Next update: Thursday December 13th.
Even hearing the spirit's voice was very different. Underwater her mouth had moved but the voice had sounded inside Spike's head, and he'd been unable to reply properly. She'd appeared to read his mind for his part of the conversation. Now she was speaking normally to all of them. He knew better than to try and make any sense of it.
"We were alerted to your plight by our, uh." Giles paused for a second and glanced over at him briefly. "Our friend, here."
Beside him, the Slayer snorted. He debated whether he should be offended or not.
"He told us that your existence is threatened by evil, but unfortunately he was not very clear on exactly what it is that is hurting the land here or what it is we can do. Could you please tell us how we can help?"
"You are not a warrior, you are a medicine man. There is nothing you can do."
"Oh, well, uh. Buffy?" Giles called over his shoulder and, reluctantly, the Slayer stepped forward.
"Hi," she said, all cheek as usual. "Just call me Buffy the Warrior Princess."
The spirit nodded in approval. "Yes. You are a true warrior, and unlike the pale one you are untainted."
Although she'd called him that before, it still made him frown. It's not like he could help being a vampire, nor did he see how it made him any less suitable to fix her little problem. Muscle was muscle.
"But you are not my daughter. You do not follow the way of the People," the spirit went on, and it was Buffy's turn to frown
"You resent not just this place, but nature itself. Even as I speak you long for the harsh, fake lights and the cold metals of your home. You do not belong here."
"Not about to disagree with you on that," Buffy replied. "And I know I'm supposed to be all doormat-y to you because you're like, a really big deal in the spirit world and all, but you know what? I'm not buying it."
He let out a snort of laughter, but quickly stifled it. The watcher looked about ready to fall apart, and Willow's mouth was an 'o' of shock.
"See, this is how I understand it," Buffy carried on without letting the Manitou get a word in. "You've got to be pretty desperate, right? I mean, you insinuated that Spike wasn't pure and all, but you still told him about your problem. I'm thinking that whatever it is that's destroying your pretty nature is scaring the hell out of you and you're willing to take any help you can get, am I right? So why don't we drop the whole keeping up appearances thing and get down to business."
Spike had a sudden urge to applaud her and, despite the wrongness of it, felt his respect for her grow. Of course he hadn't exactly been Mr. Polite with the Manitou himself when he first met her, but he hadn't called her out on the pretentious bullshit like the Slayer just had.
"Your lack of honor is a disgrace to you and your family," the spirit chided, but it was clear that there was no fire behind the statement. "You are right, I have no choice. The great evil is approaching, and I am running out of time."
The Watcher had held his breath and now released it noisily. Spike smirked.
"Tell me about this great evil." Buffy cocked her head to the side, waiting.
"It resides deep in the woods, in the cold darkness. It was bound for an eternity, but now the bonds are weakening. The first thing it did was to kill my people."
"I read about that." Eager as ever, Willow shared what she knew of the incident. "There was a massacre here back in the pioneer days, where an entire peaceful tribe of Native Americans were slaughtered by two rogue soldiers."
"They were corrupted," the spirit said, nodding her head and causing droplets of water to fly through the air. "Their wills were no longer their own, the great evil had them."
"Kinda like mind control?" Buffy chewed her lip, thoughtfully.
"Or possession." The Watcher adjusted his glasses, also appearing to be deep in thought.
"Corrupted," the spirit repeated. "Like it is corrupting the land and everything in it. There is so much suffering. Please, end it."
"We'll do our best," Buffy chirped. "It'd be really great if you could like, point us in the right direction or something, though? Or tell me how to kill it?"
The spirit reached out a hand to point past the cabin and into the woods. Straight toward the Dead Circle. He wasn't at all surprised.
"I do not know how it can be harmed. I only know that it is old and strong. It is still bound, but the chains are weakening and will break soon."
"And when that happens, are we talking apocalypse bad, or?"
"I do not know what that word means, but if the great evil is set free, it will end the world."
"Yep, that's what I thought," Buffy said. "I've come to learn it usually is. So, anything else you can tell us? So far you haven't exactly been a fountain of useful information."
"I only know what I know," the spirit replied tartly. "When the corruption reaches my waters, I will learn more, but by then it will be too late and you will fight me as well."
With that ominous warning, she imploded. Spike had once seen a photograph of the moment a needle pierced a water balloon and it reminded him of that, the way her body was intact one second and falling in on itself to become nothing but water the next.
Buffy selected a battleaxe from the bag of weapons she'd brought and pocketed a few small knives just in case. She still had Mr. Pointy tucked into her waistband, ensuring that Spike didn't get any wild ideas about turning on her while they were in the middle of nowhere.
Spike selected a sword for himself and when Buffy gave him a stern look, frowned at her and gave it an expert twirl which she responded to with an eye roll.
"What? I've been dealing with those things with nothing but my fists and my fangs and it's got me nowhere. It won't help much with killing them but at least it keeps them at arm's length."
"So weaponry not something you take with you? Check. Not very clever of you when you're supposed to be fighting things up here."
"I wasn't exactly planning on that when I arrived. Figured I'd be fishing for a ring and be on my way back to Dru. Besides. You can't carry all that stuff you brought with you alone, and you want me to back you up, yeah?"
"Still not so sure about that," Buffy said, double checking that she had everything before they headed out. "Just remember who you're supposed to be attacking."
Buffy said goodbye to Willow and Giles and let Spike lead the way out of camp and into the woods. Everything was back to being dark and creepy, so she flipped on the flashlight and once again resumed staring at the ground so she wouldn't trip herself up. The beam caught the bottom of Spike's coat and his booted feet as he marched ahead, not using his vamp face as Giles had allowed him another flashlight, more for Buffy's benefit than anything. At least with the light she'd be able to spot him if they got separated, and it would make their surroundings easier to see.
They stayed quiet as they trekked up the hill, neither one having much to say to the other that wouldn't end in a fight. Buffy preferred the silence. Or she would have if the lack of noise didn't amplify the eerie sounds of small animals moving around the woods. The birds were the worst. They took off flying when Buffy and Spike came too close to their nests, and it made her heart pound every time the branches shook and rustled violently above them.
She hated that the place had such an effect on her. She was the Slayer. She walked around dark and dangerous streets at night without a care in the world. She didn't fear the night—the things that roamed in it feared her. Out here, though, everything was so unfamiliar and unbearably quiet that she was constantly on edge, alert for the slightest noise or hint of movement.
She did what she could to distract herself, recalling her chat with the lake spirit. Giles hadn't been pleased with what he called her "brash attitude" but it had gotten the job done and he couldn't argue with that. Willow had babbled about how amazing the experience had been. Buffy had to admit it sure was something, seeing her rise out of the water like that, even if she was too formal and grand for Buffy's taste.
She had been pretty too. The water flowing up and down her had been mesmerizing, even more so than watching the waves at the beach. Who wore water as clothing? One thing was for sure—it left nothing to the imagination.
Buffy glanced up at Spike's black clad shoulders as he stalked forward with quick, easy strides, weaving around trees and sidestepping fallen branches or rocks with barely a second glance. No wonder he'd liked the Manithingy so much.
"Lake Lady was nice, and you said she wasn't keen on you which shows good judgment. Not that it bothers you to hear, seeing as you enjoy pissing people off."
Spike glanced at her over his shoulder briefly and raised an eyebrow but soon looked away and continued walking.
"Toss you in front of a scantily clad female and you're happy regardless of the situation, huh?"
That pulled him up short, and Buffy furrowed her brow when he slowly turned to face her, a shit-eating grin on his face.
"What?" she asked, uncertain about what she'd said to cause that reaction.
Spike's grin got even wider, if that were possible.
"Hell, Slayer, you can 'toss me' in front of your ninety year old grandmother and I can guarantee I'll still be very," he chuckled and gave her a once over before meeting her gaze again, "very happy."
"Ew! What? Ew! Spike, I'm not even sure what you're implying, but I know it's gross...and probably stake worthy."
Spike clicked his tongue and cocked his head, still smirking at her.
"British slang, Slayer. Toss means somethin' else in my language in certain circumstances. With your particular choice of words... you implied something really naughty. And appealing, actually."
Buffy absorbed that and ran the sentence through her head again. His meaning dawned on her at last, and Spike knew when it did, judging from the absolute glee on his face while her mouth opened in shock and disgust. Before she could even say a word, he'd spun and started to walk forward again. She followed without thinking, too focused on the new information he'd given her about a word she'd be afraid to use ever again.
"Spike! You know I never... why would you tell me that? No, wait, I know the answer to that. Because you're a pig, and you wanted to rub it in my face."
She heard him chuckle again. She scowled at his back, about to ask what was so funny now when she paused to replay what she'd said again. Oh God!
"No, not you wanted to rub it in my—I didn't mean it like that! You stop laughing right now! It's not funny!"
Trust a pervert to take even the most innocent of words or sentences and turn them into filth. Of course, Spike was even pervier than most. It did prove her point though. Neither of them could open their mouths without it escalating into some sort of fight.
All his fault, of course.
"We're halfway," he said suddenly, interrupting her before she could say anything more that he'd turn into lewd suggestions. "You'll notice when we reach the perimeter. It's been gaining ground and things start to get a bit—" he paused as though choosing the right word. "Well, dead."
"Hence the inventive name, right? Though to be fair, I don't know how much deader this place could get." She was glad for the change in topic.
She'd rather forget everything that just happened, including the mental images she'd unfortunately been getting because of it. Images of Spike doing things—things she really didn't want to think about him doing. Especially when she was involved in some of those—No! Stop thinking. Change of topic, change of topic, change of topic.
What was the change of topic again? The Dead Circle, right. And the woods. Focusing on the creepy woods would help.
"Oh, you'll see," he said.
He didn't elaborate any further, and Buffy chose not to question what he meant. After all, she'd see when they got there. She cast another wary look at their surroundings. The place was practically pitch black, and the trees were so tall it was hard to see the sky without craning her neck.
The quiet dragged on as they marched forward, until it became too much for Buffy to bear. Spike and his way with words be damned, she needed to say something to break the awkward silence.
"So—" she began, not sure how to finish her pitiful attempt at a sentence, her thoughts having run their course for the moment. She may have been the slightest bit wary of the meaning behind words in 'Spike language' too.
He was being short with her, indicating he had no desire to talk. She could feel her temper flaring, though he hadn't insulted her or poked fun. How did he do that so easily? Just a word, just a gesture—one seemingly normal, innocent thing that anyone could say or do had her blood pumping when it was him saying or doing it.
"There's no need to be a jerk, I was just trying to pass the time."
"By what? Having a cozy little chat? That's not our forté, pet, if you hadn't noticed. It's best we keep our mouths shut. Safer that way."
"Like I'd stake you for being you. You run your mouth plenty, and I've still refrained from staking you for it… more's the pity. And you better not even think of using my sword to—"
"So we can hear if anything tries to sneak up on us," Spike said slowly and deliberately, glancing at her over his shoulder. "We distract each other and some beastie could get the better of us."
"Oh," Buffy said, realizing he had a point. "Right. I knew that."
Spike shook his head and picked up the pace. Buffy stuck her tongue out at his back as she followed. Yes, it was childish, but he didn't need to get so superior on her. Jerk. She did however, refrain from talking for the rest of the hike. If they didn't have anything decent to say to each other then what was the point? What could you talk about with your mortal enemy?
So they walked on in strained silence until Spike finally began to slow down. Buffy wondered if she was supposed to be picking up on any signs that would let her know they'd reached the perimeter. He'd seemed sure she'd know the place when they got there, and she didn't want him berating her for not figuring it out.
She paid close attention to the woods but everything seemed the same; dark, eerie, and quiet. She watched as Spike's pace slowed even more until he stopped altogether. He was staring ahead intently and chewing on his bottom lip. Buffy studied him closely and noticed his fingers twitching at his side, his hand holding the sword tensing.
"Spike? You okay?"
He didn't seem to hear her at first, and she tugged on his sleeve. He still ignored her, so she tugged harder. He jumped and looked down at her, exhaling when recognition dawned and he swallowed.
"You okay?" she repeated, wondering what had gotten into him all of a sudden.
"Fine," he said, his voice sounding a little hoarse. "I'm fine. It's just up ahead. I can, eh, hear things."
"What kind of things?"
A wolf howled, making them both look up in surprise. Its voice carried into the night in a long mournful sound with that same unnatural waver Buffy remembered. The call faded, and there was a beat before it came again, just as loud and lasting just as long. They stood frozen like statues as they listened to the haunting music. A third howl echoed through the trees, filling the air around them and demanding their full attention. Eventually the noise faded.
Several beats later Buffy knew the creature was gone. Whatever it was had wandered off. The silence fell upon them again, seeming somehow more oppressive and she almost longed for the somewhat chilling yet captivating sound to return.
"It's gone," she murmured.
"Yeah," Spike said. "Bugger likes to make a racket and vanish. Doesn't usually come this close to the Circle though," he added, frowning.
"Well," Buffy said, "we best get going."
"Yeah, er—" Spike made to step forward and paused. Buffy looked up at him to see him quirk an eyebrow at her and glance at his sleeve. Only then did she realize she still had a hold of his coat, was in fact gripping it tightly in her fist. She let go as though her hand was on fire.
"Sorry. I got… distracted."
Spike nodded at her and Buffy hoped he couldn't see the blush she felt rising on her cheeks. Thankfully he moved forward and she could hide behind him as they continued onwards.
She got distracted?
Spike hadn't been exaggerating when he said she'd know the difference. Almost immediately, Buffy felt something in the atmosphere change. It was like stepping inside off a noisy street and letting a door close behind you. The background noises of animals and crickets, that hadn't really counted as noise in Buffy's opinion, when they'd been hiking through the woods was gone. In its place was… nothing.
There was no rustling in the undergrowth, no sound of an animal shuffling along the forest floor and, more disturbing, no sound of a breeze rustling through the trees. It was as if the air itself was dead. The branches, when Buffy glanced upwards, were still, as though frozen in time. Dark stains crawled up the bark; stains Buffy couldn't—and didn't want to—identify. The ground, too, was covered in odd looking stains and damp, dark patches.
Buffy took it all in, feeling bewildered. She bent to examine one of the stains, poking at it with her axe. It appeared to be just dirt, but weird dirt. She gagged when a nasty odor began to rise from the disturbed soil; an odor of decay and rotting vegetation. She turned to look at Spike who watched her expectantly.
"It's like this the whole way in?"
He nodded. "Worse. It's not just patches, it's all over the forest floor and the trees. And trust me when I say you don't want to get a whiff of what the tree sap in there smells like."
Buffy wrinkled her nose and stood up. "I'll keep that in mind."
"Right then. S'pose we should head on in," Spike said, his eyes darting around nervously. "Meet the neighbors."
"Right," Buffy said, watching him carefully. He seemed jumpier than usual. He'd been edgy ever since they got near this place. To be honest it was putting her on red alert to see him so worked up. She had no clue what was in store for them, but his reaction wasn't doing anything to build her confidence. "You uh, kinda need to lead the way."
"Yeah," Spike said and sucked in his cheeks. He seemed to gather himself for a moment before he shook off whatever had been getting to him and strode forward purposefully, head held high.
Buffy watched him go, bemused, then shook her head and followed.
On his previous excursions to the Dead Circle, Spike had mostly walked the edges. His first foray inside had been a brutal lesson in why ghostly spirits make for bad opponents, and the subsequent short trips didn't fare any better. Still, he had kept trying; it was obvious that whatever was wrong with the place had its root here.
Not wanting to be taken by surprise when the Slayer was present, he stopped every few minutes and strained to hear the telltale low humming the spirits emitted. Unfortunately this was made very difficult by the fact that Buffy needed to breathe.
The sound of her regular pulling of air in and out of her nose wasn't noisy at all; to a regular human it would barely even register, but to him it was crystal clear and distracting. He couldn't very well ask her to stop, so he kept his mouth shut and tried harder to listen for the humming. Maybe the bastards would think her easier prey than him and go for her first. A vamp could wish.
"Not long now," he told her, more to hear something other than the stifling silence than anything else. She murmured something in reply.
As they walked on, he shifted his fingers around the hilt of the sword, gripping it tighter. The hairs at the back of his neck had been erect ever since they crossed into the circle, and all his senses were buzzing at him, telling him to flee. It was deeply unsettling; nothing had ever made him feel this way before. Vampires weren't scared, period. It just didn't work that way.
They must be getting close to the center of it all, he figured. The absence of the spirits was gnawing at him. He wondered whether they were simply waiting for an opportune moment when he let his guard down or if perhaps they planned to not show at all and make him look like a grade A nutcase. That would be just the ticket, wouldn't it?
Then, suddenly, Buffy gave a startled yelp. He immediately spun around, sword raised. Of course the buggers had snuck up behind them while he was distracted.
In his previous encounters there'd never been this many. There had to be at least a dozen of them, fanning out into a half circle and probably aiming to enclose them completely. A couple of them appeared to be missing campers, but most were dressed in the tattered remains of typical Native American garb, with feathers or beads tied to the long black hair framing their hideous faces. The campers' clothes were less worn but showed signs of tearing, as if by large claws, and had dark stains of what must have once been blood.
He knew exactly how they had died. The injuries he'd walked away with that first night would have killed a normal human and, he was certain, made him one of them. Thank fuck for being dead already.
Each and every one of them wore a grimace of either pain or rage. It was hard to tell the difference. Their bodies were speckled a blueish grey color and seemed to emit a soft glow, helpfully making them stand out in the near pitch black night. Their eyes were all the same – empty, unseeing black sockets.
"Watch out," he called in warning before throwing himself at the two on the left, slashing at them with the sword despite knowing it'd slide right through them.
Buffy's Slayer instincts kicked in as soon as her surprise wore off, and she began to dance beside him, swinging her axe with the grace of a ballet dancer. It took her only a few seconds to groan in frustration. "It's useless, it does nothing to them."
"Told you," he replied, and being able to say it gave him a small bit of satisfaction. "Can't hurt them."
"Then what are we supposed to do?" she called back, mid-swing through one of the spirits heads.
"They'll shift, and we'll run."
"What do you mean shift?" she asked, letting fly a few throwing knives and swinging the axe again with a grunt of effort.
He didn't bother to explain; it was already happening. The female in front of him shimmered and seemed to flicker in and out of existence for a few seconds, like a bad TV signal. Moments later, her body changed shape and turned into that of a black bear. Behind her, another spirit changed into a large, sleek cat with teeth rivaling his own.
"Werewolves?" Buffy cried out, then after a beat: "Were-bears? What the hell?"
"This is the running part," he said and grabbed for her hand, pulling her along and aiming for the only one that hadn't shifted yet. They ran straight through him. Spirit insides were like icy winds going through him to the very bone; he'd never felt so cold.
"Gah!" Buffy cried out. The sensation didn't sit well with her either, it seemed.
They dashed madly through the dead trees, hands still linked. He didn't know her excuse, but his was the comfort of her warm skin. She was so achingly alive in this place full of death and darkness. He didn't want to let go, irrationally scared that he'd lose her and never find his way back.
How long they ran for he had no idea. From experience he knew that the spirits were hard to lose; they ran with supernatural speed, able to keep up with him fairly easily. The problem was that they weren't running towards safety, but closer and closer to the middle of the Dead Circle.
He didn't have much time to worry about that, though. The trees became sparse, then there weren't any at all. On either side of them the earth suddenly gave way to hard rock and he'd barely registered the trap before they were in it. A cliff edge was coming up. With a steep drop.
Both of them skidded to a halt. The Slayer looked over her shoulder but he knew there was no time to lose. He grabbed her around the middle as she released her remaining knives at the spirit animals chasing them and jumped. She screamed.
Like the opposite of a cat, he twisted them so that he'd hit the ground first, on his back. As long as he wasn't the unluckiest sod in the universe and landed just so on a tree stump, he'd live. And with his body softening her landing, she'd probably live, too.
It wasn't a straight drop. Some two-thirds of the way down he struck a rocky outcropping and spun helplessly, forcing her to take the next impact against her shoulder. He clung to her fiercely and felt her cling back just as desperately, her hands clawing at his duster and at his hair for anything to hold on to as they alternately fell and rolled the rest of the way down before finally, mercifully, coming to a stop.
His body screamed in pain as he struggled to assess their situation. She'd ended up underneath him, which was everything he could have hoped for. She was still breathing but unconscious, another bonus.
He lifted up on his arms (noting with a grimace of pain that the right one was broken in at least two places) and tore her dark grey jacket off her limp body. With some effort, he spread it out above them and used it to cover both their heads.
Provided the spirits hadn't seen them yet, they should be safe. In the night and against the black of the foul smelling ground, her jacket and his duster would keep them hidden from even the keenest of eyes.
Knowing he'd done all he could, Spike gave in to the demands of his body and passed out.
Warmth. It was the first thing he noticed when he came to, hours later. He was lying on something soft and warm, and everything was dark. He raised his head a little, feeling some sort of cloth brush his cheek before pain in his back made him lower it again so it came to rest back on the soft, warm body beneath him.
He was on the verge of passing out again when the person under him began to moan and squirm. Small hands wormed their way up to his chest and pressed against him. Becoming more alert now, Spike gritted his teeth and raised his head again. The jacket fell to the side and he could see marginally better.
Spike blinked as he locked eyes with the Slayer who winced and sucked in a deep breath.
"Spike. Heavy. Can't breathe," she stammered.
Recent events slowly came back to him, and he remembered their tumble off the cliff and their unusual, somewhat compromising position… which he was becoming increasingly aware of with every little shimmy she made.
"Spike?" He brought his gaze back from her steadily rising and falling chest to her face at the panicked sound of her voice. Her eyes were darting around, and her breathing had quickened. It was obvious she was struggling to understand where they were and how they'd arrived there. "Spike, what—?"
"We fell. Not a pleasant trip—we both passed out. I had to cover us with your jacket so we wouldn't be seen. We were completely vulnerable."
"Oh." Her voice sounded small, softer than he was used to. "We're okay, right?"
"Depends on your definition of okay," he said wryly, raising himself up on his arms, forgetting what a bad idea that would be. "Fuck."
He collapsed down on her at the shock of pain, making her gasp and wince. He raised his head again and gave her an apologetic look.
"Sorry, luv. Forgot my sodding arm is broken. Didn't mean to squash you."
Buffy nodded and swallowed. "Do you, um, think you could get off now?" Her eyes widened. "Get off me! I mean, get up off of me so I can breathe and, um, see how bad the damage is."
She swallowed hard, and Spike noticed the quickening of her heartbeat. He tilted his head and gave her a leer, ignoring the strain he was putting on his arm and back in favor of adding to her embarrassment—after all, it was one of the few pleasures he had left, what with the truce and all. He wasn't entirely sure she could see it in the dark but the sharp tone in her voice when she said "Spike!" let him know she'd gotten the gist just fine.
"Sure, pet. Hang on a tick," he said, smirking in spite of his injuries. Sometimes it was just so easy to get her riled up. He liked her harsher tone, too, he realized. The soft spoken Buffy was one that made him nervous. It was unlike the Slayer he was used to.
He picked himself up and leaned back, putting more weight on his left arm than the right, and felt Buffy stiffen under him as he moved. He shifted to the side intending to roll off her when his crotch came in contact with hers, their respective bodies unintentionally fitting into place. He froze. His eyes widened and so did hers, and they stared at each other in shock.