Mortal Ground - Book Two: Dust to Dust

MAIN CHARACTERS: Faith, Spike, Giles, Willow, Xander, Tara, Anya, Angel
OTHER CHARACTERS: There are tertiary characters, cameos, and of course, surprises!
RATING: R (violence, sex, adult language and situations)
PREVIOUSLY: If you have not read Mortal Ground Book One, I highly recommend that you do so. It's not completely necessary to understand what's happening, but it will greatly increase your enjoyment of this story.
SUMMARY: Angel gone, her Watcher dead, Faith finds herself allied with her former mortal enemies, the Scoobies. Her new enemy's mysterious plot begins to unfold as together they are drawn ever deeper into a twisted web of deceit. Suspicions and mistrust abound as the Scoobies struggle to come to terms with their new ally, Faith continues her battle to prove herself worthy of the Slayer mantle, and fear of betrayal threatens to tear apart their tenuous alliance. Meanwhile, one of their number is drawn increasingly toward the side of darkness, and even darker revelations await them all beneath the earth...
NOTES: This story is an epic. Book One began about two weeks after the events of "The Gift". Book Two picks up where Book One left off, about three months or so after Faith's arrival in Sunnydale. This story is meant to span the course of, and will incorporate some of the character plot lines of, Season 6. However, Faith's presence has affected the way a lot of events unfolded and this story will explore those differences.
SPOILERS: Through S6
STATUS: Complete as of 11/24/2003
DISCLAIMER: All characters belong to Mutant Enemy, except Tenth, Fox and most of the bad guys; they know which ones are theirs (and likely you do, too). The background is mostly theirs. The story is almost all mine. Songs lyrics belong to their respective owners, as noted.

Throw off your golden light
And shed it all around
Burn as the moon at midnight
Rise and fall straight down

Mortal ground

Don't turn your back against the wind
She's psycho crazy, but she draws you in
Close your eyes and free fall
Rise and fall straight down

Mortal ground

See how it twists and breaks
This fate

            ~Mortal Ground, Rhea's Obsession



And you may find yourself
living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself
in another part of the world
And you may find yourself
behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself
in a beautiful house,
with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself—
Well... How did I get here?

            ~Once in a Lifetime, The Talking Heads


"I can't believe you brought her here," Giles hissed in angry undertones, his composure tight with barely restrained tension. He started to rest his arm on the doorframe to the bedroom, then seemed to change his mind, slipping his hand into his pocket and then pulling it right back out. Finally, he decided to settle for pulling off his glasses and rubbing the bridge of his nose.

"I can't believe you let me in," Spike admitted. He'd been more than entertained by the days events already. Giles' expression alone when he'd opened the door had been worth the price of admission. Of course, after spending a good piece of the morning sneaking Faith out of the hospital while trying not to burst into flame, he supposed anything could seem fun by comparison.

"Believe me, I'm already regretting it." Giles pushed his glasses back on and glanced at Faith's still form, her body secured hand and foot to the bed with steel chains. "So long as she stays… secured, I suppose everything will be all right until… I figure out what I should do."

"You're not going to call the Council?"

"Well, I-I haven't contacted them yet, but of course it's my duty to inform them that she's escaped…" he trailed off, seeming agitated, confused.

Spike cocked his head to one side, trying to puzzle that one out. He'd figured Giles would be on the horn to the Council no sooner than they'd chained Faith to the bed. "Escaped?" he echoed. And then he understood. "Oh… right. They didn't tell you, did they?" he asked in that infuriating I-know-something-you-don't-know tone of voice that grated on Giles' nerves like few other things. "Bastards," he added with a shake of his head and a snort.

"Quite," Giles agreed with polite sarcasm. "I do hope you included yourself in that quaint little categorization."

"Keep your trousers on, I'm getting to it," Spike said, edging on annoyance. "I meant your old Council buddies. They were the ones got her out of prison. She's been in town for a long while now."

"What?" Giles appeared mystified. "You mean… they—they've reinstated her as the Slayer? A-and, and they didn't contact me? How could they? Are you sure?" He went through the series of questions with an equal progression of emotions, from baffled, to angry, to suddenly scrutinizing of Spike. "Where is her Watcher?" he asked triumphantly, as if he'd just found the question to stump the vampire.

"Dead," Spike replied briefly.

Giles' entire demeanor changed and all the anger seemed to drain out of him. He gave Faith another awkward glance, touched by pity for her for a brief moment, remembering what had happened to her other Watchers. "Dear Lord—dead?" He looked back at Spike, blue eyes holding and piercing the vampire's intently. "Why? What happened?"

"She didn't play nice with the local vampires?" Spike offered with a shrug.

"She had a scroll," spoke up a slightly groggy voice from the bed. Both turned to look at Faith, just waking from her drug-induced sleep, and she gave them an appraising look, offering a pale shadow of her usual smart-assed smile. "Kinky," she added, tugging gently at the bonds on her wrist, almost seeming to approve. "You know," she went on, seeming to gain clarity even as she warmed to the subject, "if you guys wanted to play master and servant, you could have just asked."

Spike smirked and shook his head once. He'd figured she'd wake up thrashing and screaming mad at being brought here, and there she was, just as cool as could be, cracking jokes and acting like being chained to the Watcher's bed was the most natural thing in the world. Be damned if she didn't keep surprising him.

"Y-you're being cooperative?" Giles seemed disconcerted by the idea.

She shrugged whimsically. "Why not? I mean, we do have the same bosses," she added with a smile, letting it dig just a little. "We're practically intimate already."

"Er… right," he commented doubtfully and then let the matter go, eager to ignore her not so subtle attempts at innuendo and too curious about the item she'd mentioned to question her status with the Council any further at the moment. "Ah… what scroll?"

The question seemed to surprise her—though given that she'd initiated it, it hardly should have—and she flinched as if it had hit her like a blow. The smile dropped from her face as if it had never existed, leaving her pale, sullen and morose as the shadow of memory stole over her.

Suddenly Giles found it hard to look at her. How many times had he seen that look on Buffy's face? The burden, the sorrow of the Hellmouth made flesh and bone, given human form; the one who bore it all so the rest of the world wouldn't have to. He knew that expression, but he could not lend it the credence it perhaps deserved. Not on her face.

She appeared to debate for a moment and then shrugged in resignation. "A restoration ritual," she answered dully. "I don't know who for."

"Whom," Giles corrected automatically.

"That too. Hell," she added almost glibly, the lost look vanishing as her mental armor slid back into place. "I don't even know who wanted the damned thing so bad." Her eyes narrowed then, tightening in anger, and her voice dropped dangerously low. "But they burned down my house and killed my Watcher to get it. When I find out…"

She trailed off and Giles stood silent, as if he had lost his place in the conversation, staring thoughtfully off into space. Spike cut them both an odd, sideways look, but neither responded, seeming lost in their own worlds of thought.

After a moment, Giles seemed to return to himself and find his place. "Yes… well… perhaps I should make us all some tea and you can start from the beginning."

*           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *

Faith had tried to add upright and chainless to that attempt at hospitality, but Giles wouldn't even consider it until after he'd heard her whole story. So she'd told it, almost exactly as it had happened, leaving out the details about Angel's departure and omitting the parts about the Scoobies and Buffy all together; it wasn't as if he would have wanted to know, or believed her at any rate. At last, she stumbled through the last bit about finding Beatrice, ending on an awkward note, and she cast about for the right words to finish with. Something smooth and glib to cap it all off, something to keep them from knowing how deeply it had all affected her.

"I-I'm sorry, Faith," Giles said after a moment had passed. His eyes stuttered with his voice, and he looked down at the teacup in his hands. She believed him. Of all the Scoobies, he had always come across as the most honest and earnest, and despite his inherent, English stuffiness, he still managed to sound the least condescending.

"Great," she answered moodily. A beat, and then, "Can I get up now?"

Spike, who had been mostly silent through her exposition, arched a brow at him. "That was the deal," he reminded Giles.

"Y-yes, well… O-of course I… ahh…"

"You're not going to welsh are you?" Spike asked, suddenly suspicious.

Giles got to his feet and drew himself awkwardly up to his full height. "There's not a drop of Welsh blood in my body," he said indignantly. Then his posture seemed to slip a little with the guilt that was far too evident in his face. "I just thought it m-might be prudent to ah… wait for the others."

Spike and Faith exchanged a warning glance.

"Much as I'm all for bondage fun, I'd really like to get up now," Faith said darkly, tugging at the chains again. Fuck. How was she going to explain this without pointing the finger at Willow and the others? He would think she was lying even if she told the truth, most likely, and here she was, strapped on her back, completely helpless in front of the people who hated her most. Experimentally, futilely, she tested her bonds. The only thing she received in the way of an encouraging response was a nasty twinge from her mending ribs that encouraged her not to try that anymore.

"Bringing me here was a really bad idea," she hissed at Spike, who, to his credit, looked somewhat chagrined. He spread his arms in a wide "what else could I do" gesture and she growled her anger at him, tugging her arms against the chains uselessly.

"Bad idea for who?" Xander asked meaningfully, stepping into the room. He took a look around, looked at Faith, and then did a double take, seeming suddenly, inexplicably, panicked.

"I'm in Giles' bedroom with Spike and Faith's chained to the bed," he said, taking stock of the situation with a mildly frantic tone.

"'Nother round of 'Whose Fantasy Is It?'" Spike asked with a smirk.

"Nightmare!" Xander corrected anxiously with a sharp look at Spike. "This is so not right. What, you couldn't just duct tape her to a refrigerator?" He looked at Giles accusingly. Giles, for his part, seemed completely baffled.

"Would that have been… better?"

"Yes." Xander appeared to think about it. "Okay, no. But the mental scars would be smaller."

"Xander…" Giles interrupted, sounding very tired. "Did you bring the others?"

"Of course I did. They didn't want to come back here in case you were doing, you know, guy stuff." He glanced around again, seeming to hear the innuendo bounce back off the walls at him. "And now that I say that, I realize that it came out sounding a lot more gay than I intended it to and um, you want me to go get them?" he asked, one finger pointing lamely toward the living room.

"Giles. Let me up." Faith's voice was edged with warning, but somehow it was almost a plea.

Giles put his hands in his pockets and looked down, his inner struggle apparent on his face. He hadn't been very willing to help when Spike had shown up on his doorstep with the rogue Slayer, and even now he was only marginally convinced of what they said. Perhaps he should have waited until he'd spoken with the Council first, verified Spike's version of the story… but it was too late for that now.

"I'm sorry, Faith," he said quietly, not looking at her. "Xander, get the others."

*           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *

After that, Faith went still in her bonds, resigned to whatever decision fate had in store for her next. Judging by the last few days, it probably wasn't going to be much of a winner, but the chains that held her to the wrought iron bed left her no other choice but to face it. The least she could do was have a little dignity. As much dignity as someone chained to a bed could have, at any rate.

For a few moments, the room was absolutely still, and she had time to appreciate the sparse, clean decorating sense that seemed appropriate for a proper Englishman. From the corner of her eye she could see that Spike hadn't moved, still lounging in a straight wooden-backed chair near the curtained window. Giles she could see more clearly; he still stood with his hands in his pockets, his back almost turned to her, as silent and motionless as a statue. She thought about taunting him, calling him a coward even though she knew exactly why he'd left her like this. But for one of the few times in her life, she managed to hold her tongue, realizing that she had to play this carefully if she wanted to come out of it a free, still-breathing person. Besides, if they thought she was broken they wouldn't be watching her too closely, and she might be able to catch them off-guard and escape, if it came to that.

Sounds of muffled movement from the hallway, and then voices, growing louder as they approached the bedroom. Predictably, perhaps, Willow came through the door first, and Faith supposed Giles or Xander or both of them must have warned her ahead of time, because she didn't seem surprised to see Faith at all.

She looked at Faith with eyes that were difficult to read, and then she turned to Giles, getting straight down to business.

"What did she tell you?"

Spike uttered a mocking laugh and Willow cut him a nasty look, but he said nothing for once, seeming content to let it go at that. Nervously, her eyes skittered back to Giles', more uncertain than before, and Faith realized for the first time that Willow was almost as nervous as… well, as nervous as Faith should have been, given her position.

Giles looked at both of them askance, but before he could get out a word, Willow beat him to the punch.

"It would have worked Giles. We were so close. And then she broke the circle and disrupted the spell." She pointed a damning finger at Faith. "Did she tell you that part? Did she tell you it's her fault that Buffy isn't here with us right now?"

Faith craned her neck, struggling to get a look at Giles' expression.

He blinked, seeming perplexed by her unprompted speech… and then slowly, the surprise deepened, darkening the blue depths of his eyes, and then they hardened to diamond sharpness as understanding came. His entire posture seemed to shift in an instant, the lines in his face deeper somehow, sharper, more meaningful with their visibility. In that moment, the stuffy, always vaguely overwhelmed librarian disappeared completely, leaving behind a man whose gaze was sharp and predatory, whose entire form radiated with menace. This man was dangerous, and it was somehow impossible to compare him to the man of a moment before, even though they wore the same face.

"You tried to bring Buffy back?" His voice was quiet darkness.

With surprise and regret, Willow looked left, then right at the others who flanked her, realizing the mistake of her assumption. She took a hesitant half-step backward and bit down on her lip.

"I was only trying to help. I-I thought—"

"You didn't think at all," Giles contradicted harshly. He took a menacing step toward her, glowering. "Do you have any comprehension of the forces you were—were toying with?"

Willow's face flushed with anger at that, and she seemed to regain her courage, stepping forward to meet Giles with a hostile glare of her own. "I knew what I was doing! A little life essence from each of us and—"

"Life essence?" he echoed in grim disbelief. "Willow, you could have died. Any of you could have died," he added, with a look at each of the Scoobies. "You could have brought back a monster, or become one, or unleashed hell on earth—"

"Oh sure, get all holier than thou and Daddy Knows Best—but I don't see you trying to figure out how to make things better. Look around!" She gestured about the room almost violently. "We're barely hanging on by our teeth these days, and the Hellmouth's not getting any warmer or fuzzier. Vampire activity is off the scale and we don't even know why! And we've got a rogue Slayer on our hands! We need Buffy."

He considered her with a silent, angry look of disapproval that bordered on disbelief. "And you all supported this?" he asked, eyes traveling severely over the other Scoobies.

Everyone seemed to falter for a moment, and then Xander stepped up behind Willow. "Willow wouldn't have done it if she didn't think it would be okay."

Spike snorted laughter again, and this time every eye in the room turned to fall on him.

"What?" he asked with shrug. "You think she kept this a secret from Giles and me because we're both British? Witch knew bloody good and well what the consequences could be. Knew we'd know what they were, too. That's why she didn't tell us. Oh, the Watcher here wouldn't have let you do it for a lot of reasons, got to keep the balance of nature intact and such. But me, I wouldn't have let you do it simply because I wouldn't want to see what came back if it wasn't Buffy well and whole."

"Th-that's not true," Tara said haltingly. "Willow is very g-good at what she does. Sh-she would n-never—"

"That's right," Willow broke in, almost triumphantly. "I am very good at what I do. And I'm very powerful." For a moment, her voice seemed to border on threatening. She seemed about to say more, and then her expression softened. "It would have worked Giles. I could feel it working. And then…" she cast a dark look at Faith, suddenly reminding everyone of the Slayer's presence again. "She broke the circle."

"Guess I get to be the blame monkey, huh?" Faith asked with a wry grin. "I mean hell, why not? I'm only the Slayer. You know, the one that gets prophetic dreams about things? Like Buffy coming back from the dead as a zombie? Or a vampire? Or hey, how about the one where she throws herself into the portal and finds peace for the first time in five years? I had that one a lot. Still, I think the one where she shows up and sucks the blood out of my veins and kills me is my favorite. That one had punch to it."

"You dreamed these things?" Giles asked in the ensuing silence.

"In Technicolor with surround sound," she acknowledged with a brittle laugh. "That's why I had to stop them."

"You?" Xander laughed. "You're part of the reason we needed her back."

"What, to kill me?"

"You're the only killer here," he contradicted. He shifted uncomfortably when Spike gave him a pointed look. "Okay, you and Spike," he corrected, rolling his eyes at Spike's mollified expression.

"Both of who are making more sense than any of you right now," Giles put in disgustedly.

The Scoobies gave him a collective wounded look, and then uncomfortably looked away from the anger in his eyes.

"Why didn't you tell me?" he asked, turning on Faith.

She shrugged as best she could in her bonds, raising her brows challengingly. "Would you have believed me?"

The phone rang, loud and shrilly in the momentary silence.

"Excuse me," Giles said, shouldering his way between the Scoobies. They parted like a wave and watched him go, standing about as if lost in the wake of his sudden departure.

"Wow, he's really pissed," Xander remarked.

"Yeah," Willow agreed disgustedly. "At least he's not making that clicky sound with his jaw."

"No, he's doing that squinty Clint Eastwood thing with his eyes, which is even scarier," Anya said.

Seconds ticked by, spanning into minutes, and everyone in the room began to grow restless. Very faint and far away they could hear the sound of Giles' deep voice as he spoke on the phone, but only the rhythm, not the words.

"Who do you think he's talking to?" Willow asked with a frown, leaning toward the hallway.

Anya spoke up in a low whisper. "I bet it's those AT&T people with a better long distance plan and a list of endless questions you have to answer so they can add your name to the service and trick you into thinking you're saving money." She shook her head gravely. "Why don't the forces of darkness ever get annoyed and set out to destroy them?"

"You mean aside from the fact that the forces of evil are usually too busy killing, maiming and throwing apocalypses to care about lower rates?" Xander asked bemusedly.

Faith listened to them, vaguely amused despite her situation. Only Tara and Spike stayed silent, both of them looking like they wished they were somewhere else, though admittedly, Tara looked far more uncomfortable. Spike only looked bored and annoyed.

"Well, they're practically minions of hell, anyway," Anya went on, waving a hand. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised."

"I wonder what kind of plans they offer on a Hellmouth?" Xander mused aloud. "The 'Fiends and Brethren' Program? 'Reach Out and Maim Someone'?"

Willow rolled her eyes and cut them an annoyed look. "Shh! I'm trying to hear, you guys."

"Fine. You don't have be so snippy about it," Anya said testily. "I was merely trying to lighten this tense situation with appropriate humor."

Willow rolled her eyes again, muttering. "Well that'd be a first."

"Hey!" Anya looked affronted, turning to Xander in indignation. "Xander, did you hear what she said?"

"Yes, honey, and," he looked at Willow with mild annoyance, "hey!"

Willow grimaced and then winced apologetically. "I-I'm sorry guys. I—I just… my heart's all thumpy and my tummy's all rumbly and twisted up—and I think I might be getting sweaty palms," she confessed with a disgusted grimace. "What's that all about?"

Xander brightened. "Oh, well that's… something I know absolutely nothing about," he finished abruptly, looking guilty.

Willow gave him an odd look, and then tilted her head toward the hallway. "I think he's coming back," she whispered.

Faith turned her head and saw the Scoobies scatter like rats as Giles came back to the room.

"Could I, ah, see all of you out here, please?" he asked politely enough, if a bit distracted. Exchanging looks, they followed him, Spike rising like a recalcitrant child and sauntering behind, leaving just enough space to make clear he was following of his own accord. He gave Faith one last glance and then disappeared through the door, leaving her alone.

If they start having any more fun around here I'll slip right into a coma, she thought cynically, then reconsidered. Actually, the coma was more fun than this.

*           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *

"That was the Council," Giles said as they reached the living room of his apartment. Thoughtfully, he removed his glasses, putting the end of one arm between his teeth and swiveling the frames back and forth in a slow semi-circle.

Long seconds passed and anticipation swelled amongst the faint rustle of clothing.

"Giles, entire civilizations are rising and falling," Willow prodded.

"Yes," he agreed distractedly, as if he hadn't really heard what she'd said. He hesitated a moment longer and then he looked at them all, the vague confusion back in his eyes again. "They said that Faith's parole is legitimate—"

"Told you," the Slayer called triumphantly from the bedroom.

All heads turned toward the hallway, and Giles cleared his throat, speaking in a much lower voice as he went on.

"Ahem. As I was saying, according to her late Watcher's reports, she's been acclimating herself to the role of Slayer quite admirably. Very, ah, heroic."

The Scoobies exchanged surprised and doubtful looks.

"She brainwashed the Council!" Xander exclaimed.

"I find it highly unlikely that she'd be able to do that from prison, Xander."

"She threatened the Council?" he asked with slightly less certainty.

"She would be dead."

"The Council's smoking the hemp instead of casting spells with it?" Willow offered, managing to look almost innocent.

"Have you ruled out body-snatching?" Xander asked, more hopefully.

"Hard as it may be for us to believe, it seems Faith's parole has been honestly earned."

They took a moment to absorb that. Tara gave Willow a meaningful look and Willow glanced away quickly, looking guilty.

"Well, okay, but, how were we supposed to know she went all… leaf turny?" she asked irritably.

Giles put his glasses back on and pushed them up his nose. "I don't suppose we were supposed to."

Willow went still then, the irritation fading from her face, replaced by a sad frown as she realized what he meant. "Why didn't they tell you, Giles?"

"They—they didn't want to upset me anymore than I already was. They thought it would be better for everyone if I didn't know until after I was through… grieving."

"They were afraid you'd go off on a grieving, murderous revenge rage, right?" Xander asked, catching on.

"Yes… that seems far more likely than their consideration of my feelings doesn't it?"

"Smarmy bastards," Spike put in with a shake of his head.

"And then they added insult to injury…" he trailed off as if it were difficult for him to continue.

"Giles?" Willow asked. "What is it?"

Giles seemed to stare right through them, eyes distant and vaguely hurt. "They've asked me to be Faith's Watcher."

"They didn't!" Willow looked horrified. "How could they?"

"Quite easily, it seems," Giles said, sounding almost regretful.

"You told them you're not going to do it, right?"

"Of course!" He looked offended that she'd thought otherwise, even for an instant. "I told them that it was reprehensible and, and u-unthinkable that they should even ask such a thing." Here he faltered, the bravado leaving him as he put his hands in his pockets and sighed. "Right before I told them I would do it."

"You didn't?" Willow was aghast.

"You caved?" Xander seemed sickly fascinated.

"W-well, it seemed the s-smartest thing I could do, given the ah, situation."

Xander turned to Willow with a satisfied look. "Body snatchers, I'm telling you."

"Giles! How could you?"

"She's not living with us!"

"Have you lost your mind?"

"What do we do now?"

"Oh, this is going to be bloody brilliant."

"Stop!" Giles raised his voice and his hand, seeming flustered. "Listen to me, all of you. The Council has made me aware that there is a 'situation' here in Sunnydale and it is imperative that we gain information so that we can properly combat it. Faith is the only one who has any knowledge of the events involved, and the Council is backing her as the main investigator of this clandestine plot."

"In other words, they know bugger all and they're using the threat of this new big bad to make you do the job?"

Giles sighed. "Yes, Spike, I'd say that's… annoyingly accurate. At any rate, we can ill afford to cut ourselves out of the loop if there is another major threat looming over Sunnydale, and Faith is our only way of connecting with the knowledge base."

"So we do it without them," Willow said fervently. "We've done it before. I mean, when was the last time the Council was any big help to us? We've always done our own work, Giles, and we've always beaten the big bad."

"You also had a Slayer on your side then," Spike reminded them.

"Are you saying we need her?"

"Well, yeah," he said as if it should have been obvious. "Any of you got the brawn to take on the nasties hand to hand?"

"We've got you," Xander pointed out. "I can't believe I just said that."

"Aw, Harris. I didn't know you cared," Spike mocked with a smirk. He stuck his hands in the pockets of his duster, drawing himself up and looking smug. "So, you want to make a vampire your champion, then?"

"I trust you more than Faith." Xander started as if he'd been goosed, realizing what he'd just said, and looked around anxiously. "Who said that?"

"You did, honey," Anya reassured him, patting him on the shoulder.

"Well can somebody shut me up? Because I'm wigging myself out."

"Moral dilemmas aside, Spike does have certain… limitations," Giles said.

"Besides, evil, remember?" Spike asked, pointing to himself. "Face it—you all need a Slayer and you know it. Not because she's the only one who can get the job done, but because that's the way it's always been done. She's the hero of the story. The one with the supernatural scissors in your little Hellmouth barbershop quartet." He snorted. "Hell, people, I'm a vampire and I know that much."

"Giles, tell me we can do it without her?" Willow looked to him with fast-fading hope.

"I wish I could, but I suspect it would be difficult, at best, Willow. And likely, we would cross paths with Faith at every turn, regardless. It would be ridiculous if we didn't put our resources together," he concluded, not all together happily.

"But… well... we could…"

"Don't even think it," Giles warned darkly, his voice trembling with the effort of restraint. "We are not going to attempt to resurrect Buffy, no matter how much we may wish she were still with us. And you and I are going to have a long, exhausting conversation about the principles, edicts and etiquette of spell casting after we're done here," he added severely.

Willow's cheeks reddened and she stiffened, but she clenched her hands into fists at her sides and remained silent.

Xander cleared his throat and stepped up slightly in front of Willow. "So, before you start sputtering in five syllable words no one can understand, what do we do now?"

Giles' anger abated a little and he seemed startled as he considered, as if he hadn't thought it quite that far through yet. "Well, first I suppose I have to talk to Faith and tell her what's happened, see if she agrees."

"She has a choice?" Xander seemed surprised.

"Not—not as such, no. Still, one must show decorum when entering into such an arrangement. The desire for equal partnership must be reciprocated—"

"Five syllable words!" Xander warned.

"Right," he replied dryly, pursing his lips. "Well, since I'm lacking in illustrations to properly represent that concept, allow me to move on to more familiar, researchable territory."

"Good," Xander nodded, and then suddenly processed what Giles had just said. "Hey," he said, holding up one finger, pointing in Giles' direction accusingly. "I'm on to you, Mr. Big Wordy-McWord guy. That was an insult."

Giles cut his eyes sharply away from Xander, doing the far more dignified, English version of the American eye roll. "Yes, very good, Xander. And after we master the rudimentary principles of sarcasm, we will move on to learning the finer points of devising a snappy rejoinder. Perhaps by the time you've mastered the art of verbal sparring while incorporating words of more than two syllables, the forces of darkness will have conquered the earth completely."

Xander blinked. "Willow? Translation?"

"Shh!" the redhead translated with a loud, though not all together unsympathetic, hiss.

"Oh. Why didn't he just say that?"

Silence fell over the group and Giles sighed, collecting his thoughts. "Yes, well, we do have some information to point us along in our research, which should be our next step." He paused, as if allowing the dramatic tension to build. "Faith believes this big bad, whoever they may be, killed her Watcher in an attempt to gain a scroll she had procured."

"Scroll?" Willow and Anya asked in unison, instantly interested.

"Yes. It seems to be very important…"

*           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *

"This is worthless," the mistress said, holding up the scroll in one hand. With a smile that nearly split her face, she looked over her gathering of followers, and then slowly, deliberately, she crushed the parchment of the scroll.

"This, which the Slayer sought to keep from us, this, for which we struggled and sacrificed so much, is meaningless." Making a show of it, she let the crumpled page fall to the floor without so much as a glance, and a vampire detached itself from the gathered throng, running low across the room like a ball boy to retrieve it before disappearing on the other side. Whispers broke out like wildfire and ran through the crowd.

"But—but mistress," one of the vampires said. A fledgling, she marked him by his stupidity for questioning her. "We risked so much to gain it."

"Yes," she agreed, feeling more amiable than usual, given her success last night. "But we no longer have need of it."

The fledging fairly twisted himself into new shapes with his squirming need to question further, but he didn't quite dare.

With a wolfish grin, she draped herself over her throne chair, lounging with purposeful indulgence. She ran a hand over her robes and slipped it into one pocket, drawing forth an iron key that glimmered dully in the flickering torchlight. Holding it up before her face, she considered it as one might consider a prized trophy. "This," she said emphatically. "This is all we need now."

Every voice and body in the room stilled as she cleared her throat, and her voice took on a deeper, more reverent tone as she quoted from the scriptures. "'And the two who were joined in death shall be reunited in rebirth. And the blood shall flow, and the barriers between the worlds shall grow thin, and the divine one shall burst through onto the skin of this world, like a newborn child through the breach. And he shall lead—'"

"Mistress," one of the vampires interrupted, raising his hand. "You skipped the part about the earth quaking and the skies raining blood," he pointed out politely.

She stared at him in disbelief.

"It's my favorite part," he explained with a shy, toothy grin.

She rolled her eyes, exasperated, and made a mental note to start siring smarter minions. "'And the earth shall quake with his awakening, and the skies shall darken and the heavens shall weep blood, raining down ill omens upon the earth. And the divine one shall look upon it all and welcome its coming.'" Irritation fading, she gazed on the key with satisfied eyes. "'And he shall lead us to the glory of our promised land.'"

She could almost hear the eyes of everyone in the room as they moved over the key, the large box in one corner to which it belonged, to the silver coffin, and finally back to her.

She would have laid odds that not a vampire among them understood the import of what she had just said. But it didn't matter.

Soon enough, the whole world would understand.