See Chapter One for Disclaimer She moves through the night
Dancing with shadows,
Dancing with Death.
The demon-kin hold no horror for her
She has no fear for anything which walks or crawls.
For she has looked into the mirror of her soul
And found there the only thing she need fear.
--A poem translated from the ancient Sumerian
Circa 1750 BC
Faith was still quiet and withdrawn as they left the restaurant. Alex had wanted to stay and talk to his friends there for a while longer, but she had been fidgeting uncomfortably, especially when Ed and Ruthie kept talking about Kelly. When he saw that she was gritting her teeth and staring at the much larger woman with a dangerous glint in her dark eyes, he had known it was time to leave.
Back out on the streets, she'd withdrawn into herself, barely seeming to notice the world around her. He paced her as they headed back to the apartment where Kelly was waiting. Alex carried a large paper sack filled with carefully wrapped food still warm from the oven, a gift from Ed for the absent girl. Speaking of women, and food….
"I'm surprised you can even walk, after all you ate. Are you trying to gain weight?"
There was a long pause before she turned her head to look at him.
"No." He gazed at her expectantly, and she went on reluctantly, as if it were difficult to summon the enthusiasm to even speak out loud. "Food's a non-issue for Sla-- For me. So long as there's enough of it around, I really don't care what it is. And we don't get fat."
He didn't get an answer to that one. He fell silent for a block or so, watching with interest as she made her way through a complicated series of left and right turns down a near-maze of small alleyways. He had led on the way to Ed's place, and he knew this area was confusing unless you'd been through it several times, but Faith seemed barely aware of her surroundings. Despite that, she was leading the way back with unerring precision.
She gave him a blank look, then shrugged. Alex had a brief urge to grab her by the shoulders and shake her until she started speaking, but the memory of what she'd done to Kurt held him back. Instead, he tried again.
"Faith? What are you thinking about that's depressing you?"
That at least got her attention.
"What are you, a shrink now?" With her hands in her coat pockets, she wrapped it more tightly around herself. "It's nothing you need to worry about."
He shook his head; he couldn't let this drop, not with what was at stake.
"It is something I need to worry about. Can't you see that?" She was staring at the ground in front of her again, and he couldn't see her face in the near-darkness of this section of alley. "What you do now will decide what happens to Kelly, and to me. I have to know if you're going to stay around, or if the two of us need to start running."
Though he hadn't thought it possible, she seemed to shrink into herself even further at that.
"So now I'm responsible for you guys, is that it?" Her eyes gleamed at him in the dimness for a moment before she turned her head away. "You buy me dinner and now I'm all yours? You must think I'm a cheap date. Well, what if I don't want to be responsible, huh? What if I just tell you to get away from me before you get hurt?"
He knew she could do him harm; he was an average fighter at best, and he had seen her in action. Even so, he wasn't afraid of her anymore.
"You won't do anything to hurt either one of us. And if you don't feel responsible for us, then why are still here?" He slowed for a moment, stepping through and over some trash that was strewn across the mouth of the alley, and then out onto a side street. Faith had moved through it without breaking stride, and without disturbing a single thing. "You got your free meal, so why don't you leave?"
Her reply was barely audible.
"I need somewhere to sleep tonight."
She'd pulled her hands out of her pockets to comb back her hair with her fingers. In the better light he saw her pale face, beautiful and uncertain.
"Exactly. What are you going to do tomorrow? Leave or stay?"
Finally she showed some sign of renewed energy, stopping and turning to face him. He stopped too, just out of her arm's reach. At least; he hoped he was.
"All right smart guy, what do you want me to say?" Her lips were pulled back from her teeth in a sneer, and her hands were curled into fists at her sides. "You want the truth? Okay, for once I'll tell it straight: I don't know." She paused for a moment, watching him, but he just waited, and she went on. "I don't know what I'm gonna do; I got absolutely no clue. Maybe I'll hang around for a while and protect you and your girlfriend from these people. Or maybe I'll just take off; one place is as good as any, and I'm sure I can find a better one than this town." She took a long step forward, so that her face was just inches away from his. He could smell the wet leather of her coat, and the scent of the same shampoo that Kelly used. "I might even try and talk to these gang people, see if they want to hire me. Maybe the higher-ups are wicked cool, and we'll dig each other. From what I've seen, they could use some good help. It'd be nice to have a steady job again."
The words, and the look in her eyes when she said them put a chill inside him.
"Would you really do that?"
His voice had unsteadiness to it, but he didn't care. Without her on their side, Kelly and he were dead meat. Faith gave him a slow smile, then shrugged with elaborate nonchalance.
"I've done it before. Why should things change now?"
He didn't know how to answer that, so he turned away and resumed walking towards the apartment. Kelly was waiting for him; she was the one constant in his life, and he needed the reassurance of her presence now. He heard nothing from behind him, but when he glanced back he saw Faith following just a couple of paces behind. Her hands back in her pockets and her head lowered, she seemed as listless as ever. The momentary burst of animation their conversation had evoked had vanished as quickly as it had appeared.
* * * * *
A little over a block from home, Alex heard something. He paused, cocking his head and trying to catch it again. It had sounded like a cry, suddenly choked off. Faith never broke stride, continuing forward down the sidewalk. The mouth of another alleyway opened onto the street here, and she glanced into it as she moved past. He stared after her for a moment, then gave a start as the sound came again.
Definitely someone in trouble, down the alley. He walked forward, peering into the darkness and trying to make out what was happening. A few yards away, Faith had stopped, and was waiting impatiently.
"Come on, you're almost home."
He shook his head at her, edging back from the alley slightly.
"Did you hear that?" He spoke quietly, so that whoever was in there wouldn't hear. "I think I heard-"
"I know. Somebody in trouble, forces of evil, whatever." She folded her arms across her chest and looked away, down the street. "Not my problem, and for damn sure not yours. C'mon."
He stared at her in disbelief.
"You can't just ignore this. You can fight, I've seen you. You can help-"
She turned her head to regard him, and her dark eyes were weary.
"I don't do that, anymore, and I was never any good at it even when I did." She glanced past him at where the sounds of a struggle still came, faintly. "Not this time. Every time I try, I get smacked down, or dragged into something I don't want. No more." She took a step back, away from him, and the alley. "Let's get back. Your girl is waiting for you, and her food is getting cold."
Moving slowly, he set the paper bag down on the sidewalk, then turned and moved into the alley. From behind him he heard her cursing softly to herself, but that wasn't important. He couldn't just keep walking. This place was his home now; he knew these people. Even if the person being attacked were someone whose name he didn't know, he still had a responsibility. Runaway, drunk, homeless person or streetwalker, all of them had worth. All of them were human beings. He would try to help, if he could. If he didn't make the effort, then he wouldn't be able to face himself.
He was about halfway down the alley, and he could see that up ahead it widened into a sort of courtyard where the rear of several old townhouses all faced onto it. Fire escapes and metal trash cans seemed to fill the space, and the light of several dim bulbs made it bright enough to see. He could hear something growling softly, so quiet that he almost missed it.What is that? I thought maybe somebody was getting mugged, but that sounds like a dog… or maybe a bear.
Just as he was about to edge around the corner and into the court, a hand on his shoulder yanked him back.
Alex stared at Faith, and she stared back at him even as she stripped off her coat. Handing it to him, she put a hand against his chest and shoved him back slowly until his shoulder blades were pressed against the brick of the building behind him.
"Stay here, no matter what happens. Idiot."
The last was whispered under her breath, and he couldn't tell if she meant it for him or herself. Before he could answer her, she was gone.
* * * * *
She couldn't believe she was doing this. No matter how many times she repeated it to herself, it seemed like the words just didn't stick in her brain. She wasn't a hero, she couldn't afford to be a hero. It would take everything she had just to survive the next few weeks; there wasn't enough of her to spend on strangers, too.
Yet here she was, heading into something that felt uncomfortably familiar. Not the saving somebody part, she hadn't done that for a long time, at least not in her own body. The things she'd done while in Buffy form had a strange feeling of distance to them, as if it had really been another person altogether, doing those things.
No, it was her extra sense going off that was familiar; the one that warned that whatever it was that lay beyond the parked mini-van, it wasn't any sort of human being. She flexed her shoulders nervously, wondering if she were up for this. While fighting the two men earlier (if that could be called a fight), she'd felt how slow and clumsy her body had been in its movement. It might have looked effortless to those watching, but it hadn't been… and that was the problem; it should have been effortless. She wasn't in good condition after what she'd been through in the last year, and even if no one else could tell, Faith knew it to be true. Now, if it was just a vamp or two back in here then sure, there shouldn't be any….
The creature stood up, its head and chest visible over the roof of the van. It was eight feet tall if it was an inch. Its naked body looked unnaturally thin in proportion to its height, but it was corded with muscle that bunched and shifted with every movement.
It was most definitely not a vampire.
Faith had taken two steps back before she caught herself. Okay, it was a monster. She could do monsters, no problem. It had been awhile, and she'd been soundly trashed the last few times she'd fought anything besides a human being, but that didn't matter. A stirring off to her left made her look, and she saw a second creature step out of the shadows. It carried a metal garbage can in the crook of one arm, and she could see that the container was stuffed with bits and pieces of human being. In its free hand the thing clutched someone's leg, still clad in the remains of their blue jeans, with a white sock hanging half-off of the foot. The thing stared at her with huge black eyes, a bland expression on its manlike face. She took a deep breath, then moved forward.I'm a Slayer, I fight monsters, and I win. I can fight these. I can beat them.
Her body felt light, ready to move. Time to get started.
In an explosive movement she was hurtling forward, towards the first creature, the one on the other side of the van. She didn't cut left or right to go around, instead she drove straight at the thing. Two strides away from the vehicle she leapt, leaving the ground headfirst, then reaching out to grab hold of the chrome grid that decorated the top of the van. Without slowing her forward movement or losing her momentum, she brought her feet around in a horizontal arc that took both heels through the space occupied by the creature's head.
The impact sent a jolt through her entire body, and the thing's inertia was even greater then she'd expected. She still managed to land with her feet under her though, and she instantly whirled to face the thing, striking out with a fist. She connected with it; the thing was almost too big to miss, but it was like punching a car tire. The creature's flesh was so dense and rubbery that her fist all but bounced off, and doubted that she'd done any damage at all. It turned to face her, and she backed away, looking it over for a vulnerable spot. There was nothing but a flat space between its legs, so the obvious target was out; typical for demons, unfortunately.
It reached out for her, and she got a good look at its bony fingers and long, ragged talons as they closed on the air a few inches in front of her nose. Ducking under that huge hand she darted forward, trying a kick into its knee, blasting it sideways in an effort to cripple the thing. Instead of a snap or a pop, the joint just flexed slightly, then sprang back, unharmed. It turned again to follow her, mouth open to show entirely too many sharp, jagged teeth. From off to the side, the second one came into view around the van, gnawing on its snack as it watched the first one pursue her. So far it seemed content to observe, which was perfectly fine with her.
Faith put her back to the side of the van, waiting for the creature to make a move. Her only thought at that point was that if it overreached in trying to grab her, she could spring onto its back and try to twist its neck far enough around to snap it. Though if that was as tough and rubbery as the rest of it, she might just be wasting her time….
A thump from right behind her head made her jump and utter a strangled shout. Whirling to face the new threat, she found herself staring through the glass of the passenger-side window, and into the face of a middle-aged woman. She was staring out at Faith with wide, terrified eyes. She looked to be nearly paralyzed with fear; only her mouth moved as she either cried or prayed. A split-second later, there was a faint movement reflected in the window, and the Slayer hurled herself to the right. Just behind her, the thing's reaching hand smashed through the glass where her head had been a moment before, spraying glittering bits in all directions. The woman's cries were abruptly audible, and a glance over her shoulder showed Faith that the thing's attention had been diverted by the shrieks.It must have been looking in at her before, when I first showed up. It knew there was food in there, but it didn't know how to get her out. Now it does.
Reaching through the now clear window opening, it began fishing around for the morsel that screamed so enticingly. Faith reversed her course, determined to save her from that fate, only to find that the second creature had decided to come after her too. It was crossing the distance with appalling speed; those long legs really ate up distance, despite its clumsy-looking gait.Okay, no time to fool around. I need a weapon.
If she were still in the Slaying business she would be carrying around a couple of stakes. Since she wasn't slaying these days she wasn't carrying any, and it was unlikely that a pointy piece of wood could penetrate the thick hides of these things anyway. Nothing else around her looked promising, so that left her just one option. With a speed that belied her uncertainty, her hand found the hilt of her knife, and she ripped it from its sheath.
Razors made of ice slashed at her palm, and the muscles in her forearm twitched uncontrollably as a bone-deep cold surged up from the smooth metal in her hand. It was all she could do to hold on to the weapon as she ran at the thing that was now trying to fit its wide, bony shoulders through the window of the van. The knife wanted her warmth, her life; it wanted to feed on her energy and it couldn't unless she let it. That was why it was punishing her. If it went on long enough, she would give in just to make the pain go away.
Or so it thought, in whatever dim, slow way it was able to think. She might not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but she could be as stubborn as anyone. She wasn't going to let a magical piece of steel get the better of her. Especially when there was something else handy to feed to it.
She rammed the double blade deep into the monster-thing's backside, grinning as it howled and convulsed. The thing's involuntary spasm was powerful enough to rock the van up onto two wheels; which she had to admit was pretty impressive. With the steel of the knife deep inside the creature, the stinging and freezing attack that had been worrying at her hand suddenly eased. It didn't cease entirely, but it was much lessened now. The thing withdrew its head from the window and stared back at her, and she ripped the blade free, spinning around just in time to see the second one about to grab her with both massive hands. Without a thought she was airborne, springing not left or right, but straight at the creature. She cleared its talons and came down with her feet on its wiry arms, running up and over its shoulders and head. A slash of the knife opened a deep wound in the side of its throat, and then she was sliding down its back, dragging the blade through the tough, wrinkled flesh all along the way. When she hit the ground and took a few loping strides away, she found herself smiling. The knife was growing warm in her hand now, the stinging nearly gone. She hadn't given in to it, and it had taken the food she had offered it. Maybe this was the way to train it, like she would a nasty attack dog. Show it who the boss was, make sure you never showed weakness, and it would do what you said. She turned around, wondering how much more damage she would need to do to put both of the creatures down for good-
Something smashed into her, sending her flying backwards, skidding and rolling until she came to a stop against some concrete steps. The ringing in her ears was partly from the impact, partly from the garbage can that was rolling away, spilling body parts. One of them had thrown it at her, and nailed her dead-on. She groaned, rolling up onto her hands and knees. Overconfident, celebrating before anything's won. Seems like that got me into trouble a couple of times before, too, didn't it? Stupid bitch. Get up.
Blood was trickling down the side of her face from a cut on her forehead, and it smeared her hands, too. No time to worry about it, though, they were coming. The knife lay beside her, gleaming softly crimson in the dimness. She reached out and grabbed it with one bloody hand-
Hunger consumed her, burying her in sensations that were not her own. She was a creation of magic, not intelligent, no more than the cool, ponderous instincts of a serpent are intelligence, but there was still awareness.
She hungered, for that which gave life to all creatures, be they man or demon, and her hunger was constant and without limit. Any life would do, but most tantalizing of all was that which she had tasted, but not devoured. An essence of unsurpassed sweetness, so rich and pure, and the first that she had been given since her forging. It haunted her, teasing her with its nearness, and now, with the being's blood providing a channel, it drew upon that magnificent light with all the force it could muster.
Faith snapped back into her own mind, screaming with fury and fear as a lance of bitter cold pierced her belly. It was Buffy stabbing her, all over again. She could feel the icy steel lodged inside her, even though she held the knife in her hand. Clutching at her middle, she rolled onto her side, staring with sightless eyes as her hand clamped over the wound… but there was no wound there, only taut, smooth skin. It was all in her mind, or at least in her soul. Something was happening, she could feel her life draining out of her through that long-healed injury. She was getting colder, weaker, and there was no foe to fight, no monster to kill, to make it stop.
She blinked, willing her eyes to focus. Her nightvision clearly showed the feet and legs of the approaching creatures, but the immediate threat was even closer. Her fingers twitched on the hilt of the knife where it lay on the ground before her. She couldn't let go; it wouldn't let her let go, and it was killing her.
"Stop… it." It was less than a whisper, it was only breath shaped by the feeble movement of her lips, but it helped her to gather the shreds of her will. "Stop." Her fingers twitched again, but not to try and let go. Instead, she gripped the hilt with all the strength left in the hand. Somewhere beyond the physical world, the bleeding away of her vital energies began to slow.
She knew it was up to her; no one was here to save her. She'd been beaten over and over in the recent past, and she was not the kind of person who could accept loss. It had hurt her, shattered her concept of who she was, to be beaten like that. It had left her weaker as a result. But she wasn't so weak as to lose to this. She would not die like this.
"Mine." He had given it to her, a wonderful gift, proof of the love and respect he held for her. He wouldn't have given her something she couldn't control. "You're mine." As the strength of her will solidified, the drain on her life force slowed to a trickle… and stopped. It was hard, she was so weak that it took every bit of her concentration to hold the balance, but she was doing it.
Then the creature stopped in front of her. Standing there like that, one hand still clutching at its wounded rear, it looked sort of comical. Faith smiled up at it from where she lay. When it reached down for her with those huge hands she didn't even flinch. All she did was reach out and drive the knife down through the top of one huge, bare foot. Warmth flooded into the weapon, and the balance of forces there shifted. When she pulled at the energy pooling inside the magical object, a narrow stream of it came rushing up her arm and into her body. She gave a gasp as it went through her, washing away the lassitude that had gripped her. The monster gave a booming howl of pain, and she rolled to her feet.
Time to finish this up.
* * * * *
Alex froze as Faith suddenly moved. He had been sure that the… thing she was fighting was about to finish her off. He had no idea what the creature was, only that it was more like something out of a nightmare than what he expected to find wandering the streets. He lowered the trashcan lid he'd been about to use as a weapon, and backed away.
She must have been playing possum, gathering herself while seeming to be hurt. She certainly showed no sign of injury now, moving through the dimly lit courtyard like a flickering shadow. The creature that had been about to grab her was turning around and around, trying to get those hands on its much smaller foe, but it was always a half-second too slow. Alex saw the knife the girl wielded flash over and over in the space of seconds, and dark fluid streamed from a dozen wounds as the thing finally fell to its knees, and then toppled slowly to the ground.
Faith was already gone, crossing the distance to the other with nearly magical speed. He actually lost sight of her for a moment in the shadows, then she seemed to appear from nowhere, behind the second creature. It had already been wounded in the first encounter with the girl, and it was reluctant to close with her again. She danced around it, dodging the frantic sweeps of its arms as the thing tried to keep her away. Alex would almost have been tempted to feel sorry for it, had he not seen the contents of the garbage can as it rolled past him a minute earlier. Now he could only watch in satisfaction as she wore it down, blurring in behind the thing's attacks to land hits with her blade, then fading back out of reach before it could recover and strike at her. In less than a minute it was all over. She stood staring down at the second creature's body as he slowly approached.
"Thought I told you to wait." She said, not bothering to turn.
He came up beside her, not without a cautious glance at the knife she still held. Surely it was his imagination that made it seem to be faintly glowing in hues of scarlet and gold in the dim light, wasn't it?
"I was afraid you'd be hurt. You were hurt, weren't you?"
She faced him, and he could see the trail of blood down the side of her face. That aroused his concern, but the look in her eyes held him where he stood. Her eyes were shining with an almost fevered brightness. Her breath came fast and shallow as she gave him a wide smile.
"This?" She indicated her face with the tip of her knife, seemingly oblivious to the dangerous weapon she held. "This is nothing. I feel great, five by five and ready to roll. C'mon, let's make tracks before the cops show up."
From inside her mini-van the woman was still screaming hysterically, and there were lights coming on in the surrounding buildings, now that the danger seemed to be over. Alex looked down at the oversized corpse of the creature.
"What about…. What was this?"
She had paused to find a bit of paper among the trash littering the ground, and was now using it to clean the blood off of her knife.
"Never mind about that, we need to go." She glanced over and shrugged. "'Sides, there won't be anything left for people to see in a minute. Look."
He looked, then stepped back in disbelief. The thing was dissolving, transforming in moments from a solid, unbelievable form into a blob of stinking muck. Even as he watched the goo thinned, spreading into a scummy puddle. He took another step back, then staggered as he tripped over a fallen trashcan.
A strong, slim hand caught him, pulling him effortlessly upright. He looked into those dark eyes, too dazed for the moment to even get his feet back under him. She'd put away the knife, and the fingers of her free hand were at her temple, probing the extent of the cut there.
"Who are you?"
It seemed more important now that he know. He had thought he had an idea, especially when she spoke of joining up with the Thousand Year Storm. A free agent, or someone fleeing from another, similar gang. She had the look and the attitude of a high-level enforcer. But now, after what he had seen tonight….
Faith smiled at him, her pale face moving closer.
"I told you already. I'm Faith." She raised her fingers to his face, lightly tracing his mouth. A moment later she was kissing him, the warm, salty taste confusing him until he realized that she'd smeared her blood across his lips first. He tried to pull away, to keep her tongue out of his mouth, but he failed to do either. She held him there just long enough for the point to be made; the kiss ended when she decided it did, and no sooner. Then she let him go.
He struggled to find his balance, mentally and emotionally as well as physically. Once he was on his feet, she turned and stalked away. She didn't walk; she glided, like a hunting cat on the prowl. Staring after her, he realized that he was afraid of her again, but for very different reasons than in the beginning.
* * * * *
Whistler watched the kid stand there in a daze for a minute, and then follow after the girl. Not a surprise, really; these Slayers could get anybody with a single hormone to their name bent out of shape. He waited for a short time, then stood up and walked over to the edge of the rooftop. Looking down, he saw the residents trying to coax the frightened woman out of her van.
That had been an unexpected element; she'd driven her van into the alleyway just a minute before Faith and the boy showed up. Just like the now departed spider mage had feared, he'd been unable to fully control the conjured beasts. Fortunately, Faith had shown up in the nick of time.
The demon stood and thought about that. She'd fought them, even though no one had forced her. Well, maybe the kid had laid a bit of a guilt trip on her, but that wasn't the same as someone putting a gun to her head, was it?
That was the crux of his dilemma; he couldn't force her to do the right thing. Whistler worked for a group of beings that thought very highly of the concept of free will. They recruited beings with special abilities to help them defend the earth from supernatural threats, but they wouldn't enforce a draft. The forces they controlled were volunteer only.
That would have made the Faith situation tricky enough; she seemed to be allergic to anything that even hinted of 'higher authority'. Unfortunately, things were made much more complicated by the prophecies.
Prophecies; plural. According to multiple sources, there was a nearly seven in ten chance that Faith was the subject of entire volumes of the things. Some were just nonsense, as far too many prophetic writings tended to be. However, a lot of them did make a kind of sense, and according to them, that little girl was going to instigate a tidal wave of change that would engulf the entire world. The word from some of their best seers was that millions would die in the coming years, as a direct result of what Faith did here.
Or perhaps, as a result of what happened to her here, in this city. It was important that she be brought into their organization, so that she could become a force for good, but it was critical that no matter what happened, she not be allowed to follow the path that those dark prophecies laid out for her.
So here he was, trying to find a suitable opening to approach her. He'd thought that he would have his chance after her victory against the monsters. What better time to hit her with a job offer than when she was flushed with the excitement of victory?
At least, that had been the plan. When he took a closer (though still long-ranged, magical far-seeing) look at her, he had changed his mind. There was something wrong with this girl, something off-kilter about her, and it didn't help that she'd somehow managed to awaken that artifact the human sorcerer had given her. No, Whistler had the definite impression that had he walked up to her just now, she would have given him one of those brilliant, beautiful smiles… and then gutted him like a fish.
He would wait, and watch. When BellDonna got back he would have a better idea of how to approach the Slayer. As far as he could tell, she still hadn't started down the course described by the prophecies. Maybe she wasn't even the one they talked about; nothing was written in stone until it actually happened. There might well be years, or even centuries before the right girl came along to set all those things in motion.
He hoped for everyone's sake that it was so.
* * * * *
End Book One
Author's Note: You know, if you've gotten this far you must have some opinion of the story. So, if you haven't yet written a comment/review, this brief intermission seems to me to be a logical place to pause, reflect, and hit that 'Add Review' button.