All About Spike
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Spiegel Im Spiegel
By Fallowdoe

Part Eight: Pale Diana

The trees rose like obelisks in a cemetery, blue and silent and strong in the pale half-light.

A flutter of dead leaves fell like snow all around her, floating from eternal arms onto the pungent forest floor. The smell of the pines mingled with the earthiness of decaying leaves, and frost, and cold wind.

The trees went on forever in this halfling-darkness, the predawn glow that would never become morning. Their tall, heavy trunks surrounded her in haunting beauty. Cold, damp fog hung close to her ankles, carpeting the earth with its gentle moisture. Its diaphanous clouds loved the branches, mist clinging and swirling slow and soft on the trees and fading out into the dark and distant emptiness-- the rows of gnarled trunks that knew no ending.

She was silent, her bow drawn, a pale Diana in the darkness. She was alone, and she was hunting. She always hunted alone, separated from her companion to feed. Maggie did the same. And now, she walked through the underbrush as if she were in a church. Her eyes were bright and alert, as she tracked the progress of her intended.

Her muscles tensed, and her breath grew shallow. A spray of cold, misty water fell constantly through the air. It turned to frost on the forest stones, covering dying moss with ice as delicate as Victorian lace. These were the moments Buffy had been born for-- for the ritual progress of the hunt, for the strategy and the silent stalking. For the readiness before the storm of the chase, for the pause and absence of thought it leant her. For the bursting energy of the conflict, and the unnatural calm in its conclusion.

She was born for this.

And her instinct sent a thrill of warning through her in the instant before she heard the breaking twigs, saw the four delicate legs spring swiftly to action. And they leapt with desperate speed through the trees, and she sprung with them. The chase began.

---

"Go away!"

"Dawnie, let me come in--"

She opened the door slightly, and looked in. Surrounded in a chaos of books and clothes and bright posters and discarded socks, her sister sat on her bed, hugging a pillow shaped like a frog. Her eyes were red with tears.

And the Power Incarnate-- The Terrible Key was just a little girl who had been laughed at by a boy in a school hallway.

"Oh, honey..."

And there were no more words. Buffy just smiled at her softly and understood and wrapped her arms around her. It was silly, and it made Buffy love her painfully. It made her love the afternoon, after-school brilliance, with its sad sweetness and candy-colored bedspread and the sound of sprinklers watering lawns outside the open window.

And she let her sister cry as if the world had torn itself apart around them. Let her cry and mourn in a way that transcended the cruel words of a shy crush-- let her weep for the loss of her childhood and the length of years she didn't yet know were a lie. She simply let her cry, and embraced the sweet light of the moment, streaming through the window onto the little- girl wallpaper and her sister's hair. It was all allright.

She'd have more reason to cry in the months to come.

---

Trees whipped past her vision as she ran. The world fell away and there was only wild pursuit. She leapt over a stone and landed running, the pure white doe before her kicking moss up from the undergrowth as it burst forward and away from her. There was the rhythmic shock of her breathing, the crisp rustling of unsettled leaves, the spry pattern of the doe's hooves on soft earth.

She felt light, weightless. With grave intensity she followed the doe's every movement, its white pelt glowing softly, the muscles working under the thick fur. It ran because prey always run, because it is written in the rituals of nature and the bloody tears of history. She took chase because she always moved, always hunted, always followed the legend to its conclusion. It was in her, and it was her. She was the hunter, and she was gaining ground on her quarry.

And she could hear rushing water through the fury of pursuit. She could smell it in the air. And she took a running shot at the creature before her, letting the arrow glance off of a tree, trying to force the animal right-- to guide the hunted towards that sound.

And it veered right and it ran towards the water, the rushing river stream that broke like an ice-coated ribbon through the trees. It rushed with a fast current, frozen at the pools, but moving too quickly to freeze where it poured over the brookstones.

It tried to maneuver at full speed through those wet stones, and fell. The sound was like shattering glass as it collapsed into a thin layer of ice. It was the time Buffy needed to take pause, and aim her weapon once more.

The creature rose, shaky on a broken leg. It looked up at her with animal's eyes. They were wholly black, open wide and dark and inhuman.

It was slender, tall, and pure white. It belonged wholly to this forest, to some world far away where there was nothing but ancient trees and haunted wind. It belonged to a wild life remote from men-- to questing bark and raising young in the wilds of a dimension that was nothing but trees, nothing but thick forests and running streams.

Silence rose between them. The soft breath fell misty and cold from the deer's dark muzzle.

Buffy released the trigger, and the arrow shot into its neck with a violent speed.

---

Her eyes had been open wide. They were wholly black and dark and inhuman.

She stroked the smooth concrete, in the warehouse they'd taken as a home. They sat in the small office, the walls covered in the pilfered remains of a dead world-- Maxfield Parish prints and Indian tapestry sheets they'd chosen to remind them that this was home.

The girl stooping low on the floor wasn't the Willow who had stormed after Glory, who had attacked her with knives and raged vengeance for her lover. This wasn't the foolhardy Willow who had faced a god in anger. These eyes were fragile, defeated. Their cold was broken, not raging. The world had died and her heart had slowly withered on the vine.

And she stroked the concrete, crouched low on the floor of the warehouse office. She stroked it with her white hands and hummed as she did so. Her music was disjointed.

"Willow...?" Buffy asked quietly, as she worked on her crossbow, repairing a damaged trigger system with studied care.

Willow's humming ceased, and she looked up at her friend. Her hair hung over her face in its reddish, dull-dark strands. Stained murky, like uprooted mud clouding water.

"Willow... what can you see in there...?"

She lowered her darkened head and stared at the concrete, the trowel's patterns still swirling in circles on its smooth surface. Dawn's energy-- The Key's presence had changed her power, made her stronger. She could see everything around them. She could see everything that was, and everything that could have been if the world had survived. She could see the glowing green light all around them, working in the corners and holding the unnatural to the remains of the natural.

Yes, she saw the light that Buffy did not know-- was not, could not ever be attuned to. Buffy was lost to them, lost to Dawn. Disconnected. Weak, even stupid, in her way. But Willow could see it all, and there was no way to tell her, no way to explain.

"I see pain..." she whispered, softly.

---

It was bleeding.

It tried to stand, once, raising its slender head up, pawing ineffectually at the ice-encrusted bank of the stream. Its legs, fragile like thin spindles, collapsed under the trembling effort, and it fell once more to the frozen earth.

Buffy lowered her bow, her eyes wide, her breath coming fast from exertion. She looked down a moment and collected herself, her pulse slowing as the hunt ended.

And she pulled her dagger, walked up to the creature, and knelt beside it. There was a time the prospect of cleaning a kill with her own hands would have repulsed her, but the thought didn't come to her, now. It would feed her for quite a while. She wondered idly if Maggie's hunt had been as successful.

And she reached for the bloody wound, bracing one hand against the creature's neck, and pulled the arrow gingerly from the tissue. She could repair it, and knew not to waste anything. The warmth of its soft fur worked through her chilled fingers. Its blood was warm on her hands.

And it stirred a moment as she reached down with the knife, intent on her work. Its movement broke her focus, and she turned to look it in the eye.

Quiet, drawn, and trembling, it watched her. It tried to rise again even now, even when whatever certainty its animal mind knew of mortality settled through its eyes. It breathed ragged, thin gasps. Animalistic grunts escaped its broken throat. And the blood flowed.

Buffy looked down at her hands, stained red, and felt tears sting in her eyes. Drawn, empty-- used up. A tired shell of life, drifting through the wavering descent into shadow. It was like Willow had been, at the end.

It still moved. A thrill of dread passed through her. Moving, trying to live. Struggling out the seconds. She felt she would cut it again just to stop its moving... but she simply stared, a hand on the matted wound, its warmth feeding up her arm and thawing the winter chill around her. She stared as it tried to move-- tried to rise again.

And the doe failed. No effort could stop it, and it came silently, and Buffy couldn't feel the moment the threadbare pulse had faded to nothingness. Its eyes stared empty out into the mist of rain and falling leaves. The rush of the stream beside them mingled with the sound of wind in the tree branches.

The dead gaze. She knew it, she made it with her hands. Aylis had fallen through her looking glass, then died in Buffy's world. Her foreign eyes had been empty. Anya had stared into the sky-- her mother to the empty plaster field of a living room ceiling. That last, distantly remembered death seemed a mercy, now. She wouldn't have wanted to see this.

Silence fell over the hunter as she knelt on the moist earth. The flesh cooled quickly, its defenses broken. She couldn't stop staring, with muted horror, at the slender, alien face of the otherworldly deer.

It seemed forever before she could move, her hands trembling, and she scrambled on her knees to the waters edge. She plunged her hands into the cool, open pool of water the deer had broken into through the ice. They were shocked nearly numb as she held them under. And she saw her reflection in the space beyond them, the ice beginning already to reclaim the freezing mirror.

Dark hair, pale skin. A hairline scar ran down her right cheek, from a long-ago fight. Drawn, empty-- used up. A tired shell of life, drifting through the wavering descent into shadow. A ghost of herself, and yet herself.

The animal's blood ran from her wrists and down her fingers into the pool, staining the quivering image a soft red.

She never cried, not anymore. But she fought back the tears that threatened her resolve as she stared at herself laid bare. It was wrong. She sensed, deep in the recesses of her empty determination, that it was-- somehow, all gone wrong.

She sighed, removed her hands and clutched them close, tried to keep them from going completely numb and freezing dangerously. There was something wrong, yes.

She looked around herself, at the forest that was once a network of highways. She laughed, a tragic, painful chuckle. Of course there was something wrong, here.

But she wouldn't go hungry.

So she drew her knife once more, and went to clean her kill.

---


Continued in Part Nine: Ring of Fire

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