Here we go then:
Chapter Eleven - Moonlight
Day was closing into darkness, the sky fading from the cool aquamarine of daylight into a rich sapphire dusk. A light dusting of stars was beginning to appear, as the Milky Way arched her back over the world. Buffy strolled towards the village, the footpath before her in silvery illumination from the full moon that shone bright and high above the horizon. It was cold and clear, the crisp clarity broken only by cumulus clouds occasionally blown along on high altitude winds. They’d pass across the moon, dramatically inky against its pale face, reducing it to a chalky smudge for a moment, sending the world into mysterious shadow.
The night was typical of the slow transition into spring, the last gasp of winter before the equinox, and it promised to sprinkle the ground with crystals of frost before morning. Tonight Buffy felt it was good to be alone. It felt familiar, stalking the night, but it wasn’t like patrolling the urban streets of Sunnydale. The air here was cool, fresh, lacking the salty tang of the ocean, and it rasped in her lungs as she walked. The sounds of the English countryside were different too, softer, quieter. The constant roar of the distant freeway was blissfully absent and the silence was broken only by the occasional sound of a car passing through the nearby lane.
The path she was following led over farmland, tracing the edge of the fields of winter wheat before taking a turn over a stile into the woods. Here she started to feel uneasy, as the path led her though coppices of rough shrubs and dense spinneys of old trees, features that she knew from her dreams, before thinning out near the church track. The trees here, still bare of leaves at the onset of spring, threw a charcoal shadowplay against the darkening sky. Black against the twilight heavens, their shapes revealed the spirits within, fingers of twigs twisting into the night, reaching up to chase the hare from the moon. All the time she felt watched, as if the wood itself was on its guard, and she walked quickly on, not wanting to spend a moment longer in this place than she needed to.
By the time she’d reached the track by the church and had rounded the churchyard, her internal red alert had settled back to amber. Her adrenalin rush still buzzed despite the lack of incident, but it seemed this wasn’t to be the night after all. Disappointed, she crossed the green; the swans settling down together for the night at the side of the lake paying her no regard as she passed. From there, she scooted quickly across the road, darting between parked cars to reach her destination - the pub.
Buffy was getting used to English pubs now, even if they still made her uncomfortable. She’d been in a few bars in the time she’d spent in London and even there she’d felt oddly out of place, but it was the country pub that she found the most intimidating; the Slaughtered Lambs full of locals that didn’t seem to have seen an American before. The Gallows appeared to be pretty typical. Partly hidden behind a garden of roses and evergreens, it was old and settled with age. It sat low in its wooden frame, despite its two stories, and the tiled roof sagged ominously in several places. Here and there the pebbledash had been inexpertly patched and it bulged under the whitewash. Beside a small sash window in the misshapen wall, hanging basket guardians, bursting with trailing lobelia and mournful fuchsias, their heads drooping in sorrow after being clipped by the frost, flanked a door glossy with fresh black paint.
Buffy ignored the signs declaring ‘Good Food’ and ‘Real Ale’, and made her way through into a low-ceilinged room, moodily lit by shabby faux-gaslamps stained with the ochre of old nicotine. Candles were set out and lit on polished tables marked with prehistoric moisture rings, like wide mouths that looked forever thirsty beneath the brewery ashtrays and Guinness beer mats. The soft light glinted off bugles and horse brasses, carefully displayed on dark wooden ceiling beams, and the walls were crammed with faded hunting prints, cheap County maps, and shelves stuffed with Toby jugs and copper pots. The room stank. Cigarette smoke and stale beer from countless drinks spilled and absorbed into the tastelessly patterned carpet, competed with the bitter aroma of a real open fire, upon which fresh logs cracked and spat as the wood was consumed by hungry flames.
Buffy approached the bar, where several regulars stooped blearily over their pints. At the feet of one of the men, a huge black dog stretched out indolently. As she approached, it lifted its head lazily, as if the effort was a great burden. When it saw she carried no food, it returned to its lazy sleep.
The landlady, a tall woman in her fifties with tight curly brown hair and glasses, gave her a broad smile in welcome. “What can I get you dear?”
“A Coke, diet please.” While the woman set about serving her drink, Buffy picked up the brief menu that had been left at the bar. She might as well have dinner here if there was nothing to eat back at The Retreat besides the old soup.
“What brings you to Little Darrow?” the woman asked after Buffy had ordered her food.
“I’m caretaking a place up the road.”
"You've taken over the Watchers' place, have you?" the landlady asked, raising her voice over the sound of the fruit machine disgorging a meagre jackpot.
Buffy sipped her coke. "You know it?"
Mrs. Mills crossed her arms and lent on the bar, getting comfy enough for a prolonged chat. “Trade’s been dead since they closed that place, especially this early in the year without the tourists. And what with this business with the missing people, no one’s coming anymore. It’s hardly worth opening. I’m Mrs. Mills, by the way.”
“Buffy Summers,” Buffy replied, ignoring the smothered sniggers from the locals. “Missing people. I heard about that.”
Mrs. Mills nodded. “There’s been a spate of it; people disappearing into the night never to be seen again.”
“I heard there might be a serial killer,” Buffy prompted, fishing for more information.
“Or a cult,” said the man with the dog, eagerly waving a fiver at Mrs. Mills for another pint. He was youngish, with black hair and a cheery expression.
“You’re letting your imagination run wild again, Mick,” Mrs. Mills smiled indulgently as she drew the bitter into the glass for him. “You’ll be saying its aliens next.”
“Stranger things have happened.” Mick replied. He’d obviously been offering his theories about the disappearances before.
Mrs. Mills placed his pint before him and took his money. She nodded to Buffy as she turned to the cash register. “It was vampires the other night.”
“Vampires?” Buffy asked.
“Alright, take the piss, but I know what I saw.” Mick chuckled to himself. He looked hopefully at Buffy, but she didn’t like the glint in his eye. “I was out on the green, taking Rosie here for a walk, and I saw one.”
“And how do you know that?” Mrs. Mills asked as she put his change in front of him. She knew his answer already.
“It was human one minute. The next, it had these huge teeth. It came after me,” Mick’s face shifted, human merging with demon as he laughed. “I never made it home.”
The pub fell silent. Buffy looked around. Three of the other locals had got up off their stools and had moved to flank her, their faces moulded into hellish contours, the fourth turned away from the fruit machine, ignoring his two cherries and a nudge. Seven sets of amber eyes shone in the candlelight. Buffy looked down at the dog, Rosie, who snarled rabidly, her canine features flattening into their own distorted shape.
“I pity the demon that got the doggy deal,” Buffy quipped automatically, but her heart wasn’t in it.
Mick rushed her first. He was clumsy, inept, untrained, but aware of his new strength. He pushed her back like a battering ram, forcing her against the bar, but not one of his undisciplined punches went unblocked.
While Buffy was deflecting Mick’s blows, Mrs. Mills took her opportunity and grabbed her around the neck, pulling her backwards onto the bar. Buffy struggled, looking for leverage and air, but just managing to clip Mick’s chin hard enough with the tip of her boot. His head snapped back and he reeled backwards. Off balance, he tripped over the dog, and they both crashed into a table, tossing it over onto its side.
Two of the other villagers closed in, each catching one of Buffy’s thrashing legs. She twisted to kick one and the movement managed to snap her out of the publican’s grip. Before Mrs. Mills could snatch her up again, Buffy used the bar to propel herself upright; punching one man square in the face and giving the other a swift, but powerful kick to the groin, which sent him sprawling with an agonised moan. The man she’d punched went for another swing of his meaty fist. Buffy ducked under the right hook and bounced back up with the stool she’d snatched up while low.
She was having fun! The fight was easy, but it had been a long time since she’d had to fight so many at once. She reckoned that a large proportion of the vampires she fought were fledglings like these, and she didn’t expect any of the villagers would last long against her. Despite the innate abilities that their demons brought with them, new vampires often fought badly; still confused by their rise from the grave and their new status, they were often unaware of the potential their bodies now offered. In Sunnydale, few would ever survive beyond their first night, picked off during her regular patrols before they had a chance to kill. The canny ones, the ones that avoided her and the pointy end of her stake, were the ones that survived to grow stronger, the ones that had kept her in a job. None of this bunch displayed that kind of self-preservation.
Buffy smashed the stool against the bar, quickly selecting a broken leg as a suitable stake. During the commotion, Rosie had scrambled over her master and had attacked her leg, tearing at the boot-cut denim of her jeans as she tried to reach flesh. Buffy hauled her off, and plunged the stake through the animal’s ribcage, hoping that she’d found the heart. The dog exploded into dust.
One down, six to go.
The pair of villagers that had attacked her before closed in again, lunging awkwardly at her; they were dodged and dispatched to the underworld with a swift one-two, as stake met unbeating hearts.
Mick picked up a table and slung it at her. “This one’s for Rosie!”
It struck Buffy’s shoulder and its momentum knocked her to the ground. When she put her weight on her arm to stand, it hurt, but the injury appeared to be minor, nothing serious. She struggled into a crouch, but Mrs. Mills had appeared behind her, pulling her up by the neck of her shirt. The former landlady growled, hoping for menace, but Buffy had heard it all before. She drove her elbow into Mrs. Mills’ stomach and wriggled free, pushing the vampire onto the remnants of the stool. One of the remaining legs impaled her chest; she looked down at it in surprise, before disappearing from the earth forever.
There were only two villagers left now, Mick and another vampire, a small man who’d so far kept to the back of the fight. Buffy went on the offensive, vaulting a table to reach him. He tried to smash his pint over her, missing completely, and with a punch in his gut and a stake rammed between his shoulder blades for good measure, he crumpled, quickly joining the others in dusty death.
Buffy whirled round, looking for her last opponent and was caught in Mick’s strong grip by her ponytail. He yanked her head back, going for her exposed neck as she staggered into his grasp. Before his teeth could break the skin, she ducked, rolling him over her back in a judo throw. He landed heavily, with one arm in the open fire. The flames took hold quickly, igniting him with a roar like a blowtorch as it tore up his arm. The vampire screamed as he went up like the Wicker Man and his body disappeared in a puff of ash.
“Bet you always wanted to go down in a blaze of glory,” Buffy made her customary pun to the empty pub, brushing off the vampire dust and letting it settle into the nasty carpet with the other stains.
She tested her sore arm. It was bruised and it could do with an ice pack, but it would have to wait. Something was making these vampires and she needed to find it before the whole village was lost to them. Her uneasiness returned. She had a pretty good idea where to look.
She left the pub quickly and tried the churchyard first, somehow unwilling to enter the trees. It was unlike any cemetery she'd ever seen. There were no tidy lines of neat headstones here, no disturbed earth on fresh graves. Instead, the tombstones were jumbled, neglected. Some were broken, listing in soft earth, while others were overgrown with grasses and thickets of tough brambles laden with burgeoning buds. There were few that were less than fifty years old, and there was nothing recent at all.
Reluctantly, she left the churchyard and crossed the track into the woods, her dream guiding her way through the shadowy trees along rough local tracks. She searched for an hour, finding little evidence of evil. The woods weren’t big, but there was no way she was going to cover all of it before dawn. The night was now hushed around her, a silence that smothered like a blanket, muted and oppressive. She felt watched again, by mute observers all around her, the foreboding tangling her guts in her empty stomach.
She trudged on, following a new path into a clearing deep in the centre of the trees. At least it appeared no different to anywhere else in the wood. Her flashlight picked out dark earth and thick bracken dying back against bare oaks. She nearly missed what she was looking for. Amongst all the dead wood and armfuls of dry autumn leaves, she found a number of graves. They gaped, shallow and empty to the sky, like terrible wounds in the earth. She brushed through the undergrowth, snapping through the dry twigs, and found more, but still none with any occupant.
With little other evidence to be found in the clearing, Buffy moved on, satisfied that her fears were justified and dreading what else she might uncover. But her search turned up nothing else, and as the church bell tolled two, she turned and headed back towards the footpath, looking forward to returning to The Retreat and the large four-poster bed waiting for her there.
But then she felt it, a primal sense warning her of evil. She couldn’t see anything, but she quickened her pace and took a firmer grip on the stake in her pocket. The presence felt as if it was closing in, almost a breath away from her shoulder, and her alarm intensified, tongues of dread licking up her spine. Blinking, she thought she saw faces in the shadows, but she wasn’t sure and despite herself, despite the Slayer, she broke into a run, keeping off the path, ignoring the nettles and grasping thorny bushes, until she reached the church track again.
There she stopped, looking about for any danger before she turned for home the long way. She walked a few yards. A laugh broke the night’s silent spell. A laugh she thought she’d never hear again. A laugh she never expected to hear here. A laugh she still dreamt of.
She turned back towards the woods, staring stunned as he stepped out of the shadows. Hair as white as bone, slicked back. Features fine, even in game face, his expression gleefully vicious.
Her heart tripped with shock.
"Remember me, luv?"
Previous parts are here.
Beta thanks to hesadevil, calove, gamiila.