Part 20

The wraiths had sensed intruders in their meadow the minute the demon-hunters had set foot in it. There was brief excitement among them when they saw that two of the strangers were female, but on closer inspection they discovered that one was not human and the other not yet an adult. Their disappointment had been keen, until one of the more quick-witted wraiths (who in life had been a disciple of Charles Manson before being murdered in a fit of jealousy because her hexes actually worked) noted that the strangers had entered; ergo there must be a door.

"You and you and you and you, stay! The rest of us come, find the door the door the doordoordoordoor look for the door..." The words had tumbled out of her mouth in a barely coherent jabber as she led the shadow people into the intruders' cave at breakneck speed and up its esophagus and into the pink chamber, where the mud-colored portal vomited them out onto Dilip's lawn.


Human women here! Young and nice and pretty. Surely one of them would serve. The wraiths wasted no time: they swarmed over the legs of the young women and pulled as hard as they could. One of the women took no notice of them at all, while another, dark of skin and thick of ankle, brushed at her calves and muttered something about the fleas from Singh's cat.

The third one, though, was solid under their fingers, and smelled of wolf. The wraiths shrieked with joy and fell upon her.

A fourth woman came out of a house, and the wraiths abandoned their fruitless struggle with the two other women and tried this new one instead. She too had been touched by the demonic! Two mates to appease the master!

This one gasped as she hit the ground, and halfway to the hole she began squirming and thrashing. The wraiths tightened their grip and pulled faster. Her squirms resurrected in one of the shadow men a vague memory of sex, and he burrowed underneath her sweater and slid across her skin with cold, exploring hands.

They were almost to the hellmouth's opening with their prizes. If the other humans chose to hang on and be dragged in as well, let them. Perhaps they could be the basis for the barbecue that their lord so craved.


Below in the demon dimension, the hunters stared after the departed wraiths.

"That was Illyria's big scarey bogey?" Spike snorted. "I've farted vapors that were more menacing than that."

"Spike, we can really do without the comparative anatomy."

"I'm just sayin'."

Angel scowled at the younger vampire. "Just...shut up. I'm trying to get us through this." He squinted in the unaccustomed sunlight and scanned their surroundings. "There's a few more caves up on those ledges; I'll take a look in them. The rest of you stay here until I call for you."

Paloma had lifted herself a few inches from the ground, supporting her body on her hands and on the balls of her feet, her legs contorted out at her sides like a horned lizard's, and she had already begun slithering forward with Thu right behind her. She halted and looked back at Angel with a surprised expression. She exchanged a glance with Dilip, and Thu looked uncertainly at them both. Finally she spoke to Angel in a soft, gentle voice.

"'re not our leader."

Angel looked as startled as if he'd been slapped in the face with a wet cat.

Paloma hastened to remove some of the sting from the blow. "I mean, I'm sure you're a good one, and you done it for a long time, but we -- we don' work that way. We never have. We just all kind of decide together, you know?"

"Oh." Angel nodded blankly, at a loss for words. "Oh. All right. Sorry."

"Es no problem." The chupacabra's eyes slowly enlarged to their natural size, and her talons and razor teeth emerged. "You guys want to fan out in pairs? Stay in shouting distance of each other?"

"Let me check in first." Dilip fingered the piece of felt for a moment. Then he returned it to his pocket. "Nothing from above. I guess Mike still hasn't seen anything more."


Oz and Spike took the far side of the meadow, moving through goldenrod and fescue and patches of small purple violets. They passed a brook, bright and clear; it glinted in the sunshine and gave off soft bubbling sounds. Crickets trilled in the grass. The air overhead was filled with birdsong.

"It'd help if we knew what the hell we were looking for. Place looks like it was made for fairies an' pixies an' leprechauns an' little fruity elves. If the bloody Lollipop Guild comes prancing out of the bushes I'm turnin' right 'round and-"


Spike looked down instinctively and jerked his foot up from where he'd almost planted it squarely in a small crevice full of hot, steaming magma. It lay half-hidden in the grass like an Easter egg, glowing red and orange. He rocked back on his heels and gaped at the fissure, then nodded to Oz gratefully. "Thanks. Guess the elves are out of sorts today." The magma tumbled along the little gash in the earth as merrily as if it were the brook's water, and though it gave off a blistering heat, the plants beside it didn't shrivel or burn. Mesmerized, they watched it for a moment or two, then moved on, keeping wary eyes on the ground now as much as on the horizon.

Across the meadow, they spotted Angel and Dilip making their way among the low bluffs and outcroppings of stone and cavern. The girls were nowhere in sight, but they could imagine them slinking through the tall grass like lionesses, just below their line of vision. The sweet fragrance of flowers was everywhere...and underneath it was another odor.

"You smellin' that?" Spike whispered.

"Yeah. It's like a diaper pail."

"It's the whole sodding privy. With a dead rat thrown in for good measure." The scent was so subtle that a mere human nose would probably not have detected it, but to Spike and Oz it smelled ghastly. "Unless one of us just shat ourselves and doesn't want to admit it, I'd say this place is about to show its true nature."

The false sun was warm on their faces. Fescue and goldenrod swayed gently. They hunched motionless, watching, listening.

It hit from behind.

Inky black shadows poured through the grass and enveloped them with the speed of a flash mudslide, tossing and tumbling them across the ground. They found themselves swaddled, yet there was nothing solid for them to fight against. The blackness hefted them both, then converged on the smaller of the two men and hoisted him into the air by his feet. Spike made a desperate leap for him, but missed by inches. "OZ!"


"Holy shit." Thu and Paloma stared in wonder as Oz ascended into the sky. He came to a halt about forty feet up, dangling upside down, with a black, vaporous cloud around his legs. He appeared at first to be either dead or unconscious, but soon they realized that he was simply holding very, very still.

Angel thundered up beside the girls, with Dilip hurrying behind him. Spike joined them. "It's a force of some kind -- strong -- damned fast. India, can you get him down?"

The sorcerer lifted his palm toward the sky and began an incantation. The cloud flickered grey and white and back to black; then a piece of it broke away and drifted down into the grasses. It rose up again, about the height of a man, and then it was a man, or rather the shadow of one.

The crickets' chirping swelled to a high scream.

"Give us back the boy," Dilip ordered. The shadow man's arm reached for him, stretching out along the ground until it touched his chest. Dilip pulled a talisman from under his shirt. The shadow drew back, gasping.

"A bargain," it whispered. "Wizard."

"What kind of bargain?"

"A human woman."

"That's all?"


Was that all? It was so hard to remember.

What else had Master complained of? Food, yes, and drink...Was it power? To be a lord greater than any other lord of the dead? Had that been the master's wish or theirs? Perhaps, now that he gave it some thought, a hound was too common. There were other beasts with more strength, bigger size. Their lord...

Their lord strolled out of one of the caves. He was full wolf at the moment, groggy from sleep and blinking in the sun. The invaders were a fair distance from him, so he failed to notice them, and stretched and yawned instead, then had himself a good scratch.

The wraith suddenly felt not at all satisfied.

"Make our lord monstrous. Not a wolf; greater than a wolf. Elephant, bear, serpent, bull." The wraith danced with excitement as it warmed to its idea. "The strength to move between worlds. Give our lord -- or we drop the boy."

Angel jerked toward the shadowy figure with venom in his face. Dilip threw out his arm and stopped him.

"You're asking three for one. No deal. I make one magic for one trade."

One magic? Only one? But this wizard remembers the words we've forgotten. He remembers the spells. Don't anger him too much...

"You remember the words," it sighed. "Magic...I was a warlock. One for one. Make the master greater than a wolf."

Dilip put the talisman back around his neck, pulled his knapsack off, and knelt down on the ground. "What kind of animal you want him to be?"

The wraith puddled onto the ground at a safe distance from him, and its soft voice seemed to come from everywhere. "Make him a dragon."


Dilip's expression was inscrutable, and seemed to be etched in stone. For one instant, though, Spike imagined he saw a tiny glint in the sorcerer's eye. He sidled up beside Angel and murmured near his ear.

"Don't panic; I think the old fellow knows what he's doing. Better get ready to make a dive for Oz in mid-air, though."

"He'd better know," Angel hissed back. He damn well better. We can't set another dragon loose in the world.

There was a rattling sound as Dilip shook some rune stones and bone fragments from the knapsack and cast them on the ground. He studied them carefully. "I can make a dog into a dragon with a lion's head. Will that do?"

The shadow man lifted back up into the air and merged with the cloud that held Oz captive. Oz's face had become beet red. Thu Khiem whispered, "I think he's gonna barf."

Shadow voices wafted down to them. "Agreed. Give your word or we throw him from the sky."

"Dragon dog with a lion's head. My word. Back off and let me work."

Dilip swept the stones and bones back into the knapsack. He turned his gaze upon the huge wolfish creature dozing on the ledge, and took up his chant again. The words were clipped and harsh, with a bahng bahng banga bahng percussion cadence.

The wolf raised its head and looked at them.

"Bah-tah-seeah-seeka-sha..." Dilip's voice grew louder, and he began to clap his hands with every beat.

The werewolf drew its lips back and exposed its wicked white teeth. The chanting went even higher in volume. Every hackle on the creature's body rose...and then the creature rose, too.

It leaped from its ledge and charged toward the demon-hunters, eyes black and insane and saliva slinging from its flews. Its growl was like the roar of an approaching freight train. Sunlight ricocheted off its fur, save for a small bald gash of healing scar tissue across the top of its head. It closed in -- sprang --


A little brown Pekingese landed at their feet. Its bug eyes and flattened, mushed-in face glared up at them from a few inches off the ground, radiating hate, and then stared at itself in shock. It yapped furiously and waddled around, its long hair rippling in the sunlight, save for a small bald scar on its head.

Dilip had kept his word: the miniature Fu dogs of China, bred to resemble dragons and lions, guardians of the gateways of Peking's palaces and temples. A dragon dog with a lion's head.

In the next instant Angel tore off his talisman and hurled it at the boiling black cloud. The cloud shrieked as the charm passed through it, and the shadow people split apart and shot away in three different directions. Oz plummeted. He was ten feet from the ground when both vampires made a running jump and caught him.


The wraiths in Dilip's yard were faring no better. They had met an obstacle in Kay, who pushed their captives back with her mind for every inch they pulled them forward, although she was beginning to tire. And now Elsie remembered the charm on the cord around her neck. She yanked the necklace off and began beating the invisible entities with it. With every blow she heard a faint squeal or a ghostly cry, and suddenly one of Nina's legs was free. The others saw, and brought out their talismans also.

Painful gasps whispered in the air, and then dying ones, and finally, silence.


The underground group picked its way slowly back through the meadow, Spike and Thu Kheim supporting a dizzy, exhausted Oz between them. "Shouldn't we do something about the evil doggy?" the slayer wondered aloud. "What if those things try to turn it into something else?"

Angel looked behind them, up at the cliffs where the she-wolves were eyeing the tiny morsel of doglet and silently closing in. "I really don't think they're gonna have time."

As they entered their own cave and made their way to the portal, the demon with the blasted eyesockets manifested in the brook. It watched them go, chuckling to itself. And still chuckling, it fished a bloated shadow person out of the water and began to gnaw on it.



Early in the evening of January 7th, Spike strolled up the walk to the porch of Michael's house. He found Oz perched there, looking contemplative. Pulling a lighter and a package of smokes from his jacket pocket, he hopped up onto the porch as well.

"I was just starting a gallop around the town to look for knaves and villains. Want to go for a pint afterward?"

Oz shook his head apologetically. "I'll have to take a raincheck. I'm waiting for Jordy. My uncle's dropping him off for the weekend for some more training."

Spike peered at him in the yellow glow of the porchlight. "Sure you feel up to it? Your eyes still look a bit bloodshot."

"It's not too bad. Nina made some pretty good progress this afternoon. Only had one setback where she kinda lost it for a couple of seconds and tore all her clothes off, but her chain held, so no big."

"Huzzahs all around, then! What were you doing just now, starin' off into space?"

"Conjugating 'shat.'" Oz's face was droll and thoughtful. "'I shat; you shat; they shat; he, she, or it shat.' ...Not a lot of variety."

Spike grinned as he lit a cigarette. "You're a queer one, Dog Boy."

"So they tell me. Where's Fred?"

"Building a sea monkey tank in our bedroom."

A final bit of twilight faded in the west, throwing that part of the world into darkness. The night blanketed the neighborhood and the two young men. Midwinter breezes set a tree limb in motion and it scratched against the porch roof, like a puppy begging to be let inside.




Author's Note: Thank you, everyone, for your feedback and your patience as I wrestle with Real Life for time to write. There's a sequel to this story in the works; I just have to kick-start it and pick out a title. And then point behind Real Life and yell, "LOOK OVER THERE!" and run away while she's distracted.