The last day of her life dawned metallic gray under a gauzy sun the color of bleached bone.
Buffy pulled her coat tighter around herself, hesitating before crossing the parking lot to her truck, her gaze lingering on the world around her for longer than it should have. Everything seemed unnaturally distinct to her: the soughing of the wind in the fragrant pines, the mist of her breath in the frozen air, the sweet smell of wood smoke that shrouded the mountains with the aromatic promise of home and hearth at the end of a cold, hard day.
Nothing fixes the mind like hanging, she thought. She didnt remember where shed heard that, whether it was something Giles had said, or something shed heard in a movie, or a memory of a former Dark Hunter. It didnt matter. None of the little things mattered now. All the petty frustrations and unfulfilled desires and silly irritations receded to unimportance. That was good. It was nice to have a clear head, at the end.
She crossed the lot, stowed her sword in the passenger side of the Cherokee, and moved around to the drivers door. She produced a field radio from one pocket and depressed the talk switch.
Dark Angel Team, this is Dark Angel One. Report in, over.
Dark Angel Two, in position, over, a voice crackled over the speaker. It was Aston.
Dark Angel Three, in position
It went like that until all eight members of the squad had reported in. The clipped, professional voices of the Dark Angels were followed a little belatedly by Hancock and Giles.
Dark Angel Ten, in position, said Hancock, who after the demon attack at the cabin had suddenly become considerably less concerned about adhering to proper Bureau procedure. Hed even gone out of his way to make certain the police investigation into Iains murder didnt interfere with Buffys efforts to save Willow. He didnt fully comprehend the scope of what was about to happen, but then again only Mick Aston and Giles did. Buffy felt a stab of guilt for keeping the man in the dark, but what choice did she have at the moment? Giles needed trained protection, the commandos were all busy elsewhere, and she didnt have the time or the energy to convince any more people about why she had to do this.
Dark Angel Eleven, in position, said Giles, his voice distant, unhappy and fatigue-laden.
You sure you can do this without Iain? she asked.
There was a hesitation, then Giles said, I think so. I do understand the theory. Given Willows mathematical skills, though, I would be considerably more confident with her help.
Youll have it. I promise, said Buffy. Okay everyone, Im moving out. Dont let me down, boys. This ones for all the marbles. Dark Angel One, out.
She slipped behind the wheel of the truck, turned the engine over, and suddenly found herself gripping the steering wheel much too hard. Fear twisted within her like a worm eating through the fragile fabric of her self control.
Buffy closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
You can do this, she whispered to herself. Dont lose it now.
She felt the calm return, if a little grudgingly, then she headed the Cherokee out onto the little mountain road and toward whatever awaited her at the end of it.
* * *
Shit, man. Thank God I got a hold of you, said a voice from the other side of the continent.
Chill, Zoot, said Hud into his cellular as he and Angel walked across the tarmac from the Lear. We just hit the pavement fifteen minutes ago. Were heading up to Pine Crest now.
Johnny Zoot Kerschel was the DH Groups number one brain, a guy so smart that hed graduated with honors from MIT at fifteen years of age, dual majoring in Physics and Mathematics. Hed earned the Zoot nickname for his predilection for playing old Zoot Simms jazz recordings at deafening volume while doing complex mathematics. He claimed it got him in the zone.
Christ almighty, Hud. This is real shitstorm youve gotten yourself into. You aint been monitoring the taps?
No, man. Weather en route had the sat phone all squirrelly. Modem kept losing the carrier. Besides, thats what I got DHs crypto crew for. What the hell you doing, wasting your time on a wire?
Crypto assigned the new guy, Lowry, to monitor the feeds. He heard some stuff in Russian, and he was a little shaky on the meaning. Voskovic, our Russian guy, was out of the office, so Lowry comes to me, knowing Russians one of my languages. Hes looking like hes seen a ghost, and hes looking for me to verify if he heard right. I did, and man, you got a world of hurt coming down on you, my friend.
Just tell me what the hell is going on, said Hud.
Okay, listen carefully. I got a ten-minute, one-sided conversation here of the Director talking to some guy in Russian over an encrypted line. Thank God for the RF flood, because they werent using the office phones. So, these two get going in Russian, and suddenly the Directors talking yields and fallout footprints with this guy. Shit, Hud you guys are sitting on a freaking A-bomb out there somewhere.
You jacking me, Zoot? Cause this aint funny if you are. Not one bit.
No, man. This is serious. Judging from the yields he was talking, you guys are dealing with a suitcase tactical nuke. Old, dirty, fission thing. Ive got Research on it. Were pulling up specs and schematics on these relics right now. Well have em up on the secure server ASAP. Youll want Aston to look at them. Hell be the guy to neutralize one of these things if you find it.
Thanks. Any line on our mole yet? Thatd help solve our problem real fast.
No, sorry, said Zoot. Lowry says the Board always just calls him our man. But Hud, a suitcase nuke isnt small and inconspicuous, so look for anyone on the team who tries to get assigned away from the main action. Maybe a sniper team or deep recon patrol. Anyone whos going to be out of contact and direct supervision for an extended period.
Shit, Zoot, this is a covert fucking action team. Almost everything we do is out of direct supervision. Could be anyone. I gotta have more to go on.
All I got, man. Be one thing if I could get some equipment out there to hunt rads, but sounds to me like we dont have time. Get on it, Hud. Thats all I can say. Ill keep on it at this end, but youre the sharp end of the stick, guy.
Hudson ended the call and turned to Angel, who was looking at him with a questioning expression.
Problems, bro. Major, major problems, he said.
* * *
A quarter-mile from the Cabals encampment, surrounded by the silent and elegant spires of the valleys tall evergreens, Buffy passed to radio Aston. Tired, and feeling the dull weight of depression at the distant edges of her mind, she abandoned formal radio protocol.
Mick, its me. Im at point Bravo. Let me know what Im walking into.
The radio crackled with static, then came Astons British accent. Dark Angel One, this is Dark Angel Two. Ive positively identified Will Ms. Rosenberg. Shes on an altar of some sort at the center of a large ring of standing stones in the middle of the encampment. Looks a bit like Stonehenge, so Im guessing Im looking at your Gehenna Key. Ms. Rosenberg appears to be unconscious
Or dead, thought Buffy bleakly.
restrained by rope, nylon it looks like, passed through rings at the head and foot of the altar. I can also confirm the presence of Kurtz. He is also within the Key. I make no firearms, but the subject is armed with a sword. Hes also wearing a black greatcoat, so theres every likelihood hes concealing some additional weapons. I can see no, repeat no other hostiles or civilians in the vicinity. Do you copy, Dark Angel One, over?
Copy that, Dark Angel Two. Anything else?
Then Im going silent. Thanks for all the help over these months, Mick.
For once, even Astons operational formality broke down. Good hunting, maam. Elisa and the Hunter couldnt have picked a better successor. Aston out.
Buffy smiled to herself at that, and with grim finality turned the radio off and started forward toward her greatest enemy and her best friend.
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