The museum basement was unnaturally quiet. Sarcophagi, sculptures and empty displays cast flickering, maddening shadows under the inconstant illumination of the aging fluorescent lights. Nearby, a long table was covered with an arrangement of bones, an incomplete dinosaur skeleton of some kind. Above, a model pterodactyl swung lazily in the slight breeze of the heating vent.
And in the center of it all stood the portal. To Buffy, it looked rather like a prop from a Hercules episode, a gray stone archway carved all about with ancient runes. But this was real. She had read the little display tag the curators had placed on it:
Ceremonial Funerary Arch, 5th century, Germanic: This stone arch was found in the Rhine valley in 1953 by Robert Roth, Cambridge University. It is believed that this piece was used for ceremonial purposes during funerary rites by ancient Germanic tribes. The body of the deceased would be passed through the arch in a symbolic passage to the afterlife.
Are you ready, Willow? asked Giles.
Willow looked up from the delicate, leather-bound tome she was studying and nodded. Ready. At least, as ready as Ill ever be.
And you, Buffy?
Buffy adjusted the sword slung across her back and drew a deep breath. She made eye contact with Willow, who looked frightened. Buffy nodded to her in what she hoped was reassuring manner. Ready. Lets kick some Elder Power butt.
Giles said, Okay, Willow. You may begin.
Willow began her incantation, managing with surprising fluency the ancient Germanic dialect. Harsh consonants mixed with dramatic pauses, and suddenly, the runes on the arch began to glow with otherworldly fire. Willow continued.
The runes flared bright, then the interior of the arch shimmered and turned translucent. Waves of sea-gray light rippled outward from the center, becoming more defined, more tangible. Then, without warning, the shimmering stabilized and became opaque, twisting into a vortex. At the center of the mystical whirlpool hovered a circle of utter darkness.
Its ready, said Giles. God speed, Buffy.
Buffy nodded to him, fingering the talisman she wore around her neck. She tucked it safely beneath her blouse, inhaled deeply again, and stepped into Hell.
* * *
The universe exploded into an infinite series of possibilities, an ever-expanding multitude of potentials. She felt herself falling along one of those paths, lost in a place that was neither existence nor nonexistence. The strands of the possible diverged and converged, twisted and intertwined, dancing a mathematical dance that was as beautiful as it was incomprehensible.
Then the multitude of paths collapsed upon themselves, the infinite many becoming a single, shining filament. There was a sensation of great speed, her mind attempting to interpret something that was beyond its understanding by imposing a familiar sensation. A bright point loomed before her, blinding her, and then she walked from the portal to see damnation.
Damnation was not all it was cracked up to be. No sulfurous pits, no lakes of fire. No suffering and wailing masses, at least not where she emerged. Instead, it looked infinitely dull, a slowly undulating and barren landscape broken by the occasional sharp sandstone escarpment or leafless, withered tree. That was all there was as far as she could see.
She ran a forearm across the sweat that already beaded on her forehead. It was hot. Damn hot.
Great. And I thought Sunnydale was the middle of nowhere, she said to herself.
Now what? She could be wandering around this infernal nothing forever and not find Prophet. As if that very thought had cued it, the landscape wavered before her, and a deserted road stretched before her into the distance. At intervals, archways spanned the roadway, carved with figures born of a demented imagination.
Buffy shrugged and started along the thoroughfare. Somewhere far ahead, she felt something very much like destiny pull at her.
* * *
He disliked the word assassin. And hit man was impossibly crude, making him sound like some low-rent thug out of Brooklyn. He preferred problem resolution facilitator. It had a nice, professional ring to it. Professionalism was important to him. He had never failed to deliver on the terms of a contract, and he wasnt about to start now.
He looked out the drivers side window of the brown Chrysler sedan at the museum across the street. Somewhere within, a single light burned. He picked up the cars cellular phone and dialed a number.
Yeah, its me. Ive located primary and secondary targets. Theyre based in an old warehouse in the business district. Im currently monitoring activity at the county museum.
He listened carefully to the man on the other end of the phone.
Right. Primary target first if possible. Understood. Not here, though. Museums got regular patrols by the local cops. Better to do it at the warehouse.
He nodded at something the other man said. Affirmative. Itll be your call. I wont do anything until I get the okay.
The problem resolution facilitator turned the phone off and reached to the seat beside him to pick up the large thermos of coffee hed brought along. If there was one thing he hated about his job, it was that he drank far too much coffee. Bad for the pancreas, or something, hed been told.
* * *
Buffys wristwatch said eight hours had passed since her arrival in Hell. Eight hours and nothing but monotonous plodding along the phantasmal highway. It felt more like five days. Something about this place played strange tricks with her perceptions of time, but she trusted her watch. It was a mechanical thing, unlikely to fall prey to psychological deceptions.
One of the first things she had noticed was that there was no sun in Hell. That was not surprising. The demon plane was, well, a plane, not a planet. It circled no star, existed in no galaxy. Yet there was light, a strange, diffuse light that perverted her sense of distance and scale. Objects that seemed close at hand one minute seemed to be a great distance away the next. Except for the steady progression of the archways along the road, there was no way to tell if she were actually getting closer to anything at all.
Now, eight hours after her arrival, the strange light had begun to fade. Nightfall in Hell. She didnt know what to make of it, didnt know if it was an actual, physical thing or a phenomenon existing entirely in her mind. Somehow, in a manner she couldnt understand, her perceptions shaped the very environment she observed around her. It was all very disconcerting.
As darkness gathered, the vast silence that pervaded this odd world gave way to the strange and frightening sounds of life. Or non-life. Either was entirely possible here. Fatigue began to finally take its toll, and Buffy felt like the blackness was closing in around her, as if it had taken on a bizarre life of its own.
Something chittered nearby. There was a scuffling sound on the paving stones behind her. The sword was in her hand in a flash, fatigue banished by old survival instincts. She turned to face her pursuer.
Lets not go there again, came a familiar voice from the darkness.
Buffy hesitated. The sword dropped a fraction of an inch. Angel?
The word sounded strange on her lips, like a prayer from a nonbeliever. Whistler had told her, but she hadnt believed. Not really. Hadnt wanted to admit the possibility lest she allow her emotions to once again be crushed by a cold and uncaring universe. But that voice
In the flesh, came the voice again.
A shadow coalesced from the blackness and resolved itself into a man.
Angel! she gasped.
She let the sword fall to her side, her mind racing.
How? Is it really possible? she asked.
Tall and brooding, he stood before her, a vision out of myth or romance, robed in black with a large sword strapped across his back.
I was told youd be coming, he said.
Her doubts and suspicions crumbled, feelings long buried rising in a confused and exhilarating tangle. I didnt dare hope. Oh, Angel. Im so sorry. So very, very sorry.
He seemed about to talk, then suddenly he caught her in an embrace, burying his face in her hair.
God, how Ive missed you, Buffy, he said. You cant imagine.
Yes, I can, she said softly, returning the embrace with fierce strength. Please tell me this isnt a dream or delusion. It has to be real. It has to be.
Ive waited so long, he said.
You must hate me, she said.
I killed you. She was crying now, a mixture of joy and relief, guilt and regrets.
No. Im here. His voice was a whisper.
I love you so much. And I murdered you.
Angel broke the embrace, dark eyes looking deep within her. Stop. You didnt. Im here.
Buffy wiped away her tears and smiled. But
Can you ever forgive me? she asked. Is that even possible?
You saved the world.
Damn the world.
You dont mean that.
If it keeps me from you, I mean it, she said.
Angel looked around, into the surrounding darkness. Therell be plenty of time to talk. Trust me. But right now we need to get moving. There are things out here that know what you are, and theyd like nothing better than to claim bragging rights for killing you.
The part of Buffy that was the Slayer intruded on the confused young woman. You knew I was coming, you said. How?
You have allies here. That might sound hard to believe, but you have to realize that there are a lot of people who resent being here. Anything that sticks it to the powers that be in this place, theyre for it, said Angel.
If you knew I was coming, then you probably know why.
No offense, but its kind of common knowledge. The Prophet hasnt exactly been a subtle presence here, and its kind of hard not to notice that her astral manifestation looks exactly like a certain Slayer of my acquaintance, said Angel, starting along the road.
Buffy lagged behind. There was something she had to do before anything else, before something killed her and made it impossible.
Angel? she asked.
He stopped and looked at her, an inquiring look on his face.
I have something for you, she said, bringing Whistlers stone from her pocket. She held her hand closed around it so as not to reveal it to Angels demon.
What is it? he asked.
Freedom, she said, tossing the stone to him. He instinctively caught it, a look of shock crossing his face as suddenly a cascade of blue fire seemed to wash over him.
No! he shouted. But it was not his voice.
Angel sank to his knees, dazed, and Buffy could see something shadowy, dark and insectoid move out from where he was, a three dimensional shadow of the thing that had taken a good man and turned him into a monster. She regarded the creature coldly as it drew itself up to its full seven-feet.
Remember me? she asked. Time to die, you malevolent bastard.
The sword was moving even as the demon struck for her throat. She caught the creature in mid-strike with the flat of the blade, knocking it backwards several steps. It recovered quickly, wasting no time in resuming its attack. Buffy moved carefully and precisely. The thing was fast, like some demonic cockroach, and she knew that her first serious mistake would be her last.
It lunged, shadowy mandibles trying to tear at her. The sword came around in a smooth arc even as she moved backwards. It bit deeply into one razor-sharp mandible. The demon shrieked and backed off warily as thick, black ichor oozed from the wound.
Come on, you son of a bitch! Fight me! Isnt this what youve wanted all along? Lets see if youve got the chops without Angel to hide behind! Buffy shouted.
The creature came at her again, this time extruding two long, whiplike appendages from its body. The whips were tipped with chitinous blades that looked like they could easily slice her in two.
Cute trick, she said, parrying two rapid flails of the blades. The creature circled, looking for an opening. It hissed threateningly, trying to unnerve her. But Buffy offered it no opening. She went on the offensive, slashing at a vulnerable whip arm and severing it midway along its length.
The demon, enraged and in pain, whirled on her so quickly that its body caught her across the legs, nearly knocking her down. The remaining flail whipped around, aiming for her heart. She twisted away, but not far enough. The blade scored a deep gash along her side. The wound burned like hellfire, but Buffy pushed the pain deep into the back of her mind. There was only the cold hatred of revenge, now, no room for anything else.
Tasting blood, the creature thought it had the advantage and brought its whip arm back for another strike. For an instant, it was vulnerable. And an instant was all the time the Slayer needed.
She spun in under the scything whip and plunged the sword into the demons head, just behind its churning mouthparts. It shrieked and thrashed as Buffy held on and forced the sword ever downward until the point entered the ground and the blade was buried a quarter of its length.
She stepped back, breathing hard, and watched as the demons convulsions and chilling shrieks grew steadily weaker, until finally, with one last thrash of its remaining whip, it lay completely still.
Score one for the good guys, she said. That was when she really felt the pain in her side.
Oh, shit, she gasped, clutching her hand to the wound and sitting down unsteadily. Red mist hazed her vision, and she felt suddenly very cold. Dimly, she was aware of a shape moving in front of her, then a familiar voice, from a great distance.
Youve been poisoned. This will help draw the poison out.
Something cool and wet pressed against the burning wound, and then the red mist turned to black and she felt nothing.
* * *
Consciousness returned grudgingly. She had to claw toward it, as if she were escaping from a deep well to the distant light of the world above. Half-seen things tried to pull her down into the comforting dark. But some reserve of will fought them back and slowly the world came back to her.
The world was dark, too, though not entirely. The orange-red light of a fire flickered across the rough stone walls of a wind-eroded cave. And there was something else. The smell of cooking. She sat up slowly, resting her back against the hard stone.
Glad to see youre back among the living. I hope youre up to some food. I havent actually cooked anything in a couple of hundred years, so youll have to forgive me if this isnt exactly Wolfgang Puck.
Her eyes focused on the speaker. It was Angel, ladling some kind of broth from a small kettle into a crude wooden bowl.
Sorry about the dinnerware. Its all I could scrounge up. Another thing I havent needed in a long time.
Angel? she asked weakly. Her head hurt, as if she were feeling the aftereffects of ten tequila shooters and an extended Smashing Pumpkins retrospective at the Bronze.
He set the bowl down on the floor and came over to her. He placed his hand on her forehead. The hand was warm. It took a moment for that fact to register.
Fevers down. Good, he said.
Youre alive, she said. I mean, really alive.
Angel smiled. Thanks to you. You really are perfect, sometimes, you know that? Crazy, suicidal, but perfect.
He kissed her lightly on the top of her head and went back to the soup bowl. He sipped a little from the ladle and said, Well, it could use some pepper, and maybe about fifty other spices on top of that, but itll have to do. Hell isnt exactly the culinary hot spot of the universe. God, what I wouldnt give for a pint of stout right about now.
Buffy wasnt listening to the lecture on Hells cuisine. It worked. Whistler was right. It worked.
Whistler gave you that rock? Ill have to kick his ass the next time I see him, putting you in that kind of danger.
Dont say that. It was worth any price, she said.
He looked at her, compassion and worry and a deep, abiding love in his gaze. No, not any price. Still, I have to admit its nice to be back, now that youre out of danger.
You sure youre really cured? Im kind of new at saving vampires. I usually just kill them.
He gave her a sly, sidelong glance. So Ive learned the hard way.
Oh, God, that was a really, really, really stupid thing for me to say, she said. And insensitive and well, back to stupid again would just about cover it.
Relax. Im here, arent I? Not in some urn on Spikes mantelpiece. And yes, Im cured. No more fangs. No more hiding from sunrises, not that theres any sun to hide from in this Godforsaken place. No more gypsy curses or demonic impulses toward world domination. Just an old Mick. Hope you wont find him too boring.
Buffy chuckled. It hurt. Boring sounds perfect to me. I like boring. Eventful I get enough of. What happened to me, by the way?
As you found out, my personal demon was one of the nastier variety. He poisoned you. Youre very lucky it was only a glancing blow. If hed managed to stab you, get a good dose of venom into you, there isnt a thing anyone this side of the Gates of Heaven could have done to save you, said Angel. Youll have a pretty nasty scar, though.
It wont be the first, said Buffy.
She watched him for a time as he fixed another bowl of soup and handed it to her with a spoon.
How does it feel to be human again? she asked.
Angel swallowed some broth from his bowl and said, Its different. Everything feels more I dont know immediate, somehow. Before, it was like every sensation was one step removed. Its hard to explain.
Ive been there. I know what you mean, she said. She swallowed a spoonful of the soup and made a face. Ooh, this is pretty awful.
Sorry. Best I could do down here. There isnt much in the way of edible food around. A few things introduced to keep the living denizens of the netherworld alive, but nothing designed to taste good. This is Hell, after all. Its not supposed to be fun.
I guess all the chocolate cheesecake is reserved for the other place, huh?
Angel smiled. Lets hope you dont have to find out for a long, long time yet.
Dont you worry about me. I can take care of myself.
Im not so sure. What youre planning, its a suicide mission.
I dont have a choice. If I do nothing, I lose my soul. You of all people know what that means.
You cant kill an Elder Power. No one can.
No, I cant kill it. But I can defeat its manifestation here in Hell. If I do that, I get title to my soul, free and clear.
Youll need help.
No, Angel. No. You havent been mortal in over two and a half centuries. To be mortal and go up against demons requires years of training. Youd be killed before you knew it.
I live here, Buffy. I know this place like the back of my hand. And I know demons. Trust me.
Buffy looked skyward and said. Why do I just know Im going to regret this? Okay. You can help. But dont you dare get yourself killed. I didnt fight that friend of yours to the death just so you could go get yourself a permanent parking spot outside the pearly gates.
Im not planning on kicking off just yet. I think this time fate owes us one big time.
Besides, it would be a real cosmic injustice if we had our honeymoon and you werent there. And I cant believe I just said that, said Buffy, her face heating with embarassment.
There were several seconds of silence, then Angel said, If youre not going to take that back, Im afraid the answer to the implied question is yes.
She wasnt sure how she was supposed to feel. Shed imagined it, of course. But the reality was not like anything she could have expected. She wanted to laugh and cry and jump for joy and hide in fear all at the same time.
She closed her eyes and leaned her head back. A normal life. Im almost afraid to hope for it. But I want to try, with you.
I love you, he said. More than you could ever possibly know.
I do know. Ive always known.
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