Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel: the Series are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.
Some things changed, and some didnt, and some underwent a very small shift that made a significant difference. In the absence of external factors, Cordelia had come to evaluate her situation in limited but sharply specific terms:
First, where she stood within herself. Skills, knowledge, mental strength.
Second, where she stood with the other women; not just what she was learning from them, but who had the advantage within the ebbs and flows of interpersonal dynamics. It was subtler and less direct than the infighting and social machinations utilized by the SHS in-crowd, but the base forms were the same. The major difference was in the nature and extent of the power for which all this maneuvering was being done.
Third, where she stood in relation to this world. Which, she had been told and she would operate on that basis without allowing herself to assume it was true was synonymous with where she stood in relation to Roxeim.
For herself, she had never been stronger, tougher, more centered, and she was still growing. No problems there, except perhaps the challenge of finding ways of adding to herself that the others didnt know about. The best weapon was a secret weapon.
Where the fearless leader was concerned, she knew little, but felt reason for wary optimism. She had started off with nothing, totally under his control; the control was still there, but she had increased. At the very least, she was no worse off, and when the time came to deal with him more frequently well, thats when the game would get interesting.
It was in regard to the others that the situation became less sure, more fluid. With Bitch Lynn things had improved hugely. What had been several-times-daily beatings was now more like a mutual project, expanding and honing Cordelias martial arts repertoire. She was still prepared to kill Lynn if necessary, but it had ceased to be a cherished dream. She was vastly satisfied with the new state of things but never entirely dismissed the possibility that she had allowed herself to be artfully outmaneuvered.
Almost as great was the change between her and Mandy. In fact, the two situations were markedly similar, but inverted. Cordelia had chosen to stay with Lynn, so she could continue to learn and practice; Mandy, on the other hand, had begun to scramble for new things to teach Cordelia, so that she could continue to stay. Both of them were aware of it, and Cordelia occasionally wondered if Mandy knew now that she was being indulged, kept in reserve, maintained as a possible but no longer preferred option. The change had first been set in motion by Cordelias use of Sam for leverage, but the alteration in Cordelias own status though she had not spoken of it seemed also to have factored into the process.
The biggest difference was in her dealings with Sam, paradoxically because there was no difference. Cordelia had become a completely new person, almost as dramatic as the change from human to vampire, and of much the same quality as (though of admittedly lesser degree than) a Slayer awakening. Lynn knew it, and Mandy felt it; but Sam appeared to be utterly unconscious of anything new, and that somehow put a gulf between them of greater moment than the internal barrier Cordelia had carefully constructed and carefully hid.
She had always been alone. It had become almost a mantra for her, and been her single greatest source of strength. But for the first time since being brought here no, before that, since a great blank spot in her memory that she was still unable to bridge she found herself feeling lonely.
It didnt matter. She had delayed it as long as possible, wanting to be completely certain that she was back to full capacity; but eventually it was judged that the broken elbow had properly healed, and she was taken to see Roxeim.
* * *
What do you remember? he asked her. Though the living and study and training areas she had seen had been generic school/ office Western in style, this chamber was differently furnished: carpets, low tables, drapes and wall hangings, and mounds of cushions rather than chairs. Middle Eastern, Cordelia thought, or perhaps from an era or culture she had never heard of. Roxeim lounged back among the cushions; he had bidden Cordelia to be seated upon her entry, and she had settled into the cross-legged position Lynn called anza. Unlike her previous meeting, this time it was just the two of them.
Remember from what? Cordelia asked in return. (Well, it had been pretty vague.)
Begin, I think, with your earliest memory here, Roxeim said. Then tell me what is your most recent memory before that.
Okay, Cordelia said. The first thing I remember here is when your ninja-girl played a taradiddle on my face with her knuckles. Have I ever thanked you for that? The last thing I remember from before She stopped, thinking. She had omitted mention of her first memory of him (the property-garbage comparisons had not inspired any urge to confide), but her hesitation now was no pretense. It really was hard to bring back anything from the time immediately preceding her arrival, though she had tried many times. I theres something about a soup kitchen I was, I think I was going there so I could put all my money into rent and keeping my portfolio in circulation yes, thats right, Id change into my sloppiest clothes and stuff my hair up under this awful old boonie hat, so I wouldnt look too out of place There was more, there had to be more, but she couldnt pull the scattered threads together. Sorry, zippola past that. I remember leaving Sunnydale, right after the big non-apocalypse that was graduation. Anything else, my brain cells might as well be styrofoam peanuts in a Jacuzzi.
Roxeim nodded, smiling. You had been drugged, comprehensively molested, and not discarded, precisely, more tossed aside for anyone else who might care for a taste. You babbled quite a bit, when we brought you in; I did not attend you, nor am I knowledgeable in such matters, but it would seem that you went to New York City, alone, to attempt a modeling career. A risky venture, by all accounts, unless one had prostitution or waiting tables to fall back upon.
The thought flashed through her mind unsummoned: With waitressing, theres always a chance to scarf down some of a customers leftovers. Okay, there was a memory she would have been happy to keep repressed. A waitress needs people skills, Cordelia said without a flicker of expression. As for being a hooker, yuck! I cant even stand to use somebody elses soap.
Ah, he said. I know a little, a very little, about your background, and I will confess that you have surprised me. You came from privilege, lost it all, and suffered indifference, humiliation and rejection when you attempted to regain it by your own efforts. You were cast upon the scrap-heap of your society, abandoned and forgotten
He had used that word, the wrong word. Im not so easy to forget, Cordelia said sharply.
Roxeim regarded her with amused tolerance. And yet, it was done all the same. Given your past, I would have expected you to be either completely useless spoiled and arrogant and full of complaints or bitterly resentful. You have demonstrated little of either. In point of fact, you approached your training program with a commitment and concentration that I had expected would have to be painfully imposed upon you.
There was plenty of pain, Cordelia replied. But Im a quick learner.
Very much so, he acknowledged. And much to my delight. Almost as surprising, however, has been your lack of curiosity regarding your circumstances: how you came to be here, what is the purpose of the instruction devoted to you. Have you not wondered?
Not at first, actually. Cordelia had been focused on immediate needs and goals, and her scattered mental state had left her without enough concerted attention to address any larger picture. By the time her awareness had consolidated sufficiently for her to form questions, the pattern of treatment here had been established, and her pride had not allowed her to pose direct questions. Not even to Sam.
Aloud she said, I knew there had to be a reason for all this. I figured youd get to it when you were ready.
I see. You guard yourself against any weakness, even the inconsequential weakness of desiring an answer when none is forthcoming.
No, dumb-ass, I guard myself against showing any weakness I dont have to. Cordelia held her eyes steady with his. If you say so.
Your instructors report well of you, and I have seen that they do not exaggerate.
She shrugged it away. You can accomplish a lot when you dont have the distractions of oh, I dont know a life.
If he heard the sudden spark of anger, he didnt show it. It would seem, then, that your rehabilitation is complete.
Absolutely, Cordelia said. Then: Rehabilitation from what?
From the drug saturating your system, Roxeim said. There was some concern that the effects might be permanent.
Great, Cordelia said. I get hit with the roofie from hell, and wake up in the Twilight Zone.
Twilight Zone, he repeated. A clever turn of phrase, and an apt description. But the drug is called Orpheus, not Rufius. You have heard of it? no? Its nature is as much mystical as pharmaceutical, and it has an euphoric effect on vampires, when filtered through the bloodstream of a human intermediary. The humans, too, seem to enjoy the effects, so there has been no shortage of volunteers.
Of whom you can be sure I was not one, Cordelia informed him flatly. Grow up in Sunnydale, you learn one lesson fast: vampires and recreation do not make a cuddly mix. Besides, what kind of fun is something that scrambles your brains for weeks afterwards?
That is hardly the normal result, Roxeim said. I would imagine that your system reacted as it did because of your demon ancestry.
There was a long silence while Cordelia considered that. Demon, she said. I dont think so.
It is quite true, he assured her. Enough demons have bred with humans over the ages for some of them it is a hobby that many people have a touch of demon blood without knowing of it. I performed a few basic tests when the Orpheus was so reluctant to release you from its grip, and confirmed that you carry at least two distinct strains. Many times diluted, of course, but the signs are unmistakable once one knows what to watch for.
Im not a demon, Cordelia said.
And very fortunate for us all that you are not, Roxeim said. Ugly-tempered creatures, and notoriously inflexible in negotiation. Still, a whisper of it in the bloodline can open out some intriguing possibilities, and it is time we investigated those more thoroughly.
Slowly and clearly Cordelia said again, I. Am not. A demon. Not any part of me.
Denial does not alter fact, Roxeim said. He picked something up from the low table in front of him, a small chest, and opened it. From within it he withdrew something; its appearance and nature indeterminate, as it was wrapped in several folds of scarlet silk. He held it out. Take this, he said.
Cordelia looked at it, didnt move. Roxeim lay with his hand still outstretched. He waited, watching her without speaking.
She took it. There was no choice. She held it, glanced at him. He nodded, and she began to unfold the silk wrapper.
The thing revealed was slightly smaller than the saucer for a teacup; metal, of a dull greenish gray, edge broken by a regularly repeating pattern of small squares. The surface was so deeply etched that it was almost bas-relief, like a decorative frieze on a building, but the etching was of designs and abstract characters rather than any recognizable figure. Cordelia studied it, looked back to Roxeim. So?
Inspect it closely, he said. Without the covering.
Okay, there was no way this could be good and no way (yet) that she could avoid it. She removed the covering, holding the cloth in one hand while she turned the whatsis in the other, checking both sides, peering at the characters. She gave Roxeim a lifted eyebrow. So what am I supposed to be looking for?
Do you feel anything? he asked her.
Cordelia glanced at the metal quasi-disk, back at her host. It feels kind of greasy, she said.
He frowned. Wrap it again and return it to me.
She did so, and sat waiting, face composed. When the thing had been placed back in the chest from which Roxeim had originally withdrawn it, he looked to her again, brows knit. You felt nothing at all?
Nope, sorry. Cordelias tone held a conspicuous absence of sorrow. I take it I was supposed to?
The enhancement lattice imprinted into the structure of that artifact should have called out and magnified any supernatural potential you might have possessed, Roxeim said. You would hardly have been able to overlook the sensation, or mistake it for anything else. This is surprising, and disappointing.
Told you, Cordelia said, letting the slightest glint of triumph show through. Footloose and demon-free here, this body is one hundred percent authentic American beauty.
I made no mistake in my diagnosis, he reproved her. But if your heritage has been so washed out by humanity that it did not respond to the lattice, it is too feeble to be of any use to me. Pity, it might have facilitated certain approaches. As it is, we shall proceed with my first intent.
Right. Cordelia waited. Hed tell her, whether she asked or not; guys like this had to brag about how smart they were.
You will have noted that I took care to avoid touching the artifact I had you examine, Roxeim said. This was necessary caution on my part. I am human doubtless you have wondered on that point but humanity is not the only thing within me. This plane of existence was not my native home. I was brought here, as I brought you; the original occupant mingled his blood with mine, worked certain sorceries to bring my vital aura into synchronization with these surroundings, and then made his departure, leaving me in his stead.
And may I be the first to say, gross. Cordelia gave him a tilted look. Except, let me go out on a limb here: youve been shaping me to take your spot. The whole genie-in-a-bottle deal, you can only leave if you get somebody to replace you.
You grasp the essentials, but not the particulars, Roxeim told her. It is true, my escape from this realm can be accomplished only if a suitable vessel assumes my place. However, you are not that vessel.
So Im here why?
To help me acquire it. He smiled at her. You are, in fact, uniquely suited to that purpose.
Cordelia favored him with a tight smile of her own. Im unique, period.
More nearly so than many who claim the status, he said. In this case, however, your personal attributes are of less significance than is your relationship to someone who is important to me. Roxeim looked to Cordelia, assessing. She knew the look; it was what you saw on someone about to drop what he considered a bombshell, and wanting to be sure he saw the full effect. When I inquired as to your memories, it was from more than simple vulgar curiosity. I wanted to get some sense of how much she had stolen from you.
She? Cordelia knew she was being played, but just now it didnt seem important. She who?
The creature for whose sake your disappearance was facilitated, Roxeim said. The one who has been moving about with your name, and your face, in the life you should have had. He smiled again, with deep satisfaction. And she she is a proper vessel.
* * *
They were Granok demons, he explained, magnanimous now that he had at last prompted her to show interest. Powerful, intelligent, lovers of combat. But other, more subtle forces found them to be too disruptive, and so their essence was shifted slightly outside the normal flow of time. That made them unable to physically affect or be affected by anything in the material world.
Some of them became accustomed to their new mode of being; others sought means by which they might return to their former plane so that they could once again know the joy of battle. One such, my predecessor here, somehow created this place of existence to serve as a bridge by which he might make transit to the physical world. Another, called Sahjhan, set in motion a plot of centuries duration, designed to trick humans into recalling him to corporeal form. He, and his works, are what are of concern to us.
You were part of that plot; you more accurately, the being that those back in your world now know as Cordelia Chase were put into place to serve as an agent within the group that Sahjhan needed most delicately to manipulate. It would have been possible, I suppose, to recruit you and motivate you by deception or treasure to act on his behalf; but Sahjhan apparently found it simpler to have you consigned to an Orpheus den, and a lesser demonling imbued with your form and your memories. Sahjhan failed, and has been indefinitely imprisoned; but his creature continued on, undetected, causing increasing mischief and misery and, in the process, undergoing several further transformations of her nature.
Among the parlance of your kind, your situation and mine is now win-win. You return to the world you knew, resume your place, and continue the life that was stolen from you. Those who care for you are freed from the hidden machinations of the thing masquerading as you. And I am gifted with an entity formed in part by the power and essence of a Granok demon, altered by travels to other realms of existence and possession by other powers, and thus rendered suitable for me to use as a substitute for myself, so that I may leave this place which has so long been my prison.
Cordelia had let Roxeim deliver his spiel; better that he get it all out of his system at once. Now he seemed to have reached a stopping point, and she said, Not to be questioning my good luck, or your generosity, but what do you need me for? You brought me here, you brought all of us here, so just grab my body double the same way. She studied her host/ captor. Not so easy, right?
No, it is not, and for several reasons. He seemed annoyed by the question or maybe it was just a sensitive subject but he answered readily enough. Within this sphere, my authority is absolute, but my reach is limited and of little power outside it. The same characteristics that make our imposter suitable for my uses make it insurmountably difficult for me to seize her by my own efforts. I require an agent in the outside world. I have prepared you to be that agent or made a substantial beginning of it, at any rate.
Thinking of the depth and intensity of the training she had undergone, Cordelia observed, She must be some kind of red-hot demon mama, if you need to force-grow your own personal deadlier-than-the-male-Me to go after her. But then again, why me? I mean, you could have taken the women you put to teaching me, and sent them after her. Not Charlies Angels, exactly, but the three of them should have been able to take down and haul back one jazzed-up Cordy-wannabe.
Roxeim frowned, but spoke evenly. The circumstances being as they were, I thought it might be necessary for you to extract her from the midst of a group of formidable allies; for that reason, I attempted to prepare you for several eventualities, including stealth, individual combat, and all-out-assault. And yes, her own abilities have increased considerably; she is a demon, after all, and some of her inherent traits have been augmented. But as for dispatching the others to capture her, those I have assigned as your tutors, that I cannot. They are here by compulsion, they serve me because they have no choice. Were I to release them, I could not rely on their loyalty.
But youre willing to take that chance on me, Cordelia said.
It is in your interests, and in accordance with your nature, for you to act in a way that benefits me, Roxeim explained patiently. In order to reclaim your identity, you must seek out and supplant the entity that now occupies your place. If I free you, you will naturally and necessarily do that which will free me. We have a mutual need, and this I trust.
All righty, then, Cordelia said. Youve sold me, Im your girl. Turn me loose and Ill go bag your exit pass.
Roxeim shook his head with a regret that carried every sign of being genuine. Your preparation is yet incomplete, and there are other matters that also must be addressed. It is difficult, I know, but I must ask you to exercise patience. Remind yourself that it is now in my interests to free you, once you are capable of doing what you must. He sighed. We might perhaps have advanced the schedule if the lattice had detected any meaningful mystical potential within you. You can hardly be held accountable, but that was the first disappointment you have caused me since regaining minimal function.
Oh, absolutely, Cordelia said. I can see it would have really bumped things forward if I was suddenly able to fire exploding nose-hairs or something. Sorry. My bad.
Roxeim ignored the burr of sarcasm. This audience has not transpired entirely as I had hoped, but it has not been without profit. He unfolded himself from the mound of cushions, and stood. It is time, I think, for you to proceed to the next phase of your education. Wait here; I shall return shortly.
He left the room. Cordelia did not move from her position; she sat relaxed, breathing quietly, listening.
Shortly, he had said. That implied at least a few minutes. It was a risk, but she wasnt willing for this opportunity to escape. The small chest was where Roxeim had left it; decision made, she went quickly to it, removed and unwrapped the nameless object it contained, and held the artifact in both hands, supporting it on her open palms. Her eyes were open, but focused on nothing within the room; her face showed no expression whatsoever.
She stood so for an entire minute, then replaced the artifact and resumed her place. That was risk enough; she would not extend the time, or attempt to repeat the process just now. When Roxeim returned at last, some five minutes later, her position was precisely as it had been.
| Next Part | Previous Part | Chapter Index |