While she didn't hurry, neither did she dawdle. She parked two blocks from the factory, tucking her convertible back into an alley to reduce the likelihood that any latecomers would carry the word to Spike's shindig that the Slayer was in the neighborhood, and went the rest of the way on foot. She installed herself at a good vantage point, and settled herself to await Angel's arrival.
He ghosted out of the darkness, as usual, though she had known he was there through a combination of intuition and sounds too slight and meaningless to convey a warning to anyone with lesser hearing and experience. "Well," he said, smiling expansively. "There she is, obedient as ever I could desire: I give you a spot, and you go there on command. Did it never occur to you that I might have set up this whole scenario as a trap?"
"Then spring it," Cordelia told him levelly. "One way or another, I'm here to fight. A trap would just mean I get to kill you now instead of later."
"So bloodthirsty," he sighed, still smiling. "Maybe we should reconsider getting back together. All that fire, I know I could put it to good use."
"You already have," she retorted. "At least, you will if we ever get inside to start the action. Or would you rather stand out here thumping your chest till I run out of what little patience I have, leave you as ashes in the street, and go in alone?"
He shook his head. "Don't be trying to rush the climax, now. When I take you, I want your blood to be hot, and there's foreplay enough behind those walls to get you in a fine fever."
"Perfect." Cordelia drew her sword. "Ready when you are. You did bring something to fight with?"
"Always prepared," Angel agreed. He opened the long black coat and withdrew a double-bladed battle axe. "Don't want you to have all the fun to yourself, and I do appreciate a good massacre to whet the appetite." He glanced at the sword she held, and his smile broadened. "That's the one I gave you the other night, isn't it? I knew you were the sentimental type."
"Sentiment, schmentiment," she snorted. "It has an edge and a point, so I'll use it for as long as it's useful. I'd gladly give it back to you, though." She leveled the blade toward him. "In fact, I'm looking forward to it."
He laughed, and turned toward the factory. After a second, she followed.
Unlike her last time here, stealth was definitely recommended for initial entry; Spike might have posted sentries (though Angel, before his disastrous de-souling, had commented more than once on Spike's sloppiness in such matters), or there might just be outliers to shout an alarm at the wrong moment if stumbled over. Following this thought, she and Angel slid through the darkness together with oiled smoothness, an effortless coordination that triggered sickening memories of other teamed prowls.
She didn't bother to push such thoughts away. They fed a long-simmering rage, and she could (and would) use that to good measure. Now, or very soon.
Their caution proved justified: a pair of vampires had been set on guard, not at the entrance but further in. Angel caught her attention by a near-imperceptible hiss of warning, but Cordelia had already seen them, and she took both with thrown stakes, the second sentry pierced through the heart before the first had finished collapsing into dust. (Upside, downside: with a quick stab-and-withdraw, the vampire dusted while the stake remained for more such work, while a thrown stake was consumed by the same accelerated dissolution as its victim. Cordelia had several spares, but her supply wasn't unlimited; still, right now a distance kill was more important than conserving the tools of her trade.) She and Angel moved on past the faint outlines on the concrete floor, she being careful to keep him in the corner of her eye, and continued noiselessly into the inner recesses of the derelict structure.
As they had done in the scouting raid that prevented the assembly of the Judge — and hadn't that been a total fizzle after so much advance billing! — she and Angel took to the catwalks as soon as they had penetrated far enough to gain access. They had to be more cautious, as the aging ironwork had a tendency to creak without warning, but they could move more swiftly, and as they drew near the apparent site of Spike's gathering, the noise ahead masked any they might have made inadvertently.
Whereas unsouled-Angel gravitated to lowbrow melodrama in his stage-settings, Spike seemed to want no more than to be seen and heard. He had set up stage lighting on the scaffolding that ran around the walls of the big central assembly area, the harsh illumination flooding him from every angle. The hubbub of the throng around him blurred his words at first, but as she drew closer, Cordelia could begin to make them out. "— not so much slack in the chains, you bloody tossers. We don't want this lot getting tangled with each other, might muck up the ritual. Now you, Dalton, think you can read the scrolls without throwing in anything about beef bloody canoes —?"
Okay. Good news, they were here in time to take forceful action to prevent whatever Spike might be looking to spin up. Bad news, there were a lot more of the enemy than Cordelia had counted on facing. She could see at least a dozen of the bright-patterned demons she had fought twice now (no sign of Doc, though, which was a shame, even if it was unlikely she'd have time to repay him properly). Past that, there had to be forty or more vampires clustered around the space in the center of the room; despite Angel's comments about him having become unpopular with other vampires, Spike had clearly engaged in some aggressive recruiting/ conversion. Spike stood in the central space itself, and a few yards from him was a large wooden box, with — just as in her dream — five confused, desperate vampires chained to it at roughly equidistant points.
Next to her, Angel let out a low chuckle. "Doesn't look good for those boys, does it?" he murmured. "Wonder how they managed to piss off Spike, to get themselves included in the ritual?" He shook his head. "No, I'll bet he had five new ones turned, just for this. That's what I'd do if I had a big spell that called for a vampire sacrifice."
Cordelia could have cared less about the details, she was still unhappily assessing the odds. She was used to fighting against numbers, she'd killed nearly a dozen in less than a minute the last time she went against Angel himself, and this time he would be fighting alongside her … but there was no escaping that one lucky punch from somebody in the opposition, one instant of accident or mistiming, would give them all the opening they needed to tear her to pieces. She was willing to face the prospect of dying, but dying without achieving her goal … No. She refused to allow the possibility.
"We can't get to Spike from here without going through the others," she whispered to Angel. (God, if someone offered to sell her a compound bow right now, she'd pass over the keys and title to the QUEEN C and call it a bargain!) "And even if we can fight through them all, they might slow us down enough for him to finish whatever he's about to kick off. We need to thin them out."
"Easiest thing in the world," Angel told her breezily. "All you need is an M-16 and a couple of magazines packed with tracers." At her startled look, he explained smugly, "Little thing I learned in the 'Nam. Vampires hate tracers, they burn like Lucifer's own fire, and hit one of us just right — or hit him enough times — and he'll go up like a torch. Fun times, if you like that kind of thing." He regarded her with sardonic challenge. "Oopsie, I'll bet you forgot to bring along an M-16."
"I'm adaptable," Cordelia said. She unslung the backpack, opened it, and withdrew four glass quart bottles, then four strips of cloth. "I thought these might be useful for a distraction. Didn't expect to need them as mass antipersonnel weapons." She lined up the bottles on the square metal railing in front of her, then handed two of the cloth strips to Angel and began to pull the top from the first bottle. "I'm sure you know how these work. Hell, you invented 'em for all I know. Get busy."
"Well, aren't you the Girl Scout," Angel mused, but he was already inserting a cloth wick into the bottle in front of him. "You must have been quite a scandal at summer camp."
I summered at Cannes and Cozumel, buttwipe, Cordelia thought but didn't bother to say. "Please: everybody knows about Molotov cocktails." (Not everyone, though, knew to mix a bit of powdered Tide detergent with the gasoline to make it behave more like napalm. Cordelia wasn't about to reveal the source of that nugget of knowledge.) "Aim for that side of the room, loft them high so they'll seem to drop out of nowhere, and space them for maximum dispersal. Even if we don't kill as many as I hope, Spike's boys should turn their attention that way just as we attack this side."
"You have the most wonderful heart for slaughter," Angel said to her in an acid mockery of teasing banter. "One of the most attractive things about you, really." He held up a makeshift gasoline bomb in either hand. "If you'd do the honors?"
Cordelia returned the backpack to her shoulders, and with a BIC lighter she lit the wick of her own bottles, then his. The two of them were directly above one of the stage floods, the glare of the artificial lighting concealing the smaller flames. "There and there," Cordelia indicated with an elbow. "I'll take the next two spots in the line. One after another, fast … Now."
She threw her bottles, arcing them high, then went over the railing just as they began to drop. In the background she heard Dalton's thin voice interladen with the rougher, growling timbre of Spike's, they'd already begun the ritual! Then she landed a half-second after the first explosions and screams, Angel at her side, and as the crowd ahead of her turned toward the far commotion, the two of them launched into the vampires' ranks in an abrupt cataclysmic thunderbolt of steel and death and fury.
She killed five before the besieged throng were fully aware of the assault, and then panic set in as they suddenly realized they were beset seemingly from two sides. She pressed forward in a whirlwind of slashing ferocity, this was like the attack on the hive-rat warren in that other world but infinitely more satisfying, and Angel laughed and hacked beside her with the exultant joy of killing, even if they were of his own kind. For a moment it seemed that the entire group would break before them and flee in terror … then Spike bellowed, "Turn and fight, turn and fight! There's only two of 'em — bury them in numbers, you gutless bastards!" Then his voice went back to the chant, and the crowd began to turn to face its attackers.
The momentum of the attack was fading, and much too soon. "Cover me!" Cordelia snapped to Angel, dropping back a step even before she saw if he would move to comply. He did, pressing the assault as she used precious instants to drop the backpack, rip open the zipper, and pull out a bulky silver cylinder. "Stand clear!" she snapped again, and again he obeyed without hesitation, and she yanked out the safety ring and squeezed the trigger handle. A jet of water sprayed across the vampire ranks ahead of her, they shrieked and fell back as their flesh sizzled and smoked, and she renewed her attack with Angel at her side.
Cordelia had a firm "don't ask, don't tell" policy with Father Nolan at St. John of the Cross … but he had owed her a solid, and blessing a water-charged fire extinguisher seemed to render its contents roughly as effective as holy water. Furthermore, she had cut away the hose a few inches from the valve, so that someone with Slayer grip-strength could operate it one-handed as if it were a giant spray-can. After the first seconds, she switched the cylinder to her left hand and wielded the sword with her right, loosing the blessed water in brief aimed spurts instead of a continuous stream. Even so, the tank only held just so much, tactical necessities had dictated that she carry one of the smaller models. The spray faltered and died out, and she cast away the empty cylinder and waded in with redoubled fury.
Again the two of them gained ground, again began to slow in their advance as the sheer mass of their opposition, and the courage they drew from their numbers, tilted the balance back. "Cute trick," Angel snarled beside her. "Got any more?"
"One," Cordelia answered, and drew the 9mm Glock from the holster she had clipped to the inside of her belt, behind her back and concealed by the jacket. She put the first shot through the face of one of Doc's minion-demons — finally joining the fight — and dropped another two with three more shots as she continued to thrust and cut with the sword. This was the handgun Willow had secreted under the seat of Cordelia's car, and used during the last raid on this same factory. Cordelia had no experience with firearms, but she was deadly accurate with the pistol-grip crossbow, and the basic principles of marksmanship seemed to apply to both weapons. Again their advance quickened slightly, the demons appeared to be too brainless to feel fear but they couldn't stand against sword and axe and pistol; and the vampires, for all their savagery and all their fear of Spike, were mostly weaponless and beginning to waver in their resistance —
A sizzling, blue-white bolt of electricity lanced through the factory ceiling, and struck somewhere at the edge of Cordelia's vision. She turned, staring: a moment's inattention that could have killed her, but just now her enemies were equally transfixed. This time she saw the living lightning strike, saw it roar through the convulsing body of Spike, outlining him in an insane corona and showering sparks from the metal gauntlet on his uplifted arm.
When the unliving heart beats with the living blood of Sineya's daughters of this day and the day gone, then will the steel fist be raised on the hand of the soulless mind. In that instant Cordelia knew, with total unthought comprehension: Spike had injected himself with her blood and Buffy's, and the lightning he called down had restarted his heart like some demonic electroshock, so that, however temporarily, it now beat with the blood of Slayers. Brother Luca's prophecy (or weather forecast, or whatever) had been fulfilled, the Glove of Finnegan was now active, and things were bad, very bad, almost as bad as they could get —
"NOW!" Spike roared to Dalton. "Start the summoning now!" He raised his gauntleted hand and shouted out three syllables that Cordelia didn't catch, and again the lightning speared into the room and crackled through Spike.
"I'm no authority on the occult," Angel said to her, almost conversationally, "but something tells me this means we're screwed."
Almost on cue, the vampires and few remaining demons swung back toward them. Cordelia slashed with the sword and fired with the pistol, felt the slide lock back on the latter as the magazine emptied, and let it drop, there was no time for a reload. She and Angel had inflicted terrible casualties, but nearly a third of the opposition still remained, and they might well hold until Spike finished ending the world. "Cover me," she said again to Angel, and as he charged with the axe whirling before him, Cordelia pulled out her cell phone.
She had the number on speed-dial (and two spare cells prepaid, tucked into inner pockets of her jacket, just in case), but it seemed to take an eternity for the connection to be made and the voice to answer at the other end. "Amy?" Cordelia said. "Plan B. Now, now, right now!" Then she dropped the phone and leaped to Angel's side, laying about her with her every remaining ounce of skill and resolve and fury and desperation.
Before meeting him tonight, Cordelia had expected Angel to hold back a bit, let her carry the brunt of the fighting. He seemed determined to match her for dedication and body count, however, working bloody havoc with the axe, and as their foes surged around them in the counterattack that should have been launched in those first moments, she and Angel went back-to-back, not in trust but in mutual reliance, weaving patterns in steel and blood and dust and ichor, chewing through the throng around them like some lunatic Weedwhacker. It was working, they were going to cut through —
"Taa-rheem!" Spike shouted, and Cordelia was at an angle to see the lightning slam forth again: not into Spike from outside, but out of him, bursting from the metal gauntlet he wore. It seemed to strike the big wooden box, Cordelia wasn't sure, and then Spike shouted the trigger-words again, and yes he was pouring all that awful power into the box beside him. A wind sprang up, gathering force, and Cordelia felt her teeth begin to vibrate with the deep bedrock rumble she had heard in the prophetic dream that warned of lightning.
"Try to hold them here!" she shouted to Angel. "I'll get to Spike —!"
"Finish it!" Spike screamed, to Dalton perhaps, and the gale around the box resolved into a whirlwind. The vampires chained there wailed in the last extremity of despair, and then dissolved into streamers of dust that were swept along in that torrent of air. Spike called forth the lightning once more, thrusting it into the heart of the whirlwind, and as a light began to grow in the unseen center, he started to laugh …
… and then, just as everything seemed to be lost, something blazed up in Spike's eyes, a flash of orange-amber. He stiffened with a huge gasp of pain or shock or astonishment, face drawn taut, mouth open; tremors coursed through his body, shaking him so violently that he staggered, and as Cordelia cut down the last of the enemies in front of her, she saw a line of curved hooks on the gauntlet withdraw, bloody, from Spike's arm in a quasi-mechanical sequence, and the metal glove dropped to the concrete floor a second before Spike collapsed beside it.
The dreadful underground rumble died away. Dalton's voice continued for a few more moments, then likewise trailed off and stopped. The whirlwind reared up, reaching almost to the factory ceiling, then imploded downward into the wooden box with the speed of a missile arrowing to earth.
In the new silence around them, Cordelia could hear the wheezes and gasps of dying demons. There was no other sound. Cordelia automatically stepped away from Angel, and he from her, and a quick glance around her confirmed it: unless some had fled at the last, the two of them had killed every last one of the enemies they faced.
Beside the wooden box, chains now hanging empty from it, Spike sobbed faintly. The words carried clearly. "Oh, God … oh, God …"
Angel looked to his former companion, then to Cordelia. His face was a mask. "I know that sound," he said flatly. "Remember it all too well. So, been studying up on your Romany, have you?"
Cordelia didn't bother to answer. He had seen, and he knew. They had the re-ensoulment spell now, a threat he couldn't escape and couldn't tolerate; his only recourse was to kill everyone who knew of it before they could invoke it against him. The truce was over, it was battle to the death between them. The only wonder was that he had paused even to speak, instead of going for her on the spot.
So she did it instead, driving at him in instant total attack. He darted away, using the blade of the axe to turn one far-reaching thrust but relying in distance for defense. "I'm mortified," he observed, backpedaling outside the reach of the sword. "You double-crossed me before I could do it to you. That's a terrible embarrassment for any self-respecting black-hearted villain. I really don't know how to deal with the shame …" He stopped, smiled. "Oh, wait. I do."
She knew it was coming, but she didn't know what, so when he spoke the incantation in quick, throaty Gaelic, her attention was in the wrong place. The sword twisted in her hands, turning toward her with a sudden energy that outraced her power to resist it, and as she tried to wrench herself from its path, it drove through her body, piercing her from front to back.
The pain was awful, all-encompassing, the sword had to have gone through a kidney. She heard Angel laugh, and the surge of hate and rage gave her the strength to yank the weapon free, and before he could repeat the incantation she slammed the sword against the concrete floor with a force that shattered the blade.
He could have had her then, if he had attacked in earnest, but he was enjoying himself too much. "You truly are a babe in the woods," he said happily. "Hell of a fighter, but … accepting a weapon from an enemy? There's no way I could ever respect anyone that stupid." He circled her, moving with a languid confidence, noting and smiling at the obvious exertion it cost her to keep standing. "It's been a merry dance, but there was never but one way this could end."
Cordelia drew a stake from one of the jacket's inner sheaths. "You're right. So here I am. Come and get me."
"Brave words," he replied. "But from here it looks like you can barely stay on your feet. I'll take you soon enough; let me draw pleasure from the moment."
She turned to keep facing him as he continued to circle. It was true, she was in dismal shape; every second he wasted in gloating allowed her to snatch back another fragment of her strength, but she was badly stricken. "You're beaten already," she told him. "You know it. The moment you saw Spike go down, you knew."
"And I'll be addressing that danger directly," he assured her. "Don't want them having time to hunt up another of those gypsy orbs, so I'll have to make it fast and bloody instead of giving them each the attention such an undertaking merits. Maybe I'll take my time on the last one, to make up for rushing on the rest. Xander, I think; he's the least danger to me, and you always did have a soft spot for him."
"Dream on," Cordelia snarled. The effort wrenched at her guts, but she made it happen. "To get at them, you have to make it out of this room alive."
He laughed at that. "If I turned and ran now, you'd never be able to catch me. But no fear, I'll not leave you alive here." The affected brogue was getting stronger. "You value your friends a lot more than they value you. Pitiful, really. Allying yourself with weaklings, caring for people who won't shed a tear when you're dead …" He looked her over, triumph and contempt etched into his face. "They don't care for you, not a one of them. You wasted your loyalty for nothing. You're alone here now, and you'll die alone … here, now."
Cordelia saw what would come next, and she let her foot land on the hilt of the broken sword, grating it across the floor with a loud, harsh sound as she seemed to slip and stumble. Angel laughed and started for her —
Marcie had already gotten close, and then used the covering noise from Cordelia's feigned clumsiness to close the remaining distance. The rusting steel bar she carried crashed down on Angel's head from behind with no warning and unexpected power. The invisible girl was strong, not vampire-strong but much stronger than she should have been; Angel reeled at the impact, started a turn to meet this new enemy and then had to check to swat aside the stake as Cordelia lunged at him, and with Marcie's next swing the bar slammed into the hand that held the axe. The weapon fell with a clang … and Angel struck backward, using the injured arm as a club, and Cordelia heard an agonized expulsion of breath over the snapping of ribs as the instinctive strike went home on something neither of them could see.
He twisted away from Cordelia's next lunge with the stake, and staggered her with a short, brutal hook to the jaw, then turned toward the sound of running footsteps: Oz, Oz holding another fire extinguisher, he must have snatched it from one of the factory walls on the way in, it was larger than the one Cordelia had used, painted red, and from the aiming hose a blinding wash of foam sprayed directly into Angel's face. Oz slipped to the side as Angel tried to swing at his remembered position, and spun like an Olympic hammer-thrower to slam the fire extinguisher against the vampire's head, reversing direction to hit him again before Angel connected with a second blind swing.
It was a glancing blow, but Oz tumbled away to land on the concrete. Angel wiped foam from his eyes, started for the fallen boy, and stopped to face Cordelia as she moved toward him. Still too debilitated to be fully confident in herself, she played for time. "Looks like somebody does care," she told him defiantly.
Angel sneered. "Just more dead to lay at your door."
Oz had come to his feet. "You okay?" she asked him.
"Never better." He picked up the axe Angel had lost, and started forward.
"No," Cordelia said. "Get Marcie out of here. She's hurt, maybe bad hurt."
Oz paused. "You sure —?"
"I've got it," Cordelia said to him. "Thanks for the save. Now find Marcie — over there, I think — and get her to Giles for help."
Angel watched, eyebrows knit, as Oz probed with his foot at empty air until he seemed to encounter an invisible obstacle. Looking back to Cordelia (though he had been careful to keep her at the edge of his vision), he said, "Well, how about that? I can't believe I forgot about her. I'll have to make a special note to myself to put her on my To-Do list."
"I wouldn't worry about any lists," Cordelia said flatly. "You just ran out of time."
"I should be concerned?" he mocked her. "You're a heartbeat away from collapsing."
It wasn't that bad, but it wasn't good. The wound was severe, the pain a constant scream that claimed most of her awareness. She could fight it, fight through it, fight despite it, but her strength and mobility were significantly hampered. Angel was weaponless now — Oz, she saw, kept hold of the axe as he carried Marcie from the room — and the bludgeoned arm, not to mention multiple full-power blows to the head, must have reduced him to some extent, but Cordelia had taken substantially more damage.
She still held the stake; with her other hand, she drew one of the daggers from her belt. "You wanted to dance?" she said to him. "All right, you bastard — it's time to dance."
~ – ~ – ~
She emerged from the factory, dust sifting from her hair and splashed across her chest and shoulders. The numbness inside her was greater than the pain from the sword wound, and with the last dregs of her strength she supported an incoherently weeping Spike.
The striped van Oz drove was waiting outside, and he emerged from it as he saw her. His eyes went to Spike and then back to her, and his voice was dry and even. "I gotta think you know what you're doing here, but me? Not so much."
"He's souled now," Cordelia explained, hearing herself as if from a great distance. "A contingency plan I worked out with Amy, last-resort kind of thing. He's not the same person now. We know that from experience." She shook her head, trying to hang on to some of the focus that was fading from her. "You and Marcie … what were the two of you doing here?"
"Back-up," he replied. "You told Amy we might need to have some people here, in case of whatever. Most everybody else had to be there for the spell, and Xander wouldn't leave them 'cause, you know, last time didn't work out so well. Marce and me, we decided to come check things out."
"Right," Cordelia said. "Thanks, I guess." With immense effort she looked toward the van, and asked. "Marcie, is she —?"
"She's okay," Oz told her. "Says breathing hurts, but she'll live. Said we should wait for you." His mouth quirked. "Pretty much insisted on it."
"Good," Cordelia said vaguely. "That's good."
His eyes were gentle on hers, but neither his expression nor tone of voice revealed anything. "Angel?" he asked quietly.
Her throat hurt. Her eyes were so dry they burned. "I'm wearing him," she said.
Oz nodded reflectively. "Didn't have to be that way," he observed, grave and soft. "You could have had us use the second Orb. Brought him back."
A fine mist was settling over the world, but Cordelia forced the words that had to be said. "No. The second Orb was for Buffy. It was always for Buffy." She saw his eyes go blank, from either confusion or sudden understanding, and she forged doggedly onward. "The ritual calls back a soul that's been lost. That's Buffy. This was never about Angel. It was always for Buffy."
She had said it. She had delivered the message, righted the irreparable, found the unattainable redemption. She had vowed it, she had done it, and now — at last, at long last — she could allow herself to fall.
Allow herself to be caught.
~ – ~ – ~
Deep in the interior of the factory, in the smoke-blackened, dust-strewn central assembly room, a pale hand emerged hesitantly from the tiny, barred window set in the side of the lightning-blasted wooden box. Slender fingers quested aimlessly in the outside air, and a faint voice quavered plaintively:
"… Miss Edith …?"