Disclaimer: Please see Part 1, Chapter 1

SHADOWED SOULS Part 2

Chapter 4

Wesley gave a resigned sigh and relaxed slightly on his barstool in the corner of the bar next to the back exit.

On the next stool, which he had swivelled to face Wesley, the weasel-faced man, who was going by the name Gark, or possibly Garry - Wesley wasn't entirely sure due to the noise level of Ye Olde Britannia, typically approaching 'din' on a Friday - gave a semi-apologetic shrug of his shoulders. "Unfortunately the Oligarchs' idea of jumping from dimension to dimension every few Earth days to thwart Buffy Summers attempts to track them is rather inspired. The good news is that it's about the pinnacle of their genius."

"But the bad news – again - is that it negates almost all mystical methods of tracking them before they attempt another attack on the Slayers." Wesley acknowledged. "The only concrete method to circumvent their relocations is to travel the Ghost Roads?"

"Regrettably, yes." Gark or Garry confirmed. "The only other solid information my employers have been able to ascertain is that the incident with the six Slayers did not go as the Oligarchs anticipated."

"They killed a Slayer on the first attempt. I think they did sufficient damage." Wesley consciously had to moderate his tone.

Inclining his head slightly, Gark/Garry expounded, "What my employers determined was that the Oligarchs' sorcery was intended to work permanently, not disable the Slayers for just a few seconds, but for some reason it didn't work."

Despite the noise level, Gark/Garry lowered his already whispery voice as he explained, "How the First Slayer was made is generally known around various dimensions, and the Oligarchs' spell was basically just a simple reversal of what the Shadowmen did when they chained the girl to the earth and infused her with demonic energy - take out rather than put in."

"So logically, it should have worked."

"Just so. However, its spectacular failure rather proves that there was more to that event that anyone seems to know about, including Miss Summers, for all she confronted the Shadowmen before stopping the First Evil."

"Buffy had only travelled back in time a few minutes when the Shadowmen tried to forcibly infuse her with even more of the dark energy. Buffy didn't take kindly to that, and the situation deteriorated from there. Obviously there were nuances that were missed. I'll see what I can find out on the Ghost Roads." Slipping a hand into his favoured brown suede jacket Wesley pulled out a number of bills and held them out to Gark/Garry.

Who raised his hand and made a negating gesture.

"Your employers don't strike me as the charitable type." Commented Wesley suspiciously.

"Hardly." Gark/Garry almost smiled, not a pleasant sight on that face. "My employers appreciate your professional attitude with regard to the information industry, and have instructed me to explore the possibility of, at least on this occasion, a barter arrangement rather than direct remuneration."

"Barter." Wesley said the word flatly; the oldest system of commerce: you give me that wheel, I give you this stegosaurus steak - so what were Gark/Garry's employers after?

"My employers happened to hear on good authority that you still make the best mojo in town." The weasel-faced man commented obliquely.

For a moment it didn't register, then Wesley recalled, crystal-clear, the final words ever uttered to him by his dear friend, Cordelia Chase, as he stepped into the elevator with the rest of Team Angel: "'Wesley, you still work the best mojo in town.'" With painful clarity Wesley recalled how they had gone to the Cat & Fiddle to wait for Cordy and Angel, sat around the table with their drinks.

When Angel had arrived, alone, twenty minutes later, Wesley had felt his intestines twist into knots inside him at the vampire's haunted face. Angel had been frank about what had passed between him and their very own Cordy, including how the hospital had phoned to inform Angel that Cordelia Chase had died without ever regaining consciousness after months in a coma; utterly confused by this patently ridiculous information from the hospital, Angel had turned to look behind him, and found himself standing alone in his office.

Cordelia had warned Angel that the Powers That Be owed her a massive favour, and that she was on a different road now. Had it all been mass hysteria? Nothing more than simply a group hallucination?

Spike, incredibly, had snapped them out of their bleak fugue with his unique insight: "'Bollocks. I bit the girl. She was solid and real and warm and she was alive. Whatever the hell she was, Cordelia Chase was here, and you all got the chance to say goodbye to your friend, which is a hell of a lot more than most people get, so stop feeling so sorry for yourselves.'" The blond vampire had raised his shot glass of Jack Daniels, "Here's to our Princess.'"

They had all clinked glasses, uttering: "'Cordelia'", in unison. Given their lifestyle, that Cordy had made a will was a big non-surprise; what was that Angel and Wesley were her main heirs, and she'd left enough money to buy her apartment and secure the future of Phantom Dennis, though of course Wesley had already purchased it. Instead he and Angel had instead placed the money into an expense account for Gru', who lived quite happily with his non-corporeal roommate in his role as LA's peripatetic all-purpose Champion.

Cordelia had left her interment to Angel's discretion; everyone including Gru' and Spike had attended the evening service when Cordelia was buried in the small, quiet old cemetery near the site of Angel's original apartment building, directly next to the grave of Wesley's Angel Investigations predecessor, Francis Doyle. Usually once a week, Wesley stopped off for half an hour on his way home, finding comfort merely in sitting on the mossy bench on the gravel path directly opposite their dignified tombstones that Angel paid to be cleaned and maintained monthly.

Now, his grey eyes leached of colour, taking on a flat sheen those that knew him would have recognised and feared. "I don't undertake private consultations."

"My employers instructed me to assure you they intend no disrespect towards your painful loss." Gark hastened to answer as he slid off the barstool. "However, as a gesture of good faith and hope in our future business relationship, they ordered me to provide you with the following information, gratis, which may give you some peace of mind: True Prophecy cannot be circumvented, no matter how hard someone might try."

Confused, Wesley watched the weasel-faced man slip out of the back, the creature seeming to almost dissolve into the encroaching blackness of the alley. Who knew, maybe he did. Wesley took a gulp of his pint, his thoughts still on Cordy's death; damn, he missed her. Whatever Gark/Garry's bosses want, it was doubtless morally ambiguous at best and downright wrong at worst. Wesley had no intention of playing ball, they could take cash or he'd find a new source. They could sweeten the pot all they wanted, though what that cryptic utterance was supposed to convey he had no notion at all.

Ignoring the quarter of a pint left on the bar counter, Wesley got up and also headed out the back way. If he was going to get any answers he was going to have to walk the Ghost Roads, something a sensible man did absolutely sober and with great caution, or preferably not at all.

Historically an Oligarchy in Britain had been a small group of businessmen who united to wield more political and social influence together, particularly during the Industrial Revolution, so presumably these Oligarchs were likewise a group of evil sorcerers and/or demons who had banded together to reverse Willow's efforts and return the Slayers into the Slayer, or more likely get rid of the Slayers altogether. It certainly explained why Willow's scrying had been unsuccessful; their constant moving hadn't allowed her to obtain any sort of 'fix', and even the most potent mystical mojo required a starting point of reference from which to operate.

He would call Giles first thing in the morning before attempting to access the Ghost Roads. It would probably not be prudent to attempt such a thing within the already mystically murky atmosphere of Wolfram & Hart, which left his own apartment or Cordy's place. He could imagine Phantom Dennis's reaction to such an attempt; just because he was dead, Dennis wasn't stupid, so that left home sweet home. At least if anything went wrong, Illyria was more than capable of annihilating anything that made it through the portal. Unless...what about the Hyperion?

It made sense the more Wesley considered the idea. There was plenty of 'mystical background radiation' to anchor the portal to the Ghost Roads to the hotel without Wesley needing to do it, and surely some of the hotel's gross over-population of spooks and spectres would be so bored with the Hyperion that they would be happy to explore the Ghost Roads, thus reducing the number of those who spent their time moaning, groaning, rattling, clanking and generally being a pain in the ass, such as hiding all Angel's tools when the ghosts didn't like the colour scheme he had chosen for one of the bedrooms…

Wesley knew the two vampires were closing in on him a good two seconds before they segued from the shadows of the cut-through behind Ye Olde Britannia. An earlier Slayer - the one before the one before India Cohen, Buffy's immediate predecessor, if Wesley recalled the Watcher Web Diaries correctly - had explained the ability to sense a vampire attack as: "'Imagine you're a person trying to tune in a radio when you can only get static. You're turning the dial round and round and every so often, just for a split second, you get blank space, hit dead air before you go on. Being a Slayer is like living every moment of your life in noisy static, but every so often, you hit a patch of blank space. The vampire coming up behind you is that blank space; you sense the absence of what should be there, but isn't.'"

With experience, non-Slayers could do it too. After years of living around Buffy, and then around Spike, Xander Harris, Willow Rosenberg, et al, had it, and after several years of close proximity to Angel so did Wesley, as had Cordelia. Ironically, it was the complete absence of noise that gave the vampires away - there was a large lump of flesh moving towards you, but there was no faint breathing, no scuff of shoe against tarmac, no detectible scent of perspiration, no beating heart or adrenaline increased pulse, merely the complete absence of what should be there that was as marked in its own way, albeit much more subtle, as a sudden loud noise in a quiet room.

The first vampire's teeth closed on empty air instead of sinking deep into the back of the human male's neck; even as he checked on detecting traces of not one but two powerful vampires from the human's throat he exploded into a dust cloud, but Wesley was already a foot away, the retractable stake lashing out towards the second vampire who, more by luck than judgement, was just out of range.

The third vampire, hanging back in his position as leader, hissed in rage as his first Sireling was dusted at just a week old, the over-inflated ego he'd possessed as a human (and which had led to him being killed by a vampire in the first place) still fully present. He jumped forward, him and his other Sireling circling the human male who moved with them and who looked infuriatingly unbothered by the fact that he was about to become a midnight snack. The leader caught a strange-but-peculiarly-familiar, very faint odour mingled with the man's own scent and his preternatural eyesight detected the virtually invisible marks either side the human's neck at the jugular and carotid artery.

The leader's circling hitched with momentary uncertainty - he could almost taste the thrumming power, a clear tang even in the faint traces that the two unknown vampires had left from their feeding. This guy had been fed upon by two very powerful vampires; more than once unless the signs lied, and yet he was not only still human but apparently unscathed. The leader hung back just a bit; his Sireling was expendable, there were dozens like him as replacements, stupid twenty-something yuppies spilling out of the endless round of TV networking parties in the small hours, too drunk or high or both to recognise a monster when one was staring them in the face, or leading them towards a quiet corner with a friendly arm around a giddy shoulder.

Too late the leader sensed the disturbance of air behind him and started to turn as his Sireling leaped at the human male. He caught nothing more than an impression of a bad red dye job before something pierced his chest and he was a dust-cloud. Wesley blocked the attack and sent the vampire staggering past him with the force of its own momentum, driving his stake through it's back to the heart, making it dust before it hit the ground, before whirling to face the third vamp -

His arm was numbed as his pirouette was blocked and his back hit the wall of the alley with enough force to wind him. The very sharp stake pressed up against the other side of Wesley's neck to his scarred side.

Justine Cooper's lips curled back into a mirthless, feral toothy grin as she leaned her bodyweight into the arm pinning Wesley Wyndham-Pryce to the dank wall, the point of the stake digging into his throat. She smiled into his eyes. "Slayer, natch. What're the odds?"

To be continued in Shadowed Souls Part 3

© 2004 & 2010, C. D. Stewart