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Slayer

 

 

 

Project Paranormal

 

Author: Jo

 

Season 1

 

Part 12

 

**

 

 Summary: It’s been an eventful year for Our Heroes and somehow they’ve learned to live more comfortably with each other.  There are fewer extra slayers now, but they seem to be nicer people for the experience.  Oh, and wait.  Earthquakes in Wessex, and things like that?  Have we seen the last of those?  Surely, it’s all over bar the shouting…  Will our trio be able to pack up their bathing gear and have a relaxing summer holiday?  What do you think. 

 

**

 

 

 

Slayer

 

Giles woke with a start.  He’d fallen asleep at his desk.  The ring binder he’d been working his way through was sticking painfully into his cheek.  Too much research, too much terror, not enough sleep.  As he straightened up, wincing at the stiffness in his spine, a letter on his desk caught his eye.  It was the letter from Nadine to her parents.  His throat clenched.

 

There was something else: something he’d been dreaming.  Something he’d dreamt he was telling Buffy, something about the slayers, and it was important.  He knew it was important, and he cudgelled his brain to try and remember, but the more he tried, the more the fragments of memory faded.  It lay there, in his subconscious, like a toad in a stone, and he couldn’t get it out.

 

Martha bustled in just then, carrying some breakfast on a tray.  Orange juice, porridge with cream and honey, toast and marmalade and, thank the gods, coffee.

 

“John saw Miss Faith safely to Heathrow.  She’s on her way.  She says to send Miss Cali on to her as soon as things are better here.”

 

Giles sighed in relief.  Faith’s flying visit had been welcome, when she’d thought that things here were worse than things there, but she’d seemed to carry the apocalypse with her.  Things had become so much more…ominous, was perhaps the right word, with plagues of locusts, earthquakes and bleeding walls, all seemingly centred around this house.  And let’s not forget the tornado that had taken Nadine, just like the one that had taken Dorothy.  He was pretty sure there wouldn’t be an Emerald City for Nadine, though.  The stone yawned, and another toad settled in to a hole.  What was it about that particular thought.  Not the one about Dorothy; the one about plagues and earthquakes and blood and Faith?  And what was it that he had dreamt he had told Buffy, here in his study?  Later.  When he could think.  Another synapse fired.

 

“Martha, I thought you and John were leaving.  I distinctly remember saying…”

 

“Well now, Mr Giles, you know you can’t go making decisions for people.  Nothing good ever comes of that.  John and I have talked it over, and we’re agreed.  Fine friends we should be if we cut and run now.  There’s cooking and cleaning…”  She hesitated a moment.  “Well, clearing at least, and that’s something I can do for you all while you fight the bigger battles.

 

“John’s had a good look round, and he says the house is in fine shape.  The cracks are just to the rendering.  He says there’s a few days’ work inside, but it will be good as new.”

 

She rushed on, as if she didn’t want to acknowledge the fact that things might never be fine again.

 

“Oh, and the horses.  He says it’s plenty warm enough to leave them in the field now the stable’s gone, but he doesn’t think it’s safe.  So, he’s taken them to that livery stable on the Trowbridge Road.  Where they went when he was in hospital that time.  They know it there.”

 

She looked anxiously at him.

 

“I hope that was all right.”

 

He smiled for her.  He knew the owner of the stable, although not well.  Lisa would take care of his horses.

 

“That’s wonderful, thank you.”

 

She turned to go, leaving him to his breakfast.

 

“Martha.  Thank you both.  Thank you for wanting to stay.  But, if you want to leave, please… don’t worry about it, just go.”

 

“Would anywhere else be any safer?  At least things seem to have quietened down a bit, here.”

 

And then she was gone.  But she was right.  Things were quieter.  For now, at least.

 

By the time he got to it, breakfast was largely cold, but he did at least eat it all.  Before he did that, he wrote to Nadine’s parents.  It was a letter that told a different truth about the young girl, a truth about her bravery and heart.  He wrote to Sarah and Rona’s parents, too.

 

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 Giles leaned back in his chair, sighing in frustration.  Soft paws landed on his lap, pulling him from his abstraction.  Zillah rubbed the side of her face vigorously against his stubble, marking him as property.  He had to smile.  Ella had asked him to care for her cat for a few days.  She was spending all her time with the Coven on something deep and dark and mysterious, but which he desperately hoped was connected to the problems he faced.  He’d asked her about it, outright, and for the first time in their relationship, she had refused to answer.  She hadn’t just been evasive.  She had simply refused, wrapped in all her Celtic dignity.  To his surprise, he had left it there, just as she had left the cat.  Temporarily.

 

He ran his hands down Zillah’s sleek sides.  She was jet black and finely boned.  Svelte, that was the word.  Just like her owner.  She looked the perfect familiar for a witch, and he might well have indulged a fancy that she had been conjured up for that very purpose if he hadn’t been at the local Cats’ Protection Shelter when Ella came in to choose a new cat.  She had been instantly taken by a litter of kittens, all as black as night, and Giles had been instantly taken with the svelte redhead with eyes as green as the cat’s.  He knew the Coven, of course, but he hadn’t known this latest member, hadn’t recognised her as a witch to start with, a witch come to take the place of Esme, who had finally allowed herself to descend into old age and then death.  It was almost as if the Coven had deliberately kept her from him, although in fairness he’d been away for all those years with Buffy.

 

Ella had had trouble persuading herself not to take the whole litter of kittens, such was her compassion, and he had surreptitiously watched her debating with herself until the lady running the shelter had told her that other families were coming for the remaining babies.  They would all be gone by the next day. 

 

And so Zillah had been picked out, and so had Giles.  An older, ginger tom had stared at him until he could almost hear the cat speak.  Although, ‘ginger’ didn’t begin to describe this cat: neither did ‘marmalade’, another common name for this colour.  This cat was burnt marmalade, if he was marmalade at all.  His coat was patterned in a deep, figured silk sort of pattern, in shades of mahogany, his eyes as amber as a vampire’s.  Zillah had gone home with Ella, and Aristotle had gone home with Giles.  Silly name, really, now always shortened to Ari, but it had seemed appropriate at the time. 

 

Ari had picked him out, and so had Ella.  He was profoundly grateful for that.  At the time, he’d only been back from California for a few weeks, and the companionship of a cat had been a comfort.  The companionship of Ella had been something else entirely.  And he wanted it to become something else, something more.  He hadn’t told them yet, but he was putting together plans for the slayers, plans that would station them around the world and out of his home.  He was almost ready to talk about it to his old friend Benny, the new head of what was left of the Watcher’s Council, to find suitable candidates for Watchers for them.  They would be happier, doing what they were born to do, mistresses of their own territory.  Now that he had given Buffy and Angel the full time occupancy of his flat in Bath, for as long as they chose to stay, his own home would be a lot quieter.  Quiet enough, perhaps, to invite a bride to share it.

 

That was for the future, though.  This was now.  Zillah was being kept indoors, so that she would not run home, and with all the slayers coming and going, and leaving doors open, the safest place was the study.  Ari, currently exiled to the rest of the house and the demesne, was not at all pleased by this, and met everyone with a hiss and a flash of fangs.  Giles strongly suspected that he was the one being punished, not Zillah.  On their only meeting, although Ari had growled, Giles had seen him eye up the slinky and beautiful newcomer.  Neutered he might be, but he’d still got an eye for the ladies.

 

 

 

Despite his cares, Giles smiled again.  That little scene had so forcibly reminded him of Angel and Buffy, before they had learned that the Coven had cured him of the happiness clause.  Unneutered him, so to speak, but in the broadest sense.  Silly, really.

 

He thought back again to bringing the cat home from the shelter in Bath.  That seemed so long ago, before all of this had started.  He’d had a few surviving Sunnydale slayers – and Andrew – to house, and that had been all.  Strange what could change in two years. 

 

Many more slayers had been found, activated thanks to Willow’s spell, before the Coven had had time to step in and stop the propagation of the magic, although he’d never known exactly why they’d done that.  He just knew that they disapproved of what Willow had done.  But one thing of which he was as sure as he could be was that all the activated slayers left alive by the First were here; now, only Faith was watching the Hellmouth in Cleveland.  He thought about Faith, as he had seen her yesterday.  She’d looked a little like Buffy, tired beyond belief.  He’d worried about letting her go back alone, but with all the events centred around Westbury, he’d not felt able to spare any of the younger girls just yet, and she had insisted on leaving Cali, to help.  Still, there seemed to be a lull just now (the lull before the storm, said one of the toads in his mind). Perhaps he could think about sending one or two.  Pre-empt his bigger plans.  His mind drifted back to Sunnydale.

 

At the end of the Sunnydale nightmare, Buffy had promised to show Dawn the world, and so they had gone travelling, finishing up in Rome.  He’d sent Andrew with them, partly to get the pompous ass out of his hair, and partly because two women travelling alone, even if one of them was The Slayer, the original slayer, was never a good idea even in the modern world. 

 

Willow and Kennedy had also gone travelling, but much further.  Having exhausted some of this world’s wildest places, they’d gone visiting places that were wilder still.  Other dimensions.  He’d no idea where, and he was starting to worry.  There were more imminent things to worry about just now, though, and so he put Willow and Kennedy out of his mind.  For the moment.  

 

Andrew helped Giles out from time to time, helping find and bring back the new slayers, for instance, but Giles was happy to keep it at a distance.  Especially since… since Angel’s return from final death, which had proved not to be so final after all.  The phone calls from Connor had brought Giles and Buffy to Los Angeles to find the resurrected vampire – and who knew now whether Connor was alive or dead, whether he’d given himself up to death to bring his father back?  When all this was over, Giles would quiz the Coven more carefully on that.  Connor didn’t want to be found, if he lived, but Giles would be happier if he knew, and he suspected the Coven knew well enough.

 

Giles’ irritation wasn’t the reason for keeping Andrew in Rome, though.  Andrew was there to keep an eye on Dawn, now a boarding pupil at the English School.  Wherever it was decided her education should finish, Andrew would follow.  Dawn, Key to the dimensions made flesh, would never be entirely safe.  And Buffy wasn’t there to guard her.  Buffy was here.  She’d stayed to help bring Angel back from wherever his resurrection had left him – and Angel would never talk about that – and then she’d just stayed. 

 

They were a couple, here, and they were his muscle, in an ever-dangerous world.  All three of them had been left with issues in their dealings with each other after the Sunnydale years, but these last months had seen them manage to put those behind them, to learn to work together again, to trust each other again.  The wounds were scabbed over now, and he hoped the scars wouldn’t be too deep.  Buffy no longer treated him as the absent father that she had missed so much, but rather as an ageing family friend.  That was probably appropriate, but he regretted it, and still thought of her as his daughter.  He’d never stop.  Just as Angel would never stop loving her, and Giles would never stop seeing Jenny dead on his bed.  But, that memory no longer had quite the same power over him, as he watched Angel struggle with the demon within, opening himself up time and time again to maiming and death, or worse, to protect those who couldn’t protect themselves.  And bringing with him a wisdom born of long experience and bitter pain.

 

It was thoughts of those two, of Buffy and Angel, that finally broke him from his reverie; those thoughts, and the sharp jab of claws from the cat on his knee, as she circled to make a comfortable space before lying down. 

 

Buffy was ill, Giles had no doubts about that.  Not ill in a let’s-go-to-the-doctor sort of way.  Ill in a much more serious way, in a way that made him very afraid.  Some of the young slayers had died, here in his care, and although he knew that it was part of the natural order of slayers, it still hurt him deeply.  It hurt Buffy even more, though.  Looking back, he could see that each time a slayer had died, Buffy had been brought to her knees.  And each time was worse.  The last had been Sarah and Rona, and who knew what had happened to Nadine?  He’d told her parents she was dead, because that had seemed best.  But he wasn’t certain.  Dead as could be, though, were Lucy, who had been the first, then Hoshi, then Vi and Sadie. 

 

Buffy hadn’t been able to say much about what had happened in the woods with Sarah and Rona, because she’d been senseless much of the time.  Angel had been loath to talk about the battle down in the sinkhole, but Giles had been insistent.  When an anthropophagus bit Vi’s head off, Buffy had screamed in agony and then fallen to the ground unconscious, an even worse manifestation than had happened when Lucy and Hoshi had died.  She’d still been unconscious when Sadie had died.  When Sadie had been drained.

 

No, that was unfair.  It was bad enough that Angel was still beating himself up over that.  He’d been helpless, gutted by a fallen stalactite.  Sadie had been as good as dead.  All the anthropophagi weren’t yet dealt with, and Sadie, with a courage beyond her years, had offered him her blood to give him strength to save whoever he could.  Angel had said he’d only taken enough to get him sufficiently mobile to save the girls, hoping against his own knowledge and expectation to get her back to the surface, alive, with Buffy; trying to take only blood that was already pouring from ruptured arteries into her own body; but no-one recovers from being crushed by a boulder that size.  He’d known that, and Sadie had known that.

 

Now, Buffy was on her feet, but that was about all you could say.  It wasn’t far off all you could say about Angel, either.  Both of them were damaged, physically and mentally, and needed a respite.  Giles doubted they would get it.  He looked at the reams of notes on his desk.  He was starting to get a picture.  He didn’t like it.

 

He left his study, carefully holding Zillah back with his foot as he closed the door behind him.  Coffee, that was the thing.  He’d review what he’d seen in that picture after he’d made coffee.  Tea didn’t seem to have quite the zing he needed just now.  He’d prefer a few glasses of a good single malt under his belt, but he desperately needed to remain sober.  The picture was bad enough as it was, without any alcohol-induced fancies.

 

It was late, gone midnight, and he expected to be alone.  He wasn’t, though.  Buffy and Angel were in the kitchen.  She was paler than the vampire was.  As he watched from the hall, before they noticed him, he saw a tiny trickle of blood at the corner of Buffy’s mouth.  Angel bent over and kissed her briefly.  When he lifted his head, the blood was gone.  She would never know it had been there.

 

Monster.

 

The thought was in his brain like a stoat in a henhouse, before he had time to censor it.  So was the notion that Angel might like having a weakened Slayer, with tidbits of Slayer blood to snack on.  Then Angel turned towards him. By the time he had turned, that handsome face was bland and controlled.  Just for an instant, though, out of Buffy’s gaze, the expression had been one of such anguish and pain that the uncharitable, uncensored thoughts were driven out.

 

“I… I, erm, came for a cup of coffee.  Do you want one?”

 

Buffy shook her head, but whether it was a negative gesture, or simply to clear her thoughts, Giles wasn’t sure.

 

“No, thanks.  I’m going to bed.  We just came back from the White Hart.”

 

“You’ve been drinking?”

 

“Duh, Giles!  We’ve been debugging.”

 

Giles had forgotten.  The owner of the local pub, the White Hart, had asked weeks ago for help with some strange manifestations.  What with one thing and another, he’d put it to one side and then he’d forgotten about it.

 

“Buffy, are you sure you should have been out slaying…?”

 

“Don’t worry, Giles.  It wasn’t physical.  It was an exorcism.  Angel debugged, Nureen and Elaine looked menacing, just in case it got physical, and I sat with the landlady, drinking tea.  No alcohol or slaying involved.”

 

Angel nodded his confirmation, but his smile was tight and hard.  With a word of goodnight, Buffy got up from the table, and Angel made to follow.

 

“Um, Angel, if you have a minute, I’d just like your opinion on something…”

 

Angel looked at Buffy uncertainly, and she gave him a tired smile and a hug.

 

“Go.  I can get across the courtyard all by myself.  I’ll see you later.”

 

Then she was gone, off to the garage flat that was still reserved for their use.  Giles made coffee for two, and led the way back to his study.  Because Giles had his hands full, it was Angel who caught the would-be runaway cat.  He seemed unwilling to put her down again, and she seemed content to stay in his arms.  Giles fussed around finding a coaster for Angel’s coffee, as a cover while he tried to formulate his question.  In the end, he settled for the direct route.

 

“How’s Buffy?”

 

Angel settled into his chair before he answered, allowing the cat to curl up against his belly.

 

“Not good.  She… she tries to hide it from me, but she’s weak and disoriented, and in a lot of pain.  She has headaches, and perhaps other hurts as well.”

 

He thought back to those final minutes with Sadie before he continued, and Giles didn’t interrupt him.  He knew that the guilt and shame that he felt were unnecessary – the brave young girl had done the practical thing, when all other hope was gone.  He still felt them, though.  But, he also remembered her look when she was beyond words.  Companions at arms, that was how she’d thought of him, at the end.  Not as a vampire, despite the fact that he was drinking from her, and that gave him comfort.  His thoughts flew back to Buffy, and there was little enough comfort to be found there.

 

“Giles… I don’t quite understand it, but whatever has happened to her is related to the deaths of the slayers.”

 

Giles looked down at the mug almost burning his hands.

 

“I know.  I don’t understand it either, but it *is* related.”

 

He put the mug down, and gestured to the mass of papers on his desk.  As he did so, the house shuddered.  Britain suffers from many earthquakes each year, all of them small and insignificant and rarely felt, almost always no more than the tremor when a heavily laden vehicle passes by.  However, there had been two serious earthquakes in Wessex in the last week, following the one in which Sadie had died.  They weren’t just aftershocks, they were getting more serious.  The hot springs in Bath, tamed and venerated over thousands of years for their healing properties, were now the boiling sulphur springs, heated and despoiled, and made lethal by growing volcanic activity.  And it wasn’t just in Wessex.  As the ground shook, the house creaked, but stood.  The two men heard voices upstairs.  The slayers were awake.

 

“You check on them, I’ll go see to Buffy.”

 

“Angel…Come back when you’ve seen her.  I want to talk this through with you.”

 

The only damage had been to crockery and the roof.  When Angel returned to Giles, he reported that there were a few fallen slates.  He would fix the gaps before retiring for the day, make sure the rain didn’t get in.  Giles smiled tiredly.

 

“ ‘April is the cruellest month…’?”

 

Angel smiled back.

 

“TS Eliot.  There’s a man who knew what he was talking about.”

 

Giles ran his hand through his hair.

 

“I wish I did.  But look at this, Angel.  I’ve compared all the incidents we’ve had since you and Buffy came here…”

 

As he said the words, another toad slid into the stone that seemed to be his brain, and he almost missed what Angel said.  Buffy and Angel.  Here.  Buffy, Angel and Faith.  Here.

 

“There weren’t any before?” Angel interrupted.

 

“What?”

 

“Any incidents,” Angel prodded, patiently.  He could see that Giles had been distracted for a moment.

 

“Um… Only things that you expect to see.  A few ghosties and ghoulies and even the odd long-legged beastie – the sort of thing that I expect will keep the agency running.  Something has changed, I think.”

 

The toad’s mouth gaped open, as if it were trying to force out words.  He almost didn’t hear Angel’s question.

 

“Coincidence?”

 

“That’s a possibility, but let me show you.”

 

Giles riffled through his papers, and started to talk Angel through them.

 

“It started here, with the Chalice Well at Glastonbury.  I had a phone call that there were strange things in the water, if you remember, and almost instantly, the Nanteos Cup, thought by some to be the Holy Grail, disappeared, and you had to retrieve it.”

 

“I remember.”

 

Giles paused for a moment, his expression reflective.

 

“I don’t suppose you’d like to tell me…”

 

Angel remembered the feel of it in his hand.

 

“Whether it’s the real thing?  No, Giles, best not.”

 

“No… No, you’re right, of course.  Anyway, those two events are linked because both are to do with Arthurian legend.  Arthur’s knights are said to have sought for the Grail, although only Galahad was pure enough to find it; and some say that it was placed in the Chalice Well.  It’s all so wrapped up in myth that if there were any truth in any of it, it’s lost now.  The point, though, is that as soon as a problem was known amongst us, a linked problem arose.”

 

Angel leafed through some of Giles’ notes. 

 

“You’ve got half a dozen incidents like that.”

 

“Yes.  I didn’t see the pattern at first, but it’s there.  And then there’s Buffy.  Every time a slayer dies, she gets some sort of agonised concussion, which proves to be more debilitating each time.”

 

Angel grimaced.

 

“You think there’s a connection?”

 

“Yes.  It could be several things, but I wonder if one of the girls is psychic in some way; they are all adolescents, and that can result in psychic disturbances.  If one of them is susceptible, perhaps their subconscious brings things about.”

 

Angel chewed his lip doubtfully.

 

“I don’t know, Giles…  You think someone magicked up the demon to steal the Cup because they heard about the problems at the Well?  That’s a pretty tall order.”

 

“Perhaps it was the other way around?  If someone was sensitive to what was happening at Nanteos, perhaps sensitive to a summons from Brother Simeon, maybe the manifestations at the Well were the product of that imagination…”

 

Angel still looked sceptical, but Giles pressed on.

 

“If we have a psychic who is upset by the death of a sister slayer, perhaps she lashes out mentally, and that’s why Buffy is ill.”

 

“I… I don’t think so, Giles.  She’d be recovering better, if that were it, surely?  And besides, why wouldn’t the others feel it?  Why only Buffy?”

 

“I…I don’t think it’s only Buffy.  You saw Faith, when she was here?  She’s starting to look ill, too.”

 

Angel nodded in silence.  Giles pressed on.  The toad peered out of its stone.

 

“Things got a lot worse when Faith arrived.  It was all around here, nowhere else.  The lost legion on the march; blood running from the walls; plagues of locusts; supernatural tornadoes.   All things that a young girl, like one of the slayers, might conjure up if they wanted to frighten people away.  Things that a slayer can’t affect.”

 

“You think that one of the girls just wants to go home, and is powerful enough to bring things about that look as if they are things for exorcism, rather than slaying?  Wouldn’t Ella have noticed someone that powerful?”

 

Giles shook his head, and this time it was Angel’s turn to press on.

 

“When I drank from Sadie, I…, well…I’ve… drunk from…”

 

His halting words trailed off into silence as he turned away, abashed.

 

“Listen, Angel, if you have something to say, just say it.  I’ve read whatever the Watchers had about you.  There was never any proof that Angelus had killed a slayer, but there were strong suspicions that he was involved in the death of several.  That wasn’t you: not the you that you are now.  So, we need your unique experience.  Just say it.”

 

Angel reflected on what Giles would think if he’d seen the thirty-five filing cabinets full of information on him that Wolfram and Hart had had.  He tried not to reflect on the differences – or lack of them – between himself and Angelus.  There was no time for that now.

 

“I’ve drunk from a number of slayers, and each one is different.  But with Sadie, there was something about her blood, something about the power of it.  It wasn’t like Buffy’s…”

 

He trailed off again, remembering who he was talking to, but Giles just nodded encouragingly for him to continue.

 

“It felt like a living thing, trying to escape, twisting away from me.”

 

“Did it escape?”

 

“No.  I didn’t have chance to think much about it before – I was too badly hurt to do more than be grateful for the strength, but it was strange, and I don’t understand it.”

 

“And Buffy?”

 

Angel didn’t pretend to misunderstand.

 

“She tastes strange.  As if something has sunk its claws into her.”  He paused, then added, defensively, “I haven’t taken any blood from her while she’s ill, just…just if she’s bleeding anywhere, I… I check her out…”

 

“I know.  I saw you in the kitchen.  It’s good that you check.”

 

Embarrassed, Angel shifted in his chair a little, and Zillah objected.  She stretched out a paw, her claws going through the thin material of his shirt.  He gave a sharp hiss of pain.

 

“Hasn’t that healed yet?”

 

“It’s fine.”

 

“Let me see.”

 

“No, Giles, honestly…”

 

“Let me see.”

 

He looked over the top of his glasses, and even all these years later, Angel was forcibly reminded of a certain disapproving schoolmaster.  Obediently, he unbuttoned his shirt.  It was Giles’ turn to give a sharp hiss.  The entire front of his belly was a red and ragged scar.  Giles didn’t need to look to know that there would be a similar scar on his back.  The miracle was that his spine had stayed intact.

 

“Shouldn’t it have healed by now?”

 

“The worst’s over.  Another couple of days and it will be healed.  I wish I could say the same for Buffy.”

 

He buttoned his shirt back up again, wondering at this new ease with Giles, and the two men turned their attention back to the papers spread on the desk in front of them, trying out different solutions to the puzzle they had been set.  Once or twice, they got up to make more coffee, and once they stopped to look at the ever-brightening aurora from the study’s north-facing window.  Colours lit up the sky, shifting curtains of blue and red and green, the dance of a solar storm that had lasted for weeks now, but had never been as bright as this.

 

“Do you often get northern lights like that?”

 

“Never, Angel.  Never this far south, and never as bright as that in this country.  I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of them being as bright as this anywhere.”

 

Giles added it to the notes, and they talked on.

 

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 Of all the other people who must have been watching the display in the sky, two of them were witches.  Hilda and Ella were taking a brief rest.  Even witches working the most powerful magicks needed to rest sometimes.  The Coven were taking it in turn, two by two, but it had been a long time since any of them had snatched more than a catnap of sleep, or a quick bite or two of sandwich.  As they watched, the aurora shimmered and danced, and then, all at once, seemed to spread itself on the moonlight to cover the whole sky.  The moon, the stars, they might as well have been gone, because they could no longer be seen from Earth; there were just the dancing curtains of cold light.

 

“They must be told.  It’s time – almost past time, now.”

 

Ella thought that her words had drifted unheard into those streamers of light, as Hilda continued to watch, saying nothing.  Then the older witch nodded.

 

“Yes.  You’re right.  But not everything.”

 

Ella felt anger surge through her.  She had done as instructed.  She knew that she had upset Giles by refusing to talk about the thing uppermost in his mind, but she had understood why Hilda had made that decision.  Time – and their strength – were running out, now.

 

“Why not everything?  They deserve to know.”

 

“Need and deserve are two different things, Ella.  We have so far left them free to concentrate on dealing with the fallout, and they have done that better than anyone else could.  They have not been dragged down by other fears and other knowledge, by the things that we have taken responsibility for.”

 

Hilda sighed, and turned away from the deadly beauty of the night sky.

 

“Come and sit a moment, Ella.  We can’t stay away much longer, but I’m feeling tired tonight.”

 

They sat at Mildred’s kitchen table, a heavy piece of comforting, homely, elderly and well-scrubbed pine.  Hilda poured another cup of tea for them both.

 

“I’ve been too long away from young people, and I handled Willow badly.  I should have been able to stop her from spreading the Slayer magic.  Having failed there, we… I … should have been able to stop her from casting the spell, or stopped the magic from propagating, should have acted more quickly.”

 

Ella cut in to Hilda’s self-recriminations.

 

“Hilda, there are thirteen of us.  The responsibility lies with all of us.”

 

Hilda patted her hand affectionately.

 

“You’re a good girl.  But I know where the fault lies.  If we cannot find a way to reverse Willow’s spell, or if we cannot find Willow herself, then I suppose it won’t matter much.  I shall spend some time today contacting other magic users, or even people who know about magic.  They can all contribute strength if not expertise.  I’ll start with the Watchers.”

 

“Benny?”

 

“Of course.”

 

“I suppose she must already know something – she’s not slow on the uptake, is she?  Will she help?”

 

“Ella, when I talk to her, I very much doubt that I could beat her away with a stick.  I’m going to have a busy time – there are a lot of groups, and I must find as many as I can who will help.  Now, go to Rupert, and tell him some of it.  As for the rest, the part that we must deal with, none of them can do anything about it, and knowing the worst will not help them to accomplish anything.  It will merely interfere with what they could otherwise achieve.  They don’t need to be pulled down by that particular dread.  Give them a problem that they might be able to solve, even if we have failed.  Do you agree?”

 

Ella nodded silently, because it was true – Rupert and the others could do nothing against the enemy that the Coven faced – and they talked then of what could be told, and what must remain unsaid.  When they had finished their talk and finished their tea, Ella stood to go.  Just then came a judder, not of the earth but of the mind.  Both witches paled a little.  It was Hilda who broke the silence.

 

“Quickly!  Rupert must wait a little while.  There’s been a breach.  Something has come through.”

 

They ran back to their sister witches, and took their place in the circle, knitting back up the rent in the walls of this dimension, keeping back the creatures from that outer darkness.  Except, of course, for the ones that had already come through.

 

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

It all happened long after the newspapers had gone to press, but the morning news programmes had some reports, buried among the also-ran items at the end.  Some dangerous creatures seemed to be on the loose.  There were already reports of casualties.  Do not approach.

 

Buffy found Angel and Giles still in the study.  Neither of the windows faced east, so the vampire was safe there.  Safe he might be, but both men looked exhausted.  Silently, she went off to the breakfast room, where the first meal of the day was in full swing, and brought back more coffee for them.  They were listening to the radio.

 

“It sounds like some sort of incursion.”

 

That was Giles, trying to look scientific, but barely able to conceal his fear.

 

“Yeah.  I’m out of it until sunset, but I think it needs investigating.”

 

“I’ll go.”

 

“No!”

 

“NO!”

 

Angel wasn’t too tired to find the right words.

 

“Buffy, whatever’s happening is fairly local.  Giles can take some of the girls to check it out.  If I’m going to be effective tonight, I need to get a few hours sleep, at least, and it needs someone here to listen to the reports and arrange for the rest of the girls to check out any new ones.  The best person for that is you.  Sometimes, leaders need to stay in overall control rather than in the front line.”

 

And so it was arranged.  There was a buzz of apprehension among the girls, remembering the fate of their friends, but to the young, even a week is a long time.  So, there was also a buzz of excitement at the prospect of some action – of getting their own back – of at least getting out and seeing something other than this house, and in their enthusiasm, they had to be reminded that daylight slaying was perhaps better done with discreet weapons rather than large axes.

 

After the selected band had left, there were no new incursions, and Angel felt able to snatch a little sleep by mid-afternoon.  Cali shyly suggested that he take Sadie’s bed in the smaller bedroom.  The windows there faced east.  He would be safe for the afternoon.  Everyone else continued to monitor radio and TV broadcasts.

 

The four girls who had gone with Giles were full of it when they came back.  The strangest creatures, like no demons they had ever seen before, either in the flesh or on paper.  Giles looked grim.  Elaine had a stab wound through the ribs, where an appendage – there was no better word – had caught her.  She had seen a creature go for Nureen’s unguarded side, and had put herself between the younger girl and what would have been a killing blow.  Buffy had to smile as she watched the wound being dressed.  If anything happened to herself and Faith, this girl would be the leader.

 

There was a great deal of chatter over dinner, speculation about the creatures that had been faced and slain, about what they might be and where they might have come from.  They’d been… thin… slender to the point of emaciation, but very strong; not constructed along any of the body lines currently indigenous to Earth; no bilateral symmetry, not even five-point symmetry like a starfish.  There were some with more arms than teeth, and some with more teeth than you wanted to shake a stick at.  Not all of those teeth had been in the mouth.  Or mouths.  And they had been very, very hard to kill. 

 

So, over the navarin of lamb with minted new potatoes and buttered carrots, followed by a pink and gold rhubarb crumble with custard, the slayers who had faced these demons passed on their information to those who had stayed behind.  Whilst everyone else ate, Angel drew.  He sketched what they described, and the results made everyone else sombre.  When the girls carried off the washing up, Giles took Buffy and Angel back into his study.

 

“I don’t think these were from any of the normal dimensions…”

 

“No, Rupert.  They weren’t.  And I have something for you.”

 

Ella stood in the doorway, grey with fatigue.  Angel recognised something else.

 

“When did you last eat?”

 

She waved away the question, which gave him the answer he needed.  In moments, he was back with a small bowl of stew, hot from the microwave, and the last remnants of pudding.  Giles stood holding the open envelope that Ella had brought with her.  From the size and the creases, there had originally been more in the envelope.  He could see that it was addressed to Hilda, an express delivery.

 

“I’m sorry, this is all the food that’s left…”

 

She took the stew gratefully. 

 

“Benny has sent us some information from whatever records the Watchers have left.  They haven’t got much, and most of what she sent was things that you already know.  But there are a few pages in there that should be useful.  We knew most of it, and so do you, but we’ve put what Benny has, and what we had, together.  It isn’t encouraging reading.”

 

She took a spoonful of stew and ate as she talked of what they now knew, together.  She talked of the magic that had created the line of Slayers, and the compromises that had had to be reached.  The magic used had been the magic of men, and it had conflicted with the magic of Earth, the magic of women.  Only one Slayer at a time could be allowed, then, or the forces that operated within the Earth would be disrupted.  Then Buffy had died – the first time – and there were two Slayers.  The Earth had shuddered, magically speaking, but, almost miraculously, an accommodation had been reached.

 

“When you were in Sunnydale, did you never wonder why there was so much supernatural activity – far more than had been seen for centuries – all at once?”

 

It was Giles who replied.

 

“I… I assumed it was the Hellmouth, and the approaching millennium.”

 

Ella put down the empty bowl and, licking the spoon clean, turned her attention to the rhubarb crumble, one of Martha’s specialities that was much enjoyed by the girls.

 

“At first, yes.  But it continued, and got worse.  Earth had two slayers, and it gave her indigestion.  Then, the Powers roped Angel in as well, another Champion for humanity.  There was no extra magic there – Angel has his own magic – but the supernatural balance slid even further out of true.  You won’t forget that we had a series of apocalypses such as most Slayers never have to worry about?  And possibly even the real, prophesied Apocalypse, at the end, for Angel?  So long as there are two chosen Slayers and another designated Champion, then you can certainly expect enough normal paranormal activity to keep the agency in business in perpetuity.”

 

No one questioned her use of the word ‘normal’.  They knew exactly what she meant.  She chose her next words carefully.  She knew how the additional slayers had been created.  No sense in upsetting Buffy more than necessary.  What was done was done, and what was needed now was a solution, not recriminations.

 

“The existence of the extra slayers has put too much strain on what’s left of the balance.  The magical conflict is too great.  They need to be unmade, and as quickly as possible.”

 

The stone in Giles’ mind gaped open, and the toad hopped out.  The magic of the slayers.  Of course.  So slow.  He’d been so slow.  How many might have been saved if only he’d seen…

 

Ella put the second bowl down on top of the first.  That was more than she’d eaten for days.

 

Angel asked the question before Giles could.

 

"Ella, what is the relationship between the death of one of the young slayers, and the effect it has on Buffy?”

 

“We think that Willow knew that she shouldn’t carry out the spell – Hilda had said no – and so she seems to have put in a piece of magic that, on death, transfers the power to the nearest properly chosen Slayer.  Buffy or Faith.  Returning everything to status quo, perhaps.  What she seems not to have understood was that she wasn’t dividing your powers, Buffy – that would have produced a lot of very weak slayers, but would not have affected the Earth’s balance more than the existence of two Slayers had done.  She multiplied it.  As the First killed off the newly created slayers, the power that created them will have reverted to Buffy, or Faith, whoever was closest.  There’s a price for that magic, though.  After all the deaths in Sunnydale, both chosen Slayers were probably at saturation point for how much they could absorb.  Now, it’s too much.”

 

 

 

She wondered whether she should say how much too much.  That more would kill Buffy, who had taken a far greater share of this raw magic over the last months than Faith, who had been safe in Cleveland for most of the time; but what good would it do?  There would be breaches in the dimensional walls before all this was over, and the slayers were needed to protect humanity from what came through.  They would protect each other as well as they could, and the three around her now would protect them to the utmost.  They would let none die where the death could be prevented.  Hilda was right.  They would only be paralysed if they knew all of it.

 

“The creepy critters last night – were they caused by all this?”

 

Ella nodded at Buffy.  She’d watched the Slayer shrink into herself slightly as the truth of her mistakes had hit her, and then she’d watched her pull herself together again.  Careful now, she thought.  Only as much of the truth as suffices…  There’s no need to tell them of the really huge thing out there, the creature that was the size of a solar system, perhaps, if there were solar systems in the dimension it inhabited, and wasn’t a creature at all in anyway that any human could understand.  Some entity drawn here to feed on the power released by a planet in self-destruct mode.  Something occupying most of the power and time that the Coven had at their disposal.  Something with a particular taste for the tangy magic of the slayers.

 

“The walls of the dimensions are fraying.  I don’t mean the Hell dimensions – they are really associated with the Earth – Earth’s alter egos, if you like.  Matter exists in much the same state across all of them.  There are small differences – in some of them I hear that you can go out in the sun, Angel.  No, I mean the dimensions beyond that, where things get really freaky.

 

“Rupert, as well as trying to reverse Willow’s spell, the Coven has to try and keep the dimensional walls from collapsing, and that is getting harder.  We cannot do both as well as we need to.  You can’t deal with keeping the walls intact, so we need help with the other.”

 

Giles squashed down his anger that he hadn’t been told before, that he hadn’t been astute enough to see for himself before; that he’d asked her what was happening, and she had refused to say.  There would be time enough for anger and recrimination later.  He couldn’t stop himself from asking the question, though.

 

“Ella, why didn’t you tell me this earlier, when I asked you?”

 

She looked sad.

 

“We thought that we could deal with it.  But, Willow’s magic is unique to her, and unlike many witches, she doesn’t need any aids.  No spell books, no crystals to store the spell.  We can’t find a way into it, and we can’t find her.  We hoped that if we could bring her back here, perhaps she would be able to undo it, but wherever she is, we can’t find her.”

 

She looked up at Giles, who was now pacing along the length of the room.

 

“Rupert, witches suffer from hubris, too, you know.  We really thought we could deal with the magical side, if you would deal with the fallout, as you have.”

 

The admission helped him, but not much.

 

“You want us to start researching ways of taking back the slayer power?”

 

“Yes.  I have put into the envelope, with Benny’s notes, a record of all the things that we have tried.”

 

“And you want us to keep on dealing with the added extra demons?”

 

“Yes.  We have managed to keep the worst localized to Wessex.  But, if we are to keep the outer boundaries intact, we may not have the ability to always keep the inner ones solid.  That means that there may be demons coming through from the Hell dimensions from time to time, but we hope there won’t be any more of last night’s horrors.  We mended the rift before more than a handful got through, but there are… many…”

 

She drifted into silence as she remembered the pressure on the rift, the sheer weight of them, trying to press forward into new and fertile hunting grounds.  The terror they had all felt at the touch of those cold, inhuman intelligences.  And at the sheer power of the thing with which those creatures travelled, like small fish around a shark: the thing that was clawing at the wall to feed on the Earth’s magical fallout, reaching for the power of the slayers like a honey badger ripping into a nest of bees.

 

And so it was agreed.  They would each use their own methods of research, trying to find a way to make the slayers into ordinary human girls once more, to undo what Willow had done.  As well as trying to soothe the Earth’s hurts, to save as many lives as they could, the Coven would shore up the dimensional walls, and the slayers would take whatever forced its way through.  And they would all pray that the Earth’s paroxysms didn’t kill too many people in the meantime.

 

They all knew that a reckoning was coming: that Giles was angry at being excluded from this information before, and that Angel and Buffy echoed that anger.  Personal issues would wait until the aftermath, though.  There was no time for them now.

 

When Giles and Angel and Buffy gave the young slayers a severely edited version of what they had learned that night, there were mixed feelings.  They had pined for a normal life, and yet here they had found companionship beyond any they could normally have expected; and they had found a purpose.  And now they had guilt that the Earth was trying to be rid of them, even though the fault had not been their own.

 

None of them felt as guilty as Buffy, though, but she said nothing.  There would be time for that later.  If there was a later.

 

 

 

~~~~~~~~~

 

April slipped into May, almost unnoticed.  Giles had taken out a contract with a local car hire company.  There were enough rented cars to allow groups of slayers to operate independently.  They were busy every night, thanking their lucky stars that all they had to deal with were common demons from the Hell dimensions.  No matter how bad they were, they weren’t as bad as the others.

 

No other slayers had died in the course of their duty, for which Angel thanked his lucky stars.  Buffy was no better, but neither was she worse.  Ella came round occasionally and they all compared progress.  There was none.

 

People were becoming frightened.  The aurora filled the sky each night, a harbinger of doom.  Each night’s news broadcasts included ever-greater loss of life from what, up until now, had only ever been natural disasters.  Floods, and earthquakes of unprecedented severity.  Rivers running red.  Plagues of things.  Doomsayers walked the streets of cities and towns, their sandwich boards demanding that everyone repent, for the end was pretty damn well nigh.

 

Giles spent twenty hours a day researching, begrudging every second spent in eating and sleeping.  He had combed through every resource at his disposal, and had consulted with everyone he knew who might have more.  As the days went by, he found himself more isolated, as increasingly he found himself unable to make contact with others.  Even the remnant of Jenny’s techno-pagan group went silent.  He knew that some of his contacts were helping the Coven, but he wondered if that were the only explanation.  The Watchers, such as remained after the First, had not answered to him at all.

 

Angel and Buffy did everything they could.  Angel divided his time between helping the slayers and helping Giles, pooling his own wide store of knowledge.  Buffy trawled through the news, and co-ordinated the slayers in their work.  On this night, they had all met together for one of Martha’s dinners – she cooked every night for them now, making sure they had at least one good meal a day, ‘to keep their strength up’, she would remind them.  They always ate with the television turned on to News 24.

 

Tonight, she’d made a huge salmon and prawn pie, topped with mashed potato crusted with breadcrumbs and cheese.  Dishes of sweet corn, mushrooms and French beans filled the centre of the table.  The scents of apple and cinnamon pie with local creamy vanilla ice cream held the promise of afters.  They never got as far as desert, though.  Breaking news showed Salisbury Plain.  Something was stalking the Plain, something that walked straight through Stonehenge, as they watched, appalled.  Not around it, not between the uprights.  Through it.  A journalist just happened to be visiting on a family holiday.  He’d grabbed some quick footage of the beast, and then got his family the hell out of Dodge before phoning his network with the pictures.  This wasn’t quite live, but it was something that had happened perhaps half an hour ago.

 

No one needed to say anything.  The slayers started grabbing weapons and car keys.  Angel also grabbed a blanket.  Sunset wouldn’t be until about 8.30.  It should be dark when they got there, but it wasn’t dark now.  Giles brought his car as near to the door as he could, and opened the back door to allow Angel clear passage.  Then they were off.

 

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

The Coven were exhausted, and they knew it.  Their circle had been ripped apart, and must be reconstituted as quickly as possible.  Whatever was clawing at the dimensional walls now had a toehold.  Not even as much as that, perhaps, but it would be only the start.  Hilda and Ella, the two most powerful witches, helped their fallen sisters, ashen from fatigue and shock.

 

When everyone was back in the circle, Hilda, with great deliberation, took Gladys’s hand.  Ella’s place had been between them.

 

“Ella, you must stop the slayers from getting near it.  And then, you must do what you can from outside the circle.”

 

“I can’t leave you!”

 

“You must.  You know what has to happen now.  We all know.  We’ve all seen.  Have you?”

 

“No… not yet.” 

 

She knew what Hilda meant.  The older woman smiled at her, a tired smile, but one that would never know defeat.

 

“Ella, my child, you have more power than most of us put together, although you won’t let yourself understand that.  You must survive.  You must at all costs be the one to survive, to carry on and build a new Coven.  Go and live your life with Rupert, and carry on our work.  This won’t be the last terror that they face.  But go.  Now!”

 

Ella rose to her feet.  She understood very well what Hilda was saying.  But she wasn’t done here yet.

 

“If I have so much power, you will need some of it.”

 

Hilda bowed her head in acknowledgement, then took what she needed. 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 They covered the twenty miles or so as quickly as possible, although they were hampered by the thrill seekers.  These were the rubber-neckers at accidents, the women who had knitted at the foot of Madame Guillotine, the people who would dance and hold up welcome signs to ET.  Well, guess what.  ET was alive and kicking.  And here.

 

ET was also on the move.  It was following the southern line of the Army’s training estate back towards Warminster.  Or back towards Westbury.  Damn.  They found it north-west of Chitterne, off the B390, in the middle of nowhere.  For the moment, they were alone with it, but it couldn’t be long before Army helicopters, and the world and his wife caught up with them.  They’d got there so quickly that the sun wasn’t quite down yet, and Angel was forced to stay in the car, sheltered by the blanket, which didn’t obscure as much of his view as he could have wished.

 

It had reared up against the setting sun, which was sinking in an entirely appropriate sea of fire.  Or blood.  What did they say?  ‘Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight’?  Not many shepherds were going to be delighted with this.  The first strands of colour from the ever-brightening aurora were starting to dance in the dusky sky.

 

He couldn’t see the head.  Not because it was too high in the sky, although it was, but because he couldn’t recognise anything as a head.  Most things died when you hacked the head off, so it was good to pay attention to that.  It looked like a scaffold, but created by someone who had only ever heard of scaffolds, who might know vaguely of their macabre use, but who had never seen one.  Nevertheless, they’d designed a scaffold big enough for a lot of executions to be carried out in new and interesting ways.  There were legs.  Maybe they were legs.  Everything else was just attached pieces.  Which bit did you cut off to kill it?  He’d no idea.  Neither had Giles, or Buffy, or the slayers, but the girls went bravely into battle anyway.  Giles made Buffy stay a little back, to keep an overview, to watch for the killing spot.  She understood that, and stayed, even if reluctantly.

 

Nureen was the first to strike out at it.  Her sword went straight through, without any apparent effect.  Elaine followed, striking at the same place, with the same result.  It was as if it were there, and not there.  Then a filament of some sort whipped out towards the girls, who sprang to one side.  Angel had a feeling that if there had been contact, there might well have been an effect.

 

At last, mercifully, the sun went down.  All the girls were fully engaged now, still finding that their weapons had no discernible effect, still mainly avoiding the lashing filaments, although some carried great red weals where the creature had caught them a glancing blow.  The ones who had been hit seemed weaker, and the creature seemed to be growing stronger by the moment.

 

Angel scrambled from under his blanket, axe in hand, just as Ella raced onto the scene, red hair flying in the evening breeze.

 

“No, Giles, no!  Get them away!”

 

She was panting, out of breath from her run across the heath, and for a second or two, could manage no more, but Giles called them back.  He turned to Ella, his tone cold.

 

“What don’t I know now, Ella?”

 

“You can’t kill it.  This isn’t a creature that you can slice and dice.  This is a manifestation of the tiniest part of something bigger than you imagine.  Something from beyond the walls.  An avatar.  And it’s feeding on their power.  It’s what the Coven have been facing (it’s what is killing us, she wanted to say).  You have no idea, Rupert, of the amount of magic the slayers have between them.  If the creature clawing at the walls feeds on them, nothing on this earth will be able to hold it back.  We can barely do so now.”

 

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

 

“Could you have done anything about it?”

 

He had the grace to remain silent.  Or perhaps his stony silence was from righteous anger.  Ella turned to Angel.

 

“You must be the one to send it back.  Do you see that area at the top, brighter than all the rest?  That is the place to strike.  It’s a sort of energy centre.  You can hurt it there, send it back to the other side of the wall.”

 

Without a word, Angel took a stronger grip on his axe.  Buffy put her hand out to him, and he squeezed it reassuringly.

 

“No, Angel.  That isn’t the way.”

 

He looked doubtfully at Ella.

 

“It has to be magic.  May I?”

 

She looked expectantly at him.  He had no idea what she meant, but he trusted her, and he nodded acquiescence to whatever she wanted.  She reached up to him, placing her hands on either side of his temples.  Much of her power had gone to Hilda, but there was enough for this.  In any case, this was an old landscape here, with untold reserves of power locked up in it.  It was replenishing her as she stood on it.  Concentrating hard, she gave him what he needed, then reached out to him for the axe.

 

“You won’t need that.”

 

He took a moment to raise his bowed head, and then a scream split the air.  Calida – Cali – the Spanish slayer, newly come from Cleveland, who had picked up so little English that she hadn’t understood the instruction to fall back, was wrapped in one of the filaments.  Ella took his hand.

 

“Quickly, Angel.  You can still save her.”

 

Then he was gone, with vampire speed.  When he reached the apparition, he found that climbing would be easy.  It was a long way up, but whatever Ella had done enabled him to get a grip, to hold on to the skeleton of the thing.  He leaped the first thirty feet, and then started to climb.  All the while, her magic fizzed inside him, sparking and buzzing.  Alive.  He couldn’t help but smile at the image that came to mind.  It was like a whole body sherbet.

 

Near the top, he came level with the glowing patch of brightness.  Unsure what to do, he thrust his fists into it, and wished it gone, wished it dead, wished it back in its own dimension.  He felt a shudder run through it.  When he looked down, it had dropped Cali.  She was on all fours, so she must still be alive.  He concentrated harder.  And then it was gone, as if it had never been.  It was a long fall back to the ground but, catlike, he managed to get his feet underneath him before he hit bottom.  As he crouched there, slightly stunned, half a dozen girls were helping Cali to stand up.  When he looked for Buffy, she was sitting, her head in her hands, on the edge of a car seat.  Ella was gone.  So was the fizz of her magic, and he missed both of them. 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

She’d had her heart in her mouth, watching Angel climb up the thing.  She felt a warm hand on her shoulder.  Ella.

 

“He’ll be fine, Buffy.  He’s strong enough for this.  You aren’t, though, are you?”

 

The witch looked her squarely in the face.

 

 

 

“Buffy, I cannot take away the magic that you have from the dead slayers.  I wish I could, but I can’t.  You and Faith are going to have to learn to live with it.  You have had much more than her, and it will be harder for you.  I can help with that, though, and I can help with the pain.  Will you let me?”

 

 

 

Her mouth dry, Buffy simply nodded.  As she had with Angel, Ella placed her hands on the smaller woman’s temples, and closed her eyes in concentration.  To Buffy, it felt as though a huge burden had been lifted from her, and she sighed in relief.

 

 

 

“It’s gone…”

 

 

 

“No, Buffy, not gone.  I’ve walled it away.  The walls will leak, a little at a time, and you must learn to absorb it, to deal with it, until you have taken it all into yourself.  This will give you time to do that.”

 

 

 

And then the witch walked back to her car, leaving everyone watching the drama playing out before them.  As she walked, she breathed in the power of the Earth, the power of her ancestors, the power that had been accumulated in this land for millennia.  She opened her soul to it, and gathered as much as she possibly could.  The Coven would need it, because the beast would strike back.

 

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Days passed as they licked their wounds.  Giles let it be known, anonymously, that the tricksters responsible for crop circles had moved on to bigger and better things – War of the Worlds style holograms on Salisbury Plain.  The world seemed to breath again.  For a moment.

 

 

 

Natural disasters increased in number and intensity, but they couldn’t do anything about those.  They hadn’t heard from Ella, but they were certain that the Coven were now concentrating their efforts on the beast outside.  They seemed to have less strength to spend on soothing the Earth.  Now, it was as if the Earth was trying to rid herself of parasites, to shake them off, burn them off, cauterise her skin.  The planet was destroying itself in the process.  As if that weren’t enough, the walls of the dimension that surrounded this part of the Universe, protected it from the horrors around it, were stretching and thinning.  Soon, everything out there would have free access. 

 

 They knew the slayers were the problem, the excess of slayers and the magic that had created them.  They just didn’t know how to stop it.  So, each night, while the other slayers went to deal with the demons that had come here from the more familiar Hell dimensions, and while Ella and the Coven followed their own methods of research, Buffy and Angel met with Giles in his study, and tried to find an answer.  They’d wondered whether to share everything they knew with the girls, and decided that it would be better not to do so.  The girls probably knew too much already.  They couldn’t change what was, and just now they needed to be on top form to deal with what was coming in.  Considering his simmering anger with Ella for not revealing all this to him earlier, Giles had the grace to be a little ashamed of that decision.

 

 They discussed every idea, no matter how stupid.

 

 “What about sending them to Martin’s enclave?  The ‘Duat’?”

 

 “No, Giles.  That is still part of our dimension, and the slayers’ magic comes from themselves, not from the Earth.  It would change nothing.”

 

 “We could send them to another dimension – get the Coven to open a portal…”

 

 “No, Buffy.  If we could even find a dimension where they could survive, that would only do to that dimension what they are doing to our own.”

 

 “What about splitting them between the Faerie Courts.  Aren’t you the Faerie King, Angel?”

 

Despite the seriousness, that often-used jibe, a reminder of his duel with the King, still caused some smiles.

 

“No, Ella said the faerie are part of our dimension, and necessary for balance.  It wouldn’t stop what’s happening, and might make it worse.”

 

“There *must* be a spell to remove their slayer powers.”

 

“Giles, if there is, neither us nor the Coven have found it.  But, we’ll keep looking.”

 

“What about the time machine that Cornwell built… Oh, right, you killed that demon, Angel…”

 

And so it went on.

 

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Giles heard the courtyard door shut softly.  Ella.  He could tell, now, how she closed a door.  It was done gently, as she did almost everything else.  His hands were clenched on the edge of the worktop, and he allowed his arms to take his weight, as he leaned forward and let out the breath he’d been holding.  He wondered if he’d ever breathe easily again, whether he’d ever be free of the sounds and scents of a world breaking apart.  Of course, he might not have very long to worry about that.  Then Ella was in the kitchen with him, her face grey with too little sleep and haggard with too much fear.  She moved up behind him and wrapped her arms around his waist.  He’d missed this, missed her, so much… He let go of the worktop, the only thing that had been keeping him on his feet and allowed her warmth to support him, just for a second, before turning to face her.

 

“You can’t stop it, can you?”

 

She knew that he meant the Coven, not just her.

 

“No.  We can barely hold it back, now.”

 

“Then…”

 

He trailed off, but she knew what he didn’t want to say.  What are you doing here?  I thought it needed thirteen of you?

 

“Hilda has taken as much of my power as she could.  It’s as if I were still there, for a little while at least.  The Coven are still strengthening the Earth and holding up the dimensional walls, but they can’t do it for long, now.  And they haven’t the strength to do anything else.”

 

Giles remembered when the Coven had lent him magical power to face a very dark Willow.  They could borrow like this, but it didn’t last long.  It sounded as if nothing else would last long, just as he had feared.

 

“You haven’t come here just to see me, have you?”

 

“Rupert…”

 

Her eyes, always brilliant, now had an extra sparkle from unshed tears.  As they threatened to spill over, she dashed them away with her hands.  She started again.

 

“Rupert, I love you.  No matter what else, I love you.  Remember that when I tell you what I’ve come here to say.  We wanted to spare all of you if we could, but there isn’t any time now.  The groups that have been feeding their strength to us are all but gone now…”

 

“The Watchers?”

 

She looked down at her feet, and shook her head.

 

“Benny?”

 

Her silence was more eloquent that any words would have been.

 

“Ata?”

 

She looked up at him, and placed her finger over his lips. 

 

“Afterwards.  We can mourn them all afterwards, if we’re still alive to do it.  They’ve given their lives for this world, and we mustn’t fail them.  Rupert, the strength of the Coven is almost gone, and whatever has to be done must be done tonight.  Tomorrow…well, tomorrow, we die.”

 

He’d known.  He’d known that it was this bad, this close to the end.  That’s why he’d done what he’d done, before Ella came tonight.

 

Just then, a shudder ran through the house, and the earth beneath them, the solid earth of England, groaned.  A glass jar fell from the worktop, and they were surrounded by the spicy scent of cinnamon.

 

“You’ve found nothing, then, to help us?”

 

She didn’t answer directly.

 

“Have you?”

 

He shook his head.  He started with what she already knew, but he hadn’t seen her for a while, and for the moment, couldn’t recall exactly what she did know of their research.

 

“We know the unnatural existence of the extra slayers is causing fractures along the Earth’s energy lines.  I’m no student of geomorphology, but these fractures are reshaping the Earth, physically and chemically.  The magic isn’t stopping there.  It’s reshaping the Sun’s magnetic field.  The flares may be the least of it – the sun could shift to a new phase; it could become a red giant, or a white dwarf, we really don’t know.  Just to help it all along, the dimensional walls of this part of the Universe are tearing, and whatever’s out there is going to come in here.  Whatever, humanity won’t survive, even if the planet does.

 

“We’ve looked for ways to stabilise the energy fields, and we can’t; we’ve looked for ways to remove from the girls the power that makes them slayers, and we can’t.  We’ve spent weeks looking, and we’ve failed completely.  We… we hoped you’d done better.”

 

He was silent, staring out of the kitchen window.  The sky was painted with sheets of colour: green and red and purple.  It was almost as bright as day.  Ella added a new cataclysm to his list of woes.

 

“There’s a supervolcano rising under Brussels.  It will destroy the whole of Western Europe, and the Balkans.  It might do worse than that, if the planet doesn’t shake itself apart first.  Where are the Slayers now?”

 

He nodded.  It was no less than he had expected, really.  The Earth had a lot of molten magma, and the fractures were starting to let it through in new and interesting ways.  He turned back to the worktop, ashamed to look her in the eye.

 

“They’re all in bed.”

 

“Rupert, I’m sorry that we have left it so late.  The Coven talked about telling you weeks ago, but we thought that it would be better to stick with your suggestion that we both try to solve the problem independently, working with different approaches: you with your research, and Buffy and Angel to back you up, and we with our magic…”

 

He stiffened.  More secrets.  God, not more.

 

“Telling us what?”

 

She looked down again, unable to meet his scrutiny.

 

“The slayers.  The only way to stop it is for the slayers to die.  Or for Willow to die.”

 

He remembered.  Decapitation of a witch reverses her spells.  They’d been willing to do that?

 

“You’re still looking for Willow?”

 

She sighed as she nodded her reply.

 

“For months, now.  When Willow asked us to help her spread Buffy’s power, we told her that we wouldn’t and forbade her to try.  That was… not the right approach, even though it was the right decision.  She did it anyway, and when we knew that, we blocked the spell as soon as we could.  Not soon enough, though.  We’ve been trying ever since to find a way to reverse it, and I’m sorry we didn’t tell you long ago what the price of failure would be.  We hoped that, coming to it fresh, without any influence from what we had tried, you might succeed where we failed.

 

“Willow hasn’t been in this dimension for a long time.  We can only assume that she and Kennedy are still – elsewhere.  We’ve spent a lot of magic and a lot of energy to find her, in the hope that she could reverse her own spell.”

 

“But you still can’t find her?”

 

“Wherever she is, either it’s cloaking her magic, or she’s somewhere that she can’t use it.  We could track her magical signature anywhere.  It simply isn’t there.  Rupert… you should know this… If we’d found her, and she couldn’t or wouldn’t undo what she’d done, we would have taken her head if we had needed to: if you, too, couldn’t find a way.”

 

He didn’t seem shocked, for the moment, but then a spasm of pain crossed his face.

 

“That…that would have reversed every spell Willow ever did?  That means that…”

 

“That I’d have gone back to the grave.”

 

They both turned abruptly to meet the newcomer.

 

“Buffy…”

 

“No, Ella!”

 

The Slayer held her right hand up to silence the witch.  Her left hand held a crossbow.  She’d clearly come through the breakfast room from the weapons cupboard.

 

“No, don’t say you’re sorry.  It…it would have been the right thing to do.  But, you can’t find her, so let’s not go there.”

 

“How long have you been there?”

 

“Long enough, Giles.”

 

“And Angel?”

 

“There are some funky flying things on the roof.  Angel’s up there.  I came to get some more ammo.  So, the slayers have to die, do they?”

 

There was a challenge in her eye, and her expression was frozen into a look of contempt.  The contempt was reserved for herself.  She had asked Willow to do this.  She had sacrificed them the moment the idea had come to her, back iSunnydale when she had despaired of otherwise defeating the First Evil. They’d been corpses from that time, and now they just needed to stop walking.  She’d always known, really, deep down.  This was all her fault.

 

She let go of Giles’ gaze.  She didn’t need any more convincing.  They’d tried everything else, and she’d heard Ella say that they only had tonight.  There was no more time, and no more possibility that a million to one chance might save them.  All her fault.

 

“I’ll do it, then.  These girls are my responsibility.  I created the mess, and I’m the one should clean it up.”

 

Ella was about to say something but Giles forestalled her.

 

“It’s already done.”

 

Ella, always pale, turned as white as a sheet.

 

“What?  Rupert, what have you done?”

 

Buffy stood rooted to the spot, speechless.  Giles reached behind him and took a rounded blue bottle from the worktop, holding it up in his hand.

 

“I knew we’d reached the end.  So did the girls, really, although we didn’t speak of it.  They were all here together, for dinner, for a last supper, if you like.  They understood that you and Angel would want to be together, so we went ahead.  It was a curry.  I don’t like curry, so I had an omelette.  I put this into their meal.  It was the only thing left to do.  It…it was them, or the world.  They won’t know anything about it.”

 

Ella snatched the empty bottle from him.

 

“What was in here?  Tell me!”

 

A new voice came from the hall, from the direction of the stairs.  Angel.

 

“Valerian and henbane.  The girls are dead to the world, and I can smell it on them.”

 

“Oh, dear god, let them not die!  Rupert, what have you done!”

 

Giles stuck his hands in his pockets, and looked defensive.

 

“I’ve done what you said had to happen.  We’re out of time, and I knew that.  Valerian to put them to sleep, although there might be enough to kill them by itself.  If not, the henbane will do it.  It will be quick and painless.”

 

Buffy’s trance broke.

 

“You’ve poisoned them?”

 

She wanted to…what?  Rage against him for doing something that she’d resigned herself to do?  Decry the manner in which he’d brought about their deaths?  Rage at herself, for making all this necessary?  Rage at Willow, for doing it, or the laws of the Universe in general for not being strong enough to stand up to a few magically imbued girls?

 

It was Ella who broke Buffy’s internal rant of self-recrimination.  Moaning, the witch seemed to lose any strength remaining to her, and sank to the floor.  Angel got to her first.  Crouching next to her, he took her hand in his, and she turned her woebegone face to him.  Since the time that they had spent together in Dee’s Duat, there had been a rapport between these two, something that sometimes seemed to exclude Giles and Buffy, who watched them with not a little rancour.

 

Quickly, Giles bent down and helped Ella to her feet.  Her eyes remained fixed on Angel, though.

 

“Were they dead?”

 

“Not yet.”

 

A little blood seemed to return to the witch’s face. 

 

“Then we aren’t too late.  Rupert, that’s what I came here to tell you.  If humanity is to live, it’s Angel who must kill the slayers.  It’s what he was brought back to do.”

 

The silence was hard and sharp as a knife, and then it was severed by Angel’s self-mockery.

 

“I see.  There’s only one mass murderer here, and it should be me?” 

 

He was looking at his hands as he said it, and the others knew he was remembering the feel of Jenny’s neck breaking in those hands.  Perhaps he was remembering the feel of many others, too.  He swallowed convulsively and then looked up. 

 

“But what difference does it make if they are already dying from what Giles has given them?”

 

“The difference between life and death, Angel.  They cannot die like that.  You’re a vampire, with special strengths.  It will only work if you drain them, and take their slayer strength into yourself…”

 

She couldn’t finish for the objections of the other two.  Buffy had taken the few steps to Angel’s side, and had wrapped both her hands around his arm.  Ella, that kind and gentle witch, showed that she had a backbone of steel.

 

“Quiet!  Both of you!  Angel needs to hear this, and there is no time for useless outcries.”

 

Giles stiffened, his face frozen, but he fell silent.  Buffy continued to protest, but Angel placed his hand over hers and shushed her.

 

“Let’s hear what Ella has to say.  I’m sure the Coven didn’t send her here on a fool’s errand.”

 

Buffy subsided, and Ella continued.

 

“Simply killing the slayers will release their power.  It will return to Buffy and it will kill her.  Whatever magic is released by her death, and the power she couldn’t take from the others, will return to Faith.  Faith, too, will not be able to take it all.  So, both of our main slayers will die, and there will be a huge amount of power looking for a home.

 

“Either it will all try to go to the next girl in line, and it will keep killing them and moving on until we all run out of time, or it will break up and seek out as many slayers as we started with, as many as Willow originally created.  In that case, we’ll be no better off than we are now.  The magic *must* be safely dissipated, not allowed to seek out other slayers.  We have found no way of doing it except through Angel.  Angel has certain…qualities and strengths… that’s perhaps the best way of putting it, imbued into his blood from the last days in Los Angeles.  You know what I mean, don’t you, Angel?”

 

He did, indeed.  Hamilton’s blood.  He’d taken some from Drogyn, too, in case it gave his death a little more meaning.  That it had looked good for the Black Thorn was incidental.

 

Dumbly, he nodded.

 

“The slayers’ power is carried in their blood.  I’m right, aren’t I, Angel?”

 

He remembered the taste of slayer blood, the rush that it had given him, the unbelievable feeling of invulnerability.  He also remembered the way that alien power in Sadie’s blood had twisted and coiled, trying to get away from him.  His reply was a whisper.

 

“Yes.”

 

“Those qualities mean that you can take that blood, and transmute it – a sort of Angel alchemy.  No one else has the same qualities, and no one else has that power.  No other vampire, no other demon, and certainly no human.  It’s a product of Angel’s unique path.  It’s the only thing we know of that Willow didn’t allow for.  The thing is, there are so many of them.  Angel…”

 

She faltered a bit, but no one offered to fill the silence, least of all the one she was talking to.

 

“Angel… I… I don’t know whether there are too many, even for you.  It’s risky… You could die…”

 

“More risky than not doing it?”

 

His tone was sour, and she had the grace to remain quiet for a moment.  Buffy broke into the silence.

 

“No!  There has to be another way.  There must be!”

 

It was Giles who answered her.

 

“Buffy, we’ve looked for weeks, and we have nothing.  If Angel doesn’t do this, we’re all dead anyway.”

 

“Yeah, I know.  ‘We only have fourteen hours to save the Earth’ sort of stuff.  Well, newsflash Giles.  This isn’t Flash Gordon.  It can’t all come down to one vampire… one *man*…”

 

She looked imploringly at Angel, driving a shaft of pain through his soul.

 

“Buffy, there isn’t any choice.  If you trust the Coven – and I do – then there isn’t any choice.”

 

“We could look some more.  There’s still time…”

 

“No, Buffy.”  Ella was firm.  “We have to get on with it – if the girls simply die, then there is nothing to stop the destruction.  We couldn’t find the new girls in time.”  She meant that they couldn’t kill them in time, either.  She felt inside herself, reached out to her fellow witches.  “We’ve delayed this moment for as long as we possibly could, in hope of another way.  Do you think we wanted this to happen?  That we haven’t done everything we could to avoid it?  Do you really think we would ask this of Angel if there were any alternative, any at all, no matter how dreadful?  That we would lightly sacrifice all these girls?  But we’re out of time.  I can tell you that the Coven aren’t going to last much longer.  Some of them are fading even now.”

 

Angel turned to Buffy and took her in his arms.  For a long moment he gazed at her, as if he wanted to remember her just like this.  Then he kissed her forehead and let her go.  Without a word to any of them, he headed for the stairs.  Buffy would have followed, but Ella held her back.  She struggled for a moment, and then all the fight went out of her.  Giles took her into his arms as Ella ran from the kitchen, and together they wept for what was to happen.  They wept for the slayers, they wept for themselves, but most of all they wept for Angel, and for what this would do to his soul.  It was a long time before Buffy asked a question that neither of them knew the answer to.

 

“What effect will valerian and henbane have on a vampire?”

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Angel’s thoughts were dark and bitter as he climbed the stairs.  No matter what he did, or how he tried, everything came back to killing.  It seemed that that was all he was good for.  So good, that he’d been brought back from the dead for this massacre.  And the demon gibbered with desire.

 

A soft voice called him from his thoughts.  Ella mounted the stairs behind him.  She put her hand to the side of his face.

 

“You only do as the Powers wish.  Remember that.  Remember that they asked us to bring you back for this, not as a murderer, but as our only road to life.”

 

She brought her other hand up to his face, and he felt something… something of warmth and brightness slide into him.  Then it was gone.

 

“Something for the dark times ahead.  It will help you when you need it.

 

“And, Angel… Please tell Rupert to remember what happened here with Faith and Buffy in the same place.  It may never be safe to allow them to come together again.  He needs to understand that.”

 

She turned on her heel, and was gone.  He listened to her car race down the drive before he himself turned and climbed the rest of the stairs.  Just then, it didn’t occur to him to wonder why she couldn’t tell Giles herself.

 

He stood on the landing for a moment, listening to the heartbeats.  Fourteen slayers up here.  Four behind and to his left, four behind and to his right.  All slower than they should be, but still steady.  Three dead ahead, also steady.  Of the three in the room to his left, the smallest bedroom that had once been Buffy’s, one was starting to flutter.  He’d better start there.

 

Inside, the room was packed with two sets of bunk beds and all the paraphernalia required by four teenage girls.  The fourth bunk had belonged to Sadie, and her things were still here, just as if she might one day come back for them.  Elaine lay in the lower bunk, immediately in front of him, and he knelt by her side.  It was her heart that was starting to waver.  He remembered that she loved curry.  She might have had a second helping.

 

Elaine, who had tried to save his life, once, out in the courtyard when Giles had fired his crossbow at something he’d believed to be Angelus.  Elaine, who was becoming a leader amongst this group of champions; who so recently had stood between Nureen and a killing blow.  Elaine, that bluff Yorkshire girl who had taken the change in her fate more stoically than any of the others; she’d been full of life and now she was as still as death.  That was something he knew a lot about.  He moved an errant curl on her cheek, smoothing her hair back with a gentle caress.

 

As he knelt on the floor, he felt the tears come.  They were tears for these innocent girls, robbed of life by magic, so that the world would be spared an apocalypse, and now about to be robbed of life again by a vampire’s fangs so that the same world would keep turning, and the sun would come up every morning.  They were also tears for his own fallen, for whom he’d mourned, but hadn’t yet cried.  Spike, Wes, Fred, Gunn, Illyria.  Lorne, whom he might just as well have shot anyway.  And they were tears for himself, because this would be a stain on his soul that he could never wash out.

 

He thought again of his own friends, fallen in combat, and of how they had fought together, demons and humans alike, to save the world.  They had never even considered involving innocents in their fight, and for a brief moment, he felt a surge of resentment for Willow, who had done this, who had made these girls into slayers without any consideration for the consequences, and without any thought as to whether they would have consented if asked.  Now, they wouldn’t get a chance to consent or refuse anything ever again.  If he didn’t do this, they were poisoned, or annihilated along with everyone else.  All because Willow could, but hadn’t reflected on whether she should. Champions – true champions, such as his friends had been, even Spike – stood between the danger and the innocents they were protecting, albeit at cost of their own lives.  They didn’t ask the innocents to lay down their lives, too.  It shouldn’t be like this. 

 

He looked around at the three girls in this room – Elaine, Nureen and Laura, and at the empty bunk that should have held Sadie, and he thought of how they had changed as they came to accept their responsibilities, how they had fought the multiplying horrors over the last months.  He thought that perhaps, if asked, they might have offered to exchange their lives for the safety of the world.  They *were* champions, and if they couldn’t have life, they deserved a better death.  The house gave another shudder, but he ignored it.  The world could wait for a few minutes while he did these girls the honour that they deserved.

 

And so, he knelt on the floor and bowed his head in supplication to any deity that would listen to a vampire.  He prayed that their sacrifice would win them a fitting afterlife, that this would, indeed save the world, and that he could survive, with his wits intact, long enough to finish.

 

Then he pulled Elaine a little onto her side, to give him easier access, and turned into the demon.  Hanging on as tightly as he could to his self-control, he sank his fangs gently into Elaine’s neck, and started to drink. 

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

 When they broke apart at Buffy’s question, Giles and Buffy, by common and unspoken consent, hurried into Giles’ study.  He knew which book he needed – it was one of Wesley’s, a compendium of the effects of various drugs on various demons.  It wasn’t promising.

 

“It…it says that the valerian will make a vampire drowsy for a while, but no more than that, even in large doses.  The henbane is a different kettle of fish, though.  It induces hallucinations in humans, and they’re worse in vampires.  Manic hallucinations, even in small doses.  They’re like a bad trip on LSD.  Oh, god.”

 

Giles got to the door before Buffy did, and leaned against it.  The Slayer would have to physically move him to get through it, but she looked as if she might do just that.

 

“Buffy.  Don’t you think he knows?  Will it do him any good at all for you to rush up there and see what he has got to do?  To blurt out to him that he’s probably going to have to be chained for a bit when he’s finished?  *If* he finishes?  We don’t even know whether he can drink that amount of blood… Leave him, Buffy.  He wouldn’t want you to see.”

 

“But Giles…”

 

Giles moved forward to wrap his arms around the stricken slayer. 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 Upstairs, Angel was asking himself much the same questions.  He could feel the slayer power as Elaine’s blood slipped down his throat, twisting and coiling as it tried to get free, and he could taste the slightly bitter tangs of the two drugs.  He tried to push his concerns aside, to concentrate only on this girl, and on what he was taking from her.  The questions wouldn’t go away, though.  How much of their blood would he have to drink before the power was gone?  Could he take the blood of fourteen slayers, in terms of volume and in terms of power?  Could he do it before the valerian made him too drowsy?  Before the henbane kicked in?  And what would the slayer blood do to the hallucinations?  Fight them off?  Or make them worse?

 

He’d once told Ella that vampires were practical experimentalists.  Well, he was going to have to find out by doing.

 

At last, he felt Elaine’s heart fluttering to a stop.  As death took her, the flow of power ceased, and her blood became just that.  Blood.  Rich and tasty, but the magic was gone.  Withdrawing his fangs, he dropped a brief kiss onto her forehead and then gently moved her to the far side of the bunk.

 

Nureen lay above her, a gentle and shy girl from the borders of Afghanistan.  Learning to live in the West had been a real ordeal for her, but she had worked hard at that as she had worked hard at everything else.  He reached up and lifted the girl down, laying her tenderly next to Elaine on the narrow bed, smoothing her hair and holding her hand.  Then, already flying on slayer’s blood, he started to drink.

 

Laura lay on the bottom of the opposite tier of bunks.  She was older than most, boisterous, and loud.  Always the first to complain about the cramped conditions in which they lived, but always the one who worked out hardest and longest.  In training, she’d almost felled him to the floor a number of times.  He held her hand as he moved aside her blonde hair to reveal her long, pale neck.

 

When he left that room, he could hear Buffy crying.  He could hear the whispered nothings from Giles that were meant to comfort her, and he could hear the rustling of insects taking shelter in the attics.  His senses, already preternatural, were supercharged.  His skin felt too tight for his body, and he was *hot*, the new blood racing through his veins, bringing unaccustomed colour to his alabaster skin.

 

In the next room he found Cali, Chantal and Malu.  He performed the same small ritual that he had before, praying for the girls whose lives he was about to drink, remembering their deeds and their strengths as well as their frailties.  There was an empty bunk that he knew should have held Hoshi – he could sense her very individual scent on the bed, and he included her in his prayer.  He’d once thought, when he was first brought here, that he couldn’t distinguish individuals amongst the mass of teenage angst and hormones, but he found he knew everyone by name and deed and scent, even Cali, who’d only come with Faith for a brief visit.  He’d never be able to forget them now.

 

Cali, who had almost died because she couldn’t understand enough English; Chantal, from France, an elegant, doll-like girl with an acute sense of fashion; and Malu, from Hawaii, her constant smile like a ray of sunshine on the darkest English day.  Never again. 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 Ella disobeyed Hilda now, as she had disobeyed her before.  But there was no point in doing other.  She had seen what it was normally only given to witches to see.

 

She drove back to Mildred’s house as quickly as possible.  More quickly than possible, really.  The earth magic was good to her, as if it knew that she would bring help.  When she ran inside, she didn’t bother to close the door.  There was no need.  They were all just where she had left them earlier.  None of them were dead yet, but none of them were close enough to life to ever make it back, except perhaps Hilda and Gladys.  She took her place in the circle, and then put her hands over Hilda’s.  It was as she thought.  They still had not enough power to do what they needed to do.  But they were so close to it; so close.  They would have help, soon.

 

She drew a deep breath, and then she called on those whom Hilda had deliberately not sought aid from, and those with whom perhaps only Ella could succeed.

 

Martin was first.  She remembered the anxious teenager who had been imprisoned for four hundred years.  She called out to him, and he answered.

 

“Martin!”

 

“Is that you, my lady Ella?”

 

“Yes, Martin.  I need your help.  Are you willing?”

 

“Aye, lady, and right well.  What do you need?”

 

She told him.  He was silent for a moment.

 

“And shall I die of this?”

 

“I’m afraid you will.”

 

“Might I speak with the others?”

 

“Yes, Martin, but be quick.  We have little time.”

 

He opened himself up to her, and she saw that he was seated on his jewelled pleasance, a stretch of neat grass that was studded with brightly coloured flowers, their beauty muted in the moonlight.  That strange and sullen sky was shot through with faint threads of lurid colour, a reflection of the Earth’s aurora.  At his feet, a half dozen demons of various species lounged in aspects of relaxed enjoyment.  She heard him explain her need.

 

A demon that physically owed a lot to the snakes, its skin green and gold and the colour of blood, lisped a question.

 

“If we do this, we die?”

 

“Aye.”

 

“But if we do not do this, then the world dies, and we die with it?”

 

“Aye.”

 

“What of the wild ones, out in the scrublands?”

 

“I am troubled by those, since we cannot ask them, but if we fail, or if we do nothing, then they, too, will die.”

 

“Then we must join the witch.”

 

There was a chorus of Ayes.  She could have cried for them, but he saw the thought and soothed her, reassured her that she had done right to come to them.  And then she felt the power of Martin’s cul-de-sac dimension as he opened it all up to her, making it over for her use, bringing with it the magic of the creatures within it.    There was far more than she had expected, until she remembered that it had been created by a master, by Dr John Dee.  A magician.  She panicked for a moment.  Had he used male magic, magic that could make matters worse?  She tested it out cautiously.  No.  He had made it for a witch, and he had been careful.  She wished with all her heart that the men who had made the line of slayers had been half as careful.  That they had been half as worthy as Martin and his demons.

 

She was sure that her next call would be more difficult, the call that Hilda had refused to make.  These creatures were notoriously fickle and full of malice.

 

“My Lady!”

 

The Queen sat, surrounded by her court, nursing a huge belly.  She was almost ready to give birth.  The young leaves of new summer were giving way to the darker greens of the high season, each branch and leaf silvered by the long, slanting light of moonset.  Her green gown was limned with the same silver.

 

“A witch!  What do you want, little witch?”

 

The faerie was in a good mood.  Ella told her, hoping that the mood would hold.  When she had finished, the Queen stroked her swollen belly, her head bowed in meditation.  She sat for a long moment, caressing what would soon be her newest infant.  If she lived.  Then Ella found that she had been wrong to doubt.

 

“I understand what you ask.  Our borders, too, are under attack.  If you die, so do we.  I shall not sacrifice myself or my court, though.  Nor will I allow the sacrifice of my King and his court.  Short of that, I shall give you what you seek.”

 

Ella felt the surge of power as the Queen opened herself up to the witch.  There was a hint of cervine musk.  The King had joined, too.  Ella discovered something she had not known before, and she acknowledged it appropriately.

 

“Thank you, Grandmother.”

 

The Queen, busy gathering her attendants, grimaced.

 

“Less of the ‘Grandmother’, if you don’t mind.”

 

“What should I call you, then?”

 

The Queen reviewed her options.  She had been known by many names.  Some she had liked, some she had…not.  And she felt an uncharacteristic warmth for this grandchild of hers.

 

“Perhaps ‘Grandmother’ is not so bad.  Are you strong enough now?”

 

“I believe so.”

 

Ella hesitated.

 

“Grandmother, I know that Angel won you in fair combat, but his future doesn’t lie with you.  Afterwards, you won’t come to claim him, will you?”

 

When I’m not there to stop you, was what she meant.  There was a tinkle of laughter, but it held no malice.

 

“He would make a fine mate.  He could give me many babies.  Why should I not?”

 

“He has another destiny altogether.”

 

This time it was the Queen’s turn to hesitate.  She sighed.

 

“I know, child, I know.  Release me from my pledge to the vampire.  I gave him my word that we would not trouble humanity for at least a century.”

 

“Why should I release you from that?  It was a pledge that was won fairly.”

 

The Queen stroked her belly again, and hummed a little to the sleeping infant inside.

 

“We breed slowly and we are never numerous.  Some of us, perhaps many of us, will die tonight.  We will need to replenish our numbers.”

 

It was true.

 

“A new Coven will be needed.”

 

“I know, and I shall not forget, child.”

 

“There is something else.  So much of Willow’s magic remains locked up in the two chosen Slayers.  If she cannot eventually be found, or if she cannot or will not reverse her magic, that will need to be dealt with.  It threatens you as much as us.  You will make sure that it is… made safe?  That at the end, what needs to be done is done?”

 

The Queen wrapped her arms around her unborn child, then lifted her head.  She seemed to Ella to be looking directly at her.

 

“My word on it.”

 

“Then I release you from your oath.”

 

And so, buoyed up by the magic from Martin’s tiny dimension, and from the magical realms of faerie, Ella sought out her sister witches.  She reached out for the moonlight that had been hidden by the curtains of cold solar fire, light reflected from land that had once been part of Earth itself.  When she found it, she opened herself up to its gentle power, sorting the silver strands from the poisonous colours of the aurora.  When she had a web of light, she spread herself on it, felt herself thinning, stretching, flying apart, becoming one with the Earth and everything on it.  It was there that she found them.

 

Hilda scolded her for her disobedience, and then wrapped herself, or what was left of her, around her favourite sister in an embrace of joy.  The others clustered around her, clucking in disapproval, but stroking her, embracing her, loving her.  

 

“Why, Ella, why?”

 

It wasn’t Hilda’s voice, could never be a voice at all, and yet she heard it plainly enough.

 

“Because you needed me, and you needed what I bring with me.  And because I saw it.  There can be no changing that.”

 

It was true.  A witch always sees her own death.

 

“Come then, girls, time to save the world…”

 

Ella hung back a little, allowing the energy of her web of moonlight to flow through her, adding its charge to her own.  And telling her things.  Hilda sensed those things, too, and the essence that was her seemed to smile sadly.

 

“He does it even now.  He will not allow himself to fail.”

 

It wasn’t a question.  They could all feel Angel’s pain, and had already mourned for him and for these innocent girls.

 

“I’m sorry that there was no other way.  Let’s make sure this sacrifice isn’t in vain.”

 

Together, the souls of the Coven, the sparks of magic that had made them different to other women, stood at the tattered barrier and faced down the enemy.  They still sparkled and glowed with the power they had been given by all those others who had willingly sacrificed themselves for this moment.  In that last tick of time, Ella looked around the Earth, seeing sickly light pouring like pus from its many wounds.  But there was still more beauty than ugliness, and she picked out from all its many brilliances those particular glints that marked users of magic.  They were few now, and weak.  Even with the Queen’s help, it would be a long time before that part of the balance recovered. 

 

Then, she and her sister witches gathered together, a crystalline brilliance of the mind.  As they tasted the scent of the beast in the ether between them, Ella detected the faint tang of slayer.  Not Nadine, so it had found Kennedy.  There was no trace of Willow, and there was no point in worrying about that.

 

Crackling with power, they embraced the beast, and they poured themselves into, through and around it, neutralising it with bonds of love.  They took it apart, piece by piece, atom by atom, incorporating it into themselves, into the matrix of magic that represented so many others.  Then they gave themselves, the power of the beast, and the power of their magic, back to the Earth, calming and soothing the world’s wounds as their consciousness faded.  The Queen had promised another generation of witches.  They would find the Earth’s energy replenished, when they were ready to use it.

 

Ella’s last thought was for Angel, for Buffy and for Rupert, and it was tinged with regret for the sorrow her death would bring, and for what could now never be.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

When Angel entered the third room, he was in serious doubt that he could perform the task for which he’d been returned to the world.  As if to remind him of the urgency, there was the sound of explosive decompression outside.  That would be the sinkhole, he thought, the pressure of water spouting from it ensuring that the hole disgorged its freight of dead and dismembered demons.  There would be interesting things in the fields tomorrow, if they lived to see it.

 

There were two empty bunks in here, once the property of now-dead slayers.  Lucy and Sarah.  He recognised their lingering scent.  The four girls here were sinking fast, and so he carried out his ritual as quickly as he decently could, still determined to give them dignity and honour in death.  Here were Venetia, from the English shires, Neala, from his own Galway, Irene and Elizabeth from America.  He hesitated over Neala, wondering for a moment if she could be a descendant of someone he knew.  She couldn’t, of course.  He’d left none alive.  She didn’t have the red hair and Celtish complexion, but her hair was a mass of natural curls.  He stroked them back from her face as his gorge threatened to rise and undo them all, and as his demon still gibbered.  After the third – Venetia – he felt that he’d reached his limit.  How many had he managed to drink, back in the day?  Usually one or two a night.  What was his maximum count?  He remembered it well.  It had been a contest, he and Spike, under the indulgent gaze of Darla, and with the excited Dru egging them both on.  He’d managed eleven, fully and completely drained in accordance with the impromptu rules.  These were ordinary humans, of course, not slayers.  Spike had only managed nine, and had resented that ever since.  Still, he had to do better than that now.  His skin was blazing, and he wondered if it was peeling off.  He looked at his hand, but it looked normal enough.  Just the hand of a serial killer.  He moved onto Elizabeth, lifting her gently down from the top bunk, and dropping a brief kiss onto her forehead.

 

As he withdrew his fangs from her neck, the earth gave a particularly violent paroxysm, and he heard chimneys and slates falling.  The floor rippled beneath him, and he went to all fours from his kneeling position.  It rippled again, and his gorge started to rise.  His stomach, full to capacity, answered, and he felt the vomit rising.  Dear god, no!  Who knew what would happen if he couldn’t hold it down?  Long minutes passed as he fought to retain the precious, fatal fluid he’d taken from the girls, and when the convulsions were over, he’d kept down all but about half a pint, now a pool of scarlet on the beige carpet.  He prayed that it was enough.

 

Just one more room to go.  Bryony, tiny and defiant, like the Gibraltar enclave that was her home.  Olivia, the svelte Italian who hated the chilly dampness that was England, but who had slain her first demon with easy disdain and then almost fainted at the thought of what she had done.   Lorna, the tall, black Zulu girl who met every new experience with wide-eyed wonder, and who thought of England as the new Jerusalem; no-one could pronounce her name, and so she had settled for Lorna.  Phoebe, the mousy New Zealander whose soul was as beautiful as her name, and who sighed in pleasure as he drained her, causing him to almost choke on his grief.  And the ghosts of Rona and Vi, who had survived Sunnydale, but who had not survived their fellow slayers. 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 Downstairs, they heard the chimneys and slates falling.  When they heard the explosion from the sinkhole, they raced across the hall to the dining room, for a better view.  The column of water stood two hundred feet in the air.  No one wanted to speculate on the strange shapes they could see in its eerily glowing depths.

 

They watched for a long time, allowing this phenomenon to distract them, to fill in the time during which they could only stand around, useless, waiting.  Then the water column fell back, and the earth ceased to shake.  The howling wind, which had been a feature of life for days, suddenly ceased.  They looked questioningly at each other, and then Buffy ran for the door.

 

She met Angel coming down the stairs.  He had blood on the front of his t-shirt, and a little on his chin.  She frowned, because he wasn’t a messy eater, but then she really saw him.  His skin was flushed, and she could almost feel the heat radiating from him.  It made him look vitally alive, fevered, even.  His eyes, though, were dark and dead.  She thought that if she fell into those eyes, as she often imagined herself doing, she would be lost in a Hell dimension forever.  She felt the spasm of disgust that flickered over her face: disgust that she had brought this to him.  Disgust that she hadn’t been strong enough in Sunnydale to trust the amulet that he had brought, to trust the axe that had waited for her for a thousand years, but instead had chosen to ask Willow to share her unwanted Slayer’s power amongst all these unknowing girls – and all the others who had already died.

 

For long minutes, she stood before her lover, unable to wipe the guilt and remorse and self-disgust from her face, her revulsion at her own weakness.

 

He didn’t need that, though.  He needed her love just now, and so with an effort she wiped away the evidence of her guilt and reached out a hand towards him.  He turned that flat, dead gaze on her and then without a word, walked through the courtyard door and into the night.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

 He’d seen enough.  He’d seen the disgust on her face when she looked at him, murderer that he was, covered in vomited blood.  Her disgust was only a pale reflection of his own self-hatred, and he let that flow through him unopposed.  He already had enough to fight.  He was fighting the power of the slayers’ blood within him, gallons of it, enough to glut even the once-insatiable appetite of the demon; and he was fighting the stupor of the valerian and the gathering images that were the gift of the henbane.  The real hallucinations wouldn’t be far behind, and he had no idea how he was going to try to deal with the power that seemed to threaten to tear him apart if he was out of his mind as well as befuddled by the growing drowsiness.  He wondered whether the world would be safe if he simply curled up under a hedgerow and allowed the rising sun to sear him to ash.  It was an attractive proposition.  But, he didn’t know, and so he wouldn’t do it.

 

One thing he did know was that he couldn’t stay here.  Her disgust, his self-hatred, would be enough to send him away, and would forever stand between them, as unpassable as Hell itself.  But, what if the war within him made him lose control?  The strength he had taken tonight flooded through his muscles.  He could never be confined here – they had nothing that he couldn’t break.  No.  He had to go, to keep everyone he loved safe.  Those who still lived, anyway.

 

Once back in his flat, he started throwing clothes into a bag, unable to either see or care what he was packing.  He was just closing the bag when he heard her footsteps outside the door.  He remained bent over the bag as she opened the door.  She took in the picture in one glance.

 

“Angel?  What are you doing?”

 

“I’m leaving, Buffy.”

 

“No!  You can’t…”

 

Grabbing the bag, he started to push past her, unable to find any more words from the tempest that was his mind, but as he felt her soft, warm skin, he was weak enough to bend over and kiss her hair, a last memory to take with him.

 

 And then he was gone.

 

She ran outside, but there was no sign of him.  He was on foot, and she thought that he couldn’t have gone far, but there was nothing to tell her where to look.

 

He’d left her.  He’d vowed that he would never leave her alone again, and now he was gone.  She sank to her knees in the courtyard, heedless of the sharpness of the gravel, trying to keep down the searing, screaming pain of loss.

 

Inside the house, Giles still sat in his study, numb.  For the moment, the earth remained steady around him, though, and he wondered whether it might now be all over.  Zillah leapt onto his lap, and mewed loudly.  Absently he stroked her, as her cries of distress grew more and more piercing.  Then, to his surprise, Ari leapt up to join her, licking her face, and then patting her gently with his paw.  Even more surprisingly, Zillah allowed the demonstration of companionship.  Giles wondered why.

 

~~~~~~~~~

 

 At Mildred’s, the door stood open, waiting for someone to enter.  In the light and airy room in which the Coven had conducted their final magics, the chairs sat in a perfect circle around the table, but the witches were gone.  There would be nothing left to bury.  There was simply a manuscript, in an envelope, addressed to Rupert Giles.   Those who lived there afterwards would always describe it as a happy house.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 After a long time, when neither Angel nor Buffy came to find him, Giles left the study.  He went upstairs and found the slayers dead and drained, each one lovingly laid out, their faces free of pain and fear.  Innocents, lost in a war that was older than time, but given the kindest death that had been possible.  Giles was sure that their spirits would forgive Angel, and hoped that he knew it.  Buffy would tell him, make him understand, and he thought she must be doing that now.  If not, surely Ella would.  He would go to Ella as soon as it was light.  She would be at Mildred’s.  He would find her and he would deal with all the things that lay between them.  They would have a life together, just as Angel and Buffy now could.  It would be sunrise in an hour or two.  Time enough to deal with the aftermath in the light of a new day.

 

 

 

THE END

 

July 2005

 

 Author’s Notes

 

 Sherbet:  This is not the palate-cleansing water ice that Americans call sherbet, and Brits call sorbet.  Sherbet is a tooth-rotting confection much loved by kids when I was young. It's a lemon-flavoured powder that you try to suck up through a liquorice straw, and its particular properties mean that when it dissolves on the tongue, it instantly produces carbon dioxide, giving a wonderful fizz. The chemical reaction also absorbs heat from the surroundings, and so you get a wonderful cooling of the tongue. After too much, your tongue goes numb. That's sherbet. I have a recipe.

 

 

 

 

 

 



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