Author’s Note: Here’s where pure fiction deviates from ancient myth: I’ve had to create some of this stuff from my own warped brain rather than follow strict fact and history. Forgive me.
This chapter dedicated to all the lurkers in my Yahoo group; even if you don’t say anything, the rest of us are glad you’re out there!
Without, Part 25
The sun shone brightly the next morning. The birds sang, their gentle tunes wafting lightly on the air; the squirrels chirruped as they stocked their larders with nuts and the stream burbled merrily as it flowed by. A sweet breeze undulated through the blossoming trees, and fruit bowed their branches low. It was idyllic; it was perfection.
It might have been the bowels of hell and raining a plague of locusts for all the cheer in Elessar’s group that day.
One by one, as each awoke, they evidenced great distress over the perfectly clear memories they had of their actions the previous night. Haldir rose first; without a word, he strode off into the trees without looking back. Elessar stumbled over to Arwen and dropped to his knees before her, burying his face in her lap like a penitent and entreating her forgiveness. Boromir said little, just a muttered litany of “I’m sorry,” to Dawn, but his eyes were haunted. Dawn herself only clutched at him, when she wasn’t shooting anxious glances at Arwen, that is.
And Arwen… she was calm. Perfectly, flawlessly, beautifully calm. It’s easy to be calm, you see, when one has spent the better part of the night planning the utter decimation of one’s foes. It was she who directed the others to pack up their meagre camp; it was she who declared they would now search for the missing Haldir; it was she who came between his knives and the fallen log he was systematically hewing into matchsticks and informed him it was time to continue their march.
“They have found Corinne,” she told them then. “She and one other. She has been wounded—“ Haldir’s eyes gained another layer of misery at this news— “but not badly, and will survive.”
“Who is this other?” Boromir asked, ever distrustful of newcomers.
“He is known to Dagnir, a vampire from her home world,” Arwen replied. “He has protected Corinne, and treated her injury.”
Dawn gasped sharply as wild hope flared within her, pushing aside the horror and embarrassment that had threatened to choke her since waking up. “Spike?” she asked, voice quavering. “Is it Spike?”
“I do not know his name, just that Dagnir trusts him, even if the others do not,” Arwen said. “And Legolas is jealous; Dagnir and the vampire had a… warm reunion, Radagast tells me.”
“She’d only be happy to see two vampires,” Dawn reasoned to herself. “Angel or Spike, and Angel’s dead, so it must be Spike!” Her voice rose in volume until by the end of the sentence she was practically shrieking. Joy and excitement filled her-- whatever was happening, Spike would fix it. He always had, sense of failure about Buffy’s death aside.
“It must be Spike,” she repeated, smiling up into Boromir’s face as they once more began to follow the path they’d been on since descending the mountain. He tried bravely to summon an answering smile, but it was rather shaky around the edges and she gave him a one-armed hug, knowing him to still be upset about… last night.
As the hours passed, it became clear that there was an unspoken agreement to never mention it, ever again, but a fire was burning in their eyes, and a new determination tautened their nerves.
Violated by Aker not once, but twice now, Haldir was nearly incandescent with a blind and barbaric fury. Almost thoroughly incapable of civil speech, Arwen had exiled him to the rear of the group and he now stomped along behind them, and woe betide any hapless flora or fauna that came near him: already he’d killed enough rabbits for both luncheon and dinner, and it was only mid-morning.
Radagast had contacted Arwen, demanding to know more about what had happened when she’d so distressedly begged for help, but she had refused to part with any information other than the bare minimum. “He says we must return to the mountain,” she informed her group.
“Will we encounter once more the forces that have… manipulated us?” Elessar asked, his voice husky with apprehension.
“I hope not,” Dawn said fervently. Boromir only gripped her hand more tightly.
They walked. Once past the clearing where they’d nearly ravished each other the previous night and nothing seemed to possess or overwhelm them, they allowed themselves to relax marginally. Boromir actually ventured a tiny smile at his wife, and the rigid set to Arwen’s shoulders shifted to a slightly less tense set.
Only Haldir remained edgy, and so when the first arrow narrowly missed Elessar’s head, was perfectly primed to turn and nock his own arrow in one smooth movement. “Sniper,” he growled, crouching slightly as his grey eyes flew over the surrounding area. The meadow through which they travelled was ringed by trees over a half-mile away; only an elf would have been able to achieve such accuracy at such distance. Unless…
Faint laughter caught his attention; he saw by the way Arwen came alert that she’d heard it as well. A breeze sighed past him, causing the sleeve of his tunic to flutter, and the air around him shimmered for the barest moment. Was that the sound of…?
“Hooves,” Boromir whispered, looked round at the others, his gaze sliding quickly off Haldir to rest on Elessar. “Did you hear hooves?”
Gondor’s king nodded shortly, eyes scanning the grasses around them for some hint of what was happening. There was a flash of white and black and brown behind Dawn, and they all whirled to face it, but it was gone. The sound of hoofbeats came from the right of Haldir, and they turned to it, but after the merest impression of something curving gracefully, there was nothing but the whispering wind before another arrow came at them, this time sinking into the dead-centre of Boromir’s shield.
“They but toy with us,” he said, his voice tapering to a higher octave when something rushed by him and he shuffled quickly away from it.
Haldir turned to face Elessar, eyes narrowed and lethal. “I am well and truly finished being the toy of Aker,” he stated, and the next time the air blurred in his vicinity he loosed his own arrow at it.
In a flash, there appeared a figure before them, facing away so all they could see was the extremely tall build and slender hips wrapped in some pale gauzy material. The head seemed bent low, as if bowed in sorrow. A thin, strappy jeweled armband tinkled merrily when the figure’s hand came up and snatched Haldir’s arrow from the air just before it would strike.
It turned to face them, lifting its head proudly, and they saw that before them stood a female. The strap of her quiver lay between small bare breasts with chocolate-brown nipples, and she loosely held at her side a bow banded with many bright colours. The head of a gazelle rose gracefully from slim and muscular shoulders, crowned by a magnificent set of black antlers, their arc fluid as they curled back from her brow. The narrow face and elongated ears managed to convey a sense of alert malice as the mouth drew back in a surprisingly human smirk.
“Satet,” Dawn whispered in awe and fear from behind Boromir, clutching fistfuls of his overtunic as she peeped over his shoulder. “Patroness of archers. Oh, shit.”
“You are gifted among elves,” Satet addressed Haldir, her voice nowhere near human-sounding, seeming to consist more of scratchy raspings, “but how will you fare against a goddess?” She raised her bow, effortlessly nocking and sighting down an arrow at him.
“Haldir, do not,” Elessar warned him, but the elf was beyond counsel at that point.
“I think the question, madam, is how you will fare against a march-warden,” Haldir replied coolly, arms a blur of motion as he aimed his own bow at her. For a long, endless moment they stood there, arrow-points trained between the other’s eyes, until some minute action of Haldir’s, some infinitesimal movement, alerted her of his intention to shoot, and she loosed her arrow a thousandth of a second before he did his.
Two things happened then; first, Satet’s arrow seemed not so much to fly as much as simply materialize in the centre of Haldir’s chest, and a crimson stain bloomed on his tunic. Second, Haldir’s arrow embedded itself firmly into her throat, to her immense surprise.
Dawn screamed and tried to run to him, but Boromir grabbed her and pressed her head against his shoulder. Arwen merely stood, tears coursing down her cheeks, and Elessar’s hand flexed convulsively on the pommel of Andúril.
The goddess gasped the shaft of it in one hand and wrenched it free; immediately, the wound closed up and healed, flesh and fur knitting flawlessly. “Excellent,” she told Haldir, who had fallen to his knees and was gasping for breath. “Truly formidable. Were you on the other side of this conflict, I would take you as my student.”
“Were you on the other side of this conflict, I would not have to do this,” Elessar gritted out, and charged her, Boromir but a second behind him while Arwen sniffled and readied her bow for a shot.
Satet’s legs seemed to morph, her knees to bend the other way and her feet to shorten into cloven hooves, and she sprang easily out of the way of her attackers, landing lightly a dozen yards away. Her eyes, dark and liquid, gazed upon them almost pityingly. “It is to my great displeasure that I must do this,” Satet said, “for it is clear you are all beings of great courage.”
Then she drew back her bowstring once more, and in lightning-quick succession shot each of them through the heart. Elessar yanked the missile from his chest, pulling it free with a sickening slurping sound, and continued to stride toward her but before he’d gone half the distance his injury conquered him, and he dropped heavily, Andúril glinting at his side in the bright sunlight.
Boromir was next; the arrow meant for him pierced his shield as if it were paper, and in great surprise he stared down at the wound blossoming over him. He slumped over almost immediately, hand outstretched toward Dawn. The arrow meant for Arwen struck her slender body with such force that she was flung backwards a good ways, landing hard on her back. She did not move again.
Dawn was last, and tried desperately to avoid her death but Satet’s speed was nothing short of miraculous, and as she tumbled to the ground her last thoughts were a jumble of images: Mercas, Boromir, Buffy, Joyce, Spike… she hoped they all knew how much she loved them. Forcing her eyes open, she turned her head and found Boromir looking in her direction, his eyes already beginning to glaze over. As she watched, the light went out of them. Then her own vision failed her, and an overwhelming sense of failure and anguish assailed her. I’m sorry, Buffy, she thought. I’m sorry.
She never saw the green light that appeared and grew, stretching and spreading, as her life’s blood flowed out of her onto the fragrant meadow grasses.
Buffy trudged along wearily at Legolas’ side. Once the zombies had attacked the previous night, they’d had no rest at all: slew after slew of all manner of oogly-boogly had assaulted them, from huge ent-like things to possessed cultists with huge scythes to frogs the size of hippos that spat great wads of slime for twenty feet with surprising accuracy, as Gimli’s goo-caked beard would attest.
Corinne had insisted they head west. “Ta-tenen lies below Mertseger, the mountain, at the center of the land of the dead,” she told them. “To the north is heaven, to the south is hell. In the west lies tundra, and east is where you find the jungle.” She waved her arm encompass their surroundings. “We’re in the east, and have to head west until we reach the middle. And we need to tell the others to head back to Mertseger, as well.”
Radagast had been vastly unsettled since his last contact with Arwen. She had contacted him, panicked, for advice when the others of her party had been, as she put it, ‘enspelled’ but he hadn’t heard from her since. Closing his eyes, both hands gripping the staff he planted firmly on the ground, he forced a connection to her. Long moments he spent communicating with her until at last he nodded grimly.
“Arwen will not tell me what has happened,” he told them, his pace quicker than before as he was now eager to meet up with Elessar’s group. “But I gather it has caused… great unease and discomfort between them; Aker has tried to foment trouble between them, to break friendships and rupture alliances. He has nearly succeeded.” His brown eyes flicked over Corinne as if pondering what he should say next. “The elf has suffered in particular, she said, but I know not how.”
Before, she would have collapsed, would have wept and wailed and freaked out in general. Now, she only tightened her lips and suggested that they hurry. And so they hurried. To pass the time, Legolas would occasionally sing as was his wont, and sometimes Thranduil would join his voice to his son’s. After Spike’s initial disbelief (“They’re singing? What’s next, the Rockettes? I don’t think I’ll survive seeing them do the high kicks”) was overcome by the undeniable fact that the monarchy of Mirkwood as a group had exceptionally fine musical talents, they settled into a brisk march, halted only when confronted with more things to kill.
Corinne had to push herself hard to keep up with their pace and tried to ignore what was at first discomfort and eventually became outright pain and then agony in her leg and backside, but finally could go on no longer. “Spike, could you take a look at it for me? In private?” She forced a grin onto her tired face for the others. “He’s already withstood the horror that is my butt; no need to mentally scar the rest of you.”
Going behind a tree, she peeled off her jeans and nearly collapsed to the ground, uncaring if it were Spike or more of those scythe-weilding cultists who found her. He circled the tree and dropped to his knees, placing one cool hand on the swollen area of the wound.
She hissed in relief. “That feels awesome,” she mumbled. “Can you just do that forever?”
“’Fraid not, pet,” he replied, fingertips digging deeper into her flesh as he sought to located the area of infection. Where he’d fed last time seemed to be clear, but the rest of the perimeter of the wound was not. “Why so adamant about it being just the two of us?”
“Do you really think the rest of them would be pleased to hear exactly how you’ve been tending me?” she asked quietly. “Buffy trusts you, but the others have spent their lives killing things like you. They’re not convinced you’re safe. And Legolas is just waiting for a reason to stake you, I’m sure.”
He smirked. “Yeah, he’s fun to tease, that one.”
“I don’t suggest you tease him for long; I wasn’t joking when I said he’d gut you like a fish. And Buffy’s devoted to him; she won’t like it if you upset him.”
Something flickered in his eyes then, as if a spark guttered and died. “Right,” he murmured, then craned his head this way and that, surveying her injury. “Best to get on with this, right? Brace yourself,” and switched to game face. Once the punctures were made, just like before, black and poisoned blood streamed out.
“Ew,” Corinne commented, looking over her shoulder at the process. Spike kneaded her buttock to coax as much of the foul stuff out as possible, then with a jaunty grin lowered his mouth to her. This time she was awake for it, and switched immediately to scholar mode to document what was happening.
Point #1: Spike’s hands, gripping her thigh, were icy-cold, as were his lips. They felt heavenly against her abused body.
Point #2: Something about what he was doing—immortal vampiric properties inherent in his saliva, perhaps?—was very cleansing, because she could actually feel the injured area healing as he worked.
Point #3: The pull of his mouth on her was soothing in its rhythmic pulsing, lulling her gently to sleep.
It was the last thing she thought before drifting off. Spike took no special care to keep from waking her, but she continued to sleep after he’d redressed her and hauled her into his arms. “She passed out,” he told the others in response to their concerned faces as he rounded the tree and carried her toward them. Buffy squinted suspiciously at him, but he hadn’t survived being Angelus’ grandchilde for so long by being an inferior liar; his performance was flawless and soon they were on their way once more, Corinne draped piggy-back over him.
Spike originally thought it would be a healing sleep; he didn’t count on her body being damaged enough to be unconscious for almost an entire day. When he tired of hauling Corinne, Legolas and Buffy took turns. When the time came to fight (and it came often) they plunked her onto the ground and encircled her, fighting back-to-back in a surprisingly effective manner.
Spike knew his fighting methods were unusual, even alarming, to the men (or whatever these fellows were… elves, a dwarf, and some surly bloke who called himself a Maia, whatever that was): more often than not, he’d discard his weapon and fling himself joyfully into the fray using only fists and fangs. Patrols in LA had been getting stale lately, and in retrospect it wasn’t at all surprising that, near perishing from boredom, he’d allowed that Polgara to have its one lucky day.
“This place is bloody weird,” he commented to no one in particular, exhilarated from the latest bloodshed, “but you can’t say it’s dull.” It seemed to be high praise coming from him.
The jungle thinned the further west they went, until they were tromping through a rather barren and flat marshy area. Thranduil bid the last of the trees a fond farewell and joined the rest of them splooshing through the swamp. After an hour, Gimli commented that it was the longest they’d gone without an attack since meeting up with Corinne and Spike.
“This is not to your relief, Master Dwarf?” Thranduil asked. “Perhaps you would prefer a situation somewhat more dire?”
Spike groaned, and Buffy put her hand to her forehead; Thranduil arched a brow in the closest gesture he would give to registering confusion. “You just had to say it,” Buffy complained. “Don’t you know that whenever you say something like that, like ‘Could be worse, this could happen’ it’s going to happen?”
Spike nodded firmly. “That’s how the schoolgirl and I ended up in the bloody jungle,” he chimed in, “stupid sod that I am.”
Buffy sighed heavily. “I shudder to think what disaster we’ll have to deal with now,” she muttered, shooting her father-in-law a rather disgruntled glance. He shot Legolas a look that clearly said, ‘Your wife is a fruitcake’ but Legolas wasn’t paying attention to them; his focus was, instead, upon a pinpoint of light in the distance.
A green, glowing pinpoint, to be exact. “Dawn’s blood has been spilt,” he said quietly, eyes flying to his wife. In a heartbeat, she was racing through the swamp toward it, the others pelting after her.
“Oh fuck, oh fuck,” she gasped and dove through it without hesitation as soon as she was close enough. Legolas and Gimli followed her not a moment later, their faces grave, and Spike jumped in as well, Corinne awake after their panicked run and clutching hard at his shoulders.
“It does not seem entirely wise to me, jumping through the portal when we know not where it leads,” Thranduil commented, but Radagast kicked him hard in the backside, sending him flying into the portal before stepping through himself.