The Return -- Ch 1-3 by Kirayoshi

Disclaimer; Joss owns them, and after "The Gift", we must trust that he knows what he’s doing. Oh, and the sharp-eyed among you may recognize characters owned by DC Comics, and created by Neil Gaiman.
Author’s note; This is my alternate take on how things go after the season five cliffhanger from Hell. Spoilers for "The Gift". Duh. Shout out to Mad-Hamlet for advice, inspiration, and one kick-ass epilogue.
Archives;
Want, take, have.
Feedback; Yes please. Jim_D_Means@prodigy.net
Rating; PG-13(for angst)
Summary; The Slayer’s final sacrifice was just the end of Act 1.

| Ch 1-3 | Ch. 4-6 | Ch. 7-End |

Chapter Seven
Ragged Glory

"In the locust wind

Comes a rattle and hum.
Jacob wrestled the angel
And the angel was overcome.
You plant a demon seed,
You raise a flower of fire;
See them burning crosses,
See the flames higher and higher.

Bullet the blue sky!
Bullet the blue sky!"

—U2
"Bullet the Blue Sky"

Two months ago;

"Tell her it's over," Buffy shouted to the fallen figure at her feet, after Glory retreated into the mortal form of Ben for the last time. "She missed her shot. She goes. She ever, EVER comes near me and mine again…" She left the sentence hanging, with just enough anger and menace in her voice to carry her message.

"We won't. I swear." Ben gasped again. Buffy gave him a final, warning glare and dropped the hammer, then ran off to rescue her sister.

As she left, Giles knelt gently over Ben. "Can you move?"

"Need a …minute." Ben considered what had happened between him and the Slayer. "She could have killed me."

"No she couldn't. Never." Giles glared hard at Ben, a cold and terrible resolve in his heart. "And sooner or later Glory will re-emerge, and make Buffy pay for that mercy. And the world with her. Buffy even knows that."

He was surprised at how easy it was for him to do this thing. How necessary it was, and how little remorse he felt. He knew that remorse would come later, he didn’t care. He might hate himself for the rest of his life, but at least he knew that he would have a life. "And still she couldn't take a human life. She's a hero, you see," Giles explained to Ben, replacing his glasses. "She's not like us."

"Us?"

Giles said nothing; he simply acted. He placed his hand over Ben’s nose and mouth, shutting off his airways. Ben’s feeble struggles weren’t enough to shake off Giles’ efforts and soon the young intern and former slave of the mad Goddess was dead.

Giles kept his face expressionless. He had no qualms about killing one man to save the world. To put the life of all over the life of one, that was the creed of the Slayer. He had to do this, to safeguard the world against Glory. By sacrificing Ben, he knew that Glory was dead as well.

He was wrong.

Ben’s murder didn’t kill Glory; it simply released her animus, her spirit. She drifted over the final battlefield, unfettered by mortal flesh or mortal failings. Bodiless she observed as the Key’s blood dripped, opening the portal to her Hell realm. Sightless, she saw the Slayer dive into the portal, her body plummet to the ground with a bone-crushing force. Voiceless, she laughed with evil joy as the others gathered around the corpse of the Slayer.

She lived and her enemy died. And she would claim another body, one that she could nurture as she did Ben.

For how long, she had no recollection, but she flowed over and through the world, seeking a body worthy to contain her magnificence. One strong enough to contain her without being destroyed by the process, and beautiful enough to reflect the sheer perfection incarnate that was Glory.

When she discovered what the so-called Initiative was doing with the fallen Slayer’s body, Glory’s malevolent laughter echoed through the farthest reaches of the most barren dimensions. Buffy Summers, the sister of the Key herself, being restored, body and mind, to life! It was just too good to pass up. And without the hindrance of Buffy’s soul in the way, it was simplicity itself for Glory to possess this new shell of flesh.

All she had to do now was wait. Wait for the scientists to finish the work of restoring her new body. Wait for the proper moment when the Slayer’s friends would enter, to halt the process.

Wait for her dramatic entrance.

And now the wait was over.

========

Present day:

Graham had managed to give the incoherent Riley a sedative, rendering him unconscious. He would deal with him later. Provided, of course, that there was a later. From the tableau that unfolded before him, the odds weren’t good.

"So," smiled the madwoman who bore the body of their friend. "Who wants their brains sucked out first?"

"You won’t win, Glory," Giles growled at the woman. "We defeated you before, we’ll beat you tonight."

"Wrong, Watcher-boy," Glory laughed. "Buffy beat me last time. And now, get this, I’m Buffy! Isn’t it ironic, dontcha think?"

"You only wear her shape, you are not her!"

"Details, details!" she mocked the Watcher. "All that you need to know is that this is the last night of your lives."

"Not bloody likely!"

Spike launched himself at the mad goddess, his fist connecting hard with her face. "You call yourself a goddess!" he snarled. "You’re nothing more than another ambulatory corpse, just like the rest of ‘em. And that means, sister," he added as she scrambled to get back on her feet, "that I don’t have to hold back!"

Knowing that this imposter wasn’t the Buffy he knew, that she was nothing more than a walking corpse, meant that he didn’t have to worry about the chip in his head stopping him. With each blow, with each fist, he channeled his pain, his rage and his anger. He pressed his attack and didn’t let up, giving neither quarter nor sanctuary. "Come on," he snarled. "What the hell kind of goddess are ya? Livin’ off someone’s dead body! C’mon, you bitch! Fight me! FIGHT ME!"

"You mean like…THIS?" she pushed him off of her and against the far wall. The hapless vampire struggled to attain a sitting position, dumbfounded by what she had managed to do to her.

Glory staggered to her feet, wiping a trickle of blood away from her lip. "Oh, yeah, I was going to make it easy on you, Spike, but now I’m gonna make it messy!"

"As messy as your face?" Xander shouted. The others looked at him, worry coloring their faces. "To paraphrase an ep of the original Star Trek, ‘Behold, a goddess who bleeds!’" He pointed to her lip, still welted and reddened with blood. "Haven’t gotten the hang of Buffy’s body, have you?"

"Dream on, Harris!" she shouted. "My strength is returning, and without the Slayer to stop me," she glanced at the mercifully sedated body of Dawn, on the nearby gurney, "I’ll be able to use the Key again! Until then, I’m still more than capable of taking on the likes of you!"

"Take this on!" Willow clasped her hands in front of her, forefingers pointing at Glory. She started muttering in a language all but forgotten to humanity. Her hands glowed briefly, then flashed an ethereal fire.

Willow realized that attacking the body would do her no good; Glory would simply find another body to inhabit. She had to attack Glory’s spirit, destroying her soul. The Spell of Soul-fire was her best option. And she was satisfied with the result.

Glory contorted in pain as the soul-fire scorched her essence. It didn’t burn her physically, but her animus felt a thousand fires of Hell licking her skin, charring her deeper than any mere physical flame can touch. Willow stood over Glory, watching without emotion as she writhed in pain. Giles and Xander watched this unfold, desperately seeking some sign of the sweet young Willow Rosenberg remaining within this avenging angel.

"Your time is done, Glory," the witch intoned. "You can’t use the Key, and we won’t let you desecrate Buffy’s body any longer. I will cast your soul out of this body, and into the lowest pit of Hell!"

"N-nice t-try, little wiccan!" Glory strained against the power Willow was channeling. "But this…this body is mine!" With a primal scream, Glory stood up, marshalling her own energies against Willow. With a supreme effort, the insane goddess channeled her own growing powers against Willow’s soul-fire spell. The arcane energy fed back into Willow, knocking her off her feet. Giles and Xander rushed to her side, praying that she wasn’t injured by the backlash of power. The three of them stared, horrified, at the monster who wore the body of their friend.

"You--you hurt me." Glory spoke, almost chattily, to the young woman. "I gotta say, I’m impressed. Over ten thousand years on this little dirtball, and no one managed to cause me as much pain as you did. Bravo, red, bra-friggin’-vo!" She clapped her hands three times, smiling toothily. "Of course, I’ll have to return the favor. Don’t worry, this will hurt a lot." She reached out to Willow’s head, a gleam in her eyes making the girl think of a wolf about to make the kill. "Like I said to your girlfriend, Let’s get crazy!"

Willow offered a prayer to her Goddess, asking for the repose of her soul and the well being of Tara, when she felt it. It was a stirring, an awakening power within her, a power that slept until now. A familiar power, one she only felt once before. She glanced at Giles and Xander briefly, and from their expressions, she received a silent conformation. With a strange certainty, Willow knew what she had to do.

As Glory’s fingers brushed against her forehead, Willow linked hands with Giles and Xander. She could feel Glory’s power entering her, corrupting her mind.

She felt her mind slipping away, behind the dark veil of Glory’s influence. This is what Tara went through, she realized with a terrifying clarity. But the process wasn’t complete, and while Willow’s mind was still her own, she could act. She focused hard, and felt the minds of Giles and Xander bolstering her. She knew that this desperate gambit had a chance. She channeled her mind into one last plea to the Goddess;

"The power of the Slayer and all who wield it, last to ancient first, we invoke thee! Grant us thy domain and primal strength! Accept us in the power we possess! Make us mind and heart and spirit joined! Let the hand encompass us! Do thy will!"

There should have been a thunderclap. Graham, who watched silently by the sedated babbling idiot that had been his comrade in arms, thought that there should have been thunder, lightning, some discharge of power to accompany the figures of Willow, Xander, Giles and the reanimated Buffy as they all collapsed. He had no idea of what was going on, but a dread certainty told him that when the others regained consciousness, the fate of all that existed would be decided.

He glanced at Spike, who just watched dumbly as it happened. The vampire just shrugged his shoulders. "Don’t look at me, Mate," he said. "I just work here."

Not knowing what else to do, he dragged Riley to his feet and hefted him onto an empty gurney. "You want to help me here, Spike?"

"Why?" Spike asked innocently. "After all he did, why should I lift a finger on his behalf?"

"Because he’s dangerous to himself and others in this state," Graham answered impatiently. "At least he isn’t in danger of a court-martial for desertion just yet. No court in the world would believe he is competent enough to stand trial."

"Why not just pop the sod?" Spike asked nonchalantly as Graham finished restraining Riley’s body. "It’s not like he’s any good for anyone now."

"He’s still my friend!" Graham shouted. "I owe him that much!" Lowering his voice, he added, "Besides, he’s not getting off that easy. He’s going to be treated for his insanity, and then, once he’s recovered, he’ll be court-martialed for desertion." Dropping his voice to an ominous monotone, he added, "And in all likelihood, he’ll rot in a military prison."

"Right, mate," Spike harrumphed, "assuming, of course, that the world doesn’t go ‘poof’ in the next five minutes or so."

Just before he finished strapping Riley onto the gurney, Graham stood beside Dawn’s body, waiting for her to awaken. "Whatever you just did, Willow," he said solemnly, "I hope you succeed. For all our sakes."

"You said it, Brother," Spike added.

Chapter eight
Mindscape

"Leave your cares behind,
Come with us and find
The pleasures of a journey to the Center of the Mind!

Come along if you care,
Come along if you dare,
Take a ride to the land inside of your mind!

Beyond the seas of thought,
Beyond the realm of what,
Beyond the streams of hopes and dreams where things are really hot!

Come along if you care,
Come along if you dare,
Take a ride to the land inside of your mind!"

—The Amboy Dukes
"Journey to the Center of the Mind"

 

White.

That’s the only description of the landscape. White.

No ground below or sky above. Neither landmarks, nor ranges, nor horizons. No depth, height or breadth. Nothing at all, save for the constant and unrelenting white.

It was here, in this unknown expanse, where four disoriented figures found themselves. Three of them were long-time allies. The other one was their enemy.

That was understating the matter. The fourth figure was the enemy of the world. Of all that lived.

The evil one stood up, although direction was a relative thing in this strange environment, and examined herself. She seemed to recall that she had been wearing gauze wrappings around her body, but now was clad in a red silk dress. Yes, she mused, more my style. She looked around, and pondered; "Now, where the Sam Hill am I?"

The three others stirred, slowly raising their bodies to a standing position, and looking around them. "You guys okay?" the young dark haired man asked.

"Uh," the redheaded woman answered, "I’ll get back to you on that. Next question, where are we?"

"My first guess would be," the older sandy-haired one answered, "in a great deal of trouble!" The evil one had seen the other three and now flew at them in an insane rage, her object their destruction.

"Scatter!" Willow shouted, and the others complied quickly. Glory followed Willow as the other two regrouped. Willow fought back against the mad goddess, and seemed to be holding her own, at least for a while.

"Okay, Giles," Xander said hurriedly, "whatever explanation you have, make it quick!"

"I’m not entirely certain," Giles admitted quickly. "Just before Glory could destroy her mind, Willow was able to recite the Enjoining spell, so I must assume that the spell brought us here."

"Yeah," Xander nodded. "But why’d it bring Psycho-Bitch here?"

Giles pondered for all of a second, before it hit him with a sudden clarity; "No, Xander, the spell didn’t bring her here. It brought us to her! The enjoining spell was meant to combine our strengths with Buffy’s, to allow Buffy’s mind to absorb our might. We must be within Buffy’s mind!"

Xander breathed a low whistle. "Well, just when you thought you’ve seen it all! So, what do we do now?"

Giles regarded the battle between Willow and Glory with a growing fire. "We oust the squatter."

"Best idea I heard all day!" Xander rushed toward the madwoman, with Giles close behind.

========

"Nice move, Red," Glory grimaced as she jabbed her fist into Willow’s midsection. The wiccan winced in pain but still absorbed the impact, and returned a hard chop to Glory’s solar plexus. "But you’re outmatched here. This is my mind now, and you’re in it!"

"Wrong, you monster!" Willow spat back, as she tossed a quick energy-release spell to knock Glory back. "You’ve stolen this mind, this body! We’re taking it back!"

"Oh yeah? Come on and try it!" Glory pressed her attack, hitting Willow from all directions at once. "I’m in control here, sweetie! What I think…" she split herself into two separate bodies, and they both spoke, "…happens!"

Xander grabbed one of the two bodies, while Giles knocked the other form on the ground with a well-placed roundhouse kick. "Did you think of that one, Glory-Girl?" Xander shouted.

"We won’t let you win, Glory!" Giles intoned angrily. "You’ve caused too much grief as it is, we won’t allow you to cause any more!"

"Ah, and you’re going to stop me, how?" Glory laughed, as another copy of her body pulled Xander away, knocking him on his butt. "You don’t seem to get the underlying concept here, so let me spell it out in simple words." She split herself into ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred bodies, all intent on the destruction of the three interlopers. "This is my mind, now! I’m in charge! Whatever I desire, I create. And what I desire most of all…" Her dopplegangers slowly advanced on the three of them, as they backed away in growing terror, "…is to see the Slay-bitch’s closest friends suffer, before I take them out of the picture once and for all!"

The clone army overwhelmed the three opponents quickly enough, and soon had them bound hand and foot. "Yeah, I’m the Goddess here! My body, my mind, my world!" The pure white mindscape suddenly darkened, warped, contorted, twisted into a hellish landscape. Gouts of flame illuminated the distance, and vast crevasses of lava divided the land around them.

"Welcome to my world, people! Coming soon to a world near you!" At the snap of her fingers, the ground below the three erupted, sending them falling, spiraling into the abyss. Willow and Xander didn’t bother to speak as they fell, they simply knew that this was their end. There was literally nothing beneath them, the fall would be endless.

"I don’t think so," Giles whispered, and suddenly the fall ceased. The three friends hovered over the nothingness below, suspended by whatever unknown force governed this strange world. The landscape shifted again, and the three of them found themselves standing again in front of an enraged Glory.

"Okay, I’m stumped here," she growled, "you were supposed to fall into the Pit of Despair!"

"Did she say, ‘Pit of Despair?’" Xander chuckled, ignoring Glory entirely. "Geez, what a drama queen!"

"I think she lifted that from the movie ‘Labyrinth’," Willow added.

"Perhaps," Giles suggested, "she’s not so much in control of this environment as she would think!"

"THAT’S IT!" Glory shouted, her voice rolling over the surrealist ever-shifting horizons. "I won’t have you talking about me in the third person IN MY OWN MIND!" She threw blasts of lightning at the three of them, sending them scattering. Lava bursts and avalanches divided them as they scrambled pell-mell away from the onslaught.

Xander grabbed Willow before a shower of debris could flatten her, while Giles rushed ahead of them. "Quickly, people," he shouted. "This way!" He led the others to a rude cave in the distance. They had to duck low, and run in a zigzag pattern to reach the cave, to avoid Glory’s assault as she literally threw the entire land at them. Running for what seemed an eternity, their legs threatening to buckle, their lungs burning from breathing the sulphurous air around them, the three managed to reach the cave before Glory could unleash another volley of destruction on their heads.

Giles ushered Willow and Xander into the cave, and hurriedly ran after them before a sudden cave-in closed the entrance. Xander turned back, unable to see behind him in the rapidly-dimming light. "Great," he lamented. "we got a choice of suffocating or getting slaughtered by Psycho-bitch-from-Hell!"

"Perhaps not, Xander," Giles replied calmly, pointing ahead. "Look over there." Xander and Willow peered ahead of them and saw what Giles saw. A faint glow appeared ahead of them, with a promise of warmth. "Come on," Giles led the others toward the light.

The passageway through the cave was narrow and damp, with an unnerving dripping sound echoing through the air around them. They made their way through the slippery slopes of the cavern, until they reached a widening chamber in the bowels of the cave. The chamber's ceiling was high and curved, with stalactites dangling over their heads ominously. An enormous bonfire lit the center of the cave, casting baleful shadows over the dark rock walls.

A lone figure sat staring into the fire, poking at it gingerly with a hardened stick. The others approached the fire carefully; they couldn't be certain that this was another of Glory's illusions. The figure was crouched by the fire, tending it with care, almost a religious reverence. She wore scant rags, her appearance primitive, her posture predatory. As the others moved closer to her, they could see her features more clearly. Her face, body and hair were caked with mud and her brow was sloped. But her eyes were obsidian spheres, shining with a warrior's strength, containing a fire born of anger, of resolve and righteous purpose.

The three friends knew her. They knew her very well indeed. The Primal Slayer.

The Slayer sat, scribbling in the ground at her feet with her stick, scratching out crude yet recognizable signs in the fire's ashes. She seemed not to notice the interlopers that stood over her, and they kept their silence, afraid to disrupt her work.

Suddenly she turned, and regarded her guests with a harsh gaze. She grunted at them, her gravelly voice saying simply, "Death was her gift."

She pointed her stick at Giles, jabbing him in the ribs, then pointed the stick at an image she had scratched in the ground; a picture of a head. She grunted, assuming that Giles would understand. She then pointed her stick at Xander, then at a picture of a heart. Finally, she pointed at Willow, and at a picture of a pair of wings. "Your gifts," she enunciated haltingly.

Giles looked at the images, crude representations of abstract ideas… then the connection was made. "My God…" he whispered, then fell back. Willow and Xander rushed to steady him, but he managed not to faint. "My God," he repeated, "it's all clear now!"

"Uh," Xander asked hurriedly, "for the benefit of those of us who forgot our window cleaner, care to explain that one?"

"It's her psyche," Giles intoned. "And we're a part of it. We're not who we think we are."

Willow and Xander stared at Giles blankly. "Uh, if we're not who we think we are, then who are we?"

"I call dibs on Tom Cruise," Xander quipped nervously. Giles shot him a withering glance, convincing him to be silent.

"The Slayer knew," Giles rushed to explain, in as simple a way as he could, a mind-boggling concept. "We're inside of Buffy, inside of her psyche. The pictures the Slayer showed us…a head, a heart and wings. Mind, heart and spirit."

"The dreams," Willow suddenly remembered. "She took those things from us a year ago, then just yesterday…she returned them. Saying she'd be back for them."

"And this is how she collects," Xander whistled in awe. "But one thing, Giles. If you're her mind, Willow's the spirit and I'm the heart, where are the real us? I mean, the real Giles, Willow and me?"

"Probably unconscious in the Initiative bunker," Giles answered. "What matters now is that we are not complete in and of ourselves, but part of something greater. We're part of the Slayer."

"No," the Primal Slayer shook her head and barked again. "No…I'm the Slayer. You," she extended her hand gently toward Willow, then waved her hand toward the others, "you are something more. You…are Buffy."

After ten seconds, Willow could say only two words, which eloquently summed up the emotions of the others; "I'm honored."

The pregnant silence was broken by the distant sounds of rocks shifting against rocks. "Glory," Giles shuddered. "She's breaking in."

"Come," the Slayer gestured to Giles with her hand. "Join." She held up her hands, asking Giles and Willow to take them. Giles, Willow and Xander looked into each other's eyes, wordlessly knowing what they had to do.

Giles took the Slayer's right hand, as Willow took the left, and Xander held hands with the other two. They closed their eyes, and meditated quietly on one thought; the true self, the heart, mind, spirit and body joined.

The Primal Slayer chanted, and the others joined in, their voices as one; "The power of the slayer and all who wield it, last to ancient first, we call to thee-"

========

"Okay, gang," Glory chirped happily. "Ready or not, here I come!" She strutted confidently through the cave like she was walking through her mansion. "Let's make this easy, shall we? You just line up in front of me, and I'll kill you quickly, how's that sound? Oh, hey, before I off the three of you, you want to help me with a little problem that's been nagging at me? It's about Dawn. Yeah, sweet innocent Dawnie. It seems that she's still the key, but since the Initiative gave Buffy a transfusion of Dawn's blood, I don't really need her, do I? I mean, I've got Buffy's body now, I guess that makes me the Key, don't it?" She grinned at the prospect. "So, should I just off Dawnie quick or make it last, say over a few centuries of exquisite pain?" She stopped and looked around her, a satisfied expression on her face. "Yep, it's good to be the Goddess."

She glanced toward the bonfire, seeing the shapes of people in its shadows. "Ah, there you guys are. I thought I'd have to hunt the whole cave for you three. Okay, who dies first?"

"You do!" A shape emerged quickly from the heart of the fire. Glory had virtually no time to react, before the impact of quickly thrown punch to the chin knocked her off her feet.

Glory struggled to aright herself, only to be flattened again, by a hard kick to the jaw. "Not this time, Glory-hound," the Slayer shouted. "You tried to kill my sister, my friends, my world…no more! I'm back, and I'm ready to rumble!"

There was no mistaking her voice, or her appearance. Buffy Anne Summers was back, ready to fight and smelling blood. "C'mon, sister. You and me, equal terms, mano a mano. You up to it?"

Glory stood before the Slayer, livid with rage. "NO!" she screamed as she lunged toward Buffy. "It's my body! You can't have it!"

"Try again, Glory," Buffy dodged her clumsy attack easily. "Not much of a Goddess now, are ya?" She slammed herself hard into Glory's back before she could turn around. "That was for all the lives you destroyed!" She grabbed her by the neck and threw her hard into the wall of the cave. "That was for Tara!" She kneed Glory in the groin. "That was for making Willow cry!" She stomped hard on her chest. "That was for Dawn!" She picked up the battered form of Glory and slammed her hard onto the floor. "And that was for anyone I forgot!"

Buffy stepped back and watched as Glory strained, desperately trying to regain her footing. Her body was one livid bruise, her jaw was out of alignment and several of her teeth were broken. "Come on, Goddess," Buffy taunted her. "What's the matter? Why don't you fight back? Smite me, that's what you godlike beings like to do, isn't it? Huh? Where's your omnipotence now, sister?" She lifted Glory up by the straps of her dress, and restored her to an uneasy standing position. "You have no power anymore, here or anywhere else. You've had your chance and it's long gone now. I'm in control here. It's my mind, not yours."

Glory stared down at the Slayer, seeing the look of righteous wrath on her face, and for the first time in her millennia of existence, she knew absolute terror. "Wha…what are you going to do to me?"

"Do?" Buffy asked, smiling with mock sweetness. "Why, I'm going to give you exactly what you want!" Buffy waved her hand, and reality around them distorted, shifted into something else. The cavern dispersed around them, and in its place stood the scaffold where Buffy last stood in life. The setting of her final stand against evil, against Glory. "Look down, Glory," Buffy commanded. "See that?" Glory cast her eyes to the ground beneath her, and saw the vortex. A pure white ball of blinding radiance, as a hundred realities converged, threatening to cancel each other out, destroying all reality in the process. "This is what you wanted, isn't it? Passage to your world?"

Glory blanched in terror as she realized what Buffy had in mind. "N-no," she stammered, "it's not real. It's not real, it's not my way home!"

"To Hell with you, Glory!" Buffy shouted as she shoved the defeated goddess off of the scaffold. She watched with a dark satisfaction as Glory tumbled forever, into the unholy abyss.

Buffy turned away, and the scaffold around her faded into nonexistence. Her surroundings melted away, until she was left with only the ever-present white. She stood there, uncertainty weighing down on her shoulders. Her enemy was defeated, but now what happened to her? She stood alone in the middle of a vast emptiness, feeling that she was waiting for…something. But what?

"Hey, friend," a strange yet familiar voice cheered from behind her. "I gotta say, it's good to see you again, Buffy." The Slayer turned around to see who was talking to her. She was about her size, slight of build, with pale skin and raven black hair. She dressed in a black strap top and leather pants, and wore a silver ankh pendant on the chain around her neck. There was an ageless quality about her, Buffy realized, but at the same time youthfulness, a spirit that she carried as well.

The stranger continued; "And loved the bitch-slapping you gave Glory. Man, what an ego-freak! Good to see her get hers. Best show I've seen since I first saw 'Mary Poppins'. Back during its first run, at Radio City Music Hall. That's when they knew how to present a movie, not like today with those multiplexes at the mall. Anyway, great to see you in action again. I'd shake your hand, but I don't think you'd want that."

"You know me?" Buffy questioned the young woman. "Have we met?"

"Met?" the dark haired woman laughed merrily, as though she had heard a funny joke. "We know each other intimately, Buffy Summers. For the last five years, you and I have been unofficial partners. I'm your gift, Buffy. I'm Death."

Chapter Nine
Death and the Maiden

"The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated."
--Attributed to Mark Twain

"I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life." 
--Deuteronomy 30:19

When she was six years old, Buffy Summers had her first encounter with death.

She was on her way home from school, skipping merrily. She had the power of her youth on her side, an invincible shield against the terrors of the real world. She had gotten a gold star on her math assignment, had finally mastered her seven times tables, and rushed home happily to display her accomplishment to her parents.

Just as she rounded the corner to her house and was about to jump up the front porch steps, something caught her eye. She turned around, and shuddered at the sight of a dead cat in the street, apparently the victim of a hit-and-run. The cat’s eyes were bulging out of its skull, and what fur on it that wasn’t flattened by a tire was matted with blood.

Buffy gazed intently at the sight, unable to turn away. Her six-year-old heart went out to the unfortunate creature, and she felt an indescribable sorrow that the cat would no longer run and play in a world that was made for such as him.

The spell was broken when her mother called her name. She turned around and slowly made her way home. Somehow her gold star didn’t seem important anymore. Her mother sensed her deep sorrow, gave her some ice cream and made Buffy’s pain disappear, if only for a while.

Two years later, her cousin and closest friend Celia died, under mysterious circumstances. She recalled sitting in the hospital, knowing that Celia was lost to her but not understanding why. That was her first brush with the idea of death, her first realization that life, all life, someday ends. She saw death as a thing to be hated, a thing to be avoided.

That was her real thought of death until after she turned fifteen. Then a strange old man visited her high school and told her that she was destined to fight the vampires and demons of the night. Shortly after, her life became filled with death. Her friends died. Merrick died. Hundreds more would have died, but for her actions.

Shortly after that, something else died. Her home, her parent’s marriage, her father’s love for her. All of that had died.

Now she saw death as an adversary, something to be fought and defeated. A conqueror, whose victories against humanity were what she was put on this earth to prevent.

Then came Sunnydale. The home of Death.

Jesse died. Mr. Flutie died. Jenny died. Kendra died. All because she didn’t act fast enough.

She faced Celia’s killer, the thing called die Kinderstod, and thought she had achieved a victory over death. But that victory was illusory. Death still struck her, hard and often.

Allan Finch died, and his killer just said, "No, you don’t get it; I don’t care."

Her classmates died by the score at their graduation, before she could defeat the monster that had been Mayor Richard Wilkins.

Death after death, corpse upon corpse, and all Buffy could do was maintain a running tally.

Death was now the one constant in her life. Angel left her because he wanted to protect her. Riley left her because he wanted to hurt her. Willow and Xander were still there, but they had their own lives and loves to keep them occupied. Only death remained. The one constant, the one companion she could count on.

Then her mother, the woman who consoled her with ice cream after she witnessed that first death, she died.

A dead man with a British accent and an attitude told her that death was her art. A spirit in the desert told her that death was her gift.

She finally decided that death was what she wished for, more than she wanted anything else. A cessation of pain, an end to the misery of a life she no longer desired. The fact that her death would allow the only people who mattered to her to live beyond her, that was just an added consideration.

Now she knew what death really was. She was standing in front of Death. She was a raven-haired, goth dressed girl with pale skin and a warm smile. This wasn’t how she imagined it.

"You’re Death?" Buffy asked the mysterious woman. The ageless one nodded quietly. "Whoa. Not what I was expecting, really."

"Let me guess," Death quipped, fingering her ever-present ankh pendant. "Something in a rotting skeleton in a tattered black sackcloth robe, carrying a scythe, sort of a Grim Reaper motif?" She chuckled brightly. "Sister, I pretty much gave up that look after the Black Plague. Word of advice, sackcloth is not something you want to wear on a regular basis." With a gesture, two chairs and a table materialized from the substance of Buffy’s mindscape. "Sit, relax, take a load off. We need to talk before you go." She sat in one of the chairs, and bade Buffy join her.

"Go?" Buffy asked hesitantly as she took her seat. Death seemed amused at Buffy’s confusion. "Go where?"

"Well, that’s up to you, isn’t it?" Death nodded once, and two hi-ball glasses appeared on the table, each with a black straw. Death took one of the glasses and sipped daintily at her drink. Noticing that Buffy hadn’t touched hers, Death assured her; "Don’t worry, that’s not part of the process."

"What is it?"

Death smiled. "Whatever you want it to be, Buffy. It’s your mind." Buffy hesitantly took the glass in her hand and risked a sip at the straw. Diet cola danced on her tongue at the first sip. Buffy relaxed slightly, accepting the familiarity of her favorite drink.

"Somehow I never pictured Death as being so…friendly," Buffy made a wry face at the entity.

Death arched her eyebrow at the Slayer. "A fellow by the name of Walt Whitman said it best when he said that death was different than anything that you could imagine, and luckier. I’m not what anyone pictures me to be. I’m who I am. I’m a process, nothing more. When the first life came into being, I was there waiting for it. When the last life in the universe dies, my work will be finished. I’ll put the chairs on the tables, turn out the lights and lock the universe behind me as I leave."

The Slayer sat quietly as she digested these words. She knew she was dead, she hadn’t survived the final fall, so this seemed strangely normal, this conversation with Death. "So," Buffy asked. "What do we need to talk about?"

"Oh, my favorite subject, life," Death mused almost dreamily. "Your life, in particular. Y’see, two months ago, your soul passed from the material world. But circumstances have conspired to present you with something I never give anyone. A second chance."

"Your soul, Buffy, is very powerful, like all Slayers. That sort of power can sometimes take on a life of its own. When your soul departed from your body, it was fragmented, split into three. Each component of your soul fell into the keeping of one of your friends."

"Giles, Xander and Willow," Buffy mused. "The Enjoining spell."

"Told you, your soul is a powerful thing. Powerful enough to seek its own survival, even when the body is pretty much trashed. After that, our soldier boys in the Initiative managed to pull off its little Frankenstein project with your corpse. The pieces were in place, they just have to be brought together."

Buffy barked a sarcastic laugh. "So in spite of my best efforts, I’m still alive?"

"Not now," Death explained. "Not dead either. You’re at a crossroads." She let the words hang over the table. Buffy weighed and measured each word, praying that her next question would not be a mistake.

Finally she steeled herself, and asked; "So, am I going to live?"

"It’s entirely your call, Buffy." Death folded her hands on her lap and leaned forward. "Free will and all that. It’s your choice, live or die.

"To be or not to be," Buffy whispered to herself. "That is the question."

"Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," Death continued, "or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them. Shakespeare knew what he was talking about, didn’t he? Of course, by ‘take arms’, ol’ Bill meant to commit suicide. A lot of people don’t know that. I always got the impression that you weren’t the take-arms type of person. That’s why I like you so much.

"I doubt you’re aware of this, but we have something of a special partnership. I am the process, the passage from one state of being to another. But there are forces that work against that process, that work against death. Unnatural forces. Forces like vampirism. They work against me, against death. That’s where you come in. To prevent this perversion, the Slayers came into being. To prevent the deaths of innocents, and to assure that those who were turned into vampires completed the process of their deaths. Vampirism cheats death, and I don’t like to be cheated."

"So my job, in essence," Buffy frowned, "is to kill."

"No, to slay," Death corrected. "To finish the process. Those poor souls were already dead, their bodies just didn’t know it. Their bodies still kept a portion of their souls anchored to the physical world, and prevent them from travelling to the next world."

"So there is a next world?" Buffy grasped at this straw desperately. Death just gave her a ‘you-know-I-can’t-tell-you’ look. "Sorry, I just needed to know…"

"Don’t be sorry," Death smiled. "That’s the nature of humanity. The need to know what’s next. Well, I could tell you what lies beyond life, but then you would have made your choice in favor of death. I can tell you that you mother is happy, and at peace." Buffy felt her shoulders sag as an unknown tension revealed itself by its sudden absence. A terrible burden left her, and she felt infinitely lighter as a result.

"I know about Spike," Death commented, "I remember what he told you, about how every Slayer has a death-wish. In a way he was right. Not a wish to die, but a wish to know what happens when you die. A need to know. Of course, you have that in common with most of the rest of your race. It’s just that in your case, death is a more prevalent force in your life, so naturally it’s going to be on your mind more."

Buffy sipped drink again, considering what was being offered. A return to her life. But was that what she wanted?

"I know what you’re thinking, Buffy," Death observed. "You haven’t had an easy life before this point. And I can’t promise that you’re gonna have it any easier if you choose to live again. You’d have to take that up with my brother Destiny, and I wouldn’t recommend it. The guy’s a real bring-down boy." She leaned forward in her chair, her gaze commanding Buffy’s attention. "All I can tell you is this; whatever happens from the point of your decision, that’s up to you. No matter what the Council of Watchers says, no matter what pressures your calling as the Slayer places on you, in the end your life is just that. Yours."

"Hmph," Buffy mused. "What about my gift? My death was my gift."

"You got that wrong, friend. Death wasn’t your gift. Your life was your gift. You gave your life for your friends, for your sister, for your world. Death may have been your gift, but it certainly wasn’t your only gift." She leaned back in her chair and sipped her drink again. "Well, now you have new gifts. Your soul, bright and vibrant, is your gift. Your heart is your gift. You are your gift. Just don’t be so stingy with those gifts." Buffy smiled ruefully at Death’s words.

A memory came to the Slayer, unbidden but nonetheless welcome. A sweet and smiling Willow, happily announcing her plans to remain in Sunnydale after graduation, to support Buffy in her war against the dark. "It’s a good fight," she said then, "and I want in."

"It’s still a good fight," Death observed, a knowing look in her eyes.

"Yeah," Buffy admitted. "And I still want in."

"Then the choice is made," Death stood up in her seat and started to walk away. "Good luck, Slayer."

"Hey," Buffy called out to the departing figure. "Will I see you again?"

Death turned her head back toward Buffy, and smiled. "Someday, Buffy Summers, you will see me again. Then, I will tell you everything. Take care." The Endless one turned away and faded from Buffy’s sight.

========

Dawn stirred on her gurney, becoming vaguely aware of her surroundings. She first noticed the restraints that bound her to the gurney, then saw Spike standing over her, loosening her bonds. "Hey, Niblet," the vampire spoke as soothingly as he knew how. "You okay?"

"Uh, yeah, I guess so," Dawn sat up as the strap over her chest was released. She shook her head, struggling to shake off the effects of whatever sedatives were used on her. "What happened, Spike?"

"Someone used you for an evil experiment," Graham answered. "The Initiative…" he hesitated, unsure how the young girl would take what had happened. "They tried to reanimate your sister’s body." He stopped talking and gauged the growing shock and disgust on Dawn’s face. He understood that expression, for he shared her disgust for ever being part of the Initiative. If they could desecrate the body of a hero…

The others started to awaken slowly, first Willow, then Giles and Xander. "Wha—what happened?" Willow asked as she shook off the effects of Glory’s attack. "Where’s Glory? Where are the others?"

"We’re right here," Giles murmured. "But if someone would kindly shut off the Iron Maiden concert in my head…"

"Yeah, tell me about it," Xander complained wearily. He and the others glanced around, and found Buffy’s body sprawled on the floor. He stepped back slowly, warning the others away. "Back off, guys, we don’t know what’ll happen next."

"What do you mean, Xander?" Dawn asked frantically. "What did they do to Buffy?"

Giles stammered quietly, carefully considering his reply. Before he could speak, the slayer’s body started to move. She slowly rose from the floor to a standing position, and opened her eyes. The others stood back, ready for anything.

Her eyes rested on her friends, on Willow and Dawn especially, and she smiled. Her smile wasn’t the terrifying grin of the deranged goddess, but the warm, caring smile of their protector, defender and friend.

There was no logical reason for anyone in the room to believe this, but somehow they knew the truth, beyond any doubt.

Dawn was the first person to speak after a minute’s shocked silence. "Buffy?" she whispered. "Is that you?"

"It’s me, Dawnie," Buffy assured her.

The slayer’s sister launched herself into Buffy’s arms, nearly knocking her onto her butt, and hugged her fiercely. She wept openly, gladly, as she relished this contact with her sister. Buffy clung to her sister just as fiercely, tears of joy staining her face as well. Soon, as though released from a spell, Willow, Xander and Giles approached the two sisters, and Buffy opened her arms to them as well.

Spike hung back, watching the reunion of old friends. He simply nodded his acknowledgment of Buffy’s return with a smirk on his face. But he wasn’t fooling anyone present; he was as glad to see Buffy’s return as anyone else.

Graham said nothing as this strange family simply held each other, restoring that precious connection that had been lost to them before. There would be time later for Buffy and the others to deal with the realities of her temporary demise. There would be time later for him to deal with Riley Finn’s imminent court-martial, and the final dismantling of the Initiative. For now, it was enough to know that their friend had been returned to them.

Buffy Summers had returned.

Chapter Ten
Bright Side of the Road

One month later;

"Yes!" Willow shouted triumphantly as she sat at her computer at the Magic Box. "Buffy Summers is alive and well!"

"We know that," Tara smiled as she leaned forward on Willow’s shoulders. "Remember, that situation with Riley Finn last month? We’ve been celebrating her return ever since."

"Funny, babe," Willow stuck her tongue out at her lover. "I meant in the legal sense." She showed Tara the screen. "I just hacked into public records, and changed her legal status so she’s no longer dead. Erased all her death certificates, her autopsy report, all that. I also located her birth certificate, and arranged for a notarized copy to be mailed to her house so she can apply for a driver’s license, and I even had the title deed for her home signed over to her."

"Not bad, hacker girl," Tara leaned in and kissed Willow’s cheek.

"Not a perfect hacking job, I’m afraid," Willow admitted. "I wasn’t able to rescue her bank account, or the trust fund her mom set up for her. All that money went over to Dawn’s trust fund when Buffy was first declared dead."

"Hey, she’ll be okay," Tara assured Willow. "And with you moving into her house once college starts up, you’ll be able to help out."

"Yeah," Willow smirked slightly. "Practically had to twist her arm to convince her to let me pay rent, but she still needs the money. At least until she can get a job. But she’ll be okay."

"Speaking of which," Tara heard the door-chimes jangle as the shop’s front door was opened, and noticed Buffy and Dawn as they entered the shop. They seemed to be arguing about something.

Willow and Tara left the backroom to greet their friends. "Hey Buff, Dawnie, what’s up?"

"Buffy made me watch the most disgusting movie I ever saw," Dawn complained dramatically.

"Oh?" Willow’s interest was piqued. "Which movie was that?"

"It’s called ‘Harold and Maude’," Buffy explained, "and it wasn’t disgusting at all. It was one of Mom’s favorites and we still had the video, so I decided to check it out."

"Buffy, it was gross!" Dawn shrieked.

"Harold and Maude?" Tara smiled. "I loved that movie. Remember, Willow, we saw that at the revival house in San Francisco just before we started our sophomore classes."

"Yeah, with Ruth Gordon as the kindly old woman who taught that kid about life," Willow continued.

Dawn just looked at the other two women with shock in her eyes. "Are you kidding? The movie had an eighteen-year-old boy having sex with an eighty-year-old woman!"

Buffy shook her head, amused at her sister’s overreaction. "Dawn, the movie wasn’t about that. It was about how Ruth Gordon taught the boy to shake off his obsession with death and embrace life."

"Yeah," Dawn continued, "but he had sex with an eighty-year-old woman."

"Hey," Buffy reminded her sister, "you didn’t object to that one movie where the guy had sex with a pie!"

"That was different," Dawn amended hastily, as Tara and Willow started to giggle. "That was just dumb comedy. And say, now that I think about it, don’t you think that Michelle in that movie looks an awful lot like--"

"Uh, Buffy," Willow squeaked, hoping to deflect Dawn’s interest. "You wanna check this out?" She took Buffy and Dawn into the back room and directed their attention to the computer. "I’ve been going into hacker mode here, and managed to legally resurrect you. Now you can get a driver’s license, and you now own your house." Buffy sat at the computer and perused the records that Willow had edited. She still didn’t understand half of what she saw on the screen, but took Willow’s assurances at face value.

"Great, now all I have to do is get a job," Buffy smiled at her friend.

"I’m sure Giles can find a position here in the Magic Box," Tara offered.

"Thanks, Tara," Buffy replied. "But I want to get a job on my own. Still, the Box can be my plan B." She stood up from her seat at the computer, and announced, "Hey girls, can you close up for lunch or something? I’ve got something to show you."

"Sure," Tara smiled. She and Willow joined Buffy and Dawn, Tara taking the time to set up the ‘Closed, back in 30 minutes’ sign in the window and locking the door.

========

The cemetery wasn’t quite where Willow envisioned herself at the moment, but Buffy seemed genuinely pleased about something here. Willow was especially curious as to why Buffy had chosen to lug a portable CD player with her.

They stopped at an all-too-familiar stone. Buffy glanced at the stone’s inscription, fighting back the shudder of seeing her own name engraved on the stone. "She saved the world a lot," she read the epitaph, a sardonic smile on her face. "Let me guess, Wills, your idea?"

"Well," Willow blushed crimson, "Xander and I worked on it together."

"Hey, short and sweet, I like it," Buffy assured her friend with a smile. "Anyway, it’ll be going down tomorrow. I spoke with the funeral director, and he agreed to remove the empty coffin and the stone." She glanced at her mother’s stone, which stood alongside her own. "I’m thinking of planting a tree here. Maybe something in a nice shade tree. I think mom would like that."

"I know she would approve," Tara nodded.

"Yeah," Willow agreed. "Maybe a sycamore, or something like that."

"Yeah," Buffy mused silently. "Well, anyway, before they come in to remove the grave, I wanted to do something, and this is my only chance." She placed the CD player on the ground by the gravesite, and pressed play. She turned to the others, smiled, extended her arms, and said, "Let’s dance!"

A bright, upbeat melody filled the air, and Van Morrison started to sing;

From the dark end of the street
To the bright side of the road
We'll be lovers once again on the
Bright side of the road

Little darlin', come with me
Won't you help me share my load
From the dark end of the street
To the bright side of the road

Willow and Tara exchanged puzzled looks at first, but as Buffy took Dawn in her arms and began dancing with abandon over her own grave, they began to understand. Buffy, in this strange way, was her way of reaffirming her life. Willow took Tara’s hand, and they joined Buffy and Dawn on the small plot of land, dancing together.

Into this life we're born
Baby sometimes we don't know why
And time seems to go by so fast
In the twinkling of an eye

Let's enjoy it while we can
Won't you help me sing my song
From the dark end of the street
To the bright side of the road

Buffy glanced briefly at her friends, as they enjoyed each other’s company and closeness. She knew that in a few days Tara would begin her classes at Berkeley College and Willow would miss her while she was gone. And soon Buffy would have to start Slaying again. And life, whatever it was in the Hellmouth, would go on.

But now she had a fuller understanding about her life. About life in general. Death may have been her gift before, but death, in the end, was a part of her greater gift. Life was her gift now. She would gladly give it in protection of her friends if it came to that. But until then, she intended to share that gift with her friends, and not shut herself off from them.

Buffy, for the first time in such a long time, was truly alive. And she intended to stay that way, no matter what the world threw at her.

Buffy lived.

From the dark end of the street
To the bright side of the road
We'll be lovers once again
On the bright side of the road
We'll be lovers once again on the bright side of the road

Epilogue;

Places of Origin
By Mad-Hamlet

When she lifted her head up she found she way lying on grass.

"Ooh nooo," she moaned. "Grass stains! They’ll never come out!"

With a sigh, Glory pulled herself to a seating position. She began brushing off what dirt and grime she could but wasn’t having a lot of luck.

"Super strength, speed, toughness…sure but can I get dirt out? Feh, not a chance." She kept brushing ineffectively at the mud and grass. "This outfit is a total loss," she moaned. "But, hey! That means I can get another. Yeah, that’s cool."

"Just...as soon as I find a mall." She looked around, only then realizing she was not alone.

Surrounding her stood three ...people. Sort of.

The one to her left looked like a scarecrow. In fact he was a scarecrow. Dressed in banged up overalls, a flannel shirt and heavy boots. His hands were sticks tied together with unraveling twine, and his head...his head was a pumpkin. He was also smoking a cigar and leering at her. How a pumpkin would leer remains a mystery but it was a leer. From a pumpkin. Smoking a cigar.

The one to her right looked far more normal. Other than the white hair, pale skin, and sunglasses. A black t-shirt was stretched over a well muscled, but slim, frame. His blue jeans were spotless ending just above the ankle, revealing the bottoms of black, steel tipped cowboy boots.

His white hair was pulled into a ponytail that hung down to the small of his back while the sunglasses completely concealed his eyes. He wasn’t looking at her though, just scuffling the toe of one boot into the earth, smoking a cigarette.

But it was the one between these two others that commanded her attention.

He was dressed similar to the white haired one. Gray t-shirt, gray jeans. Clean, if a little rumbled. However that was where any semblance of normalcy ended. He had white skin and jet black hair. Jet black, spiky hair that went every direction. That was fair enough though, it was his eyes that separated him from the rest, the wheat from the chaff. Old, black eyes stared down into hers. Perfect obsidian in every way except at their very center where a small speck of light did shine.

He also possessed a sense of majesty, of time immeasurable about him. Yes, this was definitely the leader.

‘Suits me.’ Glory thought. ‘Saves me the trouble of tracking this gomer down before I kill him and take over.’

"Welcome...Glorificus." The black-eyed man spoke quietly.

"Great, you know my name," Glory said standing up, she brushed her knees off, examining a run in her left stocking.

"Yes. We do. We did, after all, create you."

"Come again?" Glory cocked an eyebrow. News-flash bud, I’m a God. A Hellgod to be precise. Y’know…God. Immortal, undying, eternal. No beginning no ending. Hello? Any of this mean anything to you bright eyes? And I mean that in the literal sense."

A small smile graced his lips. "Yes. Yes these are all true as you say, but I did create you."

"Yeah…sure, whatever. Look, can we get to the killing now? Cause if I’m gonna take over…y’know...schedules etc. C’mon, chop chop." She tapped her wrist where most people wore a watch.

The smile vanished. "Killing? Me? You really do not remember?"

"Remember what?" Glory sneered. "Lets see. I recall…that I’m a Hellgod. I like to kill, torture, punish, burn and…Oh yes, chew with my mouth open."

The pumpkin spoke. He had a gravelly coarse voice. "Sure we got the right one boss?" He spit the end of his cigar out.

The black haired man referred to as ’boss’ put a finger to him temple. "Yes...yes I’m sure, Merv. Still..." He turned his gaze back to Glory.

"You misunderstand." He said calmly. "This is the land of Dreams. The Dreaming. I am its Lord. This is the place where Gods are born." He paused. "And where they come to die."

"Die?" Glory’s eyes bulged. "Gods can’t die. It’s part of the job description. Though I like the part about killing and maiming more."

"Perhaps and perhaps not." Dream replied. "But this is where you are. You have forgotten your place Glory. I will explain. I created you. Long ago, you were a Nightmare; then the humans began to believe in you. This gave you power and I stepped aside allowing you to have your place and time. It is done now, and you can take back your original calling."

"Huh? What?" Glory looked up from examining her nails. "Do any of you guys got a press-on kit?"

The white haired man shook his head slightly but said nothing.

"You must remember your duties, Glorificus," Dream man said. "You will need to be retrained. My...assistant here…" And he gestured to the white haired man. "...Shall instruct you."

"Great!" Glory chuckled. "I’ll kill him first, then you, take over and have a little fun till I can get back to that SlayBitch!"

So saying she flung herself, hands outstretched at the white haired man, intent on shoving her fingers into his temples and feasting on his mind.

Her scream of agony surprised no one there and was swallowed up by the mists surrounding the small party. Sinking to her knees, Glory pulled the mangled ruin of her left hand to her breast. Red blood streamed down over the stubs of two fingers that had been severed, along her forearm to pool in the dark grass, staining a small, but growing circle, to that of a bright crimson.

"My...fingers," she sobbed. "He...he bit off my fingers with his eyes!"

The white haired man bent down and retrieved his sunglasses that had been knocked off in the impromptu scuffle. He smiled at her while brushing them off, almost white lips pulling back over even whiter teeth. Then he smiled at her with his eyes. Not like others, he did it literally for he had no actual eyeballs, but where they were supposed to be, he had teeth.

He slipped the sunglasses back on and carefully whipped a bloodstain off his cheek with the back of one hand.

"Yes." Dream said in a neutral tone. "The Corinthian, he is one of my more...fervent creations." He turned his gaze from the sobbing woman to the Corinthian. "Train her well, prepare for her duties but do not kill or cripple her. She is to again be a nightmare, not destroyed. Do you understand?"

The Corinthian gave a flourished bow. "Oh yes, lord of the Dreaming." Everyone ignored his growled "Ponce." They’d heard it before.

The Corinthian knelt down next to Glory. "Let me see that toots. C’mon, I won’t hurt you…yet." He pulled the injured limb so he could get a closer ’look’ at it. "Aww…thass nothing babe. You’ll be fine in a jiffy. Still, I’ll kiss it and make it all better."

Before Glory could react he had smeared his lips bloody with the stumps.

"Couldn’t help myself." He grinned. "Yer just so tasty!" He licked the stumps one last time before standing back up.

"But...but I’m a God!" Glory whimpered.

"You were toots." The pumpkin smiled poking in her direction with his stogie. "Now yer a nightmare, a dream, again. Relax, it’ll be fun, you’ll get into it."

The Corinthian nudged her with the toe of his right boot. "After yer... ‘trainin’ of course."
He was still smiling.

He stood back up. "Now missy, I like you. You got attitude. You got...gumption…you got...chutzpah."

The pumpkin grinned around his cigar. "Chutzpah?"

The Corinthian ignored him. "So…cause I like ya, and you did give me a feedin’, I’ll give you ...a ten second head start."

Hiding his face in his hands the Corinthian began to count; "One Mississippi, two Mississippi..."

Choking down another sob, Glory lurched to her feet, kicked off her high heels and made a break for the cover of the nearby woods that had not been there a second ago.

"Corinthian." Dream said quietly, the white haired man didn’t stop counting. "Make sure she does not, nor you, enter Fiddler’s Green. He does not like others walking, or running, upon him."

Without interrupting his count the Corinthian nodded.

"...Ten Mississippi! Ready or not here I come!" With a whoop and a leap he disappeared into the tree line.

Dream watched all this, saying nothing, though Merv had a running commentary with a stray daydream that had wandered by.

"...give you ten to one odds she doesn’t last five minutes." Dream overheard.

He wouldn’t take that bet.

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