the Still, Small Voice
Copyright September 2005
Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.
At first glance, Father Nolan reflected with something less than amusement, the three of them together might be seen as a joke cliché: An Englishman, an Irishman, and a Scotsman all go into a bar … Not that the South Carolina countryside at night really fit the setting, and the standard broke down further with a closer look at the characters. Quentin Travers was the perfect typecast old-school Briton; but Robert Maclay, whatever clan tartan his forefathers might have worn, was more typical of an itinerant preacher or Southern farmer; and Father Nolan himself, despite the name and Roman collar, was no more Irish than a bowl of Lucky Charms. Still, the basic clash of types held true. Perhaps with a slight shift of emphasis: A Catholic, an Anglican, and a Baptist go on a hunting trip together …
None of the three men was skilled at tracking, but such ability was unnecessary in this instance. A ghost-light danced ahead of them, blue-white and slightly smaller than a golf ball, generated by a rune-marked coin Travers had activated by a quick phrase in Old Norse, and leading them along the path of the thing they were trailing. Reliably, so far; occasional clawed footprints in the grass-thatched earth of the intermittent woodlands showed they were on the right track. The problem was not in following the creature, but in catching up to it before it could encounter — and doubtless harm — such other humans as the area must contain.
Father Patrick Nolan, since 1997 rector of St John of the Cross Catholic Church (Sunnydale), drew up to lean, panting, against a tree. He was fifty-six years old, and tried to maintain a decent level of basic fitness, but the life of a parish priest seldom allowed the spare time for consistent strenuous exercise. Fortunately, Quentin Travers had chosen that moment to stoop and inspect several dark splashes against the base of a stone outcropping. Beside him, Robert Maclay asked, "Blood?"
"Yes," Travers confirmed. He extracted a slim leather folder from an inside pocket of his coat, and from the folder he drew an inch-long strip of paper, which he dipped into the fluid on the rocks. The paper crumbled and dissolved in a brief shimmer of pinkish luminescence, and Travers announced, "Mammalian, but not human. A dog, probably, or perhaps a rabbit. And not yet coagulated, so we must be near."
Nolan could read Maclay's disapproval in the set of his shoulders, but the man said nothing. In point of fact, Nolan shared Maclay's distaste for the manner in which the Council of Watchers so casually used the accoutrements of magic, but he found Travers himself — the occasional urbane condescension aside — to be personally less irritating than Maclay's exacting, inflexible judgment. "We should keep going, then," he said. "We don't want to lose her."
"It," Maclay corrected him, lips set into a thin, bitter line. "In this state, we're dealing with an it. Don't forget that."
"Quite, quite," Travers interjected smoothly. "Let's be on, then."
As Maclay had explained it, the demon they were following was in a phase in which aimless torpor was punctuated by spasms of equally purposeless fury. In theory, it lacked the awareness or focus to effectively flee or evade them, so that even three no-longer-young men should be able to overtake it if sufficiently determined. By the same reasoning, the thing would be unlikely to circle back and attempt an ambush; Nolan hoped fervently that the theoretical framework on this latter conclusion was sound.
They took up the trail again, Maclay leading, as he had done through most of the pursuit so far. He was more familiar with this type of countryside, and the matter at hand was most directly his concern. Even so, this was default rather than command; they were a gathering of peers, working together but each maintaining careful sovereignty of his own loyalties. This made them something less than a smoothly functioning unit, but it could be hoped that their individual strengths would compensate for the deficiency in teamwork.
Ahead of them, the small light abruptly went out. Travers reached into his pocket for another of the runed coins, and intoned the words that released the stored enchantment; another dot of light, pale green this time, flared and darted away to indicate their direction. Maclay drew in a sharp breath and hurried to follow, and Nolan had to push to keep up. "What is it?" he asked.
"I'm not sure," Maclay said. "But I don't think this is good."
Three or four minutes later, Travers called them back to a patch of ground they had just passed. "I'm afraid you're right, Robert," he said portentously, and pointed to the disturbed earth. "The footprint has changed; weight is distributed more toward the back legs now, and the sixth toe has elongated to provide greater stability. Our creature has transitioned again."
"To what?" Nolan asked as they again took up pursuit of the twinkling glow that guided them.
He had directed the question to Maclay, as the presumed authority on these matters, but Maclay shook his head. "I don't know. We work to keep this from happening, and when we fail, we avoid talking about it. Quentin?"
Travers smiled, visibly pleased at the opportunity to once again demonstrate the superiority of his knowledge. "Until now, we've been following the form that, in a battle, would correspond to heavy armor: powerful, ponderous, and rather slow-witted. Now it's changed to the line infantry model, better suited to quick movement over distances, and with great endurance in both travel and combat. It will be considerably more difficult for us to overtake it now."
"It still doesn't have a direction, though," Maclay pointed out. "You're right, we couldn't hope to match it on a forced march, but as long as we push on and it keeps wandering, we can still catch up. The only problem …" He hesitated.
Nolan was beginning to understand. "You're afraid we may not reach her before she changes again?"
"That would be most unfortunate," Travers said. "Let's not dally, gentlemen."
"Explain it to me," Nolan insisted as they continued on. "I need to know, Travers. If we're not quick enough, we have to have a plan for dealing with it. Are there more than three forms for this creature?"
"Not to my knowledge," Travers told him, adjusting his gait to keep pace with Maclay's impatient strides. "None of the literature definitively indicates more than three. The problem is that the third form is designed for high-impact, close-in fighting, the equivalent of shock troops."
"Too much for us to handle?" Nolan wanted to know.
"No." This time it was Maclay. "We're equipped to deal with it in any form; at least, that's what Quentin assures me. But the last one is more aggressive than the others. More apt to go actively seeking prey. If we're lucky, us. If not, someone else." His voice was bleak. "We can't let that happen."
There was nothing to say to that which couldn't be better met by saving breath for fast hiking. Maclay was driven, that much was clear, and Travers seemed committed either by friendship or for some purpose yet unrevealed.
Honesty compelled Nolan to admit that his own reasons had originated as much in curiosity as from any other source. He and the senior Watcher had a long history, but no fellowship, and any professional respect was counterbalanced by personal disaffinity. No, he was here because Travers had requested it … which was, in itself, simply unheard of. Quentin Travers directed, pulled strings, or placed himself in a position where the desired service was offered him; he never asked. The novelty of it had extracted Nolan from a monastic retreat outside Charleston — his first real break in six years, and he hadn't bothered to inquire how Travers had known his whereabouts — and brought him here on less than two hours' notice.
It was not unreasonable to assume that Maclay's relationship with Travers was comparable to his own, but the reason for it was difficult to ascertain without more ready facts. Maclay seemed more … dependent on the Watcher, somehow (at least for now), than Nolan had ever felt, and seemed to strongly resent the unwanted reliance. That was understandable — Nolan could only imagine how much he himself would hate squirming under Travers' thumb — and yet he could also sense, underlying Travers' habitual amused cordiality, a flavor of almost apologetic respect toward Maclay. Another new note in the personality of the smug Englishman, with a world of intriguing possibilities behind it.
Ahead of them, the small light flicked a foot to the right, and then three to the left, and then winked away. Maclay let out a soft moan of dismay, and Travers quickly extracted another of the spell-charged coins from his pocket. "She's changed again, hasn't she?" Nolan said. "How many of those demon detectors did you bring?"
"I have five remaining," Travers said. Once again he activated the coin, and the renewed light (blue, again, though Nolan thought it was a deeper shade than before) sped ahead of them. "More than enough, but the frequency of the cycle is increasing." He frowned slightly. "This instability means unpredictability. She — my apologies, Robert, it — may have regressed to the slower form, but if she's gone into the quick-attack mode …"
"I know what it means," Nolan sighed. "I think the wind might be right, but are we close enough?"
"Yes, I believe so," Travers said. "The way the beacon shifted before — ah, see, the new one is doing it also — shows a larger relative change in orientation with lesser movement, meaning we must be quite near. Your, erm, contribution, might not be necessary, Patrick."
"No, we should do it now," Maclay said. "I heard a dog barking, not far from here. That might mean we — and it — are close to a farmhouse. If the wind changes, and it catches human scent …"
Nolan already had his penknife open and was pulling up his sleeve to bare his arm. Pausing only for a quick prayer — chastise my heart, O God, if my actions of this night are offensive to Thee; I desire only to serve Thee and minister to Thy flock — he drew the blade down his forearm in a long cut.
Maclay knew the intent of this, but not its meaning, Travers and Nolan had worked out the basic format in a quick verbal shorthand based on shared knowledge not available to the third man. As a demon, the quarry they sought had a few characteristics common to several such species; in particular, an appetite for, and avid response to, the blood of virgins. Not all priests qualified (even presuming unflagging faithfulness to their vows, there were always the years before seminary), but Father Nolan had been a particularly devout young man, and so the scent of his blood would be a more heady lure than most. You offered up Your precious blood for us, dear Jesus. I am not shamed to shed mine in service to Your call …
Though part of him hoped the devotion of continued prayer would enhance the effectiveness of innocent blood, Nolan's main purpose was to reassure himself that he was not straying from his own path. This was a small self-sacrifice for a specific, urgent purpose, not the kind of pagan rite that the ever-so-sanctimonious Watchers habitually engaged in without considering the meaning or cost. Only so long as he could continue to tell himself so, look into his heart, and still know it to be true, could he lend himself to this enterprise. He could hear Travers moving in a circle around him, and the accompanying liquid gurgle told him the man was drawing a protective barrier with a line of holy water. (Again, not sacrilege, but invoking God's power to consecrate ground as a shield against dark forces.) Maclay was silent, but the force of his stubborn, voiceless hope was almost palpable.
The sound, when it began, was at first too vague to classify, but as it drew nearer it resolved itself into a kind of coughing snarl, emitted in a series that no human throat could have produced; perhaps, Nolan mused with surreal detachment, the creature had separate sets of vocal chords, of the type that allowed a cat to meow and purr simultaneously … Maclay and Travers arrayed themselves in front of him, careful to remain within the barrier limned by holy water, and Maclay squared his thin shoulders as a growing blob in the darkness ahead of them became recognizeable as an approaching figure. It moved low to the ground and fast, with a motion that seemed to combine the liquid power of a leopard with a lizard's wriggling quickness. Yes, that would make sense, Nolan thought; for immediate assault, this form would be superbly capable.
"Abase yourself, spawn of the devil!" Maclay cried, voice cracking with tension and fury. "In the name of God, by the power of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, I command you to submit yourself to your bounden word!"
The snarl grew into a roar as the creature flung itself up onto its hind legs and clawed at the air, its face a nightmare jack-o-lantern of bone spurs and tearing teeth. It couldn't approach the circle of consecrated earth, however, and Maclay continued to exhort it in words and tones that crashed with raw Bible Belt thunder. Even apart from his doctrinal beliefs, Nolan had always been put off by the seeming primitiveness of fundamentalist language, but now he was awed: this, he thought, must be how Elijah had spoken on Mount Carmel, calling down God's fire to shame the altars of the unbelievers …
Meanwhile, Quentin Travers withdrew a small tube from the hip pack he had belted around his proper Watcher's suit. Moving without hurry while their quarry snarled and flailed just outside the barrier, he removed a plastic cap from each end; then, raising the tube to his lips, he blew a puff of sparkling powder full into the face of the creature ramping impotently bare inches away. It drew back in surprise, shook its head, sneezed three times, explosively, and then slid senseless to the ground before them.
Maclay's invective trailed off, and Travers stepped outside the protective circle to kneel beside their target. From the hip pack he took a small jar of greasy salve, which he rubbed into the creature's nostrils and around its lips; then, wiping his fingers with a towelette, he tore two strips from a roll of surgical tape and placed them over the closed eyelids of their captive. "You see?" he said to Nolan and Maclay, smiling with unruffled complacency. "Lured in, blocked out, bound into place, and overcome, just as I said. Even old war-horses still have a charge or two left in them."
"You were right that we could handle this ourselves, without having to call in … extreme measures. I'll admit that." Maclay moved forward to gaze down at the felled demon, and for a moment it seemed that he might reach out to touch it; then he looked away to Travers and Nolan, and said, "There's still the rest of it, though. The thing can't hurt anyone else now, that was the most important part, but the threat isn't over as long as it's still here."
Travers put a hand on the other man's shoulder. "If I only wanted the creature killed, Robert, I'd have been content to call in a strike team. No, we're with you for as long as you need us."
It was typical Travers presumption, Nolan thought, for the Watcher to promise services that he couldn't command. Maclay seemed to understand the unspoken situation, however, and looked to Nolan, waiting. "Yes, that's so," Nolan told him. "I'll help you however I can, and offer what prayers I can for your success."
Maclay glanced down at the insensate demon they had run to ground. "Prayer," he repeated. "Yes, that'll be most of it."