A/N:- And even more... this is the chapter I've been hoping to reach, to share. As with anything I'm uncertain of it, but then I'm too much of a perfectionist, too ready to tweak just a little more to ever be certain. I would adore some critical reviews - please tell me what's wrong, what doesn't make sense, how I can improve.
This is apparently another long one, a chapter which in writing came so easily but in retrospect is over three times the length of most others, taking this story to the longest in my series!
Thank you to those wonderful people who reviewed the last chapter and a special thanks to those who have added a reccommendation since I started writing again - to Katt, MarzBar and NoodleDoodle.The Shadow of Death
It was amazing how often the sound of traffic woke her. Not just because of its noise, its smells but because for the majority of her lives it wasn’t something she’d experienced. There had been the clatter of hooves, the rumble of wagons and carriages which had been present in enough of her lives for some sound to be normal, but those sounds were alive, came with the presence of a life, an energy which could be quantified by her other senses, the ones which tracked demons. Cars, machines were empty shells in comparison, passing by like animated corpses.
Buffy stood with a sigh, she reached for them, for the other reason she couldn't simply return to sleep. The sense that something was near, something dangerous enough to spark her senses, even if she now knew to call them friends. Duncan was there, his quickening subdued by sleep, a trait of the immortal calling card which had no doubt saved innumerable heads, allowing friends and foes to pass by unnoticed like ships in the night. Duncan might have been sleeping, but the strength of the power she recognised as Methos' hadn't lessened in any way; he was awake.
She was slightly surprised to feel anything, his reluctance to remain telegraphed too clearly, his fear of what she was.**Cassandra had sent her.
The thought burnt through him like the shock of an ancient quickening, like taking Silas' head.
He did not feel guilt, guilt implied some wrong doing, something he should be punished for and in the depths of his soul he did not believe that was the case. They had done terrible things in a terrible time.
He took another bite, allowing the dinner conversation to wash over him, hoping his shock hadn't been too clear.
No, he did not feel guilt over what he had done to Cassandra, but he could perhaps regret some of it. Regret that when the choice had been made to let her live, he had then decided to keep her. Keep her when none of his brothers would have noticed the faint quickening of the body on the sand.
Regret that the lessons he had given her could only be taught through pain and suffering. Those lessons had been good, had allowed her to become the oldest female immortal, but he could still regret making that choice for her, forcing her to live.
Would she have fared as well left alone in the desert, left to wake amongst the corpses of her adoptive kin? Neither of them would ever know for certain.
She still hated him for what he had done, he knew that, could feel the power of it burning into him, and yet she chose to send this girl here, to him. She was asking for his help.
A faint smile appeared on his lips.
If this was his penance, at least the compensation for his treatment of her no longer required his head to be mounted on her wall.**
For a moment Buffy rethought her plan to get some water and perhaps a book from downstairs, but shook the idea away, why should she allow him to dictate her life? She put on a robe and headed out of her room, leaning on the railing that ringed the first floor landing to look into the atrium below. Methos was lying on the sofa, calmly reading as if unaffected by the nearby quickenings, by the presence of those who might take his head.
She smiled and jumped, using the path of least resistance rather than walking around to the stairwell at the far end of the balcony. Buff paused, poised on the balls of her feet, waiting to see if he had heard her drop but no reaction was forthcoming his body looked relaxed, asleep. As if he had dozed off while reading, but the power of his quickening denied that thought. He was awake, and a man who had lived so long, avoiding or defeating those after his head, would have to be paranoid enough to notice the sound of her landing.
He moved so suddenly, so swiftly that it took a few seconds for Buffy to realise he had moved at all, and by the time she noticed that there were only a few more ticks of the clock before she needed to raise her hand, catch the blade singing towards her throat. They stood frozen listening to the clock on the wall, his sword held firm in her grip, nowhere near its target.
"You have a bedroom you know."
He raised an eyebrow and lowered his sword, "Yes, I know. It's nice that the Boy Scout gave into the inevitable and bought a place which could actually house the guests he frequently has visiting."
"Then why aren't you using it? Why play possum on the sofa?"
"Why aren't you using yours?" Methos drawled.
He was testing her again, always. Judging her reactions, inciting them with his words and actions, trying to understand what, who she was. She wasn't sure herself. Perhaps he would tell her if he figured it out.
"I couldn't sleep, too much noise."
"Noise?" He could hear the quiet rumble of traffic through thick brick walls but nothing to jolt someone from sleep, and Methos liked to think that he had good hearing. Over 5000 years and countless quickenings had seen to that, "Oh, because of your superpowers?"
It wasn't that he didn't believe her, she had realised over the awkward meal shared by four Immortals and one Watcher. This sarcastic disbelief was merely another method of extracting information, just as Duncan used his strength and Amanda her wiles, his way forced her to defend her thoughts and reveal the truth.
Buffy refused to elaborate, to give into his game, if he wanted to know more as his words suggested, he would have to ask. Instead she moved across to the kitchen to get herself a glass of water and Methos a beer. She sat down opposite him and waited.
He hadn’t asked her at first, when the dust of her actions was settling and there was feral energy flowing through her veins. He hadn’t even asked when they were more formally introduced and he recognised the brush of her quickening on his. She had seen a question behind the piercing gaze, behind all the cutting remarks, but he had held it in.
“Why are you… she… “ He trailed of, thinking of the girl who had been his to train, to protect, his to love and cherish. The girl he had failed. Methos forced down those thoughts; there must be no guilt, no grief. He couldn't allow anything to affect him so much, especially after all these centuries, couldn't allow a display of weakness, those could get an immortal killed. When he spoke again his words were surer, his voice even and clipped, ”The ones I met were strong, fast but not like this, not like you. Why didn’t other slayers have this much…” Why was the power other slayers were gifted with was so limited when being more could have saved them, enabled them to save themselves and so many others.
He knew why she was immortal. That wasn’t what he was asking. That they had discussed in a group session where Buffy sat silent and his friends filled him in on what she was. This was a different question, a harder answer. One she hadn't. intended to give; had once promised herself she would never reveal. A promise made over a decade ago when looking across the hall of the Hyperion, but Buffy understood that she needed to break that promise.
He needed to know in order to help her. She had to tell him to convince him to stay. She needed to take a leap of faith or leave, and leaving, giving up, wasn’t something she was willing to do.
“Once they did.” Buffy could remember those times, when a child with the strength of a monster couldn’t withstand the urge to fight. The horror of the tribes when someone so young walked steadily into the night only to come back covered in blood with primal joy burning in her eyes.
“Long ago when the line was created, all slayers eventually went crazy, consumed by the force which gave them strength, by what it did to them when it took over at night.”
Buffy paused, half expecting disagreement, some sort of comment. Because he questioned everything. Because this was something that wasn’t in any of the books, something not even the ancient scrolls he had once known would have commented on. He knew a lot about slayers, and she had learnt long ago that the more someone knew the less open they were to changing those ideas. To learning that they’d been wrong all along.
But Methos sat silent, those attentive eyes taking in every nuance of their conversation, waiting for her words. Their conversations were no longer a joke, this was something he didn't know, couldn't understand and for that he was willing to acknowledge her as an expert and to listen.
“To preserve their warriors’ sanity they diluted the power through an object so that it would slowly infuse a new Slayer. Allowing her to adjust and adapt to her new abilities as they grew.”
And they had done so much more. She hadn’t admitted it, not to her friends, not even to Faith, especially not to Faith. She couldn’t tell them what it had been like at first, what the Guardians had done. That in the beginning there hadn’t been any other slayers. There was just her, fighting her way through each life, a life that inevitably ended in a haze of pain, in a pool of blood. And then she would be reborn, not later but immediately. Reborn as a babe with a terrifying strength and an urge to kill.**They had chained her, restrained her.
The word, spoken in hatred sung through her blood, but never in her memory had there been anything with the strength to subdue her, constrain her. Nothing like the weight of these chains that held her fast, strong enough to withstand her wrath.
That power which usually only took control at night rose up within her, demanding release, retribution against those who would dare to do this. And as it did the sickening loss of control came.
She tried to cry, her soul desperate to retain its daytime dominance, but the beast was having nothing of it. It would not allow this and so her thoughts sank back into the swirling oblivion of the thing that used her body to hunt its own kind. And as always she was lost amongst thoughts and urges she could barely understand, watching through feral eyes as it fought.
The women approached her holding something, something that was hers. Every cell in her body said it was so, this shaping of metal into a thing as beautiful as it was deadly. She tried to reach for it, the beast forgetting the other pieces of shaped metal that held her in place. A shout, the inhuman sound of a roar, escaped her, becoming distorted by the trees as it echoed out from the glade.
That buried fragment of her that was still human recognised one of them and the flicker of betrayal spurred the thing that controlled her on, turned its fury into something more vicious and bloody, more human. Into a need for vengeance.
The Slayer had made its judgement.
They began to speak; overlaying words of power with which they controlled her bindings, forcing her to kneel, her arms stretched either side, palms towards the women. The one who held it came towards her and she threw herself forward, trying to find some non-existent slack in the chains that kept her in place.
The woman used the blade to cut deep gashes into each of her hands, deep enough that it would take some time for her healing abilities to mend, leaving blood flowing freely from the wounds. The timbre of the chanting changed and suddenly she could move, free enough to grab at the one who had hurt her.
She got it! This thing that belonged to her, her weapon. A wave of satisfaction flooded through her, and the beast in control didn’t see how the woman had held it out to her as she backed away, didn’t care. It was focussed on the feeling of her power, their power flowing to it and through it, cycling through the earth that men had tied them to untold years before.
The voice of the girl, buried deep in a crevice of her mind, screamed to beware; this was what they wanted, but to no avail. It wasn’t worried about these humans. They had never been able to hurt her.
So the demon watched as trickles of blood travelled in, around this shining weapon in her hands, watching as blood tainted it, bound to it, coloured the blade. It marvelled at the rare beauty, symmetry of this thing, forged by magic from hell-steel so long before humans thought to shape metal.
She had held other weapons of blended steel formed over hell fires, huge unwieldy things made for the demons she fought. They were nothing like this, incomparable to the thing created to fit into her hand. Fashioned from a broken blade, as its owner had been before it, transformed by humans into a tool for their protection.
The chanting stopped, the completion of their spell sending a surge of energy scorching through every cell of her body, burning out the dark and leaving a weakened form behind. She dropped under the weight of that force, collapsing to the ground with the weapon falling before her.
There was a sting through her hands as open wounds hit the grass and she fell back onto her elbows, unable to support herself on even hands and knees. She felt weak, oh so feeble, fighting for breaths that should have come easily. Delving deep for the strength to raise her head.
It was then she noticed she was in control, could think clearly. That the demon was… It was gone! No, she thought frantically, feeling for that power that had been hers since birth, not gone but very much diminished.
“What have you done?”
“You could not continue to do this. The lives you live have been shortening, the insanity coming quicker. Your soul needs time to recover, time to rest, a chance to control the thing bound to it.” The woman it had recognised, her mother, replied.
Another of the robed women who had been chanting came forward to place a hand upon her shoulder. Now they didn’t stay out of range, didn’t fear her. She flinched away from the weight on her shoulder, angered by the action, “This will give you that chance, allow you to learn to use the power you have as it increases.”
More of them were laying hands on her now, and from those touches she felt threads of magic flow through her, heal her. She rolled back onto her heels, feeling better but not stronger, “But I’m not… how can I defeat them like this?” How could she complete her duty, her reason for living?
“With the scythe you can tap into more power without it controlling you, destroying you.”
She did as her mother’s voice urged, lifting the weapon from its place in the grass and feeling that familiar strength surge into her. That was better. The girl marvelled how even now, with the energy of her demon flowing from the scythe into every pore, her control wasn’t gone. She was here at the forefront of her mind, not buried beneath the mindless beast.
“Your physical improvements are only a part of your strength. The thing you have been lacking in your battles will make up for it, the unpredictability provided by intellect. A spirit healed of the damage caused by the life you must lead will give this, allow you to use humanities greatest asset in its defence.”
“For your soul to heal you must rest. Rest until you are able to fight again.”
Rest. The very idea seemed strange, foreign. Alluring but so far from her grasp, “But… if I rest then everyone will be left defenceless… what will happen without-“
“The changes we have made don’t mean that the people will be left unprotected. The power is now bound to blood, stronger than ever before, and though it will always seek you out once your first bloods have come, it will also empower others. Those with spirits strong enough to bend the power to their will. While you sleep, while you heal and grow they will take over your position as our Champion.”
A younger woman ran to join the group, interrupting one of the witches before she could speak, “They are coming!”
Suddenly the glade was filled with motion, two of the women helping her to her feet and passing their hands over the circles of metal about her wrists, making them melt, bend away from her, free her. They grabbed at her unfettered hands, pulling forwards, away from the men that came for her.
When the shadow men reached the glade all that remained were the chains forged from the demon blade. The only evidence of what had occurred. That their creation had been changed forever.**
“The breakdown of our spell destroyed that, allowing the full force of the slayer to come into me.”
This was the part she hadn’t told the others in the Hyperion. Not because she wanted to spare the potentials, but to avoid hurting the other girl whose entire existence had been changed and systematically destroyed by the calling. Faith had let her calling define her and yet was always forced to play second slayer to Buffy, she didn’t know what learning that it was a later manipulation of the spell that caused her to have powers in the first place, that caused any of them to have powers, would do to Faith.
“Why aren’t you insane?”
She wouldn't have answered if his question had the same superior tone to those earlier in the evening, but he sounded genuinely interested, no longer trying to force her confidences, “Because I’m not just a mortal infused with power. My soul is older and now it can fight back.” She smiled as the appropriate words came to mind, “My will is as strong as the Slayer’s. My kingdom is as great. It has no power over me.”
And this was the other reason she hadn’t told. She hadn’t wanted Faith’s life, the lives of all those other slayers, to seem meaningless because it wasn’t, they weren't. The others hadn’t been feeble imitations called to pass the time; they were so much more than that. They had been needed; a necessary part of the path to what Buffy was now. She could still feel them, those souls dotted about the world, reminding her of the debt she owed all who had stood in her place.
Without what the Guardians did, without the support of others who could share her burden, her spirit would have never been able to get strong enough to control the slayer. It would have been destroyed. Slowly but surely ripped to shreds by the harsh edges of the thing taking over at night, by what it made her do. Until all that was left was the fight, without any cause to fight for.
She could remember that insanity all too well. It was the thing driving her to hold onto those chains of belief. Chains that, when she saw them in her minds eye, looked just like those ancient shackles wrought from the demon-steel of the thing infusing her. Just like the thick fibre bindings the Shadow Men had used to restrain her.
“So you’re as powerful as the original slayers, but able to control it.” He stated.
“No, well yes… but no. I’m more powerful. My spirit wasn’t the only thing that got stronger over time.” The slayer was stronger now than it had been then, but so was she, and far more so. Time had allowed the weakened being the Shadow Men had been able to manipulate to regain it’s strength. But by then the chains that tied it were locked in place and there was nowhere left for it to go.
“And this time you can’t die.” Buffy shrugged, causing his eyebrows to shoot up, “You don’t know? You haven’t been…”
“Beheaded?” She smiled at his jumpy reaction to the word, “Not intentionally, but yes in the first few years I got into lots of fights I shouldn’t have ever gotten out of…”
Got into fights in search of that instant, that flash of life, of the desire to live in the moment when she had all and nothing to lose, when something within her always arose in search of survival. She had felt that surge for a moment when the blade passed through her throat, in the instant when she wasn’t certain whether this almost sure fire method of destroying her opponents would work on her. But she had survived, the slayer power beginning its task of repairing the wound before the sword exited the other side.
“It didn’t seem fair. I had done what I was supposed to, fought until I died… and then I came back and even then, even then it was meant to be fleeting. There was meant to be an end. But now… now there wasn’t.
“So I sought death. But I don’t know how to do it. I thought it would change once I left them but I still…” It hadn’t changed, nothing had but how well she controlled the demon until that brisk evening in an Italian graveyard when she was told there was a chance to do more than exist.
“Even without them you still don’t want to die?”
"It sometimes feels like I've wanted to die for most of my life. I thought they were what kept me here." She smiled sadly, “Once they, no one needed me anymore, I could let myself lose. But however much I want it to be over, I can’t seem to actively seek it, to completely give up. I can’t just… let something kill me. I’m not even sure what could.”
An explosion might do the trick, she mused, or then again she might be like the Judge; splattered parts that would eventually come together again unless held apart. Would those fragments be aware, able to tell that the particles which had once been her arm were now flying the world over, riding the wind. But there was a reason she hadn’t sought out this end, one she hated to admit.
“You’re a survivor” Methos stated, interrupting her thoughts.
He seemed almost proud that she had this quality he cherished in himself. But she wasn’t, not really, “Surviving should be about passion. You shouldn’t be able to come away from a battle for your life with nothing but death in your soul.” and yet she had, so many times.
“Not necessarily. I’ve seen others like that, who have…”
“Yes, that is an apt description.” better than calling it a death wish.
He had given up for a time, or more accurately grown bored, and in a fit of altruism had offered his power to aid the defeat of Kalas.
Would he really have let Mac take his head when he offered it? He hadn't contemplated the nature of his drive to live before, how it might affect his ability to make such a sacrifice. Would he have been able to remain still while Duncan swung a sword at his neck, or like this slayer who wanted her endless battles to be over, would that instinct rise up within him in the last moment, an overwhelming urge to fight in his own defence.
“And?” She prompted, forcing him from the thoughts he had become lost in.
He shrugged, “Immortals I’ve known who got like this, well, old or young they either snap out of it or lose their head, intentionally or not. I can’t help but wonder why you’re still here, wonder if you being here is proof that whatever you claim, inside you is a will to survive."
Buffy laughed darkly, a bitter, twisted sound which seemed to echo about the open space, “I think what's inside me is just fear. I'm scared that with all we changed, if I do die I won’t be able to go back to that place of peace. That I don’t deserve to.”
She knew what it was to want that end, to crave death, peace. Was it strange that she had never before contemplated anything else coming after? Could that be a symptom of her life, how often she saw that look in a vampires eyes as whatever fragmented residue of a soul there was left, finally departed from the shell. Had Spike been right that it was mere curiosity, seeing the moment of joy in the death of others? Or was it another shared memory, like those that gave slayers fighting skills; had she also remembered the calm between lives. Was that why she had never feared it?
But now any certainty was gone, leaving a swirling vortex of doubts and possibilities. And that, really was what was so strange, this fear, not of something happening but of what came after.
“What have you done that’s so terrible?” The sarcasm was back, but this time it was directed at himself, or rather at the man sleeping upstairs for daring to judge something he would never understand.
“Other than bringing the first evil to earth and ending a line of champions that’s been protecting us since before the demons were banished?”
“Yes other than that.”
The faces of all those she'd failed, all those she'd killed, rose up in answer. She had done terrible things in the name of humanity's survival. All she could do was trust that not doing them would have been worse.
“So many things. Nothing.” Did it matter if the result was the same? “It was a waiting place. It was somewhere between here and there where I waited between lives, between callings. If there’s no more calling… then how can I expect there to be a place to wait?”
She had waited somewhere, somewhere she had told Spike was heaven but could have been nothing more than a void because in that place she was safe. Surrounded by love and strength. Those were the only things that had mattered.
With all that change, how could she hope that there would be a place for her to rest? She was still tied to the power but it was different, a change even from the way it had once been when the world was young. She didn’t know, couldn’t predict what might happen.
Would there still be slayers if she was killed? Would another girl, one of the potentials be called in the way they had for so long? Or would it return to the way it had been before? There was no way to be sure, nothing to go upon except the words of the beings through the gateway of lost souls. Oracles who had told her and Faith they would be the last. That there were no more Chosen.
Even that didn’t make things certain, didn’t answer Buffy’s questions. It didn’t have to mean what she feared; it could be that her end would be it, the end of this line of champions for good. The thing she had so casually claimed blame for.
That was the best scenario; that the world be left unprotected, and it was even better now it was becoming a world no longer requiring protection. The alternative, the other option was so much worse. A return to the old ways when at the slayer’s death a newborn had been infused with her spirit and a demon’s power.
It wasn’t the same time, the same world, as when it had last been that way. Then it had been known among all tribes of humanity what to look for, what do with an infant slayer. Now no one would even know to search for her.
Methos laughed, laughed at her words, at her serious mien, "Why is it that you discount this as being a will to live, to survive. It is what drives most of us, fear of the unknown, of what comes after death. It is what makes us value our own lives above others."
Perhaps that was part of the problem, she had been taught for so many lives that hers was something to be given in the service of others. That she was destined to fight and protect those who could not and even in those lifetimes when she'd disagreed with the sentiment, she had been unable to deny the thing within which demanded that she fight. How could she question the words when everything inside her told her to follow them. To walk down into the master's lair knowing death awaited her.
"Ultimately what survival comes down to is how important your current existence is to you, however much you wrap it up in the pleasant lie that others depend on you, that the world does."
"If nothing matters, if I have no purpose, no one depends on me; I don't know who I am." She tried to find something, anything outside the fight to give life meaning, but came up empty, "I once fought for a life outside slaying, for something real, now everything is an act, a lie. My calling is even a lie now, the demons are leaving, the world is safe, with or without me."
She was old, he realised again but this time without the fear, the panic accompanying it, so terribly old and yet awfully young. She hadn't lived for millennia as an immortal, recreating yourself every decade or two to assure anonymity, she had grown up and fought, each life as real as the next.
She never had a chance to learn how, if you pretend enough, you can become the lie and the lie becomes real. That the real lie wasn't the white ones you told to others about who you were, what you were, it was when you went against your principles. That the truth is easily hidden in the lies because the truth is who you are, irrespective of name or birthdate. That even who you are is recreated, changed over the course of time as naturally as in those who age and die.
Instead she had learnt over a series of lives to live to the extreme and now that the risks which had embodied her every existence were gone she didn't know how to find that bright burning sensation of a life on the edge.
He understood finally what Cassandra thought he could teach her, "What you want to learn from me isn't something that can be taught. How can you teach someone to find joy in life?" Each and every immortal he knew came at it a different way, lost it for different reasons. There were as many variations as in humans themselves; infinitely different yet somehow all the same.
"I once rode across a continent searching for joy at the end of a sword, mistaking adrenaline, endorphins for something more. You throw yourself into battles you can barely escape from in search of the same thing. Hunting down that moment when you fear death, when your love of life rises up unbidden, stripped of emotion, of memory and pretences.
"You need to learn that memories don't have to be regrets and that the quiet joys of calm, of peacetime can be as thrilling as the rush of war." Something he hadn't known how to teach his brothers, either back then when he had come to his own realisation that the last thousand years had changed nothing, or more recently when his inability lead to their deaths.
Did Cassandra know, he was too cynical not to wonder. Did she know how little he could hope to help this girl, was this a joke, a mirage of the path to forgiveness. Or did she truly believe his presence would assist the girl in finding what she sought. His own regret wouldn't allow him to leave, no matter how slim the chance was that he could help.
~ To Be Continued... ~A/N:- Don't worry (too much) about my saying this was the point I wanted to reach... there's another section I'm equally keen to get to you and hopefully I won't have any difficulty writing the sections between. Review if you feel that the chance it might help is worth it.