Rating: PG-13-Violence, mild language.
Disclaimer: All Buffy characters belong to Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy Productions. Brimstone characters belong to Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris and Warner Bros. Television. I'm not making any money off this, nor am I trying to infringe on anyone's copyright. So don't sue me. Lyrics to Wild Strawberries's "Mirror, Mirror" were used without permission, but no infringment was intended here, either.
Summary: Ash comes to Sunnydale to destroy the world. Zeke Stone must try to stop her, but that's hard to do when he has two Slayers in his way and the Devil on his back.
Authors' Notes: This story takes place a few days before the Buffy episode "Enemies", which originally aired in mid-March, 1999. This is my first time writing anything Brimstone, so don't flame me if I suck at it. (Boss, the pun! The pun!) Please send any and all feedback to: donnacsoprano76 AT gmail DOT com. All flames are read, laughed at then deleted with extreme prejudice.
"We can be the captain of our own ship, but not of the sea." - Maggie, Sliders.
"Back In The Bottle"
by Net Girl
It was something Ezekiel Stone had become accustomed to since he'd come back to Earth. Not that he minded it. Silence was welcome after 15 years of the screams of fellow souls damned to burn in the fires of Hell for all eternity. No, sitting in this darkened hotel room surrounded by deafening silence was all right by him. He'd been doing a lot of it in recent weeks. Was it the people, the still living people, of Los Angeles who drove him to hide in his room? Probably. He hadn't looked at people in the same way since his discovery about Ash... But that was a while ago.
"I must say, Ezekiel, I'll have to add 'sloth' to your list of sins."
Stone slightly cringed. His employer was there; the one person, in the loosest sense of the word, he hated the most. Still, he didn't move from his chair, not even when the Devil opened up the shades allowing the morning sunlight into the hotel room.
"You've been lounging around too much for my tastes," the Devil continued as he kneeled down by Stone in his chair. "Didn't we have a talk about this sort of behavior before?"
"Damned souls on the loose have been few and far between," Stone grumbled in response, not even glancing at him. He had never liked looking at the Devil before now either. He appeared to Stone bearing a resemblance to a kid Stone had beaten the crap out of in the sixth grade.
The Devil shook his head as he rose to his feet. "You're in solitude a lot lately."
Stone finally shifted his gaze up to him. "Well, it's not like I'm here to have a social life. I hunt down and send back the souls you let escape from Hell."
The Devil paced around the floor in front of him. "No, that's not it. You've been different since your last encounter with Ash."
Stone winced and turned his head as he recalled the last time he went up against her. Ash, also known as Ashur Badaktu, was the ringleader of the escaped Damned souls, and she'd developed quite an obsession with Stone. Her last stunt almost cost the life of the only thing he had ever truly loved - his wife, Rosalyn. Ash's attempt to steal Rosalyn's body failed miserably, as did his attempt to send Ashur back to Hell. And all that was barely a month ago.
"You've been a dull boy, Ezekiel," the Devil's voice broke into Stone's thoughts.
His fingers dug into the arms of his chair as he looked back to the Devil. "Sorry I fail to amuse you," he tightly replied.
The Devil grinned. He enjoyed it when Stone bottled up all his hate and anger. Gave him a real tingly feeling. "I have my own amusements in place already. And it's funny you should bring that up, considering where you're headed."
"Yeah? Where is that?"
"To a town in Southern California named Sunnydale."
Sunnydale was no place Stone had ever heard of. "What's there?"
"The mouth of Hell," the Devil replied walking over to the window. He smiled once more. "My front door, if you'd like to think of it that way."
Stone's expression twisted into puzzlement. "Let me get this straight - the mouth of Hell is located in a small Californian town?"
"A sweet Rockwellianesque village, sitting on top of all that fire and brimstone," the Devil said, his face gleeful. "Also, a large amount of mystical energy converges in Sunnydale. It's a place of great power, Ezekiel."
"Why am I going there?" Stone asked. He weakly laughed. "Am I not doing a good enough job for you and you want me to come back using the front door?"
"No. But you'll find a special someone in Sunnydale." He stepped in front of the Damned former police officer. "Someone who has plans to reorganize the balance of power on Earth."
Stone's grip on the chair loosened. "Ash," he whispered.
"She's been there for a few weeks, using the mystical energy for her own purposes."
Stone stood up, suddenly, forcing the Devil to take a step back. "You're just now telling me this?"
The Devil saw all the rage in Stone's eyes. It was so easy to irritate this particular soul. "I never expected Ash to set up shop on my front porch, you know."
"Hiding right under your nose." Stone scoffed. "Suppose that's a nice 'Screw You' message from Ash - so close yet so far away."
"She isn't the only one there. Many of the Damned who agree with her ideals have flocked to the place."
Stone picked up his coat. "I'd better get to this Sunnydale before Ash does anything."
"This job could prove to be too much for you to handle on your own," the Devil warned as Stone opened up the door.
Stone paused and looked over his shoulder. "If you're so concerned, send me a partner." He slammed the door on his way out.
"Quite a few surprises await you in Sunnydale, Ezekiel!" the Devil called out. He chuckled. Quite a few, indeed.
Sunnydale, California, as it turned out, wasn't that far from Los Angeles. Two hours on the expressway, though it felt like two years on a bus. After leaving the bus station and wandering down two lesser streets of Sunnydale, Stone couldn't figure out what the Devil meant by "surprises". The place appeared normal enough, not what he'd expected a town situated on the mouth of Hell to be like.
On Main Street - which was barely big enough to be classified as a 'street' let alone 'Main' - the people of Sunnydale went about their business on the rather pleasant Friday afternoon. Ash was somewhere in this town. And one of these people had to know her and where to find her.
Willow Rosenberg thanked the shopkeeper for showing her where the newest batches of crushed rose petals were located. She picked up a few bags, wondering if she'd need two or three for her protective charm. Would it even work? was another question in the back of her mind. Her success with magick since she began practicing had been extremely minimal. None of it had been a great help to Buffy in their battle against evil.
"I better take three to be sure," she murmured. She dropped the three bags into her small shopping basket, which was already filled with a few other items.
The bell above the door tinkled as someone entered the Magick Shop. Willow looked over her shoulder, her eyes squinting slightly at the strange man who'd come in. It was no one Willow had ever laid eyes on before in her life. He was dressed oddly for Southern California - a sweatshirt with another shirt underneath it and a long coat over it. Any normal person would be sweltering in that attire, but this guy didn't break a sweat.
"Blessed be!" greeted the young woman behind the counter. She smiled brightly. "How may I help you today?"
"I'm Detective Zeke Stone with the L.A.P.D.," replied the man, momentarily flashing a badge in the shopkeeper's face. He placed it back in his coat then brought out what appeared to be a photograph. He laid the picture on the counter and pushed it towards the young shopkeeper. "I'm looking for this woman."
"Oh?" The shopkeeper pulled the photo closer and took a good look.
Willow discreetly moved closer, in an attempt to hear what was being said a little better. She pretended to peruse the assortment of raven, dove and canary feathers on one of the tables.
"Oh, yes, Detective Stone, I know this woman," the shopkeeper replied, looking up to him. "This is Ashley Baker. I believe she's the new history teacher at Sunnydale High."
Willow's head raised up at the mention of Ms. Baker's name. She'd talked to Ms. Baker quite a lot, and Willow never once got any evil or weird vibes off of her. What could such a nice lady have done that the cops would be searching for her? She looked to her left and lightly gasped when she caught Stone watching her. A chill ran through her entire body. Something about this "cop", on the other hand, gave her serious wiggins. Clutching her basket tightly, Willow made her way to the door. She ignored Stone, who continued to watch her.
"Thanks ever so much, Jane," she said, trying to keep the nervousness out of her voice. "Just put everything on my account!" She shoved the door open and burst onto Main Street with a sigh of relief.
Stone turned back to the shopkeeper who was talking to him again. The behavior of the redheaded girl was rather suspect.
"Ms. Baker comes into the shop a lot, buying various ingredients for some minor spells," the shopkeeper said. "Nice lady, very knowledgeable in the Arts."
"Do you know where I could find her? Perhaps you have her home address?"
The shopkeeper frowned. "No, I'm sorry, Detective, I don't. Ms. Baker always pays me in cash, so I've never needed an I.D. or other information to sell her things." She could tell this disappointed the officer. "I'm sorry I couldn't be of more help," she apologized.
"You've been more than enough help," Stone assured her as he slipped Ash's photo back into his coat. He started to leave but stopped. "The young girl who was just in here - who is she?"
"Oh, that's Willow Rosenberg," the shopkeeper answered, smiling. "She shops here almost every day. Why do you ask?"
Stone shook his head as he opened up the door. "It's nothing. Thank you." He filed away the small bit of information and left the Magick Shop.
Willow ran down the main hallway of Sunnydale High School. She had to talk to Buffy and Giles. As she neared the library, she could hear music playing. Buffy was most likely spending her afternoon off training with her Watcher. Once she reached the doors, she could make out the song, some sort of 70s tune. Giles must've been the one to pick the music again. She pushed open the library doors and ran inside.
Buffy Summers twirled around her quarterstaff and took a step back from Rupert Giles, who was removing his padding. She used the staff as a leaning post as she said, "And if you make me listen to this garbage next time, Giles, I won't take it so easy on you."
"Buffy!" Willow gasped out as she fell against the counter. She took in a few breaths, holding up a hand as Buffy turned around and Giles stood straight. "Something... must... tell... you."
Buffy leaned her staff against the counter as she joined Willow. "What's the problem?" she asked. She put a hand on Willow's shoulder. "Relax and take slow breaths, Will. In and out... you all right?"
Willow did as Buffy instructed and nodded. "Okay..." she started. "I was in the Magick Shop, doing my shopping for those protective charms I wanted to make for everyone. Well... when I was there, some police guy came in asking questions about Ms. Baker, our new history teacher."
"Ms. Baker?" Buffy repeated. She looked over to Giles, puzzled. "Why would the police be looking for her?"
"I don't think he's a cop, Buffy," Willow replied. She placed her basket on the counter.
"What makes you think that?" Giles inquired. He dropped his padding onto the table then joined the girls.
Willow shuddered. "His eyes, Giles," she said in a quiet voice. "They went right through me. I got a major case of wig off of him." She looked over to Buffy. "And how many normal people wear a sweatshirt and a coat in Southern California on a day like today?"
Buffy sighed, with a bit of a groan mixed in. "I so hope this guy isn't another demon!" she grumbled. "I need some time off from killing these damned things, Giles. Everyone gets a vacation. Why don't I?"
Giles remained quiet for a moment, pondering the new information Willow brought to them. "I doubt it's a demon, Buffy. I've never come across a demon that likes to impersonate a police officer."
"Well, maybe he's an innovator, Giles," Willow countered. She looked from her best friend to the librarian. "I'm telling you guys... there's something not on the level with this so-called policeman."
"Have you gone to Ms. Baker about this yet?" Buffy asked.
"She's already gone for the weekend. I wanted to come to you guys with this first, anyway."
"I dunno, Giles," Buffy started, she shook her head a little, looking over to him. "Something about this is making my 'Somebody Is Up To No Good' radar beep."
"I still think you're overreacting to this situation, Willow," Giles said. "It's quite possible the man has an innocent, legitimate reason to find Ms. Baker."
"Giles, you didn't see this guy!" Willow exclaimed. She sighed heavily when she saw the look on his face. He wasn't going to take this Detective Stone as any sort of threat, that much was certain. "Okay," she said in a much more subdued voice. "I won't say anything more about it. You're probably right."
Buffy picked up her staff again, watching her friend as she crossed the room and plopped herself down at the table. She'd seen Willow get worked up about things before, and sometimes they turned out to be no big situations... But this time, she felt that Willow was onto something.
Zeke Stone shoved the key into the lock of his motel room door. Evening was upon him before he knew it, and that's also when he realized he had no place lined up to stay while in Sunnydale. The nearest motel, as it turned out, was a rathole. Damned souls couldn't be choosers, he figured.
He opened the door and flicked on the light. The place was better than he expected. He closed the door behind him, picked up the phone book and sat down on the bed by the phone. He'd canvassed all of Sunnydale, asking questions about Ash, showing her photo, but that didn't turn up too much information. Seemed that no one in this town knew where the new history teacher at the high school lived. When he passed by the high school itself earlier, the place had been shut down for the weekend.
Scanning the pages of the local phone book, Stone couldn't help but notice the lengthy listings of churches and burial homes. He'd noted quite a few cemeteries in Sunnydale on his trip through town as well. The place did sit on top of the mouth of Hell, though.
Stone shifted uncomfortably on the bed. An odd feeling had come over him since he'd stepped foot in Sunnydale. He felt ... stronger here, more powerful. Then he remembered the Devil mentioned mystical powers converged on this place. Perhaps that had something to do with it.
"Rather innocent facade, isn't it, Ezekiel?"
Stone looked up from the phone book to see the Devil sitting on the bed beside him. "Yes, quite," he muttered.
"It's an interesting little place," the Devil went on. "I really should visit here more often. So much evil in this town, human evil and ... otherwise." He met Stone's gaze and smiled before he got to his feet.
"Why do I have the feeling you're lying to me about this town?"
The Devil was genuinely surprised, or doing a really fine job of acting, at the accusation. "Me?" he asked, motioning to himself. "Why ever would I lie to you?"
"The people here don't seem to have a problem with living on Hell."
"Oh, but the ignorance of the people here, that's the beauty of it!" He sat down by Stone. "They turn a blind eye to the unusually high crime rate, writing it off as anything but what it actually is. That's why it's so much fun." He pointed a finger at Stone, becoming mock stern. "But don't think your knowledge of this place makes you safe. Tests lie in your future here."
"Are these tests related to the 'surprises' you mentioned before I left Los Angeles?"
The Devil got up and walked over to the door. "Perhaps." He left the room, shutting the door behind him.
Stone put the phone book aside and pulled out his gun. He checked his clip to see how much ammo he had. Once he decided he was in the green, Stone got up and went out to search the streets of Sunnydale for Ash or any of the other Damned souls holed up there.
Buffy swung her arms at her sides, whistling a tune that she absolutely hated, but once she had it stuck in her head, she couldn't get it out. She lightly slapped herself on the forehead.
"Quit thinking about that stupid song," she told herself. She could just kill Giles for subjecting her to the Bay City Rollers for two hours. Damn coin toss. She looked around the park she'd just entered, hoping to find some wily vamp willing to fight, so she could get her mind off that music.
The rustling of some nearby bushes caught Buffy's attention. She stopped in her tracks and did a 360, checking out the area. It was quiet again, but she knew she wasn't alone in this park. A moment later, more rustling came from behind her.
"All right!" Buffy called out, gripping her stake tightly in her right hand. She turned around. "I've had enough of this. Show yourself so I can send your ass back to Hell expeditiously!"
A beat later, a dark haired man stepped out of the bushes. Buffy didn't notice anything vampiric about him, just those cold, dead eyes staring at her. He had a complexion and was dressed in modern clothes, a few signs to look for when trying to determine whether or not someone's a member of the undead.
Buffy's guard raised as the man carefully circled her, looking her over very closely.
"So ... you're who he sent, huh?" the man said, his voice was deep, almost gravelly. He chuckled lightly. "Though my information must've been false because I'd heard you were a man."
Buffy's face twisted up in confusion at the stranger's commentary. More so, the way he was checking her out frightened her. "Okay," she finally said. "Enough of the talk. Are we gonna fight or what?"
The man grinned as he came to a stop in front of Buffy. "Now that I know what you look like, I'd rather have fun with you. You're kinda scrawny, blondie, but that's never bothered me before." He reached out and his fingers lightly brushed Buffy's left cheek.
"Rrrah!" Buffy kicked the weirdo in the gut, but he only laughed. She punched him in the face and delivered a fierce wheel kick to his head, but he was not even fazed by it.
Buffy gasped as the man grabbed her by the upper arms then threw her backwards. She slammed into a nearby bench, rolled off of it and thumped onto the ground. She groaned in pain and couldn't seem to get her body to respond to her commands to get up. Never had she met up with a vampire or demon as powerful as this.
Faith, hiding behind one of the many trees surrounding this park's clearing, was just as surprised as Buffy at the strength of the man. She'd been shadowing Buffy for awhile, watching the goody-goody Slayer to see what she was up to. Things had only gotten interesting when this character showed up.
She watched the man approach Buffy, wondering exactly what he was. Nobody could take that from a Slayer and not be feeling it. She saw Buffy stagger to her feet, stake in hand. Faith remained silent and continued to watch the show.
"All right... no more... Ms. Nice Slayer," Buffy managed to choke out. When the man got close enough, Buffy rammed her stake deep into his chest. Her eyes went wide, however, when the man didn't dust or even bleed. "What the fu-?"
The man took the shaft of the stake in both hands then yanked it out of his chest. He tossed the piece of wood aside with a snort. He settled his gaze on Buffy. "Now you've pissed me off, bitch," he snarled. And for a split second, Buffy could've sworn the guy's eyes flared yellow with a flame.
She didn't have much time to ponder that, though. The man backhanded her hard, sending Buffy sailing about 10 yards across the park.
Faith caught herself before she charged out on the battlefield to try to help.
Buffy coughed loudly as she pushed herself up from the ground. She spat out a mouthful of blood and winced. One of her forearms sported a nasty gash and she could feel warm blood on her right temple as well. The rest of her body was screaming with general pain.
"This would be a good time to run," she told herself. She barely made it to her feet when the guy came out of nowhere and seized her by the throat. Buffy gagged as both her hands latched onto her attacker's wrists. She used every bit of her Slayer strength to attempt to pry his hands from her neck, but it was an exercise in futility.
Buffy couldn't think of anything else but her friends and her mother. My God... I'm going to die. I'm dying. It's all over. She'd all but resigned herself to the fact she was done for when a voice rang out with, "Dacks!"
The man paused in his murder to look up. Faith turned as well, seeing another guy, rather shabbily dressed and unkempt, step up, with a gun pointed at the man who held Buffy by the throat.
The man let go of the girl, his eyes full of fear now, while yelling, "No!" Suddenly, the stranger with the gun let off two shots, which struck the man precisely in each eye.
Buffy hit the ground with a grunt and rolled away from the man who'd tried to kill her. She blinked a few times and shielded her eyes with her hand as two bright streams of light erupted from his eye sockets. The light grew brighter and enveloped the screaming man until a whirlwind of sorts sucked him down into the ground. Silence followed. He was gone.
Faith's mouth dropped open as she backed up from her tree. She couldn't believe what she'd just witnessed. What the hell was that and who was this guy with the gun? She looked from Buffy on the ground to the man who'd saved her. The Mayor would have to hear about this. She turned on her heel and sprinted for City Hall.
Buffy jumped a little as the man who'd saved her knelt down by her.
Stone checked Buffy, examining her injuries. Claudius Dacks had really worked her over. Before he could ask her how she was, he winced as he pulled back his right coat sleeve, revealing his tattooed arm.
Buffy turned her attention to the stranger's exposed arm just in time to see one of the many tattoos on it sear itself off of his skin. She blinked, dumbfounded and amazed by it. She rubbed her eyes with her fingers, wondering if her eyesight had been affected by that light show.
Stone let his sleeve drop back down. One more down. "Are you all right?" he asked, lightly touching the small gash on Buffy's right temple. "You're pretty damn lucky. You should be dead."
She put her own hand to her temple and looked up at her savior. "As soon as I find my spleen and a couple of lungs, I should be A-OK," she assured him, trying to smile.
Stone, though, did manage to smile. He rose to his feet then offered a hand to the young girl.
Once she stood on her own, Buffy said, "Thanks for the help." She put a hand to her left side, massaging her rib cage. "What the hell was that... that thing? And why did it do that when you shot its eyes out? I've seen a lot of odd things on the job, but nothing like that."
The girl certainly took this better than anyone else ever had, Stone noted. Something more to this girl than met the eye, and it probably wasn't good either. Without answering her questions, Stone began to retreat from the area.
"Hey!" Buffy yelled at him. "Hey! I was talking to you!" She cringed as she doubled over at the sharp pain in her side. "Ow... hurts a lot," she muttered. She waved a hand at the direction the stranger had gone. "Forget him." She snatched up her stake from the ground and concentrated on hobbling back home.
Mayor Richard Wilkins III sat back in the chair behind the desk in his office. He'd been quietly listening to Faith as she recounted a tale of great courage and bravery. Admirable qualities in people. So few people these days cared to render aid to those in need. But the mysterious stranger to Sunnydale had rendered his aid to the wrong people.
"Well, gosh," he said as he folded his hands together in his lap, looking up to Faith. The young Slayer loomed over him, concern about the evening's events apparent on her face. "That's not very good, is it? This fellow comes to my town and stops someone from killing the Slayer."
Faith leaned forward, placing her hands on Wilkins' desk. Her eyes darkened. "Let me take care of him, Boss."
Wilkins smiled. Faith was such a self-starter. He loved that about her. "No, not yet," he said, gently patting her hand with his. "Join up with the Slayer and her friends, find out what they know about this man."
Faith stood straight, her hands on her hips. "Why?"
"This young man might be useful to me during this critical time between now and my Ascension," Wilkins replied. He saw Faith's expression change from anger to worry. "Oh... never you fear. You're my girl and no one will ever replace you." He grinned. "Now, find out what you can. See if the newcomer's talents can be brought to my aid."
Faith nodded. "I will."
"Good girl," Wilkins said. His smile softened on her. She made him so proud. "You should get some sleep, Faith. You've had quite the night. Scoot. No arguments."
Faith couldn't help but grin. "Yeah, yeah. I'm going." She walked over to the door and opened it. "I'll get on that assignment first thing in the morning," she assured him. She left the office, closing the door behind her.
Buffy limped up the porch steps, wincing with every step she took. Her left arm clutched her right side, which still hurt like hell. Her lesser wounds, however, were either healed or on their way to it. She twisted the doorknob and let herself inside her house. As she shut the front door, she leaned back against it for support.
"Buffy? Is that you?" called Joyce Summers' voice from the kitchen. A moment later, a smiling Joyce appeared in the doorway. Her smile melted away when she saw the sorry state in which Buffy had returned home. "My God... Buffy... are you all right?" she asked rushing over to help her daughter into the living room.
She whimpered as Joyce's hand bumped her hurt side. "I'm fine, Mom," she assured her. She allowed her weight to rest on her mother until they reached the couch. "I just got hit by a semi, that's all." She dropped onto the couch.
"You sit right there." Joyce hurried back into the kitchen then returned with a wet washcloth. "So ... what happened to you?"
"I ran into one of the toughest demons ever," Buffy answered. She winced as Joyce gently applied the wet cloth to her temple, wiping away the coagulated blood there.
"Did you ... kill it?" Joyce hesitantly asked. She paused in her cleaning to look Buffy in the eyes.
"It's dealt with, Mom."
Joyce let out a sigh, shaking her head as she continued to stroke Buffy's face with the washcloth. "Oh, Buffy, the more I see of this Slayer job, the less I like it."
Buffy put a hand on Joyce's wrist, stopping her mother from wiping her face with the cloth. "It's my cosmical duty, Mom. It must be done. Someone has to keep the world safe."
Joyce lowered her hand. "I understand that, Buffy," she said, shaking her head. She folded up the bloodied cloth a few times. "Why is it out of six billion people on earth that someone has to be you?"
Buffy thought it over for a moment. "Good genes?"
Joyce managed a weak smile when she saw the bright grin on her daughter's face.
"I'm going to get some sleep," Buffy said as she got up from the couch. "I'm totaled." She would wait until morning to tell Giles what happened. He would most likely be at the library working on something, as usual. "Night, Mom."
"Good night, honey," Joyce replied, giving Buffy a half-hug.
After taking a quick shower to wash off all of the blood and ease the aches in her body, Buffy donned her pajamas to go to bed. She pulled back her covers and slipped between them. She shivered despite herself. The room was unusually cold, but she filed it away as an after effect from getting out of that warm shower.
She shivered once more as she pulled her blankets all the way up to her chin. When she was situated in bed, she turned off her lamp and closed her eyes. Little did Buffy know, she wasn't alone in her own bedroom.
The Devil, sitting at the foot of Buffy's bed, smiled at the girl all huddled underneath her blankets like that would keep him from harming her. "Get a good night's sleep, little girl." He chuckled. "You're going to need it."
Sunnydale High School Library - Next Afternoon
"...and then just BAM! This guy was gone!" Buffy finished her very animated retelling of her adventure the night before to Giles, Willow and Xander Harris. "I don't know who the guy with the gun was, but he was a damn good shot. Not that I'm complaining, mind you." She raised her eyebrows and shivered at the thought of being strangled to death.
"Okay, this isn't something we come across everyday." Xander shifted in his chair. "If that's good or bad, I haven't quite decided."
Giles removed his glasses and gnawed on the earpad for a moment as he thought. "I haven't heard of any demon doing what... what you described when killed, Buffy," he quietly replied. He looked over to her.
"I don't think this was your run of the mill demon," Buffy said as she came up to him. "Here I was getting my ass kicked all over the place. Then ... then this guy comes out with a gun, pops it in the eyes and that's all she wrote."
"Are you sure you're all right, Buffy?" Willow asked.
Buffy paced around by the table, nodding. "Yeah."
"The man, the one with the gun, what did he look like?" Giles inquired.
"I can't really remember exactly," Buffy responded as she kept pacing. She placed her thumb and forefinger to her temples, rubbing gently. "He was kinda tall, short blondish hair, sort of a five o'clock shadow going. Umm ... pants, sweatshirt and a long coat."
Willow's eyes widened as she sat up in her chair. "Oh, my God! That's him!" She looked to Buffy then Giles. "The guy I saw in the Magick Shop yesterday."
Xander turned his gaze to Giles. "Does that description ring any bells for you, Giles?"
Giles placed his glasses back on his face as he shook his head. "No. It's interesting, that's all."
Buffy snapped her fingers. "Oh! The tattoo!" She grabbed a piece of paper from the stuff Giles had out on the table. "This guy's arm was covered with strange tattoos." She sketched while she talked. "After he whacked that demon, one of the tattoos seared itself off his skin." She pushed the paper over to Giles.
Xander and Willow leaned forward in their chairs as Giles pulled the paper closer to him. "It's familiar," Giles said after a few moments of studying Buffy's crude drawing. He paused, picked up the paper and brought it closer. "If I didn't know better... I'd say this was angelic script."
"Angelic script?" Willow asked. "What the heck is that?"
"Let's say it's not something you'd find tattooed all over someone's arm," Giles replied, glancing up at Willow. "I have an old friend in Rome who knows about this sort of thing. I'll contact him. Find out for certain if this is what I suspect."
"All right," Xander said as he got to his feet. He locked his hands behind his back as he paced. "So this guy with the vanishing tattoos is wasting demons in Sunnydale." He looked over to Giles and Buffy. "New type of slayer?"
"But that doesn't explain why he's looking for Ms. Baker," Willow quickly countered.
"Unless she's one of them, Willow," Xander answered leaning over towards her. He groaned as he stood straight. "Oh man! Why are all of the hot chicks in Sunnydale either evil or not quite human?"
"We should be careful jumping to conclusions in this situation," Giles warned them.
Ashur Badaktu took a step back from the library door. So, Zeke Stone was in Sunnydale searching for her? Let him look. She could handle him easy. It was the Slayer and her little friends who could become the real problem. It wasn't that Ash hated the Slayer, she liked having the girl around, keeping the twit demons who wanted to open the Hellmouth in check.
She frowned, her eyes darkening. The Slayer being suspicious of her, however, would make things harder. And retaining the trust of Willow Rosenberg was extremely vital to her plans working. From the sound of it, Willow was firmly in her corner. She smiled briefly. Gullible little child.
"I don't remember my Bible all that well," Xander said as he sat down on the table. "But isn't there stuff about angels coming to earth right before the end of the world?" He saw the wicked look Buffy shot him. "Sorry, just trying to help out."
"I don't know about angels and revelations, but plenty of demons have tried to open the Hellmouth," Buffy said. Angels... Angel! She looked to Giles. "I wonder if Angel has knowledge of anything like this... this guy in town. He's seen a lot in 200 and some years."
A thoughtful look crossed Giles' face. "Wouldn't hurt to ask him." He tapped the paper. "I plan to begin my research on this. Just to put our fears to rest."
"I'll help," Willow volunteered. She gave Xander a look. "I want to make everyone see Ms. Baker isn't the evil one here."
"I'd rather not pay a visit to Angel, so I'll stick right here and do some of that exciting research you all are planning." Xander took Buffy's drawing from Giles and gave it a closer examination. "For once, I don't want to be the last one to know about the upcoming Armageddon."
"I'll be back soon!" Buffy called as she hurried out of the library. She slowed down in the hallway, feeling strange. Like someone was watching her. Shaking it off, she continued out of the school.
Stone awoke with a start. He grabbed onto the arms of the chair he'd fallen asleep in the night before, looking around the strange motel room, attempting to orient himself. In a minute, everything came back to him. Sunnydale, Ash, and the events from the night before.
"That was quite a show you put on last night," the Devil said as he sat up on the bed in Stone's motel room. He tossed his feet over the edge, placing them on the floor.
"Claudius Dacks almost killed that girl," Stone said. He got to his feet, running his hands through his hair, trying to forget about the terrible nightmare that had woke him.
"Oh, I'm not complaining," the Devil replied with a grin as he stood up. "The sheer pride you displayed while sending Dacks back home." He took in a deep breath. "I love the melodrama. Save the damsel in distress." His grin grew wider, yet more evil. "You old romantic."
Stone stared at the Devil, not amused by the latest bunch of crap coming out of his mouth. "He would've killed her," he repeated in an even, restrained voice.
"After viciously violating her ... innocent, young body. So, of course, that makes your self-indulgence completely acceptable, right, Ezekiel?" He strolled over to Stone. "You humans have interesting logic, and such logic has made so many of you guests in my home."
Stone took a step closer to him. "Do you know where Ash is?"
A shrug. "No."
"Then leave and let me do my job."
"You remember when I told you that you would be tested here?"
"Yes, I do," he impatiently answered as he picked up his gun.
"It would be wise for you to find a little ... faith, Ezekiel," the Devil suggested.
Stone put on his coat. "Don't you have a billion other souls to torment?"
"Certainly," the Devil said as Stone walked over to the door. "But I always set aside quality time for you."
Stone opened up the door. "Time's up." He left, slamming the door shut behind him.
"Excuse me," Buffy said as she slipped through a crowd of her fellow high schoolers clogging up the sidewalk in front of the café on Main Street. She rolled her eyes when someone muttered a nasty name at her. "Thank you!" she sarcastically called after she finally got by them.
Jerks. She continued on her way up Main Street. Soon, her scowl turned into a curious expression when she saw someone familiar coming in her direction, except on the opposite side of the street. Then, she realized who it was.
"Hey!" Buffy called out as she ran towards him. "Hey! You!"
Stone slowed down when he heard a girl's voice shouting. He looked around then came to a stop when he saw the little blonde from the night before sprinting towards him. He blinked, impressed she was able to run after the pounding she'd taken. Pretending as though he hadn't heard her, Stone began to walk away.
"Hey! I'm talking to you!" Buffy jumped into Stone's path, putting her hands on her hips. "That was you in the park last night."
Stone nodded, but he couldn't take his eyes off the girl. She didn't have a single bruise or any bandages. The nasty gash on her temple was gone, like it had never been received. Still, she was alive and that's all that really mattered.
"Excuse me," he murmured as he stepped around Buffy.
She grabbed his arm and yanked him to a stop. "You have some serious explaining to do, mister!"
Stone looked from the girl's hand locked onto his arm up to her face. She was so strong. He wondered if she wasn't one of the Damned souls, but he didn't get that kind of a vibe from her. This was something new, something completely ... different.
"Explanation? For what?"
"For that ... that whole thing last night!" she exclaimed. She kept her hand on his arm, afraid if she let go, he'd get away. "What was that? How did you know how to kill that ... whatever?" Her eyes caught sight of Stone's arm which was exposed because of how she held onto him. "And what is the deal with these weird tattoos?" She looked to him, more aggravated than anything now. "Who are you?"
"Detective Zeke Stone of the Los Angeles police department."
"Tell that crap to the tourists," she snorted. "There's more going on with you. I want to know what!"
"You wouldn't believe me - " He paused, realizing he didn't even know this girl's name.
"Try me, buddy," Buffy said. "I believe a lot. I've seen plenty."
Stone gently, but firmly, removed Buffy's hand from his arm. "You should go home, then. Where it's safe."
"Oh no, you don't! You're so not blowing me off!" She shoved herself into Stone's path once more, stopping him dead in his tracks. She pointed an accusatory finger at him. "You come into my town all secretive-like, looking for a history teacher -"
"Do you know where I can find her? The history teacher?" Stone interrupted as he seized her by the upper arms. "Do you?"
Buffy shifted her gaze from his hands on her person then up to him. "No, I don't," she evenly replied. She pushed his hands off. "Why are you jonesing so much for this woman, anyway?"
"Jonesing?" Stone repeated. All the new lingo that popped up in the last fifteen years always hit him at the most inconvenient times. "Look, kid," he started.
"It's Buffy. Not 'kid'."
"Look, Buffy, it's important that I find Ash."
"And I said I don't know where she is." Buffy folded her arms across her chest. "This Ash woman ... is she like the guy you killed last night?"
"You can't kill what's already dead, Buffy."
"Already dead?" She sighed, groaning just a tad. "Great. Just great!" She tossed her hands up. "I had a bad feeling about this. More Hellmouth-y weirdness."
"Hellmouth?" Mouth of Hell. Pretty much the same thing. Stone had finally found someone aware of what Sunnydale was sitting on top of. "You know about that?"
"Unfortunately, yes," she muttered in reply. "It's part of my job to know. Wait a second - how do you know about it?"
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you that, either," he replied. "If you can't help me find Ash, I'd rather not involve you in this, Buffy." He maneuvered around the teen once more and quickly made his way up the sidewalk.
"Hey!" Buffy turned around. This time though, it was as if Zeke Stone had disappeared. Fabulous! She broke into a run to try to catch up with Stone - wherever he'd went - but ended up slamming right into Faith instead.
"Ow!" she exclaimed as she rubbed her arm.
"Oh ... Faith, I'm sorry," Buffy apologized as she put a hand to her shoulder. She sighed. "I was trying to catch up with somebody."
"The blonde guy?" Faith asked, jerking a thumb behind her. "Who was that?"
"Claimed his name was Zeke Stone, a Los Angeles police detective. New to town. Something funny is up with him, too."
"Oh really?" Faith turned a bit, smiling. Buffy was always so forward with her information. Wilkins' idea was a pretty good one. "He was kinda cute, B." She grinned at her 'friend'. She nodded and pretended to be enthralled by Buffy's story of near-death at the hands of a strange demon. And she soaked up every bit of information Buffy offered.
"I'm gonna head back to the library," Buffy continued. "I was going to see Angel, but I don't think he's gonna be able to help with this one." She looked down. "And I really don't want to bother him with this. Not now." She'd promised herself to keep away from him as much as possible. Things were so complicated between them lately.
"I have things to do, B, but you keep me updated." Faith smiled. "See ya around."
Buffy looked over her shoulder at Faith, wondering what brought on that strange behavior. Usually, if something was going down in Sunnydale, Faith was all over it. It was something to do. Then again, Faith had been more than a little different since ... since the deputy mayor's accidental death at Faith's hand.
Putting the other Slayer out of her mind, Buffy headed back to the school.
"In all the years we've been fighting evil, we've never once given any thought to Satan, have we?" Xander turned the page in the book he'd been looking through while Giles was on the phone to his friend in Rome.
Willow looked up from her own book to see what had made Xander say such a thing. The book was filled with illustrations of Hell, the Devil and of damned souls being tortured. "We have enough to deal with that we can see, Xander," she replied, looking across the table at him.
He shut the book. "See it or not, it gives me the wiggins. What is this guy Buffy ran into last night?"
"I'm not sure. All I am sure of is he gives me the creeps. If anyone in Sunnydale is evil, it's him. Not Ms. Baker."
"Okay, Will." Xander shoved his book aside and rested his elbows on the table. "Let's say you're right. This stranger is the evil one. Why did he help Buffy?"
Willow gave it a little thought. "Buffy's an important person, the Chosen One. Maybe he wants her alive for something."
"Good answer," Xander conceded. "But ... " He pointed a finger at her. "It doesn't explain his interest in Ms. Baker." He frowned as he rubbed his forehead. "Somehow ... this all fits together."
Buffy entered the library. "You guys find anything?"
"Nada," Willow sighed.
"Where's Giles?" Buffy looked around the library.
"On the phone with that guy in Rome," Xander replied, jerking a thumb towards the open office door. "You should've stuck around, Buffy. You missed a Giles Milestone. He actually sent a fax."
"Well, I physically sent the fax," Willow put in. "But it was Giles' idea to send it."
The Slayer smiled as Giles came out of the office. "Hey, Giles. Way to wake up and smell the 20th century! You sent a fax! Congratulations!"
Giles gave her a look. "I spoke with Paolo Leone in Rome," he said. He placed the sketch back on the table. "He confirmed my suspicions. It's angelic script."
"So... what does it say?" Xander asked looking up to Giles.
"From what Paolo could tell, it's a name. 'Claudius Dacks'."
"That's what the strange guy called him last night - Dacks," Buffy said.
"That doesn't sound like a demon-y name." Xander tapped the paper with his finger.
"Well, neither does Zeke Stone." The others looked to Buffy. "I ran into him on my way to see Angel. He said his name was Zeke Stone and that he's a detective with the police in LA."
"Same thing he told the lady at the Magick Shop," Willow interjected.
Buffy related the rest of the very odd conversation she'd had with Stone. "Then he just vanished. I really don't like it when guys do that. It's so rude."
"And he refused to reveal his interest in Ms. Baker?" Giles asked.
Buffy shook her head. "He told me to mind my own business, in an annoyingly male chauvinistic way."
"Paolo suggested a few books to use for research." He brought out the list. "Willow, I need for you to get on the computer and dredge up whatever you can on Claudius Dacks and Zeke Stone."
Willow nodded. "You bet I will," she firmly replied.
"Xander, I'll need you and Buffy to help me with the books."
"I love this job," Buffy flatly said.
City Hall - That Afternoon
"Well, gee, this fellow sounds like someone who'd work well on my team," Mayor Wilkins said after he listened to Faith's report on this stranger - Zeke Stone.
"I'm certain the guy's a White Hat," Faith replied, shaking her head.
Wilkins chuckled a little as he waved a hand in a dismissive gesture. "We can fix that with the proper motivation, Faith. Kind of like how we did for you." He smiled at her. "We'll find out what we can about this young man, appeal to his weakness." His smile faded. "I can't abide by a freelance do-gooder in my town, can I?"
"No offense, Boss, but I'd feel a lot safer if I cut this guy's heart out."
The Mayor snapped his fingers, getting the attention of two of the vampires standing guard in his office. "Start up a team to research this Stone fellow," he ordered. "And I want my best men on it. Not one ... stone left unturned." He laughed as he looked at Faith. "Quite a pun, huh?"
Faith shook her head, unable to keep herself from grinning. He was twisted and she dug it. "I gotta stay with my original position. I don't like this."
"We should give him a chance, Faith. Everybody deserves one." He wagged a finger at him, his voice turning stern. "So no slicing and dicing until it's okayed by me first. You understand, young lady?"
Faith folded her arms across her chest. "Understood."
Library - Early Evening
"Hey... Buffy... guys, I think I might've found something."
"Found something?" Giles repeated as he looked over to Willow behind the counter working at the computer.
"Hallelujah! No more reading," Xander exclaimed as he got up.
Willow shifted a little as Buffy, Xander and Giles crowded around the computer to get a look at what she'd found. "Here," she said, pointing to the information up on the screen. "Didn't find any Zeke Stone listed with the L.A.P.D., but..." She clicked a button and a new page loaded. "There is one with the New York police. Except... he was killed in the line of duty... in 1983."
"1983? What? Let me see this. That can't be right!" Buffy scooted in closer, grabbing the mouse, moving the pointer around. She shifted the page so the photo of the New York P.D.'s Zeke Stone was visible. "I don't get it but that's him. The same man I saw on the street this afternoon."
"This guy's been dead for sixteen years?" Xander said, looking over to Giles.
Willow took the mouse back from Buffy. "According to this information, not long before Stone's death, his wife, Rosalyn, had been raped. The suspect, Gilbert Jax, was caught but they had to release him. Some sort of legal technicality." She tapped the mouse button. "Shortly after his release, Jax was found dead. It was officially ruled a drug overdose."
Xander scoffed. "Justice is served."
"The police didn't think so, Xander," Willow went on. "At the time of Stone's death, internal affairs was investigating him in relation to Jax's overdose. Seems that evidence was mounting against him."
"Then blam! Some punk blows his face off in an alley," Buffy added when she saw the portion of the file detailing Stone's death.
Giles cleared his throat, visibly disturbed by the story. "What a sordid tale," he quietly commented.
Willow frowned. "He doesn't sound like a nice guy."
"Will, some creep raped his wife and got away with it. What do you expect, sunshine and roses?" Xander stood straight, looking from Willow to Giles and Buffy. "And if he really did snuff out that slimebag, I say, hey, more power to him. Fine work."
"Xander," Giles said, a little warningly.
Willow shifted in her chair, not pleased with the way Xander had jumped all over her case. An uncomfortable silence followed.
"So..." Buffy said after a minute, breaking the quiet. "This guy is supposed to be dead. Why's he walking around on Earth as real as you and me? Obviously he's no vamp since he digs on sunlight."
"Good question, Buffy," Giles agreed.
"Whatever the reason, it's probably no good," Willow muttered.
"Cut the guy some slack, Willow," Xander grumbled. He took a step back when she jumped to her feet.
"I've had enough of this from you!" she indignantly announced. She held up her head, looking from Buffy to Giles. "I get a bad vibe off of this guy and none of you will pay attention to me. Since my opinion doesn't appear to count for much around here, I'd be better off at home!"
"Willow!" Buffy said as her best friend pushed her way by her and Xander. "Hey! Willow, wait! We need your help!" she called as Willow stormed out of the library.
"Don't worry about her," Xander said, putting a hand on Buffy's arm. "She's wiggin' because she feels like we're ganging up on her new pal, Ms. Baker."
"Without Willow, I'm afraid this is all the personal information we have to go on," Giles commented as he stared at the computer screen.
Buffy turned around, looking back to the library doors. Willow would be fine. She'd go home, cool off and feel better.
"Can't believe them!" Willow mumbled as she walked quickly up the hallway. She made a right and slowed a bit when she saw Ms. Baker go into her history classroom. Curious as to why Ms. Baker would be there on the weekend, Willow carefully made her way to the room.
"Ms. Baker?" Willow ventured as she rounded the corner, entering the room. She raised up her eyebrows when she saw Ms. Baker pick up something wrapped in white cloth from one of her desk drawers.
Ash was startled by Willow's appearance in her classroom. She wrapped her fingers tightly around the object in her hands and offered a smile to the young girl. "Oh, Willow. Hello," she pleasantly greeted. "You gave me a start."
She came closer and nodded to the object in Ms. Baker's hands. "What is that?" she asked, hoping she didn't come off as too nosy.
Ash glanced down at it then thought for a moment. "Oh, this?" She held it up a little. "It's very important to an ancient ritual I plan to perform."
Willow's eyes shone brightly with interest as she came closer. "A ritual?" she asked. "What kind of ritual? You know, I'm studying Wicca, Ms. Baker. Perhaps I could be of some help to you?"
Ash couldn't suppress the amused smile at Willow's offer of help. The girl didn't care what the ritual was for, just the idea of being part of it mattered. "I'm sure you'll be a lot of help, Willow," she replied. "The ritual I wish to perform, it will benefit so many people." She lowered her voice. "It will seal the Hellmouth - forever!"
"There's a ritual that can do that?" Willow gasped. Her eyes were wide.
"Yes. It's quite old." She came over to Willow, smiling. "That's why I came to Sunnydale, to seal up the Hellmouth."
Willow's face lit up with a triumphant grin. "I knew it!" she exclaimed. "I told the others, and they wouldn't trust me."
"Right about what?"
"About you, Ms. Baker. You're here to do good, not evil." Willow clasped her hands together, still beaming. But her smile faded. "And that's why that guy wants to find you, so he can stop you."
Ash's eyebrows furrowed in faux confusion. "What guy are you talking about?"
"Some guy named Stone who, according to all records we found, has been dead for sixteen years," Willow replied. "He's masquerading as a detective from the L.A.P.D., asking everyone in town questions about you. Sounds crazy, I know."
Ash nodded, her eyes never leaving Willow. The girl had a blind faith in her, she'd realized. And it was this faith which would make her goals even easier to achieve. "It's not crazy, Willow," she assured her. "This man you told me about, he's quite evil. His damned soul wishes to destroy me, to keep me from succeeding. I cannot let him win."
"I wouldn't doubt he's damned. You should see his resume'."
Ash put a hand on Willow's arm. "But together we can stop him. Once we perform the ritual, we'll send him back to Hell where he belongs. And he'll never be able to escape again."
Willow gazed at Ash, her mind spinning in thought. With the Hellmouth sealed off, Buffy could have a chance at a normal life. They wouldn't have to worry about the end of the world anymore. "I can't wait to get started!" She smiled widely at Ash.
Ash grinned in return. "Let us hurry. Who knows how much time we have left?"
Buffy rested her chin on her hand as she stared at the photo of Ezekiel Stone still on the computer screen. Giles and Xander had moved onto the suggested reading from Giles' friend in Rome. A bunch of books by some long dead monk. She dragged the mouse around the mousepad letting out a sigh. She didn't sense anything inherently evil about Zeke Stone, but Willow was so sure of her own feelings. That meant one of them was wrong.
"Hmm... this is intriguing."
Giles' voice broke into Buffy's thoughts. She sat up on the stool and looked over to the table. "What is?"
"According to this monk, what you witnessed last night has happened before," Giles answered, tapping the book.
"Is that a good or evil thing?" Xander asked.
Giles half-shrugged. "I've never put much stock into any of these religious texts, but the story resembles what is happening here." He picked up the book and began to read, summarizing the text. "In Northern Italy, in the latter part of the ninth century, the villages were plagued by grisly, ritualistic murders. And they were oddly identical to ones which had taken place in that area over 100 years before."
Xander sighed. "I'm gonna say this is an evil thing."
"The people believed demons were afoot," Giles went on. He turned the page. "For months, the villagers lived in terror. It wasn't until the arrival of a stranger, a man, that the murders stopped. An eyewitness told the tale of the vanquishing of the demons to the people. He claimed a single man defeated the demons, who were under the guise of men, by plucking out their eyes from their skulls."
"Oh, lovely," Buffy groaned, rolling her eyes.
"He goes onto say the power of God streaked through the demons. A brilliant light sucked them into the ground. Back to Hell."
"Matches last night's big fun," Buffy said. "So whatever happened to the eye plucking stranger guy?"
"He promptly vanished, with no fanfare." Giles removed his glasses as he put the book down on the table.
"The monk guy says the people believed these things killing them were demons," Xander said as he looked from Buffy over to Giles. "Does he have an alternate explanation?"
Giles cleared his throat. "He speculates the demons were actually Damned souls escaped from Hell," he replied. "Souls who wished to spread their evil across the Earth once more. His basis for the speculation is the murders matched those of two brothers who were hanged a hundred years before - in northern Italy."
"I won't be getting any sleep tonight. Anyone else?" Xander raised up his hand.
Buffy ignored Xander. "If these demons were really damned human souls, what was the guy who killed them?"
"A male Slayer is hiding in the woodpile, Buffy," Xander half-joked.
"The Slayer always has been and always will be a girl," Giles said, rather annoyed.
"What is the lesson we learn from this story?" Buffy leaned forward on the counter. "Are you suggesting Stone is the same guy from ninth century Italy? If that's so, what about the tattoos? The monk never mentioned them."
"No, he didn't. I don't believe Stone is the same man, though."
"All right," Xander cut in. "We've established what the guy is not. So what is he? Correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought it was exclusively Buffy's job to do the slayin' of the evil?"
"If those things in the ninth century guy killed were anything like Claudius Dacks, no Slayer would be able to defeat them," Buffy told Xander.
Xander nodded. "Someone's employing somebody capable of it. And why choose Zeke Stone, All-American albeit dead cop, to do it? And what kind of force is powerful enough to raise a regulator from the dead?"
"Excellent questions, Xander," Giles responded. "All excellent questions for a fascinating situation."
"Giles," Buffy said, almost in a scolding manner. "It's not fascinating if there are more of those practically unstoppable creatures in town. In case you forgot, I couldn't even make that guy flinch."
"Buffy, I'm doing the best I can," Giles said, a bit defensive.
Buffy got to her feet. "Then we have to get information," she replied. "Even if I have to find Zeke Stone and beat it out of him. I don't like being kept in the dark while major stuff is doing down."
"Quite a story," Wilkins said as he laid down the bulk of the file his research team had brought him on his desk. He smiled at the vampires that'd brought him the information. "Very fine work, gentlemen."
"What is he, Boss?" Faith asked as she dropped onto the desk, tapping the file with her finger. "Not a vamp since he was prancing around in the daylight with Buffy this afternoon."
Wilkins didn't answer Faith's question. Instead, he stared at the paper before him, shaking his head. "It's a sick world we live in, Faith," he quietly said. He looked up to the girl. "Not even a policeman's wife is safe. The law allows the wicked to go free."
Faith tilted her head, puzzled by the strange way Wilkins spoke. She picked up the paper Wilkins had dropped onto the desk and read it over. She shrugged. "Cops seem to think Stone whacked the sleazebag who did it." She grinned. "I'm starting to like this guy, Boss." She placed the paper on the desk. "A whole lot."
"She's not at home," Xander said as he hung up the phone. He turned around as Buffy came back into the library. "Negatory on Willow being at home. Her parents haven't seen her since this morning."
"And she's not anywhere on school property," Buffy added with a sigh. She ran a hand through her hair, closing her eyes momentarily. "Oz is in L.A. on a gig, so she can't be with him. I hope she's okay."
"I'm certain Willow is fine," Giles assured Xander and Buffy. He joined the two teens. "She was upset. Perhaps she went to the Bronze?"
"I shouldn't have snapped at her earlier," Xander muttered, pounding his fist on the counter. "So stupid."
"Xander, don't blame yourself." Buffy looked to Giles. "Something isn't right here. Willow would at least let someone know where she went."
Giles nodded. "All right, then, Buffy. You get Faith and canvas the entire town. Xander, try all of Willow's hiding places." He placed his glasses back on. "Meanwhile, I'll keep researching."
Buffy went to the weapons locker, removing a few well-sharpened stakes. Once she was adequately weaponed up, she pulled her hair back into a ponytail. "Want to be prepared for any opposition," she said as she came out of the bookcage. "No matter what, Xander, we rendezvous at the Bronze in two hours. Got it?"
"Roger, Rogue Leader," replied Xander with a stiff salute. "Let's move it out."
Buffy separated herself from Xander once they were outside of the school. She headed for the motel, which Faith had called home, since her arrival in Sunnydale. Halfway there, eerily enough, Buffy happened across Faith, who appeared to be on a patrol.
"Hey, B," Faith greeted as she stepped onto the sidewalk, a smile on her face. She twirled her stake between her fingers. "I'm guessin' you're on your way to see me? Find out something new on this cop guy?"
Buffy let out a long sigh as she finished retelling her story to Faith. "... and that's when Xander pissed Willow off and she left." She lowered her eyes to the sidewalk whizzing beneath her feet as she and Faith walked along. "After all of this, Faith... we're still not certain what he's doing here."
"So you're out here looking for him," Faith concluded.
"No." She met Faith's gaze. "I'm out here for Willow."
Stone slammed into one of the gray granite headmarkers in main Sunnydale cemetery. The force he hit it with broke it into pieces which scattered all over the ground. He put one hand to his back, reaching into his coat with his other to get his gun. Silas MacGruder was one of the toughest souls he'd come up against. Probably been in Hell for at least a thousand years.
"Don't think so," MacGruder growled kicking Stone in the chest. He grinned, baring his teeth when Stone rolled over onto his back, coughing and gagging. He chuckled but the laughter didn't last long. The next thing MacGruder saw was a large piece of the broken headstone smacking him square in the face. He stumbled backwards and landed flat on his back, stunned.
Stone coughed once more as he hauled himself to his feet and stumbled over to MacGruder on the ground. "One more time," he breathlessly said, putting a foot on MacGruder to keep him down. "Where is Ash?"
He cackled as Stone pointed the gun at him. "What're you gonna do, huh?" he asked then raised his eyebrows. "Send me back to Hell? You're going to do that anyway." He glanced to his right and saw the piece of headstone not far from his reach. "At least this way, I'll go back with the satisfaction of knowing Ash will have won!" His fingers grasped the rock. "Beaten you ... and him."
Stone was about to pull the trigger, but was knocked back by an encore performance of his own move with the piece of granite to the face. As he hit the ground, Stone lost his grip on his gun, leaving him unable to fire any shots to slow down the fleeing MacGruder. He doubted he would've hit anything but air. MacGruder was a memory before Stone was even back on his feet.
"Son of a bitch," he grumbled, a hand massaging his jaw where the rock had struck him. He snatched up his gun from the ground and turned to continue his pursuit. He froze in place, though, when three fellows with some of the grotesquely marred faces he'd ever seen, approached him. "I didn't realize it was Halloween already."
One of the creatures snarled, baring a fearsome set of fangs at Stone. The thing attacked, hitting Stone in the face with a wicked backhand. A confused expression crossed the hideous face when Stone only rolled with the punch, unaffected by it. It looked to the other two creatures.
"Rrrragh!" Another of them attacked, tackling Stone to the ground. "You should've run," it hissed then sank its teeth into Stone's neck. But there was nothing alive about this human. It jumped up, growling lowly. "No pain... no fear... no life," it said to the others. "Dead flesh."
Stone raised up his gun, firing a few rounds into the creature that had bitten him. It was his turn to be surprised when the bullets had no effect on the thing. He'd hit it, he was certain. The guy wasn't more than ten feet away, no way he could've missed.
"Then we rip the flesh apart ... for ... fun," said the third creature. The three of them advanced on Stone, but suddenly stopped in their tracks. Each growled deeply as they took careful steps away.
Stone pushed himself off the ground and looked over his shoulder to see what had stopped these creatures. In the cemetery was the Devil, sitting on one of the greater headstones. This particular one had a marble angel statue atop it.
"Let's go," muttered the first creature to its two pals. The three of them fled into the night.
The Devil slipped down from his perch as Stone got to his feet. "I don't believe they'll bother you again," he greeted.
"What were those things?" Stone asked as he brushed his hands over himself. Once his clothes were relatively clean, his left hand brushed the rather insignificant wound on his neck.
"Vampires," he simply replied. "Demons inhabiting dead human bodies. Some of my lesser minions. Their existence is purely for my amusement."
Stone laughed as he removed his hand from his neck. "You almost had me going," he said, pointing at the Devil. "There are no such things as vampires. Everyone knows that. They don't exist."
"I'd say they do." He chuckled. "Along with every other creature humans deny exist." He walked around the headstone bearing the angel statue, looking up at it with an interest. "They're all walking the earth."
"I don't believe you."
He shrugged as he looked over to Stone. "Then don't," he casually replied. "Of course, the concept of a Damned soul coming up from Hell to hunt for others like him is one some humans can't grasp, either. But ignorance, Ezekiel, is what makes it all worth while. Watching these people deny the existence of such creatures while believing in oh ... say ..." He looked up at the statue. "Angels? Or fallen angels, for that matter."
"They ... don't ... exist," Stone evenly said as he came over to the Devil.
The Devil paused, staring at Stone for a few moments. "What's that saying going around about me? The greatest trick I ever pulled was convincing the world I don't exist?" He closed the space between him and his servant when Stone turned his back on him. "I'll let you in on a little secret, Ezekiel ..." He lowered his voice to a whisper, "It wasn't ... that ... difficult."
Stone scoffed as he began to walk away. "I don't have time for this. I have work to do." He stopped suddenly when the Devil appeared in his path, talking very excitedly now.
"And do you want to know why it was so easy, Mr. Stone?"
Stone shoved his hands in the pockets of his coat. "Not particularly, but I have the feeling you're going to tell me."
"Because most humans don't like the idea of consequences for one's sins," the Devil replied. "So they refuse to believe a balance must remain in the world between good and evil. No matter what anyone says, you can't have one without the other." He gave a pointed glance to the sky. "He started it, you know."
Stone lifted an eyebrow. "Really? How?"
The Devil pulled one of Stone's hands out of his pockets and raised up Stone's arm level with his shoulder. He produced a small flame in his own hand. The light made a shadow on the ground out of Stone's extended arm. "Think of it this way, Ezekiel," he said, nodding to the ground. "When God created the first light ... He also created the first shadow."
Stone stared at his own shadow, taking in what the Devil had said. Vampires. They were actually real? But, it couldn't be. No. The sounds of a fight made him look up. He realized he was in a completely different cemetery, somewhere on the opposite side of town. Off in the distance, the blonde, Buffy, was in a heated battle with two vampires. Unlike her fight with Dacks, the teenager did very well against these foes.
"His answer to my creatures of amusement," the Devil said as he made a sweeping motion towards her. He followed Stone's gaze to the girl.
Buffy staked one of her enemies, easily. The second vampire made a move to grab her from behind, but Buffy was ready for that. She gave a solid back kick, hitting the vamp square in the chest. While it groaned, she grabbed its arm and flipped it over her shoulder and onto the ground. With one fluid motion, she jabbed in the stake and yanked it back before the vampire turned into a pile of dust.
"Who is she?" Stone asked as he watched Buffy rise up to her full height, wiping the back of her hand over her forehead.
"Humans who know of her, and that's not many, refer to her as The Slayer," the Devil answered. He looked from the girl back to Stone. "The Chosen One, the only girl in the world with the strength and skill to fight the vampires and demons ... There's some silly saying they've tacked onto it. I can't remember it all."
Stone nodded. "Explains why she refused to back down from the fight with Dacks."
"Just as you don't believe in her work, Buffy Summers has trouble accepting the validity of yours. It's so ticklingly ironic."
Stone's attention went back to Buffy when the Slayer engaged a third vampire. She moved amazingly fast and the power behind her punches and kicks sent the creature hurtling.
The Devil's expression turned to fake pity as he sighed. "She tries so hard and takes it so seriously when it's really nothing in the larger scheme of things. A pointless existence."
"She protects people."
"Protects them from what?" He laughed. "Oh, the occasional demon gets the idea to open the Hellmouth, let chaos spill onto Earth. Do you honestly believe I'd let just anyone open the Gates of Hell? What are a few dead people here and there in the grand plan? Human evil is the real danger on this earth. The evil that ... well ... you do."
Stone remained silent as he watched Buffy finish off the third vampire. After the vampire dusted, he turned to ask the Devil something, but he was gone. Stone glanced back at Buffy and shifted uncomfortably in place. That buzz was beginning to overwhelm him, the power boost. The longer he stayed on the Hellmouth, the more irresistible it became.
Putting Buffy Summers out of his mind, he left to find Silas MacGruder.
"Boy, these guys were tough," Buffy commented as Faith joined her. She looked to her fellow Slayer. "How'd you make out?"
Faith grinned. "Those other two are dustpiles," she reported.
"All this and no Willow."
"Come on, B, I'm sure Willow's fine." Faith put a hand on Buffy's shoulder, faking concern for Willow's welfare. "I bet Xander already found her. They're probably at the Bronze right now." She patted Buffy's arm, but paused as she looked past Buffy and saw Stone's figure retreating from the area. "Hey, uh... I need to get going," she quickly said, looking back to Buffy.
Buffy blinked. "Already?"
Faith nodded. "Yeah. I'll see you!" She waved as she ran by Buffy.
Buffy was again puzzled by Faith's strange actions. Still, she had Willow to find. She decided that maybe Faith was right and Xander had found her. She checked her watch. The two hour time limit was almost up anyway, so she headed to the Bronze.
Outskirts of Sunnydale - Woods
Willow sat on the ground with Ms. Baker. She shook her head, amazed by all of the power and knowledge the history teacher had in the Arts. Not even Ms. Calendar was at this level in the Craft. Her eyes fell on the strange symbol she and Ms. Baker sat on either side of. Whatever form of the Craft this was.
The inverted pentagram which seemed to be burned into the grass was a symbol Willow'd never come across in her many months of Wiccan study. Alternating black and white candles surrounded the symbol. Each candle's flame burned with a blue color rather than the standard yellow. Not that Willow hadn't seen candles burn with a blue flame.
"I've never heard of some of these spells you're talking about," Willow said to Ash. She looked across the span of the symbol, feeling a bit chilled at the way the teacher stared at her. "This is some pretty advanced stuff. I'd never be able to get a handle on it."
A smile spread across Ash's face. "You have the same potential for great power within you, Willow," she said in a soft voice. She was pleased when Willow sat up straight, a pride filling the young girl's eyes. "I have so much I want to share with you."
"I'd love to learn," Willow replied. She bit her lip, her shoulders slumped. "But can we start on the ritual to seal up the Hellmouth?"
"Plenty of time for that." Ash picked up a bowl fashioned out of gold, holding it up to the sky. "Much more important preparations must be made."
Willow checked her watch. She hadn't realized it'd gotten so late. "The others are probably wondering where I am," she said, looking over to Ash. "We sort of fought earlier this evening. I'd better go before they think I'm in trouble." She got to her feet. "Good bye."
Ash's face darkened with anger as Willow started to take a step. "You're staying!" she snarled. She waved her right hand and Willow was frozen in place. Willow's eyes filled with fear when she couldn't move any part of her body. Ash lowered her hand, sitting Willow back down on the ground at the same time.
"What are you -" Willow began to ask. Her mouth clamped shut when she saw Ash's eyes briefly flash with a yellow fire. She gasped. "Oh my God ..."
Ash chuckled. "Yes ... your God will pay," she hissed. She sat up straight when another person, a girl no older than Willow, staggered into the clearing. "Yes, Jacqueline, what is it?" she asked, not even turning around.
The girl called Jacqueline dropped to her knees beside Ash. "He is getting closer," she reported, a French accent about her voice.
Ash nodded, yet she never took her eyes off Willow. "He won't find me until I want him to, Jacqueline," she assured.
"What are you?" Willow asked when she screwed up enough courage to open her mouth. She looked at the dark haired Jacqueline. "What does that man want with you?"
"He wants to send me back to Hell, Willow. From where my Damned soul escaped." She motioned to Jacqueline. "From where we escaped."
"Oh no," Willow groaned as she closed her eyes. How could she have been so stupid? So blind?
"Jacqueline, tell the others to keep Zeke Stone occupied," Ash ordered.
As soon as Jacqueline was gone, Willow opened her eyes. "What do you want in Sunnydale?"
"I wish to gather my remaining flock," Ash replied as she rose up to her feet. "The mystical power of the Hellmouth is the perfect place to prepare for my offensive."
"Your offensive? What would that be? Open the Hellmouth?" Willow scoffed. "Because that's been tried before. Buffy'll stop you."
Ash smiled as she approached Willow. "Open the Hellmouth? I'd never dream of it," she told Willow, assuringly. She stopped a few feet from her. "That would defeat my purpose. No, my plans are on a much more... global scale." Her smile vanished. "And much worse."
Willow swallowed hard, terrified by that flash in this woman's eyes. "What do you want to do, then?"
"To destroy every bit of religion brought about by that accursed Yahweh and his followers," Ash hissed, her teeth gritted together. "I want to bring back the gods of my people." Her face softened slightly. "My people were slaughtered because of this ... this god. And it's their turn to suffer!"
"You can't go around killing people who had nothing to do with what happened to you!"
"It is justice!" She placed a finger under the girl's chin, her voice becoming calm again. "It will make more sense very soon."
Willow jerked her head back, glaring at Ash. "I won't help you hurt innocent people!"
"But you are helping me, Willow." Ash gently stroked Willow's hair, smiling. "If Zeke finds me before I am ready, you will be valuable. Your innocent soul ... it's so powerful."
"Buffy will come looking for me."
Ash stood up straight, taking a step backwards. "And she'll find you." She made a motion with her hands then spread them down the length of her body.
Willow's eyes widened as Ash slowly began to take on her form. She shook her head, her mouth dropping open when the trick was finished. Ash stood there, a perfect duplicate of Willow in every way, right down to the broken index fingernail on her right hand. This was much more disconcerting than meeting her vampire self.
"How ...?" she said in barely a whisper.
Ash, in Willow's form, grinned evilly. She made another gesture towards the real Willow. A bright light surrounded Willow's neck then streaked away and hit Ash. She let out a sigh then looked down at Willow, who opened her mouth, apparently trying to speak.
"Scream all you like," Ash said in Willow's voice. She giggled as she began to walk away. "No one will hear you. Bye-bye!" She waved to Willow then disappeared into the woods, leaving Willow alone in the dark.
She'd stolen her voice! She strained to move her body, but whatever magick Ash had used wasn't going to let up. Buffy! Oh no! She was going to hurt Buffy! Willow tilted her head back, looking up to the sky. The moon was so bright it cast shadows all around. In a few days time, it would be full. She closed her eyes. Or maybe not.
Not if Ash got her way.
Stone hit the ground hard after being thrown off by MacGruder. He'd lost his gun in his fall and while MacGruder ran, he was trying to find it. This was getting old. He was more determined than ever to take this guy down that night. Once he got his hands on his weapon, he raised it up to shoot MacGruder to slow him down.
Suddenly, MacGruder tripped and fell down onto the ground. He rolled over onto his back as a dark haired girl dressed in a red tank top and black vinyl pants stepped out of the darkness. She brought out a stake and put a foot on MacGruder's chest.
Stone held his gun on MacGruder, but didn't fire because the girl was in his way. In the next moment, the girl knelt down and jammed her stake into each of MacGruder's eyes, then she backpedaled as the light arced out of them. Horrible screams followed as MacGruder's soul was sucked back to Hell.
The dark haired girl grinned. "That was wicked cool!" Faith laughed as she dusted her hands off then made her way over to Stone who was still on the ground. She offered a hand to him. "Are you all right?"
Stone accepted the outstretched hand and got to his feet. He noted the same strength in this girl as he had in Buffy. Another Slayer? He'd assumed there was only one. That's how the Devil made it sound, anyway. His hand went to his side where MacGruder had hit him earlier with a 2 X 4. "I'll survive," he told her. He winced again when he felt the burn on his skin; Silas MacGruder's name vanishing from the List tattoed onto his flesh.
"You're lucky I came along," Faith replied, as she jerked a thumb behind her at the burn mark. "I'm Faith, by the way." She smiled. "And you're Zeke Stone, New York police detective." She continued to talk despite that look on Stone's face. "Well, you were a cop until someone whacked you. I'd just like to say you look awfully damn good for a sixteen year old corpse."
Stone finally found his own voice. "How do you -?"
She shrugged like it was nothing. "I know all about you," she cut in. "More importantly, Mayor Wilkins knows about you." She folded her arms across her chest. "Yeah, Mayor's the real power in Sunnydale. He's got this place primed for his upcoming Ascension." She stepped closer. "And he's always on the lookout for a few good men."
Stone put his gun away as he took a step back from Faith. "Sorry," he said. "I already have a job."
"Defending the weak and pathetic?" She laughed as she pointed to herself. "Had the same job myself once, buddy, until my eyes were opened to something better." She jumped into Stone's path as he turned to leave. "I know what you're like. And the Mayor can use your style. You get wicked evil when things don't go your way."
Stone stopped. He noticed how the girl's eyes lit up as she talked now.
"Like when you killed that worthless gutter trash who raped your wife." She laughed again, more giddy and evil. "That sort of thing is a total charge." She drew in a deep breath as she stepped toe to toe with Stone. "Yeah, it turns me on."
Obviously, Faith wasn't playing on the same side as Buffy. "That was a different person," he replied in a low tone.
"You took a walk on the Dark Side. Admit it, you got off on it when you rubbed that scumsucker out."
"And I paid for it by going to Hell. You look like you're headed there yourself, kid."
Faith shrugged. "Hell, here - what's the difference?"
"It's hotter in Hell."
Faith grabbed him by the coat, pulling herself closer. "It can be even hotter here," she purred. She smiled even wider as Stone seized her by the wrists and pried her hands off then shoved her back. "Oooo ... you're definitely on a vibe I can truck with."
"I'm dead. Truck with that."
"I've got nothing against boinking a dead guy," Faith said with a casual shrug. "Not like it hasn't happened in this burg before. Besides ... it's pure kink, if you ask me."
"Go home." Stone stepped around Faith and walked away. "And tell your mayor someone else holds the lease on my life!"
Buffy and Xander sat together at one of the tables. Buffy poked her straw into her glass of ice water while Xander took out his nervousness on a paper napkin, shredding it into numerous strips. "Xander, would you please knock that off?" she sighed as she pushed her water away. She snatched the rest of the napkin from his hands and pulled the strips onto her side of the table. "Are you sure you went to every one of Willow's hiding places?"
"Yes, I'm sure," he shortly replied. He groaned when he saw Cordelia Chase coming towards them. "Geez... worse than Satan is headed for us, Buffy. Look out."
Cordelia smirked at Buffy and Xander as she stopped by their table. "Well, if it isn't the loser crew. Short one of your pathetic band, I see."
"I don't have the time to trade insults with you, Cordy." Xander looked up to her. "Willow is missing."
Cordelia snorted. "If you can't think of anything to respond with, Xander, just say so. And Willow's not missing." She pointed to the main door of the Bronze. "She's right over there."
Xander and Buffy followed Cordelia's finger and saw Willow walk into the club. Willow was perfectly fine as she made her way through the crowd of teens already in the Bronze.
"Will!" Buffy called as she and Xander made their way over to her. They engulfed Ash in hugs. "You're all right!"
"Man, we were looking all over town for you!" Xander exclaimed, his face now bright with a smile.
Ash pushed Xander and Buffy back from her, her face twisted up in confusion. "What is with the two of you?"
"You've been gone most of the evening, Willow," Buffy said. "We were certain you were in trouble since you never contacted us. What were we supposed to think?"
"Where have you been?"
"I went home."
"But I called your house," Xander replied. "Your mom said you hadn't come home at all this evening."
"I left again."
Buffy frowned at the short, yet snide, responses from her friend. "So where were you? Xander and I turned this town upside down."
Ash pushed her way past Xander and Buffy. "You two aren't my fucking parents," she snarled. She didn't even give them another glance as she made her way out to the dance floor to join the other kids having fun.
Xander and Buffy stared directly in front of them then slowly turned to look at one another. Each was thinking the exact same question but Xander was the first to speak it.
"What's wrong with her?"
"I plan to find out - wait here." She went out onto the dance floor and clamped a hand on Willow's shoulder, turning her around. "Will, what is your problem? Are you all right?"
"Mind your own business, Slayer," Ash snapped. She removed Buffy's hand from her shoulder. "You're too nosy for your own good."
Buffy's eyes narrowed. "Excuse me, but I must've missed the memo stating concern for a friend is being nosy!"
Ash put her face right up in Buffy's. "Just stay out of my life," she hissed. She pushed Buffy back slightly with both of her hands. "Things are changing."
"Changing? How so?"
"Stick around and find out." Ash turned on her heel and walked over to the bar where she had a seat on one of the stools.
Xander joined a baffled Buffy on the dance floor. He nodded in Willow's direction. "What's her damage?"
"Something's happened to her," Buffy murmured, a concerned expression on her face. "I have a funny feeling that our new friend has something to do with it."
"Then we should get Giles."
"You read my mind."
Ash turned on her stool to see those nosy little kids leaving the club. She briefly smiled, but it faded when she saw another familiar face in the Bronze. It was Stone. She almost got up to leave, but remembered she was Willow Rosenberg to everyone else in this place, even him. Stone wasn't even looking at her anyway. She shifted her gaze to who he was watching then grumbled a curse under her breath.
Zeke Stone noticed the fight between Buffy Summers and her other friend, Willow. He watched the redhead go over to the bar and have a seat. He focused his attention back to who he'd tracked into this place - Jacqueline Marquis.
Jacqueline had slipped away from him about two and a half weeks before. She wasn't a pleasant young lady, that much was certain. During her life in mid-1700s, the French aristocrat spent her free time murdering peasant children. No reason for it, other than because she could and she enjoyed it.
"I think I missed you in the elevator ...
I think I missed you when I shot too high ...
Just like the bullet in the temple baby ...
I really miss your eyes..."
Jacqueline carefully made her way up to Ash who was sitting at the bar. It wasn't hard for her to know it was Ash and not the Rosenberg girl. For one, the girl would never escape from Ash. Not a chance in Hell. "I'm being watched," the young woman muttered as she sat down two stools from Ash. She sighed and glanced up at the woman on the stage singing. "Stone is here."
"Mirror, mirror on the wall ...
Tell me why you make things fall ...
Mirror, mirror look at me ...
Tell me why we disagree..."
"The time draws near," Ash said as she turned her head so Stone could not see that she was talking to Jacqueline. "And this time, God will do the falling."
Jacqueline checked over her shoulder once more. Stone was still there, watching. "And the Slayer?" she asked as she turned back to the bar. "Will she be a problem?"
Ash took another sip from her drink. "The Slayer and her friends will be consumed with the rest of the world before they know what I'm going to do." She cleared her throat. "Meet me out in the back alley. We cannot talk here any longer."
Stone saw Willow get up from the bar and leave the Bronze through the side door. A few moments later, Jacqueline followed her. Something wasn't good about this. He headed for the side door. As soon as he exited the building, Stone was jumped from behind by Jacqueline.
"You're not taking me back this time!" she screamed as her hands clawed at Stone's eyes.
Stone tried to get his gun, but Jacqueline's fingers were getting too close to his eyes for his comfort. He snagged her hands and backpedaled right into the wall of the Bronze. Jacqueline slipped off of his back, stunned after her head slammed into the building. She thumped onto the ground, unable to do anything but watch as Stone fired two shots at her.
Once the screaming died away, Stone heard the applause of a single person echo through the alley. He turned to see Buffy's friend, Willow, step out of the shadows. She appeared to be fine.
"Are you all right?" he asked as he approached Willow.
"Of course I am ... Zeke," Ash replied. She grinned as she came closer. "But how about you? I heard you haven't been the same since ... the last time we saw one another." She winked when Stone realized whom she really was, then whispered, "Surprise!"
"Ash..." He grabbed the woman, shaking her as he demanded, "What did you do to that girl?"
Ash broke into hysterical laughter. "Relax," she said as she calmed herself enough to talk. "She's fine... for now."
"Why did you take her?"
Ash pushed him away. "She's going to help me." She snorted as Stone started to bring up his gun. "And if you want the little precious remain unharmed, you'll put that away, Stone."
Stone froze his gun about half-way. He knew he couldn't trust Ash, but what other choice did he have? The girl's life was in danger. Against his better judgment, he did as she ordered.
Ash smiled. "Do you like my new look, Zeke?" she asked, taking a step back to model Willow's form for him. "Not as womanly as, say, dear Rosalyn's body, but with a few more years, it should develop nicely. I'm growing fond of it." She looked at him. "Perhaps I'll keep it. If you'll excuse me now, I've much to do before the Ritual of Lilitu."
"You know I'll find you again, Ash."
"I hope you do." Ash waved then fled up the alley, vanishing into the darkness.
"Giles," Buffy announced as she and Xander entered the library. "We're back."
Giles looked up from the new book he was reading, and waved them over. "Oh, Buffy, you're here. Wonderful," he said. He held up the book. "I've discovered a rather interesting story in this text."
"What is it?" Xander asked as he sat down on the table. He shrugged when he saw Buffy shoot him a glare. Giles had info, what was he supposed to do?
"According to the Chronicles of St. Martin, Damned souls sometimes escape the depths of Hell," Giles said as he removed his glasses. He rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Lucifer, the Devil, can employ another Damned soul to hunt them down and send them back to Hell."
Buffy became interested in the story now. "And how does one go about doing that?"
"The eyes," Giles answered. He placed his glasses back on and turned a page in the book. "The eyes are the windows to the soul. Once the eyes of the human self are destroyed, the Damned soul returns to Hell."
"So Stone is on the Devil's payroll?" Xander scratched his head. "I wonder what kind of benefits he gets?"
"It makes sense," Buffy said, ignoring Xander. "Stone used to be a cop. Who better could ya send to find escaped souls?"
"I'm guessing there's no end of the world stuff tacked onto this guy being in town?"
Buffy shook her head. "I'd assume not," she said. "It would appear he is only doing his job. I can relate."
Giles shut his book and held up a hand. "These are conclusions based on religious speculation, Buffy," he cut in. "I never put much faith in all of this fire and brimstone nonsense."
"Giles, we're on the Hellmouth. Mouth of Hell. Gotta be some believing on some level," she countered.
"The concept of Hell in my sense and the Judeo-Christian one are very different." He stood up. "Hell for them is a place for punishment of the wicked, for the suffering of human souls. The Hell which does exist is, in a loose form, another dimension. The place to where demons were driven so many eons ago. We've seen endless proof of that version of Hell, Buffy, but none of this." He picked up the book then dropped it back on the table.
"You're saying there's no devil?" Xander placed a hand to his forehead. "Oh man ... cause if that's so ... I'm really relieved."
"I believe in what I've seen," Giles went on. "All the evils we've encountered, Buffy, are well documented in various books."
"Well, about 3 billion people on this planet believe in the other kind of Hell," Buffy mumbled.
"Documentation of God and Satan simply does not go back as far as the information contained in my books."
Xander blinked. "Now God doesn't exist? Oh ... I have to sit down."
"You are sitting down, Xander," Buffy shortly said. She turned back to Giles. "Look, I am not in the mood for a theology debate. I haven't seen you come up with anything remotely resembling an explanation from all those books you keep talking about. So I'll take a chance with St. Martin. Stone is a non-issue, to be filed away under 'Don't Worry About It, Buffy'. Now I have something we should be concerned about. That's Willow."
Giles only stared back at his Slayer. The girl's fierce response had thrown him off. "Uh... oh... Willow?" he said quietly when he finally found his voice. "I'd almost forgotten about her, I was so wrapped up in my work. What happened?"
Buffy gave a quick overview of what had happened at the Bronze.
"Willow could still be angry about earlier," Giles suggested.
"I think it's more than that," Buffy insisted.
"I'm sure Willow just needs some time alone. She'll be fine in the morning."
Xander shifted in place, uncomfortable with the negative energy sparking between Buffy and Giles. He made a huge show out of looking at his watch. "Wow! I didn't realize it was so late. I'd better get going. My parents who don't know I'm even alive will be wondering where I am, you know."
Buffy stared at Giles. "So that's it? You're not gonna do anything?"
Giles put aside a few yellowed paper scrolls and looked up to her. "What do you propose I do, Buffy?"
"Get in your books! Figure out what is wrong with her!"
"A little odd behavior isn't basis enough to assume Willow's problem is supernatural," Giles calmly explained. "She is a teenager - like you. Wanting some time alone is not a harbinger of destruction." He paused. "Get some sleep, Buffy. Please."
"Whatever," Buffy grumbled as she turned and left the library.
Xander put a hand on the back of his neck, wincing as Buffy kicked the doors open. "We'll be back in the morning, Giles," he said. He hopped off the table and left the library.
"I'm definitely not pleased with this bit of news," Wilkins said. He locked his hands together behind his back and paced around his office. "And it doesn't bode well for this young man's future in Sunnydale."
"Try anywhere!" Faith snarled. She snatched a long ceremonial knife from the Mayor's cabinet filled with odds and ends, such as shrunken heads. "I'm going to shred the son of a bitch."
Wilkins took hold of Faith's wrist then gently removed the knife from her hand. "I need time to decide how to handle this problem."
"I like my plan!' Faith growled, trying to pull her arm away from Wilkins. "Waste him! Send him back to wherever he came from!"
"You must work on controlling that temper, young lady," Wilkins sternly said. "Have patience. Now... I want you to go home and get some rest." He let go of her. "You need it as well."
Faith rubbed her wrist, muttering under her breath as she left the office.
Wilkins sighed as he sat down in his chair. He held his knife in his hands, running his fingers over the razor sharp blade.
"What should I do about this disruptive fellow?" he wondered aloud.
"How about nothing?"
Wilkins turned when he heard a familiar voice and saw the Devil leaning against the wall. He grinned as he got to his feet. "Well, gosh ... it's been awhile, hasn't it?"
"I'm not here to chit chat with you." The Devil approached Wilkins.
"Gee, my Ascension isn't for a few weeks yet. I invited you to come and see it, you know. Wanted you to witness the fruits of over a hundred years of labor void of your help."
The Devil frowned. "I still don't appreciate you taking your soul to my Godless competitors."
Wilkins laughed heartily as he slapped the Devil on the back. "I'm sorry," he apologized when he saw the Devil wasn't amused. "I find it darned funny that you are condemning others for 'Godless' behavior."
"I only have your best interests at heart, Richard," he pleasantly replied.
Wilkins shook his head. "No. It's because you don't have my soul in your possession." He wagged the knife at the fallen angel, his eyes glimmering with mirth. "That really jiggers you, doesn't it?"
The Devil smiled for the first time and looked Wilkins dead in the eyes. "The souls of all sinners eventually come to me." He straightened Wilkins tie then walked by him.
Wilkins turned around to see the Devil lounging in his chair, feet up on the desk. "Why are you here?" he flatly asked, all his previous giddiness gone.
"It's the matter of Ezekiel Stone," the Devil answered. He leaned back. "This is a nice chair. I should get one." He paused then looked over to Wilkins. "Perhaps you'll leave it to me, eh?"
"I believe you're referring to the man who was rude to my Faith," Wilkins evenly said, ignoring the comments about his chair. "I wonder what parents are thinking these days, bringing up children with no manners to speak of?"
The Devil removed his feet from the desk. "Ezekiel is here to do a job. It wouldn't be wise for you to interfere. Not if you'd like to see your ... Ascension day."
"Listen here," Wilkins said, pointing the knife at the Devil. "I don't take kindly to troublemakers in my town."
"Your town is of no interest to me or Mr. Stone." The Devil rose to his feet. "Keep your precious little psychopath at bay - and I must say you are doing a wonderful job with her - or she'll be dealt with."
Wilkins' eyes flashed with rage at the Devil's thinly veiled threat. He glared at the smirking fallen angel then, suddenly, broke into one of his happy-go-lucky grins. "All right!" he cheerily replied. "From now on, my Faith isn't allowed to play with your boy."
"I'm happy you see it my way." He walked over to the door and opened it. "You have a lovely Ascension," he added. He slammed the door shut on the way out.
Wilkins looked down at the knife in his hand. He plunged it into the back of his chair, dragging the blade down, exposing the stuffing inside. Once the chair was completely ruined, he yanked the knife out then dropped down into the chair, a scowl planted on his face.
Buffy strolled down the sidewalk, occasionally kicking a rock out of her path. She'd been taking her time going home, thinking about Willow and feeling a little guilty for snapping at Giles. Only a little guilty, though. Giles seemed to care more about his research than about anything she had to say.
She brushed the loose lock of hair back which was blowing into her face and sighed. When she raised up her head, Buffy slowed to a stop. Further on up the walk, she saw Stone hanging out on the steps of one of Sunnydale's many churches. Finally, he decided to go inside the building rather than loiter out front. Her brow arched in curiosity. What's this all about?
She headed for the church.
Stone walked up the aisle of the small church, most likely Catholic judging from the type of religious decor. He sat down in the front pew, his hands shoved into his coat pockets. The place was deserted like most churches were on any day other than Sunday. He'd never been in church much before getting this job. It was a sanctuary, one place the Devil didn't bother half-hoped his friend, Father Horn, would appear and offer him help with his newest problem. Horn never showed. Big surprise.
With the new discoveries Stone had made in Sunnydale, he was beyond perplexed. Vampires, demons, things he'd dismissed as myth were all real and thriving. On top of that, he had two Slayers sticking their noses into his business - one was serving innocent people, the other only serving herself.
He closed his eyes as he placed his hands over his face, sliding down on the pew. Ash held all the high cards this time around. She had a hostage, and had begun her preparations for the Ritual of Lilitu, whatever that was. And here he was, still at square one. He sat up straight, opening his eyes as his hands slid down to his lap. He looked to the crucifix hanging at the front of the church.
"Why does this job insist on being so difficult?"
"Because life is difficult." A girl's voice echoed in response.
Stone turned in the pew to see Buffy standing about two feet away. She'd managed to sneak up on him. The girl shifted nervously in place, her eyes avoiding him.
"Or ...um ... death, in your case, I guess," she softly added. She sat down in the pew with him then cleared her throat. "I ... I know why you're here. Why you're back on earth."
"Good for you. Go home."
"I wanted to offer my help," Buffy went on. "And the help of my friends, so we can find Ash, Ms. Baker, whoever, and stop her. Send her back to Hell, that's what you do, right?"
"I appreciate the offer," Stone replied. "But I don't need your help, Buffy."
"Pardon me for noticing you aren't doing such a bang up job on your own," she shortly said. "I speak from experience when I say it helps to have others work with you."
"Look, kid, you know nothing of Ash, or of how powerful she is."
"I would if you'd tell me! Communication is needed." She motioned to herself then to him. "Exchange of information? I'm sure you know of this? And I've done my fair share of physical fighting. I'm a finely tuned instrument. I'm a trumpet ... or some member of the small brass section."
Stone snorted as a smile crossed his face. "Oh, yes, you battle the vampires and demons. Not quite the same." He saw the surprise on Buffy's face. "I know why you're here, too."
Her opened her mouth but nothing came out until about the third time she attempted to say something. "Who told you that?"
"A little fallen angel," he whispered then he placed an index finger to his lips. "Let's keep that between us, okay?"
Buffy looked away, her mouth once again frozen open with no words able to escape her lips. She coughed, brushing that annoying lock of hair out of her face. "Well ... yeah, I suppose he would know about ... that."
She paused then shifted her gaze back to Stone. "And, you know, that makes me totally curious of the sitch here."
"The sitch," she repeated, carefully pronouncing the words. She waved a hand in a dismissive gesture. "You know, I need the 411, what's the what -"
"You lost me awhile back," Stone interrupted.
Buffy let out a frustrated sigh as she put the heel of her hand on her forehead. "Sorry," she apologized as her hand dropped back down. "I forgot you've been out of the cultural loop since the time when parachute pants, the electric slide and A Flock of Seagulls were considered cool. Why are you hanging out in a church is what I'm asking. What's up with that?"
Stone nodded, still a bit baffled by Buffy's colorful wording. "It's quiet here," he answered. He gave her a side glance, then added, "Until a few minutes ago, anyway."
She smirked. "Ha ha. You know what I mean. Why would you, Hell's hitman, come here? You looking for redemption?" she asked. "Wouldn't be the first time a dead guy did that in this town."
"There's no redemption for the dead and judged," Stone solemnly answered.
"So why do you do this? Is it forced on you? The others we read about, it never said how they got the job." Buffy tucked the loose lock of hair over her ear. "Guess the monks didn't have any speculations on that one."
"In one of Giles's books, some monk wrote stories about people doing this damned soul retrieval deal." She motioned to her face, wrinkling her nose slightly. "With the ... the eyes and all. Yick."
He couldn't help but laugh. "I should've known it wasn't the first time this has happened," he muttered, shaking his head.
"If it's not for redemption, why do you do it?"
"Maybe because it's the right thing to do?" Stone said as he looked over to her. "If I don't stop these Damned souls, who will?" He leaned back in the pew, and as an afterthought, tacked on, "I've said it before ... it sure beats burning in Hell."
The guy did have a viable reason. The 'it being the right thing', not the 'burning in Hell' part. Although, that was a good reason, too.
"Well," she finally said, "if you didn't do it, I guess it would fall to me - Slayer of things which need slaying." She frowned, recalling how Claudius Dacks almost killed her. "But I'm gonna need a bazooka if I ever get stuck with your job. Those guys are - !"
As he watched Buffy talk, Stone realized this girl involving herself in his mess was dangerous. "Go home, Buffy," he said, interrupting her. "You'll only complicate things more with your presence."
Her mouth clamped shut as she sat up in the pew, indignant. "Hey, buddy, I'll have you know my friends and I are very capable in a battle. We can take care of ourselves!" She bit her lip as she slumped a little. "Well... most of us anyway. Willow was completely wiggin' at the Bronze earlier. I've never seen her act like that."
"Because that wasn't your friend," Stone replied without thinking.
Buffy's eyes widened in panic. "What? If it wasn't Willow, then who was it?" she demanded. She grabbed Stone by the arm when he only stared back at her. "What happened to Willow? Tell me!"
"Buffy," Stone said as he placed his hand on hers. "Ash ... has your friend." He held onto her hand when she tried to get up, keeping her in the pew. "I don't know why or where, but just that she does."
She pressed her lips together, her anger towards Ash growing. And towards Stone. "You know that Hell bitch has my best friend and you're just sitting here in church on your ass?" she incredulously replied, her voice straining to remain controlled. She shook her head, disgusted as she jerked her hand back. "Some fighter of evil you are! I'm going to save Willow myself!"
Stone jumped to his feet as Buffy got up, catching the girl by her arms. "You can't go after Ash. You'll get yourself killed."
Buffy wriggled from Stone's grasp. "I'm going after my friend! If you're too scared to help me, you should just to back to rotting in Hell!" She turned on her heel. "I'm sure everyone there misses you!"
"Buffy, this isn't a vampire," he snapped as he snagged Buffy by the arm. He turned her around to face him. "Or even some demon holding your friend hostage." He gripped the girl tightly. "This is the soul of a woman damned to Hell over 4,000 years ago. It's something that actually matters!"
Buffy opened her mouth to snarl a retort, but the last sentence from Stone slammed into her like a runaway train. Her eyes narrowed at him, curious. And judging from the "oh, shit" expression on Stone's face, he'd said something he'd never meant to. "What do you mean, something that actually matters?" she asked in a hushed voice.
Stone let go of Buffy, putting a foot of space between himself and the Slayer. "It's ... not how it sounded," he replied.
"It sounded like you said my fighting vampires and demons doesn't matter."
Frantically, he searched for a way to patch up the hole in the dam. "That's not what I meant."
Buffy pointed her finger at him. "Oh, you meant it, all right. You meant every word." Her voice trembled as she spoke. "And I want to know why you say that."
The secret had escaped, and it was his fault. Now, he had Buffy demanding to know the truth. Against his better judgment, he let her hear it. All of it.
"Vampires, demons, all the things you battle," Stone started quietly. "It's only for the entertainment of the Devil. The Slayer was created to play a part." He lowered his head, unable to look Buffy in the eyes any longer. "In the larger scheme of things, it's nothing."
Buffy stared at Stone. Her ears heard the words, but her brain simply couldn't process and comprehend them. Because if she understood what he was saying, it meant - "No," she whispered, tears welling up in her eyes as Stone raised his head. She shook her head, continuing to point her finger at him. "That can't be true! The demons ... they ... they escape from Hell, just like the souls you're hunting down!"
Stone didn't know what to say. What did a person say?
"It's ... it's all a lie? I'm not protecting the greater good?" Buffy's hand lowered. Her voice quavered even more, so much her words barely made it past her lips. "For almost four years, I've gone through every torture known to man, even died once, and it's all been because the Devil and his pals need a few yuks? I've lost friends ... for ... for that? I gave my life up for this, and it's for a job that doesn't mean a goddamn thing!"
Stone took a step towards her, to try to do something to calm her down.
"No!" she yelled, taking a few steps back, holding up her hands to him. "Don't touch me!" Her eyes darted around the building. She broke into a cold sweat, a panic. She looked at the Crucifix, then the floor under her feet. "I hope you all are having a good laugh right now!" Her small voice echoed through the empty church. She threw up her hands. "Have one on me! Buffy Summers, Cosmic Joke!"
"Buffy!" Stone called as the Slayer fled the church, crying. He ran after her, but stopped on the steps outside the church. Buffy had vanished into the night.
"Lovely work, Ezekiel." The Devil stepped next to Stone, grinning. "With one idle comment you effectively destroyed that innocent girl's delusions about her existence." He shook his head. "Her best friend is on the verge of sacrifice and she isn't able to stop it. My, my ... however will the child bounce back from this one?"
Stone, hands shoved in his coat pockets, simply walked away from the Devil.
Willow squirmed in place on the ground. She let out a frustrated sigh as she looked up to the sky. She was worried about Buffy, wondering what Ash planned to do. After one last try to move, Willow gave up. Whatever power Ash had, it wasn't letting up anytime soon. Her head whipped around when she heard a twig snap in the woods surrounding her.
Who's there? Willow called out in her mind. She licked her lips and swallowed. What if it was a vampire? Or some other demon? She was a sitting duck. No way to run, no voice to scream. Willow relaxed as she saw herself walk into the clearing.
As Ash neared her, the outward appearance of Willow melted away, and the woman wore a sly grin. She stopped by Willow, looking down upon her. Ash made a gesture with her hand, and a scintillating gold mist rose from her throat and hopped over to Willow.
Willow drew in a deep breath as the mist hit her. She coughed then sat up, realizing Ash had given her her voice back. She looked up to Ash, narrowing her eyes. "What did you do to Buffy and Xander?" she demanded.
"Your friends are fine. But they probably won't want to be your friends anymore." She held up a palm to Willow and released the girl from her invisible bonds. She smiled as Willow stretched out her legs and arms. "You remind me ... of my daughter," she quietly remarked.
Willow rubbed her upper arms. "What happened to her?"
"I loved her with every fiber of my being," Ash replied. "I was happy to give her the honor of being sacrificed to Moloch." She looked back to Willow. "And then I was judged and murdered because of my beliefs. The old gods will have their glory again. Once it starts ... there is no stopping it."
"When what starts?"
"The thing these monotheistic fools fear the most - Armageddon." She kneeled down by Willow, her eyes glimmering as she spoke. "Your sacrifice during the ritual will increase the mystical power already resonating throughout this entire town on the Hellmouth. The world as you know it ... will end."
She stared at Ash, afraid to blink, swallow or even move. How could that kind of thing be possible? "What happens after the ritual is completed?"
"The amplification of the power will be like the reverberations of an earthquake, only infinitely more deadly. The waves of supernatural energy will shake the world's societies to the ground. The old gods will rise again and I will have my revenge!" Ash grabbed Willow by the back of the neck and brought the girl closer. "Twilight has passed, Willow," she hissed. "A new day is dawning."
Willow sat back when Ash let go of her, gaping at the crazed woman now cackling like a banshee. The woman had gone insane with her hatred of God. If Ash could do half of what she claimed, it would be disastrous. And if Buffy didn't know about this plan ... She didn't even want to entertain that idea.
The front door slammed shut. Joyce sat up at the kitchen counter where she'd been working on a purchase order list and awaiting Buffy's return. She removed her glasses, remaining silent, listening for Buffy's voice.
"Buffy?" she called out after a moment. She placed her glasses on the counter and came out of the kitchen. "Buffy, is that you?" She stopped when she saw her daughter face down on the couch, sobbing. Slowly, Joyce entered the living room then sat down by Buffy, placing a hand on Buffy's back. "Honey, what's wrong?"
Buffy sniffled loudly as she sat up. She dragged her fingers over her eyes, wiping away the tears. "It's all pointless," she hoarsely replied. She turned her tear-stained face towards Joyce.
"Pointless?" Joyce brushed the loose locks of hair away from Buffy's face. "What are you talking about? What's pointless?"
"Being Slayer!" She pushed her mother's hands away then placed her hands to the sides of her own head. "It's nothing but a big joke! I'm getting laughed at, and it's not fair, Mom!"
Joyce's face twisted up in confusion. "Who's laughing at you? Why is it pointless?"
Buffy stared at her mother through bleary eyes. Joyce Summers had never been able to fully accept Buffy's Slayer-hood. Why would she care if it was really pointless? She shook her head as she jumped to her feet. "Never mind," she muttered then ran up the stairs.
"Buffy!" Joyce rose to her feet. The only answer she got was the sound of Buffy's bedroom door slamming shut.
Buffy collapsed onto her bed, fresh tears pouring down her cheeks. She snatched up her stuff pig, Mr. Gordo, from the floor and cuddled him closely. As she curled up into the fetal position, Buffy sobbed even harder.
The faces of the dead haunted her, all of the people who had died for nothing. Jenny Calendar's face was the most prominent in her mind. The old pain from a year ago she'd worked so hard to bury quickly made it's way back to the surface. Faces of people she'd been unable to save joined Jenny's. Then Angel's face, the expression he wore when Buffy rammed the sword through him to stop Acathla.
Buffy squeezed Mr. Gordo as she closed her eyes. She put her pillow over her head and continued to cry until she fell asleep.
"No! Help me!"
Willow struggled against her invisible bonds as Ash prowled around, sacrificial knife clutched in her left hand. She could do nothing, say nothing to stop this thing. Panicked, she looked at the tall ring of fire surrounding her, Ash and the large symbol burned onto the ground. On the other side of the fire, watching helplessly was Zeke Stone.
"Please! Do something!" Willow begged. But he didn't move. "Help!" Suddenly, she loosed a blood-curdling scream as Ashur plunged the blade of the knife into her chest.
Ash pulled the blade from the dead girl's chest and raised it up to the sky, cackling. "It is done!" she yelled into the night sky. She stared through the fire at Stone, grinning. "And you cannot stop it!" She cried out a few more words in a foreign language as the ground began to rumble.
Stone's eyes flicked open as he sat bolt upright on the bed. He steadied himself, realizing it was only a dream. He blinked a few times, looking around the room. It was daytime. He got up and went into the bathroom then proceeded to drench his face with cold water.
The nightmares had plagued him all night. Every time it turned out the same way. He could never do enough to save the girl and stop Ash from completing her ritual, let alone send Ash back to Hell. No matter what variations he tried in his dreams, Willow always died.
"Bad dreams, Ezekiel?"
Stone let out a sigh when he heard the Devil's voice speaking to him. He stood up straight and saw the Devil's face reflecting in the mirror instead of his own. "Why can't you go haunt someone else?" he grumbled as he left the bathroom.
"There are lessons to be learned from nightmares," the Devil, now sitting in the chair, replied.
"Yeah, don't fall asleep."
The Devil "tsk"ed. "I expected a much better performance from you. You're failing your test."
"Yeah, I know - the test of faith, whatever that is. You keep talking about it."
"The answers are right in front of you, but you're too blind to see." He got up from the chair, making his way over to Stone. "Your clearance rate has severely suffered in recent months, Ezekiel. And I attribute it to this anti-social attitude of yours."
Stone dropped down onto the bed. "Can't you leave me alone for one day?"
"No, I can't." He leaned over, looking Stone in the eye as he added, in a dead serious tone. "Because you don't have a day left." With that, the Devil was gone.
Buffy's Home - Afternoon
"I hope she's okay," Xander commented as he rang the doorbell of the Summers' home. He looked over to Giles. They'd been waiting for Buffy to show up at the library for sometime. She never arrived. Didn't call. And nobody was answering at Buffy's house.
The door opened and Joyce smiled a little when she saw who was on the stoop. "Hello, Xander," she greeted. "Mr. Giles."
"Is Buffy home, Mrs. Summers?" Xander asked. "We tried calling earlier.. but no one answered the phone."
Joyce nodded. She stepped back and allowed Xander and Giles into the house. "Oh, I was at the gallery this morning, going over the new exhibit," she said. She closed the front door. "Buffy's upstairs in her room, but I'm afraid she hasn't been feeling well today. Ever since she came home last night, she's been different."
"What's wrong?" Giles asked, trying to keep the worry out of his voice.
"I don't think it's physical," Joyce replied. "Whatever it is, it has me concerned. She won't eat, won't talk to me or even get out of bed."
"May we see her, Mrs. Summers?"
"If she'll see you..." Joyce replied.
Buffy pulled her blankets from over her head when she heard a knock at her bedroom door.
"Buffy?" The door opened and Joyce poked her head inside. "Buffy, Xander and Mr. Giles are here. They want to see you."
She turned away, grumbling.
Giles stepped into the room with Xander right behind him. "Buffy?" Giles said as he and Xander came over to her bed. "Buffy, what on earth is the matter?"
Xander dropped down on the bed by Buffy and tapped her shoulder. "Come on, Buff! You have to get up."
"Why should I?" she snapped then buried her head under her pillow.
"Willow's missing, that's why."
"Mrs. Rosenberg said Willow never came home last night," Giles continued for Xander. "Her bed wasn't slept in, either. We must find her."
"There's no point in even trying now."
"What are you talking about, no point?" Xander demanded. He pulled the pillow from Buffy's head. "Do you know what's going on? What happened to Willow?"
"She's Ash's prisoner." She propped herself up on her elbows, looking to Giles. "Ash being one of those Damned souls you said didn't exist. The ones that Stone hunts down. Not that he exists either!" She dropped back down on the bed.
Xander turned Buffy so she faced him. "How long have you known?"
"Stone told me last night," She muttered. She swallowed back the lump in her throat as she turned her gaze to Giles. He was standing there, taken aback at all of this.
"You've known that long?" Xander exclaimed as he got to his feet. "Why didn't you come to us and tell us?"
Buffy's eyes watered with fresh tears. "Because ... that isn't all he told me," she whispered. She sniffled as the tears spilled down the sides of her face. "He ... he told me ... that this Slayer gig is a joke. All the.. the vampires and demons we've fought ..." She wiped away the tears. "It's nothing but entertainment for the Devil, Giles."
Xander stared at Buffy, his mouth hanging half open. "And you believed him?" he incredulously said.
"Xander, he sends Damned souls back to Hell for the Devil," Buffy sharply replied. "I'd think he knows something about it!"
"He works for the Devil so that's instant credibility?" Xander cried, a little more forcefully than he'd meant to. He scoffed. "Wake the hell up, Buffy! We hardly know this guy!"
Buffy sat up in bed. "I believe him, Xander!" She pointed a finger at him. "You weren't there, you don't know a damn thing! Think about it. If I really did matter, I'd have been able to take Claudius Dacks down. I can kick anything else from Hell's ass, but when it counts, I get mine handed to me!"
"Did he offer any proof of this?" Giles asked in a calm, collected tone.
"I think I just laid it all out for you," Buffy replied, looking to him.
"Since the dawn of man, the Slayer has been the last line of defense for humankind," Giles firmly told her. "Nothing this man says changes that."
"Against an adversary like Ash, Giles, what's the point?" She placed her hands to the sides of her head. "It's suicide! I am not strong enough to defeat her."
"We need you." Xander's expression turned to pleading as Buffy looked up to him. "Willow needs you. We can't do this alone."
She shook her head. "Xander, you're talking to the wrong slayer," she solemnly said. She laid back down on her bed, pulling the blankets over her. "Now leave me the hell alone."
Xander let out an angry sigh. "Fine," he snapped. "Just wallow in your self-pity while Willow possibly dies! And this Ash does... whatever it is she's gonna do. I'm so outta here." He stormed out of the room without even looking back.
Buffy squeezed her eyes shut. "That means you, too, Giles. Just leave!"
Giles folded his arms across his chest. "I'm sorry, Buffy, but I cannot as easily accept that the duty of the Slayer is merely a form of someone's entertainment," he said. "I choose not to believe that all my years of training and study as a Watcher were for nothing. I plan to stop this Ash. Whatever it takes."
Her eyes opened, but she remained silent. Let Giles believe whatever he wanted.
Giles sighed as he lowered his head. "I..." he started. He couldn't think of anything to say. He turned and left the girl's room, closing the door behind him.
Willow eyes fluttered open and immediately squinted when rays of sunlight almost blinded her. She held up an arm, blocking the light filtering down to the earth through the tops of the trees. It was such a beautiful afternoon in Sunnydale. But her amazement at the wonderful day melted away once she recalled the events of the night before. She sat up, looking around the clearing, trying to remember how on earth she got there. Not far from her Willow saw Ash with her back to her. The woman was kneeling on the ground, praying in some ancient language. Willow managed to pick out a word here and there.
Ash apparently hadn't noticed Willow had woken up. She was as much into her praying now. Willow looked around herself. No guards. Just a clear shot into the woods and she was home free. She could get to the school and warn Buffy and the others about Ash's plans. Perhaps if Giles could find out what this ritual was, he would be able to stop it.
Quickly and carefully, Willow got to her feet. She tossed one more look over at Ash, who was still praying. After a mental count to three, Willow made a mad dash for the treeline. She was almost there, when she skidded to a halt, a loud gasp escaping her lips. Almost a dozen hissing, deadly cobras came slithering out of the woods, headed straight for her.
"Oh ... no," she whispered as she backed away from the advancing serpents. She continued to back away until she tripped over her own feet and landed hard on the ground on her backside. The snakes stopped their advance, but remained on guard a few feet from Willow on all sides.
Ash smiled as her eyes opened. "You won't get away so easy, Willow," she said. She looked over her shoulder, her eyes flashing. "The time is near."
Willow looked from the snakes over to Ash. "Please, Ash ..." she begged. "Please don't do this."
Ash chuckled as she rose up to her feet. "You wish to save your own life."
She shook her head. "No, it's not about me. It's about the lives of all those innocent people you want to kill," she replied.
Ash's head tilted to once side. "All are guilty of something. I know. I was in law enforcement for a short period of time."
"What right do you have to kill people?"
Ash placed her hands on her chest. "I have the power, so I have every right," she said. She sighed heavily as she paused to listen to the wind rustling through the trees. "I do hope Stone shows up in time for the ritual. I want to share this with him so much. Annihilation of every living thing on this planet."
Willow's eyes looked upon Ash differently. This time, with sympathy. "I feel sorry you carry all of that rage inside of you, Ash," she softly commented. "It must be terrible to have your soul eaten up by hate."
Ash leaned over and seized Willow by the hair, pulling the girl to her feet. "I don't need your pity!" she snarled as she threw the girl to the ground. "And that, I'll have as soon as the sun falls in the sky and the night is upon us!"
"I know, Giles," Xander said as he and Giles entered the Sunnydale High Library. "But I hate it when Buffy starts spouting off that defeatist attitude crap." He'd been complaining about Buffy's behavior since they'd left her house. "It's beyond me how she can just take whatever this Stone guy says as the truth! She should know better!"
Stone stepped out of Giles' office just as Xander turned away from the librarian.
"Oh ... God!" Xander exclaimed as he grabbed onto the counter. Stone appearing in his face like that scared the bejesus out of him.
Giles put a hand on Xander's shoulder, steadying him, then looked to Stone. "What are you doing here?" he cautiously asked.
Xander took a step towards Stone. "Didn't wreck enough lives last night, so you decided to pay Buffy's friends a visit?" he snapped.
"Actually, I was looking for Buffy," Stone replied.
"To apologize, if you know what's good for you."
"Xander, please," Giles said waving a hand for Xander to back off. "Buffy is at home. But ... how did you know to look for her here?"
"Buffy mentioned the name Giles when I spoke with her in the church last night," Stone answered. "Didn't take long for me to find out Giles was the school librarian." He looked over the older gentleman in the tweed suit. "And you've got to be him."
Giles nodded. "Yes, Rupert Giles." He motioned to Xander, who was scowling at Stone. "This is Xander Harris, another friend of Buffy's." He paused. "We know who you are."
Stone picked up a few of the computer printouts from the counter, perusing them. "Looks as if you know all about me."
"Yeah, and who you work for, too," Xander added. "Hmm ... could it perhaps be... Satan?"
Stone looked up from the papers.
"Xander, would you please -"
"Oh, come on, Giles!" Xander interrupted. He pointed to Stone. "This guy is the reason Buffy wants to live under her covers for the rest of her life!" He glared at Stone for a moment. "Buffy's not here. She's at home, in bed, crying her eyes out because of that evil lie you told her."
"Xander -" Giles tried to stop him from getting up in Stone's face, but it was pointless.
"I really don't care what you or anyone else says about Buffy's job," Xander went on, poking his index finger into Stone's shoulder. "She's out there everyday, saving lives. Maybe it's some big game to your boss, but Buffy keeps innocent people from gettin' killed. Makes her pretty damn important in my book."
"And I agree with you," Stone replied. He dropped the papers on the counter.
Xander opened his mouth, but a puzzled expression crossed his face. "You do?" he asked. "Wait ... okay ... what?"
"It's why I'm here. I need her help."
"Why do you need Buffy's help?" Giles inquired.
"Ash. I can't take her down on my own."
"What makes this particular woman more difficult than the rest?"
"The fact Ash has been in Hell for almost 4,000 years. The longer a soul is in Hell, the more they become a part of it. They acquire deadly powers and gifts when back on earth as a result," Stone explained. He saw some doubt in the librarian's eyes at his story, but Buffy mentioned Giles hadn't believed in his job. "Topside, the Damned only have one weakness -"
"The eyes," Giles said, nodding. "Yes, I know." Even if he didn't completely believe in this man's work, Ash still had Willow, and she planned to do something in Sunnydale. She had to be stopped. "I'll need to know anything you can tell me about Ash as a person. From the days when she was alive. If you know anything, that is."
"Giles, you aren't actually gonna help this guy, are you?" Xander asked, jerking a thumb at Stone. "After what he said to Buffy?"
"Kid, what I told her was something she was never meant to learn."
"She learned it," Xander snapped at him. "And she learned it so well, she's a shell of the friend I once had."
"Xander, Willow's life is in danger, and who knows what else is going on," Giles said as he grabbed a pen and some paper to take down notes. "With Buffy unable to contribute, it is up to us to do something." He turned his attention to Stone. "Tell me everything you know about Ash."
Buffy groaned. "Go away!" she yelled yanked the blankets down from over her head.
The door opened despite Buffy's orders. Joyce came into the room. "Buffy, honey," she said as she entered. "May I speak with you for a minute?"
"I thought I said 'go away'?" Buffy replied as her mother sat down by her on the bed. "I know I heard the words come out of my mouth." She looked up to her mother. "What do you want, Mom?"
Joyce took one of Buffy's hands into hers. "Mr. Giles and Xander told me about what happened, about what that man told you." She brushed her daughter's hair back from her face. "Oh, honey, why didn't you tell me that last night?"
Buffy sat up. "You should be happy, Mom," she muttered. "I don't have to do the Slayer thing anymore. I can be a nice, normal all-American daughter." She plastered on a fake smile. "See? I'm starting to feel perky and all-American already."
"As much as I'd like a normal daughter, I have you," Joyce said.
Her fake grin vanished. "The pep talk isn't really pepping here, Mom."
"I'm always so proud of you, Buffy," Joyce went on, beaming. "For things no mother can get from a normal daughter. You're always helping your friends, helping me, and even people you barely know. You give so much of yourself."
"It doesn't mean anything."
"So what if someone thinks what you do means nothing? That proves how little they know." Joyce lifted up Buffy's chin with her index finger, smiling at her daughter. "I'm sure none of the people you've saved would agree with it. Not Willow, or Xander, or Mr. Giles... and definitely not me. You do all these amazing things and don't think of yourself. If only more human beings were like you."
Buffy nodded slowly as she considered her mother's words. She did have some good points in there. Especially all that stuff about being selfless, and helping strangers.
"Your success in your work is largely based on what you believe," Joyce continued. "If you believe what you do is pointless, then it will be." She hugged her daughter and smiled. "You'd better hurry to the woods before it's too late."
Buffy absently nodded as her mother got up from the bed and left the room. She thought over what Joyce had said a little more. Why should she let the bad guys get the best of her? Why should she just roll over for them? Let them take over her town?
"Ash is going down."
"So, Ashur is one of the Canaanites eradicated by the Jews almost 4,000 years ago," Giles said as he looked over his notes on Ash. He gnawed on his earpad of his glasses. "Follower of pagan gods and killed in the name of the new God." He sighed. "I can understand why she would be so angry." He looked across the table to Stone. "Do you have any idea what Ash is up to in Sunnydale?"
Stone gave it some thought. "When I ran into her the night before last, she mentioned something about the Ritual of Lilitu."
Giles's eyes went wide. "The ... the Ritual of Lilitu?" he repeated. He got up from the table. "Oh dear ..." He went up into the stacks and returned shortly with another of his ancient books. "The Ritual of Lilitu."
"Okay ... we know the name," Xander said as the librarian sat back down. "What's this Lilitu thing, and why is it making you wig?"
"Um... Lilitu is a Mesopotamian demon," Giles explained as he flipped through his book. "The precursor of the Biblical Lilith." He found the section he wanted. "Ah, here it is. Lilitu. She was called the 'maid of desolation' and roamed the night attacking men as a succubus or drinking their blood."
"Gee, now why does that sound familiar?" Xander snorted.
Giles nodded. "The people protected themselves from Lilitu through amulets, incantations and other magic, but most effective was prayer. Lilitu hated mankind and rejoiced in anything which harmed or destroyed it." He looked to Stone. "It's fitting that Ash would choose this particular ritual to attempt."
"What is this ritual supposed to do?" Stone asked.
Giles skimmed the book. "According to the legends, an offer of pure and innocent blood to Lilitu pleases her, and Lilitu bestows the power of destruction on the person making the sacrifice." He adjusted his glasses, shifting in his chair. "There is an old story suggesting someone used the ritual to destroy Pompeii ... via the nearby volcano."
"Why use the power to make a volcano erupt?" Xander shook his head. "I'd just call up a huge rain of fire or something."
"The power Lilitu bestows can only be applied to something earthly. Ash can't call up a rain of fire, or have an army materialize out of thin air," Giles answered.
"Well, thank God for small miracles," Xander muttered. He sighed. "So what would Ash direct this ... power to in Sunnydale?"
Giles scratched his head as he leaned back in his chair. "It can't be the Hellmouth, it's a pointless venture for her," he thoughtfully said. "I can't rule out an earthquake either, but that would only be localized damage, not the world destruction Ash would like."
The three of them sat in silence, pondering what it could possibly be.
Stone shifted in his chair, but it wasn't in nervousness like Giles and Xander. It was that power around the Hellmouth getting to him again. He looked over to Giles. "What about all this ... this mystical energy concentrated in the area?"
Giles raised his eyebrows, considering the possibility. "It's an interesting theory, but the supernatural energy is only strong enough to draw beings of evil here. Still what could she do with the power?" he wondered.
"Could she use this Ritual of Lilitu to increase the power of it?" Stone asked. "Turn it into something that could destroy?"
"If the stories are true, it's a strong possibility." Giles gave it a little thought. "Using the energy from the Hellmouth wouldn't affect the Hellmouth itself, it would be like an epicenter. The mystical energy waves would spread outward."
"And a bunch of people get killed," Xander finished. "Sounds like something we should stop, huh?"
"Won't be easy to take Ash down. Then there's the girl we have to consider," Stone said.
"How do the three of us stop her?" Xander asked, looking from Stone to Giles.
"The four of us," Buffy announced as she marched into the library. She walked over to the table and swung her crossbow off her shoulder and grinned. "I'm back."
"All right! The Buffster is back!" Xander exclaimed as he jumped to his feet, enveloping Buffy in a hug. "This is great!"
"I just came to my senses, that's all," Buffy said as Xander let go of her. "Nobody kidnaps my friends. This is my town. And I'm not gonna let some ancient bitch with a chip on her shoulder destroy it." She looked down to Stone. "Besides... it's my job to prevent the Apocalyptic stuff." She flicked her gaze over to Giles. "So ... the plan. Do we have one yet?"
"We have an idea of what Ash plans to do, but the power she acquired in Hell will be a real obstacle to overcome," Giles replied. "However, I did a little reading on Canaanite mythology, of which Ash so reverently believes in."
"And this means what to me, Giles?"
"Ash still believes in these old gods, so perhaps an invocation of one of them could help in leveling the playing field."
"You have anyone particular in mind?"
"Baal, god of justice, terror of evildoers."
Xander clasped his hands together. "Sounds like we have a winner."
"Here's how it breaks down," Buffy said, as she stood straight. "Giles, you work on psyching Ash out. Xander, you'll back Giles up. I'll run interference and get Willow to safety while our friend Tex here -" She jerked a thumb at Stone. "- gets his shots in." She beamed. "I love it when a plan comes together. Let's go." She started to leave.
"Wait," Stone said as he grabbed her wrist, pulling her to a stop. "This plan needs some revision."
Buffy pulled her arm free. "I can take care of this bitch, all right?"
"No matter what tricks you pull on Ash, she's still a Damned soul. Ever wonder why you couldn't hurt Dacks the other night?" Stone asked and Buffy shrugged in response. "Only one Damned soul can inflict harm on another. It's better if I distract Ash. You concentrate on your friend."
Buffy looked to Xander and Giles. Both seemed to agree with Stone's revisions. "All right, we'll do it your way," she said to Stone. "And your way better work." She slung the crossbow over her shoulder. "Because if Willow gets hurt ... I'll happily send Ash and you back to Hell." She started out of the library. "Come on. I know where she's hiding out."
Ashur stood in the middle of a circle of fire that surrounded her, Willow, and the items she needed to complete her ritual. Her robes of black flowed as she engaged in a primal dance around her sacrifice, streaking the blood of mutilated animals down her cheeks and chanting in an ancient language. She held the ceremonial knife in her left hand, raising it up and down in unison with particular words.
"Mph..." Willow struggled on the ground with the invisible binds. She winced as Ash leaned over, chanting something and making symbols on Willow's forehead with the animal blood. "Please... don't do this," she begged, but Ash was no longer listening to any of her pleadings. The woman's eyes were wild with hate and rage as she chanted even louder.
"I offer this innocent blood to you, Lilitu, in the hopes of gaining the power of your Word!" Ash declared to the night sky. She moved the blade in the air, in intricate patterns. "Drink of the blood... so that I may have what I desire!"
"Buffy will stop you!" Willow cried out as Ash began to dance once more. She gasped loudly as Ash leaned over to her. "She'll come," she added in a whisper.
"I would love to see your vampire Slayer try to stop me," Ash hissed. She placed the side of the blade to Willow's cheek.
"Looks like you're gonna get your chance!"
Willow's heart filled with hope at the sound of Buffy's voice. She turned her head as Ash looked up. Through the raging flames separating her from her friends, Willow saw Buffy, crossbow in hand, with a pissed off look on her face.
Ash grinned when she saw Stone step up beside Buffy. Slowly, she rose to her feet.
Buffy lowered her crossbow. "Look, Ash. Why don't you let Willow go, stop all this Ritual of Lilitu nonsense and go on back to Hell, okay?" she said. "Because if I have to come over there and make you do it, it won't be pleasant."
Ash began to laugh hysterically at the Slayer's proclamation. She waved a hand. "Be gone!" she ordered. "I have an important ritual to finish."
"Buffy, help me!" Willow called out.
Stone raised up his gun and let off a round as Ash began to turn away. But the ring of fire surrounding the Damned soul and her prisoner stopped the bullet, like it was a wall of Kevlar. He looked over to Buffy as Ash laughed once more.
"Oh, this isn't good," Buffy said as she looked to Stone. "Not good at all."
"And it didn't get any better, guys," Xander said. He tapped Buffy on the shoulder and motioned to the ground. Dozens upon dozens of cobras began to slither up out of the ground and from the woods. All of them were poised to strike, hissing. "Where did these things come from?"
"One of Ash's little tricks," Stone told them. He and Buffy slowly backed away.
"Giles, I think now's a good time to start that invocation you were talking about!" Buffy called over her shoulder. The man was desperately searching through his book, unaware of all the cobras. She loosed a crossbow bolt at one of the cobras as it leapt towards her. The bolt ripped through the creature's head, killing it.
Xander snatched up a stick from the ground, gripping it in both hands. "These things are deadly, right? I mean, I saw snakes like this on that Crocodile Hunter show ..." He swung at one of the cobras, making the thing hiss and stop its advance.
"Walls of impenetrable fire, hordes of poisonous snakes, 4,000 year old grudges..." Buffy laughed tightly as she let off another bolt, killing another snake. "Friends, Stone... you sure know how to pick'em. None of mine were ever this exciting."
Stone looked back to Ash. She was still chanting and dancing. It wouldn't be much longer before she was ready to make her kill. If they couldn't get rid of that fire ring ...
"Ah! Here it is!" Giles announced. He glanced up as Xander joined him. "Right here." After clearing his throat, Giles, in a clear and loud voice, began to speak in the ancient Canaanite language. "O, great Baal, god of justice, protector of life! I call upon thy power to smite this evil doer, Ashur Badaktu! I call upon thee!"
Ash froze mid-twirl when she heard that damned Watcher calling out to Baal in her native tongue. Her eyes, filled with fear now, looked back to Giles. "No," she whispered. Her body began to tremble. Not Baal. Not when she was so close ...
Distracted and terrified of the wrath of the god of justice, Ash's concentration wavered. Slowly, her wall of protective fire fell. When she saw that the barrier between her and the others was gone, she gripped the knife tightly in her hand. "Lilitu, accept my offer of blood!" she shouted. She began to plunge the knife downward towards Willow's chest.
"Willow!" Buffy cried. She tossed her crossbow away and launched herself at Ashur, despite a warning from Stone. Buffy hit the woman with full force, and the two of them tumbled to the ground together away from Willow.
"You stupid girl!" Ash snarled as she and Buffy rolled on the ground, struggling for possession of the knife. She grabbed Buffy's throat, but screeched in horror when the Slayer's fingernails scratched at her eyes. "No!"
"It's working, Giles!" Xander exclaimed. He patted Giles on the back. "Come on, let's get Willow while Ash is distracted."
Stone knelt down by Willow, placing a hand on her forehead. "It's going to be all right," he assured her as Giles and Xander joined him. He looked to the Watcher. "Do you know how to free her from this spell?"
Giles flipped a page, held out a hand and uttered a phrase of magick. Once Willow's arms and legs were free, she leaped into the open arms of Xander.
"Thank God you guys got here!" Willow exclaimed. "I thought I was sacrificed for sure."
Buffy pinned Ash to the ground, sitting on the woman, her knees on Ash's shoulders. She wielded the knife, a smirk on her face. "I told you to just surrender," she said. "Now you've pissed me off and this is gonna hurt you ... a lot." She raised up the knife to ram it into Ash's eyes.
"Rrrrah!" Ash brought her hands forward. An invisible force wave blew Buffy backwards and she lost her grip on the knife. The Slayer sailed a good 50 feet through the air. Buffy hit a nearby tree with a sickening crack then she thudded face down on the ground.
Ash laughed as she rose to her feet. She picked up her knife, hiding it behind her back quickly and looked over to Stone, who was pointing his gun at her.
"Buffy!" Willow cried out. She attempted to run for her friend, but Giles and Xander held her back. No telling what Ash would do next.
Stone cocked his gun, and Ash smiled even wider. "You couldn't do it the last time, and you can't do it now," she said as she came closer to him.
"People change, Ash," Stone evenly replied.
"Not our kind." Her fingers wrapped tightly around the handle of the knife.
Giles started to recite another invocation for Baal.
Ash grumbled as she held up her free hand towards him. "Shut up!" Another wave of energy hit Giles, knocking him down, sending his body sliding about 10 feet. She chuckled as Xander and Willow ran to check on their friend.
"Is he dead?" Willow impatiently asked as Xander checked Giles for a pulse.
Xander sighed in relief. "No, he's alive. Just unconscious." He scowled as he turned his attention back to Ash and Stone. "He's not gonna whack this chick. If he was, he would've shot by now." He looked to Willow. "No Giles, no Slayer ... not to put too fine a point on it, but we're screwed."
Ash stretched out her empty hand to Stone. "It's useless, Zeke," she purred. "Why struggle? You won't win. The Slayer is dead, you have no one to help you." She smiled. "You can't send me back. You won't send me back." Her hand touched Stone's chest. "Give me the girl. Let me finish this ... then we'll all be free."
Stone looked from Ash's hand to the smiling woman. How he'd cared for her before ... before he found out the truth about her.
"We're Damned souls," Stone told her. "We're never free of our pasts." He saw the woman's eyes darken with hatred as her hand slipped from his chest. "And you're going back to Hell." He raised up the gun before Ash could react and let off one shot, hitting her in the left eye.
Ash backpedaled as her free hand went to her injured eye. A mist of bright light streamed from between her fingers. She gritted her teeth together as Stone brought up his gun to take another shot. She stumbled towards him before he could, knocking the gun from his hands. "If I go back, you're coming with me!" she snarled as she grabbed him by the neck. She brought out the knife from behind her back, raising it up to take out Stone's eyes.
A crossbow bolt flew from nowhere and hit Ash in the right eye. Ash let go of Stone, dropping the knife as she backed away from him, shrieking in an almost inhuman manner. "Nooo!" She clawed at her eyes as she doubled over. The golden beams of light encircled her body, breaking it down until she was finally gone. The only thing that remained was a burn mark on the grass.
Stone looked from the scorched earth to his left, where the shot originated from. He saw Buffy lying on her stomach with her crossbow clutched in her hands. She was alive. Barely, but alive.
"You know what they say." Buffy pushed herself up off of the ground. She winced in pain, her hand going to her back as she looked up to Stone. "It's all fun and games until someone loses an eye."
"Buffy!" Xander called. "Oh man, we thought you were dead!"
Buffy crawled over to where Xander, Willow and a still unconscious Giles were. "I thought I was dead too!" She whimpered as she sat down on the ground. "Is Giles all right?"
"Out like a light," he answered. "Another head trauma to chalk up on the G-Man's record."
Willow shook her head. "I'm so sorry. This is all my fault. I never would've been kidnapped if I hadn't believed Ash's story about her having a spell to seal up the Hellmouth." She sighed, lowering her head in shame. "I'm so stupid thinking that this magick stuff could've been useful to us for once." She looked at Buffy, tears in her eyes. "I only wanted you to have a chance at a normal life, Buffy."
Buffy smiled. "I'm never going to have a normal life, Will," she sadly said. "But it's the thought that counts." She used her right arm to semi-hug Willow. "I appreciate your attempt to help out."
"Hey! I helped kill some of those ugly poisonous snakes," Xander cut in. "Don't I get a hug?" He held out his arms and waited.
Buffy laughed and hugged him as well. "You did a great job, Xander," she told him.
"Yes, yes," Giles' voice groaned as he sat up on the ground. "We're all quite proud of Xander's snake slaying skills." He smiled a little at Buffy. "He came through for us."
"And you weren't the only one, it appears." She turned to say something to Stone, but she frowned. "Hey ... what happened to him? He was right here!"
The others scanned the clearing, but there wasn't a sign of Stone anywhere.
" 'He promptly vanished, with no fanfare'," Giles said, quoting the monk's chronicles.
"Huh?" Willow said as they all helped Giles to his feet. "I missed out on a whole lot, I guess."
"We didn't even get to say thanks," Buffy murmured, looking to Giles.
"Thanks?" Xander incredulously repeated. "For what? For telling you all that crap about your job?"
"That's exactly why," Buffy replied. "It's not what I'm fighting that matters, Xander. It's why. The greater good and all." She smiled at them. "You guys. And if the Devil thinks that's funny, good for him." She grunted as she got to her feet, putting a hand to her back. "I tell you, though, the greater good needs a better health insurance plan. Let's get out of here."
Willow put an arm around Buffy. "Yeah. We have school in the morning."
"Ugh! Don't remind me!" Xander groaned as they left the clearing. "I have two tests tomorrow. Who gives tests on a Monday, for crying out loud? Sometimes I think that the Hellmouth isn't the real evil in this town, it's our school system. No offense, Giles."
"None taken. I tend to agree," Giles said.
Stone, hands stuffed into the pockets of his coat, walked down the empty Main Street of Sunnydale headed for his motel. It was time to go back to L.A., some place less exciting than this town. He slowed to a stop, chuckling a little when he saw the Devil leaning against one of the lamp posts.
"I didn't believe you'd pull it off, Ezekiel, but you did," the Devil said. He clapped a hand on Stone's shoulder. "And did we learn our lesson for the day?"
"Yes, I get the message: I can't do this alone. Thanks so much," Stone replied. He started to walk again, shoving the Devil's hand off at the same time. "Why can't you just tell me this stuff without all the little games?"
"Actually, that's not what I wanted you to learn," the Devil told him as he fell in step beside Stone. "Ash took the faith you placed in other people to help you. The Slayer and her sickeningly happy band of friends restored that."
Stone stopped abruptly. "Again, why couldn't you just tell me?" he asked. "It was down to the eleventh hour, Ash almost completed her ritual and destroyed the world. Why the games?"
"How else would I have any fun, Ezekiel?" The Devil laughed. "Oh, come now, you don't think I actually cared if Ash completed her ritual and eradicated every human being on the planet, do you? I've no love for humankind."
"No, I think you do. Without us, you wouldn't have any more of your fun." Stone started to walk once more.
"I'll be seeing you very soon," the Devil called out to him. "With Ash back in my loving embrace, the other Damned souls will have scattered from here. A lot of work to do!"
"Go to Hell," was the grumbled response as he continued walking.
"Not yet." The Devil watched Stone disappear into the darkness. "I have to pay a visit to someone first."
Buffy closed the front door. She leaned back, taking in a deep breath. It was all finally over. Another end of the world averted, lives saved, and she was still standing. Despite a few bumps, things worked out pretty well.
"Where have you been?" Joyce asked as she came out of the kitchen. She saw her daughter was banged up once more. "Where did you go? How did this happen?"
She looked at her mother, a curious expression on her face. "I went and killed the bad guys," she said as Joyce led her into the kitchen. "Like you told me to."
"Like I told you to?" Joyce repeated as she dampened a washcloth. She turned to Buffy. "What on earth are you talking about?" She gave the cloth to Buffy.
"Come on, Mom. You came up to my room after Xander and Giles left, remember?" Buffy said as she placed the cool rag on the back of her neck. "And you gave me this big speech about helping people and how important my job is." Joyce just stared at her. "Mom, don't do that. You're beginning to scare me."
"Buffy, I never came up to your room after they left the house," Joyce replied, shaking her head. "Are you sure you weren't dreaming, honey?"
"Yes, I'm sure! Or else somebody who looks a lot like you came to my room and told me where to -" Her words stopped abruptly as a puzzled expression crossed her face. "Wait ... you told me where to find Ash." She looked at her mother. "In the woods, and you told me to hurry."
"That wasn't me."
"Yeah... but it was somebody." She sighed as she buried her face in the cool rag. "Something really strange has been happening around here the last few days."
Joyce smiled as she patted Buffy on the back. "Whoever it was, Buffy, he or she gave you back what you lost." She hugged her. "I'm so happy to have my daughter back."
"But I -"
Joyce held up a hand, shushing Buffy. "Sometimes it's best to just accept things, no matter how odd."
Buffy sighed as she placed the cloth back to her forehead. "This town is getting too weird."
"But it's still standing," Joyce said. "Thanks to you."
"All part of the job." Buffy peeked out from under the cloth and grinned at her mother.
Willow sat on her bed, legs crossed, petting Amy the rat on the head. She sighed as she put Amy down and swung her legs over the side. She looked over to her clock as the numbers changed from 11:59 to 12:00. She'd been trying to sleep, however, it wasn't happening. She thought it was the trauma of almost being killed but that was such a biweekly event in her life now. It was something else.
Pushing her hair out of her face, Willow picked up one of her magick books. Amy the rat's nose twitched as she scampered over to Willow as the girl opened the book. Amy squeaked as her little rat eyes looked from the book to Willow, hopeful.
"I know," Willow sighed as she read over the reversal spell once more. "I've tried everything to de-rat you, Amy. I promise I'll change you back." She frowned. "Then maybe I should just give this up. It's almost killed me more than once."
Amy squeaked frantically as she scrambled off of Willow's bed and slipped under it.
"Hey!" Willow exclaimed as she dropped to her knees. "Amy! Come back!" She pushed back the bedskirt and peered under her bed. "Amy? Come out! Please?" She heard squeaking, but couldn't see her. She gave up on trying to coax Amy out and sat back on her heels.
She looked up to see a stranger sitting on her bed, smiling down at her pleasantly. "Oh God!" she shrieked in surprise as she fell back on her butt. She blinked as she stared up at the man.
"Not quite, but you're close," the Devil said. He winked at her when her eyes widened. "Hmmm ... a little light reading?" He picked up the magick book and flipped through it. "Spells, magick, witchcraft. I knew there was a reason I liked you."
Willow grabbed her bookbag, reached inside and pulled out a cross. She held it up between her and the Devil. "Stay back! I swear! I'll ... I'll ..."
"You'll what?" the Devil asked, an amused expression on his face.
"Whu... We ... Well, I don't know," Willow spluttered out as she continued to hold up the cross. "But if you don't leave me alone, I'll do something ... really ... really ... mean!"
The Devil tossed the magick book aside and hopped down off of the bed. He grinned down at Willow as she backed away from him on her hands and feet. "I like it already," he casually replied. He motioned to the cross. "You can put that away, since it really doesn't bother me."
She looked at the cross then laid it on the floor. "Who are you?"
"You know who I am."
Willow gasped loudly when she realized the stranger was kneeling behind her, his voice right in her ear. She froze, too scared to move, too scared to even breathe. What was it with these whackos and their fascination with her this weekend? She closed her eyes. "Who are you?" she asked again, her voice trembling.
"I'm hurt!" The Devil frowned. "You don't remember that night, not long ago, when you invited me to fill you with my 'naughty evil'?" He laughed as he placed his hands on Willow's trembling shoulders. "You're lucky I was busy right then. The offer was tempting, little witch." He patted her on top of her head. "Keep up the good work."
Willow's eyes opened and she turned around. Whoever it was ... he was gone. Her hands were shaking as she crawled over to her bed. She picked up her magick book, hugging it closely. Amy the rat poked her head out from underneath Willow's bed and squeaked a few times.
"I think he's gone," she whispered. She opened her book up and drew in a sharp breath. Written at the front of the book was "Be seeing you". She slammed it shut, tossed it away and climbed into bed, hiding under her covers. She tugged the blankets up to her neck, shivering.
The Devil laughed as he hopped down off of the balcony outside of Willow's bedroom. She'd be plenty scared for awhile. "I knew there was a reason I loved these people," he murmured.
Laughing, he vanished into thin air as he walked away from the young witch's house.
The end ...