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Rites of Spring

 

Project Paranormal

Author: Adjovi

Season 3

Part 15

 

**

 

Summary: A very weary team is called out on a new mission that has roots in an old legend.

 

**

 

Rites of Spring

 

 

The trio was exhausted, and the trip back home was made mostly in silence. Rosy fingers of dawn began to peek over the horizon, and Giles stepped on the gas, urging the car along faster, trying to beat the sun. He reflexively looked into the rear-view mirror to regard the vampire in the backseat, momentarily forgetting he would see nothing there.

 

Buffy shifted, twisting around to speak to Angel. “Where’d you learn sign language, anyways?”

 

They had spent the night in Norwich, fighting off a particularly brutal pack of Vontak demons who had been making battle robes out of human skin The case had been brought to them by one of the former captives who had just managed to escape. He had been forced to abandon his younger sister, who was deaf. After defeating the demons, the girl was so terrified and distraught she had been unwilling to move until Angel was able to explain that they weren’t going to hurt her.  Buffy knew the vampire’s cadre of language skills was impressive, probably rivalling Giles’, but his urgent signing to the scared girl had touched her.

 

“Ursuline Sisters of Cornwall.” The answer had been automatic, and as soon as it left his lips he regretted speaking. There were just some things he didn’t want to have to rehash.

 

Giles nodded in understanding. “They take a vow of silence, yes?” He glanced back towards Angel who nodded in affirmation. He looked back at the road, wincing slightly, the implication of what that meant exactly finally hitting home.

 

Buffy looked between them in confusion. “A bunch of nuns taught you sign language?” She took in Angel’s expression. He was clearly grappling with the memory of something, and she could see guilt and self-disgust warring on his face. She finally caught on, remembering what he had done in convents in the past. “Oh…this is one of those things I really don’t want to know about, right?”

 

“Right.” Angel sounded miserable and just looked down at his hands. He glanced up again once he felt Buffy’s hand on his knee.

 

“Hey, you used something you learned from when you were evil to do something good. There has to be a big karmic cookie for something like that, right?” She grinned at him, trying to ease him back from the precipice of an impending brood session. He took her hand and returned the smile just as Giles rounded the car onto the drive.

 

 A small woman ran up as the car approached, frantically waving them down. “Here we go again,” Buffy muttered with a sigh.

 

+++

 

The young girl felt heady, every fiber of her being infused with a frisson of anticipation. The elders had spread the word that a worthy sacrifice had been found, a young virgin girl. She smiled and placed her hand on her swollen belly, feeling the life within responding to her touch. She glanced at the other young pregnant women near her; they were all wearing similar blissful smiles. They were standing near the wide fields, hoping their own fertility would influence the crops and bring forth a strong harvest.

 

The maypole had been erected in the middle of the square, as was the custom for the coming Beltaine. Adolescent boys were unfurling the long ribbons, setting them free. They caught in the slight breeze, almost seeming to dance in lazy circles. She heard one of the young women start to hum a tune for the dance, and soon the others joined in the chorus, swaying as they sat.

 

She knew that work had begun on the other most important project as her Ian had left with the dawn to lend his carpentry skills to the task. She saw farmers choosing the best of their livestock, penning them away from the others. She finally turned back to her own important task, braiding flowers into a crown to be placed upon the virgin’s head. The other women were knotting together corn dollies by weaving straw into circular patterns. They would be hung on all of the houses, urging a good harvest. She sighed happily. It wouldn’t be long now.

 

+++

 

Giles made the tea for Mrs. McCully almost tripping over the two cats who apparently didn’t think the hour too unseemly and were eagerly awaiting their breakfasts.

 

Mrs. McCully was a slight woman, looked like she was in her early 40s or so by the grey that had just begun to lighten her blonde hair.  She hailed from a small town near Glasgow, and the others were amazed that she had been able to make the journey as she looked like she was going to collapse into tears at any moment. She must be desperate. Buffy sat across from her, holding her hands, trying to assuage some of her fears and coax the story out of her. Angel sat in the shadows, as was his typical fashion. Most times, being big and intimidating came in rather handy, but not when trying to calm a woman who was clearly near hysteria, and he wisely left Buffy to that task. Giles nodded at him before sitting near the women, handing over the tea. “Why don’t you start at the beginning?”

 

Edith McCully took a few deep breaths, cupping her hands around the mug, calming a bit at the warmth. She looked between the two kindly strangers, seeing real compassion in their eyes. Maybe they wouldn’t think she was as crazy as the police had. “They took her.” She gulped, a sob threatening to slip out. “My Rose. They took her.” She was aware her voice had taken on a shrill quality.

 

Buffy’s brow scrunched in confusion. “Who took her?”

 

Edith took in another wavering breath. “They. I just know they lured her there.” She closed her eyes, trying to stop the tears from falling. “The ones who took the other. That Howie man.”

 

Buffy shot a look of utter bewilderment to Giles. “Wait, someone took Rose…”

 

“My daughter.”

 

“Your daughter…and they also took someone guy named Howie? Have you called the police?”

 

Edith sighed in exasperation. “They didn’t believe me, either.”

 

Giles leaned forward now and laid his hands on his knees. “It’s not that we don’t believe you, it’s just that the police usually deal with missing person cases.” He sat back and licked his lips, trying to pick his words carefully. “We usually deal with more…unusual cases.”

 

“I know. That’s why I came here. A friend gave me a flyer of yours when she heard my story.” They weren’t understanding, she needed to bite the bullet and spill everything that she knew, even if it made her sound like a complete lunatic. She took in a deep breath and began. “They took her to Summer Isle.” The two seated near her shook their heads in incomprehension, but then the young man who had faded into the shadows finally spoke. She had forgotten he was there, and was a bit unnerved as he moved soundlessly to stand in front of her.

 

“Summer Isle?” His voice was rich and velvety, and now that he was in the light, she could tell he was quite good-looking. Beautiful, actually. Not someone to be hiding in the shadows. He gave his companions a knowing glance before crouching down in front of her. 

 

“Angel, do you know of this place?” Giles removed his glasses and was wiping them with a handkerchief, knowing he was just feeding into Buffy’s mental image of stuffy old Brit but habit could not stay his hand.

 

Angel gave the woman a quick smile in an attempt to pacify before turning to answer Giles. “I’ve heard a few things. Rumours, mainly. It’s an island off of the West coast of Scotland. A big pagan ritual takes place there yearly, Beltaine. He hoped they would be able to get something more from this woman. As it was, they had almost nothing to go on.

 

Edith simply nodded, hoping the young man would understand.

 

Buffy scrunched up her nose. “What’s Beltaine?”

 

Giles leaned forward, hands dangling between his knees. “It’s like a May Day celebration in the States, Buffy. It’s a pagan festival that welcomes the spring. Children dancing around maypoles, sometimes there’s a parade and usually some sort of sacrifice of fruits and vegetables is made to urge a plentiful harvest. Nothing terribly out of the ordinary, though, especially for the region. What sort of rumors did you hear?”

 

Angel shifted back on his heels. He wasn’t sure how much to reveal in front of this woman. Technically, she had come to them for an ordinary run-of-the-mill kidnapping case, but he suspected there was something more. There was a reason she had been referred to them. “Summer Isle is located right off the West Coast of Scotland, and is known as an unusually bountiful place. Even when other areas suffered droughts and famines, Summer Isle always flourished.” He glanced at the woman, decided to press on. “Rumor was, the Lord of the Island has his roots in something…supernatural.”

 

“Lord Summerisle?” When Angel nodded, he continued. “The name strikes a vague recollection. He is thought to have eternal youth, yes?”

 

“Yes. And, word was, the good harvests had coincided with his instalment on the island. That, and people started going missing. Virgins, mainly.” Angel knew the story he had heard wasn’t remotely trustworthy, as it had come from a demon who had been trying to curry Angelus’ favor by amazing him with the tale. He hadn’t even been vaguely interested at the time. One virgin missing every couple of years in some pagan ceremony really didn’t tend to attract the curiosity of the Scourge of Europe. He had killed the demon slowly and inventively for his insolence. He now wished he had paid better attention. History tended to repeat itself. Especially his.

 

“Like my Rose.” Edith knew her voice had taken on a harsh and desperate tone. She wrapped her hands around the cup so tightly that her knuckles were turning white.

 

“How do you know she was taken there?” The vampire was tired, and the weak sunlight that began to filter in through the windows alerted the demon inside him that it was time to sleep. He was trying hard to fight his internal clock and remain focused on the woman.

 

“It was like it was with that Neil Howie man.” The young man shook his head in confusion. She sighed. They hadn’t heard the tale. “A few years ago, a policeman from our town was lured to the island by the tale that a child had gone missing. He went to the island to investigate the disappearance, but never returned. This was big news in our town, as we are small and everyone knows everyone else. His sister searched in vain for him for almost a year, never discovering exactly what happened. But, she did find some interesting things happening on Summer Isle. Pagan things.” She wrinkled her nose in disgust. “We are a devoutly Christian people. We do not look kindly upon such ungodly ways.”

 

Buffy looked across to Angel and Giles, wondering what Mrs. McCully’s people thought about the likes of witches and demon fighters. Probably not too kindly, either. “That doesn’t really explain what that has to do with your daughter’s disappearance.” She was trying hard to keep the defensive edge from her voice, but she knew she was failing when she saw Giles’ slight admonishing headshake.

 

Edith looked at the young woman again, surprised at her harsh tone that seemed to come from nowhere. She realized how exhausted she was and considered that maybe she had said something unseemly. She sighed again. “It was that boy. I knew he was trouble from the beginning. But, Rose seemed so taken with him.”

 

Giles tried to soothe the tension and smiled at her. “Children aren’t always known to listen when it comes to matters of the heart.” Buffy’s mouth fell open in disbelief, thinking the comment was aimed at her, but calmed when he winked at her. “Neither are adults, for that matter.”

 

“Maggie Howie told me that she had seen him before, that he was from the island, the son of the inn keeper there. MacGregor. She believed MacGregor was somehow involved in her brother’s disappearance. I tried to talk to Rose, to warn her, but she wouldn’t listen. Then, two days ago, I wake up to find she had left in the night. As did he. She left no note, just took a few clothes and things. I know she is with him, that he took her to that island.”

 

Angel had moved over to the big desk and rifled through some papers there, finding a map of the British Isles. He brought it back to the others, laying it on the floor between them. “It looks like it will take a little over 7 hours  to drive to Glasgow from here, then we’ll have to find a way across the islands beyond.” Giles nodded in agreement. Buffy tried to stifle a yawn behind her hand, her eyelids heavy with sleep.

 

“Mrs. McCully…”

 

“Edith. Please call me Edith.”

 

“Edith. I do apologize but my colleagues and I were just returning from a work trip when you saw us this morning. We all need to get some sleep, but we can head there this evening.” Giles knew the vampire would appreciate this as too often he was relegated to crouching under thick blankets in the backseat of cramped cars. Edith’s face betrayed the disappointment she felt, so Giles tried to allay some of her panic. “Beltaine is not for another couple of days, so we should have some time before anything happens. You are welcome to rest here with us in the meantime. We have plenty of extra rooms we can put you up in.”

 

Fatigue had gotten the better of her as well, and Edith was surprised how welcome a bed sounded. She had been running on adrenaline for days now, her fear spurring her onwards. Now that she had finally found someone to help her in her search, her body was registering the fact that she had been on the go for almost 48 hours straight. “Sleep sounds heavenly, actually.”

 

They all said their good nights, (or more accurately, good days), and Angel took Buffy by the hand, leading her to their small apartment, leaving Giles to settle in the Scotswoman. Just another day at the office.

 

+++

 

Rose had never been so happy. Summer Isle was just as beautiful as Stuart had promised. Flowers were blossoming all over the island, festooning the trees and gardens with bright flashes of color. The islanders were preparing for some spring festival and were hard at work decorating the square with beautiful wreaths and sun shapes woven from straw. Young people were practicing songs for the festival, their light voices providing a soundtrack to the celebratory vibe in the air.

 

She had never met such welcoming folk before. It almost seemed that they had been waiting for her, which she knew was impossible, yet the thought warmed her heart just the same. Mr. MacGregor had made her instantly feel at home, placing her in the biggest and best room in his hotel. She gazed out the window down into the square, watching a group of young women join hands and dance in a circle. One of the women caught her watching and smiled and gave her a small wave. Mother had been wrong about everything. This place could not possibly be a place of evil.

 

+++

 

Buffy felt Angel stir behind her and knew that they would have to get up soon, which she knew they were both loath to do. The light in the room began to take on the faint purple hue of the coming dusk and she knew the vampire was reacting to the call of the hunt, even in sleep. She was still achy and sore from the battle last night, and knew Angel would feel the same. After returning to their room she had discovered that he had received quite a deep gash across his back, courtesy of a Vontak claw. Some of the claw had broken off in the wound, and she had to spend the next hour fighting sleep while carefully picking out the pieces with tweezers, not wanting the wound to heal over the top of them. Some had lodged quite deep and she knew she had hit some sore spots when he hissed and jerked in pain. Sometimes their lives sucked.

 

He nuzzled her hair, lightly kissing the top of her head and pulling her in closer to his chest. This wasn’t one of those times.  

 

She yawned and stretched her arms above her head, letting out a little whimper with the movement. Strong arms massaged her shoulders and she relaxed into his touch. “We should get moving before that woman has a hissy fit.”

 

“You don’t like her, do you?” Angel had been confused at Buffy’s sudden hostility towards the woman last night. “She’s just scared, Buffy. Her daughter is missing.”

 

She turned around to face him, rewarded with a kiss on the nose. She looked into his eyes, losing herself in their deep brown for a moment. “I know. But the whole Bible-thumping, anti-pagan thing kinda hits close to home for someone who was almost burned at the stake as a witch.”

 

Angel nodded in understanding and gave her a lopsided grin. “Oh yeah. Benefits of a Sunnydale education, huh?”

 

She nestled under his chin. “I should just cut her a break, but I was tired and crabby.”

 

“Was?” She leaned back and shot up a challenging eyebrow. His face broke into a big grin. “Yeah, guess you get a pass, considering.”

 

She tapped his chest with her forefinger. “And, on top of that, we had just returned from fighting demons that were looking to make some Buffy-sized coats.”

 

Angel refrained from pointing out they were looking to make some Angel and Giles-sized coats as well, not wishing to raise her ire further. He brushed her hair from her forehead and kissed her gently instead. He pulled back. “Guess we should probably get ready. Giles thinks we should be there for at least a couple of days.”

 

“Oh joy. A few days in the land of Scrooge McDuck?” She had sat up and swung her legs over the side of the bed, pulling back her bare feet as they hit the cold floor.

 

“From what I’ve heard Summer Isle is quite beautiful, actually. We might have a nice time, you know?”

 

Buffy was sitting on the edge of the bed, pulling her socks onto her feet. She smiled back at him then, loving Angel for trying to make her feel like this could be a vacation when she knew good and well they were just going to end up slaying some nasty demon. “So, pack my bikini, then?”

 

Angel sat beside her, pulling on his own socks. “Don’t let me stop you. Might get a bit cold, though.” He smirked at her. “I’m just sayin’.”

 

She shoved him playfully then and he caught her arm, pulling her into his lap. He began kissing her passionately, slipping his tongue into her mouth, and she responded in kind. He broke the kiss just long enough to whisper directly into her ear. “They can wait just a little bit longer.” He allowed her to shove him back onto the bed then, making up for what exhaustion and injury had prevented them from doing the night before.

 

+++

 

They had left just as the sun dipped under the horizon, Angel at the wheel. The trip to the coast did take almost 8 hours, mainly because they had to drop Edith at her home along the way as she refused to set foot in such a “depraved place”. Buffy hadn’t been sad to see her go. They had been able to secure a boat and made the short trip to the island in less than an hour. Still, it was the middle of the night before they reached the island proper.

 

They all felt it immediately after setting foot on land. The place was so thick with magics that they were almost choking on it, and they could hear its steady thrum on the air, almost like a low buzz. The islanders were clearly preparing for some kind of grand fete, but had all bedded down for the night, leaving their half finished decorations behind in what looked to be the town square. Angel wrinkled his nose, sensing something else. The smell of sex was almost as thick as the magic; he could feel the place was almost throbbing with a heightened sense of wanting and anticipation. And overlaying everything was the sickeningly sweet and cloying smell of jasmine. God, how he hated jasmine.

 

Buffy sensed his displeasure and placed an encouraging hand on his arm. “You ok?” He just nodded in response, eyes scanning the night for things she couldn’t see.

 

Giles felt weary from the trip and was looking around for anyplace that looked like they had accommodations. He figured the MacGregor Arms would probably not be an option, not ready just yet to walk into the belly of the beast, as it were. They found a small inn on the outskirts of the town proper, luckily catching the owner before she headed for bed. The rooms were small but clean, and he left the vampire and his Slayer to explore whilst he collapsed onto a surprisingly soft bed, bone-tired and weary.

 

Angel knew Buffy was sleepy, he could sense it on her, but he felt hyper-alert and awake, equal parts a reaction to the magics in the air and to his own instinctual desire to go on the hunt. He offered to go and explore the island a bit himself. Buffy had reluctantly let him go, making him promise to come back before long.

 

He met the night with a bit of ardor. He had to admit, it felt good to be moving. He knew he would be spending the better part of the next day trapped inside, so he wanted to make the best of his time outdoors.

 

He moved quickly, long legs carrying him over the land unnaturally fast, and soon he left the town center behind. He intuitively knew that the power center of the magics was located somewhere in the thick patch of woods located behind the large house on the hill. As he passed the house he felt the pull of something dark and evil, a siren call to his demon. He would file that away for later use.

 

The woods were dark and foreboding, but, then again, so was he. The trees seemed to sigh in anticipation as he entered, branches opening their arms wide, welcoming a child of the night. He needed to be careful here. He was all too aware that his demon was vibrating with excitement, reacting to the malevolence that surrounded him.

 

In the scant moonlight he could just make out the tall structure that dominated the center of the clearing. He judged it was about 40 feet high, and as he neared, saw it was in the shape of a large man. It was unfinished, and he could see a series of chambers exposed in what would be the chest area. The whole thing looked like a giant representation of the boxes that had held the Judge. He knew instantly what this was, what was to happen here. So, that demon had been right all those years ago. The Wicker Man. 

 

He bounded back to the inn as fast as he could, eager to tell his friends what he had found. He entered the inn silently, finding all of the occupants asleep. He figured that he could save the news for the morning, knowing that Buffy needed the sleep. He slipped under the covers and spooned her, burrowing his nose into her soft hair. He smiled when he heard her sigh of contentment.

 

+++

 

“The Wicker Man? Are you quite sure?” Giles knew his voice held a bit of the exhilaration that he was feeling. This was a classic! Buffy just blinked up at him from her position on the edge of the bed, clearly bewildered. “It’s an old legend, actually. I believe Julius Caesar mentioned it in his Commentarii de Bello Gallico, yes?”

 

Angel nodded and gave him an amused smile, clearly enjoying the fact that the former Watcher was so enthused about what amounted to human sacrifice. 

 

“Which translates to what for us mere mortals?” Buffy looked at Angel for support, but he clearly understood. “Or, this mere mortal, at any rate?”

 

“According to Caesar, the Wicker Man is a large wooden statue made into the shape of a man that was used by the ancient Druids in Gaul for human sacrifice. Historically, it was burned in effigy, a representation of a human without actually burning one alive. But, reports had always circulated that actual humans had been placed inside before it was being set alight. Caesar claimed that if real people were used, they were mainly criminals and other ne’er do wells, but this was never substantiated.”

 

“Ew…burning people alive? Always a bad option.” Buffy felt Angel’s hand on the small of her back, laid there in an attempt to placate her. She leaned back into the touch. 

 

“Well, if the tales about missing virgins are true, looks like they stepped up from using just criminals since then.” He began tracing small circles with his thumb on Buffy’s back.

 

“What if they’re virgins who just happen to be crime lords?” Giles looked at her, agog, and she just winked at him. “It could totally happen.”

 

Giles looked at her with a bit of irritation. “A young girl’s life could be at stake here, Buffy.”

 

She stood and stretched, giving Giles a chagrined smile. “I know, I know. Jeez, just thought I’d try to mix in a little humor to go with the usual side dish of murder and mayhem.”  

 

Giles’ resolve broke a little, and he tried hard not to let her see him smile. Leave it to Buffy to infuse even the most dire circumstances with a bit of levity. Was one of the main things that he loved about her. He surmised that anyone who had faced as many ugly things as she had in her young life would have to maintain a sense of humor in order to survive. “Well, we should probably set out soon, and try to locate the whereabouts of the McCully girl. If her mother is to be believed, she may be under some sort of thrall and we may have a hard time trying to convince her to leave.”

 

Angel shifted in his seat, feeling deflated. “Anything I can do from back here?” The sun would keep him prisoner of the inn for most of the day, as he had expected. “Maybe I can try and question the woman who owns the inn, see if she’s heard anything, knows anything?”

 

“That would be most helpful, Angel.” Giles knew the vampire hated the circumstance of being hamstrung indoors for several hours and unable to aid in the search.

 

Buffy leaned in and gave Angel a quick kiss. “My guess is they will probably be on the look out for any interlopers. Be careful.”

 

She smiled at him, squeezing his chin. “Always am.” She winked at him before joining Giles at the door.

 

Angel stood, remembering something else, catching them before they left. “There is a house just outside of the clearing in the woods. I sensed something when I passed it; that may be the source of what is going on. Something ancient and evil. I wouldn’t suggest going in with guns-ablazing, though, I felt like the house had been calling to me, or something. I would tread lightly.”

 

“Gotcha.” Buffy flashed a smile at him from the doorway and Giles nodded at him before heading out into the day.

 

+++

 

Rose had woken feeling refreshed and rejuvenated. She stretched lazily and gazed down from her window. More people had flocked to the square and the preparations were already again in full swing. She hugged her arms to herself, remembering her dream from the previous night.

 

Stuart had come to her, offering himself. She had been ready, opening herself to him, not feeling sinful as she knew she should, but instead feeling a sense of completeness she had never experienced before. Her body remembered the feel of him inside her, moving so gentle and yet so full of a passion she didn’t think possible on this earthly plane. She knew with complete certainty she would offer herself to him, that it was right. It was her right.

 

She dressed quickly, pulling on one of the pretty white dresses that had been left out for her. She smiled in satisfaction at her reflection in the mirror, smoothing her hair into place and winding a ribbon to hold back her bangs.

 

She ran to the door when she heard the soft knock, revealing Stuart behind. He looked so handsome, dressed in his own simple white tunic and pants. She pulled him inside and wound herself into his arms, molding her eager body against his and devouring his mouth with kisses. She moaned with disappointment when he pulled back from her.

 

He chuckled at her impatience. “Not yet, my love. Not yet. But, soon. I promise.” He leaned in and kissed her forehead, taking her hand into his and leading her downstairs for breakfast.

 

+++

 

“Um, Giles, are you getting a real ‘Stepford Wives’ vibe here, or is it just me?” Buffy wended her way through the throngs of people who dotted the square, taking in their insipid grins and glassy eyes. The people seemed to move as one organism, swaying in unison to a song that only they could hear. Arms reached out to caress them as they moved through, unvoiced invitations to join in the love fest. Buffy declined.

 

“Quite.” Giles was quite uncomfortable, in fact, having to constantly wrench his arms away from the men and women who were giving him looks of unmistakable lust and need. “They appear to be under some sort of a spell.”

 

“Human?” Buffy pulled her arm away from the grasp of an over-eager adolescent boy.

 

“Far as I can tell. We should probably defer to Angel on that one, though.”

 

Buffy nodded in agreement. “So, where do we start?”

 

“I was thinking the MacGregor Arms. Edith seemed to think that Alder MacGregor was involved in her brother’s disappearance, and it is likely that the boy would have returned to his family’s home.”

 

The pub looked as normal enough from the outside, thatch roof covering a squat white structure, a small chalkboard sat near the door advertising haggis and several beers on tap. A large orange tabby lounged lazily on the small bench out front, stretching its limbs at their approach before curling around itself again. Enticing aromas wafted through open windows, luring passers-by within.

 

“Oh man, that smells good.” Buffy’s stomach grumbled, she realized they hadn’t eaten since they left last night.

 

“Don’t really know if we should trust the food, Buffy. Could be what is putting them under the trance.” Giles own stomach grumbled in protest. “Oh…but that does smell heavenly.”

 

“Wish Angel was here to do a taste test; let us know if it was magic free.”

 

“Well, I’m sure he’d rather be here with us as well.” He gave Buffy a small smile.

 

As they approached, the door to the pub was thrown open, and a teenaged girl stepped out towards them, beckoning them inside. “Welcome, travellers. We have a lovely spread out this midday.”

 

Giles ignored his stomach (and Buffy’s groan of disappointment) and turned towards the girl, all-business. He pulled the photo of the pale, blonde Rose that her mother had given them, holding it out for the girl to inspect. “Have you seen her?”

 

“Why, yes. She is just inside enjoying her luncheon. Why don’t you come and join her for a spell?” This was far too easy, and warning bells were clanging loudly in Buffy’s mind. She could tell Giles felt the same by the way he tensed beside her. She threw him a knowing glance before following the girl inside.

 

The interior seemed just as ordinary as the outside, bursting full of patrons enjoying their breakfast, happily engaged in small talk. They seemed to turn as one to smile and welcome the strangers, thoroughly creeping them both out. Ok, maybe this place was not so ordinary. Buffy impulsively took a step backwards, bumping into Giles. He gave her a gentle nudge forward, indicating a table at the back with a tilt of his head. Buffy saw the young woman they were looking for, seated across from a handsome young man. She was staring at him with what could only be described as complete and total adoration. “Uh oh.” Buffy voiced their concerns aloud.

Their guide led them towards Rose’s table, the young woman so enraptured with her companion she didn’t even turn at their approach. Buffy pulled a chair from the table, placing it between the two love birds. Giles finally relented to mortal needs and ordered up two lunches for Buffy and himself, noting that the food looked standard enough, and took a seat opposite.

 

Rose slumped back in her seat, bothered that this woman would dare sit between her and her love. “What do you want?”

 

“Now Rose,” the young man soothed, “is that any way to talk to a guest?” He knew his voice would appease her, but it belied the turmoil he was feeling inside. These two clearly did not belong here.

 

Buffy leaned forward and twisted his shirt front in her fist, pulling him towards her. “Look Romeo, how about you drop the act and release your girlfriend from whatever trip she’s currently freaking?”

 

He tried to bat her hands away but she was surprisingly strong. “What are you…”

 

“Save it, Casanova. How about you tell your girlfriend here how you plan on making her into flambé de Wicker Man?”

 

“What do you mean?” His look of utter confusion threw her a bit. Either he was a pretty good actor or he really didn’t know the score.

 

She twisted the shirt again. “We know, ok. About what you do with the Wicker Man. You tell her about the burning alive thing?” She heard the girl gasp behind her.

 

“Burn alive?” He glanced back at Giles, looking for help and finding none there. “Yes, we burn the Wicker Man. It’s all part of the Beltaine celebration, the big finale. Put some of the harvest inside. But not…people! We would never do that!” He tried to coil around Buffy, get a better look at Rose, to reassure her. She looked terrified, but one smile from him was enough to restore her serenity. “I love her. She is my fiancée. I would never put her in danger like that!” The girl loosened her hand a bit, he knew he was winning her over. What is it with these people? He thought the elders would be more careful in selecting this year’s sacrifice, after all of the mess they had after the Howie man and his meddling sister. He knew it would be trouble to select someone from the same town, but no one listened to the youth.

 

Buffy released him then, turning towards the young woman. She grabbed for her arm, pulling her to standing. The woman predictably reared back, trying to move away. Just then, their waitress appeared, placing steaming food in front of them. Buffy eyed the food longingly. She sighed and forced herself to look away. She tried hard to keep her voice soft and even. “Look, Rose. We’re just trying to help you. Your mother is very worried about you. She just wants you to come home.”

 

“My mother!” Rose spat out the word as if it were venomous. How dare she? “She doesn’t understand. Never gave Stuart a chance. She’s just jealous! How can I be to blame for Father leaving? She can’t keep me with her forever.”

 

Buffy sighed and turned, trying to pull the girl along with her, but she remained rooted to the spot. Buffy knew all too well how powerful and dangerous love spells could be, having had personal experience of being under one. She felt the other patrons of the inn closing in, reacting to the girl’s distress. She was sure they weren’t going to let her get past them. This was going to be tougher than she thought.

 

Giles moved to stand near her, placing a hand on her arm. “Buffy, maybe this isn’t the wisest course of action. Perhaps we can try other avenues, find a power center of some sort.” The patrons all wore the same glazed expressions as the people they had seen on the street. He suspected that the problem was much larger than just the girl. “Maybe we should try looking elsewhere. Maybe the house that Angel had seen.” He glanced down at his food. “And perhaps get this wrapped to go.”

 

+++

 

Talking to the innkeeper had been a complete waste of time. Clearly she was under some sort of enchantment, and she made almost no sense at all. To say she made Angel ill at ease was a bit of an understatement, as she kept smiling seductively at him, trying to reach out and touch him any place her hands could find purchase. Worse, her young daughter stared silently from across the room, her big brown eyes taking in the scene in front of her. The woman told Angel next to nothing, other than they were all very excited for the coming celebration. She freely admitted the burning of the Wicker Man, utterly denying anything amiss, revealing nothing of an evil plot.

 

Angel finally decided he had reached a dead end, and glancing out the window figured there was a few hours left of daylight, so reluctantly headed towards the stairs that led to their room. He was about to step up when he felt something tug lightly at his hand. When he turned, he saw the small innkeeper’s daughter gawking up at him. He guessed her age to be no older than six. He squatted down, bringing himself to her eye level. “Is everything ok, sweetheart?”

 

She smiled at him, and placed a hand on his forehead. “Why can’t I hear you?”

 

He just gaped at her, mystified for a bit, before figuring out what she was talking about. He chuckled. “Because I’m special. You’re special, too, aren’t you?” He dropped his head to catch her eyes, kept his voice soft to keep her at ease. “You can hear people’s thoughts.”

 

She nodded, eyes large, staring at his face. “Can you stop what’s going to happen?”

 

Angel’s eyes went wide with surprise. “Do you know what’s going to happen?”

 

She nodded again, and her eyes filled with heavy tears, remembering the last time. She had known it was going to happen, then, too. Everyone’s minds were full of nothing else for days before. She couldn’t forget the man’s screams she heard in her head. She hadn’t been able to sleep for a long time after that. “The Wicker Man.”

 

Angel reached out and took her hand. “Listen to me. We can stop it. Do you know how?”

 

Sarah looked at the quiet man, unsure whether to trust him. Mother had told her not to talk to strangers, but she had sensed this man was different, like her. She had felt him come in last night, knew he would be able to stop it. He was strong enough to face Him. “I know where He hid it.”

 

“Hid what?”

 

“His sword. It gives him his power. He hid it in the caves near the cliffs. You can use it to stop Him.”  She dropped her gaze, fat tears running down her face. “Please, don’t let it happen again.”

 

Angel rubbed her small hand. “We will. I promise.” He was a bit shocked when she collapsed into his chest, pulling him into a hug. He rubbed her back soothingly before pulling back. He still had a few more questions. “This man, who is he? Does he live in the big house on the hill?”

 

She nodded. “Lord Summerisle.”

 

Angel could tell the name frightened her, and rightly so. He had felt the power this man wielded over the town emanating from the house last night. He looked in frustration at the window and the offending sunlight, knowing that Buffy and Giles were probably headed there right now, unaware of how to defeat the man. He reached out and pulled out his cell phone, no service as suspected. He held both of the girl’s hands in his own. “What’s your name?”

 

“Sarah. What’s yours?”

 

“Angel.” She smiled at the name, and he returned it reflexively. “Just one more question, Sarah. Do you know when it will happen?”

 

“Sundown.”

 

He released her hands and stood, patting her lightly on her head. “Thank you, Sarah.”

 

+++

 

Buffy and Giles were making their way towards the large house that loomed on the hill when they were overcome with the masses moving towards them in a giant parade. All of the celebrants wore flamboyant costumes, some even sported large heads that bobbed and weaved as they moved. Musicians were playing an atonal melody providing the beat for the dancers who were careening through the crowd. And in the center, hoisted high on a litter sat Rose, a crown of flowers atop her head. She wore an expression of utter peace and tranquillity, unaware that this was her death march.

 

“Uh, this can’t be good.” Buffy turned to face Giles. “Thought you said we had a couple of days, here?”

 

“Yes, well, apparently I miscalculated when the islanders celebrated Beltaine. They’re early.” He let out a long breath. “In the absence of Angel, I think the best course of action will be for us to split up.”

 

“Agreed. So which one do you want? The psychos or the big scary house?”

 

“When put like that, neither choice sounds rather appealing.” Giles tiredly rubbed a hand over his face. “But you should follow the throng, Buffy. You may need to use your strength to overpower them. Make sure nothing happens to the girl, but don’t forget that these are still humans.”

 

“I know.” She sighed, glancing towards the sun as it made its slow journey towards the horizon. At least another hour now. “Be careful, Giles. Remember what Angel said about that house?”

 

He nodded grimly. “Tread carefully.”

 

+++

 

As soon as the sun disappeared, Angel burst through the doors of the hotel, moving as quickly as he could towards the caves. He had heard the festivities begin over an hour ago, and he had to try very hard to keep from running into the sunlight, his desire to get out there and stop it so great. 

 

The caves were small but deep, and smelled of the sea. He stretched out his senses, trying to find any other creatures inside, but found himself truly alone. His keen eyesight picked out a sharp gleam embedded in the wall. Lord Summerisle had merely shoved the sword into a crevice, and it slid easily out into his hands. He guessed you didn’t have to work too hard to hide it if you kept everyone under your thrall all of the time. Angel felt the power of the sword wending its way through his body, as if it were an extension of him. He shook his head to clear it, trying to shake off the effects of the dark power. He ran out of the cave without further thought, aiming towards the great house, knowing Buffy and Giles could probably use his help.

 

+++

 

Buffy sighed, exasperated. She had followed the mob into a big clearing, waiting while they encircled the large Wicker Man which stood in the middle, dancing around like it was some big love-in. She could hear the bleating of several animals that were already kept inside. Then, everything came to a grinding halt as a wedding ceremony began. A full-on wedding ceremony, complete with bridesmaids and groomsman and a celebrant who actually began reading a long script about life, rebirth and fertility. Turns out, Rose and Stuart were to be married after all. Kinda took the shine off the whole romance thing when you considered his honeymoon plans. So, Buffy sat back and waited, watching the whole thing play out, not wanting to rush in until necessary. They were only human, after all.

 

+++

 

Giles could feel the odious nature of the house as he neared, and figured that must have been tenfold for the vampire who was far more in tune with demonic forces. He found the door unlocked, and figured one wouldn’t have to keep people out if you controlled their minds.

 

The house was large, decorated strangely in the early Victorian style, ornate and almost sterile. He pulled a small knife from his back pocket, and was ready to make his way into the interior of the house when he felt a hand on his arm. He jolted in fright, turning to find himself face-to-face with Angel. With a sword.

 

Angel gave him an apologetic smile and whispered to him. “Sorry about that.” He looked around. “Where’s Buffy?”

 

“With the girl. The ceremony has begun.” Angel just nodded at him. Giles gestured at the sword. “What’s that?”

 

“His power center.” He grinned at Giles, clearly proud to have found it.

 

“Where did you find it?”

 

“Had a little help.” He gestured towards the back of the house with the sword. “He hid it, afraid someone would use it against him. Come on. We need to stop him.”

 

Giles crept along behind Angel, trying to remain as silent as the vampire, but knowing that was a lost cause. “Who is he?”

 

“Lord Summerisle. Turns out the rumor is true.”

 

“Good Lord,” Giles repeated.

 

Angel could sense another’s presence in a room off to the right. Heard one heartbeat, could feel the slight temperature change that came from body heat. He inclined his head towards a closed door, nodding towards Giles. Giles gave him the go-ahead, and he hefted the sword in a battle stance and kicked in the door.

 

The man turned in shock to look at them. He was average height, and there was nothing too remarkable about his appearance other than the fact that he had to be hundreds of years old and looked barely 30. He didn’t know that fact wasn’t bound to impress either of the men who had come into the room. He was dressed in ceremonial robes and had gathered up what looked like a sort of staff, probably used to lead the proceedings. His hard eyes belied the benign smile he had plastered on his lips. “Ah, I see you found my sword. How very thoughtful of you. I do tend to misplace it at times.”

 

Angel pulled back the sword as the man made to grab for it. “Not so fast.” He had to steel his mind from the iniquity flowing from this man, fight back the demon that so wanted to emerge. He could feel the evil roiling from his every pore.

 

“What do you want with my sword? It belongs to me.” The man tapped his hand on his chest. “You can’t even begin to comprehend what kind of power it has.”

 

“Got an idea.” Angel’s tone was conversational, but he knew his posture was menacing by the way the man was keeping a safe distance. He wouldn’t be surprised if the man knew what he was. He swung the sword in a large circle before levelling its tip at the man’s neck. “Know what it will do, too.” He moved the tip back, ready to deliver the final blow.

 

The man arched his neck, then, offering it to Angel. He rolled his eyes to meet his gaze.

 

Angel drew the sword back, ready to strike, only to stop with a gasp. “You’re human!”

 

“Human?” Giles walked towards the other two, closely scrutinizing the man. “How can he be human? Long as he’s lived?”

 

Angel pulled the sword back completely, giving it a contemplative look. He let out an incredulous little laugh, waving the sword at the man. “This is how you’re doing it, isn’t it? This is your power center.” The man was trying his best to remain impassive, but Angel could smell the fear coming off of him in waves. “This is what gives you eternal youth, brings a good harvest. But it is linked to a demon power, isn’t it.”

 

“You struck a deal with a demon?” Giles finished the thought for Angel, knowing they had hit the mark when the man gasped in surprise. “A demon that requires an offering of some kind to keep you in its benevolence, doesn’t it?” Giles almost spat the word out. He couldn’t believe that another human being could have sent so many people to such a grisly end.

 

“Wonder what will happen if I do this?” Angel placed both hands on the blade, bringing it down over his knee. A blinding light of energy shot out of the broken sword, sending everyone to the ground.

 

“NO!” The man fell to the ground and began to writhe in agony, the years quickly catching up to him. His body decomposed before their eyes, and all that was left behind was a pile of dust under the heavy robes. 

 

+++

 

Something had changed. Confusion reigned as the people were milling around aimlessly, trying to figure out where they even were. Mothers were calling out for their forgotten children, frantically trying to round up their young ones. Farmers were shepherding their precious livestock from inside the Wicker Man’s chest. Buffy ran into the crowd, not a single person even registered that she was there. She found Rose slumped on the ground in front of the big statue, crying. Buffy knelt before her.

 

“They were going to kill me.” Her voice hitched with sobs.

 

Buffy took her hand. “You knew?”

 

Rose sadly shook her head. “I knew. It was just like I didn’t care. Thought I had to do this; that I wanted to let them kill me.” She began openly weeping.

 

Buffy pulled her to standing, allowing Rose to wrap an arm around her waist to steady herself. “Come on. Let’s get you home.”

 

Buffy couldn’t help but notice all of the plants seemed to be withering and dying at a rapid pace. Fruit was rotting on the vine and falling to the ground which was already littered with the petals their flowers had released.

 

+++

 

Buffy,  Angel and Giles returned a very contrite daughter to a very thankful mother that same night.

 

Edith thanked them profusely, and offered to forward along a small sum to their Westbury address as soon as she could afford. She sent them on their way laden down with buns and cookies, finding it odd that the young man had refused any at the house. She was known for her pastries throughout the town.

 

They were all completely done in and heaved a collective sigh of relief as their house finally came into view. Their relief was short lived, however, when they noticed a car sitting in the driveway, and beside it a young man waiting.

 

“Here we go again.”

 

+++

 

Author’s notes:

 

Thanks to Dark Star, Jo and Ares for all of their help in beta-ing and patience in getting me through my writing.

 

http://members.tripod.com/~deanjones/wickerman.html

 

The Wicker Man is a seminal horror flick made in 1973. It has been voted #45 on Bravo’s scariest 100 movie moments of all time. It has taken on a cult status, there is even a fanzine published about it. The movie is pretty trippy, with naked go-go dancers, erotic seduction attempts through closed doors (gotta see it to believe it) and a truly horrific ending. (From what I’ve heard, the 2006 remake with Nicolas Cage is not very good.)

 

To read more about the movie, check out:

 

http://www.gallica.co.uk/celts/wickerman.htm

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

http://www.pretanicworld.com/TheWickerMan.html

 

 



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