Every time I use the RTF interface, there are more icon thingies across the top. LiveJournal Video? The hell? Apparantly, it's to allow people to embed You Tube videos in LJ entries.
Anyway, I apologize for being rare this week. There was PowerPoint rage and trying to sort out the mess that is this part. I know there's a million emails I haven't answered and I apologize. I'm desperately trying to get this completely posted in a reasonable amount of time so I can go back to other stories.
RL...it's not just for people...
For the Scatterlings and Orphanages Africander Fiction Challenge by ludditerobot.
For all previous parts, go here.
Continued from Part 41.
In either case, I knew that shoving Dave in the direction I wanted him to go wouldn’t help me. A gentle push was called for. “If you tell me, I’ll eat Grandmother Touré’s food.”
Dave regarded me. “Eat first, then I talk.”
“I’ll eat while you talk,” I counter-offered.
Dave winced. “Not a good idea. You’ll lose your appetite somewhere in the middle.”
“I rather doubt that,” I honestly replied.
For a brief moment Dave seemed torn. He finally broke. “At least you’ll get some food in you.” He glanced at the door. “Good thing we’ve got time,” he added in mutter. “Harris is a little bit busy.”
Reading my notes and the files, no doubt, I thought. I rather viciously hoped that every word he read would cut him deep enough to make him bleed.
“Well, then,” I prompted.
Dave walked over to the tray of food, picked it up, and delivered it to my lap.
My deal had been accepted.
There are days that I rather wished it hadn’t been.
The Devon seers had detected a Slayer in northern Tanzania near the Ugandan border. The message took approximately a day to reach Mr. Harris. He immediately set off with Alexandrienne and a Slayer they had just recruited in Zambia to investigate.
When they arrived several days after receiving the message, there was no Slayer to be found. After almost a week of searching and questioning the locals, and repeated double-checking with London to make sure they were in the right area, Mr. Harris determined that the seers had been mistaken and left with his charges.
While the seers were rarely wrong, circumstances could lead them into error.
Four times Mr. Harris arrived in a village, only to discover that his potential Slayer had been killed by errant gunfire or some other mundane means mere hours after he received news of her existence. These instances, Dave assured me, were always the worst. After every such gruesome discovery, Mr. Harris invariably found his way to where Dave lived in Dogon country. These visits lasted for a day or two, as Mr. Harris seized the opportunity to talk, to rest, and to escape from his crushing responsibilities, albeit briefly.
Three times Mr. Harris had arrived at his destination, only to discover that the seers had picked up on something mystical, rather than a Slayer. Twice it had been a local phenomenon that resulted in the erroneous reading. In the third instance, the coven had actually detected a boy that had been bespelled with extraordinary stamina and speed to improve his athletic performance. This spell, from what I understand, had to be renewed on a regular basis and took quite a lot of power to maintain, a significant difference from the spell that set our current generation of Slayers on their respective paths.
Twice Mr. Harris arrived and found his “Slayer.” After bringing her back to the village, it was discovered that she was, in fact, a demon that had been bespelled by a witch or shaman to read as a “Slayer” to any mystical sight. In both cases, this occurred in areas where Mr. Harris and Alexandrienne had run afoul of some authority or another at some earlier point. The intent of these malevolent personages was to strike back.
“Excuse me,” I interrupted at this point. “What about the wards?”
Dave winced. “Anything that can fool seers can usually fool automatic wards. The first time it happened, the disguised demon did some property damage, but it didn’t get too far in a village full of Slayers pissed that their stuff got wrecked and one of their buddies got hurt enough to win a four-day stay with Doc. After that, Moms and Harris put their heads together to come up with an extra test in case it happened again. Well, when it did happen a second time, it worked like a charm and demon girl was nailed before she even made it to the hut.”
I popped a piece of chicken in my mouth. “Oh?” I prompted with a mouth full of food.
“That tea Moms makes. The one Harris made you drink almost the second you stepped foot into the village,” Dave responded.
Dave grinned. “I don’t get exactly how it works, so don’t ask me. I guess it comes down to: ‘You can fool the eyes and you can fool the seers, but you can’t fool the herbs,’ or at least these herbs. If you’re human, there’s no reaction at all because you’ve got nothing mystical about you. If you’re a Slayer, well, you get this slight rash on some part of your body that’s exposed to sunlight, but it fades pretty quick.”
I stared at my left wrist in consternation, as that was where my own ‘tell’ in the form of an itchy rash that plagued me immediately after drinking that tea saw fit to appear.
This prompted a chuckle from Dave. “Yeah, you got outed by that one. Then when you killed a gecko on top of that?” He shook his head. “You might as well have been wearing a sign.”
“Mr. Harris killed a gecko, too,” I protested. “He said—”
“Eva, do you know how fast a gecko moves?” Dave asked incredulously. “Harris may have freaked out the first time he woke up nose-to-beady eye with one and tried to kill it. Bets are that gecko was out the door before he got close. He only said that to you so you’d think it was possible for a normal human to do what you did and you wouldn’t catch on that we knew your Slayer secret.”
“The tea, then,” I pointed out. “If Mr. Harris already knew before I showed up that I was a Slayer, then why on earth did he bother—”
“Hey, you were probably probed seven ways to Sunday before you ever hopped a plane to come down here,” Dave shrugged. “But Harris has enough experience to know that one more check wasn’t going to hurt anyone.”
I thrust my left wrist under his nose. “Rash!”
“It went away, didn’t it?” Dave asked.
“Hardly the point,” I grumbled as I dove once more into my food.
“Anyway,” Dave continued, “if you’re a demon disguised as a Slayer and you’ve got the bad luck to drink Moms’s tea—”
“Yes,” I prompted with irritation at his dramatic pause.
“Boils.” Dave nodded sagely. “Boils so bad that they start to bubble. Then bleed. Then they start exploding. Next thing you know, you’ve got a lot of demon bits all over the place that aren’t connected together to form a cohesive whole.”
I swallowed my chicken hard and fought down the urge to be sick.
Dave shrugged. “It’s messy. Really, really effective, but very, very messy.”
In either case, according to Dave, Mr. Harris’s investigations in this particular case were thorough enough that he eventually discovered the existence of a local spring that was rumored by the locals to have extraordinary healing powers. He even tested it to be certain, and lo and behold, it worked just as the locals said it did. This sealed the conclusion in Mr. Harris’s mind that the seers had once more been led astray by the presence of a mystical phenomenon.
It didn’t help that Mr. Harris had a rather long list of places he needed to investigate, half of which had been marked urgent since the seers had picked up that the Slayers in question were living in precarious circumstances. He was already woefully behind, and thought that one week — a week he could barely afford to lose — was enough. He left the area and dutifully filed a report detailing his fruitless search as soon as he reached city with Internet facilities.
He then went on as before and never gave another thought to the business.
That decision came back to haunt him several months later.
“One day, Harris comes barreling into Banani with the Toyota,” Dave said. “Him stopping by for a visit when he can spare it isn’t all that unusual, but he was driving like a bat out of hell so I knew something was up. Another big sign? It wasn’t just him and Ally. He had a redhead with him.”
“Miss Rosenberg,” I said before I could stop myself.
“The same,” Dave nodded.
“What on earth was she doing here?” I asked. “She’s in—”
“South America, yeah, I know,” Dave said. “When I first met her, I thought she was just some hired Council gun Harris called in to help with the situation that was brewing. I didn’t pick up that they knew each other all that well.”
Despite Mr. Harris’s warning, I couldn’t resist dropping yet another nugget in Dave’s lap for him to think about. “I believe she’s rather more than that to Mr. Harris.”
Dave rolled his eyes. “You’re not kidding.”
I leaned forward and gossiped, “According to my information, they’ve known each other since childhood. They grew up together.”
Dave snorted. “More than that.”
“I think they’re…were…maybe still…I don’t know because I haven’t seen her again,” Dave mumbled. I detected a slight flush under his dark skin. “Let’s just say I maybe saw something. After. I mean, after we got back here. It was…ummm…”
“Ahhhh…” I awkwardly began.
“Yeeaaaaah,” Dave nodded. “I only know because I heard a noise and went to find out what it was and…talk about embarrassing.”
“I take it Mr. Harris doesn’t know you saw them?” I asked.
“Hell no. I’m not about to ask him, either,” Dave emphatically answered.
I frowned as I suddenly realized that Dave was asking me what I knew, albeit in a roundabout way. Truthfully, I didn’t know the status of their relationship at the time, and nothing I saw after the events related here indicated that it was any more intimate than what you’d find between lifelong chums. I have long since concluded that Dave had most likely been in error about what he saw, especially since Miss Rosenberg much prefers the company of women in her bed, which I can personally attest to from my single experience on that front.
However, it seemed to me that Dave had better sources if he wished to ferret out the true nature of Mr. Harris’s and Miss Rosenberg’s relationship. “Alexandrienne would know, surely, if what you saw was the true status of their—”
“Ally basically tolerates Willow, so I don’t know if Harris is hiding that from her too, or if Ally has decided she doesn’t count Willow in — ummm, you know — in that way,” Dave interrupted in a stumbling manner.
How delightful, I thought. I wasn’t sure how I might use it, but it was certainly a lovely piece of information to tuck away.
“Toleration’s a two-way street, too,” Dave added. “From what I saw, I don’t think Willow’s too hot on the idea of Ally, either. But I don’t know if it’s Ally herself, or it’s because Willow’s having a hard time dealing with the fact that Harris is one of us. Me? I think it’s a little bit of both.”
“Perhaps the two women don’t like sharing a man,” I sweetly said as I popped another piece of chicken in my mouth.
Dave’s eyes narrowed. “Ally and Harris aren’t like that. She wants him to find someone. I just don’t think she wants Willow to be that someone.”
“So you say,” I said innocently.
“Look, all of us have different kinds of relationships with our Slayers,” Dave haughtily informed me. “Ally and Harris? It’s more like, I dunno, a sibling vibe. You can see it. Hell, you can feel it. God knows they bicker like they’re related sometimes. And whenever Harris and Ally are visiting Kavitha and me and turn their training sessions into a tickle-fight, it drives Kavitha up a wall because she doesn’t think they’re taking it seriously. So what they’ve got is not like your nasty little implication at all.”
“I’m not implying a thing,” I sniffed.
Dave glowered. “Do you want to hear about Liwaza or not?”
I picked up a pinch of rice, showily popped it in my mouth, and chewed with a smile.
Dave explained in very short order that the seers in Devon had picked up the beginnings of a troubling mystical disturbance on the Kenyan-Uganda border. As this mystical disturbance was occurring on top of the Hellmouth in the Ugandan town of Malaba, it potentially had global implications if allowed to continue unchecked.
You may recall, dear reader, that reference was made to Mr. Harris’s and Dave’s visit to the Ugandan Hellmouth during Mr. Harris’s war council — which had been put on entirely for my benefit — prior to our departure for Joe. You may also recall that Mr. Harris had failed to call the Hellmouth under Malaba by its proper name and had merely told Dave that it was a “a mystical convergence where evil energies from some really nasty dimensions enter this one.”
I remind you of this now because it turns out that there was quite a bit more to that story than the vague hints I had initially heard.
While the Devon seers were attempting to discover the precise nature of the threat, Mr. Harris with his characteristic luck — although in this case I am hard-pressed to say whether it was good or bad — had heard rumors about a series of cross-border raids from Uganda into Kenya whilst moving through Kenya’s Western Province. As he had to travel through the area in question to get to boat that would take himself and Alexandrienne across Lake Victoria into Tanzania so they could then travel on to Burundi, he thought a quick stop at one of the attacked villages wouldn’t go amiss.
“Why on earth would he bother?” I asked. “It is not our place to get involved in bush fights.”
Dave raised his eyebrows and for a moment seemed offended. His answer, however, was nothing less than polite. “It wasn’t the raids themselves that caught his attention. Kenya and Uganda have had mutually hostile relations for years, so you’re right, a bunch of yahoos on one side of the border deciding to cause trouble on the other side wouldn’t get his attention normally. It was the descriptions of the attackers. He kept hearing that the raiders were a dozen men who were faster and stronger than any human. On top of that, they were described as being able to see like birds of prey and had hearing and senses of smell like dogs. The real capper is that if someone managed to draw blood, they’d heal right in front of your eyes.”
I thoughtfully chewed my food. “With the exception of instantaneous healing, that sounds rather like vampires.”
“You didn’t let me finish,” Dave added. “Harris also heard that these guys were festooned with fetishes. Unlike some fetish-wearing killers, like the ones that made life hell for people in Liberia, these fetishes actually worked. According to rumor, bullets bounced right off of them, so you had to get in close with a bladed weapon if you wanted to draw blood. Some people managed it, and that’s how they found out about the super-fast healing.”
There was more, of course. This gang would descend without warning on a village just before sunset to pillage, rape, and kill without mercy. They would even chase down people who attempted to flee the carnage and would invariably catch them. Those few who survived did so only because they were left for dead and were unexpectedly saved from dying in the mud and a pool of their own blood by fast-responding angels of mercy.
One other odd thing: the gang seemed to be targeting villages with a Quaker majority.
“Quakers?” I asked skeptically. “Kenya has Quakers?”
“That was pretty much my reaction when I heard about the Quakers,” Dave said with a chuckle. “You could’ve knocked me over with a feather when I found out that Kenya’s Western province has more Quakers per capita than anywhere else in the world. Hell, Kenya has the biggest population of Quakers of any country in the world by a pretty big margin, period.”
Honestly, dear reader, you would think that by this point in my narrative that I would have learned that I shouldn’t make assumptions about people. Or nations. Or entire continents, for that matter. I think you can tell by this exchange that I had some way to go before I could even hope to achieve that goal.
“That is one mystery no one’s solved,” Dave answered grimly. “The best anyone has come up with is, ‘They’re there, they’re convenient targets, there’s a lot of them, and because they could.’”
I frowned. While that may be a perfectly satisfactorily answer when asking about the motivations of some of the more animalistic breed of demons, it hardly seemed like a fitting answer for human motivations, especially since it seemed that the Quakers were being specifically targeted. I’ve since learned that this once-cherished belief is, to put it bluntly, erroneous. “Because I can” is a time-honored reason for doing some rather awful things, even if it is rarely a good reason.
Dave continued with his tale.
Luck was once more with Mr. Harris and Alexandrienne. When they reached the Bungoma District in Kenya, they heard news of a new attack that had occurred mere hours before their arrival. They immediately went to investigate the fresh carnage. Since Mr. Harris’s official papers stated that he was a human rights observer for one of the Council’s shell NGOs, and that Alexandrienne was both his charge and interpreter, the local officials were eager to give them access to the scene of the crime.
As he and Alexandrienne paced the blood-soaked earth looking for clues, more than a few people speculated for his benefit that Uganda, once again, was attempting to destabilize the border areas by allowing their ‘criminal gangs’ to do as they will, provided they did it outside of their home nation’s borders. Mr. Harris said all the right vague words and made all the right shows of sympathy as he doggedly interviewed the single shell-shocked survivor and searched for evidence that there was something more here than met the eye.
He soon found it.
His prize came in the form of additional details from the eyewitness, two protective fetishes that were somehow lost by the attackers, and something that looked rather like an old Roman coin at first glance. He was able to conceal his physical finds and spirit them away from the watchful eyes of the native investigators. Once he put some distance between himself and the unlucky town, he sat down to study his treasures.
The “old Roman coin” at first turned out to be the real find. The “coin” was actually bronze slug of far more recent manufacture. There were several odd markings and symbols scratched into the “tails” side of the slug. The meanings of these markings were, at the time, a complete mystery to Mr. Harris. However, he most certainly recognized the symbol on the “heads” side. It was the asymmetrical symbol of Chaos.
Needless to say, he immediately called Mr. Giles to report his unwelcome discovery and received news in return that the seers in Devon were investigating a mystical disturbance in the area. In short order, information was exchanged and Council researchers put their backs into it to discover more about the threat looming on the horizon.
The theory that emerged from these desperate and hurried investigations was truly a worst-case scenario. Mr. Harris had on his hands a potentially apocalyptic death cult that drew its power not just from the bloodshed and misery of its victims, but also on the confusion, chaos, and negative feelings that occurred in the wake of these attacks. The mystical energies were growing exponentially stronger with each attack, as if someone or something was gathering enough strength to lash out and cause greater devastation.
The only good bit of news was that the most powerful known chaos mage of that time period — one Ethan Rayne — was still in the hands of the U.S. government. Other known chaos mages ranging from the extremely powerful to middling range were elsewhere in the world. Whomever this new mage was, he or she was not as powerful as others of that ilk, since the mystical energies needed to build before they could be unleashed on an unsuspecting world.
This good news did have its downside, however. That meant that the person or persons behind the cult were complete unknowns.
Mr. Harris showed good sense by immediately requesting experienced help from London. Mr. Giles rewarded him by refusing.
I swallowed my food and stared at Dave. “You cannot be serious!”
“Hey, you said it yourself. Harris pretty much is the expert for fighting this sort of thing,” Dave pointed out. “If what I hear about the Council is right, most of you guys haven’t even fought vampires on a regular basis before now, let alone apocalyptic cults. From what I gather, Mr. Giles was still sorting out who could do what, so aside from research expertise, he couldn’t offer Harris anything more than Watcher or Slayer cannon fodder, which Mr. Giles did do by the way, but Harris felt he had to turn him down. The only way Harris could get the help he wanted is if he waited a month or two while Mr. Giles put together a Good Samaritan force to help out, but by then—”
“The cult would be even more deadly than it already was,” I finished for him.
In the end, the only real help Mr. Giles could offer was Miss Rosenberg and her considerable power as a witch. The fact that she had as much experience as Mr. Harris at fighting this sort of unpleasantness was — strangely enough — merely considered a bonus.
I admit that I was perplexed that Mr. Giles had not also offered the services of Miss Summers. True, she was on a leave of absence, at least according to Council scuttlebutt, but surely she could be called upon to lend a hand if the situation was as dire as Dave claimed. Surely she would come out of her self-imposed exile to help, even if she and Mr. Harris were not on speaking terms.
I did not bother to ask Dave about it since, thanks to both my eavesdropping efforts, I knew he was largely ignorant about the person of Miss Summers. Nor have I ever had the courage to ask any of the parties involved about the whys and wherefores of Miss Summers’s glaring absence during this particular caper. This omission remains a mystery to me to this very day.
Truthfully, knowing the story and Miss Summers as I do now, I can only believe that her presence would have made a tragic situation only that much worse.
But I am taking time away from Dave’s story, and so I apologize to you for this aside.
Dave assured me that Mr. Harris was not without his own resources. Once he had confirmation that Hellmouths will be Hellmouths, regardless of their geographical location, he hurried back to his village and presented the fetishes to Grandmother Touré in hopes she might give him an idea as to their purpose.
Her judgment, according to Dave, fell like a bad blow. The fetishes actually did act as a shield against projectile weapons. The only weak point was that forged weapons could slice through this mystical armor. However, thanks to the attackers’ rumored healing abilities, the person wielding the weapon needed to kill the fetish-wearer with the first strike.
“Mr. Harris must’ve been ecstatic,” I remarked.
Dave looked at me as if I had gone quite mad.
“A small object that anyone can wear around his or her neck, and it makes that person impervious to guns,” I pointed out. “I can’t imagine that Mr. Harris didn’t leap on this find and adapt it for his own uses.”
Dave uncomfortably fidgeted. “We can’t use them.”
“Excuse me,” I corrected Dave, “but I do recall Alexandrienne showing me the fetish she wears around her neck. So don’t tell me—”
“Different kind of magic,” Dave interrupted. “Moms’s fetishes are kind of like,” he paused as he carefully considered his words, “stacking the deck in your favor. It doesn’t keep anything away, nor does it actually save you from getting hurt of killed. According to what I was told, all it does is give you a little boost of luck. You know, maybe you duck a half-a-second sooner than you would have normally, or you spot something out of the corner of your eye that you might not have seen before, or you move just a little bit faster when you’re fighting or trying to escape danger. From what I gather her fetishes have the kind of magic works with your abilities and plays to your strengths. I think I heard Willow call it natural magic or something like that.”
I raised a doubtful eyebrow. “In short, it’s hard to prove that her magic works at all.”
“Says the woman who got pegged for being a Slayer when she drank Moms’s tea,” Dave said.
“An herbal concoction is not magic,” I sniffed. “It’s merely being clever.”
“I think Willow might disagree,” Dave said. “She was fascinated with Moms during her visit. I guess she used to be close to a witch back Sunnydale who was big into the herbal end of things, so she was thrilled to meet someone who was an expert. Guess they don’t have too many like that up in Devon.”
“I wouldn’t know,” I grumbled. “That still doesn’t explain why you couldn’t use the enemy’s fetishes for your benefit.”
Dave fidgeted uncomfortably. “Look, I wasn’t here when Harris showed Moms the fetishes.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
Dave cleared his throat. “I don’t know. I just get the feeling that— What I mean is Harris didn’t give me details about her reaction, which means that whatever she told him might be mixed up with something personal.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Don’t know. Harris wouldn’t tell me and he had that look on his face that pretty much said that asking was going to get me nowhere,” Dave said. “All he said was that Moms took one look and knew exactly what they were and how they worked. Putting those things on anyone, especially a Slayer, would be begging for trouble, not to mention a whole lot of bloodshed.”
“I don’t follow.”
Dave nervously liked his lips. “The fetishes. They feed on violence. The more violent the action you take, the more of that violence they suck into themselves, and the more they protect you. Murder someone in cold blood, torture someone, rape someone, it’s all good for these evil little bags. The magic inside gets a boost from the evil you do and radiates out into a high-level, protective sphere.”
“They feed on the blood and pain and then reward the wearer for perpetrating such acts,” I whispered with horror.
“Exactly,” Dave nodded. “Wear these bad boys while you’re committing crimes against humanity, they don’t just protect you from bullets, they also protect you from guilt. They shield your soul so none of the evil crap you do sticks to you. So when you die and go meet the Big Guy in the sky and he looks you up in his book or weighs your soul on the scales of justice, none of those sins are weighing you down.”
“Hogwash,” I sniffed.
“Look, I don’t know what I believe on the sin front. I don’t know that I believe anything in particular,” Dave shrugged. “What I believe doesn’t matter. It’s what the cult believes that’s important.”
“That is a point,” I allowed.
“More than just a point,” Dave grimly said. “Harris told me that Moms claimed the whole ‘no guilt, no sin, no crime’ is actually important. She claimed the fetishes strips the wearer of his or her soul for as long as they wear it. That’s why the evil doesn’t stick to you when you’re done. While the body is doing evil, the human soul inside goes out for a metaphorical walk. When you remove the fetish, the soul reenters the body. You remember everything the body did, but you don’t give two shits about it because you’re disconnected from it. The catch is that if you wear these things enough, eventually it gets harder and harder for the soul to re-enter the body until one day it doesn’t come back at all.”
I picked at my food in thought.
“No ‘hogwash?’” Dave asked. He sounded like he desperately wanted me to say it.
Sadly for him, I knew better. “Quite the contrary. I’ve certainly read case histories where living humans have been stripped of their souls by demons or magic. Once a body is stripped of its soul the human becomes…I believe the clinical term is ‘a psychopath.’”
“Living humans,” Dave repeated. “So we’re not talking about vampires or zombies.”
“I’m afraid not,” I said softly. “If it’s any comfort, it’s not a common occurrence. Most psychopaths are not the result of such a horrible experience.”
Dave huffed a breath as he slumped. “Depends. Think the dead Quakers will find it comforting?”
I honestly had nothing to say to that.
And so, armed with information from multiple sources, and in the company of his Slayer, and reunited with his long-time Sunnydale companion, Mr. Harris then turned his face to Banani. On a late-April day he, Alexandrienne, and Miss Rosenberg — a fighting force consisting of exactly three people — descended on the blissfully unaware Dave and Kavitha in an effort to swell their ranks to the heady number of five.
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” I muttered.
“Yup. That’s exactly what I felt like,” Dave nodded. “Although, speaking for myself, I sure as hell wouldn’t hold my manhood cheap if Harris decided that inviting me along for the fun and games was a bad idea.”
“Unbelievable,” I grumbled. “You most likely had less experience than anyone in London, and Mr. Harris chose to put you in harm’s way.”
“Hey!” Dave protested. “What me and Kavitha lack in years, we make up for in quantity. We’re out there almost every single night looking for and finding trouble. I probably have had more stake-to-heart and face-to-fang experience than most of you guys.”
I had to concede Dave’s rather good point.
“Besides, at first Harris and Willow showed up because they wanted to get a second opinion on the meanings of some symbols and religious markings the Council dug up as part of its research,” Dave said. “My expertise is folklore, mythology, belief, and spiritual practices for the rites of death, remember? Harris and Willow had the kind of motherlode that would’ve had me jumping up and down in excitement if I was tucked safe in my office at Yale.”
“I imagine you were rather less thrilled to see such things used as practical tools,” I dryly remarked.
“Honestly? I thought the two of them had to be wrong, because the symbols in and of themselves aren’t bad or evil. They had dark meaning, sure, but actual use as tools in dark magic?” Dave shook his head as he recalled his foolishness in once dismissing the possibility. “I know better now. Some days I don’t want to, but if I’m here for the long haul, it’s good I do. Who knew that hooking up with Harris would be an education?”
I admit that Dave’s admission that he once didn’t believe that symbols, when properly used under the right circumstances, could have a real effect on the physical world took me off-guard. I had to remind myself that, for all his education, he was still learning about the shadows that lie beneath the sun-drenched earth.
“Anyway, by the time we left Banani, we knew the attackers had to be human and we knew they were being juiced up with some really dark magic,” Dave continued. “What we didn’t know going in was how they were getting the supernatural healing, speed, and senses. Harris figured it had to be a spell, based on the fact he’d run into something similar before where that boy registered as a Slayer to the Devon seers. Willow, based on her separate consultation with Moms about the local juju style of magic, figured the extra oomph came from fetishes since that kind of magic would require minimum maintenance. Me? I had no idea what to think because their back-and-forth debate went way over my head.”
I frowned. “Far too many unknowns for my comfort.”
“Unfortunately, that’s all we could get in the short amount of time we had,” Dave shrugged. “The good news was that, thanks to Moms’s tutorial, Willow was pretty sure she could counteract the fetishes, which meant that not only would cult members have no protection, but they’d have to face us with their souls tucked nice and neat inside their bodies. She figured she negate any additional magic we might find once we got there, so if a spell was responsible for our guys’ extra ‘gifts,’ they’d find themselves doing without. Meanwhile, Kavitha and Ally would be laying the smackdown on the cult members while me and Harris dodgeballed our way into their headquarters to do some damage.”
“I’m mystified why Mr. Harris didn’t bring his army of Slayers with him,” I grumbled. “You were facing at least a dozen men and an unknown mage, so I honestly don’t see how Mr. Harris thought that a group consisting of five people was going to manage a bloody thing.”
“A lot of it was because of time. We were running out of it,” Dave said. “A smaller group could get in and out of the area pretty quickly without getting noticed. Two-dozen Slayers plus some Watchers, and almost all of them carrying questionable papers? That would get the attention of the civil authorities, and once that happened you couldn’t be sure our death cult wouldn’t get wind of it. Then you’ve got the logistics of getting a large group like that together and transporting them. Meanwhile, this cult keeps getting stronger. Any delay, even if the delay is a matter of days instead of weeks, could spell the difference between getting a lot of people killed and keeping the bloodshed down to the minimum.”
“There’s no way to know that would have been the case,” I pointed out.
“Well, there’s also the part where Harris and Willow claimed that a small group tended to work better in fighting this sort of thing,” Dave added.
Given both Mr. Harris’s and Miss Rosenberg’s history in Sunnydale, I suppose they certainly believed it to be true. Much as I didn’t want to see that particular point, I had to concede — although I kept it to myself — that they most likely knew what they were talking about. After all, they had done it numerous times in the past and had survived the experience.
“So, we get Malaba with minimum fuss and no muss. We immediately get good news. Our chaos mage is a newbie and probably riding magic more powerful than he’s used to,” Dave continued.
“Let me hazard a guess,” I interrupted dryly. “Miss Rosenberg was able to discern this.”
Dave nodded. “I never thought I’d see the day when I’d see someone more frightening than Harris before we’re about to face down something evil, but Willow actually manages it. Though that’s because she’s such a powerful witch, and not so much because she’s got Harris’s weapons and hand-to-hand fighting expertise.”
“Yes, I can well imagine,” I murmured.
“I just don’t get it though,” Dave said.
He leaned forward. “Both of them. I deal with Harris a lot. Sure, he can be pretty intense and, sure, he’s a workaholic, but in his downtime he’s probably the most laid-back guy you’ll ever meet. And Willow strikes me as kind of a sweet person, at least from what I saw. But when they’re trying to kill something, hooo-boy. It’s like something snaps in their heads and they turn into these frightening people you don’t want to cross. Ever.” He shrugged. “Sometimes, I swear to God, it’s like Harris has got two people inside that body of his. One guy you can hang out with, have a beer or three, and trade ‘your mama’ jokes with all day. The other guy’s a stone-cold professional with an eye for making that demon kill. I don’t know Willow all that much, but she was the exact same way from what I saw. It’s a little frightening to see it happen right in front of yours eyes. One minute I was talking to these two people cracking wise and punning like crazy. Then I blink. Next thing I know, I’ve got two completely different people that aren’t afraid to get bloody and their jokes have moved to the gallows humor end of the spectrum. It’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers meets The Real World.”
Such a statement made me wonder if Dave, for all his intelligence, may have lacked the tiniest bit of common sense. Even with my limited exposure to such things, I would have thought that the very definition of a ‘frightening person’ would anyone who grew up on the most powerful Hellmouth on earth, fought the demons that lived atop it almost every single night while still a youth, had a hand in closing it for good before reaching the heady age of 25, and managed to not only survive the experience, but had also moved on to fight the same fight elsewhere in the world.
“Anyway, back to the deal in Malaba. We found them pretty quickly at the edge of the city. I guess whatever shielding spell the mage threw up around his headquarters was good enough to keep away the rubes, but not good enough to pose even a little problem for Willow. If anything, it was so badly constructed that it actually called attention to itself if you knew what to look for. According to her, whoever cast it put a lot of power into the spell, but there were a lot of holes in the shield. She could fire up the magic and actually look inside the building and see some of what they were doing,” Dave continued. “The good news, she could confirm that everyone involved was human because she couldn’t pick up on anything demonic. The bad news, there was a more powerful blocking spell around a room-sized area inside the building that she couldn’t penetrate.”
“Which opens the possibility that there was a second mage,” I said.
“Or that the mage was getting better at casting spells,” Dave said with a shrug. “Either way, our mage was hiding something pretty big. Unfortunately, Willow also picked up that the cult was starting some kind of ritual that had to be performed naked. We figured that it was a sign that they were preparing for another raid, so an extended stakeout like Harris wanted had to get tossed in favor of immediate action.”
“And?” I asked.
“Went off without a hitch,” Dave assured me. “First, Willow laid her protective spell on us so nothing magical could get to us.”
“She couldn’t protect you from bullets?” I asked.
“There we were kind of on our own because she was already juggling our protective spells and the dampening spells for the cult’s fetishes,” Dave answered. “Harris didn’t want to make her juggle a third thing. As it was, she needed to concentrate on the two she already had cast and that would make her vulnerable. That’s why Ally and Kavitha had to make sure to keep the cult members away from her location.”
I was fully engaged with Dave’s tale now. “Still uncomfortable for you.”
“And how,” Dave agreed. “But we did have some pretty big distractions going for us. We set up some timed explosives around the edge of the compound. Right at the height of their ritual, we set them off.”
“Very good,” I murmured with a nod.
“While the explosions were still going off, maybe a dozen, dozen-and-a-half guys ran out of the building. All of them were yanking up their pants and throwing their fetishes around their necks,” Dave continued. “Kavitha and Ally waded right on in and started knocking them down like bowling pins. If these guys had supernatural powers, you sure couldn’t tell by the way they were fighting.”
I nodded. “The ritual probably gave the cult followers all their reported power, which means your timely interruptions left them without their best weapons. If Miss Rosenberg’s magic negated the power of the fetishes, they most likely weren’t able to fight with as much ferocity as they would have otherwise.”
“Exactly,” Dave said. “Anyway, in the middle of the chaos Harris and I shouldered our backpacks, clutched our axes tight, and ran for the building. From our perspective, we got there with no problem. We found out later from Willow that the mage was throwing everything he had at us, but thanks to her spell it bounced off. She said magic was powerful enough that she had to concentrate on keeping us shielded during the whole thing, but the casting itself was strictly amateur.”
I shook my head. “I don’t understand. Someone that powerful should have at least some skill at spell casting.”
Dave nodded. “That’s what Willow said. I know that Harris wasn’t happy hearing Willow tell him that there was a serious disconnect between the power level and the mage’s expertise and knowledge. According to her, the guy doing the spell casting shouldn’t have been able to do what he did at all. She said if this guy had even a little bit of skill, she might not have been able to pull off her end of the plan.”
“This making less and less sense,” I muttered.
“Last I heard, the Council was looking into it,” Dave said with a shrug.
“If they are, I’m not aware of it,” I said.
“So they never investigated it?” Dave asked.
I shook my head. “If you’re being accurate about what you witnessed—“
“I am,” Dave bristled.
“Well, then someone most likely is cracking the books over the business,” I said. “Although it would seem they’re keeping their research rather quiet pending a definitive finding.”
“Eva, this happened 5 months ago,” Dave stressed. “Are you telling me that the Council might not know the answers?”
I slumped as I stared down at the bits of rice and chicken left on my plate. “I don’t know. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. You must understand that for the past two months I’ve been on the periphery since I was preparing for my trip here. Before that, I was tied up in a rather extensive project and this incident simply would’ve been outside my area of responsibility. Although I find it troubling that Mr. Giles failed to inform me of this since he had a hand in sending me here.”
“With your situation, you probably were on the ‘Do not tell under pain of death’ list,” Dave said sympathetically.
I winced. In the course of my conversation with Dave, I had almost forgotten that I was now a captive and subject to Mr. Harris’s devious plans for me.
“Anyway, when Harris and I first got into the building, the thing that struck me was how quiet it was,” Dave continued. “We expected sentries, the mage, something, but there was nothing and no one. It was weird.”
“The mage escaped?” I asked.
Dave held up a hand but didn’t look at me. “Let me tell this. This part…it’s hard.”
I nodded, but somehow I don’t think he saw me.
“We saw these symbols painted on the floor. It looked like they were painted using fresh blood. I was about to reach down and touch it, but Harris barked at me to touch nothing.”
I nodded again. A rather wise order on Mr. Harris’s part. If the symbols had any mystical charge to them, the consequences could be dire for any hapless soul who came into contact with them.
“We slowly edged our way deeper and deeper into the building. Thank god it wasn’t that big, because we stopped at every door we came across to peek around the frame, you know, just in case someone is hiding on the other side. Mostly we saw beds or living quarters or storage space, but no people,” Dave went on. “We finally reached this big central room and it’s crazy. There are more symbols painted in what looks like blood here than anywhere else we’d been in the building. I stop and just stare at all. Some of them I recognized, a lot of them I didn’t. But the ones I had seen before…well I’d never seen them arranged like this. Multiple religions, multiple cultures, all represented and overlapping one another. I didn’t see how any of it made sense at all. It was…it was…”
“Perverted,” I hazarded.
Dave looked at me. “Yeah. That works.” He looked away and stared at a mudcloth-covered wall. “In the middle of this floor was a circle, which Harris told me to stay the hell away from. There was also something that looked like a painted path from the circle to this walled off area. Harris cautiously followed it, not from the inside, but more running parallel to it, I guess to see where it went. He got halfway to the walled-off area when we heard this noise, like there was someone hiding in the room.”
I put the tray aside and clenched my hands together in my lap.
“Harris was right on that. He dropped his backpack and hauled ass to where he thought the noise came from with that axe of his raised in the ‘I’ll kill you‘ position. I dropped my backpack and followed him because I figured he might be running into trouble,” Dave continued. “As soon as Harris got close to this area where there’s a lot of boxes piled up, a white guy jumped out of hiding. He had dirty brown hair, glasses, not exactly a muscular build. He was kind of weedy, if you ask me. He started babbling about how he worked for this faith-based charity organization and that this cult captured him while he was delivering medical supplies to some town in Kenya, and that they were going to use him as a human sacrifice.”
I believe my eyebrows rose. “You didn’t mention that your human sacrifice was secured.”
Dave looked questioningly at me.
I sighed and clarified. “You failed to mention that he was tied up or chained to anything, which he would have been if he was an unwilling human sacrifice.”
“That’s because he wasn’t,” Dave said flatly.
I cynically grinned. “Well, that was a rather bad lie to tell, wasn’t it? You either had a cult member or your mage.”
“I have to admit, I wasn’t thinking that clearly at the time. I was too freaked out by the room, and this guy took me so by surprise that all I could do was stare at him,” Dave grudgingly admitted. “Harris, though, Harris didn’t move a muscle. Just stood there with his shoulders squared and his axe in the defensive position. Since I was behind him, I couldn’t see the expression on his face. But the weed? He got the full expression. Guess what he saw gave him pause because he started petering out on the words. Then he tried to run.”
“I suspect he didn’t get very far,” I remarked.
“Harris caught up with him before he got 10 paces,” Dave agreed. “In the process of grabbing him by the scruff of the neck, Harris ripped the weed’s shirt. There was a little bit of a scuffle before Harris body-slammed the guy onto his back. Next thing I know, Harris has got a boot on the guy’s throat and he’s threatening to stomp down if the guy even thinks of moving.”
I shivered at the mental picture Dave painted for me.
“Well, that broke me right out my dumbass mode and I get my butt over there to stop Harris from doing whatever it was he planned on doing,” Dave continued. “Anyway, I when I got there, I look down and see, I dunno, something that looks like a bunch of swirly tattoos on the weed’s pasty-looking chest.”
“Perhaps he was a captive at that,” I said. “A mystical tattoo can be stronger than chains, even to the point of forcing someone to act against their will.”
“Yeah, well, Harris jumped to the opposite conclusion,” Dave said.
Dave took a breath. “Harris stared at the guy’s chest. I could tell by the look on his face that he was definitely not happy about what he was seeing. He eased up the pressure on the throat and says to the weed, ‘What am I looking at?’
“The weed sounds like he’s being strangled, but he still managed to say, ‘They tattooed me.’”
“Ah,” I interrupted knowingly. “So I was correct.”
“No you’re not,” Dave answered quietly.
I held my tongue and waited for Dave to continue.
“Harris definitely didn’t buy it, because he was still staring at the guy’s chest when he said, ‘That looks like ink.’
“So I said to Harris, ‘That’s what a tattoo is, so I’m not seeing where you’re coming from.’
“Harris didn’t look at me, but he did answer that one. He said, ‘Dave, take a closer look at swirls. Those are actually words, and that’s not a tattoo.’
“I bend down to take a closer look, and Harris snapped at me not to get too close. Well, after that warning I just stepped back. Whatever was going down, Harris seemed to have a handle on it. I figured I could get a closer look when I got the all clear. Meanwhile, Harris’s attention was back on the weed, and he says, ‘You absorbed a book.’ Boom. Just like that. Just like it was the most natural thing in the world. The way he said it, you could tell he knew he was 100 percent correct and that this did not bode well for the weed’s future health.
“Well, the weed starts with the same-old-same-old, ‘They made me do it. They said they’d kill me if I didn’t. They made me…’ You know. Blah-blah-blah.
“Harris wasn’t buying that. He says to the weed, ‘No one can make you absorb a book. You have to do it yourself and you have to want to do it.’
“Meanwhile, I just stared at Harris because it just sounded completely crazy to me. Absorbing a book? I would’ve killed to know that in grad school. But there’s Harris sounding like it’s not only possible, but that it’s a downright evil thing to do.” Dave paused to shake his head. “I gotta tell you, Eva. At that point, I was wracking my brains trying to remember if Harris had any tattoos, especially weird tattoos that look like swirls.”
“Does he?” I asked.
“Far as I know, no he doesn’t,” Dave answered. “Anyway, at that point Harris told me to find a rope or chains so we could tie up the weed. Harris wanted to take a closer look at the stuff in the room and find out what was in that walled-off area, but we couldn’t do that without making sure our prime suspect couldn’t escape. I went back to one of the storage rooms we came across and found some nice, heavy iron manacles and rope. I came back and between the two of us, we had him hogtied tighter than damsel in distress left on the train tracks. When we were done, Harris ripped a strip off his shirt and gagged the weed so he couldn’t talk. While I’m all, ‘Why bother?’ Harris explained that if the weed was our mage, he didn’t want him muttering any spells that could make our lives more difficult.”
“It certainly appears that Mr. Harris covered every eventuality,” I commented.
“Oh, yeah. The weed wasn’t going anywhere and he was gagging on Harris’s gag, so he wasn’t about to say anything either,” Dave agreed. “Once we had the guy secured, Harris told me to stand guard while he checked out where the painted path went. I give him the thumbs up and off he went, again walking parallel to it instead of inside it.”
“Just in case the interior of the marked area had been mystically charged,” I agreed. Much as I didn’t like Mr. Harris at that point, and much as I yearned to hear a negative report of his behavior, thus far Dave had characterized Mr. Harris as being sensibly cautious, or at least as cautious as he could afford to be given the situation he was faced with. Although at this point in my life I hardly characterized Mr. Harris as being ‘sensible,’ I appreciated hearing about this side of the man. In a strange way, it gave me hope that I could still reason with my mysterious captor, provided I could convince him that he had nothing to lose and everything to gain by at least hearing me out.
“The path, of course, led right to the walled off area, just like it appeared,” Dave continued. “More than that. It actually led to this smallish entrance. It was pretty low to the ground, which is why we missed it to begin with. Harris had to get on his hands and knees if he wanted to look in. He tried, but there was no light inside the room so he couldn’t see anything. He had to get up and grab his backpack to get a flashlight. Anyway, that done, he went back to the walled-off area, got down on his hands and knees, and shined a light inside.”
“What did he see?” I impatiently asked.
Dave turned his haunted eyes to me. “That’s when everything really went wrong.”