Apologies for the lateness of this chapter. It's been a long year, with work being a pain and far, far too many writing projects on the go. I have another book up on Amazon - it's called Splinters - A Different Alamein. For those who are interested check out my profile (the Dark Scribbler) on FF.net. Anyway - here's the latest chapter. I am planning on writing more honest, it's just a question of finding time to do so. In the meantime Happy Christmas, have a great New Year and oh, disclaimer - I do not own these characters.
Meetings of the Circle of the Black Thorn tended to be… interesting. There had been the time when the previous leader, Archduke Verlang, had accidently admitted to making a minor mistake (it had been his shedding time, which made it hard to sleep easily) and had paid for it with his life. His skull had made a very nice drinking goblet. And there had been the other time when His Unholiness Roderic of Carthage had swigged from the wrong flask and had then melted in his chair due to an sudden intolerance for holy water.
How that holy water had gotten there… was a mystery. Well, one that he had taken great pains to make it seem like a mystery.
Archduke Sebassis therefore had no intention of taking this meeting lightly. He looked around the table as the other members seated themselves quietly. Senator Helen Brucker, or at least the thing controlling her body at the moment, was on his right hand side. He didn’t trust her an inch. The demon warlock Cyvus Vail was to his left. He didn’t trust him either. As for the others, it was more of the same. Ed, Grand Potentate of the Fell Brethren, was a scumbag of the first order. The leader of the Sahrvin Clan (whose name was supposed to be a secret due to a quaint tradition amongst the clan that knowledge of one’s real name gave people power; unfortunately Sebassis knew not just his name but also how it was pronounced and where the invisible apostrophe was) was still dusting his chair and was still a total asshole. As for Izzerial the Devil, well he was at least cheerful and friendly. Oh and totally untrustworthy.
That just left the Silent Three. Morecambe, who was a major player in the nastier, murkier parts of the GOP. Grant, who was linked to umpteen mercenary demon clans. And Sung, who was a player in some of the unbelievably nastier areas of Chinatown.
Sebassis waited until everyone was seated and then knocked on the table. “This meeting of the Circle of the Black Thorn is now in session. The main item on the agenda is the almighty screwup at the LA office today. You’ve all read the initial report from Manners. A more detailed report is being prepared at the moment. However, we still don’t know what the creature was, where it came from or what it wanted, other than to kill as many Wolfram & Hart employees as possible.”
“What was the total body count?” Brucker asked with a bored tone of voice that fooled exactly no-one.
“Two hundred and fifty seven meatba- I mean people. A combination of lawyers and security guards, plus various administrative staff who got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Sebassis shrugged. “It happens, I know, but this one caught us by surprise.”
“Have the Seers been appropriately disciplined?” Brucker asked with a certain gleam in her eyes.
Sebassis looked at her evenly, knowing full well what Brucker wanted to do to them all, probably with a very sharp knife in a plastic-lined room with drains in the corner for the blood. “They have been made aware of the extent of their lapse,” he said coldly. “And any chastisement will come from their own ranks. We need them too much.”
Brucker pouted slightly and then shrugged. “Very well. I think that kind of lax attitude is a mistake, but I guess it’s out of my hands.”
Sebassis smiled thinly. “It is indeed out of your hands. Now – Manners will obviously be recruiting as soon as possible, using every means at his disposal. We need a lot more lawyers and we’ll also need to rebuild our security teams. The latter part won’t be a problem.”
Vail raised a lazy hand. “And what do we do about Manners? This is the latest in a string of disasters to strike on his watch. The man’s lost his touch. What are we doing about replacing him?”
Ah. A good question. Sebassis leant back in his chair and interlaced his fingers. “The problem is,” he said levelly, “Manners knows a lot. He has invaluable contacts in the lower reaches of the legal profession. And he’s a survivor. The man can limbo dance under a cockroach. He is, in short, an asset. Ok, so he’s an asset who’s made some very bad choices recently, but I think he deserves one last chance. Plus he isn’t an asshole like Reed. And if he screws up badly after this, we’ll use his brain as an ashtray whilst he’s still alive. Are we agreed on this?”
There was a general muttering that eventually added up to agreement.
“Excellent,” Sebassis muttered as he made a note on the notepad next to him and then leant back in his chair again. “Then there’s the little issue of what the hell actually killed the demon that attacked the offices. Because so far we haven’t been able to come up with anyone who actually saw it die. And let me remind you all that that thing took on the best that the LA office had and killed them all. Before something cut it into pieces.”
“Don’t we have ‘scientists’ to work that out?” Izzerial asked, using his claws to illustrate the air quotes.
Vail snorted with amusement. “Bunch of pricks with white coats and test tubes. A good scrying will get to the bottom of it. That and a look at the security cameras.”
Sebassis sighed. “Sadly all the cameras on that level were fried by an electrical surge that was caused by the demon throwing a guard through a wall and into a major electrical breaker panel. As for scrying – well, we still don’t know what kind of demon it was and all attempts at scrying have failed.”
“Amateurs,” Vail grunted as he drummed his fingers on the table irritably. “Who did you use?”
“Oh.” Vail straightened up. “But he’s good. And he got nothing?”
“Not quite. He got something, which is why, I suspect, his brains are currently being mopped off the ceiling in the corridor where the demon died.”
Vail paled noticeably. “His head exploded?”
“Like a grape being squashed.”
This flummoxed the old necromancer, who drummed his fingers on the table again, until he caught Sebassis’ glare and then stopped. Given the number of members of the Circle who possessed claws instead of fingernails, such behaviour was frowned upon. It was very hard to polish the gouges out for a start and such things irritated him. People who irritated him tended to have unfortunate accidents. Sometimes in very widely spaced places, judging by where the body parts were found afterwards.
“I think that we should be very, very careful,” Vail said eventually. “Whatever killed the demon is bad enough – I know that my enemy’s enemy is supposed to be my friend, but I’d prefer that friend to be in chains in front of us just to be on the safe side. As for what could have been behind the demon itself… its motivations… well, again, we need to be careful.”
“Agreed,” said Sebassis curtly. “Which is why I think that we should investigate this with the utmost caution. We need someone cautious, tricky, able to think out of the box and above all willing to use this assignment as a means to undermine Manners. We want that man working properly for his position again. I intend to get Lilah Morgan on the case. The woman’s a snake of the highest order – and if she finds out too much we can easily kill her. Any objections?”
There was a general shaking of heads amid mutterings of agreement and Sebassis made another note and then looked around. “Moving on – we have a new plan to suborn Angel I believe?”
“Yes,” said Ed with a slightly manic light in his eyes. “We have. One that is bound to work!”
“Isn’t that what you said about the last plan? And, I believe, the five plans before that?” Vail asked the questions with a weary cynicism. He was also holding an unlit cigar in his right hand and Sebassis shot a quelling look his way. Smoking was not allowed at the table. There was too much danger that the smoke might encourage a) other people from smoking (some who didn’t even have any tobacco on them) or b) that someone might decide that a small, carefully aimed dart coated with something innovative might be the right path to career advancement.
“Aha!” Ed said and Sebassis could just hear the manic ‘Muah-hah-hah!!!’ bubbling under the surface. “But this plan will work!”
Sebassis sighed, exchanged tired glances with a few of the others, and then leant back in his chair. “Let’s hear it,” he sighed. “And it had better be a good one.” Well. He needed a good laugh.
Wesley finished his fifth cup of coffee and then wondered uneasily where the nearest toilet was. There had to be one in the little diner. He looked around and then admitted that he had to come back here again. The free refills of coffee was a nice touch (there were times when America could be quite advanced) and they did splendid things to streaky bacon. Mind you, they couldn’t crew a good cup of tea to save their lives.
The waitress was a bit of alright as well. Smashing, um, attributes. And she thought that his British accent was ‘cool’. Oh he was coming back here again, most certainly. Then he looked out of the window at the Wolfram & Hart building, which still had ambulances around it. Oh he was definitely coming back here again. It was a great place to observe that den of scumbags and he wanted to find out what the hell had happened there today. Something very, very, nasty unless he missed his guess. What a shame. And….. oh wait. He needed to dash to that toilet. Right now.
Helen Keeler, thought Sam, seemed to be more a force of nature than a mere human. Perhaps it was the hormones from the pregnancy. Perhaps she was just someone who didn’t take any form of negative for an answer. Perhaps it was a combination of the two.
Whatever the answer was, the Canadian woman had bustled into the upper levels of NORAD as if she had been placed in command and then told to invade China by air bridge. The look on the face of the Master Sergeant with several decades worth of long service stripes on his sleeves and a bottle of the mineral water that Keeler had specifically requested had been worth a picture – it had been a combination of worry, puzzlement and irritation.
And now Keeler was sitting at the table, with her large briefcase of folders next to her, her water in one hand and a pen in the other as she regarded Sam with amusement. “So this is one of the places where Rodney’s been contracting himself out to, eh?”
“One of them,” she replied, sipping her coffee.
Keeler looked wistfully at the coffee and then sighed. “I’d love a cup, but if I indulge myself then junior here tends to have his bit of it and then do the Macarena on my ribs.”
“Ouch,” Sam sympathised. At which point the door opened and Rodney McKay entered with the others. Who almost fell over Rodney, who had stopped dead in his tracks to stare at Keeler’s stomach.
“Hello Rodney,” the latter said cheerfully. “Put your eyes back in your head please. Yes, I’m pregnant.”
“Helen!” Rodney was in full-on spluttering mode. “What the hell – when did – who-”
Keeler grinned. “Rodney don’t make me explain the facts of life to you.”
The spluttering changed in tone from baffled to annoyed. “Yes, thank you, I am fully conversant in where babies come from. It’s just that I didn’t know that you were expecting.”
“Due in a month,” she replied with a roll of the eyes. “And boy am I ready for it. The sardine sandwiches are starting to annoy me.”
Rodney eyed her as if she was mad. “But you hate sardines.”
“Junior loves them,” Keeler said with a mock scowl at her stomach. Then she looked around at the others. “Ok, let’s skip the playful banter and get down to business. I understand, from multiple sources, that you’ve found something that should not, technically speaking, exist. Something that’s tens of thousands of years old and is far more advanced than anything that should date back to that time. Something that confirms my thesis.”
She had said those last five words in a very dry tone that made Rodney turn red. As he visibly struggled to find the right words she seemed to relent and waved a hand in apology. “Don’t worry about it Rodney, I already knew that my thesis was correct.” She leant over to the briefcase and opened it, pulling out some folders. “Major Carter, could you pass these round? And perhaps these people might introduce themselves, starting with the not-quite-human at the end of the table.”
Teal’c, who was the focus of her gaze started infinitesimally. “My name is Murray,” he said quietly. “And I am quite human.”
“If you’re completely human then I’m Donald Duck,” Keeler grated. “I’m not sure what you have in your stomach, but it’s setting off my sixth sense like a fire alarm.”
There was a long moment and then Colonel O’Neill rubbed at his forehead tiredly. “You know, I thought that I’d be used to this kind of thing by now. Turns out – not so much. Ok, Professor Keeler, this comes under the dreaded phrase ‘Need To Know’. And all you need to know is that ‘Murray’ here is not a threat to you or to anyone here. You have my word on that. Will that be enough?”
Keeler stared at O’Neill for a long, tense, moment and then she nodded. “Apologies,” she said, “Being pregnant is setting off certain protective impulses that can make me waspish.”
“You can say that again,” Mitchell muttered just loudly enough for Sam to hear.
Keeler composed herself and then looked down at the folder in front of her. “Ok,” she said brightly, opening hers. “Let’s begin.”
Sam opened her folder and found herself looking at a glossy colour photo of a knife. There was a scale next to it and looking at it she judged it to be about 8 inches long. It looked quite modern, with a groove down the blade, but it also had an odd handle.
“This knife was discovered in a grave in a cave just South of the Jebel Akhdar, the Green Mountains of Cyrenaica, in Libya in 1968, just before the Revolution broke out there. It was initially thought to have belonged to a British or Commonwealth soldier who was killed in the fighting. Unfortunately analysis of the knife showed that to be wrong. The knife looks quite modern – but it’s not. The leather that’s been wrapped around the handle to give it a better grip has almost entire fallen apart, but the sand that it was buried in did act as a kind of preservative. The leather and the body itself have been carbon-dated back to around 148,000 years ago. Which presents certain problems from the standard archaeological viewpoint, which said that mankind was still trying to perfect a better kind of pointy rock at that time.
“There’s also the fact that the body was wearing several pieces of clothing that included some very worn and perished pieces of plastic as well as what seemed to be metal fragments that might just have been ringlets to allow a boot to be laced up.”
She flipped the photo over to reveal the next one and then gestured peremptorily for them all to do the same. “Then there’s this.”
Sam stared at the next picture in some shock. “It’s a helmet?”
“Correct. Made from some variant of Kevlar along with very high quality steel. It was found in a grave site in another cave in an escarpment in the Rub' al Khali in Saudi Arabia in 1989. Along with some more fragments of plastic and cloth on the body. And it all dated back to around 148,000 years ago. And if you have a look at the next picture you’ll see another knife. Same pattern as the first. Same date as the first. This was found at another grave site in the Gibson Desert of Western Australia. The body, by the way, seems to have been that of a Caucasian male. Which makes something of a mockery of recorded history.”
“How did they know that he was a Caucasian?” Mitchell asked in puzzlement.
“Narrow nasal aperture, minimal prognathism and retreating zygomatic bones. There’s a forensic anthropologist at the Jeffersonian who has been trying – and failing – to prove that the bones are fake for years. She’s very stubborn.” Keeler turned back to the photos. “Finally there’s the spear point made from the steel blade of what might have been a knife that was found in a grave site in Death Valley. Please note that all of the sites where these finds were made are now deserts – but that during the last major ice age they were temperate zones with access to good hunting. Good places to settle in other words.”
She leant over the table and her eyes were shining. “This is one of greatest mysteries that I’ve ever had the opportunity to study. There is no rational explanation for these objects. They all point to very advanced technology of a kind that we only have now. There’s no sign at all of the civilization that created them though – and how did they get to four separate continents? There are even some artefacts very like them that were found in Southern Spain, so that’s five continents!”
Sam looked over the pictures slowly. “There’s no doubt about the dating for all of these artefacts?”
“None at all.”
Rodney groaned. “Why can’t life ever be simple? Now we have a second group of...” Hearing Sam’s sudden cough he started slightly. “Um, of, people.” He then winced at the lame end to his sentence.
Keller leant forwards as far as her pregnancy would allow. “Hello? People? I work for Room 42 of the British Museum, I have long since stopped using the phrase ‘that’s weird’ and in fact I kick weird’s backside down the corridor and take its lunch money every day. I know that you found two spacecraft that date back thousands of years in North Wales. And when you put this all together then I know that history of the human race has some giant holes in it.
“The question now – where did these people come from? Especially the older lot?”
There was a long silence. “Helen,” Rodney said eventually, “You’re just as annoying now as you were when I was going out with you. And just as right. Sam – Colonel O’Neill. We need to talk. We need to tell her everything.”
Sam groaned internally. Oh joy, he was right.
The wind was shaking the grass fronds by the main entrance to the Jedi Temple and Xander watched them with a slight smile. You needed to take the time to have that quiet moment now and then. And he liked the quiet.
Sensing movement to one side he turned his head slightly. Ah. It was her. He thought about everything that he needed to say for a long moment and then he stood and walked over to where Rebecca was now balancing on one hand. She was at one with the Force, totally still, her body perfectly balanced and her eyes closed.
“Hey,” he said softly.
She opened her eyes slowly and looked back at him levelly. “Hey,” she replied.
“Your training is coming on well. Lindsay’s pleased with you. Might be time for you to Face The Mirror soon.”
She took a deep breath of air into her lungs and then nodded. “I’ll do my best,” she said. “Can’t do anything else.”
He looked deep into her eyes and then smiled at her. “We need to talk,” he said after a long moment.
For the first time she showed a touch of emotion as the faintest of blushes came over her face. “Us?”
Xander looked at her and kept smiling. “Us. Let me know what kind of food you like.”
“For dinner. I know quite a few diners in the area. If that’s ok with you?”
Rebecca stared at him and then directed a dazzling smile straight at him that did something odd to his breathing for a moment. “Any food is fine with me. So any diner you like.”
He smiled back at her. “I’ll meet you at the front door at 7?”
“I’ll be waiting there.”
He smiled again and then ambled gently away. When he reached the door he looked back at her and caught her staring at him just before she closed her eyes and resumed her exercises. And he smiled and entered the building.
Holland Manners stared out of his office window grimly. He was in a very, very bad mood. And he didn’t care who knew it. The attack earlier that day had been a catastrophe. It had gutted the lower part of the building. It had gutted the staff. It had destroyed the morale of the survivors. And it had called down the attention of the Circle of the Black Thorn, also known as those meddling assholes who thought that they knew what was happening.
He’d once entertained some pleasant thoughts about what it would take to remove said meddling assholes. Sadly it would require far more power, in every kind of way, than he had access to at the moment.
Not that such thoughts were helping him much at the moment and he sighed and walked back over to his desk. There were a few helpful crumbs from the disaster. For one thing the attack by the mysterious demon had diverted attention from his little earlier snafu that had been the raid on Harris’s place. That had been a disaster and he’d made a mental note to never, ever, go against the Jedi again. They were very, very, dangerous and he didn’t know how they thought. Both of those points worried him, especially the second part. He suspected that they were a bunch of white goddamn knights. He hated white knights.
For a moment, the merest fraction of a moment he thought about what it would take to turn one of them into a Sith. Then he shuddered. That way madness lay. Better to admit defeat and never cross the Jedi again. Even if the Senior Partners ordered it.
He drummed his fingers on the desk for a moment. Lilah Morgan had somehow survived the disaster. That didn’t exactly surprise him as she was one of life’s eternal survivors. If a nuke went off in the LA area then he wouldn’t be at all surprised if she emerged from the rubble years later with her new cockroach army.
And Lilah, despite the fact that she’d been extremely shaken by the days’ events, was now in charge of the investigation into the damn demon that had attacked them. He wasn’t altogether that he liked the sound of that. Lilah was someone who had to be watched at all times. He’d had a nasty feeling about her for a while now. He was pretty sure that she was after his job. Which, in the way of Wolfram & Hart, was perfectly normal. But he liked being alive and he had no intention of dying and then being bound by his contract to Wolfram & Hart any time soon.
He drummed his fingers one last time and then he leant over to his lower drawer. Pulling it out he then hooked a finger inside it and pressed on a certain part of it. A soft ‘thunk’ of noise greeted him and his fingers scrabbled in the secret compartment for the little USB within. He loved these things, they were getting smaller and smaller by the year, whilst also more full of memory. Then he looked at his computer and shook his head slightly. Perhaps he should send the email to one of the contacts on the USB from his flat. He needed a place to go to recharge his batteries sometimes and the luxurious little flat was ten blocks away and was totally unknown to Wolfram & Hart. Oh and his wife too.
Oh and some company perhaps – he knew a vampire barmaid who could help him to work out his… frustrations.
Xander found Angel leaning against the doorframe of the entrance to what had become Darla’s room. The vampire with a soul glanced at him as he approached and then raised a finger to his lips and jerked his head in the general direction of the main entrance.
“How’s she doing?” Xander asked softly as they moved away.
“Better,” Angel sighed. “She’s asleep now. More colour in her cheeks. She’s been eating a little. Oz checked her out again – says that she’s completely cured.”
“Good,” Xander muttered. Then he turned to look at Angel. “So what’s the plan for her now? What does she want to do?”
This brought a slightly bewildered bark of laughter from Angel, who ran his hands through his hair in what looked like frustration. “I… don’t think that we thought that far ahead. This was the last chance saloon. I tried to heal her at a place in LA that deals in wishes.” He winced slightly. “I went through a few Trials.”
“Trial by combat?”
Angel responded with a nod.
“How much of her life as a vampire does she remember?”
Angel stared at the far wall, his eyes haunted. “All of it.”
Ah. Oh dear. Xander rubbed his hands together in thought. “That’s not good.”
“No,” Angel said with a short, harsh, laugh. “It’s not. Believe me.”
“Well,” Xander mused, “She can stay here for the time being. Wolfram & Hart won’t dare try another raid on this place. But she can’t stay here for ever – it wouldn’t be fair on her. She’s human, she has her own life to lead now. And a lot to regret. She’ll need something to live for.”
“I know,” Angel replied with what Xander regarded as his best brooding face on. “But what?”
“You two will have to work that out for yourselves. I’ve warned Manners that she’s under my protection. Can you protect her in LA though? Wolfram & Hart seem to want her really badly.”
This got him a growl. “Yeah, because they want to turn her back into a damned vampire! She’s nothing more than an asset to her. A piece on the chess board.”
Xander tilted his head in thought. “Isn’t that how they think of everyone?”
“By the way – how many languages does she speak?”
Angel frowned. “Languages?”
“Humour me. How many?”
“Ummm… Well, English, obviously. Latin. Irish Gaelic. French. German. Hungarian. Persian. Mandarin Chinese. Ummmm… Italian. Some Romanian as well. Why?”
“She speaks all those languages, she’s smart, she’s dedicated… I might have a possible place where she can be safe and protected, whilst doing some good.”
Angel straightened up and looked eagerly at him. “Well, where?”
Xander took a deep breath and then stopped and wagged a finger at him. “It’s a bit hard to explain. Let me make some phone calls, so that we have a better idea of practicalities. I know some people in Colorado who might be able to help.”
“Ok,” Angel rumbled, before they both turned to look down the corridor. A moment later Daniel appeared.
“Ah. There you both are. We need you both in the study. Lindsey’s on the phone with Wesley. Apparently something’s happened to the LA office of Wolfram & Hart. Something bad.”
By the time that Wesley stopped talking the people standing or sitting around the desk were all silent and thinking hard. Lindsey was a little pale, but was otherwise unflustered. “Wesley, how many body bags came out of there again?”
“I counted at least two hundred and fifty. Maybe more, maybe less. Some of them appeared to be… well I think that there were a lot of detached parts.”
“Damn,” Lindsey muttered. “That’s at least two-thirds of the staff there. What the hell could have taken out so many Wolfram & Hart people?”
“I don’t know,” Wesley’s voice crackled over the speakerphone, “But judging by the way that the hairs on the back of my neck stood up on end when I passed the South side of the building, opposite the main entrance, a lot of magic had been thrown around in there at some point today. Plus I talked to one shopkeeper in the area who said that he saw a van filled with very heavily armed men with ‘W&H Security’ stencilled on the back of their flak jackets arrive in a hurry and run into the place this morning. There were also reports of gunfire being heard.”
“Oh that’s bad…” Lindsey ran both hands through his hair. “That’s very bad. Sounds like they used both of their main security teams against whatever the hell attacked. One’s made of the best ex-SEALs that money can buy. The other’s made up of the best mages for hire that exist. And they still lost two thirds of the staff. Any sign of Holland Manners?”
“I saw him enter the building a few hours ago. He didn’t look very happy. I haven’t seen any other familiar faces. Oh – apart from Lilah Morgan. She came out of the building wrapped in a blanket. Looked about shaken as I’ve ever seen her look.”
Lindsey looked at Xander. “Manners normally has a bolthole out of any Wolfram & Hart building – they’re all etched in his memory. If he made it out then he had enough time to do so. That said – Wolfram & Hart prides itself on its security. To fail this badly is… bad. It’ll reflect badly on Holland. Really badly.”
“And Wolfram & Hart,” said the voice of Rupert Giles from the speakerphone that he’d been patched into, “Does not like public failures on this scale. At all.”
“Will they kill him?” The question came from Rebecca, who was sitting on the edge of the table, looking at the picture that Xander had picked up a few months back from an artist who had once painted for George Lucas. A flight of X-Wings skimming over the upper part of the atmosphere of a gas giant. It made him think of Yavin, even though Obi-Wan hadn’t been at the Battle of Yavin.
“Good question,” Lindsey replied. He tapped the table thoughtfully and then shrugged. “I don’t know to tell you the truth. They might make an object lesson of him, if it was his fault. If it wasn’t then they might not. Frankly – not enough information. We don’t know what attacked. But we do know if that will weaken them a great deal. They’ll be recruiting for a few weeks.”
“So their focus might be shifted from Darla?” Angel asked with a frown.
“Maybe. Then again someone might decide that the best way to depose Manners might be to succeed where he failed and grab Darla.”
“I think it’s safe to say that we’re in uncharted territory here, people.” Xander said the words quietly but with great intensity. “Someone or something has hurt the evil law firm from hell. We all need to be very careful in case someone at Wolfram & Hart decides to make a name for themselves by lashing out. Giles, you need to tell Buffy to keep her ear to the ground there. Wesley, tell Faith to do the same. We’re going to stay here, redouble our training of the Padawans, both of whom are going to Face The Mirror soon, and protect Darla. Which reminds me – I need to make a few calls. Daniel, I need you to join me as we’re calling Jack. Any questions?”
“No, General Kenobi.” The quip came from Giles and everyone around the table grinned.
“Ok, nothing else?”
Silence greeted his words.
“Great. Let’s be careful out there people.”
On the outside Lilah was deeply upset about the loss of so many old friends and valuable colleagues. Internally however she was busy cackling manically. The whole thing was perfect. She’d killed off a rather nasty demon that had been doing its damned best to kill her, a huge number of her rivals had been rather messily killed, Manners had been undermined and above all she was in a stronger position because some damn fool on the upper storeys had decided that she was the best person to investigate the whole thing.
Of course she’d have to handle it quite carefully. No-one could suspect her true motives – namely to weaken Holland to the point where he hung himself, allowing her to step into his position – which she’d then use as a springboard to a higher level in the company. And who knew how much fun she could have there?
She settled into her chair and allowed herself a very small smile. Of course first she had to cast a veil over the exact circumstances of the death of the demon that had attacked. Oh and work out why the damn thing had attacked in the first place. Perhaps that was a good place to start. She could create a lot of interesting distractions with that. And besides, she was a bit curious about it. But not obviously curious enough to want to risk her head exploding. Necromancy was a dangerous hobby.
Right. She had some detailed planning to do. And some undermining to start.
Jack sat and stared at the report on his desk. He was tired as hell and he needed to go home. Order pizza, drink beer. Watch The Simpsons. And then fall into bed and sleep as no man had ever done before. Rip van O’Neill. Slumberland calling.
He yawned and then closed the report. It could wait until the morning. So he tossed it into the desk, locked it and then stood up and stretched until bit of his back went ‘krk’ in protest. Well, at least they’d made progress today. Keller had pointed out the locations of a whole bunch of places where artefacts had been found that were similar to the ones that she’d mentioned. She’d been extremely excited right up until the moment that she’d half passed out from tiredness and lack of food. She was now in the guest quarters. Apparently she was using her cell phone. How she could use her phone when civilian models had no reception down here remained a mystery. He suspected magic.
Picking up his coat he walked to the door, passing the map of the world that he’d put up earlier. It made no sense. Ok, so the Ancients were one thing. They’d been fleeing a dying civilization. But this earlier bunch mystified him. He wasn’t a fool. He might play the part sometimes but he wasn’t. Civilizations made things. Tools, clothes, settlements, cities, statues, the full shebang. So where had this new lot come from? They couldn’t have come from Earth.
Ok, so that meant that they must have been a splinter colony, perhaps of Ancients (but he doubted it) but more likely a group of humans who had been transplanted by the Ancients in another seeding exercise. Whatever had happened to them they’d come home. And… promptly regressed into savagery. Which made no sense. Had they landed, seen how beautiful Earth was, hugged the nearest tree and then died of pneumonia? According to Carter parts of that ship in North Wales had been for weapons. What had they been fighting? Where had they come from? Well, Jacob was due in two days and perhaps Selmak might know something.
Just as he was about to flip the lights off the phone rang. Of course. It never really failed did it? He thought about not answering it for a long moment and then stupid duty smashed a vase over the head of tiredness and then nagged him to answer it. “O’Neill.”
“Evening Jack,” said a familiar voice and he smiled slightly.
“Xander! How’s it going with the training of the Space Monkey?”
“I’m right here next to Xander, Jack. And the answer is: not too bad.”
“The Padawan’s doing great Jack. Might be getting his lightsabre soon.”
Jack closed his eyes and then grinned at the thought of how certain people would react to the idea of an actual Jedi being on SG1. “So why are you calling?”
“Sorry about the lateness of the call Jack, but at least we’re on that heavily encrypted phone you sent us. We’ve had a few interesting visitors here recently. Bunch of ex-special forces people who now work for a very evil law firm that used to be in Sunnydale. Their LA branch is sadly still with us.” Xander sounded wry but grim.
Jack felt his tiredness leave suddenly. “What the hell did they want?”
“A friend of ours. Well, a friend of a friend really. Her name is Darla and she’s a former vampire. Wolfram & Hart brought her back in human form in an attempt at turning Angel evil again.”
“Vampire with a soul. Uses a lot of hair gel. Broods a lot. In fact, if brooding was a sport at the Olympics he could brood for America. Anyway and to cut a very long story short Darla may have been brought back from death and might have been redeemed by having a soul again, and a reflection and breathing and so on, but she also had the syphilis that she’d been dying from when she became a vampire. Angel, being desperate, brought her here and Oz cured her of it.”
“Oz can cure syphilis?”
“Oh he can do quite a bit. Healing is his thing. Anyway, Wolfram & Hart, having used a lot of power to resurrect Darla, wanted her back. So they sent a team which didn’t stand a chance against a bunch of Jedi. Sadly I wasn’t here to see them kick their butts from here to next Tuesday. Thing is, we know need somewhere safe for her to go.”
“Please don’t tell me that you want to send her to the SGC?” It came out rather more whiny than he had meant it to.
“Sorry Jack, but yes. She’s not a threat, she’s 100% human, she speaks a lot of languages and she’s dead smart. She’d be an asset to you.”
He mulled it over for a moment. “Daniel? Any thoughts?”
“Jack she’d make a hell of a researcher. And she’ll need the focus of working for the greater good.” Daniel said it quietly but intently. Oh crap. The intently part was a bad sign. Daniel really, really, meant business.
“Let me guess – she was a very evil vampire?”
“Let’s just say that she has a lot to atone for. Normally we’d ask a friend of ours in the Roman Catholic Church to take care of her, but she’s not one for organised religion at all.”
Jack looked around the room, failed to find any help or solace from anything around him and then felt his shoulders slump. “Ok, let me talk this over with Hammond. Can you send me a list of all the languages she can speak and what her qualifications are?”
“We can send something to you in the morning Jack. Which reminds me, how are those projects I worked on coming along?”
An evil smile crossed Jack’s face. “Oh, just fine. In fact, you need to pay us a visit again. We’ve made a lot of progress and we need your input on a few things.”
“Well, if Daniel Faces The Mirror successfully then I’ll be bringing him back to you with that lightsabre quite soon.”
“Peachy,” Jack grinned. “Oh and Daniel? Doc Fraiser has been dropping very pointed hints about when you’re coming back. So hurry up as I’m tired of her using the biggest fricking needle in the medical centre!”
“I sense a great disturbance in Daniel’s calm, Jack, so we’ll ring off. Have a good evening.”
“You too Xander. Best of luck Daniel.”
The phone clicked off and Jack put it down. Right. Home. Pizza. Beer. Simpsons. Bed. The question of what the hell to say to Hammond in the morning about the ex-vampire that needed to be protected from the people in an evil law firm that employed ex-special ops people would have to wait until the morning. Hopefully he’d know what the hell to say to his CO then.
Fal’c schooled his face before he approached the main doors. It would never do to look nervous before the Lord Anubis. Then he walked up to the doors, which opened for him.
Anubis was standing at his favourite spot, gazing out at the stars. He didn’t seem to have moved a muscle since Fal’c had last seen him an hour ago and he shuddered internally ever so slightly.
“My Lord,” he murmured with a bow. “You sent for me.”
The black hood moved ever so slightly in his direction. “How go the preparations to attack?”
“We have assembled a force of ten Ha'taks so far for the assault on the Tau’ri my Lord. Work on your flagship continues, but even with the extra workers it will not be ready for another seventy days.” He found beads of sweat forming on his forehead. Saying that last part without whimpering with fear had not been easy.
Anubis returned his gaze to the stars. “Very well,” he said eventually. “It was perhaps over-ambitious of me to expect it to be finished in time for the attack. Who is in charge of the building project again?”
“Your servant Gorash my Lord.”
“I see. Have his host flayed alive and then nail his skin to the main entrance to the slave quarters as a warning. Place Gorash in a stasis jar. I’ll think of something more inventive to do with him.”
Fal’c bowed deeply. “Of course my Lord,” he said, before straightening up and leaving at a brisk pace. Someone was going to die and it wasn’t going to be him today.
“Hey.” Xander looked at Rebecca slightly quizzically. It was 7 on the dot, he’d finished talking to a lot of people and he’d need a short bout of Jedi Healing Trance tonight as he was feeling the impact of what had been a very long few days.
The Padawan was wearing a dark blue blouse over jeans and he was suddenly struck how much she’d changed over the past months. That drawn-out look of worry was gone and in its place was an inner peace and tranquillity that suited her a great deal.
“Hey yourself,” she replied. They stared at each other for a long moment of time, locked in each other’s eyes. And then they both smiled and started slightly.
“So – I know a diner that’s not too far away, that serves edible food and which isn’t frequented by loud idiots, allowing something called ‘conversation’ to take place. Want to risk it with me?”
“Let’s take a chance on it,” she smiled, deploying unexpected dimples as she did.
And so they did.
The moon was full and low on this horizon behind him. He could see his shadow stretching out in front of him at the entrance to the valley and he swallowed nervously. He was taking a hell of a sodding step into the dark on this one. He’d heard about a shaman in Africa who did something similar and there was a rumour that there was a bloke in Mexico who let you dance on moonbeam or some such bollocks.
Well, standing around here like a paralysed lemming wasn’t achieving anything, was it? Carpe Diem. Spike gathered his leather duster around him and then started off down the rough path into the valley. This old bint had better be in there.
As he walked he looked around cautiously. He could smell something, but he had no idea what the bleeding hell it was. Several somethings, as if something had just finished decaying somewhere upwind right next to a fire. Death. Of someone or something.
He saw the cave from a long way off. The fire in front of it was a dead giveaway. As he reached it he frowned. The fire looked as if someone had literally just laid and lit it and then stepped away for a moment. “Allo?” He asked the single word carefully. Nothing. No-one responded. However, he could see a forked stick jammed into the dirt to one side of the entrance to the cave and a piece of paper wedged in the fork.
“Humph,” he muttered as he walked up to it and pulled the paper off it. Looked like a note, so he opened it and read it. Once he finished reading it he looked up at the moon. “Oh you have GOT to be KIDDING ME!” His voice boomed around the valley, echoing about as it bounced off the cliffs. Sadly the Universe failed to respond. He peered at the note again, rolled his eyes and then trudged into the cave.
It was more of a tunnel than a cave, cool and dry and not slimy at all. Luckily vampires had good night vision because after a few twists and turns the light from the fire at the entrance faded and it became darker than Drusilla’s recipe for black pudding. Although after another 20 yards he saw a light up ahead.
Spike paused, girded his loins, adjusted his leather duster, put his hand in front of his mouth to smell his own breath (the minty green things he’d had earlier had helped), ran out of things to do to put this insane thing off and then walked forwards towards the light, which lit what looked like a wider more open space with alcoves that were shrouded in darkness.
It was another fire. But he wasn’t sure what was burning – it was too bright for his eyes and kept shifting and moving. It gave off light and heat anyway. And behind it there was a large chair made from wood and in it, swaddled with blankets, was the oldest woman he’d ever seen. She was basically one massive wrinkle and he couldn’t even begin to guess at her age. Her eyes were closed and she seemed to be asleep.
He approached and then got down on one knee. “Oh great and powerful Oracle,” he said, reading from the piece of paper. “Humbly I do abase myself and crave a boon from your, um, michty? No, mighty wisdom, bloody hell this is bad handwriting, and I do-”
“I am going to have a stern word with that boy,” a querulous voice interrupted him in a terribly upper-class British accent. He looked up and was startled to see that the old woman’s eyes were open and had fixed him with a penetrating stare. And what very green, very intent eyes they were. “He’s got to stop leaving notes that make people say all that drivel. He finds it funny.”
“What boy?” Spike asked, more than a little bewildered.
“Oh, my great-great-great grandson. Annoying little twerp. Very good at what he does, but… anyway. That’s none of your business. Now. What do you want, vampire?”
Oh shit. Not good. “Um, you can tell that I’m a vampire?”
The penetrating gaze became flinty. “Obviously,” she said dryly. “If this is going to be a conversation where you ask me a lot of stupid and obvious questions just tell me now so that I can kill you, so that we don’t waste any more time. I’m dying, so I have very little time left in the first place.”
For a split second Spike felt the words “You’re dying?” bubble up in the back of his throat and then he caught her eyes again and repressed them just in time. The flinty gaze flickered into amusement for a heartbeat and then vanished.
“Right then,” the Oracle said as she settled herself slightly more firmly in the chair. “You have to know this from the start. I don’t like vampires. I regard the lot of you as a bunch of soulless bloodthirsty monsters with no more right to walk this Earth than any other homicidal freak of nature. The last vampire to come here had a plan to steal my powers, rape my body and then annihilate my mind, so you can understand why I’m a little irked at the sight of you.”
“Um, yes,” Spike muttered. “I guess I’d be too. But you let me get this far in. Why?”
She smiled at him, showing a remarkably good set of teeth. “Why, your purpose of course. I could feel it around you as you came down the valley. It’s a remarkable thing to feel something like that from a vampire. So many of your kind think that you feel love, but it isn’t real. Lust perhaps, more often than not. A memory of love sometimes, which stands in for the real thing. And then the memory of a memory. Your purpose, however, is… pure. Very interesting. And the only reason why you aren’t dead right now. Or worse.”
“Worse than dead?” Spike asked the question uncertainly and all of a sudden one of the alcoves was lit by a sickly green glow. There was a stone statue there of a cowering man. Wait. It had ridges on its forehead. A vampire.
“Meet Mr Ivanov. He came all the way from Pskov in Russia. He was the vampire I mentioned earlier.”
“You, um, turned him to stone?” Spike asked.
“Not… quite. Take a closer look.”
Spike did and then nearly passed out with terror when the stone eyelids on the statue flicked open and a pair of utterly mad eyes looked at him, blinking desperately as they darted about the room.
“Mr Ivanov,” the Oracle purred softly, “Is probably very, very sorry that he came anywhere near me. Sadly he’s probably very, very many other things as he went barking mad years ago. I would put him out of his considerable misery but he’s too much use as a deterrent. And a nightlight.”
This prompted a swallow of nervousness from Spike. “Right,” he said weakly. “Understood.”
“Now: what do you want vampire? I can grant many things, but it has to be for the right reasons. And I cannot grant everything, so if you want your long lost love returned then I can’t do it and we might as well stake you on the spot.”
Spike closed his eyes and summoned his strength. “My… soul.” He whispered the words, the mad, insane words that had brought him to this place.
A long silence greeted those words. Then the Oracle leant forwards in her chair. “Did I hear that right? You want your soul back?”
Those green eyes stared, no, bored into him. “I could ask you why. But I can still feel your purpose. So I won’t. As you’re in love. And not with another vampire as another vampire wouldn’t want you have your soul back. So that means that it’s a mortal. My, my, we do live in interesting times.”
She leant back, the eyes now considering and a long silence fell that Spike was very reluctant to break, especially when he looked at the statue of the mad Russian vampire. And then: “There will be three tests. Physical, mental and moral. Normally the moral one comes first, but you’re a bit handicapped without a soul so giving you it wouldn’t be terribly fair. You’ll get it when – and if – you get your soul back. Thank your lucky stars by the way that you came when you did. I’ll be dead by the end of the month and my daughter will take over – and she hates vampires even more than I do so she would have burnt you to a crisp the moment that you entered the valley.”
She waved a hand and another alcove lit up. Spike blinked at it. Was there a kettle in there?
“Yes, it’s a kettle. You sound English and I know something of your history so you can make me a cup of Darjeeling. Half a teaspoon of sugar and a dash of milk. Make me decent cup and I might just give you a fighting chance. Make me a terrible cup and – well, just don’t.”
So he walked, slightly dazed, into the alcove. Well, anything for a weird life. The kettle was full and even seemed to have a plug in the nearby wall. He switched it on and then looked down at the tea. Aha. The giant wrinkle, sorry, Oracle, liked her tea brewed loose and not in a teabag. Dead posh and for a moment he thought about his long-dead mother. He sighed slightly, waited for the water to boil, prepared the tea leaves in the strainer, poured the milk in first to the bone china cup – and that really was posh – and then poured the boiling water into the cup through the tea leaves in the sieve. Once the sugar was added he carried it over to the Oracle, who sniffed at it.
“Not bad,” she said after a careful sip. “Not bad at all. Very well. Ready for your test?”
He thought about saying ‘yes’ but then decided that in this case absolute honesty was the correct course. “No,” he said eventually, “But you’d better tell me where to go anyway.”
The Oracle smiled impishly at him. “I almost like you, William. For a vampire you seem to have a decent sense of humour. So I’m going to give you a fighting chance. You’ll be in a maze. Find the centre. If you survive, that is.”
Something flashed around him and all of a sudden Spike was standing in a brightly lit corridor. He looked around, confused. Ah. He could see some other corridors leading off it ahead and behind him. This was the maze. And then he heard the growling of something that probably had far too many teeth for his liking. Bugger.