CHAPTER 19: STILL REMAINS
Detective Lieutenant John Devine stepped into the County Coroner's office with a presence of authority and an air of impatience.
"Murphy," he greeted the pathologist with a curt nod. "What do you have for me?"
"In a hurry, John?" the tall, frail-looking man asked with a knowing smile.
Murphy nodded and didn't press; wasn't any of his business anyway. The only time he needed to care was when they brought him new bodies, and even then it wasn't strictly necessary. After 30 odd years of service he was pretty indifferent to most of what he saw. Most.
He pushed up his glasses, rubbed the bony bridge of his nose and squinted. "You remember that Jane Doe the boys fished out of the dumpster two nights ago?"
John nodded. That one had been worse than usual. Everyone knew there was no shortage of mysterious deaths in this town; bodies drained of blood, mauled as if by wild animals, even disappearing bodies, and that included natives as well as a more than average share of Jane and John Doe's. At first glance, one might think it was something in the water of this town, maybe in the air, perhaps even some crossed earth-energy lines, if you went for that new-age stuff, but after a while of looking at it, you realized that Sunnydale had almost no instances of crime at all, except for violent and homicidal. There were few cities of comparable size in the country that had the kind of death rate that Sunnydale did, and in the ones that did, every other type of crime imaginable also ranked fairly high on the percentage scale.
He watched as Murphy turned toward the examining table and drew back the sheet, revealing a Jane Doe who was slightly less horrific than the last time John had seen her. He shook his head with a grim smile, remembering how three years ago, the knowledge of the Sunnydale death rate had staggered him, left him stupefied. Now it took a serial-type killing like this one to get his attention and snag his memory.
"So what's the story?" he asked, pulling out his notebook.
"Well," Murphy said, settling into his work with practiced ease. "The decapitation you were already aware of, of course." He gestured to the woman's neck, where her head had been reattached facing the correct direction, held by tiny stitches John could hardly see. "But cause of death points to our usual M.O.; victims body was emptied of blood, which seems to have escaped from twin punctures to the left jugular, prior to decapitation."
John felt relief rush through him as Murphy spoke—as much relief as one could have after a death like this, anyway. He'd been worried they had a serial killer on their hands. Not that the alternative was much more comforting, but at least it was familiar territory.
"Mouth was sutured shut before the head was sewn back to the body, which means the victim was already dead. Good thing, too, considering that whoever did this used quarter inch wire to do it. The wire went through the gum line on both top and bottom, meaning they had to put their hand inside the head to complete the stitches." He gave John a meaningful look, then continued. "I believe that's also when they pulled out all of her teeth and removed her vital organs."
"Dear God," he whispered, his earlier relief forgotten.
"Yeah. And that's not even the worst of it. I found skin under her nails—"
"You mean we have a suspect?" That was exciting, and far more than he'd expected.
"It's her own skin John, and it was torn off post-mortem."
John stared at him, stunned.
"So, what do you think?" he asked wryly. "Did she wake up dead and try to claw out the stitches in her neck and mouth? Because those are the only places she's missing skin, and the tears in her skin and in her gums were caused by post-mortem stress on the stitches."
"You don't really think—"
"I don't know, John," Murphy said, drawing the sheet back up over the dead woman. "I don't know what I think. I've seen a lot of strange things, working here; bodies that disappear, bodies that turn to dust, people I swear I cut open a few weeks ago walking around just fine and dandy in Sunnydale downtown. You see enough of that, do enough autopsies on bodies drained of blood through twin punctures in the jugular or carotid, you start to wonder. You start to have trouble sleeping at night." He ran a hand over his jaw and looked down at the sheeted body.
"Could be the sick bastard that killed her used her own hands to claw her stitches after she was dead. Could be he pulled on her jaw and stretched the stitches, too. That's what I'll be putting in my official report…"
John nodded in agreement.
"…but that's not what I'll be seeing in my dreams tonight."
* * * * * * * * * * *
Faith drifted on the edge of consciousness, unaware of her surroundings or her situation. All around her there was nothing but peace; blessed utter darkness; total emptiness. On some completely incoherent level, she appreciated it, even welcomed it. If this was death, then—
At the edge of her awareness, something fluttered.
No… not fluttered. It crawled. Slinking and slouching and just beyond the reach of her vision and comprehension, something lurked, something preyed. It waited. It toyed.
White light filled the eyes inside her mind, the glare forcing her to close them. Beyond the thin cover of her eyelids, the light continued to grow until she thought it would blind her anyway…and then, without warning, it relented, receding.
She opened her eyes to the plains of the desert, hot sand whispering around her bare feet, burning beneath the skin soles in a way that was not altogether unpleasant. Shielding her eyes against the brightness with one hand, she squinted into the distance over what seemed like miles; miles of flat, empty, open space with nothing in between—
Oh, but there was something.
It prowled, sinister and relentless in its tracking of her, and for a moment, she was filled with such terror for her unseen adversary that she nearly broke and ran.
Instead, she opened her mouth and the words, "I know you," came out in a whispering voice she barely recognized. As soon as she said it, she knew it was true; she did know. And on the heels of that revelation swiftly came the equally true realization that she didn't know this thing at all.
The black skinned woman emerged from the dry brush, crouching, moving on hands and feet like a wild animal. Skin like coal, her face painted with a white skull, dreadlocks and rags that would have made an L.A. bum run screaming, she paced in a slow, insistent circle around Faith, dark lips drawn back from large, yellowing teeth.
"No." The word was uttered from depths of darkness somewhere in the well of the creature's soul, and Faith heard more with her mind than her ears. "You are like me. You are alone."
"I am legion," Faith contradicted without knowing why. "A dichotomy." The words seemed to come from somewhere outside of her, though she spoke them.
The dark woman shook her matted head and lurched forward a step. "You do not know what you are," she countered without moving her lips. "Where you come from."
"She'll try to kill you, you know," came a soft, feminine voice from very close by.
Faith turned her head and saw Buffy, sitting on a large rock that hadn't been there a moment before, knees pulled up to her chest and arms wrapped around them, her face solemn and somehow girlish as she looked at Faith.
"Osmosis. It's what we do," Buffy said and shrugged.
"Slayers," Buffy answered seriously, setting her cheek on her knees and tilting her head at Faith. "She was the first."
Faith turned her eyes back to the black woman. "The First Slayer."
The First Slayer ran a dark purple tongue over her teeth and growled.
"You're running out of time," Buffy interjected quietly, and Faith looked back at the petite blond. She stood atop the rock now, her hair free, legs and feet as bare as Faith's, clothed in a short white dress. "You need to figure it out."
"Figure out what?"
"Your gift," Buffy replied, frowning, as if Faith should have known the answer. "Death was my gift." She eyed Faith curiously. "I wonder what yours will be."
Faith held out her hand, palm up, and looked down. "This," she said proudly.
"You can't use that," Buffy said, frowning. "It's not yours to give."
Faith closed her palm and then opened it, and the air above her hand began to ripple like a heat wave, threads of light seeming drawn to the nexus above the loom of her fingers, twining together in a ball of mirrored silver and molten gold, forming a small, perfect core.
The First Slayer snarled and Buffy stepped menacingly toward her. "I said you can't. do. that."
"It's done," she said, and even as they watched, the small core flashed once and assumed its final shape—an acorn grown deep brown and full. "Perfect," she said triumphantly reaching out to touch it as it stilled, hovering in the air above her hand. "I knew I could—"
The acorn burst like a soap bubble as her fingertips touched it, its rotten insides exploding in a spray of black that hissed and boiled and burned like a living thing.
Faith recoiled and Buffy shook her head bitterly. There were black smears all over her face, dripping like blood around her hazel eyes. "There. You see? You destroy everything you touch."
"The outside is easy," came the guttural voice of the First Slayer, and again her mouth did not move. "The inside is much harder to change."
"Perfect on the outside, but rotten to the core. Just like you, Faith," Buffy said with a hostile tilt of her head.
"You cannot create life. That is not your gift," the First Slayer said, circling Faith slowly in the sand. Her face swayed and twisted in the strange silence that followed her words.
"Time's up," Buffy said, almost cordially, and the First Slayer seemed to smile in anticipation. "So what's it going to be?"
Faith opened her mouth—
And gasped in pain as fire coursed through her guts, sending sparking pain like lightning through her ribs. The world swam, muddied and multi-colored and just beyond her grasp, blurred through the cover of her lashes and shielded by her eyelids. Buffy and the First Slayer slipped away like grains of sand through her fingers, like the desert itself, and as they spun away into the well of her subconscious, she could hear their voices echoing off the odd curves of the corridors of her mind.
As she brushed the plane of consciousness, one word rang in her head and caught there, twisting meaningfully as she broke the surface of her mind and gasped for air; one second of skewed awareness—
"Daeonira?" She would have sounded as confused as she felt if she could have done more than mumble.
Then she slipped back beneath the waves of confusion, letting the darkness of sweet oblivion claim her again.
And so we end Book One, Ashes to Ashes, with more questions than answers.
Book Two, Dust to Dust, begins in mid-January. I've already written Chapter 1 and half of 2 and expect to be up to 3 or 4 by the time I publish here. I ask that you all please be patient as things progress; the plot is only going to become more complex from here, but I promise that eventually, all questions will be addressed. I leave no loose ends.
I've had some people ask why I decided to do this story in book form… well, mostly, it's because the focus is going to shift so much that it's going to need a new summary. Not to mention that it's going to run for at least another 20 chapters, if not 30, and I don't want the story to seem quite so daunting to any new readers. It's unbelievable to me that I've written nearly 150 pages (19 Chapters) since August of this year! As for the change in focus, don't worry. It is still very much going to be Faith's story, but her supporting cast is about to expand.
Very special thanks need to go to my beta-reader, Diesel77! She has been a huge help throughout writing this. To my regular readers, the few of you that are out there, thanks so much for reading and for your kind words of encouragement! Both are always appreciated more than you know.
Happy Holidays, and I'll see you in January!