As the sun headed for the horizon, Oz headed for his usual set of graveyards, breaking off his search. The moon was already high, and he was getting too restless to continue. No word yet from Rip, either.

He was early enough to see a few straggling visitors in Shady Hills, in the newer plots near the crematorium. Oz made a mental note to swing back by here nearer sunset, before he trudged off towards the older crypts, where he’d lost a vampire two nights before. Mr. Danvers, one of the groundskeepers, nodded a greeting to him from across the way.

Such was Sunnydale, where you knew the cemetery workers by name.

Oz trudged up a winding path to a hillcrest, the sun reflecting ruddily off the polished marble stones. Beyond the peak, a circular pond was lit to molten gold, shimmering as a central fountain sprayed gently into the air. He gave it a quick glance, then kept moving around the walkway above it. The view always tugged at his heart; this place should have been a park, not what it was.

He was approaching a cluster of mausoleums when he hesitated, his nose picking up a familiar scent. Apples and leather, just as the evening before. No tobacco this time.

A feeling sent him to a crouch as he sniffed the wind. He caught movement across the pond, and thought he saw a head of dark hair. It was moving away. He couldn’t tell if he’d been spotted.

Oz glanced towards the brightening moon. He hated calling up the wolf while it was still so high; he risked it taking over from him. But he had to be sure. The musician closed
his eyes and listened for the rhythm of the magic in the land, and to the beating of his heart.

When he opened his eyes, they were much darker. He squinted at the light, suddenly bright against his dilated pupils, and sniffed the air again. Sensing the direction of the wind, he spotted the source immediately.

He was right, she didn’t appear to have spotted him. Oz slipped closer, keeping behind the tombstones, as quietly as possible. There was no doubt, it was his girl. Faith.

Oz held himself in check from approaching further. In the light of day, she was even lovelier than he’d thought last night. She leaned against the wall of a mausoleum, eyes on the surface of the pond, something held loosely in one hand. Her dark hair was parted in the center and hung to her shoulders. Again she wore leather pants, this time with a blue-on-black print tank top that hugged her curves. She had a tattoo on one arm, a dark symbol of some kind.

But it was the look on her face that drew him. Mournful, he thought, and terribly lonely. Her full lips almost quivered. Oz felt his heart melt.

Then he heard a sound behind him. With effort he tore his eyes away, and looked over his shoulder. It had come from the Degenheart crypt, one of the larger ones in the cluster he’d passed moments ago. Probably the first stirrings of an unwelcome resident, as the sun descended. Possibly even a nest, given the tomb’s size. He knew he should recon first; if it was a nest, walking in without backup was not particularly smart.

Still, Faith hadn’t heard the sound, and if she was new in town she had no idea how bad an idea it was to hang out after dark in a cemetery in Sunnydale. Warning her would make him look crazy, and possibly be ignored. On the other hand, if he could spook some groggy vampires into the sun, he might actually survive a solo assault.

With one last glance at the dark-haired beauty, he decided to chance it.

The Degenheart mausoleum faced the west. Oz sat atop his heels with his back to the wall beside the gated door. He took a quick glance over his shoulder and in. At least six forms slumbered inside. He snatched back his head and took a deep breath. He could feel the sweat trickle down his brow. Okay, maybe he wouldn’t survive. He pulled a stake from his belt and clutched it tightly.

The sun was only a few minutes from the horizon. Now or never.

Oz gripped the metal gate and tested it gently. It had been rigged to be locked from within, but it was an old latch and he could see the rust. He closed his eyes and felt the pulse. He felt the snarl build in his throat, and the muscles bulge on his arm as he pulled.

The metal gave way with a groan and a snap, and Oz rolled inside. He sensed motion on all sides and realized there were more than six bodies in here besides his own. He scrambled to the back of the crypt as blanket-wrapped creatures slowly rose from their perches.

Nine bays, three on each wall, including the one at the back — the one that was still in the sunlight. Oz reached above his head and tugged on a blanket, hard, and the vampire was yanked off his bed and rolled, exposed, to the floor, where he promptly burst into flames.

The wolf used the distraction to stand and grab the other two blankets above his head, one in each hand, and repeat the maneuver. Flames and dust filled the air.

Three down, six to go. Then his luck ran out as the dust cleared, the fire quenched, and Oz realized the sun had set.

*   *   *   *   *

Mostly Faith was just walking, putting one foot in front of the other. Like she’d been doing for the last three years, though this time without Annie. Faith didn’t mind the moving so much, town to town, state to state. It was doing so with Annie that mattered.

Still, for awhile now, in the back of her mind, reaching LA had become a goal. A place where B might feel a little safe, where maybe they could stay still. Jumping trains was one thing at fifteen when you want to take on the world; at eighteen, after three thousand miles of taking it on in all its seedy glory, was another.

Annie had been through some serious shit long before Faith had met her. Faith knew a few details, but most got relegated to Annie’s ever growing list of “I don’t want to talk about it” subjects. Faith let a lot of that slide; she knew what that was like. So she and Annie lived in the now. And the now, and the now.

The sun started to descend as she was passing a shopping mall and the walk turned into an actual patrol. Faith slowed a moment, watching people go in and out. She was never sure whether to be sorry or envious that they didn’t know about vampires and demons. She tried to imagine for a moment what her life would be like if she didn’t know, but that would mean no Annie. Faith shook her head. She was never good with what-if’s anyway.

She was also not very good with brooding. She needed action, something to keep her mind occupied. It didn’t take her long to find a cemetery; the town was full of them. Faith hopped the fence and walked through the garden of stone, ears alert. After the bunch last night, she didn’t think she’d find any more vamps, but if she was lucky she might scare up a demon or something. She couldn’t hear much except the muffled tears of a grieving couple near the newer plots.

Didn’t work. Her mind kept returning to her fight with Annie. Why wouldn’t Annie trust her? Faith wandered past a reflecting pond and leaned up against the marble wall of a mausoleum by its shore. She loved Annie so much. And she would love her forever, but maybe… maybe she wasn’t right for her. Faith had never really imagined it would be just the two of them for the rest of their lives, but then she’d never much thought about the rest of their lives until recently. Still, she loved Annie enough to want to reach her, and after all this time Faith really thought she had; she thought she’d earned her trust. Maybe it didn’t work that way. Or maybe she couldn’t be the one to reach her.

The creak of iron turned her head just as the sun was touching the horizon. Showtime.

The brunette Slayer kept low to the ground as she slipped towards the sound. There was a group of mausoleums ahead, and with a quick glance she spotted the gate to one standing open. Her eyes flicked about the grounds left and right, but she saw no movement. Then from within the doorway she saw the flare of flame. Someone got up a little too early.

Faith sprinted to the stone building. Back against the wall by the door, she held her breath at the cloud of dust that billowed from the doorway, an odor like that of old books burning sharp in her nostrils. There was more movement inside, and she clutched her stake and counted silently.

3… 2… 1… thrust… poof.

More sounds came from within: a multitude of growls, one distinctly off key from the rest. A fricking nest? What the hell was this town? Not even Cleveland was this bad.

Faith knew she shouldn’t go in alone. If it were a nest, they’d be back here later. Time enough to bring back Annie, if she could get her companion to get past her paranoia for a few minutes.

But then Faith remembered the couple she’d heard crying a few moments before. If they were still around, they’d be the first targets. There was no time to get Annie. There was no time for anything but going in.

More scuffling from inside. Faith squatted low and reached for the iron gate. She yanked in it back just in time to clobber another attempted escapee. Bounding up, she pulled in it open again, the vamp’s arms entangled amidst the bars, and thrust her stake through its back.

She pivoted back around and into the darkened interior of the mausoleum. The air was thick with undead ash, and from the sounds of scuffle she knew something else in here was not vamp-friendly. But she didn’t have time to sort things out as another heavy body ran into her. Faith grabbed a bier for leverage and knocked the offender backwards. Working on sound in the blackness, she reached out high and low, grabbing hair and shirt, and wheeled the vamp back around. The blunt edge of the stone shelf struck its neck, and with the Slayer-enhanced swing, separated head from torso and Faith let go as the individual parts crumbled in her hands.

The maneuver left her in an awkward position, though, and the next escapee knocked her backwards and into the iron bars. The gate opened and she rolled with the blow, but the vampire was past her. Faith twisted and sprang, and caught its coattails, bringing them both to the ground, tumbling.

The creature kicked out with a leg and knocked itself free, but only far enough to turn into Faith’s next onslaught. With little room to swing her fists, the Slayer settled for a grasp and hold, but again the vampire twisted, pinning her beneath it. She brought her legs up and planted her boots enough to thrust it off, then flipped herself to a crouch. Behind her she could hear another vampire sprinting through the grass. Faith feinted towards her opponent and watched him stretch to full height before she spun and swept out its legs. The vamp fell flat on its back and Faith staked it quickly before bouncing up again to sprint after the one she’d heard flee.

There was more sound from the crypt behind her, but she didn’t have time to look. Instead she ran towards the cemetery entrance and the recent gravesites. If she knew her demons they were just stupid enough to abandon running for their lives for a case of the munchies.

The couple had gotten halfway to the parking lot when the vampire bore down on them. The woman’s companion had pushed her behind him but she’d stumbled on the ground. He was struggling, shoes a foot above the earth, throat in the beast’s grip. The man was barely breathing; Faith had no time for stealth.

The vampire heard but never saw her arrive, as Faith slid through the wet grass like the dirt before third base and took out its ankles with a sickening snap. The man fell full length atop the creature with a gasp, and the beast pushed him up and off, then sat up right into the point of Faith’s stake.

The Slayer stood and shook off the bumps and bruises as the man crawled to his companion and held her tightly. Faith searched back the way she came with her eyes, then gestured for the couple to rise.

“You two need to get going, fast,” she said, eyes and ears still on alert. “It’s not safe here.” She heard them climb to their feet, then a hand touched her shoulder. Faith turned her head, annoyed at their inaction. But her brow furrowed on seeing their faces.

“Thank you,” the woman’s voice trembled with pent-up emotion. She was shaking. “Thank you…”

“It’s all right,” Faith tried to soothe her, touching the woman’s shoulder. “Are you okay?”

The woman nodded, and her friend wrapped his arm around her. Then his face told Faith they were no longer alone.

The Slayer spun into a fighting stance, stake at the ready. A giant, burly figure in full vamp face stalked out of the dark towards her. It was not in the best of shape; its arms and chest were bleeding, raked as if by sharp claws. Faith tensed for its attack — but one never came as the creature collapsed in front of her, a vicious, hairy animal on its back, fangs buried in the back of the vampire’s neck.

The Slayer’s eyes were wide as the vampire howled in agony, a cry quickly cut off as the wolf — for that was the closest equivalent she could imagine — bore down with its teeth. Then it pulled back, pinned the vamp’s head to the ground with one paw, and sliced through the demon’s neck with the claws of its other. The vamp crumbled.

Faith resumed her fighting stance as the wolf reared up and howled at her threateningly. She turned her head to the couple, who had gone white again. “Run!” she yelled, but they were frozen. She did a spin kick to the wolf, knocking it from its feet, then turned back and grabbed the man’s shoulder. “Run!” she shouted at him, and this time he obeyed, taking the woman’s hand and pulling on it. She too came out of her stupor, and they sprinted away. Faith turned back to the beast.

It was back on its feet already, facing her. It looked past the brunette Slayer, and Faith shifted to block the way.

“Uh uh,” Faith warned the wolf, “if you’re still hungry, I’m the one you want. ’Cause you ain’t getting them.”

The beast looked at her curiously.

“What, are you chicken?” she taunted. “I’m just a girl, and that was a big ol’ vampire you just got.”

It bared its teeth at her, growling. Faith didn’t wait for it to pounce, she spun back and sent him backwards and to the ground with a quick kick to the chest.

“Of course, I got five vamps, but who’s counting?” Faith leapt atop the prone creature, pummeling a bit, looking for somewhere soft to put the stake.

The wolf kicked out, knocking her away enough to break free. Scrambling a few feet away, it sniffed the air, watching Faith, then retreated.

Faith knew she should follow, but she couldn’t shake the expressions of the couple she’d saved. She and Annie had spent so much time out here in the war zone, and so much of the rest running, that they hardly ever saw the faces they saved. The ones they protected.

This was the thing that Annie had lost. This was what Faith had to tell her. They weren’t just running; they were saving people. And that was worth staying for.

*   *   *   *   *

At Sunnydale’s Richard Wilkins Airport, a private jet requested permission to land. It was the same jet that had taken Sunnydale’s recently departed mayor on his travels.

Now it was in the possession of a man just as dark, but with a vision slightly less grand.

A hand slid up the shade on one of the plane’s many windows, all of which had been closed against the light of the setting sun. A sculpted, handsome face under short-cropped blond hair peered down on the rising electric night below. There was no sign of happiness at this homecoming.

“Welcome to Sunnyhell,” the vampire Spike growled.

*   *   *   *   *

Annie wasn’t sure how she’d wound up on Main Street again.

For a small town, this place had its twists and turns. It was probably all the fricking cemeteries; Annie was used to orienting herself by the one or two per town, but here there was another one every time she turned around.

There was no sign of Faith. Annie was forcing down her sense of panic, but imperfectly. Twice she’d seen dark heads of hair and choked back false hope. There was a girl outside a 7-11 with a bruise on her arm the shape of Annie’s grip who was probably still in terror because of the Slayer’s mistake.

There was a weight on her chest that she couldn’t lift. Annie knew Faith was in trouble. She knew it. “The Slayer dream is highly useful,” she could hear that gruff voice saying. “While your other dreams tap only your unconscious, the Slayer dream taps the future, a conduit of time opened by the mystic energy of your lineage.” Something was building here, and Faith was heading right into it.

Annie started at the sound of a motorcycle. She instinctively melted into the shadows before she even located the noise. Then, across the street, she saw him pull out from the alley and around to the corner. She held herself in check; she wanted to step out and yank him from the cycle, demand information about this town, about his undead friend, about just what kind of danger Faith might be in. Then she glanced at the front of his home. Rupert and Willow’s Runes and Wicca read the sign, the first part in small letters, the latter in large. She remembered his collection of books. She remembered the one that he’d closed on his desk. When it came time to confront him, it might be better to have some knowledge beforehand, some sense of whether he was lying or not.

Annie waited until Ripper’s bike was around the corner and well down Main before she angled across the street. There was movement within the shop; she was not surprised to see the pretty bartender from last night at a table within. Behind the counter was a redhead of about the same age. Would that be Willow? Ripper’s daughter, maybe? A puzzle for later.

The lock was easy and, thankfully, the back apartment was dark. Annie padded silently to the door at the front of the kitchen and listened. She cracked it slightly; it led to a store room, the smell of herbs very strong within. The doorway at the other side, leading to the store front, was hung with strings of beads. Atmosphere for the tourists. No sound from beyond but the shuffling of pages and the hum of a computer fan. Annie closed back the door.

She sealed Ripper’s bedroom door behind her as well before she flicked on the overhead light. Examining the bookshelves again, the titles were so obvious she was ashamed she didn’t see this last night: Mysteries of the Occult; Creatures of Darkness; Barron’s Guide to the Undead; one merely titled Vampyr. Hundreds of titles, all in the same vein. Annie ran her fingers over the spines one by one. Well, with this kind of collection, he clearly knew something about this stuff. She could learn everything she never wanted to about being a Slayer from this room.

Of course, there was nothing conclusive here. Ripper might just be a professor of mythology or something. She smiled. No, from what she knew of him so far, professor didn’t seem to fit.

Annie turned her head at a sound from the front of the store. Voices. She needed to hurry.

She looked over the shelves of books again. What was the name of this town? Sunny-something? There had to be something more useful here. A book of local history maybe. She could hear Faith’s angry voice in her head. Annie bit back her fear again. Why had she let Faith go?

Moving to the next shelf, eyes still scanning, she spotted a collection of relatively unadorned volumes. Actually, several sets, two volumes, five volumes, three volumes, eight volumes… nothing on the spines but dates, each set slightly different than the others. Annie looked at them curiously. The dates went back decades. She turned her head, and spotted another shelf, full of the same types of books. These went back much further, some hundreds of years. Journals?

She looked at the desk again, thinking. The volume from last night was still there, and now another lay beside it. She stepped over by the bed. Turning the book, she looked at its spine. The only adornment was a date, from last November. The other tome had two dates.

Directly above the desk was a full set, thirteen volumes in all. The dates on these went back almost four years.

Annie cocked her head at the sounds from the store front again. Something familiar about the voices. No, about one voice. She felt a tightening in her stomach. Again she raised her eyes to the spines above the desk. She looked once more at the dates. This wasn’t possible.

Then a part of her laughed. Of course it was possible. What was it he used to say? You can never escape your destiny. Faith was wrong. She could smell the rancid breath of fate’s open jaws. Her hand trembled as she reached for the first volume above the desk. She had to catch it as the book nearly slipped from her suddenly nerveless fingers. Annie set it down atop the desk and, taking a breath, tipped open the cover.

September 4, 1996

I begin my assignment here in Sunnydale in the guise of, of all things, a high school librarian. Not that this is particularly far fetched; indeed, it is a nearly perfect camouflage. My understanding is that few if any students here at Sunnydale High will endeavor to take advantage of the facilities, so our necessarily clandestine activities may find easy purchase. Also, the school’s collection will hide my own reference works neatly amongst them. After the Museum, this may be a dull day to day vocation, but as cover it should be splendid.

There is only one wrench in the works, as these Americans would say: I have not yet found the Slayer.

Still, I have few worries. The Council’s research has been extensive. Their best examiners have found many signs pointing to this area as the next home of the Slayer,
though after the demise of poor Greta, the gap has been troublesome. My own research so far pinpoints Sunnydale as a focus of mystical energy, something the Spanish missionaries called Boca Del Infierno – the Mouth of Hell. It would certainly be fitting to find the Chosen One here. If nothing else, of course, Mr. Zabuto’s trainee Kendra is ready to take up the mantle.

Still, I expect to find the Slayer soon. “She cannot escape her destiny,” my old mentor Mr. Merrick used to say.

Annie held her mouth against retching. To read her Watcher’s words after just hearing them in her head was too much. She couldn’t breathe.

Fleeing to the alley once again, any pretense of stealth forgotten, Annie gulped the air, hands on her knees and head nearly between her legs. Long moments passed as she steadied herself. Her eyes burned. Her skin was flushed. She was weaker than she could ever remember.

She wasn’t in the mouth of fate; she was already down its throat.

Ripper was a goddamned Watcher. She’d fucked a goddamned Watcher last night.

Then, when at last she could hear above her heartbeat, the voices nudged her again. Annie slipped back inside, listening. Apparently no one had heard her flight, for the voices still came from the front of the store. What had bothered her about them before came back to her with a sickening clarity. One of the voices was terribly familiar.

The blonde Slayer opened the storeroom door again. Trying desperately to be quiet, she moved to the wall by the forward entrance.

“…the Ellington Chronicles have a mention of portals near a Hellmouth, but I couldn’t cross-reference other events from this time period.” Another Brit. The voice she was terrified that she recognized.

“I understand.” A young woman. The redhead, maybe.

“Are you certain Mr. Giles will get all this information?”

“Yes, Wesley.”

“Shouldn’t you write this down?”

“It’ll be fine.”

“Perhaps I should stay until he returns.”

“You’re certainly welcome to, but I don’t know how long that will be.”

“I’ll… just sit here with Miss Chase then.”

“Gee, thanks.” The bartender.

“You don’t mind?”

“Nah, make yourself at home. Maybe you can help me figure out this book.”

Annie took a deep breath. She retreated in her mind three years. She could picture it in her head: a thin, well dressed, bespectacled man with an English accent, asking around Southy for a girl named Faith. A very strong girl named Faith. Following him for blocks, from schoolyards to private gyms to neighborhood hardcourts. Wanting desperately to get him in an alley for just a minute or two.

She backed into the shadows, then snuck a look through the hanging beads. She felt tears sting her eyes, but she refused to let them fall. God, he was even wearing the same suit.

Annie remembered to turn off Ripper’s bedroom light before she went out the back for good.


VII: Mouthful of Ashes