Absolute darkness filled the heart of the cavern, blackness so deep nothing living could exist there for long without going blind. Its uneven formations and mazelike passages led away from the only source of natural light. Far away from the sunbeams filtering through the trees outside spreading light and warmth, a dank cold clung to the slimy rock walls and floor as the limestone dripped from overhead. Only that constant sound penetrated the dark. Plop. Plop. Plop. Plop. That, and the sniveling, whimpering, terrified cries of those held captive there.
Kalesh listened to the Varstrae held by the force of nature’s own grip in a cage formed of stone. Oh, how they suffered, these humans, their bodies so fragile when their comforts were stripped away. Their minds were easily bent under her control, splintered with fear, and now teetering on the edge of insanity. So helpless were they, yet vital to the Rites of Tavrok in bringing Amolon to Earth as prophesied.
A tap of her staff on the rocky floor sparked it to life. Blue flame licked at the bulbous tip of wood until it burst with flickering light. Kalesh cackled as the warm glow chased back the shadows to reveal the three Varstrae huddled together, clinging close to each other for warmth and comfort, shielding their eyes from the light. Those capable of coherent speech called out for mercy. The name of Amolon echoed around them.
Invigorated by the sound of the Old One’s name, Kalesh decided to get on with the many tasks required of her that day. So much to do. So little time. Millennia of preparations, planning, and waiting all came down to a few short weeks. Amolon’s followers eagerly awaited his coming. Some remained hidden behind the cover of false identities until the god’s arrival allowed them to emerge. Others needed no pretense, openly worshipping Amolon, already causing havok and spreading chaos across the globe in celebration as each new sign appeared. Each of them counting down the days to Amolon’s rule over the Earth, and to achieving their own power.
Only these final days would reveal the last of the remaining objects required to perform the ritual. Why they could not have been gathered a hundred or even a thousand years ago and locked away in a vault for safekeeping was not for her to question. It was her duty to interpret the prophecy, create the focal points of power described therein to reveal them, and to ensure their procurement.
Three of the five requisite Varstrae were locked in the cage behind her with a fourth to be delivered by her henchmen. Leaving only one to capture, the focus of Nicolau’s little game with his kin. Being her favorite among Amolon’s most loyal followers the vampire could do no wrong, bending every rule, and twisting even her willpower to the limit, but there was indeed a limit.
Pointing the flaming staff toward the arch of stone that formed an Altar of Amolon from the rocky ground, Kalesh spoke words in an ancient language as she moved the staff in a circle. The flame seemed to hold is place in the air forming a ring of fire. A flash burst toward the center point leaving a vertical circle of glimmering light hanging above the altar.
More words followed, and with a wave of her knobby-knuckled hand, images began to flicker amongst the flames and settle into view. The first few images were those of loyal followers of Kalesh brought into her inner circle who also worship Amolon and his right to possession and dominion over the Earth. Their constancy provided the Old One with the power he would need to cross the dimensional divide once the rift was opened. Such an effort deserved her attention as she provided them with a dose of strength and vigor to allow them to maintain their vigil until the end.
At the touch of her finger, the flaming wall of light causes the object on their altar shine upon them, and their demonic eyes to flash red with the conveyance of power. Almost instantly, their chanting became louder, their movements around the altar frenetic causing Kalesh to lift her wrinkled mouth into a crooked smile. She watched them for a moment, enjoying their chaotic form of worship.
More followers, and similar blessings of power were delivered across the globe. Amolon’s reach was everywhere due in part to her efforts. She too looked forward to the rewards offered to her. When her true powers could be fully unleashed, and no longer held back by natural law.
Another wave of her hand and a simple chant changed the images shown by the flame. These were no longer of demons loyal to the cause, but of crystalline shards glowing in the darkness of some indeterminable place. Kalesh instantly recognized their importance seeing the symbols etched upon them as corresponding to her own basis of power. Many had searched for the crystals by her command across the course of centuries without finding them. This image granted her by Amolon meant they were close and within reach of those under her influence.
What other news? What other knowledge could the flame reveal? Kalesh poked at the fire ignoring the singe of it against her leathery skin and waited for the next image to form.
Several motorcycles roared down a nearly empty road. Mike Mooney and his gang of thugs, plus one passenger clinging behind the second in command, appeared to be on their way. The fourth Varstrae. Having had an early-morning visit from Jake Devries, Kalesh already expected his arrival. Old information. Nothing here worth seeing.
Impatiently, she waved away the image wanting to see something new. The flaming circle flickered again and settled in on several men in yellow hardhats shouting at each other as they huddled behind a large metal vehicle.
“Oh, shit! Oh, shit!”
“You ever seen anything like that?”
“What the devil is that thing?”
“Shut up and run!”
Kalesh cackled as the bulky humans abandoned the construction site. It amused her that fear made them so powerless. They would learn more about fear in the coming weeks, so much more.
The cause of the panic came as no surprise to the high priestess. The rocky ground near the bulldozer shifted of its own accord revealing the presence of one her creations. Many of its like existed to do her bidding roaming earth, sky, and seas in search of the objects of power required for the Rites of Tavrok. This one had taken root in the soil, a sign that it had found something important.
It was not the crystals, but yet another object of power.
Every nerve tingled with excitement as Kalesh leaned closer to the flames, her hands moving and altering her view of the scene, looking at it from a higher angle until she could see down into the pit. Something shiny glinted in the morning light, the sight of which made her ancient heart beat rapidly causing the old hag to clutch her chest as she hopped excitedly in front of the altar. That which Amolon promised her was within reach.
As if she could touch the object here and now, eager to hold it, Kalesh reached forward only to be singed by the flame. It was little more than a lick of pain, which she laughed off, refusing to take her eyes from the screen as she tried to discover the exact location the image revealed. Even as she watched from afar, a rocky hand formed from the dirt around the metal amulet engulfing it in its protective grip away from her seeing eyes.
Patience was not Kalesh’s strong suit. She had a stormy temper. Being separated from something she desired altered her gleeful mood turning it dark and gloomy. The power of her construct allowed it the freedom to find and protect what was hers until the time of the ritual. From this distance, her control over it was nonexistent. She could not make it come to her any sooner despite her wishes.
Angrily, she swiped her hand at the flames again to alter the image not knowing where the light of truth would take her. The sight was familiar. A charred mansion on a hill, its exterior burned, broken, and boarded up. Tangled up by the natural growth around it so green and full of life, beauty amid the destruction, lost to the ravages of time. From this vantage point, it appeared abandoned, shuttered away from the world’s troubles and the promise of Amolon’s arrival on Earth.
Kalesh knew the mansion’s outward appearance was a mask hiding life and chaos inside. A glimpse of it caught her attention when she took back the first of the Varstrae. Now it seemed that there was more to be learned, something Amolon wished her to witness. A snap of her fingers caused the images of the outer walls to vanish allowing her to gaze inside.
The image was fuzzy. The sound garbled. Kalesh recognized magic as the cause of the interference, a spell designed to block intrusion by similar means. A whispered command and expectant quirk of her eyebrow did nothing to alter it darkening her already gloomy mood. The spell was not easy to break actually requiring her to put thought into words, expend energy in her effort to cast aside the protective barrier blocking her vision. Both an irritant and a surprise to her, Kalesh wondered who was capable of creating such a deterrent.
It was different than the mystical wards placed around the mansion, which were of no great consequence as if the caster was learning at some exponential pace, each spell stronger than the last. Although there were few threats to Kalesh’s natural powers, magic was one of them. Threats to her also threatened the success of her mission, and any such opposition required her attention.
Finally, the disturbance cleared allowing her to see and hear everything. A curious mix of beings filled one room of the mansion, their meeting in chaos. Multiple voices talking all at once conveyed news, made demands, pleaded for attention. Hardly a force to be reckoned with, she mused, more likely a threat to themselves than to her plans for the Rites of Tavrok.
Kalesh nearly let the image go dark planning to turn her attention to the one she sensed approaching her position. She waited knowing the last of the Varstrae was among them.
The thought pulled her attention to one human male who spoke of the first. “Karla has been taken by Kalesh.”
This man knew her name, the priestess realized with interest. Few outside her followers knew the modern inflection. The one to whom he spoke reacted with barely restrained rage demanding answers. “How is that possible? The spells…”
“Did not work.”
Mortal fool. It would take far more to stop her. Kalesh smirked at the thought relishing her own power. She was not interested in the human. He was beneath her notice, but the vampire possessed an aura of strength equal to that of her favorite, Nicolau Cibran. There was something else about him she could sense, but not quite place that set him apart. Perhaps it was simply that his loyalties were so misplaced.
“You summoned me, priestess.” Nicolau entered with his usual panache striding in as if it was a throne room rather than a dank subterranean cavern. He bowed low and with genuine deference to her station. “How may I serve?”
His dark gaze wandered toward the fiery tableau obviously surprised to see and hear the live action within. Recognition hit instantly, noted Kalesh. “Angelus.”
“The one whom you hope to recruit to our cause?”
“Yes, Kalesh. He will be a powerful ally once he accepts that Amolon is our future.”
Even as Nicolau described his kinsman’s worth, she was also listening to the argument behind her. The vampire was enraged that the spells designed to protect one whom he called Cordy were so easily breached. “He seems vehement in his loyalty to this Cordy. Such feelings he conveys even across such a distance! I can sense the depths of his love and fears. Point her out to me.”
A wave of her hand shifted the image back into full view of the room. Niolau’s dark eyes swept over the crowd. Finding her, “There,” he pointed toward the door of the lounge. “Standing next to his childe, Drusilla.”
Kalesh’s glance flicked back to the fiery image, but barely noted the whispered conversation between the two females. Something about the pleasures to be found in the vampire’s bed. It was Nicolau’s reaction that held her interest. There was a tremor in his usually confident voice when he spoke the name of the lithe vampiress reminding Kalesh of a frightened boy cowering in the dark. Having never known the vicious prince to possess fear of anything, she wondered if those gathered might be far more dangerous than she believed them to be.
“You fear her.”
“No,” Nicolau swiftly denied it despite Kalesh’s knowing gaze boring into him. “I do not fear Drusilla. She is of my kind, my blood. No harm will come to her.”
Kalesh secretly loved it when Nicolau set aside all deference and demanded his due. She might be an old crone of a demon, but she was still female. The vampire had honed his persuasive skills to a fine edge over the centuries, and she let him get away with almost anything as long as he remained loyal to their cause.
“Something about her disturbs you.”
The seconds ticked by without further explanation. Whatever caused him such obvious distress kept him closed-mouthed, jaw tight, and determined to hold onto his secret. It made her eyes narrow as she contemplated torturing the information out of him. “Do you know what I could do to you if you refuse to tell me the truth?”
Nicolau simply answered affirmatively without a whiff of the fear she had noted when he set eyes upon Drusilla. “Yes.” Did he believe her incapable of destroying him because he was such a beautiful distraction in her often-ugly world?
“You will tell me.”
“When the time comes, my priestess,” his tone softened with the promise assuring her that his need to withhold information was not done out of disloyalty to her. “When all is prepared for the Rites of Tavrok, and our future secured. Only then can I speak of it.”
“So be it.”
Nicolau bowed again, and then turned his eyes back to the ring of fire and the crowd gathered within the mansion’s lounge. He began to describe what little he knew of those present. Most of it was second or third-hand knowledge. Rumors, mainly, or reports sent by his Galician subjects, one of them maintaining a close connection to someone in the Watchers Council.
“Here is one you will know more intimately in the days ahead, Kalesh. This beautiful one is Cordelia Chase. She is of the Varstrae, but also Angelus’ lover. That is why he is being so temperamental.”
Beautiful, yes, Kalesh assessed with a practiced eye, full of life and youth and possessed of the untapped potential identifying her as one of the Pure. Interesting company, she kept, this human. Temper or not, the vampire had no choice in the matter of Cordelia Chase. He would release her into their possession, join them, or die.
Sensing even more power in the room, her attention turned. “What of that one?”
The image zeroed in on a conversation between a tall and gangly human male, and a familiar brunette. “So the little demon offered us these books for five thousand bucks,” she was telling him. “Not exactly pocket change.”
Noting the multi-colored bruises layering her jaw, Nicolau still managed to identify her. The mayor’s little protégée, he recognized her easily enough despite the injuries. “That, my dear priestess, is a slayer, Faith Lehane. One of two slayers at this Hellmouth.”
Kalesh jerked back at the news. “Two?”
The creation myth of the Chosen One was as old as Kalesh herself. She was well aware of the continued existence of a slayer potentially at any given place and time throughout the history of the world, but had fortunately never crossed paths with one. Something that had seemed inevitable upon learning that Sunnydale’s Hellmouth was guarded by one who was rumored to be the slayer.
Now Nicolau had revealed there were a Chosen Two? Kalesh did not know how such a thing was possible. The danger one slayer posed to them in the coming days would be difficult enough to overcome, much less two. Her interest in the little gathering inside the mansion walls suddenly escalated to another level.
How could they hope to prevent Kalesh from achieving her destiny? It was prophesied that she would invoke the Rites of Tavrok to allow Amolon to achieve conquest of the Earth. His reign would last ten thousand years. She was certain their motley coalition’s efforts would end in failure.
The prophecy included the many challenges to be met in order to earn a place at the Amolon’s side. Only the worthy reaped the benefits yet Nicolau remained determined to bring Angelus and his progeny into the fold despite the oddity of his current company.
“Your kindred have allied themselves with slayers,” she pointed out in case he had not considered that it was such an unnatural a connection.
“No more than my master, Solaris taking up the banner of Amolon. Our kind does not normally worship demons,” he reminded her. “Angelus understands power. He will not allow himself or his kinsmen to be subjugated, and so he must ally himself with us.”
“Must he? Perhaps Angelus has already chosen the only side he can,” Kalesh poked at the hole in his theory. “Knowing your protective tendencies toward your mate, I seriously doubt that anyone of Angelus’ reputation would hand his own over to you without a fight.”
Nicolau assured her that the Pure One would be taken into his custody before the next full moon. “Trust me, Kalesh. If Angelus does not surrender her, Cordelia Chase will give herself over to me of her own free will.”
There was that charmingly smug sense of confidence again. “See to it, Nicolau. Allowing the human her freedom gives them hope.” A sneer streaked across her haggard face at the sound of the word, her disdain clear. “Yet I allow it. Play your games with your prey, vampire, for I know it is simply your nature. Keep them occupied. Distracted. Once I have acquired the final objects of power, I expect you to bring the last of the Varstrae to me. Do not fail.”