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Summary: There was no body to bury. There was no funeral. There was nothing but the three rules and the knowledge that a thousand years of torment was nothing compared to a world without her in it. Spike embarks on a journey through the Gates of Hell to rescue the one he loves, but in order to save her, he must risk losing himself.
“Don’t accept what you’re offered,” Spike recited through gritted teeth, doing his best to ignore the grind of rope against his burning palms. The coarse fibers dug deep into blood-soaked flesh, but options were limited and he’d rather climb slowly into the mouth of Hell than fall into a mindless abyss when he had no idea what awaited him. He couldn’t see sod all at the moment; the glimmer of Willow’s flashlight had faded more than a half hour ago. He breathed in dust and dirt, occasionally reaching out to study the rocky walls that encompassed him, but otherwise waited for the nothingness to take shape.
Waited for his feet to touch ground.
“Don’t make any promises,” he hissed, turning his eyes downward again. No light of any kind. Bit of bad news for Christians. The lake of fire apparently didn’t exist.
Nope, there was nothing to Hell but musty air and cold, rocky cave walls. Bloody figured.
“Don’t forget your name.”
The most important rule. The one he was to remember beyond the others. Don’t forget your name. While rules one and two had severe consequences—the sort that might rightly cost him his journey should they be broken—forgetting his name would render him, and Buffy with him, lost forever.
Willow hadn’t understood the rules; she just accepted what she read, committed it to memory, and recited it over and over between Spike’s arrival at the school and his departure into the Hellmouth. The words had been repeated until his head throbbed—until he debated shoving a gag down the witch’s throat. But the rules were important and the vampire could certainly appreciate her concern.
Especially the third rule. The third rule was most important. The third rule which warned him against the impossible.
Forget his name and everything was lost.
It was so simple in its complexity. A lifetime or so had passed since he’d read up on the mythology behind titles—likely during one of Drusilla’s more colorful spells. She would roll dice and spill prophecies, and he’d gobble them up like a good boy and do all the digging he could to find the answers to her contorted riddles. He remembered a bit from what he’d read. A bit but not much—just the basics.
Names held power. That much was common knowledge among seers and mystics and the like. Some believed names served as an imprint of identity, and to be stripped one of one’s name was to be rendered a true blank slate. Of course, that didn’t figure with amnesia and trauma victims who lost all sense of self but still functioned in everyday life, but the semantics were difficult to figure for the untutored. It made sense that a rule of Hell, if he was thinking properly, would be to remember one’s name. If he lost his identity here he would never make it back. He wouldn’t know how.
Thankfully, his name wasn’t something Spike figured he’d lose any time soon. The other rules troubled him more. Don’t accept what you’re offered. Don’t make any promises.
No promises. No accepting what he was offered.
To whom would he promise anything?
Spike’s jaw clenched, his arms aching and his stomach twisting. Still no ground in sight.
Still nothing in sight.
A promise to Buffy. He’d already made thousands. He kept making them. It was his promise that brought him here. His promise drove him onward. He couldn’t think beyond tomorrow if it didn’t get him closer to Buffy.
“Don’t take what you’re offered,” Spike ground out, wincing when his leg caught on a jagged edge. “Don’t make any promises.”
A gale of cool air billowed upward.
“Thank bloody God,” he murmured, loosening his grip to slide further down the rope. Any more of the slow descent and his bloodied hands would wear themselves off. It wasn’t until his boots collided with a slab of rock that he allowed himself to breathe. Hard, raucous breaths commanded by a body that had no need of them.
“Journey of a thousand miles begins with a first step,” Spike recited with a tired sigh, wincing and kneeling forward, resting his raw, red palms against his knees. His chest heaved and his body ached, cool beads of perspiration dampening his forehead. He hadn’t even realized he had the mechanics for sweat until that moment.
Learn something new every day.
“Well then.” Spike shook his head, blinking hard and wiping particles of dust from his eyes. Then, inhaling deeply, he drew back, slid his hand into his pocket and withdrew his lighter. “Here goes sodding nothing.”
It took a few seconds for his weary, tired eyes to adjust to the whisper of light emanating from his Zippo. A glance around confirmed what he already knew: he was surrounded by a dark, hollow nothingness. Shadows stretched from every corner, reaching from the bowels of stone-carved alcoves and twisting down any number of pathways. It was cold, empty, and barren. A sort of isolation one couldn’t understand without experiencing it. He was far below the ground he knew—far below his world. Spike wasn’t one for panic, but there was no denying the icy fingers of claustrophobia as they grasped his heart and gave it a harsh, callous twist. For the first time—the real first time—it occurred to him there was no going back.
He wasn’t hot-poling; he was here to get Buffy. He was at the mouth of the place people spent lifetimes fearing, and arriving was only a sliver of what lay ahead.
The easiest part.
What waited for him when he saw her again was anyone’s guess—if the light at the end of the tunnel would manifest into something tangible. If the hellish forms of her worst nightmares hadn’t consumed her already.
If he wasn’t already too late.
A long sigh heaved through his aching body just as his eyes settled on a large plank of wood hanging from the rock ceiling, words carved in childish penmanship. He froze and expelled a deep breath.
Abandon hope all ye who enter here.
He blinked at it for a few seconds as though daring it to vanish. It didn’t. There were just some things not expected to be seen on entering Hell. Fabled or not. “Well,” he drawled at last, doing his best to ignore how his chest hurt when he spoke. “That’s original.”
A small, gurgling growl rumbled from behind. The vampire whirled around so quickly his light went out. He fumbled to strike it up again, and almost immediately wished he hadn’t. Dust and grime trembled off the cavern walls with every step the beast took. It towered a good twelve feet, composed of shadows and small, wandering insects that disappeared and reappeared under flaps of what couldn’t really be called skin. Long, coiled horns twisted from its scraggly, elongated skull, a yellowish puss oozing from the many pores on its mangled face. Its eyes were red and large, its mouth lined with three rows of razor-like teeth caked with a dark substance the vampire didn’t care to investigate. Scales matted its body from head-to-hoof. Rancid breath puffed through its snout, and when it reached a claw for Spike, his primary reaction was to duck and put as much space between himself and the creature as possible.
The last thing he expected was for the beast to open its jaw and speak intelligibly.
“Yeah,” it said in fluent English. “We had that put up right after The Divine Comedy came out. The guys downstairs were a little peeved they hadn’t thought of it first.”
Spike blinked again.
“I mean, you get to Hell and you expect something, right?” the beast continued, waving an arm demonstrably. “We had a few contenders, but Dante’s was definitely the winner. Plus, it has worldwide recognition. You knew what it was immediately, and you’re not exactly one I’d expect to spend a lot of time reading.” It chuckled and raised its claws. “Not that I’m judging.”
The vampire’s brow furrowed. His first instinct had faded the second the creature began speaking. Call him old fashioned, but if it was ugly’s intention to put the fear of God in him, a casual tone and even more casual demeanor went a long way in downsizing its credibility. “Fascinating, really,” he drawled. “An’ you are?”
The demon bowed back apologetically. “Oh!” it cried. “I’m sorry. How rude of me.” It extended a claw. “Name’s Larry.”
Spike’s eyes narrowed. “Larry?”
A shrug. “Short for something else, but I figure this’ll be easier to remember. And you’re William the Bloody.”
The name made him shudder. “I prefer Spike.”
“Of course you do,” Larry agreed with a steadfast nod, then laughed richly as though he’d said something highly entertaining. “Who wouldn’t? I mean, William the Bloody does have a certain ring to it, but then you’d have to live with all those grisly memories. The baggage, man, the baggage! Who’d want that?” He shook his head hard. “Ah, well. Spike’s rather catchy, isn’t it?”
An exasperated sigh rushed through the vampire’s body. “Do I look like I give a bloody fuck what you think? You’re the bloke, right? The one Harris’s bird told me about. You’re here—”
“To guard the gates to the Slayer’s Hell.” Larry nodded and shrugged. “Yup. That’s me. Your friendly neighborhood guardian. I actually got lifted from a job in filing to watch this gate. And seeing as it took me seventeen thousand years to move to upper management, I’m not too keen on what you’re here to do.”
“So you’re gonna try an’ stop me.”
“Well, I’m not going to make things easy for you. What self-respecting guardian would? These circumstances only happen once every few millennia. I can’t remember the last time we got a live one.” Larry drifted off in thought before his fire eyes brightened. “Oh! Back in the eighth century, right. This couple decided to raise a demon by actually going into Hell to pick one out. Like we were a pound or something. Isn’t that cute?”
Spike rolled his eyes. “Spare me.”
“Not in my nature.” The demon heaved a deep breath. “I don’t suppose there’s any talking you out of this?”
“Not a bloody chance.”
“Only one person has braved Hell and survived, and only because he was allowed leniency.”
“This that Brychantus chap? The one from the witch’s old wives’ tale?”
Larry blinked in surprise. “Brychantus and the Demon King is still in circulation?” He released a low whistle. “Wow. Did not see that one coming. We don’t get many champions who’ve actually done their homework.”
The vampire shrugged. “Can’t take the credit. Jus’ do what I’m told. An’ I’m no one’s champion.”
A pause. The demon’s brows perked. “Ah. And here I thought the entire reason you were taking on this escapade was to become the Slayer’s chosen warrior. You’re here serving as her champion, are you not? And please, don’t let my tone fool you. I might be cavalier, but rest assured I find this utterly hilarious.”
A shadow embraced Spike’s insides, darkening his eyes and sending a cool shudder through his veins. “Sod off,” he said softly.
“Well, it just doesn’t happen every day. A vampire in love with the Slayer?”
“Happened once in recent memory.”
Larry’s eyes narrowed. “Oh, come on. That doesn’t count. Give Angel a soul and he’s essentially a big brooding puppy who can’t go out in daylight. He wasn’t a vampire where it counted, now was he? But you. You. You have any idea how thick your file is?”
“I have a file?”
The demon went on as though Spike hadn’t spoken. “Killer of two slayers. Not one, but a solid two. Not many vamps can say that. It’s usually something much bigger…something much more impressive that does them in. You, my friend, killed two, and you enjoyed every ruby red minute.” Larry shook his head again. “And yet, for this one girl, you’re willing to throw away that glorious reputation. You sure she’s worth it?”
Resolution hardened in his heart. “I know it,” Spike replied stonily. “Let’s get started.”
“Whoa! Hold on, there.”
“I don’ have time to stand around an’ chat.”
Larry quirked his head. “Actually, you do. You have all the time in the world.”
“And you still have to get there. So far you’ve earned nothing but the right to try the first trial.”
Spike’s eyes darkened and he sucked in his cheeks. “Right,” he said slowly. “So you gonna feed me some drivel about how this is all for rot an’ I’ll never see the light of day again?”
“You and daylight don’t mix very well, if memory serves.” Larry shrugged. “Anyhoo, the sun’s overrated. Look at me. Haven’t been anywhere near it in nine millennia and I’m doing okay.”
The vampire ran his eyes over the guardian’s slime-coated scales and shuddered. “Yeah, well, if you ever do decide to take the tour, I got one word for you: Maybelline.”
“You should take this seriously, though,” Larry warned, and Spike couldn’t help the ripple of frustration that tore through his body. The suggestion he could consider the journey through the underworld anything but serious was an insult to everything the vampire had ever aspired to be. The notion—the thought that this somehow wasn’t deathly urgent for him—that he needed to be told yet again what was at stake spat in the face of his love for Buffy, and he wouldn’t take that from a demon. Her friends. Her watcher. Fine. Bloody fine. But not a demon. Not this creature built of puss and fecal matter. All Spike had to do was summon the image of Buffy’s face and his every nerve tightened with desperation, and to whisper anything else was to wish the Slayer dead.
There was no greater sin.
“Don’t reckon you’ve ever loved a girl before, mate,” the vampire ground out, doing his damndest to keep his temper in check. “But getting Buffy back…there’s nothing more important to me than that.”
“And that’s, well…honestly, that’s really cute.”
Spike snarled. “You’re lookin’ to brass me off, aren’t you?”
“Not exactly difficult.” Larry puffed out a deep breath. “There are complicated legalities to get through. For instance, you’re only allowed this one chance. You get halfway through the first task and decide you need to go back into training before you take another crack at it? Sorry. No can do. This here’s a special hell and we’re not too big with the hand-outs. You have any idea how rare it is to capture a live one?”
Never mind the guardian himself had just said the same thing five minutes ago… Spike’s jaw grew tighter. If Larry wasn’t careful, he’d find himself with a fist punched through his crusty chest. “So I’ve been told,” the vampire growled. “Doesn’ bloody matter. I’m not leaving till I have Buffy. She goes or I don’t.”
“You say that now…”
“‘m guessin’ that file you gits have on me isn’t all that comprehensive. If it were, you’d know how bloody serious I am.”
Larry’s hands came up. “Whoa, whoa. I didn’t say you weren’t serious. I mean, Jesus, look at you. You’re wound up tighter than a drum and positively living on all that sickly rich love you have for your lost little slayer. I’m just saying, tunes start changing once the trials start. I might not have dealt with a vampire heartsick for a slayer before, but you do remember the story of Eurydice and Orpheus, right? And we all know how that one ended. The trials aren’t pretty. And all poor Orpheus needed to do was walk out of Hades’ domain without looking backward.” The demon tsked, shaking his head. “Poor, poor Eurydice. Her beloved teases her with freedom and life and betrayed her with a simple glance.”
The irritation surging in the vampire’s chest swelled further, seeping into his muscles and wringing him with the need to let loose. And Christ, the git was asking for it. Spike might not be a lot of things, but no one in any dimension could doubt his loyalty to the women he loved. For well over a century, he’d blindly followed Drusilla, lapping up whatever she deigned to give him while ignoring his own desire to touch something more, to reach for something greater than he was or ever could be. Something born of light. Something wholly unprecedented. And while he would have followed his black goddess to the end of the world, the path onto which she’d steered him had been his true redemption, rather than another in a long line of false faces. It was why he was here now. Why his chest ached with the absence of the one woman he’d truly loved—beyond infatuation or gratitude, beyond seeing her as an idol rather than as she was…for the first time in all his life, the wealth of what he felt was greater than language. Greater than song. Greater than his whole being. It wasn’t blind love, as it had been in the past—as it had been with Dru and Cecily and the girls upon whom he’d been sweet in his childhood. Buffy wasn’t faultless by any means. She was full of imperfection, and in his eyes, that was what made her perfect.
He could see her flaws. He’d made a study of them when they were enemies, and now, in love with her as he was, he knew her limitations intimately. And he loved her for them. They made her real—made her human. The way she acted on emotion rather than thought. The way her nose scrunched up when she realized a mistake. The way her eyes rolled when she was at her highest peak on her throne. She was brilliant if not intelligent, witty if not clever, and so full of flaws that he could see it made him realize why it had never truly been real before.
She wasn’t an ideal. Perhaps she’d been once, but not anymore. Even in death, while her memory was sacred, he wouldn’t flower it up. It wouldn’t do her justice. She was perfect because she wasn’t, and the hole she’d left in his heart was too vast to forfeit the mission.
With everything he had, he loved her. And if the scaled-monkey standing before him thought talk of torture and trial would scare him off, then the gits down here truly didn’t know who William the Bloody was.
Or what he was willing to endure.
What he was willing to sacrifice.
“Whatever you throw at me is sodding child’s play to what you’re doing to her,” Spike said firmly, eyes burning. “‘m not easily spooked.”
Larry shrugged as though it made little difference to him. “I figured you’d say as much. Just remember, you’re free to walk away whenever you like.”
“Not without her.”
“Some fortune’s fool you are, eh?”
Spike said nothing. His nostrils flared and his gaze sparked yellow, but he didn’t speak.
The guardian offered another shrug. “Well,” he said, taking a step back. “Your call, hotshot. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you. First trial in an hour. Be prepared.”
Hard to imagine a four-hundred pound demon disappearing into thin air, but disappear he did. Faded against the shadows, leaving Spike alone in the belly of Hell’s outer circle.
The gateway that would lead him to her.
His eyes trailed down the darkened corridor. There was nothing. Nothing for miles, perhaps. He didn’t even know if he was looking in the right direction—if there was a direction in which to look. All he knew was one of these tunnels would get him to Buffy. One of these tunnels was the right path. The right way.
She was waiting for him, and all he had to do was pass a handful of tests before he saw her face again.
Spike licked his teeth and kicked at the dirt. I’m coming, Buffy.
It was a promise he couldn’t voice, but felt all the same. And no one—Larry or whoever else decided to play—would pry it from his lips. It remained, though, buried deep within him. Something with which he wouldn’t part.
He was so close even at this distance, and he could barely stand it.
It’s the fall that’s gonna kill you.
“Right,” Spike muttered. “Let’s get this party started.”
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