I'm starting on the horror element of this story now, so there is some yuckiness in this one. Nothing too bad I think.
Chapter Thirteen – Unlucky
Sleep finally came to Buffy after a few tearful hours, her sore eyes drifting closed after she’d seen Friday dawn clear and crisp. She slept until the early afternoon, woken by a burst of weak winter sun that lit the room through a gap between the heavy curtains, which gaped open where she’d carelessly drawn them before going to bed. The bright rays dispelled the shadows and threw a narrow stream of pallid light across the ancient bed, dissecting it with a warm line, cosy but dazzling to her tired eyes.
Where the skin of her face was exposed, debouched from the soft cocoon of linen sheets, the gentle heat warmed her cheek like a lover’s hand. The frigid air had cooled through the morning, as the fire in the old hearth had burned low to glowing embers and gone out. It had kept her from freezing in the night, but it had never threatened to rid the room of its unwelcoming chill. She snuggled deep into the bedclothes to end her shivers and wished she’d never left the warmth of California.
Eventually, ignoring the radiator that remained cold without the electricity, she rose, braving the icy embrace of the day to relight the fire. Getting up meant testing her weight on her ankle and she discovered that it was still painful to walk on; the nifty swiftness of her slayer healing was, unfortunately, not instantaneous. Checking out the injury, she found that the damaged flesh was still puffy and tender in the sorest spots, and it would be another day or so before she would be able to use it fully again. The pain was a sharp reminder of the previous night’s events, which in the clarity of day seemed unreal; like some surreal dreamscape made from her wishful thinking and her darkest fears, all tangled together in the dark dimensions of her subconscious. But The First was real enough, and so were the villagers who still walked the earth after their deaths. Something awful had happened to Little Darrow.
Under the high vaulted beams of the Great Hall, she ate a frugal meal sitting alone at one end of the grand antique table. It stretched out before her; a long thin bridge of polished, but dusty, walnut, spanning the silent room to a distant horizon pinnacled with neat stacks of silver condiment sets. This was the first food she’d eaten since her lunch the day before, and the hot soup she'd heated, on a little gas stove she'd found in a store of camping equipment, filled her inside with a wholesome flush that lifted her spirits and renewed her sense of purpose. It didn't matter if it counted as breakfast or lunch, the tinned soup was still the only edible food in the building, but at that moment she was grateful for its reassuring warmth, as the stern faces of the Watchers on the walls looked down on her with disapproving stares, silently accusing her of inaction as she took each mouthful. They could go hang. She was hungry and injured, but she knew her duty all too well and she didn’t need them to remind her. So, after she’d cleared her bowl away, she limped back into the unlucky village, spurred on by her own determination to drive the scourge of The First from the benighted place, and certainly not due to any compulsion to obey the Council’s painted lineage.
The day was cold, with a fresh north wind whose bitter teeth bit into her skin as she walked. She kept a brisk pace, as much as her ankle would allow, hoping there was nothing evil waiting for her in the low tangled hedgerows. Now and again, the sun would peep through gaps in the overcast sky, only to be smothered moments later by low scudding clouds that pressed in morosely above her. They made the world seem small, close and claustrophobic, like the confines of her grave, and she wished fervently for blue skies and summer sun to take that feeling away. Instead, the changing chaos above her cast dramatic shadows that swept across the fields and shallow valleys, chasing away the sunlight before the cycle could start again.
Despite the dismal light, a sharp edge of adrenalin kept her alert and watchful. She knew she was probably safe from direct attack as Evil loved the darkness, distaining the day, and the vampires certainly had reason to fear their neighbourhood star. Not that it had ever bothered Spike too much, she thought with a wry sadness. Anyhow, it was risky weather for a vampire to chance a game of Russian roulette with the leaden skies - the cloud was cover too thin and the sun waited deadly in the chamber for any small break in the billowing blanket. However, despite the temperature, the capricious changeability of the sky and the small risk of imminent assault, it would have been a pleasant day to be in the countryside.
She made a point of avoiding the woods this time, even though she knew that the dense thickets of bare shrubs masked the truth of the evil that pervaded this place. She wasn’t ready for that yet, it could wait until her ankle was stronger and she knew just what The First had done. Instead, she took the longer route, skirting the edge of the trees and following a fork of the path around the back of a house that was screened from the rest of the village and the road by the branches of the churchyard’s brooding yew. Although it wasn’t a small building, it hunkered low in a lush hollow of horticultural perfection; a neat expense of crisp green lawn bordered by verdant herbaceous borders and finely pruned rose bushes waiting for the year to turn to the easy days of summer to bloom. She followed the path until it joined the track that cut through the woods and crossed onto a gravel driveway that led to the house, whose sign, a black iron plaque decorated with cheerful squirrels gathering nuts, proclaimed it as ‘The Vicarage’.
It turned out not to be the romantic country cottage of her childhood dreams, but a pretty neo-Gothic house built in the same light local sandstone to be sympathetic to the style of its ecclesiastical neighbour. It looked shabby and lived in; the façade pitted and weather-stained, and twists of ivy curled into the cracks between the blocks. The edges of the fine carving had blurred with a hundred plus winters, distorting the faces of the figures into hideous mutilations that grinned at her mockingly.
Ignoring the gargoyles, she knocked on the front door, even though she knew she wouldn’t get a reply. She wasn’t surprised when she didn’t receive an answer. The silence hung expectantly for a time, leaden with an ominous stillness, daring her to break it, but she started to search for another way inside instead. The windows at the front were firmly shut to keep the heat inside, and they were glazed with the same leaded glass as those at The Retreat, small thick diamond panes that would take an effort to smash if she was going to make a hole wide enough for her to fit through. She didn’t want to break them unless she had to, so she gave up and tried the back of the building, awkwardly climbing a high fence to get into a small courtyard of outhouses. Here, there were wooden sheds dark with creosote and old greenhouses full of seedlings and terracotta pots, a creaky lean-to housed a collection of well-used garden tools and a small brick summerhouse looked out over the tidy garden. She searched through them all, but there were no signs of life in any of them.
On an annexe that branched from the main house, she found a door hanging loosely from a single broken hinge - as if it had been wrenched from its frame with great force. Through the doorway, Buffy found a workshop stuffed with tools and drawers overfilling with nuts, bolts, screws and other objects Buffy thought Xander might recognise but were a mystery to her. It was messy, disorganised and it smelled of old metal and rust like dried blood, but apart from the damage to the door, there was no other sign of struggle.
Another door lead from the workshop through to the inside of the house, and it proved to be as empty as the grounds. Possessions were left untouched as if the residents had just popped out, and Buffy felt like an intruder prowling in their personal space. Yet she knew that these people weren’t coming back. Here and there, she’d find evidence that all was not well. There was a full load of laundry in the washing machine, still damp and musty from neglect; the preparation of a meal had been abandoned midway and the ingredients had begun to moulder on the worktop, the meat dried and dark; the television still blared a news channel to missing ears and the telephone line was cut. Only ghosts lived here now.
Buffy wasted no more time there, and she left the house to its emptiness. She walked back down the driveway and along the track into the village proper, all the while keeping one eye on those menacing woods, but nothing stirred there to concern her.
Little Darrow in daylight looked vastly different, but no less eerie, than it had the night before and the stark silhouettes that had dominated the dark had become pretty little buildings devoid of life; yet they felt ever watchful, like sinister sentinels, ensuring that she didn’t escape. She ignored the church for now and headed towards the cottages and the pub on the opposite side of the green. The Gallows was just as she’d left it; disarranged with the broken tables and chairs still lying where they’d fallen in the fight. She clambered over them to the bar and tried the telephone, but it too was cut off; she now doubted there was a working one in the whole village. She tried her cell phone again as she got outside, but although the display showed a signal strength that flickered from one bar to nothing and back again, she couldn’t keep connected to her network for long enough to make a call or send a text for help. Resigned to waiting for her ankle to heal before she could reach the next village and decent reception, she gave up, shoving the phone into the pocket of her coat in frustration, she would have to do without electricity for now. She was on her own again.
Moving on with her investigations, she knocked on the doors of the cottages still with the hope that there might be someone alive to answer her urgent hammering. But there was nothing; the whole village was dead and empty, a chocolate box ghost town seemingly forgotten by the outside world. The village was small enough that it didn’t take her long to conclude that the inhabitants were either already dead or taken, cursed to walk the night as revenants; vampires or Bringers made to serve under the command of their dark master.
She was too late.
There was one more chance. She crossed the green again and returned to the church, seeing it as the only possible sanctuary for the living in this forsaken place. From the frame of the dark wooden lychgate, the church loomed authoritatively before her; a solid, eternal place that seemed to reassure something deep inside her soul, ‘no evil can touch you here’. She knew better than that.
The churchyard had been well kept and it was trimmed and neat, but the quiet serenity was deceiving. The more she looked, the more she found evidence of struggle; a cracked headstone that had seen a great impact and which crumbled at her touch; areas of the path where the rough gravel had been raked up into shallow furrows of pebbles and loose sand by desperate fingers scrabbling for freedom; a dark sinister trail that lead towards the wide stone porch. Blood had been spilt there, and a significant amount too, judging by the thick splatter that stained the mighty church doors and the flecks that marked the nearby headstones. A hand, the palm wide and open, had smeared blood onto the glass that framed the order of services, leaving a fuzzy primeval print as its owner’s epitaph. Dried to a dark umber where it was heaviest, large patches of orangey-red smudges washed the flagstones of the porch with violence. No one living had sought sanctuary here and survived.
The church keys still hung in the heavy iron lock and it made a satisfying clunk as Buffy turned the big key to release the door, pushing it forward into the nave. At first the church looked untouched; the atmosphere inside hushed and tranquil, the emptiness of the space making it feel somehow forgotten and abandoned, sinking under a sorrowful melancholia. Even the floral arrangements, the delicate lilies and white roses that decked the church for a wedding that would never happen, had withered and died, and they drooped solemnly with quiet regret. As decadence became decay, their petals dropped slowly onto cold flagstones engraved with names of the dead. But then the sun came out, and the mood shifted as it shined through the stained medieval glass like a ladder to heaven. The panels shone as radiant as the day they’d been made, each a celebration of jewelled blues and lush reds, and they drenched everything below with a vivid watercolour wash that made Buffy’s heart sing.
The gently serene beauty drew her inside and she approached the front along a small aisle, formed on each side of the church by four rotund columns. They stood as solid as the ages, their reaching heights spreading into wide gothic arches that spanned the high ceiling like the ribs of a giant beast. Beneath them, there were neat lines of uncomfortable looking pews, worn with centuries of use. They were ornate, made from sturdy oak and carved with intricate carvings, and she ran her fingers over scenes from Bible stories, mowing devils and the perils of hell. Other figures seemed older, more pagan, and incongruous in a house of God; male faces that spewed mouthfuls of leaves, horned gods and women posed in brazenly sexual positions that made her blush and withdraw her hand. She turned her back on them quickly.
A heavenly veil of soft light screened her from the altar. A stream of bright sunshine, filtered through the knowing head of a haloed saint, threw a spotlight onto the grim sight below. The altar had been desecrated; the cheery spring colours of green and yellow stained dark with blood where it ran down the front to pool leisurely on the step. Between two sets of red candles, carefully arranged for her to find with its arms spread wide in a gruesome welcome she really didn’t want to reciprocate, the headless corpse of the priest lay slumped on its back across the altar. Creating a golden exclamation point to the macabre message, a Bringer’s knife clove the dead mans’ heart.
Outside, the clouds swallowed the sun and the church fell into shade. The altar candles flickered and lit the scene with golden shifting highlights. From above her, came a low chuckle. Buffy looked up; a set of symbols, grotesque and profane, had been daubed on the walls in greasy blood and they dribbled down like banners proclaiming the victory of evil. Framed between them, like a great dictator waiting to bask in the exultation of the masses, The First leant dramatically on the edge of the pulpit, its – Spike’s – eyes glittering with amusement.
“I’ve re-decorated,” it said.
“I’ve noticed,” Buffy replied icily, instinctively placing a hand on her concealed stake. “It has your usual flair.”
The First grinned at that, stepping down from its eyrie, slowly taking the winding steps one by one with a louche and suggestive roll of its narrow hips. “Thought you’d like it. Worth risking Mr. Sunshine to see you happy.”
Fed up with this pointless bluster, Buffy crossed her arms. Her eyes tracked the entity’s every move. “Where are they?”
The First moved towards the altar and the sickening tableau it had created. It yanked the knife free from the body and inspected the bloodied curve of the blade with a kind of amused satisfaction, as if still delighted with its ability to touch. “Where are who? Gonna have to be a little clearer than that.”
“The villagers. The ones that didn’t die.”
Unconcerned by her question, The First roamed leisurely to the other side of the church, passing a tomb in a small alcove where a knight and his lady remained in their private chapel. On their stone bier, they slept in quiet repose, the blank marble eyes of their effigies, carved to stare into eternity, remained pale and sightless, silent witnesses to the re-dedication of their resting place. “I don’t recall any of those, Pet.”
“Don’t call me that,” she snapped automatically, it was all too easy to forget for a moment and fall into old habits. “Your army has to feed on something, and I’m willing to bet they haven’t gone veggie. Where are they?”
“Now that would be telling,” The First flicked its eyes towards her, locking its gaze with her own and practically licking out its next word. She ignored the way the light cast deep shadows on those cheekbones, reminding her of intimate moments with a lost vampire, in a crypt and a city far away in distance and memory. “…Pet.”
“Shut up!” Buffy seethed, squeezing her fingers into fists.
“Think I’ll burn?” The First asked, pointing towards the font. The intricately moulded stone chalice brimmed with clear water, but a dark object she couldn’t see broke the shimmering reflections.
She didn’t have time for these petty games. “I can only hope.”
It was then she noticed what the object in the pool of holy water was. The vicar’s missing head, eyes open in terror, its mouth open in a scream cut short. The First picked it up by a scruff of curling red hair. Dead flesh hissed and smoked, spitting like quicklime.
The First held tight, enduring the pain as it burned. “Catch.”
The next thing she knew the head was lobbed in a low underhand trajectory towards her. She dodged and it hit the floor behind her, landing with a heavy squelching bounce before rolling under the front pew. She looked at it for a moment, horrified, as the vacant eyes stared back.
The First laughed again, but humourlessly. “I thought you were going for a header.”
“Where are they?” She demanded, her voice ragged with anger, looking up at The First in utter disgust.
“Haven’t you worked it out yet? They’re dead. Every single one of them,” it replied. “Like you will be.”
It moved towards her with a vicious grin. “I’m sure I’ll get a tasty bite out of you, right enough. But I won’t be feeding you to that rabble. They can carry on eating the next village and the next…”
“Then they’ll meet slayers. They won’t get far,” Buffy said defiantly.
“There won’t be enough,” the entity breathed. “There will never be enough.”
“There’s always enough.” She went for the door, there was no point staying to listen to this anymore, but The First blocked her way, stopping her leaving.
“Are you scared yet?” It asked.
Buffy snorted. “Hardly.”
Buffy was fast and her skills had become instinctual over her years as the Slayer, but still she hesitated. As she gripped the stake, Spike’s face looked back at her and, for a moment, she didn’t think she could stake the entity. In another place and time Angel had stood before her like this, his fate delivered into her hands for her judgement. She done it then and delivered the sentence, sending him out of the world with the thrust of her sword, but the scars left on her heart were still raw even now and she didn’t think she could do it again. She had to remind herself that this wasn’t Spike, despite the hair and those clear blue eyes, and she steeled herself to lose the only connection she had left to him on this earth; even if it was wicked and evil, and bent on spreading it’s darkness across the world. With a steely sense of purpose that detached her emotions from the act, she plunged her stake into The First’s borrowed heart.
And it remained there, protruding from the strong muscled chest, but no dusty death followed. She stared at it for a couple of minutes, trying to figure out what was wrong. The First looked down at it and poked it a bit. When it looked up those eyes were shining with purpose.
“Wha…?” she started, too shocked for speech.
“Do what you like. You can’t destroy me.”
“But the Holy water, it hurt you!”
“Yeah, funny that. Stings like a bitch, but it seems it won’t kill me.” The First leaned in close to deliver its threat. “If you aren’t scared yet, you should be.”
Previous parts are here.
Thanks to myfeetshowit, calove, frimfram, sockmonkeyhere for the beta.
*updated with new ending.