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Medusa

 

Project Paranormal

Author: Jo

Season 2

Part 10

 

 

**

 

Summary:  I’m told that this involves a mystery to solve, love and a hint of sex, terror and murder, compassion and grief.  Oh, and several star-crossed lovers, and masks, and monsters.  There you are, then.

 

**

 

MEDUSA

 

 

Giles settled himself into the comforting embrace of a brown leather wing chair with a sigh of relief.  Negotiating the yards of distance between the dining room and the coffee room had been a major challenge, successfully achieved.  Nick Hunt lowered himself gingerly into an adjacent chair.  A discreetly attentive steward brought cups, milk, cream and a selection of sugar crystals, all on a silver tray.  As he arranged these things on the low walnut table, the two men sat in companionable silence, waiting for the room to stop spinning.

 

Their dining companions were slowly trickling into the room, settling down in small knots.  Experience showed that, gradually, these smaller groups would once more coalesce into the more rowdy gathering that had just broken up, but for now The Sophists were getting their second wind.

 

Six times a year, they met here, at The Reform Club, for a particularly epicurean dinner.  Tonight had featured a well-hung baron of beef, crisp and brown on the outside, still scarlet with juices on the inside.  The wine had flowed, and the conversation had been stimulating, and all in all Giles was pleased that he had renewed his bonds with this group of men.  The wine had been particularly memorable, and some part of him knew that it would be even more memorable in the morning but, just now, the rest of him didn’t care.  He was singularly well fed and comfortable, and in good company.  Let that be enough for now.

 

The waiter returned with a silver coffee pot and poured for them.  Nick indicated that he should leave the pot, and the man then silently ghosted away to attend to the needs of the new arrivals.  Giles looked around at the Victorian grandeur of the room.  Charles Barry had been unsparing with marble and rich wood when he had designed the Club, and this room was as monumental as any of the others.  He racked his memory to recall whether it was from this particular room that Jules Verne had launched his hero Phileas Fogg, and his manservant Passepartout, on that eighty-day journey around the world.

 

He thought that the Reform Club had been a good starting point for that fictional odyssey.  When it was first built, it had been the gathering point for radical MPs, particularly those of a Liberal persuasion, but the decline of that party had left the Reform open to a new mix of members, and the gap had been filled by those of a more literary bent.  Giles reflected that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had warmed his shoes in front of this fire, perhaps sitting alongside Hilaire Belloc and HG Wells.  Strange, he thought, what the mind remembers, at times like this.  Or not so strange.  Membership of the Club wasn’t exactly hereditary, but his father had warmed his shoes here, as well, and his father before him.  Giles had merely followed in their footsteps.

 

He’d kept up his membership even during his years in America and the difficult first months back home, and although he’d made use of the Reform’s bedrooms on occasion, when staying overnight in London, he’d not been to a meeting of the Sophists since he’d taken up his Watcher’s duties with Buffy.  There were fewer of them now than when he’d last dined, no more than a dozen.  Still, they were all good fellows, and all useful men to know.

 

He looked at the man beside him.  Nick.  He’d known Nick since school and then Oxford, and they’d always got on well.  They’d drifted apart when he’d started to run with the wrong crowd…  When he’d got into dark magic and Eyghon…  Then, in his final year at Oxford, Nick had brought the crowd together again, in the Sophists.  They’d met half a dozen times a year ever since.

 

He reached forward for his coffee cup, and Nick stirred.

 

“Do you know, some woman rang me the other day and asked about joining the Sapphists?”

 

Giles gave a crack of laughter, almost spilling the coffee.

 

“I told her we were the Sophists, and if she didn’t understand that, to look it up, it would be funnier than she thought.  Don’t know where she got my number from.”

 

He juggled his own cup onto his knee.

 

“It’s good to have you back, Rupert.”

 

Nick was one of the few people to call him Rupert.

 

“It’s good to be back.”

 

There was an infinitesimal pause before Nick spoke again, a small thing that carried a disproportionate amount of weight, like a white dwarf star.

 

“What are you doing now?  Heard you’ve got some supernatural thingy going.  That right?”

 

“That’s right,” Giles confirmed.  “Project Paranormal.  We deal with strange occurrences.  Try to sort them out.”

 

“We?”

 

“I have two…ah…colleagues.  They’re good at this sort of thing.  Born to it, you might say.”

 

There was that pause again.  Even in his currently far from sober state, Giles could recognise it.  It was the pause before someone revealed something that they didn’t want anyone else to know.  The pause in which they might yet change their mind.  Nick took the plunge.

 

“I’d… I’d like to have your opinion on something.  Just you.  It’s a patient I’m treating, and I think the problem isn’t entirely natural.  The family might let you come along, but not a larger group.”

 

Giles was silent.  It was his turn for the pause.  He reflected that many cases of possession were thought to be illness, but Nick didn’t specialise in that sort of case.  His speciality was orthopaedics, diseases of the bones and joints.  He was a world expert in rare diseases within his speciality.

 

“Tell me about it.”

 

“I’d rather show you.  I’m going there on Monday.”

 

“Count me in.”

 

 

Still half-wrapped in the mists of sleep, Angel nuzzled into the pillowy softness, trying to ignore whatever it was that had woken him.  The temptation to bite was almost irresistible.  Almost.

 

There it went again.

 

He was…exhausted.  He’d made absolutely sure that Buffy was even more… exhausted… than he was, and what they both needed now was sleep.

 

And again.

 

Buffy stirred restlessly beneath him, as he lay curled by her side, his head on her breast.  Her arm reached out for something, and he caught her wrist, pulling it to him.  He rubbed his face against her fingers.  They smelled of…

 

And again.

 

The phone.

 

He fumbled around until he found it, but could manage no more than ‘hello’.  As the caller spoke, Buffy stirred again, and Angel pulled her close to him, trying to soothe her back into sleep.

 

“Lisa?”

 

Lisa ran the livery stable on the Trowbridge Road.  She was still caring for Giles’ two horses.  After the events of the summer, the sinkhole at the bottom of the field was once more securely fenced off, and the field cleared of demon body parts, but the grass was still poor and sickly.  They hadn’t wanted the horses grazing it until it looked more healthy, so they had left rebuilding the stable, and left the horses with Lisa.

 

“Is anything wrong with…”

 

“Good.  I’m glad they’re okay.”

 

“Giles?  No, Giles is away for the weekend,”

 

“Sure.  What time will your last people go?”

 

“We’ll be over about… five o’clock.  That okay?”

 

He settled himself back into that comfortable position.  Still, now that he was awake, perhaps he didn’t feel quite so exhausted any more.  Perhaps Buffy wasn’t completely exhausted, either.  She was delicious when she wasn’t quite awake… Just now, he was content to look at her, to bask in the moment. 

 

From the time that he’d come back from Hell, he’d never truly believed that there could ever be anything but tragedy for them.  Not the Romeo and Juliet tragic ending, with two dead lovers.  For them, that would perhaps have been one of the better outcomes.  He’d feared it might be something much worse.  Instead, though, he’d been given this new existence, this unlooked-for benison that allowed them to find a life together.  And which meant that, no matter what happened, he would never lose his soul again.  He hadn’t escaped the demon, but his choices were his own.  His actions were those of Angel, not Angelus. He decided that it was a thought that deserved celebrating, with a delicious Buffy.  He set about his task with relish.

 

 

At five o’clock, they pulled into the small parking area by the house, as a figure strolled out of the gathering darkness to meet them.

 

“Wow!  What a beauty.  I bet she gives you the ride of your life!”

 

Angel, startled, looked up as he unfolded himself from the Porsche’s driving seat, but Lisa was definitely eyeing up the car.  Buffy saw the expression on his face and burst into laughter as she walked round the front of the car.

 

“He’s too innocent for that sort of remark, Lisa.”

 

Angel crooked an arm to each of them – having one on either side might stop them ganging up on him.

 

“Ladies?  So, Lisa, do you want to show us where the problem is?”

 

Arm in arm, they walked towards the stables.  The day had been glorious, clear and bright, with a steely coldness that came straight from the Arctic.  The sunset was fading now, but it had held all the colours of the fires of hell, scarlets and reds and purples, threaded through with the smoke of black wispy clouds, and it had covered a full third of the sky, like something from a Turner painting.  Angel had hoped it wasn’t a portent.

 

As they drew away from the house, their footsteps crunching on the gravel path, he saw that Lisa was extending her already-successful business.  The high, sheer walls of an indoor school rose up on the right, behind the more traditional ranges of Cotswold stone buildings.  Ahead was a vista of small fields and paddocks, running downwards to a shallow valley, and then rising up again over higher hills beyond.  A green lane ran alongside the stream at the bottom of the valley, a hollowway sunken below the level of the banks on either side by the sheer weight of centuries.  To the left were two outdoor schools, each taking advantage of places where the slope levelled out, and separated by a larger turnout paddock.  Beyond these was a small field filled with tall stands of coarse weeds, and then a copse of ancient woodland encompassing the green lane and the stream.  In that weedy field were spoil heaps, separate piles of soil and chalky subsoil dug out from the foundations of the half-built indoor school.

 

They walked over the springy chipped bark surface of the outdoor schools, until they stood in the centre of the furthest one.  It was rather unkempt and obviously infrequently used, with weeds growing through the wood chippings.  Lisa disengaged herself.

 

“Wait here.”

 

She trotted back to the stables, re-emerging a few minutes later with a stocky piebald pony on a leading rein.

 

“This is Badger.”

 

The pony, anxious to be friends, butted up against Buffy, rubbing his forehead against her and nuzzling her in a way that made Angel scowl.  Then he lifted his head to scent her, breath whiffling through his nostrils.  Delighted, Buffy scratched behind his ears and stroked his cheek.  She turned to Angel.

 

“Isn’t he gorgeous?  And I can actually see over the top of him.”

 

She was, indeed, taller than the little pony.  Angel rested a hand on his withers, and the pony gave him a friendly nudge.

 

“He’s got a very kind eye.  So, Lisa, I’m not thinking he’s possessed?”

 

“No, but watch this.  I’ve brought Badger, because he’s so very safe, but all the horses react as he does.  I should tell you first that we rarely use this bottom school.  The horses don’t like it.  They never have.  It was here when I came, but I had to have a new one built.  I’ve more or less kept this in usable order, but it’s wasted space, really, unless I can resolve whatever ails them.  They’re okay on this top half, but they don’t like the bottom part.”

 

She led the pony towards the fence.  Buffy and Angel followed.  As they walked, he began to toss his head, and then to snort in mild alarm.  A few feet from the fence he simply refused to go further, and no amount of coaxing could shift him.  Lisa eyed the sky.

 

“It’s almost full dark.  While we wait for that, here’s a quick bit of back story.  It isn’t really this school.  What really troubles the horses is this field, and the school is just too close to it.  I’d assumed there were things lurking in all that growth…”

 

Angel and Buffy looked over the winter-dead and dormant vegetation.  There were nettles, brambles, and young sapling trees, mainly elder, ash and sycamore; the remains of thistles, docks and other coarse weeds formed stands that were like miniature forests; and bindweed, ivy and woody nightshade threatened to choke everything.  The fence itself was kept scrupulously clear of weeds, presumably to prevent harm to the horses, as well as to present a more tidy appearance.  But, the field gave the appearance of having been neglected for years.  There could well be rats or snakes or other things that might spook a horse.

 

“It was never that much of a problem, until we started on the indoor school.  To get from the stables to the wood and the green lane, everyone just cut across the home paddock.  Now, they have to go closer to the field, and they’re frightened of it.”

 

“Why don’t you just cut it all down and drive out anything in there?”

 

“Oh, I would, Buffy.  That would be my first thought.  But, it doesn’t belong to me.  That field and the wood belong to the Corbetts.  We have a right of way over the green lane, but not on the field or wood.  I’ve tried to buy it, but old man Corbett simply won’t sell.  It’s no use to him, but that doesn’t seem to matter.  I’ve asked if I can clear it, and he absolutely refuses to let me on it.  The only reason he’s ever given, when I first saw him about it, was that it was haunted, and he would never sell it.  He looked as if he could have bitten his tongue out when he said that, too.  Occasionally, when I’ve kicked up a fuss, someone’s made a start by hacking down some of the brambles, but they never get further than that. 

 

“The odd thing was that when we started digging the foundations for the school, his son came round and said we could dump the spoil into the field, if we wanted.  He told me to just dump it over the fence, and they would deal with it.  He said the field needed levelling, and that would help.  I couldn’t see the point of putting subsoil down as topsoil, but I was just pleased to be rid of it, so I didn’t argue.  But the horses still wouldn’t go down past the field.

 

“So, since the old man had mentioned hauntings, I thought I might at least ask you if that could be true.  I need to sort something out, or the riders will be taking their horses away. Elaine was thrown last week.  She was coming back late, around dusk, and her horse, Captain, went berserk.  Besides, with the plans I’ve got for expansion, I’d like to be able to use this second school.”

 

She was interrupted by Badger, who suddenly whinnied in fright, his eyes rolling as he backed away.  Then he reared, screaming.  Lisa dropped the leading rein and let him run back the way they’d come.  He stopped in the upper school, whinnying anxiously back to them.

 

“He thinks we should join him,” she told them.  Angel nodded.

 

“I think he’s right.  Do you see them?”

 

Coalescing in the air over the field was upwards of twenty Syriak demons, creatures of corrupted light, foul air and greasy colour, visible in the darkness but not corporeal in any meaningful sense.  And hideous.  They were creatures of energy, but they wore the semblance of ghouls, with putrid, fanged gashes for mouths, abnormally long skeletal hands with the thinnest covering of wizened skin, and thick, curling talons.  Peeling, leprous scarf-skin membranes filled the space between arms and torso, huge and billowing, in a vile parody of a bat.

 

Neither Lisa nor Buffy could see them.  Buffy shivered, though, and wrapped slim arms around herself.  Lisa admitted to feeling a chill in the air.  Angel supposed that it made sense that the Slayer couldn’t see them.  Despite their appearance, they were no threat to the living, and she could never fight them as they were.  They were just a distraction to her, and so the slayer magic ignored them.  For him, though… Well, that was different.

 

“You’ve got an infestation of nasties, Lisa,” he told her.  “They need to be exorcised.”

 

“Are you psychic or something?”

 

“‘Or something’ covers it, I think.” 

 

He was loathe to say more.  Lisa had no idea what he was, and he didn’t want to see her expression if she found out.

 

He watched as the Syriaks sank slowly towards the ground, each one separate from the others.  He marked their individual territories in his mind’s eye.  Lisa and Buffy watched him watching something they couldn’t see, and both were silenced by the experience.  Eventually, he turned to them.

 

“Come on, let’s get Badger tucked up with his friends.  Then there’s something I need to do.”

 

They gathered up the pony, who was only too willing to walk with them back to his stable.  No one said anything on the short walk, but once Badger was safely installed into the comforting, warm scents of hay and horse, Angel broke the silence.

 

“Do you have a spade, Lisa?’

 

There were no spades here, but she had the yard’s shovels.  She offered to walk back up to the house for a garden spade, but Angel shook his head and picked out the sharpest of the shovels.  It would do.  The two women made their own choice of tools, but Angel silently took them from their hands.

 

“No. Buffy, why don’t you and Lisa go up to the house?  I’ll join you as soon as I’m sure.”

 

“Sure of what?”

 

“I’ll tell you when I know.”

 

He took her gently by the upper arms and looked hard into her face.  Then he glanced towards Lisa.  Buffy understood.  What Lisa didn’t know couldn’t hurt her.  When he let her go, she linked arms with the older woman.

 

“Come on, let’s let Angel be all manly, while we have a nice cup of tea.”

 

“You’ll need some lights down there.  Wouldn’t this be better left until the morning?”

 

“I can see as much as I need to.  Go put the kettle on.  I shan’t be long.”

 

He watched them head back to the house, and then walked down to the overgrown field.  Even before the Syriaks had arrived, he’d known what was there.  He’d just hoped it was older. A lot older.  Archaeological.  A nice, simple haunting would be fine by him, just now.

 

He climbed over the fence, and almost immediately fell foul of the vegetation.  The brambles tore at him, the hooked thorns catching in clothes and flesh, and the nettles, tall enough to reach his face, stung him.  That would be short lived but there were a lot of stings, and it hurt like a bitch.

 

He didn’t need to be able to see the Syriaks to know where to start digging.  Vampires always knew that sort of thing.  The shovel wasn’t the best possible tool, but that wasn’t a problem either.  Vampire strength made up for the tool’s deficiencies.  The Syriak was the worst problem.  He’d chosen the territory of the smallest of the demons, the youngest.  It was displeased at being disturbed, and it flapped at him, silently hissing, but it couldn’t harm him. Not in this form, anyway.  He was pretty sure that there was a more corporeal form, but not here, not tonight.

 

The grave was shallow, with only about 3 feet of earth resting on the body.  He gently cleared away enough soil to be sure of what he was seeing.  Then, he went to the feeding place of the next Syriak, close by the first.  These were the carrion feeders of the demon world, living on the elemental energy released by decaying bodies.  One good cadaver could keep a Syriak going for years.

 

A few more minutes of digging revealed a second corpse.  He squatted down, one fist wrapped around the shovel’s handle, examining the two bodies closely.  They’d been dead for a long time, but with his experience, he could see exactly what had happened to them.  They were two girls, probably late teenage or early twenties, although that was difficult to be certain about, and their deaths had not been easy. 

 

He was repulsed by what had been done to them, quite probably over a prolonged period.  And yet, he found it horrifyingly, appallingly attractive to contemplate.  His mind restored the flesh to what he knew it had been – these two had been pretty, once – and followed every cut of the knife, every torment, every blade and instrument used on them.  He could feel the torn flesh as if he were running his hands over it, taste the blood that would have flowed from these wounds.  Somewhere in the back of his mind, he could hear their screams, and loved it.  Shockingly, his demon face came to the fore, unbidden.

 

He stared silently down at the corpses, feeling the stark duality of his nature, and the mask that he wore.  He had the face that he turned to the world, the face that went with the soul that Buffy loved; then there was the other face, the one he wore now, all amber eyes and glistening fangs; the one that wanted to find some innocent girl or youth and make them into something that would look like this, that would scream as he knew these two had screamed.  Monster.

 

Abruptly, he stood up, and used the shovel to draw a little earth back into the shallow graves, although he didn’t try to refill them.  Even the police would be able to work out that these two had been disturbed.  He just wanted to keep the foxes off.  There would be a body for each Syriak.  He didn’t need to look at any more of them.  They would all be the same, more or less.  Leaving the shovel propped against the fence in the outdoor school, he stalked back up to the house.

 

Buffy knew that something was seriously wrong as soon as she saw his grim expression, but said nothing.  He was grateful for the silence, fleeting though it would be.  Lisa gave him tea, and he drank it quickly, although he could have wished for something stronger.  Very shortly, he knew, people were going to be milling around here, and he would have no chance of banishing the Syriaks.  Someone was going to get hurt if he didn’t do that.  Even though humans couldn’t see them, the horses clearly could.  And if one managed to become corporeal…  It didn’t bear thinking about.  But, the police would be unlikely to countenance any occult rituals on their crime scene.  Besides, there were other reasons that he didn’t particularly want to come to the attention of the forces of law.

 

This really should be reported as soon as possible, but not until he’d done what the police couldn’t.  After all, the unfortunates buried down there weren’t going anywhere.  They’d waited for years, unmarked and unmourned.  They could wait a few hours more.

 

“Find anything?”

 

Buffy’s question pulled him from his thoughts.  He didn’t reply directly, simply put his cup down and stood up.

 

“You two stay here.  I’m going to get what I need for the exorcism.  I’ll be back as soon as I can. Under no circumstances is anyone to go down to that field.”

 

Buffy bridled.  “Now just a minute, Angel…”

 

He took her hands.

 

“Buffy, once I’ve done the exorcism, there’s absolutely nothing that you or I should do.  Someone has been killing people and burying them in that field.”  He looked apologetically across to Lisa, whose hand had flown to her mouth in shock.  “It’s not a job for us.  This is for people who handle human monsters.”

 

“People?  More than one?  Oh, God… How many are there?  Can you tell?”

 

“I… I’m not absolutely sure, Lisa.  At least twenty, I think.”

 

She was too shocked to ask how he knew or to press him for more details.  Buffy squeezed his hands.

 

“Could you find whoever did this?”

 

What should he say?  That he had the killer’s scent and could pick him out in a crowd?  That even without that, he was sure he could recognise an artist almost as cruel as himself?  That part of him wanted to shake the man by the hand and offer him a few tips to improve his style?

 

“Buffy, these victims have waited for justice, some of them for a long time.  They were killed in secret, hidden in the dark.  They need that justice to be seen, as well as to be done.  They need the killer to be brought out into the light of day.  But before that, I need to get rid of the Syriaks.”

 

“Syriaks?”

 

It was Lisa who asked the question, trying to focus on something smaller, less frightening, than the fact that there were bodies, in the multiple, in the field.

 

“They feed on the energy given off when a corpse decays.  The horses can obviously see them, and that’s what they’re frightened of.”

 

“There aren’t any… any ghosts, then?”

 

He smiled reassuringly.  “No, Lisa, not that I saw.  Just the Syriaks.  Now, will you two stay here?  I’ll be back as quickly as I can.”

 

Lisa and Buffy exchanged looks.

 

“I’ll put the kettle on again,” and Lisa bustled off into the kitchen.

 

Angel dropped a kiss onto Buffy’s forehead.

 

“Let me do this, love.  I know you think I’m cutting you out, but you don’t need to see this, and neither does she.  Truly.  While I’m gone, perhaps you could both find a plausible reason to explain why we found the bodies.  I don’t think ‘Syriak demons’ is going to cut it, do you?”

 

Buffy nodded silently, and he strode out of the house.  She went quietly into the kitchen, to find Lisa sitting at the table, her head buried in her hands.  She sat down in the next chair, putting her arm over the other woman’s slim shoulders, and they stayed like that for a long time.

 

 

Angel hadn’t had time to fully research the Syriaks, but the cleansing ritual to expel them from this dimension had been easy to find.  That would be good enough.  The women wanted to help, but he wouldn’t let them.  One person could do this.  It was going to be a bell, book and candle job, just different ones than in the normal exorcism.

 

He walked the boundaries of the field, swinging a lantern that was lighted by a corpse-candle, and as he walked he intoned the ritual that would draw the Syriaks into its flame and on to pastures new.  Pastures different, anyway.  Those who could see them had always reported them as lambent fire over a grave, and peoples throughout the world had lit fires or candles or torches or lamps beside their dead, as a barrier and protection.  Every seventh step, he paused and rang a small, silver summoning bell.  At each quarter, he took from his pocket a printout of the page from the Libris Spiritus and read a quatrain of command, which he devoutly hoped would do instead of using the actual book.  Giles hadn’t had a copy, but it was amazing what you could find on the internet.

 

The first circuit passed without any sign of success.  On the second circuit, the Syriaks rose, one by one, mouthing silent screams and curses into the air.  On the third circuit, each entity that he passed was drawn, twisting and howling in that ghastly silence, into the flame of the candle.

 

It happened just as he reached the starting point in the lower school, closing that third circuit, intoning the last quatrain and ringing the bell to signal finality.  From the centre of the field, a huge and pulsing sphere of dirty light rose a few feet into the air, twisting and turning to find the author of its torment.  He thought that this must be the original Syriak, the one that had fed on the first corpse, come late to the party, and then he had no more time for thought as the sphere took on the familiar ghoulish form, and flew at him.  For just an instant of time, it was exactly like the others, flapping uselessly at him, and then it took on definition and substance, and the unexpected weight carried him to the ground.  It was taller than him and heavier than him.  It was stronger, too.

 

He let out a shout of defiance but, before he knew it, those leathery wings had wrapped him around, and the creature’s mouth was fixed over his in an obscene parody of a kiss, the razor fangs dug deep into the flesh of his face, preventing him from pulling away, or even from shouting again.  The foetid stench of its breath filled his mouth and nostrils and made him want to vomit.  As he struggled, he felt the talons spear into his back, through coat and shirt and flesh alike, digging deep and curving around his ribs and spine.  Then it began to suck.  He was a corpse, after all, and there would be good eating on him for this monster.

 

He managed to get a grip of the loose and wrinkled skin on the demon’s chest, and used all his strength to try and heave them apart, but the Syriak simply got a better grip around his rib bones and pulled itself tighter in to him.  His face shifted into the demon, but the Syriak didn’t seem to mind.  He thrust his face deeper into its maw, his own fangs trying to find a tongue to tear at, anything to make the monster pull back a little, but it was no use.

 

He struggled on, like a bird in a net, and it was hopeless.  His struggles grew more and more feeble as the demon sucked the energy from him, and as it, in turn, grew stronger.  A vampire may be a corpse, but it’s a magical corpse, and there is certainly good eating for feeders on the dead.  An eternal feast.

 

And then something metallic and sharp sliced across his throat, and the demon stopped sucking.

 

“Can I say eeuuww?  Angel, couldn’t you find a prettier playmate than this?”

 

He felt fingers working the monster’s teeth loose from his flesh, and then his face was free.  He sucked in air and then exhaled hard, not because he needed the oxygen, but because he needed to clear the stench from his nostrils and his lungs.  Buffy stood next to him, with the abandoned shovel held like an axe.

 

“Nicely done,” he croaked.  “Is my head still attached, or will it roll away any minute?”

 

It had, indeed, been nicely done.  A slight misjudgement, and taking the Syriak’s head could have taken his, too.  He was pretty sure that all he had to show for it was a bloody gash.  He’d get over that.

 

Buffy knelt down to free him from the clutches of the Syriak, and he saw that Lisa was standing behind her.  Her expression gave little away.  As she struggled to understand just how the dead Syriak was still attached to him, Buffy murmured, almost under her breath, “Angel, you’re doing demon…”

 

He was still in demon face, and Lisa had seen it.  With an effort, he changed back, and then Lisa was kneeling by his side, opposite Buffy, running her hands along the dead monster’s arms.

 

“Buffy, unless you’re going to hack it off in pieces, we have to turn him over.”

 

“Okay, no more hacking.”

 

Effortlessly, the Slayer rolled him until he was lying on top of the headless corpse of the Syriak.

 

“You know,” he muttered, “if anyone so much as mentions this in future, I’m going to get very testy.  Ow!”

 

The women had pulled at the hands, and the talons had yanked at his ribs and spine.

 

“Just a minute.” 

 

He heard Lisa run off after cautioning Buffy.  Jokes might be cracked in the future about this, but neither of them felt like it now, not even to relieve the tension of the shocking situation.  And then Lisa was back, with heavy-duty garden loppers.  She quickly and neatly severed the hands from the wrists, and Buffy pulled her lover from the dreadful embrace.

 

“Bend your back and sit still.”

 

Her voice, deadly serious, brooked no dispute, and Angel did as he was told.  He heard the telltale snap of loppers as the individual fingers were cut away from the hands.  Gently, both women worked the talons free.  By the time they had finished, he’d dug his own fingernails deep into his palms.  At last, he was allowed to stand up, and he did so with a wince, staggering a little from weakness.  Buffy slid her arm around his waist and handed him a tissue so that he could scrub his own blood and the demon’s spittle off his face.

 

“Will you be okay?”

 

“Yeah.  I’m as weak as a kitten, but I’ll be okay.”

 

They both looked at Lisa.  She gazed steadily back.

 

“Well,” she said, “I expect you’ll tell me in your own good time just what I saw there, but for now, do you think we should get rid of that thing before we call the police?  I don’t suppose they’ll want that complicating the investigation.”

 

Angel gave a shaky laugh.

 

“A good friend helps you bury the body, eh?”

 

“Precisely.  Come on, you’d better sit down for a while, before you fall down.  And we can clean you up.”

 

He shook his head.

 

“No, I’ll be fine. That thing isn’t going into the Porsche!”

 

Buffy held her hand out for the keys.

 

“I’ll go get the Mini.”

 

“No way!”

 

As they bickered over whether Buffy could drive the Porsche, they heard an engine cough into life, and then the rumble of a heavy vehicle.  The horsebox backed towards them, down the side of the indoor school.  Lisa leaned out of the open window.

 

“Do you want to get that thing in the back?  The smell won’t frighten the horses for evermore will it?  Some of them are bad enough to box as it is.”

 

Buffy swung the doors open.

 

“Swill it down with bleach – that works for us.”

 

“Too damn expensive.  Think it’ll succumb to agricultural disinfectant?”

 

“If it kills ninety-nine percent of all household germs, it’ll be fine.”

 

Between the three of them, they managed to get all the body parts onto the bed of straw, and shortly afterwards, straw and Syriak were tipped down the sinkhole.  The van was swilled out and left open, to air, and then it was time to call the police.

 

“Are you sure we can’t do some first aid on you before I make the call?”

 

“No, Lisa.  Buffy will help me get sorted when we get back.  You know that it would be better if I’m not here…”

 

“Buffy told me it was all to do with work permits, but I suspect from what I saw that wasn’t the whole of the story.  You want me to say I found the bodies?”

 

Buffy looked quickly at Angel.

 

“No, that won’t work.  You haven’t even seen what’s down there.  They’d know something was wrong.  But they can’t see Angel until he’s healed.”

 

She cast a worried glance at her lover.  There could be all sorts of repercussions if the police started asking difficult questions about who Angel was.

 

Lisa was firm.  “I’ll tell them that you’re a dowser, and you looked into a problem I was having with the horses.    Dowsing will get more credence in the West Country than in most other places, or at least less ridicule.  You found something, you were overcome by the awfulness, and Buffy took you home to recover. That’s as near the truth as makes no difference.  How does it sound?”

 

“Not very manly, but I’ll live with that.”

 

And so, as the police drew up at the livery stable, the two of them were back home.  Buffy was cleaning and bandaging Angel’s wounds, and Angel was reflecting on the two faces he showed the world and on the duality of being that they stood for.  The Coven might well have given him a gift beyond price when they ensured that the happiness clause in his curse was removed, but he still mourned the loss of the shanshu prophecy.  Without that, he was still the most evil of demons at the core, bringing sorrow and destruction as surely as a gorgon’s stare.  He wished that he could bury that terrible face so deeply that it could never surface again as it had tonight, would never trouble his thoughts, so long as he lived.  He never could, though, and without the shanshu, he never would.

 

 

Giles’ Sunday was spent quietly, in deference to his hangover.  He knew very well that Buffy and Angel could deal with anything that came their way, and so he resisted the urge to call and check.  They could probably do with some relaxing alone time, anyway.  Instead, he renewed his acquaintance with a number of people at the British Museum, cooed dutifully over some new acquisitions there and then retired to the Reform Club for a gentle evening.

 

It had been a last minute decision to come this weekend, to meet up with these men again for the first time in years.  He’d been tired of the pervasive smell of fresh paint as they renovated the family room at the house.  Family…  He forced his mind to shear away from that thought.  They’d accepted that the Coven had been right, that there were no more new potentials or new slayers to worry about, and had packed away all the training equipment that had been set up in the family room.  The few pieces that any of them wanted to use had been moved to the smallest bedroom, and the family room redecorated.  The house was now just that, once more – an ordinary family house, not a barracks for warriors against evil.  Well, as ordinary as it could be if you allowed for regular visits from a vampire and a slayer… But, the process had brought back unwelcome memories for them all, and Giles had decided to beat a hasty retreat, seizing upon the Sophists as an excuse.  He was glad that he had.  It had given him a truly normal weekend for the first time in as long as he could recall.

 

As he came back into the august sanctuary of the Reform Club, marvelling anew at the galleried reception chamber, with its twenty red porphyry columns, he gave a silent thanks for Sir Charles Barry and real architecture.  A number of the Sophists were still there, and by the time the evening came, they were all sufficiently recovered to pick up the threads of their conversations of last night.  Then, on Monday morning, he and Nick prepared to visit Nick’s patient.

 

Buffy had driven Giles to the station and he’d taken the train up to town for this weekend, so as not to have to worry about long-term parking.  As a result, he was travelling with Nick in the doctor’s Bentley.  Currently, they were purring along the M4.

 

“I’d better call home.  They’re expecting me back this afternoon, and in our business Buffy and Angel might fret if I don’t arrive.”

 

“Buffy and Angel?”

 

“My colleagues.”

 

Nick grinned impishly.

 

“They sound more like a pair of pet Persian cats than colleagues.  Tell me about them.”

 

Giles almost sighed.

 

“Angel… well, let’s just say that he’s the epitome of tall, dark and handsome.  Buffy is… she’s the tiny blonde bombshell.”

 

“Spanish or Portuguese?”

 

Giles had no illusions that Nick might be asking about Buffy.  He knew very well what the doctor’s preferences were, and that he was currently without a partner.

 

“Irish.  And I should warn you that Buffy might behead you if you make a move on Angel.  Or be- something else.  They’re quite an item.”

 

Nick gave a theatrical sigh.

 

“Ah, me!  Doomed to heartbreak again. You tell me about tall, dark and gorgeous, and then you advise me to lose all hope?  He is tall, dark and gorgeous?  And Irish.”

 

Giles feigned deep and weighty consideration, and then cracked out laughing. 

 

“Yes, he’d be right up your street, but they are entirely devoted to each other.  No straying of any kind.” 

 

He didn’t say that, even without Buffy, Angel would never contemplate the notion.  With a vampire, one never knew.  But he didn’t mention that either as, chuckling, he pulled out his phone.  Nick couldn’t resist a final dig, though.

 

“Well, I did say that I was taking you home after this visit, so perhaps I’ll be able to judge my chances with Mr Tall, Dark and Scrumptious…?”

 

“Pffft!  Faithful to the last, those two.  I’d even put money on it.  Well, five pounds, anyway.”

 

Nick laughed so hard that Giles felt compelled to grab the steering wheel until his companion was more in control of himself.

 

As Giles expected, it was Buffy who answered his call.  At this time in the morning, Angel would have long since retired for the day.

 

“Good morning, Buffy.  How…?”

 

WHAT?  The police…”

 

“Good lord!  Where did you say the bodies were?”

 

Lisa’s?  How…”

 

How many?

 

“How… No.  You can tell me the whole story later.  I’ll come right back there, of course.  Nick can drop me off at a station…”

 

“No?  Are you sure you can manage?”

 

“Very well.  Are you okay, Buffy?  And Angel?  He’s not been arrested or anything?”

 

“Good.  Well, ask Angel to call me as soon as the Detective Chief Inspector has finished with him.  I actually rang to say I was going to be late.  I’m with a friend, Nick, and we’re going to see a possible case.  We’ll be back there sometime after tea, so don’t wait to eat.  Perhaps Martha could leave us something?  And if either of you need anything, any help at all, call me.”

 

After a few last words of support, he slipped the phone back into his pocket, and sat gazing into the middle distance for a few minutes.  Then he scrubbed his hands over his face, pinching the bridge of his nose without being aware that he did so, a habit that showed in times of distress.

 

Nick left him in silence for a few minutes then, all banter put aside, said, “Everything’s clearly not okay, Rupert.  Do you want to go home?”

 

Giles was silent for a long time before he replied.

 

“No.  There’s nothing I can do there.  They’ll let me know if they need me.”

 

“Do you want to tell me what’s going on?”

 

“I don’t know much.  So far as I can gather, they went to the local livery stable to look at what might have been a haunting, and found bodies.  The police are there now.”

 

“How many bodies?”

 

“Seven so far.  I don’t know any more than that.  Perhaps I will when Angel calls.”

 

For the rest of that journey, Giles fretted.  No call came from Angel, and he fretted that the vampire had been arrested for some unfathomable reason.  He knew that Angel could never let them take him out into daylight, so what would he do?  No call came from Buffy, either, and he fretted about that, too.  They pulled off the M4 at Swindon, heading for Cirencester.  As they left Cirencester, Giles dragged his mind back to the case.

 

“I know you want me to go with an open mind, but do you want to tell me something about what we’re going to see?”

 

“It was referred to me as a possible case of F.O.P….”

 

“Fop?”

 

“Fibrodysplaysia ossificans progressiva.”

 

“Ah! A progressive disease that replaces connective tissue with bone?”

 

“You’ve kept up with the Latin, then?  Yes, that’s exactly what it is.  About one person in every two million suffers from it, and it’s a wicked, cruel disease.  Every time a child falls and hurts itself, every time some fool of a doctor cuts in for a biopsy, and too often for no apparent reason at all, muscle and tendons and ligaments turn to bone, until the victim simply can’t move any more.  What the hell use is medicine, if the best treatment we can offer is to help the damned to choose whether they freeze into a standing position or a sitting position until such time as they suffocate or starve to death!”

 

Giles looked at Nick, and knew that he had once been that fool of a doctor.  The man’s hands were clenched rigid on the steering wheel, in terrible mimicry of the victims that were in his mind.

 

“Is that all that can be done?” 

 

Giles’ tone was mild, soothing.  Nick almost audibly ground his teeth.

 

“Yes!  We all have genes that control how the skeleton is laid down when we’re in the womb.  In these people, the gene doesn’t know how to switch off, and so they get a second, more disorganised, skeleton over and around the first.  The word ‘progressiva’ means exactly what it says.  It just gets worse and worse, and there is nothing we can do to stop it.  If we try and cut out the excess bone, that just promotes even more to form.”

 

Giles surmised that Nick had tried that.  Tried, and made matters worse.  He kept quiet.

 

“The ones who are diagnosed in time, who have a chance to choose… they usually prefer to freeze into a standing position.  I can’t imagine what it must be like to have to sleep propped up in a corner like some backwards Pygmalion!”

 

“Um.  It was actually Galatea who was the statue.  Pygmalion was the sculptor.”

 

Nick glanced at his passenger and then gave a shaky laugh.

 

“Trust you, Rupert. Okay.  I cry Pax!  You’re right.  I’m sorry.  I’m not usually so… affected by my patients, but this is just so wicked… It starts when they are the youngest of children, and then gets worse.  You… you live through it with them…”

 

“Nick, this sounds like the most dreadful disease that I could imagine, but how on earth can I help if you can’t?”

 

“There are certain signs of F.O.P.  When the baby is born, the big toes are much too short and are malformed.  That’s the hallmark.  Then they develop painful swellings over the back, the neck and the shoulders, and these fibrous nodules gradually turn to bone.  It’s a process that starts in very early childhood.  There may be periods where nothing happens, but each flare-up simply makes it worse.  They never, ever get better.  The nodules never go away.  Then they gradually start to lose movement as the second skeleton is built.  It doesn’t have any joints, you see.  It’s just random struts and spars of bone.

 

“You know, the first report of the condition was from a Frenchman in the 17th century.  He said that a woman had turned into wood.  Personally, I think it was known a long time before that.  I think it’s behind the story of Medusa.  You remember, the woman who turned people to stone with a single glance?”

 

“Yes,” said Giles, patiently.  “I’m well aware of the story of the Medusa.  But Medusa, who was only a myth, by the way, was in any event killed by Perseus.  You aren’t saying that she’s back and turning people to stone?”

 

“No, of course I’m not.  Besides, stone isn’t involved.  But my patient has none of the symptoms of F.O.P.  None of them at all.  That is not the problem.  I don’t know anything else that would explain the symptoms either.  Absolutely nothing.  I’ve been thinking about some sort of… enchantment, although I’d be a laughing stock if I said that to anyone but you.”

 

Giles gave that some consideration.

 

“If it is, I might have to come back again with the right tools to determine what sort of spell has been used.”

 

“Understood.  And I’m relieved you aren’t laughing… Do you think that enchantment actually exists?  That it could happen?”

 

“Nick, I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe.  It’s rare, but yes, enchantments happen.”

 

Nick let go of the breath that he seemed to have been holding for ever.

 

“Good.  Call this a reconnaissance.  But, I don’t want whatever is happening to get too much further.  So, you look at my patient, we’ll go back and see Mr Tall, Dark and Delicious, and then we can all plot strategy, provided Miss Blonde Bombshell has decided to leave my head on my shoulders.  Oh, here’s our turn.”

 

He swung the Bentley onto a small road signposted Duntisbourne Leer.

 

Giles put the question that had been bothering him earlier, but had been driven from his mind by recent events.  “You don’t normally make long-distance house calls, do you?”

 

“No, but the family won’t come to the clinic.  I almost didn’t take the case, but it interests me.”

 

Giles turned to look at the man next to him.  He had dark blond hair, and the sort of healthy tan that comes from regular holidays in sunnier climes.  He looked a bit like a Greek god, and he had enough loose cash for a Bentley and a home that was no doubt worth two or three million pounds.  And Giles was positive that this man would have driven to the furthest tip of Scotland, on a weekly basis, for free, to help one of these most pitiable sufferers.  He devoutly hoped that he would be of some use.  An enchantment seemed a much easier problem to solve than fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva.

 

The narrow lane, just one car’s width, with a couple of impromptu passing places where opposing cars had been forced up into the hedgerow, widened out and Giles saw the tiny cluster of houses in front of them, on the other side of a stream.

 

“The village of Duntisbourne Leer,” Nick announced.

 

“Er… Nick, it’s a farm and a few cottages.  It’s a hamlet, and a tiny one at that.”

 

“Purist!”

 

The Bentley rolled through the cobbled ford with hardly a splash, and then Nick made a hard right hand turn into an even tinier lane that had clumps of grass growing in the centre.  If it had been summer, and the hedgerows filled with lush vegetation, the lane might well have been hidden altogether.

 

“Nick!  That signpost may have said that Duntisbourne Abbots is down here, but the much bigger one said ‘Unsuitable for Motor Vehicles.’  Is that where we’re heading?  Duntisbourne Abbots?”

 

“No, but it’s round the back of this village, hamlet, whatever.  Blast!”

 

The metalled road had disappeared.  Well, Giles silently amended, not disappeared as such, more like merged.  Or possibly even submerged.  The road had become the stream bed, for almost a hundred yards, until it emerged from the ford and continued on towards the next hamlet.  It was much too narrow for the car.  He looked on in awe as he realised that, for the house on the right hand side of the stream, garaging the car each night meant driving down part of that ford and then pulling out into the back garden.  Nick grinned when he saw Giles’ expression.

 

“I do believe this is what the Americans might call ‘picturesque’.  Or even ‘quaint’.”

 

Giles couldn’t help smiling at the reflection that Buffy would in all probability call it a pain in the butt.  They reversed back to the hamlet, not without difficulty, and then continued on their original road.

 

“Are you by any chance lost, Nick?”

 

His friend had always had a reputation for lacking in any sense of direction.

 

“Only slightly.  I’ve only been twice before, and both times I met up with the family’s GP first.  Ah!  I think this is it.”

 

A private drive snaked off the lane, rising into the low hills around the little cluster of houses.  Behind a stand of trees, they found some hard standing set amid what would later in the year be a pretty shrubbery.  A couple of wrought iron benches were positioned to overlook the stream’s valley.  An elderly but powerful motorcycle was already in occupation of the tiny parking area, and Nick pulled in next to it. His face lit up.

 

“An old Triumph!  And look how well it’s been rebuilt…”

 

The distinguished consultant was like a boy in a toyshop, and it was with reluctance that he could be persuaded to lead the way up the remainder of the drive.  It was sheltered from view, surrounded by mature evergreen shrubs, and overhung by trees as it wound up the hillside, until they walked out onto a large, open area of lawn.  Before them was a formal rectangular lily pond.  To one side stood a graceful Atlantic blue cedar, and to the other a stately Cedar of Lebanon, both specimens that must have been over a hundred years old.  Surrounding the lawn, plantings of younger trees offered the promise of seclusion and shelter in years to come.

 

A gravel path skirted the lawn and led to an area of garden before a substantial, two-storey house of warm, Cotswold stone, roofed with heavy ragstone slabs.  Six windows, three to each storey, and each divided into a dozen small panes, shone out white against the creamy stone on either side of the porched door, emphasised by the graffitied pattern of wisteria vines across the building’s façade.  An elegant conservatory ran down the entire right hand side of the house, and a glimpse of another roof at right angles suggested a wing on the left hand side, at the rear of the building

 

“Abbotsbury Holt,” Nick announced.  “The road runs closer to the other side of the house, but you can’t park there – it’s far too narrow.  This is the entrance for the cognoscenti, and those who don’t always get lost.”  He tapped the side of his nose in a knowing gesture.

 

“Very nice.”

 

“Private money, I think, although I gather the place has been in the family for generations.  Used to be a farm, I was told, although whether they’ve still got land to farm I’ve no idea.”

 

As they strolled down the garden path towards the house, the door was flung open, and a young man strode out; it was manifest to them both that he was wrapped in a black cloud of rage.  He was tall and slim, dressed in black jeans and a black leather jacket, with dark hair framing a handsome but pale, scowling face.  He couldn’t have been more than nineteen.  He shouldered them aside and strode onto the lawn, heading for the drive.

 

“Five pounds that this is the motorcyclist,” Nick murmured.

 

“If Byron had been a motorcyclist, that would have been him,” Giles replied.  “Oh, and no bet.  I think that’s a racing certainty.”

 

Just as they reached the door, another figure ran out, a girl this time, pushing past them down the path.  Her gait was just a little hesitant as she pursued the boy.  Nick muttered a terse ‘oh dear’.

 

Giles looked after her with interest.  She could only be described as svelte.  She wore a long, grey velvet skirt; not the old-fashioned, stiff fabric, but the soft, silky velvet that moved with her like quicksilver.  He’d had a glimpse of a lacy, high-necked blouse, and she was wrapped in a voluminous silk shawl, silver with large, pale pink roses on the back.  Her hair was thick and slightly curled, long enough to be confined in a snood of silver mesh.  It shone in the midday sunlight with the colours of a raven’s wing.

 

She caught up with the boy, and as they turned to face each other, their profiles were revealed.  She was beautiful, and she was distressed.  She was about seventeen.  Giles was forcibly put in mind of a pair of star-crossed lovers, a Romeo and Juliet, and that reminded him of Angel and Buffy, worry spiking through him because he had not yet heard from either of them.

 

An imperious voice called from the recesses of the house.

 

“Jessica.  Come inside.  Now.  Rohan has nothing more to say.”

 

The two young people embraced each other briefly, and then Rohan wiped away her tears with his thumb. 

 

“Jessica!”

 

He said something to her that neither observer could hear, and then he turned and strode back the way they had come.  Jessica stood with her head bowed, trying to compose herself.

 

“Hello?  Mrs Strafford?” Nick called in through the open door.  Jessica shot a grateful glance at him.  “Nick Hunt here.  I hope we aren’t too early.”

 

Footsteps sounded very precisely on the oak floor of the hall, and an elegant woman walked towards them, her high heels clicking.  She was followed by a man who was apparently much older.

 

“Mr Hunt.  So good of you to come.”

 

She held out a long-fingered, graceful hand, and Nick took it, briefly.

 

“Mrs Strafford.  Professor Strafford.  I hope you don’t mind.  I’ve brought a colleague with me.  Mr Giles is a renowned expert in some of the areas I want to explore with regard to Jessica…”

 

Giles kept his countenance and his silence, but only with an effort.  He hadn’t realised the patient was that vibrant young girl.  And he was grateful that the most senior doctors actually lost that title, and became plain ‘Mr’.  At least Nick hadn’t had to give him a false qualification.

 

“If you object, then of course Mr Giles will wait in the car.  But, I think he can be of some help.”

 

“No, you must both come in, of course.  Lunch is almost ready.  Perhaps you’d like to wash up and then join us?  Jessica, it’s cold today.  Come inside, please.”

 

The woman was like a force of nature.  She was tall and slender, with neatly cut red-brown hair that fell in soft waves.  She was one of those ageless women who might have been as old as fifty, but who looked no older than thirty and, like her daughter, she was beautiful.  Her husband was stooped, grey, and much older, nearer seventy than sixty, with the slightly otherworldly expression of a reclusive academic.

 

Giles was shown to the downstairs bathroom, in the newer wing.  As he walked back to the main part of the house, he passed a door that was slightly ajar, and something within caught his attention.  It was a photograph, on the wall.  In fact, as he knocked hesitantly, and then pushed the door further open, he saw that there were many photographs, but they were all of the same thing.  Jellyfish.

 

He stood in the doorway, mesmerised, aware that the common name did no sort of justice to these wondrous creatures.  The translucent bells, in a multiplicity of forms, seemed to pulse with life and glisten with hidden colour, as tentacles in all shapes and sizes and hues writhed and twisted on the walls.  A voice behind him called him back to his surroundings.

 

“Magnificent, aren’t they?”

 

He whirled round to find the Professor behind him.

 

“Oh… I’m sorry, sir.  I… I didn’t mean to pry, but the door was open…”

 

“It’s all right, Mr Giles.  I’m happy to share these with visitors.  This is my den you know, and I love to be surrounded by my life’s work.  I’ve studied them for forty years, you know.”

 

“Jellyfish?”

 

“I prefer to call them medusae.  Or medusas, if you wish to be modern.  So much prettier, don’t you think?  A name says so much.”

 

“Yes, indeed…”

 

The Professor led the way to the dining room, and lunch.  It was an awkward meal of poached salmon, during which the Professor said little or nothing, Jessica toyed with her food and was separated from the others by the universal walls of a teenage lover’s angst, and Mrs Strafford – Stella, as Giles learned – was determinedly cheerful.  Giles wondered about Jessica, whose movements at table seemed to be hindered by the folds of her shawl, yet she kept it wrapped around her and he said nothing.

 

At last it was over and, once the remains were cleared away, Jessica was left with Nick and Giles.  The consultant was gentle with her.

 

“Jessica, are you happy that Mr Giles sees what’s happening to you, and tries to help me to help you?”

 

She nodded miserably.

 

“I gather that you’ve had another episode?”

 

Once again she nodded, and then slowly, reluctantly, she unwound the shawl from around her left arm.  Giles almost gasped out loud.  Her forearm, from just above the wrist to just below the elbow, was smooth and hard and white.  For that first instant, he feared that it might be marble, that myth had become fact and she was being turned to stone, but when he reached out to touch it, he realised that he was mistaken, in one thing at least.  It followed exactly the curve of flesh that should run there, but that flesh had become bone.  And it was nothing like the disease that Nick had described.

 

He sat back as the consultant carefully examined this latest transfiguration, and questioned Jessica closely.  It hadn’t been a gradual transformation.  Like the others, it had happened when she was asleep.  She had woken up… altered.  He asked to see if there were any change in the other areas, and she lifted the side of her skirt.  A band of bone ran around her left thigh, exactly as it ran around her forearm.  Another area over her lower stomach, ragged and round, about six inches in diameter, was also smooth, white bone.

 

As she lowered her skirt, something about the thigh caught Giles’ attention, and he bent forward to look more closely.  In the centre of the band were two tiny, dark marks.  Nick found two more in the patch on her stomach, and together they located another pair on the new band on her arm.

 

She could tell them nothing more.  Nick took photographs of her arm, and blood samples from the area of flesh immediately next to the new bone.  Giles could see that he feared causing another flare-up, but said nothing.  Then they took their leave.  As they stepped out into the garden, Giles thought to ask a question of the Professor.

 

“Excuse me, sir, but do you have any actual medusae in the house?  Any in aquaria, or any preserved specimens?”

 

“No, Mr Giles.  None.  I gave them all up when I retired.  There are only the photographs now.”

 

He looked as if he would say more, but the silence stretched on.  Abruptly, he wished them farewell, turned on his heel, and the door closed behind him.  The two men walked in silence down the gravel path and towards the drive.  As they left the lily pond and the trees behind them, Giles ventured an opinion.

 

“I think there’s something supernatural here.  This isn’t like the disease you described to me.”

 

“No, Rupert.  It isn’t.  In F.O.P., the new bone forms beneath the skin.  This looks as if it’s been created by a sculptor.  In F.O.P. the only sculptor involved is a deranged demon of a gene.  Will you look into it?”

 

“Of course.  I think I’ll start with those dark marks. They could be bite marks, you know.  I’ll see if I can find anything that might be doing the biting.”  He paused for a moment.  “Nick, how does the blood supply keep circulating?  Why does she still have feeling in her leg and her arm, apart from the areas of bone themselves?”

 

Nick shook his head.

 

“They won’t let me take her for X-rays or scans.  The best answer I have is that blood vessels and nerves are carried in conduits, as in normal bone.”

 

They walked on in silence until they came to Nick’s car.  The motorcycle was still there, just as they had left it.  The young man was sitting on a bench, staring at the landscape spread before him, the four picture-perfect Duntisbourne hamlets, without seeing anything at all.  Giles walked over to him.  Nick stood by the car, waiting patiently.

 

Rohan seemed unaware of the man standing next to him, and so Giles sat down on the bench.  The movement seemed to bring the young man out of his brown study, and as he turned to the older man, Giles could see that he had been crying.  He affected not to notice that.

 

“Rohan?  Your parents read too much ‘Lord of the Rings’, I suppose?”

 

The boy gave a shaky laugh and nodded.

 

“You’re Jessica’s friend?”

 

The reply was fierce.

 

“I love her!  And she loves me!”

 

“Did you argue today?”

 

“No… no.  I asked her parents to let me marry her.  I knew they’d say no, but I had to try…”

 

He buried his face in his hands, so that his next words were muffled, as if he couldn’t bear to say them out loud.

 

“She’s going to die, isn’t she?”

 

“NO!”  Giles rebuttal was firm.  “No, she isn’t.  We won’t let that happen.”

 

He gestured Nick to come a little closer, within earshot.

 

“Rohan, can you tell us anything, anything at all, that would help us to find out what’s happening to Jessica?”

 

Slowly, painfully, Rohan told his story, but as it unfolded, Nick shook his head to show that there was nothing new.  Giles put a hand on the boy’s shoulder.

 

“If you think of anything, or if you see anything, will you let us know?”

 

“Of course.”

 

Giles dug into his wallet and pulled out a business card.  It was not one of those that mentioned Project Paranormal, it simply gave his name and telephone number.  As he gave it to Rohan, he felt the need to say more.

 

“Rohan, it may seem like the end of the world now, but we won’t stop looking for something to help Jessica.”

 

“I don’t believe you can,” the boy whispered.  “Everything is against us.  This… this sorcery for a start.  But her parents disapproved of me, even before all this began.  They think I’m not good enough for her, and heaven help me, that’s true.  My parents disapprove of her parents, and so they disapprove of her.  Sometimes I wish that...  Well, never mind what I wish.”

 

Giles could guess.

 

“Why do you call it sorcery?”

 

The boy shrugged helplessly.

 

“What does it look like to you?  I just wanted to get her away, to make her happy.”

 

“Rohan, I have two friends, and believe me, they have faced difficulties that you can’t even imagine.  Star-crossed lovers par excellence.  It has taken them almost a decade to overcome most of those difficulties, but now, they’re happy together.  They will help us to find what’s happening to Jessica, I promise.  And I tell you, if they can beat the fates, so can you two.  Call me if anything happens that you think we should know, no matter how small.”

 

As they drove away, Rohan was still sitting on the bench, turning the small white rectangle of card around and around in his fingers.

 

 

On the way back to Westbury, they discussed everything that they had seen, everything that Nick knew, until Giles felt that he had learned as much as he could.  As they approached Westbury, the events at the livery stable intruded onto this latest puzzle, and he worried more and more that he had heard nothing from Buffy or Angel.

 

It was a little after six as they drove into the courtyard.  The flat over the garage stood in darkness, but the lights were on in the house.  He was surprised to see an unfamiliar saloon car by the door.  As he and Nick climbed from the Bentley, the house door opened, and two men in dark suits were shown out by Angel.  Giles strode over to them.  The younger of the two looked at his notebook before speaking.

 

“Mr Giles?”

 

“Yes.  Who are you?”

 

“This is Detective Chief Inspector Collins, and I’m Detective Sergeant Lincoln.”

 

Giles looked to the older man.

 

“What can I do to help you, Detective Chief Inspector?”

 

“Nothing just now, sir.  Your… ah… friends have been very helpful.  I expect I’ll need to talk to you later, but I won’t keep you tonight, sir.”

 

Giles watched as the two men drove away, then turned to Angel.  He thought the vampire looked exhausted, but before he could say anything, before he could ask what had been happening, Angel was pushed aside and Buffy ran from the house, throwing herself at her Watcher and pummelling his chest.

 

“Where the hell have you been?  We’ve been trying to get you, and you’ve got your damned phone switched off again…”

 

He looked at the phone, and saw that she was right.

 

“I… I’m so sorry…”

 

He hugged her, then let her go.  He scrubbed at his forehead and sighed.

 

“It must have been difficult with the police and no one else to talk to…”

 

Buffy scowled at him, but Angel moved to stand next to her, putting a comforting arm around her.

 

“We managed.  Martha’s left us a stew.  Do you want to introduce us?”

 

Nick strolled over to the little group.

 

“Nick Hunt.  You must be Buffy.”

 

He took Buffy’s hand, raising it to his lips and placing the briefest of kisses on her fingertips.  Then he turned to Angel and held out his hand in greeting.

 

“And you’re Angel.  I’ve heard about you both.  My goodness, you feel cold, standing out here.  Why don’t we all get inside?”

 

He ushered the other two back through the door, looking back over his shoulder as he did so, and winking at Giles.  Giles followed them in with an irritated ‘tut’.

 

For Giles, dinner carried all the discomfort that lunch had, but for different reasons.   The first course was tomato soup, and Nick didn’t seem to notice that Angel’s was a different colour to everyone else’s.  Giles had to smile at Martha’s little subterfuge in making sure that everyone got something warm inside them on what was a dank, raw February night, and he wondered if it might be the first time that Angel had eaten his blood with a spoon.  Then he remembered all the years as Angelus and realised he’d probably got no real idea of what whimsical fancies might have taken that demon.  The only thing he could be sure of was that the literature was very incomplete, and that drawing information from Angel was like pulling teeth.

 

Buffy prattled on, determined to be cheerful while being careful not to say too much in front of a stranger, and after the soup, while Nick and Buffy ate heartily, Angel toyed with what was on his plate.  He seemed abstracted, and Giles worried that he was falling back into brood mode.  He gave himself a mental shake.  Of course not.  It was just how Angel behaved when there were strangers.  He melted into the background.  It was hard to do that at a dinner table…  He was surprised, then, when Angel glanced from him to Nick.

 

“So, is there anything you want to talk about with this latest case?”

 

They spent the rest of their time at table talking about Jessica.  Buffy was shocked by the plight of the unfortunate girl.  Angel said he’d never seen anything like it.  They might both be perplexed, but Giles could tell it was exactly what they needed – something to get their teeth into, to divert their thoughts from whichever human monster had left the bodies in the field.  Sorry as he was for Jessica, he was glad they had this distraction.

 

As he accompanied Nick to his car, he promised the consultant that they would work to unravel this.  Nick nodded, and smiled his gratitude.

 

“I’ll let you know if I hear anything else.  Please, keep in touch over what you find.”

 

“Of course I will, Nick.”

 

“Better still, Rupert, just send Mr Tall, Dark and Gorgeous with your findings.  Give me a chance to cut loose those chains that Miss Blonde Bombshell has got him tethered by.”

 

He was smiling mischievously as he said it and Giles, who had a sudden mental picture, guffawed.  Nick became altogether more serious.

 

“Those are the two that you told Rohan about, aren’t they?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“I have a nose for a story, Rupert.  A veritable nose.  One day, you’ll tell me about it.  Or they will.”

 

“I expect it will be a cold day in Hell.  One day.”  He smiled as he said it.

 

Just as he was about to drive away, Nick remembered something.  He reached into his bag and pulled out two of the four phials of blood he had taken.

 

“Might these be of use to you?”

 

“They might, indeed. Thanks.”

 

Nick muttered something about the heck with patient confidentiality, and drove off into the night.

 

When Giles got back into the house, he found Buffy and Angel in his study, already pulling out books from the shelves.

 

“Before we get started on that, I want to know what happened to you.  And I’ve got something else we need to look at.  More coffee while we do that?”

 

He made more coffee, and poured a generous splash of Scotch into his own and Angel’s.  Buffy refused the offer.  He handed one of the phials of blood to Angel.

 

“Do you want to see what you can make of that?”

 

His voice had been bland, but Angel gave him an old-fashioned stare.  Giles wasn’t at all put out.  He was a Watcher, well, an ex-Watcher, and he’d learned to make use of whatever resources were available.

 

Without saying a word, Angel held the blood to the light, and examined it as if it were a fine wine.  He unstoppered it, and let the scent flow over him.  Then, he poured a few drops onto his fingertip and delicately tasted, before restoppering the phial.

 

“It’s human, there’s no doubt about that, but there’s something else… Something foreign to the blood, I think, but I can’t be sure.”

 

“You mean something might have been injected?”

 

“I’m not sure, Giles.  I’ve got no point of reference.  But it’s possible.  It… it reminds me of the sea, of the blood from sea creatures.”

 

“You’ve hunted in the sea?”

 

“Very occasionally, when extremely drunk.  Sea food generally tastes better when you’re human, I’m sure, even if you’re drunk.”

 

He smiled as he said it, and the others took it as a joke, which he was relieved about.

 

Giles told them about the Professor’s career as an expert in coelenterates, and they made a few quick notes of sea monsters to follow up.  Then Giles demanded the story of the bodies in the field.  Buffy told most of it.  The police had wanted Angel to go to the police station that afternoon and give a statement, but Buffy had trotted out the planned excuse that Angel had a serious disorder that made sunlight dangerous to him, and the police had obligingly come here, instead.  All the weapons had been locked out of sight for their visit, and they had seemed to believe the dowsing story.

 

Giles was aware that Angel had offered very little information on what he had found, and decided not to push it, at least in Buffy’s presence.  He made rough notes, though, about the Syriak demons, and Angel’s use of the Libris Spiritus, and he frowned a little when he heard that Lisa had seen Angel’s demon face.

 

“How do you feel about that, Angel?”

 

The vampire shrugged.

 

“What’s done is done, and no one seems to have come around with the flaming torches and garlic yet.  How well do you know her?”

 

The Watcher’s brow knit in recollection.

 

“She moved here a couple of years before I came to America.  I wasn’t living in Westbury, of course, I was in the flat in Bath, but I visited often.  My parents were past riding by then, but they still had the driving ponies.  Mother used to hurtle around the village with those two little things…”

 

“Driving ponies.  Giles, I have to hear about this!”

 

Angel’s face was alive with laughter, and Giles indulged him.

 

“They were two little Shetland ponies, bright chestnut… Splish and Splash, with an old trap that my father had renovated.  They were about waist high to you, Buffy, and they were all fat, round bodies and a tiny little leg at each corner, with huge manes and tails that looked as if they were having one of your bad hair days.

 

“The paddock was really only big enough for them.  There’s not enough grazing for horses as big as Windsor and Celoso, even in summer.  Even if the grass weren’t looking so diseased, I’d have left them with Lisa anyway for the winter.  They’d only churn the pasture up into a mud bath, and it would take forever to recover in spring.  We could really do with an extra field to alternate…”

 

“Giles, we started with how well do you know her.”  Buffy was always impatient where the safety of her lover was concerned, and it showed in her tone.

 

“Sorry.  Well, I had a bit to do with her when Father died, and Mother no longer felt able to take the trap out.  She helped us find a new home for Splish and Splash.  She was wonderful, then.  But I’ve been away so long, and really, most of the time I’ve been back, you’ve been here, too.  So, how well do you think I know her?”

 

Buffy and Giles exchanged uncomfortable looks, which Angel interrupted as he rose from his chair.

 

“Well, I’m inclined to trust her, but I’m sure we’ll find out in due course.  I’ll leave the research to you two for a little while.  I’m going out for a walk.”

 

“Anywhere in particular?” Giles asked.

 

Angel’s smile was brief.

 

“Hunting.”

 

 

When Angel got back, all the lights were off.  Quietly, he let himself into the house and slipped into the bedroom on the opposite side of the building from Giles.  Apart from the master bedroom, there were four others in the main house, each with their own bathroom.  None were in use, currently, and, not wanting to wake Buffy by using their own shower, he’d decided to warm up in the bath here, hoping that he wouldn’t disturb Giles.

 

He welcomed the burn of the hot water.  He could feel the cold outside, of course, but it didn’t affect him, didn’t make him uncomfortable.  Without any body heat of his own, and without fresh, hot human blood, he was reliant on the prevailing temperature for any semblance of warmth.  Having a body that was at ambient temperature in California was one thing.  Having a body that was at ambient temperature in an English winter was quite another.  When he slid into bed with the sleeping Buffy, he didn’t want her to pull away from him, from the chill that he brought with him.  Tonight, he didn’t think he could bear that.  And so, he warmed up first, in a hot bath.  As he lay in the steaming water, he reflected on what he had found while he’d been out that night.  Most of it he preferred not to think about, so he concentrated instead on the task of warming up.

 

When he did climb into their bed, she was indeed asleep, but she still welcomed him with open arms and he clung to her gratefully.

 

 

Giles took his coffee into the breakfast room the next morning, to find a note from Angel on the table.

 

‘I’ve checked all the fields around Lisa’s and around the Corbett’s.  There are no more bodies, other than where the police are digging.  Can you check exactly which land the Corbetts own?  Thanks.  A.’

 

Giles chastised himself.  That was what he’d meant by ‘hunting’, then…

 

Buffy busied herself with research for the rest of that morning.  Giles went into Bath, to meet someone he knew who worked at the University.  He took the remaining phial of blood with him.  He was back in time for lunch, which was a brief affair, taken in the study, with books balanced on their knees as well as bowls of soup and plates of sandwiches, and a mug of warm blood for Angel.  They were interrupted in the early afternoon by a phone call from Nick.  Buffy, bringing him a sustaining cup of tea, found Giles gazing into space.

 

“What’s the what, Giles?  You’ve got what-face.”

 

“It’s Jessica.  She’s had another flare-up.  Whatever evil is working on her, it’s taken her breast now.  Her right breast.  She… she’s having difficulty breathing…  If it had been the other side…”

 

Buffy didn’t need him to finish the sentence.  If there was one thing a slayer learned, it was where to find the heart.  The weather mirrored their feelings, as an Atlantic depression moved in with wild winds, and horizontal, sleeting rain. 

 

They researched demons and jellyfish, and demons that looked like jellyfish.  They dug out as many facts about, and cases of, F.O.P. as they could.  They researched metabolic disorders, and they researched snakebites and spider bites, and anything else that might leave two neat holes.  Angel vowed that no vampires had that kind of effect, but they researched it all the same.  By common consent, the two lovers snatched a few hours of sleep in the main house, although sleep was a luxury that none of them had much time for.

 

On the second day, the policemen came back and had a prolonged talk with Giles in the breakfast room while Angel and Buffy continued work in the study.  The officers seemed satisfied that Giles knew nothing of the bodies in the field, and went away again.

 

Martha, shocked to the core at what had happened at the livery stable, came and cooked for them every day, and John collected Angel’s twice-weekly order of blood.  He reported that the story of Angel being a dowser had spread throughout the village along with the story of what had been found at the livery stable.  While there was some discomfort that this dowsing ability applied to bodies rather than just to water or other natural elements, it had been accepted as all of a piece with Mr Giles’ odd American friends.  The research turned up exactly nothing.

 

On the third day, Lisa came over.  She was shaking and in tears.  She had been in the yard when two men carrying a body on a stretcher had slipped in the mud, and the body had fallen free.  She had seen it, and now she’d come face-to-face with what was really in the field.  Buffy and Giles sat with her, their arms around her as she wept.  Angel, though, remembered how she’d last seen him, and he kept his distance until Buffy glared at him over Lisa’s bowed head.  Reluctantly, he came forward and took her hand.  She didn’t flinch.  She returned the comfortable pressure that he put on her fingers, and cried until she had no more tears.

 

On the fourth day the police returned to speak to Angel.  The Chief Inspector looked distinctly uncomfortable as they sat once more in the breakfast room.  The sergeant hadn’t got his ever-present notebook.

 

“Firstly, Angel, I’m not from Immigration.  I’m not interested in whether you’ve got the right pieces of paper properly stamped.  Not today.  I might have to take an interest sometime, but not today.  Just now, I’m more interested in catching a killer.  And in finding all the people who’ve been tortured and killed and buried in secret.

 

“I’m told that you knew straight away.  That you have a gift.  I don’t know about that, but I’m pretty sure you aren’t the murderer – you aren’t old enough, for one thing, unless you took up serial killing as soon as you were born.  So, I’m going to ask you for your help.  I want to know whether I’ve found everyone, and I want you to use your gift to tell me.  Please.”

 

Angel forced himself to look the man in the eye.

 

“How many have you found?”

 

“Sixteen.”

 

He thought back to the field, and to the Syriaks.

 

“You haven’t found them all.”

 

“Will you help me?”

 

“I’ll be there just after sunset.”

 

On the way out, they met Giles in the hall.  He stood on the threshold with Collins as the sergeant got into the car.

 

“My father knew your father, a long time ago.”

 

Giles looked at him in surprise.

 

“Really?”

 

“Yes.  He liked Walter, a lot.  He told me once that your family mixed with the strangest people.”

 

And then the Chief Inspector was gone in a spray of gravel.

 

 

Late that afternoon, in Duntisbourne Leer, Jessica and Rohan walked in the shrubbery, hidden from the house.  Although she was now forbidden to see him, and not allowed to go away from the house unaccompanied, they had managed to meet each day, for a few stolen moments.  Her days were spent in fear, now, and he was trying to persuade her to run away with him.

 

“I can look after you!  We can find somewhere no one knows us.  We can go abroad, if you like.  I can work…”

 

She unwound the end of the shawl and held up her arm, the whiteness gleaming in the low winter sun.

 

“We can’t hide from this!  They’ll be able to find us anywhere.  And how can I ever hope to be healed, to be whole again, if I run away?”

 

They’d been round this argument before, and they clung to each other in desperation and indecision.  Then, Jessica broke free.

 

“I’ll be missed.  I have to go.”

 

Rohan watched her disconsolately as she walked out of the shrubbery and onto the lawn by the lily pond.  Neither of them knew that she was seen, as she turned back towards him and gave a tiny wave of goodbye.

 

The boy slipped out of the lower part of the garden towards the parking area, and his motorcycle.  As he pushed through the citrus-scented leaves of the choisyas, his foot caught in something, and he bent to look.  He was afraid that what he saw had once been a cat.  Now, it was an exquisitely sculpted life-size statue, from the snarling face to the fluffed-out tail.  The cat looked to have been terrified, but if so, it had faced its enemy, and gone down to death.  He picked it up and ran.

 

 

When Angel arrived at the livery stable, there was a police constable standing guard on the entrance and a plethora of blue and white tape marking the boundaries of the crime scene.  He was expected, though, and waved through.  It was raining hard.  He found Collins, beads of water glistening on his dark overcoat, standing in the bottom school, staring moodily at the field under the huge, portable lights.  It bore a stark resemblance to a First World War battlefield, all mud and holes and uneven hills of excavated earth.  Angel went to stand next to him, and together they surveyed the dreadful scene.

 

“I’m not going to ask how you do it, but whatever it is that you do, would you mind getting on with it before I get pneumonia?”

 

Angel nodded, with a tight little smile.  He bent to a pile of spare 4-ft iron poles of the sort used to hold the tape, picked up a handful and then climbed over the fence.  Refusing to use his non-human sense of balance, he allowed himself to slither and slide in the mud.  He had the ability to sense a body beneath the earth, and to know whether the earth of a grave had been disturbed.  It was something to do with the sense of smell, and something to do with entirely non-human senses that he could no more describe to any human than a human could describe sight to a blind person, or a bat could describe what it saw with its radar.  He used all those senses now.

 

As he slithered over the field, he occasionally left poles behind as markers.  When he’d finished, there were seven of them.  He knew that one body had been different from the others.  That was the sense of smell, perhaps, although there were a lot of conflicting scents from the excavated earth.  When he rejoined Collins the policeman had a look of horror on his face.

 

“Seven more?”

 

“Yes.  That’s the lot.”

 

Collins let go a savage oath.

 

“Is there anything more that you can tell me?”

 

Angel looked downwards, silent, hunching in on himself for a moment.

 

“One of them’s different.  Your pathologist will tell you.”

 

He shut up and looked down at the wood chips on the ground, rain running over his face.

 

“How do you know?”

 

“I just do.  I can’t explain it.”

 

Well, he could, but it wouldn’t be an explanation that would sit well with the policeman.  How could he explain the two faces that he had: the human face, and that other, demonic, face that he struggled so hard to control?  How explain that what he showed to the world was a mask, covering something very different, something much more primal and completely evil?

 

“I don’t suppose you’ve got any feeling about who did it?”

 

Angel quirked an eyebrow.  He was as sure as he could be that Collins had already worked that out.  So, he simply turned a little and looked directly at the Corbett’s farmhouse.

 

“We’ve been there.”

 

“You should look for a cellar.”

 

“We’ve looked, we’ve found.  There’s nothing in it, or nothing relevant to us.”

 

“Look deeper.  There’s another one.”

 

He hadn’t been inside the house – he couldn’t, of course, without an invitation – but he had seen, and he had heard.  Lurking was one of his better skills.  And as he had stood beneath the eaves, he could hear the echo of their screams, scent the ghost of their fear, and some ancient and terrible part of him thrilled to it.

 

 

When he got back, he showered off the mud and the rain, although he couldn’t shower off what was inside.  By the time he’d changed into clean, dry clothes, he’d made a decision.  He couldn’t do any more to help the unfortunates who were already dead.  What he could do was help the girl who was still alive.  He should have done this before.

 

Buffy and Giles were in the study, and both of them looked as exhausted as he felt.

 

“I… I’ve been thinking about the blood…  Have you heard from the University, yet, Giles?”

 

Giles shook his head.  His contact had said four or five days.

 

“I’m going to try a different source, follow up what I tasted in the blood.  I’ve got a fair way to go, so I might not get back tonight.”

 

“Where are you going?”

 

“Bridgnorth.”

 

Bridgnorth?  What’s at Bridgnorth?”

 

Giles’ expression was quizzical.  Angel had hoped that he wouldn’t have to get into this amount of detail.

 

“A water spirit.”  It was near enough the truth.  “It’s the closest one I can think of that might be able to help.”

 

Buffy stood up.

 

“I’ll come with.”

 

He walked over and gave her a hug.

 

“No.  Will you stay here with Giles, and carry on the research?  This is probably a wild goose chase, and a waste of time.”

 

She looked mulish for a moment, and he longed to kiss the pout away, but then she gave in and sat back down.

 

“Okay.  Giles and I are on real research, and you’re having a good time with a water spirit.  Will you have a good time?”

 

“I very much doubt it.”

 

He didn’t think that either of them looked very sorry for him, as they surveyed the pile of new material that Giles had brought down from the attic.

 

 

Although it wasn’t much more than a hundred miles, it took him three hours to get to Bridgnorth.  He’d thought of trying the River Severn much nearer to Westbury, but this was the place he’d seen her before, and he didn’t much like the thought of combing a couple of hundred miles of river bank.  He knew where he could find her, where she would answer to him.  He wondered if she would remember him.

 

He found the rocky complex just east of the town, off the Wolverhampton Road.  It looked more unkempt then the last time he’d seen it.  There were rock-cut shelters in opposing cliff faces on either side of the River Severn – the Hermitage and the Witches’ Caves – and nearby was the Queen’s Parlour, a huge outcrop of rock, looming like a fortress in the darkness.

 

He climbed up to the Hermitage, and its neighbouring Witch’s Cave, saddened by how ruinous it now was.  A grandson of Alfred the Great had spent some time here as a hermit, before briefly taking the crown.  Prior to that, wisewomen had lived in the other caves, tending this sacred site that far predated Christianity.  The Queen’s Parlour pointed the way.  This was where a queen would manifest, when she chose to.  The queen of the Severn, the river goddess, Sabrina. 

 

He stood in the chamber that was now termed the Chapel, detritus spilling around his feet, and the smoke stain from years of fires despoiling the walls and ceiling.  There looked to have been many types of squatters: decades of the homeless poor and, more recently perhaps, youngsters looking for somewhere to do something illegal.  He almost despaired that Sabrina would come to such a desecrated place, but he murmured the remembered words of summoning anyway.  When she didn’t come, he clenched his fists and called out to her.

 

“Sabrina!  Don’t mess about.  Where the hell are you?”

 

The air seemed to shimmer and then, overlaid on top of the ruinous hermitage, was something quite different.  The walls were clean, hung with fresh flowers, and offerings of jewellery and tiny statuettes.  The stairs, which in reality led nowhere, instead now opened onto an upper chamber, and he could see that the Chapel itself continued in a series of tunnels that led deep into the earth.  He turned back to the entrance, and found a woman waiting for him.

 

She was beautiful.  Her skin carried a delicate shade of blue-green, just a hint of that colour overlying the peaches and cream complexion of an English maid, and her eyes were the blue of the open sunlit sea.  Her hair curled fetchingly around her face and fell down her back in waves and billows of golden amber.  Her dress was simple, an ice-blue scrap of tissue-thin fabric.  He wondered briefly about the nature of Prince Aethelward’s stint as a hermit.

 

“Hello, Angelus.”

 

“Hello, Sabrina.  I’m not Angelus anymore, by the way.”

 

She gazed at him speculatively.

 

“So you say.”

 

Then she smiled, and seemed to take pity on him.

 

“Well, I’d heard you were different, now.  Word gets around you know. I get around.  Rivers always do.”

 

“I… I’ve come to ask if you can help me.  If you can give me some information.”

 

She remained silent, waiting, but the smile hardened a little.

 

“Do you know of anything that can turn flesh to bone, perhaps by a bite or a sting?  Something that leaves a taste of itself in the blood, the taste of the sea?”

 

She simply stood for a moment, her bare feet not quite touched by the rubbish on the floor, but he could tell from her expression that she knew something.  That she perhaps knew a lot.  Rivers keep many secrets, though, and some they choose to never give up.

 

“What’s it worth?”

 

He strode forward until he was almost touching her, and pulled something from his pocket. He’d bought it for Buffy, as a Valentine’s Day present, but he’d remembered that Sabrina liked gifts, and he’d had nothing else suitable to bring.  He’d get Buffy something else.  He showed it to her and then fastened it around her bare neck.  It was a necklace of doves, the tiny birds carved from pale mother of pearl, and separated by small gold beads and freshwater pearls.  It clasped her slim neck invitingly.

 

She was as delighted as a child, and she stood on tiptoe to kiss him fleetingly on the mouth, and then spun around, her wisp of a dress flaring around her.

 

“It’s lovely, Angelus.  What else have you brought for me?”

 

“I haven’t brought anything else, Sabrina.  Please, tell me what I need to know.  A girl’s life is at stake.”

 

He knew instantly that he had made a mistake, that he had shown her his weakness.  He’d remembered that she was as fickle and as dangerous as the river, he just hadn’t remembered clearly enough.  Like the river, she could give generously, but like the river, she could take everything, leaving only wreckage behind her.  She trailed the backs of her fingertips over her cheek.

 

“A girl gets lonely, Angelus.  Especially when no one remembers her anymore.  The necklace is beautiful, but I want something else...”

 

She pressed up against him.

 

“I want some companionship.  Give me a day.”

 

He knew exactly what she meant.  As he looked down into her eyes, he could see that, where they had been blue, they were now emerald green, the green of a deep and secret sea.  As he silently held her gaze, the colour changed again, to the stormy grey of the river in flood.  He wondered what it was like for a river goddess when humans no longer believed.  Did she have to endure some half-life, waiting for some remnant acolyte to call her?  Was she truly lonely, without believers?  He understood loneliness better than most.  He hurt for her.

 

“Sabrina… I can’t.  I have… there’s someone I love.  Someone who has a claim on me…”

 

He realised that there had never been oaths and promises.  Perhaps there should be.  But what right did he have to ask such things of Buffy?  He expected them of himself, though.

 

“You were never so reluctant when you were with Darla.”

 

He reached out to touch her cheek.  It was warm and soft, like the river in summer.

 

“I would if I could, but Sabrina, this is different.  I love her…”

 

She pouted, and the expression was far more dangerous than any pout of Buffy’s.  She moved away from him, back towards the mouth of the rock shelter, fingering the necklace, and for a moment he thought that she would rip it from her neck.

 

“That’s my price.  Unless, of course, you want to give me a day with your Slayer.  That might be fun.  One or the other, Angelus, or I leave.”

 

She knew of Buffy then?  He shouldn’t have been surprised.  Gossip was a universal currency.

 

“Leave Buffy out of this.  You must never touch her, Sabrina.  Never.”

 

She smiled, and it seemed to him that the smile had more fangs in it than he had ever possessed.  Then, in an instant it was gone, and her expression had a wistfulness that he thought he recognised.

 

“Choose another price, Sabrina.”

 

“You really do love her.”

 

It was a statement, not a question.

 

“Yes.”

 

“Perhaps we can find a bridge between us.  Trust me, Angelus.”

 

He thought of the girl being slowly ossified.  He’d made many sacrifices since he’d started on this path of atonement, impelled by his love for one slim, blonde girl.  The sacrifices that he was called on to make now were usually those of blood and pain.  This was a sacrifice of principle and of desire, different, but still a sacrifice.  He’d rather have the blood and the pain.  He thought of Buffy.  One more betrayal of her might be one too many.  What choice did he have, though?

 

He nodded.

 

“I’ll give you your day, Sabrina, if we find a bridge that we can both cross.  And it’s Angel, now.”

 

“Is it?  Do you really think so?  Well, Angel, take my hand.”

 

He did so, and she ran for the cave entrance, pulling him behind her.  She leapt high into the air, and yet it seemed to him that they could not possibly reach the river, even if the river were deep enough here to cushion such a dive, and he prepared for a crashing fall. 

 

The plunge seemed to go on forever, and then they hit water.  It was clean and bright, warmed on the surface by a spring sun, and deeper than it should be.  The turbulent current tugged at him, but she kept hold of his hand, and he saw around him a river full of life, fish and waterweed, and shells, and things more magical.  As he sank into the dimmer depths, he knew that he was no longer anywhere near Bridgnorth.  He probably wasn’t anywhere near his own reality.  Now, he was in hers.  The water tasted saltier than it should.  If this reality mirrored his own in any way, he was at the broad mouth of the Severn, the tidal waters where the river flowed into the sea, and the sea flowed into the river.  She was pulling him onwards, and he followed her, always moving.  Like the shark without a swim bladder, he had no reserve of air in his lungs to give him buoyancy.  He had to keep moving or sink.

 

When he looked up at her, her dress was gone, and her amber hair streamed around her in shining coils.  She moved towards him with a smile, reaching out her other hand.  He gave her his in return, and a smile of his own, and then as she relaxed into his embrace, the tide turned, and they were swept out into the sea channel, twisting together as the waters carried them hither and thither.

 

 

He lay on the white sand, his head cushioned on a soft tuffet of growth, watching the fronds of sea grasses undulating gently in the current.  Nearby, coral polyps waved their multicoloured tentacles, pink, and white, and amber.  A patch of brightest scarlet on some nearby rocks was a colony of fan worms, pulsing as they cast their nets to catch their tiny prey.  Fish darted all about, tugging gently at their hair as it swirled around them in the tidal currents.  He had no idea how long he had been there, nor what time of day it was in the real world.  This should have concerned him more than it seemed to.  A vampire always knows where the sun is.  It must be time to go, though.

 

He let his fingers trail over her shoulder as she nestled up to him.  All that she wore was his necklace.  He wore nothing but guilt.  He supposed he’d broken no promises, not even the ones he’d made to himself, but it all felt as flimsy as tissue paper to him.  He could find no virtue in it, just sacrifice.  Well, sacrifices were made in expectation of reward.

 

“You promised me something, Sabrina.”

 

He didn’t waste time wondering how they could speak, and be heard, under water.  This was her reality, and she dictated the parameters.

 

“Have I not given you something?”

 

He decided to humour her, and stroked her hair as he kissed her.

 

“You have, indeed, but now our time is almost over.  Please.  Will you answer my question?”

 

She pressed herself to him, as pliant as water, seeming to fill all his spaces.

 

“You won’t stay longer?”

 

“I cannot.”

 

“Well, you have given me a little,” and her expression here was coy, for it had been much more than a little, “and so I will give you a little.”

 

She broke off a branch of white coral, like a stag’s horn, and handed it to him.

 

“Your poets have written of the creature you seek.  Long ago, one of them thought of these as daemons who build coral reefs.  That should tell you what you need to know.  If you want more, you must stay longer.”

 

“That’s a riddle, Sabrina. I need facts.  Will you tell me nothing more useful?”

 

“No.  I have told you more than I ought.”

 

He wanted to roar with rage, but he smothered it down.

 

“Please?”

 

He ran his hand down her back and felt her shiver.  She whispered something in his ear.

 

“‘Full fathom five thy father lies; Of his bones are coral made…’”

 

He stiffened.

 

“Then it isn’t bone?  It’s coral?

 

“Yessss.”

 

He wondered how Giles could have missed that.  How Nick could have missed that.

 

“Please, Sabrina, what sort of creature am I dealing with?”

 

“One like yourself, Angelus, who hides her mask behind another mask, trying to be something she isn’t.”

 

“Give me a name.”

 

“You already know it.  You just have to remember.”

 

He bit down on his frustration.

 

“How do I know that you are correct, even if I find out what the hell you’re talking about?  I don’t think there’s time for a wild goose chase.”

 

She pulled him to his feet.

 

“The Dun Brook may shelter under the wing of my cousin, Isis, but there are other Duntisbourne waters that run to me.  I have seen.”

 

This time, exasperation got the better of him.

 

“Damn it all, Sabrina, if you know what’s happening, why won’t you just tell me?”

 

Her whisper faded until he almost didn’t hear the final word.

 

“I should not play the traitor.  She’s only trying to do what she can for her family.  Save her, Angel?  It’s happening because of love.”

 

He felt the bitter surge of bile in his mouth as her words opened images, memories and regrets.

 

“I’ll do what I can.”

 

Then they were both standing in the Hermitage, amongst the detritus of everyday living.  He was fully dressed and perfectly dry, and so was she, and they were standing just as they had before she had pulled him from the cave.  He wondered whether anything had happened, after all, or whether it had only been in his mind.  Or in her mind.  There was no way to know for sure.  When the flood tide recedes, the river looks as it always did.

 

“Are you sure you will not stay longer, Angelus?”

 

He cupped her face in his hands.

 

“I have a lover, Sabrina, and I want it to be a permanent thing.  You should find one of your own to make you happy.”

 

“You can never cross the same river twice,” she whispered sadly.  Then with forced gaiety and a little trill of laughter, she pulled away from him.  “Your human lover will not be there forever.  But, you and I will continue.  Come to me again, and drown yourself in my tides.  You won’t regret it.”

 

Then she was gone, and with her the overlay of magic that had painted the little Chapel.  He needed to get back to Westbury as soon as possible.

 

 

Buffy was restless because Angel hadn’t come home the night before.  She’d thought that if he’d had to shelter from the sun, he might at least have called her, but he hadn’t.  When Giles found her looking at her watch and gazing longingly at the phone for perhaps the dozenth time in an hour, he told her sternly to go and find some other books or internet sites to check out, because Angel could look after himself.  She knew that, of course, but it didn’t stop her worrying.

 

By late morning, Giles was relieved to get a telephone call, but that relief was short-lived.  It was Rohan.  The boy had waited to see Jessica, but she hadn’t come.  He told Giles about the figure of the cat that he had found the day before.  Giles, perhaps denying his own fears, told the frightened boy that he must have mistaken a garden ornament for something more sinister, but the boy was adamant.  Giles decided that he needed to see this thing for himself.  Rohan said that he could bring it.

 

He arrived in time for lunch, and Martha made them all sit down to hot soup and sandwiches.  When she’d bustled out of the room, Rohan brought the cat out of his bag.  He’d washed the mud off, and they could all see that it was perfect in every detail, in every smallest hair.  Giles fingered the animal.  It felt exactly like the texture of Jessica’s arm, was exactly the same shade of glittering white.

 

A sombre mood settled over the room, and there was little scope for talk as the three each wondered what course of action would be best.  As they finished up the sandwiches, Giles asked Rohan to wait in the breakfast room, and took Buffy through to the study.

 

“I think we have to get Jessica away.”

 

Buffy frowned.  “I can’t disagree, Giles, but won’t they come looking for her?”

 

“They certainly will, but if we don’t do something, this is going to have a Romeo and Juliet ending.”

 

“Littered with bodies, you mean?”

 

“I’m afraid that may be so.  It strikes me that Rohan may do something foolish anyway, so we might as well try to find the least ugly way through this tangle.”

 

Buffy didn’t comment on the fact that Giles wasn’t prepared to go any further than ‘least ugly’.  Neither was she, unless she could find something to hit.

 

“But who’s doing it?  It has to be a jellyfish sort of demon.  Perhaps the mad professor has it hidden away in a cellar.  I say we go and axe it.”

 

Buffy’s voice was almost a whine of frustration.  They had no clue.

 

Giles shook his head.  Buffy tried again.

 

“Could it be Rohan?”

 

“No.  Remember that Angel said it has to be someone or something that has some connection with the sea.  There’s nothing of that about Rohan.”

 

“I wish we’d got Angel here to check that out.”

 

Giles became all brisk business.

 

“So do I, but for now, let’s believe in Rohan.  Right.  Rohan must get her away.  Then we must find a way to get Angel and you into Abbotsbury Holt.  We can only hope that between you, you’ll be able to pick out whoever or whatever is killing her.”

 

He strode out to the breakfast room.

 

“Rohan.  We see no alternative.  Things are far too dangerous for Jessica.  If she can get out of the house to meet you, can you get her away?  You can bring her here to start with, and we’ll worry about what to do after that.”

 

The boy nodded bravely.

 

“Yes.  I’ll make her see.  I won’t even let her pack, or go back to the house.  I won’t fail.”

 

He hadn’t been gone more than ten minutes when Chief Inspector Collins arrived.  He was disappointed to find that Angel was out, but Martha showed him into the breakfast room, and Buffy carried on her research in the study while Giles went to meet the policeman.  The Corbetts, father and son, had been arrested and he asked whether Angel could do whatever he did in the cellars of the house, to see whether there were other victims.  Giles said he was certain that Angel would, as soon as he had returned.  Collins spread a map of the village and its environs out on the table.  A large area had been blocked out – that was the Corbett’s farm.

 

“I’d like to check the rest of the farm.  Can you ask him if he’ll walk that land?”

 

“You should ask him yourself, but I believe he’s already checked it.  He said that there’s nothing there.”

 

Collins looked relieved, and then pointed out some fields that were separated from the others. 

 

“Corbett also owns these, but they’re on short term leases to other farmers.”

 

Giles pinched the bridge of his nose in exasperation.

 

“Damn.  Angel asked me to find out what other land Corbett owns, but we have an urgent case and it quite slipped my mind.  I’m sure he’ll check those, too.”

 

“I’ll leave you the map.”

 

Collins looked around for something to hold down the edge of the map, and stop it rolling up when he let go.  The cat was still on the table.  He picked it up, and examined it with a connoisseur’s eye.

 

“I used to collect coral.  This is a beautiful piece.  Unusually large, too.”

 

Giles, abstractedly looking for an alternative paperweight, shook his head.

 

“It’s bone, not coral.”

 

“No, no.  It’s definitely coral.  It’s unmistakeable.”

 

Giles took the effigy from him, and really looked at it, feeling the chalky texture of it.  The man was right.  He’d been too absorbed by the events at Duntisbourne Leer, too taken up by the need to save Jessica, that he simply hadn’t concentrated.  He’d just assumed that Nick was right.  He was angry with himself for the uncharacteristic mistake.  Still, coral was so akin to bone that some surgeons now used it as a scaffold to allow the body to build new bone, so perhaps neither he nor Nick had been so blind.

 

Absently, he assured Collins that Angel would call at the farmhouse sometime that evening and, unable to get anything from him more definite than that, the policeman left him to his ruminations.

 

It was mid-afternoon when they got the phone call from Nick.  Jessica had had another flare-up.  The new area of bone covered the right hand side of her neck, running over her jawbone onto her cheek.  Did Giles have any news?  Nick himself was on his way to the Straffords.  Would Giles like to join him there?  Giles most certainly would.  He wanted to check for himself whether Jessica’s flesh was being made bone, or coral, and although he didn’t tell Nick, it was his intention to do whatever he could to facilitate Rohan’s abduction attempt.  Buffy agreed with him, and although she really wanted to go and explore Abbotsbury Holt with an axe, she agreed that it was most sensible to wait here for Angel and see what he had found out.

 

 

Buffy threw down the notebook in utter frustration.  This was Giles’ gig, not hers.  She fought things by hitting them, not by ploughing through books and web sites.  Since Giles’ departure for Duntisbourne Leer, she’d been trying to find coral demons, or something vaguely similar.  She found herself voicing her anger out loud.

 

“There’s nothing.    Everything on here is literary.  Like Shakespeare, even, with his ‘Full fathom five thy father lies; Of his bones are coral made…’  What the heck does that mean?”

 

She picked up the notebook again.  Some passing reference to a woman’s thesis that she couldn’t find, which speculated that some Greek poet called Hesiod had thought that some really weirdo women – gorgones – were coral reef-building daemons.  That was the closest she’d managed.  On the off chance that she might be able to contact this Hesiod, see what he knew, she’d checked him out.  He’d lived around 700 BC.  No luck there, then, except maybe with the ouija board.  And would any of these gorgones still be around three thousand years later, without leaving any recorded damage in between?

 

She felt as if she were going blind and stupid, and decided that fresh air was what she needed.  She’d long ago realised that most of her California clothes didn’t suit the English countryside – at least, not the ones she normally fought in.  She dragged out a pair of stout walking shoes from the cupboard under the stairs, grimacing as she did so.  Angel had made her buy those when she’d twisted her ankle once in the slippery Wessex mud.  Burying herself in the depths of a fleecy-lined waxed jacket, she set out for a walk to clear her head.

 

There had been no sun all day, just a cold, clammy mist that penetrated right to the marrow of her bones.  What on earth did these people do to while away the dank February days?  Mind you, the February nights were pretty dank, too, and seemingly interminable.  Still, she thought with a smile, that wasn’t at all a bad thing.  Dank and cold required snuggling… She couldn’t get used to the way day length changed here, but she could get very used to the long nights…

 

Something caught her attention, and she checked out her surroundings.  She found herself on the Trowbridge Road, just by the drive that led up to Lisa’s livery yard.   A noise was coming from there.  She headed for the yard.  Towards the top of the drive, an ancient, leafless ash tree overhung the fence.  It was full of birds.  She stared in wonder at the flock that occupied every last twig and branch and filled the air with their high-pitched chirruping.  It wasn’t exactly musical, but it was sweet, on this otherwise cheerless day.

 

“Starlings.  They’ll be off to Bath for the night, any minute now.  It’s warmer there.”

 

It was Lisa.

 

“You look as if you could do with something warm inside you, Buffy.  Why don’t you come in for a cup of tea? A couple of the horses are still turned out.  You want to help me get them in before we sit down?”

 

Lisa’s tone denied any possibility of refusal, and to be honest, Buffy was glad of the company.  She followed Lisa down to the paddock.  The horses weren’t difficult to catch, offering themselves up in exchange for a slice of apple each.  They had sense enough to prefer a night in the stable, anyway.

 

Buffy reached for the head collar on the horse that had come to her.  It was one of Giles’.  The one with the scars on his rump, she couldn’t remember his name.  They’d healed to just some ghostly white hairs following the tracks of the demon’s claws, almost like a lacy white veil over his hindquarters.  He was still more nervous than he’d used to be, though, and he baulked a little as she tried to lead him out of the gate.

 

“I’ll take him, if you like, and you can take Badger.”

 

Obediently, Buffy swapped charges with Lisa, and the little pied pony butted at her hip in greeting.  As he did so, he stepped forward, and Buffy scrambled to remove her feet from the path of definitely not-pony size hoofs.  She’d been trodden on once before, and discovered just how heavy a horse is.  As she did so, his nose pushed against the pocket of her coat, and her phone slipped out, falling right beneath his hoof.  There was the splintering sound of tortured metal and plastic.

 

“Oops!”

 

 

It hadn’t yet been sunset when Sabrina had left him in the cave, but the freezing fog had been thick, and Angel had risked the walk to his car.  The fog had helped him there, but it held him up on the journey back.  Eventually it started to thin, but his thoughts remained sour.  He was halfway home before he called Giles.  There was no reply.  He didn’t let the phone ring for long, sure that Giles and Buffy were snatching some much-needed rest.  He tossed the phone onto the passenger seat, alongside the branch of coral. 

 

Home.  Although they did spend a considerable amount of time at the flat in Bath, preferring its much more spacious accommodation to the cramped quarters of what had been the chauffeur’s bedsit, they never liked to leave Giles alone for long.  And so, they visited Giles’ home several nights a week, and that was what it had become for Buffy.  A home.  Buffy Summers, Summerdown House, High Oak Lane, Westbury, Wessex.  Angel.  Same address.  So far.  How long, though, if she ever found out about the coin he had used to buy so little information?

 

Summerdown House.  It had clearly been named for Summer Down, which stood to one side of the house, as Westbury stood to the other, but he wondered if, even then, the Fates had known that there would be Buffy Summers.  Had been cruelly amused that there would be Angel.

 

Savagely, he thrust down such profitless thinking, and tried to think of poets and demons and coral reefs.  And masks.  And love.  He could hear Buffy’s voice.

 

“Love makes you do the whacky.”

 

It did indeed.  He remembered all too clearly what his alter ego had done because he’d felt that despised emotion, and what he himself had done for love of family.  Of a son.  He drove a little faster.

 

He was thirty miles away from Summerdown House when he remembered and understood.  It was a revelation that filled him with fear.  He tried the phone again.  No answer.  Then he tried Buffy’s cell phone.  No answer.  Nor was there any answer from Giles’ cell.  Fear ratcheted up to terror, and that cold wave of dread swept through him.  Had something happened?  Was he already too late?  They had no idea what they were dealing with.  He tried every few minutes, but there was no one to answer.

 

 

Buffy sat in Lisa’s kitchen, with the remains of her cell phone in a plastic bag beside her.

 

“Buffy, I know you don’t get out much.  I don’t mean getting out and doing strange things, like killing that thing that had hold of Angel.  I mean ordinary getting out.  There’s a lot more to rural life than sitting in Giles’ house, you know.  We have hunt balls, and there were cider festivals in the autumn and wassailing at Christmas, and there’s always some fun to be had after the farmers’ markets, and dinner parties, and shooting parties.  There are lots of things.  It might not be exactly what you’re used to, but if you like, I’ll introduce you around.”

 

Buffy smiled gratefully.

 

“That’s nice of you, Lisa, but…”

 

Lisa held up her hand.

 

“Look, I haven’t asked you, and I won’t until you’re ready to tell, but I know I saw something I wasn’t supposed to see.  Angel isn’t exactly like other guys, is he?  Well, he isn’t like any of the guys round here anyway, but you know what I mean?”

 

Buffy just nodded, silently.

 

“It doesn’t matter.  We have some really strange people round here, especially with the tourists in the summer season, as you may have noticed.  Being American will probably explain a lot…”

 

“He’s actually Irish.”

 

“Really?  Well, that will explain even more.  But it doesn’t matter.  The people at Summerdown House, the Gileses, have always been a little strange, but very well liked and respected around here.  I’ve only lived here for a decade or so, but I know that much.  You’ll be welcomed, I promise.  Just don’t scare them with too many more of those things.”

 

Buffy felt something warm up within her.  Being with Giles was great.  Being with Angel was beyond great.  She needed more, though.  She needed some friends, even if those people knew very little about her, knew only the mask of normality that she wanted them to see.

 

“Sounds good.  Where shall we start?”

 

“Why don’t you come over one morning, meet some of the girls who’ve got horses here, and let’s go out for a ride.  I’ll show you around, tell you more about what’s going on and who’s who, and then we can take it from there.  You see things better from a horse than from a car.  You can ride Badger.  He’ll sell himself to you for a Polo mint.”

 

Buffy laughed.  And so it was arranged.  It was dark now, and Lisa insisted on driving Buffy back to Summerdown House.  On the way, they talked about how to include Giles in their plans for socialising.  They studiously avoided the subject of Angel, but he wasn’t forgotten.

 

 

When Angel pulled into the courtyard he sprinted straight for the house.  It was empty.  He desperately wanted to shower, to scrub his skin viciously clean, but there was no time.  He did manage to find some jeans and a sweater that Buffy had miraculously found time to wash.  No, he amended mentally, the scent on them was Martha’s.  They hadn’t been ironed yet, but he preferred them to the clothes he’d worn.

 

Never again, he swore.  Never again.  He’d known what she would want, which was why he’d not gone before.  But he’d never make that sort of sacrifice again.  Next time, it would have to be Giles.

 

As he tugged on the sweater, he heard a car pull into the courtyard, and he ran for the door.  Relief ran wild through him when he saw Buffy, but he managed to hide it.  He didn’t want to panic her.

 

“Hello Lisa.  Buffy, I’ve been trying to call you.”

 

She held up the plastic bag full of phone parts.

 

“Horses.  Phones.  You can see who won.”

 

“Where’s Giles?”

 

“Gone to that Leer place.”

 

“I’m going after him.”

 

Abruptly, he turned back into the house.  With a gesture of confusion to Lisa, she followed him.  He was moving with the speed that is only available to a vampire.  Before she knew it, he was in the hall, shrugging into his coat.

 

“Call Giles.  Tell him to get himself and Rohan the hell out of there.  Tell him to do it now.  They are not to go anywhere near anyone or anything in that hamlet.  Clear?”

 

“Damn it, Angel, no!  You don’t do this.  I’m coming with you.”

 

Showing that a slayer can match a vampire, as she spoke she, too, was putting on the coat that she held over her arm, and then running into the utility room to get weapons.  As she backed out of the cupboard with a sword and an axe, she felt Angel brush past her, into the smaller of the two downstairs bathrooms.  There was a loud sound of splintering wood.

 

“That door’s never going to be the same again… Angel, what are you doing?”

 

Clutching his prize under his arm, he reached across the little room and picked up two dark blue hand towels.

 

“If you come, you do exactly as I say.  Exactly.  Understood?”

 

She nodded, a little frightened by his intensity.  He tossed one of the towels to her.

 

“Right.  Tie that securely around one of the car’s number plates.  I’ll do the other.  We’re going to be travelling very fast, and it won’t do to be caught on camera.”

 

 

Giles sat in the Professor’s study, sipping tea, as Nick, accompanied by Stella Strafford, minutely examined Jessica’s body.  He had brought a magnifying glass, and he was preparing to take more blood samples, and to add hair and skin samples, and any other minimally invasive samples that he could think of.  Jessica could no longer move her head.  He and Giles had examined the latest area of ossification, and had found the tiny but telltale dark marks in the centre of the patch of bone, but Giles had felt uncomfortable at more intimate examination.  He had asked to speak to the Professor while Nick did his work, overseen by Jessica’s mother, and here he was, drinking tea.  When he’d arrived, Nick was already inside the house, and he hadn’t had the opportunity to tell his friend that this was coral, not bone.  This was something he thought he might be able to use as a lever to prise more information from the old man.

 

“Can you think of any cause, Professor, no matter how unlikely, how far-fetched it might seem?”

 

“No.  Just find a cure for it, will you?  You must.  She’s my only child.”

 

“Sir, it would help us greatly in finding a cure if you could give us more information.”

 

Then, something that the Professor had said struck him.

 

“Your child?  So, she isn’t your wife’s child?”

 

“No.  My first wife died giving birth to Jessica.  I met Stella a little later.  She loved Jessica right from the start.  She can’t have her own children, you know.  But she loves that girl just as a mother would.”

 

“Perhaps I could speak to Mrs Strafford later?  But I urge you to think very hard.  All our researches so far suggest some link with either medusae or perhaps coral polyps.  Might you have anything in the house that is harming Jessica?  Anything at all?”

 

Afterwards, Giles could only describe the Professor’s expression as ‘hunted’.  But he offered no clue, and no response to Giles’ questions.

 

In another room, Nick finished his examination, no wiser than he had been when he started, but he tried to give the impression that he had learned interesting things.  Jessica had dressed herself again, and the difficulty of that simple act seemed to snap her self-control.  She ran from the room with a sob, and then out through the main door and into the darkness of the garden.  Stella Strafford watched her go, but made no effort to call her back.  When she turned round, Nick thought she looked, for that moment, as if she had the weariness of millennia on her shoulders.

 

 

The drive to Duntisbourne Leer had been hell.  Buffy had had her eyes closed for most of it.  She had tried throughout to call Giles.

 

“Dammit, he’s still got his phone switched off!”

 

Angel pressed the accelerator harder.  As they splashed through the ford, he was forced to brake hard, uncertain of where exactly to go.  He wound down the window, and the cold night air brought him a hint of what he was looking for.  A few minutes later, he found the entrance to the drive.  When he reached the parking area, he saw that Rohan’s bike was there.

 

He snatched from Buffy the thing that she had been holding throughout that wild drive, and started to run.  His words drifted back to her.

 

“Stay behind me and don’t look.”

 

 

As Mrs Strafford turned to close the door, both she and Nick heard voices in the garden.  She pulled the door open again and ran down the path towards the lily pond lawn.  Rohan stood there holding Jessica, and their voices were raised as they tried to make each other understand.  Raised not in anger, but in emotion and fear.  Rohan took her by the hand and tried to hurry her away down the drive.

 

“If you want to live, Jessica, you must come with me.  You must.  I’ve found people who will help…”

 

“No!  I can’t, I can’t…”

 

Nick heard Giles behind him, and they both ran after Mrs Strafford, Giles shouldering Nick aside.  The young couple saw her coming, and Jessica tugged harder to get away from Rohan.  Instead of letting her go, he pulled her into his arms, intent that they should face her mother side by side.

 

As Angel raced up the drive, he saw two young people who had to be Rohan and Jessica, with their arms around each other.  Close to the house, in the spill of light from the open door, Nick was helping an elderly man.  Between those two groups, a woman was running towards the teenagers, with Giles in pursuit. 

 

Stella Strafford hadn’t seen him, all her concentration focused on her stepdaughter and the young man.  As she ran towards them, screaming imprecations, the couple turned their heads to look at her.  Angel tried to run harder, but it happened so quickly.  Before his horrified gaze, she changed from a handsome woman into something quite different.  Her face became that of a monster.

 

Her mouth gaped, wide and stretched, and a broad, long tongue protruded from it.  Boar-like tusks sprouted from her cheeks.  Her eyes became wide and staring, and her hair became a mass of writhing, living, serpentine tentacles, a different sort of medusa.

 

They were all much too far away.  He had to try, but not even vampire speed could get him there in time.  It was as if the air thickened around him, slowing him, stopping him, but it was only time and distance.

 

Jessica’s hand flew to her mouth, and she clung to Rohan.  The lovers would be doomed to stay like that, in each other’s arms, for eternity.  In the blink of an eye, they were turned to a smooth, polished statue of glittering white coral.

 

Behind, and a little to one side, Giles called out in horror, and the Gorgon started to turn towards him.  Angel, on the lawn now and still running, let out a roar of challenge, diverting her from her next prey.  She swung towards him, and he held up the object that he’d torn from the bathroom door.  Heedless of the sharply fractured edges that had dug deep into his fingers, leaving ribbons of red running down the glass, he held the mirror in front of his face.  He could feel Buffy come up hard by his shoulder, readying her axe, and he swerved a little, to shove her to one side, to make her look down at her footing rather than at the face of death, as he angled the mirror to try and shield her.

 

A scream of anguish, cut off short, told him that it was done, and everything was now much too late.  He slowed down and risked a glance around the edge of the glass.  The Gorgon had reached the young couple and had a hand on each shoulder, her gaze focused behind them towards where he had been.  She would stay that way forever, because now she was made of the same glittering white coral that she had condemned them to.  She had looked into the mirror and seen what was beneath the mask of humanity. 

 

Her husband had fallen to his knees, with Nick bending over him but unable to tear his gaze away from the tragic group in front of him.  Giles stood to one side, shocked, and Buffy stood by Angel’s side, her hand gripping his forearm, her face taut and white.

 

The taste of bile sharp in his mouth, Angel flung the mirror to one side as rage swelled within him, ignoring the sound it made as it shattered on the paving around the pond, loud in the sudden silence.  He pulled away from Buffy’s hand and walked over to a tall eucalypt, then he allowed his anger to spill out.  He punched the trunk of the tree, and then he did it again, and again and again.  The black cloud of rage that wrapped him around blinded him to the splashes of red that started to mottle the smooth green, grey and white of the bark.  He was numb to the pain as flesh broke and bone cracked, blind to the frozen tableaux around him, deaf to the splintering of wood as his fist crashed into the trunk again and again, empty of everything except the burning coldness of rage and of failure.  The scent of wounded eucalyptus rode the chill air down to the houses in the valley below.  He didn’t stop until the tree, unable to take more punishment, cracked and broke like his hand.  As it toppled, he came back to his senses.

 

No one had moved, not even those who still could.  His damaged hand hanging limply by his side, he walked towards the still-living.  His movement seemed to rouse Buffy from her trance, and she caught up to him, her hand slipping into his uninjured one.  Giles walked towards them, and when they met, by unspoken consent, the three of them held each other, almost in imitation of the three who would never hold anyone else again. 

 

As Angel pressed his forehead against the crown of Buffy’s head, he repeated over and over, “I should have saved them. I should have understood.”

 

“It isn’t your fault, Angel.  None of us understood.  And we still have no idea how we could have saved Jessica from what was happening to her.”

 

“Not just her, Buffy.  I should have saved Jessica, and Rohan, god knows, but I should have saved Stheno, too.  It was what Sabrina really wanted, I think.”

 

Giles looked at him in surprise.

 

“Stheno?  That is… was Stheno?  And Sabrina?  You didn’t say you went to Sabrina, Angel. Is she as…?”

 

Angel cut him off.

 

“Dangerous?  Yes, she’s dangerous.  But she seems to have had feelings for Stheno.  I’ll tell you about it later.”

 

He couldn’t look at Buffy.  He broke away from them and crossed the small stretch of lawn that separated them from the other two by the house, pausing at the group of three coralline figures on the way.

 

“Are they dead?”

 

“Yes, Buffy, they’re quite dead.”

 

“Even the… demon?”

 

He put a hand to a frozen cheek.  So far as he could tell, it was just a rather exceptional coral sculpture.

 

“She’s a Gorgon, Buffy.  We can only hope that she is dead, for her sake.  I can’t detect any life at all.”

 

Professor Strafford was still on his knees, distraught, with Nick trying to offer comfort, his own face drawn and grey.  Nick looked up as they approached.

 

“Rupert, you will tell me what has happened here, or I won’t ever sleep at night again.  But not now.  Professor Strafford needs help.”

 

Giles dropped into a crouch by the old man.

 

“I’m so sorry.  I should have known earlier, should have stopped this.  I understand what a shock this must be for you, finding out that your wife was something… something not human…”

 

Strafford rounded on him savagely.

 

“You fool.  She was more human than you can ever imagine.  I’ve always known exactly who she was.  Always.”

 

Angel took his arm to help him up from the cold, wet ground.

 

“She was Stheno, wasn’t she?  Not Euryale?  That’s why she called herself Stella.”

 

Buffy mouthed “Stheno?” to Giles.  He replied softly, “Medusa wasn’t the only Gorgon.  She had two sisters, Stheno and Euryale.”

 

Strafford nodded. 

 

“Yes, she was Stheno.  Medusa was mortal, but her sisters weren’t…”

 

His voice cracked, and it seemed as though he couldn’t carry on, but then he visibly pulled himself together.

 

“Help me indoors, please, and I’ll tell you the rest.  This is all my fault.  All my fault.”

 

They settled him into a comfortable chair, and Nick found a blanket to wrap around his thin shoulders.  Giles found a decanter of brandy, and Nick nodded his approval.  Buffy took the half-full glass from Giles and helped the old man to drink a little – his hand was shaking too much to manage by himself.  When the tremors had abated, he handed the glass back to Buffy, pulled the blanket a little tighter, and then started to speak.

 

“After Elizabeth died, I threw myself into my work.  I was diving off the North African coast looking for a reported new species when I met Stella.  You might call it love at first sight, but I knew there was something… different… about her.  She told me.  She trusted me absolutely, and she told me what she was.  She and Euryale had separated after the death of Medusa.  They didn’t want anyone coming for their heads, the way Perseus had come for their sister’s.  Stheno had spent more than two millennia living as a human, trying not to draw more attention to herself than necessary, but she wouldn’t marry me until I knew what she was.  You could never understand the amount of trust it takes to do that, for someone like a Gorgon.” 

 

Angel threw a stricken glance at Buffy, but Strafford didn’t see that, and he carried on with his story.

 

“She loved Jessica, I promise you that, but this trouble with Rohan tested her self-control severely.  She’d had an augury, she said, that if Jessica were allowed to be with Rohan, then she would die, and Stheno herself would be the cause of it.  Stheno believed in auguries.  She was right.”

 

He lapsed into silence.  It was Nick who broke it.

 

“But Professor, why was Jessica gradually turning to bone?”

 

“Not bone,” Angel corrected.  “Coral.  The three sisters were believed, in ancient times, to be responsible for building coral reefs.  To be daemons of the sea.  Because of Stheno, I think.”

 

Strafford nodded.

 

“All three were different, but all three had the beautiful, human mask that they showed the world, and all three had another self.  The Gorgon.  In Gorgon-face, Medusa had snakes for hair.  Stheno had the tentacles of a medusa.  She never showed that face though.  Never!”

 

His denial was fierce, but then he fell silent for a moment, lost in thought.

 

“She was terribly upset by Jessica’s refusal to let Rohan go.  It affected her profoundly.  Whenever Jessica defied her, whenever Rohan came near the house, on those nights I would find Stheno sleep-walking, unaware of what she was doing.  She would go to Jessica and sit by her as she slept, crying over her fears for the future.  At those times, she… she couldn’t completely control her inner self, and although she kept the face hidden, she couldn’t always control her hair.  She never remembered any of it, afterwards.  A sting from her hair, well, you saw what power it had.”

 

And so, thought Giles, another prophecy fulfils itself.  He cursed all prophecies to hell.  Then he asked the question that plagued him the most.

 

“Why on earth didn’t one of you tell us?  If we had known, we wouldn’t have wasted so much time looking at the wrong things.  We would have tried other things…”

 

The old man just shook his head.

 

“This isn’t your world.  You would never have believed me.  You would have laughed at the thought of a supernatural being, and Stheno would have finished up dead or lost to me.  I knew I couldn’t bear that.  And Jessica never knew.  Stheno always believed that if we kept Jessica and Rohan apart, then a cure could be found.  And perhaps a way to defeat the prophecy of Jessica’s death, if we would only be patient.  She had faith.  So did I – but I had faith in science.”

 

Giles’ jaw clenched in anger and frustration and Angel gave a bitter, hollow bark of laughter.

 

“Then you’re the fool.  We were your best hope of help.  You have no idea what we would have believed.  And now the worst has happened.  Two innocent young people are dead, and so is Stheno.”

 

Giles shut up, then.  The old man was too distressed for him to continue, and he could see that both Angel and Buffy had been powerfully affected.  He could only imagine the damage that these revelations would cause to them.  And Nick looked as if the safe world that he knew and understood had suddenly disappeared from around him.

 

Recriminations could come later.  Now was the time to help people live with what had happened.

 

 

Strafford had insisted on being left alone.  Giles was hopeful that the man had the inner strength to deal with his grief.  Angel had no such illusions.  He was certain that the old man wouldn’t linger for long.  He had an idea that the Professor would find a way to sink the tragic sculpture into the sea, where he perhaps thought that Stheno belonged, and where no one could ever interfere with it.  He wondered whether to tell the man of Sabrina, who seemed to care for the Gorgon.  Strafford would quite possibly follow it down to death himself.  Angel wasn’t sure that anyone could, or should, stop that.

 

Nick had gone home, but had vowed that he would visit Westbury in the next few days for a full explanation, otherwise there would be no sanity left in his world.  They felt that he was probably owed that explanation.  Or at least some part of it.

 

Now, Angel pulled back the sheets and got into their bed, which had already been warmed by the body of his lover.  He took her in his arms and kissed her forehead as she held onto him with an urgency they hadn’t had to worry about for a long time.  He kissed her again, and then he turned over and lay gazing into nothingness.  He wasn’t sure whether what lay between them was the mask that Stheno had worn, just as he did; the destruction she had unwillingly brought to her loved ones, just as he feared he would; the bodies in the field and the way he had thrilled to those; or the price that he had paid to Sabrina.  Or all of the above.  For tonight, he felt too tarnished for his golden girl.  But he didn’t pull away when she put her arms around him, and just held him, pressed close against his back.

 

 

The next day brought a phone call from Detective Chief Inspector Collins, reminding Angel that he had been promised to meet at the Corbetts’ house.  Angel went up there as soon as the sun had set.  He felt the need for fresh air, and so he walked the two or three miles to the livery stable.  Lisa saw him as he walked past the house, and came running after him.

 

“The policeman has got a bee in his bonnet because you stood him up yesterday.”

 

Angel sighed.

 

“Yes, I know.  But something urgent came up.  Giles didn’t get chance to tell me about it.  He didn’t give you a hard time, did he?”

 

“Oh, no.  But he’s asked me a lot of questions about you.”

 

He smiled, wryly.  She put a hand out and rested it on his arm.

 

“You’re clearly one of the good guys, Angel, even if I don’t know exactly what that means.  What I don’t understand, I can’t tell, now can I?  Besides, I’ve promised Buffy that I’ll sponsor you both, and Giles, into Wessex rural society.  You all need some fun in your lives.  I’m not going to have the policeman carrying you off because of idle tittle-tattle.”

 

“I’d better not keep him waiting, then, had I?”

 

“Just be careful, Angel.”

 

Then she was gone.  He made his way over the pastures and paddocks until he was on Corbett land, and then climbed out of the valley towards the farmhouse.  Collins was waiting for him.

 

“I thought you were coming here yesterday.”

 

“Yes.  I’m sorry.  Something came up, and I just forgot.”

 

“Must have been something important.”

 

“I guess.”

 

The policeman’s tone was mild.

 

“You know, there were some strange reports of a car heading north out of this area yesterday, just after sunset, at some incredible speed.  Going towards Gloucester, they reckoned.  They’d got a couple of cars ready to deploy the stinger to stop it, when it simply disappeared.  Must have been doing a hundred and fifty miles an hour until it turned off somewhere.  Number plates were obscured but it was a black Porsche.  That’s what you drive, isn’t it?”

 

“Yeah, that’s what I drive.  There’re a few of them around.”

 

“Not many.  Still, it’s not my manor.” 

 

He turned to walk into the farmhouse, but paused on the threshold.

 

“One, or perhaps both, of them are going to prison, I expect, but neither of them are coming back here.  The son says he’ll set fire to it before he sets foot in the place again.  I hear the old man has already put out word for a demolition crew, once we’ve released it.  Shall we start?”

 

“So, can I come in then?”

 

“Of course you can, unless you can do what you do standing out there.”

 

The invitation was enough.  Angel had feared that it might not be, but the repudiation by its owners had clearly left the house in the gift of the police.

 

The smell had been bad enough outside, but once inside, he was enmeshed in a miasma of old blood.  The house simply reeked of it, and the stones seemed to echo the ghostly sounds of terror and pain.  He wondered if he would find himself unable to control his mask, as Stheno had, and he shortened the leash on his demon.

 

They went down to the cellar, the policeman frowning at a feeling that he couldn’t understand, completely unaware of the internal battle being fought by the man behind him.  Collins didn’t know that some small and ancient part of himself still understood what it was to be prey, had recognised the presence of a predator at his back, and was shrieking at him to run. 

 

Part of the shelving on the wall had been pulled away to reveal a second staircase.  This was the source of the ancient blood, and of everything else that was straining Angel’s self-control.  Collins stood back to allow Angel to go first.  In that terrible lower space, Angel stood in the centre of the floor for long minutes, trying to put aside the power of the blood screaming to his senses.  When he felt that he had reached some sort of equilibrium, he walked over the floor, covering each foot of it.

 

“No one is buried here.”

 

“Are you sure?”

 

“Yes.”  The answer came out as a snap.  “I’m very sure.  Can we get out of here, please?”

 

The policemen silently led the way out into the night.  Neither of them spoke until they’d walked away from the farmhouse.

 

“He’s made a full confession, you know, old man Corbett.”

 

Angel looked at him in surprise.

 

“The old man killed them all?”

 

“You don’t think he did?”

 

“It’s not up to me to think about who did or who didn’t.  That’s your job.”

 

Collins’ smile was a tight little thing.

 

“No, he didn’t kill them.  His eldest son did, over a period of about fifteen years, during the two weeks a year that he ran the farm while the Corbetts senior and junior went to visit the old man’s sister in Orkney.  The son preyed on lone women and young girls.  We haven’t identified them all yet, but they were runaways, we think, probably come down here to work for the summer season.  No one to miss them.  He… He did unspeakable things to them.  But, the old man eventually found out.  Bludgeoned the son to death and buried him with the victims.  Where his victims could haunt him, was what he said.  Put it around that his son had run away to the big city.”

 

“Thanks for telling me.”

 

Collins shrugged.

 

“Without you, we would never have known the bodies were there.  Well, I suppose the horses will be able to go past there now, won’t they?”

 

“I’m sure.  I’ll walk the other fields and let you know whether I find anything else, but I think they were all in the one place.  He wouldn’t be able to chance someone ploughing them up.”

 

“I’m sure you’re right, but I’ll sleep better once I’ve heard from you.”

 

Angel nodded.  He wasn’t sure he’d ever sleep again.

 

As he walked back to Summerdown House, he passed the parish church, St Cyprian’s.  The lights were on and a car was outside, the boot open.  An elderly woman came from the church and at first Angel wasn’t sure who she was, with the light shining behind her, darkening her features.  As she came closer though, he saw that it was the local postmistress, Mrs Brewster.  She was a little bird of a woman, in an old brown tweed suit.

 

She greeted him cheerily, as she bent into the car boot.  When she straightened, she was clutching an armful of flowers.  They were mainly different kinds of daffodils, but there were branches of holly, trailing lengths of ivy, the yellow lily-of-the-valley-scented blooms of mahonia, and other fragrant greenery that he didn’t recognise.  When he looked into the boot, he saw many more bunches, native spring flowers as well as exotics.

 

“Getting the church ready for an event, Mrs Brewster?”

 

He thought it might be a wedding, but he was wrong.

 

“Oh, no.  It’s St Valentine’s Day on Tuesday.  The House of the Lord must always be swept and garnished, but especially for a day like St Valentine’s Day, wouldn’t you say?  Everyone thinks it’s so romantic, but romance is as romance does.  It was actually the day when they used to put the pigeons together so that there would be eggs and squabs to eat.  Very practical people in those days.”

 

He smiled at that.

 

“Swept and garnished?  Wasn’t that the home of the unclean spirit who then came back seven times stronger?”

 

Mrs Brewster’s voice was firm.

 

“Then we can only expect that the Lord will do even better than the unclean spirit could!  By the way, will you be giving any more talks for the Ladies’ Circle?  I was invited to attend by my friend Cecily, who’s a member of that congregation.  We really enjoyed your talk, you know.  You spoke with such authority.”

 

“Maybe.  But we’ll let Giles do the next one, I expect.  I’ll give you a hand.”  He picked up great armfuls of flowers.  “I’ll just leave them in the porch for you, shall I?”

 

 

The night was still young when he got back to the house.  Darkness still fell before five o’clock, and it was not much past seven now.  Giles and Buffy had already eaten, but were still sitting morosely around the dining room table, toying with coffee.  It was as if unfinished business hung heavily over them.   Giles showed him a message that Martha had taken from his contact at Bath University.  The blood sample had shown protein from a coelenterate.  Specifically, from an unknown type of jellyfish.  Giles snorted.

 

“A bit bloody late!”

 

He threw the message into the waste basket.

 

Angel told them the news from Collins, and then a thought occurred to him.  He brought in the map from the breakfast room and unrolled it, using the half-finished coffees as paperweights.  He pointed to a shaded-out area just behind Giles’ house.

 

“Corbett owns that field.  You wanted another, didn’t you?  My guess is it’ll be going cheap before long.”

 

Giles pinched the bridge of his nose and shook his head.

 

“Always a silver lining, eh?”

 

“No, not always, and this isn’t much of one…”

 

He trailed off.  He knew they were all thinking of Abbotsbury Holt.  The thought of that took him somewhere else.

 

“Swept and garnished…”

 

“What’s that, Angel?”

 

“Nothing.  I promised Collins I’d walk these fields.  I’ll… I’ll see you later.”

 

Then he was gone.  Buffy looked at Giles.

 

“Come on, mister interpreter.  Just what was Angel babbling about.

 

Giles took off his glasses and gave them the characteristic polish that he no longer noticed.

 

“ ‘Swept and garnished’ comes from the Bible…”

 

He made for the study, and Buffy followed him.  She found him leafing through a Bible.

 

“Yes, here it is.  It’s in Luke, and in Matthew, too.  It talks of an unclean spirit leaving a house, and that house being swept and garnished.  It refers to the person from whom the unclean spirit has been ejected, I should think, but the text is rather obscure.  Some ritual of purification, I imagine, although in that case the spirit came back later and it was stronger than ever.”

 

Giles scrubbed at his forehead – what maggot had got into Angel’s head now, he wondered.  Buffy gazed into the middle distance, deep in thought.  She knew that Angel was much troubled, and she knew some of the reasons.  It was the others that really worried her.

 

 

When Angel got back to the church, Mrs Brewster was kneeling in the porch, separating out the flowers.  He asked if he could buy a bunch of the daffodils from her, and she shook her head and gave him an armful.  They were white jonquils, heavily scented. 

 

“My granddaughter gets these from the market.  They come from the Channel Islands, and just now they’ve got more daffodils than they know what to do with.  The wholesaler gives her his spare flowers for the church free of charge.”

 

She also had more greenery than she could use, and so she gave him bunches of that, too.  He gave her some money for the offertory box, and asked her another question.  She thought for a moment, and then directed him to her great-niece’s house, in the centre of Westbury.  There, he explained what he was looking for.  She had exactly the right things.

 

He dropped his purchases into the back of the car, where they sat next to a stiff broom, a scrubbing brush and a bucket.  And some packets of herbs from Giles’ stores.  Then he set off for Bridgnorth.

 

The Hermitage, Sabrina’s sanctuary, was just as he had left it.  He set to work, sweeping out the detritus, and carrying up river water to scrub away the accumulated dirt and stains.  Even before he used it, the water didn’t seem very clean, but it was Sabrina’s, and so he figured that it would be good enough.

 

Some of the herbs he burned and some of them he strewed on the floor, using cleansing rituals gleaned from those who worshipped the spirits of place.

 

When he had finished, he placed the flowers in a niche at the back, and then hung his other purchases around the walls.  They were necklaces and pendants, bracelets and anklets, of coral and shell, and mother of pearl, and earrings of beautifully polished abalone.  As he stood back to view his handiwork, he spoke out loud.

 

“I hope you like these, Sabrina.  I’m sorry we lost Stheno.”

 

He thought of Mrs Brewster, and her simple, solid conviction that her attention to the house of the Lord could only strengthen the deity.  He wondered if what he had done would make Sabrina stronger, and he hoped that it would make her a little happier.  He thought he heard a sigh, and for a moment the sanctuary shimmered and changed into the place he’d seen with the lonely river goddess.  Then it was gone.  He went back to the car, feeling that he’d done the right thing.  When he felt in his pocket for the car keys, it was almost as if a warm hand brushed against his, and then there was something else in his pocket.  When he looked at what Sabrina had returned to him, it brought a smile to his face.  As he drove back to Westbury, he was grateful for the long winter nights.

 

 

Buffy was the first to wake up.  Last night, Angel had made love to her with an intensity that spoke of quiet desperation.  She knew that recent events had upset his hard-won equilibrium.  The newspapers were all carrying the stories of the bodies in the field, and seemed to have an unwarranted amount of knowledge about what had been done to the girls.  She could only imagine what that had stirred up in Angel.  She might have a simple and deeply-held belief in the goodness of his soul, but she was only too well aware of the inner demon that he kept chained and caged.

 

Perhaps even worse, coming on top of the bodies, was the understanding that Stheno had not, in the end, been able to control what she was.  Her mask had slipped.  He must be afraid that the same would eventually happen to him, soul or not.

 

As she watched her sleeping lover, her heart went out to him, and she couldn’t resist running her hand over his shoulder.  He wasn’t Stheno, and he wasn’t a serial torturer.  Not anymore.  She would make him understand that.

 

The tiny frown he had worn smoothed itself away as he leaned into her caress, and then his eyes opened.

 

“Morning, sweetheart.”

 

He followed his greeting with a kiss.

 

“That sounds a bit lovey-dovey.  Still, it’s that sort of day, isn’t it?  You know, being the day that it is…?”

 

“What day would that be?”

 

Buffy huffed a little, but it was all for show, really.  How could she be cross when he spoke to her in that sexy, sleep-roughened voice?

 

“Why do men always need reminding about days like this?”

 

She propped herself up on her elbow, to get a better view of him, only to have him turn over.  He was soon back, though, with something that he’d pulled from beneath the bed.  Under his amused gaze, she tore open the shimmering red wrapper to find a large, heart-shaped box of chocolates, Thornton’s Continental truffles.  On top of it was a much smaller box, wrapped in gold foil with a silver bow.  It contained a necklace of tiny mother of pearl doves, separated by little gold beads and freshwater pearls.  It was exquisite.

 

He took it from the box and fastened it around her neck.  She walked to the mirror to admire it, and then she turned to him, with a woebegone expression on her face.  He knew that she was thinking of those lovers who would never have the chance to celebrate this day ever again.  Rohan.  Jessica.  Stheno.  Strafford.  The ones they had been unable to save.  He went to her and held her, then, and as a shudder of a sob ran through her small frame he nestled her head against his neck and whispered in her ear.

 

“Never was a story of more woe…”

 

She pulled a little away from him.

 

“You’re sure that they’re at peace?  All three of them?”

 

“Yes,” he lied. 

 

He’d not been able to detect any scent of life, any sign of consciousness, but who knew?  And so he simply hoped that they were at peace.  She seemed satisfied, though, and then she took him back to their bed and started to remind him that he was Angel.  Not Angelus, and not Stheno.  Angel. 

 

That first lesson, that act of sweeping and garnishing, took quite a long time, and the cleansing was a thorough one.

 

 

A glooming peace this morning with it brings;

The sun for sorrow will not show his head:

Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;

Some shall be pardon'd and some punish’d:

For never was a story of more woe

Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

 

The Prince, Act V Scene iii

Romeo and Juliet

Shakespeare

 

 

THE END

January 2005

 

Author’s Notes

 

1        The Reform Club

 

I’ve actually stayed here overnight, and I’m dismayed to find that I can only hazily recollect it!  If I’d known I was going to write about it, I would have taken copious notes.  Since the place seems to be very secretive about publishing layout plans or descriptions (if you know better, tell me), I’ve made some of it up.

 

Here’s some good information from Wikipedia:

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reform_Club

 

And here’s a more complete drawing of the monumental entrance area:

 

http://hillyer.org/londonclubs/reform.jpg

 

If you’ve read Jules Verne’s ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’, then you know that the journey for Phileas Fogg and Passepartout did, indeed, begin from the Reform Club, which you now know is not fictitious.  In addition to those notables already mentioned, membership has included:  E. M. Forster, Henry James, Stella Rimington, William Makepeace Thackeray, Winston Churchill, David Lloyd George, Guy Burgess, and Sir Henry Irving.

 

2        Giles and Eyghon

See BtVS season 2, The Dark Age

 

3        Sophists vs Sapphists

If you haven’t looked it up, this is not a spelling or pronunciation mistake.  I guess it’s more of a pun, or play on words.

 

Here’s what the Concise Oxford Dictionary has to say:

 

sophist // n.

1 a person who reasons with clever but fallacious arguments.

2 Gk Antiq. a paid teacher of philosophy and rhetoric, esp. one associated with moral scepticism and specious reasoning.

 

Sapphic // adj. & n.

adj.

1 of or relating to Sappho, poetess of Lesbos c.600 BC, or her poetry.

2 lesbian.

n. (in pl.) (sapphics) verse in a metre associated with Sappho.

 

For those without a dictionary to hand, here’s the meaning of specious, which sort of completes the pun:

 

specious  adj.

1 superficially plausible but actually wrong (a specious argument).

2 misleadingly attractive in appearance.

 

4        Lisa and her livery stable

 

We first met Lisa in ‘Slayer’.

 

5        Turner paintings

 

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 – 1851) is one of the most famous British artists, often know as the painter of light.  His sunsets and sunrises are particularly colourful, and it is believed that he painted them from those that he saw during the years when the Earth’s atmosphere was affected by the eruption of Tambora in Indonesia.  It first erupted in 1812, and continued until 1815, when it treated the world to the greatest volcanic eruption in recorded history.  The blast on 5 April 1815 was heard 1,000 kilometres away, and the death toll has been put at 117,000.  Because of it, 1816 was known as the year without a summer, and Ireland had its first great famine.  And because of it, the poet, Lord Byron, and his party at Villa Deodati on Lake Geneva, had such miserable weather that they had to amuse themselves indoors most of the time.  And so one of his guests, Mary Shelley, wrote Frankenstein.

 

Here’s one of Turner’s incomparable sunsets, painted around 1830:

http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/ViewWork?cgroupid=999999949&workid=52003&searchid=7429

 

 

6        Green lanes

 

Green lanes, some of which are at least 2,000 years old, are composed of an unmetalled farm track with field boundaries either side; boundaries can be grass banks, hedges, wood edge or stone walls.

 

7        Corpse-candle

 

A corpse-candle can be either a lighted candle placed beside a corpse before burial, or a lambent flame seen over a grave, and regarded as an omen of death.

 

It’s believed that this is the same phenomenon as ignis fatuus, the will-o’-the-wisp, that misleads travellers - a phosphorescent light that appears in the night, over marshy ground, caused by the decomposition of animal or vegetable matter.  It is thought to be methane, or possibly phosphine, which fits the descriptions better.  We, of course, know differently, now, don’t we?  It also goes by the name of balefire, death fire, fata morgana, watch fire, and witch fire, among many others, but no one other than us knows that it’s Syriak demons.

 

8        Pronunciation

 

The city of Leicester, which we visited in DM’s story earlier this season, is pronounced ‘Lester’.  Gloucester is pronounced ‘Gloster’.  Cirencester is obviously, then, pronounced ‘Sirensester’.  The joys of British place names…  All of the ones that include ‘chester’, ‘castor’, ‘caster’ and ‘cester’ derive from the Latin for ‘camp’, and show that the Roman military were there.  They’ve had over fifteen hundred years since then to make their pronunciations very… individual.

 

9        Fibrodysplaysia ossificans progressiva

 

Just Google it.  This is indeed a wicked and cruel disease, and the information I’ve given is accurate, to the best of my knowledge.  It was a TV programme about a young girl with this disease that was the sad inspiration for this story.

 

10      In Greek mythology, Pygmalion was a sculptor who was so disenchanted with women that he vowed to live unmarried.  He made an ivory statue of perfect, maidenly womanhood.  When he made a wish that he should find a woman like his statue, Aphrodite brought the statue to life as the virgin Galatea.

 

11      Duntisbourne Leer

 

It does indeed, exist, as do the other Duntisbourne hamlets, near to Gloucester.  How could I resist using such a wonderfully named place?

 

Here’s a nice, picturesque view of the hamlet and its ford.

 

http://www.cotswoldimages.co.uk/cgi-bin/SHPLoader.cgi?../cotswold-villages/duntisbourne-leer.htm

 

Here are some other views, including the garage that is only accessible by driving along the stream.  There are other villages shown there, too, with interesting, erm, roads.

 

http://vamp.idlers.org/~jaffa/gloucestershire.htm

 

 

12      GP

 

For those not familiar with the British National Health Service, the General Practitioner (GP), or family doctor, is the doctor that you see about absolutely everything.  He or she will then refer you on to whichever specialist you need if he or she cannot help you.  A consultant is the most senior of medical practitioners, and those who reach these dizzy heights stop being called doctors and become plain Mr, Mrs or Miss again.  It all goes back to the differing medical traditions in centuries past, when there were the barber-surgeons, called mister, and the rather seedy individuals practicing other sorts of medicine, who called themselves doctors.  So, which one do you trust?

 

13      The lily pond lawn, with its two huge trees is a scaled down version of one of the formal lawns at the beautiful Bodnant Garden, in Wales.  I loved it, so I borrowed.

 

http://www.bodnantgarden.co.uk/

 

There’s a little slideshow here

 

http://www.betws-y-coed.co.uk/attra/bodnant/Default.htm

 

14      Jellyfish

 

Seen underwater, these are stunningly beautiful.  Here are some pictures:

 

http://www.masla.com/jellyfish.html

 

Their size varies from less than an inch across the bell, to more than seven feet.  Tentacles can exceed 100 feet in length.  For all this, jellyfish are very fragile, often containing less than 5% solid organic matter.

 

Jellyfish pass through two different body forms.  The larval stage is a small, sessile polyp, which will divide and bud into young jellyfish, which then grow into the adult medusa.  Jellyfish have a specialised venom apparatus for dealing with prey, and in some species this venom can be very powerful.

 

15      Bridgnorth and the Hermitage

 

There are a number of hermits’ caves along the course of the River Severn.  Here’s information about the Hermitage, its associated Witches’ Caves and the Queen’s Parlour:

 

http://www.whitedragon.org.uk/articles/caves.htm

 

16      Sabrina

 

In a tale of love and jealousy, Geoffrey of Monmouth tells us of the death of an innocent maid, Habren, and her mother Estrildis, murdered by drowning in the waters of the river.  The murderous Gwendolen decreed that the river should carry the child’s name, Habren in Welsh, Severn in English and Sabrina in Latin.  And so the river got its genus loci, its goddess. 

 

Milton describes her in Comus:

“Sabrina fair!

Listen where thou art sitting

Under the glassy, cool, translucent wave

In twisted braids of lilies knitting

The loose train of thy amber-drooping hair;

Listen for dear honour’s sake,

Goddess of the silver lake!

Listen and save.”

 

Here’s more:

 

http://www.whitedragon.org.uk/articles/sabrina.htm

 

17      The necklace of mother of pearl doves, gold beads and freshwater pearls is real.  It was my necklace, and it had a stupid screw thread fastener, and after having it for only a few weeks, I lost it.  I still mourn it.

 

18      The Severn Bore

 

The Severn is a tidal river, and has a world-famous bore – a sea wave that sweeps up the river.  It’s particularly large at the equinoxes.  When the tides are right, the Severn Bore will travel from the mouth of the Severn all the way to Worcester, which even by the much straighter road must be a good fifty miles.  It’s not a one-way river.

 

19      Full fathom five…

 

Full fathom five thy father lies;

Of his bones are coral made:

Those are pearls that were his eyes:

Nothing of him that doth fade,

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange.

Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:

Ding-dong.

 

The Tempest, act 1 scene 2

William Shakespeare

 

20      The Thames, before it reaches Oxford, is usually called The Isis.  There is a myth telling of how the Thame married the Isis, and became the Thamesis – the Latin name for the River Thames, and that Isis is simply a truncation of that.  However, there is some suggestion that the river carried the name Isis long before the Romans arrived.

 

21      Summer Down

It’s a real place, one of the Wiltshire Downs – open rolling chalk uplands, with few trees, mainly used for pasture – and it’s right next to Westbury, exactly as described.

 

22      Gorgons

 

The stories about Medusa vary.  In all of them, she is one of three sisters, the Gorgons.  She is described as a beautiful woman who offended Athene by lying with Poseidon, the god of the sea, in Athene’s temple.  As a result, Athene cursed her to have snakes instead of hair, and to look as she does.  Her sisters, Stheno and Euryale, are more shadowy figures, but were said to be immortal, whereas Medusa herself was mortal.

 

They lived on an island – they were always connected to water in some way – and were known far and wide because of their deadly power. They had tusks like boars, protruding tongues, thick dragon scales, hands of brass, wings of gold, and a face so ugly that all who looked at it were turned to stone. They were the daughters of Phorcys who had also offended Athene by leading the Libyans of Lake Tritonis in battle.  Tetchy beings, these Greek gods.

 

And yet, the interpretations of the myth make it plain that Medusa was originally an aspect of the goddess Athene from Libya where she was the Serpent-Goddess of the Libyan Amazons. In her images, her hair sometimes resembles dreadlocks, showing her origins in Africa. There she had a hidden, dangerous face. It was said that no one could lift her veil, and that to look upon her face was to glimpse one’s own death as she saw your future.  Her sisters were other aspects of that triple goddess, and some sources give them hair that isn’t quite…hair.

 

In the myth, Perseus was sent to slay Medusa.  In some accounts, she became petrified by seeing herself in Perseus’ shield, and in others he caught her sleeping.  In all the accounts, he chopped her head off and took it back with him.

 

The myth also links Medusa to coral.  Having chopped off her head, he washed his hands in the sea, after placing the head on some branches.  In the ones touched by the head, the stems and leaves were turned into coral.  Athena is often depicted wearing the mask of Medusa on her breastplate.

 

The union of Medusa and Poseidon resulted in the winged horse Pegasus, who sprang forth when drops of blood from her severed head fell to earth.

 

One of the best primary sources of information is Hesiod’s Theogony, and he seems to have imagined the gorgons (gorgones in Greek) as some sort of coral reef-building daemons.

 

There’s loads more, and it’s all very interesting, with many more characters.  These will get you started.  If you want more, I found it easiest to Google on Stheno and Euryale – you get more pertinent hits.

 

http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/classes/finALp.html

 

http://monsters.monstrous.com/medusa.htm

 

23      Swept and garnished

 

A somewhat obscure text from Matthew 12: 43-45, and Luke 11: 24-26, King James’s Version.  It seems to mean that if a person is cleansed of sin, and then falls back into bad ways, their wickedness increases sevenfold, but it can be read more literally.

 

24      Thornton’s Continental

 

Thornton’s Continental Truffles are, in the UK, the standard expensive chocolates for making up, for Valentine’s Day, for Mother’s Day and so on.  And they are yummy.

 

 

 



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