Every muscle in my body hurts, even some I didnt know I had, said Buffy, wincing as she worked out a kink in her shoulder. She toweled off the leg press station of the Universal Gym Giles had set up in one corner of the empty warehouse.
Yes, well, you havent been training regularly or properly for some years. You cant expect to be back to top form in a week, now can you? asked Giles, unsympathetic to her plight as usual. He put the talisman he was fiddling with down on the folding card table that served as a desk.
Buffy drifted over to the dilapidated couch positioned nearby and flopped into it with unladylike abandon. Suddenly, a dagger was flying toward her. She caught it an inch from her head.
Jeez, Giles. Way to almost kill the Slayer, she said, setting the weapon aside.
Sorry. That was supposed to miss, actually. But its good to see your reflexes are back to where they ought to be. That should compensate somewhat for your inadequate physical conditioning.
Remind me not to sign you up as a counselor at Image Enhancement Camp, said Buffy.
Never mind. So thats the portal thingy, huh? she asked, nodding toward the talisman on the table. It was just a circular gold band with an emerald set within its circumference.
Yes, this is as you so eloquently put it, the portal thingy.
And that little fashion accessory will get me to Hell?
No, not exactly. The actual artifact that will generate the gate is in the basement of the museum, in storage. This merely acts as a sort of locating beacon so that, when you wish to return to this world, the artifact knows where in the demonic plane to open the gate for you.
Im not sure I like the idea of wearing a tracking collar in Hell. It might be bad if some things knew where I was.
That wont be a problem in this instance. The talisman is not activated until you break the gemstone.
Im noticing a catch, here. Theres always a catch with these demonic doohickeys. Right?
No catch, really. More of a design limitation. Since you have to destroy the talisman to use it, youll only have one chance to make it back here. If you miss that chance, or if someone else should manage to use the portal before you, you will be lost in the demon plane forever. Well have no way on this side to find you and open another portal to you.
Oh. Just a small design limitation. I thought it might be something major.
Sarcasm aside, the limitation made sense to the creators of this object. The demon plane is not a place anyone really wants to be. Creatures there are always looking for ways into this world. A reusable talisman falling into the wrong hands would afford those denizens with a perfect gateway for entering this world en masse. Not an attractive proposition.
So, in other words, Id better watch for any bad guys with sticky fingers down there.
Yes. Absolutely. Im deadly serious when I say youll be trapped in Hell forever if you dont come back using the talisman.
Got it. Dont lose talisman.
Theres one more thing.
Why is there always one more thing with this stuff?
This is important, Buffy.
It always is. Well, go ahead. Give me the one more thing.
Giles seemed to cast about for a way to explain, then said, Its just that the talisman is very old, and Im worried that the longer you spend in the demonic plane, the more tenuous its connection will be with this world.
Youre saying this artifact of yours might not be able to open a portal if I spend too much time there? asked Buffy.
It might not open a portal, yes. Or it might open a portal that leads nowhere, which would be far worse.
Nowhere. As in Nome, Alaska nowhere?
As in the Great Void nowhere, Im afraid, said Giles.
In which case, what happens? she asked with trepidation.
The look on his face made it plain, but he said it anyway. In which case you die.
Oh. Okay, so seeing the sights is out. Ill give the Triple A vacation guides back.
As long as you appreciate the danger, said Giles.
Whats to appreciate about dead? Dead I understand. Its not a difficult concept.
Good. Oh, and youll need a weapon, something that will be effective against most of the things youll encounter on the other side.
He rose and picked up a long, blanket-wrapped parcel from the corner. He unrolled the covering to reveal a sword with a plain, polished steel crossguard in an old leather scabbard. He handed the weapon to her.
She took it and drew the blade. It was flawless work, the steel a hypnotic pattern of whorls and eddies from hundreds of repeated foldings of the steel during forging. The edge was as keen enough to shave with. Buffy stepped away from Giles and swept the sword in a broad arc, feeling the balance. Exceptional. She flowed into a complex sword form shed not practiced in years, but which seemed to come as naturally as breathing with this weapon in her hands. Sword and Slayer became one, a union of grace and steel and death.
When she was done, Giles said, That blade is very special. Its enchanted to a very high degree, able to injure almost any supernatural being you are likely to encounter, even noncorporeal ones. It was fashioned nearly three hundred years ago in Toledo, Spain, for use by a Paladin of the Church of Rome in the cause of slaying a particularly nasty demon that was terrorizing the countryside at the time. Youll find no finer weapon in all the world.
Its magnificent, said Buffy, still captivated by the obscenely beautiful fusion of death and beauty she held in her hand. How did you come by it?
I borrowed it, actually.
Borrowed. As in Ill have this back to you tomorrow, or as in permanently on loan?
Permanently on loan, I should think. At least until someone in the Vatican should become particularly anxious to see it back in their reliquary.
Thank you Giles. Thank you very much.
Its no more than you deserve. Wooden stakes and holy water are fine for slaying the neighborhood vampire, but your battles are bigger, now. You ought to be equipped with the best tools for the job, and this is one of the best.
She sheathed the weapon and carefully set it on a nearby weapons rack.
Ill put it to good use, she said. Am I free for the rest of the night? Because Id really like to take a shower, then stop by Willows. Girl stuff.
Giles glanced at the clock on the table. Nine-twenty p.m. I think were through. Just be careful. I dont expect any paranormal activity, but I very much do expect the Board to have an assassin in the vicinity.
Ill be careful. I didnt get this far just to have some weekend warrior cash in my chips.
* * *
Buffy was halfway to Willows house when she sensed the presence. Definitely paranormal, despite Giles assurances to the contrary. She pretended not to notice, but reached under her leather jacket to grasp the sharpened stake she carried there.
When she felt the presence close to striking distance she turned and attacked
And just as suddenly pulled her blow.
Oh, its you again, said Buffy, replacing the stake beneath her jacket. What is it this time, Whistler? More metaphysical lectures about second chances and destinies and the balance between light and dark?
You already used that line. Here I am, taking your second chance. Probably get myself killed in the process, but there you go. Thats the life of the Slayer, right?
Thats not the second chance Im here about. I got another one for you.
Wow. I must really rate with you guys to warrant all these opportunities to screw up my life in new and unique ways, said Buffy.
Yeah, actually you rate higher than you could ever know. But this is personal. Im giving you a shot at setting things right with Angel.
Buffy said nothing for a long moment. Just the name flooded her with so much confusion and grief and, yes, even anger that it was hard to know how to react to it. Finally, through a tightening lump in her throat, she said, Thats low even for you, Whistler. Angels dead. I killed him, remember? Ran a sword through the man I loved, watched the life leave his eyes.
You need to think about that a second, said Whistler.
Just say what you mean.
What happens when you kill a vampire? Poof. Bring in the Dust Buster. Last I checked, nobody was vacuuming up Angel.
She was having a hard time with where this was going. Hope was such a fickle thing in her life. She didnt want to give it any more opportunities to dash her emotions on the rocks.
But he had to die to close the gate.
Whistler shook his head. No. His blood had to be shed to close the gate. Nothing written anywhere about him having to shuffle off the immortal coil. If thats what you thought, you either heard me wrong or had a half-assed translation.
If youre telling me hes alive, Whistler, youd better not be jerking my chain or I swear to God, youll regret it for the rest of your miserable, eternal existence.
Oh, hes alive. Last time I saw him, anyway. Angels in Hell, Buffy, same tourist destination youre headed for tomorrow. Whats more, you can cure him there, said Whistler.
No more demon. No more child of the night. Humanity for Angel.
Buffy narrowed her eyes, suspicious. How?
Same general principal as this thing youre planning with Prophet. In Hell, you can separate the demon from the host for a short time with one of these.
Whistler fished around in one picket and came up with a small, polished purple stone. He tossed it to her and she snatched it out of the air.
Hey, the reflexes are back. Good. Youll need em, said the demon.
What does this do?
Its kinda complicated. A lot of electrodynamics stuff I dont understand. We got physics in Hell just like you got it up here, and I dont understand mine any better that I do yours. Anyway, you nail Angel with this, it disrupts the demons bond with him. Demon comes out of hiding for a few seconds until it can rephase with the host. That gives you an opportunity to kill it. You kill it, Angels a free man, with the emphasis on man.
And just how am I supposed to find him?
Funny about that. He seems to have a knack for always finding you. Have a little faith.
Okay, Ill give faith a shot at making the team, but its strictly probational, said Buffy, pocketing the stone. Just tell me one thing. Why are you doing this?
I got a soft spot for Angel. Hes a good kid, the human part of him. He never sought the curse out like so many others do. Never was looking for power or immortality. He was just a dreamer who wanted to see the world. Instead he got a living hell. The commandments that bind me dont allow me to help him directly. But I figure it doesnt say anywhere I cant help you to help him.
Dont thank me yet. You think this is gonna solve all your problems, you might be in for some bad surprises. Im being honest with you, here. You make Angel human again, you and he are gonna have some tough choices to make.
Life is choices.
Whistler nodded and touched the brim of his hat in farewell. However this whole things plays out, nothings ever gonna be the same afterward. Probably be a long time before we ever see one another again, if ever. So I just wanted you to know I think youre a good kid, too, you get right down to it. Youre a pain in the ass a lot of the time, but your hearts in the right place. I really hope things work out for you.
Yeah, me too, said Buffy.
Then Whistler was gone, lost in the shadows.
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