Buffy shot a speculative glance at XandePierre, who had apparently gotten over his eighteenth-century limitations long enough to embrace computer solitaire. As she watched, he moved the king of hearts to the first space and gloated in French under his breath. His eyes were maniacal. The tip of his tongue was clenched between his teeth and protruding slightly from his mouth. Andrew and Warren were watching him, wide-eyed, from their positions against the far wall.
“How long has he been doing that?”
Willow laughed. “Ever since lunch. If he gets fidgety, we’re gonna show him how to play Minesweeper.”
“Good thinking,” Buffy said. “Where’s Dawn?”
“She took the phone up to her room. I figure we’ll be done and over with this whole thing before she and Janice decide what they’re wearing tomorrow.”
“Did she get the part? Did she say?”
“She doesn’t know yet.”
“Oh.” Buffy nodded. “Okay. So. New research? Anything leap out at you from the shelves?”
“Not much,” Tara said, looking guilty. She and Willow were cozied up together on the couch. Buffy figured that research hadn’t been their first priority this afternoon. Not that she was anyone to talk. “I mean, we did find this one thing.” She glanced meaningfully at Willow.
“Web site,” Willow chimed in. “Written by a guy who claims to be descended from an Incan high priest. I forget his name. Something Ponce de Leon Something.” She rolled her head around on her neck. “Anyway, this is the deal. He’s a member of a group called the Solar Brotherhood. Sun worshippers. They claim that their society was begun by … don’t laugh … giant androgynous serpents from Venus, called the Kumaras.”
Buffy laughed. “You’re kidding. Right?”
“No,” Willow said earnestly. “I’m dead serious. Really. You should see this site. Intense.”
“Go on. I’m not buying it, but go on.”
“Okay. So supposedly, these Venusian serpent guys, the Kumaras, were in control of all these mystical power objects, and they came to earth and passed some of them on to the Inca guys, the Solar Brotherhood, to use in their sacred sun-worship rituals.”
“Missionary snakes,” Anya said helpfully from her chair in the corner. Buffy jumped. She hadn’t seen her sitting there.
Willow was on a roll. “So, um, these missionary Venusians. Known to the Incas as the Queztlcoatls. They passed on all this stuff, and about three hundred years ago some of it went missing. Stolen. There’s this one thing in particular that still has the Solar Brotherhood all steamed. They had a drawing of it on their web site.” She flipped through some computer printouts. “Yeah. Right here. It’s called the Sac of Amaru Muru, and …”
“Hold it.” Buffy rubbed her eyes. “Not that the mumbo-jumbo isn’t fascinating, Will, but can we locate a point? We’re kinda short on time.”
“Oh. Yeah. Sure. Sorry.” Willow passed her the papers. “The thing is, we saw this drawing, and kind of flipped out.”
Buffy stared at it. Little canvas sack. Dirty taupe-gray, if the color resolution on Willow’s printer could be believed. Funny little rune scrawled on one side, in what looked like black crayon. “Yeah, it’s thrilling, all right.”
“We’ve got it in the shop,” Anya said. “It came in about six months ago. By mistake. It was supposed to be a shipment of Mayan salt crystals.” Her lips tightened in disapproval. “We still haven’t gotten those. And they’re very trendy. Anyway,” she said more brightly, “since Giles and I didn’t know what it was, we stored it upstairs in the Adept section.”
“Okay.” Buffy took another look. “What does it do?”
“You won’t believe it,” Tara said, leaning forward. “We just tested it out. It’s amazing.” She took a deep breath. “It’s a spirit-matter bag,” she said. “I never thought I’d actually see one. Makes the intangible tangible.”
Buffy frowned. “Color me thrilled.”
“Buff.” Willow sounded amused. “You can’t believe this thing. It turns information into something you can touch. Like, information in your head.”
“I still don’t get it.”
“Too many orgasms lately,” Anya muttered. “That Spike. I’ll bet he’s got a ten-inch penis and screws with his eyes open.” She ignored the witches’ wide eyes and spun around to face Buffy. “You can think of a number,” she said fiercely. “Any number. One to infinity. You can think of a name, of a place, of a Swiss bank account, of a memory. Something you’ve never told anyone. Something you’ve never thought before. And if someone holding the bag touches you, that thought gets sucked right out of your head and into the bag. Open the bag, and it’s written down for the world to see.”
She paused. “Of course, it’s in hieroglyphics. Egypt led the world in written communication, back when this thing was made. But we can get around that. The point is. It’s a secret-stealer.”
“Oh.” Buffy shook her head, slightly dazed. “You guys had better keep talking. You’ve been thinking more than I have this afternoon.”
“Obviously,” Anya murmured. Willow shot her a dirty look.
“This isn’t perfect, Buffy, but it’s what we’ve come up with,” she said. “Last we heard, you weren’t sure you had a soul, right?”
Buffy frowned. “Yeah. Jury’s still out on that one, though.”
“Okay. Well, what we were thinking is this. Maybe this phantom tollbooth thing doesn’t count bodies, but souls. Maybe, if it doesn’t recognize you as a … well, as a human being,” – she winced – “we can open the portal and sneak Jonathan out of there with no one the wiser.”
“Or maybe not.”
“Well, yeah. That’s the thing. It might not work. It might be a body thing. In which case …”
“Oh.” Buffy’s eyes grew wide. “Oh. I get it now. You’re thinking that if we can’t take him out, we can at least suck his brain for the spell info, and carry it out in the bag.”
“Wow.” She considered her friend narrowly. “Damn, Willow. That’s heavy.”
Tara bit her lip. “I know it’s risky,” she said. “But it’s all we can think of.”
Buffy nodded. “Fair enough,” she said. “More than we had before.”
The door banged open, and Spike stalked in, tossing his smoldering blanket into the kitchen.
“Slayer. Scoobies.” He looked dangerous and unpredictable, with his firmly-in-place scowl and stray wisps of smoke rising from his clothing. Buffy felt her internal suspension begin to defibrillate. “You’ve got company.”
Christ. She’d been so wrapped up in his particular brand of Platinum Sex that she hadn’t noticed the girl he was dragging with him by the back of her shirt. He gave her a little shove, and she collapsed at the edge of the living-room carpet.
“Willow,” she croaked. “God, Willow, you’ve got to help me.”
Buffy wasn’t a big Alice in Wonderland fan – she saw enough of the surreal every day; she didn’t need to go looking for it in her fiction. But she possessed a deep understanding of that phrase, “curiouser and curiouser.”
Today, for instance. Classic example. Why couldn’t it have begun and ended with the oral sex?
Things to ask the Powers that Be, if she was ever given the chance. She allowed herself one last sidelong glance at the way William the Bloody filled his 401s, and pulled herself reluctantly back to reality.
Amy, according to Spike, had been discovered lurking in the hydrangeas by the side of the house. Since her ignoble entrance, she had been plied with herbal tea and installed in one of the recliners, and was trembling so violently that the cup rattled in its saucer. Whether it was withdrawal or just a Spike-induced scare, Buffy couldn’t say. Regardless, she had the attention of the room. Every head was turned her way, with the exception of XandePierre.
If Microsoft had come out with desktop pinball in 1775, there’d never have been a Revolution.
“He shut me off,” Amy was quavering. “He said if I didn’t bring you with me, I couldn’t come back.”
Willow looked sympathetic, but guarded. “That’s why you were hanging around outside? To try to convince me to go back?”
“Yes. No.” Amy looked rattled. “Partly. But there’s the other thing, too.”
“What other thing?” Willow might be soft-hearted, but Buffy intended to be a hard-ass where Ms. Madison was concerned. Her voice came out louder than she’d intended, and Amy flinched.
“The Doorkeeper,” she said. “It’s chasing me. Mine, I mean, not Willow’s.” Her lip trembled. “For good this time, Willow. He won’t keep it away.”
Amy’s face crumpled. “He says I’m no use to him anymore,” she said, and despite herself Buffy felt a tug of sympathy. Beneath the wrecked shell, the twitching and the pasty skin and the paranoia, she still caught glimpses of the Amy she’d known and liked. Plucky. Wry. Lousy cheerleader, and proud of it.
God, she thought. What a mess this is.
“He says there’s nothing left for him,” Amy was sobbing. “That the Doorkeeper’s the only one who’ll ever want me.” Willow frowned.
“I wonder why that is?”
“Oh, I can tell you that,” Anya said brightly. “It’s the kuumfas.”
Four heads turned toward her in one motion. “You … know … about kuumfas?” Tara asked, puzzled.
“The question is, exactly WHAT do you know about kuumfas?”
Anya looked at Buffy, surprised.
“The stuff inside her,” she said, gesturing to Amy. “The purple stuff. You know.” Amy blanched. Buffy took a step closer to Anya.
“We know about the purple stuff,” she said. “But why does the demon want it?”
Anya gave her an aren’t-you-dim-today toss of the head. “Demon aphrodisiac,” she said. “Very powerful. Only one source.”
“W-wait,” Tara said urgently. “Giles never said anything about kuumfas being an aphrodisiac!”
Anya looked contemptuous. “Of course he didn’t,” she said. “How would he know?” She took in the roomful of dropped jaws and raised her eyebrows. “Well, honestly,” she said. “Why do you think those Doorkeeper positions are so prestigious? For the free parking?”
“Oh, God,” Amy moaned. Anya frowned at her.
“Cheer up,” she said. “It’s not like he wants to EAT you, after all. He’s in love.”
“Um, guys?” Tara scanned the room worriedly. “Maybe this isn’t the best time, but I think it’s kind of now or never. The sun’s been down for half an hour.”
Now or never, Buffy thought. The story of my life. She forced herself to smile.
“Okay,” she said. “Just tell me what to do.”
Continued in Chapter Eleven