AN: Two things: One, I write the way I write for effect. Be glad I’m not trying to aim for ‘stream of consciousness’. That could be REALLY painful to read. Two, I try to set up the warnings I think are relevant to the story and the series within the chapter one AN of each story. Don’t get mad at me if you start reading, get interested, and THEN realize I included an element that might offend you, because if you get to that point and are surprised about it, you probably didn’t read my notes. Don’t review to complain to me about it. I don’t put these things in the summaries because one, it would make them too long, and two, I’m not going to put up a warning for something that isn’t there yet, such as slash.
If you hadn’t noticed, there is no WAY that romance of any persuasion is going to pop up in at this point in the series, and it is certainly not the focus of this series, so I won’t put up the warning for it until it shows up.
Please let this be my last lengthy but necessary AN for this story?
Disclaimer: Neither Stargates nor Buffy the Vampire Slayer belong to me. I claim no ownership of them and recognize that they belong to the various people and companies who own them. I do this solely for my own enjoyment and, should our interests mesh, the enjoyment of others. I have made no money off of this and do not ever plan to. Anything that even looks vaguely familiar (such as brand names, culture references, etc) also does not belong to me.
Series: Return to the Blood Lands
Story: Welcome to the Keep
In the end, only six other people had survived the Wraith’s “hazing” ritual. Seven out of SIXTY damn people. They all quietly submitted to the new brand- a circle around the initial brand. For the first time, Xander got a good look at the first brand. It looked like a warped upside down ‘y’.
He made it to the brander as the seventh and final survivor. He was soaking wet from the impromptu bath the Wraith had given them (courtesy of a couple of buckets of very VERY cold water) but he’d rather be wet with water than soaked in that blood any longer. He waited until the brander looked up before offering his arm, letting the man see the full force of his fury.
The man was unmoved. “Huh. You survived.”
“Don’t sound so disappointed.” Xander snarled, his nerves still on the edge. His hands were still shaking and he had a terrible urge to scream but this wasn’t the first horrible situation he had found himself in. Maybe the first time he had seen so many people die, the first time he had seen so much BLOOD… He had to focus.
There were so many things Xander wanted to say to the indifferent son of a bitch in front of him. Such as “Does this always happen?” or “What are the Wraith planning to do?” or even “Why the FUCK didn’t you warn me?”
In the end, he asked the very last question on his list. “What’s the brand for?” Because he had a feeling, somehow, that the brand was important in more ways than just humiliation.
“Circle shows you are a Keeper.” With that, he pressed the new brand to Xander’s arm, oblivious to Xander’s exhaled curse. His arm trembled a little but he stayed still. He didn’t want the damn Wraith to touch him again. One of the masked ones lingered in the corner just for that purpose.
The man took the hot iron away after a moment. Xander shuddered and breathed heavily, feeling light headed. This time, he let the man bandage his arm because he just didn’t think he could take any more blows to the head today.
The man continued as he wrapped the fabric around and around his arm. “You won that right when you survived the battle. You’ll get smaller marks, not brands, down your arm after each battle you win.” He tightened the bandage. “The inner brand shows who you belong to.”
“Oh?” Xander questioned, a harsh sarcastic edge to his voice. “Who do I belong to?”
“The Wraith but, most importantly, the queen.” Something inside of Xander just plummeted at that. He had hoped it wasn’t that bad, but it was. The demons thought they OWNED people.
“I don’t BELONG to them.”
“You may not think so know but you’ll see the truth of it someday.” The brander poked the covered brand with rough fingers. Xander shook with the pain and effort to not deck the bastard. “Huh. Others have bled. You have not. You’re healing abnormally fast.” He turned away, leaning over to grab something. “Put these on.” A bundle of dry clothing was thrust into his chest. “If you managed to stay alive, you might be interesting to watch.”
Xander was escorted down a long dark hallway by a masked Wraith and a burly human. Light came from various sources, including a dull glow from bars lining the floor and bright flashes from the cells he passed. Candles, he recognized. Abstractly, he thought it was strange that he had recognized the cell (which, besides the four walls, looked NOTHING like any cell Xander had seen before) before he recognized the candle.
He was stopped in front of one cell. It already had one occupant in it. He tried to see what the Wraith did to make the rubbery webbing of the door spring open but he was too late. He was pushed through. The webbing sprang back up again, closing the exit securely with what Xander thought was surprisingly efficiency. Even though it looked fragile and rubbery, the webbing didn’t even bend under his grip. He twisted his fingers in it anyway, testing it. He gave up when it didn’t even budge.
“You’re new.” His cell mate observed with a touch of the obvious. He was sitting on a crappy looking mat that Xander guessed was supposed to double as a bed. A matching one laid next to it. It was his, Xander supposed. “They keep on bringing in a lot of new ones.”
His cell mate was a man roughly in his early thirties. He wore the same brown vest and pants getup that Xander had been forced into, only his fit better. Xander’s was a little too tight around the waistline, which he attributed to a bad tailor, not to any lack of fitness on his part. Also, the vest looked a bit more impressive on his cell mate, as the man had the arms to pull it off. The only thing that took away from the picture was the ugly mark of the queen that was visible even under the low light.
Before Xander could say anything, someone rapped on the outside of their cell. A blond emaciated man waved with a slightly crazed smile. Rather than forcing him to move on, like Xander’s escorts did, the man’s escorts stopped and waited for him to finish.
The blond leaned in, peering at Xander. “Two.” He said suddenly.
“What?” Xander was confused. But the man was already walking away. “What about two? HEY!”
“That’s how many days you’ve been here.” His cell mate offered behind him. Xander guessed it was right. Although, if he wanted to be picky, it was really a day and a half. “Counter knows how long everyone has been here.” Xander turned around with a confused frown. “He’s a little touched in the head. The Wraith keep him because they think it’s funny.”
“Counter?” Xander asked incredulously. “Is that his NAME?”
“That’s what they CALL him.” His cell mate corrected. “And, indeed, that’s what he answers to.” He extended his hand. Xander took it, expecting a good old Western handshake but instead was a surprised participant in some sort of head bowing, finger wiggling greeting. Deciding ‘When in Rome…’, Xander reciprocated the gesture clumsily. “My name is Syera.”
Syera had been a merchant on a planet called Aromos. He was the son of another merchant but had no sons of his own as his wife had died early in their union to some disease. Syera had been captured on another planet while trading with that planet’s natives. He was close to his third month anniversary of being a prisoner of the Keep.
Xander was confused by all this ‘planet’ nonsense but figured, what the hell, if demons have spaceships, then why can’t humans have spaceships too? When asked where he was from, he tried to explain he wasn’t from this dimension but Syera took it to mean that Xander wasn’t from this galaxy. He was so excited about that revelation that Xander didn’t have the heart to explain it completely but he did try to steer the conversation back to Syera’s planet, figuring it was a safer topic.
“Ah yes, my wonderful home.” He stuck his hand out, revealing a managed mess of scars on his palm. “This is the address, see? Six points. All I need is the origin point. I put it there so I would never forget.” Xander looked at the hand a little closer, realizing it wasn’t as mangled as he thought. There were six symbols on Syera’s hand, etched into the skin with a knife or at least something like it.
The scars were not fresh.
Although it took him a while to fall asleep on the hard surface of his mat, he woke up what seemed like a moment later. He was half-panicked, blinded by visions of the T-rex, of the green eyed youth, and of the blood soaked courtyard. It took him five whole minutes to calm down and convince himself to go back to sleep again. Sleep seemed like such a bad idea in this strange place.
It occurred to him that he might have roused Syera but when he looked over, the older man was still asleep. He slept on his side, towards Xander, with his palm exposed in such a way that Xander rather thought that Syera had stared at his ‘address’ until he finally succumbed to sleep.
He envied the man for the good memories the address might have prompted. All he had of the world he had left behind was a stupid necklace given to him by an evil woman. But because it was all he had (because the Wraith queen had destroyed his pocket knife and his watch had been confiscated), it was infinitely more precious to him than he would have expected before. Even now it was warm against him, the glow failing to penetrate the cover of his vest. But he knew it was still there, and that meant a lot.
Xander found himself looking at the address, memorizing it idly by assigning letters to the symbols. It was almost as effective at the task of putting him to sleep as counting sheep.
When he woke up again, he could tell it was morning despite the lack of a window in their little cell. Syera was up, his mat tucked into the corner as he went through a series of motions. He was clearly stretching himself but for why, Xander didn’t know.
Xander considered his cell mate, deciding Syera wasn’t too bad of a guy. He had a peculiar way of pronouncing Xander’s name, which was annoying but still okay because Xander couldn’t pronounce Syera’s name correctly either. He kept calling him ‘Sara’ which annoyed Syera until Xander called him out on pronouncing Xander as ‘Zandeer’.
Xander was sure that there was some sort of conflict of dialect going on, because they both spoke English. But he could not place Syera’s accent. He wanted to say it was British, but not a Giles sort of British. Nor even a Spike sort of British, now that he thought about it. It just HAD something that made him want to place it there.
“It would aid you greatly if you stretched in the morning.” Syera said with some annoyance, noticing Xander watching him lazily from the not-comforts of his mat. Xander sat up with a yawn, running a hand through his hair. Then again, that SOMETHING might have just been the way Syera had the tendency of addressing him like he was a total idiot. Guess that’s not solely a British thing.
“I don’t even know how to throw a punch.” Xander revealed, watching Syera mime fighting an opponent. He held his hand in front of him, making a fist. He smiled ruefully. “Last time I tried, I nearly broke my hand.”
Xander was actually pretty good at the whole body slam thing but there was little control in what amounted to simply hurling yourself at your enemy, so he often found himself eating dirt more than he found himself actually hitting somebody. It was a little frustrating but he always knew the emphasis on the Hellmouth was not for HIM to learn how to fight effectively but to help BUFFY continue to fight effectively, even if all that amounted to in a fight was handing her a stake.
Syera straightened up and looked at him with a frown. He shook his head and grabbed Xander’s fist, moving his fingers around until they were in the right position. “See, here’s your problem. Your thumb goes like THIS, not like THAT. You want it to contact here, not here. It will hurt you if it contacts here.” He let go off Xander’s hand as Xander practiced holding his fist right. “All the rest is just getting used to it. And you will, once you start fighting.”
“Fighting?” Xander was startled. Suddenly, he was wide awake. “We have to fight? I don’t think I could live through a fight with another T-rex!”
“I am unfamiliar with the term ‘T-rex’, but I assume you refer to the giant reptile. That wasn’t so much a fight as it was a slaughter.” Syera shook his head, turning his back as he went for his shoes. “I can assure you, the fights you will have in the future will not be so… impossible.”
“You were watching!” Xander realized suddenly, jumping to his feet.
“We all were.” Syera admitted shamelessly, something weary in his face. “We all have to. There’s no privacy in battle. Not unless it is a Wraith you fight. Then, we do not watch.” He smiled a little bitterly. “They do not want us vicariously living through a rare victory against a Wraith, lest it tempt us to overthrow them.”
Xander tried to hold on to some anger, some wrath, but he just felt drained. He wanted to leave, he wanted to go HOME. He didn’t want to be here. He was just so tired of it already, and it was what, day two? Or day 3?
What was he going to do on day 20? Day 30? Buffy, help me!
A few days later and Xander was not any happier about his situation but he was a little more used to it. Life became a routine. Wake up, stretch, eat, talk, eat, stretch, go to bed. And he was being generous with his terms. Bed was hardly such and they didn’t so much eat as inhale for sustenance.
Even Sunnydale’s high school cafeteria’s Mystery Surprise, which was rumored to have rat meat and old yogurt in it, tasted better than what they got to eat in their cell. That bad excuse for a soup-and-bread dinner that they got last night didn’t even deserve to be called food. Likewise, the effort they made to eat the yucky stuff should not be equated with the pleasurable pastime of eating.
But it still was a cornerstone of the routine he got used to. He didn’t like it, but he got used to it and even started to expect it. Routines are evil that way. And then the routine was broken.
Routines are evil that way too.
The webbing on their door suddenly came down. A masked Wraith (Syera called them drones) stood outside, standing there silently but somehow expectantly. Syera stood up immediately. Xander followed, half expecting the Wraith to make him stay back.
“Where are we going?” he asked, looking over his shoulder. Syera seemed to know where he was supposed to go. The Wraith followed after them, his presence almost daring them to try something.
“We’re going to watch.” Syera said grimly, making his way up a sudden set of stairs. Many sets of people with Wraith and human escorts went the same way while others gravitated to a different set of stairs all the way down the hall. Xander looked up, realizing that the stairs went a LONG way up, most likely to the stands he had observed days earlier.
“Watch what?” Xander said, dreading the answer. If there was going to be another repeat of Jurassic Park, Wraith or not, he was SO out of there.
“Many battles.” Syera glanced over his shoulder, his eyes straying not to Xander but to the Wraith behind him. Apparently Xander wasn’t the only one who was spooked by the presence. “What you observed was a Keeper culling. If you’re lucky, that’s the only one you’ll ever be in. But it won’t be the only one you will ever have to watch. And it is not always with a reptile.”
Xander’s legs were already aching and they were barely three fourths of the way up. He had a feeling that the Wraith wouldn’t slow down if Xander slowed down and there was only enough room on the stairs width-wise for one person to go up at a time. To avoid being knocked off the stairs or worse, Xander stayed as close to Syera as he dared.
They finally made it to the top, a sudden gust of a cool breeze lifting the hair on Xander’s head. After the work out he just had, he enjoyed it immensely. Xander started looking around, warily watching the Wraith escorts as they dropped off their charges.
There were a lot of people up there, milling around and taking seats, but he noticed their number didn’t even begin to fill more than three percent of the stands’ capacity. There were at least five hundred humans. The Wraith took seats elsewhere, their escorting duties done for now.
He was tugged by his elbow to a place deep within the crowd. “Always sit near the center.” Syera advised. “Sometimes the Wraith will get excited by the battles. They will grab the ones at the edge of the crowd to feed upon.” They sat down, enduring some pushing and shoving. Following Syera’s lead, he pushed and shoved back.
Once everyone had sat and settled down, Xander dared to look down at the arena floor. From up above, it didn’t seem so far away. It hardly looked like the hellish scene he had dreamed of on and off for the last couple of days. All the blood was gone, as were all the bodies. There wasn’t even a hint that a dinosaur had gasped its last breath there.
He flinched when suddenly all the stands around them lit up with a white light that he remembered vaguely from that barren place. There was a hum and then oh god, they were surrounded by Wraith! Xander sucked in a breath, shocked how MANY there were.
If there were five hundred humans total, then there had to be at LEAST five thousand Wraith just on their side of the arena. Xander was glad that Syera insisted that they sit in the middle. Even so, if the Wraith REALLY wanted to, it wouldn’t be too hard to get to them anyway, especially with their sheer numbers.
Syera watched him freak out with knowing eyes. “This is how they keep us in line. This is how they prevent us from banding together.” He waved his hand. Below, two humans faced each other in a field clearly outlined with some kind of white powder. A Wraith stood outside of the field but not very far away, his hands tucked behind his back. At a cue from the Wraith, the two humans lunged at each other.
People started cheering all around them, rooting for one or the other. The Wraith, or at least those who did cheer, seemed to just yell for one or the other to die already. The Wraith who didn’t yell sat back, smiling those cold smiles while watching the opponents like a cat will watch a mouse.
While watching the fighters, Xander realized he was quite naïve. They weren’t just fighting. They were trying to KILL each other.
“You see? We observe our fellow Keepers in all of their darkness. We know the lengths they would go to preserve their own life. Would it be too hard to imagine that they would sacrifice my life to save theirs? No, it would not.” Syera seemed resigned and jaded, like it no longer bothered him to watch two men brutalize each other. “Watch closely. You have yet to have a battle. You may learn something from this.”
“What if I don’t want to?”
“Learn or fight?” Syera gave him a chiding look. “Either way, if you refuse, you die.” As someone screamed behind them for one of the fighters to die, Syera flinched. Catching Xander’s eye, he nodded toward the human. “Some people get into this.”
“I noticed.” Xander said flatly. “What I don’t get is why do the Wraith watch this?”
“I am not sure but I always thought it was purely for entertainment’s sake.” Well, they did look amused. Xander supposed that was a good enough reason, but Syera wasn’t finished. “My old cell mate believed that the Wraith fed off of the emotions produced by a battle, both on and off of the battlefield. But it is an empty type of meal, so they still seek more.” He shrugged. “Also, now that the Wraith have awakened, there are many Hives and queens around. In lieu of fighting, a queen might bring her best Keepers to a rival queen’s Keep and watch as they fight the rival queen’s best.”
“Whoopie, a bonding experience.” It would figure that politics would play SOME role in this. It didn’t take him long to find the queen in the crowd of Wraith. She sat in an elevated position, watching the two men kill each other with a smile on her face. “Keepers?”
“We are Keepers. We belong to the queen.” Syera answered succinctly.
“And what about the brander guy and those humans that act as part of the security?” Xander had sensed some sort of hierarchical thing going on with them but the nature of it had eluded him. “Are they Keepers?”
“In the sense that they are the queen’s property, yes.” Syera seemed uncharacteristically angry, which interested Xander as much as it worried him. “But are they one of us? NO. They are cowardly dogs who would lick the shoes of the Wraith in order to avoid a battle. They are traitors who would worship the Wraith. No, they are NOT one of us!”
Just as he proclaimed that, a roar went up in the crowd. One Keeper had killed the other. People were getting rowdy in the stands. Even the Wraith seemed caught up in the fever. Or maybe they were feeding off of it, like Syera’s old cell mate had thought.
When it quieted down, Syera leaned towards Xander, pointing at the Keeper being escorted away by the Wraith. “He’ll go in now and meet a human. This human will cut a design in his arm and put blue dye in it. It will heal and become his newest mark of victory.” He stuck out his left arm, showing Xander. “It will be one link in the chain he has already started.”
It really did look like a chain. It started just underneath the bottom curve of the culling circle and wrapped around his upper arm several times, coming to an abrupt halt six inches above his elbow. The flesh was slightly raised and the marks were a dark blue.
Syera suddenly laughed. There was a hysterical edge to it. “A chain, yes.” His teeth were bared in a smile but there was no kindness in it. “Those men we spoke of may be cowardly dogs but at the end of the day, we are ALL dogs. And we are all chained to HER.” He pointed at the queen. Xander couldn’t help but look at her again. She seemed so detached from it all.
Without any warning, she suddenly looked in his direction. Their eyes met. Slowly, wickedly, she smiled at him, as if she knew what he was thinking. Xander felt as if a cold hand had suddenly seized his heart.
There was death in her gaze.