Rating: This story has rather dark patches. For that reason, it is rated as 15.
Summary: Sometime in the future. Angel has to do what Angel does best.
Written for Dark Star’s Christmas Warriors, 2012.
“And don’t forget to take that box of chocolates to Maria.”
“No,” came the obedient reply.
“You know who she is and where she lives?”
“Maria and John. She’s pregnant, almost due. English couple. The house with the green door.”
“That’s right. Thanks. I tried earlier but there was no reply, and I didn’t want to leave it on the doorstep. She was a real help in the shop, and I just wanted to give her something to say thank you. I’d no idea what an actual English Christmas might need. And you weren’t much help.”
“No.” The monosyllabic answer managed to be both agreeable and emollient at the same time.
“I’ll be back before you know it.”
“You’d better.” It was said with a smile that robbed the words of any possible sting.
Buffy closed the distance between them and put her arms around his neck, bending his head towards hers for a kiss. Mission accomplished, she stepped back and picked up her suitcase.
“Call me every day. I want to know you aren’t getting into mischief!”
A tiny shift in Angel’s expression conveyed hurt and disbelief and guilty denial. Buffy laughed.
“Yes, mister. You. Stay safe. I’ll be back for Christmas proper.”
Angel stepped forward and hugged her tightly.
“Stay safe yourself. And have fun.”
He watched her walk down the path to the waiting taxi. She was going somewhere that he really wasn’t welcome, to spend some time before Christmas with Giles. She would be back for Christmas Day, but until then, daily phone calls would have to suffice. He watched the darkness gather around the empty space that had contained her so very recently, until night had fallen enough for him to venture out.
His first stop was at the house with the green door. They hadn’t been in the neighbourhood long enough to get to know anyone very well, but Maria and John seemed to be a nice friendly couple. Tonight, there was no light in the house, and Angel’s senses told him the place was empty. He’d come back tomorrow.
He took Buffy’s gift home, and then set out to make sure that this safe neighbourhood stayed that way. He paused at a couple of intersections where traces of a hot acrid scent spoke of demons that had also paused there, but the scent was at least twenty-four hours old, and all seemed well with the world.
Until the next day.
He went back to the house with the green door the following night. There were still no lights at the windows, but as he walked up the path, the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. That same hot, acrid scent hung in the frosty air, but now it was fresh, stinging in his nostrils. He banged on the door.
“Maria! John! Are you in there?”
There was no answer, but tiny sounds reached him. The beat of a heart, the sound of a breath, a nervous twitch as flesh scraped against cloth. None of them spoke of human hearts or human breath or human flesh. Something was home, but it wasn’t Maria or John.
He moved away, unsure of what to do now. Did the innocent-seeming couple harbour a secret as strange as his? He patrolled that night, but he was uneasy, preoccupied. He found half a dozen more places where the acrid stench hung heavy in the air. It wasn’t long after midnight before he went back home. He drank his evening meal, and sat down to think.
The odour was that of a demon, and he had come across it before. It was true that he never forgot anything, but that didn’t always give him instant recall. Whatever he knew was a long time ago and buried deep. No matter how much he recounted his sins, he rarely went that deep, into horrors that no soul should have to face. But, the sense of smell was the most primitive of the senses, even for a demon. Things scented could never be forgotten.
Tonight, he opened the darkest doors of his memories and searched the bloody bones contained there. At last, he had it. A sect of demons so rare that there was no name for them and who only emerged onto this plane of existence for their most important rite of passage. And the traditional feast for that rite of passage was a newborn human baby seethed in its father’s blood and its mother’s milk.
He huddled further into his chair and dug deeper into those forbidden memories.
The next night, he returned to the green door. There were no chocolates this time. The stench was stronger. He listened closely to the sounds of breathing and of blood pounding. More than one individual, but still nothing human.
“You in there,” he said quietly to the wood of the door. “Bring out the family safe and unharmed, and I will let you live. Cross me in this, and I will bring you pain and terror before I bring you death.”
There was no reply. He hadn’t really expected one, not tonight. He pushed something through the letter box, walked back down the path, and slipped into the shrubbery on the far side of the road. When he gave up his vigil at first light, he had no fear that his quarry would escape. Like him, the sun brought only death to them. He would be back tomorrow night, and the nights that followed, until he had Maria and John back safely.
Those in the house kept a hushed silence until they sensed that the stranger was gone. They had listened for his footsteps, but he’d been completely silent. The sense of menace at the door had lessened, though.
There were seven of them. They were all males, females not being permitted to witness this most important ritual of initiation. There were four adults, comprising every mature male member from the family of the youth being initiated, and two sect elders, there to see that no unfair support was given, referees of a sort. Last but not least was the youth himself. He had already proved part of his prowess by subduing the two humans, and placing them safely into stasis, ready for the rapidly approaching time when the foetus could be ripped from the womb, its embryonic regeneration powers harnessed, and the ensuing feast prepared.
Everything was ready. The stars were ticking down to the auspicious moment, as would be determined by the more ancient of the two elders, the sect’s haruspex, from the entrails of the father. What they hadn’t been prepared for was an intruder.
“What manner of creature was that?” breathed one of the adults. “It did not seem to be one of the humans.”
The second elder gestured to them all to stay where they were, as it moved slowly towards the front door. Gingerly, it opened the letter box just a little, and snuffled in the cold night air. When it straightened, it held a long white envelope.
“It was not human. It is a long time since I came across a scent like that. They barely had the intelligence to talk, then. It is a species of the undead. I do not believe it to be a threat to us, especially since there are so many of us here. It left this.”
One of the adults took the envelope and pulled out the contents. It was a colourful rectangle of very thick card with a hook at the top for hanging it. The picture was of a red and gold sleigh, the sides bowing outwards from the size and weight of the sack it carried. The sack itself was red, and the mouth stood open, freed from silver tinsel bindings. Gifts spilled out from the sack, or bulged from the stitched leather sides, pretty parcels wrapped in coloured paper and ribbon. A number of flaps were cut into the card, like little doors.
They had never before seen an Advent calendar, and didn’t quite know what to make of it.
Some of the doors were firmly closed, but the first dozen or so stood open. Advent, after all, was well advanced. In each open door, someone had placed a bloody thumbprint.
The next available door had clearly been opened and then reclosed over an object that made it bulge outwards. At a nod from the haruspex, the adult carefully opened the flap of card, revealing a piece of cream paper that had been folded many times so that it would fit. The demon took it out and opened it.
Bring back the family unharmed and I will let you live. If not, I shall have a gift for you.
Beneath was the unmistakable drawing of a coiled whip.
“Perhaps it would represent tribute from the undead?” offered another of the adults.
The haruspex shrugged. “Put it back through the door,” it ordered. “We must show this creature dominance. Then it will go away.”
“What if it has marked this couple as its next prey?”
The haruspex looked to the youth for an answer.
“They were clean. They had no scent of another claim, no marks on them, no indication that they might have belonged to another tribe.”
“No toothmarks anywhere?”
“None. But I will check again. Perhaps you would come with me?”
The demons followed the youth up to a bedroom. A naked couple slept on the bed, and yet, they were not present at all. What could be seen was only a shadow, intangible and largely transparent. The youth inspected the bodies, then murmured a few words of power to turn them over. There were, indeed, no marks to show where other demons might have a claim.
“Good work,” said the haruspex. “Not long to wait now.”
They watched as dusk fell, until the hateful yellow sun had died for the night, wishing it would die for all eternity. When it was safe, an elder gestured to the most muscular of the adults.
“We should check that the building and grounds are secure and that the undead has slunk off.”
The adult nodded obediently. These were not battle demons, but they knew enough about killing their enemies to feel confident of their ability to see off a lone undead. It went out through the back door to patrol the rear boundaries first.
It welcomed the darkness of the winter night, breathing in the sharp fragrance, feeling the soothing touch on its skin as it peered into the most shadowy hiding places. There was nothing to be seen. Its circuit of the hedgerows complete, the adult returned to the furthest point from the house, welcoming the solitude. It gazed upwards at the alien stars, strewn in their multicoloured galaxies, all-seeing eyes on the tender wings of Eternal Night. And then the night found a voice of ice and steel.
“Where is the family?”
The adult peered around, but the undead was too well hidden to be seen. “This is a holy mission, demon of the undead. You would do well to find yourself other prey. Our mark is on these, and we shall have them.”
“You haven’t released them?” The voice was contemplative, as though the owner was selecting from a menu.
“Nor shall we.”
“I see. Well, I promised you a gift. I didn’t say you would like it.”
There was a sharp crack. The adult screamed as the thick lash of a heavy whip wrapped around its wrist, stripping off the leathery skin.
Those inside heard a scream like a mating fox.
“The undead has been seen off,” said the haruspex with satisfaction.
The other elder seemed to be less sure. There was a second scream, and then a third.
“The undead seems to be fighting back,” it said. The haruspex was silent.
After several more screams, there was a thud against the back door. The haruspex gestured to an adult to investigate. The adult hesitated.
“Go on!” the haruspex hissed. “Even if the undead has survived, which I doubt, it cannot enter the home of a human without an invitation.”
Reluctantly, the adult crossed the silent kitchen and opened the back door. The one who had gone on patrol lay in a huddled heap on the doorstep. The demon pulled its stricken fellow inside and quickly shut the door again. The other demons stood around the adult staring wordlessly at its injuries.
Its body was criss-crossed with bloody stripes. There was worse, though. A precise flick of the whip had taken out one of its eyes. The stripes would mend. The vacant eye socket would not.
A slithering sound at the front door was as loud as a crack of the whip, and it was long minutes before an adult went to investigate. When it returned, it carried a white envelope that they all recognised. When the card was taken out, a new door held another folded message.
Return the family unharmed. The next gift will not be so kind.
Beneath the writing was a drawing of a wicked-looking knife. The adults looked at each other until the haruspex instructed them to put the unholy thing away while it cast the bones to see how close the auspicious day now was.
The following night, the haruspex instructed that each of them should station themselves in a different room to ensure there were no intruders, and specifically to ensure that the undead made no effort to breach the sanctity of this house. They were not to make themselves comfortable, but to stand guard and stay watchful to make sure that all was well. And until the small hours of the morning, all was well.
Those who knew Angel would say that one of his greatest strengths was breaking and entering. What very few knew was that an even greater strength of his was entering without breaking anything at all. There are always ways for a resourceful vampire to gain entry to a building, provided there are no mystical prohibitions.
So, as the clock ticked away the hours of night, the demons watched from the shadows, until one found that the shadow was watching him. The demon wasn’t as quick as the vampire.
At the end of the long night, the demons gathered in what had been a bright and cheerful sitting room. One of the adults was missing. Together, they searched each room until they found their missing companion in what had been an unguarded bathroom. The demon was bound and gagged, and the bath was violet with blood.
The youth struggled not to vomit at the sight of a relative so badly mutilated. The cropped ears, the truncated tail, the blasphemous symbols from human religious culture that had been carved into its body, these were all something quite outside the youth’s understanding and experience. But perhaps most shocking of all was the obliteration of the facial markings that delineated each demon’s age and status. That made this demon, a senior relative, into a demon of no account whatsoever. It was weeping, with pain and rage and shame.
When they had tended to the victim as best they could, using makeshift bandages from clean sheets, they had time to notice the white envelope on the couch in the sitting room. It was the youth this time who opened it. The note behind the next door read:
You were warned. Return the family unharmed. If you do not, it is my turn to take a gift.
Underneath was a drawing of a heart.
Angel slept uneasily that day, his dreams full of delicious horrors from the past. He rose mid-afternoon with a feeling of anticipation. He did his best to push it back into the depths, but it was difficult. He sat in shadow at the kitchen table, reflecting on what had happened last night. The demon he had taken had been guarding Maria and John’s bedroom. The room where they were. The room that should have prevented his entry into the house.
All that there was of the couple were coloured wisps of air, shifting like a kaleidoscope to reveal their shapes. He had tried to touch them with his finger tips, but his hand had passed through. All that he could see of them was a mirror image, a reflection, or perhaps a mirage, projected from some other place. And so, there had been nothing to keep him out. The trouble was, he had no idea whether they could ever be recovered. But he had to try. To do that, terror was his best weapon. He intended to raise the terror levels again tonight.
It was said that revenge was a meal best eaten cold. So was terror. Those demons would be eating that meal now, in the difficult hours of the day.
Their effective numbers were badly reduced. The now-one-eyed demon that had been whipped managed to hobble around, but would be useless either in attack or defence. The victim of the knife attack was in even worse case. But, said the haruspex, there were still five of them that were fully capable, and they should stay together.
The adults and their youthful relative did not press for a return to their own plane. They would be shamed beyond endurance if they returned with the ceremony unfulfilled. They would be outcasts. But they shared glances that spoke of fear of what might yet come to them. Clearly their own innate weapons were insufficient, so that night each armed themselves with such human weapons as they could find in the house. Kitchen knives, carving forks, chisels and hammers were all pressed into service.
They all took station in a single room, the room with the apparitions of the humans, the room to which the couple must be returned on the auspicious day, properly purified from their sojourn in the Stasis Well. The hours ticked by slowly, but each second was sharp-edged, agonizing.
When the moon stood high over the house, clouds shifting over its brilliance, the haruspex cast the bones into the pool of broken moonlight.
“Two days,” it said. “Two days more and then it will be time.”
The patch of moonlight was briefly obscured by a deeper shadow, and then cleared, shimmering brightly on the polished wooden floor.
A little later, they heard the sounds of water from the kitchen, water dripping onto the floor.
“The house must not be polluted,” the haruspex hissed. “Two of you go and deal with that.”
None of them moved. The haruspex repeated his order, but none of them feared him so much as they feared what might be in the house. In the end, the other elder gripped an adult by the arm and, brandishing their weapons before them, they descended the stairs into the fang-filled blackness below. When the others found them the next morning, they were in the kitchen. The elder lay unconscious but otherwise unharmed on the floor. The adult lay sprawled on the kitchen table, quite dead. There was a gaping hole in its ribs, and the heart was neatly sliced on a plate nearby. One slice had been torn apart by fangs, and the bitten-off piece spat out into the sink.
The remaining healthy adult, father of the youth to be initiated, put an arm around his son, a protective gesture that seemed to be entirely inadequate.
“Where is the Book of Doors?” he demanded.
The Advent Calendar was on a counter top, the envelope covered in bloody fingerprints. The new note read:
Tomorrow night it must finish. Return the family safely by then or suffer the consequences.
Paramount in their society was respect for and obedience to the elders. It was unheard of to rebel against their wishes. But, rebellion was brewing that day. The dead body was wrapped decently in a sheet, ready to return with them for the proper funeral observances. There was a strong view that the auspicious day should be today, and the ceremony performed without further ado. Either that, or the haruspex should declare the whole thing inauspicious, so that they could return home without shame and try for a new ceremony in some other place at some other time.
The haruspex merely shook its head. The bones would not permit that, he said. They must make their stand here, or be forever shamed.
So, they waited while the wicked sun ran its laggardly course, and the pendulum clock scythed off the seconds and shredded their courage until the other elder ripped it off the wall and threw it down into the basement.
As the stars began to illumine night’s all-devouring wings, they gathered together in the bedroom, with the curtains firmly closed, and sat in a hag-ridden semi-circle around the bed. Every creature has something to pray to, and that was what they did. As so often happens, their prayers were not answered. That favour had been granted elsewhere.
When the moon rode high, the curtains billowed out as glass and wood shattered. Too quickly for any of them to see – and far too quickly for any human eye – the shadows reached out, seized the youth, and were gone.
Towards the end of the hours of darkness, long after the moon had hidden behind the safety of the Earth, they heard movement at the front door. When they had the reassurance of daylight, they found a sack in the shadow of the porch, violet stains seeping through the leather. They dragged it into the hall. The neck was bound up with something that looked suspiciously like hide, but was decorated with a few twists of silver tinsel.
Inside was nothing but bloody bones, the flesh carefully butchered off them, and the Advent Calendar. Written on the stained and smeared envelope was:
Now there is no reason for a ceremony. Return the family unharmed or I will find you all, no matter how far you run. What I have done to you here will be seen as a mercy, compared to what I shall do to you then. If you doubt me, ask about Angelus.
The demons’ powers ebbed each day, leached away by the power of the sun. They could do nothing but hold together in grief-stricken terror.
For his part, Angel found he couldn’t sleep at all. As soon as the sun fell, he ran to the house with the green door. There was the absolute silence of emptiness, and then the thin wail of a baby. He tried the door, but was rebuffed. The small diamond panes of thickened glass showed him the fluid outlines of two people on the floor of the hall. Cursing, he tried to enter again, but his exclusion was absolute. John and Maria were back, and at least one of them wasn’t dead, but the smell of blood was thick in the air.
He pulled out his phone and dialled for an ambulance.
He was waiting in the shadow of the doorway even before the taxi drew up. And then, Buffy was in his arms, and the world shifted back onto a different axis for him.
“Did you have a good time?” he murmured into the thick scarf that was wound around her neck.
“Wonderful!” she breathed back. “But I missed you so much.”
“I missed you, too.”
“Did you get up to mischief?”
“Me? No mischief at all. It’s been very quiet.”
“It’s never quiet around you.”
He swept her up into his arms. “Enough talk of quiet. Are you too tired for me to show you how much I missed you?”
“Never too tired for that!”
Afterwards, wrapped in not very much, they sat at the kitchen table having coffee. Buffy reached out to the Advent Calendar pinned to the wall. The picture on it was simply a bright, pointed star.
“You haven’t kept up with this,” she accused, as she broke open the little doors. Each one concealed a chocolate, gold-foil-wrapped coin.
“Sorry,” he said. “Besides, you appreciate the chocolate more than me.”
She arranged the gilded chocolates on the kitchen table, and moved them around with her forefinger. He knew she wanted to say something, and didn’t know how to begin, and so he waited her out.
“Angel,” she said at last, “you know practically everything there is to know about me, but you almost never talk about yourself. I want to know more.”
He frowned. “Is this something from Giles? Is he hoping that you’ll learn things that will make you hate me?”
“No, of course not.” She paused. “But it was something he said about relationships. About sharing each other’s burdens. I... I want to be able to ask you things and you feel able to tell me. And when you get an attack of guilt, I want you to be able to talk to me about it. I don’t want there to be gulfs of silence or of misunderstanding between us.”
He smiled at her, as if at a cherished memory. The smile faded, as he remembered Cordelia’s reaction to uncensored knowledge of his past. His voice when he answered was gentle, pleading. “Buffy. If I told you of the things I’ve done, you couldn’t help but put me aside. It would be a death sentence for us.”
She put her hand over his. “That can never happen. Angel, the second year I knew you, you took me into your abyss and made me part of it. You showed it to me from the inside, and I never, ever stopped loving you, despite what you did to me. I love the you now, the brooding, guilty guy who sometimes has to do things that even Slayers don’t have to do. But the you now could never have been, without the you of the past. It’s the darkness of that past that makes the light in you so very bright now.”
He twisted his hand from under hers, but only to thread her fingers with his. “I love you, you know. Did you make all that up yourself?”
“Nope, read it in a book. Of course I made it all up, you idiot. And I mean every word.”
He looked down at the table. “Was there something especial you wanted to know?”
“What did you used to do at Christmas? You know, when you were... him?”
“We’d have a good feast, like everyone else. Except it wasn’t turkey, of course. Lots of decorations hanging around, just... different.”
He grimaced, and fell silent.
“Was there anything that Angelus used to particularly like to do at Christmas?”
Angel swallowed. “He... I used to have a thing for choosing a victim and acting out an Advent Calendar. A particularly vicious Advent Calendar.”
“Really? That’s inventive. See? That wasn’t so hard, was it?”
“Is that all you want to know?”
“Baby steps, Angel, baby steps.” Her smile for him was truly tender. “By the way, did you remember to deliver the chocolates?”
His eyes slid guiltily away from hers.
“Well, yes, but I didn’t manage it until last night, at the hospital.”
She’d never heard Angel slide so many words into each other, as though to hide some of them.
“Are they okay?”
“I think so. Just very confused. They don’t know about the demon bit.”
“I thought you didn’t get up to any mischief?”
He hung his head.
“Sounds to me like you saved the day. So, shall we have something to eat, and then we can go hospital visiting? Then you can tell me all about it.”
She stood up, and the shirt that was all she was wearing fell open as she leaned over the table to kiss his forehead. He stepped around the obstacle and pulled her towards him, intent on distracting her.
“I’ve got something to eat here. I have really missed you.” It was the best sort of distraction technique, being completely true.
He gathered her into his arms and took the stairs to their bedroom two at a time for their own sort of Christmas feast.
Apart from the obvious Advent Calendar, the inspiration for this story came from the prohibition, ‘Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother's milk.’ This is from Exodus 23 : 19, but it is also repeated in Leviticus and in Deuteronomy.
It must be important. But why? It is improbable that deities are concerned about cookery recipes per se, otherwise molecular gastronomy would be in all sorts of trouble. Snail porridge, anyone?
So, why the prohibition? Well, it seems that the Egyptians, with whom the Israelites had been dwelling for so long that perhaps they had picked up a lot of Egyptian-style habits, used to seethe a kid in its mother’s milk at harvest time, and sprinkle the resulting broth on the trees and the soil, to ensure fertility for the next crop. Perhaps the Canaanites, whom the Israelites were about to try and displace, had similar rituals. Many cultures do – in the West Country here, where apples and cider are a long tradition, apple orchards used to be wassailed with bread and cider, to ensure a good crop.
And I thought, What if it were something more...demonic? Thus this story was born. Please don’t have nightmares.