WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
CHEESEMAN, SWEET, AND APPARITIONS
From her seat in the last vehicle in line, Kara thought it looked like some kind of outing, a girl’s group and their camp counselors. Two vans, an SUV, a couple of sleek sedans and a somewhat battered red Mustang pulled up to an empty campsite just off a scenic route -- scenic apparently meant “narrow and winding” -- and disgorged two dozen of the most cranky people Kara had ever seen. Of course, as she had already learned, slayers weren’t renown for their ability to sit still for hours at a time.
Giles, Xander, Willow, Richard and some twenty slayers stretched their legs, massaged kinks out of their backs, tossed bags of fast food wrappers into trash cans, and lined up at the scenic -- in this case, that meant smelly -- outdoor bathrooms. No, it didn’t seem like much of an army at all, even though Buffy and Giles immediately set out to scout the area.
Turning, Kara reached into her van to help Jason out. “Thanks -- ow.” He looked almost normal, bandages hidden beneath a borrowed t-shirt that, to his considerable embarrassment, sported a picture of Daphne from the “Scooby Doo” cartoon and the words “Girl Power” in pink. He looked a great deal more pale than when they had left Chicago, but at least his wounds had not started bleeding again.
Kara glanced over at the others. Chao-Ahn and Trina, who had ridden just in front of Kara and her smuggled passengers, were staring at them with raised eyebrows, but otherwise no one had yet noticed. “How’re you feeling?”
“Ready to fight,” Jason claimed, leaning against the side of the van.
From within, another voice called weakly, “Hey, how about a hand here?”
With a sigh, Kara reached in again, and came out with Faith. The other slayers had dressed that morning in loose clothing suitable for fighting -- they tended to favor cargo pants or shorts, and baby t’s or some similar sleeveless outfit, Kara noticed. But Faith was dressed to kill in a different way, with black leather pants and a wrap around, long sleeve silk shirt. Kara hadn’t seen fit to mention it, simply because she hadn’t expected Faith to survive the trip.
“Thanks, K.” Faith looked around. “Can’t say I’m much into nature. Where does a girl go to party around here?”
Jason glanced at her. “I think maybe the bears have a love shack just down the nearest dirt road.”
“Are you still mad that I didn’t hold hands with you?”
“I didn’t ask to hold hands, I just asked if we were close yet.”
“Well, you should have known the answer to either question would be a firm no. We hadn’t even rounded Lake Michigan.” Moving slowly, Faith started heading toward the line at the bathrooms.
“I flunked geography!” Jason called after her.
Faith shot back, “I never took it, but that big pit with all the water in it was a dead giveaway.”
With a sigh, Kara also started toward the bathroom, and Jason followed close behind. He and Faith, who’d shared the rear seat with Kara, had traded barbs almost from the moment they awoke beside each other in the infirmary. Even at low volume, there was no way the other slayers in the van couldn’t have known they had unauthorized passengers, but no mention had been made of it.
Kara assumed they were both bad moody because of the pain, but if it was some kind of mutual attraction thing she was going to have a serious talk with him about the older woman syndrome.
Just as she began to fight a surge of jealousy, Kara had to shift gears when she saw her father standing there, giving them the evil eye. “What are you two doing here?” he demanded.
“Hey, it’s the proto-watcher.” Faith started to move past him, but he stepped to one side to block her. “Look, big daddy, this is where the action will be.”
“You were told in no uncertain terms to stay in Chicago. You’re both too badly injured to help us now.”
Drawing herself up, Faith glared at the older man. “Maybe nobody thought to tell you, but I’m not one of your slayers in waiting. I want to come, I come. No fancy pants Brit watcher is going to tell me what to do, and no po-dunk midwestern farmerboy watcher is going to stop me.”
Desperate to halt a confrontation, Kara tried to step between them, but her father stopped her with his patented glare. “I’ve already figured out your part in this, Kara. Otherwise Jason wouldn’t be over by those bushes puking his supper out.”
Turning, Kara saw Jason was doing just that. “I was just trying --”
“It doesn’t matter what your intentions were, it was the wrong thing to do. Jason and Faith are not going to get involved in this, and now you’ll have to stay behind to guard them.”
Face pinched, Faith took a step forward and clenched her fists. “I don’t need anybody to --”
Richard’s hand flicked out, tapping Faith’s abdomen. With a groan she doubled over, looking as bad as Jason, while Richard stood back and regarded Kara. “Any questions?”
She swallowed the urge to say something, especially when she noticed they were attracting attention. Everyone, even those who had left to scout the area, had returned in time to see this last action, and Kara was especially ashamed to see Buffy push her way past the bathroom line. “What’s going on -- Faith?”
Faith struggled to her knees. “Old man, when I get up, I’m gonna --”
“You’ll do absolutely nothing.” Now Giles came forward, quickly taking the situation in. “All he did was prove exactly what we were saying this morning, when you first demanded to come along. Buffy?”
Buffy nodded. “We don’t have time for this. Kara, you and Trina are the newest slayers. You’ll stay here with Faith and Jason, to guard our transportation in case we have to make a quick retreat.” When the young gymnast started to protest, Buffy held a hand up. “I’m sorry, Trina -- only one of you is being punished, but it might take both of you to hold Faith down.”
Looking devastated, Trina clamped her mouth shot. But for Kara the worst expression was her father’s, which held disappointment in her actions -- but also relief. She turned away from them all to assist Faith, but the older watcher waved her off, climbed unsteadily to her feet, and bypassed the line of women by stumbling into the empty men’s restroom.
Kara turned to help Jason, who actually looked a little better, but was still weaving a bit. “What just happened?” he murmured, as she led him toward where the group’s leaders were gathering to confer.
“You threw up.” She couldn’t believe that, after all this, she was being held out of the fight.
“I mean, other than that.”
“I got us all in trouble.”
With a slight smile, Jason gave her a hug that made Kara feel almost as good as being chewed out had made her feel bad. “Well, that’s what you do best.”
Most of the slayers had stayed in the bathroom line, a testament to how long on distance and short on pit stops the drive had been. But the new watchers gathered with Buffy around a picnic table, where Giles laid out a map of the area. As she and Jason sank onto seats at another table, Kara took a good look around.
She couldn’t see Lake Superior, but she could smell it. Slayer power, or was it just on the other side of the trees that surrounded this small campground? It was much cooler than she was used to for midsummer, and the sky was a deep purple. Already the forest was only a murky darkness, although Kara could tell the trees were big and tall, their intertwined branches keeping undergrowth from growing between them.
Xander held up a battery powered lantern, making shadows sway wildly when he swatted at a mosquito. “Looks like we’re a mile from the lake, and a couple of miles from the site. According to this, there are trails the whole way, so it’ll be an easy hike.”
“Speak for yourself,” Willow told him.
“But why here?” Buffy looked around. “I mean, other than the undeniable spookiness? I feel like The Big Bad Wolf could come out of these woods at any moment.”
“Well, there is a full moon,” Xander told her.
“There was an ancient Indian settlement and burial site there,” Richard said. “that’s why this campsite and the trails were built, but a few years ago the Native Americans had it closed down, and did a ceremony to consecrate the area.”
“Ah.” Giles nodded. “Which volume did you get that from?”
“Michigan tourism guide.” Giles stared at him, as if wondering if he was being kidded. “Page fifty-four.”
“Gotta love that man.” Xander sounded impressed.
There was a lull, as each person around the map stared at it silently. Kara watched the other slayers, one by one, drift back to the vehicles long enough to choose weapons, then gather in a circle around their mentors. Faith was gone so long that Kara almost decided to search for her before the men’s room door suddenly opened and she shuffled out, to sit beside Jason with a murderous expression. Trina, accepting her fate, joined them at the second table.
“Why isn’t anyone talking?” Trina whispered.
“They can’t figure out how to get there without walking into a trap.” Faith glanced at her watch. “If they don’t hurry, they might be able to use us after all -- as bait.”
“Peachy,” Jason said.
Moments later Kara noticed a stirring among the slayers. Each looked around, as if sensing something different, but Kara couldn’t figure out what until she noticed Xander’s lantern no longer seemed as bright as a moment before. Was the moon coming up? No, it was already there, splattering light through the trees. She twisted around, and realized a mist had sprung up from nowhere to drift through the forest at ground level. Above it, floating about ten feet in the air, a long haired woman encased in bright white light looked toward them.
“Slayers!” Giles shouted, and the girls around him began arranging themselves into defensive positions. All but Kennedy, who studied the apparition carefully before turning to her lover.
Willow had already reached out to touch Giles’ arm, although she kept her eyes on the figure. “Giles, that’s the apparition that saved is in Cleveland.”
“What? Are you sure? Is it here to help us?”
“She can’t help,” Willow explained. “She couldn’t actually do anything physical before. I think she wants to guide us.”
“Guide us?” Richard looked at her, his frown thrown into sharp relief by the being’s flickering light. “Throwing off light like that will lead every evil thing in two counties straight here.”
Immediately the light faded, until the floating woman was just barely visible.
“I stand corrected.”
“Clearly it can hear us.” Giles gave Willow a hard look. “But that doesn’t prove it wants to help us. Willow, what can you tell me?”
“I --” She stared up at it, a wondrous expression making her face seem to glow. “She’s good, really. I can sense it.”
“Sense it?” Xander looked around helplessly. “Will, that’s quite a leap of faith, don’t you think?” He turned to Buffy for support.
But Buffy also stared at the glowing woman, and even though it was impossible to see its face, the Slayer had a look of recognition. “We can trust her. Everyone, I’m taking the point, spread out in the patrol pattern Xander taught you. Faith, you’re in charge here -- um, I mean you’re in charge of everything except coming after us. If things get bad, Kara makes the decision on that. But make sure we’re ready for a quick getaway, and use the radio if you see something coming in behind us.”
Faith stood up to protest, but that movement cause her to grimace in pain. “Whatever . . .” She sank back down. “What about the big artillery?”
Buffy shook her head. “Leave it in the SUV. With none of us properly trained, and no idea what we’re facing, it might do more harm than good.”
“Okay, B. We’ve got your back. Bring us a big Robin, and a bright Dawn.”
“Will do.” Buffy moved off into the woods, followed by the rest of the slayers. Xander went in beside Willow, with Giles and Richard taking up the rear. Just before he stepped into the darkness Richard glanced back at his daughter.
“Have your weapons ready. And -- and the first aid kit.”
“Nice pep talk, dad.”
“Don’t worry, everything will work out.” He disappeared into the night.
Left behind, Jason and three slayers listened until they could hear no more movement, and then it got way too quiet. “You know,” Faith suddenly said, “I’ll bet that SUV Giles drove would go over one of those trails.”
Unbelievable. Kara looked at Faith, trying to figure out if she could possibly be serious. “Aren’t we in enough trouble already?”
“Honey, you’re a slayer -- just because your daddy says to stay home on a Saturday night doesn’t mean you shouldn’t sneak out the window and party down.”
“In this case, my dad is at the party.” Kara looked at Jason. Then, simultaneously, they and Trina crossed their arms and assumed matching stubborn expressions, which made Faith sigh.
Buffy thought she knew what the apparition was, but she wasn’t prepared to admit it to anyone, not even herself. It was just too incredible, too wonderful to believe, and she couldn’t bear the possibility of saying it out loud and being wrong. Besides, there were other concerns at the moment.
Glowing so faintly Buffy could barely make it out, her guide floated steadily through the trees. There was little underbrush, the trunks were set far apart, and the full moon was filtering through the leaves enough to make it easy going for slayer vision -- although she could hear Xander and Willow stumbling every now and then. There was no point trying to go quietly, because a thick blanket of leaves rustled with every step, so Buffy hurried through the woods and hoped the fact that they were not following a marked trail would fool their opponents.
Whoever their opponents were. Even with a disturbingly twinlike new watcher helping, Giles could come up with little to tell them who was doing this, or why. How could they be fighting an army of slayers tonight, when there was no other army of slayers? Andrew’s group was out there somewhere, but they were on the good guys’ side -- weren’t they? And was it just another take over the world thing, or universal destruction, or more nerd geniuses, or what?
She heard another muffled curse as Xander tripped over a fallen branch, and smiled to herself. She had a couple score slayers behind her -- or was it a few score? What the heck was a score, anyway? Well, she had a lot. And a witch, and a couple of watchers who seemed to know their way around a fight, and a really motivated one eyed carpenter. What can’t we do, if we’re together?
That last thought gave her a disquieting sense of deja vus, as if she’d said the exact same thing before, but the thought left her at the same time their guide suddenly vanished. She held her sword at ready, afraid they’d been led into a trap after all, but as her eyes adjusted she realized another light was visible ahead, another strange, white glow. She advanced fifty more feet before she realized it was the moon, reflecting over a vast expanse of water.
She held up a hand, stopping the rest of the group as she moved to the edge of the treeline. There was no sign of a cemetery -- but Native Americans probably didn’t use tombstones, did they? The clearing ahead lay between two woods, with a rocky outcropping to her right. To her left the meadow disappeared sharply, and beyond that she could see Lake Superior, far off in the distance. A cliff.
And, floating above that cliff, two figures.
“Oh, boy.” Buffy gave some quick hand signals, the same thing they used to make fun of Riley Finn for doing. Then she took off to her left, staying just inside the tree line, until she reached one of the trails they'd been avoiding. Ahead of her, just on the other side of the dirt trail, a sheer rock face dropped off maybe fifty feet to the water.
Dawn and Robin stood, quite literally, in midair, ten feet from the edge of the cliff and twenty feet apart. They looked uneasy, to say the least, but unharmed.
Buffy reached to her belt for the tiny walkie talkie she was still unused to carrying. “Everybody stay in position.” Then, sword at her side and acting as natural as if strolling in the park, she stepped out into the open.
“Buffy!” Dawn cried. “Crap!”
“Happy to see you, too.” She kept walking, gaze darting around the clearing. No movement. But then, she couldn’t see any movement back where she knew her people were, either.
“I’m sorry, it’s just -- oh, never mind.”
Finally Buffy stopped at the edge of the cliff, as close to her sister as she could get. She could see no sign of what was holding Dawn and Robin up, and could only hope they stayed up. “Trap, I assume?”
Dawn shook her head. “I don’t think so. We just popped up here without seeing anyone, and there haven’t been any guards. He really didn’t seem to care whether you showed up or not.”
“I’m hurt.” Actually, she was worried. If the bad guys were that confident, they could be in big trouble. “Robin, you’re all right?”
“Long story, but I’m whole. Dawn and I are the key to whatever is going to happen tonight, but I suppose you’ve already figured that out.”
“Yeah,” Buffy said drily. Taking one last look around, she reached for the walkie. “I need some witchy-slash-watcher advise out here, guys. Slayers, clear the perimeter.”
The slayers instantly moved across the clearing, some spreading out to check the woods on the other side while others climbed the rocky outcroppings. Willow, Giles and Richard joined Buffy while Xander, with no specific instructions, wandered into the center of the clearing and kept looking around as if excepting something to drop on him.
“Good deployment,” Robin said approvingly. “But other than those three big green demons, the only contact we’ve had was a disembodied voice and some weird red guy who made us sing and dance.”
“The green demons are -- sing and dance?” Richard repeated. He didn’t notice the shocked expressions, but jumped when Xander ran up to them.
“You mean --”
“Yep,” Dawn confirmed, shooting an accusing glare at Xander. “Which means, in a way, this is all your fault. You’re the one who called him the first time.”
Xander held a finger up, but no sound came out. Which, Buffy reflected, was probably for the best, considering he might burst into a ballad, so she decided to speak before a guitar riff started up. “Did he give you any idea at all what he’s up to?”
“I don’t think he’s up to anything, it’s like he’s just hanging around watching somebody else do something. He even gave us this weird riddle: Um, how do you keep the dream of cheese from remembering a dream . . . or something.”
Robin rolled his eyes at her. “No, it was how do you keep the dream of a milkshake --” He stopped, looking startled. “No. Shaken milk -- it was cheese, or butter. How do you reverse the dream of cheese from bringing memories to a real life nightmare.”
Buffy looked at Giles. “To coin a phrase: Huh?”
“It sounds more like butter.” Giles blinked, then turned to Richard. “Perhaps it’s some pop culture reference.”
“What are you looking at me for?”
Well, so much for the watcher help, but much to Buffy’s surprise Xander suddenly burst out, “Ooh! Ooh!” Then his face fell. “No, it’s just too stupid.”
Willow, whose attention had been shifting between the cliff and her hanging friends, looked back over her shoulder. “Go ahead, tell us. This is a portal, and it’s going to open soon.”
“Well, uh . . . remember that time we all had the dreams that had the weird guy with the cheese?”
The silence that followed was so deep that Buffy could, literally, hear crickets chirping. “The cheese guy?”
Willow just nodded and turned back to her study of the area.
“Wait a minute.” Dawn looked from one of them to the other. “Little guy, balding, glasses, holding up pieces of cheese? He shows up every time I dream about Clay Aiken."
Everyone looked at Dawn.
“Um, not that I dream about Clay Aiken all that often . . .”
“Busted,” Xander said, with a grin that indicated he was glad it was somebody else’s turn this time.
“I first saw him in a dream last week,” Richard breathed. “You’re telling me this being has come out of our dreams to attack us in the real world?”
“Very Nightmare on Elm Street,” Xander said. “Except this guy doesn’t have Freddie Kreuger’s neato razor fingers.”
“He’s got something else,” Willow warned, pointing out toward the lake. “And here it comes!”
They turned to see a swirling point of light at the center of the space between Dawn and Robin, and even as Buffy watched it began to expand. It reminded her uncomfortably of the portal to hell that opened in Sunnydale years ago -- the one she’d had to seal by killing her lover, Angel. Not a fun memory, and this one wasn’t shaping up much better.
“Wait!” Dawn screamed. “It can’t open, we’re not bleeding!”
“Jeez, don’t give anybody ideas!” Robin shot back.
“Buffy --” Stepping backward, Willow gestured at the portal. “Bring the slayers in. Whatever bad is coming, it’s coming through there.”
“Right.” She gave a whistle, but by the time she turned back around something had already come through, and hovered in the air between the portal and the cliff. It was a steamer trunk, padlocked shut, and over it a shimmering path appeared between the portal and the ground.
“That was in the cell where we were held,” Dawn called.
Willow waved a hand toward it, repeating an incantation several times until she finally drew back, looking exhausted. “It’s got an aura of mystical power, but I’m not sure what it is. All I know is, it’s acting as both a battery and a shield, to charge the portal and keep us from reaching it.”
“Why don’t we just try anyway,” Giles suggested, leveling a crossbow on the object. An instant later a half dozen bolts hit the box from every direction. Or rather, would have, if they hadn’t bounced off an invisible wall before reaching it.
“It’s being protected for a reason,” Richard said. “Like the riddle said, we need to reverse this reaction -- that has to mean destroying whatever’s inside there.”
With the box now in place, the portal suddenly expanded, until it reached almost from Robin to Dawn, but neither showed signs of being harmed.
Giles waved the others back. “We’re out of time.”
Out of time, Buffy thought, even as she started forward. Still no idea what they were facing, still no way to free the captives. In her peripheral vision she glimpsed some of the others also moving toward the gateway, no doubt thinking the same thing she was -- that they would be better off taking the fight inside, rather than waiting for something to come to them. But none reached the entrance before it flashed, and someone stepped through.
A girl. A familiar looking girl, tall and angular. She looked around, seeming confused, until someone else appeared beside her.
A figure out of Buffy’s nightmares. Literally. Not the scary parts, though -- it was just a mild looking, balding man wearing a rather rumpled gray suit, who looked around at the darkening clearing as if it was a whole new world. Then he smiled, reached out, and slapped a silver dagger into the girl’s hand. “You know what to do.”
Her expression clearing, the girl continued forward until she reached a young slayer who had been with Buffy since the battle against the First Evil.
That slayer gasped, and lowered her battle ax. “Amanda? My God, I thought you were dead -- I saw you fall in the Hellmouth.”
“Sorry,” Amanda said. Then she shoved the dagger into the slayer’s chest.