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Follow the Yellow Brick Road Part II
The terrain was getting rough, fewer trees and more rock, and more danger if the shapeshifter suddenly reappeared. Constantly looking up, Iolaus found himself walking into low bushes and stumbling over vines. Even Hercules showed a tendency to duck as they crossed open ground.
"I wish she would at least try to talk to us." Hercules sounded disgruntled as they followed Cordelia up the steep hillside.
"Yeah," Iolaus agreed, looking away from the cloudy sky to eye Cordelia's stubborn back as she picked her way up through the loose rock, Green Guy trailing in her wake. "It's enough to drive you nuts."
"And why does she keep hitting me?"
Iolaus shrugged, restraining an amused grin. Hercules was always the last to know. "She likes you."
As Hercules gave him a look of disbelief Cordelia paused to throw a glare back at both of them, as if preternaturally sensing they were talking about her. Their attempts to get any more information out of her had gotten them nothing but annoyed stares and abrupt gestures to hurry. There were a lot of questions they wanted to ask, about how Buffy and the others were, what had brought Cordelia and her companions here, but the language barrier made that impossible. It was another frustration in a week already laden with them.
And it was bad enough that they had inadvertently led the shapeshifter down on strangers; knowing that they had led it down on friends of friends was infinitely worse. And to add to that, now Iolaus couldn't enjoy the view of Cordelia forging determinedly ahead because it felt vaguely like incest.
Cordelia grimly plowed up the slope, Lorne stumbling along gamely behind her and obviously knowing better than to try to make small talk. Her feet hurt like hell, everybody had been captured by a crazed giant demon, and her prehistoric hotties had turned out to be friends of Buffy's, which bugged her, and it bugged her more that she knew damn well it was irrational and petty to be bugged by it. Or by the fact that Buffy had bagged the blond guy who managed to be both cute and dangerous at the same time. Jeeze, they were only here two days, she grumbled to herself. And people say I'm a fast worker. And she didn't know if the god-thing was true or not but that Hercules guy was putting out some high octane male pheromones, and every time she looked back at him he wasn't looking at her. Which was probably for the best, since with ragged hair, dirt-streaked legs, broken nails and boiling temper she knew she looked like Queen PMS of Whatever-the-Hell Land. And all her friends could already be dead for all she knew. The stupid vision hadn't told her enough, she could even be wrong about where this temple was. "Dammit," she growled under her breath. "I hate demons."
"Did you say something, Cupcake?" Lorne gasped from behind her as he scrambled over a rock.
Something in the air made Iolaus stop and gaze suspiciously back down the mountain. Then he caught a sudden flicker of movement against the treetops. "Herc!"
Hercules glanced up and grabbed for Cordelia. She spotted the creature, gasping and pointing up at it just as Hercules hauled her back under a tree. Green Guy emitted a yelp and dived for cover, hastily ducking down behind a clump of fern bushes.
Hunkered down behind the large roots of Hercules' tree, Iolaus studied the shapeshifter's outline as it flew overhead. It was a little smaller, the shape subtly different. It was also carrying something large and blocky clutched in its lower set of claws. "You think it saw us?"
"It must have." Leaning out from behind the tree, Hercules frowned tightly. "It's just acting like it didn't. And what in Tartarus is it carrying?"
"Hey, it's stealing our car!" Outraged, Cordelia peered around Hercules' biceps. She couldn't believe the gall of this freaking demon. She whispered furiously, "Jeeze! Like it hasn't done enough already!"
"I don't get it." Lorne sat up cautiously behind his fern, staring in disbelief. "These people probably use rocks as currency, why does it think there's going to be any resale value for a used convertible with ichor stains on the upholstery?"
The shapeshifter spiraled down toward a flat rocky outcrop not far above their hiding place. Iolaus tensed, certain it had something in mind for them. Angling itself, wings flickering like a hummingbird's, it shook itself all over, then dived to vanish beneath the tumbled piles of rock further upslope.
"Huh?" Iolaus sat up on his knees, lifting his brows. "What's that about? Did it drop something?" he said, keeping his voice to a bare whisper.
Hercules craned his neck, his height giving him a better view. "It looked like it split part of itself off. I think the rest went down into a crack in the rock, but I can see something moving on the surface."
"Split part of itself off?" Iolaus repeated warily. "Like Dahak?"
"No, not like Dahak." His expression grim, Hercules set Cordelia aside, motioning her to be quiet as she started to speak. He stepped past Iolaus, moving silently. "Let's take a look."
Iolaus pushed to his feet, drawing his sword. Behind him there was a muted eek of alarm from Green Guy and loud shushing noises from Cordelia. Iolaus winced and exchanged a rueful look with his partner. "I wouldn't count on the element of surprise."
"Yeah." Brow furrowed, Hercules picked up a stone, weighing it thoughtfully in his hand as he looked at the line of rock ahead, concealing whatever lay behind. "I have a bad feeling about this."
Iolaus snorted. "Now you tell me."
"So why are we being quiet?" Cordelia whispered to Lorne, edging over to get behind his bush with him. Once Hercules and Iolaus had moved off, her tree had felt terribly lonely and exposed. The two men stalked up the slope, moving like predators. She suddenly realized how Lorne saw them, why he was still a little afraid of them. "It left, right?"
"Oh no, honey." Lorne put an arm around her shoulders and sank nervously lower into the ferns, the fronds catching on his horns. "Something's up there."
Hercules and Iolaus advanced cautiously toward the ridge of tumbled rock, spreading out without having to think about it, making two targets instead of one.
Then something loomed up from behind the barrier. It was big, the same sallow yellow as the shapeshifter, but its head was blunt, eyeless, and it had a huge rictus of a fanged mouth. The legs braced against the rock were short and stocky, making it look slow. Then it lunged for them with the speed of a charging bull.
Hercules threw the stone he held, smacking the creature right in the forehead. It jerked back at the unexpected force of the blow then snarled silently and leapt down on them. Iolaus was already cutting right, dodging in close as it lunged for Hercules. He slashed at the back right leg, trying to hamstring it, and felt the sword bite hard. The creature rounded on him, way too fast, and he flung himself backward. He shoulder-rolled to his feet as the thing stopped abruptly, writhing and snarling; Hercules had caught it from behind and had an unbreakable hold of one of its back legs. "Gotcha," Iolaus muttered in satisfaction, charging forward to finish it off.
With a sudden shake, the creature split in two. Iolaus swore, backpedaling rapidly. The front part, the end with the mouth, lunged for him, its two legs moving in a rapid blur. He heard a surprised shout from Hercules and caught a glimpse of him grappling with the other half, which was swiftly growing stalk-like arms and another mouth.
Then the front half was on Iolaus and he didn't have time to see what was happening to anybody else. He managed two cuts at its mouth, then a new arm popped out, grabbing him by the leg.
Iolaus hit the ground hard, instinct and experience keeping the sword in front of him, saving him from its first lunge. He scrambled back, hot fetid breath washing over him as the creature angled around for a bite.
A shriek split the air and nearly split Iolaus' head. Then the pitch changed and the creature reeled back, shaking its blunt head in confused pain. Iolaus shoved to his feet and saw Green Guy, standing downslope, hands cupped to his mouth as he let out that high, brain-piercing note. Iolaus shook his head to clear it and turned back to the stunned creature, driving the sword into its unprotected chest. It staggered back, yellowish fluid sprouting from the wound. Hercules appeared behind it, holding up a large stone ripped from the rocky barrier. The first blow flattened the thing into a spongy yellow mass. The second and third were probably unnecessary, but he knew Hercules liked to be thorough.
Iolaus looked for the other half and saw it lying in a puddle at the base of the rocks, where Hercules must have used his hold on its leg to pound it like a hammer. "That was new," Iolaus commented, wrenching his sword out of the creature's chest.
Breathing hard, Hercules tossed the stone aside. "I could have done without it," he agreed. He looked down at Green Guy, frowning thoughtfully. "That was new, too."
"Yeah, it saved my ass." Cordelia and Green Guy were approaching, Cordelia patting her friend on the back.
"That was good, baby," Cordelia told Lorne proudly. That they had been able to contribute something to the fight besides sitting on the sidelines gasping "Oh my God!" made her feel a little better.
"Well, I had some trouble getting the pitch right," Lorne admitted modestly. "These baby demon shapechanging things are a tough crowd."
Hercules and Iolaus exchanged a look, trying to decide what they thought of this development. Iolaus shrugged and Hercules let out his breath, putting it aside for the moment. "All right. Let's see where the rest of it went." He stepped up to the ridge and Iolaus scrambled up to peer over the top. Below was a flat area of rough ground, scarred with giant cracks and ragged tears, like a Titan had torn it open. Then Iolaus realized the raw color of the unweathered stone, the rubble and rock chips still piled up around it meant the disturbance was recent.
"We can't afford a new car," Cordelia groused quietly, creeping after the two men to see what they were looking at on the other side of the rock piles. "What are we going to do when we get home? Angel's sure as hell not driving mine. I just had it detailed!"
"Honey, just let the car go," Lorne said, stumbling after her and trying to keep his head low. "If the freakishly huge flying demon with giant teeth and claws wants it that badly-- Oh wait." He paused, stricken. "What are we thinking? It's the books!"
"The books?" Cordelia repeated blankly, glancing back at his worried face. Then realization hit. "The Books!" The Wolf, Ram, and Hart books they had taken from the priests in Pylea. They were in the car, tucked under the front seat. "Oh, crap."
"It clawed the mountain open to get to what's down there," Hercules said softly, echoing Iolaus' own thought. "That just can't be good."
"No kidding." Iolaus boosted himself over the rock, taking care not to dislodge the loose gravel, as Hercules clambered over and started cautiously toward the nearest opening.
It was a crack easily big enough to drop a wagon through. A little mist and cool air rose up out of it. As Hercules moved toward the edge, Iolaus whispered, "Hey, watch it. If it's right below there, waiting--"
Hercules nodded grimly, his eyes still on the opening. So Iolaus took a deep breath and stepped in time with Hercules, craning his neck to look over the edge.
At first it was just a dark hole. Then as his eyes got used to the darkness he saw it was a huge dark hole. An enormous cavern, the walls lined with columns like a temple. He knelt carefully, peering down into it, and spotted two tall columns near the center of the space, and something moving.... There were people marooned atop the columns, two on each one. At least they're still alive, but damn. "Oh, brother," he muttered. "This is not going to be an easy save."
Hercules' brow furrowed. The first three plans that sprung to mind all required a hundred feet of rope and a grappling hook, two things they were noticeably lacking. "We'll...think of something. First we have to get down there."
Standing on tip-toe so he could see over the rocks, Lorne didn't need music to pick up on the vibe. He winced. "Oh Sweetie, it doesn't look good."
"I've got to see." Cordelia gritted her teeth and climbed over the rock, ignoring the new crop of scrapes it gave her. This bikini was getting damn old; she was more than ready for a real wardrobe again. On the other side she picked her way carefully over the rubble toward the crack. Hercules heard her, looked up and did a double take.
Correctly interpreting that look, she glared back at him, thinking, Yes, I'll be quiet, yes, don't fall in, I get that, all right already? Reaching the opening, she stepped between the two men, grabbing a rock hard shoulder in each hand to steady herself and cautiously easing forward to look. They're alive, she thought, her heart leaping. They're way the hell down there, but-- Then her eyes adjusted all the way and she saw where they were trapped. "Uh oh," she said under her breath. "We're screwed."
Far below a large yellowish shape moved around one of the columns and they all flinched back, then retreated hastily back to the rubble. Cordelia tripped and Hercules caught her arm to steady her. She pulled loose and spoke in frustrated worry, gesturing helplessly back toward the opening into the temple, then at her disordered hair.
Hercules nodded sympathetically. "I know you're upset about your friends...and apparently your hair, but we're going to get them out of this." Looking her in the eye, he told her firmly, "It will be all right."
Understanding the tone if not the words, she looked up at him, eyes brimming. Then she nodded and turned to climb back over the rocks, fumbling for a foot hold.
"I can't think what the pillars were for," Iolaus said quietly, giving Cordelia a leg up back over the ridge. For once he was glad she couldn't understand what they were saying. Green Guy helped her down on the other side, giving her a hug and patting her hair comfortingly. "It seems like a really stupid way to sacrifice people. And how would you get them up there if you couldn't fly?"
"No, not for sacrifices," Hercules said, tapping his chin thoughtfully. Iolaus was right, that would have been damned impractical. "The pillars could have been supporting stairs, or an upper gallery. That means at least one other entrance up here."
"Right. So we find the way in."
Hercules nodded slowly. "The only problem is, it's going to know that we're coming."
Iolaus lifted his brows skeptically. "That's the only problem?"
"It's smaller," Gunn said quietly, watching the demon spiral down to the floor of the temple. "Like it's lost weight."
"You're right." Wesley studied it. "How odd. Unless it created more of those sub-creatures." Hopefully not to go after Cordelia and Lorne. Leaning cautiously over the edge, he watched the shapeshifter deposit the convertible gently down on the cracked and broken paving stones near the well.
Gunn's mouth twisted. "One was enough, thanks." The many-legged smaller demon was still patrolling between the two pillars, snarling to itself. Gunn frowned at the car, then gave Wesley a worried glance. "What about the ooksbay?"
Wesley blinked. "The what?"
"The books," Gunn repeated, teeth gritted. "In the car."
"I know. That's one reason I wanted it to bring the car to us." He looked back at the shapeshifter, taking a deep breath. As it settled onto the pavement, the sub-creature hurried toward it, moving rapidly over the temple floor. It reached the shapeshifter's side and pressed against it. Wesley and Gunn both watched in unwilling fascination as the creature melded into the shapeshifter's side. The yellow skin shifted fluidly as the larger creature's mass was redistributed throughout its body. "I'm hoping there's a spell in one of them that will alleviate the situation." Possibly by turning a giant shapeshifter inside out.
"Oh. Good thinking."
Having assimilated the other creature again, the shapeshifter lifted into the air. "Here we go," Gunn muttered, pushing to his feet. Wesley stood, throwing a concerned look at the other pillar. Fred was still curled up in the center, pretending to be catatonic, and Angel stood in front of her, watching the demon approach.
It hovered around Angel's pillar thoughtfully, then turned to land effortlessly near Wesley and Gunn. They backed away cautiously, Wesley mindful of the drop behind them.
The demon smiled. "Come here."
Oh, no. Wesley eyed it warily. "Ah. Come there?"
"I will take you down to the floor, so you can open my portal."
Now it's your portal, is it? "I'll need the help of the others."
The creature stared at him. There was something almost flirtatious in its expression that he found particularly chilling. Wesley persisted, "We were all together when the portal opened before -- it stands to reason that if we're to open another one, we should try to recreate conditions as closely as possible."
The demon blinked slowly. "Very well."
It lunged for them and Wesley instinctively flung himself down. He heard Gunn give a wild yell and then air rushed around him. Dizzied, he thought almost calmly, It's flung us off the pillar, then he registered the tight grip around his waist. In the next instant it dumped him onto the pavement.
Wesley rolled away from it, breathless, and saw a shaken Gunn stumble to his feet
"Wesley! Gunn!" Angel shouted from above, sounding alarmed.
"We're all right!" Wesley called back, staggering up.
Gunn caught his shoulder to steady him, watching the demon lift back up into the air to head for the other pillar. "It gave in way too easy."
"Yes." Wesley nodded, swallowing in a dry throat. "Yes, it did."
"Here," Hercules said, studying the base of the cliff thoughtfully. They were a short distance above the flat area where the shapeshifter had clawed the rock open to get to the underground temple. The terrain changed abruptly here, the cliffs cutting off the little plateau and marking the boundary of the high rocky slopes above.
"There?" Iolaus scratched his chin, doubtful. He had to admit the cliff face looked squared off here, the lines just a little too regular to be natural, but old rockfalls and gravel had covered any evidence of a doorway.
"What are they looking at?" Cordelia demanded. Seeing the vast size of the temple below them and the tall pillars the demon had the others imprisoned on had rattled her more than she wanted to admit. The images that had burst into her head so vividly in her vision had faded to leave her with vague feelings of doom. Big doom. Lots of doom. "What's the deal?"
"I think that's where the way in was, pet." Lorne looked the spot over dubiously. "'Was' being the operative word." He edged back warily as Hercules suddenly leaned down, grabbed a small boulder and lifted it aside in a shower of dust and gravel. "But then again, that may not be a problem."
Hercules dug through the rockfall, rapidly shifting debris and dirt it should have taken ten men and a horse team to move. Years of familiarity making him unimpressed by this display, Iolaus poked around, trying to find the edge of the door or some other sign they were in the right spot. "Here we go," he said suddenly, scraping at the dirt-encrusted rock. "There's metal under here."
They redoubled their efforts and soon uncovered a round door set back into the cliff. Hercules gestured to an inscription that had been embossed into the battered metal. Most of it had been obliterated in some earlier rockfall but what was left was clear. "It's a temple of Gaia. I have the feeling that's not a coincidence."
Iolaus frowned, watching Hercules wrench the door open. Cordelia and Green Guy skipped hastily back as it gave way with a cloud of dust and foul-smelling mold, revealing a dark hole leading back into the mountain. As the oldest and most powerful earth goddess, Gaia had lots of temples and small sanctuaries, some in use and some long abandoned. On the grounds of her temple near Thespiae, Iolaus and Hercules had found a blue swirly doorway to another world. Not storm-generated like the one that led to the Sovereign's World, but a permanent portal, fixed inside an old well. Since Gaia didn't show herself or meddle in mortal affairs -- at least not so that you could tell -- there was no knowing why the portal had been placed near the temple. "Oh, you don't think...."
Hercules nodded grimly, brushing aside a curtain of spiderwebs and ducking under the low lintel as he stepped inside. "If there's a permanent portal here too, I think we found what the shapeshifter is after."
The demon brought Angel down, dumping him onto the pavement next to Wesley and Gunn. Wesley exchanged a grim look with Gunn. It had carried them down both at once; it should have brought Fred at the same time.
Instead it hovered above them, studying Angel with the air of a cat watching a beetle and wondering if it was worth the effort to swat it. "You are different."
Angel stood, brushing off his coat, eyeing the creature dryly. "I'm from a different neck of the woods."
The demon didn't reply and Wesley felt a chill. He put on a falsely brisk air, clapping his hands together and saying, "Well, if you bring our other friend down here, we can get started on the portal."
The cold eyes turned to regard him, amused. "I think she can stay up there. She's asleep, she can't help you."
"Damn it," Angel muttered.
Wesley pressed his lips together. The creature obviously knew Fred was only pretending unconsciousness and had decided to use the ruse against her. He tried, "But she was with us when we opened the portal the first time--"
"You can do it without her help." It gestured to the well. From this angle Wesley could see the stone cistern set on a raised dais, the rock chipped and cracked with age. There was writing in an unfamiliar language carved into the side, and the figure carved into the stone wall above it was a circle with more writing in the band. "The inscription explains the problem."
Wesley admitted, "I can't read it."
The demon lifted into the air, one gentle sweep of its wings taking it forward to hover over the well. "It says only Gaia's Blood and Bone may open the portal. I was trying to get a minor god to open it for me."
A minor god? Wesley thought. He exchanged a puzzled look with Gunn but the creature was continuing, "But since you are an otherworld sorcerer, you should be able to open it just as well." It reached down to the cover, lifting the heavy stone up and setting it aside. Wesley took a cautious step up onto the dais, Angel and Gunn following him. He could see the well was filled with still dark water, placed so it held a dark reflection of the circle of writing on the wall above it. A strong odor of stale water wafted up from the surface.
"Right," Wesley said under his breath. He flicked a glance at Gunn. "I'll get the books and we'll get started."
"The books?" Angel asked, throwing a wary look at the demon. "Is that a good idea?"
"You got a better one?" Gunn asked him through gritted teeth.
"This sucks," Cordelia muttered under her breath. The way down was a winding, dark, moldy nasty passage with a bad habit of suddenly opening out into empty abysses and breath-taking drops into blackness. They had a torch to see by -- Hercules had paused to fish it out of a pack and Iolaus had held it for him as he struck the big metal and leather thing he wore on his wrist against the wall until the sparks ignited it. But things chittered at the edge of the light, making her skin creep. Iolaus was walking just in front of her and Cordelia had to conquer the urge to hold on to the back of his tatty leather vest, like a little girl in an amusement park spook house.
Lorne kept up a low background monologue that at least interfered with Cordelia concentrating on how horrible her surroundings were and how unlikely it was that they were going to get everyone out alive. "Oh, this is disgusting. I know I'm related to creatures that call dank slimy holes in the ground home but I get twitchy if my cleaning service leaves dustbunnies under the bed. And for decor I really prefer deco to dungeon--"
Ahead of them Hercules stopped. He handed the torch back to Lorne, who shied away, then realized what he wanted and took the burning wood gingerly. Hercules eased forward out of the circle of light, Iolaus with him, and Cordelia dimly saw them both crouch down by something in the wall.
"What are we looking at?" she asked, her nerves jumping.
Lorne was frowning in concentration, head cocked. "Honey, I think I just heard Wesley. There's one heck of an echo, but I'm sure it was him. I doubt there's more than one human running around here speaking English with a sexy British accent."
"Wait here." Cordelia edged forward into the dark, finding her way to the two men by the smell of masculine sweaty leather. This close she could see they had found a crack in the wall and were looking down through it. As she reached them she heard the voices too, distorted by the echo. Peering over Hercules' head, she could just catch a glimpse of the big cavern. She waited impatiently for her turn, thumping Hercules in the back just to remind him that she was there. He ignored her with an annoyingly high level of self control. Finally he shifted aside for her to look.
She crouched down, peering out. "Well?" Lorne whispered from behind her nervously. "The suspense is killing me."
"They're still alive," Cordelia reported in relief. "They're down on the floor, near this big round thing with water in it." She didn't like the look of that. It was in the part of the temple where you would expect the altar to be. "I see Wesley, Angel, Gunn...wait, where's Fred? Oh, she's still up on the pillar." Cordelia bit her lip. "That's not good." The demon was hovering lazily over the round stone water thingy, talking to the three men, and Cordelia realized with a sudden shock that she could catch a word here and there. She listened harder. The thing was speaking English, distorted by the echo in the big chamber.
Hercules nudged her in the arm and she hissed, "Stop it," thinking he was trying her own thumping trick on her. After some exasperated gesturing from both him and Iolaus, she realized they wanted her to translate what the demon was saying. She listened again, frowning, cursing the echo, but after a moment she got the gist. "It wants then to open a portal. An interdimensional portal." She turned to the two men in frustration. "And how the hell am I going to explain that to you with pointing?" But after she made swirly gestures and Lorne added sound effects, both men got it, and they didn't look too surprised. She knew they had known all about portals, from what Xander and the others had told her, but it was like they had been expecting to find one down here.
"But we thought the shapeshifter came through a blue swirly that formed during that storm five days ago," Iolaus said as they retreated back from the crevice. That was when it had first started killing villagers down in the river valley, masquerading as a giant. "So it came through the portal in this temple instead and we just missed its trail? Then how come it looked like it dug its way in, not out?"
"No, no, I think we're right about when and where it came through," Hercules said thoughtfully, looking back at the crevice. "But there must be something special about this portal."
Iolaus nodded. The one at the temple in Thespiae had been sealed off, at least until something, maybe one of the minotaurs, had broken the cover. "These are doorways Gaia -- or whoever -- doesn't want anybody to open," he said uneasily.
Hercules' face was still in the torchlight, his brows drawn together in worry. "Uh huh."
"We need a plan of some sort. Something strategic but not involving a lot of personal danger," Lorne was saying.
"Okay. Plan, plan. We get in there -- somehow -- and...." Cordelia bit her lip. She and Lorne stared blankly at each other.
Tired of waiting, Iolaus prompted, "Well?"
Hercules nodded slowly. "I've got a plan."
"It's not a good one."
"And," Hercules turned to regard Green Guy thoughtfully, "It depends on him."
"Oh." Iolaus looked at Cordelia's friend. Green Guy saw they were both staring at him and smiled nervously. "You're absolutely sure about that?"
Sitting on the cracked pavement near the car, Wesley paged through the books rapidly, looking for something, anything he could use against the shapechanger. The Trionic the three volumes were written in required him to shift from one book to another when the rhythm of the sentence structure signalled a change, and it made the text incredibly difficult to skim. Especially with a demon breathing down his neck. Even a demon now currently human. "Angel, that's not helping."
"Sorry." Angel stepped back a pace.
Leaning against the car, Gunn lifted a brow, eyeing Angel challengingly. "What? Life and death look a little different for you from a human perspective?"
"Being eaten looks about the same." Angel threw a glance up at the shapechanger where it hovered in the air above the temple well.
Defying gravity, its wings moved lazily, the vanes and fans around its deceptively pure face drifting in the air. The sun had shifted towards late afternoon and the shafts of light penetrated the openings in the cavern roof at a different angle, turning the upper half of the walls and pillars to red and yellow and deepening the blue shadows in the lower half of the cavern. By some ancient design, the sunlight now glowed down on the well, illuminating the writing above it and making it an island of light in the dark space.
"You two could stop quibbling and think about how we're going to get Fred down," Wesley said tightly, keeping his voice low. "If we're still alive by that point."
"That is telling you how to open my portal?" From above their heads, the demon's seductive voice held a razor edge of impatience.
"Yes, yes, it is," Wesley hurriedly called up to it, his nerves jumping. "But it's very complicated. Just be a moment and I should have it." The only thing remotely helpful he had found so far was a minor obfuscation spell, which might slow the creature down momentarily but would surely make it that much more angry when it recovered. We need something fatal, Wesley thought, wiping sweat from his brow, Immediately fatal. The next page held a promisingly destructive spell formula but as he followed it to the next book he saw it required the blood of a three-headed Pylean gruat. Cursing under his breath, he looked up, realizing that Gunn and Angel had gone uncharacteristically silent. Gunn stared at the paving stones between his feet and Angel looked straight ahead, his gaze so vague that his eyes were unfocused. "What?" Wesley asked, frowning.
"Just thinking hard about how to help the nice demon open that portal," Gunn muttered, flashing him a warning look.
"Oh." Wesley went back to the book, every nerve alert. They had seen something. Cordelia and Lorne, attempting some kind of suicidal rescue attempt? He wasn't sure if he was glad for the chance or angry at their impetuousness. But the truth was that if somebody didn't think of something soon, they were all going to die.
Husky with rage, the demon's voice snapped, "You betray me."
Wesley looked up, startled. As angry as it sounded, there was a pleased light in its faceted eyes, as if it really would rather kill them than complete its plan, and it was eager to have the chance. "No! I've almost got it, really," he protested, waving the book vaguely. "The calculations I have to do, to take account of the different structures of the dimension--"
"He's doing his best!" Angel shouted, trying to distract the creature.
The shapechanger lifted up into the air, darting menacingly toward Fred's pillar. "No more games, open the portal now! Or I'll eat the female."
Hercules and Iolaus crept across the deep shadow of the cavern floor toward the well, which was lit by sunlight pouring down from above like the stage at the Theater of Dionysus. Iolaus held his breath until they reached the relative cover of the two columns. He was fairly certain two of the men standing between the well and the big metal object had spotted them, but neither had betrayed their presence to the shapeshifter by reacting. Now if Green Guy would just do his part. As they paused in the deeper shadow at the base of the columns, he threw an impatient glance at Hercules, mouthing, "What's taking them so long?"
Hercules shook his head grimly. Cordelia had seemed confident that she could follow the passage around to a crack nearer the shapeshifter's position at the front of the temple, but maybe Cordelia just seemed confident of everything. Explaining the plan had strained both his and Iolaus' pantomiming skills to the utmost, but they seemed to have gotten the essentials across. At least, he hoped so.
He saw the shapeshifter snarl angrily, then it shot upward, heading for the top of the column above their heads. The one the woman was still trapped on. "Too late," Hercules said under his breath. He raised his voice to a shout, "Hey, we're over here! Are you as blind as you are ugly?"
Halting, the creature twisted in mid-air, eyes alight as it looked for them, its expression caught between rage and triumph. It growled, then twisted its body, splitting in two. Half landed with a splat on the pavement and the other winged half shot toward them.
They bolted back to the base of the column, Iolaus flattening his back against it. "I am never getting used to that," he muttered.
"I hope you don't have to." Hercules glanced up and thought he spotted a white face looking down at them from the very top of the column. Note to self: don't knock this one down.
The shapeshifter paused, snarling in frustration, hovering just out of sword reach, unable to get above them for a strike with its claws because of the bulky column and unwilling to come closer and give them the advantage. These creatures were hard to kill with just a sword, but this one had lost a lot of its mass already, and dividing again had made it much smaller. And hopefully more vulnerable, Iolaus thought. He saw the other half had sprouted legs and a wide fanged mouth, but it charged away to take up a position near the three men at the front of the temple.
Temporarily thwarted, the shapeshifter visibly reined in its temper. Its face shifted, losing some of its definition, and it purred in Greek, "I knew you would come. But I don't need you anymore." It gestured back toward the men near the well. "These mortals can open the portal for me."
Guessed right on that one, Hercules thought grimly. "If all you want to do is to leave this world, then we don't want to stop you--"
"Yeah, don't let the gate hit you on the ass on the way out," Iolaus contributed
"--But that's not all you want, is it?"
"Oh, I don't want to leave." It smiled in deep satisfaction, its wings floating up around it, eerie in the deep shadow. "Somewhere among the worlds, something powerful has stirred, has tried to break down the world walls, to make its own passage out of the place where it was imprisoned. It has made all the world walls weak, but only for a short time. Already you have delayed me, but not long enough."
It looked back at the well, its eyes flashing yellow in the dimness. "I sensed the power of this portal as soon as I entered this world. The other portals are weak and close quickly. When this one is opened and I enter it, I will be able to keep it open, to take it to my world and bring all my clan here." It looked down at them again, eyes wide. "Where the hunting is good."
"Those were the men we saw in the woods, before the demon attacked us," Wesley murmured to Gunn. The creature was speaking a different language to them and he couldn't understand it.
Gunn nodded, eyeing the sub-creature the shapechanger had left to guard them. It was easily twice the size of the car, apparently eyeless, and its jaw was wide enough to swallow one of them whole. "We got to do something now. Any ideas?"
Wesley shook his head grimly. "The only usable spell I could find was--"
Across the temple the winged half of the shapechanger suddenly shot into the air, reaching for Fred atop the pillar. The sub-creature suddenly spoke, making them all flinch in surprise. The voice that came from that fanged mouth was the shapechanger's, speaking English: "No more delay! Open the portal now, or I'll take her."
Gunn and Angel looked at Wesley helplessly. Not sure which half did the hearing, Wesley shouted, "Stop! Stop! Leave her alone, and I'll open the portal for you." He started up the steps to the well.
Following him, Angel asked, low-voiced, "Are you bluffing?"
"No. It said the portal needs Gaia's Blood or Bone to open," Wesley explained in a harsh whisper. The last thing they needed was to lose their only bargaining point to the demon. He reached the stone wall of the well, leaning over to look inside. The water was dark, a stale, aged odor drifting up from it. "But Gaia isn't just an earth goddess, she's the earth personified. In some versions of the myth, Darkness created Chaos, and Chaos created Gaia, then mated with her in order to give birth to a number of other beings, from which all life is descended." Wesley looked around, spotted a sprig of fern caught on Gunn's sweater, and plucked it off. "By that theory, it isn't just gods that are Gaia's Blood and Bone, but every living thing in this universe. I could open it with this."
Gunn took a deep breath. "But I have a feeling it would be a real bad idea."
Wesley looked back. He couldn't see Fred from this angle but the demon must be hovering just above her. "I know."
"Dammit, we need to get it back down here." Iolaus leaned out to see the shapeshifter. It was hovering within easy reach of the top of the column, but hadn't grabbed the woman yet. Iolaus stepped away from the base, tossing his sword to his partner.
Hercules caught it, his expression somehow reminding Iolaus that he was closely related to a thundergod, but he didn't give voice to any absurd injunctions to be careful.
Iolaus backed away, his eyes on the hovering creature. As alert to movement as a hawk, it spotted him, its eyes glowing. "Come on," he muttered under his breath. "You've been chasing us for days, you know you want--" It dived toward him, a big yellow blur of rage and hunger. "Yow!"
"But acoustically that wasn't a good spot, I could tell from their voices," Lorne protested as Cordelia dragged him relentlessly down the dark passage. "It wouldn't have worked!"
"Okay, okay." The torch was starting to gutter and all the craggy passage walls looked alike down here; Cordelia was sick with the thought that they might already be too late. Then she saw light ahead, outlining another crack in the cave wall. "Here's another one, try here!" Cordelia gave Lorne an urgent push toward it.
"Now?" Lorne leaned forward to peer out the crack. "Oh, definitely now!"
The piercing shriek rang through the cavern, catching Iolaus in mid-dive. He hit the ground, his ears ringing, in time to see the shapeshifter convulse in the air not ten feet above him.
The shriek cut off but the echoes took it up, bouncing it off the walls in a terrible cacophony. Still deafened, Iolaus scrambled back. The shapeshifter twisted toward Hercules, its mouth open in a silent snarl, just as the demigod threw the sword like a javelin. The weapon struck the creature in the roof of the mouth, driving deeply into its skull.
Iolaus pushed to his feet, watching as the creature writhed in the air. It straightened suddenly, eyes wild, and shot toward the column. Oh shit, Iolaus had time to think just before it struck the stone with a crack that he could hear even over the echo. Backpedaling, Iolaus yelled an instinctive warning to Hercules.
Hercules dodged away as the shapeshifter bounced off the column. An instant later Iolaus realized he was the one who should have been dodging as the creature hurtled toward him. He made a wild dive for safety but a heavy weight slammed him into the pavement.
Wesley staggered as a sound pierced his skull. He looked up as the sub-creature roared in agony and bounded toward them. Wesley lifted a hand, muttering the words of the obfuscation spell from the Trionic books. He couldn't hear himself over the echo but the creature halted abruptly, shaking its blunt head in confusion.
Wesley saw the shapechanger across the cavern drop near the ground again, striking at the two men there. "We need to--" he began, starting forward, but Gunn grabbed his arm.
"It's not working, look!" The obfuscation spell had only lasted a moment as the sub-creature started to stalk forward, its huge jaws working. Goddammit, Wesley thought, frustrated past bearing. That's the last time I try one of these sodding worthless Pylean spells--
Angel dug in his coat pocket, pulling out a set of keys and tossing them to Gunn, yelling, "Get the car!" He dashed down the steps and to the side, waving his arms to attract the creature's attention.
"The car?" Wesley stared. "Oh, the car!" Gunn was already bolting down the steps, heading for the vehicle. The creature charged for Angel and Wesley plunged forward, shouting and waving. It turned back for him, snarling, suddenly way too close, and he slid to halt, backing away.
He heard an engine rev behind him and scrambled out of the way as the convertible shot past, Gunn at the wheel. The car struck the creature head on.
Cursing the shapeshifter and fate in general, Hercules dodged as chunks of stone slammed into the pavement. The top half of the column crumbled and toppled and he spotted a white shape tumbling off. He danced back and forth, gauging speed, distance, then reached out and caught the girl, going nearly to his knees with the force of her fall. Lumps of rock rained down around them.
Straightening up with a gasp, he stared down at her. The girl blinked big eyes at him, her pale face framed in a tangle of dark hair. "That was close," he told her, then looked around. "Iolaus?"
No answer. His chest tightening, Hercules sat the girl on her feet. They were surrounded by the scattered remnants of the shattered column and under any one of them could be.... "Iolaus!"
The girl pulled at his arm, pointing toward the shapeshifter. It was crumpled on the ground a short distance away, its wings broken, its head twisted half under its body. It was still shuddering faintly with death throes. Or were those death throes? No, too localized for death throes. Torn between relief and alarm, he charged for the creature.
Hercules hauled at a bent wing, trying to get a good grip on it. He hadn't touched one of the shapeshifters before and the unexpectedly spongy texture of the sallow flesh made his skin creep. He adjusted his hold and shoved the dead weight up.
Iolaus scrambled out, staggering to his feet, shoving his hair out of his eyes. Breathing hard, he gasped, "That...that was disgusting."
Hercules dropped the creature, backing away, rubbing his hands off on his pants. "You all right?" he demanded.
"No." Iolaus scrubbed at his bare arms, trying to get rid of the memory of the sickly texture of the creature's skin. He shook himself all over, then realized there was a young woman dressed in a brief white shift standing at his elbow, staring at him with tentative curiosity. "Is that her? How'd you get her down?"
Hercules pointed up. Iolaus looked for the column and saw it was only a jagged fragment about half its original height, surrounded by smashed stone blocks. Nodding, he turned back to Hercules. "Good catch."
An unearthly growl and a thump caught their attention.
The convertible's grillwork jammed in the spongy flesh of the sub-creature. Still alive, it snarled silently, twisting its head to bite the car, vestigial arms sprouting rapidly out of its sides. Wesley swore, grabbing for a rock. The car's engine strained as Gunn threw it into reverse to free it. The engine died abruptly and Gunn cursed, trying frantically to restart it.
Suddenly on the other side of the writhing creature, Wesley saw the bigger native man, holding an impossibly large stone. He slammed the stone down on the creature's head and yellow fluid gushed out from beneath it. Bruised, scraped, and glasses askew, Wesley stumbled to his feet, staring in amazement. The creature's movements ceased.
"Hey, we did it!" Cordelia climbed awkwardly out of the narrow crack in the cavern wall, stumbling on the uneven stone pavement. Getting out of the nasty passage and into the relatively fresh air of the big cave was a huge relief and she took her first deep breath in what felt like hours.
Lorne clambered after her, brushing cobwebs off his suit, commenting, "Sometimes I even amaze myself. Flowers and candy can be left at the stage door."
"You did great, Sweetie," she told him, squinting in the dimness to see where everybody was. Hercules and Iolaus were near the demon thingy where it was squished between the car and the big rock. Fred was with them, squatting down apparently trying to get a look at the creature's mushed head.
"Hey, it's Cordelia!" Standing on the trunk of the car, Gunn called to her, "You're alive! Where the hell--"
"Me alive? We've been rescuing you guys!" She reached Iolaus first, throwing her arms around him and getting lifted off her feet in return. "Thank you," she breathed in his ear, suddenly overcome with the thought of how badly this could have turned out. He sat her down and gave her a quizzical look. Wiping her eyes and reminding herself this was no time to get girly, she looked around, seeing Hercules was still prodding the dead demon suspiciously with his boot. Impulsively she gave him a hug too, startling him, then retreated hastily. "Ick, you've got goo all over you." She brushed at top. "And that surprises me not."
"Fred, are you all right?" Angel demanded, circling around the convertible where it was still jammed into the dead demon thingy.
Straightening up, Fred nodded. She was doing her deer-caught-in-headlights look, but otherwise seemed fine. "He caught me," she explained, pointing at Hercules. "He's very large."
"I'm sure he is, honey," Lorne told her, folding his arms and surveying the scene with satisfaction. "I'd say the fat lady just sang for this diabolical demon plot, whatever it was."
"He caught you?" Limping up to them, Wesley asked helplessly, "Cordelia, who-- how--"
"You're welcome!" Cordelia said pointedly. "Jeeze, the gratitude is just making me blush. Listen, I know where we are." She turned to the others as they gathered around. "Back in Sunnydale, there was a time we were attacked by a giant snake--"
"Yes, Cordelia, Angel and I were there," Wesley interrupted impatiently, "But who--"
"No, not the giant snake at graduation!" She gestured impatiently. Time later to reflect how wrong your life had gone when your friends were confused by which giant demon snake you meant. "This was an interdimensional snake and when it ate you, it took you to this world. I didn't get eaten so I didn't get to go, but they told me all about it and these are the guys they met. Hercules and Iolaus."
Wesley stared, comprehension dawning on his face. "Yes, yes, you're right. I read Giles' account of it. It was fascinating."
Cordelia snorted. "That was the edited for television version."
"What interdimensional snake?" Angel interrupted. "Why didn't I know about this?"
Cordelia opened her mouth, thought of some of the details Xander had related to her, and decided to be merciful. She made her eyes wide and blank. "Uh, I don't know?"
Watching thoughtfully, Hercules commented, "She's not going to tell us who they are, is she?"
Iolaus shrugged, brows lifted. "Apparently not."
Lost in thought, Wesley muttered, "My God, that would explain everything."
"Then share, English," Gunn said impatiently. "We ain't getting any younger here."
"But that's the thing," Cordelia told him, seizing on it as a distraction. "We just might be."
Taking up the explanation, Wesley told him, "Giles theorized that this is the core universe, the centerpoint of creation for all other universes. Things that happen here echo down through all other worlds, and people, events, creatures that are just legends in our own world exist here."
"He sounds like Giles," Iolaus told Hercules. "He must be the sorcerer."
Hercules pointed out, "He's got the little glass things on his eyes, too."
Wesley looked thoughtfully at Angel. "Since we come from a lesser universe, we can be physically altered by the influence of this one. The others were only here for a few days, but Giles found his eyesight improved to the point where he didn't need his glasses, their injuries healed within hours, and Buffy's strength increased."
Cordelia triumphantly gestured to Angel. "Hence the breathing."
Wesley nodded, telling Angel, "Perhaps your demon simply has no influence over you here. Because of your soul, you became fully human. Or...." He frowned, folding his arms. "According to Giles, the closest analog to vampires they encountered here were called bacchae. Most of them had been living people, under the command of the god Bacchus. When Bacchus was killed, they were restored to normal."
"But then it's not permanent." Angel shook his head slightly. "Buffy, Giles and the others, when they came back, they didn't.... "
"No, they didn't." Cordelia watched him with some sympathy. It's like a really twisted sequel to Pinocchio. Go home and you're not a real boy anymore. She had to admit that it would have been wonderful to go back and work at Angel Investigations without the shadow of soul-losing, Angelus, and nasty death looming over everything. No more weekly reviews of the emergency plan for staking your co-worker. I could live without that.
"Why didn't it do anything to Lorne?" Angel persisted.
They all looked at Lorne, who smiled winningly. Wesley took a deep breath, shrugging. "Well, for a demon, Lorne is, essentially, harmless."
Lorne nodded. "I have to agree with you there."
"But what about--"
"Damn, Angel, it's not all about you." Gunn turned impatiently to Cordelia. "Do we know how this Giles guy and the others got back?"
"The snake spins around and you jump through and that takes you home," Cordelia explained, frowning. "But we don't have the snake or the snake-spinning spell."
"So whatever controls the portals in this world decided Lorne was more human than I was?" Angel asked. He looked around, as if hoping for a rebuttal. Wesley cleared his throat, Gunn lifted a brow, and Cordelia folded her arms and stared meaningfully at him. Lorne patted him on the shoulder. "There, there."
"They argue a lot," Iolaus observed wryly.
"Uh huh." It was giving Hercules a headache.
"They keep mentioning Giles. You think they know how to get home on their own?"
"Oh, I hope so."
"To get back to the central issue--" Wesley began.
"Thank you," Gunn added firmly.
"I think we can still try the same spell we used to escape -- that is, leave -- Pylea." Wesley eyed the well portal thoughtfully. "This is obviously an interdimensional hotspot as well, probably a very powerful one. And if I'm remembering Giles' account correctly, the spell itself should be more powerful here."
Lorne's brow creased worriedly. "Powerful as in getting us home lickety-split, or powerful as in Wesley mispronounces one word, portal go boom with us in it?"
Wesley bit his lip, considering. "Ah.... Possibly both."
Standing at what was hopefully a safe distance, they watched the strangers prepare to leave. It appeared they had their own way of opening a portal to get back to their home, which was a relief; Hercules felt the temple's portal probably didn't open anywhere rational people would want to go.
The Giles-like sorcerer Wesley -- they had figured out that was his name when Cordelia kept yelling it at him -- had tried to talk to them, but Cordelia had driven him off and then given them what she probably thought were significant grimaces and winks. "I think she doesn't want us to talk to them," Iolaus had said finally, struggling to interpret her bizarre behavior. "Any idea why?"
Hercules shrugged helplessly. "Your guess is as good as mine." If she had a good reason, it was probably best to go along with her.
They had managed to remove the big metal thing from the dead shapeshifter though it wasn't easy, and some bits just wouldn't come out of the front part. Returning seem to involve them all climbing into it while arguing a lot, Wesley gesturing emphatically with a set of parchments bound in leather. Finally the dark-skinned warrior, who was louder than anyone else, managed to make everyone shut up except Cordelia, and the sorcerer began to read from the parchments.
Arms folded, Iolaus said, "It's too bad, since she was your type, Herc." He shook his head regretfully. "Beautiful, nice figure, knows how to order a demigod around--"
"Stop it." Hercules glared at him, self-conscious because his thoughts had been straying in the same direction and mildly paranoid that Cordelia might be able to tell this just by looking at him.
Light burst into the dark temple, swirling colors forming a whirlwind just above the ground. Having had bad experiences with being sucked involuntarily into portals, both Hercules and Iolaus bolted back another twenty paces without having to discuss it. The big metal thing roared and Hercules looked back in time to see it leap for the center of the light. It entered the blaze of color and Cordelia turned and waved at them. Then it vanished.
The whirlwind spun and shrank in on itself, disappearing with a faint pop of displaced air.
Hercules let out a breath. "I hope they make it home."
"They seemed like they knew what they were doing. Sort of. Though it would have been nice to know why they were here." Iolaus stretched, rolling his shoulders and rubbing the back of his neck. "Get back to the surface, make a camp, sleep, eat. Possibly not in that order."
"Dig your sword out of the shapeshifter's skull." Hercules started up the stone steps to the well.
Iolaus grimaced, following him. "I forgot about that."
"And I have no idea where Cordelia left our packs." Hercules lifted the stone cover to put it back into place, but froze as he turned to the well. A sprig of fern had fallen in and where it floated in the dark water, images formed. Shapes, colors, little moving figures. He saw distorted, monstrous creatures, some like the shapeshifter, others far worse. In the center he could barely make out what looked like a skeletal metal tower with a white light blazing near its top. A ripple crossed the water and it all vanished, leaving the well dark and still again. "Weird," he commented, vaguely troubled, lowering the heavy stone cover and nudging it into place. It settled with a thump and gentle puff of dust and moss.
"What?" Iolaus demanded. "What did you see?"
"Nothing good, whatever it was." He dropped an arm around Iolaus' shoulders, giving him an absent-minded hug. "Let's get out of here."
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