Spike spent his nights roaming the city in wildly diverse pursuits. The early part of the night he searched for the perfect gifts for his family. He even paid for them, a minor hardship considering the amount of money still sitting in the drug dealer’s accounts. As the evening wore on he often wasted a few hours in one of the clubs, depending on who was playing. He usually ended the night over on the East Side, looking for some bad guy to drain. He sometimes snacked off of several people without draining them, but nothing beat the feeling of swallowing the life of his victim to the last drop. He had blood back at the apartment for emergencies, but he rarely needed it. There were more than enough people up to no good in this city to keep him satisfied. The police should really thank him.
He trawled back alleys hoping to find something nefarious going on, when he heard a cry for help. More like a half strangled scream really, but it was the equivalent of ringing the dinner bell either way.
The sight that met his eyes when he turned the corner made him salivate. Two beefy guys were manhandling a woman between them. From the looks of things, she’d already been pretty thoroughly roughed up, her shoes and stockings missing, her blouse hung open and torn, her skirt ripped, exposing her to the waist. The taller, thinner guy held her down while the shorter, beefier one slid between her wildly flailing legs, a hungry leer decorating his face. Spike allowed his vampiric features to come to the fore, dinner was served.
The one holding the woman had his back to Spike, the other was too intent on the woman and getting his pants open to notice him. Spike judged he’d have a good thirty seconds or so with the first guy before the second could untangle himself from his trousers to take action. Depending on how involved Spike let him get, he might not notice for whole minutes. Spike imagined the thick, pheromone rich blood pulsing through the second man’s veins with keen anticipation.
The woman struggled, occupying both men entirely. The second guy barely managed to get his pants open while fumbling with the woman’s legs. Judging this was the opportune moment, Spike stepped up behind the guy holding the woman’s arms, dragged his head to the side, and ripped his throat open. He took a few quick gulps from the gushing wound before letting go, this was the quick grab, the second man promised a real meal.
The body of his first kill fell next to the woman, spraying her and his buddy with blood. The second guy looked up as the first fell, horror dawning in his eyes. As predicted, he failed to scramble up very well with his trousers around his thighs. Spike easily grabbed him and pulled him against his chest. This time he plunged his fangs in and drank slowly, the man’s whimpers and struggles making a nice counterpoint to the luscious blood sliding down his throat.
Spike savored the flavor and novelty of a leisurely kill. He didn’t get to do this much anymore and he’d missed it. The only problem was that persistent, high pitched screech in the background. It put him right off. He’d rescued the damn woman, the least she could do was let him finish his meal in peace. At times enhanced hearing wasn’t a benefit. Her high pitched shrieking grated across his nerves and he kicked out toward the sound.
There was a whoosh of air leaving lungs, a wet smack and then lovely, blissful silence. Spike hummed with contentment as he finished up his meal. The lust and adrenaline gave it just the right spice.
“Good to the last drop,” he thought as he let the body drop by his mate. The woman lay crumpled against the wall of the alley, a bloody smear decorated where her head impacted. The three of them presented a tableau of carnage that should have the local cops scratching their heads for awhile. The thought made Spike smile as he headed home.
Belly full and happy, Spike reviewed what he still had to do to prepare for the gang’s arrival. He had acquired gifts for Dawn and Rupert. Finding something to please Dawn primarily involved locating a trinket that appealed to the magpie in the girl, all sparkly and pretty. He’d located a charm bracelet with enough sparkly baubles it ought to blind her when she unwrapped it. He anticipated her squeal of delight when she tore off the wrapping paper. Rupert’s gift made him grin with pleasure. Splurging on the man gave him an odd thrill, especially when he pictured Rupert’s discomfort as receiving such a gift from him. He expected the 30 year old, single malt Macallan to induce Rupert to rub a hole in his glasses. He intended to get his fair share of the fine whisky, to tweak Rupert as much as anything else, but leave the lion’s share for the Watcher to enjoy.
The witches proved a bit more difficult, Tara particularly, but he’d managed a minor coup for her. He’d discovered a local coven that, once they heard his request, sold him a protection stone that dated back to the 17th century. It repelled all manner of nasties and Spike had to get the witches to wrap it for him as he couldn’t touch it. He got the impression he had amused them, but it was worth it for the satisfaction of watching Tara’s face when she realized what he’d procured. It wouldn’t make the house completely safe but it the average evil that overran the Hellmouth should steer clear. For Red he’d purchased black silk lingerie, lacy and sheer enough to cause a nice blush, but elegant and fine enough she’d be certain to wear it.
Xander was more of a puzzle. He could come up with plenty of things Xander would love, but he wanted this gift to be spectacular, something unforgettable and that required more than a vintage comic or Star Trek collectible, no matter how pricey.
He rode the subway back to his apartment and it brought back fond memories. He felt like the master of his domain, happily sitting at the top of the food chain, where he belonged. He people watched the car’s other occupants like a lion observing antelope at the water hole. The late night forays needed to stop once the family hit town, but another week of hunting beckoned until then and he planned to make the most of it. A few of his fellow passengers cast wary glances his way and he gave them a shark’s grin. They edged away, which only made him grin wider.
Back at the apartment, he dropped his duster over the armchair and flung himself at the couch. Remote in hand, he skimmed the channels for something interesting to watch until the early news came on. At that hour the pickings were slim. Infomercials and Nick at Nite didn’t appeal so he perused the porn channels that had come with the apartment. He liked to watch the news before heading to bed to see if he showed up. He’d been eating bad guys for a couple weeks now, he expected someone to notice eventually. He hoped for a cool dark avenger type name. He could hold that over Angel for decades. But so far the string of murderers, rapists and drug dealers left with ripped out throats elicited no comment from the media. Spike considered leaving the bodies in some naughty poses to see if he could spark interest.
Spike had trouble keeping his eyes open by the time the news began. He left the newscaster prattling the headlines while he began shutting down the apartment for the day. The crawler flashing “breaking news” at him arrested his attention. A smile crossed his face as he recognized the story. Two men with their throats ripped out who seemed to have been in the middle of raping a woman.
“The woman’s identity has not yet been released, pending informing her next of kin, but it is believed she was a tourist. She was found dead at the scene from a severe blow to the head,” declared the bleach blonde announcer. “Which begs the question, was the victim killed by the two men found dead with her, or did she fall prey to yet another monster stalking the streets?”
It was the type of overemotional hyperbole that the newscasters adored, but it froze Spike where he stood.
He’d killed the victim.
He’d broken his promise and spilled innocent blood.
His first thoughts revolved around cover up. No one knew he was involved in this business. If they found fingerprints at the site Spike wished them luck finding his on file. No purpose would be served by confessing to this slip. One aberration did not invalidate what he had told Xander. He just needed to pay better attention, make sure it didn’t happen again.
Firm in this resolve he went to bed.
The next afternoon he checked his email. From what he could glean Faith was fitting in a bit shakily but well enough. The group seemed a bit leery of her but ready to try. Spike learned that Faith was responsible for Dawn’s shoplifting skills. Liking this girl might not be all that hard.
He absently turned on the news as he prepared to go out. The lead story concerned the dust up from the previous night. They broadcast the identity of the victim, Pamela Brooks of West Virginia, mother of three, member of the choir at her church, blah, blah, blah. They planned to interview the grieving family on the morning show, as if that was going to be enlightening. Spike shut the television off and slumped onto the couch. Going out sounded like a bad idea for the moment. Why the hell had the stupid bint kept screaming? The woman he’d rescued last week had kept out of his way, then practically kissed him when he finished. Now that was a proper response, proper gratitude.
The whole thing had him in a funk. It wasn’t like he’d meant to kill her.
After awhile that thought refused to go away. He hadn’t meant to kill her, not really. She was an annoying noise he wanted to stop so he’d stopped it. There had been no intentionality about it, barely any conscious thought at all. And the thought that kept bouncing around in his head was why.
Despite what certain people thought, he wasn’t stupid, impulsive perhaps, but not stupid. He knew the stakes, had every intention of keeping to the straight and narrow, yet he’d killed some suburban housefrau for screaming. If he couldn’t figure out why, he might just do it again. He might never go home.
The idea of talking to Xander curdled his stomach, he’d be quietly despondent, tell Spike he understood and just accept that what they had was over. Willow would wibble at him and try some kind of useless psychobabble. He hoped to live without Dawn’s response, good or bad an explosion was inevitable. The only person with the knowledge and desire to help him surprised him.
Before he could talk himself out of it he rang up Rupert.
“Spike, what’s the matter?” That caller id function worked well obviously.
“What makes you think something’s wrong, Rupert?” Spike asked just because he felt prickly.
”You’re not one to make social calls, Spike,” Rupert responded, equally prickly, and regrettably accurate.
“I need information.” Spike tried for a conciliatory tone. He needed Rupert’s goodwill here. “I’ve killed someone I didn’t mean to. I’m trying to figure out how I make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
A heavy sigh, followed by a clinking sounded on the other end of the line served as an answer. Spike easily pictured Rupert settling in with a good stiff drink. “Perhaps you should tell me the whole story.”
Spike got through the whole story without an interruption from Rupert, which astonished him. Something had shifted in the last months of Spike’s time in Sunnydale. He and Rupert were far from bosom chums but they understood each other in a way that the others did not. Rupert wasn’t a stranger to darkness, and so never forgot Spike’s demon nature, he suspected the others did from time to time. Still, in those last months Spike sensed a reluctant warmth from the other man, as if he finally accepted that Spike loved those he’d sworn to protect. It made this admission of his failure harder. “She just wouldn’t stop screaming, Rupert. I didn’t mean to kill her, didn’t give her a thought at all really, and I’m blowed if I can figure out why I did it or how I can make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Another deep sigh greeted this pronouncement. “The answer is really quite simple, Spike. You don’t have a soul.”
“That shite again. I know the difference between right and wrong or I wouldn’t be calling you now asking why I screwed up,” Spike growled.
“You know the difference intellectually, but you have no moral compass, nothing giving you pause in the midst of the act. It’s actually not your fault, that ability, that moral sense was taken away from you when you became a vampire. You have no inherent empathy, it’s actually quite remarkable you lasted this long without something like this happening.” Rupert dropped into lecture mode. But this wasn’t some fascinating phenomenon, this was his life.
“So, you’re saying, no matter how hard I try, I’ll never be able to not kill?” For the first time Spike truly wondered if Xander might have been right all along. He doubted Xander would be smug about it this time. Spike felt his heart twisting in his chest, if that was the case he’d lost his family yet again because he go away forever rather than put them in danger.
“People you have become attached to will be safe, for a time you may even be able to refrain from killing anyone, but it’s something you have to concentrate on. If your concentration slips, you will kill again.” Spike felt like a particularly interesting bug on Rupert’s dissection table. He wanted to deny the information, claim he didn’t know what he was talking about. Problem was, he’d rung Rupert up specifically because he did know what he was talking about, and the words rang uncomfortably true.
When Spike was silent after this pronouncement, Rupert continued in a surprisingly warmer and friendlier voice. “Had you stayed, Xander’s influence might have helped you stay your hand longer, possibly even years, but it would have come to this eventually. You’ve shown an exceptional ability to choose the moral path, even to the point of self sacrifice when you withstood Glory’s torture, but those were conscious choices, acts of will. Not an innate part of you. No matter how much you might want to, it’s impossible to maintain that level of control constantly. Our soul is what gives us pause during wrongful acts, gives us that moment where we decide to do right or wrong. You don’t have that.” Rupert actually sounded sorry, which broke something apart inside Spike.
“That does it! I decide whether I’m going to be bad or good not some demonic instinct. If something’s been taken from me, I’m bloody well getting it back. I’m Andersen’s blasted mermaid.” He hung up before Rupert could express approval or try to talk him out of it.
He grabbed his duster and swung it on as he headed out the door. He needed information and the local demon bar seemed a good place to get it. He had a legend to find.
Spike had always loved learning demon lore. It was a holdover from his human days and love of the Greek legends and epic poetry. That love had led him to both glory and tragedy. Learning about the slayer had led to prestige and some of the most brilliant fights of his existence, it had also led to some of his most humiliating and heartbreaking moments. Same with the gem of Amara. There were any number of fantastical tales floating around the demon community, some utter tripe and some that only sounded like utter tripe. Telling the difference was a tricky proposition.
Fortunately for him, he had a highly trained watcher to help him separate the wheat from the chaff. By the end of the night, he secured a couple of leads worth pursuing.
He stumbled home shortly before the sun peeked over the horizon, deciding to nap for a few hours before calling Rupert back up.
Rupert’s caller id continued to work well. “Spike! What have you done?”
“Nothing as of yet,” Spike assured the distraught watcher. “I need you to verify some information for me. Wish demon in Uganda, supposed to be able to grant you any mystical boon if you can complete the trials.”
“You realize such trials are nearly impossible to survive. What am I saying, you’ll go just to prove you’re up to the challenge.” The amount of exasperation bleeding through the phone line was truly impressive. It also confused him.
“Why the worry, Rupert?” Spike asked, honestly curious. “Wasn’t so long ago you would have gladly put a stake through my heart.”
“Spike, I’m not sure there was a time that killing you would have given me pleasure. You’ve driven me nearly insane, threatened those I cared about and made a right arse of yourself, but somehow, you’ve always come through when we needed you. Your absence these past weeks has brought home to me just what an integral part of our little dysfunctional family you are.” Spike would have sworn such words should have choked Rupert but he seemed to say it with ease.
“What about my corrupting Xander?” What made Spike push he couldn’t say, perhaps pushing boundaries bordered on compulsion for him.
“Anya accomplished that long before you,” Rupert chuckled. “I thought you would break his heart, and I was right. Now that’s been accomplished I’d like to salvage what we can. That involves you not being dust.”
“I can’t come home like this, Rupert,” Spike told him decisively, “and I won’t submit to being chained again, magically or otherwise.”
“But even if you succeed, a soul will rip you to shreds,” Rupert protested.
Spike shook his head even though Rupert couldn’t see him. He strained to shove all his certainty into his voice. “No, it’s going to make me whole.”
In the end, Rupert helped him verify his bar crawl information. They pinpointed the location and discussed the likely form of the trials. Spike balked at the realization that he had to call Xander. The appeal of hearing Xander’s voice battled with the knowledge of just how disappointed and resigned Xander would sound. Spike wasn’t looking forward to the conversation, but leaving without talking to Xander smacked of cowardice. Besides, he’d promised he wouldn’t just disappear again. One promise broken was more than enough..
“Spike! Are you all right?” Spike began to wonder if the appearance of his number on the caller id always caused such panic.
“I’m fine, Xander. I take it you’ve spoken to Rupert.” While Spike needed to speak to Xander himself, to explain what he intended, he’d told Rupert he could give Xander a heads up before he called.
“He kept mumbling something about the little mermaid, which made no sense whatsoever,” Xander sputtered. “I mean, what does a singing crab have to do with anything?”
“Blasted Disney,” Spike grumbled.
“Yeah, he said something similar, then he told me it meant you were going to get your soul or die trying. Now, tell me he’s got it all wrong,” Xander demanded.
“Did he tell you why?” Spike half hoped he had. He didn’t relish admitting weakness to Xander.
“He said I had to ask you, so consider yourself asked.”
Spike realized Rupert felt it wasn’t his place to fill in that gap. In a way, it was a kindness: Rupert refused to color Xander’s perception of events, giving Spike freedom to say whatever he thought best. It also served as very effective punishment. “I broke my promise. I killed some housewife from West Virginia.”
“Oh,” Xander said in a small voice. “Did she attack you?” Xander’s question bore the thinnest thread of hope.
“No, she was being raped. I took out the two guys attacking her. I was finishing with the second one and she just wouldn’t stop screaming. Had this high pitched, grating whine of a voice, so I kicked her to shut her up. Didn’t think about it, probably have given more thought to shutting off the alarm clock. I was all the way home before I realized what I’d done.” He didn’t say he was sorry. He wasn’t sorry and lying to Xander changed nothing. Of course, he was sorry that he’d broken his promise, frustrated and a bit angry that Xander had won that particular argument, but he just couldn’t drum up any emotion over the woman herself, and that’s what Xander cared about.
Silence rang from Xander’s end of the line, then that sigh of resignation Spike had been expecting. “Spike, I won’t say I’m happy about this, because you’d know I was lying, but I accepted it as a part of you long ago. I don’t want you to change yourself because of some promise to me and I sure don’t want you to rip yourself apart with a soul, assuming you survive to get it.”
“I’m not getting it for you, Xander,“ Spike assured him.
“Spike, you love being a vampire. Why else could you possibly want a soul?” Xander said in a reasonable voice that drove Spike nearly mad. Xander knew better than to talk to him like an idiot child.
Besides, he’d given a lot of thought to the question before he called Xander, knowing he’d be asked. When he’d first had the idea it was almost an impulse. If you lost something valuable you went and got it back, simple as that. But that answer wouldn’t satisfy Xander, and Spike realized it was a momentous enough decision that he needed to give it a bit more thought. He’d spent his entire vampiric life trying to put distance between himself and William the bloody awful poet. He’d been more ruthless, more arrogant, bolder than any other member of his clan just to put that whining milk sop behind him. Now he intended to invite him into his skull to knock about and, if Angel was a good example, take over the whole show? Spike had to admit, from the outside it seemed crazy. Thing was, as much as he’d tried to separate himself from William, he never truly had. He was still love’s bitch; he’d loved Dru as much for her fractured innocence as her deadly viciousness. The Judge labeled him too human because of his love and affection while Angelus was pure demon. He was counting a lot on that difference, just as he realized that the parts of him that loved Xander, Dawn and the others were likely leftover portions of William. In the end, though, only one answer truly satisfied him. “Because it’s mine, Xander. It’s rightfully mine and I want it back.”
“But it’ll destroy you!” Xander protested. “Remember Angel? Big brooding guilt machine? Ring any bells?”
“Way I hear it, Liam had plenty to be guilty over long before he was turned. When Darla was feeling particularly evil she’d tell us how Liam’s dissipation was his undoing. Only thing I was guilty of was a broken heart.”
“What does that mean, Spike? You aren’t making any sense.” There was a note of desperation in Xander’s voice. “Let me come up there, we’ll talk about this, work something out.”
Spike gritted his teeth. He hated admitting he’d been wrong. “Xander, there’s nothing to talk about. You were right. I can’t come home like this.”
“So don’t come home.” Xander’s voice took on a level of resolve that surprised Spike. “They don’t need me here in Sunnydale now that they have Faith. We can go anywhere you want, you can show me all those places you’ve talked about. I’ve never been farther than Oxnard, I’d like to see what I’ve been missing.”
Spike smiled to himself, flattered even as he shook his head. Xander was offering to turn his back on everyone he loved to be with Spike: maybe he thought he could curb Spike’s more violent tendencies. In all likelihood, he could, but the effort, the constant battle would wear him down. Xander would forgive every slip and mourn each death as a personal failure. That wasn’t the life Spike wanted and it certainly wasn’t what he wanted for Xander. Besides, never seeing Dawn again was not something he was willing to accept. “That’s a very tempting offer, luv. Didn’t know Faith was such a good wage earner, able to pay for everything you do, is she?”
Xander hissed at the direct blow. Spike assailed him on the one point where he had no defense, his responsibility to his family. “Please, Spike, don’t do this. There has to be some other way.“
“Not for me.“ Spike felt a shudder go through him at the thought of subjecting himself to something like the chip again. “I know you want to help, but there isn’t another way that keeps everyone safe. I’ll take my chances. I’m figuring them to be pretty good.”
“How? How can this be anything but the worst of all possible ideas?” Xander questioned.
Much as Spike loathed talking about his human past, he imagined he needed to get used to it. “I’m not like Angelus, he’s pure demon, I still have bits and pieces of my human self floating around inside my noggin. He takes up residence in here again I’m counting on him not minding a bit of company.”
“That’s your idea? You’re going to risk your existence on the chance you’ll have a nice roommate?” Xander protested, but his heart wasn’t in it. Xander was a stubborn sod but he recognized a losing battle when he saw one. “I’m not going to be able to talk you out of this, am I?”
“’Fraid not, luv.”
“Will you let me help you?” Xander pleaded.
“You can’t. This is something I have to do alone,” Spike said as kindly as he could. He didn’t want Xander anywhere near the demon he was going to confront.
“Yeah, I figured. That’s the standard boilerplate for something like this. At least keep in contact. Don’t leave me wondering. Please?”
“I might be out of communication for a bit getting there, but I swear I’ll call you before I go in and I’ll contact you the second I win,” Spike assured him. Grabbing a satellite phone shouldn’t be a problem, and he knew Xander would be worrying himself sick until he knew Spike had made it. “I’m coming home, Xander.”
“You better be, Spike, you’d better be.” Spike pretended he didn’t hear the tears in Xander’s voice.
Spike spent the next two days putting his affairs in order. Anything he couldn’t part with he put into a safe deposit box, a small one sufficed, after all these years he traveled light. He bought Xander a collector’s edition Data. It seemed appropriate somehow. Then he shipped all the Christmas gifts to Sunnydale, since there was no telling just how long he’d be gone.
He briefly considered keeping the apartment but decided against it almost immediately. He doubted William would let him keep the ill gotten gains, all the more reason to spend them before he left. He started with airfare. He bought first class from New York to London to Entebbe. Booking the return trip puzzled him for a bit. Eventually he gave himself two weeks to complete his mission. After that he expected to be successful or dust. He smiled when he imagined William coping with first class all the way back to Sunnydale.
He hired an off road vehicle to be waiting for him when he reached Entebbe. Satisfied with the reservations, he went shopping. Firstly, he needed a passport. Enough money exchanged hands to get a bona fide British passport by the end of the day. A satellite phone came next on the list. Seeing no reason to skimp, he ran over to Sharper Image and bought the most expensive one they had on offer. A tent guaranteed to block the sun’s deadly rays followed. Dodging the sun in a country with miles between buildings sounded like hell to Spike, and he wanted every advantage he could get.
The tent, phone, laptop and a couple changes of clothing fit into a duffle bag and he headed for the airport.
First class was the only way to fly such a distance. He imagined being stuffed in the cattle compartment in the back and he shuddered. Then he ordered another drink. The change of planes at Heathrow gave him a chance to stretch his legs, once he got through customs, but the fifteen hours to Entebbe nearly drove him spare. Getting off that plane came close to a religious experience. Once again, first class proved worth it as he beat the crowd to immigration and customs and breathed free, early evening air in under an hour. He loaded the Land Cruiser with his duffle and headed into downtown to acquire everything he couldn’t take on the plane. A few discreet inquiries and he loaded up on knives. He doubted he’d be allowed to use them in the trials, but he had to get there first. He purchased a sleeping bag and a few other creature comforts before heading to the nearest bar.
Fighting for his life on an empty stomach sounded like utter stupidity, and he’d been two days without a proper meal already. He wasn’t overly picky in his selection. If he wanted to make it to the cave by sunrise he needed to make tracks, so he hung out in the alley behind the bar and waited for his prey. Even so, he let a teenage girl stroll by unmolested as too small to satisfy his appetite. The next passerby fulfilled his parameters quite nicely, a big bruiser of a bloke with meaty fists, bloodshot eyes and the smell of alcohol on him. Drawing attention right now smacked of amateur hour and this one was too soused to raise the alarm quickly.
“Evening, mate,” Spike greeted his dinner as he stepped out of the shadows.
The man’s response was in a language Spike had never heard, but it sounded downright unfriendly. Not that he considered this a problem, since he liked a little spirit in his meals.
Not wanting a fuss, he clocked the bloke on the side of the head, stunning him, then dragged him back into the shadows where he buried his fangs in his neck while holding his mouth shut. The man thrashed for a moment or two, but the blood was flowing out of him too rapidly for that to last long, and his struggles merely made it gush faster.
Spike was all too aware this might be his last live meal, and he savored it like someone about to start a diet savored a last piece of chocolate cake. When blood no longer pumped out of his victim Spike reluctantly arranged the body in a dark, inconspicuous corner, wiped the blood from his own mouth and headed back to his waiting SUV.
As prepared as he could be, he headed west. He consulted his map several times, making sure of his bearings. Sunrise was still a few hours off when he hit his destination. He parked in a shaded spot just outside the sprawling village that stood at the mouth of the cave. Through that entrance lay a change to his whole existence, or its end. In the opposite direction lay his last chance to back out of the whole deal. He rang Xander without any regard for the time in Sunnydale.
Xander picked up on the second ring. He sounded anxious. “Spike?”
“I’m here,” Spike said simply.
“You decided against the scenic route, huh?” Xander’s stab at humor felt half hearted at best.
Spike hated causing him pain but this was something he had to do and he said as much. “I came here to get something. If I feel up to it afterwards, and there’s time, I’ll do some sightseeing, but I suspect I’ll just want to go home.”
“I don’t suppose you’d be willing to skip the whole thing and just come home, would you?” Xander knew better than to ask him that. Still, he guessed it had to be said.
“You know I can’t.”
“Can’t blame a guy for trying.” Xander’s voice lost the trace of shakiness and grew firm with resolve. “Since you won’t listen to reason, I want you to go in there and fight. I’m counting on you to win, Spike. Win and come home to us.”
Spike appreciated the pep talk. It made him feel warm to remember that people missed and needed him. “I intend to, this will be over with before you know it. Rupert thinks the trials shouldn’t last more than a couple days. I’ve given myself two weeks to be on the safe side.”
“I know,” Xander sounded indulgent now, a much better sound than afraid. “You emailed me the flight information, remember?”
“Haven’t had a chance to check my email since London, didn’t know if you’d gotten it.” Spike covered with irritation so he wouldn’t ask if there would be anyone to meet him there.
Xander must have known what he was thinking. Boy was a bloody mind reader some days. “I’ll be there to pick you up. I’ll probably have to sneak out on Dawn and Giles if I want you to myself on the drive home. Everyone wants to come with me, but I’m claiming boyfriend privilege.”
Spike told himself the smile meant amusement at Xander’s silliness, not how relieved he felt. “Oi, you didn’t ask me, maybe I want to see everyone.”
“Tough.” Spike could hear the smirk in his voice. He almost hated to cut the communication short but stalling might trap him for the day.
“I need to go, Xander. It’s almost sunrise.”
“Call me, as soon as you win.” There was a slight hitch in his words.
“I will. Don’t fret.” A useless adjuration, Xander fretted like an old woman when someone he loved was in danger.
“Spike,” Xander called out as Spike prepared to hang up.
“I love you. Remember that.”
“I never forget it,” Spike assured him. It strengthened him at times like these. “Love you too.”
He cut the connection before Xander could say something that might weaken his resolve. He hid the phone under the front seat and got out of the SUV. His destiny awaited him.
“Not asking for permission, mate,” Spike told the villager who babbled at him in some local lingo he didn’t understand. The man was obviously trying to come between him and his goal. If Xander’s entreaties couldn’t dissuade him, this man’s warnings, or threats, had no chance of swaying him.
The entrance looked like a completely ordinary cave, but he could feel the power emanating from it. The villager left him before he got anywhere near the opening. Spike guessed he didn’t fancy getting too close. Spike entered cautiously, it wouldn’t do to get his head ripped off by some nasty before he even got to the challenging stuff.
He snapped his lighter open and played the flame over the wall. The decorations in the front room resembled the scribblings of a disturbed child. Probably cave paintings from millenia earlier. Some of the images actually looked fresh, like the wall itself was bleeding.
Deeper inside the cave broke into multiple passages. Uncertain which direction to go, Spike scanned the area for a clue when a voice boomed out of the darkness. ”You seek me, vampire?”
“You do the finger painting?” Spike asked just to be a smart ass. He hardly wanted this thing to think he feared it. “Nice work.”
“Answer me,” the demon intoned. The thing had a distinctly craggy appearance, as though it were made from living rock. A couple of ridiculous spikes rose from its shoulders like stalagmites, and its eyes glowed a phosphorescent green. It stood some seven feet tall.
After an appropriate interval to show fear had not prompted him to answer, Spike responded, “Yeah, I seek you.”
The thing cocked its bullet head, as if listening to messages sent from beyond. “Something about an unintentional death.”
“Yeah, if there’s killing to be done I do it because I want to, not because I can’t help myself,” Spike said. He suspected the demon already knew all this but Spike wanted no misunderstandings.
“So, you want to return to your former self.” The booming monotone rang out again.
“Yeah,” Spike replied, wondering if the demon drug these exchanges out because he got so few visitors.
He didn’t expect the dark chuckle that emanated from the creature. Not in a mood to be laughed at, Spike demanded, “What?”
“Look what they‘ve done to you,” the demon responded in a mocking tone. “You were a legendary dark warrior and you let yourself be castrated. Chained to a groups of humans like a leashed dog. And you have the audacity to crawl in here and demand restoration.”
Massive wings flapped slowly behind the demon, irritation radiating off of it. Spike stomped into the demon’s space, bristling with indignation. “I’m still a warrior.” He shoved at the demon only to get the same reaction as punching the nearest stone wall. The thing just didn’t budge, acted like he didn’t even exist. That incensed Spike all the more. How dare tall, dark and gruesome question his status. “I helped take down a hell god.“
“You fell from a great height into a broken heap, pushed by one of her minions. Hardly impressive,” Rocky sneered. He had to call it something and it’s not like they’d been formally introduced. “You’re a pathetic excuse for a demon,” Rocky spat.
Spike struggled to get his temper under control, he wanted something from Rocky and beating it out of him appeared to be off the menu. He wanted to pound Rocky’s head in for parading his failure to protect Dawn out as an example of his unworthiness. He’d killed dozens of minions that day, gotten up the stairs faster than any of the others could have dreamed of and yet that one moment of failure would haunt him forever. If he hoped to win here he couldn’t let this psychological warfare stop him any more than the physical.
“Think we could get this show on the road, chum,” Spike challenged, “I’ve got a plane to catch.”
“You’d never endure the trials required to grant your request,” Rocky said with smug certainty.
“Do your worst,” Spike slung back, equally smugly. This thing didn’t have the first clue what he was capable of, but before the end Spike intended to show it. “And when I win, I want what I cam here for. And no nancy boy escape clauses either. I win my soul back it‘s stuck on good and tight.”
Rocky sounded like a rusty water pipe in its exasperation. Did it really think that after traveling this far, prepared to risk his existence for what he wanted, some idiotic posturing was going to make him just give up. The demon was the one who was pathetic.
“Just show me to the first trial,” he said, disgruntled. He’d beaten scores of demons in the last couple years alone. Spike expected he’d already faced worse than Rocky could throw at him.
“Strip to your pants,” Rocky said with a dismissive gesture to one of the side chambers.
Spike found himself supremely grateful he’d left the duster in the car. He didn’t trust he’d successfully retrieve anything he let out of his sight here. He really hated to lose the docs but sacrifices had to be made, he guessed. Spike hurried to divest himself of his shoes, socks and shirt in the hopes that the demon would shut up about the difficulty of the trials ahead. Possibly Rocky was trying to talk him to death.
After arranging his belongings along the wall he moved to the center of the cavern. Sand covered the floor of the largely circular room. It reminded Spike of a Roman arena, which seemed appropriate. . .
“You understand then,” Rocky repeated.
“Yeah, yeah, it’s not like you haven’t been clear about it, oh great mysterious one,” Spike couldn’t have kept the sarcasm out of his voice if he’d tried, so he didn’t bother trying. He paced, trying to burn off his eagerness to get started and to loosen up tense muscles. “This is a test. I don’t get what I want unless I pass said test. That about the size and shape?”
“Yes.” Rocky’s voice once again rang out in a monotone. If he was still irritated he hid it well. Stupid sod probably thought Spike incapable of besting his champion. Spike intended to show him the error of his ways.
“And since your pad is decked out gladiator style, and no number two pencils have been provided, guess we’re not starting with the written.” Spike despaired of the demon ever just shutting up and getting on with it already.
A mountain of a man lumbered into the arena. If this bruiser was going to present any challenge at all Spike couldn’t fathom how. “Oh, here we go then. Just me and the walking action figure.” Contemptuously, he turned from his opponent to address Rocky. “I’m venturing this would be the kill or be killed type of situation then.”
“To the death,” Rocky confirmed.
Spike turned back to his opponent, eager to begin the trial. “Right. Here we are now, entertain us.”
The walking action figure slammed his fists together and they caught fire. “Son of a --!” Spike was taken so by surprise that the action figure landed a punch before Spike managed to defend himself. Spike sprawled on the sands of the arena. He glowered from the floor, flaming fists definitely hadn’t been in the brochure. Sustained contact with those fists would be nastily fatal, made for one hell of a handicap. Spike propelled himself back to his feet but received a glancing blow to the chest before he was set. Flaming fist boy was fast, faster than someone of his bulk had any right to be. Doubt niggled at Spike’s mind, fear that he might not be up for the task ahead.
As much as he hated taking a defensive position, in this situation he had little choice. Spike dodged until he could get the measure of his opponent. He barely ducked another haymaker aimed at his head, and felt the flesh of his bicep char. Defensive moves worked about as well as the offensive ones and Spike was losing ground. He circled the columns of stone that supported the roof to put some space between him and those burning hands. He threw his own flurry of punches that local boy evaded too easily. In desperation, Spike caught one fist as it descended toward his chest and tossed local boy back.
“Bad move, bad move, bad move,“ Spike chanted as he flexed his singed hand. Avoiding the flames surrounding those hands limited his range of attack too much. Grappling was out of the question. He needed to hit him lower. His bare feet lacked the solidness that his docs provided, but they could still do damage. He snapped a kick to his opponent’s stomach that staggered him and nearly sent Spike to the floor himself. Local boy’s next punch was less controlled, and Spike managed to grab his bicep, well out of flame range, and throw him to the ground. He put everything he had into several kicks to the ribs, hoping to keep him down. He felt something give in his right foot but he kept at it. It kept the action figure down long enough for Spike to straddle him and snap his neck.
The fight took more out of him than he expected but that didn’t mean he couldn’t gloat. “Looks like local boy loses.”
“So it would appear,” Rocky sounded disappointed and Spike couldn’t give a shit.
“Good on me then. I get what I came for. I passed.” He smirked at the demon, showing weakness here could get him seriously dead.
“Indeed, you have passed the first stage of the test.” Spike thought he detected just a slight tone of triumph in the big demon’s tone.
“Bugger.” He knew it couldn’t be that easy, but a guy could hope. He hoped the next trials didn’t involve fire.
His next opponent was a scaly monster with a wicked tail who slithered out of a side passage with a speed and grace that had Spike wishing he‘d listened to Xander. He danced out of reach of the grasping arms but took a glancing blow from the tail. The impact to his ribs knocked him completely off his feet. The thing had a vicious mouth and long taloned hands in front and a whip fast tail behind. Spike ducked both ends as best he could but he was taking damage and inflicting none of his own. Spike longed for his two handed axe but, as it seemed disinclined to materialize into his hands, he rushed the monster, taking the blows it dealt while forcing the head back until something snapped and the creature went limp.
He gasped a little as he moved away from his kill. The ribs on his left side felt bruised or cracked. He knew this wouldn’t be a walk in the park but two fights in he felt pummeled flat. “So, Rocky, how about some refreshment for the victor?” He needed blood to heal, but even buying himself some time with a water break would help.
“You are conceding?” Rocky asked in that annoying monotone.
“No,” Spike growled. “Just figure I deserve a bit of a nosh between bouts here.”
“You may refresh yourself when the trials are finished,” Rocky decreed, and a creature that resembled an upright moose trotted from another of the side passages.
Spike’s fighting suffered from the wounds he’d already sustained, his responses much slower than normal. When fighting a parade of nasties the situation promised to lethal. Eventually, he spotted an opening and darted in with a killing strike on the moose thing. He punched through its midsection and got gored for his trouble.
Spike stared at the bloody hole in his side, wondering just where he was going to draw up the reserve energy for the next fight. “Just how many of these trials are there anyway?”
“As many as are necessary,” Rocky responded with infuriating calm.
Spike cursed himself for a fool. It was all a trick, a scam. He’d fight until one of these things killed him, there was no prize, just some sick game for the demon’s amusement. Spike doubted Rocky could even fulfill his request. Rather certain what answer he could expect Spike asked about the only out that seemed possible. “Hypothetically, if I did concede, what would happen?”
“You would be granted a swift death.” And that was exactly the answer he expected. Even though he believed opting for the slow, painful death merely served to entertain his host, Spike didn’t have it in him to simply give up.
“In that case, let’s get on with this.” Spike readied himself as much as he was able with his strength waning and his injuries making maintaining his feet, let alone fighting, difficult.
His next opponent was a two headed scabby thing with horns sticking every which way. It didn’t do any fresh damage before he ripped both heads off, but the ribs that had been aching now felt like liquid fire. Spike ventured a guess they were now officially broken, and that would slow him down to an unacceptable level. He found himself infinitely grateful that breathing was an optional activity for him. The foot he’d injured on flame boy protested his weight. More worrying, his other leg threatened to dump him summarily on his ass.
He kicked one head toward Rocky and tossed the other head at his feet. “Well that was a bloody doddle and a piece o’ piss,” he gasped out, agony shooting through him every time he took breath to speak. He was just about out of juice, and defiance could only sustain him so long. His leg buckled, forcing him to his knees. Unless his next bout involved taking candy from a very weak baby, the next fight would finish him. That didn’t mean he turned the attitude down any. If he had to crawl to his last bout, Rocky was not going to get the pleasure of watching him beg. No matter how much talking made his ribs scream he forced out his challenge. “You got any more ruddy tests for me, you ponce? I’ll take anything you can throw at me.”
The big demon looked down on him with disgust and Spike wished he possessed the energy to spit in the craggy face. Sadly, he had to make do with an insolent sneer. “Your final battle awaits you,” the demon intoned. “However, I have called a brief recess. You have a visitor, vampire.”
If big and ugly wanted to throw him off by confusing him, then the strategy was succeeding. A cave in the middle of Uganda was not the sort of place old friends popped in for a visit. Rocky stepped aside to reveal a tall figure scuffing the ground with his work boots. He bowed his head and looked up through the fringe of overgrown bangs like he expected Spike to yell at him.
Spike fully intended to yell at him, once he got over the shock. “Xander?”
A sheepish grin spread across Xander’s face. “Surprise?”
This chapter includes heavy borrowing from the episodes Villians, Two to Go and Grave.
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