Lionesses

Lionesses

Spoilers: BtVS season 2/3. Angel didn’t get his soul back in season 2. Do not get me started on who sired Spike - it’s exactly as it says in this story.
Rating: NC17 for sex, some of which is not entirely consensual, and for some violence. Some of the thinking is from a demonic point of view and it’s, well, demonic.
Content: B/A(us) Alternate past reality leading to an alternate future, which is where we began, in ‘The Nature of the Beast’.
Summary: In ‘To Kill A Cat’, ‘Tyger, Tyger’ and ‘Cometh the Hour’ there are passing references to Angelus and his family having a not entirely delightful stay in Egypt. A sort of holiday from Hell, in fact. I’ve been asked to make good on those allusions, so here’s the story. It’s back-story to the back-story. It might help you to read the others first, but it probably isn’t essential.
The story is told from several different points of view.

Author's notes

****

Have you ever got ready to go on holiday? Of course you have. All that packing and providing for your dependents - watering the plants, taking the pets to the kennels or to the neighbours, or if that is inconvenient, dealing with them in some other more permanent way, making sure that you’ve secured all your valuables, and making sure your friends and acquaintances will remember you while you’re gone? You think you know about the difficulty of all those arrangements, right?

Wrong. You have no idea what it’s like to be about to take a holiday, a long holiday, with a vampire family to dispose of and an apocalypse to organise for when you come back. To have a Slayer to remind of your presence. You’ve no idea how much energy it all takes.

That’s what I’m doing now.

I’ve been back for a few months, and now I know exactly how everybody is going to pay for the century that I’ve spent in solitary confinement, in a sort of sensory deprivation; seeing, hearing, smelling and touching but unable to *do*. Sensing everything second hand, everything filtered through nauseating feelings of guilt, and remorse, of worthlessness and shame. Existing in misery and despair. In impotent rage, rage such as you have never seen before…No! I’m not going to start talking about that. I just want to forget the last century, forget the soul that has tormented me, kept me “cribbed, cabined and confined” in a way that you humans cannot begin to comprehend. I will have my vengeance.

Everyone on this miserable planet will feel the weight of my anger, believe me, but there are some for whom it will be worse than others.

The Rom. I’ll take all of them, the entire people. But the Kalderash are in star position. Every last man, woman and child of that monstrous clan will understand that the anguish and eventual demise of the human race is the responsibility of the Kalderash. That the disappearance of this planet from this dimension is a direct consequence of their childish attempts at revenge for the loss of a single daughter. I wonder if they will think that the stupid girl was worth the price they are about to pay? The Rom themselves will be my special playthings, in the Hell of my choosing, forever. Have you any idea how long eternity will be? How hopeless? How much agony I can inflict? You will soon, I promise. Word of a demon. The Rom will know it even better.

Buffy. She’s right up there, too. She made me lo…she made this body love her. Demons cannot love. Not ever. She made Soul Boy love her, and the after effects are here, in this body. The memories, the feelings, the chemicals of emotional addiction. This body, this flesh that is my earthly home, is polluted and corrupted. I have scrubbed myself under the shower until the skin bleeds, but I cannot remove the memory of her touch. How can I scrub away what is inside me, if I cannot purify the outside? Every moment is another torment, with these nauseating sounds and scents and sights in my mind, the memory of her skin on mine, the very taste of her. It is unbearable.

If I can’t cleanse this flesh, then I shall have to deal with the corruption in some other way.

Acathla.

I knew about Acathla, of course, but not until the idiots at the museum got hold of him did I know where to find him. He’ll do. There are lots of ways I can get this planet and its puling population removed into a Hell dimension, and to be honest I don’t much care which one. Just so long as I can have my vengeance. When that is over, I can be rid of this flesh once and for all, because living in it is most certainly Hell to me.

Acathla is in my Great Hall now, waiting for me to release him from the stone that imprisons him, to withdraw the sword that cages his power. Spike seems resentful, but Drusilla and I will deal with him. But for now, Dru has asked for a last holiday, a visit to some of the places we all knew together. A last request, I suppose. It’s inconvenient, but perhaps it will be a good thing to remind us all that there is nothing here for us. We are demons. We should be in a demon dimension. I’ll keep enough of you alive to provide us with food. You won’t need much in the way of comforts.

The preparations are almost complete. I’ve spent some of the time since I’ve been back leaving small gifts for the Slayer - slaughtered birds, dead roses, you know the sort of thing. I particularly liked the effect of the drawings I left on her pillow, the promise I sent her that I should come for her soon, and the necklace I made of Witchy Willow’s fish. The very special gift I left in the Watcher’s bed. None of them knows the other things I’ve done, the things that kept them safe, kept them undamaged until I am ready for them. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is going to hurt this little band of do-gooders. Nothing except me. I shall guard them until the time is right, and then I shall do with them exactly as I please, for as long as I please. So, I’ve seen off the other dangers and just let them have one memento mori after another. All of them, mine. None of them feels safe, now. Good. They won’t forget me while I’m gone.

The minions have spent the night carrying everything into the cellars for safe storage. Not that anyone with any common sense would break into a house with the reputation this one has. But, if common sense were so common, there would be more of it about, don’t you think?

Drusilla, Spike and I are packed. I’m taking the three most sensible minions as our servants, and the rest I’ll stake when they’ve finished all the heavy lifting. Well, you didn’t think I was going to do all the menial stuff myself, did you? We’ll start with San Francisco, and work our way on from there. Istanbul, Prague, Budapest, London, Vienna, Paris, Rome… It will take us some months, but time doesn’t matter to us.

Right now, I’m sitting in the tree outside the Slayer’s window, watching her as she undresses. She’s like a cat, a golden, tawny cat. Sometimes I think of her as a cheetah, when she’s sprinting after her prey. Sometimes I think of her as a leopard, prowling in the dark. Just now? She’s like a lioness, pacing in pent-up anger. If you want a real killer, don’t look to the male of a pride. Look to the lionesses. I think she must have found the body I left as a gift for her. There’s simply no gratitude nowadays, is there?

She’s beauti… she’s an impressive enemy, even I have to admit. No match for me, of course, but then who would be? I love to watch her in a rage like this. Her hair, the finest sun-spun silk, tossed in the wind of her fury, her body simply begging for fingers as knowing as mine to bring it to raptures of pain and pleasure, her skin soft and yielding, belying the iron strength that lies beneath it. My lioness.

No!

This body, these memories, give me no peace! I feel unclean, violated, possessed - I must go back and take another shower. Perhaps if I scrub a bit harder, I can at least get rid of the smell of her…

***

It was all my fault, of course. Well, it bloody well would be, wouldn’t it? He always blames me for everything that goes wrong. But in this case, it really was. Angelus had sent me to the docks in Istanbul to sort out our transport to…where was it now? Ah, yes. Athens. I got distracted, though. There was this really tasty-looking youth - you have no idea how tempting some of these young Turks are - and it all took longer than I expected. So I was in a bit of a rush. And I don’t speak Turkish all that well. So we finished up not going to Athens. Angelus was very displeased. I didn’t know why at the time. I do now.

It was Drusilla’s idea, but of course she’s far from rational. Not stupid, you understand, but she’s just not in control of her faculties. When she wants to, though, she can twist both me and our Sire around her little finger. That’s what she did. He was going on about freeing Acathla. I mean, can you imagine anything more stupid or suicidal? As if any of the demon dimensions would offer a warm welcome to a family of vampires, even if we did come bearing the Earth as a trophy? Well, come to think of it, it might be a very warm welcome; a bit too hot for comfort. We would be their *toys* for all eternity. To a pure bred demon, we are half-breeds, the lowest of the low, fit only to be their slaves. I’ll pass on that, thanks. It’s been bad enough since he’s been back - he’s madder than Dru, now, after all that time imprisoned by the soul. In fact, I think I preferred the souled version, nauseating as it was. Until he came clutching the Harris whelp, pretending to be a real vampire again, I’d no idea what had happened to him after Romania in 1898. I was sure he wasn’t dead - I’d have known - but Darla would never tell me. I think Dru had some idea, though.

Anyway, I’m rambling a bit. Where was I? Angelus said he wanted to have the Earth and all its occupants sucked into Acathla’s Hell. I was trying to find a way to stop him - I’ll try to kill him if I have to, although I’m not likely to succeed because he’s older, bigger and stronger - and then Dru got that crafty look on her face that she does when she’s planning how to get us to do what she wants. She asked him for a last holiday. Revisit all the places of her youth, sort of thing. And I’ll be damned if he didn’t agree.

So, we’ve eaten our way through the capitals of Europe. None of us have been particularly tidy in our habits, not even Angelus, who would normally have my hide if I left a fang-marked corpse to be found by any passer-by. After all, if we’re going to drag humanity to Hell, what does it matter?

It matters to me. I’ve been watching for some sign of the old Angelus. The one who was hungry for everything this world had to offer. Whose appetite for pleasure was insatiable. Who said he only cared about his own satisfaction, but who took damn good care of the rest of us, whenever we needed it. Who loved life, unlife, whatever you want to call it. I began to see that Dru had the right plan. Keep him away from Acathla until he’s back in his right mind. If ever he’s back in his right mind. I wish vampires had a god to pray to. Or, better yet, a good psychiatrist.

The capitals aren’t what they used to be. Two world wars and the impoverishment of the aristocracy have largely done away with the glittering ballrooms, the soirees and the good old-fashioned decadence. Not that I mind personally - I could never stomach all that simpering crap, but Angelus enjoyed being lionized, almost more than anything else, and we could have done with a bit of that. Anything to bring him back to himself, to remind him of all the things that make our existence pleasurable.

Even so, I thought things were going reasonably well - at least, he wasn’t in any great rush to get back to Sunnyhell - until we visited Istanbul. Then I screwed up big time.

He’d got wind of a cruise ship, full of rich old bats. We could ‘replenish our resources’ he said. ‘Feed well and steal a lot of money’ was what he meant. I’m OK with that, of course, but he likes to put a bit of a gloss on things. The minions were sent to check out the ship and to sneak onto it with all our baggage. I was sent to take out a couple of its passengers so we could have their tickets and their cabin. As it happens, it would have been better if the minions had done all of it. I got us a cabin all right. On the wrong ship. Well, it *looked* the same. And I’ve told you I don’t speak Turkish all that well. Next stop for the one we got onto was Port Said, in the one country he had flatly refused to visit. Egypt.

Everything might still have been alright, but Dru got hungry. All the old buffers got off the boat for the two hour coach trip to Cairo and the Pyramids, and even in our current devil-may-care attitude to corpses, Angelus was not inclined to take members of the crew. Too much of a hue and cry when they went missing, he thinks. He said that he would go out and bring something in for us. He forbade us absolutely to leave the ship. But he was gone a long time, and Dru got hungry. So we did.

***

Miss Edith told me that, if we did what she said, there would be crumpets for tea. I haven’t had crumpets in such a long time. Crumpets, with lots of butter and strawberry jam, bright and glistening and red. I like red.

She said we could all have crumpets for tea if we got off this boat, and everything would be right. If we didn’t, Daddy would make sure there were never crumpets again.

My Spike doesn’t want Daddy to do that. Miss Edith doesn’t, either. So, we have to get off the boat. Spikey will do anything I want; after all, I’m his dark goddess. So I’ll say I’m hungry, and I’ll whine about it, and keep thinking about those lovely crumpets and we can forget that nasty statue in the hall...

***

I’ve got a streetwalker here. She’ll do for Spike and Dru. I’ve already eaten; just a quick snack, and the body carefully hidden, the neck wounds disguised as a slashed throat. Enough blood left in the body so that suspicion isn’t aroused. Nothing to draw attention to us. Still, I feel as if I’m being followed. I’ve doubled back and I could see nothing. I’ve waited patiently in the shadows to see if someone is there, but I’ve found nothing. I wouldn’t be surprised, though. A vampire’s personal space extends for a very long way - much further than the pathetic bubble of sensibility that you humans have. And I can feel that I’m being watched. I know it. Damn! This is the last place in the world I wanted to come to. So long as we stay on the ship, now, we’ll be fine. Only an overnight layover, but while we are here, I might try to find one that leaves earlier, and is berthed nearby. I don’t care where it’s going to, as long as it’s away from Egypt. And soon. Especially if *he* already knows we are here.

But, when I get back to the cabin with the swooning streetwalker, it’s all taken much longer than it should have, and Spike and Dru are gone. Damn.

***

A hungry vampire can always find something to eat at the docks. We fed more neatly than we had in weeks - for some reason, we both knew that Angelus did not want us to draw attention to ourselves here, although he hadn’t explained why not. It would really help if he told us a bit more, you know - if he had, months of starvation wouldn’t have got us off the boat. Probably. But he’s never been into sharing, just issues orders like the alpha male he thinks he is. OK, the alpha male he is.

We hadn’t gone very far - just far enough for a floater in the water not to be associated with our ship. The trouble started on our way back. We were almost there, making our way through a stack of cargo crates that had been offloaded for transport to Cairo, when a heavy net was thrown over the two of us. Whoever was handling the net knew their business. A few whacks over the head and it was goodnight Irene, sort of thing. When I came round, we were still together, Dru and I, but I was pretty damned sure we weren’t in Port Said anymore - I couldn’t smell the sea for one thing - and we were both chained up. Solidly. Shit.

***

I could smell where they had been, since the trail was so fresh, and I soon found the body they had left behind. They had taken a slightly different route back. I found signs of a scuffle, and more individual scents. Vampires. They’re his. Shit.

I could leave them. I’m almost sure he won’t kill them. But they are mine. My property; my possessions. Not my responsibility - that’s a human thing - but they are mine, and I’m not going to let someone else have what’s mine. I haven’t seen him in over two hundred years, but I don’t suppose he’s changed. He didn’t need to hunt me down. He knows I’ll come for them. I know where he is. Cairo.

***

We haven’t met, I believe? I’m Aurelius, head of Clan Aurelius. And you?

Thank you.

So pleased to meet you.

You want to know about current events? Egypt is my personal territory, all of it. It has been since I was born. So far as humans are concerned, I like to keep an ordinary, low profile, and that practice has helped me to survive for a very long time. I have no objection to other vampires making a spectacle of themselves, the one you know as the Master, for instance. He was called Nest, and was the childe of a very favoured daughter of mine. Someone I loved, in fact. Oh, not as much as I loved P… No! I’m not ready to talk to you about her. Let us just say that I had lost my soul mate and Isabella had lost hers. We gave each other comfort, as best we could. And, as best we could, we loved each other.

So, I was disposed to look kindly on Nest. Once, during a period of, well, let’s just say whilst the balance of my mind was disturbed, I allowed him to join the clan councils, thinking that it would be wise to allow the eldest surviving childe to replace those of my own who fell in this battle for survival called life. Unlife. That gave him big ideas. He liked to pretend he was more important than he actually was, but he was a fool. And he was not even strong enough to stop the demon from permanently etching itself onto his features. Idiot.

I do not allow other vampires into my personal territory uninvited. My family and minions here keep watch. Not much comes through the deserts, and most intrusions are along the Nile. We keep a very close eye on places like Port Said. We knew as soon as these two came ashore. And *him*. They are family, of course, although I have never met my two guests before. But I know who they are. William the Bloody and the Mad Drusilla. Their Sire should have brought them to a clan gathering before now, but he hasn’t. He never visits, not after the last time. He hated me for what happened then, but it was necessary. He will understand that in time. He knows where to find his whelps. I don’t need to have him brought. He’ll come.

And there is a clan gathering for him to come to. I hadn’t intended our next meeting to be at a clan gathering. To be so…public. This will be…interesting.

***

We’ve been here maybe twenty-four hours now. Wherever here is. It’s a large house, more of a mansion, really, and there are a lot of vampires. They all smell like family, which is really weird. And they all seem to be drinking bagged or bottled blood. That’s even weirder. Are we in some sort of temperance society?

We’ve been given blood, and made comfortable, but otherwise we’ve just been ignored. Now we are being taken from the small room where we were to a large hall. There are about a dozen burly vamps surrounding us, so there’s no point in making a fight of it. And I don’t think Dru would fight. She seems…content. Content to be here; pleased, even. I don’t know what maggot has got into her head now, but if I make a break for it, I don’t think she’d come, even if I succeeded.

So now we are being chained in the large hall. We have enough slack to be able to sit, and lots of cushions to sit on, but the chains are solid. Apart from the minions, there are perhaps a dozen vamps in here, and the one that seems to be in charge is old. Take my word for it. Older than any vampire I ever came across. And yet he doesn’t look much older than Angelus. Looks a lot like him, in fact. I wonder if it’s a family resemblance? Who are these demons?

I hear a murmuring of conversation at what must be the door - I can feel the fresher air that has come in - and the sound of footsteps. I’d know that tread anywhere. He’s come. Angelus.

Most men need to occupy a lot of space, to make themselves look big, like a tomcat fluffing out its tail, a dog raising its hackles. Angelus has never needed that. He can dominate an entire room simply by standing still. It’s as if the space simply shapes itself around him. When he had the soul, he tried not to do that. He deliberately sank back into shadows, tried to make himself inconspicuous. It only made him look as if he were hunting. It didn’t diminish his air of dominance one little bit. He never understood that. He’s dominating the room now, just by being in it. Him and this old vampire both. They have a lot in common. Me? I just fluff out my tail. But not here.

He’s got an air of insouciance about him. He always has, mind you, but it’s more so, now. He’s putting on a front, and a damned good one, too. He stops in front of the old vampire, and I can see them both weigh each other up. The older one speaks first.

“Angelus.”

It’s Angelus’ reply that stuns me for a moment.

“Aurelius.”

Aurelius? I thought he was long dead. Angelus has never, ever spoken of him. But if he’s head of our clan, why are we chained up?

And we won’t be the only ones. The same burly minions who brought us into this room have lined up behind Angelus. Who, would you believe, is casually twirling a highly perfumed rose of deepest, darkest red.

“I seem to remember that this was growing in your outer courtyard when I came with Darla. She liked it. Does it have a name?”

“None that I am aware of, and yes, it is the same rose. It does well there.”

“Perhaps you should name it for me. It is clearly persistent, and…hm.”

He stops to examine his thumb. A thorn has pricked him, leaving a small bead of blood as dark as the rose.

“Persistent,” he repeats, “And capable of becoming a thorn in the flesh.”

You really have to hand it to him. He’s got the biggest balls in the world. He’s here with his great great grandsire, and a pack of the most ancient vamps on earth, and he’s *issuing threats*! In the most elegant way.

Aurelius speaks again. His smile is all the more deadly for simply being a normal smile.

“Nothing worthwhile ever came without a sting, and I only permit thorns where I want them. You will realise the necessity of what I am about to do, of course. There is much for which you must answer to me and to the clan. It just so happens that we have a gathering. The hearing will take place tomorrow afternoon.”

He nods to his minions, and Angelus is chained on the other side of the hall from us. He simply accepts it, and doesn’t struggle. Probably figures it wouldn’t do any good if he did. I think he’s right. But before they’d laid a hand on him, bugger me if he didn’t hand the rose to Aurelius, calm as you like. A thorn has pricked Aurelius’ finger. I can smell the blood from here. He’s still smiling, though.

***

A clan gathering. Why did it have to be a clan gathering? Isn’t it bad enough having to come and ask him to release Spike and Dru? I recognise most of the clan masters here. They were here last time. There were more of them then, though. It would probably have been all right, with just him and his immediate family. Well, better, anyway.

But the clan masters? They’ll want me to answer for Soul Boy’s actions. Oh, he would have, too, but he might have exacted a more reasonable price. Now it’s clan business, and who knows what might happen. But Spike and Dru are MINE, and I’m not one to walk away from what is mine.

Dru has a strange look on her face, almost like the one she gets when she has a premonition. And yet she looks peaceful. Untroubled. Perhaps we’ll get out of here alive.

Spike is looking to me for instructions. Just stay there, boy, and don’t make this any worse than it’s already going to be.

***

He’s my close descendant, the fourth generation from me. The others who gathered for the clan meeting? They are my own childer, fifteen of them now, although there have been many more, and they rule their own territories, covering a large part of the globe. They are all master vampires, and they are all very powerful beings. I haven’t made a childe in a long time. They are all old beyond your understanding.

These are my ruling elite. New mates, new childer, these will be introduced in due course. They await the completion of our other business. We gather like this once every ten years, just as they gather with their own childer who have left their sires. Those families left without a childe of my own? They usually come at different times - not too many vampires in one place at one time. Low profile, remember.

Except the line of Isabella - these have been absent for far too many years. Nest and Darla would come, as required, but after Angelus was introduced, he kept Darla away. Nest, of course, got himself trapped trying to open the Hellmouth. As I said - idiot.

Angelus, of course, is, was, Darla’s childe. But he is also my property, for reasons that will become clear if I decide to allow you this knowledge. We have withdrawn to a place of more secluded comforts for our discussions. We have many things to discuss. One of them is sure to be him. Whether he should live or die, and his whelps with him. If he lives, whether he should be exiled from the clan or admitted back into our ranks. The others will be for his death. I know them well. They were all fond of Darla.

But first, we will discuss other clan business. The past. The future. Realignment of territories. Power. Prophecies. We always have a full agenda. By the end of this night, though, the others will have made their views on him plain, even though the hearing has not yet taken place. It isn’t unlike your system of justice, then.

***

The three of us have been allowed as much comfort as chained prisoners generally get. We’ve been fed. It’s animal blood, but that will have to do. At a clan gathering they are careful not to draw attention to the fact that a large number of vampires are in town. It isn’t Aurelius’ usual fare.

I need to get some rest, but as I lie here, sleep as far away from me as it has ever been, I remember the last time I was in this house. The area of floor in front of me is where it all happened. I was twenty-one. Not much else has changed.

***

We had been kept kicking our heels for several days in what, in a human Ottoman house, would have been the women’s quarters. I had been impressed with the house when we arrived. It is located in the centre of Cairo, where you would expect the turbulent noise that has always been characteristic of this city, night and day, to be unbearable. But this place is a haven of peace. It is built around a series of courtyards, in the Ottoman style, with its thick and solid walls to the outside world, but its primary architecture is founded in the Mameluk style. It is beautiful. In the middle of the eighteenth century, there was a massive amount of building in the city, instigated by the city’s emir, and leader of the Egyptian Janissaries, Abd al-Rahman Katkhuda. He’d started building just before I was born, intent on beautifying the city, providing palaces for his followers and, I think, mosques to placate his god. Most of the great architecture of the world is to placate gods of one sort or another. Surely you’ve noticed that? Cathedrals, temples, investment house skyscrapers, so many different gods…

Cairo was a seething mass of construction, then. Who would notice one more new palace? And so Aurelius moved from his old and crumbling Fatimid palace to this new and beautiful one. He’d had it built in traditional style, with separate men’s and women’s quarters, so as not to alert the builders that he was something different. And we were locked in the women’s quarters, while the clan masters discussed their business. Nest was among the clan masters at that time, so it was Darla and I, together with a few others, who amused ourselves as best we could. Well, that part wasn’t so bad.

Then the clan business was finished, and we were let out. I saw Aurelius for the first time. I’ll never forget the aura of power that he radiated. Well, he is over 5,000 years old. And I’ll never forget the look on his face when he saw me. He was taken aback. Only for a moment, but he was. I didn’t know why then, and I still don’t. Sometimes I have a feeling that things would be better if I did understand. You know the feeling you have when you say that someone just walked over your grave? That chilly shudder down your spine; those icy spider feet? The feeling I have is a bit like that. Although perhaps it really is just people walking over my grave…Maybe I should go back to Galway and sort that out, once and for all.

We spent a week there, and I was constantly aware that he was watching me, weighing me up. It was there that I realised that, whilst Darla was held in high regard, Nest was not. He could still barely speak to me without baring his fangs - I had refused to bow to his authority, remember. I got some small, petty pleasure from watching how the others slighted him. Most of the time, he never realised.

The other newcomers had all been introduced to Aurelius, and only I was left. Some he had taken to his bed, some he had not. I wondered what it would be for me. Vampires pay no mind to gender when it comes to sex. Gender is about reproductive possibility, after all, and those arrangements are, as you well know, different for us. Sex for us is about pleasure and power. I have never cared to be on the submissive end, though, even if the dominant partner is one of the most powerful creatures on the face of the Earth.

My memories of that night are as fresh and clear as if it had been only yesterday. I stood in this very same hall where now I lie chained, awaiting my fate, as I did then. I remember that Darla and I were drinking a fine burgundy - nothing but the best for Aurelius, ever. Darla expected me to be Aurelius’ next bed partner - she could not imagine any other outcome than that he would show me this favour. I was less than enthusiastic. We were both in for a surprise that night, in the presence of the clan masters, and the newly introduced mates and childer.

It started well. He welcomed me to the clan, and made no mention of my rejection of the authority of Nest. I could have been executed for that. I wondered at the time whether he knew, but I’m sure that he did. The next part was different, though, and, although I was not paying attention to the others in the room, Darla told me afterwards that they appeared to be as taken aback as she was.

He ordered me to strip. All the other couplings, with male or female vampires, had been in the privacy of his own rooms. Why was this to be different? Vampires are not shy, in the way that humans can be, but we still know when we are being demeaned. That was how I felt. There had been a low murmur of conversation in the room, but now it fell absolutely silent. Still, refusal would have some very dire consequences indeed. Even a young hothead like me knew that. I stripped. Deliberately. Haughtily. Disdainfully, even. Nevertheless, I stripped.

“Kneel.”

There was never any doubt that I would, but his voice brooked no disobedience. I did.

“Darla. Nest. You may have him for as long as it suits me, but this one is mine. Bear that in mind.”

What on earth did he mean by that? Then there was no time to wonder. I felt his hand on my shoulder, as he knelt behind me. His fingers traced the path of my spine, the swell of my muscles, the silent pulse points in my throat, and then, without further preliminaries, he was in me, his arm a band of iron around my chest, holding me to him as he thrust into me. I knew a great deal of pain that night, but he made sure I knew pleasure, too. As he brought me to completion, himself as well, he sank his fangs deeply into my neck and drank me down. As he did so, he offered me his wrist, and I took it, in a circle of blood and sex and power. The orgasm he brought me to made me roar in pain and pleasure. And in power. That was my first true roar, a cub becoming a lion, and I was brought to it earlier than might otherwise have happened by the absolute power of his blood. I have never tasted anything like it, and never expect to do so again. It filled my veins with heat, and light and life, giving me a strength far beyond my years. And still he drank from me, and made me drink from him. I was remade a little, that night. I was not quite the Angelus who had arrived a fortnight before.

It was not this act that made me hate him at the time. It should have done but I couldn’t. The hate for that came later, warming with the years. If I was remade at all, it was in his image. I was his, despite the public nature of our coupling. Or perhaps that was part of it; perhaps the clan needed to see what he had done. I don’t know. What made me hate him at the time was what came next.

He got to his feet, casually refastening his clothes. I was dizzy with power, dizzy with blood loss, and it was a moment before I made to do the same. His tone was dismissive, one you might use to a stray cur.

“Stay.”

He gestured to the minions standing unobtrusively behind the gathering.

“Hold him down.”

What? What was to happen now? I soon found out.

I couldn’t see exactly what was happening, with minions holding down my arms and legs, and my head, but I sensed someone new enter the room. A woman. A magic user.

“You are clear on what is required?”

“Yes, Aurelius. I understand.”

The woman knelt by my right side and ran her hand over my shoulder blade. It felt like a young hand, firm and smooth. I heard the small sounds of tools being prepared, and felt a frisson of fear. What did he have planned for me? I was tempted to try to break away from the hold of those burly minions, but if I did so, I would be shamed in front of the whole clan. And in front of Darla and Nest. Me! It was bad enough that he saw fit to have me held. Had he asked, I believed I would have endured whatever was done to me, no matter what.

Then she began her work. It took a long time before she was satisfied, and while she worked, she chanted. She stitched spells with her needles into every prick of my skin, and into every cell of my body. I could feel her magic coursing through me, although I could not tell what sort of spells they were. There must be magic to make my flesh accept a permanent marking such as this, of course, but whether the spells had any other effect I do not know, even to this day. I just felt the heat of them, the itch in my veins, the silvery tang of them in my mouth, mingled with the coppery taste of blood as I bit through my lip in my efforts to remain still.

You thought that the ‘A’ in my tattoo stood for ‘Angelus’ or ‘Angel’? Think again.

It was put there by Aurelius, and it is his mark.

When it was done, the witch left the gathering, and the minions released me. He walked over to me, a glass of red wine in his hand, as I stood, still naked and now marked for eternity. He held the glass out to me. I let him stand like that, his arm outstretched, and I did nothing to hide the blazing hatred that was in my eyes.

“You will remember that you are mine. You will return when I summon you. You carry my mark to remind you.”

There was a long moment of silence, before I took the wine, drank it in one large swallow, then tossed the emptied glass against a wall, where it shattered with a satisfyingly loud noise. I stalked out of the room towards our quarters, followed by Darla with my clothes. We left that same night, no matter that it was close to sunrise, without his permission and without seeing him again. I have not seen him since. Until tonight.

***

And now it is time for the hearing. The minions have arranged ottomans down the sides of the hall. At the far end, deep in shadow, is a tunnelled archway that leads directly to the brightness of the Lion courtyard. The doors are open, and I can hear the fountain splashing, see the circle of carved lions around the basin, smell the jasmine, citrus and tuberose. At this end is a single carved chair on a dais. His seat. It doesn’t look very comfortable, with heavy carvings on the seat, back and arms. Perhaps it’s to remind him of the difficulties of kingship. Loser. Acathla must give me dominion over him. And over everybody else who witnesses what’s going to happen tonight. Even my own childer are here, still. How dare he make a public spectacle of me *again*!

There is a cushion, a large one, by the side of the chair. That isn’t for him, though. It’s for his constant companion. She wasn’t here last night, but it looks as if she will be here for this humiliation, as she was here for the last. His own lioness.

Sekhmet.

I know that she’s one of his instruments of execution. Well, torture as well, when it comes to vamps. It takes a long time to die with the lioness mauling you. You’ll stay alive - and conscious - until she gets round to taking your head off, or eating the heart out of your body. It can be days… weeks… months before that mercy is granted. Is that what he has in mind for me? Is that why the doors are open to the courtyard - so I won’t make a mess in the hall? If that were so, he surely would have waited until dark, wouldn’t he? I’m not ashamed to say that I am just a little afraid. But if I survive this, Aurelius goes right to the top of my list, along with the Rom and the Slayer.

***

Dru and I have been fed, but otherwise we’ve been pretty much ignored, even by Angelus. He’s been lounging across the room from me, looking as if those chains are just so much decoration. I may hate him, I may despise him, even, and want to kill him for what he’s going to do to the world, but even I’ve got to admit that he’s got style. He can’t possibly be as relaxed as he looks, but you would never, ever know. He doesn’t even smell of fear. I’m damn sure I do.

It’s not even mid-afternoon, but vampires are starting to file in. It looks as if all the clan members present at this gathering will be here, even the younger ones. I wonder why they are making such an early start? There are perhaps thirty of them. Plus the minions - they’re here, too. I know a bit about clan gatherings, although I’ve never been to one. Darla told us, once, when she was in a maudlin mood just after his disappearance in Romania. These are the most powerful vampires in the clan, those made by Aurelius himself, and their mates and latest childer. Whatever happens here, they will tell to those in their own territories - at least, whatever they feel their families should know. I think they’ll want them to know about this. Angelus likes to be the centre of attention. He’s certainly got that now. In spades.

The heavies are coming for him, lining up either side of him. He’s just ignoring them, looking as if he’s ready to be royally entertained, leaning back into the pile of cushions, his legs stretched out in front of him, crossed at the ankles, his hands locked behind his head. He’s mad. Stark, staring mad. We’re going to die here, I’m sure, although Dru still doesn’t seem worried. She’s sitting humming quietly to herself.

And yet, I have to admire the sheer balls of him. He’s acted above and beyond what a sire would normally do. Most would have left us to rot, especially since we are in this mess because we disobeyed his explicit instructions. Twice, if you count me getting us on the wrong ship. But he’s come in here, as cool as a cucumber, with nothing to gain other than rescuing us, and a hell of a lot to lose. We are the only reason for him being here, chained, facing the clan and waiting for some unknown doom to be pronounced. I’m not sure even the old Angelus would have done as much.

Here comes Aurelius, now that everyone is settled. What is that thing with him? It looks a bit like a lion, but like no lion I’ve ever seen. It’s got fangs that must be almost a foot long and it’s huge. I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t weigh 400 pounds. And that’s all bone and muscle and sinew. It must be seven feet from nose to tail tip - and it’s only got a tiny tail at that - and its back is waist high to a tall man. Tall like Aurelius. It looks like one of those sabre tooth cats you read about. But they’ve been dead for thousands of years. Haven’t they? What in hell has he got planned for us?

He’s sat down in the chair now, and at a gesture from him, the heavies have taken Angelus’ chains down and are bringing him to the centre of the hall. My Sire looks as if this is a prize giving, or something. How does he do it? Even with the heavies hanging on to the chains, he looks as if he’s in charge. That will really get up Aurelius’ nose.

“There is no escape from here. If you will give me your word, I will have the chains removed. If you break your word, Sekhmet will deal with you. Do you give it?”

Angelus looks at us. It’s the first time he’s really looked at us since he got here. He gives us a small smile. Then he looks back to Aurelius.

“You have it.”

Aurelius’ expression doesn’t alter at all, but somehow he seems pleased. I don’t know how I know that. The heavies remove the chains. Angelus isn’t invited to sit. The cat saunters down from the dais and walks over to him. I get the feeling that if the audience needed to breathe, there would be a sudden intake of breath. The cat sniffs his hand and, in one of those moments of comedy that seem to enliven every life and death situation, presses her nose against his genitals for a really good sniff. Then she goes back to his hand and butts against it. In a gesture that is pure Angelus, he crouches down until he is eyeball to eyeball with the monster and, taking its head between his hands, he scratches behind both ears, murmuring a few words to the brute. Then he straightens up, and the cat saunters back to the dais and sits on its cushion, all attention. Aurelius gets back to business.

“You have had an… interesting… century, Angelus. You have gained a soul, lost your status within the clan, killed your sire, assisted in the killing of your grandsire, dusted a great many of our kind and had a… love affair … with the Slayer. That is merely a summary of the high points, of course, but have I omitted anything important?

“No. To the best of my recollection, that more or less covers it.”

“The killing of your sire is a capital crime, as is aiding in the killing of your grandsire, and generally declaring war on vampire kind, with the intention of killing every one of us. I don’t, of course, care about vampires from other clans, but I don’t believe that you have differentiated, have you? And forming a relationship of love with the Slayer with the intention of helping her to kill us all? I’m not sure there *is* a laid down penalty for that, but it must be death at the very least. How many times do you think I should kill you?”

I think we are in trouble. Angelus sighs.

“Well, my vote would be for none. I’m sure you realise that I did none of those things. The soul was given to me very much against my will, and when Darla cast me off…”

Did she, indeed? She never said that.

“…to fend for myself, I was helpless. I was captive to that soul. I was caged and powerless.”

I imagine it cost him a lot to make that particular admission. Angelus always needs to be in control. Aurelius has a look almost of sympathy. He’s lived longer than the rest of us, of course, and seen so much more. Perhaps he’s seen an ensouled vampire before. Not that much sympathy, though.

“And yet souls are corrupted. You failed to do that.”

“That’s as maybe. Yet, as I understand it, that is not a capital offence, nor yet a cause for expulsion from the clan once the soul is gone.”

“And the other charges?”

“All of them were committed by the Soul, not by me.”

“And yet it is your flesh that stands here, your memory that can tell us what happened.”

“That means nothing, as well you know.”

“Tell me about the death of Darla.”

Angelus must have known that this was coming, but he seems at a loss for an answer. The question hangs in the air like the stench of a seven-day corpse. He gazes at the floor for a few moments. Aurelius waits patiently, looking as if he will wait all night, if necessary, to get an answer. Eventually, Angelus straightens his shoulders. He looks as if he’s going to say something distasteful. He does.

“Darla was about to kill the Soul’s intended mate. His eternal mate. The Soul chose to protect the one he wanted as his own.”

He looks defiant. Intended mate, indeed? I knew the Soul was besotted, but mate? ETERNAL mate? Aurelius glosses over that - probably nauseated at the unnatural thought of a vampire choosing a human as his eternal mate.

“Yet Darla was your mate and your sire. Could you do nothing to save her? Or did you want her dead?”

“NO! Of course I didn’t want her dead. We’d been together for 150 years.”

He looks as if he’s chewing a wasp.

“I could do nothing. NOTHING! Not for her, not for Nest. The Soul was in complete control. You have no idea how hard I have tried to break free, to take back control. How often I thought I had done so, only to find that the soul still held me in its grip. None of you can have the least idea of what I have been through. To watch the death of your mate and sire, and be able to do nothing! To watch as the body that was yours declares war on your own kind, and be able to do nothing to protect your family! To watch and to feel as your body kisses and caresses the Slayer, to know that the body is yearning for her! The last years have been a torment to me, but now I am free. I will have my vengeance on the Rom, and I will have my vengeance on the Slayer. I can do nothing about those who have met their final deaths, but I will exact vengeance for them.”

That’s quite an admission from him, and he stops there, wisely I think from his point of view. What is the penalty, I wonder, for ending the world? That mad bastard Nest merely wanted to open the Hellmouth and let the demons out to play in the mistaken belief that he would be top demon. Angelus wants us all in Hell. I wonder whether to say something, but decide not to. If Aurelius doesn’t kill him now, perhaps I will still find the opportunity. And perhaps he will come to his senses, and I won’t have to.

Aurelius looks around the assembly.

“Does anyone have further personal grievance in this matter?”

There is a great deal of whispered consultation. One of the vamps is going around the various groups. After what seems to be an age, he comes over to stand in front of Aurelius, next to Angelus.

“What is the clan’s response, Japheth?”

“Sire. No one here has personal grievance against Angelus or his family, outside the charges that you have enumerated. Therefore, there will be no contest to whatever decision you deem appropriate.”

Japheth returns to his place.

Cagey. Aurelius can ignore the matter of the soul and kill Angelus. That will probably please them best. If he considers the soul to be extenuating circumstances, and lets Angelus go free he’ll look weak. Weak heads of clans can soon find they don’t have any heads at all.

He falls silent, lost in thought about the decision before him. Well, at least it’s not clear-cut, then.

Suddenly, he’s on his feet, all brisk decision.

“Angelus. For murdering your sire and assisting in the murder of your grandsire, the penalty is absolute. It is death. However, there are, as you have explained, extenuating circumstances. Nevertheless, these crimes cannot be overlooked. I will therefore give you a choice.

“You can walk away from this gathering, with no place in this clan, leaving your childer here to be disposed of as the unwanted progeny of a renegade. You will be declared outlaw and every member of the clan will be your enemy. They will kill you on sight. Your existence will be as one hunted through the four corners of the earth. That is the only mercy I will offer - that you may still exist so long as your wits and fighting ability will keep you alive.

“Or you may pick up that stake there,” he nods towards a small side table on which is a long, very pointed stake, “and you may expunge the crimes of you and yours by meeting your own final death out in that courtyard tonight. You may spend the time until moonrise with your childer. They will stay here to prove themselves until I am satisfied that they are acceptable to the clan.

“Or you can accept my judgement here and now and pay for your offences by punishment and submission to my will. If you survive, you will regain your status in the clan and control of your childer. When I permit, you will be allowed to return to the territory that you have claimed.

“Which is it to be?”

What? Disposed of? What the bloody hell have we done wrong? But there is no time for me to continue my silent rant. Angelus turns to us again, with that same smile. Bloody hell. He’s going to abandon us after all!

But he doesn’t.

“I will accept your judgement.”

Aurelius nods to a minion who hurries from the room. There’s a lot of whispering. I really don’t like the sound of this. ‘If you survive…’ What does Aurelius have in store? We soon find out.

The minion hurries back, carrying a thick, black whip. It might once have been another colour, but it’s black from use, now, and from regular oiling to keep it supple. Angelus is good with whips - he always had quite a collection - but this looks like something special. It’s not quite a bullwhip - designed to hurt a hide much thicker and tougher than the skin on a human body - but it’s not far off. Pale objects gleam within the black braid. I can’t quite make out what they are from here, but they have the sheen of old bone or ivory. And it stinks of magic. Aurelius takes it from the minion, shakes it out and holds the lash across his open palms, the handle tucked under his arm. He strolls over to Angelus, and holds it up for him to inspect.

“These pieces of bone braided into the whip? Those are shards of bone from the earliest saints, relics blessed by their Holy Mother Church. Real bones, real saints, real blessings. No fakes here.”

He looks down at the whip, musingly.

“The whip itself will be bad, you can judge that for yourself. After all it’s one of your favoured instruments of pain, isn’t it? But I wonder what effect you think those slivers of bone will have? They’ve been sharpened, you know. They are like blades. And all wrapped in magic which will considerably… enhance… the pain.”

He drops the lash, which falls into venomous coils on the white marble floor - I bet that’s a sod to clean the blood off - and allows Angelus to see his hands. In the few moments that he was holding it, the pieces of bone have seared into the flesh. He hasn’t even winced. But strong though my Sire is, Aurelius is much older and much stronger. This is going to be very bad indeed.

He looks into Angelus’ face, searching for some sign of weakness, I think. Angelus looks right back, but his face closes down. He says nothing.

“Three thousand lashes should settle all offences, I think.”

Dear God. I find myself falling back into the rhythms of childhood, thinking words that are no longer appropriate. With that whip, three hundred lashes would be a death sentence for even the strongest human. After a thousand lashes, any one of us in this room would pray for death. Angelus pales a little, even for a vampire, and clenches his jaw. He makes no other movement. But there is more.

“You have submitted yourself to my will. Any sound from you during the punishment - if you cry out or whimper - will be taken as defiance. I will kill you myself, after you have watched your childer die. Do you understand?

Angelus simply gives a short, sharp nod. I wonder if he can trust himself to speak. We are all dead. It is simply not possible to submit to that kind of punishment without giving voice to the pain. Not possible, even for a vampire. I look at Dru, but she is curled up in her cushions, still humming softly to herself. Can she really see an outcome where we all survive? Or have her visions deserted her? Is it just the madness that moves her now?

There is still more. Aurelius speaks softly to two of the minions who hurry out again.

“Strip.” This to Angelus, who does. Whilst he does so, other minions move the ottomans from one of the walls. Making sure everyone has a good view, I suppose. There is a rustle as the relocated clan members seat themselves, but otherwise the hall is silent. It’s a silence pregnant with all sorts of things, but the chief thing that I can sense, the emotion roiling off every vampire in that room, is fascinated horror, the same thing you can smell from a rabbit watching the dance of a weasel. Only Aurelius, Angelus and that damned cat seem serene and untouched.

My Sire looks towards us again.

“May I?”

Aurelius nods.

Angelus walks over to us, naked and glorious. From his demeanour, he might be alone with us in his chambers. He comes to me first and crouches before me, taking my head between his hands, just as he did the lioness. He doesn’t scratch behind my ears, though. And some part of me wishes he would.

“It will be well, Will. My word on it.”

He doesn’t wait for an answer, which is good, because I have none to give. I don’t want to call him a liar. He moves over to Dru, and does the same. She answers him, though.

“Miss Edith told me it would be, Daddy. Miss Edith never lies.” Then she goes back to humming softly.

Angelus walks back to Aurelius.

“I am ready.”

The minions have returned. One is carrying a large, thick, padded cylindrical cushion. The other has some objects in one hand that I cannot see - they are hidden from me by his body. The minion with the cushion walks over to the wall close to where Angelus was chained. The wall there is marble and tile mosaic, like the rest of this hall, a wonder of the mosaicist’s art, I’m sure, if you appreciate such things. But let into the wall is a huge beam of wood, old and hardened, lying flush with the surface. It’s about two feet thick and runs for most of the length of the hall, starting at a little over shoulder height. The minion hangs the cushion from hooks set into the bottom of the beam and Aurelius directs my Sire to stand in front of it, facing the wall. The cushion is not for his comfort, you understand. It is to arch his back to better meet the lash.

Two of the minions take his arms and hold the wrists up to the centre of the beam. I think at first that they will manacle him to the beam, but that is not their intention. There are, after all, no chains or manacles just there. I see then what the objects are that were brought in with the cushion. A hammer and two nails. If you can call them that. They are two spikes, around fifteen inches long, perhaps an inch across at the broadest part of the shank, with broad, flat heads. They crucify him to that beam, nailed through the wrists until the heads are only an inch or so away from his skin. They have drawn first blood, and the lioness stalks over and laps at the spilled drops on the floor. Angelus has thrown back his head in pain, but made no sound.

Aurelius makes his last pronouncement.

“When this is finished, if you survive, you will have three days to free yourself from the beam. If you do not do so, that will be taken as defiance of my will. I forbid anyone here to feed you until you are freed.”

Oh, this is monstrous. Even Angelus at his most spiteful was surely never as cruel as this? Was he?

And then the flogging starts. The strongest of the minions is carrying out the punishment, with another standing by. He is laying on with a will. There is to be absolutely no mercy, then. The first lash cuts through skin into flesh, and tiny drops of blood swell from the cut. The minion is unhurried - he allows the pain from the first touch of the lash to swell and explode and diminish before administering the second. Land the blows too quickly, and you don’t get the maximum pain effect. As I said, no mercy.

After twenty-five blows, the minion hands the whip over. The other is left-handed. Better coverage, you see. They will keep trading it that way until the end. Before he starts, the second minion takes a moment to clean the whip on a white towel, which he then drops on the floor. That makes sure that clotted gore and tiny pieces of flesh don’t cover the braids and the sharpened edges of bone; don’t smooth the whip over and make it less damaging. The towel isn’t so white now. Even so, as the lash lands, small drops of blood and flecks of flesh fly up. By the time they are finished, these two will be covered in Angelflesh and Angelblood. That, after all, is whom they are really punishing. My feelings about that are starting to get really complicated.

And still it goes on. No wonder they started early. This will take hours. Do the math.

***

When the judgement was pronounced, I almost ran. At least Aurelius has given me a way out. If the pain becomes too severe, beyond even my capacity, I have merely to scream, and he will kill me. Put me out of my misery. Mercy, of a sort, I suppose. Except that he will kill Spike and Dru first. If any one is to kill them, it will be me. No one else has that right.

When he showed me the whip, I almost sank to my knees and begged. Bones of the saints? They might as well have woven sharpened crucifixes into the braid and soaked it in Holy Water. And the whip is steeped in magic. I have no idea what extra dimension those spells will add to the pain. But this is all the fault of the Rom, the Soul, the Slayer… Even Darla, who abandoned me when I needed her most. As I will NOT abandon Will and Dru. Even if it kills me, as well it might.

They started by crucifying me. It was all I could do not to scream. How will I hold on? How will I hold out? I do not know. As the nails passed through my wrists, I knew that I could not obey his instructions. I WILL scream, before this is ended. The only question is when.

And now I wait for the flogging to start. My head is turned to the left, my right cheek pressed against the roughness of the wood. It smells like cedar. Cedar of Lebanon, I suppose. They say that Solomon’s palace was built with cedar of Lebanon. If I survive, perhaps I’ll ask Aurelius. He will remember. Perhaps this is a beam from that palace. It wouldn’t surprise me. I wonder how much blood has soaked into it? I see Sekhmet cross the floor and lap my own blood. There will be plenty more for her to eat before this night is over. I suppose she’ll keep the floor from staining. When she has cleaned it up she raises her head to look at me. Her eyes seem to speak.

“You will be strong,” she says.

As strong as I can be. It won’t be enough, though. I guess that it is a long time since the clan had entertainment like this. Aurelius speaks to me for what will be the last time until this punishment comes to its bitter end. Whatever that is.

“When this is finished, if you survive, you will have three days to free yourself from the beam. If you do not do so, that will be taken as defiance of my will. I forbid anyone here to feed you until you are freed.”

May the powers of darkness aid me now! Unless I am fed, even if I do survive the flogging, I will be so weak that I could be constrained by bonds of spider thread, let alone these iron nails. I’ll be lucky indeed if I retain the power of movement. I almost sob with despair. Only my pride stops me. I’ve got plenty of that. But will it be enough?

The first blow falls, a line of fire trailing from my right shoulder blade to my left hip. The one doing the flogging - I can’t see who it is, but he has a very strong right arm - waits, unhurried, for the pain to blossom and swell, and to start to die back. Then he lands the second.

I start to keep count. Anything to keep my thoughts from concentrating on the agony that my back will become. Counting will do for now. I’ll have to find greater distractions later.

When he stops after twenty-five, I don’t need to see what is happening to know that he has exchanged with a left-hander. The new line of pain tells me. This is only the beginning. It is bearable. It has to be.

***

I’m watching my Sire carefully, almost as if I could lend him strength. He’ll need it. Even excluding the element of magic, and the bones of saints, have you seen a back that has been flogged without mercy by just an ordinary whip? Of course you haven’t. Civilised humans don’t do things like that anymore, although they used to. Depending on the sort of whip used - and this one is as bad as I have seen - the back soon becomes a mass of long, thin cuts. After a while, the cuts are so numerous that there is little skin left in between them. After a little longer, there is no skin at all. Each cut lands a little deeper, without the resistance that the skin provides. Muscle and fat cut more easily.

The very construction of the human arm means that blows tend to land in certain alignments, although skilled wielders of the whip can maximise those alignments, particularly if two are doing the lashing, a left-hander and a right-hander. Nevertheless, certain placements of the lash are favoured, and these wear more deeply into the flesh, cutting deeper, spraying strands of body tissues and body fluids over the one doing the lashing. And over the surrounding area. Eventually, in those places, the flesh is worn away, and the white bone glimmers through the deep, bruised red that is the rest of the back. The longer it goes on, the more bone is exposed, the more flesh is dissipated round the room. I learned this from Angelus.

You think that vampires feel less pain than humans? That the fact that our bodies are dead means that our sensations are numbed, our nerves not up to the job? Yet you accept that we have a better sense of smell than you do, that our hearing is sharper and our sight more acute. All of these senses depend upon the functioning of nerves. In all of them our senses are many times more acute than yours. Why do you think touch should be different? Oh, what about taste, you ask? You think our taste buds are dead, so the nerves of touch are, too? Nonsense. Our sensation of taste is no less acute than our sensation of sight or hearing or smell. It is simply that foods other than blood have a different taste than they used to. The taste buds are hankering for blood, and everything else is second rate. We are more focussed on the blood. Oh, there are other things that we enjoy the taste of. I like beer, for example. Angelus prefers fine wines. But we all much prefer fresh, human blood.

That leaves touch. As with all our other senses, the nerves in our bodies are substantially more sensitive than yours. We feel pleasure more. We feel pain more. It’s just that the two are not so separable for us as they are for most of you. Pleasure and pain, sensations that are simply ends of the same continuum. However you look at it, wherever we are on that continuum, the feelings are more intense, make no mistake. I learned this from experience, delivered by Angelus, often with a whip. But never like this. Never with a whip as damaging as this. We’ve passed three hundred and his body has, for the moment, stopped trying to heal itself, is conserving its energy until the punishment stops. And there is the gleam of bone from one of his ribs. We’ve still got a long way to go.

I wonder if anyone is actually keeping count, other than me. When I can tear my eyes away from my Sire to check, I see that a minion is standing by Aurelius, marking each set of twenty-five lashes off on a slate.

I go back to Sire-watching.

***

I lost count a long time ago, at five hundred and twenty three, I think. I don’t really know, it could have been anything. I have reviewed my entire life, including those dreadful years in bondage to the Soul. Anything, to take my mind away from reality. And it isn’t enough anymore. I have had an iron grip on my will, but it has been slipping for a while now. A few more blows, or a few after that, and I will scream and end this. That isn’t the only thing that is slipping, either. I feel as if I have to leave this flesh, abandon it to its pain, and become incorporeal once more. I think it’s the magic of the whip, trying to drag spirit and flesh apart. The more I weaken, the less I can resist it, that pull of final death.

On top of that, I think I am starting to have hallucinations. It feels as though someone is here, with me, holding my hand. How can that be? I can see both my hands - or at least I could, if I had the strength to turn my head. I know that there is no one here to give me comfort.

Somewhere through the mists of pain I hear Aurelius.

“One thousand. That expunges the offence against Nest.”

Oh, good. Only two thousand to go.

***

We don’t know why he left Sunnydale. They’ve all gone, all the Aurelian vamps. There are just minor characters left from other clans, or from no particular clan at all. They are easy to kill. I don’t know how much longer that will last - surely someone will come to take Angelus’ place? This is the Hellmouth, after all. Has he left for good? I don’t know. Why are their clothes gone, but everything else stored neatly in the basement? I don’t know. Is he dust? Has there been some incredible battle, and is his dust there, mixed with the others? I. Don’t. Know.

Do I care?

Of course I do. So long as he lives, and my heart tells me that he still does, I have hope that my love, my soul mate, can be restored to me. If he is dust, that can never, ever happen. I may have to kill him, I accept that. But I can’t do it yet. Not so long as Willow is trying to find a cure, another curse.

I dream about him a lot. Most nights, in fact. Sometimes it’s Angelus in the dream. Those are true nightmares. Sometimes it’s Angel, restored to me. I think those may be worse. As happy as I am in the dream, my loss is renewed when I wake up. I lose him all over again. It’s tearing me up.

I wonder if I’ll dream about him again tonight?

***

I’m losing all connection with reality. That may be a good thing, if I lose connection with this agony that is my flayed back. That hasn’t happened yet, though, and if I lose my grip, I will surely make a noise. I wish I could lose consciousness, for in unconsciousness is silence, but vampires don’t lose consciousness merely from pain. Not like humans. Not even this level of pain. And if I do, will my spirit be prised from my body, leaving only ashes behind? I’m not quite ready for that yet. Yet. I might lose consciousness from blood loss, although I doubt it, since there’s already quite a lot on the floor. Every so often, Sekhmet comes to lick it up. Whenever she does, she looks me in the eye, and her eyes speak.

“Be strong.”

I’m hallucinating. Cats can’t speak.

And then I know I’m hallucinating. All I can see now is the red mist of pain - it’s been like that for a few hundred lashes - but there’s a figure coming towards me, through the mist. The light is bright behind her and I can’t see her features, but I can see her blonde hair and her diminutive stature. Darla? Can it be Darla? My Sire, who abandoned me when I needed her most? My mate, whom the Soul killed to protect his beloved, his own intended mate? Has she come back to me from death? Or has she come to take me back with her to the abyss? She comes closer and I still can’t see her face, but she touches my lips with her finger, the international, interspecies sign for silence, and she feels warm. Has she been reborn?

Suddenly the agony intensifies - another change of ends, then - and I want to sob. She seems to know, and she stops the sob with her mouth. Her warm, living mouth, kissing the sound away. When I once more have a little control, she pulls away. I miss her, I want her back, but she puts that finger to my lips again, quieting me.

She runs her hands over my face, my hair, my neck, gently, delicately, as if renewing acquaintance with the feel of my flesh. As if her fingertips had forgotten, and needed to be reminded. She takes her time, relearning every inch of me. While she does so, whatever is happening behind me becomes disconnected, seems to lose importance, seems not to involve me at all. Only she matters, only she can make my body *feel*, can hold body and spirit together. She, and the hand that still seems to be holding mine. That hasn’t gone away. Nor has the pain, but it doesn’t seem to matter so much.

Darla and I were a force to be reckoned with, a fundamental force of nature, and she took me places I had never dreamt of. She wanted to be my eternal mate, to have the ritual and the ceremony, but I kept telling her to wait. ‘Wait until we’ve been together for five hundred years, Darla. Perhaps then. But now? Let the now be enough for now.’ Has she forgiven me for that? Is that why she’s here? She was my mate, but she never had her hand on my heart, warming my cold, dead centre. Not until now. And now it’s different, in this dream. In this here and now. Eternity suddenly doesn’t seem long enough with this one.

But something is wrong, and my pain-fuddled mind cannot grasp it. My senses are screaming, and it isn’t only from the agony. She is warm, and Darla should be cool. Her smell is different. Is she here? Is she human? Darla, who left me to the Soul, Darla who has come to…? To do what? Then her hands move over my hips and I no longer care why she is here.

Carefully, she avoids touching those areas that are open to the lash. But blood is sliding down my ribcage from my ruined flesh, and it now coats her fingertips. She lifts one hand and inspects it. Then, one by one, she sucks her fingers, cleansing them, drinking my blood. I want to moan, I don’t know whether it is in need or renewed anguish, but she understands and puts one pink fingertip to my lips again.

“Shh, my love, my heart, you must stay silent.”

Her voice is an echo of a whisper of a sigh. But there is still something about it. Darla? As I try to concentrate on what my mind is trying to understand, what my senses are trying to tell me, the agony flares again, and I feel the scream rising in my throat.

Once again, she understands, and seals her lips to mine, drinking down the scream. I taste myself on her mouth, my blood on her tongue. When she breaks the kiss, she goes back to exploring my body. Her hand caresses my chest, running over the nipple, sending a shudder through me. Her lips suckle at the other nipple, as I press my cheek into her hair. It is soft and heavy, like silk, and the fragrance of her overwhelms me. Her tongue traces a path towards my navel and plays there for a moment, as I suck in a deep, unnecessary breath. Then she stands up and kisses me again, both her hands on the back of my neck, holding me to her with all her strength.

When she finishes, her hands are covered in my blood, and once more she licks it away, her little tongue darting in and out, just like a cat. A tiny lioness. Strange, because I always thought of Darla as a fox, a sly and cunning fox. Her right hand traces a path down my abdomen. When she finds what she is looking for, it comes up to greet her. Even in the midst of all this pain, I cannot resist her. Not this time, although I have often resisted Darla before. As she caresses me with her right hand, her left comes up to my face. She strokes my cheek, my eyes, my temple, making a soft, sighing sound that has words hidden in it, if only I could make my wits work. If only I could understand. I want to hold her, to return the caresses with which she is favouring me, but I cannot seem to move my arms. There is a reason for that, I know, but I cannot seem to remember what it is. Throughout it all the pangs of Hell seem to intrude on our tryst, but she will not allow me to acknowledge the pain, and each time I succumb, she seals her lips over mine to stop the scream.

A voice says something behind me, but the sounds are deep and distorted, as if I am in a different time frame. In any case, they cannot have anything to do with me. I am here with…yes, with Darla, who once abandoned me but who has come to me now.

As she works, my senses eventually make my mind understand one thing. Her movements are untutored, naïve, but all the more wonderful for that. If Darla remembers me, why does she not remember all the skills she had? And then I cease to care, as I respond to her as I never have before in two hundred and fifty years; as I know I always will, now, for all the years left to me, and I feel the climax crashing through my pain-wracked flesh. I rear back my head to roar and, quick as thought and strong as a lion, she pulls my head to her neck so that I can drink. And I do. In silence. Her blood is different. It tastes of sunlight and life. Before, Darla always tasted of lilies and death. And it explodes into me with a power that it never had before. As I pull it from her, careless of how much I take - she is a hallucination after all - she, too climaxes, even though I have been unable to do anything to bring her to it. She is mine - my eternal mate - my spirit and my flesh cleaving to her in a way that I never have before. She recognises that, and I know that she is bonded to me just as surely. I can bring her to completion just from my bite. That has never happened before. Still, who knows what rules apply in a hallucination?

Then as I come back to myself from the power of her blood and her fingers, I pull away from the wound in her neck, which seals over instantly, and I am back in that sea of pain. It is too much. It overwhelms me, a crashing tide of red agony. Once again, she presses her mouth to mine, silencing me, and her little hands continue their journey of rediscovery.

***

Daddy dreams. Daddy dreams of her but Miss Edith told me that he would. That he had to, to be able to live. So that’s all right.

And Spike? My Spike? He’s found his Daddy again. But he’s sad because Daddy hurts, so my Spike is crying for him. But that’s all right, too. We’ll be a family again. Miss Edith told me.

***

How can he bear it? I know I can’t. How has he managed not to cry out, not even so much as a whimper? This is happening because of us. Because I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do as he said, and because I was stupid.

And he has come here, to this, only because of us. He could have left us here, abandoned us, made new childer, but he did none of those things. Look what has become of him now. My Sire. I’m not ashamed to say that. I don’t resent him, or hate him. Oh, I’m still not going to let him destroy the world, but I’ll find another way to stop him. I loved Angelus once. I worshipped the bloody ground he walked on. And I do again. I probably always did, which is why I hated him so much until now.

The sights and scents of his pain surround me, and I’m crying for him. I’m not ashamed to say that, either.

His back lies in ruins, and there is blood everywhere. Almost all of his ribs are showing a glimmer of white. His tattoo is reduced to some dark fragments of skin amongst the bloody mess. The taint of magic, whatever it is doing to him, is greasy in the air. The lioness is sitting by his side, her head against the front of his hip, out of the way of the lash. Occasionally she raises that head to look him in the eye, and I could swear she tries to speak to him. And occasionally she laps up the blood from the floor. Aurelius has done nothing to stop her, but since she does nothing to diminish his pain, I suppose she is not going against his judgement.

“Two thousand. That expunges the offence against Darla.”

Only another thousand to go, then.

What now? For a moment his head goes back, and he looks as if he will cry out. But it snaps forward again, and he is silent. He is in game face. His back is to me, but the scent is unmistakeable. Musk. He’s bloody well climaxed. In the middle of this? I look at Dru, and I can see from her secret smile that she has scented it, too. What the hell is going on here? I hope the clan are impressed, because they damn well should be.

***

I thought she would leave me, but she hasn’t. I haven’t drunk from her again, but she has stayed, overlaying my pain with her pleasure. Her blood still powers through my veins, giving me strength. And she will not let me cry out.

Still I cannot move my arms to hold her, to return her favours, and when I try, she soothes me and whispers in my ear wordless sighs of comfort. When I try to speak, she stops me, and I remember that, for some reason, I must not make a sound.

There is a fire in my back that I do not believe can ever be extinguished, a fire that contains knives, slicing and paring my flesh away. My spirit is continually being wrenched from this shell of flesh. It is all I can do to stay together. To stay me. Am I in Hell? Is this Acathla’s domain? If so, why am I one of the damned? I have given him this. I must have. That was why I found him. And why is Darla here with me, when she had already met her final death? Do all the Hells meet? Are they all the same? My mind cannot compass the thoughts, so I let them slip away.

This has gone on for hours, I’m sure. Or perhaps it has gone on for eternity. I no longer seem to know the difference.

Still her little hands exact their price in pleasure. She seems more confident now, as if she has learned things about me. Surely she already knew them? After one hundred and fifty years together, she knows my body as well as I do. Better, perhaps. I don’t know how many more times she brings me to completion, but I do know that she has cocooned me, spirit and flesh together, and kept me whole.

And then it stops. Whatever is trying to drag my spirit away from my body has stopped. The scourging of my back has stopped. The fire and knives are there yet, but they are quiescent. Perhaps I can bear it. If I could have more of her blood…

But she does not offer again. She continues to cling to me, though, as if she knows this is just a temporary respite in my ordeal. Once again, she presses her mouth to mine. I hear a voice behind me, as she kisses me until I am breathless, until I remember that I do not need to breathe.

“Three thousand. That expunges all offence.”

Then I feel the owner of the voice move behind me, and whisper in my ear.

“Remember, Angelus. Three days. You must free yourself within three days.”

His fingers run through the furrowed flesh, caressing my naked bones, kneading the exposed muscle, scraping across each raw and shuddering nerve. I cannot keep back the scream, but she deepens the kiss and drinks my howling down into herself. Nothing emerges from me but a soft sigh of breath.

As she holds the kiss, I feel his fangs sink into my neck, pulling all my remaining strength from me. Another pair of larger fangs, much larger, sinks into the other side. Darkness bleeds in to my vision, an encircling darkness that sweeps forward to claim me. My legs will no longer hold me, but still I cannot move my arms, and as my knees give way, my whole weight is thrown on to my wrists and I remember. They are nailed to a beam, and agony breaks over me again. As the agony and the darkness meet, and I no longer have the strength to scream, she pulls back from me. There is no light behind her this time, and I see her face.

It is not Darla, my Sire, my mate, who cast me off and abandoned me to torment when I needed her most. It is the Slayer, my mortal enemy, who has come into Hell for me, come to comfort me, save me, nourish me, come into this eternity of torment to fetch me back out.

Then everything is darkness.

***

I wake suddenly, and sit up in bed, my body covered in sweat. The dream starts to fade, but I want to hold on to it as long as I can, to try to understand. I was with Angel, and he was in pain. In agony. And he was not permitted to make a sound. I don’t know how I knew that, but I did.

I think he was in Hell. Why would his soul be in Hell, when all the evil was committed by Angelus? When his soul wasn’t even present? Is there no justice in the world? No mercy?

I knew why I was there. It was to ease his pain with pleasure. I could not free him, but I could do this for him. Even now, the palms of my hands can feel the touch of his skin, the soothing coolness of his flesh. I can taste him in my mouth, cinnamon and sandalwood and Angel.

The morning is warm, but even so, chilled air brushes over my sweaty skin, and I shiver, wrapping my duvet a little more closely around me. The dream seemed so *real*. Slayers can have prophetic dreams. Is that what happened? Was it a vision from a future in which Angel is somehow returned to me? Or is he truly in Hell, and needs to be rescued? Or was it just the product of my fevered imagination, my desperate longing for Angel and fear of Angelus?

I don’t know. I must talk to Giles. I haven’t told him about my dreams of Angel, although he surely wouldn’t be surprised, but this one was different. This needs to be understood. That much I know.

And there is something I need to know. To a vampire what, exactly, is a mate?

The chilled air whispers over me again, and I go to pull the duvet tighter. It is then that I see my hands. There is blood under the fingernails.

I remember something else, and reach for the hand mirror. On my neck are two small red marks. Not scars or wounds, just marks, and they are fading as I watch. Nevertheless, I know that his fangs would fit neatly onto them.

Oh God. Angel…

***

I cannot bear it. These iron chains hold me fast, and I cannot bear it. I have fought and raged, and torn my wrists open on the unforgiving metal, but I cannot get free, and I cannot bear it. I’m sure that, if he knew, Angelus would think that I have shamed him, but I don’t care. Dru looks at me with pity, as if I’m a child who does not understand, but I still don’t care. The other vamps here look at me as if I were an insect, or something else beneath their notice, *and I don’t bloody well care*.

Have you seen what they have done to him? They are determined that he should die, I can tell. He has no chance of meeting their stupid requirements. I don’t know how he is still alive.

After the flogging, when they had stripped his back to the bone in places, and spread Sire flesh and Sire blood all over this damned hall, Aurelius walked over to him to inspect their handiwork. I hope he was pleased, because if ever I get a chance, I’ll do the same to him. I promise.

He ran his fingers over the damage, tracing the curves of the bones, opening up the pathways where the whip had dug deepest, causing pain with every touch. And still my Sire refused to cry out.

Aurelius licked his fingers clean, whispered something in Angelus’ ear and then drank him! And the hell-born cat joined in, Aurelius on one side of his neck and the cat on the other, those huge fangs sunk deep in the flesh. Damndest thing I ever saw. I don’t know how much they’ve taken, between them, but Angelus might as well be done for now.

Then the clan got their twopenn'orth in. One by one, they've taken blood from him. Blood he doesn't have to give. And one by one, they've scraped their lilywhite hands, with their delicate, knowing fingers, over his back, scratching bits of him away, and then licked their fingers clean. I couldn't watch it, I just started tearing at these manacles, trying to break free, trying to go to him, to stop them, anything except just sitting and watching. But I couldn't. I simply couldn't get free, and now I'm curled here in my own pain. Pain in the heart, pain in the spirit. Angelus is slumped, his legs unable to carry him now. I think he's been unconscious for a while, but he seems to be coming round. He's hanging from those nails, struggling a little, but he has no strength. On top of everything else, he's in danger of dislocating both shoulders. Without fresh blood, he cannot heal, and he certainly can never find the strength to break free. And I cannot help him. My Sire, the one who entered this hell house to fetch us out.

I cannot bear it.

***

Buffy has told me about her dreams, and I don’t know what to think. Oh, I’m fairly sure what to think about this last dream - it’s a special Slayer dream, if ever I heard one, although I’ve not before come across one that left quite such physical signs afterwards. The marks on her neck might be psychosomatic, but the blood under her fingernails? That is different.

No, when I say I don’t know what to think, that is on a more personal level. Angel contained Angelus within himself, and through his weakness he let the demon loose. That monster has terrorised my Slayer and her friends. And he has murdered my lover, leaving her in my bed for me to find, in a demonic travesty of love. I can never forgive that murder. If I can’t forgive it, if I continue to hate him with the same white-hot loathing that I still feel, if I cannot differentiate between Angel and Angelus, as I cannot, how can I help her? How can I bring myself to help this murdering fiend, whichever spirit currently occupies his body? Whichever guise he presented to her in that dream?

Still, she is my Slayer, my responsibility, and Slayer dreams are not given for nothing. This is important, so I must try. That means that I will have to contact the Council, much as I despise them. And if they cannot help, I must find other sources, because even if I have no wish to save him, not doing so might mean killing her. Slayer dreams are usually about life and death, at the very least.

***

I don’t know where I am, but I seem to have been here forever, and the face I wear is that of the demon. I cannot find my human face.

I cannot see. Everything is just a haze of white. I cannot hear. Sound is just a buzz in the background. But I can feel too much. My body is a miasma of pain, its infernal touch settling in every crevice and curve, in every plane of muscle and joining of bone. I can feel, then, but I cannot see or hear. Except for her. She has come to me again. I know that it is a dream, that it is a product of my mind. I know who she is and I know who I am. So why should the Slayer come here, for me, unless to kill me? She would not, of course.

But I know who I used to be, and that is why I can see her. It must be because the Soul loved her so much that she is imprinted on this mind that we shared. She would have been his refuge, so she has become mine. Will I ever be free of her memory?

She has not come close enough to touch me after that first time, but she hovers, just out of reach, urging me to break free from whatever it is that holds me here. I cannot. I am powerless. My body cannot answer my demands. She has just appeared now, having left me alone for a very long time. No, not quite alone. A hand still seems to hold mine. I can’t remember when I first felt it, but I know that it has been here as long as I have been captive.

She comes forward, from that nimbus of light, and this time, she touches me again.

“You must free yourself and come to me, my love,” she whispers, almost too softly to hear, as if she were speaking from a great distance.

Her hands cradle my face, her fingers stroking my cheeks and my roughened brow. She presses herself to me, and her clothes, which I know she wore, but which I cannot now recall, are gone. She is warm and soft and fragrant. She rubs herself against me and I respond. How can I not, when my mind and my body seem programmed, seem to be slaved to her, by the love the Soul had for her? I have no blood in me to heal me, no blood to strengthen me, no blood to enable me to free myself from this torment, yet I have blood enough for this, it seems.

But I am in her hands, literally, because I have no strength to move. But she is cruel. She strokes and teases me until pleasure threatens to turn to more pain, but she stops and moves away a little. I yearn towards her, wanting and needing her touch, even as I hate and despise it. I am Angelus. I am not Angel. Yet I still yearn towards her, as she whispers again.

“Free yourself, Angel. Come to me.”

Angel. Even so, I cannot stop myself. She urges me on, like a falconer tempting a captive bird to the lure. And like the hungry bird, I respond. But I cannot free myself.

She comes forward again, her eyes sparkling with promises that would be the downfall of saints. This time she offers me her wrist. I bite.

I know that she is an hallucination. I know that I can get no strength from her, and yet something seems to pass between us. If it is not blood, the effect is the same, and I swallow down her power. But her strength remains elusive, like her, toying with me, allowing me to touch it, then slipping out of my grasp. I could weep with frustration. She moves closer still, her breasts feathering across my skin and it is then that I feel cold metal at my lips, and real blood, hot and fresh, sliding down my parched throat.

The metal is replaced by cool flesh, as another wrist is offered to me. Again, I drink. But this is no hallucination. I think that I should recognise this blood, but my mind cannot focus, except on the sheer energy of it, even more potent than Slayer’s blood, full of heat and light and *power*. I drink it down greedily, and the wrist does not flinch.

Memory returns first. I know what has been done to me. Awareness of my surroundings is next. I am still nailed to the beam. Strength suffuses me, and I am able to stand. I feel my wounds start to heal, although they will take some days to close over.

Still I drink. And she is still here, pressed to me, whispering to me of freedom.

Then the wrist is gone. I look around, but there is no one behind me, although I feel Sekhmet at her accustomed place, her head pressed against my hip. She sits next to the Slayer, but neither seems to be aware of the other.

“Try again. Try harder.”

Her hand slips down to caress me, as if promising rewards if I will but obey. Sekhmet nudges against my thigh, as if she were encouraging me. The Slayer seems to see her for the first time. The hand that has been caressing me moves to caress the cat. I cannot help it. I have wanted this woman for too long, now, and I roar in rage. My hands press against the beam, and with one sinew-bursting effort, I tear the nails from the wood, and fall to the floor. She leans down to kiss me, an all-too-brief meeting of our lips, and then she sighs softly.

“Come to me, Angel. You can come to me now.”

Angel. She touches my wrists, still pierced by the nails, my blood staining her skin. Then she is gone, and I roar again in rage, and loss, and pain. Vampires come rushing in from all directions. But she is still gone, has never indeed been here, and I know that I must exorcise this haunt, this madness, from my mind. When I return to Sunnydale, I must put the Slayer in her place, or I shall never be free of her.

I am surrounded by the clan. Aurelius strides through them and stands, silent, in front of me. I know what he expects, what they want to see. First one, then the other, I grasp the nails and pull them from my shrinking flesh.

As I crouch there, waiting to see what will happen next, I look down at my gore-streaked belly. Caught in the dried blood is one long, golden hair.

***

I have dreamed of Angel for three nights now, even though Giles has given me a potion to help me sleep, to try to prevent these dreams until he has been able to research them better. This morning, when I wake up, I have blood on my hands. Blood and cat hair. Large cat hair. I remember. I don’t understand, but I do remember. He is free now, I know that. Perhaps it means that he can come back to me, and somehow, together, we can deal with the monster that has taken his place. I pray for that.

Or perhaps he will simply be able to rest in the aether in peace. I pray for that, too. If he’s there, perhaps I will be allowed to join him, when my time comes. If there is any mercy in the world.

Giles can find no explanation for these physical signs that I have been with Angel. He is afraid. He is also angry, although he tries to hide that. He cannot forgive Jenny’s death, and I dread to think how he would handle Angel’s return. Powers that be - if ever you helped one of your slayers, help me now.

***

My wounds are healing now. I have not yet been allowed to see Spike and Dru, apart from the brief glimpse I had of them after tearing myself from that beam. His hands were dripping blood, where he had tried to pull them out of the manacles, and he was distraught. Typical Spike, he could never hide his feelings. Dru seemed content, though.

It has been seven days since then. Once I had pulled the nails from my wrists, the minions carried me off to a room where they cleaned me up, fed me, and bound up my wounds, no doubt so that Aurelius won’t get blood all over his linen. Before they washed me, though, I made sure that I kept safe that single golden hair. This I must understand, because there are no blonde vampires here. Well, other than Spike, and it certainly isn’t his.

I am still stiff and sore, but I am now ‘requested’ to join the clan. I have seen none of them since that night, not even Aurelius. There is not much time before sunrise, so I don’t think I’m going to socialise.

The minions escort me out into the hall. Spike and Dru are there, this time chained where I was. I am taken to stand in front of Aurelius, who once more is holding formal court.

“Angelus.”

“Aurelius.”

I’m sure that he wants me to call him by some title other than his name - Master, perhaps, or Grandsire. He’ll wait a long time for that. If he thinks to humiliate me again, I just need to remember Acathla, in my own Hall, waiting for me to bend him to my purpose.

“You have survived the first part of my judgement.”

First part? FIRST part? What the hell now? I say nothing, though. What could I possibly say that will make a difference?

“The offences you have committed against the clan were offences against me, with the loss of Nest and Darla. These were carried out whilst you were not in control of yourself. This is accepted, and those offences have now been purged. The clan concurs with me on this. However, you still have no status within the clan, having allied yourself with the Slayer against us, and I presume that you wish to win that status back? You wish to be other than an outcast? To be confirmed in the territories that you claim?”

He pauses, and I can only nod. I have no idea what is coming, and that is worrying. There is something I must make a stand on, though. For the sake of my sanity.

“You know that I claim the Hellmouth, and the territory surrounding it as my own. As is custom, that includes everything and everybody within that territory. Even the Slayer. If I choose to make her my toy, my possession, to exact my vengeance in the manner of my choosing, no one here may gainsay it. That must be clearly understood.”

Aurelius gives a ghost of a smile, and Sekhmet yawns widely, much more widely than a modern lion can, displaying those long daggers that she calls teeth.

“Are you challenging me, Angelus? Setting up your will against mine?”

Careful, now. I can still be torn to pieces here. It galls me, but I duck my head in submission. Well, briefly, anyway.

“That is not my intent.”

Meaning, of course, that I will if I must. You always need to show strength when dealing with other vampires, take it from me.

“However, I must be clear about the terms of this arrangement.”

I’ll be damned if I’ll say ‘punishment’. But I cannot forget my hallucinations. If I go back to Sunnydale, and kill the Slayer, as I should, I may never get her out of my head, and that, above all, I need to do. There are things I must do first, before she dies. Things that will reassert my mastery over my own body and my own mind. Over her.

Angel.

I must be able to deal with her on my own terms, and without interference from elsewhere. And I don’t want to tell the clan about those dreams. They are private.

“The Slayer is in my territory. I may kill her, or I may make her my pet. Keep her alive so that I may drink her power whenever I wish. That is my affair. Is that agreed?”

If Aurelius thinks I’ve gone too far, he might make it his affair. The blood of a Slayer will make me stronger. The blood of a Slayer taken whenever I wish will make me very much stronger. Perhaps strong enough to challenge him. But it has been done before. Just occasionally, strong vampires have been involved with weak slayers, although that is very rare, and the names of the lucky bastards who did it are a mantra to vampire-kind. Never with a slayer like this, though. He cannot deny it, and I must have it publicly acknowledged now, rather than wait for him to send assassins creeping round my home. I think Aurelius has more honour than that, but I might be wrong. Never overestimate your opponent’s sense of honour. Angelus’ Third Law.

But he simply looks amused again.

“If you can tame what I understand is a very strong Slayer indeed, then you may do so with my goodwill. I may even come to visit this phenomenon myself.” I almost bare my teeth at that thought.

“For now, I have a task for you. In the last few months certain items belonging to me have been taken from their accustomed place. You will recover them for me.”

“What do you wish to recover?”

“A book and some bones. Sekhmet will go with you, to ensure that you recover the right ones.”

What?

There are several cries of shock from the clan behind me, and then everyone starts talking at once.

***

You think that I am a monster? Well, and so I am. I am a vampire. What else is that, but a monster? Whether I am more monstrous than the average human, though, you shall judge. We have a little time in which to talk, whilst Angelus has gone to recover what is mine. The clan is shocked that I should entrust this to one whom they still fear is an apostate, and unreliable, but they are even more shocked at the fact of the loss. So am I. Someone has taken my most precious possession.

He has not gone alone. I have sent Sekhmet with him. He thinks, deep in his heart, that she will be the instrument of his execution if he tries to run from me, and that I have sent her for that reason. He is wrong. I know that he will not run. I know him better than he thinks.

Sekhmet may not help him - that was part of my judgement, although every fibre of me cried out to permit it, to send the whole gathering to help him, to go with him myself - but, other than me, she alone can assure him that the bones he recovers are the right ones. She alone will be with him. I will give Seth no reason to say that I have helped Angelus, and I have already done more than I should in giving him my blood again. He could never have freed himself otherwise, unable, as he was, to access the Slayer’s power because she’s taken some damned Watcher’s potion. I hadn’t expected that.

I have described what he must find, the bones and the book, but he does not know what they are, nor will I tell him, I think. I dare not tell him too much, for all our sakes.

And now you wish to know some of those things I cannot tell Angelus, to hear stories that will while away the time until he returns? You had better hear about it from the beginning, I suppose.

***

I do not come from Egypt, but from Europe. From the Alps. Of course, none of the places had the names then that they have now, and boundaries were very different where they existed at all. Nations and empires have come and gone since then, cities risen and fallen into dust. At the time of which I speak the natives of North America were still largely hunter-gatherers; the natives of Britain were just changing from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a more settled tradition of farming. It was a little over 5,500 years ago. I don’t know exactly, although I could work it out if ever I wished to, but not only have nations and lifestyles come and gone, but so have calendar systems and methods of dating. And I have never been one for celebrating birthdays. Well, not after the first three thousand years, that is.

I came to Egypt with my father. I came for love, and because of love.

My father loved the wife of our tribal chief, and she loved him. For years, they tried to act with honour, but it was too much for them and one day, honour was cast to the winds. It was a little like your story of the triangle of Arthur and Guinevere and Lancelot. It ended with the exile of my father. It should have ended with his death, but he was a smith, who knew the secrets of working metal. In those days, that was considered to be powerful magic, and my father no less than a magician - we were very ignorant and superstitious, you may think, but you are really no different now. Think about it. In any event, it was considered bad luck to kill him, so they killed her instead, and banished him. I loved my father, and so I went with him. I think that, were it not for me, he would have thrown his life away with hers. I was ten at the time.

We travelled for years, and he taught me the smith’s art. In those days, we could work copper and silver and gold, and we had just learned the art of working bronze. That was a very rare skill then, the secrets closely guarded. He was the best smith around, and we never lacked for anything except a permanent home. Many were offered, but none appealed enough to make us stay.

Then we arrived in Egypt. I was twenty-five, and I was as good at the smithy as my father. We liked the land and the people. They had no notion of how to work bronze and so we were valued for that, but we were also welcomed because of ourselves. We made friends. We decided to stay. I think my father also thought it was time I took a wife, and there were many desirable women here.

And that is how my story begins - with a woman. Zuleika. The fair one. She was the daughter of a wealthy merchant, and I thought that I should die for love of her. I was old for an unmarried man, in those days, but our nomadic life had meant that I’d had no opportunity to truly fall in love before. She was my first. And I opened everything that I was to her. It’s an old and common tale, nothing unusual. We had high status in the village, but so did her other suitor. He was the headman’s son. She chose him because, she said, she had no wish to live with one who reeked of the forge.

I tried to change her mind, but I expect that I was too ardent, too passionate. She was haughty and disdainful, and her betrothed came to dissuade me from seeing her again. He came with a gang of his father’s men, and when they left, I lay badly beaten, and my father lay dead. An accident, I’m sure now, but nevertheless, he was dead. I had worshipped him, the kindest and gentlest of men. There was no one in those days to enforce the law against the headman’s son. The headman was the law, and there was no more to be said.

Love for her turned to hatred and self-loathing, and I sought a means of vengeance. I knew of a shaman who said that he could call demons. I gave him a bronze axe and a bronze knife, with a carved ivory handle. They were beautiful pieces that I myself had made, and each was worth more than he would earn at his trade in a year. He accepted them with alacrity, and settled down to summon a demon. I wondered whether I would get a worthwhile trade for those items. Perhaps I have, perhaps I haven’t.

The knife still exists. I had carved the hilt on one side only, with a scene of men fighting, a pirate raid that I had seen when men from the land of Sumer came to loot and plunder along the banks of the Nile. The other side of the haft was bare, and he made me promise to carve it after I had seen the demon. I was always a man of my word, and I did. After drinking down his life and his small gift of magic, I carved an only slightly fanciful picture of what happened to me that night, my death and rebirth, and later gave it to a Pharaoh, to remember me by. It is called the Gebel el-Arak knife, and it is in the Louvre. I don’t want it back, especially since the bronze blade was damaged at some time, and the haft reworked to fix it to a flint blade. The Egyptians could never work bronze.

But that is a story for another day. I will tell you of the demon. The shaman worked his charms and spells, although I saw nothing. He swore to me that a demon had spoken to him, was prepared to give me my vengeance, and told me to go that night up into the hills. He gave me a location, and I went there. I was young and foolish, hotheaded and passionate in those days. But not bad, not an evil man. How things change.

I was also very drunk. We had no spirits then, but we did have beer.

I went high into the hills and, at the place to which the shaman had directed me, I found a burning bush. I later discovered that the place was a very small Hellmouth, now closed up once and for all. Someone else found a similar burning bush, many centuries later, and he told his people about speaking to a god there. You know about that, even today. I, on the other hand, kept silent about my encounter.

The shaman had given me no instructions so I sat by the bush, which gave off a great deal of light and a little warmth in the chill night air.

“Do you think you will come to any good here?” said a voice behind me. When I looked, I saw a man, handsome and well dressed, but still a man. I was wrong.

“What I do here is my business, stranger.”

“Oh, I think it mine as well. After all, you summoned me here. What do you want from me?”

So, the shaman was more than an old trickster, after all.

I was still nursing my hatred and my burning need for vengeance. I told the demon that I wanted to have my revenge on the woman who had spurned me, and on her lover. And I wanted revenge on all those who had been involved in the murder of my father. It was a petty motive for summoning a demon, and it did not take me long to learn that, but at the time it was all I wanted in the world.

He asked me what he would get out of the bargain. I was lost for an answer - I had not thought beyond my own grief - so I asked him what he wanted. He looked at me in a way I had never been looked at before. I believe he searched my soul. Whatever he saw seemed to satisfy him.

“I want a body for a demon.”

I was shocked and afraid.

“You want to kill me and take my body?”

“No. This is a female demon. She would be better in a woman’s body. And I want you to look after her until I can come for her myself.”

I was intrigued, then, and I knew that there was more to this request, so, in my drunken mood, I insisted that he tell me why he wanted this. I thought that he would not answer me, but eventually he did.

“There are many different types of demon. In some ways, the Underworld is not so very different to your world. Each demon has its own aspirations and desires, its own passions. The demon I need shelter for is the demon I love. She is young, newly emerged, and she has attracted many others. But she loves me, and we wish to be together.

“Another demon, much more powerful than I, has declared that she will be his. Not his wife or his lover, but his possession, his concubine and his slave, if that gives you a better understanding. I want to get her out of the Underworld, and away from Seth. Being young, she does not yet know how to take on flesh in this dimension, and he would find her in a heartbeat if she were simply a spirit. I need a body in which she can reside, to mask her, until he forgets about her. That may take a century or two, but he will. His obsessions come and go, and few have lasted more than a millennium.”

These were not timescales in which I was accustomed to think - to live to the age of fifty was an achievement in those days. But when you are drunk, everything becomes possible.

He looked around, taking in the velvet sky, thickly sprinkled with stars in a way that you never see in your modern world, at the stark beauty of the hills around us, the soft sheen of the Nile below.

“I love this dimension - I always have. Eventually, perhaps Sekhmet and I can live here, in peace. The demon dimensions are not somewhere you would want to spend much time, I can assure you.”

And so we agreed to a bargain. He would give me the means of delivering my vengeance, and we would find a body that his lover could inhabit. I would look after her for so long as necessary, so I too would need an extended lifespan.

He pondered how to do this for a while, and then he said a few words over the burning bush. The fire was instantly transformed into an egg shape of blue light. There was a crackle of power, and a body fell to the ground. It was a lion, but of a kind that I had never seen before. It had fangs that were about a span in length, for a start, and a short tail, just a little longer than that of a lynx. It was huge. It was also, fortunately, unconscious.

I walked over to the beast and examined it in wonder.

“I have never seen anything like this!”

“No. Most of them died out five or six thousand years ago. A very few survive but not, I think, for long. When everything else has been done, she will be the instrument of your vengeance. She will be possessed by a minor demon that will control her behaviour. It will be enslaved to you. She will do whatever you wish.”

He knelt down by the head of the cat and ran his finger down one long fang. He looked at me, and could see my interest in this strange and wondrous beast.

“They use these fangs to kill their prey. The animals they used to hunt were huge, much larger than any you have encountered, and lived in very cold conditions. Those beasts had thick skins and enormous layers of fat, and it was hard for a predator such as this to reach vital organs, to kill them. So they evolved these fangs. They are too brittle to use for killing prey in the normal way that such cats do - they would break on those large bones. They use them to bite into the neck and drink the blood, until the hunted becomes too weak to stand any longer. Then they can finish the animal off at their leisure. They will eat the meat, but the blood gives them everything they need. Those big animals are gone now, and these hunters cannot prosper without them. That is why there are fewer of them every year. There is no more than a handful now, and those will soon be gone. This female will not be missed.

“She will hunt humans in the same way, drinking their blood. She will do your bidding, kill whom you wish to kill. First, though, I will put my own Sekhmet into this body, for safekeeping until you find a suitable human female. Then you will call me and I will do the exchange. Sekhmet will be in the woman, and the demon in the lioness, and you may wipe out the whole of humanity, if you wish.”

That was a little beyond my ambitions, but I thought of those who had driven my father and I from our home, murdered the woman he came to love after my own mother had died, and I decided that perhaps we could deal with them too. I was very drunk, remember. And very young, full of fire and passion.

“Now, slit the cat’s throat while she is still unconscious,” he instructed.

I didn’t understand, so he explained.

“We must take the cat to the point of death, so that the soul will flee the body. To have two spirits in one body is a recipe for disaster. It would drive both mad.”

I could see that, and he turned out to be right, of course, so I prepared to slit her throat, and spill her blood. As I did so, the demon called for his lover. All I ever saw of her was a shimmer in the air, like a heat haze, as we waited for the cat to fade from life.

It was then that absolute disaster struck. There was a rumble in the earth, and a smell of power in the air, not unlike the smell of the smithy. Seth had found us.

***

I have been researching in Giles’ books. I had to steal the one I wanted to read - I don’t want to ask him this question. I don’t want him to know that it even is a question. Even more confusing, I don’t know why I need to know, except that it is something to do with the dreams I have had of Angel. Those dreams are gone now, although a shadow of them seems to remain. It’s a dark shadow, and I am afraid of it.

I want to know about mates. And now I do.

A vampire usually only has one mate at a time - any more is considered ‘bad form’. That sounds like an English phrase, but I guess I know what it means. The mate is usually of the opposite sex, and seems to be much the same as a long-term lover or partner in marriage. And sometimes, that partner can be a human. Some vampires seem to be able to fall in love with humans. There is no ceremony, no ritual for this mating - the parties just think of themselves as mates, as lovers, and the relationship usually ends when one tires of it and sends the other packing. Not so different to us, then.

But there is a different type of mate. An eternal mate. A relationship that is expected to live on beyond death - beyond a vampire’s final death, that is. When they are dust, they believe that their spirits will stay together. Soul mates, if ever vampires had souls. This is a bonding that is recognised by ritual and ceremony, a higher form of marriage, if you like, and is rare indeed. It is severed only by death, and then only until the death of the survivor. There is no record of this ever being offered to a human.

Would Angel have ever offered this to me? Does he think of me this way? Is that why I was called to him? Is he dead? Is he still among the living? What am I to do?

Will I dream of him tonight? I want to, but I’m afraid of what the dream might mean.

***

I sit in the shadows, watching. I am watching Angelus, as he carries out the task Aurelius has given him. We have been to Jerusalem, where those things we seek were first taken. But being Egyptian in character, in a gesture of goodwill, they have been loaned to Egypt for further research. So we are in the Cairo Museum.

An employee who was working late in one of the back rooms is wishing that he had gone home on time, but it’s too late now. Angelus has the man tied to a chair, and has assembled a small tray of implements, which he is showing to his terrified victim. There are not many implements, but there are enough. I know what he can do with them. I’ve been inside his head. I didn’t need to go very deeply for what I had to do, but the things I saw, even so… You really don’t want to know. Not some of them, any way.

I’ve been inside her head, too. That was very interesting. Bringing them together? That was easy, like two halves of a magnet. One thing I can tell you - keeping them apart, that will be the trick. I pity whoever tries. With the two of them together, the future will be very interesting indeed, as Aurelius well knows.

What? Because I’m a cat, you think I’m nothing else? Think again, youngster.

He’s picked up a sliver of flint - it looks like a piece of old arrowhead. I remember those. They hurt. It’s very sharp, sharper than any steel edge, and the man is naked. The flint can do a lot of damage. Angelus seems to deliberate, just trying the edge of the flint against certain parts of the anatomy, leaving a barely visible red line at each place, stinging no more than a paper cut would, just a harbinger of things to come. The man has gone very pale indeed. I think he might cry.

Angelus doesn’t really want to have to cut. Oh, he will, if he has to, and in other circumstances would have a fine night’s entertainment from it. But he’s in a hurry to find what he’s been sent for, and he knows that his best weapon for getting speedy information is fear - the fear of what *might* happen, of how the pain *might* feel. If this man is brave enough to allow Angelus to start cutting, he might hold out for some time. We don’t want that.

So, he allows the man to imagine. He helps that along by just touching the flint to the most sensitive parts. He has a rag in the other hand, in case the man starts screaming. The man stinks of fear, but what is he most afraid of - Angelus, or the consequences of giving up the information? I know which one he *should* be, but he doesn’t know who he is dealing with.

Angelus seems to come to the same conclusion. Quick as thought, and without the least warning, he slashes the little blade across the man’s eyeball, and then muffles the inevitable scream with the rag in his fist.

Now he’s promising that the man will keep his other eye if he tells what he knows. I think he’s made his point.

The book and the bones were here, as we were told in Jerusalem. But at the moment they are gone. One of the senior officials has them at his house. He often takes antiquities home for a while. Does he now? The man gives us the address and tells us about his boss’s habits.

When Angelus has everything he needs, he buries his fangs in the man’s throat. Surprisingly, he shares his kill with me. His promise to the man? Well, he only promised that he would keep the other eye. He has. He was never going to come out of this with his life.

My companion tidies up perfunctorily, and then shoulders the corpse. We head off, first for a dumping ground, and then to this new address.

***

Seth was not pleased. He was powerful, even then. He has learned more since. So have I, but not enough to go up against him. On this night, he was a tall, dark, indistinct figure, cloaked in black. He muttered a few words, spinning some spell that prevented any of us from moving, even the two demons. He moved to stand in front of the corporeal demon.

“You think to steal my toy away from me?” he raged. “You think that I would allow that to pass, that I would not hunt you down and punish you?”

My demon companion was struggling to move, and struggling to speak, but we were like flies in amber. It was impossible. Seth was silent for a moment or two, but when he spoke again, he seemed to have composed himself a little.

“Well, what shall I do with you all?” he mused, his voice cold and sharp.

“Acathla.”

He addressed my companion, whose name I had not known until now.

“You’ve got big ambitions, if you think you can set your will against mine. Let’s give you an appetite to match those ambitions. I am well aware that you love this dimension, that it attracts you as ours do not. That will be your punishment. You will have one function in life, and one function only. You already have the power to transport things,” and he looked meaningfully at the cat. “You will become a gateway to Hell. This human’s bloodline will be the trigger that opens you, and believe me, I shall make sure that his bloodline carries on down the ages, for as long as it suits me. Everything that passes through you will find an eternity of pain. Allow me to demonstrate.”

He did so. Behind the barrier of whatever spell he had cast, I saw my companion change shape to become some grey-skinned ugly demon. Seth muttered a few words and Acathla’s mouth opened, growing bigger and bigger. Within that mouth was a vortex that I later found out to be a portal. Acathla’s expression was one of stark horror. Seth waved a hand negligently and a small antelope was dragged from its nearby hiding place to stand shivering in front of that swirl of energy. Another gesture and the poor beast disappeared into the vortex. It disappeared from sight, but not from earshot. I can hear its screams even now. More words from Seth and Acathla’s mouth closed.

“You can see where the creature is now, can’t you?”

Acathla was permitted to nod in silent misery.

“Nice place. You’ll be capable of sucking everything on this planet down there, including the planet itself. Once started, you won’t be able to stop. When I’m done here, I’m going to finish you off, turn you to an eternal stone statue. You will remain sentient, of course - it would be no punishment, otherwise. You’ll enjoy that, won’t you? And your human here won’t be able to do a thing about it. If he comes after you, a little graze, a tiny cut - which I will make sure he gets from you - just one drop of blood, and you’ll be off sucking everything to Hell. Including your precious Sekhmet.”

He paused, as if listening to something.

“Oh, very well - his bloodline will be the key to closing you, too - I suppose that keys must work both ways.

“That’s one down.”

I could see tears running down Acathla’s face. I wondered if he could see those running down mine.

Seth stopped to think for a moment again, then walked over to the recumbent lioness, still unconscious, her lifeblood now seeping into the sand. He knelt and waited. I saw the lioness’ mouth gape, reaching for breath, then she shuddered in the throes of death. Seth slashed his wrist open on one of her fangs and allowed a little blood to drip onto her tongue. The slash across her throat healed over, in the blink of an eye. He said a few words, and the airy shimmer that was Sekhmet disappeared.

“That’s two down. I don’t want her anymore if she’s so much trouble.”

Like a little boy throwing his teddy out of the cot.

“A human. Hmmm. What to do? We have a gateway to Hell, and we have a demon cat. Why not a demon human, as well? A toy fir me to play with, to replace the one I’ve just given up?”

I was trembling in every part of my body, and I tried to beg for my life. He knew it, even though I could not speak.

“Don’t want to go bravely to your fate? Well, I can be merciful. You were a small part of this conspiracy, after all. I will allow you to share your fate - well, you’ll be able to do that anyway. You’ll know how - it will be in your blood. But I’ve got a lot of things coming up, and I don’t need another toy just now. So, someone else can be my plaything instead of you, someone that I can save for the future. Your child, your grandchild, I don’t mind. You just give me a number, and I shall choose someone from that generation. Anything up to, oh, let’s say four.

“CHOOSE, or I shall choose for you, and keep you as well.”

I chose.

A saying has come down to you from that choice. More than a saying, a part of your Decalogue, the Ten Commandments:

‘…for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.’

It isn’t entirely accurately worded, you don’t understand it, and I really don’t know how it found its way into that particular list of do’s and don’ts, but do you truly think that a merciful god would visit such a thing on innocent children? Of course not. Only a demon such as Seth.

I chose someone from the fourth generation, as far away in time as Seth would permit. When I first saw Angelus, I heard Seth whisper in my head.

“That one is my chosen one.”

On that day, which still lay far in my future, I could have wept from shame and guilt at the cowardice that had allowed such a choice to happen, but it was all much too late by then. My sins lay on Angelus’ head. I had sold him into slavery as the plaything of a wicked, powerful, vengeful fiend. A toy, to be tormented; an unwitting chess piece in the games that the gods seem to play with us. We all take part in the game, but he was destined for a leading role. Destined for Seth’s special attentions. The weight of a godling’s attention is a terrible thing. Mea culpa.

But back on that first day, Seth said a few more words, and the cat rose to her feet, unsteady, disoriented. She padded over to me and looked uncertain. Then her demeanour changed. Snarling, she raised herself onto her hind legs, her front paws on my shoulder, and sank her fangs into my neck. She drank me down until I could not stand of my own volition. All that kept me upright was the stay spell. As my heart slowed, unable to sustain itself, and my vision grew cloudy, Seth stalked over, and slashed the cat’s chest with his claw. He pulled her head off my neck, and then pressed my lips to her wound. The blood welled up, choking me as it slid down my throat, hot and sweet, with a tang of black bitterness threaded through it, a coiling venom in my belly.

I remembered no more until I woke next day. The cat and I were in a cave. She was curled by my side. I was changed. I was a vampire, the first of my line. Oh, I’m not the first vampire to be made from scratch, so to speak, and I’m sure I won’t be the last. Each different line, each clan, has its own genesis. This just happened to be mine. Now you know why we share a lot with cats.

***

We can’t get in to the address the man gave us. You thought I would be able to? Why would that be? I’m a vampire, just as much as Angelus is. I was born a mortal vampire, by your broadest definitions, a living creature that feeds on blood, and I was made into an immortal feline vampire from your worst nightmares. I’m still a vampire. The barrier applies to me, too.

So, we are watching. Together.

Angelus is almost as good a hunter as I am, and I don’t say that about many creatures. He’s looking for something specific. I’ll know it when he sees it. Oh, I can’t read his thoughts. Just his feelings. That’s good enough. Most cats can do that - they don’t need a demon inside them. Angelus is watching people entering and leaving the address, looking for someone weak. Ah! He thinks he’s got one.

A young man, a servant by the look of him, but he has a smell of decadence about him. I think he earns a living by a lot more activities than servanting. Angelus looks pleased. Still, it’s almost sunrise, so we need somewhere safe for the day.

We’ve found an outbuilding, a wood store. Not very comfortable, but it will do, especially since it overlooks what seems to be the servants’ entrance. We’ll take turns watching for this young man to finish his day’s work. Unless we see someone better, of course.

It’s been a long day, but the sun has just dropped below the level of the surrounding buildings. That’s enough. And here comes our prey. Twelve hour shifts, then. We follow him as he goes home, then re-emerges a couple of hours later. We watch as he meets other men in a variety of coffee houses. They give him money, he gives them packages, from a leather satchel that he carries. They don’t smell of drugs. Antiquities then? Is he selling them for his employer, or on his own account? I don’t much care, so long as they don’t smell of those things that we have been sent to find. The book. Her. Palestrina. They don’t. I would know.

And he sells something else. Himself.

He’s coming from his last customer’s apartment, the musk of sex still strong around him. I’m in the shadow of a doorway, and Angelus has slithered out to meet him. I’m sure that boy is part snake - Angelus, that is, not our quarry. I suppose you can imagine what is happening, you don’t really need me to describe it. The way Angelus feathers a touch onto the young man’s cheek, the smile he gives him, the whispered endearments. The way he allows his body to brush briefly against the other. The level of pheromone he’s putting out. The wad of cash that he allows this venal young man to glimpse. Well, you didn’t think we weren’t going to go through the pockets before we dumped the body from the Museum, did you? And we’ve made another couple of kills since then.

Ah. The assignation is made. Angelus will meet the young man as he leaves his employer’s house tomorrow night. We’ll both be there. For now, we just need to find somewhere to spend the rest of the night and tomorrow.

I might have known. Angelus has used some of the cash for a ground floor hotel room. He always did like his comforts. Truth be told, so do I. He lets me in through the window. We are both well rested when it is time to keep his tryst with the servant.

The sun has gone down, and Angelus is standing outside the servants’ door. The lad didn’t expect him to come here - it was arranged that they would meet out of sight of the house. He’s calling the boy’s name. Ahmed. It means ‘most highly adored’. Angelus has certainly made him feel that.

Ahmed comes bundling out of the door, trying to shush Angelus, who simply presses him against the wall of the house and starts to whisper endearments again, soothing the boy, calming him, stroking him, telling him that all will be well. They are all smiles and breathy glances. And pheromones. The boy is falling in love. Angelus makes it look so easy.

He’s asking whether the boy can come with him now. Ahmed says not yet, a few minutes, he must see whether his employer has any commissions for him. I almost growl, but that would give away my position. The antiquities; it can only be those. Palestrina, we have come for you.

I have missed some of the conversation, but I gather that Angelus is unwilling to wait outside, where anyone can see him. The boy is telling him to stay quiet, to come into the servants’ door, and wait for him. At last.

They go in, and I reach the door in one bound. The invitation was only for Angelus, though. He sees it, has expected it, has changed to his true face.

“Invite the cat in.”

Ahmed is rigid with fear, of me, of the demon he thought would be a lover. Angelus has hold of him though, just in case.

“Invite Sekhmet in.”

The boy would fall to his knees, if it were not for the grip that Angelus has on his arms.

“Sekhmet…” he moans. “And are you…Ptah?”

“No, but I have come to do his bidding. Now, invite her in!”

The boy begins to babble, pleading for his life. Angelus cuts across his incoherence.

“I won’t ask again. Invite her in, and you will survive this night. You have my word.”

The boy nods gratefully, and invites me in. Angelus goes for his throat, but as the boy’s heart slows, he opens a vein in his wrist and allows his victim to drink. Well, he gave the boy his word that he would survive. He just didn’t say how. He looks at me as the corpse falls to the ground, and I nod. Aurelius will send someone to pick up this latest fledgling. The boy can be grateful that at least Angelus has made him a fledgling, not a minion. It gives him a better start.

The man we are looking for is in an upstairs room. We have no difficulty finding it. He is with two other men, both craftsmen. Copyists. They are copying antiquities. The room is full of antiquities.

They don’t at first hear us enter until Angelus, lounging against the doorjamb, his arms casually folded, coughs discreetly. He does have style. He also has his human face on.

The two craftsmen look panicky, but the other has more courage. He gets up and comes towards us.

“Who are you? Who let you in? What do you want?”

“Let’s say that I am here as an agent for someone who has been robbed.”

The two craftsmen rise from their seats hurriedly and try to sidle around us, try to leave the room. I growl a little, and they stop. They back away, looking for the slender protection of their master.

“What has robbery to do with us? Everything here has been legitimately found or purchased!”

I bet.

“You have a papyrus book, and you have some first century AD bones, found with the book. They belong to my principal. I will have them back. Now!”

“No! They were properly excavated! No one has a claim on those.”

Angelus sighs, and nods to me. I stalk into the room. I find the book first, unrolled. Not all books come as rectangular objects. This one is a scroll. A very thick, heavy scroll, perfectly preserved. It is on the table at which one of the craftsmen were working. Copying it. Angelus sees.

“So, you don’t fake things at all here? Which one would you have returned to the museum, I wonder?”

Then I find her scent. It is very, very faint, and if I were only a cat, I could not have caught it. It is, after all, almost two thousand years old. Palestrina.

Her bones are in a cardboard box on the table. I stand on my hind legs, my paws on the table, for a better look. It is then that I see what has been done. Three of the ribs are missing and half of a leg bone has been newly sawn off. That, too, is missing. I whine. Angelus catches the note of distress. He sees me snuffling at the desecrated leg bone.

“What has happened to the bones?” he demands. I would not wish to be on the receiving end of that voice.

“Tell me, or I will find something here to make you tell me. You won’t enjoy it, I promise, although I shall do my best to. I’ve been a bit short of entertainment lately.”

The man starts to bluster. Angelus calmly crosses the floor and snaps the necks of both craftsmen. They are of no use to us. He continues forward until he is almost touching this thief.

“Tell me.”

Shocked silence.

“Of course, some people would rather have bone-setting surgery without anaesthetic than tell things their master wishes them not to tell. This can be arranged.”

Casually, he reaches down and picks up the man’s hand. There is a sharp snapping noise and the middle finger is suddenly sticking out at an angle, sharp daggers of bone piercing through skin. Angelus’ hand is over the man’s mouth before he can cry out. Gently, he licks the man’s ear. That may be the most shocking thing of all for this victim. I can see the fight leave him. His voice is hoarse with pain.

“They are only bones. Some people will pay well for pieces of bone of a certain sort, a certain age. They specify what they need. It is only bone.”

“Sorcerers?” The word is a hissed sibilant. Did I tell you Angelus seems to be part snake? He’s not, of course, but he’s doing a good impression.

The man nods, dumbly. I daren’t think how Aurelius will take this, but I can feel the growl rumbling out of my belly. Only the patience of a predator, a relict of my existence as a cat, stops me from tearing out his entrails there and then.

“Where are the pieces?”

He shakes his head. Another finger goes. More bloody bone daggers. The rag is rammed into his mouth once more, until his sobs subside.

“Ahmed,” he gasps. “Ahmed is the one who sells them. He knows.”

I can barely restrain myself. Angelus nods to me, and this time it is I who goes for the throat. Angelus stops me before it is too late, though, before the man is quite dead, and he gives just a few drops of blood to him. Unlike Ahmed, he will become a minion. Quite a bright one, to be sure. Bright enough to understand whatever eternal punishment Aurelius decides would be apt. Perhaps he’ll let me tear this one to pieces on a nightly basis. He’ll soon learn what are only bones.

Angelus carefully straightens the man’s fingers - we don’t want a crippled minion before we have a chance to play with him properly - then hunts round for a bag. He soon finds the leather one that Ahmed uses. It isn’t very large, but Palestrina was not a tall woman, and her bones will just fit, even the long ones. He examines the curtains, which are a blood-red velvet, and almost new. He quickly has a sizeable piece ripped off, and wraps the remaining bones in it. He places the cloth-wrapped bundle, the book, and the almost completed copy into the bag and quickly slips the strap over his head and shoulder. He also slips in some of the more desirable antiquities. Finders keepers - isn’t that what archaeologists believe? I recognise one of the things that he takes, and I whine as he picks it up. That does not escape his notice.

Working on the premise that members of staff are probably forbidden from entering this room, he fetches Ahmed’s body up here. Aurelius’ minions will deal with all four, now that there is no barrier to stop them entering.

Angelus rifles all four sets of pockets, gathering quite a wad of cash. As he does so, he gives me one of those smiles.

“The proceeds of immoral earnings, of one sort or another. Now it’s just the proceeds of common theft. Let’s go.”

That’s alright, then. We head back home with our sad little bundle.

***

You wish to know more about those early years, and about the task I have set Angelus? Very well.

***

When it was safe, Sekhmet and I emerged from the cave. Acathla stood where we had last seen him. I have never before heard a cat howl with grief, but Sekhmet did so, her cries carrying far into the desert night. I, of course, was not the same person as I had been the day before, but even so, I felt sorry that this demon who had tried to help me, even whilst trying to solve his own dilemma, had suffered this fate.

But we were alive, and still on the face of the earth. I had no wish to be sucked into Hell, so we had to hide Acathla. It took most of the night, but we dug down into the sand until he toppled over into a deep pit. I took very great care not to touch him in any way. We covered him and left him. Seth had said that he would be sentient, but what else could we do?

The next night, we returned to the village and so our reign of terror started. Sekhmet, driven by the darkness of Seth’s blood, and I, a young and hungry demon, slaughtered our way across Egypt, but always we returned to that village. They were never free of us for long. We took a little time out to visit my birthplace in the Alps, but Egypt was our home. Those first villagers knew who I had been, and called me Ptah. The Hammer. But they didn’t last long. After a couple of generations, they forgot who I had been and only knew what I had become. Ptah. I was content with that name. My birth name is now lost in the mists of time, and only I remember it. They made me a god, and they made Sekhmet a goddess, one to be placated. They believed Sekhmet to be my consort. They would never have understood.

The rest of Egypt called me Sokar, god of the dead, a god to be feared. They got that much right. When Memphis was built close by our village, around 3,100BC as you count time now, the city was in need of a god and goddess, and who better to fill the bill? So, as labourers and other workers moved to this brand new, pristine city of Memphis, coming from the surrounding villages, they took the names of Ptah and Sekhmet with them, and we took the city. Our depredations were enormous, but at the height of its power, Memphis was the largest city in the world. We had plenty of prey.

But, we had had four hundred years of slaughter, and worse. We were…maturing…even if only a little. Gradually, we killed more to eat than we did for fun, and we started to build a family. Minions, childer, never many at a time. When I had minions that I could trust, I sent them out to find more like Sekhmet. No creature should be alone. But we had left it too late. All those of her kind were gone. We never found anything, not even bodies.

Our home remained in Egypt. Memphis was always my favourite, though it is gone now. Its remains are not so far from Cairo, and that is the nearest I can get. We stayed there through the hardest times, including the Fall of the Old Kingdom, the Egyptian Dark Ages. That happened when I was about 1300 years old, and lasted for over two centuries. It was climate change, and it turned Egypt to dust. Humans began to eat their children. You truly are not so different to us, as ready to be monsters as we. The threshold is a little different, that is all.

We looked for ways of returning Acathla to Sekhmet, of defying Seth, if you will, and we sought out any magic user we could find. Witches, sorcerers, shamans. Anybody. You think of sorcerers, if you think of them at all, as the embodiment of evil and greed, using their magical powers for immense personal gain or for the benefit of the dark powers. It wasn’t always so. Sorcerers have been feared, but they have also been respected. It was the Christian religion that condemned them all, called them charlatans, pointed out that most of the things they did were simply works of science and technology beyond their time. Just as the work of the smith used to be considered magical. But because you know how it’s done, it doesn’t mean it isn’t magic.

So, we continued to hunt for someone who could help us. We would visit Acathla’s grave every year, and Sekhmet would give tongue to her grief. She still loved him down all the march of the years. I do believe they are truly soul mates. It was on one of those visits, at the time of the Crusades, that we discovered some foolish men in the process of activating him. We stopped it, but that, again, is a story for another day.

I heard of one sorcerer in Samaria. This was about two thousand years ago, and by then I was different again. Still a vampire, of course, but different. So was Sekhmet.

We went to see the one in Samaria. Simon, he was called. Simon Magus. The one that the Apostle Philip also met whilst visiting Samaria. He was well respected and had done many good deeds. But a vampire has to be careful in approaching a sorcerer. They know what we are, and often have the power to deal with us. So we are circumspect. Even an old and powerful one such as I.

I went bearing a gift. It was a beautifully carved ivory box, filled with frankincense. This was a princely gift - at least, the prince I took it from seemed to think so - and frankincense is valued by sorcerers for its magical properties.

The approach to Simon’s house was unusual for those times and that place. Rather than entering a walled courtyard, the approach was through a garden, full of lavender, jasmine and thyme, fennel and rosemary, and other scented herbs. And roses. The deep red rose that grows in my courtyard even now came from there, a stolen memory of her. The garden was a delight. The servant at the door invited me to enter, saying that his master was away at the moment, but I was welcome to wait for his return. The presence of a demon in a sorcerer’s home can be misconstrued, with unfortunate results. I said that I would wait outside. I was shown to an arbour of clipped cypress run through with climbing roses, sheltering a couple of comfortable seats filled with richly embroidered cushions. Refreshments were fetched for me, wine, pine kernels, stuffed dates, apricots, everything of the finest.

Then she came. She was richly dressed, her hair covered by a shawl woven in deep red and black, and the shawl was wrapped around the lower half of her face. It was her eyes that I first saw. Black as my downfall, warm as the Egyptian night, sparkling with my sins. I should have loved her had I never seen more than her eyes. I was hers from that very moment, and nothing has ever changed. Palestrina. My soul mate.

She sat beside me and unwound the shawl. I, a three thousand five hundred year old demon, was helpless in her thrall. Her skin was golden, her lips full and generous, red as blood, her hair a glory of dark chestnut, framing the most beautiful face I had ever seen. She was his daughter. She was fourteen.

In that society, she would normally have already been married, or at the very least betrothed. I learned later that she was not because she, too, had the potential to become a powerful sorcerer, and would stay with her father to learn from him. Marriage could wait. The garden was hers. It said much about her.

She asked me what I wanted from her father. Did I mention being circumspect? I told her everything. More, even, than I have told you today. I have never lied to her, and I couldn’t, even then.

She asked to meet Sekhmet, and I whistled her in from where she waited in the outer darkness. As she padded forward, I saw the surprise on Palestrina’s face - and the delight. They loved each other on sight. As I watched them, Palestrina caressing and soothing and smiling, Sekhmet rubbing and purring, I realised that the only conceivable outcome was that I should have two lionesses in my life. Sekhmet, the demon, my Sire, my companion and friend. And Palestrina, sorcerer and daughter of a sorcerer, as lithe and tawny and powerful as a lioness from the Judean desert, my love, my eternal mate. Mine.

I was playing with fire, and we could all be burnt.

I stayed in Samaria - well, in a cave just outside the city - but it was Palestrina who spoke to her father about Acathla. He was not open to dealing with demons, she thought, and in the light of later events, she was right. She did tell him that a demon had brought the gift of frankincense, a demon who did not wish the world to be destroyed, who had told her of Acathla. Who asked for help in returning Acathla to his own form, and promised a gift of equal value in the event of success. The real gift, of course, would be the continued safety of the earth.

Simon was disturbed that she had seen a demon alone, and even though he was a learned and therefore enlightened man, he was still, at heart, a man of his time, as are we all. He beat her for taking the risk. When I found out, I raged at his temerity in striking my intended, but I wasn’t entirely certain that I blamed him.

Palestrina and I met almost every night. She would come to see me, bringing her basket on the pretence of an early morning herb-gathering expedition, or I would slip into the city at night, whenever she would be able to get away.

I wanted to spirit her away, back to Egypt, to be my consort. Barely a moment has gone by since then that I have not bitterly regretted that I did not steal away with her right at the start. But she wanted to stay for a while longer, to learn more from her father. To be with him in his old age. And I could not deny her. So I stayed. She did not want me feeding on the population of the city, so I fed on desert animals - wild asses, antelope, goats, sheep. Even those, I left alive, close to water, so that they would recover. Sekhmet did likewise. We were both under Palestrina’s sway.

Simon did indeed try to find a way to restore Acathla, but to no avail. He kept trying, though, to the day of his death. Better a live demon, he believed, than a petrified hellgate. He was absolutely right in that, at least.

Sometimes, I had to return to Egypt, to see to my affairs, but I spent most of my time in Samaria. I could not bear to be apart from her for long, and she was a shadow of herself without me. It was a year before we made love, and I do not know how I held out for so long. But she was young, and I would have staked myself rather than hurt her. I never fed from her, though. Not until the end. Oh, I wanted to taste her, to feel her life and her youthful power coiling through my veins, but I was afraid. Afraid that her father would somehow know, and would kill her for it. And so I kept my fangs to myself.

We continued like this for seven years, until she was twenty-one. I would spend an eternity in Hell for another seven such as those. She was loving and daring and feisty, and her power was growing rapidly. She had learned much from her father about controlling the magic, and it seemed clear to me that she would eventually outstrip him. I wondered how he would feel about that. Then the Christian Apostle Philip came to Samaria, preaching their gospel, and Palestrina heard him. Forgiveness for all, if they will but repent their sins. May all the gods bless her greathearted innocence. She thought that might include me.

At her behest, her father approached Philip, and became one of his followers, even consenting to be baptised. He had heard of the miracles wrought by Christ, and he saw some of the acts of the apostles. He thought to learn some of this new magic for himself.

She had only to look at me, and I did the same. I would have faced Seth and his pack of Hellhounds together, to please her. But Philip would have nothing to do with me, and sent me away. I refrained from killing him and his followers for her sake. It might have been better if I had. She was disappointed but not dismayed. She would speak to Philip herself on my behalf. But it was already too late. Events had been set in motion.

Simon told his daughter that the time had come for her to wed. The young man had been chosen. She was old now, to be unwed, but he had found a sorcerer in Syria, in Damascus. His eighteen-year-old son would be Palestrina’s husband. Magic would be kept in the family. The boy and his family were on their way to Samaria. The betrothal ceremony would be in three days, in the cool of the evening.

Palestrina was distraught, but she still had faith. Faith in her father, faith in her new god, faith that life held justice and mercy and hope. Faith in happy endings. If only she had placed all her faith in me. Instead, she told her father that she loved another, and wished to marry him. She begged her father to meet her beloved first, before deciding whom she should wed.

Simon was outraged that she should have dared to meet a man behind his back. He locked her in her room and set a guard outside her door. That did not prevent her from coming to me - she simply slipped over her balcony and out through the garden. She had been doing it for years.

I asked her to come away with me that night, but she refused. She still wanted to avoid a breach with her father. She wanted him to accept me. I would visit him the next night and try to win his consent. It was a tiny hope, but I could not disappoint her. I consoled myself with the thought that when it all went wrong, as it undoubtedly would, I was sure I could get her out and away without killing anyone. It had been a very long time indeed since I had doubted my own abilities in matters such as that.

But we did do one thing that night, an act that sealed our fate, for that night and the ages to come. We made love, and we mated. I had accumulated in the cave a pile of the most luxurious furs available, as our bed, and in that nest of silken caresses, I made love to her with every fibre of my being, as she did to me.

In the afterglow of the first coupling, I asked her to become my eternal mate, there and then. She looked at me with those night-black eyes, and I remember every word of what was said. I shall never forget.

“When we are mates, do you mean to turn me? To make me like you?”

“Do you want me to?”

“No. I want to stay human.”

She was always wise beyond her years. She looked sad - she knew exactly what she had said. I didn’t hesitate, though.

“And I want you to stay human. I won’t turn you, I promise. Not ever, unless you wish it.”

Those eyes were filled with infinite sorrow.

“If you leave me human, then one day we must part. I will die, and you will be left behind.”

I started to speak, but she put her finger over my lips.

“You will not die with me, an unforgiven demon. Nor will you abandon Sekhmet and Acathla. And you will care for the childe of the fourth generation. You will help him to escape the fate you gave him.”

I had told her everything, even the shame of my choice to Seth. Now she was requiring me to make up for that shame. I would never have the strength.

“I cannot make those promises.”

“Yes, you can. You will look after those that are placed in your care, and I will find a way to come back to you. You will have me buried here where my family are, and you will bury your book with me. If I cannot come back to you, I shall come back to that. Your people have a belief that this is so, that souls return?”

She meant the Egyptians, and they did. I nodded, my throat too thick to speak. She clasped me fiercely to her.

“That is my promise to you. Now, your promise to me?”

So help me, I promised. The book. I’ll tell you of that later.

We made love again, and I mated her. The ritual and ceremony were bare, with just the two of us there, and none of the objects that we would normally have around us. But it was enough. I drank from her, my fangs in her throat, an elixir such as I had never thought to taste, and I made the vows and the promises that mingled with her blood. I left my mark on her neck, a sign to all that she was mine, but a reminder to me of my oaths. I should have done better to keep drinking, to end her life there.

She left her mark above my heart, her vows and promises mixing with my blood. I can feel them even now. I see her mark every day, her sign of ownership, her promise of a future.

All this was done under the watchful eye of Sekhmet. There is not much privacy in a cave, and Sekhmet needs cover from the sun as much as I. But none of us minded. When the ritual was complete, my beloved did something that surprised both me and my Sire. She beckoned the lioness over, and offered her throat. Sekhmet stared for a moment, with that golden gaze, and then she started to purr. She padded up to Palestrina, but didn’t sink her fangs in - that would have done altogether too much damage. Instead, with a delicacy that even I was unused to, she used the merest tip of one dagger tooth to reopen my own fang marks, and lapped the blood that seeped from the little wounds. She never ceased purring.

When she had finished, Palestrina wrapped her arms around that huge neck and whispered, “You will make sure that he continues to live for me? That he waits for me to return? And that he cares for the childe of the fourth generation?”

Sekhmet pressed her head to Palestrina’s heart. As she raised her head, she drew her own fang up her chest, and a thin red line of blood welled up. My brave and wonderful mate reached out with one dainty finger and traced a path up the wound. She then licked her bloody fingertip. The commitment was made and accepted.

She left me before dawn with the promise that, if her father would not countenance me, she would come away with me, and we would make our future in Egypt. I should never have let her go. But how could I take her away by force? She loved her father, and I remembered how that had felt. It was all folly, of course, but even vampires live in hope of something.

So, the next evening, I went up to the city, on its high hill. Sekhmet waited for me outside the city walls. I took a gift for Simon, a very handsome gold and lapis lazuli necklace that had been worn by an Egyptian queen. I had meant it for Palestrina, but there were plenty of pieces to choose from in Egypt. I would find her one that was even finer. But Simon was not at home. He was following Philip. He had insisted that Palestrina accompany him. Taking my gift with me, I went to find them. It wasn’t hard.

There were two other Apostles there, just come from Jerusalem. Peter and John were their names. They were gathered in the square, just returned, by the look of them, from a trip to the river where they had been offering baptism. Now Peter and John laid hands on the baptised, who all fell to the floor, calling out strange words, in a fit of ecstasy. Receiving the Holy Ghost, they called it.

In an act of supreme faith, or supreme folly, I was about to go forward, to fall on my knees and seek once more the salvation that Palestrina wanted for me, but events pre-empted me. Simon, who had been waiting his turn with Palestrina, was unable to restrain himself at the sight of the ecstasy of the baptised. This was a magic that a sorcerer could not overlook. He went forward to the senior Apostle, Peter. These men had been travelling in poverty, they seemed to own nothing but the clothes on their back, and so Simon offered what he thought they needed, what he thought they would want. He offered to pay them handsomely if they would teach him their magic to add to his own. There were murmurings in the crowd, cries of, “It is Simon Magus; Simon, the sorcerer!”

Peter fell into a towering rage, mortally insulted on behalf of his god. He was a tall man, imposing, bearded, strong from many years of hard work, and even Simon, a much slighter figure, had to step back from him.

“May your money perish with you, since you think that the gift of God can be purchased with gold. You are excluded from our faith, sorcerer, and none of your kind welcome here. You shall be as demons to us, an anathema, accursed. Magic users,” he almost spat the words here, “you are steeped in your own sin. Best that you repent of this, and pray to God that you may be forgiven. And you had better pray hard, for the flames of Gehenna are waiting for you.”

The answer was swift and petulant. It is never wise to make a sorcerer petulant.

“Pray for me yourselves, for if I finish in hell, I shall not be alone! Think on that when beseeching your god!”

With that, Simon stormed away, dragging Palestrina with him.

Acathla? He couldn’t possibly be thinking of using Acathla? And if he were, should I make myself and my history known to him? After all, it was my blood that would open that portal to hell. Then Palestrina turned around - she had sensed me behind them. She mouthed one word to me, knowing that I would see and understand.

“Tomorrow.”

At first dark tomorrow, she meant that we would leave here for Egypt. We would have to make sure that Simon didn’t find Acathla, at least until his anger and humiliation were spent, and Acathla was in Egypt. We must be there to guard him. I would take her to the nearest port, and we would purchase passage to Egypt, to my new home in Alexandria. There we would make our plans.

I was lucky. Hard by Simon’s house, I found a small dwelling where the occupants were away. Neighbours had taken in the few livestock, so both parts of the house - those for humans and those for animals - were empty. I could not enter the human part, but the livestock quarters were open to me.

The next hours dragged by. I knew that Sekhmet was safely hidden, so I slept as much as I could. Because of that, I missed the beginning of the commotion. With about an hour to sunset, I heard raised voices coming from Simon’s house, and I saw a servant come out running. The voices fell silent, but a little time later, the servant returned, with three old women and some of the city elders. The elders waited outside, whilst the old women went in. There was absolute silence in the house.

Every instinct was on overdrive, but there was nothing I could do until the sun went down. When it did, though, I was ready to do whatever was necessary. The moment I could, I would snatch my love away and make a run for it. I could feel that Sekhmet, too, was poised for flight. We both understood clearly that the woman we adored would brook no harm to her father or her people. A swift getaway was much the best option. Well, it would have been.

The three old women marched out, grim-faced. They were followed by Simon, his grip tight on Palestrina’s arm. The servants scurried after, a gaggle of frightened geese.

Simon came to an abrupt halt in front of the elders. His face was white, his eyes dark with hatred. Palestrina was pale but carried herself with dignity and pride.

“I accuse my daughter of fornication with a demon.”

NO! NO! By all the powers of light and darkness, what has happened? What has this man done?

In the astonished silence, he ripped away her shawl and pushed her head over, holding back her hair so that the elders could see my fang marks. Mine and Sekhmet’s.

“She has consorted with a demon.” He turned to the old women. “Speak!”

The eldest of them stepped forward.

“She has known a man. She is no longer virgin. All three of us can attest to that.”

She bowed her head and stepped back.

What have they done to her? They have been poking and prodding MY MATE! I could feel the growl rumbling into my chest at the thought of what she had just endured.

Still Palestrina was silent. I do not pray, for I know something of what is out there. I have found nothing yet worth praying to. But I prayed then, to any god that would listen. I prayed for the sun to go down, so that I could get my love safely away. There was nothing. Even gods fear to tamper with the workings of the universe.

One of the elders spoke to her.

“Have you nothing to say, woman?”

Woman. She was nameless, no longer an individual, no longer a person to be respected.

Her chin went up a little higher, her back a little straighter. Her voice was strong and clear, redolent of love.

“Yes, I have a lover, and yes, he is a demon. But he is my mate, and he is a good man. He seeks salvation for my sake, as well as by his own wish, even as most of you here have sought redemption for your sins. He wishes to be baptised into the new religion, and to start a new life with me, at peace with my father. Will any of you deny us this?”

It was brave but foolish. But I suspect that even a lie would not have served. As I said, Simon was a man of his times. He was angry with the Christians for rejecting him, and for classing him as no better than a demon. And he was both angry and afraid of the lover that Palestrina had taken. His daughter would pay the price. I determined to pay it with her. After all, it was my fault that she was here. I could never even reach her in time - I should be ashes before I had covered so much as half the distance - but I knew what would come next in this tragic little scenario, and I would not live without her. I could not let her go alone.

It was her father who passed sentence.

“She is guilty from her own mouth. There is only one penalty.”

He picked up a rock from the stony soil. So did all the others present, and they prepared to stone her to death. I tensed myself to run, to get as close to her as I could, but she knew.

“No!” she screamed. “Remember…”

She got no further as the first stone, from her father’s hand, struck her in the mouth. The weight of my oaths to her felled me like a blow, and I sank to my knees in the doorway. I could still see what was happening. And I could still hear. As that first stone had landed, Sekhmet knew. She always knows important things. I heard her howl in her place of refuge, just as she had for Acathla, three and a half thousand years ago.

And I heard…other things. You will never have seen a person stoned to death. Or heard it. The thwack of rock on flesh. The crunching sound as rock meets bone. The wet sounds as flesh is crushed and split. It isn’t small stones, you know. They use rocks, the size of half a house brick today. Or bigger.

I still hear it when I sleep.

I have seen a great deal of death. I have brought death to more creatures than you can possibly imagine, although I remember every single one. Their deaths have meant many things to me - pleasure, entertainment, the thrill of the hunt, a good meal. Many of them have been singularly unpleasant deaths - for the dying, that is. I am a vampire, a demon, and I have a strong stomach for death.

I have lost those I cared about to death, and those deaths have caused me enormous sorrow. Family, mates, lovers, companions; in my long life I have lost them all. Never let anyone tell you that demons do not feel. We are creatures of passion and excess - vampires certainly are, all of us. We can experience the full gamut of human emotions, if we will but understand it. Many of us are also creatures of denial, and so we do not always understand the feelings that we have. Nevertheless, what we were informs all that we become. I was born of passion and in passion. So passion has ruled my life. That has passed to all my line in some measure or another. Or perhaps it is simply that we choose those of equal passion as our childer. And just as our human senses, taste, smell, sight, hearing, touch, are much more acute than your own, so are our passions. They run darker and deeper than you can ever know.

Grief is one of the darkest passions, and that is what I felt in the light of the westering sun on that afternoon when my mate died. It was a physical thing, ripping through my gut even as the rocks tore into her flesh. Even as my claws tore at the stone slabs of the floor, leaving bloody tracks in that miserable hovel from which I had to watch the death of my soul mate. The death that I had brought upon her because I had been weak and impetuous. My love for her demanded that I go to her, even though it meant my own death. Indeed, I would have welcomed death. But my love for her demanded that I honour those oaths, so newly given. To wait for her. To wait for the childe of the fourth generation. So I knelt in the muck of the byre, watching her father, and the rest of them, stone her to death, tears rolling freely down my vampire’s cheeks, vomiting out onto the straw the red bile that was all that remained of my last meal. Murderer. Monster.

It went on and on until she was a crumpled heap in the dirt. Stoning is not a quick death. The murderers gave her body a cursory glance and went off to hunt for me, believing me to be in the city somewhere. She was to be left where she lay until they found me. Only then did the sun show pity, and sink into its rest.

I went to her, knowing what they did not know, that she still lived, just. I could hear her heart flutter, hear her tiny rasping breaths. I had some hope that I could at least turn her, that she would allow me to do that. But a person who is going to live, even as a vampire, generally has more brain matter inside their skull, and less of it soaking into the dust. Even healed, she would never be the same. I found that I did not want to do that to her. Still, I had to ask, give her the choice. It was a miracle that she was still conscious. I dared not lift her, there were so many broken bones. I simply knelt in her blood, and bent over to her.

My first words to her were words of love. I hoped that my face would show her the depth of that love. But I couldn’t touch her. Anything, even the lightest of kisses, would have been agony for her broken body. They had been thorough. And there was no time to waste if I were to give her a choice.

“Do you wish me to turn you?” My voice quavered as tears threatened, and my throat closed, but I didn’t care.

She tried to smile, although her face and her teeth were smashed almost beyond recognition, and beyond any power of her body to carry out so simple an action. I thought she hissed “No.”

“No?”

With a supreme effort, she managed to move one hand to rest on mine. Again the breathless hiss.

“Help him…wait…”

She could manage no more.

I bent to her ear, and whispered more words of love. And promises. I would wait for her. I would bury her and my book as she wished. I would care for the childe still to come. I would never stop loving her, and someday, we would spend eternity together. I promised her.

She rallied a little.

“Take…”

I didn’t understand.

“Try again my love. What do you want me to take?”

But she couldn’t. It was then that I felt a presence at my side. Sekhmet had come into the city. She knew what Palestrina wanted. She moved to the other side of her, and sank her fangs into my mate’s neck. Palestrina tried to smile. With cold tears sliding down my face, I did the same. Together we drank the life from her, such as remained, and took her into ourselves. She is always with me, now. A shadow of her true essence, but a presence nonetheless. Many times I feel that I have disappointed her, failed to live up to her expectations, but I have her love still. If only I had her.

When we were done, I sat for a moment or two, bereft. Sekhmet, too, was still, her head bowed. Then we heard the sound of the mob returning, still searching for me. I scooped the broken body up into my arms and fled with Sekhmet back to our cave.

We buried her there, wrapped in the furs on which we had made love. In death I gave her the necklace that I had meant to give her in life. Sekhmet pawed out a shallow hole - the rock was close to the surface - and with my bare hands, I brought the rocky roof tumbling down onto her grave. She would be safe from desecration there. We were both sore and bleeding when we had finished. Well, it matched how we felt inside. With her I had also buried my book.

You have heard of the Egyptians’ Book of the Dead? That was it. Oh, archaeologists think that they have found it in the Pyramid Texts and the Coffin Texts, on scraps and scrolls of papyrus, but they have only found conjecture and speculation and pretence. The priests of old had heard of my book - I never speak of these things, but still, knowledge seeps out somehow, albeit imperfect and corrupted - and tried to recreate it for their Pharaohs. None of those inscriptions work. They are akin to a child’s make-believe. They have tried to write rituals for bringing their Pharaoh to eternal life, and for giving their Pharaoh the power to protect their land forever. Nonsense.

Some few of the priests, though, had a greater understanding. Their Books of the Dead were also entitled The Book of Coming Forth By Day. The spells they contain are meant to prevent the dead from coming forth by night, leaving their tombs barren and empty. Coming forth as vampires. My childer, my minions. Those spells never worked. You have my word on that.

My book, the original Book of the Dead, is my journal, named in a fit of whimsy, although it was doubly appropriate now. My history. My notes on demons and on magic. It certainly tells of a way to eternal life, the way that I unwittingly travelled. And there are spells in there that I have learned. Many of those spells are the fruits of the search for a way to return Acathla to life. It was a dangerous enough book until I met Palestrina. And then it became more so.

I have told you that she was a powerful sorcerer in her own right. What I have not told you is quite how powerful she would have been. I have met many magic users in my life. None were as powerful as she. And none were less corruptible by that power.

During our time together, she tried many ways to help me, to help Sekhmet, to restore Acathla. These are all recorded in the book. All might have worked, if she had had full access to her power. But she was young, and needed both time and experience. With me, she would have had that, and who knows what would have happened to us all then.

The book, then, contains a great deal of Palestrina’s magic. She had said that she would try to return. She wanted to return to me, but if she could not, then perhaps she would return to her own magic. So I left the book with her. What you call Plan B. I don’t need it, after all, to remember the contents - a demon never forgets - nor do I need it to remind me of the way she looked when she wrote in it, the way her little pink tongue would lick her lips as she laboured to make the lettering as neat as possible, the way she would smile in triumph as another spell for the future was recorded. I can do a very good job of torturing myself without any help at all.

Peter, John and Philip? I took no action against them. Palestrina would not have wished it. Their deaths were entirely human affairs - you humans are good at that. And I have relics of them. Pieces of their bones, braided into my very special whip. Those apostles serve me, now. They almost killed Angelus, but he was strong enough to survive. That is good. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Seth may be confounded yet.

Simon? He punished me by noising it around that I had killed his daughter, and that the consequences of that death lay on my head. That calumny has followed me all the days of my life since, in this dimension and others. Although I suppose that, in its most fundamental essence, it is true. Her death was my fault, and I deserve to suffer for it.

He punished the Christians by giving them the burden of the fight against vampires. It was thought that he was deranged by grief, but in my view it was malice. He found some demons from the Adraste dimension, perhaps the most knowledgeable magic users of all, and he bought from them a spell of the most enormous potency. It took the power wielded by ancient symbols, power to protect humans against demons, and gave that power to the symbol of the Cross, and to the Christians’ holy writings and relics. And he targeted vampires alone. He didn’t have the strength to do more, although I’m not sure he really wished to. He said it was so that vampires might never hurt true Christians again, in memory of his daughter. He died as part of the casting, pouring his life essence into the force of the spell, so that it would be maintained forever, across the planet. His spell holds good almost 2000 years later. The trappings of Christianity can now hurt vampires in a way that the symbols of other religions cannot. And so he got some measure of revenge on all of us.

That, then, is the story of Palestrina. Sekhmet and I have returned to the cave each year, but of late civilisation has been encroaching on her solitude. Now the developers have moved up as far as the cave, and the archaeologists have found my greatest treasures. But even when I am not there, the cave is never left unguarded. This time, though, the guard was incapacitated for a while. The message only reached me on the very night I sent Angelus off to recover her. I have faith in him. He will do what is necessary. When he brings her back here, she will stay with me. I think she will like the Lion Courtyard.

***

When Sekhmet and I return to Aurelius’ house, he is waiting for us, as if he had known we were on our way. Perhaps he did. He and the lioness have been together for a very long time now. Who knows how they have learned to communicate? I wonder if he knows that there is some bad news amongst the good.

I get some searching looks from the rest of the clan, but they make way for me. Aurelius is in his chair. His throne. Spike and Drusilla are chained to the wall where I was…No! I won’t think about that.

I stand in front of him. No bows, no homage of any sort. Just me. I expect Sekhmet to go to her accustomed place by his side, but she doesn’t. She sits on her haunches next to me. As if she, too, were waiting to be judged.

“I have what you sent me for.”

There is a small rustle behind me, a collective sigh of relief, perhaps.

I am surprised by the look on his face. It is only there for a second, but it is one of absolute love and joy intermingled. These may not be emotions that I myself feel - in fact I’m astonished that any demon should feel them - but I can certainly recognise the expressions, and I file it away for future reference.

I open my satchel and bring out the book. When he takes it from me, he puts it aside almost impatiently. That is a surprise - I had thought that writings as old as this must be of value to him. Then I take out the velvet-wrapped bundle. Handling the bones was odd, as if they should have some meaning for me, some connection, but they are clearly human, and so they can be nothing to do with me. Nevertheless, back in that room, I was impelled to do my best to show respect for them. More respect than a cardboard box, for sure. And it is with some reluctance that I hand them over to him. I wonder why?

He takes them with what I can only describe as reverence. When he looks at me, I could swear that his eyes are shining, as if with tears. This is an old and powerful vampire, to the best of my knowledge the oldest and most powerful on the earth today. What are these bones to him? The older members of the clan seem to know, and I experience a sudden flare of temper at being excluded like this. But I don’t let it get the better of me. After all, I still have to give him the bad news.

“I am sorry, Aurelius, but they are not all there.”

His response is clipped and sharp.

“Tell me.”

“The man who had them was a senior curator at the Museum. He had taken the bones and the book home. He had copyists copying the book, and he had sold some of the bones. Three ribs and half of one thighbone. I understand they have gone to sorcerers.”

The silence behind me is deafening, leaden.

“He is a minion, now, yours to do with as you please. There is another one that I have made into a childe. I have learned that he is the one who made the sales. He will know where to find the missing parts. The bodies are in the curator’s study. There are a great many antiquities there, too.”

I reach into the bag again, I had intended to keep what I took, but I am somehow compelled to offer him this. A necklace of gold and lapis lazuli, very old. For some reason, Sekhmet whined when she saw it. When he takes it, I could almost believe that there was a hitch in his breathing, if he had needed to breathe. His attention is riveted to it, and he lays it gently over the cloth wrapped bundle in his lap.

Aurelius’ eldest comes forward, and kneels in front of his Sire.

“If you will permit, I and my family will undertake to find the missing bones.”

“Thank you, Japheth. You will need to have access to Angelus’ latest childe, then, the one still at the curator’s house.”

Aurelius turns to me.

“Angelus, will you permit this?”

With those five words, everything has changed. I am a member of the clan again, with status. With the ability to say no. I may have to defend myself if I do say no, but I am once more Angelus of the Clan of Aurelius, and the entire clan knows it.

A movement catches my eye. Spike. He’s jealous of the new childe! Well, well, well, who would have believed it? I can have a lot of fun with that. But Aurelius is waiting.

“I am happy to lend him to Japheth for as long as necessary. Once he is brought here, I will make the position clear to him.”

I turn to Japheth. I know him by sight and by repute, but I don’t know him. He has a look of Aurelius though, a look that just the two of them share. I cannot decide what it is, but that knowledge seems to hover just outside my grasp, as if I should know. It irritates me, but I set the problem aside for another day. There are more immediate things to clear up.

“If you need to keep him for any length of time, will you tend to his upbringing for me? Until he is returned to me?”

“Of course.”

Spike is beside himself, and even Dru has a small pout. It won’t be just the three of us, and they don’t like it. Tough. I’ll enjoy having a new childe to model in my own image.

Aurelius despatches minions to fetch the two vamps-to-be, clear up the bodies, and bring into his possession every single item of value from the other house. That will be quite a haul, then. Well, I’ve got some of the best bits here. I wonder if he will try to claim them, now that he’s given me my status back? Japheth returns to his family, and Aurelius turns his attention to me.

“Well, Angelus, what shall we do with you now?”

WHAT! It’s OVER, surely! Finished. I’ve taken my punishment and carried out the task he gave me. And he gave me back my status, didn’t he? What now?

He looks down that disdainful nose at me, from the height of his dais. Sekhmet hasn’t moved from my side.

“You will stay here until I say that you may go. You will give me your word that you and your childer will remain here. Without that, you will remain, in chains if necessary. I should prefer your word, but I will have your compliance. Which is it to be?”

Why? Why does he want us to remain? And how long for? I’ve got things to do, plans to put into action. Apocalypses, that sort of thing. Nevertheless, this is perhaps the most powerful creature I may ever meet. Are there things I can learn from him? Should I make the most of a bad job?

“How long do you wish us to stay?”

His tone is sharp.

“Until I say you may go!”

I glance at Spike and Dru, and then look back at him. He nods. I walk over to them.

“I am inclined to stay, to see what we can learn here. You will stay, too. Do you understand?”

Spike looks mutinous - nothing new there, then - and I lean over to whisper softly in his ear.

“Cross me on this, boy, and I’ll show you that Aurelius knows nothing about punishment.”

He nods mutely. He’ll keep his word, as best he can. I look questioningly at Dru.

“We need to be here, Daddy.”

Who can ever understand the workings of Dru’s mind? But that seems to mean she’ll obey. I return to Aurelius.

“You have my word. We will stay, of our own free will.”

I feel the need to make that point. Aurelius looks sceptical - he understands very well that Spike and Dru have exercised little free will here, but that is as it should be. He takes what he can get, though.

“Very well. Let us introduce your childer. There are those here that you should meet, too.”

And with that, we seem to be back to normality within the clan. Spike and Dru are released from their chains. I am a master vampire, even if I am one of the youngest here, and I am no longer outcast for the sins of the Soul. Thank the Lords of Hell for that. Now I can think of no shadow that might hang over the Apocalypse I have planned. Surely Acathla will grant me pride of place in his hell, and I shall have toys and playthings for the rest of eternity. I shall miss some things, of course, things that I had forgotten. The opera, the ballet, fine wines, the smell of snow in the mountains, the moonlight on the sea; all of them better for a warm body in my arms whilst I drink down the hot, sweet, pulsing blood. Still, the blood aside, these are human things, not demonic. I’ll manage without them.

***

You may wonder why I haven’t gone after Palestrina’s bones myself, rather than allowing my eldest surviving childe, Japheth, to take on that responsibility. It was the first thought in my mind. But as head of a clan, it is a mistake to try to do everything yourself, even the important things. Even the personally important things. It is good to allow others to do as much as possible. It helps bind the bonds more strongly, makes certain that the younger members continue to grow and learn. To be more capable, as they will need to be if anything happens to me. I may be powerful and eternal, but I am not invulnerable. I can be killed. I may, indeed, be killed, or worse, if I go up against Seth. And so I do everything I can to make sure that the clan can function without me, yet are tied to me with bonds of steel. And to Palestrina. I still have an eye to the future.

I have taken Palestrina into my rooms, where she will stay until a suitable casket is made. I stand a little aloof from the gathering, now, as I watch Angelus and his whelps circulate amongst vampires they only know by repute. He is suave and charming, with the darkness of obsidian and the sharpness of flint. He still has touches of madness, although some small amount of sanity has returned to him as he remembers the pleasures of this earth. And making a new childe speaks of an eye to a future. The signs are good. Drusilla was wise to get him away from Sunnydale and Acathla. The punishment he has taken here has brought him back a little to himself, as well - just as I intended. Strange, but true. His physical pain has countered his mental suffering of the last hundred years. You wouldn’t understand. You are human. This is a demonic thing.

Yes, I know what he plans to do, and I know he has Acathla. I contemplated taking the demon away from him, but he seems as safe there as anywhere, for the time being. At least there are none of my bloodline in Sunnydale just now to accidentally open the portal. Before Angelus leaves, I will look around for a better place to keep Acathla. It cannot be here, and it most certainly cannot be here, so long as Angelus is here and not yet stable.

I have never stopped looking for the right magic to release Acathla. I have never lost hope, but I am coming to believe that I may not accomplish that task until Palestrina is returned to me.

So I will keep Angelus here until I am satisfied that he no longer wishes to end the world. He always loved the more sensuous pleasures that the world had to offer. I don’t think it will be too long before his nature reasserts itself. The nature of this beast is to enjoy life to the full. Hell would be a big disappointment to him. I’m counting on him seeing that.

What’s that? You think that I am a monster, still, for the punishment I meted out to him? Do you understand nothing?

We are not humans, we are vampires. We are monsters. I think we agreed that earlier. But we do have our own demonic codes and rules. It is absolutely forbidden to slay your Sire. The only possible penalty is death. Similarly for slaying a grandsire, or for lining up on the side of the Slayer and vowing that every vampire in existence must die. You know that he has done all these things. Or that Angel did. Most of the clan see little difference between Angel and Angelus, and do not understand that where two spirits inhabit a body, the demon is not always the one in charge. He had the soul for one hundred years, and even that isn’t long enough for a peace to be reached. For each spirit to learn to live with the other, to learn to compromise a little. For the demon to corrupt the soul, perhaps, and for the soul to corrupt the demon.

Most of them wanted his death at first. I gave them something else. I gave them a victim with a grossly unreasonable punishment. I gave him the death sentence three times over, and the older ones know it. That whip doesn’t just have the bones of saints braided into it. It is wreathed in spells, including one for driving demons out of bodies. No vampire has lasted more than twelve hundred lashes before they have embraced that spell and left the body to fall to ashes. It is one of my crueller methods of execution. As soon as his mettle became clear, they were on his side, willing him on. We like an underdog, a plucky loser, as much as you do. I gave them that. They wanted him to live through something that no vampire has lived through before, and by doing so, they forgave him all his sins, whether they realised it at the time or not. They even have a sneaking admiration for him, now. It was the only way. They may not quite trust him for the future yet, but the past is forgiven. Small steps.

And how did I know that he would survive where no other has? I didn’t. Not for certain. But I was sure that Seth had picked someone stronger than most as his plaything for the centuries to come. And I knew what Angelus needed to have in order to survive the pain. His soul mate. Neither of them knows it, of course, but I do. So does Sekhmet. Our knowledge came from our shared blood, the blood of Palestrina. It showed us the Slayer imprinted through his being, his flesh and his spirit. Cut him in half and you would discover her. Sekhmet tells me that if you were to cut her in half, you would find him.

And it was Sekhmet who has the power to bring them together as they were. Another small gift from Palestrina’s blood, allied to her own demonic abilities. The Slayer kept him here, when he would otherwise have embraced his final death. No one else could have done it. They would willingly walk through the fires of Gehenna for each other, though they don’t know it yet. And the soul? Angel? That will, indeed, be complicated. But interesting. Word of a demon.

We all have gifts from Palestrina, Sekhmet and I more than most, but the Clan of Aurelius is definitely different from other clans. We all exchange blood with each other, and that has made us different. We are not the same demons as others.

Angelus hates me for what I did to him on his only other visit, but that was necessary. I bonded him to me in the sight of the clan - there can be no doubting that - and he became equal to a childe of my own. He took Palestrina’s blood direct from me, during that bonding. It has helped him. I know that she held his hand during the whole of his punishment. And he carries my imprimatur, my approval, my mark on his shoulder. He is mine. My responsibility. Mine.

He took more of her blood, along with mine after the flogging, after the Watcher’s potion prevented him from accessing the Slayer’s power and I had to feed him myself. It has given him… powers… abilities. Oh, nothing big. Demons are creatures of magic, so all can use it to some extent, and this doesn’t change that by much. But it does change it, and even I’m not sure exactly how. I know it will make him stronger, and so will the essence that he took from the Slayer. The Watcher’s potion will wear off soon. He took her blood - twice - and she tasted his. Oh yes, she was here, but in a complicated sort of way. And not so that you could see. Let’s leave it at that.

Taking a mate is a state of mind, and an exchange of blood. They are mates, now, although they are going to have to find that out the hard way. Denial is simply not an option. I shall watch with interest to see how this plays out. I wonder how far Seth’s hand is in this, another torment for his plaything, or whether this is the best possible defence Angelus could have against Seth? Time will tell.

The tattoo? Have I not told you about that? Ah, yes. It certainly marks him as mine, but the winged lion was not originally my mark. It was Palestrina’s, her sigil and seal, adopted on her eighteenth birthday. She said it made her think of me. I took it for my own after her death, adding only my initial. It is that tattoo, woven with spells as it is, that permits Palestrina’s blood to work so well within him, helping him, strengthening him. Much more so than with any other member of the clan except myself and Sekhmet. It is as if he, too, had drunk from her veins on that terrible afternoon. Without the tattoo, Sekhmet could not have brought the Slayer to him during his ordeal. Who knows what other aid we will be able to give him through its magic. None of the others knows, of course. They think that it was simply a whim of mine to mark a promising but headstrong youngster who was already in a state of rebellion against Nest. I don’t think any of them begrudged him that particular rebellion, because they despised Nest. They loved Darla, though.

All I can do, now, is keep him here until his continuing sanity is assured; give him someone to hate almost as much as he hates the Rom. Someone whom he thinks would not be under his sway if we all take a trip to Hell. Someone who would make it worthwhile giving up the Apocalypse for, so that he can have vengeance in a more earthly way.

Me.

We’re already a good way down that road, so I think I’ll take us a bit further. The evening is coming to an end, and there are arrangements to make…

“Angelus.”

I hold out a hand to him as I take another sip of the very fine claret that we are drinking.

“Come. It’s a very long time since you were here last, and you didn’t stay to grace my bed even then.”

Only a Sire has the right to do this, and I am the only sire left in the line to Angelus. I am the only creature in all the dimensions that can command this demon, can rightfully force myself upon him. Any others would be killed, either by Angelus himself, or by the rest of us. He will hate me, but he will obey. I think.

If looks could kill, I should be a small pile of dust. But the look is gone in an instant. Sensible boy. He’ll store it away, though, to add to the fires of his hatred. He really, really detests submission. You can be sure that I’m going to exploit that with a vengeance. His hatred of me is, after all, my own sacrifice on the altar of our survival. Your survival too, come to that. You should be grateful.

So, he comes with me, this proud and haughty demon, this dominant alpha male. I can tell that he is plotting how to take away my power, take the Clan from me. Good, that will give him something to live for.

Seth chose well, from his point of view. He has a demon with six of the seven deadly sins in very large measure - pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger and greed. Some more than others, that is true, but he’s no stranger to any of them. Never sloth, though - could you ever imagine Angelus being slothful? And his counterpart, Angel? Oh, yes, I know a great deal about Angel. There was never a time when my eye has not been on him. The soul has six of the seven heavenly virtues, to match. Faith, hope, charity, fortitude, justice and temperance. At least, he does when he is with his soul mate. Faith and hope were a little hard to come by in that lean century that has just passed. But he never quite gave up on them, or he would be dead now. The other one? Prudence? Have you ever known Angel to be prudent? No, me neither.

Seth can play him like a violin, in so many different ways, but he has the strength to live through it and still face more. I cannot be seen to help him. But I will. Sekhmet and I both. For as long as we can.

***

I have kept Angelus here for almost three months, and he hates me with every cell of his body. He wants to love me, as all vampires should love their Sire, for I have exchanged enough blood with him that I truly stand in place of a sire to him now, and that makes the hatred all the more poignant. All the more painful. There’s nothing like a family feud for plumbing the depths of bitterness and passion, don’t you think?

The exchange of blood has had an interesting repercussion. The Slayer’s essence still runs through his veins. And I have tasted it. We’re all family now. What difference will that make, I wonder?

He doesn’t show his hatred of me, though, except for the occasional look in his eyes, or perhaps a fleeting expression on his face. Nothing I can openly take exception to. The clan are gone, most back to their homes, Japheth to try and recover the remainder of Palestrina’s bones, taking Angelus’ youngest childe with him. I know that Angelus has kept from me the almost completed copy of my book that the forgers had made. That’s fine. He should be able to make use of some of it, and at least Seth cannot say that I helped him to access the magic it contains. I have made it in my way to finish the copyists’ job - he has a complete book, now.

And I do believe his sanity is returning. We have availed ourselves freely of the entertainments offered by Cairo - and other cities - and Angelus has become a popular figure in certain circles. I’m very well connected. I have allowed him plenty of rein to enjoy himself, and he has found many pleasures amongst the women and young men here, pleasures that reinforce the fact that he is a dominant alpha male. But at the end of it all, each day, he must return to my bed and submit, and he hates me for it. Again, in a very complicated way.

We have been to a diplomatic ball tonight, although I made him leave his two whelps behind. Neither of them could be trusted in that sort of company. We are back in my rooms, and even the wine - and the blood - which we have drunk doesn’t make this any easier for him. We are both naked now, and I intend him to learn that, although he may be one of the most accomplished lovers in the world, I can still show him a thing or two, even after all these weeks. That should fan the flames of envy - and hate - nicely. It doesn’t help that Sekhmet, who always has free access, is here, too, and she is very restless. I have never seen her like this. She is growling and pacing, and flashing her fangs in distress. And I know that she is very distressed, I can feel her in my blood, but I cannot understand the cause.

I go to her, to soothe and comfort her, to try to learn more of her distress, when all hell breaks loose with her. She throws back her head and howls, as she hasn’t since Palestrina was stoned to death by her father, since Acathla was petrified and turned into a gateway to hell by Seth. She is beside herself, and in her frenzy she seizes my shoulder, her fangs, all seven inches of them, buried to the hilt in my flesh. If Angelus wants to kill me, now is the time for him to do it. I am helpless in the grasp of a demon cat who weighs more than twice as much as I do.

Yet he doesn’t. He walks over to Sekhmet and throws his arms around her head, regardless of the fact that she is shaking me as if I were a doll, as if I were Drusilla’s Miss Edith. Angelus holds on, whispering in her ear. It does no good. She is crazed beyond hearing. So he straddles her back, grasping her jaws firmly in both hands, and drags them apart by main force. As soon as I am free, I join my weight to his in holding my companion down, our bodies blanketing hers.

Have you ever tried to restrain a pet cat? An ordinary domestic moggy? If you have, then you know how hard it is. They only have eighteen claws, five on each front paw, and four on each one at the back, but it is as if each paw had developed circular saws. Then there are the teeth. It takes four strong men and a large bath towel to hold down an unwilling pet cat. And still blood is spilled. Imagine holding down a sabre tooth that runs to 400 pounds and has demonic strength. With circular saws. After a very short time, we are definitely the worse for wear. But it has been enough. Sekhmet is sobbing now, crying like a kitten, her body otherwise quiescent.

Between us, we get her onto the bed, regardless of the blood that Angelus and I are freely spilling - the minions can take care of that. We both know what is needed, even if not why, and we hold her close, I at the front and Angelus spooned up to her back. She continues to cry, but gradually I begin to understand, among the roiling emotions, just what is wrong.

It is my fault. I should never have left him unguarded. In my concern that Angelus would bring about the end of the world, I have seriously underestimated the Slayer and her companions. All my fault. Acathla, left by Angelus to await his return, is dead. Sekhmet’s soul mate, whom we have spent five and a half thousand years trying to free from Seth’s stone prison, is dead. Five and a half thousand years entombed in stone, for love. Dead, for love. I cannot help it. My tears join with Sekhmet’s.

Angelus is uneasy. Our shared blood tells him that something is grievously wrong, but he cannot tell what. So he asks me. What to tell him? That his means of destroying the world is gone? I settle for the other truth.

“Sekhmet has a soul mate from whom she has been forcibly parted for five and a half thousand years. He has just died.”

He is silent - what, indeed, could he say? But his hold on the lioness tightens, and I feel him try to comfort her with his touch and his thoughts. We lie there for a very long time, two vampires trying to comfort a bereaved lioness, all of us bearing the scars of other lionesses. Palestrina. The Slayer. Our sad little pride.

***

Aurelius has decided to let us go. Spike, Drusilla and I will go straight back to Sunnydale. I have been away too long. I have things to do.

In many ways I shall be sorry to end this world, as you know it. I’m almost sure that Aurelius will never come within my grasp in the Hell dimensions. He has made me suffer pain and humiliation. He has made me submit. I dearly want to take everything away from him, to see him humiliated, tormented, tortured.

And the Slayer. I am puzzled by that. I know that my visions of her were just that: visions. Figments of my imagination. But they seemed so real. And what about that single hair I still have? Where did that come from? Why does my blood burn when I think of her? Still, I know what I should do. I should put her in her place. Make her see that she is no match for me, that she has no hold whatsoever upon me. That all she can ever be to me is a toy, a plaything. For my own peace of mind, I should do that. But there won’t be time, what with the Apocalypse and all.

Still, Acathla has waited this long. Perhaps he can wait a little longer. Just a few days. Even if I don’t have time to deal with Aurelius, I can at least deal with the Slayer. Play with her for a while, until I break her. Like just another toy. Forget those visions. Forget the way I felt. Forget that she ever seemed like the breath of life. That isn’t what demons feel. I don’t even breathe.

***

Angelus has gone, but he’ll be back. Perhaps to bring me down, if he can. I won’t let him succeed, though. I have too much to live for. To wait for.

The ancient Egyptians had many strange, varied and often conflicting beliefs, you know. Or they seem strange, now, to us. To you. One of the reasons why they began to mummify their dead, for example. They believed that after a period of time, three thousand years to be exact, the soul would return to the body, to reanimate the dead flesh. This could not happen if the flesh had rotted, so they preserved it as a mummy. How on earth they imagined a soul could reanimate a thing with no organs, and stiff with preservatives and resins, I really don’t know. All nonsense, of course - just how many 3,000 year-old mummies have you seen lurching out of the tomb? Movies don’t count.

All nonsense. Except…except…perhaps some of it isn’t. Oh, souls certainly don’t come back to rotting bones, but perhaps they do come back to new bodies and new beginnings. If they are allowed. If nothing else tethers them. And 3,000 years seems to be about the length of time a soul needs in order to once more brave the journey back to the flesh. How do I know? From bitter experience. When I reached that age, it seems that my soul was still tethered to the consciousness it had had. It came home. Angel was not quite so alone as he thought. I was a little luckier - I had had time to mature, to mellow, to cease being quite such a …driven…demon. Sekhmet? Yes, she, too. She lost a lot of her anger about that time. It was still a dreadful experience for me, and it took much more than Angel’s century to reconcile the two halves of my being. To regain my sanity. I have discussed this with no one. I do not believe that any one else knows, although I think Japheth suspects. He, too, disappeared for a couple of centuries after he reached that age. But we never speak of it. None of the others are of an age yet. Of those that were, Japheth is the only survivor. It is a cruel ordeal.

So, I had had my soul for half a millennium when I met Palestrina. Soul and demon, we had reached some sort of compromise. Soul and demon both, she loved me. I am still a vampire. Still a monster. But perhaps I am not a great deal different to you. Nevertheless, I am what I am.

And if souls do return in new bodies, perhaps Palestrina will. If she does, perhaps she will remember me. Perhaps she will return to me, to her blood, to her magic. Ultimately, and despite what her father did, I was responsible for her death. I deserve to be punished, and I have been. But I have only another thousand years to wait. Sekhmet may have to wait longer.

THE END

Go on to the next part of the series, Pride.

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Author’s notes

1. Because this series is changing the events of the past, and because the inertia of narrative history is trying to tie knots and carry on, you can expect to see artefacts, and events, and perhaps meet people, in unexpected times and places. The timeline is fractured. If you don’t like it, that’s fine. Just make it your turn to write something for the rest of us to read.

2. Acathla is the demon in ‘Becoming’ who is capable of swallowing the world into Hell. Giles says that Angel’s blood is the key to reviving him, although Whistler tells Buffy that Angel should have been the one to stop him.

3. Memento mori - a warning, or reminder, of death (Latin for remember you must die).

4. The Ten Commandments - you can find these in Deuteronomy, Chapter 5.

5. Cairo - from al-Qahir (the planet Mars), so named because that was the planet in the ascendant when work first began on the city in 969 AD. Cairo was largely built from the stones of the Pyramids of Giza, which is why the pyramids have virtually none of their original limestone casing left. The city was founded by the Fatimids in 969. The Mameluks ruled Egypt from 1240. The first Ottoman sultan began his reign in 1517. Abd al-Rahman Katkhuda did indeed embark on a whole series of ambitious building projects in the middle of the eighteenth century, including palaces, mosques and other public works. His buildings are in a hybrid style that mixes Mameluk and Ottoman elements with a highly ornate overall expression. The Lion Courtyard is borrowed from that Moorish masterpiece, the Alhambra in Granada, Spain.

6. Ancient Egyptian beliefs Egyptian mythology is very complex, and there is a reason for this. The Ancient Egyptians were a mixture of different waves of tribal settlers, and different races. In each different locality, the early inhabitants accepted the beliefs of each new group of settlers and fused them with their own. They also clung tenaciously to the primitive tribal beliefs of their remote ancestors, and never abandoned an archaic belief even when they acquired ideas that seemed newer and more enlightened. They even showed a tendency to increase the number of their gods and goddesses by separately symbolising their attributes. The result is a bewildering number of gods and a confused mass of beliefs, some rather local in area, many of which are obscure and contradictory. Each provincial centre had its own distinctive theological system, so there was no orthodox creed, no homogeneous religion. One of the beliefs referred to in this story, the one about the soul reanimating the dead frame, was recounted by Egyptian priests to Herodotus, a visiting Greek historian born in 484 BC. It’s all fascinating stuff.

Sekhmet: An Egyptian goddess. Among her titles were ‘Lady of the Place of the Beginning of Time’, and ‘Goddess of Vengeance’. She is often depicted as a lioness, or with a lioness’ head. The legend tells that when Re grew angry at the whining and complaints of humankind, he ripped out one of his eyes and hurled it at the earth; this eye changed in flight to an avenging goddess, Sekhmet, who ravaged the earth, sucking blood from the peoples, and almost totally wiping out humankind before a remorseful Re could stop her. She was the consort of Ptah, the god of Memphis.

Ptah: The local god of Memphis from the earliest dynastic times (c. 3100 BC), patron of artisans, and identified with the Greek god Hephaestos. His consort was the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet. He was thought to have fashioned the bodies in which the souls of men dwelt in the afterlife. Ptah gave life to the other gods by means of his heart and his tongue, although his essence was considered to be in his teeth and lips. Some statuettes of Ptah resemble the ‘wonder smith’ of some of the Alpine cultures distributed along mountain ranges from the Hindu Kush to Britain. Ptah was believed to have first appeared from a cosmic egg.

Sokar: One of the oldest deities, a god of the dead, identified in Memphis as Ptah-Sokar.

Seth: Egyptians had a deeply held notion of duality. One duality is light and dark, represented by Osiris (light) and Seth (dark). This wasn’t quite the same as good and evil. Seth was a power, requiring respect and placation. His instruments were thunder, storms, whirlwinds and hail. He could take on a number of animal forms, one of which was the dog.

Book of the Dead: Funerary texts placed with mummies; collections of spells intended to ease the transition of the dead person into the afterlife. A different translation is ‘The Book of Coming Forth By Day’. The Pyramid Texts are texts engraved on the passage walls of Fifth and Sixth Dynasty pyramids at Saqqara; the Coffin texts are funerary texts engraved on sarcophagi; both are concerned with securing entry into the afterlife for the deceased.

7. Smilodon - the sabre-toothed cat. Smilodon lived in North America until around 11,000 years ago. Its sabres, the grossly enlarged canine teeth, were 7 inches long and serrated like a steak knife, and it weighed up to 440 pounds. Palaeontologists seem not to have quite decided how it hunted the large ice age fauna, with their thick layers of fat - whether it used the sabres to tear open the soft under belly of the prey, to hold the windpipe closed and choke it to death or, indeed, whether it lived off carrion. The fangs certainly couldn’t be used as a large cat uses its teeth now - they were far too brittle and would have snapped on contact with large bones, for example. You and I have seen teeth of that ilk before, though. I think we can go along with those few palaeontologists who clearly watch the same TV shows that we do, and who have sensibly concluded that the sabres were used to penetrate to the deep blood vessels, and slash them so that the prey bled to death. And perhaps they drank all that blood, too…

8. Gebel el-Arak knife -this artefact is in the Louvre. It is an ivory-handled flint knife, thought to have belonged to a Pharaoh of Upper Egypt around 3,500 BC. One side of the haft is carved with scenes of battle, and boats, some of which may be Mesopotamian. The other side has a figure called The Master of Animals, holding two lions on their hind legs, above a pair of dogs guarding something thought to be the cosmic egg.

9. Simon Magus - a sorcerer named in the Bible. See Acts of the Apostles, chapter 8 verses 9-24.