DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course. And the chapter titles are courtesy of Robert Burns.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Riley has called a semi-truce in light of Duncan’s plans for Buffy and the harness, and the Slayer has taken the harness back to Frank, only to be interrupted by Duncan’s arrival…

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Chapter 43: Tho' Cruel Fate Should Bid Us Part

She could hear Frank’s ragged breathing behind her, the pungent aroma of his blood already filling the air, but remained impassive, staring at Duncan in cool detachment as he carefully reloaded the crossbow. There was a good thirty feet between them, and though the light from her flashlight kept him in outline, it was the ambient luminance within the tunnel itself that kept his details visible to her. He was making no effort to close the gap, nonchalantly standing there as his dark eyes flitted from Buffy, to the guardian behind her, and then back to her, almost as if he was waiting for something. For what, though, she had no idea.

“Having a good day?” Duncan asked casually, a small smile playing on his lips. “It’s quite lovely out. Must be the after-effects of the storm last night.”

“Actually, I’m a little tired,” Buffy replied, playing along with his repartee. “I didn’t get much sleep last night.”

“Yes, I heard Spike gave you quite the workout.” He chuckled at her obvious surprise at his candor. “You missed a great fight earlier. I have to admit, even though Mr. Finn didn’t succeed in actually killing Spike, listening to the two of them go back and forth on the subject of you almost made up for it. Nothing like a little strife and chaos to bring color into the world.”

“Speaking of color, can I say? Black and blue really works for you.” She smiled, shaking her head to brush back the hair that had fallen across her cheek. “I would’ve thought you were more of a fall, but hey, if winter colors look good on you, too, I say go for it.”

They both heard the scraping behind her at the same time, and Buffy watched as Duncan stiffened, readying the weapon in his arms as it trained on the guardian behind her. “Don’t even think about shifting,” he told Frank, the mirth gone from his voice. “I’ll have an arrow through your head faster than you can blink.”

“You OK back there, Frank?” Buffy asked, her hazel eyes never leaving the demon in front of her.

“Other than bleeding all over the ground, I’m fine,” he replied, but she could hear the faint edge of pain in his voice and wondered just how bad it really was. For some reason, she got the impression the guardian was used to being the stoic; if he was severely injured, she wasn’t sure he would let on exactly how serious it was until it was probably too late.

“I can put him out of his misery, if you like,” Duncan offered. “Then we can just make this between you and me.”

“Isn’t that the way it is now?” she countered. “I have the harness, you want it. That looks like just you and me, to me.”

“Ah, but our guardian friend would also like the harness. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? To ‘get rid of the temptation’?” Casually, he tossed her words back at her, smiling at her sudden frown. “You know, you didn’t need to bother with the amulet to get in here. The harness would’ve just let you pass right on through. Probably would’ve made your load just a little bit lighter, as well.”

Buffy’s frown deepened. “What’re you talking about?”

“Mr. Travers didn’t tell you? Well, then maybe he doesn’t know. That’s entirely possible. The man is very…narrow in his perspective.”

“Tell me what?” There was no hiding the irritation in her voice, and the increasing sense that Duncan was just toying with her was doing nothing to ease it.

“The harness’ true power. Why your Council is so eager to get its greedy little hands on it.”

“Give me the harness, Buffy.”

Although Frank’s words were a mere whisper, within the walls of the cavern, they bounced like an echoing bullet, falling on the other kelpie’s ears in spite of the distance that separated them. Distracted, she never saw Duncan’s finger move, and it wasn’t until the arrow was swishing over her head that Buffy realized he’d shot again.

It connected with the guardian’s flesh in a gurgled cry, and the Slayer heard him fall with a thump to the ground, his breathing choking into a fluidic wheeze that told of blood seeping into lungs. She wanted to look around, to inspect the damage that had been done, but knew she couldn’t; one glance away from Duncan and there was no telling what he might do.

“Told you,” the cook said lightly. “Now it really is just you and me.”

Grimly, Buffy inched herself sideways, toward the stone wall and away from the edge of the water, containing the rage surging through her body at Duncan’s unnecessary cruelty with deep, controlling breaths. It wouldn’t do to lose her temper in front of the kelpie; as much as she detested what he had done, she had to keep her focus here. Which meant coming up with a plan.

In her search for Frank, she had ventured further through the entrance to the Otherworld than any previous sojourn, twisting along the path that ran by the stream. The banks were still as treacherous as they were in the spot she and Spike had originally been attacked, only now the path was narrower, the walls sloping in, so that maneuverability was far from optimal. Even without the harness in her hands, a fight between her and Duncan would be difficult; the fact that she was also minimally armed did nothing to boost her confidence in success.

When her gaze flickered to the water, Duncan chuckled, shaking his head. “Not your best idea,” he said. “I’m primarily a water creature, remember? I’d have your tight little body in my hands before you could even come up for air.”

He was right, and it only served to infuriate her more. There was little room for escape within the confines of the tunnel, and a battle would be short-lived if he got close enough to touch her. Her only options lay in either getting the crossbow from him, or stalling him in hopes that one of the others might wonder what was taking her so long and come down after her. Right now, she was going to go with the latter.

“So what’s so special about this thing anyway?” Buffy asked casually, giving the bag a shake so that the bells rang a muffled call through the cavern. “Seems like everyone’s going to a lot of trouble for something that looks like it belongs on Santa’s sleigh.”

“It offers what everyone seeks. It offers power.”

The Slayer rolled her eyes. “Well, big duh, there. That’s what all these demon artifact thingamabobs try to deliver. I’m just curious as to what makes this one so much different from the others.”

“Does it matter?”

“Maybe I want some,” she shrugged. “Ever think of that? Maybe I’ll just keep it for myself.”

Duncan chuckled. “I’m afraid it doesn’t really go with your ensemble, Buffy. Now, be a good little Slayer and toss it here.”

“Or…what?”

“Or I’ll kill you.”

“You’re just going to kill me anyway, so why should I make this any easier for you?”

It took him a moment to respond. “Because if you don’t cooperate, I promise you that as soon as I get out of here, I’ll kill each and every one of your friends. Starting with Spike.”

She was used to threats. Usually they were empty ones, offered up by over-confident vampires with a hidden deathwish, but still, they were nothing Buffy wasn’t accustomed to hearing every day of her life as the Slayer. The only problem now was, for once, she was in the weaker position, against a demon she knew would have no qualms on following through on his promises, and her usual sarcastic banter might not be enough to save her this time.

“You wouldn’t stand a chance with Spike,” she said, holding her chin high. “He’d wipe up the floor with you.”

“Not only could I do it,” Duncan replied gleefully, “but with the harness, I could even get him to kill himself. I wouldn’t have to lift a finger. How’s that for romantic? The reformed vampire finds true love in the Slayer and then stakes himself when he discovers she’s dead.” His smile was wide. “I actually think I like that. Thank you so much for giving me the idea.”

OK, not going to plan, Buffy thought. She had no idea how the harness would ever be able to convince Spike to off himself, and right now, she was beginning to think she didn’t want to know. The only thing she was certain of at the moment was that she had to keep it away from Duncan. If it was capable of what he claimed, there was no way she could let it get out into her world.

“Buffy…” Frank’s voice was merely a breath, her name a faint disturbance in the air, but just the sound of it was enough to wipe the smile from Duncan’s face.

“Aren’t you dead yet?” he complained, readying the weapon as he turned it toward the guardian on the ground.

“No!” The single word came out as a shot, and Buffy glared at the cook as she edged herself back toward Frank. “Leave him be.”

Duncan’s lips thinned to a white line as he debated how to proceed. “Fine,” he finally said. “You want him to suffer all that much longer, be my guest. His pain can be on your head.”

She almost slipped on the pool of blood that surrounded the downed kelpie, and carefully avoided getting any more of it than necessary on her boot as she squatted at his side, her gaze darting from Duncan to the two wounds that marred the guardian’s torso. He’d taken the second arrow high up on the chest, and clutched at it now as his other hand reached forward to pull her closer.

“He must not…get…the harness…” Frank murmured, the blood dripping from the side of his mouth as he spoke.

Buffy’s eyes were hard as she glanced back at Duncan. “I know.”

“Save…it…”

Hearing him speak actually hurt, knowing his lungs---or whatever it was that kelpies used for breathing---were slowly filling with blood, and the Slayer returned her gaze to his face, the unspoken apology for not being able to help him written behind her eyes. “Can it really do what he says it does?” she asked softly.

Frank’s nod was almost imperceptible. “There is…a way…to save it…”

She immediately stiffened. “How?”

From his vantage point at the bend in the tunnel, Duncan saw Buffy get pulled in toward the dying kelpie, golden hair falling over her face to obstruct it from his view, and frowned as for the first time, he failed to hear what the guardian was saying.

It wasn’t much, just a single word, but it landed on the Slayer’s ear with a simplistic clarity that made her wonder why she hadn’t thought of it herself.

“Run...”

*************

They were the last two to be armed, and Spike rubbed at the rope burns on his wrists as he watched Colin hand a studded club to Willow, hiding his smile of amusement as she immediately dropped it.

“Maybe something a little less of the heavy,” she said, with an embarrassed blush as the Watcher leaned over and picked it up.

“Just hurry it up,” Spike said. “At this rate, Finn’s goin’ to be the one to find the nasty, and then I’ll never hear the end of it.”

“Still don’t see why we have to take the dungeon,” Willow grumbled as she took the dagger Colin offered.

“Because me and Buffy are the two who know the layout of it the best,” the vampire countered. “And since you’re stuck with me---.” He stopped, the other man’s sudden frown catching his attention. “What is it?”

“Well, I know the dagger I’m missing is the one Mr. Finn stole to kill---.” The Watcher cut himself off, glancing at the vampire out of the corner of his eye before rushing forward. “But there seems to be a crossbow missing as well.” His gaze narrowed, scanning the wall as he began to count under his breath.

“So?”

“So I didn’t give one out.” There was a pause, and then Colin’s eyes jumped to the beginning again, this time his numeration more deliberate, his lips clearly moving as he audibly tallied his stock.

“Maybe your inventory is off,” Spike commented impatiently. “Can you do this later? We’ve got us a kelpie to catch.”

“Perhaps Buffy took it,” Colin murmured, reaching for a sword for the vampire.

Willow grabbed Spike’s arm, stopping him from taking the weapon, and her eyes were wide when he looked back at her. “Buffy didn’t take any weapons,” she said. “And this is Colin’s inventory we’re talking here.” At the confusion in his face, she added, “Flow-chart-for-everything Colin?”

She didn’t need to say another word. Whipping around on his heel, Spike had bolted from the weapons cache, his boots echoing against the stone floor as he ran down the hallway, before Colin had even managed to turn around, his frown deepening as he watched the redhead follow after him.

“Where are you going?” he called after their retreating backs.

“To the tunnels,” she yelled back. “To check on Buffy!”

“Wait! You’re going to need…” They were gone already before he could finish the sentence. “…the other amulet.”

*************

It took a moment for it to register, but even when it did, Duncan couldn’t believe what he was actually seeing, his muscles locked in surprise. She was running? And the kick of it was…she was running away from him, further into the tunnels, headed deeper through the entrance and toward the Otherworld. Before he could react, she was already gone, the muffled voice of the bells within the bag clanging her exit in a tinny cry, and it was only then that he sprang into action.

His healing wounds made quick movements painful, but he sprinted as best he could, hesitating when he reached the side of the guardian. Gazing down at him, Duncan’s lip curled in disgust, and he kicked at the kelpie’s side, rolling him closer to the dangerous bank and the rushing water of the stream. “You had to make this difficult, didn’t you,” he said viciously. “You couldn’t leave well enough alone.”

Another kick and Frank was in the water, a scarlet trail floating atop the surface as he quietly submerged. For a few minutes, bubbles broke through the ripples his plunge had made, but the other demon wasn’t there to witness their fade, already gone around the bend of the tunnel in pursuit of Buffy and the harness.

*************

He was the first one through the barrier, pushing his way past the unsuspecting Colin to rush into the darkness of the passageway, leaving Willow and the Watcher to trail after. His mind burned in red, hatred for Duncan for so far evading capture, fear that Buffy had been injured in some surprise attack on the part of the kelpie, but most of all, fury with himself for not knowing that this was the sort of stunt the cook would pull in the first place.

Should’ve gone with her, Spike ranted silently as he dove through the winding curves. S’posed to watch her back, and what do I do? I leave her open for that wanker to make his move. Stupid, stupid, stupid. If anything happened to her, he would never forgive himself.

“Buffy!” he yelled as soon as he broke free from the tunnel, skidding to a halt before the edge of the stream as he quickly scanned the open space. He could hear the footsteps of the others coming behind, but didn’t care, his only attention focused on finding her, his vampire visage automatically coming to the fore in order to better sense her out.

It was deserted, but she’d been there; he could still smell her delicate scent, even as it was fading from the moist air. What frightened him, though, was the overlaying aroma that almost obliterated it.

Blood. Lots of it.

It wasn’t human; he could take some small comfort in that, at least. But just because she might have managed to wound the demon, it didn’t mean she wasn’t hurt herself, lying somewhere within the depths of the tunnel too hurt to even cry out. Or unconscious. Or bleeding to death.

Each scenario his head created became worse than the previous, until by the time Willow and Colin appeared in the cavern, Spike felt that he couldn’t even see straight, his nerves racing in an erratic pattern across his skin. “I’m goin’ after her,” he said as he returned to his human face, and grabbed the flashlight from the Watcher’s hand before turning to head down the tunnel.

The splashing from the stream caught all their attention, halting the vampire in his steps as he leapt toward the edge. If it was Buffy, he wanted to be the one to pull her to safety; after letting her down like this, it was the least he could do. But if it was Duncan, he was going to rip his soddin’ throat out. And take great pleasure in every single tear.

It was neither. The dark claw of the guardian kelpie grabbed the bank, pulling his bleeding form from the water and onto the shore, oblivious to the cuts the jagged edges was making along his body. Willow rushed forward and knelt at Frank’s side, worried eyes scanning the score of injuries that dotted his flesh.

“Where’s Buffy?” Spike demanded, oblivious to the demon’s pain.

Speaking for him was difficult, but his mouth worked anyway, taking care to form the words so that they would understand him without the need for repeating himself. “Headed for…the Otherworld,” he said.

“What?” Colin stepped forth, shock wrinkling his brow. “Why in heaven’s name would she do that?”

“She had…no other choice. The traitor…barred the way and…was armed.”

Cursing under his breath, Spike whirled away, stomping toward the depths of the tunnels. “I’ll give him armed,” he muttered.

“Wait…” The guardian’s command seemed stronger this time, and though the vampire stopped, he only half-turned, the tension within his wiry frame attempting to pull him further along. “If you go…you will die,” Frank continued, his dark eyes jumping to meet Spike’s blue ones.

“What about Buffy?” he demanded.

“She has…the harness. She will be safe unless…”

“…unless that blighter catches up with her,” Spike finished bitterly. Furious, he began pacing along the bank, nostrils flaring as he kicked at the loose earth, doing everything he could not to drive his fist through the stone wall behind him.

“She’ll be OK,” Willow assured, but there was no confidence in her voice, and when the vampire turned his angry visage toward her, she ducked her head, unable to meet his eyes.

“This is bloody ridiculous!” Spike spat. “I’m not goin’ to just sit around here, twiddlin’ my thumbs, waitin’ to see if she’s---.”

“There is…a way for you…to help her.” The water lapped against Frank’s legs as he spoke, colored red from the blood that still flowed from his wounds, but he held himself up as he stared back at the trio.

“The only way I want to help is to go after---.”

“But you can.” He didn’t shrink under their gazes, instead turning his eyes to Colin. “With your closing spell.”

*************

The sudden shift in light as she emerged from the tunnel blinded Buffy, causing her to halt for the first time since taking flight, bringing her hand up to shield her eyes from the brilliance. It took a moment for her to adjust but when she did, her eyes widened, taking in the glorious countryside that spread before her, the expanse of emerald plains that seemed to stretch all the way to the horizon, broken only by the occasional flower-laden knoll. Overhead, the sun blazed down in golden dignity, warming her through for the first time since arriving in Scotland. Except I’m not in Scotland anymore, she thought. This has got to be the Otherworld. And all I can say is…wow.

Somewhere, back in the stretches of the tunnel, Duncan still followed, but Buffy knew she had gained quite some distance on him, his wounds slowing his pace enough for her to stay far ahead. Now, though, she was unsure what to do. Her priority was getting the harness to safety, but what that meant around here, she had no idea. Plus, every step she took announced her presence clearer than if she was singing at the top of her lungs. Maybe I can hide, she wondered, glancing around. But there seemed no appropriate place, and she knew that the longer she looked, the closer Duncan got.

Better to just run, she decided, put some more distance between us so that he can’t hear me anymore. She wasn’t sure what kind of tracking abilities kelpies had, but somehow, she didn’t think they could be that great; she’d been able to approach him out during the storm the previous day with little effort on her part. Still, anything that helped her at this point was good, so adjusting the weight of the sack in her arms, she broke off into another trot, grateful that she was in the shape she was, refusing to let her mind dwell on the possibility of failing.

It just wasn’t an option at this point. Not when she was on this side of the entrance. And not when Spike was on the other…

 

To be continued in Chapter 44: O Thou Dread Power