Title: Desert Wonderland
Timeline: a few years post-Chosen, not comics compliant
Warnings: typical show violence
Summary: An encounter with a creature terrorizing the inhabitants of Palm Springs sends Buffy, Spike, Dawn and Xander on an adventure in the desert. (AKA: Buffy licks the good toad, with my apologies to Lewis Carroll for the title.)
"Buffy, watch out!"
Xander's warning came just a moment too late. Buffy caught a hint of movement out of the corner of her eye, but before she could react a heavy blow to her stomach sent her flying. She landed hard, and the warm sand slid under her palms as she pushed herself unsteadily to her feet.
Luckily for both her skin and the new shirt she'd just spent way too much money on, she'd missed the nearby cactus. Unluckily, she'd managed to lose track of her knife while being thrown.
"Where is it?" she called, frantically searching for any sign of the creature. In front of her, the mountains rose into the cool evening air, stained red from the sun setting behind her back. The breeze made her shiver even as the sand radiated the last of the day's heat into the darkening sky. Already a few stars were visible above the shoulders of the mountains.
Xander and Dawn skidded to a stop a dozen feet away and warily scanned the surroundings. "Did it disappear again?" Xander panted.
Buffy shook her head, watching the nearby dry shrubs for any signs of sudden movement. "I guess so," she said. "Did you guys get a good look at it?"
"It was just for a second," Dawn said. She was carrying the short sword Buffy had insisted that she bring, and Buffy was proud to see that she held it poised and ready. "It had this...I don't know...thing."
"Yeah, sticking out of that other thing," Xander added. "You know, the thing between the slimy parts. The tentacles. Or maybe those were horns."
"Remind me to never hire the two of you as sketch artists," Buffy said sourly.
"Well, it definitely didn't look like Mrs. Epstein, I can tell you that," Dawn said.
Six hours ago, they had followed the trail of a monster that appeared to have a particular taste for the citizens of Palm Springs to a tidy little mid-century modern house occupied by one Mrs. Jean Epstein, aged eighty-two. She'd answered the door in a neat dressing robe, smiling politely at them, but as Buffy had been trying to think of a way to say, "We think a monster that eats people is living in your house. Do you mind letting us in to check?" the smile had turned to a snarl with entirely too many teeth on show.
And then Mrs. Epstein had shifted into...something that was definitely not a five-foot lady with white hair and comfy house slippers. Buffy had caught a glimpse of something with far too many limbs for one creature before it vanished from view, reappearing at the end of the driveway and letting out a roar.
They had piled into the van with the special necro-tempered glass and given chase as the creature alternately vanished and reappeared, following it an hour outside town into the desert.
In retrospect, Buffy acknowledged that it was possible that they were being led to a nicely remote location rather that actually giving chase.
"Being prey sucks," she muttered, looking around for her knife or something she could use as a weapon. No way was she taking Dawn's or Xander's.
"The sun's almost down," Dawn said, "so we'll get some backup soon. Unless you think we should wait and regroup tomorrow? Maybe it will double back to the house and we can catch it there."
Buffy shook her head, trying to watch the sand for signs of displacement. "Let's wait a bit more and see if it reappears. If it's still hungry, I don't want it to try chowing down on anything but us."
"I wouldn't mind skipping the 'us' part of that equation either," Xander said. "I mean, if it's entirely up to me."
"You guys stay close together," Buffy instructed, looking back toward the west. The last rays of the sun were just dipping below the hills behind her, which meant Spike would be able to join her at any moment with an extra weapon and maybe do his smelling thing to track this creature. Ooh, and if they killed it quickly without ruining her outfit, they might have time to go to this cute restaurant they'd passed on the road out of town. Maybe, if convinced, she could even put up with a cheap bar for Spike's sake. He hated being stuck in the car all day.
The roar was too loud, too close, and Buffy swung back around to see the sand in front of her shifting as though an invisible weight was pressing down on it. The whatever-it-was was still invisible, so she aimed a kick for the where she thought the mid-section might be and made contact with something firm that grunted and roared again.
"Hey, I think you've found it!" Xander called.
Buffy couldn't even spare an eye-roll before she was under attack. The creature flashed into and out of sight almost too quickly for her to get her bearings to mount a proper attack, and...ewww, they were right. Tentacles. Two of the limbs coiled around each of her wrists, and she used the leverage to land another few kicks. The creature hissed in annoyance and pulled her closer, dropping into invisibility again, which meant she couldn't see the teeth that punctured her shoulder, tearing into the muscle and making her scream.
Great. This shirt was definitely ruined.
"Buffy!" she heard from two directions at once. She saw Dawn sprinting toward her, sword held aloft and Xander close behind, and turned her head to see Spike running from the direction of the road where they'd parked the van. Which meant the sun was finally down and it was time to make this thing pay for leading her on a wild goose chase and ruining her clothes. Except that the image of Spike turned into two, and then four Spikes, the landscape swimming around him. The tentacles released her and the ground wobbled beneath her as if she was on a boat in an ocean of sand. She dropped to the ground and shut her eyes against the sight of the first stars of the night cartwheeling above her.
It felt as if only a heartbeat had passed between the time she shut her eyes and opened them again, but during that time night had fully fallen, and the sand was cold beneath her back.
"Buffy?" she heard in her ear. "Open your eyes for me again, love."
"Ow," she muttered, blinking her eyes open again. The stars stayed more or less in place this time, which was a relief, and she took stock of her injuries. Bruised, check. Broken bones, nope. Bleeding...she reached up and prodded at her shoulder, wincing at the stickiness. It hurt like hell, but the bleeding appeared to have stopped. "One more scar for the collection," she muttered.
"Better than the alternative, right?"
"Did you see where it went, Spike?" she asked, pushing herself gingerly to a seated position, and turning to see...
...a squat little animal that looked like a lizard had mated with a Brachen demon. Spikes protruded from its head and back, sweeping backward gracefully toward the tail, and short legs held its wide body close to the ground. The lizard blinked at her, and she could have sworn it was raising a non-existent eyebrow.
"What?" it asked.
"Spike, are you a horny toad?" Not entirely a weird question, given the way her day was going.
She couldn't quite figure out how it was making that expression, but the lizard was definitely leering at her now. "For you, baby? Always," it said. "But perhaps now is not quite the time. How are you feeling?"
"I feel fine," she said honestly. The soreness was starting to fade as her accelerated healing kicked in, and even the pain in her shoulder had lessened. "But what happened to you? Did the creature do something to you?" She looked down at herself, but...nope, four entirely human limbs wearing the same clothes she'd started the day in.
"Do what, exactly?" Xander asked from behind her, and she turned her head to see a tiny animal perched on a rock, sniffing delicately at the night air. It looked almost like a mouse, except for the elongated snout, and its tail twitched as it curled around its feet. Incongruously, and yet somehow completely expectedly, it was wearing an eyepatch.
"Awww, you're a shrew!" Buffy said in her, "you're a kitty!" voice. Because...really, as rodents went it was sort of adorable.
The shrew's nose twitched in offense. "Well, that's what I get for trying to help," it said.
"Wait a minute," the lizard said. "Buffy, are you saying he's...actually a shrew?"
"What's a shrew?" the shrew asked, scratching behind its ear with a hind foot.
"Yes!" Buffy said. "After Mrs. Epstein attacked me, she must have done something to you. Xander, you're a shrew. And Spike, you're a...lizard of some kind? Or maybe a frog. I don't know, but you're kind of pointy."
"Well, in the case of this one here, I can't say that being a shrew wouldn't be a definite improvement..." Spike said.
"Hey!" Xander interjected.
"...but for better or for worse, he's the intellectual marvel we've all come to know and loathe."
"I told you two to play nice," Buffy said, absently, scanning the nearby scrub and sand for any sign of Slayer-biting monsters. "Wait, you mean...you look like yourselves?"
The shrew and lizard looked at each other. "Uh, yeah?" Xander said. "Buffy, you're the one that got bitten by that thing. Obviously you're the one that's been affected here."
"Huh," Buffy said, taking stock again. Come to think of it, the stars overhead seemed just a little too bright, as if someone had added a few extra batteries to the night sky. And now that she was paying attention, she could almost hear them...humming. "Yeah, okay," she said, because wow, cool, and somehow the idea that this all could possibly be concerning was very far away.
A large wren alighted on the cactus in front of her, fluffing its wings before heaving a sigh of disgust.
"Stupid phone," it said. "I know Willow promised this would work, but I've got, like, zero bars. I barely got a signal from the van, but we got cut off halfway through. She's going to try to do something from her end to boost the signal, but she said it might be monster-related so there may be magic involved. Buffy! You're awake! How are you feeling?"
"Dawn? You're so cute! Look at your little wings!"
The wren cocked its head too the side and fixed Buffy with an unblinking beady eye. "Is this a head injury thing? Do we need to take her to a hospital? Buffy, who's the President?"
"She got bit by that thing," Xander said, waving a little paw. "You're apparently a bird, Spike's kind of a lizard, and I'm a shrew, whatever that is. Just go with it."
"Whatever," Dawn said, hopping neatly down to a lower branch. "I guess it's not the weirdest thing we've seen."
"I think it's kind of cool," Buffy said in agreement. "Also, I can hear the stars singing."
Dead silence greeted her totally rational pronouncement, which was not even remotely fair.
"I'll take this," Spike said heavily. "Not the first time I've been in a relationship with the sanity-challenged. Dawn, get Willow back on the phone as soon as possible. Let's see if we can find some answers about what exactly we're dealing with. Shrew-boy, you do...whatever it is you do."
"And I'm going monster-hunting," Buffy said. "If one of you happen to have an extra knife handy, I wouldn't mind. God, I feel like I'm in a Disney movie. If one of you bursts into song, all bets are off."
A knife - thankfully still in its sheath - clattered at her feet, and she recognized the tear in the leather from when Spike had helped her take down a nest of vampires outside Little Rock a few months ago.
"Thanks, honey. Although I'm not sure how your lizard self is actually carrying around a stash of weapons."
"I'm not actually a lizard, you know," Spike said in exasperation, and that was definitely a lizardy eye-roll. "Never mind. What's the plan, love?"
Buffy looked out at the night-clad desert and did her best to ignore the humming of the stars above. The cool breeze whistled through the tough leaves and needles of the plants that grew nearby, and she could hear the chirp of insects as an accompanying music. Everything looked stronger, sharper, as if the bedrock itself had sprouted into life in the shadow of the nearby mountains.
It was strangely beautiful. Buffy had never been a big fan of the desert - sand was at its best when found at a beach, thank you very much - but this was arresting. As barren as the landscape seemed, it was anything but. Somehow, she could somehow sense the pulse of every living thing around her. And the biggest pulse of all...
"...bingo," she breathed, turning to face north. Distances were deceiving in the dark with so few landmarks, but it couldn't have been more than a couple of miles away. "Do you see it?"
"I don't see anything," Xander said after a minute. "This thing has a tendency to sort of be invisible, remember?"
"No, wait," Spike said. The lizard crawled to the top of a nearby rock and peered out at the night. "I can smell something, barely. Good thing we're downwind."
Buffy looked around at her motley collection of animals. "Well, I'm going to check it out. If you want to wait, the car is that way. If you want to come with me...weapons out, and stay behind me."
In the end, the shrew and the wren took up position behind her, and the horned lizard planted itself next to her as she marched forward. She looked at it fondly. "I should have known you wouldn't listen to me."
"You know me," the lizard said. "I never was much good at following orders."
The sand slid under her feet, making walking difficult, and with every step Buffy was regretting the cute sandals she'd decided on instead of her sturdy boots. She could hear the wings of the wren fluttering close behind, and then, suddenly, a strange electronic chirp.
"It's Willow," Dawn said after a minute. "The signal's finally clearing up a bit - at least enough for text messages. And...she's not sure. I checked out a few of the links she sent me, but there's not a whole lot there. Some demons that prefer desert climates, but nothing that really fits what we're seeing - or not seeing, as the case may be. But it might not be a demon at all. There are some pretty freaky things in good old Mother Nature that have hallucinogenic properties."
"Well, whatever it is, it's coming this way," Buffy said grimly. It was no longer just a pulse she could feel behind her breastbone. She could see it with her eyes, moving fast and with that same sense of having entirely too many limbs. "I can see it. Dawn and Xander, fall back. Spike, game face on."
"You heard the lady," Spike said, and when she glanced over the horned lizard was somehow even more pointy and horny than before, which was both fearsome and strangely adorable. It took up position on top of a nearby rock, ready to leap.
The creature that came around the corner of the rock was familiar from the spare glimpses she had gotten of it earlier, but it was also some how entirely new, as if she was seeing it through a pair of glasses that had corrected a nearsightedness she'd never knew she had. In a way, it was closer to a plant than an animal. Her newly enhanced senses saw multiple limbs that looked less like tentacles and more like thick vines, a cross between the flexibility of a fern and the rubbery leaves of an aloe. It had a mouth - mouths, rather, with some pretty impressive teeth, housed in the mess of tentacle vines - but no eyes or head that she could distinguish. It was hideous, like something out of a fever dream, but at the same time it entirely belonged to its surroundings. Buffy knew with a sudden flash of certainty that this was its home.
Her sight wavered briefly, and she saw a vision of the tentacle limbs embedded in the ground, stretching away for miles in every direction. They were bringing life to the void - directing water to the wasteland, causing the cacti to flower, raising up all of the scurrying little creatures that lived here. It itself didn't need to feed often - maybe once every few hundred years - but when it ate, it feasted.
The thought of cutting down the source of all that life brought a pang to Buffy's heart, but the price was not one that could be paid. Not as long as she was a Slayer.
"I'm sorry," she said firmly to the writhing mass of limbs. "I see you, and I understand. But I can't let you go on eating people."
She didn't know if the creature understood her, but she dodged beneath a waving vine and struck out with her knife at the central mass of the body. She felt limbs coil around, tightening unbearably before being ripped free, and she knew that Spike was at her back as always. She struck again and again, not even sure if this creature had any vital organs to hit, until with a massive cry it shuddered and went limp.
The vines turned liquidy and sank into the dry earth - one last gift from the desert's protector - and the world changed. As Buffy watched, the landscape softened and became less alien, and the stars dimmed and sunk into silence. She felt a pang of loss, but only for a moment as she turned and saw Spike standing beside her, his pale face and hair a shock of white in the darkness.
"Spike!" she said, catching him in a hug. Xander and Dawn, back in their usual shapes as well, stood a few feet away. She caught Dawn's fond eye-roll and wave as she dragged Xander back toward the waiting van to give her and Spike a moment.
"Well, hello there," he purred in her ear. "Miss me?"
"I don't know," she said. "The horny lizard did have its charms." But she couldn't keep the grin off her face, and her hands snuck around to slip inside the back pocket of his jeans and give a little squeeze. Just because she could, and because it made him growl in a way that turned her spine to liquid.
And when he kissed her under the rising moon, wild and dark and sharp as a needle, Buffy felt as if she could still hear the stars singing after all.