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
Xander was in a cell alone for a long time. There were battles, many of them, he was sure. The proof of their existence was on his arm. He knew that there was something wrong about how he kept on getting chosen for battle over and over and OVER again. In just under two weeks, Xander had reached and surpassed the number of marks that Syera had gained in a little under four months of being in the Keep.
He heard the other Keepers whispering about it. They wondered if he was some important political prisoner, if he was a spy, or if the Wraith REALLY wanted him to die. They sized him up, recognizing that one day, it might be them who would have to face Xander. In those two weeks, he had been moved twice, each time up one floor.
Even after living on the Hellmouth for so long and being exposed to so many powerful and deadly demons, he found himself both shocked and sad how easy it was to kill a human. Before the Keep, Xander never really had a sense for fighting. He just threw himself into the fray and swung wildly with whatever he had. No wonder his friends had suggested he be ‘fray adjacent’.
Over the years, he thought he got better at the whole slaying thing but something somewhere would prove him wrong and he’d be back at square one, Self-Consciousville. Because even though Buffy was beautiful and he loved her, it was really painful for a man’s ego to have to watch such a tiny girl beat the crap out of the enemy that had so easily tossed Xander aside.
But now, he had better than just a sense for fighting. It was like he was possessed by it, unconscious thought and motion carrying out deeds that, if Xander had the time to fully think them through, would have horrified him. Because as much as he might have wanted to be stronger and to be a more helpful Scooby, he didn’t want to lose himself in the power. He didn’t want to kill for the sake of killing nor did he want to kill for the sake of profit.
Instead, he found himself killing for the sake of self-preservation. Some days, he could justify it. Most days, he couldn’t. No self-defense plea for him, just plead guilty. As guilty as he felt, he knew it wouldn’t do any good. To stop would be to become an unsung martyr, to be quickly forgotten, to die at the hands of another Keeper. Continuing was his only option. It was better that his opponents die quickly by his hand than at the hands of the Wraith.
Xander became known as Keeper Swift because of this conviction. The Keepers breathed a sigh of relief whenever he moved on, as the Keepers usually fought people on their floor only. The whispers and questions continued anew whenever he took possession of his new cell. Always questioning and wondering and fearing.
Xander didn’t really care about their gossiping. He knew the what, the why, and the how. All he was concerned about was the WHEN. As in when he could kill the referee. Killing the queen was an impossible endeavor, though a favorite fantasy. The only goal Xander had was the Wraith’s head.
To try and make the Wraith match come that much more quickly, he did as much as humanly possible to piss the Wraith off. It was like all the demon taunting and vampire baiting he had done before was just a warm up to this grand finale. Because he had no doubt that it would be just that, a finale.
Because the Wraith had no name, Xander gave him one. He initially assigned the name “Richard” simply because of the obvious nickname that resulted from it but he soon came up with others to torment the demon with.
“Ricky, darling, you simply MUST put a bag over your head. You’re scaring the children.”
“Hey Dick! Wake up on the wrong side of the bed this morning?”
“Richy, did the other Wraith beat you up when you were a child? Because I’m sensing intimacy issues…”
The Keepers whispered that he was crazy, that he had a death wish. But they quickly learned he wasn’t a man with a death wish out on the battlefield. No, he was worse because while he was practically begging for suicide by Wraith, he wouldn’t allow any of the other Keepers to kill him in battle. They didn’t understand it wasn’t so much a death wish as it was a revenge thing but, then again, Xander never bothered to explain it to them.
It got to the point where the Wraith started looking up whenever Xander called out, nearly trained to respond to the name. But still- STILL!- he would grit his teeth and bear the insults and the over familiarity, adding a new topic to the whispers and questions of the Keepers. Why would he take such abuse?
In the quiet of his cell, Xander knew why. The queen wanted to break him and she was using “Richard” as the instrument of her will. Death was too quick and too merciful for what she was looking for. Her goal was to break his spirit.
Xander wouldn’t give her- give EITHER of them- the satisfaction in seeing him crack.
“Hey.” Counter smiled. The strange Keeper was the only one who was never bound to a specific floor. He seemed to float from floor to floor whenever he liked. Oddly, his escorts never complained. “One hundred and twenty-two.”
“Thank you.” Xander said sincerely but Counter was already gone. “One hundred and twenty-two, huh?” He made another mark on the outside of his boot with his nail. “There’s another week I missed.”
There was something wrong. It wasn’t just that he couldn’t tell one week from another. He was also missing huge chunks of his memories. He’d wake up one morning with one new mark, with two, maybe even three. It used to bother him that he couldn’t remember the faces of the men he killed but too much time passed and that too had faded.
The Keeper who cut the marks was a young man who worshipped the Wraith. He was young enough to be dumb enough to idolize the Keepers he worked on too. “Remember the first time I made your mark of victory?” he asked, nudging and nodding. “Remember how I had to keep cutting you open because you kept healing too quickly? Remember?”
No, he couldn’t remember. The day after Syera died, the day he killed the farmer- all of it was a blur to him. He did vaguely remember telling something to stop interfering already and let him be scarred but although he was aware of who or what he was scolding then, he had no idea who or what it was now. A lot of time had passed between then and now.
He couldn’t bring himself to care. Time was not important as details. The only significance it had was that time was for waiting, and he was okay with waiting. If weeks were going to pass by without his notice, that was fine. Minutes, hours, days were all blurring together for him. Only Counter with his infrequent visits revealed the passage of time. Xander didn’t know whether to love him or hate him for it.
The Wraith gave the Keepers in the upper floors more freedom than the Keepers on the lower floors. He was on the fourth floor now, which meant his cell only closed at night and he was free to wander about (with some restrictions) as he pleased. Unfortunately, this often brought him into contact with the Keepers on his floor. Like now.
“The mark of your victories are high, child.” A big Keeper stopped him in the hallway. He was from the fifth floor, the floor of the queen’s most valuable Keepers. Xander knew this because he had heard someone whisper it but he hadn’t understood it until he recalled it. His mind archived it away like a squirrel hides her nuts for the winter. But nothing interfered with his autopilot unless it became important. He was in autopilot more often than not nowadays. Some days, when he cared, he wondered if that was the source behind his missing memories, his inability to tell one day from another.
People on the fifth floor got to go everywhere the hell they wanted, including the other floors. It had occurred to Xander once that Counter must be on the fifth floor too then, if he was allowed such freedom in the Keep, but he couldn’t imagine why or how such a thin and frail looking man had become one of the queen’s favored. He didn’t have any marks of victory on his arm either; Xander had checked.
Was the Keeper still talking? “Not as high as mine though.” The Keeper was saying. He was not important. This wasn’t a battlefield. Only in the arena would he have any significance. Xander walked away, only to be jerked back. “You would ignore ME?”
Xander woke up a little. He so rarely did nowadays. He chose only to expend that energy when “Richard” showed his face. Everything else was just autopilot, autopilot, autopilot. But a sudden anger broke through the cloud. Xander jerked his left arm forward, revealing the extent of the marks. By now, at four months, the marks only had five inches to go before it would wrap completely around his wrist.
“THIS is not something to be proud of.” Xander spat. “And it never well be.” The hall was silent. Everyone was watching. No one was helping. Such was the politics of the Keep. You kept to yourself.
His face red at the blatant disrespect, the Keeper wound up his arm, about to deck him. Without thinking about it, Xander knocked it out of the way, leaving the arm to swing out wildly as Xander shoved his hand with full force at the vulnerable joint of the bigger man’s shoulder.
Shoulder successfully dislocated, something in his mind intoned indifferently. Was he channeling the solider, Buffy, or one of the Keepers? He had a sudden vague flash of memory, the crack of a broken neck and warm flesh under his hands. He knew why the other Keeper was mad at him now. Xander had killed his cell mate.
Xander wondered when the queen had started pitting her best against him and how many marks on his arm signified the loss of her favored. He considered the possibility that she was upset at the many losses but then he threw it out, remembering her cold cruel smile as she watched men die over and over again. She probably enjoyed it.
He was immediately aware of the Wraith behind him but the Keeper in front of him, though having the advantage of direct eye contact, took a little time to register the demon’s presence. Xander closed his eyes. It didn’t matter. It wasn’t “Richard”. It was another Wraith.
“What the hell?” The big man popped his shoulder back in, something like submissive hostility in his eyes as he backed off. There was death in the Keeper’s eyes, aimed at Xander. But he dared not do anything while the Wraith was around.
There was something like an expectant silence from behind him, so Xander slowly turned, not so much apprehensive as indifferent. You see one Wraith, you seen them all. Although Xander had observed some different varieties in the species, he only categorized them in two groups within the confines of his mind: “Richard” and non-“Richard”. Anything in the latter category was beyond his interest.
“You’re changing cells again, Keeper.” The Wraith sneered. Here we go again, Xander thought. No way out but up. “The fifth floor this time.”
“Joy.” Xander said flatly. The queen had been training him to be one of her favored. “Wonder. AWE.” He dismissed the Wraith. “I know the way up.” He always took an empty cell. He never wanted to deal with the pain of having to ‘choose’ a death, not to mention some Keepers were terrified enough of him that they might, had they been paired up as cellmates, smother him in his sleep.
“No.” The Wraith said, standing stiffly. There was a lot of space between him and the Keepers, like he was a lonely creepy island and the empty space was the vast sea. “The queen assigned you to a specific cell.” Xander sighed as the whispers started up again, sparing only a glance at the big Keeper as he walked away with the Wraith.
Now THERE was a man who would kill him if they were made cellmates. Only he would take his time, breaking and cutting and hurting and tearing. And LAUGHING- Xander had seen the man fight. There was a reason why they called the man the Death Keeper. For people who had to live everyday with the knowledge that their deaths were inevitable, it was strange that they would recognize one man as so much more connected to death than any other Keeper. Strange, yes, but understandable.
Some predators, like Xander, had to be made, forced to adapt to the situation or else die. Other predators were born and delighted in such wanton violence. The latter predators were monsters of a human skin. Xander hoped Buffy never had to face one. It was hard to make such a distinction, especially when your whole life, your destiny surrounds a duty to protect humanity. Some humans didn’t need nor deserve such protection.
The fifth floor looked like the first floor, the second, third, and fourth. The only difference was that, while the cells were open, few Keepers wandered the hall. Instead, they stayed within the confines of their cell, recognizing at this point, like Xander had recognized the first time he had the option to leave his cell, that the confines of their cells were really much safer than the outside. It wasn’t such an uncommon thing for a Keeper to kill another Keeper outside of the arena, if provoked.
The Wraith walked by many cells before stopping at the one on the end. He extended a hand towards the cell and then walked briskly away. The cell was occupied. All of the cells were occupied. Rubbing the back of his head in an unconscious gesture of unease, Xander walked into the dark cell. Only one candle lit up the darkness and it was in the far corner of the room, away from both Xander and his new cellmate.
Xander’s eyes adjusted slowly. He used three or four candles himself while alone in a cell but apparently this cellmate didn’t need as much light. He stood still for a moment, patiently waiting to make out the lines of things in the darkness. He saw the other man first.
His new cell mate was seven, maybe eight feet tall. It was hard to tell because he was sitting down on one of the mats. His back was to Xander, who could only guess at what he looked like under the shadows. His skin seemed dark but everything looked dark in the low light. His left arm faced the light of the candle.
Xander could make out the man’s marks of victory, which went completely down one arm to wrap around his wrist and, seeing this when squinting, started again on his right arm to end just an inch above his elbow. And this man had long arms. It was obvious that his cellmate had been in the Keep for a very lengthy amount of time.
Xander was awake now. Autopilot was completely off. He felt oddly vulnerable. He had spent so much time alone in his cell that having another’s presence in the small space was intrusive and downright uncomfortable. Xander found himself fixated on the powerful build of the man in front of him, realizing that his new cellmate was bigger and stronger than even the Keeper who wanted to rip him apart, which of course made Xander, just shy of six feet and known more for his speed than his strength, look like a dwarf in comparison. This sent a shiver of unease down his spine.
In the three months since Syera’s death, Xander had never missed him so keenly. He thanked the man mentally, knowing that the merchant had taken him under his wing without protest or ulterior motive. Now that he knew the Keep better and had a new cellmate to deal with, he understood how rare Syera’s acts of kindness were.
“Uh, hi.” He knew that there was little he could do if the Keeper wanted to kill him. This was one guy Xander had no confidence whatsoever he could beat. “My name is Xander. What’s yours?”
The huge man turned slowly, a low grumbling sound emerging from his corner of the room. The light of the candle caught his eyes and they flashed gold. They were slitted, inhuman, much like the Wraith but with a hint of animal, not insect. A strange mouth was opened and sharp white teeth were bared. VERY sharp teeth, Xander noted.
Although Keepers were rarely given weapons, he didn’t think that the limitation would be much of an obstacle for this particular Keeper. The Keeper stood and Xander congratulated himself half-heartedly. He had been right in the ball park about his height. The Keeper stood towering over Xander, his massive body and bulk suddenly snuffing out the light.
“Keepers have no names, human.”