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DeadWar 1.2 (What Puzzles the Will)

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  • DeadWar 1.2 (What Puzzles the Will)

    Disclaimer: None of the characters (except Sadha Kaur) belong to me. Don't stress...the big guy lets us play with them.

    Rating: PG-13 (contains some fairly disturbing images)

    One who excels in shutting uses no bolts, yet what he has shut cannot be opened.
    One who excels in tying uses no cords, yet what he has tied cannot be undone.
    Therefore the sage always excels in saving people, and so abandons no one,
    Always excels in saving things, and so abandons nothing.
    --Tao te Ching XXVII


    One thing is for certain: Caritas is no Willy's Place. All the same, Giles prefers dining where the patrons' faces bear less resemblance to the pizza.

    "As if you should talk," Ms. Kaur informs him. "Humans survive in spite of lacking a sense of smell. Vampires survive in spite of having one." All right...granted. Considering what he can smell, he supposes she has a point. Although....

    "I was under the impression that much of what smells foul to us is pleasant to you." Why else live in crypts and sewers? Surely not for the associations alone.

    "Some of it," she allows. "The scents of blood and of decay. Not all. And some of the things you enjoy, we find unpleasant--and far more intense. You really have no idea how lucky you are, Mr. Giles. Or how unlucky." She looks around, exposing a curious set of fine scars across her neck. "You say you know the proprietor here? Very upscale, as demon bars go."

    "Clem has come up in the world since leaving Sunnydale," he shrugs. "Though apparently his management skills leave something to be desired. I admit to helping him out from time to time; worse things could be in charge than he." A pity that Lorne seems to have vanished since his last job for Angel. Perhaps, Giles speculates, he went home to Pylea. No doubt it would be safer for him there.

    Sadha nods idly. "So I've heard. Don't mention my name to any Carcharo demons, by the way." Lowering her voice conspiratorially, she adds, "Most of the bars I've been in insist we acknowledge debts our other selves incurred, and I'm afraid I'm short of kittens at the moment."

    "As you like." Inwardly, he winces, though objectively speaking, what demons do with kittens is among the least of their vices. "Shall we cut to the chase, Ms. Kaur? I'm not at all certain why I should take you on."

    "Why not?" The vampire affects a surprised tone--yet clearly she has anticipated his objections. "I'm given to understand your numbers are dangerously low...sir...and that the same is true of your average recruit's level of experience. Which I can certainly provide. How many of your Watchers, prior to yourself, actually mentored a Slayer for any length of time?" She holds out her hands, waggling outstretched fingers. "Shall I count out the number?"

    Higher than you can account for that way, he considers answering--but only if one counts those whose girls lasted a matter of months or less, and he does not. True, not all of those were simple failures, but he has no way of being sure how many. "The fact remains, Ms. Kaur, that you are what you are." He plows on, overriding her attempt to speak. "I am as relieved as anyone to imagine the possibility of peace, at long last, yet I cannot allow myself to hope blindly. Remember your own training. When I arrived in Sunnydale, I had never heard of a vampire with a soul. Granted that I knew of certain relatively harmless species of demon, my loyalties were to humanity, and essentially uncomplicated. The mere existence of Angel changed that, and not for the better. Simply by being what he was, he forced me, and more importantly my Slayer, to hesitate. There were no others like him--as far as we knew, at least--and yet there was no way to be certain. Nor could we be certain of him, either, as we learned to our regret." Giles allows himself a brief shudder, recalling what he had suffered at Angelus' hands--both in his own person, and for the harm done to others. "The spread of ensoulment does not simplify our task, Ms. Kaur. It complicates it...immensely."

    Her eyes sweep over him, considering, while the rest of her remains utterly still. "It's not that you don't trust me, then," she says at last. "Not personally. You believe that having a vampire as Watcher will muddle a Slayer's loyalties, force her to pause and question when she needs to act." He begins to nod--she understands--and she continues rapidly, her voice gone suddenly hard. "You want them to behave as Buffy does now. Slay first and ask questions later. Kill them all and let the Powers that Be sort them out. Is that it?"

    She stops there, abruptly, to let him choke out an answer. "Of course not. But..." Her hand brings him to a halt.

    "And you have no girls who are like that already? None who would benefit from being forced to hesitate, even if only for a moment?" A waiter places their glasses on the table and, for a wonder, she seems to ignore hers completely. "Give me your worst, your hardest. Let me give them something to question. One way or another, they will have to deal with souls, Rupert. Don't you think they should listen to their own?"

    Giles grips his glass hard and takes a soothing swallow of wine. "Your point is taken. One way or another, they'll have to make these distinctions, and best they learn to do so as soon as possible." With a sigh, he adds, "It's a very fine line to walk, Ms. Kaur."

    She lifts her own glass, studying it dubiously, and drinks. "Don't I know it."

    Giles nods sympathetically. "As I alluded to before, we have been effectively at war for a very long time. In war...everyone ends by doing things they're not proud of. Assuming they're lucky enough not to become proud of them." And elaborating on that is a subject he prefers to leave for a later time, even with a fellow Watcher. "How is your drink?"

    "Crisp." She sighs. "A little flat. Your basic blood-drive B-negative." Giles blinks, taking off his glasses. A little polishing would be useful. "You'll approve even less when I say I miss the taste of fear. Just a bit."

    "Generally speaking," Giles opines, "I've found the drinking of human blood to be a bad idea, even when no one is directly harmed. Are you planning to make your Slayer aware of this habit?"

    "I don't see any point keeping secrets, unless I think she'll stab me in my sleep. As for the risk of acquiring a taste, would you happen to know that when you were a teenager, human placental meat was something of a fad here in the States?" Sadha makes a broad gesture with her glass. "I'm not aware of any human restaurants that have begun serving Soylent Green, though."

    The cleaning hasn't helped at all. Giles replaces his glasses. "It doesn't bother you, then?"

    "Rupert--is it all right if I call you Rupert? Call me Sadha, please--I once slit the throat of a thirteen-year-old boy and watched him bleed to death to break his ritual summoning and prevent his dark masters from erupting onto the Earth. Yes, I was human at the time. As you said, in war we all do things we're not proud of. This--" She drains her drink. "--is not one of them. Does it matter so much? The war can end, Rupert. I want to help you end it. Once that's done, people like ourselves can...become obsolete."

    He takes a deep breath. "That would be a relief for all of us, I think...Sadha. May I ask..?" He gestures vaguely at her neck. "Those look to be one of the less-pleasant things you've experienced."

    Sadha grins at him, half-tamed wolf to sheep. "Initiation ritual. If you've never met a penanggalan, I'll have to tell you about it one day. And no, not pleasant. Not pleasant at all."
    ********
    Dawn sits cross-legged on the bed and watches the pencil twirl in front of her. Some things are hard to study...and some aren't. She gets the words, all the different languages of magic. Meditation? Not so easy. Maybe she's just no good at sitting still and being quiet. Might explain why she has less trouble so early in the morning.

    Three peremptory raps on the door, and suddenly the pencil is embedded in the ceiling. Only one person knocks like that. And Dawn is the only one Illyria knocks for. She doesn't wait for Dawn to answer, though. The blue-skinned woman strides into the room, the image of arrogance. Maybe Dawn should call her Smurfette again.

    Illyria glances upward, taking in the results of her surprise entrance. "You are beyond this." Dawn winces. It would be much easier if Illyria treated her the way she treats everyone else.

    "No," she says. "No, I'm really not. Giles says I need to take it slow. He's not making the mistake with me he made with Willow."

    "He fears you. Willow is a spark beside your conflagration. I stirred in my slumber to feel you crack the plenum." Illyria cocks her head, that all-purpose gesture of distance between them. "This shell is unbecoming of you."

    "Dawn Summers is not a shell. Dawn Summers is me. I don't even know if the Key could think."

    "Thought is too small a word to encompass us," Illyria mutters. "We are greater than flickers of energy in a mass of protoplasm. You are--if not a god--the power of a god. The closest thing in this realm I have to a peer."

    "Well," says Dawn, "if this is peer pressure, I think I'm gonna just say no. Okay? Cracking the...the plenum once is enough for me. Now did you come in here for a reason?"

    If she were anyone else, Illyria might react badly. Like snapping-your-spine badly. For The Key, she shrugs irritably. "Your father does not speak to you. Your mother is dead. Your sister is beyond help. Why do you continue to value this shell? Why do you go on?"

    Beyond help? The image of pencils embedded in the demon's eyes flickers through Dawn's mind briefly. Best to take her seriously and get rid of her, though. "This is my life. That's what life is for, not that you would know that. You live it. You find people you care about and you help them. You make the world a better place. I guess I'm not surprised you don't understand that, though. Buffy used to shove things like you back into the hellmouth on a semi-annual basis. Want me to take a crack at it?"

    Illyria looks...wistful? "It would be gratifying to see you try. But nothing of my world remains for me. You are aware of that. For a time, I believed that perhaps I could come to care for Wesley, or Charles. Now they, too, are no more. If I could break this shell, discard its memories, and be what I was, I would do so gladly. I cannot."

    Dawn stands up on the bed to retrieve her pencil. "Dunno what you expect me to do about it. Thanks for telling me you're really still evil, though."

    Frustrated hissing. "Evil and good are words. You evade my questions. How do you live in this world when all that you cared about has gone? Is that why you allowed Connor to take you to the movies?"

    "I needed a break. Humans do that to keep from overheating. Tell me this isn't turning into you asking me about boys, because, y'know...ten-thousand-year-old demon? That's just weird."

    "Then you care nothing about him." Illyria's voice deepens to a rasp. "I remember everything about your world, and understand none of it. Small wonder...you do not even understand yourselves." Moving languourously across the room--it doesn't look like pacing, but Dawn isn't so sure--she adds quietly, "I inform Alexander that he reminds me of the most important human in my recent existence, and he reacts with indignation. I--"

    "Wait...you told Xander he reminds you of Wesley?" In spite of herself, Dawn begins to giggle, drawing a glare. "Sorry. Look, when we knew Wesley he was a totally incompetent, self-important geek. You're lucky Xander didn't hit you, or rig your ceiling to fall in, or something."

    "He would not dare."

    "Okay, you're probably right there. You...liked Wesley?" It's a ridiculous notion. She's talking to an Old One. An ex-tentacled monster who didn't just kill the girl whose body she's wearing, but erased her, turned her into nothing at all.

    "He was important to the shell. I...inherited many of Fred's emotions. And he aided me in adjusting to this age."

    Crazy. Still...it did fit a pattern. Demons. Xander. Dawn sighs and cradles her face in her hands. "Odds are you remind Xander of Anya, too. Rebounds...usually a bad idea, but if you insist on trying...." She could derail this whole train now. Still...maybe Illyria deserves a little rejection. There has to be something that can crack that ego. "Try out 'queen' and 'goddess', okay? No need to freak him out even more."

    Smurfette bristles. "Gender is no part--" A piercing scream cuts across whatever she was about to say...followed by what sounds like a very detailed, if indistinct, call for help.

    "Groan. Willow's got trouble. We'll talk about this later, Illyria. Don't make any moves without asking me first." She's almost surprised when the demon runs out of the room at her side.
    ********
    Snuggling against her girl, Kennedy breathes in the warm sea air. She could get used to this. Which would be dangerous...cruises are expensive. Once a year is more than enough.

    Someone jostles their seat. This crowd is insane. How'd the ship get so overbooked anyway? Not that she's complaining--there are women milling around all over the deck, almost all fit and trim if not all hot. Willow hasn't objected, so there's no reason they can't enjoy the view together.

    A young woman with lickably chocolate skin and a teeny white bikini stops in front of her. "Are dere no boys on dis cruise?" she asks in an outrageous accent. "I still have not kissed a boy." She waves her hands rapidly at her scrap of swimsuit. "You'd tink they would come up here to look at us if dere were any here."

    Kennedy stifles a laugh. "You're asking the wrong girls, cutie. Although I'm sure someone will be happy to let you know." The other woman stares blankly at her, and she draws Willow a little closer as a clue.

    "Kendra." Faith comes up behind the woman. "C'mon, let's mingle a little. I doubt we'll find any timber on this ship, but I bet we can find somethin' t'do without it." Grinning wickedly, she winks at Kennedy and leads Kendra off, one hand on her shoulder. Beyond them, Buffy is making a speech.

    Kennedy blinks. Why is Buffy in black and white? "How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?" the older Slayer rants, not that anyone seems to be paying attention. The huge cross pendant around her neck weighs her down--no, it looks more like a bird of some kind. Kennedy strains to hear her over the noise of conversation. "...strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other..."

    "She's not paying attention," says the woman beside her. It's not Willow's voice. Kennedy turns to find she has her arm around a plump blond-haired girl. Vaguely familiar for some reason, but not hers. "Those lines are all wrong."

    "Yahtzee!" squeals Harmony. "Woot woot woot!" The First Slayer snarls and overturns the table on her before stalking away through the crowd.

    Kennedy stares at the girl next to her, frowning. "This is a dream, isn't it?" She waves a hand around at the crowd. "I'm not following any of this, though. And you don't look like a Slayer."

    The blond shrugs. "I guess we'll never know. I doubt it, though." She closes her fists and makes...swimming motions?

    "Here in this hand I hold his death!" Buffy shouts, waving a stake. "Tempered in blood, and tempered by lightning are these barbs...!" Kennedy winces and covers her ears. Some of the other girls have finally stopped to watch.

    "Sorry," the blond tells her. "Buffy's not much of a listener, is she? You'd think she'd notice. We might still get through to her if she'd take a breather and look around."

    Notice what? This is just a dream, right? Kennedy tries to answer, but her mouth refuses to move. She struggles to lift her arms, kick her legs, but they lie in place as if they belonged to a corpse. Around her the Slayers begin toppling to the deck.

    The other girl responds anyway, softly. "Who said it was yours?"

    "Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool!" shrieks Buffy. "And since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale!"

    shrimp crawling out of the ocean over the boat nothing but shrimp
    --------
    Okay, okay, I'm awake! But shouts keep ringing in Kennedy's ears as she struggles from beneath the covers. Will's gone...she's the one making the racket. Her and the pounding of Slayer feet, anyway. Kennedy doesn't bother with a robe; her underwear will have to do.

    The stairs are crowded, and she's last in line. With a shrug, she leaps the bannister, landing in a crouch and rolling forward, back to her feet. If this were practice, it'd be fun.

    "We have to get her inside!" Will calls out, dropping a bundle onto the counter and racing back to the door. The lump skids, leaving thin smears of red in its wake. A head? Looks a little late to her, but if it's a demon, who knows?

    Kennedy arrives at the door to find Willow struggling with the body the head came from. Its arms and legs, surprisingly, are twitching weakly. "I've got it, Will. What's the rush?" She seizes the arms and begins to pull; whoever it is, even if she's somehow alive, is in no shape to complain.

    "We have to get the rest of her," Willow urges. "We have to get her all in before the sun gets any of the pieces!" Kennedy blinks and stares down at what she's holding. Where the spine should be, a great red furrow has been dug into the flesh.

    "Willow, this doesn't make any sense. Her head...if she's a vampire, the sun shouldn't matter. Why isn't she dust already?" But she drags the body inside anyway. No point arguing with reality--and the limbs are still twitching, too.

    "I've got a theory." For once, the redhead doesn't stop to elaborate--she and the others have begun grabbing up bits and pieces. Vertebrae.... Kennedy's stomach flips over as she realizes who's responsible. Swallowing hard, she goes to get a closer look at the head.

    Anne's eyes look up at her. Anne's lips part, mouthing words she lacks the air to voice. "Oh god...no rush, Anne. You'll have time to talk. We'll...we'll put you back together. Somehow. Willow, we can put her back together, right?" Kennedy reaches around to feel the back of Anne's neck. The same great gouge is there, running all the way up to the base of her skull.

    The clatter of pieces of bone dropping to the table. All the rest of the pieces. Everyone's gathered around. Even Illyria--Kennedy shudders; a thing like that standing next to Dawn!--wrinkles her nose in a gesture of mild disgust. Probably not brutal enough for her.

    "I think..." Willow begins, hesitating. "If we stitch the pieces back together...I think they should heal up. Eventually. This is way, way beyond anything I've seen a vampire recover from, but--"

    Rona butts in. "She's decapitated. We shouldn't have anything to stitch together."

    "Supercooling," Willow states uncertainly. They all stare at her, Dawn wearing a frown of partial comprehension. "Buf...I mean, whoever did this..." Kennedy wraps an arm around her. Of course it's Buffy. No one else does this. It must have been a mistake. It must have been. Buffy must not have felt her soul...somehow. "I think they carved out the whole spine from the body, then cut the head loose, with just the spine attached. And then chopped off the vertebrae one by one. I've never heard of that before, and I doubt they expected it, I sure wouldn't, but...if you cool water really, really slowly, and you have to do it all just right and be sure there aren't any impurities, and...well, it doesn't freeze. It's like the molecules get confused, they don't realize what they're supposed to do...."

    Dawn raises an eyebrow at that. "You mean her body doesn't know her head's gone?"

    "Something like that, yeah." Willow winces. "And if...we have to be careful, really really careful when we start working on her. I don't know for sure, but...um, if you get just a speck of something in supercooled water, or jostle the container too much...Ice."

    "You mean dust."

    "Yeah. And we really, really don't want that."

    Willow knows. She's seen it too. "She's got something to tell us," Kennedy puts in. "Serious bad news." Their stares rise from the head to her. "If this happened to you, would you keep fighting? The sun's rising. In another few minutes she'd have been out of her misery. Anne, stick out your tongue. Let them see." The head--Kennedy has trouble thinking of it as a person--obliges. Its tongue is covered with pavement grit and little compression furrows. Illyria makes a small noise in her throat. She sounds impressed.

    "I heard a noise," Willow mumbles. "She was...was...bumping against the door. She had to live, to tell someone. That's how important it is. Whatever it is."

    Dawn clutches her stomach and runs from the room.

    Poor kid.
    ********
    Vampire!

    Buffy's on her feet faster than a cat. But nothing else moves in the darkness.

    Oh. It's only her.

    Buffy glances at the clock. She's slept three-quarters of an hour. That's actually not bad any more, nor is it always her Slayer senses that wake her. Her body seems hardly to need it. She wishes she could say the same for her mind. She feels...brittle. Disconnected. But lying down again will do no good. What was she dreaming?

    ...something about a whale. It doesn't matter. None of it is real. She doesn't really dream. She doesn't really sleep.

    The crypt seems to shimmer in her eyes. Or not. It's only mimicry, after all. Buffy doesn't feel fear, or sadness, or even anger or hate. Buffy doesn't feel. Buffy doesn't think. There is no Buffy. The only senses she has that still matter tell her that. Her corpse moves on puppet strings. No one is inside. Just a demon, a thing...pretending. Even to itself. If only she could stop.

    How do you go on like that?

    There's only one way she knows of to reconnect herself. To make the illusion seem real again. She quicksteps across the room to the bookcase, opening the one door on the top shelf, retrieving it.

    Sunlight would do, if she could risk having a crack in the walls. Buffy is no more resistant to sunlight than any other vampire her age, though her speed allows her to stretch seconds into usefulness if she must. A knife would do, really. Still, somehow this seems appropriate. A secondary reminder, a bit of reality inside her doublethink. She is what she is. Buffy puts on the glove inside--she needs at least one hand, to work--and picks up her cross.

    Streamers of smoke rise even from the glove. If she holds on long enough, it'll burn through to her skin...eventually. No sense wasting time. She presses the cross to her stomach, branding red into her flesh. Fortunately the afterimage doesn't retain the same effect as the object. However that works. It sears into her, searching for muscle or bone or gut.

    After a white-hot moment, she takes it away. Pain isn't real either. It feels that way, though. For a few moments, she can pretend. This time the pretense doesn't hold. Grimacing, she presses the cross to her cheek. The skin there is more sensitive.

    Not sensitive enough, though. She could fall through the floor, still, or float away into the air...like a soap bubble. Or pop. Almost, for a moment, she wants to pop. To let go. But that would mean failure. Buffy doesn't fail. There are worse things she can do. She has a list, a hierarchy of places to burn. She's never reached the top--she hopes never to reach it--but this episode is a bad one. She can progress upward, if she wants...but Buffy thinks she knows the measure of it now.

    She opens her mouth and puts the cross inside.

    Saliva flashes to steam. Buffy bites down. The pain is her. The pain is real. Her tongue, her...teeth, burning. Still she clenches tight, tendrils of vapor rising from her nose. Just...a little...longer... The room spins.

    Buffy finds herself on the floor. Squeezing her eyes closed against the searing, she spits out the offending bit of metal into her gloved palm. The cross is real. The floor is real. The crypt is real.

    Buffy is real. Real enough, at least, to go on with.

    She rises to her feet and staggers toward the refrigerator; she tears open a chilled packet of blood and pours it over her tongue. Immediate relief...verging on bliss, even. By the time she's ready to go out tonight, the burns will have healed. That much, at least, remains the same.

    One day, perhaps, she can let go. Maybe by then she'll be ready for where she expects to end up. It's not as though she's never been there. And maybe then she can forget who she's pretending to be.

    There ought to be a better way, dammit. Buffy sighs. Maybe there's a puzzle box out there somewhere. Clive Barker...

    That'd be a start.
    DeadWar: Burden of Proof
    Out Now.
    Avatar by Barb
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