Buffy banked the single engine Cessna Skyhawk into a graceful arc around the snow-capped peak that sparkled alongside them in the sun. Not for the first time, she thanked Elisa McKenna. The former Dark Hunter had loved life and lived it fully, and had acquired many talents in doing so.
If not for Elisa, and the memories she left the newest Dark Hunter, Buffy knew she probably never would have known the freedom and exhilaration of flight yet another of lifes pleasures that would have taken a distant back seat to the responsibilities of being the Slayer.
Here, above the cares and worries of her earthbound existence, she felt whole, at peace with herself and the world below.
You doing okay back there? she asked Willow, who was sitting in one of the rear seats.
Willows voice came bright and happy over Buffys headphones. Okay? This is great!
Then Ill have to take you up for some aerobatics sometime, said Buffy.
You mean loops and rolls and stuff like that?
Stuff like that, yeah.
Very. I always suspected you were a closet Extremist, Will.
Buffys attention was caught by Hancock next to her, who was pointing out beyond the engine cowling to something in the valley below.
Hel-lo, said Buffy. What do we have here?
In a clearing on the valley floor was a group of shadows. To Buffys eye, and apparently to Hancocks as well, the shadows seemed too regular to be caused by natural terrain features.
Definitely an encampment of some kind, said the agent.
Buffy nodded, then said, Hang on everyone. Im taking us down for a closer look.
She pulled the throttle almost all the way back, and a hush fell over the interior of the aircraft. Then she turned the control yoke to the left and stood the plane on one wing.
Almost instantly, the sound of on-rushing air became much louder and the plane began a precipitous spiral dive.
Is this safe? asked Hancock, clutching the lip of the instrument panel.
Buffy, keeping one eye on the rapidly approaching ground and the other on the airspeed indicator, said, Sure, unless I get distracted and tear the wings off.
At eight hundred feet above ground level, Buffy righted the aircraft and gradually pulled back on the yoke to bleed off airspeed and arrest their decent. G-forces pressed them against their seats.
When the plane was flying normally again, they were skimming along the valley less than four hundred feet above the snow-laden pines and spruces.
That was fun. Can we do it again? asked Willow enthusiastically.
I dont think either the rental place or the FAA would be too thrilled with that, Willow, said Buffy.
The Skyhawk roared over the encampment and Buffy turned the aircraft into a forty-five degree bank to get a better look out her side window.
Yep, it was an encampment all right. A cluster of white tents passed under her view. Some four-wheel drive vehicles were concealed underneath snow-colored tarps, and a diesel generator puffed small clouds of gray smoke into the cold mountain air. A large circular structure in the center of the camp was completely hidden under white camo-netting. Buffy could see several individuals in winter fatigues, all of them looking up in alarm at the marauding Skyhawk.
Whatever theyre doing, they seem to be going all-out to keep it hidden. Id say we definitely want to take a closer look at this, maybe get a KH-11 satellite photo of this for contingency planning, said Buffy.
What do you think it is? asked Willow.
I dont know, said Buffy. Could be just a military bivouac. Ill check with Colonel Marcs out at the Pentagon. If its not military, or some local militia loonies, then Id say its an odds-on bet this is connected with our killer and with you know, the other stuff.
Other stuff? asked Hancock.
Its kind of complicated, said Buffy. She knew shed have to lay it all out to him eventually, but how did you explain the Apocalypse without coming off like a nutcase?
Umm mountain, said Hancock, his eyes fixed on the towering piece of snow-covered basalt looming before him.
Sure is, said Buffy casually as she pulled the plane up into a climbing turn and set them on a course for the airport. Damn, flying always gets me hungry. Anyone up for a good steak when we get back?
* * *
Washington D.C. was gray and cold, and a gentle flurry of snow drifted in whorls and eddies past the Buicks windows as the two men within sipped hot, black coffee and watched the ash-colored office building across the street.
I could never be cop. Or a sniper. Too damn much waiting around, said Hudson. Just point me in the right direction, let me shoot something or blow something up. Thats more my style.
Uh-huh, said Angel, his mind clearly elsewhere.
Im thinking we go in right now, guns blazing. Maybe plant some C4, light the place up, said Hudson.
If youre trying to see if Im listening to what youre saying, I am.
So whats eating you? Worried about Ms. Summers? Lady can take care of herself, man.
Im always worried about Buffy, Hud. Hard not to, with her lifestyle.
She survived seven months in the demonic plane, scored a technical knockout on an Elder Power, and obliterated Hells capital city. Dont think shes got too much to worry about from the Board.
Still, Id be a lot happier if I knew what that bunch of fossils was up to in there.
Well get there. Just takes patience. Shit, man, you been on this world for over two hundred years, youd think youd have learned some patience.
Oh, this from Mr. Let me shoot something or blow something up, said Angel.
Hey, youre getting a sense of humor. Thats a nice change. Dont know how the Boss Lady can fall for a guy as depressing as you. You ever laugh at anything?
I used to think ripping peoples beating hearts from their chests was a riot, said Angel.
Oh, dark humor. I get it. Okay. So, even when youre funny, youre depressing. Man, you gonna put that poor woman into therapy, you marry her.
Yeah, you might be right. It was simpler when we never had a chance at a normal life. Gave us a kind of freedom to indulge passion without having to really think it through. Now Im looking at a real life, and Im beginning to realize that the freedom meant we never really got to know each other. You know, the little details. We never had to find out if we could spend our lives together. I dont even know if we like the same music. Ten to one, she wont go for my Miles Davis albums. Damn, normal life sure as hell gets scary quickly.
You sound like a guy whos having some second thoughts, said Hudson.
Angel shrugged. I dont know. It was supposed to be easy. Im human again, were in the same plane at the same time, shes old enough now that I dont feel like Im robbing the cradle but its not easy.
Never is, man. Never is. I been married three times, bro. Each ones had its problems, specially you dont fall in love for the right reasons to begin with.
Youre saying she and I arent right for each other?
Im saying you gotta ask yourself that and be honest about it. She was sixteen years old when she fell for you. A kid that age, I dont care if shes the Slayer or not, shes not thinking too clearly when it comes to love. Lot of pieces to that dynamic. This tall, dark, mysterious stranger comes into her life, understands her in a way no one else ever did, thats gonna do a number on her emotions. Maybe even had this romance novel fantasy running through her head that she cold play Senta to your Flying Dutchman, redeem the troubled wanderer through the power of love. Am I right?
Didnt know you were an opera buff, Hudson, said Angel, smirking.
Im a complicated guy for a brother that come up out of the projects. I got a feeling Im close on this one, though.
Maybe. But she did redeem me, dont forget that.
Good for her. But maybe thats the whole problem. With vampire and Slayer, you got the forbidden fruit. Its a classic, man, all the way back to Lancelot and Guinevere. And with the tortured, cursed wanderer, you got the whole tragic opera thing going on. Now if you take those two elements out of the equation, if you take away the romantic excitement and the mystery and operatic tragedy of it all, do you two have enough left over to make this work?
I dont know, said Angel.
Course you dont. Life aint a script, man. We cant just skip ahead a few pages, figure it all out. Maybe you can figure yourself out, though. Itd be a start.
What do you mean?
I mean, you gotta decide who Angel the man is, and where hes at. Youre in a whole different place right now from where you were sixteen years ago. You need to think about whether that includes matters of the heart as well as matters of the soul, bro. Like, ask yourself this: did you actually fall in love with Buffy Summers the girl way back then? Or did you really just fall in love with the part of her that was missing in you?
What, you a psychologist all of a sudden, Hud?
Shoulda been. More money, better hours, longer life span. Anyway, what Im saying is, I actually kind of hope it wasnt the girl you fell for. Shit, man, you in the habit of falling for sixteen year-old cheerleaders at age two-hundred something, you in need of some serious shrink time. The whole Lolita thing just aint cool no more. But if what you really fell in love with was something you thought youd lost and would never find again, maybe thats a different story. Unfortunately, it probably isnt by itself a solid basis for a marriage.
Angel was introspective for a moment, then asked, So where does that leave me?
Hudson chuckled. How the hell should I know? Im the guys been hitched three times already. You gotta answer that one yourself. You have to work out whether youve grown to love the woman, or if youre just in love with the idea of loving the Slayer. Cause the forbidden love, knight in shining armor, she makes me feel human thing dont play anymore now that youre back among the living again, bro. You two cant base your life together on that.
Let this be a lesson to you, Hud. No matter how long you live, you never get this love stuff a hundred percent figured out.
Dont I know that, said Hudson. Then he nodded in the direction of the building. Looks like the star chambers going home for the day.
The Board members Angel recognized them from the DH Groups security files were leaving the office building alone or in pairs. He noticed Hudson ticking off each one on a piece of paper as they exited.
That looks like all of em, and I dont think anyone else in there would recognize you, said Hudson. He pulled a briefcase from the back seat, opened it on his lap, and went through a mental checklist of the items within. Angel did the same with a similar attaché case, although it took him a little longer to sort through what was to him a fairly unfamiliar array of equipment.
Hudson snapped his case closed and asked, You ready, bro?
The Dark Angel gave a sharp nod. Then lets do this thing.
* * *
Willow watched as Buffy marked a spot on her aviation sectional map. Most of the shaded arcs and lines and compass circles were something of a mystery to her. All she knew was that Buffy seemed to understand them quite well or, rather, Elisa Hunter understood them and had passed that knowledge along to her successor when Buffy became the latest in the long line of Dark Hunters.
She smiled, happy for her friend. Perhaps it was partly the Dark Hunter, perhaps it was the remnants of Elisa, but for the first time since Willow had known her, Buffy had taken control of her life and the Eternal War that she was doomed to fight. And with that control had come a confidence and optimism that only the relentless series of murders had managed to dampen. Willow couldnt fault her for that. Anyone who didnt get depressed now and then at seeing such cruelty and senseless waste of life was not someone Willow would want to spend any time with.
But the upbeat Buffy, the Buffy who finally seemed to enjoy being alive, had once again surfaced during their flight, and it gave Willow a warm, comfortable feeling. Shed dearly missed her friends easy smile, her laugh, her seemingly effortless way of cutting through the dark complexities of life with gentle humor and a knowing wink. The deadly slide into despair and hopelessness had begun long ago, while they were still in high school, the day Buffy learned that she had cost Angel his soul. It was a cloud that had never truly lifted, only grown darker and more oppressive with each death, until finally the storm broke in savage rain the night she thought shed killed the man she loved. And through it all, Willow had never been able to do anything for her dear friend, could only stand by helplessly as the War stole Buffys youth and spirit bit by agonizing bit, until finally the last fading light in her soul died along with her mother.
Willow had watched her leave that night, watched her wander lost and wounded into a world she could no longer bear to let into her heart. And as the days stretched into months, and the months into years, and it became clear that Buffy might never be coming back, Willow had felt a part of herself wither and die. Too often, it seemed, you never knew how much the people in your life meant until they were gone. And then it was usually too late.
Sometimes, though, fate handed you a second chance: for Willow, a second chance to appreciate her dearest friend in the world, a woman whose strength and dignity in the face of a fatal destiny had never ceased to be a source of inspiration and courage for her; and for Buffy, a second chance to mend a tattered and careworn soul in the company of the only family she had left.
Willows thoughts were interrupted as Buffy refolded the map so that it was a manageably sized square with the pencil mark visible.
Whats that? she asked.
Buffy looked across the couch at her, the light from the common rooms fire playing dancing reflections across the Slayers green eyes. This, Will, is the location of a cabin I saw from the air. I saw smoke coming from the chimney, so its inhabited. Its also only about two and a half nautical miles from the encampment, so I talked Agent Hancock into heading up there tomorrow morning to see if whoevers living there knows something. Isnt that right, Win?
Willow had to suppress a smile as the agent stopped in his tracks. Buffys back was to the entrance, and there was no immediately obvious way she could have known he had entered. Willow wasnt certain herself how Buffy did it. Her senses since returning from Hell and joining with the Dark Hunter had become eerily sharp, even for a Slayer.
I wish I knew how you did that, said Hancock.
I saw your reflection in Willows eyes. No black magic to it, said Buffy, winking at Willow.
For all Willow knew, it was probably the truth.
Hancock sat in a nearby chair and said, If we go, wed better go early. Weve got a front coming in, and Id rather not be that far out into these mountains if its worse than they expect. Frankly, though, I dont see how any of this is our concern.
You really dont know the full extent of what might be going on here, Win. This could get very ugly and dangerous very quickly. We might not be dealing with just a serial killer anymore. You said it yourself: his style has changed. He may have outside help or influences.
Hancocks eyes narrowed. You havent been telling me everything, Summers. Thats going to end right now. What is it about this encampment thats got you so jittery?
Willow saw her friend chew her lower lip for a moment, obviously pondering how she was going to walk the line between sounding like a lunatic and being reasonably forthcoming.
Finally, Buffy said, The DH Groups research has suggested we may be dealing with a very dangerous apocalyptic cult called the Cabal, and reports are that they have been seen in the Pacific Northwest in the past few months. It is at least possible that they are why the killer is here.
The FBI man looked skeptical, but said, Ive never heard of this Cabal. Whats their deal?
Giles would probably be the best one for all the details, but basically the Cabal is a modern offshoot of Gnosticism, combining variants of the Mandean, Coptic, Ophitic, Manichean, Alchemic and more modern branches of that belief system. But theyve put some of their own spin on it, departing somewhat in terms of the cosmogony and underlying tenets. Anyway, all of it sort of revolves around this vision of the reunification of a degraded material universe with the First Principle that spawned it, which unfortunately for the material universe means a pretty nasty end for everyone, said Buffy.
Willow felt a chill like a cold snake writhe along her spine. That wasnt Buffy speaking. Sometimes, the Dark Hunter showed through in subtly frightening ways, reminding Willow that this was not entirely the Buffy Summers shed known in her youth.
Im not certain I follow you, said Hancock.
Willow, do you think you could take over from here? I never could follow all the nuances of these Cabal loonies, said Buffy, the Dark Hunter suddenly gone again. It gave Willow another shiver.
Um sure, I guess, said Willow, scrambling to shift her mind into scholar-mode. The Gnostics have a very complex cosmogony, and a lot of their primary texts are enormously confusing. There are a lot of branches, and not much of the dogma is consistent across the different schools. The Cabal has combined and altered a number of elements from the various Gnostic traditions, but its all still a little muddled. The Cabal holds as its central tenet a belief in seven beings know as the Archons, who are part of a race they call the Elder Powers. As the Cabal sees it, these seven Archons will initiate the Apocalypse, heralded by Edem, a goddess who is a sort of causative force of evil, but who isnt necessarily evil herself. Opposing the Archons is Hibil-Ziwa, a savior-god, who according to tradition descended into the underworld and defeated the forces of darkness. They believe that Hibil-Ziwa must be prevented at all costs from defeating the Archons. For the Cabalists, the universe by definition exists in a degenerate material state, and only through a reunification with the First Source can it be redeemed. These guys want to see the end of the world.
Hancock frowned. Thats interesting, but what does it have to do with us and our killer?
You mean, besides the fact that the Cabal thinks Buffy is the avatar of Hibil-Ziwa, that they think Lillith Prophet is Edem, and that theyre convinced that they must succeed in bringing about the Apocalypse before Buffy can interfere? thought Willow.
It was Buffy who answered the question. Based on the symbol he leaves on the victims, Giles thinks the killer may be operating under a delusional fantasy that he is somehow a key figure in this little end-of-the-world drama, and that he has come here specifically to associate himself with the Cabal. So if this encampment is the Cabals, we may have an excellent opportunity to put a stop to this assholes hobby once and for all.
Hancock pressed his lips together in thought, then said with controlled anger, Is there some reason you didnt want to tell me about this earlier? Didnt you think it was important? Had the Bureau known about this, we might have had better luck so far. We might even have been able to get here first, and stop him before Sharon Davis got added to my manila folder.
Buffy nodded. Youre right. I should have told you earlier. But Giles and my people werent certain, and there were a lot of other possibilities. Youre the one with the experience with these kinds of predators. I figured it was better to let you do your job your way without prematurely introducing what could easily have been a red herring into the equation.
The agent sighed and stood up. Youve got a lot to learn about not being a lone wolf, Summers. I hope you pick up on it before your solo act gets you killed someday.
He stalked out, tension coiling like a spring in his posture and gait.
Willow saw the sudden hurt in her friends eyes as Hancock left. When he was gone, she said, Hes just tired and frustrated. Dont take it to heart.
Buffy shook her head sadly. No, hes right, Will. Maybe if Id been up front with him since the beginning, things wouldve been different. It mightve been over by now and there might be fewer girls in the morgue and fewer families that will never be whole again.
If youd told him the truth, he wouldnt have believed you, and youd never have been allowed this close to the investigation.
Thats Watcher talk. Keep the secret. Take it to your grave. Trust no one. Well, thats just bullshit, Will. It gets people killed because they dont know that the monsters under their bed are real. They dont know that theyd better watch out for the things that go bump in the night. No, this whole secrecy thing is the biggest goddamned cop-out there is. It just makes it easier for us and gets everyone else killed.
Willow sighed inwardly. Dark Buffy was back. She was never far away, always waiting for any small pretext to shoulder her happier sibling aside. Maybe it was expecting too much for Buffy to be happy. How could anyone be optimistic and cheerful when lifes rhythm was set by a never-ending cycle of violence that could only conclude with her death, no matter how hard she fought?
Buffy shook her head and looked sadly at her. Im sorry, Will. Im taking it out on you again, and thats not right. Im just so tired. It never ends. You and Giles and I, weve put our hearts and souls and lives into fighting this war, and what do we have to show for it? Wrecked dreams and lost years? Sometimes I think Id just like to go to sleep and never wake up, but damn it, the evil of the waking world would follow me there, too. I can never get away from this thing, not for a minute, and sometimes Im not sure I can deal with it much longer.
Willow wished she could find some words of comfort, but none came. What could she possibly say to bring comfort to a woman who in the end could have no hopes beyond holding onto life for one more day? It made Willow almost want to cry. She had before, many times, in the quiet of night as she thought about the inevitable day when all that was Buffy Summers, all her thoughts and quirks and private dreams, would be destroyed forever by cold steel or rending claws. And for what? Nothing would have changed. The next Slayer would be called, and she would fight, and die, and be torn from those who loved her, and the cycle would go endlessly on. Nothing would be different, except for the fact that the world would have lost a very special and irreplaceable human being, and Willow would have lost her dearest friend.
She squeezed Buffys hand hard. You can do it. Not because youre the Slayer or the Dark Hunter, but because youre Buffy, and shes the strongest, bravest human being Ive ever known.
I wish that were true, said Buffy. Then she looked at Willow with an uncomfortable intensity and asked, Do you ever resent me for dragging you into all of this? I mean, this life has to be as hard for you as it is for me.
Of course I dont resent you.
Hey, its me. No secrets. No lying just to make me feel better.
Willow felt a little trapped, and lowered her eyes. Sometimes I resent the Slayer, not you. But that doesnt mean Id ever wish you werent my friend, or that I wouldnt go to hell and back for you. It doesnt mean you havent been more than a sister to me, and my inspiration when times were tough. It just means that what we have is really kind of complicated. Thats why its so special. If it were simple, it wouldnt mean as much.
Buffy was contemplative for a few seconds, and for a moment Willow thought her attempt at honesty had been a profoundly bad idea.
Finally, Buffy said, Thanks. That means a lot to me. Youre one of the reasons I keep fighting when Id like nothing better than to let some vampire steal my life, or some demon take my head. Sometimes I just need you to remind me of that.
Willow gave her a half smile and said, Good. Then its settled. No giving up the ship without a fight. Ive got an idea. Lets forget about serial killers, and the Apocalypse, and all that stuff that only Giles thinks is fun to talk about, and lets go do something.
Buffy looked at her suspiciously. Like, what kind of something? There isnt a whole lot of something in this town wait a minute. I recognize that evil glint in your eye. Whatre you concocting in that twisted mind?
The Lamplighter Bar and Grill.
The look of horror that crossed Buffys face made Willows day.
Oh, no. No, said the Slayer.
Oh, yes. Its karaoke night!
* * *
Earlier in the day, Hudson had made a leisurely stroll through the floor the Boards offices were on, as well as the floors directly above and below, looking for vulnerabilities.
Hed immediately ruled out doing a breaking-and-entering on the offices themselves as soon as he passed by the door with the Watchers Sovereign Imports, Ltd. cover name on the door. They had a magnetic card reader installed in lieu of a traditional pin and tumbler lock not impossible to bypass but difficult to do successfully in the middle of a public hallway that was covered by a security camera. There were probably motion sensors and other alarm triggers in the offices themselves, too.
Fortunately, there were attractive alternatives, and Hudson had settled on three mutually supporting eavesdropping methods.
The first one involved a mens lavatory that, in a stroke of good fortune, happened to share about a foot of wall space with the Boards primary conference room. For that bug, Hudson selected a spike microphone that took advantage of the shared length of wall. Placed inconspicuously above the bathroom ceiling tiles, the spike microphone was placed in the airspace within the wall, and extended through a hole drilled into the plasterboard on the conference rooms side. The hole didnt go all the way through, but just far enough so that the microphone could pick up sounds from the room on the other side.
The microphone was linked to a small digital burst transmitter that would send its encrypted data to some relay equipment that they set up in the basement. The basement was also where the terminal box for the buildings phone system was located, and it was there that Hudson installed the two remaining eavesdropping devices. One was a straightforward induction tap placed on the Directors office line. The other was a more complex system that provided a backup audio feed of the conference room.
Hudson tried to explain it to a man born when men-o-war ruled the waves under billowing royals and topgallants, and the only way to communicate with the next county was by letter carried on horse or foot.
What were setting up now is called a radio-frequency flood. We attach an RF generator to the conference room phone line, then we tune it to the resonance frequency of the line and telephone, said Hudson.
Resonance frequency? asked Angel.
Yeah. You know when an opera soprano breaks a glass with her voice? Its because she hit the resonance frequency of the glass. In this case, when we tune the generator to the right frequency, the RF energy will propagate from the phones speaker into the room, and get picked back up by the microphone in the mouthpiece.
And this is a good thing, Angel said skeptically.
It is when someone starts talking in the room. The vibrations of any conversation will alter the RF energy, and heres the good part we can demodulate the fluctuations in the frequency. All it takes is the right equipment, and good old Elisa was a big advocate of the right equipment.
Hudson finished up the connections on the RF generator and started its automatic diagnostic and setup routine.
Well, along with our other two feeds, it gets some up-front digital signal processing in our relay box, then we encrypt it on the fly and packet-switch it over the Internet to the DH Groups mainframe. The big iron back at the ops center does a lot of extra cleanup on the feeds and then puts them up on the secure web server in an encrypted, streaming audio format that we can get to from anywhere we can hook up a modem.
Oh, said Angel. Somehow, Im starting to think I missed out on a lot over the last couple of centuries of living in the shadows.
Hudson watched as the RF generator returned an all-green status, then he concealed the device behind some convenient office furniture that looked like it had been left in the basement since the Eisenhower administration.
You didnt miss much, bro, he said as he straightened up from his efforts and dusted off his hands. The toys change, the people dont. Its all the same bullshit, you know, just faster and more of it.
Psychologist, philosopher, secret agent, commando, music lover. Youre a never-ending source of surprises, Hud.
You forgot beer connoisseur, and the Brick Cellars got more than you can shake a stick at. Cook up a damn good burger, too, and I could go for some chow. You in?
Hud smiled. Good to hear it, cause youre buying.
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