't be allowed to make things worse by venturing back to the surface of Netu where conditions were that much more lethal, and yet she knew that telling him that would be tantamount to causing his stubborn male pride to dig in his heels on the subject - and yet they really did need another scavenging trip. That was okay, though, for by virtue of being female, Buffy had ways of circumventing even the worst cases of male stubbornness.
Without breaking a beat she shrugged her shoulders and returned his grin blithely. "Merely that I was going to make another run to the surface. We're all out of the gray goopy stuff, and I've been getting a real craving the last few days. Why don't I do that while you go beat on poor Hoftan again?"
She knew she had him the minute his eyes creased slightly before the goofy smile was back in full force. "You sure you don't mind going solo?" he asked with a concern that warmed her, despite both knowing that it was merely done for show. For in his eyes, Buffy saw that she hadn't played him, no matter how coy her smiles or nonchalant the offer. Jack knew exactly what she was up to, and yet in his brown eyes she found gratitude for her efforts.
"Yeah, I'm good," she assured, finding comfort in everything that hadn't been said as she bent down and pressed her lips against his in a move that might have surprised him if it weren't for where his large hands tightened ever so briefly on her hips. The kiss was quick and chaste, as were all of the kisses that they had exchanged in their little prison, and yet there was no denying the warmth that flooded her system as she broke away. "Be careful," she murmured before straightening and stepping lightly away, ducking through the hole and into the dark tunnel.