Part 4

“Every muscle in my body hurts, even some I didn’t 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 haven’t been training regularly or properly for some years. You can’t 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 it’s 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.

“Image what?”

“Never mind. So that’s 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.”

“I’m 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 won’t be a problem in this instance. The talisman is not activated until you break the gemstone.”

“I’m noticing a catch, here. There’s 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, you’ll 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. We’ll 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, I’d better watch for any bad guys with sticky fingers down there.”

“Yes. Absolutely. I’m deadly serious when I say you’ll be trapped in Hell forever if you don’t come back using the talisman.”

“Got it. Don’t lose talisman.”

“There’s 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, “It’s just that the talisman is very old, and I’m worried that the longer you spend in the demonic plane, the more tenuous its connection will be with this world.”

“You’re 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, I’m 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. I’ll give the Triple A vacation guides back.”

“As long as you appreciate the danger,” said Giles.

“What’s to appreciate about ‘dead’? ‘Dead’ I understand. It’s not a difficult concept.”

“Good. Oh, and you’ll need a weapon, something that will be effective against most of the things you’ll 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 she’d 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. It’s 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. You’ll find no finer weapon in all the world.”

“It’s 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 ‘I’ll 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.”

“It’s 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.

“I’ll put it to good use,” she said. “Am I free for the rest of the night? Because I’d really like to take a shower, then stop by Willow’s. Girl stuff.”

Giles glanced at the clock on the table. Nine-twenty p.m. “I think we’re through. Just be careful. I don’t expect any paranormal activity, but I very much do expect the Board to have an assassin in the vicinity.”

“I’ll be careful. I didn’t get this far just to have some weekend warrior cash in my chips.”

*                              *                              *

Buffy was halfway to Willow’s 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, it’s 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?”

“Second chances.”

“You already used that line. Here I am, taking your second chance. Probably get myself killed in the process, but there you go. That’s the life of the Slayer, right?”

“That’s not the second chance I’m 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. I’m 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, “That’s low even for you, Whistler. Angel’s 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 didn’t 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 that’s what you thought, you either heard me wrong or had a half-assed translation.”

“If you’re telling me he’s alive, Whistler, you’d better not be jerking my chain or I swear to God, you’ll regret it for the rest of your miserable, eternal existence.”

“Oh, he’s alive. Last time I saw him, anyway. Angel’s in Hell, Buffy, same tourist destination you’re headed for tomorrow. What’s more, you can cure him there,” said Whistler.

“Cure him?”

“No more demon. No more child of the night. Humanity for Angel.”

Buffy narrowed her eyes, suspicious. “How?”

“Same general principal as this thing you’re 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. You’ll need ’em,” said the demon.

“What does this do?”

“It’s kinda complicated. A lot of electrodynamics stuff I don’t understand. We got physics in Hell just like you got it up here, and I don’t understand mine any better that I do yours. Anyway, you nail Angel with this, it disrupts the demon’s 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, Angel’s 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, I’ll give faith a shot at making the team, but it’s strictly probational,” said Buffy, pocketing the stone. “Just tell me one thing. Why are you doing this?”

“I got a soft spot for Angel. He’s 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 don’t allow me to help him directly. But I figure it doesn’t say anywhere I can’t help you to help him.”

“Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me yet. You think this is gonna solve all your problems, you might be in for some bad surprises. I’m 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, nothing’s 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 you’re a good kid, too, you get right down to it. You’re a pain in the ass a lot of the time, but your heart’s 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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