By Barb C.
Setting: Post-Gift AU (Barbverse)
Synopsis: Knowing that the Slayer has hard decisions to make is one thing. Being the subject of one is quite another.
Author’s notes: This story takes place in the same universe as "Raising In the Sun," "Necessary Evils," and "A Parliament of Monsters." It immediately precedes "To Lie Down With Wolves" and "Every Silver Lining Has A Touch of Gray," and it's pretty damn angsty, folks. The story includes some elements of Dark Horse comics canon, but I do very different things with them. Thanks to my incredible betas, slaymesoftly, trepkos, typographer, and cornerofmadness – any remaining errors are entirely my own.
The full moon rose above our heads on the night we hiked up to the top of Kingman's Bluff, but we scarcely needed its light. We'd walked this trail a hundred times over, hunting demons or indulging in the occasional midnight picnic. Took it a bit slower than usual, on account of Buffy's delicate condition, but not that much slower.
We crested the top of the bluff. Wellington'd been a busy little beaver. The stone floor of the old temple had been scraped free of dirt and grass and laid bare to the night sky. At the far end, the slab tilted drunkenly down between a brace of crumbling pillars to bury itself in the earth. Last time we'd been up here, the bases of the pillars had been buried in sumac scrub. Now the tangle of brush had been uprooted, and the paving-stone between the two pillars had been prised up. Where it'd lain, an inky black hole with a set of shallow stone stairs circled down into the earth.
That explained why we'd never discovered this entrance whilst larking about up here; no one who didn't already know what he was looking for could have guessed that stairwell was hidden here. Wellington was crouched beside one of the pillars, studying the carvings with an electric torch and a magnifying glass. He was still kitted out like bleeding Ernest Shackleton. He bounced to his feet when he saw the two of us, and clapped his gloved hands together, very nearly losing his monocle. "Ah, you've arrived!" he cried. "Capital, capital! And this must be your lovely wife, the famous Slayer of Vampyres!" He took Buffy's hand and planted a kiss on it - probably intended to be Continental, but it fell short somewhere around the Isle of Man. "The preparations for the incantation are very nearly complete. You have all of the required materials?"
Buffy retrieved her hand, and surreptitiously wiped it on her jeans. She was eyeing Wellington with a puzzled frown – like she, too, thought he looked familiar, and couldn't place him. I unslung the knapsack I'd been lugging. "All present and accounted for." He reached for it, and I hoisted it over my head. "Ah, ah, ah. First there's the matter of the delivery fee."
"Of course! How very thoughtless of me." From an inner coat-pocket Wellington produced a wallet, and from the wallet produced a bundle sufficient to power the Summers-Pratt household for some months. I'd stashed his previous payment in the Bloody Vengeance Inc. account right quick, of course – if it were fairy gold, I intended the Sunnydale Securities Bank to take the hit if it evaporated. The git made a show of counting out the brass, and I made an equal show of opening the knapsack and displaying the scaly hunks of flesh and bone he'd contracted for.
"Eeeeexcellent!" Wellington beamed at us. "You've fulfilled your portion of our bargain admirably – " He took hold of the backpack by one strap and tried to lift it, staggered for a pace or two, and set it down with a thump. "Er... I regret to say that my pursuit of the spiritual has resulted in a slight neglect of the physical. I believe this may be just a trifle too heavy for me to comfortably – er – that is – would you mind assisting me just a bit further?" He gestured at the stairwell. "The area where I'll be conducting the ritual isn't far."
I cocked an eyebrow at Buffy. Could all but see the wheels turning in her head: If Wellington couldn't heft a fifty-pound backpack, it was bloody well certain he couldn't have given that stone the heave-ho. Either he was stronger than he let on, or he'd had help, or both. We'd been wondering what mischief the wanker was really managing, and this would give us a chance to suss it out. "All right," she said, "but we can't stay too long. I promised Bill I wouldn't stick him with watching the younger kids all night."
Let's note for posterity that this was the last chance for yours truly to convince the Slayer to stay behind, and yours truly let it sail on by. Wellington started down the stairs, and we followed. Buffy switched on her own torch, dropping behind me so's the light wouldn't bugger up my night vision. As evil shrines go, this one was bog standard. We passed vile runes, abandon-hope-all-ye-who-enter inscriptions, and the occasional bas-relief of some snake-haired slapper. Wellington pointed them out like a tour guide, enthusing over the Pre-Columbian chthonic symbolism. "The iconography of Proserpexa's cult is just fascinating," he gushed. "You're familiar with the history of these ruins, I imagine?"
"Just the CliffsNotes." Buffy laid a hand against the wall of the stairwell to steady herself; we'd gone down a fair few turns, and even I was getting dizzy. "Chapter One: Temple to evil demonic overlord, erected. Chapter Two: Temple to evil demonic overlord, handily crushed in earthquake. Earthquaking seems to be the go-to method around here for crushing evil temples."
"It's no coincidence." Wellington gave us an exaggerated wink. "The late Mayor Wilkins had... underworld connections, shall we say. In 1932, Proserpexa's followers attempted to use her effigy to destroy the world. Wilkins arranged an earthquake to interrupt the ceremony, just as he did in 1937, when he trapped the Master before he could raise the Old One." He gave me a knowing look. "You're a member of the Master's line yourself; you must know all about that."
I grunted. Due to the time-travel contretemps I mentioned earlier, Buffy and I had ring-side seat to some of it. "I know it was all bollocks. Barring Illyria, the Old Ones have been stewing in the Deeper Well for millennia. Old Bat-Nose was fooling himself if he thought he could fetch one here just by jawing about it."
"Ah! That's the trick of it, you see." We'd reached the bottom of the stairs. Wellington pressed a near-invisible button in the stonework, and made a self-satisfied noise at the rumble of stone on stone as a new passageway opened for us. "The Master wasn't trying to raise an Old One. He was trying to raise the Old One. Archaeous."
Huh. I'd never known that Nest's obsession rated a definite article. Nor cared. Buffy asked the more pertinent question. "What difference does that make? Wouldn't he still be stuck in the Deeper Well?"
"Not at all, fair Slayer!" Wellington warmed to his topic. "As I'm sure you know, the vast majority of vampires are descended from the Old One Maloker, who invested a fresh human corpse with his essence just before he was banished to the confines of the Deeper Well. Only an Old One – a pure demon, unsullied by any taint of human blood – possesses an essence powerful enough to create an entire new race of demons. At least, so everyone thought, until Archaeous managed it. Some claim that he sired Heinrich Joseph Nest directly; others claim that the Master was simply his most powerful descendant by virtue of age and dedication to evil. In either case, the Master created a dynasty of vampires in his service."
The Slayer cocked her head. "So this Archaeous is what, just a regular, run-of-the-mill demon?"
"Hardly run-of-the-mill!" exclaimed Wellington. "Archaeous is an extremely powerful and ambitious demon lord. When he succeeded in creating his own line of vampires, he proclaimed himself the successor to the Old Ones – hence the name, which means 'The Old One '. Which made a number of other powerful demons, including Proserpexa, very unhappy. She rallied the other Lords, and together they brought Archaeous low. In the end Proserpexa confined him in the depths of her temple, bound by chains both sorcerous and mundane. The Master eventually tracked his progenitor to Sunnydale, and came here determined to free Archaeous from captivity. But by the time he arrived, this temple had already been shattered, its entrance lost. For reasons I was unable to discover, Nest fixed upon a church near the Hellmouth as the most likely site of Archaeous's imprisonment, and – "
The reasons Wellington hadn't been able to discover had been the Slayer and me, bollocksing up the Master's location spell at the behest of Edna Mae Wilkins, in exchange for access to the grimoire with the spell we hoped would send us back to our proper time. Our small part in that formidable old bat's schemes hadn't gone down in history, which was probably all for the best. Wellington was still rabbiting on about his research skills, and how he'd discovered the entrance to the temple. What the Slayer was pondering I couldn't tell you, but yours truly was thinking that if all this weren't complete cobblers, it explained a few things about old Heinrich, and why he was so bloody obsessed with purging humanity from himself and his followers. If this Archaeous bloke wasn't a proper Old One, that meant that the Master, and all his descendants, really were just a shade less demonic than your common-or-garden vamp.
Yeah, yeah, I know, the Judge. Maybe Dru misplaced a few screws putting him back together. More likely, our Liam was just a gigantic knob-end. Come to think, p'raps that's why so many of us made the Watchers' Council's Ten Most Wanted. When you're second best, you try harder.
About then the tunnel opened out into a cavern you could have chucked the Albert Hall into, and heard it rattle. More pillars, tumbled about like jackstraws. Worn hieroglyphs Rosetta'd up the walls, and several tiers of metal scaffolding chased precariously after them. A small petrol-powered generator hummed beside the tunnel opening, powering the electric lights strung on poles overhead. In the circle of light, crates of supplies surrounded a sleeping bag and a folding table, which held an iPad and a small library of spellbooks. Evidence that our client had been swotting away well in advance of our visit. It was bloody certain Wellington had had assistance setting all this up – I could smell a few muddled, days-old traces of other humans – but no one else was in evidence now.
"Welcome to my base camp!" Wellington detoured around a stack of petrol cans. "From this humble staging point, I shall pursue ever more daring expeditions into the unknown! Rest assured that there are far greater wonders to be found further into the ruins, but the ritual must be completed first, to ensure safe passage beyond the vasty deeps."
He gestured to a fissure, wide enough that the other side was shrouded in darkness, which split the cavern in two. I could make out an island in the middle, lit by torches – the old-fashioned kind. A narrow rope-and-plank bridge was strung from our edge of the chasm across to the island. Buffy took one look at it and shook her head. She knew her growing belly threw her balance off just that little bit, and she wasn't about to risk it, not for a chap who was, even odds, trying to draw us into some kind of mystical trap. I gave her a nod and followed on after our possibly-rogue wizard.
We played it smart, yeah? For all the good it did us.
Wellington didn't seem to notice that he'd lost a Slayer. I'll give the git this much credit: he reeked of nerves when he put foot on that bridge, but he set his teeth and crossed it regardless. I strolled across after him, knapsack slung casual-like over one shoulder. Showing off, I admit it. What's the good of having supernatural reflexes if you never flex 'em?
The island was a bare, flat, steep-sided knob of rock, maybe ten yards across. Four torches mounted on poles, north, south, east, and west, sent shadows capering across the stone. In the center was a squat cube of glassy black stone, incised with wriggly not-quite-Greek letters, and coiled round that was a length of massive, rusty chain. The chain ended in a set of equally massive and rusty shackles. Wellington knelt down at the edge of the chasm – to catch his breath, I thought, as he was puffing like a grampus. I took the opportunity to take a shufti at the altar, if altar it was. Those shackles set off warning bells – hell, a whole warning Whittingtons.
Fuck. If whatever trap Wellington planned to spring was over there, not here – but no, there was Buffy safe as houses on the opposite bank, waving her torch frantically and pointing at Wellington. Who'd just unhitched the ends of the rope bridge, and pitched the whole lot into the abyss.
Supernatural reflexes aren't worth fuck-all if you're too gobsmacked to use 'em. I was on him a second later, but that was one second too late. The end of the bridge swooped down and away in a graceful arc and bashed into the opposite wall of the chasm. Half-a-dozen boards snapped like matchsticks, and clattered away into infinity. I was brassed off, but worried? Not yet. I vamped out, grabbed Wellington's collar, and hoisted him up at arm's length. He kicked futilely. "What the fuck are you up to?" I snarled.
"Part – of – ritual – " he choked out.
He was turning purple. I let him drop, disgusted. Might be I could get enough of a running start to jump back, in which case, Wellington could stick his thumb up his arse and spin. "If you think I'm going to help with your fucking ritual now – "
Wellington scrambled to his feet and tugged his coat straight. His monocle had gone smash, but he didn't seem to notice. He threw his head back and let loose a Snidely Whiplash laugh – the daft berk actually tried to twirl his moustache, but it wasn't long enough. "Oh, I don't need your help. All I need is you." He spun around to face the abyss with a crazed, exultant grin. "Great Archaeous, I have returned!" he bellowed. "And I've brought you William the Bloody!"
From the pit below came the rumble of falling rocks, and then a screech like the world's biggest fingernail on the world's biggest slate. Stone vibrated beneath my boots. Sodding hell. Something was climbing the sheer sides of the island, something well out of my weight class. One and then another skeletal, taloned hand flung itself up over the lip of the rock, claws digging into the stone as if it were cheese. The creature heaved itself upwards, and... well.
You remember what we looked like in Pylea, Will, when we went all demony? Was expecting something like that, if I was expecting anything. Or at worst, something like Angel's Pylea-self. Instead, our great-to-the-nth-degree granddad was human-shaped, sexless, and twenty feet tall. He had a fleshless skull with a forest of nubbly horns sprouting from the top, a sort of bone collar thing round his shoulders, and a cluster of... I dunno, spider legs or suchlike growing out of his back. His slick, shiny hide was a brilliant candy-apple red. All in all, dead naff. Looked like an escapee from the bleeding Cirque du Soleil. Even the skeleton parts were a bit rubbish.
"I am Archaeus!" he roared. "Lord of Hell, master of pain and despair, sovereign of – "
"Sweet fuck-all," I interrupted, with a pointed glance around at the island.
Tactical error, that. The Lord of Whossit and Etcetera slashed out one enormous taloned skeleton-hand and hoisted me into the air as easily as I'd done Wellington earlier. Might be lacking in the aesthetics department, but he was fuck-off enormous, and stronger than year-old Stilton. He held me up and examined me as if he were buying a horse, and less than satisfied about the teeth. At length he bared bony fangs – absent any lips to speak of, hard to tell if he was smiling or snarling. "Yeeeessssss," he said, in a voice like crushed gravel. "This is the thief. I can sense it."
"Bollocks!" I strained to loosen even one of his finger-talons from round my neck, but I might as well have been fighting the mountain itself. There's times I wish Buffy hadn't given up that Old-One-slaying axe oojum, and this was one of them. Though as this wasn't a proper Old One, p'raps it wouldn't work any better on him than a normal axe. Which I didn't have either. Oh, well. Might as well hang for a sheep as a lamb. "Proserpexa's had you in nick since before I was born, you gormless wanker! How in hell can I have stolen anything from you?"
Archaeous hissed in fury, his back spider-leg… things... twitching. "I speak of something far more valuable than material goods! Miserable worm that you are, you belong to a proud line. Unlike the profligate, debased descendants of Maloker, my get spread my blessing wisely and sparingly." He sniffed, quite a feat without a nose. "Perhaps too sparingly. The Master's line has dwindled. So be it; the price of failure is extinction. I shall choose more carefully ere I bestow my Dark Gift a second time. My servant here – " he nodded at Wellington, and that worthy gazed up at him with worshipful eyes. I wagered he was angling to be the recipient of any such gift. " has been most informative about your history. Nest's get are mine, unto the furthest generation: when they fall to dust, the demon essence within them returns to me. Save once. Sixteen years ago, confined to this ignoble prison, I sensed the unthinkable – a portion of my essence, my very self, was torn from me. Stolen."
"You sure you didn't just misplace it? Dank hole like this, no telling where it may have got to."
"There is no other possibility." The demon-lord's lipless jaws worked. "My essence can only be planted in a dying man, and flower in his corpse. Even when the Mohra blood quickened the flesh of your grandsire Angelus, and he became human, my essence fled his body, and returned to me, as it should have. How you did it I do not know, but somehow you prevented my essence from leaving your body until the revitalization was complete." Archaeous slammed his unoccupied fist into the stone, and a shower of rubble sifted down from the cavern ceiling, accompanied by a scatter of mummified bats. "I will not brook this theft! I will have back what you stole from me."
"Don't think so, mate," I snarled back. Sixteen years ago, my poor mad Drusilla glued my stolen heart back into my body with Mohra blood, and one William H. Pratt became the world's first living vampire. I'd fought the fight of my unlife that night, to keep body and demon together. To make them one. To make me one. Whatever burned within me now, human, demon, or bloody fairy dust, was mine. Buggered if I was going to give it up. "If you can't keep a handle on your own essence, that's your lookout. Finders bloody well keepers."
"We shall see about that." Archaeous loomed over Wellington. "Is the ritual of reunification prepared?"
Wellington's eyes brightened. If he'd been a puppy, he'd've piddled in excitement. "It is," he said breathlessly. "All the components are here. But before I cast it, I want you to fulfill your part of the bargain." He pointed across the chasm at Buffy, who was hunting through the rubble for something she could use to get to us, or at least chuck at Archaeous's head. "Kill the Slayer. Or better yet –" he swung a finger around to point at me. "Make him do it!" He laughed, a half-hysterical giggle, and the worshipful glint in his eyes turned gloating. "Yeah! That's it! Make him kill her! Make him tear her throat out! Just like he killed Warren!"
And like that, it clicked. Take away the ridiculous monocle and the poncy beard, the put-on accent and the muffling clothing. Take away sixteen years. Fuck. I was an idiot. Anyone who knew their Gilbert & Sullivan should've rumbled it at first meeting.
My name is John Wellington Wells, I'm a dealer in magic and spells
John Wellington was Andrew fucking Wells.
To Be Continued...