Prologue and Chapter One
The first time Andrew mentioned Spike in front of her, Buffy had just returned from Romania and the hellmouth there. She thought he was reminiscing, speaking about Spike as if he’d just talked to him yesterday. Then Giles said something to one of the slayers about meeting with Spike when she got to Cleveland, saying that he would ‘fill her in’ on the situation. Rather than let Giles know she’d overheard, Buffy walked away, her brain whirling. She’d heard the rumors, of course. They all had. An unnaturally blond vampire, fighting on the side of slayers. He would show up, participate in the fight, perhaps save a girl’s life, then give a wave and disappear. But they all assumed Spike had just become a slayer version of an urban legend. An imaginary creature that showed up whenever a slayer was in trouble.
It seemed that somehow, while Buffy was in Romania, he’d gone from legend to actual undead warrior with whom Giles, at least, was in contact. She hadn’t seen or heard from him since he’d been thrown out into the sun during that last fight with Twilight. She’d hoped his bugs rescued him, but was too busy to watch. When he didn’t show up after things settled down, she’d mourned him for a third time, and gone about the work of training and recruiting slayers. Life was fairly peaceful for years, and then….
Suddenly, a year ago, the world’s hellmouths had become very active – all of them. And most recently, Buffy had taken a squad to Romania at Dracula’s personal request. When she protested that he was probably the one causing all the terror and death, Xander stood up for his former master, employer, and totally unexpected friend.
“I know how he comes across, Buffy, but that’s just his public persona. Don’t you remember Japan?”
She frowned, remembering how, when they’d all seemed to lose their strength and abilities, including him, Dracula took command and reminded them of who he’d once been. Vlad the Impaler hadn’t had superpowers when he defeated his enemies and protected his country from the encroachment of the Ottoman Empire. He had only his own innate ability to fight, his refusal to quit, and a single-minded and bloody approach to strategy. It was enough then, and it had been enough for Tokyo. He took charge of that battle and carried the slayer side to victory. She also remembered his insistence that Xander be allowed to remove the head of the vamp that killed his girlfriend, saying honor required it. And then he’d let Xander do his mourning in the privacy of his castle in Romania.
A castle that, until recently, had been a popular tourist attraction, bringing a great deal of money into a remote and impoverished part of the country. Until a crack in the small hellmouth under the town’s burial ground allowed out demons and vampires that terrorized both the tourists and the townspeople. Tourism quickly fell off and the area was sinking back into poverty.
Among the demons roaming the area was at least one Turok-han, which had set itself up as guardian of the hellmouth — making it impossible for Dracula to get into the area to close it. He could hold his own against the other feral vampires released, but a Turok-han seemed to be beyond him. Hence the request for Buffy and her scythe.
“Drac thinks a lot of you, Buffy,” Xander said as he pleaded the case that she travel to Romania and offer assistance. “He asked for you specifically.”
So, off she’d gone to the wilds of the Carpathian mountains to come to the aid of the world’s most famous vampire. Dracula, aka Vlad the Impaler, Prince of Wallachia, and the most famous vampire in the world, had asked for a slayer to help him protect his people. She showed up with her scythe and a small squad of experienced fighters.
“Thank you for coming,” he said, bowing over her hand. Instead of the flowing robes he’d worn when she first met him in Sunnydale, or the elegant suits he’d favored while they were fighting the supervamps, he was now dressed in what appeared to be soft leather pants, an ordinary, if luxurious, fabric shirt, and a leather vest. Clothes suitable for fighting. His long hair was held in a low braid down his back. He looked much more the competent warrior than the effete creature she’d been expecting.
“Yeah, well. You helped us when we needed it, so…”
He nodded and smiled. “And a slayer’s sense of honor and obligation is almost as great as my own.” He gestured toward the people streaming into the courtyard of the castle. “You and your companions are welcome to shelter here for the night, along with my countrymen.”
“Thanks – but we’ve got the run of this nice inn in town, so we’re good. Anyway, if we’re fighting vamps and demons, we’ll need to be out there where they are, won’t we?” She stared at the people still coming up the hill. Those near the rear seemed to be hurrying. “Not to be rude or anything, but why the hell did they come to you for safety? Isn’t that not really in their best interest? How many of them don’t make it out in the morning?”
He drew himself up to his full height and glared at her. “I am their prince. It is my sworn duty to protect them. Under the current circumstances, bringing them into my compound is the only way to do that. They are safe here while I go out to do battle every night.”
Buffy eyed the castle windows where she could see pale faces peering out. “What about your ‘brides’? Do they go out to fight too?”
“No. They remain here.”
“And they don’t eat anybody?” Buffy scoffed.
“Only those who request it. They take only from willing donors, who are always able to walk out the next morning. My brides get what they need, the donors get what they want. It is a fair trade.”
“You’re running a bite house!”
“I prefer to view it as a quid pro quo situation,” he said with an offended sniff. “My brides provide a measure of safety against other vampires, and my castle walls against the demons. Those who choose to, may provide sustenance to their protectors, knowing they will not be killed. It is working out nicely.”
Buffy just shook her head. “So, if that’s working so well, what’s the problem?”
“The problem is that my people cannot go about their normal business for fear of losing their lives and possessions. That lovely inn that you are staying in should be full of tourists this time of the year. Eager to spend their money on souvenirs and tours of Dracula’s castle. For many years, tourists have been a source of income for us. Now, they are afraid to come to my beautiful mountains. You have closed a hellmouth before, I would like you to help me close mine.”
“Don’t you need it? For, like, energy or something?”
He shook his head. “I need only to be near it often enough to renew my energies. That does not require it to be open, only accessible. It needs to be closed, and right now it is guarded by an extremely ugly, uncouth, and unreasonable version of a vampire.”
“A Turok-han,” Buffy said, hefting her scythe. “They come from hellmouths.”
“And I believe you have defeated one?” He eyed her scythe appreciatively. “With this unique weapon?”
“Nah. I didn’t have the scythe then. I had to fight him the old-fashioned way. I used a piece of wire to pop his head off.” She grinned to herself at Dracula’s sudden hiss and wide eyes. “The ones I killed with the scythe were a lot easier.”
“I suddenly do not feel so embarrassed at having lost my own feeble attempt to control you.”
Buffy let her grin show. “Yeah. Buffy doesn’t do control very well. Ask the Council of Watchers… oh wait, you can’t. They’re gone. It’s the Council of Slayers and Watchers now.”
They watched as the last of the humans from the area straggled into the castle and the gate was closed. Dusk settled over the heavily forested countryside and wolves began to howl.
“Seriously?” Buffy raised her eyebrows at him.
He shrugged his embarrassment and mumbled, “It is expected. My pets are trained to howl when the sun goes down. Those that are left, anyway.” He frowned. “These uncivilized creatures from below have taken a toll on them also. So few remain, I’ve had to bring the cubs into the castle to keep them safe.”
“Okay. So we’re doing this for money and puppies, then.” Buffy stretched and looked around. “I’m going back to the inn to get my squad. Do you want me to leave one here?”
He shook his head. “My brides are surprisingly able to take care of anything that tries to enter the castle. I’ve taught them all the rudiments of sword-fighting and then….”
He cleared his throat. “One of them may have been a slayer. Taken many centuries ago, but she retains much of what she’d learned before she….”
“Before she succumbed to you?”
“Yes,” he said simply. “Times were different then. I was different. I would not do such a thing now.”
“Un huh,” Buffy said, remembering when he’d attempted to add her to his harem when she was only nineteen.
He smiled at her. “Such a wonder as you, it was beyond my capability to resist.” She just narrowed her eyes at him and he hastened on. “It seemed like an excellent idea at the time. After all, you’d fallen in love with Angelus….” When Buffy continued to glare at him, he added, “It was, as you say now, worth a shot.”
“You know I sent Angel to hell on the point of a sword when I was seventeen, right?”
“Yes. Such devotion to duty and strength of character…. ah, you’d have made a truly worthy mate for Vald Tepes, Prince of Wallachia.” He looked wistful for a moment. “But, your desires lie elsewhere, do they not?”
“None of your business,” she growled. “Now where do I find this hellmouth and the ugly guy guarding it?”
Pulling on what appeared to be armor made of heavier leather and picking up a sword, he gestured for her to precede him down the hill. “We will meet your little army of slayers and banish these foul creatures tonight.”
It had actually taken more than one night, and the loss of one slayer, but Buffy did manage to take out the Turok-han using her scythe to behead him while Dracula’s swordsmanship kept him too busy to notice her approach. The slayer squad killed as many demons and vampires as they could find, herding many of them back to the spot in an ancient cemetery where the hellmouth gaped open. As soon as she felt they’d pushed as many demons as they could back into the hole, Buffy nodded at one of her girls who threw a small object into the opening. There was a short wait, while everyone covered their ears, and then the ground shook and began to collapse.
Unlike when Sunnydale fell into the hellmouth there, this collapse didn’t even extend to the edges of the cemetery. Buffy and her squad stood at the entrance to the graveyard and watched to be sure nothing else was getting out, but it seemed to be plugged pretty well.
“What do you think?” she asked the satisfied-looking old vampire standing off to the side. “Are we done here?”
“I believe you have fulfilled your mission. Yes. There will be clean up of course. Random vampires and demons that did not make it into the mouth, but the main source of danger is past. I will have my people construct a permanent cover for the area.”
“Well, it’s almost morning, so I think we’ll head back to the inn to sleep for a while. I can give you one more night to help with cleanup, but then we have to get back. Little hellmouths are popping up all over the place and we’re staying pretty busy. Got to say, though, yours is the only one that rated its own Turok-han. Only two or three really big hellmouths have had those show up.”
He nodded. “Once it was obvious I was not going to allow the escaping creatures to feed upon my people, it seemed they felt more was needed. However, I feared it was not the only one finding its way into the world. I believe we are facing, perhaps not as great a world-wide contagion as what we witnessed some time ago, but a definite event.”
“I’d kinda hoped we’d put a stop to that when we defeated the first evil and then sent Twilight packing. I’d hate to think it’s another awakening of evil.”
“I suspect it is more of a last gasp. We may be witnessing the last throes of whatever it is that wants to rise into our world. But it will still require vigilance and fighting to force it down for good. You may call upon me if necessary, but I suspect you will be able to handle this yourself… with the proper assistance.”
Buffy waved her hand at her girls, now walking away in the direction of the town. “I have plenty of good assistance.”
“I was not referring to your army of small female warriors,” he said as he turned to go back to his castle.
Buffy stared after his retreating back, frowning in confusion. Then she shrugged and followed her girls for a day of well-earned rest.
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