The Novice’s Tale
Rating: If you’re old enough to watch the show you’re old enough to read this.
Setting: Starts just before Not Fade Away. The comics do not exist.
Summary: That would be telling. Angel and Buffy.
Warning: Some of the practices described here are, at worst, only a small step away from ones that have existed or, shamefully, still exist. Nevertheless, those of a sensitive disposition might find them disturbing, as should we all.
The Novice’s Tale
Angel sits behind the desk in his office at Wolfram and Hart. Shortly, he will be gone, and he will not be coming back. Before he leaves, he wants a last look at this book of prophecy. It isn’t a book, so much as a pamphlet, unlike the other books in this place. And unlike the other books, he hasn’t told anyone else about what he’s found in it.
Like the other books, it was blank until he looked at it, but unlike them, it will tell him only one story. It’s a fearful one. He reads it one last time, committing it to memory.
The Vampire With A Soul will be given several opportunities to reclaim his humanity, each one presenting itself as he earns it. If he chooses to accept one of these gifts, he will live and die as foretold, and he shall know the Slayer again for this lifetime. If he chooses humanity now, the Slayer will be reborn in the far future, to save the world from a threat of Hell on Earth worse than any she has faced so far, but the Vampire will not be by her side, there will be no one else to help her, and she will fail utterly and be brought to nothing.
If he chooses not to accept the gift of humanity now, if he chooses to suffer his mortification of the flesh for so long as is required, if he is able to find the Slayer as soon as she is reborn, then mankind may be saved. The Vampire and the Slayer shall have great power together, and in the end he will still find his reward, and so will she, and they will know happiness together.
What should he do? Pain and promises for tomorrow, or apparently certain happiness for today? How trustworthy is this prophecy, considering that it belongs to Wolfram and Hart? How far into the future can it delve?
He walks over to the window, to the necro-tempered glass that allows him to pretend that he is just like any other man standing at any other window in any other city. He is filled by a bone-deep hunger to make that pretence into a reality. But what if the prophecy is truth?
He looks longingly back at the small rectangle of white on the dark brown wood of the desk. What if it works like the other books, and has more to say, but in this case not until later? He strides back across the room, stuffs the pamphlet into his pocket, and leaves his office for the last time.
Journal kept by Dashan, son of Nahor, son of Haran, of his training with the Knights of Saint Giles.
I have passed all the tests, and I have been accepted into the Order of the Knights of St Giles. It is a rare honour, available only to a few. Not to the unlettered, of course. Merchantmen may use simple numbers, but the knowing of letters and of the deeper numbers is restricted to scholars and men of the higher caste. And none of low birth may enter the Order, for we are told they cannot have the cast of mind for the sacrifices required of a knight. No, only men of good education, and with the blood to give them the strongest hearts, may become a Knight.
My father was in the Order, until he lost an arm in battle, and I am pleased to have been chosen to follow him. He has never spoken to me of the mysteries of the Order, saying that my tutors will teach me as I become ready to receive that teaching. Curiosity has burned within me ever since I was old enough to ask questions and now, perhaps, that thirst will be assuaged.
I am excited so that I can barely sleep this first night. I have yet to meet my fellow novices, and I have seen little of the castle in which we shall spend the next seven years. It is a grey-walled fortress, crouching like a lioness among these ancient hills. Sunlight finds it hard to trouble the inside, the only windows being slits for arrows. It was built by our long-ago ancestors not for comfort, but to keep things out.
I have been shown to a guest room for tonight, where I shall spend some hours of solitude praying to Saint Giles. Then, tomorrow, I shall take my first vows, those of dutiful obedience and watchfulness.
I have never seen so many boys of my own age, even when my father took me to the Winter Fair to buy the things I would need here, and that we could not make. There are markets every Seventh Day for the local parish, but only four Fairs each year, on the Quarter Days, when all the men and boys of villages from the county, and merchantmen from far away, gather for feasting and dancing and trade. And I take my oath that even at the Winter Fair, there were not so many boys of my own age as there are in the class here. Eleven of them! They must have come from the four corners of the Earth.
We have been told that there are seven major strongholds of the Order, each year’s intake of novices being taught at one of them. So we shall stay here for seven years, and when we have finished our training, a new crop of novices will take our place. And we twelve, if we all succeed – which is by no means assured – will become a Company. We will start a new House together, and a new parish with new villages will grow around us, and so we shall help to spread mankind back out into this empty Earth, and we will protect the communities that we nurture. It is a fine thing that we do.
We met our tutors today. They mostly look old enough to have taught my father and are perhaps a little grim. Still, I am sure they will have much to teach us. Today was spent learning the castle and its inhabitants. In addition to us novices and our dozen tutors, there is a troop of one hundred warriors and a body of serving-men, perhaps twenty strong. We are told that there are slaves here, too, but they are not like us. They come from an ancient enemy. We are to learn more about them in our history classes.
There does not appear to be a House of Purification for the women, and that surprises me. In fact, there seem to be no women here at all. There is, however, an extensive armoury.
Tomorrow, we begin our training proper. My father taught me to use sword and bow, staff and knife and shield, and I hope that I will not disgrace him. I do so wish to learn, and to bring honour to him.
We had weapons training this morning. All the tutors attended, assessing their new charges, I believe. They will all attend some of our other classes, to better judge our overall strengths and weaknesses.
This morning’s weapons class went well. Our tutor for that is perhaps the youngest of them, a tall, broad-shouldered man, dark-haired and dark-eyed, and very accomplished with weapons. He set those of us with more experience to help those with less, telling us that we must learn from each other, and we must fight together. He is very stern, but he smiled once, and his face lit up, and was transformed. He makes me wish to succeed, even if I did not already wish to do so.
I found our afternoon lesson to be surprising, and unsettling. I knew, in my boyish way, that humanity used to be much more numerous than we are now, and could do things beyond our comprehension. Sometimes, we see the remains of their civilization: giant fingers of ruined walls; paved roads long buried under sifting sand; remnants of mysterious tracks across the country; and parts of this castle, apparently. But our history tutor, a white-haired old man, bent and crooked, who walks with a staff, his eyes rheumy yet his mind as sharp as an obsidian knife, told us so much more.
We will learn our history in more detail, but for today, we were given the broadest outline. The Kingdoms of Man came to an end over three and a half thousand years ago in an Apocalypse of fire and storm, and war. Famine and pestilence followed close behind. Who was the enemy in the wars, the enemy that cut humanity down and almost extinguished them entirely? Demons. Even now, as I write that word, I cannot believe it. I know that all women are possessed be devils, which is why they are kept in Houses of Purification, but free-living demons? Demons, capable of battle? My father must know all this, but he never breathed a word to me, and I am sure that the common man has entirely forgotten it.
Even more wondrous, there are demons here, in this castle: captive relics of those long-past wars. We are told that we shall see them all in time, and learn of them, and I shall describe them as we do.
Before I forget, though, I should record the bones of what happened in that vast expanse of time that followed the emergence of the demons from Hell. We have almost no records, for the destruction was, to all intents and purposes, complete. A few scraps of books, and memories and stories, handed down from father to son. That is all that the scholars have to work with.
It took perhaps a thousand years for humanity to win the war that destroyed every civilization. The remaining population was felled by the famines and plagues that followed the demons. The very existence of mankind hung in the balance for the next thousand years and more, and then the Founders of our Order came together and started to rebuild some manner of civilization and learning. It was slow and stuttering progress, with many setbacks, as the mysteries of farming and building and healing, and all the necessary skills of living like men instead of like animals, were slowly relearned.
Nine hundred years ago, the Order found the shell of this castle. Captive in the dungeons were the demons that are here to this day. They were starved, and in poor condition, and no one knew how long they had been there or who put them there. Demons, we are told, are eternal and these would have fought in the wars, but what they saw they seem not inclined to tell.
I thought they would all be under lock and key, safely chained up, but they are used as slaves. Most have too much in the way of natural weapons to be left unguarded, but not all, and there was a surprise.
Our lunch had been substantial, with small beer to wash it down, and a novice sought permission to relieve himself. Our tutor gave a word of command, and what I had taken to be a pile of rags in the far corner rose, to reveal a man-shaped demon holding a piss pot. It was skeletal and wizened, and the piss pot seemed far too heavy for it. It gave my fellow novice some privacy with its own body, and the sheets of rags that it wore, and then it shuffled out to empty the pot. I was pleased to see it go, for as it passed me, it stank. Our tutor frowned as he told us that some of the previous companies of novices had perfected a habit of poor aim, so that the creature bore the stench of generations of urine spatters. There was more, though, because I am certain I caught the faintest scent of decay beneath the piss. The beast is rotting.
After cleaning the pot, it returned of its own will to the corner where it had lain. It seems to be very timid. With the colder weather, it brings coal for our fire, and it will do such other menial tasks as are required.
No one knows what the different sorts of demon here are called – that is another thing they have never told, and the knowledge is lost to us.
I have so very many questions. What an exciting place this is. What might I not learn here?
The weapons training that I have had with my father has stood me in good stead. There is no one here that I cannot disarm. They will soon catch up with me, with a weapons tutor as good as the one we have, but for now I feel pride in my father’s teaching. I want to learn everything I can from our tutor. He has seen much battle before coming here to teach. He spent many years driving remnant populations of demons out of the Badlands so that new settlements could be founded. Coming from one of the longer-settled, more law-abiding counties, I had not known that the Order of St Giles had battalions of shock troops, or that demons still remain at liberty in some parts of our world.
It isn’t only demons that our tutor has fought. Away from our peaceful enclaves, there is an empty world populated only by bandits and murderers and savages, and he fought against those, too. If civilization is to grow again, humanity must have space for living, farmland for crops, lands where we can hunt safely. Now I do not know whether I would prefer to be a member of a Company of Knights, founding and protecting a new settlement, or whether my ambition should be to follow in the footsteps of our tutor. I should like to be part of a battalion pushing back the frontiers of the world in which we can live. I should like to lead such a battalion, in time, but that is getting ahead of myself.
This afternoon we learned more about St Giles, for whom the Order is named. The man himself lived long ago, before the Fall of Man, we are sure of that. He was a brave defender of humanity, a champion. He was a Watcher, and he Watched Slayers. Slayers were always women, and therefore full of sin. They were killers, with demonic strength, capable of taking down whole battalions.
I have tried to imagine the courage and exceptional strength of character of a man who would stand between humanity and these Slayers, and find it almost impossible. He was a watchman for the whole of our people. From some small scraps of manuscript, we know that at one time he lost Faith, and who could be surprised? We do not know the nature of his Faith – such things have changed so much – but he was clearly dedicated to a powerful philosophy, and he must have found his Faith again, because he went on to Watch over humanity again, to guard us from many other Slayers.
The most powerful of these was a woman called Buffy, who consorted with demons and vampires, one of whom became her lover. We no longer have any true understanding of what a vampire was, or, indeed, what the differing species of demons were called. Tales that have been handed down tell that vampires were creatures like bats, but with hooves and fangs, and they fed solely on blood. Worse, they were reanimated dead things. That even a woman such as a Slayer might consort with one such as this seems unlikely, unless she were enchanted, and the general view of the Order is that these tales are fanciful nonsense.
This Buffy somehow spread her infection to many other women, so that they gained the diabolical power of the Slayers, and there is a theory, espoused by some scholars, that it was this that lies at the root of the possession of women today, the taint that they all suffer from. Other scholars, however, believe that ever since the first woman, Eve, all her daughters have been born into evil. That is why we keep them in Houses of Purification.
The Order follows in the footsteps of that great hero, St Giles, but we do not have to contend with Slayers, as he did. Our fight must be so much easier.
Afterwards, we were taken out into the Well Courtyard, then down into the depths of the cistern underneath that courtyard. One of the slave demons was chained there, a man-shaped thing, but with the skin of a crocodile and the eyes and tongue of a snake. Its job is to work the mechanism that raises water from an underground river into the cistern. None of the novices knew of the river, and we gasped with amazement when we were told that the tunnel for the river bed was dug by hand many, many years ago, by the demons that are enslaved here, bringing water from many miles away, water that is protected from the heat of the sun, and protected from attack.
The creature labours tirelessly, needing only occasional chastisement from its keeper. It is fed on rats, particularly when it has worked well. Rats are common everywhere, except here. I have noticed that there seem to be no rats at all within the castle walls, and so the Order must purchase them from local villages. I am certain that the villagers are pleased to have a few extra goods in trade, and to be relieved of some vermin.
I cannot wait to learn more tomorrow.
I hurt. I hurt so that I can barely stand it. I want to weep with it, but I must be more of a man than that. Never before have I been so beaten. And all for a question. My father would often not answer the questions I asked, but he never stopped me from asking them. And yet, before I came here, he warned me to consider my questions before asking them, and to give voice only to those that sought to understand what I was told, but did not seek to question the Order. I did not comprehend the difference at the time, but now I do. I cannot sleep. I do not wish to disturb my fellow novices in our dormitory, and so I will spend some time writing this in the corridor, although I should not.
The piss pot demon is on the threshold of the dormitory, ready at all times to do its duty, looking like a pile of foetid rags. I would give much for some rags to cover myself now.
The day started well, with weapons training. We were shown how to defend ourselves when disarmed, and then we were shown some movements that our tutor called a ‘kata’. He appeared to be doing a slow and graceful dance, with a sword in one hand and a knife in the other. He explained that these movements would help with balance, with suppleness and agility, but most of all they would help us to centre ourselves, to mentally prepare for what might come. To cultivate serenity before battle, rather than launching ourselves as screaming, uncoordinated savages, as the wild men and the demons do.
In the afternoon, we learned something of the Houses of Purification, and that was my undoing.
The work in the morning had been hot work, and the jugs of fresh water and of milk were welcomed by everyone, which meant that the piss pot was much in demand later. I found this distracting, but I suppose a full bladder is even more so. With the onset of winter, there was a chill in the air – I have remarked before that the sun does not trouble the interior of the castle very much, and now that it is lower in the sky, it does not warm the old stone of the walls enough. So, today the piss pot demon kept a small fire tended, to heat our room a little. The Order does not believe that novices can learn properly when they are cold or hungry. I was soon to learn that this benevolent principle does not apply to punishments.
The Houses of Purification are not discussed with boys, not until the boy becomes a man, when he reaches his twenty-first year. Only then is he entitled to visit such a House, and only then is he told about the function of women in our villages, in our society. Until then, they are places of mystery. I wish they had remained so to me.
All women are confined to the House, and all villages have such a House. Being possessed by demons, women are too stained with evil to be let loose. The Houses are managed by older men who are held to be more impervious to their evil. All women have the same status – low – and none may ever be given any positions of responsibility within their House. They must serve there until they die. Every adult man in the village pays towards the upkeep of the House, and in return may have their food prepared, or their washing done, if they so wish. There is a dining room attached to each House, where men and boys may eat, but the women are forbidden from entering that dining room when any male is present. In my village, I have eaten there almost every day of my life, and enjoyed the good food.
Dress for women must hide them from all eyes, even those of the other females, to prevent communication of greater evils to lesser ones. They are required to work no more than fourteen hours per day, and less when they are expecting a child. Because that is their main function. When a man wants a new son, he makes an appointment with the Watcher of the House to visit the next woman who comes into season. A record of his visit, and the date, is tattooed onto the woman’s body, and she will not be visited by another man until it is known whether she has conceived. How that is recognized is not clear to me, and we are told that we do not yet need to know that.
The man will visit other women as they come into season, until one of them conceives. Girl children remain with the House; boy children are immediately taken from the woman, and given to the father to rear. If he has no goats to provide milk, one is provided for him, until the boy is weaned onto solids. The record of the birth is also tattooed onto the woman’s body. Those who regularly produce boy children are given more food and lighter duties, necessary because they are constantly pregnant. The Earth needs men to populate and to tame it. To make it fertile.
Even confined like this, we are told that the demons within the women still need to be contained and weakened, otherwise the women could wreak as much havoc as the original Slayers. Whole villages would be slaughtered, if they gave in to those demonic instincts.
The controls are applied as soon as possible, by experienced practitioners of the Order. Each month, a day is set aside for such work, and the babies are brought to the nearest Company of Knights. We are not a Company here, in the sense of being the hub and defender of a parish, but there is none other for the scattering of tiny villages around. The villages have no more than ten or twenty men, and a House of Purification cannot be sustained in each, so a single House serves them all. All the baby girls from it are brought here. The next such Epiphany is tomorrow, and we are to be taken to observe.
The controls will be explained to us tomorrow, as they are enforced.
That was when I asked my question. How do we know, I asked, that the girls are all possessed? I think it would have been alright if I had stopped there. But I continued Is it not possible that, all these centuries later, the Slayer infection has run its course, and the women are just human? Is it not possible to loose some of them and see what happens?
I had become carried away with my wish to know. To understand. And with the shocking gravity of what I had heard that afternoon, I had let my tongue run away with me. My father might well have ignored me, and that would have been sufficient to tell me to ask about something else. Not here, though.
I am the first novice in the group to be punished for questioning the rules of the Order, and none of us knew what to expect when our tutor said that punishment was appropriate. I was told to strip, and then the tutor gave each of the other novices a thick cane. They were to beat me for as long, and as hard, as they each considered my sin merited. None of them wished to be found backwards in their desire to uphold the Order, and they laid on with a will, and for such a long time. Some were reluctant, knowing that their turn might yet come, but others enjoyed what they did. I would not wish to be part of a Company with them.
When they had finished, I lay in a bruised and bloodied heap on the floor. I was told, not unkindly, to get up and put my loincloth on. That was all I was allowed. My welts and bruises must be seen, as a reminder to everyone else of the consequences of questioning the Order. I may not dress myself for the next three days. If my skin did not burn so much from the beating and from shame, I should be cold.
A movement catches my eye. It is the beast with the piss pot, in the doorway of the dormitory. I think I see the glimmer of eyes, deep within the rags that it wears, but it must have been the moon, because it’s gone in an instant. Even if I could see the eyes, I could not meet them, because that is another shame that I carry. After the beating, I was filled with the passions of humiliation – rage and hate and self-loathing, and the feeling of being outcast – and I did what most of the other boys do, to show that I was one of them still. I kicked the beast as we left the room. Barefoot, it was more like stamping on the creature, and I am sure I felt its bones shift and grind.
The beast moves again, and produces the clean piss pot from under its rags, holding it out to me. I do need relief, but how did it know? I believe it has been here for centuries, so I expect it has learned the signs. Before I cross the corridor to it, there is something I must do. My father taught me humility, charity and respect. He never mentioned beasts, but my world has expanded now.
“I am sorry,” I say, in a low voice, not knowing whether anyone is listening to me talking to a demon as though it was a man, and not knowing if it understands, or even if it has the sense of hearing. “It was not my place to hurt you, and for that I apologize.” And then I take some much needed relief. The beast gives not a sign of having heard, and then it shuffles away to empty the pot, indifferent to my physical woes, and the pain in my soul.
After letting the other novices loose on me, the tutor said that mortification of the flesh comes in many forms. The punishment was one form, and the requirement to display the welts and bruises was another. I thought that mortification of the flesh was a self-imposed discipline of sacrifice and self-denial, which this most certainly was not. But what do I know?
I cannot bear the feel of a blanket against my skin, and I cannot sit or lie without crying out in pain. I would not do that in a dormitory full of my fellow novices, and so I walk slowly up and down the corridor, then curl up on one of the wooden benches where I can sob quietly and unheard. I do not notice when the beast returns, but I must have slept a little. When I wake, it is huddled back in the doorway, and it is time for me to bathe myself, ready for another day.
The other novices avoided my eye the next morning, as we gathered to practice our katas. The tutor stared silently at my stigmata, his face impassive. Then he set us to work on our exercises. The weapons we practiced with afterwards were single sticks, one of the weapons that my father taught me, and he taught me well. The bruises I inflicted were minor, but I did inflict them. I think the tutor knew that I would.
I am writing about the morning session because I do not want to think about the afternoon session. And yet, I must.
I sat in my normal chair to one side of the group, wearing only my loincloth and as much dignity as I could muster. I was very aware of the draughts in the room, unable to stop shivering, and it seemed to me that the demon piled more coal onto the fire than it had before. But that might be just my fancy.
We were not in the room for long. The tutor led us to the undercroft, which runs below the whole castle. In a room there, lit only by candles, a cell was occupied by a demon, the third one that we have seen. And this one is appallingly hideous. It is humanoid, with thick, plated, hairy skin, but its face has something of an insectile quality.
We had only been there for a few minutes when a pair of old men entered the room, carrying a small baby. They removed the shawl and lay the naked child on the block of polished red marble in the centre of the room. It cried at the sudden chill, a thin wail. The demon in the cage licked its lips.
Our ethics tutor joined them, and indicated that we should gather round. He told us that the two old men were from the House of Purification, elder Knights of the Order, and that the girl had been born two days ago. He pointed to the feminine parts of the baby, saying that here was a perfect corporeal entry place for non-corporeal demons. A few days of pain now would prevent much extra torment for the child later. Then, he rang a small silver bell, and the Order’s surgeon came in carrying a leather roll. He laid this down by the side of the child, who was kicking her legs and reaching out to grasp anything within reach.
The roll contained some of the smaller instruments of his trade. He took out tweezers and a small, sharp obsidian knife. At a nod from one of the two elders, the knife flashed down onto what the tweezers were grasping. The child screamed, but the knife continued its work until the area between the child’s legs was bloody and smooth, with no sign of the folds of skin that had been there before. Five small nuggets of flesh lay on the marble.
I wanted to be sick.
The surgeon then took fine silk thread and stitched up the bloody opening, pulling the remaining skin tight. The wound would seal itself, our tutor said, closing the opening. At the age of thirteen, the women of the House of Purification would use a stone knife to open her up again just sufficiently to receive a man, and with the wound fresh and bloody, the elders would take her so that their sanctified and cleansing seed would be the first that she would receive.
The child was howling now, so the tutor took us to one side for the rest of the ritual. The Slayers had had superhuman strength, he said, and we must counter that in their descendants. This must be done without affecting their child-bearing capabilities, or the ability to perform their daily tasks.
The elder picked the child up, and she clutched at his shirt, but that got her no mercy. He held the child’s right foot between the cell bars, and I saw something I never wish to see again. The demon extruded something that might be a tongue, but looked like a pointed hollow tube. This sliced neatly into the baby’s heel. Nothing seemed to happen, except that the child’s cries now ranged into even greater agony.
It seems the demon is one that feeds on bones. It was taking her heel bone, liquefying it within her, and then sucking it out. That was not enough for them. When that was finished, tight bindings were applied to both feet, and then those bound feet crammed into tiny shoes made of hollowed out cow horn. The cow horn shoes would be changed as the child grew, but only rarely. At the age of two, it would be necessary to break the toes, and the arches of the feet, to make them fit. With one heel missing, and feet bound so that they never grow beyond three inches long, the women are crippled indeed. They need help to walk far, but of course they never have to do that, being confined to their Houses.
I regret that I showed such weakness, but my belly could stand no more. I stumbled from the room, retching. Outside the door, a strong, unseen hand grasped my shoulder, preventing me from falling to my knees, and a basin was thrust at me for me to vomit into.
It was the piss pot beast. It must have seen this before, but I was grateful.
What have I come to? Did my father know?
I have not kept this journal for a few days. I lost heart, because my mind was in such turmoil. Truth to tell, it still is in turmoil. I do not understand. The Order of St Giles is dedicated to saving humanity and re-founding civilization. Surely this requires the highest ideals? And yet, the only mercy shown on that terrible day came from a demon slave. How can that be right?
The others act as though nothing has happened of any import. I may have my clothes back, but now I truly feel like an outcast.
I have tried so hard to live down the shame of my first weeks here, to redeem myself in the eyes of the Order. The Order cannot be misguided, or mistaken. It cannot do things that should not be done. My father was a Knight of the Order of St Giles, and my father is a good man.
So, I have tried to amend myself, to drive out the thoughts I have that are at variance with the teaching here. Like today.
The plan of the Order has been to populate the land from the East to the West, and to make sure that each parish is secure before moving on. We are the westernmost stronghold of the Order, but there is still much empty land to the west. This is a huge landmass, and this castle has stood as a bulwark against anything that might be out there, beyond the civilized lands, and beyond the barrier of the mountain range into which our stronghold is built. Now it is time to extend into the wilderness, for the number of people grows, and they will need new farms and hunting grounds in the years to come.
Half of the garrison of soldiers here have been gone for some weeks, exploring further than they have gone before. They have been gone for so long that there was some thought they might not have survived, or that with the onset of winter they might not be able to travel through the mountains. Today, though, they arrived back. Or, most of them did. They had lost but a quarter of their strength to the beasts they encountered.
They had explored as far as a mighty river that forms another natural boundary after these mountains. They report that there is enough good land between the mountains and the river to take another thousand years to fill. And now there are fewer enemies in it.
They brought back heads. Two dozen. They killed more, but brought back only one of each sort, preserved in salt, to be catalogued. We were brought out of our teaching room to the training arena to hear the report of the returned knights and to see the heads. We spent the afternoon drawing them, to better remember.
There were men, tangle-haired and gap-toothed, different skin colours, even after the salting. Red-haired, dark-haired and yellow-haired. Some of the heads had softer features, smaller faces. These were women. It’s strange to think that, with the exception of the girl baby brought here in those early weeks that I was here, I haven’t ever seen a woman. Not, at least, since the day I was born, and I do not remember that.
There were demons, although they looked very like men. There were differences, of course, and these were carefully pointed out to us. According to the Knights, they were living with the wild men. And, presumably, the wild women.
I have been careful with my questions, recently, and I was careful now.
“Master,” I began, pointing to the heads of the men and women. “Would you explain in what ways these... humans... are different to us, that we may understand.” Apart from the lack of personal hygiene, and the salting process, they looked human to me. I saw that our tutor was frowning and I hurriedly added, “It might help to illuminate the drawings that we are to make.”
That seems to have been the right thing to say, and the frown cleared.
“The differences will become clear as you continue your studies. For today, you will learn to see with the eye. Later you will be able to see with all your senses, and your intellect will be expanded. Then you will be able to see with the heart.”
That was all I was going to get. “Thank you, Master,” I said with a respectful bow, as though he had actually answered my question.
The Knights told us that clearing the land would be easy. The demons and the wild men have only light armament, hunters’ weapons really, and there are few of them. They recommended a new stronghold on the bank of that far river, and the two garrisons, from here and from there, can explore and clear the land in a year or two.
That sounded optimistic to me, if the land is as huge as they say, but I kept that thought to myself. A Council Meeting will be called of elders from the strongholds, and the matter will be put to discussion. It seems that humanity’s immediate future is secured.
After we had drawn the heads, I stayed behind in the training arena to help carry them to the Librarian’s room. It seemed to me that our weapons tutor wore his most impassive expression, one that I have come to interpret as internalized displeasure. I am not sure what he was displeased about. I instructed the piss pot demon to help with the carrying. It stood impassively over the things, shrouded in its foul rags, then stretched out one skeletal hand to touch the nearest one. After a moment, it gathered up an armful with what I can only describe as grace and reverence. The moment over, it shambled after me, and a couple of the other novices, to deliver these relics to the Librarian.
I had nightmares that night, not because of the heads themselves but because, given a bath and a haircut, the humans seemed to be exactly like us. And because the women were living free. I am confused.
This may be the last ever entry I make in my journal – such a short-lived thing – because I have done something from which there is no going back, and I do not know where the future will lead me. Or whether I have a future at all.
I write this to try and fix in my mind how it all happened, although I may never understand why I acted on such impulse. It all happened yesterday, or the day before, I am no longer certain, but this is the first real period of rest that we have had.
In the morning, we had weapons practice. Our tutor showed us some set pieces with the sword for defending against a number of opponents. My father showed it to me years ago, and others, too. We were halfway through our lesson, when a messenger came to summon us immediately to the undercroft.
We obeyed, of course, our weapons tutor following along behind, and the piss pot demon shambling along in the rear. We still had our weapons, not having delayed to put them back in their racks. After all, our weapons session was not yet over.
We arrived in that dreadful room in the undercroft where the baby girl had been so terribly mutilated, and no sooner had we assembled than two old men came in with our ethics tutor. One of the men carried a shawled baby. The terrible demon in the cell held onto the bars, watching with anticipation. I felt, rather than heard, the door from the undercroft close, and I did not immediately see the piss pot demon standing at the back. Last time, it had stayed outside.
Our weapons tutor, wearing his impassive expression, arranged us in a semicircle, to best observe the proceedings, but our ethics tutor pulled me to the front.
“You are all here for a second time, because of you, Dashan, son of Nahor, son of Haran. You showed weakness last time, and that cannot be tolerated. You must harden yourself, and you must be able to watch those things that must be done, or to do them yourself, without flinching. You will observe everything most closely.”
I could feel my gorge rising as one of the old men lay the child on the marble table and unwrapped the shawl. He was about to lift the child off the shawl when I was thrust powerfully aside. Showing a speed and purpose that I have not seen before, the piss pot demon snatched up the child, backhanding our weapons tutor who crashed against the marble block. He tried to rise, sword in hand, but the demon kicked his temple, and he slid into unconsciousness.
That was when folly overtook me. I slipped through the turmoil of novices, all unsheathing their swords, to stand by the door. The demon had our tutor’s sword in hand now, but it was encumbered by both the child and the trailing shawl in the other hand. Even so, it clearly is familiar with weapons, having disarmed three of the novices in three swift blows. But now the elders from the House of Purification and our ethics tutor had their swords in hand. They may be elderly, but they are all experienced knights.
The demon shouldered some of the boys aside, trying to put inexperienced youth between itself and the more seasoned fighters. It was no more than a couple of arms’ lengths away from me. I lifted my sword, ready for the attack, and I opened the door for the demon. There was an infinitesimal moment when I looked into its eyes. They were the colour of molten bronze, glowing gold, and full of intelligence.
I stood aside. “Go quickly,” I urged. “Others will be coming soon.” Then I moved to stand between it and my oncoming classmates. My father’s training rose within me, and two of their swords clattered onto the floor. A sound made me look behind. The demon was still there, with the hiccupping baby.
“Go!” I hissed.
“Come with us,” he said, in a voice that was rusty with disuse.
And I did. There was, after all, nothing here for me but disgrace and execution. We ran back out to the Well Courtyard, as shouts behind us told us that the alarm had been raised. Two soldier knights ran out to stop us, but the demon yanked the earthenware piss pot off the chain that tethered it to its waist, and broke it over their heads. With a strength I never suspected, it wrenched the door off the entrance to the underground cistern, and we descended into the depths.
There is a servant who goads the demon who raises the water. He ran at us with his goad, and I pushed him from the walkway into the cistern. He splashed around, but he could swim. The chained crocodile demon hissed. The piss pot demon hesitated, then, with one hand yanked the shackles from the wall. With one hand, and with unimaginable strength. The crocodile beast leaped into the incoming water and disappeared into the darkness.
“Come quickly,” my demon rasped, and we followed where the other led. The water was thigh deep, and we started to splash upstream.
“Wouldn’t it be easier going downstream?” I asked. We had not yet been shown where the river leads on to, but it must be somewhere.
“With the sewage?” the demon asked, and I lapsed into silence. I hadn’t realised that. “For us, perhaps it would do,” the demon explained, “but not with her.” He meant the girl child. I didn’t argue.
Almost immediately, we came to some splintered woodwork that used to be a grille, presumably to keep enemies out. There was no sign of the crocodile demon, so this must be its work. We splashed on. When we reached what must be the outside wall of the castle, there was another broken grille, but I could hardly see it. The light that reflected off the cistern water and illuminated to way a little could not reach here. The demon offered me the chain around its waist, to which a piss pot was so recently tethered.
“Hold onto this and follow me,” it instructed.
In this manner, we stumbled on for miles. The demon was sure-footed, and it occurred to me that it would have been one of those that spent decades forced to dig this tunnel. There was nowhere to rest, no surcease from the weight of the oncoming water. I was grateful that the demon was the one taking the full force, and not me. He strode forward as though he could see perfectly, and the child slept quietly in the crook of his arm. I do not know how far we travelled, but it was nightfall when we came upon the final pair of shattered portcullis grilles at the end of the tunnel that carries this underground river. The crocodile demon made it to freedom, then. I hoped that we would, too.
The moon was full, and high overhead, when we emerged into the shallows of a much larger river, running through a natural landscape of cliffs and old growth forests. The demon turned to me, and gave me an unexpected choice.
“We’re about twenty miles south of the stronghold. I have a lot further to go tonight. You can go wherever you choose. Or, you can come with us. If you do, you’ll be hunted all your life, I expect.”
“If I go back to my village, I’ll be arrested and executed. I would prefer to come with you. But I’m really tired. I’ll hold you up.”
The demon gave that some thought.
“Let’s go as far as we can.”
We headed west through the forest, staying near to the river. Close to dawn, the demon pointed to some shallow caves in an upthrust rock formation on the other side of the river.
“We need to cross,” it said. “Hold on to the chain.”
I almost drowned on that crossing, and would have, if the demon had not thrust the child into my arms and then towed us both across. It took the baby back on the other side, and we clambered up into the deepest of the caves.
I wanted to ask a million questions, but from exhaustion I fell instantly asleep, and didn’t rouse at all until the demon shook me awake. It was night again, and the baby was fretful.
“She’s very hungry,” the demon said. I asked whether we had anything to feed her, and he shook his head. “She needs milk. Come. Time to go.”
We struck out to the south. I had no idea where we were going, but I did know we were going away from civilization. There was no sign that mankind had ever been here. It took all night, and the birds were already singing to greet the sun when we reached what seemed to have been our destination.
It is a huge cave in a rocky landscape of scrub and rough grass, dry in the entrance, but with the sound of water in the depths. He gave the child over to me.
“Stay here and comfort her as best you can. I’ll be back soon.”
The sky was lightening to pale grey when he returned. He had two goats with him. One was a lactating nanny, the other might have been her kid, but it was dead, and there were bloody streaks on its neck. The nanny was kicking and bleating, and trying to spear him with her horns, but he held her with ease.
He tossed the kid to my feet.
He nodded, and tethered the nanny to a spur of rock with his length of chain, then walked to a large boulder at the back of the cave and casually rolled it aside. Three men could not have moved it, even with levers. There was a small side-passage behind. He disappeared into it, re-emerging with a large glazed earthenware vessel with a lid. Inside were mysterious objects wrapped in oiled cloth that looked ancient.
He emptied the vessel. The largest object, into which the others had been packed, was a cauldron made of an unfamiliar shiny silver metal. He called it steel. He unwrapped a spouted cup of glass and a glass bowl. The rest he packed back into the original vessel.
He took me into the back of the cave, not far enough for the light to fail altogether, but to a place where it opens out into a cavern. I could just make out that there was a waterfall down one wall, and a small rocky pool that overflows into a sandy-bottomed stream. He used the sand to scour out the utensils he had brought, and then we returned to the entrance.
“Can you milk a goat?”
I nodded. Any villager can milk a goat. He took hold of the nanny, holding the wild creature perfectly immobile, her eyes closed in expectation of something I could not fathom. It was only a very few minutes before the baby had warm goat’s milk to drink.
So, this is my new life, I think. There are many things stored here in this cave, and I do not know when he arranged this, although he clearly has. I am in company with a baby girl, salvaged from the Order, although I do not yet know why; and with a demon that I have started to refer to as ‘he’, rather than ‘it’, and whom I have learned I should call Angel.
What will become of us, I do not know, but there is a greater feel of ‘rightness’ than ever I felt since parting from my father. The future stretches out unknown before us but I look forward to it.
Angel stands beneath the waterfall, letting it run over him. He is disgusted with himself. He has no soap, only sand, and he doesn’t know whether he will ever be clean again. He holds out a wizened, skeletal hand. His decades starving in the sewers and alleys of New York were a time of plenty compared to the last nine hundred years and change. Since allowing himself to be rounded up and incarcerated in that damned castle, he’s been in a state of near starvation, along with the other demons there. They all owe their lives to him. When the first knights in the castle rode out, never to return, the demons were left to die. He was the one who managed to find enough freedom to hunt rats for them all to sustain them for the next fifty years. Never enough, and the rats eventually learned not to come within reach. Since then, all he’s had is mice and the odd trapped bird. There’s virtually nothing in a mouse for him, but virtually nothing is better than nothing at all, and the consequences of that. He flexes his fingers, feeling the kid’s blood pulse through his shrivelled veins. It might take a full year to get his body back to normal.
He has things carefully stored away here. He hopes the clothes will be wearable, oiled leather, mainly, but even if they are, they will hang on him as on a scarecrow. His skin shrinks at the thought of wearing the ragged robes that have served him for so many centuries, now soaked in generations of urine and rubbed with the tiny corpses of his food animals, so that the smell would keep others from looking too closely. But, the gentle magic infusing them has protected him from the little sunlight that penetrated the castle. He might need that again. If he lays them in the stream, weighed down with rocks, the water might get them clean in a week or three.
His plan was to stay here with Buffy, for whom he has waited so very long, and whose scent he recognized as soon as she was brought into the castle. He thinks she might have recognized him, too, the way she settled comfortably into his arm, but he might be fooling himself there. He stored as much as he could – utensils, clothes, weapons – and he settled goats and sheep and cattle in the wilderness around. So far he’s only found the goats.
But now, they have a third person to worry about. He couldn’t leave the boy to his fate, which would have been death for helping a demon and for freeing a woman. He’s worried, too about the boy’s father, who is likely to fall under suspicion. He’s raised a good son. Perhaps he’s a good man, who could also have the choice of joining them.
He doesn’t know for certain how he and Buffy will be able to turn humanity onto a different path, away from the hell they have created, and why a Slayer and a vampire should be destined to be the ones to do it. Maybe she won’t grow up to be a Slayer – there haven’t been any new ones since she activated the Potentials – but his senses tell him that she is. Well, time will tell, time and perhaps the pamphlet from Wolfram and Hart that he has kept with him through three and a half millennia. It still looks new. That’s the magic of it, he supposes. It isn’t telling him anything new, since it told him when to return to this country, and when to let himself be caught. Perhaps there will be more from it as Buffy grows.
Humanity, he thinks. This future has brought out the very worst in them. Giles would vomit at what has been done in his name, and would then set out in a cold fury to put things right. Angel thinks that he should do the same.
But he has been captive, unable to take action, unwilling to give up the hard won position of trust, lowly and filthy as it was, that put him in the right place to find Buffy. He cannot take any risks, either, until she is grown. He must keep her safe. The boy can help there. But there is so much to do, and the task is daunting. The wars and plagues and famines threw humanity back to the Stone Age, with virtually all knowledge lost. They have weapons of bronze now although they still use flint and obsidian, but iron and steel are unknown to them. There is so much to reinvent, to rediscover, so much superstition to be rid of. And the Order of St Giles must be defeated and disbanded. Perhaps that is what he is for. He’s good at killing.
He might have had a long time to think about things, but the future is a great, unknown universe, where anything could be possible. And there are promises made, to both of them.
The smell of cooking meat wafts down the cavern, interrupting his thoughts. The boy will soon have some dinner. Tonight, Angel will explore the land around, make sure that it is still the wilderness he found hundreds of years ago. Still safe for a demon and a female baby. He’ll round up some animals. And he’ll relearn how to make soap.
Away from the pool, swaddled in her shawl, a freshly-washed Buffy waves at him, giggling. He climbs out of the pool, and lets the cool air dry him. Then he puts on the clothes he stored here. They will last long enough until he can get more. He picks her up and holds her close. He has sacrificed everything; he has fought on humanity’s side, helped them through the fall of civilization for almost three thousand years; and every day of the last nine hundred-odd years has been a self-imposed mortification of the flesh. In this shining moment, he believes that it has all been worth it.
Mankind has lost track of its calendars, of its old gods, but he hasn’t. He knows exactly what day it is today. It’s Christmas Day, and hope has come back into his world, and into Mankind’s. Buffy reaches up and touches his awful, skeletal cheek. She’s smiling. She doesn’t seem to see him as he is. He lets his eyes go to gold for her, and she laughs, reaching up with her tiny fingers. This infant girl is his to protect. His strength is so much greater than it was when she knew him before, and he will do whatever he has to do to keep her safe.
He walks to the front of the cave, where warm milk waits for her, and a brand new life. His heart swells with love as he settles down to doze. Tomorrow is the beginning of everything.
1 Foot-binding was a terrible practice, only banned in the 20th century.
2 Female circumcision, or female genital mutilation, is just as terrible, and is still commonly practiced in certain parts of the world.