Chapter Twenty—Lions, and Tigers, and Vampires, Oh
Author's Note: Hey everyone, I just wanted to say thanks so much for all of the reviews. Unfortunately, I am struggling right now to find any time to write and simply don't have any left to write responses to reviews. However, I am trying to spend a few minutes reading them each night after work. So don't stop writing them. I get fresh ideas as well as inspiration from the things you talk about. Thanks to everyone who has inquired about my stories and their progress. I am working a little every night to try to get each story updated. Thanks again for all of the support. Now onto the story.
Connie was trying to study when she felt Cali's eyes on her back again. Yet when she looked around, Cali was reading her book. She gave Cali a narrow-eyed glance, then went back to her calculus. The next time when she felt Cali's eyes on her, Connie tossed her book down and jumped to her feet.
“What?” Connie demanded loudly.
Cali gave her a lazy look. “What what?”
“Oh, no, you don't. None of that weird California double-speak that no one but you understands. What is going on? What's with the weird looks? Do I have bed hair? Are my sweats dirty? Did I kill Jimmy Hoffa? What is going on?”
Cali gave her a considering look, carefully studying Connie's face. Finally, after a looong pause, she casually stated, “I was considering whether to bring you along tonight when I go out after lights out.”
Connie's jaw dropped. “What's going on? Are you planning another nuking? Who's the victim?”
For a moment, Cali's expression grew grim, then her face relaxed, as if she had consciously forced it to. “I wish it were something that simple. No, I'm not planning another nuking. Instead, I'm going hunting.”
Connie stared. “Hunting? For what?”
“Something that will answer a lot of the questions you have about me. Wait,” she said, as Connie started to speak. With a warning look, Cali stated, “I'm not going to tell you. Despite everything, you wouldn't believe me. You'll have to see it first. So, do you want to go along? It'll mean risking getting caught out after hours.”
Connie immediately said, “I'll go.” Sweet! She was finally going to find out Cali's secret!
Cali slowly smiled. “Okay, then. Be ready at 2300 Hours. We'll go out the window. I have enough rope to let us get to the bottom. Then it's a few minutes' walk to our destination.”
Curious, Connie asked, “Where are we going?”
Cryptically, Cali said, “We're going spelunking, Connie. So make sure to watch your head.”
Connie sat on the edge of her bed, replaying the conversation she'd had with Cali before dinner. She barely eaten anything during dinner, only picking at her food. She'd been so curious and nervous that she might as well be eating cardboard as the semi-tasty surf-n-turf meal.
Of course nerves hadn't affected Cali's appetite. She'd gotten seconds, then thirds. The more Connie watched her eat, the more foolish that she felt for not noticing even before Thanksgiving just how much Cali had been eating. Cali was averaging at least two and maybe even three times as much food as she, herself, ate. The only thing Connie could think of was that you just didn't expect someone of Cali's size to eat so much. Because of that, it made it easier to ignore what you thought you saw.
Connie shook her head, giving up on trying to distract herself from what they were doing tonight. She wasn't too worried about being out after lights out, knowing that unless they got caught by a major dick, they would likely only get an extra session of drill or maybe confinement to quarters for a weekend. Even Cali wouldn't get hit too hard by something so trivial.
No, what was getting to her was the trying to figure out what Cali had meant about spelunking. There certainly weren't any caves here at the Zoo or even nearby. Cali must be planning to head into the Tunnels that ran all under the Zoo. Those were mysterious and cool enough that everyone talked about exploring them at least once. Not that Connie knew of any smacks who had done it yet. So, if she and Cali did it, they would be the first from their year to do so.
Connie was wearing her dark blue fatigues since she was going to be out in the dark. She figured it would be better to blend in. And Cali had laid out the same fatigues on her bed as well.
Connie pondered the last words that Cali had said to her before heading to chow.Four hours earlier...
Cali nodded briskly. “Just a couple of things, first. Make sure to take a shower after dinner. Don't use any of that perfumy soap you have, though. Use that neutral stuff that they provide here for free.”
Connie frowned in disgust, then shook it off. The soap wasn't that bad. “Anything else?”
“Don't brush your teeth. Don't use any mouthwash. And don't eat anything at chow that will give you gas.”
Connie stared. “Uhh...”
Cali just nodded. “I know, I know. Just bear with me. Be glad that your period hasn't started or you wouldn't be coming at all.”
Connie was even more confused. “Hoookay...”
“Don't worry, grasshopper, all will become clear.”The present...
The door opened and Cali dashed in. “Heya, roomie.” She tossed her pack down and started unloading various books and papers. Then seating herself at her desk, Cali started working on what looked like her latest paper from Colonel O'Neill.
Connie sat staring at Cali. What the fuck? She couldn't be serious, could she? After ten minutes of trying to hold it in, she finally exploded. “Cali, how can you be so calm? Are you deliberately fucking with me?”
Cali looked up from her paper, and gave Connie an innocent look. “Now, would I do that?”
Connie nodded emphatically. “Yes, you would.”
Laughing, Cali spun her chair to face Connie. “Okay, maybe a little. Look, what we're about to do is highly dangerous. And no, I can't explain. I just need you to trust me and to be careful. Like chasing a serial killer careful.”
Was she serious? Connie nodded, even though she didn't really understand the point Cali was trying to make. They were looking for a serial killer? Then she saw that damn look in Cali's eyes. The one that asked, “Can I depend on you?” The one that measured you and found every flaw. She raised her chin and met Cali's gaze squarely, feeling a warm surge of pride at her roomie's approving look.
“I'll be careful. 2300 hours is going to be slow to come.”
“Sorry. Later is better. What we're hunting comes out late.”
“What exactly are we hunting?”
Cali wagged a reproving finger at her. “Nope. Be patient and all will become clear.”
“Fine.” Connie managed to avoid grumbling under her breath, aware that Cali would probably hear her. The girl's hearing was damn acute. She would be patient. She would be freakin' Confucius patient. That's what she would be. Even if it killed her.
Connie watched, impressed as Cali did something to the rope that made it come flying down their dorm's wall. Then it occurred to her to ask, “How are we going to get back up?” She kept her voice to a whisper to avoid waking anyone in the nearby rooms.
Cali, a darker smudge in her fatigues, flashed white teeth, then whispered back, “I'll free climb back up to our room carrying the rope. Then I'll help you back up.”
Riiigghhht. Connie bit her tongue and concentrated on what she had with her. In addition to the two flashlights she carried, she was loaded down with two wooden stakes, a bottle that according to its label contained holy water, and a large wooden cross to supplement the silver cross she wore around her neck as a good Catholic girl. Amused, she almost asked Cali if they were hunting vampires, but didn't want to be made fun of. There was probably a completely rational explanation for all of this. One that would become patently obvious once she found who or what they were hunting. Besides the mysteriousness of it all was turning out to be pretty damn fun.
She followed Cali as she wended her way around various obstacles. A couple of times they nearly stopped while Cali whispered to her about various obstructions. It was as if she could actually see them. Of course, knowing Cali, she probably had scouted the way during the day and had the whole damn route memorized. If Cali was one thing, she was thorough.
It took them nearly twenty minutes to make it to the nearest entrance to the Tunnels. Connie was aware that she was the one holding them back to a slow pace. Cali just seemed to glide along the path, not even slipping on the icy crust that had formed over the partially cleared ground. Even when they crossed over into essentially virgin territory, areas where the snow had not been cleared, Cali broke the path seemingly without effort, pushing strongly forward through the snow. After five minutes, Connie could feel her thighs already starting to burn despite her own intense fitness regime. And she wasn't even the one in the lead.
Shaking her head, she abruptly stopped to avoid running into Cali. “Are we here?” Connie asked, not able to see anything. She was going to be happy when they went underground and she could use her flashlight.
Cali whispered back, “The cover's here. You ready?”
“Fuck, yes. Let's go in. I want to be able to see again.”
Connie watched as Cali did something to the cover of the shaft. She wondered how heavy it was. It probably wasn't too bad since Cali lifted it and tossed it a few feet away into the snow. She reminded herself to check it out on the way back. She heard Cali say, “Go ahead and turn on your flashlight. You don't want to slip going down the ladder.”
“Okay.” Connie dug into the pack she carried, finally finding the flashlight. With a sigh of relief, she turned it on. She was careful not to shine it in Cali's face, keeping it at their feet. She saw the dark hole that seemingly led straight down to hell. Grinning at her own silliness, Connie watched Cali's blonde head disappear from view. Feeling excited, she headed down the rabbit hole after Alice.
Connie managed to not scream as something ran over her foot. Thank God for combat boots, she thought. Shuddering, she turned the flashlight just in time to see the huge rat disappear into a pipe. Connie caught Cali's amused look as she looked back at her. “You didn't tell me there would be rats,” she accused.
“Not that many, considering.”
“That it's a lot warmer down here than up above. I figure something's been eating rats. That's why this is the first one we've seen.”
Something was eating rats? Ewww. Connie didn't like where her mind was going. Sewer monster? Surely not. If only Cali would tell her what they were looking for.
“Cali, it's been over an hour and we haven't seen anything. How much longer are we going to stay down here?” Connie tried to keep her voice neutral as she followed Cali down yet another of the seemingly endless cement-lined tunnels.
Connie could see Cali's calm expression as she looked back. “Not much longer since we're almost there. Smell that?”
Connie had become aware of a steadily increasing smell of decaying flesh. It wasn't particularly strong with the cold weather, but it was there. “I do. What's up?”
“There's going to be dead stuff up ahead. Don't gross out. Also, if I tell you to run, do it. 'kay?”
“Sure.” So they were getting close. Connie felt her excitement, which had slowly been dwindling, kindle anew. Despite the stink, she was looking forward to locating the spot where Cali said their prey was.
It still took several minutes to get there. Connie hoped that Cali didn't slip and break an ankle because she figured it would take her all night to find her way out of the maze here. Sheesh. Abruptly, the tunnel opened up into a larger room. They stopped just inside the doorway to the room.
It was cluttered with large shapes that loomed in the dim light from the flashlight. It looked like the room was probably forty feet square and absolutely full of crap. Bulky old office furniture, bedding, and what appeared to be broken universal gym all crowded the room. And there the nasty stink grew far worse. It was thick and cloying, seemingly coating the inside of the mouth and throat with the wonderful taste of decayed flesh. Then Connie spotted a pile of dead rats and other less identifiable animals, all ripped up and tossed into a pile. They didn't look eaten really, but they were there. How had Cali known?
“Ugh,” Connie muttered, only to be sshh'd by Cali. “What?” She whispered.
Cali gave her a fierce look, then turned to listen. Then Connie heard it. A faint sound as something brushed against one of the piles present. Something big. Something not a rat. The hairs on the back of her neck rose. Connie couldn't pinpoint the source, but she saw Cali first turn towards her left, then towards her right, before heading directly into the room. Connie started to follow, but a quick hand gesture stopped her in her tracks. Nervously, she waited just inside the room.
Then Connie heard a low, rippling growl that made her skin crawl. What the fuck? What the hell was in there with them? It sounded like a large animal, and when something slammed into one of the piles sending it to the ground, Connie nearly jumped out of her skin. Then all hell broke loose.
A loud shriek tore through the room, sounding like all the hounds of hell were loose. It was answered by another growl that obviously came from yet another creature. There was another shriek, punctuated by the sounds of fists hitting flesh. Grunts and growls rang throughout the room. Connie could see shapes moving at the back of the room. Something heavy slammed into the distant wall hard enough to send dust falling from the walls and ceiling, making it even harder to see in the uncertain light.
Connie's heart raced as she heard the noises increase in volume. Fuck it, she had to help Cali. She moved towards the struggling shapes. Tripping over a stack of old text books, Connie fell to her knees. She staggered back to her feet just in time to see Cali go flying by her, hitting a stack of ancient dorm room desks hard enough to send them toppling over onto her, burying her completely.
Connie turned to help Cali, when that same rippling growl sounded behind her. Her heart racing with terror, Connie faced towards the sound. She turned her flashlight towards a shambling shape that moved with deceptive quickness towards her. Bright yellow eyes shone in the darkness. Dear God, she thought, what the hell is that thing? Then it was on her!
Connie swung the flashlight towards the figure's head, hitting it with a solid strike that vibrated the heavy flashlight in her hand. However, the effect on her target was nil. Instead of knocking it down, the figure's head turned towards Connie and those strange eyes stared directly into Connie's.
It's a monster, was Connie's first thought. The figure was human-shaped, but there was something really wrong with its face. Once it might have been a human girl, but her face was deformed now, with a bony, jutting brow, a strong jaw, and long, pointed canines. Connie's last rational thought as the thing grabbed the hand holding the flashlight and nearly crushed it, squeezing with incredible strength, was that this was a vampire. Then her head was twisted to the side, baring her neck as a slimy tongue licked Connie there.
“Get off me!” Connie shouted, aware that an edge of hysteria was entering her voice. Then, completely astonished, she heard the figure reply.
“Slayer's lickspittle,” the vampire said, her breath, smelling of old blood, touching Connie's nostrils in a nauseating manner. “I'm going to drain you dry. Then I'm going to dig her out of that shit and do the same to her.”
Connie stammered out, “W-what d-did you call me?”
In a sneering tone, the figure ground out, “You are the Slayer's dog. But it won't save you. The fools warned me about her, but they said she was in California. Lying bastards. But it doesn't matter. I killed her. Me. I'll be famous when everyone finds out about that I...”
She was interrupted by a mocking voice from behind them. “That you are in serious need of a perm? I agree. Also, if you're going to dye your hair, you really should keep up with it. You look pretty sad with all those inch-long roots showing.”
It was Cali. And just like that, the vampire was jerked backwards, releasing its hold on Connie to grapple with her roommate. Connie turned, pointing her flashlight towards the duo, blows flashing almost too fast to see in the harsh shadows. Then she saw Cali kick the vampire squarely in the face to the sound of crunching bones. The vampire tried to hit Cali, who slipped the punch with a feline grace, sliding behind her, grabbed the sides of her head and twisted viciously.
The sound of the vampire's neck snapping echoed through the room. Connie nearly vomited as Cali's foe fell bonelessly to the ground. She watched in horror as Cali nonchalantly pulled a stake from her sleeve, and squatting, started to stab it into the fallen vampire. The face was no longer that of a monster, but instead it was a girl just a couple of years older than them, pretty in a healthy, athletic kind of way.
“Wait!” Connie blurted, unable to think of anything else to say.
Cali looked up, something wild and dangerous in her expression as she met Connie's eyes. Instinctively, Connie shied away from that stare. It was the most challenging look she had ever received, making the fiercest gang-banger back in Miami seem tame by comparison. Connie looked instead at the frightened face of the girl on the ground. Scared eyes met hers. How was the girl still alive? Struggling to calm her racing pulse, Connie got out, “What are you going to do, Cali?”
The words, baldly stated, hung in the air between them. Connie wasn't sure what, if anything she would have done because at that moment the vampire spoke.
“Slayer, don't kill me.”
“Riiight. Like that's going to happen.” Cali started to drive the stake downwards, but stopped at the vampire's next words.
“I can tell you where others are. Where the one who turned me is. What they're planning.”
Cali looked down at the vampire and Connie at that moment fervently hoped that she never had anyone look at her that way. It was a combination of contempt, disgust, and outright hate, that made her skin crawl.
The vampire continued, “Let me live, and I'll tell you all.”
Cali shook her head. “I don't think so.”
“But nothing. I'm not letting you go. Instead, why don't you just tell me what you know. Before I make you.”
The vampire, who had been trying to look ingratiating, sneered up at Cali. “I won't tell you anything.”
Pitiless eyes stared down at her. Slowly, Cali unfastened the cross she wore around her neck. Then she dangled it over the vampire, her smile looking oddly satisfied as it looked up at her with fear. “In the end, you'll tell me whatever I want to know. Then I'll stake you.” With that, she shoved the cross into the girl's mouth, Cali's hand covering her mouth and muffling the screams. Nothing disguised the burning smell of overcooked meat that rose along with smoke from the vampire's mouth.
Connie retched again, on her knees out in the hallway. She had just vomited her entire dinner of steak and fish, carrots and peas. Her throat raw, Connie spat, before moving back from the pool of tonight's dinner. She stopped several feet away. What she had just seen and heard... Connie shivered silently.
Dismissing the image, she focused on the blessed silence that was present now that the vampire was dust. It had literally turned to dust after Cali stabbed it once its confession was done. There was nothing left of it but a pile of ashes. Then Connie became aware of a hand on her back, rubbing gently. Oddly, despite what she had just witnessed, Connie didn't feel the slightest fear of Cali. It was as if instinctively she knew that Cali wouldn't hurt her.
“Feeling any better?”
Cali's quiet question touched Connie, but it was still difficult to dismiss the images and words she had just been witness to. She struggled to frame a reply, but finally came up with, “Did you have to do that?”
The hand stopped rubbing for a second, then resumed. In a distant voice, Cali stated, “A friend once told me that when you see a vampire, you aren't looking at the person, but instead at the thing that killed them. What that girl was was worse than the most vicious human serial killer alive. She would happily kill anyone and everyone she came across with a smile on her face and a song in her heart. To her, we're food. So, to answer your question, yes, I did have to do that.”
Connie looked up. Even in the dim light provided by the flashlight beam, she could see the hauntingly sad look in Cali's eyes as she stared off into the distance. Connie's recruiter had had it, probably from serving in Vietnam. He'd kept it under control for the most part, but it had leaked out near the end of their interview. Connie had thought it was romantic to think of the things he had witnessed. Now with a better idea of the personal cost involved, she wished she could take it away from her roommate. Cali looked years older, as if she had lived through some kind of terrible tragedy. In a flash, Connie knew. She'd been given all of the clues. The so-called “Take Back The Night” Program. Cali's physical abilities. The flashes of someone or something else. What had happened at graduation. Connie extemporized, “You've been doing this for a long time, haven't you? Killing vampires?”
Cali looked down into Connie's eyes. Slowly she leaned back against the wall at her back and slid down onto her butt, never breaking eye contact with Connie. After a moment, she nodded and said, “Since I was fifteen. That was when I was Called.”
Connie heard the capital C in Called. She knew it had something to do with the vampire calling Cali “Slayer.” Deciding not to probe, she merely commented, “It must have been hard, to do that at fifteen.”
Cali's smile was bleak, then it grew more genuine as if by sheer force of will. “There have been moments.”
“So vampires exist, huh?”
Cali nodded, then said, “Vampires, demons, zombies, werewolves, plus other stuff.”
Connie shook her head. It was hard enough to get her head around the idea of vampires. Throwing other stuff into the mix just blew her mind. She had to ask, “How does no one know about this stuff?”
Cali's smile grew bitter. “They don't want to know. Then they might have to take responsibility for defending themselves. For helping prevent the world from ending. So they stick their head in the sand. They pretend there is a rational explanation. That it was a trick of the light. That or a hallucination.”
“But the government...”
Cali looked uneasy for a moment. “I've gotten flashes of dreams. Running through a government facility, vampires and demons running amok, dead bodies everywhere. I think the government knows, and is doing experiments.”
Had she heard correctly? Connie decided to hell with not probing. “What dreams? It just keeps getting odder and odder. Cali, exactly what can you do?”
“You know most of it. I'm strong, fast, great senses. I heal fast. I can use any weapon. I have prophetic dreams...”
“Seriously? That's pretty cool.” Connie was trying to find a positive out of the litany of abilities that Cali had just rattled off. That they were all designed to help Cali kill ridiculously dangerous and scary stuff was incredibly grim and frightening. Maybe she got glimpses of happy times to come?
Or maybe not. Cali shook her head. “I've dreamed of my lover being killed. I've dreamed of my own death. I've dreamed of skull-faced floaty guys ripping out people's hearts.”
Jesus Christ. Connie struggled to ask her next question. “But you were able to stop those things, right? You didn't die, right?” She stopped, horrified as Cali silently shook her head. Dear God. She whispered, “What happened?”
“I died when I was sixteen. I was drowned by a master vampire that used some kind of mind control on me. The only reason I'm alive today is because of my friend, Xander, who went down into the sewers when he wasn't supposed to and performed CPR on me. He brought me back. I defeated the Master in the end, but it was bad. I did save my lover. For a while, anyway. He died when the school exploded. As far as those floaty guys are concerned, remember when I gave the news from Sunnydale?”
Connie slowly nodded. “I remember. Laryngitis, right?”
“They somehow stole those people's voices so they couldn't scream. They were harvesting people's hearts in the night. A few people died.”
“But, you were here. How did they get...”
“The other Slayer stopped them. The one Called when I died. Or rather, the one Called when the second Slayer that has been Called since I died, died.”
“Fuck, Cali, you're talking casually about two people dying in a little over two years. How long do these “Slayers” live?” How long do you have, Cali? Connie felt dread build inside her as she waited for Cali's answer, even though she already knew the answer.
“If you're lucky and good? Two or three years. If not, you die in a few months. Kendra didn't last a year. Faith lasted about the same. This new girl? Who knows? You want to know the best thing, the thing that makes this so much more miserable and horrid?”
Connie nodded, despite not really wanting to know. She needed time to digest what she had learned. She could feel the darkness pushing into her psyche, afraid for the first time in her life of the simple absence of light. Connie so wanted to be back in bed right now, her doors and windows locked. Would she ever view the nighttime in the same way again?
“If you make it to your eighteenth birthday, your Watcher, who maybe feels like a surrogate father, especially when your real father isn't really around, makes you go through something called the Cruciamentum. You know what that is?” Connie shook her head as Cali sighed. “Of course you don't. Get this. They inject you with this drug that takes away all of your abilities then they lock you into this room with a vampire and make you kill it with only your wits. Sounds like fun, doesn't it?”
“Stop.” Connie's plea hung between the two girls like a wall. She couldn't take anymore explanations. How could Cali bear her life? How had she ended up here at the Zoo, when she was some kind of supernatural protector of mankind? Even if there was another like her out there, shouldn't she still be there fighting against vampires like the one from tonight? Connie desperately wanted to know, but was too afraid of the answer to ask. What new, horrid secret would her simple question reveal? When she had been so curious about Cali's mysterious past, she had never imagined it would be so frightening, her life so bleak and depressing. That she was relatively normal after all that said so much about Cali's character.
Connie tried to find the words to say how much she admired her, but she just couldn't get them out, her brain feeling frozen. Finally, she blurted, “I can't handle anything else tonight. Give me a while to figure out what's going on, okay?” Connie managed to meet her roommate's eyes, too ashamed of her fear to allow herself to look away. The compassion she saw there only made her feel worse. God, Cali was so strong and she was failing her. Connie hung her head to avoid that the look, briefly closing her eyes as Cali's hand gently squeezed her shoulder.
“Let's get you back to bed. We'll talk about this in a few days. After all, what we found out tonight's going to require us to make some tough decisions, isn't it? And don't worry about going to sleep. I'll watch over you.”
Connie looked up, meeting Cali's eyes again. The compassion was still there, but overlaying it was a fierce resolve, so intense it should have consumed Cali. No wonder they chose you, Cali, she thought silently. You're the strongest person I've ever met. I wouldn't trust anyone else to watch over me. Or to deal with the situation we have to take care of now. Connie managed a short nod and got out, “Yes, we do.”
“Good. Let's go home.” With that, Cali put a firm hand on Connie's shoulder and led her back towards the light.