Buffy walked in first, supporting a still weak but no longer quite as ashen Xander. He'd eaten some rice, and that seemed to have helped. Wolfy Oz walked at the same pace as everyone else, but for a semi-werewolf, that was a pretty tame speed. Tara, Kennedy, Dawn and Spike followed hesitantly behind. Buffy took one look at Angel and winced. Obviously, he'd also gotten the message.
"Welcome, tribes," came the jovial voice from ahead of them. Almost everyone was ready to wring Jeff's neck. Angel was the only one who took action.
Jeff scoff-laughed despite the hands around his neck. He forced Angel off him. "That's for you to find out. Both of your tribe members are hidden in the middle of these brick mazes," he said, turning and gesturing to the massive structures behind him. "Both mazes are exactly the same. It's only a matter of the route you choose. The first tribe to get to their teammate wins reward."
"What's reward?" Faith asked huskily.
"There are two parts. The first part of reward is a lovely selection of preserved fruits. Twenty-four cans of fruit, two for every day remaining as two separate tribes. The second part is the return of your tribemate in one piece."
"You wouldn't," Buffy said.
Jeff smiled. "This island isn't about giggles and kittens. I believe your friends Xander and Oz experienced that today. Either Cordelia or Wesley will soon do likewise." Jeff's smile flickered as Xander coughed heavily; he, too, heard the fluid sound of the cough and noticed the small amount of blood on his hand. "However, under the circumstances, the Jeff Tribe would be under a serious disadvantage if they had to lug an injured person with them, since you'll all be tied together and must remain so throughout the duration of the challenge. Xander may sit out. This evens the sides, in any case; six to a tribe."
Jeff grabbed ten pairs of cheap handcuffs and walked over to Buffy and Spike, handcuffing her right wrist to his left. Spike smirked and glanced at Buffy, who caught his eye momentarily and then looked immediately away. Jeff smiled. "Don't get the wrong idea. I get these back as soon as the challenge is over." He cuffed Spike's right wrist to Dawn, Dawn to Tara, Tara to Kennedy and Kennedy to Oz, who brought up the rear. Then he went to the other team and thought for a minute. "Faith, you're up front."
"I don't think so," Angel protested.
"See that? That's exactly why you can't be at the front. You'll get eager and might end up dragging your team behind you. This is a teamwork drill. Take the backseat. This is too personal for you." Jeff handcuffed Faith to Angel. "Besides, this will keep the order more or less equal on both sides. Slayer, vamp, human, human, third strongest, and half-demon at the back. Consistent. Equal chances. I'm not giving you the advantage just because you're in love with your teammate. I'm not that evil."
Buffy's face snapped over to Angel's, who had looked at her guiltily at the same time to see if she'd picked up on that. So she never had known that he had loved Cordy. He'd wondered.
"Contestants, ready… go!"
Buffy gladly surged forward into the maze, trying not to fume. Momentarily, she realized she was going too fast and slowed up. This pace was more comfortable, and they moved along much more effectively.
Faith walked slowly, figuring that calm was the best way to go about this. She didn't want to rub Angel the wrong way. Besides, Ripper wasn't being the most co-operative person ever, and that slowed them down a bit.
Buffy reached a crossroads. She thought for a moment and then turned behind her. "Left or right?" she asked the others quietly.
"Your guess is as good as mine," Spike said. "Either one could hold the advantage. It's impossible to tell."
"No one's picking up anything?"
Spike and Oz both shook their heads.
"We're in the left-hand maze," Tara said quietly. "We didn't see how deep the maze is, but we did see that it extended pretty far left. If Wesley's in the middle of our maze, our chances would probably better if we went left."
Buffy nodded. "Left it is."
Faith stopped. "Left or right?"
"Buffy's going left," Angel replied sullenly. He was not loving being not the leader.
Faith turned the same way without consulting the others. "Hey. Shouldn't we be going in the opposite direction?" Willow asked.
"Nah. Keeps the competition fair. If they screw up, we've screwed up, too. If they're right, we're right. After a while we'll start deviating, but it's early days. A little competition won't hurt us now."
They continued onward. Soon they came to another crossroads. "Which way did they go?" Faith asked Angel, who was being surprisingly well-behaved.
"They haven't reached one. Or if they have they're being pretty quiet about it." He was gritting his teeth and wanted the discussion to end so he could get to Cordelia more quickly, but he wasn't in control.
"Damnit!" Anya said.
"What?" Faith asked.
"We went the wrong way. The mazes are mirrored. Theirs extended left as ours extended right. We essentially did go in the opposite direction."
"So do we go back?" asked Riley. "Or do we keep going this way?"
"If we did go back and did that side of the maze and it turned out to be wrong, we'd have to come all the way back here. If they're going in the wrong direction, they'll turn around and be back here before we'd have a chance to be," Anya said. She got confused glances. "Oh, nevermind. Just keep walking. We'll know soon enough anyway."
Both teams carried on. It turned out that Tara had been doing logic puzzles since she was fourteen and had pretty good reasoning for every decision she recommended. Eventually everyone else stopped making suggestions and just followed Tara's instructions every time they reached a fork in the road. Faith's team didn't reach a fork for a long time and they were just considering that they were indeed going the wrong way when they reached a possible five directions other than the one they'd just come from.
Anya sighed. "Let's take the left branch. It worked for us before. If it's wrong, we'll come back here and take the next leftmost branch. Easy to remember."
"Why are you so good at this?" Riley asked incredulously.
"I think of everything in practical terms. It helps."
Back at the start of the maze, Xander sat and coughed every once in a while. Jeff stood, looking up at the sky and not doing anything in particular. Xander cleared his throat and attempted a casual tone of voice. "So… I found a dark part of the woods today—"
"I can't tell you what the light's all about," Jeff said.
"Why noooot?" Xander whined.
"Not my decision. I'm allowed to know of what's going on, but I'm not allowed to have any influence on the game. It might change the outcome of the game if I told you." He shrugged. "Besides, I might not even know anything about it."
"Look. It's obvious you want to go back. But the consequences are not going to get any lighter. I, personally, with no affiliation with anyone else in the game, backstage or otherwise, advise you not to go back. You're more than a little worse for the wear. I doubt you'll be able to participate in tomorrow's game, either. If I was in your position, I'd forget all about it."
Xander watched Jeff curiously and got for the first time that he was just taking orders. It wasn't necessarily him that was evil—it might just be the producers.
Buffy was suddenly jerked backward. Both Spike and Oz had stopped and were sniffing the air.
"What?" she asked.
"Fear. Lots and lots of fear," Spike said. "Even with my lack of senses, it's impossible to miss this much terror. It smells like… the old days. When the four of us would traipse through Europe." No one needed clarification that he was referring to Drusilla, Darla and Angelus as his accomplices.
"It's Wesley," Oz growled. "He's just on the other side of this hedge."
"We're close," Kennedy said. Buffy nodded and walked a little faster in the direction they were going.
Faith led the way back through the total six-way crossing and turned left. They were on the second branch.
"So… you don't know anything?" Xander asked. "Nothing at all?"
Jeff sighed but didn't answer. He began twiddling his thumbs and hoped someone won soon.
"Is the light evil? Is it a life force? Is it keeping the dimension in tact?"
Nothing. He was pretending he couldn't hear anything.
Faith's team started in on their third branch.
Buffy's team ran into their third dead end in a row. There was only one remaining possibility on this side of the smell of fear. Buffy was resisting the urge to break into a jog.
"How does it send me back to the tribal headquarters? Is it a spell?" Xander kept asking, hoping to annoy Jeff into an answer.
"Look, you're basically playing twenty questions with yourself here," Jeff said. "I can't tell you anything, partially because I don't know anything, and partially because I'll be killed if I—" Jeff cut off abruptly. His eyes took on a quality of fear. He blinked hard and looked down. "No more questions, okay?"
Buffy's team reached the fourth dead end. "Shit," Buffy said. They stopped, temporarily out of options. Suddenly a noise, like wood breaking, was heard, followed by a distant squeal of delight.
"Provost team," came Jeff's distant voice. "Winners of reward!"
The blood drained from Buffy's face. She swallowed hard and tried to remember to breathe. Suddenly they were all back at the starting clearing, handcuff free. Cordelia was hugging Angel appreciatively. He looked monumentally relieved, among other things. Buffy's team was solemn. Xander didn't need to ask what happened as he limped over to Buffy and saw her expression.
"Provost Tribe, your canned goods should be at your camp when you arrive. I'll see both teams back here tomorrow night for the immunity challenge. You'll need to prepare yourself, so remember to check the mail in the morning to find out what you need to do. Sleep well; you'll need it." Jeff left the clearing before either tribe had a chance to. Neither tribe associated with the other as the Provost Tribe filed out.
Xander hugged Buffy, who had begun to cry. "Hey, hey. Listen." He held her shoulders and looked her in the eye. "I was talking to Jeff, and he said some pretty interesting things." Xander turned away to cough, but he sounded ever so slightly better. "I don't think Wesley's dead."
Buffy looked up. "He said the losing team wouldn't get their tribemate back in one piece."
"No, he said the winning team would. That doesn't mean we won't. I don't think Jeff's as evil as he lets on. He might be… controlled by a demon or something… it's hard to tell. But I don't think we should jump to conclusions." He put an arm around Buffy, mostly for his own physical support. "Let's get back to camp and we'll talk."
Buffy nodded slowly and helped limping Xander out of the circle. The rest of the tribe followed with the exception of Oz, who leaped into the nearest tree to fulfill his wild wolfiness for the night.
Soon Ripper was the only person left in the area. He peered around, chewing on his toothpick again, and referred to the Eyghon tattoo on his arm. He pulled what seemed to be an herbal compound of some kind from a container in the pocket of his jeans and started spreading it in a circle on the ground. He sat cross-legged in the middle and began chanting in a language that was clearly not English. Soon the compound lifted and began swirling around Ripper as he chanted. There was a black wind shortly added to the swirl, and soon Ripper had to shout over the noise of the small twister. He stopped chanting abruptly and looked straight up, eyes flaring. The black wind filed into Ripper's mouth. He flew backwards and ran into a nearby tree. He fell to the ground…
…and soon stood right back up again. He was taller, wider… his eyes had turned the deepest colour purple. His stature was different. The figure that stood was neither Giles nor Ripper.
Eyghon had returned.
A/N: That's actually all the completed chapters I have of this story for now. I'm halfway through one, so hopefully I'll be updating sooner rather than later, but they certainly won't be as frequent updates (though they weren't really that frequent to begin with). The breaking in this chapter is weird. There weren't any breaks in it at all in the original document, and I was having trouble getting through it just reading it, so I figured choppiness was better than the "huh?" feeling that seemed to be left. I'm sorry to leave you on a cliffhanger like this. Take care, everyone, and if you could review if you have a minute, I'd be much obliged. Thanks!