This chapter got quite long and also remains un-betaed, but I really wanted to get it finished and up in time for the seasonal_spuffy free-for-all day for once! This chapter marks the halfway point of the story but also serves as the end of part one if this were a two part television episode, hence the evil evil cliffhanger :D Thank you for all of the comments on this story so far and also to anyone who has added this to their faves/alerts.
Spike and Angel both raised their swords, moving back-to-back as the mass of vampires moved beyond the shadows and into the ring of light. They looked like typical nest dwellers, all scruffy clothes and bargain store haircuts. By themselves one or two of these vamps would not have even given them a second thought, but outnumbered more than ten to one the danger that they now found themselves in proved difficult to ignore.
"Looks like we got company," said Spike.
Angel shot him a look over his shoulder.
"Yeah, I think I covered that with the whole 'distractions' bit."
The vampires converging on them had no weapons, but they all looked ready for a fight and pissed as hell, their gamefaces up. Spike lowered his sword and cleared his throat, trying to defuse the situation before it got out of hand.
"Right, sorry for the gatecrashing, folks. We just wondered if you happened to know any shadowy demon sorts round these parts we might be able to kill. Sorta tall, long limbs, perhaps with a helpful nametag saying 'Freddy Kreuger's long-lost brother'?"
This received no answer. Spike shrugged and raised his sword again. Angel shook his head despairingly.
"Please ignore him," he said. "It's what I usually do."
"What are you doing here?" snarled one of the vampires. "This is our nest."
"Yeah, well, I'm your landlord," said Angel. "And consider this your eviction notice. Maybe you've heard of a little firm called Wolfram and Hart?"
This caused some of the vampires to murmur worryingly amongst themselves. Angel could not tell whether it was because of his threat or because of his mention of the name Wolfram and Hart.
"You don't have the authority," sneered the same vampire. He was obviously their leader.
Angel noted the others still advancing upon them inch-by-inch.
"What do you think?"
And with those words all hell suddenly broke loose. Angel and Spike both raised their swords and met their enemies as they came running at them with wild abandon. Two vamps fell in perfect concert, their severed heads barely touching the floor before they dusted along with their decapitated bodies. The others were not defeated as easily. There was a rush of fists and fangs as they fell upon their attackers, hoping to overwhelm them with numbers before they were able to offer up an effective resistance. Angel and Spike spun together in discordant rhythm, swords flashing as they dealt blows and dodged attacks. But they both knew they could not keep this up for long. There were simply too many of them.
As if on cue there was a yell from across the factory floor. A whistling sound cut through the air and suddenly a vampire running towards Spike jerked and exploded in a cloud of dust. When the remains had dissipated he saw Buffy standing not far away, lowering her crossbow with a look of satisfaction. The two shared a brief look before Spike turned away and met the attack of another approaching vamp, downing his opponent with a swift kick before spinning and slicing off its head with his sword. There was a muted scream as the vampire fell to its knees and dusted violently.
Buffy and Gunn quickly joined the fight, taking on vamps left and right. Buffy reloaded her crossbow once more and then threw it down and wielded her stake when the fighting became too close for a projectile weapon. Gunn wielded his axe with skill, Angel using his sword and Spike eventually just his fists to beat back their attackers. Their disparate styles worked well together despite the larger numbers that they faced.
The tide soon turned in their favour, and it was not long before there were only a few nest-dwellers left. Not surprisingly some decided to break away and flee to fight another day. Gunn threw his axe and decapitated a vampire as it ran away from him, the weapon ricocheting off the edge of a metal container with an ear-splitting crack and spinning wildly through the dust-choked air.
"Angel, man!" he cried. "Look out!"
Angel heeded his warning just in time, diving into a roll as the axe flew at him and missed his head by mere inches. Another of the nest dwellers was not so lucky. After claiming two victims with one throw the axe finally finished its descent and slowly spun once or twice again before sliding to a halt upon the factory floor.
Gunn smiled as Angel regained his feet.
"Boomerang axe," he said. "Patent pending." Angel simply shot him a terse look. "Admittedly there's still a few kinks to work out with the prototype, but…"
This thought was soon interrupted as another vamp tackled him and sent them both crashing to the ground. Breathless, Gunn tried to get his knees up beneath him but found himself pinned beneath the vampire's weight. The next moment the creature bared its fangs. It was all that Gunn could do to keep the thing at bay as it lunged violently at his throat.
"Little help here!" he cried.
Buffy turned swiftly with alarm.
"Spike," she called.
He turned and reacted instantly as she threw her stake towards him. He snatched it out of the air and then spun around in one smooth movement, slamming the thing home into the back of Gunn's attacker. The creature turned to dust with a howl.
This kill marked the end of the fight, yet the mournful echoes still reverberated around the factory for some time. They stood together in the aftermath, their breathing quickened and their hands and weapons covered with dust. Angel wordlessly helped Gunn back to his feet. Buffy watched as Spike lowered the stake again. Their eyes met across the space as her heart continued to pound madly in her chest.
Harmony slammed a stack of papers down onto her desk with a satisfying thud.
"She just waltzes in here and it's suddenly all Buffy this and Buffy that. I mean, it's like high school or something. Except with the me being-inexplicably-unpopular part. And the whole vampire thing. Plus the evil evil lawfirm and the fact that we're in L.A., and-"
The delivery guy just wearily held out his clipboard.
"Sign here please."
Harmony gave a scandalised sigh and then reached out across the desk, taking the proffered clipboard from him.
"Fine," she said. "It's not my problem, anyway. I'm over it. I'm simply thinking of the company image." She scribbled a quick signature at the bottom of the delivery form without really looking. "Having a slayer on the books is sure as hell gonna scare away most of our clientele. Take Angel, for example. Yes, he has a nasty habit of killing clients and severing business deals. But he also networks. And up until recently he brooded, like, 10% less than he used to during office hours. That is a man with priorities right there."
She held out the clipboard and the pen. The delivery guy just took the clipboard and pointedly flipped over the top page to reveal another.
She stared at him for a moment.
"Oh, sorry!" And she added her signature to the second page as well. The delivery guy flipped the page back and then tucked the thing beneath his arm, taking the pen back from her with a look of disdain and slipping it into the front pocket of his shirt. Then he handed her a small manilla envelope and turned on his heel.
"And good day to you too," she muttered, watching him as he left. "Some people are so rude. Where's the old mail guy when you need him?"
She took a look at the envelope. It was addressed to Angel. She simply tossed it down beside her stack of papers and went back to her typing.
The factory floor was now covered in an extra layer of dust. They stood together in the aftermath of the fighting, struggling to calm their quickened breathing and racing hearts. Buffy slowly retrieved her crossbow whilst Angel and Gunn stood side-by-side, the latter staring at the dust which marked the remains of his would-be attacker.
"Well, that was a thing," said Gunn.
Buffy slung her crossbow across her shoulder again. As she did so Spike approached her and held out Mr. Pointy. She reached out and took it from him haltingly, her hand brushing against his ever so slightly. Their eyes met and held as he let go and her arm dropped back down again to her side, clutching the stake tightly.
"There's something going on here," said Angel. "I thought this nest was supposed to be empty?"
"Evidently not," said Spike.
The words had barely left his mouth when there was an echoing growl from the shadows. Before they even had a chance to raise their weapons again a group of vampires emerged from a hidden corner of the factory, even larger than the host which had just attacked them. They looked extremely pissed.
"Guess I spoke too soon," said Spike.
Gunn made to lift his axe, but Buffy shook her head and touched a hand to his arm instead.
"Don't," she said. "There's too many of them."
He nodded in disbelief.
"Hence the sharp sharp axe."
"Trust me," she said, glancing up at him. "I have a better weapon."
Nearby Angel and Spike, their swords in hand, also prepared themselves to defend against this new foe. Buffy turned and called to them:
"You two," she said. She nodded to the area behind them, where the factory floor gave way to a shadowy corner filled with metal containers and a shelving unit stacked with crates and reels of old piping. "Get back. Behind those containers, in the shadows."
They shot her confused looks.
"What?" said Spike.
"Just get behind me," she cried. "Now!"
Despite their reservations they both followed her instructions and took shelter in the shadows she had indicated, still wary about the edge of urgency in her voice. She did not take up her crossbow again; Mr. Pointy she reached back and stuffed into the waistband of her trousers. Then she slipped a hand into her pocket and pulled out something small. Gunn caught the glint of something shining in the lamplight. Meanwhile the vamps were still rushing at them full speed, all bared fangs and hungry growls.
"Er, team leader?" said Gunn.
Buffy did not take her eyes off the approaching threat. She simply held out her hand, palm upwards, and began to intone in a measured voice:
"Spirits of the light, I invoke thee. Let the gloom of darkness part before you, let the moonlight be made pale by your presence. Spirits of light, grant my wishes…"
Angel looked at her nervously.
She did not hear him.
Suddenly the object in her hand leapt up into the air. The next moment there was a huge flash and then the stone erupted into a glowing ball of sunshine. It hung in the air, static for a fraction of a second, and then sent out myriad rays in the direction of the oncoming vamps, obliterating them in a fury of light and flame. In the face of this Buffy stood calmly in the middle of the factory floor, her hair blowing back from the force of the spell as the sunlight dusted vamps left and right before them.
Gunn stood in awe at her side, the sunlight reflected in the blade of his axe. Angel and Spike watched safely from the shadows. Soon the host had been destroyed before their eyes, and the light and noise vanished to leave nothing but guttering sparks and columns of dust to drift slowly to the factory floor.
"Lemme guess," said Spike, squinting his eyes against the brightness. "Ball o' sunshine courtesy of Red?"
Buffy nodded in affirmation.
"A little parting gift," she said, then after a beat: "Dissipate!"
At Buffy's words the light retracted and the glowing ball of sunlight faded to nothing. The object that was once in her palm clattered to the ground, now dormant. It had turned dull, its power spent, having taken out more vampires in under a minute than they had during their entire fight.
Angel and Spike slowly emerged from the shadows, coming to a standstill on either side of Buffy.
"You did that?" said Angel in astonishment.
Buffy shook her head and bent down, picking up the stone from where it had fallen.
"Just the catalyst," she said. "Willow enchanted this stone so that all I have to do is invoke the incantation. Her magic does the rest."
Spike looked impressed.
"Always said you could light up a room, pet."
She turned to him.
"Where do you think I got the idea from?" she said.
Spike caught her meaning and his expression changed, a small smile alighting upon his lips. She shared the private meaning with a smile of her own.
"I gotta get me one of those," said Gunn. "Do you do encores?"
"Sorry," she said. "It's a one time only kinda deal. Willow just perfected it, but it uses up quite a bit of juice. We've been testing them out in the field with the new slayers. Makes patrolling a whole lot easier."
Gunn nodded in approval.
"Also, very useful if you ever lose your keys."
Their conversation was interrupted by a clattering noise nearby. Seemingly the spell had not been as thorough as they had hoped. The next moment a lone vampire emerged from behind the shelter of a metal container, taking one look at his enemies, mindful of the fate of his brethren, and then bolting for his life towards the factory door.
Spike gestured unhelpfully.
"You missed one."
"Looks like," Buffy said, casually returning the stone to her pocket. "It's not really an exact science."
"How so?" said Gunn
She smiled up at him.
"It's not science."
Angel rushed forwards and intercepted the vampire before it could get away, seizing the creature roughly by the collar and slamming it hard into a chain link fence which sectioned off a nearby boiler. The vampire grunted in pain as Angel held it fast, its shirt bunched tightly in both of his fists. The others crowded in behind him.
"Not so fast," he snarled. "I want to have a little heart-to-heart before the inevitable stake-to-heart. Word is you chased out another vamp nest a few months ago. I want to know why. There has to be plenty of places for your kind to hide in this city."
The vampire chuckled dryly.
"Our kind? Maybe you should take a look in the mirror."
Angel slammed his opponent into the fence again.
"Kinda can't," he snarled. "Now answer my question. Why the turf war on my jurisdiction? Surely you heard about the recent change of management. So what suddenly makes this building such an attractive homestead?"
Gunn stood back, weighing his axe threateningly in his hands.
"I'd suggest you tell the man what he wants to know. Not only do you gotta deal with the landlords, but that's the original vampire slayer standing in your taillights. She says the word and you're nothing but a dusty afterthought."
The vampire's eyes flickered worryingly in Buffy's direction. She simply remained firm and returned his gaze, her arms folded and her stake clutched at her chest. Spike stood beside her with his hands planted upon his hips. It was not long before this sight of a rather disgruntled vampire slayer brought them the information they were seeking.
"We were made an offer, alright?" The vampire looked first at Buffy and then back to the owner of the hands still gripping his collar. "Got told there was a golden business opportunity a few months back. We set up camp here and provide a continuous supply of fresh humans, and in return we're granted immunity from the new players in the corporate office." An edge of bitterness entered his voice. "Or at least we were supposed to be until you lot showed up."
"Who made you this offer?" Angel growled.
"I don't know," the vampire said. "We never found out his name."
"I find that very hard to believe."
"It's the truth! It was all handled through a go-between. We didn't see his face. He said that his boss worked for Wolfram and Hart. He said he had connections. The last nest wasn't exactly cooperative. We were meant to chase them out and supply the humans. Keep them alive, he said. That was the agreement."
Buffy turned and exchanged a worried glance with Spike.
"Keep them alive for what exactly?" she said.
The vampire smiled at this. The transformation in his demeanour was nothing short of unsettling.
"To feed their little pet. And we got to take whatever was left."
"And what is this pet?" said Buffy.
"I have no idea." The surety in the vampire's voice slipped just a fraction. "But it's something a hell of a lot worse than us."
Spike raised an eyebrow.
"Don't tell me you never bothered to get to know the neighbour."
"We didn't," the vampire insisted. "Kept itself to itself. It's usually skulking in the shadows behind the assembly line. Probably still there now. No way I'm gonna stick around without the others to back me up."
They all perceptibly drew inward a fraction at this revelation, casting their gaze towards the shadowy expanse at the far end of the factory floor.
Buffy was the first to tear her eyes away from the sight.
"And what exactly does it do to its victims?"
The vampire gave a choking laugh.
"Why do I get the distinct feeling we don't wanna know the answer?" said Gunn.
"I have no idea, really!" the vampire said. "We didn't exactly want to get too close. We hear them screaming as it feeds. Others just whimper. Effects them in different ways, I guess. But they all end up the same. And we're there to enjoy the leftovers."
"So are you keeping anybody here now?" said Gunn. "When did you last meet your delivery quota?"
The vampire smiled again.
"Why do you think there were so many of us?" he said. "Waste not, want not. You just took care of the remaining collateral yourselves when you killed my brothers. And sisters." He looked them up and down and laughed in disgust. "Some heroes you turned out to be."
And with a twist of Angel's hidden stake the vampire gave a muted gasp and then dusted before their eyes. They all stood back as the remains exploded and then drifted down to settle languidly at their feet, indistinguishable from the dust which already covered most of the factory floor.
"How could we miss this?" said Gunn. "Surely these kidnappings would have shown up on our radar. Apparently we own the police, along with most of Los Angeles real estate."
"Not necessarily," said Angel. He was still staring at the sight where the vampire had dusted, the stake clutched tightly in his fist. "We don't have a friend on the force anymore. We might even have a few enemies nowadays."
"You think that whoever made the deal with this vamp nest rigged the police reports to cover it up?" said Buffy.
"Maybe," he said. Angel turned away from the sight of this latest dusting, taking in the yawning space of the factory floor and the assembly line in the distance. "But even if there was something supernatural going on here our employees did a pretty good job of tying up any loose ends. It's simple economics: supply and demand."
"And they had an almost endless supply," said Gunn. "I'm betting these vamps probably took kids straight off the street. There's plenty of downtrodden folk who wouldn't be missed if they showed up gone in the night. They wouldn't turn up in the police records at any rate. Folk'd think that they'd just packed up and moved on elsewhere. I saw it happen all the time back on the mean streets."
"And they would have no reason to suspect otherwise. There's got to be thousands of missing person cases in the inner city alone. Who knows how many they took. By the sounds of it this has been going on for months now."
There was a beat of silence as the gravity of the situation sunk in. Spike shook his head and gestured towards Angel disdainfully.
"Right, you lost sight of the big picture, mate. Or maybe that was the problem to begin with. Looking so hard at the world through corporate-tinted glasses it made you blind to those poor sods who needed your help the most. You oughta get out of the office once in a while, see what's lurking out there in the dark."
Angel turned to him, his shoulders falling heavily as he let out a frustrated sigh.
"And that would be you, I'm guessing? Last I heard your little saviour-of-the-downtrodden routine turned out to be nothing but a cosmic joke to distract us from the real danger right beneath our feet. Try playing the hero for more than a few days, then we'll talk."
"It was more like weeks actually," protested Spike. "And I don't see you getting out there, helpless the helpless or what all. Too busy at the proverbial grindstone, signing papers, writing cheques, am I right? Anything to keep the corporate machine ticking over. Not very heroic in my book."
"You know, Spike, you really shouldn't talk about things you clearly don't understand…"
Gunn waved his axe to try and get their attention.
"Not to interrupt the sharing of warm fuzzies or anything, but isn't there a demon still on the loose somewhere? And shouldn't we call Wesley? Sounds like we got a traitor in our midst."
"I'll do it," said Buffy wearily. "Anything to get from having to listen to these two again…"
Gunn reached inside his trouser pocket for his cellphone. He handed it to Buffy, who hit the speed dial for Wesley's office and then lifted it impatiently to her ear. She caught the tail end of Spike and Angel's argument as it continued on apace despite their obvious disinterest:
"I was just saying that you were on sabbatical..."
"I was not on sabbatical," Angel growled. "I was just taking an extended leave of absence to deal with some personal issues."
Spike turned to Buffy.
"He was on sabbatical."
"Perhaps it's just me," said Gunn, "but I'm sensing a certain level of hostility here."
Spike shot him a disparaging look.
"You got a knack for this intuition thing, Charlie boy. Anybody ever told you that?"
Buffy paused and put up a hand, the cellphone still ringing as she held it up to her ear.
"Shut up for a minute," she urged. Her tone had turned serious. "Does anybody else hear that?"
The others fell silent, straining to hear the sound that she had indicated. A series of shallow rasps soon became apparent. They all stood their ground, weapons raised and alert as they glanced up as one at the rafters far above their heads. A shadowy creature was splayed upon the factory ceiling, panting heavily as its glowing eyes fixed upon them with a look of ravenous hunger.
"Okay then." Buffy's voice was very small as she lowered the cellphone. "Definitely not just me."
Wesley sat at his desk beside his phone, his tired face illuminated by the glow of the reading lamp. The sun was beginning to set through the window behind him as the first twinkling lights of Los Angeles appeared to dot the undulating skyline. Fred paced the room, flicking through a book distractedly in search of answers. Lorne had perched himself upon the edge of Wesley's desk. He was currently surveying the array of volumes stacked upon its surface with a less-than-enthusiastic expression.
"This is kinda like looking for a demon in a demon-shaped haystack," Lorne complained. "Or, y'know, maybe some other more successful analogy…"
Wesley glanced up from his research.
"I would have preferred them not to leave before we had more time to work out a strategy."
Fred closed her book in frustration.
"Or at least until we finished playing pin the name on the demon."
"Still, I rather got the feeling Buffy needed something she could fight."
"Not to mention Angel-cakes," said Lorne. "Anything to get him out of that broody bachelor cave of his."
"Strike one up for the team, I guess. But where does that leave the rest of us?"
Lorne reached over and picked up something on the desk beside him.
"It leaves us holding the fort against Hades-knows-what, searching through every demonic volume known to man and beast alike"—He lifted the stopper from the decanter of whiskey with a frown—"and swiftly running out of the old lifeblood."
Fred finally gave up her pacing and settled down in a nearby chair.
"What did you see?" she asked Lorne. "When you read Buffy, I mean. There might be something there which could help us."
Lorne just shook his head as he returned the decanter to the desk.
"I'm sorry, Fredikins. Just like Wes said. Our resident slayer has no path that I can see. We're flying blind on this one. Our best shot is to find this demon and see what it can tell us about the danger we're facing. Not that we're ever going to find our mystery monster anytime-"
"I've got it," said Wesley, standing up in triumph from behind his desk. The other two both turned in surprise.
"Well, colour me presumptuous," said Lorne.
Fred lowered her own volume.
"Are you sure?" she said excitedly.
Wesley trailed a finger along the page he had settled upon, his eyes excitedly taking in the rest of the passage he had located. Then he paused and gave a frown.
"Oh no, sorry," he said. "It says here that this particular type of demon is indigenous to the jungles of South Africa." He set the book down upon the desk in defeat. "And the odds of it being our contender are rather slim considering it has been extinct for the last five hundred years."
The other two slumped again in disappointment.
"Well, at least we can scratch that one off the list," said Lorne. "Unless the demon world's been sharing shamans with Jane Fonda again… How many possibilities does that leave us now?"
Fred adjusted her spectacles.
"Eliminating non-humanoid demons and also several sub-species of demonic parasite, but including those with the ability to shape shift and assume human form? Roughly ten thousand known candidates."
Lorne hissed uncomfortably though his teeth.
"Is this a bad time to mention that I have a Zumba class tonight?"
Their conversation was interrupted by the sound of the telephone ringing on Wesley's desk. Fred looked up in excitement.
"I bet that's Angel."
Wesley hurried to answer it.
"Hello?" By the expression on his face the others could tell that it was not good news. Wesley looked up at them and simply shook his head helplessly. "There's no answer."
The cellphone rang forgotten from its place upon the factory floor.
The creature dropped from the ceiling, straightening up and towering over them by a clear foot. Its grey mottled skin was stretched tight across an almost skeletal body and partly covered with a tattered shroud, whilst a set of deep set eyes stared out at them above a row of jagged teeth. It did not look happy to see them.
"I'm guessing this is the neighbour?" said Spike.
Gunn side eyed him.
"Probably mad that we never introduced ourselves."
Buffy quickly reloaded her crossbow. Her opponent was faster. As she unleashed a bolt straight at the creature's heart it effortlessly dodged the projectile with a speed almost faster than sight. There was a whistle and then a thunk as the bolt she unleashed impacted into a wooden crate, which exploded in a shower of splinters. The creature stepped back to its original position in a blur of speed, almost as though it had done nothing but avoid a nuisance fly.
Buffy's eyes widened in horror.
For all of her alarm she dropped her crossbow and immediately leapt into the fray, striking out wildly with her fists and feet with as much speed as she could muster. Her blows met nothing but air until the creature's hand slammed into her chest and sent her crashing to the ground.
Buffy groaned and clutched a hand to her stomach, severely winded. The creature did not get a chance to come back for seconds as Gunn leapt forward and swung his axe with all of his might. There was a strange skittering sound, like the hiss of a cockroach, as the creature dodged his attacks in a blur of otherworldly speed. Against an opponent like this his axe quickly proved cumbersome and slow, and it was knocked from his hands and sent clattering to the ground. A glancing blow then knocked Gunn off his feet.
In response Angel and Spike rushed to meet the creature's attacks together, their gamefaces on. Sometimes nothing more than a grey shadow, it dodged their efforts with an ease which would have been impressive if it was not so frightening. Now weaponless Gunn rushed to Buffy's aid and helped to pull her back to her feet.
Locked in a never-ending dance they watched Angel and Spike dealing the creature blow after blow, their swords meeting nothing but thin air for all of the strength behind their attacks. The next moment the creature dodged their offence in a continuous blur of connected speed and then disappeared entirely from view.
"Ah, hell no," said Gunn. "Now that's just cheating."
Angel cast about in confusion.
"Where did it go?"
The words had barely escaped his mouth when the creature suddenly phased back into appearance right in front of him, thrusting its gnarled hand against his chest. Angel's face slid back into human form, a pained cry dying in his throat as he hung suspended in the creature's grasp. The sword fell clattering from his grip. The creature gave a strange gurgling sound, almost like a guttural laugh, as its hand glowed a sickly chartreuse colour. Angel mouthed wordlessly in pain.
The next moment Spike barrelled into the creature at full tilt. It immediately let go of Angel, who fell to his knees in trembling shock as the creature's attack was suddenly interrupted. Nearby Spike began to get in his licks on the creature as Angel clutched a hand to his chest in obvious pain.
Buffy started towards him, but he simply threw up a hand. He did not look up.
"I'm fine," he managed, now standing bent double with his hands upon his knees. "Take care of that thing before it kills us first."
These words were nothing short of prophetic. Spike lunged with his sword and came up lacking as the creature swiftly dodged this attack, lashing out with its long claws and catching him with a fierce blow across the face. It was so strong that it sent Spike crashing violently into one of the shelving units against the far wall, landing in a heap as piping and other miscellanea tumbled from the shelves and rained down upon his injured form.
"Spike!" Buffy yelled.
They were too far away to reach him. The creature blurred out of existence before their eyes and reappeared in a split second before Spike, who was now weaponless. His gameface had disappeared as he attempted to put weight onto his leg and failed miserably, unable to stand as the creature advanced upon him with malicious intent, its glowing hand outstretched.
Buffy reached for her belt and threw her knife in desperation. Distracted, the creature did not dodge the weapon in time and the blade lodged itself between its shoulder blades. It gave a scream as it came stumbling to a halt, its long claws scrabbling desperately to try and remove the knife from its back.
Angel seized his chance. He retrieved his sword from the floor and then sprung into action from bended knee, rushing forwards and violently thrusting his sword into the creature's torso. It opened its mouth wide and howled in pain as the blade penetrated its thick hide and emerged from the other side, sending a spray of discoloured blood into the air. Before it could attempt to extricate itself Angel shoved the creature backwards until it met a section of chain link fence and quickly became entangled as the blade passed through the other side.
Angel stumbled backwards, a satisfied smile spreading across his face as he watched the creature struggle to free itself from this predicament. The same blur of speed which had marked its earlier agility was now nothing more than a mark of its desperation, as it tried vainly to dart out of the way of the blade protruding from its torso.
Buffy snatched up the axe which Gunn had dropped earlier and stepped forward. Then she swung it with a desperate cry. There was a horrible thwack as the demon's head was severed from its shoulders. More blood sprayed. Angel gripped the handle of his sword and wrenched it free from the creature's corpse. The decapitated body shuddered and then succumbed to gravity, following the head as it rolled away across the factory floor. The headless body continued to spasm for a few moments before it jerked and then became still.
Everything came to an abrupt end, the sudden silence perhaps more disquieting than the noise of battle itself. Buffy lowered the axe, breathing heavily. Blood was now flecked across her face. Angel did not say anything as he studied the dead creature at their feet. In the silence Gunn recovered the knife and soon noticed a steady dripping noise. He looked down with a groan and realised that blood now stained his expensive-looking shirt.
"Oh man, I dread to think of the dry cleaning bill for this."
Buffy dropped the axe without a word and stopped to check on Spike, who was leant back against the shelving unit in the corner. There was now a hard way cut across his face. They shared a brief moment as their eyes locked, Buffy touching his face as she examined his wounds. Spike smiled softly and pushed her hands away.
"'S alright," he said. "Just a scratch."
Gunn noticed this moment of intimacy but did not comment upon it. Instead he busied himself by wiping at the blood currently splashed across the front of his shirt, frowning deeply as he stared down at the slain creature in their midst.
"That fight felt vaguely familiar," he said. "Or maybe I've been stuck in the office so much lately I'm misremembering things." He turned to Buffy. "Anything you've fought before, Blondie?"
Buffy reappeared at his side, Spike close behind her with a slight limp. She looked down at the creature intently and shook her head as Gunn passed her back the knife.
"I'd remember a creature like this, and I've beaten my fair share of nasties. This was something new."
She returned the knife to her belt. Spike touched a hand to his injured face, then gestured to the dead creature lying at their feet.
"What was that green flash? Looked to me like Matrix boy was trying to work its mojo on Angel."
"Tried and failed," Angel said, wiping off his sword. "I'm fine."
"I guess I was kinda thrown by the girlish screaming."
"Whatever it was that's probably what it was doing to those poor people," said Buffy.
"What did it feel like?" said Gunn.
Angel looked askance at him.
"Like the un-life was being sucked out of me, thanks for asking. But doesn't look like it got a chance to finish. Probably takes longer to drain the life force of a vampire. Obviously the others weren't so lucky."
They all continued to study the decapitated creature, imagining the horrors that its other victims had once endured.
"Well, at least it can't hurt anybody else now," Gun offered.
"This must be what my dreams were trying to warn me about," said Buffy. "All of those people. They needed our help. Somebody was trying to work against the system this entire time."
"And we had no idea."
"So what do we do about the mutiny on the Bounty?" said Gunn. There was an expectant pause. "Angel?"
Angel shook his head and gestured dismissively.
"I'll deal with it once I get back. Get Lorne to do a company-wide sweep, see if we can find the culprit."
"What?" said Gunn. "Because that was so effective the first, oh, dozen times?"
"You're right. Obviously there are ways of working around our detection systems. Best to bide our time, lay low for a while, and then find out whoever did this and bash their heads in."
"Sounds like a plan to me."
Buffy stooped down and picked up the cellphone she had dropped earlier. She put it to her ear and heard nothing but a steady dial tone; if he had answered the call then Wesley had long since hung up on his end.
She was about to hit redial when Angel shook his head, reaching inside his jacket and pulling out his own cellphone instead.
"I'll call him," he said. "I am the landlord, apparently."
Buffy simply nodded and flipped her own cellphone closed, handing it back to Gunn who promptly returned it to the pocket of his trousers.
"Whoever is behind this had a good reason to hide," said Spike.
"It could be anyone," said Gunn.
All three frowned as they looked down at the decapitated creature again, as though hoping that the sight would help to give them the answers they sought.
"So," said Buffy after a beat. "Got any immediate suspects in mind?"
"One of the guys in the copy room wears sock suspenders," said Gunn. "That's a sign of being evil, right?"
"You betcha. As is a love of foie gras, antiquing and the ability to recite the lyrics to Copacabana."
Angel frowned as he looked up from his cellphone.
"I always liked that one."
"So what about our dearly departed friend?" said Spike.
"It won't be hurting anybody else," said Gunn. "Not unless it grows another head." He paused as an anxious look crossed his face. "These things can't grow another head, can they?"
Buffy looked down at the creature at their feet again. Then she looked at the head and carefully nudged it with the toe of her boot.
"It looks pretty dead to me. Occasional twitching aside."
"Leave it," said Angel. He gave a weary sigh. "I'll call for the cleaners. But y'know, the kind that actually clean up. We'll sort out this mess. I think that's probably the end of our entertainment for the day."
"Right," said Spike. "Good day had by all then. Pub?"
Gunn pulled at his tie, loosening the tension at his collar.
"Sounds good, but I got a ton of paperwork to do back at the office. And also laundry. Just my luck I wore the Versace today."
And he turned on his heel and walked away, taking up his discarded sword as he went. He shrugged his duster back across his shoulders as he did so, his walk marked with a pronounced limp in his step. Gunn went with him, retrieving his bloody axe and hefting it up onto his shoulder. There was a mixture of exhaustion and satisfaction written across his face.
Buffy remained behind for a moment, reaching out and touching Angel gently on the shoulder.
"Hey, you sure you're okay?" she said softly. "You looked pretty shaken up for a moment there."
He just shook his head.
"I'm sure," he said. "You should head back with the others. I'll meet everyone at the office just as soon as the cleaners are done. Then maybe we can figure out who was pulling the strings behind our headless friend here."
Buffy gave him a reassuring smile.
"Still, when you think about it this is probably my most successful visit to date."
And she left him alone as he considered the cellphone in his hand, her eyes lingering upon the dead creature lying in her wake as she headed for the factory door where they had first come in. Angel turned and stood watching her go until her footsteps had faded and he heard the sound of the car departing outside.
He did not notice the decapitated head suddenly open its eyes and give an unsettling growl, its pupils flashing with a strange green light.
Angel lowered the cellphone when he heard the disturbing noise behind him. He turned to find the creature standing where it had once been slain, its clawed hands just dropping to its sides as it finished reattaching its own head.
He did not move, standing rigidly in place as the creature seemed to stop and consider him carefully. He saw a flash of recognition in those eyes above the skeletal row of teeth. Then there was a strange snuffling sound, as though it were testing the air, before the creature simply turned and disappeared back into the shadows.
Angel blinked in confusion as he watched it go. It did not take him long to realise the reason for its disinterest. It had already fed. Now it was retiring to sleep off its last meal.
He approached the spot where the creature had once been. It was then that he realised he could hear something else: an extremely weak heartbeat. He had not heard it before in the confusion of the fighting. He knew what it meant. He had heard it many times before. It was the heartbeat of someone who was close to death.
It soon led him towards a shadowy corner of the factory. There was a door here, maybe some kind of storage room, heavy and locked up tight against trespassers. He simply returned the cellphone to his pocket and then gripped the handle, giving it a sharp pull and breaking the lock with ease.
The door groaned in protest as he pulled it open. As he stepped through the doorway he ducked beneath a tattered plastic sheet which served as a sort of curtain, entering a small storeroom devoid of light which had obviously once served as a meat locker.
Here was the source of the heartbeat. A young woman sat against the far wall, her legs pulled up to her chest and her arms hugging her knees for warmth. There was a long rusted chain bracketed to the wall which terminated in a manacle about her ankle. She was as pale as a sheet. It was obvious that she had lost a lot of blood. He approached and noticed multiple bite marks in various places: on her arms, her neck, even down her legs. This was where the nest had kept their supply of food. The vampire he had spoken to had lied. There was still one left that they hadn't yet turned.
"Please, help me," she murmured.
The woman was shivering from the cold, but the temperature seemed to have been turned down just enough to slow down her metabolism but to stop short of freezing her to death. He noticed tear marks running down her cheeks.
Angel stopped and knelt down before her, reaching out a hand and gently touching her knee. She started despite herself. His hand dropped away as she attempted to scoot away into the corner, the chain rattling as she went.
"It's okay," he murmured.
"Please," she said softly. "Please, don't kill me."
He studied her closely.
"Did they feed you to that creature?" he said.
She nodded, almost imperceptibly.
"I guess we have something in common then. How do you feel?"
Her gaze fixed upon him, staring and vacant as though she were seeing something that she wished she had never been made to witness.
And he simply grabbed the woman, pulled her close and violently sank his teeth into her neck. She gave a choked cry of pain as he drank deeply, his hands holding her arms in an iron grip. When he was satisfied with this short taste he casually snapped her neck and left her to crumple bonelessly to the ground, wide-eyed and staring in her moment of death.
He smiled and touched his fingers to his bloody mouth, savouring the taste of human blood for the first time in many years.
"I feel just fine."
In Wesley's office the trio continued to work. They did not notice the open volume on the desk, half-hidden by a pile of books, its pages displaying a sketch of a creature with a distinct glow emanating from its outstretched hand. A small inscription was written beneath this etching:
Esor animi: Soul eater.