Keystone – 12/21

This entry is part 12 of 21 in the series Keystone
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Author: Winsomeone
Rating: PG-13
Word Count: 46,252  Complete-21 chapters and epilogue
Warning: explicit exsanguination scene
Beta: EnigmaticBlues

Summary: Sent to retrieve artifacts from another dimension the Slayer and her team become deeply embroiled in a twisted plot that places them in dangerous opposition to the Watcher’s Council.

A/N: AU Adventure. Set within the Grundyverse this story stands alone, a separate endeavor for this community, and although there is humor and romance, the plot is darker than what I usually write to suit our community theme of obstacles. Our poor beloved characters- they’ve certainly got ‘em in spades.

Disclosure: These characters belong to Joss, ME, Fox and anyone affiliated with same. Only Empress and the plot are mine.

Story begins here

Chapter 12

Willow stretched, almost knocking Ian’s papers off the backpack they were using for a table. “Oops, sorry, Ian.”

The Englishman smiled. “It’s okay.” Sitting cross legged on the other side, he confided, “You know, it’s nice to talk with someone who understands this stuff.”

”Yeah, I suppose even Margaret Mead can get lonely.”

Ian snorted, pretending to be disgusted. “You’re never going to let me forget that comment, are you?” He watched Willow grin at him. She was fun to be around, a person with an interesting mix of brains and a great sense of humor. When he looked at her he could almost see home.

“Nope, never will. That’s one for the never miss-the-chance-to-tease-Ian side of the ledger.”

He watched her pick up another sheet of notes from the stack. He liked the way she bit her lip when she was concentrating. It was sort of cute. Of course this relationship wouldn’t be going anywhere like that, she’d already shown him a picture of her girlfriend and he’d made the obligatory admiring noises. But he’d made a friend and one could never have enough friends. Surprised, he was happy for the first time since he’d arrived here.

“Ian? What’s the purpose of this particular incantation? It doesn’t seem to include any of the symbols from the others and there’s no translation.”

He looked at the sheet she was holding up. “Oh, that’s the sampling incantation. My orders are to test the icons prior to their return by opening a small portal. The Council was very specific about that. I didn’t see the point in translating it until I had the icons.”

“That’s okay; I’ll help you with it when the time comes. So for now, I’ll stick it over here.” She set the sheet to the side of the others. Looking toward the door, she asked, “What’s all that noise outside?”

Ian was already getting to his feet. “I have no idea, but whatever it is, it’s probably not going to be good. This time of day, the Treen are busy preparing their meal so that they can finish eating before dark.”

They joined the crowd moving toward the sacred circle and excited voices ahead.

“Buffy!!” Willow took off running.

Ian followed a little more sedately while he watched Willow eagerly work her way through the crowd toward a pretty blonde woman implacably ringed by a large crowd of excited villagers.

The adult Treen jockeyed for positions near her while small children danced around her feet squealing excitedly. He finally reached her side and saw the reason for all of the noise and excitement.

In the center of the villagers, the Slayer– amusement written across her face– tightly held a thin leather leash. The leash was attached to the collar of a small, furry dog. Ian took another, longer look. No, not a dog– something else entirely.  It was some type of small demon with dog-like features. Was that a real smile on its face?

All the villagers vied for a chance to touch the animal’s soft fur while the animal itself obviously basked in the adulation. Holding its head high it appeared serene and confident as if the attention and notoriety were an every day occurrence. He was amazed at how careful and patient the beast was with the overly excited people. There was no hint of any anger or impatience in the animal’s body language, only bright interested eyes and a wagging tail. Relaxing, he found himself smiling and itching to stroke the soft fur, too.

Willow had already arrived at the Slayer’s side. She whispered in Buffy’s ear. The Slayer caught his eye and nodded. The noise made it impossible to speak, so he raised a hand in greeting. Her smile widened and she winked before turning back to the villagers.

Standing to the side of the group, he watched the Slayer take pains to make sure even the shyest children got a chance to pet the animal and a lump formed in his throat. She was the strongest woman on the planet and obviously one of the kindest.

It took nearly half an hour for Buffy and her little furry demon to finally shake free. They’d both patiently waited until every single villager had had a chance to touch or stroke it. Now it was nearly dark and main meal was being hurriedly called. The villagers scattered, leaving the trio and the Grundy alone outside the circle.

Eschewing everything that eating with the excited villagers would entail, Ian led the group back to his hut and some peace and quiet.

Buffy flopped down on the pallet and wiped her sweaty face. She looked down at the panting Grundy who’d settled beside her, forked tongue hanging to her paws. “Well, Empress, you were certainly a big hit.”

The Grundy shot her a smug look.

“That was the kindest exhibition I’ve ever seen, Ms. Summers.”

“Empress always makes a splash.” The Slayer’s lips curved at the corners.  “Why are you Council people always so formal?  Please, the name’s Buffy.”

“I’m Ian.” He raised an eyebrow in the Grundy’s direction. “I’ve never seen anything like Empress before. What variety of demon is she?”

“She’s a Grundy and an essential part of our team. She tracked Willow for me from the cave.”

“Buffy, what about Anderson?” Willow’s voice held a note of anxiety that Ian hadn’t heard before, but he knew she was terribly worried about the soldier.

“I’m sorry Will., he was already dead when we returned to the cave. From the marks all around there, it looked like that was one serious fight.”

Willow’s eyes filled with tears. “He saved my life.” Wiping her eyes with the back of her hand, she asked, “What about the vampire? He was a man named Grange from Ian’s team, the head of the security detail.”

“That vamp was Council?” Buffy reclined against the back of the hut and rubbed her temple where a headache was trying to form. So far she’d had exactly zero sleep in over thirty hours. Exhaustion was trying to settle in her bones, and it warred with her growing concern over Spike’s lengthening absence. Willing everything else into the background again, she focused on answering the question.

“The tracks we found showed the he left the cave. He met up with at least two, maybe more, other vampires on the ridge. They all left in the opposite direction from your tracks.”

Confusion crossed Ian’s face. “How odd. Why wouldn’t Grange go after Willow, especially if he had help to catch her? She was important to him.”

Snuggling closer, Empress laid her head in Buffy’s lap. Her wet muzzle dripped on the Slayer’s jeans. Ignoring the drips, the Slayer slowly stroked the soft patch of fur between her upraised ears. Crooning softly, the Grundy closed her eyes.

“What did Grange want with Willow to begin with? There’s stuff going on here that I don’t understand. I think I’m going to need the longer director’s version. Willow, why don’t you start by telling me what happened last night.”

“Okay.” Pulling her legs into a more comfortable position, Willow quickly ran through everything that had happened in the cave between her, Grange and Anderson before her frightening run through the desert and ending with her chance encounter of Ian outside the village.

Buffy laid her hand on Willow’s arm. “I’m glad you’re alright, Will. I’m sorry I wasn’t there to protect you. I never saw Grange coming. He was unexpected.” She looked over at Ian. “Now I’d like to hear anything you can tell me about the icons, this dimension and the vampires.”

“Of course. I witnessed a gruesome sight last night that I need to tell you both about. But first I’d like to ask a couple of questions of my own, if you don’t mind.”

“That’s fair.” Buffy picked up her water bottle and unscrewed the cap. “What do you want to know?”

“Grange told Anderson that the icons were taken from him while he was being turned, so I’d like to know if you have any set plan to retrieve them?”

“That’s not a problem any more.”  A blond man leaned against the entrance to the hut, arms crossed, smiling tiredly. “They’re here with me.”

Shocked, Ian watched the man cross the floor toward the Slayer. Eyes intent on Buffy, he was all feline grace, quiet as a jungle cat. It was no wonder they hadn’t heard him before he’d spoken.

“Spike!” Setting the snoring Grundy aside, Buffy jumped to her feet and met the man half way across the floor. He scooped her into his arms. Slanting his mouth across hers, he kissed her hungrily as she leaned against him, her hands wrapped tightly around his shoulders.

Relieved and embarrassed by the overtly lusty display between the couple, Ian quickly turned his attention to four more people filing into the hut. Bloody bandages combined with the weapons they carried told him they were from this dimension and had been in a battle recently, probably with the vampires. Their exhausted faces told him they’d traveled a long distance with the blond man Buffy had called Spike.

At least some villagers here hate the vampires.Willow was already on her feet trying to help the weary people get settled. She’d taken one look at the only other man in the small group and started digging in her backpack for bandages to replace the makeshift rag that bound an obviously broken arm.

Wanting to be of assistance too, Ian reached for his bucket.“Willow, I’m going to the well for water and I’ll grab some food. I know where the Treen keep their stores.”

She smiled at him. “That would be great.”

He glanced uncertainly at the couple still standing in the middle of the hut wrapped tightly in each other’s arms and then back at Willow.

Catching his look, she grinned. “Don’t mind them. It’s always like this when they’ve been apart for any length of time, like say, fifteen minutes.”She added wryly, “They’ll wind down in a few. Once everyone’s settled, we’ll do introductions and compare notes.”

He nodded. Giving the oblivious couple as wide a berth as possible, he headed for the well.


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