Chapter 2 – Choices (Of the Unwary)
“I seek to pure what’s deep inside
Frightened of this thing that I’ve become”
-Africa – Toto
The air smelt like it did just before a storm set in, with the heavy, almost metallic smell of rain. A sticky, humid breeze tugged at Rupert’s shirt, and he hated the way that the heat almost seemed to dull his senses. He longed for humidity to give way to the rain that had been on the horizon all day to cool him down a little.
A few years ago, when his life had still been his own he would have been cutting across the field behind the stable at the back of his father’s property right about now, to throw himself into the river to cool off. Instead, he was here on the outskirts of London, dripping with sweat as he made his way through streets that were still shimmering with an unexpected heat, and down an alleyway that stunk with the smell of old beer and piss. Cigarette butts and broken glass had been swept into the corners. The temperature almost seemed to make the smell into a living entity.
He had been back on his feet for the last three weeks, and while he wasn’t spitting hatred at Ethan, he was doing his best to ignore it as much as possible without inciting its anger. The last thing that he wanted to do was piss it off, while he was trying to chase down rumours.
After all he knew how to play it so he figured he may as well keep those skills in practise. It wouldn’t do to lose any of those just when he might need them.
The game was simple enough to play; do what was ordered, follow the curfew, and act behave to the standard that was demanded, don’t answer back and don’t be deliberately stupid.
Looking at it that simply though, would have been a mistake; he also had to pay attention to the little things, things that he once wouldn’t have bothered with. After all, while Ethan may not have been a threat to him directly it was still certainly a threat to others, to innocents.
When it felt that it had to push him it would still hold innocent lives to ransom. If Rupert ever failed one of those hard lessons, then he was in no doubt as to the outcome. The intent of those games may never have been the same twice over, but that didn’t make it any less real. Whilst Ethan would not allow him to come to any personal harm, the same certainly couldn’t be said of others.
Twice, only twice, although that was two times too often as far as he was concerned, he had lost its games. So of course he had no doubts about its ability and willingness to carry out its threats. It wasn’t a callous killer, like a newborn but it was still a killer. Those moments reminded him more strongly than ever that it wasn’t a human watching him from behind those cool brown eyes.
After the first death he had turned his back on it, had tried to take it down the second that he’d been presented with the opportunity, and damn the consequences. If it killed him in the process of defending itself, then it would be committing a kind of suicide, anyway.
He hadn’t been overly surprised, although he had been pissed off at his own inability to wound it in any way, when he had woke from unconsciousness to find himself in a position that he hadn’t been in for a reasonably long time. He had been also been afraid. Whenever the chains came out there was always a kick of fear associated with them After all, the last time that the collar had been put to use, the last time that he had been chained back to the fucking headboard it had been a prelude to punishment. That was something else that he had always hated, the fact that he had no say over any of it.
A dark chuckle swelled and he only just bit it back, settling instead for a bleak smile as he pushed past the memory. That was of course the point of punishment, to make one think twice about inciting the possibility again. That didn’t mean that he had to like the method, though, or the fact that it seemed to enjoy the excuse to use him. Not that it needed an excuse.
Even living with it, and sleeping next to it, there were still times when he would begin to sicken for the need for intimate, contact. He would never initiate such a thing, but he didn’t need to, when it could smell the sickness on him before he knew what was happening himself.
With the second game that he had failed at, he had bitten his lip and ignored its snapped orders and questions, a move which had earned him the privilege of being thrown back into the nearest wall then dropped to the floor by the usual brain-rattling closed fist to his chin. It had been a good five minutes until he had been able to shake off the blow enough to understand what was being said and for his senses to clear enough that he could stand again, by which time Ethan had been growling at him, a sound of simple impatience rather than genuine anger.
He supposed that the effect it desired had been achieved for all of that. In the first couple of weeks after loosing he had watched his step around it, and had redoubled his efforts to see that such a thing didn’t happen again.
He knew from cautious investigation that Ethan chose prey for its games very carefully; no family, few friends, and more often then not, no job. Those things just made each death weigh on him that much more, and the blood on his hands, seem like a thicker coat something that much harder to wash off. If he was one of the only people who cared whether these others lived or died, then he had failed them dramatically.
Even if he hadn’t known from that conversation back in the bar that it had taken other humans under wing, then he would still have been able to tell by the way it knew how to manipulate him. He wasn’t sure whether he wanted to know what had happed to its other human toys, whether they had been killed after it tired of them, or turned, or set free or had been destroyed by something else as a taunt.
The smell down the alleyway felt like it was beginning to seep into his pores. Memories and thoughts were good up to a point, but there became a point where they couldn’t drown everything else out.
He could hear the conversation in his head. Why do you stink of cigarettes, and cheap beer? Oh I spent the day down this alley, waiting for…
At a flash of movement at the far end he stepped forward, to see if this was what he had been waiting for. One thing was for certain, if he were going to challenge Ethan for his own life, then he sure as hell wouldn’t be able to do it alone. Allies were his first port of call, no matter what solution he might eventually find.
Anyone from the Council wasn’t an option, he had been told that much by Tristan the last time that he had been over there. They had more or less been ordered to stand down. His father wasn’t an option either. It wasn’t that he doubted he would help, but he knew that seeing the fucked up mess that his life had become had to hurt. He knew his father blamed himself, although in those rare times that they had talked, he had never said as much out loud and, knowing his father he probably never would.
“Giles; Rupert Giles?” a voice that was laced with curiosity and disdain called out to him.
“Yeah, that’s me.” He fingered the handle of his knife as he stepped into the light to meet with the person who, with a little luck, would be the start of steering his life back into a direction of reasonable sanity.
He had given Buffy a specific time and place, but had he really expected her to be here at that time? Gritting his teeth, Rupert exhaled slowly and rolled his eyes. Where was the girl?
Again, he rolled his eyes. As if he couldn’t bloody guess. Where did she spend most nights these days? He was going to have to have a serious talk to her about that, if this power that Ethan had felt growing didn’t snap her out of it. Well actually, he was still going to have a talk to her about it even if it did.
That was, if she didn’t miss it entirely, because she was too wrapped up in her vampire amour.
Closing his eyes he let his head thud back against the cool, crumbling brickwork of the crypt.
A half-full moon broke through the heavy cloud cover and shone through the metal fencing, casting twisted shadows over walls and painting strange patterns over the tombstones. The black silhouettes of headstones were scattered around, each one looking like it was hiding some predator crouched, waiting in the darkness.
He could hear footsteps,, two sets of feet moving confidently over the rocky ground and short grass outside the crypt. Weaving a camouflage of magic quickly around himself, he pressed as far back into the corner as he could. It wouldn’t cover his scent and it wouldn’t stop anything from seeing him if he gave himself away, but with a bit of luck the tine that he’d spent with Ethan would help a little to cover the fact that he was human.
“You sure you saw something come in here?” Xander’s voice said, far too loudly for stealth. He was shushed sharply be Willow, who was, herself, far too loud, although a great deal quieter than Xander.
Without a word and with a touch of mischief he let the spell drop when both the teenagers were looking right at him. Willow froze, and Xander started back so sharply that he swung an elbow back into the wall beside him and yelped. The moment held until Rupert began to chuckle and found himself on the receiving end of a reproachful glare.
“That was so not funny,” Xander grumbled.
“It was from where I was standing,” he raised a hand and ran it through his hair, as he wrestled with his smirk and finally got it back under control.
“Not that I’m not really, really glad it’s you, but, um, what are you doing here tonight?” Willow seemed quicker to forgive him, although relief probably played a large part in that.
“I’m staking things out. Something’s coming and I’m trying to get a handle on what it’s going to be.”
“Here? How do you do that from here?” Xander asked, as he rubbed at his elbow.
“It’s amazing the amount to vital spell ingredients that can be stolen from places like this. Bone, sacred earth, teeth, maybe wood from a coffin, that sort of thing.”
“Teeth. Can I just say eww?” Xander pulled a face.
Willow looked like she wholeheartedly agreed, as she winced and shook her head, moonlight making the deep red colour of it seem almost black, “I…I guess it’s better than getting them from a living source, though.”
“Okay, that’s another one of those things I could have gladly gone the rest of my life without picturing,” Xander muttered, as he crossed his arms and leaned back against the crypt, “And you still haven’t answered the question of why here specifically.”
“Here, specifically, because over the last two nights three cemeteries lying in a straight line have been hit and graves in them raided. The next one is this, so it makes sense to follow the pattern. The papers haven’t said exactly what’s been taken, so I want to try and see so that I have some idea of what it is.”
“That makes sense.” Willow nodded, and took a couple of steps towards the wall so that she could sit, cross-legged on the ground, leaning back against it. “So where’s Buffy? Is she coming by later, or...?”
“As if you can’t guess where Buffy is,” Xander cut her off, echoing the same sentiment as Rupert had thought earlier.
“Yes, well, that’s neither here nor there,” Rupert found himself speaking sharply, a little more annoyed than he’d realised. “And if, as your repose indicates, the two of you are planning on staying here a while, that I must ask that you keep as quiet as possible.”
“Relax, Giles.” Xander sounded annoyingly blasé about it all. “We’ll see anything coming from miles away.”
“Yes, and anything with a working pair of ears out there will hear you from a mile away, too. Do you have no idea how sensitive a vampire’s hearing is? You’ve seen them pick up and hone in on the smallest sound.”
“Gee, Giles, sorry, didn’t realise you had a sti…”
“I am trying to tell you what you need to know to stay alive,” he cut Xander off in an angry hiss, and only just stopped himself from delivering his next thought, too, which was although maybe I’m wasting my time.
There would have been few suitable apologies if he’d said that one. He was used to a barrage of insults thanks to the way that Ethan had trained him, but these children were not him, nor was he Ethan.
“We’ll be quiet,” Willow spoke before Xander could snap a reply and stir the pot again.
Minutes dragged past. Before, he had appreciated the silence and the fact that it had given him space to think, but it now felt oppressive, as though it was a weight that was slowly pressing down on the crypt, crushing it with him inside. He was painfully aware of Buffy’s absence, highlighted by the fact that her friends were here.
He had decided to ignore it, but now he couldn’t. She should be here, at his side, not out there doing whatever the hell she felt like doing. She was his Slayer, damn it. This was her duty and responsibility and it was her place to obey him.
Lost in his thoughts he didn’t notice anything until Xander shifted restlessly. Twisting to look at him, Rupert opened his mouth to tell the boy that he was free to go whenever he felt like it but then he saw that Xander was hovering near the door of the crypt, squinting out through the gap in the door, at the shadows around one of the headstones. Still without a word Xander raised a hand and pointed.
Rupert crept up to the door of the crypt and stood to look over the boy’s shoulder, before nudging him to the side. As far as he could see, it was a pair of figures standing near one of the stones. Keeping his voice as low as possible he intoned a spell which would sharpen his eyesight.
All of a sudden he didn’t have to squint, and the minimal moonlight was enough to him to make out gestures, and a smaller form crouched on all fours with a tail twitching from side to side. The taller figure pointed to a couple of the different headstones and the beast crossed the ground in a lopping stride, to pause beside the first one. With a nod from the first black shape it began to dig up the earth with a speed that he hadn’t expected, and seconds later it was out of sight.
The pair of men, or more likely vampires, headed in the direction of the grave that was being disturbed, and with a glance towards the pair of teens he whispered, “Stay here.”
He placed a hand on the door and drew his camouflage spell back around himself, then eased the crypt door open a little more and slipped out of it. With the magnification that he’d cast he wouldn’t need to get too close, just close enough to see what they were after.
The slight luminous reflection to their eyes confirmed his suspicion of vampires. Not enough of a reflection to notice it if you weren’t looking for it, just enough of one to be there. Moving quietly, letting each foot glide over the ground and making sure it was clear before bringing it down, he crept closer to them, and paused in the shadow of a tree.
As he watched, the creature came backwards out of the hole and he was close enough to see the patterning on the fur, overly long claws on the end a pair of massive paws, long, powerful front legs and the head which was roughly human-sized, the top of the snout elongated and the lower jaw only about half the size of that. The fur was coarse and wiry, sticking straight out.
He had more than enough to identify this thing. It was a hybrid, probably first generation by the look of it, with how strongly the contrasting features came through. One parent would have been a hellhound-wolf cross and the other a werewolf. Without any human DNA to mask it, the werewolf’s lupine features had just as much prominence as its other parent’s.
Someone a long time ago had made a joke of it, calling the cross a Wolfhound and the name had stuck. They were extremely strong, could smell almost anything that wasn’t downwind, intelligent enough to comprehend a complex order or decide what was best and they were also extremely loyal. Unlike most other hybrids they were also completely fertile, with the twist of features smoothing out over successive generations. A few litters down the line and the creature in front of him would be beautiful.
What it was dragging out of the ground, however would not. It was a body that was only just held together by the tiniest remnant of membrane, muscle and tendon. He was honestly glad that he wasn’t any closer; as he saw what he fervently hoped was a lump of dirt drop off, but he didn’t think that lumps of dirt should appear to squirm quite like that. Holding his breath, he watched as the taller of the two vampires reached into the clearly non-human skeleton and break free a piece that had been attached to both the spine and ribcage.
It was vaguely rounded and he didn’t need to be any closer to see it. The distant glimpse brought to mind an old sketch of demonic anatomy. That was the case that a Pechora demon’s heart rested in. He could only think of one three spells that used such a thing in them. Transformation of the human condition, but that required eating the heart inside the case and he didn’t think that they kept that well, the elimination of all of ones descendants, or the raising of the undead.
That, of course was circumstantial magic, but the circumstances had been fulfilled, hadn’t they? Ethan hadn’t shattered the bones of Nest and Buffy hadn’t known to. Rupert would have if he’d been thinking of it but the possibility of someone or something trying to raise Nest had been ignored in favour of the realisation that neither he nor Buffy were dead.
“Fool,” he berated himself, softly.
In a moment of pure pig-headed stupidity he calculated the possibility of challenging both vampires and the Wolfhound, shattering the bone casing and getting out in one piece. On top of that there would have to be no other vampires in on the plan, or any more Pechora buried in Sunnydale. Honestly, considering the fact that they travelled in packs – families of at least twenty that was truly a slim possibility.
He saw the Wolfhound stiffen, ears going up and muscles tensing under its bristly pelt and reminded himself that just like a werewolf they were immune to magic.
Shaking his head in self-disgust he slowly backed away until he was pressed up against the tree, hoping that it hadn’t scented him. An old-looking man, probably a caretaker turned a flashlight on and towards the grave that had been desecrated. The two vampires morphed in the exact same instant that the Wolfhound exploded from dead stillness to its running stride and in a couple of paces it lunged.
Its leap carried its full weight into the old man and carried him backwards. Rupert winced as he heard the thud of the man’s head meeting a tombstone and hoped that it had knocked him out as it began to rip at his chest with its oversized claws. Then with a single barked order from its master it tore the old man’s throat out, and ripped a couple of mouthfuls of flesh from his face before, at another command it bounded back over to its masters side and was rewarded with a pat. There was no point in going over to check him. No one could have survived that.
Turning away he made his way back to the crypt as quickly as he dared, and let himself back in. The two teens were watching the door intently and didn’t start this time when he dropped the spell. In silence they watched as the three left the cemetery, casually leaping the wall to do so.
“That thing just killed him. Didn’t it?”
He nodded as he twisted to look as Willow and saw that she was looking a little pale. Even with everything she had already seen in Sunnydale something like this hadn’t lost its power to affect her. He hoped that it never would.
“Yes it did,” in all honesty he couldn’t bring himself to care too much about some faceless stranger, but the fact that it upset Willow was a different matter.
Amongst other things Ethan had taught him, was the fact that he couldn’t take responsibility over every single death. It hadn’t been a lesson that had come easily, or one that he’d liked in any way, but it was one that had stuck. If he let every death weigh on him then he missed the little details that would make the next one preventable.
“So, what were they after? Do you known what they’re up to?” Xander’s voice was almost gentle and Rupert felt an unexpected flare of gratitude.
“I’m fairly certain that they’re planning on trying to resurrect the Master.”
There was a moment of silence that drew out, stretching between the three of them. He was reluctant to break it.
“What? You mean between the Harvest and your Ethan defeating him we haven’t already reached the quota on his butt-kicking?”
He looked at Xander, turning his words over in his head.
“I’m afraid it’s not that simple this time. If the spell succeeds… well, Nest is incredibly powerful, and this time Ethan can’t risk interfering. Even last time it was an extremely risky thing for it to do. This time it’s something that Buffy has to deal with.”
“But… what if she doesn’t?” This time it was Willow who said what he was thinking.
“That isn’t a option. She has no choice but to deal with it, or it’s the end of the world.”
“Again,” Xander groaned.
“Again,” Willow echoed.
“Again,” he confirmed.
Buffy was walking through the twisted tunnels. She knew exactly where she was going, but it felt like she had been walking for far longer than she should have been. The darkness hemmed her in, a thick, suffocating blackness that hid the ground and walls from her until she stumbled and had to reach out wildly in the blackness, feeling for something to support her.
She rested for a moment before pushing away from the wall, hands in front of her to make sure that she didn’t walk straight into the wall on the other side. Just because she couldn’t see it, didn’t mean it wasn’t there.
With a couple more steps she was reasonably sure that she was in the centre of the path again. Turning, she began to walk again. She couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing, although she couldn’t put her finger on what it was. She felt like she would have to work it out if she wanted to get anywhere.
She took another few steps forward, and decided to try to whistling, anything to break the awful silence where the only sound she could her were her own footsteps, heartbeat and shakily drawn breaths. That, however made her uneasy, and felt like it was sending out her location to things that could probably actually see through this darkness.
Damn it, but she ought to be there by now; several times over..
As she took another step she realised that the only sounds she could hear were her own feet and her own breathing. There was no-one else in the tunnel with her.
A blinding flash of light lit the room and it was several seconds before she could see again.
When she could see, she saw hazy, grey images of herself and the Master facing one another down. She wasn’t close enough to overhear what was being said, but somehow she knew it didn’t matter. What did, however, was the way that he drew her ghost-self to him and fed, leaving the body to drop into a pool of water.
She didn’t feel any of the panic that she had expected to see on witnessing her own death. Maybe that was because it hadn’t happened but she doubted it. There was something that felt right about the scene, and that feeling only increased when grey Xander and Angel burst in and pulled her body from the water to do CPR. As she watched her grey self draw a gaping breath she felt a new strength flood through her body.
The church around her began to twist and warp and shift, and the tiny patch of ground that she clung to, spun away into blackness until she was in the old factory.
There was a skeleton; a familiar-looking skeleton, with ancient-looking bones and wicked-sharp fangs. A pile of unfamiliar objects were around it, and then she could see two things at once. People, that same hazy grey colour as before, hanging above the bones by their ankles. And then herself, in the right colour, fighting near the bones and being wounded, claws cutting deep into her arm. The vampire she was fighting managed to twist her around and raise her arm so that she bleed over the bones before she got her other hand around to stake it.
The second she got the stake into it she heard the sound of struggling over the far side of the room and a pair of vampires, flanked by some out of proportion-looking creature that walked on all fours came in. The vampires carried Giles who was spitting like a wildcat. She threw herself towards them and the creature leapt to intercept her. As it brought her to the ground and buried its teeth into her shoulders the pair of vampires lifted Giles above the Master’s bones and one of them angled a knife towards his throat.
“You face it alone, or you lure them to their graves,” a disembodied, familiar voice that she couldn’t quite place whispered to her. But she was damned if she was going to face this.
She began to run, desperate to reach the vampires before that blade tasted flesh and blood, reaching out with both arms as though that would in some way help her…
The sound of a body striking a wall woke her, and she sat up looking around. It took her a few moments to remember where she was, but it came back the instant she saw Angel gingerly picking himself up with a wince, from where she had had thrown him. She had come over here after school, and had eventually fallen asleep on his bed, curled around him.
“Oh, Angel; I am so, so sorry about that.”
He felt his ribs before he drew a breath and gave her a sheepish smile.
“My fault, Buffy; I should know better than to try and wake a sleeping Slayer.” With a wince he sat down at the foot of the bed.
“Still, I really am sorry.”
“Forget it. So, care to tell?”
She frowned to herself, thinking.
“I think I saw what was meant to be, as well as what actually happened. I saw myself facing the Master alone, and being killed for it. But I still survived it. Then there was this thing with his bones over in the old factory and… Oh, God, Giles. I was meant to meet him in the cemetery tonight and I completely forgot, and there was this thing with his throat being slit, and…”
“Buffy, you need to breath.”
His hands came to rest on her shoulders, and she found the weight and coolness soothing and anchoring. She could think again. More importantly, for the first time in a long time her concern wasn’t only for herself.
Right, take care of first things first. She drew in a deep breath, held it for a few moments and then let it slowly out. It had just been a dream, it hadn’t happened. Not yet, at any rate. She had time, time to warn him, time to prepare. That was, if it was a portent.
But dear God, if it wasn’t, then it was all her fault for not being there, where she had said she was going to be. She knew how easily a reconnaissance mission could turn into a fight for life.
“What’s the time?”
“It’s a couple of hours before dawn. I was going to wake you, but you looked so peaceful sleeping that I didn’t want to disturb you.”
Buffy bolted up in the bed and threw the covers off, swinging her legs out and standing. She grabbed her jersey and Angel grabbed her arm, forcing her to turn and face him.
“Buffy, think about it. What are you going to do?”
She shook his hand off her arm. The last thing she wanted at the moment was him trying to placate her.
“I’ve got to go, and make sure it was a dream,” she grabbed a stake, and had the door open before he grabbed her again, “I can’t afford you slowing me down like this, Angel.”
He grasped both of her shoulders, and held her still, “Listen to me, before you go rushing out. There’s a phone just outside in the hall. It isn’t going to take much time to ring and see if he’s home. If he’s not, then you can let his partner know as well. That has to be better than facing whatever you dreamed about alone.”
Sure, the phone. How could she have missed something so obvious? She shoved the stake into her pocket and grabbed the phone up, ringing the number that Giles had given her as a home number, and listened to it ringing at the other end of the line with her heart in her throat. There was no answer, but at least she was thinking now.
Next she dialled the school and the extension for the library and again, there was no answer.
Angel came out of the room and watched her as she shook her head, then tried one last number. Xander didn’t have his own phone-line, but Willow did. She was the last person that Buffy could think of.
This time, after ringing a half-dozen times she heard the click of the receiver being picked up and a sleepy voice answered, “Willow here, who’s this?”
“I’m sorry about the hour, but do you know if Giles made it home safely tonight?”
“He’s fine,” Willow’s voice became cold, and she hung up without another word.
Buffy slowly lowered the receiver back into the cradle, then she turned to face Angel.
“Well?” he asked.
“Willow said he’s fine. But…but… oh, I don’t know. Even knowing that, I’m not going to be able to get back to sleep tonight. I’m going to head out and make a pass over a couple of cemeteries on the way home.”
“Did you want company?”
She did, but she didn’t. Later today she was going to face the world again. For the last few hours of darkness she was going to face herself, instead.
“Thanks, but I’ll be fine.”
He nodded like he understood with nothing further having to be said, and she grabbed her bag out of his bedroom and headed out into the dark morning.