About the Author
Nancy Holder has published more than 200 short stories and seventy-eight books, including the New York Times bestselling Wicked series. She lives in San Diego with her daughter, Belle, and far too many animals. Visit her at Nancy Holder.com.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The ghost roads.
A place of madness.
A limbo, a vacuum of nothingness: no sound, not even Buffy's gasps of shock, no light, just a dull gray that formed no boundary, met no horizon. No heat, no cold. Simply...nothing.
Oz and Angel had tried to prepare her for the terror of the experience, but Buffy Summers, the Chosen One, knew now that there was no way to prepare. By instinct and by training, vampire slayers fought against -- against a target, an enemy. While every cell in her body screamed at her to defend herself, there was no enemy to focus on. And yet she sensed overwhelming danger.
Fists clenched, she took a breath and calmed herself. She released the tension from her body, dangling her arms at her sides. As contrary as it was to everything she knew, the only way to conquer this place was to do nothing. The only defense was passivity. She had to find a way to accept the lack of form and structure, the storm-colored, endless gray, and know that it was...what it was.
It was the ghost roads.
As soon as Buffy had the thought, she felt solid ground beneath her boots. Everything snapped into focus and she heard a strange shushing sound. She blinked and saw Oz and Angel standing beside her in their travel clothes -- Angel in black jeans, a black turtleneck, and a duster, with a duffel bag slung over one shoulder, Oz in a flamingo-pink bowling shirt, jeans, and a denim jacket, with a canvas backpack -- both of them looking at her with deep concern.
The sight of Angel's dark, deep-set eyes was like a steadying rock as he put his hand on her shoulder and said softly, "Buffy, are you okay? Are you with us?"
Awkwardly she moved her head, feeling something like a puppet minus vital strings. "That'd be a yes," she said uncertainly. "Unless you're figments of my imagination."
Both Angel and Oz visibly relaxed. She wondered how she had appeared to them during the time she hadn't been able to see them. They had both traveled the ghost roads before, and it made sense that they would be able to adjust to it faster than she. Oz had been the first, going to Sunnydale to retrieve Angel when they needed him for the Ritual of Endowment at the Gatehouse. When he and Angel had returned to the house together, Angel's face was smeared with bloody tears, shed for someone here, someone who walked the ghost roads.
Buffy wasn't sure who she herself might see.
Then she snapped her gaze left, right, and tensed. An aura of menace wrapped around her, stealing in like a coastal summer fog. It caressed her cheek and touched her heart. It chilled her to the core, and she shivered.
"Something's here with us." She assumed a fighter's stance. "Something evil."
Oz said, "I gave this part a lot of thought. I think it's the shadow of death." He cocked his head at Buffy and put his hands in the pockets of his denim jacket. "Interesting. When the shadow crossed my path, I wanted to wander off the road and go to sleep. Give in. Seemed peaceful. To you, it's dangerous. You want to fight it."
Because she is a Slayer, came a voice. As I was.
All around Buffy, the gray dissolved into a blinding white flash. The road beneath her feet crumbled into dust, white and searing through her boots. She covered her eyes, blinking, as crimson glowed on her retinas. She remembered Angel's tears of blood and wondered, briefly, if they had been tears at all.
Slowly she opened her eyes, squinting through the afterburn.
Before her stood a barefoot girl about her age, in a long white robe knotted at each shoulder. It was covered with dried blood. The girl was chalk white, her eyes almost black, and her deep red hair tumbled am her shoulders like a waterfall.
She stood alone against a field of black, her outline quite distinct. Buffy had the feeling that if she reached but her hand to the girl, she would touch solid flesh. But there was a strange quality about her, something ethereal, otherworldly. Something that spoke of a land of ghosts. She raised a hand and extended it toward Buffy. Slayer, know me. I am of your house.
"Then you must be one of the Southern Summers," Buffy retorted. "Our side of the family tends toward blonds. She cleared her throat and asked, far more seriously, "Why are you here?"
I was a Vampire Slayer, like you.
Though the girl's lips moved, it was as if a thousand people were speaking. Buffy glanced around and saw brief, blurred images of faces and bodies. People. Some stared at her, some averted their gazes. Many wept. Others were whispering, laughing, almost crazily.
When those faded, others took their place. There was a vast multitude of them. The dead who still wandered, seeking journey's end. Blurring and fading, like a great creature breathing. Like hopes rising and ebbing.
Angel stiffened, took her hand, and squeezed hard. Buffy searched the crowd to see what he saw. The only face that remained distinct for her was the dead girl's.
Buffy glanced at Oz, who in turn looked back at her. He said softly, "What do you see? Who are you talking to?"
"What do you see?" she asked.
He shrugged. "No one I know." Then he lowered his voice and added, "But the last time I was here, I saw Kendra."
Buffy frowned. Was this where dead Slayers ended up? After all the struggle and the relentless fighting, the nothing world of the ghost roads was what lay ahead?
"Why are you here?" Buffy asked the girl again.
The girl raised her chin as tears welled in her eyes. But she wasn't sad; by the set of her jaw and the pulsing vein in her neck, Buffy realized she was seething with anger.
I was careless. There was a lad I liked. I thought he was just a stable boy, a nothing. He betrayed me to Fulcanelli and his devils. She raised her chin as the voices emanating from her mouth whispered and echoed the name, Fulcanelli. He was one of them.
"Fulcanelli," Buffy said slowly.
"The Sons of Entropy. He founded them, acted as their first leader," Angel supplied. "Giles read about them in the Gatekeeper's grandfather's diary. The first Gatekeeper, Richard Regnier, was a rival of Fulcanelli's in the court of the French king, Francis I. Fulcanelli engineered Richard's fall from favor, and they hunted each other all over Europe." He looked curiously at Buffy. "What's going on? What do you see?"
So she and she alone could see the dead Slayer. That creeped Buffy. What was the reason each of them saw different dead people?
"What's your name?" Buffy asked.
Maria Regina served me in my lifetime.
"I'm looking at Maria Regina," Duffy told Angel. "Fulcanelli killed her." She looked at the dried blood. "With a gun, I'm guessing."
A knife. I was murdered in the year of Our Lord 1539.
And she had been here ever since? Buffy shuddered. Four hundred sixty years of wandering the ghost roads but never reaching a destination, not heaven, not hell. Just nothing. So not what she wanted in an afterlife.
I was called. To warn you, Slayer.
"By the Gatekeeper?" Buffy asked.
I know not. She shrugged in the exact way Buffy shrugged. That distinctive Buffy gesture was something Xander had pointed out to Buffy just the other day, so now she noticed it.
"Warn me about what?"
Death walks these roads with you. It would be better for you to turn back.
Buffy scowled at her. "And you call yourself a Slayer?"
I was killed.
Buffy huffed and gave a short little laugh. "Well, I don't intend to get killed."
Then turn back.
"Angel," Buffy said, "do you know how to change the channel?"
But his attention was elsewhere. He was staring in the distance, his eyes lidded, a strained expression on his face. In his black duster and turtleneck, he reminded her of a sailor longing for the sight of land.
"Angel, what is it?" she asked quietly.
He shook his head. "Nothing. I thought I saw someone." He returned her intense gaze. "But I didn't."
"Jenny," she said slowly.
He looked away. "Yes."
He was tormented by the memory of her death, which was exactly the way Jenny Calendar's Gypsy clan, the Kalderash, wanted it. When, as the evil vampire Angelus, he had killed a beautiful Kalderash Gypsy girl, the Gypsy shaman restored Angelus's soul to him, along with the knowledge of every foul act, every drop of blood that stained his hands. Then he was Angel, the only vampire to possess a soul, perpetually remorseful, finding no peace...until he lay in the arms of Buffy. There was love, happiness, and bliss...the very things the Gypsies swore always to deny him. So his soul was ripped away once more, until Jenny died trying to restore it one last time.
Buffy tenderly touched his cheek as sympathy and longing swept through her. They could never be together in that way again, never express the love they still felt for each other. It was over. It had to be over. There was no choice.
As there was no choice for Angel but to bitterly regret everything he had done and accept with as much grace as he could manage everything that had been done to him.
He gritted, "It's all right."
Buffy slowly lowered her hand and turned back to Maria Regina, the dead Slayer.
But she was gone.
"Hello?" Buffy called.
Then Oz said, "Whoa."
The space around Buffy, Angel, and Oz filled with wafting as the dead rushed toward them, arms extended, hands open. In rows they came, wave after wave of indistinct bodies and faces, silver tears coursing down their cheeks.
Help us. Show us the way out, they pleaded, crushing against each other in their anxiety to get close to the three travelers. Free us.
"You hear that?" Oz asked, as the three backed away. "Intense."
"Loud and clear," Angel affirmed.
Oz looked at Buffy. "What do we do?"
Angel said softly, "Walk away. There's nothing else we can do. Not today."
Buffy bit her lower lip. Much as she hated to admit it, Angel was right. This was not their battle.
The wailing rose as the three turned their backs on the sorrowful dead.
The shushing noise returned, like surf or...
"A car," Buffy said. "Look. We made it."
She pointed to a distant night lands... --This text refers to the Unbound edition.