Disclaimer: Please see Part 1 Chapter 1...
SHADOWED SOULS Part 5Chapter 11
"Who's hurt? Is everyone okay?" Buffy checked.
"I'm cool!" reassured Rona as she stood up and picked up the sword, her Slayer power apparently restored once Sirk's whammy had been stopped.
Everyone clambered up cautiously. Roger Wyndham-Pryce heaved himself out from under the table, brushing down his rumpled suit fastidiously, and the other Watchers scrambled to their feet shakily, Wilson laboriously clambering up and holding his bruised head.
"Where did you send the monsters?" asked Dawn, looking around her nervously.
"I teleported them…into the heart of the sun." Willow's already fair skin was snow white and drawn from her tremendous mystical output.
Assured that the damage was limited to bumps, bruises, cuts and grazes, Buffy slowly turned to glare at Rutherford Sirk, her attitude amping up the menace exponentially. Nobody was foolish enough to get between the Slayer and her target at times like this
"We'll take it from here." Roger Wyndham-Pryce declared crisply.
Except the Watchers, of course.
In a motion worryingly reminiscent of Illyria, Buffy turned her head and regarded Roger as if he were a bizarre curiosity. Angel's heart sank into his boots; Wesley and Buffy had already been on the verge of killing each other once before, now Roger was about to precipitate another confrontation between Angel's best friend and the woman he still loved –
"I don't think so." Giles said firmly. "The spectacular balls-up you've made of stopping Sirk has proven how criminally inept you are. I realise you don't care, but your staggering incompetence in failing to apprehend this scumbag resulted in the death of an eighteen-year-old girl that we were rather fond of."
"Rutherford Sirk was a Watcher; it was the Watcher's Creed he disgraced!" Wilson retorted furiously. "The Watchers should deal with him!"
"And they will!" Buffy Summers stepped forward.
Wilson's face flushed beetroot. "You? How dare you set yourself up as some kind of better Watchers, look at you," his face twisted into a sneer that made him look identical to Sirk's usual supercilious expression, "a pair of traitors…and that boy deviant…"
Andrew cringed at the loathing in Wilson's tone but then the growl of an angry lion echoed around them. Spike moved in front of the trainee Watcher, his fangs erupting from his gums and his eyes glowing hot sulphuric yellow. Wilson involuntarily took a step back.
Andrew blinked rapidly at this unexpected display and reached out a hand, laying it on Spike's arm. "It's okay, it's okay," he smirked at Wilson whose flush deepened.
"That's enough!" Roger Wyndham-Pryce snapped, moving forward to glare at Buffy in a manner probably designed to intimidate but which had no discernible effect. "We are the Watchers Council and have been for millennia. Rutherford Sirk is far too dangerous an individual to hand over to a bunch of malcontents and little girls with delusions of grandeur!"
Charles Gunn glared at the man, "You know, bro', I liked you better after Wes' shot you to death."
About to launch into more speech, Roger stopped dead and stared him, flummoxed. "What?"
"An evil cyborg pretending to be you came to Wolfram & Hart," Harmony explained helpfully, "but we killed it."
"The facsimile of your form tried to steal away the Vampire With A Soul, Angel," Illyria suddenly loomed up to Roger, "and it threatened to kill both your male child and his beloved, the Fred-human whose body I inhabit, so my mate killed the one he thought to be his sire, to save them."
Roger gaped at her, clearly stunned.
"The death of a Slayer is never something we take lightly." One of the Watcher women stated nervously, moving forward to the centre of the group. "The protection of the Slayers is something that –"
"You abandoned centuries ago!"
Heads jerked up as a tall woman with a bad red-dye hair job leaned her arms on the balcony rails, looking down at them with smirking amusement. "Poor Wesley, quite a shock when I showed him the files."
"What files?" Shaking his head slightly as if to clear it, Roger Wyndham-Pryce threw his son a disturbed look but then moved forward determinedly, clearly intending to keep a grip on the situation.
Angel found he could feel a pang of faint sympathy – the man had just publicly discovered his own son had 'killed' him to protect the despised vampire, Angel.
"Who are you?" Roger's tone was probably intended to be a brisk demand, but Illyria, Gunn and Harmony had thrown him off his game and instead the pitch of his voice was more bewildered than bellicose.
She laughed, "I'm Justine, the Vampire Slayer."
Straightening up, the woman began to saunter down the steps, "And I probably know more about the Watchers than you do, Papa Pryce. I investigated the Watchers last year when I was tracking old Wes' there; I wheedled out all your little secrets and nasty little skeletons…before I cut your son's throat and left him to die."
Roger jerked his head to look at Wesley but the Englishman's features were impassive as he watched Justine.
Swinging her boot laconically as she sauntered down each step like she was the female lead in a Rogers & Hammerstein musical, Justine smirked at Roger, "But hey, he's not one to hold a grudge, my Watcher, are you, Wes'?" she asked rhetorically. "Point is, dad – can I call you that? Considering your son's my Watcher, I feel Mr Wyndham-Pryce is so stuffy, don't you?" she taunted. "Anyway, I found out that the Watchers have been very naughty little boys and girls. The Watchers betrayed the Slayers, tut-tut, such bad children…"
"What are you talking about?" rasped out Roger in a strained tone, just as Angel heard Spike mutter edgily under his breath, "Bollocks, the bloody woman makes Drusilla look rational," -an assessment the dark vampire had to agree with.
"The Cruciamentum, father." Wesley responded, his tone flat and empty and reluctant.
Justine clapped her hands together in front of her torso and swept the room with a mock-earnest look, like a kindergarten teacher telling a story to her nursery class. "You see, boys and girls, the Watchers were created for the Slayers. To help, to nurture, to teach, to guide and to guard…but…somewhere along the line, they got corrupted. After Angel and Wesley returned from walking the Ghost Roads last night and let on about naughty Mr Sirk here, Mr Giles over there even commented how amazing it was that the Watchers had suffered so few bad apples considering how many millennia you have existed and the temptations and opportunities for power inherent in what you do, but he was wrong. The Watchers were corrupted centuries ago."
Justine suddenly dropped her taunting faux-sweetness and her face and voice hardened, "The Watchers existed to serve the Slayer, not the other way around, but eventually being a Watcher became an end in itself. The power of the Watchers was what mattered, the Watchers became the focus, and the Slayer was seen not just as expendable but as a inconvenient irritant that the Watchers had to endure."
"Young lady, I don't –" began Roger.
Continuing as if he hadn't uttered a sound, Justine went on, "But the Watchers had one final obstacle to overcome – the bond between The Slayer and her Watcher. Human beings are a gregarious species; solitude destroys us. Humans are capable of forming deep emotional attachments to inanimate objects that can never love us back, like cars and teddy bears, never mind sapient beings we can communicate with. The Slayer fought alone and in secret. No family, no friends, no life, no contact – "
"Except for her Watcher." Buffy Summers said flatly, eyeing the other Slayer with a distinct lack of liking. "We get it. So?"
"So the bond was forged as if in fire: Profound, deep, inviolable...and highly inconvenient. A potentially useful Watcher was ineffective and even a liability because he or she was devoted to his or her Slayer above the interests of the by-now hopelessly corrupted power-obsessed Watchers' Council. So, a couple of hundred years ago, some bright spark came up with the Cruciamentum, a nasty little party piece specifically designed for one purpose – to shatter the bond between the Slayer and her Watcher."
"Nonsense!" Roger Wyndham-Pryce snorted, looking down his nose at her – no mean feat considering she out-heighted him a good foot. "The Cruciamentum is a necessary test of the Slayer's worthiness and that is all. If there were any proof of what you allege then –"
"For God's sake, open your eyes, father!" Wesley suddenly snarled, making everyone jump and even Illyria twitch nervously. "There's plenty of proof – or there was, before Caleb blew our HQ to hell. You know how the Board of Directors love reports, father, you should since you are one. Haven't you ever wondered why the Cruciamentum is the only Watcher ritual that doesn't have the statistics publicly disseminated?"
"How dare you address me in that manner, boy! That information is classified because it is sensitive –" Roger blustered
"That information is suppressed because it proves Watchers have been complicit in the effective murder of Slayers for nearly three centuries," Justine Cooper claimed, "and if I were you, I'd be a little more careful about how you talk to my Watcher, pop."
"What you are saying is ludicrous." Roger declared. "The files are available to be looked at by anyone who needs to, and if there were anything in them –"
"Oh but I think there is." Spike chimed up, his bleach-blond hair gleaming under the lobby's overhead tube-lights. "At least, your boy Wilson doesn't think this is ludicrous, not if the way his heart's jack-hammering and he's sweating like a pig in a heat wave is anything to go by. Since we seem to be having a little encounter session here, anything you want to share with the group, Wilson, mate? Don't be shy." Spike allowed his eyes to burn sulphur-yellow, and the partially retracted fangs erupted again.
Wilson's ruddy face lost its colour and he gulped convulsively as he became the cynosure of all eyes, most of the gazes very unfriendly. "I-I-I…"
"Wilson?" Roger looked at his colleague with growing suspicion.
"Go home, father." Wesley instructed harshly. "God forbid that you would ever trust my word on the matter, so go home and look at the files for yourself, they will confirm what Justine showed me a few days ago."
"Which is what, exactly?" Giles put in with clear exasperation. "While I abjure the Cruciamentum with every fibre of my being –"
"Twenty, Mr Giles, that's what, or part of it." Justine announced. "In order to shatter the bond between Slayer and Watcher for their own ends, the Watchers' Council voted by a majority of thirteen to eleven in favour, and thus introduced the Cruciamentum in the Year of Our Lord 1753, a date of great significance that I'm sure most of us here recognise, but for the few that may not, 1753 is the year that Darla Sired Angelus."
"Er, Miss Psycho-Slayer?" Xander raised a hand, "You kinda lost me back there…could you dial down the sociopathy and concentrate on making sense?"
Quirking an eyebrow at Xander, Justine shrugged. "Sure, the Cliff Notes version goes like this: before the Cruciamentum, the average age of a Slayer when Called was twenty years old and the average age of a Slayer at death was…forty-four."
"No way!" Dawn was unable to censor this exclamation.
"Way, Little Bit." Justine contradicted. "In the Cruciamentum, the Watcher basically drugs his or her Slayer insensible then traps them, unarmed, in a hermetically sealed building with a powerful, drug-crazed vampire. Even if the Slayer does survive, the bond of complete trust, that absolute faith she has that her Watcher is the one being in the universe she can count on, is irrevocably shattered forever."
Roger shook his head, "Twenty to forty-four? Those ages have to be anomalous –"
"No, father, they only became so after the Cruciamentum was introduced – I saw the reports." Wesley said flatly. "By the time the year 1800 rolled around the average age of a Slayer when called had fallen from twenty to fourteen -"
"- Which the Watchers liked because a frightened, bewildered child is much easier to dominate and manipulate than a savvy young woman – " Justine put in snippily.
" – and the average age of a Slayer at death was eighteen years old." Wesley continued as if Justine hadn't spoken, "Less than two thirds the average age a Slayer used to survive to. Before the Cruciamentum, a Slayer sometimes even outlived her Watcher who died of old age or illness. Assuming the Cruciamentum didn't kill the Slayer, the betrayal by the one person she trusted caused such psychological trauma that she rarely survived the week. Since 1753, over 98 percent of all Slayer deaths have occurred within five days of the Cruciamentum Ritual."
"The Slayer had no-one left she could believe in, so she just gave up." Justine told a visibly shocked Roger Wyndham-Pryce. "And if you want a recent example, just look at India Cohen, the Slayer before our Slayer Starlet there." She jabbed a thumb towards Buffy. "Cohen was killed at eighteen, fighting a Graathlar demon, three days after her Cruciamentum. She survived the ritual, barely, and her first words when she came out was that if her Watcher ever tried to venture anywhere near her again, she'd kill him on the spot, so she went after a Graathlar with insufficient weaponry and no back-up because the person she trusted to provide it had just betrayed her."
"You should remember India's Watcher, father," Wesley said coldly, "he was your favourite godson. I was at her funeral, remember…when they buried what little was left of her. I'm only surprised that Simon had sufficient integrity and honour left within himself to do the decent thing and blow his brains out a few days later."
Roger opened his mouth and closed it several times, but seemed unable to know what to say. Wesley, used to his father's almost supernatural ability to turn the tables and make even those in the right appear hopelessly wrong-footed, rather obviously savoured the moment.
"That is why we shall deal with Rutherford Sirk." Rupert Giles enunciated with icy rage dripping from every word. "You –"
Having been playing possum, Rutherford Sirk wildly wrenched himself free of Giles' grasp, somehow a short, rapier-type sword appearing from the folds of his garment as he sent Giles staggering back a couple of steps.
"Buffy!" screamed Dawn in fear.
The Slayers surged forward en masse instinctively to protect their queen, but Sirk wasn't there. With desperate cunning, he sprang away from Buffy Summers, giving himself a vital second as they tried to correct.
With a classic duellist's lunge, Rutherford Sirk thrust forward and stabbed the rapier a full eight inches into Faith's abdomen, simultaneously flinging out his other arm, and roaring two words that were lost in the din as vampires and demons alike roared.
Angel literally screamed in fury as he tried to spring – but couldn't. Spike thrashed his head from side to side, bestial roars of fury ripping from his throat. It was as if the air in the room had suddenly taken on the consistency of blackstrap molasses, coagulated and sticky. Angel wasn't frozen in place, but moving forward was like trying to wade through thick, gluey sludge.
"Injeka!" Rutherford Sirk cried out a further incantation desperately, his voice cracking, sweat pouring off him in such quantities it looked like he had just stepped out of a shower, but his voice rose in shrill triumph as he repeated, "Injeka! INJEKA!"
Every single hair on Angel's body stood upright as, like Donald Sutherland at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, every Slayer in the room screamed in eerie unison, a concert of anguish and agony.
His body soaked in sweat, Robin Wood's face was twisted beyond recognition as he fought to reach Faith, but suddenly she slumped, impaled on the rapier, as a black vapour poured out of the wound created by the weapon, pulsing up the blade like thick, black smoke, coiling and seething around the handle before seeping down to the floor. Slayers crumpled silently to the floor as black vapour began to twist up in ribbons from their bodies, like mist rising, sliding past Faith like venomous Black Cobras, surging into the sword.
"Cobra Watcher," moaned Wesley in anguish, his face similarly contorted with the effort to move.
Even Illyria was trapped; the demon's face was a study in fury as it twisted on spot, seeking to free itself from the invisible shackles that impeded its progress, but Angel looked again at Wesley as the Englishman agitatedly muttered to himself.
"No…no…he's connected the Slayers to each other somehow, mystically linked them up like they're all on a giant circuit board…"
"Wes', what's he doing?" Angel cried to snap Wesley out of his rambling fugue as a black ribbon of vapour began to twist up from Buffy's head where she had fallen, arcing towards Sirk.
"He's using the rapier as a conduit and Faith as a funnel. Drawing the Slayers' power through the sword, draining them."
"Without their Slayer power –" Angel gasped, but got no further.
"He's killing them!" cried Roger Wyndham-Pryce, his face red with rage and futile exertion, "When a new Slayer is Called, she is imbued with the power of her predecessor, and when she falls, that power infuses the new Slayer! Once that power descends upon a girl, it soaks into every atom of her body; every cell is saturated with it. You cannot remove that power from a Slayer without killing her - that is why a Slayer remains a Slayer until she dies! Sirk, stop, I tell you, STOP!"
Turning his head slightly, Sirk saw Roger Wyndham-Pryce and he uttered a word that sent two ribbons of vapour surging towards the elderly Watcher, vapour that transformed into venomous cobras as they moved, hissing and spreading out their hoods in warning.
"Father!" cried Wesley in fear – and twisted to one side so he was between his father and the poisonous reptiles with such ease that he nearly overshot.
"BACK OFF! BACK OFF!" Xander bellowed in a good imitation of the ogre immediately as he saw what happened. "We can move freely as long as we don't try to go towards Sirk!"
Those that could drew back – but the Slayers remained motionless.
"Buffy!" sobbed Dawn desperately, futilely tugging at her sister, trying to drag her backwards until Spike grabbed her and held her to him, his vastly superior strength rendering her struggles negligible until she stopped and instead clung to him weeping.
"A sharp weapon would be appreciated right now!" barked Wesley, staring at the snakes and making Roger move by the simple expedient of backing up into him and forcing him out of striking range. "Quickly!"
Angel threw Wesley a sabre, but even as Wesley snagged it, the two cobras suddenly coiled back in on themselves, twisting around each other and becoming vapour again before streaming up towards the ceiling. The black, oily vapour was now around Sirk's knees, and a tendril coiled up from the seething stew to link with the ex-snakes as at the same time, the black smoke surging up the rapier stopped advancing in mid-pulse, like someone had pressed pause on a VCR.
Sirk hissed with inchoate rage and shoved the blade deeper into Faith's body –
Or rather, tried to.
To be concluded in Shadowed Souls Part 6
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