Playing Dead part 6
The streets are quiet except for nocturnal scavenger demons. The Council ordered them cleansed as well but none of us can do it. They aren't dangerous, just trying to survive like any of us.
We make it to the city's center without drawing any attention to ourselves except for some wandering bands of foraging bums. I warn them to leave the city but they don't listen. Their loss. Their risk. I tried. We move on, grumbling about how stupid they are but it's probably the only home they know. Besides, where would they go? Where could they go?
My team is solid, quiet and all stealthy like. Xander, Willow and I had become really good at covert techniques, learning from a master. Our teacher being one of the very same beasts we now stalked.
I think Angel understood the dangers better than any of us. Perhaps he knew somehow, that one day this moment would come, the day one of our own would fall and become the hunted. I remember his expression when I told him the news because there was no emotional reaction, just some words of advice. It seemed so wrong, inhuman and harsh at the time. I thought maybe some small part of him was glad, like he held a grudge. Spike had, why not Angel? I know that's horrible but it's what I first thought. Sometimes I still do. But then I remind myself of what he said and think it through and realize he's right.
"Don't think, act.
Don't feel, stake.
Don't remember, because he will."
I think we all sort-of hated Angel for that. It seemed an impossible thing, to not remember. But after the first time we faced him, the beast, we knew Angel's words were gospel if we were to survive.
As we slowly move along, I try to think like him, all tweed and tea, books and snacks. I get into a certain frame of mind. I want to believe he'd be held up in a library or museum somewhere but that would be too easy, wouldn't it? He's too smart for that. Smarter than me and Xander put together. Even smarter than Willow , I think, though he would never admit it. But he is… was…
I look up and sigh. The stars are shimmering in the sky tonight, like some Vegas lightshow. It's the only beauty I see here. I wonder if he's looking too.
I was never fond of heights and my death made no amendments to that fact. Of course Rupert shows no fear of any kind as he leads his men quietly to the rooftop where a team of invaders was reported to have touched down. They all seem so confident and daring, a merry band of vampires taking to the edge of the sky in a battle for a patch of forsaken real-estate. What's all the bloody fuss?
I take a moment to appreciate the air. The night smells crisp and clean, except for the sickly sweet stink of fear on the breeze. I don't see the trespassers, yet I can smell their fear and feel the hunger that it generates. This is another lesson, I realize. Rupert is probably taking notes. Arrogant berk.
As if hearing my thoughts, said berk glares a warning at me to stay back. I consider refusing to strain his patience but choose on the side of caution, deciding to observe rather than act. So I become a sort of shadow to Rupert, another set of eyes keeping watch as the men spread out and take their places in the creases of night darkening the corners of the rooftop. They appear prepared. They have their swords, their knives, their demons ready to turn their enemies inside out. But in truth, the only one I feel any attachment for is Rupert.
No matter all the inspirational talk of the greater good for vampire kind, I couldn't care less as long as he is safe. This revelation is most unsettling, a strange and sudden change of heart, for lack of a better phrase. I've never cared for anyone or anything but myself and my own happiness, never looked out for anyone's hide but my own. Yet now, I am unmistakably drawn toward protectiveness for the very same man who locked me away for many years of my life and deserted me prior to that. Now I am cursed with this nonsensical, bloody bond. I'd rather believe it was of a less than righteous nature, possessiveness for the sake of my future pleasures. Perhaps he'll let down his guard so I can steal a taste of those lips. I just can't shake the feeling that it goes deeper. Who would think such nobility could be born in the heart of a beast when it was absent within the man?
With the wandering beam of a single flashlight, war erupts before my very eyes. Heavily armored soldiers dressed in fatigues announce their presence with a deafening hail of gunfire and Rupert's boys charge into the row without so much as a single misstep. Rupert rushes after a trio of soldiers, quickly disappearing behind a barricade of bent aluminum piping and I am forced to find my entertainment elsewhere.
I spot Jacobs and watch as Rupert's number one man holds his own against two helmeted soldiers. He attacks with a vicious series of strikes to their plated torsos and legs. Both men fall to their knees, broken and terrified. Jacobs unsheathes a katana from a holster on his back and beheads them both with a stunningly accurate slice. As their bodies fold, I swear I can feel my dead heart racing, as if motivated back to life with the aroma of their blood.
My attentions shift to another young beast, barely sixteen, charging into the feud. Two invaders catch sight of him and open fire. Bullets burst along the boy's chest but he continues charging, like some over zealous disciple. The soldiers stand casually, unworried as they reload. This should be an interesting slaughter. Then I notice the fresh wounds begin to glow with an eerie illumination. The young vampire stops, looking down with alarm at his now smoking chest. The ragged edges begin to smolder and ash and soon it spreads out to cover the entirety of his body. In seconds, he transforms to dust before my eyes. There's nothing left, no evidence of his existence but the stale taste of filth evaporating with the wind. I should pity him, but I don't. I pity myself and Rupert and the legacy of dirt we'll leave with our passing.
A howl sounds as I witness another vampire vanish into the night and wonder where our fearless leader is. He appears from behind, leaping up over my head to land soundly right before me, drenched from head to toe in blood.
"Are you hurt?" I gasp quietly, drawn towards him and the lovely red.
"Stay and watch," he orders gruffly and I obey.
With a shout reminiscent of a confident war cry, Rupert evolves into a savage predator. His brow extends crooked, wrought with a furious anger as his green eyes turn to flame, paying me the reward of a final glance before joining his men. His transformation stirs something animal in me, inspired by the purity of his brutal beauty.
Rupert's army instinctively makes room for him, parting like the Red Sea with some sixth sense to steer clear of his path. He bounds boldly into the thick, immediately surrounded by a half a dozen heavily armed soldiers. They take aim and fire their rifles but the vampire is already moving and drawing their fire with him. In a storm of misdirected friendly fire, bullets rip into the backs of preoccupied soldiers, downing three before those firing become aware of their reckless actions. More soldiers rush in to take out the threat, armed with knives and stakes to avoid making the same blunder as their comrades. Rupert barks out orders as he faces off against each challenger.
With a boot to the stomach and a snapping wrench of a wrist, a stake falls unused to the pebbled ground. The man falls to his knees in pain but is silenced before he manages a whimper, his head twisted swiftly to separate from his shoulders. Without so much as a blink, Rupert shifts focus to his next target, tossing aside the head as if it were rubbish. The intended prey, a young soldier, manages to shoot off a few rounds. He suffers the wrath of the charging vampire, watching helplessly as the magnificent beast sends the weapon spinning abruptly about face to pierce the soldiers chest clean through. The boy quivers in shock as Ripper pulls back the trigger, firing the gore dripping rifle at another line of soldiers. Five are struck and fall, screaming in agony. Ripper swivels fast, dodging more gunfire as he sinks to the ground and sweeps an approaching soldier's legs out from under him. The man's legs fracture and he buckles with a thud to the rooftop. Ripper dives for his neck and tears off a chunk of sinewy flesh. He pounces upright and spits the gnawed meat into a charging soldiers face. The man's eyes go wide in horror as he glances down to see his partner's pulse spilling out onto his boots. Ripper takes advantage of the inaction; grasping the young soldier's helmet and snapping his neck clean round.
With a perverse chuckle, Ripper's golden gaze seeks me out. He ducks forward, grasps a fistful of armor and lifts the bleeding youth easily. Making sure I'm watching, he sinks his fangs into the boy's throat and drinks with a lustful pleasure I can feel throbbing in my groin. The glorious violence of it all, it makes me hard, makes me hungry, and possesses me to move.
A soldier stands so near yet doesn't sense my presence with his back to me and watching as his comrades battle on. I slink up behind him, smelling the warm heart pumping within… the sweet pulp of flesh that waits. A snap under my shoe catches me off guard and the man turns, firing as he pivots. My body rattles as I'm struck in diagonal formation from abdomen to chest. Pain seizes my entire frame and I am immobilized by the shock of bullets burrowing through my flesh, burning beneath my skin. Creeping numbness takes my legs and I lose my balance, stumbling backwards. The soldier charges after me with his stake bayoneted rifle. I can't move. Just before the pointed wood reaches me, the stake is splintered into bits by a crushing blow. I see Ripper snarling as he clasps the attacker by the throat and lifts him from the floor, choking him until he gives into unconsciousness.
"Take him into the shadows and feed, Ethan. You'll need to rebuild your strength." It's Rupert's voice coming from the demon and though I am stunned and sickly, I can register his words and feel somehow grounded by them. Concern for his welfare is foremost in my mind as I see countless wounds seeping ruby syrup along his torso and legs. He's just as wounded as me yet not stricken ill as I am.
"You're injured." I gesture with a shaky hand.
"I'm fine. Do as I say, Ethan. Stay clear." His eyes return to green for only an instant, as if to gently urge me to follow his orders, then he transforms, turns and charges back into the melee.
I kneel down, grip the unconscious soldier's vest and drag him clumsily into deeper shadows. I listen to the fighting as dizziness overtakes me and I settle against the rooftop ledge for support. The young man at my feet looks to be in a peaceful rest. I almost envy him.
"I'm not so good at this." I gurgle and cough. The blood dribbles from out my mouth and I force a sigh. "That much is obvious. Still… doing better than you, friend."
The soldier doesn't answer, lying helpless and now in my arms. More gunfire and desperate screams drown out the fevered hum of my mind.
"You're supposed to be food, boy. So why can't I eat?"
I seek out strength in the night sky and am welcomed by speckles of moisture. It is the blood of our enemies staining the scene as the army of vampire's tears into the humans, delighting in the gore of conquest. From over the music of madness, I hear Rupert's call, "Leave no one alive."
My gaze falls to the sleeping soldier cradled in my arms.
"Sorry, mate. You heard the man."
The flesh of my brow bends as my sight enhances. The razor edges of my fangs prick along my lips as I rip the fabric from my victim's neck, willing myself to taste him. Though I crave what lies beneath his pinkish skin, I can't bring myself to dig for it.
I glance up to see the demon Jacobs staring at me, head tilting slightly as if a curious puppy watching on. Then Ripper's face appears out from a heap of bodies, blocking Jacobs from my view. His chiseled face is soaked with gore. Splattered drops of blood define the folds of his forehead as he forces deep breaths, calming his fury. With every pant, his fangs are revealed and with them, I am inspired to violence. My elongated teeth puncture and bury deeply in the soft tissue of the soldier's throat. He awakens, struggling and panicked. I don't know what to do so I attempt to consol him, bracing him firmly against me with arms pinned at his sides as I try to keep myself buried within his flesh. The wound tears with his thrashing. The tang of his hot blood begins to flow freely within my mouth and down my throat. Finally, mercifully, the instinct of ages takes over. My hands grip solidly on his head and I am drinking, gulping, praying.
Rupert smiles as his army celebrates their victory behind him. But it's not the triumph he's proud of and I realize that as his eyes remain on me, even as they return to his gentle green.
Surgical strike team. Sounds damn cool, don't it? Well, it's not. Not the way we do it. We charge up a light grenade and toss it into a room jam packed full of sleeping vampires. They're like sardines and smell just as bad. A second later, they evaporate before they even have a chance to say their own last rites. Can't help but feel a little cheapened by it all. I sigh and turn to Buffy.
"Thought we weren't playing the maid brigade here."
"Guess the Council underestimated the numbers a little." She shakes her head. "This is pretty hairy."
"And getting hairier by the minute. At this rate, we'll need sheep sheers and a heavy-duty shopvac." I turn around to see Willow fascinated by something over in the corner of the room.
"How you doin' Will?" Buffy asks, noticing the dire look on her face.
Willow doesn't answer, just stares at a pile of junk in the corner of the room and I wonder what's got her so wigged, besides the obvious witnessing the obliteration of former humans by synthetic sunlight a second before. "Will? You okay?"
"I think he was here," she says softly and I feel my heart shudder.
"What?" Buffy moves in to inspect what Willow 's found.
"I think he's been here. Maybe not recently but this…" she kneels and dusts off a book then carefully takes it up into her arms.
"It's just a book, Will. There's a lot of them here. It's a bookstore." Buffy tries to hide her concern but we are all worried.
"Not this type of book, Buffy." Willow wipes away the ash and points to markings embossed in the leather binding. "This is a third edition of Merchintires Chaos Compendium. It's considered the definitive reference in Chaos magicks and their usage."
"So a sorcerer's version of Playboy for the mystically inclined?" I oversimplify. It's what I do.
"Yes, but this is specifically for Chaos magicks," Willow clarifies.
"So porn for a pervy sorcerer for hire like Ethan Rayne," Buffy grumbles.
"Yeah, it would be, only I don't get a big Ethany vibe here." She glances with embarrassment between us. "Not that I know his vibe or anything…"
"What kind of vibe are you getting?" I ask, regretting it as soon as I did when her large eyes meet mine, not wanting to say. "Never mind."
Buffy's attention is drawn to her hip and she pulls back her leather jacket and with a push of a button, reads the message displayed on her pocketsize PDA.
"Council special forces and Initiative ops teams has engaged the enemy," she alerts us.
"I can't believe they'd try to attack at night," I shake my head, discouraged.
"Oh," Buffy gasps, her face losing all color.
"What is it?" Willow asks nervously.
"We've lost two drop teams."
"Drop teams?" I ask.
"That's more than forty men," Buffy whispers more than speaks the words. "We've gotta get to them and fast."
"All I need is a location," Willow says and I know I'm in for the old mystical transporter beam whammie. At least I brought a heaping helping of aspirin.
In a flash of white, we go from street side south Los Angeles to four miles north and twenty stories up. I hate rollercoaster's and this wild ride is far worse than any one of those wobbly old wooden ones you see at run down amusement parks. My head swims with dizziness and my stomach grumbles it's disapproval with our choice of transportation. It reminds of the last time she did this, only what took her minutes to do and a lot of talking then, now only takes a phrase and a blinding light and we're there. She's damn good.
"Oh my Goddess!" I hear Willow gasp and I turn around to see absolute devastation.
"We're too late," Xander chokes, barely managing to hold down the cheesy-poofs and soda he'd finished five minutes ago.
Bodies litter the rooftop, coated with the shimmering black of blood lit by moonlight. Steam rises from the freshly slaughtered soldiers creating an eerie mist in the chill of the air. I quickly scan the scene for…
"You won't find any," a familiar voice comes from behind and we turn to see a figure stepping out of the shadows.
"Find what?" I ask casually and hear Xander chamber a round as the barrel of his pistol creeps steadily forward into my peripheral vision. I raise my hand to prevent him from firing. I want to test the waters.
"Survivors," Rayne responds easily. "He saw to that."
"You mean you saw to that." I challenge. He smiles shyly, looking younger than I ever remember seeing him before. "More of your handy work, like you did with the Initiative?"
"Actually, this was his… his gig, if you will." He chuckles and looks up with the blackest eyes. "Consider me a groupie along for the ride."
"Where is he?" Xander barks impatiently.
"Looking for me?"
I hear Xander's gun fire a shot before I even have a chance to react. When I finally do manage to pivot, I find myself face to face with him… the beast. Xander's pistol fires again and again, each time striking at the vampire's heart only not reaching him. Xander empties his clip and races to reload as Rayne suddenly appears beside him, smiling.
"He's more aggressive than I remember, Ripper. Your influence, I presume?" Rayne raises a brow, amused.
"Hello Buffy," the demon says in that refined, mild voice. That gentle tone I hear when I train with him in my dreams, still teaching me how to survive the monsters that took him away from me. I open my mouth to respond only to hear silence. There's another thunder of bullets, each colliding with an unseen barrier to fall uselessly to the ground.
"You're only wasting ammo, not to mention our time," Rayne says. "Then again, we have that in abundance now, don't we?"
"He's cast a sanctuary spell, Buffy." Willow explains.
"Disarmament spell actually. What *have* you been teaching her, Ripper? For shame." Rayne mocks and I silently celebrate the hate I feel for him at that moment. It will make this so much easier.
"That's enough, Ethan," he says calmly, his eyes never leaving me so I never leave him. "You're looking well, Buffy."
"Life has its benefits."
"As does death."
"I'm going to kill you."
He smiles and my heart weeps. He glances quickly to Willow and Xander then back to me, brow creased with disapproval.
"Take them home, Buffy. I won't warn you again."
"You call this a warning?" I ask, motioning to the carcasses surrounding us.
"A promise." A tenderly spoken threat. He retrieves something from his jeans pocket. "But this by any other name…"
He reaches out and takes my hand in his. I should recoil but I don't. I can't. He places something within my palm and curls my fingers around it, sandwiching my hand between his chilled ones. He stares down at me, eyes unshielded by glasses, and smiles so sweetly. There is innocence there and I can't help but hate fate, the Powers, God, the Devil or whoever is responsible for taking him from me but leaving that gentle stare and smile. Every look is punishment, as much an attack as any punch or kick.
"Be seeing you." Ethan nods graciously and the beast pulls away to join him on the ledge of the building.
He pauses long enough to glance back over his shoulder, gesturing to the rooftop with his eyes. "The spell will last the night. You have until da… till daybreak to get them out."
And with a step, they're gone. Xander rushes to the ledge and peers over.
"Their gone!" He shouts, holstering his weapon.
"Ethan's better than I remember," Willow says nervously. "Sanctuary spells, teleportation, evidence of living fire at the Initiative facility. He stronger now that he's dipping into the darker stuff."
"What did he give you, Buffy?" Xander hurries back over, breathing quickened and voice anxious. Does it ever get any easier?
I unwind my fingers to see military dog tags and share an uncertain look with them both. Then I flip the rubber edged metal tabs over to read the imprint.
We find him hanging naked on the backside of the stairway entry. His arms are outstretched, stakes pinning him to the wind worn siding. One through each wrist, one through his crossed bare feet, one piercing his heart. He is gutted, throat ripped to shreds, eyes wide, frozen in time.
I stumble away, fall to my knees and throw up nothing but air. Dry heaving to try and rid myself of the vile vision. Not of Riley dead and on display… of the beast staring and smiling.