Keystone – 2/21

This entry is part 2 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.

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

Chapter 2

Buffy sat down in the middle of the long mahogany conference table directly across from Giles and Willow and quietly contemplated the Head of the Watcher’s Council.

Quentin Travers sat relaxed at the head of the table – where else? – and surveyed the assembled group.

The thought crossed Buffy’s mind that his satisfied expression exactly mirrored Spike’s during a card game when he’d finally assembled all of his face cards. Although Travers, the emotionless bastard, would no doubt play his hand much more efficiently.

But no matter how she felt about him, Buffy refused to give him the satisfaction of seeing her nervousness, so she repressed her unease with a Slayer technique, mentally relaxing her body and projecting a calm expression. Two could play the game.

Only an hour ago the Scoobies had been standing around the luggage carrousel retrieving their bags and one seriously hacked off Grundy when an older gentleman from the Council had arrived.

He’d waved something in front of an airport official and they’d immediately been whisked through the airport on small, very efficient electric carts, completely bypassing Customs and Security– Buffy didn’t even want to think about the kind of power that had enabled that little trick–and then swiftly loaded into a long black limousine belligerently idling at the curb in a no parking zone.

The liveried driver ferried the group to Council Headquarters, an imposing multi- storied edifice with no distinguishing characteristics or noticeable address on the façade, within the heart of metropolitan London. They’d been politely asked to wait in the main lobby, a cavernous space with a vaulted ceiling and more marble than Buffy had ever seen outside of a cemetery. Finally, they’ve been ushered to a third floor conference room by two very large, silent men whose shoulder holsters barely created any bulge at all in the lines of their expensively tailored suits.

They had walked into the conference room and discovered Travers and several Watchers seated around a long conference table. Buffy pegged a trio of nearly identical blond men near the middle of the table as young, very Junior Watchers– their suits were hardly broken in yet. She immediately dubbed them Huey, Dewey and Louie.

At the other end sat a middle aged blonde woman who looked sort of familiar and an older man with receding gray hair that, along with three others, were all too much at ease in their nearly matching suits to be anything other than Senior Watchers. No one in the group bothered to introduce themselves. Giles nodded at them and Travers as he chose a seat, pointedly ignoring the young men, who didn’t seem to expect any better treatment. Travers returned his nod briefly before looking away to survey the room.

The Slayer decided to ignore everyone in the hope that they would all go away. Unfortunately, no one felt compelled to do so.

A slim, dark haired woman smiling brightly–Buffy immediately pegged her as a secretary– stood next to a silver tea service on a long table against the far wall.

Travers signaled for the brunette to serve and Buffy started to demand blood for Spike just to tweak Travers, but one look at the vampire and she changed her mind. Spike was slouched deep in his seat, arms crossed, a studied nonchalance betrayed by the tightly coiled muscles. Eyes glittering, he unabashedly studied Travers from beneath his dark lashes, looking very much like a barely controlled junk yard dog salivating for someone to break through the perimeter fence.

She thought it was a good look for Spike–after all he was her junk yard dog– and Travers’ minions obviously agreed. The Juniors had taken one collective look at the Master Vampire striding into the conference room with the black duster flapping around his Doc Martens, and scrambled over each other to reseat themselves at the far end of the table. She bit back a grin when she glimpsed the gleam of satisfaction deep within Spike’s eyes as he dropped into the chair next to her.

The Senior Watchers ignored both the game of musical chairs and the powerful vampire who had caused it, restricting themselves to swift, calculating looks at Giles and the Slayer before returning to studied indifference.

It took mere moments that seemed like hours for the brunette to efficiently serve tea, the only audible conversation her polite inquiries concerning sugar, lemon or milk. Finally completing her task, she departed the room, firmly closing the door behind her.

Whether due to a cubed sugar rush or the sudden realization that it was finally just them in the room, Travers leaned forward and nodded to one of the trio. Either Huey, Dewey or Louie– Buffy couldn’t for the life of her tell them apart, not that she cared– stood up, skirted widely around Spike, and placed a carved wooden box on the table in front of Giles before walking the long way around again to his seat.

Buffy glanced over at Spike, saw the amusement in his eyes and swallowed the giggle that threatened to erupt. Feeling far more at ease now, she turned confidently toward Travers.

The Head of the Council finally deigned to speak from on high. “This was brought through the portal early yesterday morning.”

Giles turned the wooden box over in his hands. Willow, seated beside Giles, leaned over to get a better look at the glyphs carved on the top. Her lips moved as she sounded out the unfamiliar words and her eyes widened.

Easily locating the latch, Giles surveyed the inside of the empty box briefly before closing it again. “I’d like to speak with the man who found this.”

“I’m afraid that’s impossible. Philips is dead, killed during the retrieval.” Travers waved his hand in the air rendering Philips’ death inconsequential.  “However a security officer survived and I’ve made arraignments for you to speak with him after the meeting.”

Buffy’s nerves were strung tight as thin gauge wire but curiosity was starting to get the best of her and damn it, she was the Slayer, so she leaned forward and shot a flinty look at Travers. Enough game playing already.

His demeanor never changed although his eyes narrowed slightly.

She lifted her chin and said, “So Travers, we flew all the way here– in coach–to look at an old box? Couldn’t you have just given us the password to your photo bucket account?”

Ignoring Buffy’s opening salvo, Travers spoke to the blonde woman at the end of the table. “Lydia? You were in charge of this operation, perhaps you would care to explain?”

“I’d be happy to.” She stood up and flashed a quick smile at Giles. “Hello Rupert. It’s good to see you again.”

Buffy’s Watcher replied, “Lydia. It’s good to see you, too.”

Spike snorted.

As Lydia gathered her thoughts and stood up, Empress scooted away from beneath Spike’s chair, crawling quietly toward the long table that held the Royal Chelsea tea service. She was extremely angry at the human that had forced her to live in a metal cage for many, many uncomfortable, very boring hours within some enormous noisy conveyance that continuously vibrated.

The Grundy hated conveyances of any kind –cars, boats and the newest addition to her list, jet airplanes. At the airport she’d listened to the litany of complaints and learned that her companions had been forced to travel uncomfortably for all that time, too. Within this large room which oddly held no scents at all, she’d bided her time, waiting patiently next to Spike to learn which bloody git was Travers– the human in charge of all that forced misery.

Having discovered that the git was here within this very room, she planned to make him pay, but cunningly of course.  Empress prided herself on both her cunning and her stealth. She waited until the blonde female stood up and began speaking, using the woman’s loud, strident voice to cover her creep to the far table.

Lydia cleared her throat and threw an apologetic look at the group. “I suppose I should begin with a quick historical synopsis. Recently a portal opened in a region of Serbia. The portal, within a large underground cave system, appeared to be stable, so the Council sent a survey and information gathering team through to the other dimension…..”

Bored with the elementary school lessons already, Buffy glanced around the table. Giles was half listening– she figured he’d already read the prologue– while his finger idly traced one of the glyphs on the box. Willow listened raptly– she probably thought they’d be tested on the material later. Slouched even farther down in his seat, Spike appeared to be bored witless, his eyes staring blankly at the far wall. Buffy immediately realized he was listening to something no one else could hear. Idly, she wondered what it was.

Sliding down in her own seat she stretched her legs all the way out, trying to ease her calf muscles still tight from the cramped plane ride. When her feet met no resistance, she realized Empress was no longer underneath the conference table.

Where the hell was their Grundy?  Buffy started to turn her head to search, when beneath the table she felt Spike’s hand rest briefly on her thigh and squeeze gently. She glanced around the table again; everyone’s attention was focused on Lydia, so she cut her eyes to Spike. He caught her look and winked, shaking his head imperceptivity as he reached for his tea cup. She turned her attention back to Lydia.

“…..The portal opened into a dimension somewhat like our own, so the team chose to remain for four days. At that time they returned with astounding news. The denizens of this dimension have the ability to open and close portals at will, and always with the ability to control the location. They had written information on this very ability that we somehow procured…”

Procured huh? Translate that as “stole.” Buffy was becoming interested in spite of herself. It would be seriously cool to be able to pop open a hell dimension, throw a few baddies in, and seal it up again. No more having to bury dead demons either. Maybe the Council would spring for a weekly garbage run, sorta like that cart in The Holy Grail. Chanting “bring out your dead” under her breath she gave Lydia her full attention.

“…The written information, once translated, turned out to contain information concerning two magical objects, which we’ve since learned are in the form of golden idols, and the source for this unique ability. Our magicks department was able to conjecture the location of the dimension for our use…”

It took all of four seconds before she was once again bored with the pedantic woman. Her eyes had glazed over when she heard a distinct, although extremely slight sound. She continued to stare at Lydia while she strained her ears, trying to catch the noise again. Finally another whisper floated through the air, so slight only a vampire or possibly a Slayer with exceptional hearing would notice.

The Grundy was quietly and methodically chewing the legs of the long table against the wall, like a lumberjack preparing to fell a mighty oak. Buffy figured Travers was lucky if all he got for his miserly treatment was a splintered table and broken china. Empress could have easily chosen to turn the entire building into the towering inferno. She repressed laughter that threatened to bubble up and forced her face to remain blank while she tuned back into the lecture, which thank God, was finally winding down.

“…We set up another foray into the dimension using a temporary portal right here within the building and put together a team of five men. Their objective was to ascertain the exact location of the magical objects and if at all possible, secretly obtain them. We gave the team a timeframe of twenty-four hours, at which point we would reopen the portal for their use. The result of that foray is the box that you see in front of you.”

She quirked an eyebrow in Lydia’s direction. “Let me get this straight. Your team, in only twenty-four hours, was able to grab these icon thingies? That would be really impressive if they’d come home with anything but an empty box.”

“They didn’t all come home,” Lydia murmured.

Buffy caught the troubled expression behind Lydia’s glasses and felt a spurt of sympathy. She knew what it was like to lose people and could tell these losses bothered the Watcher more than she was letting on. Although Travers was the original iceman, it appeared Lydia could still thaw on occasion. Her voice softened.  “Lydia, what happened to the rest of your team?”

Lydia stared at the table for a moment. When she looked up again she was once more in control, although her voice sounded tired. “When the portal reopened we discovered Philips deceased and Adams, a junior security officer, severely injured. They’re the only two of the five who came through. We’ve since questioned Adams at the hospital, but he has no idea of the current whereabouts or status of everyone else.” She hesitated briefly and then added, “But there are other, more important factors to consider.”

“Lydia, you are overstepping the boundaries of this meeting.” Travers warned. “Thank you for your concise although surprisingly maudlin report.”

Giles frowned at Lydia. “What, precisely, are the other factors?”

Travers waved Lydia back to her seat and answered the question himself. “Rupert, as you’ve obviously surmised, we would like your Slayer and her companions to retrieve the objects for us. We’d also like Ms. Summers to search for Harker. He is a premier specialist in magical objects and important to the Council.”

He didn’t even mention the missing security officers. Buffy crossed her arms and stared at Travers in disgust. “Why does this sound like it’s only half of some lame B movie plot? What’s missing from the script?  Because I’m not taking my people through any portal unless you tell me everything.”

“Vampires.” Lydia blurted from her seat. “The owners of the objects are vampires. Philips died when his carotid artery was severed and Adams barely survived a very draining bite. The leadership within the dimension are reported to be very powerful vampires, origin unknown. But that’s not the worst of it.”

Travers shifted in his seat and started to open his mouth but Lydia’s voice was determined. “Sir, everyone at Senior level feels you need to tell Rupert and the Slayer what we learned earlier today. It changes the parameters of the mission.”

He considered her words. “Very well. I had planned to wait until later today when we could confirm the reports, however to expedite matters and in the spirit of complete disclosure, I will make an exception.”

Ignoring Spike, Travers glanced around the room at the others before his eyes came to rest on the Slayer. “Please remember this is very preliminary. We received information earlier today from a Serbian Watcher that after our original group returned, a raiding party consisting of a dozen vampires came through that same portal. They were staked by our Watcher and his associates but unfortunately not before four of them escaped back through the portal, which immediately closed.

However they managed to capture one of the vampires who willingly imparted–boasted I believe was the term they used– information before being staked. It seems that the portal within the cave system was only one of many that are opened on a routine basis within various dimensions by the vampires themselves.”

Buffy’s mouth hardened. “The portal was a set-up?”

Travers nodded grimly. “A fishing expedition as it were. The vampires open portals with the intention of waiting to see what comes through, if anything, from the other end. If it turns out to be humanoid in nature they track it. They willingly allowed the survey team to come and go, and now unfortunately the vampires are aware that our dimension is teeming with humans.”

Millions of happy meals on legs.

“What utter and complete gits you people are,” Spike muttered under his breath.

Buffy was shocked but not surprised. The Council had screwed up more than royally, and obviously Travers knew it, although the pompous windbag refused to admit any fault lay with the Council. She wondered how long before Lydia and her allies ended up working somewhere in Outer Mongolia.

But she wasn’t interested in playing politics. This was far too important. They needed to steal those two idols in the worst way as quickly as possible and if they couldn’t pull off their own equivalent of a brinks robbery, then no matter how much Travers was salivating, they’d have to settle for  plan B. She’d have to figure out a way to obliterate them.

There was no way she’d allow a bunch of vampires drive-through privileges on her watch.

She placed her palms flat on the table, leaned forward and stared at Travers. “How soon do we leave?”


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