Rating: PG 13
Thank you Jo and DS for all the hard work hosting the IWRY marathon this year.
Disclaimer: I’ll put them back when I’m done.
A big thank you to Jo for prompting me to write a different tale from the one I had originally proposed.
Summary: A girl needs saving.
Eddies of dust swirled around his feet. His boots were no longer black; particles of debris painted them white as he strode across acres of bone. Stretching endlessly around him was an ocean of decaying skeletons. Most had crumbled to dust. The unmistakable shape of the odd skull, a hand or claw here and there clutching at fragments of weapons, crunched like cracking glass as he passed by. He refused to breathe, hoping to prevent bone dust from entering his useless lungs. Angel continued his march forward. He didn’t know why he was moving in the direction he had chosen, but it pulled at him, his inner sense telling him it was the right thing to do.
In the distance he could see the outline of buildings, and hours later as he neared them, the buildings turned out to be nothing more than fallen stone, split apart and disintegrating like the bones spread around them. A battle had been fought here. Had victory been snatched from the jaws of defeat? Or had everyone perished, dying to the last, in a conflict that had no winner?
In the deafening silence, the call of a bird came to him. It was faint and the bird was a fair way off. Angel turned towards the sound and, picking up his pace, headed in that direction. The bottoms of his dark trousers and the hem of his calf-length coat were now coated white. He was a dusty grey warrior marching off to war. His sword, strapped against his back, the hilt within easy reach above his left shoulder, still lay pristine in its scabbard.
The sun did not burn him. He did not pause to wonder at the miracle. His visits to other dimensions had assured him that only the sun in his dimension was lethal to his kind. The day was glaringly bright: it hurt his eyes. He wished for something he had never before had a use for; sunglasses. Eventually, the skeletal hell fell behind him and he found himself in a forest of petrified trees. Leaves hung from branches, lifeless and brittle. He reached out with a finger, and found the leaves were like cockle shells. They tinkled when he brushed a couple together. The bird cried out again, and he broke off his examination to look about for it.
The creature flew at him, swooping low to get his attention. As it passed overhead and circled, he saw it was a kestrel. A small falcon, about seven to eight inches long, the bird of prey was a beautiful thing, small and yet an excellent predator. Its wings and back were a rufous hue with dark brown barring, and beneath the wings a buff colour, streaked with brown. The tail was heavy with black barring across its feathers. The bird’s head was pretty, white with a bluish-grey top. It looked as if someone had painted mascara on the sides of its head in the form of two vertical lines. A female. Angel knew his birds of prey. It was an American kestrel. The bird was the only living thing he had seen in this desolate place. It circled again and then flew up over the forest. A smile, though grim, came to his lips. The bird was his guide.
He was here to save a girl.
As he navigated the forest a wind kicked up. The shell-like leaves clattered then roared with each gust. Not only did the sound hurt his ears, the shells sliced at him as he passed by, cutting his clothing and his flesh. The trunks of the trees were bare at waist level, the branches thick with their strange leaves from there on up. Angel pushed at his preternatural speed, gaining ground with every bloody step until his energy gave out. He resorted to crawling on his hands and knees. There was no time to waste by stopping and waiting the wind out. Against the howl of the gale he heard the bird cry. He renewed his efforts, shuffling crab-like on the forest floor. Hours went by in this fashion, until, blessed relief, the wind fell away. Angel staggered to his feet. The knees of his trousers were shredded. His hands were caked in dirt, the blood from the abuse making good glue. The forest floor had been littered with broken shells.
Wondering whether the bird had found refuge and safety, he stumbled out through the trees and found himself on the banks of a river. It glistened red. And it smelled. Angel’s gorge threatened to rise. The river was a poisonous cesspool of coagulated blood. The pretty falcon brushed by his head as it flew across the river and into the hills beyond. He looked up and down the banks, hoping to see a crossing. The landscape held no hope for him. Sighing, he released his sword, gripped it in his hands and stepped into the bloody mire. With each step the ground beneath him lowered. Soon he was up to his eyes in the viscous fluid. The blade held high above his head, he continued on, grateful he didn’t have to breathe. However, liquid pooled in his nostrils and in the hollows of his closed eyes and lips. It was a ghastly crossing, one Angel never wanted to experience again. He was drowning in blood. Poetic, he thought, having drunk a river of human lives.
Shambling out of the river, Angel was a sorry sight. He was covered from head to toe in a coagulated muddy mess. With no clean water available, he had to make do and carry on, his shoes squelching, sodden. And the smell. He reeked. At the first sign of grass cladding the rising hills, he hurried forward and rolled like a dog, hoping to scrape the worst of it off. Raking his grass-cleaned hands over his face, he gained a little bit of comfort. The kestrel swooped upon him again, hurrying him along. He picked up his sword and followed.
Over the rise of the next hill there was a pool of water. It was clear. Angel scooped up a handful to wash and cried out as the water burned him. It was holy water. His skin blistered. Grimacing, he began to pull off his filthy clothing. Each item went into the pool until the water was stained red. With his sword he agitated his clothes, hoping to rinse them clean. He was naked. He would have felt vulnerable but there was nobody to see. The bird flew by and settled on a rock nearby, as if to remind him he wasn’t alone. It stared at him with its pretty dark eyes.
“Feast your eyes,” he told her, and proceeded, with his blade, to pull his things out of the water. He laid them on boulders and rocks, drying them in the sun. He hoped his skin was proof against sunburn.
Every article of clothing had to be dry before he could don them. His shoes he refused to soak, he would wear them bloody. The sun was making its way to the horizon as he finished dressing, the bird of prey flying ahead to lead the way. Holy water was the bitch that lay damp in the seams of his clothes. He limped.
Climbing the cliff face left him exhausted. He crawled over the lip of a ledge, grateful for the respite. The ledge turned out to be expansive. A giant sword looked to have slashed away at the cliff, hewing away a good-sized chunk. The mouth of a cave loomed large and sinister at the far end. The kestrel keened once and landed on a rocky outcrop. It stared at him and then at the cave.
The entrance wasn’t empty. An occupant sat there. And beside it lay a girl. As Angel drew near he could see she was pretty, with dark hair and a slender neck. She wasn’t aware.
“Sleeping beauty, I presume?” he said to the creature who sat beside her.
Eyes as big as dinner plates blinked at him lazily. The irises were human-like, not reptilian as myth demanded, violet and gold swirling in their depths. Smoke and flame did not issue forth from its snout, but Angel could smell sulphur in the air. The mouth gaped, and razor teeth a foot long grinned at him in reply.
In his head he heard, Dead thing.
Unable to resist, he said, “I’m here to rescue the princess.”
You think you can defeat me?
“I’ll give it a good old try.” He hefted his sword. “The difficulties in my path? Your idea? Reminding me of what I am didn’t cut it. Nice neighbourhood, though.”
Angel raised an eyebrow. There was something more here than met the eye.
“You’ve heard of me?”
You killed my mate.
Angel blinked. Oh. “He was your mate?”
Rillianth was his name. We had been together for a thousand years.
“He tried to kill me and my friends. He played for the wrong side. He got what was coming to him.”
He was compelled to fight for the Wolf, the Ram and the Hart. They held my eggs as ransom.
Angel lowered his sword. “The girl was a ruse to get me here.”
And you came as I knew you would.
“What do I have to do to gain her release?”
The dragon’s eyes flamed gold, the violet subsumed.
“Your life for hers.”
Angel’s heart plummeted. His life was forfeit. And, although he didn’t want to die he knew that he would comply. How could he not? There was more at stake here than just his life. “You guarantee you’ll let her and the other go if I do?”
The kestrel swooped at him in a frenzy, attacking his head. He put up his hands and shooed it back. It flapped and fluttered until coming to rest. Its cry whistled through the air, around the vampire and the dragon. Angel stared at the bird, waiting for the dragon’s reply.
Angel knelt on the ground and put down his sword. He looked up at the dragon.
“First, I’d know your name.”
Suntrynth is who I am. I am sorry that our paths crossed this way. I know your name but I’d hear it from your lips.
For what it is worth, Angel, the Wolf, the Ram and the Hart suffered defeat that day. For that I am glad. Are you prepared?”
Angel readied himself.
He inhaled. “I am.” He exhaled.
The dragon swallowed him whole.
He opened his eyes and found he was enveloped in an armful of Buffy. She was crying, her tears hot against his neck. Buffy pulled back and thumped his chest before kissing him hard.
“You…you…are the most selfless man on the planet. You let her kill you. I might never have seen you again.” She kissed him again. “Don’t ever do that again!”
“Um…okay. What happened?” He looked around. The girl he had gone to rescue was in a bed, asleep. Apparently, whatever the dragon had done to her hadn’t worn off yet. He recognized the room. It was Buffy’s room. He had come to in the house Buffy and several other slayers now called home. Willow was beaming at them, sitting at the foot of the bed.
“The dragon ate you!” Buffy cried. “She swallowed you whole. It was the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen, and I thought I’d seen it all.”
The belly of the beast, he thought, wryly.
“I couldn’t fight her, Buffy. I had killed her mate. Recompense was due.”
“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth eh, Angel?” said Willow from where she sat.
“I had to do it, Buffy. I couldn’t leave you there.”
“You could have beaten her.”
“Maybe. But I couldn’t risk it. There was you to consider. And two wrongs don’t make a right.”
“But what was the point of it all if she let you go in the end?”
“Maybe she wanted to see if I was willing to make the sacrifice.”
Buffy knew all about sacrifice. She had made many in her lifetime. “Have I told you much I love you lately?”
He grinned. “Tell me again.”
Something else occurred to her. “Wait. You knew I was the bird?”
“A kestrel, Buffy. An American kestrel and you were beautiful. I would know you even if I was blind.”
Angel’s words sent a shiver up Buffy’s spine. He had said the very same thing in a dream all those years long ago. She clutched at him again, and wrinkled her nose.
He chuckled. “I know. I had better go shower.”
Willow left the girl’s side. She placed a hand on Buffy’s back, pleased that everything had turned out okay. The slayer turned around to look at her. Willow could see Buffy’s eyes were shining with joy.
“When Abigail disappeared, and Buffy with her into that dimension, I knew you could rescue them. But a dragon, Angel! A dragon! I wish I had seen.”
There had been a note. A block of stone which had the words Send the vampire carved into it. And he had answered its call.
Angel smiled at her fondly. Willow’s exuberance reminded him so much of Fred it hurt. “Next time, I promise.”
“Your poor hands and knees!” Buffy gently took hold of his hands. They had already scabbed and were healing nicely. His face was almost as good as new. Except for the icky muck matted in his hair.
Angel loved the feel of her hands on his. He smiled again. “I’ve had worse.”
All of a sudden Buffy’s eyes went wide, and she turned to Willow. Angel caught a glimpse of the mischievous grin on her face.
She squealed. “Angel was naked, Willow. For hours.”