Chapter 24: ᚾ Marks the Spot
SATURDAY, JUNE 8, 2002, 8:18 PM (GMT)COUNCIL SAFEHOUSE
Buffy Summers staggered as the paneled flooring of the manor house's entry hall shook beneath her feet, thinking irritable thoughts at the Powers That Be regarding their timing. As if their rescue-roadtrip hadn't been semi-apocalyptic enough already
. The only saving grace of the situation was that Travers' goons, in their matchy-matchy black outfits, seemed even less prepared for it than her people.
She spared a glance for the barely visible, mirage-like distortion in the air where the wide part of the entry hall narrowed down to something she'd have called an actual hall
back home, and hoped Wes would be able to hold out until they could follow him. Then she set her jaw and turned her attention to the leader of the pack in front of her as the earthquake subsided. It was pretty easy to tell who that was: the other five goons deferred to him with their body language, watching to see what he'd do, between sending nervous glances around the room. Some dust had drifted down from the ceiling, and the pale cream paint had cracked on one of the walls above the oak-paneled dado, but the place seemed pretty sturdily built; good for the presumably trapped Potentials and Faith, not so much for the prospect of the Hellmouth cracking the containment runes for them.
Leader Goon's eyes glittered as he drew a gun from a holster: definitely
special ops. Regular Watchers wouldn't have been armed to fight humans
"You really think that's
going to make a difference, here?" she said, giving his weapon of choice a contemptuous glance.
"You really think the three of you
are going to deal with the six of us
?" the guy drawled, returning contempt for contempt. "You may be the Slayer, but they're just deadweight."
A month or two ago, Buffy might have agreed with them. But a month ago, Dawnie hadn't been a Slayer yet, and neither of them had fought alongside Cordy's Champion-y boyfriend. Mr. Goon had no idea what he was talking about.
"Sure about that, are you?" Dawn scoffed, speaking up for all three of them. "It's not like Buffy's not known for making powerful allies, or anything."
"What do you take us for?" he replied scornfully, glaring in her direction. Buffy's nerves quivered like high-tension wires as the gun tracked to follow his gaze; she would have said much the same thing if Dawn had been a little slower off the mark, but that didn't make it any easier to see her little sister in danger. "We're Watchers
; we know what her allies look like. He's
not Angelus. And you're
just the kid sister."
The other goons had been splitting their attention mostly between Buffy and Groo, but at their buddy's scoffing words, they mostly followed his lead and switched their focus to Dawn. The shift left Groo a couple of arm's lengths away from the nearest of them, dismissed as irrelevant from all the bad guys' minds... and just as Buffy would have done, he seized the opportunity to disarm him with prejudice, tackling the guy into the fireplace behind him and bashing his arm against the sturdy marble.
She could really get used to this competent backup thing. The instant he moved, she went for the gunman, knocking his weapon out of line and then mule-kicking him in the groin.
Mr. Bad Guy folded up with a little "oof", staggering toward the archway where the spell shimmered, clearing the way in front of her... for the goon next to him to fill. As he stepped past his fallen friend, Buffy turned to step inside the downswing of his
sword, blocking his wrist with her forearm, then elbowed him full-strength in the gut and caught the blade as he curled in over the impact. Groo was already moving to engage a second opponent as well, but the remaining two were both going straight for Dawn, probably with the aim of using her against Buffy.
Dawn grinned sharply, more of her nerves probably dissipating under the rush of adrenaline Buffy knew so well, and sucker-punched the first of the pair. He went down with an expression of shock on his face, groaning in a heap on the rug next to his leader; she stomped his hand next to break his grip on his sword, then snatched it up off the floor and turned to face the spare, catching his blade on her own. She'd come a long way since her days of getting kidnapped by every Big Bad to roll into town.
They'd evened the odds; but Buffy knew there had to be at least a couple dozen more Watchers in the building, and she wasn't all that keen to wait for them to join in. Travers' in-crowd was probably there, for starters, plus whichever ones had stayed behind when they brought their Potentials to him. There was no way the entry guards were the only ones in the manor who knew how to wield a weapon.
Fortunately, at least a few of them were probably stuck behind the barrier... and she'd
brought backup, too. Cordy must have parked the van; she could hear more footsteps on the flagstones outside. Buffy picked up her pace-- her current opponent was a fair match for her in skill, but not strength, and he was already sweating-- and finally knocked his blade out of line long enough to stab him through the shoulder. Non-fatally, because she still didn't believe her gifts gave her the right to judge humans, but she knew better than to leave the man capable of picking up a weapon again and making more trouble.
Speaking of which: her first opponent was still conscious, uncurling from her kick and reaching for the gun he'd dropped. She ducked out of Groo's way as his fight started drifting in her direction, stabbing the point of the sword through the gun's trigger guard, then sent it skittering across the floor in the direction of the open door. "Xander, catch!"
Her best male friend stepped through the door and stooped, lifting the handgun in a smooth, sure motion and aiming for the guy she'd liberated it from. Xand could still be a dork sometimes, but over the last month or so a lot of his awkwardness in combat situations had disappeared. Not Captain America level or anything, but enough she didn't have to worry so much about him anymore, either.
"Aw, Buff," he said, putting a bullet through the expensive rug and into the wooden flooring just in front of the gunman's hand, sending splinters flying. "You shouldn't have. I didn't bring you any presents!" Point made to the swearing and cringing bad guy, he stepped further into the hall, pivoting to sweep his sights across the other opponents.
"You know me," she quipped back, clotheslining the next guy-- who'd tried to charge her with a stake, of all things. "Only the very best violence for my Xander-shaped friend!"
"I'd return that gift if I were you, Xander; seems kind of mediocre if you ask me!" Cordelia put in, following him through the door. "Now, let's see what we can do about sprucing this place up a little!"
Cordy was already in full-on Emma Frost mode: making with the sparkly, anyway, not the mind-speaking. That was still Willow's gig. She raised her hands and brightened her glow until it flooded the entire visible portion of the building-- and at least half of the Watchers present immediately stopped struggling, staring at their hands in abject dismay.
It didn't touch the other half; not all humans needed toxic levels of hate or fear or manipulation to do cruel, dehumanizing, awful things. Unfortunately. But half was better than none, and even better, it seemed to give the rest of the attacking Watchers pause. So, go scrubbing bubbles!
The one thing it didn't
do was take down the magical barrier; the burst of light ricocheted off the curtain of energy, dispersing back into the hall. Of course. That would have made things too easy.
"Dawn, take Cordy and find the runes. Groo and I will follow and keep the Watchers off your backs," she barked, nodding to the demon Champion. "Xander? Tie these guys up, and keep the door clear."
"Sure, Buffy. No prob," Xander said, moving to the nearest bad guy and grabbing a set of what must have been Slayer restraints off the dude's commando belt.
The Groosalug nodded his own agreement, crossing the room to stand next to Cordy-- and the two still-armed goons in the room seemed to take that as their cue to resume the fight.
"Yeah, too easy," she rolled her eyes at herself, then leg-swept her guy, punched him in the face just hard enough to knock him out, and gestured her sister forward. "Go on! Wes said 'runes'; you'll know what to look for better than I would."
"Are we forgetting the fact that I'm
more or less a dark magics detector now, and this is the spell that unanchored the Hellmouth
?" Cordy snarked, shaking her head. "That purifying power doesn't take that
much out of me anymore. Just give me a second...."
"Take all the time you need, Ms. Chase," a new voice spoke up, as snootily British as Giles at his most annoyed. An older guy, somewhere in Travers' and Richard Wyndam-Pryce's age bracket, had stepped through the edge of the void spell, holding up his hands in outward-facing claw shapes as though he was some sci-fi villain preparing to throw lightning bolts from his fingers. "It will not help you. You cannot stop us; none of you can."
"Oh, yeah?" Buffy stepped forward to face him, shifting her grip on her sword in preparation for a quick javelin toss. "We'd like to test that theory."
"You arrogant child," the Watcher sneered. "You had your time. You and that murderer; between you, you've perverted everything it means
to be a Slayer. It's time to restore the balance; to see a new
Slayer, a proper Slayer, take up the cause."
"One under your control, you mean? A nice little obedient Slayer who doesn't know any better, who'll suffer a mysterious loss of powers the minute she starts trying to make her own choices?" Buffy sneered. Eighteen was kind of a suspiciously legalistic demarcation line; she had a feeling the Council had been a lot more flexible with its application of the Cruciamentum in ye olden times.
He extended his hands, his expression ugly as purple-black veins of magic started to writhe around his fingers; Buffy cocked her arm and threw the sword, point first, at his shoulder. Before either blow could connect, though, the ground shook again; she heard the breaking of fragile things in one of the rooms opening into the hall, and the marble fireplace cracked clear through with a sound like a gunshot. Paneling creaked and split, and more dust drifted down from overhead.
The bolt of magic splashed off the ceiling as the man staggered backward, blasting by close enough to make Buffy's scalp tingle and knocking the beautiful crystal chandelier loose from its moorings. She dodged instinctively out of the way, throwing herself and Dawn out of the worst of the shatter zone, but in the process lost track of her sword... which rebounded from the wall instead of his head, clattering to the floor at his feet.
"When she starts
? My dear, we gave you more than enough rope to hang yourself with. We're simply... cleaning up loose ends. The next Slayer will have every incentive to mind her place."
He raised his hands again, chanting something low under his breath.
place? You mean yours
. How about we let her pick her own for once?" Buffy braced herself to lunge for the sword again, hoping her shoes would hold up against the shards of chandelier-- and was caught entirely off guard when Xander put a round through his calf instead.
"Xander!" she yelped in surprise as the guy collapsed to the floor, a splash of blood staining the blond wood of the flooring between the spell-blocked arch and the pale patterned rug.
He shrugged at her, expression solemn but completely unapologetic. "And how's what I just did any different from stabbing the guy with the gun in the shoulder, again?"
"That's-- not what I meant," she blurted, shaking her head, unsure how to explain. Guns and Buffy had never been mixy; and since Warren, since Xander had nearly died in her arms, the idea of harming a human with one made her even queasier. But given the side-effects of Giles' Wish, and that he'd been the one actually shot that day... it made her feel kinda queasy about being judgy with him about it, too.
"It's just-- anybody have the creeping feeling we're missing something here?" she deflected. "I mean, five goons, a lieutenant, and an underboss who isn't even Travers or Wes' adoptive jerk. Where are the rest of them? Where's Wes-- and Faith?" She glanced around the hall, taking in the guys Xander had trussed up and shoved against the wall, Dawn still shaking a little but looking determined next to her, and Groo and Cordy.... What were
Groo and Cordy doing?
Cordelia clearly hadn't been paying attention to the conversation for a while; she had her fingernails wedged into one of the splits in the dado paneling on the wall nearest the archway further into the building, straining at the solid oak to force it to split further.
"Groo, honey? A little help here?" she said.
"Uh, Cordelia? Something about that particular stretch of wall offend you?" Dawn asked, frowning.
"What did I just
say about being a dark magics detector?" she grunted, then backed off a step as the Grooslaug wedged the point of his sword into the gap she'd been attacking with her nails. "Yes; right there. Pry it all off-- this panel, and the one to the left."
"As my lady wishes," Groo said, smiling, and put his back into it.
"Wow." Xander had stuck the gun in the waistband of his jeans and was busy tearing up the latest casualty's jacket for a bandage and wrist tie combo package, but he kept glancing back over his shoulder at the wall deconstruction. "Some good, solid workmanship there. Pity we have to take it down-- I never get to work on anything this nice. Maybe I'll install some like it back at the Hyperion."
"Mourn the woodwork later; we have a spell to take down," Cordy said impatiently, as Groo's efforts paid off with a loud cracking sound. The section of paneling she'd singled out fell away-- and behind it, in crossing lines of fluid, metallic silver, an oversized rune shimmered on the bare wall.
Buffy's eyes watered as she tried to look at it; even the sight
of the thing seemed to exude some kind of pushback effect against supernatural entitles, because everyone else in the room bar Xander cringed back too, even Cordelia. "Ugh. That must be it. So how do we...?"
"Allow me," Xander said, scowling. He cold-cocked the wounded Watcher he'd been tending with the butt of his gun-- the guy had started struggling and swearing the moment the rune was uncovered-- then strode over to the fireplace and picked up one of its ornate andirons. They'd been knocked over when Groo tackled his first attacker; Buffy hadn't noticed until Xander picked it up that they were shaped like demonic figures, complete with barbed armor and pointy claws.
He stepped closer to the wall, swinging the andiron backward as if it were an axe. Then he drove it forward into the wall with all his enhanced strength; she could see his eyes flash lavender as the andiron struck. It sank in several inches, piercing the center of the joined lines... and the silvery light immediately winked out.
Buffy glanced back at the shielded archway, but though the shimmer became more visible, the spell was still there. "Damn it. Cordy, could you...?"
Even as she spoke, the earth shook again in an aftershock. It was milder, but she heard more things falling somewhere-- and then Willow's voice spoke up in her head, sounding strained.Buffy? Are you there?
"Kinda busy, Will," she murmured, holding up a hand to get the others' attention.So are we. Might wanna hurry it up. The good news is, the defensive wards are down-- the bad news is, the house is about to follow. You remember what was left of the Wolfram and Hart building after the Hellmouth finished moving to LA?
"Not much," Buffy winced.Exactly. Tara and I might be able to keep it together a few more minutes-- but that's it. Get out of there as soon as you can!
"I hear you," Buffy replied.That's not a yes!
"We've got one rune already; as soon as we're through, I promise, we'll get the others and find a door before the manor falls down around our ears."
"Oh, great. As if we weren't operating under a deadline already
," Cordelia sighed, and started feeling her way around the rest of the room.Just hurry,
came Willow's parting remark.
"Try across the archway from the other one...?" Dawn suggested.
One of the recumbent goons started at her words, as if to stand, and Buffy casually stomped him back down with a foot to the back. "I second that suggestion," she said.
The unearthing of the second rune went much more swiftly; as soon as Xander smashed it, the shimmery barrier flashed again, then faded entirely. And with it, some kind of dampening spell: all the noise she hadn't
been hearing from all the other people that had to be in the building rushed out in a confusion of faint voices crying out in pain or anger and violent, crashing sounds of splintering furniture and fists striking flesh.
"I think that's our cue," she quipped, and headed through the archway at a flat run.