A/N: This is something that has been kicking around for a while and been working on it, slowly. I've had two computer crashes, lost all of my files and have been trying hard to rewrite, for the THIRD time, my other story. While I haven't given it up I need something else to work the ol' synapses out. So, hope you guys enjoy. Takes place right after "The Zeppo" in Buffy. Spoilers for all of Buffy and all of A:TLA just in case. Oh, also, I own nothing since far more intelligent people than myself got paid to come up with this stuff.
Fire surrounded him. The ground itself seemed to be made of the stuff and the heat of it began to blister some of his exposed skin but didn’t burn him outright. Wherever he looked, all he was able to see were flames and the burnt area the fire had already consumed. How the fire started, where it came from to begin with, was a mystery. Why he was in the middle of it, however, wasn’t. He deserved to be there. It was his place in the world, surrounded by the terrible savagery and beauty that the fire held. It wasn’t hell, but at the moment it felt close enough to it.
With a feral cry, the young man leapt through the wall of flame before him, feeling it as it seared his flesh but still, he did not burn. Landing on his feet, the fire behind him now, he was able to properly see the destruction that the fire had caused. There had once been a forest off to the left but no trees stood now. All that was left was ash, soot, and the burnt fallen limbs of the great woods. To his right there was a cavernous hole that dropped off every few yards and inside, he knew that a body of water had once been there. Now it was nothing more than a dry canyon. His eyes fastened on what was in front of him and the sight almost brought him to his knees.
Bodies. Rows and rows of bodies stretched out before him as far as he could see. All of them had been affected by the fires as well. All of them were horribly disfigured, twisted and warped by the intense heat into forms that would have made it difficult to tell who they were let alone that they were actually human. Likewise, their flesh had all but melted off, some of it looking like melted wax. Like him, the heat would hurt them but refused to burn. There was no way to know who they were due to the damage done to them, except he knew. Instinctually he knew who the few bodies that were laid out before him were. Their faces, while disfigured, were clean enough for him to see with crystal clarity the anguish and torment each of them had went through. Their mouths open in soundless screams that would have torn their throats open if they had been able to.
Suddenly, his eyes opened and he found himself in darkness. It took him a moment, but finally Alexander Harris realized that he was in his bed. There was no fire. There were no bodies, only darkness and the sound of his heart threatening to burst through his chest. Letting out a shuddering breath, Xander wiped his hand across his face and found it damp with sweat. Not exactly surprising, really. At least this time he hadn’t wet his bed. One time was enough, thank you very much.
Once he found his strength, he swung his legs over the side of his bed and made his way to the bathroom down the hall from his room. He didn’t worry about making too much noise since his parents were passed out from another drunken night and wouldn’t wake up unless the world was ending. The light hurt his eyes when he turned it on and he squinted as he turned the faucet and splashed his face with cold water. It was enough of a shock that his eyes flew wide open and he got a good look at himself in the mirror.
Dark circles and bags surrounded his eyes as he stared at them. His hair was messy and unkempt due to all the tossing and turning he had done while asleep. The smile that he usual had when he was with his friends was gone and in its place was serious almost sad look. This was the face he wore every time he woke up. It was the face he was beginning to wear more often when he was alone as well. After all, how was he supposed to look when he kept dreaming about his friends being horribly killed almost every night?
It had started a little over a year ago, a month or so after Halloween. Yes, that Halloween, the one where some jackass named Ethan Rayne had went ahead and turned almost everyone into whoever or whatever they had been dressed up as. Willow had been turned into a ghost, Buffy into some noble woman and Xander…well, no one really knew what he turned into. No one remembered seeing him all night and Xander couldn’t remember a damn thing after the spell hit. He had meant to go as a wizard. He had bought a simple wooden staff from Ethan’s store, after all the toy guns were gone, and had borrowed a robe from Giles. He had even went to the trouble of carving in some runes and symbols he had taken out of one of the books in the library after he made sure they were safe. When he should have been changed along with the rest of them something must have happened because instead of a night of casting spells or whatever the hell wizards did, he had woken up sitting in a field far from town.
There hadn’t been any lasting effects from the spell, no one could do anything different or special, but he couldn’t even remember anything. Nothing about whoever he had turned into. Not even anything from that night. Giles had rationalized it by saying that if it had been a wizard he had turned into, a real wizard, then they may have taken any memory he had of that night in order to keep whatever they did or knew a secret. They had no real way of knowing and, while concerned, Giles said that he had nothing to worry about after they were positive that he didn’t remember a thing. Nothing to worry about, maybe, but it didn’t make him feel any better.
A few weeks later, the dreams started. At first Xander didn’t even remember them, just the vague sense of unease whenever he woke up. As time went on, he began to remember bits and pieces of them. Soon he experienced them in full Technicolor with surround sound. Not only that but parts of them were lingering when he woke. His skin would feel flush and hot to the touch for one thing. He would also swear that he could smell burnt...everything on his clothes for the brief few seconds when he didn’t know if he was dreaming or awake yet. They had been getting more and more intense as time wore on and had recently been getting more detailed. As of late, the newest thing was the bodies.
He knew all of them by face, by name. They were his friends, people he cared about, both past and present. Willow. Buffy. Giles. Even Cordelia and Jesse where present in the field of tormented bodies in his dreams. Even his family was present, though God only knew why. He didn’t know what it meant, but it was horrible. Out of everything, it was the worst part of the dreams by and large. Since he had started seeing them like that he hadn’t been sleeping much. Usually when he woke up from his nightmares he’d calm down and go back to bed. Now he just stayed awake and as he looked at himself in the mirror it was easy to see that it was starting to get to him.
Once he relieved himself and was back in his room, Xander glanced at the clock and was happy to see that it was at least a quarter to five. He had made himself stay up as late as he could stand so that way when he was woken up he would have the least amount of time alone before he headed for school. He could deal with being on his own before he slept but for some reason, sitting and doing nothing, waiting for the time when he could be near the people he cared about drove him nuts. At least last night had provided him with more than enough distractions and kept him up for a good while. Then again, fighting zombies, having sex with Faith, stopping the school from blowing up and having sex with Faith, were more than enough to keep anyone distracted. Especially the having sex with Faith bit.
Sitting on his bed, Xander tried to find something to do with his mind other then think about the fact that he and Faith had slept together. It wasn’t that he was tired of thinking about it, not at all. But if he kept thinking about it was libel to run over to her motel and beg not to be thrown out this time. He was still a man, in his own mind anyway, and that meant he had to have at least some pride. Maybe not a whole lot when he considered the rest of his life but he had to draw the line somewhere.
As he looked around his room, he went through the routine of looking for something, anything, to occupy himself with to while away the hours. He had exhausted all of his comic books, magazines and CD’s. He had even tried to catch up on his school work for a brief period but that ended shortly after he realized that it was making him fall asleep and putting him dangerously close to going back into his nightmare. It was depressing how little there really was to do when you had enough spare time. He wasn’t a deep thinker, not in the way Willow or Giles was. They could spend all of these hours he had free combing through book after book and still be ready for more.
Finally, after he looked at every spare inch of his room, searching in vain, his eyes fell on the closet door. Every night this happened, just like with the dreams. He would wake up, try to find something to do in a room with nothing in it, and he would find himself staring at that door. It wasn’t the closet so much as what was in it. With a determined sigh, Xander got up, opened the door, and took out the plain wooden staff from Halloween.
It wasn’t light but it wasn’t large enough that you could really call it heavy. When he placed the end on the floor it came up about an inch or so above his head and was about as thick as his two thumbs. The balance on it was a little off, weighing a bit more on one end then the other, but he couldn’t tell why. It seemed perfectly even from the look of it. Someone had gone to great length to smooth it down and at one point there might have even been a shine to it. Now there were a variety of nicks and tiny dents that made it look more like someone was had used it as a weapon than if it had been used for magic. The worst part was that when he held it, it felt right in his hands. That alone should have been enough for him to get rid of the damn thing but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Whatever the reason was, it kept him from tossing the staff out and it was probably what kept him from telling anyone about the dreams he had been having, though his own pride and shame also helped on that part.
Rolling the staff back and forth in his hands, Xander sat heavily in the chair at his desk and stared out the window. Soon the sun would be up enough that he could go outside and get some fresh air. It was too dangerous to do so at night even if it was almost over. There could be any number of late night stragglers out on the streets of Sunnydale waiting to snatch someone up and have them for a late dinner. The Hellmouth was a bitch in that regards but at least now Xander was well aware of it. Who knows what idiotic things he would have done if he didn’t know about vampires and demons and pain in the ass chaos mage’s?
A soft tap from outside broke through Xander’s musing. Looking toward the window, he stared at it a full minute before it came again. It was soft but sharp. It sounded as if something was hitting the window but who in the hell would be tossing things at this time? Hell, who would be throwing things at the window at any time? Rising, he made his way to the window and pulled back the small curtain, peering outside. It was dark enough that there were plenty of shadows that anyone could hid in and it took him a moment before he was able to make out anything that wasn’t in direct light that could have been making the noise. Across the street, hidden in the darkness by a house was a man that looked like he had stepped out of a bad detective novel. A long coat and what looked like dark clothes were all he could see, the man’s features were too well hidden by the shadows to tell anything else.
Logic told him to stay inside where he was relatively safe. It told him that he should call Buffy or Giles or someone that would be able to back him up or come in for a rescue should he need it. All of that made pure, simple, sense and it was what he should do. For whatever reason though, he ignored that part of his brain that screamed at him to stay inside, grabbed a shirt and ran out of his bedroom and out the front door. Only after he was outside, his shirt thrown on backwards and inside out, did he notice that he still had the staff in his hands. Stopping before he crossed the street, Xander lifted the staff into what he thought would be a semi-defensive pose.
“Alright, who’s out here?” Xander asked, his voice sounding louder in the silence of the early morning. Despite the fact that he was closer, he still wasn’t able to make out who the man was still. At least until he spoke.
“I’m sorry. Is this where I introduce myself and divulge the whole reason to my being here?” The voice was British and even without seeing his face, Xander had the impression that he was smiling. “Sorry, that’s not exactly how this is going to work.”
“Rayne? Ethan Rayne?” Xander asked confused. His arms dropped a little bit in surprise, still trying to see the man’s face.
Stepping out Ethan was in fact grinning, his hands stuck deep inside his trench coat. His eyes flicked to the staff in Xander’s hands and his grin faltered a bit but he recovered quickly. “It’s nice to be remembered.”
“OK, so now that you’ve shown up all mystery man like, what do you want? You’re not going door to door selling candy, are you? Cause let me tell ya, you can put me down for a whole case of that stuff.”
“Sorry, all out,” Ethan said with a shrug. His smile vanished and his eyes grew a bit darker. “You have twenty-four hours. You will meet me past the town limits, alone.”
“After twenty-four hours, I’ll come looking for you. Trust me, young man. You don’t want me looking for you.”
Apparently that was all Ethan had wanted to say. He nodded his head, took a few steps back and disappeared into the shadows. Xander stared after him for a moment straining his eyes to make sure that Ethan hadn’t just hidden himself really well.
“OK,” he said to himself. “That wasn’t the least bit creepy. Nope, not at all.”
The wind picked up a bit and caused some dry leaves to rustle through the trees making Xander jump. He realized that he was outside, exposed, and alone. Turning his head to each side, Xander started backing away to the relative safety of his house. Nothing seemed like it was waiting to jump out and kill him but that didn’t mean that there wasn’t anything. Hell, Ethan Rayne had just popped out of nowhere and then walked away into the freaking shadows, so he wasn’t really counting anything out.
Speaking of, why the hell did Ethan show up like that in the first place? For that matter, why to him? He had said that he had only a day to meet him outside of the town but didn’t say why or what it was about, not that he expected him to. Ethan seemed a bit smarter than the usual villains that he and the gang went up against. The guy had even joked about not falling into that clichéd role. It didn’t help to explain anything, and Xander didn’t really think that he would be able to make any sense of this on his own. The only thing he knew was that Ethan had given him a time limit, had given him of all people a time limit to meet him.
He needed Giles. He needed Buffy. More importantly, he needed them fast.
Making his way through the crowded halls, Xander headed for the library hoping to catch Giles before classes started. Hell, who was he kidding? He wasn’t going to let a little thing like class get in-between him saving his own skin. Besides, it wasn’t as he would be paying any attention anyway if he was there. He would have much rather preferred to have slept in this morning after last night’s zombie fiasco but no, he had to run around trying to not get killed or kidnapped or whatever the hell Ethan had planned.
Opening the doors with more force than necessary, Xander startled a weary and obviously pained looking Giles. The older man had been sitting in a chair by one of the tables that had been moved to the far side of the Library. His arm was in a cast and had a bandaged on his forehead. There were dark circles under his eyes as well, almost as if he hadn’t slept at all. When he jumped up from the noise his face cringed in pain and he forced himself to ease up instead, his good arm clutching his left ribs.
With wide eyes, Xander took in the Library. “Whoa. Giles, what happened?” The floor had a large hole in it. Almost as large as it had the night the Hellmouth had opened up a couple of years back. In fact, it was in the same exact place as well. Xander may not have had the reputation for being the smartest of the Scooby Gang, or in the school or even the town, but he wasn’t as dumb as people thought. Besides, a gaping hole right above the Hellmouth coupled with everyone acting really bizarre last night made things really simple to put together.
“Giles, when...when did this happen?” Xander continued to stare at the hole in the floor while slowly making his way over to Giles.
“Uh, last night as a matter of fact,” Giles said wincing in pain as he straightened himself. “It was the Sisterhood. They tried to open the Hellmouth.”
“I, uh, I guess since we’re all still here they didn’t succeed.”
Giles smirked despite his pain. “No. I suppose they didn’t.”
“No one told me,” Xander said softly. He knew that they had been pushing him away last night, that he was being kept out of whatever was going on, but he didn’t think it was something like this. Things had been so hectic last night that he hadn’t even had time to be hurt by it. But now, seeing what could have happened, what his friends tried to push him away from, the hurt came back. Things had gotten bad last night and they didn’t think he would handle it. How else was he supposed to feel?
Ignoring the pain he felt, Xander shook his head and got down to business. “Whatever. Giles, we have a problem. Ethan Rayne came to pay me a visit last night.”
“Dear Lord,” Giles said, his face growing serious. “What happened? What did he say?”
“He wants me to meet him. Tomorrow morning, outside of town. He was really digging the creepy vibe. Disappeared right into the shadows after he said his piece.” Xander dropped his bag on the table and let out a breath. “I’m serious, Giles. He came out of nowhere and vanished.”
“He snuck into your bedroom?” Giles asked.
“Eh, sort of. But kind of not the point here.”
“Yes. Right.” Giles got a thoughtful expression on his face for a moment, clearly working out the problem. “The last time Ethan was in town he was hired by Mr. Trick. He didn’t want to gain our attention but for whatever reason he’s come out in the open. Not only making himself known but making demands as well. The only question is, why you, Xander? He didn’t come after either myself or even Buffy, but you.”
“Yeah, that’s about the gist of it,” Xander nodded. He waited a few moments watching as Giles continued to think.
Running a hand through his hair, Giles started to look angry. “Dammit, I haven’t a clue as to what Ethan’s playing at this time. Ethan was always unpredictable but only to certain degrees. Most of the time I could at least get a vague idea as to what games he was playing but this time…damn!”
“Well, this makes me feel a whole lot better,” Xander joked darkly.
With a sympathetic look, Giles said, “I’m only saying that I don’t know at the moment, Xander. Give me some time and we’ll track down Ethan before he said to meet him. I may not know what he’s playing at, but he won’t get whatever it is he’s after.”
After a moment, Xander sighed and felt some of the tension release itself from his shoulders. He didn’t realize how much he was relying and wanting of Giles help. He didn’t think about how scared he was until this very moment. Ethan may have only shown up less than a handful of times but each one had caused more problems than your typical vampire. At least with them, you understood what they wanted and knew what to do. Ethan was far from that easy to figure out and he needed Giles, he needed his friends, to help him with it.
Though now that fear was hitting him, hard. Without knowing exactly what the chaos mage wanted from him, his mind was wandering to all sorts of dark scenarios. It couldn’t be something as simple as just wanting him dead. If that was the case, there really wasn’t much he could do to stop him and he would have done it earlier this morning. So, he wanted to take him somewhere, he needed him for something. Whatever it was, Xander doubted that it involved soft fuzzy things and a cash prize.
At least he had help now, he had Giles. The man who knew pretty much everything as far as Xander was concerned, and whatever he didn’t know he had a book on it. It wasn’t exactly a secret that Buffy, Willow, and himself had grown closer to the man over the years and battles they fought together. Xander probably wouldn’t go as far as to say that he was father figure to them, but was the only positive male role model that he has had in a long time. Even if Buffy, and by extension, Giles, were pushing him out of the front lines he had no doubt in his mind that the older man would be there to help him.
Giles nodded his head and began thinking out loud again. “The first thing we’ll need to do is let Buffy know. I don’t know if she’ll be in early or not, everything considered but-”
“Let Buffy know what?”
Both men turned to the library doors to find Buffy walking in. She was slightly stiff as she made her way over. Apparently whatever they fought last night had a major wallop to it if the Slayer was still nursing injuries. She never completely healed over night but to be walking the way she was and with her left arm hanging a bit looser at her side meant that she was going to be less than a hundred percent for at least another day or two.
“Giles, what happened?” Buffy asked.
OK, scratch that, Xander amended. Whatever went down here last night didn’t just hurt Buffy physically but still had her spooked mentally. She jumped into Slayer mode way to fast.
Picking up on it as well, Giles placed his good hand on her shoulder in a calming fashion. “It’s OK, Buffy, relax. We just...have a bit of a situation is all.”
Looking confused, Buffy turned to Xander who only shrugged in response. “Ethan’s out to get me.”
Blinking once, Buffy opened her mouth to respond, thought better of it, and blinked again. “What?”
With more detail this time, not that there was much more, Xander went over what happened earlier that morning. Buffy wasn’t skeptical of his story at least, but was more convinced that it was a trick to either lure herself or Giles into a trap. It made sense, in a kind of insulting way. After all, who was Xander in the grand scheme of things?
“Assuming that you’re right, Buffy, what would be the point? It would be much easier to come after either of us through different channels than it would through Xander,” Giles said. “Ethan has always been a rather straight forward opponent, even back when we were friends. Yes, he may attack you from the sides and use misdirection in his plans but they were always something that you could see coming. He never went after someone who he didn’t want to, didn’t have any issue with.”
“Giles, we’re talking about a guy who turned everyone into their costumes just for his own sick amusement. He tried to sick that demon thing on me after that and then made everyone revert to teenagers just so someone could steal babies for a sacrifice. Babies, Giles! I don’t put anything past him.” Buffy fumed for a moment, her eyes going hard with anger.
“I understand your feelings but we need to go after this with a clear head. At the moment, we know nothing more then what Ethan told Xander. Our first priority should be trying to locate Ethan before they have to meet.”
Xander shook his head. “So…what? We hit the streets and just start shouting his name? Cause I’m pretty sure that he won’t come out to play just cause we asked him to.”
“Then we ask nicely.” Buffy smiled without any humor.
“Would this nice way have anything to do with punching and possible beating up some things?”
“Oh, you can pretty much bet on that. It’s too early for Willies to be open but there are a few other places in town that might know something.” Buffy started to turn around but winced and faltered. She had spun on her heels to fast and her ribs had protested causing her pain.
“Why don’t I come with, Buff?” He saw her about to protest but beat her to the punch. “He made this about me. I need to help you on this one. Besides, if he jumps the gun I’m better protected being near you rather than by myself, right?”
She wanted to argue but he had made sure that it was all about protecting him rather than the fact that she wasn’t up to her usual game. Even the Slayer needed someone to watch her back once in a while but if he had brought it to her that way, she would have shot him down. This way, her ego was intact and she had backup.
“Giles, if Willow comes in-” Buffy started only to have Giles interrupt her.
“I’ll let her know what’s going. I wasn’t hit that hard on the head.” He offered her a small smile which she returned, if only a bit sadder. “There is one thing that’s been bothering me about what Ethan said to you, Xander.”
“Oh? What’s that?”
“Why would he want to meet you outside of the town limits? He’s worked in Sunnydale before. I can see no reason why this would be any different.”
Neither Buffy or Xander had an answer for him. As the left, they could only hope that they wouldn’t find out before it was too late.
Almost the whole day had passed before Buffy and Xander had decided to return to the library. As they walked down the street towards the school, neither was in a good mood. Everywhere they turned for answers had been a bust. No one knew anything about Ethan being back in Sunnydale and the only thing that anyone was planning was a demon turf war that was being settled with kittens of all things. After all that time, they still were left with nothing and time was winding down.
Was Xander starting to get worried? No, not at all. He was too used to things getting done at the eleventh hour to be too concerned. Right now he would say he was more nervous than worried. Maybe a bit scared, but who wouldn’t be right? But no, not worried. Not in the slightest. His legs just felt like rubber cause of all the walking they had been doing.
He didn’t trust himself to drive, which was not because of his concern, or lack thereof, and letting Buffy behind the wheel was completely out of the question. Forget about Ethan, Buffy would have him finished off. So they walked everywhere. Oddly enough, he wasn’t really tired from it. He knew he should be, but he felt comfortable walking long distances ever since the Halloween with Ethan, one of the few changes that he was able to quantify. The dreams were the other and he’d rather not have them to begin with or even think about it.
“So, Hellmouth opened, huh?” Xander said out of nowhere. He had laid off the subject all day, not even hinting at it. They had more important things to worry about than her pushing him away from the fighting, from the “danger” that Sunnydale provided. He wasn’t even sure why he asked now of all times, but it was as good a time as any.
Buffy stiffened at the question but didn’t falter in her steps. She didn’t say anything at first, just kept walking, though when her steps slowed a bit, Xander matched her pace.
“It’s getting too dangerous, Xand. Last night proved it. We barely survived it and...” Buffy stopped herself, trying to find the right words.
“And you guys all have super powers, I get it,” Xander finished for her. “But what does that have to do with anything? How many times have I put myself on the line for you, Buff? I’ve been with you, every step of the way.”
“I know that!” she snapped. Letting out a sigh, Buffy calmed herself before speaking. “I know that. It’s why I don’t want you to get hurt. I care too much about you to let anything happen to you.”
“You do remember where we live, right? Are you gonna pack up my stuff and ship me off some place? This is still my town, it’s where I live. The schools over the freaking mouth of hell, for Christ sake. I’m never going to be safe, Buffy. Not as long as I live here. Not as long as I know what’s out there.”
“Yeah, but you won’t be putting yourself in danger because of me. You won’t have to deal with all of the strangeness and all the death that goes with knowing the Slayer,” Buffy said quietly.
Xander wanted to be angry. He wanted to yell at her for making up his mind for him, for not even talking to him about it first. He wanted to remind her that she wouldn’t even be standing here right now if it wasn’t for him. Let her know that he had saved her life along with everyone else’s just last night all by himself. He wanted to do all of those things, but he didn’t. A small part of him told himself to relax, to calm down and think it through. He had always had that little voice inside his head but usually his emotions got the better of him. As of late, though, the voice had been winning out more and more.
So, he listened and thought about it. Buffy was angry, that was obvious. More than that, she was worried. She didn’t want him to get hurt because of her. When she looked at the others, she saw people that could take care of themselves but also people that would and could fight her if she tried to push them out. He couldn’t and she was using that against him. She wasn’t just doing this for him, she was doing this for herself. If he was in her shoes, could he really say that he wouldn’t want to do the same? Would he be able to handle the death of someone close to him if he thought that it had happened because of him?
Something inside of him whispered, Never again.
“I get it, Buffy. I really do.” He watched as she arched an eyebrow in disbelief before continuing. “I get it, but that doesn’t change anything. You’re worried that I’m going to do something stupid and get killed. OK, I’ll give you that. But I can’t walk away from this. I know too much, seen too much.”
“I can stop you,” She told him half heartedly.
Chuckling, he gave her a quick smile. “Yea, you could. But you won’t.”
Punching him in the arm, Buffy smiled herself as Xander winced and tried not to show it. “I get it, OK. You won’t back down with this. But...you have to be more careful.”
Their conversation was halted as they reached the school grounds. Hardly anyone was left on campus at this time of day but off to the side a construction crew where setting up some equipment and bringing it inside. A few planks of wood where piled off to one side which Xander could only guess meant that they were there to repair the library. If that hadn’t given them away, Giles and Willow standing over by the main doors made it clear. Willow waved them over and the two went over. They weren’t done talking, but it was better than they been before. At least Xander hoped they were.
“They kicked us out,” Giles spat.
“They what? They can do that?” Xander asked shocked. “Does no one have any respect for private property anymore?”
“There’s a giant hole in the floor,” Willow told him, adding, “Uh, also, it’s a school. Not exactly private.”
“Yea, well, still. It’s where Giles works,” Xander replied lamely.
Switching topic, Giles turned his attention to Buffy. “I don’t suppose that you had any luck.”
Shaking her head, she said, “No one knows anything. Whatever Ethan’s planning he’s kept it to himself. Please tell me you guys have had more luck.”
“I’m afraid not. Obviously researching through the books weren’t going to be a help but unfortunately my contact numbers are inside my office and that...man won’t let me in to retrieve them.”
“You don’t have a back-up set at home?” Buffy asked surprised.
“It would defeat the purpose of a confidential list, wouldn’t it,” Giles said tightly. After a moment, he mumbled, “And I left my other copy in the cabinet in the book cage.”
Xander smiled despite the situation. He seemed to be the only one who found it amusing since Willow and Buffy only frowned.
Sobering his face a bit, Xander asked, “OK, so now what?”
Opening his mouth, Giles went to say something but stopped. Shaking his head, Giles gave him a sympathetic look. “Honestly, I’m not sure. Th-there are no leads on where Ethan is and we have no idea what he’s planning.”
“Maybe he’s bluffing. You know, maybe he just thinks that Xander would show up if he thought that he was going to come after him,” Willow suggested only to have her idea shot down by Giles.
“No, Ethan may use a trick or two when his back is against the wall but he rarely ever bluffs out right. If Ethan says that he’ll come to get you if you don’t show up, well, I’m afraid that he actual will.” Giles paused, lost in thought.
Jumping in, Buffy said with forced cheer, “So, when he shows up, we ask him to go away.”
“Ask him to go away?” Xander asked confused.
“Nicely.” Buffy smiled tightly, her knuckles popping as she tightened her fist.
“I’m afraid it won’t be that simple,” Giles said darkly. Something in his demeanor had changed and the three teenagers all noticed it. Taking a few steps off to the side, Giles remained silent but his agitation increased. “It isn’t that simple. Every time we’ve had to deal with Ethan recently, he’s been...playing. The closest that any of you have come to seeing what Ethan is truly willing to do when he sets his mind to it would be with...with Eyghon and even that was toned down.
“If Ethan has set out to come for Xander, he won’t come at him from the front. He wouldn’t even come for him from the sides. I’ve known him to...do some rather questionable and disturbing things while pursuing his goals. Chances are that our best bet to save Xander would be to get him out of Sunnydale as fast as possible.”
“Run?” Xander suddenly felt angry at the idea and couldn’t explain why. Something about fleeing bothered him. He’d run away from danger plenty of times in his life. Hell, he’d done it several times this past month. It had recently started bugging him. It was the main reason why he had started throwing himself into the fights more and more. It didn’t make any sense why he was feeling this way but the very idea of running made him want to stand and fight more. “That isn’t an option, Giles. I’m not heading for the hills just because Ethan’s threatening me.”
Something in his voice made everyone stop and look at him for a moment. Maybe it was the determination in it or some of the anger he felt at the idea of fleeing bleeding into his voice but it stopped anyone from immediately dismissing his idea on the subject. It wasn’t that they agreed with him, but merely telling him that he didn’t know what he was saying would only lead to a fight with nothing short of knocking him unconscious and dragging him off would changing his mind.
“You have a better idea?” Buffy asked hotly.
“Um...no, not really.”
Again, silence fell over the group. Xander was determined not to run away but except for actually meeting Ethan, there weren’t any other options. He could always do that, he supposed, but after some fear fuelled mildly witty banter, he’d just end up being captured or whatever it was that Ethan had planned for him.
After several moments, Willow spoke up. “Hey, uh, it’s not much of a plan but, I have a really bad idea.”
Five o’clock in the morning was a very interesting time. The sun wasn’t up yet but you could almost feel it as it inched its way up to the horizon. The moon had set almost an hour before and had cast the whole sky into a blue black ink that no ambient light seemed to permeate. When you live in a city or a town, it’s not that big of a deal. The lamp post and various other lights help make it so that way everything is easy to see. The only thing that gets to you is how deep the shadows can be and your brain starts to imagine all the nasty things that could be waiting and hiding in them, ready to pounce on top of you at the first opportunity. But, you turn on more lights and wait for the sun to rise and try not to think too hard about it or notice that you just inched yourself away from the shadows.
Out in the middle of the desert, however, it’s a completely different story. There are no lamp post or store fronts casting protective pools of light and without the headlights of the car behind them Xander and Giles were standing in complete darkness waiting for Ethan to jump out. It was also cold, as was to be expected. A lot of people didn’t realize just how chilly the desert at night could be. Pulling his coat tighter around himself, Xander couldn’t help but think about how poorly put together this plan was. Glancing over at the man next to him, Xander could see that Giles was thinking the very same thing. Either that or he had just decided that grumpy and tense was a good look for him.
Neither got the chance to comment on it, however, since off in the distance a car flashed its high beams twice and started forward. It surprised Xander by how close the car had been without either of them picking up on it. Maybe Ethan had it cloaked somehow or it had a really quiet engine. No matter what the reason, it threw him off and caused him to tense even more than he already was.
Stopping a good ten feet away, Ethan got out of the car and smiled confidently to the pair. “Rupert, how very good of you to come. Hope I’m not keeping you from anything.” Turning to Xander, he said, “Now, don’t tell me that you didn’t trust me enough to come alone like I said. It would hurt my feelings.”
“Yea, that’s me. All concerned over how I make you feel,” Xander replied glibly.
“If I were in your position, boy, I would be.” Ethan’s smile darkened some but he went on speaking. “Now, I can only imagine that if you’re here, Rupert, that your Slayer can’t be far. Probably off in what she thinks is a clever little hiding spot with her little budding witchingly, hmm? Don’t worry. I had a feeling that if you did show up, which is something I really hadn’t counted on, that you’d have brought friends. Luckily, so did I.”
With a wolf whistle, Ethan motioned towards his car. The remaining doors opened up and out came four large demons. When Xander saw them he really didn’t understand how they had all fit into the car without its roof being dented up. Their skin was such a deep blue that in the darkness they seemed almost black. Still, it was easy to make out the thick slabs of muscle that encased all of their upper body. Their lower extremities, however, seemed far too thin to support the rest of their bodies. Instead of normal legs, normal for demons anyway, they had reverse jointed goat legs matted with thick fur. Their faces didn’t seem goat like at all, just angry as they glared at Xander and Giles with beady yellow eyes.
Ethan was enjoying the reaction that the demons were getting. “If you come along peacefully, I won’t have to tell my associates to rip your friend’s limb from limb. Of course, if you do put up a fight, I can’t promise that they’ll do that first. From what I’ve been told, they have a tendency to...play with their victims before killing them.”
This wasn’t the plan. They had talked about this very thing but Giles had sworn that Ethan would never use any kind of demon or creature to do his bidding. Not only had that whole mess with Eyghon soured his taste for demons, but apparently chaos magic never worked well with controlling demons. Even working with them seemed to be difficult and sketchy with that type of magic buzzing around in the air. They had prepared to deal with magic and even vampires but demons of this caliber and size they just hadn’t thought it would happen. Yet, here they were, staring down at them and ready to fight.
“You bastard,” Giles cursed. “What in God’s name are you even doing with these....things? Do you have any idea what you’ve done?”
“Did you honestly believe that I wouldn’t be prepared? You have no idea what’s going on or what he is. Things have changed, Rupert.” Ethan shook his head before addressing Xander. “What’s it going to be, boy? I don’t have all day. Well, I do, actually but honestly I’d rather not waste it standing around here with you lot. Call the Slayer out into the open and come with me.”
As if on cue, Buffy came out from behind a large rock that was fifteen feet off to the right of Ethan and his demons. A long sword was in her hand and her face was set in a fierce scowl. If the sight of a pissed off Slayer bothered the demons any, they didn’t show it. What did make them pause a second was when Willow stepped out right behind her. It took a moment for Xander to realize that it wasn’t the redhead that had caught their attention but rather what was at her side. In full werewolf mode was Oz looking rather dazed and confused. That was due to Willow’s spell, something that was keeping him subdued and under her control so long as she didn’t break contact with him or stop the incantation that she was quietly muttering. Still, just in case, Giles had a small pistol sized tranquilizer gun in his coat pocket should Oz break free.
Bringing Oz was one of the few surprises that Willow had thought of on short notice. It was dangerous and scary but it was also a bluff. They had originally planned on using the werewolf to scare Ethan into backing off, threatening to let him lose on the mage if he didn’t leave them alone and tell them what he wanted with Xander. Oz hadn’t been too happy about the idea, he was too afraid that something would go wrong and he’d end up hurting one of them but in the end, he agreed. At the moment, it seemed like the dumbest idea in the world. If the demons attacked there was no way Willow would be able to keep her hold on werewolf-Oz’s mind. He’d start attacking anything and everything in sight which included Willow and Buffy.
“You domesticated the werewolf? I must say, I’m impressed,” Ethan said quietly. He was put off but not enough to back down by any means. “I wonder if I still have that number for that chap back in Brazil. You remember him Rupert. The man was offering a neat price on that werewolf back in Cardiff. I don’t know if it was for the pelt or for the meat though.”
Willow’s eyes widened in horror but she didn’t let the spell drop.
“Don’t be a fool, boy. You lot can’t win this and you know it.” Ethan’s voice was very matter of fact, not pleading but trying to get through to him with reason. “Either way, you’re coming with me.”
The anger that had been building up inside of Xander was near its boiling point. Threatening his friends was a sure fire way to make him do something suicidal level stupid. As it was, he was doing a good job of holding himself back. The short sword that was strapped behind his back itched to be pulled loose and cut Ethan’s smug face off. Instead he simply readied himself, mimicking Giles who also tensed himself to grab the battle axe on his own back in his one good hand.
Seeing that he wasn’t getting anywhere, Ethan sighed. “Have it your way. Boy’s, grab him and don’t hurt him much. The rest...whatever you feel is best.”
A lot of things happened at once. The four hulking demons ran in different directions, two of them heading for Xander and Giles while the other two went for Buffy. They moved faster than Xander had thought they would on those cloven feet but then again ten feet isn’t that far. Xander and Giles waited for the last moment then dove off to the side of the convertible behind them that suddenly revved its engine. The high beams flicked on, blinding both demons and disorienting them so that they stalled long enough for Willow’s second surprise, namely Angel, to jump out of the front seat he had been hiding in. Immediately he set about attacking both demons with vicious strikes but none of it seemed to be doing a great deal of damage.
Pushing himself off the ground, Giles started in to help Angel. Even injured the older man was still dangerous, smoothly pulling the axe from its sheath and swinging it at one of the creatures head. It must have seen it coming because it rolled its shoulders and received a gash on its arm that pissed it off more than hurt it.
A feral growl grabbed Xander’s attention and he turned to see what he was afraid of. Oz had broken free of Willow’s mystical hold and was looking around wildly. For whatever reason he didn’t go after the witch herself, instead he focused on one of the oncoming demons and with a growl launched himself at the thing, forcing it to deal with the enraged werewolf and effectively slowing it down for the time being.
Buffy was to be dealing with the one blue skinned goat demon but it was a near thing. She was strong but whatever the thing was seemed stronger. The sword was the only thing that was giving her enough of an edge to hold her own but it wouldn’t last.
As he got himself off the ground and pulled the sword free, Xander saw Ethan still standing by the car he had arrived in. He didn’t have time to really pay it any attention but from it looked like the man was on a cell phone. As Xander ran to help Angel and Giles, he had time to wonder who would be so important that Ethan would call in the middle of all this.
With a swipe of the sword, Xander cut into the arm of demon Giles was fighting. It at least caused the thing to switch its focus away from the Watcher which gave him time to re-group for a second and attack while its attention was elsewhere. The back and forth routine worked only twice more before the demon let out a bellow of rage, stamped its hoof on the ground, and ran straight at Xander. It was too quick to defend against or move out of the way. The air was knocked out of his lungs and his feet left the ground. His sword flew out of his hand as he tumbled to a stop and the world spun to fast at the moment to get up.
Xander was able to hear the sounds of fighting going on around him but couldn’t find it in him to get up or even look around. He didn’t know how long he stayed in that position, trying to focus and get his muscles to listen to him, but his eyes snapped open when he heard a sharp yelp and Willow cry out.
Turning his head to the noise, he was just in time to see the demon that had been fighting Oz, toss the werewolf’s limp form to the ground. His head was at an odd angle and from a distance it didn’t look as if he was breathing. Willow was staring to run towards her downed boyfriend but was pulled into a bear hug by the demon before she was able to get to him. She fought against him, for all the good it did, but she was just too weak to do any good.
Forcing himself up, Xander had just gotten to his feet, full of rage when he got knocked back down again. Apparently Angel and Giles weren’t fairing any better since the demon that had rammed into him was able to focus all of its attention on him. Hauling him up and off the ground, Xander figured it was just going to drag him over to Ethan. Apparently they didn’t care to listen to him that well since instead he got tossed through the air and hit the ground hard, again, sprawling himself flat on his back. His head was spinning but he didn’t have time to focus on that since before he knew it a hoof drove itself into his stomach with the strength of a sledgehammer.
The attack kept on going, blows hitting every part of his body. He was sure that he heard yelling and screaming but they seemed far away and unimportant at the moment. Even the pain that his body was experiencing seemed tiny compared to what he felt inside of him. Something was welling up and bubbling over his whole body. Something he couldn’t describe but that needed to be let loose. What it was, it felt...powerful.
His eyes opened and he focused on something off in the distant. A star, which seemed funny since he knew that there weren’t any stars out at this time. Besides, it was too bright to be a star anyway. Also, he was pretty sure that stars didn’t grow as if they were coming closer.
The hits stopped suddenly, which Xander was grateful for somewhere in the back of his mind. He felt himself start to rise suddenly but didn’t know how. He didn’t get up, he just felt himself get up off the ground, and the demon backed away. The not-star in the sky had gotten larger. It was moving far too fast and was way too big him to even wager a guess at what it could be. He wasn’t afraid of it though, it didn’t bother him to watch it coming closer at breakneck speed despite how everything else seemed to be going in slow motion.
The light, for lack of a better description, was on him in an instant. He felt it course through him, somehow empowering him. Then, there was the feeling of being grabbed by the back of his shirt and being hauled away.
“We need to talk.” Came a hollow, resonating voice. Then, Xander felt nothing.