Author's Notes: many thanks to rahirah and spikeyvamp for beta reading this for me and picking up on so much.
Written for the Angel Book of Days Autumn Challenge.
O Wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being
Thou from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘Ode To The West Wind’
(Green to -)
Cordelia flicked through the magazine she’d liberated from her dentist’s waiting room. If he was making enough to buy the recent editions, he could afford to replace it, she reasoned. It was aimed at a younger reader, but it had an article or two in it that looked interesting. Cordelia turned the page and stared at a spread on back to school clothes and accessories. It was that time of the year again.
“Why are you looking as if you’re actually thinking?” Wes asked, appearing beside her with a cup of coffee.
She glanced up at him, her eyes narrowing as she saw the mug. “Glad to see you’re making yourself at home, Wes.” Her eyes moved pointedly around her apartment. “In my home, that is.”
“It’s for you, actually,” he said. “I thought you were working hard on collating those files but, oh, wait, you’re wasting your time reading frivolous, poorly edited, questionably ethical comics instead.” He brought the mug to his lips and took a swig. “So I’ll keep the coffee as I’ve earned it. A to C is now in perfect order. Abercrombie to Crynchi Slug. I, ah, took the liberty of extracting the rather large amount of files labelled, ‘creature’ as I think they’d be more usefully located under the actual name of the -”
Cordelia sat up, the magazine sliding to the floor. “Does that taste good, Wesley?” she demanded, ignoring his critique of her filing methods.
He took another sip. “Not bad, though you should really consider investing in beans and a grinder. Pre-ground just isn’t quite the same.” He smiled at her kindly. “At least you haven’t descended to instant.”
“I’m asking,” Cordelia said through clenched teeth, “because if it was meant for me it would have been without sugar, and you take two spoons, so it should be undrinkable.”
“Ah!” Wesley had the grace to look abashed. “So, why were you looking a tad pensive?” he asked quickly.
Cordelia’s lips pouted and he felt a tug of the attraction he’d thought long gone. She really was a remarkably decorative girl...
“Back to school,” she said. “Do you know how much I used to love this time of year?”
Wesley frowned. Even at the height of his infatuation he’d never classed Cordelia as the scholarly type. “Keen to tackle the books?” he hazarded.
“As if! Keen to have somewhere to really flaunt my new clothes, a crowd of adoring, admiring faces. I miss that, you know.”
He looked down at her, nodding with comprehension. “I sometimes forget how young you are. Those days back at Sunnydale High seem so far away, so distant, and yet scarcely a year’s passed since we -”
“Blew it up?” Cordelia said with a raised eyebrow. “Got to feel the good times roll that day. Oh, wait. I nearly died. So just a normal school day, really.”
Wesley’s lips twitched in rueful acknowledgement of the truth and he raised his mug for another sip. “It’s certainly going to make a reunion problematic –” he began.
“Wes! Oh, God!”
Wesley flinched as Cordelia’s body arched in a spasm of pain. He took the time to set his mug down, knowing that Cordelia reacted badly to spills on her carpet, and then lunged forward to cradle her jerking body in his arms. Her eyes were wide open as the vision played out in her mind, hideous images kaleidoscoping in a picture he knew would linger and haunt her. He winced with awkward sympathy as her face contorted, her lips peeling back from her teeth in an ugly grimace.
Sometimes Wesley wondered how she managed when she was alone and a vision came. He knew he wasn’t helping much – nothing could – but at least he could be there, make sure she didn’t fall. “Paper. Pen,” she whispered. “Let go of me and get them.”
Wesley looked around and saw a notepad and pencil on a small table beside the couch. He grabbed them and offered them to her, getting a glare in return. “I can barely focus, Wesley. Take dictation!”
“Of course. Sorry. Please, what –”
Cordelia closed her eyes. “It’s a forest,” she began. “It’s dark and the ground is covered with leaves. They’re damp, sticking to his feet, sticking to the, oh God, the body. He’s dragging it behind him and it’s bumping over – I’m going to be sick –”
Wesley reached over and squeezed her hand, his voice full of certainty. “No, you’re not. Because we’re going to stop it happening.”
Cordelia turned her hand and returned his clasp for a fleeting moment before her hand flew up to her forehead, rubbing at it as though she could erase the pictures in her head. “He’s taking her somewhere ... he’s going to bury her, he’s scattering dirt on top of the body, just leaving her.”
“Can you see him?”
“He’s tall ... he’s walking away now, walking fast. Then it changes and he’s standing still; there’s something on his head, something like antlers or horns. ...”
“Several species of demons have those,” Wesley said thoughtfully. “It’s a start to narrowing it down.”
Cordelia shuddered. “I don’t think he’s a demon, Wesley, or at least - I can’t tell. The little girl he’s got with him certainly isn’t.”
They stared at each other and Wesley swallowed. “Now I feel sick,” he confessed. “How – how old?”
“Oh, for God’s sake, Wesley! I don’t know! She’s just little, okay?”
Wesley’s lips set in a thin line as Cordelia’s temper flared. He never said the right things, he thought sadly. Not like –
Wesley turned. Angel stood in the doorway rubbing sleepy eyes. “Heard you two fighting,” he said. “Don’t you ever get tired of squabbling?”
Cordelia changed targets smoothly. “We don’t fight. We disagree. Besides Mr. ‘I’m Going To Take A Nap While Evil’s Afoot’, I just had a vision of someone dragging a little girl through some woods, so mount up.”
Angel turned bleary eyes towards the window. “Sunny,” he objected.
“Since when did that stop you, Sewer Man?”
“You said it was dark in your vision,” Wesley reminded her. “We have time.”
Cordelia stood and walked restlessly around the room as she struggled to remember more details. “No, we don’t,” she said suddenly. “What I saw happened already. She’s dead.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” Angel objected. “How can we save a dead person?”
Cordelia shrugged and sat down, resting her head in her hands. “I just know she is. I can’t explain it. It happened a long time ago. Hey; I just get the visions – you want to complain about the timing, go talk to the Powers.”
Wesley broke the awkward silence. “It’s possible that he killed someone before we were, well, on the scene as Angel Investigations. Perhaps we’re just meant to stop him killing again. He could be one of those murderers who lies dormant for long periods and –”
“‘Lies dormant’?” Cordelia snapped, her head lifting. “He’s not hibernating, Wes! He’s evil and he’s –” She paused. “Brentford Park. That’s where it is. He walked past that statue of a stag in the centre and stopped for a second. The horns aren’t on him; it was an optical thingummy...”
“Good work,” Wesley said encouragingly. “I can look up any bodies discovered in that area; see what the police records show...”
“And it was early fall,” Cordelia said. “The leaves were green, but they were all crumpled and about to change colour.”
“Great,” Angel said. “That should help – Cordy?”
He and Wesley looked at Cordelia as she cried out, clapping a hand to her shoulder. “Is it another vision?” Wes asked anxiously. He blushed as Cordelia peeled down the shoulder of her long sleeved T-shirt and craned her neck, trying to see her back.
“That hurts,” she said. “Did something bite me?” She began to rub at the skin irritably.
Angel knelt down beside her, gently moving away her hand. “You’ll make it worse,” he said, rolling up the back of her shirt and peering at her shoulder blade.
Cordelia twisted, trying to see. “Make what worse? What’s on there?”
Wesley walked behind her and looked down. “You’ve acquired a, well, a tattoo, Cordelia.”
“What? No way! Oh, God, is it gross?”
Angel gave her a reassuring smile. “It’s quite pretty, really.” His face fell ludicrously as she snarled at him and he said quickly, “Of a leaf. Just a leaf. Looks green.”
“It’s an oak leaf,” Wesley said thoughtfully. “Interesting.”
Cordelia transferred her glare to him. “No, Wesley. When a tattoo comes free with every vision, it’s not interesting. It’s creepy, got that? Now find out why it’s on me and get it off. Not necessarily in that order.”
“I think I might have found it!” Wesley looked up from his book with a proud smile. It faded as he flipped the page and he swallowed audibly. “Ah.”
Cordelia snatched the book out of his hands as she abandoned her computer search with some relief. “What? Why are you – eeww?”
She let the book fall from her hands as though it were inch-thick in slime and Wesley caught it just before it hit the carpet. “Please be careful, Cordelia. There are only six copies of this text in the original Latin and it’s very valuable.”
Angel walked over. “Didn’t know you read Latin, Cordy,” he said, stretching out a hand for the book Wesley was cradling protectively, without a word. Wesley handed it to him, feeling mildly resentful. Angel was undoubtedly the leader of their small group, but did he have to be quite so brusque about it?
“I suspect it was the accompanying illustrations that disturbed her,” Wesley said, giving her a look of sympathy mixed with concern. She was pale, and he could understand why.
“Who are these people, Wes?” Cordelia’s voice was choked with anger and disgust. The pictures of dismembered, pitifully small bodies might not have been photographs, but they were executed with a meticulous eye for each and every detail.
Angel found the page Wesley had been reading and slammed the book shut, ignoring Wesley’s whimper as the binding creaked ominously. “They’re a cult. It dates back centuries but it’s pretty much died out now.”
Wesley frowned. “You’ve come across them before?”
He got a shrug in return. “Heard of them,” Angel said, his face as blank as his tone of voice.
Wesley walked over and opened the book again. Cordelia was watching them both, breathing deeply and trying to fight down the urge to throw up. She saw Angel’s hand come up, almost as though he was going to stop Wesley from touching the book, but it fell back to his side and he stood in silence as Wesley read.
Wesley scanned the pages quickly, his mouth twisting with distaste, and then sighed and closed the book, pushing it away from him with a gentle finality. “Horrible,” he said, “but one becomes inured to such –” He broke off. “Or maybe one doesn’t, because one shouldn’t.”
“Wesley.” Cordelia’s voice was surprisingly calm. “Tell me why this mark on my shoulder is the symbol of this cult of –”
“Vampire-worshipping freaks?” Angel said.
“Hey, they can worship you all they want and I’ll just think they’re jerks, but those pictures didn’t show them praying, or singing hymns!”
“No,” Wesley said. “They showed them sacrificing children.” He slipped into a delivery that reminded Cordelia for a moment of Giles, lecturing them in the library about demons, his words such a contrast to his stuffy, English appearance. “The cult of Cranar. It was highly selective in its membership, though possibly more than one group existed worldwide. Not sure about that. Members had to have a child born on a certain day in a certain year. The number of members was limited to seven; I’m not sure of the significance of that. Possibly dictated by the fact that babies don’t arrive to order and it was hard to get more than that number. It’s amazing how often there’s a perfectly simple explanation for –”
“Wes.” Angel’s voice was impatient and Wesley flushed, smiled apologetically, and continued.
“They gathered annually after the initiation, performed the rituals, and waited as the children grew. In the seventh year, as summer turned to autumn, on the anniversary of Cranar’s death, they would draw lots; the winner would offer his child to Cranar in return for –”
“You just said he was dead,” Cordelia objected.
Wesley raised an eyebrow in mild reproof. “I’m getting to that. The child was taken into the woods – presumably, to avoid curious eyes originally, but the location became embedded in the ritual – and tied down; left for the vampire to feed upon. In this case, that means more than simply blood. Cranar, dead, staked and dusted as he undoubtedly was, is reputed to be able to steal souls from innocents as they hover near death, giving him unusual powers. His spirit would enter the child, who would bear the same mark you do, and feed from within, taking the soul just as the child was about to die. Then the men would return and – well, you saw what they did in the pictures. I think it was probably an attempt to make sure the child was truly dead, so possibly it was a form of mercy, twisted as that sounds.”
“I thought once they were dusted, vamps just went ‘poof’,” Cordelia said, waving her hands around in a vague attempt to convey the lack of afterlife.
Angel shook his head. “It’s not like we know a lot about it, but it’s less of a ‘poof’ than an eternity in hell. Maybe they – we – have fun there, but I’m guessing not. Existence continues, but in a different way. Normally I’d say a vampire couldn’t affect anything or anyone after he was dusted, but this particular vampire seems to be a special case.”
Cordelia processed that for a moment and shivered. “I liked it better when they didn’t come back,” she said with finality. “So, Wes, what’s the payoff for all this? What does Cranar want the power for and what do these pathetic, cowardly men get out of it?”
Wesley looked worried, his mouth set in a thin line as he struggled to phrase it simply, the archaic text echoing in his mind. “He wants power to break free from hell and return to Earth. As his followers are all but non-existent now, I’d say he’d missed his shot. The one who makes the ultimate sacrifice; the father of the child, gets worldly success in every sphere; riches, beautiful women, power ... you know; the usual. The other six benefit to a lesser degree and tend to become his second in commands and such. You have to remember, we’re not talking about peasants here; in the past these men were landowners, of the nobility; no one else could have got away with the murder of a child.”
“So how does this mark on me connect?”
Angel answered her, his voice low. “They wore it as proof of their allegiance. It appeared on them after they bound themselves to him. Legend has it that if they were disloyal or treacherous, Cranar would touch the leaf and it would wither and die, taking the man with it.”
Cordelia looked horrified. “What? That sucks! Angel, you have to get this off me!” She began to pace again, her voice rising. “No. This is a mistake and it’s not like I’m betraying him because I’m not one of his little group, so it doesn’t matter, right?”
Wesley looked uncomfortable. “I don’t know how you acquired that mark; it came right after the vision, but it’s hard to believe the Powers are responsible –”
“Wouldn’t put much past them,” Angel muttered.
Wesley gave him a quelling look as Cordelia went pale. “The fact remains that we’re still in the dark, but we do have a place to start. I’d hazard a guess and say that the cult has started up again and we’re meant to save their victim; I’ll go back seven years to see if anything happened in the park then. They would have had to perform the initiation ceremony and that may have involved an animal sacrifice at the very least. Angel, you can –”
“I have to go out. I’ll be back later.”
“Angel? We need you here,” Wesley protested.
Angel turned on him. “I don’t have time for this. I’ll be back later.”
“Still sunny out there,” Cordelia called after him. The door slammed and she pursed her lips with irritation. “I hate it when he does that.”
Wesley stared at the door for a long moment and then sighed, his shoulders slumping. “I think he can reach the sewers without having to leave the shade.”
“Like I care about him bursting into flames!” Cordelia said with a sniff. “He’s just skiving off.”
Wesley grinned. “You’ve been hanging around Giles and me far too much. I’ll have you speaking the Queen’s English in no time.”
She stuck out her tongue and then turned back to the computer screen, rotating stiff shoulders. “If this was a proper job, I’d so be on a coffee break right now.”
Wesley walked past and patted her arm. “I’ll make you one,” he said gently. “Then I’ll start researching. We’ll work this through, never fear.” I just hope Angel isn’t hiding something we need to know, he thought. He didn’t want to add to Cordelia’s problems, but he couldn’t think of any good reason for Angel’s abrupt departure, and plenty of suspicious ones.
(Yellow to –)
Cordelia lay in bed, staring up at a ceiling she wasn’t looking at. Her shoulder was burning and itching in a constant, unneeded reminder that she’d been given a vision and was expected to deal with it.
Sleep came late and took her under, took her deep. She dreamt of the vision, watching it play out from every angle, every viewpoint but that of the killer. She hovered over the clearing, snatching a memory from an owl, felt her arms snag on branches as she watched through open eyes that saw nothing, thrashed and spun free of the corpse, and saw the head of the killer turn slowly, as if he’d seen her, as if he knew she was there. The dream began to slip away and she tried to focus on the face looming down. Dark eyes, dark hair – the face sharpened, came into focus and became Angel’s, and the dream began again.
She woke, shuddering and sweat-slicked, in the pale grey light of dawn. When she dried off, after a shower that got her wet without waking her up, she peered at the mark in the mirror. It was still an oak leaf, a perfect, detailed life-size drawing, but it was golden yellow now, gleaming against her skin, almost glowing. She reached up to touch it, drawn by a sick curiosity. Under her fingers, the skin felt smooth and damp, perfectly normal. She frowned and let her hand drop to her side. She remembered that she had dreamed but she couldn’t capture the details; like leaves caught up in a swirl of wind, they were out of reach.
Wesley sighed and pushed his glasses up, settling them firmly on his nose. “Cordelia,” he began, a forced patience making his voice tight, “I just want to scrape off a few skin cells to see if I can determine what’s made the colour change by studying them under a microscope. Gouging a hole in you was never my plan.”
“Right! That’s why you’re holding a knife!”
“Scalpel, actually and I assure you, you won’t feel a thing once I apply a local anaesthetic.”
Angel interrupted them. “Cordy, Wes knows what he’s doing but if you don’t feel comfortable, then fine.”
She smiled at him approvingly and then her brows creased with sudden suspicion. “No. No way. This is a trick, right? You’re going to leap on me and hold me down while Wes –”
“Oh, for the love of – Look, Cordelia; I’m putting it down. See? Scalpel on table. Happy now? Wouldn’t it be nice if I could prove this change was the result of something mundane, totally unconnected with Cranar?”
Cordelia glared at him. “It appeared on me, oh, what’s the word I’m looking for – by magic! Of course it hasn’t gone yellow because I’ve been eating too many carrots. Lemons. Whatever. So there’s no need to hack away at me. If I’m going to die, I’m going to die looking pretty!”
“So what do you suggest we do next, Cordelia?” Wesley asked, sarcasm replacing patience. He knew Cordelia was covering up her natural anxiety with a facade of frivolity, but did she have to do such a good job of it? A day of research had produced no results and they were all on edge, with a sense of time running out.
She looked at them both. “Field trip.” The words popped out, surprising her as much as Wesley and Angel.
She smiled at Wesley and stood up. “We’re going to the park. Maybe I’ll get lucky and you’ll buy me ice cream.”
“Brentford Park?” Angel asked. “You think that’ll help?”
Her smile faded as she tried to work out why she suddenly wanted to see the park for herself. Were the Powers giving her a hint because they was taking too long to deal with this? “We’ve got nothing, Angel. We’ve gone back fifty years, back before it was even a proper park with that statue there, and there’s nothing that fits. Which means –?”
Wesley’s shoulder curved inwards and he sighed. “The body was never found.”
She glanced at Angel appraisingly. “But I bet we can find it if it’s there, right?”
Angel shrugged. “Depends on how long; I mean, I can’t find bones, but decomposing flesh shouldn’t be a ... ah, that is ...”
He took in the fascinated look of horror on their faces and walked towards the door. “Sun’s down. Let’s go.”
He held the door open, and as Cordelia walked past him she glanced up, meeting his eyes, a question in her own. He patted her shoulder in an awkward attempt to reassure her and she felt the mark burn coldly. Acting on an impulse she couldn’t explain, she said: “Angel? You were in L.A around the time they turned the woods into a park; did you ever go there?”
If she closed her eyes she felt that she could see him there, in the woods, but she didn’t want to stop watching him. He shrugged, “May have done. Not much for the nature walks, you know?”
In the car she took the back seat without complaining that it made her motion sick and let Wesley sit beside Angel.
They stood in a circle around the statue, the men watching Cordelia as she pursed her lips and looked for something familiar. “I think he was headed that way,” she said finally, pointing to an overgrown path to the north.
The park was a far cry from the manicured parks of the city centre. It wasn’t even designed wilderness with discreetly placed boardwalks over rough ground and benches at intervals. It was wooded, wild and at night it was spooky. They carried flashlights and the moon was full, but it was still difficult for Cordelia and Wesley to move quickly. Cordelia fell in behind Angel with some reluctance, still with a nagging feeling that there was something she should remember about her dream, and Wesley walked behind her, casting glances over his shoulder more frequently than needed. The trees were soughing in a chilly, rising wind, leaves pattering down like rain.
Far enough back to be out of sight, a shadow moved, following them silently, tracking them down.
After five minutes Cordelia began to hiss questions and comments at Angel’s broad back, all a variant on, ‘Are we there yet?’ He bore it for a while and then stopped dead and turned around to face her. “Cordelia, I’m trying to concentrate here. Do you mind - Down!”
When she stood still, gaping at him, he dived forward and knocked her over. Wesley had already gone to one knee in a clumsy crouch, his eyes wild as he tried to see what was coming up behind them. Angel rolled and surged to his feet, pushing past Wesley and running back the way they came. Wesley and Cordelia exchanged glances and struggled up.
“Do you see anything?” she whispered, her mouth close to Wesley’s ear.
He swallowed, forcing the panic back. At least I didn’t scream, he thought sourly, hating himself for being frightened. “The only thing I saw was Angel leaving. Leaving. Why would he do that? I didn’t see or hear anything following us and believe me, I was looking.”
Cordelia gasped and clapped her hand to her shoulder. “It’s hurting! Wesley, it feels – Oh, God, that burns!”
Fumbling, she took off her jacket and began to scrabble at her shirt, her breath coming out in a whimper. Wesley reached for her hands, holding them down, her terror calming him as he was faced with someone who needed help.
“Let me do it.” Ignoring her protests, he peeled her sweater back and directed the flashlight beam onto the exposed flesh. Her shoulder was scarlet but the flush was receding as he watched.
Cordelia sighed. “It feels better. Never thought I’d say I preferred the visions but, well, I prefer –”
“It’s turned red,” Wesley said slowly. “Blood-red. It’s mimicking the way the leaf would ...”
“Die,” Cordelia said. “Next comes brown, right?”
“Yes, but you’re not being affected by it at all apart from the colour change, so there’s no call for concern.”
She gave him a level look. “Right. See me not shaking like a – oh, let’s go and find Angel.” She paused. “Or maybe go home and come back in the daylight.”
“But we’d have to come alone then.”
She bit her lip. “That might be a good idea, Wes,” she whispered. “I’m starting to think Angel’s connected to this and he’s not telling us all there is to tell.”
Wesley’s eyes widened. “Cordelia? Was Angel in your vision? You must tell me!”
She shook her head. “I had a dream last night; I couldn’t remember it, all day I’ve been trying –” She hissed with frustration. “Drives me mad when that happens.”
“The dream?” Wesley prompted, glancing around uneasily and wishing they were discussing this somewhere else. Somewhere lit and safe and –
Her eyes flickered as she blinked fast. “It just came back to me. Wes; Angel was the man dragging the body. I’m sure of it.”
It was difficult when Wesley came up against Angel’s past. He admired the vampire and counted him as a friend; something their clashes in Sunnydale should have ruled out for good. He wasn’t blindly loyal though, and if the Powers had sent a vision he had to think they were concerned about more than a victim of Angelus.
He just couldn’t, for the life of him, think what it might be.
A dozen yards away from them, the unseen tracker faded off the path as Angel plunged past and considered his orders. With a shrug, he turned back and picked up Angel’s trail. The other two would have to wait.
(Red to –)
Angel knew that the others weren’t following him, but he couldn’t stop running. He had seen her beckon to him and felt her call to him, appealing to him for help. She was so close now; he could catch her, hold her, keep her safe and the Powers would be pleased. Somehow the small figure was managing to stay out of reach and no matter how often he called to her to stop, that he just wanted to help, she wouldn’t slow down. Branches whipped his face and he felt blood trickle and drip from the dozens of cuts they left behind, but it didn’t matter.
Then she fell and he was on her, turning her with gentle hands, staring down at her face. Brown hair, blue eyes, round, soft features...he reached out to touch her and her face altered, ridges and fangs making her a creature out of a nightmare.
“You’re a vampire?” he whispered.
“You have to ask?” she said, smiling up at him pertly. “Do you forget all those you sire, Angelus?”
He struggled to get to his feet, sickness taking him. She couldn’t have been more than seven and he’d never turned a child; killed plenty but never done that. Seven...why did that number seem important?
She reached out and wrapped small fingers around his wrist. “It’s time, Angelus. Come with me.”
Her touch brought an abrupt end to the questions and doubts that swirled through his head. With no wish but to obey he followed her deep into the woods. If part of him was clamouring to be heard, struggling to break free, it was easily ignored. He wanted to follow her so very much...
“Wesley, are you sure this is a good idea?” Cordelia panted. Wesley was moving at a reckless speed, not even trying to be quiet, and she was having trouble keeping up. She was also fairly certain that everything she had on, from butter-soft leather boots to designer denim jacket would have to be dumped in the trash, as they were muddied and torn. True, she’d picked them up cheap at a shop that dealt in used clothing, supposedly from the stars, but designer was designer. Her lips firmed. One more score to lay against Cranar and his lackeys. ‘Lackeys’? I really am starting to talk like Wesley, she thought.
“Angel is clearly in danger.” Wesley paused, his fingers tightening around the stake he held. “Or he is the danger. Either way, we need to find him as quickly as possible.”
“It’s dark, we’re probably going around in circles, and you’re making so much noise, you’ll lead the bad guys right to us ... oh. That’s your plan? It’s not a very good one.”
The shadows around them shifted and stirred and four men stepped out, daggers in hand, their faces hidden in deep hoods.
Wesley smiled thinly. “Care to eat those words?” he said.
Cordelia waited until they’d been captured and their hands had been tied behind them, following a fight that Wesley hadn’t even tried to win, to answer him.
“No. It’s still a stupid plan.”
Angel sat beside the child vampire and watched his friends walk into the clearing. In the light of the fire that burned in the centre of the glade, he could see their faces clearly, but he ignored them when they called to him. He hadn’t been told to listen or answer, so he didn’t.
Wesley stumbled and brought himself close enough to Cordelia to whisper to her. “Angel’s under some sort of spell, I think.”
She rolled her eyes. “He needs a better excuse than that. Have you seen my boots?”
The clearing held three new men, a child and Angel. Wesley was certain that if Angel could shake off whatever was controlling him, they could easily defeat the men, who seemed to be rather older than he expected; in their late seventies at least. None of these men looked as if they had enough years left to enjoy the fruits of any sacrifice. He squinted at the child and shivered as he saw her face. A vampire? He tried to work out who she was but came up blank.
The man standing closest to Angel stood and walked over to Wesley and Cordelia. “We found them in the woods, Marcus,” said the one behind Cordelia, his tone respectful, his knife lying against her throat in warning. Marcus had pushed back his hood and his hair was white, springing up in crisp curls from a strong, angular face. He looked powerful already, Cordelia decided, and not the sort of guy you wanted to mess with.
He looked them over carefully and then shrugged. “Take them –”
Cordelia interrupted him. “Take a look at my shoulder, buster! I’m as involved in this as you are!” Wesley made a strangled noise and she slanted a look at him. He widened his eyes in appeal, trying to ignore the knife pressing against his neck and she nodded. “He is too. In fact we’re with that guy over there. Ask him. He’ll vouch for us.”
Marcus turned back, arching a brow in surprise. “I was simply going to tell him to bring you and Mr. Wyndam-Pryce over to your employer, Miss Chase. Oh, that’s so formal when I know so much about you both! Shall we make it Cordelia and Wesley? Now, what’s all this about your shoulder?”
“Oak leaf? Ring any bells? And what do you mean, you know us?”
He nodded to the man behind her, who pulled Cordelia’s jacket off her shoulders and casually ripped her top enough to expose her skin. “Nothing here.”
“The other shoulder,” Cordelia said through clenched teeth, “and would you not rip – oh well, thank you very much!”
Marcus put his hand on her, turning her so that the firelight flickered over her skin. His face sharpened, looking almost skeletal. “Red. What have you done?”
“Absolutely nothing, honest. This mark just appeared yesterday and –”
“I know, you foolish girl. Who do you think put it there? I set the mark upon you myself, as soon as you had the vision, and used it to bring you here. It should be green. You have been working against Cranar.” He took a calming breath. “It doesn’t matter. It won’t change anything.”
“You put this on me? Why? How? And I didn’t do anything; it just keeps on changing colour by itself.”
Marcus said nothing and Cordelia’s temper flared. “Hey! I didn’t ask for this! Tell me what’s going on or I’ll. …”
Wesley sighed inwardly. He shared her frustration but he couldn’t help thinking that her attitude was likely to land them both in trouble. As they were shoved towards Angel, who continued to stare blankly into the flames, he reconsidered. They were in trouble. She was just making it worse.
Marcus waved them to seats on boulders, rolled to form a half circle. They sat, Cordelia’s eyes going to Angel, worried at his lack of response, Wesley staring at the child vampire with a prickle of unease running over him.
Marcus waved his hand, “Dora, I’d like to introduce you to Angelus’ employees, the lovely Cordelia and the redoubtable Wesley.”
Dora smiled at them, her fangs turning the welcome into a threat. “Delighted,” she said, sounding like a child playing at being a grown up. Wesley forced himself to remember that she could well be older than all of them. It was difficult and he found that he was relieved she chose to remain in game face. He didn’t think he could have attacked a child – and he was certain that it would come to that eventually. If they were lucky enough to get a chance to fight, of course. He tugged at the cord binding his wrists, but it seemed secure. Maybe his plan had been a little reckless. A flicker of movement in the trees to the left caught his eye and he frowned, glancing down to hide his expression. It might be a sentry but that was unlikely; the seven men in the clearing should have been the only ones allowed at the ceremony.
“You have many questions, I’m sure,” Marcus began.
“Indeed we do,” Wesley said. “Is this the part where you refuse to tell us because we’re going to die, so there’s no point?”
“Way to put ideas in his head, Wes!” Cordelia hissed.
Marcus smiled. “We have a little while to wait and I see no reason not to indulge your perfectly natural curiosity. I have no grudge against you after all, though your choice of employer was rather unfortunate.”
“Yes, and that’s my first question,” Cordelia snapped. “Angel’s the strong, silent type in spades but even for him, this is over the top. What have you done to him?”
Dora laughed, high and light. “He made me. We have a connection, though the power would normally be with him, as my sire. I have…reversed the flow, helped by Cranar, my true master. Angelus does as I tell him. Would you like to see him do tricks?’
“No!” Wesley said. He moderated his tone. “That won’t be necessary, I assure you.”
“As you wish.” She sounded petulant.
“You must be, like, ancient if Angelus turned you,” Cordelia said.
Dora frowned. “Not really. I was seven and it was forty-nine years ago. You do the math.”
Cordelia smiled. “Oh, that explains it all; you’ve made a mistake. See, Angel has a soul now; got it so long ago they didn’t even have cars, or T.V; I mean, he’s a good guy. Hasn’t fed, hasn’t. …”
“That’s…not entirely true, Cordelia,” Wesley said, his voice filled with regret.
“What? Oh, sure there was the whole losing his soul and going to hell deal a couple of years ago, but that doesn’t count. I blame Buffy, myself…”
Wesley sighed. “Angel has killed while souled, Cordelia. It’s not in the official records the Council hold, but he told Buffy some of his recent history and she passed it on to Giles, and he to me … not innocents, no, but his hands aren’t clean.”
“And I most certainly was an innocent,” Dora said mournfully, her head drooping sadly. Wesley watched her, a grim look on his face. She looked up, yellow eyes sparkling. “How fucking dull was that?”
Wesley didn’t wince, but he felt a pang of pity for the child she had been.
Marcus glared at her. “I’ve told you not to talk like that!”
“Sorry, Daddy,” she lisped, in a parody of obedience that had Wesley’s pity evaporating.
“What? She’s your daughter? And Angel – oh, God, I’m so sorry,” Cordelia said, looking uneasily at the still figure beside Marcus. “I’m sure he didn’t mean to...”
Dora gave her a scornful look. “Daddy was planning to sacrifice me, so I’d save the sympathy, you idiot.”
It wasn’t often Wesley saw Cordelia speechless, but he couldn’t feel too much appreciation given the circumstances.
“I think we need to tell our friends exactly what happened, Daddy,” Dora said. “It’s only polite.”
Marcus nodded. “I’m assuming that you know the background of the sacrifice to Cranar.”
Wesley nodded. “We do. When the mark appeared on Cordelia we –”
“Researched it as a good Watcher should. Quite. Forty-nine years ago, I was the one chosen and I brought Dora to the woods and left her for Cranar.” Dora’s face was indifferent, and Wesley wondered if the lack of soul really made such a betrayal any less painful. “Tradition demands that once the proper rituals have been done and Cranar invoked, we withdraw to let him take what he has been offered. At sunrise, we come to claim the body and complete the ceremony.” Wesley remembered the pictures he had seen of that final ceremony, and felt sick.
Marcus turned to look at Angel, his lips twisting as the anger bubbled up to roil his superficial calm. “This vampire was in the woods that night, hunting, I believe, for small animals on which to feed. He came to the clearing as Cranar’s spirit crossed over. Cranar’s influence, unwittingly, I’m sure, was enough to brush aside the soul temporarily, to -”
“Negate its influence?” Wesley offered.
Marcus nodded. “Faced with a chance to feed after so many years of starvation –”
“Angelus awoke,” Wesley said. “How do you know all this?”
“I told him,” Dora said. “I died and then Angelus turned me.”
“That’s not like him,” Wesley objected. “He sired few vampires and none of them were children.”
“Cranar made him,” Cordelia said, breaking her silence and looking directly at Marcus. “That’s it, isn’t it? To punish you because he missed getting her soul and all the spilled blood. He turned her and left her and you didn’t get the power. Sucks to be you, I guess.”
Wesley groaned inwardly at Cordelia’s lack of tact, but Marcus ignored the gibe.
“I came back to find her gone. I discovered later that Angelus had buried her and then, as the influence of Cranar waned, had forgotten, or been so horrified at his deeds that he fled and left her. Dora rose, alone, the next night and came to me, came home. I would have staked her when I saw what she had become, but she showed me her back. She had the mark, not just on one shoulder, but on both. It was a sign from Cranar and I obeyed his commands. I protected her and she told me what I must do.”
“Cordelia’s mistaken though, isn’t she?” Wesley said. “You did get some power; enough to let you stay young.”
“It’s called plastic surgery, Wesley. We can all do that and we don’t need to sell our souls either.”
“Look at him, Cordy; does he look as if he’s almost eighty?” This close, Wesley saw that the white hair gave the illusion of age, but the skin was unwrinkled and naturally smooth.
Marcus smiled. “Cranar did not turn from me entirely. He exacted a price, however; seven times seven years had to pass before I would be deemed worthy to sacrifice to him again. Tonight I will at last receive my power, my right after years of loyalty.”
“How?” Cordelia asked. She glanced apologetically at Dora. “Are you going to stake - I mean. ...”
Dora giggled. “No, silly! You.”
“What?” Wesley came to his feet, stumbling as his bound hands made him lose his balance. “That’s impossible! She’s not your daughter, nor is she a child.”
He got a shrug and a smile in answer. “Cranar felt it was only right that Angel should pay for his part, unwitting though it was, in disrupting the last ceremony. He will watch as one who is like a daughter to him is sacrificed. Her visions will make her soul acceptable; it may be that they will give him the power to return to this side at last.”
“Angel like my father? He so is not!” Cordelia said, shuddering elaborately. “That is beyond creepy. I have a father, thank you, and he’s nothing like Angel. The only bloodsuckers he knows are the IRS and –”
“I think you’ve chattered enough,” Dora said. “Time to scream instead.”
Wesley rolled his eyes and then realised that he had bigger problems than melodramatic vampires. He was still convinced that if Angel could just wake up, they had a fighting chance, and he was still wondering if there was someone watching them, though he was trying not to stare too obviously into the trees.
“You want Angel to suffer?” he said.
Marcus stared at him. “My life wasted, while I waited, all for a vampire who is an abomination in the eyes of his kind who couldn’t control himself? Yes, I want him to suffer.”
Wesley flicked a supercilious eyebrow at Angel, who stared into the distance, barely blinking. “Looks happy enough to me.”
Dora smiled. “That’s easily fixed. Angel, I release you.”
Her father turned his head and cried out but the words were already spoken.
Angel grinned and Cordelia felt her breath catch. She knew that smile. “You all talk too much.” He stood up, moving with a vampire’s swiftness, and grabbed Marcus, putting a hand on either side of his head. The smile turned savage and he twisted his hands just so. The crack as Marcus’ neck broke echoed through the glade like a snapped branch.
Cordelia got to her feet beside Wesley. “That’s not Angel, Wesley.”
“No. It’s Angelus. We have to –”
Dora’s howl of outrage drowned out his words. She leapt at Angel, hissing and scratching, inflicting more damage than she should have been able to, given the difference in their size.
Wesley staggered back, away from the fight. He turned to the six men huddled together, some yards away, their faces pale with shock. “You! Cut us free. If we don’t deal with Angelus, he’ll kill us all. Trust me. I know what he’s capable of.”
They backed away from him, their eyes going from Marcus’ limp body to the fight. Cordelia strode over to them. “I bear the mark,” she said, “Do as he says or I will call Cranar down to punish you all.”
One man stepped forward. “I doubt you have that power,” he said, “but I’ll give you a chance to run.”
He slashed the ropes on their wrists and turned to his companions. “We should go –” A look of intense surprise passed over his face and he began to scream, clawing at his shoulder. As they watched, his skin puckered and shrank, bones cracking as his flesh contracted.
“The mark ...” Wesley said. “He’s being punished for helping us.”
The five men left began to run, scattering into the trees. They didn’t get far before they too started to scream. Judging by what happened to the man writhing at his feet, Wesley guessed that their life force was being drained from them, leaving them withered, dried husks. It was over in seconds but the screams lingered in the air. The thought of it happening to Cordelia terrified him.
He turned and grabbed her, determined to slice the mark off her if he had to. “Let me see...” He bared her shoulder and peered at it in the dim light from the fire, his hands shaking as he tried to hurry. The skin was flawless and he ran his hands over it in disbelief that turned to pure relief. “Cordelia? It’s gone. I can’t see it. Oh, thank God! If Marcus put it there, the spell must have ended with his death.”
“Angel saved me,” Cordelia whispered. She looked over at the fight, absent-mindedly pulling her tattered clothes around her. “Now we’ve got to save him. Wes, Cranar must be here, he knows what’s going on. He’s in Dora, he has to be; she’s the only one left and he’d be naturally drawn to her if she’s got two of these marks. We have to stake her.”
Wesley shrugged, pulling a stake out of his pocket. “Fine. She’s only preternaturally strong and imbued with the essence of a dark vampire lord and fighting Angelus who could snap my neck in a heartbeat – one of mine, naturally – but –”
If he hadn’t been walking stealthily towards the fight as he muttered, Cordelia would have slapped him.
Wesley didn’t stand a chance. Angelus saw him coming, waited until he was within reach, then spun and kicked Wesley mid-chest, sending him flying, even as he continued to fight Dora. Cordelia sighed and ran to him. Of course, Angelus might manage to kill Dora by himself, but somehow she doubted he would if he knew the result would be the return of Angel. He was fighting now just because he was being attacked and Dora only had to remember that she could control him –
As though Cordelia’s thoughts were audible, Dora shook tangled hair out of her eyes and screamed, “Stop! I command you, stop!”
Angelus paused, stumbling off balance, and stood waiting. Dora turned and pointed at Wesley and Cordelia, both still on the ground. “Kill them both.”
“No! Angel, kill Dora! You have to break the control.”
Cordelia’s words made no impression on Angel, who walked towards them, looking terrifyingly lethal, but someone was listening.
“About time I got a clear shot,” Gunn muttered from his hiding place in the trees. He aimed carefully, breathed out gently and shot a crossbow bolt into Dora’s heart. The vampire exploded as usual but the motes held their shape, a swirling cloud of dust, reshaping to form a tall figure of a man. Angel staggered, still under Cranar’s control, if not Dora’s, but the spirit had no anchor, no link and no waiting sacrifice, and with a wail of frustration the dust motes dissipated.
Wesley looked into the woods. “Who shot that?” he demanded, still lying on the ground.
Gunn walked out, the crossbow held in his hand. “I did, English. Gonna say ‘thanks’?”
“I knew someone was there!” Wesley exclaimed. “I should have guessed –”
“Well, if he doesn’t, I will,” Cordelia said, walking up and giving Gunn a quick hug.
“I am in some pain,” Wesley pointed out. “Don’t I get hugs, or failing that, a hand up?”
Angel walked to him in silence and stretched out a hand. “Thanks,” said Wesley, taking it.
They stood looking around the clearing. “All dead,” said Cordelia. “That was horrible.”
“No,” said Gunn. “Horrible is if you were one of them. Way I see it, they deserved to die.”
“It’s not that simple, Gunn,” Angel said. “Thanks for coming though. Appreciate it; I know this isn’t familiar territory for you.”
“Hey; trees, buildings; tracking’s just the same.”
“What? You set this up?” Cordelia said.
“When I left you this afternoon,” Angel replied. “Knew it was a possibility that I’d get sucked in like I did last time, so I asked Gunn to trail us as backup and stick near me without showing himself.”
“And you omitted to tell us, because -?” Wesley said, sarcasm masking hurt.
Angel glanced at Cordelia. “That mark was a window for Cranar. He’d have known all about it. Couldn’t take the risk.”
“Ah. Fair enough,” Wesley said, slightly mollified by the logic of that.
Angel walked off. “Get back home,” he called. “I’ll join you later.”
Cordelia stared after him. “Where’s he going?”
Wesley tried to walk and winced. “Think he cracked some ribs,” he said, trying for stoical, coming up with pitiful. Cordelia and Gunn moved to either side of him and helped him walk. “And I imagine he’s going to where he buried that poor girl.”
“The one I just shot?”
Wesley gave Gunn a comforting smile. “You killed a demon, Gunn. Remarkable shot too; my congratulations. We must play darts one of these days, down at my local.”
“You never asked me to play darts,” Cordelia sniffed.
Wesley let the vision of Cordelia hurling sharp, metal-tipped darts run through his head. Maybe if he stood well back ...or possibly in front of the dartboard was the safest spot ....“You’re more than welcome to join us,” he replied, gallantry triumphing over self-preservation.
Cordelia tossed her head. “As if I’d be seen dead in a place that was empty enough that you could play games like that.”
Angel heard their voices die away as they walked back to the car. Wesley was more perceptive than he’d given him credit for, but Angel doubted that he guessed the turmoil that had him craving solitude. He had forgotten, until the sight of the leaf on Cordelia had brought it all back. So good at forgetting, ignoring...He’d forgotten the lapses, forgotten the cravings, forgotten the bliss as his soul had been, not removed, but taken out of the loop of guilt warring with instinct.
He always wanted to feed, always wanted to kill. The soul just stopped him because – well, why did it? He was probably still going to hell, so it wasn’t fear of consequences. He was cynical enough to know that most humans were no angels and many merited death. He was also, though he tried to bury it, still trying hard not to see them as inferior. To a vampire, they existed as food. There was no respect for them. Respect. Liking. He had that for a handful of humans and three of that handful had just walked off, but was that enough to deny himself the pleasure of feeding?
He supposed it had to be. He’d killed Dora and he’d helped kill what she’d become. Not his fault, not entirely, but the memory of it was haunting him now; not the guilt but the ecstasy.
God help him, he’d loved doing it. The soul let him see himself through their eyes. Monster. Murderer. Vile. That was why he held back, tried to be the hero. Was he fooling them? Had it become real? He wished he knew. Times like this he doubted it would ever be more than an act.
He couldn’t find the place where he’d buried Dora in a shallow grave but he broke a spray of scarlet leaves from a tree, laid them against a rock that could have been a headstone and let himself mourn her, just for a moment.
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