Section 7: The Kingdom

Part Twenty-Three

Oh, Cordelia Chase was happy, and happiness was rare. Kendra, you see, refusing to socialize or maintain more than a shadowy public presence, couldn’t spend much time in the high school — and couldn’t go wandering the halls aimlessly. This meant she HAD to let Xander and Cordelia go undercover when the fish-monsters started appearing in Sunnydale.

Kendra’s discomfort wasn’t the only thing making her happy. One of the jocks on the swim team was taking a course in ultra-remedial computer use and flunking even that. So Ms. Calendar naturally flunked him. Snyder was NOT happy with this, of course — failing an important athlete JUST when the swim team was doing well — but he was trying to intimidate the wrong person in Jenny Calendar. She told him where to go, where to stick his ideas, and how fast that lawsuit she filed would get national prominence if he dared to put so much as an ounce more of pressure on her, now GET OUT!

Caught between the rock of pressure for a good team and the hard place of negative publicity from a lawsuit, he backed off, grumbling. Jenny Calendar was quite probably the only person in Sunnydale who could tell Snyder where to go and get away with it. Cordelia had laughed for hours when the teacher recounted the story. Briefly, so had Xander and Giles.

Briefly. And she knew why. Buffy, still gone after four months. Joyce Summers, a shattered, broken woman, losing her art gallery, had spent most of her time drinking herself into oblivion. Despite the help of Xander, Cordelia, and a very guilty Giles and a similarly guilty-looking Hank Summers, last week she’d succeeded. She’d just never recovered from Buffy’s disappearance.

At the funeral, Hank Summers, in obvious agony, had confessed to a stunned Xander and Cordelia that he’d KNOWN Buffy was alive — that when he’d been there in January searching, he’d been kidnapped and shown Buffy chained to the wall in a place that looked much like her room here in Sunnydale. But Spike had only shown Buffy to him alive on the condition that he give up the pressure, tell no one, and leave town. So he’d gone, and kept his word.

Telling him that Spike was about as likely to keep his word as he was to go sunbathing was counterproductive. They were properly shocked and stunned — and faked a little happiness at the knowledge that she HAD survived — but told him that it really hadn’t been his fault.

They were unconvincing, but at least Hank Summers, depressed, miserable, had one thing to cling to: His absolute CERTAINTY that Buffy was alive. No need for a suicide watch, and he seemed much stronger emotionally than his ex-wife had ever been.

And Cordelia didn’t blame Hank Summers. She blamed Rupert Giles. Hank Summers had way better reason to not tell Joyce than Giles did. Giles knew EXACTLY what was going on and had, in essence, ordered them not to tell Buffy’s mother, and, reluctantly trusting his so-called better judgment, they’d all gone along with it.

And this was the result. How could it have been worse? Giles — and Ms. Calendar, who’d agreed with the Watcher — felt extremely guilty, but Giles had been the one more or less in charge, so she blamed him more. He felt guilty. He deserved to.

Whether she and Xander should have rebelled and told Mrs. Summers themselves is NOT something she thought about often, if at all.

But now? Crisis again, no time for angry and bitter recriminations. Life was an endless cycle of work, fights, truces and holding actions. They were slipping further and further backwards, though. The holding action simply wasn’t, well, holding.

So, the crisis: Two members of the swim team vanishing, two hideous sea monsters showing up. Two and two made two, so SOMETHING was changing her classmates. Question is, what?

And Kendra couldn’t do anything. Not only couldn’t she stay in the school too long, she wasn’t the right gender to infiltrate the swim team. So the other Slayer had to hole up in Giles’ office and wait for Xander to pass on information. Which meant she was there researching in the old books at the same time Cordelia was looking up information on various bizarre methods of changing people. So far, she was having more luck looking at grade Z science fiction movies than any magic-oriented sites, posting boards or chat rooms.

Xander hadn’t noted any pills, atypical injections or mysterious powders being added to their food — an early suggestion of Ms. Calendar’s — so there had to be something else being done to them.

Of course, Cordelia had almost fainted at the sight of Xander in that Speedo — as did a number of other women, including, she was thrilled to notice, her former friends. She didn’t have time for more than one quick taunting look at them, but she packed seven months of frustration into that look. They’d taken one look at her face and cowered.

God! She didn’t mean to pack THAT much frustration into it.

*                              *                              *

“I should be out there. Work like this is no job for civilians.”

Jenny Calendar had thought she could put up with anyone. Kendra was severely testing her. Unlike Rupert, Xander and Cordelia, she didn’t hold Kendra entirely responsible for Buffy’s breakdown. This made her no more pleasant to deal with.

On a flimsy excuse — though Jenny couldn’t blame him — Rupert had taken Cordelia to go look up some information at the local library. This unfortunately left her there to babysit an irritated and unfriendly Slayer.

So she asked Kendra pleasantly, “Have you joined the military recently?”

Surprised at the question, the girl said, “No.”

A touch of steel in her voice — just a touch — “Then you’re a civilian, too. Please stop looking down your nose at the rest of us because we don’t have superhuman strength, and because we choose to have emotional attachments in our lives. You are NOT better than we are.”

“But at certain things I AM better. I am far better equipped to fight demons and vampires than any of you. These sea monsters certainly qualify. It is so frustrating not being able to do my job. Something you could not possibly understand.”

All right, enough. She wheeled out from behind the table and faced the other Slayer. “Look at me, Kendra. Do you think I don’t know what it’s like to be frustrated? I’m not even going to talk about the pain and anguish I’ve felt at losing Willow, Buffy, and watching a good, kind woman like Joyce Summers drink herself to death partially because of me, because that would smack of emotion to you. I won’t even mention that I don’t ride around in this wheelchair because I’m lazy. You think it isn’t a source of frustation not being able to WALK? Or do you simply not care? No, what I’m going to mention is this: The bad guys seem to be winning. Spike has been holding Buffy for four months, doing God knows what, and none of us has been able to find her — even you and your so-called superior Slayer skills. We’ve had people killed and injured who shouldn’t have been, Rupert has parts of a prophecy that inidcate that the only person who can save the world has been dead since early November, and here you are, sitting around and whining.”

Kendra stood up, but on a glare from Jenny sat back down. “Here you are,” the computer teacher said, “FRUSTRATED because people are helping you do a difficult task. FRUSTRATED because you can’t be part of the action. FRUSTRATED because other people, including your Watcher, dare to have feelings, emotions and personal lives. Do you have any idea how little Rupert cares for you? This is the man that should be working his butt off to give you the best possible aid and protection, and instead he can stand to be around you so little that he runs off at the earliest oppportunity. And never doubt this, Kendra — Rupert Giles is a thorough professional.

“After all of this, YOU have the chutzpah to claim that we wouldn’t understand your frustration? You’ve never experienced a moment of real frustration in your life. So quit your whining, quit acting like this is all a big burden on you, sit down and shut up. Wait for Giles or Xander to give a clue, okay?”

Her nostrils flared, possibly the first sign Kendra’d shown that she wasn’t actually a surgically altered Vulcan, but she said nothing. Still, the next twenty minutes were quite peaceful. Kendra sharpened stakes and read through a book on demons of the ocean, which freed Jenny up for some rare relaxation time spent on a technopagan posting board. Then she had a thought and consulted the Sunnydale High web page.

The two swimmers who had turned so far had been the two best on the team. She brought this up to Kendra, whose eyes brightened as she said, “What is the name of the swimmer who was third?”

“One moment … Gage Petronzi.”

“May I see a picture of Mr. Petronzi?”

Fortunately, there was one available. Jenny called it up. Kendra examined it closely and then said, “I shall find this Mr. Petronzi when he leaves school today and trail him. Perhaps I shall find something out this way.” She rose as if to leave. “Kindly inform my Watcher, if you would.” Jenny indicated that she would do so and Kendra slipped out of the room silently.

Of course, she hadn’t said thank you.

*                              *                              *

Ms. Calendar, unfortunately, had had her idea one day too late. At that moment Gage Petronzi was screaming in shock and more than a little pain on the floor of the men’s locker room. Xander, who had just left, rushed back in and found one of the sea demons standing over Gage’s writhing figure. Damn. He wasn’t up for dealing with this, but as he moved in slowly to look at Gage, the monster got in his way.

In shock and fascination Xander watched as Gage pulled himself to his knees and tore off, first his shirt, then his flesh. They’d been fairly sure that the demons WERE mutated members of the swim team, but this was closer and grosser proof than he cared to see.

Honestly, this wasn’t really the distraction from their utter inability to find Buffy that he’d hoped. For months he and Cordy had done nothing but hunt vampires, with no solid results.

Well, not entirely true. They HAD killed better than fifteen vampires, which was fifteen fewer demons who could drain, kill and convert the residents of Sunnydale. This was a good thing. But they weren’t what mattered.

ONLY finding Buffy mattered. Not even protecting Sunnydale from this influx of sea monsters qualified as worthwhile, really. Every spare moment he didn’t spend sleeping, eating, or in enforced relaxation time with Cordy was time wasted.

He shook himself free of those thoughts as Gage finished ripping off his skin and faced them. The two monsters looked at each other and then faced Xander, who was essecntially weaponless and not dumb enough to take on two of these things at once. As they roared he backed away slowly. They showed no signs of chasing him, instead simply sniffing and looking at each other before running off. Puzzled, Xander followed them until they dropped through a grate into the sewers of Sunnydale.

He raced off to tell Giles — and, reluctantly, Kendra — about Gage’s conversion and the monsters now loose in the Sunnydale sewers. As he dashed down the hall he wondered idly what would happen if one of the sea demons encountered a vampire. Lost in thought, he smashed into Sean — one of the other guys on the swim team. What the hell, if subtle investigation doesn’t work, try force. Xander apologized and then whispered in Sean’s ear, using all those intimidation tactics he’d picked up from those brief soldiering memories, “Come with me to the library right now or I’ll break your neck.”

People had noticed Xander’s changed attitude, but they hadn’t suspected him of trying to turn himself into the school psycho. Element of surprise. Either Sean was stunned into silence or believed what Xander said, because he did nothing to avoid being dragged to the library.

Ms. Calendar was in the office, alone, on the computer. Xander threw Sean down into a chair and said, “Okay, talk. I’m working undercover with, um, the cops and Ms. Calendar here is in on it, too. We know the swim team is using steroids but we don’t know how. TALK!”

“Huh? What?”

Ms. Calendar shot him a look that said “this had BETTER work” and added, “Two of your classmates —”

“Three,” Xander interrupted.

“Three have disappeared. It could be the steroids.” Ms. C. didn’t do violent and threatening very well, but wasn’t trying to. Her next words were, gently, “Do you want to be next?”

And, amazingly, the impromptu good cop/bad cop worked. Sean spilled as much as he knew — the coach and the nurse together were putting some kind of bizarre steroid mixture in the steam of the sauna. This meant Xander had been affected — but no big deal, they could deal with THAT later.

From then on it was fairly easy. Kendra dropped into the sewers to chase the monsters away — which she did fairly easily — and Giles confronted the coach and the nurse. The nurse —who’d been pressured into it anyway — retired, but the coach would admit nothing.

“You will not cease administering that drug?” Giles asked.

“What are you talking about?” the coach did confused very well, but Giles wasn’t buying any of it. He gestured for Xander to remove the grate, and without another word pitched the coach into the muck below and jumped down himself.

“There are important things I could be doing. People I care about I could be aiding. Instead,” Giles said, “I am here in a sewer with you.” Xander heard rather than saw what came next — but when the two of them emerged the Coach, bruised over his entire body, couldn’t WAIT to get the hell out of Sunnydale.

Damn time. Now they could concentrate on important things.

Things like Buffy. They WOULD find her.

Was it just him, or was that promise sounding more and more hollow?

*                              *                              *

Two important things happened elsewhere in Sunnydale over the next two days.

One was the discovery of a large stone box.

The other was that Spike walked into where a thoroughly confused, demoralized, and mentally and occasionally physically battered Slayer was sitting listlessly on her bed.

“Another vampire, Spike?” she asked.

“No, Slayer. You see, I’m going to need your help. A great evil has come to Sunnydale — worse than me. I’m going to need your help to stop it. Are you with me?”

All the Slayer heard was great evil. This was what she was born to do. Ignoring the faint interior screams of that small fragment of Buffy Summers still left within her, she stood up and shook Spike’s hand. “You know it,” she said.

*                              *                              *

Somewhere, a demon named Whistler spent several hours trying to invent new swear words, then headed off for Sunnydale.

Part Twenty-Four

Whistler was demon only on a technicality. In actuality, he served neither the causes of good or evil, instead striving to maintain some balance between the two. He’d had fairly good luck for a number of years.

Until Angel. He’d been so sure that Angel would be the one to protect the world when Acathla was finally unearthed, he’d recruited him to watch and aid the Slayer as a hedge against that day.

What in Martha’s Vineyard had gone wrong? Nothing had foretold that Angel would meet his death at the hands of Spike, and Whistler had some pretty reliable sources. None of this looking it up in books, relying on obscure prophecies for him, no sir! He had a direct hotline to some of the more powerful supernatural forces going, and not ONE of them saw that this was going to happen.

Scratch THEM off his Christmas card list.

Worse still, no realistic way for Angel to come back, either. Now, things hadn’t entirely gone to hell, though from the looks of things the world was well on its way there. Anyone else he could bring in had much less chance of succeeding without something going horribly wrong.

Flash that whoever could close the gateway would lose something. Would lose pretty much everything. Vampire, Slayer, they might have the strength to recover. But neither of them were up for the job at the moment, what with Angel being dead and the Slayer being a candidate for any one of several laughing academies. Doesn’t mean she can’t do it, but still, putting trust in the certifiable is, well, certifiable.

Don’t ask him how he does it, he just does it. Once he’d known that Acathla had been unearthed, he spent the next few hours cursing and swearing.

Unproductive, yeah, but it did wonders for the disposition. By the time it was done he no longer felt like strangling the archaeologists, the museum that sent them there and the jackasses that had invented the heavy digging tools.

He still felt like finding Spike and staking him several places the sun wouldn’t ever shine, but he COULDN’T do that. No more than advice.

Well, this time evil was due to win the big one, that gave him a bit more license. Didn’t have to be so damned cryptic.

Closed his eyes. Smack dab in the middle of beautiful downtown Sunnydale, he was. Time to get his bearings, figure out what to do next.

And get a damned bath. This place was messing up his clothes something fierce!

*                              *                              *

Xander and Cordelia were fighting three vampires in the cemetery. Two were obvious youngsters, but they’d gotten lucky — the third seemed older. He might know something.

Lucky was a relative term, of course. First they had to survive. Xander had knocked one of the three out with the bullets to the head — and dusted as as quickly. One of the other one got in a lucky blow and knocked the pistol across the cemetery, then jumped him. A quick blow with the club and a stake to the heart and it was over.

He looked over at Cordelia, in an all-black sweatsuit covering partial body armor. The other vampire was slowly advancing towards her — and Cordelia, being no fool, knowing there was no CHANCE she could grapple with a vampire, was rapidly backing away, feigning panic. This was a common technique for Cordy when she fought alone. Scream and act like the person she was a year ago would have done, wait for the vampire to relax and assume an easy kill, and yank out the hand-held crossbow and fire it — or a stake. She wasn’t half as good as Buffy had been, but it was more than enough, most of the time.

This wasn’t one of those times, unfortunately, and though Cordy had the stake out the vampire jumped at her too quickly for her to get it ready. So Xander quickly pulled out his other pistol and, aiming carefully, clipped the vamp in the back of the head and the back of the neck. Wounded, shocked, the demon jerked back, giving his girlfriend the leverage she needed to kick the dead thing off of her. Seconds later she had a stake at its heart and he was holding his spare pistol at its head.

“I know what you’re thinking,” he deadpanned. “Has he fired five bullets, or six? Maybe I don’t know myself. So, ask yourself this. Do you —”

The vampire grumbled, “You fired two, AND you’re badly botching the quote.” Xander looked at him with an annoyed expression on his face. “What?” he demanded. “Can’t a vampire be a Clint Eastwood fan?”

Well, that shot THAT little schtick down. “Okay, let’s can the small talk,” Xander said. “Tell us where Spike’s headquarters are, and …”

“What, you’ll let me live? Doubtful.”

“Truthful!” Cordy said. “We swear we’ll release you.”

“And then Spike kills me,” he growled. “No thanks.”

Xander was tired. This wasn’t very productive, and it certainly didn’t qualify as witty banter. He snarled back, “So, either way, you die. Least our way you get a running start.”

The vampire thought for a second and apparently gave in. “I don’t know where his personal hideout is. He doesn’t HAVE us all hole up the same place all the time; we have a number of places. We were told, we see the two of you coming, we bolt. Through the sewers and away, across the streets, doesn’t matter.”

“WHERE ARE THESE LAIRS?” Xander and Cordelia shouted in unison. The vampire described two warehouses — including the original one they’d JUST missed Buffy at — an abandoned shop, and underneath a rundown bar. NOT the one Willy was at. That slimebag had bolted town way back in November.

And, of course, Xander had vowed to beat the little rodent to within an inch of his life if he ever saw him again, but apparently Willy had a strong survival instinct.

Every once in a while Xander noticed how quick to violence, how easy to anger, he’d become since the beginning of the year. It used to bother him, but not any more. They were fighting a Goddamn war here.

In a snarl more humorous than menacing, Cordelia asked, “Is that it?” The vampire nodded.

“All right then,” Xander said pleasantly. “See how easy that was?” Cordelia slowly backed off as Xander pulled out his club and held it at the vamp’s heart. “You can stand up now.” Holding a bead on the vampire’s head with the pistol, he let the vamp stand up. “Well, you kept your word, so we’ll keep ours. Cordy! I’d say he’s been released, wouldn’t you?”

“I’M not holding him,” Cordelia said as she whipped out the hand-held crossbow. She waited for the vampire’s eye-popping and jaw-dropping act to reach maximum, then with one shot got it through the heart.

They held hands and whistled merrily as they left the graveyard. Things were FINALLY looking up.

Spike had watched the entire encounter from behind a tree. It HAD been a damn shame to sacrifice Wayne like that, but otherwise he’d say things were FINALLY looking up. He turned to the girl next to him and said, “See what I mean, Slayer? Your friends would never do that if they hadn’t gone evil. Something worse than me’s lurking around here.”

Buffy Summers could have spotted the deception in seconds. This was only nominally Buffy Summers.

*                              *                              *

One of Rupert Giles’ worst fears was coming true.

It was a sign of the times that he had to qualify the previous phrase, but so be it.

His nervousness had been building ever since Doug Perren at the museum had called him about a relic he’d unearthed, and when he saw the box it was all he could do to stop from running gibbering off into the streets.

This was bad, very bad. From the nature of the runes he STRONGLY suspected this was somehow connected to what Angel was supposed to stop. He’d been having those feelings for months, ever since he first saw the engraving with, literally, the world hanging in the balance. That the feelings erupted with every bizarre occurrence were of no moment. This was it, he knew it.

Of course, he needed to translate the runes first — he must have scared Mr. Perren practically to death with his insistent demands that the box NOT be opened, but he really didn’t have the patience or inclination to be polite.

This also frightened him sometimes, but right now wasn’t one of those times. He was too scared for the world to be frightened for himself.

Or at himself. And in any event, Mr. Perren had agreed, although not without questioning Giles’ sanity in the process. No questions he hadn’t asked at some point, though.

Anyway. He was allowing himself to get too distracted. He had to work on translating these runes. Xander and Cordelia were looking at one of the sites they’d wormed out of last night’s vampire. Finally. Some progress on where Buffy was. He wished he could be of more than moral support, but they weren’t engaged in the kind of work that required much in the way of prophecies or research in obscure texts.

For the most part, neither was Kendra. Despite her pride in being the Slayer, apart from killing vampires she had quite honestly not done all that much — unless once counting killing an innocent werewolf, arrogantly rebuffing suggestions of a child-killing monster as groundless (despite which children continued to die), and standing around whining about a lack of respect while Xander put his own life at risk.

But Kendra had come here because of some great evil due to occur, and this could very well be it. She’d have to be brought on board fairly soon. She reported in once a day, so he’d fill her in later tonight. He had no idea how she ate or otherwise survived — he did tend to any wounds she received, which were few and far between, as the one thing she WAS good at was Slaying vampires. Her fighting technique, and her studying, were flawless.

Too bad, really, that sometimes it seemed she had no more soul than the vampires she hunted.

Ah well. Back to studying.

*                              *                              *

This couldn’t have worked out better if he’d designed it himself. The Slayer finally working with him — and Buffy Summers inside screaming, yelling at all of it, unable to stop her less rational, demon-hating self from thinking an alliance with Spike was a good thing — life was good.

Even better — that set-up with Wayne had worked perfectly. Give away a few locations — and after the warning he gave his cohorts, anyone caught hiding out THERE over the next few days pretty much deserved what they got. Just enough clues for them to puzzle things out, a bit too late.

To be on the safe side, he’d moved his headquarters for probably the last time — to a place where none of the Slayer’s friends would ever even think of looking. Did bloody well strike him as poetic justice, though.

And he’d have to wait until at least one of them was here to witness his triumph over the Slayer. Wouldn’t be any damn fun if no one knew about it. The new Slayer would have to go, of course … but that shouldn’t be any problem. He’d been keeping an eye on this Kendra. A ruthless, vicious, almost emotionless destroyer of the supernatural, tainted only by a powerful, pure devotion to the cause of good. Perhaps she’d make a good vampire … no.

He had a better idea, if he could pull it off. And it would twist yet another knife into the soul of Buffy Summers.

First things first, though. He picked up a copy of the paper and walked over to where the Slayer was sitting. “Here you go. This is what’s causing all the problems.” Something — he suspected the hand of his beloved black goddess at work, here — had led him to read a copy of the morning paper.

The paperboy himself had made an EXCELLENT snack, too, before being turned. An annoying little twerp, but he’d serve his purpose. He’d be left in one of the “compromised” safe houses.

The Slayer looked up from the Sunnydale Press, which read, “Mysterious Obelisk Unearthed.” Underneath, in a subheading, it went on, “Excavators Discover Ancient Artifact.” There was SOMETHING in that box. Something that would reunite him with his Dru. Spike’s thoughts were broken the Slayer saying, “Explain to me again, Spike; how does stopping this evil benefit you? And why shouldn’t I just kill you now and THEN destroy this evil?”

“The first? Well, its power rivals mine. I’m not all that interested in having any damned rivals for control of this not especially fair city. And the second? You’ve not been affected by the evil, so you still keep your word, unlike your ex-friends. We DO have a deal, right, Slayer?”

“Right,” she said tonelessly. “So what does this artifact have to do with it?”

Spike faked surprise. “Why, Slayer, it’s causing the evil. All WE need to do is get the box and figure out how to banish the evil from the land. The two of us, working together and all, could probably take down the Terminator, so one measly demon in a box should hardly prove a challenging task.”

“Of course not,” she answered.

“Why don’t you go upstairs and get some rest? You seem exhausted.” The Slayer left the room. Spike turned to the other vampires lounging about. “Okay, people, let’s get this place cleaned out. I want you working like there’s no tomorrow.” He skipped a beat. “Because soon enough, there WON’T be.”

Part Twenty-Five

That night, Spike and the Slayer entered the museum, flanked by a couple of other vampires. She’d told Spike that as long as she was helping them, no killing. The people were possessed and not responsible for their own evil.

While he’d made a great show of pretending to agree, all he warned his minions was to be careful not to drain anyone in front of the Slayer. She seemed perfectly willing to accept collateral damage, but he wasn’t sure how far she could push her.

So, there they were, standing in front of the obelisk. “It’s in here, all right,” he told the Slayer. He looked at his forces. “I think we needed to bring a larger moving crew, though.” They’d had the sense to steal a van — some God-awful, filthy thing all painted with zebra stripes — but getting it out there might prove an annoyance.

“Leave that to me,” she said and went up to the block, pushing it from all sides. She directed the other two vampires to the other side and warned them to be ready. Then she started rocking the block back and forth.

The two vampires on the other end nervously looked towards Spike, but the look he gave them indicated that they’d be far better off smashed under the block than either drop it or refuse to catch it.

While the Slayer worked on the big rock, Spike noticed a potential witness and limped over to a man, paralyzed halfway between fear and indignation.

Couldn’t have that, so Spike made the decision for him, putting on his full demon face and shoving the man back into his office. Quickly he fed, then broke the man’s neck. Couldn’t do to have witnesses about, you know. Spike rapidly shoved the dead body back into the shadows, wiped off his mouth, and walked out to the main room.

The Slayer had the front of the block and the two vampires, a bit wobbly, had the back half. “Spike,” the Slayer said, not raising her voice, “Tell your two underlings to be a bit steadier or I might — ACCIDENTALLY — drop this on their heads.”

“You heard the lady, gents,” Spike said. “I’d do it myself, of course, but I’ve got this bad foot …”

Mistake. Emotion flared in the Slayer’s eyes and for a second he could see Buffy Summers in that hurt, anguished, furious face. Just as the vampire began to worry, the Slayer reasserted herself. Damn, that’s cutting it too close. She said nothing and simply nodded, shouldering her burden and walking towards the museum’s front door.

Major stake dodged, there. Still, if anything it gave him a touch of confidence; he’d just tossed the Slayer a reminder of one of the most emotional nights of her life and Buffy Summers only BARELY peeked out.

And she looked in such agony … tortured, really. Such a Goddam pity, that. He’d like to see more of that pain … Spike led the way and they drove back to their new headquarters. No room inside the van, with the block, for the other two vampires, but long as they holed up quickly enough, no problems.

From the shadows inside the museum Whistler watched and began to swear again. The Slayer, working with the vampire leader, and willingly. Oh, not good. So not good.

And his options were more limited than KFC’s menu. This other Slayer would try to kill him soon as look at him. Not worried for his life, exactly, but it’s a little tough to save the world with someone whose main concern is slitting your throat. The Watcher was soon due for his own problems, and the technopagan, while the most mentally and emotionally alert of the bunch — no great shakes, really, to pull off — wasn’t physically able to do what was necessary. No, it’d have to be the two teenagers.

But the odds were stacked WAY against them. What could he do to even them just a little? He saw the two vampires loitering around outside the museum and got an idea. He walked up to them. They snarled and he said, “Whoa! Whoa! Take a sniff, boys, I ain’t on your menu. Demon, just like you. Well, maybe a little better, but —”

“What do you want?”

“Get you out of the public eye, what else? Hey, you got a Slayer and two ticked-off humans on the lookout for your kind, and we demons gotta stick together. Know what I’m sayin’?” He put an arm around each of their shoulders and led them off to a so-called safe house.

Course, this one had been COMPROMISED last night, but what are you gonna do, eh?

*                              *                              *

Xander said it was poetic, but if it was it was some mondo weird poetry Cordelia’d never heard. They’d been to two of the three safe houses and, bad luck, gotten nothing but one rookie, too dumb or bloodhungry to run. He wouldn’t have known anything, in any event; they killed him between breaths and moved on.

This was their first lead, if it didn’t pan out they’d — they’d — well, she wasn’t exactly sure, but being extremely depressed was only a small part of it. If Giles was right — and, being super study guy, he usually WAS — they wouldn’t have much time to get depressed. Things were about to get hairier than a werewolf’s behind, and they NEEDED someone trustworthy to stop it. This box the museum geeks found had some kind of ritual written on the outside that involved bringing about hell on earth, literally.

She drove up to the third “safe house” and they slowly got out of the car. Leaning over, she whispered to Xander, “Does this place seem familiar to you?”

“Well, we never made out here —” THERE was a hint of Xander’s humor. His grin faded as he took a closer look at the building. “Yeah,” he said grimly. “This is where we first caught wind of what Spike was doing — the warehouse where Spike threw that damn ‘birthday’ party for Buffy.”

And much as the wanted the lightness to continue, she couldn’t help but feel like she was walking on the grave of someone who wasn’t dead. All attempts at lightening the moment gone, she turned back to the task at hand. “Ready?” she told her boyfriend.

“As I’ll ever be.” She double-checked her body armor and loaded her hand-held crossbow, as he reloaded both pistols. His club was in a holster at his side. They snuck around to a side entrance and checked the door. Open.

“I think these people could use some training in home security,” she quietly told Xander.

Snorting, he said, “I for one am absolutely thrilled. Hard enough taking on vampires, imagine vampires AND rent-a-cops?” She kissed him briefly and, before they entered, Cordelia told him what she always told him. “Be careful.”

“You, too.” Then they slowly pushed the door open and scanned the area. She pointed to a flicker of light towards one corner and they crept towards it. As typical, they listened in. Three voices — two gruff voices, one male, one female, and one slick-talking man. The last one sounded more like your annoying, lecherous cousin than a vampire, but it took all kinds to make a vampire world, too, apparently.

They peeked at the sitch. The fast-talker — wearing a really goofy hat — was on the far side of the room. Xander pointed to the one nearer them on the left, Cordelia nodded, and they were off.

Xander shot the woman in the chest. The other one looked around in shock and yelled, “Hey, Whistler, you said we was gonna be safe!”

“Yeah, well, I lied.” Hatboy — Whistler? — said. “Don’t think it hasn’t been a blast, because it hasn’t, but I gotta book. Later!” He sprinted off towards the far end. The talker spun to face the teenagers — but in a second only ashes were spinning, and they faced the one Xander had shot. Whistler was long gone, and any questions they had about him would have to wait.

Pressure time. Cordelia stood back and aimed the crossbow while Xander took his typical stance, gun pointed at the vampire’s head. No, bullets wouldn’t kill vampires, but a shot to the head would still hurt the hell out of them — and enough would turn them into walking fruit salad.

They knew this from experience. Kendra had come across them and given them a REALLY disgusted look, saying, “It is enough to kill them, there is no need for torture.” Cordelia didn’t even consider that Kendra may have been right this time; the respect they had for the Caribbean Queen could have been safely contained in a tube of lipstick, with room enough for both Cordy’s makeup and Xander’s club.

Kendra could be right about NOTHING. Period. How DARE she replace Buffy?

Anyway. Concentrate, Cordelia! The vampire groaned and then began swearing in a mix of Spanish and English. She tried to rise, but wisely stopped when she saw the gun and the crossbow. “You want to know where Spike and the Slayer are, don’t you?” she said with a slight Mexican accent. Xander nodded. “See, here’s my problem,” the vamp continued. “I know the way the two of you operate. I tell you, you kill me or Spike kills me. I don’t tell you, you kill me. No matter how you look at it, I’m not long for this world.” She stopped for a second, and then smiled. “So I’ll screw EVERYONE. Spike’s where you wouldn’t expect him. Sick–” Screaming loudly, she charged towards Cordelia, who shot off a bolt that turned her to ashes as she leapt.

Then Cordelia joined Xander in some creative swearing. Their best lead and they get one syllable and a cryptic hint. Typical of the way their luck was running.

“Sick?” Xander asked. “What do you think she meant by sick?”

“Sick? Cyclical? Sickness? What words begin with that syllable? And what did she MEAN by it’s where we’d never expect him?”

“Where’s the last place you’d expect to find Spike?” Xander asked.

The lech’s voice shot through the darkness. “The set of Baywatch, but I’ll tell you right now, he ain’t there.”

Weapons flew to hands like they were born to go there. Whistler walked out of the darkness, took a look at the weapons, and with a disgusted look on his face said, “Who, whoa, whoa! Cut the tension in THIS room with an unsharpened pencil. Put the weapons down so we can talk, okay?” Cordelia looked at Xander, and neither moved. “You know,” Whistler continued, “used to be you people had things called trust, concern and compassion. Though what you all have gone through in the last year, I guess, I should be glad you’re not all gibbering idiots.” He pulled a cross from his pocket and pressed it against his face. NOT a vampire.

“Who are you?” Xander snapped.

“Name’s Whistler. I’m what you might call an agent of balance. The bloodboys trusted me ’cause, well, technically I am a demon. Just not a bad guy. I’m here because we’ve got a problem. You gotta find Spike and Buffy before a certain ritual begins. Oh, and far as the location goes — let’s just say it’s a numbers game, okay? Not much more I can say.” He got serious for a second. “Except, well, you gotta be ready to lose, and lose pretty much everything.” Sighing, he turned to go.

“Wait!” Cordelia called after him. “Aren’t you gonna tell us anything else?”

“Can’t yet. Sorry.” He headed back into the darkness, and when the two teenagers chased after him he’d vanished.

“It’s better than nothing,” Xander said. “Come on. We need to tell Giles, see if he’s heard of a demon named Whistler. Could be we’re just getting jerked around.” He walked out to the car and a second later Cordelia followed.

Suspicion, hostility, irritation, mistrust. Love that was more for the sake of having someone to hold on to than anything else. Way little humor.

They weren’t just racing against time to stop this mysterious plot of Spike’s. They were racing against time to save their own souls.

And Cordelia was scared witless that time was winning.

*                              *                              *

Rupert Giles sat, translating the runes again to be safe. Kendra was due to come in in an hour, as were Xander and Cordelia, and he wanted to be absolutely certain that his translation was right. The demon Acathla, trapped in statue form, lay inside the box — and the runes were the ritual for invoking him, and opening the path to hell’s dominion over Earth.

Angel was involved somehow, this he knew from the engraving. It seemed that ANYONE could perform the ritual, but it would require Angel to stop it. And, again, he had no idea how this could come to pass.

Was it symbolic, perhaps? Perhaps Angel’s spirit — or what an Angel represents? Purity, innocence, goodness?

They were still in trouble. None of them qualified as pure or good, any more. And — what was the phrase? Ah. “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.” Well, they’d broken enough eggs to feed England for a year and they were no closer to making the stupid omelet. So they weren’t innocent either.

Depressed and resigned as Rupert Giles got, though, he still hadn’t given up that one essential idea that they were the good guys, and they would win. They would find Buffy, rescue her from Spike, dump Acathla into the ocean and live happily ever after as Kendra went back to fighting zombies in the Caribbean.

Had Rupert Giles been as strictly a logical a man as he sometimes pretended to be, he would have given up a long time ago. “The wisdom to the know the difference” would have caused him to give up and just quietly sob as the world came to an end. The odds were stacked against them. They’d been stacked before.

But before, always, Buffy. Now …?

That way lay madness.

The phone rang. “Oh, hello, Jenny. You will be here, right?”

“Of course, Rupert. I just got the news over the radio — are you sitting down?” Quickly he seated himself. “There was just a break-in at the museum. Doug Perren is dead, and —”

Had he not been seated in the chair, Giles would have dropped to the floor in a dead faint. The ONE advantage they’d had … Calmly, he told her, “I should have expected as much. Thanks for the news, Jenny. This accelerates things rather dramatically.”

“It’s okay to be angry, Rupert.”

“No, Jenny, it’s not. I can’t afford to get angry right now. If I get mad, I shall surely go mad.” Quiet good-byes, and they hung up.

He turned back to the books, the engravings and the translation.

There had to be a hope to cling to.

There HAD to, there had to …

Part Twenty-Six

Jenny pulled up in her van 45 minutes after she’d called Rupert about the news report. She was extremely worried about his mental condition. Precarious at best ever since Buffy left, nothing in the intervening months had really done much to pull him away from the precipice. And certain things, such as Kendra and this engraving, were actively sending him over the edge.

Of course, if Rupert was even close to right, his sanity wasn’t much of an issue. He would gladly go over the edge personally if it meant saving the world, but it wasn’t something she was especially keen on.

After she’d gotten done with the phone call, she’d been overwhelmed by a not especially vague sense of unease. Practically every technopagan she’d been in contact with had indicated that some bad juju, mojo, whatever the hell cool magic word you used was going down sometime in the next 36 hours, right here in good old Sunnydale. Half of them were making hasty plans to move to Capetown, South Africa and the other half were telling off their bosses and confessing secret passions. All were praying to every god, goddess, saint and demiurge they could name, and several they couldn’t.

The bones told her nothing she didn’t already know, but something odd happened when she drew the Tarot cards — she couldn’t stop at five, and something made her identify the cards with people. No idea why, but she KNEW they had nothing to do with traditional Tarot.

First up was the Heirophant, upside down. That was Rupert.

The High priestess. Her, probably.

The Devil. Upside down. Spike.

The Empress, upside down. Buffy?

The Lovers. Xander and Cordelia.

The Chariot, upside down. Kendra.

And two she couldn’t assign. Temperance and the Star. The Star, she guessed, referred to Angel, but Temperance?

She had no idea what had possessed her to deal them out that way. She cleared her mind and dealt them again in the right formation. The four surrounding the center were Death, the Tower, the Moon and the Hanged Man. Though Jenny was only an occasional user of Tarot cards, she hadn’t seen a more depressing layout in years. The only note of hope was Judgment in the center. Against inexorable forces, downfall, fear and sacrifice was a single note of rebirth and absolution.

The center card was always the key, but as with true astrology, the cards impelled, not compelled. There was a way to win. Though there was an almost overpowering sense of despair, with only a hint of hope — Pandora’s box redux. And the further they dug in the box to find hope, the more monsters flew out at them.

The layout was something Rupert would want to know, too.

Anyway. She put on the brake and went back into her chair, then descended the van-lift and headed off for the school entrance. As she began to enter the library she saw Xander and Cordelia walking in from the other direction.

She called out, “Hey, kids!” Kids? Hardly appropriate; Xander carried himself like a drill sergeant more often than not, and Cordelia must have lost ten pounds in the last three months, and she’d hardly been overweight to begin with. While her disposition was still somewhat upbeat, she was starting to look more and more like a soldier herself.

Xander said, “Oh. Hey, Ms. Calendar. We may have just, finally, had a bit of luck. We finally caught a vampire that KNEW where Spike was.”

“Of course, it committed suicide before it said too much. Probably couldn’t stand to look at him —” Cordelia elbowed Xander playfully, and he shot her a dirty look in response. Then he smiled to take the sting out of the look, but she’d seen it and been hurt anyway.

Where was the resilience? Now, no one could bend without breaking.

She turned off her motor. “One of you push me in?” Cordelia nodded and together the three entered the library.

*                              *                              *

Ten minutes ago they’d come in. Seems both they and Ms. Calendar had news, but Giles insisted on waiting for Kendra. Why they should do so beat Xander all to hell. She was, really, worse than useless, and the way she betrayed them back in November, it was an even chance she’d blow this one somehow, too.

Cordelia was busily scanning the web for any references to Acathla they might have missed, and what she was finding gave new meaning to the term “pessimistic.” Basically, find Acathla, cast the ritual, wait for world to go to Hell.

Fun, fun, fun, ’til her daddy took her T-bird away.

And — Ms. Calendar had told them this much — the box containing the demon had been stolen, two guesses as to who’d done it, and the archaeologist had been drained and killed. So finding Spike took on a much greater significance than simply finding Buffy and beating the living hell out of her kidnapper.

Not that that wouldn’t be a WHOLE lot of fun.

FINALLY the Caribbean Queen came in, and with a sneering look at Xander and Cordelia walked up to her Watcher. “It is time. The great evil I felt coming is finally here. Am I not correct?”

“You are,” Giles said wearily. “The, the demon Acathla is now in Spike’s hands. The only thing we have going for us is that he would still need to get an accurate translation of the runes on the outside of the box. Once he does, though, we’re in for it. Fortunately, he doesn’t have much of a gift for languages, but that still does not give us much in the way of lead time. We’ve been searching for his hideout for months —”

“Good news, G-Man,” Xander interrupted. Kendra glared but said nothing, apaprently remembering that she was “not permitted to speak with boys” just in time. Ignoring it, she went on, “We struck out at the first two vamp halfway houses, but found two of them — and someone else — at the third. We couldn’t get much from the one we captured, but she did say that Spike wasn’t where we’d expect him to be — and the single syllable ‘sick’.”

“It seemed like the beginning of a word,” Cordelia added. “And that’s not the weirdest part, either. That someone else Xander mentioned was a demon who called himself Whistler. He claimed to be working on the side of neutrality —”

Kendra snorted. “He was a demon. Why did you not try to kill him?”

“He picked up a cross, pressed it to his face, and it didn’t burn,” Cordy sneered. “Now let’s see you do the same.”

Giles took a breath, but Ms. Calendar interjected, “I think they’re right to trust them. I did a Tarot layout and drew cards that corresponded to everyone involved.”

“What was I?” Xander said, curious.

“My guess would be the Fool,” Kendra answered.

“No. You and Cordelia were the Lovers. I was the High Priestess, Rupert, you were the Heirophant, Kendra was the Chariot, Spike was the Devil and Buffy was the Empress. There were two others — so there are two others involved. The Star — which I assume stands for Angel, and the card Temperance. Temperance stands for balance — which might be this fellow Whistler, if he’s really on the side of neutrality.”

Shakily, Giles said, “Have you come up with anything else, Jenny?”

The computer teacher hesitated a moment, thinking. Then, pursing her lips and breathing out, she said, “Yes. Every technopagan I’ve been in touch with is scared witless by this. They’re running for their lives, praying, or both.”

“Just what we needed,” Xander said. “MORE proof that we’ve got our backs against the wall.”

As she usually did, Cordy got straight back to the point. “Digressing much, people? Whistler didn’t just say “Hi, I’m Whistler, I’m a neutral demon, well, be seein’ ya.” He also told us that it was all a numbers game — and that we need to be ready to lose. I don’t think he meant that evil was going to win, either.”

“A numbers game, a numbers game,” Giles muttered thoughtfully. “I can’t say I know what he’s talking about right off. Cryptic advice like this tends to become clear over time, so …”

Xander said, “Yeah, well, usually in the movies it’s clear only after the fact, and after the fact this time would be a little too late.”

“The problem in this case, Xander, is that it’s not the only thing we have to puzzle out. There’s also the matter of the clue the vampire gave you. ‘Sick?’”

“Perhaps the word was SICKNESS,” Kendra said. “I shall check the hospital grounds.”

“I thought you already went through there, Slayer girl,” Cordy sniped. “Or are you saying you might have missed something?”

“Last time, I was looking for a nonexistent child-killing demon,” Kendra retorted. “This time —”

Ms. Calendar commented quietly, “I did notice that the rate of child death at the hospital continues to be one of the highest in the nation.”

“THIS time,” Kendra said, “I shall be looking for vampires.” And who knows? She might be right. Even a busted clock is right twice a day.

“It does seem like a possible lead. The other words — cyclical, sycophant, sycamore — seem too obscure to hint to a location. And, indeed, it would be hard to imagine a bringer of death like Spike holed up at a place whose primary function is bringing life.”

“You won’t mind if we explore other options?”

“Huh?” the Watcher said distractedly. “Oh, no, of course not. And Jenny, I suppose you and I should try to figure out a method to bring Angel back.”

“Yes, I suppose you’re right, Rupert.” There was a definite note of uncertainty in Ms. Calendar’s voice, but Giles didn’t seem to pick up on it.

“Well, then,” he said has he stood up, “I suppose we should get to it then, eh?” Xander didn’t like it. Here, now, they finally knew more about what was going on, yet he was more worried than ever …

*                              *                              *

So, the room had been completely stripped floor to ceiling. Nothing remained but a chair for Spike to sit in, curtains for the windows, and the stonebound form of Acathla at the opposite end of the room from the chair. The door, with the inscription, was one room over, where that intellectual fool Dalton was translating the runes as though his life depended on it. Which, of course, it did. The rest of the box had been converted to rubble and buried out back the previous night.

Atypical for a vampire dwelling, Spike had actually purchased the place outright, using cash. That much cash would normally have raised a few eyebrows, but enough of a kickback and the agent had been willing to stay quiet.

For the week or so until she’d been killed in a COMPLETELY unrelated vampire attack, of course.

Spike was getting impatient; he had the chance to take his revenge on the Slayer and reunite with his voluptuous black goddess at the same time, and the meanderings of a scholarly little piss-ant like Dalton were not going to stand in his way of either objective.

The Slayer was upstairs. It had been a gutsy call, to bring her here, but quite by accident in the four months of torture Spike had discovered the one LIVING person the Slayer hated enough to kill, who could also be blamed for Angel’s death. His subordinates were to remind the Slayer of this person daily. They had dartboards set up with the face on it, and training dummies.

Keep her focused on something else. Blame this person for all of her troubles. All could be laid at the feet of one person, the ONLY person Buffy Summers truly hated:


So the Slayer was upstairs, practicing on a punching bag in her quarters. Spike’s decision seemed to have worked, because if being here didn’t restore Buffy Summers to full control of her fate, NOTHING would.

Having put more strain on his foot than he’d been used to in previous weeks, Spike wasn’t about to go anywhere. He shouted out to Dalton, “Are you bloody well done yet? Or can I assume you have failed so that the boys can use your head to play football?”

He sprinted in from the other room. “No, Spike, I haven’t failed. In fact, I was just going over it to be certain, but I think everything we need should be right here.” Nervously, he handed the sheet to Spike, who read over it twice.

Somewhat mollified, Spike said, “Now, are you SURE this is accurate?”

Showing some guts for possibly the first time in his unlife, Dalton snorted and answered, “No, with my neck on the line I just dashed off the first things I could think of. I’ve been alive too long anyway. Give me credit for brains, if nothing else!” Then he cowered.

“That … if nothing else. Now, remember, when you talk about this to the Slayer, this is a ritual for RIDDING the world of the evil influence of Acathla, understood?”

Dalton nodded. “So she won’t interfere while you perform it and draw the sword?”

“I take back that remark about brains. Think, fool! Where would my revenge be if Buffy Summers just stood around and watched? I’M not going to draw that sword; SHE is.”

Part Twenty-Seven

Spike continued, paying no attention to Dalton’s jaw, which the scholar was even now busily picking up from the floor, “Whatever the ritual was for bringing hell to Earth — and I already knew THAT much about Acathla — I was never going to be the one to perform it.” Dalton was sputtering. Spike looked up at him. “There’s nothing saying a human CAN’T perform the ritual, right, mate?”

“Well, um, part of the ritual involves the drinking of blood — and humans don’t do that as a rule. It seems more appropriate for one of us, but still — would those who came up with the wording have even anticipated a human performing —”

Tiring of this litany, Spike shot his hand up at Dalton’s neck. “Quit stalling, mate. If your next answer doesn’t contain one word, and one word only, the second word will be your last. Now,” releasing his grip, “CAN a human being perform the ritual?”

“Probably.” Spike glared, but Dalton said nothing else. Nervously, the scholar continued, “That’s the best I can do. The only way we’ll find out is if we try to cast it.”

“Very well, then.” Spike read over the translation again. “She’ll never go for killing someone for the blood. Soon as nightfall hits, go take some of the boys and raid a blood bank, or the hospital, or something, and pick up enough packs so it looks like we’ll be feeding ourselves that way.”

“Got it.” Dalton disappeared into the back room.

“Slayer! I have good news!” The sounds of violence ceased from upstairs and soon thereafter she came jogging down the stairs.

“Yes? What is it?” Without preamble, Spike handed her a copy of the ritual. “So this is what we’ve got to do to restore the balance?” She stopped halfway down the paper. “Drink blood? So this was meant for a vampire?”

“No, Slayer, a human. It’s the sacrifice you need to make. And since you’re the only human in range —”

“I have to perform the ritual.” She looked around, grabbed the paper, and read over it again.

“Easy there, Slayer,” Spike said. “We can’t do it without the blood. Unless you’re willing to rip someone’s throat, that is.”

“No. But I AM eager to get this over with so you and I can go back to trying to kill each other. This alliance seems unnatural.”

You don’t know how right you are, Slayer, Spike thought. “To you and me both.”

*                              *                              *

Kendra had patrolled once more after the meeting, which as she’d expected had been unproductive. They would be of no help; her Watcher was an emotional wreck and Xander and Cordelia were so interested in finding Buffy that their attention was seriously diverted. They’d stumbled onto the clues they’d found only by the intervention of a demon. Kendra did not believe in demons of neutrality, but it was BARELY possible that this Whistler’s agenda worked against Spike’s. This did not mean he could be trusted, but any information he provided needed to be examined for veracity.

This is why, come nightfall the next day, she was at the hospital.

Only the technopagan had provided her with any REAL information. Jenny Calendar may have had only flashes of true mystical power, but what she was predicting coincided wiht Kendra’s own hunches about the situation. Against the arrayed forces of evil, fear and despair, judgment alone stood? Well, Kendra was a Slayer, and so in herself judge, jury, appeals court and executioner.

She alone stood against Acathla and hell on Earth. Well, that was as she’d expected. Slipping into an open maintenance entrance, she descended into the basement and checked around for the obvious signs of vampire habitation. Then she slowly made her way through the upper floors, avoiding only the sterility of the operating rooms themselves. There were definitely hints of vampire activity — not truly surprising, as hospitals provided food that could not easily escape in a building the vampires could not be barred from. But it somehow lacked the indications of long-term residence.

And still no sign of that child-killing monster, either, though as she silently passed through the children’s wards she did hear the unfortunate sounds of a young girl’s screams. She looked into the room for a second and saw and heard nothing but the youngster; still, as she raced out she told the desk nurse about the child, and prayed for her safety.

As she made ready to leave, she paused and looked around. There! Three vampires passed her in the main lobby and walked determinedly through the corridors. They passed by several people who would have provided easy snacks. Curiously, Kendra followed them to … the main blood bank? Now this was odd. Vampires could certainly use this as sustenance, but much preferred not to. And none of these three seemed weak enough to not be unable to drain an invalid in a hospital bed.

They picked up a handy cooler and shoved in two dozen packs of blood, but drank none themselves. As they started to leave, Kendra moved to one side and let them pass, then resumed trailing them. Either stupid or determined, they didn’t even register her presence. In what was not a surprise, none of the doctors or nurses seemed to register three scruffy-looking men — actually, two scruffy and one nerdy — lugging a cooler through the hospital corridors.

Then it stopped being a matter of curiosity, as hunger apparently overcame determination and they dodged into a room. Cursing herself for her curiosity, Kendra sprinted into the room, where the two scruffy ones had changed into their vampire faces and were quietly advancing on the sleeping patient, a middle-aged Asian man.

The scholarly one looked up as Kendra entered, swore, smashed the window, grabbed the cooler and jumped, abandoning his companions. Briefly, Kendra was curious why the blood was so important, but then turned to the matter at hand: Two angry vampires.

The vampire nearer her — the taller of the two — swung a fist and missed, and before he could ready himself for a second punch Kendra plunged the stake into his heart. Awakening, the patient took a look around and sputtered, “What’s going on?”

A half point smarter than his companion, the remaining vampire used Kendra’s momentary distraction and shoved the bed at her, then dove out the window. Not smart enough, as Kendra jumped onto the bed — avoiding stepping on the patient, it would play havoc with her footing — and leapt towards the vampire, catching it by the foot.

She heard a faint buzzing, and turning her head noticed the fully alert, annoyed patient repeatedly pressing his call button. Since they were on the second floor, a drop shouldn’t hurt her. She released her startled captive and jumped out the window herself. The vampire landed awkwardly. Shortly Kendra, whose catlike reflexes had enabled her to land on her feet with a stake in her hand, had dusted it, and then she looked around for the bespectacled vampire. Extending her senses … there! He was opening the sliding door of an oddly-striped van. As the vehicle pulled out, Kendra ran towards it.

Two ways to play this. Try to stop it now, or follow them and figure out their game — and possibly Spike’s hideout in the bargain. No choice. She waited for the van to pass her — it had to, to get out of the parking lot — and, carefully timing the leap, jumped onto the back of the van and clung on.

Ten minutes later they pulled into the driveway of a residential street, and Kendra dropped off and slid under the van. When the sounds of vampiric activity had ceased, she exited and crept towards the doorway. When she saw the number, she was angry at both herself and everyone else for having misled her with their insistence on “sick.”

Perhaps the vampire had been trying to say “six.”

The curtains were drawn, so there was no way for her to determine if Spike was indeed inside. There were several vampires, and while Kendra was fully confident of her ability to take down that many, there was no sense in deliberately throwing herself into the lion’s mouth, either. She looked around for another way in and noted an open window at the front of the house on the second floor. She jumped, caught the rim, and landed on the porch roof. Towards the window. Nothing to be heard in the room, but the sounds of some kind of ritual emanated from the main room below. No vampires nearby, so she drew her stake and climbed into the house.

This was unnerving. The room had a sleeping mat, a punching bag, and several weapons and targets. What was so unnerving was that the punching bag and the targets had her picture on them, and they looked quite battered and ripped to shreds.

Most of the rest of the upstairs seemed sparsely furnished, and that window had indeed been the only one open. There were vampires at the base of the stairs. Quietly she tiptoed a third of the way down and listened intently. All was quiet. A naggingly familiar voice was chanting some kind of ritual. She listened …

“Bear witness as I ascend — as I become.” Then there was a period of silence and a gagging sound. “Everything that I am, everything that I have done, has led me here.”

It hit Kendra — that was Buffy speaking! She did not sound as though she’d been turned into a vampire; why was she invoking this ritual in the presence of vampires? Something must have happened to her mentally to do this. Emotional as she was, she was always a Slayer. This — this was getting worse, not better. And for a Slayer to ally with a vampire was quite —


A worse thought struck her — this could very the ritual for invoking Acathla and bringing about hell. And she alone was here to stop it.

Everything that she had done had led her here.

She took a deep breath and charged down the stairs screaming like a madwoman.

Judgment had come for Buffy Summers.

*                              *                              *

Almost … almost …

and the Slayer NEVER knew how appropriate her words were.

“Bear witness as I ascend — as I become,” she said towards the end of it.

Wrong there, Slayer! You’re not ASCENDING, you’re DESCENDING into hell. Along with the rest of the world.

And the only thing you’ll become is heartbroken and dead. So, maybe technically that part’s right, but still, it’s far more, well, an unbecoming.

An unmaking, of both the world and Buffy Summers’ soul.

Nothing would stop them now. Not even the Slayer’s reluctance to drink the blood, which she overcame with a shudder.

“Everything that I am, everything that I have done, has led me here.”

Absolutely correct. It had taken some creative explaining on Dalton’s part to shoehorn the next part into an attempt to rid the world of the corrupting influence of Acathla. Eventually they’d come up with the notion that it, too represented sacrifice; that the one committing the spell, in order to rid the world of evil, was willing to be “redeemed” by a demon.

Spike knew bloody well it made no sense, but it seemed to satisfy the somewhat mentally battered Slayer.

The Slayer took a breath and said, “I have strayed …” Someone came screaming down the stairs, turning the two vampires standing there into dust within seconds. It was the other Slayer bitch, Kendra.

The incantation stopped; no matter, as it could be picked up again as long as the interruption didn’t last too long. One of Spike’s other minions charged forwards and was summarily dealt with, and as the other two made ready for a suicide run Spike called out, “No!”

“Giving up already, Spike?” Kendra sneered. “It’ll be a great help, but expect no mercy from me.”

Spike called out, “Slayer! She’s under the influence and wants to stop the ritual!” Kendra seemed confused. A fire entered Buffy’s eyes as she advanced on the one she thought responsible for all her pain. Spike was firmly convinced he should have been a politician, the success he was having with half-truths like that. He settled himsel back to watch the fight.

Fist, Kendra tried to reason with Buffy, explain that she must be under some kind of spell or mental compulsion. True, but his Slayer would never believe it. Buffy responded by kicking Kendra in the jaw. Then a similar, lesser fire entered Kendra’s eyes and they began to slug it out in earnest.

Kendra drew back from the kick and aimed for Buffy’s kneecap. She missed and kicked her thigh instead, and Buffy barely flinched, hitting her opponent in the face and kicking her in the chest. Acrobatically, Kendra used that momentum to flip backwards, but his Slayer was ready and kicked at Kendra’s ankles as she came down. She landed awkwardly on one foot, and before she could regain her balance Buffy tripped her and had her on the floor. Buffy kicked her once in the stomach, but the second time Kendra grabbed the foot and jerked Buffy down. They both got up, and Buffy slammed Kendra into the wall.

It was an amusing fight, but the cold, precise technique of Kendra was no match for the fury of a Slayer done wrong. A roundhouse to the jaw and Kendra went down. Spike flipped her a knife and as the other Slayer lay there, semi-conscious, Buffy held the knife and plunged it into …

… the floor by Kendra’s head. “What am I doing?” she said. “I hate her, but I’m NOT going to kill her.” Damn! Damn, shit, hellfire and damnation. He’d been counting on Buffy to kill the other Slayer, to further corrupt her and drag her down.

She took a deep breath and walked back towards the statue of Acathla, leaving Kendra’s bruised and battered body lying on the floor, moaning. She resumed the chant. “I have strayed, I have been lost. But Acathla redeems me. With this act, we will be free.”

Then she drew the sword. Light filled the room and a sense of power could be felt …

… but the sword wasn’t budging. Eventually the Slayer stopped pulling. There had been hints, so clearly a human COULD perform the ritual. It just wasn’t being performed correctly. This did not bode well for Dalton’s lifespan.

Surprisingly, the Slayer solved the problem. “Giles is a Watcher; even under the demon’s influence, he should be able to translate the ritual.”

“True, Slayer. But how will we know he’s telling the truth? I imagine you will not permit torture.”

“No, I won’t.” They thought for a second and then Spike felt a flash of inspiration that only could have come from his beloved Drusilla.

“Come with me, Slayer —” They both went down to the basement, where a few other vampires were lounging about. Spike threw one of them against a wall and said, “Listen up, you mopes, clear out. Head upstairs somewhere. The Slayer and I have some business to take care of.” Spike had attached chains to the wall on the chance he might ever use them. Now it seemed he would. “I’LL go get the Watcher. You chain yourself to the wall here …” When he finished the explanation, she looked dubious.

“I don’t trust you not to kill my friends, Spike, if I’m not there.” He had no intention of killing them; he WANTED them to witness his triumph.

“Right, Slayer, I’m interested now in suicide. I know that if I harm more than a hair on their heads you’ll have my nuts on a platter and a stake through my heart. Your friends will not be hurt. You have my word.” Still nothing. “You can ask the bloody Watcher when he gets here if I hurt anyone else, all right?”

Finally a reluctant assent. He left the Slayer downstairs, loosely chaining herself to the wall, and went upstairs. Surprisingly — showing either tremendous courage or foolhardiness — Dalton was still there and, while cowering, the scholar largely stood his ground. “Relax, fool, I have no intention of killing you now. I’m going to need you to be in charge while she’s downstairs and I’m off collecting the Watcher. I also have some business for you to take care of.”

“What business is that?”

“Taking out the trash.” As he said this, he reached down and said, “You know, I hate to do this …” and savagely broke Kendra’s neck. “… I much prefer a larger audience.” Then, whistling a merry tune, he walked out to join his cohorts in the van.

*                              *                              *

The spirit watched as Buffy went downstairs to implement Spike’s plan and Spike broke Kendra’s neck. This couldn’t happen! It had tried before to take direct action, watching everything that had occurred to the people it cared about since its death, but all it could do was influence Ms. Calendar’s choice of Tarot cards, and Kendra’s decision to not visit the hospital until after nightfall.

Hardly enough to save Kendra’s life, and while the spirit didn’t care all that much for Kendra, she WAS a force for good, no matter how arrogant and obnoxious she was.

Time to try again. The spirit flew over to the library as fast as it could —easily outdistancing Spike and the earthbound vampires. Nothing could be done until one of these people was unconscious, and the spirit very much feared that time was near …

Part Twenty-Eight

That night, the four met in the library. None of them had any luck — Xander and Cordelia had even checked out the park, which had a sycamore tree, on the off chance there was a vampire hideout hidden somewhere nearby or underneath. No such luck, unless they were harboring a vampiric James Bond. And anyone with any mystic power Jenny Calendar knew had fled the vicinity, except for herself and the vampires. Not sure she was equal to the task, but she was willing to die trying.

Impatiently they waited for Kendra to return from the hospital. The meeting had been scheduled for fifteen minutes ago, and already she was overdue. This didn’t seem to concern Xander and Cordelia at all, and Rupert seemed more annoyed than worried, but Jenny thought differently. Kendra ALWAYS did what a Watcher said, dislike this particular incarnation though she might. And Rupert had said to be here at 11 PM, and she wasn’t. This meant two things. Either Kendra was in hot pursuit, or Kendra was in trouble. And Kendra was so enthusiastic about taking down vampires that Jenny just knew her overconfidence would get her in trouble someday.

A sudden certainty filled her that today was that day; that Kendra, for better or worse, wasn’t coming back. She would have cursed the wretched fate that let it happen now, but again, somehow, she knew that now was the time it HAD to happen.

Events were spiralling out of control. They were trying to put out a conflagration with two cups of water and a damp paper towel.

After five more minutes, Rupert said, “It does not appear as though Kendra is going to put in an appearance. And, unfortunately, Jenny and I have been unable to arrive at ANY method of recalling Angel. A seance would be of no use, as we don’t need to merely talk to the dead, and though Jenny has discovered a method of soul restoration involving a Thesulan orb and the same gypsy curse the Calderash had placed on Angel, there isn’t sufficient time to modify it. Nor do we have a body for the soul to return to.”

“You could use mine,” Cordelia volunteered.

“Sorry, I wasn’t specific enough,” Rupert answered. “We need Angel’s original body, which has been well lost in the burned-out church in which he perished — and is ashes, in any event. A soul cannot inhabit a handful of dust.” Wildly, incongruously, Jenny’s mind made a grotesque pun out of Angelus Ashes, but managed to refrain from saying it.

Goddess! Was SHE falling apart as well?

“Well, if THAT won’t work, let’s try something else,” Xander said.

Irritably, Rupert spat out, “What? A small-scale nuclear warhead? What would you suggest, Xander? Spells don’t seem to have a chance, Kendra’s missing, the two of you have proved utterly incompetent in locating one girl in a small town, and I — I —” For months now Rupert had been hanging on to a shaky grip on reality by his fingernails, and the pressure of the situation was filing those nails down to a nub. Rupert went on, “I’ve failed. The world is about to come to an end, and neither Slayer is here to stop it. Nor is the one man, it seems, we need.” He put his face in his hands. “All I had to do was protect the life of ONE girl. One GODDAMN girl. And I couldn’t do it.” It showed where his thoughts lay. Jenny would be shocked beyond words if the one girl he was thinking of wasn’t Buffy. Always he came back to this, always. It was the long, drawn-out nature of it that had gotten to him. He stood up. “Well. We shall do what we can.” Then, resignedly, “But I truly fear the world is doomed.”

“Don’t SAY that, Giles,” Xander said. “We can do this. It can’t happen like this. The world’s not going to end without giving us a chance to save it!” Xander’s determined optimism was unrealistic as the Roswell crash, but at least he was thinking positively.

“Would you quit with the positive thinking?” Rupert answered. “At this point, unbridled optimism can only get us all killed.”

Getting up to face the librarian, Xander said. “Oh yes. I forgot. And just sitting on our asses hoping the end of the world doesn’t come is going to be a LOT of help. Not to mention that you keep going, whine whine whine, about how you failed Buffy, poor you. It’s not about you, you arrogant, self-pitying British bastard. It’s about Buffy, and it’s about saving the world. If you can’t understand that —” He took a breath. “If you can’t understand that, then go to hell. Oops, I forgot. We’re all going there fairly soon anyway.” Jenny and Cordelia exchanged a look of pure horror. What had gotten into the two of them?

Well, THAT Jenny knew. But why were they practically ripping each other’s throats out? Had the stress gotten to them that much?

Right, Jenny. You’re one to criticize, with that SICK joke you almost said earlier.

Rupert leaned in closer. “Xander, do me a favor and be quiet. Your prattle has always wearied me and right now you are on my very last nerve. We need to decide a plan of action, you babbling, obnoxious, self-righteous teenager, not go charging madly off in all directions as you would seem to prefer. How, how DARE you accuse me of —”

“Of what, Giles?” Xander taunted. “Of what? Go ahead, say it.”

“Stop it, Xander!” Cordelia said. “You’re beginning to scare me. No, check that, you’re WAY past —”

Rupert ignored her. “How DARE you accuse me of not caring about Buffy, you son of a —” A fight was seconds away unless something intervened.

The doors slammed open. Good news and bad news, Jenny thought frantically. The good news was that the fight between Xander and Rupert was no longer likely to happen.

The bad news — It was Spike.

*                              *                              *

Spike walked down the hall. Of course, he’d had to agree not to hurt the Slayer’s friends. To do otherwise would have been daft, and possibly brought Buffy back out into control of the Slayer persona.

He estimated his lifespan after that happened in seconds. Damn, but it was exhilarating to walk the razor’s edge like this! Every once in a while Spike was almost sorry to be getting rid of an exciting world where such things could happen.

And then he thought of his Drusilla, waiting for him, and those thoughts vanished like blood beneath his teeth. From beyond his dark goddess had guided him through dreams, telling him of the pain she was suffering with them not being together.

And when the world became hell, they would be together for all eternity, and have their worst enemy, the Slayer, to thank for it.

PROVIDED things went off without a bloody hitch, which just didn’t seem to be in the cards right at the moment. First that Kendra bitch showed up — her neck had broken quite nicely — and then he discovered Dalton had blown the damned translation.

Not the first time. Dalton had his uses, he was certainly the only other vampire around with half a brain, but he handled stress about as well as a paper dam withstood water, and he was the biggest damned coward he’d ever seen; that punk Xander had more guts in his capillaries than Dalton had in his entire body.

Still, revenge for its own sake was pointless now. Not when success was so close at hand.

Anyway, on to business. Spike limped up to the library door. As he approached he could hear sounds of screaming. As he made ready to enter, he turned to the other vampires and said, “Remember. They are not to be harmed, except minimally, in self-defense. Self-defense does not mean breaking any necks.”

As a group, they nodded. He’d have to do most of the work himself, probably.

HE flung the door open and all eyes turned to them — and jaws began dropping.

“Spike!” The cripple was the first to recover. “What are you …”

Everyone else started reaching for weapons and his followers moved in. “Gently!” he said. The humans had no such compunctions; the boy drew that weighted stick and tore into the vampires, decking the first that reached him. The girl moved a bit more slowly, but it was apparent she would be no easy takedown either. The Watcher, oddly, was the last to recover; Spike presumed the cripple would be little problem.

The Watcher’s face contorted, a mix of fury and disappointment, and he charged at Spike almost mindlessly. It was absurdly easy to knock him down, and out, with one punch. Clearly the intervening months had not treated the man well. Such a DAMNED shame.

The girl was well in hand, and though the boy had killed one vampire he was surrounded by the other three Spike had brought along. He shouted, “Enough!” and, stepping towards the boy gestured towards his girlfriend. “Stop or —” No need to finish the threat. The boy stopped and the vampires grabbed him immediately. What to do — Ah! He hauled the two over to the supply cage — after patting them down for weapons — and locked them in.

Then they turned towards the computer teacher, who was … holding a crossbow? DAMN! Wasting no time in clever words or witty banter, she fired off a bolt and Slew one of his underlings, then backed up and reloaded. Spike swore and charged, but his weak foot didn’t let him move fast enough. The bolt caught him in the shoulder not six inches from his heart. Ouch! Dammit all to hell! Angrily, Spike struck the woman in the face with his fist, sending her flying from the wheelchair. Then he moved in and kicked her twice, hard, once in the head and once in the side, before he got control of himself.

This was counterproductive. He willed the demon back down. He knelt down by the fallen woman’s side and checked her pulse. Alive. Good. Ignoring the pain, he walked back across the room and picked up the unconscious Watcher, ignoring the curses of the boy in the cage. As they limped from the room, though, Spike noted the girl’s gaze and was suddenly, unaccountably, afraid.

For a second. Then his normal personality took over, and Watcher in tow, they went to the van.

*                              *                              *

The spirit hovered over Jenny Calendar’s prone form. This was its best opportunity; really, its only opportunity. Concentrating, it willed itself into her body, FEELING for the first time in a while. It was in! Guess desperation IS a powerful motivator … There they were. Arms, shoulders, head … legs?

But Ms. Calendar was paralyzed! Apparently, while inhabiting her body, the spirit had use of whatever faculties it possessed in life. Which weren’t much, but you make do.

Observing from a shifting vantage point like it had, it had finally figured out what to do. By torturing Buffy for months and months, Spike thought he’d battered Buffy’s mind and spirit enough to split Buffy and the Slayer into two separate entities.

He was wrong. KENDRA had been pure Slayer; she’d been willing to kill Whistler just for being a demon, no matter what side he was on. And if Buffy were just the Slayer she’d just have killed Spike right off, and she wouldn’t care about her friends as anything more than fellow innocents.

Spike had also known to keep Buffy off balance; a little physical pain here, a little sleep deprivation there, but that had had the effect of badly dulling Buffy’s judgment, so that not only would she accept the alliance but also Spike’s very lame reasoning.

But it was that fragment of Buffy that could be reached. That fragment that was still displaying good judgment.

It couldn’t let the others know. For the moment, it had to pretend to actually BE Jenny Calendar so that the bad guys didn’t figure it out and try to counter it. And Xander, and Cordelia, and even poor Giles. They knew, they’d react.

She couldn’t blame them for having been wrong. Even Ms. Calendar, who should have known from the Star, couldn’t be blamed, and Giles had REALLY been misdirected with that engraving of an angel. Almost, he’d gotten it. Almost, when he’d mentioned that angels represented purity, innocence, goodness.

Not love, though. See, this all filtered through Buffy’s perceptions, for some reason. And to Buffy, Angel is love …

… and WILLOW is innocence.

Part Twenty-Nine

Xander was torn between horror at Spike’s actions and fear for the world. Not to mention more than a bit of disgust at himself for having rimmed out Giles so badly. No matter the trouble they were in, no matter his defeatist attitude, the screamfest they’d engaged in had been nothing but pumping oxygen into a burning building.

Anyway. Giles had been kidnapped, Ms. Calendar was unconscious, and he and Cordy were trapped inside the rare books cage. He was pissed at himself for not having had the pistols on his person, and they’d been stripped of their other weapons anyway.

They’d seen the door break before, so maybe the two of them together could break it.

“One, two, three!” Xander said, and as one they slammed their shoulders into the door. Nothing. They tried again, to no avail.

Cordy grimaced and said, “Vampires and demons can break out of here with no problem. But when the GOOD guys need to escape, it’s at full strength.” All she had on her was a stake, and they couldn’t get enough leverage on that to pry the door open. Angrily Xander slammed into the door again.

They were trapped. Maybe Giles had been right … The world was coming to an end and all they could do was batter futilely against the walls of a book cage.

No. NO giving up. He crashed into the door again … a small voice called out from across the room, “Knock it off, Xander, you’re starting to give me a headache.” Yes! Ms. Calendar was awake. Woozily, she got into her wheelchair and motored across the room, where she unlocked the metal door. The two teenagers immediately piled out. Xander ran across the room to pick up his weapons; Cordelia and took a look at Ms. Calendar’s head. Guiltily, Xander went back to check how the technopagan was.

She had a large bump on the left side of her head where Spike had struck her, and a gash on her face from where she’d hit the floor. Her side was also extremely tender. Cordy looked at the injuries, then at him, saying, “When we catch up to Spike, he’s MINE.”

Ms. Calendar smiled at the couple sweetly. “It’s so NICE of you to care so much about M— about me, Cordy. I don’t know if I’ve told you this recently, but I’m amazed and thrilled at how MUCH you’ve changed. You’ve become a really cool person, and a good match for Xander.”

Surprised, but pleased by the compliment, Cordy smiled and said, “Thanks!”

“Yes. You’ve gone way beyond when you were trying to replace, um, Willow. I just needed to tell you this, given the circumstances.”

Cordy got suspicious. “What circumstances? Do you know something about the future that we don’t?”

“No!” she blurted. “No,” more firmly, “just that we’re about to face the end of the world, and it’s been so LONG since I’ve told any of you any of these things. And you, Xander.” Smiling a little sadly, “You’ve lost your sense of humor.”

Weakly, Xander answered, “There hasn’t been much around to laugh at.”

“No! Xander, that’s the best time to laugh, don’t you see?”

Echoing Cordy’s remarks, Xander said, “You’re beginning to frighten me a little here, Ms. Calendar. What do you know that we don’t know?”

“I don’t know the future — at least, not right at the moment, I don’t.”

Quietly, Cordy said, “But you’re saying this like you KNOW you’re never going to see us again.”

“You never know, Cordy. Now. We need to do something to find G– Rupert, and stop Spike from destroying the world. Now we know when is fairly soon, and we know how, but we don’t know where. A numbers game, Whistler said, a numbers game … maybe with ‘sick’ that vampire was starting to say a number — like six, or sixty —”

Xander knew. He KNEW. “Or sixteen. The last place we’d think of looking.”

“Where?” Cordy prompted.

“1630 Revello Drive. Buffy’s house.”

*                              *                              *

The spirit watched as Xander came to the revelation. Cordy stared in shock, saying, “Are you sure?”

“I think he’s right!” the spirit said. Be careful there. You’re starting to sound more like yourself, and less like Jenny Calendar. NO ONE can find out until the crisis. You’re the one that has to save the world.

“Yeah, I’m sure,” Xander answered. “Cordy, where’s your body armor?”

“In my car, with most of my weapons.” Xander, no! It’s soon! A rush to Judgment can only get you killed!

Like poor, hardworking, arrogant Kendra. Who’d thought it was all up to her, and was lying on the floor of Buffy’s house with a broken neck.

Judgment had come, but for Kendra, not Spike.

“Let’s go, then,” Xander said.

“No!” the spirit told them. “We can’t do it that way!”

“Why not, Ms. Calendar?” Cordy asked her. “A sudden strike might catch them off guard, before they can get the information from Giles or even open that gate.”

“Are either of you two Angel? Are either of the two of you innocent? Everything says that THAT’S what’s going to be necessary to stop Spike. We go charging blindly over there, we’re likely to get ourselves killed. And before you ask, Xander, that IS a prophecy, a premonition, whatever you want to call it. I just KNOW that we need to find out how — and who.”

The spirit knew that she was who, but she didn’t know how. Only Giles — and maybe Whistler — knew how.

“So how do we find this out?” Xander said. “None of us is exactly an expert in …” he picked up the paper and looked at it. “Whatever language this is, and the G-Man never gave us the complete text. Unless he told you, Ms. Calendar?” He looked at her hopefully.

“It didn’t mention anything about exactly how — only that Angel, or something that an Angel represents, is needed to stop it. And —”

She felt Ms. Calendar’s consciousness surging within her; the computer teacher was minutes away from waking up. No! It couldn’t happen like this! She was needed … taking a deep mental breath, the spirit realized that if she was necessary there WOULD be a way for her to come back. One more thing she needed to say …

Dizzily, she whispered, “Find Whistler …” and vacated the body, letting it slide back into unconsciousness. From above, she watched Xander and Cordy look at Ms. Calendar’s body.

Fretting, Cordelia said, “It must be the blow to the head! What do we do?”

Xander got behind the wheelchair and fished through the pockets for the teacher’s keys. Finding them, he started pushing her rapidly through the hallways, calling back to Cordy to grab all the bags. She did so, and sprinted after him. The spirit followed.

They quickly went to the computer teacher’s van. After some awkward fumbling, they activated the chair lift. Ms. Calendar started coming to as she heard the sound of the lift moving her into the van; as Xander and Cordy locked it into place she weakly said, “Xander? Cordelia? What —” she straightened and held her head. “Rupert! Oh my God, Spike took him! We have to —”

Oh dear. The spirit hoped that when it had possessed her it hadn’t pushed her too hard.

Cordy blinked in surprise. “You don’t remember?”

Distractedly, Xander handed her the keys and said, “Probably something to do with the head injury. Once when I was little —” Cordelia glared at him. “Right. To the hospital.”

The spirit would have gnawed on its knuckles, if it had any. It hadn’t caused the problems it had been trying to help solve, had it?

The two rushed Ms. Calendar into the hospital emergency room, making up some story about a spill. The technopagan was visibly worried about Giles, but seemed somewhat dazed.

Xander took Cordy to one side. “You stay here. I’ll go to the warehouse and see if I can run into Whistler again. If he won’t give me the answers I need, I’ll beat them out of him if I have to.”

“Right,” Cordy said pensively, and kissed Xander. He double-checked his weapons and took off out the doors at a fast walk.

The spirit followed.

*                              *                              *

Whistler paced back and forth. Damn, but he hated being nervous. Oh, sure, it was his schtick to come off overcaffeinated, but that was just his patter, his routine, inside he was normally cooler than a barrelful of cucumbers. But not today. Today there was a very good chance the world was going to come to an end. Unless a handful of people were willing to sacrifice most of what they held dear, and a spirit willing to do even more. He wasn’t really worried about the ghost of Willow Rosenberg.

The spirit WAS willing, but the flesh was clueless.

Whistler snorted at his own bad joke.

The spirit knew that Whistler would have some of the answers. Actually, he had pretty much all of them. What he could TELL them, though —

Well, with the spirit’s help they’d puzzled out some of it. One thing Whistler had noticed is that they hadn’t been able to solve ANYTHING themselves here. All the info they had, well, had directly or indirectly come from him or the ghost.

Speaking of which, he had an uninvited guest, here. Willow Rosenberg’s spirit had just entered the room. It couldn’t communicate back, but Whistler said up to it, “Hey, I ain’t afraid of no ghosts, okay? Now, I know you’re here to pick up a few pointers, but truth is you ain’t gonna learn that much from me. Really, truly, not. What you gotta do, you’ll have to figure out when the time comes. Which ain’t now. Oh, you’re free to stick around, you might be able to help your friends do what they gotta do. Just thought I’d let you know. And remember — you gotta be ready to lose something. Even you.”

Whistler felt the ghost’s disappointment, but it didn’t go anywhere.

A few seconds later, Xander Harris burst into the warehouse and looked around. Ah well, time for his grand entrance. He looked up and said, “Come on,” and felt the snort of derision.

But it did follow.

The young man’s voice shouted out, “Whistler! Whistler, I know you’re in here. We need to talk!”

“Sure,” Whistler said, walking out from the darkness. “Any topic in particular, or did you just drop by to chat?”

Irritably, Xander said, “We don’t have time for this.”

“You’re right, buddy, we don’t. Look. Do you think you were my first choice of point for this little operation? You’re fifth at best, behind Angel, the Watcher, or either Slayer. I will consider myself VERY lucky if this time tomorrow we’re not all sitting in the middle of downtown Hell. And believe you me, bucko, I’ve got no desire to go there. Me and the landlord, we don’t exactly get along. So,” in a politely threatening tone, “what say you and me, we drop the attitude and talk civil? The nastier you are, the harder it’s gonna be on you later. And no, that’s not a threat. I’m on your side, as much as I can.”

For a second Whistler thought Xander Harris was either going to draw the gun or cry. Yeah, it WAS hard being told that you not only weren’t the right guy for the job, you weren’t even runner up. But give him credit, he took a deep breath, gritted his teeth and said, urgently but far less irritably, “Right then. I need to know what to do. How do we stop Acathla? How do we stop Spike? If they open the rift, is there any way to close it again, or do we all just tuck our head between our knees and kiss our asses bye-bye?”

“I thought you needed Angel for all of this, but turns out I was wrong all the way around. Without him, your job’s a lot harder, but not impossible. You are going to need a miracle, though, and they’re in short supply these days. Spike’s the least of your worries. And if the rift opens, the only way to stop it is with the blood of whoever opened it. Good enough for ya?”

Xander blinked. Half a dozen questions struggled to express themselves, but the one that came out was a disappointingly prosaic, “Anything else you can tell me?”

“You have to be ready to lose something.”

Bitterly, the boy answered, “I’ve already lost Willow, Jesse, Buffy, and probably Giles. I don’t have a hell of a lot else to lose.” And with that he walked out.

The spirit hovered a few seconds longer, but it couldn’t have liked what it heard: “More than you know, pal. A LOT more than you know.”

Part Thirty

Rupert Giles regained consciousness in the back of a van. His hands and feet were bound by handcuffs, but otherwise he was unharmed, except for a slight, fading headache. He was mildly puzzled. Spike had struck him hard enough to knock him out, but not hard enough to do any serious damage. That he was still alive —

If only — but no, that if only led to an entire chain of if onlys, a road Giles had travelled so many times he could have gone there blindfolded. So there was no point in wandering down it again, especially now.

Watchers were also rarely KIDNAPPED by the enemy; rarely did a demon’s plans require one to be alive, for most it was far preferable that they stay dead. It was a dubious honor at best, and as the man said who’d been tarred, feathered and ridden out of town on a rail, if it weren’t for the honor of the thing, he’d rather walk.

After this had ended —assuming the heavens opened and the side of good actually pulled off a victory, and with each passing moment the assessment he’d so recently given Xander seemed like the work of a cockeyed optimist — he didn’t know what he’d do.

Part of him recognized that his internal monologue was not especially coherent. The other part didn’t much care.

As Rupert Giles was neither an escape artist nor a being of superhuman strength, and unlike the movies there were no handy pieces of jagged metal lying about for him to grind the chains against, he had two choices: play along, or start raising a ruckus. There were advantages to either alternative; play along, find out what’s what, work out a more detailed plan of resistance, or scream bloody murder and hope for Spike to make a mistake.

Though for some reason Spike seemed unwilling to hurt him, counting on Spike’s largesse was essentially suicide. And he wasn’t the type to commit rash errors. More than any vampire in Giles’ experience, he didn’t appear to let his emotions control him.

Giles noticed his detachment, and supposed he must have been undergoing a defense mechanism called intellectualization, which occurs when someone detaches the subject matter from the content. Either that or he was simply in shock.

In any event. Playing along seemed the safest option. There was no way he would give up the information Spike required to finish the ritual, in any event. While some vampires had special mental powers that enabled them to pry the information from his skull — indeed, Drusilla had been such a one — Spike’s talents lay in the purely physical aspects of prying information from someone.

So unless they expected him to hand them the keys to Armageddon on a platter, he didn’t know what they intended. He could resist physical torture for as long as it took.

The van came to a stop, and he had no idea where.

Finally, though, Rupert Giles had the chance to do something about all of this himself.

To stave off the end of the world.

It was not a battle he intended to lose.

*                              *                              *

Spike, driving, could easily hear the Watcher’s breathing go from normal to tortured, so he knew the fool was awake. The Watcher had stones, though, and didn’t scream, in either terror or anger, nor did he try to kick open the back door of the van.

THAT would have taken true guts, the willingness to throw himself out of a speeding van onto asphalt while bound. Of course, the van door had been reinforced with solid steel and all he would have done is break his foot, but it would have still been a bloody gutsy maneuver.

Probably, then, he was back there figuring out what was going to happen next, getting all determined not to break under the torture and all that.

Like the Slayer would let him live five steps after doing any more than tapping the Watcher on the shoulder. But, in her mental state, she could certainly see her way clear to doing less.

Such as what they had planned. Spike backed into the driveway and carefully looked around to make sure there was no one watching. Not as far as he could tell. No wonder the Slayer got away with living here for so long; the neighbors were either blind, stupid, or both. As he and his underlings removed the Watcher — definitely conscious — from the rear of the van, he told the man not to raise a ruckus.

In response, he took a deep breath. Blast! He was going to scream. Carefully Spike clouted him again on the back of the head, and the scream died on the Watcher’s lips.

The man was smarter and tougher than even Spike had given him credit for, though, and as they entered the house he made a lunge for the front curtains, trying to tear them down.

Unfortunately for him, though, they’d been nailed to the wall. Could the man have gone starkers? It was still dark outside … what was the point of tearing the curtains down?

Unless he’d already determined to hold off until daylight, knowing good and well that even if Spike COULD torture him he couldn’t damage him badly enough to send him into shock or unconsciousness. He’d heard scraps of reports about the toughness of Rupert Giles, and his wild youth — he always made it a point to know as much about his enemies as possible — but never anything like THIS.

He probably WASN’T prepared for the little morality play they were going to put on in a few minutes. First things first, though. Spike took another pair of leg cuffs and reattached them, and then carried the man down into the basement.

There was the Slayer, chained to the wall, as they’d planned. Spike tossed the Watcher to the floor and said, “Wake up, Slayer, I’ve brought you some company.”

The man looked up from the floor and his eyes widened in shock and relief when he saw the Slayer chained to the wall. “Enjoy each other’s company for a few minutes. I have some nails I need to go heat up.” The Slayer spat in his general direction as he limped up the stairs. Good girl! Now she had HER part to play …

*                              *                              *

Rupert Giles, on the floor, gaped in shock. Buffy was still alive! Despite Spike’s words he’d never fully believed it …

“Giles,” she whispered. “Are you okay?”

Chained to the wall, captive for four months, her first thought was of him. “I’m fine. More important is, how are you?” She was alive! And, it seemed, reasonably undamaged and in good enough spirits, considering the circumstances.

“A bit battered and bruised, but otherwise alive,” she answered. “Spike hasn’t really been going in for the heavy physical torture; he’s wanted to keep me alive, for some reason.”

“A greater torture,” Giles began, but then she interrupted him.

“What bothers me is he’s been trying all kinds of weird mystic rituals. They’re not working, though.” Mystic rituals? Recently, that could ONLY be an attempted invocation of Acathla. Thank goodness that it had failed — though he was unsure how Spike had translated the runes. He prompted Buffy to continue. “Well,” she said, “the one above was sick and disgusting. Something to do with pulling a sword out of a statue. Is he trying to be a King Arthur for vampires or something? Anyway, he also killed a guy and drank his blood before chanting something about ascending or becoming. A weird light filled the room, but nothing really happened. This seemed to piss him off —” No wonder, Giles thought — “And then he went off to get you.”

“I fear he intends torture, Buffy.” She winced at the name. “And in any event, his translation was miles off. I believe I can hold out until help comes for us.”

“What’d he get wrong?” Buffy asked curiously.

“The blood he drank was supposed to be his own,” he answered automatically.

“THAT’S odd,” she answered. “That’s it?”

“Yes.” A thought struck him. “Let’s not talk of that again. We don’t want Spike to find out.”

She looked at him sadly. “You don’t, Giles. Unfortunately, I do.” She snapped the chains from the wall and, to his infinite horror, shouted, “Spike!” up the stairs. Bewilderment must have shone like a beacon in his eyes, because she said, “What Spike’s doing — it’s for the best. Acathla’s influencing everyone towards evil, including all of you. This ritual’s the only way to get it to stop.”

Spike came down the stairs. “You get the info, Slayer?”

“Yes,” she answered in that toneless voice he’d long since come to dread. “I need to drink my OWN blood when I perform the ritual.” Spike released her fully from the chains as the import of Buffy’s words sank in. Buffy’s blood? SHE was performing? Oh, dear Lord, no.

He’d failed.

He’d failed.

*                              *                              *

Slayer and vampire walked into the main room together. She told him quietly, “He seems so much like the Giles I know it’s frightening.”

“He IS the Giles you know, Slayer, remember? Still has the same concerns and the same emotions. That’s why this should succeed.”

The preparations came to an abrupt halt when the Slayer grabbed his arm, squeezed and said, “Where’s Kendra?”

“I have no idea where she is, Slayer, I’ve been out for a while.” The other denizens of the house were nowhere in sight. He called out, “Dalton! Dalton, you bloody incompetent buffoon, where are you?”

Dalton came down the steps, as nervous as ever. He had a right to be nervous in this case. “Yes, Spike?”

“Where is the other Slayer?” Now if Dalton reacted like he expected he’d have the chance to drain two people with one bite.

“Wh-wh-why are you, you told me, but why —” Spike grabbed his throat. Jackpot! Had Dalton had more presence of mind, he would have claimed that she’d escaped, or something, but by hemming and hawing he was giving the Slayer exactly the WRONG impression.

Enunciating clearly, Spike said, “I believe this Slayer here told us not to harm her any further. So WHAT happened?”

Being no fool, Dalton had picked up on Spike’s plan and was not especially fond of the expected outcome. He struggled fiercely, but he was no match for Spike in strength, even counting what desperation was undoubtedly adding. Spike continued, “You took a chance and KILLED the other Slayer, KNOWING what that might do to this necessary alliance? I’ll bet if I go upstairs I’ll find her body drained of most of its blood, won’t I? You IDIOT!” Undoubtedly Dalton knew why he was getting killed, and it had nothing to do with the method of disposal of Kendra the Slayer, but in his repeated failures of translation.

This would have the fringe benefit of confusing the hell out of the Watcher, who could hear but not see this little exchange.

Then Dalton surprised him by kneeing him in the chest, freeing himself. He must have known that whatever he said his death was imminent if he stuck around, because he took off running as though the demons of hell were after him.

Which, in a sense, they were. The Slayer caught up with him as he was opening the back door and screamed, “I may have hated that bitch. She caused ALL of my problems with her nasty attitude. But even SHE didn’t deserve to die at your hands.” She pulled out a stake and turned him to ashes in seconds.

Spike grinned as she walked by. She snarled but said nothing and walked up the stairs, coming back a minute later with the fully drained corpse of Kendra the Slayer. Her neck tilted to one side and the Slayer whispered, “I don’t care that you told them not to do this. The only reason you’re still alive is the ritual. After that, you’ll owe me for Kendra’s death.” Placing the dead girl down gently, she turned to Spike and said, “There’s another one you owe me.”

“Good luck collecting,” he answered. Even the taunt didn’t faze her. She was well gone. This was good. She snarled at him and went down the steps, returning in minutes with the still-bound Watcher. “What are you doing?” He’d planned to bring the man upstairs himself, to torture him, but knew full well the Slayer wasn’t of the same mind.

“I want him to see what he’s been influenced by. I want him to sense when Acathla’s evil is gone. And I don’t trust that out of my sight something won’t happen to him like it did to Kendra.”

Spike shrugged and the Slayer loosely bound her Watcher to a chair.

*                              *                              *

I’ve failed, I’ve failed, I’ve failed, I’ve failed, I’ve failed, I’ve failed, I’ve failed, I’ve failed, I’ve failed, I’ve failed, I’ve failed, I’ve failed …

*                              *                              *

The spirit hurried after Xander as he went back to the hospital at a fast walk. He found Ms. Calendar fairly quickly — she was lying in a bed, and to the spirit’s horror, was still unconscious.

She found out why in seconds, as Cordelia tearfully explained that the head impact had been more serious than they thought, and that while her life was in no immediate danger she had a major concussion and likely wouldn’t wake up again for a couple of days.

Xander swore furiously. Then he told Cordelia what he’d learned from Whistler.

She echoed, “We need a miracle.” No! She wouldn’t let them succumb to despair, too, like everyone else. So …

The spirit entered Jenny Calendar’s again unconscious body and sat up.

*                              *                              *

Cordelia was as ready to despair. “We need a miracle,” she said, silently praying. How could they win? Whistler said they’d need a miracle —

“You need a miracle, Cordy? Here’s your miracle.” And, to the absolute astonishment of everyone in the room, Jenny Calendar sat up.

And then —

Jenny Calendar stood up and walked.

Cordelia didn’t know how, but —

They’d gotten their miracle.

Part Thirty-One

So the blood you drank had to be your own, eh? They could work through that. The Slayer did not seem overly reluctant to do things that way. Spike suddenly felt a flash of inspiration and went to find more rope, and he used it to bind the Watcher to his chair more securely. He’d felt these flashes every once in a while and was fairly certain it was his Dru giving him advice from beyond. If the Watcher wasn’t securely bound, he might find a way to get free.

The man’s eyes seemed purely darkened in defeat. His resilience had astounded Spike, but this was yet another nail in the coffin. He had his witness, he was about to have his revenge on the Slayer, and no one else had any idea where he was. He shuddered in pleasure at the notion of their utter helplessness.

He turned to the Slayer and said, “I think that’s all we need, then. You’d better go center yourself for the ritual.” At the sound of the words, the Watcher stirred himself briefly and said, halfheartedly, “No …” but then sank back into despair.

“Right.” She jogged upstairs and as Spike went to the stairs to call up his remaining vampires he looked in the librarian’s direction. His face now showed nothing and he just blankly stared forward.

Complete and total shock, apparently. Or perhaps he’d been emotionally drained so far that even an Armageddon brought about by his charge didn’t faze him. He checked the man’s pulse and breathing. He was still alive. Good.

But he moved not at all over the next half hour, reacting to nothing. Not to the sight of the Slayer prpearing for the ritual, or practicing the chant; not when the ritual began; not when she sliced her hand open and began drinking the blood.

Spike smiled openly at the sight of the Slayer’s self-cannibalism.

He and Dru would be reunited.

The Kingdom was at hand.

*                              *                              *

The spirit moved awkwardly around the room and sat down on the bed. No point in overtaxing poor Ms. Calendar’s system beyond the point of repair.

An orderly who had just walked in, knowing that the patient in the room was supposed to be both paraplegic and unconscious, had walked out moments before muttering something about incompetent nursing staffs.

Xander and Cordelia had been hemming and hawing and otherwise pulling a “Sylvester just saw a ghost” routine; neither one had said anything coherent in the thirty seconds since she’d stood up.

Cordelia recovered first, turning to Xander and saying, “Whistler said we needed a miracle to win. Here’s our miracle. Now we know where, we know when, and everything that needed to happen has happened.” Xander said nothing and Cordy rapped him on the head, saying, “Hello! World about to come to an end? We’re the only ones that can stop it?”

Suddenly, Xander stopped his pacing directly in front of where the spirit was sitting. “I don’t like this, Cordy. Whistler says we need a miracle and thirty minutes later one happens? Just too weird. Plus we still don’t have Angel — or whatever an Angel represents — here with us.”

“I’ll admit it seems weird, but still —”

All right, enough. They finally had their chance to win, and the spirit of Willow Rosenberg was NOT going to let them blow it through the mistrust and suspicion that had so become a part of her friends’ lives since —

Since she died. No; since Cordelia’s car had spun off the road. Things had been on that steady, relentless, almost inexorable plummet, and right now was their LAST chance to hold it back before it hit bottom. She’d been unable to do anything else — unable to save Angel, Joyce Summers, Kendra, those three children Xander had killed, or even that poor werewolf — but she had a Destiny to stop the world from going to Hell.

She’d hoped to get by without having to do this, but no such luck. Taking a deep breath, she yelled, “Xander Lavelle Harris, THAT WILL BE ENOUGH.”

The couple turned to face their screaming computer teacher. She went on, “Ms. Calendar walking was your miracle. 1630 Revello Drive is the place. And I … am what an angel represents. I am the spirit of innocence, possessing Ms. Calendar.” Maybe that would be enough …? Please, Xander, stay quiet … please?

Good news is Xander did. Bad news is Cordy didn’t. “Spirit of innocence?” She demanded. “So at a time when the world’s ready to come to an end, and all of Ms. Calendar’s technopagany friends are beating it for the South Pole, the good guys pick up this mysterious spirit of innocence out of the blue? Does that seem right to you?” She asked the question to Xander, who shook his head.

“So WHAT’S going on?” Xander demanded.

“Nice outfit, Cordy,” she told the cheerleader. “Good to know you’ve seen the softer side of Soldier of Fortune. And as for you, Xander, believe me right now or, or, I’ll tell everyone how afraid you are of clowns!”

Realization entered both pairs of eyes simultaneously. Cordy spoke first. “What was it that she, Ms. Calendar, said that Buffy kept saying back when? Angel is love and —”

Xander whispered, “Willow is innocence.” He grabbed the spirit’s shoulders, and, tears welling up in his eyes, said “Willow? IS that you?”

Sighing, she answered, “Yes, Xand. It’s me —” the rest of what she was trying to say was squeezed out of her by two sets of arms embracing her. She gave them thirty seconds, during which nobody said anything. Finally, she gently disengaged their arms and said, quietly but firmly, “This is why I didn’t want to tell you. The two of you need to be focused on taking down Spike and stopping this ritual. You can’t afford to be distracted; you need to give that your all, and not worry about me.”

“What are you saying?” Xander asked.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen. All I know is that I’M the key to stopping this. Now, do you all have your weapons?”

“In your — Ms. Calendar’s van.”

“Good. Then we don’t have much time. They could begin the ritual again any second.” She got up and wobbled towards the door.

Xander grabbed her arm lightly. “Willow, you can’t do this yet. We have so much to —” He fell to his knees. “Forgive me. Please.” Half a second later Cordy was next to him asking the same thing.

“Forgive you?” she asked in amazement. “Why would I need to forgive you?”

Cordy spoke first. “Forgive me for not getting there in time to save your life. If I’d been there THIRTY seconds earlier —”

Then Xander: “I should have been there to protect you, Will. My best friend, and I failed you. Forgive me.”

Sensitive face on, the spirit said, “You don’t need to ask my forgiveness. There was nothing you could have done, Cordelia, and as for you, Xander, if you’d been protecting me, then Buffy would have died and the Master would be ruling the world as we speak. I should be asking you guys to forgive me.”

Together, they said, “Why?”

“Because it wasn’t supposed to happen this way! I wasn’t supposed to die! There was NOTHING that suggested that was going to happen. Look at what’s going on right now! Giles was right — this prophecy WAS supposed to be about Angel saving the world. He wasn’t supposed to die in November. This entire year has been a fluke, a blip, random chance, all because of me. Now it looks like there’s a chance we can get the world back on track if we win here tonight, or at least as back on track as it’s ever going to get. This is my chance to atone, to make up for dying . Forgive me.”

Inexplicably, Xander chuckled. The spirit looked at him in confusion, and Cordelia stared at him like he’d just confessed to being Spike in disguise. “Typical Will,” he said. “You die and you blame yourself.” He stood up, “All right, it was a fluke, an act of God, or whatever. I’m willing to go along with that for now. Do you know what you’re supposed to do?” This addressed to the spirit.

“No idea. I just know that I’m the substitute for Angel. But I’ll know what happens when we get there.” She wobbled again, and Xander guided the spirit into Ms. Calendar’s wheelchair.

“No arguments, Wil– Ms. Calendar. Even if you CAN walk, this won’t be as hard on you. Are we all ready?” Nods all around.

The spirit said, “Let’s find Spike, then, and kick his ass.”

*                              *                              *

They had to dodge and weave their way out to the van. Technically, Ms. Calendar was still a patient in the ER who needed to be properly discharged, and they didn’t have time to waste in explaining things to either the doctor in charge or the cops. For the first time in a long time, luck was with them, and they managed to sneak out a side door without being caught.

Xander couldn’t believe that Willow was back with them. It made him feel very confident again. He’d always thought there was a chance they could win, but now with Will back he knew the good guys would win.

Not because of any prophecies, either. Things were back the way they should be. It only made sense. As long as Willow had been — alive — they’d won. So he knew. They snuck into the van, finding it easier this time to lift the chair in and have Willow/Ms. Calendar climb in to the back, rather than have to fiddle with the controls for the chair lift.

Spike didn’t stand a chance. Acathla was a drop in the bucket, now. Buffy would come back.

Willow was in her Sunnydale.

All was right with the world.

*                              *                              *

Cordelia was at once pleased and terrified. Willow was back, so there was a chance they could win this one. On the other hand, Willow was back, and this was a reminder of her greatest failure. No matter what Willow said, how often she was told there was nothing to forgive —

hitting that nail was unforgiveable.

They sped through the streets of Sunnydale, maximum legal speed. Now was NOT the time to get pulled over.

Cordelia had never really let that thought go. No matter that she’d gotten over trying to be Willow, she knew —

Look at him, after all. Willow’s back, and now it’s like there’s no way they can lose. Even Willow wasn’t saying that.

Cordelia knew they could. Even if Willow were right, she didn’t know what to do. She just knew that she was there to do something. Also, she was a substitute for Angel?

It just didn’t lead to a great chance for victory.

Still, she supposed SOME chance was the best they could do.

Cordelia smoothly maneuvered the van to a halt a block from 1630 Revello. No one needed an explanation why. Xander took every weapon he could carry and made sure both pistols were fully loaded, while Cordelia took most of the rest.

They offered Willow weapons, and she declined, although she did take a couple of vials of holy water. “I’m fairly sure I’m not here to go on a vampire-killing rampage.” This made Cordelia all the more fearful, but she bit her lip and took a deep breath.

They snuck up to Buffy’s old house. There was an odd, zebra-striped van in the driveway, and every window was completely curtained off. In silent running mode now, Xander indicated to Cordy that she should sneak around to the back door and be ready to go when she heard the signal. She nodded and Xander escorted the spirit towards the front of the house as she went to the rear.

She drew her crossbow and a stake and waited.

Part Thirty-Two

Xander motioned for the spirit to wait on the porch. Then he took three quick deep breaths, drew his guns, and thought back to when he believed he was a soldier.

Time to atone.

Time to make things right.

Time to make up for a full year of things not being how they should.

One, two, three …

He kicked in the front door.

*                              *                              *

Cordelia stood at the back door, still waiting, and thinking. She now knew that it had be true, that nervousness and fear made time go more slowly, as she KNEW it had been at least three years since Xander had sent her back here, even though her lying watch told her it had been thirty seconds.

Bolt in the crossbow, check. Stake at the ready, check. Body armor securely in place, check.

Cordelia Chase slowly going insane, check.

What the HELL was taking Xander so long?

Or had they caught him already?

Had they rushed out the front door and captured Xander — and Willow?

Was it all up to her, now?

Was it all her responsibility, now? … a heavy burden, and one she knew she couldn’t carry.

Oh, please, God, let her not be alone. Not now.

Not …

A crash came from the front of the house. Seconds later she matched it, more quietly, throwing her body into the door as hard as she could.


The door swung open under her weight and she fell into the house, startling a pair of vampires lurking near the door. She took advantage of their surprise and killed one of them quickly with a crossbow bolt before the other one jumped her. Shots rang out in the other room.

Using every technique Giles, Xander and Buffy had taught her, she kept the demon at bay until finally she managed to squirm clear. No holding back, knee to the groin, cross to the face, stake to the heart.

She got up, panting. A narrow escape, that. Stake in hand, she moved towards the main room —

and found her way blocked by Spike.

“Hello, luv,” he said. “You weren’t thinking of crashing the party, were you?”

*                              *                              *

Unfortunately, Xander could not charge in in “kill ’em all and let the Hellmouth sort ’em out” mode, as Buffy, Giles and maybe Kendra were still alive inside the house. The room was fully lit, and Buffy — Buffy! Oh, God, no — was near the statue chanting, “Now, Acathla, you will be free, and so will we all,” and reaching for the sword. Five feet behind her, grinning widely until he saw and heard Xander’s entrance, stood Spike.

This was bad. Xander screamed in anger and began firing, aiming for the vampires’ heads. One went down as Buffy stopped and turned around and Spike yelled, “Don’t let them disrupt the ceremony! Slayer, only a couple more seconds. Draw the bloody sword!” Xander fired again, hitting the other two vampires in the room, and out of the corner of his eye saw Cordy struggling with another one by the back door.

Spike came towards him, limping but still dangerous, and Xander kicked at his bad foot and sent him to the floor, then stepped past him quickly towards Buffy and the demon’s statue.

THAT had been a lucky break. Even half-crippled, Spike was dangerous, and now desperate. Xander kept an ear out for him.

No time, unfortunately, to help Cordy or deal with the injured-but-not-out vampires, which was taking a MONUMENTAL gamble. He had to stop Buffy from pulling that sword, though. He shouted, “Buffy, no!” as she again reached for it, and praying for his life and the life of everyone else on the planet, fired his pistol at the statue.

She reached her hand back and said, a little sadly, “That’s the demon talking, Xander,” before her face got businesslike.

What they’d jokingly called Buffy’s gameface, long before it stopped being a joke. Then she hit him in the chest, knocking him down. His pseudo-soldier training was really no match for her. All they could do was try to do a holding action until Willow did … whatever it was Willow was supposed to do. Xander drew his club and swung at Buffy’s leg. She jumped, but he got lucky and hit her foot in the air. Awkwardly landing, she stumbled and Xander brought her down to the floor. He raised the club …

and this was Buffy. He hesitated …

STUPID mistake. Her arm shot up and twisted his wrist until he HAD to drop the damn thing, and she kicked it over to the far side of the room. She said, “Take him away, you know the rules,” and Xander felt two pairs of cold hands drag him away.

Odd how time moves in slow motion in crisis moments. A lesson well learned from TV. He turned his head and saw, for the first time, Giles sitting in the corner. Out of the far corner of his eye, Cordelia was battling Spike.

Slow time, ten minutes, real time, a couple of seconds.

And then it slowed down even further as Buffy reached for the sword …

and pulled it free.

Ms. Calendar, um, Willow, walked in …

*                              *                              *

Cordelia’s eyes narrowed. “Oh, I was HOPING to run into you.”

Spike grinned. “Oh, really? You should probably see a psychatrist about that death wish of yours.”

Apparently in no mood whatever for banter, Cordelia surprised Spike for maybe the first time in his life … by stomping hard on his weak foot. He’d been expecting a knock in the face, or a punch to the gut.

In any event, he’d killed two Slayers and emotionally destroyed a third. One human, even pissed off, was no threat. Not THIS close to being reunited with Dru, she wasn’t. He bit back the yelp of pain and decked the bitch.

She reached under her jacket and got up. Another blow to the chin and she went down again, eyes closed.

No time to drain her, and no point, either, really. Spike turned back to watch the action.

Two of his minions were dragging the boy away from the statue. The computer teacher — hold on, there, isn’t she a bloody cripple? — walked in, awkwardly, weakly saying, “No!”

The Slayer pulled the sword.


*                              *                              *

Through all of it, the Slayer had remained firm.

Pulling the sword would free everyone of Acathla’s influence. It’d been why Xander and Cordelia had tried to stop this, and why Giles had needed to be tricked into revealing the truth.

She HAD wondered why an evil-influenced Giles would care for her at all, but Spike pointed out that he had loved Drusilla, way back when.

A good point.

So she pulled the sword and they would be free.

Then … the voice.

THE voice.

The voice she thought she’d never hear again.

Willow’s, saying “No. Oh, no …”

Sword in hand, she spun around. Ms. Calendar was standing — standing? by the front door frame, leaning against it. Spike started laughing.

“We did it, Slayer,” he said. “Now, let’s leave the area before they can figure out how to stop us.”

Confused, she looked back and forth and focused in again on Willow’s voice coming from Ms. Calendar’s mouth. “Buffy, no … Five seconds too late …”

Five seconds? What was Willow talking about … Buffy … Buffy …

Buffy regained control from the Slayer, for the first time in months. If Spike’s plan had worked entirely, there would have been nothing for Willow to reach. It wasn’t like she hadn’t remembered Angel’s dying … but the emotional connection had been very nearly severed.

Willow. Oh, God, how? She ran forward, breaking Spike’s grip, and hugged her long-lost friend.

She missed the gate that was opening behind her.

No one else in the room, did, though.

*                              *                              *

Cordelia shook her head … and saw a grayness centered on the statue, not ten feet away, and everyone in the room staring at it.

She cringed inside for what she knew had to happen.

Xander lay on the floor, being loosely held by two vampires. Cordelia saw her chance and drew her stake. Soon Xander was being held by NO vampires … and Spike hadn’t noticed.

He was mesmerized by the gray abyss as if he were expecting his heart’s desire to emerge from it. As she approached he whispered, a big grin on his face, “Dru …”

It was the last thing he ever said. Cordelia’s stake plunged into his back and within seconds the English vampire was no more.

Now there was only one thing left to deal with.


*                              *                              *

It hadn’t been meant to end this way.

Willow was innocence.

Innocence wasn’t supposed to have to make these decisions.

Willow, alas, was also Judgment.

As they hugged Willow heard the sword clatter to the floor and felt the other vampires in the room die.

She walked, slowly, back towards the statue. Buffy held on the entire way, and Willow grabbed the sword as they went.

Xander said, “N–” from behind before forcibly being quieted down.

“Buffy,” Willow said. “Oh, Buffy …” tearfully.

“Willow. It’s you. How?”

Willow was crying now. “Shh. Close your eyes.”

Buffy did, and after another second or two Willow disengaged the hug.

It was the hardest thing she ever had to do. Behind her, Xander struggled free and screamed, “No! Willow, don’t —”

And Willow thrust the sword through Buffy’s stomach as she opened her eyes.

She fell backwards towards the abyss, a look of betrayal on her face, and frantically grabbed for anything solid.

Her arm grabbed Willow’s and together they slid slowly inwards.

The spirit could leave the body — but that would mean abandoning Jenny Calendar to Hell.

She couldn’t do that.

But there was no time to do anything else.

At least the world was safe.

*                              *                              *

It was Xander, at the end, who solved it. He frantically scrabbled around on the bare floor until his hand grabbed onto something small, hard, and sharp.

He raced forward and pleaded, “Buff, I’m sorry …” and raked it across Buffy’s arm.

Grip released, she flew backwards into the vortex.

Ms. Calendar’s body turned and said, “Bye,” before hitting the floor as the grayness slowly shrank.

Xander looked at the object he held in his hand and in disgust threw it into the vanishing abyss.

A nail.

Part Thirty-Three

Without Willow’s spirit to animate it, Jenny Calendar’s body struck the floor and lay there, unmoving. Almost automatically, Cordelia Chase crawled forward to check.

A pulse. A faint one, but definitely a pulse. She walked over — in front of Xander’s stunned face. He hadn’t moved, and the tears were running down his face freely. His gaze burned into the wall as though through sheer force of will he could compel the gate to reopen. Somehow the sword was once again in Acathla’s stomach.

Cordelia didn’t think he was foolish enough to yank the sword again, and he didn’t know the ritual anyway. God only knew what he was thinking. For that matter, she had no idea how she was functioning herself. Running on some kind of mental adrenaline, probably.

She went over to look at Giles. He was breathing, shallowly, and staring blankly forward. Nothing had come from him since they’d begun the struggle. She waved a hand in front of his face and shook him. Nothing.

It reminded her of Buffy’s catatonia.

At least he was still alive, though.

Finally, she walked over to Xander. There were two people to help out and take to the hospital, and she didn’t think she could do it alone. Thank goodness that this had all been more or less quiet,even if not very noticeable, or else the police would be there eventually.

They might show up eventually, anyway.

Cordelia touched Xander on the shoulder. He flinched, but otherwise didn’t move. She moved into his range of vision and stood there. “Xander,” she began. “It’s over. They’re not coming back, and we have to get out of here.” After a moment, “Xander?”

A scream louder and longer than any she’d ever heard came from his mouth and he rushed at the wall, pounding it furiously. “Bring them back!” he screamed. “Bring them back!” He sank to his knees and sobbed. “Bring them back …”

Hugging him, she pulled him gently to his feet. “Come on, Xander,” she said quietly. “We need to take care of Giles and Ms. Calendar. Come on.” She guided him to where Giles was still tied up. They cut his ropes and got him to his feet. No, he wasn’t like Buffy, he was a lot worse. Buffy would respond minimally, and Giles was like a damn zombie.

To Xander she gave the task of escorting Giles to the van. She made a quick sweep of the area and picked up Xander’s club and one of his guns, as well as the busted crossbow. As she approached the statue she noticed a glint on the floor.

She bent down to take a look. It was Buffy’s cross necklace, broken link and all.

That was it. She fell to the floor and wept uncontrollably.

*                              *                              *

Somehow, Xander got them all to the hospital. How he explained what had happened to the four of them, she had no idea, but no police showed up to haul them off in irons.

The two of them were suffering more from exhaustion and bruises than anything else, which was little consolation.

After a couple of hours, they finally heard, good news and bad news. The bad news was that all attempts to coax a response out of Giles had failed. Somewhere, he was in there, but the psychiatrist they had on hand had no idea when, if ever, he would be reached.

They’d have to contact the Watchers to take care of him.

But, out of all of it, ONE crumb. One hope to cling to.

By some miracle, all of the strain Jenny Calendar’s body had been put through … had done her no permanent damage. Her legs were broken in several places, and they would need to heal … but she would feel no pain.

That she was so unused to such physical activity had put the woman in an even more extreme state of exhaustion than Xander and Cordelia, and the head injury had been aggravated, but her life was in no danger.

ONE crumb.

But what would they do now? She asked Xander the question.

“We’re going to find her, Cordy,” he said. “We’re going to bring back both of them.” He had never sounded more determined.

And Cordelia knew. Her life was over.

Xander would dedicate the rest of his life to his quest to restore his two best friends, and nothing would stand in his way.

And Cordelia would go along for the ride — because she loved Xander Harris.

Into obsession — into madness.

Whatever it took.

*                              *                              *

— May 2008 —

The house formerly belonging to Joyce Summers had long ago been boarded up.

A succession of people had lived there, none for very long, claiming that the place was haunted. And in a way, they were right.

No one had tried to move in for years, though, ever since it had been bought. Though boarded up, it was well maintained. Occasionally neighbors saw someone mowing the lawn, or going through and cleaning the inside. It was not an eyesore, really, apart from that odd symbol painted on the front door.

And, of course, once a month three figures could be seen inside the house: A handsome, tired-looking young man, a razor-thin, haggard dark-haired woman with beautiful long black hair, and a grim middle-aged woman in a wheelchair. Rumor had it one of them, or perhaps all of them, owned the house, and so while people whispered and gossiped, no one really did anything.

What they were doing in there was anyone’s guess.

But every time, after an hour or so, they left, their faces and expressions even more ragged than they were before they entered. Then they turned and looked at the house, and each held up two small items, miniature versions of the symbols on the front door.

A cross … and a nail.

*                              *                              *

A small portal opened, and a nail flew out of it, landing on a street somewhere.

An interesting property of Acathla’s gate to hell is that it exists in all times at once. So any object that goes into it is transported somewhere else in time.

A human body? Good question.

A nail, thrown with as great force as a Slayer could possibly manage, would only go forward or back … oh, about a year or so.


A car comes speeding down the road, inside it, a panicked young woman, desperately searching for the only person that can help her.

And then it happens.

Her car hits a nail.

And because of one nail, one lousy, stinking, who-the-hell knows where it came from nail, the entire process starts all over again.

Who knows. Maybe they’ll get lucky.

Nails do rust, you know.

And then, well, who knows what will happen?

For want of a nail.

*                              *                              *

“For want of a nail, the shoe was lost.
 For want of a shoe, the horse was lost.
 For want of a horse, the rider was lost.
 For want of a rider, the battle was lost.
 For want of a battle, the war was lost.
 For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost.
 All for want of a nail.”

— old nursery rhyme


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