Silvia dove for the open doorway. Her lithe form plunged into the inky blackness that challenged the feeble flickering of the corridor's torchlight, which emanated from sconces set at regular intervals along the hallway's opposing wall. Thundering footsteps shook the stone under her boots, and she heard huffing, snorting utterances echoing along the hall. Her mind racing, Silvia groped about in the darkness, knowing neither the features nor the function of the room. The pursuit drew nearer. She could hear the rasping cry of metal against stone, and the pungent odor of rot and sweat triggered an acrid taste in her mouth. Her knuckles scraped against something rough and wooden; her fingers quickly mapped the contours, and discovered curving metal bands covered with rust-a barrel?
A lid was wedged between the topmost slats. Producing a heavy knife from a sheath at her waist, Silvia wedged the blade between the pieces of wood and pushed down with all of her weight. The circular disc popped free, and at once her nostrils were assaulted with the stench of mold and decay. With not a second to spare, she returned the knife to her belt and swung a leg over the edge of the cask. The tip of her boot met liquid a third of the way down. She took a deep breath of putrid air, grabbed the underside of the lid-it was coated with ferment and slippery to the touch-and submerged herself.
'Don't breathe,' she commanded of her trembling body. 'Whatever you do, don't breathe.' With her body's volume added to the barrel, the liquid rose nearly to her chin. She tried to keep it elevated, but that left her face pressed uncomfortably close to the barrel's lid, and she could hardly stand to think about the damp growth that covered the surface. Chunks of something unidentifiable bobbed in the fluid, brushing against the skin of her neck as she shivered.
The sounds scraped to a halt somewhere closeby. Grunts and whines filled her ears, and through the sliver of a gap which separated the barrel's improperly placed lid from its bed, Silvia could see wavering light. A snorting bark resounded, and though she could not understand the guttural language, the raw hatred conveyed by the snarl made her wince. Retreating footsteps marked the departure of her pursuers, but Silvia dared not move from her hiding place until she could feel her heartbeat pounding directly behind her eyes, and her lungs screamed at her to exhale.
She extracted herself from the barrel, filling her lungs with air-though fetid, it was the most refreshing breath she had ever taken-and spilled out onto the chamber floor. Driven to put the stench as far from herself as possible, she tore her clothing from her body, boots and all, and deposited the sopping bundle into the barrel before repositioning the lid. A cautious peek into the corridor revealed it to be empty, so she darted to the right, doubling back on her original path of flight. She located the stairway and bounded down it, each step jostling droplets of the pungent fluid from her skin.
The hallway below the stairs was not well lit; Silvia considered going back up to retrieve a torch, but she dismissed the idea when her head filled with the heaving growls and indistinct forms of the creatures that lay above. She pressed on, relying upon the pale light filtering down the stairs and her exceptional hearing to guide the way. Halfway along the passageway, she picked up a noise to her left, just beyond an arching doorway. She crept carefully into the room, testing each step with the tip of her bare toes.
A weak light crackled to life, and Silvia found herself nose to nose with a grotesque face. A pair of sickly yellow eyes squinted, pupils contracting. The brutal, misshapen features broke into a sinister grin. "Hello, Silvia," it growled.
"Holy hell, Rux," the girl breathed. "You scared the piss out of me." She allowed her still shaking body to be embraced by the hairy, grizzled arms of the lumbering beast.
"Silvie?" A cloaked woman with a melodious voice stepped forward, extending a graceful hand. "Gods, we thought we had lost you."
"Me? Nah, it was just a bunch of Prowlers, Miriam. Nothing I couldn't handle." Silvia shrugged. "All in a day's work, right?" The girl's shivering figure betrayed the casual nonchalance of her words.
Miriam swung her cloak from her shoulders, freeing a long, tightly-coiled braid of platinum blonde hair. She wrapped the garment snugly around the naked girl, her nose scrunching up at the odor. "Goodness, what happened to you? You reek of sewage."
Rux sniffed curiously, pulling foul air into its wet nostrils. "I thought she smelled lovely," he grumbled.
"And you clothes?"
"Long story," Silvia stated. "Well, not long-scary and embarrassing story. One which I'm not nearly drunk enough to tell." She looked around the room, which was lit only by a faintly glowing stone that hung from Miriam's necklace. "Where's Wallace?" she asked.
"I'm here." A gaunt man with high cheekbones and a tight-lipped mouth that seemed incapable of smiling stepped out of the darkest corner of the room. "There's a way down, here. Follow me." Wallace beckoned his companions forward into the shadows, and they trailed behind him cautiously. He moved slowly, aware that he could see the way more clearly than his friends could. As he led them, he whispered instructions, "There is a small flight of steps just ahead. Easy. Watch your step. Careful, Rux, low ceiling. There you go. Ah, here we are. What do you make of this, Miriam?"
A pair of ornate doors blocked the way, each one bearing the ghastly visage of a snarling gargoyle. Spanning both doors, several rows of strangely shaped characters were etched into the stone. Miriam knelt, holding her light closer to the symbols, and Silvia gasped when the eyes of both gargoyles followed her descent. "They're moving!" she squeaked.
Miriam glanced up at the stone heads. "Yes, I expect they are," she nodded. "These runes say, 'Two guards to the rose-one honest, one liar. One question to pose, to sort safety from fire.'"
Wallace scoffed. "A riddle?"
"Yes," Miriam confirmed. "I suppose we have to ask a question of the gargoyles-"
"-but one lies and the other tells the truth," finished Silvia. "This is easy; I saw it in 'The Labyrinth.'"
"Whoa, wait," Carl interrupted. "You can't base an action off of that. Separation of player and character knowledge, remember? I mean, I've seen the movie, too, but that doesn't mean Wallace has."
"But 'The Labyrinth' kicks ass," Faith argued. "Silvia would definitely have watched it."
"It doesn't even exist in this world, though. There's no movies or television or anything," Willow explained. "They don't have that kind of technology."
"She's right," Andrew declared. "You'll have to make an intelligence roll to see if you can solve the riddle."
"Fine," Faith huffed. Grumbling, she added, "How the heck can people cast magic light spells, but not be able to figure out television?" She picked up an oddly shaped die and rolled it across the table.
"Well, gee, I certainly am stumped," Silvia sighed melodramatically. "I sure wish we had a decent video rental store in pseudo-medieval times."
Miriam observed the gargoyles with a keen eye. "This reminds me of logic puzzles we used to amuse ourselves with at the Order," she reminisced. "Three Gods-Agramos, Burehl, and Cryvaltis-descend to the lands of Aos as idols, each appearing identical to the others. Agramos, the God of trickery and deceit, tells lies; Burehl, the God of trust and honesty, speaks the truth; and Cryvaltis, the God of chaos and disorder, does either one or the other, at random. They answer only in their own language, and you have one question-no, maybe it was two questions..." The blonde trailed off, frowning at the gargoyles. "To tell you the truth, I was always terrible at figuring those things out. The other adepts at the Order laughed at me."
"Well, that's just great," Silvia muttered. "Maybe we could just kick it down?"
"Couldn't we try an iterative question?" Rux suggested. "You know, ask one of them what the other would say if we asked them something?"
Miriam's eyes lit up at once. "Rux! That's brilliant!"
The four students glared at Faith.
"What? It's stupid," she repeated. "I'm way smarter than Rux, and Miriam over there is like a hundred times brighter than both of us." She waved her hand in Willow's direction. "How come we couldn't figure it out, but a dumb half-orc could?"
"Hey," Eddie said defensively. "Maybe I had a rare moment of genius. A very rare moment of genius." He chuckled. "How much smarter is your character, anyway? I mean, she's named after a porn starlet."
"She is not," Faith denied.
Eddie reached across the table for a sheet of paper, upon which Faith had scribbled some notes about her character. He read from the top line, "Silvia Saint?"
"It's St. Pierre!"
"I know it's improbable that Rux would figure it out before us," Willow admitted, "but sometimes the dice just roll that way. Over time, it will favor the characters with the higher stats."
"Yeah, and besides, it's just a story," Andrew reminded everybody. He was unhappy that the tale kept getting interrupted. "It's supposed to be fun."
"Well, it makes no sense," grumbled Faith. "And 'just a story,' my ass! What was with making me strip down, hm?"
"It's in the rules," the boy stated. "If you wanted to keep moving around in clothing that smelled like that, you would have had to make a saving throw, or else gotten really sick."
Faith shook her head. "This game's for pervs." She checked the time, then stood, sliding her chair back under the table.
Eddie raised a judging eyebrow. "Is that why you agreed to play?"
That froze Faith in her tracks. She turned slowly and leveled an impressed gaze at the young man. "Touché," she snickered. "Point to Eddie for the call out. Hey, guys, I've gotta take off."
Andrew frowned. "Aw, but you all are almost at the Chamber of Tears."
"Sounds awesome and all, but I'm going to be reduced to real tears when Richard fires my ass for skipping work and I can't make next month's rent." Faith retrieved her coat from one of the lounge's couches. "Besides, aren't you supposed to be on shift now, too?"
"Nuh uh. Tara asked if she could cover it," Andrew replied.
"She asked if she could cover your shift? Did she want you to pick up one of hers, too?"
Willow jumped in, concerned. "Wait, isn't she supposed to be working the morning shift, today? She's taking two shifts, back to back?"
Andrew shrugged. "I guess so; I didn't ask."
Faith drew one corner of her mouth taut. "That's crazy," she declared. "Somebody's gonna be gettin' a talking to when I get to work."
"So," Willow said.
"So?" Buffy echoed.
"So," Willow repeated. She shoved her gloved hands deeper into her coat pockets and wrapped the fuzzy material more tightly around herself. "Here we are, on a brisk September night. It's Saturday, you're going for mochas with your bestest of friends-" Willow amicably nudged Buffy's arm with her elbow. "-and you're telling her all about your evening with a certain Mr. Finn."
Buffy laughed, shaking her head. "Okay, first of all: none of this 'Mr. Finn' stuff. He's not that much older than I am. And secondly, there was no evening with Riley. He dropped me off right after you and Cordy."
Willow peered at her friend. "Buffy, you wouldn't be omitting occurences of osculation from me, I hope?" she asked archly. "That's not allowed by the Best Friend clause, you know."
The blonde looked lost. "Occurences of oscillation?"
"There were no kisses." Hesitating, Buffy added, "Well, not after the ones you were present for, anyway."
"What? So I can't have my vicarious smooches?" Willow pouted. "There wasn't even a goodnight kiss?"
"Sorry," Buffy shrugged. They walked a minute in shared silence, before she continued. "And what do you need vicarious smooches for, anyway, Miss On-Campus Boyfriend?"
The redhead gingerly navigated a broken glass bottle that lay upon the sidewalk. "Well, it turned out to be false advertising," she grumbled. "The whole on-campus thing? It is decidedly not on campus, it turns out."
"Aw, poor Will." Buffy's eyes lit up when the Student Union came into view. "Well, at least you got some serious lip loving at the party, right?" she teased.
"I thought these were things of which we did not speak."
"Oh, I don't mean me and Cor-" the blonde's sentence ended abruptly with a sharp look from her friend. "-uh, certain unnamed parties. But what about Andrew, hm?"
Willow made a face. "I felt like I was kissing my brother. Which is weird, since I don't have a brother. And even if I did, I probably wouldn't know what kissing him was like. But if I did, and if we did, I'll bet it would be just like kissing Andrew," she decided.
"And Tara was like your imaginary sister?"
'Think fast, Rosenberg!' Willow's mental cogs ground to a halt. "Uh," she said.
Buffy continued, oblivious. "Maybe you're doing something wrong," she joked. "I mean, I'd like to think that all of my kisses qualify as at least imaginary second cousins. What did Oz say about it, anyway?" The blonde reached out for the large glass door, and propped it open for Willow.
"About the game?"
"Yeah. You did tell him, right?"
"Sure. Yeah. I mean, yes, I told him."
Willow pulled off her gloves one at a time, and stuffed them into her pockets. She flexed her fingers, letting the heat of the building loosen them. "He got really quiet, at first. I think maybe he was mad, but I couldn't tell for sure. Not, you know, mad mad. Oz never gets really mad. Just...perturbed."
"So he was pissed off in an Oz-like fashion?"
"Maybe. But he stayed quiet and let me explain, and I think he relaxed a little when he learned who the other players were. After I told him the only boy I kissed was Andrew, he seemed-well, not content, exactly, but okay with it, I guess."
"Well, that's good," Buffy said. "I'd hate to see relationship tension in Willowberg."
"Yeah. You know, the weird thing is that after we talked about the game-I mean, right afterward-he kind of...he apologized. For not being around so much. I could almost see the synapses firing. It's like he thinks I, you know, kissed some people at a party because he's spending all this time with the band."
The girls took their place in a short queue of students waiting to place their coffee orders. "That's actually not such a stretch of the imagination, Will. It does kind of make sense." Buffy scanned over the menu that hung above the counter, despite knowing it by heart already, and continued distractedly. "How does that saying go? 'When the boy's away, neglected lips stray?'"
"I...don't really think that's a saying."
"Well, however it goes. Actually, I guess that's kind of an awful saying, anyway. The point is, you're Oz's girlfriend, and he's got to be there for you in this scary new environment." When she caught Willow's arched eyebrow, Buffy amended, "Okay, it's scarier for some of us than it is for others." The blonde sighed. "Look, Will. From the number of times it's come up in the last week, it's obvious to me that you're really unhappy about how things are going with him. So as your best friend and mocha partner, I decree the following: talk to him about it. I'm sure he'll understand."
Willow sighed. "I know. You're right. Honesty is the best policy. We're going to the blood drive together, tomorrow; I'll talk with him, then."
"Good!" Buffy chirped.
They reached the front of the line and placed their orders. A few minutes later, they were sitting at a table in the Student Union's atrium, holding mochas and watching a young man hand out fliers on the brick patio that separated the Union from the Nyumburu Cultural Center.
"What a strange name for a building," Buffy commented. "Nyumbruru. What do you think it means?"
"I don't know. Somebody's last name, maybe? We could look it up, later." Willow took a tentative tip of her drink, and felt a drop of searing hot coffee singe her tongue. She pushed the cup away from her and glowered at it. "Hey, how did we get talking about Oz in the first place, anyway?" she asked. "Weren't we discussing Riley?"
"We were, but I was clever and elusive."
"So was the lack of an evening and smooches your doing, or his?" Willow probed the back of her top teeth with her tongue, but its tip had already gone numb.
"Uh, I'm not sure exactly. Probably mine," Buffy conceded. "I wasn't exactly inviting."
"You didn't like him?"
"Of course not," the blonde said sarcastically. "He was sweet, single, humble, and drop dead sexy. Why would I ever like him?"
Willow looked confused. "You were so overwhelmed by his positive characteristics that you fled?"
"Something like that, yeah. I don't know, I just...I'd like to have somebody, you know, but...but-"
"No buts," Willow insisted, shaking her head. Her expression was set in firm resolve. "You'd like to have somebody. Period. That's the end of the sentence."
Buffy groaned. "Is this where I'm supposed to be all, 'Yes, you're right, Will; I should move on, start trusting men again, open myself up to love?'" The blonde sniffed at her coffee, and, finding it less steamy than expected, took a careful sip. She groaned again, this time in appreciation. "Oh my god, these mochas are good."
"I couldn't have said it better. I think it might be that time," Willow agreed.
"So, what? We make a Friendship Pact, then? You talk with Oz about his disappearance, and I don't beat Riley away with the baggage stick?"
"It's a deal." The girls reached across the table and tapped their mochas together. "Okay," Willow said, checking off items on her fingers. "What's next on the agenda?"
Buffy answered immediately. "Xander."
"He's called me almost every day this week," Buffy groaned. "I love him and all, but he's driving me crazy."
"He's just lonely, Buffy. We're here, Jesse's in Pennsylvania-Xander's kind of short on friends at the moment. Plus, now that his uncle's in the hospital, there's even more stress at his-"
"Wait, what? Who's in the hospital?"
Willow knit her brow. "Xander's uncle had a stroke last week. Didn't he tell you?"
"No, I didn't know," Buffy said, shaking her head vehemently. "Which uncle? Is he okay?"
"Rory. He's still-"
"Taxidermy Rory? The one who invented Velcro?"
Willow rolled her eyes. "Buffy, Uncle Rory didn't really invent Velcro. That's just something he boasts to people as a joke; Velcro was invented by some Swiss engineer in the forties or fifties."
Buffy paused for a beat. "Oh."
"He's been in the hospital since Thursday," Willow continued. "He's still having some trouble swallowing food and talking."
"Yikes," said the blonde, frowning. "I can't believe Xander didn't say anything about it."
"Well, the good news is that he's cleared to come down with your mom and Dawnie for Family Weekend."
"That I heard, and it's very cool," Buffy said, stirring the half-inch deep, chocolatey sludge that remained in the bottom of her cup. "This is one of those questions that's probably not even worth asking, but...I'm assuming your parents aren't going to be showing up?"
Willow barked a caustic laugh. "Right. In order to show up for Family Weekend, my parents would first have to admit to themselves that I'm attending a public University-a school that has an undergraduate enrollment of over fifteen thousand students, and less than one strand of ivy per square foot of brick wall."
"Oh, of course; how silly of me. I mean, really: our motto isn't even in Latin."
Sighing, Willow downed the rest of her drink, then peered longingly at the bottom of the paper cup. "I might need another one of these," she said.
"Good. I thought I was going to have to stand in line by myself!"
"Are you out of your mind?!"
Tara let out a slow breath. "Faith, can we not do this now? Please? It's busy."
Faith trailed behind the blonde as she spun through the kitchen, menus in hand. "You're working a double shift today and you asked Amy for her Monday evening. What's going on with you, T? You just randomly got a sudden craving to be around greasy diner food all day long?"
"Look, I've got three tables of customers out there, so-"
The chef fixed her with a steely gaze. "They don't get their meals 'til you spill," she said, finality evident in her voice.
Tara groaned in exasperation, then swiveled to go around Faith the other way. The brunette spun with her, continuing to shadow the waitress. "Is it the money?" she guessed. "You strapped for cash and need the hours? 'Cause if there's a problem or something, you know you could talk to Richard, and-"
"No! It's not money!" Tara snapped. Taking a deep breath to calm herself, she added, "Look, I just-there's some stuff-I r-really don't want to t-talk about it." She looked down at her apron and smoothed out a crease.
"Watch behind," Mark cautioned as he waddled behind the girls, carrying a tray laden with sliced tomatoes and cucumbers. They both pressed themselves up against the counter to make room for his passage through the narrow kitchen. Tara winced painfully just as her midsection came into contact with the surface.
Faith's face became a stony mask, and she reached out for Tara's hand. "Mark, cover T's tables for a minute," she demanded. "We'll be right back." She walked, pulling the waitress with her.
"Wait, but-" Mark's protest fell short. "Damn it," he muttered.
Faith shoved the door to the bathroom open, dragging Tara in behind her. The blonde had at first been too startled to resist, but now she made her irritation know. "Faith, what the heck is wrong with you?" she barked.
After a quick check to make sure they were alone in the room, Faith squared up on her friend. Her voice dropped to a hush, but the words were strong and poignant, regardless. "It's shit at home, right?" she asked. "Your ol' man wailin' on you?"
For a moment, Tara was shocked into silence. Then words sputtered out. "W-what?! Faith, h-how-how could you even s-say that?" Her lower lip trembled, and when she blinked, her lashes came away glistening with moisture.
"Hey," Faith cooed, edging closer to the girl. "Hey, hey. It's okay, T. Whenever you're comfortable enough to talk about it, I'm-"
"My father is not hitting me!" Tara spat venomously, roughly shoving the other girl away.
Less than gracefully, Faith managed to recover her balance. She was surprised-she never imagined Tara would lash out at her physically-and, unfortunately, her surprise manifested as cutting bitterness. "Right," she snapped, waving a hand at Tara's abdomen. "So I suppose you're not covered in bruises under there, then." She knew she had scored when Tara's eyes widened and her jaw went slack. Color drained from the blonde's face. "I know how it goes," Faith continued quietly. "He goes for spots that are easy to cover, yeah? Takes it out on your stomach and back, a shot to the upper arm, maybe a couple nice belts across the ass. Hurts like hell to sit, but won't get noticed by teachers, coworkers, strangers..." Faith knew on some level the effect her words would have on the blonde, but once she'd started, they flowed from her mouth without pause. She watched a tear roll lazily down Tara's cheek; it got hung up at the corner of her mouth, and followed the curve of her lip before continuing its trail down her chin.
Wordlessly, Tara loosened the knot of her apron's strings. She tugged the last several inches of her blouse from her belt and undid the lowest three buttons with shaking fingers. Lifting the garment to her chest, she rotated in a full circle, displaying a wide band of pale, unblemished skin.
Sniffling, Tara tucked her shift back in. "Can I go back to work now," she hissed, "or do you have any more accusations to make about my family?"
At a loss for words, Faith merely shook her head silently. Tara eased by, and let the door swing closed behind her. Faith shuffled over to the sink, and looked at herself in the mirror. The face staring back at her was flat, impassive. She reached out and ran the faucet, collecting a pool of water in her hands and splashing her face with it. She looked up at the image again. Heartless. Her fist impacted the wall inches from the mirror, buckling the knuckles and sending a searing jolt of pain along her arm. It tingled in her elbow and lanced up to her shoulder. Her expressionless reflection contorted into pain and wrath at once.
"Motherfucker!" she gasped.
Willow shook her head. "No, I think it's more than simply clicking; I think it's a serious crush."
"How can you be so sure, though?" Oz asked, frowning. The two were taking the short cut along the narrow path that ran between Shipley Field and the stadium, on their way to the Student Union.
"Well, I mean I've only been around her a couple times, since," Willow said, thinking back. "But the signs have been there. The nervous fidgeting, the glassy eyed stare, the inability to focus on anything else-oh, sorry, you're not loving this, are you?"
"It's just...weird. I can't say I'm entirely comfortable with the feeling."
"Well, you can't really help who you're attracted to, right?"
"I guess," Oz admitted. "But...does it have to be Buffy?"
"I still don't really understand why it's a big deal. I mean, Riley seems like a really nice guy to me."
"Yeah, Finn's cool. That's not the issue. It's just, I don't know, you and I hung with Buffy so much in high school, I practically feel like she's my sister. And having one of my friends dating my sister? That kind of takes some getting used to."
Willow nodded. "I get it. Here be dragons."
"It's tricky if they date, because you worry about what happens if they break up, and you're stuck in the middle, right?"
"Pretty much, yeah."
"Well, Buffy seems pretty smitten. Or is it 'smote?'" She paused, considering. "No, 'smitten' was right. Anyway, she's rather taken by young Mr. Finn." Willow giggled. "It's so obvious, even when-well, especially when she's trying not to be."
They climbed the small hill on the north side of the Union and crossed Fieldhouse Drive. It was Willow's first time in the building on a Sunday; there were quite a few more people inside than she had expected. They weaved through the bodies, and made their way to the Grand Ballroom Lounge on the first floor. Chairs lined the walls of the room, and a line of students led up to a reception desk just before the massive doorway to the ballroom.
Willow had donated blood a half dozen times since she'd turned sixteen; the sight of needles no longer fazed her, and she liked knowing that she was helping somebody, albeit indirectly. It would be Oz's first time, she knew. A glance at her boyfriend revealed little at first. Oz wasn't the type to ever appear uncomfortable, so Willow had learned to gauge his comfort level by secondary actions. He was calmly thumbing through brochures provided for the donors by the Red Cross. Willow nodded to herself. He was nervous, all right.
After registering, the two were separated for a brief period while a member of the staff gave each what Willow liked to think of as 'the interview.' Willow's interviewer was a sweet old lady, who took her temperature, tested her blood pressure, and listened to her heartbeat and breathing. She posed a number of questions about her general health-Willow almost laughed aloud when asked if she had engaged in recreational intravenous drug use-and, lastly, drew a tiny sample of blood from a pinprick at the tip of Willow's finger.
When she was finally led to an empty chair in the ballroom, Willow looked around for Oz. She didn't see him in any of the seats, and the staff member who had been talking with him had moved on to the next student in line. Leaning back in her chair, she craned her neck to peer through the door to the lounge. Oz was in one of the seats in the waiting area, sitting patiently and leafing through a magazine. Laughing quietly to herself, Willow rolled her eyes and returned her attention to the task at hand.