Disclaimer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, and 20th Century Fox. I am only playing in their garden. I promise to latch the gate when I leave.
Note: I never liked
the origin of vampires, Slayers, and the Watchers. Sorry, Joss, but I
need to stretch my brain a little on the topic.
Time was. Time is, and in the world, there are many stories – stories of beginnings and endings, of endings which are beginnings, and beginnings which are endings. All stories, no matter their time, are true in their own manner. And so it is true that while the Earth is some four and a half billion years old, it is also true that it was created some six thousand years ago over the course of six days, and it is true again that while humankind evolved from an ape-like ancestor some three million years previously, the first man was named Adam, and given to him and his progeny was dominion over the Earth.
So it is true, and so it is true that when the Earth had form – land and seas, night and day – the Old Ones wandered its face, living what we would find to be incomprehensible lives of cruelty and pleasure in cruelty. It is true, in this manner, that the last of the Old Ones to leave this plane, our world having grown inhospitable to their kind, bit a human and drank that human's blood. That human died, and a demon possessed his body, and that is how the first vampire came into our world. Later, in this same story, a group of wise men took a girl from her family and tribe, chained her to a rock, and summoned a demon that, instead of possessing, infused the girl with its powers of strength, agility, healing, and hyperacute senses. That girl became the Slayer of vampires, and her legacy was inherited by still more girls, and those girls were guided and trained by the inheritors of the group of wise men who brought the first Slayer into being.
This story is true. But, it is a story told by men, just as the story of the first man and the garden where he walked with his Creator is told by men. There are other stories, stories told by women, and these stories are true.
One story still told today by both men and women (though the men almost always tell the ending wrong) is that the first man was not created alone. From the dust as he was called into being, a woman was also called. She formed at his side, and as he was given a name, Adam, she was given her name, Lilith. For a time, Lilith and Adam dwelt together as husband and wife in the garden, and they spoke to and walked with their Creator. Adam, however, took it into his head that because he was male, the husband, the man, the taller and stronger of the two, he should have dominion over Lilith, the female, the wife, the woman, the weaker.
When the story is told properly, the listener never hears what Adam and Lilith's Creator would have said about such a difficulty. Lilith, finding no way to be with her husband and not be subject to him, took it upon herself to leave the garden and wander the face of the Earth. As the story has been told, by men who weren't there, Lilith became the mother of monsters and demons. She, denied the role of true womanhood because of her disobedience, stood over the cradle of newborns in hopes of stealing their lives away. Again, this story is true, in a manner of speaking. But that is not the story we speak of.
Adam, for his part, had two more wives. The second he refused before she was even named. He had seen her form up from the dust – marrow, blood, pink lungs, throbbing heart – and had been unable to see her as a whole person, only a disturbing film of far too juicy biology. She was released back to the dust without ever knowing her own story. The third was Eve, and she became the mother of all humankind – in the stories of men – because she was obedient and loving and an easy target for blame.
However, this is not Eve's story. This is not a story told by men, wise or otherwise. This is a story told by women with hair as white as ash and fewer teeth than living children. It is a story told in the menstrual huts, around the fire, late at night. It is a story told to girls when their sisters have been called away by a different fate than husband and babe and hearth. This is the story:
The tribes of humankind spread through the cradle of Africa, and their campfires were more numerous than the stars in the sky. In an evolutionary sense, they were wildly successful. Their societies, their oversized brains, their ability to use language and abstract thought to their advantage guaranteed them a place above the predators of the plains, above that of the herd animals, above that of the trees and grasses. While a human or two might be lost to accident or opportunistic cheetah, while disease might strike and burn out a camp or a clan, while a mother might die trying to birth the child in her womb, still humans spread, begetting more humans and filling the land with their kind. Why, one could not walk along the shore of the largest water for two days without seeing evidence of humanity.
For all this, the grandmothers watched with worried eyes. The grandmothers were the ones who saw to it that no child went hungry. For all the boasts of the hunters, the grandmothers were the ones who made sure there was food to eat around the campfire – not meat, perhaps, but roots, nuts, berries, and grains. The grandmothers brought the new lives into this world and sang the dying out of it. They watched their children, children's mates, children's children, and the rest of the complex social skein that made up their people, the first people.
They watched, and they saw a frightening thing appear like the first cloud of a storm that will spawn tornadoes and send rivers over their banks. There were those, among their children, the first people, who were not human. Oh, they wore the bodies of humans, men and women. They walked about under the sun of the world and its moon as well. They spoke and scratched, ate and shat, slept and woke just as humans do, but there was something awry with them.
These ones, rare but less so than a generation previously, would shout in anger when there was nothing at which to be angry. One of the men laughed as a beast charged him during the hunt, and his kinsman was badly injured trying to rescue him. A woman ignored the cries of her child when it sat to close to the fire and was burned. A girl lured her sister out of the camp and pushed her into a ravine. A man killed his friend because the friend had married a woman he wanted. A boy beat his younger brother for following him through the camp. A father cut open the belly of his dog while it was still alive. A young man raped the sister of his mother and hit her on the head with a rock so she could not tell anyone what he'd done.
The grandmothers saw this, and they saw that these people, these happenings were unacceptable to their people, but when their mothers had been alive, they were unheard of, and when their grandmothers were alive, they were unthinkable. They met, as was their way, when their children and children's mates and children's children were asleep.
"There are too many of us," said the second oldest, and her words were slurred because she had only a few teeth left in her head.
"What would we do about it?" asked the youngest grandmother. Her hair was not entirely white yet, but she four of her five children still lived, and she was respected accordingly. "Do we hunt the wrong ones down like so many gazelle?"
"And what if we are wrong?" asked another, known for her weaving skills and temper. "Are we not then become what they already are?"
"As if any of you, or I myself, could throw a spear and hit anything but our own feet," answered the very oldest, blind in one eye and with a grip like rawhide tied wet and allowed to dry.
"There are other ways to hunt than with a spear," replied the second oldest.
"My son's mate's brother struck his mate's child," one of the grandmother's said. "A child! He did it when he thought no one would see, but the child's sister did, and she told me."
"My sister, who is married into the clan that hunts three days' walk from here, tells me there is a woman in her tribe that tells stories, untrue stories, of what one woman says of another, behind the other's head. My sister tells me this woman has seen fights started and friendships broken and smiles when each happens. My sister tells me this woman pinches her child to make it cry and then sings to it until it stops."
There was a long pause as the grandmothers considered. Whatever the hunters might say, boasting as they came home with pieces of meat carved off the bone of some stupid animal that blundered onto one of their spears – whatever they might say, the grandmothers were the ones who said "we stay here this summer" or "the water will turn bad before the next full moon, we must move".
"Will your sister hunt this woman as her son hunts a lion that has tasted us?" the weaver asked.
The woman shook her head. "No. She says she is no hunter, not of her own people. She does not know what to do."
The oldest of them, thin and twisted as a gnarled branch, pushed a branch into the fire. The light of it reflected from her good eye. Her gaze was steady, and the light glowed as though its home was truly in her skull.
"We will call the Eldest," she said. "We will speak to her of this, and we will ask her what should become of us, who are not hunted and cannot hunt ourselves. We will abide by her words."
The other women did not speak, though they held themselves silent and still with a sudden tension. It faded into an air of resignation. They were grandmothers because they knew what was necessary was not necessarily pleasant and that there was no thing to be done which would find the doing without a price of some sort.
To speak to the Eldest took a heavy toll. First, the grandmothers had to prepare the summoning. It was not done lightly. The rain that made the grass grown, which fed the antelope, which fed the people, could come heavily enough to drown a whole tribe if a river shifted its banks in the night. The sun which warmed the earth could kill a child in one long day. The Eldest, who cared for the people as her own grandchildren, would not come and go with nothing more than a bony hug. She had not been summoned in living memory, and the stories of her last visit were told on any occasion when a child wandered away from the camp and was devoured.
The Eldest came only during the dark of the moon, and the summoners had to be women, mothers, specifically mothers who had lost at least one child and could no longer bear another. All the grandmothers in that tribe stood for the summoning. The men of the tribe, long limbed hunters who could run as long as there was a sun or moon in the sky, trembled in fear and were glad to take their leave. They were, after all, people of good sense. The mothers and children moved to spot beside the river, for all the risk of flash flood.
The grandmothers cleared a large area of scrub and brush, tent and hide. Using a stick and a long rope of woven leather, they inscribed a circle in the ground, and along it they poured blood from a fresh kill, ground shells from the shore of the largest water, ash from the fires of the last year, and precious salt. They marked their bodies with ochre and more blood. They built a pyre of the driest wood they could find in a morning's walk from the camp – dry to burn hot and clear. They waited until the sun had set and the sky was completely dark.
On skin drums, they beat a rhythm that carried over the plains. The heat of the fire made each of them slick with sweat, and the patterns they'd drawn on their bodies became blurred.
"We call you," the oldest of the grandmothers said.
"We call you," the others responded.
The words they used were of a language ancient even to the first people. It was no longer spoken when the sun was in the sky, but only by grandmother to mother to daughter, taught during the ceremony when a girl was recognized as a woman, one who could bring forth life. The men had a story about this language – how it came about and why it was not longer spoken – but none were so foolish as to relate their story when there were women about.
"Eldest," the oldest grandmother called. "We seek your wisdom in the dark of the moon. Walk with us, Grandmother!"
"Walk with us!"
There was a moment, when the wind died and the frogs stopped calling, when even the beat of the drum was absorbed into the silence of the night. The center of the fire pulled in on itself and reversed, becoming not a radiating light and warmth, but a moving dark and stillness.
"I walk with you, my daughters," a voice spoke from within the fire.
She was there, the Eldest, the first woman, and from each woman's vantage, the Eldest looked directly at her, into her, and spoke to her and no one else. Each grandmother spoke of those in their people who were not of their people, who hurt and harmed at a whim, and multiplied as the people multiplied. Each one knew the Eldest listened in grave silence to her words.
"My daughter," the Eldest spoke, "the people are no longer hunted as they once were. Your spears and fires chase away the very beasts who once pulled down those of your families who were not whole in one manner or another. Now you are grown into something new, something stronger, and these unwhole ones who walk among you are the price."
"That they are born, yes," the oldest grandmother answered, "that they die, certainly. But must they prey on us? Must the price also be the blood and tears of the whole?"
"You may choose," the Eldest replied, "a different hunter, one who matches your people as they walk now. But be warned. As the lion pulls down the old and sick and the cheetah takes the very young, this hunter may not choose only the unwhole."
"I do so choose," the oldest grandmother spoke.
"Then step into my arms, daughter," Lilith said.
The other grandmothers beat the rhythm upon the drums again and wailed a high keening note. It was nothing to lose their eldest to summon the Eldest, nothing and everything. Those who could bear to watch did so and later said – in the deep of a moonless night, which was the only time any could be prevailed upon to speak of it – that the eldest and the Eldest appeared to speak for a moment, and then the Eldest leaned over and kissed the eldest on her wrinkled forehead and took her in her arms as a mother embraces her daughter.
The fire flared back into roaring sound, light, and heat and then just as abruptly snuffed out in a gust of wind. The grandmothers, after a long moment of total silence, drew close to the circle in which the fire had burned. In the center, pillowed on cold ashes, was a woman, almost a girl. Her hair was black and curled tightly against her skull. Her eyes, when she opened them, were clear and brown. Her mouth, when she spoke, held all her teeth. She could not have been older than a new mother, perhaps sixteen or seventeen summers. Yet, when she spoke, it was with the oldest grandmother's voice, wisdom, and knowledge.
She embraced each of her sisters, for the grandmothers had seen each other through births, deaths, matings, and all the other terrors of life. She called each by name and bade them goodbye, for it is not proper for the hunter to speak to those it hunts. She left them and was not seen again, not by waking folk or by those whose hearts still beat the next morning.
In time, the first people came to recognize that the dark of the moon was when a tribe member might go missing, never to be seen alive again. The hunters, when they could be persuaded to track the person, found only tracks that left a tent or hut and went in a line as straight as a taut rope to meet another pair of tracks. There, should any go that far, they would find a corpse with wide, staring eyes and two neat wounds in the neck. At first, no one would bury such a thing. It was an unnatural death for an unnatural person. But when the thing only lay there, untouched by carrion eaters, bloated and horrible – or in a few, rare, even more unsettling instances, was simply gone the next night – they took to burying the corpse and setting stones over it.
Long after the grandmothers who summoned the Eldest had died, and their grandchildren had died, white and withered, the grandmothers of the tribe understood that this was the price. The people remained human. Any who were born and became strange, interested in pain and causing it, rarely made it to the age of mating. If, rarely, a girl or woman who was not unwhole was lost, it was said that she had become a hunter and would protect the people against the unwhole.
Every few generations, a hunter might come across a deep place in the earth, where night always stood, and the feeling of the cool, damp earth was that of crouched death. The wiser of the hunters would whisper a short prayer and back out carefully, never to return and never to mention it to another soul. Once – only once – was a hunter so foolish as to tell his friends and insist they come with them. Among them, they decided to rid themselves of a rival by tying him with thongs and leaving him in the cave, watching from a safe distance to be sure of the man's end.
When the grandmother, the hunter of the people, emerged and found a terrified man, wide eyed and gagged, she paused. A simple look into him proved that he was no monster, only a man frightened out of his wits. She held his mind in the palm of hers and broke the thongs which bound him.
"Watch," she bade him.
As he did, she moved in the manner of a large cat intent on prey. The men hiding around the cave ran, but none made it more than the length of his own body. When the hapless man returned to his mate, he wept in relief and horror. He was alive, and three men were dead. The grandmother, the hunter of his people, had broken one's neck by twisting his head around, torn the throat out of the second with her claws, and the third, the hunter who had found her lair, she had bent his head back and held him like a lover, and then drank his blood like a thirsty man drinking water from a skin.
This, then, would have been the whole of the story – told by grandmother to granddaughter in the menstrual hut, around the fire, or on a night when the moon does not appear. It would have been a story told to explain what became of certain members of the tribe, to venerate the grandmother who became a hunter of her people in order to protect them, and to explain how one thing must always cost another. It would have been this and little more, and humankind would have grown into the fullness of its destiny never knowing of Slayers and vampires, had it not been for one particular woman and a man that she loved beyond the bounds of death.
She was the third daughter of the man with the second largest herd, and her mother had died shortly after she was weaned. She was clear-eyed and intelligent, and spent much of her childhood caring for her sisters and brothers. As she grew closer to womanhood, she took notice of the younger son of the chief's mother. He was strong and clean-limbed, a good hunter, and a man who respected the prerogatives of the women in the village. She found, on the evening when the shepherds returned with their flocks for the spring slaughter, that he would distribute two or three tender kids to the old women and men and the children who had lost both parents to Grandmother Death. Once, he brought her the skin of his finest goat, and gifted it to her. It was a skin of high quality, unmarred and covered in silky brown hair. It was a clear sign that he was interested in being her mate, when she was of an age to take one. Her grandmother took note and spoke to the chief's mother of the matter, and it was agreed upon that they would be good mates together and would raise healthy children. The tribe looked upon it as something that would come about when the time was right, as they looked forward to the rains and the sunrise.
And then, on a night when the moon would not show its face, the girl was called from her sleep by a song. She awoke to find the rest of her village deeply asleep. Even the boys who would stay awake almost until the morning, watching the herds and the huts, were slumped in sleep. The dogs that watched their village slept, and the dark sky was filled with music that made her chest ache with grief and hope.
She rose and left her sleeping skins behind, pausing only to wrap shawl woven from the fleece of the sheep of the chieftain's herd around her shoulders. The music called her with a beat that made her ribs vibrate in time. It shone from the direction of the river-that-runs-after-heavy-rains with a clarity that rivaled the morning sun's. She followed it, walking through the village, past the central fire, and beyond the wards tied to trees encircling the huts. She paused only once, to look at the sky and the arching, nebulous glow that stretched across the bowl that sheltered the world and her people.
It was a fairly long walk. She had to cross the empty bed of the river, leaving clear footprints in the mud of the middle channel. She saw the glowing eyes of predators, but they did not come any closer, and she continued to walk without fear. When she came through a knot of trees, she found a woman standing in a clearing, and beyond her were more women. As she stepped closer, the other women formed a loose circle around her.
"I greet you, granddaughter," the woman in the center said.
"I greet you, grandmother," the girl replied. She knew now what would happen, and found that her mind was clear and no worry or fear stood in it.
The woman stood, as night did in the sky, clear and calm. Her hair, eyes, and teeth were untouched by age.
"I have called you, granddaughter, to be one of us."
"We have called you," the women around her repeated in soft voices.
"As your people have grown, so have ours. We are the hunters, the protectors. We take from your people those who would do them harm."
"We are the predators," the other women breathed. "We are the sisters. We walk with the night, and we walk with death."
"Will you join us?" the woman asked.
There was a moment when the girl thought of her father, her sisters, her brothers, and most especially, the youth she wished to be mated to.
"If I say no?" she asked, clear-eyed and unafraid.
"Then this is a dream you will forget on waking," the woman answered, "and you will mate the youth you long for and give him strong sons and daughters, live out the measure of your life, and die in the fullness of time."
"And if I say yes?" the girl asked.
"Then you shall meet Grandmother Death from the shelter of my arms, and in a day's time, before the moon can claim more than a sliver of light, you will awaken, and be a sister to us, and hunt those who were once your people. You will keep them in health and watch the world change and grow, and in time, when the world is as far removed from this as a crone is from the infant she was born as, you will meet your end."
The girl considered the woman before her and those around her. Each – tall and short, slender as a reed and solid as a stone, pretty and ugly – was beautiful as the night around them. Strength and grace radiated from each. To be strong, to protect her people, to have sisters that would never age or die…
"I say yes."
The woman before her held out her arms, as though welcoming a daughter home. The other women stepped closer, until the girl was surrounded. She stepped into the woman's embrace and accepted a kiss on the forehead. The music, which had fallen away, re-emerged, its beat rattling her bones. Her breath quickened.
As the woman held her close, the girl found her head tilting back, almost in sleep, exposing her throat. She felt the other women take her hands and hold them up so that her arms were extended to either side of her.
The bites – at throat, wrists, and elbows – hurt, but it was a pain that did not matter. As her mind swam and she began to arch in a strange ecstasy, she felt in her turn the minds of all those around her. They were sharp as a well-knapped blade, welcoming, and clear as settled water. They sang to her, and as her knees buckled under the weight of her body, they supported her. Death rose within and around her, like a low place filling with water. Hands held her, and the pain of the bites retreated. Her head filled with a buzzing grayness.
Something was held to her mouth. She tasted blood. It was gone, and another took its place, and another, and another. Later, she would understand that each woman had opened a vein and returned some of what they'd taken to her, thus completing the bond. At the time, she felt only that she was an infant, suckled by all the mothers of the tribe. She was precious, loved beyond the telling of it, a child brought forth from life into death.
When her father tracked her footprints and found her body, he knelt and wept at her side. The oldest grandmother of the tribe was called forth, to confirm what many thought were only stories told to frighten children. The woman, shriveled and wrinkled, touched the body, feeling throat, wrists, and elbows. She told the hunters to look at the ground and say whether there had been one other person or more than one other person. When the hunters could say that there had been others there, the old woman nodded.
"She has been taken by those who hunt the unwhole," the old woman said, slurring through gums with no teeth. "She will guard us, our children, and our children's children."
The youth whom the girl loved and who loved her in return stood off to one side, not looking at the girl's body, only holding his spear tightly in both hands.
"Leave, all of you," the old woman said. "I will watch her until her spirit returns, after the sun sets."
So they left, and in the camp, the women set up a wail of grief.
Yet, when the sun fell, and the girl stirred as her spirit returned to her, the youth who loved her and was loved in return waited, hiding.
The old woman watched with careful eyes. Even to her it had been a story, but to her grandmother it had been real, and when members of the tribe disappeared and their bodies were later found, untouched by the carrion eaters, the story was told – an explanation that many didn't really believe. The elder men of the village spoke, calling such stories old women's tales.
The girl moved, blinked her eyes and then wiped them with the fingers of her left hand. She rolled up onto an elbow and regarded the old woman.
"You are dead," the old woman said. "You are dead, and you walk with the grandmothers of our people. Do you know where to go?"
The girl nodded her head, mute.
"Then go, grandmother," the old woman said. "Take with you the blessings of our people, and tell the grandmother who took you from us that we pay the price for her protection, though it grieves us."
The girl nodded again, got to her feet, and looking out over the hills, chose her direction and left at loping run. The old woman climbed slowly and painfully to her feet. She would not, she thought, see another wet season, and that did not sadden her. There were things even an old woman would be better off not knowing or seeing with her own eyes.
The youth, who had watched all this, followed his love, running fast enough to catch her before the rise of the next hill. She heard him long before he thought she would and stood waiting. He stopped, and they regarded one another for a moment.
"There is no promise spoken between us," he said, "still I did not think to lose you to any rival."
"Death is not a rival," the girl answered, her voice raspy and dry.
"Is it not? The Old Ones called you, and you went. I love you still. Will you not stay with me?"
The girl shook her head. "The dead do not stay with the living, my heart. There is nothing left for them to share."
"And what shall I do, oh my heart, now that you are dead and stand before me and speak with your voice, saying you will not stay?"
She looked at him, tilting her head to the side. "You will mate with another woman. She will give you strong sons and daughters. You will live out the measure of your life, and die in the fullness of time knowing that I loved you and love you still. I will love you when the earth has changed beyond the knowing of it, and our people are as different from what they are now as a crone is from the infant she was born as."
Though there was no sound the youth could hear, she turned her head in a different direction and listened.
"My sister calls me, and I must go," she said.
"Go then, Old One" the youth answered. "Go, and know that my heart is crushed and burnt and will never hold love for another."
She left, and after he watched her run until he could see her no longer, he stood until the stars had traveled half their path across the sky. Then, without a word, he returned home.
The story would have ended there, a small, sad note to add flavor to the original terms. For the stories told by the grandmothers, by those who hunt the unwhole and protect the people, are not stories the rest of humanity know. Surely, though, there are traditions among even them, and a girl or woman is not chosen to join them without good reason. Surely, there are things for each newly made grandmother to learn, just as babes must learn as they grow.
There are stories, surely, as to why no man was ever chosen. There are stories, surely, as to what the newest grandmothers thought and said and did when the ones they left behind grew old and perished. There are stories, surely, as to what the newest grandmothers felt when they took their first kill. There are stories, surely, to explain why when a girl or woman is called, it is done by a group of grandmothers, and when they are turned, it is by the whole group or by none at all. But again, these are not stories for us to know.
There is instead, the story told of the youth that loved a girl who became a grandmother. Though he grew to handsome manhood and was much coveted by the women of his village and the neighboring villages, he never did take a mate. He left his flock to the mate of his sister and turned towards hunting, instead. He was, to his people, cold and distant, though still counted among their number.
One day, the men of the village hunted an old lion. The lion had been forced out of its own tribe by a young rival, and lacking mates to hunt for it, it had turned to easy prey. A child had been stalked along the banks of the river, taken, killed, and partially eaten. His mother had collapsed in grief. His father and brother called the village men together and there was an agreement made to hunt and kill the lion responsible. The chief went to his younger brother and asked him to lead the men to the lion.
Only enough men to protect the village from a rival people remained. All the rest old enough to carry and throw a spear went with the chief's younger brother. With only a day of tracking, the old lion was found, but it was wary, crafty, and more dangerous than its age would seem to allow. The chief's brother stepped between it and one of the youngest hunters after it feinted to an escape and went the other way. He saved the boy's life, but in return was clawed across the stomach and sent reeling into the dirt.
When the lion was dead, its skin was used to carry the handsome man once loved by an Old One back to his home and to his people. The spirit-talker and herb-woman cared for him, but both said his life would be done before the sun rose on the next morning.
That night, as the man sweated and groaned in pain, the moon did not rise. The people of the village fell into a deep sleep, and there were none to hear the silent footfalls of one girl, long since dead.
She stepped into the hut and let the curtain fall behind her. There was no light, as the stone lamp had been allowed to die. The spirit-talker slept in a heap to one side of the man's pallet. The man, still awake in the midst of his pain and his coming death, looked up with dry, agonized eyes.
"I walk with death, oh, my heart," he whispered.
"And did I not tell you," she answered, "that I love you and will love you beyond death and when the earth is no longer as it was, I will still love you."
She carried him out of the hut as a woman carries a sick child and walked to a dark and hidden place she had chosen long ago for just this purpose. There, as tenderly as a young lover, she bent his head back and drank his blood, and as death closed around him like still, dark waters, she cut open a vein in her wrist and gave it to his mouth, and he suckled from her as any child might.
And so he died. And for love, the destruction of many people and all the Old Ones was wrought.
The village, once green and filled with laughing children, was a blasted, hellish place. Even in the cool dark of a spring night, the flames of pain and death flickered in the shadows unleavened by any moonlight. Figures of dark grace stepped into the circle at the middle of the village, where one toothless old woman stood by the fire that had once warmed dozens.
"This is your doing," the woman pointed at them with a bony finger. "The dead outnumber the living, and scavengers chew on the bones I have no strength to bury. How is this your promised protection, oh, grandmothers?"
The women surrounded her, but in her fury, the old woman did not care. "Three children did I bury before my hair was white. Three! And I was counted lucky, for five lived to mate and bear their own. Now, my children and their mates and their children are dead. My sister, her mate, her children, their mates, and their children are dead. This is no sickness come to claim the old and the weak. This is not the culling of the unwhole. There is no word for this slaughter, for this betrayal. I curse you for it."
One of the women stepped forward, her hands held out, palms to the darkened sky. When she stepped fully into the light, the old woman could see the tracks of tears down her face.
"Never in my time," said the woman, as clear-eyed and smooth-faced as a girl of fifteen, "nor in the time of my maker or her maker, has this happened. We have failed you, for we took into our number a girl who chose love and betrayal. She made the creature who began this, and it has made more of its kind, and now they outnumber us."
"And what shall you do?" the old woman asked, bitterly, "Oh, grandmother of our people, how shall you protect us from your misbegotten children? How will you restore the balance that let my people thrive?"
"Our Eldest comes, and with her, we shall summon our Maker. We will answer for our sister's betrayal."
In one of the nearby villages, it was not the old women who spoke in anger, but the men.
"Long have we turned to them for guidance," one man gestured. "Too long! What say should a withered old woman who brings no meat, no hides, and no glory to our people have? It is because of them that we die in the jaws of monsters our fathers could not have dreamt of."
"What strength do the old women have that can protect us?" asked another. "My father's brother tells me that in his village, the young men banded together and fought one of these creatures. They brought it to the ground and stabbed it with their spears many times. When one spear found its heart, it became the dust and ash of an old hearth. Two of them died in that fight. Can an old woman do such a thing?"
"Where are the ones sworn to protect us?" a third asked. "I have heard stories since I was a child at the breast of my mother. They take the unwhole from our people, and we flourish. Why do they not take these creatures? If ever there was a thing which walked upon the earth that was unwhole, it is these."
Other men, some old and some young, pled for forbearance. All answers did not come on the swiftest wings. The Old Ones had been called, as they had not been called in the memories of the oldest villagers, nor from the stories of the oldest people the villagers could recount. There would be an answer when the moon rose yet cast no light. Yet that, it would seem was not enough.
The women, ancient as the bedrock they stood upon, circled the fire and called to their Maker as none had called to her since their beginnings. The Eldest stood at the western most point of the circle, where the sun had set and where sharp eyes could see the dark moon rise. For the length a gazelle could run unwinded, women stood, surrounding the fire. There were more women there than lived in any ten villages. They had come from every hollow of the earth where humanity's children dwelt. Never before had all of them stood together in one place, and not a breath stirred among them.
Bound with thongs and words of power, another woman lay at her feet. She did not struggle, only lay, looking with empty eyes on the fire. The flames flared and soared into the air as they sang the old songs. They called Her by Her name, which had not been spoken in millennia. The flames twisted, brightened, and then pulled in on themselves, becoming a darkness so deep that its shadows seemed as light as the daytime sky. She had come.
"You called, my daughters," she spoke in a voice that was the sigh of wind and the call of a dying bird. "You called, and I have come."
"Mother," the Eldest, the first of the grandmothers called to protect her people, said, "forgive us, Mother, for in our foolishness, we have brought destruction on those we sought to protect. This one, a daughter of our own, took a man she loved when he was close to death. She turned him as we have turned our sisters, without her sisters' knowledge, without her sisters' consent, and without her sisters' aid, as you told me so long ago that we must have. Now it walks this earth with its progeny, and none of our grandchildren are safe from its hunger."
There was a long silence as their Maker, the first woman, studied them with sad eyes. "You were warned, my daughters."
"We were," the Eldest agreed, "and for so long, the warning was heeded. But this one felt that her love for a man was more important than our duty to our children and children's children."
"And you, my child?" Lilith asked the woman bound at the Eldest's feet. The Eldest picked her up as one might a very small child.
"Forgive me," the woman whispered in a voice destroyed by screaming. "I thought my love would walk with me until the very earth was changed from what it is. I thought his strength and his skill and his goodness would protect our people all the more. But it was not so. He died, and now, something stares out of his eyes and speaks with his voice, but it is not him. It is cruel and cares nothing for the people of our village. It killed them, all of them, in the course of one night. It laughed as my brothers' and sisters' blood ran down its arms."
Had one looked closely, they would have seen on her the marks of a long battle – scars of depth and width that would have killed a living woman in moments.
"It is," the Eldest spoke again, "in one body, all the evil, all the unwholesomeness, all the cruelty that I came to you all those moons ago and gave up my life to fight. It has spawned more like it, so many more that were we each to kill one, still they would drown us in their numbers. Are they not stopped, our children will cease to exist."
Their Maker, the first woman, once named by her Creator, and called Lilith, the mother of demons, stepped out of the fire. She stood before the Eldest and the one who had betrayed all for love. She put a hand to the woman's cheek.
"You know the price?" Lilith asked.
The woman nodded. "Forgive me, grandmother."
"You are forgiven," Lilith replied. Under her fingertips, the woman sighed as her skin turned grey, her body turned to dust, and she crumbled into what all Lilith's daughters and Eve's children were made of. The thongs that had bound her slipped from the Eldest's hands and fell to the dusty ground.
"My daughters," Lilith spoke, "what is your wish?"
"What must we do to protect our children?" the Eldest asked.
"You must die," Lilith answered.
In the village, the men's argument continued long past the rise of the dark moon. Finally, one of the women of the village – tall, strong, and apt to take her staff to the head of anyone she thought was being foolish – strode into the center and demanded the men be quiet.
"She has come," the woman said. "She has come, and she has said that she will speak to us."
Even in the stunned silence that followed, no one heard the footfalls of the Eldest. When she walked to the center of the village, where the fire burned high, she walked wreathed in shadow. Where the stories spoke of her as shining with youth and strength, she was pulled in on herself and coated with a thin layer of dust. Her eyes were bleak circles that no one could bear to meet.
"My sisters walk with death," she said, her voice raw, like two sticks rubbed together, "and soon I will follow them, for we failed you. But before death claims me, I am given one last task, to provide you with one who will hunt the hunters, one who will protect you as I and my sisters once did, one who will die in the fullness of time and pass the skills and strength I bequeath on to the next."
"Let me be the one!" one of the men called. He was young and strong and felt the grief of those who had died heavy on his shoulders.
"I shall be the one," said another man, one who felt he had much to prove and thought this would be the time to do so.
"No," a third called, "let it be me!"
More and more men spoke out while the women looked on, lost and fearful.
"QUIET!" the tall woman yelled at the top of her voice.
The Eldest, tired and scraped thin, gazed at them, and they cast their eyes down, unable to meet hers. "As my Maker left her mate to wander the earth, so I cannot give my strength to any man. Choose a girl, the strongest and bravest of all you know, for she will bear the grief of me and mine. Bring her to the cave where night stands tomorrow night before the dark moon has risen. There will I give her all that is mine to give."
The men argued long after the Eldest had left, long after the sun had risen, and almost until the sun had set.
"I will not send my daughter to that creature's arms," one of the elder men declared.
"Why should we send any of our daughters or granddaughters?" another asked. "To die fighting the creatures that hunt us? They would not last a night. None of them are hunters."
"How are we to bind our village with others if not by marrying our daughters to their sons? Shall we send our daughters to their deaths when we will profit more by marrying them to the men we choose?"
"Do we not choose one girl, we will all die before we can profit by any marriages," one of the wiser ones said.
That stymied them for a time, and they argued on. Whose daughter? Who would lose out on potential sons-in-law and grandsons by letting their daughter be taken to the cave where night stands? Why should they have to choose so? Had the Old Ones not failed them? Why should they sacrifice the wealth of their offspring because of someone else's failure?
Finally, one man stood forth. He was not well thought of, for his wife and daughters did not always answer to him. His herd was one of the smaller ones, for he would rather spend his days drinking fermented goat milk than tending to it. His sons were lazy, and none of the village women would countenance being married to any.
"You may have my second daughter," the man said. "For she brings me no joy, nor profit, though she is strong and brave."
The other men considered. It was true that his second daughter was strong and brave. As a child, no beating had deterred her from following the hunters, for she thought the tracking of some animal the best adventure possible. She had knocked down one of the biggest boys in the village for hitting a dog with a stick. When her father had gotten drunk, she had yelled at him and called him names so that the whole village could hear his shame. She was unmarriageable, and the women in the village despaired of teaching her to spin, weave, cook, or care for children. She, it was true, would be no great loss.
When they came for her, she fought them, for she sensed they bore her no good will. She was bound and gagged and carried to the cave where night stands, and they arrived just before the sun set. Inside, one man pounded stakes into the ground, and then tied each of the girl's wrists to a stake, so that she could stand, but not run away. Night fell, darkness came, and the moon rose without shedding any light.
"You will leave us," the Eldest said to the men who stood around the girl.
"We will not," the eldest man answered. "We will know what gifts you give and what power you work, for the girl is ours, even after you have finished with her."
"Leave us," the Eldest repeated and looked at each man in turn. "Now."
They left, and the girl and the Eldest stood together. The Eldest reached out and untied the gag and other bonds that held the girl. Rubbing her mouth, the girl looked at the Eldest.
"I know what you are," the girl said.
"Do you know what you shall become?" the Eldest asked.
"No," the girl shook her head.
"You, my daughter, will be the hunter of those who hunt your people. You will be stronger, faster, and more able than any man who now walks the earth. You will hunt the night and slay those that step in your path, and when you die, another will be called to take your place until there are either no more of the creature that hunts your people or there are no more of your people."
The girl thought about it. "What will become of you?" she asked.
"I will die, for there must always be a price paid, and my time on this earth is done." She looked at the girl. "I do not mind it, my daughter. I have lived so long, all my children, my children's children, and their children have lived and mated and birthed and died more times than you have drawn breath. I will be pleased to join them and my ancestors."
"What if I say no?" the girl asked.
"Then I die without giving my strength to any, and those who hunt your people will do so until none remain."
The girl looked at her feet. "Around the fire, the storytellers talk about this hunter or that, who went on a journey or slew a great beast or took fire from the beak of a bird that had flown to the sun. The stories they told of women, the women always stayed in the village. They might say or do clever things, but they never tried their strength against an enemy, they never protected their people."
The Eldest laughed, a laugh that creaked with age, a laugh that was surprisingly joyful. "Oh, my daughter, those are not the only stories told. Wait until you may enter the menstrual hut, and then you will hear new stories that will please your ears."
The girl smiled, shyly, for this was the first time she had told her thoughts on such matters and the first time another had taken her wishes seriously.
"Now, come, my daughter," the Eldest said. "For it is time and past time."
The men stood outside the cave, well outside the cave, waiting.
"She must be guided by us," one of them said, "for what girl knows how to throw a spear properly?"
"She must be bound to our counsel," said another, "for what girl knows how to choose which enemy to fight today and which enemy to fight the next?"
"She must live and die under our watch," said the third, "for how else will we know who the next chosen one is, to be guided and counseled?"
The talked until the sun rose and the moon set, and when it did, a figure emerged from the cave where night stands. She was still a girl. She still held herself with the awkward grace of a girl who hadn't met her full growth yet. She paused blinking in the bright light, but she didn't try to shield her eyes. Instead, she held her hands before her, looking at the thin coating of gritty dust that covered them.
"You!" one of the men called. "Come here, girl, that we may see you."
She looked up at him with an expression he could not fathom. After a moment, she walked over to the three men and looked each straight in the eye.
"You must remember, child," the second man said, gesturing with his spear, "that you are still a girl and still a member of the village, for all that you are a spear to be thrown from our hands at those who hunt us. We-"
Without warning, the girl jerked the spear from his hand in one motion.
"I am no spear," she said, and with another smooth motion, she broke the spear in two across her knee. "I am no unthinking weapon to be used by you, old man. I am a lioness, and I will hunt whatever I choose."
All three men began shouting at her, exclamations of shock and disgust, exhortations to be a proper girl child, and prayers to the Creator to punish such a proud and disobedient child.
"Why don't you sew yourself up in sheep skins, old man," she spoke over their voices, "for that is what your words sound like to me – the bleating of old rams. Then I could stake you out, as you did me, and draw my prey to me, the better to slay it."
That silenced them, and they stared at her with mouths open.
She looked at the ends of the broken spear in her hands. The Eldest had charged her with her duty and had explained in detail the many ways she could carry it out. These two jagged ends of clean wood would be a good start. Without another word or glance, she left the men behind to walk back to her village. The men were left to scramble after her without dignity.
On a night when the moon was dark, the eldest women of the village gathered in the menstrual hut. One tossed herbs on the fire, another dropped hot rocks into a carved bowl of water to heat it for tea, and a third beat slowly on a skin drum.
"Two cycles of the moon," the eldest said through her toothless gums, "and the Chosen One has slain more of these creatures than any group of hunters. I think we shall be safe again."
"For a time," the next agreed, "but how many people are there? My grandson walked for a year and came to the end of land at the edge of a great water, and the people there told him of even more people across the water, and people beyond them. Wherever there are people, these creatures will follow, and there is only the one Chosen One."
"There must be help for her," a third remarked.
"She sleeps on a bed of bones," said a fourth, "when she sleeps at all. She has no family, no friends. She rests, she trains by hunting all the creatures that move over the earth, and she slays these Old Ones, these demons."
"The men who watch her – useless watchers, pah! – they are no help," the first answered.
"We shall help her," said the second woman, sipping the tea before it had cooled. "We shall keep her stories and tell them. We shall follow her life and the lives of those who follow her. Our daughters will protect her daughters."
"And where we can help," said the fourth woman, "we shall help. For are we not the eldest of our people? Are our people not the eldest of all people? Do we not hold the knowledge of our ancestors? Is she not our daughter, our granddaughter in her own way?"
The other three women considered, sipping their tea. Each one, after a moment, nodded her head in agreement. And those women, their daughters, their granddaughters, and their great-granddaughters walked beside the Slayer for a time until they withdrew, husbanding their strength for at time when they and only they could help the Slayer. The Watchers, as they came to be known with some scorn, walked a different path.
As for Lilith, no living person had spoken to her since her daughters gave up their immortal lives to protect their own children. At least, that is the story I have heard.
In a cave where night stood though the sun burned brightly overhead, a group of women sat on stony ground around a fire that was no fire. The women ranged from girls not yet of an age to enter a menstrual hut to those well old enough to bear their own children. With them were four men, two young, and two old enough to have grown children. The cave was crowded, but opposite of the entrance, three of the women sat with space around them. One sat in a trance, her arms outstretched and beckoning, her hair white as moonlight. The other two sat on either side of her, clean-limbed, strong, worn from battle, and filled with hope. The other women all sat, facing the fire, watching with enraptured faces.
The fire that was no fire moved like still, dark water and cast shadows that seemed brighter than the daylight outside. At its heart was the figure of a woman. Her skin was shining ebony, her eyes clear and deepest mahogany, her hair black and tightly curled against her skull. Her teeth flashed when she smiled.
"And that, oh, my daughters," she said, "is a story that has not been told for time out of mind, but it is my story to tell you."
There was a long silence as they absorbed it.
"Remarkable," Giles murmured, cleaning his glasses on the hem of his shirt. "Nowhere in any of the texts I've ever read has there been any hint of this."
"Indeed, son of Adam," Lilith smiled at him. "For is that not the way of stories? One wins out over another and is told more, remembered more. That does not mean, son of Adam, that it is the only story, or the best one."
"But wait," Faith put her hand out, "what about the old ladies who promised to help us? Are they all gone? Was the lady Caleb killed the last one?"
"She, my daughter, was the last of her clan, but there are other clans and other women, waiting to be called upon."
Buffy, lost in thought, stared up at Lilith, and the woman – the first woman, who had walked in the garden of her Creator and over the face of the earth as humanity formed – bent over her.
"Oh, my daughter, you are not alone. You never were. Your sisters walk beside you in life and in death. Yours is a heavy burden, but you have the strength to bear it, and your people are the better for it."
With a thumb, Lilith smoothed a tear from Buffy's cheek and kissed her on the forehead.
"So…" Xander began, "what now?"
"There are still vampires," Robin answered from where he leaned against a stalagmite. He would not meet Lilith's gaze.
"There are those who hunt your people, oh, son of my daughter," she agreed. "And so long as there are, my daughters will walk the earth to protect the children of Eve. What happens next, what stories will be told of you, oh, my daughters, that is for you to decide."
From each person's point of view, Lilith spoke to them in words no other could hear.
"Daughter of Eve," she told Willow, "you walk in my shadow. Take care not to linger too long. It is good, too, to walk in the sun with your sisters."
"Cousin," she spoke to Dawn, "I greet you, though you remember me not. I call you daughter, for you are sister of my daughter."
"Son of Adam," she said, and Xander looked up, "I thank you. There is always a price to pay, and yours has been greater than most. May you walk in strength."
"Son of Adam, great is the debt my daughters owe to you," she said to Giles. "Had the first of the Watchers been as you are, surely my daughters would have thrived from the beginning."
He looked into her eyes, the only one present who could stand to meet them for any length of time.
"There is one who would speak to you through me," Lilith continued, and in the blink of an eye, her face and shape changed, and Giles' breath caught in his throat. Later, when asked, he could not recall the words she said, only the sudden scent of her, the timbre of her voice, and the bone deep knowledge of love and joy.
"Jenny," he whispered.
And then, with a sound that was more felt than heard, the fire inverted and became a roaring beacon, filling the cave with noise, heat, and light. Willow reeled back and was caught by Faith. She heaved a deep breath as her hair turned red again, though a few white strands stood out in the light that painted the cave.
A voice breathed through the cave, and all within heard it.
"Farewell, my children…my daughters. I will see you once more, in the fullness of time."