Keystone – 4/21

This entry is part 4 of 21 in the series Keystone
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Here are the next few chapters. Story begins here.

Keystone

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.

Chapter 4

“Well, I bet Fodor won’t be adding this dimension to a guide book anytime soon— the plant life’s way too hard on clothes.” Buffy rubbed at some kind of pulpy bluish-green slime smeared on her favorite red leather pants and glared at the offending plant. “You don’t suppose the Council sent us through a cheaper version of the portal do you?  Maybe they wanted to make a point that there are worse things than missing out on first class airline tickets.”

Spike responded wryly. “Yes, because they would much rather hear you complain about ruinin’ your clothes; it’s so much more personal.” He looked around at the barren desert terrain and snorted.  “Doesn’t look like Rupes is missin’ much.”

“Yeah. I guess it was a good idea of his to stay and monitor the sitch from London.” Buffy wrinkled her nose. “Is it only me or does the air smell like rotten eggs?”

“I think he wanted to monitor the Council and Travers more than the situation, which in my mind is a very good idea” Willow looked around and crinkled her own nose. “It does stink. I think its sulfur.”

“We’ve got brimstone and three devils, all we need is fire,” Spike muttered, glancing darkly at the three Council security men checking their supplies.

Willow glanced at the three and lowered her own voice. “Why do you suppose Travers sent those guys with us?”

Buffy shrugged. “It doesn’t matter; I’m in charge, so they do as I say. Besides, it’s three more warm bodies with weapons, which hopefully they know how to use.”

“If they don’t they’ll become cold bodies fairly fast.” Spike drawled. He stared up at the rapidly darkening sky. It was amazing just how quickly this world could change from day to night.  “I think we need to locate one of those caves Adams told you about pet. It’s nearly showtime for the locals.”

“One step ahead of you.” Buffy looked up from her homemade map. “We’re close: the first set of caves are about twenty five feet over that ridge, at the edge of this portion of desert.” Motioning to the soldiers, the Slayer picked up her backpack and started walking. Willow fell in beside her while Spike and Empress followed them with the three security men bringing up the rear.

***

“This soup is delicious, thank you Kalin.” Ian Harker smiled at the young freckle-faced teen handing him a second bowl of soup made with roots that tasted a lot like the small red potatoes at home. A little shy around people, she still returned his smile brightly. Kalin and her family had been a godsend to him. In fact all the villagers had helped the weakened stranger who’d stumbled into the center of their village in any way they could.

Ascertaining that he was alone, they’d immediately offered a small hut for his use. The village ate every meal communally, so they’d shared their food with him, too, sending Kalin in with a bowl twice a day until he had his strength back. Now he routinely ate with everyone else at the circle.

He’d quickly discovered that his arrival had sparked no curiosity or untoward interest within the friendly village of roughly one hundred souls. The Treen, as they called themselves, were totally nonplussed about people coming and going at any time from the desert and also some of the most kindhearted and giving people Ian had ever met in his life.

He counted himself damn lucky to be alive. He remembered being shoved into a cave by Grange and stumbling on an aboveground root or something. He’d awakened hours later with a splitting headache from a lump the size of a guinea with both the icons and Grange missing.

Nervous about being left behind at this point he’d made another bad decision in a string of bad decisions and headed into the desert to try to locate either someone from their group or the portal site itself.

Unfortunately, all of the terrain looked identical and he’d become hopelessly lost, roaming through the desert for three days, most of his time split between trying to locate something to slake his thirst during the short, intensely hot days and utter, witless fright that one of them would find him in the seemingly endless, pitch black nights.

Ian was a scientist, not a soldier, and despite Council training, he very much doubted he could fend off even one, very weak vampire. Then the morning of the fourth day when he’d been ready to give up completely, he’d noticed smoke from a campfire rising into the air from the other side of a small rise. The last thing he remembered was striking out for it. Thank God he’d found the Treen and not something much worse.

He finished the second helping of soup–it really was delicious–and handed back the empty bowl with a wink that garnered another shy smile from Kalin and a return wink. She was such a sweet child and a favorite among the other villagers. Ian wondered which of the village boys would end up with her as his mate. They seemed to mate here as many primitive tribal groups did. But whoever it turned out to be, Ian thought the kid would be the luckiest of the bunch— Kalin had both brains and a good sense of humor.

Uncrossing his already stiffening legs, he stood up and bowed to the elders sitting in the center of the circle –a societal gesture of respect he’d picked up–and started toward his little hut. After the evening meal was complete and everything prepared for the morning, all of the Treen immediately went to bed. It appeared he wasn’t the only one who disliked being awake at night.

The normal sounds he’d already grown accustomed to hearing each evening had ceased and someone had begun to beat a drum slowly. The hollow rhythmic sound, akin to a deep steady heartbeat, sounded throughout the tiny village.

Ian had reached his small thatched hut by this time– there were only a few dozen and they were all within steps of each other – and crossed the threshold. He immediately peered curiously through a slit in the hanging cloth that he used as a door.

In the few moments it had taken him to walk away, tall tiki torches had been lit at the edge of the sacred circle. Pressed deeply into the sand they brightened the entire area, pushing the black night back toward the desert. He could hear lots of rustling noises and villagers talking excitedly among themselves as they moved around the huts.

Feeling a little like someone from a National Geographic crew, he settled against the wall and parted the curtain wider to observe the festivities.

Several villagers began a rhythmic chant, walking arm in arm until they reached the edge of the circle where they broke apart, bowing to the elders already standing within the circle, their faces appearing strangely alien beneath homemade masks made from some variety of hollow gourd stained white.

A few moments later most of the village had made their way to the circle and the elders motioned for the drumming to cease, leaving only slight murmured chanting.

Ian was still trying to figure out the exact nature of the ceremony when he saw two dozen figures with pale, ridged foreheads appear, striding into the center of the sacred circle.

Their eyes gleamed golden in the flickering torch light as they raised their arms, palms open, above their heads in perfect synchronicity– the motions polished– as if they’d done so many, many times before.

Eyes wide, he sucked in a shocked breath. Vampires.

The chanting rose in adulation until it sounded messianic to Ian’s ears. The villagers swayed, waving their arms and stomping their feet as the chanting grew louder and the drums beat faster.

Ian felt the first surge of fear as it combined with a healthy dose of revulsion while he tried to wrap his head around the bizarre idea of vampires being worshipped as deities.

One of the vampires–very tall, dark and powerfully built– strode to the forefront and stood beside the village elders that were exhorting the crowd to chant louder.

Ian immediately pegged the dark vampire as the leader; he had an aura about him that spoke of incredible power and strength.

He added charisma to the list of attributes as well when the crowd roared their excitement at their first sight of the demon.

Staring intently at the crowd with those utterly alien golden eyes, the vampire’s powerful shoulder muscles rippled as he raised his arms toward the sky. The chanting villagers mimicked the action as the remainder of the vampires arrayed behind him roared loudly.

The villagers roared in response. The single drum, now joined by others, pounded a steady beat while frenzied villagers gyrated wildly around the outside of the circle.

Ian uneasily shifted farther to the side of the hut, shying away from the doorway. A movement at the edge of the circle caught his eye and he strained to see through the flickering torchlight. Running his eyes across the crowd he saw some village families–Kalin’s included– standing quietly amid the increasing noise and activity at the circle’s perimeter. They carried painted gourds tied to tall sticks, swaying above their heads.

Carrying the stick in one hand, Kalin’s father escorted his daughter away from the rest of the family and together they joined a procession to the circle. When they reached the center of the circle, her father bowed deeply to the elders and then to the cadre of vampires. Horrified Ian watched as he handed Kalin over to the vampire leader.

The vampire dipped his head slightly and gently took the girl’s hand, steering her to a place at his side as the crowd roared their approval.

Two other men followed suit, handing their daughters over to the vampires before stepping out of the circle to rejoin their families chanting along with the frenzied crowd.

Inside the circle, the girls stood quietly– hands clasped, chins held high– while the vampires slowly gathered around them in a semi circle, their choreographed moves precise. The drums beat louder.

Gliding to the forefront beside their leader, three of the vampires smiled for the crowd, their extended fangs gleaming in the flickering torchlight. On cue, they simultaneously sunk their fangs deeply into the delicate flesh on the side of each girl’s neck, easily breaking open the skin like overripe tomatoes.

They began to feed and the crowd roared its approval.

Recoiling, Ian’s stomach lurched at the sight.

Obviously drugged, the girls stood placid and unmoving in the face of incredible pain.

Much too quickly to have drunk more than a token amount, the three vampires– with a benevolent hand wave from their leader– passed the sluggish teens to the next three in line and the nightmarish scene replayed. The girls were passed from vampire to vampire, becoming progressively weaker from the blood loss until finally carried back to the forefront. Held out in front of their leader, he drained the remaining blood. Lifting his red rimmed mouth, he smiled at the crowd.

Reeling at the sight, Ian shivered uncontrollably.

The drumming stopped, leaving only the sound of the chanting crowd. The girls’ pale, slumped bodies– gaping neck wounds dripping slightly– were thrust into the waiting arms of the elders, who reverently laid the bodies on the soft sand at the side of the circle, arranging their limbs carefully and dropping wildflowers from a basket along the length of the prone bodies.

The vampires pumped their clenched fists into the air high above their heads and the chanting rose to a fanatical roar again.

Lowering their arms, they continued to stare out into the crowd for a few more moments as the drumming started up again, this time with a much slower tempo.

Their leader motioned and the other demons fell in step behind him. Leaving the circle, they vanished into the desert.

The chanting slowed to a slight murmur and finally stopped altogether. The elders called out an exhortation to the heavens that ended the ceremony as the exhausted villagers walked trancelike in twos and threes away from the circle.

The detached scientific observer inside of Ian glanced down at his wristwatch, noting that the entire ceremony– including the sacrificial exsanguinations of three healthy young women by a cadre of messianic vampires– had taken little more than three hours total.

As the torches were extinguished, several villagers lifted the bodies of Kalin and the other two dead girls, but Ian couldn’t bear to watch any longer. Exhausted, he rubbed a hand across his blurry eyes and realized he was silently crying, the tears sliding down his cheeks.

Stumbling backward from the doorway, his heels came in contact with the thin pallet along the back wall. Collapsing to his knees, he vomited; the soup Kalin had served him stained the mattress crimson.

*****

“I think I miss Orion’s belt the most.” Buffy stared into the strange night sky awash with unfamiliar constellations and leaned against Spike’s side. He immediately tugged her closer, wrapping his arms around her.

They’d walked outside the cave to say a private goodbye, lingering to look up at the bright stars, vivid against the utter blackness surrounding them.

“Do you remember that last night on board the demon boat?” Spike’s voice sounded husky the words pitched low for her ears alone.

“How could I ever forget?” she replied softly.

She strived for some semblance of normalcy, and he heard the light teasing tone. “After all, how often is a girl given a strand of Mikimoto pearls?”

Once his answering chuckle died, her voice grew serious. “The stars were brilliant, but the real reason was us.”

“And they always will be.” His gaze met hers. “I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

In one swift movement he reached for her, catching his lips with hers. She gasped, tangling her hands tightly in his hair. He slanted his mouth over hers and deepened the kiss as she clung tightly to him.

They stayed that way, each holding the other, until finally, reluctantly, he pulled his hands away, murmuring, “If I don’t leave right now, Slayer, I’m not goin’ to leave at all and your well crafted plan will go pear shaped.”

Face flushed, she took a deep breath and dropped her own hands, taking a deliberate step back to force space and reality between them. “You’re right. Besides those Council guys think I’m out here giving you last minute instructions. So, I guess I’ll see you in two days.”

He stared into her eyes as he reached out, trapping her smaller hand in his. Pulling it to his lips, he kissed the palm. “Two days.”

“Spike? Watch your back.”

He nodded and started walking down the ridge.

She stood and watched until she couldn’t distinguish him from the surrounding landscape anymore.

Empress padded out of the cave. Lifting her nose into the air, she scented in the direction Spike had taken.

Buffy looked down into the Grundy’s expressive face. “Empress, why do I feel like this? God knows, we’ve both been in dangerous situations before; so many times I’ve lost count even. Yet deep inside I feel like I’m missing something here, as if someone forgot to tell me some vital piece of the puzzle, and it’s going to come back to haunt us.”

The Grundy snuffled, pushing her nose into Buffy’s leg, coaxing the worried Slayer back into the cave and the circle of firelight.


next chapter here.

Originally posted at http://seasonal-spuffy.livejournal.com/301502.html

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