Staring out over the dusty crater, she heard a woman speak.
“Looks like the hellmouth is officially closed for business.”
An older man, with a refined British voice replied, “There is another one in Cleveland. Not to spoil the moment,” he added, diffidently.
“We saved the world,” replied a younger man, American.
She turned to look at them. At him. Dark hair, eye patch, plaid shirt, dark jeans and boots. Tired, but relieved.
She blinked, and the world came back into focus. The crater was gone, replaced by her bedroom, dim in the early daylight. She sighed.
She slid into the chair, energised by her run. She cut some fruit onto her bowl of muesli, and ate quickly, and decided to also have some protein. Eggs should do.
“Just as well you're the only one left at home, kiddo,” her father mused. “None of your brothers ever ate as much as you do, and the shortest has got a good ten centimetres and thirty kilos on you.”
She scoffed. “And a good three seconds more on his hundred metre sprint.”
“And all that,” he agreed, grinning. “So have you considered what you're going to do now? It's been nearly eighteen months. I'm sure there's more I could teach you, but you have to get your feet wet at some point.”
She continued to eat for a moment, then said, “Cleveland.”
He considered that. “I'm thinking you're not meaning Cleveland, Brisbane.”
“Hm... No. It's in America. Ohio,” she added.
“Cleveland, Ohio: any particular reason for this?”
She looked at her father for a moment, considering. “Dreams.”
“Bad?” There had been some very bad ones, back in the beginning.
“No. Consistent. The same dream every morning for the last week. It's a group that I dream about sometimes, but it seems like it's the end of a period, or sequence. One of them, in particular, is changed. It's permanent, and not there in other dreams. Anyway, it's only a snippet, but they talk about going to Cleveland. I can feel them,” she murmured, frowning. “Two of them, the one that speaks first, and another off to the side. They're me, but not me. I feel an echo, a resonance, with them.”
Her father sat back. “Guess it's graduation time, then.” He smiled. “Time to make some plans.”
'Graduation time, my arse,' she decided. She had one month to get from Athens to Paris, by foot, to catch her flight to New York. The rules were: no hiring a vehicle; no catching public transport. She was allowed to take the ferry from Greece to Italy, as well as a couple of other short, planned, trips, but that was it. She was allowed to hitch a ride, if she really wanted to. Oh, and she was travelling as a French national, on a very good fake passport. Dad may have retired, but he hadn't tossed out his contact list, that was for sure.
Her father had served the Australian SAS, as well as other work she really didn't want to know about, so when she had ... changed ... a year and a half ago, he had decided her explosive new raw talent needed training. Being female, the SAS wasn't open to her, and he wasn't sure he wanted her following in his footsteps, anyway. Then there were the dreams; fighting, winning, dying. There was a lot of dying, and she hadn't hidden the fact that the dying was often done by girls and very young women. If his baby was going to fight, then he was going to give her the very best opportunity to not die young.
And so he had. Close on eighteen months of hard work, training with her father, training with others, martial arts, weapons modern and ancient. He had been wary of the older weapons at first, but she had been adamant that it was what she wanted. They had felt so right in her hand, an extension of her body, and besides, knife, stick, sword or axe, body mechanics remained the same, and she had the brute strength to handle any weapon given to her. He had even accepted her insistence on keeping a couple of the practice wooden knives for sentimental reasons. She didn't know why, but they warmed her hand, and she felt a little lost if she didn't have at least one about her.
There had been more to her training than overt fighting techniques. Soon after her change, she had broken her brother's ribs in an overly enthusiastic greeting, so her father had insisted she learn to control her strength. She had formed a technique of bracing her arms, and channelling any extra energy back into herself, subjecting the other person to a warm and strong, but not overly so, hug. All interactions were tempered by the realisation that even her hefty brothers could be hurt too easily by her preternatural strength.
She had also learned to both push herself, and to hide her abilities. They now had a fair idea of her speed and stamina, while also training to limit her exposure to others. One of her father's favourite tricks had been to enter her in a triathlon, and specify what place he wanted her to run. She had to maintain that position, within one place, for the majority of the race, pacing herself to the other contestants. Yeah, he could be a real bastard at times, but he was also a damn good teacher.
Then there was the training she was pretty sure hadn't come from his time in the Army. He had considered not just the changes that had happened, but the person she had been before, and continued to be. Absurdly intelligent, with an eidetic memory, and a talent with languages and mimicry. He had brought in people to teach her how to blend. So she had learned about wigs and hair dyes, cosmetics, costumes, and minor prosthetics. More important than anything external, she had learned about changing her gait, her posture, her expression, projecting a dominant or submissive demeanour, hiding in plain sight.
Which was what she was doing now. Hair dyed a rich, dark brown, matching contacts masking blue eyes, she was hiking through Europe in the mid Autumn. Damn Northern Hemisphere seasons! She had left the southern Queensland Spring, already spiking into Summer-like heat, for the chill of Europe, already at Autumn temperatures when she had arrived in Athens in mid-October, and would drop eventually towards what she knew as Winter temperatures by the time she made Paris sometime early-to-mid November.
She hadn't seen snow, yet, and knew she wouldn't this time round, but she would need to find shelter each evening, to avoid exposure to the elements. She had money on her, and access to more, but not much. She had to plan, budget, and get by. And she had to keep moving. Apart from the permitted ferry and train rides, she had to cover about fifty kilometres a day to make the trip in time, and she would rather move quicker, over fewer, longer days, so that she could hole up in Paris for a while before flying out. Apart from solidifying her character, it would allow her to soak in the personality of the people and the place. Hopefully, but the time she got to America, she would be unmistakeably French, Parisian even.
She paced along the road, and allowed a small part of her mind to drift to busy streets and small cafes, strong coffee and rich peasant food. The sun had set some hours ago, and people were out and about, though not so many in this part of town. Movement caught her eye, and she turned her head to see what was happening. A woman was being dragged, unconscious, into a warehouse some distance away. She raced to the building, and quickly climbed up to a safer vantage point. What she saw inside the building sickened and terrified her. The woman lay sprawled between four people. The two at her neck had her head pulled up and back, while the other two had their heads bowed to the woman's inner thighs. She realised, horrified, that the … men … had opened major blood vessels, and were feeding from her. The woman had to be already dead – arterial injuries killed very quickly, Gwen knew. There was no saving the woman below her, but there might be a form of salvation for tomorrow night's victim.
“Hey, Faith. What's up?”
“Oh, hey, Xan. Do you know where Red is?”
“Out at the moment. There anything I can do for you?”
“Yeah, probably. It's probably not even something Glinda would consider work. I just want to look up something that may or may not have happened in Italy.”
Xander tilted his head at the slayer. “Can I say 'huh'?”
Faith sighed. “I had a dream last night, and it really seemed like a slayer dream. If I'm right, then someone torched a warehouse in … pressure, thresher … something like that. It's in northern Italy. Thing was, there were vamps there, and she, whoever, used Molotov cocktails to light it up. I saw it all, nice work, very neat. I just wanted to check if it actually went down the way the dream said. It felt like, I don't know, real-time.”
“Like it happened as you were dreaming about it?”
“Yeah. Or maybe she was just really feeling hyped. I don't know. Do you know of anyone taking out a warehouse like that?”
He thought about it. “I haven't heard of anything like that. If it was a nest, we now send in teams, three to six slayers, with back-up. You know the routine.”
“Well, she felt alone. Cautious, though. It felt like daylight, and she lobbed them in from a window up high.”
Xander nodded approvingly. “Smart girl. Okay, we'll look for a warehouse fire in northern Italy. Let's hope it isn't arson season,” he added with a wry grin.
She hunched into her coat as she trudged along the roadside. Two hours after dusk, and she was still walking. She made a promise to herself to stop at the next town and find dinner and a place for the night. It was getting cold for a sub-tropical girl like her. But she had wanted to put as much distance between herself and the burned warehouse as possible, thus her still out in the cold darkness.
She didn't even notice the car until it stopped in front of her, and the man get out. He called out something, but she didn't catch it at first. He repeated his offer of a ride, and, tired and cold, she decided to take him up on the offer. She was pretty certain her father would not approve, but she knew that a man would have a very difficult time subduing her, even tired as she was.
She relaxed in the seat, and told Carlos, the driver, that she was headed for Paris. He grinned, and said that he was heading to Geneva, so he could take her that far. She thanked him, and closed her eyes.
She had thought he would have at least attempted to get her out of the car before doing anything. Instead, he had pulled over at a rest stop, and simply leaned over to feed. Even after witnessing the vampires kill the other woman, she was still more surprised that her assailant went that way, rather than a more mundane attack. Still, she had been waiting for something to happen, and retaliated. Unfortunately, she wasn't ready for a vampire, so simply reacted by twisting his neck. It broke with a satisfying crack, but then left her with a new problem. Being already dead, this wasn't enough to dispatch the demon, so it lay against her, swearing, promising retribution when his neck healed, and trying to bite her.
She stared at the body for a moment, before forcing herself to move. Looking around, she noticed that the rest area was empty, so she dragged the injured vamp out onto the ground. Thinking quickly, she stripped him of anything that might be valuable, including the nice leather jacket he was wearing. Then she thought again about killing vampires. She knew that fire worked – witness Brescia – but she didn't have anything handy for that. The stories always insisted that the other ways to kill a vampire were a stake to the heart, sunlight, or decapitation. It was night time, so sunlight was out, and he was already starting to move his body, so the only way she was leaving him to get a piece of wood was if she broke his neck again. So she pulled the hunting knife from its sheath at the back of her belt, tilted his head up, and smoothly removed the vampire's head. And promptly dropped about a foot onto the parking area surface when the chest she had been sitting on disintegrated underneath her. She rose, rubbing her butt, collected her takings, and returned to the car. She smiled. No more walking for her, and Paris was now only a matter of a couple of days away.
“Okay, got it,” Xander announced.
“Cool. Show me,” Faith demanded.
“Here,” he said, turning the screen a little. “And it was Brescia. Sounded close, didn't it. Uh, there's a problem though. There were casualties. Didn't you say it was vamps?”
“Yeah. In the dream I saw them light up and dust. There were definitely two that went poof.”
“Huh. The bodies could have been leftovers. Lots of vamps don't bother with the housekeeping. But I would need Will to check on that. If the bodies were old enough, that should show on any autopsies, but I can't get into any secure databases. Not my thing.”
“Let's bring her in, then.”
She cruised into Paris, and found a backpackers hostel. The money the vamp had on him supplemented her own funds, and bought a clean room that she didn't have to share. Tomorrow she planned to find an apartment for a month so that she could have somewhere nicer to stay until she took her flight out. Then she might do some shopping. If she wanted to present herself as French, then she should have some local clothes. Nothing fancy, but definitely locally purchased.
“Okay, I had a look at the coroner's report, or what translates as the coroner's report over there. Yes, there were several bodies, but the freshest was still dead when the warehouse burned down. Possibly dead some hours, too. So whoever did this didn't kill anyone. They were already dead. Does that sound right?” Willow asked.
“Sounds good for our slayer,” Faith commented.
“Are you sure this is a slayer, Faith,” Willow asked, concerned. “'Cause I checked, and we don't have anyone in the area. I even did a spell-check on all the slayers, and the only ones we have in Western Europe are in Holland at the moment. I called the watcher, and she said they've been there for at least six months.”
“It was a slayer dream, and it felt like a slayer. I think this is a slayer.”
“Could it be someone we haven't found yet?” Xander asked.
“No. Even the ones we haven't been able to hook up with yet, we still know pretty much where they are. You know, within like fifty miles. And there definitely wasn't anyone in Northern Italy in the last like six weeks.”
“Can we at least go have a look? I have a feeling about this. It's a slayer, I'm sure of it.”
Willow and Xander exchanged looks. “It's not like it's apocalypse season,” he reasoned.
“Oh, and shopping,” Willow added, grinning.
“Just the three of us?” Faith suggested.
Xander tilted his head. “Any particular reason?”
Faith shifted uncomfortably. “It's just that... It was my slayer dream, and … I don't know... I feel connected with this. I just want to be the slayer that hooks up with her.”
“And, besides,” Willow added slyly, “Italian leather!”
Xander rolled his eyes.
Gwen wandered the streets. She was prepared this time. Her hunting knife was in its sheath at her back, while her wooden knives were in her pants pockets. She also had one slipped up her sleeve, poking down enough for her to quickly pull it out. She sauntered along the streets, wandering aimlessly, hoping to attract attention.
Instead, she came across someone else's hunt. Something caught her eye down an alley, a young man trying to fend of several attackers. One notable characteristic about the attackers was the way their faces looked. It was just the way the vampires of Brescia looked, the way her driver had looked as he leaned over her. She flew into the alley and grabbed the one holding the young man down, and flung him against the opposite wall as she pulled her wooden knife from her sleeve. She then turned to the vampire leaning into the man, about to bite. She grabbed him by his hair and stabbed him with the knife. Withdrawing quickly, she turned to the vampire picking himself up from where she had flung him. Two quick steps, and she was there. She lifted him with one hand around the neck, and dispatched him, also, with a quick thrust to the heart. By this time, the third vampire had reached her, and clamped his hand down on her shoulder. In on smooth move, she flung her arm over his, twisted her hand around his upper arm, and brought it down, bringing the vamp to his knees. As he fell, she pivoted, and brought her opposite knee up and connected solidly with his chin, snapping his head back. She then released the vamp, letting him fall to the ground before securing him with a boot to the neck.
She paused for a moment, and thought. Simply killing the vamps was good, but could she be more effective? She was without much in the way of external resources, while these creatures might be a way to support herself. A form of living off the land. Making her decision, she reached down and snapped the vampire's neck. Working quickly, she removed his wallet and identification, and quickly searched him for other valuables. Discarding anything too easily identifiable, she set aside a pile of valuables, then deftly staked the vampire. She looked around. The victim was long gone, and there were no other witnesses, so she pocketed her loot and headed back to her room.
She smiled. Despite all the love her family could give her, all the training her father to bring, this was what felt right. Things hadn't felt this right in a long time.