Chapter Twenty-Three: The Penny Drops
SATURDAY, JUNE 8, 2002, 8:00 PM (GMT)
ON THE ROAD
Wesley Wyndam-Pryce took a measured, calming breath, then let it out again as he stared through the windscreen and counted down the kilometres to their destination. Deciphering the digital images he'd retrieved from the Rollright installation had been only the work of a moment- in retrospect, the answer had been incredibly obvious; he should have thought to look into Travers' maternal family's private landholdings before taking the risk of meeting another Watcher, no matter how well he'd thought he knew the man- but the journey there was taking considerably longer than he'd like.
But then, any span of time longer than an instant would have been too long. He couldn't stop thinking about that last vision-induced image of Faith: lying dead- or as close to death as made little difference- atop an anonymous bed in a Council facility under Travers' aegis. If she did not recover...
He tore his thoughts away from that unproductive line, flexing his fingers on the hilt of the sword lying unsheathed across his thighs. She would recover; he'd doubted her before, to both of their detriment, and had long sworn to himself never to do so again.
The Summers girls had patched Wesley up enough to allow for a change of shirt and the use of Willow's laptop computer, then ushered him to the front passenger seat of the van they'd rented in London. No one had objected, or suggested that he take over the driving duties instead, despite his superior knowledge of the local road network, for which forbearance he would have to thank them later. He'd had a difficult enough time holding onto his equilibrium before he'd acquired rather pointed first-hand knowledge of just how far Travers would go to ensure the success of his attempt to consolidate the Council's power; simply remaining quiet and calm was taxing all the reserves he had left.
Buffy let him breathe in silence for some minutes, waving off the others when they began murmuring questions. But she leaned forward as the last rays of the sun slipped under the horizon, knitting her fingers together at the edge of his peripheral vision.
"So. You ready to talk now?" she asked, bluntly.
Wesley inclined his head, turning slightly for a better look at her, taking in the furrowed brow and determined expression on the senior Slayer's face. He would just as soon not have discussed his failings with the careless young woman whose initial mocking disapproval still stung three years later; but she wasn't that girl anymore, any more than he was that failure of a Watcher, and little good had ever come from his concealing uncomfortable truths from his friends.
"As ready as I'll ever be, I suppose."
"We intercepted part of a video sent to Travers earlier," she said. "It looked like you had Jonathan's dad with you for a while. But he's not with you now. What happened?"
Wesley frowned. He'd half-expected Buffy to lead with an accusation for leaving the other Slayers and his team behind with no more warning than a note left for Giles. But of course, everyone in the van had been prone to that sort of behaviour at one time or another; let he who was without sin cast the first stone.
"They were prepared for my visit; my informant reported my presence to the security team on site, and they cast a spell intending to trap me without access to magic. Some sort of containment void- only ordinary humans are able to cross its boundaries."
Recognition flickered in Buffy's green eyes at the description. "They must've done the same thing to Faith; we felt it when you both disappeared off our radar at the same time. How'd you get out of it?"
Wesley shrugged. "I didn't. Much as he might quarrel with the term ordinary, Ethan Rayne is, in fact, a rather middling practitioner. It's his ingenuity and choice of deity that distinguish him from the general run of sorcerers, not his genetic or spiritual heritage."
"And they were expecting you to bring Giles, I bet, if you brought anyone, and it would've trapped him too," she mused. "So Ethan got you out?"
"He did indeed," Wesley confirmed, grimacing as he recalled his last sight of the man, spattered in blood, the second of Wesley's collapsible swords in his hands. The operatives in the lab complex had obviously expected to find Wesley incapacitated by the spell, alone, and easily taken; the presence of Rupert's old friend, yet another of the Council's exiles come home to roost, had been a rude surprise. Not to mention far more skilled with a blade than any of Travers' foot soldiers had been prepared to handle.
"He was able to leave the radius of the spell and damage enough of the supporting runes to bring it down," he continued, glossing right over the seemingly endless minutes of bladework that had got them to that point: of steel clashing against modern weapons, of torn flesh and bright pain, of taunts and refusal to yield as he served as a distraction for the chaos sorcerer's actions. Desperate fights were nothing new to Buffy, or to the other listeners filling the van's bench seats behind her; they'd fill that part in for themselves without the need to waste words on it.
"Fortunately for us," he continued, "it's a rather sensitive construct, requiring a great deal of preparation and maintenance- we should be able to free Faith the same way, provided they're still holding her under the same enchantment."
"Sounds like a plan," Buffy nodded, fiddling with a knife of her own. He recognised it as an ornate Jackal knife, more a thing of fantasy than a functional fighting knife, though still quite sharp and deadly; close kin to one he knew held a certain significance in her history with Faith.
"Still not hearing what happened to Chaos Senior, though," Dawn piped up. "We're not gonna have to break the news to Jonathan, are we? Not that I care about Ethan Rayne, but, you know. Jonathan's kind of okay. He doesn't talk down to me, or treat me like a kid."
Wesley shook his head; that concern, at least, he could alleviate. "He drew them away from the stairwell for me; said he'd find his own way out. I'm afraid I wasn't in any shape to object at the time." He met Buffy's eyes, then, holding her gaze with careful emphasis. "After having been unexpectedly cut off from my new abilities after finally becoming accustomed to them... I find I have a much greater respect for any Slayer to survive her eighteenth birthday."
Buffy stared back, eyes darkening with old, painful memories. Then she squared her jaw and gave a nod of acknowledgement. "And that's another bone to pick with Travers after we run him to ground; thanks for reminding me. And here I'd thought Faith would miss out on that oh so thrilling tradition."
Wesley hadn't thought of Faith's kidnapping in those terms; but he realised that Travers very likely did. She'd been in prison during the weeks the Cruciamentum drugs would traditionally have been administered, and no Council wetworks team would have been able to reach her there. Had Travers been behind Wolfram and Hart releasing her from prison in the first place? It wouldn't surprise him.
"At least all you had to deal with was a psycho vampire who kidnapped your mom," Cordelia interrupted brightly, throwing a glance over her shoulder at Buffy. "Though you would have thought she'd have learned from your example: the deadly poison's supposed to go in the other guy, not the Slayer."
"You think?" Buffy batted back. "Or maybe she had the right idea, and I was the one doing it wrong. Maybe I could have just drunk the holy water myself instead of tricking Kralik into it- that would have been a lot easier. Hey, Wes- how quickly does holy water hit the bloodstream? Or does it just, like, depurify when you drink it?"
Wesley appreciated what the two were trying to do, and made an effort to rally in response. "As far as I'm aware, no one's ever made a study of it; or if they have, no surviving record exists."
Dawn huffed a laugh. "Yeah, I can imagine. 'Is it burning yet? Glurk!'" She clutched theatrically at the side of her throat.
"I don't know; Buffy does kind of have a tame vampire following her around. She could be the first! What do you think, Buff? Would Spike be willing to risk spontaneous demon combustion for the chance to taste Slayer blood?" Xander ducked a reactive swipe of the hand over the seats between the two with a chortle.
The Groosalugg chose that moment to add his own two pence, in a perfectly matter-of-fact tone. He'd been carrying on a conversation with the two Sunnydale witches, but the lot of them tended to forget that he wasn't limited to the human range of senses. "For many demons, the risk would only add to the sweetness of the reward; or perhaps spice, depending on flavour preferences. Though I have not observed your friend Spike to be a particularly bloodthirsty individual."
"Groo, honey..." Cordelia cast another glance back over her shoulder- then grinned, her face lighting up with affection. "You're getting better at the dry joke thing. Almost got me that time."
Wesley shook his head, smiling a little despite himself. He would never have predicted that relationship, but the Groosalugg had been good for her. Of course, a lot of things had happened in the last few years- particularly the last few months- that he would never have predicted, he realised, smile fading.
"This is entirely my fault, you realise," he blurted, then winced as everyone else fell silent in the wake of his ill-timed words.
Cordelia threw a glare in his direction. "What the hell are you talking about? If you mean Groo's mastery of the English language, pretty sure he's managing that all on his own. With, of course, a teensy amount of help from yours truly. But if you mean the epic international vacation from hell, pretty sure that can be laid at the feet of Quentin Travers, asshole extraordinaire."
"Because he won my father's- Richard Wyndam-Pryce's- backing in certain matters on the Senior Council on which they'd previously always been at odds," he countered.
"Because of you?" Buffy asked sceptically. "From what I heard, it seemed like they were already on the same side when they showed up at the Hyperion with that box from Anya's friend."
Wesley tightened his jaw at the memory of the tiny keepsake box, and its contents; so small a thing, to herald so much change. "An alliance of circumstance, I assumed; and one that seems to have changed character since. I admit, Richard was not always the... most supportive parental figure, and his interest now is undoubtedly mercenary in nature as well. But for whatever reason, he wishes the news of my heritage to remain a secret enough to cooperate..."
He trailed off as his choice of words abruptly connected a series of previously unrelated facts in the back of his mind. "Ah. Mercenary. Of course." His grip on the sword hilt tightened again.
Back when he'd still believed himself to be wholly human, the demon Sahjhan had wakened Daniel Holtz from a centuries-long slumber to target Angel's infant son, in effect using the hunter as a mercenary to carry out those actions his own incorporeal nature prevented him from enacting with his own hands. He'd also, according to Angel's recounting of their first meeting, been in contact with Lilah Morgan- the woman who'd sold Faith to Travers' faction of the Watchers Council only two days ago. Sahjhan had torn the fabric of space and time to get rid of Connor; then sent him back in time in Holtz' care when Quor-Toth had not appeared to affect him. Sahjhan had even appeared to Wesley afterward, hinting broadly that further surprises were yet to unfold. Why had he assumed that the time-traveling demon was not at least partially behind current events, as well?
"Care to translate that from Watcherese to English for us?" Xander asked, dryly, as the silence lengthened.
"When I first discovered what had happened to Angel's son," he replied slowly, mouth dry at the implications. "My father- Richard Wyndam-Pryce- said that he had seized the opportunity to mould a child of fate, but that I had never quite measured up to his expectations."
Cordelia made a scoffing noise. "Not just that; he said you'd failed even in succeeding. At dying. If he could say something like that, why should he even care whether people still think he's your father or not?"
"Because Sahjhan must have promised him something in exchange for raising me... well, not to put too fine a point on it, as a sheep for slaughter. A reward that he obviously hasn't yet been granted. Allowing Travers to believe he's blackmailing him into going along with this ill-thought-out plan has given him the perfect excuse to set me up again, without alerting any of the other Watchers to his private arrangements."
"That does sound kinda like something Sahjhan would do," Cordelia said. "Doesn't excuse ol' Rich, though; in fact, it makes him even more of a jerk. Doesn't make it your fault, either. Of all the traits you could have inherited from Angel, why did the tendency to brood have to be one of them?"
"Save it for later, guys- we're about to cross the outer wardline," Willow interrupted from the back of the van. "We kept an eye out for that shield signature that kept showing up on the map; I can feel it up ahead, behind that line of trees."
Wes examined the surrounding scenery in the dim light of dusk; he hadn't been to that particular property before, but it seemed to match the contour map he'd seen when he'd pulled up the coordinates on Willow's computer. The trees she'd pointed out marched along the gravelled drive up to an aging manor house, concealed at the moment just beyond a low rise of hill crowned with gardens long gone to seed. "Yes, this is it; be ready. There likely aren't any perimeter guards on the property; that would be too conspicuous. But there will be magical defences against unauthorised entry."
"We can hold the w-ward so it doesn't react to our presence," Tara suggested. "But if we're busy with that, and they do see you..."
"Just get us inside," Buffy said, reaching forward between the seats to squeeze Wesley's arm. "We'll take care of the rest."
"Right. Crossing the ward..." Willow replied as they passed the line of trees and slowed to turn up the drive. The grass of the surrounding fields had begun to infiltrate the rocky lane; clear lanes of bent blades betrayed the presence of other recent visitors. "And... oh, goddess!"
Wesley could hear Tara gasp in an echo of Willow's startlement; it was almost drowned out by his own hiss of breath as a familiar prickly sensation played over his skin. Dark magic. Specifically, the type of magic he'd felt earlier that day, in the complex under the Rollright Stones.
But why should Travers' faction reactivate that spell at their safe house... unless they had need?
Urgency thrummed through his veins, and in that moment, the only thing that mattered to him was getting to his Slayer, no matter the risk.
"There's no time. They're casting the containment spell again; I must get inside the boundary before it finishes activating. Look for the runes- I doubt you'll be able to lower it by brute force!"
He wrenched the passenger door open before he'd even finished speaking, then leaped out, hitting the ground as Cordelia turned to avoid the dry, cracked fountain sitting at the centre of the drive where it crested the hill to approach the house itself. Gravel sprayed under his feet as he caught his balance, running with the sword tucked close at his side; barely knitted cuts and bruises from his last fight added to the chorus of complaint following him from the van. Brakes squealed; he heard the other door open, and two or three more pairs of feet pounding after him, but he didn't dare look back.
If Faith's necklace had been discovered... if they'd discovered how to use it to wake her, or worse, if she'd perished despite his attempts to safeguard her and they sought to contain the newest Slayer in her place... he would do absolutely no good trapped outside the spell's reach. The seconds or minutes it would take to hunt down the runes and disrupt it could mean a young woman's life, quite possibly the woman whose life had become more important to him than his own.
The wide front doors of the modestly sized brick building opened as he approached the front steps; a startled-looking young man in a suit with a crossbow in one arm swore and began to bring it to bear, but Wesley ploughed right into him before he could properly aim. The junior Watcher flew backward, knocked to the floor of the entry hall, and Wesley leapt right over him. Several other faces turned to greet him, startled and hostile expressions shifting to alarm as his backup arrived: Buffy, Dawn, and the Groosalugg.
"We'll deal with the goons, Wes," Buffy assured him. "Find her! Go!"
He took off again down the hall, running toward the sounds of turmoil carrying from deeper in the building. But before he could reach it... the spell coalesced, and he stumbled, caught off balance not only by the abrupt absence of magic but also by a sudden tremor in the earth.
A tremor similar to the one that had heralded the destruction of the Wolfram and Hart building.
If he couldn't find Faith in the next few minutes... the arrival of the Hellmouth would surely destroy them, as well.