Harry had spent the last seven years traveling through Floo systems, via Portkeys and by flying on brooms. He had thought that he could handle any mode of magical transportation.
None of that prepared him for what happened when he touched the rock.
It wasn't as if he were flying through the air; he'd been on his Firebolt far too often to know that it always contained an element of control. This felt like he was being hurtled across a giant expanse of some kind. Furthermore, it seemed to be taking forever --- every other transport of this kind was over and done in an instant. He wanted to scream but couldn't; all sound and light seemed to be enveloped in a vacuum. He couldn't see Hermione and Ron; couldn't feel their presence; for all he knew, they had been scattered across the universe. He felt like he was being torn apart and squeezed back into himself simultaneously.
At the moment the pressure and the pain felt like they could increase no more, he blacked out.
When he finally came back to himself, Harry realized he was lying on a hardwood floor. Furthermore, even though they'd left England in the middle of the night, he could see daylight blinking through the window. He realized instantly there was at least an eight hour time difference between California and England, and he had no idea how long he'd been unconscious.
"Hermione?" he said slowly. No answer. "Ron?" he managed in a slightly louder voice.
He had just enough time to fear that his friends might not have made the journey when he heard the familiar groaning of Ron waking up. He looked around, and saw his friend’s bright red hair. Very slowly, Harry got to his feet. It was a good minute before he felt that he could walk without fear of immediately collapsing. Slowly, he walked over to his friend. "Ron, you all right?" he asked. He knew how immensely stupid that question was considering that he felt like a billiard ball that had caromed off a cushion.
" 'm not sure," Ron managed slowly, "but I think the appropriate Muggle phrase would be, anybody get the number of that bus?"
Harry actually managed a smile at this --- if the Weasley wit had not abandoned him, Ron must be feeling all right. "You seen Hermione?" he asked.
Ron blinked several times. "Hell, I'm not sure what I'm seeing now," he finally replied. "Looks like I'm seeing four or five of you."
His own vision finally starting to clear up, Harry was getting an idea of where they were. Given the furnishing and the artwork, the Portkey had let them out of in some kind of hotel, and from the looks of things, no one had been inside the room they were in for a very long time. He looked around the bed that was nearby. "Hermione?" he cried out in a louder voice.
She didn't make it.
Harry squinted around. That was a strange voice. "Someone there?" he demanded.
"'Hey, you all right, Harry? " When Ron touched his shoulder, he all but leaped onto a nearby chest of drawers. "Hey, what the hell?"
"D-did you hear someone?" he asked in a voice that was far more trembling than he would have liked it to be.
Ron didn't answer right away, then looked around. "Where the hell is Hermione?" he demanded.
Silence was all that answered them. It did not, however, feel either unoccupied or comfortable.
Harry reached into his robe for his wand, silently relieved that it had survived this journey intact. He looked for other place then Hermione could be, then noticed that the door was ajar.
Wasn't like that half a minute ago.
There was that whisper again, a voice that sounded simultaneously foreign and chillingly familiar. Had they somehow taken a portkey right into some magical hideout?
Again, Harry nearly leapt into the air. Christ, he'd faced the Dark Lord himself with fewer nerves. What was it about this place that was making him so jumpy?
Frantically motioning for his friend to shut the hell up, Harry walked over to the door and yanked it open to find ---
---- a deserted hallway.
"I don't like this, " Ron whispered. "Even if this portkey was vastly different then every other one, we should have all woken up in the same place."
Just like her to leave you high and dry when you need her most.
"Ron?" Harry said, in an even lower tone of voice, as they made their way down the hall. "Do you hear someone else speaking besides me?"
Ron took a long time to answer--- long enough for that unknown whisperer to start berating his courage. "Right now, I'm hoping that Nearly Headless Nick has some relatives in the states, and that they've got a particularly mean streak," he finally said.
Harry doubted that--- ghosts were rarely this sadistic or subtle. Something else was in this place, and he didn't want to stay in this hotel any longer than he had to. However, that meant finding Hermione, and hoping like hell their bags had managed to make this journey as well.
That's not the only thing that made this trip. Did you really think that you could get away from him even on the other side of the globe?
No, Harry refused to think that.
Why not? They don't call him the Dark Lord because he tans well. You really think that you were so clever?
"Shut up," Harry whispered under his breath. But a sickening feeling filled him all the same.
They knew before you left the Ministry that it was you. They tracked you all the way across the planet. Because there's nowhere that you can run from him. Now's he coming and there is nothing that you can do to stop it.
"Shut up," Harry had his face clenched so badly, he didn't notice that Ron was squeezing his shoulder frantically.
He's right here! About to walk behind you and---"
"SHUT UP!!" Harry whirled around, prepared to cast any dark spell he could----
---- and came face to face with a terrified Hermione.
Harry had no idea how close he had come to shouting the Crucio spell, and didn't particularly want to dwell on it. "Where the hell were you?" he all but shouted.
"That portkey wasn't like any we’ve never used," Hermione replied. "I ended up on the other side of the building. Spent most of the time trying to find this." She picked up the bag that contained their supplies.
"What the hell kind of place is this?" Ron finally asked the question that had been concerning them.
" A source of extremely dark magic," Hermione replied. "I don't know what kind, but it's very powerful. I think that's why the journey over was so terrifying."
"Why the hell would anybody set up a portkey here?" Harry demanded.
"I don't know," Hermione told them, "but I don't think we should stay here any longer. This place may have been abandoned by Muggles and wizards, but it's definitely not safe."
Harry and Ron couldn't have agreed more.
They hastened their way down three flights of stairs, hearing whispers all the way down. "Are you sure we're even in Los Angeles?" Harry asked as they went.
Hermione nodded. "While I was looking for the bag, I found this tucked under one of the doormats."
She held out what appeared to be a ragged Muggle newspaper---- the Los Angeles Tribune. The day on the masthead read December 29, 1985. It was slightly obscured by a solid brown stain. Harry didn't want to think what that substance was.
"Once we get out of here, where do we go?" Ron asked.
"Our best bet may be some kind of wizarding hostel," Hermione replied. "From what I remember from the literature, the nearest one is in a neighborhood known as Inglewood."
"But Los Angeles is a big place," Ron reminded her "and we have no idea where we are right now. How do we even begin to start looking?"
"One of the American transfers from Hogwarts once told me that the entire magical community was right under your nose, particularly in places like here," Hermione replied. "We've been in the wizarding community for more than seven years. Even to us, it should be obvious."
Harry wanted to argue this point a little, but was afraid that anything that came out of his mouth might be under the influence of whatever dark forces were surrounding this hotel. He didn't want to sound any notes of panic, particularly when he had no foreknowledge otherwise.
They made it to the lobby, and exited out of the giant doors. Harry looked around trying to find an idea of their location, and saw the name of the hotel on a tarnished but still legible sign.
"Goodbye, Hyperion Hotel," he muttered under his breath. "I only wish that we had the time to make sure nobody ever stays in one of your rooms again."
'The place has clearly been deserted for years," Hermione assured them. "Even the most ordinary Muggle would know better than to ever live here again."
There were several surprises for them as the three of them walked the streets of Los Angeles, some unpleasant, some decidedly less so.
For starters, Harry had been right about the time discrepancy, but not even he was prepared for what time it was. It was nine in the morning---- on November 3, nearly a full month AFTER they had teleported from the quarry. Hermione's best explanation was that the magic of the portkey combined with whatever dark forces were commandeering the hotel had created some kind of temporal magic vortex. Though she tried to calm everybody down by saying that they were fortunate not to have been propelled years into the future, it was clear she was unsettled by this part of their journey.
Once they got over that, it quickly became clear that there were some advantages. The weather was far more temperate than it had been England, even though autumn was nearly over. There was no presence of any dark magic, and the residents of the city seemed unconcerned to see three teenagers in magical regalia walking down the avenue in broad daylight.
They spotted their first magical shop open in plain sight on a street with the foreign sounding name of Sepulveda Boulevard. The wizard inside was more than happy to give them instruction on how to locate the nearest magical inn. Clearly American, he asked almost casually how the situation in Europe was.
"Been getting a fair amount of new customers the last year or so," the proprietor had told them. 'Getting the feeling the war must be getting pretty grim."
Whenever someone in England mentioned the war, there was a tone in their voice that measured between concern and genuine fear. This wizard talked as though he was discussing the weather--- in Spain. This was a pattern that the three of them were find throughout the magical community, and all of them--- especially Harry--- were quietly angry at them.
Things were somewhat different when they reached the magical corner of town. The proprietor of the inn was an expatriate from England named Hutchinson who asked if they had received any word of a wizarding cousin of his. He didn't seem surprised that the answer was no, but they could also see the death of hope in his eyes.
What both groups agreed on was that there was next to no Death Eater involvement in America at all, particularly within Los Angeles itself. The American Ministry had declared a policy of neutrality, and no one on the continent had seemed inclined to violate this truce, in either word or deed. Given how calm the streets were everywhere, you could almost forget that there was a war going on at all. Almost.
After arranging lodgings, they took a map of the city, and decided that they would try a practical approach. They would divide the city into quadrants, and search every bank until they found the one that had the box which the key fit. While they were doing so, they would try separate searches to glean information about Buffy Summers.
Hermione was to check the LA branch of the Daily Prophet, and check its back issues for information they could find about the Slayer---- the paper had regular columns about what was going on at the Hellmouth. Ron was to look for her father --- her parents were divorced, and Mr. Summers apparently worked in LA; people had seen her spend time with him the previous summer.
Harry was to check out a different tangent. The last recorded mention of anything relating to Buffy Summers had been from a piece in the Quibbler three months earlier ---- it had been a trunk piece saying she had given up slaying for a job as a waitress in some cheap restaurant. There was probably no truth to it, and they had no idea which restaurant it was, only that she'd been using the name 'Anne'.
Harry thought that this would be even harder than finding the bank, but after getting a photo of Buffy (being extra careful to make sure that this was taken with a Muggle camera), he decided to try and run it down. It might be an explanation as to the last place Buffy had been.
By the end of the first day, it was obvious that they had taken on a task that wasn't going to be over with quickly.
For starters, getting into a Muggle bank proved especially tricky for people who had never been in one. Without a social security number or any kind of ID that would work in the Muggle world, they had a lot of trouble just getting in the front door. The fact that computers could find out they weren't in America's system ruled out getting false ones.. The approach was so complicated all three of them wondered if Dumbledore had even tried this at all.
After two days, Hermione reminded them of the Imperium spell, but none of them thought Dumbledore would ever use it, and even if he had, they still weren't at the level where they could cast it with certainty. Harry pointed out something that he vaguely remembered from some of the crime dramas the Dursleys watched --- there were lower grade banks that would be willing to take things from people without the proper identification. When they pointed out that there were over a hundred and fifty banks in Los Angeles alone, he argued that they would get a lot of practice at being underhanded--- a skill that could only help against Voldemort.
Things didn't go much better at the Daily Prophet. They had been following events in Sunnydale for the past century, and it had become a regular feature in the last decade. But getting past the Sunnydale border had gotten difficult even for the best wizarding mind the past few months. No one was sure why, and Hermione was afraid to ask too many questions without raising suspicions.
More difficult was getting data out of the paper. Once again, the lack of Muggle technology was proving to be their enemy. In a Muggle world, they would have been able to utilize computers or even microfilm to trace back issues. No such animal existed for the Los Angeles branch of the Prophet. Hermione was going to be spending the next couple of weeks going through the paper issue by issue to get the data. Ron had told her that she could beg off if she thought that this was going to lead them nowhere, but she'd very pointedly declined. "Buffy Summers' life is in Sunnydale," she replied. "If we don't have an understanding of her world before we talk to her, we won't have a chance of convincing her to join our side."
Ron thought that Hermione couldn't resist the urge to turn this job into another Hogwarts project, a sentiment Harry partially shared. But he thought that going into the Slayer's world absolutely cold could be dangerous. Besides, they both needed some extra time to figure out what weapon Dumbledore had been searching for. Giving her some latitude was safer than admitting that they were flying mostly blind.
Ron's task was wrapped up the quickest--- but it was just as unsatisfactory. It wasn't that hard to track down where Hank Summers lived--- the phone's books were a godsend. But when he got to his house, he learned that Buffy's father wasn't living there. Further investigation with the neighbors indicated that he was currently working out of the country---- Spain, they thought. Ron didn't think it was a good idea for any Muggle to be in Europe about now, but didn’t let that particular secret slip.
The next two weeks were extremely frustrating for everybody. They were having no luck with any of the banks they’d found; Hermione was having trouble going through the Prophet's back issues (the American version of the paper was three times the size of London's) and what little she was hearing of what was going on in England made all of them concerned for what was happening to their friends. They were also having zero luck in figuring out how to destroy the Horcrux, or what any of the others might be.
And even though they were across the ocean from Voldemort and not a single dark wizard had come looking for them, they didn't feel safe. The creature comforts--- board, bed and three meals a day--- didn't make up for the fact that they were essentially separated from the battle that other people were fighting. Harry in particular was feeling this. His scar had not tingled, and he hadn't seen a thing from Voldemort's perspective, and while this should have been a relief, it wasn't. It just seemed to emphasize their physical distance from the rest of the world. They weren't here on holiday. They had a job to do, and they were getting nowhere.
Their luck changed just as November was nearing its end --- something they wouldn't have noticed if not for the calendar. While initially they were delighted by the temperance of the weather, Harry had begun to find it yet another reason to be irritated by California. They seemed to be frozen in time, another indication that they were going nowhere.
Harry had stopped in yet another cheap diner in the middle of LA, and had begun the ritual of asking whether a woman named Anne had worked there recently. It therefore came as something of a shock when the answer was yes. Even though he was now certain this was just another piece of claptrap the Quibbler had published, for a moment he dared to hope that he might finally be face to face...
... with a complete stranger. This woman was the same age as Buffy, and had the same color hair, but in height and build she was completely different from the woman in the photograph. "I'm sorry," he muttered as politely as he could manage, "you're not who I was looking for."
"Of course not," the woman replied. "Buffy hasn't worked here for nearly three months."
Harry was good at remaining stoic under shock, but he could've been knocked over with a feather at this. "You knew her?"
"She saved my life twice. Damn straight I'd remember her,." The woman was really not much older than Harry. "I go on break in thirty minutes. Wait at the table near the back."
Hardly daring to believe his luck, Harry did exactly that. It wasn't as though he had a lot more on his plate --- the last three banks that he had gone to had been a complete bust.
Twenty-five minutes later, the woman walked over to his table. "I know you're not a vampire because it's the middle of the afternoon," she replied. "And you don't look like any of the demons I've seen. But anyone who asks after Buffy is either going to be in a lot of trouble or already is. So I need to know just how serious whatever problem you've got is."
Considering everything he'd been through over the past six years, to be questioned so frankly by a muggle somehow seemed more dangerous than being given a dose of Vitaserum. "You sure you want to tell me here?"
The woman looked at him. "You could tell these people the world was about to end, and half of them would just order another cup of coffee," she replied. "I thought that there was a fair amount of darkness in Sunnydale. It's nothing compared to the batshit craziness I've seen here. And the fact that you're not running in terror at the very mention of this means something just as bad as coming. So, once again I ask, why do you need to know about Buffy?"
"You're from Sunnydale?"
The woman gave a sickly grin. "If I was a native of Sunnydale, and I'd wanted to get away from the insanity, I'd moved to the dark side of the moon. But given the way the world works, there's probably a couple of super-vampires who went up there on the Apollo Missions." She looked at him. "And judging from your accent, you're not a Sunnydale native either."
Harry was beginning to feel he was losing the thread. 'What's your name? Before I get any further in this, I'd like to know who I'm talking to."
The woman gave a small smile. "I'd like to know the same"
"Harold Dursley," he lied in an instant.
"Anne Steele," she replied. "It's not the name I was born with, but it's the one I'm most comfortable with."
She seemed to know that Harry was lying, but she also seemed to be saying that it wasn't bothering her. Harry was still getting used to walking the streets in total anonymity, even among the muggle world.
"It's hard to believe, but I once thought that vampires were wholesome, misunderstood creatures, who would lead us to immortality. I was convinced that they just wanted to be loved. "
Harry was a little amazed that even a Muggle could be that naive. "What changed your mind?" he asked, though he thought he could guess the answer.
"I met one," she replied. "And he tried to eat me and about a dozen other people. She warned me, she saved our lives, and she didn't even stay around for me to thank her. I did what any intelligent person would do. I got the hell out of Dodge."
"When did this happen?" Harry asked.
"About this time last year," she told him. "Back then, I was calling myself Chantarelle. Thought it sounded ominous but intriguing." She shook her head. "Man, I was naive."
"And you moved here?" she asked.
"Moved would imply I lived in Sunnydale. I was," she looked at Harry strangely, "just passing through. I traveled here a couple of months later. Called myself Lily for awhile. I became friends with a nice guy---- I made sure to see him in the daytime first, though. And I settled in. Thought I was done with the weirdness. "
"And the next time you saw her was here?" Harry asked.
She nodded. "She was calling herself Anne then." She gave a small smile. "Pretended she didn't know who I was when I recognized her."
This was a wrinkle Harry hadn't been expecting. "Why was she here?"
"I never got a clear answer. The most that I could learn was that she was running away too." Anne held up a hand. "Don't ask me why. She wanted nothing to do with me."
"Until you got into trouble again," Harry guessed.
Anne nodded again. "My boyfriend disappeared. It looked like he vanished off the face of the earth. I didn't know that's exactly what had happened. So, I fell under the influence of Ken. Another nice guy. Only I didn't realize what he was until it was almost too late. It would've been."
Harry thought he knew what was coming. "She saved you again."
"Despite the fact that she wanted nothing to do with me, she found out that I was in a demon dimension. She found out where it was, and she went in after me." Anne shook her head. "I was scared shitless; prepared to spend the rest of my life as a slave; I was broken. She still killed the bad guy and rescued everybody. And when I tried to thank her, she basically shrugged it off. Said it was what she did, and there wasn't any point in trying to run from it."
Harry was starting to get a picture of what Buffy might be like, and was beginning to think that Hermione might be right about her idea of the Slayer. "Where did she go?"
"Can't say for sure. But my guess is back to Sunnydale." Anne looked at Harry. "I've answered your questions. Now you answer one of mine. Why are you looking for Buffy?"
Even though Harry had seen this question coming, he was a little shocked when he couldn't come up with an immediate answer. "What if I told you I needed saving?" he asked.
"You're holding out for a hero at the end of the night?" Anne smiled as she said this. There was a joke here but Harry didn't get it.
She turned serious. "There's a police department in this city. Couple of army barracks. And I'm pretty sure the FBI has an office here. What is so big that it requires Buffy's help?"
How exactly do you explain to even someone who knows about the world of the supernatural that forces beyond their control might be coming to destroy her world? It hit Harry for the first time that he was probably going to be telling Buffy Summers just that, and he still didn't have the first idea of what to say to her.
"I guess what I'm asking is that should I be afraid?"
This woman had clearly unburdened her soul when she didn't have to. Harry thought he owed her something, even if it wasn't the whole truth. "A war is coming to this country, Anne. And if Buffy doesn't help, the wrong side will probably win."
"Is there anything I can do?"
"Just keep your eyes open."
Anne gave a smile that was far older than someone her age could have given. "They always are. Especially at night."
Harry didn't have the heart to tell her that these monsters came out in broad daylight.
As little information as that was, it managed to spark a little hope in the hearts of the three of them--- at least they knew that Buffy was still alive. This managed to sustain them for another week of dead ends.
Something strange happened in December--- something none of them could explain. For the better part of a day and a night, everything seemed---- wrong. It was hard to explain exactly what, but everyone in the wizarding community of LA felt it, even if they couldn't explain it exactly.
For a while, they all wondered if Voldemort was responsible ---- that he'd finished his climb to power. However, the wizard who kept their place that this particular brand of magic felt more demonic then anything else.
This was another area that Harry and friends felt out of their depths in. Everything they'd been taught since the day they'd entered Hogwarts was that wizards were the only beings who could use magic. It had been a shock to Harry when he'd learned that Dobby and Kreacher could, but the idea that there were creatures out there who knew magic far darker then theirs was a concept that all wizards in London considered mythical. Here in America, it was practically considered a given. A couple of wizards had even gone so far as to wonder about their curriculum if they didn't know what one referred to as "Non-Wizard Magic 101'.
Whatever it was, it didn't last long. Less than a day after everybody thought the world had been darker, everyone seemed to believe that it was back to normal. The three from Hogwarts were beginning to wonder what people in this country considered normal, but that was a battle for another day. One, that they had to admit, was coming very soon.
Two days later, Hermione said that she'd gathered enough intelligence from the Daily Prophet's back issues that she was able to finally draw a coherent map of what had been going on in Sunnydale ever since Buffy had arrived there. Harry and Ron were a little dubious, but admitted that they needed to know whether this Slayer really might be able to help in the battle against Voldemort.
The first headline was probably enough to resolve their doubts. Dated June 2, 1997---- it read: 'THE MASTER DEFEATED, APOCALYPSE AVERTED, SLAYER STILL ALIVE' Apparently the Master, one of the founding members of the Order of Aurelius, presumed dead since 1937 had emerged from the Hellmouth prepared to bring about the end times. What made this event ever more remarkable was that there had been several clear prophecies indicating that the only way the Master could be defeated was if the Slayer was killed. Somehow, Buffy Summers had faced these odds and beaten them.
"How the hell did we miss all that?" Ron demanded. "I mean, even if we ignore what was happening overseas, this should have been a banner headline everywhere."
"Check the date," Hermione replied. "Two days after this, Voldemort invaded the Ministry. The entire wizarding world never got over the uproar."
"That seems like a pretty big coincidence," Ron argued.
Harry would've argued the point, but for two things. First, he was still processing the grief that had come when Sirius had died that same day at Bellatrix's [hands. More prominently, he was wondering how the hell Buffy could have managed to get around something that had been carved in stone for decades. It made him wonder if maybe, just maybe, the prophecy he'd read in the Department might be wrong.
"The summer was unusually quiet. She does nothing big until October 1st,."
Hermione took out another clipping. The Slayer wasn't mentioned in the headline, but it still made their heads reel anyway: "WILLIAM THE BLOODY LEADS MASSACRE IN SUNNYDALE HIGH."
The body of the story was even more disturbing. Not only was 'Spike' around on the Hellmouth, there were reports that Angelus had been seen on the school grounds as well. Considering how very brutal both were (Spike's execution of two other slayers in the past century was referenced), they both wondered how Buffy could have survived that year.
Neither was sure about why the next story was there. "STREETS FILLED WITH DEMONS ON HALLOWEEN; MUGGLE FRIEND OF SLAYER HELPS SAVE THE DAY"
Hermione explained her reasoning. "First of all, for demons Halloween is traditionally considered a night the undead take off. Yet there are reports of children turning into demons all night long. The paper doesn't say it directly, but it sounds to me like someone cast a very dark magic over the city."
"And the second thing?"
"The muggle who is given most of the credit for calming the chaos is a muggle named Alexander Harris. He was dressed as a soldier that night, and ended up beating back numerous demonic assaults." Hermione told them. "His name comes up a bit in the stories of Sunnydale --- either as a romantic interest or just a friend."
"How is that relevant?" Ron asked.
"Slayers don't have friends," Hermione replied bluntly. "One thing all the guides make very clear is that Slayers are raised to be soldiers, often raised in seclusion by their Watchers. Buffy, apparently, not only has a public face, but her identity is known to Muggles her own age, people who could be at best considered a liability if they got in her way."
"And somehow this Harris kid has apparently learned enough to be a help in a fight,." Harry had to admit this was a new wrinkle. "Any other people mentioned?"
"Two women, Willow Rosenberg and Cordelia Chase, have been mentioned a lot in these articles," Hermione told her. "These people have to be brave. Just walking home from school in Sunnydale is often enough to get a person killed."
"Sounds like she's raising an army, if this Harris is any indication," Ron replied.
"And it looks like she needs all the help she can get." Hermione hesitated, then moved through the next few articles. "There were a couple of stories that are relevant--- including the one that basically backs up Anne Steele's story, but the next one that comes up---- it indicates that there might be a far bigger problem in Sunnydale then even Dumbledore might have been willing to admit."
Hermione wasn't kidding. "DRUSILLA SPOTTED IN SUNNYDALE GATHERING PACKAGES; RUMORS INDICATE JUDGE MIGHT BE REASSEMBLED" Harry and Ron looked a little blank at this, until Hermione explained. "The Judge was one of the most fearsome demons in recorded history. It's said that he had the power to burn the humanity out of anyone who walked the earth, magical, demonic or otherwise."
"Maybe we should've pointed him towards Moldywart," Ron tried to joke, but Hermione expression sobered him up.
"It took an army to stop him the first time. Even then, the best they could do was hack him to pieces and scatter them all over the world so that he would be neutralized," Hermione replied. "Even the Death Eaters wouldn't have stood for this."
"But Drusilla did," Harry gathered. "She'd must be even crazier than we thought."
Ron looked around. "World's still here? I'm guessing Buffy defeated him."
"Yes, but it was a real “good news, bad news” situation."
The next story dated just two days later was even worse. The Judge was defeated at a Muggle shopping center in Sunnydale. Showing remarkable insight (Hermione thought this had to be Harris' and Rosenberg's idea; not even a Slayer would've come up with it on her own) she had blown it apart with a rocket launcher. But any joy from this was quickly dissipated by the clear fact that the Judge had been commanded by Angelus, Drusilla and Spike.
"War has come to Sunnydale," the writer implied. "And if this maneuver was just the opening gambit, carnage on a scale that we may not have seen since the first war against Voldemort may be coming. The fact that it is happening on top of an active Hellmouth means that the conclusion might be apocalyptic. Buffy Summers was able to defeat the Master. But can even she stand against a trio of vampires who have commanded terror for centuries?"
For the briefest of moments, Harry felt afraid. He remembered who truly worried Remus when he had discussed these vampires in class four years previous. Even in the abstract, they were terrifying. Could they have been worse than that?
"How bad did it get?" he asked.
Hermione blinked. "Worse then you'd imagine. Sunnydale's death rate got even higher for the next couple of months. And then this:
DOUBLE MAGICAL MURDERS: BLOODY DEATHS APPEAR TO BE HANDIWORK OF ANGELUS. It was the listing of the murder of one of the few American wizards who had opened a magic shop on the Hellmouth. More shocking was the death of Jenny Calendar who had her body placed in a ritualistic fashion in the bedroom of Rupert Giles. "The two had been romantically linked from what I understand," Hermione replied. "An act of this kind of sadism is Angelus' stock in trade."
Harry was a bit unnerved to read this. "Why didn't Buffy just take him out then?" he demanded
"Because Giles reacted first," Hermione replied. "He led an assault on one of his hideouts, and tried to take him out single-handed. Buffy apparently had the choice of killing Angelus or saving him. She chose the latter."
"Why didn't she kill him before that?" Ron argued. "She has to have known what a threat he was from his actions with the Judge alone. There's got to be more to this story."
"I don't have an answer to that," Hermione admitted. "But we know how dangerous these vampires are. Hell, we did reports on them. Even a Slayer would have to approach one with extreme caution, let alone three."
"Please tell me that this war ended with one of these creatures dead," Harry replied.
"It got bad," Hermione replied. "Worse then we could've imagined."
She held up another article, this one dated May 20. BODY OF ACATHLA EXCAVATED. "I'll save you the trouble. Acathla was a huge demon who was imprisoned in a body of stone. Supposedly when he opened his mouth, he had the capability to swallow the world whole."
"This must be the other apocalypse that Buffy prevented," Harry replied.
"Wasn't that simple," Hermione held up the next days headline. CARNAGE AT SUNNYDALE HIGH, STUDENT MURDERED, WATCHER MISSING. "The headline underplays it. Buffy was originally charged with the murder, and even though the evidence was circumstantial, the principal expelled her from school."
Ron was trying to figure this out. "How was this her fault?"
"From what I can gather from these stories, the police department at Sunnydale was less competent than the people working for the Ministry," Hermione replied. "They've been keeping the town sealed up for decades --- any incident related to the supernatural is blamed on student gangs. This isn't sloppiness; it's far too organized."
"Cut to the chase," Harry asked. "How did this play out?"
Hermione shook her head. "Even the Prophet's not sure. The next day, Acathla has been rendered dormant, and all of the principals--- Angel, Spike, Drusilla--- they're all gone. The charges against Buffy were dropped, but every indication is she disappeared from Sunnydale that same day."
"Until she shows up in LA four months ago," Harry argued. "We're missing a really big piece of the puzzle."
"And we may never get a clear idea what that piece is, at least from the Prophet," Hermione replied. "The last story they have on her has her resurfacing in Sunnydale three months ago. After that, intelligence from the Hellmouth has gotten a lot harder to obtain. I got friendly with one of their student interns; apparently for the last two months the Sunnydale PD has been responsible for looking out for certain suspicious characters. "
"They're throwing out vampires?" Ron asked doubtfully.
"They're throwing out journalists," Hermione corrected. "or at least anyone who isn't part of the Sunnydale media outlets. " She looked at them. "This is organized, and well thought out. If I had to guess, someone in authority is planning a coup of their own."
"So you think there’s going to be trouble getting in?" Harry asked.
"I'm saying that we're going to have another obstacle," Hermione told them. "This could be a bigger headache than getting into the Ministry."
"Can't be that difficult." They looked at Ron. "Vampires keep getting in, and according what we've been taught, they need to be invited."
"We'll worry about that when we've figured out what the hell this key opens," Harry replied.
"And how much longer do we have to give this?" Ron replied, with a hint of irritation. "We've gone through half the banks in LA. What happens when we run out of those? What's if it's not in a bank at all?"
"We'll cross that bridge when we get there," Hermione and Ron were sending him the same look, so Harry went on. "We'll give it another week. Maybe we'll get another sign."
As it turned out, that's exactly what they got --- literally