Copyright July 2007
Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.
They were not city-dwellers, for the seething press of numbers was unwelcome to them, jangling against the more meaningful communion they shared with one another. At the same time, they needed the cities, for now and again their metabolisms demanded that they extract certain lymph substances from involuntary donors (occasionally one of the donors survived), and only the relative anonymity to be found in human communities allowed them to do so without calling inconvenient attention to themselves.
Here, they had made their habitat in one of the several small forests that bordered the city on one side or another and dipped into its outskirts. They moved by night, slumbering in cool shadows during the day, for unobstructed sun had a dehydrating effect on their surface integuments. There was a name for their species, but that was unimportant; the significance lay in what they could — and had — become as a group.
The sun had set. They stirred, each unhurriedly from his place of repose, and gathered in the clearing that served them.
“I have dreamed,” vA-en said.
The others of the kuruse gave him suitable attention. vA-en was the most sensitive among them; his dreams did not always prove truest, but reliably came soonest. It would be unwise to disregard him, and this kuruse had not existed for longer than the nations of the New World by failing to heed pertinent signs. “Danger, or opportunity?” tU-rs asked.
“Danger,” vA-en replied promptly. “If this is true foreseeing, and not a ghost vision, it warns of danger.”
It was dO-im who posed the next obvious question: “Neartime, fartime, or between?”
Again the answer was immediate. “Near. Very near.”
There was no leader among them; this was not the nature of the kuruse. Still, tU-rs was the most decisive, and so usually made the decisions. “If this is so, or even probably so, we must dream together.”
The others did not even trouble to give assent, they merely moved together and positioned themselves for the joining. There were five of them — tU-rs, nY-br, vA-en, Es-ro, dO-im — and so they formed the five-point circle: each touching foot-to-foot with those on either side, each reaching out to join hands with the two across from him. Thus, every member of the kuruse was in direct contact with every other.
They let the contact grow, become closer. They withdrew from the external, opened themselves to the sharing-within. On each of them, the sense-pads positioned on torso and apex (light, sound, heat, and sub-aural vibration) relinquished their connections to central awareness; in each of them, touch became all, expanded and deepened. The clasped hands and braced feet shifted, flowed together, merged. Five separate nervous systems became one. Five minds touched, while remaining separate; shared, and knew the sharing; opened to one another, gave and welcomed, and pooled their knowing and being.
Together, they dreamed.
A kuruse could be formed of as few as four, or as many as seven, but five was best for most purposes. Each member found and developed and offered his own specialty — perception, cunning, decisiveness, imagination, determination — and each relied on all others. They were a careful, meticulous, methodical species and, though their nature required congregation within a larger group, individual kurusei had little to do with one another. This particular kuruse had encountered no others of their kind in almost a century.
Irrelevant. They were sufficient within themselves.
They withdrew, carefully, resuming their separate identities but allowing the merge-bonds to remain. They had dreamed. They had seen. Now they would consider, and choose their path.
“The Slayer,” dO-im said.
“Yes,” tU-rs acknowledged. “We have dealt with a Slayer before. This time, however, the enchanters pose the greater danger.”
Es-ro observed, “The Slayer and her companion seek to protect the enchanters until they have worked the final magic. We can neither ignore them, nor allow them to occupy us fully.” He stood unmoving; the others waited, knowing he would speak when he had given it due thought. “Three of us to engage the standing fighters,” he said at last. “Two to attack the enchanters before they can destroy us.” Another pause. “dO-im and nY-br, I would suggest.”
“Yes,” nY-br said, and dO-im agreed, “Yes.”
“It is sound,” tU-rs pronounced. “We will dream again, to confirm.”
Once more, silent assent. The joining drew a toll from them, and it would be better if they had more time to recover … but the Slayer and her party would arrive within the hour, and with peril so close, the greatest need was to choose their course.
The dreaming allowed the kuruse to see, not just the future, but contingent futures. They could test each possible path, and see its outcome in advance without danger to themselves. It was a precious advantage, and they used it well. In other circumstances, they would have utilized the forewarning to take flight … but they faced only four, and — even if one was a Slayer — no such number could prevail against an enemy who knew their attack before they launched it, and could evaluate and choose the exact response that would nullify and destroy it.
After a time, they again withdrew. “Unexpected, but not unprecedented,” tU-rs said after a pensive pause. “Four of us, then, and one — dO-im — to kill the enchanters?”
“Perhaps not,” Es-ro said. “A different flanking movement could suffice. It was purest chance that the Slayer’s companion blundered into the path of the one we attempted.”
“It might be so,” tU-rs acknowledged. “Let us consider both courses, then.”
The third dreaming lasted longer, as did the silence that followed when the still-joined kuruse emerged from it. “Four times,” vA-en said at last.
“Yes,” nY-br agreed. “Unnoticeable in the first dream. Seeming accident in the second. But to see it twice again, in the third —”
“We thought the Slayer to be the most formidable enemy we would face,” vA-en mused. “This other, however, her companion … four times. It is most worrisome.”
“He has no power,” tU-rs objected. “No strength, no speed, no skill. He cannot defeat or even injure us. He is a hindrance, no more.”
“And he has hindered us in four paths now, by four different means, always to our downfall.” Es-ro’s tone was as grave and unsettled as vA-en’s had been. “I begin to fear this one.”
“He is a fool,” tU-rs insisted. “A blind, lucky fool. Even if he has some primitive instinct that prompts him toward avenues of potential risk, it cannot be more than instinct. This is our realm, we tread these roads as masters. He cannot withstand the true-sight of the dreaming.”
“We should flee,” nY-br said. “We have sought the clearest course to victory, and failed even to find survival. Better to withdraw, and reflect upon these matters when we can do so without danger to ourselves.”
“Time is short now,” Es-ro noted. “They will be very near. And … will it be possible for us to flee?”
It was a disturbing question. Again they deepened the joining, again sank into the dreaming, to quest down one branch after another, and then another, and another. Always, the same result. Flight, in whatever direction, and the seemingly powerless human stumbled into their path. Attack, defense, misdirection, ambush, fighting retreat … Sometimes he did nothing, sometimes they were undone by the Slayer or the enchanters (once, smashed by a massive truck as they attempted to escape across a highway); in every instance when there was an opportunity they might exploit, however, he blundered through and ruined it utterly.
They emerged at last, and stood without speaking for long, long. “We have gone too far,” Es-ro observed at last. “We have given too much of ourselves to fruitless searching. Even if one final dream showed us a way of escape, that dreaming would leave us too weak to take it.”
“He is doom,” vA-en said quietly. “He is destroyer. He is weaver of shrouds, builder of tombs. He has come to gather us, all our power regardless.”
“He is a fool,” tU-rs said again. “And, yes, he is our doom. It is impossible to understand, impossible that it should be, but clearly it is so.”
“We die, then?” nY-br asked.
“In every path we have seen,” dO-im agreed.
“Yes,” tU-rs said suddenly. “Yes, everywhere we have seen. Our only hope, then, small as it may be, is to attempt some course we have not seen. To travel blind, to fight as humans do. That way is almost certain disaster … but all the paths we have mapped show certain death.”
The others of the kuruse considered. Yes, his reasoning was sound. Better a negligible chance than none. What course, then? They had tested all they could imagine; what remained?
“Full merge,” dO-im announced.
Stunned silence, then bracings for rebellion, then slumping acceptance. There truly was no choice. “It is as much an end as death,” vA-en pointed out. “Only legends speak of any kuruse returning from such.”
“That is so,” tU-rs said. “But it is an undreamed path. And it will allow us to fight. To better fight than we could now, drained as we are.”
He waited for refusal, for some other desperate suggestion. Neither came.
None was eager to proceed, but there was nothing to be gained by delay. They had maintained the first link in the joining; now they furthered it, opening channels that had been kept sealed, removing the last barriers. Muscle tissue, cartilage, nerve fibers flowed together, interwove, sorted and rearranged and thickened and firmed. Distinct forms became less so, the spaces between them dwindled and vanished, separate awareness surrendered to a central mind, and — body and consciousness — five became one.
It was a loss beyond description. Individuality was the quality prized most among their species; the kuruse was not a hive nor even a pack, but an intricate construction of distinct elements to form a greater whole. The total merging now complete had sacrificed all of that. No balance of minds, no complementarity of talents and attributes, no dynamic latticework of knowledge and assessment and understanding and judgment. Instead, the figure that stood in the center of what had been the joining-circle was, by comparison, a lump. Far below the capability of a functioning kuruse, less even than any of its constituent members … it was an awful reduction, from which there was little to no possibility of recovery.
The single advantage to the merging was physical. Each member of the kuruse had stood roughly as tall as the Slayer and massed slightly more; the combined form would tower over her, six times her weight and well past twice her strength, its nervous system so diffused and quadruple-redundant that it had no weak spots, no vital point that could be pierced or broken to kill or incapacitate. It was a hulk, a bludgeon, suited to forge through any opposition and crush its chosen target.
They had known what they were doing to themselves. They had facilitated their own dissolution, in full recognition that they almost certainly would never return. Each, as he surrendered all-that-he-was to this last desperate measure, had sealed into the amalgamating consciousness one final thought: what must be done.
Ignore the Slayer, other than to overcome whatever resistance she might pose to its central mission.
Eliminate the enchanters if possible, but let them not distract from the more important purpose.
Focus solely on the fool who had doomed them.
Drive to him, regardless of any hurt or opposition or other consideration.
* * *
Giles was keenly familiar with this particular ritual, though normally it took place in the library. The ‘Scoobies’ were in celebration mode: another threat had been met and vanquished, without serious cost or even serious danger. Now it was time for popcorn, brownies, cappuccino (or tea, or root beer, as personal taste dictated), and the endless giddy chatter of the tediously frivolous adolescents who were, no question, the brightest lights to be found in the entire human race.
The expedition just past had been, perhaps, a bit more chancy than his charges realized. His source material had been less precise than he might have preferred, referencing the demon they sought in terms that could easily be interpreted as indicating either an individual or a communal group. Further, it had somehow become aware of their presence before he and Willow had begun to prepare the spell that would consume it. Finally, it had been substantially more powerful — and tenacious — than they had been led to expect, and frantic effort had been required to keep it occupied until the spell could be completed.
Thank heaven there had been only one. Three or four such creatures could have proven deeply problematic. Just another example of how the most carefully formulated plans could still be thrown off-course by the presence of a single unknown, the ‘x-factor’ that insisted upon intruding into real-world events …
“Hey, Crumpet Man,” Xander called from that area which Americans termed the ‘living room’. “You ever think of investing in a more comfortable couch?”
“It suffices for my needs,” Giles replied, with that trace of asperity suitable to the role to which they had assigned him and upon which they seemed to rely. “Particularly if one uses the cushions.”
Xander’s response was a broad gesture that took in his female companions. Willow was lolling back on two cushions, her eyelids beginning to droop, and Buffy occupied a mound accumulated from every source within reach. “Foiled again by the sisterhood,” he lamented.
“Oh, come on, Xander.” Buffy lofted a cushion to land in his lap. “You know you belong to the sisterhood, too.”
Xander nodded. “And my heart swells with pride, every single time you say that.”
None of the inner wince showed through Giles’ practiced reserve. He knew all too fully, from his own experience, that self-deprecating humor could be a mask for pain as easily as it might serve as a means of coping. “Given the calibre of that sorority,” he interjected dryly, “I may only hope I shall someday be also included in its roster.”
Buffy’s smile was bright, fond, sincere, and unconcerned. “We might have to adjust the dress code, ’cause we know you’ll never change yours. I’ll bring it up at the next secret meeting.”
She was a lovely young woman, as good-hearted as she was courageous. Pity, Giles reflected, that none of her virtues ever seemed to manifest themselves in the faintest trace of thoughtfulness. The heedless comment imputing lack of masculinity to one of her dearest friends was far from being the only example of her habitual lack of consideration; almost as pertinent (and in some ways more obvious) had been her hogging of the cushions, apparently oblivious to the ever-so-casual care with which Xander moved and held himself, following the struggle in the forest.
Fortunately for them all, the Kuruse demon had apparently been too slow-witted to recognize that the petite female was a more formidable warrior than the taller, slower, weaker male accompanying her. Time and again it had swatted her away, its clay-like flesh flowing away from her attacks but solidifying whenever the Kuruse launched a strike of its own … and, time and again, failed to follow up its momentary advantage, instead turning away to lumber in pursuit of Xander. Xander had recognized what was happening before Buffy did, and played it for maximum effect, capering around the massive creature, dancing and taunting and holding its attention while Buffy repeatedly recovered and returned to the fray. Together they had kept the demon occupied until Giles and Willow (more specifically, Willow with Giles’ tutelage) finalized the spell that bound and banished it … or perhaps destroyed, there was some uncertainty in the process, but in any event the creature was gone. Thus the victory party.
However, the pertinent issue was that, while Buffy’s parahuman resiliency had easily shaken off her adversary’s blows, those that had landed on Xander — fewer and glancing, fortunately — had left large, diffuse bruises on his torso that would doubtless take days to fade. Yet she had taken the cushions, and tossed him one (one!) without seeming to consider that he might have more need of her hoard than she did.
He had interposed his own body between the Slayer and the thing that threatened her, and seemed to see nothing remarkable in the fact. This was to his credit, if somewhat foolish and unrealistic. Less laudable was that Buffy appeared to have an equally matter-of-fact attitude regarding his actions.
Giles sighed, pensively studying the contents of his teacup. This could not continue; the boy’s contributions were immensely valuable, if difficult to define, but they were decidedly not suited for combat. (As an example, what if they had been facing, not a large, powerful, but relatively slow demon, but something as mundane as a Tyristhes cabal: fanatical dagger-wielding humans with only vestigial mystic capabilities, but too numerous for Xander to long evade or for Buffy to defeat before one or more of them reached her powerless companion?) Inevitably he would be severely injured — more probably killed — unless they instituted some systematic change in tactics. Still, how were they to go about protecting the young man who was, in many ways, the valorous heart of their group, without taking the heart from him?
In the living room, Willow had slumped against Xander, and now burrowed into his shoulder without ever quite waking. He put an arm around her, and shifted her and himself to find the position best suited for them both. He looked down at the sleeping girl, limitless tenderness in his eyes and smile … and Giles saw with some startlement that Buffy’s face held the same expression as she watched Xander.
Perhaps the very casualness of the way she treated him was a subtle compliment that had meaning only for Xander. Perhaps she did not, in fact, take him for granted after all.
Giles had long since learned not to do so himself. Though Xander had given good service tonight, his efforts hadn’t truly been necessary, they could have managed easily without him … but they could not continue without him in the longer struggle, his loss would be a wound from which they might never recover. Something must change, some adjustment made that would serve to shield him from the sharpest perils they faced so regularly, but done in a way that didn’t cripple his morale.
This would require careful thought and subtle implementation, and Giles promised himself he would devote the necessary concentration to the task.
For now, best to let Xander enjoy the fruits of this night’s endeavors: the success of their mutual enterprise, the safety and happiness of those he loved, and the knowledge (or at least belief) that he had played a signal role in bringing about these things.
The boy’s courage was real and worthy of praise, and he was entitled to take pride in his conduct tonight … even if his actions had been largely unnecessary, and ultimately made little difference.
In the final analysis, some people were simply better suited to support roles.