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
It took him three whole weeks of living in the Keep before he would accept that Buffy wasn’t going to burst in at the eleventh hour and save him. When he first realized the truth of that, he was nearly inconsolable. It was like the reality of his situation finally sunk in. Xander realized just how screwed he actually was.
Syera didn’t understand his cell mate’s despair but he tried to help, in his own way. Because he DID make such an effort to help, they slowly moved from being cell mates to being friends. Xander needed support. He always did. And Syera needed someone to talk to. They made a strange but successful friendship based on those needs.
Every morning, Syera would guide Xander through stretching, showing him moves that he could use in battle. Xander became an avid student by choice because it was very obvious that there was no way out of fighting. Xander would fight or Xander would die. It was that simple. It bugged him, that life which was so complicated could be reduced to those terms.
Every night, Syera would speak of his planet Aromos and draw Xander into the stories despite himself. For those few hours each night, Xander escaped the reality of the Keep. He even pretended to be characters in the story sometimes, but he never told Syera. He didn’t want to look pathetic. It meant a lot to him, to have Syera think well of him. Syera was all he had to talk to.
Xander went to sleep each night with the sight of the planet address burnt into his retinas. The strange symbols meant nothing to him but to Syera, they were important. So Xander took note of them as well. The address was just one more detail Xander focused on to keep his sanity.
They had to ‘watch’ every three or four days. Xander quickly got used to the hike up to the stands just as quickly as he had gotten used to practicing Syera’s moves. Although he had never been in as good of shape as Buffy, he still was used to running and moving. Usually AWAY from things.
Something else, something that Xander attributed to the unreliable echoes of Soldier, insisted that he was also used to training. He took to Syera’s drills like a duck to water, finding himself uncharacteristically silent as he performed the same move over and over again without complaint.
Syera had been pleasantly surprised by his sudden improvement but Xander couldn’t help but be bitter about it, remembering a night where, for once, HE was the reliable one. Although he didn’t know them as such, he had protected his friends without hesitation. It seemed so WRONG that what Xander had picked up from Soldier was being used for self-preservation instead of preservation of the pack.
Oh, and don’t even get him started on Hyena! He had a hard enough time on a good day keeping the residual effects of the primal from affecting his everyday life. He often had to resist asking for his hamburgers rare and he once got all territorial over the sidewalk with a DOG. Going to a zoo was a bad idea because some animals got nervous, the lions started showing lots of fang, and the hyenas started laughing. At him, he was sure.
Ignorance was said to be bliss but ignorance (not so much being unaware as CHOOSING to be unaware) in his case meant the hyena affected him less. The less she affected him, the less likely he was to give in to her seductive power, because it WAS seductive. He knew the SECOND he gave into her, he’d become that callous self-serving bastard that had emerged under her gentle persuasion that first time. The power would go to his head. It always did.
And that was the real reason why he pretended he didn’t remember what he did while he was possessed. Because he knew that person that had so disgusted his friends wasn’t the Hyena. That person was Xander, alright, just minus the good parts. Those good parts were just... details.
“Focus on the details, not the end results.” Syera told him once. “It’s the only way you’ll survive this with your sanity intact.” It was advice Xander took to heart. Details, details. He was a man of details.
He focused on the battle itself instead of the death that would inevitably follow. He focused on day to day activities instead of the entire sentence. He focused on Syera instead his fate, THEIR fate, as the queen’s Keepers. He wasn’t quite in denial but he was in the region. You can’t have the equation without doing the math but he could go pretty damn far while ignoring the math.
The only thing he couldn’t really ignore was that, one of these days, he was going to be chosen for battle. The battles were decided at random. You didn’t know you were going to fight until one of those skinny Wraith came up to your cell. The drones and the humans only led you to the stairs but that type of Wraith always led you down the hall and out of sight.
One day, Syera was chosen for battle. With a quiet sort of dignity, he allowed himself to be escorted down the hall. Knowing he couldn’t go after him, Xander rushed up the stairs, leaving his escort in the dust. The stands were the only place he would be able to see his friend.
He sat in the middle, like he had so many times before, and leaned forward, anxiously waiting for Syera’s battle to come up. There were three battles before his. Xander was surprised and appalled at himself when he realized he was hoping that one of the fighters would go ahead and die already so he could watch Syera. While he tried to justify his thought with the knowledge that he was impatient with worry, not excitement, it was a much more subdued Xander who watched Syera come onto the battlefield.
It was a longer battle than Xander had expected but Syera won. Xander realized that the man was GOOD. While Syera had always come across as a passive man, he was a completely different person on the battlefield. He fought hard and mercilessly. He fought for self-preservation. In environments like that of the Keep, you really couldn’t fight for much else.
When the Keepers were escorted back down to their cells, Xander found Syera already present. He sat on the ground with his head hanging low. His knuckles were bruised and swollen from what Xander could see. Syera cradled his left arm in his lap, running his fingers over the new bandage.
“Hey.” Xander said, crouching down to the ground. “You won.” He was certainly being Mr. Obvious today but he had nothing else to say. Saying “Hey, good job!” seemed just downright rude, considering the death of the other Keeper. Saying “I’m sorry” seemed even worse, though it was infinitely more appropriate.
“One more link in the chain. A mark of victory.” Syera said hoarsely, looking up. One of his eyes was swollen shut and his lip was split. He ripped his bandage off, revealing the blue mark underneath. The skin around it was pink and raw looking. Syera didn’t seem to so much look at it as he cursed it, glaring down at it like the power of his eyes could erase it from his skin.
He sighed suddenly, leaning his head back against the wall. “I wish I was one of the weaker ones, the ones that succumbed to poison and fever when the first mark was made. But I was strong.” A hand clasped over the marks, as if to hide them but the chain was too long. Only a long sleeve shirt would hide them but they were only allowed the vest. “If my father saw me now…”
“Wouldn’t he be glad his son was alive?” Xander respected the hell out of Syera and felt a strong urge to console him, to somehow make him feel better. His friend rarely ever submitted to the periods of despair that Xander often found refuge in. It disturbed him to see such a strong man broken.
Syera looked up, his eyes raw. “Better to think his son dead rather to see the abomination that he has become.”
In hindsight, Xander often thought he should have expected what happened soon after. At the time, he had actually expected something to happen after watching his first series of Keeper battles. His exchange with the queen, though completely nonverbal, not only contained menace but also promise. She WAS going to do something. He just had no idea what.
But for a long time, she did nothing. She never looked at him again when he was in the stands and he never saw her in any other place. So he assumed (hoped, PLEADED to any god listening) that she had lost interest. Or that a rival queen had her attention in their eternal civil war. Or that some human society amongst the stars was fighting back against her. ANYTHING that would make her forget about him.
He should have known the Wraith, once interested, never forget a face.
That same week, Syera was once again chosen for a battle. Xander sighed when he saw the Wraith, pushing to his feet. He hated watching the matches. He learned a lot about fighting but it was still horrible, knowing one of Keepers would die. He had yet to see a battle end where both Keepers survived.
Xander was startled when, about to walk out of the cell, he was pushed back inside by the Wraith. Syera gasped behind him but when Xander turned around, he offered no explanations. Instead, his friend meekly stepped outside of the cell at the crook of the Wraith’s finger. The webbing on the cell sprang up once more with Xander still inside.
The Wraith took out a knife and, following the marks of the queen’s brand, sliced an x on Syera’s arm. The blood ran down his arm, a strange contrast against the blue marks of victory. Xander didn’t understand why Syera’s face turned grey. The Wraith, on the other hand, seemed amused but when didn’t they?
“Syera?” Xander whispered urgently. The former merchant did not respond. He seemed to be frozen in place. He only started moving down the hall when the Wraith pushed him. “Syera!”
Trying to peer in the hallway through what little leeway the webbing gave him, Xander realized he wasn’t the only Keeper still within his cell. In fact, the whole hallway (which, Syera had told him, was long and filled with cells of other Keepers) was hushed, such a stark contrast to the muttering and whispering that had become like background noise. The sudden silence was oppressive.
A lot of time passed. Rather than attempting to sleep, Xander sat as close to the webbing as he could, his fingers tangled in it as he waited for Syera to come back. He stared blankly at the wall across from the cell. There were six floors to the Keep, his friend had told them. Each floor was exactly the same: a long hallway with cells on one side and a blank wall on the other. Four sets of stairs were on each floor.
They were on the first floor. The newest and the mediocre Keepers were kept on the first floor. The most important and most valuable Keepers, the ones that the queen would take to fight another queen’s Keepers, were kept on the fifth floor. The rest of the Keep consisted simply of the courtyard and those tall walls. Syera had said that the Wraith needed no space themselves because they lived in their ships up above the Keep but as much as Xander looked up and squinted at the sky, he could see no ships.
When he told Syera this, the man had chuckled roughly. “Believe me, that’s a GOOD sign.”
Xander heard the soft footfalls of someone walking down the hall. TWO someones, if his hearing was to be believed. He jumped to his feet and backed away from the webbing. Like he had hoped, it was Syera, returning from his private battle. He was bloodied and bruised, looking even worse than he had after that first match, but he was ALIVE.
He was also escorted by a Wraith. The Wraith, Xander was surprised to note, was one he recognized. He was the one who played referee to all the battles. His presence was an anomaly. Like the queen, Xander had only seen this particular Wraith in one place since he had entered the Keep.
Syera limped into the cell. His eyes were wide and half-crazed. He grabbed Xander’s arm just as Xander took an automatic step back. His friend’s grip was like iron and the tips of his fingers dug deeply into Xander’s flesh. His eyes begged for some kind of understanding.
“I didn’t… I knew what I had to but…” He shook his head, laughing hysterically. The cut on his arm was still bleeding, Xander noticed through the murky cloud of confusion, not understanding why they would mar the mark of the queen. “I wanted him to die! The Wraith!” Xander remembered suddenly that the only private battles were the ones between Wraith and Keeper. Syera was almost crying. “And it felt so good! I WANTED to kill him!”
“And so you did, Keeper.” Xander snapped his attention to the referee, realizing the cell was still open and the demon was still there. Usually, they left right after escorting the Keepers back. But this Wraith had another agenda. And it was an agenda, Xander realized with a sinking feeling, that had something to do with him.
The Wraith stepped into the cell, immediately crowding up the small place with his presence. His eyes were focused on Xander. “And now you must decide.”
“Choose.” The referee said with a smile. He half-circled them, his eyes still fixed on Xander. Syera’s grip tightened painfully, his nails cutting Xander’s skin. It was yet another detail to focus on but there were so many details demanding to be focused on. “Choose his death.”
Xander was appalled. “No, I won’t!” he yelled ineffectively, putting his body between that of the Wraith and Syera, who had gone unnaturally silent.
The Wraith grinned. “Then I will.” With that, the demon grabbed him and threw him to the side. Xander hit the wall and slid down to his knees but forced himself back up again when he saw that the Wraith was crowding Syera in the corner. He lunged at the demon, only to be knocked back down again. “This death, I will savor.”
The demon held Syera to the wall with one hand and took a moment to look at Xander before he, with sudden and brutal speed, shoved his hand into Syera’s chest. The touch looked almost harmless but Syera arched his back and screamed. Before he realized exactly what he was doing, Xander was on his feet once more. He managed to yank the Wraith’s hand off of Syera’s chest, seeing a bloodied mark on the upper part of the chest that the vest dipped down and revealed before an elbow slammed into his stomach and drove him to his knees.
He watched, shocked, as the hand seemed to latch back on, making Syera scream again. Before his very eyes, his friend shrunk and aged so many years in so few seconds. Too soon, he was just an aged husk, gasping hoarsely because he could scream no longer. Finally, the demon pulled away, watching dispassionately as Syera fell to the floor. Xander crawled to him, his hands hovering uselessly. He wanted to help but he couldn’t see anywhere he could touch without having something break off or crumble in his grip.
“Syera.” He whispered. Those dark eyes gleamed brightly with water, much too big in his sunken face. And then, with a soft sigh, he died. Xander’s hands fell to his lap. “Syera…”
THIS was a feeding. How stupid was he, to have assumed mere cannibalism when he had lived on a damn Hellmouth! He knew that there were many ways to die and equally many ways for a demon to feast upon a human. This… seemed worse than anything he had ever seen. And he had seen a lot of bad things back home.
“Bad choice you made there, Keeper.” The Wraith chuckled. “Should have chosen an easier path to death.”
“How could I choose?” Xander was starting to realize why the Wraith had fed on Syera. It was his answer that moved the demon to feast on his friend. His shock was such that he couldn’t grasp that understanding all at once but the guilt would soon follow. “He was my friend!”
“No Keeper makes a friend out of a cell mate solely for the sake of FRIENDSHIP, Keeper.” Xander was jerked to his feet from behind. He didn’t make it hard for the Wraith, just hung limp in the powerful creature’s grip. The demon yanked him up close so they were nose to nose. “He makes it so if he were to get in this position, his ‘friend’ would make the right choice and spare him an agonizing death.” He lowered his voice to a soft whisper. “You failed your FRIEND, Keeper.” He snorted, shoving Xander away from him.
Xander barely caught himself on the wall. He turned around slowly, dark eyes straying from the corpse of his friend to the Wraith himself. “I will kill you.” He heard himself promise as if from far away. This only amused the Wraith.
“I look forward to your attempt, Keeper.” While walking out of the tiny cell, he stopped to nudge the corpse with his foot. “I’ll leave him in here for a little while. So you can say good-bye.”
It was quiet in the cell for a long time. Xander stared at the husk of his friend, so many things passing through his mind but none of them sticking. He felt cold and hot all at once, just so out of it and strange. He hadn’t felt this upset since Jesse died, something like the reality of the situation hitting him at the same time his mind proclaimed ‘no no, this CAN’T be happening’.
His grief was a quiet one. He did not cry. He knew the faces of the monsters who were responsible for Syera’s death. The Wraith would die. It was the only promise Xander allowed himself to make. As for the other monster… there was little more he could do about that besides killing himself and still, at this point of time, it seemed like such a cop out.
Xander was stronger than that. He had to survive. He lived on a Hellmouth once. Now he was in hell- What was the difference? No support group, maybe. But that also meant that less people had to die because he was stupid and weak. Not that NO people would die- look at poor Syera.
He fell asleep sitting up, next to the corpse. When he woke up, it was gone but Xander knew better than to hope it was a dream. Syera was still dead and he was still alive.
And somewhere, sometime in the future, that Wraith was going to die. All he had to do was survive until then. A little time and a lot of patience. Time was scary but patience was a detail. He could focus on the details. He could hold on until then, until he could kill the Wraith like he killed Xander’s friend.
His first battle was soon after. He fought a man he had seen down the hall numerous times. He was one of the six other people who survived the T-Rex, so Xander always felt some sort of kinship with him. The arena was much larger when you were actually standing in it, just as he had thought. But you didn’t need that much room to kill someone.
It was a close match. Both of them were equally terrified of losing but Xander knew a move or two that he didn’t. From Buffy, from Syera, from Solider- it didn’t matter where it was from, Xander had the advantage.
The guy was probably a farmer when he was free. He had the face of an honest man who never raised his fist to strike someone. He was strong but he was clumsy. He had no patience and he was running out of time. Xander broke the man’s leg without even meaning to when he caught a kick and twisted it. Xander felt sick, jolted out of the fugue he had slipped into while fighting, and immediately let go.
The farmer went down and didn’t get back up, breathing heavily as he watched something to the left of them. Xander followed the suggestion and looked, an ugly expression crossing his face when he recognized his tormentor. He wanted to kill the bastard right then, but something told him, not yet, not yet.
The Wraith would challenge him to a match one day, Xander could feel it in his bones. And like Syera had gotten one last ‘fuck you!’ in before the Wraith had killed him, so would Xander. That would be his own tribute to his friend’s memory. All he needed was time and patience.
Xander watched warily. The Wraith walked up, his hands tucked behind his back. He hoped that breaking the man’s leg would be enough. A broken leg wasn’t something people died of nowadays. A couple weeks of down time and the farmer would be as good as new, ready to fight again.
Please god, let it be enough!
The Wraith took his sweet time looking over the farmer, whose breaths were harsh and uneven at the demon’s proximity. After a moment, he turned to Xander, baring his teeth in a smile. With a quick motion, the Wraith twisted his wrist, revealing a sharp knife with a thick handle. He turned the handle towards Xander.
“Choose his death, Keeper.” The demon said mockingly, the familiar words taunting him like a slap to the face.
Xander closed his eyes with a shaky breath. He could hear Syera’s panicked screaming, could see how he flailed so ineffectively against the strength of the Wraith. He could feel the dryness of the corpse under his fingertips that one time he dared to touch him. Xander walked past the Wraith, taking the knife offered to him.
He chose a quick death.
Time and patience would drench his hands in blood.