Perchance to Dream | Part One
A lone figure slipped through the dark skeletons that covered the hillside, night turning the forest into a sea of bony fingers reaching skyward, and the sky a black and grey quilt, sequined here and there with a glittering diamond of gold, blue or white.
In time the figure reached the end of the tree line, and climbed out onto the rock shelves beyond it. Long and dark, the figure stood out against the night, the small breeze catching the edges of his open coat and flicking them around.
Angel scanned the rocks as far as he could see, in both directions. And then he began to search. He was still searching when the smell of dawn came into his nostrils. It was time to go. A gut-wrenching roar of frustration split the silence, then he was descending, sliding and slipping in the loose rocks, then darting through the trees like a fox in full flight, his feet given wings by the imperative to race the first morning light to safety.
"Do you think he's thought about it at all?"
"Duh, Xander, of course he's thought about it. The biggest favour you could do him would be to not mention it at all," Buffy told him pointedly.
"Yeah, Xander. You know how hard it is for Giles to show his feelings at the best of times, so you don't want to go exposing his naked feelings now, at one of the worst of times."
Xander looked at Buffy. "I suppose that made some sense on some weird Willow planet somewhere?"
"Leave him alone Xander, I'm warning you. He needs to deal with this in his own way, and his own time. Fighting the Hellmouth demon already brought it all back again. This anniversary only makes it worse."
Xander put his hands in the air. "I'm warned. Anybody would think you guys don't trust me."
Both of them scowled at him.
"Point taken," he said huffily. "But my mouth is in training. I should have it housebroken by New Year's."
They reached the library doors and Buffy gave Xander one last, pointed look, before they went through them.
Giles was checking out books for a small group of seniors when he saw them. He handed the last book back and came out from behind the desk. The three seniors beat a hasty retreat. Bad enough being seen in the library, but for anyone to find out they'd been there when the geek patrol was in would have been death...
"They were in rather a hurry," Giles mused as the doors swung closed behind them.
"Yeah. Couldn't get out of here fast enough," Buffy agreed.
"Anybody'd think it was us," Xander drawled.
"I think it was," Willow added, annoyed. "Jerks."
"Forget them," Buffy said suddenly, resting her cast on the desk. "Why are we worrying about a bunch of losers like them?"
"Exactly," Giles added, not entirely certain what was going on. He was still looking slightly battered, with his vivid scratches, though the wrapping was off his sprained wrist and his bruises were fading. "Forget them. There's something else we have to discuss."
Xander looked uncomfortable but remained silent, Willow put on her best 'I didn't do anything' face and Buffy looked up at him.
"Tonight's patrol. I don't think you should go alone, and Faith still hasn't resurfaced from her latest unauthorised expedition."
Xander exhaled noisily and Willow elbowed him. He looked at Will, then at the others, turned on his heel and left.
Giles stared after him for a long moment then Buffy broke the silence.
"So what's so scary about tonight? I'm perfectly capable of patrolling alone or with you for that matter. So what's the big?"
"What? Oh...tonight is the first in ten days of unusual astrological and astronomical alignments. Tradition has it at these times demons from the oldest times will rise to walk the earth."
"And, let me guess, they do really bad things because they're cranky about being locked away the rest of the time?"
Giles gave her a pained look. "It's a very dangerous time, Buffy. They're very difficult, if not impossible, to kill and there will only be a short period in which other demonic forces can rally around them and attempt to use their power to take back this world."
"Impossible to kill?"
"Almost. You must use the sword of Ielorid to pierce the demon's right eye. It's their only weak spot. There are twelve in number, but only four will rise near the Hellmouth. Two will rise in Salisbury, one in Dresden, one in Prague, two in Budapest and two in Saint Petersburg."
"So who's going to kill them all?"
"Well, technically you don't need to kill them all. They're called the Herrata and they're all interconnected. If you destroy one of them, you destroy them all, which is why they're so difficult to kill."
"I kind of like the symmetry of that," she mused. "Like dominoes. Okay, where do I find this sword?"
"Quite frankly, no one knows. I've been going through my books for days, but there are only standard references, where there is any mention at all."
"I'll help you look," Willow volunteered. "Oz has a gig in this place in Monterey the Dingoes go to a lot. He won't be back 'til tomorrow night," she added and sighed.
"Great. So patrolling looks like a barrel of laughs tonight."
"Don't worry, I'll find Xander."
Both Willow and Giles stared.
"Well he's better than nothing."
Angel paced back and forth in front of the fire. The rising of the Herrata brought with it a chance he would never have believed possible; would never have dared dream existed.
Whistler had reappeared one day from nowhere, as cheerful and annoying as ever, but his news had changed everything.
It was Whistler who'd told him that the Herrata's raison-d'être was to use their powers to serve the demon world in whatever manner demanded of them by whichever dark power held the 'Right Eye of the Herrata.'
It was also Whistler who had smugly pointed out that 'dark powers' included vampires...
...Which included Angel.
He stopped pacing. If he could just find the Eye, he'd have a real chance at a life with Buffy. He stared into the fireplace, watching the flames. He was aware that he didn't deserve a second chance, but somehow, for whatever reason, he was being given one, if he was up to the challenge. It had seemed so easy. Between Whistler's knowledge of the Herrata legend and his own fragmentary memories, they'd pieced together the 'where' at least, but when he'd reached the site, there had been nothing...
"What is it, big guy?"
Angel swung around. "Whistler, I wondered where you got to."
"I was hungry," he said, and waved a half-eaten hot dog. "So, you obviously didn't get the brass ring?"
Angel looked away. "There was nothing there. No cave, no markers, nothing. I searched the whole area."
Whistler shrugged. "It's there. It just has to be revealed. We just have to know whatif anymagic is keeping it concealed, and why. Nobody said they make these things easy. Remember what's at stake here. These guys have the power of magics not seen on Earth maybe...ever. Whoever finds that Eye will have more power than any master, any demon king ever had. You have to be worthy...or at the very least you gotta be an expert in demon history and legend."
Angel's head snapped around and he smiled very slowly. "Or you have to know someone." Then suddenly the light died in his eyes and the smile faded.
The little demon shrugged again. "That too. Is there something I should know? Oh, wait, the Slayer, right?"
Angel shook his head, his expression sombre. "Close, but no cigar."
Giles put down the volume he'd been studying and took his glasses off to rub his eyes for the umpteenth time. He was worried about Buffy, feeling guilty about not going with her himself, and frustrated by the lack of practical information available on the subject of the Herrata. His arm was aching and four hours sleep at the most the previous night wasn't making things any easier.
Most of all, however, he was frustrated at his inability, for the last several hours, to focus on what he was doing. He threw the glasses on the table, picked up the drink he'd been worrying for the last hour, and drained it.
Had it really been a year already? It hardly seemed possible that he'd survived that long without her. Hardly seemed possible that she was gone. The ice rattled in the empty glass. He put it down with an unsteady hand and leaned back against the sofa to think...
He sat up, stunned.
"Jenny? How can you be here? What-?"
"Shh. I'm here now, that's all that matters."
Giles slowly became aware that the room was filled with red roses, that their perfume filled the air. Then he forgot the roses. Jenny was coming to him, the white silk negligee holding breathtakingly to her curves as she moved.
"I've missed you so much," he said softly.
"But I'm here now," she smiled and touched his face, brushed a thumb over one of his damp eyes. "Don't cry for me, Rupert."
Giles trembled as she slid into his lap and wound her arms around his neck.
"We didn't have a chance did we?" she whispered and kissed his ear, making him tremble again.
The pain of touching her, smelling her, hearing her voice again was almost too much to bear. Almost, but not enough to counter his body's response to her nearness, the ache in his heart where she used to be, the intense desire to carry her upstairs and lock himself away with her forever.
She drew back a little, found his eyes and smiled at him tenderly. "Hi, fuddy-duddy."
And then his mouth was claiming hers, searching, caressing, wanting, thrilling to her equally urgent, needing, response. He let his hands trail down the silken contours, exploring the intensity of his desire for her. Jenny was drawing off his tie and pulling the buttons of his shirt undone.
Giles caught his breath and tensed his body against the force of his response to her fingers brushing against the skin of his chest. His hands began to slide slowly back up from her waist toward the soft curves of her bosom, an exquisite torture of anticipation for each of them.
And then suddenly she was ripped from his arms. He leaped up after her, saw the intruder and went cold inside.
"No-o!" he screamed as Angelus shook her brutally to still her struggles.
"Not for you, Rupert," he drawled, amused. "Never for you. What have you ever done to deserve someone like her? You let her die, Rupert. You're weak."
"No-o!" Giles cried again in anguish, his traitorous body shaking with terror. "Let her go! I'll do anything, just let her go," he begged.
"Anything, Rupert?" Angelus lifted one of her slender hands. Jenny screamed as one of her fingers snapped like a twig. "Anything? Would you like to play with me again?"
"Jenny!" Giles sobbed, broke free of his fear and threw himself at the vampire's throat just as someone started pounding on the front door.
Giles started from his thrashing, opened his eyes and sobbed again. He was sweating and breathless and his heart was pounding its way out of his chest. Someone was knocking on the door. He gathered himself swiftly, ran a trembling hand over his face, pushed back his rumpled hair, then forced himself toward the door, pushing through lingering dread and anguish, to focus on reality again.
And almost passed out when he opened it.
Angel saw the look of sheer horror on the haggard face and stepped back. "Giles?" he said softly. "I'm sorry"
Giles fought an urge to slam the door, an even more overwhelming urge to tear Angel to pieces, and his body's paralysing physiological response to the face that represented so much pain and grief.
Eventually he closed his eyes for a moment, swallowed, then spoke. "A...Angel? What...What's wrong?"
Angel wasn't sure what to do. "Nothing. Nothing's wrong. I just wanted some advice that's all. I can come back. Are you sure you're all right? You look"
Giles straightened, clenching his fists and taking long, silent breaths. "It's nothing," he said roughly, "nothing. Come...come in."
Angel shifted his gaze slightly away from the green eyes and the hurt burning in them, nodded, and followed the Watcher into the apartment.
Near the sofa Giles' unfolded glasses were lenses-down on the floor, a whisky glass, too, on its side, almost-melted ice spilt on the rug, and one of the librarian's precious books was open roughly, face down on the rug where it had fallen. He looked at the other man again, at his rumpled, haggard appearance, the creases in his clothes and guessed.
"Nightmares?" he said softly, halting Giles half way to a temporary escape in the kitchenette.
He didn't turn. "N...no," he lied. "Just fell asleep doing some research a...and g...got up too fast to answer the door."
Angel closed his eyes as Giles went to put the kettle on. If his mission wasn't so incredibly important, or urgent, he would have slipped away and left the other man to his dignity. Apart from the single exchange at Christmas, when the Watcher had swallowed his bitterness and let him in, despite everything, they had never talked about what happened.
Giles returned with a cup of tea for himself, the cup not quite still on the saucer, and sat down on the sofa again. He sipped at it for a long moment, then spoke without looking up.
"What can I do for you this time?" There was a multitude of inferences in that voice, those words. Angel shut them out.
"The Herrata," he said quietly. "I need your help to find something."
Giles started to laugh softly, unnerving his guest. "My help?" He swirled his tea, his voice turning harsh. "So nice to be needed. Buffy needs me; you need me...so nice."
Angel picked up the book on the floor. It was open at the chapter Giles had been reading. Vague, rambling prose about the rising of the Herrata, the Armageddon-like consequences of leaving them unchecked and the larger than life description of the Slayer's battle to destroy them before the world was lost. He frowned. The last Slayer to face them, hundreds of years ago, hadn't destroyed the Herrata. She'd only stopped the Master who found the Eye, from using it. The Herrata's time had expired and they'd been returned to their enforced sleep again. It didn't state what had happened to the Eye after the vampire Master had been slain.
He looked up to find Giles' eyes burning into him, the other man's knuckles white and his face no longer pale, but flushed with long suppressed anger. Angel closed the book and put it on the table.
"I know what today is," he whispered, his eyes glistening in the lamplight. "I'm not going to insult you by saying I'm sorry. But I can ask you to help me with this one thing, because if we could make it work, Angelus would be dead forever..."
Giles' eyes widened, startled.
"It's the one thing I have to offer for all you've suffered because of me"
"Not me," he said. "Her..."
Angel resisted a cowardly urge to look away. "...Her," he agreed hoarsely.
"How?" Giles rasped, barely able to grasp the idea that he was being offered a chance to destroy his worst nightmare, forever.
"The Herrata. Whoever has the 'Eye' controls them. If I could find it first I could order them to make me Human again. Demons can't survive in living Human flesh. They can borrow an unconscious body for a while, but they can't survive in a living, conscious, breathing mortal. I would be free."
Giles put down the tea cup, rose and went to his whisky decanter, poured a shot in a glass and drank it without ice. Then poured another and came back to the vampire.
"So, all I have to do to kill Angelus is be a party to rewarding you with your greatest wish?" he asked bitterly.
"And Buffy's," Angel added, ashamed of himself.
"Don't you dare bring her into this," Giles replied coldly and downed half of the contents of the glass. "That she can still love you after everything you've done to her is more than you will ever deserve."
Angel swallowed. Giles wasn't saying anything he didn't already know, but there was a razor edge to hearing someone else voice the words.
"I know. But I can't help loving her, any more than she can help loving me. I don't want to live without her, but I can't stay with her while this thing is still inside me, while there's even a single chance that he might come back. A curse can be broken. It doesn't have to be a moment of passion; it could be a spell, another curse, done by anyone with a vested interest in turning me again. I can't let that happen again, not to her, not to the others...and not to you."
"She was trying to cure you," Giles whispered into the whisky glass.
Giles made a noise in his throat. "Jenny. When you...killed her, she was so close to recreating the curse. The irony is she did save you in the end. Even she, with her family's history, was willing to help you. And you destroyed her."
Angel swallowed, unable to stop the moisture that sprang into the dark eyes. "Would you like me to tell you the names of all the people I destroyed? The lives I tore apart?" he asked angrily. "I remember the names of every single one, every face, every voice, every scream. I could start with the children"
The glass slammed into the far wall and smashed, amber liquid trickling down the paint work.
"You bastard. Don't you dare beg my pity." The cold violence in Giles' voice was far worse than shouting. "All the torment, all the pain in the world isn't enough for what you've done, what you did"
Angel's head bowed. "I know. And I have known all the pain in the world, and more. And then I was sent back." His eyes lifted and bored into the green ones. "To be honest, I'm still not sure which is worse. Will you help me?"
Giles closed his eyes. "Does Buffy know?"
"Absolutely not. I won't risk raising her hopes for nothing. I won't hurt her like that again."
"Thank God." He finally looked up. "God help me, I'll help you. Angelus...must be destroyed." He sighed. "Tell me about this 'Eye' you were prattling about earlier..."
"What is this? National Lampoon's Vampire vacation?" Xander asked as they wandered through Restfield cemetery. "One lousy vampire in five cemeteries and a dozen back alleys?"
Buffy kicked an empty cigarette packet, damp with dew, out of her path. "What are you complaining about? Do you enjoy being paralysed with fear?"
Xander stopped. "I was not paralysed by fear. He just surprised me, is all. Last time somebody tried to bite my neckwell, actually two people tried to bite my neck, but your boyfriend meant it. Drusilla the Demented was only going to give me eternal life, and make me hers forever," he retorted.
Buffy touched his arm. "I'm sorry. I know how hard it's been for you today. It's been hard for all of us, especially Giles, but I shouldn't have asked you to come..."
"Hey, no. This is where I'm supposed to be," Xander told her, surprised. "I don't want to be anywhere else...except maybe...in a bubble bath with Amy Yip...no forget I said that. Here. This is where I want to be."
They started to walk again. Xander thought of something. "What do you think has Giles so bugged about these Herrata? After last week and we've faced invincible demons before. Remember when we aced blue boy with the bazooka?"
Buffy chuckled. "You aren't gonna let us forget that one any time soon, are you? But you're right. You should have been there when we closed the Hellmouth. He was so intent on protecting the rest of us, he almost got himself killed "
Xander's expression was wry, his eyes bright in the moonlight. "I'd like very much to have been there, but everyone kept telling me to go away," he pointed out.
"You sound like you still have some issues with that?" Buffy asked, surprised. "We were just trying to protect you because we care about you."
"The same as you care about Willow, Oz, Giles, the same as they care about you? It's a lame excuse to get me out of the way Buffy, and you know it."
"Okay, so we did it to get you out of the way. Why? Because you were going to get yourself killed...because you don't think, Xander. Do you think I liked putting Willow...or Giles...in danger? I didn't. The difference is they knew"
"What they were doing," Xander finished.
"No. They know when to fight, and when to back off, when to duck. You don't."
"God, this is a serious conversation we're having. It's making me hungry."
Buffy stared, then laughed. "I know where there's a hot dog stand."
They were almost past the biggest mausoleum, where Giles had tried to enlist the help of the spirit guides only a week earlier, when an eerie violet light split the sky and fractured into a dozen violent colours. They looked up simultaneously and both saw the same thing at the same time. The moon was beginning to eclipse.
"What? God doesn't like hot dogs?" Xander cracked.
Buffy shot him a look, but she could hear the fear in his voice. "More like show time for the Herrata. We should keep moving."
The light show continued for the length of the eclipse. They cleared the cemetery and were crossing through one of Sunnydale's biggest parks on their way to the next when it all suddenly turned off, like someone flicking a light switch.
Buffy looked up at the clear sky. "They're he-e-re," she muttered. "Somewhere."
"Okay, officially wigged. Where are they supposed to rise from, pray? Like, are we going to be playing with them tonight? More importantly is this going to interfere with my hot dog?"
"Giles doesn't know yet. This is only the first night and the books aren't explicit enough. He and Willow are doing their best. They'll find something, they always do." She looked up at him and grinned. "Until then I have you to protect me."
Xander looked away. "Sorry about that," he muttered as they passed through a grove of trees.
Buffy stopped again and turned to him. "Hey, where's the snappy come back? How can I not think about what's out there if you don't keep distracting me?"
He shrugged. "Sorry. I ran out," he said half-heartedly, then turned and continued walking.
Buffy frowned, thinking about what she said, then put her head back and closed her eyes for a moment, before setting off after him.
"Xander, don't," she said when she reached his side.
"Don't do this to yourself. Nobody could have stopped what happened. Except me. All this timeit never occurred to me that you blamed yourself. It makes sense to hate Angel, to blame me, but"
"Since when did you start channelling dead psychologists?" he snapped. "You don't know anything about me. Why should you? When did you ever have the time or the interest?"
"Xander, we're friends...of course I care about you"
"Jeff Bainbridge in Chemistry is a friend. Corky Winslow from third grade is a friend. Even they know more about me than you do. I know more about your clothes than you do about my life," he retorted.
Buffy shifted uncomfortably. She had never seen that side of him before. She was also as jumpy as a cat, not just about the Herrata, but because air seemed electric with energy, with potential. Trouble was coming, but there was no walking away from what they'd started...
"I know you're one of my two best friendsthree if you include Gilesand I know you don't want anyone to know how hard you find a lot of the classes at school. I also know you love Willow, but that you won't ever do anything about it."
Xander shrugged. "You couldn't at least let me have a little more angst time before you shot me down in flames?" he asked flippantly, but Buffy could see his eyes in the moonlight, still shrouded in pain.
"This isn't really about you and me, is it? It's about all that guilt you've been beating into weapons to hurt me, Angel, anyone who reminds you of everything that happened, of the fact that you couldn't stop any of it."
He threw his hands in the air. "Look, Sigmund, get out my head. I don't want to be psychoanalysed by you. If you think you can absolve your own guilt, or Dead Boy's, by shifting the blame to me" An open palm connected violently with his left cheek.
The blow made him rock on his heels. Buffy's eyes glittered as she rounded on him and opened her mouth to yell. Then she stopped.
He turned quickly, but not quickly enough, and started to walk away.
Buffy caught him easily and grabbed his arm. He tried to pull it away and failed, but refused to turn and look at her.
"Xander, I'm sorry I hit you."
"I'm not. It could have got a lot uglier," he said quietly.
"Why are you so angry?"
He swung around, his eyes glittering with tears. "Because nobody else is. Because Miss Calendar is gone; Kendra is gone, Willow almost got killedas a matter of fact damn near everyone, including me, almost got killed at some point, and nobody pays...Nobody pays," he repeated, his voice rising and wobbling. "When is somebody gonna pay? We're all making nice with Angel now, like nothing ever happened...even Giles. My God, Giles...and nobody even cares about Miss Calendar's death..."
Buffy couldn't stop the moisture that blurred her vision. "You're wrong, Xander, so wrong. Look, first of all how long does a murderer get in this state?"
He gave her a puzzled look and shrugged. "I dunno...twenty five to life, something like that."
"Angel spent hundreds of years in hell in perpetual physical and emotional tormentand he was cured. It wasn't even Angelus who paid; it was Angel. And second of all, don't you ever say that nobody cares. Take it from me this anniversary is tearing Giles to pieces, even if he never blinks an eyelash. It's hurting all of us, but life...and demonic activity, don't stop. We can't afford the luxury of grieving."
For long moments they stared at each other, then Xander straightened, cleared his throat.
"Can we get that hot dog now? I'm now officially starving."
Buffy swallowed then fixed him with a steely glare. "Only if you're paying."
Willow stared at the screen on her computer. Frustration had driven her to some long and fruitless net searches after Giles had taken her home. They'd exhausted his meagre resources specific to the Herrata and there were precious few references in the other volumes they'd been through.
She frowned. Giles had been impatient to leave though she hadn't noticed anything different about him during the afternoon. When he drove her home earlier in the evening, however, she'd looked up at his profile in the half-light to ask him if he wanted her to come in at lunch the following day and was silenced by the pain in his face.
It took a few minutes to print out the information she'd found. It was a strange little web page, no graphics, not even backgrounds, just white screen, black writing...paragraphs of it, and some poetically nasty headings. Basically it was a long, rambling diatribe on the rights of the true demonic owners of this world and how they were going to take it back. That was itit sounded more like some disgruntled demon's on-line diary than any sort of reference work...
The printer stopped and Willow picked up the pages. She couldn't wait to see Giles' face...provided of course it wasn't all just made up, but, then, who would make such a crappy web page to pretend something was real if it wasn't? And the information was too specific. She shook her head. Who'd have thought 'piercing the right eye of the Herrata' was anything but literal?
She leaped up then and went searching for shoes and a jacket. It was late, but the information couldn't wait...
If anyone else found either the Eye or the sword before they did...
A light was still burning in Giles' living room window when she arrived. Her skin was still crawling from the light show she'd seen on the way over and the suddenly hyper-charged atmosphere that continued to linger. She waited but the door didn't open.
Willow tried the handle. She knew Giles. He wouldn't go to bed at this hour with Buffy and Xander still out and so much still not known about the Rising. Something wasn't right. The door wasn't locked.
The apartment was silent and empty. There were a lot of books open on the coffee table and there was the merest hint of alcohol in the air. Willow looked in the kitchenette, felt the kettle. It was warm, but not scalding hot. There were dirty teacups in the sink. A chill went down her back. She found the bathroom empty then ran up the stairs and pushed the door of Giles' bedroom open expecting it to be as deserted as the rest of the house. The light was still on.
A whisky glass sat half-emptied on the side table. Giles was sprawled, fully dressed, across his bed, glasses still clutched in one hand, a large, dusty volume open half-underneath him, as though he'd rolled on it in his sleep. The partly healed scratches on his face and neck stood out in the lamplight.
"You're way out of your league, Willow," she whispered, her first, overwhelming, instinct to go home.
But it was Giles...
She shook his arm gently. "Giles?" He barely moved. "Giles? It's Willow," she repeated.
"Jenny...?" he moaned.
Willow jumped back as though stung. She bit her lip, looked at the papers still clutched in her left hand, turned and went back down stairs.
She was back minutes later with a large mug of hot, black, tea, set it on the side table with the glass and leaned over to shake Giles' arm again, strongly this time.
"Giles, wake up!" she shouted.
He jolted awake, blinked and screwed up his eyes against the light. "W...Willow? What on Earth ?"
"Here." She handed him the tea.
Giles squinted at it, sniffed then drank.
"A...Are you okay?" she ventured.
He looked up from the tea, and she barely recognised the haggard face with its
carved grooves, dark circles and five o'clock shadow.
He half laughed. "Never been better," he said bitterly and swung his legs over the side of the bed, unconsciously rubbing his left wrist. Then he stopped and looked at his young friend. "I'm sorry, Willow. I'm all right. I've had rather...a lot...to think about today."
"You don't have to do that, you know," she said softly.
Giles looked at her curiously.
"What you always do. You know: pretend you're okay so other people won't worry about you, or pretend you're okay so Buffy keeps her mind on what she has to do, instead of worrying about you. I know what today is as well as you do," she told him.
He smiled slowly, tiredly, affection warming his eyes. "When exactly did I miss your growing up?"
Willow smiled back then handed him the print-outs. He put his glasses on and scanned them.
"Then Angel was right," he muttered to himself when he was finished.
"Angel? Angel was here today?" she squawked, surprised, then angry. And then bit her lip when she saw the bleakness in his eyes as he looked up.
"Y...Yes, earlier. He had some useful information about the Herrata."
"You're doing it again," she said before she could stop herself. And at Giles' 'time to mind your own business, Willow' look: "Like you said, I'm not a kid any more. I'm allowed to worry about you the same as I do Xander, or Buffy, or, or, Oz, okay? Giles, you might be a grown up but nobody made a rule that grown ups have to deal with everything by themselves...just most of it...do you want some more tea?" she finished breathlessly.
She turned and looked up.
"Thank you...for worrying."
She smiled, her face flushed with emotion. "I'm glad you let me," she said softly, then thought of something. "A...And speaking of worrying, do you think Xander and Buffy are okay?"
"No reason they shouldn't be," he said as they went down stairs. "According to this," he held up the print-outs, "and Angel's information, the Herrata were wakened tonight, but will take at least another twenty-four hours to regain enough strength to leave their resting places. Angel has a friend who might be able to decipher some glyphs found on a cave wall in BudapestI have some plates in one of my bookswhich mention the Herrata, but have never been successfully translated, even by the experts. I had hoped they'd be back by now..."
Giles put away the car and made his way to his front door thinking wistfully about the bed he'd left to take Willow home, but stopped a couple of yards away when he heard movement in the darkness ahead.
"It's all right, Giles, it's only me," Angel's voice called and two figures stepped out into the dull glow of the security light.
"Hey, what am I, chopped asparagus?"
Angel rolled his eyes. "This is Whistler. Whistler, Rupert Giles."
Giles moved past them without speaking, down the steps to the porch, opened the apartment door and closed it behind them.
Whistler immediately made himself comfortable on the sofa. "So where's these books I'm supposed to look at?"
Angel shot him an annoyed glance. "I can't take him anywhere."
Whistler looked at the Watcher. "Angel told you about me?" he asked, his tone unexpectedly serious.
Giles nodded. "Everything. Pity you weren't a little better at your job."
"Hey, Angelus wasn't my fault. How was I to know what the big happy was gonna be for this guy? It coulda been a Big Mac for all I knew. Gimme a break, I've already been roasted...literally...for this. Can we move the topic along here already?"
Giles handed him the book, open to the pages with the coloured plates of the photos taken in the caves outside Budapest.
"Whoa, whichever demon wrote this was way old. I can't even remember how many lifetimes ago since I last saw this script." Whistler took some time to study all five.
"Well at least we don't have to go to Budapest," he said when he looked up again.
"All right. Jeez. Look, it says here," he pointed to the third plate, "the Eye was brought to the New World, and the sword followed it. A Slayer followed the Eye here. It makes sense that they brought it here. The reason there are four Herrata here is this Hellmouth. Congrats, by the way, on that job you did keeping it closed."
"Yes, but where are they now?" Giles interrupted, not wanting to be side-tracked. " The sword, and the Eye?"
"The Eye is supposed to be where I said it was in the first place: on that mountain. Or, actually, in the mountain. The sword, that's a little harder. It's pretty much up to you, Mister Chips. You're the Watcher. You find out who the Slayer was who brought it here and maybe we'll have a shot at finding it, because it doesn't say anything in here about where it ended up."
Irritated, Giles stepped across to the pile of books on the coffee table and picked up the one Angel had read earlier, handed it to Whistler.
"Celine, huh? I remember this one. She wasn't that good. Not anywhere near as good as yours. Well, all we gotta do now is find out where she hung out once she got here...Wait a minute," he turned to Angel. "She was killed not long after she stopped the Rising, probably by severely hacked off minions of the Master she wasted with that sword."
"A tomb?" Giles asked.
"Maybe. Or at the very least a nice grave somewhere."
"I'll see if he Council will help." Giles looked at his watch. "They should have records of the resting places of all the Slayers."
Angel shifted impatiently. "Maybe I should go back and search that mountain again."
Whistler shook his head. "Waste of time until we know how to get to the Eye. All the rest of these writings tell of is the destruction that ensued when the Herrata rose there. And the vampire Master who found the Eye months before, and the Slayer's pursuit of the guy across Europe. That forced him to stow away on a ship to San Francisco to get to the Hellmouth here before all the Herrata went night-night again..."
"You said 'in the mountain'?" Giles asked.
"Sure, hidden somewhere below ground, like most demonic stuff. At first me and Angel, we thought there'd be a cave or somethin' and what with Angel being a vampire and all, it wouldn't be so hard to find."
"We were wrong," Angel said darkly.
"Perhaps you're both missing the obvious," Giles said quietly.
Angel looked at the haggard, weary face. "Giles?"
"If the Slayer stopped the Master from using the Eye, then it stands to reason that the Slayer was, conceivably, the last person to have it, although we know it wasn't destroyed, or there would have been no Rising earlier tonight."
"The Slayer was killed only three days after she stopped the Master, and one day after the Herrata went back to the big Zs again," Whistler interjected. "The question is: did she have the Eye? If so why the hell didn't she destroy it?"
"If she didn't destroy it when she killed the Master, maybe she didn't know how to. Maybe all she knew how to do was kill the vampires who were going to use it," Angel offered.
"It's possible," Giles agreed. "In fact, probable, because the Council would have been informed if she had learned how. Still, Celine or her Watcher must have been the last to have the Eye, because no one in the darker realms seems to have possession of it yet. Either that or it was lost during the battle. "
"I think we'd better find this tomb," Angel growled.
"Sounds like a plan," Whistler agreed jauntily. "Or maybe the site of this battle."
"Fine," Giles sighed wearily, "I'll try contacting the council at a civilised hour and then come to you at the" He stopped suddenly.
Angelwho'd been mentally absent for a moment, finding the Eye and becoming Human, coming back in the sun and claiming Buffy in his daydreamlooked sharply at the older man. Giles had gone deathly pale.
"Never mind. We'll come to you at sunset," he said quickly. "Whistler, let's go. Giles has to work tomorrow."
The demon looked at the Watcher curiously, swallowed and followed Angel out the front door. When it closed he turned to the vampire.
"Looks like the mansion ain't his favourite place. Boy you really did a number on that poor bastard, didn't you?"
Angel's hand balled into a fist and he grabbed Whistler by the throat with the other. "Just remember how good a number next time you want to remind me of it," he hissed, his eyes shimmering, and threw the little demon into the bushes before striding off.
Whistler struggled out of the shrubbery, brushed himself off and stared at Angel's receding back for a long moment.
"Two poor bastards," he muttered, then scuttled after him.
Buffy grabbed a chance to go to the library during a free morning period, unable to wait until lunch to find out what Giles had learned. Besides, Xander hadn't come to school and Willow was in a class.
The library was deserted. She crossed to Giles' office a little unnerved by the silence. Normally he was around, doing something, or somebody was looking for a book, or the photocopier was going...or she was with the others and didn't notice the quiet.
He was busy studying a very old manuscript, the bright light of the lamp intensifying the ravaged lines of his face and the bright redness of the scratches as Buffy came to his side.
"Giles? Are you all right? You look terrible." She touched his forehead. "No fever."
He blinked and looked up. "Oh, hello Buffy. Don't fuss. How did it go last night?"
"Almost vampire-free. Great light show, though. So what do we know?"
He took his glasses off and swung his chair around. Buffy caught her breath at just how tired and drawn he looked, bit her tongue to still the questions on it.
"We now know that to kill the Herrata requires the sword of Ielorid and the Right Eye of the Herrata, which is not, in fact, a literal eye, but a polished, spherical gem which can only be shattered by the sword. We also know that a former Slayer followed the Eye to this Hellmouth, bearing the sword."
"Then it's here, somewhere?"
"Y...Yes, one hopes. It appears, however, that she didn't know how to use it. The texts we have suggested that she killed the vampire master, who had possession of the Eye, with the sword but failed to destroy the gem, which is apparently the key to the destruction of the Herrata."
"Then the Eye is here somewhere too," Buffy mused. "You and Willow have been real busy. Burning the midnight oil too much? I thought she looked a bit sleep-deprived this morning...not anywhere near as drastic as you though."
"There's a lot to do," Giles said quietly. "Willow has been a great help. In fact the text she found on the web last night led me to this." He touched the manuscript on the desk. "Also, in their infinite wisdom, the Watcher's council has condescended to provide me with what little information they have. The Slayer, Celine Marais, who by the way also practised witchcraft, is in fact not buried in Sunnydale as first thought."
"They're scared," Buffy snorted.
"Indeed," Giles agreed and continued. "She is actually entombed on Rogue's Ridge, where presumably the sword and possibly the Eye also lie."
"Entombed?" she repeated. "Not alive, I hope?"
Giles shook his head. "She was killed trying to clean out the nest of followers of the vampire Master, before returning to Europe. The diary of her Watcher, Colm Cavanaugh, indicates that, mortally wounded, she threw Cavanaugh, dazed and with a broken arm, clear and brought down the roof of the cave with a spell, thus entombing all the remaining demons and herself. It prevented the Eye from falling into the hands of darkness and the small Mexican settlement, which existed here at the time, from being ravaged by a rather large number of unhappy demons and vampires."
"Okay, so tonight it's shovels and picks?"
Giles shook his head. "You can't afford to be away from Sunnydale, Buffy. There are four Herrata who will shortly be strong enough to start looking for food. I need you here to protect the town. I'll go to Rogue's Ridge, myself."
"Fine, take Xander. Just don't go on your own."
"I'll be perfectly"
"Giles, I'm not staying here if you go up there on your own. Who says 'Herrata Central' isn't up there too?"
"My texts...Cavanaugh's diary. They lie beneath Shady Hill cemetery in fact. In the pioneer section, beneath that four hundred year old oak tree the Sunnydale Historical Society dotes on."
"Giles, I won't let you go alone"
"I'm not...going alone. Angel is going with me."
Buffy's eyes widened. "Is there something I should know?" she asked, her voice dangerously quiet.
"Not...not really. He provided some useful information, as is his wont, occasionally, and when I said I was going, h...he volunteered to accompany me."
"You're going at night? No wait, not getting sidetracked here. Giles, I know you helped him at Christmas, but I also know he's never going to be on your Christmas list, so give, what's going on?"
Giles' expression hardened. "I told you. We need all the help we can get on this one and as you so kindly pointed out I need someone to hold my hand at Rogue's Ridge. Angel happens to be the only one available."
Buffy opened her mouth again.
He raised a hand. "I'm not taking Xander. That boy could start a landslide just by tripping over his feet."
"He's hurting," Buffy said softly.
Giles stared at her for a long moment. "I know. I've known for a long time. It only serves to make him more of a danger to himself. He's so intent on covering it up with stupidity and bad jokes that he fails to see the bigger picture on almost every occasion."
"Okay, no Xander. He didn't come to school today, anyway. We kind of...discussed things last night."
"You had an argument?"
" Well, yeah, but we had hotdogs afterward."
Giles sighed. "Good, then I take it he's home with food poisoning, not terminal teenage angst?"
Buffy shrugged. "Be careful," she said softly.
He looked up, saw the worry in her eyes and smiled, just a little. "Both of us," he emphasised, then stood up. "You know you can't defeat the Herrata, Buffy, not without the eye. You must try to disable them somehow without getting yourself killed." He pulled a very large bag out from under his desk. "Over the last several days I've prepared a selection of the most effective weapons I could find or devise for you, taking into account your arm and their er disposition..."
"I made protection spells for all of us"
"Will, it's way too dangerous. I can't"
"No, I'm coming with you, Buffy. You can't go on your own, and I've been in danger of getting killed more times than I usually want to think about. Nothing's changed. And you don't have the right to stop me."
They turned. Xander was standing in the doorway of Buffy's bedroom. "I've been doing a lot of thinking today. So much I forgot to go to class...but I do know one thing: Willow's right. We've always done this together, and we're not going to change that now, just because these guys are supposed to be un-killable."
Buffy ran a nervous hand through her hair. "I might not be able to protect you guys this time"
"Didn't you ever think that this time we might be trying to protect you?" Willow interjected, looking pointedly at her cast, which for anyone but a Slayer should still have been in its sling. "It's almost sunset. We should go before they get out of the cemetery."
"Did it occur to anyone that the Herrata might not be the only bad things at Shady Hill tonight?" Xander pointed out as they walked out onto the road. "We're not the only ones looking for them, you know."
"Yeah, but most of demondom is going to be out looking for the Eye, which is
other-where, which is good for us..." Buffy stopped, her expression sombre. "But very bad for Giles and Angel..."
"This is giving me the creeps."
"You're a demon. You're supposed to give other people the creeps."
"Very funny. I'm a very nice guy. I just don't happen to like very dark forests which could very well be filled with very unpleasant things also looking for what we're looking for, and therefore with a very valid reason to knock us off."
Giles, behind them, stopped, listening.
"What?" Whistler demanded nervously.
"Shh!" Angel repeated. They listened.
There was nothing to be heard, but Angel could feel the presence of others, smell them.
"Trouble," he whispered. "Get behind me, both of you," he ordered, facing the direction of the scent.
Giles eased off the backpack of weapons he was carrying and dropped it on the ground. He pulled the sword from the antique leather scabbard strapped to the side of it, checked the stake in the inside pocket of his navy blue windbreaker and moved up alongside Angel.
Whistler crouched behind them.
There were five of them, all dressed in similar quasi-military clothes. They looked like bizarre demon commandoes emerging from the darkness, their swollen, cadaverous faces the more horrible for the transposition.
"So what's their problem?" Whistler asked from his hiding position. "They look like somebody dragged a river and found a bunch of dead marines, who suddenly aren't so dead no more. Jeez."
The lead demon drew an oversized hunting knife from his belt and lunged. Angel dodged the blade and hit the demon a double handed blow in the back as the others charged at them.
Whistler shinnied up a tree. Giles decapitated Angel's attacker as it stumbled then lunged towards the next, swung and missed when it ducked out of the way. There was another right behind it. Alongside him Angel was wrestling on the ground, evenly matched with his large opponent. Giles thrust with his sword as the oncoming demon jumped over his comrade's corpse, but found his blade knocked aside and a clammy, slimy hand around his throat.
He could feel his larynx being crushed, his lungs screaming for air, but no amount of struggling, clawing, scratching, nothing he did, made any impact on the demon as it throttled him. There was no oxygen left in his lungs. He felt the panic seizing him, his body flailing against his impending death, his lungs screaming...and then just as suddenly he was being violently ripped from the vice-like hand and thrown to the ground.
It took several moments of gasping and holding his chest as the air rushed back in for Giles to clear his head enough to realise what was happening.
Angel was grappling with his attacker, trying to bring him down, whilst fending off knife and fist attacks from the other two demons.
Giles staggered to his feet just as one of them picked up his sword. "N-o-o!" he cried as the creature swung it at Angel's head, and crash tackled it at the same instant.
The sword went flying as both of them crashed into Angel and the demon he was fighting. In the furore Angel got hold of the discarded hunting knife and drove it into the heart of the body on top of him, rolled out with it and intercepted the last standing demon as it made for Giles, the Watcher's own sword raised over its head.
Giles was too busy grappling with his own opponent to see the danger.
Angel came within a hairsbreadth of having his left arm amputated by the blow from the sword as he deflected it from Giles' back, but the angle caused it to glance off the bone as it sliced into the top of his forearm. As the demon's sword arm flew up, Angel brought his other arm in to its rib cage with sickening force, leaving the hunting knife protruding from the place where it's heart used to beat.
Behind him Giles had rolled on top of his demon and was trying desperately to throttle it as it raked his back with its clawed hands, shredding the jacket and coming perilously close to penetrating the thick ski jumper underneath. He made little headway, his left arm yet to fully recover its strength after the bout with the Hellmouth demon.
"Let go!" Angel shouted.
Giles looked up to see his sword raised overhead, knew a blinding moment of indecision and panic when he saw Angel's transformed face behind it, then let go of the demon's throat and arched backward. There was a blur, a sickening crunch, and the head was rolling away. He chose not to look back at the gore, getting up and staggering back towards Whistler instead.
Angel dropped the sword, his left arm throbbing agonisingly and bleeding profusely, and transformed back. He'd seen the other man's face. He'd also seen him, hopelessly outnumbered and mismatched, still try to save his life.
"You guys were sensational. Talk about action heroes. Don't you think we oughta get out of here before any more come along?" Whistler babbled. "We gotta do something about that arm"
Giles looked around.
Angel gripped it harder. "I'll handle it."
But Giles was already tearing fabric from the shirt of one of the corpses and dragging a
box out of his backpack. In moments he was tearing open a swab, pushing Angel's wound together and cleaning the worst of the dirt and blood off before putting butterfly dressings along the slash and binding it with the shirt strips. He was done before he really realised what he was doing.
"There," he said self-consciously, blood at the corner of his own bruised mouth, his arm aching, his back smarting where claws must have penetrated his thick sweater after all, and his contused throat throbbing. "That should hold it."
Angel watched him drop his ruined jacket, pick up the sword and take the box back to his backpack, trying to remember if he'd ever met anyone else whose first instinct was always to help, regardless of consequence or history. He failed.
"We should keep moving," he said, holding his arm as Giles straightened. He was in a lot of pain, but the others didn't need to know exactly how much.
The Watcher nodded.
"Now you're talking."
"Shut up, Whistler."
Shady Hill cemetery looked relatively peaceful and calm in the clear, cool evening. Buffy, Xander and Willow were all carrying heavy backpacks filled with the divided up weapons and other items provided by Giles.
It took several minutes to hike through the newer parts of the grounds to the Pioneer section right at the back. Again Buffy was struck by the unnatural peace. No vampires, no monsters or demons. It was almost too good to be true...
At that moment the night air was split by a blood-curdling howl so piercing that she could hear her own eardrums vibrate and her teeth were set on edge.
"Do I want to know what that was?" Xander asked without his usual flippancy.
Buffy shook her head. "Nope. But it's coming from the right direction." She pointed toward the tops of the giant oak tree a couple of dozen yards away.
They were almost at the security fence that surrounded the historical tree when Buffy saw the hole. One side of the wire fence was almost completely ripped apart.
"Not good," she muttered.
There was another howl and dirt seem to explode upward from the earth inside the fence. From it rose a creature of such great age, such great evil that its putrescent flesh hung in grey cowls around its throat, its huge, horse-like head the more horrifying for serrated bones visible through the semi-translucent blue-white flesh.
"Does anyone mind if I throw up?" Xander muttered.
It turned its four-yard frame and sniffed, one huge, leathery foreleg poised in the air, black scimitar like claws splayed menacingly in the moonlight, eyes flashing like two glittering topaz orbs slashed with black.
"Good doggie," Willow squeaked.
Then, suddenly, in one terrifying movement, it threw up a stunning black spine and bristle crest from its rump to the crown of its head, threw back its head and screamed at twice the volume of the previous one. A spine chilling snap and billow followed, heralding the deployment of vast blue-white bat-like wings shot with blood red veins and bristled here and there with black hairs.
Willow and Xander screamed simultaneously and Buffy rolled her eyes. "Guys, its just another monster" As Buffy spoke, the creature's nostrils dilated and flared, as though it had picked up a scent, and it's eyes flashed, the more terrifying for the awareness in them.
Then its mouth opened, triple uneven rows of long, filthy, needle-sharp teeth filling the orifice, sharing space only with a revolting, cadaverous tongue and a stench the like of which even Buffy had never come across before, and it leaped.
She screamed and they all broke and ran.
"It's just another monster," Xander mimicked as they broke into a tomb and barricaded the door with the lid off a crypt.
"Well it is," Buffy shot back, "it's just a little big and I've never smelled anything that bad before."
"I have," Willow said, still breathing hard. "Xander's gym socks."
"Oh, rapier yester-wit," Xander shot back. "But what exactly are we doing in here when we're supposed to be out there protecting Sunnydale from FOUR of those babies?"
"Trying not to soil the laundry?" Willow ventured.
"Okay. Xander has a point. We have to have a plan. There are two more of them still in the ground, and we now have two roaming Sunnydale. The first thing we have to do is get back to that tree and stop the next one before it gets out of bed."
Buffy took off her backpack and sorted through the equipment Giles had procured for them. The items that made her smile, however, were the hand-grenades and the automatic hand gun with the flashy looking bullets.
Xander who'd been sorting through his own collection, snorted. "Hey, how come you get the good stuff? All I've got is a crummy crossbow with weird bolts, wire cable and a bunch of these."
"Smoke bombs. We may or may not need them. And those bolts have explosive heads," Buffy pointed out.
"Oh. Okay, then I'll tell you that your ammunition is teflonarmour piercing."
Willow wrung her hands. "Can we stop with the 'yours is bigger than mine thing' please? People could be dying out there."
"Oh yeah, like we can stop these things," Xander retorted as they shifted the heavy lid from the door again and started to run.
"Not stop," Buffy agreed as they reached the tree, "but we can still really ruin their big day."
The third creature burst predicably from the ground and this time Buffy stood her ground until it opened its great jaws and leaped at her.
"Eat this!" She pulled the pin and lobbed the hand-grenade into its mouth, leaped back a couple of yards and drove Xander and Willow down onto the ground.
"Why is it not happening?" Xander complained. And was drowned out by the deafening report of the explosion and then grossed out by the bits of stinking flesh and black spiny teeth that rained on him.
They jumped up and looked back together. The creature was howling with rage. It's jaws were a mangled wreck, yet it was still on its feet.
"Well he's not going to eat anyone tonight," Buffy said with satisfaction, just as the fourth beast emerged.
"Can you say encore?" Xander drawled and fired his loaded crossbow as it lumbered towards them. The bolt buried itself in the creature's right hind leg and exploded, enraging it beyond measure. It deployed its crest and wings with frightening speed and charged.
Buffy rolled her eyes and reached for the gun. "Way to get us killed, Xander."
"I try," he said, reloading as they retreated.
Buffy fired her gun a half dozen times but the bullets made holes the size of cantaloupes in the creature's hide without slowing it down at all. Xander's second arrow hit the creature in the eye and caused commensurate and particularly revolting damage to its head but had little effect in slowing its enraged flight.
They were almost at the front gates when something whistled through the air, hit the ground a yard in front of the creature and exploded into an incendiary inferno.
They watched the fireball in awe.
"Look, a crispy critter," Xander chirruped gleefully as it burned.
"Way to go, Giles," Buffy sighed, relieved.
"Do you think it's in pain?" Willow asked mournfully.
The others turned to her. She had her open backpack over her arm, matches in one hand and one of Giles' incendiary devices in the other.
Xander did a little dance. "Way to save our butts, Willow!"
"But it won't die," Willow said unhappily as the creature collapsed.
"Will, you were this close to being a happy meal for that thing. Let it burn," Buffy told her. "Besides we've got two other problems on our hands. Anybody see which way they went...?"
"This is getting ridiculous. How many more?"
Angel brushed the dust off himself and Giles put away his stake. "As many as it takes. You're the one who told me about the power of the Eye...and you weren't expecting company?"
Whistler made a face. "I'm just not used to this fight stuff. I mean, after the ghoul commandoes I thought we were in the clear, you know? And how many does this make six very annoyed vampires in the last hour? I mean, who needs a Slayer with you two around?"
Giles straightened, then staggered slightly. Whistler's eyes narrowed. "Hey, Teach', what's wrong? Angel, I think we've got a problem here."
Giles blinked several times and squinted, trying to clear his vision. Everything was suddenly not quite in focus and his head was pounding. He sighed with relief when after the seventh blink things clicked back into sharp focus, but he felt terrible and his back hurt abominably. He dropped his pack.
Angel was at his side in moments. "What is it?"
He shook his head. "I don't know dizziness, headache, nausea, visual disturbances. Sounds like head trauma, but I didn't get hit." He swayed again.
Angel put a steadying hand on his shoulder and saw the back of his sweater. Small patches of blood had soaked through the wool.
"Maybe not," he said grimly, "but you did get scratched. Let me look at the wounds."
Giles pulled off the sweater and his T-shirt, which was far more bloodied, not feeling like going a round with a cup of tea, much less arguing with Angel.
Whistler came around to see what Angel was scowling at.
"Shut up, Whistler," Angel warned, and this time it was a threat, rather than a warning.
"Something I should know about?" Giles asked dryly.
"The scratches are already swollen and infected. Their claws might have been poisonous."
"Or they could just have very bad hygiene," Whistler offered.
Angel glared. "Some demons have poisonous claws or teeth. Others can knock you out with their breath, by a touch from toxins on their skin, or by looking at you."
"Funnily enough, I knew all that," Giles said sarcastically as he drew his sweater back on. "The question is: what can we do about it? We have to get through this. Buffy needs the sword and the Eye to kill the Herrata, and you need me to get you to them first."
"We go on," Angel said firmly, "but Whistler goes back and finds Willow. You aren't fit to travel that far on foot and if it is poison, the exertion will only pump it through your system faster. He can give her a detailed description of those demons, maybe even get a claw on the way back for her to test. Hopefully the treatmentor the antidotewill be something simple, a spell or a potion or something."
Neither of them voiced the thought both shared at that moment: if he lived long enough for Whistler to get back in time.
"You want me to go back through those woods on my own? With half of hell out for a stroll tonight?"
"You're a demon. Act like one. And don't forget that claw." Angel growled.
Giles handed the little demon a hunting knife from his pack and his car keys.
Whistler looked from one to the other. He was fond of Angel and he'd quickly grown just as fond of the gutsy Watcher. "Be careful," he said. "It's gonna get worse before it gets better. I know I'm no secret weapon, but there's not going to be anyone to watch your backs now, so you'd better watch each other's."
They watched him out of sight, then turned, but Giles stumbled, the weight of his backpack shifting his centre of gravity faster than his equilibrium could adjust when he tried to swing it on to his shoulder.
Angel caught him by the arm and slid the backpack off again. He slung it over his own, wincing as it jarred his arm, and kept hold of Giles with his other hand. They had to stop frequently as they climbed, Angel providing as much support as he could for the few hundred yards they had to go.
Giles had started a fever and he was rapidly losing strength. Angel marvelled at his courage, not for the first time. He had distinct and terrible memories of what he'd done to the big librarian as Angelus. Yet the single most powerful memory of that interlude was not the suffering he'd inflicted but Giles' stubborn courage and endurance.
When they reached the area pinpointed by their research, Angel could see for the first time that there was indeed a cave mouth behind the wall of fallen rock, which was now partially obscured by mosses and weeds, trees and small bushes, all nestled in the gaps and crevices.
He lowered the Watcher to the ground, dropped the bag and crouched in front of him. Giles' fever was worse and his breathing was laboured.
"Giles, how bad?"
Giles closed his eyes and took some deep breaths. "I've had worse hangovers, but I think you can safely say I won't be much use for a while. Have you handled explosives before?"
Giles took another deep breath. "Great," he muttered. "Just great." He opened his eyes. "Look, I'll tell you what to do, step by step. If you don't get it right the first time you'll bring down the rest of the cave on us."
Angel nodded. "When did you?"
"Learn about explosives? Misspent youth. Some Internet meandering when I realised what we were in for up here and a Watcher's basic weapons training course some years ago. It's an interesting syllabus: crossbows to Kalashnikovs. Very thorough," he added facetiously. "Uh, Angel..."
Angel leaped up and turned. Three vampires were approaching them without haste. They were dressed in very old armour and leather, carried broadswords and looked like they had just come from a battle.
Angel transformed into hunting mode before walking up to the biggest of them, a head taller than he was. "Good hunting?" he asked affably.
"Not tonight," the vampire growled. "Too much competition. I abhor those grey slimy creatures."
"And those spiny, scaly blue abominations," said a bored voice behind him.
"Silence, Crispian. But it is far too crowded out there tonight." He pointed his sword at Angel's throat, lifting the weapon easily with one hand, no mean feat even for a vampire. "I sincerely hope you aren't going to add to my claustrophobia."
Angel shrugged with Angelus' ease and arrogance. "I've got my own agenda, and my own tools." He nodded towards Giles. "Too useful to kill, but I like a picnic lunch as much as the next guy."
"Anything left to share?"
"Plenty," Angel drawled, "except that he's been shot full of demon toxin. Tastes like shit."
"Looks like shit," said another of the subordinate vampires.
Angel nodded. "Yeah, I just hope he lasts long enough to help me find what I'm looking for. Care to join my little expedition?"
The broadsword pushed roughly into his throat without, quite, breaking the skin.
"Okay," he drawled. "Our expedition. But unless you've got jackhammers under those cod-pieces, he's the best chance you've got of getting in there."
"As you wish," the creature said, his more-British-than-Giles accent beginning to irritate. "Crispian, Elwyn: pickets. Nobody approaches, and nobody leaves," he ordered pointedly and removed the sword.
Giles exhaled, finally, gave fervent thanks for Angel's manifest acting ability, then chuckled nervously to himself. Only Angelus' alter-ego could have manipulated things so that the enemy ended up effectively working for him, whether they knew it or not...
It took over an hour to guide Angel through the complexities of assembling the explosive to blow open the cave entrance, as the poison progressively incapacitated him.
He'd repeated himself three times in his explanation of how to assemble the trigger mechanism, unable to maintain his concentration for longer than a few minutes at a time, when Idris growled and leaned forward, sword raised.
Angel roared and pushed the vampire out of the way. "Nobody plays with my toys," he warned in Angelus' unnerving psychopathic drawl and backhanded Giles hard across the mouth. "Except me."
The librarian was almost knocked over backwards, his mouth splitting in the corner and his head snapping back as Angel connected. When the glazed green eyes looked up at him there was confusion and hurt in them.
Angel looked away, picked up the partly assembled explosive and began asking questions again. Giles, mesmerised by that hateful voice, was struggling to focus on the device, to recall the steps. They progressed slowly until it was finally assembled and he was barely conscious.
Patiently Angel tried to activate the led display on the trigger mechanism but it remained dead. As the minutes dragged he could hear Idris beginning to shift restlessly. Finally he took a deep breath and snarled loudly, snapped his head around to Giles and yelled:
"It won't work!"
The Watcher's eyes snapped open, dilating alarmingly when they recognised the enraged vampire. Then he sagged, his head bowing almost to his chest, barely conscious.
Idris crossed his arms. "Well that was a big help," he observed sarcastically. "Crispian, your knife"
Angel leaned between them almost too quickly and grabbed Giles by the front of his sweater, moved his mouth close to his right ear and shoved the device into his lap.
"Fix it," he hissed. "Or perhaps you'd rather play?"
For a split second Giles slipped back into nightmare, the unrelenting pain and horror...and that voice. Then his head snapped up, rage flashing in the semi-lucid eyes.
"Go to hell, you bastard," he snarled.
"Uh-uh. Been there, done that. That would be you, this time, if you don't fix this piece of crap," Angel shot back, violence in every word.
Giles tried to wrench himself angrily away, heard a well-smothered gasp, looked down and saw the blood seeping through the improvised bandages on Angel's arm. He blinked, sudden clarity in his eyes, looked up at the vampire glaring at him, as if searching for something, then let his face harden again.
"Get off me, you pillock," he growled, watching, and saw the flicker of recognition...or was it pain?...in Angel's face. "I can't fix it with you in my lap."
Their eyes held for a long moment, each knowing what had to come next.
"Then do it!" Angel shouted viciously, roared and backhanded the librarian again. This time, however, Giles leaned back with the blow, considerably lessening the impact whilst making it look even worse.
Angel got up still hurling invective and abuse and paced between Giles and Idris, doing a very good imitation of barely controlled fury, his hands balled into fists. Only Giles had seen the trembling of the fingers he'd so desperately crushed into his palms to hide.
It took the librarian long, painful minutes to get the triggering device operational, but he finally did, and slowly went over the positioning and detonation procedures with Angel, halting with each bout of nausea from the poison, sweat almost literally running off him as he struggled to stay conscious.
When he was ready, Angel set the explosives exactly as Giles directed, Idris at his heel constantly.
"What is this device the mortal has devised?" Idris demanded when Angel straightened.
"Where have you been for the last five hundred years?" he muttered.
"In the service of our Master, who awaits our success."
Angel jumped. He hadn't expected the other to hear him. "Right...and where would that be? Camelot?" he asked sarcastically.
"Hardly. But you at least have the right country."
"Yeah, but which century?" Angel shot back. "Now if you don't mind I have to go and dispose of my spoiled supper. Why don't you stay here and guard the entrance?" he added off-handedly.
Giles was all but out of it when he reached him.
"Giles?" he whispered.
"Tutu..." he muttered, delirious. "Bloody..."
Angel looked away. Then he swiftly lifted the other man in a fireman's carry, saving his bad arm, took him to a safe distance and lay him behind a good-sized boulder, rolling up his own jacket to make a pillow.
Giles was unconscious now, damp with sweat and burning hot to the touch. Angel despaired of Whistler making it back in time, even if he found Willow. Reluctantly he left the unconscious man and went back to the task at hand.
He stopped a safe distance from the explosives and smiled in spite of himself. Idris' henchmen were deep in discussion with him in front of the cave entrance. He took the small remote device from his pocket and touched the button Giles had told him would detonate the bomb if he'd rigged it right.
The noise was horrendous, rocks and debris showering the whole area. A pall of dust settled like mist over the site as Angel made his way to the cave mouth. The bodies of two of the vampires were buried under rubble and debris. The disembodied head of the third, Idris, turned to dust nearby. He eyed the protruding legs with suspicion. If they hadn't disintegrated they weren't yet dead. On the other hand even a vampire couldn't lift that weight in rock and dirt. They'd be gone with the dawn anyway...
Angel was disappointed to find that his explosion, ultimately, had not cleared the cave mouth as he'd expected, rather it had blown a hole barely big enough for him to wriggle through in the slip. He enlarged it a little, then ran out of patience and squeezed himself through. He was running out of time, and so was Giles...
The cave didn't smell bad, which meant there was probably some ventilation somewhere, and it wasn't empty. He had to climb over a lot of fallen rock and debris to make his way into its heart, giving thanks for his night vision as he went.
He wasn't more than a few yards from the entrance when he found his first skeleton: a small demon. And then there were five more, all close together. There were also weapons scattered around the bones, none of which resembled the sword of Ielorid, and much of the scene was covered by rubble.
The small demon had obviously been trying to escape, and the others might have been preparing to fight. There were far more weapons than identifiable skeletons, which likely meant a number of vampires perished in the cave-in, probably at Celine's hands. So where was Celine?
Angel made his way along one of the walls, peering at the piles of rubble from the ceiling, looking for any sign of the dead Slayer. He'd just climbed onto a pile of rock when he thought he heard something. He focused on the sound, almost more an intuition than an out and out noise. It seemed to worry at the corners of his mind, like a mosquito humming, and it was getting louder.
He turned slowly, concentrating, until he was sure he knew where it came from. The small hollow in the wall hadn't been made by nature. It had been dug and scratched out, probably with a sword tip. The humming was intense, almost urgent, now.
Angel reached in and drew out a filthy, earth-encrusted silver chain and held it up. The pendant at the end of it stared at him like a cat's eye from its ornate setting. The humming abruptly ceased at his touch.
Celine had to have hidden it there, but where was sheand the sword? He put it around his neck, dirt and all, and slipped it under his shirt while he searched for the Slayer's remains.
It took him another hour of moving rock and rubble, hampered by his arm, to locate a nearly-disintegrated leather boot half-buried not too far from the group of five. More digging revealed leg bones and remnants of leather. He was about to start again when he noticed that the stone was getting hotter against his breast and the humming had returned, though the pitch had changed to a shrill whine.
The sword was two feet from her right hand. Angel hauled and pulled on the blade with his good hand, trying to dislodge the hilt from its burial place. When it finally came free he was amazed to see that it hadn't corroded.
Then he touched it. The hilt almost vibrated with the power of the magic in it.
Unfortunately it was also energising the pendant, which was now burning his skin.
He took the chain off, put it in his pants pocket, leaned the sword against the cave wall and scrambled out into the early morning air where he caught the first, vague scent of the coming sunrise. He would never get Giles back in time if Whistler didn't come with help.
If Giles was still alive...
He sprinted down to the boulder, dropped to his knees next to the Watcher's inert form and lay a hand on his brow. Still warm. He held the back of his fingers near Giles' nose and mouth and felt warm breath against them, and exhaled tremulously.
Still alive... Just. His pulse was rapid and thready and his colour was terrible. The smell of sunrise filled Angel's nostrils now. His arm throbbed, but it had begun to heal. He ignored the pain and lifted him again, this time in his arms, and carried him back up the hill to the cave.
It took several minutes of frantic digging with Giles' sword to enlarge the hole enough to get him through without injuring him in the process.
Once inside Angel watched through the opening as the first sliver of light touched the horizon, then turned, desolated, to tend his dying friend.