Duality

Duality

Author's Notes


Rating: ADULT for sex and violence and torture, but in a very tasteful way, of course… Oh, and some impolite language.
Warnings: Angelus must face all sorts of dark happenings. This is not a fluffy tale, so be warned. There are a number of couplings in here, and few of them are straight M/F.
Content: B/A/A (us) Sequel to ‘The Nature of the Beast’, (the initial story, not the first series) and takes place immediately afterwards.
Summary: Buffy’s dead. This very dark tale tells of Angelus’ descent into his own personal hell, and what happens afterwards. We also find out quite a lot more about those shadowy recurrent characters, The Lady, and her Consorts, the Duality.
This story is told from several different points of view, which sometimes overlap. I hope it’s always obvious who is talking. You might ask why don’t I just label them? Well, apparently, a lot of readers derive enormous satisfaction from seeing how quickly they can identify each narrator. I aim to please…
New readers: I’ve tried to make this story as standalone as possible, but it is part of a complete story cycle, and contains references to things that happened earlier. Provided you accept that, you shouldn’t have a problem following the events that are recounted here, but you’ll get a lot more out of it if you read the others first. Honestly. Here they are: ‘The Nature of the Beast’; ‘To Kill A Cat’; ‘Tyger, Tyger’; ‘Cometh the Hour’; ‘Lionesses’; ‘Pride’; ‘Ma’at’; ‘Solstice’; ‘Pax’.
Author’s notes: In this part of the cycle, author’s notes are at the end. Read them now, or read them at the end, just as you please. Or, since they explain some of the things that you will read about, split the screen and read them as you get to the appropriate bits.
The tenth story in ‘The Nature of the Beast’ story cycle, and the first in part 2. Or second, if you count the original story as 1. Tricky things, cycles. Hard to know where they start and where they end. You’ll know what I mean, if you’ve read all the rest.

This story is for Deb, who nagged, and nagged, and nagged… Thanks, Deb.

***

Grief tears his heart, and drives him to and fro
In all the raging impotence of woe.

The Iliad of Homer. Book xxii. Line 526.

The Slayer is dead. May she find safe passage through the Fields of Fire, to the Fields of Plenty on the other side.

Angelus is missing, and without him, his empire will go to hell in a hand basket. So say I, Ezrafel of Hylek, Chronicler of the House of Aurelius.

You and I have met before, in my first chronicle, which told of the early years: of that time when my Master and Mistress first met, and when they learned to live with each other. Had they not done so, they would have had to kill each other, of course, because of who and what they are, but some power, perhaps, intervened, and threw against them such obstacles that they were forced to stand together, and to discover that love and hate are two sides of the same coin.

A Slayer and a Master Vampire, both of them with reputations to bring a frisson of fear to the doughtiest of enemies. Buffy and Angelus, each of them almost a force of nature, antithetically opposed to the other. You would not imagine that they could love each other, would you? And yet they did, with a passion that few of us ever have the grace to know, and it was as if each were the missing half of the other. It was a passion that never faded, never grew into a comfortable old age. Right to the end, each time they saw each other, it was as if it were the first time, as if their love were renewed each day of their seventy-year union. Only a very few of us knew that there was still a missing part, for my Mistress at least; only those of us there at the beginning, and we are very few now, remember Angel, and we never remind Angelus of that period of his existence.

He, now, is in the second decade of his fourth century, but still carries the perfection of a young man of twenty-six. She was 93 when she died, but until the last few weeks, she looked like a woman in her fifties, and an extremely handsome one at that. She put it down to her Slayer healing powers, but those of us with senses to understand realised that at least part of it was due to his blood. She never took much of it, not enough to harm her, but mates such as these could never deny themselves some blood play, at the height of passion. Some of us knew, and many others simply expected. She never lost her humanity, but she gained a little something in longevity.

Only in the final weeks, as the cancer ate her away, did she truly grow old, although never as old as her years suggested. At the end, she died away from home. It was her choice to reconnect to humanity, and not one of us could blame her. Many of us here are from different tribes and clans, different realms, different dimensions, even. Given the knowledge of approaching death, many of us would opt to die in the lands of our birth, and so we understood.

She was gracious in farewell, taking her leave of each and every one of us at his court, from the lowliest servant to the highest retainer, and not a few tears were shed, because we all loved her. Then he took her away to die amongst strangers. He told us when she went, and we have heard nothing from him since. This house of his is now a house of mourning, with or without him. As I said, we all loved her.

I was the one who took his call, and I told him of the bickering and posturing. He has welded together an alliance of many different species and cultures, he and the Slayer. Keeping them together is a daily task, and he has been gone too long. Oh, they would never rebel against him, but they rebel against each other, and the alliances fall apart. She could always hold them together in his absence, but the rest of us cannot.

We have formed a triumvirate, Ixolon, Estevan and I, his longest serving retainers, and we are resolved to keep his empire intact, until we can find him. If we are grieving, we must put that aside, for her sake. She would not wish everything she worked for to be lost, even as she is laid to rest. Oh, we all knew. The empire he built, the alliances he forged, none of them were for himself. They were for her. Everything was for her. Despite that, those of us who have made him our Master have found a peace and prosperity that could not otherwise be imagined. So, we shall not let it slip away, nor come to a state where blood must be shed to recover it.

If necessary, we shall seek assistance from Aurelius, but we would prefer not to. It isn’t that Aurelius would refuse, or would make us feel lessened by our need for help. It is because Angelus would not wish to be beholden. There is now a… difficult… relationship between himself and his Clan Master. Starchy. I think that the reason for that is not for me to divulge. One of them may choose to tell you, though.

It will be best if we find him quickly. We have sent those of our own to search, and they should find some trace of him soon. At least, I pray that they do.

***

My wife, my eternal mate, is dead, and I have no words to describe how I feel, but I will try. No. I will let someone else try.

‘Grief tears his heart, and drives him to and fro In all the raging impotence of woe.’

That’s Homer. It’s from the Iliad, and those words are hammering through my skull, minute after minute and hour after hour. That man really understood the human condition, and, in this emotion at least, the vampire condition seems to be little different, except for the intensity of our demonic feeling. Oh, yes, and the consequences.

‘Grief tears his heart.’

My heart isn’t like yours, but I have one, nonetheless, one that performs the same poetic function as yours - the repository of the emotions. It’s the heart that she made for me, and with her passing all those more human emotions are cowering in that empty hall, seeking shelter from the howling of the demon. There were periods in my life when I wished I could die, to escape the physical pain of one escapade or another. Times when I’ve been shot, stabbed, eviscerated, severed from breastbone to crotch, and then quite a lot that was even worse. I would take all of that pain, every single day of my life, to escape the pain of her death. It is hooked deep into my spirit, tearing me away, piece by piece, eternally, leaving me unable to escape the agony of my rebellion against my nature. Prometheus bound.

She died in my arms. No, that statement is not enough. It is truth, and yet it isn’t. I killed her. I killed the thing most precious to me – the only thing truly precious to me – and I did it because she asked it of me. I could not bear her pain, and so I must bear the fact that I killed her.

I had planned to kill myself, on the day that she was buried, but she asked me not to. She thought that the dance of life might continue, that we might ‘get another go round’. She knew that Aurelius believes that, has waited two thousand years for his soul mate, Palestrina, to get another go round, and she asked me to wait. I gave her my oath, but I’m regretting it now. How can I wait, as he has done? How can I face the long march of millennia, alone, when every second without her is like a year in Hell?

‘And drives him to and fro.’

I will quarter the Earth, if necessary, looking for someone who can help me. Just now, if there are Powers left on this world, they are silent to me.

I want to know that she is well. If the witches were still with me, they could send me after her, to find out – they did it before – but Willow and Tara are long gone, now, and I have no one with their quality of power.

I want to know whether I should make my peace with the Soul. She wants us both. If there is a chance that our lives can cross again, I want to give her her heart’s desire. My past experience of him, and his with me, isn’t promising, but perhaps the future can be different.

She is my eternal mate, and I want to make sure that our lives do not take separate paths. Even death should not be able to part us. But, I cannot bear that she might spend eternity in the sort of place where my eternity surely lies, nor could I permit that she would have to settle for the sort of hollow man that the Soul alone must be, if he and I are splinters of one self. And so, rather than drag her down into that fate, I gave her an oath.

Not only did she want me to wait, but she also wanted me to take up the yoke that the despised Soul tried to shoulder almost three quarters of a century ago. She wanted me to seek redemption from the Powers that Be. What am I to do? I promised that I would, and I meant it, yet I know that there can never be anything like that for me. I am a demon from Hell, not a fallen soul. I am excluded by my very existence, by the nature of this beast. And yet, she thought it could be done. She thought that the three of us, Angel, Angelus and Buffy, could spend eternity together. If she wants it, I must find a way to deliver it. I must.

I have mourned for her in the silence of her tomb. If I expected her ghost to appear and haunt me, I was disappointed. The funeral was a solitary affair, as she wished. I may rule the Underworld of half this planet, and own most of the land and property in this county, but I’m not a public figure, and a large and public funeral would help none of those she loved, particularly a ceremony held after sunset. It was simply Dawn, and myself, and the pastor from the hospice. And the undertakers. The others will get their chance to pay their respects. You would recognise Dawn. As a supernatural entity made into flesh, it seems that she, too, is eternal. She has matured into a woman in the prime of life, and there she has stayed. She’s as barren as I am, though, and there will be no more Summers women to grace this earth. That is a matter for regret.

Now, even Dawn has taken her leave of me, and I should start on the tasks that my mate left for me, but my heart hurts. No doubt my people will be waiting for my return, for me to resolve the squabbles and posturing that will be taking place, but I don’t want to talk to them just yet. Not until I understand better what I am going to be about. And not until I have mastered my rage.

‘In all the raging impotence of woe.’

I have knowledge accrued through centuries of life, although sometimes I think that I have no more sense than a schoolboy. I have the wealth of two dimensions, enough to buy and sell anything on this planet. I have power to bring down nations, if I wish. Yet now, I am alone and helpless, and I cannot bear the pain. I know that the numbness of the shock has still not worn off, and there is so much worse to come. The only salve I have is my demonic anger, and if I loose that upon you, this world will burn in hell.

I am helpless, hopeless and impotent. And my anger is growing, as my grip on this more civilised Angelus starts to slip. You should walk softly around me.

I thought that I could control myself sufficiently to fulfil her last wishes, but I’m so weak. She taught me to be civilised, but that veneer is flaking off me like rotten sandstone, and I yearn for the clarity that was Angelus for the first one hundred and fifty years of my life. The clarity that Darla gave me. Can I ever go back? Am I that same demon? Can I lose myself in the screams of others? Will their cries of anguish drown out my own; drown out the silent screams in my head? Will the pain of others help me to bury my own, or shall I never again be able to dig deep enough?

Demons are all about passion, and grief is one of the most passionate of emotions. I want everyone on this miserable planet to know what I am suffering. I want to tear it to shreds, to burn it to ash, so that it will know the meaning of my grief, and will share it with me. She would be so disappointed in me, so I won’t, but I don’t yet know how I will stop myself.

Or, perhaps I do. I reach down into myself, to find what is left of her, and I find sunlight and daffodils, and I must smile at the incongruity of that. I have a shadow of her, an echo, something that will live forever in my blood, something she left to give me comfort in the dark times to come. Her blood always tasted of Buffy, and power, and sunlight and daffodils. The scent and taste of her now, the feeling of her echo, the warmth of her hand on my heart, is almost more than I can bear. It lacerates my spirit. Not to feel it, though, not to have this remembrance – that would, indeed, be more than I could bear. So, here, on a high hill overlooking Sunnydale, I open myself up to her and allow the tears to fall. As they do, I throw back my head and howl. It is the howl of a demon in agony, the howl of a master vampire bereft of all he holds dear, and the howl of a werewolf. Their blood, too, runs in my veins; those demons have been made into my clan as much as vampires are, and they answer me: they, and their cousins, the true wolves. All of them answer me. News of her death will be known across the world in a few hours.

Oddly comforted by their presence, I leave Sunnydale to seek out some answers. I know where to start.

Los Angeles. I have come to a small and needy church. St Jude’s: the patron saint of lost causes. It was here that I found Father Jerome, who agreed to marry us. He died not long after, but that, for once, was none of my doing. He told Buffy that she would always find help at St Jude’s, if she ever needed it. What I expect he meant was, if she needed help to deal with me. She never did, though – or at least, none that the Church could give – and so it has been a long time since I have been in here. I have sent donations, though, from time to time. I see that none of that money seems to have been spent on the dilapidated fabric of this building. I have been supporting the lost causes, then. I wonder briefly if I have become one of them, but there is no profit in such thinking, and I do my best to snap out of it. It isn’t easy.

I am sitting, as I did so very long ago, at the back of the church during the Compline service. A few old parishioners are here to confess the day’s petty sins, and receive comfort for the night. Looking at them, they could almost be the same as those who were here on that night, too. The priest is different, though. He is an elderly man, thin and tight-lipped, wrinkled with spite. His balding head gleams in the low light, and his movements are small and precise. He is assisted by a young curate; so young in fact that he looks to have hardly started shaving yet. I’m sure he’s older than he seems to be, but not by much. From his appearance, you would think that he should be at odds with his sour superior, a shock of thick dark hair above a carefree face, with a particularly sweet expression. Although he is frowning now in concentration, he smiles readily, with lips that were made for kissing. It’s such a waste. But just now I have no interest in corrupting the innocent, and I wait for the end of the service.

When it’s over, the priest sends his assistant to the vestry, and personally sees his tiny flock off into the night. Then without taking the time to remove his surplice, although he does stop for a moment just inside the church door, at a cupboard placed there, he strides down the length of the church, a forbidding scowl aimed squarely at me, looking the very epitome of sour-faced charity. Such dispensers of mercy always have a standard beneath which mercy is too great a gift to bestow on the feckless. I’m pretty sure I’m going to be well beneath even that standard. Still, I remain seated, and wait for whatever he has to say.

As he nears me, he brings his hands forward, and I can see that he has a cross in each of them. Ah. If he thought to scare me off, he’s been disappointed. He stops in front of me, and his voice is a low hiss, but powerful for all that.

“How dare you defile this church? You and your sort are not welcome here!”

“It hasn’t always been like that.”

I try to keep my voice mild and unprovocative. I’m here for a purpose. I doubt that you have any notion of the depths to which I will sink in order to achieve that purpose.

“Anathema! You, and any who aid you, are anathema!”

“You didn’t mind taking my money, though?”

His face changes. He knew what I am. Now, I think he knows who I am. He confirms that a moment later.

“Angelus!”

He practically spits the word into my face, an epithet, not my name.

“A blasphemy in the sight of God, that the Church should take blood money from such as you!”

I consider briefly the history of the Church, and its high points, such as the bloody sack of Jerusalem, the burning of elderly and lonely women as witches, the slaughter of the Moors and the Jews, of the Andean and Mexican civilizations, all in the name of conversion – and, of course, all the gold and silver that accrued to the Church as a result of those activities, ill-gotten gains converted into good honest specie. I do think he’s being rather unfair, but I don’t suppose it will do any good to say so.

“There were once people here who were willing to help me, and in return I did them a service…”

He doesn’t let me finish.

“The end *never* justifies the means. There is no comfort or aid for you here, nothing you can offer to us, demon…”

With that, he swings his right hand, overarm. The cross he’s holding in that hand is, in fact, a stake. He’s no match for me, though, and it’s laughably easy to wrap my hand around his and stop the blow. I squeeze hard enough to feel the bones creak, but he brings his other hand across and rams the point of the second cross into my arm. The malice of Palestrina’s father will certainly win this round, the power that he spelled into the artefacts of Christianity, but I cannot leave without defiance. Once again, the smoke of burnt offerings rises up for the pleasure of the One God as the cross sears into muscle and nerves. I grasp the holy object with my free hand, and rip it away; but I don’t throw it down. Instead I let him watch as the cross burns into my clenched fist, with the sound and scent of frying bacon. He watches, appalled, as my flesh sizzles.

And now it’s time to bring this farce to an end. I stand up, and step away from him, throwing the cross at his feet. Then I turn on my heel and leave. I tell myself that this is just a temporary reverse, that I have many other avenues to explore – and I do – but as I leave that perfidious church, I cannot get away from the thought of Aurelius’ long, and so far fruitless, wait. But, I won’t give up yet. Today was only the start.

Outside, I feel myself slip into demon face as I allow the pain of my hand and arm to wash over me. Just for a moment, it drowns out the pain inside. Only for the moment, though. This is a quiet area, but I’m well aware of the press of humanity, just a street or two away, and I decide to get a bit more distance. You’ll never get to heaven if you keep eating the populace. I swarm up the nearest building, onto the roof. I’ve always liked roofs. You can see so much from high up. It’s from there that I see the side door to the church open, and the curate run out. He’s trying to be inconspicuous, but he’s onto a loser from the start. It’s hard for a man in a frock to be inconspicuous. Then I hear him very softly call my name. He puts a ‘Mister’ in front of it, which probably intrigues me enough to save his life.

Young as he is, he nearly has a heart attack when I drop down beside him from several storeys up, my coat billowing out in a way that might be the stuff of fantasy for him. He recovers quickly, though, and gestures to me to follow him into the darkened alley behind the church. Interesting. The prey luring the predator on – that’s new.

“What do you want?”

He hesitates, and I can scent his fear in the air. I move to reassure him.

“You’re safe. For now.”

He nods gratefully.

“You came to the church for something, Mister Angelus. It… it’s different here now. You know, different to when you saw Father Jerome.”

That almost makes me smile.

“You’re very much too young to remember that meeting. What do you know about it? And how do you know who I am?”

“I… I have Father Jerome’s journals.”

He reaches into his cassock and pulls out a battered leather wallet. Inside, amongst bits and pieces of paper, and a few small bills, is a photograph. I know exactly the moment when that was taken. I was waiting for Buffy. It was the evening that we were to be married, in the garden of St Michael’s Church in Sunnydale, and I remember some photographs being taken, before Riley tried to assassinate her, before time had to be stopped to save her. It was an act that brought Soldier Boy to his current state as Riley-skin on my wall. I just never knew that Father Jerome had this picture.

I hold out my hand, and he passes the photograph over, reluctantly. I look happy in it. I’m tempted to slip it into my pocket, to remind me of other times, but when I glance at him, I decide against it. The boy’s face is a portrait of forbidden longing. I told you his lips were made for kissing, and one day he may get his reward. I just don’t know yet whether the reward will be for me to give him what he wants, or to withhold it. But there’s time enough for decisions like that. I hand the scrap of card back.

“This was with the journals?”

“Yes. I… I saved them from the bishop.”

“What?”

The whole tale stumbles off his tongue, then. St Jude’s was, indeed, a church for lost causes under Father Jerome and his successors. They reached out to beings of all kinds, and dabbled in some very strange doings indeed. But, it couldn’t last forever. A new deacon, anxious to enhance his standing, pried into things he shouldn’t have known about, and then tattled to the bishop. The bishop was displeased.

Journals, texts, books, artefacts of all sorts, were confiscated, and the then incumbent priest, a Father Robert, was moved to assist in a larger church – not an obvious demotion, but his activities would be monitored. This lad, Father Robert’s curate, professing to know nothing, was kept on to assist the new incumbent, Father Paul. He hadn’t managed to save anything else, but he had hidden Father Jerome’s journals. And the photograph. Brave boy.

He digs into his cassock pocket again, and pulls out a scrap of paper, which he presses into my hand. It’s the address of Father Robert’s new church, and it’s a long way from Los Angeles. I promise him that I will ask Father Robert if he wants the journals, and if so, I will arrange delivery.

He hurries off home, and on a whim I follow him to his meagre basement accommodation. Through the tiny window, I see him reach under the floorboards, and draw out several leather-bound books. He sits on his bed, lost in the reading of them, and I watch him for a long time before I leave.

That night, the Church of St Jude, for reasons that are never officially established, burns to the ground.

***

I think you know about me – I’m Lindsey. For decades, now, I’ve run the law firm, Wolfram and Hart, for Angelus. It isn’t the same place that it used to be when the Senior Partners were in charge, and doesn’t have nearly that amount of power. But, I’ve spent decades rebuilding some of our resource base; we still do things that other law firms couldn’t contemplate, and deal with entities that would cause other lawyers to run away screaming. Believe me, it takes a hell of a lot to make a lawyer run away screaming, even a human one. Yet, even with our resources, it’s hard to find a decent natural magic user or seer nowadays. We killed a lot, of course, when I was still just a rising young lawyer. All of the known seers and magic users in Adras and Hylek are gone – well, some of those I killed myself – and we purged other dimensions, too. There were reasons at the time, but it had its downside.

Angelus has arrived. I was waiting for him. I have a couple of werewolves on staff, and they told me of her death. I knew he would come, and I knew he would not have been reconciled to her passing. I knew what he would want. I also knew what he would need. They aren’t necessarily the same things.

Angelus and I have had our difficulties and disagreements, particularly when he was Angel. In fact, it was me that was responsible for stuffing the Soul back into him that time, and starving him for months. I really didn’t expect him to get out of that one, but for him something always seems to come up. Well, yes, that too, but you know what I meant. After I first met him, though, the difficulties I had were all about him. I hated what he did to me, and how he made me feel. I loved what he did to me and how he made me feel. Have you any idea how that can screw you around? I wanted to get him out of my thoughts and my hormones, and I thought I could best do that by getting rid of him altogether. It never seemed to work, though, and in the end, I was turned and given to him. Since then, I have been a faithful servant – now that’s something I never expected to be able to say, when I was young and human. I think I’ve also been a faithful friend, as much as my position – and his – allows.

Sure, it’s hard to be anything else, I know. I was sired by Japheth, but Angelus has remade me many times since then – sometimes in pain, sometimes in pleasure – so many times, that I can’t remember exactly… No. I do remember how many. I remember each and every one in exquisite detail. Photographic memory. How could I forget?

What? Oh, come on. Don’t tell me you haven’t actually noticed that he’s like a black hole? Once you get within range, he sucks you in (oh, hell, I could get off just thinking that thought…) and you can never, ever escape. I mean, why do *you* keep coming back? So, I’m his, and not ashamed to admit it, nowadays.

Everyone is grieving that the Slayer is dead. Me? Nah. It was only ever about him. And I think you’ll find some of the others are crying crocodile tears, too. Now she’s gone, maybe I can find a way to release the hold she has on him. There’ll be a lot of competition, but at least I’ve got a shot now.

I knew that he would be in a bad way when he arrived, but even that understanding didn’t prepare me for what I see. He’s always pale, of course, except when he’s recently fed, when his skin takes on a wonderful rosy blush. Now, he’s livid, ashen almost. I’ve never, ever seen him look so much like a corpse.

His face is incredibly expressive, when he allows it to be. Just now, I don’t think he has much control of his expression. Or perhaps I should say that he is exercising so much control over himself that his expression is on default, showing his state of mind. He is grim and forbidding. Frightening, even. You look at him and you absolutely know that, with very little effort, he could bring the world to ruin. But, like I said, I know what he needs.

I’ve allowed a group of Sayo battle demons to settle in the tunnels over by West Hollywood. You might even say that I encouraged them, although you could never prove it. I’m not sure, and I could care less, whether they know that they are trespassing, but they’ve been here for a couple of weeks, and already they are making their presence felt. Humans and demons are disappearing, underworld territories are falling to the newcomers, and they have refused all overtures. Los Angeles is just as much his as Sunnydale is. He’s going to be very, very unhappy. He’ll tackle the Sayo first, and then me. I hope.

Just now, he’s waiting for me to finish up with some important clients, and as soon as they are gone, I’ll break the news to him. That’s when the fun will start. And, for just a little while, it will give him something else to think about. I have other things for him, too, things that he came here to find, but he needs to let himself go, first. I can’t wait.

You already know that vampires are all about blood, sex and power. Within vampire society, all of these weapons have to be used to ensure that the hierarchy works. He knows this. I really do think that he would have been content to remain faithful to Buffy, if he had allowed himself to contemplate that, but he could not. Blood and sex are the coinage that keeps the wheels turning, and he had to spend freely. It’s part of who and what he is. Spend freely. Oh, yes indeed.

When Buffy was alive, it would have been understandable if his attentions to the rest of us had been somewhat perfunctory, somewhat lacking in passion, but he never made us feel that way. I think most of us knew that he would rather have been exploring new ways to find pleasure with her – or just enjoying the old ways – but he never made us feel second best. In fact, there were some ways in which we were his first choice. Those were the times when he needed rough sex at the absolute extreme of roughness. So rough that even the Slayer might break, especially as she got older; things that he might perhaps have been ashamed to let her see, although I doubt he would ever admit that, even to himself. Times like now. He just doesn’t realise it yet.

He’s lounging at the end of the table as I wrap up the meeting – my clients are impressed that the Managing Partner is taking an interest in their affairs – and just for a moment, as he looks at me, his expression lightens to that of the hunting predator. Good. Now I know which way this is going to go.

***

Lindsey has asked me to help him take out a band of Sayo demons. He’s obviously scheming, because we have people to do this sort of thing, but taking my rage and pain out on something seems like a good plan, so I go with him. He carries the weapons – a broad sword for him and an axe for me. When we get there – a boarded-off lair in the tunnels – I kick down the door to see who’s home. He told me there were three, a mixed family. There are four, all of them adult males. Advance reconnaissance party prior to colonization, I’d say. Are they stupid? In *my* territory? Still, I give them a chance to get away without bloodshed.

“This is my territory. Acknowledge me as your overlord, accept my rules, and you may stay.”

Well, it’s worth a try, I suppose. They are a reasonably intelligent species, and built for battle. Think of humanoids, armoured like crocodiles, with sharp bony processes along their forearms, sheathed talons that extend to six inches, and a bite like a pit bull terrier. Oh, and weighing about 300 pounds of muscle and bone. I can use soldiers like that.

The answer is short and sharp. Very sharp. One of them spins a throwing star at me, which catches me under the ear. That’s just the first of the blood I’m going to lose this night. The constant ache behind my breastbone explodes into a demonic rage that you really don’t want to ever see, and I go for the throat. I want it to be tooth and claw. I want to feel the meat of their flesh shredding in my hands. I want to feel the blood spurt, hot and demon-sour. I want to rip out their innards and feel the heat of life draining from their bodies. Sword and axe? Not tonight.

There are four of them though. Well, that should be enough to keep Lindsey occupied, too. I’d really like to tear all of them apart, make them feel the pain that I am feeling, as if by so doing, I could pass it on to them and end it, but four demons as dangerous as these are really too much, even for me. As the razor sharp spines on a forearm slice the back of my neck, almost taking my head off, I’m glad that Lindsey is there to back me up. I find myself in a mental place that must have been familiar to the berserkers of old, and then I have no more coherent thought through that red mist of madness until the roars of rage and screams of pain stop.

At the end, I’m on my knees, covered in blood. Mine is the red stuff, but most is thick and black, a viscous, oily liquid. My clothes are hanging together by threads only, and I have gashes and bites all over. I’ve lost a lot of blood – I can see pools of it on the concrete, but nothing else has changed. The pain still sits in my heart, like a toad in a stone. I wonder where Lindsey is. I hope he hasn’t been killed, since I can’t see anything of him among the various body parts.

Gradually, my vision returns to normal, and I can feel my wounds starting to knit together. These days, I always heal quickly, even for a vampire. There’s a lot of power running through my veins. Not enough power to help me now, though. I don’t think there could ever be enough for that. Wearily, I get to my feet and look around the wrecked lair. Lindsey is untouched, leaning against the door, still holding the bright and shining – and clean – sword and axe. He gives me a smirk.

“Knew you wouldn’t appreciate me butting in. Feel better now?”

No. I don’t. The berserker rage starts to rise again as I stalk over and backhand him with all my remaining strength. He falls to his knees, the sword and axe flying out of his grasp, clattering against the wall. I grab hold of the collar of his very expensive suit and yank him back to his feet.

“You left me to deal with *four* battle demons!”

With that, I turn him around and slam him face first into the wall. I barely notice that he’s standing in a steaming heap of demon guts as I snap his belt and then yank his pants down over his slim hips. I don’t bother unfastening them first, and I can both feel and hear the ripping of cloth. He can sue me later. And then, with no further preparation, I’m through the tight ring of muscle, and into him. I want to get so deep that I can lose myself in him, so that I’m no longer me; so that I won’t have to feel this pain gnawing me away from the inside out; so that I won’t have to feel a worse pain when the numbness of shock wears off. And so, I thrust with all my strength, trying to burrow deep within him, his very own incubus. I sink my fangs into his neck, and I feel the spurt of powerful, familiar blood filling my mouth, the blood of *family*, and it’s all over with me. The roar I give may be one of fulfilment, but it still contains love and loss and grief and pain, and it quite overcomes me. I finish up on my knees amid the gore and guts, roaring my anguish to the world.

Somehow, he gets me back to his penthouse suite at the firm, holds me under the shower until the water has stopped running with the colours of blood and death, and then he takes me to his bed, and holds me until the morning.

I stay for two days, almost all of which we spend in his bed. I know that he would like to take me, to have me as he has never been allowed to have me before, but that I cannot permit. It would be like me being allowed to fuck Aurelius – absolutely unthinkable. I turn aside his tentative overtures, and he doesn’t protest. Something inside me does, though. Somehow, in some small way, perhaps it would be good to just give myself over to someone else for a while. But it’s unthinkable.

Some of the time I take him tenderly, gently, caressing and arousing, licking and nipping; and sometimes I take him as roughly as I did in the Sayo lair. He’s always willing though, and he’s always satisfied. Sated. Fucked to oblivion.

I’m grateful for one thing in particular. There is no possibility that I could imagine myself to be making love to Buffy. The texture of his skin, the swell of muscle, the scratch of the stubble that he currently affects, the coolness of his body, the obvious differences, all of these serve to remind me that this is Lindsey, not Buffy. I couldn’t bear to lose myself in passion, and imagine it was she. I couldn’t bear to find that it was not.

After two days, it’s time for me to leave. I know he doesn’t want me to, and he knows I’ll be back soon. Just now, we both know that I need what he has to offer. But I have things to do, and cannot dally away my time here, when my oath to my dead mate remains unfulfilled.

Lindsey has names, addresses, contacts of all sorts. He tries to hide it, but I can tell that, although he has all these contacts, ready for me, the one thing he has little of is hope. Death is still the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns. It seems to take a very special power to go behind that curtain. Willow and Tara had it, together, but they are dead. There were those in the dimensions of Hylek and Adras who had it, but they, too, are dead. It is as if some Power wanted to stop what I am about. Oh, I know that will be seen as equivalent to your species’ anthropocentric view of the cosmos – the Sun moves around the Earth; mankind stands at the pinnacle of evolution; the Powers are interested in you and your insignificant wishes – but I have held the fate of the world in the palm of my hand a time or two, so I’m entitled to think such thoughts.

I start with those closest, here in California. I’ve tried the church where I knew Sister Agneta. She is long gone, and no one else can help. Sorcerers, witches, wizards, seers, even fortune-tellers, of many different species. I try them all. It doesn’t take that long, because there aren’t so many, and many of the ones there are, are charlatans and frauds. The world seems to be losing true magic. Where did it all go?

Most of the time, the people I visit are honest with me because they are too afraid to be anything else, and tell me they cannot help me, although some of them try to persuade me that all I need is faith. Of course, they all have faith in different things, and so I don’t find this too persuasive an argument.

A few, though, try to fool me into believing they can help, when they cannot. I can always sniff out the cheats. Literally. I make sure that they aren’t in a position to cheat anyone else, ever again.

I almost think that one of them can help me. Just for a few moments, she seems to be the one. But it isn’t going to be as easy as that. Oriane. She seems to understand more about souls than the others did. She tries, but in the end, she has to admit that she cannot help.

There are still a few other places to go, but they have become vanishingly few. And I think I’m starting to lose my grip on myself. I can’t afford to do that.

***

Ixolon, the longest serving Norag demon here, has issued instructions that every available servant of Angelus, no matter where in the world – or in others, come to that – is to use all discreet means to locate him. Word will get around, but hopefully that will be later, rather than sooner. If news of his disappearance is noised about, we shall have an upheaval that would make the Fall of the Roman Empire look like the closure of a beach whelk stall. Now, we wait for news.

While we wait, you may wish to know what happened to those other members of his entourage with whom you were familiar? Yes? Very well.

Spike, you will remember, was killed at Angelus’ own hand, for trespassing with Angelus’ mate. I think that not a day has passed since then that Angelus has not missed his troublesome childe.

The war with Wolfram and Hart lasted for years, and took others of our number. Angelus, himself, was hacked down defending Xander Harris. Xander took one look at the Slayer, heard her scream for her lover, and threw himself over our Master, taking the killing blow himself. Angelus was more charitably inclined towards him after that, even though he knew that Xander did it for her, not for him. With the death of her husband, Anyanka did not wish to remain amongst humanity, and in her grief she sought out d’Hoffryn. She is once more a vengeance demon. We do see her occasionally.

Thomaso was lost at about the same time, taking a blow intended for the Slayer. His ashes were scattered in the garden of the Mansion, in a small and secret part that has become the garden of remembrance for our fallen. The Slayer planted something there for each of our lost ones, and it is a place of great beauty. Eventually, Spike’s ashes were gathered and placed here, too.

Angelus never truly forgot the hurt he had done to the Watcher when he killed Jenny Calendar. He killed the Watcher, too, in the end, out of mercy. Giles lived long, but a blow to the head affected him badly, and was followed by a decline into senility. Our Master made sure he wanted for nothing, but when he found him drooling and incontinent, and tearful in a rare moment of lucidity, he could bear it no longer and he drank him down. The Watcher’s face carried a smile at the end.

The witches died peacefully some years ago, together, as they would have wished.

Faith and Gunn also went together, in battle. No new girl was called, and so our Mistress remained the primary Slayer.

Oz remains, as does Nina. Their wolves are still strong and young, but their human bodies are old and decayed. I have seen Angelus watch them closely, and I have seen them return his stare. I think that they will soon welcome him into their rooms. If he is missing for much longer, I suspect they will find another way to do it.

Aurelius still lives, of course, but in the wars with Wolfram and Hart, he lost many members of his House. Worst of all for him was the loss of four of his own childer, including Japheth, the Clan’s Keeper. Aurelius allowed their ashes to be scattered here. That was when he asked me to undertake the task of chronicling the histories of his House, as well as of Angelus’ own court, although there is a new Keeper for the Clan now.

Wesley died of a heart attack at the age of 53, and Cordelia had a stroke a little afterwards. She died, oddly enough, in Drusilla’s arms, and Drusilla has been absent for much of the time since. She seems more insane than ever.

Dawn went to live her own life away from Sunnydale, and never returned. I may not speak of her.

After the war with Wolfram and Hart was concluded – you could never use the word ‘won’, although ‘Pyrrhic victory’ might suit – Lindsey went to head up their remaining resources, few as those were. We see him fairly often.

So, over the years, the court changed, and our losses mounted. We remember them all in the garden. The Slayer is no longer here to tend it, so I have taken that upon myself. I have brought a rose tree for her today, a climber that will wind its way through the other plants as she wound her way through our hearts. It is the palest pearly-pink, and it is called ‘New Dawn’. I pray that there will be one of those for them.

My treatise on vampires? You remembered that? Why, I thank you, and I am honoured that you should recall my humble work. I did, indeed, finish it, and it was sufficiently satisfactory that I was invited to join the Society of Merit. I update it regularly, drawing on my experiences here. I do revisit Hylek often, but my life is with this court.

Estevan has just been in to bring me news. There is none. We still cannot find him.

***

I am Aurelius, and yes, I remember you.

I believe that Angelus’ court has lost track of him. Not so mine. I know exactly where he is. I also know that he is not taking grief well. He thought he knew the meaning of it, but it had only scratched his surface. It has eaten deep into his bones now, and it is still gnawing.

He knew that he would miss her, but he had no concept of how much. Being parted from someone, no matter for how long, when they will be there for a reunion, is only the palest shadow of having someone leave you to enter the gates of death, never to return to you. He understands now what it means to miss her scent, her touch, the sight of her, the merest glance from her, the soft words, the joy, the humour, the shared pains, large and small, the comfort of her in times of need. Even demons have times of need. And there is so much more that he will learn to miss.

I have felt that grief for two thousand years, and time has never dulled its edge. I am afraid that he will not have the patience to wait so long.

When she died, he had her interred privately, on his own estate, in a piece of consecrated ground. She was surprised that he would do that, but I suppose he didn’t want to take any chances with her immortal soul. Then he seems to have started on a quest, but whatever that quest is, he apparently has had no success. His temper is rising, and his behaviour is becoming more…extreme. With the Slayer as his partner, he was always very careful on whom he fed, but he seems not to care at all, now.

My people are watching him, but have instructions not to interfere unless he seems to be in danger of self-harm. Or of destroying us all. With him, one never knows. So, we will watch him, and only interfere when we must.

We found him when he went to Wolfram & Hart. It’s still a law firm, it’s still run by Lindsey, and it still deals with demonic clients. It belongs to Angelus, though, and while some of its activities are questionable, for sure, it has absolutely no connection with the Wolf, the Ram and the Hart. That was part of the Treaty of Los Angeles, the peace treaty that saw them withdraw from this world. It hasn’t made humanity any less evil – you are still your own mixture of angel and demon – but you have one less evil influence to deal with, and one less Apocalypse to worry about. They are still strong, those three demi-gods, but they are strong on other worlds. Not here.

So, he went to Wolfram & Hart, to Lindsey, for something. He went to a couple of churches, but didn’t stay long in either. He’s been looking for the Oracles, but they have been dead for decades, and I know of no others who have taken their place. He has visited esoteric libraries, seers and mystics. Whatever he is looking for, he hasn’t found, and he is becoming desperate, I think. No. I don’t think, I know. If I look deep within myself, I can feel him through our shared blood, even at this distance. He is losing himself, and he knows it. It has been three months since he lost his mate, and the finality of it is just beginning to hit him. I remember the feeling well. I was so much older and stronger than him, and I had my soul, yet I spent years slaughtering all who crossed my path, taking out my rage and grief and pain on the world around me, living as little more than a primitive, elemental demon. I won’t let it get that far with him. Still, I had not been tested as he and his mate have been tested. Perhaps he will be strong enough. Perhaps with him, it will be different. Nevertheless, I will keep watch on him.

***

Fifteen Years Earlier

The Lady and her two Consorts meet at the black cliffs. The Duality have just returned from firing another arc of galaxies; giving the inhabitants of those billions of star systems to the fire, so that their souls might remain out of reach of the parasite Universe for just a little longer. Long enough, they hope, for the threat to be faced and defeated. The parasite is taking everything it can touch; every last shred of energy from every last molecule of matter, every last energy field that it encounters. Matter can neither be created nor destroyed, and neither can energy. But, they are different manifestations of the same thing. The parasite doesn’t want matter. It wants energy, and it takes it. It takes it all, to add to its own incomplete matrix. What it leaves behind is nothing, not even dust. Life stuff, soul stuff, star stuff, they are all grist to its mill, and it is *hungry*.

It has preferences, though, and it likes magic. Magic attracts it, like iron to a magnet. It feeds well from the power of magic. The most powerful of the magic users are hidden from it, for the moment – those who can be spared, that is – but they can’t be hidden forever. It’s all stopgap measures, because no grand plan could deal with the unpredictable nature of this threat. It goes where it wills; its tendrils strike out at random. The Lady and her Consorts must tie knots in the strands of fate, and carry on.

And so the galaxies are given to the fire, an arc at a time. The Duality cannot save lives, and so they are saving souls, from the purest to the meanest, from those sentient creatures who have accumulated the wisdom of many lifetimes to the barely nascent souls of the tiniest specks of life. They mean to save whatever they can, for as long as they can.

They greet the Lady with kisses and caresses. She knows what they have been about and she comforts them. They have other business, here, though. Smaller scale, more private business, but what they are doing will determine the fate of two universes. She turns to the creature of crystal rainbows, glittering in the light of unseen suns.

“You are certain that the time is now?”

He knows that she trusts him implicitly, that she is merely voicing her own fears that she may have been mistaken in some of her actions. All three of them have those fears, but of this he is certain.

“Yes. The Slayer has lived longer than any of us could have believed. We cannot afford to wait.”

She turns to the other, the creature of dark shadows, and lays her hand where she knows his cheek to be. We can only imagine.

“If she lives too long?”

Her voice is soft and sad.

“I know what must be done.”

So is his. He does, indeed, know. The Slayer has lived, and so has her lover – one of them, anyway – so that they might forge the alliances that they will need. Now she must die, so that she can live again. Natural death would be better – and there is a little time yet to see if that will come – but he will play the part of Atropos if necessary, and cut the thread of the Slayer’s life.

“So long as she lives, the ones we send back will remain ignorant of each other? The balance will be too greatly disturbed if they meet too soon, if they remember too soon. We face enough consequences without that.”

The Duality press close against her, wrapping their arms around her, letting her feel their bodies. It is the creature of rainbows who answers.

“All shall be as we decided. They will know nothing, feel nothing, until we allow it. So long as the Slayer lives, and for as long as necessary afterwards, they will live normal lives. Only he will remember them when he meets them. He has the wisdom and strength now to deal with that. Only when the time is right, only then will they know.”

She is comforted, and they walk together into the cliffs, until they come to the shimmering catacombs within. In each of the many tunnels, the sides are gouged out to provide small shelves and niches. In each niche rests a being – something that once was a being, at least. Souls. They are shapes of crystalline light, refractions of myriad colours around a darker heart, beautiful but frozen. These are the Slayers, the Champions, the defenders of their kind. All of them have slaughtered their enemies; these souls are too stained to be accommodated in the fields of the blessed, and too pure to send to a hell dimension. This is the best they can hope for. For now.

The creature of shadows and dark crystalline edges leads them unerringly through the maze. He does not need to point out the ones she seeks. The Lady knows who they are. She chooses carefully. Those who must lead the way; those who will guard and guide; those who still have much to learn or do before they take up their real task; those who must act as catalysts in some way or another. Normally, they would rest here for much longer, spend millennia coming to peace with their last existence, and gaining power for their next. Now, there is no time. If they have not already reached catharsis, there is another way. The power has been provided by the sacrifice of another, but they must still find their own peace as best they can.

She hugs her consorts and leaves them to deal with the ones they have chosen. Not every being she needs can be found here. The Duality do not care to let her leave like this. The creature of light has already released from his own dimensions the souls that need to be in place: the mothers and fathers who will rear these doomed champions. He will remain here to arrange things. The creature of shadows hurries after her.

She goes to the most dreadful place first. Even for one such as she, this is a terrible realm, and the only light is that which she brings with her. These spirits have been cast into outermost darkness.

Spirits do not die when the flesh dies, but they can be…diminished. They are kept strong by belief; belief in themselves and the belief of others; without this belief, they are lessened. Here in the outermost darkness are some of the spirits that she seeks. Outcast demons. These have been cast out by their own kind, for sins of the gravest sort. They fought on the wrong side.

She feels a movement behind her and turns to see her lover. He takes her hand and together they walk onwards into the void. Even for him, this place has horrors. He knows that there are terrible ghosts here, ghosts of godlings much like themselves; beings of power who made mistakes, who failed, who lost belief. Even gods can be diminished, and there are many of those in this void. Now, they are little more than mournful voices in the darkness. He knows that, if the three of them fail, they may not even have this much left to them.

What they are about to do is almost without precedent, and there will be consequences. Consequences, indeed, come with everything they have planned. But, they are agreed. There is no other way, no other option, if they are to salvage as much as possible from the impending cosmic cataclysm.

He takes her to the place where he knows she can find the ones she seeks, although how he can tell we cannot guess. Time passes differently here, and the ones they want have been here a very long time. Not as long as Angel has spent in his own hell, but a long time, nevertheless. Will they be too diminished? Will they be able to play their part?

He squeezes The Lady’s hand and smiles for her, to let her know that this is the place. Then she calls the ones she wants by name. There is power in a name. She waits, bathed in light like a living flame, a beacon for them. She feels their approach before she sees it, and they do not at first dare to enter the circle of light. Instead, they crouch timidly in the darkness, like dogs that have been beaten too often, whining their distress. She reaches out to them, and they skitter away, and must be coaxed nearer again. Eventually one, their leader, succumbs to her call. Belly flat to the floor, trembling in fear, he inches towards her, a terrified animal ready for flight. She remains still, but speaks softly. He cocks his head, listening. Slowly, she stoops towards him, and calls his name again. He crawls the last few inches and rests his head on her foot. The others follow, suddenly crowding round, still timid and fearful, curling their bodies away from her in case she decides to cause them pain.

She speaks their names again, and they look to her, watchful, waiting to understand why she is here.

“Do you wish to go back?”

They are silent.

“There will be pain and fear and death, but you will have a second chance, and you will no longer be diminished. You will be strong again. Do you wish to go back?”

They look to each other, and then the leader whispers his answer.

“Yessssss.”

The others follow, their whispers coiling around her, pledges and pleas. She offers her wrist to their leader, and he almost sobs with joy. His fang has not the strength to penetrate far, but he manages to pierce the outermost layers of skin and draw a tiny trail of blood. He laps this eagerly, and the others come too, tasting a goddess.

“You must listen and you must answer. I cannot tell you when the call will come, but you must hear it, or you will remain here for eternity. You will hear it, and you will feel it in your blood. Do not be slow in answering, because there is only this chance.”

She strokes them and they press against her hand, arching their backs like satisfied cats. Then she and her lover are gone.

Not until they return to the black sand does he release her hand, and then he leaves her, returning to his counterpart in the tunnels. She has another thing to do, something that he doesn’t wish to think about.

On her way there, she seeks out another of the ones she is looking for. She finds him huddled into the base of a cavern wall, in the black cliffs. She knew he was here – he hasn’t moved in all these many, many years. He is… reduced. He has lost substance and he is less than he was. Even here, the void claims him, but there are still those alive who remember him, often. Through their remembrance and his determination, and the sheer, blind luck that brought him to this place, the void has been held at bay, and enough of him is left. He is trying to sleep eternity away. Spike. He has been strong enough to withstand the pull of the outer darkness, but has not made the sacrifices of the black sand. At first, she thought that it was from fear, but now she knows him better, and she knows that it is love. He stays here because of love. It is as close as he can get to his Sire – or what there is of his Sire, here, in this place – and so he stays. He has given himself over to her call before, but has only reached out as far as dreams. Never further than that. She asks a lot more of him now. She calls him by name. William.

“Do you wish to go back?”

He stirs a little, but does not awaken. She tells him the same things that she told the demons in the outermost darkness, speaking of pain and death. His jaw clenches, but he makes no sound.

“Do you wish to go back?”

He trembles, but gives her no answer. She reaches her hand out and presses her wrist against his fang. A tiny drop of blood appears, and his tongue licks out to gather it up.

“You must hear the call, William, and feel it in your blood. You must listen and you must answer. I cannot tell you when the call will come, but you must hear it, or you will remain here for eternity. Do not be slow in answering, because there is only this chance.”

He turns from her with a moan. She can do no more. She has done all that she dare.

She walks away from him, and steps into a cold, dank room, bare of all comforts. She smiles to think that her lovers are still jealous. They know what she must do, but they will offer nothing of ease, no small pleasures to spare his pain.

It is Lady Day. It is the day when the Balance is measured, and she comes to claim whatever is left over: the grace that has been purchased by his sacrifice. Angel. He is here, limned in blood, huddled and barely conscious. They have used him harshly since last she saw him here. She needs a great deal from him this day, and her heart breaks as she prays that they have used him harshly enough.

She puts off her clothes and puts on the semblance of the Slayer.

She kneels by his side and runs her hands over that wounded body. Wherever she touches, his hurts are healed, the bruises gone, the gashes closed, flesh closed back over bone, bone knitted back together. Soon, there is only the blood. She bends her head to his shoulder and licks away the telltale remnants of his torment. His skin twitches at the touch of her tongue, as a horse shivers from the fly, but as she soothes and tastes and cleanses him, he starts to lean towards her touch, with small sighs of unaccustomed pleasure.

Soon, she has swallowed down all the outer reminders of his pain, and his body is pure and clean. And so beautiful. She trails her fingers over his hip, and he rouses. His first sight is of her, in her borrowed flesh, and he knows her. He has been here so long that he no longer remembers who he is, but he knows her, knows this body that she wears. He raises his hand to her cheek, his left hand, the one with the silver ring still on it – they have never been able to make him give up the ring, although they have tried hard enough – and he caresses her face.

“Buffy…”

The power of names.

“Angel.”

Each time she comes, she takes from him. But each time, she gives him back himself. She gives him his name. He knows it only for the few hours that he is here, but it is better than nothing. And she may be here to measure the Balance, to take what is left over, but she is here to give him comfort, too, to give him strength until the next time, and to share a little of his pain. Just a little, because she must always remember the Balance. After all, she is Ma’at. She *is* the Balance, holding the scales of Creation and Destruction, of Good and Evil, and of all those other opposite forces that would otherwise tear the world apart. The Duality of her lovers, writ through every atom of this Universe.

Even though he is healed, he has yet no strength, although that will return to him during the course of this day, and so she coaxes him onto his back. He makes no complaint about the discomfort of the stone floor, simply reaches up again to touch her in wonder, to feel the softness of her skin, the heat of her body. As she straddles his hips, she sees a silvery tear trace a path from the corner of his eye to his temple. She leans forward to lick it away, and as she does so, her breast brushes against his lips. He still knows what to do, and she gives her body over to his pleasure.

When the day is done, she leaves him, as she always does, asleep. She knows that he will awaken somewhere worse than he has been before, and she almost cannot bear it. He could end his torment in a moment; all he needs to do is say the word. He has chosen to be here. He understood – when he was capable of such a thing – that soul magic is ruled by the number of infinity and of completion. The number three: three times in and three times out, and now his body can never be cursed with his soul again. When his demon came to rescue Buffy from death, only one soul would be allowed to leave the Underworld. Against all expectation, the demon chose to allow the Slayer to live. The soul, knowing that she would die without someone to watch her back, chose to take the demon’s place, to buy his enemy’s release. The demon never knew. For as long as the Slayer is alive, for so long as Angel stays here, Angelus lives. It is that willing sacrifice that gives The Lady the power that she needs to prepare for the future. Without this, they have no chance at all. There is nothing worthwhile that comes without a price.

She takes one last look at him, curled around the warm and scented stone where she last lay, and then she leaves the room to return to her lovers, shedding the Slayer’s flesh as she does so.

On the way, she comes to a small opening in the cliff wall, and she enters. That small opening hides a vast cavern, the walls honeycombed with more tunnels, each of which is lined with niches. Every one contains a brilliant crystalline form. Some of them are very new. Each year, on Lady Day, the power generated by Angel’s sacrifice is stored here. These are not souls, as such. They are new lives, and new possibilities, created by him, and there are very many of them. He has made possible the return of souls outside their time, but he has also created these new chances. She knows that they will all be needed.

In the centre of the cavern is a block of black marble, and on the block rests a form larger and brighter and more dazzling than any of the others. It was made the first time she visited Angel, from his seed, from the seed of Angelus, and from the flesh of the Slayer. It is in perfect ma’at. She caresses its angles and planes, and it coruscates for her, scintillating with the light that she herself casts. She wonders whether they will use it as she hopes. She wonders whether they will dare, or whether they will even have the chance to do so.

Then, she welcomes the new possibilities, letting each one feel her touch, markers of hope wrung from Angel’s pain. When she returns to her lovers, the souls they have chosen are no longer there. They have started the journey back to life. Others will follow year by year, a steady tide of them, all warriors of one kind or another, all prepared to make the sacrifices required of Champions.

Her Consorts can smell him on her, and their nostrils flare as they bite down the jealousy. She takes them to that tiny dimension that they can call their own, to the soft grass and the gentle waters, and she lets them cleanse his touch from her. They do this every time, and each time she never tells them that she misses the feel and the scent of him, when he is gone.

***

And now, it is the Arecibo telescope that first registers the anomaly. Soon, astronomers across the world – and across many other worlds, if truth be told – are watching the edges of the Universe. Along a huge arc, the edge of the cosmos has exploded into flame, whole galaxies apparently consumed in a holocaust. Astronomers talk of quasars, those strange quasi-stellar objects, the brightest of all things in the firmament, by which they measure the age of the Universe, but they do so uneasily, and in hushed tones. This is because quasars can be formed by the collision of galaxies, and a quasar this size speaks of the collision of universes. The astronomers are afraid, but they tell themselves that this was billions of years ago and billions of light years away; that surely, this marks the edge of the early Universe, the remnants of the Big Bang, fourteen and a half billion years ago. Still….

Time, as we know, is relative.

***

It’s about an hour after sunset, an ice-bound evening in this soulless northern city. It’s 1st April, almost Easter, and the winter should have broken by now, but it hasn’t. Not here. Not where I am. Never again, where I am. I don’t exactly remember where this is. That doesn’t matter, because I don’t give a damn where it is. She’s dead. That’s all that matters. For me, winter will never break again.

Anima mea.

I’m standing on this street corner, in this poverty-stricken area of the inner city, held by promises. Promises I don’t know if I can keep. Promises to wait for her. To seek redemption for her sake. It’s a good time to be thinking about that, perhaps. Easter. The time when a man died, and bought redemption for the whole human race, so we’re told. What’s that? You want me to tell you if it’s true? Listen, you’re the humans around here; you’re the ones with souls. I’m just a demon. How the devil should I know?

But that’s what Easter is about, not chicks, and bunnies and eggs. They’re a leftover from a much older, pagan time, symbols of new life, of renewal and fertility. Symbols of the goddess Eostre. Do you think it sacrilegious that Buffy, the closest thing to a goddess I’ll ever know, died wanting to bring both new life and redemption to me?

I’m hunched into a thick overcoat, the collar pulled up around my ears. Not that I need it, of course, but it would look odd, on this frozen evening, if I didn’t wrap up warm like everyone else. But I don’t need to; I’m dead, after all. Just not as dead as she is.

Anima mea.

I’m hunting for my next meal, surrounded by the smells of hopelessness and despair, and I’m trying hard not to want to feed in the messiest possible way, with my claws raking bloody furrows through flesh, my fangs ripping into butter-soft throats, their cries of pain and fear ringing in my ears. I still haven’t touched an innocent since her death, but I’m afraid that I shall soon. And some of my kills have been very messy indeed. I am building walls of grief around my memories of her, and once I have locked her away… I don’t know what will happen then. There are still plenty of others to choose from here. I can almost touch the haze of cocaine in the air – there’s a dealer, not too far from where I’m standing. Perfect. At least, that’s the business I’m about when something happens that is so unexpected, so impossible, that I wonder if I’ve already lost my mind.

I see her, from the corner of my eye. A petite blonde, surrounded by her friends, bouncing down the steps of an old church, sucking a lollipop.

A vampire’s heart doesn’t beat – you know that – but mine definitely gives a lurch, nonetheless. I don’t really believe in déjà vu, but there she is, a bright, young California girl, with an aura as big as the city, just as I had first seen her almost eighty years ago. When I turn to look, though, she’s gone. There’s just that glimpse of her, an image burned indelibly into my retina. And I’m left standing here, alone, in the darkness.

I tell myself that she was never there, that I’m hallucinating, but I know that isn’t true. Demons are very down to earth beings. We see things as they really are. Anyway, she didn’t look exactly the same as she had, all that time ago. This time, she was wrapped up against the cold. Her friends were different. And it was the glow of the streetlight that made her hair shine more softly, not such a brilliant halo as she wore on that first afternoon in the sun.

But it was 1st April then, too. April Fool’s Day. She bounced down the steps at Hemery High, sucking that lollipop, and made an April Fool out of me. Well, out of both of us, soul and demon alike. There’s only me left to remember. The Soul is somewhere else, has been for almost eighty years. He’s probably with her now, and I don’t want to think about that. The first day I saw her, she made me feel like an April squire, and every fibre of my being is longing for the chance that she might one day do it again.

I look at the simple platinum wedding band on my finger. I don’t need to take it off to read the posy inscribed there.

Endless like my love. Forever.

She’d had that done, and gave me the ring on the day I married her. The word ‘Forever’ had stabbed me to the heart then, just as it does now. My hand creeps to my throat, to find the chain around my neck. To find the mate of that ring, the one I gave her in exchange. I’d thought about leaving it on her finger, to stay with her in death, and decided against it. If she really were right, that we might meet again, then I would have it to give to her again. Somehow, that seems important. As I pull it from underneath my shirt, I don’t need the light of a streetlamp to read the inscription I had put there, the posy, the words that seemed the only possible words to say.

Anima mea.

My soul.

The only soul I will ever need. And I remember another promise, made to an old man. To the priest who married us. Father Jerome. He knew what I was, what she was. He even knew who I was, yet he agreed to marry us all the same. For a price. He’d wanted me to do him a service and that task, saving the world from the Wolf, the Ram and the Hart, is long since complete. And he’d wanted one other thing, after Buffy was dead. He’d known, somehow, that I would hold to my vow that I would never turn her; that I would be left alone, in the end.

Go to confession.

That was what he’d asked. I’d given my word, and a demon has nothing but his word. Even though I’ve visited some churches, I haven’t yet felt able to do as he asked. I thought there would be a time when I would cope better, when I would become accustomed, but that hasn’t happened. Perhaps if I try now, it will hold back the anger. Or perhaps not. And this church is, after all, the one I’ve come here to find. The fragrance of incense is here, and from where I’m staying I’ve heard the angelus bell, ringing for the sunset devotion. Appropriate.

Before I can change my mind, I’m striding up the steps, cutting through the space where I saw her, and into the scented shadows.

Anima mea.

Entering a church still makes me uncomfortable, but no more than that. Crosses, of course, burn me. The atmosphere of the church, and its religious symbols, causes a slight feeling of nausea, a charge on my skin, a feeling of repulsion. It isn’t as bad now as it used to be. In fact, there’s hardly any repulsion at all. Perhaps it’s because I’m older, stronger. Or perhaps it’s because of her blood inside me. I don’t know.

The confessional is easy to see, its dark mahogany bulk blackened with age. It’s already in use. I’ve been in them before, of course. I’ve sometimes taken the place of the priest – it’s extremely crowded in there, holding the dead body, but I’ve managed – and, in my own way, I’ve surely helped confessees to find a better place. If only I could find that place, be sure that she’s happy. Be sure that she still loves me…

I’ve never been on the other end of the confession, though. That will be a new experience. At almost 320 years old, new experiences are a bit of a rarity, and are to be cherished. Anything that might give some peace to my spirit is to be cherished. Strange, though, because I’m feeling oddly nervous.

I don’t have long to wait. A woman leaves the box, and walks towards the altar, no doubt to say her Hail Marys for whatever insignificant lapse has been preying on her mind. She wraps her long shawl tightly around her as she steps past where I am sitting, as if she can feel the frozen death inside me. It’s my turn now.

I find that I don’t want to keep this promise but, as I said, a demon has only his word, so in I go. I find it in me to feel some small sense of compassion for the unsuspecting priest about to hear this particular confession.

The box is steeped in the scents of god-fearing humanity. Sorrow and anger, remorse and defiance; the ghosts of confessions past. In any other circumstances, I would find it intriguing. The partition slides open and I can see the shadowy outlines of the man on the other side of the screen. He leans forward a little, and I can hear the creak of the wood, the rustle of his cloth. And I can smell him. It’s an almost familiar scent, and I rifle through my memories, but before I have it, he interrupts me, giving a little cough to let me know that he is ready.

“I came here to see Father Robert.”

“I am Father Robert.”

The ease of that takes me aback for a moment. Still, I don’t know why I should be surprised. It’s bigger than St Jude’s, but not a lot. There are probably only two priests and a curate here. Good odds.

Now that the moment is here, I feel suddenly tongue-tied. I have other reasons for talking to Father Robert, but here and now, it is about confession. Where should I begin?

First things first. I think I know what I should say.

Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.

I don’t think that one is going to work. Let’s try something else, see whether the priest goes with it.

“I’m here to make confession.”

“When did you make your last confession?”

This year. Last year. Sometime. Never. Every day, with her. She was my confession.

“I’ve never made confession before.”

“What is it that you wish to confess?”

Nothing. Everything.

“More than can be remedied with a couple of Hail Marys and an act of contrition.”

He hesitates, and his voice becomes more gentle. He sounds about 35, maybe 40.

“Why have you come here? Now?”

Because of her. To find a future with her. And because she wanted me to try for redemption, on the day she died.

‘I want you and Angel and I to be together forever, wherever that might be,’ she had said. ‘I want you to go for the redemption that was promised to him. You must have gone a long way towards earning it now. You’ve only saved the world like a zillion times. Make them give you a backdated agreement!’

I had given her my word. And before that, I had given it to the priest who married us.

“A long time ago, I promised an old man that I would confess my sins. I always keep my word.”

I have it now. The scent from the priest reminds me of that old man. Just a little different. It can’t be the same person though. I know that Father Jerome is dead. Perhaps he smells the same because all priests come from the same well of souls?

“Then tell me of the sins you have committed.”

Now that the moment is here, what to say? How many sins have I committed? All of them, I imagine, and often.

“I have killed.”

And killed. And killed. And enjoyed it. I still do. Should I leave aside the ones that I’ve killed for food, for sustenance? After all, I am a predator. You don’t expect a lion or a cheetah to do penance for every gazelle it kills. It simply eats its dinner, then goes off to make little lions, or cheetahs. Why should it be different because you are the gazelle? Nor do you expect a man-eating tiger to mend its ways. You simply kill it if you can, as you would kill us.

There are others, though.

Spike. I killed him because of human jealousy, an infection from the Soul, I’m sure. From Angel. I’ve regretted that ever since.

Buffy. My mate. I could have given her eternal life, with me, but she wanted to stay human, so I didn’t. And I wanted her human. I wanted her warmth and light and life and the thought of her almost unmans me, here in the musty shadows of the confessional. I killed her, at the end. True, it was to save her pain, but it was my fangs that finished her off. I will regret that until the universe becomes a dead cinder, but she wanted it, so I would do it again. Regret without repentance can never lead to forgiveness.

The priest stays silent. I’m not surprised.

“I’ve tortured.”

And how. I am an expert in how to break a human’s body and a human’s mind, separately or together. And how to remake them as I desire. I made Drusilla, one of my finest moments. Angelus. I’m a legend amongst demons of all kinds, famed for my cruelty.

I taught my mate to enjoy pain with her pleasure. Never too much, but in our long life together, I showed her almost everything I knew about the pleasure/pain continuum. Almost. And I taught her to enjoy giving pain. I’m a demon. We like pain – of the right sort, anyway. Do I regret that? Never. Not if she didn’t. Doesn’t.

“I’ve raped.”

Rape is all about power. And my pleasure. I’ve raped more people than you could imagine. Woman, man, vampire, or demon, it made no difference to me. And I’ll continue to do so, because it’s part of the power structure of vampire society, and therefore necessary.

But I raped her. When I first returned, I was half insane from the century of captivity, and I raped her. She forgave me. I can’t, though, and it will remain forever as an unforgiven sin. No priest or penance can ever take that burden away.

“I’ve coveted and I’ve stolen.”

Well, once you’re dead you don’t need it any more. I have lived very well on the proceeds of your deaths. I now rule the underworld of half the globe, much of that power stolen from others. It kept the peace, though, so perhaps you should thank me for it. I have, after all, saved the world quite a few times, although only because of her.

I stole her from you. She was the Slayer, made to protect humanity from vampires and demons. She remained the Slayer all the days of her long, long life. I coveted her and I stole her, and made her mine. I would do it again and again. No repentance there, then.

“And other sins. There are too many to say.”

I have loved. Demons cannot and do not love, but I have. I have sinned. I look down at the wedding ring hanging around my neck.

Anima mea.

I have saved the world from apocalypses, from vampires and demons, from plagues and fiends. Initially, I saved it with her, but when she became too old, I saved it for her. I have sinned against my kind, mortal sins that are neither forgotten nor forgiven in the deepest reaches of Hell.

And there are all those little things I did that distressed her, hurt her, disappointed her. I can recall every single moment of our life together, and those disappointments are the sins that I regret.

Anima mea.

“Do you repent of all these sins?”

To be a penitent, I must accuse myself of these sins, with sincere sorrow and with purpose of amendment. And I must undertake penance. This much I know. Yet, what would I change? Some of it, perhaps. Things I have done to hurt her, certainly.

But had anything been different, she and I might never have spent the last seventy years in love. If she and I had been different, would the Earth have survived? What is expected of me here? What do I expect of myself? More importantly, what does she expect of me? If she wishes me to cosy up to the Soul, wherever he is, what does he expect of me?

Perhaps I should just take this priest as my evening meal and leave it at that. Then words come, but I don’t know where from. The voice is mine, though.

“I repent of all those sins that have hurt her.”

He doesn’t ask me who has been hurt. Afterwards, I wonder about that.

“If I give you a penance, will you go and commit no more sin?”

My greatest weapon has always been the truth. Now, it forms a bright, shining sword, and it spears through my heart.

“I cannot promise that.”

There is a small pause, and the scrape of cloth against wood as he shifts in the confined space.

“Will you do penance for the sins you have already committed? And come to confession again when you are able to make that promise?”

With hindsight, I should have wondered more about this priest.

“Tell me what penance can possibly redeem the things that I have done.”

“Only solemn penance will suffice for the capital offences – murder, adultery and idolatry.”

Murder; check. Adultery: check. Idolatry? I don’t worship much of anything, but I’m a demon and I expect to be given due respect. Does that count? He goes on.

“You’re Irish.”

It’s a statement. How does he know? He pauses again, as if to give me the chance to confirm or deny what he has said. It’s a pause that I refuse to fill. After a few moments, he continues. His voice has a backbone of steel.

“St Patrick’s Synod decreed for the Irish church one year’s penance for each and every capital offence. That should suffice. The penance will take the form that I prescribe. Until the task is completed, I will not grant you forgiveness. Your sins are retained. You must seek me out for forgiveness when the task is completed. We will then see whether you have committed more acts that require penance. Do you understand?”

Is he counting the food kills? If he is, I am in serious trouble here. Some nights I’ve gone hungry, some nights I’ve glutted myself. Even without the time that Angel spent living on rats, average it at one per night for 220 years. Do the math. And the adultery? Is he counting the sex that glues a vampire family together? If he’s going to stick to a year per sin, I might as well dust myself now, and save time.

How did I get into this position? I came here to confess, not to set up a karmic credit card, nor to enslave myself to some priest in a ritual of penitence that I don’t accept! I really should just drink him down and be on my way. I should go and find someone who can… Who can do what? Bring her back to life? Die for me, in order to redeem my sins?

The Soul knew. Redemption would be by his own efforts. Buffy has passed that task to me, and I have accepted it. And it occurs to me that this is not just an ordinary priest.

It also occurs to me that it’s still April Fool’s Day.

“Tell me.”

“You will travel the path that she set you upon, for as long as it takes. That is my sentence.”

What? What does that mean? And ‘sentence’? Who does this guy think he is?

Vampires are very, very fast. Even so, he is quicker still. As I pull open the door on his side of the confessional, he is gone. There is no sign, sound or scent of him within the body of the church.

I pull my coat around me, feeling a sudden chill, and decide to shake the dust of this city off my feet, as soon as I’ve concluded my business with this troublesome priest. As I hurry down the steps, though, I do know one thing. Priest or no, it was what she wanted. I *will* travel the path she set me upon, and I will travel it for as long as it takes. Damn.

Anima mea.

There are answers that I still want, though, and only one more place to go to find them, if Robert cannot help.

***

The priest watches the vampire stride off into the darkness. Had Angelus turned, he might have recognised the man who performed the wedding ceremony that Buffy had so wanted. A lot younger, of course – that had been a whole lifetime ago. Well, two lifetimes, actually. In the last one, he’d only been incarnate for a short time before expiring of some childhood malady. But that had allowed him to be here, now, in the right time and place, just where he was needed.

He smiles. It has been so unexpectedly easy. Using the vision of the girl on the church steps had been an inspiration. The vampire had taken the bait, hook, line and sinker. He was ready for it, of course, and that had made things easier. Whether Angelus believed it or not, he was condemned to service. Condemned. Promised. Chosen. It didn’t matter what you called it, it all amounted to the same thing.

Condemned to continue the tradition of sacrifice for the possibility of redemption. Easter’s gift.

Promised a future. Angel’s gift, although Angelus didn’t know it, paid for in sacrificial coin.

Chosen to find new life. Eostre’s gift.

And he now has purpose, a purpose that might keep him sane through his grief. He has, too, understood that what has happened here wasn’t simply a meeting of priest and vampire, and that might have given him hope.

‘Lady, strengthen him in his hour of need.’

His whispered prayer is answered by a feeling of warmth and love, and he knows that he has done well. Satisfied, the priest steps back into the church and closes the door against the night and the cold.

***

I visit the church again on the following night, at Compline. Only Father Robert is present, which is lucky. He knows me when he sees me. Of course he knows me, damn it. For an instant, it seems that I, too, know this man, have seen him before, and then the feeling is gone, as if the memory has been suddenly walled away. It’s still there, but I cannot touch it. I am reaching the point where I can no longer trust my senses. That is very troubling for a vampire.

I ask him my questions, the three questions which have threatened to engulf me.

Is she safe?

Should I try to make peace with the Soul, and if I do, will that leave her on her own?

Is there more than this one chance at life? And of so, how can I make sure that our lives do not take separate paths.

Instead of answering my questions, he asks one of his own.

“Do you have faith, Angelus?”

His question puzzles me.

“Faith in what?”

“In the divine? In a God? In something that maintains the balance of the Universe, so that it will continue to exist?”

Do I? I don’t know. The Soul did, and look where it got him.

“If I have faith at all, it’s in my mate and me. And perhaps in the S… in Angel.”

I have to have faith in him, don’t I? After all, I can read his mind. I live because of him. That has to bring about faith, of a sort.

It doesn’t seem like the sort of answer that would satisfy a man of the cloth, but he doesn’t ask me anything else. He sits quietly for a moment, just as I remember Father Jerome did, when I asked him to perform the wedding ceremony. Perhaps he’s communing with his god, perhaps he’s searching his conscience. I can’t read him as I can read most other people.

Then he looks up at me, and he says that he cannot give me those answers. Just for one fraction of a second, it seems to me that he knows the answers, but will not tell me, but when I look at his guileless expression, sample his scent of honest puzzlement, I realise I am mistaken. He cannot help.

As I stand to leave, I tell him of the young curate, and of Father Jerome’s journals. He would, indeed, like to relieve the curate of the danger of those journals, but has nowhere safe to keep them. He asks if I would be able to do that? Surprisingly, I agree. He says that he knows how to contact the curate, whose name, it seems, is Ciaran, and it is arranged that the lad will take the journals to my home. He’ll have a surprise there, I suppose, but perhaps nothing like meeting me for the first time. I wonder if he is still carrying my picture around with him.

And now, there’s only that one more place to go. It’s a long journey, so I’d better get going as quickly as possible.

*** For the second time in two nights, Father Robert, or the once and future Father Jerome, watches the vampire leave. Angelus has only one more place to go, and that is the place he should have gone to right from the start. Better late then never, but it really is getting very late. He hopes that there is still time.

Now is exactly the right moment to change the course of his own life. He’ll ask the bishop for an indefinite leave of absence, ‘to go into private retreat and seek a renewal of his faith’. The bishop will be pleased to be rid of him. He is only here because of a favour done for a fellow bishop in far-off California, to take a troubled priest away from the cause of his error. He won’t be prevented from doing what must now be done. He finds himself in odd sympathy with the demon as, once more, he closes the door against the cold and the night.

***

The monastery sits high and proud in the mountains of Bhutan, Land of the Thunder Dragon. It’s been a long, hard journey, but I’m here now. The Tiger’s Nest monastery. It’s particularly well named, perched as it is in the middle of a sheer cliff face, the hanging ladders drawn up for the night. That hasn’t stopped me. It’s walled in mud brick, with a huge portcullis. Prayer flags thrum in the constant wind. The stars are brilliant in the unbroken sky, in a way that you, in your brightly lit cities in your modern civilizations, will never again see. Well, time is passing, and it isn’t that long until dawn. I can’t wait here until they open the gate, so it’s time to find my way in.

The walls are high, but a single leap brings me to the top. I balance easily there – heights and narrow footholds hold no fears for me – scanning the layout before me.

The open courtyard is surrounded by buildings, each with two or more tiers of wooden galleries running around. The galleries are draped with banners. I’m not sure if it’s for a festival, or if it looks like that all the time.

It hasn’t changed since I last saw it, and perhaps it hasn’t changed since it was built, a thousand years ago or more. It was just like this all those years ago. Perhaps a hundred and fifty years, a hundred and sixty, maybe. I could work it out if I could concentrate. Judging by the threadbare condition of the banners, they might even be the same ones. Oh yes, I’ve been here before. Well, not me. Him. The Soul. The one who’s currently floating in the aether with my beloved – or worse, dallying with her in heaven. I feel my fangs descend at the very thought, and my eyes are glinting amber. It takes some little effort to force down the demon face, and to remember how much worse it would be if she were in hell, and dallying with him, although in my experience, there’s no dalliance at all in hell. I refocus my mind on what lies ahead.

The bells. They are still there. Damn. It can’t be helped, though.

I leap down, landing as lightly as a cat, but my very touch is anathema to this holy ground, and dozens of small bells, spaced around the compound, start to jingle a merry tune. A larger bell in the temple tolls out a deeper tocsin. I move swiftly to the steps in front of the temple and sit at the foot of those steps, cross-legged, my hands resting open-palmed on my knees, my head bowed. This is what he did, and it worked then. Hopefully, it will work now.

Monks, hastily adjusting their coarse, maroon robes, come running from the temple, bearing arms. They must have been still asleep, but there isn’t a yawn amongst them. What they do all have, though, is a sword, a spear with a large, barbed head, and a wooden stake. Some of them have those eastern composite bows with flint-tipped, wooden arrows. The bells have warned them of a demon, but they do not know what variety, so they are using all-purpose weapons. Who can blame them?

I remain seated, submissive, although every nerve in my body is at defcon 3. Or higher. I try to relax as my muscles tense for instant action. I *must* appear at ease, unthreatening, defenceless. This is particularly difficult when I feel half a dozen blades at my neck. Breathe. Look human. Absolutely no fangs.

There is a jabber of panicky discussion. I speak some of the language, but it’s been a long time and they are all talking at once. Also, I’m more than a little distracted by the sharpness of those blades at my neck. I miss what was said. Will they lose it altogether if I speak now? The aroma of fear is rank in the air. The continued jangling and tolling of those damn bells isn’t helping, either.

I clear my throat a little, to see what effect that has. Instantly I can feel blood trickling down from the little cuts on my neck as those swords are jerked nervously. Sit still. Breathe. *No* fangs. When the swords are still, I try again. I use words this time, each one shaving layers of skin from my throat.

“I wish to see your abbot.”

There is a moment of deafening silence, and then the jabbers start again, in whispers, this time. Eventually, one of the younger acolytes, carrying a sword almost as big as he is, is despatched back into the depths of the temple. The other swords, the ones of more immediate concern, dig a little deeper. More blood.

Sit still. *Breathe*. Forget the fangs.

It can only be moments before an elderly red-robed man follows the acolyte out of the temple. The Soul didn’t meet this one, or any of the others here. It isn’t surprising. It’s been almost two lifetimes since he was here.

The abbot stands in front of me, although all I can really see are his sandals. Like the others, he smells of fear, but he is braver than most.

“What do you want here *demon*? Why do you defile our holy ground? Speak quickly, before you die.”

“I came here once before and was helped by the Master, Lobsang Ramprachan. I seek guidance again.” This time the jabbering is almost hysterical. The robes in front of my downcast eyes lift a little, and I know that he has raised his hand to quell the clamour. The silence is instant. He clearly runs a tight ship. Except for those damned bells. He must have heard my thoughts, or perhaps he simply values his hearing. Another disturbance of his robes means that he has summoned one of the others. A priest comes running.

“I think that we can manage without the bells now. We are all quite aware that a demon is here. Please deal with them.” The priest bows and is gone. It is only a few moments before there is real silence, broken only by the noises that a vampire hears continually amongst humans. The sound of breathing, the pounding of your hearts, the rush of blood in your veins, the scrape of skin against cloth. Little things. And the constant keening of the wind on this precarious precipice.

Then there is a sharp intake of breath. My body instantly steels itself for emergency action, but the swords haven’t moved – apart from the nervous trembling, that is. Everyone’s attention is focused on the temple, so I risk an upward glance. I am still careful to keep my head bowed, though. Two priests stand there, holding between them a very, very old man. I do not exaggerate. This man is withered and brown, and has not the strength to hold himself on his feet. His features are almost as fleshless, his skin almost as papery, as a mummy. He is old, well beyond your normal reckoning. Even I have underestimated his age at first, though, because a little eddy of wind, sinking down from the roof of the temple and frisking around the steps, carries his scent to me. I know it.

Lobsang Ramprachan. How can this be?

The silence holds as the two priests help him, no, almost carry him, down the steps, his robes of deepest red flapping in that playful eddy. At last, he stands in front of me.

“Angel?” The voice is quavery, but the intelligence behind it firm.

Should I lie? It is not something that I am accustomed to doing. The truth, after all, has always been one of my favourite weapons. Lying means that you worry about the consequences of telling the truth. Demons generally don’t care about consequences. Still, he might catch me in the lie and I’m not entirely sure that I can evade every single one of those swords at my neck. The truth might not be any better.

“No. He’s dead.”

“Angelus?” He remembers, then.

“Yes.”

“You dare to admit that, here?”

“Should I have lied to you?”

“We could kill you where you sit.”

“I know.”

“Why did you come here?”

“I seek your guidance, as he did once before.”

“Will you offer us harm?”

“NO! I have permitted your priests to keep their swords at my neck in earnest of my good faith.”

If he knew Angel, he knows that is the truth. I could have slaughtered the priests as they approached me. I have shown the same restraint Angel showed, but during his stay, he helped teach many of the younger priests how to fight. How to fight and kill demons, especially. He would have, wouldn’t he?

He pauses, but only briefly.

“Remove your swords. You may stand, Angelus.”

The swords are not removed. Not immediately. His voice is surprisingly stern.

“Swords! Now.”

And they are gone. But not forgotten, and not gone very far. I unfold myself as unthreateningly as I know how, but the two priests holding the old man are closer than they would like to be. In their haste to remove themselves, one stumbles, and threatens to bring the trio crashing down. That would never do. I don’t care about the other two, but the fall might kill him. Before they can blink, before the stumbler can finish the action of stumbling, I am on my feet and have gathered the frail old abbot firmly up into my arms. He feels like a bundle of old sticks, and he weighs no more. The swords are back at my neck.

Suddenly, his face breaks into a smile that illuminates the darkness.

“You’ve probably noticed that they are terrified of you?”

“I can’t think why,” I respond wryly. The aroma of fear is, after all, thick enough to cut with even the bluntest sword, thicker even than the ever-present scent of goats and wood smoke. He turns to the …other?… abbot.

“Swords?” he reminds him.

A few words of command, reluctantly given, and the swords are lowered again.

He turns back to me, and says loudly enough to be heard, “I doubt if I’m much of a meal for you, anyway.”

I can’t help but grin back, an expression that’s been foreign to me for months now. “No. I prefer something a bit younger, juicier.”

He laughs, as delighted as a child with a favourite uncle, or just maybe it’s an uncle with a favourite nephew, and points me in the direction of the temple. Everyone follows. That isn’t what I had in mind.

Inside the temple he directs me to a passage, leading deep into the heart of the building. Again, everyone follows. I mention this to him. He sighs, and tells me to turn around and wait. I do.

“The vampire will not harm me. Go back to your duties.”

The red-clad abbot comes forward.

“By his own admission, this is not the souled vampire that you knew. You cannot afford to risk being alone with him.”

Lobsang Ramprachan makes a moue of distaste. I can hear his frailty, though; the way his heart is fluttering like a distressed bird, his breathing shallow and rapid. This body has a fondness for the old man and suddenly, unexpectedly, I feel protective of him. Too much stress might kill him, and then where would I be? Oh, well, there’s nothing I wanted to ask that the entire complement of the temple don’t know about, I’m sure.

“I’m sure that there is nothing they may not hear. Let them stay if it helps.”

And that is how I come to be seeking guidance in the presence of a temple-full of monks. They have brought him a rough-hewn chair, but it is stuffed full of soft furs and brightly patterned woven cushions, in deference to his infirmity. I settle him into it, and then resume my seated position, a student at the feet of a master. It’s a very long time indeed since I was one of those. Behind me are all the monks, seated, but each and every one is armed with very sharp implements. Cutting edge education, one might say. Let’s hope it doesn’t become bleeding edge.

“What is it you want to ask, my son?”

It’s incongruous, but not all that much so.

“I seek your guidance on the cycle of life, and reincarnation. Do we live more than once?”

I can see his eyes twinkle from here. “And why would a vampire wish to know that?”

I hadn’t really wanted to get into this detail, but there’s no real reason to refuse to tell him. Only my pain.

“My mate is dead. My human mate. The Slayer.”

There is a rustle of movement behind me and the sharp tang of shock in the incense-laden air. I need a deep breath before I can properly continue.

“She thought that it might be worth my while waiting around for her. That we all might have another go at living. What do you think?” The insouciance of that doesn’t fool him for a moment.

“And?”

“And what?”

“There is more that you wish to know.”

Why did I agree to let all these others hear? I’m not prepared for this. The old man is as crafty as a weasel. For the moment I am unable to answer. I have to close my eyes, and I feel my body pull in on itself, as if shrinking away from the very air around me. I feel as if a stake has pierced my heart as I remember.

“I need to know whether she is safe. And whether she is with him.” The admission is dragged from me, almost against my will. He doesn’t ask who I mean.

“Why? So that you can break them apart?”

I want to say yes. I cannot bear the thought of her loving that spineless apology for a soul. I’m better than he is. I deserve her more. But she loved him, too. And I gave her my word. My word that I would try. In my vocabulary, ‘try’ can only mean ‘do’.

“No. But she left me with a task, and I may need him in order to complete that task. Particularly if he is not with her. I need at least to speak with him. Can you give me guidance on that?”

“You mean him no harm?”

“No. Not any more.” Let the future bring what it may, that at least is the truth for now.

The ranks behind me are disturbed; most of them do not understand why I should be asking these questions. I’m sure they think that a demon knows all about the afterlife. It’s a common misconception. Why should a demon know more than a soul?

The old man, though, is silent and serene.

“I can give you no guidance on these things other than what you already know. What Angel and I discussed.”

This was my last, and probably my best, hope. I am surprised that the emptiness that has filled me hurts as much as a sword. I’m sure that he sees the slump of my shoulders.

“I cannot give you guidance. I can only show you.”

It takes a moment for that to penetrate.

“Show me?”

“Do you know why I am so old?”

Well, he’s not a vampire, I can assure you of that. Apart from that, how should I know? I shake my head.

“I am here for you. I have waited for you.”

The ranks behind me are confused, but no more so than I am. I can only look at him in mute enquiry.

“Grace has been given to me because only I can help you. I have waited to give you the answer to those questions – where he is, and whether you can speak with him. And I can only show you.”

I am dumbfounded. When I find my tongue I ask, “How did you know?”

“That I may not tell you.”

Well, I suppose that there is no time like the present. In my long life I have learned that answers generally come. Eventually. The trick is to find them before the question can kill you.

“Please. Show me.”

The old man looks at the assembled priesthood, then smiles at me. “For me to show you, you must kill me.”

At first the silence behind me is stunning, deafening, all-enveloping. Then come the protests, the denials and the general maximum volume babble of shock. I’m more than a little surprised myself.

When the younger abbot has quelled the hubbub, he walks forward to Lobsang Ramprachan, and kneels at the old man’s feet, as far away from me as he can manage in that small semi-circle of space.

“Master, do not say so. Do not tempt this demon.”

The old man’s voice is gentle.

“I am here only because it is necessary that someone answer this demon’s questions. Once he is gone from here, I shall die anyway. Let my death be for the purpose intended. Go back to the young ones and make sure they do nothing untoward. Angelus will do nothing that I do not wish him to do. What he does is necessary, too.”

I can tell that the abbot wants to protest, but he holds the older man in too high regard to dispute with him. He bows, and returns to the seated priests.

“You must drink down my life, Angelus, so that I may show you what you need to know.”

What is this to be, a guided tour of the various heavens, with me carrying an old Buddhist monk along to his nirvana? I can feel the sour taste of jealousy in my mouth as I think of my mate cuddled up to her one-time lover in some celestial getaway for retired Slayers, making up for lost time. But I am sure that she expects this of me: that I find out whether I can somehow discover a way to share this body with that loser once again. Learn to live with him in the hope, probably a fond and foolish one, that we both might be spared to join with her; that I, too, might earn that right. But how can I bring this to pass, since I know that the soul magic will no longer work? Why has this old man been made my guide? What has persuaded the Powers that Be that I am important enough for that? There is only one way to find out.

“Are you sure, Master?”

I accord him the honorific. It seems appropriate.

“Do it now, Angelus, before another Death catches me. If I do not show you, you will be lost.”

Lost indeed. Whatever that means. I consider carefully how to do this. I want to accord him dignity in death. I also do not want to have my back to a lot of resentful priests. Once again, I take the old man into my arms, and settle into his chair, facing the horrified priesthood. I sit him comfortably in my lap. He turns to the abbot.

“Remember, this is by my will. No one, absolutely no one, is to hurt Angelus.”

The abbot bows, submissive.

I don’t stretch out the agony of waiting. Gently, I move his robe away from his neck. His head is shaven, so there is no hair to impede my approach. I press my face to the pulse point before I lower my fangs, disguising what is to happen from the baleful glares before me. I lick the pulse point, beating more strongly than I would have imagined. My saliva will numb the pain of the bite. My left arm is wrapped firmly around his back, supporting him, and he takes hold of my fingers, resting our clasped hands on his withered belly.

“Let’s see whether I’m young and juicy enough for you, hmm?”

I have to smile, a little. Then I strike, swiftly but delicately. Minimum pain for him, before the ecstasy of death. It doesn’t take long, but I am surprised by the taste of his blood, rich and sweet and very powerful. If reincarnation truly exists, and this man has not already achieved his nirvana, I shall be very surprised indeed.

Then it is done. He lies in my arms, no more than a doll. I lick the last traces of blood from his neck.

“Cleaning me up. That’s very thoughtful, my son.”

He’s in my head! Can he hear my thoughts? I try one.

“So, old man, are you going to sit around chatting all day, or are you going to show me?”

I can hear him laughing, before he replies, “Follow me,” and I do. My body remains slumped over his. I just hope they listened to his instructions, and don’t try to stake me whilst I’m away from home. A thought occurs. Last time I left my body unattended, spells had to be cast to keep it from falling to ash. I ask him about that. He chuckles.

“There is no fear of that. My blood will sustain you. There is enough power for that very purpose.”

It occurs to me that he isn’t the only being that must have known I was coming. With a metaphorical shrug, I follow him down into darkness.

When I regain my senses – my spirit, that is – I recognise the place. How could I ever have forgotten? I am on the black sand. I have been here before, more than once; when Angel became human for a day, and when I came to rescue Buffy from death. That was a different sort of death, though. I won’t be able to save her the same way today.

In the distance, there are three winged nightmares, gathered around something on the ground. That will be someone, then. I can recognise the Furies from here, up to their old tricks. It’s none of my business. But why are we in this god-forsaken place? Buffy won’t be here again, surely, so neither will the Soul. His voice comes again.

“Are we going to sit here all day?”

“You’re supposed to be showing me. So show.”

“I have.”

What? That surely can’t be… Oh. Better go and have a look then.

When I stand, I realise that I am naked. Why is it that I’m always naked here? It makes you feel that much more vulnerable. I suppose I just answered my own question, didn’t I?

“Now you know why I elect to be just a voice in your head.”

I told you he was crafty.

When I reach the group of goddesses I can see that they really are up to their old tricks. They are bending over a figure I can’t quite see, since their quarry is hidden by their large, leathery wings. They are stroking and titillating, bringing him to the point where pain and pleasure meet. Then they will show him the meaning of real pain. Again. I remember it well, even after all these years.

I clear my throat. One of them turns to look at me, her dog face grinning, blackened teeth stinking, hung with shreds of rotten flesh, and strands of saliva like silver threads. She nudges her sisters, and I feel the weight of their combined glare. They look amused, if a dog can look amused. They straighten from their prey and step aside.

It’s me. Or, rather, it’s him. He’s in very bad shape. Large lumps of his flesh are missing, torn away by their teeth. In some places there is the glimmer of white bone. In one place, at the bottom of his rib cage, the bone is missing, too. He is thin and weak and bloody, and he is curled into a foetal ball, at the end of his strength. For once, I am at a loss.

“Tell me why he is here?”

I must know this, before I ask anything else. I daren’t ask, yet, where Buffy is. If she is on this black sand, too, then Heaven and Hell in every dimension can expect a visit from me, one that would be remembered for aeons to come, if I left any behind me to remember at all. I should harrow them into non-existence. But I can’t think of that just yet. Not yet.

“You know why he is here. You have always known.”

What?

The old man senses my confusion.

“Think back, Angelus. Think back to the time you came to fetch your mate out from the Underworld.”

How could I forget? She had died to save the world from Glory. But I still don’t understand.

“Your life was forfeit, was it not? Only she would be allowed to go free?”

“Yes.” Even my spirit needs to grit its teeth to make that admission.

“Then you were told that the price for your life had been paid?”

“Yes.” It’s no more than a hiss.

“Who do you think offered to pay the price?”

“No! He couldn’t. He wouldn’t.”

“He did.”

“Do you mean to say that he has been here for over seventy years?” Poor bastard if that is, indeed, true.

“Oh, Angelus, you know that can’t be true. You know that time runs differently here.”

I do indeed.

“Tell me.”

“Each day of your life with your mate has been bought with a year of suffering for him.”

That’s more than twenty-six thousand years. It might as well be an eternity in Hell. Impossible. He could never survive the Furies for more than twenty-six thousand years. I say so.

“And he hasn’t. They only give him to the Furies when he needs a rest from what else they have been doing. When he needs to recover.”

For the second time in a few minutes, I am dumbfounded. Now I have to ask that other question.

“And Buffy?”

“She is not on the black sand.”

“You are sure?”

“Yes.”

“Is she…?” I almost cannot form the words as anger drives a stake into my throat. “Is she… in Hell, too?”

His voice is gentle.

“No. I cannot take you where she is.”

That’ll be Heaven, then.

Something tugs at my memory, but is driven out by the pitiful sight at my feet.

“Why is he here? He wasn’t a great sinner.”

“I cannot say.”

“What can I do for him?”

“Only you can tell. Only you can decide. My task was merely to bring you here and show you.”

That’s extremely helpful.

He has his back to me. I kneel behind him, and put my hand on his shoulder, on his tattoo. My tattoo. It’s one of the few areas where the skin is relatively intact, a place where the worst of the wounds have begun to heal. I feel a sharp tingle under my palm, as if the lines of ink were lines of power. He starts to tremble at my touch, but he does not flinch. He is well trained. I can remember that. I have done it myself many times. You teach your victim that you are going to inflict pain, come what may, but if he or she flinches, the pain will be very much worse. I call his name.

“Angel. Angel. Look at me.”

He does not respond. I’m hardly surprised.

I try again.

“Liam. Look at me.” Nothing.

I lean over him, and gently work my hand under his cheek, to turn his head. As soon as my fingers touch his face, he tilts his head towards me. Well trained again. Obedient. I’ve seen the look on his face many times, on many other faces. He’s very far gone. I doubt if he even knows his own name any more.

What am I to do? I have a lot of experience in breaking people like this, and remaking them, but not in re-making them into something whole and well. I ask my guide.

“Only you can decide”

“Am I here to take his place?”

That would do neither of us any good, of course. He’s too traumatised to recover on his own, and if he is returned to existence, there is no Buffy to help him. I really don’t think anyone else can, not even Aurelius. And my incarceration down here will not help anyone, unless I am supposed to win redemption by pain. Surely not? I’m a demon of action, not a passive recipient of punishment, as the Soul is wont to be.

“Only you can decide.”

This is getting decidedly repetitive. It seems clear that I’m not going to get any other answers, though.

I have always held the Soul in contempt, and yet he bought me my life with his beloved. How could he bring himself to do that? And looking at him, I believe he is not quite broken. I can see little signs. The way his fists are knotted in anticipation. The way that he is silent. Usually there are at least tiny whimpers. Things like that. And he has survived these torments, and worse, for twenty-six thousand years. Suddenly an unwonted feeling of compassion grips me, and I lie down behind him, wrapping my arms around him and pressing close to his back, spooned around that quivering body. He doesn’t try to move.

I see that his wounds are not healing. He needs nourishment, I’m sure, but what do souls use for nourishment? My first thought is blood – after all, that works for me. But he’s a human soul, isn’t he? And I’m not exactly corporeal here, am I? But I am a demon, and if I offer him my life force, in whatever form, what will that do to him? I ask.

“Do you really want me to answer that?”

“Is it the answer I think it is?”

“Yes.”

“Then keep quiet unless you have something useful to say!”

I’m getting really ticked off with ‘only you can decide’. I can go back and leave him here. I can stay with him. Neither of those achieves my purpose. Buffy’s purpose. Can she have known? Could she have seen what had become of him? No, I cannot believe that. She would never have left him here, regardless of the cost. And I’m certain I would have been required to get him out as soon as she knew.

“Can I just pick him up and you lead us out of here?”

“Try it.”

I do. The Furies are on us in an instant. I put him back on the sand and lie down around him again. They back off a little. Not that way, then. His wounds have started bleeding again. I must do something. Well, I guess we’ll have to see what my life force does to him. I have absolutely nothing else to offer.

I bring my wrist to his mouth, but he does not know what to do. And he has only human teeth any way. Fool, Angelus.

I lower my fangs and gash the vein. Blood wells up slowly, more manageably than if I had chosen an artery. Not as rich, but more manageable. I press the wound to his mouth. He hesitates, then suckles, tentatively. I don’t know if it’s because he recognises the blood and needs it, or whether he’s just used to obeying. Too soon, he stops, but his wounds have healed just a little more. The vein is closing up, so I tear it again, and offer it to him. Again he takes it. Then I have a really crazy idea.

I have told you before that vampires are about blood, sex and power. We often express that in a virtuous circle of blood. So, as he sucks tentatively on my arm, I gently sink my fangs into his neck, and set the circle into motion.

I almost choke when the first mouthful hits my tongue. It is like the taste of gall, bitter beyond description with the sourness of sacrifice and millennia of pain. It is like poison, sliding down my gullet. There is no light, no hope, nothing of sweetness in it. It is a very long time since he thought there might ever be anything other than agony.

And then I taste it. A tiny bubble of something else. Love. Someone has made him feel loved. As I continue drinking down that bitter brew, there are occasional tiny bubbles of love. Someone has been visiting him, giving him something to hold on to. Giving him love. Giving him hope. Not often, and not much, but enough to remain in his soul’s blood. Enough, perhaps, to keep him together. I wonder who that was?

We lie there for a very long time, under the watchful gaze of the Furies. He continues to take in my blood, my life force, and I continue to drink the bitterness of his, taking his pain into me and returning his essence just a little sweeter. A little more cleansed. Exchanging blood, exchanging existences. I will lie here with him until the poison is gone or, at the very least, shared. Strangely, we fall asleep like that, each suckling from the other, he clasped in my arms.

When I awake, I am back in the temple, the cooling body of the old man held firmly in my embrace. And I am not alone. The Soul is there, although he doesn’t seem to have awoken yet. Will he, I wonder? Or is he too damaged? Have I hurt him even more? Someone else hears that thought and chuckles.

“I thought you hated and despised him?”

“Yeah, well, credit where credit’s due… And are you going to be in my head forever, old man, because that might be seen as eternal damnation? Especially if it’s you and him together.”

The old monk gives a full-throated laugh.

“No, Angelus, I’m called somewhere else. You’ll be rid of me, don’t worry.”

Then he becomes serious for a moment.

“Will you two be alright?”

I know what he means. Are we both damaged? And can we live together? I don’t know.

“We’ll be fine. We’ll bitch and whine at each other, but we’ll work it out, don’t worry. Why? You going to come and check on us?”

His fading thought is, “I just might, youngster, I just might.”

“Wait!”

“Be quick then, I haven’t got all day.”

There is something I must understand. Well, lots of things, truth be told, but one thing seems more immediate.

“Why is he here? I thought that the curse of the Rom had run to completion, and that I could never have him forced on me again? So, why is he here?”

The old man chuckles.

“Did anyone force him upon you? Did anyone thrust the soul back into the body by magic, or by curses, against your will?”

Being honest costs me quite an effort.

“No.”

“So, what you have done, you have done willingly?”

The answer is as bitter as his blood in my mouth.

“Yes.”

“There you are, then.

And he is gone. I don’t even have time to thank him, although I don’t know yet if I want to. Soul Boy tried to think of himself as a soul haunted by a demon. Now, it seems I might be a demon haunted by a soul. How’s that for cosmic balance? Kismet. Ma’at.

***

The demons that have been cast out into the void wait for a sign. The tiny sip of goddess blood has given them back some of their substance, but that was long ago. Time passes differently here. And others wait with them, drawn to them by the call of that trace of ineffable power. The four of them, and their growing coterie, can only pray that other things are not also drawn here, entities that they have not the strength to survive. Yet, they wait.

Spike stays in his self-appointed place, and he dreams. His dreams contain horrors, but none worse than the thought of being left alone. And then he knows. He wakes, suddenly, shockingly, and sees that he is surrounded by black cliffs and black sand, and nothing else. His sire has gone, and he is utterly alone. He has run far out onto the black sand before he remembers the words of the goddess who visited him in one of his dreams, and who gave him a tiny sip of the blood that even now has given him some substance. He looks into the distance and sees three figures coming for him. Some trace of memory tells him who these are, tells him what these are, and he starts to run.

The Lady and the Duality watch him with compassion. He has waited here for the sake of love, and that makes his pain worth something in the balance. Every little will help, and the Lady will have something more to add to that future of new lives and new opportunities that Angel has created. Angelus, too, has made decisions that can be weighed in the balance.

There are no Seers left on Hylek or Adras, no one left to add foresight to what the Lady and the Duality can see for themselves. The three are on their own. Nevertheless, they can feel the path of the future beneath their feet, and it feels right. For now.

***

I am worried about the state of my soul. Humans might use that phrase, but it has a very literal meaning for me, just now. I know that he is there, but I can feel nothing else. Oh, I can feel his pain, all right, the agony that he has endured for millennia to buy my life with my mate, but that is in my blood. It is in the soul-blood that I shared with him, and I don’t know if it will ever quite be gone. That prospect frightens me a little. Perhaps he feels the same way about the soul-blood that he has from me. Perhaps that is why he is utterly silent. Unnaturally silent.

When things were other, when I was caged in him, I never gave him a moment’s peace. I expected him to be the same – except that I haven’t tried to cage him yet. I don’t know how I could do that, when there is no interaction between us. He is still and silent, and I am afraid for him.

I’m still at the Tiger’s Nest monastery, but I shall have to leave soon. I make them uncomfortable, to say the least. I have stayed for the funeral of the old man, and they have allowed that, even bringing me bowls of goat’s blood – less, I suspect in the tradition of hospitality, and more to ensure that I don’t get hungry enough to snack on them.

Lobsang Ramprachan has chosen the old style of burial. Sky burial. A wooden tower has been erected – I offered to help, but they thought that I would pollute the sacred space – and his body is being put on there now. It’s daylight, so I can’t follow, but I shall pay my last respects tonight, on my way home. He will be left until the vultures have eaten every scrap of flesh – it won’t take long – and his bones will be carefully wrapped and placed on a ledge in the heart of the monastery. He didn’t want that, but they will do it anyway. Followers will come to venerate the bones, and he will continue to be an inspiration to his people.

Is it possible he has given me the answers that I needed? He has gone on to something else. He didn’t say that it was to another life, but surely it is? Surely that is the sign I need to carry me through my self-appointed penance? The voice of doubt – or the voice of reason – within me says Not necessarily. Still, the Soul has been recovered, and although the spell of the Underworld means that I no longer remember clearly where he was, I do remember that Buffy wasn’t there. My antipathy towards him, and to the thought that he might be enjoying my mate in Paradise, now seems a little mean and petty, even to me.

I do have faith. I have faith that there is something after final death, that my mate is somewhere where she can be happy, and that we both might be allowed to join her. Sometime. Unfortunately, I also have faith, if that can possibly be the right word, that there is a long, hard road ahead, a span of what might be called earth time rather than clock time, and I have no idea how I am going to fulfil the promises that I have made. Still, a day at a time, perhaps?

Sitting here, alone, in the deepest, darkest part of this rambling old temple of monks, I do something that I haven’t dared to do since that terrible day when I buried my beloved. I reach down into myself, and feel for her echo. It is only an echo, it isn’t her, but I can feel the warmth of her, I can taste her on my tongue, and the scent of her fills my nostrils. It’s comforting, and I wonder if he, too, can feel her. I try to spread my sensations, to make sure that they include him, but there is nothing from him. Nothing at all.

I come to a sudden decision. One of Lindsey’s contacts seemed to have an uncommon knowledge of soul magic. Even though she was unable to help me, perhaps she has enough knowledge for something different. Perhaps she can help me heal him. I don’t know what else to do. She was in Los Angeles. I’d meant to go to Sunnydale, or maybe even call in at Cairo on the way, to tell Aurelius that he could stop having me followed, but perhaps I’ll just go to LA first, and decide what to do from there. It will be late spring when I get back, or perhaps it will just have moved into summer. It will be two whole seasons since she died, her life fading with the fading year. Spring has lots of memories for me. Buffy loved that time of year best of all.

***

Summer has turned to autumn and autumn to winter, and now my people have lost track of Angelus. Nothing has been seen of him for several months. His own court has done even worse, but I do not blame those who are trying to hold his empire intact. They have at last done the sensible thing and sought my help. At their behest, I have sent messengers to all of the tribes and clans and species, reminding them of the benefits that Angelus has brought to them and offering to mediate in disputes pending his return. The lid is on the pot, but it is still simmering.

And I have a strange feeling in my blood. It is as if someone of my line was trying to call on the bond between us, but they are all accounted for, and it isn’t them. There are less of them now, since the loss of Japheth and Partha, Beatrice and Françoise. It is none of those who are left. The feeling is muted and disguised, and impossible to recognise, but so very familiar, and that makes me uncomfortable. My own sire and constant companion, Sekhmet, feels something, too, and she is as uneasy as I am. I have tried doing some castings to help me identify this lost one, but every trial has been a failure. Always the casting comes back to me. It is as if some powerful source is shielding whoever it is, warping the call to me so that I cannot recognise it. I shall keep trying, though. It feels important.

***

I’ve come to see the LA witch. Well, she’s not exactly a witch, although she can do some powerful magic. She’s not exactly a seer, either, although she can do some of that stuff, too. She’s perhaps more of the all-round wise woman. When I first came here she reminded me a lot of the old Elder Women of the Gypsy clans, and that made me very nervous, as you can imagine, but there was none of the scent of gypsy about her. She’s been visited by a lot of people since then, of course, and I can catch traces of many of the most recent ones. Despair, hope, need, desire, and fear. All of your most important emotions are here.

“Angelus.”

The greeting is terse, and feels unfriendly, although she has a smile on her face. I’m not sure how to start. And, as I sit here waiting for her to scurry around on those human civilities known as making tea, I wonder whether I have totally lost my powers of reason. Why am I not sitting with people I can trust? I could talk to Ezrafel, to Ixolon, to Estevan, perhaps. Or Lindsey. I could even talk to Aurelius. That would be the obvious choice. Why am I here? I must be mad. If the demon communities find that I’m carrying Angel around inside me, then everything I’ve fought for could fall apart.

I stand to make my apologies, to tell her to bill me for her time, when she whirls round, as swiftly as a snake, making her heavy silver jewellery jangle with the movement.

“I’ve changed my mind, Oriane. I’m sorry….”

“I know why you have come, and I have your answer.”

“What?”

“If you want to communicate with her, you must make a journey. It’s a journey you cannot start on without help.” She pulls a piece of paper from her pocket, with an address on. “Go there, and you will be able to buy what you need.”

“Oriane…”

“Go. Now. I want no payment for this.”

I want to ask her more, but she turns in a swirl of skirts and silver, and disappears through a curtained doorway into her apartment. I try to follow, but the curtain might just as well be the gate of Heaven. In any event, the requisite invitation has not been offered.

“Oriane!”

There is no answer.

She said ‘her’. She said ‘communicate with her’. My heart clenches at the thought.

I don’t look at the address until I get outside into the fresh air. I recognise it. It’s a derelict apartment building near to where the shell of the old Hyperion still stands. What can I lose by going there?

What can I lose, indeed? I know what it is as soon as I get within a hundred yards. I can smell it on the air. It’s an Orpheus den. They were using it in LA seventy years ago, but it was so dangerous, it fell out of fashion. Looks like it’s back in fashion again.

I can feel the rage rising, and I crumple the little note up in my fist. How dare she. How dare she send me somewhere like this! But then, that insidious little voice, the one your mothers always told you to ignore, starts to whisper to me. Orpheus is a mystical opiate. The enchantment and the biting make for some serious psychic psychedelia. That’s what makes it so dangerous. It can lead you down into Hell, or into the deepest darkest corners of yourself. It’s said that it can also lead you into Heaven. Which is Heaven and which is Hell depends entirely on your viewpoint, of course. In my case, it could do anything, since Hell is in myself just now, and the Soul probably still thinks he’s there. And Buffy must be in Heaven. That’s what I want, isn’t it? Talk to her? Talk to him? Find out what to do?

And I’m a very powerful vampire, far more powerful than I should be even at my age. I’ve taken a very great deal of power into myself from others. That should help, shouldn’t it? Or really fuck you up, whispers a second, saner, voice.

What if, what if I bought some and went to Aurelius? If anything goes wrong, he’d know what to do, surely? Despite the problems with my clan master, it’s an attractive option. It’s particularly attractive since I can’t think of any other options. So, I’ll give you two guesses which voice wins.

Inside the building, the apartments are still in use – sort of. All of the doors are missing, and each room is divided up into cubicles. The dividers are tattered rags of curtains that don’t really reach the floor. Through the gaps, you can see that in each cubicle there is a ‘bed’ that seems to be a heap of lousy old rags, and I do mean that very literally, most with a tangle of limbs on top. Humans have taken the drug, and vampires are feeding from them. It’s disgusting, in an attractive sort of way.

All I’ve seen is the ground floor, and I get no further than this. A human male comes up to me. He’s thickset and dark, probably Eastern European. I can feel my hackles rise and my eyes must be glinting with gold. Whatever, he doesn’t come too close.

“Help you?”

“Yeah. You’re dealing Orpheus. How much for half a dozen hits?”

I might need more than one try.

“Depends. How much you need depends on your age and strength, and how high you want to get. How old are you?”

“Old enough to be out without my mommy,” I growl. I know I’m being childish, but he’s getting right up my nose. He’s obviously seen it all before.

“The dose has to be tailored to you.”

“Just make it strong enough for someone older than the children you’ve got here.”

He shrugs, and walks over to a wall safe. I don’t need to see what he’s doing. I can hear him, filling some syringes. When he comes back, he has a rigid little plastic box in which six syringes are laid. Each of them contains 5cc of clear fluid. It doesn’t look very much, but I know what it can do.

“2cc is enough to keep most vamps happy for twenty four hours. If you feel brave, double up.”

2cc in one go will kill a human – the dose has to be administered carefully over the 24-hour period. 5cc will kill a Slayer. Don’t ask me how I know.

“How much?”

“Well, I’ll need to cover for the hosts – 2cc will probably kill them, doubling up definitely will. You want boy or girl or both?”

“I don’t want a host. I want these to go.”

He’s surprised, and looks uncomfortable, perhaps at the loss of more profit, but he names a price that makes me stare. I say nothing, just pull out my wallet, and pay him. As I fold it back up, he sees the ‘A’ monogrammed onto it, and looks thoughtful.

“You don’t want to go there if you want me to patronise your establishment again, rather than burn it down.”

He nods. I slip the flat box into my inside pocket, and head for the door. I don’t really want to go there, but I have little choice. Cairo it is.

As I reach the outside door, I sense movement. The heavy haze of opiate inside the building, and the overwhelming scents of so many humans and vampires, all combine to confuse my senses. I know someone has scuttled back from the doorway, but I cannot tell more. I wonder for a moment whether it’s one of Aurelius’ people, although I haven’t seen them for some weeks – not since I left for Bhutan. Something holds me in the doorway, uncertain, and then there is more movement behind me. I spin round, and the proprietor is there, holding a loaded and cocked crossbow. I take a step backwards, enough to get out of that doorway so that I can have some freedom of movement, and a large and heavy cargo net drops onto me from somewhere above. Just for a moment, the weight fells me to my knees, but that moment is enough. More men materialise, all with clubs and blackjacks and baseball bats. I curl up under the hail of blows, most of which are directed to my head, but enough find their mark, and darkness comes to claim me.

When I regain my senses, I hurt. It’s clear they didn’t stop the beating just because I couldn’t feel it any more. There are broken bones, including my cheek and jaw, and a lot of blood. Oh yes, and I’m chained.

I’m in a room that clearly used to be a bedroom, although the only furniture left in it is the bed, and I’m chained to that bed with sufficient weight of iron to break my ribs. There’s no chance of trying to breathe, or even move, but it does feel as if some are broken. There are eight men in the room, including the proprietor, all sitting on the floor. I can smell them now, faintly, through the reek of my own blood. Gypsies. Damn.

The proprietor stands up and comes forward.

“Angelus.”

I say nothing. What’s the point in sputtering indignantly? I just wait for him to say what ever he has to say. He gestures to the other men.

“These are my family. They are the descendants of Enyos. They would have been kin to the descendants of Janna, but you killed her before that could happen. It has taken many years for us to relearn the magic that we lost, but we have it now.

“We mean to give you back the soul – you have been free of it for too long.”

Is *everyone* dogging my footsteps? But, the irony of it all… I remain silent – protestations of truth will do no good here.

Another of the men stands up and produces an Orb of Thesulah. The chains are too heavy to allow me to laugh, since you need to take in air so that you can let it out again in the right way. I can’t help it, though. They seem confused by the breathy, wheezy sounds coming from their helpless victim, to whom they are about to deliver what must seem to them to be the coup de grâce.

I’m still laughing when the man comes forward and, holding the Orb high, he starts to chant. He’s clearly expecting the Orb to fill up with the milky haze of a soul. That’s when I stop laughing. Not because I’m afraid of them – although I am, in my current helpless condition – but because I’m afraid for him. Can they pull him out of me again? What will this tug of war do to him, as badly damaged as he is? I’ll be damned if I let everything I’ve done to get him back be a waste of time.

But, nothing happens. I feel no pain, no loosening of any part of me, metaphysical or otherwise. Nothing. And the glass Orb remains no more mystical than a clear glass paperweight. They seem very confused, now. Join the club.

They try the spell maybe half a dozen times before it’s clear that it’s not going to be a goer. That’s when the recriminations start. I understand enough of their language to more or less make sense of it. Oriane is one of them, the proprietor’s sister. They set the trap, she supplied the bait. And no matter how, they mean to make me suffer. I understand them even less now than I did in 1898. The Soul suffered at least as much as I ever did. Their brand of vengeance is clearly one that doesn’t count the cost to innocents.

The magic for this has come all the way from Romania, and they have already tried it out, it seems. Well, now, I wonder which other souled vampires are walking around this city? The answer, when it comes, is unpleasant. The re-ensouled vampires were used for ‘other purposes’, and are now dead. I would begin to really worry, but one thing I’m sure of is that they don’t want me dead.

They decide to have one final try. It’s no more successful than the previous ones were. The proprietor loses his temper and backhands the man with the Orb. Man and paperweight go flying, and the Orb smashes against a wall, shattering into a million glittering fragments. Been there, done that.

The proprietor stalks out of the room and down some wooden stairs. From the sounds, we’re on the second floor. There’s a very long wait then, before he returns. When he does, he has a leather satchel over one shoulder, and he’s dragging a young girl. As chance would have it, she’s tiny and blonde and would have been pretty, not so long ago.

She’s also high on Orpheus. One of the men asks how much she’s been given. The proprietor grunts a reply.

“Ten.”

No matter what happens, she’s dead. He means to send me on a serious trip, although how he expects to make me bite, I really don’t know. He’s thought it through, though. One of his kinsmen holds the girl, who is so far gone she doesn’t even struggle, while another holds the satchel. The proprietor goes back downstairs. When he returns, he has a large, business-like axe. He walks over to me, and rests the edge of the axe across my thigh, just below the groin.

“Angelus, you are going to drain this girl dry. If you don’t, I’ll hack off both your legs. I know they won’t regrow.”

To emphasise his point, he saws the axe backwards and forwards, cutting easily through first material, and then flesh. I can’t move my head to look, but I can feel the bloom of fresh blood. And he’s right. My legs would not regrow. Or not, at least, without some serious magic, which this world seems to be currently lacking.

“Make your mind up.” He continues to saw as I debate my options. I should recover from 10cc, eventually. I won’t recover from lack of legs. Whatever I decide, I’ll be at their mercy. I remind myself that they don’t want me dead, but I don’t find the thought terribly comforting, for some reason.

“Very well.”

They throw the girl down on top of me, pushing her neck to my mouth, and I give her a quick and easy death. But, it isn’t over yet. I can feel the drug start to work within me, but while I still have enough lucidity to see what happens next, the proprietor reaches into his satchel. As he does so, he tells me.

“That is only the start. We used the souled vampires to see what effect Orpheus has on your kind. The bite starts the mystical process, but the rest can be done by injection. After 20cc? Well, Oriane hates you demons more than even I thought it possible to hate. Even she was moved by their suffering, and we staked them all.”

He brings out a half litre bottle and eight super-size syringes. He shows me the bottle.

“This is a full 500cc’s, vampire. You’ll have it all to yourself. You’ll never get out of Hell, as long as you are in existence. And believe me, we aren’t going to let that existence end, so long as a member of the Kalderash remains to keep you alive.”

They start filling their syringes, and emptying them into me. They really don’t stop until it’s all gone. As the darkness closes over me I hear him say, “He’ll discover his worst fears down there, and spend the rest of eternity facing them.”

No, I think; you have no idea. I’ve already faced my worst fear, and I’m living it. Nothing can be more hellish than that. As ever, though, I find that I am entirely wrong. And then I sink into true despair and damnation.

***

Angelus has been truly missing for over a year now. We know that he went to one of the Himalayan kingdoms in April, and that is the last we have seen of him. The year has come and gone, and the next April has turned to May, and still there is no sign. My people have joined together with his to try to find him. I have taken to scrying, but it isn’t a real talent of mine, and the results are confusing. All the effort that we have put into looking for him has been done quietly, and our public position is that he is on a retreat, taking time out after the death of his mate. He will return when he is ready. I doubt the status quo can last for much longer, though. All those who share his blood know that he is still alive, but for months I have been receiving delegations, envoys, carefully worded messages, all trying to subtly find out whether there is an empire up for the taking. The ties that he has forged are starting to weaken, and I think it won’t be long before one of his retainers makes a bid for supremacy, or one of the species or clans outside his rule sees an opportunity for aggrandisement. Already I have almost daily squabbles and petty rebellions to deal with.

Tonight, I am entertaining a delegation from a powerful clan that has so far remained neutral, outside Angelus’ aegis. They lost status when they were left standing on the sidelines as Angelus beat the Wolf, the Ram and the Hart into a bloody defeat, and they have resented him ever since. Now that he is absent, they send me a delegation. My guess is that they will offer to take some of his empire off my hands – just for temporary safekeeping, of course – until he is himself again. Yes. Right. As if it were mine to give, in any event.

Still, perhaps I am wrong. We haven’t started talking business yet; we are still on preliminaries. They are enjoying the very fine wines that I have to offer, and are being entertained by the floorshow that I have provided. There are some real beauties in Cairo, and a great deal of decadence. This visiting clan enjoys decadence. Well, so do we all, and these artistes are very fine and very decadent. Everybody’s happy for a while, then.

I suppose that I must go to rejoin them, but it seems that Paul, my senior minion, major-domo to you, has a message for me first. He is urbane and suave, as usual, but there is a certain look in his eye that I cannot ignore. He does not tell me what the matter is, simply that there is something that needs my immediate attention. When we reach a safe distance from my guests, he drops the act and tells me. When I hear what he has to say, I know that I have no more time to waste on these vampires. I send Dominic, my great-great-grandchilde, to hold the fort with them, and hurry to the small postern gate at the back of my house. Huddled into its meagre shelter is Angelus. Paul has had the wit to fetch the key, and he tugs the little gate open as I stand in the alley. Angelus does not seem to recognise me, nor does he respond to my voice. This is no place for lengthy discussions, anyway. I pick him up and carry him in my arms through the gate and into my home. He seems to weigh almost nothing, and he stinks of death.

We reach my chambers without being seen by my guests. I have no wish for them to see Angelus yet, not until he is himself again. He is starved and filthy, and I am on the point of sending Paul for a human, any human, when instinct tells me that this might not be the most sensible thing. So I send Paul for animal blood, the best that can be found, straight from the beast.

My beautiful boy seems to be completely withdrawn. When I set him down on the bed, he simply curls up into the same foetal position in which we found him. He won’t look at me and he won’t speak. His clothes are ripped and stained, filthy beyond belief, and by the time I have managed to get them off his rigidly huddled body, Paul is back with blood. From the speed, and from the heat of it, I suspect the stolen beast is in my courtyard, but my staff know what they are about, and I’m not going to argue. Angelus clearly hasn’t eaten in a very long time. He is thin to the point of being skeletal, his skin grey and almost papery, and his eyes are hollow with suffering. He gulps the blood down, although swallowing it causes him pain, but he seems not to have the strength to hold the glass, so I hold it for him, until he has drunk every drop. He curls up into an even tighter ball, and falls into an exhausted but uneasy state of semi-consciousness. I can’t call it sleep. He’s crying and whimpering, with softly muffled sobs and whispered pleas.

If I don’t excuse myself to my guests, they will be mortally offended, but I do not wish to leave him for long. Paul is outside, making sure there are no unwanted visitors to my chambers, so I send him in to sit with Angelus whilst I make my apologies.

As luck would have it, the head of the delegation, Myrna, decides that she wishes to open discussions. She comes slinking around me, a very attractive piece indeed, which is no doubt why she was chosen by her clan to come here. What she cannot know is that she is nowhere near as attractive to me as the one who currently lies in my bed, needing my attention.

She brushes her hand ‘accidentally’ against my thigh, then lifts it to her mouth and sucks gently on the tip of her painted fingernail.

“Your hospitality is very…enlivening…Aurelius. It’s a long time since I’ve enjoyed an evening more.”

“Thank you, Myrna. My house is your house.”

Well, not quite, but it’s traditional, you know. It’s also a dangerous thing to say.

“All of it? Including, say, the bedroom?”

Vampires are never shy.

“That would be a pleasure, Myrna, but don’t they say ‘business before pleasure’? You have come as a representative of your clan, so I do think we should deal with those matters first. Don’t you?”

She pouts a little, and she really does have a pretty pout. No, not pretty. Sultry. Demanding. I’m too old to be caught by a sultry, demanding woman wanting to have her wicked way with me in bed so that she can later have her wicked way with me around the negotiating table.

“We’ll talk first, Myrna, then we’ll see. I’m afraid that something has just come up…”

She pointedly looks downwards, where something has indeed come up at the thought that Angelus is back. I smile at her.

“I’m afraid it’s something else that simply won’t wait… not even for you. Please, enjoy my hospitality. Dominic will see that you lack for nothing. I shall see you tomorrow.”

I take a little of the sting from my desertion by kissing first her hand and then that sultry pout. Then I return to my chambers, to do what I can for Angelus.

He’s rank with filth and ordure of all kinds. The stink of it assaults my nostrils, but I have no time for recoiling. There’s something else. The scent of him, such as I can make out, is all wrong. There is…something… that I cannot place, cannot identify.

At first, I think I have an idea of what might be wrong with him. His higher levels of consciousness seem to have withdrawn to another place. You saw that same thing when Willow and I found him after Faith had tortured him almost to death. It is something that demons can do. We withdraw from this dimension, leaving only the shell of ourselves behind, only the primitive, hungry, elemental part of ourselves that keeps our bodies alive. We do this to escape overwhelming pain or grief. Many vampires do this to escape the exigencies of eternity.

You have never experienced the possibility of eternity, and you can have no notion of what it is like. At first, you feel like a god. You have *forever* to live as you wish, to do whatever you wish. Then, the longer you live, the more you lose. Friends, mates, childer: all gone again and again. Life seems to become one long round of mourning. Then there is human society. In order to be successful predators, vampires must blend in, must appear to be no different to those around them. Think of the course of human history. It may seem exciting to live through the fall of empires, the change, the growth, the fall back into darkness. For a while, it is exciting. Not all can keep up with it, though. Some become lost and confused, longing for a return to ‘the good old days’, whenever they were. These, too, tend to slip away, leaving only the shell behind.

A vampire that has reverted like this does not last long. They are vicious and animal in their behaviour, and they may be cunning, but they have not the intelligence to avoid death at the hands of a Slayer or a simple mob with wooden pitchforks. I was lucky.

But, when a vampire does withdraw in that way, something elemental is left; something that feeds and kills, without any rationality or sentience to speak of. That is not what I have seen here. Even the elemental seems to have withdrawn, leaving not enough behind to ensure the body’s survival. Perhaps only enough was left behind to get him back here. What the hell has happened to him?

Paul brings in a thermos of blood, which he places on a side table, and leaves me to my patient. With a shrunken stomach, it will be a little while before my boy can take any more nourishment. Time for me to do a proper inspection.

I lift the sheet covering Angelus. Apart from his dreadful bodily condition, he looks as if he’s spent the last year in sewers, or worse; utterly filthy, dirt ground into his pores, his hair lank and smeared with things I’d rather not speculate about. He has no major internal injuries that I can detect, but he’s covered with minor grazes and cuts, and there are extensive signs of old burns, of a sort that I’ve seen too often before. Where these haven’t yet healed, there are ugly seeping sores. There are remnants of many other older wounds, too, and where these have tried to heal, they have done so over and around the ordure, or whatever it is, leaving the flesh with a begrimed look that is much more than skin deep. I don’t think he’s done any healing for a very long time, though.

And he stinks; only this stench is not from the filth on him, but from his own flesh. When a vampire’s body reaches this stage of starvation, it starts to die. Oh, the vampire won’t die, but with nothing to feed and sustain the entire, delicate cellular structure of flesh, blood and bone, it begins to corrupt, just as a corpse corrupts. I hate to remind you, but that’s exactly what we are. Demonically animated corpses. He’s rotting, and has been doing for some time. That’s how he smells. Oh, he’s a powerful vampire, and it hasn’t gone far yet. You would detect only a hint, perhaps something like a faint whiff of over-sweet cologne. It would take him years of starvation to reach the point where all the fluids had corrupted and gone, leaving only a mummified corpse, and that would be the devil’s own job to mend. This will be hard enough. This bed will never be the same again, for a start. You can never get rid of the smell of decomposition. Oh, well, I suppose it was time for a new one.

There’s still something other wrong with the scent, though, and I can’t place it. Could it be a poison of some sort? I drop the covers over him again, and then turn my attention to his clothes. They are beyond any salvage, of course, but I’m checking them out to see if they can provide any understanding of what has happened to him.

His wallet is here, with money, and so he hasn’t been robbed. Helpless as he is, I wonder why, but such speculation is useless and beside the point. There’s a crumpled and badly soiled piece of paper, with an address that I can just make out, and a small, sealed, flat plastic box, containing six full syringes. Nothing else. When I examine the syringes, I cannot tell for sure what is in them, but after taking a tiny taste, I’m very afraid of what it might be. It’s imperative that I find out what it is and whether this is what is killing him. I don’t know, but I know a woman who will. If it’s what I think it is, we are in such trouble.

Paul, as my senior servitor, is attending to all the services required for my guests, but he has left a pair of servants outside the door. I pen a quick note, which one of them will give to a messenger, and then I can only wait for the result. In anticipation, I take a little blood from my boy and put it into a small vial. It’s a very difficult job, because he has so little to give.

Now, first things first. I must restore Angelus’ body to some strength if I can. When he can take it, he must have some more hot, fresh, living blood, and he must have blood from me. Sekhmet is away, hunting for herself, as she does from time to time. When she returns, she will give him blood, too. And perhaps he’ll feel better when he’s cleaned up. There’s a large shower cubicle in the bathroom, and it’s there that I manage to get him washed. Not once does he uncurl, but I manage to work around that. He’s fallen silent again, and shows not the slightest awareness of what I am doing. I’ve fallen silent, too, as I realise the full depth and extent of his injuries.

When at last he’s as clean as I’m going to get him, I summon one of our guards, Amal, to change the bedding, and eventually, we get him settled into a position where I can hope to feed him. We’ll try some of my blood first. Amal holds him steady as I press my arm to his lips. Angelus does not react. I bite open a small vein, and press it to him. He suckles a little, but still does not bite, nor does he change to demon face. And, his mouth feels…odd.

Amal holds him more tightly as I gently prise open his mouth. His jaw feels as if it has been broken and only partly healed, no doubt through lack of blood. There’s worse to come, though. His human teeth have been broken, and are sharp, jagged stumps that must be agonising. It looks as if they have been smashed with a metal bar. His fangs will have fared no better. And still there is more. His tongue has been pierced. What has been put there is not a smooth stud, but a tiny cross. It has lost almost all its potency now, worn out by the process of torturing him, but it has made a terrible mess of tongue and palate. It’s embedded into the muscle, and although it must cause him considerable pain, he makes not a sound as I dig it out. It still has enough power to sting my fingers, though.

I think that Angelus has told you of his demonic anger, and he is certainly one of the most passionate demons I have ever known. His most fearsome rage cannot be worse than the anger that is rising in me now. Only confirmation of what is in those syringes is wanted, and I will loose hell on earth to find and punish whoever has done this to him. It takes the two of us a long time, but eventually we get half a pint of hot animal blood into him, and perhaps half a pint drained from me. He will need much more, but that is all he can stomach for now.

Only then do I call Lindsey, and require him, as his Clan Master, to find out what goes on at the address taken from Angelus’ pocket, and with all speed. My messenger returns with Cassia, just as Lindsey rings to tell me that the address is an Orpheus den. That was what I was afraid of. I’m also suddenly afraid that Angelus may have done this to himself. As it turns out, I am traducing him, but it is a real fear, just then. There is no telling what grief can do to a vampire as passionate and powerful as he is.

She is waiting for me in my study. She is looking at a painting of Angelus that I have on the wall. I have other, more intimate, portraits, but even here, in a head and shoulders study, he is looking very seductive. Don’t go there, Cassia.

I’m not unaware that it’s the middling small hours of the morning, and she has been woken from her bed. She wasn’t alone. She is doing me a favour by responding so promptly to my message, but she knows that I don’t lightly ask for help. She’s a beautiful woman, and an outstanding forensic chemist. She’s also a very accomplished witch. We have had…relations… from time to time. I know her well enough to be aware that she has provided professional help to demons on occasion, and well enough for her to know what I am. I am now going to be in her debt, and one thing I do know is just how she will wish to be repaid. She will appreciate being pampered somewhere. She likes Paris. So do I.

I greet her warmly, with a kiss on the cheek.

“Thank you for coming, Cassia.”

“You said it was urgent, and your messenger woke me in the middle of the night. I didn’t think it would wait. What can I do for you?”

I haven’t really thought through what I’m going to ask her, and so I’m silent for a moment, organising my thoughts. She waits, quietly – she’s a very restful woman – her dark eyes fixed on mine. Her hair curls around her shoulders, the deep red-brown of a ripe chestnut, touched with the gold of the sun.

“I would like you to test something for me. I believe it to be Orpheus, but I need to know for sure. And I need to know how old it is.”

She nods in understanding. Orpheus is a strange drug, unlike any other. It is part opiate, part magic. The mystical part isn’t permanent, but degrades over time. It has a half-life, like radioactivity. That’s a good analogy, too. It’s about as dangerous. Assuming that whatever happened to him happened at the time he acquired the syringes, that will tell me how long it has been in his system, and will give me part of the answer to the question of how severely he has been affected.

“This isn’t a hypothetical question, is it?”

“No. Cassia, if you have blood from a vampire, can you tell how much Orpheus is in the system?”

She wrinkles her nose as she considers this question.

“I’ve never analysed Orpheus, but I think I probably could. I can certainly try. The process for the opiate part should be the same as for normal forensic procedures, and a spell should help me with the mystical part.”

“Do what you can, please. And it may not be Orpheus, so don’t be limited by that suggestion. Whatever it is, I need to know. And then I need an antidote. The matter is of real urgency.”

“Give me the Orpheus, and some blood from the… patient. I’ll do what I can.”

I leave her in my study, and within a few minutes, she has the box of syringes, and the vial of blood from Angelus. She hasn’t seen him, and doesn’t know who is the patient. Better that she shouldn’t. There are many who would pay handsomely for news of his condition. I don’t think that she would divulge the information for money, but there are other ways.

When I return, she is once more looking at the portrait.

“Is this Angelus, your beta? The one who’s missing?”

Now, where did she learn that he was missing? Who has been trying to get information from her?

“He isn’t missing, my dear. I am in touch with him and know exactly where he is.”

Well, technically that is exactly accurate.

“I’m glad.”

And then she is gone. I think it again: Don’t go there, Cassia. It’s more dangerous than you know.

It’s two days before she has the information I need. Two days, in which I must deal with Myrna and her entourage. I cannot afford to keep them here, where they will soon realise that something is afoot. Nor can I afford to offend them to the point where we have a war of succession. The whole of the next night must be spent in hearing their embassy, and then fending off Myrna. The matter of regency of Angelus’ holdings in the near east is left as all such things are left in the language of diplomacy. The status quo remains for now. As for Myrna, I take her to the pyramids, and then I take her in the greatest of the pyramids, and she enjoys that. Somewhat against my better judgement, so do I, but I’m relieved when, on the following night, I can send them on their way, with professions of goodwill, and promises of a return visit before long. She does ask me why I have a rather broken-down horse in my courtyard, and I tell her that it’s a matter of charity. She’s confused enough to not ask any more questions.

I have spent whatever time I could with Angelus, but my servants have cared well for him. The odour of death is receding, just a little. Or perhaps I’m getting used to it, but I mustn’t think that way.

Sekhmet returns a little ahead of Cassia. She looks pleased with herself, having avoided the whole of Myrna’s visit, but is less so when she discovers the condition of my prodigal beta. She loves him as much as I do, and she understands that we will be fortunate to get him back undamaged. Or to get him back at all, truthfully. Physically, too, he still isn’t healing, and so we give him her blood as we give him all the rest – from a cup.

We’ve finished feeding him, and Amal has left Sekhmet and I to keep him company. I am sitting by the bed, facing him, and holding his hand. Sekhmet is curled around his back, but careful not to put any weight on him, purring for him. That is how Cassia finds us when Paul, in a rare fit of stupidity, shows her in to the bedroom. She gives a small gasp of shock at the sight, her hand flying to her mouth. She recognises him immediately. How could she not? I feel a coldness in the pit of my stomach. I suppose it must always have come to this, from the moment I decided to involve her.

I smile at her, a little wanly I suppose, and rise to greet her with the customary hug and kiss.

“You have news for me?”

She nods gravely.

She has a briefcase with her, and reaches into it for the box of syringes.

“Aurelius, I… well, it *is* Orpheus. These are very old.”

My throat constricts a little.

“Tell me.”

“Ten to fourteen months. Go for the average of twelve.”

Months. I had thought in terms of weeks.

“Is it in him?”

Please let me be wrong. Let the Orpheus be a red herring. Let it not be that. She is reluctant to answer, but at last she does.

“Yes.”

I see from her expression that there is worse to come.

“Tell me.”

“I ran the tests several times, to be sure. I can run them again, if you give me some more blood. It’s… there’s a lot of it. I’ve asked around, and I gather the normal dose is a couple of cc’s for a strong vampire?”

Oh, Cassia, you shouldn’t have done that, you really shouldn’t.

I nod.

“I’m assuming that he had it the same time as those syringes were filled. At least two hundred times the normal dose. Maybe more.”

I’m silent. What, indeed, can I say? Vampires don’t die from Orpheus, but they generally don’t recover from an overdose, and certainly not from an overdose of such obscenely massive proportions. Still, I must ask.

“Is there an antidote?”

She shakes her head, her curls moving gently as she does so, the sun-burnished highlights glinting in the soft lamplight. I have found a great deal of pleasure in her company.

“No. With regular feeding and time, the body can process the opiate, but the spirit is still trapped by the mystical element. They can’t get out of their own heads. I can do some more research, but no one I’ve spoken to knows of any antidote for Orpheus.”

Ah. That’s something else you shouldn’t have done, Cassia. It’s all my fault. I should not have endangered you. But there was no one else to ask.

“Have you anything else to tell me?”

“No. I’m sorry that I can’t give you better news. Aurelius… he’d probably be better off if you staked him. He’s never going to get over this.”

I move towards her and take her face between my hands. Her eyes are bright with unshed tears. She’s understood a little of what this vampire means to me.

“I know. I’ll do whatever is best… for all of us.”

I lean over and kiss her, feeling the yielding softness of her mouth, the scent of roses that has always been her signature. She presses against me, lush and inviting. I stroke her cheeks with my fingers as I savour the scented warmth of her mouth. I pull my head back a little, although my body remains pressed to hers, and I smile for her. Then I snap her neck.

The knowledge she has is dangerous. There are those who would pay a fortune to know of Angelus’ current condition. If she has spoken to others, already there will be someone putting two and two together. After seeing him, she knows too much. There was no other way. I could not even turn her, because she would still have the knowledge and still be a danger.

What I have done, I have done for love. I am… I was very fond of Cassia, but I love Angelus. I also love my clan, and I want to avoid a war at almost any cost. We have lost too many of my people already. Somehow, now she knew who he was, she would speak, or be made to speak. I cannot allow that to happen. Your safety depends on that, as well as mine, as does the safety of everything on this ball of rock and water.

Paul will arrange for the body to be left somewhere, for the circumstances to appear natural. Then he will accept my punishment for that uncharacteristic lapse. If she had not seen, had not understood, then things might have been different. Meantime, I must decide what to do with Angelus. She was right. Staking would be the most merciful thing. I don’t think I have the luxury of mercy.

There are prophecies surrounding him, prophecies that have not yet worked themselves out. He and his soul mate, the Slayer, will be the saviours of us all. I, and my own soul mate, Palestrina, have our part to play in that. Angelus, in defeating the Wolf, the Ram and the Hart, may well have held out a new future to humanity, and to the demons that share the Earth with you, but that is not what these prophecies mean. At least, I don’t think it is. I believe that was no more than a rehearsal, a molehill on the path of destiny, although it seemed quite different at the time.

I played my part, and we both have Palestrina’s blood in our veins, but none of that would seem to be enough. There is more to come, I believe. He must live. What if I stake him, and the Slayer returns? I’m sure she will, although the question is, when? I have waited two thousand years for Palestrina. If it were possible to come back, why has she not done so? And yet, I’m sure she will. Whatever the truth of these unknowable matters, I see no choice but to try and restore him to health and sanity. Besides, that’s what I want to do. I can only hope that he is strong enough to bear this until I succeed.

Some of my people are good at research, and I set them to work. Between feeding him and tending to his needs, I work my way through the most esoteric of my texts. There is nothing. For the whole of that night, and the next, with only a little sleep in the intervening day, we search for the answer. There is nothing.

Much as I don’t want to leave him, I will start searching in other dimensions. But, I must get some sleep first. After I have bathed him, and checked that some of the most superficial wounds are now starting to close, in response to the new blood in his veins, I lay him back down on the freshly made bed, and wrap myself around his back. This is the first time since he has returned that I have done this, and I wonder if he has any idea that I’m there. Sekhmet settles herself on the floor by my side, and we all fall into an uneasy sleep.

Palestrina is there to meet me. Sometimes, not as often as I would wish, she comes to me in dreams. The echo of her in my blood is strong enough for that. Now, she is dressed as I almost always see her.

She is richly garbed, in robes of the most intense reds, her hair covered by a shawl woven in deep red and black, and the shawl is wrapped around the lower half of her face. It was her eyes that I first saw, and loved. Black as my downfall, warm as the Egyptian night, sparkling with my sins. I should have loved her had I never seen more than her eyes. I was hers from that very moment, and nothing has ever changed. Palestrina. My soul mate.

She unwinds her shawl for me. Her skin is golden, her lips full and generous, red as blood, her hair a glory of dark chestnut, framing the most beautiful face I have ever seen. Just now, she has a look of sorrow on her face, and her eyes are dark with sympathy. She doesn’t speak – she never does – but she walks out of the mist that threatens to hide her from me, and presses herself to me. She is a small woman, about the size of Buffy, but I can feel the power in her. Even as a ghostly dream, she is full of power.

She turns her back to me, and lifts my hand to rest it against her right shoulder blade. And then, she’s facing me again, and she does what she has never done. She speaks to me.

“You must go to him. You must bring him back out.”

Then she is gone, and I am awake. I want to rage and cry that it wasn’t enough, until I see where my hand is. It’s resting on his right shoulder blade, over his tattoo. I know what I must do. I’m afraid, but that can’t be allowed to stop me. She would never have told me to do something that was impossible. Never.

You don’t understand? I had the tattoo put there, wound around with spells, and it marks him as mine. Do you not remember how Sekhmet used the magic of this tattoo to allow the Slayer to save him, to give him strength to withstand the punishment he had to take from me, even though she was never physically here, on that dreadful night when he had to pay for Angel’s sins against the clan? It links us, in a way that you would not understand. Palestrina thinks that I can use its magic to find him – the essential him, not just this shell of flesh – and so I will try. No. I will succeed. It’s just the journey I’m afraid of. Not for the first time, it occurs to me that Angelus is surrounded by people who would die for him. That includes me. I’ll kill him if I don’t come out of this alive.

The preparations are few. I give instructions to Paul in case of my demise, or worse. Angelus is given one more cup of Sekhmet’s blood, and I, too, take some, but straight from her veins. I think I’m going to need all the power I can get. Paul and Amal will watch over me. Then all that’s left is to do it.

I curl up around Angelus’ back. If I thought to feel some response from him, I’d be sadly disappointed. I place my right hand firmly over his tattoo, trying hard not to wince at the sharp plate of bone that is his shoulder blade, or the texture of his drying skin. I think we’ve halted the physical decline, but the climb back to health is going to be a long one. I know the words of the incantation I must use, and I have them marshalled in my mind as I sink my fangs into his neck and draw a little of his tainted blood. I only need enough to start the psychic process. His blood has always tasted rich and sweet and powerful, spicy with the unique flavour of him. Now it’s as sour as vinegar, as bitter as gall. I want to vomit. I keep it down though, and when I have taken enough, I nod to Paul. The syringes have lost half their mystic power, but it still seems safest to use the same batch of drug that was used on him. They’ll give me two full syringes. 10cc at half its mystic strength. That should do. So long as it doesn’t overdo…

Then I feel the prick of the needles, and I start my incantation. As I finish, the tattoo beneath my hand seems to become warm, and my palm tingles, the lines of the winged lion sharp against my skin. I can feel myself slipping into darkness when there’s a sudden weight behind me on the bed, and Sekhmet’s sabres slide into my shoulder. The pain doesn’t matter – I know what she is doing. She’s coming to the edge of the nightmare with me, and she will wait there, a beacon for my return.

Then everything around me fades. For just a second, there is nothing but velvet darkness and utter silence. Only for a second though, and then there is a cacophony of strange sensations, which quickly fades as my own senses adjust. I am left with a flickering array of images, sounds, scents, and physical sensations, few of which fit together. Only gradually do I realise that I am experiencing some of Angelus’ memories. He is weighted down, and cannot move. All over his/my body, I feel ghostly pinpricks, hear a voice saying, ‘Enjoy Hell, Angelus. For Enyos and for Janna, and for all our loved ones that you have taken, you will stay there forever…’. I can smell several men, gypsies – no matter how tame they are, how domesticated, they never seem to rid themselves of the scent of campfires, dogs and horses, as well as that distinctive scent that marks each related group of humans.

I can see nothing, but I feel the dreadful scalding of what can only be holy water. I know, as surely as if it had happened to me, that they have done this time after time, day after day, and when his strength fails, and his healing ability is worn out, then comes the crack of the crowbar across his mouth, the savage burn as his tongue is pierced with the cross.

Then, the weights are gone, and his clothes are taken from him, his body manhandled in a way that alone will assure these men a long period of suffering when I find them. There is the flash of knives, sharp in the darkness, and then the steely fire as they slash through skin and muscle that is already deeply burned from the holy water, the bright flares of pain as they cut and gouge flesh that retains barely any capacity to heal, and that will soon be exhausted of what little is left.

Then I feel cold slime and the reek of ordure as they tip something over him, something that must have been dredged from the sewers, and I hear the coarse guffaws and laughs as they scrub the foul-smelling stuff into his wounds. For all the humanity about them, they might as well have been ripping the wings off flies. They turn him over – he has no ability to resist anything they do – and treat his back in the same way. One of them leans down and whispers to him, ‘You are filth. You are corruption. Let your skin show on the outside what you are on the inside.’ There are more guffaws as they whisper to themselves, and then a searing pain as one of their long knives is thrust into his anus. The pain grows and swells, rocketing through him. They have dipped the knife in holy water.

I can feel the cool water they toss over him – not a mercy, this, I think, but simply so they don’t have to touch the filth they have rubbed into his wounds – then stand him to redress him. Before they do, they pour more holy water over him – on his genitals this time – and have the satisfaction of making him scream. They seem to have intended to leave the knife in place, but it slips out before they can finish getting his clothes on, a small pain amid the roaring of all the rest.

When they have pulled his clothes back on as roughly as you would expect, a small amount of stale and sour blood is forced into his wrecked mouth. Again, it’s not a mercy. It’s just enough to allow the least amount of healing, so that the gashes and stabs that they have inflicted will start to close over the excrement they have used on him. For a last, parting agony what must surely be the final few drops of holy water are forced down his throat, scalding and searing, and dragging from him another hoarse shout of anguish.

Then, there is only his pain, until the splash and fetor as he falls into a sewer, although whether that is by his own efforts or whether he is dumped there by the gypsies, I don’t know and neither does he. It doesn’t matter. They will die anyway. I have their scent. Their death will not be quick, and will be an object lesson to their kind.

I try to concentrate on him, to feel our shared blood, to feel the magic of his tattoo. Gradually, the darkness lifts, and I can make out a path in front of me, rocky and steep, and leading ever downwards. There are still flickering images all around, few of which make any sense, but this is, after all, a nightmare. I think they are remnant memories from his journey to me. I get brief snatches of sounds, sights and scents that remind me of some cities on the way, and sensations that can only be a squalid corner of the lowest hold of some tramp ship. Mixed in with these are other images, of those people he’s known, those people who are dead. Most often, they are dead in his nightmare, too: dead in many and dreadful ways. Underlying everything is his own pain, unimportant once he starts to be tormented by the dead.

As I travel further down, the landscape starts to resolve itself into a barren, rocky desert, the arid earth a rusty red, the colour of old blood. There is no sign of life except that, occasionally, by the side of the path, there are pools of new blood soaking into the dying ground.

I stand for a few moments at the first pool that I pass, and a faint image struggles to resolve itself. It is Buffy as a young girl, perhaps as she was when he first knew her. She is nailed to a rock. A huge sword carves its way down her body, and there is the glisten of inner skin. She is eviscerated, yet still living. The sword disappears, and her body restores itself. Then it begins again.

I hurry away, but it isn’t long until I find another bloody pool. Here, Spike is chained backwards over a tomb. A stake protrudes from his heart, but he hasn’t dusted. An unseen hand holds a knife, small and sharp, and already he is half flayed. His face is a rictus of pain, so much so that I, a demon who has done terrible things in my time, cannot bear to look at this.

At the next, another huge sword hovers over the naked Slayer. She is older here, perhaps in her forties. In one sudden sweep, the sword enters her vagina and thrusts hard and fast, ripping up through her, twisting as it goes. Her head is thrown back in a silent scream. Sickened, I hurry on.

There are many of these pools of blood, all of them red and fresh, as if renewed again and again, and at each one I feel compelled to stop. Every one shows me horrors. Most are being carried out on the body of the Slayer, some on others that Angelus has held dear. All of them are dead, and none of the victims are Angelus himself. This is not him as victim, this is him as perpetrator.

I don’t know how long I’m on that desolate track, how long it is before I see him, but I’m sure it’s nowhere near as long as he has been there. This is a place of suffering and pain, all of it leading inexorably downwards. The way out will be hard. When I am only a little way down, at about the eighth pool – I really have tried not to keep count – I am conscious of something at the periphery of my vision, although I’m not entirely sure what.

You’ve heard of peripheral vision, yes? If you look straight forward, you can see very little out to the sides, but you can detect movement. That ability has saved you from many a predator. And the thing is that all predators have this limitation – with their front-facing eyes, they can’t see well out to the sides when looking forward, no matter how acute their vision is. But they can see motion. It applies to me, too. No matter how quickly I move, whatever is there refuses to be seen. But, out of the corner of my eye, I can see movement. Something dark. No form, no colour – that’s not how peripheral vision works. Just something dark, moving, tracking me. It doesn’t seem to want to hurt me, and to be truthful, I’m not even sure it’s my peripheral vision that is seeing it. I think it may be Angelus’. So, I carry on downwards, along this trail of tears.

The first indication I have of something different comes as the track, clinging perilously to the side of a high cliff, turns around a rocky shoulder of that cliff. Below me, in the distance, I can see an ivory-coloured latticed globe. I have no sense of perspective, no idea how far away it is, but it seems strange in this landscape, and so I make that my goal.

It seems to take hours to find my way down there, and it is only as I get close that I can see the full horror of it. It is a cage of bones, a huge circular ribcage, with the ribs meeting high overhead. They seem to come from deep within the ground, as if they were the bones of the Earth itself, pressing through its ageing skin to make a prison. They are close enough together that not even a child could get through, and there is no obvious point of entry, yet there are figures inside. And there are two figures outside.

Even running, it seems to take forever to reach the cage. Where he is, the bones are smeared with blood and pieces of flesh. He has tried and tried to get in. He has torn himself to pieces trying to get in, and has not even scratched the surface of the bones. Just now, he is curled, exhausted, on the ground. He is still wearing the rank and torn clothing that he had on when he found his way to me. I can see the ragged, bloody gashes on his hands from where he has tried to break through the bone bars that keep him from what – or who – is inside. Another figure, naked this time, is propped against the cage, with Angelus’ head in his lap. This figure, too, is torn and bloody, with much more terrible wounds. The man lies, fainting and weak, yet still he tries to wrap his bleeding arms around Angelus, to hold him back from those bloodied bars. His head moves a little as I approach, and I see his face. I know who it is. I can see the differences, slight though they are. It’s Angel.

The true horror is inside that cage of bones, though. A hellish demon, bearing very little resemblance to anything of humanity, is torturing a human female. The cage is full of the instruments of his pleasure, all of which seem to have been recently used. I cannot bring myself to describe to you just what he is doing now. Suffice it to say that it involves molten lead, and will ensure that she could never again bear children. Harrowed by her screams, I expend my own strength trying to tear down that cage. I have seen the face of the woman. It is Buffy, as she looked when he first met her, as I think he always sees her in his mind.

I am no more successful than he was. This is a phantasm, a figment of his imagination, and yet it is all real to him. It doesn’t take me very long to understand that this is the end of his descent into darkness. This is his worst fear – that she will be eternally punished for loving him. I fall to my knees by the side of the two aspects of him, his duality, and even though this is all a construct of his mind, the two feel solid enough to me as I try to enfold them in my embrace. But, they do not know that I am here. They cannot see or feel me, it seems, and they remain alone in their despair. I do not know what Angel is doing in this nightmare, and why he is so badly hurt, but if Angelus cannot sense me, how am I to lead him out? Why did Palestrina send me here? Something must be possible.

That is when I become aware of another presence close by. When I turn to look, there are two figures, unlike any that I have seen before. One is a creature of light, of diamond-like crystals, of sparkling rainbows. The other is a creature of mists and shadows, dark, crystalline edges glinting with colours that do not belong in any earthly spectrum.

Neither Angel nor Angelus seems to be aware of these two, and so it is left to me to challenge them.

“Who are you?”

I’m not sure which one answers.

“We are the Duality.”

I can’t help but look back to the two on the ground beside me. Are these creatures some aspect of Angel and Angelus, some other phantasms created by his Orpheus-driven mind? The beings seem to read my mind.

“No. We are not him. We are the Duality whom you have known all your life.”

I am confused, and they can see this.

“We are the consorts of the Lady. Of Ma’at.”

What the hell is going on here? The people among whom I have chosen to live, the people of Egypt, have always believed in the duality of existence, of the world around them. Believed that there was balance in the world, represented by the goddess Ma’at, before whom all other gods bowed down. To achieve that balance required equal and opposite powers. Light and dark. Calm and storm. Vice and virtue. Life and death. Creation and destruction. All of them, held in balance. It is something that I am very familiar with – in the abstract sense. But…

“What are you doing in Angelus’ delusion?”

A thought occurs to me. I remember that he has some small powers of foreseeing, given to him by the magic in the blood of some of those whom he has devoured. Or with whom he has exchanged blood. He has taken some of Palestrina from me, as I have taken some of Buffy from him. Perhaps there is reality here, and the thought makes me want to vomit.

“It is a delusion – isn’t it?”

“These are his fears, not a reality.”

I think that came from the dark one. I look at the figures inside the cage, at the tortured slayer.

“That isn’t happening? To her, I mean?”

“No. Be assured of that.”

“If these are his fears, why are you here? I can’t think he believes in your reality.”

I can feel the amusement from both of them. The dark one approaches closer, and stretches out his hand.

“Take it.”

I stretch out my own towards his – and it passes straight through.

“We are not here in the same way that any of you are. We have… gatecrashed… I think is the word you would use. We have come to find you.”

“Why me? This is Angelus’ vision. Why would you come for me here?”

“Because The Lady wishes to see you. Because you needed to see this before you come with us. Because, unless you come with us, you cannot save him.”

At my age, I’m not used to uncertainty – at least, not uncertainty in myself. Now, I seem to understand nothing of what is happening here.

“If you can give me a way to save him, can you do that, now? I will still come with you.”

The dark one passes his hand through my arm. I don’t even feel a cold shiver. He nods to the two by the cage.

“He can no more detect us than you can.”

“What of Angel? Is he aware of you? Can you make him understand what needs to be done?”

It seems to me that they both frown, although without the sort of face that you and I have, I’m not at all sure how I get that impression. And it seems that the frown is one of sympathy rather than irritation.

“Angel is aware of almost nothing. His recovery will be a long time coming…”

The sentence is left hanging, and I know that there is a corollary. If it comes at all.

“Come with us.”

“Will they be all right?”

“They will not move from here before we return.”

I’m not sure that is a good thing, but it seems that there is nothing else to do but obey. As I turn away, the Duality lead me a little further down the path, and then the old, red, rocky land disappears, and gives way to an even more ancient place of black sand and blacker cliffs. There is a woman waiting for us.

***

I am Rohn, and I believe you wish to hear some of what I know? Very well. I am the Keeper of the Clan of Aurelius, and I am the oldest surviving childe of Aurelius’ own making. The Keeper is almost always the oldest. What is a Keeper, you ask? Every one of the old clans has a Keeper, to keep the clan’s records, and to advise the clan master on previous decisions and rulings. Of course, in other clans a Keeper is necessary because of that old saying: the nearer the top, the nearer the chop. Believe me, most of the old clans change clan masters with tiresome regularity. Not the Aurelians. In most aspects, the job of Keeper here is a sinecure, because Aurelius remembers everything. However, if Aurelius should die… Well, the new clan master would need a Keeper.

I have more to do with my existence than carry out a few formalities, and so I told Aurelius I didn’t want the job. In the end, of course, he got his way, but he did something so outrageous, so unprecedented, that it left the clan shocked to its core. He divided the job of Keeper. I agreed to do those parts that only a vampire can do; those parts that involve things you can only know in the blood. The job of chronicling the history of the clan, keeping its records, was given to Ezrafel the Hylekian. I don’t know if I can make you understand the enormity of that decision. Most clans live too threadbare an existence to worry about luxuries like history and clan governance, except what the current clan master delivers at the point of a fang. Of those that are old enough, and civilised enough for such things, no clan has ever had a non-vampire as its chronicler before. In truth, no clan has ever bothered much about other demons before, other than to kill them off as unnecessary competition, and certainly none has ever accorded them a place within the clan, such as we have done. Only Aurelius could have got away with it.

No. What am I saying? Angelus and the Slayer had already had the little Hylekian demon as their chronicler for years – and a whole host of other demons at Angelus’ court, to boot. Aurelius simply legitimised that. Other clans were astonished at his liberality, but no one dare argue. It was Aurelius, after all.

Ezrafel and I have no difficulty in dividing the work up, what there is of it. He has the lion’s share, since wherever Angelus goes, there always seems to be so much happening, so much to record. But then, it’s always been like that, with Angelus. I know him, of course – he’s Aurelius’ beta male, and we all see him from time to time. I just don’t know him very well. Me and mine have lived a fairly quiet life, grateful to have come out alive from the wars that we were precipitated into. I was resentful at the time, but the years since then have been good, and I have forgiven him my losses.

Ezrafel? Well, I believe you met Rupert Giles? If you imagine the character of Ezrafel to be somewhat like that of Giles, with a good dose of the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, you won’t go far wrong. Outwardly, he looks human, with just a tendency to scaliness around the edges. He’s got more steel in his backbone than you would think, though, and he has a great deal of sense. So, I take it seriously when he tells me that there are problems that he needs to refer to Aurelius, in the absence of Angelus. Urgent problems. I was in Cairo for the meeting with Myrna and her entourage – best bib and tucker, and all that – and his call to Aurelius was referred to me, as the eldest.

And there’s the rub for Ezrafel’s little problem. I know what’s going on in Aurelius’ rooms. Angelus is here, although not exactly present, if you know what I mean. Aurelius isn’t exactly available either. What to say? I settle on the truth for Ezrafel. If Aurelius had faith in him, then so must I. He’s silent, and so is the phone line. No crackles, no noise of any sort. It’s as if the world has heard, and hushed. Eventually he offers words that should be meaningless to me, but now touch me more than they should.

“I am sorry, Rohn. I shall pray for them.”

“Thank you. Now, you have a problem, I understand.”

“Yes. It is not one that I can solve, not because of authority, but because of species. It concerns the Creons and the Mannheims.”

I groan inwardly, and I’m sure I can hear him give his tight little smile. These are two minor families, both of them insignificant, quarrelsome popinjays living hard by each other’s borders in some undistinguished Balkan country. Without looking it up, I don’t know which one it is, and I don’t care.

“Go on.”

“The Mannheims have been losing minions and childer in mysterious circumstances. There’s no Slayer in that part of the world who could be taking them, and now they’ve decided to blame the Creons. They’ve alleged that the Creons are trying to wipe them out and take over their territory, which is more favourable, richer in resources. They are threatening to muster their supporters and retaliate. The Creons maintain their innocence and both parties have asked for Angelus to intercede.”

Damn and blast. The Mannheims belong to one of the old clans, the Ferrand, who take themselves very seriously indeed. Although they have no love for the Aurelians, they allied themselves to Angelus at the start of the Wars, and have remained allied since, for the advantages that gave them. The Creons, although not strictly part of the clan, are loosely related to Aurelius. One of his great-great-grand-childer fell hopelessly in love with Creon, and he with her. They went off together to found a new family, and Aurelius allowed her to formally sever her bond to him so that they could do this. Both she and Creon are long dead, but the family has wished to bask a little in our reputation when it suits them.

If this situation escalates, then others, who are watching carefully, could use this flashpoint to start tearing Angelus’ empire apart, and to gobble up the pieces. It might even be that this situation has been engineered to do that very thing. There is, truly, no Slayer there. There have been half a dozen mediocre slayers in the not quite two years since Buffy’s death, and we have been aware of every single one. None of them have lasted long. So, something else is taking these vampires. I personally doubt the involvement of the Creons, but that won’t satisfy the Mannheims. And Ezrafel is quite correct. The two parties won’t accept the intercession of another species, so he cannot go. It looks as though I shall have to deal with it. Damn and blast.

Then a thought occurs to me that is almost an inspiration. “Ezrafel, I suggest that we send Lindsey.”

And so it is settled. Lindsey is known to be a favourite of Angelus, and he is known to be powerful in his world of the law. He would be acceptable, at this stage. Should the matter continue, then only the Clan Master or his beta will suffice, but at this stage? It will do very well. And Lindsey cannot refuse, when I speak to him with the authority of Aurelius. He doesn’t need to know what’s happening. Ezrafel will not tell him.

***

The woman waiting for us is beyond my powers to adequately describe. She seems to be the very essence of womanhood, the definition of desire. I sense something from the two walking with me. They are utterly bound up in her. Powerful though they are, they are completely hers. We’ve spoken of the concept of ‘eternal mates’ for vampires, and how we believe that such a mating ties two beings together for eternity. Even that would be inadequate a way to describe the relationship between these three. They have called her The Lady, but I know who she is. She is Ma’at. She is the one who keeps everything in balance, so that life is possible. All the gods bend their neck to her. I am now honestly wondering whether there is the least chance of me getting out of here alive.

“Aurelius.”

I bow to her.

“Lady.”

“You have seen him.”

“Yes.” Hers wasn’t a question, but it seems appropriate to reply, anyway. And she hasn’t specified which ‘him’.

“We wish to talk to you about…the future.”

There is something surreal about all this, and I briefly wonder whether I am simply in the thrall of too much Orpheus. Whatever, I must carry on. If this is just the way in which my mind is dealing with the problem of bringing him back, so be it. But I need to do something in order to survive this conversation.

“As you wish, Lady. But grant me something first.”

She looks amused as she indicates her consent, and I am positive she knows what I’m going to ask.

“If we four are to speak here, might I see the faces of you all? It’s a little…unnerving…otherwise.”

She looks to her consorts, and they nod. They move to stand one each side of her, the Lord of Light to her right hand, and the Lord of Darkness to her left. I really don’t know what else to call them. And then they are gone, and other beings stand in their place. Men. Something around The Lady has diminished, an aura perhaps, although I don’t really know, and she is a woman: a beautiful and commanding one, with red hair and brilliant green eyes, but just a woman, nonetheless.

It takes a moment to realise that the two men are the same. That is, there are tiny, tiny differences, in carriage and expression and what you would call inner light, but their external appearance is identical. There’s something else. They could be Angelus’ brothers. Eyes the colour of a summer sky, but they might as well be family. I wonder if they are, but I’m not sure I dare ask. I try a more obvious question.

“Are you twins?”

Well, I’ve seen all manner of things, but I’ve never actually seen gods before, real or imagined. This may be a standard face that they adopt, to make me feel comfortable. How should I know?

The Lord of Light answers.

“No, we are not. We are aspects of one.”

Oh.

“But how can this be? I see two of you, and I can see…differences.”

The Lady answers me.

“Aurelius, you know very well that ancient peoples had many gods. Yet, if you understand their beliefs, you also know that most of those gods – and goddesses – were simply aspects of the same being. The Egyptians gave them a different animal head to identify the aspect in which they were to be seen, so that those who could not read could still understand the symbols. You understood that well, in your youth. You just need to understand it again now.”

“All of them were aspects of you? Of the…three…of you? And the Duality are aspects of each other?”

“That is a simplification, but it will suffice.”

“And you…created this world?”

She shakes her head, clearly amused at my naïvety.

“No. We are not nearly as old as this world.”

“Then you do what? You use it as a playground, to amuse yourselves?”

She is shocked.

“No! We care for it. We keep the balance, or perhaps rather say that we *are* the balance, the personification of the forces that allow the world to exist. And not just this world. The whole of our universe, and all its dimensions.”

You must put yourself in my place here. Even as a human, you start by believing in gods, and then as you grow older and dubiously wiser, and certainly more sophisticated, you often find that you have left these childhood beliefs behind. As a demon, I know more about the supernatural than most, and I have met some very powerful beings indeed, but I have met none who cared for the proper existence of the world. I have never been given reason to think that the anthropic principle has any real meaning – that the Universe is constrained by the need to allow humans to exist. I say so, and she is amused again. In fact, all three of them are amused.

“The Universe is constrained by nothing. We carry this responsibility because there was no one else. We could be supplanted by stronger gods at any time: gods of any form or temper. We could waste away from lack of belief, or because new gods have stronger believers. But, we started our lives as humans, just as you did, and it is in this corner of this dimension that we are strongest.”

I want to ask what has happened to them, what they mean for the world, and why they have brought me here, but my need to rescue my beautiful boy is too great. It is as if they have read my mind. The Lord of Darkness speaks to me.

“You have things to see here, things to understand, before you can restore Angelus. But, you do not know whether to believe us. Whether we are, in any sense, real. If it will help you to do that, to believe in what we say, we will tell you about our… birth. You cannot already know about this, and neither can Angelus. It is not part of his hallucination. It is new information. You shall judge whether we are what we say. You need not worry. I control time here. When you return, you will be at the same moment that you left him, no matter how long you spend here.”

I’m really not sure I want to spend long here at all, but I think that if these three can help me release Angelus from his drug and magic-induced nightmare, I must learn everything I can. If they are simply my own hallucination, then we may both be lost already. I wonder briefly where Sekhmet is, but she can take care of herself.

“May I ask your names?”

It is the Lady who answers this.

“You know us as the Duality and the Lady. Let that suffice. You know who you speak to, and so do we.”

Ah. Of course. There is power in names. They will not be giving me any power over themselves. I bow my acquiescence, and turn back to the two Consorts.

“You bear a resemblance to Angelus. Are you…? Is he…?”

I’m not at all sure how to finish that sentence.

“You want to know if we somehow sired him?”

I nod my head.

“Does it make you feel less unnerved to see familiar features? Or does it make you remember your own cowardice and fear in giving him over to the spite of another?”

I am lost for an answer. Yes to all of the above, I suppose. I was birthed in the anger of something more than a demon, and to deflect that anger from myself, I sold Angelus to him, for his entertainment. I had no idea what I was doing, of course, but that does not excuse it. If Angelus knew, he would kill me, and I couldn’t blame him. They seem to understand.

“There are many reasons why we might wear these faces. For now, those reasons are our own.”

“I understand. Tell me what you think it will help me to know.”

The darker companion remains silent, his arm wrapped protectively around the Lady’s waist, while the other answers me.

“I was born perhaps 40,000 years ago, at a time when vast ice sheets blanketed much of the Earth. My people were what you call hunter-gatherers. The men did most of the hunting, bringing down the larger animals – deer, bison, mammoth, aurochs, whatever we could find. The women mainly did the gathering – anything that couldn’t run or wriggle away from them. We might go hungry sometimes, but we never starved, and most times were times of plenty, even in that harsher climate.

“We were not so unsophisticated as many people today think. We were just like you, with the same urges and desires, the same capacity to reason. The same artistry, the same ability to love and hate. The same mixture of warrior and philosopher. You will understand this. You remember your own people.”

I nod in agreement. I do indeed remember my own people, from the Alps in Europe. I brought my knowledge of metalworking to Egypt, to make a home there, before I was made a vampire. Briefly, I wonder how much more they know about me.

“Our understanding might have been more primitive, more superstitious, but we knew that the creatures that fed us were not inexhaustible in number, that they were born in the same way that humans are and they died like us. Every seven years, when the tribes met together, we would trade goods and skills and people, exchanging young men and women to bring renewed fertility to their new tribes. And we would ask the Great Earth Mother to renew the fertility of all her children. At those times, we would act out the ritual that would reseed her womb with the creatures that kept us alive.

“There are caves that penetrate deep into the Earth, and one of us would make the fearful trip, with only a stone lamp filled with tallow, entering the Earth’s vulva, as a man does with a woman, or a stallion does with a mare, travelling through her vagina until the womb is reached, as a man’s or a stallion’s moisture must do. It was always an artist who made that journey into the cave, and one year, I was chosen. I was a good artist, one of the best, and I was anxious to prove myself.

“When I had been chosen, the other artists there spent hours decorating my body, pricking their designs into my skin and rubbing in charcoal and ochres. When they had finished, I wore a picture gallery of all the most powerful, most totemic beasts.”

As he says this, a second image seems to overlay the one I have already seen. This one is wilder, the man nude except for a deerskin loincloth which he is in the act of stripping off, a long mane of dark hair hanging down his back, and his body decorated with bison, bulls, stallions, stags and great cats just like Sekhmet. He looks different in other ways, too. Then the shadow image fades, as he resumes speaking.

“When it was time, and the ceremonies outside the cave that had been chosen for this gathering had ended, I gathered up my tools and my pieces of yellow and red and brown ochre. I had my stone lamp, with some lumps of tallow and some rush wicks in a skin bag; and an ember from the fire wrapped in moss and leaves. The headman of the gathering gave me a carefully wrapped bundle – the objects I would need to make magic, all wrapped in the skin of a calf, so soft and white that it must have been prepared by the very best tanner. And so I set off, naked and alone.

“The cave entrance was small, and I had to enter on my belly. I would remain on my belly during the whole of that crawl to the Earth’s womb. It was about a mile through a dark, cramped tunnel of sharp edges and loose rock, guided only by touch. It was so small that I had no need to worry about cave bears or cave lions, but they aren’t the only things that hide in the dark. When I could go no further, I found that I was in a small chamber, just large enough for me to crouch, though very cramped. I set up my lamp. I could see my tiny chamber of waterworn limestone, and I soon found what I needed – a deep crevice in the rock wall just large enough to get my fist in. There, I would set to work.

“But there were things to do first. One of the things that the headman had given me was a small gourd containing the sacred drink. Then, I didn’t know what it was made from, although I can taste it in my mouth as I speak, and I know every single thing. The shamans just called it the Black Drop. They believed that it connected the artist to the spirits in the Earth; that it allowed us to call forth the spirits that we needed for our work. It was a mixture of powerful hallucinogens. It would work well for me, better than anyone had ever expected.

“He had also given me another sacred object, one that I must wear so that I could call forth the correct spirits. I unwrapped it and looked at the unlovely thing. I was in the womb of the Earth Mother, and I was there to fertilize her seed, to ensure that the herds would prosper. My totem animal was a bull, and I would carve a bull into that crevice, invoking that spirit and planting new calves in the Earth’s womb for the years that were to come. This second sacred object belonged to a bull. It was a bull’s pizzle, and the soft skin from his scrotal sac. It had been made so that I could slide my own penis into the first part of it, with a slit on top, and the scrotal skin fitted over my own sac. In this, I would become the bull.

“So, wearing only those emblems of the bull, I crouched in that cramped, stony womb, and I drank the Black Drop, and called for the spirits. For a few heartbeats, nothing happened, and then it was as if the animals on my skin had taken on life. In my mind, I was surrounded by the fecundity of the Earth Mother; borne up by the press of life. Still calling to all those yet to be born, I took up my smallest obsidian knife, thrust my hand into the chosen crevice, and I began to carve. My strokes were swift and sure, even though I couldn’t see the figure I was creating, and very soon, I knew that I had carved the bull into his place in this womb. Still by feel alone, I spread the colours with my fingers, giving him an outline of sooty black, and shading in his chestnut shoulders and paler flanks. He might be small and hidden, but I knew that he was beautiful. It simply remained now for me to quicken the womb that would bear him and his kind, and their myriad cousins.

“There are words that must be spoken, rituals to be observed, and throughout them, I had to keep calling to the spirits. I did all this as I had been instructed. My mind sang with the mating cries of the animals that ran, and ate, and played, and died on the plains of my thoughts. As I watched the children of the Earth Mother, I joined in their acts of procreation. My seed, shed through that bull’s pizzle, spurted into the chosen crevice, bathing the walls of that crack in her womb, washing over the child that I had implanted there. As a little of it seeped back down the wall, I saw that it was stained bloody with the red ochre, stained red with the blood of rebirth. It was the best of omens.

“But, omens are not to be taken lightly. I was still calling to the spirits, still open to them, still there, in the fields of thought with the herds of the future, experiencing their creation and their bloody deaths. In that trance of perfect sublimation, I was to suffer my own rebirth, as another spirit came.”

He stopped and looked across at his brother, who smirked and then shrugged his shoulders. It was the Lord of Darkness who continued.

“What came out of that cave wasn’t the same as what went in. I had been called, and I had come. What more can I say?”

“So, two of you came out where one went in?”

“No. Not in the sense that you mean. I have said enough on that. Please – come with us and see the things that you need to know. The future will be difficult, and this is the only chance that we have to offer guidance. You have kept many secrets, Aurelius, including your bargain with Seth to give him Angelus as a plaything in place of yourself. What you see here you will also keep secret until the time for revelation is upon you. Someone other than us must know.”

Five and a half thousand years, and the guilt of that decision is still sharp, the decision to give Seth a childe of the fourth generation so that his wrath should not fall on me. It will be a very long time indeed – and far too late – before it will occur to me to ask whether I truly understood Seth’s identity all those years ago, if it is true that all the different gods and goddesses are simply aspects of a few. It’s even longer before I will think to ask what might befall these three that someone else should need to know even a few of their secrets. Or to ask about the story of The Lady.

So I walk with the Lady and the Duality into the black cliffs, and there I see wonders. And, in this land of the dead, I ask about my own lost love, Palestrina, but I receive no answer at all. My heart breaks, though, for Angel.

***

When I am returned to stand by that cage of ivory bones, I am nowhere near understanding or assimilating what I have been shown. That will come later. Now, I must do what I came here to accomplish. Angel and Angelus are exactly as I left them, the demon curled up, with his head in the soul’s lap, both of them bloodied, torn and defeated. No. Beaten, perhaps, but not defeated. Not yet. There is a difference, and with these two, it is a visible one. The tiny blonde in the cage is still screaming, and it is a terrible sound. Each shriek of her agony is mirrored by a tremor through both their bodies. Real or not, this must end.

I am the master of my clan. I can command any of the vampires in it, all those of my own bloodline, and so I exercise that level of control. I have to get him out of here, bring him back to himself.

“Angelus!”

I make my voice as stern and commanding as I can – and remember I have had millennia of practice. It has no effect whatsoever. There is no indication at all that he has heard me.

“Angelus!”

This time, I think the command, too. You will have read that vampires have mesmeric powers, that we can override the will of others. Some of that is true, but our influence is greatest over our own childer. He gives no response at all. I should be able to detect it, even if he is resisting me. There is nothing. I try again. And again. Neither Angel nor Angelus is aware of me.

In desperation, I bend down to lift him into my arms. I can feel him, I can touch him, so you would think I could lift him, wouldn’t you? But it’s as if I were trying to embrace the Earth and lift the whole planet. In some way that I do not understand, we are out of joint here, our dimensions, our time, our existences not quite in synchronization. I can think of only one more thing to do, and that is a desperate remedy indeed. I’d rather find another way.

There is no point in waiting for things to get better. He’s had over a year for things to get better. He isn’t coming back from here without help. The longer I stay here, the greater the danger that I, too, will be lost. Already I am enmeshed into this nightmare. When I look back up the path that brought me here, I can see a dark mist gathering, as if the path were erasing itself. I have to find a way, before the path quite disappears. So I sit down close by them, with my back against a huge boulder of ancient red sandstone, clasping my arms about my knees. Huddled into that piece of rock, I try to remember everything I know that might help us here.

***

I have despatched Lindsey to that miserable Balkan state to conciliate between those wearisome families. He was recalcitrant, but in the end he complied. Now, I am back in Aurelius’ rooms. Angelus lies naked, curled on his right side. He’s more or less clean, now, although there is dirt and worse ground into his skin, darkening the greyness that has come with his starvation. No, he’s gone well beyond starvation. His body is corrupting. Every single bone is clearly delineated, his muscle almost gone, and his skin thin and stretched. I’ve seen vampires in worse condition, but not much.

Aurelius is curled up behind him, left arm wrapped around his waist, right hand pressed against that tattoo. My sire’s skin is alabaster pale, and in the peak of condition. I love him, and my palms itch to stroke that marble smoothness; I wish I could wrap myself around him and lend him my own strength. But, he would certainly not thank me if I managed to foil his efforts to bring Angelus back from whichever hell he currently inhabits. I’m not jealous of the boy. Not really. Well, not often, anyway. Aurelius does not neglect any of his own. It’s just that when Angelus is around… You know what I mean?

Besides, there isn’t room for me on that bed, as large as it is. Sekhmet, the demoness trapped in the body of a sabre-toothed cat, is pressed close up to Aurelius, and she has her teeth firmly in his shoulder, anchoring him to this reality, I expect.

Enough! It’s time to try and get some more blood down Angelus. Small meals and very frequent. This is going to be difficult and messy, though. I daren’t move him but with Paul’s help, I start to trickle some blood into his mouth. I need to get at least a cupful down him. It takes a few tries, but at last he starts to swallow.

***

I have tried everything I know to command Angelus’ obedience – everything except that last, dreadful, thing. Nothing has worked. There is no more time. I don’t know how long I have been here – time is not important here in an absolute sense, I think – but I know it is already too long. The path back out of this wasteland is fading before my eyes, dissolving into a formless mist. I must do what I fear to do, and trust that it might be undone later.

He is still curled up against her pain, lying across Angel’s legs. I kneel down behind him and open up the vein in my left wrist, releasing a sluggish trickle of dark blood. I wasn’t entirely sure that would happen, since I hope I’m only here in spirit, but it seems that my instincts are right. My spirit can bleed. I push the inside of my wrist against his lips. He doesn’t know it’s there, but the blood runs into his mouth, and he swallows reflexively. And again. I bend down to his neck and bite down; then, as his thin and sour blood oozes onto my tongue in a meagre flow, I bond him absolutely. I enslave him, giving him less freedom of will than the lowest minion, making him absolutely and utterly my property.

You can have no understanding of just what I have done to him, but perhaps you can understand why I was reluctant to do it. I made him mine that fateful night almost three hundred years ago, and put my mark on his back for all to see, but I did nothing like this. This is what you do to your most troublesome enemies, pour encourager les autres, but never to someone you love as I love him. I don’t know if this can ever be made right, but if I don’t do this to get him out of here, there’ll never be the chance to make anything right ever again.

When I have finished, I stand up and call to him.

“Angelus! Get up. Now.”

Obediently, he rises. He doesn’t turn to face me, because I haven’t told him to do so. I shift my position in order to see his face. It is blank; he is powerless, without purpose, without any raison d’être except to do my exact bidding, and he must obey me absolutely. Have mercy, Lady. I could not find another way. Forgive me, Palestrina, if I have failed to understand what you expected me to accomplish.

***

They have been like this for four days, now, unmoving. Between us, Paul and I have managed to feed Angelus regularly. We are just cleaning up the spilt blood from his last meal when we see the first change since this thing started. Blood starts to seep from a cut that has appeared on Aurelius’ wrist, and he presses it to Angelus’ mouth. Once his great grand-childe has started to suck, he sinks his fangs into Angelus’ neck and takes several deep swallows.

By all the demons in creation…! What the fuck is he doing? Paul feels it too. His mouth opens in an O of astonishment. Aurelius is bonding his beta male, his acknowledged favourite, in a bond of total submission, a bond that leaves no free will whatsoever, remaking him into a docile slave. There is going to be hell to pay for this, you mark my words.

***

“Angelus. Follow me.”

I turn in the direction of the few shadowy remnants of the path, and start to walk away. A quick glance over my shoulder shows that my boy is following, shuffling his way up the hillside. He walks when I walk, and stops when I stop. He appears to be completely oblivious to the screams still coming from the cage of bones, but his eyes tell me a different tale. He cannot react, because I have not told him to do so, but her screams are still dinning in his ears. Those have never, ever stopped. The demon is still at work on the phantasm of his beloved. The figure of Angel remains slumped against the rocks, bleeding. Somehow, I had expected that these visions would disappear. Something is wrong.

“Stay where you are.”

He stands, lumpish, in the centre of that path of mists and shadows, as I walk past him and back to Angel. I remember the Duality. Aspects of one.

“Angel! Stand up.”

He doesn’t obey, but only because he cannot. He tries; he really does. I have bonded him too, have I? I suppose I should have known. I reach down to him, and this time I can wrap my arm around his back, grasping him beneath his shoulders, and heave him off the ground. His nostrils flare, and he gives a tiny whimper of pain, unable to stand even with me taking most of his weight. I feel bones grate, and I know that he should do much more than whimper. I think his legs are broken – amongst other things – so I scoop him up into my arms, and walk on past his alter ego.

There is no light ahead, no path, no signpost to guide our way. We could wander forever, in this labyrinth of mind. I wonder whether I have brought this nothingness into being, by taking Angelus as I have done. I am, after all, inside his hallucination, and perhaps I have changed that beyond his power to imagine anything at all. Or, do I simply see things now as he has seen them for the last year. Is this why he has never found a way out? I don’t know. One thing I can say for sure, though. As I take a last look back before we enter the thickest of the mist, the cage of bones is gone, and there is a blessed silence. The path on the way here was downwards. The path out must be up. I climb, calling out always to Sekhmet, until I hear her answer.

And so, carrying Angel’s soul and with Angelus’ demon close behind, I follow the pull of Sekhmet, my own sire, out from this night time of the spirit, and back into an ordinary night of darkness and moonlight and release.

***

I hate the Balkans. I suppose at other times, and in other ways it might be right enough, but just now, I’ve got a stunning hangover, and I simply want to get home. I bitched and argued when Rohn called to give me this job, but he knew how to handle me – you’ve got to give him credit for that.

‘Lindsey,’ he says, ‘there’s this little job that Aurelius needs you to do, on behalf of Angelus. Oh, and you can tell your people we don’t need any more news about Angelus.’

He stops there, but I’m a lawyer. I take nothing at face value. I’m also more than interested in Angelus. I really thought he might have come back to see me before now.

“You’ve found him?”

“He’s safe but not contactable. There’s trouble between two of his families. We think he’ll take it amiss if it isn’t sorted.”

You can bet he’ll take it amiss, but my mind was all taken up with the thought that Angelus was safe. It’s been a hell of a long year. And so Rohn reeled me in, and I went to sort out the growing feud between the Creons and the Mannheims.

You know me; cowboy boots and country music, and I’m happy. In these Balkan cities, the people are largely what you would expect of city folk anywhere, but out in the country? Everyone’s a gun-toting cowboy. They just forgot the country music and substituted some weird-sounding shit instead. And the booze. But we’ll come to the booze later. Out there, in the mountains and valleys, family and tribe is all, even for a vampire. Oh, they don’t call themselves tribes, but that’s exactly what they are. They’re a thousand years behind the times. Or possibly more.

You know, there was a very famous European statesman, Prince Otto von Bismarck. He died in 1898, and just saying that reminds me that Angelus also died in 1898, although not permanently, of course. Towards the end of his life, Bismarck said, ‘If there is ever another war in Europe, it will come out of some damned silly thing in the Balkans.’ Good to know some things never change, even almost two hundred years later.

What? I shouldn’t know stuff? As a human lawyer, I was one of the best and the brightest, don’t forget. I’m even better now. And I know this. Even though I’ve dealt with the problem, it’s only on hold. I could smell it. If Angelus’ empire nosedives into a civil war, it will start with these two crappy little families in the Balkans, and it will be a war by proxy. Something is stirring this up.

But, we went through the formalities, and like that idiot Chamberlain, we have peace for our time. But only for a time. We’ve only papered over the cracks. They have taken oaths, and lodged indemnities. They have exchanged blood and exchanged ‘guests’. Then came the booze. I forget what it was, if I ever knew. Raki, or slivovitz, or quite possibly both; definitely something made from grape skins and toenail clippings and industrial strength alcohol. It made the whole set stupidly pot-valiant, and almost kicked the feud off again, but I managed to interest them in a real drinking contest. Vampire, remember? There are a couple of villages that won’t ever be the same again, and Angelus will punish me for that, unless he’s changed his tune now that the Slayer is gone. Well, I can hope, can’t I?

I’d intended to go to Cairo on the way back to LA – it’s hardly a detour at all – but now Rohn has faxed me some news that he wants me to look into as soon as possible. So, I shan’t get to report back to Aurelius personally, and maybe find out where Angelus is. Instead, I’m hotfooting it back to find out what’s going on up in the Californian mountains.

You remember the fortress there, where Angelus fought Fenrix? Yes, I know it’s a while ago now. In the end, he bought the place, although it took us a very long time to track down the owner. I don’t know what plans he had for it, although I’m almost sure he had something in mind, but Wesley and Giles nagged at him. Eventually, he let them have it on a seventy-five year lease, with the option of renewal on the same terms – I know this, because I drew it up for him.

They founded an exclusive academy there, out in the back of beyond. The Alchemists’ School. And no, they weren’t crazy would-be chemists trying to transmute base metals into gold. Alchemy means something else, as well: a miraculous transformation, or the means of achieving it. That was what they had in mind. It replaced the old and rotten Council of Watchers, and it counted amongst its numbers some of the finest human and demon minds. Those people played a crucial part in the war with the Wolf, the Ram and the Hart, and most of them paid for it with their lives. The place fell into disuse after that. Now, it has people in there again. They may be from the remnant of the School, or their descendants, in which case they are entitled to be there, at least until the lease runs out. Or they may be squatters. With the history of that building, who knows what kind of squatters it might attract? Aurelius wants to know. So will Angelus. I’m going to find out.

***

It takes two more weeks for us to get Angelus back on his feet. I mean that quite literally. He is so wasted that he cannot stand without assistance. Not for the first time, I wonder however he managed to find my door. Then I remember that dark presence on the path through his nightmare, and I think of the formless Lord of Darkness, as I first saw him. Perhaps Angelus had help. Who knows?

So, Angelus is back on his feet, but that is all he is. He is silent and obedient, making no move at all unless told to do so, and he is scaring the hell out of me. I have had him confined to my rooms. When we returned, it was to the relief of Paul and Rohn, both of whom were sitting with us. They knew what I had done, and their concern was written all over their faces and their scents. My household are loyal to a fault, and these two most of all, but Angelus’ subjugation cannot become known. Even if I manage to reverse what I have done, and that is not certain, there could be no respect, ever, for a master vampire, a leader, who has been as enslaved as this.

He is still skeletally thin, his skin dry and grey, his eyes dead. At least, though, his internal organs are starting to recover. His stomach can hold more blood now, so that will speed his return to physical health. And I cannot keep him in here forever. Soon, tongues will start to wag. I need another plan, one that takes him away from everyone he knows for a while. He’s got many properties, but they are all staffed. That’s when I remember the cabin that Angelus bought for himself and the Slayer out at Lake Tahoe. It was a place where they went to be private, to be alone together. That will do nicely.

It takes another three weeks before he becomes strong enough to make the journey, and then we head out into his wilderness.

***

When I arrived at the fortress, my hangover was pretty well gone. I never realised quite how many advantages there are to being a vampire, and rapid recovery from a hangover is a very big plus. If Angel had ever got his precious shanshu, he’d have missed those advantages, too, I’d bet my bottom dollar on that.

It wasn’t quite a hive of activity here, but there were about twenty people, and more expected, I gather. They are a strange and mixed bunch. They are descendants of the human remnant of the Alchemist’s School, and they have decided to pick up where their grandfathers left off. The leader of their little colonization force turns out to be a first cousin, twice removed, of Wesley Wyndham-Price. Wesley himself has been dead these forty years, and I must confess that I miss the old son-of-a-bitch. This one, Morris, is nothing like him. He’s more like Wesley’s father, Roger, who’s been dead a lot longer than Wesley, and not been missed at all.

It seems that the fortress hasn’t been quite as abandoned over the last decades as I thought. There has always been a presence here, one or two of the older people only, but the younger descendants have not been involved. In fact, they didn’t know anything about it, until Morris came across Roger’s journals, and started gathering the younger generation. I’d like a look at those books – that bitter sonofabitch will have presented a rancid account, don’t you think? Those journals changed things. Now, they want to re-found the Alchemist’s School. They’ve had signs and omens. Well, well. I wish I knew which model they were going to follow – Alchemy, or the Watchers’ Council.

They have most of the old texts and books that survived the fall of Alchemy, but their knowledge is imperfect. They certainly know nothing of me, except what I choose to tell them. Roger died long ago, and I doubt he knew who set up Alchemy. He probably blamed Giles and Wesley, so these youngsters know nothing of their landlord, to whom they must soon make approaches about renewal of their lease, although there are records here showing that he paid the occasional visit to the virtual hermits that kept up their occupation of this gaunt and dark place. I say again, well, well.

None of those here have seen him, or know what he is. They’ve rather assumed he must have died long since, and I don’t enlighten them. So far as they know, they lease the fortress from a company called Sunnydale Holdings, and, even in the years that have passed since there was a school here, the rent for this place has been paid. They think that I am just a lawyer come to check that they aren’t squatters. If they think there is anything strange about a visit from a lawyer after dark, they say nothing.

They don’t tell me any more of what they are doing here, but I can see enough to make my own judgement. I can scent the air of deceit, too. Morris has a wedding ring on his finger, but doesn’t smell of a woman, and that’s strange for a man in his twenties. Do you know, if I were a betting man (and I quite often am), I should put money on Morris having recently lost his wife to a vampire. I think that tight-lipped fixed stare means he’s out for revenge, but he knows nothing about the things he’s dealing with. He’s a mean sonofabitch, too. I’m going to recommend that the Aurelians stay well away from here, and that we terminate the lease as soon as possible. Wouldn’t you? I’d have preferred not to tell them about the trust fund that Angelus established to keep this place going (and that’s what has been paying the rent, minimal though that is), but it’s mentioned in the lease, so I have to. It’s quite a valuable fund now. They can buy a lot of information, if they want to.

I’m on my way back to the office now. I’ve left them to continue with their house cleaning and settling in, but I’m worried about them, and what they might get up to. And I’m worried about why now? Does it mean anything that they are here when Angelus isn’t? Am I opening cupboards and seeing phantom skeletons? Or is this just the after effects of the raki? I’ve no idea, and I don’t like not knowing. I’ll get a report back to Rohn, see what he and Aurelius make of it, but that won’t stop me digging.

I don’t know where Angelus is, either. That’s another thing I don’t like not knowing.

***

When Angelus bought this place, he chose well. We’ve been at Lake Tahoe for almost the whole month of July, and it is magnificent. Its splendour has been lost on him, I think, but not on me. If… no, when things get back to normal, perhaps he and I can enjoy more time together here. Or perhaps not, if we don’t patch up our quarrel. We shall see.

Angelus is beginning to regain his beauty. He’s still thin, but it’s slimness now, rather than the emaciation we saw before. He looks much as he did all those years ago, when he was recovered by the little demon, Whistler, after years of living off rats. He’ll continue to gain substance. Now it’s time to help him regain his mind. If I can.

I haven’t tried before, because it’s been more convenient to have his obedience during his recuperation. We have hunted and we have played in these forests and mountains, and in the lake, and he has never strayed from my side, never questioned my instructions, never failed to obey.

Our hunting has been mainly game or other predators, but we’ve taken the occasional human too. He needed it, and I won’t apologise for it. I selected as best I could from those available, and every one has restored him a little more. Several layers of skin have peeled – or been scrubbed – off, bringing with them that dreadful greyness and the dark scars of filth that had been rubbed into his wounds.

Our whole stay would have been a lot more troublesome if he had been in his right mind, because we have become a little estranged in the last few decades. Weak though he was, I suspect that he would never have stayed here, alone, with me. Or, he would have done something foolish, perhaps.

It was my fault. My pride has prevented me from admitting it to him, but it was all my fault. I was drunk; maudlin drunk, at that, on Napoleon brandy. So was he. He and Buffy had been visiting. Now, remember that I have spent two thousand years without the girl I love, and monkishness has never suited me. I have had many, many lovers from a number of different species, but there’s still something that’s hard to get used to: being alone when others aren’t. Have you never felt that way? Like a spare prick at a wedding? That was how I felt that night.

If I hadn’t broached the second bottle, it might have been alright, but I did, and for a while I was not entirely responsible for my actions. Long ago, I had as good as given my word to him that I would never call Buffy to my bed, although I have the right to do so. At the time this happened, I hadn’t been celibate, but my bedmates had been just that. Bedmates. Angelus and Buffy had what I had had with Palestrina, and I just wanted to feel that around me, for just one night. It wasn’t even about sex, not really. So, halfway down that second bottle, I told him to come to my bed, with the Slayer.

His sole response was a look of utter contempt, and then he stalked out of the room. They left within the hour. Until he turned up at my postern gate, he hasn’t spent a day under my roof since, nor I his. I haven’t punished him for his refusal, although I could and should. He, in turn, has had the sense to continue as my beta. It is generally known that things are difficult between us, but the reason lies hidden between me and Angelus, and possibly the soul of his beloved. That he should have come to me when he was in extremis is a great relief. Now, what I am about to do will change the nature of our relationship forever, I think.

It’s the tail end of night. We are both sated and comfortably tired from the hunt. At least, I am. As usual, he gives no indication of how he feels. I take him to the shower, and there I tend to his needs. I could instruct him to wash himself, and he would obey me, but I have no wish to do that. As I have done every day since we came here, I have the pleasure of removing his clothes, piece by piece, slowly revealing the returning perfection of bone and muscle and skin. My own clothes come off more quickly, and then we are in that commodious shower room, and it is time for my daily inspection. I soap him down, turning him around as I need, running my hand over slippery skin which now has the colour of rose-tinted marble, flushed from hot blood. I can feel beneath my palm the rise and fall of muscle, each one returning to the clear swell and curve that existed before. Strength has returned to those long, finely-moulded legs, and his ribs no longer stand out, no longer remind me all too grimly of that cage of bones.

Every night, I touch and inspect each swell and hollow, reassuring myself that his body is still healing well, that scars and disfigurements are disappearing as he recovers. Some I have had to remove, to allow new healing to take place, but not too many at once. He’s suffered enough pain. There’s only one left now, and it’s one that I had hoped would clear by itself, but it hasn’t. I turn the water off, so as not to waste any of his blood, and then turn my attention to this last reminder of the gypsies.

A blade has bitten deep into his chest, right through the crescent-shaped mark over his heart: the mark left by Buffy. A thick, black, twisted knot of flesh disfigures this remnant of her, and there is only one way to remove it. I have a small obsidian knife – unlike most of you, I can still work stone – and this is much sharper than steel. It will make a cleaner cut. I position him as I wish, his back pressed against the tiled wall, his feet braced apart, and prepare to excise that offence against his nature. His blank expression animates, just for a moment, and his hand comes up towards mine.

“No!”

That is the first word he has spoken without instruction. Perhaps there is hope.

I tell him to stand still, that this must be done to cleanse her memory, and that seems to ease him. The obsidian blade slices into his breast, and then the scar is gone. It has taken a full third of the crescent, too, but the blood running from the wound is clean. Pressing him back harder, I bend to him, and suckle at the wound. His blood is rich and sweet. There is a lingering hint of poppy, but I am confident that will soon be gone. It isn’t enough to harm him. This is the first taste of his blood that I have had since drinking from him in his nightmare, and I am relieved.

In moments, the bleeding stops, and the flesh starts to close over. As I thought would happen, the new flesh carries the teeth marks that I have cut away with the scar. She has marked him too deeply to be cut away by a gypsy spite. Gently, I tell him to look, and he does. A small smile graces his features, and this, too, is a first. Now for another one.

So far during our stay, all my ministrations to him have been gentle and practiced, but workmanlike. They haven’t been the touches of a lover. Since coming here, both of us have been completely celibate. You don’t believe me? Even discounting the love I bear him, I am alone in a mountain fastness with someone whose body I desire, and who will obey my every whim, and you expect me to have taken advantage of that? After all, a demon such as I must have many deep and dark desires, and in his slavishness, I could have Angelus fulfil every one of my most sordid or exotic fantasies.

You are right. I do have many dark desires, and I have imagined and dreamt of all of them during our time here. Sharing a bed with him has not been easy. Holding him close to me, to give comfort against whatever nightmares he cannot show me, has strained my control to its utmost. But, if I can restore his right mind, do you think that Angelus would ever forgive me, had I practiced those desires on him? If I’d had him perform whatever acts my whims dictated without any possibility of refusal? No, he would not forgive that, and so they have remained fantasies, until now.

I run my thumb down the front of his throat, the lightest contact only, until my skin burns to make that touch into something harder and stronger. A tiny moan comes from that teased throat, and I know he’s thinking the same. I don’t give in to the demand, though. Instead, I run my palm over his shoulder, barely touching his skin, and then the flat of my hand over his breast, that almost-touch making his nerves – and mine – sparkle with desire. My touch is practiced, but it certainly isn’t workmanlike now, but there will be no abuse of his inability to refuse. I have something altogether different in mind.

Pearls of water are strung across each slope and plane of reborn muscle, creating patterns for me to trace, and as I continue the lightest of caresses, those natural, glittering arabesques let go their hold on his skin, forming tiny rills, as each drop joins with another and another, adding to the sensation for him. He gives another moan, and clenches his fists. He wants to use those hands, and I haven’t told him that he may. Nor do I – not yet at least. I’m driving him crazy. I feel the same way.

I start to talk to him as I search out every inch of skin to caress – every inch except where he would really like me to touch. He’s getting hard, and he’s going to get a lot harder. I tell him how much I love him, how he is now and always my acknowledged favourite. I tell him that our estrangement was all my fault, and that I am sorry. I speak to him of the joys of existence, and how these can be his once more. That I will help him if he wishes. I don’t know whether he can understand me, whether he will remember what I say, although if he does not, then I will say it all again. I just want him to know what is in my mind during what is to come. I have no idea what to expect as an outcome, since I have never done this before. I have taken a few of my enemies – a very few – into this sort of slavery, but I have never allowed any of them to leave it, except at the end of a stake, when pity or disgust got the better of me. This journey is in hope, rather than expectation, even though it may take him from me forever.

As I speak, I continue my exploration of his body, moving him a little away from the wall so that I have access to all of him. I still refuse, though, to acknowledge that part of him that is simply begging for attention, each new caress stirring a quiver of supplication. For the first time, that blank expression breaks into one of naked need. Now it isn’t just my fingertips or the palms of my hands – I’m using lips and tongue and teeth, and I will arouse every nerve in his body to fever pitch before I am finished.

I want him to reach out of his darkness and return to me the caresses that I am using on him. At the very least, I want him to reach out to his own sex and seek some relief from the torment I am inflicting. He does not. He simply stands in the position I have instructed, his expression somewhere between anguish and ecstasy, his eyes closed, his fists clenched, his teeth gritted against the need to move, to seek a touch, to find any sort of contact or relief. It’s time to move this to the bedroom.

I run the very tip of my forefinger, just the edge of my human fingernail, up the right-hand side of that importunate penis and am rewarded with a sharp intake of breath. When I reach out to take his right hand, I have to uncurl his fingers before I can clasp them in my own. Four perfect semicircles are incised there, each oozing just a drop or two of blood. I lift his hand to my lips and gently lick off those drops, trailing my tongue across his palm. He shudders a little, and I lead him towards the bed. In those few steps, I vow to myself that I will ransack every dimension to find the cure for him, if I do not succeed tonight. If there is no cure, I will stake him myself, out of mercy. I cannot bear to see him like this. But I will find a way back for him. Palestrina would never have set me an impossible task. And if I really did see the Lady and the Duality, I do not believe they would, either.

***

I remember everything. I remember the gypsies, and what they did to me, and I remember my time in hell, overlaid by some second consciousness, different memories, of that long, long journey to Aurelius. I remember everything that Aurelius has done since he found me, and I remember everything about the month that we have spent here by Lake Tahoe.

‘Remembering’ is not the same as ‘being part of’. From the time when the gypsies filled me full of Orpheus, it is as if they had taken my consciousness and set it in aspic, leaving my senses intact, but with no means whatsoever of acting on them, no connection with my body. No. It was much worse than that, even. I lost myself. I couldn’t tell who I was, or what I was doing. I couldn’t tell what was real, what was in my own tormented mind, or what might be horrors that they had conjured up for me.

I remember the torture, although I was somehow wrapped in dark mists and shadows. There are black holes there, places where my memories have simply been swallowed up by that metaphysical event horizon. For a demon, not being able to remember is a frightening thing in itself. I truly don’t know how I got into the sewers, on the start of my surreal journey. Once there, though, always I was dragging myself through the filth of human society. I had no conscious plan, just a subliminal imperative to be somewhere, like a nagging remnant of a previous life. At the same time but in a different place, I was also dragging myself down that dark and rocky path, heading deeper and deeper into desolation.

was doing both things at once. How else can I explain it to you? It was like two different pictures on cellophane, overlaid one on top of the other, both real or not, both the same yet different, and how could I ever know which picture I was in, or whether I was somewhere else altogether? Did one and one make one? Or two? Or three? And everything was layered with pain. I thought that it couldn’t get worse, but I was wrong, of course.

A little way down the path, the nightmare truly started. I was there, and I was in the elsewhere, and suddenly I found that there was to be yet another ‘me’. On that path through hell, I watched myself taking a demon’s pleasure from those whom I had cared for. Buffy. Spike. Others.

It’s often said that men are ruled by their gonads. I think demons are ruled by their amygdala. It’s a tiny, almond-shaped piece of brain flesh, and this relic of the reptile is responsible for a human’s most basic emotions – fear, anger, pleasure. It asks simple questions. Can I eat it? Will it eat me? Can I mate with it? I think this ancient remnant of lost terrors is the thing that rules me. I was there. I was the one in fear and anger and pain on the path, and I was the one taking pleasure in the pain and fear and anger of those closest to me.

I nailed Buffy to a rock and eviscerated her, for having the temerity to make me love her. I took pleasure in it, even while I shivered in fear and agony as I watched myself do it. I staked Spike to an altar, and then I flayed him for the sin of touching my woman. I cannot describe the kick that it gave me, even as another ‘I’ tried to stop it, and couldn’t. On and on and on that path went, with as many scenes of my pleasure/pain as I could devise. I can devise a lot. It was most often Buffy, sometimes Spike, occasionally one of the others. Each tableau was created with the artistry that I have so easily mastered over the years, and each one was pleasing to that seat of the demonic emotions. At each one, every feeble attempt that I made to prevent my other self, to take onto my own body the blow, the cut, the burn, met with abject failure. And in the elsewhere, I was staggering down a different path, one that led to Cairo. In my right mind, I would have known which city I was in from the scents and sounds and sights around me. Not now. It was all I could do to keep moving.

The ultimate horror lay at the bottom of the path, in a cage made of the bones of that desolate hell. I was outside, looking in, and I was inside looking out. The ‘me’ inside was clad in the skin of a demon, and it showed who and what I am. It showed the ugliness within. All that viciousness and corruption was manifested on my skin, and in what I did to my beloved, as another me lay outside and tried to scratch my way through to her.

Before she died, Buffy thought I might be capable of being saved, that I might be able to earn the right to spend eternity with her. She was wrong. There’s nothing of me that any of her Powers would deem worthy of saving. I should just give in to that fucking amygdala and be content, as I was for so many decades. But, I gave her my word.

And then *he* was there, lying by that cage of suffering. The Soul. And I have no idea whether my thoughts were my thoughts or his thoughts or something laid one on top of the other, something in between. He was too weak to move, in too much pain of his own, but he tried to comfort me. I had felt and tasted his pain, but now I started to remember his memories. Bits and pieces of agony, patched with despair. I knew why he had suffered, and it was unbearable, that he should be better than I. More noble. More fitted to be her mate. Unbearable.

I don’t say I understand anything. I just say that I remember everything, in all its dreadful multiplicity of detail.

I don’t know how long I was there, grieving at the bottom of that path… and falling into sewers and ship’s bilges or god knows what other foulnesses, too stubborn to just meet the sunrise… and visiting on my beloved every torment that was too dreadful for even me to carry out in any of my earthly reigns of terror. It seemed that I was there a lifetime. Then Aurelius came, and I don’t know whether he made it better or worse. Now, he has forged a bond with me, like the one I threatened to impose on Lilah. The bastard actually did it to me. You’ve seen those paperweights that are clear glass with butterflies or beetles or pressed flowers in the centre, frozen and preserved and untouchable. Dead to the world. That is how I am. No matter how much I beat my wings, I am fixed and imprisoned inside my own skull. My body is entirely his, and does nothing without his permission. I have occasionally done this to others, for fun or for punishment, or as an example, but I have never managed it so completely. I don’t know how, or if, it can be undone, either.

I resented him for decades, after he ordered Buffy and me to his bed. I was surprised he didn’t punish me for my refusal, but even so, that resentment grew and festered. Mostly, I resented his breach of faith. After all, had he not as good as given me his word that he would never do that? During her final illness, Buffy reminded me that he had been without Palestrina for two thousand years, and asked me whether, after such a long wait, I might not, in his place, make such a mistake. As with so many things, I should have let her talk to me about it before. There might not have been so much wasted time. But then, I’d had no intention of surviving her, no thought of putting myself through the long, and possibly fruitless, wait that he has endured. Until she set a different future for me, I had expected to spread myself on the morning light over her grave. Perhaps I should have done.

So, my feelings for him have always been complicated, and now they are more tangled than ever.

I hated him. I loved him. I owed him fealty – I resented that, too. He came into hell to fetch me back out. He has made me into his abject slave. Now, he is making love to me in the shower.

At the end of every night, he has inspected me, to see how I am recovering, never revealing whether my abused body now disgusts him. I had expected that he might exact his price from me, might make the most of the fact that I am no better than a toy for his use, but he has not done so. Nothing but the best for Aurelius, and I’m clearly no longer the best, in body or in spirit. I’m not even sure why he has bothered enough with me to spend time here, just him and me. Oh, and Sekhmet, too, but she hasn’t been around very much. Aurelius doesn’t seem worried about her, though.

So, as it has amused him to do every night, he has played the servant, undressing me and cleansing every inch of me, all the while inspecting the fading wounds. Sometimes, he has cut away scars that would not slough off by themselves, or that might take months to do so. The last one left was an ugly knot of darkened flesh marring the mating scar left by Buffy. When he raised his knife to cut that away, I was terrified that it would sever whatever link might remain between her soul and me. Stupid, probably, but you will understand that I’m not seeing things in perspective just now. As that terror sped through every nerve and synapse, some small thing seemed to give, like the clicking of a tiny lock, and my hand came up to stop him. I managed to force out a single word of denial.

He shushed me and told me to stand still, that this was necessary to cleanse her memory. For the first time in many months, I felt her within me, the echo left in my blood. She seemed to…comfort me, and so I let him cut into me. The lock clicked closed again. I could only stand, pressed against the cool, wet tiles, feet braced apart, vulnerable to whatever he might choose to do.

The pain as he cuts is a small pain, but the fear of the consequences remains, soothed only by the sunlight of her, rising through my blood. He bends to taste that blood, and the bond he has forced onto me soothes and rewards that simple amygdala with a glow of pleasure. As the blood ceases to flow, and the flesh closes over, I see that he and the echo of Buffy in my veins were both right. The scar is there, unharmed and unchanged. Perhaps it’s imprinted into every cell in my body. Is that a reward, or a punishment? I don’t know anymore.

His inspection complete, I expect him to do as he has done each daybreak – he always takes me to bed and wraps his arms around me, perhaps to prevent me wandering out into the light in a mindless trance while he sleeps. Not this day, though. Instead, he starts to caress me, as tenderly as he has done in the past, when I was able to return those caresses of my own volition. I think that he might give me leave to do that, or perhaps even instruct me, but he doesn’t, and so I can only stand, my fists clenched, my nails digging into the palms of my hands because there is nothing else of my body that I can touch. And I desperately need to touch.

This vampire has more expertise in the art of seduction than most of the rest of the clan put together. He knows every nerve and how to inflame it, and that is what he is doing to me. He moves me away from the wall so that there is nothing restricting his access to me, but he still will not give me the word that I need. There is a raw ache in my cock that he refuses to alleviate, as he uses every part of my body except those that can give me satisfaction. Because he has told me to stand still, I am unable to even thrust myself towards him and his tormenting hands, unable to find a touch, a caress, a hope of relief where I most need it. He knows all this.

Then he starts to talk to me, words of love and comfort and hope. And words of apology, for causing the breach between us. Almost, I want to hate him more than I have ever done before, because he is taking away all the reasons I have for hating him, except this enslavement. I cannot support this misery, if I don’t have hatred.

He starts to use more of the weapons at his disposal, lips and tongue and teeth, whilst still denying me the least contact with the hungriest part of me. I can feel the moan rising in my chest, and that small click of the opening of a tiny lock again, allowing my feelings to paint themselves over my face for him to see. It’s my human face. I cannot even manifest my true face without his say so. And then that raw and throbbing ache is replaced by a flash of hot fire, as he runs his fingernail in a sliver of a contact down the side of my cock. Cruelty is a trait of demons, and he lives up to that epithet when, after that single contact, he withdraws all touch from me completely. I want to weep with frustration. Then he takes my hand, uncurling my fingers and gently licking off the blood he finds, allowing his tongue to tease the whole of my palm. I shudder with need, and he has a little pity. He leads me towards the bed.

There, he continues his gentle assault on my body, every movement, every touch calculated to bring me to fever heat, with my needy, neglected prick as the all-consuming focus of that pent-up passion. I do not know why he will not give me leave to move, to touch, or even to speak. He is almost as hard as I am, and there is only one way that this is going to end. I want to feel his hands on me, bringing consummation to this fire that he has built in my groin; better still, his mouth, soothing, cooling and burning by turn, perhaps the edge of a fang turning ecstasy to something darker. Best of all, I yearn to bury myself deep within him, fuck him with all the pain and hurt, desperation and fear that has sat in my chest for all these months. I want to let him take it into himself, and practice his own brand of alchemy, even if it only gives me a single day of peace. But that can never be. For a clan master to allow himself to be taken by a subordinate vampire is unthinkable. As well ask for the sun to stop from killing us.

Since I cannot have that, I would like something else. When he does take me, as he assuredly will in a very few minutes, I’d like it to be face to face, in that most intimate of positions. I’d like to look into his eyes, and see if I can lose some of this albatross of pain. He may not grant that, but unless he permits me to speak, I cannot even ask. And if I cannot speak, perhaps I might learn to hate him again.

***

He is beginning to despair of any relief tonight, although he should know better. He has never left my bed unsatisfied. I suppose that, technically, this is his bed, but since what is his is mine, if I choose to exert my authority, it will still hold true.

I would like to see him crack his mental bonds, just a little, but all he can manage yet is an occasional moan, and the constant quivering and reaching of his sex, yearning for stimulation. No matter how accomplished he is at holding back his own orgasm, the least thing now will make him come. He’s very good indeed. I’m better. I position myself over him, as if to take him face to face – and how I would love to do that, to see life return to those dark eyes, but that won’t work for what I have in mind. Only one thing can.

I allow my own swollen sex to brush lightly against his, and he cannot help but gasp. I give him a moment or two to control himself, and then I move over, on my knees, my back towards him.

“Whatever you want to do, Angelus, do it now. I grant you this. Do it!”

I feel the bed move as he stirs, freed from the immobility I have imposed on him, but he hesitates.

“Do it, Angelus! Take what you want.”

I feel his hands on my shoulders, his fingers running down towards my thighs, as I brace myself against the bed head. I have no doubt that this is going to be rough. I try to relax as he presses against me, seeking access, and then he’s in me and thrusting, the small pain of his entry now turned to something quite different. He wraps one arm around my chest, pulling me upright and pressing me against him. As I brace us both, his other hand works at my cock, first gently, then more urgently. There is something else he needs to do.

“You want more. Take it all. Everything you want. Now!”

From the corner of my eye, I see the movement as he changes, and then he is buried as deeply in me as he can get, and I can feel him tighten as the storm of his orgasm starts to break; his hand is pumping my own climax from me, and he buries his fangs deep into my neck.

As we join in this completion, the first ever of its kind, as my blood pours into his mouth, I sink back to all fours, and with every ounce of willpower that I possess, I submit. I cede to him every bit of dominance I have exerted over him, and I give him back the bond.

Then I give myself over absolutely to the fire that is spreading from my balls and my blood to consume every part of me.

***

He has worked me up to a fever pitch of mindlessness. If I were free, he could practice any of his darkest desires on me now, and I should give consent. As his slave, I should still welcome them. I am no more than a raging, throbbing cock, and an amygdala driving me to its reward. He is positioned over me, and I think for a brief, ecstatic moment that he means to take me face to face, to give me that favour. If only he will let me move, too…

He allows his cock to brush lightly against mine, his balls hanging briefly against my own, and I think for a moment that I am done, that I will shame myself here by spending before I am allowed to. His mental interdict holds no sway over my gonads. As I fight the rising orgasm, I should conjugate Latin verbs, but instead I remember some lines of that great debauchee, Rochester. He was before my time, but I suspect Darla knew him, might even be the subject of this…

In liquid raptures I dissolve all o’er,
Melt into sperm and spend at every pore.
A touch from any part of her had done’t:
Her hand, her foot, her very look’s a cunt.

As my body regains some small measure of control, I think how like the beauteous Corrina this man is in his power over me, but then he moves away. I want to call him back, to reach out to him, to beg him not to leave me helpless and aching like this, but I see that he has just moved to one side, on his knees. He leans forward to grasp the cast iron bed head.

“Whatever you want to do, Angelus, do it now. I grant you this. Do it!”

At first, I cannot understand, and then I cannot believe. I am released from my stasis, and the imperative he has given me is thrumming through my blood, but my mind still cannot accommodate what seems to be happening. He is offering himself to me. To a subordinate member of his clan, let alone to someone he has taken into total slavery. Why would he do this? My body, obedient to his instruction, leaves my mind to follow as best it can, and moves towards him. Not quickly enough, it seems.

“Do it, Angelus! Take what you want.”

I kneel behind him in this dominant position, the position affirming alpha male status, and run my fingers from his shoulders to his buttocks, as if I were calming and soothing a jumpy mare. I doubt he’s ever done this before, so perhaps the analogy is good. And then I press forward against that small rosette of muscle, and with one smooth thrust, I am granted my fantasy, and I am buried deep within him, thrusting hard and fast, pouring into him all that pain and hate and desperate fear. For a brief space of time, the roughness with which I take him overwhelms my sensitised nerves, holding back my orgasm until I can bring him with me. I want to be closer, and I wrap my arm around his chest, and pull him back towards me. I reach forward to take hold of him, that softest of all skin tactile against my fingers. I work him gently at first, and as he groans with pleasure, more roughly to match my rhythm. He spreads his knees further, and pushes back, and it’s almost all over with me. Before I can come, though, he tells me what to do.

“You want more. Take it all. Everything you want. Now!”

I have him impaled on my cock and now I want my fangs in his throat. And he has given me leave. The change takes me, and just as I feel the tightening that heralds his coming climax, and as mine promises to burst from me, I bury my fangs deep into his neck. The blood spurts, rich and slow, full of power and laced through with his submission. All of it is given to me.

Two roars ring through the gathering dawn, mine a little muffled by the mouthful of flesh as I continue to drink. Then all the locks click open, the mental chains fall away, and that dreadful glassy prison shatters around me. I am free.

***

I feel the bond release him. He is no longer my slave, my creature. I don’t know whether he will be anything of mine at all, after this. We are both collapsed in a conjoined heap, and he is still inside me, still hard enough to stay there, but he pulls out. I feel slightly regretful about that. I wait to see what he will do, and he reaches down to me, encouraging me to turn over.

His face is the one I know well, that mobile, expressive face with eyes normally full of life and humour and mischief. Just now, his eyes are sparkling with something I’m not sure I can identify, but at least his face is not the immobile mask of recent weeks. It’s done, then. He’s still kneeling over me, and he seems to be searching my face for something. His words are the first that I have heard voluntarily from him in far too long.

“I don’t know whether to kill you or thank you.”

He gazes down at me and I rather think he’s pondering that question, so I give him a cue. I raise my hand to his face and run my fingers down his cheek.

“Do it now. Just like this. Face to face.”

Still he hesitates, and then he slips his hands underneath me, lifting me up onto his knees. There is a long moment of hiatus, and I don’t know whether he is still considering his choices or whether he is simply savouring this unlooked-for opportunity. Then he decides to thank me, although after a while I think that he may be killing me, too.

***

When Archimedes, while pondering how to calculate the volume of a solid, stepped into a bath that he had overfilled, and slopped water over the edge, he created the first ‘Eureka’ moment. If, instead, he had been looking at his bath sponge while pondering the shape of the universe, that ‘Eureka’ moment might have been different. For the shape of the universe is like a sponge. As above, so below. Astronomers and astrophysicists and cosmologists believe that, as with the sponge, the matter of the universe – the galactic clusters, the dust clouds, every structure that is larger than 100 million light years across – is arranged in filaments and sheets that are separated by gigantic voids, the holes in the sponge. They are right about this.

Astronomers are finding a way of mapping the vast expanses of the time/space dimensions in which we all live. Searches by X-ray astronomy have revealed an intergalactic web of hot gas and dark matter that is crucial in defining the cosmic landscape. The hot gas alone, which appears to lie like a fog in channels carved by rivers of gravity, is more massive than all the stars in the universe. They are also right about this. This universe is a very rich place, full of nourishment.

Surrounding the voids, they believe they can see superclusters of galaxies that are embedded into sheets and walls of more galaxies. These superclusters contain tens of thousands of galaxies like the Milky Way, and the larger they get, the more galaxies their gravity can attract. The largest supercluster so far detected contains some 10,000 trillion suns, and it exerts a gravitational pull on our local group, the one that contains Earth’s Milky Way. There are bigger structures than this, though, and there are stronger attractors. It isn’t so many years since they first discovered the Great Wall. It hangs like a gigantic curtain 600 million light years long, connecting the Coma and the Hercules superclusters, and embedded in this wall is something they call the Finger of God. They are right about this, too.

Astronomers use the name ‘Finger of God’ for a rich cluster of galaxies called Abell 3627, and they are interested in that cluster. For those sky-watchers in our part of the Milky Way, A3627 is hidden behind our own Galaxy, and only now are some of them learning how to see through our swirling curtain of stars and dust. There should be an urgency to their efforts, but instead, there is academic curiosity. Our own local cluster – the Milky Way and all its satellites, together with the Andromeda Galaxy and about forty others – are speeding towards the Virgo cluster at a million miles an hour. The Virgo Cluster in turn, together with everything else within a comparable radius, is hurtling towards a gigantic unseen mass that they have innocently called The Great Attractor. Most observers believe that A3627, the Finger of God, is The Great Attractor. They are entirely wrong about this.

They believe that the gravitational mass pulling millions of galaxies towards it is equivalent to 540,000 trillion suns. They have their sums right, but the analogy is completely and utterly wrong. This rush towards The Great Attractor is very new, and is accelerating. A nest of tendrils from the parasite Universe has found its way into the huge void that runs alongside the Great Wall, close to A3627. Those tendrils have a hell of a suck.

In their tiny but beautiful dimensionette, the Lady and her Consorts kneel on a cosmic palliasse, stars shining out like a sea of daisies amidst a field as black as the wings of a raven. She is wearing her human guise, but they are not, and none of them are wearing anything else. Their time/space is filled with light and shadows. The Lord of Darkness is kneeling in front of her, whilst the Lord of Light is behind. She is in ecstasy from their touch, and the echoes of that ecstasy cause galaxies to tremble.

They both enter her together, pausing for a moment to allow her to gather herself as, in her rapture, she falls back against this one’s iridescent light. Coils of shadow coloured with the hues of thunderstorms reach out to her from the darkness, as the other one comforts her. Both of them use every art they have ever learned to caress their goddess, to speak to her through their touches, to rouse her to ever-greater heights of passion. Her ardour inflames their own passion and, together, they commence the ancient rhythm that will measure the path to consummation. In that age-old union, recognised throughout the cosmos, Creation and Destruction conjoin, but on this occasion, they are the ones who rule the Balance. They invoke a name, now whispering it, now crying it out in their passion. It isn’t her name, not this time. It is the name of the Universe. There is power in names. As she allows herself to submit absolutely to the ecstasy that they have brought her to, her Lords’ powers reverberate throughout the entire Universe, bringing a true music of the spheres.

The gas and dust that surrounds A3627, obedient to the echoes of that frenzy, starts a slow cadenza, forming itself into new and terrifying galaxies as matter condenses out from the overwrought energy of light itself. These huge whirlpools of star stuff are out of balance, as they were meant to be, and cannot exist for long. They will not need to. They have no life, they simply have mass and acceleration and purpose. Each of these newborn monsters embarks on a collision course with a nearby galaxy. Such encounters usually take millions of years to come to pass, but that will not be the case here. The newcomers will arrive with the relative speed of an express train. The resultant cosmic impacts will send a backwash, a tidal bore, up all those rivers of gravity: shockwaves that will turn the tide and hold back the rush of galaxies to the maw of the parasite. Downstream, raging torrents of hot gas and dust – breakers of galaxy-sized nebulae of carbon and silicate particles – will overflow the Great Wall and will flood the void in which the tendrils sit. As they sate themselves on those huge fields of energy-rich particles, the invaders will have to moderate their force, or choke on the richness they have been given. Astronomers will wonder why nine-tenths of the mass of A3627 will seem to have disappeared as the sucking eases. They will not see and they will not understand. Except, that is, for those astronomers who live on planets in the galaxies chosen as the first line of defence. These will watch with confusion, then with fear, and then with terror or resignation, depending on their individual temperaments, as the destructive creations of the Duality start to fulfil their purpose, raising these gravitational tsunamis from the cosmic wreckage of their home worlds.

For other sky-watchers, those whose view is not obscured by their home galaxy, they will see new quasars, quasi-stellar objects that are the brightest things in the distant skies. The only quasars they have seen so far are those at the edge of the universe, where the Duality have given the outer galaxies to the fire so that the inhabitants might live again. Now, these new quasars are here, in the centre of the Universe, and as telescopes throughout the inhabited worlds focus on them, they will see the deaths of millions of suns as one galaxy rips the heart from another, in one place after another. They will not, however, see those fat tendrils lazily sucking up gas and dust, and they will not understand.

Even without their human guises, it is impossible to miss that the Duality are panting harshly from their efforts, and from their own completion. They are supporting the Lady between their beings; she is strengthless from the rapture, almost fainting in their clasp, her eyes downcast, her skin flushed and pearled with drops of sweat. The three have done everything they can for the moment. They are young, for godlings, and they have their limitations, but they have bought time for the Universe. Like everything else that must be purchased, there will be a price for this carnage. They will pay their share of this price, and yet, for all those also paying, those whose lives will be lost in the collision of galaxies, the price will be so much less than the alternative. Spiritual annihilation is always more costly than simple death.

Her consorts lay her gently down on what is now a bed of softest, scented moss and fragrant starry flowers. They settle down, one to each side of her, wrapping themselves around her sated body, and fall asleep to dreams of horror and of hope.

***

When I wake, it’s early evening, and Angelus isn’t with me. I feel a swift rush of fear, and then I see him, sitting on the floor, arms clasped around his knees, his head bent in thought, or perhaps in sorrow. His scent is muddled, and overlaid with the musk of sex. A lot of sex. As I sit up, my stiff and sore body protesting at every move – and how long is it since I was ever this stiff and sore? – I call out to him. It’s a few seconds before he turns to look at me, his face impassive. I don’t need to ask the questions. He knows what they are.

“I’m okay. Truly. And you are still my clan master.”

Well, there’s a thing. I hadn’t dared to even hope that it would be so. But, he doesn’t look all that okay to me.

We are both rather subdued as we go about the normal daily round of ablutions and breakfast, and whatever chores were left undone. It’s a little like the morning after an office party, when you’ve slept with someone you shouldn’t have. It’s almost a relief to get the phone call from Paul, the call that I’ve been expecting. Time to go back to Cairo.

He wants to go back to Sunnydale, but I tell him no. There is something in Cairo that he must see. He remembers that Sekhmet hasn’t come back from her hunt yet, hasn’t been here for most of the time, but there’s no need to worry on her account. She’s been about our business. On our journey, he refuses to talk about the things that have happened to him. In fact, he refuses to talk about much of anything. I haven’t felt this far out of my depth since I was newly birthed.

***

Fucking Aurelius into blissful unconsciousness is the only memory of reality that I have from over a year of existence, and even that was so unexpected, so outside the bounds of what should be real that it seems like a dream. He gave that day to me, and allowed me to do whatever I chose. I know him now, in every sense – human, vampiric and Biblical. I know the feel of every part of him, the taste of every inch of skin, just as he has known me. I know the taste of his blood in every state of arousal, completion or post-coital lassitude. I have drunk from every desirable place, from throat and arm, from breast and belly and back. And more. I love the taste from the inside of his thigh, high up, from the big vein there. Do you think that is where the Angel touched Jacob? On the hollow of his thigh? Is that why it tastes so damned sweet?

Best of all the tastes, though, is that from the big vein running underneath his cock, as I sink my fang in deep, just beneath the head, at the moment of his climax, savouring everything that’s running over my tongue and down my throat. His blood, his semen, rich with desire and musky with completion. And his hoarse scream as I worry at that bite in his cock, making it pulse even more strongly, is still music to my ears, adding to his blood the tang of pain and the honey of overwhelming pleasure.

If I think about that, maybe I won’t have to think about the rest.

Yet, although I have spent all my fear and pain and hate into him, I still don’t feel whole. Or perhaps I feel too whole. I don’t know. I don’t know who I am anymore. Am I him, or am I me? Or am I some strange mix between him and me? No, not Aurelius. Angel. All around me I can still see the horrors on that path, still hear the silent screams, still feel the knife in my hand, and the joy in my heart.

I don’t talk much on our journey – I’m not sure what to say. I’m still not sure what is real, or who I am. I wonder whether the gypsies have stolen that from me forever, or whether I did it to myself when I restored this body’s soul. It doesn’t feel like the soul, though. The only voice in my head is my own, so let’s blame it on the gypsies.

Nor do I know how to act towards Aurelius. He’s my clan master, even though I’ve never given him his due respect, have always chafed against his hand on my bridle. But now, I owe him my sanity and my life – if I still have either – and I have done to him what no other vampire could do and expect to live. I think I did to him some of those things that he must have wanted to do to me when I was enslaved to him, so perhaps at the very least he will expect me to repay the favour sometime. I can do that. But, will the others know what has happened? I don’t know, and I can’t think, so I take refuge in silence.

It’s late when we get back to Cairo – I would have much preferred to go to Sunnydale, to see whether I could recover myself there, but he wants me here, so here I am. He has a quiet word with Paul, and seems satisfied by what he has heard.

He lingers for a moment in the Lion Courtyard, at a small, exquisitely carved sarcophagus situated beneath a climbing red rose. Palestrina’s resting place. Every time he passes through here, I’m sure he does this. He doesn’t even realise any more. Then, with a deep breath, he makes for his own chambers, and I follow on behind, as I have done for so long now. Blood is brought for us, and I am directed towards my old quarters, a good, airy suite that is kept specifically for me as beta, and that has been made ready for my arrival. He doesn’t call for me, as I rather thought he would, and I am left to my own nightmares. The next evening, he stinks of Rohn when he tells me he wants me to accompany him to his dungeons.

I can’t believe that the dungeons are my long-term destination, so I’m not too worried. He has an extensive set. Aurelius has lived here since Cairo was first founded. He has built palace after palace, as the city rose around him, burying the oldest foundations. It’s like a maze down here, a veritable underground palace. I smell blood several minutes before we reach our destination. Then I smell them. The gypsies. He has all eight of them chained in a room. Oriane isn’t there, but Sekhmet is. He must have sent people to meet her in Los Angeles, and now he has my tormentors captive.

To the ancient Egyptians, Sekhmet was the goddess of vengeance, and Aurelius has often used her as his executioner, to strike fear into the hearts of his enemies. She has been known to savage her victims for weeks – months, even – allowing them to heal themselves over and over, before finally taking off their heads or ripping out their hearts. She’s been working on these a while, and yet they survive because they are no longer men, but vampires. They say nothing when we arrive, but from the appalling injuries that they have, that must be because they have screamed themselves into silence. She has spared no part of their bodies.

I think that Aurelius is waiting for me to speak, but I have nothing to say. Suddenly, I’m sick of seeing guts and other internal body parts, and I’m sick of agony without end. By the door is a chair. I pick it up by one leg and smash it against the wall. I walk over to the nearest gypsy, who is huddled around his pain. It’s the proprietor of the Orpheus den, the brother of Oriane.

“Your Orb of Thesulah wouldn’t work because I’d already been to get the Soul back. He’s safe. Here.”

I touch the place over my heart. I don’t tell them anything more. They don’t need to know that three is the limit on being raped with a soul.

“This is the best I can do for you.”

Then I shift my grip on the broken chair leg, and stake him. I don’t stop until I’ve dusted every one. Aurelius and Sekhmet say nothing, but he puts his hand on my arm. I try to shake him off, but his grip tightens. Whatever he was going to say is lost, though, as Paul appears in the doorway and tells him that Ezrafel is here to see either of us on a matter of urgency. Apparently, the Mannheims and the Creons have effected a major falling out. Neighbouring families are aligning themselves alongside one or the other, threatening to bring their clans into conflict. It might well be the end of empire. And yet, somehow, I just can’t seem to care.

***

Lindsey was right. Or Bismarck, rather. It seems that what goes for humans goes for vampires. War in Europe would come out of some damn silly thing in the Balkans. And here it is, but it won’t just be Europe. If only Angelus were in a fit state to deal with it.

I could intervene myself. If I do, now that he is back, they will lose all respect for him, and I cannot tolerate that. Perhaps, if I send him, it will be just the thing he needs to bring him back to the real world, although I have my doubts. And perhaps, if I send him, I won’t feel that everyone in my house can tell that I’ve submitted to him. That’s why I didn’t call for him yesterday, why I took Rohn instead. It’s a long time since I’ve so thoroughly dominated one of my own. Stupid, but there we are. Older doesn’t always mean wiser.

Ezrafel may be an old woman at times, but he gives a clear and concise account, all bound up with a remarkably sharp understanding. The Mannheims, it seems, have lost more of their numbers. The favourite childe, Eleni, was out hunting with one of the older minions, and the hostage left there by the Creons. Sorry. The guest. Lindsey negotiated an exchange of guests. The Mannheims believe that the Creon guesting with them has fled after murdering Gustav and Eleni, with or without help, and is now in hiding. The Creons believe exactly the opposite – that Gustav and Eleni are in hiding after murdering Theodora. We’re about two sentences away from blood feud.

Angelus has rarely looked more disinterested in his life. Damn. I could smack the boy. My first mistake has been to get Ezrafel’s report in open court. My household and one or two guests are all here. Damn. I’m about to make a second mistake, though, and this is possibly the biggest I’ve ever made with respect to my beta. The biggest for centuries, I expect.

“Angelus. Please resolve this. Come to whatever resolution seems appropriate to you, so long as it is a lasting one.”

I don’t want to tie his hands. However, he hasn’t lost the disinterested look. He sits to one side of the room, his hands stuck in his pockets, staring down at the floor. Having shared his thoughts so recently, his nightmares, rather, I’ve got a pretty good idea that his attention hasn’t exactly been on what has been said. I’m not sure, to be truthful, that he has even heard a word.

“Angelus!”

That’s when the chasm of error starts to open underneath us.

“Hmm?”

He’s still looking at the floor.

“Go to the Mannheims and Creons. Sort it. For good.”

He shrugs his shoulders and starts to shake his head.

“No. Their squabbles are of no interest…”

I interrupt him before he can say more, before he can damn himself with his own tongue. I have made my wishes clear and he is about to refuse them. No, my beautiful boy. Please, don’t do that. Don’t make me have to punish you again…

“Angelus, I believe I made my wishes perfectly clear, did I not?”

“Send someone else. I’m not going.”

He looks up at me, and I can feel all eyes on me. It seems that I can feel the weight of their disapproval, that all of them know what happened at Tahoe. What makes it all the worse is that I want him to do it again, and it seems as if they must all know that, too. And now he is defying me, and they want to know how I intend to deal with him. I should have thought about it more carefully, but I don’t, and so the chasm now swallows us up.

“You will do as I say. You will be banished from this court until you have fulfilled my wishes. Rohn and Ezrafel will accompany you. Do you understand?”

There is a complete hush. I know as soon as I have said it that I have made that colossal mistake, and that there will be a price for this. Something deeper within me, though, knows without any apparent evidence whatsoever, that this absolutely the right thing to do: that this has to happen, for all of us, and that it could go no other way. I cannot and must not stop it. My memory gives me a glimpse of black sand, and three figures, shadowy and dark. Then the glimpse is gone. The Lady and her Consorts showed me wonders when I was there. If only I could remember any of them… I simply know that when the time is right I will know what to do. This is the one of those times. I think that our last night at Tahoe might have been the first…

Angelus’ face is as impassive as it was only a few days ago. He says not a word. He simply stands and, turning his back to the assembly, walks out into the night. Ezrafel scuttles after him. Rohn casts me a look somewhere between quizzical and despairing.

“I’ll keep you informed, Master. Have no fear.”

He knows that I am sending him to help Angelus and to keep him safe, and he is reassuring me of that. Then he, too, is gone. So, if I had but known it, is my peace of mind for quite some time to come.

***

I’m surprised that Aurelius hasn’t actually killed me. He’s banished me, now, no doubt because he can no longer stand the sight of me. I don’t seem to have the brainpower to process everything, though. I’m still in Hell, and I desperately need Buffy here. The real flesh and blood Buffy, that is, not the figment of my imagination lying torn and bleeding because of me. Instead, I make do with the echo of her in my blood, and I can only be grateful that I have this much of her left. The wedding ring that I gave her all those years ago, hanging on its chain around my neck, seems to burn its way into my heart. Through all my recent vicissitudes, this has never been taken from me. Its ghost is already there, of course, embedded deep into whatever is left of that particular organ.

When we reach the Mannheims, their territory is truly the back of beyond. If this is desirable compared to that held by the Creons, then they must live somewhere very miserable indeed. I’m sure I’ve been here before, but it looks entirely different, and I can’t focus enough to think why. I don’t care why. Still, a lot has happened in the last seventy years. Civil wars and pogroms have taken their toll on both the populace and the economy. That makes it easy pickings for vampires.

There isn’t even to be any convivial hospitality – and it’s not as if I feel like any. There’s just a grim-faced bunch of vampires from the Creons, and an equally grim-faced bunch from the Mannheims, all sitting in a broken-down farmhouse. Vampires generally aren’t much into house maintenance. Some of us are exceptions to that rule, but not these. The Mannheims, however, have asked along a senior representative from their clan, the Ferrand. He’s my opposite number, although the Ferrand and the Aurelians could in no way be considered equals. They paint me a word picture that I have absolutely no patience with. For two pins, I’d exterminate the lot of them, just to shut them up. Hell, I wouldn’t even need the pins…

It was late when we arrived, and they all droned on until dawn. That’s when my patience snaps. I tell them that I’ve heard enough, and that I expect to see the site where Gustav, Eleni and Theodora are thought to have been dusted, or vanished, or abducted by little green men, or whatever. Maybe I’ll get some ideas there. Or maybe I’ll just vanish myself. And maybe, at some point, I’ll get fed. I don’t shame my hosts by making the pointed request, because I know Ezrafel will deal with that, but I really am very hungry. My body is trying to recover from a year of starvation, even if my mind is still stuck in Hell.

***

I am very worried. Rohn is walking next to me, and I’m well aware that he considers me to be a bit of an old woman, even if that is rather an affectionate insult. But, he’s worried too. I don’t know why Aurelius sent both of us after Angelus, but I suspect that Rohn is here to pull him out of trouble if necessary. The problem is, we’re badly outnumbered, and I’m a scholar, not a warrior, at the best of times. This is far from the best of times.

Dyryke, the Ferrand representative, has made his contempt of Angelus plain, without saying a single word. It is clear to me that someone has been dripping poison into the ear of the Ferrand; this may perhaps be the person who is at work here setting family against family. I know only bits and pieces of what has been happening to Angelus, but I do know that he is in no fit state to deal with this matter. Nevertheless, we are off to find the place where the disappeared… well, disappeared. This is August in the mountains. The weather, mercifully, is dry. This is important, because traces of scent still remain, even days later. An elder member of each of the aggrieved families is in front, trying to follow that trace. I’m surprised they haven’t done this for themselves, but I think that things have gone too far for sensible action to occur to any of them. Angelus is next, with Rohn and myself a little behind. The Ferrand, a little weasel of a man, is behind us, and then the remaining members of the families. We’ve passed two villages, with their contingent of rabidly barking dogs, demented by the presence of so many demons. Thank the gods that the missing vampires didn’t call in there for a snack.

We come to a track through the forest, and follow alongside it for about a mile. Rohn tells me that this is a local lover’s lane. It seems as if Gustav and the others were looking for a meal of sorts. Angelus will be displeased. He still has rules about pursuing the young and innocent. Don’t.

Everything seems peaceful here, though. There are no bodies, no sign of vampire ash. Then, swift as a snake, Angelus reaches forward and pulls back the two trackers. There is confusion and anger, until he gestures towards two huge forest giants standing across our path. They are copper beech trees, their purple foliage black against the night sky. I have to move around them several times, shifting position, before I can see what Angelus saw. Hanging between the two silver boles, almost hidden by the drape of the lowest branches, is something akin to a spider’s web. It is large enough to accommodate a tall, brawny humanoid, and it is almost invisible. There is just the faint glimmer of starlight on it, as if sparkling off night dew on gossamer. Angelus bends down and picks up a fallen branch, tossing it towards that glinting space. The branch disappears. It’s a portal.

There is a sharp silence, and then a quiet hubbub. Dyryke the weasel steps forward.

“What is this?”

I think that Angelus is going to do him violence, but then he visibly gains control of himself.

“I think this is what’s been taking vampires here. Probably humans, too. It’s a portal.”

“What is a portal doing here? Where would it lead to?”

My Master’s temper, much shorter than normal, snaps.

“You tell me!”

He picks the weasel up and throws him through the portal. I really don’t know how we’re going to get out of this one, but then he turns to me.

“Ezrafel. Can we get to Hylek from any other dimension?”

“No, Master. We have the means to get there and back from here, but that will not work between other dimensions and Hylek. Each gate has its own key.”

Everyone is looking at us. I wonder if they can read his face as easily as I can, now? If he goes through without another key, he might not get back, either directly or through my own home world. The Slayer used to have a phrase, and I can almost hear her saying it now. ‘What’s the diff?’ What, indeed, is the diff for him? He is in the Slough of Despond and he might as well be in that well of darkness somewhere else as here in this forest. That is what his face is saying to me. He turns to Rohn and me.

“Tell Aurelius. Don’t follow me, but if I’m not back in a day, try to find a key that fits this particular gate.” He addresses both families, then. “If they are alive, I will bring them back. My word on it.”

Without another word to anyone, he turns and steps into the portal, and is gone, leaving an astounded audience behind him, yet none of them seem to doubt him. He has that effect, you may have noticed. As he stepped away, though, I, who am nearest to him, thought I heard him say, ‘Little green men, then’, but I may have been mistaken. I don’t know why I do what I do next. I am not a warrior. I am a scholar. But, I turn to Rohn and, against his protestations, lift a large and handy dagger from its sheath on his belt. Then, apart from this borrowed blade, armed only with pens and journals and a walking staff, I follow Angelus into the unknown.

The other side is at a somewhat lower level than the forest floor, and my arrival is rather precipitate. As it happens, the crashing fall that I take is a good thing. Looking distinctly thunderous, Angelus picks me up, and as we gather my belongings, we find that I only have half a walking staff. The portal has closed behind us. Without the fall, it would have taken my feet.

It is not necessary to tell you what he said but he was not happy that I had come. We are in an old and cold land, and we are standing partway up a steep and stony hillside. It’s just past dawn, and he has taken no hurt from the sun. The landscape is desolate, as far as the eye can see. The hillside on which we are standing sweeps away for miles in either direction, an edge of yellow-brown rock that has crumbled with time, or been worn by the elements into outlandish shapes. In front of us lies a great plain of red, dusty earth. There is only scrub vegetation, brown and sere. It looks like an ancient coastline and a dried-up sea. There is no sign of Dyryke. If there is life here, it isn’t big enough to be seen even by demon eyes, with a singular exception. The one thing moving is a group of three horsemen, travelling away from us at speed, and already some distance away. One of them seems to have an extra burden on his horse.

Angelus has better senses than I, so I wait for him to say something. He lifts his head and sniffs the air. Every world has a different smell. So does every country and every town. But the smell of worlds is particularly distinctive. I don’t like the look on his face. To me, the scent is dusty and dry, slightly metallic, and old. Stale. He opens his lips just a little, and draws the air in over his tongue, the better to taste it. Then his expression closes down. I suspect that he knows where we are, but I’m afraid to ask. If he knows where we are, then perhaps I do, too. And I’d rather not be there. At last he looks at me.

“I think they took Dyryke.” He points towards the horsemen. “I guess we’d better follow.”

And that’s what we do. Before we leave, we examine every inch of ground around where the portal stood. There is nothing, absolutely nothing of that gateway left, but both of us would recognise this place again.

For about five miles, we hug the foot of that rocky edge, with the great red expanse of plain on our right. The walking is easy, and we can see the path that the horsemen took. It is a deeply rutted track, and has clearly been much used, although it, too, looks old and past its time. Almost from the start, I have felt uneasy, as if someone were at my back. Occasionally, there has been a little scrape, as if of leather on stone. Angelus seems lost in his own thoughts, and I have not ventured to tell him of my fears. This has gone on for too long, though.

“Angelus…”

“Yes, I know. Keep walking.”

His voice is casual but low, and I follow his instructions. We continue to make good progress but always we are followed. After another mile or two, we reach a place where the rocky ridge turns back on itself, a sort of headland, if you will, overlooking this sea of iron and sand. Out of the corner of my eye, I see movement high on the relatively bare slope, and then Angelus strikes. He’s up the slope faster than a cat, and following something, or somebody up onto the top of the ridge. For a second I see him, dark against the early morning skyline, and then he leans down to scoop something up. He runs back down, as lightly as a stag. Under his arm, he has what looks like a child. A demon child.

He grabs my arm and starts to pull me up the slope.

“There are riders just the other side. They saw me. They’ll be here any minute.”

He pushes me into a cluster of boulders that can’t possibly be called a cave, but which will provide some shelter, and then he thrusts the child at me. I don’t have time to take in its full appearance just then, but I cannot miss the pale face and wide, terrified eyes.

“Keep him quiet. They know I’m here, but they don’t know about you two. Wait here until we see what reception I get.”

He must be thinking of Dyryke. I didn’t tell him that I saw a few spots of blood on the ground where Dyryke must have fallen. He will know they were there, though. He cannot possibly have missed them. Our reception might not be friendly. The child seems to understand, for he makes not a sound.

Angelus then strides purposefully down the slope. I watch him, through a crack in the rocks, clutching the child to me in what I hope is an embrace of comfort. I have met few species that don’t understand the same thing so far as that is concerned. Angelus is an imposing figure, if thinner than I am used to seeing him. His hair is longer, too. He is wearing his leather trousers, a black linen shirt and a long leather coat. He looks almost like the vampire that beat the Wolf, the Ram and the Hart into a bloody defeat. But his heart isn’t the same, and we both know it. I wonder whether he can find himself again, when he is needed?

Then there is no more time for musing, as a band of riders comes around the shoulder of the ridge. There are ten of them. They aren’t quite humanoid and the creatures they are riding aren’t quite equine but, riders and ridden alike, they are all trapped out in long, dark accoutrements, which mask their true shape. The riders have huge horned helmets – at least, I think it’s their helmets – with ornate faceplates. They are all armoured, and that armour carries spikes and bosses that speak to me of warfare. Nothing good is going to come of this. The little one knows it too. He is trembling with fear.

Angelus has moved towards them, away from any footsteps or scent that we might have left. They are surrounding him, and I can see that each one is armed with something that I can’t quite make out. One of those behind him hits him on the back of the neck with his weapon – a club, I think. Angelus tries to fight, but there are too many, and their mounts are well trained. It is the work of moments for them to beat him to the ground. They don’t stop until he is lying quite still.

I’m terrified, and the boy has his hand in his mouth. I think he’s biting down on it to stop himself from screaming. What will we do now? What will they do? Will they kill him?

That doesn’t seem to be their intention. Two of them lean down, and between them, drag his unconscious body up and onto the front of a saddle: I presume there’s a saddle, although I can’t quite see. And then they are off, galloping back the way they came, back the way the other riders went. I am left here with a silent and scared child, and my useless pens and journals, and no idea of how to save Angelus, no idea of how to save myself.

After the initial shock, I try talking to the boy. As you might expect, there’s going to be a communication problem. He doesn’t understand any of my languages, and hasn’t made a sound himself for me to try my hand at. I’m beginning to suspect that he’s mute, but whether that is because of some defect, or some species trait, I have no notion.

I cannot save Angelus alone. I must find help. If I am where I think I am, then help might be very dearly bought indeed. But first, I must know where he has been taken. The way to find out seems to be to follow the path, but we must be careful. I take the child’s hand in mine, and make little walking movements with my other fingers. He gazes solemnly at me and then he nods. He is a waif. I’ve no idea how old he is, but he seems to not carry many years at all. His clothes, such as they are, are in tatters and his sandals won’t see many more miles. He’s very thin, and I suspect that this is not a species trait. He looks starved. I think he looks bruised and beaten, too. There are what I think are scars on his more or less humanoid skin. And he seems to be somewhat simple. Where his family is, I cannot imagine. Despite the fact that I am a total stranger, and I seem to be leading him into danger, he is putting his trust in me. I hope I don’t fail either him or Angelus.

Once more, I set off after Angelus, into the unknown.

***

I wake up to roaring pain. I’m as certain as I can be that my skull is fractured. I know that both shoulder blades and collarbones have been broken, and are just starting to knit back together with that sharp, searing, mobile pain that marks bones rearranging themselves when they are out of position. I think a vertebra in my neck was cracked, too. The rest is blood and bruises.

That internal check takes only a moment, as I come almost instantly from a state of unconsciousness to one of battle-readiness. It doesn’t do me any good though, because I am held immobile. There are huge, hulking figures around me. My vision is still a little blurred, but I can smell just fine. These are some of the riders who brought me in. That brought me in. Perhaps I should stick to thinking of them as ‘that’. ‘Who’ normally means a person, and I don’t want to think of these as people. It offends even me. They looked human from a distance, but up close, they’re nothing like. I wasn’t an easy capture – I don’t know how many times they had to beat me into unconsciousness on the way to wherever we are – but a club weighted with something as heavy as lead will do it every time. Ten of them will do it better.

They don’t appear to be holding me down, but it isn’t until my vision starts to clear that I can see why I can’t move. I am lying on the floor of some huge underground space, filled with fat stone columns. There are others here, some human, some not, but I can’t see any of them, because they are behind me. I know of their presence only by scent and the sound of rustling and the occasional sob. My clothes are lying in a torn pile close by. They have used two chains on me, dragging my arms and legs apart. Each chain is tethered to a stone pillar. One takes a couple of tight turns around my right leg, then hard over my crotch, a turn around the hips and around my chest before winding round my left arm, and has been tethered as tightly as possible to a column behind my head and to the left. The other chain runs around me from my left leg to my right arm, pulling me into a X shape. Both are wound so tightly, and tethered at straining point, that I cannot move at all. I am like an insect on flypaper, and I’m soon to find that might be a better analogy than I would like.

These riders are big and solid and weighty, with their bones on the inside and flesh on the outside, not like insects. But, their faces and hands, which is all I’ve been able to see, have an insectile quality that makes my flesh creep, just a little. Oh yes, even I can be creeped out, but it’s best not to show it. Looking at these creatures’ faces, think of an ant mandible, those external jaws with the chitin equivalent of external teeth, ready to rip pieces off and stuff them into the waiting mouth. What might have once been antennae are now sharp and vicious horns, and their eyes cover a disproportionate amount of space on what was probably, at one time, a triangular head. That will give you a picture. It’s one I’d prefer to live without, just at present.

Perhaps these chains aren’t enough for them, because now they are bringing more. The new ones are shackles. When they open up two of the rings, there’s an extra arc of metal inside, and I soon find out what it’s for. Before they snap the fetters closed around my ankles, they shove that extra arc of metal – sharp metal that turns out not to be nearly sharp enough – deep into my flesh. I want to scream, but I won’t give them the satisfaction, as they work the bladed edge underneath the hamstring, sawing and scraping over the bone, and separating it from the tendon. Then the fetters are snapped shut, and the attached chains stretched and anchored to the pillars closest to my feet.

There’s more. They have manacles, too, with a slim metal bar defining the diameter of each iron ring. That bar is pushed between the two bones of my forearms, just by the wrist, and then the ring snapped shut. I won’t escape from these without tearing my hands and feet to pieces. My arms are pulled hard back, sending pain through every broken part of me, and the new chains anchored to the pillars at the back. Then the two original chains, no longer needed for quick and temporary restraint, are removed. Without a word, the riders stalk out.

Pain is a message from the body to the mind and can be overcome. More or less. It takes a little while for me to find a place where the pain can be managed, and that tells me that I’m not yet in my right mind. I can’t help wondering, still, whose mind I might be in, but these are useless thoughts. The thoughts I need for now are constructive thoughts of how to get out of here.

As I thrust the several separate agonies down to whichever part of my brain will keep them apart from me, I become aware again of the scents around me. Of the others in this place. There’s the reek of urine and faeces, and vomit, too. Some of it definitely smells human. I crane my neck around as far as I can in either direction, ignoring the separate bursts of pain. Behind me are bodies stretched out just as I am. There are dozens. Those closest behind me are vampires. Dyryke, and some others. Their shackles seem to be the more normal ring and chain type – perhaps the special sort are reserved for trouble-makers like me.

I have no doubt that here are the disappeared. Not everyone here is from Earth, although several are, from different countries and communities, judging by their scent. The only common denominator that I can discern is that everyone has red blood in their veins. I know it by its smell. Haemoglobin-based blood is always distinctive from the rest, especially to a vampire. I can see some of it, too, pooled on the floor. The odour of death is everywhere. It’s a long time before any of our captors comes back into this room, and then I wish they hadn’t. In the meantime, there doesn’t seem to be much to say to all those behind me, and so I don’t even try. Having tugged at the chains and found them far too strong and agonising to snap, I simply lie, awash with pain as my abused body tries to mend itself and cannot, and wondering whether Buffy’s precious Powers have decided to just consign me to Hell, since that is what my life has become. Loser.

***

The child is fast and strong, despite his other probable deficiencies, and we make good time. He has tried to mime to me his name, and the best I can make of it is Pav. So, that is what I call him and he seems content. Neither of us have food or water, and we are going to need both before we go much further.

The landscape is starting to change around us, with this sea of dust narrowing as a range of distant mountains appears to the right, on the far horizon, and the ridge of rock that we are following curves towards them. Far ahead, I can see shades of green, running down the ridge towards the red plain. If that is vegetation, then there must be water. And other things. We should be careful. Where there is water and vegetation in this dying land, there may be much more dangerous life. Rohn’s blade doesn’t give me much comfort.

***

The door has just creaked open, and a squad of the riders – I don’t yet know what else to call them – have marched in. They seem organised and warlike. Oh, good. Clearly, I haven’t got enough of a challenge here yet. And then a true horror comes in. This one could only have come from the insects, or whatever this world has that’s similar. A dozen of the riders are clustered around an enormous, bloated creature. They are making strange clicks and whistles, which seem somehow to soothe and encourage. The creature is white, that pure, pasty white of things found under stones, or curled up inside hollow chambers eaten into roots or bulbs. There are eight jointed walking legs, scuttling legs, and a pair of arms that might have been lifted straight from a praying mantis. The triangular head has no humanoid features, just four large, black, compound eyes (all the better to see you with) and a serrated horny set of mandibles (all the better to eat you with). The upper body is slim, but the rest? Ah, what about the rest. Huge, and swollen, held off the floor, so it must have really good muscles, and a long sword-shaped tail.

The procession stops in front of me, and I wonder if I’m going to be the hors d’oeuvre, the entremets, or the meat course. I doubt if a three hundred year old corpse will count as dessert, even here.

The attendants continue their stroking and soothing, and there is a shocking reward for them. They cluster around the rear end, and take something from beneath that sword-shaped tail. When they reappear, they are each holding a golden-brown sphere. Oddly, I can smell toast and honey. They start to eat, and I am forcibly reminded of ants and aphids. Ants farm aphids for the golden honeydew that they produce. They tend to them and they guard them from predators and they make sure they have plenty of food, without competitors. I have a sinking feeling that something of the sort is going on here.

Behind me, there has been largely a shocked silence until now. That silence is broken by a sob, which seems to give permission for everyone to express their fear. Sobs, and wails, and roars; growls, and chittering and some strange rasping that comes accompanied by a wave of distressed thoughts that saws through my mind, scattering all before it. A panicky telepath. Great.

I was the last one here, and it seems that I’m going to be first in line. Freshest, I guess. Having eaten their snacks, the attendants lead the beast over towards me. It bends down and sniffs me from head to toe, and then, almost eyeball to eyeball, stares me in the face. Cold, and hard and soulless. Anyone who has called me that has never looked into this creature’s eyes. I don’t know what I can possibly do, but I prepare myself to take the smallest chance of fighting that is offered to me. Then, to my surprise, the beast turns its back on me. The relief is a tangible thing; I have been found wanting, and maybe I’ll be thrown out with the rubbish. I am so, so wrong. It isn’t what I thought at all.

The creature backs up until it is standing over the lower half of my body. That tail curves until it is pointing straight downwards. It isn’t a tail at all; it’s a hollow tube, with a narrow, pointed end. A sharp stab down, and a sharp jab of pain, and it’s penetrated just below my ribcage and into my liver. The tube ripples slightly as something passes down it. The beast strains a little to get the object through that narrow tip, and then the tube is withdrawn. The ovipositor. Scrub ants and greenflies. These ants have a much more dangerous partner. Think ichneumon wasps, laying their eggs in caterpillars, so that the young can eat their host from the inside out: meat so fresh that it’s still alive. I want to scream at the horror of it, but what’s the point? If I lift my head as far from the floor as I can, I can see a lump about the size of an apple in my midriff. My executioner. Or will it be? These parasites generally leave enough of the most vital organs to keep the host alive until the young has finished with it. If it leaves my heart alone, I won’t die. If I’m fed, I could keep on repairing myself indefinitely. I can’t bear it.

The queen – for that is surely what this creature is – is led behind me, and I don’t need to be able to see it to know what is happening now. The screams and cries, in a variety of species’ languages, grow in volume and in terror, until each of us is impregnated. Everyone gets their own parasite. Behind me, there are sobs and screams and cries for mercy, but they fall on deaf ears. I wonder, inconsequentially, if these things even have ears. And then, with the next generation secured, the retinue is gone. Whether there is another nursery like this, or whether we are alone in our misery, I don’t know. I want to weep, but I’m supposed to be a leader. Buffy thought that I might be some sort of a champion, and that thought alone almost unmans me.

There is no point praying for help to any sort of deity or Power. Even if they existed, which of them would be willing to listen to me, except the kind that would gleefully add to my agonies? So I reach for that echo of her in my blood, looking for a little comfort. She’s never failed me, and she doesn’t now.

It’s the next day, I think, when a band of riders comes in to tend the nursery. They give water to those who need it, and slacken all the chains just a little – not enough to move much, but enough that they don’t feel as if arms and legs are being ripped off. Then they leave. There’s been no sign of food of any sort.

The noise behind me has subsided – most people get tired of crying, eventually – and the telepath has mercifully switched off. I try to catch Dyryke’s attention – he’s the closest to me. All I get for my pains is a hiss of anger. Then I try to take refuge in sleep – what else is there to do just now? – when I catch the sound of soft footsteps, bare feet, probably, just behind me. It’s the child. If he is here, where is Ezrafel? He kneels by my head, and shrugs off a small leather skin that he’s carried on a strap, like a school satchel. It isn’t books in there, though. It’s blood. Not much, and of poor quality, thin and sour stuff that will barely sustain me. But, if I’m to get out, it’s a hell of a lot better than nothing. I gesture with my head to those around me.

“What about them?”

He looks around, and then shrugs. Does he not understand, or does he simply not care about the others? There’s no way to know. For such a young child, he has done a deft job of feeding me, spilling remarkably little from that clumsy skin. He’s in the act of wiping up what he has spilled, using the hem of his tattered tunic, when one of the riders appears from behind me, silent as a snake, and takes him roughly by the arm. They’d left a guard. Damn.

It chitters to him, a mechanical sound that has nothing to do with most demons or any larynx. Amazingly, he doesn’t speak, but instead produces a range of clicks and whistles that the creature seems to understand. A tiny drama plays out in front of me and I cannot understand the words. I have only the body language of two alien beings to interpret, the child cowering before the guard, frantically signalling his deference by stroking its legs and feet. Yet, it seems quite clear to me. Let me feed him and it will be better for the young one he carries.

The creature kicks him against the wall, where he lies, a limp bundle. It stalks over to him, then gives a brief nod of its head. Yes. So, the boy is familiar with these creatures. I wonder about the history of one so young. Perhaps his family were servants here, but died and he was thrown out as being of no further use. A child of his age could surely never carry out a servant’s duties, and certainly could never carry one of these parasites to term. He’s simply not big enough. Perhaps he can help me escape. Perhaps he can help us all escape. If he found a way in, there must be a way out. That hope is soon dashed, though. From now on, we are guarded at all times. The child may come each day with a meal for me, but there is no chance of anything else. It doesn’t matter whether I shake my gory shackles at him, he can do nothing about them.

And they are gory. The broken bones and bruises from my capture have healed, but the wounds inflicted by my shackles cannot. Apart from the pain of metal piercing flesh, there is the continual gnawing ache as the Achilles tendons try to reattach to bone, and the grinding of the bar separating the bones of my forearm. And there is always blood. I suppose my flesh will eventually close over as far as it can, and blood vessels will seal, but until then, there is blood.

On the third day, there is movement in my midriff, and then there is pain, although surprisingly little yet. That will come. When it does, I cannot even curl around it, and so I must simply endure. That place in my mind where pain can be managed is hard to find, and I must look for another way that will overcome my fear. There is only one.

I remember a perfect day. It was our seventh anniversary, and I wanted it to be special. I asked her to lend me the Gem of Amara, and I took her to the beach. We walked along the strand, we went sea-kayaking, and instead of the formal dinner I had planned, we joined an impromptu bonfire and barbecue on the sand. I didn’t even kill anyone. Then we found a secluded cove and made love for hours. I’ll never forget the sand in unusual places, but she was happy. That is the place in which I choose to hide, that recollection of a perfect day, and I savour every single detail. As I start to walk though that memory, I look for the Soul, to bring him with me into those moments of happiness. All this time, he has been still and quiet, but I know that he is there, just as you know that someone is with you in a dark room, even when you cannot see or hear or smell them. And so, I open up to him the time that he bought for me with the love of his life.

In the days to come, I show him day after day with her. I show him days of happiness, of sadness, days that I am ashamed of, and days when I did something that made her proud of me. As the pain becomes worse, I linger on days of pleasure. On one particular day, I remember her fingers sliding over my skin, leaving behind them swirling patterns of desire; her lips and tongue and teeth soothing, cooling, burning; the slick of sweat as I move against her, the slippery silk of that most delicate skin as I press forward into her; the feel of her breast, soft and inviting against my palm; the heady scent of blood, hers and mine mingled, coppery on her tongue from her tasting of me as I possess her utterly, on the day that followed our wedding-mating. That day, we lay enveloped in the heavy hangings of the bed that I had brought into her solar, that glass-walled, sun-filled room that would give the light back to her whenever she needed it, where I am her prisoner for this day, and she is mine. As I remember every touch, every word, every sigh, as my fingers caress her skin, her hair, her wedding ring, I see from a corner of my mind a flash of white, a stag with blood running down its shoulder, and it seems to me that the Soul stirs just a little. I remember how long he spent in Hell, taking my place so that at least one of us would be here on Earth for her, and I can’t bear the thought that we might both spend the rest of our eternities in this dreadful place, so I escape back to the dream.

***

When the child and I reach the long-awaited patch of green, it is, indeed, vegetation. It looks like cultivated fields, but these are no crops that I have ever seen before. I’m not even sure which part to eat. The wilder, coarser plants grow right over the escarpment, where there is a trickle of water flowing from the plain above. It looks as if the waterfall has been much greater in the past, but whether that was last season, last year, or a thousand years ago, I cannot tell. The fields stretch out into the red dust of the lower plain, where they end with knife-sharp suddenness. There are fields, and then there is desert.

At the far edge of this exotic oasis stands a huge stone tor, rearing up in spires and towers of sculpted rock. It’s been fashioned into a castle, of sorts, and there are tracks leading to it from all directions. It is sitting amidst that network of paths like a spider in its web.

The child is afraid. He cannot tell me what he fears, but I have little doubt that he knows this place. I also have little doubt that, if he still lives, Angelus is inside. I don’t know what to do. For all my learning, for all that I have seen and done in my already long life, I am not a warrior and I don’t know what to do. So, while I wait for something to occur to me, the child shows me what is safe to eat.

The following morning, he is missing when I wake. So is the knife I took from Rohn. I think that he has left, for he has no ties to us, no reason to stay; but I am doing him an injustice. Before the sun has climbed more than a couple of measures up the sky, he is back, with half a dozen small furry creatures, about the size of rabbits. At his urging, we fashion a watertight skin from the largest of the pelts, and then slit the throat of each beast, draining them into our bloodskin. We breakfast on two of them, eating them raw so as not to give away our presence, even if I could succeed in making fire. They are poor eating and sour, but they won’t kill me. Then, he shows me the little walking motions with his fingers, and despite my protestations, he is gone, as quickly as a wild thing, heading for the castle. I can only watch. At least all the trails leading here are empty, devoid of any travellers. Is that good, or bad? That’s another thing I don’t know.

When he comes back, hours later, he is bruised and bloody, but the skin is empty. With many gestures, and some impatience, he manages to tell me that Angelus is a prisoner. It takes him a lot longer to tell me why he is a prisoner, and when I understand, my gorge rises. I have heard of this sort of thing before – in my time as a Keeper of the Hylekian Games, I have seen many different sorts of demons, from the most exotic of worlds – but to think of him being eaten alive… Pav seems to have found some small airshaft that has given him access, but it is too small for me, and all the other entrances are heavily guarded. I cannot sit here, uselessly. I must find help.

When I manage to make him understand, he looks dubious, but he seems to know something of this world around him. Perhaps help can be found in the north, but it is many days walk from here. He assures me he will stay, and will bring whatever blood he can find for Angelus, to try to keep him alive.

It is, indeed, a very long walk to find someone who can help, and I am several days into that walk before I think to ask myself how he knew that Angelus needed blood. It is a question to which I find no answer.

***

I’d like to say that I have no idea how long I lay there, being hollowed out and repairing myself, lost in dreams of the past to escape the raw agony of the present, but it would be a lie. Eighteen days. That’s how long it takes for this parasite to turn my substance into its own substance, and to mature. On the eighteenth day, the twenty-second of my captivity, the pain flares to a new brightness as the creature forces its way through what it has left of the old human digestive tract, and out through the traditional exit, loosening the ring of muscle with its teeth when the resistance proves too much.

I’m panting to keep back the scream – during my rather eventful existence, I’ve been fucked in ways that I really don’t like to remember, but never like this before. Then, in an obscene parody of the act of birth, I find that I have a torpedo-shaped lump of pallid white flesh lying between my spread legs, covered in my blood and mewling for attention.

The guards come running, and lift the monstrosity away from me. It’s the shape of a maggot, but the size of a small foal. Without the legs, of course. New creatures appear, smaller versions of the Queen but with only six legs, and they skitter around the chamber. Two of them take the giant grub that I have been incubating, and the rest position themselves ready for more new arrivals. They aren’t long in coming. The screams soon start, and many of them are the cries of the dying. Not all demons can survive this. There are no screams from the humans. Days ago, they passed into a sort of coma, and this exeunt will simply finish them off.

When all the young have been expelled, or whatever the right word is for this, then starts perhaps the most horrific thing of all. An army of scuttling things moves into the chamber. They are cleaners. They clean up blood and faeces and vomit and torn flesh and innards. And bodies. They are too small to move bodies whole. The guards unchain the dead, and these cleaners dismember them with their huge mandibles. These joints of the dead are then offered to the still living. Everyone who is left is starving. Vampires take whatever blood they can find in the pieces of humans, and then in the pieces of the most human-like creatures, as the ungainly morsels are held within reach of their fangs. No one offers to unchain us. Other demons tear at the raw meat to get what sustenance they can. And so, the living feast on the dead, on our fellow sufferers in hell.

I want to say no, to refuse the body parts of a human female that are offered to me, not out of any sense of nobility, but out of sheer nauseated revulsion. Believe me, it takes a lot to disgust me. But, the blood that the boy has been feeding me has been thin, and lacking. I can’t help myself. If I ever hope to get out of here, I must feed. As I do, another cleaner nestles between my legs, and cleans up the mess it finds there. Once again, I find that I cannot bear it, and yet I must.

***

When I reach my destination, it is as bad as I feared. I know exactly where I am, and I wonder whether I should fall on Rohn’s knife before seeking admittance. But no, I left Rohn’s knife with the boy. So, I must go in. It is days before I am granted an audience, and my request causes much interest. It also causes much amusement, and I have to hold my tongue to keep back the anger. It will do him no good if I am killed out of hand, here.

More days pass as I am kept waiting in a small anti-chamber, and then I am taken through to see the one who has the power to save him. It isn’t whom I expect, but I still have to make a shameful bargain to persuade them to help me. My place in the bargain is minor – I am not important enough for it to be more. It is about him, and he may kill me for it. I wouldn’t blame him if he did.

***

I think the portals must be working again, that network of snares for the unwary. More victims are brought to this chamber of horrors, and soon, it is full again. Each day, the boy has come with blood for me. Some days there is more than others, and some days it is worse than others. Clearly, he takes whatever he can get, so long as it has red blood. I don’t know why he is doing this, but I am grateful. The rest of the time, I lose myself in memories of the past, opening up my senses to that other passenger inside me, sharing with him my life with the Slayer. There is never a sign from him. I don’t know how he feels about what I show him, or whether he is even aware of it, but I do it, nevertheless.

Ten days later, the Queen returns, with her train of attendants, and once more I am first in line. Once more, she produces the globules of food for her retinue, and once more, she tastes me with her mandibles, judging my worth as a food source. Another apple-sized egg is placed in my torso, just where the last one was. And just as last time, she is escorted around the room, laying eggs in each of the creatures chained there.

This day is going to be different, though.

There is a sudden clatter of hooves outside, the ring of steel on steel, and raised voices. Well, some of them are voices. The doors burst open and a troop of mounted soldiers gallops through, putting to the sword any of the guards and attendants who resist them. Body fluids, green and gold, spurt over walls and floors and captive flesh, as swords part heads and limbs from bodies. A lance takes the Queen in the thorax.

Like all the rest, I cannot move, cannot defend myself in this seething melee, and it seems that my torment is at an end when one of the invaders raises a huge axe high above me. His mount, something that looks like a muscular locust with a mane, dances around me snorting and screeling, and tossing its head, although never once touching me.

“Angelus?”

“Yes.” Why deny it?

And then the axe falls, and the chain binding my right arm is sundered. Three more blows, and I am free. He reaches down for me and pulls me onto the back of his mount. As he does so, I just have time to reach down and snatch up my clothes, still piled close to where I was tethered. I’m always naked in Hell. I’d like to change that.

More defenders are gathering at the door, chittering in rage. The soldiers are regrouping now, ready to break back out.

“The others?” I don’t want to leave them here, whoever they are.

“Just you.”

And then his mount is bounding forward to the wall of defenders, hitting more solidly than I would have thought possible, and we are galloping through a maze of corridors back into the light.

Outside, a battle has been raging, and the ground is littered with the dead from both sides. The invaders – my rescuers – disengage from the enemy, and we race off into the desert. It’s many, many miles before they stop to rest, and before I can get the remnants of my clothes on, and no one will tell me why I, and I alone, have been saved, or how anyone knew I was there. They have food for me, though, and I am grateful for small mercies. I ask to borrow a knife, so that I can cut out the egg that I’m carrying, but the commander threatens to bind me if I touch it, and I realise my rescue may be even more strange than it first appeared, but wherever I’m to be taken, it can’t surely, be worse? If I had known, I might have fled back to the simplicity of the castle nursery.

The journey takes several days, even at the speed at which these mounts are capable of running. Most of that time is spent in silence, and at no time am I given the opportunity to escape. We are accompanied by several mounts whose riders were lost in the assault, but I am not offered one of them. Instead, I must continue to share the commander’s beast, secure under his guard. Nor is any effort made to remove the shackles or dangling remnants of chain. There’s no point in trying to break away, though. I suspect I know who has sent these, and if I am to have any chance of getting myself, Ezrafel or the other captive vampires back to Earth, these are the ones with which I must treat. It isn’t a happy thought, but it must be done. They will enjoy seeing me in chains.

Eventually we leave the desert behind. Even so, it’s a long time since this land has ever been fertile. There are small oases of meagre crops, and long expanses of wild and scrawny scrub.

As the trees become a little taller and fuller, and the grass somewhat more lush, we pass the first small townships, all of them mean and squalid, no better than the landscape they sit in. We don’t stop, but press on towards a sprawling castle that follows the contours of the nearby hills. Some parts of it are broken down and ruinous, but it’s big enough that those parts can simply be abandoned. The gatehouse looks robust enough, and there are three escutcheons, high on the wall. I know what they are. I’ve never been here before, but I know where it is. It’s the home of the Wolf, the Ram and the Hart. Or what I left of them after the war.

The troop muscles its way through the crowds of hangers-on in the gateway and the outer courtyards, seemingly uncaring about who is trampled underfoot. As we clatter to a halt, half a dozen burly demons run to meet us, swords drawn. Without a word, I’m pulled from the mount, and dragged unceremoniously inside, down several flights of stone stairs. It seems that I am to exchange one dungeon for another. This one is as spacious as the last, although there are only a few prisoners shackled around the walls and pillars, but at least they have some freedom to move. There are so few, that I suspect there are more dungeons. Perhaps some are worse than others…

One of the guards places his hand on my belly, moving his thick fingers until he finds what he’s looking for. The grub has hatched, and is feeding, currently a small mobile lump around my spleen. He nods to the others, and then moves to rip off my already tattered clothes. Not again. I hold up my hand.

“I’ll do it.”

Well, they’d only get torn when this thing comes out, I suppose.

The manacles are clipped together with my hands behind my back, so that I cannot claw the creature out, and I am shackled to a vacant pillar close to the wall. At least I know what is to come, but this time I’m fed more regularly and I am free to move about to the extent my chains allow. I wonder what has happened to Ezrafel, but I suspect that I have an inkling about that. Then I wonder briefly what has happened to the child, and why he helped me, but for this there is no possibility of an answer, and so I curl up on the cold stone floor and go back to my dreams of the past, sharing them with the soul. Whenever I am called back to reality to feed, the pain and despair are living things that I am impatient to escape. For me, for that time, nothing exists in this place except my dreams.

On the twenty-first day after impregnation, the new creature inside me becomes mature enough to escape, and I cannot ignore what it is doing. Once again, I’m panting to control the pain, but this time, I’m determined to kill the bastard thing. Let it come. I’ll grind its head into paste. I growl in pain as it tries to tear through an opening far too small for it, squatting to let gravity help expel it. It may not be dignified, but I swear, I’ll kill it. Especially since the Wolf, Ram and Hart seem to want it alive.

The guards are aware of what’s happening, though, and half a dozen, each of them weighing more than me, gather round. Despite my best efforts, I’m thrown onto the floor and held there as the creature struggles to be born. The agony is worse than the last time because, half way out, the creature seems not to like whatever it can perceive of its surroundings, and tries to wriggle back inside me. I roar in pain as one of the guards kneels between my legs and tries to wrench the thing out. It has some form of defence mechanism, something I can’t see, but something sharp that hooks into me all along the unexpelled length. Another guard is called, and between them, they manage to tear it out. I feel the searing hurt of its passage and the cold gush of blood as I part with it.

The bloody thing wriggles and mewls, as I lie, torn and bleeding on the floor, and I wonder what everyone is waiting for, and whether they’ll get the hell out of here, and leave me to my private agony for a while. Then, a female demon scurries in with a blanket, and takes the thing away just as if it were any normal infant. A guard brings a bucket of water and a rag, and cleans me up roughly, if not unkindly. At least I manage to clench my teeth on any sounds of pain. They don’t give any other care to what must be a ragged, bloody wound, because they know I’ll heal, although they do unclip the manacles. I am still shackled and chained, but at least my hands are no longer behind my back. Then they leave me to get on with the blinding pain.

Someone else doesn’t though. I lie, wrapped in the red mists, and only gradually become aware of a soft voice, calling me. When I don’t respond, it becomes stronger, more imperious.

“Vampire!”

It’s someone – or something – in a cage, almost hidden from me by a fat stone pillar. I’ve taken virtually no notice of my fellow inmates since being imprisoned in this place. It appears that I might be here for some time yet, and perhaps it would be best to see what’s here with me, but just now, I want to be left alone. The voice keeps on at me, though.

“Vampire! Attend to me! You are Angelus, yes?”

I uncurl a little, trying to ignore the burning ache. This might be important. Maybe whoever this is knows something I should know. Maybe pigs might fly, but you just never know…

“Can’t you see I’m busy, just now?”

Even to me, my words sound harsh and laboured.

“You seem to me to be doing nothing worthwhile.”

“Okay, what do you want?”

“You can release me from this cage.”

The cage is a lot further away than the chains will go. Chains, as you know, aren’t renowned for their elasticity.

“Yeah. Right. And even if I could, where could we go?”

If anyone’s getting out of here, it’s going to be me.

“Once I am released from the magic of this confinement, I cannot be held here.”

“Oh? So, the cage is… special, then?”

I’d like a better look at the thing, but I’m really not up to standing just now, and any form of sitting up is quite out of the question. The best I can do is to shuffle on one hip as far to one side as the chains will allow, to try and see behind the pillar. The cage is small, less than 4 feet on a side. A normal human-shaped body – someone like me, for example – could only sit with knees and back bent. You’d soon get very stiff like that. In fact, someone has got very stiff like that. There is a body in the cage. I’m damned sure it isn’t what’s been speaking to me. It was humanoid, and it’s scrunched up, exactly as I would have imagined, but it’s desiccated. Mummified. I’ve seen some strange things in my time, but I know dead when I see it, and by that, I mean dead beyond any reanimation. Also in the cage is a shadow; a cloud; I’m not sure how to describe it. It looks as if the aurora borealis had been confined in there, and robbed of much of its colour.

And the cage is special. What I had idly supposed to be metal bars are, in fact, bars of energy. Look carefully, and they flicker. There’s light in this dungeon from the tiny clerestory windows – not that much, but enough for someone like me to see very clearly; enough to ensure that, during the day, flambeaux aren’t necessary, and so I cannot say that the flickering flame of torches is causing the effect. The colour isn’t quite right for bars, either. Steel is grey, a more or less silvery or brownish grey, and iron is black or red with rust. These bars are deep petrol blue.

“Watch.”

I do. The cloud moves towards the bars. There is no sudden flash or recoil, as you would expect with an energy field. The bars simply brighten a little, while the cloud dulls a little.

“The cage is drawing away my strength and my power, draining me. It will do this until there is nothing left of me. What the cage takes goes to the Wolf, the Ram and the Hart.”

“You mean they are living off you?”

Well, I suppose everything has to live.

“Not living, no. Adding to themselves. They were nothing until they trapped me. They were little more powerful than you, vampire. I was a King, a God, and they stole my strength. It made them what they became. Without that, they would have been much easier for you to defeat.”

Damn. We were lucky to win that war, and our losses were too heavy. Now I find they cheated, like an athlete on illegal substances.

“How long have they had you in there?”

“Almost as long as you have lived. Before that, they had another of my kind, and before that, another. This has gone on for millennia, and it has made them what they are, but up to now they have lost much of the energy they took from us. Now, they have found a way to keep it.”

Damn.

“If you’re a King, a God, how did they catch you? You and your kind?”

There’s a pause, and I can tell that this is a difficult question. It’s either embarrassing, or the cloud doesn’t know. I’d rather the former. If it doesn’t know, it can’t have so much power, and it may be lying to me. But perhaps, if it’s telling the truth, I could use a God-King. Like I could have used it seventy years ago. The pause stretches on. It’s probably not possible for a cloud to sigh, but I think this one does.

“Our time came and went, for all of us. We needed to wait out the lean times, the times when we could not thrive. We needed to wait until our strength could be restored and new kingdoms found.”

“That tells me nothing. Try harder.”

The silence deepens.

“Sometimes, there is a clash of universes. Billions of years ago, this happened to us, before this part of the universe that you occupy even existed. Another universe brushed against ours – only briefly, or there would have been nothing left at all. But, it brushed against our homelands, our dimension, and everything we had was destroyed. Because of the space-time disruptions, we could not leave our dimension with our powers intact, and so we placed ourselves in stasis. Then, when the universe had stabilised itself, that would have been the time for us to reappear, to reassume control, to become the God-Kings of all that lived and breathed and had being.

“But, something went wrong, and we did not wake up. Space-time had been changed forever, and it no longer answered to us in quite the same way. It no longer called to us, and we slept on. Solar systems formed around us, planets accreted around our resting places, and still we slept on.

“And then the Wolf, the Ram and the Hart, and their kin, came into being on these new planets. They were demons, no more powerful than you, perhaps even less so. But, they found ways of stealing power from others. They took a little here, a little there. Over time, it added up, and they had plenty of time. Then, they came into conflict with mankind, and they lost. They were forced into another dimension – this dimension, where time passes differently, and where everything now is old and used up.

“But, they stumbled on our place of rest, and have been using us, draining us, to enhance their own power. They take us straight from stasis, and into this cage. This isn’t easy for them – we have our own protections in place – but they are learning. As they grow in power, they will be able to take more of us.”

“The body is yours?”

“NO! You think that a being such as I could be contained in this shell of a thing? No. They tried to confine me further in this body, to make me more malleable because I refuse to give up my power. Now, they dare not come to take this shell away.

“Are there many like you?”

“Thousands. Thousands upon thousands.”

A dimension of God-Kings. Neither heaven nor hell would seem to be competent to protect us from that. But, what if I allow the three demigods to carry on leeching away the power of thousands and thousands of them, and growing stronger? They would rule the cosmos, with none to ever bring them down. I cannot let that happen. I wish Buffy were here. She could always see right to the heart of the matter, and often from a different angle to my own. We were a good team. An opinion from the Soul wouldn’t go amiss either, and I would dearly love to talk to Aurelius. I feel very much alone, and that isn’t something I’m accustomed to. Another thought occurs to me.

“How did you know who I am? And how do you know about me?”

It seems that this God-King even knew how old I am.

“Your victory over them was memorable. The beings in this dimension talked of little else for years. And memories are long, here. You are well known. There has been talk for weeks of your arrival. Why have you come here? They will be avenged on you if they can.”

I know. I’m afraid of that. I’m even more afraid that by putting myself in their clutches, I have jeopardised the treaty that keeps them off the Earth. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t know where the portal led. For my part, I promised to stay out of their dimension, yet here I am.

“What do you want from me?”

“I want you to open this cage and let me out, while I still have some power left in me. While I still have enough power to be revenged on these upstarts, these insects.”

Insects? It doesn’t know the half of it.

“Well, as you can see, I can’t even reach it at present.”

“No, but you will be able to. I can still see that much of the time line.”

“If that happens, we’ll see. Do you have a name?”

“Your simple anatomy could not pronounce my name. You may call me Illyria.”

Well, that seems simple enough. But should I release it, if ever I get a chance? I’ve no idea.

I’m kept there for another week, until my body has repaired itself – well, as much as it’s going to with these shackles from the insectoids still on. The cloud seems to have retreated into itself, and I’m glad of that. I don’t want to talk to anyone, and I don’t want to have to react to anyone talking to me. I simply curl up and go back to my dreams, listening for the faintest response from him. There’s nothing, but truly, I don’t care all that much. I simply want to stay lost in that happier time, with or without the Soul.

Nothing lasts forever, though, and when a squad of burly guards shows up, the leader kicking me rudely into acknowledging their presence, I know that my solitude is over. They have a blacksmith with them, and he strikes the chains off their tetherings on the pillar. There is no suggestion of removing the shackles or the dangling lengths of chain, though. Four of the guards grab an end of chain each and the leader tells me to come, as if I were a dog. I’m damned if I’m going to meet my fate naked.

“When I’m dressed.”

He looks at me, seemingly one warrior to another, and nods briefly. So, at least I have some clothes on when I’m taken to my worst enemies. The short journey there is fearsome, each step an agony as metal grinds on bone. My leg muscles can’t operate properly, with the weakened tendon attachments at my ankles, so it’s a slow procession, and they have to help me up the steepest of the stairs. Insufferable.

They take me into the great hall. It’s thronged with warriors and courtiers and general hangers-on. I stiffen my spine and try to walk more easily, but that’s a physical impossibility and so, with feet dragging, I limp down the corridor of space that my guard clears through the crowded masses, grateful now that the weight of the chains has been taken by those on either side of me. I don’t think that I could have dragged them this far. I have only my pride to bear me through this, and there’s little enough of that left.

There’s a throne at the end of the hall. Just one. I left all three alive, and the cloud told me that all three were drawing on its power. It’s too much of a puzzle just now. I must wait to see what transpires. A few yards from the foot of the throne, close by someone who I take to be a seneschal of some sort, the guards push me to the ground, not satisfied until I am flat on my belly, prostrate before whoever will come in to occupy that throne. So much for that pride, now lying with me in the dust.

The seneschal’s voice booms through the entire hall.

“Kneel before your god!”

Hell. There’s the sound of hundreds of people creaking and clanking to their knees, and then silence, broken only by hushed breathing. Then, there’s the soft sound of slippered feet, and the rustle of robes. At some silent signal, the guards pull me to my feet, then step back, leaving the chains to pool around me. The occupant of the throne is none of the three that I expected. It’s a woman. She surveys me, and I survey her. Surprisingly, she makes no move to stop me.

Genesis tells us ‘For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return’, and she seems to have taken that instruction at its word. She is gaunt and grey, her skin sloughing off in dusty particles. Her robes are a dusty black, tattered and faded as if they had spent centuries in the grave. Her hair might once have been lustrous, but now it’s lank and dry. Her scent is that of grave dust. I wonder if this is how I looked to Aurelius when he rescued me from the Orpheus. Or perhaps he never did. Perhaps everything is part of that nightmare hallucination. Perhaps I am still lost in Hell, and shall remain there forever.

The only parts of her that seem to be alive are her eyes, which are stormy grey. Then the inspection is over.

“Angelus, you have me to thank for your life.”

“Perhaps, Lady. Who is it that I should thank?”

“Until I give you leave, you may only call me the Lady.”

She cocks her head, as if listening to something only she can hear. When she speaks again, I wonder if it’s my thoughts that she heard.

“You expected to find my children here? You will not. I have decided to pay more attention to the affairs of this domain. My children are otherwise engaged.”

That could mean a lot of things. Now does not seem to be the best time to ask. So, I’ve bested the children, and now I have the dam to deal with? This could go very badly.

She lets my silence hang for a little while before continuing.

“Have you no thanks for me, then? They were my soldiers who went to rescue you from the Jun. Without that, you might have been there forever.”

“Why would you care about that?”

She hisses in displeasure.

“You vowed never to enter my territory uninvited, just as we gave an oath not to enter yours. You think that I would let your presence here go unremarked?”

Here it comes, I guess. Will she count the treaty as nullified, the peace that we sacrificed so much to buy for the Earth?

“You have broken your oath to us, and I should declare our agreement null and void.”

The pause here is purely for effect, I’m certain.

“But, we were told that you were brought here unwillingly, not knowing the destination. Is this true?”

Almost.

“I stepped into the portal of my own free will, but it was a portal that was stealing my people. I had no choice but to come after them, and it’s true that I didn’t know where it would lead me. I had no intention of trespassing here.”

“But you would have come, even if you had known?”

“In that case, you would have broken your oath. Yes, I would have come, and I would not have come alone.”

Her expression shifts, from stony to sly.

“The Jun are not sworn to us, and we have angered them for you, yet we still have no word of thanks from you.”

She isn’t going to let this go, is she? I’d think this conversation would be likely to go better if I weren’t still in chains. And yet, she has made a startling admission. The Jun are not many days travel from here, but they are not her subjects? I thought the three demigods ruled this entire dimension. I’m as sure as I can be that, once upon a time, they did.

“Then I thank you, Lady.”

“Words alone are empty, Angelus. A bargain was made on your behalf. Will you honour it, or shall I deliver you back to the Jun? They will not be happy at the loss of their Queen, and may think the worse of you.”

Damn the Jun. That bargain can only have been made by Ezrafel.

“What bargain would that be, Lady?”

“Five years of your life, Angelus. You are sold to me for five years of your life. My slave, to do with as I wish, and who will obey me in everything.”

Fuck. Still, five years… It could have been a lot worse. Had Ezrafel been able to ask me, I should have told him to do it. Still, a slave, for five years, in a land that I beat into a bloody defeat…

“You will keep me here? This does not involve my territories?”

“That is correct.”

“You will allow me to send a message to Aurelius? I don’t think you want him to come looking for me.”

He might do that, despite our argument. Or he might not.

“If you can find someone willing, and trustworthy, to take your message. But one messenger only.”

“Then I hold to the bargain.”

My word is given, and she knows it won’t be broken. Now she looks amused.

“Do you wish to see the one who has bargained away your freedom?”

Without waiting for an answer, she calls his name. This could be tricky. Ezrafel has done something that no warrior in this war-like culture could ever understand or forgive. He has brought me down to nothing, sold me to my worst enemy. They will expect me to kill him, here and now. That is why he is being shown to me. And yet, what choice did he have? He is a scholar. He could not have saved me alone. And he is my servant and my friend. She is looking out at the crowd, and I turn to watch.

Towards the back of the hall, Ezrafel is climbing to his feet. A demon strides into the kneeling mass and pulls him up, and then out towards the central walkway. The boy is clutching his sleeve, and is dragged out with him. When they reach me, Ezrafel stands silently, his face a mask of calm acceptance. The boy simply looks frightened and confused. Ignoring my own pain and weakness, I deal a backhand blow that knocks Ezrafel to the ground.

“Whatever happens to me here, for these five years that you have bargained away, you will share it. Do you understand?”

He picks himself up, slowly and painfully. The boy scrabbles on the floor for the pens and papers that have fallen from the Keeper’s satchel.

“I understand, Master.”

“I think it is you who do not fully understand, Angelus.”

I turn back to her, and see that she is enjoying something. What now, for pity’s sake?

“You will not spend five years here. It is five years of your life that are bargained away. Your life, in your dimension. Time runs differently here. You are mine, for one hundred years of my time.”

By the look on Ezrafel’s face, he didn’t know this either. But there really isn’t anything worth saying. In a deal with the devil, you’re going to get screwed.

“You must carry the mark of your servitude to me, but you are of no use half crippled.”

She calls the blacksmith forward. Carefully, he removes the shackles. Not carefully, with the intent of not hurting me more than necessary, but carefully so as not to damage the mechanism. It seems that iron may be more valuable here than I am. When he has finished that, he produces a larger, broader ring, with a slender bar across it, and a long chain. The leader of the guard takes the ring from him, and turns to her, doubtfully. She nods for him to proceed.

“This collar marks you as my slave. The form of it is your punishment for trespassing on my domain. I will spare your life, but I require your pain.”

The captain is standing at my side now.

“Can you remain still, or shall I have you held?”

“Just get on with it.”

He opens the iron collar to its full extent, and then presses the inner spike through my neck, just in front of the bones. As the pain blossoms through me, blood pours into my mouth, and I cannot swallow. Not yet. I wipe it away on my sleeve, careful not to move my head until he is finished. Even now, I’ve no wish to be decapitated. There’s plenty of time for that. There’s a hundred years. And then he snaps the collar shut. I don’t know which pain is the worst: the agony of that metal bar or the ache in my heart at what might be to come.

***

The child and I are gathered with the throng in the main hall. How the boy found me, I cannot guess, but he arrived a few days ago, and has stayed close by my side ever since. I have been told that my shameful bargain will be put to Angelus today. The seneschal has first dealt with several matters of business that I have been too distracted to understand. No one else is taking much notice either. They are all here to see the humiliation of my master, the degradation of which I am the cause. He has inflicted a great deal of destruction on many of those present, and they have long memories for that. They want to see him suffer, to witness it for themselves. To be part of it if they can.

And then there is the noise of heavily shod feet, marching slowly, more or less in step, entering the door at the very back of the hall. When I look round, they are bringing him in. There are doors much nearer the throne, but they mean to make him walk the length of this place, to be viewed by all.

He can barely stand, let alone walk. The child has shown me how the shackles were fitted to him, and I am shocked to discover that they remain in place, all these weeks later. Despite the fact that he is crippled, four of the guards each have an end of one of the chains wrapped tightly around their fist. He is begrimed with the sort of dirt you can only find in dungeons, and his skin and clothes show streaks of old blood. New blood is welling from his wrists and ankles as he limps down the hall. Not until everyone has had chance to gawp, and to see him thrown face down, prostrate on the floor, are we ordered to kneel for the entrance of the Sovereign here.

We remain kneeling when he is made to stand, but no one tells us we may not watch, so everyone does. She taunts him about the bargain that has been struck on his behalf, and then she taunts him about me. When I am brought to stand in front of him, I know that he is expected to kill me, and I don’t know where he will find the strength. I don’t know what else I could have done, but I am prepared for my end. I half thought that he might refuse to be enslaved, and that would have meant my death anyway. That was my part of the bargain.

The backhand blow across my cheek sends me to the floor, several feet from where I had been standing, and almost breaks my neck. How he managed it, I don’t know, and I can see a stream of fresh blood running from the wound made by the metal bar through his wrist. And then the truth is told. I have not condemned him to five years of slavery. I have condemned him to a hundred. Almost, I am ready to fall on the nearest soldier’s sword, but if he must endure it, then it is only just that I should, too. If he will allow it.

The blacksmith comes to remove the shackles and chains, and to replace them with something worse. Angelus stands immobile, his face expressionless, as the guard captain pushes that iron spike through his neck, and clamps the collar shut. Then he clips a chain on to it, lighter than the others, and hands the end up to the woman on the throne. I only know her as the Lady. She tugs on it a little, and a spasm of pain crosses Angelus’ face, gone as quickly as it came. Blood trickles down the sides of his neck.

“Come here and kneel.”

He walks to where she has indicated, a spot by the arm of her throne, and goes down onto one knee, facing the assembled court, his arms casually crossed one over the other, resting on his thigh, as relaxed as if he were simply surveying a rather attractive landscape. She presses her lips together in irritation, but makes no other sign. Then she drapes the chain over the arm of her throne, and addresses the crowd in the hall.

“Behold my slave, Angelus. Many of you will wish to be revenged on him for what he has done to you, but this I will not allow. I reserve that to myself, and you can be certain that he will know pain and humiliation enough for all. No one may cause him harm, except by my express instruction. If I send him to you, you will obey him as you obey me.”

She rises, and clicks her fingers at him, as one might do a dog. She walks from the hall, without even looking around to see whether he is behind her. He waits for a heartbeat and then, picking up the chain, he follows her out.

Throughout, he has been sustained by his pride, and I know that he has a full measure of that. I don’t know what dreadful future awaits him, but I hope with all my heart he will remember that it is what a man does that defiles him, not what is done to him by others.

The fun over, the crowd disperses, leaving the child and me to an uncertain future.

***

I follow her down a series of stone corridors, all of them cold and draughty, but she seems untroubled either by them or by me. There are guards every few yards, enough that I’m beginning to wonder about the politics around here. At last, we reach her private apartments, and they are as gloomy as the rest of this place. Certainly, the drapes could do with a damned good dusting, although there are plenty of attendants, both male and female. In the outer court is a pool of dark water. She takes a seat by the side of it. I’m not sure what is expected of me, so I stand by her side, the hateful chain still clenched in my fist.

“Whenever I stop, you will kneel. Don’t make me have to tell you again.”

So, I kneel.

“What has happened to Ezrafel…?”

I cannot even finish the sentence. The blow to my temple turns my head away from her, hard, and the pain from the bar through my neck is excruciating. She’s a hell of a lot stronger than she looks.

“You will never speak until I give you leave to do so. You will never question me.”

Oh, this is going to be fun.

“Take off your clothes and clean yourself up in there.”

She points to the black pool. I have serious doubts that the water in there is capable of getting anything clean, but I do as she has instructed. Just now, I’m not entirely sure whether I’m deciding to bide my time and take what chance offers me, or whether I’m simply resigning myself to a century of servitude. I know that Buffy wanted me to enter the service of the Powers That Be, and I pray to those same Powers that she has no idea of what has become of that wish. Perhaps they’ll listen, if it’s on her behalf. But, if I intended to force them into accepting me into their yoke, they’ve certainly had the last laugh. Briefly, I wonder whether this is what Father Robert had in mind.

The pool is dark because the water is almost frozen, and despite my doubts, all the dirt and blood sloughs off me. When I get out, my clothes have been taken away, no doubt by one of the ubiquitous attendants. I almost ask, but then I remember my instructions, although I can’t help a glance at where I left them as I kneel by her side.

“They will be mended and cleaned. You won’t need them for a while, but they will be given back to you in due course.”

She takes me through to the inner apartments. Here, the stone has been carved into fanciful shapes, none of them comforting. A mediaeval stonemason would have loved the sight of this. It would have given him inspiration for carvings of Hell and damnation.

Servants scurry around, bringing food and drink for her, and blood for me. So, she doesn’t mean to starve me, then. She sits at a dressing table, all the while nibbling on the tray of delicacies at her elbow. A slim demoness, no doubt an abigail of sorts, hastens into the room, carrying a brush and comb.

“Give them to him.”

Scandalised, the maid does so.

“Attend to your other duties. Angelus, you may brush my hair, and you may stand to do it.”

I don’t know how much more surreal this can get, although I’m afraid that I will find out, but for the next half hour, I brush the Lady’s hair. It’s thick, but dull and lifeless. I’ve spent a great deal of time brushing hair. How do you think Darla managed those elaborate hairstyles once wigs went out of fashion? Buffy used to like me to do that, too, particularly when she was tired or on edge. She said it soothed her. It seems to have the same effect on the woman in front of me, and for one tiny moment as she sits drowsing I think about snapping her neck and making a run for it. In the mirror, I see her eyes open wide, and even though I still have no reflection here, her stare connects with mine. She heard the thought, I’m sure. I must be careful here. So, I carry on brushing, and try not to think of anything except my task.

“Well done,” she murmurs, and I’m not sure whether she’s praising the brushing, or my self-discipline. “Enough.”

I put down the brush and comb, and make to kneel again, but she stops me. The she simply stands, waiting. Well-trained attendants remove her outer robes, putting them carefully away, and then start to strip away the inner ones. Each layer is the same dusty black, until they reach her inner shift, which is the grey of cerecloth. And then she is standing before me, as naked as I am. Her body would be beautiful – she is well shaped, full in breast and hip – except for two things. Three, if you wish to be pedantic.

The first is her skin. As with her face, it is grey and flaking, but here, under the robes, it is even more scabrous. Each hollow of her ribs is dark and shadowed, as if she were bruised.

And then there is the other. Others.

I once saw a deep-sea angler fish. I mean, really deep-sea, down in the abyssal depths, where few creatures live, and where those that do are very solitary, because there is so little food. There is no light. None at all, other than that made by the creatures themselves. Shut your eyes, and the darkness is still relieved a little by light filtering through the thin flesh of your eyelids. It is nothing like the darkness down in those depths. If you are a solitary fish down there, you’re going to have a problem finding a mate. And so, these angler fish have come up with a solution. The males are much, much smaller than the females. When they find a female, they don’t let her go. They burrow into her and then they lose themselves, becoming nothing more than an attached penis capable of producing sperm. What is left of them is supported entirely by the female. They are irrevocably part of her. She may have one of these parasite males, or two, or more.

The woman in front of me reminds me of that fish. She has a normal human body, apart from her grey, scabrous skin and her gauntness and her bruised look. She would be quite lush and desirable, without that corpse-like appearance. Except… She has the normal female complement of human genitals, and she has two… additions. One appears from the edge of her mound, sprouting from amongst the dark, curly hair. The other is lower, and looks as if it comes from the rear edge of the entry to her vagina. Neither are exactly like a penis, being much longer, slimmer, and more whip-like. But I can find nothing else to compare them to. They look different to her. They look like something that she has absorbed, until there is nothing left of them but this.

Perhaps they are males that she has devoured, as the angler fish devours hers. Perhaps she intends to do that to me. Every male of every species throughout the wide multiverse wants to be proud of his penis, but none would like to be reduced to nothing more than that. I’ve fucked some unsavoury things in my time, and she is far from that, but those… attachments… scare the shit out of me.

She moves over to the bed, a huge and dark thing, covered in drapes and skins that make it look barbaric. She puts one knee onto the bed, letting me see the slight parting of her thighs, and those two… penises, let’s call them penises… writhe a little, rearing up like snakes. I don’t think they like me being here.

“Come here.”

I feel like a reluctant schoolboy, dragging his feet to put off his punishment for as long as possible, but I think that I really must go to her. She takes the chain from my hand and hands it to one of her attendants. Clearly, privacy is not one of her requirements. She remains motionless, apparently expecting me to do something, and so I reach down and run my finger over the soft skin of the front penis. She laughs, a full, throaty, sexy laugh.

“Please me, and you will be safe.”

Safe has a lot of meanings. She might think that these are being kept safe. Still, I run my hands over her flanks, her breasts, her belly, getting the feel of her, trying out her sensitive spots. She is warm, warmer than a human, and she seems to be sensitive everywhere. She wants me to kiss her, and I do. The taste of her is old. Not unpleasant, just old, like everything in this place.

Her breasts are soft and yielding, though; the feel of her flesh as I run my hands over her hips and buttocks is warm and inviting; and her intimate taste is smoky and thrilling. When she thinks that I have pleasured her enough like that, she tugs me back up.

She’s warm and wet and willing, and I press forward into her. That is when I feel the penises start to move, like slim prehensile tails. The front one twines around my own sex, wrapping tightly around balls and prick like some exotic piece of jewellery. It’s going to be painful jewellery, though, because it releases hooks that bed themselves into my tender flesh. The other one starts to worm itself into my anus, and I’m really not at all sure what is going on here. I pull back a little, releasing my hold on her, and the front penis squeezes tight. That pain is lost in the larger one, though, as she reaches forward and pulls at the tethering chain, hard. Agony lances down my spine, and I know that she has nearly broken my neck. Once more, she hisses in displeasure.

“Never… never show reluctance again. Do you understand?”

She punctuates each word with a jerk on the chain. I can’t nod and so I tell her yes, I understand. She raises her hand in front of my face, and lets me watch her normal human nails grow into the talons of something that ought to have scaly legs. She puts those talons up to my cheek and then drags them viciously downwards. Blood starts to run down, dripping onto the darker bedding, but she seems not to care.

“That will be your only warning.”

I’ve always liked dangerous women, but I’m starting to feel outmatched, here. Nevertheless, even if I’m feeling outclassed, my own prick is clearly not. I thought it might have softened from my fear, and wondered how she would punish that transgression, but it has not. Far from it, in fact. And so I press forward, with that hooked whip of a penis wrapped around mine, and the rear one playing with my prostate. I hold back my own climax, uncertain of whether that is allowed, but this, too, is the wrong thing to do. She doesn’t punish me, simply instructs me to come, and as I do, those extra parts of her squeeze hard, and release streams of searing fire into my flesh. My roar is one of darkest ecstasy as the climax crashes through me, and my semen, as hot as she is, pours from my agonised cock.

Exhausted, I try to pull out of her, and find that I cannot. I am tied to her, as a dog is tied to a bitch, and shall remain so until those two penises choose to let me go. She keeps me tied to her for three days. She does not allow me to fail in my attentions to her. I must fuck her whenever she is ready, which is often, and she squeezes climax after climax from me, each one accompanied by injections of whatever toxins those things are using on me. Attendants come and go, although there is always one holding my leash, but I must stay buried within her, serving her whenever she pleases. For the first time in my existence I pray for my own salvation. It’s a good job I don’t actually expect an answer, because there is none.

And then it’s over. For now. She takes me back to the pool so that I can cleanse myself of sweat, and blood and semen, and her smoky, tangy secretions. This times she joins me, cavorting in the dark water as if she were born to it. When she leaves the pool, her skin seems less grey, healthier. I just feel exhausted, as if she had drained the life from me. If it were required of me, I would spend my entire existence providing for Buffy’s pleasure and count myself fortunate, but with this woman, I feel shamed and defiled. Oh, and very, very sore. Who’d have thought that would happen?

***

In their own tiny dimensionette, the Lady and her Consorts watch with mounting anger. They know what is happening in the hell to which Angelus has been consigned, and they are afraid that they have made a mistake. After all, he could not have been enslaved to this darker Lady without, at the very least, their acquiescence. She may consider herself to be a god, and they may well have left her to her own devices over the ages, this diminished predecessor of theirs whom they have displaced, but her dimension is still one where they have power. Now, they know what her current intention is, and it goes far beyond what they should permit.

They watch as Angelus is held in her unnatural embrace, and the Duality cannot help but shiver. They, too, are familiar with the angler fish and know all too well how apt that comparison is. The Lady that we know soothes and comforts her own Consorts. That could never be their fate, not with her. She vows it to them, to herself and to the Universe.

Gods come, and gods go, and there are a number of reasons for their going. We know that they can be diminished by lack of belief, for example. Or they can make too many mistakes. Or they may simply be the wrong gods for the time and place. Or they may be out of balance. That is what has happened in this hell dimension. Creation and Destruction, however they are called, whatever names are used for them, must be ruled by the Balance, as the Duality have given themselves over to be ruled by the Lady. But this rule is not a tyranny. The Balance must know when to give back that control to her Consorts. They must have power over her, too. This dark Lady has never understood that and, over the aeons, her Consorts have become nothing more than these appendages, with no power of their own. Just like the angler fish. To all intents and purposes, they have perished, and only the Balance remains, a straitjacket within which her hell is also perishing. It has lost its vitality, its ability to change. It has lost its place in the cycles of life and death that all living things must endure. It is dying, and she knows it. If it dies, she will not. But she will be utterly diminished, and she will be lost in the outer darkness, a wailing voice drowned in the winds of entropy.

She is taking steps to avoid that, and it won’t do, at all. But, interference might make things worse, and so the Lady and the Duality continue their vigil, sorting through the shifting patterns of the future to ensure that all their planning has not been in vain.

And now, it is the Lady who reassures her lovers that Angelus is strong enough for what faces him, and that all will be well. She hopes.

***

I remain there for just over a month. After those first three days, she attends to the needs of her court every day, allowing me to dress in simple servant’s robes that she provides, and to follow her there. I am kept kneeling at her side, holding my own chain of servitude, a trophy to be shown off to warriors and warlords, merchants and courtiers, and each night, I must service her as often as I can, held tethered to her and buried in her, exactly like those male angler fish.

Am I an obedient slave? Well, not very. I must know what has become of Ezrafel, for a start. When I try to ask, she punishes me, but not enough to incapacitate me. If she did, I should cease to be useful to her.

But, I am learning things. She may be showing me off to those who come to her court, but she is also showing her court to me, whether she knows it or not, and I can’t help but take notice. I’ve never been one for wallowing in my set-backs when there are things happening around me that I could perhaps take advantage of. Her territories are coming apart at the seams. Trade is stagnant, her lands can hardly feed themselves, her warlords are squabbling and her advisers give conflicting advice, none of which is worth a damn. She may consider herself to be a god, but she’s in a mess of trouble out there. And that isn’t the worst. The whole dimension was under her and her children’s control until I took a hand. Now, her territories have shrunk. Some of her satrapies have defected from her empire, setting up their own absolute realms. Some of the others are overrun by invaders, territories taken from her by force majeur. She’s losing badly, a constant haemorrhage of lands, making her domain ever poorer.

Today, the merchant guilds joined forces and respectfully but firmly declined to continue doing business with the northernmost strongholds. They have lost too many caravans on that route. It’s the most dangerous, but also the most lucrative. It’s a big loss to her treasury. Tonight, she is angry, and she takes it out on me. My entire body is sporting ragged red tears where she has dragged those formidable talons through skin and muscle, and sometimes down to bone. When at last she is satisfied, or at least appeased, she takes me to the pool and she, too, enters the water, the first time since that third day of my enslavement. She spends a long time in the pool. It’s far too cold for my liking, and so when I am clean, I sit on the edge, waiting for her. When she steps out of the water, she is different.

Her old, grey skin has sloughed away, taking with it the dark, bruised look that her body had. Now, her skin glows with health, the colour of rich cream. Her hair, too, is rejuvenated and as it dries, I find lustrous dark brown tresses, with a coppery glow. Her eyes are still that same stormy grey, though. Now, she is a very desirable woman, although she still has those extra parts. I wonder why, just as her kingdom is dying, so she seems to be returning to life. Perhaps it’s just a normal cycle? Or perhaps not.

When we return to her bedchamber, my own clothes are folded neatly on a table. When I have dressed, she calls her court into session.

“I am weary of this dissension in my lands, and my generals have been unable to bring it to an end. They have had ample time to try. As my lands grow fewer and poorer, my armies grow smaller and weaker. This must stop.

“My slave has shown us that he can defeat the best of my generals. He shall now replace one of them. Udell!”

She points to a grizzled, scarred, one-eyed veteran standing among a group of younger warriors.

“Udell. You are retired henceforth, and Angelus will take from you the Army of the North. He will bring the Northern Territories back under control, so that my merchants can trade. Take him!”

Members of her guard move forward to take the old general away to some unwelcome fate. The younger officers with Udell aren’t carrying weapons, but they move to stand between him and the approaching guards.

“Wait a minute!”

All heads turn towards me, and the Lady’s face twists in anger. Damn. I’ve forgotten the stricture on not speaking until you are spoken to. But, I don’t know how popular this general is. I don’t want an army at all, but if I’ve got to have one, the very last thing I want is control of a hostile army that’s trying to assassinate me at every step. I try to grovel a bit, but I’m not good at it.

“My apologies, Lady. But if you kill him, he cannot tell me the things I need to know.”

“And these are…?”

“What he has already done and why he has failed.”

She isn’t used to being questioned, but she’s not stupid, and she can see the sense in what I have said. She gestures her guards back to their places.

There is a great deal of hostile muttering from the younger officers, but I have to say that Udell looks relieved. That’s more than I can say for myself. Still, anything must be better than this, surely… He hands something over to her and she turns to me.

“Come here.”

What he gave her was a signet ring, the seal of one of her generals, and she tosses it to me.

“You will deal with this rebellion for me.”

“First, I’ll deal with the Jun.”

She hisses in displeasure, and I hurry on.

“They are close to you and they are angry. You said so yourself. If I am away in the north, I cannot also be here if the Jun seek revenge. I should deal with them before I leave. Besides, the northern army needs to see that they can have confidence in me to lead them. What better than a demonstration?”

And I cannot leave that nest to take more of my people. Nor can I leave those who are already there.

Now she looks amused, and so it is arranged. There are two hundred soldiers from my new army here as Udell’s escort. Tomorrow, I will take those, and one hundred of the palace guard to make up the numbers, and with this pitifully tiny force, I will exterminate the Jun.

Back in her chambers, she has me kneeling in silence for what must be half an hour, while she attends to various trivial matters. Her face tells me nothing. When at last she turns her attention to me, it isn’t good. “You were insubordinate. You questioned me. You gainsaid me in front of others. I should kill you for that.”

“Then you won’t get your northern territories back.”

Her talons rake my cheek again, tearing deep enough to cut my tongue.

“Then you will pay in pain, instead.”

And I do. She is a mistress of pain, and she puts her knowledge to good use that night. It takes a lot to make me scream, and even more to make me beg, but she manages it, often. The attendants, stony-faced, seem to have seen it all before.

***

Pav and I are waiting with the soldiers for Angelus to arrive. This dark Lady seems to have taken seriously his judgement that I should share his fate, and I am to go on campaign with him. The boy won’t leave me, and since he is fed here and has nowhere else to go, I welcome his company, simple though he undoubtedly is.

When Angelus appears, the Lady is with him, dressed for riding. It seems that she has decided to see for herself what he can do. He seems somewhat stiff and ungainly, as if he is carrying injuries that we cannot see, and I wonder what has happened to him. She is different, too. She isn’t the gaunt grey creature she was when I first came here, and I wonder where her new vigour has come from. Has she stolen life from him? How can she, when he’s already dead? I will watch, and see. The soldiers fall silent when they walk into the outer courtyard, and there is only the creak of leather as the mounts sidle around. They aren’t horses. They’re nothing like that. But, they still have saddles and bridles, of a sort.

When she has everyone’s attention, she makes him kneel in the centre of the courtyard with head bowed, like the captive that he is, although never did any captive seem so untouched by his captivity as this man. Then she removes the chain that she has been using as a leash. I think that she will also remove the collar, but she does not. She simply hands the chain to him and tells him to rise. The symbolism isn’t lost on anyone. She is giving him enough leeway to do whatever needs doing, but she will be asking for the leash back.

He asks for something, in a voice so low that I cannot hear. A tic of anger touches her features, and she seems about to refuse, but he says something else to mollify her and, after a few heartbeats of uncertainty, she sends an attendant to fulfil his request. Whatever it is that he wanted, we don’t wait for it, but set off at a full gallop, the boy clinging on to me for dear life, and I clinging onto the mane of the dreadful beast I have been given.

***

It’s clear that the successful hit and run tactics used to rescue me aren’t going to work so easily again. The scouts that I’ve sent ahead, soldiers who were there last time, tell me that there are many more warriors. Reinforcements have come from somewhere. There’s a chance that they are massing to invade the Lady’s heartlands, and occasionally I see a worried frown mar her new beauty as the reports come in.

I’m not here for a siege. Sieges take time, and the soldiers that you don’t lose to the enemy, you often lose to disease and desertion. I don’t have the numbers for that. Besides, while I’m sitting around outside this castle, there’s the chance that someone might come up behind me with a bigger army, and then I’d be between a rock and a hard place. There is no black powder for blowing things up, and precious few who can work magic, none of them here, unless, of course, the Lady chooses to join in. The iron that we have for new weapons is whatever iron we can take from defeated enemies. This place would be going to hell in a handbasket, if it weren’t already there. Ezrafel and the boy are here, and I’m pleased to see a friendly face. And I owe the boy. I shan’t forget that.

I have been talking to Udell and his – my – officers. At first he was inclined to be disdainful, but when I showed him that I intended to offer him respect, although not to the point of taking any bullshit from him, he came around a little. The officers are reserving judgement. I suppose it isn’t that often that their general is the one who inflicted the most crushing defeat on them and who is now an abject slave, lower in status than their meanest camp follower. Still, my victory was over a thousand of their years ago, and the younger ones aren’t sure how much is truth and how much fiction, so I can give them some room for doubt.

Udell has told me about the Jun. Much of it I learned first hand, of course, but I haven’t caught him in a lie, so that helps. The Jun are in fact two different species living in symbiosis. In each hive, the Queen rules them all, and they consider her almost a goddess. They will fight to the death to protect her, down to the meanest worker. Good. I mean to make them do just that.

The balance of opinion is that there is some sort of communication between hives, and that a neighbouring hive, knowing that there is a vacancy, will be there for a takeover. The best guess is that a large contingent of warriors will have come to make sure an appropriate welcome is extended to the new queen. Perhaps she’s on her way even now. My scouts have told me of traffic on one of the trails from the castle, and that helps us pinpoint where the help has come from. It’s a hive about two days fast ride from here, to the north. That suits me fine.

When we reach the castle, it’s clear that the scouts have done their job well. We’re considerably outnumbered – there are far more warriors here than during my stay. I’m not worried about that. Before we can get down to business, we have to wait for what the Lady had promised me. It’s a few hours behind us, but eventually it comes.

We’ve made our camp behind the ridge of rock that borders this red desert. The Jun’s castle is on a separate rocky outcrop, about four hundred yards from the ridge. Hopefully, they don’t know we’re here yet. Ezrafel and the boy, Pav, have become my servants, but there’s little chance to talk to them. The Lady still requires my time.

When we are ready, and everyone knows what they are to do, we wait for the sun to set. As it falls behind the ridge, the massed warriors pour down that ridge to the desert below, galloping along the concealing edge of the fertile oasis as if they were attempting another smash and grab. It almost works, too, which tells me that the Jun do not learn quickly, and there are a few skirmishes but the castle gates are shut just in time. My warriors retreat, in good order. Well, quite a lot of them do. About a third find hiding places for themselves and their mounts around the base of that outcrop, unnoticed by the defenders in the chaos of the engagement. The rest of us make camp in plain view.

In the morning, I walk out to a point halfway between my camp and the castle. I am accompanied by the captain of the squad that rescued me, and he is carrying my secret weapon. I have a hammer, rope and stakes. And a sword.

As the sun rises, I can hear the castle defenders chittering and clicking behind their walls. I know they can see me. I hammer a double line of stakes, five on a side, and Pias, the captain, lays his bundle down in the middle. He leaves it until the last minute to remove the blanket in which it is wrapped. He’s brought me the grub that was hatched from my body; it’s no longer a grub and it’s a lot bigger, now. It has legs and a proper head: eight jointed legs and a pair of mantis arms. It’s going to be a queen, apparently one of the very few normally hatched in a successful hive. The old queens don’t like too much competition. Apparently, they do like vampire bodies for young queens. Gives the offspring something special, I’m told. It seems that the Jun were preparing for a new hive, to encroach further on the Lady’s territory. I suppose that might be why their portal trap was located close to two vampire families. It’s the work of a few moments to fasten the rope to the stakes, then wind it around the creature’s limbs and over its body. In those few moments, it wakes from a comfortable doze and doesn’t like what it sees. It starts to mewl and screel, flopping around to escape the bite of the rope. And the defenders see it. I can hear the pandemonium behind the walls. I imagine that they can recognise the scent, because this is their own young queen, not some usurper from another hive. The natives are turning on the newcomers, I bet, making my job all the easier.

I unsheathe the sword that I’ve commandeered. It’s poor workmanship, but the best I could find, and it will suffice for this job. Pias moves back a little, and I take position behind the youngster, giving those in the castle the best possible view. I can’t speak their language, but it doesn’t matter, because this will speak for me. I raise the sword high, and then bring it down hard on the nearest leg. The creature’s scream is like that of a rabbit. It’s not unlike a woman’s, really. I could just have ripped the limb off, but this is so much more dramatic.

The noise from inside the castle ceases for one long drawn-out moment, and then there is cacophony. It’s like feeding time at an insect zoo. Another leg comes off, and the creature is almost sobbing now. Let it sob. It made its body from mine, and I think that gives me the right to do with it as I will. This is what I will.

By the time I’ve severed all four legs and the arm on that side of the creature, the hive can stand no more. The gates burst wide open, and the Jun pour out of there, a small horde of them. Two troopers gallop up leading our mounts, and Pias and I swing into the saddle to begin the slaughter. None of the defenders see the men that have hidden at the base of the rock, as they run up the ramp and bar the castle gates against the return of the Jun warriors, leaving them out in the open to face me and mine. My men are well trained, and it doesn’t last long.

When it’s over, I thought that I would be the first one inside that place, destroying anything that’s left, but I’m not. Perhaps I would find more peace if I were to do that, but I cannot face going in there again. Not just yet. I send Pias in. It takes a while, but there’s very little fighting. When he comes out, he has a small bevy of nursemaids and their wriggling charges, a handful of surviving hosts-to-be of various species, and a wagonload of plunder. It’s little enough from an entire castle, but most of it is weapons. Iron weapons. Their armour won’t fit us, so that is only of value in trade, or melted down. There’s also a long train of mounts, different from our own, but strong and speedy.

I look at the rescued captives. Dyryke is there, and a few vampires who I guess are mine, and a small gaggle of others.

“No more than this?”

“Not that could be saved. We killed the rest.”

I would have done the same. I turn to inspect the captives. Dyryke. Three vampires I don’t know, but they belong to the Mannheims or the Creons. I can smell it on them. They must be Gustav, Eleni and Theodora. In addition, there are half a dozen unfamiliar demons, and a pair of humans. The humans are villagers from the Creon’s territory. I can smell that on them, too. Who to trust? I’m pretty sure I know what Buffy would expect.

I call the humans over. They’re a boy and girl, young lovers, which I imagine is how they got caught in that lovers’ lane, and they’ve long since cried themselves out. I know their language, which is useful because I’m sure they won’t know mine.

“I was caught as you were, close to your village. My price for being rescued was service to the Lady over there. I am allowed to send a messenger to my people. Without that, they will come looking for me, and there will be war. If I can send you both, will you take that message for me?”

The hope that shines out of their faces is painful to see. She said I might send only one. The boy clutches the girl’s hand and straightens his shoulders.

“Yes, sir. We promise.”

Sir. If he knew… Well, he must.

“I am not what you think, and you should know more than you do, before you give your oath.”

They look confused and then, as I put on my demon face, terrified. But, they don’t try to run. As I said, I think they’re all cried out.

“The people I will send you to find are vampires, like me. But, if you tell them that I sent you, you will be unharmed. I promise.”

He turns to his lover, taking her head between his hands and pressing his forehead to hers. His voice is soft.

“We would be dead without him.”

She is as pale as I am, but she breaks contact with him and nods.

“Yes, sir. We will take your message.”

I walk over to where the Lady is seated. She has been watching the exchange with curiosity.

“Do you not understand my words, Angelus? I said one.”

“The others here will serve with me, in your army. These are useless for that. I’ve won you a victory, at the cost of very few of your soldiers. Give me these two, in exchange for that. You can take the balance of the payment out of my hide, later. That seems to give you pleasure enough.”

She chooses to be amused, but I’m damn sure I’m going to pay.

And so, I have my messengers. Whether I can trust them remains to be seen. I take pen and paper from Ezrafel, and write a brief note for Aurelius. It may be five years before I return. Don’t come after me. Do as you think fit with what is mine.

On the outside, I write the directions to guide them to him, and then I hand them the folded note. On a whim, I take the chain from around my neck, the chain that holds the wedding ring I gave to Buffy. It doesn’t belong in Hell, and it shouldn’t be tarnished by what is going to happen here. As the boy stands, turning my note round and round in his nervous fingers, I place the chain around the girl’s neck.

“Tell me your names.”

“I am Kistur, and she is Jetta.”

“Well, Kistur and Jetta, that ring is the thing I value above all else, but it will ensure your safety. Show it to the doorkeeper at Aurelius’ house, and no one will harm you. Then give it to Aurelius, to keep for me. Do as I ask, and I shall be in your debt. You will find that my obligation to you is a valuable thing. Play me false, and I will hunt down you and your descendants for eternity. Now, do you still wish to go?”

They are frightened, but they nod. I move to stand by the Lady. She closes her eyes for a moment, and they are gone. I can only trust that she, in her turn, hasn’t played me false. If she has, there’s damn all I can do about it. Now for the next thing.

“Can you burn the castle down?”

She glares at my impertinence – I forgot the initial grovelling – and in any event is not pleased with my request.

“I will not. That is my castle, and I will reclaim it.”

I almost snarl with frustration. I’ve only ever known one woman who truly understood warfare. Even Faith didn’t have the overall understanding that Buffy had.

“You want me to clean up your northern territories for you, and the Jun have another hive on the north road. Your people say that there is communication between hives. I need to send a message to them, and to all the other species not under your rule. You can always build another castle, but this one must be slighted!”

I remember myself.

“Please.”

She isn’t happy, but eventually she agrees. She will understand, soon enough. I have Pias take all the living Jun back inside: offspring, nursemaids, cleaners, wounded warriors, and the maimed young queen, dragged from beneath a pile of warriors that died defending her. Then he bars the doors shut from the outside. The dead are left scattered on the desert dust, to send their own message.

“Now, Lady, burn it down.”

And she does.

***

The goddess stands at a window, watching the long train of soldiers heading north. They are far away now, but she can still see Angelus at their head, his back stiff and straight as if he can feel her eyes on him. He took his punishment well, last night. As the column finally disappears from sight, she wonders whether she has done all the right things. Prophecies are such tricky things, and she has no great gift of foresight herself. She’s not even sure whether she can trust those who have.

She can sense that her consorts, diminished as they are, are pleased that he is gone. They don’t like it when she takes another to her bed, although they are obedient to her. They learned that obedience after rebelling against her mastery of them, trying to assert their own power, their own freedom of action, once too often, and so she took everything for her own. They exist within her, but on the outside, all that is left of them is what she needs to ensure her continued fertility. When she has a reason to be fertile, of course. She still cares for them, though, and will take none in their place.

Angelus. Will he do as prophecy says he will, and save her territories? She can’t term her lands any more than that, now, where once there was an empire, an entire dimension. That was before he brought her children down, weakened them so much that the subject peoples were encouraged to rebel. There was war after war after war, and eventually her children were left with only these heartlands. Now, she has sent them off on other tasks, and she has reasserted her authority, such as it is.

She remembers the time, too, when she ruled more than this dimension, until that upstart trio displaced her. First them, and then the vampire. She may look human, but the snarl in her throat at that recollection has nothing of humanity in it. Why the other Lady and her Consorts have left her here, she doesn’t know, but she does know that they could oust her if they wished. They have enough power. She wants to change that. She wants everything back, but first things first. This dimension. The vampire will give her that. Prophecy says as much. It says more, too, but she hasn’t yet understood all of it. That worries her.

She was loath to let him go – she could have had so much more fun from him, and fun has been missing from her existence for a very long time – but she will enjoy watching him bleed to rebuild what he so casually destroyed. As her territories are returned, and as the different peoples learn to worship and fear their goddess again, so her power will grow. She will at last be able to put aside the nightmares of being no more than a wailing voice in the outer darkness. Little by little, she will recover everything that she has lost. First the vampire, and then the others. She will make that trio weep.

His pain and humiliation have fed the darkest heart of her, but there is another thing she has had from him, something of which he is completely ignorant, and that she will also enjoy. It is something that has renewed her own vitality, giving her back the beauty of her youth. A slow and secret smile comes to her face as she watches the column of soldiers fade into the distance.

***

Something I do each night is to write up my journal. I am Chronicler of the House of Aurelius, and this record is my responsibility. Tonight, as I labour at my task, Angelus is drawing. He has his own journal, in which he keeps a record of each demon species that we meet, as assiduously as if he were saving the information for Giles and Wesley. He’s drawing the people we are going to kill tomorrow. He’s been doing this for almost a hundred years.

I know I look only a very little changed – perhaps more lined than I used to be. My species lives a very long time, barring accidents or foul play. Still, after a century, I should look older than this. The boy, Pav, is still with us and he, too, looks little older than he did when first Angelus found him. The years here have lagged, and we have felt every minute, every second of them, but it is as if time, like this land, were too impoverished to make much impression.

Angelus, of course, looks no different than he has done for centuries. Looks can be deceiving, though. This is not the Angelus of a hundred years ago. That one was dangerous, and dangerously attractive. This one is grim and forbidding, and has gone far beyond dangerous. In memory of his deeds, they call him Abaddon. Hell itself. The Devil. After his first victory over the Jun, we escorted the Lady back to her castle. She kept him for the night, and when he joined us the next morning, we could all see that he was in a great deal of pain, although he would not talk of it.

And so we left that dark Lady and went north. Word of his coming went before him like news of a plague, as well it might. Strongholds that yielded to him immediately were spared, provided they swore fealty to his mistress and provided booty to pay his army. Strongholds that resisted were razed to the ground, their defenders slaughtered, every man, woman and child put to the sword, or worse, their possessions divided up amongst his men. Unfortified towns and cities met the same ultimatums and the same outcomes. Within months, he was feared across the whole northern territories. That was just the start.

She sends instructions, and he sends reports and responses, but she only rarely calls for him beyond the annual visit that he must pay. He will never speak of it, although there are rumours – and worse. Sometimes, his soldiers murmur against her but he will personally beat anyone he hears. I think it’s out of fear that she will know and be revenged on them, rather than any love for her.

It became clear very early on that the vampires he had come here to bring back had no talent at all for war, and were likely to get themselves killed sooner rather than later. He put them in charge of the baggage train for a while, and then, the next time he saw her, I know that he asked her to send them back. I know nothing more of that discussion, but when he returned, he was ill, taking to his bed for two days, and wouldn’t let me attend to him. But, the vampires went back. He gave them a price to pay for their freedom – their silence with regards his whereabouts, and a promise that they and their kinsmen would not prey on the surrounding villages. Perhaps he was thinking of his messengers, Kistur and Jetta. In any event, they were returned, and so we were alone.

He spent ten years as her general with this northern army, pushing the frontiers of her domain further north than they had been for centuries. Then, she made him general of all her armies, and she now has her empire back. She is far more powerful than she was when we arrived, perhaps more powerful than when he tore this realm down. I suspect she wants more, though, something better than this worn-out dimension, and I believe that Angelus suspects that, too.

He still wears her iron collar. I imagined that, once out of her sight, he would take the hateful thing off, to spare himself the pain, if not the humiliation, but he has not. Strangely, it has saved his life on more than one occasion. Demons here know how to kill vampires, and many a warrior has tried to decapitate him. Some would have succeeded, had that collar not turned their blades. Once, its protection came at the price of a broken neck, and that took weeks to heal. Even his soldiers expected him to remove it then, but he did not. It was not, you understand, the first serious injury that he had received, nor was it the last. He has never spared himself, and I have learned to deal with all manner of battlefield injuries. There is little human blood to be had here, none at all on campaign, and he heals more slowly, even with the best blood that we can find. That does not make him more cautious, though.

His soldiers worship him. Oh, not as a god, for they know very well what he is, but as a leader who is careful of their lives. At first, even the most battle hardened veterans were shocked at his savagery, but then they saw that more and more rebel states laid down their arms rather than face his retribution, and that meant his army did not have to fight, and the soldiers did not have to die. Professional warriors appreciate that sort of thing. Blood money from the conquered states, given out as loot, probably helped as well.

He is ruthless, then, even in his dealings with his own men. Tonight, on my way here from the mess tent, I passed a warrior who had been chained to a post by his ankles. He could not be manacled, because his severed hands had been tied around his neck. Tomorrow, he will be allowed to leave, but he will be given no aid; he must shift for himself, or die. It was an exemplary punishment, decreed by Angelus in the same calm manner in which he might have requested his evening meal. The man was caught stealing from his comrades. They think the punishment fair.

Angelus will accept almost nothing for himself. He will not even take clothing and armour from the Lady, insisting on scavenging the best that can be found on the battlefield. Now, he is dressed in a collection of leather acquired after different battles and from different species. He looks like a barbarian. I suppose that is what he now is. But, it is almost a superstition with him, as if he had learned from the story of Persephone in the Underworld, and decided that accepting anything from the Lady would condemn him to remain here forever. He must take what food he can get, of course, even from her, but all he asks her for is pens, ink and paper for me. And he will use them himself, for his journal.

He isn’t entirely celibate here. Sometimes, he will find a female hiring herself out, or a willing boy, and I have seen him select terrified captives and find some sort of release with them. What those captives never understand is that those he chooses are better off with him than with the army. He rarely looks for those who are too much like humans, though, and he never takes any with blonde hair.

I know how vampires view sex in the cementing of bonds of family or friendship, and this alone tells me how deeply cut off he is from any real form of companionship. He holds himself aloof from everyone, and the boy and I are the nearest thing that he has to friends, even after all this time. My species does not use sex in the same way that vampires do, and he has never, ever intimated that a liaison with me would be desirable. But I would offer it, if I thought that it would help him in any way: if it would lift the grimness from his face for just an hour.

During our time here, he has led me into the most appalling dangers, time and time again. The thing is, he always fetches me back out again. Like his men, I am devoted to him, and I pray that, when we get out of here, he will be able to find himself once more.

The last three years have been spent fighting other enemies. Strangers. Migrations of entire peoples, driven here by other migrations. Nations from beyond this dimension are on the move, and we do not know why. Tonight, we are camped at a place called the Hungry Hushes. It is a land of hills and valleys. The hillsides are loose scree and shale, and the valleys, or hushes, seem to be waterworn, although there is only a single small, meandering stream now. The vegetation is poor and thin, and the soil almost nonexistent, except on the highest shoulders of the hills, where there is enough to sustain a thin sward of sheep-nibbled grass. Well, they look a bit like sheep, anyway, and are just as woolly-headed.

This is not a natural landscape, I am told. It was created by lead miners, and they used that stream to help them process the ore more quickly, diverting it to one place after another, where it has carved out these valleys. The mines are barren now, like the land. So, we are camped on the ings, for so the shepherd people term their little undulating meadows, in front of the Hungry Hushes, with a large part of the army camped on the hills behind us. It is almost winter here, and the wind is one that the natives call nithering. It comes from the north-east, from a land of permanent ice, and it has knives in it. Within days, they tell me, the grass, such as it is, will be crisped and seared, and the sheep things will have to be moved to lower ground before they become trapped by sudden snowfall, and starve. If we don’t resolve this war quickly, we shall be trapped here, too. Not this year. Angelus won’t let it happen this year. A different year, and he might not have cared, but this year, our time is up. I have no idea what season it is in my own world, or on Earth, but I am certain that Angelus knows very well. He thinks that I don’t know – or perhaps he simply pretends to think that – but each year, he remembers her birthday, and their anniversary. He picks wildflowers, and leaves them somewhere that he thinks she might be able to see them.

The enemy is about two miles away, within sight if it weren’t for the lie of the land, and tomorrow we shall fight them. A scout of theirs has been captured, and is of a species that we have not seen before. Angelus has people endeavouring to make the unfortunate man tell them why a whole nation is trying to enter our boundaries; meantime he sits here and draws what he has seen, and I complete today’s entry in my journal. Pav sits hunched in a corner, out of the draughts, and watches us, with simple pleasure on his face.

We both cease these peaceable pursuits when a scream tears through the night. It hasn’t been the first scream – we have the scout, after all – but this is different. It’s a woman’s scream, and it is much closer. Angelus puts down his journal and goes to speak to the guard at the entrance to his tent. The guard goes away, and when he returns, there is the murmur of voices, and then Angelus is gone, with Pav following. If someone is raping a woman, there will be other things than hands cut off before the night is out.

I’m tempted to follow, but his journal lies open on the makeshift bed. I rarely see what he puts in there – he is very secretive about it, because he uses it as a diary. I won’t abuse the trust he has in me – well, not too much – but I see that something is written on the opposite page from the drawing he was working on. It looks like verses, and I am intrigued. Surely it can’t hurt to look at a poem? He never writes his own verses, but over his lifetime he has read, and remembered, many. Perhaps seeing which one he has chosen to remember tonight will tell me something of his thoughts.

My love is of a birth as rare
As 'tis, for object, strange and high;
It was begotten by Despair,
Upon Impossibility.

Magnanimous Despair alone
Could show me so divine a thing,
Where feeble hope could ne'er have flown,
But vainly flapped its tinsel wing.

And yet I quickly might arrive
Where my extended soul is fixed;
But Fate does iron wedges drive,
And always crowds itself betwixt.

For Fate with jealous eye does see
Two perfect loves, nor lets them close;
Their union would her ruin be,
And her tyrannic power depose.

And therefore her decrees of steel
Us as the distant poles have placed,
(Though Love's whole world on us doth wheel),
Not by themselves to be embraced,

Unless the giddy heaven fall,
And earth some new convulsion tear.
And, us to join, the world should all
Be cramp'd into a planisphere.

As lines, so love's oblique, may well
Themselves in every angle greet:
But ours, so truly parallel,
Though infinite, can never meet.

Therefore the love which us doth bind,
But Fate so enviously debars,
Is the conjunction of the mind,
And opposition of the stars.

Is that how he feels? Or is that for Angel? Oh, yes, I know now what he did, a hundred years ago. There has never been any outward sign of the guilt-ridden soul, but that sounds as though it were written for him.

And then Pav returns and tugs my sleeve to follow him.

***

I may be drawing the people I’m going to slaughter tomorrow, but I am thinking about Angel, wondering whether that soul could fill the hollowness within me. Something has to, because there doesn’t seem to be anything of me left. But, he is still silent within me, even after all this time. He never managed to spend any appreciable length of time with his love, so at least he didn’t bring to her what I did, and I have been reflecting on all my many failings in that respect. I gave her barrenness, for one, and that has been tonight’s lesson. If ever I find my way back to Earth, to my version of it, anyway, there will be nothing of her left there. No seed. No young life that carries anything of her in it. That was all my fault, me and my jealousy. To see her eyes in a different face, hear her voice from another throat – that would have been an exquisite sort of torment, one that perhaps only he or I could fully appreciate. But it would have been so much better than nothing. I might not always have thought so, but I know it to be true, now.

And I am thinking of the time that he spent in a different hell than this one, buying us our life together. That was another place where time moves differently, and the length of years he spent there would be unbearable to me. If I thought that I was fated to duplicate that time of deprivation, I should stake myself tonight. On those thoughts, I have recalled a particularly apt Andrew Marvell poem, and I write it down for him, to show I understand. And I open my heart to him, such of it as I still have, to acknowledge my fault that there is nothing of her left to walk the Earth, with or without me. Just like all the times before, there is no sign that he has heard my confession.

Then there is a woman’s scream, and I know it is from the camp of our latest set of prisoners. Well, they hardly merit the word ‘prisoner’. They’re a small tribe that have been driven from their homeland in some remote and inaccessible corner of this dimension that I haven’t yet reached. Other, stronger, migrants are driving all other species out. Those are tomorrow’s target. So, we rounded these people up and gave them shelter for a few nights. Maybe they can go home after tomorrow, maybe not. Their tents are at the base of these barren hills, not too far from my own tent. They’ll stay here with the baggage train while we do the business.

The guard comes to tell me it’s nothing to worry about, although some of the male prisoners have asked for their knives to be returned to them – we took away their bladed weapons, just in case. A woman is in labour, and it’s going badly.

When I get there, it is indeed going badly. Half a dozen men are gathered around one of the pitiful, makeshift shelters, with knives and sturdy shears that have been returned to them by the guards. It seems the soldiers know what must happen. When the tribesmen see me, they apologise for disturbing me, promising that her cries will end soon. They are frightened to death of me, terrified that I will punish them or kill them, yet still they try to protect the woman inside, blocking the entrance to keep me out. I simply push past them.

This species is mainly humanoid, although it’s the differences that are going to kill, tonight. She’s lying on a heap of old rags, which are now heavily stained with orange blood. Her knees are raised, and a couple of old women are struggling to help the child, which is in the wrong position, I think. I can see a foot, appearing and disappearing as she tries to push it out. A man who I take to be her husband is sitting by her, holding her hand. His arm is bloody, where she has dug her claws into him in her pain.

I crouch down on the other side of her, smoothing her sweaty hair back with my hand. Only then does her husband see who has entered his tent and intruded on their pain. He tries to stutter an apology, but I tell him to be quiet. Then I ask him what is the matter. He pulls off his tunic to show me. His species has protruding rib spines, almost like a second, external rib cage, with the bony spines sweeping downwards and around to the front. The spines are jointed, and linked by a gaudily coloured membrane, and can be opened up, like the giant neck frill of some lizards, to present a more threatening appearance in this peaceful species. He tells me that, in a normal delivery, the spines are soft and rubbery until after birth, and the baby is born head first so that it can slip easily out. His child is coming the wrong way, and for some reason, the spines have already hardened. It’s perhaps been caused by the hardships and terrors they have faced when they were driven from their home. Whatever, the baby’s spines are lodged deep in the flesh of the woman’s upper birth canal, and every contraction is driving them deeper. It cannot be born. Both of them are exhausted, and his wife is in danger of bleeding to death. Unless something is done, they will both die. He has chosen to save his wife, so they must bring the child out. It will have to come out in pieces.

The woman is weak, and further weakened by her distress. I look to the midwives.

“Is the child still alive?”

They nod, grimly. From the amount of blood that she is losing, they have no time to wait for the baby to die naturally. I take her other hand.

“Do you know what I am?”

She shakes her head, confused.

“I am a vampire. I live on blood and one of my greatest talents is knowing how to drain a living being to death.”

Fear blossoms afresh on both their faces. If they truly knew how talented I am at other forms of death and destruction, that expression would never leave them.

“Please sir, don’t hurt my wife. She’s in enough pain already. We’ll be as quick as we can.”

“You misunderstand me. The babe is still living. I can make sure that death is quick and painless, if you want me to.”

She clutches onto my hand as fresh tears fall, and she cries out as a new wave of contractions tries in vain to squeeze the infant out. She cannot speak, but she nods, doing the best she can for her child, even unto death. I send the husband out, to bring the men in only on my word, and then I ask the midwives to leave us. This should be a more private moment.

I pull her shift down to cover her as much as I can, and then I pick up a piece of the ragged bedding to seize that slippery, transient foot. She spreads her legs as far as she is able, to give easier access, and I concentrate on the task in hand. I try not to think that this could be Buffy’s child. Never mine, of course…

The foot is very like a human’s, and the circulatory system almost the same. So small and delicate… so perfect. Just on the inside of the ankle, I find what I am looking for. The blood, when it hits my tongue, is bitter and mouth-puckering, but I don’t stop, not until I hear that frail heartbeat slow and then stop. Even then, I suck for a little longer, just in case.

The woman is crying now, in great, gusting sobs, but she still tries to thank me as I leave the tent. She tries to thank me for killing her son. Grim-faced, the men move in with their blades and cutters. I don’t stay to watch. My gorge is rising, and it isn’t just the aftertaste of the blood, although that is bad enough. I need to go somewhere and be sick, but not where my people can see me. A soldier walks past, leading his horse, or leading something that looks almost like a horse. I take the reins from him and as I leap onto its bare back I slap the beast into a gallop. I need to go as far and as fast as I can.

The beast chooses a path alongside the stream, and I don’t argue with it. It hasn’t gone as far as I would like when I can no longer resist the need to vomit. I drag it to a standstill, tumbling off almost into the water, and I am noisily sick in the thin grass. Such a simple act, so simple and yet so rare for me, and it rips through my spirit, as if I could vomit out all the pain and death that I have dealt since I came here. Like the woman whose son I have just slain, I fall into great, heaving sobs, but in my case it’s an orgy of what can only be self-pity.

A man – no: a demon – once said, ‘The big moments are going to come. You can’t help, that. It’s what you do afterwards that counts. That’s when you find out who you are’. My big moment came during my lifetime with my Slayer, but now I know who I am. I am called Abaddon. I am Hell and the Devil. I am a monster.

Calgacus said of the Romans before a battle: ‘They rob, kill and rape and this they call Roman rule. They make a desert and call it peace.’ I, too, have robbed, killed and raped; I have made deserts of cities and I have called it peace; and I have done it all in the name of the one who holds my leash. Father Robert gave me a penance. One year of atonement for each mortal sin, for each corpse to my credit. How many thousands have been added since I came here? Even I cannot count them. And what of all the other sins? Will my actions here stand between me and my beloved for that long march of years? Or will they stand between us forever, when she understands that I am no more than a monster? That evil can only do more evil? I, the monster, am a little surprised to realise that there is one thing I want above all else just now, another simple human act. I need a hug.

The hand on my shoulder therefore comes as something of a surprise. When I look up, it is the enemy. Or, rather, it is a worried looking demon of apparently middle years who wears the face of the enemy. He also wears an iron collar, although it isn’t as cruel a one as mine.

He bends down to me, and gently wipes away my tears. He sees the vomit on my face and in the grass, and he urges me towards the stream, where he cups up some water and cleans me up. Then he touches my collar of servitude, before fingering his own.

“You are like me, a slave?”

I nod dumbly. I may be the second most powerful person in this whole dimension, but I am still a slave. Now that the tears are gone, and I can see him clearly, he has a range of bruises on his face and bare arms. Some are new, some are old and almost healed, and there are all ages in between. He is beaten, regularly. Like me, I suppose, although mine are usually annual affairs. His seem to be daily.

“I do not recognise the animal. You come from over there?”

He points back towards my camp. Again, I nod.

“We hear that the general there is very cruel. Everyone in this world fears him. Are they all like him? Have you run away?”

“None of them are like him, and yes, I suppose I’ve run away.”

Well, it’s true. His face fills with compassion.

“If you are found here, you will be taken as one of the slaves. It may not be any better than you are used to. There is little food, and the wahnia are bad tempered.”

“Wahnia?”

He struggles to explain.

“Those of the blood. The ones who have the right to live as they wish. They are wahnia, our masters.”

He seems to reach a decision.

“Come with me. You can stay tonight with my family. Tomorrow, when the battle is hottest, you might be able to slip away. But if you are caught in the open with no sempora, then you will regret it.”

I doubt that I have room for any more regrets. As ever, I’m wrong, of course.

“Sempora?”

He holds up his left hand. The palm has been deeply branded with what could loosely be taken for a boar’s head.

“It is the brand of my owner.”

He takes my own hands and turns them palm up. There should be blood running from every pore, but there isn’t. There are a few scuffs of dirt, and some recent calluses from my sword, but that is all. There is nothing to mark me out as Abaddon.

“See?”

He really doesn’t see at all. I say nothing, and I think he must take me as being somehow simple. Whether that is true or not, this kindly soul leads my mount and me into the camp of the enemy. We must have galloped past the main army, and reached as far as the baggage train, the slaves and the camp followers. Here, the tents are nothing more than tattered and rancid hides thrown over a makeshift framework of sticks, and the communal meal for this small section is being prepared in a blackened cauldron hanging from a tripod. It’s a thin gruel unrelieved by the presence of any meat or recognisable vegetables. One of these lashed-up tents holds seven demons, sitting cramped together: two older men and five women and girls. All of them cheerfully move closer to each other to make room for us as a young woman comes over from the cooking area, carrying a large earthenware pot. Cracked and chipped bowls are produced, including one for me, and she pours the meagre allowance of gruel carefully into each one. I guess that it’s an even smaller portion than usual because they have an extra mouth to feed. It won’t nourish me in any way, but I wouldn’t insult them by refusing. Then this woman, too, squeezes into the shelter that now holds ten of us, and would make even four uncomfortable. Every one wears an iron collar, even the children.

They are dirty and cold, they are beaten and bruised, they are half-starved, and they have nothing, nothing in the world. Yet, they share that nothing with me, a complete stranger, the demon who will slaughter them tomorrow if they did but know it, and they are full of grace and wit and compassion. I am ashamed.

That night, they tell me of things that they have seen, places they have passed through, thinking them all strange and wonderful and new. And they tell me why they are all here. The nation that they serve has been driven from its lands by some terrible evil that is sucking the life from their own dimension, destroying everything before it. It is something dreadful and unknowable, and they have seen other peoples driven before it like sheep. This is an entire nation on the move, looking for a new home. They tell me everything they can about this unknown terror, which isn’t much, for no one has seen it and lived, and then they answer my questions about themselves. Theirs is a warrior culture, but one with a fixed caste system. Slaves are slaves forever, and so are their children and their children’s children, and all who come after. They don’t speak directly of the indiscriminate cruelty of their owners, of the spiteful brutality fostered by their king, but I hear it anyway, laced through everything they tell me. They are branded at birth with the mark of their owner, they are given their first collar at three years old, and the only release is death.

Sometimes death comes sooner than it should. In battles where the enemy is very numerous, the older or more useless slaves will be sent ahead of the troops, to soak up the enemy’s arrows and to shield the more valuable warriors. There are always more slaves. The army they face – my army – is too big for their general/king to be assured of victory without too great a loss of strength, and so that is what will happen tomorrow.

And these people try to comfort me, for whatever hardships I might have faced that were bad enough to bring me to them this day. I have had enough of death and destruction. I will find another way.

Just as they make space for me in their tent, so they make space for me in their conversations and in their lives. That wretched meal is one of the most companionable of my entire existence. They have questions for me, simple ones which, surprisingly, I have little difficulty in answering. No, I am not a native of this dimension; yes, I am here against my will; yes, I have been with the army for a long time, and seen many battles; yes, the general of that army is one of the coldest and cruellest you could ever meet. Yes, I remember gentler times, and desperately wish I were back in them. My clothes? I am allowed to gather them from the battlefield dead. My home world? Beautiful. And so on.

And they answer more questions from me, questions that might help a runaway slave to pass unnoticed in the enemy camp. Or might do something else entirely. As the night draws on, and the noise of the camp dies away, they somehow settle down to sleep, huddled under that tiny shelter. They offer me what is clearly a place of honour, in the centre, but this time I decline, curling up on the edge of their family group. When I am sure they are all asleep, I slip away, stealing the thin blanket that they have lent me. That seems a churlish act, but perhaps it will save their lives. Either that, or get me killed. I will never see them again, but I can never forget them.

There are few watchfires burning – there’s little enough wood here, and fires have been limited. Each pitiful little blaze has a group of sleepless soldiers supposedly guarding the perimeter of the camp. I skirt those tiny pools of light, melting into the deeper darkness that they leave around them, although no one takes any notice of a blanket-wrapped soldier no doubt gone to find relief of one sort or another. It isn’t long before I find what I am looking for.

The camp is on rising ground, with some rocky outcrops, and the tent I have come to find stands a little away from the rest, beneath one of these rocky outcrops. Foolishness. How has this commander got this far? There are guards, but I stay out of their sensory range. It’s simple enough for a predator like me to find the top of the outcrop and then climb silently down to the roof of the tent. A small hole there reassures me that the occupant is deeply asleep. More importantly, he is alone. More foolishness.

His blood tastes of fish and petroleum, but I manage to take enough to keep him unconscious for a while. He’s heavy, but not for me. I can carry several times my own body weight with ease. Once back at the top of the outcrop, I wrap the blanket around him, and then, supporting him all the way, I stagger back the way I came. No one takes any notice of a drunken, blanket-wrapped soldier being helped back to his own tent by a slave. I steal a mount from the picket lines – mine would only cause questions – and load him onto it.

There are guards on picket duty, but they are there to question those who would enter the camp, not to stop those going to relieve their drunken headaches in the cool waters of the stream. Thankfully, my own guards are more alert. I send for the workmen that I need, and set them to work immediately.

***

When Pav took me to the tent where the woman was unable to deliver her child, I was shocked at what I saw. Shocked, but not surprised. These things happen, and in places like this, where there are none of the facilities that we become used to, more primitive remedies must suffice. Angelus had already gone, and the men were leaving the tent with what was left of the child. Not one of them will sleep tonight, I expect.

I had some small medical skill when I met Angelus, and now I have rather more, so I helped the midwives to stop the bleeding. Whether the woman lives or dies is now up to her.

Angelus was nowhere to be seen. Pav searched the entire camp – he is as devoted to my master as a dog – but there was no sign of him. It was hours before Angelus returned and he brought with him a stranger. One of the enemy. The man was unconscious from loss of blood – due, no doubt, to the two small puncture wounds in his neck – and I was required to restore him to awareness. He responded to fluid intake, and then he was bound and gagged and taken away. Angelus and his personal guard have set off for a position forward of the chosen battlefield, and I have no idea what he is doing. Before he left, he put on his demon face, which is something he rarely does, except in the heat of battle. I think it makes him remember that he is more than the thing she has made of him, if he keeps his human face. He saw me look at those harsher features, and gave me a smile that might be the grimmest I have ever seen.

“A monster should have the decency to look like one.”

And then he was gone. He told me to wait here, but I will not. Once more, I am following him into the unknown.

It is now almost dawn, and I can hear all around me the creak of leather and the jingle of harness, as the army moves into position around the edge of the Hungry Hushes. I know that he had meant the battlefield to be further back, so that he could place many of his men in the valleys, where they could fall unexpectedly on the enemy. His archers should have been positioned on the hilltops to decimate the forward troops. That is not how they are positioned now. The ground here is much lower, and he has placed the army along a ridge of ground overlooking the enemy camp. We moved into position quietly, and they do not know we are here. Because of the darkness, it is difficult to see, but the troops form two imposing wings either side of a spur of hill, rising above the rest of the ridge, with a thin central line of heavy cavalry joining the two, along the base of the higher ground. The hill is untenanted, except for Angelus, a few members of his personal guard, and a tall wooden structure that has been wrapped in lengths of cloth.

As the sky starts to lighten, I can just see him, standing on the edge of the hill, like a captain on the prow of his ship. And then one of the enemy pickets spots him, and the army outlined on the ridge of higher ground, and the alarm is raised. No one on our side moves, but the enemy camp becomes an ants’ nest of panic and activity. I’m sure they had expected to bring the battle to us.

Angelus can be counted on to do the unexpected. The enemy are about a half mile away, and he could sweep down on their camp and put them all to the sword in minutes, but he does not. He is waiting for them to come to him. As the first sliver of the sun’s disc slides over the horizon, they have formed up into some sort of order, and have started to march. I can hear their approach. Usually, it’s the sound of tramping feet that gives it away, and the noise of metal on metal. Here, the thin turf cushions the sound of feet, and what I can hear is the whisper of dried grass against leather, multiplied thousands of times, a soft susurration reminiscent of a plague of insects, hopping and skipping to new feeding grounds.

The noise of their approach grows louder, and as they come closer, I can see that the troops in front are almost without armour and with only knives and sticks and stones as weapons. The main body of warriors comes behind. They form up in a long arc, and for a few minutes, the two armies will stare each other out, as armies have since time immemorial.

This time, however, my master, our general, interrupts those few minutes of silence. His voice carries across all those assembled, and I know he is using a simple piece of magic, to make sure that everyone hears. He is still in demon face.

“I am Angelus! Those who know of me and my deeds call me Abaddon, the Devil, and they don’t know the half of it. Tell me, have you missed someone this morning?”

He waits, in a dramatic pause, and then pulls the cloth from the wooden structure next to it. It is a form of gibbet, and suspended from it by one leg is the man he brought last night, naked and bound. The shocked silence amongst the army before us gives way to uproar as the man is recognised. I can guess who he is. Their king. And I can guess where Angelus got his inspiration for this little tableau, although he needs no help even for his darkest endeavours. I have seen the painting, ‘The Flaying of Marsyas’. The empty feeling in my stomach is for Angelus, not for this unknown man, or whatever suffering lies before him.

“If you know anything of me, you all know that my word is good. If I say I will destroy you, down to the last man, you know I will. If I offer peace, you know that it is yours for the taking. So, what if I were to say to you that if you surrender to me now, you can have your king back, unharmed?”

There is silence. I’m sure the enemy have never met anyone like him, and don’t know how to respond. And I have no idea what their feelings are for their king.

“No? Well, that’s good, because he’s not getting out of this. In a short time, I’m going to have a new skin for my tent…”

He turns, and runs his hands over the man’s rather hairy flanks in a mockery of a caress.

“…and nothing will change that. So, I’m talking now to those of you plotting to take his place. Oh, yes, there are always some looking to climb a bit higher, aren’t there? Someone got you ready to move out of camp today, despite the fact that your king was missing. Someone gave the order to march. What I’m offering here is a field promotion. You’ve got no need for regicide, because I’ve done it for you. By the time I have my new skin, any of you with ambitions for the top job should come and surrender to me. You will be unharmed if you do that. I know you have been driven from your lands. I will speak to the Lady, the one who rules this dimension, and we will find lands for you to settle. There is space. My word on it.”

He gestures to the man again.

“If you make me come to find you, you will wish that you had been in his place, because you will learn that things will go so much worse for you. My word on that, too.”

He summons a demon standing behind the little knot of guardsmen. The one that comes forward is an expert that Angelus uses when he wants some particularly refined work done, but will not be doing it himself. The demon takes out a small, very sharp knife that I have seen him use before, and he sets to work. The hanged man’s screams echo over the thousands gathered here, without any magic at all. Angelus turns his back on the work that he has set in motion, and leaps gracefully from the top of the hill to the turf below, then waits, seemingly indifferent to the outcome of this little play. About half of the skin has been removed before a group of senior officers walk forward from the enemy’s ranks, and kneel before him, offering him their swords. He returns their weapons to them, and speaks of peace. He doesn’t stop the flaying, though. There is surprisingly little blood, but the man dies before the skin is entirely off.

***

We’re heading towards one of the areas that I have turned into a desert. Not in the sandy sense, of course – it’s as fertile as anything in this god-forsaken land, and reasonably well watered. It sounds not unlike the land that these people were driven from. It’s simply empty because, decades ago, I slaughtered everything here. There is room for a new nation. So, one army shepherding another, we are on the road to their new home. I sent a messenger to the Lady, and there’s a trail of dust, miles ahead still, which I hope is her reply. But, I have no reason to suppose that she will object. What I do hope is that she will remember the date. I have 46 days of slavery left. I have been too many years away. I want to go home. I’m damned sure that Ezrafel does, too. We’ll take Pav with us. Strange as it may seem, I’ve come to care for him.

The messenger, when he does arrive, is a puffed-up popinjay that I’ve fallen out with before. He’s got even more self-importance about him now. We’ve paused for a midday break when he and his train swirl through the armies, creating dust clouds and making men dodge the flying hooves. Paws. Whatever. He doesn’t even bother dismounting to give me his message.

“Angelus, the Lady concurs with your proposal for these… these aliens.”

He couldn’t look more disapproving if he were eating rotten fish. But, I can tell there’s more.

“You are to report to her immediately, you and your servant. A new general is being sent, and I am to take command until then. You are relieved of your duties.”

We’re going home. I have been emptied out over these hundred years, and all that is left is a hollow shell of what I used to be. But suddenly, something swells within that hollowness, something that I daren’t yet put a name to, but I know what it is. Hope. Relief. It is perhaps because of these unaccustomed feelings that I don’t see or react as quickly as I should to what happens next.

I should have heard the sound. It’s a wild humming noise, and it’s one that Pav makes when he sees a new type of mount. He loves them. He hasn’t seen these before, and he wants to stroke them. He runs up, humming his excitement, but the sudden movement makes the popinjay’s horse rear in alarm, almost unseating its rider. The fool snatches a lance from one of his soldiers, and spears Pav through the heart. The boy, simple though he was, has been as much a companion to me as Ezrafel, and he now lies pinned to the ground like an insect. He’s quite dead.

I walk over to him and take his hand, limp in death. What I do next, I do without any rational thought for the act or for its consequences. I pull the spear from his body, and I return the favour. It takes the messenger in the throat, and his company look on in horror as the life bubbles from him. My soldiers close around them in a solid wall, preventing them from running back to the Lady. We were all fond of the boy. One of my senior officers takes my arm, urgently.

“I’ll go with you to the Lady… we’ll explain. She will understand…”

I unhand him gently. He has been with me for all these years.

“No, Pias. I will go as she instructs. You will take command here.”

He starts to remonstrate, courageous as he is, but I turn from him and pick up the slight body. He seems to weigh nothing at all, in my arms. He will have a decent burial before I leave, and some kindly words said over him. Ezrafel will know what to say. As I carry him away, I think that I feel something brush my mind, something familiar and comforting, although I cannot give it a name. Then the feeling is gone, leaving me even emptier than before.

When the burial is done, my personal guard start to form up behind me, but I tell them to stay with Pias. I have left no dangers on the road behind me, and I need no loyal guard. And I don’t want them punished by the Lady for my transgression.

***

The journey back takes us sixteen days of hard riding. It would have been much longer, but Angelus long ago set up a system of way stations, for messengers and others on his business. With regular changes of mounts and little sleep, we can travel two hundred miles a day. This gruelling journey is mainly accomplished in silence, which pleases me for one, because I am most certainly not suited to such hard travel. I’m not at my best.

At the last way station, Angelus sends one of the stable lads on ahead to bring news that he is coming. He is required do this, because sometimes she wishes to have plans. I wonder if she will decide to have a cage waiting to take him through the city that now lies around the castle, as she did after one spectacular victory, demonstrating this other side of her all-conquering general – the slave, who must accept whatever treatment she chooses to mete out. Another time, the road to the city was carpeted with white roses, and he had to tread that road barefoot. I could see the vicious thorns a hundred feet away. By the time he was halfway there, the roses behind him were turned red. But today, there is nothing waiting for us, just the curious stares of the populace for the travel-stained newcomers.

When we reach the castle, it is crowded with retainers. She has called a great many people to court to see whatever is about to happen. At the doors to the great hall, he tells me to stay at the back, out of sight and hopefully out of mind, but I push as far forward as I am able, while he strides confidently down the central aisle.

He kneels before her, but she has to tell him to do so, and that doesn’t please her at all.

“You have something for me, Angelus?”

“You mean apart from an entire dimension, a new empire?”

Oh, master, don’t make this worse than it has to be. She walks down the few steps that lift her throne from the floor, and grasps his face hard in both hands. Drops of blood seep from the indentations made by her fingernails. “You still have 30 days left. They can be…more difficult, or less difficult. Now…” She lets go of him and stands back

Silently, he tugs the ring from his finger, the signet of his office, and hands it to her.

“You did not give this to my messenger?”

He shrugs.

“He didn’t ask for it. Then again, he was dead, as I think you know. He’d killed my servant, so I killed him.”

She hisses like an angry cobra, and takes hold of his chin, bending his head hard back. Another tiny push, and the collar will snap his neck.

“You have no servants. You have nothing, except what I allow you.”

She keeps him there for long, agonised minutes, and then she lets go again. He opens his leather jerkin, and the woollen tunic he wears underneath. His chain runs from the side of the iron collar, across his chest and is wrapped around his waist. There are tiny beads of blood where it has rubbed against his skin. Still in silence, he looses it and, after a tiny hesitation, hands the end to her. He must have put it on before leaving the last way station. Then she uses it to tug him to his feet and leads him to the side of her throne, where she tells him to stand facing the court. Her pronouncement breaks my heart for him.

***

Well, it’s over now. Or, it will be, tomorrow. I’m confined to the dungeons, tonight, as I have been since being summoned here, at least for the few hours I’m allowed to sleep. She kept me with her for three days, just as she did when she first took me as a slave. The only difference is that she is a much more beautiful woman now. You could easily be seduced by her, unless you knew her. I know her, now, and she has no power over me, except for the power I gave her when I gave her my word. That ends tomorrow.

So, for three days, as I had been before, I was tied to her, servicing her, those damned penises bringing my cock and testicles to burning heat and agonising pleasure, her talons raking flesh from bone at the slightest hint of displeasure. Or for no reason at all. It was bad. But, I knew what was in store for me afterwards, and this was so much better than that was going to be.

In the war that I fought with the Wolf, the Ram and the Hart, every one of those demons at court suffered at my hands in one way or another, they or their families. To redress the balance, and to punish me for the death of her messenger, when she had finished with me she gave me to them, to take out their vengeance in any way they chose, short of maiming or death. They were queuing up to be first, and at the head of that queue were the popinjay’s nearest and dearest. Most of the demons there have waited for a hundred years for this chance, ever since I was first brought here in chains. The only people not included were her own three children, the ones I’d damaged most. She’s leaving them to take their own vengeance. That’s something else to look forward to, then.

But for now it’s over. I cannot bear to be in my own abused body tonight – it’s going to take days to heal, even with an unlimited supply of real human blood, which I’m not going to get here – and so I’ve lost myself in my own head. The memories I desperately need are those of ultimate pleasure and already I can feel her little hands on me, hear her whispered words of love to me. Buffy. It takes everything I have to push the memories away. I may need them, but I won’t sully them here. Not as I am, now, and not with these other miserable captives watching me. There are a lot more here than when I first came. If I think too much about those moments of pleasure with my beloved, walk too far down that memory lane, even the damage I’ve suffered won’t stop me from bringing myself off, and I won’t let them see that. Not here.

Another, more recent, memory slides in to take the place of the one I really wanted. A woman, no, a demoness, that I took as my share of the spoils when the city of Aram fell to us. She was as brazen as they come, and flattered to be chosen by me. There wasn’t a great deal of the human about her, and that was why I chose her, but she was beautiful in her own way. I kept her for almost a year, and she wanted to be my official concubine, but I treated her like a whore. In the end, I lost patience with her, although perhaps it was with myself, and I sent her to the whores’ tents. Inconsequentially, I wonder now whatever became of her. I imagine she was popular, as Angelus’ cast-off, although she will have hated me for it. After that, I never took another for more than a night or two.

That memory, too, I push away. Brazen and unappreciated she might have been, but she gave me the comfort of physical contact, of a gentle touch now and then. Once more, I find myself needing that.

As I search among my memories, I find some that aren’t strictly mine. They’re his. Angel’s. I still know very little of what he endured before I brought him from his own hell, but some things have been revealed. Even from those few remnants, I know that he has endured far worse than I have, and oddly that knowledge has given me some kind of strength, although not just now. I want to think of myself as the biggest, baddest demon in town, but I suspect that might actually be him. Even with all that goodness, it still might be him. Not that I’m feeling competitive, you understand. I just need some place to go other than here, and being second best to him isn’t the place.

There is one memory that I have kept carefully guarded from him. He may, of course, have seen it for himself, but he is still silent within me, and I don’t think he’s been rifling my thoughts. It’s a memory he should see, and it will certainly give me a different pain to think about. It’s her death. And so, I open that up to him, and relive every moment of it, in all its dreadful detail. At the end, when she cried, it was never for herself, you know. It was always for me. I’ve never deserved that.

I show him our love, and I show him that he was never forgotten, his identity never lost in mine; how she still loved him, always wearing his ring, even when it was just on a chain around her neck. With time, and the few extra pounds she put on as she matured, the ring became too small, but she never stopped wearing it, just as I never stopped wearing mine. His. On that memory, I feel our hands clasped again in that mating vow, ring against ring, and there seems to be a third hand wrapped around ours. I don’t know why that should be.

I show him my promise to her, to seek a redemption that can never be. I gave her my oath, and she intended me to seek out the Powers That Be. I certainly fulfilled that oath, although not as either of us had expected, and now redemption is further away than ever. I have failed her again, as I have in so many ways before. Years ago, her own Powers wanted the rulers of this dimension brought to its knees, and I did that. I’ve just spent a hundred years rebuilding it, until it’s stronger than it was before. I should have expected nothing else, I suppose. Her Powers want nothing to do with me and have left me to the darker gods. I don’t try to hide from him the fact that I regret my failure to keep my oath to her, but I don’t have a Plan B, just now.

I show him how I buried her, and then I can bear no more. As ever, he hasn’t shown me that he has seen or heard anything. I want to let myself go, to set free the tears that are stuck in my throat and burning behind my eyes, but I cannot, with others here. I must not. As I fight them, I become aware that someone is calling out to me. Still here, a hundred years later, is the cloud in the cage. What was its name? Ah, yes. Illyria.

“What do you want, Illyria?”

“What I wanted before. Freedom and vengeance.”

I am so badly hurt that I had to be carried here. All I care about now is my own freedom. I’m in no case to help anyone else.

“I can give you neither. Now shut up.”

Another voice in my head cuts across me. It’s the voice of a creature in the extremity of pain, whose strength can’t sustain more than a few syllables at a time.

If you want a shot at redemption… if you want to take up the job of saving souls… then you don’t get to choose which ones you save. You have to save the ones you can… and still try your damndest for the others…

The touch that comes with that is the warmth and comfort that brushed against my mind when I picked up Pav’s still little body. It’s me. It’s him. It’s whoever I am now. I can’t think how to define it. Am I me, with a bit more conscience, or him, with a bit more edge? Or am I two spirits fighting over one body? This voice is something that tells me that I may never know peace again until I find the answer to that question. Still, something that I’ve done has touched him enough to waken him, if only briefly, and that must be a victory, even though he’ll no doubt be here to torment the life out of me for eternity. Suddenly, the century I’ve spent here looks positively enjoyable in comparison.

We are different creatures, and I can never do what he would have done, but perhaps I’ve got to do this, to spite the unholy litter, if nothing else. When Illyria tells me what I have to do, though, I just want to bang my head on the wall. They say it feels better when you stop.

Getting over to the cage is more or less a hands and knees job. Okay, more. As I survey she, he, or it – do you realise, by the way, that if you elide all those together, you get shit, and that is what I feel I’m neck-deep in? – I can tell that the cloud is dimmer than before. Some of the colours are looking positively murky. The shrivelled husk of a body is still there.

“So, I just open the cage?”

“Yes, it can be opened only from outside, but there is nothing you cannot manage, even in your enfeebled state.”

“And then you’ll just pop into me for a ride?”

“Yes.”

“How do I know you’ll come back out again? Or that you won’t take me over?”

The cloud makes no immediate response, so I’m surprised to find that even a cloud can look contemptuous.

“Why do you doubt my word, vampire? Your body is of no interest to me. It is already corrupted, and without your own spirit, would become dust around me.”

Every cloud has a silver lining then.

“That last body didn’t last long with you, and that wasn’t a vampire.”

This time the silence isn’t contemptuous. It’s… regretful.

“I have lost much of my power since then. If I stay still and quiet, I will not harm you.”

“You know, it’s already kinda crowded in here. Isn’t there a better way?”

“Yes, you already have two spirits, but one of them does not appear to be viable. I can kill it for you if you wish.”

I think back to all the trouble I’ve taken to recover him. More importantly, what the hell would Buffy say if I let that happen?

“Damage either of my spirits, and I’ll crawl inside that cage so fast you won’t know what happened. And I’ll hang on to the bars until we’re both gone.”

“If you say so. It will be best, anyway, to keep it and then the bitch will not detect my presence.”

“You’re sure she won’t?”

“I shall hide behind your other spirit. She may find that, but not me. When we are free, you will find me another body, and I shall be in your debt.”

“What about your… the others? Will they find another to replace you?”

I really don’t want the three of them any stronger than they are, especially if they’re going to come after me.

“Yes, but you will help me find a way to stop them.”

Oh. Now why didn’t I think of that?

There doesn’t seem anything else to say, and so I tamper with the lock, open up the cage and let it out. There is very little sensation as it passes into me, just a brief all-over tingle, and then it’s as lost within me as he is. It isn’t long before they come for me. And they have my clothes.

This time, there are only a few of the courtiers around. Seeing me off clearly isn’t a priority, and they’ve had their fun. The guards half drag, half carry me into her presence, and I’m grateful to see Ezrafel. I thought she might have done away with him to spite me. They leave me kneeling in front of her, which is about as much as I can manage, and she calls the blacksmith forward.

“No. If it’s all the same to you, I’ll have this taken off by an old-fashioned Earth blacksmith.”

This gin-trap around my spine is going to come off, and I want to make sure that nothing mystical is left in its place. She looks quizzical.

“You don’t trust me?”

This time, the answer’s no.

“Let’s just say I’ll do it myself.”

“Very well. You may remove the chain, and then you are free.”

I almost breathe a sigh of relief as I unclip the chain. She holds out her hand for it, but I put it into my pocket. My guess is she could make serious magic with either of these two things that have symbolised my submission for so long. No thanks.

“I see. Well, in that case, I have something to show you before you go.”

She nods to the guards who get me back to my feet. She leads us to a window, overlooking the castle grounds and the city. There’s a very good view of the North Road from here, winding off over the plateau and into the far mountains. So far as the eye can see – and mine can see a very long way – there is a line of T-shaped posts on either side of the road, regularly spaced apart. A man, demon, whatever you want to call them, hangs crucified from each post. I recognise the nearest ones. They are my men, from the Northern Army. As the bile rises in my throat, I see that closer to home, in the main square, is a pile of wood and a stake, ready for burning someone. The man they are dragging out of the castle is Pias. I think he hears my roar of rage, because he turns to look up towards this window.

I am in no fit case to do anything, but I must do something. I cannot leave them like this.

“They came to rescue you, you know,” she says conversationally. “Their loyalty was to you, not to me. They are of no use to me at all. Until we meet again, then, Angelus.”

You’re damned right, we will, but it will be too late for them. There are no other parting speeches, no fond farewells, just a negligent wave of her hand, and darkness.

***

The dark Lady stands in her bower, her hand resting lightly on her stomach. There is a smile of self-satisfaction on her face until she feels a new presence behind her. It is the other Lady, the one who has displaced her and now holds sway in her stead. This other Lady has come with her Consorts, and all of them look disapproving.

The newcomer addresses her by name, and this discomfits her, because there is power in names. They know hers, but she does not know theirs. She may only call them The Lady and the Duality. She hates that. We will call her Ereshkigal, although it isn’t her name. It will serve for now.

“You have taken something from him.”

It isn’t a question, and she quickly removes her hand from her stomach.

“It’s no more than you have done.”

The Duality look their contempt at this sally, but the Lady holds them back.

“I know what you have done, Ereshkigal. Show me what you already have.”

They have power over her, and she cannot refuse. She wonders why, if they are so protective of the vampire, they haven’t intervened before; why they have left him here for all this time. She doesn’t understand that nothing comes without a price, nor does she understand that actions produce reactions, and even gods cannot determine what those reactions will be. She has never understood that, which is why these three have superseded her. The request is repeated, more sharply this time.

“Show me.”

She casts a hand across the soft grass of her bower, creating the image they seek. It’s a suite of rooms in the castle. A governess, of sorts, watches over her charges. They are three young women. They are beautiful, although they could never be considered human, and they are much alike. They have their father’s eyes, eyes that speak of hell in any of his incarnations. Or of heaven. One of Ereshkigal’s lovers, the one who had all the secrets of creation in his grasp until they were taken from him, has used whatever power he has left to give life to Angelus’ seed. This is the brood from that first spawning. Another one grows in her belly now, and she wonders what The Lady will do. Will her Consorts murder these stolen offspring?

The Lady is dismayed. The Duality stand close to her, and her hand slips into the hand of the dark half, the one who can bring destruction to anything he chooses. He squeezes hers a little, and she knows that he is ready to do her bidding. She looks at him, and he gives a tiny shake of his head. He wants them to live.

If she leaves them, they will grow to be powerful demi-goddesses, here in the underworld, and that might not be a good thing. But, her Consort is telling her that it isn’t her decision. In the end, it should be Angelus who decides. But not yet. And there is another brood to come, just a cluster of cells yet in Ereshkigal’s replenished womb.

“You may keep them for now.”

And then Ereshkigal is alone.

***

Mercifully, it’s nightfall when we are returned home. Half an hour earlier, and I might have had a real problem. It’s not full dark, but the dusk has gathered and started to clot into deepening shadow in this forest. Yes, I’ve used the word ‘home’ somewhat loosely. We’re back in the region of the Jun’s trap. Even after all these years, even with the spider-web trap long gone, I can recognise this place by sight and scent.

I would like to say that I was appalled at what I have just witnessed, and I was. But I have done worse myself. It’s just that I knew all of those who are now dead, and they died for me. I will remember each and every one, and I will take revenge for each and every one. I swear it. Now, though, I must get on with trying to stay alive myself. The time to mourn them will come later, as will the time for anger and revenge.

For a hundred years, I’ve been hungry. I have never been able to drink my fill, and even a bellyful of the pallid stuff on offer would not have dulled the pangs. Now, with all this damage to repair, I’m starving, and I can smell blood. A few yards away, a young boy sits propped against the silver bole of a beech tree. He looks as though he’s been mauled by some beast, and how he managed to escape it, I really can’t tell. My first thought is that no one will miss him. My second thought is that he’s at death’s door already, and his blood will at least get me back on my feet. My third thought is Damn.

Ezrafel, who is much stronger than he looks, has picked himself up from his abrupt arrival, and is helping me to my feet. He hasn’t seen the boy yet. I point where I want to go, and he half carries me for those few yards before letting me sink back to my knees.

“What happened to you?”

The lad turns his clear blue gaze on me, and I can see that he is blind.

“I’m always waiting for you.”

He’s delirious. Or simple. Ezrafel fusses around with some clean rags he has in his satchel – he’s learned never to be without some sort of first aid kit – and starts to bandage the worst of the wounds. The boy waves him away, and with an effort puts his hands to my temples, then starts to move his fingers down my face and neck until he finds the collar. His voice is weak and breathy.

“Alchemy must remove it.”

“The collar?” Alchemy?

“No, but they can do that, too. You must go there for help with them both, and then you must go home, Angelus.”

What the…? There’s no time to ask, though, because his breath rattles in his throat, a sound I’ve heard many times before. His body falls limp, and he is gone, leaving me utterly confused. That state lasts for as long as it takes to recognise, and then there is a voice, seemingly by my ear.

“You took your time again. I almost didn’t make it.”

“What?”

I must have said that out loud, because Ezrafel is confused now. And there is a familiarity about that voice. It’s Lobsang Ramprachan.

“What the devil are you doing here?”

“Waiting for you. What else?”

“But why? How?” I’m full of questions, and I really don’t know where to start. He decides to start somewhere else.

“Don’t you think you’d better eat me before I get too cold. You’ll never get out of this forest without a meal inside you.”

“You came here to be a meal?”

“Not entirely. Just get on with it. I’ll only go to waste if you don’t.”

This is surreal, but he’s right. I remember his blood from before. This has nothing like that power, but it’s rich enough to help me heal. As I drain the last few drops, he wishes me farewell.

“Oh no, old man, you don’t get away like that. I want some answers.”

Ezrafel has the sense to stay silent, but what you have to remember about him is that he writes everything down. This will come back to haunt me in another way.

“My job is done. I’ve waited for you so that I can tell you where to take the one that you carry. And I don’t mean Angel.”

“Last time we had a conversation like this, you said that you weren’t allowed to tell me things. Why are you telling me things now?”

“Because you will be pressed for time. You need to find a new body for Illyria.”

“How do you know about Illyria?”

Whatever presence is close to me gets a distinctly shifty feel to it, and then seems to square its shoulders.

“I have been with you all this time.”

“No way! I’d have known. I’d have felt you…”

“Not like that. In my own flesh. I was Pav. And if you think it’s easy dividing your soul in two, and reincarnating the parts in different dimensions with different time frames, you can think again. I’m surprised Pav made as much sense as he did. This one’s had problems because of that, too.”

He seems to indicate the cooling body.

Once, a lifetime ago, I took hope from this old man’s statement that he was called elsewhere. It made me think that reincarnation might indeed be possible, and that if I waited, it wouldn’t be in vain, no matter how long it took. Now, I find that he seems to have been called to a split existence to wait for me. A special task. Perhaps reincarnation isn’t normal. Perhaps… all sorts of perhapses…

“I really do have to go now.”

“Wait. Dammit! Please. Just for a few minutes. Aurelius thinks that a soul reincarnates after three thousand years. Is that true?” Will she come back to me and do I have so very long to wait?

His silence is heavy, and then he seems to sigh.

“I cannot tell you the things you want to know. But as I said, time is pressing. Use your senses, Angelus. Use all of them, wherever they came from. And use what you know of what happens after death. There are few on this planet that know more about that than you. Remember that different dimensions have different time frames. Moments in one can be thousands of years in another.”

Is he telling me that souls incarnate elsewhere? What is he saying? At least he didn’t say no.

“Do they come back the same… you know?” If she comes back, will she still love me?

“That I cannot answer for you. And now I must go. Remember what I said. Alchemy. Oh, and leave this body where it can feed something else.”

And just like that, he’s gone. But he has left a great deal behind. Perhaps Buffy’s Powers are not so dismissive of me. I may be useful to them, even if it’s only to fetch and carry God-Kings. But surely I haven’t endured the last hundred years merely to save one, single, damaged soul, one single God-King? Are we keeping count here? If we are, how many more saved souls to go? At this rate of exchange, there cannot be enough time left in the life of the Universe for me to buy enough to ransom myself…

If I shove aside those doubts and fears, I can say that I have something more than hope of ever seeing Buffy again. I have questions, to which it appears I should be able to elicit some answers. I ought to share that with Aurelius, who has spent two thousand years on hope alone. Together, perhaps we can find those answers. I feel an inner warmth that I haven’t known for a very long time, just as if someone had given me that much-needed hug.

I’d almost forgotten about Alchemy. After the war, I largely left the few who remained to their own devices, with only an occasional visit from me to ensure that they needed nothing – they said they preferred it that way. Have they returned? Well, I shall find out.

My healing has to be done on the move, and Ezrafel shows himself surprisingly adept at driving wild game to a position where I can take one of them. It’s usually deer, and their blood is good enough. By the time I can hunt for myself, we’ve reached a reasonable-sized town, and I find that my credit is still good. Soon, we’re in the mountains north of Sunnydale. The fortress looks much as it did when I last saw it. Much to his disgust, I leave Ezrafel behind in the hotel – well, I’ve no idea what sort of reception I’m going to get – and start to make my way up there. They had a rough road bulldozed in the past – not enough to get most cars up, but good enough for walking. Sometimes, I think I can see a figure, far behind me, and I wonder if Ezrafel has decided to disobey. But if it isn’t him, it’s too far behind to be a threat to me. Then I see a second one, scurrying to catch up with the first. Not Ezrafel, then.

The gate, when I get there, is locked, but there are people inside. I can sense them. I could find a way in, but courtesy seems to be the better approach, so I knock. I hope they aren’t too long. Illyria has, as promised, remained silent and still, but my body has started to tingle in a distinctly unpleasant way. I’d like her out of here.

A young man opens the small wicket-gate set in the larger one. There are a couple of others behind him. They obviously aren’t used to callers. Suddenly, I’m not sure what to say. Take me to your leader?

“I have business with Alchemy.”

I see them eyeing up the collar uncertainly, but they see that I am alone, and step back to grant me access. They need to be more security conscious than that if they are doing the work that Alchemy did before. Nevertheless, I step into the courtyard, and follow on, one of them in front, two behind. They show me into a room that I remember well, where they ask me to wait. It is the room where I was brought after my fight with Fenrix, the room where Giles at last told the tale of my journey into the Underworld to bring Buffy back. It has been substantially refurbished since then, but it’s still the same room.

It was all going well until then, but there is a mirror on the wall, a large, full-length, lying mirror. As one of the young men turns to go, he sees the mirror. What he doesn’t see, of course, is me.

“VAMPIRE!”

His alarm rings out loud and clear, and the whole fortress must have heard it. Damn. I could, of course, strike them down and get clear before anyone could make a move, but I have a purpose here, and it isn’t scaring them to death. So, I wait. He slams the door on me, and I am alone. As if this room could hold me…

The sound of running feet echoes outside, and then the door is thrown open again. They’re loaded for bear. There won’t be any questions here, but I’d better try.

“Now wait. I haven’t come here…”

I catch the first two crossbow bolts, but I’m distracted by the sudden sting in my hands. They’ve been dipped in holy water. The distraction allows the next two to thud into me, one in the shoulder and one in the groin, and I really have to get out of here before they decide to maybe sacrifice the décor to a flamethrower. Faster than the human eye can follow, I crash through them and run down the corridor to the Great Hall, finding sanctuary up in the roof timbers. If they want to burn me out, it’ll take the place with me. There’s nothing else that I can’t handle, up here. I yank out the two quarrels, but I don’t throw them down just yet. I don’t want to give away my position until I see what else they have.

Twenty minutes dodging arrows tells me they have some good shots. There aren’t so many humans here – a dozen or so – but they have skills. I just wish they had listening ones… Perhaps I should have phoned first, made an appointment…? And perhaps I should still do that. They’re all badly rattled, and don’t hear any of the things I’m trying to say. I’m moving back towards the gate, when I hear someone hammering on it, hard. Once again, the distraction proves dangerous, as they catch sight of me on a roof. Another arrow hits me in the ribs. They’ve done some technical innovation with this one. The head is brittle, and shatters as it impacts on bone. It was hollow, and it’s been filled with holy water. The inside of my chest is on fire, and my roar of pain echoes around the courtyard. The hammering on the door stops, and a face appears at the tiny iron grille in the wicket.

“Let me in! This is Father Robert. You’re expecting me. And if that’s Angelus you’ve got in there, it’s poor form to stake your landlord, no matter how far behind you are with the rent. Now put the crossbows down.”

Father Robert? What the hell is he doing here? That, and the pain, gives me another moment of inattention. You’d think I would have learned better, wouldn’t you? Another dart catches me in the thigh. This time, it’s got a tranquilliser in it. As I fall from the roof, it seems to me that I really must be slipping.

When I wake up, I’m in a cage. Been there, done that. There’s nothing in the cage except me – no chair to sit on, not even the obligatory bucket for the prisoner. Don’t ask. So, I hunker down in the centre to wait, and to let the lingering dizziness pass. And to observe. What am I observing? Next to my cage is another. That one contains a corpse, neatly laid out on the floor. Okay, another corpse, but that one is distinctly less lively than I am. It isn’t just any corpse, though – this one is on its way to becoming a vampire. It’s a young dark-haired woman, about the same age as I was, very slim. A bit bony for my taste, to be truthful, but quite pretty.

I can hear raised voices somewhere in this complex, and they are coming my way. I’ve no time to hang around now. I really don’t want to be found in this cage. I need to be in command of the situation. As I test the strength of the bars, I hear a different voice. This one is a whisper, and it’s in my head. My skin is starting to tingle unpleasantly again, and that’s on the inside.

“That one, vampire. I can wait no longer. If I do, we will both die. I cannot be contained like this.”

“That one what?”

The voice sounds distinctly peeved.

“That body.”

“It’s dead.”

“It has a new animating spirit, and it is fresher than yours. That is enough.”

“You’ll share with a vampire?”

“NO! The spirit will provide the energy for my transformation. If it isn’t that spirit, it will be yours. Both of yours. I gave my word to you that I would not harm you, but you must hurry.”

“Just let me get out of here – I’m not going to act the prisoner again.”

“Make haste, or you will never act anything again.”

Waves of energy, hot and cold, are running through my body now, in a series of hot and cold flushes.

“Hurry!”

I scramble to my feet in response to that urgent internal whisper, aware that the other voices are very close, now. A couple of hard kicks and the cage door flies open. That lock would be sufficient for most vampires, but luckily I’m no longer most. I’m in the act of sauntering out of the cage when Father Robert walks in, surrounded by the argumentative bevy of youngsters. My greeting is terse.

“Robert.”

The omission of the honorific is deliberate. I have to stamp my authority on this scene.

“I told them that two inch bars would never hold you.”

“Thanks for the confidence. Now, I’d love to stand here exchanging small talk, but I haven’t time. Please open up that other cage.”

The priest doesn’t question, just nods to one of the boys.

“B…but Father Robert… That body… it’s been turned!”

“Yes, and I suspect it’s going to be changed again.” He turns to me. “I’m right, aren’t I, Angelus.”

One of these days, I’m going to find out exactly what or who this priest is.

“Yes, and it needs to be now.”

The boy has a mulish look on his face.

“What will Morris say? His instructions were clear…”

Father Robert holds out his hand.

“I shall deal with Morris when he returns. The key, please, Edwin.”

Reluctantly, the key is handed over and the priest unlocks the cage. Before I enter, I take the key from the lock. Better safe than sorry. Robert just looks amused.

Now what?

The being in my head has a moment of thoughtfulness at my silent question, as the waves of energy redouble through organs, muscles and bones. My fingers and toes start to cramp with hotaches, as if they had been frozen and were now thawing.

“You will need to start the process of remaking this one. I cannot leave you except through that.”

Oh, great. The youngsters are going to love to see this. They aren’t carrying crossbows, but I’ve noticed a few stake-shaped bulges.

“Robert, would you like to take the boys out, please?” And hurry, because I think we’re getting into trouble here…

“No. They should see this. They are here to learn.”

I glare at him with incredulity as the spasms in my extremities worsen, and it is into that busy silence that the door opens, and another priest enters, a young one. I remember him. Ciaran. He doesn’t look much different. He’s still a very toothsome piece, but I have no time to think of that now. And he’s carrying a blacksmith’s tools.

“I’ve found the forge, Father…”

He trails off as he sees me, and he actually blushes. Oh, dear. The good Father isn’t going to miss that.

“Oh, very well,” I snap. “Just make sure that your class behaves, then.”

I can easily take enough blood from the body, but it’s time to address the problem at hand, which is how to get my blood down this body’s throat. Just for once, Providence comes to my aid instead of getting underfoot, and the body’s eyes open. It’s time to rise.

“Shut the door.”

“You’ve got the key.”

“Well, lean on the damn thing, just don’t let her get out.”

I lift her up, and her moment of disorientation passes. She sees where she is, and doesn’t like the look of it. She’s also very strong, but I shove her into a corner, face first, and using my bodyweight to subdue her, I start to drink. I don’t recognise the taste – at least she hasn’t been born to one of the old clans. I can do without that sort of trouble.

The one in my head – one of them, anyway – whispers urgently, “Don’t kill her.”

Keep your pants on…

When I’ve taken enough, I turn her round. She’s weakened now, and no trouble. I press her face to my neck and feel the sting of her fangs. As she suckles, the waves of ice and fire start to subside. When they are quite gone, she stops feeding, and falls to her knees. She’s taken a lot from me, and I stagger a little as I step back, taking hold of the bars until I can recover my equilibrium. There’s the murmur of conversation outside the cage.

“Who was she?”

That’s Ciaran. He’s concerned for the human spirit here. That’s good. One of the boys replies.

“A young woman from Texas. A physicist, I think. Her name was Winifred. Winifred Burkle.”

“Don’t think. You should always know. Whatever she becomes will have the memories and talents of Miss Burkle. That would apply even if she were still going to be a vampire.”

That was Father Robert, in full lecture mode.

“Won’t she be a vampire? I saw her wake up, I mean, rise.”

“She was a vampire, for a few seconds. I think we’ll find she’s something quite different now.”

So do I. The body convulses on the floor, then the image of her ripples, as though we were seeing her in the centre of a mirage. When that clears, she’s different. She’s fetchingly clad in red leather, for one thing. Her eyes have become an icy, crystalline blue. Her long, dark hair seems fuller, thicker. Oh, and it has deep blue streaks. The edges of her face are also deep blue. She’s seriously attractive. She surveys herself carefully.

“This will do.”

I open the cage door, and wait for her to precede me out, in gentlemanly fashion.

Edwin looks panicky.

“Shouldn’t we… you know…”

I smile at him kindly. I hope it’s kindly.

“Do you really think this cage would hold her?”

He subsides. Illyria looks down at herself again.

“I am a her?”

“And a very nice one, too. Now, I’d like to get this collar off, if no one minds?”

The lock was sealed with hot metal before the bitch sent me off to reconquer her empire. It needs striking off. The priest takes the hammer and chisel that Ciaran is holding, and has me kneel by a table, bracing the collar on the edge. The stroke is swift and sure, and hurts like hell. As I stand, I reach to take it off, but he puts his hand on my arm.

“Leave it for a few moments more. It will bleed, and we should have some cloths handy.”

He’s right. I haven’t got a change of clothes, and sizing up the youngsters here, I won’t find one in any of their wardrobes. I see Illyria looking thoughtful – or possibly constipated – and realise there’s something here I need to deal with.

“Take the boys upstairs, Robert. We’ll follow you, but I do need a few moments here.”

He nods, and shepherds his charges out.

“Having problems, Illyria?”

She hisses, and glares at me.

“I am master of time and dimensions, and yet, I cannot find my way through.”

“No, well, you said that space-time no longer answered to you as it once had. You’ve lost a lot of power to those three demons, and I guess the dimensions no longer answer to you, either.”

“You are right, vampire. But I cannot be confined to this one time and place. I *will* not…”

She cuts off her sentence and starts striding up and down the room. I can tell that she’s working herself up to a tantrum of some sort, and I can’t allow that. Who knows what the result will be?

“Stop it, Illyria. Look, we didn’t have chance to discuss your plans, but I’m not going to let you do serious damage to my dimension – is that understood?”

She looks at me with total disdain and then swings a punch so fast that I have no chance to get out of the way. It almost breaks my jaw. She’s stronger than Buffy ever was, and I’m still weak from the blood she’s taken from me. Damn. I ignore my aching jaw and get right in her face.

“Illyria! Quit it! You want vengeance on those three demons, don’t you? Well, I can give that to you.”

She cocks her head at me, like a bird of prey sizing me up.

“You? How?”

“Because they still have a grudge, and I think they’re going to come looking for me. If they do that, and find you here as well, you get your chance. If they don’t come, you can be sure I’m going looking for them and their dam. I tore them down once, and I can do it again. And we need to stop them from taking any of the others. Remember?”

Again, that tilting of the head, as if a change of perspective gives a different mental view.

“Besides, this isn’t anything like the time and place you knew. You need to see it and learn about it. Until you do that, until you know how much of your power you have left, you are vulnerable. I can provide protection for you, and a place to learn.”

Well, dammit, if I’ve gone to the trouble of saving her soul, I’m not going to let the first trigger-happy cop she meets put a bullet in her brain, now am I? I don’t know what recuperative powers she has, but she isn’t a vampire. That becomes perfectly clear after she considers my offer and decides to accept it. We walk up to the rest of the complex to join the others. On the stairwell is a mirror, and she has a reflection. For a moment, I envy her.

It’s easy to follow the sound of conversation, and we find them in a room that has been kitted out to be a rather exclusive classroom. Good to know my money is being used with taste. I expect the boys – they’re in their late teens and early twenties, but they’re boys to me – to leave, but they make no move to do so, nor does the priest show any signs of shooing them out. It occurs to me that so long as they are around, he expects that I won’t ask him some of the questions that must, eventually, be asked. He’s keeping them around as protective camouflage. I stand close to the doorway, so that he must come to me. Illyria moves to stand halfway between the boys and me. They’re trying hard not to point and whisper, but she’s going to be an object of curiosity for a while.

With an interested glance at Illyria, Robert comes over to inspect the collar. As he does so, moving around to see both points of penetration, he whispers to me, softly enough that the boys cannot hear. I don’t know whether Illyria can, yet.

“Was her service harder than mine?”

He means the bitch who made me Abaddon. No. To be fair, I did that. But now there’s an addition to the question time list. How does he know where I’ve been?

“I am no one’s servant.”

“No? Are you sure about that? Aren’t we all someone’s servant, in the end? Well, we shall see…”

I’ve had enough of service.

“I am not your servant!”

“Yes, well, we’ll see about that, too.”

He gently pushes at the collar and I wince as pain shoots through my spine. He urges me to turn a little, so that the light shows the wounds more clearly. The move brings Ciaran into my line of sight, and this does not go unnoticed. As he continues his examination, he continues the sotto voce conversation.

“You can’t have him, you know. I won’t let you hurt him.”

Is he trying to goad me here? Another sharp pang from the bar through my neck and the retort is out before I know it.

“I wasn’t thinking about hurting him. Far from it, in fact. Do you think for one moment that if I wanted him, you could stop me?”

“Yes. I do.”

That was said with total confidence. Another question for the list. Who the hell is he?

“You should leave here as soon as possible. Morris, their leader, is out with the other students on a field trip of some sort. You should leave him to me for the moment. Besides, you need to get home.”

It’s true. I do need to get home. I don’t give a toss for this Morris, but I have a growing feeling that I need to get home, and I don’t know why. It isn’t a good feeling, either.

Aloud, he asks the boys to observe the construction of the infernal thing, and asks, “How long has this collar been in place, Angelus?”

There’s no point hiding it.

“A century plus a few weeks.”

There’s a murmur of incredulity from the boys. Illyria cocks her head at them, surveying each one.

“Why do you doubt the vampire? He speaks the truth.”

That almost shuts them up, but there’s always one, isn’t there? It’s Edwin.

“Doesn’t it hurt, Mr Angelus?”

“Every damned day.”

Father Robert smiles, amused at the byplay.

“Has your neck been broken by it?”

“Yes, about twenty years ago.”

“And you recovered on your back, with the crosspiece against the bone?”

“Yes. It took weeks.”

His expression is thoughtful.

“Angelus, not only has the flesh grown into and around the metal, but so has the bone. Your vertebrae, when they broke, have repaired themselves by incorporating the bar into their matrix. I’m almost sure of this.”

Shit.

“You’re going to have to break my neck to get it out?”

“I hope not. But I shall have to break the part of the bone that surrounds the bar and has attached to it. It will hurt.”

What’s new?

“Just get on with it.”

He shrugs, and calls Ciaran over, and then tells me what he wants.

“I suggest that you take your coat and shirt off, because there will be some blood. Perhaps you could brace yourself in that doorway? I need you to keep perfectly still. Ciaran – take the other side of the doorway and I will show you how to hold Angelus’ head.”

What? Well, as I step into the doorway, I can see what he is doing. There is just room for us both to stand, each with our back against the frame, but we are pressed close, belly to belly, and in a few seconds, it’s cock to cock. It’s unfair to a celibate priest, but I suspect that there is a lesson here for poor Ciaran. He’s blushing furiously.

Under Robert’s instruction, he puts his hands around my neck, above the hateful collar, is admonished to grip tighter, because he cannot throttle me, and together we brace my head back against the doorframe so that it won’t move. My own hands are braced against the opposite jamb, on either side of Ciaran’s neck. He isn’t as tall as me, and the soft skin of my bare forearms is touching his cheeks. I can feel his hands tremble slightly at the contact with me, but he has a surprisingly firm grip. He is desperately trying to keep absolutely still, so that he won’t rub that underused prick against mine, but he has to breathe, and in the confined space, that’s enough. I start breathing deeply myself, to help control the pain to come, and that redoubles the effect. His blush gets darker, and his breathing sharper, as his gaze focuses on the mating scar over my heart.

Robert tucks a towel beneath the collar – it’s a white one, and they’re going to have to learn that white is hell for getting bloodstains out: better something dark – then he puts the heel of both hands under the lower rim of the collar.

“Ready?”

“Get on with it.”

UP.

My roar of pain is one that must be accompanied by my demon face, although I have no capacity to feel it, and my lower body jerks against Ciaran’s, crushing us together. Ciaran doesn’t flinch.

DOWN.

Again, that roar, but now we both remain frozen, still, pressed together.

OUT.

As Robert clicks open the mechanism and tears the crosspiece swiftly out from amongst the shattered bone and imprisoning flesh, my roar is a pale reflection of the roaring pain that explodes down my spine and through my throat. My mouth fills with blood, and as I feel it trickling down my nose, I know that the structures in my throat have also been torn open. And there’s a lesson for me, here, too. It would have taken ten strong men to hold me down. Or one woman. Or, at the moment, Ciaran. Clever Robert. Cruel Robert, too.

We stand immobile in the doorframe, a frozen tableau, as I try to master the pain of bones knitting together and reshaping themselves and Ciaran continues to hold my head still. I wonder if he feels that my flesh is burning on his fingertips, or whether he is concentrating somewhere rather lower. Meanwhile, Father Robert tosses the bloody collar down onto a nearby table.

“Gentlemen. One thousand words, by tomorrow, on why Angelus did not allow this to be removed by the person who put it there. If you don’t know, then speculate.”

I hear one of them ask, “Since Father Ciaran could hold him still, does that mean that vampires don’t feel much pain?”

Blood from my mouth and nose is now running down my chest, as pain is running through my bones. I really want to stay here, preferably with this young priest on his knees, giving me something to take my mind off my misery, but not in this company. I take a deep breath, which brings more blood bubbling into the back of my throat, and disengage myself as gently as I can, stepping out of the doorway. I think he still gets scratched. The movement brings another wave of bone-crunching agony spearing through the mutilated vertebrae, and I bring my fist crashing down onto one of the heavy wooden tables, shattering it into something fit for firewood. But, I cannot speak yet. Robert does it for me.

“You will find that vampires feel pain more exquisitely than humans…”

The rest is lost as Ciaran moves over to me and twists the towel hard around my neck. I see that most of the blood on my chest is from the wounds at each side. I can feel it running down my back as well. Both he and Robert have been liberally sprayed with it as the crosspiece was wrenched out. Now, he’s trying to stem the flow. At last, the ogre of pain begins to unclench its fist, and the wounds start to close over. They will be tender for days but, for the first time in over a hundred years, I shall be able to move freely. I have forgotten what it is like to move my head without hurting, and to move it without also moving my whole body.

“Angelus. Would you mind if the gentlemen observed the healing process?”

I can’t nod just yet, nor can I speak, but he deserves a return for his efforts, so I loosen Ciaran’s hands on the towel. He refuses to give it up completely, though, and starts to clean me with it. It’s mainly red, now, and is leaving streaks and smears, but it’s still good to feel someone’s hands on me. The boys gather round, and I can almost see their fingers twitch as they try not to touch.

There was a time when I was used to being an object of scrutiny, when the Alchemist’s School was in its heyday. We would spend a little time here, Buffy, or me, or both of us together, helping them to learn. It was humans and demons together, male and female and all the other sexes available among demonkind. Then they were all gone, sacrificed to my games.

It was necessary, and they knew it. Don’t beat yourself up over it. Just don’t let them have died for nothing.

The voice in my head is weary beyond belief, but better than the last time I heard him. Angel. Then he, too, is gone. I pull a chair out from under the wreckage of the table, shaking the seat free of splinters, and sit down. It occurs to me that smashing that table was a singularly foolish thing to do, since it has presented them with a choice of handy wooden stakes. Should I insist on plastic furniture in future?

“Go ahead and touch, if you want.”

My voice is no more than a sibilant whisper. Once again, I am an object lesson, as the boys explore my healing wounds. Even Illryia, who has already seen so much more of me, watches them, her head cocked first to one side and then the other. She reminds me of something in my boyhood – Liam’s boyhood. Every household had some chickens, and we were no exception. We had a small flock of hens, ruled over by a black cockerel. For some unknown transgression, that bird took a dislike to me, and whenever we met, he would do what Illyria is doing. He would survey me, tilting his head first one way and then the other. The hatred would grow in his mad red eyes, and he would attack, pecking wildly at my naked legs, all the while beating his wings madly against me, pushing me backwards. In the end, my father had to wring his neck, and we had him for our Sunday meal, but he looked just like Illyria. I’ve hated chickens ever since.

The boys take the opportunity to inspect my body temperature, the texture of my flesh, the colour of my skin, and all the other attributes of a vampire. Well, the ones on open display, at least. Some of them start to finger my tattoo, while others press their hands against the teeth marks of the mating scar. As they do so, I get a more urgent feeling that I should be going home. If I leave now, I can just make Sunnydale before sunrise.

“Mr Angelus… What does the tattoo mean?”

I stand up abruptly and shrug myself back into my shirt.

“Later… Illyria?”

I mean to suggest that she stays here for a time, but she pre-empts me.

“I wish to stay here. These people are interesting, and I shall study them. You will then come back for me.”

I will, will I? Okay, I suppose I probably will.

“Fine. Pay attention to Father Robert.”

I reach out to pick up the collar, to find that Robert already has it in his hands.

“I’ll take that.”

“It’s better here, Angelus. If you wish me to, I will reforge it into something of use to you, something that can’t be used against you.”

I have no reason not to trust him, but I am reluctant. He’s right, though. I don’t know what awaits me in Sunnydale. I pull the chain out of my coat pocket, and the loss of the weight feels as if someone has struck an albatross from off my neck. He takes it from me, and there is a silent exchange between us. I just wish I knew precisely what it meant. I put on my most sneering smile and borrow a phrase from my youth.

“ ’Servant, sir.”

A nod to him, a perfunctory one to the boys, and I’m gone.

***

When Angelus gets back to the hotel, I can see that he is greatly disturbed. I can also see that the iron collar has gone, and I thank my gods for that. We pack, he all the while urging me to greater speed, and then we set off for Sunnydale. I am not convinced of the wisdom of this. I believe that he should go to see Aurelius, first. But what do I know?

He always drives fast, but now he is pushing this car to its limits. It is a hire car, and does not have the… what do you call it? Ox-power? I forget. We have been away so long that I have forgotten things. We have been gone for generations as you count time, but only five years as you experience it. Still, what will we find?

By the time we arrive at his estate, I have imagined everything. Vandals, vengeful mobs, piracy, occupation by enemies, and the mansion razed to the ground by fire. What I don’t expect is what we find. Nothing. Oh, the mansion is still there, untouched. The shutters are still in place, closed tightly, and all the doors securely locked. Neither of us has a key, but we know where the spare is kept. It’s in her vault, the elegant little building where she is entombed. It is I who jogs over to get it, because the sun has started to rise, and I leave him with a wistful look on his face. I think he will go to visit her tonight. She had it built to her own design, and it was she who included the hiding place for the keys. She said she wanted to continue to be of use, even when she was dead. I remember that he said nothing in reply to that; he simply went out that night and, unaccompanied, slaughtered a small clan of battle demons who’d taken up residence just over the Mexican border. He was away for a week, and he never made any reference to the keys again.

Although the doors face east, the vault is cool and dark, and you need to know the secret of entry. It is untouched. She lies in a stone sarcophagus. The sides are carved with scenes from their life together – not intimate ones, of course. Most, although not all of them, tell tales of battle. Others are gentler moments, more domestic and loving. She persuaded him to draw them so that the carvers could copy his designs. He didn’t give in easily, I can tell you that, and his entire household will always shrink at those memories. He never wanted to contemplate her death for so much as a second, and I think that is why she did it this way. She knew that it must come, and she wanted to ease it for him. I don’t think she succeeded, but it was a good try. He cannot bear not to be in control, and death is the one thing that he can never control. Although, come to think of it, he’s had a good try at that, too.

I give greeting to her, take the key, and hurry back.

It is when we get inside the house that we find nothing, and I mean that exactly. There is no furniture, no carpets, no tapestries. Nothing. Nothing and no one. He’s casting about for an explanation, but he finds nothing. He’s short of blood – I can easily recognise the symptoms now – and he’s tired. I hurry down to the basement – I’m well aware of the things he has down there, and one of them is a daybed. But the basement, too, has been stripped clean. When I get back upstairs, I urge him to settle in his old suite, but he chooses hers, curling up in the darkest corner of the bedroom. He’s slept in far worse places than on a clean, bare floor, and so have I.

I leave him there, and go to find food. I know I cannot do that without people asking me whether he is back, but I shall keep my counsel. He isn’t ready for that. Not yet. Everything in its own good time.

***

Everything around me is too bright. It’s harsh, and it hurts my eyes, and I want it to stop. There is something tugging at me, calling to me, promising me relief. It’s a small thing, and I can only see it from the corner of my eye. If I try to look directly at it, it vanishes. Whatever it is, it’s dark, and cool, and inviting, and draws me to it, inexorably, as a planet draws a moon. It is exactly what I want. Exactly what I need. I start towards it, but the journey is difficult. I don’t know why that should be, but I am not as agile as usual, and I find myself clambering over obstacles that usually would be no obstacle at all. I have something in my arms, which doesn’t help. I cannot see what it is, but I don’t want to let it go. And then the ground simply opens up under my feet and I am falling. I’m falling forever, on and on, the air rushing past my cheeks, and then my feet hit something, and I cling on as best I can, with only one free hand. Whatever I’m standing on gives way beneath me, and I’m falling again. I feel pain in my knees and then I’m standing on something firm again. Except, it isn’t all that firm, and I can feel it crumbling and I don’t want to fall any more. I’m so far down that I don’t think I’ll ever get back into the light. It’s dark here and I’m frightened, and then the horrors come, and I am surrounded. I cry out for help and then I wake up, screaming.

Even when I shut up, the screaming carries on. It’s in my head. When it does stop, it leaves something else behind. There is a call. It’s voiceless and silent, but it is a call. I recognise it instantly. Buffy. The bond between us, silent for all these years, is open once more. My heart clenches. She’s in Hell. That must be the meaning of my dream. She must be calling on me to fetch her out. Memories of my time under the hammer of Orpheus parade themselves for my inspection: dreadful memories of the torments that she suffered. What if they were real? Oh god, what if they were real? It’s all my fault. If I hadn’t taken her, she wouldn’t be in Hell. If I had stayed here, I might have heard her earlier. What to do? How to get to her? I know that I’m working myself up into a lather, but I am trapped here, helpless until the sun goes down, and even when it does, I don’t know what to do…

You were never stupid. Think! The call has direction…

He is right. The call has direction. It’s coming from the other side of Sunnydale. When the sun goes down, I can follow it. That won’t be for about two hours, because I am trapped.

It seems that every elemental force within me is warring for domination. Rage and fear seem to be winning, as I pace up and down the mansion, my boots echoing through these empty chambers, with the Soul in my head trying to soothe me, to calm me down.

Ezrafel comes in, exhausted. He has found a good supply of premium human blood, and I wolf down three pints, one after the other. He’s also found clothes. When we arrived, I’d hoped to be able to get out of what I’m currently wearing – they are so stiff with thousands of miles of travel dirt that they feel as if they are wearing me – but my wardrobe, too, is gone. He has bought replacements for both of us, and an extra change. He’s also bought the normal toiletries, and other things with which I have no patience now.

Having fed, I resume my pacing. Ezrafel sits, silently watching, and the soul continues to talk.

Thank you.

What for?

For coming to fetch me. For looking after her so well. For sharing your memories with me over all these years.

All I can manage is a mental shrug.

Are you… are you sure she’s dead?

With a howl, I punch my fist into whichever wall I’ve been pacing past. That’s going to need replastering.

I buried her! I know she’s dead.

No! I mean now! She feels just as she did in life. There’s no real communication through the bond, only that wordless call, but the feel is the same.

He’s right again. Has she been sent back to me? Is she in mortal danger, rather than in Hell? Is she real? Is she a ghost? Dammit, why can’t I go out in the sun, as I have for this last century! I would wear that infernal collar for a thousand years, just to have one day when I could walk under this sun. Today.

And then another element is added to the war in my breast. Lust. Oh, how I have yearned for her in that long, dark night of the spirit. If she’s back, I want to fold her in my arms, hold her and protect her, and sink into her welcoming depths. But there is still an hour of sunlight left. I resume my pacing, like a caged bear.

Ezrafel asks me what the matter is, and I snarl at him. But, he has been a good servant to me. A good friend. He does not deserve this. I take a few deep breaths to calm myself, and sink down onto the floor, next to him. Then I tell him. He is overcome with wonder. Tentatively, he puts one hand over mine.

“She will be well, Master. You still feel her, so she lives. Whatever needs doing, you will find a way.”

He has such faith. Eventually, even the vilest torture must end, and the sun at last sinks below the western horizon. Even so, I am so impatient to be gone that I almost set off too early. It’s like stereo, one in my head and one in my ears.

Wait!…

“…just another few minutes…

You are no…

“…good to her…

…dead!

Then, the last sliver of sun is gone. The car takes me so far, but the road peters out, and I have to take to my heels. She’s calling me on, that wordless but imperious summons, demanding my instant attendance. What choice would I ever have but to obey? I can almost feel my flesh against hers, and my cock rears up in anticipation. It’s been so long. I expect Angel to disapprove, but he doesn’t.

The ground here is rocky and uneven, with sharp ridges and deep clefts. It belongs to me, but I haven’t developed it. It’s bad land. Cursed. Even the rock is brittle and unstable, spalling away from beneath my feet. Beyond this tract lie the new suburbs of Sunnydale. Ahead, I can see bright lights, and then a simple derrick – no more than a tripod of long, stout timbers. It’s being erected over a deep hole in the ground. Men from the rescue services are trying to get the derrick stable, so that they can run a cable into the pit, to get a man down there, but on this ground, they’ll never do it. I barely give them a glance, and I have even less attention to spare for some civilians a few yards away. The call is strong now. It’s coming from here. I run past the labouring humans and without a second thought I leap into the pit.

It’s a very long way down. The sides open out as I go deeper, and I need to put out my claws to slow my fall, the rock breaking and fragmenting under my hands. I try to be more careful – if she really is here, I don’t want her hurt by the falling stones that are marking my passage. At the top, there was just room for me to get in, but I can only touch one side at once now. The darkness is almost absolute, although that isn’t a problem for me – I can see as well as I need to – but if Buffy is down here, she will be blind. If she’s fallen all the way, we’ll both be in trouble. I know where this will end up: in the Hellmouth. Or perhaps she’s on the other side of the Hellmouth? What would I do then? I feel a snarl of rage at these unanswerable fears. Whatever needs doing, I will do. And then I see something light against the dark wall, a couple of hundred feet further down.

She’s standing on a ledge, her pink dress shining out. The ledge doesn’t look very secure, so I slow myself down by grasping at the pit wall as I approach, landing next to her as gently as I can. It isn’t gently enough. The ledge shudders, and then collapses. Desperately, I snatch her up and hold her close. Raking one hand down the wall, holding her body away from the rock face to save her from harm, I manage to bring us both to a halt at another ledge.

I stand there, teetering on the brink of another precipice, my arms full of Buffy, her legs wrapped around my waist, her arms around my neck. I have imagined this moment so many times, in hope and dread. I thought that, like Aurelius, I should have much longer to wait. It’s been a hundred and two years. I have thought that perhaps she would come back different. She might look different. She might behave differently. She might not be a slayer. She might even be a man. She might not love me any more. None of it would matter, if she loved me. Never once, in all my stupidity, did I imagine it as it really is. It’s her. Blonde hair, hazel eyes, perfect skin; that same serious expression; the same scent that currently has my unruly prick begging like a dog. But, although it’s been a hundred and two years for me, it hasn’t been the same here. Her hair is in bunched ringlets and she’s clutching a stuffed pig. She’s about five years old.

All those emotions that have been warring within me, all the rage and fear and pain, are gone, banished at the sight of her. What’s left is love. And hope. Gently, I put her down, and try to get my body under control – just now, it’s not quite caught up with events. I have done many things in my existence, found many ways of extracting the maximum pleasure from those around me. You know all this. One thing that has never featured on my list of favourite activities, though, is raping children. Oh, I’ve eaten enough of them, killed them, turned them. Never that, though. I’ve met plenty of men whose tastes run to the young; sat with poets who have written about it. I can’t stop the memories of one drunken night in Paris, whispering in a poet’s ear…

Sap which mounts, and flowers which thrust,
Your childhood is a bower:
Let my fingers wander in the moss
Where glows the rosebud

Let me among the clean grasses
Drink the drops of dew
Which sprinkle the tender flower, --

He was so taken with those verses…

No! I am not like him. I will never do that. I think now, suffused with the warmth of love for this beautiful child, that I should just have drunk him down, he and his ilk. She’s mine. She is mine to protect, just now, mine to keep safe until she’s old enough to be my mate and my wife. Again. Come what may, I won’t fail her. And her first time will be when she’s old enough to love it. And to love me, as I renew our bond. I’m so lost in my body’s need to adjust to having her back as a child, to not seeing her as the woman I knew, that I’ve realised she’s said something, and I almost missed it.

“… Angel?”

My dead heart lurches a little. Angel is silent within me, but I think I can feel his hope as well as mine.

“Yes, love…” She remembers! Against all my fears, she knows me. And, to all intents and purposes, the name is true enough for now.

“My mommy says that everyone has a guardian angel, so are you mine, mister?”

Guardian angel. I could weep. “Yes, lo… Yes, in a way.”

Her gaze is solemn, and then she pulls a child-sized handkerchief from her pocket. She holds it up towards me.

“You’re hurt. Spit.”

As if I have no volition of my own, I steady the little hand with the handkerchief and spit into the crumpled piece of cotton. She starts to reach, then pulls back her hand.

“You’re too big. Bend down.”

I crouch down towards her, and she rubs at some unfelt graze on my cheek. But, it’s totally dark down here.

“Can you see me?”

Silently, she nods, then continues on with her self-appointed task, her little tongue tracing across her lips every movement that she makes.

If I was blind, I would see you.

Sourly, I thank him for reminding me. It seems that it cuts both ways. I can’t explain it now, but I’ll think about it later. She holds the handkerchief up to me again, and instructs me to spit. I obey. When she’s wiped my face to her satisfaction, she holds the handkerchief out to me and points to some grazes on her knees. They are her only hurts.

“I can’t spit. You do it.”

She’s thirsty, and her mouth is dry. I don’t even know how long she’s been down here. Fear strikes though me, and I take the damp and begrimed hankie from her. There’s werewolf and vampire and I don’t know what else in my spit. Not on an open wound…

“No, baby. It’s not hygienic to get someone else’s spit on you. We’ll clean you up when we get out of here.”

I look upwards, but I’m far too far down to see any stars. Again, she turns that clear-eyed gaze on me, spearing me through whatever is left of my heart.

“Will your wings be too big to fit?”

God help me.

“Angels have lots of different ways of getting out of holes. Do you think you can hold onto my back?”

She nods enthusiastically, but I look at her little hands, and I know that it’s too dangerous. And she still has that damned pig.

“Do you want to give me Mr Gordo until we get to the top?”

Damn. That was before…

“How did you know his name?”

“Angels know lots of things.”

Just now, I know nothing. Absolutely nothing. Except, I have to get her out of here. The little ledge is starting to shiver. Our weight is too much. My weight is too much for the rotting rock to take. I think about putting her on my back, and putting my coat on over her, to keep her snug, but that won’t work. There won’t be enough freedom of movement for me. It’s a very long climb back.

Quickly, I strip off the coat, swearing silently as it slips off the edge of the little ledge. That was new today. Now my shirt. I fashion it into a sort of sling that she can sit in, ready to put my arms through the loops created by knotted sleeves and tails. But, she could tip out backwards. Carefully, I take the hankie from my pocket, and stuff Mr Gordo in, in its place. Then, I twist it a little and knot it around her wrists, tying them together as gently but as firmly as I can. When she’s hitched up onto my back, I bring her bound hands over my head, to rest in front of my throat, and so she is secured. If I were human, she would be throttling me. As it is, my damaged neck is protesting, but let it. Even if she falls out of the shirt, this will hold her.

“Ready?”

I feel her nod.

“By the way, what’s your name, baby?”

“Don’t angels know?”

“They don’t tell us everything.”

“I can’t say my name properly, so I’m called Buffy.”

Hail Mary, full of grace…

“Hold on tight.”

No sooner have I got a secure foothold on the wall than I hear the ledge crumbling away. I mustn’t fall. I know what lies at the bottom. Hell itself. Or somewhere close enough that the difference doesn’t matter.

The climb is torturous. Not only do I have this precious burden on my back, but her warm breath is constantly tickling my ear, and the memory of her adult self is tickling something else. Angel, fortunately, remains silent. I’m sure he knows that I’m already on the edge, here. Sometimes we slip, but I always manage to retrieve a handhold before we fall too far. And she is brave. Not one sound or cry does she make.

At last I can see starlight. From their noise, I would say that the men are still fumbling around with their derrick, and I’m surprised to realise that I’ve been down there rather less than half an hour. At the lip of the pit, willing, if disbelieving, hands pull me up, and, as I unfasten the handkerchief, they lift her from me. There’s a sudden chill where her warm little body had rested against my skin. The civilians come running over. There are four of them, and the front couple are frantic. The feeling of déjà vu continues. It’s Hank and Joyce, but much, much younger. Ten or eleven years, I would guess…

Joyce snatches up her baby, covering her with kisses, while Hank stands around looking useless. She checks Buffy over, hardly able to believe that she’s only got a couple of skinned knees to show. Meanwhile, I’m unknotting my shirt and putting it back on. I prefer to get out of the glare of these lights as soon as possible, but I’m surrounded by the would-be rescuers, bombarding me with questions about how I got down there, and how I got back up. They’ve looked down into the pit. I put them off by saying that I’ve done some climbing and caving, and then I ask them to check that the little girl doesn’t need to go to hospital. They all turn towards her, and I melt away into the blackness of the surrounding night.

I don’t go to my car straight away, but instead head up into the surrounding hills. My mind and heart are in turmoil, and I can even detect a change in the Soul. Something has swelled within him, just as it has swelled within me. Hope. Anticipation. I’m determined that she will be mine once more, even if she doesn’t recognise me now. After all, she could see me. More importantly, the bond, the link between us, still exists.

Doubts and fears come slithering around, though, eating away at this miracle. What if this time is to be different? What if I am here to be no more than her guardian? Her Watcher, perhaps? Now, there would be a rich irony. Can I stand by and watch her grow to be someone else’s lover? I doubt it. But is that what Robert meant? Am I just to be her servant? Have the last hundred years simply been preparing me for that damnation? Is this part of my atonement? Is that why she has come back so quickly? So that I can live through hell on earth, lifetime after lifetime, that exquisite torment of having her here, but not mine?

And so my thoughts circle around into a morass of questions to which there can be no answers. Only time will reveal what is to be – unless I can locate a good seer, of course. Except… I will move Heaven and Earth and Hell itself to make sure that she loves me and that she is mine, regardless of what any seer might say, whatever destiny might be foretold for us. There could be no other way. For now, though, I must find where the members of my court are, and I must start to rebuild. And speaking of rebuilding, I must do something to secure the pit.

That gives me pause for thought. I remember my dream, and I’m sure that I experienced what she experienced. The course of my life has given me the ability to have real dreams. Dreams like Slayer dreams. Not often – it isn’t a gift of great power – but enough to show me today what was happening to her. She was pulled by something. Was that mental hook something in the Hellmouth? Something intent on revenging itself on her? Or revenging itself on me? I know what that’s likely to be. Apart from everything else, I’ve stolen their source of power, now.

Or could the hook really have been me? Did she know that I was back? Even if she doesn’t remember me, perhaps her soul does? I don’t know. I can only hope. And I can only hope that I am not a danger to her.

It’s the dark of the moon, and so there are no werewolves around, but there are a few of their relatives, the more natural wolves. As I sit on an outcrop of rock, a family of four come slinking around, tails tucked between their legs, bodies crouched, in sign of submission. I’ve never lost the potency of Fenrix’s blood. Idly, I tug at their ears, and wonder whether Buffy would like a dog in future. I could rely on one of these to keep her safe when I can’t. During the day for example.

That is when I realise that I have been even more stupid than I would credit. I can keep her safe in the day. I have the means. All I have to do is retrieve it. The Gem of Amara. Buffy was its keeper in life, and now she’s its keeper in death. I buried it with her. Even I shrink a little at recovering something from a body that has been almost seven years in the grave, when that body is hers. But, what matters of her is alive, here, in Sunnydale, and I must be able to protect her. If I had had the Gem today, I could have retrieved her so much earlier.

My mind made up, I head back for the mansion. Absently, I think that Ezrafel will be cross with me for losing the new coat. He’ll have to go and get another tomorrow. Or perhaps I can do that myself.

I haven’t been to her tomb since the day I buried her. Inside, I sit quietly on the floor for what seems like hours, feeling the echo of her in my blood. She seems pleased. Angel is listening, I know, but he is silent. He knows what I’m going to do, and he is shrinking from it. Not from the need for the Gem, but from the prospect of seeing her grave-despoiled body. Someone has to have some resolution around here.

As carefully as I can, I lift aside the lid of the stone coffin, but it almost takes more resolution than I have to look inside. Somehow, I screw up my courage to the sticking point and, prepared to see my love turned into something distasteful, I lower my gaze. What I see is nothing. Nothing at all, not even dust. The coffin is empty. Then an errant piece of starlight glimmers on something silver in one corner. It’s a chain with a ring threaded onto it.

When she was alive, she wore the claddagh ring that Angel had given her on a chain around her neck. The chain was the one that I took from around the neck of the white stag on the night of our mating/marriage. In death, I left her with that simple ring on that underworld chain, and added the Gem of Amara. I took her wedding ring in exchange, and I wore it around my neck until I gave it to my messengers to give to Aurelius. Now, dangling from my fingers is that same underworld chain and the Gem of Amara. The claddagh has gone, along with her body.

My legs seem to lose all power to hold me up, and I slide silently back to the floor, where I sit, huddled, unable to form a single coherent thought, until the lightening sky drives me back to the house. I understand nothing. All I know is that the link is silent. She needed me, she summoned me, I obeyed, and now she is safe.

***

“Naughty! That was so theatrical! You didn’t need the whole body. The tiniest piece would have sufficed.”

The Lady is standing with her Consort, the one who has creation in his gift. She scowls at him, but she is not displeased, and she hits him lightly in the ribs as she scolds. He catches both her hands and pulls her to him to kiss her.

“At least now he knows that the game is afoot, and he will be prepared.”

The Lady’s perfect brow wrinkles a little in concern.

“She can still choose?”

He soothes her with more kisses.

“You know she can. All of them are free to choose. She can refuse him. He can refuse her. There is no interference.”

She knows that is true, but this is so important that she needed reassurance. He murmurs something in her ear and she laughs delightedly. He has suggested a place where his dark half will have trouble finding them, when he returns. They will have time alone together, and her absent Consort will be… vexed. He will be even more vexed when he finds what they are doing there. Even godlings need some period of rest and recreation, and this sounds like fun, especially if it means teasing the other… and his retribution afterwards will be all the more delicious.

***

I sleep away the next day, lost in dreams and nightmares. When the nightmares become too painful, no doubt in a spirit of helpfulness, the Soul opens up one of his memories to me. He has been grievously hurt, but that is not what he wants to show me. Buffy has come to him. By some magic, she soothes away his wounds and eases his pain, and then she is his for a day. I cannot tell how this has happened, because I can only see what he sees, and at first I feel anger rising in me that she should have done this without telling me. But this moment of respite has had to carry him through so much more than I have endured. I lose myself in his memory, in this exquisite pleasure, uniquely at one with him.

That evening, I find that cleaning up after a wet dream has been added to my list of things to do. So much for three hundred years of control. Unfortunately, I slept in my clothes again.

It’s late when I leave the mansion. I go back to the pit, where work has already started to fence it off. My inclination is to drop some explosives down there. From the pit, it’s easy to follow the scent of my… my what? Wife? Mate? Child bride? Ward? De facto daughter? And I can’t keep worrying like this. Beyond all expectation, beyond my wildest dreams, she is here, and the hollowness inside me has been filled with her warmth. That is enough for now.

Her home lies in the new suburbs, houses built by my own development company. It looks remarkably like her old one, right down to the tree. It isn’t an oak, this time, but a thick pine: much more prickly but just as climbable. From its shelter, I can see into her bedroom.

I haven’t been there more than a minute or two when she wakes up and calls for her mommy. Joyce comes running in, and Buffy tells her she’s thirsty. There’s water on the nightstand, and Joyce pours her a little into a glass, stroking her hair as she drinks it.

“Go back to sleep, honey. You’re safe now.”

“Yes, mommy. The angel’s here, watching me.”

Joyce kisses her and stands to leave. She looks troubled, though, and I’m not surprised. I wonder what tale she has heard? Knowing children, she will have heard the exact truth, but whether she believes it is another matter.

The minutes tick by, and still my girl isn’t asleep. When she’s sure her mother has gone back to her husband, Buffy slips out of bed. I’ve been lounging on one of the larger branches, but now I come to full attention. She is definitely not going back to the pit. We got lucky yesterday. We might not get that lucky again. But it seems that isn’t her intention. The window has a kiddy-proof lock on it, although not, apparently, Buffy-proof. She unlocks it as deftly as her chubby little fingers can, and tries to push up the window. She only manages a crack of an inch or two, which reassures me a little, and then she puts her mouth to that crack and calls out to me.

“I see you in the tree. Can you come in?”

It’s enough of an invitation. Her room is just as I would have imagined a younger Buffy’s. She puts her hand trustingly into mine, and looks up at me, her young eyes old and tired.

“I can’t go to sleep. I’m afraid of falling.”

I pick her up and lay her gently on the bed, her back to me, and then I lie down myself, and hold her, gently.

“Shh. Go to sleep. I won’t let you fall. Not ever.”

She wraps her hand around two of my fingers.

“I know.”

I stay there watching over her sleep until almost too late, overwhelmed by how much I love this child, but eventually I have to pull myself away. When she wakes up, she will find Mr Gordo, instead of me. I’ve kept the handkerchief, though.

***

I visit her every night for a week. At first, she is awake, waiting for me, but then I find her already sleeping. Her nightmares are letting go. Each night, I bring something small to leave for her. A single wildflower, an interesting pebble, a seashell. Once, I find a tiny fossil, a minute fish, perfect in every detail.

This time, she stirs as I take my arm from around her waist.

“Shh. I have to go.”

“Won’t you come back?”

“Soon. I have something else to do, though. You’ll be safe if you don’t go near the pit again. Why did you go there?”

She scowls at me.

“I didn’t know there was a hole. I… something asked me to follow, so I did. Then the earth fell down, and I fell as well.”

She knows no more, and I must be satisfied with that. I take my last gift from my pocket. It’s a silver cross on a long chain, an intricate pattern of delicate, interwoven links. It’s the underworld chain, from her coffin. Macabre? Perhaps; and yet it feels perfectly right. The cross is new, and is small enough for her. I’ve doubled the chain to make sure that fits, too.

“Don’t go near the pit again. Don’t wander away from your mother. And wear this. It will keep you safe.”

“What will mommy say?”

Ever-practical Buffy.

“Tell her that the man who carried you from the pit gave you this, and that you forgot it was in your pocket.”

She nods solemnly. It’s near enough to the truth.

“I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

Again she nods. There is a moment when I don’t want to go, and I don’t think she wants me to. Then, she throws her arms around my neck and kisses my cheek, a soft, scented, baby kiss. I want to hold her to me, and never let her go, to steal her away from parents who let her get into such danger, but instead I gently disentangle myself, drop a soft kiss onto her forehead, and climb out of the window.

I’ve left enough time to go back into the hills. The family of wolves are still there – they are far too small a group to call a pack. They come to me in submission, licking at my hands and face. When they have her scent, I ask for the favour I need. They will watch out for her while I am away. They walk with me back to my car, and I toss them the dozen rabbits that Ezrafel picked up from the butcher. It’s a small recompense.

Travelling would be much simpler if I used the Gem, but for some reason I can’t guess at, I hold myself bound by the promise I made to her many years ago. Only when there is no other way. And so, Ezrafel and I make our way to Egypt. It’s time to visit Aurelius. It may hurt him to know that Buffy is back so soon, when he has waited so long, but perhaps it will give him comfort to know that this has happened at all.

Cairo keeps reinventing itself, and yet remains much the same. Noisy, busy, overcrowded, full of sights and scents and sounds. It’s getting on towards dawn when we reach our destination. The doorkeeper grants us admission immediately, and Paul hurries over to greet us. It’s a full house just now. I had lost track of the passing seasons, just a little. I think I can be excused for that, in the circumstances. It’s time for the once a decade clan gathering; the time when his own childer, those that time and attrition and my wars have left to him, come with their mates and their own families to renew bonds, to introduce new childer and to discuss the business of the clan. The gathering starts tomorrow, and Aurelius is not yet here. He went on some urgent business, which he discussed with no one. If he isn’t back by tomorrow, it will be up to me as his beta to open the proceedings. I remind Paul that I am banished, and he gets a little testy. Apparently Dyryke has made such a nuisance of himself with his never-ending complaints about me that Aurelius threatened to stake him if he opened his mouth one more time. I’m still beta. Oh, goody.

As we talk, he takes me to find Rohn, who picked up half of the duties of Keeper when Japheth died, to catch up with what has been happening since I left in disgrace five years ago. Everyone is here, now, and although there are some that I don’t recognise, I know most of them well, and our progress is slow. I keep trying to ask Paul whether my messengers arrived here, but the question never gets finished for greetings from those who I haven’t seen for years. They are curious, and I cannot satisfy that curiosity.

At last, though, we find Rohn and his family, and I’m just about ready to pin Paul to the wall with my question, when a hush falls throughout the Great Hall. Aurelius is back. He is tired and travel-stained, but he has a word for everyone he passes. His eyes, though, are scanning the crowd, until he finds me. It appears that the doorkeeper has told him of my arrival. He looks pleased to see me, and makes his way over to where we are standing. He has a word and a gesture for all, and then he turns to me.

“Give me ten minutes, and then join me.”

When I do, he’s pouring a glass of blood. He pours a second and proffers it to me, and then makes a neutral opening.

“Have you been back long?”

“No. Long enough to get back to Sunnydale and find the place stripped.”

“That was me. There have been some problems while you were away. A new Slayer in town.”

Despite my new-found hope, my gut wrenches to be reminded of her death. I’d known it must be so, of course, that another Slayer would follow her, but to actually hear it makes it so much worse. And for her to come to Sunnydale…

“They were intent on burning the place to the ground with everyone in it, so I had it emptied out. It’s all safe, and so are your people. I’ll take you whenever you’re ready.”

“The Slayer?”

While I was there, I hadn’t had the feeling that a vampire gets when in close proximity to a slayer. He shrugs.

“She didn’t last long. The next one turned up somewhere different – Cleveland, if I recall. And no, it wasn’t me. She fell to a Thraxis demon. I killed that – I thought you’d expect me to.”

Something passes across his face, a shadow.

“That first one, she took Nina and Oz before I knew. I’m sorry… She saw them come from the mansion… Anyway, I had them buried…’

He knows that I was fond of those two.

“Thank you.”

He walks over to me and stands close, face to face.

“I’ve missed you.

His hand comes up and his fingers follow a path from my temple, down my cheek to my mouth, pausing at the corner.

“I wish that I could say you weren’t worth all the trouble you’ve caused me.”

He cradles my cheek in his palm, and here is the thing that I have craved for decades. A simple, affectionate touch. I want to rub against his hand, like a cat, but I manage to stop myself. That would never do.

“Stay with me here, today. Please.”

He could command me, but he asks, instead. Mutely, I nod at this unexpected rapprochement, this unlooked for return to intimacy.

Abruptly he turns away, and starts to hunt through a bureau drawer.

“Later, you will tell me everything…”

“No, there’s something I must tell you now…”

My voice trails away as he holds up the object that he was looking for. It’s her wedding ring on my chain. The chain is identical to hers – I had it copied by the best jewellers money can buy – but hers is the original.

“They came, then?”

“Didn’t you think they would?”

“I wasn’t certain.”

He hands the chain over, and I put it on. I’ve missed it.

“Those two are the reason I was almost late for the proceedings. Kistur and Jetta. They came here, bravely, having hitchhiked every step of the way, and I gave them money to go home. Then some demon or another came along to terrorise the villages around there, and Jetta went to her local, slightly more friendly, vampires for help. The villagers, superstitious bigots that they are, would rather have demons by all accounts, and after some sort of mock trial, they were going to burn the both of them. I just got there in time.”

“How did you know?”

For a moment, I think that he must have turned one or both of them, to sense their trouble.

“I thought there might be some repercussions, so I gave them a cell phone. New technology, dear boy. New technology.”

Of course.

“What have you done with them?”

“Oh, they’re here in Cairo, in a hotel. They think they’ve died and gone to heaven. It’s the Cairo Hilton. Since they’re yours, you can pay. I assume you can find something for them to do? Some useful role?”

I have to laugh at the sheer effrontery of him, but I’m sure I shall find something. I can always turn them if all else fails. He puts out his hand to me.

“Let’s go and have a shower before turning in.”

I remember the last one, and my cock, with memories of its own, sits up and begs. His smirk shows that he hasn’t missed that. But, there’s something to say first. I rush my fence.

“Buffy’s back.”

His smile falters, oh so briefly, and when it returns it’s rather more pained than it was before. I had known that this would hurt him.

“So soon? I’m glad for you. How was she? Did you bring her with you?”

“You don’t understand. She’s five years old. She knows nothing. She thinks I’m her guardian angel.”

The smile becomes warmer, more genuine.

“Weren’t you always? Or does the big bad Angelus not like to think of himself that way? Tell me.”

I tell him briefly, and he frowns a little when I get to the missing body.

“It’s good that you’ve left her guarded. We’ll sift the problem some more after we’ve slept on it.”

He leads me into the shower and then into the bed. This time, everything I do is of my own volition. With that caveat, I can say that everything else is much the same. Sekhmet purrs throughout the entire time.

Both of us are too tired, and too satisfied, to rise early, and so there is not time for discussion before the start of proceedings. The first business is to introduce newcomers. There is a festive feel to the hall as I circulate, talking to those I haven’t seen for a very long time. Aurelius makes his own entrance with Sekhmet, and is preparing to mount the small dais to his chair when the doorkeeper hurries in. I’m closer than all the rest, and I hear what is said.

“Master, there is someone at the gate who wishes to speak to you.”

The doorkeeper, Giora, has served Aurelius for decades, and knows who is welcome and who is not. Aurelius is therefore patient with him.

“Who is it?”

“I don’t know, my lord.”

“Do you know anything?”

“It is a woman. She will not give her name, but says that she must speak to you.”

“Has she come for the gathering?”

“No, she cannot have done so. She is human, master.”

“What manner of human? Old? Young? Do we know her?”

“She is covered, master, and I can get no scent from her. I don’t recognise her voice, but she seems young.”

It isn’t unusual for young men and women to covet the life style of vampires, to think that playing with eternity is all they could ever desire. However, Aurelius has always been discreet here. He may have lived in Cairo since it was founded, but not a handful of humans know exactly what he is. Probably not that many. I’d be surprised if a young woman knows. And no scent? That says magic, to me.

“Send her away, Giora.”

Giora looks abashed.

“I have done that twice, master, both yesterday and the day before. Now, she says that she will camp at the gate until you let her in. Should I kill her for you?”

Aurelius rarely kills, and never locally. Never shit on your own back doorstep. It is a measure of Giora’s unease that he should ask. And the last thing that Aurelius will want is for someone to draw attention to his house by squatting outside the gate.

“No. I am intrigued. Send her in, then. At worst, she will be the hors d’oeuvres, I suppose.”

He mounts the dais, and sits down, awaiting this unexpected guest. There is a rustle of conversation among those gathered, although most have only heard snatches, as everyone awaits events with rising curiosity.

A figure enters at the end of the hall. I see what Giora meant by ‘covered’. The woman, if woman she is, is wearing a burqa, unusual in this day and age. It is a beautiful thing, of clear azure blue the colour of northern summer skies. The garment itself falls in tiny, knife-edged pleats, exactly like the finest linen dresses of Pharaonic Egypt. The headpiece is also azure, covering her whole head and shoulders, with only a small, fine mesh panel for her to see through. It is embroidered over with a pattern of tiny twining azure roses, even the viewing panel, and entirely obscures her face. How she can see anything, I don’t know. Her back is straight, her head high, and she seems not at all worried that she is amongst a crowd of vampires.

I can detect no scent at all from her. It is as if the burqa, as well as hiding her, were hiding everything about her. A burqa such as this can cover much, including weapons, and I am very suspicious of the whole thing. We all have our enemies. So, as she walks down the centre of the hall towards Aurelius, I track her progress, walking down by the wall, ready to use it as a springboard if I must, to reach her and to stop any attempt on his life.

But, when she reaches the dais, she falls gracefully to the floor in a deep obeisance, her forehead pressed to the toe of his boot, the burqa settling around her like a sunlit pool. Her voice, when she speaks, is low and melodious. And young. Giora was right.

“Forgive me, my lord, but I could not come sooner.”

Aurelius sits, frozen in place, his knuckles white as his fists clench around the arms of his chair. She, too, is silent and still. When at last he finds his voice, it is harsh, almost strangled.

“Never ‘my lord’. Never that, to you.”

He swallows hard, and then slowly, as if afraid that she is a wild creature who will take flight if startled, he reaches down and lifts her head, one finger beneath her chin.

“Will you remove your veil for me?”

At first, I think that she will not, not in such company as we have here. But then she raises her hands, the long, pleated sleeves falling away to reveal young, shapely fingers free of any rings, but intricately patterned with henna, like a bride on her wedding day, and she lifts off the bulky headpiece, dropping it onto the floor beside her. Underneath it, her hair and the lower half of her face are still covered with a shawl-like wrap woven in deep reds and blacks. She pushes it back to reveal a mass of dark chestnut curls framing a particularly beautiful face. Her skin is a creamy gold, her eyes dark, her lips full and red without any man-made artifice. Power radiates from her. She looks about fourteen.

He gives a small sob, and then steps away from his chair, lifting her gently to her feet. She is tiny, about the same height and build as Buffy was. Regardless of all convention, heedless of all of us here, he takes her in his arms, lifting her up to him, and kisses her fiercely. Tears are running down his cheeks. She, for her part, returns the kiss with passion. I can sense a great deal of confusion in the hall, but some of those here can guess who she is, and are looking on with wonder. I know. I have seen her in dreams and visions. I have had a portrait painted of her for Aurelius, and I have a copy of it with my belongings, wherever they are. Years ago, I brought her bones here, to Egypt, for him and saw them reinterred in the Lion Courtyard.

She is Palestrina, his lost love, stoned to death for loving a vampire, and now returned to him after two thousand years.

If I were to look in the Lion Courtyard, I wonder whether her bones would still be there, or, like Buffy’s, will they be gone?

Quietly, I start to usher the rest of the clan out of the hall, leaving them alone, together. When I look back, they have broken the kiss. It will be hard for him, but he didn’t take advantage of her youth before, and he won’t now. He is still holding her close, and her arms are wrapped tightly around his neck. And so, a fourteen year old girl, whose feet at the moment do not even touch the floor, is soothing and comforting a five and a half thousand year old vampire, perhaps the most powerful creature on this planet, who is weeping silent tears of joy into her hair.

THE END (For now)
August 2005

Author’s Notes

1 Prometheus: Prometheus was the Titan who stole fire from the gods for mankind. As a punishment, he was chained to a rock, where an eagle pecked out his liver every day, and every night it regenerated. Strangely, the liver is the only one of the body’s internal organs that can regenerate itself. They knew a thing or two, these ancient Greeks. ‘Prometheus Bound’ is a play by Aeschylus, the middle part of a trilogy – ‘Prometheus the Fire-giver’ and ‘Prometheus Unbound’ were the other two parts. It might possibly be better than Shakespeare.

2 Palestrina: I should perhaps say here that the name of Aurelius’ lost love comes from the Italian composer Palestrina, 1525-1594, (pronounced Palestreena), because I thought it was just too pretty a name not to use. And his music’s pretty, too.

3 Berserker: an ancient Norse warrior who fought in a wild and uncontrolled frenzy. Probably about as dangerous to their own side as to the enemy…

4 ‘…the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns…’ Hamlet, William Shakespeare Act 3, sc 1, l 56

5 Pyrrhic victory – of a victory won at too great a cost to be of use to the victor (from the name of Pyrrhus of Epirus, who defeated the Romans at Asculum in 279BC, but sustained unbearably heavy losses).

6 Energy and matter: 95% of the Universe is comprised of dark matter and dark energy. The other 5% is what we see in those wonderful pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope. Dark matter is matter, and it’s dark, so the name fits. Dark energy is possibly energy, and it’s only dark in the sense that the Dark Ages are dark – i.e. we don’t know anything about it, although we do know rather more about the Dark Ages than we do about dark energy, about which we know zip, nada, nothing. Don’t you just love physicists? Energy and matter are the same thing, and this is demonstrated by that famous equation of Einstein’s, e=mc² : the amount of energy equals the amount of mass multiplied by the speed of light squared. That’s a *huge* amount. Light is a form of energy, and nothing can travel faster than that. If you keep adding energy to an object travelling at light speed, it doesn’t get faster, it gets heavier – the energy is condensing out as matter, which is what happened after the Big Bang. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

7 Atropos – one of the three Fates; Clotho would spin the threads of life, Lachesis measured each one, and Atropos ended each with a snip of her scissors.

8 Lady Day – Feast of the Annunciation: 25 March

9 Quasars: Quasars are indeed the brightest and furthermost objects that we can see. Quasar stands for quasi-stellar radio source, and quasi-stellar object. The very latest thinking on quasars is that they may be powered by supermassive rotating black holes, which play a role in the formation of galaxies, although what that role might be is currently beyond our understanding. Because they are the most luminous objects known in the universe, they are the objects that have been observed at the greatest distances from us. The most distant are so far away that the light we see coming from them was produced when the Universe was only one tenth of its present age. The estimated age of the Universe varies a little from authority to authority, but seems to be about 15 billion years. So, the edge of the Universe is marked by quasars, light from which has taken perhaps 14 billion years to reach us. Now, here’s the rub. If we say that the quasars are, in fact, the outer ring of galaxies fired by the Duality during the lifetime of this story cycle, and if we say that the speed of light cannot be exceeded, then it’s going to take 15 billion years to reach us, and my software will be out of date by then. So, on this one point, can we pretend? Let’s just assume some ineffable process that lets us see what’s happening, or you won’t get to hear quite a lot of interesting stuff… Okay? Here’s more information on quasars. You can see here some actual pictures of quasars. One shows a quasar formed by the collision of two galaxies – see? I tell no lies. It’s fascinating stuff.

10 When I wrote ‘April Fool’, it was intended at the time to be part of this series, and so I have incorporated much of that standalone tale into here, where it belongs. If you think you’ve read that bit before, that’s why. There are changes, though.

11 Posy - a short motto, line of verse, etc., inscribed within a posy ring; variation of the word ‘poesy’, the archaic word for poetry.

12 Tiger’s Nest Monastery. Yes, it really exists, perched on a cliff in Bhutan’s Paro Valley. Unfortunately, it was destroyed by fire in 1998, and rebuilt from photographs and other documentary sources, although the internal artworks could not be duplicated. The bells are my invention. You can see pictures here, amongst a collection of other pictures of Bhutan.

13 The Furies are three goddesses from Greek mythology, sent from Tartarus to avenge crimes, especially against kinship.

14 There is a basis for this story from the Duality. Palaeolithic peoples (from about 2.5 million years ago to the end of the Ice Age in about 10,000 BC) produced stunning art towards the end of that period, and we see this all over the world, perhaps reaching a pinnacle in the painted Caves of Lascaux, which date from around 17,000 years ago. Earlier than that – at least 32,000 years old, is the art at the Chauvet cave. However, in the cave of Pergouset, in the Lot region of France, dating from at least 32,000 years ago, the engraved art begins only after a long crawl, at full stretch, down a narrow, low, wet and unpleasant passage. One of the engraved figures, a horse head, was made at arm’s length inside a fissure into which the artist could not possibly have inserted his or her head: even the artist never saw this figure; it was not meant to be seen by human eyes.

15 Black Drop: I’ve borrowed here. Kendal, in the Lake District, used to have a drink known as Kendal Black Drop, made of brandy and laudanum. Byron certainly tried it, and perhaps Keats, Shelley and Wordsworth did, too. There seems to be evidence that the Stone Age shamans used hallucinogenic substances. I’ve just put the two together, and borrowed the wonderful name.

16 Pour encourager les autres – to encourage the others. Here’s the origin of the phrase ‘pour encourager les autres’. What more can I say? In this country [England] it is thought well to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others. Voltaire Candide (1759) ch. 23

17 Bismarck : ‘If there is ever another war in Europe, it will come out of some damned silly thing in the Balkans.’ It did, of course – World War 1, from the assassination in Sarajevo.

18 Raki and slivovitz: Raki is any of various spirits made in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Slivovitz is plum brandy from Romania. Both of them will wrinkle paint. You’ve been warned.

19 Amygdala: This part of the brain, named with the Greek word for ‘almond’ because of its shape, is the seat of our most primitive emotions:

20 The Imperfect Enjoyment, by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (1648 – 80): This is a wonderful poem, about the wronged Corrina. I’m sure that it would have struck a chord with Liam.

21 Structure of the universe: Everything that I’ve said here is true – well, the physics bit, anyway. I borrowed the sentence about rivers of gravity from the press release reporting new work elucidating the structure of the Universe – it was so good, I couldn’t let it go. Here’s the press release. I think it was Shostakovich who said that great composers don’t borrow, they steal, and I take comfort from that.

22 The Great Attractor: There is a Great Attractor, and it is believed to be Abell 3627. That’s their theory, this is mine… If you follow the links through, you can find out lots of interesting information at http://www.solstation.com/x-objects/greatatt.htm

23 Jacob and the Angel: Genesis ch. 32, v. 25

24 Ant Mandible: Here are some photos of photo of one drinking. Interestingly, there is a theory that the sweet manna that the Israelites found in the desert was actually honeydew, which in some places is called ‘dew from heaven’. I’m pretty sure ants don’t farm ichneumon wasps though, and that’s probably one thing to be grateful for.

25 For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return: Genesis ch. 3, v. 19

26 Angler fish Click on the thumbnail picture in the paragraph headed ‘Sexual Parasite’, and in the larger picture you will see the male attached to the female: See what interesting stuff you get here?

27 The Hungry Hushes – a set of steep sided valleys in North Yorkshire made by using water for processing lead ore. This is the only picture I could find of a hush, but it’s taken from the Hungry Hushes, not of them. You couldn’t make up a better name, though, could you?

28 Ings – an old Yorkshire word for meadows

29 My love is of a birth as rare, etc: The Definition of Love (1681, Andrew Marvell. Seems to me this is the defining Buffy/Angel poem

29 The Flaying of Marsyas – Titian: There was to be a competition, the god Apollo on his lyre and the satyr Marsyas on his pipes. Marsyas was winning, and Apollo upped the stakes. Whoever won would be able to do whatever they wished with the loser. This time, both competitors were hung upside down. You can play the lyre upside down, but not the pipes. Guess who won. Apollo decreed that Marsyas should be flayed, still hanging by one leg, upside down. It’s a really dark painting from Titian’s later years.

31 Ereshkigal was the goddess of the Underworld in the Pantheon of ancient Sumer.

32 'Sap which mounts, and flowers which thrust,’ etc: Spring, Paul Verlaine, 1844-96 I really hope that I’m doing Paul Verlaine an injustice. Don’t sue. However, Paul Verlaine, Charles Baudelaire and Stephane Mallarme formed the Decadent School of poets, who believed that they carried no moral responsibilities. Although I’m sure that Angelus would have derived a great deal of amusement from winding them up, but it’s interesting to see that there are places even he won’t go, evil as he thinks he is.


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