All About Spike
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Spiegel Im Spiegel
By Fallowdoe

Part Twelve: Golden Arches

A strange, scrabbling sound. Like clutching claws on bark. Maggie's eyes darted to the tree branches above them.

"Buffy--"

"I heard it..."

But she couldn't see it. And there was definitely something out there.

But there were only trees. Countless trees stretching into the distance. Like there had been every day in the journey.

But it was different here. They had been traveling nearly a week in this forest space, walking long miles, and now, the forest changed. It made the instinct hum in Buffy's skull, and she could tell by the darting, nervous movements of Maggie's hands and eyes, that she felt it, too.

They'd recently found the highway again, where it cut through the oaks and pines and birches. It was a mass of pavement, cracked and full of weeds and leaves. They planned to follow it out of the woods, and into whatever lay beyond them. It looked lonely-- tragically absurd in its winding, broken expanse.

Buffy stepped out of the road, and squinted cautiously through the night, trying to discern any unnatural sound. But there was just her own breathing, and the now familiar rustling of the leaves.

---

The two figures stood near the pavement, and it could see them below. It moved a spidery, pale-white leg quietly, tensing it back and forth as if it were nervous. These were strong, not like the other creatures that traveled here. It could smell their predatory nature, and it was filled with instinctual unease. They encroached on the territory of its pack, and they shared their hunting grounds with nothing.

It tossed an elongated muzzle back, let out a low frequency, guttural series of clicking noises. And as the wind rolled through the air, moving the branches, its rubbery frame moved with them.

It heard a faint response, the same guttural sound returning to it in the wind. It should join the others in their home ground, and they would stalk together. Now was not the time.

And so it took a careful look at the pair, and then leapt, lightly, onto the tree beside it, and to the one beside that with lithe, springing speed. And it carried the memory of their scent with it as it moved away into the dark.

---

Buffy stared into the black expanse, trying to detect the source of her disquiet. There was rustling, fading away into the distance... but also the sound of breaking twigs coming closer, of rhythmic movement. She tensed, anticipating attack.

Suddenly, three deer burst out of the darkness, and Buffy let out an indelicate shriek as they brushed past her, into the road, and away. In an instant, faster than any human could have come, Maggie was at her side.

"What was it?" she asked tensely. Her thin hand fell on Buffy's shoulder, squeezing it with a strange mixture of stoic sobriety and friendly concern.

"Just..." she whispered, a bit abashed at shrieking out loud in front the vampire, as if she were something that needed to be afraid.

"Just the deer. It's allright..."

---

They walked for hours, and the light began to grow in the sky once more, dark blue and misty and faint.

Strange, carved stones pushed through the asphalt now, as they walked further down the old highway. Mist clung to their ankles, cold and damp. It flowed over the feet of the strange obelisks and crosses, carved in a language that neither could recognize. Their shadowy forms were visible in- between the trees, cutting the dim shafts of light into diffuse beams that cast strange patterns on the earth.

They didn't speak, both listening intently for any sound. Buffy had drawn her crossbow, to be ready.

And she walked, so intent on her purpose, so silent and absorbed, that she didn't notice that Maggie was no longer beside her.

"Buffy!" she heard her call. She darted around, crossbow raised and ready to fire.

Maggie was standing, far behind her on the road, staring at the remains of an exit sign. A crow perched on the top of it, watching them with a vague, animalistic disinterest.

Buffy sprinted back to her friend.

"You're lucky I didn't shoot you..." she said, catching her breath and gesturing to her bow.

Maggie smiled at that.

"You didn't even know where I was, how could you shoot me?"

Buffy ignored her companion, looking down. There was always this contention, hidden beneath the surface. Who could kill what and who could do it faster. The vampire didn't forget who she traveled with easily. And that filled Buffy with a strange sense of isolation.

And Buffy reached out to touch the sign, to finger the rosaries and beads that hung all over it. There were dried flowers, prayers on yellowed paper, all clung to each other and the sign with strings in a shambling mass. Useless currency, in a variety of denominations, clung into the tangle with the dripping, cold wax of burned-out candles. The forest floor around them twinkled with coins. The whole space smelled faintly of stale incense.

"A shrine..." she whispered, softly, "There are people here..."

Beyond the exit sign, a road spun out from the main highway. Buffy seemed entranced by it in an indescribable way. As if, somehow, the presence of her own kind called to her. She walked onto it, and began down its progress.

Maggie hesitated, uncertain she wanted to follow. But, in the end, she sighed softly and followed close behind.

---

They began to hear the singing about a mile down the road. Soon after, they saw the light of the torches, flickering against the gloomy mist. It was the singing of amateurs, off-key, and the tempo was slightly irregular-- erratic. It reminded Maggie of congregations, and they way they had sung in services. Buffy had never spent time in church, and it didn't occur to her.

The road rose in a sloping swell, and at the top was a building awash in the light of torches and candles.

It was a rest stop, from the old highway, that had somehow kept from falling down with the Key's destruction. Its plastic siding and fast-food stylings seemed deeply incongruous among the mysterious trees. It was topped by a cheerful, mass-manufactured cupola, that was stained and bent slightly from harsh weather and lack of maintenance. A row of horses were tied to the gas-pumps.

Someone's voice broke through the crowd.

"Hello over there!"

It was kind and delicately feminine. It reminded Buffy of her mother's, calling through door, when she came home from work.

They both turned, and saw a tall woman approaching them. Middle-aged, with red hair piled up on her head in elaborate braids.

She smiled a placid smile, and stretched her arms out in welcome.

"Are you here to join the pilgrimage?"

"The wha-- I mean, no," Buffy stammered, "I mean, we were traveling through, and saw the lights..."

"Well feel free to share our fire. You're lucky to have run across us here. This is a holy place."

"Aren't you afraid we'll kill you?" Maggie asked flatly. She didn't have much patience for this place, and felt rather cross with Buffy for her inclination to move among the humans.

The woman's nearly unnatural calm was broken for a moment by confusion. Buffy broke in, stepping a little in front of Maggie.

"Thank you, we'll be glad to stay-- we've been traveling a long time."

The woman's smile returned, and she looked at them with an unveiled sympathy and warmth. They were small, slight. They had to have a hard life out there. There were things bigger and meaner than a pair of girls, who must be lost and frightened. No wonder the blonde one looked so uncomfortable, looked at her like she was something alien and untrustworthy.

"Are you sisters?" she asked. Most families had been broken up by this time. It was good to see the young cleaving together. Souls had to look out for one another-- it was the way of her people.

Buffy moved to speak, and Maggie interrupted her.

"Yeah, that's right. I'm Magdelene."

Buffy smirked grimly.

"Buffy," she said, casting a warning glare to her companion as she spoke.

And as she looked at Maggie, she wondered if it was at all wise to have brought her here...

---

The fireside was warm and bright-- a flurry of conversation and song. It was strange, to Maggie, as she sat on the edge of a felled log, staring at the asphalt beneath, still painted with fading yellow parking spaces. The dozens of faces around her, drawn with hunger and hardship were eagerly laughing and trading stories in a chaotic whirl of surging life. There was something wrong, here. Their bantering voices made her anxious.

And she realized it was all the laughter that was off-- they were simply too *happy*. People simply weren't like that, anymore.

It made her uncomfortable, tinged her bad mood with a bitter flavor. And Buffy, for all her eagerness to come to these people, had simply sat next to her on the log, and stared into the fire with some kind of wistful sadness.

As they sat, they'd learned about the group. They'd seen their type before. Pilgrims hunting for the answers no one else really cared about. And they never found anything-- not really.

So they just kept wandering, from place to place-- seeking. And Maggie had chuckled softly to herself, at that. There were some things in even these humans that she could empathize with.

This particular stop on that endless journey-- they called this place holy because it held a seer. A Prophet.

He lived with his monks here, in the remote wilds, to be connected to the power they were certain swelled from the broken earth. And if they were lucky, they could speak with him. Learn something about themselves-- about the world. As if there anything to know they couldn't see themselves.

And she looked up from her glowering and watched Buffy's face. She felt a stab of pity then, and her bitterness softened a little. She could see her friend was uncomfortable-- she had that look in her eyes, as she listened to the stories being banded about-- heard about people who had found their paths through visions and prayers-- prayers to a saint they said wore a cloak of green light and wandered through the world like the very spirit of mercy.

They shouldn't have come here. But Buffy had been drawn to it, and she could tell even through the wistful emptiness of her eyes that she was listening, intently, to the conversations around them. The tales of healed illness and silent moments when they swore, as they meditated, that they felt direct sunlight on their cheeks, burning their skin with vibrant power. But when they opened their eyes, it faded away and only the warmth remained, tickling their skin like feathers and fleeing into the misty confines of their memory.

And she saw Buffy stand, at long length, and walk away from the group. But she didn't pay her much mind. She could well use some time alone.

And hours passed of simply sitting in the warm firelight, among others. Their conversations became cycled rhythms of words, and Maggie measured time by their cadence, listening to them like music in an exotic meter. And she found herself humming along to their songs. She recognized some of the older ones, and they reminded her of hills that were no longer green and river streams that ran with fat fish. And she felt her hollow bitterness fade and die, and in its place the quiet comfort of sound filled her, made her rich with the beauty of music and the poetic words of simple faith.

---

Buffy stepped over the shattered, brilliantly yellow remains of the pair of golden arches, that had at some point toppled to the ground. The broken shards that littered the pavement crunched under her feet.

She paused in front of the door a moment, uncertain, as if to enter might be a violation. But at long last, she pushed open the doors, and stepped into something stranger than the forest itself.

The air was misty and indistinct, full of smoky incense. Every surface was covered. The booths were cloaked in scraps of colorful fabrics, rich and sumptuous in the flickering light of hundreds of candles that rested on the fast-food counter.

But it wasn't a counter. It was an altar. And the few people who were there kneeled before it. The menus had been covered with icons and offerings, glued there and obscuring lurid photographs of value meals and apple pies that come in cardboard sleeves.

She walked forward, the smoky air harsh on her throat. She had to push curtains of beads and long, draping sheets of diaphanous fabrics away as she moved. It was surprising the place hadn't gone up in flames, considering the volume of thin drapings.

It was beautiful, breathtaking even. Like nothing she had seen before. The light flowed indistinct through the fabric and she could see the blurred, obscured forms of the monks in their prayers, reciting a liturgy she could not understand in a language she would never know.

And the absurdity of it hit her all at once. It was ridiculous to have come here, just to be near people-- it was even more so to be taken in by candles and light when she was simply standing in a tacky rest stop. The cheap linoleum of the floor, where it wasn't covered in dried rose petals and sheets of torn-up silk, glared orange and yellow at her.

There couldn't be anything to it. It was even pathetic, in its way.

"He is eager to see you," a voice said calmly from behind her. And a hand fell softly on her arm.

"What?" she whispered softly, turning to look at him. A man in a plaid flannel shirt and torn blue jeans. A monk in the post-modern chapel of his dead world.

"We've been waiting. And the Prophet will talk with you. I will bring you to him."

---

Stiffness gathered in the small of her back from sitting too long by the fireside.

Maggie stood, up, moved a space away from the bonfire to stretch her legs. Her shins were burning with the heat from it, her cheeks warm from facing the flames, and they faded quickly to their natural cold as she hopped onto the curb of the sidewalk that lined the rest stop. She leaned against the cool, plastic siding and looked out into the crowd.

And she heard a noise around the corner. Someone was back there.

Someone was all alone.

---

They walked down a hallway, lined with what were once the cradles for pay phones. But the phones had been torn out, and the wood-grained plastic cases were filled with tall candles, brought by the travelers that sought this place. Where the phones had once been were icon paintings of a beautiful, Marian figure in a green robe, arms outstretched, a rainbow over her head and the earth under her feet. Each of them depicted that same, placid face-- those same, outstretched arms.

And she noticed, as she walked, that there were red gashes of paint covering the saint's wrists, depicting deep and bleeding wounds.

Her mind was humming with a sensation she could not name. They stopped before a door.

"In here. He waits." the monk said softly, and walked away, returning to whatever duties he was sworn.

And she looked at the door, and nearly turned around again. The universal symbol still rested there, affixed firmly to the door and impossible to mistake.

"You have to be kidding me," she whispered to herself.

It was insane-- even with the paintings and the mysterious, smoky incense.

But she was hollow, and ached for something more. So she opened what was once a men's room door and entered the chamber of a Prophet who waited for her within.

---

It was the only room in the building left untouched. Porcelain urinals hung on the tiled walls, and mirrors lined up in a neat row over the sinks. It was a bathroom.

The only difference was the man, sitting on the center of the floor on a small prayer rug, his legs folded comfortably under him. An oil lamp rested before him on the floor, and he stared at it with a strange intensity.

He had long, unkempt brown hair. His beard had been trimmed, but not recently. He was in his late thirties, and wore a wrinkled, brown bowling shirt with orange diamonds embroidered on the front. Loose, worn brown corduroy pants covered thin legs. He was unassuming. His hands were folded neatly before him.

And he hardly seem to notice she was there. So she broke the silence.

"You live in a bathroom," she said in a tone that suggested he might not have noticed yet.

"No," he said, his voice a soft and musical tenor, "I sleep in the common room with my brothers. But it's quiet here, don't you think?"

"It's a bathroom," she said again, with emphasis.

"Well yes. But they're sort of-- well, introspective. Aren't they?"

She didn't know what to say, so she simply walked around the room, following the walls. His voice echoed off the porcelain, mingling with her footsteps as she walked.

"Why did you come in?" he asked, as she walked by the stalls, trailing a finger across their immaculate surfaces.

"Come in?" she asked.

"To see me."

"They said you wanted me to come," she responded.

"But you didn't want to come."

"It's all a little-- well, sorry, but you have to see it's a little... crazy."

He simply smiled, nodding slightly up to her from the ground. His eyes were a warm brown, and glowed brightly with interest in her-- in her thoughts, as she walked around him, past the towel dispenser and around the corner of the room. And it prompted her to ask him a question.

"Why would you want to live out here all alone and do this?"

"Can you think of something better to do out there?" he asked. And she got the distinct feeling he wasn't entirely talking about himself.

And she stopped dead in her tracks as she stood before the mirrors. She didn't want to look, but did so anyway, and the pale stranger that looked back had wild eyes that were suddenly threatening to spill over into tears she didn't want to shed. It was the same well of pain that had driven her from her room at night and into her parents' bed, when she was a child, clinging to them with fear and desperation.

And she was embarrassed to do it, but she chose to fall for it all. To trust him, to plead him to stop the pit of pain swelling in her stomach. It was so easy, when he was warmer and kinder than anyone she had met in years.

"What do I do?" she entreated him desperately, darting from the mirrors and settling to the floor in front of him. Her voice was small and pained.

"Tell me what to do..."

---

Maggie turned the corner of the building, and there was a boy there. Young. She'd be generous to call him sixteen. He was absently kicking a stone about with worn sneakers, pacing back and forth.

"You don't seem happy," she said simply. He started, and missed the stone in mid-swing. It took him a moment to balance himself, and he secretly cursed himself for his clumsiness in front of a pretty girl. Her approach had been oddly silent.

"Yeah, well try walking a couple hundred miles with your parents and you might feel the same way," he replied.

"So... you're not big on the pilgrimage I take it?" she asked conversationally. He rolled his eyes and spoke as low as his young voice would allow him.

"I don't know what I'm supposed to be seeing, but the whack jobs seem happy enough to walk *forever*. And to find what? Some glowy thing? I don't even know what we're looking for. I sure as hell haven't seen a glowy thing... have you?"

"Well, there's the fire. That's kind of glowy," she said, smiling a small, empathetic smile to him.

"And I'm staying as damn far away from it as I can, let me tell you-- my parents are those ones, over there," he said, pointing to the distant fireside and a man who had brought out a guitar since she'd left them, and a woman with red hair perched close beside him. Maggie recognized her as the one who had greeted them as they'd entered the encampment.

"It'd be big with the kum-ba-yahs. That gets ugly fast."

"Don't you think it's... going to get a bit cold all alone over here...?"

He smiled a wide, boyish grin.

"Well I'm not alone now," he said.

---

The Prophet smiled with a fraternal sort of kindness at her, and reached up steadily to touch her cheek. His hands were thickly callused. He must spend long hours, when he wasn't in this room, chopping wood and working with his hands.

"It's ok," he whispered, softly. And his voice seemed to staunch the flow of her tears like a firm hand pressed to a deep wound.

He breathed in a moment, and looked straight into her eyes.

"I'm going to tell you something," he said, "And it's not something I'd tell most of the people who come here. You see, dear one, you're not the sort of person who needs this. You're part of the legend, you don't read it or preach it-- you live the myth. You don't need to be asking me what to do. You should be asking yourself."

"But..." she whispered softly, "But they said this was a holy place..."

"This is the men's room," he responded quickly, as if he was surprised by her statement.

"So there's nothing," she said, standing, pushing her hands into her pockets and looking at the floor, "There's just nothing."

He looked up at her where she turned from him, headed for the door, and a wave of sympathy fell over him for the girl. He stroked the surface of his prayer rug lightly, trailed his fingers over the tiles at his bare feet. He could see the green light there, twisting and jumping, splayed out in patterns around her boots where she stepped.

"Don't believe that," he said, kindly, searching for something that was speaking in his mind, through the prophetic mists and intuitive sense. She paused at the door she held open with one hand.

"Don't say that... Dawn," he continued, as if pulling the name from a distant memory, or as if it were written on something he could hardly see, "Dawn. She wouldn't have wanted that. And she loved you so."

---

Things were looking considerably up for Maggie.

She threw the boy's body into the rusty old hulk of a dumpster that sat against the back of the building. No one would find it until they were long gone.

---

"The Queen of Light, took her bow, and then she turned to go-- the Prince of Peace embraced the gloom, and walked the night alone--"

"Oh-- Dance in the dark of night-- sing to the morning light...."

The voices twined together, singing the rock songs-turned folk songs of the world that had died with Buffy's sister. Maggie seemed considerably happier than she had, as she sat by a man playing a guitar, singing with him in good cheer. The woman who had greeted them sat beside the man, smiling at him with open fondness. A couple, who were in love. It made Buffy wonder, as she walked back to the firelight, if they had siblings and a family and other people to share that abundance of affection with. They seemed the sort of people who would be good with children.

Maggie's violin was in her lap, her bow in her hand. She had been playing, and a cluster of people had crowded around her and the man, who seemed to have struck up a pleasant acquaintance with her over their music. And they continued to sing together, Robert Plant and Robert Burns, folk ballads and even an old, liturgical duet. Their voices and instruments twined in ecstatic beauty.

Buffy sat across from Maggie, who saw her, and gave her a bright smile. They were both happier, now than when they had arrived here. And she simply leaned back on the log, and listened to the music.

And she also listened to the stories. Those around her were talking, in excited, hushed tones, the tones reserved for former varsity players rehashing old victories and the retelling of the lives of saints and heroes.

"And they were completely alone, there was nothing they could do," the quiet voice recounted, "And they only had this novice witch to hold off the gang, and she couldn't do it forever. It was a matter of time."

The music filled the air as the voice went silent, all the surrounding pilgrim's heads moving forward in a cluster towards the speaker. And the voice hushed lower with awe and barely repressed excitement.

"But then the Slayer came," it said, "And it must have been a only a few minutes and the whole lot of them-- had to be twenty vampires-- the whole undead lot were dust in the wind. They told me on the road, when I was coming here-- it was amazing."

"I heard of a Shalnok demon who was hunting the children of a colony east of the forest-- they have every one of its heads, now, on a pike outside of their longhouse"

Maggie's song ended, and the storytellers interrupted themselves to applaud the two musicians. The pair smiled back in response.

And Maggie noticed, before she lifted her violin to her chin, that Buffy was staring, once more, into the fire.

But this time, she was smiling, slightly.

---


Continued in Part Thirteen: Shallow Cuts

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