Disclaimer in Part One.
It was late when Buffy finally decided to go home. She’d sat for a long time, pondering what the stranger had said, and trying to decide if she believed him or not. There had to have been something about him – something that enabled him to know who she was, and what she struggled with. But – what were the chances that she’d run into another
soul brought back from death – from where she’d been? She hadn’t wanted to leave. She couldn’t imagine anyone else wanting to either.
The arrival of dusk finally stirred her. She’d known that Willow and Tara would take care of Dawn after school – and that they’d probably all go round to the magic shop to help Giles complete his stocktaking. She hadn’t thought she could face all that before – the jokes and the comments and the way Anya took everything so literally …They try so hard when I’m around. It’s like they know I’m fragile – but they don’t know why and they don’t know what to do about it.
Buffy didn’t know what to do about it, either. But she didn’t feel quite so fragile any more –and suddenly she wanted
company. To be among the living. Because that’s where she needed to be.
She hurried across the park and took the shortcut back to town – the one that ran past the old abandoned mall. Typically for Sunnydale, the place had been closed down for years
– but vagrants and homeless people still used the underground car park from time to time. Other creatures too – she’d hunted vamps there on more than one occasion. And there’d been that time when someone had tried to summon a demon …
She was halfway past the car park entrance when she heard the scream. A muffled, disbelieving scream. One that came from somewhere inside the building – and which was cut off with a startled gulp.
"Screaming," she observed, pausing in the dusk shrouded shadow of the main gate. "Lot of dramatic situations start with screaming. Lot of them end that way too," she concluded, peering past the tollbooth and eyeing up the deserted slope beyond. It descended – like much of her life – steeply into the dark. Her hand dipped into her bag, confirming its contents; a handful of freshly sharpened stakes, a heavy carved crucifix, and a silver bladed dagger – the one Giles had pressed into her hands only the day before.Just in case,
he’d said, pushing his glasses up tight to his nose and looking at her in the way he did these days. With concern, affection – and a whole slew of other things, like awe and amazement and disbelief … There was something about the way Giles looked at her that made her feel better about coming back. But she’d never actually realised it until now.
"Good old Giles," she smiled, patting the bag into place at her side. With luck this would just be a couple of vamps out for an early evening meal. A little dance, a quick stake – and they’d be dust and she’d be on the way home again.
Except it wasn’t vamps.
It was a Caranth demon.
And he had something with him. Something she’d never seen before, but which she disliked immediately she saw it. It might have had something to do with all the tentacles. The ones that ended in little sucky mouths.
Or the fact that it was feeding on a fresh victim. So fresh that the poor guy was still twitching.
," she registered, carefully creeping down the slope and into the lower level of the abandoned carpark. There was a burned out vehicle shell, the inevitable pile of cardboard boxes, and a whole load of concrete pillars filling the place with static shadows; the only light came from the flicker of a small fire – which was probably the one the hobo had been warming himself at before the demon arrived.
He’d lit it right in the middle of the old painted pentacle that the would be sorcerer had left behind.
"Damn," she hissed, realising that the demon’s victim had unwittingly managed to complete a spell that she and the Scooby gang had believed they’d thwarted on a previous occasion. "Gotta start cleaning up behind us …"
She didn’t like Caranth demons. They were slimy and had long prehensile tongues – and they were smart, too. This one was wearing a suit – which looked a little incongrous on him – and he had his beast tethered on a long chain. The chain went round what was probably the thing’s neck – if things like that had
necks. It had a dozen jointed legs and lots of tentacles. Half of them ended in those icky little mouths, and the rest were tipped with sharply curled claws. It also had a rough leathery skin, and was about the size of a large labrador. Which suggested that she’d not have much trouble dealing with it.Good job I brought the knife, though …
She’d remembered that Caranths were susceptible to silver. Giles would be proud of her.
"Do you have a license for that thing?" she asked, stepping out from behind a pillar so that she could confront the demon and his pet. The Caranth turned with a hiss, hunching over and staring at her with deep red eyes.
ooo,"; he carolled. "What do we have here? A vagrant? A misplaced innocent? A sweet feast for my pretty?"
"None of the above," Buffy retorted, taking a step forward. This was what she was. What she did
. She didn’t think much of living
right now – but slaying was in her blood, was part of her soul. Maybe she – like the stranger’s friend – was ‘just going through the motions’. But they were familiar motions – and they had a purpose. A meaning.
Because they sent fiends like this
one back where they belonged.
"Hi. I’m Buffy. You’re dead."
The Caranth reared back, a little like a snake startled by sudden movement. "The Slayer? But you’re dead. Aren’t you?"
"Old news," she corrected pointedly. "Get with the program." She dipped into the bag and pulled out the knife – then tossed the bag away, so that she didn’t have to worry about it. "On second thoughts," she decided tersely, "I’ll put
you on it."
"Bold," the demon noted, looking more amused than alarmed. "And beautiful. But no brains."His hand slid down the chain, reaching for the clip that held it in place. "Do you know what this is?"
The creature was straining at the leash – and had been ever since Buffy had stepped out of the shadows. The remains of the dead guy tumbled out of its grip, looking as if it had spent several months in a morgue, and every tentacle swung round, waving eagerly in the Slayer’s direction.
"Something that crawled out of a garbage disposal?" she suggested, looking at it with disgust. If he let it off the chain, then she’d have to kill it first. How hard could that
"This," he laughed, "is a soul-eater. Know what that means? No – don’t suppose you do. It takes a thousand years to nurture as fine a specimen as this. But it’s worth it." His eyes flashed with sudden fire. "Vampires may drink blood and corrupt the soul of their victims – but the soul-eater devours the very essence
of the soul itself. It craves the richness of life, the depth of existence and by absorbing it, quiets the hunger that fuels its own." The demon glanced down, at where the creature hissed and skittered, trying to escape the limits of the chain. "Once a year I let it out to feed – and feed until it is small enough to lock away again. It hasn’t eaten much today. Pickings were slim."
Buffy frowned at him. "I’m not here for a biology lesson," she said. "You intending to talk all night? Because you’ll be doing it without a head."
The soul-eater lunged forward and she bounced back, feeling the whistle of claws cut the air just in front of her. Was she seeing things – or was it really getting larger?
The Caranth unrolled his tongue, and then rolled it back up with a flick of pleasure. "I’ll talk as long as I like. You won’t be around to stop me. The soul-eater eats souls
. Devours them. Digests them. Destroys them utterly. Nothing left. And once it has a scent – it won’t stop until it’s taken every last drop."Oh-oh.
Buffy’s mouth went dry. He might
have been exaggerating, but on the other hand …Nothing left? Nothing at all?
She hadn’t exactly been taking this encounter seriously until now. It had all seemed old hat and too routine for words. A demon a day, that sort of stuff. After all, she no longer had any fear of death. Knowing what she knew – however dimly, however disjointedly – the prospect of dying, of leaving this world and moving to the next, was one that she’d probably welcome. Provided that it didn’t hurt too much. But the Caranth wasn’t talking about death
. He was talking about dissolution. About being reduced to nothing, without hope of reprieve, without any chance of moving to a better place.
"Maybe I’ll kill it first," she said, suppressing a sudden shiver. Was it one of fear – or desire? The Caranth grinned.
"You can try
," he said – and unhooked the chain.