[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] Ongoing...
 
Certain characters and events in the following story are based on a role-playing campaign I run using the Buffy the Vampire Slayer system developed by Eden Studios (www.btvsrpg.com.) The campaign setting of Apocalypse, Texas is based on the setting provided in the Slayer's Handbook supplement. I am deeply indebted to Chris, Karen, James and Matt for allowing me to use and abuse their lovingly created characters in what follows...

 

 

Episode Six - Ascension

The steam engine wheezed and chugged with frenzy as it dragged its cargo east along the Union-Pacific Railroad. And that cargo was of particular interest to the group of men galloping down the rise.

Bobby 'Blue-Eyes' Miller and the Jeremiah Sands Gang were notorious around these parts. They had been notorious long before Miller took charge. Jeremiah Sands himself had seen to that. Still, Miller didn't see the point of failing to live up to that great tradition, not least because it was kind of fun. That was why it was Miller himself who leaped from the back of his horse, a grey and white speckled mare, onto the top of one of the train carriages. Keeping low, he jogged along the roof, leaping from one coach to the next while the rest of his gang kept pace with the train on horseback. Then Miller dropped down inside the engine and forced the driver to bring the train to a halt at gunpoint.

'Which one of these here carriages does Foster keep the money in?' he asked.

The driver chose to play dumb.

Miller spat onto the floor.

'Now, I know that Foster owns most of the banks hereabouts and I know that he transports the money he makes back to the city on this train. So don't waste my time.'

He struck the driver across the face with the butt of his gun. The driver recoiled and spat out a tooth.

'I can do this all day if the mood takes me,' Miller explained. 'What about you, old-timer?'

The driver wasted no more time directing Miller to the right carriage.

'You got the charges set up, Flipper?' Miller asked. Flipper was so named because the fingers of his left and were joined together by flaps of skin. He right hand, however, was especially dextrous and Miller couldn't think of a man he'd rather trust with the explosives.

'All good to go, Blue-Eyes,' Flipper replied. 'You just give the word.'

'The word is go, Flipper,' Miller told him, 'just as soon as I get me to a safe distance.'

Miller was back almost before the smoke of the explosion had cleared. The carriage door hung precariously from one hinge. Within, everything was shrouded in darkness, but Miller was confident he could see the outline of a safe, an attractively large safe.

'Looks like your special talents'll be needed once more, Flipper,' Miller said, slapping the younger man on the back. 'Up you go.'

Flipper climber up into the carriage, quickly followed by Cletus and Cassidy.

Someone screamed inside the carriage.

'What in thunderin' tarnation's going on in there,' Miller demanded, grabbing hold of the door edge and swinging himself up for a better look.

Inside he saw that his gang members were not alone. A number of other figures appeared to melt from the shadows, one of them was tearing Cassidy's throat out with his teeth.

'We were wondering when someone would have a go,' the vampire said. 'We've been waiting for somebody just like you.'

Miller lost his grip on the door and fell backwards into the dirt.

'Ryan, Professor, shoot those…those things,' he ordered.

'But what about Cletus and Cassidy and Flip?' Ryan asked.

'Just do it,' Miller snapped.

Gunfire cracked through the air, sharp retorts echoing down the canyon. Most of the bullets found their mark, hot lead tearing holes in the vampires, but all they did was laugh.

'No way,' Miller whispered. 'No way in all of God's creation. Ryan, Professor, we're getting out of here. Like yesterday.'

And he vaulted on to his horse and galloped away.

The vampire shouted after him.

'You can run, Miller,' it taunted, 'but you can't hide.'

'My, what a coincidence,' said a man with a cultured English accent, 'I was about to say the same to you.'

The vampires turned. A man with tousled blond hair and a crisp black suit was standing watch over them from the top of the rise. He was leaning heavily on his cane. Clearly favouring on leg over the other.

'Why don't you come down here and say that,' the vampire called out to him.

'Tempting,' the Englishman called back, 'but I rather think not. On the other hand, I'm sure my associate would be more than happy to oblige, wouldn't you, Annie?'

'Sure thing, Mr Fallon, sir,' a girl called. She was wearing a fawn leather duster that looked older than she was. Her flame red hair was partly hidden beneath a large black hat.

'A girl,' the vampire laughed. 'You send a girl to fight your battles, do you?'

'Yes, as a matter of fact I do,' Mr Fallon replied. 'That's how our relationship works, you see? I watch and she slays.'

'I love this part,' Annie declared as she produced a sword from within the folds of her coat. The blade was covered with runes that seemed to glow faintly, or maybe that was just a trick of the light.

The vampire swallowed nervously.

'Couldn't we just, you know, talk about this or something?' he asked.

Annie grinned wolfishly.

'I vote for something,' she said.

She leaped into the carriage and slammed the door closed behind her.

Miller wondered how far he would have to ride before he was rid of the screams.

* * *

'All I'm saying is that, since you're going to be stuck here for a bit, you might want to learn to hang.'

'Hang?' Zauriel repeated sceptically. 'Are you sure I wouldn't be better of staying out of the way? I don't want to draw attention to myself.'

'Trust me,' I assured him, 'if you want to hide then this is the place to be.'

The Bronze was packed, so packed that I was glad I'd convinced Drew to make the daunting trek to the bar for refreshments while I tried to get Zauriel settled. I was glad Drew had been up for a night out after everything. I was less so that Chrissie had decided to get an early night, but I wasn't surprised. And maybe a little relieved too. I didn’t want to have to mediate between her and Drew all night. This was meant to be a break, which was why I had brought Zauriel.

'It's about time you crawled out of your cave,' I told him.

'It's a tower,' he corrected me.

'Whatever.' I rolled my eyes. 'The morale of this story is: you need to get out more.'

'I do?' Zauriel asked, absently reaching round behind him so he could scratch an itch on his back.

'You do,' I insisted. 'And don't scratch like that. You know how long we spent strapping those wings of yours down and I don't want you to let them loose accidentally. This crowd aren't ready for that yet. Let them get a bit more alcohol down their necks first, huh?'

'Can I help it if I feel out of place,' Zauriel asked. 'Perhaps I should just go.'

'And disappoint those girls over there?' I asked.

'What girls? Where?' Zauriel craned his neck.

'Don't start drawing attention to yourself, Zee,' I said. 'Act cool. Natural. And it's those girls over there.'

'But why are they staring at me?' Zauriel asked. 'Are my wings showing?'

I couldn't help laughing.

'You really have no idea, do you.'

One of the girls sidled up to us. She was wearing a clingy green dress and had vaguely oriental features. She kept looking shyly down at the floor.

'Um, I hope you don't mind me interrupting,' she said to Zauriel. 'It’s just that my friends and I couldn't help noticing you and well, we were wondering if you two were together. I mean, Zoe said not, but I was sure that you were and well it got to the point where we just had to know who was right and…'

'Hey, take a breath, okay,' I suggested. 'What's your name?'

'Chloe,' the girl replied.

'Well, Chloe,' I replied, 'for the record, he and I are not 'together'.'

'We're not?' Zauriel said, looking at me.

'You're not?' Chloe said, visibly relieved. 'Well, in that case, would you like to, um, dance.'

'Would I?' Zauriel asked me.

'Yes, he would,' I told Chloe. 'Go on,' I said to Zauriel, giving him and affectionate pat on the shoulder, 'it'll be fun.'

'I just know I'm going to regret this,' Zauriel muttered as an enthusiastic Chloe led him away.

By the time he returned, looking harried and exhausted, Drew and I had been joined by several more members of our informal group.

'You said that that was going to be fun,' he scolded me.

I grinned.

'Go on,' I prompted, 'admit it. You enjoyed yourself. I bet Chloe did.'

I was satisfied to see the angel blush. Then he saw who was sitting with us.

'Gorch?' he said. 'Lyle Gorch, is that you?'

Gorch was equally shocked.

'You? Well I'll be damned.'

He leaped to his feet and threw his arms around the angel, hammering him on the back.

'Do you two know each other?' Pike deadpanned.

'Know each other?' Gorch echoed. 'Why, me and him used to ride together, back in the day.'

'You used to ride with him,' I said to Zauriel.

'This was before I gained my wings, so to speak,' he explained, sitting down next to me. 'It was also the first time I met a Slayer.'

'Ah, little Annie O'Toole,' Gorch sighed, warming to the reminiscences. 'She was a sweet little thing.'

'And a bit too hot for you to handle, I seem to recall,' Zauriel offered.

'Hey, I was just waiting for my moment,' Gorch protested.

'Sounds to me like there's a story here,' Pike interjected.

I agreed with him.

'Yeah,' I said, 'let's hear it.'

Zauriel looked thoughtful.

'If I tell you the story, do you promise not to force me back out on to the dance floor?' he asked.

'That sounds awfully close to blackmail for an angel,' I pointed out.

'Could be right there, Dawnie,' Gorch said, 'but your friend there weren't always an angel. Fact is, when we met he was a pretty sight removed from that state, I can tell you…'

* * *

'It was Texas, about a hundred and fifty years ago,' Zauriel began. 'Bobby Miller, the notorious leader of the Jeremiah Sands gang was on the run and his flight had brought him to a little town with the unpromising name of Apocalypse.'

'Fill 'er up, barkeep,' Miller growled at the figure behind the bar. 'Glass is no good to a man when it's empty.'

When his glass was full once more, Miller turned and leaned back against the bar, taking a good look around the saloon. A bewhiskered man, wearing a bowler hat and spectacles so filthy he would have been better of without, was hammering out a tune on the piano in the corner. Every so often, Miller was able to make out some of the notes above the general hubbub of the saloon's patrons. Near the front of the saloon, a trio were playing poker at a round table. The two big guys appeared to be ganging up on the little one, so it was unfortunate for them that the young man appeared to have won most of the money.

One of the big men had already folded this hand, but the other was eyeing the younger man like a shark watching its prey. The young man raised a hand to his mouth to cover a yawn.

'Sorry,' he apologised. 'Can't say as I'm at my best right now.'

'Can't say as you are,' the big man replied, grinning wolfishly. Slowly, he revealed his cards with pudgy hands. 'A straight. Guess the pot's mine this hand.'

The young man shook his head slowly.

'Sorry to disappoint you,' he said. 'Again.'

Slowly, he turned over his cards.

'A full house! You have got to be kidding me,' the big man protested.

The young man shrugged and started gathering in his winnings.

'You're a mighty fine card player,' the other member of the trio interjected.

'Thank you,' the young man said.

'What's your secret?'

The young man met his gaze.

'The power of prayer,' he replied.

'Well, it must be doing you some good,' the other man said, 'because I can't even see how you're cheating.'

'Who said I was cheating?' the young man asked.

'That would be me.' There was a gun on the table, pointing at the young man's heart. 'Now, why don't you just leave all that money right where it is and we'll call it quits.'

'You don't want to do that,' the young man warned pleasantly.

'I think we do,' said the man with the straight who had now drawn his own gun.

The young man sighed.

Miller must have blinked because he didn't see the man draw. All of a sudden he was on his feet, a pistol in each hand. The two big men were howling in pain, their own guns having been shot out of their hands.

'Now then,' the young man said, 'why don't you two gentlemen clear right out of here before I start shooting off other body parts?'

The men didn't need further prompting.

Miller swaggered over to the young man, who was reholstering his weapons and gathering up his winnings.

'That was some mighty fine shooting,' Miller said.

'Glad you approve,' the young man said without looking up.

'I'm Bobby Miller, of the Jeremiah Sands Gang.'

'That must be nice for you,' the young man replied. He stood up and offered Miller his hand. 'Folks round here call me Dante.'

'So, tell me, Dante,' Miller continued, 'aren't you the least bit concern 'bout what the sheriff will say about your little display just then.'

'Not really,' Dante replied. 'That's the sheriff there, crawling into a bottle under the table.'

'Ah,' Miller said. 'Anyway, listen. I was just thinking that my gang could use someone like you.'

'True as that may be,' Dante replied, 'I very much doubt I have any use for your gang.'

'Now lookee here,' Miller began, but stopped when someone shoved the swing-doors open.

Annie and Mr Fallon walked in.

'Not good,' Miller muttered, nervously trying to put Dante between himself and the newcomers.

'I take it you know these two?' Dante asked him.

'Our paths crossed,' Miller explained. 'Once. That redhead's crazy.'

'You know something, Mr Miller?' Dante replied. 'You're smarter than you look.'

'Dante!' Annie called, running over to him. It wasn't exactly proper for a girl to dress like a man, but Miller noticed that no one in the bar was batting an eye at her outfit.

'How's tricks?' Dante asked, putting and arm round her.

'Trouble with the train,' Annie explained.

'You'll have to tell me all about it,' Dante told her.

'Later,' Mr Fallon said, extricating his charge from the young man. 'Annie and I have work to be getting on with.'

'We do?' Annie protested.

'We do,' Mr Fallon insisted. 'Now run upstairs and I'll join you momentarily.'

'I'm watching you,' Mr Fallon warned Dante once Annie was out of earshot.

Dante laughed.

'Was that a threat, Aaron?' he asked. 'Do you really think I care what you think?'

'That girl is my responsibility,' Mr Fallon continued.

'You have my condolences,' Dante said, shaking his head.

* * *

Miller was a man with few wants. Money, booze, the love of a good woman. His attempt to satisfy the first had been a spectacular failure and he had spent enough time slaking his first for alcohol so, he reasoned, it must be time to slake his other first. Naturally, the people in this two-bit town were two stupid to call a spade a spade so the local brothel was hidden behind the fašade of 'Brigitte's Coffee House'. The guy who had pointed him in the right direction had warned him that the coffee was lousy. That didn't bother Miller one little bit.

Miller strode imperiously into the building like her owned the place. Night had fallen and there was a chill in the air that he was glad to escape. Then he paused to take a look around and went weak at the knees. Miller had thought that he knew what to expect. He wasn't expecting the surroundings to be up to much, or even the girls to be too pretty. Just as long as they were experienced and there was somewhere soft to lie down, that would suit him just fine. It was the perfume that hit him first, the heavy musk in the air that made him feel light-headed. Expensive furniture dotted the room covered in cushions and silk drapes. On lounging on the cushions were a number of beautiful women in various states of undress. Embarrassed in spite of himself, Miller wanted to look elsewhere, but he couldn't tear his eyes away.

'Can we help you?' one of the girls asked.

'The poor boy looks like he's wandered into the wrong house,' another girl joked. Miller bristled and felt his face heat up. The girl was barely half his age.

'Well, cat got your tongue?' an older woman asked.

'That would be a shame,' another girl giggled. 'The tongue's my favourite part.'

'What's a guy gotta do to get a woman round here?' Miller demanded angrily.

'He would have to speak to me.'

A woman descended the stairs, gliding rather than stepping down them. This was clearly the madam herself, Brigitte de Rais. She was wrapped in layers of black and red. She wore her bonnet at a jaunty angle and there was a veil that partly obscured her face. Her accent was a mix of France and sex and every time she spoke, Miller caught himself imagining what it would be like to unwrap her, slowly, like a Christmas present. His face burned hotter still.

'So, you are here to…unwind,' Madame de Rais said. She circled Miller slowly, sizing him up. 'Are you quite sure that you are ready for the services we can provide here?'

'Hey, I can take whatever you giving out,' Miller snapped in frustration. 'And why are you being so coy about it? People pay you for sex.'

'Ah, just like a man,' de Rais bemoaned. 'No foreplay to speak of at all. But, since you brought the subject up, I must say that you don't look like a man of means and much of what we offer is…expensive. Are you able to pay?'

'Lady, I've got money to burn,' Miller promised.

A tall girl with raven black hair rose from a chaise-longue and went to speak to Brigitte. The girl was wearing a peach-coloured silk robe. It parted slightly as she walked revealing a generous expanse of pale leg.

'It seems,' de Rais said when they had concluded their whispered conversation, 'that you have taken Mimi's fancy. Try not to be too much of a bore.'

Mimi took Miller's hand in hers and began leading him upstairs.

'I'm sure I can show her a thing or two,' Miller declared confidently.

'I highly doubt that,' was de Rais' parting shot.

The room Mimi led him to was decorated in the same black and red silks of de Rais' dress.

'Don't you find this all a bit morbid?' Miller asked.

'Less talk,' Mimi said, putting a match to a single candle to illuminate the room. 'Talk is overrated.'

Mimi twined her long arms around Miller and pulled him against her.

'I gotta say,' Miller said before burying his face in her breasts, 'I see your point.'

Minutes later they were on the bed. Miller's shirt was open and his pants were round his ankles. Mimi was astride him sweat glistening against her skin in the candlelight.

'Miller,' Mimi said.

'Yeah,' Miller drawled blissfully.

'Crozier sends his regards.'

Miller's head cleared in an instant, just in time for him to notice the sting at the end of the scorpion tail hovering over Mimi's shoulder. He threw her off of him just as she brought the sting down and it struck the bedclothes rather than his very exposed flesh.

'What the hell are you?' he demanded, trying to pull up his pants.

'Someone in this for the money,' Mimi replied. 'Just like you thought.'

She was scuttling around on all fours now, her tail swaying above her.

'Now hold still, damn you,' she continued. 'This will only hurt for a little while.'

'I bet you say that to all the guys,' Miller retorted. Then he threw open the wooden shutters and hurled himself out of the window. He landed in a water trough and the water, very kindly, decided to vacate when he arrived.

Laughter filled the air.

'Why, lookee here, Lyle,' someone drawled. 'A river rat.'

'The things a fella's gotta do to get a drink in these parts,' another voice - Lyle? - commented.

'Will you two leave the poor man be,' a female voice interjected.

A smiling cherubic face appeared in the sky over Miller.

'Howdy,' she drawled. 'I'm Holly Gorch. Those two ruffians over yonder are my brothers, Lyle and Tector. Can we help you?'

'Actually, I quite like it in here,' Miller joked.

Lyle and Tector got it and guffawed. Holly just cocked her head to one side and looked puzzled.

'Really?' she asked.

'No,' Miller confessed. 'To be honest, I'm kinda stuck in here.'

'Hmm.' Holly screwed up her face. 'Well, we can't have that, can we. Here, let me give you a hand.'

Holly took hold of Miller's left hand in both her own and tugged with all her might. Unfortunately for her, all her might wasn't a match for Miller's weight and, after a promising beginning, Miller fell back into the trough and Holly was pulled right down on top of him.

'Oh my,' Holly said.

'I think he likes you, Holly,' Lyle quipped.

His brother laughed like a loon.

Miller had to admit that he had been in worse predicaments, but he would probably have enjoyed it a lot more had Holly not, accidentally, planted her knee in his groin. Once the brothers had had their fun, they helped both Holly and Miller out of the trough.

'So, was there a reason for your bath?' Lyle Gorch inquired.

'Would you believe someone was trying to kill me?' Miller replied.

'My word, how awful,' Holly declared.

'All in a day's work, ma'am,' Miller assured her, affecting a confident swagger. 'My name's Bobby Miller. P'raps you've heard of me.'

Lyle looked thoughtful.

'Matter of fact, Mr Miller,' he said slowly, 'I reckon we have.'

'Nothing good, I hope,' Miller answered.

'Depends how you look at it, I guess,' Lyle explained. 'Someone's offering a hefty bounty for you.'

Miller immediately reached for his gun, though he had no idea how well the water-logged weapon would fire.

'Relax, Miller,' Lyle told him. 'We ain't gonna kill you.'

'We ain't?' Tector echoed, 'But I thought you said…'

Lyle cuffed his brother round the ear.

'Of course we ain't,' Lyle told him. 'There are more important things in life than money.'

'There are?' Tector asked.

'Sure there are,' Holly assured him. 'There's clothes and jewellery and travel and…'

'I think he gets the point, Holly,' Lyle said, cutting his sister off. He turned back to Miller. 'Point is, it seems my sister's kinda taken with you, Miller, and I wouldn't want to upset her by putting a bullet between yer eyes.'

'That's real gentlemanly of you,' Miller said.

'Course, should her attention start to wander,' Lyle continued, 'that bounty might start seeming awful tempting once again. Now, where's a fella got to go to get a drink round here. Then you can tell us all why this guy's got it in for you.'

* * *

'Your father's looking for you,' Aaron Fallon said to Annie.

The Slayer was sitting on a stool at the bar drinking a glass of milk. The new barkeep wasn't J.D - which, Annie had to admit, was probably a good thing - but he had continued J.D.'s practice of adopting Annie as his own.

'Well I'm here,' Annie told her Watcher.

'He worries about you,' Fallon told her. 'We all do.'

'Well, don't,' Annie snapped. She slid off of the stool. 'I'm going to go and see Ralph.'

Then she stalked away.

'That went well,' Dante said.

Fallon jumped.

'Where did you spring from?' he demanded.

'Does it really matter?' Dante asked.

'I imagine you're here to see Annie again, aren't you,' Fallon said wearily. 'Corrupting impressionable minds is rather your raison d'etre, isn't it.'

'Aaron, Aaron, you cut me to the quick,' Dante protested. 'But no, I'm not out to corrupt her. For one thing, she was already well on her way down that road before I turned up and for another, is it so hard for you to believe that I might simply enjoy her company.'

'Yes,' Fallon replied, 'as a matter of fact it is.'

'I've been stuck here since the time of Adam,' Dante retorted. 'You don't think I might get a bit lonely after all that time?'

'A leopard can't change its spots,' Fallon snapped, 'and a scorpion can't hide its sting.'

'Very good, Aaron, very good,' Dante said. 'You're wasting your time as a Watcher, you know. You should have been a poet. Besides, if you're so concerned about Annie's wellbeing, why don't you tell her who I really am? Only you can't, can you, because then I wouldn't keep your precious little secret, would I, Ahrimel?'

'Not so loud,' Fallon hissed. 'People might hear.'

'And what if they did?' Dante asked. 'Do you really think they would believe that we were just a pair of fallen angels?'

* * *

'Annie's Watcher was a fallen angel, Dawn exclaimed, 'like you?'

'Yes, Aaron Fallon used to be the angel Ahrimel, before he was stripped of his wings and banished from Heaven. Quite ironic, really, an angel acting as a Watcher.'

'How so?' Pike asked.

'Doesn't matter,' Zauriel replied hastily. 'Private joke. And, in answer to Dawn's other question, no, Fallon was not like me. I am still part of the heavenly host, with all the duties and responsibilities associated with that position. Fallon was free from all that. Having rebelled against his creator he was cut loose, condemned to be forever kept out of Heaven.'

'Given how exciting you angelic folks usually are,' Gorch remarked, 'I'm not sure that's such a bad thing.'

'Consider this,' Zauriel replied. 'He had had a taste of paradise, paradise beyond anything you can imagine, and then that had been taken away from him together with any hope of every getting it back. I can't think of a punishment more cruel.'

'And what about Dante?' Janice asked. 'Who was he?'

'Dante was another fallen angel,' Zauriel responded cautiously, 'much, much older than Ahrimel. Now, if you've finished interrupting, can I get back to my story?'

* * *

Lyle Gorch bought the drinks and carried them back to their table.

'So,' he said once he had sat down, 'tell us about the mysterious Mr Crozier.'

Miller sat bolt upright.

'Crozier?' he said. 'I didn't mention no Crozier.'

'Will you relax?' Lyle implored. 'We know the name of the man that tried to hire us to kill you, okay?'

'Yeah, I guess,' Miller conceded, though he continued to sit rigidly in his chair.

'So, tell us,' Holly pressed, leaning forward over the table, 'what did you do to upset Mr Crozier. I bet you stole from him, didn't you, something pretty and precious?'

'Well, you could say that.' Miller ran a finger around the collar of his shirt. 'I slept with his daughter.'

* * *

Annie banged on the door of Ralph McCabe's room at the inn. There was no answer, but Annie wasn't really expecting one. According to Ralph there were people after him so he was hardly going to advertise his presence here, was he?

'Ralph,' she called out, 'it's me. Annie.'

Annie could hear splashing water.

'What can I do for you, Annie?' Ralph asked.

'Can I come in?' Annie said.

'Not really,' Ralph replied. 'I'm having a bath.'

'Oh, right,' Annie muttered dejectedly.

More splashing.

'Did Aaron send you?' Ralph inquired.

'Kinda,' Annie conceded. 'He was hoping you could help find some stuff out about some vampires we ran across.'

'Is that all?' Ralph protested. 'Well you can tell Aaron that he'll have to wait. I've been looking forward to this bath for a long time now and a fully intend to enjoy it.'

Silence.

'You still there?' Ralph called.

'Yeah,' Annie replied.

Yet more splashing and then the door opened. Ralph was bare-chested and his hair was plastered down on his head. He had hastily pulled on a pair of pants, though the suspenders hung loose. The pants stuck to his damp skin.

'Come on in,' he said to Annie. 'Water was freezing anyway.'

Annie entered the room. It was surprisingly tidy, but that was because Ralph lived out of his bag in case he needed to make a quick getaway. A tin bath dominated the room, water pooling on the floorboards around it.

'So what's the problem?' Ralph asked her.

'I just want someone to talk to,' Annie explained.

* * *

'If it makes you feel any better, Aaron,' Dante said, 'Annie isn't my concern tonight.'

'Is that so?' Fallon replied. 'Then who?'

Dante nodded in the direction of Bobby Miller.

'What has he done to deserve your attention?' Fallon asked.

'Our paths crossed,' Dante explained, 'and he amuses me.'

'He amuses you,' Fallon echoed.

'Indeed,' Dante confirmed. 'I get bored easily. I need distractions.'

'So you've found another soul to corrupt,' Fallon muttered darkly. 'From what I hear of Mr Miller, you won't exactly have your work cut out.'

'Hm, I could do that,' Dante mused, 'or you and I can have a little wager.'

'And what wager could possibly interest me,' Fallon asked.

Dante looked at Miller.

'I wager that, rather than corrupt him, I can redeem him.'

* * *

Tector spat out his beer in shock.

'Tector,' Holly scolded him.

'Yeah, Tector,' Lyle agreed. 'That's a waste of good…well, mediocre…liquor.'

He turned his attention to Miller.

'Sounds like the old man has reason to be mad,' Lyle remarked, 'but that gives me an idea.'

'Go on,' Miller prompted.

Gorch grinned wickedly.

'Sounds to me like you need some protection,' Lyle explained, 'and never let it be said the Gorch family couldn't handle a little protection duty. For the right price, of course.'

'Of course,' Miller said miserably. 'And what might be the right price.'

'Well, seems to me that since we just turned down all that money we could have made by cutting your life short, the least you could do is reimburse us for our loss.'

'Is that right,' Miller said. 'Well, if that's what you want, friend, then I'm afraid your outta luck.'

'I hope you're not casting aspersions on our skills,' Lyle cautioned.

'Yeah,' Tector agreed. 'What he said.'

'They really are very good, Mr Miller,' Holly confirmed. 'I wouldn't want you to think anything bad of my brothers.'

'It's not that,' Miller confessed. 'It's just, well, I don't have any money.'

'But…but what about that train your gang visited?' Lyle countered. 'Everyone's heard about it.'

'What everyone didn't hear is about the…the things that got there first,' Miller replied, slumped in his chair, 'and how Bobby Miller ran away as fast as his legs could carry him.'

Lyle guffawed. Holly put a hand on Miller's arm.

'I'm sure they must have been truly terrifying,' she said, 'to have scared away such a brave man as yourself.'

'Maybe I can be of assistance,' Dante offered, striding over to the table.

'And what can you do?' Tector asked.

'Oh, this and that,' Dante replied enigmatically. 'More to the point, I'm willing to pay the three of you to look out for Mr Miller here.'

* * *

'When do you think it all started to go wrong?' Annie asked.

Ralph scraped a thumbnail across the stubble on his chin as he considered this.

'You think things were ever right?' he asked, offering a weak smile.

'Don't joke,' Annie snapped. 'Don't you dare joke about this.'

Tears tracked their way down Annie's cheeks and her shoulders shook as she fought not to sob.

'I'm sorry,' Ralph said. 'I didn't mean anything by it.'

'That's easy for you to say,' Annie retorted angrily. 'It's not like you had to bury your little brother or anything.'

'I said I was sorry,' Ralph insisted.

'Why didn't you do something?' Annie demanded of him. 'You're so proud of your magic. Where was it when we really needed it?'

Ralph closed his eyes. All of a sudden he was underground again. The Djinn towered above him, his head wreathed by fire, his long fingernails clacking together in staccato rhythm. He could see the Djinn's mouth moving, but he could not hear the words, not in this waking dream, but he could hear the nails as clear as if the Djinn were really standing at his side. They stood united - Annie the Slayer, Aaron the Watcher, Elliot the cursed demon hunter, Dante the enigmatic gunslinger and him, Ralph McCabe, the sorcerer. They had figured it out. It had taken them long enough, but, finally, they were ready to take the battle to the enemy that had been plaguing them for months. But despite all their preparations they were powerless to stop the Djinn from tearing open a new Hellmouth. Powerless too to save Tommy.

'There was nothing we could have done,' Ralph consoled Annie. 'There was nothing you could have done.'

'But why him?' Annie asked mournfully. 'It should have been me. Isn't that what being the Chosen One is all about?'

* * *

The next morning was beautiful. The sky was practically cloudless, decorated only by the lightest wisps of white. Bobby Miller had wanted to spend the day in his room where it was safe, but Holly Gorch had insisted that he take her out to promenade and had put on her best dress for the occasion. Miller found he could not resist trying to impress her, despite there being very little in Apocalypse that might make a positive impression.

* * *

'Hold on,' Dawn said, interrupting the story. 'Isn't Holly a vampire? What's she doing out during the day.'

'Nobody ever said Holly was a vamp,' Gorch pointed out. 'Me and Tector were the ones what got bit. We offered to turn Holly, but she turned us down flat. Think it was the thought of never being able to preen herself in front of a mirror again that did it for her. And, well, she being her sister and all, we could hardly refuse her request, could we?'

'Getting back to setting the scene,' Zauriel continued with just a hint of impatience, 'while Holly and Miller were out promenading, Annie was paying a visit to the church.'

* * *

The church in Apocalypse had fallen into disuse and, thence, disrepair. When it was founded, Apocalypse had been a deeply religious community, but that community had disappeared under mysterious circumstances which some said involved pagan rituals.

('And what's wrong with that?' Janice asked.)

The second wave of settlers to hit the town were cowboys, ranchers, gamblers and railroad men. God wasn't something they concerned themselves with too much and the church remained empty, save for the bats and the rats. Then, without fanfare, an Englishman arrived in town and set up residence in the old church. The man's name was Elliot Tyne.

Elliot threw a book across the library that took up what used to be the crypt. Annie caught it as she descended the stairs.

'What's up?' she asked.

'What do you think's up,' Elliot snapped.

He held up his left arm. Spars of bone jutted out at odd angles through the sleeve of his shirt.

'I thought you could control that now?' Annie said.

'Obviously not,' Elliot snarled.

In response to his temper, bone horns began to sprout from his forehead and curve down around his eyes.

'Calm down, Elliot,' Annie insisted. 'You're only making it worse.'

Elliot glared at her, then took several slow deep breaths. The horns receded.

'I'm sorry,' he said, collapsing into a chair. 'You're right, of course.'

'Sometimes,' Annie agreed, 'just not when it really matters.'

'Something eating at you?' Elliot asked wearily. 'Penny for them?'

'You first,' Annie offered.

'I'm not a demon,' Elliot replied. 'I hunt demons. I don't want to be one of them. But…but look at me.'

'You look human enough to me,' Annie returned.

'Now, yes,' Elliot confirmed, 'but if I lose my temper I become all spines and claws and bone armour. I..I'm just afraid that one of these days I'll lose all that makes me human, not just my appearance.'

Annie shook her head.

'Do you remember what you told me when we first met?' she asked. ''I am not a demon'. Still true.'

'That seems such a long time ago,' Elliot commented wistfully.

'What happened?' Annie asked.

'The Djinn happened,' Elliot said darkly. The back of his shirt ripped as spikes started to form along his spine.

'No,' Annie replied, 'it's not that simple. The Djinn was just another demon. Bigger and stronger, yeah, but just another demon. I should have been able to fight him. But Emily and JD and…and Tommy…Why? Can someone just tell me why?'

'The human soul is a strange thing, Annie,' Elliot replied thoughtfully. 'In some people, people like you, it can be a beautiful thing, loving and trusting and generous and brave. In others it gets all twisted up, a dark tumour that eats away at a person. It's not like a demon, that you can stab or hit or shoot. It's insidious and secretive and it will sneak up on you when you least expect it.'

'And tear your life apart,' Annie spat. 'If that's what it means to be human then I don't see what you're worried about.'

And with that parting shot, Annie stormed out of the church.

Elliot growled. Bones erupted out of his skin all across his body. His clothes fell away in tattered fragments as he grew until there was nothing left but the Bonewalker that the curse had turned him into. How could he have been so stupid? He had tried to reach out to Annie and had only succeeded in driving her further away. The worst of it was that he could have taken some of that pain away. Those books he had been poring over were ones he hoped would allow him to open up the Hellmouth once again and, if he was right, then maybe Tommy was not completely lost after all. Maybe there was a way to get him back.

But there were too many maybes and so Elliot had kept silent, not wanting to raise Annie's hopes only to have to shatter them. And, as a result, he had left Annie in pain and alone.

* * *

'Pretty pearls for a pretty lady?'

Holly Gorch had been captivated by the sight of a travelling salesman. Or, more accurately, she had been captivated by his wagon that was loaded down with trinkets. Given the amount of junk on there, Miller thought it small wonder that the guy's mule looked so depressed.

'Aren't these the most beautiful things you ever did see?' Holly said with child-like enthusiasm as she held up a pair of earrings against her own tiny earlobes.

'Why you look pretty as a picture, ma'am,' the salesman wheedled from beneath a hat too small for his head. 'All you need now is a fine fella to make them a gift to you. Isn't that right, young man?'

Miller pretended not to hear the salesman.

'Don't you like them, Bobby?' Holly asked, giving a twirl. 'Don't they make me look pretty?'

'Holly,' Miller replied, 'You could be wearing nothing at all and I'd think you'd look pretty.'

Too late, he realised what he had said and the blood rushed to his face, searing the skin. Holly hung her head, embarrassed, but she was still watching Miller from beneath hooded eyes.

'We'll take 'em,' Miller mumbled to the salesman, hoping he could afford the earrings.

'That'll be the least purchase you ever make,' another voice declared.

Miller looked up. Half-a-dozen gunmen were closing in on him.

'What seems to be the problem, fellas?' Miller asked. He kept his arms close to his sides, ready to go for a quick draw.

'Keep your arms were we can see 'em,' the lead gunman replied. His face was masked by tattoos. 'As for what our problem is, we ain't got no problem.'

'Mr Crozier, on the other hand,' continued a man with glasses who looked more like a school teacher than a hired gun, 'well, he's got a few issues with you, Mr Miller.'

'Couldn't we try talking this over like gentlemen?' Miller asked.

Tattoo cocked his head to one side as he considered this. Then he replied, 'Naw, I don't think so,' and went for his gun.

Holly hiked up her skirts, drew a tiny pistol from the garter around her left thigh and shot Tattoo between the eyes.

'Anyone else want to cause trouble?' she demanded before the body had even struck the ground.

'Kill 'em both,' the schoolteacher commanded.

'Five against two,' Annie said as she emerged from the church. 'Hardly fair is it.'

'You've got that right,' Holly agreed, flashing her a smile. 'These morons don't stand a chance.'

Miller was glancing around looking for possible escape routes.

'Well, what are you guys waiting for?' the schoolteacher demanded hotly.

The thugs raised their guns.

Annie shot one with a crossbow bolt.

Holly dropped to one knee and let loose with her pistol.

Miller dropped to one knee and covered his head with his hands.

Annie swiftly took out a second gunman and started to reload. She heard a pistol being cocked off to her left and spun round, but she doubted she was fast enough to beat a bullet. She didn't have to be. The shotgun blast tore threw one ear of the assassin and out of the other. Annie glanced up and saw Ralph leaning out of the window of his room, waving at her with one hand, cradling the shotgun with the other.

Of the two remaining gunmen, one made a break for it, but the schoolteacher stayed behind to finish his job. Ducking behind the salesman's wagon, he snapped off a shot that knocked Holly's pistol from her grasp. She cried out in pain, clutching her hand to her breast. Miller threw himself on top of her and they both rolled out of the way as the schoolteacher, no longer in need of cover, began advancing on them, firing off bullet after bullet.

'Say your prayers, Miller,' the schoolteacher taunted, 'assuming there's any god what will take you.'

Miller felt something digging into his side. He glanced down and saw Holly's pistol trapped beneath him.

'Why don't you go put in a good word for me,' Miller suggested, snatching up the pistol and shooting the schoolteacher through the heart.

* * *

The remaining gunman darted between two buildings, out of the line of fire. A man barred his way. The man looked out of place, overdressed in clothes meticulously brushed clean of dust and leaning on a black cane decorated with a single gold band.

The gunman tried to push his way past, but, with a flick of his wrist, Aaron Fallon used his cane to trip him.

'Let me guess,' Mr Fallon mused, 'you were trying to murder that gentleman over there.'

'I dunno what your talking about,' the gunman insisted. He reached for his gun, but Mr Fallon stamped on his hand.

'I doubt that very much,' Mr Fallon replied. 'Now, who are you working for?'

'I won't tell you nothing,' the gunman retorted.

Aaron sighed and drew a slender blade from inside his cane. Then he rested the tip of the blade against the gunman's adam's apple.

'Perhaps a little gentle persuasion is order,' he remarked.

'Ah, Annie,' Mr Fallon said as he walked out on to the main street, 'just the person I was hoping to see.'

'Mr Fallon,' Annie responded without feeling.

'Did you speak to Mr Tyne about those vampires as I requested?'

Annie shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot.

'Other stuff came up,' Annie confessed.

'Well, never mind that now,' Mr Fallon declared. 'We now have the name of our opponent in this little game, one Mr Crozier, so let's see what our resident demonologist has to say on the subject, hm?'

'Is that all this is to you? Annie muttered, striding off in the direction of the church. 'A game?'

'It was just an expression,' Mr Fallon explained to her retreating back.

'It's gratifying to see you and Annie communicating as well as ever, eh, Ahrimel?'

Mr Fallon whirled round.

'Where did you spring from?' he demanded of Dante.

'I've been here from some time,' Dante replied. 'Watching. You know what that's like, don't you, Ahrimel.'

'Stop calling me that,' Mr Fallon insisted. 'Don't use my name in public.'

'Come now, Aaron,' Dante replied, spreading his arms wide and indicating the open space around them, 'who's going to hear. I'll tell you what, I'll even let you use my real name if that would make you more comfortable.'

'I will not speak your name,' Mr Fallon shot back. 'I hardly dare think it, for all the trouble it brings with it.'

'Superstitious nonsense,' Dante remarked. 'And besides, Aaron, it's not as if you have a past you can rightly be proud of. You were stripped of your wings just the same.'

'My mistakes will haunt me for as long as I live,' Mr Fallon said, 'which for our kind can be a very long time indeed. But I am trying to redeem myself. Maybe, centuries from now, I will have accumulated enough good acts to be allowed back into Heaven.'

'Is that what this is about?' Dante chuckled. 'Redemption? You think this is a good spot on your record? I've known a fair few Watchers in my time, Aaron - in all senses of the word - and I can tell you that you are one of the most pathetic of their already feeble number that I have ever met.'

'I…' Mr Fallon began, but Dante did not give him a chance to finish.

'You lie to the girl, Aaron,' Dante said. 'Worse, you're not very good at it. She doesn't trust you. She would rather spend time with that craven sorcerer or the freak in the church then talk to you. Exactly how do you expect to do your job if you don't have your Slayer's respect.'

'Annie does respect me,' Mr Fallon insisted.

Dante shook his head.

'You keep telling yourself that, Ahrimel,' he said. 'Isn't that what faith's all about. Now, if you'll excuse me, I really need to talk to that gentleman over there.'

Laughing softly to himself, Dante crossed the street to speak to a one-eyed man sheltering in the shade of the saloon. Mr Fallon considered following, but he had had more than enough of Dante's scathing tongue for one day.

* * *

Inside the saloon, Miller was binding Holly's hand with his handkerchief. The cloth, once white, had turned grey and Miller apologised profusely for the state it was in.

'It's just a graze,' Holly assured him. 'I'm fine, really I am.'

'I was so worried,' Miller confessed. 'When he shot you, I didn't know what I was going to do.'

'Looked to me like you handled yourself just fine,' Holly told him. 'Makes a girl feel mighty special to see a man fight for her like that.'

'You are special, Holly,' Miller told her.

He was still holding his hand in his. It seemed so tiny and fragile compared to his own hands that had been weathered by years on the road. He looked into her eyes and she stared right back at him. Her lips were trembling, ever so slightly parted. Her face seemed so close to his.

He leaned in, intending to kiss those soft lips.

Holly slapped him and he recoiled, holding a hand to his stinging cheek.

'What was that for?' he protested.

'You know full well what that was for, Mr Bobby Miller,' Holly retorted. 'I don't know what you were thinking, but I can assure you, sir, that I am a lady and not the kind of woman you seem to think I am.'

She got to her feet.

'I am going to my room,' she said and turned to walk away. As she did, however, she glanced back over her shoulder and winked at him.

Resting his elbows on the table, Miller cupped his chin in his hands and wondered what had just happened.

* * *

Aaron Fallon, Ralph McCabe and Elliot Tyne had all gather in Elliot's library to peruse his books. Annie sat on the stairs staring into space.

'Found it!' Elliot said at last, holding a book triumphantly aloft. 'I cross-referenced the name Crozier with that symbol Aaron said the vampire was wearing and I think I've found him.'

'Go on,' Ralph prompted. 'Don't keep us in suspense.'

'Yeah, we're all ears,' Annie muttered sarcastically.

'Annie,' Mr Fallon scolded absently, 'there's really no need for that attitude, is there?'

Annie looked away in disgust.

'According to this,' Elliot explained, still lost in his book, 'Crozier is a lich. That's a kind of undead sorcerer.'

'I know what a lich is,' Ralph replied.

'Right. Anyway, it seems that in order not to decay completely to dust,' Elliot continued, 'Crozier has to perform a certain ritual every fifty years.'

'What sort of ritual exactly?' Mr Fallon inquired.

Elliot cleared his throat.

'I'm not sure I should say, not in front of Annie.'

'Thanks, Elliot,' Annie muttered, too softly for anyone else to hear.

'Don't worry about Annie, Elliot,' Mr Fallon continued. 'As a Slayer she must learn to cope with a certain degree of unpleasantness.'

'Well,' Elliot began hesitantly, 'it seems Crozier has to, er, bathe in the blood of a virgin.'

'And he has to do this every fifty years,' Ralph remarked.

'Yes, Ralph,' Mr Fallon confirmed, 'he bathes about as regularly as you do.'

Annie stood up.

'When's this ritual due to take place?' she asked.

'If I'm reading this right,' Elliot replied, 'then I'd say tonight.'

'Though as much,' Annie said. 'That's usually how these thing's work.'

'I'm guessing we'll be trying to stop it,' Ralph said.

'Assuredly so,' Mr Fallon confirmed.

'I'll go find Dante,' Annie offered. 'We'll need all the help we can get.'

'I don't think that's really necessary, Annie,' Mr Fallon told her.

'Oh really?' Annie replied. 'And why not?'

'Because…because I don't trust him, that's why,' Mr Fallon admitted with obvious reluctance. 'I'd really prefer it if you'd stay away from him.'

'You would, would you,' Annie said, turning to leave.

'Annie,' Mr Fallon said firmly, 'as your Watcher, I am ordering you to stay away from Dante. Please, if you trust me at all, do as I say.'

'Sure, whatever,' Annie replied.

She climbed up the stairs and out of sight with, Mr Fallon knew, every intention of disobeying him.

* * *

Bobby Miller sat on the edge of his bed, frustrated. What was it Holly wanted? She seemed interested, but when he made a move she had slapped him down. Hard. But then what was that wink supposed to mean? There was a reason he frequented whorehouses - less complications.

Across the corridor, in her own room, Holly Gorch was equally perturbed. She ran a comb through her hair, all the while wondering why Miller wasn't knocking at her door already. She had given him enough hints, surely?

But, Miller conceded, Holly was special. She wasn't just another woman to conquer. If anything, she had conquered him, reaching into his mind and leaving her footprints in the sand of his consciousness. He should go to her room and tell her how he really felt and, so saying, he stood up and crossed to the door. And then stopped. But if she didn't feel that way about him then he'd just be making a fool of himself and if there was one thing Bobby Miller was not, it was a fool.

Holly paced up and down, wringing her hands. She hadn't put him off with her behaviour downstairs, had she? Couldn't he tell that she was just playing hard to get? It was supposed to make her even more difficult to resist, but if that was the case then why wasn't he in here already, ravishing her? Maybe she had miscalculated. Maybe this was all her fault. Maybe she should go to his room and tell him how she really felt and, so saying, she crossed to the door. And then stopped. No, she wouldn't give him the satisfaction. If he wasn't smart enough to interpret her signals for himself, then she would just have to go looking for a smarter man elsewhere.

Miller was standing outside Holly's door. What was he going to say? Could he come up with a good excuse for visiting if it turned out she really wasn't interested in him at all? But what was he worried about? Clearly, she was attracted to him, he just had to make the first move. He raised his hand to knock on the door then, at the last moment, he turned away. He was deluding himself. Holly was a smart girl. No way was she going to fall for a guy like him. No way.

Holly had her back to the door. She had given Miller every chance and if he wasn't man enough to take them…But she was being unfair. It wasn't right to make a man jump through hoops just to please her. That wasn't what made her heart beat faster whenever he was in the same room as her. She didn't want a man who was smart enough to read her hints or who would overcome a series of hurdles she erected just to be with her. She wanted Bobby Miller, however flawed he may be.

She turned and put a hand on the door handle.

'Going somewhere, missy?'

There was a man in the room with her. He had clambered in through the window and was now scuttling in her direction. His flesh was mouldy and green and in places it had sloughed off to reveal bone. And he had only one eye. Holly opened her mouth to scream, but already the man had smothered her face with his foul smelling hand.

Enough of this, Miller thought, he was smitten with Holly and there was only one thing for it. He threw open the door to her room.

But Holly was gone.

* * *

'Wit, wait, wait,' Drew interrupted. 'Go back a bit. Wasn't that the one-eyed man Dante spoke to?'

'Yep,' Gorch confirmed.

'But I thought he was supposed to be helping Miller,' Drew said.

'Dante had plans of his own,' Zauriel explained. 'Toying with Miller amused him and Holly and the one-eyed man were just pawns in his game.'

'But what did he want?' Drew pressed.

'Kid,' Gorch said, 'if you let the angel finish his story then maybe you might find out.'

* * *

'You let someone take our little sis?' Lyle exclaimed.

'I didn't let anyone,' Miller protested. 'And weren't you supposed to be protecting me?'

'And here I thought you were the big tough leader of the Jeremiah Sands Gang,' Lyle mocked.

'Okay, so my reputation's a bit inflated,' Miller confessed. 'Aren't we getting away from the important business of trying to find Holly?'

'You think we don't want to help our sis?' Tector suggested. 'Is that what you're saying? Cos if it is…'

'Easy, Tector,' Lyle said, putting a hand on his brother's arm. 'Hate to admit it, but the kid's got a point. There'll be plenty of time to argue later, once Holly's safe.'

'And how are we going to find her?' Miller wanted to know.

'You just leave that to the professionals,' Lyle assured him.

Both he and Tector began to change. Their brows enlarged and the eyes yellowed, while their teeth narrowed to points.

'What are you?' Miller asked, taking a stunned step back.

'We're vampires,' Lyle explained. 'More importantly, we're the guys what got Holly's scent. Now keep up.'

* * *

'It's a bit ostentatious, don't you think?' Ralph commented.

The five of them - Annie had indeed encouraged Dante to come along - were hiding behind an outcrop of rock. In daylight, the rock would be orange, almost red. At night, even under the full moon, it was grey. They were staring at Crozier's hideout, a tower entirely from bone. Ralph had divined its location with a spell.

'I guess it gives him something to do during all those long years of unlife,' Elliot remarked.

'Either that or he's compensating for something,' Ralph suggested.

Elliot considered this.

'Well, it would explain the obsession with virgins,' he said.

'Enough already,' Annie hissed. 'When do we kill this guy?'

'Soon, Annie, soon,' Mr Fallon assured her, 'but there's now sense rushing in unprepared. We're much better exercising caution.'

'Like those guys, you mean,' Annie said, jerking her thumb in the direction of the three silhouettes running towards the tower.

* * *

The tower was guarded. Miller was not particularly surprised, but nor did he particularly care. Holly was inside and the guards were just obstacles in his way.

The animated skeletons swarmed like ants out of the base of the tower. Bullets didn't seem to make much of an impression so Miller took to smashing their skulls apart with the butt of his rifle. The Gorch brothers simple tore the skeletons apart with their bare hands and Miller was glad they were on his side. Still for every skeleton they killed, three more arose to take its place and Miller was, for all his efforts, was no closer to the tower entrance.

* * *

'We can't just sit here,' Annie shouted at her Watcher.

'We wait for the opportune moment,' Mr Fallon insisted.

'Sod that,' Ralph remarked, getting to his feet. 'I've got your opportune moment right here.'

He took a piece of glass from his pocket and held it high over his head. Moonlight sparkled off the glass, but then a cloud passed in front of the moon, cutting off the illumination. More clouds gather overhead and thunder rumbled. Then a blue-white lightning bolt forked from the sky into the mass of skeletons. Then another bolt and another until of the skeletons there was nothing left but smoking fragments of bone.

* * *

It did not take Miller long to recover from the effects of the blinding flashes all round him. Holly was in danger and he didn't have time to worry about such minor inconveniences as blurred vision. He ran ahead of the Gorch brothers deep into the tower.

He stopped when he reached the central chamber.

Holly was chained to a bone altar. Channels were carved at its sides to collect her blood. High above her, a blade of bone hung suspended from a rope. Even from this distance, Miller could tell that the blades edges were razor-sharp. Scattered around the room were a dozen or so zombies, flesh dripping slowly from their bodies and striking the ground with wet slops. And beside the alter stood Crozier himself. He skin was grey and his hair white. His black eyes bulged, bug-like from their sockets.

'Ah, Mr Miller,' he hissed. 'I was wondering it you would make our little soiree.'

'Let the girl go, Crozier,' Miller demanded. 'It's me you want.'

'Not entirely true,' Crozier replied. He made a tutting sound with his tongue. 'True, you have been something of an inconvenience. I had been grooming the girl you knew as my daughter to play the starring role in tonight's sacrifice, but when you robbed her of her innocence, my carefully laid plans collapsed around me. Still, I bear you no ill will.'

'No ill will?' Miller returned. 'Then what were all the assassins about?'

'Oh, that was then,' Crozier replied amiably, 'before you were kind enough to lead me straight to a replacement.'

'You're going to sacrifice Holly?' Miller said horrified. 'But why?'

'Because I don't want to die,' Crozier explained, 'and only the blood of a virgin can keep me alive. Sorry about that.'

'Holly's no virgin,' Tector shouted.

'Tector,' Lyle snapped, 'that's your sister you're talking about. Show some respect.' He turned to Holly. 'You're not a virgin, are you?'

'Well, actually,' Holly confessed, 'I was kind of waiting for the right man.'

'I'm guessing that would be me,' Crozier said.

'Over my dead body,' Miller snapped.

Crozier shrugged.

'If you insist.'

He snapped his fingers and the zombies began advancing on the trio.

'If you get the chance,' Lyle whispered to Miller, 'go save Holly. Don't you worry about us.'

'Don't you worry about me, either,' Miller replied.

'Wasn't planning to,' Lyle told him.

Then there was no more time to talk as the zombies descended and they needed all their energy for fighting.

'Sorry about all of the distractions, my dear,' Crozier said to Holly. 'Still, at least you won't have to put up with it much longer.'

He began to untie the rope holding up the blade of bone.

'No!' Miller screamed.

He was caught in the arms of a zombie. He was not strong enough to break the creature's grip and could only watch as Crozier slowly unwound the knot. Then the zombie's grip went slack. It's head exploded.

Miller glanced behind him and saw Dante blowing smoke from his pistol. Dante winked at him.

That was all the encouragement Miller needed.

The blade was falling, but Miller was already in motion. Without a second thought, he threw himself over Holly, shielding her with his own body. The blade pierced his spine and carried on through his stomach and out the other side. The tip of the blade cut through the many layers of Holly's dress and pressed down on her skin, but then it stopped and travelled no further, locked in place inside of Bobby Miller.

'Are you..? Did I..?' Miller choked.

'Oh, Bobby,' Holly sobbed.

Straining against her bonds, Holly lunged upwards and crushed her mouth against his, kissing him passionately. Miller responded with equal enthusiasm. Until the end.

* * *

Annie strode across the floor of the chamber while her allies took care of the zombies. Sparks flew from Ralph's fingers and Mr Fallon's sword flashed. Elliot had unleashed the demon inside him and was now a huge creature covered in bony plates, tearing apart the zombies with his claws. And, should a zombie break from the pack and try to approach Annie, she simply glared at it and the creature recoiled from the death writ large in her eyes.

'How many?' she asked Crozier. 'How many women have you killed?'

'Not enough,' Crozier replied sibilantly. 'Not nearly enough.'

Annie raised her sword, the runes etched in the blade glowing an eerie green.

'Too bad,' she said.

Then she swung.

* * *

Annie found Dante outside the tower.

'Why?' she asked.

'Why what?' he replied.

'Why is everything so screwed up?' Annie explained. 'Why does everything in life turn out bad. It's like watching fruit grow and ripen only to wither on the tree. That man, he loved that girl and she loved him. That should have been something special, but instead she's gonna bury him.'

'Sooner or later, we all have to say goodbye to the ones we love,' Dante told her.

'I know,' Annie replied, 'but why does it always have to be like this. Why does it have to hurt so much?'

'Why does what have to hurt so much?' Dante asked.

'Living,' Annie replied simply.

'I don't have the answers for you, Annie,' Dante told her. 'Maybe it's the capriciousness of fate or God, if you believe in such a thing. Maybe it's just some natural law that everything falls apart, no matter how hard you try to put it all back together.'

'But if that's true,' Annie said, 'how are you supposed to cope.'

'I guess you just harden yourself to it all,' Dante said, putting an arm around her. 'You lock all of your feelings up inside a strong box deep inside you and throw away the key. Don't trust anybody, Annie. One way or the other, they're all out to get you.'

'I trust you,' she said, leaning into him.

Dante offered her a half-smile and his eyes sparkled in the moonlight.

'Me?' he said. 'I'm the worst one of the lot.'

Annie met his gaze.

'At least you never lie to me,' she said.

'No,' Dante agreed, 'I'll never lie to you.'

Tipping his head down, he kissed her forehead and Annie snuggled comfortably against him.

* * *

Later, Dante returned to the tower. Bobby Miller's body still lay next to the altar. Holly Gorch had been too distraught for them to consider moving him that night. Dante crouched down next to the corpse.

'You were a brave man, Bobby Miller,' he said. 'I know most people who knew you might disagree, but I see deeper than most people and I'm telling you there was a spark in you that most men don't have. And tonight, you proved your mettle. Self-sacrifice like that shouldn't go unrewarded.'

Dante placed his hands upon Miller's torso. The body began to glow. The wound closed and wings started to sprout from behind Miller's shoulder blades. Then his eyes snapped open.

'What happened?' Miller asked. 'Where am I?'

'Exactly where you were before you left,' Dante told him. 'I brought you back.'

'Brought me back?' Miller looked over his shoulders at his new wings. 'But what have you done to me?'

'I should have thought that was obvious, Mr Miller,' Dante replied. 'I've made you an angel. I just hope the big guy appreciates the irony.'

* * *

'And that's my story,' Zauriel concluded.

'And what happened to you?' Dawn asked Gorch.

'Well, Annie let me and my brother go, considering all we'd done I think it was the least she could have done,' he replied. 'Course that was the second time she'd gone easy on me. Reckon she must have had a bit of a thing for me, what do you think?'

'But why'd you change your name?' Drew asked Zauriel.

'Well, I wasn't too proud of my old life and I wanted a fresh start,' he explained. 'Most angels do change their names, eventually. We live so long that our angelic existences tend to overshadow our human beginnings.'

'So were all angels once human then?' Janice asked.

'No, not all,' Zauriel replied. 'God created the angels before he created man so the oldest of us never knew any different. Younger angels, mind you, tend to be ascended humans rather than being woven direct from the stuff of creation.'

Drew yawned.

'Sorry,' he said. 'But I'm beat.'

'Yes, my story did go on a bit, didn't it,' Zauriel admitted.

'It was fun,' Dawn assured him, 'and interesting. We'll have to hear more about Bobby Miller one of these days.'

'Perhaps,' Zauriel conceded, 'but not tonight.'

No,' said Dawn, now yawning herself, 'not tonight.'

As Zauriel watched the other's depart a chill ran down his spine. He was remembering what he had omitted from the story, Dante's final remark before he had left the tower.

'Just remember something, Mr Miller,' he had said. 'You owe your continued existence to me. You bear the mark of Lucifer now and, sooner or later, I intend to collect.'

 

 
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