DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss, of course. And
the chapter titles are courtesy of Robert Burns.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY: Spike, Xander, and Riley have undergone the beginning of the closing spell in order to safely traverse the entrance of the Otherworld in order to help Buffy, who has run there with the harness, Duncan right on her heels
Though the sun had set hours earlier, there was no drop in temperature, one plus Buffy was grateful for as she realized just how unprepared she really was for this particular flight. Not your brightest idea, she chided herself. You have no idea what youre doing here, who youre looking for, or even what to expect. Whatever you thought you were doing when you started running, you were either on drugs or
And her mind flickered back to the moment in the tunnel, and without fail, felt the what-should-have-been-familiar touch of the kelpie on her arm as if he was standing next to her at that very minute. He hadnt except he had, and the Slayer frowned as a flash of disappointment in Frank cut through her, knowing why hed resorted to such a method to convince her to run yet not happy that hed actually done so. If anyone understood what duty really meant, she did, but did that mean he had to resort to some kind of Jedi mind trick in order to get her to help? Of course, they hadnt really had the time to stand around and debate the issue, but if hed asked, maybe told her about what to expect by doing it, she would certainly have considered it. And now here she was, stranger in a strange but gorgeous land, with a stolen artifact nobody knew she was bringing back, looking for...god knew who. Or what.
In all the time shed already spent in the Otherworld, Buffy had yet to encounter another creature, eventually slowing her run when she realized she couldnt even see Duncan behind her any longer. The stream beneath Dall Rath had ended almost immediately upon her emergence, but another had picked up the trail, gurgling and meandering through the grassy hills in indigo wonder. Knowing what she did of kelpie make-up, she decided to follow the path of the water, paralleling its course with enough distance between them so that she didnt have to worry about a surprise attack from there, but close enough so that she never lost it from her sight. Now, bathed in the soft darkness of the night, though, exhaustion was beginning to seep into her bones, and she wondered if she should stray in order to find shelter to safely rest.
There had been a few caves along the way, and though she didnt imagine that they were completely safe, Buffy knew that they offered her the best chance for some undisturbed sleep, keeping her eyes alert for the next break in the grass. It took only a few minutes to spy one, and steering herself toward it, she disappeared into its dark mouth, senses heightened in anticipation of unseen dangers, only to be met with complete silence. For the first time since taking flight, she lowered the bag from her arms, the small shift causing them to ring in a muted call, and settled herself next to it. It wouldnt do as a pillow---not when every move she made would only set it clanging yet again---but there was no way she could abandon the job shed set out to do, so curling her body around it, being careful not to jar its placement, Buffy rested her head against her arm and closed her eyes to the Otherworld night.
Immediately, images of Spike rose before her inner eye, and the question about what was going on back at Dall Rath finally broke through the Slayers concentration. She had been studiously avoiding thinking of the subject during her trek; it was easier to just focus on the task at hand rather than to worry about things she had no control over. She didnt doubt that Frank was dead, which meant the others would have no idea what had happened to her. She suspected that Spike wasnt going to react well to that, just like she knew she would respond poorly if all of a sudden she didnt even know if he was still alive. Betcha Riley takes the brunt of that frustration, she thought. Except Spike promised, and she knew he would stick to it. Even if nobody else believed it.
Im just going to have to make this as fast as possible, Buffy decided as she felt the first veil of sleep cloud her head. In and out. No reason to dawdle. God, Im starting to sound like Giles
Passing from the tunnel into the Otherworld was all it took to bring the trio to a grinding halt.
The differences Spike had professed had been felt by all, but once the issue of the urn had been resolved, the three had walked the path along the stream in silence, faces grim, focused on the duty before them. Find Buffy. Kill Duncan. Go through the trial. Return to the dungeon. It seemed fairly straightforward, each task clear in the mens minds, and even as they had the end of the tunnel in their sights, they continued to dwell on just that.
But the reality of it hit them like a railroad train as soon as they emerged into the warm night.
Xander had known before hed opened his eyes back in the cavern that something was different. All of a sudden, he went from feeling fear, anxiety, and just a little bit of excitement about what the spell was going to do to him, to knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that he could take whatever it offered, that all he had to do was try his hand at it and everything would turn out all right. It wasnt just feeling stronger---although that was certainly a big part of it---but more of a calm knowing suffusing his being. The same phrase kept flitting through his head---it was, it will be, and always shall---and though he didnt even try to pretend he knew what it was talking about or that it was in any way an original thought, it gave him a sense of purpose as he strode through the tunnel. Toward his task. Toward his friend.
Rileys revelation was more subtle. Hed always been aware of his own strength, especially the changes in it when hed come off the government crap theyd shoved into his body, so waking from the effects of the spell feeling more powerful didnt seem all that unusual, more of a step back to the way things used to be. And, if he was being honest with himself, the briefest of thoughts---if only Buffy could see me now, she could see that I can be who she needs---flickered across his brain before being lost in the very real argument that had ensued about the urn. It had taken all his self-control to come out of that one without laying a finger on Spike, and though he had in the end been the one to carry the pot through the tunnel, the whole experience had only distilled his thoughts into one coherent point. The mission. This was about the mission. Save Buffy and get her home.
And then there was Spike. His power of observation was only one of the reasons hed managed to survive a century, so as soon as hed opened his eyes, had seen the faint white glow that seemed to outline everything he saw, he knew it had worked. Physically, he felt very much the same, still strong, still a vampire; it was the external changes that had driven the awareness of the spells success home. He had always been sensitive to the living flesh that surrounded him; now, all of a sudden, he seemed too conscious of the dead, the smells of the men who had been killed weeks earlier by the guardians suddenly flooding his nostrils, the gritty feel of the dried blood in the earth beneath his seat an ever-present reminder of the mortalities the cavern had seen. Shoving them quickly aside, hed concentrated on the issue of the urn, yielding to Giles intervention when it came, and then led the others as they began the trek through the entrance. None of the changes mattered to him at that point. He had only one thing on his mind. Buffy. Had to be there to back her up this time. Couldnt let the wanker win. The fact that he wasnt expected to survive the closing didnt even register. He wasnt going to fail her a second time.
One step from the tunnel, though, and each of the three halted in his tracks, the sudden plethora of sensations coursing through their bodies almost crushing in their intensity. If they had felt different in the cavern, the exposure to the actual air of the Otherworld magnified those changes a thousandfold, leaving each breathless---or figuratively breathless, as was the case for Spike---eyes wide, and in sudden awe of the world surrounding them.
OK, tell me this isnt just me, Riley said, shattering the quiet.
If you mean, feeling like youve just walked into the worlds biggest Krispy Kreme after having been starved for months, and then being told theyre free, Xander said. Then, yeah. Im right there with you.
And here I thought we were goin to be needin a bit of a kip when we got here, Spike commented, lifting his head to stare up at the star-laden sky.
I feel like I could go all night.
The vampire looked at his two partners. Then lets get on with it, he said. Not like my sunlight issues gone away or anything, so the faster we get this sorted, the better my chance of going poof in a nice cozy dungeon surrounded by friends than out in the middle of bleedin nowhere with you two at my side. So how do we want to start this thing?
We start with finding Buffy, said Xander. Unless the mystical trial thingy decides to make its presence known first. But weve got all night to get that done.
I agree. Rileys voice was firm. Buffy comes first.
Good to know weve got some common ground then. For a moment, Spike contemplated reaching into his pockets for his cigarettes, more out of habit than anything else, but immediately brushed the desire away. Not here. Somehow, it didnt seem right.
Shes had a headstart on us. Were going to have to make double-time if we want to catch up.
How do we know which direction she went in? Xander scanned the horizon, and if it wasnt for the faint glow deep in its depths, his dark eyes wouldve been lost in the velvety night.
They spoke in unison, pointing in the exact same direction towards the grassy plain, and both Riley and Spike frowned as they swiveled their heads, gazing in a mixture of curiosity and skepticism as two sets of eyes scanned the others face. I can smell her, Spike said slowly. Whats your excuse?
It took a moment for the ex-soldier to respond. I dont know how to explain it, he finally said. Its like, Im aware of everything living thats passed through here. And Buffys trail is practically glowing. You dont see it? This last was asked with just a trace of hopefulness, the desire to not be alone on this peeking through his words. He visibly deflated though when the others shook their heads. Still its there. We have to follow it.
No argument from me. Spikes head tilted, unable to let the issue go. You can see it?
Thats what I said.
And anything else? Smell her perfume, hear her heartbeat any of that?
What bout how far shes gone? Can you suss that?
Rileys face was grim. Far enough. The trail is faintest here by the entrance. But it disappears over that hill.
What about the kelpie? We didnt find him on the way here so he must still be after her.
Theres another that runs close to hers. Could be---.
There was a slight waver in Xanders voice and when his comrades looked over at him, they saw the young man staring off into the horizon, eyes lifted, jaw slightly dropped. Quickly, their own eyes followed his path forward and up, and immediately both froze.
Maybe not just yet, Spike said slowly, as life began to return to his muscles. Carefully, he edged himself sideways, taking a position several feet away from the other men, seeing Riley set down the urn and do the same in the opposite direction out of the corner of his eye.
This isnt the trial, you dont think? Xander asked, glued to his spot in a sudden fear that curdled his gut.
Somehow, I dont think eight feet of ugly is goin to fit in that itty, bitty urn, the vampire drawled. So my moneys on no.
What was that Giles said about not needing weapons, Riley muttered, shaking his head for his own lapse in persistence. Outside of the urn, the three had come through the entrance empty-handed---Frank had insisted---and here they were, thirty seconds in the Otherworld, facing well, he wasnt sure what they were facing. Except that it was big. Really, really big. And brandishing a sword bigger than Spike.
If it wasnt for the now-getting-annoying white outline that seemed to etch everything now, Spike wasnt sure that he wouldve been able to see their new arrival that clearly against the night sky. Definitely a relative of Frankie, he thought ruefully, eyes scanning the heavily muscled shoulders as they swung the blade in dangerous sweeps before it. Black skinned, hairless, with tiny beady eyes glittering back at them, the biggest difference lay in the lack of needle-like teeth in its mouth. Instead, a gaping maw grimaced back at them. Probably took one too many to the face, Spike decided.
An abashed smile creased Xanders face and he held up his hands as if in surrender. We come in peace, he said in a voice too loud, his words over-articulated. We have no desire to fight you.
Spike rolled his eyes. Like that ever really works, he sniped.
Nothing wrong with trying a little reason, Riley countered, and held up his own hands to mirror Xanders.
Have you both gone completely bonkers? the vampire demanded. It probably doesnt even understand a bloody word were sayin---.
You trespass, the creature said, a sibilance to its words that made them bleed through the night air.
Spike shrugged. Or maybe it does, he commented, and held up his own hands in mimicry of his compatriots.
Were looking for our friend, Xander tried, but jumped backward as the creature took a step toward him.
You have no friends here, it said. You trespass.
Yeah, yeah, got that the first time, mate. Spike was growing annoyed. This was taking far too long.
Maybe youve seen her, Riley tried. Blonde, very pretty, carrying a big He audibly swallowed as the creature turned its head to look at him. bag
I have seen no one. You---.
---trespass, yeah, dont you know any other songs? Spike complained, and dropping his hands, took a strong step toward it. Like, how bout cryin uncle? A single leap through the air had him tackling the demon, sending both of them flying to the ground, but not before it had launched its sword, the blade whistling in a straight path before embedding itself in Xanders abdomen.
The blow shouldve sent him reeling backward. It didnt. As it was, the young man remained riveted to his spot, screaming from the impact, his hands automatically going down to clutch at the hilt protruding from his stomach. His eyes were wide as they darted from a surprised Riley and an even more surprised Spike.
Harris mate I didnt the vampire tried, but quickly lost his words as fury overtook him, his fists pummeling at the demon in his grasp, his own demon within jumping to the fore. His fault. Again. None of this was goin to bloody work because he couldnt work as part of a team. And Harris was goin to die as a result. Not fair.
Ow. It was almost a question, not that loud and definitely not that firm, but after only a moment, Xander frowned, looking down at his stomach. No, wait. Not ow.
Rushing to his friends side, Rileys eyes scanned to the area surrounding the sword. Wheres the blood? he questioned softly, and lifted his gaze to meet Xanders confused brown orbs. Youre not bleeding.
Hows that But his words trailed away, his hands tightening around the blades base, and with one clean yank, Xander pulled it from his flesh.
The metal of the sword was clean, no bodily fluids clinging to it, no pieces of skin torn along its edge. Gingerly, Riley lifted the hem of Xanders shirt to inspect the site of the injury and felt the air stop in his lungs as it was met with the smooth expanse of the other mans stomach.
How is that possible? The ex-soldiers voice was crisp in awe, his shoulders straightening as he involuntarily took a step back, away from his friend.
Before Xander could reply, a roar from Spike diverted their attention, and they both turned in time to see the vampire grab the creatures head and give it a vicious yank, audibly breaking its neck in a cracking snap. His eyes glittered in gold as he let it drop lifeless to the ground, kicking at its torso one last time. Thats for stabbin my friend, he growled. Not to mention for bein an all-around pain in my ass.
He seemed to become aware of them for the first time since witnessing the blades flight, and immediately reverted to his human face, head tilting in curiosity as he saw the sword, not in Xanders body, but dangling from his hand. Hey, he said. Youre not dead. He closed the distance between them, eyes locked on the wound-free abdomen of his friend. Why arent you dead?
Xanders body twisted away as Spike began poking skeptically at the brunettes stomach. Stop that, he chided. That tickles.
That thing sliced through you like butter, the vampire continued, walking around him to look at his back. When he lifted the shirt, Xander skittered away, out of his reach. So why arent you one of the walkin wounded here? Spike added.
Maybe its the spell, Riley offered. The way Giles explained it to me, each of us is inhabited by an aspect of the Otherworld. Xander got the immortal part.
His brown eyes widened. I got made into a god? he said in wonder.
Spike snorted. Great, he muttered. From empty vessel to unkillable bein in less than twenty-four hours. Talk about gettin a swelled head. Youre goin to be unbearable now, arent you?
But it makes sense. Riley was on a roll, the pieces suddenly fitting together for him, and his eyes almost glowed as he rushed forward with his explanation. Thats why I feel so attuned to everything. Because I got the living part of the equation. He turned to the vampire. Youre the dead. What have you noticed?
The memories of what hed sensed in the cavern came rushing back. Some of the same, Spike admitted. Makes sense. He turned his azure gaze back to Xander. But dont be gettin any big ideas about provin your godness, or I swear, when we get back, Ill thump you into next week, I dont care what kind of headache I get.
The threat was good-natured, and Rileys eyes narrowed as he saw the answering grin on Xanders face. Hed heard what Spike had said as he was killing the demon, the bandying around of the term friend as if it was an everyday occurrence. And now, witnessing the camaraderie between the two men, he found himself greeted with the same sense of out-of-placement that hed felt when walking in on Spike and Buffy. Like there was something there that he was missing. Like everyone else was on a different page of the book, and they were all waiting for him to catch up. It was disconcerting, to say the least, especially knowing Xanders predilection for hating vampires. He was the last person Riley would ever expect to embrace Spikes presence in their lives.
And yet here he was. And seemingly enjoying every second of it.
We should be going, he said, turning away to step over to the urn and pick it up, desperate for anything that would get him away from the current mood. Buffys still out there someplace.
The mention of the Slayers name was all that was needed to sober the other men up. Right, Spike said, and glanced down at the sword still clutched in Xanders hand. You goin to be able to manage that? he asked.
Tentatively, Xander hefted its weight, giving it a practice swoosh through the air. Yeah, he said. I think its OK.
At least we have a weapon now, Riley added. That should count for something.
As they walked past the dead body of the demon, Xander glanced down at its inert form. I wonder what it wanted, he mused. What its purpose was.
Doesnt matter now, Spike said dryly. Its dead. He didnt want to be bothered with issues that were already gone. Right now, he just wanted to find Buffy. Every step was just another reminder that this wasnt their home, that their real home was an entire dimension away. He only hoped they found her in time to make sure she could get back to it in one piece
To be continued in Chapter 46: No Churchman