I'm so embarassed about how long it is since my last chapter. The Heartstone took most of that, but RL has started to eat into my writing time and I find myself getting very little done of an evening.
Chapter Twenty-One - Double Dare
From last time...
“Slayer wouldn’t be wrong at that,” a sneering voice said behind them.
The hairs on his neck prickling with cold dread, Spike turned to meet… himself.
“Well, well, well, now it seems I have both the lovebirds to play with. Good for me,” said The First, stepping over the remains of his Shaman, “but oh so bad for you.”
If the eyes were the windows to the soul, then in a short moment, Spike had a nasty and unwelcome reminder of just how dead he’d been.
The First approached; all ego, swagger and arrogant confidence as Spike looked into the dark mirror of his own gaze and found it wanting. For all the accuracy of this reflection, something was amiss. This wasn’t just a carbon copy, neither the vicious creature he’d been nor the person he’d become. There was a flat emptiness to The First’s eyes; a certain lack of occupancy that spoke of something fundamental missing inside. Where a demon should have smouldered or a soul should have blazed with life, there was nothing, no tiny spark of self in there to make up a person, even an undead one. As a personification of a concept, it was unalive, something that had never lived and never would.
Spike swallowed hard and tried not to look too closely at his dark twin, but he couldn’t turn away. The similarity was unnerving. Photographs and film could capture his image, but Spike hadn’t seen himself so clearly for more than a century. And a crushing disappointment it turned out to be; had he always looked so pathetic? Just a small man trying too hard to be everything he wasn’t – tough, cool, sexy, masking the weakness in his heart with leather, junk jewellery and a tough attitude. The face might be ageless, its apparent youth belying the true amount of years on the clock, but it was deathly pale and gaunter than it should have been, webbed as it was with lines sketched in guilt and grief.
"Quite the melodrama you two have going on,” The First chuckled, coming to a stop a few strides away. “I was enjoying the show.” Its eyes narrowed as its eyes flicked from Spike to Buffy and back again; its head tilting as its expression turned colder. “Oh, you think I haven't followed this little soap opera all along? Shame it won’t be a happy ending, I could have sold tickets.”
“Piss off.” Spike lifted his chin defiantly. He was sick of these tricks. The First was corporeal now and that meant it had something to lose. He didn’t know if it could be destroyed, but he was willing to give it a bloody good try.
Clearly, Buffy thought so too. Beside him, her body language was tense; she was primed, ready to fight.
Unfazed by their fighting stances, The First looped its fingers into its belt and puffed out its chest, taunting them with its counterfeit body. “That’s not a polite way to greet yourself.”
“Get out of here,” Spike snarled at such a mockery of his own mannerisms. “I’m done with you.”
“Are you now?” The First scoffed. “You think a few days of oblivion means you’ve changed? Just like you thought that a soul would be enough to make you a man?”
“You don’t know me.”
“Oh. Sorry. I don’t think you understand.” The dreadful doppelganger stepped into Spike’s space, up close and personal, ignoring Buffy completely. “You still have cause to fear the sun, you’ll feel the burn from the touch of anything Holy and a demon moves your dead flesh. You think you’re a Champion!” It laughed in amused contempt, but then its tone darkened and its voiced hissed, “You thought you got rid of me, but you can never, ever. I’m inside you. I’m still a part of your cold dead heart and I know everything you are.” It tapped the side of its head. "It's all up here."
Buffy took Spike’s hand, and with that gesture, she reclaimed him as one of her own to be protected under her banner. “Spike, Don’t listen. It’s full of crap – as usual.”
The First noticed Spike return the supportive squeeze she gave him and scowled. “She used you,” it spat at him with scathing contempt, “took your body for her own pleasures. Yet still you cling to her.”
“That’s none of your business,” Buffy hissed through barred teeth.
The First looked back at her, its loathing obvious. “Isn’t it?”
Spike could hardly bear the disgust in The First’s glower, knowing that once he’d looked that way at Buffy too. He dropped Buffy’s hand as a chink of doubt began to appear in his defiance, small enough not to show, but enough to let The First’s words in.
“Shut your face,” he ground out. “This isn’t the Hellmouth.”
“No, it isn’t, but haven’t you worked it out yet?” The First’s stare bored into Spike’s. “I still control you.”
Buffy humphed, crossing her arms. “Huh. You wish. The trigger is long gone.”
Spike wasn’t so sure; the trigger was only a nasty memory now, but there was a certainty in The First’s tone that he didn’t like. He knew well enough that the entity had an arsenal of other means to manipulate him, to keep him under its control. Buffy’s staunch support was welcome, but he couldn’t help thinking that it could be unwarranted. He balled a fist; he was fed up with The First’s mind games. “Just try it.”
“Oh, I will,” The First said, turning back from Buffy. “Got a surprise for you. Seems my little upgrade comes with this nifty free gift: the dead are mine to control. And what funny a coincidence, that’s just what you are.”
Its long, penetrating stare locked Spike in place. It seemed to hollow him out until he was an empty vessel to be filled with dark desires. But that wasn’t the worst part; on the periphery of his hearing, he started to hear voices, whispering words formless and indistinct. No mouths spoke them; they came from some place inside that remembered their entreaties and their cries, and it spoke for them, the soul weeping as it relived every hurt that he had ever caused.
“Spike?” Buffy gripped his arm.
He could almost feel her heartbeat accelerate as her fear for him hiked up the adrenalin coursing through her blood, but it was getting harder to hear her over the rising volume of the internal chatter.
“Listen to them,” The First sneered, gloating. “Everyone you’ve ever hurt or killed. They know what you are. Tell them you’ve changed, that you’re a good man – a Champion.”
Spike flexed his jaw, trying not to let his panic show; but even as he tried to resist, he could feel himself crumble and submit. He shuddered, his mind closing in on itself as reality faded away and sucked him into the darker place inside him where his suppressed past lived in horrible detail.
“Spike!” As she began to realise what was happening, Buffy tried to reach out to him, but The First brushed her aside. The sledgehammer blow threw her back and she landed heavily on the grass, hitting the ground with an ‘oof!’ as the force of her fall knocked the wind out of her.
Spike tumbled to his knees as his legs crumpled beneath him. He bent forwards, clutching his head, and he curled over, almost foetal, trying to shut the voices out with his hands. He wanted to scream out the pain of his victims in one go, rip it out through his throat in one terrible shriek, yet their agonies would not come. They were his to keep, not to savour now, but to haunt, to remind him that the blood could never be washed off.
But the voices wanted to be heard, not purged, and every single one of them wanted to speak at once. Louder now and oh so much clearer, they drowned out everything else. Screams of terror and howling agony, each one recalling their final moments of suffering at his hand; disgusted assessments of his worth spat out on shattered, broken voices. The truth of all the pain he’d caused laid out bare before him. They told him he was nothing but a monster in a man’s guise; that he was miserable scum not fit to walk the earth; that he didn’t deserve any redemption. None of them told him anything he didn’t know already, but their anger sank deep into his soul, tearing at him from the inside as he recognised their every word as true, pushing him back to the brink of insanity’s abyss.
“No…” he muttered, hanging on like a lifeline to the knowledge that The First was engineering this. There was a germ of resistance that would never allow The First to drag him back to the darkness. No more crawling around basements with his sanity in tatters. He’d accepted his bloody past and he could live with it. Damn his victims’ sufferings and all the lives he’d taken, he could stop others from joining the body count. “That’s over,” he yelled. “I’m not in that place anymore!”
“You’re in any place I want you to be.” The First let him go, his demonstration over for now. The voices subsided into a blessed silence that made Spike gasp and shudder out his tears into the ground.
“You are so going to pay for that.” Buffy got to her feet, rubbing her bruised bottom. “This revenge thing you’re doing, it’s getting old. There’s two of us now, we’ll find a way to get you gone for good.”
The First loomed over her. “This isn’t about the Hellmouth, pet,” it said. “I’m over it. You’re damn good at forgetting. I am evil’s antecedent on this earth. I was the first nightfall and I shall be the scream from the last throat. Every evil thing that stalks the shadows has a tiny piece of me inside.” The First took a step closer to her, but it pointed at Spike. “And so does he.”
“I know what he is. I know what he was capable of without a soul, but he’s a good man now. I’ve seen it. All you’re doing is playing games – with the both of us.” She turned her back on The First and helped Spike to stand. He knew she was right. The First was all mouth, a posturing braggart full of lies, deceits and bullshit that bent the truth in order to get under their skin. All the entity’s line of bollocks was doing was keeping them from doing anything about it.
The First laughed smugly again. “You don’t get it, do you? This is the big one. We’re talking about the darkness that swallows the day, an endless night with no dawn…”
“I’ve heard all this crap,” Buffy interjected. “‘Beneath you it devours’, ‘I will over-run this earth’, yadda, yadda, yadda. You won’t attack us. If you wanted us dead, we’d be dead already. Whatever it is you’re planning, you need us for it.”
“Still working on the over-running; got a plan and everything. You have to admit the whole flesh part turned out well. But, you see, I’m in need of a sacrifice.” The First reached out and tilted her chin up with a finger. “And I only need you.”
“What are you on about?” Spike clenched his teeth; his knuckles turning white as he fought the urge to strike out.
Buffy’s eyes flicked to him as The First held her in place. “Spike, don’t…”
“I could snap her neck, but keep her alive, paralysed. You know how,” The First told him. “But it wouldn’t be as much fun.” It shoved Buffy away and she staggered back, allowing Spike to catch her as she knocked into him. “Because I have something so much better than that. The first demons, they wait inside the earth. Near here they rest, awaiting their resurrection. I will make them live again and the world will know the true evil the Deeper Well contains. You two and your world full of Slayers won’t mean a thing.” The First chuckled darkly, “I even have one or two helpers.”
It whistled sharply, a short, piecing call to arms, and a reply was no time in coming. Dead, rotting leaves, mulchy from the autumn fall, rustled as numerous feet crushed them underfoot. Between the ailing trees, shapes made of night itself condensed into nightmare figures, scores of them, stark and deathly, their oil slick shadows cast long by the sickly moon as they responded to their cue.
The First threw its arms wide to include the enclosing circle of its vampire army. “Think you can save your dead boyfriend, Slayer? Because it looks like you’re a bit buggered right now.”
Buffy didn’t snap back a witty retort as Spike expected and he waited for her next move. She took his hand again, threading her fingers through his as if she didn’t dare let go, cementing their alliance as the army moved in to close the noose around them. He squeezed back. He understood the unspoken message. They were in this together now, straight up, win or lose.
He knew what she wanted him to do. Breaking apart, they made a run for it, Spike following Buffy as she charged through the thinnest looking point in the vampire’s line. Newly risen and still adjusting to their new strengths, they were undisciplined and weak, most parted like the Red Sea before her punches. Since its Turok Han army had been destroyed, The First had certainly downgraded.
The few that fought back were soon out-classed. Several were dust before they’d even had time to notice her coming. She fought like a goddess, fearless and powerful, but Spike could see she wasn’t as sharp as he remembered; there was a dangerous trace of stiffness in her limbs that slowed her dizzying reflexes and hinted at a lack of training. Hordes of new slayers meant easy fights it seemed.
Eventually, she burst past the stragglers and sprinted off into the dark trees, not looking back, trusting he would follow, but a couple of vamps waylaid him before he could break through and chase her out of the clearing. He finished them off, but not before the gloom had swallowed her whole.
He followed her scent, tracking her easily enough through the moonlight, until he finally caught up with her some way down the overgrown trail. Dodging the thickets of dying shrubs and the scratching, grasping vines that made lethal trip-wires in the night or tore at their legs with briary tendrils, she carefully changed paths here and there to confuse their undead pursers.
Her strategy appeared to be working; the sounds of the vampires behind them were becoming reassuringly distant, the woods returning to their pensive silence. Spike wondered if she knew where she was going, she never hesitated as she made her decisions to take forks in the paths, but she never left them, shunning the temptation to take short cuts where the trees were sparser. He didn’t know if this was part of her ruse or whether she just stuck with the paths she knew were safer, but she took them from the clearing in a wide arc that took them slowly to the top of the hill.
At a shallow gully, the path kinked suddenly as it rimmed a high earth bank. It looked like an old earthwork rampart with a ditch filled in with hundreds of years of woodland debris. Buffy, without the benefit of Spike’s keen night vision, almost skidded into it, but she made the turn and followed the curve of the feature until a break appeared where the bank had been cut away to make way for the path. Here the ground was rutted with bicycle tracks and scattered with loose stones. They had to scramble to get up to the top, but once there, Buffy finally risked to leaving the path and headed back towards the main track.
The undergrowth was thick with nettles and their progress slowed to a brisk walk. The high growth shielded them from prying eyes, but stung their hands, and Spike was relieved when they eventually stumbled onto another path that widened and merged with the main track. Again, Buffy didn’t hesitate. She turned away from the village and headed out towards the distant fields; but just as the stile came into sight, the pursuers broke out of the trees and cut off the path ahead. Not wanting to be drawn back into a fight, she turned and sprinted towards the village instead.
As the trees thinned, the village came finally into view. The mist still lingered in the hollows here, clinging low around the headstones in the churchyard, an unwholesome miasma of death’s breath. Rising above it all, signalling their sanctuary, the spire rose starkly upwards, the cross at the top an inky shadow against a dark sky scattered serenely with constellations.
But below the stars’ calm countenance, the village was in chaos.
As a ragged horde, the dead rose for judgement at The First’s command. Heavy lids slid from lichened tombs. Sacred ground broke and parted as grasping hands pushed through six feet of good English soil. Something that was once a woman stepped onto the shore of the pond and moaned, the chains that had weighed her down still tangled in the sodden rags she wore.
Centuries of the village lost, their souls long returned to Heaven’s embrace, left their graves, a decaying, shuffling mass of them. Mostly skeletons now, their bones stained dark with earth and years, only a few still bore flesh, their stares sightless and their rictus grins broad and toothy, locked in an eternal smile. They converged on the road, pressing forward on shambling, stumbling feet, their progress slow and sure.
Buffy and Spike stopped, they were trapped, their path blocked by the vengeful dead.
The First laughed from the entrance to the vicarage. “There’s no way out kids.”
Previous parts are here.
Betas this time were: hesadevil and myfeetshowit