Faith looks up from the ruins of her sandcastles. Her mother, wearing a bathing suit she recognizes from old photographs, floats above the waves. The plastic bucket, once red, is now pink with age but, when Faith picks it up, she's a child again, holding onto it tightly. Momma had said she could build sandcastles but they kept falling down.
She can hear crowds of people, on the beach behind her, and she knows that the bad men, who aren't really men, are searching through the crowds to find her. She can't stay hidden in the sea of people forever but, for now, their murmurings, that sound more like the sea than the sea itself, work to hide her. There's no sound at all to her left and perhaps that's what makes her turn her head and look. A dog, taller than she'd been back then, bounds towards her; it's ears flap like the wings of a bat, up and down, with each leap and it's jowls pull up, showing pointed fangs.
As if spotting the dog had made her visible, Faith hears a shout from the crowd. Knowing her child legs will never outrun them but also that she's too small to fight, she dashes into the sea, dropping her bucket as the waves hit her. The water drags at her, slowing her down. The waves splash against her face. As she's coughing out salt water, another wave swells up and drags her under. Faith tries to break free, as the currents toss her about, but she can't find the surface. There is no air.
Something grabs her and pulls her out of the water. She gasps for air but then is dropped back down. As she sputters back up, her feet find the ground this time. Faith wipes muck, silkier than she'd expect seaweed to be, away so she can scan for trouble. Her mother still floats above the water but the beach is gone. It's a swamp now. Faith's eyes dart about, as she recognizes the area. She'd been here less than a day before. There should be blood in the water, she thinks just as the sweet scent of decay hits her. Something unseen brushes against her legs and she thinks about alligators but there's nobody else about and, whatever it was, it doesn't come back.
As she glances down at herself, Faith realizes why she can stand here. She's an adult again, back in the clothes she'd discarded after she'd lost the vamps: jeans almost black with blood and her shirt raked by claws that had left such deep gashes that only Slayer healing had saved her life.
She looks towards her mother who seems untouched by the murky water. "Don't you dare just lie there while I'm out here fighting for my life," Faith shouts. Determined to make a connection, even though she'd never been able to while her mother was alive, Faith dives into the water. Spitting out muck as she surfaces, she starts swimming with a strong overhand stroke that brings her to her mother's side more quickly than she expects it to.
Her mother isn't floating. She's in a boat. It's transparent, like Wonder Woman's airplane on that old tv show. Faith reaches a hand out to touch it, dripping muck onto the side, but the dirt slides right off, leaving it as crystal clean as it had been before Faith had touched it.
Faith stares at her mother, immaculate above the slimy water that she herself is stuck in, getting more and more pissed off until she feels a weight in her hand. As she raises the dagger out of the water, she doesn't notice that it's as untouched by the muck as the boat is; all she sees is a beauty of a blade: blindingly sharp curved lines that almost glow in the faint moonlight. Faith tilts the blade, rotating it from edge to edge, until she sees brown eyes reflected back at her. She looks down but her mother's eyes are closed.
"Wake up," Faith shouts. "Talk to me. Look at me."
When her mother doesn't move, Faith takes the blade in both hands, raises it high above her head, and stabs down into the body. She stabs again. And again and again only stopping when the night air is filled as a dog howls, once, off in the distance.
In the silence that follows, ripples shimmer across the lake, breaking up the moonlight. She's uncut, Faith thinks, feeling a sense of awe but then she sees the blood dripping off the side of the boat, creating long trailing spirals as it joins with the muddy water. Faith doesn't even notice when she loosens her grip on the dagger, allowing it to slide back into the swamp.
She reaches out to touch the bleeding boat. Only one index finger cautiously touches the blood but both her hands are covered in gore as a voice calls out, "You cut me, Faith." It isn't her mother's voice.
The dog howls again, closer this time, and lights appear along the shore, scanning back and forth, crossing each other, as if searching. Faith turns to flee but water weeds, too strong for her to break free of, grab at her, binding her in place. The shifting shadows on the shore look like monsters, reaching out to snatch her. "You cut me and now you're going to pay."
"Shit." Faith bolted up, almost hitting her head on a freight box. A longer thinner box had been placed over a shorter but wider one, creating the overhang that Faith had hidden herself under. The hideaway was darkened by shadows that, along with the rocking of the train and Faith's exhaustion, had allowed her to sleep. Good thing too, Faith thought as she stretched, working kinks out of her back. Better to get some R&R now, while there's still light out.
Faith peered around the freight boxes to confirm that she was alone. She checked more thoroughly than she might have if she hadn't woken up screaming, just in case she'd been heard and sent a baddie into hiding. After she was certain the compartment was empty, Faith questioned her decision to take the train. There'd been no time to get to the airport, not with vamps hot on her trail. The train had gotten her out of town that much faster than an airplane would have although getting back to Boston would certainly be slower. One plus that no plane ever had though, if it came down to that, she could always jump off a train.
Faith paced what little open space there was in the compartment. Mrs. B would have been proud, she thought. First time hopping a train and no harm, no foul. To distract herself from thoughts of the swamp, Faith thought back to the time her Watcher had taught her to ride the rails. It had been a bit heavy on theory over practice but, hey, she'd made it work.
"Select a train that appears to be headed in the right direction and wait until it's ready to depart. At that point, they'll be a flurry of activity near the engine before people start backing away and you'll only have a minute or two to get yourself hidden on the train."
Faith's Watcher, Mrs. Petra Hyde Burnand, had turned the living room of her townhouse into a library. It was twice as big as the living room of the house Faith had grown up in but still didn't have enough space for all of the Watcher's books. About a quarter of her collection was stored in a backup library, that had been a guest room, on the second floor of the townhouse.
"So," Faith had asked, "How do you know all this stuff anyway? I mean, there's nothing about it in the Slayer's Handbook."
"Sit up straight, Faith. A Slayer must always be prepared." Mrs. Burnand's lips pursed into a tight line, adding more wrinkles to her aged skin. At first Faith had thought of her as a grandmother, someone who might make up for all the shit her family had put her through. That hadn't lasted long.
"I was just wondering," Faith said as she sat up in the heavy wooden chair, shifting her hips side-to-side to check that the stake she'd tucked away was still secure.
"And don't squirm so," the Watcher shouted as she strode across the room. Faith was about to apologize when Mrs. Burnand, leaning over the windowsill, which left her bathed in sunlight, continued, "It was my younger brother, Reggie, who taught me. He used to hop trains, hobo style he called it. He took me with him three times before we were caught. I never went again."
"Then why," Faith started to ask.
Mrs. Burnand spun around so quickly it took a moment for her skirt to catch up. The pain flashed off her face to fast, as she shifted back into teaching mode, that Faith was able to convince herself she'd imagined it. "Because, if you aren't caught, it allows you to travel without being traced. No tickets means no records. In addition, people who don't see you can't report on your activities or whereabouts."
"Not bad," Faith replied, slouching back into her chair. "I'd like to meet this brother of yours someday."
Mrs. Burnand's lips tightened into a grim line. "I'm afraid that's quite impossible." As Faith started to protest, Mrs. Burnand raised a hand to silence her and then added, in a patently false chipper voice, "Enough lessons for today. Why don't you practice the fourth kata?"
"School's out? No prob here." Faith stopped in the doorway and looked back uncertainly.
"I'll be down to review your progress shortly."
Sunlight no longer fell through the chink in the freight car but it was still nowhere near dark. "Guess you're finding out where your brother went, huh?" she asked her Watcher, knowing the woman would never hear her again.
Feeling antsy, sitting there with nothing to do, Faith jumped onto the top of a freight box. Damn, hope I'm going the right way, she thought. If this takes too long, my dagger'll be gone. "OK, chill," she told herself. "Nobody knows what happened, not yet anyway, and so nobody's going after your blade." It didn't help. Faith didn't know why but she had to get to the dagger first.
Mrs. Burnand had been opening a package, happier than Faith had ever seen her. "What'cha got there?"
Looking as if she were raising up a holy relic, Mrs. Burnand held up a dagger, whose asymmetrical blade was curved into four waves, the largest of which ended in a wooden hilt. "It's called a r'cal."
For the first time since they'd met, Faith became still. The Watcher was too fascinated by the blade to notice it though. "That's a thing of beauty."
"It is indeed," Mrs. Burnand replied feeling quite satisfied with her newest acquisition. "Not only is it a remarkable blade but it's primary focus is as a magical, or I should properly say spiritual, weapon. My cousin sent it to me. It had been guarded by the Council for centuries, until it was lost in China during the Boxer Rebellion."
When Faith reached out to touch the blade, her Watcher dropped it down, into the box, which she then closed.
"That's some cousin you've got there." After only five weeks with her Watcher, Faith had picked up the benefits of an indirect approach.
"Aidan Taylor," Mrs. Burnand replied. "One of the most accomplished Watcher candidates of our generation: a foremost scholar of the occult, he knows more about demonology than any ten experts put together, and, what is that phrase you use, a kick-ass martial artist."
"Sort of like Buckaroo Banzai but with magic instead of physics, then. Does he sing too?" Faith asked.
Mrs. Burnand opened her mouth, as if about to ask a question, but then shook her head. "I've always thought of him as a Doc Savage type myself, although much more of a loner."
"So more like Batman?" Faith asked. She didn't recognize the reference but got the general idea of the character her Watcher was referring to.
"Batman? You mean that campy character played by Adam West? Don't be ridiculous."
"He's not," Faith started say but then she just shrugged.
"I had hoped Aidan would be willing to train you. With his skill, he'd have been a more effective instructor than I am."
"He's that good?" Faith asked, settling herself down onto the couch and putting her feet up on the coffee table, only to shift them back to the floor when Mrs. Burnand winced.
"Yes, but if this dagger is any indication, he's off gallivanting around the world again."
"Oh yeah? Like where?" That sounded interesting. Mrs. Burnand had kept her in Boston. Hell, she was this super powered chick, stuck in her hometown. Boring.
"He could be anywhere: working with a shaman from some indigenous tribe so far from civilization that only a few dozen Westerners have even heard of it; on walkabout in Australia; studying with a Buddhist monk in Bhutan; researching ancient scrolls in the Vatican."
A train whistle jolted Faith out of her reverie. That dagger is mine, she thought. I just have to get to Boston before anyone shows up looking for it.