Twilight's Last Gleaming
Copyright May 2000
Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.
– October 1980 –
The knocking awakened him, a steady, monotonous rapping that cut through layers of slumber and into his skull like precise blows on a small chisel. He rolled over in bed and opened sleep-gummed eyes, vaguely conscious of a taste in his mouth like dust and old wax. His feet found the floor and he stood, fingers groping for the switch on the table lamp. It took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust to the light; meanwhile the knocking continued, regular and lifeless as a metronome.
The door. Someone at the door. "Just a minute," he called, sleep grating in his throat like gravel.
The knocking stopped at the first sound of his voice. Then, very low: "It's me, Jack. It's Loryn. Can I … come in."
He had caught up a pair of jeans suspended from the knob of the closet door, and now he paused in the act of pulling them on, for a moment unable to translate the noises as human speech. There was something unnatural in the sound of it: cracked, dry, like the faint rattling of bamboo wind chimes. "Lo… Loryn. Right. Hold on, I'll be right there."
He snapped the jeans and tugged on a t-shirt emblazoned GOLD'S GYM, still somewhat pungent from the previous day's workout, then padded toward the outer door of the apartment, carpet prickling under his bare feet. Despite the dullness of his senses he moved easily, his physique the carefully sculpted musculature of a self-taught bodybuilder rather than that of an athlete. He paused for a second by the half-length mirror, muttered in exasperation. His hair looked like a briar patch. With a sigh he pulled open the door.
"Hello, Jack," she said.
He almost rocked back, so shocking was her appearance. Loryn tried to smile, but it came out as a self-conscious grimace that twisted her mouth horribly. She must have realized this, for she raised one hand as if to cover her mouth. Then, speaking through barely moving lips, she said again, "Can I come in?"
Jack caught himself. "Oh, right. Sorry." He moved back from the door to let her enter. She started to step inside, then checked at the threshold. Again she made as if to enter, again inexplicably hesitated. She looked to Jack with a helpless expression.
He stared, baffled and oddly uneasy. "What's the matter?" he asked, his tone sharper than he had intended. "You want to come in, come on in."
Some of the tautness went out of her, and she stepped inside, moving with the flickering quickness of a lizard. Jack repressed a shudder, and made a deliberate effort to study her objectively; although, as seconds ticked away, he saw nothing that promised to change his first impression. She was achingly gaunt, her skin pasty white, the lines of her face stark and startling in their prominence. Her dark hair hung limp in haphazard strands; her hands, thin, bones and tendons standing out under papery skin, clutched at one another. Her eyes were the only touch of color about her, hollow and red-shot; except for them, she might have been a picture in black and white.
This was nothing like the girl he had known only a few months ago … but the look itself, that was a different matter. He had seen it before, in the parks and markets of Amsterdam: needle-pocked scarecrows of all ages, eyes empty and steps aimless, products of the 'progressive' Netherlands policy of legally dispensing drugs to registered addicts. Back here in the States, heroin had lost most of its glamour, but there was plenty waiting to fill the gap. So, what was it? Methamphetamine? Cocaine? Some of the new stuff, 'crack' or PCP?
"Well, Loryn," he said, knowing the clumsiness of the words even as he spoke them, "what brings you out this time of night?"
"I … was walking," she told him. Her gaze was unnervingly direct. "I wound up in this neighborhood … I had heard you and Rory had gotten an apartment here, and your name was on the post box down by the laundry room, so I thought I'd stop in."
At two in the morning? Again he was struck by the strangeness of her voice; it had no more timbre than wind sifting through fallen leaves, so dry he wondered how she could speak at all. "Rory left before the end of the summer," he told her with false heartiness. "We had a lifestyle disagreement; I thought I should do at least a little studying along with the beer, and he was pretty much a purist about beer for beer's sake." He snapped his fingers. "Speaking of which, I forgot my manners as a host. Would you like anything? something to drink?"
Loryn jerked, and shuddered visibly. "No," she said. "No, nothing." She closed her eyes, and spoke so low he could barely hear the words. "Jack, I'm in trouble. I need help."
Money, he thought bleakly. She had come to beg money so she could shoot up or snort away more of her life. "What's the problem?" he asked, tone neutral over the sick hate building inside him.
Loryn brooded, started to speak, then seemed to hesitate. She looked up at him, and he literally flinched at the impact of her gaze. "Have you ever heard of astral projection?"
"What?" It burst out of him, so far were her words from anything he had expected.
Her hands darted in a gesture of impatience. "Mental separation, sending your mind out of your body. People build up a lot of mysticism around it, but it's actually more in the same area as extrasensory perception." Her mouth twisted momentarily. "At least, I used to think so."
"Yeah, yeah, I know what you mean, I was just surprised." Jack frowned. "Say, didn't you once tell me …?"
She nodded. "That's right. I'd had experiences with it before. Flashes, really, just as I was falling asleep or just before I woke, the kind of thing you could easily explain away. In the last month or so, though, I had a couple that couldn't be laughed off: longer, more detail …" She stopped, shook her head. "You can dream that you're awake, and still tell the difference once you wake up. These weren't dreams."
"What kind of details?" Jack wanted to know.
"It's not important. It wouldn't serve as proof, but I was convinced. This, whatever it was, seemed to be getting stronger. If it was going to be in my life … well, I decided to see if I could do it deliberately. Control it."
Her voice aside, this sounded more like Loryn as he remembered her. "A voluntary, controlled out-of-body exploration," Jack mused. "I can't see you hunting me up to report nothing, so I guess that means you succeeded."
"Not at first," Loryn said. "It's not the kind of thing you can force. I read up on it as much as I could, but in the end I accomplished more by paying attention to my own experiences. I started doing relaxation exercises, and it still wasn't working but I could tell I was on the right track, so I moved on to self-hypnosis."
Jack nodded slowly. "I get it. Right at the threshold of sleep and waking, that was the state you needed to find."
"Yes. Tonight I pulled it all together: long, hot bath, and soothing music, and slow yoga, and then I followed all the steps for bringing on a light autohypnotic trance. I just let myself drift into it, and … detached myself, bit by bit, and then I was looking down at myself, just like in those dream flashes."
He nodded again, though this time there was a tiny needle of doubt. "So what then?" he asked. Loryn was no liar, but her background was a little … flaky. How far could he rely on what she said?
"I went out of my room," she answered. "I left the building and went out over the campus, about as high as the street lamps. Sound was muffled, I was sensitive to vibration but I couldn't differentiate it; and visual details were blurred, too, but I could see, or feel, patterns of energy. I let myself go higher, out over the town, so high I could see the lights on the ships in the harbor. I went —" She stopped and began to pace, her feet seeming scarcely to touch the floor. "That doesn't matter, none of it really matters. I don't even know how long I was gone, time has a different meaning in that state. But when I … came back … when I …"
She halted, struggling with herself, body taut. Jack started toward her, caught a flicker of movement in his peripheral vision and almost jumped, he was so keyed up; but it was only his own motion, reflected in the mirror near the door …
With no warning, terror clawed at him.
Loryn saw, read it in his eyes. "Yes," she said with parched softness. "When I came back, I was like this."
Jack lurched back against the wall, heart hammering, his eyes riveted on her. "No reflection," he said through numb lips. "You … you don't have a reflection."
"Or a soul," she said bitterly.
Even terrified as he was, this snatched his attention. "What? What? What do you mean?"
"I mean this." Loryn plucked up an oak slat chair from the corner, a heavy, solid piece that could have been used to club an ox. She tugged at it almost casually, and the wood splintered and tore in her hands. She let the pieces fall and looked up at him, her eyes seizing his with brutal, electric force. "And this," she added, drawing back bloodless lips to expose long, pointed canine teeth.
For a moment Jack believed the sheer impact of fear would actually stop his heart. Then Loryn turned violently away, hunching her shoulders and shaking uncontrollably. With a start of amazement he realized that she was crying. Crying!
That was something he had never heard of a vampire doing.
Somehow, despite the dreadful change in her, this was still Loryn.
With this realization came the fading of fear … and then, as Jack suddenly understood the full horror of her position, a wave of pity so vast it almost choked him. "Oh, my God," he said softly. "Oh, Loryn."
She had stopped crying, but she still stood with her back to him, wrung with misery. "You said you needed my help," he said to her. "What kind of help? What can I do?" She made no reply, nor turned from where she stood. "Come on," he urged. "You came here for a reason, and from the way you've acted I don't think it was to … I mean, I don't believe that you …" He halted, floundering.
"No," Loryn said, turning to face him. "Not for that. I don't … want … Is there anything we can do? Anything?"
"Huh?" He stared at her. "You mean you don't have any ideas? And you thought I might?"
"I know you've never believed in the supernatural," Loryn insisted. "But you know so much, at least about the vampire legends, you were the first person I thought of when this happened. There are other places I might go for knowledge, but who else can I trust?" She lowered her eyes, seeming to realize the effect her gaze had on him. "There isn't anyone else, Jack. Little as either of us may want it, you're my only hope."
It was the first allusion she had made to their prior relationship, and discomfort ground his mind to a stop where terror had only spurred it. How was he supposed to answer that?
He and Loryn had first met early in the previous Spring semester: she finishing the junior year of a journalism major, he a freshman on the reinstituted G.I. Bill, working through the prerequisites for admission into the business school. He had been impressed by her maturity, and she in turn was intrigued by the difference in their backgrounds, for he had grown up in Oklahoma, coming to California for college after military duty in Germany. The mutual initial interest had given way to a recognition that they genuinely liked each other as people, and they quickly grew very close.
The same dissimilarities that had attracted their first notice led to the first problems between them, however. It started when a station out of L.A. began showing syndicated reruns of Kolchak: the Night Stalker. This became a major nightly event at Jack's dorm, and at one of them he had expounded to Loryn his knowledge of vampire lore, pointing out where the program matched the popular legends and where it veered from them. Loryn had readily joined the rough-and-tumble discussions and critiques in the TV lounge; but the next time Jack invited her to join him for one of these nightly sessions, she had begged off, and the time after that, she put her reservations into words.
"I know it's just supposed to be entertainment," she told him. "But these things … they're best left alone, that's the only way I know how to say it. It isn't a good idea to get too close, even as a joke."
"Oh, come on," he scoffed. "You're not telling me you actually believe in this occult silliness?"
"I don't have to believe to know these are serious matters," she said. "The legends may be a ridiculous hodgepodge, but there are real mysteries in this world. You shouldn't play with them unless you're ready for where they may take you."
He had simply stared at her, for the first time aware of the gulf between them. He had come to Wilkins College, like hundreds of others, attracted by the generous scholarships and cheap campus housing and liberal work-study opportunities being offered as part of the institution's drive for higher accreditation, which in turn was part of the larger goal of turning Sunnydale into a growth community. Loryn, however, had lived in this town all her life, with whatever that might mean … and now that he thought of it, Kresge Hall's "Fright Night" was made up almost exclusively of out-of-towners like himself, nearly all the local-born dorm dwellers seeming to have other priorities.
It was just something about the place … Sunnydale had more cemeteries than he had ever seen in any other city its size, and more churches; and also more businesses catering to New Age, mysticism, Tarot, astrology, psychic readings (the various ads by 'Tiphaine' were particularly cryptic and intriguing), and some flat-out magic shops. He had seen the sights, and idly marked it off to a local flavor as idiosyncratic as Bourbon Street or Times Square, and with no deeper meaning. The earnest gravity of Loryn's words had opened his eyes to the power of the currents that ran through this town, and to how she in turn had been conditioned to them.
The exchange had given them a lot to think about (and, in all honesty, the business with Merise hadn't helped any); they had moved cautiously in the weeks that followed, and then it was time to study for finals, and Loryn had been approved for a summer internship in Chicago … There had been no breakup, not even a tacit backing-away. They had merely gone where their individual paths took them after the semester ended, and never gotten around to reconnecting in the Fall.
Now she had come seeking him out, the two of them shoved together again by the same occult issues that had originally sent them drifting in separate directions.
In retrospect, it would seem that Loryn had been right all along.
And there was the answer: concentrate on the central problem, save the complications for later. "I guess our first step," he said slowly, piecing out the idea as he spoke, "is to get the best understanding we can of just what we're dealing with. This, this thing, didn't happen by itself, so something must have caused it. Are there any, uh … any marks on your throat?"
"I couldn't feel any." A spasm twitched across her face. "And of course I can't look in the mirror. But I don't think there could be any. I was alone in my dorm room, and no vampire could have gotten in."
"No?" Jack glanced at the wreckage of the chair. "It doesn't seem like he'd have much trouble … wait a minute!" He looked closely at her. "You mean, when you were at the door …?"
She nodded. "That's right. I couldn't enter until you actually said Come in." She avoided his eyes, but she moved her lips freely, no longer trying to hide her teeth. "It was one of the things you mentioned when you were telling me about the original 1972 movie, that Skorzny went into someone's home without being invited. Vampires aren't supposed to be able to do that." Her fists clenched, and she added flatly, "And it's true. We can't."
Privately Jack wondered. Her inability to enter had been plain, but how could they be sure how these arcane rules operated? A dorm room, for instance: would it actually qualify as a residence according to mystical standards? If it did, would that keep out someone who had been there — perhaps even lived there — before becoming a vampire himself? They were dealing with a mass of folklore that Loryn's presence proved to be based on fact, but the inner workings had yet to be established.
Regardless, there was nothing to be gained by going into all that just now. "I take your point," he said, "but I think I need to look for myself, if only to rule it out." He made a hesitant gesture toward her neck. "May I …?"
She closed her eyes and stood passively while he examined her, her skin cool beneath his fingers. He checked carefully over her throat, behind her ears, along the back of her neck from hairline to collar. Nowhere was there any kind of puncture wound.
Jack stood back, his flesh crawling from the touch of her; he had to suppress an urge to wipe his hands on his pants. "It looks like you were right, there are no marks anywhere." He shook his head. "I'll tell you the truth, I don't know what to make of it. Almost every way I ever heard, vampires were created by other vampires. Even the odd exceptions — evil suicide, pact with the Devil, that kind of thing — don't match up with what you've told me. Mm, do you have any weird neighbors or friends? People into the occult, demonology, Satanism?"
She sighed. "This is Sunnydale, Jack. There's just no telling. But as far as I know, all the other people on my floor are from out of town or even out of state; most of the local students commute. I can't offer any guarantees, but the odds are probably lower than if I was still living at home."
"Okay, then, have there been any recent changes in your life? New foods, folk medicines, changes in your routine? Encounters with animals, especially at night: bat, cat, crow, wolf or wolflike dog? Have you donated blood or received a blood transfusion? Been to any parties or gatherings where you might have been given some potion without your knowing? Acquired any kind of new jewelry or key caddy or little token that might actually be a talisman? Had any episodes of sleepwalking? Trance states (besides tonight, I mean)? Damn, Loryn, has anything unusual happened?"
She had been shaking her head, No, to each of his questions. "There's nothing new, Jack. I'm in my senior year, and we're almost to mid-terms, and I'm sticking to a schedule. I haven't even been home to visit my family in almost three weeks, I haven't made any new friends or started any new activities … What I did tonight is the first difference in my routine since the semester started, and I know there must be a connection, I go out of my body and it's undead when I come back to it, but I just can't figure how it could have happened."
"No, me either." He gestured toward the couch; she sat, and he took the armchair across from her. "Okay, so you were like this when you returned to your body. How did that feel?"
"It was hard," Loryn said tonelessly. "Like … like trying to run in chest-deep water. I didn't think I was going to make it, it was almost as bad as the barrier at your door. I absolutely had to claw my way back in, and it was … cold, like a knife going through me.
"When I was finally inside again I couldn't move, not for a long time. It wasn't weakness; I was just drained, no energy at all. Like a machine without power." Again her mouth twisted. "I was dead, of course. I just didn't know it yet."
"When did you, uh, realize?" Jack inquired.
She showed her teeth for a moment. "These are hard not to notice. I could … feel them. When I looked in the mirror and saw no reflection, it was just the final proof of what I already knew."
The edge in her voice made him uneasy, and he pushed past it. "Well, let's try and think it through. So, you were out of your body, long gone and away. It was just there, empty, with no inhabiting spirit, no essence — no soul, I guess you'd say — but it wasn't dead. So with your mind somewhere else, leaving an empty, unsouled but not-dead body, it might have formed a kind of spiritual vacuum …"
"I don't think it could work like that," Loryn said. "When I was reading up on the subject of astral projection, none of the descriptions had anything like this, not even those that were supposed to be first-hand accounts. Some of them mentioned temporary weakness or disorientation on returning to their bodies, but that's as far as it goes. With so many centuries of interest in both astral projection and vampirism, wouldn't someone have noticed a natural connection if one existed?"
Jack let out a long breath with a grimace of exasperation. "Probably. You're right, it's an idea that just doesn't stand up. And it's all I have right now, damn it. This stuff … I had an interest in it and read whatever I came across, but I wasn't really studying it. As soon as the Library opens, I'll have to start some genuine research."
It was clearly out of the question for him to return to bed, so they sat up and talked. Not about Loryn's condition, for they were helpless without further knowledge; and not about their previous relationship, for that subject had pitfalls of its own. Stories of Loryn's time in Chicago, of Jack's excursions across Europe during various duty leaves, of people they had known and lost touch with: Rory's week-long parties during the summer, Melody Kendall's surprise pregnancy and even more unexpected decision to face life as a single mother, Victor Oelsen's misadventures at Griffith Park Observatory. (Not Merise, however. Neither of them mentioned Merise.) Though it was a strained mockery of the ease they had once enjoyed together, it filled the moment and gradually relaxed them; but Jack continued to avoid her eyes, and Loryn spoke with a measured control that hinted at masked tension.
They were nearing the end of a rather forced discussion of some of the local issues (there were rumors of a mall being planned for Sunnydale, automatically opposed by small businesses and environmentalists; a not-too-popular proposal had been made for extensive additions to Lowell House, the augmented structure intended primarily for the students in the ROTC programs; Psi Theta fraternity was once again on probation; a representative for the Chumash tribe had filed an injunction demanding the return of cultural relics from the Anthropology department) when the alarm sounded from the clock radio in Jack's bedroom. They both came to their feet, Loryn with an instant, impossible quickness, and in some trick of lighting her eyes looked almost golden. "Got it," Jack said hurriedly, dashing in to slap the SNOOZE button, then stood a moment to try and calm his skittering pulse.
Loryn was seated again when he returned to the living room, but he could see the grinding effort it took her to relax. Something inside him ached suddenly, but he kept his voice carefully matter-of-fact. "Six o'clock," he told her. "The Library doesn't open till eight, but we can at least make a start on the day." He crossed to the main window and opened the blinds.
Incredibly, in some unthinking tunnel-vision focus on the immediate needs of the situation, they had both forgotten what sunrise would mean.
Loryn screamed as light flooded into the room, and fell back against the couch, writhing and clawing at the cushions while Jack watched in frozen horror. She threw her head back, champing her teeth together as she drew hissing, tearing breaths; and the exposed canines made Jack think, incongruously, not of a bat or a wolf but of a raccoon with its leg in a trap. Finally he yanked himself out of the paralysis that gripped him and pulled the blinds tightly shut.
Moaning, Loryn slid from the couch and lay shuddering on the floor. Jack bounded to her and knelt beside her, pleading, "Loryn, I'm sorry, I didn't know! I forgot, I wasn't … oh, God, I'm sorry!" Clumsy in his concern, he pulled her to a half-sitting position, studying her anxiously as she lay gasping in the cradle of his arms.
It was like watching something in time-lapse photography. Before his eyes the dreadful gauntness of her faded, her skin lost some of its terrible pallor, the hollows of her eyes filled in. Within moments she rested in his arms, breathing shallowly: still weak, still thin and pale, but miraculously, undeniably, human.
~ – ~ – ~
He made breakfast for the two of them, keeping up a constant flow of chatter while he scrambled some eggs and pan-toasted a few slices of bread. She sat on the couch, barely responding, still dazed with shock and relief. "I can't believe it," she murmured, over and over. "I can't believe it." Jack was pouring juice for them when she stopped suddenly and went to the window. She carefully opened a tiny crack in the blinds, sunlight brushing her face … then opened them wide, letting the dawn wash in on her, luxuriating in it. For nearly a minute she stood there, ecstasy mirrored on her face, then she leaned against the wall and began to cry.
Jack turned off the range and went to her, then found he didn't know what to say, so he simply stood next to her. She turned blindly to him, and his arms went around her automatically as she buried her face in his shoulder, tears soaking through the t-shirt fabric.
This was … embarrassing. He didn't want to push her away, but had no idea what it was supposed to mean or how he should respond. Also, he was still worried by her color; now that the awful dark interlude was over, it might be a good idea to take her to a doctor. "Come on," he said at last. "I have our breakfast ready."
She stepped back, scrubbing at her eyes with one hand. "You go ahead," she told him. "I don't feel much like eating right now."
"I think you should," he replied, moving back to the kitchen bar. "You really don't look too hot, and … well, as host I'm responsible for you." He smiled at her. "Besides, you've heard the conventional wisdom, right? — breakfast, most important meal of the day, all that stuff?"
"Okay, you win." She went to the table and sat down. "I won't argue with you. I owe you too much for that."
"Glad I could help," he said, coming to the table with two plates. "Well, except for the part where I didn't really do anything."
"You kept me from losing my mind." She gave him a tiny smile of her own, her eyes holding warmth and something that might have been sadness; but the light went out of them as he set her plate in front of her. "Jack," she said, "I think I'd rather skip this. I suppose it's just nervous reaction, but that really looks unappetizing."
"The worse you feel," he told her firmly, seating himself across from her, "the more you need it. Go on, dig in." He started on his scrambled eggs, mind already beginning to look ahead to the how (or whether) of her departure.
Loryn picked up a slice of toast and slowly spread jam over it. She raised it to her mouth, hesitated, then forced herself to take a bite. She chewed with painful thoroughness, and managed to swallow after a small struggle. Jack, finishing his eggs, watched her take another bite. This time she chewed for several minutes, and almost gagged before she succeeded in getting it down. He paused at his own meal, concern growing as he watched her difficulty. Seeing his attention, Loryn put down the toast, her movements jerky. She started on her eggs, and managed half a dozen bites before choking on a mouthful. She washed it down with a quick swallow of orange juice, but when she went to start in again, her hand shook so badly that the fork clattered from her grasp.
"Never mind," Jack said without inflection. Loryn jerked her head up to look at him, face drawn with fear, and he went on quietly, "You don't seem to have trouble with liquids, so I'll fix you some soup. You'll eat it, all of it. Then we'll go to the Library together. We have a lot to do."
The scant returned color had once again drained from her face. "What do you mean?" she whispered.
"It isn't over yet," he told her, keeping his voice even. He walked around the table and, taking her hand, led her unresisting across the room. "We have a reprieve, at least a day, but it isn't over. Not by a long shot."
They stopped before the half-length mirror, and he reached over to draw her hair back from the left side of her face. "Look," he said unnecessarily.
On the side of her neck, slanting down from the line of her jaw, were two open puncture wounds.