Ten seconds was all it took.
There were some who would have said that Dawn Summers lacked conviction; that she was too easily swayed. They would have argued that had she truly believed what she claimed, ten seconds would have never been enough time to change her mind.
In fact, eleven seconds ago, Dawn would have said the same thing had she witnessed someone changing his or her mind so quickly. She would have looked down her nose in quiet disdain and stated that nothing would cause her to let go of her convictions so easily. She would have turned her back in disgust and walked away, never once looking back. That was… until she saw something that shook her to her core and made her question everything she had learned to believe in through her own, rather extensive, personal experiences.
Dawn looked down at her gas gauge and sighed deeply. She was trying to make her way to Scottsdale, Arizona to check out a Potential that the Council had recently learned of. She’d leapt at the chance to get out of Los Angeles and away from Spike and Angel. The two of them had been driving her crazy lately with the bickering and brooding that they were indulging in. The opportunity for escape presented itself in the form of a fax that had been misdirected to Angel Investigations. Apparently, someone at the Outpost didn’t pay attention to their contact information in Outlook. That didn’t stop her from immediately responding and stating that she would go right away and find the girl. The Council, having plenty of practial experience in dealing the Summers women, came to a unanimous agreement to allow Dawn her way rather deal with a Summers’ temper.
They had survival instincts after all.
Once Dawn had the approval and the Council credit card, she was packed and out the door, taking Angel’s black BMW X5-48i. If she was making the drive from California to Arizona, through the desert, she was going in luxury and style. Besides, it had a Bose surround sound system and a GPS that talked. Who could really blame her?
The drive through California and into Nevada had been uneventful. Dawn decided to take a different route than the map suggested, simply because she wanted to extend the trip as much as possible. Once she hit Las Vegas, she decided to get off the main path, take some back roads, and enjoy the scenery along the way. This was why she was in the predicament she currently found herself in. Had she really thought about it, she would have realized that driving through the desert in a gas guzzling SUV was not the smartest decision she had ever made. She was almost out of a gas and had a sneaking suspicion that she was going to be hard pressed to find a gas station out in the middle of nowhere.
Grabbing her road map, she lowered her sunglasses to the bridge of her nose and began frantically scanning the roads around her to find a place to stop. She was so engrossed in reading the map that she almost missed the large billboard on the side of the road that informed her that Paradise Falls was the last place to stop for gas for a very long time. Glancing at her map and not seeing anyplace named ‘Paradise Falls’, or any other town for a quite a ways, she figured she had better stop there and get gas.
Spying the gas station, she was dismayed to see the state of the place. It was rundown, in need of more than just cosmetic repairs and if it hadn’t been for the vehicles parked out in front of the diner, she would have thought the place was closed and abandoned. She wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to stop, but the dinging of the gas gauge indicating that she needed gas right then made the decision for her. Slowing down, she pulled into the parking lot, such as it was, and stopped the SUV, putting it in park. Glancing around, she didn’t see any immediate threats, grabbed her purse, and stepped out into the chilly breeze blowing through the desert.
It might have been December, but it was still warmer than expected and Dawn reached back into the vehicle and tugged her sweater out and quickly pulled it on with a shiver. She locked the door and walked towards the front entrance of the diner, pausing when her gaze swept over the horizon in the direction she would soon be traveling. In the distance was a dark cloud, slowly covering the Eastern sky where the mountains began. Eyes narrowing, Dawn felt a slight shiver dance down her spine as a sense of foreboding swept over her. Not sure what was causing the uneasiness; she shook her head slightly and opened the door, stepping into the diner.
Remembering that she needed to call the new Potential’s watcher, Dawn reached over and dug her cell phone out of her purse. As she dialed the number, she realized she had no signal and sighed. Of course, there was no signal. That would have made things easy. Tossing the phone back into the purse, she peered over at the Specials menu and couldn’t help but shake her head. Obviously, these people were not from California. Steak, burgers, fries... Greasy was the special of the day.
“Have you decided what you want?” a female’s voice said from behind her. Dawn started slightly in her seat at the sound and turned quickly to see that it was the waitress. Glancing at her nametag, Dawn nodded. “Hey... Charlie?” Dawn greeted her. After the waitress’s nod, Dawn looked over at the menu on the wall again and figured that since she was on a pseudo-vacation, she’d live a little. “I’ll have a cheese burger, no onions and some fries.” She watched as Charlie wrote down the order.
“Is that it?” Charlie asked. Dawn nodded and watched as Charlie stuck her pen behind her ear. “Percy is taking his time today on his cooking…” she raised her voice on the last few words and the cook, who was obviously Percy, just turned and waved her off. “It should be done shortly.”
“Not a problem. I’m not in a big hurry… just thought I’d get some gas and some food.” Dawn paused for a moment as she remembered the issue with the cell phone. “Hey, I have a question… do you guys just not have cell reception out here?” Charlie looked at her, puzzled. “I’m just wondering, because I tried to use my phone just a few minutes ago and there was no signal.” She clarified.
Charlie shook her head. “No, we always have signal here.” She shrugged her shoulders. “It’s about the only thing we do have around here.” She turned as the man banging on the TV started cursing again. “Hey, Bob!” Charlie waited for a response, but the man just kept cursing and banging on the TV, which was now showing the off-station signal. “Bob!” She called louder.
Still not getting a response, she sighed and turned back to Dawn. “As soon as I can get him to stop beating on the TV, I’ll ask him. The guy driving that big black SUV said he was having the same problem, too. Weird.”
Dawn smiled and thanks and then watched as she walked off, heading towards the grill area. She felt another shiver go down her spine; they usually had cell reception and now they didn’t. The TV station was off air… Dawn had been around long enough to know that these were not good signs. She really rather wished that the Percy dude would hurry it up, because she had a bad feeling that something Not Good was going on at this backwoods – desert – whatever, diner.
Her fears were soon confirmed when Bob the Banger turned on the radio and all that came out was static. Feeling a sense of urgency, Dawn looked up at Charlie as she placed her order in front of her and asked, “Hey! Do you think you could put this in a to-go bag? I really need to get going.” Charlie raised an eyebrow at the request. “Uh…” Dawn glanced out the window and saw that the dark cloud was now covering a good portion of the horizon. It was time to go. Now. “I just really need to get back on the road.” She started gathering her things. “Please? The check?”
Charlie sighed and picked up the plate. “I’ll have the check right out to you.” She turned and headed back to the counter. Dawn could tell she was saying something to the cook, but at the moment, it wasn’t her main concern. Percy could spit in it for all she cared, just as long as she was out of there in the next two seconds.
Seeing Charlie coming back to her booth with the bag of food and the check, Dawn dug out some money and stood. She handed Charlie the bills and took the bag. “Keep the change. It’s your tip.” Charlie nodded and began walking back to the where the grill area was located.
Dawn slung her bag over her shoulder and took a last glance around to make sure she had everything. Nodding goodbye to everyone, she breathed a sigh of relief. For once, she was getting out before all hell broke loose; it was a nice change. Turning towards the door, she froze as the bell tinkled and someone entered. The wave of wrongness that swept over her nearly caused her to black out and she had to brace herself with her free hand against the back of Sandra’s seat.
Forcing herself, Dawn lifted her head and made herself face whatever had just come in through the door. Confusion made her head swim when the old woman with a walker tottering in. She would have completely dismissed her had it not been for the suffocating aura of Really Bad that now permeating the air. Of course, it really didn’t make her feel any better when the old woman peered at her and gave her a knowing smirk.
Heart pounding, Dawn backed up and practically fell back into the booth that she had just vacated, making sure she was facing where the old lady had seated herself. Sensing someone near her, she glanced to the side and saw that Audrey had slid into the booth when she had stood up. Holding up a hand to stem the question that was forming on Audrey’s face, she turned her attention back to the woman who was now giddily carrying on a conversation with Sandra.
She really wanted to tape Sandra’s mouth shut when she started talking to the woman. Dawn really couldn’t care less that the woman’s name was Gladys; if anything that freaked her out even more. An innocent name like that hiding something so wrong just seemed… inappropriate. Keeping half an ear out where the conversation was concerned, Dawn began rummaging around in her purse until her closed over the flask of holy water she always kept on hand. Moving slowly, she placed the flask on her lap. Buffy insisted that she keep some form of weapon on her at all times and Dawn now agreed that it never hurt to be prepared.
The exchange seemed fairly innocuous up until Gladys asked Charlie where the father of the baby was. Right after Charlie stated that she didn’t need a man (amen, sister) something in the atmosphere changed, became darker. For the first time, everyone else seemed to become aware of it as well.
“But your baby is going to burn.” Gladys said, smiling.
“What?” Charlie practically screamed.
“I said, your fucking baby is going to burn.” Gladys chortled out.
“Go to hell, lady!” Charlie snarled and threw the check down, storming off. Dawn could hear her mutter something about a Jesus freak as she passed Bob and Jeep, but couldn’t make out anything else she said.
Dawn focused solely on what was currently happening at the table on the other side of the diner. Everything narrowed down to a pinpoint of view as Dawn listened to Gladys laugh happily about how ‘all the little babies are going to burn’. Sandra started admonishing the old woman, but Dawn wasn’t really paying attention to anything the dark haired woman said. Dawn definitely tuned in when the old woman responded.
Voice changing and booming with an echo, Gladys snarled out, “Shut up, you fucking cunt! All you do is complain, complain, and complain!”
Dawn’s attention was pulled away, however, when Howard jumped up from his chair, anger written all over his face. Leaping up from the booth and racing towards him as he stormed over to the woman. He was in a dangerous situation and he wasn’t prepared at all.
“Howard, no!” Dawn screamed, running between the tables, readying herself for the inevitable attack. She skidded to a halt when Gladys’ face suddenly morphed and her spindly body lurched forward, viciously biting into Howard’s neck. Throwing him backwards, the old woman stood up from the table, her bloody snarl morphing into a grin that chilled everyone to the bone. Tuning everything else out, Dawn opened the flask and threw the water onto the woman. Drenched, Gladys jumped back with another more guttural snarl before starting forward again, the holy water seeming to only startle and doing nothing to slow her down.
Shocked at the lack of effect that the holy water had shown, Dawn instinctively ducked. A cast iron pan sailed over her head and hit the thing that was Gladys, jaw audibly breaking with a sickening crunch. Bllood spewing from the mortal wound on the side of her head, the old woman landed out of sight and Dawn was unable to see if Gladys was actually dead or not.
Following events unfolded so quickly that Dawn didn’t have a chance to fully register them. When things settled, she could only vaguely recall the shotgun in Bob’s hands firing repeatedly, the screams as Gladys leapt onto the wall and scrambled across the ceiling. Dawn had a faint memory of Bob being thrown across the room and the gun flying over her head to land in front of his son, Jeep. What did stand out in full clarity, however, was Jeep grabbing the shotgun and then freezing, unable to pull the trigger as Gladys advanced upon him.
Dawn, realizing that Gladys had spotted a weakness and was about to exploit it, sprang into action. Racing through the maze of overturned tables and chairs, she threw herself in front of Jeep, desperately trying to block the attack. Falling into a fighting stance that came as naturally as breathing, Dawn was completely unprepared from the sharp staccato bursts of a high-caliber pistol being fired in rapid succession.
She could only watch in confused shock as Gladys fell to the ground, dead. She had never seen anything like it and was at a loss as to how to explain it. Bullets should have had no effect on a demon. She looked at the black man holding the pistol with shaking hands and nodded in grateful acknowledgement of him saving her life.
Sandra’s screams for help finally registering, Dawn shook herself out of her stupor and focused on the current situation. Racing over to Howard, she dropped to her knees and grabbed the towels that Percy was bringing from the kitchen. Pressing them firmly to the gushing wound, she instructed Sandra to continue applying pressure. Sitting back on her heels, Dawn wiped her forehead with the back of her hand in a futile attempt to remove the sweat that she had worked up. She grimaced when she saw the blood all over them and knew from previous experience with the Slayers that Howard was going to be lucky if he survived. Assessing the situation, she knew that his only chance was going to be immediate medical attention.
Standing, Dawn turned to Bob. “He needs a hospital, now!” She glanced at her watch, mentally calculating how much longer Howard had based on how much blood he was losing. “He doesn’t have much time! Where’s the closest place he can go?” She waited for an answer impatiently, but Bob was in shock and wasn’t hearing what she was asking. “Bob!” Not hearing her, Dawn tried again. “Bob!” she shouted louder, “He needs a hospital! Where is it?”
Finally getting through, Bob turned to her and his eyes cleared as he processed what she was asking. “There…” his voice cracked and he cleared his throat. “There’s one in El Reyes.”
Dawn frowned in dismay. She had seen the town on her map and based on where she was guessing Paradise Falls was that town was almost 45 miles away. She wasn’t sure Howard had that much time, but it was worth a shot.
Turning to the black man who had shot Gladys, Dawn waved a hand to get his attention. Seeing that she had it, she asked, “Hey! What’s your name?”
“Kyle.” He responded, voice slightly shaking.
“OK, Kyle… Is that your truck out there? The big black one?” He nodded. “All right…” she gestured towards the couple on the floor. “He needs to get to a hospital and you have the only vehicle big enough to do it. He needs to lie down.” Dawn ordered.
Kyle recognized the voice of someone who had taken charge and nodded while fishing his keys out of his pocket. “OK!” He turned to the rest of the group. “Let’s get him loaded up!” He rushed to the door, slinging it open. “Let’s get moving people!”
Dawn watched impassively as the group carried Howard out to the truck and loaded everyone up into it. It wasn’t the first time she had been in this scene; she was pretty sure she knew how it was going to end. She kept her gaze on them until they pulled out of the parking lot with a screech of tires and cloud of dust. Seeing that they were on their way, she went back into the diner. Not giving the corpse on the floor a glance, she headed back to the restrooms.
Scrubbing her hands free of the now dried blood, Dawn went over the events that had just taken place. She had experienced many things over the years; she had witnessed demons, ghosts, pagan deities… but they had never been like the old woman out in the dining area. The holy water had no effect and that had been unexpected. Plain bullets should have only slowed her down; they shouldn’t have killed her. Gladys had obviously been supernatural; Dawn hadn’t seen any humans climbing walls and crawling across ceilings lately. Nevertheless, what was she? Holy water hadn’t worked… A cold shiver ran down her spine as she spun around and raced to the booth where she had left her bag. Dumping the contents out onto the table, she searched through and grabbed the small crucifix that Giles had given her.
Walking over to where the corpse lay, Dawn squatted down and placed the crucifix against Gladys’ head. She frowned when after several moments there was no reaction from the holy relic being on the woman. Turning slightly, Dawn looked around and spied a piece of a chair that had splintered off during the chaos and grabbed it. Taking a deep breath, she shoved the stake into the dead woman’s body and was even more perplexed when nothing happened.
“What in the hell are you doing?” Bob yelled from behind her, causing her to jump in surprise.
Looking up at him, Dawn debated what to say. She decided to go with the truth; it wasn’t as if she could deny that something weird had just happened here. “I’m trying to figure out what she is.”
Jeep walked up beside his father. “What?”
“She’s not human.” Dawn stood up and dusted her hands off on her pants legs. She looked down at the corpse. “And it’s not a demon.” She stated firmly.
“Right.” Bob said sarcastically. “And you would know that how exactly?”
Dawn smiled. If only he knew the truth. “Trust me. I’d know.” She rubbed her forehead, trying desperately to stave off the headache that was starting behind her eyes.
Jeep edged closer to the body and asked, “OK, what is it then?”
“Honestly? I don’t know.” Dawn began pacing, thinking. She mentally went through the list of creatures and beings that she had researched over the years, ticking off each one as she recalled weaknesses and methods of killing them. In the midst of her furious thoughts, the diner door flew open and the group that had only recently left came rushing back in, carrying a still bleeding Howard.
“Why the hell are you back here?” Bob roared, furious. “He needs a hospital!”
Everyone began talking at once, explaining what had happened. They were all yelling to be heard over each other, but Dawn caught one voice and she froze as a thought crossed her mind.
“Hey!” she called out. When no one acknowledged her, she tried again. “Hey!” she raised her voice. Still no one paid any attention while Bob yelled, Sandra cried, and Kyle tripped over his words to explain as Percy paced back and forth frantically. Dawn finally lost her temper and placed two fingers in her mouth, letting out a sharp whistle that caused everyone to stop what they were doing and stare at her.
“Thank you!” she huffed out. “Now, Audrey… you said something that concerned the cloud out there. What was it?”
Audrey looked out the window and pointed. “No need to explain; see for yourself.”
Dawn walked to the window and looked to see what Audrey was talking about. She felt the blood drain from her face as she observed what had everyone so upset. Arriving in a swarm of hundreds of thousands it seemed, locusts flew all around the building. She could hear them slamming into the walls and windows with solid thuds and at that moment, Dawn’s world turned upside down.
Evil had a face; it came in the form of vampires, demons, weres… These were known facts. She had spent the better part of her life living it, seeing it, researching it. She knew that there were powers beyond her comprehension that were always at work behind the scenes, shaping everyone’s fates. She knew Hell existed; she had lived over its entrance for years. She knew Heaven existed; her sister had been there. She had a belief system that had always been firmly in place through all of her life, based on personal experiences. However, in ten seconds, that entire system was ripped and twisted upside down, destroyed. She knew there was no denying the truth.
Evil had a new face.
Pointing to Gladys, heart pounded. “That is not a demon.” She stated emphatically.
Percy, holding his bible tight, whispered, “What is it?”
Dawn, staring out the window watching as the locusts left as quickly as they appeared, softly spoke. “That’s an angel.”