Vor Hell Dimension – The Hub – H-Hour
In a dark cavern of smooth, polished stone, the process of the circle’s departure reversed itself, and several dozen people and their supplies twisted into existence.
“Oh Goddess,” Willow groaned. She supported herself against Rowena, who held onto a crate to keep from doubling over.
“Are we there yet?” Andrew muttered, sounding ill.
“Does everyone feel like the floor of a taxi on Saturday night, or is it just me?” Faith coughed. Various groans and complaints from the crowd echoed her.
“The experience was unsettling,” the two Undines said, again in unison.
“What?” Dawn asked. “What’s wrong with everyone?”
“It’ll pass,” Willow said, loudly and slightly unsteadily. “It’s just…from the portal being so big and powerful…it’s temporary. You’re okay?” she added to Dawn.
“I feel fine,” Dawn said, confused. “Is this a Key thing?”
“If it is, count yourself lucky,” Jeff suggested, slumping against a stack of boxes. “Next time, can we use a normal portal?”
“Presidium…would’ve tracked it…” Willow said indistinctly, fanning air across her face.
“Willow?” Kennedy called from the edge of the crowd. “There’s someone out here. I think it’s our escort.”
“I should probably deal with this,” Willow mumbled, forcing herself to stand up straight. “And…try not to throw up in the process…”
Willow arrived at the edge of the crowd at the same time as Giles and Faith. They watched as Creed and a bodyguard of demons emerged from the darkness. The nearby slayers and watchers regarded them warily.
“Yo,” Creed addressed Faith, his voice formal. Willow stifled a grin.
“Back at ya,” Faith called with a nod.
“You are damaged,” Creed noted. “Have you not healed?”
“Nah, I got this taking down that dreadnought thing,” Faith said, waggling her arm in its sling.
Creed looked vaguely impressed, as much as he ever looked anything besides fierce.
Faith stood to one side and gestured to Willow and Giles. “Rupert Giles, Willow Rosenberg,” she said. “Watcher and Coven Leader.”
Creed looked down at the two of them, then nodded to himself. “You are here,” he rumbled. “For your kind, that took courage. I am Creed. This is your entire force?”
“It is,” Giles said. “Sixty-three in all.”
Creed looked at one of the demons standing by his side, who nodded. “You are admitted to our home,” Creed said, looking back at the humans before him.
As he spoke, the darkness in the cavern somehow evaporated, revealing its gigantic scale. Every inch of it, from the high-domed ceiling a hundred feet overhead to the smooth floor, was etched with complex runes, tens of thousands of them, forming vast patterns.
“This is Tephros,” Creed said, indicating a demon by his side. The demon was semi-transparent, fading in and out of being like a mirage. “He will instruct your mages in our ways. This is Volac.” He indicated a second demon, handsome by human standards, but for deep green skin and snake-like eyes. “He and his brethren will assist your Supply Master.”
“Uh, Supply Master?” Willow asked.
“You do have a Supply Master?” Creed asked incredulously. “No army would be foolish enough to set forth without such a one, to ration and distribute provisions?”
“Oh, Andrew!” Faith called. “Job for you.”
“Yeah?” he said, emerging from the crowd of slayers.
“Supply Master,” Volac said reverentially, dropping to one knee. The cadre of demons behind him did likewise, echoing his greeting.
“Uh, okay,” Andrew said, looking at them nervously. He glanced at Giles for help.
“They’re here to help you,” Giles said quietly. “Get everyone set up wherever they want to put us.” Andrew shrugged and turned back to Volac and his assistants, who were still kneeling.
“You must come with me,” Creed said to Faith. “Gather those of you who lead. Brighid is waiting.”
As Giles indicated those who would need to accompany Creed, Robin came up to Faith and led her aside for a moment.
“How’re you holding up?” Robin asked softly.
Faith flashed a smile and gave a nonchalant wave with her good arm. “Oh, you know me…five-by-five.”
Robin raised an eyebrow.
“I’m fine. Really,” Faith insisted, her eyes avoiding Robin’s.
Robin deepened his gaze.
“Okay, okay, I’m not fine,” Faith whispered harshly. “But I don’t have time to be not fine, so that means I’m fine. Okay?”
Robin’s lips turned up in a small grin. “Okay,” he said. Then he gave Faith’s shoulder a squeeze. “If you need me…”
Faith placed her hand on his and squeezed back. “I know,” she assured him. At that, Faith returned to Creed, who led the group of leaders away.
Vor Hell Dimension – The Hub – Moments Later
While slayers and demons busily picked up supplies and hauled them away under Andrew’s direction, Jeff turned to Tephros, who was studying the magical artifacts and supplies they had brought.
“What is this place?” Jeff asked the mirage-like mage.
“It is our Hub,” the demon said. “From here, our portals reach many places, steered and guarded by powerful protections and wards. You have such a thing, I was told?”
“You do?” Ethan asked Jeff, looking on with ill-concealed boredom.
“We do?” Jeff echoed.
“The Key,” Tephros explained. “The anchor you used to travel here. Did you not bring it with you?”
“Oh, uh, that would be me,” Dawn said, raising her hand.
Tephros looked her over and nodded to himself. “Physical form, I see. How novel.”
“Thanks,” Dawn said flatly. “So, this place is like a Super-Key?”
“On the contrary,” Tephros shook his head, “the Hub is but a shadow of your power. You are a complexity of magic beyond the reach of any living mages.”
“I’m also a human being,” Dawn pointed out with a frown.
“No one’s perfect,” Tephros replied with a shrug.
Vor Hell Dimension – The Ledge – Moments Later
Creed led Giles, Faith, Xander, Willow, Brell and a few others from the Hub to the centermost cavern of the rebels’ network of underground caves. They moved carefully through a long and twisting tunnel.
“Stay away from edge,” Brell advised, pointing toward the fiery red glow at the end of the tunnel. “Winds dangerous near Spire.”
Willow looked up curiously, ignoring for a moment the laptop in her arms. Her two Undines and Giles’s two hooded guards kept pace with the group, following in their wake.
“Spire?” Faith asked, as they rounded the corner. “Oh…wow. Nice HQ you guys have.”
They emerged from the tunnel onto a wide ledge overlooking a huge, hollowed-out cavern, almost a mile from top to bottom. Beneath, dizzyingly far down, a vast lake of magma and what looked like crimson ice seethed and churned. Rising from the lake of fire was a mountain of rock, carved with parapets, gateways and towers. Bridges stretched from the ledges and pathways in the outer walls towards the monolithic rock, connecting the surrounding caverns to the rebels’ command center. Directly below the awestruck group, a steep pathway led to one of the massive stone bridges.
“The Spire,” Creed said. He glanced down at Faith, who was by his side, still taking in the scene. “Once this was the burial place of my kind, the shelter for the bones of three thousand generations dead. Now we are forced to live and plan war here.”
“No kidding,” Faith murmured. “Well, let’s see about ripping the Presidium a new one. Then you guys can go back where you belong and leave the dead in peace.”
Creed looked down at her with a long glance, then grinned slightly.
“Yes,” he said, “let us do that.”
Vor Hell Dimension – Spire Command Center – Moments Later
Having braved the steep pathway from the ledge, and then the stone bridge itself, the group finally reached the rebels’ command center, deep within the Spire. The group filed through the entryway, past its arachnid guard, and entered the long, low-ceilinged cave where the leaders of the rebels awaited. The arcane circle still glowed in the center of the chamber, but now there was also a long stone slab, ten feet in length and five across, set upon two boulders. The slab was covered by hundreds of tiny bones, each no longer than a fingertip.
A group of demons clustered around the makeshift table: the fire demon Brighid; another of Creed’s kind, seemingly younger, with jet black hair; a slender female with black horns growing out of her crown, disappearing into a mane of hair that writhed slowly of its own accord; and a woman similar to Brell, blue-skinned and with small horns poking from her forehead. Brell moved quickly forward to greet her.
“Brell, welcome,” she said warmly. “Kail feared, when news of the Furian reached us.”
“Brell fine,” Brell replied. “Slayers very brave, protected Brell.”
“Our leaders,” Creed said loudly, as the humans and demons faced each other. “Brighid, oldest and wisest of the Eternal.” The fire demon regarded the visitors impassively. “Kail, our Supply Master.” Brell’s female counterpart nodded. “Crom, my kinsman, our Warmaster Shadow.” The towering leonine demon merely glared at them. “And Lucidique, our Warmaster Strategian and Coven Mistress.” The demon sorceress favored Willow with a sultry smile and ignored the rest.
“Your names are known to them,” Creed finished, glancing down at the humans beside him.
“The witch has a question?” Brighid asked.
“How’d you – Never mind.” Willow shook her head. “Um, this?” She held up her laptop. “It’s a computer…a device for, um, keeping records,” she added, seeing the demons’ blank looks. “It’s not working.”
“An archive?” Brighid asked, looking on curiously as Willow carefully placed the laptop on the edge of the stone table.
“Seen many such things,” Brell explained. “Great store of knowledge inside, but works by difficult magic. Many safeguards to trap the unwary. Red Witch is gifted in their workings.”
“We’ve got a bunch of them,” Willow explained. “They’ve got all our knowledge inside them. We’ve got hard copy as well, of course, but these are faster and more efficient.” Giles gave a small harrumph, and Willow shot him a look before he could say anything more. Then she went on. “I think it has to do with the different magical fundamentals in hell dimensions versus those on Earth. It might be affecting the chips somehow.”
“I will study this artifact,” Lucidique murmured, stroking a clawed fingertip over the laptop’s keyboard. Willow nodded, and the demon picked up the computer and carried it off thoughtfully.
“Your devices will function here as on Earth,” Brighid said with confidence. “Humans are reliant on them, as a witch is on magic.”
“Well, we try not to be exclusively reliant on anything,” Willow said, “but it’d help, thanks.”
“You are here to assist us, yet already you need our help,” Crom said dismissively. “They are useless. We do not need them.” He folded his arms tightly against his chest.
“Crom,” Creed rumbled warningly.
“We’re here to help any way we can,” Giles said diplomatically.
“And in times of need, even the hand of a human may be accepted,” Creed said firmly, glaring at his kinsman. “If you had seen their Faith in battle, as I have, you would not insult them.”
Crom said nothing more, but continued to glare.
“Perhaps first, we should get a general overview of where the situation stands,” Giles suggested. “Which hell dimension are we in, exactly?”
“Vor,” Brighid replied.
“Well, yes, but Vor is many dimensions,” Giles said patiently. “An empire, of sorts.”
“Vor is many, yet one,” Brighid said serenely.
She waved a hand over the stone table and the tiny bones on it stirred and became a pattern, a vast web hanging in the air.
“This is creation,” the fire demon continued, pointing. “Here, at the center, Earth, the foundation of all things, where once all things were. Around it, the fractured lands, which you call hell dimensions – those places the old kind took with them in the exodus, upon the rise of man. This is the beginning, when we were free.”
“Three, four eons past,” Brell supplied. “Give or take. Math not strong point.”
“This is Vor,” Brighid said, with for the first time a sliver of emotion in her voice, a hint of distaste.
The web began to change, a dark stain appearing and growing, pulling other threads towards itself, into a solid mass. The black distortion swelled, absorbing more and more, until it covered nearly half of the now-misshapen web. The dark almost surrounded the tiny white mark at the web’s center, where Brighid had proclaimed Earth to be.
“What is that?” Willow asked.
“That is Vor,” Brighid replied simply. “With each conquest, the land the Presidium takes is added to their own.”
“Holy assimilation, Batman,” Xander muttered.
“You mean, this is similar to our Ancient Rome?” Rowena asked. “Sorry, I’m assuming you know Earth history. Perhaps I should explain –”
“No,” Brighid said. “Conquest alone is not what happens.”
“You mean, the land is physically added to Vor, and then changed?” Giles asked.
“That’s impossible!” Willow exclaimed. “Isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is,” Brighid answered, with a hint of a shrug. “Yet it is done. This place was once Infernus, but now it is Vor. In every conquered land, the enemy sets its anchors in places of power and draws that land in, closing the rifts between planes – changing the landscape, Earth dwellers might say. The Presidium tried this once already on Earth,” she added with a slight frown.
“You mean the Engineer’s machine?” Willow asked. “That was one of these anchors? We thought it was to open the Hellmouth.”
“An unusual tactic,” Brighid said. “The destruction of the gateway – your ‘Hellmouth,’ half-open for so long – caused a readjustment of the web. For a time, your Earth swung close to the edge of the rift. At that moment, with a single anchor, it was very nearly caught and consumed. You were fortunate to avoid that fate.”
“Yeah.” Willow nodded slowly, her eyes wide.
“If this Vor is a single dimension,” Giles said in the ensuing silence, “how large is it?”
“Larger than Earth,” Kail said darkly. “With far more warriors and more fortresses.”
“But if it is one dimension, we can move freely,” Giles persisted. “We don’t have to use Hellmouth portals; other magic would suffice. We can come at their fortresses from anywhere, not just through a single Hellmouth in each place.”
“Yes,” Brighid said, “we can move as we wish, if we are cautious. But there is one fortress we cannot assail.”
She waved a hand again over the table, and the web dissolved into the image of a tower, an alien-looking structure, all razor edges and wickedly curved spires.
“This is the Citadel,” Creed said. “It is the Presidium’s home.”
“We know this from the minds of enemies taken,” Brighid added.
“It’d be a good place to hit, then,” Faith spoke up.
“Ha!” Crom barked.
“It would be a great prize,” Creed admitted, ignoring Crom’s outburst. “It is the heart of the Presidium’s magic and might. We have gained some knowledge of their defenses. At great cost, we once engaged the elite guard of their War Master, the one who calls himself Flayer. Any battle against them would be fierce and bloody. Yet we would gladly risk such a battle, if we believed we could win.”
“You can’t?” Xander asked.
“Strong magic protects the Citadel,” Brighid explained. “It is the heart of Vor, yet unreachable. The ether is distorted by the web the Presidium has woven. No portals but their own may breach the barrier.”
“This is our greatest weakness,” Creed admitted. “Other strongholds we can lay siege to, cripple and destroy, by marshaling our strength and striking when the time is right. Yet their greatest armies come forth from the Citadel, and those we can engage only at a time and place of their choosing.”
“Well, that’s no good,” Faith said. “Red, can we find their cubby hole?”
“It’ll take time,” Willow said thoughtfully. “If it’s possible at all. Don’t get me wrong,” she added quickly to Brighid, “I’m sure you’re very powerful and proficient, but there’s always the chance that a different method, even if it is a lesser one, could turn up something.”
“Yes,” Brighid nodded, “this is possible.”
“That would be the Coven’s first order of business,” Giles suggested.
“We’ll get on it right away,” Willow agreed.
“You have brought weapons also?” Crom prompted.
“Yes, Xander is overseeing their use,” Giles said.
“Show your weapons,” Kail said, stepping forward. “And Kail show you ours. We decide then how to best use what we have.”
“I’ll go talk to Jeff and Dawn,” Willow offered. “And Ethan, he might have some unconventional ideas.”
“Yes, I dare say he will,” Giles muttered.
Vor Hell Dimension – Council Quarters – Later
In a large cavern near the Hub, the members of the Council mission team were busy getting organized. Sections had been set aside for the kitchen, the Coven, sleeping and training.
In the Coven area, Jeff and Dawn were sorting through the boxes of magical inventory.
“What’s this?” Jeff asked, as he pulled, with great difficulty, a crate fitted with wheels across the stone floor. He peered inside, with Dawn looking over his shoulder.
“Troll hammer,” she said. “From a few years back. Don’t even bother trying to lift it. I think they pulled it out of the rubble after the London Council got bombed. Vi called dibs on it.”
“Hey guys,” Willow said, making her way through the bustle of slayers and watchers, over to where the small Coven had set up its workspace.
“How’d it go?” Dawn asked. “Are we in business?”
“We’re reasonably in business,” Willow said, “given the fact that demons hate humans as a rule and appear to be only barely tolerating each other.”
“So unlike humans,” Ethan commented from where he sat on a camp bed nearby.
Willow gave a little shrug. “Where’s your helper guy?” she asked, looking around.
“He, or it, or whatever, went to find the demon in charge,” Jeff said. “Lucy something.”
“Met her,” Willow nodded. “She’s creepy. But she’s looking at the laptop, so maybe we’re not as screwed on the technology front as we thought.”
“Good,” said a woman who had been sitting dejectedly behind Willow. She stood and strode purposefully over to the group. “Maybe she can take a look at me next?”
“Uh, okay,” Willow shrugged. “Miss…?”
“Gwen. My control chip shut down the moment we got here,” the woman said unhappily.
“She’s got elemental powers,” Jeff supplied. “She’s got an implant to moderate the energy, but it’s not working properly, so she can’t touch anyone until we get that sorted out. It’s not a high priority.”
Gwen glared sharply at Jeff.
“No offense,” he added quickly. “It’s just that there’s a lot to do, and, you know, probably not a lot of socializing going on, compared to the likelihood of having to fight, so it’s not like it’s a life-threatening problem as it stands, and –”
“Fine,” Gwen said with poor grace, and stalked off.
“Are you catching my babble?” Willow asked with a grin.
“When confronted by an angry woman who generates more electrical power than the Hover Dam, I think a little babble is in order,” Jeff said. “Um, we’re pretty much all set up here. All the supplies are accounted for and stored. We’ve tested a few spells and they work okay, give or take. The laptops are the thing. Without the spell cryptography programs, it could take a while to adjust to casting big stuff here. Plus, there’s the package from India.”
“We’ll leave that until we’re sure we have to use it,” Willow said. Then she addressed the group. “Guys, huddle up, we’ve got a big job to do here.”
“I don’t normally huddle,” Ethan said, getting to his feet. “I’m only doing this as a special favor because I like you.”
“Maybe,” Willow grinned, “but you like chaos more, Ethan. A world ruled by the Presidium doesn’t leave you much room to play in, does it?”
Ethan paused for just a moment, then shrugged. “Yes, you have a point.”
Vor Hell Dimension – Spire Armory – Same Time
In the level below the command center, Kail led Xander through the rebels’ makeshift armory.
“That’s a lot of medieval,” Xander said softly, gazing along the rows and rows of swords, maces, polearms, axes, shields and armor that lined the interior of the labyrinthine armory.
“We have many,” Kail nodded. “These, the best. We keep here, where Presidium has not walked. These,” she picked up a heavy mace, “Kail proud of. Own design, first ones made by own hands. Our gifted put magic inside.”
“Good workmanship,” Xander noted, inspecting the mace. Its head was unusual, hollow rather than solid, and tongues of flame billowed out of the tiny, crescent-shaped holes in the metal sphere. “So, does it set your enemies on fire when you hit them, something like that?”
“Watch,” Kail said, taking a step back.
She glanced down the aisle between the racks of weapons, taking sight at an empty rack at the end, then swung the heavy mace underarm, up and around. When it swung forward again, she gave it a flick with her wrist. A roiling bolt of fire leapt from the mace-head and streaked along the aisle, blasting the empty weapons rack to pieces.
“We are unlike you,” Kail said, “but our ways are not lesser. Only different.”
“Yeah, so I see,” Xander nodded. “Hey, sorry if I sounded a bit condescending there. I’m not one of those ‘demons are bad’ guys, you know. My last girlfriend – partner,” he clarified, at Kail’s confused expression, “was a vengeance demon. At least, part of the time she was. It was complicated.”
“Yes,” Kail nodded. “Your partner survived culling?”
“She died,” Xander said distantly, “when we beat the First Evil.” Then he turned to Kail with a questioning look. “Culling?”
“Vengeance demons are powerful,” Kail said. “Resisted Presidium for many generations. But not long past, D’Hoffryn fell, and the cull began. Few survive now. But none serve Presidium. They are proud.”
“Yeah, they are that,” Xander agreed with a sad grin. Kail looked at him quizzically, then ushered him down a side tunnel.
“Brell trusts you,” she said. “Kail trusts Brell…and to see you, you are good. See this then.”
They emerged together into a high cavern, with tier after tier of tunnel mouths and ledges running around its sides. Xander stared at the massive form within the cavern, taking in its titanic proportions, its rock-like wooden hide and the dozens of demons working on it, performing rituals and applying oils and dusts to its surface.
“So that’s what it looked like,” he murmured. “Willow was right, a wickerman gone feral.”
“This we took long ago,” Kail said, a note of pride in her voice. “Many died to bring it to us. More to learn its secrets. It is dangerous even without master. Yet we learn. Soon, perhaps with help from Council and Red Witch Brell speaks of, this dreadnought will live and fight for us.”
Vor Hell Dimension – Council Quarters – Same Time
Rowena approached Andrew as he fussed about a portable stove connected to a generator. Around him, a makeshift kitchen had been set up using empty storage boxes for counters and infirmary screens for walls. Volac stood by, watching keenly as Andrew fiddled with the stove.
“In your element already?” Rowena asked.
“Oh, hey Ro,” Andrew smiled. “Yeah, what can I say? I like the kitchen. It calls to me.”
“Some of the slayers are calling, too,” Rowena noted with a wry grin. “How soon is the food going to be on the table?”
“This is being just a bit temperamental,” Andrew said, pointing to the stove. “But no trouble, it’ll be fine in a few minutes. But there’re still the rations. One of Volac’s people did a spell to heat up a few rocks, so boiling water’s no problem.”
“I’m not sure if I’m that hungry yet,” Rowena muttered.
“The pork and scalloped potatoes is really good,” Andrew suggested. “If you close your eyes, you can totally forget it’s pre-packaged paste.” He looked at Rowena again, ignoring her feigned nauseous expression. “Back to civvies?” he asked, noting her clothing.
“That padded jacket chafed,” she complained.
“Yours too?” Andrew asked. “Mine was driving me nuts. Next time we do this, we should liberate a little dimension first, just to break in all our survival gear.”
“Yeah,” Rowena sighed. “Oh, what I came over here to say was, once you’ve got the kitchen going and can hand it over, could you go check with Dawn and Jeff? Willow said she’d like you in on what they’re doing.”
“Always glad to help,” Andrew said cheerfully. “Is Willow there?”
“No, she’s gone back to the Spire,” Rowena said. “She needs to talk to their Coven Leader, and she wants to ask about using the Mirror to contact the Council back on Earth, so we can let them know we’re doing okay.”
“So, everything’s good?” Andrew asked, fiddling with the stove again.
“Except for one stowaway, yes,” Rowena said.
“Stowaway?” Andrew turned. “What stowaway?”
Vor Hell Dimension – Council Quarters – Same Time
In the sleeping area of the Council’s cavern, a semblance of a dorm had been set up using camp beds and wall dividers. At the far end of the row of beds, some were getting some sleep, while others, out of earshot of those resting, were unpacking weights and some small exercise equipment. On this end of the row, Vi and Kennedy sat comfortably on their bunks.
“You are so strange,” Vi said flatly to Kennedy, who was cuddling her dragon and tickling its stomach.
“She just couldn’t bear to be away from her mommy,” Kennedy said, grinning at her tiny companion. “You’re such a sweet little girl. Oh look, she did the brushing-her-nose-with-her-paw thing again!”
“You’re tickling the stomach of a fire-breathing, flying lizard,” Vi said. “You know what? You’re going soft.”
“You’re just pissed ’cause she keeps beating you at pool,” Kennedy replied. “Besides, as if you wouldn’t jump at the chance to tickle Xander’s stomach, huh?”
Vi blushed. “Yeah, well,” she said quickly, “that may be some time away.”
“How come?” Kennedy asked. “You said he dumped Alex, and you were grinning like the Cheshire Cat when you got back from the workshop. Tell me they didn’t get back together, please.”
“No, nothing like that,” Vi said. “For once, I think we’re actually both on the same page. It’s just…whenever it seems like something’s about to happen, something happens.”
“You lost me,” Kennedy said. Even the dragon looked confused.
“I mean something else,” Vi explained. “Something other than the something I want to be happening. The fire alarm goes off, I get a call, he gets a call…we’re cursed. Literally cursed. It’s either him, or it’s me, or it’s both of us. I don’t know, but whenever we get within kissing distance, something pops up and spoils the moment.”
“So, kiss him anyway.” Kennedy shrugged.
“I should,” Vi sulked. “But I want it to be different. I’ve had too many kisses that are just ‘hi, like you, press lips together’ and that’s it. That’s how it’s been with the other guys I’ve known.”
“Who, as I’ve mentioned, have been jerks,” Kennedy pointed out.
“Yeah,” Vi agreed. “But Xander’s not like that, and I know I’m not grasping at something just to fill a gap. I really want this to work, and I want to do it right.” She shook her head and grinned at herself. “I want to look back someday and say ‘oh, remember the first time we kissed?’ and not have the next sentence be ‘yeah, then you got called away on patrol and I had to go stop the workshop from exploding.'”
“Ah,” Kennedy nodded sagely, “an idealist.”
“Maybe,” Vi admitted. “But you know him pretty well. Wouldn’t you say he’s worth a bit of idealism?”
“You’re asking the wrong girl,” Kennedy laughed. “No, seriously…he’s a good guy. And I’m happy for you. Just don’t leave it too long, even if things do keep cropping up. Romance is all fine and good, but sometimes you just need to get out of the car and push.”
Vi shrugged. “Yeah, I guess.”
A small silence passed between them until Kennedy spoke up again.
“But on to a more pressing issue,” she began.
“The Presidium,” Vi said.
“No.” Kennedy shook her head. “Do you think I should cut my hair when we get back? Seriously? I’ve been thinking about it.”
Vi looked confused for a moment and then started to laugh. “What the hell, go for it,” she answered, throwing her hands in the air.
Kennedy smiled and went back to petting her dragon.
Earth – Cemetery – Later
Heli saw Buffy standing motionless in the distance, staring down at a headstone. The Finnish slayer walked over to her, exchanged a nod when Buffy noticed her and finally came to stand by her side.
“Problem?” Buffy asked.
“No, not yet,” Heli said. “I mean, there will be, sooner or later.”
“There always is,” Buffy nodded with a faint grin. She looked back at the headstone. “Never been here before,” she went on quietly. “I was out on safari when it happened…two weeks before I got back to civilization. By then, it was all over…I thought it’d just dredge up the grief for everyone if I showed up late, for Will especially.” She shook her head. “No, that’s not exactly true,” she sighed. “It was easier staying away. It didn’t seem real that way – at least not until I got to the Council today and she wasn’t around.”
Heli gently put a hand on Buffy’s shoulder as they both stared at the name on the headstone: Marsha Parsons.
“You’re not alone in that,” Heli admitted. “The first few weeks, I kept coming out here. It was actually easier to be here than at home without her.”
“It shouldn’t be like this,” Buffy said somberly. “We shouldn’t be here, waiting to find out who’s coming back…who might not be.”
“It shouldn’t be,” Heli agreed. “But it is.”
“Pretty much everyone I care about is in a war zone,” Buffy lamented. She glanced at Heli. “Uh, no offense, you know…”
“It’s okay, I know you don’t care about me at all,” Heli deadpanned.
Buffy giggled, then looked down at her belt as her pager vibrated.
“Signal from Vor,” Heli said, reading the LCD screen on her pager. “Sooner than we expected. I brought a car. You want a lift back?”
“Thanks,” Buffy nodded.
As Heli turned and departed as quickly as was decent in a cemetery, Buffy knelt down, reaching out to touch the letters carved into the stone.
“Wherever you are, I hope it’s as good as I remember,” she whispered. “And if it’s not, you find whoever’s in charge and kick their ass until it is, okay?” She smiled sadly. “Okay.”
Vor Hell Dimension – Spire Armory – Later
Xander glanced up to see Willow enter, looking pensive. He set down the gyroscope he had been fiddling with and turned to Mia, who was patiently loading liquid-filled bullets into clips for the P90s.
“Hey, Mia, think you could round us up some coffee?”
“Sure thing,” the slayer replied. “Be back in a jiff.”
Xander nodded a thank-you as the slayer put aside her work and left.
“So…” Xander began, as Willow sat next to him. “How’re things?”
“Could be better, could be worse,” she shrugged. “Creepy-gal has figured out how to enchant a laptop so it’ll work, Giles has been making headway with the demon leadership, we’ve gotten the okay to use the Mirror to contact our HQ back on Earth, and when I checked in at the research room last, it sounded like their scholars and our watchers were managing to work together.”
“Well, that’s good,” Xander nodded. “So, we’re on track, huh? I guess all that fretting Giles did about his diplomacy-fu paid off. Go G-man and his oral skills!” He paused and frowned.
“I wish you’d found some other way to phrase that,” Willow noted with a similar frown.
“Me too,” Xander agreed. “So, what brings you down to the Ba –”
“Xander, if you say Bat Cave one more time, I’m just gonna have to hurt ya. You’re starting to sound like Andrew.”
Xander laughed sheepishly, then corrected himself. “So, what brings you down to the armory?”
Willow shrugged and sighed deeply. “Oh, I just thought I’d see how you were doing, see if you needed a hand, or…you know, anything.” She looked uneasily at the stacks of crates they had received from the military.
“Thought you’d take another horrified peek at the arsenal?” Xander guessed.
Willow gave him a sad smile. “It’s silly, isn’t it?” she said quickly. “I mean, it’s not like a stake’s all nice and friendly – big sharp bit of wood, jam it in something’s heart, not a pretty image. Plus, splinters, ow. And really, crossbows aren’t any different, just more, well, more –”
“I get it,” Xander said quietly, reaching an arm around Willow’s shoulders. “No pleasant memories of firearms here, either.”
Willow nodded and sighed again. They stared for a moment at the stacks containing crate after crate of assault rifles.
“So, what’s your plan for the day?” Xander broke the silence, suddenly flashing a bright, if slightly brittle, smile.
“Oh, um,” Willow answered, “well, I’m pretty busy, working with Ethan and the Coven on this Citadel business, and meeting with demons from the Coven and Mage Orders here – though hopefully not with their Coven Mistress too much, ’cause being hit on by creepy demonesses isn’t exactly my idea of a good time.”
“After a while, you get used to it,” Xander shrugged nonchalantly.
Willow grinned, then went on. “I was thinking I’d go see if I could get a few minutes alone with Ro somewhere we’re not in immediate and constant demand. You know, just so I can remember what she looks like and all that.”
“I deem that a plus-five plan of goodness,” Xander nodded approvingly. He glanced sidelong at Willow and shrunk slightly beneath her gaze. “Okay, so I have been hanging out with Andrew too much.”
“Told ya,” Willow said, shaking her head and smirking.
“Scoot, you,” Xander finally ordered affectionately. “Go get your girl.”
“Okay, okay,” Willow nodded, getting to her feet. “What about you?”
“Well, I’m not saying Ro isn’t hot,” Xander said seriously, “but I can’t really claim it’d be for medicinal purposes –” He broke off with a smile as Willow whacked him lightly in the back of the head. “I got work to do here, so scoot!” he repeated.
“I’m a-scootin’,” Willow replied.
Earth – Watchers Council – Coven Room – Moments Later
Buffy rushed through the door to find Althenea, Skye and Becca waiting for her, standing around the hovering polished stone that was their only link to Vor. Skye stood aside to let her see the stone’s surface and the image on it.
“Dawnie!” Buffy exclaimed, moving forward, then stopping sheepishly. “Uh…you know, I think I almost hugged a rock.
“Hey,” Dawn frowned, “what you do in your spare time, I don’t want to know.” Buffy crossed her arms and huffed as the others in the room stifled their giggles.
“Okay,” Buffy said. “I’m back to finding you irritating.”
“As it should be,” Dawn said seriously, before a tiny grin escaped. “Look, they’re saying to wrap this up; they need the magic for other stuff or something. I’ve told Al everything. In a nutshell, we’re all okay, things look good and I’ll call back later. Our friends want a Coven member doing this, so I’ve kind of been elected communications girl. I’m glad I got to see you.”
“Me too,” Buffy said sincerely. “Everyone’s okay, then?”
“Yeah, so far,” she answered. “Have you spoken to the other delegations on Earth?”
“The handful that are left around here, yeah,” Buffy answered. “Everyone’s in a holding position.”
“That’s good, that’s good,” Dawn said with a nod. “Everyone at the home base is okay?”
“Yeah, us left-behinds are bored silly, and no one’s water has broken, so we’re good.” Buffy pitched a thumb to Becca behind her, who grinned and waved.
“Now you did it,” Dawn teased. “If Becca pops out a little Giles without him around, I’m telling him it’s your fault. You jinxed her.”
“Tattletale,” Buffy retorted sarcastically. “Everything’s good, so don’t worry about us. You just keep your wits about you over there, ‘kay?”
Dawn simply smiled and let the comment go.
“Skye…” she hesitated. She shook her head and brought her hand into view, pressed flat against the stone. Skye stepped forward and met it with her hand, as if they were touching through the distance between them.
“I know,” she said quietly. Dawn gave a smile, then her image blurred and faded back into the smooth stone.
Buffy turned to Althenea. “Can you inform the other areas that we’ve made contact from Vor?” she asked.
“Certainly, Miss Summers,” Althenea said with a quick nod. Then she left the room.
“Miss Summers,” Buffy said quietly to Skye. “I sound like such a grownup now. That must be why my shoulders suddenly feel heavier.”
Skye smiled and patted Buffy on the back. Then she led Buffy and Becca from the room.
Vor Hell Dimension – Spire Command Center – Later
Willow and Rowena arrived in the command chamber, with Giles a few steps behind them. They found Faith already there with the demon leaders.
“The messenger said you needed us?” Rowena asked, as they hurried over to Faith.
“There has been a fortuitous development,” Creed rumbled. “This way.”
Brighid waved a fiery hand over a strange circle inscribed on the floor and stood back as it began to peel open. The rock seemed to liquefy and flow into itself, opening a steeply-descending passageway. The moment it was wide enough, Creed started down, followed by the others.
Vor Hell Dimension – Spire Prisoner Chamber – Same Time
“They caught someone,” Faith explained as she, Giles, Willow and Rowena followed. “They do hit-and-runs on Presidium scout forces, and one of them netted a bigwig. Miss Hot Pants said you guys might be able to do something with him.”
“Why not them?” Willow asked.
“I only got the gist of it,” Faith said. “Apparently, the Presidium enchants their top guys to keep other demons from getting into their heads. They think humans might have a better shot at it.”
“Some kind of telepathy spell might work,” Giles suggested. As he spoke, the tunnel leveled out and began to widen into a chamber whose walls were inscribed with glowing red runes. “But it would be profoundly unpleasant for the subject.”
“Win-win situation,” Faith shrugged.
Willow frowned. “Well, we should keep in mind that a lot of the Presidium’s servants are unwilling,” she offered. “I’m not saying we should go easy on them, but if there are other options, we should look into those first…”
Her voice trailed off as she caught sight of the figure standing amid a circle of demon guards, bound with heavy chains, radiating hostility from the faceless dark within his steel mask.
“In this case, though,” Willow added, her voice hardening, “the kid gloves are definitely off.”
“You recognize him?” Giles asked.
“That’s the son of a bitch who killed Marsha,” Faith sneered.
End of Act Two