DISCLAIMER: Everything but the plot is Joss'. Well, the baddies are mine. OK, Cortina’s mine, too. But everything else really is his. Too bad.
SUMMARY: The Scoobies have found Spike and are on their way to the cave with him in tow, while Buffy is being prepared for the ritual.

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Chapter 34: Rituals

His knuckles were white on the steering wheel, the only visual testimony to the tension in his body, the adrenalin surging through his veins. So much had happened over the past two days, so many things that Giles would’ve thought were years behind him. He’d killed another human---albeit a very evil one---and though he recognized the necessity of it, the reality that he’d done so because of…feelings, for a demon yet, was proving more overwhelming than he was prepared to deal with at this time.

But that was the least of his worries at the moment. As the truck lurched along the tiny country road, the Watcher’s thoughts were mired in the consequences of the vehicle that followed him. What if Cortina’s interpretation of the prophecy was correct? Allowing Spike to accompany them to the cave was inviting disaster, and should it be his demon that brought about Buffy’s destruction, Giles would never forgive himself for being the one to permit it to happen. He could’ve just told the vampire the whole story; that might’ve been enough to convince him to stay behind. But, deep in his heart, the older man knew that wasn’t true. As someone who was ruled by his emotions, Spike would never be able to just sit back, to wait as others attempted to save his love, not when he thought he might be able save her himself.

Although he knew that it wouldn’t have made a difference to the vampire’s response, Giles was already beginning to regret not being more specific about Buffy’s potential danger. Information itself was a weapon; how many times had he professed that himself to the Scooby gang? And yet, here he was, deliberately refraining from telling Spike the whole story. He knew it was because of his own stubborn refusal to accept the vampire as an equal in this whole Daymon mess, to not believe that his Slayer could actually have fallen for yet another demon, but that didn’t make it any easier. If Xander or Willow had pulled such a stunt, Giles would’ve been the first to reprimand them. How could he hold himself no less responsible?

“Are you prepared?”

The Watcher’s head jerked to look at the bound man at his side. In his reverie, he’d completely forgotten about the Greek who was directing them, and he frowned. “Prepared for what?” he questioned.

“For the cave,” the young man elaborated. “You do understand its dangers, don’t you?”

No, Giles thought. Not more blasted complications. Out loud, he said, “I’m not in the mood for games. What in bloody hell are you referring to?”

The Greek sighed, shaking his head. “I’ll only tell if you promise to let me go when we arrive. I am a dead man if my master learns of my betrayal. If I run, I may be able to escape his wrath.”

“Yes, yes, just tell me what we need to know.” No time for negotiations, the Watcher thought. Once we’ve reached the cave, he won’t be any use to us anyway. And he’s right about his life being in danger. Might as well give him a fighting chance.

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

He watched as Willow gripped the bars of the cage, hanging on for dear life as Xander careened over the bumpy road. “You could’ve sat up front, you know,” he commented. “I don’t need a babysitter.”

The redhead grinned, in spite of her discomfort. “I think Giles would disagree,” she said.

Spike glowered. “Watcher can’t see what’s right in front of his face,” he muttered. “I just want to help Buffy, but bloody wanker won’t see that.”

Willow’s eyes softened as she watched him bury his head in his hands, long fingers pulling at the soft curls. “What did he say?” she queried gently.

“Thinks I’ll make things worse by bein’ around,” the vampire answered, and lifted his face to look at his riding companion, the unshed tear shining in his blue eyes. “I love her, Red. I’d never hurt her.”

The anguish tore at his voice, and Willow felt her heart melt at the sincerity in his words. “He’s just worried about Buffy,” she said quietly. “He doesn’t want to take any chances.”

“What’s it goin’ to take?” Spike asked. “How many times am I goin’ to have to save her before you guys start takin’ me serious? ‘Cause this second-class citizen crap is gettin’ old, and I don’t want Buffy gettin’ caught in the middle of it.”

She knew his questions were valid ones, that his observations were right on the money, but she didn’t know the answers any more than he did. “I don’t know, Spike,” she admitted. “I just don’t know.”

The truck jerked to a stop, sending both of the cage’s occupants sprawling to the floor. “Harris couldn’t find a stick shift if it was stuck up his ass,” the vampire growled, scrambling to his feet before offering a hand to Willow to help her up. He thought for a moment that it was just another of their pit stops as Xander and Giles got their bearings, but this time, the engine was almost immediately killed and he heard the slams of both front doors opening and closing. The look from the redhead was all the confirmation he needed and together, they bolted for the rear of the cage, waiting for someone to come around and open it up.

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

Xander squinted as the dark Greek sprinted toward a nearby hill, his legs moving faster than the construction worker would’ve thought possible for someone not being chased by a demon. “You really think it’s a good idea to just let him go like that?” he asked the Watcher as he rounded the corner of the truck.

“He’s served his purpose,” Giles replied, fumbling with the large ring of keys he’d taken from their newly released prisoner. “I see no reason to harm humans who have agreed to help us with Buffy.”

“Oh, yeah?” commented Anya. “Tell that to the witch you killed at Cortina’s.” She visibly shrank as the older man turned venomous eyes toward her, his face a dark thundercloud ready to explode. “I’m just saying,” she added defensively, clutching at her boyfriend’s arm.

Drawing back the curtain that covered the cage, Giles was greeted by a waiting Willow and Spike. The vamp retreated slightly as the light filtered through the bars, but with the truck parked facing the sun, most of its rays were aimed at the front of the vehicle as opposed to the rear, making it unnecessary for him to move very far. Slipping the key into the lock, the Watcher undid the latch, allowing the door to swing free.

Spike just watched as the redhead jumped to the ground, his eyes narrowing as Giles let the gate loose, clanging slightly as it bounced off the cage’s clasp. They were parked just outside the cave’s entrance and to be perfectly honest, he didn’t get what the big fuss was about. To him, it looked quite ordinary, with a smallish opening; there weren’t any dead bodies laying about, or any demon markings. What in hell were they just waiting around for?

“There’s only one way in,” Giles was instructing. “One path with only enough room for us to go single-file. Don’t look around, just stay focused on the person in front of you---.”

“Why?” asked Tara.

“Apparently, the walls are covered with demonic artwork that drives men mad.” He held up his hand as the young people rolled their eyes. “I’m not saying it’s true, but young Nico seemed fairly adamant about keeping your eyes straight ahead. He claims that men who view the scenes leave the cave babbling idiots and eventually kill themselves. Right after they start attempting to re-enact what they’ve witnessed.”

“Sounds like absolute rot to me,” snarked Spike from inside the truck.

Giles just glanced at him out of the corner of his eye. “Frankly, I’m not inclined to believe it either, but, just to be safe, we’ll do as suggested. Understand?” He waited as the Scoobies slowly nodded. “Good. Now, do we have everything? Willow?”

The redhead patted the backpack slung over her shoulder. “Yep, all set.”

“And Xander and I are on weapons.” He glanced around at the horizon. “Where did Elvis get to?”

“He should get here any minute now,” Willow reassured. “I gave him the scent, so he knows where he’s heading.”

“That dog will never fit inside that cave.” Spike was pacing back and forth at the edge of the sunlight, watching the gang organize themselves, not stopping even when Giles turned to look at him. “If you’re hoping poochie’s goin’ to be some help in there with your demon---.”

“That’s not our plan,” the Watcher interrupted. “He’s for stopping anything from escaping once we’ve already entered.” He swiveled on his heel, heading for the cave opening, his voice floating back to the vampire behind him. “And for keeping you in your cage…”

Spike growled as the Scooby gang disappeared, one by one, into the cave. So close and yet…so far. Although they’d left the cage door unlocked---something he wasn’t sure that they even realized---the sunlight was as good as keeping him captive, not to mention the damn demon dog that would be showing up any minute to stand guard as well. He felt like raging against the unfairness of it all…Buffy was so close…and she needed him…how in hell was he going to get to her?

As he plopped down onto the lone bench in the cage, Spike felt a soft bundle under his foot, and glanced down. Red’s jacket. In such a hurry, must’ve forgotten all about it. He bent over to pick it up, then froze, as the germ of an idea rooted itself in his head…

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

He’d kept her blindfolded during the entire journey, even when whatever she was in had jolted to a halt. She’d been slid out, still on her back, and had only known she was in sunshine by the direct heat on her face, the warmth suffusing her torso, creeping down her legs. It was reminiscent of her first dream about Spike, and she imagined his fingers as they thrust themselves deep inside her. The tingle the memory sent through her thighs was enough to make her sigh, and she heard Daymon stop whatever he was doing and approach her.

“As much as I would like to believe that it is for me you sigh so longingly,” he’d oozed, “I suspect you are thinking of your vampire lover. He is quite the lucky man to have a woman who gets aroused merely at the remembrance of his touch.” He chuckled. “Do you think he will want you as much after the ritual? Or will he be repulsed when this lovely skin of yours is covered in scales?”

“It’s not. Going. To happen,” Buffy had said through gritted teeth, and began doing her best to wrench free from her bonds yet again. Her struggles had ceased, however, when she felt the men who’d removed her from the truck grab hold of her yet again, walk with her out of the sunlight, and immerse her again in an icy coldness. Gone was the day, replaced by a frozen glove encasing her skin, and her Slayer senses starting exploding all over the place. She wasn’t sure where she was, but one thing was certain…it was evil.

How long they’d walked, how far…she had no idea. The only thing the young woman was aware of was the encroaching sense of disaster. It was taking too long; with every passing minute, Buffy knew that the odds of the gang or Spike getting to her in time to help her escape were diminishing, and she wasn’t exactly sure she could get out of this one on her own. They weren’t physical bindings holding her in place; it was magic, and all her super-Slayer strength did absolutely zilch when it came to fighting that.

And when they laid her out, and she felt the cold stone beneath her back, the knot in her stomach grew tighter, hardening into a frigid lump, and she had to swallow hard in order to breathe properly. She felt scales brush against her cheek, and it was all the young woman could do not to physically flinch at Daymon’s touch.

“Very soon,” he crooned, and those long fingers slid under the blindfold, liberating it from her face.

The sudden explosion of light blinded her, and Buffy blinked as she tried to clear her vision. Vaguely, she saw the outline of the Greek demon towering over her, then slide away, presumably to do something connected with the ritual. She wanted to follow him with her head, but all of a sudden, she couldn’t move that either, her muscles frozen…immobile…and it was then that the fear really began to settle in…

From off to the side, Daymon’s voice began to chant in a language she couldn’t understand, Greek most likely, she reasoned. She had no idea what he was saying, but the poetic cadences of his words seemed all too familiar. I’ve been around Willow long enough to know what magic sounds like, Buffy thought. It’s the ritual. It’s too late.

And then the light around her burst into flame, exploding with a radiance too overwhelming to perceive…and she wanted to look away…but she couldn’t…her breathing ragged, her pulse racing…watching as it swam before her…the scream being torn from her lips even before she realized it…

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

It was the chilling echo of his Slayer’s screams that spurred Giles to hasten his step. They were close, he could feel it, but the agony in her voice made him worry that it was already too late, that all their efforts had been for naught. The windings of the path had stolen his sense of direction; he only knew forward...only knew onward…but in that way lay Buffy, and he would drive on.

All of a sudden, the trail widened, and the group spilled out onto a narrow ledge encircling a shallow pit. The stone of the passageway was replaced by earth and the Scoobies edged around, each one’s gaze locked on the tableau laid out before them.

Buffy lay spread-eagled on a platform at the center, her mouth wide open as the screams still gushed forth from her throat. She was barely clothed, and her skin shone in the brilliant light that seemed to be hovering all around her. Just off to her side, Daymon knelt before a tiny lectern, a scroll spread out on top of it, the ancient words of the cleansing rolling from his tongue.

“It’s already begun,” Giles murmured. He looked over at Xander, whose jaw twitched in anger, and nodded. “Aim for its head,” he instructed, and lifted his crossbow.

Two arrows went slinging through the air, but within feet of their target, they stopped, bouncing as if they’d struck a wall. The chanting faltered, then continued, while both men quickly reloaded…tried again…

The light grew suddenly brighter and the scaled demon lifted his head to stare up at the arrivals with cold, black eyes. Victory shone there as he slowly rose to his feet. “She told me you would come,” he said, “and I laughed at such an innocent bluff. I see I have underestimated yet again.” He smiled. “But you are too late. The cleansing has already begun. See how the powers are already preparing?” The demon turned his back on the group, gesturing toward the radiance that now engulfed Buffy. “No man can stop the ritual now.”

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

All he could hear were her screams, and they tore at his heart as he ran down the cave’s corridor, the burns on his hands already forgotten. The dog had been easily fooled by the scent of Willow’s jacket, and Spike had made his break for the cave’s entrance with the coat draped over him, hoping and praying that his vampiric speed would get him o safety before he burst into flame. He’d been fortunate; only his hands had burned, but that pain was nothing now that he was drowning in the sounds of Buffy’s terror.

He burst into the cavern, his sight immediately assaulted by the glow that permeated its center, oblivious to everything but the sight of the woman he loved and the demon towering over her. “No!” he screamed, and launched himself downward, aiming directly for Greek’s shoulders. As he flew through the air, he heard the Watcher’s voice cry out…

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

“Spike! Don’t!” Giles yelled at the blond vampire as he rushed past them, vaulting himself into the pit before them. There was no sign of recognition that he’d been heard, and he felt the bile rise in his throat as the older man realized that he wasn’t being stopped by whatever had stayed their own arrows…he was soaring through…

As they watched in horror, he tackled Daymon in mid-turn, catching him off-guard, the force of the impact sending the scaled demon sprawling away from Buffy and driving Spike to his knees. He shook his blond head as if to clear it, starting to stand, and the group held their breath as the light that had been engulfing the Slayer suddenly rushed forward, slamming into the chests of both the young woman and the vampire at her side.

Time froze, and the Scoobies could only stand by as the radiance seemed to shriek, the voices of Slayer and vampire mingling as one…then dying down…

Buffy’s inert form slowly began to rise, straightening inch by inch, while at the same time, Spike’s body was being forced down, stretching out as it went more and more horizontal, matching the other in speed. Each looked asleep, their eyes closed, their faces in repose, and the irrational question of whether they were both dead flickered across the Watcher’s mind as he stood helpless to prevent it from finishing.

Their movements ceased, leaving Buffy in mid-air, her arms still akimbo, head hanging, golden hair hiding her face. The vampire was now prone on the earthen floor, and Giles found his gaze riveted on the chipped demon. He seemed to be changing, right before his very eyes…skin darkening---reddening, really---almost as if…

A piercing squeal tore from the light, and the brilliance immediately abated, although didn’t disappear. Was it over? But no…it still surrounded the pair, albeit much softer. There was a movement on the floor…had to be a trick of the light, but must inspect further…

And it was then that the Watcher’s pulse skipped a beat, his head raining torrential denials against his skull, because he’d seen it. It had happened. And there it was again…

…Spike’s chest rising…falling…rising again…

…as if he was breathing…

His blue gaze tore upwards, gluing to his Slayer, watching her head slowly rise, the hair clinging shamelessly to her cheeks, hiding her…until she turned, her lids fluttering open…

…and stared at the Scooby gang with the golden eyes of a vampire…

 

To be continued in Chapter Thirty-Five: And They All Came Tumbling Down