The Demon Trilogy

Book Three: The Demon Delivers


 

The Realm. Late afternoon.

The portal opened and Buffy and Spike found themselves in a grassy meadow, spangled with sunshine, dotted with wildflowers. Slowly, they let go of each other’s wrists and glanced around.

“Sun,” murmured Spike, trying to restrain the urge to cower. “I’m in the sun.”

Buffy had instinctively leaned towards him, trying to shield him with her body, but she relaxed as she saw that he was safe. “Guess that part of the stories is true. Oh, God, my wrist!” Moaning as the pain hit her, she anxiously examined the wound made by Spike’s fangs.

“It should close up soon,” he assured her, still lost in wonder as he gazed up at a blue sky and felt the warmth of the sun on his cool skin.

“I don’t have Slayer healing anymore, remember?” she snapped.

Spike looked at her sympathetically. “It’ll close because vampire spit acts as a coagulant,” he said bluntly.

“That’s so gross,” she said, studying it again. It had stopped bleeding but it hurt. A lot. She’d forgotten what that was like. Normally it took a major wound to make her wince.

Spike glanced around. “Looks peaceful enough. We’d better get under cover and scout around a bit.”

“No,” said Buffy, looking past his shoulder. “We’d better run.”

Spike surged to his feet in one smooth movement. Buffy followed him, dismayed that she felt awkward, clumsy even. All that training and she was as out of shape as this? She frowned, then pushed the thought aside for later. Spike was looking at what she had seen behind him. Three men on horseback had appeared from a wood at the edge of the meadow. From this distance it was impossible to tell if they were vampires, but as they were galloping towards them, that might not be the case for much longer.

“No point running,” said Spike. “They’d catch us in no time and it makes us look weak. Better find out what they want.” He stood, casual and relaxed, arms folded, and waited. Buffy stood by his side, her hands pushed into the deep pockets of her leather coat. Her fingers of her right hand curled around a stake, gripping it lightly.

The riders came near and it was clear that they were vampires. Buffy couldn’t shake a feeling of unreality. Vampires in the daytime just didn’t seem right. The hooves of the horses slammed into the ground with a regular rhythm, and Buffy felt the earth vibrate under her feet. The animals were huge and standing still took all her willpower. Spike was a reassuring presence to her left. At least she’d have company when she was squashed under several tons of four-footed death. Spike’s fangs were bared in a smiling snarl and his eyes were glittering with enjoyment. He threw back his head and screamed a wordless challenge as the vampires approached. They remained silent, their faces grim but they made no move to draw the swords that hung at their sides. Of course, they didn’t really need weapons, Buffy thought. Not when they were sitting on living bulldozers.

At the last moment, the riders pulled viciously at the reins and the horses wheeled smoothly, sending clods of earth flying at Buffy and Spike. The riders galloped back to the wood and left them exchanging puzzled, though relieved, glances.

“Well, that was different,” Buffy commented, brushing the crumbling pieces of dirt off her coat and shaking her head vigorously. It felt as if there was enough soil in her hair to pot a plant. “Is that some sort of vampire welcoming ritual?”

Spike shook his head. “Could have been a test,” he said. “It’s more likely they wanted to get a look at us.” He glanced around. “It’s funny they popped up just as we arrived. Almost as if they were expecting us. Don’t like it.”

“Well, we’ve got two choices,” Buffy said. “We can follow them, as they must be going somewhere, we can head in the opposite direction because it’s not full of mad horsemen, or we can –”

“Go to those humans waving at us over there?” suggested Spike, nodding towards the woods over to the left.

Buffy turned to see where he was looking. “It’s like rush hour,” she complained. “Well, they don’t look unfriendly. Are you going to drop out of game face?”

Spike nodded. “Might as well. We’re far enough away that they can’t tell what we are.”

Buffy lifted her necklace away from her neck and slipped it under the collar of her shirt. As soon as it wasn’t in contact with her skin, the glamour vanished and she was back to her normal human face. As she started to walk to the group of people, Spike caught at her arm. “What is it?” she asked, turning to look at him.

Spike touched her face. “I like you better this way,” he said. He leaned forward and kissed her and at the first brush of his lips, they both felt a surge of power pass between them.

Buffy jerked back, her eyes wide. “What was that?” she whispered. “It felt – “ her voice trailed off. Bending down, she picked up a fist-sized rock. Hefting it experimentally, she turned and threw it, fast and sure, at a large boulder a hundred feet away. The rock hit it, sending chips flying. “It’s back,” she said wonderingly. “I’ve got my strength back.”

Spike flexed his hands. “I don’t feel much different.”

“You didn’t need to get stronger,” Buffy pointed out. “This might be part of what the prophecy was about,” she said thoughtfully, years of research making her adept at evolving theories from small clues. “When we fed from each other, we became linked.”

“And one kiss gave it all back?” said Spike. “What would happen if we –”

Buffy grinned at him. “Maybe we’ll find out later,” she said demurely. They turned and began to walk towards the people again. The smile faded. “We don’t know how long this lasts for, though.”

Spike shrugged. “I can kiss you every five minutes, if that’s what it takes,” he said. “And if we need to feed again, well, it wasn’t a picnic but I’ll do it.”

“You didn’t like it?” said Buffy, with some surprise. “Don’t I taste good?”

Spike smiled at the note of hurt in her voice. “’Course you do, pet,” he reassured her. “That’s the trouble. It took a lot of doing to stop. I don’t want to put you at risk.”

Buffy slid her hand inside his. “I trust you,” she said softly. Glancing ahead, she sighed with relief. “I’m glad I’m not helpless anymore. It was a horrible feeling, not being able to do stuff.”

“Yes,” said Spike. “It is.”

***

Matthew glanced up wearily as the three riders trotted into the stable yard, their mounts ridden hard, sporting glistening flanks and wild eyes. They dismounted and walked off towards the main house, leaving the horses tethered to a low rail. As they passed Matthew, bent over a water trough, scrubbing away at crusted on deposits, set like concrete, he heard one say, “So that’s what a Slayer looks like. I could break her with one finger.”

“Cute though. Why is a vampire killing other vampires?” puzzled his companion.

He got a disgusted look. “She’s human, fool. She was trying to pass as one of us. At least, I think she was – “ Uncertainty crept into his voice.

“Face it,” said the third, his voice fading as they moved away. “We’re going by what Grelin told us. The pair of them could be perfectly normal vampires. We’ll see, when –”

Matthew hissed with frustration. She had arrived and that was all he knew. He had to find a way to get the shield; he had to find a way to deliver it. And he had to clean this trough before that sadistic bastard came back and -

“Enjoying your rest, are you?” said Fellor menacingly, his large hand gripping Matthew’s shoulder. Matthew twisted out from under the crushing fingers and thrust a stake upwards into Fellor’s heart. It was what he’d been using to clean the trough with but it still had a needle sharp point, as he had been very careful not to get it blunt. It had taken him a long time to whittle it, after all. Fellor gaped at him uncomprehendingly and then exploded, his flesh disintegrating, his skeletal remains starkly silhouetted against the stone wall of the stable.

Then he was gone. Matthew smiled. He liked this way of killing. No mess. No blood. No guilt.

***

Sunnydale. May 9.

Willow hurried over to Dawn, taking her hand reassuringly. “Nothing’s wrong, sweetheart,” she said quickly, the words tumbling out as Dawn’s face set uncompromisingly. “It’s just –”

“Just what?” said Xander, glancing around the training room wildly, as though he expected to see body parts scattered on the carpet. “They went through the portal, didn’t they? Did Spike drink too much? Did Buffy go all bumpy for real?”

Giles walked to the centre of the room and cleared his throat. Andrew Carlton smiled with admiring approval as the babbling cut off and all heads turned towards the Watcher.

“As far as we know, Buffy and Spike made the transition to the Realm safely. Buffy did not appear to be distressed and the time elapsed was insufficient for Spike to have come anywhere near draining her. Nonetheless, Willow has had a belated but pertinent thought regarding the –”

“Giles!” Dawn said through gritted teeth. “Stop being pompous and tell me.”

Giles sighed. “Time in the Realm might run differently. We don’t know how long they’ll be away.”

Anya nodded her head. “Like the dimension that Brother Saul was from,” she remarked. “It ran much slower than here. Or was it faster? I get confused.”

Tara looked at Willow. “Is it something we can work out?” she asked. “If the difference is too great, every hour they spend there could be a year here.”

Dawn cried out in shock but Willow ignored her, moving briskly towards the shop. “Back to the books,” Xander sighed, long familiar with Willow’s, ‘born to research’ face.

***

Buffy and Spike came to a halt a few yards away from the group of five men, still standing in the shadows of the trees. They were dressed in simple tunics and trousers and carried short daggers on their belts but nothing more in the way of visible weapons.

“Hello,” called Buffy, a smile on her face. She hesitated. She wanted to ask them where the Wellspring was and get going but it seemed a little abrupt, not to mention dangerous, if these men were inclined to be unfriendly.

The tallest men stepped forward, smiling as though it hurt his face. He raised a hand in greeting and bowed his head. “Greetings, Slayer,” he said calmly. “We have been waiting for you.”

“Waiting? Oh! Not for long I hope. See, we didn’t know we were coming until yesterday and –”

“We have been waiting for many years.”

“We’re late then,” said Spike. “Sorry about that, mate.”

Buffy turned to glare at him but he kept his cool eyes on the leader and refused to acknowledge her rebuke. The leader looked a little taken aback. “I meant – the legends tell – we have long known that this was the time,” he stammered. Glancing between them, he settled on Buffy, as she looked the more approachable. “Slayer. I am your guide to the Wellspring. My life is yours to command.”

Spike’s eyebrows came together in a quick, suspicious frown but he stayed silent. Buffy beamed at the man and said. “Call me Buffy.”

He looked confused. “Why?”

“Because it’s my name,” said Buffy patiently. “And if we’re going to be travelling together –”

“Travelling? The Wellspring lies but a brief walk away. A few hours at most. Do you need to rest first?”

Buffy and Spike looked at each other. Spike jerked his head and moved a short distance away. Buffy followed him, after shooting the men an apologetic look.

“Something screwy going on,” Spike said in a low voice “This is way too easy. I don’t like easy.”

“Well, I do,” hissed Buffy. “It makes sense that the portal brought us to the right place. I can’t see why you’re being so fussy. Do you want to trek hundreds of miles and fight ravening hordes or something?” Her eyes widened. “You do, don’t you! I could tell you were loving that whole being charged by wild horses deal. Men!”

Spike sighed impatiently. “Listen,” he began. “I know you’re keen to get this over and done with but speaking of horses, there’s a saying about gift ones and not looking them – no, that’s not right. Oh, bugger it! There’s something not right and you know it. Have it your own way though. Spike’s here to rescue you when it all goes pear shaped. As usual.”

She pivoted on her heel and began to walk back. His voice reached her ears, “And yeah, that horses thing, coming on top of feeding off you? Got me randy as hell. And you felt it too.” She refused to answer but he smiled as she threw in a purely gratuitous wiggle of her backside. Vampire blood’s getting to her, he thought, half jokingly. Then his eyes narrowed as he looked at her. She did seem a little more reckless than usual. His eyes widened in horror as he wondered if that meant he’d become more, well, human. Vampires didn’t think about consequences generally, they trusted to their fangs and went in fighting. Shaking his head, he followed Buffy into the woods. Sooner they got this over with, the better.

Though it’d be nice if he could pick up a bit of a tan.

Sunnydale. May 10. Morning.

The Magic Box was humming with activity. Anya had insisted on opening the shop, pointing out that losing all their customers wouldn’t do anything to get Buffy back. It was Saturday, their busiest time, which may have been an additional factor in her reasoning. Xander, dark circles under his eyes after patrolling with Giles the night before, agreed. He was too tired to argue. If Buffy didn’t get back soon, word was going to get around. It wasn’t as if they had the Buffybot to back them up. One persistent vampire had nicked Giles’ neck before Xander had managed to stake it on the third stab. And that’s just the first night, he thought, yawning.

Usually when there was a situation, a monster, a threat, it was at their throats in a different way. This time, the only problem they were having was that Buffy wasn’t there. It wasn’t as if it was the first time of course. She hadn’t been in Sunnydale at all for most of Xander’s life and the town had survived. She’d also gone off once or twice for many weeks at a time. Xander didn’t even want to think about the summer when she’d been dead. He was trying to block that from his memory. So why was it that she’d been gone for less than a day and it felt as if there was a huge hole in his life?

“It’s because she’s not in our dimension anymore,” Tara said quietly, near to his ear.

Xander jerked upright, realising that his head had sunk lower and lower until he was napping – and drooling slightly – all over pages of notes. “Was I talking in my sleep?” he said ruefully.

“More like wild muttering,” Tara answered, a smile lighting up her solemn face. The smile faded. “We all feel that way. It’s dangerous and we can’t help them.”

“’Them’? Oh, you mean Spike. He should be fine,” said Xander casually, still burning with resentment that Spike had bitten Buffy. His friends were <i>not</i> meant to be vampire food, no matter how good the cause. He thought back to the time that Spike had taken over the school. Angel’s plan to get past his defenses had involved getting Xander in a headlock, ripping back his shirt to expose his neck and offering him to Spike to bite. The humiliation of that moment, bent over and helpless, the uncertainty about Angel’s trustworthiness, the terror of staring down at the scuffed tiles not knowing which of the two vampires would sink sharp teeth into him – they were the sort of memories that left scars.

Willow walked over to the table. “I’m not so sure,” she said, placing a large leather bound book on the circular table. “I finally tracked down a book that mentions the Realm. A day late, but it might still help us. The vampires there aren’t like Spike, even before the chip. Killing humans is frowned on, unless it’s for punishment or certain rituals. If they find out that Spike’s racked up hundreds of kills, they won’t be impressed.”

“Well, he can’t kill now, so that’s not likely to come up in conversation, is it?” said Xander, thinking privately that Willow was making a bit of a fuss.

“Oh, it’ll come up, knowing Spike,” said Willow grimly. “And as he’s expected to feed quite often during the day, to make up for only taking a little at a time, it won’t be long before they find out his other liability.” She paused, and looked at Xander, a hint of challenge in her large eyes. “They’ll kill him for being a murderer, or they’ll kill him for being - in their eyes – crippled. Any vampire who gets too weak to feed is killed by something called the Ordeal, to purge their taint from the clan. And you might not care if he dies, Xander, but Buffy does.”

“Oh, I care,” said Xander. “For two reasons. The first is that it’ll leave Buffy alone over there – and the second is that I won’t get to see it.” He walked off, his eyes hard, his lips pressed together in a thin line. Tara and Willow exchanged glances.

“He’s got –”

“Issues,” finished Willow sadly. “And the real problem is that Spike’s the least of them.”

***

The Realm. Late afternoon.

Buffy was talking to Sadrin, the leader of the group. The other men had still to speak and she wondered if they were mute, scared or if there was some ban on talking to her. “So, you don’t mind the vampires feeding off you?” she asked curiously.

She got a look of puzzled incomprehension in return. “They need our blood to live. We would be cruel to withhold it, when it doesn’t hurt us to give it.” He shifted from foot to foot, obviously uneasy. She wasn’t sure if it was the fact that she was asking questions or the fact that she wasn’t moving until she got answers that bothered him most.

“Being dead doesn’t hurt? Well, I suppose it doesn’t, but getting there’s not much fun.”

Again there was that look. Buffy sighed. “I think we need to sit down and clear the air a little,” she said.

“We don’t need a bloody history lesson, Slayer,” hissed Spike. He was feeling twitchy. Being out in the sun was making him nervous now the initial elation had faded. It was too bright. He couldn’t shake the uneasy fear that suddenly the rules would change and he would be on fire – briefly.

Buffy looked at him and seemed to sense his agitation but he got the fleeting impression that it amused her. He was really starting to feel peculiar. Unfamiliar emotions were tugging at him, making him feel defenceless and exposed. “I really think it might be useful, Spike,” she insisted. “Let’s all sit over there for a minute.” She pointed towards an outcrop of rock. Sadrin shrugged and obediently trudged to the rocks, sitting down and looking a little nervous. His four companions stood as if on guard. Spike sighed and followed Buffy over to the makeshift seats.

“Where we come from, Sadrin,” Buffy began, “ Vampires aren’t the reason people donate blood. They’re the reason I’m called the Slayer.” She hesitated. Maybe she was being a little cryptic? “To be blunt, vampires are soulless demons who feed from humans and either leave them dead or turn them into more vampires. My job is to slay as many as I can. I live in a town that’s built over, well, a gateway to hell, so it tends to attract them. I bag four or five a night but they just keep on coming.”

Sadrin stared at her, his mouth slack with shock. “You <i>kill</i> the Immortal ones?” he managed to say. “You take away their chance at life everlasting? What kind of a monster are you?”

“Obviously the bit about them killing their victims slipped right on by,” Buffy snapped, rolling her eyes impatiently. She didn’t like being called names for doing her job.

Sadrin waved his hands in agitated reproof. “They rarely kill! Why should they? If they kill us, they cannot feed from us again. It would make no sense. I suppose you could say that in a way, one who is chosen to ascend to their exalted level dies, but that’s being very literal. It is an honour that all aspire to but few are granted.”

Spike chuckled. “Give it up, Buffy,” he advised. “Whole different set up here. Don’t go rocking the boat.”

Buffy tried to grapple with the idea of vampires being welcome parasites and failed. Maybe Spike had been right. Forget the sociology and get the mission completed. Sadrin and his friends might be planning to betray them of course, but now she had her strength back, they would be easy to defeat, easy to hurt. Strange how appealing that thought was.

“So why are you helping her then?“ Spike asked, still convinced that this was an elaborate trap.

Sadrin stared at him, solemnly and brushed back a lock of brown hair from his weather beaten face. “We were commanded,” he said. “By Lord Grelin.” An odd expression passed over his face. “He is – not like the others,” he said carefully, “doubtless because he has been apart from them for so long.” There was a pensive silence. His companions seemed to sigh wordlessly as though the thought of Grelin’s differences were painful to contemplate.

Buffy exchanged a swift look with Spike. If Grelin had told these people to help the Slayer, they had just moved off the ‘to be trusted’ list for good. She toyed with the idea of threatening Sadrin to get to the truth but decided to play along for a while.

“Grelin’s been living in our world for quite some time,” Buffy said. “So he’s from here originally, is he?”

“Lord Grelin is one of the most powerful of the Immortals. His power grew so great that he faced many rivals and was forced to leave the Realm. He has been gone for years. He returned but days ago.”

“’Years’?” asked Spike. “More like centuries. He’d been around forever when Angel was turned. I’d say he was on our turf for about six hundred years, give or take a decade.”

Sadrin shook his head firmly. “Lord Grelin left when my father was a child, perhaps seventy five years ago, no more.”

“Whoa,” said Buffy. “I know the answer to this one. It’s like different time zones, or the hour going on in the fall.”

“’Spring forward, fall back’,” murmured Spike. “Ask a vampire about the sense of that; the sun still rises and sets just the same. One of your, umm, the government’s dafter notions.”

“That’s it though,” Buffy said. “Now we need to work it out. It can only be an estimate, as you’re not sure how long Grelin was in our dimension, but it should do. Seventy five years equals six hundred.” Her brow furrowed and Spike could have sworn her lips moved as she tried to work it out. He surreptitiously used his fingers to help calculate the ratio, his mental arithmetic being more than a little rusty.

“Six!” Buffy said triumphantly.

Spike sighed. “It’s eight, you silly sausage.”

“Silly what?” demanded Buffy, her face darkening.

He reached out and patted her arm, taking in the signs of temper, a quiver of unease growing in his mind. “Term of endearment,” he said smoothly, grinning as her eyes narrowed. “Trust me, it’s eight. Not as bad as it might have been but we’d better get our skates on.”

“Unless we want to miss summer altogether,” Buffy agreed. “So, eight days here, equal one at home?”

“Other way round, you – oh, you’re teasing are you? Right!”

Sadrin watched with amazement as Spike chased Buffy around the rock twice before giving up and calling a truce. “If you are done, we should be on our way before darkness falls,” he said, tentatively gazing at Buffy as she collapsed to the ground giggling, her good humour restored.

She sobered and pursed her lips. “No offence,” she said bluntly, “but I wouldn’t mind knowing a bit more about Grelin’s plans before we march off to a trap or our painful deaths.”

“I know nothing of such matters, Slayer. I was told that you would appear, as happens every –”

“Hundred and twenty five years,” said Spike, marveling at the way his times tables were creaking back into full operation. He’d be reciting French irregular verbs next.

“Huh? Oh, that’s a thousand of our years. Doesn’t have as much of a ring to it, somehow, does it?” commented Buffy.

“Loses something, yes,” agreed Spike, watching Sadrin’s face with sardonic amusement. The poor guy was in so deep, it’d take him hours to swim back up to the surface. Half an hour of Buffy had turned his world upside down. Spike could sympathise with that in some ways. He often found Buffy bewildering. Of course, that was when she was just Buffy. Now she was showing signs of being like a fledgling vamp, touchy, impulsive and unfocused. Spike sighed. Giles was going to kill him if she stayed like this. It occurred to him that this was the first time he would have cared about Giles’ reaction and he sighed again. Bloody hell. Bloody, bloody, hell.

“And that when you did appear, I should guide you to the Wellspring, as did my father’s father,” Sadrin finished, obviously determined to complete the recitation of his orders.

Buffy looked intrigued. “Tell me what happened,” she said eagerly. “A Slayer from 1002 met your grandfather! That’s like, so cool and yet majorly weird.” She pulled a face and raised her eyebrows expectantly.

Sadrin looked at her, his face expressionless. “He told me that she died screaming. I hope your end is swift.” He stood, brushing dust from his trousers. “You seem like a nice girl.”

The Realm. Late afternoon.

Matthew peered around the door of Grelin’s chambers. His plans were simple. He was going to take the shield – his shield after all – and then take advantage of Fellor’s absence to steal a horse. He had noticed the direction the riders took when they left in the morning to relieve the others on watch. He would ride out that way and try to find the Slayer.

The room was empty yet full of menace. Grelin left a trail of despair wherever he went, like a repulsive slug. Thinking back, Matthew realised that at every party he had given where Grelin was a guest, there had been a rash of fights, relationships ending, an escalation in alcohol or drug consumption. He had brought out the hidden evil in everyone he touched and his final victory had been to instigate Matthew’s vile murder of his lover. Matthew bit his lip. It was easy to blame Grelin but if he were to be honest, he had been weak. Would any of his friends have fallen under Grelin’s spell so readily? Self – loathing left him shaking but he forced back his nervousness, focusing on his mission. His spirits rose, as he imagined the Slayer’s gratitude when he handed her the shield.

Resolutely, Matthew strode across the carpet and flung open the ornately carved chest tucked away in a corner of the room. Kneeling, he scrabbled amongst the clothing that had lain on top of the white shield. It had gone. His fingers scraped the wooden floor of the chest and he moaned in despair, his confidence draining away again.

“Could it be this that you’re searching for so desperately?” purred Grelin from the doorway. Matthew swung round to face his former friend, clambering to his feet, his heart thudding painfully. Grelin was holding the shield in his hands, his fingers splayed across its surface. Matthew felt that it was besmirched by his touch. He half expected Grelin’s hands to leave bloody prints on the pristine surface.

“It’s mine,” Matthew said, his voice growing stronger as his anger grew. “You had no right to take it.”

Grelin’s face registered scornful surprise. “No right? Can you possibly think that your money could purchase this? It belongs to the Immortals, not the race of humans. The Shield of Andar crossed over to the Realm when the creator of vampires left your miserable land. It disappeared soon after. I know now that it was sent back to your world with the first Slayer to cross over to visit the Wellspring. She stole it. Now this Slayer will need it and I wonder if that’s the reason for your audacious attempt at theft.”

Matthew glared at him. “The shield is mine,” he said stubbornly, instinctively keeping his desire to help the Slayer secret. “I care nothing for this girl.”

Grelin nodded thoughtfully, seemingly accepting this. “No matter. I have to get it to her and I believe she will trust you more than she would me. You can lie, tell her a tale of how I kidnapped you, brought you here by force, how you long to return – I’m sure you can fill in the details. Or maybe, hmm - ” Grelin looked pensive but didn’t elaborate.

“I don’t understand why you’re helping her,” Matthew said slowly. “I thought you wanted to steal the power for yourself.”

“It isn’t stealing!” snapped Grelin, his anger the first real emotion he had shown. “That power is based here, in my world. It should not leave. And it should not be given to one who slaughters us like beasts.” He passed a hand over his eyes and regained his icy calm with an effort. “She is the only one who can initiate the power transfer and to do that, she must have the Shield with her. As soon as she goes into the trance, I will kill the vampire who stands guard over her, pathetic mongrel that he is, and link myself to her. In the world of dreams, I will fight her and once she is dead, the power will flow into me. All of it, for me, for ever. I will gather all the power and keep it safe. I will have all that I wish for and more.” His voice sank to a whisper, as he became lost in dreams.

“Why do you hate the vampire she is with so much?” asked Matthew, alert for any hint of weakness in Grelin’s armour.

Grelin roused himself, staring at Matthew blankly for a second. “His name is Angelus. Once he was a mighty fighter, strong, not like the soft weaklings that my people here have become. He was magnificent.” Grelin chuckled, his fingers going to a long scar down his cheek. “And so was his mate. I bear no ill will for the marks she gave me, but Angelus and his young whelp – what they did was shameful.” Once again, he seemed to be sunk in a reverie, but this time his face was dark with anger.

“W-what did they do?” whispered Matthew, almost afraid to ask.

Grelin stared at him. “It is past,” he said with finality. “And Angelus is no more. He was cursed with a soul. I could not have wished for a crueler punishment. It means he is no match for me. He has become allied with the Slayer, or so I heard, overcome by guilt for his centuries of killing.” Grelin spat contemptuously. “He would fit in well here, I have no doubt, with these degenerates who no longer hold true to the old ways. Unfortunately, he won’t get the opportunity. When you give the Slayer your gift, it would be ill-mannered of you not to gift Angelus too.”

“I don’t understand,” said Matthew dully, feeling the oppressive wave of sorrow breaking over him once more as his plan foundered.

“You will take this wine – he was always fond of a bottle, as I recall – and you will insist that all drink a toast. He will be suspicious of course, but once you have drunk, he will see no harm in doing likewise. Vampires are not susceptible to poison after all.”

“What’s in it?” Matthew said bluntly, fear rousing him a little.

“To you, nothing but a fine red wine. To Angelus, well, let us say, it will bring back memories.” Grelin’s thin lips stretched in a smile that promised pain. “And just to make quite certain that you tell the right story to the Slayer, I think you need to rest a while.” Matthew frowned as he tried to make sense of Grelin’s words. Grelin’s fingers were moving, writhing in complex patterns. Matthew tried not to watch but his gaze was trapped like a fly in honey. As his senses slipped away, he heard Grelin begin to talk in a persuasive, gentle voice.

***

The Realm. Early evening.

Buffy shook her head, sending her hair flying wildly. “That can’t be right,” she objected. “The Slayer line didn’t end a thousand years ago, so she can’t have died here without switching the power on, recharging the batteries, whatever. You’ve made a mistake.” Her voice was cold now and she stood over Sadrin, her hands fisted, her lips curling back. With a slight sense of shock, Spike realised that she was trying to slip into game face. Her hand went up, about to finger the necklace that would make her look like a vampire if it touched her skin. Spike moved swiftly to her side to stop her, taking her hand in his. She shook him off angrily but didn’t try to touch the necklace again.

Sadrin gave her a pitying look, ignoring the threat she posed, as a parent ignores a child’s tantrum. “It was the price she paid for the power. It killed her.”

“And I suppose it doesn’t matter where the Slayer dies, the spell just keeps on going, back on Earth,” said Spike, not as shaken by the news as Buffy expected.

She rounded on him furiously. “Could we please be a little more giving with the sympathy?” she demanded. “If I have to be tortured to death so there can be another Slayer then fine, but I’m not exactly looking forward to it.” Her lip quivered slightly. Buffy had gone up against odds that seemed impossible, monsters that seemed invulnerable. She’d died twice already – but dying like this would be very hard. She wasn’t sure she could do it, but she knew she didn’t really have a choice. Slayers just didn’t.

Spike gripped her hands hard and she felt that strange current run between them again, refreshing her spirits and calming the rage and fear swirling through her mind. “She might have died. You won’t.” he said, his voice level and decisive.

“You can’t know that,” Buffy protested weakly, wanting him to convince her.

Spike bared his teeth in what might have passed for a smile. “Anyone tries to kill you, they come through me, Slayer. And you’re not dying in front of me again. I swear it. But I think we need to have a little chat -”

***

Sunnydale. May 10. Night.

Xander staggered through the front door of the Summers’ house and made it to the sofa – barely – lying along it with his head resting on several cushions. Dawn rushed over to him, concerned, but he waved her off. “I’m fine, Dawnie, just exhausted,” he said. “Wouldn’t mind a glass of water though.”

Dawn and Tara were the only ones who hadn’t patrolled that night. They knew that Buffy would slice and dice them if Dawn got hurt and Tara had some research she wanted to finish which made her the perfect sitter. Xander was uneasily conscious that several vampires had escaped staking and were presumably spreading the news that the Slayer was a no show for the second night in a row. Dawn brought him his drink and he held the glass in a trembling hand before managing to bring it to his lips.

“Why are you so wasted and where are the others?” Dawn asked, her sympathy receding, as Xander wasn’t actually bleeding, just dusty and bruised.

“Right behind – make that right here,” said Xander as the hallway filled with people in much the same state as himself. “I put on an extra burst of speed at the corner so I could have dibs on the comfy seat.”

Anya came in, picked up his feet, swung them round and let them drop to the floor. Ignoring his moan of anguish, she fell into the space she’d cleared and stared at Dawn groggily. “Your sister,” she said.

“Yes?” Dawn asked brightly.

“She needs to come back. Now.”

Tara emerged from the kitchen with a platter full of sandwiches, chips and dips. When Xander remained recumbent, she looked concerned. The others found seats and began to pick at the food, but it was obvious that the night’s work had drained them.

“You guys patrolled all summer,” said Dawn. “I don’t remember you being this tired.” She sounded vaguely disapproving and Anya summoned up enough energy to give her a look of loathing.

“We had the robot and we had Spike,” Giles pointed out, sounding a little put out himself. “And the vampires are far more numerous than they were then.”

Andrew Carlton looked thoughtful. “I remember the Slayer commenting on that, just before she left,” he said. “If I had to venture a guess, it would be that as her powers lessened, the demons sensed it somehow.”

“They’re moving in for the kill,” said Willow. She turned to Giles. “We have to find out how long Buffy will be gone!”

Tara coughed. “I may have worked that out,” she said timidly.

“Well, I must say, that’s fast work!” Carlton said heartily, giving her an approving smile. He liked Tara because she seemed to be slightly on the outside of this tight knit group, which meant that he had company. This field trip was turning out to be exciting but he longed for his office and the ordered quiet of his life. He might have been dealing with vampires and demons there too, but they weren’t hanging onto his jacket, spattering him with sticky ooze or dying in front of him and coating him with dust. He made a mental note to push for a pay rise for all the field operatives. Poor blighters deserved it.

Tara blushed at the compliment. “Tonight I traced what may be Grelin’s first appearance. I can’t be certain, but it was at least 620 years ago. He’s mentioned as being one of the knights at King Richard the Second’s court. But he was very reclusive.”

“Understandably so,” mused Giles. “One wonders how he avoided discovery. Not many mirrors back then, of course.”

“He didn’t,” said Tara dryly. “He was accused of being in league with the Dark Forces and fled, leaving behind the bodies of seven of his servants, all with these funny marks on their necks.”

“I don’t understand how that helps you sort out the time difference, though,” said Xander, roused from his exhaustion by the speed at which the chips were vanishing as people recovered from the patrol and dived into the food. Grabbing a handful he began to munch happily.

Tara tucked her hair behind her ears, perching on the arm of Willow’s chair. “Grelin also appears in the book on the Realm,” she said. “He was banished because he kept killing people when he fed and that’s not done over there.”

“And can I just say, some of the people we met tonight could learn from that excellent example?” Xander said enthusiastically.

Anya nodded agreement, fingering a long tear in her sweater with a resentful frown on her face. She made a mental note to dress in older clothes next time. Or to borrow one of Buffy’s jackets.

Tara glanced around and carried on as Giles gave her an encouraging nod. “I also found a reference to when the last Slayer went over there. The date the book gives for that, combined with the date Grelin left, well, it’s pretty simple math.”

“I’ll take your word for that,” said Dawn, pulling a face at the mention of mathematics, “but what’s the difference?” She looked at Tara beseechingly, her face pale.

Tara smiled at her reassuringly. “Eight,” she said. “Not much at all. One day there is eight days here. She’ll be gone a couple of weeks maybe.” She took in the expressions on the faces of the patrollers and frowned. “That’s good, isn’t it? Here we were thinking she might be gone years and it’s only going to be a few weeks at most.”

“You weren’t out there,” said Xander, fatigue robbing his voice of emotion but giving it authority. “We’ll be lucky to last the weekend. The way the vamps are popping up, we’ll be overrun by the time she gets back.”

Tara sighed. “We need help,” she said. There was a chorus of muted agreement but no suggestions.

“May I see that book, Tara?” Carlton asked, stretching out his hand.

“The one about the Realm? Sure.” Tara passed it over to him.

“What is it, Andrew?” asked Giles, watching as his friend paged through the yellow, crackling leaves of the book.

“Don’t you think it a little odd that a book with all this information exists at all, let alone here in Sunnydale?”

Silence fell. “It was on the private shelves in the shop,” said Willow. “It must be yours, Giles.”

The Watcher shook his head. “I know all my books,” he said, as one stated a fact of nature. Tara and Willow nodded as Dawn and Xander exchanged looks of incomprehension.

“Giles, you have more books than anyone,” Xander said. “Maybe this one just slipped your memory?”

“This isn’t the time for levity, Xander,” replied Giles.

“Really wasn’t being funny,” muttered Xander under his breath, leaning back against the cushions sulkily.

“It’s plain that this book was planted on my shelves by someone,” said Giles. “We can’t be certain of their motive and so the information within the book must be treated with suspicion.”

“Oh, I assure you it’s legitimate,” said a voice. The front door swung shut with a click. As one, they turned towards the hallway. Standing there, his hands in his pockets, a cocky smile on his face, was a familiar but far from welcome visitor.

“Can’t tell you how good it is to be back in dear old Sunnydale,” said Ethan Rayne.

The Realm. Early evening.

Spike had gone with Buffy to a place where they could still see Sadrin and his men, but they were out of earshot. “What is it?” she asked. Smiling flirtatiously, she wound her hands behind his neck and pulled him down for a kiss. “Do you want to taste me again?” she murmured. That did it.

“No, I bloody well don’t! Buffy, listen to yourself, the things you’re saying, the way you’re acting – ”

Buffy pouted. “I thought you liked it when we fed. I did. I liked it a lot – both times.”

Spike grabbed her hands, which were wandering over his body. He felt certain that Sadrin was getting an eyeful and he was hot with embarrassment. He groaned. He’d once made love to Dru on a London stage, in front of an audience too stunned to leave. Of course, when they tried, they discovered that the doors were locked. Spike had risen from Drusilla’s spread eagled body, splendidly naked the pair of them, and worked his way through the crowd, feeding or killing as the whim took him. The play had been an experimental one, the audience only fifty strong but it had been a wonderful tale to spread amongst their kind. And it served as a warning to the playwrights of the 1920’s perhaps; bore your audience and who knows what they’ll do to entertain themselves.

Dragging his thoughts back to the present, Spike forced Buffy’s hands away from him. “Feeding off each other, it’s affecting us. I’m full of human emotions, embarrassment being the main one at the moment. You’re the spitting image of any fledgling who’s had their first neck and wants more. Sloppy, careless; the sort that gets staked by you when you’re in your right mind. You hated it when you drank from me in the crypt, last year; you only did it because you’d have died otherwise. Keep thinking about that.”

His voice got more forceful and he shook her shoulders to drive home the point. Her eyes widened and realisation spread over her face. “I do feel – different,” she admitted slowly. “Do you think this is part of a test or something?”

Spike shrugged. “Could be. If I get any more human, you might as well lend me that necklace, ‘cause I’ll be too wimpy to get my fangs out.” He stared down at her face, now looking worried, and he softened. “But I’ll never be so weak I can’t protect you,” he said, “and not letting you feed is part of protecting you.”

“Even if it means I can’t fight? I can feel my strength going already.”

“We’ll see. But emergencies only, right? Not going to let you get a taste for it. And I’m not going to let you get hurt either.”

Buffy smiled gratefully at Spike. She knew as well as he did, that all the good intentions in the world didn’t mean you could save people you loved. Her mother was a good example of that. But she was still reassured by his resolve to protect her. She’d been Spike’s adversary for long enough to be aware that he was formidable in battle and about as likely to break under pressure as a chunk of diamond.

“Let’s move out,” she said, filled with urgency, as dusk began to gather around them. “If there’s a trap, we’re prepared, we’ll trip it.”

Spike nodded, relieved that she seemed to be fighting back against the effects of his blood in her body. Hand in hand, they walked back to the patient group. “After you, mate,” he said to Sadrin with a genial smile that didn’t reach his eyes.

They had just reached the edge of the clearing when they heard a horse approaching, not galloping, as the trees were thick, but trotting along the trail that they had been using. “Do you think it’s those vampires again?” Buffy asked Spike quietly.

“Only one this time,” said Spike, listening carefully.

The horse and its rider came into sight and Buffy frowned. She recognised him from the photographs that Andrew Carlton had shown them. Unless the evidence was misleading, they were about to meet a human who made most demons look cuddly. She stepped forward as the horse slowed to a walk. “Matthew Delvers?” she asked politely, a slight edge to her voice.

He flinched, his eyes raking her with an avid desperation that made her want to step back. “You know me?” he said.

“If you’re the one who chopped your girl up and used her blood to get here, then, yeah, we do,” said Spike, not liking the way Delvers had looked at Buffy.

Delvers slipped down from the horse, which ambled away and began to crop at the grass contentedly. “I didn’t know what I was doing!” he cried out frantically. “You have to believe me!”

“We really don’t,” said Spike. He wandered over to the pathetic figure and gave him a clinical appraisal. “Looks to me like your typical human who got more than he bargained for, but don’t be fooled, Slayer. He knew the score.” He glared at Delvers, “Didn’t you?”

Delvers burst into tears, his face crumpling and his legs giving way. Buffy and Spike stared at the heap of misery in front of them and said nothing.

‘This is one of Lord Grelin’s horses,” announced Sadrin. Showing more emotion than they had seen before, he went over to Matthew and kicked him sharply in the side. “Thief!” he declared.

“Hey!” Buffy protested, as Sadrin’s foot came back again. “Leave him alone. You don’t know he stole the horse.” She bent down by Matthew and said, in a more doubtful tone, “Did you steal it?” Spike smiled as she instinctively protected the man. That was more like Buffy. And he’d not even felt a twinge of pity, which was a relief. It seemed that once you knew what was happening to you, it was possible to fight it. He hoped so.

A tear stained face was raised to hers. “No,” he whispered. “Grelin gave it to me, told me to find you. I have gifts for you both.”

“Okay, now this is getting silly. He’s supposed to be the bad guy and he’s giving us guides and fruit baskets? I am so not liking this!” Buffy looked disgusted.

“So what are these gifts, then?” Spike said impatiently, his arms folded.

Matthew struggled to his feet, holding his side and walked over to the horse. Reaching into the saddle bags, he pulled out two objects swathed in cloth. Going over to Buffy, he presented her with the largest item. “This belonged to me,” he said. “You need it to help you fight evil and so I give it to you freely.” Buffy looked at him doubtfully but took it and unwrapped it. She gasped as she saw the shimmering white shield.

“Are you sure you want to –” she began, awed by its beauty. The setting sun seemed to tint it red for a second and she shivered.

“Oh, please!” Spike interrupted. “We need that to do what we came for so just take it. He can have it back afterwards.”

Buffy gave him a look that should have reduced him to smouldering ashes. “Jealous because you didn’t get anything?” she asked sweetly.

“I have a gift for Angelus,” Matthew said eagerly. “Grelin was pleased that you were with the Slayer and offers you this wine to toast the success of your mission.” He withdrew the bottle from its wrappings and presented it to Spike.

“Well, if I see Peaches again, I’ll be sure to -”

“’Angelus’, maybe you should open it, as Grelin wanted,” Buffy said casually.

Spike took her meaning at once and played along. “Sure,” he said. “Wouldn’t say ‘no’ to a drink.” Using his thumb, he pushed the cork in and raised the bottle to his lips. “But where’s my manners?” he said. “You try it first, mate. By the looks of you, you need it more than I do.” He held the bottle out to Matthew with a slightly mocking bow of his head.

Matthew only had Grelin’s assurance that it wouldn’t harm him, but he had given the Slayer what she needed and a swift death by poison was preferable to the horrors of remembering his deeds. He accepted the bottle and drank deeply. Spike nodded and glanced at Buffy who shrugged noncommittally. Matthew passed the bottle back to Spike who sniffed at it and then shook his head. “Smells corked. I really don’t think I will.” He held it out to Matthew, who took it automatically.

“You would insult Lord Grelin by refusing his gift?” said Sadrin, outrage plain on his face.

“In a heartbeat,” said Spike, smiling at the joke. “But if you want some, be my guest.”

“I swear that it is safe,” Matthew said. “Grelin told me that it would bring back memories, that’s all. Is it a wine you drank together in the past?”

Comprehension spread over Buffy’s face. “Memories. Of all that Angelus did, all at once. Of course. It wouldn’t kill but it would be like an emotional avalanche.”

“Way he broods, you’d be lucky if he spoke for the next week, let alone be any use fighting,” Spike agreed. “Still not going to taste it though.”

“No,” said Buffy, needling him slightly, “it might make you so nostalgic for the killing fields that you start brooding.”

“I don’t understand,” said Matthew, still gripping the bottle, an uncertain look on his face.

“Join the club,” said Spike. “We don’t understand most of what’s happened since we set foot in this place and I’m getting just a little bit tired of it all.” He slipped into game face and advanced on Matthew. “Now why don’t you be a good little murderer and fill us in on everything we need to know and maybe I’ll ignore the way my tummy’s rumbling.”

Sadrin cried out in shock as he realised Spike’s true nature and his four companions, still silent, moved swiftly to his side. In unison, they knelt, tilting their heads to one side, offering their necks. Buffy shuddered with repulsion. Spike looked wistful and then decided that it would get boring fast if food stopped running away. “Thanks, but I’m sworn to only feed from the Slayer until this quest is over,” he said grandly. “While I am her, uh, Guardian, I can drink no lesser blood. Sorry about that.” He swung round to face Matthew and growled mendaciously. “I can still have some fun hurting you though, so start talking.”

Matthew quailed and began to talk, sometimes haltingly, with averted eyes, sometimes almost babbling. When he had told them all he knew, he stopped dead, looking at them imploringly.

“So, Grelin’s not a bad sort, after all and it’s you who’s the killer?” Spike said sceptically. “He’s all keen on the Slayer regaining her powers and pushing off back home because he’s never returning to our world, so why should he care?”

Matthew frowned, his mind struggling with Spike’s summary. It wasn’t quite right, somehow. Deep in his mind, a memory was screaming at him to be noticed but Grelin’s conditioning held. “Y-yes,” he said doubtfully.

Buffy’s eyes narrowed. “You don’t sound very certain,” she observed. “Me, I’m sticking with the ‘Grelin is a villain’ theory. Now you lot get up, you look silly, Delvers, you get back on your horse and go back to your pal and Mr Guardian here can come and earn his keep.”

“I get paid for this?” Spike wondered audibly.

Buffy leaned in and kissed him fast. ‘There,” she said. “Hmm. No zap that time. Pity. Looks like we would have to feed again for me to get my powers back.”

“Are you saying you only kiss me when you want something?” Spike protested. “I’m deeply hurt.”

“I always want something when I kiss you,” Buffy said and turned away, the shield on her arm, leaving Spike to work that one out in his own time.

The clearing emptied and Matthew stood, lost and alone. After a moment he began to follow them, his feet dragging as if he had no other choice. He ignored the horse, which tossed its head and continued to munch the lush grass, its reins trailing.

***

Sunnydale. May 10. Night.

There was silence as the people in the room stared at Ethan. He had been prepared for shock, even threats, but blank faces rather disconcerted him. He covered it with some typical bluster. “Giles, you’re looking well. Considering. And Andrew! Congratulations on the promotion, old man. I knew your father would wangle it one day.”

Giles had been lounging in an armchair. He raised an eyebrow and said calmly, “Dear me, Ethan. It’s called a door. One knocks on it. Did your spell with the Army deprive you of all your manners?”

“As if my lack of etiquette concerns you!” sneered Ethan.

“I know you,” Anya said suddenly. “You were in the shop for twenty minutes last Wednesday and didn’t buy anything!”

“Oh, please! Over priced tatt. I’d as soon get my supplies from someone reputable.” Anya gasped at the insult and began to struggle out of her seat, clearly intending to teach him the error of his ways. Xander reached for her wrist, holding her in place.

“Ignore him, Anya,” said Giles. “I suspect he was hanging around waiting for a chance to slip that book onto my shelves when your attention was elsewhere. And as he made a practise of substituting dried house spider web when the spell specifically stated that only black widow web would do, I hardly think he’s in a position to get snooty about quality.”

“Oh,” said Anya, subsiding. “A cost cutting amateur. We had a name for them when I was a vengeance demon.”

“What?” asked Dawn curiously.

“The, soon to be dead in various repulsive fashions, people.”

“Ah. Catchy!”

Ethan sighed theatrically. “Can you people ever stay focused?” he complained. “Don’t you want to know why I added to your preposterously large book collection, Ripper?”

Giles went through the calming ritual of cleaning his glasses before replying. “Grelin told you to, and you were being a good little lackey,” he said.

Andrew crowed with laughter as Ethan’s face soured. “What did he promise you, Rayne? I know you; you wouldn’t do it out of the goodness of your heart.”

Ethan smiled thinly. “No, but I would to further the cause of Chaos and believe me, people, when Grelin gets back, Chaos is going to throw a party.”

“Will there be hats and ice cream?” Xander said innocently. “I’m thinking, an evil party, the elastic on the hats would snap or dig into your neck and the ice cream would be all runny, or a really nasty flavour and –”

Will you cease your inane babbling!” snapped Ethan. He looked at Giles appealingly. “Can’t we discuss this over a beer somewhere, away from the children?”

“No, we bloody well can’t,” said Giles. “I haven’t forgotten what happened after the last time we got drunk together. If you’ve got some misleading information to share, or a message from Grelin, be quick and say your piece. Otherwise, get the hell out of this house. You’re not welcome.”

“Fine. I can take a hint.”

“The fact that you’re in front of me again shows that you can’t.”

“Ripper, if you want to see your precious Slayer again, I’d shut up.”

Xander swore later that Giles teleported, he moved so fast. Ethan found himself grabbed by his shirt and thrust against a wall, his head cracking against it hard enough to make Tara wince. The others, with more experience of Ethan’s ways, showed no sympathy at all. Giles’ hand slid upwards and locked around Ethan’s throat. Slowly, inexorably, it began to tighten, making Ethan choke and gasp for breath. He clawed ineffectually at the hand that was squeezing the life from his body while Giles watched his struggles, lips compressed in a slight smile, eyes hard. When Ethan’s eyes rolled up, Giles slackened the pressure a little, allowing his victim enough oxygen to revive slightly.

“If you ever threaten Buffy again, in word or deed, I’ll treat myself to the welcome task of ridding the world of your presence,” he said quietly.

Ethan held up a hand in surrender. Giles released him, stepped out of reach and pointed at an upright chair in the corner. “Sit over there, Ethan. Xander, why don’t you get Ethan a drink?”

Xander started to protest and then realised that Giles had turned away from Ethan and was mouthing a word at him. Xander smiled. “Sure, Giles,” he said easily. “It might help him talk.”

He stood up but Willow stood too. “No need for rope, Xander,” she said, eying Ethan coldly. Pointing her finger at him, she murmured a short phrase and gave her finger a negligent twirl. Silver cords of air wrapped around Ethan’s legs and torso, pinning him to the chair. His eyes bulged with outrage but he had the sense to keep quiet.

Tara looked uneasy at Willow’s use of magic when a rope was all that was needed, but with the deed done, decided to save any comments for later. Giles glanced at the witch with a slight frown but nodded briskly. “And now that we have your attention, Ethan –”

Sunnydale. May 10. Night.

It didn’t take too long to extract all that Ethan knew. It might have done perhaps, but at the first hint of evasion Giles sent Dawn out of the room on a pretext. He then raised his eyebrows at the others, jerking his head towards the door. After the room had cleared of all but Andrew Carlton, he systematically began to beat Ethan bloody. Carlton, as befitted his exalted status, didn’t bruise his knuckles on Ethan’s face, but took neat notes of everything that – finally – came out of Ethan’s bleeding, swollen lips. After Ethan, his head drooping like a water deprived cut flower, had run out of things to say, no matter what the incentive, Giles walked away, his heart sickened. His Slayer was at risk, the world around him was on the verge of disaster and there was nothing he could do.

For a moment, he toyed with the idea of imitating Delvers and using Ethan’s blood to open a portal to the Realm, but that was a line he could not cross. Not yet. If Buffy and Spike were killed, someone needed to take the fight to Grelin when he returned to Earth. Though Giles doubted any force could defeat him if he had indeed found some way to distill and absorb the power meant to fuel a thousand Slayers into his own, already powerful, frame.

Sinking into a chair, Giles allowed himself the luxury of a moment of quiet reflection. He had less than thirty seconds of peace before the banished Scoobies crept back in, their eyes wide as they saw the ruined features of Ethan Rayne.

Xander spoke for them all when he said, “Remind me to remember this, next time I think of you as Library Man, Giles.”

With his eyes shut, Giles smiled slightly.

The Realm. Evening.

As the sun set, Sadrin’s men lit torches, simple ones, made by wrapping rages around branches, soaking them with a thick, oily liquid from jars in their packs, and then setting them alight. They allowed the journey to continue but it wasn’t easy to walk on a path that was crossed with tree roots and brambles. Buffy peered into the shadows, unease prickling the back of her neck. Somehow, what had been a wide trail suitable for a horse, had petered out to a path so narrow that they could barely walk single file. Spike was behind her, the last in the line and his vampire vision made him more sure footed but even he seemed to stumble now and then.

“Sadrin!” Buffy called softly. He was at the head of the line and he stopped immediately, turning round to address her. “Yes, Slayer?”

“This just isn’t working. We’re averaging a yard a minute and if I leave any more of my hair on brambles, I’m going to be bald. How much farther is this place, anyway?”

Sadrin hesitated and then replied, “Not far, but my village is closer still. Would you like to rest there and complete your task tomorrow?”

Buffy had thought that she couldn’t get any more suspicious of Sadrin but she discovered how wrong she had been. Going to stay with the villains never worked out well in the movies. She opened her mouth to protest but looking around, she realised that she didn’t have a choice. Again. She sensed that her actions were being manipulated, her movements choreographed by a hidden puppet master. Grelin? Or something connected with the Wellspring? Spike moved closer, his mouth to her ear. “Not sure about this,” he whispered, echoing her misgivings.

“Nor me, but what else can we do? Do you think he’ll give us directions? If he did, could we find it in the dark?” Buffy looked around again. The utter darkness of a world without streetlights and with an overcast, moonless sky was getting to her. She wanted to scream out for someone to turn on the lights. Silly, really. Cemeteries weren’t all that well lit, after all and she spent enough time in those. Spike’s arms slipped around her and she leaned back into his embrace for a moment. Held close like that, the darkness became a soft blanket, wrapping her safely, hiding her from unfriendly eyes. She found his hand and squeezed it gently, gratefully. He dropped a kiss on her hair and released her.

Buffy made up her mind and called out, “We’ll go to your home, Sadrin, thank you.”

There was silence and then he answered, his voice almost melancholy, “As you wish it, Slayer.”

***

The Realm. Evening.

Grelin had ordered Matthew to stay close to the Slayer, so he wasn’t surprised when he didn’t return. It was highly possible that he was dead of course. Angelus would be in a guilt-fuelled frenzy, maddened by memories of his misdeeds, undimmed by time, unsoftened by remorse. In revenge, the Slayer might well have dispatched the one who had brought her lover to such a state. The news that Fellor had disappeared brought a crease to his forehead though. Questioning of the other stable workers gave him an idea of when Fellor had met his fate. He had no hesitation in linking it to Matthew’s visit to his chambers at a time when he should have been working under Fellor’s supervision. Pursing his lips, he wondered whether to be glad that Matthew still had some fire left to stamp out, or angry that a useful employee was now dust on the wind.

Grelin moved to the open window and stared out into the night. “I feel you, Slayer,” he murmured. “You will rest poorly tonight, fearful of every noise, certain that you are in danger. It is that fear that I send against you, weakening your resolve, sapping your strength. Tomorrow, we will meet and I will make all your nightmares come true.” He smiled and reached for a bow that lay on the table beside the window. Taking an arrow, black, with a silver point, runes carved into its length, he fitted it into the bow and shot it. The arrow sped out, cleaving the air, leaving a trail of darkness so palpable that it seemed to slice across the sky like black lightning. Impossibly far it traveled and it trailed behind it nightmares, phantasms, demons. It passed over the village where the Slayer and her guardian lay, locked in each other’s arms, and their dreams were invaded by horrors. Finally it wavered, as Grelin’s control weakened, and plunged to earth, burying itself deep in the soft undergrowth of the forest like a poisoned thorn embedded in flesh.

***

The Realm. Midnight.

Spike woke suddenly and found himself sitting up. If he had been human, his heart would have been hammering, he would have been coated with the sweat that fear brings and he would have been gasping as his terrified body tried to cope with a rush of adrenaline. With none of these reactions possible – he was supposed to cause fear, not feel it – he settled for slipping into game face for a moment, automatically appearing as fearsome as possible. Glancing round the room, his eyes seeing nothing dangerous, he relaxed and lay back, trying to shrug off the nightmare he had just had. Buffy moaned and he grinned, thinking she was complaining that the covers had been pulled off her. Whenever they slept together, he always seemed to end up with the bulk of the sheets over him and as she pointed out, that was most unfair, as he needed them least.

Tucking her in, he tried to put his arm around her but as she felt his touch she jerked back and began to scream, eyes tight shut, fists flailing. Spike tried to wake her, tried to cuddle her, but she stayed asleep, fighting a phantom assailant.

“Buffy! Wake up, love, it’s me, it’s Spike, I’ve got you, you’re safe –” He kissed her face, trying to get some response.

In a world of shadows, filled with lurking shapes that refused to reveal themselves, Buffy heard his voice. Stepping out into the light, she saw him, platinum haired, blue eyed and handsome, though a stranger to her. Stumbling towards him, sobbing with relief, she stretched out her hands. Cold fingers took her wrists in a painful grip and he leaned close, his face twisting into a demonic form. “I’ve got you,” he said.

“No!” Buffy screamed, twisting away as his fangs scraped along her neck. Running blind, hands stretched out, she fell, smacking down against the hard ground, feeling blood beginning to seep from grazed hands and knees. As she tried to push up, her fingers brushed against a short branch, snapped off a tree. She was armed. Invigorated, she stood and turned to meet her enemy.

She frowned. The vampire in front of her had changed back into his human form. As she circled him warily, the stake raised, he stood still, arms by his side. He was saying something but she couldn’t understand his words.

Spike stared down as Buffy cried out in pain, watched as her face smoothed out with relief, and then tensed with fear. Stroking her hair gently, he continued to croon to her, nonsense words, like a parent comforting a child. “I’m here, pet, it’s fine, I’m here. I love you, no one’s going to hurt you while I’m here. I love you. Wake up, come back to me, wake up Buffy. Please –”

In her dream, the vampire fell to his knees and held out his arms in supplication. She walked over, raised the stake and stopped. His eyes – they drew her in, and she saw in them the message that his lips were repeating over and over.

“I love you.”

Buffy dropped the stake and woke up in Spike’s arms.

***

Sunnydale. May 10. Night.

Xander turned his back on Ethan, wincing slightly, and looked at the Watcher and his friend. “So – going to fill us in on what he said?”

“D-does he know anything about Buffy?” asked Dawn, her eyes wide and filled with worry.

Giles sighed, stood up and walked over to pat Dawn’s shoulder reassuringly. “He told us some information we didn’t have that might be of use. It seems Grelin, rather than Delvers, is our main concern.” Speaking briefly, he told them of Grelin’s plans to steal the power of the Wellspring and use it to rule not only the Realm but Earth. “He has lived in two worlds, both with advantages and disadvantages as far as he is concerned. He plans to remould them both to suit his ideal.”

“What will that mean?” asked Willow, filled with foreboding.

Giles gave her a level look. “It appears to be a world where vampires can walk freely in the sun, can kill their victims because the population is great enough that it doesn’t matter and where, naturally, he is in charge.”

“But that’s crazy!” Xander protested. “If vampires stopped skulking and everyone knew about them, well, we’d wipe them out in no time. It’s staying secret that saves them. How many vampires are there in the Realm? And would they want to come here? You told us that they don’t like killing. Not quite sure I believe that but still – ”

“You make some valid points, Xander,” said Carlton. Xander preened himself at the unusual praise. “But Grelin is not entirely sane. I doubt that he has thought this through. He will cross over with a small group of acolytes and he will wreak some terror, no doubt, but I imagine once his position is known, the Council’s forces will soon –”

“You’re forgetting something,” said Giles, his voice so quiet that it was barely audible. Carlton looked round in surprise. “If Grelin crosses over, it will be because Buffy is dead.”

“Well, yes, possibly –” began Carlton, his tone making it clear that this was regrettable but hardly an unusual occurrence where Slayers were concerned.

“And if this Slayer dies, none will rise to take her place. If you turn to Faith, you’ll find her powers have gone too. Who will you send against a vampire with the strength of a thousand Slayers, an immortal returning home to the world that forced his kind out? He will be invincible. He has only to turn each victim and they do likewise, to create an army. And if he can walk in the sun, where will you hide?”

Andrew’s mouth hung open with shock and the room was silent until Ethan began to laugh painfully. “It’s all over, isn’t it Ripper? A new dawn – or should that be a new night?”

Giles stood. “We are not without resources, Ethan but you’ll forgive me if we don’t discuss them in front of you.” He looked at Willow. “Can you put him to sleep?”

She smiled. Walking over to Ethan, she placed her hands on his head and whispered softly. He screamed once and then slumped against the magical bonds that held him. “Pleasant nightmares,” she said.

***

The Realm. Midnight.

Buffy looked up at Spike’s concerned face. “That was horrible,” she whispered. “It was like a Slayer dream but worse. I thought you were going to kill me and I nearly staked you. If I had, I wonder what would have happened? It felt so real.”

Spike nodded. “I had one too,” he said. “It wasn’t a bundle of laughs. It woke me up and then I saw what you were going through.”

“What did you dream about?” she asked, wondering if she really wanted to know what could scare Spike.

Spike thought about lying but decided not to. Buffy knew him, all of him, and still loved him. She deserved the truth. “I was at your house. Everyone was there, all the Scoobies, Giles, your sis – and they were all dead. I’d killed them.” The stark facts were bad enough but the images haunted him. He’d seen worse, he’d done worse, but never to people he knew so well. He swallowed at the memory of Dawn, blood lying thick across her throat like a scarf, glazed eyes half open, as was her mouth, fixed in an endless scream of imploring denial. He shuddered. Was this how Angel felt all the time, he wondered distantly. Did his memories cling to him like smoke to clothing, waiting for him to close his eyes or lower his guard, so they could leap out at him from the darkness of his mind? Poor sod. He began to fret that if Buffy did need to feed again, he might not want to risk it for his own sake. He wasn’t sure he could cope with any more guilt.

Buffy shivered and reached for him, pulling him close. “That must have been awful,” she said sympathetically, rubbing his back.

Spike buried his face in her shoulder, shame and relief flooding him. Her pity was too much to bear. Her scent surrounded him and he nuzzled her neck, kissing and licking at it, needing to taste her. She pulled his head up so that she could kiss his lips, her mouth hungry and demanding. They caressed each other wordlessly, the heat between them flaring into life with every touch, every stroke. Spike thrust into her almost savagely and she cried out, not with pain, but a demand for more. He was above her, his arms trapping her against his body, his lips claiming hers and she came at once, then began to climb again. As he hammered into her, all his customary finesse lost in the conflicting emotions that were tearing him apart, she urged him on, wrapping her legs around his waist, her nails scoring his back. The small, exquisite pain was enough to make him climax and for the first time ever, he slipped into game face as he came.

Almost without thinking, his fangs took her throat and instead of struggling, he felt her pull his wrist towards her, biting deeply enough to reopen the wound that his own fangs had made earlier that day. As the link was made, as they fed, the air around them began to burn with the cold blue light of the opening portal. Buffy was lost, gulping greedily, her sense of responsibility swamped by the sensations that her body was experiencing. Spike was in her deeply, doubly penetrating her flesh. Pleasure, ecstasy almost unbearable in its intensity, had her in its grip and there was no room for rational thought.

Spike was aroused by her, as he had never been before. She met and matched him every step of the way and he gloried in her body, in her love. But he remained aware of their surroundings and as the portal began to engulf them, he stopped feeding, tearing his hand free from Buffy’s mouth. The blue light dimmed and he sighed with relief. Buffy was frantically trying to recapture his wounded hand and he growled at her warningly. She wasn’t his fledgling, but she responded to his threat for long enough to allow her own personality to assert itself.

“Spike! God, what was that?” she whispered, wiping the blood from her lips and reaching up to her bitten neck.

“That was me being a useless pillock and nearly landing us back in Sunnydale, with nothing done,” Spike replied bitterly. He pulled out of her and rolled over onto his back, staring up at the ceiling.

Buffy lay still. “It wasn’t your fault,” she said.

“Didn’t I spend most of today telling you how we couldn’t do that again? How it was changing us both for the worse? Then I go ahead and do it anyway. I’m useless. Should’ve brought Xander with you, he’d have been more of a help.”

Buffy giggled at that admission and Spike twisted round to glare at her. “What’s so bloody funny?” he demanded.

“You are,” she said softly. “You’re all tangled up inside and yet all you care about is not being able to protect me. You think you’re a failure. You’re not.” The amusement left her voice and she moved over him, straddling his body and easing down on his hard length, sighing with pleasure as he filled her. “I can feel your blood inside me,” she whispered, moving languidly, making him gasp. “It’s burning, it’s begging me to listen to it. Just like you’ll be begging soon if I keep doing this – ” She paused, sheathing the head of his erection in her, but not moving down. Spike’s nails dug into the sheets, his body rigid as he tried to stop his hips from moving upwards. He stared up at her, unable to speak, refusing to plead. Without warning she slammed down, taking him deep inside her, throwing back her head and crying out. Spike growled, thrusting into her helplessly and she pulled up again, almost losing him but not quite. He moaned then and she felt him quiver with need. “But I’m the Slayer,” she murmured. “ I have that darkness inside me already. I’ve lived with it for years. I can tame it. So I won’t give into it again, no matter how – hard it gets.” She leaned forward and nibbled at his neck, just at the place where a vampire would bite, feeling the throaty purr he was making.

“But I’ll listen if you want to beg,” she said, taking him inside her again and starting to rise up almost at once.

Spike’s hands shot out and gripped her waist, halting her. Holding her still, he began to move with a steady, insistent rhythm. She moaned with enjoyment, then wailed as he stopped abruptly. “I’m going to start begging now,” he whispered. “I can see you’re going to take some convincing, so it’ll take me a while –”

“No! No need, just don’t stop, don’t stop –”

Spike surged up into her, grinning wickedly. “Anything you say, love. Yours to command, you know that.”

There was a pause and then she said thoughtfully, “Well, in that case –”

When they could take and give no more, they slept, her breath warm against his face, his hair soft beneath her hand, slept dreamlessly until the morning came.

The Realm. Daybreak

Buffy and Spike stood at the edge of the wood, waiting for Sadrin to lead them to the Wellspring. The Shield had been placed in a backpack and Buffy slung it on her shoulders. It was light but the pack was made of rough canvas and she could feel the straps beginning to chafe her skin through her cotton shirt. Reluctantly, she took it off, pulled on her jacket and shrugged the pack back on.

“I can carry it and your jacket, love,” Spike offered, guessing that it was already warm enough that she would be more comfortable without a coat. Sometimes his own indifference to the temperature made it difficult to remember that others might be too hot or too cold.

Buffy shook her head. “Thanks, but I have this feeling that I should be the one who takes it there. It’ll be cooler in the wood, maybe.”

Sadrin was a few hundred yards away, deep in conversation with the four men who had been his companions the day before. They finished speaking and he bowed his head in resignation and then watched as they walked off hurriedly. Shaking his head, he turned and walked towards Buffy and Spike. His face was calm but there were shadows under his eyes. “I will take you, but no one else will come,” he said.

Spike shrugged. “They weren’t exactly chatty,” he noted. “Doubt we’ll miss them.”

Buffy was a little more inclined to question. “Why don’t they want to come with us?” she asked, her tone making it plain that she expected an answer.

“Last night they had dreams. Now they are frightened of what will happen when you reach the Spring. I cannot force them as I had the dreams too. I only go because I must.”

“Why must you?” Buffy persisted, frowning as she wondered why other people seemed to have been affected by nightmares.

Sadrin looked at her and a smile flickered on his drawn face. “I didn’t tell you why I was chosen to be your guide, did I? Lord Grelin is of my family. Had he remained human, he would have been my uncle, many times removed of course.” He looked amused by their looks of bewilderment. “It is a great honour to be chosen to be turned, not only for the Immortal, but for their family. Since Lord Grelin was changed, the head of my family has always been the head of the village. I owe him much. I’m glad to be able to repay him.”

This ran so contrary to Buffy and Spike’s experiences that they had nothing to say. Silently they followed Sadrin out of the village, into a wood that, in daylight, seemed idyllic. After walking for about ten minutes, Spike began to lag behind. Buffy turned, about to ask him what he was doing, when Spike suddenly doubled back along the track and reached into the bushes. Buffy raised an eyebrow and watched with some amusement as he hauled Matthew out of his hiding place. “I thought I could hear rustling,” she commented.

“Yes, looks like we’ve got some company,” said Spike, his hand gripping Matthew’s collar.

Sadrin came back to join them, staring at Matthew with evident disapproval. “Did Lord Grelin tell you to join us?” he demanded.

“He told me to stay near the Slayer,” Delvers replied, hunching one shoulder defensively as Spike released him.

Buffy pursed her lips. “Walk in front, then, where I can see you,” she ordered. She didn’t want anyone behind her whom she didn’t trust. Of the people with her today, only Spike qualified.

***

Sunnydale. May 11. Morning.

Giles looked at Ethan and frowned. He still slept but Willow’s spell would have to be lifted soon. Once Ethan was free, Giles doubted that they would be able to keep him prisoner. He was just too tricky. On the other hand, Giles didn’t really want him out there doing his best to help the vampire who was trying to kill Buffy. But Ethan wasn’t the only one who could be tricky of course.

“It’s a pity we can’t trust anything he says,” Willow commented sourly, coming into the room quietly and passing Giles a cup of coffee. They were the only two awake and both looked exhausted from too little sleep.

“I agree,” said Giles. “I extracted quite a bit from him but he’s too tough to break, without far more pressure applied than I really feel comfortable with.”

“Want me to try?” Willow said eagerly, eyes twinkling.

Giles tilted his head and looked at her, a speculative gleam in his eyes. “And just what did you have in mind?” he asked, “I don’t think I can condone some of the darker spells, not even on Ethan.”

“I was thinking of a simple truth spell,” she replied.

Giles shook his head. “He’ll be warded against anything that basic, I’m afraid.”

The twinkle in Willow’s eyes deepened. “So we get more complex,” she said, holding up a book so that Giles could read its name.

Giles squinted at the title and gasped. “Goodness me, Willow! Do you really feel capable of this? If you slip up, Ethan will be left with a pink ooze where his brain used to be.”

This time Willow dimpled. “I’ll make sure to have Tara and Dawn standing by with a bucket and mop,” she said.

“Oh, well, in that case –” said Giles. “Let’s go and get something to eat first. I’m sure I’ll be losing my appetite soon.”

They walked into the kitchen and Giles leaned in close to whisper in Willow’s ear, “Do you think he heard that?”

Willow nodded. “I slackened the spell very gradually. He probably thinks he fought it off by himself. The binding spell is still holding him though.”

After eating a quick breakfast they went back into the room where Ethan was tied to a chair by magical bonds and Willow pretended to lift the sleep spell. He gave a fairly convincing imitation of someone who had just woken up and then looked at them imploringly. “Rupert, old pal, I’m going to lose all use of my extremities, not to mention starve, if you don’t let me go and feed me.”

Giles smiled. “Willow has one little spell to do and after that, I promise we’ll set you free.”

Ethan blanched. “I’d really rather she didn’t,” he said hurriedly. “In fact, I can’t think why she’d want to. I’m totally on your side. I see now that it would be bad for everyone if the Slayer died and Grelin took over.” He smiled, the dried blood on his face cracking. He was going to get a nasty shock when he looked in a mirror.

Giles smiled, shaking his head slowly. “We don’t trust you, Ethan and we never will. It’s vital that we get all we can from you to help Buffy. For the sake of our friendship, I’ll stop short of actual torture but Willow here, well, you know these youngsters. Always keen to think outside the box. She’s found a rather useful spell – what was it called again?” He looked at Willow, his eyebrows raised enquiringly.

Willow smiled happily, her eyes fixed on Ethan like a cat watching a caged mouse. “The Rite of Esgarth,” she chirped.

Ethan surged forward, panicking. The bonds held but he tipped the chair over sideways and fell heavily, his legs kicking in the air. “Ripper! You can’t let an amateur, a girl, try that spell on me!”

Giles grinned at his predicament and reached down to grip the chair. Willow came across to help him and they set it upright. “I’m not an amateur,” she said seriously. “I’ve raised the dead. So that should make you less nervous, in case anything goes wrong, hmm?”

“Can I speak freely? No. It doesn’t.”

“Pity.”

There was a short silence as Ethan looked at two calm, utterly ruthless faces. He crumbled before their eyes. “There’s something that I didn’t mention, what with all the pain and everything.” He paused to glare at Giles, a flash of his usual arrogance resurfacing. “Grelin left me a way of communicating with him. It’s tricky, we’re not talking cell phones, but if I absolutely have to, I can reach him.”

Giles nodded thoughtfully. “That might be useful,” he allowed. “Tell us more.”

Ethan hesitated and then shrugged. “Those vampires you’ve been having trouble with? They’re here because Grelin’s put a Stone of Compulsion directly over the Hellmouth. It’s sending out a signal to every demon in a thousand mile radius. Some can’t move very fast but by the end of the week, well –”

“Grelin was actually here?” demanded Giles.

Ethan wriggled uneasily. “Well, when I say Grelin put it there, I mean he –”

“Told you to,” interrupted Willow, her face showing the contempt she felt. “We could all have been killed last night. You’ve endangered my friends. Do you know how that makes me feel?”

Ethan looked at her. “A little cross?” he offered hopefully.

She smiled without humour. “Try again.”

Giles waved an impatient hand. “You placed the Stone, you can neutralise it. If we do it quickly, it should reduce tonight’s influx considerably.”

Willow bit her lip thoughtfully. “I have a better idea,” she said. “Until Buffy gets back, why don’t we reverse the signal on the Stone? Send the demons as far away from here as their warty little legs will take them. It’s not as if we’re dumping all our problems on other people; most of them aren’t from here anyway and they should scatter in all directions. When Buffy’s back, we can cancel the spell and things will gradually get back to normal.”

Giles nodded as she spoke, his brain busy planning what they would need in the way of counter spells and ingredients. ”I think that should work and it will leave us free to concentrate on helping Buffy,” he said.

Ethan looked at them both, his jaw dropping. “Do you have any idea how long it took me to set up that spell?” he spluttered. “You’d be interfering with a mystical masterpiece.”

Willow and Giles exchanged glances. “He really is an amateur, isn’t he?” she commented.

Ethan gasped, her words hurting more than any blow.

“Wake the others,” said Giles. “We’ll go to the Magic Box, get what we need, and head over to the school. Good news, Ethan. You’re going on a field trip.”


***

The Realm. Morning.

Sadrin had been walking for what seemed like miles. Buffy’s Slayer strength had begun to fade again. She had never been much into hiking and with only normal stamina, she was flagging. Spike strolled along beside her, his eyes watchful. The insects didn’t seem to land on him and he wasn’t sweating or panting. “I hate you,” Buffy muttered, slapping irritably at a cloud of bugs hovering around her face.

“Me or the mini bloodsuckers?” asked Spike with a grin.

“Both!” she said.

He put an arm around her and hugged her. “If I thought you meant that –”

“What?”

“I’d cry.”

“No, you wouldn’t.”

“No, I probably wouldn’t.”

Buffy giggled. Spike was the first boyfriend she’d had with a working sense of humour. He smoothed her damp hair back with a cool hand and she sighed with relief as the insects dispersed for a few blessed seconds. “Maybe if I stay this close to you, the bugs won’t bother either of us,” she said.

“Works for me but if we get ambushed, you’re hanging onto my good thumping hand,” Spike replied.

Buffy’s spirits slumped again. “And throwing me at them is about the most use I’ll be.”

Spike shook his head. “Doesn’t make sense, love,” he said. “That last time you told me about, when Giles drugged you for that daft test of the Council’s, well, that was physical. There was a good reason you lost your edge. This isn’t like that. All that training you do, even without any mystical stuff, you’re still fitter than most girls your age.”

“That’s what I was wondering, “ Buffy said slowly. “I feel so clumsy, so weak – unless I’m just trying to get used to it. I’m over compensating, I think. Maybe if I practiced I wouldn’t be that useless. Trouble is, I don’t think we’ve got time. Do you hear water?”

Spike glanced at Sadrin. “I think you’re right. Looks like we’ve arrived.” Ahead, Sadrin had halted, Matthew at his side. Both were staring out over a small, deep valley, completely circled by natural stone walls. Buffy and Spike hurried to join them and the Slayer gasped. The Wellspring wasn’t a small pool, as she’d imagined. A waterfall, some hundred feet high, was pouring over a cliff at the head of the valley, a straight, smooth ribbon of silver. At the foot of the fall was a deep lake, shimmering blue water stretching out to fill the valley.

Buffy looked to her right. “Where does the water go?” she asked.

Sadrin shrugged. “Underground tunnels perhaps. The lake never dries up, never floods. It has stayed like this for ever.”

“Haven’t you ever gone down stream to see if it resurfaces?” said Spike, feeling strangely moved by the sight in front of him. It had been so long since he’d seen water reflecting a summer blue sky. A memory of a trip to the seaside as a child came into his head. For a second, he could feel the sand under his feet, packed hard by the water’s edge, soft and trickling through his toes up by the dunes. He glanced down to see if the wave had splashed his sailor suit, feeling the metal edge of his bucket cutting into his hand. When he saw nothing but grass and his boots, he shook his head violently. “This place – ” he said. “It’s messing with me. Taking my memories and replaying them.”

Sadrin nodded. “That is why we know little about it,” he said, giving Spike a sympathetic smile. “It can be a strange place. People stay away.”

Buffy and Delvers looked puzzled, obviously not affected by whatever spell had caught Spike in its net. Spike looked grim. “Let’s get this over with,” he said. “My memories aren’t all that pleasant for the most part and I’d just as soon not relive most of them.”

Sadrin pointed to a narrow trail. “That will take us down to the lake,” he said.

Buffy took a deep breath. “Let’s go.”

Sunnydale May 11. Afternoon.

Giles looked around at the ruins of what had been his second home. He seemed to be in mild shock. Willow and Xander had been back to the school after it had been blown up and they were prepared for the rubble, the chunks of demon flesh and the lingering smell. Ethan, his hands cuffed behind him with some more of Willow’s magical rope, smiled sardonically, kicking aside a blackened lump that had once been a book. Giles moaned. “I thought we emptied out all the texts,” he said plaintively.

“We were in a bit of hurry, Giles,” Xander reminded him. “I know we got most of them. My back ached for days. Books are heavy

“Chaos rampant. I love it,” murmured Ethan, pleasure in his voice as he gazed at the destruction and ruin around him.

His words snapped Giles out of his nostalgic fog and he glared at Rayne. “Where did you put this Stone, then?”

Ethan gestured with his head. “Down there, of course. As close to the Hellmouth as I could.”

His three companions looked at a hole in what had been the library floor. It looked dark down there. “Can’t we reverse the spell from up here?” asked Xander, eternally hopeful.

Willow shook her head. “We have to scatter stuff on it, draw circles around it – we need to be down there.”

Giles took charge. “Xander, you’re armed, you stay up here in case a demon arrives.” Xander hefted a large axe and tried to look confident. “Ethan, you will come down with us. I’ll go first, then you, and Willow, you can be last.”

Giles peered doubtfully down. The hole was about seven foot deep. If he hung and dropped, he would be fine – in theory. Willow and Xander watched as he sat on the edge of the hole, his legs dangling. Placing his hands to one side, he twisted around and began his descent. Suddenly he cried out and clutched desperately at the floor. “My legs! It’s got my –”

Willow gasped and began to run to the hole but Xander beat her to it, flinging himself down on his stomach and trying to haul Giles back up. He managed to grab Giles by the arms but whatever had hold of his legs was far stronger. It simply pulled Giles out of his jacket, leaving it dangling empty from Xander’s hands for a second before he let it fall into the hole. From beneath them, they heard the sounds of a fight begin. Xander scrambled up, and ran back to where he had dropped his axe. “I’m going in,” he said tersely and ran for the hole, jumping straight down.

Willow was about to follow him when she remembered Ethan. He was edging backwards but he froze as she turned towards him. “What’s down there?” she asked in a deceptively quiet voice.

Ethan smirked. “As any amateur should know, a Stone always comes with a Servant. I really did mean to mention it to old Ripper but, well, I had other things on my mind.”

Willow glared at him. “I’ve had enough of you,” she declared. Extending a hand, she pushed him backwards; green light fizzing from her fingers. The bonds around Ethan’s wrists dissolved and he screamed as his arms and legs were pulled apart. “Adhere,” said Willow, in a voice of pure fury. Ethan’s body was sucked up against the wall behind him and he hung, suspended. “That should keep you safe,” she said, turning away to join the fight. The ghosts of a billion flies clustered consolingly around Ethan as he pulled helplessly, trying to free himself and failing.

“I hate this bloody town,” he muttered.

Xander landed awkwardly but it saved his life. As he fell sideways, a sword slashed through the air where his head would have been, breaking in two as it struck solid wall instead of flesh and bone. Rolling, he managed to keep hold of his axe with an effort. A swift glance showed him Giles lying in a corner, blood pouring from a gash on his forehead. A stone in the centre of the room was pulsating, giving off a low pitched hum that made Xander’s teeth ache. He also got his first good look at the demon. Somewhat to his surprise, his first thought was that it didn’t look like much. Either I’m getting braver, or all the frequent blows to the head have softened my brain, he mused. The demon was about his height, humanoid and covered in purple and grey scales. It was Xander plus axe against demon with bare hands. Xander smiled. “Hit me with your best shot –oh.”

The demon opened its mouth and hawked up a gout of purple jelly, spitting it out. As it flew towards Xander, it set on fire, reacting to some element in the air. Torn between revulsion and concern, Xander managed to dodge but it splattered his sleeve and began to eat away at the fabric. He ripped his sleeve away, thanking his own forethought in buying shoddily made, cheap clothes, and threw it to the floor.

“Okay, I think that’s enough of that,” he said firmly, gripping his axe in both hands and advancing on the demon. Giles moaned in pain and the demon’s head whipped around. Xander watched in horror as it prepared to spit fire at Giles, who still had his eyes shut and was an easy target. Swinging his axe, he put all his strength into one scything blow. The demon’s head was lopped off neatly and went flying away, just as the fireball emerged from its mouth. Xander recovered his balance and smiled triumphantly. A shriek from above told him what had happened to the fireball. It had smacked into Willow’s feet as she began her descent into the hole. “Sorry, sorry!” he shouted, “Didn’t mean that to happen, Will.”

Willow’s trainers didn’t burn but they began to melt onto her feet, making her cry out in pain. Xander reached up and took hold of her waist, lowering her to the ground. Picking up Giles’ jacket from the floor, he wrapped it around her shoes and yanked them off as fast as he could. She was sobbing and he saw that her socks were sticking to her feet, soaked in the purple jelly. Without thinking of the risk, he tore them off just as they exploded into flames, searing his flesh. Throwing them aside, he cradled his burnt hands to his chest, whimpering as the agony of the burns began to reach him.

“Xander!” said Willow in horror. “Your hands – we have to get you help.”

Xander shook his head, “ I’ll be fine,” he said through gritted teeth. “Check out Giles first.”

Willow hobbled over to Giles and examined him anxiously. “Apart from the cut, he seems to be in one piece –” She pulled out a wad of tissues and began to dab at the blood on his face. Giles stirred at her touch and his eyes flickered open.

“Stupid of me to forget,” he whispered. “The Servant – ”

“It’s dead,” said Willow, “but we have to get you and Xander to the hospital.”

Giles shook his head weakly. “No. Spell first or who knows what the night will bring.”

Willow chewed her lip with indecision but finally nodded. “I can do it alone. I’ll be quick”

“Ethan?”

Willow smiled. “He’s not going anywhere.”

***

The Realm. Early afternoon.

The climb down to the floor of the valley had been a combination of walking and scrambling over rocks but it hadn’t been dangerous or taxing. Buffy was finding that continually expecting an attack was more draining than a fight would be. She could feel an indefinable threat hovering but when she turned to look at it squarely, it vanished like a mischievous sprite playing hide and seek. Sadrin’s offer of a bed for the night for instance; she had been twitchy from the moment he ushered them into a small, one story building in the centre of the village. She was certain that the windows were high and didn’t open for a reason, and although they weren’t locked in, small scufflings outside the door indicated that it was guarded.

But apart from the bad dreams, nothing had happened. The whole time in the Realm had been like that so far; nerve wrackingly safe. The paradox was driving her crazy. Spike tapped her on the shoulder and she actually jumped and squeaked with surprise, whirling round to glare at him.

Spike recoiled himself, his blue eyes startled. “Sorry, love, didn’t mean to scare you. Just wondered why you were muttering like that.”

“I wasn’t!” She hesitated. “Was I?”

He nodded, anxiously scanning her face. “Not feeling too tired?”

She shook her head. “I’m still normal but I think I’m getting used to it in a way. Like learning to walk on a boat, when the deck’s going up and down. Not hard, but it takes practise.”

“You’ll be fine, Buffy. Trust me.”

She looked at him, hazel eyes sparkling with life. He melted inside as she smiled up at him, the image burning into his mind. So beautiful – and now so fragile. As she turned and walked the last few yards to the end of the path, he noticed how their feet were crushing the flowers in the grass, bruising their leaves, tearing their petals. Some flowers sprang back, hardy and resilient; some had been uprooted and lay dying. The poet in him recognized the metaphor, the lover feared it, and the fighter rejected it. Spike shook his head. This place was hurting him. He couldn’t wait to leave.

The four of them stood at last at the water’s edge. “If an arm appears waving a sword, I suggest we all bugger back up that hill,” said Spike.

“Scared your heart isn’t pure, Sir Galahad?” Buffy murmured.

Spike raised his eyebrows quizzically. “Never figured you for a Tennyson fan – no, wait. You just watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail, right?”

Buffy gave him a haughty stare. “Don’t even try to get snobby with me when you spend all your time watching soaps,” she retorted. Sadrin coughed rather despairingly and a smile lit up Matthew’s sad face as he listened to them squabble goodnaturedly. Finally, the tension relieved a little – which had been Spike’s plan – Buffy looked at Sadrin expectantly.

“You have the Shield?” he intoned.

“Fine time to ask her!” protested Spike. “Supposing she’d left it back –”

“Spike. That’s enough,” said Buffy quietly, not taking her eyes off Sadrin. She pulled her pack round and fumbled with the straps, still gazing at Sadrin’s face. Taking out the Shield, she slipped it onto her left arm, letting the pack fall to the ground.

Sadrin pointed at the lake. “The Wellspring lies at the heart of the lake. You must go to it and drink of it deeply.”

“How do we get there?” said Buffy dubiously. “ I don’t see a boat. Do we have to swim?” Sadrin shrugged, obviously not planning on offering any more help.

Spike walked over to the edge and waded in a few feet. The water lapped gently over the top of his boots, soaking into his black jeans. “Feels warm enough – aah!” Leaping back, he fell to the ground and frantically pulled the damp fabric away from his legs. “It’s bloody holy water,” he said through gritted teeth.

Buffy fell to her knees beside him and quickly untied his boots, pulling them off. “It must be,” she said. “It’s not bothering me.” Spike skinned out of his jeans and flung them over a rock to dry. His duster covered him but he felt a little conspicuous. Angry red weals marked his calves.

Buffy looked at them, with tight lips. “If you knew about this and didn’t tell us –” she said to Sadrin, her face stormy.

Sadrin didn’t replybut silently produced a spare pair of trousers and some thick socks from his pack, handing them over to Spike with a small bow. The trousers were baggy and a little long but Spike pulled them on gratefully. The socks let him wear his wet boots again without too much pain.

Buffy looked out at the lake. “How can it be blessed water?” she asked. “It doesn’t make sense.”

Spike shrugged. “Don’t see that the ‘how’ matters as much as the result. I’m supposed to stick by you, not let you go off swimming in a lake. For all we know, it’s full of piranha or sharks. Fatal to both of us.”

Buffy gulped. “I never could watch ‘Jaws’,” she confessed.

Delvers spoke up unexpectedly. “It’s a test.”

“Well, we sort of got that far already,” Spike said sarcastically. “Any more helpful hints?”

Matthew turned to Buffy. “You were told to bring the Shield with you. It might help.”

She frowned and turned to face the water, making sure that the Shield was visible. “If you want me to come out there, fix the water,” she called. “I’m not letting Spike get hurt again and I’m not going without him.” She expected to feel foolish talking to water but she didn’t. There was a sense of someone listening in this valley, an expectancy in the air. No one replied and she was about to turn away when the sun, hidden behind a thick bank of clouds, appeared again. Its rays seemed to arrow towards the Shield and when they reached it, the white surface began to glow, reflecting the light back. Buffy cried out, startled, but held her arm steady. The glow was the same frosty blue as the portal and it spread out across the lake, turning the water to ice. The effect raced across the water, almost too fast for the eye to follow and when it reached the opposite shore, there was a loud crack as the ice sealed in the water.

“Skates, not a boat,” Buffy said softly. “What did Giles say it was called? The Shield of Frost?” She turned to Spike. “Shall we go before a thaw sets in?”

Sadrin raised his hand, halting her. Reaching into his pack he pulled out a simple cup, fashioned from dark wood, smooth with age. “You need this,” he said.

“And that’s all you’re going to say, hmm?” Buffy asked. She looked at the two men. “Wait here for us. I still don’t trust either of you. If you go, I can’t stop you, but if you do anything tricky, I will come looking for you. Got it?”

Delvers nodded but Sadrin simply smiled. “We will wait and watch, Slayer.”

Spike held out his hand to her and they cautiously edged out onto the lake. It wasn’t as slippery as Buffy had expected. It had frozen so fast that every ripple had been perfectly preserved, which left ridges. As they walked further onto the ice, Buffy felt a dream-like detachment slip over her like an icy cloak. Spike’s cool hand was her only link to reality. The Shield was still on her left arm but it felt like part of her now. She didn’t turn to look back at the shore, nor did she scan her surroundings. There was no need. The ice was empty and bare. Gradually the combination of ice and warm air produced a mist that thickened as they walked, shrouding the figures waiting behind them. They continued to walk, with a certainty that they were heading towards the Wellspring itself. Finally they reached it - a neat circle in the ice with clear water filling it. It didn’t look impressive in itself but the air around it was sparkling, charged with energy. Spike glanced up and saw that the blue sky was obscured by the mist. He shivered reflexively. The mist meant that they would be blind if anyone did follow them and he felt trapped, as though the walls of fog were solid barriers.

Buffy stooped down, dipping the cup into the water. She straightened and looked at Spike, a smile wavering on her lips. “If something goes wrong, Spike –”

He didn’t let her finish and he didn’t give her empty reassurances as he had before. Instead he leaned forward, careful not to touch the hand holding the cup, and kissed her, a slow, gentle kiss that promised all the time in the world for them. When he pulled back, her eyes were stinging with tears. Impatient now, she drank the water, finding it cool and slightly bitter. Darkness swept into her mind, the cup fell from her hand, and she sank down on the ice, unconscious. Spike sat beside her, cross-legged, pulling Buffy onto his lap as much as he could. He folded her shield arm across her body, so that it was protected and he waited.

He didn’t have to wait long.

***

Grelin moved so silently that the two men on the shore were only aware of his arrival when he chose to let them be. Delvers shrank back and Sadrin bowed deeply. Grelin gazed out across the ice, peering through the mist, his face unreadable. Without turning his head he asked, “Did Angelus drink the wine?”

Matthew frowned. “No, but I don’t think –”

Grelin didn’t give him time to finish his sentence. His fist lashed out and hit Matthew on the jaw, rocking him back on his feet. Sadrin looked shocked but remained silent. “You fail me in all you do, little man,” said Grelin. “I think you have come to the end of your borrowed time.”

“Lord Grelin –” interrupted Sadrin. “I do not think the Slayer is with the one you knew as Angelus.”

Grelin rounded on him, fury twisting his features. ‘The Slayer has to be with a vampire willing to die to protect her. There’s only one vampire with a soul; who else could it be?”

Matthew had slumped against a rock, his hand cupping his bruised jaw but he looked up and said, “She calls him Spike. They’re lovers.” He took a savage delight in seeing Grelin at a loss for words, his house of cards demolished by a passing breeze blowing a wild card into the pack.

Grelin’s head moved slowly back and forth as he rejected the information. “Impossible,” he said finally. “A Slayer is trained to kill vampires on sight. How could she have grown close to one? And I know him. He ran with Angelus’ pack, a foolish boy at first who became deadly, a true killer. He would never –”

“It is true, Lord,” said Sadrin, his voice smooth. “He is the one. He is her Guardian as she dreams.”

Grelin shrugged, “No matter. I owe him a debt and it may be that fate has brought him to me so that I can finally repay it.” He smiled wolfishly and turned to look out at the lake. “She has entered the dream world,” he noted. “I can feel her presence there.”

“What will you do?” said Matthew. “What will you do to her?”

Grelin began to walk out onto the ice. “What do you think, little man?” he said mockingly. “What do you think I will do?”

Matthew stared at his back. “You’ll kill them both,” he whispered.

Sunnydale. May 11. Night.

The spell on the stone had been reversed, Giles and Xander’s injuries had been treated and Ethan was once more tied to a chair at the Summers’ house. It had been a busy day, Giles reflected, fingering his injured head gingerly. Fortunately, Ethan had been considerably more subdued than usual after experiencing Willow’s powers firsthand. There was a grudging respect in his eyes when he looked at her, and deep down, a speculative gleam.

The group had discussed, speculated and planned but eventually the talking died away as the pointlessness of it all sank in. Sunnydale was peaceful, Buffy and Spike would be gone for days yet and Ethan was contained.

The Scoobies were learning that the hardest part of an adventure is not being part of it. They had to wait.

They weren’t very good at waiting.

“Giles,” said Willow thoughtfully, tapping a pencil on the dining room table in a rhythm that was irritating Ethan as much as lemon juice on a paper cut, “if Ethan can get in touch with Grelin, so can we. It seems a pity that we can’t use that link to do something.”

“Yes,” said Dawn eagerly. “We can send a spell against him, or maybe just spy on him.” Tara smiled at her enthusiasm and then returned to her textbook. She had spent a lot of study time on researching the Realm and somehow she didn’t think that was going to help her in tomorrow’s classes. Now the urgency was over, she was doing her homework.

Giles looked alert. “A scrying spell? I wonder if that’s at all possible between two dimensions.” He turned and called to Carlton. “Andrew? I need your input here. Do you remember that time we had the invasion of Fagrint demons and we had to speak strongly to their clan chief?”

Carlton nodded. “It was a direct breach of the contract we signed with them in the thirteenth century,” he said indignantly. “Totally irresponsible behaviour. Cost them a pretty penny in damages, I can tell you.”

“Yes, quite,” said Giles. “But how did we communicate with the Chief? I was sent away for my final training session around then and I missed all the excitement.”

Andrew sat down and leaned his elbows on the table, his face animated at the chance to talk shop. “Well, old Ponsonby – you remember him? We were terrified of him until we found out about his yen for custard creams. Never seemed quite so scary after that. Anyway, he used a very ancient method involving chicken entrails –”

Xander and Anya stopped eavesdropping at that point and wandered out to the kitchen. “Do you think there’s anything they can do?” she asked.

Xander shook his head despondently, his burned hands throbbing painfully. “I think it’s keeping them busy though.”

Anya shrugged. “The shop's shut, so I don’t mind, but I hope Giles is a little less distracted tomorrow.”

Xander gave her a look of mingled disappointment and resignation. “Aren’t you even a little bit worried about them?” he asked.

Anya looked him squarely in the face. “Yes. I am. They’re my friends, yes, both of them. But I’ve been around a lot longer than you, Xander and I know my limitations. They’re in a different dimension, on an impossible mission, with an insane foe that they don’t even know about, snapping at their heels. They’re in deep trouble. And there’s not a single thing I can do. I hate that. So I’m not going to think about it.”

“And it’ll just go away?” said Xander, sounding as if he really wanted the answer to be ‘yes’.

Anya patted his face gently. “Never has so far.” His face fell and she slipped her arms around his waist. “You were very brave today,” she commented. “Jumping down that hole, fighting the demon, saving Willow – I’m very proud of you.”

Xander grinned sheepishly. “All part of the job, ma’am.”

“But it isn’t your job,” Anya continued, “and even if it were, it’s over for a while. We have a home and I think we should go there.”

Xander gestured to the living room, “ But, Anya, they need us! We can’t just bail on them. There’s research to do, demons to fight –“ His voice trailed off as she shook her head slowly. “I guess there really isn’t, is there?” A feeling of relief swept through him. “We’re on holiday. Hey. That’s not so bad. Maybe we can see a movie, go out for a meal, and pretend we’re normal.”

Anya beamed. “My hero.”

***

 The Realm. Afternoon.

Matthew watched Grelin disappear into the mist and made up his mind to follow. He waited for a while, watching Sadrin assemble a meal of sorts and set it out neatly on a flat rock, and then stood. “Where are you going?” said Sadrin, his back to Delvers.

“To stop him,” Matthew said simply.

Sadrin turned, a sharp knife in his hand. “I really can’t allow you to leave,” he said. “When Lord Grelin is raised still higher, he will turn me. I will become immortal, as he is. Nothing must be allowed to interfere with that.” He walked purposefully towards Matthew, the knife glittering in the sunlight.

Matthew smiled. “But you see,” he said quietly, twisting and evading the thrust that brought the blade inches away from his heart, “I am nothing. I killed my love and now I’m nothing.” As he spoke, he brought out the stake that he had used on Fellor. With no fear in his mind, no thought of self, he was an implacable opponent. Sadrin slashed him a dozen times but he refused to collapse, waiting for an opening. When it came, he discovered that a stake to the heart could kill a human quite well too.

“But messy,” he murmured, looking down at the sticky blood on his hands and clothes. “Don’t like the mess.” He tucked his stake away and walked onto the lake. Blood dripped from his cuts and where they landed the ice turned dark.

***

Spike cradled Buffy, smoothing her hair back from her face, watching her anxiously for any sign that she was waking up. He hadn’t forgotten why he was there though. Grelin walked silently but Spike was a vampire too and when Grelin reached the Wellspring, he found Spike standing, a stake in his hand, standing guard over his Slayer.

“So it is true,” Grelin said, not bothering to greet Spike. “This Slayer has enslaved you as she did your grand sire. She must be strong indeed.” He peered at the small figure lying on Spike’s duster, her face and hair pale against the black leather. “She seems a pretty little thing – for a human.” The scorn in his voice was palpable but Spike ignored it.

“You still talk a lot, Grelin. It was talking to the wrong people that got you in trouble as I recall.” Spike raised an eyebrow, as cool as the ice surrounding him.

Grelin’s eyes narrowed. “You expected me to die that day, didn’t you? But I was strong. I’m even stronger now. I’m going in after your Slayer and when she’s reawakened the power for me, I’m going to kill her. You’ll have her body to play with but –” He never finished his sentence. Spike had long since learned that waiting for an opponent to signal the start of the fight wasn’t in the rules. And if it was, he didn’t mind breaking them. His foot lashed out in a vicious kick against Grelin’s knee and as the other vampire stumbled, he moved in closer. The fight was fought in silence, both in game face, and both at the peak of their abilities. They were equally matched in strength and motivation but in the end, Grelin triumphed because Spike was vulnerable on two fronts. When it was clear that the fight would have no quick result, Grelin maneuvered himself so that he was between Spike and Buffy. He knelt and held a blade to her throat, his intent plain.

Spike glared at him, wiping blood from a cut on his lip. “You can’t kill her,” he sneered. “You need her alive to do your work for you.”

Grelin smiled. “She can do it just as well blinded,” he said.

Spike hesitated. Buffy was lying so still – she had evidently not completed her task yet. He had to buy her more time but he couldn’t let Grelin hurt her. Agony ripped through him. Had he failed her again? With a savage roar, he threw himself at Grelin, surprising him with the ferocity of his attack. Grelin was sent flying over the ice but as Spike launched himself at him, intending to finish the battle, Grelin managed to position the knife so that Spike was impaled by it as he landed. Smiling thinly, he pushed Spike away. The wound wasn’t fatal but it slowed Spike down. As he writhed in pain, Grelin grabbed Spike’s head and hammered it against the ice brutally until he went limp. He glanced around and picked up the stake that Spike had dropped, holding it poised over his heart. He paused. Killing Spike like this would be too easy. The innate sadism that had prompted him to keep Matthew alive made him spare Spike for the moment. He kicked Spike viciously in the head and when there was no response he nodded in satisfaction and turned away.

The cup that Buffy had drunk from was standing on the ice by the circle of water. Grelin filled it and raised it in a sardonic salute to himself, a dark exultation coursing through him. The cup was struck from his hand as it touched his lips and he turned, snarling, to see the slight figure of Matthew Delvers, staring at him steadily.

“No,” said Matthew.

Buffy woke in the dream world and frowned. She was still on the ice, the shield on her arm, but she was alone. The mist had grown thicker and she could only see a few yards. “Well, this isn’t much fun,” she muttered.

“Oh, I’m sorry. If I’d known I was expected to provide entertainment as well as give you a priceless gift –”

Buffy looked around. “A disembodied voice? I don’t get to see you?”

“Try looking in the shield.”

Buffy slid the shield off her arm and turned it. She saw her own reflection swim up from the milky depths, but that was all. There was a pause. Buffy sighed. “Is this the part where you tell me the answers are all inside me, I just have to look?”

The face looked offended. “Certainly not.”

“So why do you look like me?”

“I look like whoever the current Slayer is.” The face shimmered and dissolved, then reappeared as Faith. “Do you prefer this? She’s equally valid, of course, but as you’re the one here –”

“No!” said Buffy hastily. “Go back to being me. Please.” She didn’t feel up to a prolonged conversation with Faith.

The face obeyed, smiling happily out from the shield. “Do you live in there? Who are you?” asked Buffy curiously.

“I don’t know that you can call it living, exactly, but my essence is within the shield, yes. It has been from the beginning. And I just hate being all mystifyingly cryptic so I’ll tell you everything you need to know.” Buffy raised a sceptical eyebrow. If true, it would be wonderful but she wasn’t hopeful. “Of course, what seems clear to me might not seem so to you,” the face went on. “After all, I can see the big picture and you can’t.” Buffy felt almost reassured as the world went back to normal. She settled down and waited for the vagueness to begin.

“My name is Ula. I was the First Slayer. My father was the enchanter who created the Slayers after the last demon tainted human blood by feeding and making a vampire. He had a personal reason for doing this, as a vampire killed his brother. My father knew that I would die before my time so he arranged it that I would become immortal myself in a way. As one Slayer dies, another is Chosen. But his magic was only so strong. He sacrificed his life to augment it and that is why every thousand years, another sacrifice must be made, to keep the spell – and the Slayers – alive.”

“Stop!” said Buffy, scrambling to her feet and dropping the shield on the ice. The flow of information had stunned her but one question was clamouring to be heard. “I’ve seen the First – she was nothing like you. You sound, well, like me. Not thousands of years old. And, no offence, but she was serious, dedicated, not, well, chatty.”

Ula smiled. “You saw me as I was, thousands of years ago. When I died, my mother managed to capture my soul and she put it in here. The shield has gone to many places, had many owners and I have listened and learned. I can also sense a lot of what happens to you – to all the Slayers. I can hardly remember that girl.” Her face looked thoughtful. “Do you think you’d have much in common with yourself at six months? But that’s why you were told to bring the Shield. Can’t do much without me, now can you? It made it a little harder for you to get here without it; I can open the portal you see. Matthew Delvers didn’t need to kill anyone to reach the Realm; he just needed the Shield, but Grelin either didn’t know that or didn’t care.”

Buffy frowned. “So, if I had had the shield back in Sunnydale, I wouldn’t have had to feed off Spike?”

Ula shook her head. “No, there has to be blood as well but it doesn’t have to mean a death. It’s only a portal, after all. And it was important that you fed. I think you’d already worked that out. It’s the sign of the need to renew the power when a Slayer and a vampire combine. You’re a special Slayer, dying and all that – and he’s a special vampire. A match made in – hmm, not heaven, not with you two. Let’s just say it was meant to be.”

Buffy felt her head swim. “So, I’m here, I’ve got the shield; what now?”

“I told you; a sacrifice must be made.”

Buffy sighed. “I guessed as much. Well, this is something I’ve had a lot of practise at so it shouldn’t be too –”

“No, no, not you! You’re the Slayer and a good one too, despite what my earlier self told you. I was a bit focused back then. No need for you to die before your time as I did.”

Buffy felt a sickness grow within her. ‘Then who?”

Ula grimaced. “You’re not usually this slow,” she complained. “I made it easy for you; you don’t have to look far or anything. He’s standing right by your body.”

Buffy shook her head vehemently. “I will not sacrifice him! I know he’s a vampire, I know I’m supposed to kill his kind, but you don’t understand; he’s different, he’s changed. He trusts me with his life. He fed off me and didn’t kill me; that says it all.” She stopped, out of breath, her emotions violent and turbulent. “You just said we were meant to be!”

Ula grinned, annoyingly. “Ain’t love grand and dramatic? I didn’t mean him. I meant – oh. That’s not so good.”

“What?”

“I meant Grelin but unfortunately, someone else has just killed him.”


***

Grelin could scarcely speak, he was so angry. To have this moment interrupted, spoiled, by the likes of Delvers – it was beyond anything. The cup rolled to the edge of the pool of water and silently fell in. It was wood but it didn’t float. Instead it was sucked in, vanishing from sight. Thrusting Delvers aside, Grelin threw himself down and reached into the water, his fingers searching desperately for the cup. It was gone. Grelin scooped up a handful of the water and drank it but there was no effect.

“It has to be from the cup,” he muttered. Matthew watched him calmly, no trace of fear on his face. Grelin stood and glanced about him; the still bodies of the Slayer and her Guardian, the silent figure of the man he had twisted to suit his purposes. “You think you have stopped me?” he said. “I will kill you and him and when she wakes, I will kill her too and take her power.” His voice was rising until he sounded like a spoiled, petulant child.

Matthew halted his progress with one devastating word. “How?”

Grelin looked puzzled. “Killing is easy, little man. I taught you that, if nothing else.”

Matthew looked at him patiently. “Once she has the power, it belongs to the Slayer line. You cannot take it from her here. Kill her and another will rise. You have lost everything, dreams, ambitions and purpose, just like me. Now we’re equal.”

“Equal? I, the equal of a human? I am an Immortal, a higher being. You exist to feed me, to serve me, no more.”

“You are a man who lets a demon rule you. A weakling. I pity you, and I pity myself. “

His words maddened Grelin and he advanced, his fangs sharp, his bestial eyes gleaming gold. Delvers stood still, his hands by his side. Grelin grabbed him by the shoulders and bit deeply into his neck, feeling the satisfying crunch of bone and the hot gush of blood. Mathew smiled even as he screamed in pain, smiled as he plunged the stake into Grelin’s heart, the thirsty stake, fed by dust and blood. Fangs locked in his victim’s neck, Grelin never saw the stake flash upwards, hardly felt it penetrate. But he saw the smile and pulled back in time to see what jutted out of his chest.

“No!” Grelin gripped the stake and tried to pull it out, tried to reverse his fate. It was too late. Delvers looked into the face of the demon who had corrupted him utterly and saw it shred away to bone and dust. Then he fell to the ice, one hand at his ruined throat.

“Thanks, mate. Saved me a job,” said Spike, struggling up to his knees.

***

“Spike’s killed him? Is he okay?” Buffy demanded. “Let me go to him.”

Ula pouted. “Wasn’t Spike. Fine Guardian you picked. It was Matthew. I suppose if anyone had the right to kill Grelin it was he. Oh, well. Maybe you will need to kill Spike after all.” She sounded completely unconcerned, as though she were offering Buffy the choice between tea or coffee.

“Not going to happen,” said Buffy grimly. “I want to see what’s going on. Right now.”

Ula must have done something because suddenly Buffy was back in her own body. She sat up and looked around quickly. Spike was crawling over to Matthew, both of them dripping blood all over the ice. Buffy cried out and ran over to Spike.
“Where are you hurt? What happened?” she asked, gripping his shoulders.

He looked up at her through pain hazed eyes. “Buffy. You got it all sorted then? Had a bit of a problem with Grelin but Matthew here took care of it.”

Buffy glanced at Matthew, saw his throat and shuddered. “Grelin fed off him?”

Spike shook his head slowly. ”He got suckered. Matthew lured him in, knowing that was the only way Grelin would let him get close enough to stake. He waited until Grelin had his fangs in and then stabbed him. Brave. Stupid but brave.”

Matthew coughed, blood pouring out of his mouth. “Not stupid,” he whispered. “Nothing to live for. Murderer twice over.”

Buffy went over to him, kneeling beside him, knowing that he had only moments to live. “You were still brave,” she said simply. “You knew what he planned to do and you’ve saved so many people. I know it doesn’t cancel out what you did but – it helps. Believe me.”

Spike looked away uncomfortably as the agony ripped at his side. The shield caught his eye and he frowned, catching a glimpse of the familiar reflection inside. It shimmered and an insubstantial figure appeared in the air, a twin to Buffy. Spike said urgently, “Buffy –” and she turned, glaring when she saw Ula.

“Can’t you at least let him die in peace?” The Slayer demanded.

“Er; who is this, love?” asked Spike, wondering if he was hallucinating.

Ula took pity on his bewilderment and changed form so that she looked like the First Slayer Buffy was familiar with. “I am Ula, the spirit of the First Slayer,” she said.

“Pleased to meet you,” said Spike, automatically.

“Don’t be,” said Buffy bitterly. “She wants me to kill you to activate the power. Seems Grelin would have done the job but unfortunately, he’s not here.”

Matthew had lapsed into a lethargic trance but he roused at this. “I couldn’t even get that right?” he murmured. “Sorry.”

Ula glided over to him. “You are dying,” she said bluntly but not without some sympathy. His eyelids flickered in acknowledgment. “Then it’s really quite simple.” She turned to Buffy. “Kill him instead. He won’t mind; it would be doing him a favour, and it will save your boyfriend.”

Buffy’s eyes flashed. “No! The Slayer isn’t a killer. Not now, not ever. I don’t kill humans.”

Frustrated impatience flashed across Ula’s face and she shrugged. “Then the Slayer line ends here.”

Spike opened his mouth, but, fortunately for the future of his relationship with Buffy, said nothing. It was left to Matthew to act and he did so with a desperation fuelled by the need to atone. His hand still clutched the stake that he had used to such effect. He turned it so that the point was towards him and then slid it into Buffy’s hand. She gripped it automatically and then looked down at him. “What -?”

Matthew grabbed her wrist and with one last burst of strength forced the stake into his heart. Buffy screamed and dropped the wooden stake but it was too late. Matthew’s face contorted with pain and then, quite simply, he died.

Spike sighed with relief at the tidy resolution, exchanging glances with the First and recognising that they shared a common emotion. Buffy was less pragmatic. The horror of what had happened broke over her like a wave, leaving her breathless and floundering. Buffy’s head dropped into her hands and she began to sob. Spike started to drag himself over to her but Ula stopped him.

“Enough,” she said with a cutting finality. “It is done. For another thousand years, the forces of darkness will meet you as they crawl from their graves. Through you, I will continue the work my father gave me. Thank you, Slayer.”

Buffy raised a tear stained face. “You –” she choked. “You’ve made me a killer.”

Ula nodded. “Yes. But I didn’t do it today.”

The figure vanished and the Slayer and the vampire were left alone on the ice.

Sunnydale. May 17.

Buffy and Spike arrived back where their journey had begun, in the training room at the Magic Box. It was dark and empty. They struggled to their feet, both weak, Spike from his injury, Buffy from emotion and blood loss. This time Spike’s feeding had been almost desperate as his injured body took in sustenance. She had been on the point of hitting him to make him stop when his fangs slid out of her flesh and he let her wrist drop. The taste of his blood in her mouth made her feel sick and she walked over to the water cooler in the corner of the room and drank deeply.

“Not much of a welcome home, is it?” Spike asked flatly. “Sure it’s eight days we’ve been away, not eight years?”

Buffy shrugged. “Let’s go find out,” she said, her tone mirroring his.

The shop was deserted and a glance at the clock told them why; it was eleven at night. The shop was locked up and they decided to use the tunnel leading from the basement to go to Spike’s crypt. As they walked, Spike began to chuckle. “What is it?” asked Buffy, not sounded as if she cared all that much.

Spike grinned. “Just thinking about the last time I saw Grelin. It’s no wonder he was so keen to get his hands on Angel but I don’t suppose he minded getting a chance to kill me either.”

Buffy sighed. “Go on then; tell me why.”

Spike began to talk, his voice almost dreamy as he sauntered along. “ I told you about the first time Angel and Grelin tangled. Before I was born, that was. Darla cut him and he disappeared for a while. He popped up again not long after I’d been turned. We were still in London and I couldn’t figure out why they were so scared – they’d won, hadn’t they? But Grelin was doing terrible things to people they knew, moving in closer and closer to them. Of course, Angel being Angel it wasn’t long before he got angry instead. They set a trap for him, captured him just before sunrise.” His voice quickened with amusement. “They left him with his tongue nailed to the door of St Paul’s cathedral, stark naked. I think the humiliation of it hurt worse than tearing his tongue free. He got burned too but he made it. We never saw him again.”

Buffy shuddered. Knowing what Angel had done in the past always disturbed her.

“Here we are,” said Spike, leading the way up into his crypt. It was surprisingly tidy. “I asked Clem to keep an eye on it,” said Spike. “Looks like he did a bit more than that. Want a drink or something?”

“I’m going home,” Buffy said abruptly. “You stay here and rest. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Spike looked at her, reading her mood with uncanny accuracy. “You didn’t kill him, Buffy.”

She threw up a hand as if he had raised his fist, not his voice. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she said, her voice hard. She turned and walked to the door but Spike was there before her, his hand slamming it shut.

“So that’s it? You’re going to shut me out, put a door between us?”

“Can’t you just give me some space, some time?” she hissed, looking at him as though she hated him. “It’s been a long day. I’m really not up to more fun and games.”

Spike flinched, his eyes showing the hurt that she’d wanted to inflict. He turned away and she felt the sick satisfaction of scoring a hit before the slump of his shoulders robbed her petty victory of any pleasure.

“Oh, God, Spike. I’m sorry,” she began. “I didn’t mean that.”

She went to him, wrapping her arms around him, but he was as still and cold as ice. Stepping back, she watched in disbelief as he walked away from her and climbed down to his bedroom without a word or a glance.

For the second time in an hour, the Slayer felt tears sting her eyes but she didn’t wait to see if Spike would be moved by them. An intense longing for her own home filled her and she left the crypt, moving as fast as she could, feeling strength returning to her body. She was almost at the cemetery gates when a trio of vampires stepped out of the shadows.

“Slayer’s back, boys,” said the biggest, a sneer on his vamped out face. “Thought you’d gone and left us. Guess you just couldn’t stay away, huh?”

Buffy wiped away her tears, dropped her backpack on the ground and began to fight automatically, kicking, punching and pounding them. One she staked but as he dusted she fell and the big vampire landed on her, squashing her against the ground. Buffy felt a tree root dig into her spine, the tickle of grass against her face, breathed in the smell of the soil and knew that she had no strength left in her to fight. It was a mental weakness, not physical and it left her feeling strangely detached. As if pleading for her life, she stretched out her hand, brushing the face of the vampire as he snarled at her. Spittle dripped from his fangs and landed on her cheek. Sheer revulsion sparked a fury of hatred, shattering the shell of apathy that had formed around her, and Buffy screamed at him, a wordless cry that ended with one command – “Die!”

And he did. It began where her hand lay against his face, a redness beneath the skin that spread as a forest fire crackles busily through the dry bracken before erupting spectacularly to bring down the tall trees. When the magical flames had consumed all they wanted, they left him, exploding out of the hollow bag that had been his body and leaving Buffy staring up at a starry sky. The last vampire made an odd retching sound and turned to run. Buffy let him go. Moving as silently as a ghost, the tears drying into sticky tracks on her face, she went to find Giles.

***

Giles and Carlton were still awake but only just. Sipping appreciatively at a small selection of malts, they were reminiscing and making tentative plans for the future.

“I really need you back home,” said Andrew. “Only for a short while; I can see that you’re needed here, but your advice on a realistic training programme for both Watchers and Slayers would be invaluable. If you could spare the time –” He was interrupted by Buffy knocking on the door. Giles walked across and peered through the peephole to see who it was. When he saw Buffy, his face lit up with pleasure.

“Buffy!” he exclaimed, opening the door and ushering her in. “I wasn’t expecting you back so early! Wonderful. Come in.” As he took in her appearance and the fact that she was alone, he sobered, lowering his voice and shielding her from Andrew’s gaze with his body. “Spike? Is he not with you?”

“Spike’s fine,” Buffy said dully. “I did what I had to, the power’s back, we’re back, everything’s fine. Except it isn’t and it never will be again.” She hauled the Shield out of the pack she had been carrying for what seemed like days, not hours, and tossed it carelessly on the table. Carlton winced as it knocked into a bottle of Highland Park but remained silent. “She told me to keep that safe so I suppose you’d better have it. Slayers come and go but you lot are always around, aren’t you?”

Giles looked at her thoughtfully, assessing his Slayer. He had seen her grieve, seen her despair but this seemed to go deeper than that. She was in shock and he moved quickly. Buffy found herself wrapped in a cover, huddled up in a soft armchair, hands clutching a warm cup of cocoa. Sipping at it automatically, she felt her body and mind calm as Giles’ remedies and concern soothed her.

“Do you want to discuss it now, Buffy? It can wait until tomorrow, I’m sure,” Giles said as he watched her pale cheeks flush pink again.

She shook her head, turning to stare at the empty fireplace. “There’s so much to tell, I don’t know where to start. You talk; how have things been here?”

Giles and Carlton exchanged rueful glances. “We had a visit from Ethan,” said Giles, rubbing the bridge of his nose and looking slightly embarrassed. “I won’t bore you with the details right now, but it seems he was working for Grelin. We managed to defuse a little surprise he had set up and we were holding him at your house, but well, -”

“He escaped,” said Andrew. “I’m not sure how but one morning he had gone, taking with him all the cash he could find and leaving a decidedly rude note.”

Giles nodded, throwing up his hands helplessly. “You know Ethan – not an easy chap to hold onto. Still, I doubt he’ll continue to bother us if Grelin’s dead – I assume he is dead?”

Buffy nodded and Giles smiled, his thoughts hidden behind his cool eyes. Ethan probably would have escaped in time but as it happened, he’d had an assistant. Giles had overheard him talking to Willow and had been shocked at the subtlety of his approach. The older mage had tried to lure the young witch into experimenting with the sort of spells that he and Giles had abused as teenagers. That Ethan should be so irresponsible was no surprise. That Willow should have been tempted had horrified the Watcher so much that he had weighed up the risks and decided that Sunnydale would be better off without Ethan around. Ever. When it came to it, he hadn’t –quite- been able to kill him, but Ethan had left town under no illusions about his fate if he ever came near Willow again.

“Anyway,” Giles continued smoothly, “ all has gone well in your absence. Dawn had a B on a math test which sent her into paroxysms of delight, Xander finally put up the shelves in the basement for you and Anya’s hair is now Sunset Sable. Or so she tells me. It’s a brownish red.” He smiled as Buffy looked fleetingly amused. “So, are you ready to tell us what happened?”

All his good work was undone by this simple question. Buffy’s eyes filled up with tears and she brushed at them impatiently. “I’ve cried more today than I have since –” She stopped, not wanting to mention her mother’s death. Taking a deep breath, she carefully put down her mug on a side table and stared at Giles. In a monotonous voice she began to describe what had happened in the Realm as Giles and Carlton listened, longing to interrupt and ask questions but prevented by a steely gleam in her eyes. She finished her recital by telling them about the vampire she had just killed, looking down at her hands as she spoke, holding them away from her body as if they were coated with filth.

“So, I’m no better than Faith and now I’ve got super powers to make killing people really easy,” she said bitterly.

“Actually, that new increased power is transitory,” began Giles. “A side effect of the freshening of the powers. We did some research whilst you were away. It should wear off in a day or two.”

“So after that, I’ll just be an ordinary murderer? That’s a relief.”

Giles opened his mouth to reassure her but as he did, the door opened and Spike appeared. “That’s a load of bollocks, Slayer,” he said, his voice hard.

Buffy’s head shot up and she glared at Spike. “Don’t try and make me feel better!” she said. “You were there, you saw –”

“I saw everything,” said Spike flatly. “Even dusted the vamp you let go just now. I’ve been listening to you until I couldn’t take any more. Pull yourself together, girl.”

Giles surged to his feet, his eyes stormy but paused. Visibly restraining himself he raised an eyebrow at the vampire leaning casually against the door. Spike’s lips were compressed and his face was drawn with pain but he held Giles’ gaze without flinching. “Your Slayer’s learned a lesson tonight. Should have been something you taught her on Day One. Guess you were too busy on the finer points of inserting stakes.” Spike pushed himself away from his support and walked into the centre of room. He looked down at Buffy, still huddled in her chair and his face softened for a second. “She thinks she’s a killer, Giles. Thinks those pretty little hands are dripping with blood and there’s no getting them clean. But why is she only getting the message now, after what, six or seven years of Slaying?” He stared down at Buffy’s woebegone face, blue eyes freezing her in place. “Why didn’t she know that from the start?” He knelt down by her chair, a sudden movement that made her gasp. Gripping the arms of the chair, trapping her, he whispered, “You kill. You Slay. And you want to know something? You’re bloody good at it, love. You really are.”

Buffy’s head began to move back and forth in a frantic rejection of his words. Carlton, his face filled with indignation and hostility, began to go towards Spike but Giles, wiser than his friend, held him back, watching the scene with keen eyes.

“The mistake you’re making is in feeling guilty about it. You didn’t kill Matthew; he used you to commit suicide. You should have killed him, mind you. Bloody silly time to have scruples if you ask me. But what you do, night in and night out – it’s not something to feel guilt over. Killing is ending something and that’s not always bad. Sometimes, like today, it’s a kindness. Sometimes it’s hard. But you’re like a doctor curing an illness by killing disease, like a teacher killing ignorance by showing kids how to read – and you’re the only thing standing between humans and a quick nasty death.”

He shook his head, his hands sliding down to grip hers, holding them tightly. “They asked a lot of you, love. But that First Slayer was right. You’re special. You can take it. You can take anything they throw at you and if something does get by you, I’ve got your back.” His voice became grudging. “And I suppose those Scoobies of yours might come in handy now and then.”

Buffy pulled her hand free and held it up to his face, her eyes shining with a new understanding and a deep love. She touched him gently and he held still, the air between them quivering with tension.

“Do you want to live?” asked the Slayer.

The End.

Return to Home

Click here if you'd like to send feedback