DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course. And the chapter titles are courtesy of Robert Burns.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Buffy has run with the harness to the Otherworld with Duncan chasing after her, and a wounded Frank has informed Spike and the others that there is a way for them to go after her…

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Chapter 44: O Thou Dread Power

He had yet to stop moving. Prowling around the edges of the cavern, Spike’s muscles screamed for release, fettered by the warning from the guardian that further egress into the entrance without preparation would only result in death, and it was all he could do not to roar aloud in frustration. Buffy was alone, unarmed, with a shapeshifting kelpie on her heels, and he was stuck here babysitting an injured demon while Willow went for the first aid kit and Colin went for the rest of the gang. Not only wasn’t it fair, it was a bloody waste of his talents, and if it wasn’t for the Slayer’s odd affection and respect for this Frank, Spike would’ve been the first to ignore his cautionary words and ventured to the Otherworld on his own, consequences be damned.

“She’s strong. Resourceful,” the guardian said, watching the other demon as he paced. “She will be all right until you can reach her.”

Sapphire flashed as his gaze flickered over Frank’s prone form at the edge of the stream, the kelpie’s body half in, half out of the water. With every passing second, the guardian seemed stronger, and though the blood still flowed freely from his wounds, his pain appeared to be waning, making his voice stronger, his words firmer.

“She’d be even better if she’d just stayed put,” he barked in response. “Or better yet, held off on handin’ over that damn harness ‘til we had Duncan under wraps for good.” Spike frowned when an unmistakable smile appeared on Frank’s face. “What’s so funny?” he demanded.

“You…make an interesting team,” came the reply. “In many ways, she is just as impetuous as you, and yet…she trusts me.”

“Slayer’s got a soft spot for people who save her life.” His eyes were hard. “I don’t.”

“No, I don’t suppose you would.” Frank grimaced as he tried to shift his weight against the bank without causing even more damage to his flesh. “She is doing the right thing, you know. The harness---.”

“I don’t care about that bloody harness!” Spike stopped near the edge of the water, the veins in his neck bulging as he struggled to contain his temper. “I just…need her to be safe. And takin’ off in the opposite direction of everyone who can help her is about as far away from safe as she can get.” Not to mention as far from him, but right now, that wasn’t the point and he knew it. “What could she have been thinkin’?” he continued. “She’s not the sort to just run from a fight, and if that’s what that wanker wanted…” He shook his head, his mind a tumble of questions, questions, and more unanswered questions, with nary an answer in sight.

“It…couldn’t be helped.” For the first time since being left alone with the vampire, Frank turned his gaze away, looking instead at the water rolling over his legs, his thoughts retreating even if his body couldn’t.

Spike’s head tilted, his eyes narrowing. “Thought you said Buffy didn’t have a choice,” he said slowly, and the suspicion bled into his voice as he slowly squatted to his haunches, his study of the wounded kelpie never wavering.

“Fleeing to the Otherworld was her best option.”

“Best…” The vampire played with the word, rolling it over his tongue and dragging it out as tiny flecks of gold glinted within his eyes. “Funny. You told the others…only.” He waited for some semblance of a response from the guardian, but was met with an awkward silence that drew his reach to the other’s arm. “What’re you not tellin’ me here, Frank?” The stress he put on the name was the only indication of the barely checked restraint he was enforcing on his muscles, the desire to pull and rip the kelpie’s arm from the socket almost overwhelming. If Buffy had been there, she would’ve recognized the silky tones of his voice that predicated his more violent tendencies and probably pulled him away then. As it was, he had to hold himself back.

“There was no harm,” Frank finally said, his voice barely perceptible in the wide space of the cavern, his eyes unblinking.

The possibility of what he was hearing tightened Spike’s grip, and the scarlet anger began to lick around the edges of his control. “Were you touching her?” Pause. “Was this your suggestion?”

“There was no harm,” the guardian repeated, a little louder this time. “I did not hurt her.”

In a clean jerk, Spike hauled him from the water, his face twisted into a furious snarl. “This is your---,” he started, only to be interrupted by the emergence of the others from the dungeons.

“Spike!” Giles shouted, shock and anger bulleting his voice. “Put him down!”

Willow came rushing from behind, up to the vampire’s side. “He needs to stay in the water,” she ordered, boldly tugging at his arm to get him to release the kelpie. “That’s the only thing keeping him alive right now.”

“Wanker doesn’t deserve to be alive,” Spike said through gritted teeth, ignoring the shocked surprise of the rest of the group. He gave his captive a rough shake, sending tiny droplets of blood spattering through the air. “Tell ‘em what you did.”

“I did…nothing wrong.” The blood was dripping from Frank’s body, pooling at his feet that dragged along the earth. Though he was easily several feet taller than the vampire, his injuries made him a ragdoll within the other’s grasp, and he could only stare at his attacker, his bold adherence to his innocent culpability firming his gaze. Unwavering, he seemed to be holding his own; it was only the growing wheeze of his breath that spoke of his worsening condition.

“Put him down,” Giles repeated, wrapping his hand around Spike’s forearm and forcing him to open his grip.

With a muffled thud, Frank crumpled to the ground and rolled back into the water, floating almost lifelessly as it began to lap over his limbs. His breathing was labored again, rasping in his chest, but his dark eyes remained calm, locked on the pale countenance of the vampire before him.

“What is going on here?” Colin asked, stepping forward from the throng. “We left you to watch him, Spike, not to try and kill him.”

Tearing his eyes from the guardian, Spike turned to face the others. “Buffy didn’t go gallivantin’ off to the Otherworld because she wanted to,” he said. “She did it ‘cause Frankie boy made her.”

“How is that possible?” Riley asked, braving a step forward to square off with the vampire, immediately prompting Xander to jump to the front of the fray. He desperately wanted to add on a, “nobody can make Buffy do anything she doesn’t want to,” but the realization that it was the exact opposite of that belief that steered him across the world just to confront Spike stayed his tongue. Instead, he added, “This…demon has done nothing but help us by telling us what happened to her. So much for being on the good guy side, Spike. Figures you’d show your true colors when Buffy’s not around to witness it.”

“It’s the kelpie magic touch,” Xander explained, planting himself between the pair, ensuring that there wouldn’t be a repeat performance of their earlier display in the great hall as he saw the vampire’s hands curl into fists out of the corner of his eye. “All he has to do is lay a finger on her, and he can get her to do whatever he wants.”

“And the pillock wanted her to run,” Spike added.

“And I still believe…it was the best option,” Frank defended. “The harness---.”

“That soddin’ harness!” The vamp whirled on his heel to glare down at the kelpie. “Buffy’s more important than some fancy party favor.”

“As much as I’m sure it pains you to hear this…no, she’s not.”

“What exactly is the power behind the harness?” Giles’ voice was low, his words directed to the guardian. “Why is it so important for us to keep it from Duncan?”

“And the Council,” Colin added. “Don’t forget the Council.”

“Time to spill, Frankie,” Spike said, eyes glittering, folding his arms across his chest, daring the other to disagree with him. “No more secrets. Not if you don’t want to end up going to the glue factory for good this time.”

He didn’t wish to speak, that much was obvious, his dark eyes darting from one grim face to the next. But in his weakened condition and knowing that they would not continue until they were satisfied, the guardian sighed, realizing defeat on this issue was inevitable. “The power of the harness lies in its control over its subject,” he said softly. “It’s been imbued with the essence of kelpie power. The ability to manipulate the will of others.”

“That’s like what we read,” Tara offered. “About how to get a kelpie to do your work for you.”

“But if it’s to control kelpies,” Anya asked, “what good is it going to do out in our world? Is there some secret kelpie population that we don’t know about?”

“No, you don’t understand the magnitude of what I’m saying here.” Frank sighed. “Its power isn’t limited to my kind. Place the harness on anything…and you gain control over it. Indefinitely.”

The group was stunned into silence, the only sound in the cavern the hollow trickle of the water, as each mulled over the implications of what he was suggesting. It was the ultimate in dominion, manacles that would chain any number of creatures to its master. In the right hands, it would prove a valuable defense mechanism, but in the wrong…

“Well, at least we understand now why Mr. Travers has been so persistent,” Colin murmured. “But surely it’s merely a temporary effect. It would only be good for as long as the bearer wore it.”

Frank shook his head. “Once someone has been shackled with the harness, its effect is permanent. Only death can nullify its power, which is why, theoretically, it is possible to create an entire army using its charm. That is why the traitor must not be allowed to obtain it,” he added. “He is unscrupulous. His motives are not noble.”

“Does Buffy know about this?” Spike queried, and snorted in disgust at the shake of the guardian’s head. “Nice to know that trust goes both ways,” he muttered.

“There was no time for explanations,” Frank said simply. “The thief was---.”

“---armed, yeah, we got it.” The vampire’s anger toward the kelpie seemed to dissipate slightly in light of the new revelation, the severity of the situation---and of Buffy’s---refocusing his attention. “Right, then. No more piddlin’ about. Tell us what we need to know to get through so we can help her out.”

“You said something about our closing spell?” Colin asked. “How is that going to aid us in reaching Buffy?”

“There are hazards within the entrance that will kill those who attempt to venture through who do not belong,” Frank explained. “Your closing spell will fortify its participants with Otherworld essence in order to allow them safe passage.”

“And how exactly do you know this?” This came from Giles, a deep furrow across his brow as he regarded the demon in hesitant curiosity.

“We learned of the spell’s secrets from the witch who conducted it the first time.”

“And she just…told you this?”

Frank’s gaze was hooded. “We…have our way of getting information,” he replied obliquely. In light of their reaction to the true reason for their friend’s flight, the guardian suspected they would be less than amenable to discussing the finer points of the kelpie’s innate necromantic skills. Better to just stick with the generalities. “Merely do your spell, and you will be able to venture forth to help the Slayer.”

“But we can’t.” A range of eyes turned to look at Tara, but she didn’t shrink from their scrutiny. “Buffy was part of the triad. Without her, the spell won’t work.”

“Someone must take her place then,” Colin said. “She was selected because we believed her strength would be enough to protect her from the power of the living spirit. Whoever takes her place---.”

“I’ll do it.”

“Oh, no!” Spike barked, whirling to face off with Riley again, prompting Xander to edge his way back between the two. “Don’t think I’m lettin’ you anywhere near her after the stunts you’ve pulled. You’re not exactly the poster child for sound judgment these days, Finn.”

Riley’s lip curled into a sneer. “Must be something in the water then,” he commented. “Because I’d say that lack of good judgment is just flying around here.”

“The only thing I’m regrettin’ my judgment on is not managin’ to get that cornbread mug of yours shoved into that fireplace faster---.”

“Spike…” The brunette put his hand flat on the vampire’s chest, holding him back and pressing him away, forcing him to take a few steps back from the group so that they could have a little more privacy. “Outside of you and Buffy, Riley’s the strongest one here. If anyone can do this, he can.”

“One of the Watchers---.”

Xander shook his head. “We both know Riley’s our best shot at not only getting the spell to work, but to come out of it with all our skin still intact. And, whether you want to admit it or not, he really does love Buffy. Hasn’t he shown he’d do just about anything to protect her?”

“Protect his ego, more like it,” Spike muttered, but bit his tongue against saying anything further. Xander was right; he didn’t want to admit it, but somewhere deep down, the vamp knew this was probably the best choice. Riley would fight tooth and nail for Buffy, and of the options they had at hand, he would be the best to have in a scrap, should things come to a direct clash. Didn’t mean he had to like it, though.

“Besides, Buffy told you two to play nice, and I do believe I heard some kind of promise come out of that pasty face of yours agreeing with her. So, do what needs to be done here, Spike.” His eyes were calm, but kind. “Prove to us---prove to Riley---that we’re not all just making a huge mistake by putting our faith in you.”

The words could’ve stung, but the vampire could see the ingenuousness in the other man’s face, and pursed his lips to hold back the retort that sprang automatically to his lips. Right. Made a promise to Buffy. Was goin’ to keep it even if it meant his head exploded in the process. And for some reason, somewhere buried deep beneath his driving dedication to the Slayer was the desire to do just what Xander had said. Prove it to them all, he would. Especially that prat Finn.

“But we still can’t do it,” Willow said, green eyes darting from Giles to Spike, and back to Giles again. “We haven’t figured out how to stop the spontaneous combustion phase yet. If they do this, Spike’s going to go up in flames as soon as they get back.”

The Watcher turned to Frank. “I don’t suppose you know how to circumvent that aspect of the spell,” he said.

When the guardian shook his head, the vampire merely mirrored it with his own headshake. “Doesn’t matter,” he declared. “I’m doin’ it anyway.”

“But you’ll---.”

Blazing blue eyes choked the redhead’s words in her throat as Spike swung his head to look at her. “Do it anyway,” he finished for her. “And if it bothers the lot of you that much, you’ve got the time while we’re gone to suss out how to stop it.”

“We’re going to have to wait until the sun sets,” Willow said. “Our window won’t open until then.”

“That gives us time for you to tell us everything you do know about the spell,” Giles said, folding his arms across his chest as he regarded Frank. “We have a lot of questions.”

“Whatever you want.” There was no point in any further games. If he’d been asked, he would’ve professed only anxiety for the safety of the harness; pressed, however, and Frank knew he would admit to a certain worry for the Slayer as well. The dedication she inspired in those around her was contagious, he decided. That had to be the only reason he was concerning himself in her aid. “Just ask.”

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

Waiting was the worst. Not a patient creature at the best of times, Spike found himself standing in the doorway of the castle to Dall Rath, lighting cigarette after cigarette in a desperate attempt to keep himself distracted until sunset, only smoking them down halfway before dashing them to dust beneath his boot, igniting the next before he had even finished tamping the last. Giles and Colin had pulled aside Finn to give him the lowdown on the spell, the details that Frank had not provided, giving him the wherewithal to understand completely what he was getting himself into, while the witches were making the magical preparations. Anya and Xander had taken over the tending of the guardian’s injuries, which had left Spike officially to his own devices. Hence…the chain smoking.

His skin crawled with an itch that couldn’t be scratched, not until they were through the entrance and readying to face the trials Frank had described. The trials involved defeating a magical-bonded creature, capturing and entrapping it within the urn, which would mean a fight, and at this moment in time, that’s what Spike wanted most of all. Actually, he wanted Duncan’s blood on his hands, but he’d settle for what he could get until he could have his chance with the kelpie; he only hoped that Buffy would be able to evade the blighter’s pursuit until they could get there and help her out.

Buffy…Just thinking of her name hurt, the sense of failure for having not been there eating at his gut with razor-sharp teeth. He knew the others were worried about the bursting into fire problem the spell still gave them, but Spike didn’t care. What they failed to realize that without Buffy here, he might as well be a big pile of dust. He’d only just got her and the promise of the light she would bring to his life was worth whatever risk it took to get her back. Because if he failed…

No. Not going to fail. She would be safe. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

“You know, you’re entitled to a last meal, as well,” Xander said from the hallway behind him. When Spike glanced back at him, blue eyes narrowed, the dark-haired man flushed. “Probably not the funniest thing to ever come out of my mouth,” he commented. “Sorry.”

“Not too far off the mark, though,” the vampire replied, exhaling the smoke loudly. “Not unless the witches sort something before we get back.”

“I think you’ve sent Giles into shock.” Xander stepped out into the brisk afternoon sunshine, squinting as he gazed out over the heather that bowed gently in the breeze. “The last thing he expected was for you to serve yourself up flambé-style in order to save Buffy.”

“That’s ‘cause he doesn’t get it.”

“He’s starting to, though.” Brown eyes were kind as they swung back to look at the vampire. “As much of a word man Giles is, he’s much more of a believer in actions. Doing what you did down there is going to help when we get back to Sunnydale, mark my words. He might even throw you and the Buffster a little congratulatory party, you keep it up.”

“Look, Xander…” It was one of the few times he’d ever called the young man by his first name, but right now, Spike wasn’t in the mood for being coddled, or lied to. He’d had enough of both to last him a lifetime.

“I know what you’re going to say, and stop.”

“And you stop livin’ in denial. Odds are---.”

“If you know anything about us, you know that we actually do our best work when we’re working against the odds,” Xander interrupted. “How many times did we kick your evil-doing butt, back in the day? Frank said the Council thought this trial would take a few hours, plus with having to help Buffy, that gives Willow and the rest plenty of time to counteract the recipe for Kentucky Fried Spike we’re cooking here. Don’t be going into this with such a negative attitude, Spike. Buffy doesn’t need that right now.”

He couldn’t help his grin as he dropped his cigarette to the floor, mashing it into ash with the others. “Didn’t know you were the resident cheerleader of the bunch,” he said. “That rub off from your high school bird?”

Xander smiled, ducking his head at the slight gibe. “Just don’t be mentioning Cordy’s name in front of Anya,” he warned. “For some reason, she goes all banshee whenever the subject comes up.”

“You want to do something for me, you just make sure Captain Cardboard stays as far from me as possible,” Spike said, his seriousness returned. “He gets in my way or in any way bollocks this up, I swear mine won’t be the only dead body coming back from the Otherworld.”

“Riley wants this to work just as badly as you do.”

“I’m just sayin’---.”

“You’re new to this playing-nicely-with-friends game, Spike, so I’m going to cut you a little bit of slack here. But when it comes to Riley, the one thing you have to realize is that deep down, he’s basically just a good guy who happens to love Buffy, too. OK, so he wasn’t the long haul guy for her, and maybe it’s a little hard for him to see past that right now. But he’s not going to do anything to put her in any more danger than she’s already in. You’re going to have work with us on this one.”

“If he’d stayed back on the Hellmouth, we wouldn’t be in this mess right now.”

“And that’s still not the point, Mr. Deadman Sulking. We’re a team. You, me, and Riley. Operation Kick the Kelpie’s Ass. If you’re in, you’re going to be in all the way, or I’m going to tell Giles this won’t work and we’ll leave Buffy to manage with Duncan on her own.” It was an idle threat, but Xander knew exactly what strings to pull when it came to the blond vampire, and the Slayer string was the strongest. He knew it was going to work.

“Below the belt,” Spike growled, but the set of his mouth told the younger man that he’d accepted the conditions proposed. Besides, he’d made a promise to Buffy. No way would he let someone as insignificant as Riley Finn be the reason he broke it. “If I didn’t know better,” he went on, “I’d almost say you’d been takin’ lessons on negotiation tactics from your girlfriend there. Isn’t below the belt her favorite holiday place?” The last was said with a crooked grin, a hint of mockery in his voice.

“It’s her favorite anytime place,” Xander quipped. “And no, I learned that one all on my own little lonesome.” His smile was broad. “Hang out with demons long enough and some of it’s bound to rub off one way or another.”

“Maybe we should work on your style sense next,” Spike said as he began to saunter back toward the dungeon.

“As soon as you learn that black on black is not the piece de resistance of the fashion world, we’ll talk.”

“Hey, I own other colored shirts, you know. Just haven’t gotten around to wearin’ them yet.”

“Lemme guess. Buffy bought ‘em.”

“Well, yeah. So?”

“I rest my case, Spike.”

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

Though the players were different, the tableau was the same.

A triangle of stones was arranged on the shore of the underground stream, with Xander, Spike, and Riley seated at each of the points within it, the same clay urn at its center. At the points along the outside, the Watchers and Tara stood with lit candles, while Willow was off to the side, the spell book open in her hands.

“Ready,” the redhead murmured, her eyes fixed on the group before her. “Keep your eyes on the urn,” she instructed before lowering her gaze to the text.

The men within the cairn watched the clay pot begin to quiver as the witch started the incantation, the dull music of its bottom vibrating against the earth drowning out the song of the stream. Every word she uttered only quickened its pace, setting the nerves of the participants on fire, until, as the last sound fell from Willow’s lips, its dance halted and the familiar tendrils of Otherworld essence slithered upward from its mouth, entwining and slinking toward the ceiling before breaking apart to slam into each of the triad’s chests.

This was where the similarities to their first attempt stopped. Each of the three stiffened as they were possessed, heads thrown back, eyes closed, veins bulging in their necks that spoke of untold tension within their bodies. A keening began to fill the air, but it came not from any of the men but from the now-still urn, rising in volume until those outside the triangle clapped their hands over their ears in an attempt to close it out. The only one not affected was Frank, who watched from his vantage point at the edge of the water, eyes dark and calm.

Just when the others thought they wouldn’t be able to handle the high-pitched wail any longer, it stopped, ending simultaneously with the impromptu extinguishment of the candles, leaving the group in what should have been darkness. Instead, three points of white light came from the triangle, one in each of the chests of the men, and as the rigidity began to ease from their bodies, the luminance faded, seemingly swallowed by their flesh.

“Xander?” Anya’s voice was barely a whisper, and she stepped forward from the wall, her heart pounding in her chest as she watched her boyfriend sit unmoving within the cairn.

“Why aren’t they moving?” Tara murmured, eyes darting from one to the next. “Did it work?”

As if in response, the trio’s lids opened simultaneously, the faintest of white glows buried in the pupils. “Well, that was interestin’,” Spike drawled.

“How do you feel?” asked Giles.

The first thing the vampire did was look down at his tee, running the flat of his palm over the smooth fabric. “Well, not losin’ my shirt’s a good start,” he commented.

“The burning must’ve been an effect of the spell’s failure the first time,” Colin observed.

“Burning?” Riley frowned. “Nobody mentioned anything burning except for Spike.”

“And we’re not goin’ to mention that again, either,” Spike bit back. Slowly, he rose to his feet, stretching his arms as he seemed to test his body. “I’m goin’ to say it worked this time. I feel---.”

“Wow.” Xander’s eyes were wide, his cheeks faintly flushed. “That was…wow.”

“If Xander’s been rendered speechless, I’m going to agree with Spike and say it must’ve worked,” Giles said. Setting down his candle, he stepped away from the triangle, and glanced down the darkness of the tunnel before turning back to the three men. “Right. On your way then. No dawdling.”

Spike was the first one to move, followed almost immediately by Riley, and the pair had paced off several steps toward the Otherworld entrance before Xander had even risen.

“Don’t forget the urn,” Tara prompted him.

“Oh, yeah.” He grabbed it as he straightened, and right away, felt it slip within his grasp, visibly bobbling it.

Like a shot, Spike was at his side, yanking the pot from the younger man before it could hit the floor with an annoyed growl. “This’ll be over before it starts if you break the soddin’ thing,” he complained.

I’ll carry it,” Riley said, turning back to take the urn from the vampire.

“I thought I was the official urn-bearer,” Xander argued, reaching out to take back ownership.

“You’re goin’ to be the official spell-breaker when you drop it,” Spike shot back, and batted his hand away from the urn. “I’ll be the one…”

As the three bickered between them, Anya tilted her head, watching the spectacle with a small grimace. “This is not starting out well,” she commented to Willow at her side.

“You don’t think they’re going to kill each other before they make it to Buffy, do you?” the redhead queried.

“I’d be surprised if they make it around the first bend,” Colin said, and together, the gang watched as the first of what was probably going to be many skirmishes amongst the trio began.

 

To be continued in Chapter 45: My Native Land So Far Away