Hell and High Water
Author: Dark Star
Summary: Don’t pay the ferryman
Written for the 2010 IWRY Marathon
He stands alone on the quay. There is a rumble across the heavens and he thinks it will rain soon. It is cold, and the wind pulls at his jacket and freezes his skin. But he has no mind for such minor details and he waits impatiently.
A boat comes slowly out of the darkness, heading toward the quay, and he is down the short flight of steps before the boat pulls up alongside the quay and stops. A hooded figure stands at the stern of the boat, holding a single oar. The face is in darkness under the hood, but the figure beckons him aboard with spindly demonic fingers. Angel steps warily into the craft and stands unmoving at the bow of the boat. He is alert in case of any sudden movements, but the demon does nothing except paddle the boat back out across the water. He has not seen the face of the ferryman but he does not need to. He knows it is the face of death.
“Where is she?”
“They’ve taken her to a Hell Dimension.”
“How do we get her out?”
“As far as I can tell, the Ferryman is the only way to get in.”
Angel turns to look at him, “Charon?”
Giles sits wearily. “No. This legend predates that by millennia. Personally, I think that Charon and the other Ferryman legends of Rome, Egypt, etcetera, are based on this.”
Angel nods. “All right, that’s how I get in, and I’ll figure out how to bring her back when I get there.”
“You know it won’t be easy. Many men have tried, but as far as I know, they’ve all failed.”
“I’m not a man,” Angel points out. He studies Giles for a moment before saying, “You tried, didn’t you, Giles?”
Giles nods miserably. “They wouldn’t even accept passage. The Ferryman never came.”
Angel picks up his jacket. “It’s up to me, then.”
“Yes. Angel… be on your guard at all times. Don’t trust the Ferryman, and don’t pay him until you reach the other side. They’re not going to want either of you to leave, and they will do their best to stop you.”
“Yeah. I figured that.” He goes to the door, pauses and smiles grimly. “Our chances aren’t good, are they?”
Giles knows he doesn’t really expect an answer, but he gives one anyway. “The two of you have beaten the odds before, and I have to believe you can do it again. I think you’re the best chance she has of getting out of there alive.” He doesn’t say that she might not even still be alive, and he adds, “That’s all I have to give you, Angel.”
Angel nods. “It’s enough.”
The Ferryman doesn’t speak on the journey. Angel stands unmoving, listening to the lap of the oar in the water and the rumble of the overhead thunder and wonders how long before the rain comes.
The movement of the single oar in the water is hypnotising. He tries to ignore it, thinks he should keep his mind active in case he needs to act quickly. What to think about? The method of propelling a boat through the water by an oar is ancient, and he tries to remember what it’s called. When the name comes to him, he wants to laugh. Sculling. He ruthlessly stamps on the urge to laugh as he suspects it will turn maniacal, and he jams his hands in his pocket to check the coins Giles gave him are still there. Yes. So far so good…
He looks down, there are shapes swimming around the boat and he chooses not to dwell on them and he looks up. The wind is getting up, but there is something strange about the sound. It sounds like wailing, and he can’t help but think about lost souls in the unearthly sound. He wryly thinks that it’s a good thing he is himself a creature of the night or the eeriness around him would bother him, but fortunately it doesn’t affect him. At all.
The boat pulls up at the jetty and Angel steps out. He can’t move; some kind of barrier is preventing him from leaving the boat and he finds the hooded figure standing uncomfortably close to his arm. He pulls a gold coin from his pocket and drops it into the waiting skeletal palm. The fleshless fingers curl over the coin, and Angel tries to ignore the feeling that the Ferryman is sizing him up.
The barrier has gone and Angel jogs along the single path up to the top of the hill. There is a building just over the other side. It is a medieval-style castle that looks like something out of a horror movie, and he increases his speed so that he doesn’t allow himself any more flights of fancy.
Inside the castle, it isn’t what he expects. There doesn’t appear to be any way to get upstairs or down, everything seems to be all on one level, but it doesn’t surprise him that the whole place is reminiscent of a dungeon. Dark, dismal, cold stone lit by fire torches and barred cells and chains attached to the rough walls.
He turns the corner and he sees her. She is curled into a ball, sobbing and dirty, blood coating her hands and hair. He crouches beside her.
She looks up, tired and bloody, and her eyes widen. “Angel?”
Relief floods him, and he goes to help her up but he hesitates. Something is wrong. Finding her was too easy, and he stands uncertainly.
Buffy begins to cry. “Don’t go.”
He is torn between comforting her and his instinct that something is wrong. “I’ll be back,” he tells her, and he ignores her pleas as he carries on down the passage.
He rounds the next corner, and he finds Buffy. She is naked, chained to the wall, blood running down her arms and legs and pooling round her feet. She begs him to free her, but again, he can’t help the feeling that something is wrong, and he passes her by.
He finds Buffy everywhere; she is torn and bloody, battered and broken and he begins to despair of ever finding her. How will he know if it really is her? An unpleasant thought occurs to him. Suppose they are all Buffy? Different incarnations of this place, but every one is genuine? He shudders at that thought. Or supposing she isn’t here at all?
By the time he has encountered a hundred Buffys, his tread is weary and his heart heavy. Whether these images of Buffy are real or not, it hurts to see her body so tortured and broken, and he isn’t sure how much more of this torment he can stand.
The next one is held in an invisible barrier. She is naked, suspended in mid-air, twisting and screaming in pain. He goes to pass her, but he can’t. He doesn’t know why, but he can’t make himself leave her, and when he stands watching her writhe he understands why. He can feel her; he has blocked the sensation in this place but here, with her in front of him, he knows she is real. Or he hopes so. The presence of so many Buffys has dulled his senses – suppose he’s wrong?
He looks around for a way to free her. There are six glowing lights on the walls around her, and the beam that is holding her up appears to be coming from them. He steps forward, smashing the first one with his elbow and tries to ignore the fact that Buffy is screaming louder. He glances at her body to make sure nothing else is happening but he knows he must be quick. He taps into his vampire speed to break another two, and on the fourth, the beam disappears and she drops like a stone. He was expecting that, he catches her before she hits the ground. What he wasn’t expecting is her reaction.
The moment he touches her, she turns wild, clawing and screaming at him, making them both overbalance and crash to the floor.
“Get off me!” she shrieks, trying to twist away and he grips her arms hard to stop her.
“It’s me!” he yells at her, but it makes no difference as he struggles to hold on to her frantic form. Normally she would be stronger but he can feel she is weak, and he is able to restrain her. He tries talking to her, soothing, but she is too crazy to listen. “Buffy,” he tries again. “It’s me. Feel me.”
It is the wrong thing to say, because her eyes blaze as she screams, “I think I’ve felt you enough lately.” The implications of that make him let go and stand up. What the hell have they been doing to her?
“Fine,” he snaps at her prone form. “Stay there. Let them torture you. But if you want to get out of here, come with me.”
Her eyes widen and she stares at him uncertainly. Not sure what else to say, he adds, “Maybe you aren’t the real deal. The Buffy I know wouldn’t want to stay a victim. She’d take a chance.”
Buffy tries to stand up but she is very weak. Angel can’t help himself, and he offers her his hand. She hesitates, and then lets him pull her up. She looks up at him curiously.
“Is it really you?”
“It’s me,” he assures her. He steps back, strips off his jacket and shirt, and hands her his black shirt before putting his jacket back on. Puzzled, she takes the shirt and looks down, noticing for the first time she is naked. She shrugs and puts the shirt on. It is hugely baggy and hangs down past her knees. In everything she has been through, having no clothes on was the least of her problems but at least the shirt will help to keep her warm.
She totters a bit when she turns, and Angel’s hand goes under her arm to support her. She doesn’t resist, and he helps her down the corridor and out of the castle. All of the other Buffys have gone from the castle and they see no other living creatures on their journey. Outside, the air is chilly and Buffy shivers, suddenly glad of Angel’s shirt. But she is getting cold, and the ground is sharp bits of rock that cut into her bare feet. Angel asks her permission and then picks her up in his arms gently. God, she is so small. How can this tiny woman be a slayer, and have so much power? She snuggles up close to Angel’s chest as they jog back down the path towards the water’s edge. Then they wait.
By the time the boat floats out of the darkness and pulls in front of them, a few drops of rain are starting to fall. Angel moves to step into the boat but the Ferryman holds out his hand for his fee. Angel shakes his head, and says firmly, “No. Get us safely to the other side, and you’ll get your payment.”
The Ferryman steps back and returns to the stern of the boat. Angel steps inside after him, still with Buffy in his arms, and reluctantly places her down. He knows she would rather be standing under her own steam in here, and she immediately turns to stare warily at the hooded figure.
She folds her arms over the baggy shirt to keep herself warm. The drops of rain have ceased, but the sky is full of black clouds and the thunder still rolls almost overhead, and she knows it won’t be long before the heavens open.
She watches the shore recede into the distance until there is nothing left to see. She doesn’t want to look at the figure that could be death manning the oar so instead she looks over the side of the boat at the murky water below. She catches sight of a face in the water. Hers? A reflection? But no, the reflection moves when she doesn’t, and she steps back involuntary.
“There’s things in the water,” she whispers to Angel.
“I know,” he tells her. “I saw them on the way over. But there are more of them this time.”
Great. She should have known that this crossing wouldn’t pass without hitch. Still, the faces – she can see more staring up from the water – haven’t yet done anything. It’s just really creepy. She suddenly realises she is standing too close to Angel for comfort and she moves away with a sigh. Hasn’t she got enough freaky stuff to worry about? A monstrous sinewy shape slithers under the boat and she steps back from sight of the things in the water with a shiver. The Ferryman is staring at her, and she looks away, instinctively looking toward Angel for comfort. He is standing stock still, every muscle poised for action if need be. But in this place, his statue-like poise is unnerving, and it suddenly occurs to her that she is the only living thing here. Will they really let her get out alive? She shivers, suddenly afraid, and Angel turns to look at her. He gives her the tiniest of grim smiles and oddly, she feels better. His hand gently slides into hers, and it’s almost as though he gives her some of his strength because she instantly feels more positive. She is not alone. She has Angel at her side, and he has got her this far. Maybe they can do this together, after all.
A movement in her peripheral vision makes her turn her head. A small hand is resting on the gunnels of the boat, and Buffy bends over to see what’s happening. A child is hanging on the boat. A small girl, looking lost and frightened, is sobbing in the water.
“Help me,” she implores them, her little girl voice sounding small and pathetic against the rumble of the approaching storm. Buffy instinctively begins to move to protect the child, but Angel catches hold of her arm first.
“That isn’t a child,” he warns her, and Buffy hesitates. Her head knows what he says is true, but her heart bleeds for the distressed child. She knows she must trust her instincts, and reluctantly she steps back, ignoring the plaintive cries of the little girl. Slowly, the child’s face begins to morph into something else. A hideous parody of a child; a grotesque mask of decay and malevolence, and she begins to climb into the boat. Angel moves first, kicking the small shape back into the water, but another shape is already climbing over the boat’s stern, and something inside Buffy snaps. She kicks the ascending ghastly figure hard, making him – it? – topple back into the water, and she instinctively adjusts her stance to accommodate the shifting of the boat but she already feels better. Finally, she has something she can fight.
But no sooner have they cleared the boat of unwelcome intruders than the storm finally arrives with a vengeance. The wind howls with an eerie echo and Buffy could swear that she hears the wailing of people calling out to them. Lightning flashes overhead, casting the whole creepy scene in a ghostly, unearthly glow.
The rain is merciless. It comes in fierce blasts of icy water, obscuring their vision and chilling them down to the bone. The relentless wind feels colder once their clothes are soaked and the boat rolls crazily with the buffeting winds. The Ferryman stands unmoving at the stern of the boat, apparently unaffected by the turmoil around him.
But for Buffy and Angel, it’s a different story. Keeping their balance is no mean feat, even for them, in a vessel that is intent on flipping them overboard. Water is sloshing over the side of the boat, making the deck slippery. Both of them have excellent balance, but the side of the boat is too low to hang on to, and there is nothing else. Buffy considers whether she will be safer curled up at the bottom of the boat but doesn’t want to be that helpless, and the bottom of the boat is awash with water. If this keeps up, the boat will sink.
Then, a particularly high wave sends them both tumbling. Buffy catches the side of the boat but Angel misses, and goes straight over the side. She moves before she thinks about it, and grabs a handful of fabric on the shoulder of his black jacket. He’s already got hold of the side of the boat but the tumultuous water is trying to drag him away and he can’t get enough purchase to get back in.
Underneath Angel she can see movement in the water, things gathering around him, and she thinks she sees skeletal hands reaching for him. She fights back a sob and renews her efforts to bring him back. It’s not easy; her hands are so cold she can barely feel them, and she wonders how long she can hold on to him.
As she struggles to drag him back in, she senses, rather than sees the Ferryman moving behind her and she squirms round to see what’s happening. He has the long oar in his hand and he’s clearly intent in hastening Angel’s exit from the boat. She feels Angel’s jacket start to slip away from her and her anger boils over.
“You fucking touch him and I’ll ram that oar so far down your throat you’ll be sitting on it,” she growls at the creature behind her. Apparently he sees something in her expression because he backs off, and Buffy turns her attention back to Angel, where she throws caution to the winds and lets go of the boat to grab him under the arms. She’s so angry she wants to hit something.
“I’m too heavy,” he tells her wearily. “Let me go.”
“You,” she says through gritted teeth as she strains to bring him aboard, “Are going to get your ass in this boat or I’m coming in after you. Got that?”
He knows she means it, and he will not put her in any more danger than he needs to. He can feel things tangling round his legs, and he can’t bear the thought of having her in the water with him. He didn’t go through all this just to let her end up like that. He has no idea where he finds the strength, but he manages to get enough leverage to get his upper body up and out of the water, and Buffy helps him to climb in. The whole time the boat rocks and rolls, but not once do they let go of each other.
They fall down on the sodden floor and cling to each other, too exhausted to try and stand against the storm hammering them back to the ground.
At last the storm begins to die down and Buffy and Angel pick themselves up off the floor. Buffy wrinkles her nose in distaste at the water dripping off her sodden shirt. Her legs are turning blue from the cold, she’s wet, and she’s seriously pissed off. The water sloshes in the bottom of the boat as Angel moves closer to her. The legs of his pants have been torn to shreds, and blood is seeping through what is left of them. She tries not to think about what would have happened to him if he hadn’t got back into the boat.
The rain has stopped, but it is still very cold. Angel’s instinct is to wrap his jacket around her, but that too is sodden and it would be something of a pointless exercise. Instead, he hugs her close and hopes that his gesture is welcome.
Buffy lets Angel comfort her for a few minutes before breaking away. She would love to make it longer, but she doesn’t trust the Ferryman, or this place, and she knows she needs to be alert. She sneaks a peak over the side of the boat but the water is smooth, and there are no signs of anything moving in it. An unnatural silence has fallen after the turbulent storm and cries of the lost souls, and Buffy can’t help feeling that something else is going to happen.
But the rest of the journey is uneventful, and when the boat pulls up at the quay, they step out but cannot proceed because of the invisible barrier. Angel rummages in his pocket, and panics momentarily when he can’t find any coins. Did they fall out when he was in the water? But he finds them, and pulls two gold coins out of the pocket to drop them into the waiting bony palm. The barrier disappears and Buffy and Angel move thankfully away from the water. The boat is moving away and unable to resist a parting shot, Buffy calls to the Ferryman and says, “Thanks for ride, Skellington!”
The Ferryman raises his head, for the first time giving them a glimpse of the bony face under the cowl. When he speaks, his hollow voice sends shivers crawling up her spine and she wishes she’d kept quiet.