2: Early Dark
See Chapter One for Disclaimer
Faith followed her older self through the park. On any other night, this would be a hunting ground for Vampires and worse. Tonight, young children ran and played here, trailed at a distance by parents who were watchful, but still relaxed enough to chat amiably with their neighbors. She looked around, a bit annoyed at the presence of the others in what was usually her private domain. Bad enough that she had to share Sunnydale with another Slayer, much less all of these people that seemed to have forgotten that they were just victims....
Her older self was walking down the path in front of her, scanning the park as if looking for something. Faith concentrated on her hearing, watching as the other Faith walked over a patch of fallen leaves.
Nothing. Not a whisper of sound, and the clutter on the ground didn't seem to move when the other girl stepped on it, either. With a frown, she sped her pace just a bit, and reached out her hand towards the other Faith's back.
There was a blur, her double spinning, ducking, and striking, all in one incredibly fast movement. Faith's reaching arm was knocked high, caught in a grip of iron. Before she could blink, a fist was poised just an inch from her nose. Faith stared at the knuckles in front of her face.
The older Faith looked at her for a moment, then straightened, releasing her wrist as she did so. The Slayer rubbed her arm, watching the other girl warily.
"I was just wondering if I could touch you, is all. I guess you answered the question."
Her future self shrugged uncomfortably.
"Sorry. You shouldn't come up behind me like that." She turned and continued on down the path. Her voice came back over her shoulder. "And yeah, you and I can touch. But you're the only thing I CAN touch, here. Nothing else is solid."
Faith followed after her.
"That was a fast move you pulled on me, there."
No response. She tried again.
"I didn't know I was that fast."
The older Faith turned to look at her.
"You're not, not yet." A pained look crossed her face. "You'll get faster. You'll have good reasons to get faster." She turned away. "Or you'll die fast, too."
This was starting to get on Faith's nerves. She trotted down the path, catching up with herself at the edge of the playground.
"Listen, was this test going to start sometime tonight? 'Cause if not, then I have a party I could go--"
"Shh." The older Faith pointed. "Check this out."
Faith looked. There was a man and a woman, sitting on a park bench. They were talking quietly with each other, watching a little girl running around a slide. She frowned.
"What am I supposed to be looking at?"
Strong hands grabbed her by the head, pressing firmly. She opened her mouth to curse, gathered herself to lash out, but before she could do either, a flood of golden light washed through her brain. She stood, stunned, as her other self let her go.
The older Faith took her gently by the shoulders, turning her back to the family.
The man and the woman were still sitting on the bench, the little girl was still playing on the slide. Only now, she could see two other childred, a boy and a girl, playing with her. The boy paused and looked straight at where the two Faith's stood watching from the shadows, and a chill went through her. A moment later, he turned away. Faith looked over at her future self.
"What the hell is this?" She rubbed at her eyes, and looked back at where the children played. There were still three; one real one and two... something else. "What did you do to me?"
The other girl stared out at the playground.
"I brought you farther into phase with the spirit plane." She glanced at Faith. "Just me being here, tonight, is giving you some connection with it. I just kind of--" A little pushing gesture. "Helped you along." She nodded at the scene before them. "Everywhere in the world, tonight is a time when some strange stuff happens. Here, in Sunnydale, that gets super-sized." She rubbed at the tip of her nose with one hand. "Those extra kids you see, out there. They're dead. They have been for a few months, now." She gave Faith a sad smile. "But they got lonely, and wanted to come see their sister. And here they are."
Faith watched them playing.
"Mom and Dad can't see this?"
Her future self shook her head.
"No. At least, not yet. If they stay long enough, if they're strong enough, then yeah, they could pull the parents into their little universe, too. A blood connection is the strongest kind." She looked down at the ground, and her voice dropped to a whisper. "Almost the strongest, anyway."
Faith gave her a sharp look.
Her twin didn't answer.
"About the test...?"
That brought a grin.
"Funny, I don't remember being this pissy, when I was where you are now." Faith was looking for a comeback to that one when the other girl turned and started off through some trees. "That was the background, the first part of the test is just through here."
Grumbling to herself, she followed.
* * * * *
They were walking down the street, now. Faith watched as her other self strode along, grinning around her at all the people who couldn't see her. The girl broke into a trot, running in wide circles around the Slayer, hopping and skipping like a little girl at recess. Faith shook her head.
"Are you, I don't know, drunk, or something?"
Her older self rejoined her, crossing the distance in a series of exuberant hops, to end walking backwards, facing her. She bounced a few more times, her long, straight hair flying around her.
"Nope, I'm diggin' the freedom." She smiled wistfully. "It's just... you don't know how long it's been, since I was able to--" She blinked, focusing on the younger Slayer again. "Sorry. Got carried away there, is all." She turned and resumed walking forward.
Faith was thoughtful as they turned at the next corner and headed towards the South-Eastern part of town.
"You're from my future...." The older Faith turned back to face her.
"For the fifth time: yeah." She was sounding a bit annoyed, but the Slayer ignored her.
"...Then tell me what happens to me. Between where I am and where you are. You know; the highlights."
Her future self shook her head firmly.
"Nope, can't happen." Faith opened her mouth, but the other girl overrode her firmly. "I can't tell you that. I'm not just walking around here, shooting the breeze with you, you know." She made a gesture that took in the street all around them. "The whole universe is set up to keep past, present and future separated. I'm only able to be here 'cause I sort of slipped through a loophole in the rules, and even so, I'm spending energy like crazy just to exist here without a body." She lowered her voice. "I have to be 'quiet' while I'm back here. If the freakin' cosmic forces notice me, I'm gone; slingshotted back to where I started. Telling you stuff that would change the future, that would sort of, I don't know, make 'ripples' in time, or something. Too much of that, and I get knocked off of the tightrope I'm walking, here." She fixed Faith with a stern gaze. "I will tell you this; you're in for a wild year."
The young Slayer shoved her hands in her pockets, looking away as disappointment filled her.
"No kidding. I could have told you that much."
They walked along in silence for several minutes. Faith finally looked up, realizing that they were nearing the Bronze.
"Hey, are we going to the party?"
The other Faith was searching the shadows along the edge of the street.
"Not--" She looked over her shoulder at the younger Slayer. "No. What we want is through here." She moved down an alley, and Faith followed. The dim passage opened up into a small parking lot. A short distance away, several cars were sitting in front of a liquor store. As the pair of them approached, a trio of young men emerged from the store carrying paper bags. Two girls, who looked to be around nineteen or twenty years old, were waiting by a car.
Faith sighed. Just a bunch of college kids, gearing up for some partying. Unlike herself, she thought. Her double was staring intently at the group. She nodded in satisfaction, and turned to face the Slayer.
"Okay, here we go. This is the first round coming up." She pointed. "Watch this guy here."
He seemed normal enough, talking with his buddies, laughing at their jokes. Still.... She wasn't sure if it was something anyone would notice, or only someone who was looking for something odd, but he was a bit 'off'. He was grinning at his friends, but it was forced. His laugh seemed... brittle, somehow. Her older self leaned close, speaking in a low voice, as if she were afraid the group would hear.
"None of the others realize it, but Jim here is on the edge. Well, he's past the edge, actually." She was surveying the sandy-haired man with narrowed eyes. "About a week ago, something really bad happened to him. Either he did something, or something was done to him, and he broke." She raised her hands and mimed snapping something in half. "He's walking around and pretending everything's okay, but he basically doesn't care if he lives or dies." She glanced at Faith. "That's a bad thing when it comes to fighting off the bad stuff. His aura is barely there; his defenses are gone."
Jim had handed his load of party supplies to one of his friends. The Slayers heard him tell the others to wait while he hit the bathroom, and then he was walking around the corner of the building. Her older self nudged her, and Faith walked across the brightly-lit parking lot. She passed just a few yards from the group, smiling slightly as the guys leaning against the car paused to check her out. One of them started to call out an invitation, but his buddy grabbed him by the arm and shook him, laughing.
Faith's older self shook her head.
"You know what it is?" She reached out and tugged at the mass of curly hair that hung to the younger girl's shoulders. "It's this hair. I never realized it, but this makes me, you, look too damn young." Faith shot her a dark look, but her double only smiled. They rounded the corner.
There was Jim, leaning against the building next to the door of the men's room. His eyes were closed, and he was shuddering, racked with soundless sobs. Faith paused; he was only a couple of steps away. She looked at her older self, one eyebrow raised. The older Faith was staring up into the night sky.
"Just another couple of seconds... I can feel it coming."
Moments trickled by, and a slight breeze stirred the air around them. It was warm, but Faith was suddenly shivering. She had the sensation of her stomach falling, like she was in a rapidly descending elevator. Whatever it was that was coming, something deep inside her was reacting to it. Inside her soul the Slayer-power was waking up and taking notice. Her double was watching her.
"Yep, that's what you feel." Her eyes went past Faith's shoulder. "And there it is."
The Slayer whirled, a stake appearing in her hand.
Rolling towards them across the barren expanse of the parking lot came a mass of... something. It was transparent, or nearly so, but there was also a faint luminescence coming from it, like a mass of slowly boiling moonlight was approaching. It moved slowly, but with a dream-like feeling of inevitability. A car pulled into the parking lot, passing right through the thing, but the driver didn't even flinch.
The older Slayer was standing with her arms folded under her breasts, watching it come closer.
"It's invisible to the norms, of course. You'd have to be a sensitive to even know it was around." It was headed straight for Jim, who was oblivious to everything. Faith backed hurriedly away, prompting her twin to laugh. "Don't worry; it can't do jack unless you're already open to it. Or unless you let it in. You're fine. This guy, though...." She tossed her head, indicating the sobbing man. "He's about to get a visitor."
The thing had been drifting along, but as it approached him, it seemed to gather itself. Pausing for just a heartbeat, it surged forward, engulfing him.
He spasmed, jerking upright, standing so rigidly that every tendon stood out clearly. His eyes were open, and his mouth was distended in a soundless scream. Faith took another step back, watching as the entity seemed to pour itself inside of him. A few seconds was all it took, and then it was just a man standing there. He slowly relaxed, running his hands over his clothing, breathing deeply. When he turned, his eyes were calm, but there was something inhuman looking out through them. He seemed surprised, looking from Faith to her other self, and back.
Faith found her voice.
"All right; what the fuck is this thing?"
The older Slayer was the one backing away, now. Not because she was scared; at least, she didn't seem scared. It was more like she was giving them both some room.
"It doesn't really matter. It could be a dead person, or even more than one. It might be some kind of demon, just looking for a real body." She shrugged casually. "Either way, it's evil, and it's going to go out there and get in the car with those other people. If you let it do that, then they're not going to live to see sunup." She glanced at Faith. "So, here's part one of your test: Stop it, preferably while not killing the guy." Pretending to look at her watch, Faith's twin continued. "You have forty minutes, use only a number two pencil, fill in the boxes completely." She looked up to where the Slayer was facing the man. A shimmering distortion, like the heat-haze above a bonfire, surrounded him. His face was inhumanly calm as he stalked forward. She spared other girl a last glance before putting away the stake. Dropping back into a ready stance, she watched him come.
* * * * *
He came at her, and Faith bounced back a step, keeping the range open. She was still trying to figure out what she was going to do. Her usual style was to drive in and just keep pounding on her opponent until he fell down. If she did that here, then poor Jim was going to end up a bloody smear on the asphalt. The entity lunged forward, and she spun away, keeping out of reach. Off to the side, Faith's older self gave an exasperated sigh.
"If you keep that up we'll be here all night. Besides, his soul won't last long with that thing in there with him. I give him ten minutes, tops." She sank down into a lotus position, watching the two move back and forth across the back lot of the store. "His friends are going to come looking for him eventually, too."
Faith ducked under the thing's reaching arms. He was faster than a normal human should be, and he seemed to be getting more confident in moving the stolen body.
"If you want to help, then tell me how to get this thing out without killing him. Otherwise, shut up!"
The other girl smiled faintly, examining her fingernails.
"That's for you to figure out; I'm just here to keep score. The watchers gave me strict instructions on how to do this; no hints allowed."
Faith nearly missed a dodge and had to dive and roll to get clear of his next swing.
"'Watchers'? You mean there's more than one?"
He charged forward, his face still dead calm. That was the most unnerving part of the whole thing. His fingers caught the sleeve of her jacket, yanking her backwards a step before the denim tore. Off balance, she was forced to somersault backwards, then backpedal frantically as he pursued her. The other Slayer looked chagrined.
"Whoops. Slip of the tongue. I'll be quiet, now. Let you focus."
Faith found her balance. Enough. It was time to see what this thing could handle. He came at her, and this time she stepped straight into him. One arm drove forward like a piston, her open palm slamming into his chest. She pulled it, only using half her strength, but he let out a grunt, and was hurled back about five feet. He kept his feet, though, and came right back at her. He swung a fist at her, and she reached up and caught it just in front of her face. He was stronger than a man his size should be, too. But not strong enough. Her arm trembling only slightly, she slowly pushed his fist back.
She flashed him a grin of triumph... and choked back a scream. Tendrils of distortion and moonlight erupted from his arm and fist, snaking forward to dig into her flesh. They didn't tear her skin; they passed through it, anchoring themselves inside her. She let him go and tried to pull away, but the tendrils held firm. It felt like red-hot wires were being shoved up inside her hand and forearm, and she gritted her teeth against the agony lancing through her. The man took a step forward, reaching out with his other hand. More of the shimmering strands writhed and twisted into view from those fingers, and she leaned back. Her sneakers scrabbled on the pavement, trying to find traction enough to let her pull away. She dragged him forward a step, but this was a situation where mass counted more than strength. He was bigger than she was, and she wasn't going to be able to pull away from him.
Abruptly, she stopped pulling. Ignoring the tendrils buried up in her arm, she grabbed his wrist. Lifting both feet off the ground, she let herself fall, putting her sneakers into his solar plexus as gently as she could manage. Her back hit the ground as he was pulled forward, off-balance and leaning over her. She pulled him lower, then used both legs to push into him; hard. He flew over her, still held by her grip on his wrist, and slammed into the asphalt. Still on her back, Faith torqued herself around. Looking down past her legs, she saw his eyes as he glared at her. Those eyes were colorless, seething pits of swirling energy.
She drew back one foot and slammed it home right into that face. The burning in her arm got worse, reaching all the way to her elbow now. She drove her foot home again, and again, grunting with the effort. Tears of pain were running from both of her eyes, now, but she wasn't going to give up. She was not going to let this thing win. It might have been her watering eyes, or the pain, but she almost thought that she could see some kind of gold light flashing from the point of impact each time her foot smashed into the guy.
There was no doubt about the blood streaming from his nose and mouth. Finally, blessedly, he let her go. Instantly she was rolling away. Bounding to her feet, she watched him, cradling her right arm against her chest. There were no visible wounds, but it felt like she'd been wrestling with a mile of barbed wire.
He came to his feet. With a puzzled expression, he raised on hand to his pulped and bloody lips. She forced herself to smile.
"More where that came from, asshole." She raised her good hand and beckoned him closer. "Come and get it."
He lowered his hand, those hellish eyes locked on her. Without warning, a thick bundle of the ghostly strands erupted from his chest. Faith didn't have time to move before they plunged into her own chest, driving out her breath in a tidal wave of torment. They stood like that, connected by that rippling tentacle of energy. Faith kept her feet, but all of her strength was gone. It was like being impaled by a burning spear, like hungry rats eating their way right through her. Out of reflex she clawed at the bundle of tendrils with both hands, but that only made it worse. Smaller strands stabbed into her palms, working their way into her flesh. She was burning alive, and there was nothing she could do. The tendrils began to pull back into him, and they were pulling her life out after them. She'd closed her eyes, biting her lip until she tasted blood, trying to endure it. She felt her essence, her very self, stretching; pulled taut between her body and his.
She opened her eyes.
A hazy, golden glow surrounded her entire body. It was flaring and shifting, and the entity's tendrils were sunk deep into it, pulling it out of her like stiff taffy. She focused past it; staring at his face.
"No." Her voice was hoarse, but she felt stronger just for having said it. "No!" A ripple went through the gold, and it wasn't being pulled out of her anymore. She buried her hands in the pulsing cable of energy that connected them... and pulled. His eyes widened, shock registering for the first time, as suddenly it was his life-force that was being pulled away from his body. He fought her, but she bared her teeth in a snarl of determination. The tendrils buried in her hands let go, but she didn't stop. The entity's body was dragged forward a step, and it released its grip inside her chest. She dragged in a shuddering breath, but didn't stop. Her hands were swathed in blazing gold, and they pulled at the entity's life with slow, inexorable force.
She was the Slayer, and she was stronger than this thing.
She had masses of glowing spirit-energy floating around her, and still it came out of him. She was pulling it out hand over hand now, taking slow steps forward until she was face to face with him. His face with distorted with pain, and sweat was streaming down his face. He raised a fist and took an awkward swing at her, but just ducked her head out of the way... and pulled. The last of the thing came out of him, and he collapsed to the ground, gasping.
It was like trying to hang on to a basket of snakes, but Faith kept hold of the thing, ripping and tearing at it with both hands. Long pieces of it floated away, unraveling as they went. After a long minute, the last of it was shredded, fading away into the still night air.
She held up her hands, watching the golden glow play over her flesh. Slowly, the shimmer grew fainter, finally vanishing.
Off to the side, her future self slowly clapped her hands.
"One down, two to go." She tilted her head to one side. "I hope you don't think they're all going go be that easy."
* * * * *