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Follow the Yellow Brick Road
This is a Hercules:the Legendary Journeys/Angel crossover, set during the Angel episode "There's No Place Like Plrtz Glr." Spoilers for "Over the Rainbow," "Through the Looking Glass" and Angel Season 2.
The convertible burst through the vortex into sunlight and air. Cordelia's first thought was that they had screwed up the spell and landed back in Pylea. Then she registered the open valley, the hills around it heavy with emerald green forest that rose up into rocky gray mountains, the sweep of meadow dotted with little yellow and white flowers swaying in the gentle breeze, the brilliant blue of the sky. No way this is Pylea, she decided, blinking at the bright afternoon sun as the car rolled to a stop in the grass. The light, the sky of that world had been different, not quite right. Something in this sun, the green of the trees, all said Earth with a capital E. Then she thought, Angel. Sunlight. Holy crap.
As the engine sputtered to a halt, Cordelia yelled incoherently, throwing herself across Fred and trying to reach Angel in the driver's seat. Everybody else must have twigged at the same time as she had because Wesley, Lorne, and Gunn were all shouting conflicting instructions from the back seat; only Fred was silent, balling herself up into a fetal position so Cordelia could get past her.
Cordelia scrambled up to her knees on the seat with some idea of shielding Angel with her body until he could get his coat over his head. There was sure no part of her Pylean Queen outfit big enough to pull off and throw over him. But he wasn't bursting into flame or even smoldering. He leaned over the steering wheel, coughing and gasping.
Gunn and Wesley bailed out of the back seat, Gunn reaching the driver's side door first and wrenching it open. Angel tumbled out, rolling in the grass. Cordelia launched herself over Fred and out after him.
After a minute of confusion as she tried to wrestle his coat up she realized that he was actually struggling to get away from her and still hadn't burst into flame. Wesley hauled her out of the way, knelt in front of Angel and demanded, "What's happening?"
Angel sat up, grabbed his throat and said, "I can breathe."
"Quick, do CPR!" Cordelia ordered, then processed what he had said. "Wait, what?" She exchanged a baffled look with Gunn, who asked, "And the downside of that is?"
"No, I mean I need to breathe. I'm breathing." Angel waved urgently.
She stooped to look at his face. He was flushed. Angel didn't get flushed, not having the blood to flush with.
Wesley pushed Angel's hands away and felt for the pulse at his throat. Or the lack of pulse, Cordelia corrected herself. Then she saw Wesley's expression change from concern to astonishment. "His heart's beating," Wesley said, stunned.
"That's new, to say the least," Lorne commented, crouching down so he was eye level with Angel. "How do you feel?"
Angel looked from him to Wesley, then up at Gunn and Cordelia, the shock on his face fading to a kind of cautious, almost painful delight. "Great," he said, slowly starting to smile. "Alive. This isn't like what happened in Pylea. I'm alive."
They all took a moment to absorb that in silence. Cordelia shook her head, trying to take it all in. In Pylea, the natural laws had been so different that vampires could go out in daylight, see themselves in mirrors, and other things they couldn't normally do. The downside had been that when Angel put on his Game Face, the demon had come out to play. But this is home, Cordelia thought in protest. She was sure of it. "Okay. So, two questions. How? And more importantly, how the hell?"
Everyone looked at Wesley, who got to his feet, slowly shaking his head. As an ex-Watcher, resident research expert, magic and demon-knowledge guy, and now head of Angel Investigations, he should know. "I...have absolutely no idea."
"Allrighty." Lorne sat back on his heels. He looked even more out of place than the black convertible; this just didn't seem like the right setting for a green guy with horns wearing a stylish red lounge suit. "Now that we've established that we don't have a clue what's happened, let's establish that we don't have a clue where we are."
Fred said in a small voice, "Not home." Temporarily forgotten, she was still huddled in the front seat. Wearing the short white shift that had replaced the standard burlap sack of Pylean slave wear, her long dark hair hanging like a curtain and her eyes huge in her pale face, she looked like a lost child.
"But this has got to be home," Cordelia protested, then looked around, really focussing on their surroundings. The nearest edge of the forest, about a hundred yards away where the ground started to slope up into the hilly area below the mountains, was a thick mass of pines, normal-looking trees, and large ferny things. She took a deep breath and the air was clean and pure, nothing in it but growing plants and damp earth. It struck a chord of memory somewhere in her head, but she couldn't quite pin it down. It was pleasantly warm but didn't look like California, and the place obviously got way more rainfall than anywhere around LA. And, she frowned down at Angel, there's the whole lack of spontaneous combustion for vampires. "So it's not LA. But it's not Pylea."
"And let's have a big 'yay' for that." Lorne got to his feet, shading his eyes to look around. Nobody was more happy to be leaving Lorne's home dimension than Lorne, except maybe Fred. "The scenery is to die for. Not literally, I hope," he added with a trace of unease.
"Fantastic," Cordelia muttered. She hadn't thought about that yet. Pylea had been rough enough at first; she wasn't eager to go through that again any time soon.
"So we know where we're not." Gunn's eyes narrowed as he surveyed the hills. Growing up hunting vampires and demons on the streets of south side LA, he was as out of place here as Lorne, though he seemed less concerned by it. "So where are we?" he demanded. Again, they all looked at Wesley.
His mouth twisted ruefully, he shook his head. "I have no idea."
They could hear the thing somewhere up the hill above them, tearing through the forest, the crunch of branches and crushed saplings telling them where it was through the bulk of the concealing stands of trees. It was starting to drive Iolaus crazy.
He swore under his breath. "It's herding us." They were crouched in damp concealment at the base of a large tree, the roots as big around as pillars. The forest floor was broken by rocky outcrops covered with lichen and the light was a shadowy green, occasional patches of dappled sunlight appearing as wind shifted the branches.
Crouched next to him, Hercules nodded grimly. "I know."
"You knew?" Iolaus sounded accusing mostly because he hadn't eaten all day. They had run out of travel rations and chasing and being chased by this creature had left them no time for hunting. "Why didn't you say something?"
Hercules shrugged absently, still frowning as he looked upslope, watching for movement among the pines at the top of the rise. "There's nothing we can do about it."
Iolaus expelled a breath in frustration. He was right about that.
From up the hill a distant voice echoed, deep and richly female, with a roughness to it like raw silk. "Run, run, I know you're down there." There was a crack of branches breaking, and it added, amused, "You smell like food."
Hercules snorted in exasperation. Keeping his voice low, he said, "Why do these things always have to be so damn talkative?"
Iolaus shook his head wearily. "Maybe it's trying to trick us into attacking it just to shut it up." He bit his lip, considering. "So it wants us down in that little valley."
Hercules nodded again, this time glumly. "Looks that way."
"I don't know." Hercules gave him the look that meant "I'm only a demigod, give me a break." It was a nice contrast to the "I am a demigod, you could listen to me occasionally" look. "It's got something down there. We have to find out what it is."
Iolaus ran a hand over his face. He didn't like the idea of that unknown "something." And he knew Hercules was badly worried and that didn't make the situation any more fun. "Right."
Hercules eased to his feet, stepping cautiously out of concealment, and Iolaus followed, careful not to let the dead leaves crunch underfoot. He had his sword and much-depleted quiver slung over his shoulder and was carrying his bow; Hercules had both their packs, not that there was much of use left in them. If we'd known it was a damn shapeshifter we could've brought more supplies, Iolaus thought irrelevantly, slipping from the cover of one trunk to another as the creature slammed through a stand of trees somewhere uphill.
"I know you can hear me," the shapeshifter purred above them. "It's only a game, I won't really eat you. Not right away."
The creature had disguised itself as a marauding giant, killing villagers in the valleys below to attract their attention, then luring them far up here into the Arcadian Mountains. They had faced something like this only once before, not long after Iolaus had been brought back to life the last time, and it had almost turned both of them into chew toys. The things came through the blue swirly doorways from some other world and people were their favorite prey. They were stronger than Titans, faster than Apollo's chariot, and so mean they made Ares look downright reasonable; that combined with a cunning intelligence that most monsters lacked made them daunting opponents. The last one they had faced had come here by accident looking for mortals to eat. This one, unfortunately, seemed to have some kind of plan.
The crashing above cut off abruptly and Iolaus froze in place, one foot half-lifted to take the next step. He glanced worriedly at Hercules to see the demigod also motionless, his face set in a grimace as he waited for the creature's next move. The damn thing had great hearing, too.
The silence stretched, made near absolute by the lack of birdsong as all the inhabitants of these woods huddled in breathless suspense. Hercules looked at Iolaus, brows lifted, his expression asking if Iolaus thought the shapeshifter had heard them. Iolaus shook his head slightly. If it had heard them, the thing would have--
Above their heads a rustling hiss broke the silence and tree trunks snapped as something huge lunged downhill. "Great," Hercules said under his breath and Iolaus rolled his eyes, then they both plunged through the trees, running for their lives.
Pounding downslope, leaping over rocky outcrops, crashing through the underbrush, Iolaus shot a glance back. He got a heartbeat's view of a giant powerful yellow-gray body, winding snake-like through the trees, with a head like an exotic evil flower.
The trees fell away into bright sunlight and just ahead Hercules slid to an abrupt halt. Iolaus fetched up beside him, swearing. They stood on the edge of a wide rocky gorge cutting through the hillside. "Uh oh," Hercules muttered in a grim tone.
Nearly twenty feet across, the sides were a sheer drop down to a winding stream nearly fifty feet below. "Son of a bacchae!" Iolaus leaned to look over the edge. They could climb down, maybe dodge along the bottom--
Then Hercules said, "Brace yourself," and grabbed him around the waist.
"What?" Startled, Iolaus felt his feet leave the ground. "Oh no--" That was all he had time for before he was in the air.
Iolaus landed on the far side in a roll to absorb the impact, sliding down in the dirt and gravel. He bounced to his feet to see Hercules, not having time to back up for enough of a running start, launch himself off the far side.
"Dammit, he's not going to--" Iolaus scrambled back up to the edge of the gorge as Hercules landed short, the dirt grumbling under his hands, and went sliding down the side. He flung himself forward, grabbing one flailing arm in time to halt his friend's downward plunge. He held on grimly, digging his feet in as Hercules managed to get a solid grip and heave himself up. They tumbled back from the edge, landing in a heap. Iolaus struggled out from under Hercules, saying, "I hate it when you throw me!"
"I know, sorry," Hercules gasped, staggering to his feet. On the other side of the gorge the shapeshifter snarled in rage and leapt into the air, a new set reptilian wings and clawed hands growing out of its snake body. "Come on!"
"You know, if it wasn't for Angel growing a pulse," Gunn said thoughtfully, "I'd say we just missed the exit and ended up somewhere further north, in Oregon or Washington. This place has that intense green, mountainy kind of thing going for it."
"Yes, it does," Wesley agreed as they moved through the lush forest of ferns, giant hardwoods and pines. Bright early afternoon sunlight streamed through the high green canopy of the treetops. Since they had to wait until the interdimensional hotspot in the area could recharge before they attempted to open another portal, they had decided to split up to reconnoiter. Cordelia and Lorne were climbing the low hill at the edge of the opposite side of the meadow to get a look around and Wesley and Gunn were making their way into the forest to do the same. Since they had no idea yet what this abrupt transformation would mean to Angel, Wesley had insisted he remain near the car with Fred. "It rather reminds me of New Zealand."
Gunn had taken a battle ax from the store of weapons in the car's trunk and carried it casually propped on his shoulder, making him look like the black version of Little John in a post-modern production of Robin Hood. His expression serious, he said, "Tell me, English, you really got no clue why Angel is suddenly among the living again?"
Wesley knew Gunn still considered working with Angel to be something of a compromise against his moral integrity, even though Angel had a soul. Since Gunn had spent so much of his life fighting the vampires that preyed on the poorer districts of the city, Wesley completely understood. And in light of Angel's behavior over the past few months before finally returning to the agency, and the physical revelation of Angel's demon in Pylea, Gunn's attitude seemed nothing but reasonable pragmatism. "It could be an affect of this world's laws of nature, similar to what occurred in Pylea. But I really have no idea," Wesley admitted, pushing up the sleeves of his sweater.
"You been saying that a lot since we got here."
Wesley chose to ignore that, since it was true. "But if this world has truly made him fully human, it's extraordinary. I've never heard of anything like it. It might have something to do with why we ended up here, rather than back home." He frowned absently. "Or it might not."
"Well, that's helpful," Gunn said under his breath.
Wesley ignored that too, distracted as they moved further into the green twilight. He thought the forest had the air of a spot where nature reigned supreme: Silent, sacred. Powerful, and distinctly different from Pylea. "You know, we might have gone too far. This might be a dimension further up the scale from ours."
"What do you mean? Dimensions have ratings, like in an interdimensional travel guide?" Gunn lifted a skeptical brow.
"There are heavenly dimensions too, you know, as well as hell dimensions. Places where demons never existed. Where magic is elemental."
Gunn stopped and stared at him, his forehead creased with sudden concern. "Heavenly dimensions? What if they don't want us here?"
Wesley shook his head, puzzled by the question. "I don't understand."
"Heaven isn't just some place you walk into. You got to be allowed, you got be invited." Gunn waved an arm, taking in the forest. "If we're lower down on the scale, we might be the same to them as demons are to us. We might be contaminating the place by just standing here!"
"Oh." It was a disquieting thought. "You might be right."
"Great." Gunn gestured in exasperation. "Here I was having a good time. Cordelia's in a bikini, Angel's a human, the sun is shining and it's a beautiful day, what's not to like? Now I'm going to be condemned to eternal damnation for trespassing 'cause you landed us in the wrong place."
"It's your theory," Wesley protested hotly, starting off toward the top of a small rise again. "I just said-- Oh."
"What?" Gunn took a couple of long strides to catch up and halted at Wesley's side. "Oh."
In the small clearing ahead there was a foot print, pressed deeply into the loam. Wesley could see it easily because it was about half the size of the convertible. He swallowed in a suddenly dry throat and exchanged an appalled look with Gunn. "I'm going to take a closer look. Ah, keep an eye out, would you?"
"Yeah." Gunn pivoted to keep an eye on the treetops overhead, his lips pressed into a thin line.
Wesley approached the print, sitting on his heels to examine it more closely. He had a momentary hope that it was just some natural ground formation and he and Gunn would have a good chuckle over the fright it had given them and then go on and.... No. Those are clearly toes, with claws, and a hook on the heel. "From the depth, this is something close to the size of the true demons," he said thoughtfully, "the ones from the Hell dimensions, not the lesser beings that populate earth."
"And here I was hoping this forest was more Swiss Family Robinson than Blair Witch," Gunn said from behind him, his tone sober. "Now we know the place has wildlife that makes Pylea look like a petting zoo."
Wesley grimaced in agreement, then spotted something in the tall grass. He leaned in, carefully lifting it up. It was part of a bow, a wooden long bow that would have been over five feet in length, if half of it hadn't been crushed to powder under the foot of whatever had made the print. The grip was wrapped with leather and it had been made all of carved wood, no plastic in its construction anywhere. "We know something else," he said, standing up to show it to Gunn. "There are people here." He added grimly, "Or at least, there were."
"Wait." Gunn motioned him to silence, listening intently. After a moment Wesley heard it too -- a distant crashing through the underbrush.
"It's this way." Gunn led the way along the rise, ducking under heavy pine branches. "Doesn't sound nearly as big as whatever left that print."
They came to a spot where the rise dropped off to allow a view across the uneven terrain of the forest, where a series of small hills and terraces covered with trees climbed up the slope on either side of a shallow gully. A narrow stream ran through the bottom, cascading down the rocks.
"There!" Wesley pointed, squinting to make out more detail in the green shadows. He could see two figures running through the undergrowth. As they came out into the gully and through a patch of sunlight, he saw it was two men. Both were long-haired, dressed in rough primitive clothing, one big and dark, the other smaller and blond with a broadsword strapped across his back.
"So they look human," Gunn said softly, watching intently. "At least from a distance."
The bigger man splashed across the stream, the smaller crossing it in an agile bound. The big man slid to a halt in the gravel, looked around swiftly, then up.
"Yes, humans." Wesley found himself meeting the strange man's eyes across the distance, sharing a moment of shocked surprise. The blond man with the sword fetched up beside him, staring at them in equal astonishment. Wesley had time to see both men looked exhausted, their sweat-soaked skin streaked with dirt. Then the forest went dark around them, as if a shadow had covered the sun. The footprint. Recalling it with a jolt of alarm, Wesley looked up. A shape passed over the gaps in the tree canopy. A big shape. "Humans who are running from something!"
"Holy shit!" Gunn grabbed his shoulder, hauling him back toward the shelter of the trees. Wesley turned to run just as something slammed into him with the force of a speeding truck. He felt himself flying forward, then nothing.
"Cupcake, I just don't think this is a Hell dimension," Lorne said, picking his way carefully through the tall grass. He and Cordelia were climbing the low hill at the far end of the meadow, the forested slopes rising up just beyond it. "It just doesn't have that kind of vibe." As they reached the top he gave a sudden yelp of alarm, pointing at the ground in her path. "Watch out!"
"Thanks." Cordelia stepped carefully around the muddy patch and paused to survey the terrain. Beyond the hill the forest stretched up in terraces, the trees making an almost impenetrable green canopy and the ground thick with ferns and undergrowth. It wasn't too dense to walk through, if you were a badger or something. The Pylean Queen's outfit -- bikini, a few strategic silk scarves, and light sandals -- had not exactly been designed for hiking. Lorne, in his spats, wasn't in much better shape. She didn't see anything to indicate where they were, but the forest was so dense there could be a Hyatt hidden in it and they wouldn't be able to tell. "I'm not going to count it as a non-Hell hole unless I get some more evidence."
"Better safe than sorry." Lorne batted away an aggressive fern. "I don't know about you, but I'm more than ready to get back to the world of Motown, hot running water and all night Thai food delivery." He turned back to look out over the meadow, then frowned. "Where's the Dynamic Duo?"
Cordelia glanced back, scanning the other side of the valley for Gunn and Wesley. "They were going to search the woods." She regarded the green wall again. "I declare our woods searched."
"Uh huh, maybe." Lorne sounded genuinely worried now. "But then where's Angel and Fred?"
"What?" Cordelia turned, really looking now. The car sat where they had left it, standing there solitary in the meadow, incongruous as a piece of modern art. The trunk was open and there was no sign of the others. "We'd better--" A familiar spike of pain jolted through her temple and she gasped for breath. "Oh. Oh, god." She pressed a hand to her head, wincing. Oh, no, not now. "Lorne, I'm having a--" Then dark overcame her as the vision filled her eyes.
--the cavernous interior of a dark stone building, the walls streaked with lichen and vines, first Wesley and Gunn, then Angel and Fred sprawled unconscious in a patch of sunlight and something huge moving in the shadows. It's not supposed to be there, it wants to go, we want it gone, it's not supposed to be there-- She stood bolt upright, a sizzle like electricity running through her body, pointing up over the hills toward the side of the mountain. "It's there!"
Her eyes blurred and the darkness was rapidly taking her, but she thought Lorne was tugging on her arm, looking up in horror at something looming overhead. "Honey, it's here, we've got to run!"
But the electricity ran out of her, all the way up to explode the top of her head.
"I can't believe this," Hercules muttered for the tenth time, wrestling the fallen tree trunk out of its covering of leaves and branches.
"Stop saying that," Iolaus told him. He was crouched in the brush at the edge of the sun-drenched clearing, cutting off lengths of tough sinewy vine to use as rope. "We'll fix it." They had tried to follow the shapeshifter after it snatched the two strangers but they had lost it in the deep forest. They had caught a glimpse of it coming back this way but it hadn't had the two men with it. What that could mean made Iolaus' stomach want to turn.
Wrenching the log up and dragging it free, Hercules continued to mutter, but under his breath. I can't believe this. I led a monster down on two innocent bystanders. It was an act worthy of Perseus at his self-involved best.
Iolaus straightened up, tossing the cut vines into the pile behind him. He bit his lip but just had to voice the thought that was weighing most heavily on his mind. He looked uneasily at Hercules. "You don't think it ate them already, do you?"
Hercules winced. "No," he said shortly. He dragged the log into the open part of the clearing, lowering it to the ground with a thump. "We just have to figure out where it took them."
Iolaus hoped that was Hercules' considered opinion and not just wishful thinking. He sat on his heels, pulling out another length of vine and hauling on it to test the strength. Hitting a shapeshifter with something really heavy was the only way to stop one and this hastily constructed trap was their best chance. "It's not your fault, you didn't know they were up there. We're out in the middle of nowhere, how could you know we'd run into people?" They had been doubling back, trying to confuse the creature, and the two men must have walked into just the wrong place at the wrong time.
"I should have been able to do something." Hercules punctuated this with a grunt as he heaved the enormous log upright, bracing it against the large tree that was forming the main part of the trap.
"There's no point in arguing with you," Iolaus muttered, gathering the vines over his shoulder. Which didn't mean he wasn't going to. "You just can't--" A high-pitched cry echoed through the forest. He froze, listening intently. "Did you hear that?"
Hercules paused, brow furrowed with concern, still bracing the large log. "That was a woman. Two women?"
"Great, how many more people have we got to rescue from this thing?" Then Iolaus hesitated. "You think it's a trick?"
Hercules shook his head with a grimace. "We can't take that chance."
Iolaus dropped the vines into the pile and wiped his knife on his pants before sheathing it. "You keep going, I'll take a look."
"Right." Hercules hesitated, looking at him worriedly. "Just...."
"I know." Iolaus plunged into the undergrowth. Ducking under a fern tree, he added worriedly under his breath, "Believe me, I know."
He ran in the direction the sound had come from, dodging through the trees. Down the hill, under the cover of a thick stand of pines he slowed, seeing that large shadow cross the open ground again. He ducked down low, peering upward, trying to get a glimpse of it.
It flew over again and Iolaus swore under his breath. The shapeshifter had grown another clawed arm to carry a woman. She hung limply in its grasp, a curtain of dark hair shielding her face. Easing to his feet, he hurried back toward the clearing, marvelling at the downturn their luck had taken in the past few days. Fortune has got to be pissed off at something. He just hoped the woman was still alive.
Hercules had got the vines wrapped securely around the log and was just throwing another loop over the heavy branch to lift it. He looked up as Iolaus crashed out of the brush. "It's got a girl," his friend reported breathlessly.
Hercules grimaced in resignation. "Of course it does. Here, tie this off."
After some frantic preparation they were as ready as they would ever be. Hercules stepped back, Iolaus bouncing impatiently at his side, and eyed the result. Haste and the lack of materials hadn't helped; the log wasn't exactly concealed by the branches and the overburdened tree creaked alarmingly at the weight. "It looks-- Never mind, it'll work." It better work.
Moving carefully downslope through the trees, they found the shapeshifter not far from where Iolaus had seen it. It still clutched the woman in one taloned hand, flying in a low circle over the forested hills at the edge of the open meadow. "It's looking for something," Hercules said softly, watching as its wings just brushed the treetops of the hill below them. "There was someone else with her."
"Yeah." Iolaus nodded grimly. The two men it had already snatched might have been escorting a party of travellers. "It's a thorough bastard."
"It's going to be thoroughly dead." Hercules shoved through the brush, standing up.
It spotted them instantly, roared in triumph, and dived.
The speed of it was shocking and Iolaus didn't have to feign a yelp of alarm as they bolted back up the slope into the brush. It wasn't herding them now; done with that game, it was ready to catch them.
Breaking through into the clearing, they split up, Hercules racing for the tree concealing the trap and Iolaus retreating to one side.
The shapeshifter burst through an instant later in a shower of shattered wood, just as Hercules released the log. It slammed across the clearing, catching the creature full in the body. Thrown backwards, it shrieked and dropped the girl.
Iolaus threw himself forward, catching her before she hit the ground. He rolled, breaking the fall for both of them. The shapeshifter had been knocked into the trees across the clearing, its wings caught and torn by the broken branches. Expressing its rage in ear-splitting shrieks, it struggled to tear itself free. Iolaus saw the damaged wings shrinking away into its body and knew the blow had just slowed it down. He shoved to his feet, hauling the woman with him, slung her over his shoulder, and bolted for cover.
Cordelia was lying on soft grass and somebody was supporting her aching head in his lap and patting her gently on the cheek. She swatted at the patter, annoyed.
Somewhere above her head someone spoke, the words not making any sense. She tried to hear the male voices as Wesley and Gunn's, then realized they were completely unfamiliar. Uh oh.
She dragged her eyes open, registered two strange men leaning over her, and sat bolt upright. The abrupt move made her grab her aching head, grimacing; she didn't know if the demon had knocked her around or if it was just the normal horrible vision hangover. Probably both. Ow.
She managed to get her eyes open again and saw she was in the forest, giant trees arching up overhead. Two guys were sitting there watching her with concern. One was big, muscular, and gorgeous, with long chestnut brown hair. The other was smaller, muscular, and gorgeous with a mane of curly blond hair. Both were wearing rough tatty leather in faded colors, with lots of pecs and biceps and really nice abs showing. "I think I'm hallucinating," she informed them, rubbing her pounding head. Obviously the demon was eating her and her brain had retreated into a fantasy where she had been rescued by a couple of prehistoric hotties. All the wild hair and tanned muscles reminded her pleasantly of the Grooselug. "Damn, it's like a smorgasbord. If this was that dream I have occasionally there'd be champagne and a bubble bath and we'd be in Paris."
A throaty roar echoed through the trees and she flinched, clutching her head. The noise seem to reverberate inside it. "That thing could shut the hell up." She blinked up blearily to see both men had leapt to their feet, looking worriedly into the trees. She looked in the same direction and saw something big and sallow-yellow impossibly high in the air, smashing off the top of a tall pine.
"Oh no." As a hallucination it was beginning to seem awfully real. Cordelia shoved herself up, checking to make sure her outfit still covered all the right spots, and stumbled as the ground swayed under her. The blond one caught her arm, holding her upright as he and the other guy exchanged a rapid spate of incomprehensible speech over her head.
Then the big one swept her up in his arms. She yelped, then knotted her hands in his soft leather vest as he started to run. She closed her eyes tightly but that just made the jolting motion seem worse. "Damn, you're big," she muttered. This is real, the giant demon is chasing us, and this guy has biceps bigger around than my thigh. The bone-shaking pace was making her vision-abused stomach roil and she took deep breaths, knowing it was bad manners to vomit on people who were trying to rescue you.
She opened her eyes as she was gently deposited on the ground again and saw they were in the shelter of an overhang, in a rocky little crevasse buried in the trees. "Oh, good idea." She drew a breath in relief, then realized they were missing somebody. "Wait, where's the other one?" Still woozy, she stared at the big guy. He was kneeling at the edge of the overhang, obviously thinking the same thing, looking grimly into the tangled undergrowth and trees.
Then the blond guy whipped around the rocks, sliding into their shelter in a cloud of dust and gravel. The big guy grabbed him by his vest, yanking him inside. Cordelia found herself pushed into the back, huddled behind the blond guy with the big one in front, blocking the opening.
Outside it was deathly quiet but Cordelia had hidden from enough things to know that didn't mean jack. Her eyes hurt and her head still reeled and pounded from the vision, but the smell of sweaty leather was oddly comforting under the circumstances. She took that as another sign of how Sunnydale and Angel Investigations had warped her personality. Dizzy, she leaned against the blond guy's back, holding onto his waist to steady herself and closing her aching eyes. He was all hard muscle, just like the other one, and it was like hugging a rock. He twitched slightly, startled, his sword bumping her and his hair tickling her cheek. Then he squeezed her hand reassuringly.
Cordelia flinched as the demon roared almost directly overhead. She remembered it had those long arms and knew if it saw them it would scoop them out of here like...like...some things out of a something. The roar trailed into words. Great, it can talk, she thought sourly. It's not enough that they do terrible disgusting things to you, they have to tell you all about it too. Though she couldn't understand the words, the tone made her skin prickle. The thing just sounded...mean. Cut you open and play with your intestines mean. Like Darla. Like Angelus.
It crashed through the trees again, but the sound was moving off, gradually fading away. The two men relaxed, exchanging some comments in that relieved, annoyed tone she was all too familiar with from her own experiences. We're safe. I just hope it doesn't find-- The vision, half forgotten in pain and confusion, suddenly came back to her in living color. Oh, crap.
Iolaus let out a relieved breath. "That was close."
"Too close." Hercules glared at him. "It almost got you."
"Hardly. It didn't realize I'd doubled back until I was nearly here." Too many people to rescue, some of whom were in predicaments he felt responsible for, was making Hercules cranky. Iolaus glared back and the demigod rolled his eyes, climbing out of the crevasse and dusting off his pants.
The girl let Iolaus go, sitting up and shoving her hair out of her eyes with a dazed look, so he scrambled out, turning back to offer her a hand up. The trees sheltering these rocks were oaks and crashing down through the hardwood branches would have been much harder on the shapeshifter then smashing through the pines. "Any clue yet why it wanted us down here?"
"No." Already over his fit of pique, Hercules planted his hands on his hips, looking thoughtful. "I was hoping for something a little more obvious. The last one of these we ran into wasn't exactly subtle about its intentions."
"No kidding." Iolaus had found the "please succumb to the inevitable so I can eat you" attitude to be particularly irritating. At least hydras didn't act so damn superior. He helped the girl to her feet. She shook her hair back and spoke in an urgent tone, waving her arms. Damn, she's beautiful. He had noticed before but this was his first chance to really appreciate the whole effect when she was conscious and her face wasn't creased with pain. She must have been travelling with the two men the shapeshifter had caught, but he wondered why she was out here in this rough country wearing an outfit meant for lounging at a palace baths.
Hercules eyed her, perplexed. "I wish she could speak Greek."
Trying to look on the bright side, Iolaus began, "Hey, at least we don't have to explain to her about how we got her friends--" He caught the look on Hercules' face and winced. "Sorry."
"Look, you need to understand what I'm saying!" Cordelia shouted in frustration. They both looked at her, baffled. Well, at least one of them was looking at her. "Hey Blondie, my face is up here." Cordelia snapped her fingers at eye level to get the other man to drag his attention upwards. "My friends got taken away by that giant demon thing and I need some help, comprendez?" She threw her arms in the air, frustrated beyond bearing. "It's got them in some big temple cave thing, over that way, I saw it in my vision!"
Still nothing. Cordelia found the big guy's concentrated stare intimidating, so she hit him in the arm. He jerked away with an annoyed exclamation. She retreated hastily behind the blond guy, shaking her stinging hand. It felt like she had punched a wall and sure hadn't done her already badly abused manicure any good. She saw that giving her a wounded look was going to be the extent of his retaliation, so she came out for another round. "My friends, the demon took my friends! You guys have got to help me get them back."
Eyeing the woman warily in case she got violent again, Hercules said, "I've heard that language before. Does it sound familiar to you?"
Iolaus frowned. "Yeah, real familiar, but I'm not sure from where." The woman began to point agitatedly back toward the direction the shapeshifter had come from. That failing, she grabbed Iolaus' arm and managed to tow him a couple of steps before he halted them both by planting his feet. Brows lifted speculatively, he glanced back at Hercules. "You think she saw where it took the others?"
"If that's it--" Hercules nodded thoughtfully as the woman ran around behind him and tried vainly to push him in the same direction. "She obviously wants us to follow her somewhere. Let's go."
Wesley was conscious of hard cold stone under his cheek, grit biting into his skin. Also a heavy weight lying across his legs and a gratingly painful headache. Some of these issues could be resolved by moving, so he began trying to push himself up on his elbows. Gravity seemed intent on keeping him horizontal, but after an enormous effort he managed to lift his head.
He got a bleary look around, enough to see that he seemed to be on a stone platform not much wider than one of the smaller rooms at the hotel, and that it was dizzyingly high above the floor of a large cavern. It was lit by shafts of sunlight from openings in the distant roof and he thought, no, not cavern, temple. He focussed on a set of large doric columns against the far wall, their elegant lines contrasting oddly with the rough scarred stone framing them.
Behind him someone groaned and the weight trapping his legs shifted. Wesley twisted awkwardly around and saw the reason he had had so much trouble trying to move. "Gunn, get off," he managed to croak.
"What?" Gunn lifted his head, his gaze as bleary as Wesley's. "Oh." He rolled off Wesley's legs and pushed himself into a sitting position, clutching his head. "What the hell happened?"
Wesley sat up carefully, probing his sore ribs. "Something...something very large...."
"Wes--" Gunn suddenly sounded wide awake.
"--it had wings, I believe, and--"
Through gritted teeth, Gunn repeated, "Wes--"
Wesley squinted at his expression and felt a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach. "God, it's behind me isn't it." He looked. Oh. God.
Perched on the edge of the platform, it was huge with two sets of wings moving in quick silent strokes. Its body was long and snake-like, covered with a mottled yellow pattern of scales. A ridge of almost delicate spines sprouted along the back, growing up into a round head studded with an intricate spiral of gold spines and fans, like razor-sharp petals. As he stared, the fan-petals moved as if stirred by a wind, drawing back to reveal a moon-shaped face, round eyes, a nose that was barely an outline, and voluptuous lips. Wesley swallowed in a dry throat. The urge to back away from it was strong but the platform left them nowhere to retreat to.
It spoke suddenly and Wesley flinched in surprise. He didn't understand the words but its voice was husky and overpoweringly feminine. He exchanged a startled look with Gunn.
The creature spoke again, its snake-like tail lashing fitfully, its impatience obvious.
Wesley hastily cleared his throat. "I'm sorry, I don't understand you," he said, speaking clearly. At least it seemed to want to communicate. Though for some reason he wasn't sure that was a good sign.
It stared at him, the expression on its alien features impossible to read. The eyes were like yellow crystal facets and Wesley suddenly jerked his gaze away, wary that the creature might exert some sort of hypnotic influence. He glanced at Gunn to warn him and saw the other man was already half-shielding his eyes. "Man, have I got a bad feeling about this," Gunn muttered.
"Ditto," Wesley whispered back. The creature spoke again and he listened intently. He could tell it was using a different language this time but again the words meant nothing to him. He shook his head, hoping it understood the gesture. "I'm sorry, I still don't--"
The wings flared out suddenly, making Wesley flinch and Gunn curse. Its skin deepened in color and the vanes and petals around its face shivered. Wesley watched, half in awe, half in revulsion, as that face changed, features subtly becoming more human, the nose more pronounced. Only the crystalline eyes remained the same. Shapechanger, he thought. He couldn't remember any account of a shapechanging demon of this size before. Its expression took on a look of such angelic innocence that Wesley found himself in no doubt that its motives were pure evil. "Now you understand me," it said in that husky purr.
"Yes, I do." Not that that was necessarily a good thing. Careful not to let that faceted gaze trap him, he looked at its eyes again. He could read the expression in them now and the mingled contempt and anticipation made the back of his neck prickle.
"You opened a portal," it said, the great wings still moving idly, "I could smell it."
"Ah. Yes. We did." He added, mostly truthfully, "It was an accident."
The creature shifted, the fans and vanes surrounding its head rippling. "Accident."
"Yes." It didn't sound convinced. Wesley cleared his throat again, making a snap decision to withhold as much information about how they had come here as possible. "We were driving in our car when we suddenly encountered a great swirling light, and it deposited us here."
"That's right," Gunn added helpfully. "Just bam, and we were here."
The lips lifted in a sly smile. "No accident. Why did you come here?"
Wesley widened his eyes, trying to radiate sincerity. "We had no intention of coming here. We were trying to travel to our home--"
"In the car--" Gunn contributed.
"Yes, travelling in our car, along the road, and--"
It turned, an arm growing out of its side to point down into the temple below. "Open that portal."
Warily, Wesley sat up on his knees to look over the side. There was about a hundred foot drop down to the floor of the temple. He saw paving stones stained with moss and dirt, some broken chunks of square stone that might have fallen from the roof above where the sunlight now streamed down, and the broken pieces of a collapsed column. Gunn had edged around to see too and they exchanged a look. Gunn's expression said clearly, "This thing is not only nasty but crazy." Wesley cleared his throat again, thinking frantically. Pretend to see a portal or not? Either option could get them killed. He opted for not since at least it was less complicated. "I'm afraid I don't see--"
"There." It pointed again and Wesley saw a large stone well, set back in the deep shadow at the far end of the temple. It appeared to be capped with what must be an immensely heavy stone cover, though there was no evidence of any kind of winch or hoist to lift it off. There was some sort of figure carved into the stone wall above it but he couldn't make out what it was. "Within the well."
"Ah, yes." A hotspot inside the well, perhaps? It was something of a relief that the creature wasn't demanding he open an imaginary portal but he had a strong feeling doing anything it wanted was definitely the wrong choice. "I'm afraid I can't open portals. I don't know how." He sat back, looking up at it, trying to convey honesty. "Sorry."
It stared at him for a long moment, the slight smile still playing on its lips, then said, "I too came here by accident. I too just want to return to my world. But my enemies scheme to keep me here. You saw them. They persecute me."
Gunn made a quietly skeptical snort and Wesley kept his expression of polite attention, thinking, Yes, of course, that's why you were chasing them and attacked the first people you saw as a substitute. He would feel better if he didn't have the distinct impression that the thing was enjoying the game and didn't care whether they believed it or not.
It turned, wings flaring up like silk curtains, to show a mottled orange wound in its side that looked as if it had been hit by a small artillery shell. Its neck revolved to regard them over its shoulder at an impossible angle. "See how they hurt me?"
"Yes." Wesley nodded grimly. "It's a shame." It's a shame their aim wasn't better. At least they knew the humans of this world were trying to kill it; though rescue was probably out of the question, the thought was vaguely encouraging.
"This is a shame too." The creature shifted fluidly along the edge, causing Wesley and Gunn to hastily scramble away. Then Wesley saw what its large body had blocked from view.
Not far away was another stone platform, a little shorter than theirs but still close to eighty feet high. Gunn muttered a curse and Wesley pressed his lips together. Sprawled on the stone were Angel and Fred, unmoving. "Are they alive?" Wesley asked tightly.
"Of course." It moved its wings lazily and its smile widened. "Eating dead things is disgusting."
"Yeah, I knew that was coming," Gunn said grimly.
Wesley took a deep breath. At least the thing had finally gotten to the point. "If we open the portal for you--" he prompted.
"If you help me escape through that portal, I'll only eat one or two of you."
Wesley stared. Demon logic. One never gets used to it. "Oh. I see," he said flatly. "And if we don't help you, you'll eat all of us."
"Of course." Wesley wet his lips. "I don't know how to open portals, but I am experienced in sorcery. If you don't eat any of us, I'll try my best to help you." Stall, stall, stall. "But first, I'll need our car. The vehicle we arrived in, down in the meadow."
It eyed him thoughtfully and he could tell he had surprised it. It was obviously experienced enough with portals to know that one didn't normally need a convertible to open an interdimensional gateway. Then it said, "Very well."
It lifted its wings as if about to leap into the air, then hesitated. "But I think I'll leave you something to keep you company."
Wesley gaped as a section of its body broke off and tumbled over the edge of the platform. He and Gunn looked after it, watching as the giant lump of yellow flesh hit the stone, rolled, and stood up.
This new creature was smaller but had many short legs and a barbed tail. Wesley couldn't see any eyes from this angle but it did have a large round mouth packed with glittering teeth. It shook itself, then started a patrol around the bases of the two pillars.
"I've never seen a demon do that before," Wesley muttered.
"That's all we need," Gunn agreed under his breath.
The larger creature laughed softly and leapt upward, the sudden rush of air nearly knocking Wesley over the side. Gunn grabbed his arm to steady him and they watched the creature shrink to a long narrow streamer of color as it shot toward a crack in the cave roof.
The cavern was quiet except for a low growl from the thing patrolling below.
Wesley shifted away from the side and let out a breath. "Well. Here we are."
"But no sign of...." Gunn hesitated, looking down at their guard. Wesley knew he was thinking of Cordelia and Lorne. No telling if the sub-creature could understand them or even hear them, but best not to take chances. "Anybody else. They got away." He looked at Wesley for confirmation and frowned at his grimly worried expression. "Or not."
"No, no, I...hope," Wesley finished honestly.
Gunn shook his head, rubbing his face. "Damn. They better have got away."
They sat there a moment in silence, then Gunn asked softly, "So English, what do you think? We screwed?"
Wesley looked around briefly. It was too high to jump, and judging by the pillar Angel and Fred were imprisoned on, the sides were too smooth for any hope of climbing, even if they could somehow get under the lip of the platform without falling. The surface was bare of anything that might be used as a weapon, even a loose stone, their companions weren't any better off, and Angel as a human had no special strength or ability to aid them. "Unless you're concealing a hundred-foot rope and a grappling hook on you somewhere, we screwed," Wesley agreed grimly.
"Still no sign of it," Iolaus commented, pausing to peer up through an opening in the trees above. His gut told him that wasn't a good sign. At least while the shapeshifter was occupied with chasing them it didn't have time to find any more villages to eat.
Hercules nodded, glancing back with brows drawn together in worry. "This is the first time it's left us alone for two days. It wanted something from us, and it wasn't just another meal." He ducked under a low-hanging branch, following the woman as she plunged headlong through the undergrowth. "Maybe it found another way to get it."
Iolaus shook his head. It didn't bode well for the people the shapeshifter had taken. "I hope she knows where she's going." He took a couple of long strides to catch up. The woman was leading them back in the direction the creature had last come from, but further up the slope of the mountain. She obviously believed that wherever she was leading them, it was urgent. And she seemed determined to take the hardest possible route.
As she started to launch herself down between the trees into a rocky gully, he made a grab for her and missed. "Herc!" He slid down through the gravel, catching himself on a sapling's trunk.
"Hey, not that way!" Hercules reached out a long arm and caught her, pulling her back. "It's easier to cross further up."
Snarling, she jerked away and stamped past them upslope, shoving branches out of the way. Since they had no idea where she was leading them, their pace was constrained to hers, but she seemed to blame them for the slow progress. Following, Hercules shook his head in exasperation. "I don't think she's ever been in a forest before."
"I don't think she's ever seen a tree before," Iolaus countered, watching her awkwardly trying to bat away a pine branch. "Not close up." He plowed upslope in Hercules' wake, ducking under the wildly swinging branches. He paused at the top where the ground flattened out and the gully had shrunk to a crevice narrow enough to step across. "Herc, hold it." Hercules stopped the woman again as Iolaus paused, head cocked, listening. In the quiet, he heard the faint noise again. It was the crackle of dead leaves below them in the gully as something moved through it, heading in their direction. "You hear that?"
After a moment Hercules nodded grimly. He shooed their impatient new friend back toward Iolaus. "You stay with her, I'll try to get a look at it."
"Right." Muttering in exasperation, hands planted on her hips, the woman watched him vanish across the crevice into the brush. She glared at Iolaus, who told her, "Will you just relax?"
Then he heard a voice call out from down the hill. The woman yelled an answer, dodged the wild grab Iolaus made, and raced toward the sound. Iolaus bolted after her, swearing under his breath.
As she crashed back through the undergrowth to where the gully widened a figure dressed in red and green staggered out of the brush. Iolaus slid to a halt, drawing his sword.
It wasn't wearing green, it was green; a human-like figure with green skin, red eyes, and two small satyr-like horns sprouting from its forehead, dressed all in red. Something about it, maybe the vivid hue of its skin, reminded Iolaus uncomfortably of the Blue Priest. But before he could surge forward the woman waved to it, calling happily.
It waved and called back to her, obviously relieved. It struggled up the side of the gully to her, its feet slipping in the dirt. She leaned down and grabbed its arm to help it up the last few steps; once it stood on firm ground it began to gesture agitatedly and expostulate, while brushing the dirt off the woman's back and picking a leaf out of her hair. Iolaus thought, okay, not monster, person. Green person with horns, but person. It was more than a little disconcerting; the only other people Iolaus had seen who looked even vaguely like that had sworn themselves to Hera in return for invincibility. Somehow this guy didn't sound invincible.
Then Green Guy saw him and yelped in alarm. The slightly exaggerated, almost musical shriek reminded Iolaus of Salmoneus and he had to suppress a grin.
Hercules stepped out of the trees on the far side of the gully and stopped abruptly at the sight. He must have noted the distant resemblance to the Blue Priest too, because he eyed Green Guy thoughtfully in the way that meant he was trying to decide which part to pull off first. Sheathing his sword, Iolaus said matter of factly, "It's a person."
Hercules lifted a brow at him. "Are you sure?"
"No." Iolaus shrugged. "But wait'll you hear it talk."
"What happened?" Cordelia demanded, relieved. After Lorne had survived having his head cut off in Pylea, it would have been a damn shame for him to die here. "I thought that thing got you too!"
Brushing dirt off his coat, he told her, "When it swooped down on us it knocked me head over fanny down that hill. I'm still finding grass burrs in the worst places." He looked past her, eyes widening in alarm, and backpedaled rapidly. "Yikes, it's a human!"
"What? Oh, him." Looking around, Cordelia realized he meant the blond guy. She grabbed Lorne's arm, planting her feet to halt his escape. "Calm down, he's helping us! They got me away from that demon."
"They? Holy crap!" He spotted the big guy, coming back toward them across the gully, and hastily retreated behind Cordelia. "I didn't know humans came in that size!"
She kept a grip on his arm to keep him from bolting, protesting, "But they're harmless, except for being really strong and the sword and everything. They won't hurt me. Or you," she added belatedly at Lorne's alarmed expression. Cordelia waved her hand impatiently. "Look, I had a vision--"
Lorne ducked behind her again. "Honey, while I admire the rustic leatherboy look as much as anybody, are you sure this is a real good idea? Nobody loves and reveres your home dimension more than I do, but primitive humans?" He sidled uneasily away. "Not my bag."
Hercules climbed the bank in a couple of big steps and stood next to Iolaus, watching the Green Guy distrustfully. "This is turning into an interesting day," he commented dryly.
Iolaus gave him a wry look. "I hate it when you say that."
"Of course I'm sure!" Cordelia rolled her eyes, fed up. "Besides, there's not much choice. We're not only in a strange dimension, we're out in the middle of freaking nowhere and we need help. They're it!"
"Granted," Lorne admitted, "But I'm sensing a huge potential for violence here." He eyed the big guy warily. "I'd feel better if you could get one of them to sing."
"Well I'd feel better if I had a manicure, a hot bath, and some real shoes instead of these stupid flimsy Pylean knock-offs, but that's not happening either!" Cordelia had given Lorne's skittishness all the attention it was going to get. "Listen to me! I had a vision. That demon has the others in some temple up there somewhere," she waved a hand vaguely toward the upper slopes, "And if we don't get the hell up there now, it's going to do something awful involving a lot of mystical crap and they're all going to die horribly. So we have to hurry!" She started determinedly back up the slope, grabbing a sapling to haul herself along.
"But, Cordelia, honey--" Seeing the determined set of her shoulders, Lorne groaned in resignation. "Oh, what the heck. You only live once." He stumbled hurriedly in her wake, trying to keep her between him and the two men.
"Take it easy," Iolaus told Hercules. "You're scaring her...friend there."
Hercules gave him a look from under lowered brows. "I'm just standing here, Iolaus."
Cordelia had stopped, drawing breath to yell at them to get a move on, but that name, Iolaus, rang all kinds of bells in her head.
"What is it?" Lorne demanded nervously, watching her face. "What's the matter? Can you understand what they're saying? Was it about me?"
She waved at him to be quiet. "Wait, I'm thinking." When they had first come through the portal, there had been something about the rush of air that had been teasingly familiar. Well, it was familiar; she had seen this world and smelled it through a portal in the Sunnydale High School library. And as soon as the car hit the ground she had been utterly convinced it was home. She remembered Xander telling her, We'd only been there a couple of days, but it was like I was leaving home -- real home, not dysfunctional home -- and never going back. "I think I know who these guys are," she said slowly. "I think I know people who've been here, to this world, before."
Lorne stared in surprise. "Don't hold out on me, honey, do tell."
I should have remembered. I heard all about it from them, like endlessly. Now Cordelia wished she had listened better, but she had been a little pissed off that they had all got to go without her, just because she had been with Oz picking up dinner. And because she had spent the night thinking they were all dead while they were off having a great time. She told Lorne, "Back when I lived in Sunnydale there was a thing with a giant snake that sucked people into other worlds--" At his bewildered expression she shook her head in frustration. "Hell, it's a long story." She turned impatiently to the two men, who were watching her like they were wondering if she was nuts. "You're Iolaus, and you're Hercules, right? I'm Cordelia." She pointed to herself urgently. "Cor-del-ia. They must have told you about me. You know my oh-so-ex-boyfriend, Xander? And Buffy and Willow and Giles?"
"Greek Gods?" Lorne lifted a brow, studying the two men appraisingly. "Well, color me convinced."
"That's it!" Hercules smacked himself in the forehead. "That's where we heard that language before! I knew it was familiar."
"She's Cordelia?" Iolaus said incredulously, momentarily caught in a side issue. "And Xander was willing to leave her? The kid must have been out of his mind."
Hercules frowned, thinking it out. "But what's she doing here with those two men and...that? They must have opened another blue swirly doorway somehow, but why up here?"
Iolaus shook his head, baffled. They knew Buffy and Giles and their friends hunted monsters too. "Maybe they were after the shapeshifter. Maybe it came from their world?"
"Oh, he said my name, they remember!" Then Cordelia frowned. "And Xander's name." She took a step toward them, demanding, "What are you saying about me? What did he tell you? Oh, never mind! Let's go already."
"But...." Lorne gestured helplessly. "Don't you think we should try to communicate with signs or sticks or something?"
Preoccupied by whatever character assassination Xander might have committed in the course of guy talk, Cordelia stamped off along the gully. "Come on, guys, chop chop, let's go, let's go!"
"Hey! But what are you doing here, how--" Hercules threw a frustrated glance at Iolaus. "Now what's she mad about?"
Iolaus hitched his sword up on his shoulder, giving in on trying to guess. "Beats me."
They both looked at Green Guy, who gave them an apologetic shrug and hurried after Cordelia.
"Please stop pacing," Wesley said, trying to make it sound like a reasonable request. As Gunn walked across the pillar's surface, Wesley could feel the whole column vibrate and it was giving him a rapidly advancing case of acrophobia.
"Huh? Oh, sorry." Gunn came back, dropping into a sitting position next to him. "Man, I'm going stir crazy already and we ain't been here that long." He sat up suddenly, alert. "Hey, they're awake."
Wesley turned to look. On the other platform Angel was starting to stir. They watched him sit up, gripping his head as if he was afraid it would fall off. Finally he looked up, took in the situation and spotted them.
Wesley saw he was about to call to them and made frantic shushing motions while Gunn pointed down at the guard creature, still patrolling below. He didn't want any mention of Cordelia and Lorne; if the two had escaped, they couldn't chance letting the demon know they even existed. Angel squinted, spotted the thing, and nodded in understanding.
Wesley watched Angel lean over Fred, touching her shoulder, and the young woman sat up suddenly. Too suddenly. "I think she's been awake for some time," Wesley said, brows lifted. "She certainly has extraordinary survival instincts."
"Guess she'd have to, what she's been through." Gunn nodded grimly. "Wish we did."
While Fred sat in a huddle, Angel examined the platform briefly, obviously coming to the same helpless conclusion they had. Even if he had still been a vampire, getting down without breaking most of the bones in his body would have been difficult. As a human, it was impossible. Finally he planted his hands on his hips, looking up at them with a frustrated expression.
Wesley knew the feeling. "Wait." He patted his jeans pockets and was rewarded with a small notebook and a pencil stub. He wrote a brief precis of the situation ending with demon will eat us unless we open sealed dimensional portal - ideas?, crumbled the sheet into a ball and threw it across to Angel.
Angel caught it, read the note and looked up with a pained expression. Wesley shrugged helplessly. Angel stared into the distance for a few moments, then found a pen in his coat and scribbled rapidly on the back of the note. Then he folded it into a somewhat lopsided paper airplane and tried to sail it back up to them. The plane looped once and crashed into the stone near Fred, who jerked her feet away from it and eyed it suspiciously.
They watched Angel's attempts to get the missive airborne long enough to reach them in silence, then Gunn turned to regard Wesley with a lifted brow. Wesley sighed in agreement. "Well, he's a vampire, not a rocket scientist."
Fred, watching in increasing agitation, snatched the plane out of the air as it fluttered back down, flattened it across her knee, refolded it in a few sure movements, then launched it. The plane looped twice, then shot straight up so Wesley could easily snatch it out of the air. He held it absently, frowning in bafflement. "That was rather odd. I wouldn't think anyone could make some rather crumpled paper do that, no matter how good they were at toy airplanes."
Gunn took the note, impatiently unfolding it. "Maybe she's a rocket scientist."
The note read Where's Cordelia - Lorne?
Gunn swore in disappointment and Wesley shook his head, miming another baffled shrug.
Angel pressed his lips together. At least they weren't all trapped here. He turned to Fred. "You okay there?"
"This isn't so bad." She was still huddled in the middle of the platform, but looking around thoughtfully. "It was pretty big. When they're that big, it's bound to be quick."
"What?" Angel frowned, trying to decode that. He hadn't seen the demon that had swooped down on them in the meadow at all before being knocked unconscious, but Fred must have managed to catch a glimpse of it. "Oh, you mean...the being eaten."
Fred nodded rapidly. "The size of the mouth and the number of teeth -- projected number, of course, based on a guesstimate of the jaw width -- I'm thinking one bite."
"Oh. That's...." Angel couldn't bring himself to say "good." Fatalism wasn't exactly uncommon among the people he knew well, but Fred took it to a whole new level. He went over to sit beside her. "You know, we're going to get out of this and get you home, it's just taking a little longer than I thought."
"That's okay." Fred gave him a sideways glance. "It wasn't bad. Before the, you know, grabbing and flying and dumping."
Angel nodded. But for Fred, who had been treated like an animal for years, any place where she wasn't being actively tortured counted as not so bad.
Fred studied him for a moment, her dark eyes serious. "Are you okay?"
Good question. He had been trying to answer that one himself for a while. He had gotten used to breathing again much more quickly than he had thought possible, but the extra aches and bruises from being dropped onto the rock were no fun. The shadows were darker too, the air far less rich with scent. But if it was permanent, not just something the portal into this dimension had done to him.... "It's just...weird," he admitted. "It happened once before. Besides when I was originally human. But it's still a shock." He propped his arms on his knees, trying to think of the right words. "It feels...not wrong, but inappropriate. I didn't do anything to deserve this. It's just some accident, from going through the portal."
"But you're a hero. You deserve good things."
He shook his head. "I have a lot to atone for." His mouth twisted ruefully. "I still have to atone for things I did over the past few weeks; the total keeps going up." He looked at her, willing her to understand. "You saw what was inside me."
A shadow blotted out the sun coming through the gaps in the roof; Fred glanced up and stiffened. "I'm going to be unconscious now. We'll talk later."
As she flopped over on the rock and went still, Angel stood up. Something big, yellow, and mean was drifting down through the still air. The demon was back.
***Continue to Part II
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