Hound of Heaven

Hound of Heaven

Author's notes

I’m indulging in my favourite occupation. Buffy watching. Currently, she’s on the beach, digging in the sand. She’s making a sandcastle. There are a couple of children with her, and she has them fetching shells and bits of driftwood so that she can make her castle pretty, even though it’s only a few badly-dumped bucketfuls of sand. Toy buckets. She’s five years old.

What’s she doing on the beach at night, you might ask? Ah, well, it’s the middle of the day. No, I’m not cowering underneath a blanket. I’m wearing the Gem of Amara. The sunlight is painful on my eyes, and I’m definitely going to suffer from some strange and mystical form of sunburn, but her parents are bickering and arguing, as usual, and today, instead of listening to their animosity, they let her come here with the parents of the other two children. With virtual strangers. I couldn’t let her come alone and unguarded. Not when something has already tried to lead her into the Pit, into the Hellmouth.

And so here I am, a decent distance away, just a man and his dog. I haven’t got a dog, of course. What I do have with me is a wolf. He’s one of the small family of four that have been looking after Buffy when I can’t; when I’m away and during the daylight hours. I never lost my connection to werewolves, and their cousins the wolves, after the fight I had with Fenrix, and this small family serve me. At least, they’ve exchanged their services for the pleasure of not going hungry anymore, and that seems to be payment enough for them.

A wolf alone at the beach would get short shrift, but a man and a…canine? Well, it’s so well behaved and so clearly under control, clamped as it is to my right calf, that it can’t possibly be a wild animal. Ergo, it must be a dog. A rather timid and scrawny Heinz 57 dog, but a dog nevertheless. Just as I must be a man. And so we pass relatively unnoticed, the wolf and the vampire.

They’ve come to a secluded cove. There aren’t many people here, and therefore I must be careful not to be conspicuous. At night, that would be easy, but in the harsh light of day, it’s a different matter for me. Currently, the wolf and I are sitting on some rocks. Rather, I’m sitting and he’s lying. He’s got his head on my knee, his eyes closed in bliss. If he dribbles over my very expensive trousers, I shall teach him the meaning of bliss.

His name is wolfish for Claw. Seriously. They all have an identity to each other, but it’s communicated by scent and body language that results in visual images, rather than the verbal methods that humans prefer. Demons understand it rather better than humans do, of course. His name? Oh, apparently, there was some trifling incident when he was a pup, and rather too clumsy and eager for the good of his dam’s teats. There it is. He’s Claw. A more accurate translation might be Clumsy Claw, but he was young then, so let’s leave him some dignity. I may have to find another name for him. How about Max?

Him? Oh, he won’t mind what I call him. He knows who he is.

So, we’re sitting here, watching Buffy. She’s the leader of this small group, I’m pleased to see. Even the adults bend to her will. She was the one who picked the spot. It was a good choice, if a bitter-sweet one for me, and I can’t help but wonder whether she remembered it from…before. The place, that is, if not the reason. From the last time she was alive. I made love to her here on the occasion of our seventh wedding anniversary. The seventh is the Wool anniversary, and I gave her a pure wool Afghan carpet, woven to show the tree of life. I fetched it myself, from a tribe that has knotted carpets of this pattern for generations. She loved it, and it survived the years and trials of our life. It should still lie in the room that was her bedroom but everything and everybody in my house was cleared away a few years ago by Aurelius, to save them from the new Slayer.

I was… away at the time. The last five years here, and the last hundred years for me, I have spent in another dimension, rebuilding the empire of the Dark Lady, the dam of the three demons who waged war against me for years. The Wolf, the Ram and the Hart. Shall I ever be free of them? I didn’t kill them, before, but I did bring them down, and you can be sure that their mother has revenged herself on me. I held the power of life and death over almost every soul in her dimension, and I was an abject slave to her. It was complicated and dreadful, and I learned humility there. A little, anyway. A hundred years of captivity and pain will do that to a man. It will even do it to a vampire.

I learned hunger, too. There was never enough to eat, and what there was, was barely adequate to keep me alive. I’ve only been back in this world for a few weeks, and I’m hungry still. I don’t think it will matter how much pig or cow or other animal blood I eat. The only thing that will be able to fill me is hot and fresh and human. So, the wolf by my side becomes tame, and I become the wolf once more. If Aurelius has tried to teach me anything over the years, it’s that the world runs on balance, and I suppose there’s a balance here, of sorts. But, when Buffy remembers who I am – and who she is – and asks me to account for my actions since she died, what answer shall I be able to give her?

She wanted me to seek the redemption that Angel had been trying for, and what have I done to achieve that? I have rescued him, true, although I may yet find that I was too late there. He isn’t strong. I have him within me, but he is a largely silent passenger.

Illyria, the remnant of a God-King who I also rescued, although whether that was a Good Thing or a Bad Thing, I can’t yet tell, told me that he isn’t viable. That may weigh against me in Buffy’s scales, then. I did too little, too late. I have done nothing else good. Where I was, they called me Abaddon. Hell itself. The Devil. Death. Does that sound as though I have done good things? No, I have not.

Max, perhaps sensing my unease, snuggles closer. He’s the one who seems to watch Buffy most often. He’s young, yet, born from last year’s litter. His dam is in a den with this year’s litter still blind and deaf around her. His sire is busy feeding the new family, and his sister is helping. They don’t have to look far, and they won’t go hungry this year. There are always rabbits left for them now. So, Max has guard duty, but I think he enjoys it. And he’s certainly enjoying today, even though he’s nervous of the new sights and sounds around him. In the car, he almost pissed himself with fear and excitement, but he’s learning why dogs stick with humans. If only he could tell me why humans – or one particular human – might stick with vampires. With a single vampire. Me.

Now Buffy is imperiously demanding ice cream. One of the women is asking whether she wants vanilla or strawberry or chocolate. She’s pouting as if she almost remembers something else, but settles for chocolate. I doubt that she’s been introduced to cookie-dough-fudge-mint-chip yet, or she would surely have demanded that of her current servants. I shall have to remember that.

I remember other things, too, and my mind focuses on what happened in this cove all those years ago. It’s infinitely better than thinking about a hundred years of slavery and killing. I feel the satin touch of her skin against my palm, and the silken weight of her hair running through my fingers. The thrill of her lips on me, everywhere on me, now soft and tender, now hard and demanding, and her teeth…

With an effort, I look down, and see that the flesh doesn’t need the brain to carry memory. I have been pulling Max’s silken ear through my hand, as one might do with any dog. Max, though, isn’t used to this, and he has grasped my hand in his jaws. I can feel every one of his teeth, pressed into my flesh. He knows his strength, though, and he hasn’t broken the skin, and yet he is certain that he has transgressed. He’s not sure how to back away from this without the savaging that a dominant wolf would give him, and so after letting go, he rolls over onto his back, exposing his belly, in an unmistakeable show of submission. Unfortunately, he’s too close to the edge of the rock and, in a tangle of flailing limbs, he falls with a thump onto the sand. His yelp of surprise startles even him.

Everyone in the cove turns to look at us, and Max feels the weight of their stares, just as much as I do. He stands up and shakes the yellow sand from his grey pelt. And then his legs stiffen, and, with lowered head, he stares at me. His hackles rise and he starts to growl, deep and low in his chest. It’s a fighting stance. My decision is instant. I cannot have a guard for Buffy who might forget himself and attack. He’s too accustomed to her now to just banish him. When we leave this beach, he’s dead. His family, too, I think, just to be safe.

He seems entirely focused on me. He’s stopped growling, but his lips are lifting a little, and his muzzle crumpling up into a silent snarl. Perhaps he catches something of my thought. I’ll never know. But, that half snarl still in place, he looks anxiously up at me. Only then do I understand that he isn’t growling at me. He’s giving warning of something behind me, and that’s where his stare has been focused.

When I turn to look, I can see nothing, at first. Even with sunglasses on, it’s probable that I can’t see as well as you do. My eyes are too sensitive, too adjusted to darkness. On an overcast day, I can manage well enough, but here, in sunny California, with the light bouncing off the sea and the sand? He’s doing better than I am.

He pads around the cluster of rocks that we’ve made our watch station, and paws at something on the ground, leaping back the instant that he’s done so. Then I see it. It’s a snake, a black and white banded snake, about six feet long. It’s making slightly heavy weather of the sand, but it’s travelling straight for the group of children that includes Buffy.

I’ll admit to a moment of hesitation. After all, most snakes are harmless, intent only on staying out of trouble. Max has no hesitation, though. His parents have taught him what to do here. He leaps at it, stiff-legged, and then scurries back. And then he leaps again. He does this until the snake turns its focus onto him, and coils, ready to strike. It’s probably time for me to lend a hand. I owe him that much for having so peremptorily misjudged and sentenced him. But, he’s quicker than me. His head darts down, and when he lifts it again, he has the snake in his jaws, just behind the head. The thing is writhing and coiling, trying to break free, but he sits down and looks for all the world like an eager puppy who has retrieved a beloved toy and wants to play. Then his jaws close together, with his fifteen hundred pounds per square inch bite, and the snake’s spine snaps with an audible crunch. It writhes in death, and then falls limp. I hold out my hand, and he obediently gives it up. It isn’t a snake that I’ve seen before. When I open its mouth, a small drop of venom falls from a fang.

Later, I will look it up in the library – I have no books at the mansion; they are still wherever Aurelius had them stored for safekeeping – and I will find that it is a sea krait, from the waters around South East Asia. Its toxin is fatal, and it appears to have swum the Pacific in order to deliver that poison to my girl. Someone has brought a sea snake to my town, to do harm to me and mine. I can’t tolerate that. As I read about the krait, I will discover that, like all snakes and lizards, it has two penises, and that fact gives me a shudder of dreadful recollection. I will also discover that the female controls the mating, and that the male cannot disengage until the female is done with him, and my sleep will be populated by nightmares of the Dark Lady treating me just so.

For now, though, I am simply a man, sitting on a rock with his rather scrawny-looking dog, tossing a long stick into the water. Contrary to popular expectation, my dog does not follow it into the surf to fetch it back.

++++++

My master is sleeping, but today, he has a bed to sleep in, rather than the bare floor. For some reason, he isn’t resting easy, although I doubt that it’s anything to do with the mattress. He has nightmares, often, but these seem to be worse than usual. I don’t like to leave him alone when he’s like this, yet I have tasks that cannot wait.

Oh, he has given me no instructions, no ‘Ezrafel do this’, or ‘Ezrafel do that.’ I know well enough what needs doing. We have been back in Sunnydale for three days, following our journey to Egypt, to see Aurelius. Angelus went there to tell the head of his House that he had returned from what might as well have been Hell, and that Buffy had returned from the dead. We found that Palestrina, Aurelius’ long-lost lover, had also returned from the dead. I have seen many things during my service with Angelus, and I know, when the remnant scales on my neck start to rise, that there are things to worry about. My hackles are up now. Well, after what we know, do you think that these two have returned, and in such timely fashion, simply at the benevolent behest of some kindly deity? No, neither do I.

When we arrived back here, the house – his home – had been stripped bare. Now we have learned that Aurelius did that, because the new Slayer had identified it as a place where demons lived. She was young, and without a Watcher, and she didn’t even know what a Slayer was, but she knew what she had to do, and so she decided to burn the place out. Instead, Aurelius distracted her long enough to charter a small freighter and to move all of Angelus’ possessions to a house that he’d purchased for him. It’s apparently a huge and rambling place, and the occupants selling it were a community of nuns. Aurelius definitely has a sense of whimsy, and knows what would appeal to his beta male. Just as appealing, the Abbey was sold with its library of over fifty thousand books. It was cheap at the price, too. I have seen the accounts. Well, Aurelius did arrange for the purchase price to come from Angelus’ holdings.

Angelus has half a dozen estates on the American continent alone, and Aurelius could have moved his possessions to any one of those. He didn’t though, and I think he deliberately chose to find somewhere new. He didn’t want Angelus coming back to a place where he had lived with his dead love.

The mansion he left open to the elements, bare and abandoned, as if the demons here had been scared off by the threat of the Slayer and had run so fast they hadn’t bothered to close the front door. She investigated, found that it was owned by a wealthy recluse, not currently in residence, and her enquiries ‘came to the attention’ of his estate management company, staffed by demons who can pass for human any day of the week. They thanked her and secured the house, and so it was saved from her, although I’m sure that Aurelius will have asked himself many times whether he should have let it burn. There are so many memories here.

Of course, the reappearance of Buffy has complicated things. Angelus wishes to be near Buffy, and who can blame him? But, we cannot stay in an empty house.

So far, I have only bought essentials. A refrigerator, food, some cooking utensils, clothes and two beds. I’m getting too old for the floor. Oh, and a bathroom mirror. Vampires may not need one, but I do.

I don’t yet know whether we will stay here, and I doubt whether Angelus himself knows. He’d expected that he’d have to forge some sort of new life for himself without Buffy, and to find her returned as a small child has, how do you say…? Knocked him for seven? Perhaps that was not a bad thing, and I will tell you why.

When I look in that bathroom mirror, I see a different Ezrafel than the one who went into the Dark Lady’s lands a hundred years ago, but only five years in your time. I still see a person with rather longer hair than I would wear in my home dimension of Hylek. That way, I can hide the remnant scales around my hairline, and pass unnoticed as a man. My face is like yours, perhaps a little more aquiline and gaunt, but that gauntness is the legacy of a century of deprivation and hardship. My hair has a few strands of grey, far earlier than those of my people would expect, and yet I look little older. Time seemed to have less power there. The biggest difference, though, the important on, is that I think I look almost as grim as Angelus does. It’s in the eyes, and the mouth, even when I smile. That isn’t often, just now. I suppose those things are a consequence of the sheer, bone-numbing terror that we have known. You cannot see the things that I have seen, endure the things that I have endured, and not come away marked by it all.

And I have only endured a little of what has been visited on Angelus. During our time of bondage, he has led me into one danger after another. Several times I have been taken captive, sometimes with him, more often alone. Always he has rescued me, usually at great danger to himself. Occasionally he has beaten me, because my capture was the result of my own carelessness. Once, he asked me to beat him, because I was lost to the enemy through what he called ‘his foolish arrogance and unforgivable inattention’, but I refused. It would not have been fitting. Those were, perhaps, the least of our trials.

If I am not the demon I was before I stepped into that portal, you can be sure that Angelus is not. He came back grim and silent and hag-ridden. Actually, he was almost literally hag-ridden. He had the almost moribund soul of Angel, but he also carried a greatly diminished God-King, by name of Illyria. What will become of her only time will tell, for I cannot. And he is haunted by the deaths of hundreds of thousands of beings, sacrificed to the Dark Lady’s terrible visions of empire.

It does no good to tell him that, as an efficient and terrifying killer, he saved many more than he caused to die. If he had tried more peaceable means of rebuilding her empire, the wars would have killed millions. Instead, his ruthlessness and brutality meant that entire nations laid down their weapons rather than anger him. But he is not satisfied with that. It isn’t the deaths themselves that trouble him – at least, I do not think it is. What troubles him is promises to his mate, Buffy, when she died. Promises that he has not been able to keep, not in the way he intended. The things we have not done are always to be regretted more than the things we have, I believe, but perhaps he has had experiences enough to regret both.

With Buffy returned, he has a renewed purpose to his existence and even the turmoil that she has caused him is perhaps the best possible thing to replace that deadly grimness that has caused me such anxiety. The Dark Lady will not be easy to shake off, though.

I stand in his doorway, and watch him with a troubled heart. He’s been tossing and turning, but now he lies rigid, his face set in a rictus of agony. His mind is nowhere near this plane of existence. I call to him, softly, using his given name, bringing him back to us. Gradually, his muscles relax into more normal sleep. That’s the best I can do for him.

+++++

Each night, I go to visit her. I climb up that pine tree by her window, and sit in its branches. I need to make sure that she is well. I’ve always been ruled by obsession, but since I met her, all those lifetimes ago, there’s been no room for any other. It’s as though all those other obsessions were just a rehearsal for this one, practice to sharpen up that part of my id.

I go as soon as I can, impatient for sunset, and she knows I’m there. Every night she knows I’m there. She isn’t asleep. She’s lying in bed, looking for me to come. Her smile when she sees me warms my heart. His, too. Angel’s. For that moment, I can believe that she was always meant to save us both.

It’s enough for her that I’m there, and she snuggles down under a comforter decorated with rabbits and rainbows. I hope she doesn’t see what Max has for dinner. There’s no need for me to go into her room, although I remember the weight of her in my arms on those precious nights after I fetched her out of the Hellmouth. The warmth of her as I held her, the soft baby scent of her, the smooth silk of her hair; I remember all those things, not just with my mind but with my flesh. And it hurts.

Each night I leave something for her on the window sill, in the corner, where it won’t be readily noticed, except by her. It’s never anything she couldn’t have picked up herself, never anything her parents will think twice about. A pretty seashell, a striking pebble, a multicoloured bird’s feather. Something to please a child.

And when I go home each dawn, it’s to my own hag-ridden dreams.

+++++

I've just finished a discussion with Ezrafel, and I have decided that my people should stay where they are for now. That means I’ll need to think about some furnishings for here, even if I only refurbish a couple of rooms, and I’ll need a few servants. I want to stay, and to enjoy Buffy, and yet I don’t want to be here, if I’m attracting danger to her. Ezrafel understands this. He doesn’t need it spelled out for him. He just needs to know whether to make the place a bit more comfortable than it is now, and whether to remind a few parties of my presence. Of my overlordship.

We’ll see.

A long time ago, I used to think that Ezrafel was as fearful of me as the others, but if that was ever so, it isn’t now. I don’t think he was ever fearful, though. It was just his way of showing respect. At least, he rarely calls me ‘Master’ now, although that may change when we have more of a court around us, or those who owe me... fealty, or whatever you want to term it.

No, his deference was only ever his way. His culture. I’ve learned a lot about cultural differences, in my time as a slave-general. For a splinter of time, I’m back watching the refugee peoples in the Dark Lady’s empire, whole nations streaming into her lands, running before more savage hordes, only to find that those savage nations, too, had become refugees from an unknown terror. I never did find that prime mover, that invader that caused such turmoil. No matter. It’s moving into her domain, and not here, on Earth. It’s her problem, not mine.

Those thoughts lead me to memories of my army, crucified because they were more loyal to me than to her. A sensible man would count himself fortunate to come out of that alive and in possession of his faculties. Not me, though. The Dark Lady has a debt to pay, and not just for what she did to me. The time for that will come. I’ve made myself a promise.

But, that is for the future. Taking her on now could only end in complete failure. For now, my place is Sunnydale, until I decide that it shouldn’t be. Ezrafel will do the furnishings and I’ll do the servants. The first place I go to, after I’ve seen Buffy off to sleep, is Sunnydale’s hospital. I’m no stranger to this place, and I’m looking for something particular tonight. I’m looking for someone who’s about to die.

There’s only one. There are a few who are still hanging on, and who won’t make the end of the week, but only one who’s ready now. There’s a doctor on the phone outside the room, calling the family to the bedside. The patient is on life support, but only so that the family can come and see him before he’s cold and still.

He’s breathing, but otherwise he’s non-responsive, brought in this afternoon from a car wreck. He’s smashed up, too. That won’t be a problem. As the doctor moves away, I slide into the room, just a dark shadow in that place of light and chrome and pallor.

Should I make this man my chosen victim? I have no idea what he was like in life, whether he’s someone I can tolerate. His face is slack and bloodied, and tells me little. Is he dissolute? Intelligent? Why the hell don’t I just go and find a live one, so that I can judge him better?

Because of her. Something within me tries to rebel, to say that this is my time, and that I should accept no restrictions, but that’s my blood talking. There’s a small stirring of revulsion, too, but that’s Angel, not me, yet my heart made promises, and they must be kept. And so I choose an already dead man, a man whose soul has surely gone to wherever it was destined to go. I’m only using his moribund but still-functioning body. But I wish I knew more about him.

Still, I’m not making a companion, or a new member of the family. This is, metaphorically, someone to do the heavy lifting. Probably literally, too.

Taking the decision, I drink down his life, which will do me far more good than it will him, my fang marks just another insignificant injury among so many, and then I give him enough of my own blood to do the job. When I leave, his chest is still rising and falling with the ventilator, but as soon as they switch that off, he’ll be mine.

Ezrafel will make sure that the funeral director delivers him here. I’m not a traditionalist like Dru. There’s no point in letting him get buried. That’s just a waste of time and effort.

And so we go on. This is a sort of hiatus; a breathing space, a hush before the next event. Breathless. Each night, I visit Buffy, and then I visit the hospital, and so we get some new servants. This small idyll lasts for almost a week, before there are further developments.

It’s still daylight when it happens, and I’m waiting in my study for the time when the sun will finally fall into the underworld.

There’s a knock at the door. It’s a faltering knock, faint, and the person who has knocked hasn’t used the door knocker. It’s soft flesh on hard wood. But I can hear it, and so can Ezrafel. He answers the door. There’s no exchange of words, just a pause, then the footfalls in the empty, echoing hall, but apart from Ezrafel’s familiar tread, they’re more of a confused pattering than anything else. When Ezrafel opens the study door, his expression is trying to be stony while his eyes are dancing with laughter.

He moves aside. It’s Buffy.

She’s wearing black patent shoes with little straps that button on one side, and white ankle socks with pink frilly edges. I can’t see her dress, because she’s got a loose red coat on. It has a hood that’s sitting askew, there’s a dusty patch on it where she must have fallen over, and it’s badly buttoned up, with the buttons in the wrong holes. I imagine she did it up herself. Her hair looks as though she’s just dragged a brush though it.

She looks like Little Red Riding Hood.

And apart from being badly buttoned, that voluminous coat is pulled backwards on one side, as though it’s caught in something.

“He’s a naughty dog,” she pronounces, solemnly, looking behind her.

There’s a click of claws on the tiles in the doorway, and a grey shadow moves out from behind her. The Big Bad Wolf.

Max is clutching the coat in his jaws, and he’s wearing a very worried expression.

While I try to formulate the questions I really want to ask – how did you get here without getting hurt... why are your parents allowing you out on your own... was it your decision to come and see me, or Max’s... How did you know where to come – I ask the only question that I can find words for.

“Why is he a naughty dog?”

“He won’t let go. He didn’t want me to come.”

“What about when you crossed the roads?” She could have been run over.

She looks down at her shoe, and her right foot starts to trace a pattern in front of her.

“He made me stop and then he dragged me across.” Incurably truthful.

The wolf has tried to hold her back, but has been afraid of hurting her, and so he has seen her here safely.

“His name’s Max.”

He’s almost as tall as she is, but she reaches out and pats him on the head.

“Good dog, Max,” she tells him, and she hugs his neck.

He wags his tail, and then looks as embarrassed as it’s possible for a wolf to look. He’s a fearsome predator, and she’s turned him into a cuddly toy, a living Mr Gordo. I know how that feels. He’ll get used to it, just as I have.

“Let’s get you back to your Mom and Dad.”

“They’re out,” she declares. “And the sitter’s making out with her boyfriend.”

“Making out? Where did you hear about making out?” I can feel the anger rising, but I mustn’t let her see it.

She looks down at her feet again, and that shoe starts drawing its patterns.

“You mad with me?”

I crouch down in front of her. She’s trapped between me and Max, who is still gripping her coat in his teeth, but she only seems to be worried that she’s made me angry.

“No, sweetheart. Of course I’m not mad with you.” I’m definitely mad with someone, but it isn’t her or Max. Or at least, not after those first few seconds. That reminds me.

“Max. Let go.” He lets the material of the coat fall. I look at it, and find that he hasn’t left so much as a tooth mark, although there’s a very wet patch of slaver.

Ezrafel clears his throat to let me know he’s still there.

“Ezrafel, here, is going to take you home. You’ll be safe with him.”

Her lower lip juts out, just enough to make her feelings known. “Can I stay for a bit? I’m thirsty.”

“We’ll get you something to drink.”

Famous last words. I do a mental review of the contents of the kitchen, and don’t come up with anything suitable for a five year old. I can see that Ezrafel has done the same review.

“I’ll send out for...” He hesitates.

“Milk,” I tell him firmly.

“Juice,” she says.

“Milk,” I repeat. “It’s your bedtime.”

Ezrafel nods his understanding. She turns those big, hazel eyes on me, and I cave.

“Some cookies, then, as well. And... and cookie dough fudge mint chip ice cream.”

Ezrafel leaves with a smile, and I usher Buffy into the study, but only after doing the same quick mental stock-take of the furnishings. There’s nothing that a five year old shouldn’t see. Not yet, anyway.

Max follows her in, and curls up in a corner, unsure of whether he’s in trouble. I stand in the middle of the room as she bounces onto the couch, a vampire out of his depth, wondering how to amuse a small child. Nevertheless, I don’t want her to leave just yet. She smiles and makes a suggestion. She’s got to be joking.

+++++

I’m a scholar, not a warrior. You know this. Even in the Dark Lady’s empire, where I had to learn to swing a sword, I wasn’t very good at it. But, as an academic, I find all things interesting. How vampires select their victims to turn, for one thing. All species have the urge to reproduce, do they not?

But after settling with the Slayer, my master came to an accommodation with her and largely ceased his depredations on innocent humanity. Guilty humanity was a different matter, of course. And there is always a need for low status servants. In the spirit of that accommodation, he made it his habit to choose from the dying, and those beyond other hope. Recruitment has never been that difficult, although vampires of status and intellect haven’t always been easy to come by.

The first human that Angelus turned this week had some promise. Nigel. And now I shall have to stake him. I’m on my way to do that, and the grain of the sharpened wood is rough in my hand. It must be done quickly, before he sees any of the other servants. He mustn’t tell them what he has just witnessed. That would never do.

It lacked only minutes to sunset, and so I sent him for milk and cookies and ice cream as soon as it was safe for him to go. I wanted to stay, to guard my master’s privacy. As Angelus would say, I have done a piss poor job.

I was away from the hall for seconds. It was no more than that. When I returned, instead of waiting for me as instructed, the fool of a minion had a glass of milk, a dish of ice cream, and a plate of cookies on a tray, and had opened the door of the study. He’d seen inside. None of the three in the room had noticed him, so engrossed were they in what they were doing, but he had seen them.

Angelus has a reputation to maintain. If he chooses, he may decide that the world should see him differently. But, it will not be a minion who noises it about.

I told the vampire to wait for me in the pantry, when I took the tray from him and sent him quietly off. Then I pretended to open the door again, and I left the tray on a table for her, for when they had finished with each other.

I have seen Angelus as Abaddon; I have seen him raze entire cities to the ground, and their inhabitants with them; I have seen him in the thick of battle, killing with a cold efficiency that was more frightening than I can explain. What I never expected to see was him on his hands and knees with a small girl astride his back, one hand on his collar, and beating at his flank with her other hand, yelling ‘Gee up, Horsey,’ while he has his fist thrust into a wolf’s mouth, playing tug of war.

The wolf is growling in pleasure, his tail waving, the girl is crying out in delight, and Angelus is laughing in his new-found, care-free happiness.

As I said, Angelus has a reputation to maintain, and I cannot trust that to a minion less than a week old, untried and untested. So, I have a stake, and I will deal with the problem.

And I will know better, next time.

When I go to see whether more milk and cookies are needed, Angelus is sprawled on a couch with Buffy in his arms. She is sound asleep. Max is also sprawled on the couch, his head on Angelus’ knee. I have rarely seen my master more peaceful, even when Buffy was last alive.

+++++

I’m playing with fire, and I know it. Buffy’s parents leave her with a sitter at least once a week, and the sitter has other things to amuse her than watching over a small girl. Max comes to me on those evenings, and I go to fetch her, stealing her away from her bedroom. She enjoys the ride in the car, but Max must learn to keep his nose off the windows.

How long before someone notices? It would be safer if I just killed her parents now, and took her to live with me. But then she wouldn’t forgive me if ever she found out.

As it turns out, we don’t have long. A month, no more. The end of the idyll was implicit in the beginning and the end, when it comes, comes quickly.

One of the things we do with each visit is to read stories, old-fashioned children’s stories full of monsters and heroes and fingers being chopped off. We were reading the story of the Ice Maiden, with the bloody heart in her hands and the polar bears by her side, and there wasn’t time to finish it before I had to get her back. I promised to finish it the next time, but patience has never been her strong suit.

It’s daylight, so I’m asleep, and the nightmare is one I’ve had before. There’s never-ending darkness. It feels utterly empty, but it’s a darkness so thick and dense that I can almost touch it. It might almost be made from the raw energy of the Universe. Strangely, it’s full of voices, weak, wailing, despairing voices, voices that are little more than the whining emptiness of that terrible place. Perhaps they are no more than the blood pounding in my ears, although my instincts tell me differently. And there are other voices, nearer, louder, crying out, begging to be heard. I want to call out to them. Everything in my being tells me that I should call out to them. I hear myself say a name – Thomaso – but he was lost to me a long time ago. The voices sound more desperate now, more frantic. I can almost recognise them, but whoever and wherever they are, I know it’s my fault that they’re there.

Then the darkness becomes something else. It’s still darkness, but I know that it’s different to the other: less empty, more hostile. The first darkness is the past, or perhaps the present. This darkness is the future.

Buffy had Slayer dreams. During the course of my existence I found, from somewhere, something similar. It was never a potent ability, not even as strong as hers, but it has been useful, and I can always distinguish it from ordinary dreams. Or ordinary nightmares. This darkness is a foretelling, but what I should understand is a mystery to me. I’ll remember it later, something to mull over, when there’s time. And I’ll remember that the next nightmare seems to shoulder aside this prophetic dream, as though some power were unwilling to allow me to see the end of it.

In this new nightmare, I’m back in familiar territory, at the mercy of The Dark Lady. It isn’t long before I’m screaming. And then a gentle hand touches mine, and I’m instantly awake. It’s Buffy. She’s sitting on the bed, watching me gravely, her little hand on mine.

I’m disoriented, still caught in the depths of that nightmare, but I can tell that it’s far too early for her to be here. And she must have come on her own.

“Wait downstairs for me,” I tell her. “I’ll be there in a minute.”

She slides off the bed, but stands there, still looking at me.

“You had a bad dream.” She makes it a statement, not a question.

“Yes, but you sent it away.”

She reaches up to her neck and pulls something over her head. “Have this.”

I’m still trying to shrug off the tendrils of sleep, and I can’t really see what she’s holding out to me. But I do know she shouldn’t be in my bedroom.

“Go downstairs. You can show me there. Ezrafel will give you some milk and cookies.”

“He’s not here.”

Ah. I’ve worked out now that it’s early afternoon. Ezrafel must be about my business, and the other vampires, few as they are, will still be asleep.

“I’ll get you some milk and cookies, then.”

“And you’ll finish reading The Ice Maiden?”

“Maybe.”

She pouts, very effectively, but she lets herself out of the room, leaving me to climb out of bed and put on jeans and a shirt. I don’t bother with any shoes, yet, and I know my hair is all over the place, but there’s no time to worry about me. She has to be taken home, and soon.

She’s sitting on the marble floor in the main hall when I get downstairs, her red coat spread out around her, a bloody baby pool. She’s got something in her hand. I can’t see what it is, but there’s a leather thong hanging down, so I assume it’s what she took from her neck.

I crouch down in front of her.

“Do you still wear that cross I gave you?” I ask. She just shrugs.

“It was meant to keep you safe. What happened to it?”

“It went.”

I don’t know what she means. “It went?”

“I put it on like you said, and it went. I never took it off.”

I’m confused. I reach out to move her collar aside. Her skin is unblemished and unadorned. She turns her eyes up to stare at me, and I can see something in there that should be quite beyond a toddler like this. I see the depths of Hell and the vault of Heaven. I see the infinity of forever. I see my past, my present and my future, and I am locked in the solemn stare.

I’m barely aware of Max as he trots through from the front door. He’ll be feeling guilty, because she gave him the slip as much as she did her parents, or whoever was supposed to be looking out for her.

He yips at me, soft but urgent. I’m still caught in the endless vista of her eyes. And then there are voices at my door, the sounds of footsteps in the hall, and a small, hostile crowd standing over us.

My arm is still outstretched to her, my fingers holding aside her collar, and I can imagine what this must look like. Slowly, I straighten up, and as my fingertips leave her skin, I think that for a fleeting second I can feel the patterned solidity of a chain, warm from contact with flesh.

The chain that I gave her was the one from the Underworld, so nothing should surprise me, but I have no time to think about that now, as I stand to face Joyce and Hank and several of their neighbours. There are two police officers there, as well. They’re young, new recruits. I don’t know them, and they’re nervous and hostile.

Buffy is smiling at her parents. They’re here, I’m here, and she seems to feel that all’s right with the world. But, the smile starts to falter as she senses the hostility that’s thickening the air. Then the frozen moment is over, and Hank scoops her up from the floor.

She starts to cry, but it’s a cry of anger and frustration. She kicks out, trying to be free of the unwelcome restraint of his arms, and he holds her tighter.

“What have you done to her,” he snarls at me, eyeing my just-out-of-bed appearance. He squares up to me, and then seems to decide he can do that better without the burden of his daughter. Quickly, he passes her over to Joyce, despite Buffy’s protests.

“Get her out of here,” he says, and then turns back to me, anger and hatred suppurating from every pore.

Max moves in front of me with a snarl. He’s unsure what to do about Buffy, because he understands the rights of parents, no matter what their species, but he’s responding to the hostility towards me. The policemen start to reach towards their holsters. Max may look like a scruffy sort of dog, but he also looks like an effective threat. I won’t let him be shot, so I grab him by the scruff of his neck, and hold him by my side.

“She took no harm from me, nor will she,” I tell him calmly. “She came here by herself, and I was about to bring her straight home.”

That’s as much of an explanation as I’m prepared to give, but I don’t want Buffy caught up in an unseemly incident. And I hope I’ve told him the truth, although any harm she might suffer from me is far different from anything he might imagine.

He’s so angry and scared he can’t find any words.

“You pervert,” he eventually manages to spit out. His fists are clenched, and I think he’s going to go for it, but one of his friends puts a hand on his arm. His voice is low, and Hank might not have heard him, lost as his words are in Buffy’s frantic screams.

“Not in front of the child,” he says.

“We’ll be back,” Hank tells me, and I know he means it.

I could kill them all now. I could make it so that no one would ever know. But she would. And she would remember. Perhaps I’m good for nothing but slaughter and destruction, but she thought something else, a lifetime ago.

“It’s not our time,” I tell her, softly, but I don’t know whether my words have reached her.

Perhaps they have, because she stops screaming long enough, to call my name, crying out to me, silently asking me to stop them taking her away, as Joyce turns for the door.

“Angel!”

No. She doesn’t know who I am. She’s always called me her guardian angel, and I’ve never stopped her. I should have, but I didn’t really care.

“Angel,” she screams again.

She’s facing me now, over her mother’s shoulder as Joyce hurries towards the front door. She reaches out her hand, but all I can do is stand and watch her taken away from me.

“Angel,” she calls for the third time. In magic, it’s said that three is the number of completion. Some practitioners believe that all magic charms should be said three times. I understand her wishes. I might as well be her genie in a bottle, there to grant her every desire. And yet, still I stand here, as she reaches for me, as she silently begs me to stop what’s happening. She doesn’t understand that if I respond to her, nothing good can possibly come from it. It isn’t our time. Not yet.

She took something from around her neck in my bedroom, and she’s been clutching it in her hand ever since. Now, she opens her hand and lets the thing fall. No one takes any notice as it clatters onto the marble tiles.

The rest of the small crowd turn to make their exit, followed by one of the policemen. The second one hesitates. I make him nervous.

“We’ll be back to talk to you later. Sir.”

He’s unsure whether I’m an innocent householder, or a danger to the community. I imagine that they all got here because someone saw her heading for my house. In that case, he will know that she was alone, and I had nothing to do with bringing her here. He’ll want to consult about what to do. Meantime, he’s decided to be courteous. And rather than talk to me now, he’s decided to concentrate on making sure that this mini mob disperses peaceably. Good choice.

“Please don’t go anywhere,” he continues. “We’ll need to talk to you about these child molestations that are getting everyone so riled.”

There are child molestations? I’ve been so wrapped up in one little girl that I’ve taken no notice of what’s going on in my town. Shame on me.

I watch him walk away, my fist clenching and unclenching. The other fist is still clutching Max’s scruff. To one side, I see movement in the shadows of a doorway. It’s Ezrafel, watching me. He walks over to my side, wary as he assesses the set of my body, and the expression on my face. I don’t know how much he saw or heard, but it was probably enough. He reaches out to me, unconsciously mimicking Hank’s friend, one hand on my arm, except that he’s speaking into total silence. Buffy’s cries are silent to me now.

“Angelus...”

By using my name in this way, he’s speaking to me as one demon to another, not as my retainer. He looks across at me anxiously.

“Angelus. Remember the child.”

I’m remembering nothing else. If I weren’t remembering her...

There’s a scratching sound and Max starts tugging at the hold I have on him. The sound is that of his claws on the marble. With a word of command to him to stay, I walk over to the object of his interest, the thing that Buffy dropped, and scoop it up.

It’s still warm from her hand, warm and a little sticky, as though she’d been eating candy before she touched it. My fist closes around it, almost hard enough drive it into my flesh. She’s given me a hag stone. Her own hag stone.

I remember decades ago, even in this dimension, when Willow and Tara had done some particularly dark magic for me in the war with Wolfram and Hart, it left them with a bad case of magical aftertaste, and with grotesque nightmares. They both spent days afterwards hunting around beaches and stream beds, looking for hag stones. They’re those flattened, rounded stones where the centre has been worn away by the action of water, leaving a perfect, smooth hole. They found what they were looking for eventually, and they wore them for months. Buffy offered to help them look, but they said no, and told her the conditions under which hag stones must be found.

I see her, in my mind’s eye, telling me this over our evening meal. Well, evening for her, breakfast for me. I can see the dusky light sparkling on her skin and in her eyes, as we prepare to go out and make war on our enemies...

Something cold presses against my hand, bringing me back to the present. It’s Max’s nose. He’s looking up at me anxiously. I know what he wants. He wants us to go after Buffy.

Ezrafel hasn’t moved. I know what he wants, too. He wants to save me from making mistakes that I will regret forever.

I don’t know how long I’ve been lost in memory, but these two are waiting for a sign from me.

I open my hand and look at the stone. It’s black, with veins of white quartz spidering through it, and a leather thong inexpertly knotted onto it. I think that Buffy must have done that herself, and I wonder where she found this stone. Perhaps that day at the beach...

Her scent is all over it. Did she normally sleep with this on? I pull it over my head. The thong is too short, but it will do for now.

You ask why I’m doing this? Do you know what a hag stone’s most powerful property is? It prevents hags from riding your dreams. There’s just one requirement to open up the stone’s power, a requirement that Willow and Tara knew well. The stone must be found by the bearer.

Or, it must be given in love.

Do you think this one was given with enough love?

I’ll come to find, while I wear it, that I might still have nightmares – nothing in the world is going to stop that – but the Dark Lady won’t be one of them. So, perhaps it really was given in love.

Ezrafel stirs, giving me warning that he’s going to break the silence, to say something that I might not like.

“They will be back, Angelus.”

“I know.” Not the police. I’m pretty sure they won’t be back, not today. Hank and his friends will be, though. I’m pretty sure about that, too. “Do you know about a child molester?” That comes out more peremptorily than I’d intended, but it doesn’t faze him. He’s been on the end of worse.

“That’s where I’ve been today. I heard about it last night, but I was told that he’d been driven out of town. I’ve been checking that out.”

“And?”

“He’s gone. I’m sure of it.”

“A Serelac demon? A Kwaltor?” Both of these are known to have a taste for young flesh.

“No.” Ezrafel shakes his head. “No. Human, by all accounts.”

“So, now he’s gone, and I shall be blamed for what he’s done.”

Ezrafel says nothing, in silent agreement. I open my mind to Buffy, to try and hear her through the link that she so recently reactivated when she fell down the Hellmouth, but that, too, is silent. I make my decision alone.

“I’ll be leaving at sunset. You can go back to Hylek, if you like. I’m sure Haraeth will want to know what you’ve been up to.”

Haraeth is still king in Hylek, and there have been no king-making Games since the ones that Buffy and I won for him. There has been the occasional sticky patch when some noble or another has tried to usurp his throne, but for the most part he’s been a popular ruler. We have helped bring his realm prosperity and stability, and he stood with us against the Wolf, the Ram and the Hart. He’s someone I can call a friend.

“I’ll come with you.”

“No. I don’t know where I’m going yet. Go to Hylek.”

He inclines his head in silent assent, while his lips are pursed in disapproval. That’s the problem with long-time retainers, isn’t it? Especially ones who are also friends. That’s why he’s better off away from me, just now. A whine reminds me of the third member of our impromptu ménage. Max.

I crouch down to him and impress on him the need to look after Buffy now that I won’t be here. He grasps my hand in his jaws. He doesn’t want me to leave. Or maybe he’s remembering the games we’ve played with her.

“I’ll make sure he and his family are fed,” Ezrafel assures me. I know he will.

And so we leave the Mansion. I’m the last one out. As I leave, I fire my home to save Hank and his mob the trouble. I leave untouched, though, the small mausoleum that housed what remained of Buffy, until her body disappeared. I leave it, just in case, and I don’t even want to think just in case of what.

+++++

I don’t know where I’m going, or what I’m going to do, but whatever it will be, I’ll be doing it alone. Alone, for the first time since... Since my last time in Hell, probably, and even there, I wasn’t entirely alone for long, although I’d have preferred to be, in that case.

Lifetimes ago, that aloneness would have been a normal, welcome part of my existence, a time when I could exercise my every most depraved whim without interference from anyone else, and without having to share. Now, it’s just loneliness.

I’m on the road out of Sunnydale, though, just driving and not caring where, when a figure steps out into the road in front of me.

It’s Drusilla. She’s holding something long and thin in her arms.

I haven’t seen Dru for years, even Earth-time, as opposed to where I’ve been. When she was last with me, she was stranger, more fey, than ever before. She was the one who was with Cordelia at death, and I sometimes wonder whether Dru caught something that night, much as you catch a nasty virus. Even mad as a hatter, though, Dru always could look after herself, so I haven’t worried about her unduly. Besides, I’d know whether something had happened to her.

She’s just standing there in the middle of the road, so I get out of the car and go to her. There are no initial words of greeting, no expressions of how she might have missed me. Still, you wouldn’t expect those with Dru.

“It ‘urts me, in my ‘ead. All those clocks, tick-tick-tocking in my ‘ead.”

She never lost that old East End accent. I’ve no idea what she’s going on about, but a line of traffic passes by from the other direction, and a large truck blasts on its horn behind me.

“Come on, Dru,” I say impatiently. “You can tell me all about it when we get off this road.”

I take her arm to hustle her into the car, but Dru can be stubborn.

“Been lookin’ for you, I ‘ave. Ever since the nasty Slayer died. Couldn’t find you anywhere.”

No. She wouldn’t. I was in the wrong dimension, enslaved to the wrong woman. The truck behind becomes more impatient now. I drag Dru by main force, and bundle her into the car. I’m rough enough with her that the truck driver leans out of the window to remonstrate with me, but he takes one look at my face and leans back in again. Dru just rubs her arms and smiles.

About fifteen miles down the road, there’s a decent looking motel, and I stop there. I’m almost regretting my cavalier destruction of my home, but a motel will have to do to sort out what’s going on in Dru’s head. She may be mad, but it never does to ignore her.

When I get her inside the cabin, she’s still clutching whatever it is that’s wrapped inside a silk shawl.

“Why were you looking for me, Dru?”

She lies down on the bed, her arms still crossed over the thing. She’s got her hair down, and she’s wearing a low-cut red dress that hides not a single one of her curves. She giggles at me. Then she starts to sing.

“God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time.”

“What?”

“It’s all fire, Angel, and then dust and then nothing. Except for the clocks.”

“What are you talking about, Dru?”

“Our time’s going...”

Our time.

“What do you mean, ‘going’?” She doesn’t seem to hear me.

“It’s time, flowing and clotting like dark, dark blood. I can’t see its pretty patterns, but they’re there. I know they’re there.”

She starts to hum, and I sit on the bed next to her. Sometimes, when she’s in one of these moods, she needs coaxing. I know how to do that. I’ve always been good at that. I run a finger around her bare collar bone.

“Tell me what you see, Dru.”

Then I run my finger down her breastbone, pausing at her cleavage, waiting for her. She smiles that sly, secret smile that always used to turn me on.

“Bending, changing, sliding away from us, becoming something else. Hours, days, years, forever. Tick-tock, cloppety-clop. Here, there, somewhere.”

“What else?”

My finger circles a nipple, sliding over that silky red material, and then runs down the curve of her rib cage. She picks up my other hand and her tongue licks out at my palm. Then she bites into the fleshy part beneath my thumb, and tastes my blood. She’s not supposed to do that without my invitation, but I don’t object.

“Mmm. So much life, so many stories. So much time. It’s all in your hand, Daddy. Don’t forget.”

My finger is now rubbing over her hip bone, and starts across the flatness of her belly. Suddenly she opens her eyes and looks at me with the clarity of sanity.

“Clock time is just the measurement of movement, but Time is the other side of Space. You have to find it, Angel.” I have no idea what she’s talking about, and this obscure lucidity frightens me more than I want to admit.

Then she’s Dru again, and she giggles as my finger reaches her mound.

“I’ve been looking for you since the nasty Slayer died. I’ve got this for Daddy.”

She unwraps the shawl to reveal a roll of stiff paper. It’s the worse for wear, dog-eared and soiled around the edges, but she passes it across to me. As I unroll it, her hand creeps across my thigh.

It’s a famous picture. Well, a poster of a famous picture. It’s the Salvador Dali one, with the clocks that flow over the landscape, bending through the dimensions, melting and malleable, like hot plastic.

It’s called The Persistence of Memory. Mine are persistent enough, and I don’t need this to remind me of that. Still, maybe this will help me work out what she means.

“What do I need to remember, Dru?”

“Oh, that doesn’t matter,” she tells me, now blithely unconcerned about the dire warnings she came here to give. “You’ll remember what you ‘ave to. ‘E gave it the wrong name, silly. ‘E just painted Time.” Her expression becomes serious again, and the manic gleam fades from her eyes. “You’ll stop it ‘urting, won’t you, Daddy? You’ll know what to do, Angel? You’ll know how to find it?”

I will, if I can understand what the Hell is going on. I’m lost and at sea. I can get no more sense out of her. I want to shake her – or worse – but she’s moved away from Time and clocks, and now she’s interested in only one thing. Perhaps if she’s satisfied there, I can get more sense about the rest later.

She starts to unbutton my shirt, then unbuckles my belt. I could stop her, but there’s a hole as big as the Hellmouth inside me. I’ve rarely felt more needy.

I gently pull at the strap of her dress and let it fall down her arm. Her alabaster skin is like silk against the palm of my hand as I cup her breast, with its dusky nipple. And then the hunger takes me, just as she meant it to.

There’s no finesse, just the urgent need to be rid of the barrier of clothes, and then the frantic coupling appropriate to the beasts we truly are. I thrust into her, and feel the familiar slickness as her hymen breaks. She was wounded there, and unhealed, when I turned her, and so she healed up as she waited for her resurrection, as she does every time her virginity is lost. She revels in the pain of it now, in the pain and in the blood, and so do I.

Her nails score my back, and it’s a welcome pain that shoots straight to my groin, as though I needed any further stimulation. Then she reaches up to me and sinks her fangs into my neck, pulling the blood from me, and with a roar the orgasm bursts from me. As it does, I bite down on her throat, into that butter-soft flesh that I have taken so often before, and that powerful, familial blood feeds my mind and my orgasm, bringing an ecstatic pain that still fails to expunge all the rest.

I take her again and again that night, and then I lie back and let her take me, but that emptiness inside me refuses to be filled. Drusilla is cold, like me, and I long for the warmth.

She leaves before sunrise, while I’m asleep, without a word. Where she lay, there’s only the rolled up picture of Time. Seems like I’m on my own in trying to understand what she saw. I’ll worry over the problem for years.

It’s midmorning now. I could be trapped here until sunset, but in my keeping is the Gem of Amara. When she was last alive, Buffy asked me to put it away, and not use it. I was Lord of the Night. She said that it would unbalance the world too much if I was also Lord of the Day. Now, I am Lord of nothing, and therefore I can unbalance nothing. I put on the ring, and set off towards nowhere. But I take the picture with me.

Eventually, I find myself on the long and lonely road that leads to Alchemy, to the fortress in the mountains where I left Father Robert, a bunch of students, and the reduced God-King Illyria. Perhaps one of them will understand what has haunted Drusilla. The gate is opened for me with more alacrity than it was the last time I came here, a few weeks ago.

The young boy on duty ducks his head, and tells me, nervously, “Father Robert is in the far courtyard, Angelus, sir.”

I graciously allow him to lead me there. We hear Robert before we see him, although I don’t realise it at the time. It’s the bright white sound of metal on metal that I’ve heard so often over the last century as we readied ourselves for war. I really don’t want to hear it again, but here it is.

Robert is working at a forge, hammering a length of steel that he’s got on the anvil. There seems to be no end to the man’s talents.

He looks up as we enter the courtyard. In the darkness, the red glow from the forge on his sweat-soaked skin makes him look like something very different than the scholarly cleric.

“I thought you might be here earlier, Angelus,” he calls out to me.

I’m still wearing the ring, and he knows it.

“Why? Did I miss something?”

“Come and look.” He shoves whatever he’s working on back into the glowing coals as I walk over, and he holds out his hand in greeting, and I take it. I might not have done, once upon a time, but I’ve come to review the value of human contact. His hand is hard and calloused.

The leather apron that he’s wearing is dark, and spotted with burns. It’s seen a lot of wear, and that surprises me. You don’t normally think of members of the clergy working in a forge, but then, this is no ordinary cleric. He turns back to a slab of stone behind him, and he picks up the blade lying on it.

It’s a sword, simple in design but a beautiful killer, with a yard long blade, plain, down-curving quillons, and a finely-delineated, unsharpened top section for grasping. The unfinished hilt, which Robert is holding, is large enough to accommodate a two-handed grip.

The most beautiful thing, though, is the blade itself, with its watered steel pattern in serpentine layers of silver and blue. It’s a war sword, and it was made by a master.

“Thinking of going to war, Robert?”

“Not personally, no. You could call this a special commission.”

It’s a lucky man who’ll have this sword. Or unlucky, depending on your viewpoint.

“Pattern-welded,” I murmur, thinking about the care that’s been taken in forging, twisting and manipulating several ingots of steel. He shakes his head, silently. That leaves only one other possibility.

“Damascus steel?” Damascus steel is legendary for sharpness and strength, hard enough to hold its edge but flexible enough not to break in battle, and it is layers such as these that provide those qualities. But, the secret of making that intricate patterned metal has been lost since the 1700’s, leaving only the inferior pattern-welding technology. “I thought the source of that iron was exhausted?”

“So it is. I didn’t get the iron from here.”

I look at him askance.

“Do you remember I promised that I would make some items of yours into something that would be of use to you, something that couldn’t be used against you?”

I do indeed. My collar and leash.

The last time I saw Robert, he struck an iron collar off my neck, a collar that had been fixed through flesh and bone for a century. Is this what he’s done with it?

“So, like Arthur with Excalibur, there will be a magical sword that will defeat all my enemies, and a magical scabbard that will heal my every hurt?” I ask him contemptuously.

“It’s your own right arm that will defeat your enemies, and if someone lops your head off, you’ll stay dead. There’s absolutely no magic in this. Nor in its scabbard, either.” His tone is cool.

“What? You make me something that can’t hurt me and then tell me that someone can decapitate me with it? What sort of magic is that?”

“You aren’t hearing me, Angelus. There’s no magic at all in the sword. Nothing.”

Now I understand what he’s saying. Those pieces of metal were imbued with my pain and sacrifice, symbols of my slavery to the Dark Lady. If she had them in her hands, she could have owned my... well, not my soul, exactly, but you understand what I mean. That’s why I wouldn’t allow her to take them from me. He’s saying that all that is gone.

The man truly can work magic.

And then it occurs to me that he’s a smith, and smiths have been regarded with awe and reverence through most of the age of metal-working. Smiths and power were synonymous. It’s probable that Merlin was a smith. Aurelius, too, was a smith, as was his father. This man is full of surprises.

He hands me the sword. It’s almost perfectly balanced. It will be, once that long hilt is covered. And this is a big sword. A man could kill a dragon with it.

“It will cut through other steel,” he tells me, “and through rock. It will even slice through the armour-plated type of demon.”

“Are you expecting that I’ll have to do that?” There’s a chill in my belly. I’ve had enough of war.

He shrugs. “It doesn’t hurt to be prepared. Besides if you never need it, it will make a good trophy for your wall. Oh, wait, you burned it down.”

Seems that news spreads quickly.

I run my fingers over the blade. The moiré steel is textured, the paler layers very slightly raised. Then I see the pommel. It’s large and flattened, and carries the design of the winged lion with an A between its paws. It’s my tattoo. To match it, where the blade emerges from the hilt, it is clasped between lion paws, and an A is etched onto the flat steel.

“How did you make it? That iron was poor stuff, badly made.” Everything about the Dark Lady’s dimension spoke of the strictures of time, as though the atoms that held her world together were slowly wearing away. The weapons were poor, treacherous things, for the most part.

He looks at me, and there seems to be appraisal in that look.

“It wasn’t so bad. With something like that, you just have to see the potential and know how to reforge it. Some of the right sort of haematite, a bit of old wootz steel from India, a few glass beads to remove the impurities, all brought together by what can seem like a lifetime of hammering.”

I hand it back to him without commenting on the lifetime of hammering, but I can’t resist a wry smile. “What sort of grip will you put on the hilt?”

He picks up a piece of shaped yellow wood. The scent of it is strong.

“Bay?” I ask him. “I thought bay was for cooking.”

“Comedian.” He strokes the wood gently. “It symbolises eternity, nobility and immortality. Don’t you think that sounds right?”

“Maybe, if it were for someone other than me. But will it last?” I’m dubious about using a culinary herb on a war sword.

“It’s very hard-wearing, and strong. It’s used for making walking sticks.”

“Okay. I’m convinced.” Maybe.

He sees me still looking at the wood doubtfully. It’s been very carefully carved into a smooth, rounded shape that I know will fit my hand perfectly, but I can’t see how he’s going to get it on. The blade, the tang and the pommel are one complete piece.

His answering smile is small and secret, and I’m sure I’ve seen that smile before, although not from him. He sits down on the slab of rock, the sword between his knees, and he holds the wood against the tang, with both hands wrapped around them. Head down, his eyes closed in concentration, he murmurs a word that I can’t quite hear, although I’m certain it isn’t English.

When he opens his hands, the wood is firmly in place around the tang, with no sign of a join of any sort. I want to deride it as a conjurer’s trick, but I know that it is not.

He looks up at me. “You have to know its name. There is power in names.”

He stands up wearily. “Of course, it’s always better if the compliance is willing.”

There’s a silence which I’m afraid to break, and I leave that to him.

“I still have to find the right skin to wrap the hilt with, and to make your scabbard. Oh, and there was enough in the end to make you a small knife, too. I haven’t finished that yet.”

I think of the blade that is still thrust into the embers, as he starts to rummage around in the big front pocket of the apron.

“There was just this left over. You might want to look after it. It could come in useful some day.”

He hands me a single black link of chain. You might think that a chain is just a chain, but I recognise this immediately. It’s from the leash that went with my collar. My expression must be a mute question.

“If there was something of you in it, there was also something of her, and of her lands. It’s a key. It will get you there, should you ever need to. I can’t yet say whether it will get you back, but I’m hoping it will. Carry it with you. That will strengthen its connection to this here and now.”

My feelings are complicated. I want revenge on her, it’s true, but why would I need to go back now? Why would I suffer myself to do so, when I can’t defeat her? The Dark Lady can keep her domains, for all I care. I’ll deal with her when I’m good and ready, but that isn’t yet. I have no way of winning that encounter, and I’ll only go back when I do. He must know what I’m thinking, as I stare at the metal link in the palm of my hand, and yet he leans in towards me, so that he can speak softly into my ear, and he tells me its name.

+++++

Father Robert sits alone in the red glow of forgelight, watching as Angelus walks out of the courtyard to his rooms.

There is power in names, indeed, and he has given a little bit of that knowledge to his latest pupil. The vampire is here to learn lessons, although he doesn’t know that, but they walk a fine line on what can be safely taught. Angelus may be weary of warfare but, although he will have a respite, he will certainly have need of this sword in the years to come.

Robert caresses the bay wood, and thanks it for its sacrifice. It will never return to the earth that bore it, and it knows that. He just wishes that anyone could be as certain about the future of its master, on whom so much else depends.

+++++

There is power in names. Call out to someone, and they will stop, and turn to you. Call their name and they will respond. The Lady and her Consorts are using that power now. They are calling out the name of our Universe in a way that it will understand.

They know that Drusilla has had her visions, and they know of the warning that she has given Angelus. It is a pity that, as yet, he has neither Giles nor Wesley to help his understanding. They can only hope that he will remember what she has said, and will come to know what it means. For now, though, they must do their part.

They have shed their clothes, and with them they have shed all semblance of human flesh. They have spread themselves as opalescent rainbow shadows across nebulae, and along the paths of galactic starlight. Now, they are riding the rivers of gravity that will carry them into the vast expanses of Dark Energy.

If scientists are confused about what Dark Matter is, they are bewildered by Dark Energy. The most that they can say is that it might be dark, and it seems to act like energy. Oh, yes, and it seems to act as an antigravity force. The components of the Universe – the different galaxies and galactic clusters, and the structures in which the galaxies occur – all these are spreading apart, but the most distant, most ancient galaxies appear to be accelerating away further and faster than the rest. Scientists can only conclude that this mysterious force, Dark Energy, is pushing the Universe apart. This conclusion is wrong, in more ways than they can imagine.

However, a few scientists have started to think differently.

A few have offered a theory of ‘hypertime’ – that there are two dimensions of time, not the single one to which we have all become accustomed, and which, as Drusilla said, we might well find is only a construct of scientific practice, and is no more than the measurement of movement. In this theory of hypertime, the lifetime of the Universe isn’t a straight line from past to future, but is a series of curves embedded in a world of six dimensions, four of space and two of time. Time becomes flat, a plane figure which is measured only in length and breadth, a carpet woven through the weft of space. Our familiar world is no more than a shadow on the wall of that six-dimensional reality.

An even smaller group of scientists is offering a different possibility. They say that there is no such thing as Dark Energy, that it is a mathematical mirage. Nor are there two dimensions of time. In fact, they think that there may soon be no dimensions of time at all, that the Universe will become no more than a frozen moment, matter crystallized like fruit in a pot of jam. This, they say, is because our dimension of time was created by the Big Bang at the birth of our Universe, and what can be created can be ... uncreated. And now, their measurements show them, time is slowing, changing into something else, until there will be no time left at all.

In our earlier visits to the world of the Lady and the Duality, we have seen that matter and energy are two sides of the same coin, that in the right conditions, matter can become energy, and energy can become matter. The possibilities presented by this are... cosmic. Now, we are told by this tiny group of scientists that there is another pair of such twins. Now, they say, Time and Space are also two sides of the same coin, at least to the extent that Time is slowing, and clotting, and becoming a new dimension of Space.

As ever, Drusilla, like these scientists, is right, although in this she is a Cassandra, doomed to be unable to explain her visions and to have them believed, although the reasons are different. How can a mad vampire with second sight explain something that gives the brightest physicists a headache? Perhaps we can sympathise with her. And the Dali painting seems singularly apposite.

And, unexpectedly, both groups of scientists are right.

However, the question that they should be asking is ‘Why is time becoming space, and why is it doing it now?’

And so we come back to the Lady, she who represents the Cosmic Balance, and to her Consorts, Creation and Destruction. They have reached their chosen destination, the place where Time will clot into Space. This is their doing.

Again, we have already seen that a parasite universe has latched on to our own. It hasn’t fed for millions of years, and it is hungry. It takes everything. It is a parasite because it is out of balance. It has no principle of destruction. Nothing ever dies, no matter how moribund it becomes. Stars do not age and die, and there is no dust from long-dead nuclear furnaces to provide stellar nurseries for new stars; there are no decaying corpses or composting plants to fertilise the soil of its planets; rocks do not weather and age to replenish the minerals in the soil; organisms breed, and do not wither and die; and so these eternal stars and planets and life forms must all starve. They have no option but to feed on the energy of another, more fertile, universe; on life, on souls, from elsewhere in the cosmos.

This Universe of ours is a rich feeding ground for the parasite. It is young as Universes go, and brimming with energy, every atom, every electron, every quark and boson. And it has power. It has magic, and those who can use magic. It has the supernatural and the undead, it has ghosts and afterlives, and it has gods and goddesses. And it has souls. The parasite will devour all of these utterly, leaving nothing behind, not even cosmic dust.

The Duality have been using their own special talents to destroy great swathes of the Universe, in a scorched earth policy, slaughtering everything that lives, from the smallest and meanest amoeba to beings that have reached the highest levels of intellect and civilization. They have given them all to the fire so that their immortal souls may be saved for the future, even if their flesh and their solar systems cannot be.

The Universe is smaller now, as the Duality have retreated before the hunger of the parasite, but there is a long term plan... No, not a plan. It’s more of a long term hope. Yet, for anything to succeed, the hunger of the parasite must first be appeased. It must become sated and slowed, even if that means that it becomes more powerful, too. The Lady and her Consorts are trying to feed the parasite on barren dust and gas, full of its own nourishing energy, but stripped of lives and souls.

While that is happening, they are fighting to save as much as possible, and even to create new galaxies, homes for those displaced souls, as far away as possible from the feeding tendrils.

To that end, they have disturbed the balance of time. Time has now bifurcated. In a great circle around the heartlands of this Universe, they have made two dimensions of time, and beyond the line of that circumference, time is now a flat two-dimensional carpet in which worlds have become shadows on the wall.

They have had a purpose in doing that, and in some places, they have done more. Here, for example, in the place they have chosen. This enormous clot of darkness that they’ve reached is about to become the next place of refuge. Here, one of those two temporal dimensions will continue on its way into the emptiness between galaxies, but it carries only deceit, the result of immutable laws of reality. The ancient galaxies and quasars that can be seen beyond that circumference, where time becomes two dimensions, these are reflections in time of those galaxies and quasars that have come and gone, grist to the Duality’s mill of fire and death. They are images in a mirror, persisting for a fleeting moment of cosmic time, blinking out one after the other as the objects that they reflect cease to exist. They are images that have an ersatz reality, decoys to draw the attention of the parasite, and incidentally, to fool scientists, too.

The Universe is now smaller than we think, because we are seeing it through a temporal mirror, and like many of the simpler beasts with a mirror of glass, we do not understand it for what it is.

And the second dimension of time, the one that these godlings have separated out? This will slow, and thicken, coagulating into great whirlpool torrents of nothingness, and then become the reverse side of its coin. Another Space. And because it is slowing, observers who do not understand this will not recalibrate their instruments of measurement, will not remember that time is the measurement of movement, because that is far too simple a concept to apply at their level of astrophysics. They will conclude that the galaxies being washed up on the tides of time are accelerating faster and faster, in an eternal expansion that will finish with individual star clusters alone in the black emptiness of endless space. They are wrong. Instead of that empty fate, those galaxies are drifting into newly-created backwater dimensions, where the hope is that they can be kept safe until the parasite is gone.

The Lady and the Duality must make that happen. This is their last and best hope. And there is so little time. They have, at the very most, fifteen years. After that, there will be too little left to save.

The Lords of Destruction and of Creation allow themselves to coalesce out, although the Lady remains as a rainbow nebula until they are ready for her. This is their work, more than hers.

They do not take on flesh, or not flesh as we know it, at least. We have seen the Lord of Destruction as a creature of darkly crystalline planes and angles, coils of shadow coloured with the hue of thunderstorms. That creature spreads himself for hundreds of parsecs through the dust and gasses of space, incorporating star stuff and swirling galaxies into his matrix.

His counterpart, the Lord of Creation, follows suit, also making himself one with this Universe that they seek to command, his own form of brilliantly crystalline rainbows shining in the light of unseen suns. Set amongst the stars, they face each other, these equal and opposite godlings, and then Creation kneels before Destruction, willingly submitting to him.

A starlit shadow forms beside them, glimmering like dewfall at dusk, and then the Lady is there, and she, too, kneels before her dark lover. Creation and the Balance have ceded pre-eminence to Destruction. Now, he will overturn the normal order of things.

He stands behind the Lord of Light and his hand runs down the glittering spine. Softly, he speaks Creation’s true name, and a shudder runs through the starskin beneath the palm of his hand. He leaves that hand pressed against the shoulder blade as he leans forward and traces the curve of the Lady’s breast with his thumb. He whispers her true name, and she bows her head.

He holds out his hand to her and she stands, pressing herself against his side as he returns his attention to the kneeling Creation, caressing neck and chest, belly and flanks and thighs. The Lady is doing the same for him, the touch of her fingers like fire and ice on his soul. When the Lord of Light is straining with need, the dark one closes his embrace and gently lays Creation back amongst the stars. Kneeling, he enters him in one smooth movement, and together they fall into the rhythms that are as old as Time, with the Lady sharing her kisses and caresses between them, raising their passion to even greater heights.

This is a passion that will inflame the cosmos, bending it to their will, but it needs more from them than passion alone. It needs love, and they have more than enough of that, all three of them. So, they whisper of their love for each other, and then they shout it aloud, and supernovae flare in the firmament around them.

Buoyed up on the power they have created, Destruction feels the anticipated tightening, and just as the orgasm bursts from him, there is a subtle shift in the shadows of his face, and he bites down into the Lord of Light’s throat, drawing the cosmic ichor from him, and with it, Creation’s own climax.

The two men – what can we call them but men, when we can never know their names, their identity? – the two men are locked in their embrace, panting from their efforts even here, where there is no possibility of breath. Both of them are in the circle of the Lady’s arms as their mingled seed flows through the fabric of Space and Time and, at the height of that rapture, Destruction looses his fangs from Creation’s throat, and he calls out the name of the Universe. He calls its true name, and he commands it to his will.

The Universe stops, and listens. He calls again, and it answers. A wind rises in the hearts of the stars, coiling around the three, filling their shadows with substance, and then carrying that substance out into the river of Time. Time itself thickens like old blood, bending and twisting and looping into whirlpools larger than galaxies. One by one, these vortexes coalesce into one, the past, the present and the future braided into infinity.

Now, the Lady rises to her feet, and walks into the turbulent sea of Time. She turns to her Consorts, and they fall from their own embrace to follow her. She stands regally in the chaos that they have made, waiting for them. She is once more The Balance, who must be the ruler of everything if all things are not to perish.

Creation comes to stand by her side, and it is now Destruction who submits to them both. He has done his work, and now it must be put to use. His smile is feral, because he knows what is to come. The Lady reaches out one ethereal hand to caress his cheek, and he bows his head in submission. Creation, that other part of himself, runs a hand down his spine and leans in to kiss him as he shudders with new need. He is now theirs, to do with as they will.

His surrender assured, they speak his true name together, and then he feels Creation pressing against the length of his back as the Lady presses against his breast and belly, and offers her mouth for her own kiss. He gives it, hard and savage. She presses him back against his other lover, and then she’s slipped on to him in one practiced movement, as Creation thrusts inside him. They pause for a moment, to allow him to gather himself, his thunderstorm colours roiling and changing, waxing and waning with this new stimulus as he fights to keep control for whatever they will do. Creation wraps his arms around him, and for a moment in Space, Destruction’s dark shadows are eclipsed by the light.

And then they begin this other union, Destruction helpless between Creation and the Balance, measuring a new path to consummation. In this other rapture, they call out a name, and this is the name of the Universe, again. Then the Lady and Creation bite down into Destruction’s throat, and take back the life force that he stole earlier. He knows what they can taste. He still has the taste of Creation on his tongue. As they suckle harder, he throws back his head to give them greater access, and then the shuddering climax overtakes him, and he lies strengthless in their embrace.

The firmament shudders and tilts as the cosmos obeys the will of Creation and the Balance, and then the dark clot of curdled Time slides down the slopes of gravity, and a new dimension is born. It may be no more than a dimensionette, a cul-de-sac in Space-Time, but if they have done this right, this, and the others like it, will be invisible to the parasite.

They are all panting harshly now, from their efforts and from their own completion. Destruction lies spent in his other’s arms as the Lady licks at the wounds they have made, and heals them. Drops of sweat form on their starskin, beads of cosmic matter condensed from the power they have called up, new constellations as yet unclaimed.

One by one, the galaxies tumble down the gravity slope until the dimension can hold no more, and then Time snaps into joint once again, leaving only those remnant clots of so-called Dark Energy to mark the place. The illusory images of those redeemed galaxies are carried away by hypertime, to wink out of existence in the depths of the outer darkness.

The three godlings are too spent to move yet, and so they lie here, on the palliasse of the stars. The Lady is content in the arms of her lovers, but they can only spare moments, as they measure their time.

Aurelius would know her as Ma’at, from the Egyptian pantheon, the one before whom all other gods must bend their neck, and indeed she was. But she far pre-dates that upstart young civilization. She and her Consorts have existed since the dawn of Man, but that is such a short time, as godlings go.

She looks from one to the other as they lie sated, one each side of her. So competitive, still, so jealous, so protective. They were made for her, and she for them, by the Universe that has now agreed to answer to them. Splinters of one soul, these two have remained separate, yearning for union into one whole, but yearning even more for her, for that other soul that completes their trilogy. They are protective of her and protective of each other, despite their mutual envy.

It’s pointless to say that they would die for each other. If one of them dies, then this Universe will become no better than the parasite, out of balance and mortally wounded. Unless, that is, there is another power willing to take their place. So far, none are ready. The one with the most power is the Dark Lady, and they all hope that can never be the solution. Perhaps, though, that is why they have left her alive.

Therefore, these three must live, all of them, the Lady and the two halves of the fractured soul. They have cared for this Universe, balancing all the forces that would otherwise rip it apart, and now they must destroy it to save it. Their dreams are troubled, as they hold on to each other in the aftermath of cataclysm.

+++++

I don’t stay at the Fortress for long. I have nothing specific to do, and yet something is driving me, eating away at me, as though there were never going to be enough time. Foolish, of course, but I can’t shake it.

The end comes one night as I’m standing on a shadowy stairway, looking at a group of boys in the pool of light at the bottom. I recognise one of the younger boys, newly-arrived. He lost his life many years ago, just a week before the Treaty of Los Angeles that ended the war with Wolfram and Hart. I’ve never seen him so young, but I have no doubt that it’s him.

That recognition leaves me frozen to the spot. In terms of resurrection or rebirth, I had, until now, thought only in terms of me and mine, and those close to me. Buffy. Palestrina. And those waiting for me, for some unknown purpose, like Lobsang Ramprachan.

But I am certain of this boy. Why? Why is he here? Are those who fought in the war being recalled? I shudder at that thought, as I remember that Father Robert has smithed me a sword. If that’s the case, though, why is Palestrina back? And why do I know that I mustn’t let this boy – or any others – recognise me? Why do I know that if recognition comes out of its proper time, it might spell disaster? Disaster for what?

I probe back into my memories, to find where this unlooked-for knowledge comes from. I remember nothing. I have a suspicion that it doesn’t come from me. Does it come from him? From Angel. I don’t think he’s conscious of it, but somehow, somewhere, perhaps he knows something. I suppose it must be all those years in Hell.

A familiar scent, drifting down the staircase, ends my introspection. Robert is above me, looking down with a frown. What does he know? I turn to look at the boy again, and when I turn back to Robert, he’s gone.

I track him down to his study. When I get there, a sword – the sword – in its scabbard, and a matching knife are laid on his desk. He doesn’t say a word when I enter, nor when I pull the sword from its sheath. It’s as beautiful and deadly as I remember.

He’s put the winged lion onto the scabbard, too.

The knife is clearly by the same hand, a miniature version of its brother, its blade shimmering like watered silk.

I put them both back down on the table, and sink into the chair in front of the desk. Robert has some easy chairs grouped in one corner of his office, but he’s made no attempt to move over there. I feel like an errant schoolboy in the headmaster’s study, and there’s a flash of anger that he should treat me this way.

“You don’t change, do you? You want something from him, so keep your anger in check.”

It’s Angel.

I feel a small surge of pride that he seems, beyond all expectation, to be aware and functioning, even though he still sounds weak and tenuous. Maybe I got him out in time after all. That pride is surrounded by more anger that he should be pulling me up over my own thoughts, but I manage to put it aside. He’s right. There’s something I want. I need to concentrate on that before I get testy with my passenger.

“Have you heard anything from Illyria?” It’s somewhere to start, anyway.

Robert shakes his head. “No, but I can find her if I need to.”

So can I. That wasn’t what I asked. I wait for him to continue.

“She’s too interested in learning about today’s world to do any damage yet. You needn’t worry.”

“I brought her here. I’m responsible. And she was talking about rescuing others of her kind.”

He smiles, but says nothing, amused, I expect, at hearing Angelus take responsibility. But Buffy’s back in this world and I want to keep it safe for her. Then he starts to frown. There are many people in this world whose thoughts I can understand. They might think that I’m a mind reader, but it’s all in their scent, their expression and their body language. Not so with him. I don’t know whether the frown is irritation, concentration, or long distance communication. Not a clue. I’m not going to tell him that, though, so I wait.

“Angelus, have you thought about all the others of Illyria’s kind?”

“Of course I have. And the consequences if Wolfram and Hart get hold of more of them. I’ll definitely need that sword if they do. What use it will be if Illyria’s kind simply start stalking the Universe again on their own account, I can’t imagine. I don’t have Giles and Wes to do the research anymore,” – he shows no reaction at all to that sally, which is an invitation to comment on whether I can expect others to reappear – “but I guess that Alchemy might be able to get started on looking into it before long. I don’t want to involve Aurelius just yet. He deserves whatever time out he’s getting.”

He’ll be with Palestrina. After waiting for two thousand years, it’ll be a while before they’re ready to break up their reunion. There’ll be no sex, of course. Not yet. She’s only fourteen. He waited for years last time. He can wait for a few more now.

“They both do.” I can see that he means it. His frown deepens again.

“You know, Angelus, there is someone who could tell you a lot more about the God-Kings than I can. He’s a good man to know, too.”

“Illyria can tell me about the God-Kings.”

“Yes, but will she tell you what she wants, or will she tell you what you want? It’s up to you, anyway. Drogyn, at the Deeper Well. It’s in the Cotswolds, in England.”

“I know the Cotswolds.”

He writes something down on a piece of paper and hands it to me. It’s a map reference. Then he sits back as I tuck the piece of paper away in my wallet. I don’t need it. Eidetic memory, remember? But I’m thinking. What I really want to ask is a big disjunction from where we’ve just been.

“Robert, when... when Buffy was last alive...” It’s hard for me to say the words, but he waits patiently.

“She thought that I could earn the redemption that Angel was promised. She...” This is so hard for me. “I gave her my word.”

“Very perceptive girl, Buffy,” he says, encouragingly.

“You work for the Powers. Don’t you.” It’s not a question. It’s the only explanation that makes any sense.

“I’m a priest. Of course I work for the Almighty, even when I’m on sabbatical.”

“I doubt you can work for both.”

He frowns, and his answer is deliberate. “Ah. The Catholic Church admits in principle the possibility of interference in the course of nature by spirits other than God, whether good or evil, but never without God's permission.”

It sounds like he’s reading from a papal encyclical.

“If you’re saying that everything I’ve ever done has been with God’s permission, then there can be no need for redemption, can there?”

A wry smile twists his lips. “At the end of the revelry there’s always the bill. We all have to pay for what we freely choose to do, whether it was with permission or not. You don’t need me to tell you this. Although I don’t think anyone has you in mind when they wrote those words. Something less... earthly, perhaps?”

“Robert, I’m not here to debate theology, theogony or even theomachy...

“Aren’t you? Not even strife among the gods? That ought to appeal to you.”

I imagine that the Dark Lady is at odds with any and every other godling there may be in Creation, and I do not want to talk about her.

“Please...” It isn’t often I say please, but I sense that he’s testing me, feeling out whether I’m ready to hear whatever he might have to say. “Let’s just stick to the Powers, however many and varied they may be.”

He doesn’t reply. It doesn’t matter. It’s not what I want to ask, anyway. When I try to frame the question, I’m not sure I can meet his eye.

“Now that Angel is out of Hell...”

“You wonder whether he’s the only one who will be considered for forgiveness?”

I feel as if I’m huddling in on myself. “He’s the one who did all the work, made all the sacrifices.”

“You think so?”

I find that I’m picking at some microscopic imperfection on the wood of the desk, and I stop immediately.

“You gave me a penance.”

“I did.”

It was a cruel and unusual penance. One year of service for each capital offence that I’ve committed. I haven’t even tried to count. And somehow I think that my hundred years of servitude to the Dark Lady has added more years, rather than taken any away.

“What do you want from me? What’s the service you would have given me if I hadn’t been trapped in the Dark Lady’s world?”

“I think you’re already doing it. Perhaps the future will show that the Dark Lady was part of it. You know what’s needed. In general, that is. A Champion.”

He’s taken me by surprise and I’m back picking at that sliver of wood again.

“Why would your Powers want me? I’m not like Angel. And why would they want a demon at all?” I want to say, No Power wants a Champion who keeps murdering the populace he’s supposed to save, but I don’t. Instead, I quirk an eyebrow, and say “Leviticus, 17, 10 – 16.” I leave a question mark hanging at the end.

His brow furrows for a second, and then clears. “Ah. ‘For the life of all flesh is the blood thereof: whosoever eateth it shall be cut off.’ You think you’ll be cut off, even if you stick to leftover bull’s blood? You think all those blameless sorts sinking their teeth into a rare steak are doomed to damnation?”

“That’s not what I mean, and you know it.” If Leviticus is right, I’m going to have a lot of company. My uncertainty isn’t only about the blood, of course.

He looks more serious. “You think that, because you, the essential you, is a demon, the one responsible for every evil that you’ve enjoyed, then Angel will have a different fate than you? That he’ll get a free pass for his sacrifices and you’ll go back where the Powers think you belong? That nothing you can do will make the slightest bit of difference to that, because of what you are, as well as what you’ve done?”

It sounded more complicated than that in my head. I simply wait and watch him in silence.

He folds his hands together on the desk, and seems to find something there very interesting. The frown deepens even further. At last he sits back in his chair.

“Do you know about the Akbash, Angelus?”

“No. What sort of demon are they?”

I can feel him sigh.

“They’re dogs, Angelus. Not dog demons. Just dogs.”

“And they’re relevant because...?”

He ignores me, and continues on his own train of thought.

“Man has used dogs for many purposes. Hunting and companionship of course, but dogs that can herd livestock have always been important. And so, there are sheepdogs and cattle dogs, and we’ve all seen them working. But, in the earliest days, perhaps ten thousand years ago, when men first tamed goats and sheep, they didn’t only need help with herding.”

He’s right. In some of the more remote areas of the world, you can still find herdsmen watching over their animals with a pair of dogs at their heels and an antique rifle slung over their shoulder. I wonder what they would have had ten thousand years ago instead of the rifle? Spears? Slings? I’m sure Aurelius would know. Threats to the flocks in those remote regions would still be the norm, five thousand years ago, when he was born. Hell, it wasn’t so different when I was born, in most parts of the world, but we had the guns by then, at least for those who could afford them. Those ancient herders, though... He breaks that train of thought as he carries on in near-lecture mode.

“In a great swathe of land from the Iberian Peninsula in south-western Europe, across the northern rim of the Mediterranean Basin, through the Balkans and Greece into Turkey, there are ancient breeds of dogs that aren’t herding dogs. They have no instinct at all for running around gathering up sheep. They’re guarding dogs, and they all have similar characteristics.

“In my opinion...” He makes it sound as though he knows it for a fact, and I wouldn’t be surprised at anything. “In my opinion, ancient as some of these breeds are, the Akbash, from Turkey, is the closest to the first wolf that walked into the camp and settled down by the campfire. In some ways, anyway.

“These guarding dogs are all big – they’re over thirty inches at the shoulder – and they are all white. And they don’t live with the shepherd. They live with the sheep. They’re brought up with the sheep, and are accepted as part of the flock. From a distance, they might even look like sheep, although the whiteness isn’t for that because the early sheep weren’t all that white. It’s to make sure that the shepherd can distinguish them from wolves in the darkness. They’re fed on milk and gruel. And they will protect their flock from wolves or bears, or anything else.”

“That’s interesting, but...”

“Do you want me to answer your question, Angelus?”

I subside. After all, I’ve nowhere better to be, just now, and nothing better to listen to.

“These shepherds, then, have herding dogs, and they also have guarding dogs for their sheep, or goats, or chickens – they’ll guard whatever they’re brought up with, species doesn’t matter to them. The Akbash, only one step from the wolf, and with more ties to the flock than to the master of the flock, are strong and brave and bold.”

He falls silent for a moment, marshalling his thoughts.

“But, just suppose that the shepherd has to be away from his livestock for a prolonged period, and there is no other to take his place. The shepherd must leave the flock’s guardians to their own devices. Perhaps the shepherd knows that there’s something more dreadful in the hills than wolves and bears. Might the shepherd then not need a guardian more terrible even than the Akbash, in defence of the flock? A guardian to safeguard the guardians, perhaps? Or, if a sheep strays away from the flock, into territory where the shepherd doesn’t want the other dogs to go, might a different sort of dog be wanted? One with a different range of... skills? What do you think?”

I’m not sure what to say. Robert seems to make everything into a lesson, and I’m never confident I’ve learned all that I should. In the face of my silence, he turns round to the bookcase behind him and pulls out a small volume bound in worn red leather. He pages through it and then hands it over to me.

“Would you like a drink?”

“Why not?” I’ll leave it to him to choose what. He leaves me to the book.

There are photographs of tall white dogs with feathery coats. On one side is a bigger, more muscular animal that must be the dog. It’s happy to display itself, laughing at someone off camera. On the other side is the slimmer, more graceful bitch, still muscular, but lithe and gracile, and with such a look about the face as she stares at the viewer... It looks like Buffy would look, if she were a dog.

I turn the page, and there’s one more photograph. It’s a pathetic thing, compared to the other two. Around its neck is a heavy iron collar a hand span in breadth. I can feel the Dark Lady’s collar still. I think I might always feel it. My fingers automatically reach up to touch my neck, to reassure myself there’s nothing there. Mine had a spike from one side of my spine to the other. This dog’s has a circle of outward-facing, long, rusty spikes no thicker than nails. Its ears have been cropped short, to make it look like a lion, or a bear. A heavy chain tethers it to a wall as it stands, tail between its legs, its hindquarters crouched defensively.

It stands there, scarred, mutilated and alone, staring out of the photograph at me with eyes that look older and darker than mine.

I’m still staring at it when Robert returns with two mugs of black coffee. He makes up for that by getting a half-bottle of Irish whiskey from his bottom drawer. I pour my coffee out of the window and replace it with something stronger.

He says nothing to intrude on my brown study, and it’s left to me to speak first.

“And if that other... guardian didn’t care about the flock, if it did what it was asked only because of love for one of the Akbash?”

“We all have our own reasons for doing what we must, Angelus. Love is one of the better ones.”

“And if that guardian ate the sheep?”

“I suppose each case would have to be looked at on its merits. Even shepherds slaughter a sheep, from time to time, I expect, or leave a goat as bait in a tiger trap. But there might only be a little leeway. That isn’t for me to suggest.”

He stops, but then he seems to reconsider.

“And don’t you think that the shepherd would rather entrust this task to a guardian that has an... affinity, perhaps... with the Akbash, no matter who its previous master might have been?”

I can’t stop looking at the mutilated, solitary animal with its iron shackles, and I have to force myself to glance back at the dog and the bitch on the previous pages. They look happy in their freedom. I take a long drink of whiskey before handing the book back. Robert examines my expression carefully. I’m beginning to wonder whether he can read my mind.

“They’re dogs, Angelus. They’re just dogs.” He gazes down at the old photographs, in faded shades of sepia. “And probably long dead by now. Wouldn't you agree?”

He doesn’t seem to expect an answer, though. I don’t know whether I’ve learned everything here that he wanted me to learn, but I do know what I’m going to do now. I put my empty mug down on his desk. He can do the washing up.

“I’m leaving. Will you keep the weapons here? I suppose you’ll be able to get them to me if ever I need them.”

“Very well.” He glances down at the Gem of Amara on my hand. “Now, or after sunset?”

“I’ll wait till later.”

He nods. “Use it when you have to, though. And be careful not to lose it.”

That surprises me. Is he thinking that I might need to travel in the day? Or that it makes a vampire unkillable, and I might have need of that? It’s a fragile thing to rely on, though. All an enemy has to do is chop off the wearer’s hand, and it’s game up. I’ve never worn it in battle.

“Where will you go?”

“Buffy’s back, and so is Palestrina. And now I’ve seen Lucas among your new arrivals. He died decades ago, in the war with Wolfram and Hart. If your shepherd is gathering the Akbash, then perhaps there are others. If so, then Buffy’s friends are out there. I should find them.”

“Good. Be careful.”

I turn to go, and something occurs to me.

“Oh, there’s a nice young couple called Kistur and Jetta at the Cairo Hilton. They’re from one of those little Balkan countries that you have to look up on the map, and they don’t speak much English. I owe them, probably too much to involve them in anything I’m going to be doing. Will you bring them over here? Put them to use? Teach them, if they’re suitable. Or help establish them somewhere if not. You can draw on me for any funds you need.”

Kistur and Jetta, true to their word even in their fear of me, brought news of me from the Dark Lady’s realm to Aurelius, and now they have nowhere else to go.

“I’ll take a look at your waifs and strays.”

“Thank you.” And then I’m gone, to do my minimal packing.

+++++

Father Robert watches in silence as the vampire leaves the room. He hopes he hasn’t said too much, but there is so little time left.

The Lady, her Consorts, and their coterie are clear on one thing. The future can only be secured if Angelus finds the path for himself. That applies to the soul of Angel, too. And to Buffy, when she’s old enough. And there’s the rub. Events are overtaking them. The parasite is destroying the Universe even more quickly than they had feared. But, everything they do has to take place at its appointed time and in its own way, and that applies to the three on whom all hopes depend.

Yet, Angelus is alone and lost, Angel is barely alive, if that word can be applied to a naked soul, and Buffy is only five years old.

For each of them to make the right decisions at the right time, of their own volition, is the only path to survival. No one knows just why this should be, but it is. Anything else has disastrous consequences.

And so, he worries that he has said too much, but knows he could not have said less.

Of those outside the most trusted circle of the godlings, only Aurelius has been given any understanding of the future, and he doesn’t remember it. Only in dire need will any of that knowledge become available to him. Father Robert shudders at the thought of the disastrous cataclysm that would bring that about, when all of them, Angel and Buffy included, must have been swept away by the tide of tragedy.

There was a time, long ago, when it seemed that kismet would lay the burden on the shoulders of Aurelius and Palestrina, but it passed them by. Father Robert thinks of Aurelius, and is grateful for that. He knows that Aurelius would have been grateful, too, had he been aware of it. It was a long, uncertain wait before destiny fell to Angel and Buffy instead, and it may be a poisoned chalice indeed. He prays that they will find enough recompense in each other.

Absent-mindedly, he’s gnawing on a ridge of callus earned by the long hours of smithing. It will be weeks before his hands are back in some sort of shape. Still, it’s been a very long time since he worked at the forge, and he’s pleased that he hasn’t lost the skill. These weapons will serve Angelus well – better even than the vampire knows.

Robert picks up the sword. He turns it round in his hands, and thinks We all have our own reasons for doing what we must.

+++++

When Ixolon and his people, the Norag, first submitted to me, they brought me a gift, the Gem of Amara. They brought me other gifts, too, although I didn’t understand it at the time. They brought loyalty, and they have been loyal, all these many years. Friendship, too. And a whole range of skills, not least of which is the ability to find things, whether or not those things wish to be found. It was that skill that allowed them to present me with the Gem.

I’ve had them use that skill many times over the years, and now I have need of their services again. It’s a long way to where Aurelius has made my new home, so a phone call will have to do. As some unknown minion fetches Ixolon to take my call, I picture him in my mind. Like all his clan, he looks human, although there are some differences that are only visible when he’s naked. His hair is a bright butter-yellow, and his only affectation to keep him more or less unnoticeable is to dye it. He’s always liked the multicoloured approach of autumn browns and golds, and when he’s finished creating it, it looks good. Really good. Of course, he needs help with that now. He has done since the war with Wolfram and Hart, which left him with only one arm. He never could swing a sword worth a damn, but he tried, when he was needed. The monster that took his sword took his right arm off at the shoulder. We got him a prosthetic, but it was designed for human muscles, and it never worked very well.

He knows I’m back, of course, but he seems genuinely pleased to hear from me. When I tell him what I want, he’s silent, though. Resurrection is a lot for him to take in.

I want to know where Buffy’s friends are, and I’m starting with the one I’ve never liked. Xander. Best to get this one over with. Xander died protecting Buffy. It didn’t make me like him any better, but I have a permanent debt to him now, even in this new life, if he’s been given one.

Ixolon will call me back when he has something.

Meantime, I just drive, wondering what the hell I’m going to do with the next decade or so, until Buffy leaves childhood behind. It seems like forever, even to me. Then I remember that Aurelius has waited for Palestrina throughout virtually the whole of the lifetime of Christianity, and I’m just a bit ashamed. Doesn’t change the fact though. It still seems like forever.

And I’m angry that something of Angel seems to be rubbing off on me. That’s something that needs to stop.

At last I get the information I need, and I’m headed north.

Xander and his family are living somewhere worse than Xander’s old basement. Is this a judgement on him, for allowing himself to become one of mine? It certainly can’t be the reward for sacrificing himself to save Buffy. Or am I just getting too ontological? Too concerned with the nature of being and that sort of crap?

They’ve got a broken-down house in a street of similar houses behind a tyre factory. The whole place is rank. After a couple of nights of lurking, it’s clear to me that they might live behind a tyre factory, but Xander’s father doesn’t work there. Or anywhere else, so far as I can tell. He’s too hard at work drinking, whoring, and gambling. Oh, yes, and smacking his wife and sons around.

This time round, Xander has a brother, a little older than he is, although not much. And he isn’t going to get much older, either. I scented it on him the first time I saw him. He’s ill. Even the lowliest vampire would have to be starving to touch him. He’s got bad blood, and it will kill him.

That’s if his father doesn’t kill him first.

Is this what it was like for Xander when he was last young? If so, then I suppose it’s a miracle he turned out as well as he did, as obnoxious as that was.

It’s on the third night that I hear what I need to know. The father has taken his belt to his elder son for some transgression so minor that it’s slipped my attention. The younger one is beating his fists against the man’s thigh, trying to get him to stop. He’s always had more sand than sense. If he’s not careful, he’s going to be the next to feel the kiss of leather.

The woman walks into the room with the phone in her hand. The man pauses in his labours and looks up at her, his expression ugly. She takes a deep breath before she speaks.

“My aunt... She’s been taken into hospital. I need to go to her.”

I expect him to turn his viciousness onto her next, but instead, his face lights up as though it’s Christmas, and he forgets all about the young boy he’s been belabouring. Seizing the opportunity, Xander quickly leads his sobbing brother upstairs out of the way.

“Is she dying?”

“I don’t know. I think she might be.”

“Maybe she won’t be too long about it. I’m looking forward to that house of hers in Sunnydale.”

So. It’s all going to happen in Sunnydale, is it? Whatever ‘it’ is... Certainly it seems that Fate wants us gathered there again. There’s not much I need to do here, except tell my business people to hire this slug, and find some suitable work for him to do, when he gets there. Cleaning out cess pools, maybe.

Oh, and there’s one other thing for me to deal with.

While his wife’s off visiting, his temper’s even shorter. Two days later, sick of whining brats, he lays into the boys again. The elder, who definitely should be in bed at this time of night, is once more the object of his attentions. He’s like a hyena, instinctively turning on the weak. This time, the child runs out of the house, into the darkness. I watch him go, but I don’t do anything about it. I can find him, if I need to.

Slugger’s too slow when he follows him out, and he can’t see the boy. He hesitates just outside the front door, which is where I take him from behind, my arm around his throat. He struggles, but not enough to break my hold as I drag him into the deeper shadows down the side of the house. For a moment, I wonder whether it would be best just to finish it, but I decide that I’m not hungry enough for that. And anyway, I’m somehow reluctant to interfere with whatever made Xander what he was. This bastard doesn’t know any of that, though, and doesn’t need to.

Instead, I let my inner self free, and I don’t mean Angel, although he’s raising no objections. The man’s trying to twist around, to see who has hold of him, and I loosen my grip just enough to allow him a little movement. He wishes he hadn’t, when he sees the monster behind him. My grip tightens again.

“Listen to me, because I’m not going to repeat myself. If you lay a hand on your wife or sons again, I’ll know about it. And I won’t be pleased. When I’m not pleased, other people get unhappy, too.”

I scrape my fangs over the side of his neck, and press myself up against him. The stink of fear, so exciting to me, rolls off him, thicker and heavier.

“What are you?” he splutters. I remain silent. Then an idea slinks through the sewer of his mind. “Have you been shagging her?” he demands.

I can’t help but laugh. The woman’s only good for a meal.

“Don’t be stupid.”

“Then why do you care, if the brats aren’t yours?”

You’ve got to give him props, and I can see where Xander got some of what made him what he was.

“Just call it honouring a debt to someone who lived a long time ago. And I’ll be watching.”

To give him an example of what might be to come, I bite down hard, welcoming the bright, hot taste. I don’t take more than a pint. Or maybe two. When his knees start to buckle, I let him fall. He looks up at me. He’s gasping for breath, but he’ll live.

I make a show of licking his blood from my lips. “Remember what I said. This is your only warning.”

And then I’m gone.

Xander’s brother sneaks in later that night, not expecting his father to be there. But he is. He lifts a hand to hit him and then he bethinks himself. “Get up to bed,” is all he says.

I have to laugh at myself, a vampire defending human children. Still, I always did have a well-developed sense of whimsy. That was definitely me, not Angel.

I stay for a couple more days, and then I judge that it’s time for the next one.

Willow.

+++++

Five-year-old Willow is just as I remember her. Come on, you know what I mean. She still has that innocent, clear-eyed gaze, flame-red hair cut into a page boy bob, and she’s still wearing those sloppy woollens that will conceal everything when she’s got something g to conceal. Her father is hunting for a job that will take the family back to California. He and her mother are just as I remember them, too.

I follow him around for a couple of days, and manage to steal a copy of his résumé from his brief case. My people will soon have a suitable job opportunity, for which only one candidate need apply.

I watch Willow carefully. She shows no signs of using magic, but I can smell it on her. It will come.

Satisfied that I need do nothing more, I move on to the next.

+++++

I’m less than worried about Cordelia. I sense some harsh thoughts from Angel, but she never meant as much to me as she did to him. Besides, if they’re coming back with the same roles as they had before, I’d rather skip the part where I’m almost pushed into eating the arrogant bitch. She’ll arrive in Sunnydale if she’s needed. I’m certain about that.

I’m tempted to go looking for Spike, next. William. I have to tell myself that, if he’s back, he’ll be William, and he’ll be nothing to do with this little group of friends I’m reuniting for Buffy. I’ll make damned sure he’s nothing to do with Buffy, or he’ll feel the sharp end of my stake again. Do I have to go through all that again?

And that thought prompts another – does the gathering of her friends apply only to humans? Surely not...?

The Norags expend a lot of mystical energy, and call in a lot of favours, to find Spike, but there’s no trace. That makes me stop and wonder, because the Norags, especially when working together, can find anything anywhere. Wherever he is, I have to use other means to find him. And maybe he won’t be easy to... rescue? I don’t have time to start hunting for someone who might be magically shielded, who might be in some unreachable Hell dimension, who surely can’t be in an unattainable Heaven...? Even for Will, I don’t have time. Later. I have to leave him until later. But if he’s in Hell, I’ll find a way to get him out.

An image tugs at the edges of memory. Blackness. Endless black sand. Sheer black cliffs. And then it’s gone. I shake my head to clear away the tendrils of what can only be delusion, and bring my thoughts back to what needs doing, and what can wait.

Oz. I’d like to go find him. I always got on well with Oz. But there’s time for that later. As soon as I make that decision, I realise I’m wrong. Oz might find his way there, but will he be in the right... condition?

Ixolon finds him in Texas, in a small town that seems to have little reason or purpose for its existence. None of his relatives are anything at all special, not in the human and not in the werewolf department. Should I leave it to chance? Or is this where I should interfere? And what about Nina? Is she important? Still, she came along much later in the last lifetime. I can afford to wait and see, with her.

I give a few instructions. Oz’s parents will have all the career opportunities they could wish for, and at the right time, there will be an offer they can’t refuse to take them nearer to Sunnydale. Or, there will be reason for Oz to take a college place in Sunnydale. We can work that out as time goes on. And I shall make sure that one of the werewolves does what needs doing, at the time when it needs to be done.

Just now, I’m not sure whether I’m one of Father Robert’s guarding dogs, one of the Akbash, or one of his herding dogs, rounding up the remnants of the past and ushering them into the future.

There are two more people whose whereabouts I have to worry about. Two people who might have no route to find Sunnydale. Giles and Wesley. Of the two, Giles is the most important to Buffy. Last time, they were sent to her by the Watchers’ Council, but that no longer exists. Will they have found their way to Alchemy, I wonder?

The Norags don’t have much trouble locating Wesley. He’s in England, of course. Giles will be there, too, I expect, so hopefully it will be two birds with one stone. I remember that Morris, some sort of second cousin of Wesley’s, found Roger Wyndham-Price’s journals – first cousin twice removed, that’s right. The grandchild of Wesley’s cousin. They share very little blood, and yet Morris is more like Roger than Wesley ever was.

I also remember that the younger generation that Morris gathered into Alchemy had had signs and portents. Will the new Wesley and the new Giles know about those? It will make things a lot easier if they do, I think. Only very much later will I stop to wonder exactly what sort of signs and portents they’ve had, and how they came by them. Sometimes I wonder how I’ve got by for so long. Or perhaps Cordelia was right, and having the soul, even if it’s mostly moribund, lops something off the IQ points.

Wesley’s home looks pretty much like the ancestral home that the old Wesley grew up in. In fact, it is the ancestral home, and when I get a look at the new Wesley’s father, he’s still the same sour-faced bastard that I recognise. His name’s Roger, too.

Wesley is a pale, thin boy in his mid-teens. Instead of being outside in the fresh air, he’s bent over some Greek or Latin translation. Or maybe it’s some demon text or another. Roger is tyrannizing over the boy in just the same way that he did before. Once, when he’s being particularly scathing, I see him cast a meaningful glance at the cupboard beneath the stairs.

Wesley hardly ever talked about his family, his home, but I know that his father used to lock him in the cupboard, even as a very young child. I don’t think that Wesley ever knew that I knew, but it’s important to understand the strengths and weaknesses of those who serve you. Wesley’s upbringing was both his strength and his weakness.

And so, here’s the young Wesley, learning to be a researcher. He was always the best, better even than Giles. Better at pure research, that is. Giles could always bring a wider, more mature interpretation to the results of that research. They made a good team, but if I had to choose one or the other, I’d choose Giles. I’d choose him for other reasons, too, but so far as research was concerned, Wesley coloured everything with the pall of this particular upbringing. That was his weakness, or one of them. We all have more than one.

Roger certainly hasn’t changed much. He knows about the destruction of the Watchers’ Council, about his family’s history of involvement there. I hear him pontificating to Wesley about how his cousin Morris is intent on setting up the next version of the Watchers’ Council, and how Wesley will be joining him when his studies here are finished. Roger expects that Wesley will surpass and supplant Morris, and lead that damned Alchemy organisation away from heresy and back to the old ways of the Watchers.

I can’t help but smile as I wonder how Father Robert will feel about all that. I’m pretty sure he’ll need no help in dealing with it. With luck, it won’t be too late for Wesley. It wasn’t last time, after all. He made something of himself, something that did a lot of good for the world, no matter how much Roger would have disapproved.

I’m getting a feeling of déjà vu, except this is definitely real and no illusion. The past is reliving itself, as though we were caught on the wheel of time, going through the same lifetimes until we find a way out. Or maybe the last lifetime was only a rehearsal for this one.

It’s those thoughts that stop me from threatening Roger as I threatened Xander’s father. Roger knows what a vampire is. He could probably work out which vampire I was. If there’s some sort of plan here, Roger can only be grit in the machinery. Wesley will be better off, will be more likely to finish as the Wesley I knew, if Roger isn’t more poisonous than he was before.

Wesley will finish up in California at eighteen, or twenty-one, or whenever. That’s good enough. If he doesn’t, then I’ll be back, with a plan.

There’s a great sadness in my soul for what Wesley must continue to endure over the next few years, and I mean that most literally. Angel would like to rescue him. I’m made of sterner stuff.

+++++

It seems to me that everything is under control without my intervention. Those who were part of Buffy’s last life are gravitating back to Sunnydale. I think briefly of Riley, and my fangs start to lengthen. I drag my thoughts away from him, consigning him back to whichever obscurity I hope has swallowed him.

Going to see Giles becomes a journey of curiosity. Since I doubt that I shall have to worry about bending matters to fit the desired destiny, then I can enjoy seeing Giles when he’s young. Well, younger, anyway. Perhaps I can discover things to take the piss out of, later. He’s amusing when he gets po-faced.

Giles isn’t at home. He’s with his parents. That’s where I go.

The house is one of those Suffolk houses with thickly-plastered pink walls. They used to get the colour from pig’s blood, you know, or sometimes ox blood, and I can still smell it. It’s making me hungry. The roof, I’m sure, used to be thatched, but it’s tiled now, and has been for a long time, long enough that it’s starting to sag a bit at the hips.

It stands just outside a small village, and there’s a substantial stable block, and some fields that presumably belong to the house. The stables are more or less full, too. The horses are pure-bred Arabs, by the look of them.

Giles is just finishing up his evening meal. He’s no more than twenty-five, and he is so recognisable. His gestures, his thoughtfulness, his sharpness and his sheer sagacity, they’re all just as I remember. He’s with an older couple, presumably his parents, and a woman a few years younger than him. She’s pregnant. Very pregnant. About eight months, I’d say. It’s going to be a girl. That’s a vampire thing. I settle down to satisfy my curiosity about the young Giles and the rest of his family.

What I learn during my eavesdropping leads me to break into the local library and make use of their computer suite. The things I’ve heard – well, it doesn’t take me long to fill in the important gaps. When I’m finished, I sit quietly, lost in a brown study, for what might be a few minutes, or might be a few hours.

Giles’ father, the descendant of those who had carried the responsibility of the role of Watcher, died when Giles was six. He was bitten by an unidentified non-native snake, and died of the venom. Sound familiar?

I think of the snake on the beach with Buffy, and ask myself whether his death was entirely accidental, or part of my bigger picture. Was it my fault, for not being here? The man now married to Giles’ mother is his stepfather. They didn’t marry until Giles was nineteen, after a brief romance, according to the newspaper. The man is a horse breeder, and I can find no connection with the occult for him.

Giles’ mother is a successful antiques dealer, and the only connection she has had with the occult was the occasional visit to supposed psychics shortly after her husband’s death, all of whom she denounced as frauds.

Instead of Giles’ father bringing him into the fold of the age-old Watchers, or at least raising him with the knowledge that will be necessary to him, his mother has passed her expertise on to him, and he, too, is an antiques dealer. A married antiques dealer. The girl in the house is his wife. The child is his. He did study classics at Oxford, which is a start, but that’s it. He, too, has no interest in the occult, at least not that I can find.

The Giles of now is not the Giles of then, and what we will all need is the Giles of then.

When I focus again, my first instinct is to trash the place, but I’ve learned to control first instincts. My second instincts are even more destructive, but more useful. It’s still dark outside, although it’s more morning than night. It’s an age since I was in this part of the world, but it doesn’t take me long to find a small nest of vamps.

There are only three of them – it’s hardly fair, is it – and it takes me no more than seconds to have the head of the family immobilised, with my stake at her heart.

“Do you want to live?”

She stares up at me with wide, frightened eyes, and then her glance ticks over to her two boys, helplessly glowering at me from the circle of their own private pain.

She nods.

“Very well. I want you to deliver a letter for me. Do that, and I’ll forget I found you.”

She nods again.

The workman is worthy of his, her or its hire. When I hand over the letter I’ve written, I give her a handful of cash. It’s daybreak now, so she can’t go yet. I bunk down with them, just to be sure. I see her looking across the room at me from the bed that the three of them share, but I’m not interested. Wonders never cease.

The next night, I take her to the blood-pink house. She hasn’t fed, and she’s hungry. The smell is exciting her, and I don’t want her to appear to be anything but human, so I let her have a few mouthfuls from my arm. She gets greedy, and I have to pull her off.

“Do it right, and you can have some more afterwards.”

She licks her lips in anticipation, and then she cleans herself up, primping her hair afterwards.

“Just go.”

I follow her out of the car, sinking into the deeper shadows to watch her as she makes her way to the door of the house. I could have done this myself, but I don’t wish to make myself known to Giles unless I have to. We’ll try it this way first.

She knocks, and it’s the stepfather who comes to the door. She asks for Rupert Giles. I wait for the man to invite her in. If he does, she’ll have to die, but he just tells her to wait a moment, leaving her on the doorstep. Take my advice. Sometimes it’s a good idea to be a bit of a curmudgeon.

Giles comes to the door, all cheery bonhomie. I think she can sense what will happen to her if she’s given the run of the house, so she doesn’t give him time to speak. She hands over the letter.

“Will there be a reply?”

He rips open the envelope, and pulls out the note, the stiff cream paper rustling in the busy silence as he opens it. He reads it silently, frowning.

Giles

The Slayer-to-be needs a Watcher. Are you ready?

A

“What’s this all about? Is this some sort of joke?”

She shrugs. “I was just told to deliver the message, and to wait for any reply.”

“Who told you? Who are you taking the reply to?”

His tone is sharp, but not with understanding.

“I don’t know. I’m just a paid messenger.”

Giles hands the letter back to her.

“Then you have the wrong Giles. Good night.”

He closes the door on her. I send her to sit in the car, and go back to eavesdropping.

“Who was that, at this time of night?” his wife asks.

“Some odd character who’s got the wrong address.”

“What do you mean?”

“She tried to hand-deliver a most peculiar note about the Slayer-to-be needing a Watcher, and was I ready. I have no idea what that was all about.”

But the slight frown in his eyes tells me that the knowledge might be forgotten, but it isn’t entirely lost. He’ll never reach it on his own, though.

His stepfather looks puzzled, but his wife laughs, a bright, brittle, tinkle of a laugh.

“Do you think that it was Frog?”

Frog?

Giles’ brow clears.

“Of course. He swore he’d get me back after the Christmas hamper affair...”

But I stop listening to him. I’m watching his mother. Her face is like stone. She knows exactly what the note meant. She knows about Watchers and Slayers, and she’s kept all that knowledge from her son.

She looks towards the window, as though she can sense me there, and I melt back into the darkness again. Or perhaps she’s worried about the arrival of more messengers. Except, there’s no one to send those messages. No one except me.

I give the vampiress her promised meal, and take her back to her lair. Now I’m hungry, too. I walk the streets, phone in hand, until some young thug tries to take it from me with a knife. His blood is rich with youth and tangy with sin, but it’s spoiled by the shit he’s been snorting.

And now, I really need to think. On a whim, I go back to where Giles is. I lurk around, getting hissed at by the stable cats, and some flattened ears and bared teeth from the horses. What I don’t get is any indication at all that Giles cares about Slayers and Watchers and Vampires. In fact, he calls his friend, Frog, and accuses him of sending weird notes. Frog, of course, denies it, but Giles isn’t convinced. Intellectually, he can’t afford to be convinced, because he has no other explanation. His mother maintains a studied silence.

I even eavesdrop on the two couples after they’ve gone to bed. The pillow talk includes nothing of interest to me.

I need to find somewhere to stay until I can come to some decision about how to deal with this. There’s an old hay loft over the stables, although it isn’t used for that now. I hunker down away from the windows, expecting to have only my thoughts for company, and poor company at that.

“You mustn’t do it.”

It’s Angel.

“Mustn’t do what?”

“What you’re thinking.”

“Get the hell out of my thoughts.”

“Can’t. They’re my thoughts, too.”

“Then go find some thoughts of your own.”

I don’t want to think what I’m thinking, and I still have some faint hope that Giles might understand the note. It’s a very faint hope, a fool’s hope, but I decide to keep watch here for a while, to see whether the situation plays itself out. Deep down, though, I know that things here are badly wrong.

As dawn breaks, I wrap my coat more tightly around me, and think about Buffy, with her soft baby skin and her knowing eyes. But I don’t want to do that, not today. Those eyes are staring at me, accusing me over the death of a thug. What will they do when they know what I’m contemplating?

“Do you feel up to talking?” I ask my passenger. My prisoner.

“A bit. What do you want to talk about?”

He knows I’m trying to distract myself.

“Do you want to tell me a bit about your time in Hell?”

Cruel, aren’t I? But maybe I can excoriate myself vicariously. Suffer punishment through him.

There’s a long silence, but it isn’t the silence of refusal. It’s the silence of someone gathering their thoughts.

“It wasn’t all physical torment,” he says at last. “Often, they’d find ways to make sure that I would remember Buffy in ways that would horrify me, that would make me beg for physical pain instead of the mental pain. They’d make me remember her in vampire ways. Except, they didn’t make me. It was all me, as corrupted and perverted as you.”

“Tell me,” I say wearily. I’m not sure I’m in the mood for this, either. Except, one part of me is definitely ready. I hitch my jeans round, making a bit of space.

“I don’t think I’ve got the strength yet to tell you it all. Go to sleep. We can dream it together.”

I’ll wake soon enough if anyone starts up the ladder to this loft. I make a pillow of my coat and curl up in a corner. I’ve slept in worse places. So has he.

+++++

I look down at my love, a prisoner of my most demonic desires. I see my creation. And I see that it is good. How can I help but desire her? She is beautiful. No matter what I do to her, or whether I do anything at all, she is beautiful in all her forms.

Just now, though, I have her in a particular form that is new to her.

We are downstairs, in my basement. We are in the one meant for play, but that does not mean that I cannot use the things here to produce exquisite pain as well as exquisite pleasure.

First of all, I had her lie still, with no restraints, and then I shaved her. Normally, I don’t, nor do I wish her to. I prefer her au naturel. This time, though, my whim dictated something different.

I allowed her to watch, lying back on her elbows, as I smoothed on the soapy lather between her legs, taking my time over the task, and as I gently scraped it off. I used my old straight razor. When she saw it, she gave a tiny gasp, but she didn’t stir. Stretching out the delicate folds, opening them to the bite of the steel, moving the blade carefully over every hair follicle, hearing the slight rasp as it brought away the very top layer of dead skin cells, leaving her softer, more alive, even than before, I knew then just what I would create with her tonight. It was exciting. She always is.

At last, I allowed that I was finished, and I dried every last inch of her with warm towels. Perhaps a little warmer than warm. As I held them to her, letting the heat sink in, she started to move, pressing against my hand as she became charged with blood.

“Keep still,” I warned her, and she did. I changed my plans a little, just then. I was going to use rope on her, but I decided to do something different. Here is the result.

She lies in front of me, completely bound. Her Slayer-supple joints that have made this form possible have also made things much more difficult for her. She is not comfortable, yet she remains still, quiescent. She is wrapped in a lattice of red, her whole body adorned. The red is not blood. Not yet. The criss-crossed bindings, each one three inches from its neighbours, are of red satin ribbon.

As I said, I was going to use rope but tied like this, with her power, she could easily brush these bonds aside and escape if she wished. She could tear the ribbons apart, and simply rise from the form that I have decreed. She remains there by her will. Sometimes I want to exert my power over her, force her to do things that I know she will resist doing. I love making her do that. Today, though, I want to know that she bears what I do to her from her own will and desire.

Her knees are fully bent and her lower legs tied beneath her thighs, hidden. Her arms are bound tightly behind her back, so that her breasts stand high and proud through the lattice of ribbon. The table is short, so that her head hangs down over the far end. Where I have bound her legs, I have made sure that her feet are immobilised so that they remain on tiptoe, her lush rear end resting on her heels, thus raising up her most private parts from the wooden surface. Her thighs are opened wide, and her vulva is defenceless before me, a table spread for my delectation. Tonight, I intend to feast until I am utterly sated.

Only much later in my life will I understand that defenceless does not mean impotent, and that the submissive holds the power. A submissive Slayer is more powerful than you can imagine. More powerful than I could have imagined. Still, that was only later.

For now, she is an offering to me, displaying nothing other than her breasts, the flat plane of her stomach, her sensitive thighs, all bound up in a blood-red lattice. And that enticing vulva, so far free of adornment. I have many games to play. Just now, I want one that involves blood.

I look again at my handiwork. The ribbon is like a skin-tight trellis on her, begging to be adorned with flowers. She loves flowers, and I have just the thing, a generous number of long-stemmed red roses. I was careful in my choosing, and when the florist asked whether she should remove all those wicked thorns before delivery, I told her to leave them as they were. Now, when I pick one from the heap, it rewards me by pricking my finger, bringing a bead of blood onto my skin. I walk around the table to where her head hangs down, her hair a glorious curtain behind her. With another woman, a true human, I could not leave her like this for long without damaging her. For the Slayer, as with so much here, her strength, her magic, works in her disfavour. She can find no comfort, but there will be no lasting hurt, simply more joints and muscles begging for mercy tonight, and finding none.

I show her my finger, with the swelling drop of blood, and then I press it against her lips. She will take no harm from this. She reaches up with her tongue and licks, delicately, bringing a frisson to my whole body. And then I show her the rose. There is a spark of something in her eyes. I haven’t done this to her before – this part of our life has only just begun – and she isn’t sure what I’m going to do. But she is afraid that she can imagine.

I lay that first rose gently over her breast. Only when I am certain that it is properly positioned, that as many thorns as possible are touching her skin, and that the largest thorn on the stem is sharp against her nipple, only then do I press it into place, shaping it to follow her contours, leaving the ribbons to hold it fast. The next rose crosses her breast in the other direction, the hook of this second thorn in her nipple pulling hard against the first one.

It takes a long time, but art cannot be hurried. Not until every rose has been threaded into the lattice over her body am I satisfied. Every tiny movement, every breath she takes, will pull the thorns a little. I intend that she will not be able to help moving, and that she will be breathing in deep and shuddering sighs. There will be a beautiful trellis of blood to match the ribbons, and I shall drink from her entire body.

The only part of this offering of her body that has not yet been adorned with my roses is that beautiful vulva. I have other plans for that. More personal plans.

First, I have a spurred wheel, with perhaps two dozen spikes protruding around the rim, each almost an inch long, slightly hooked at the end, and very, very sharp. There’s no point in having dull spikes. This isn’t a toy, bought from a store. If I put just a little pressure on, the spikes will sink into flesh easily, and then rip it on their way out, leaving a bloodied trail wherever I desire. I don’t intend to do that. Not tonight. I show it to her – after all, what fun would it be if she didn’t know what to expect? Very well, sometimes it is. But not with this, tonight.

Her fear flashes a fin again.

With just the right amount of pressure, I run that wheel over every last crease and fold that lies between her legs. The spikes make the tiniest pinprick with each contact. At first, nothing else happens, but then, as I continue my attentions, blood starts to fill her tissues, hard on the heels of desire, engorging and swelling them. As her flesh thickens and reddens, each tiny pinprick holds a minute ruby bead. They may be small, but there are hundreds of them, now.

I bend my head, and taste her. She is delicious. The power of her blood fizzes on my tongue, together with the heady savour of her arousal, and the tiny trace – as yet – of the piquancy that is her fear and her pain. I can feel her heat, beckoning me on, begging me to take her now, to strip away my games, to sink into that silken sheathe and succumb to everything that she is. It’s a wrench to leave her, but I know that there is so much better to come.

The next thing I show to her is a silver ball, and what looks like an old-fashioned hatpin, but is of surgical steel, adorned by a jewelled butterfly. She is puzzled. I am dissembling with her here. She thinks that the spur was not too bad – not too bad at all, in fact – and perhaps the ball will be used in the same way. It is not an ordinary ball. It is of metal, and it is covered with spikes. The spikes are short and broad but like the wheel they are very sharp, and they are barbed. They can dig deep and wide. It isn’t a very large ball, but neither is it very small. It will just fit into my closed hand, but I do have large hands. As I walk back to my place, I give the ball a squeeze, and then I open my fist. Blood shimmers redly on the point of each spike, and blossoms across my palm and fingers. I wait for the wounds to heal, but I don’t clean the blood from the tips of the spikes. When I taste her, I shall taste a little of myself as well. Myself and my desire, which is now hard and hot, making imperative demands that are difficult to resist.

I press one finger into that moist slit, and she draws in a breath. For that instant, she has forgotten the roses. She finds, as she lets the breath go, that there is as much pain as when she drew it in. The first tiny offerings of blood well up across her body, but I don’t go to them. Not yet. Not yet.

I withdraw my finger, and touch her thighs, gently outlining the ferocious lattice I have made. The muscles are tight and trembling, made so by the effort of holding steady in that tensed position, with her feet supporting the weight of her body. She will start to cramp soon. I’ll make sure she does.

Satisfied, I return to her vulva. With my left hand, I caress her slit once more, and then press my fingers into her, one at a time until they are all inside her, just up to the first knuckle. Slowly, taking my pleasure in this moment, I spread my fingers and open her up, my carnal rose. Then, I place my own thorns into her opening, my silver, spiked ball.

I don’t let it touch her until it is in place, and nor do I push it in too far – the outer face just protrudes from her sweetest flesh – and then I withdraw the guardianship of my fingers, and allow her passage to press against it, framing it, holding it in place. Once more, she sucks in a breath, and once more, the roses do their work. She tries to still herself, perhaps thinking that in stillness lies safety. Not so, my love.

Gently, I stretch her inner labia and draw them together over the protruding spikes. I don’t need to press them into place very hard. The barbs catch at them, as the rose thorns catch at her skin, and hold them fast. Then, I draw her outer labia together, covering and closing her opening, and I pinch them tightly. That small pain will distract her a little from the greater pain to come, although not much. She doesn’t whimper, even though the ball is already doing a little of its work, as a tiny bead of blood runs out and down towards her anus, and I am proud of her. Savouring this moment above all so far, I pick up the pin again from the box where it nestles on a bed of velvet, it and its companions, and slowly, slowly I press it through the pinched flesh. I could do it quickly, and that would hurt less, but I don’t.

Still, she doesn’t cry out, but she cannot help breathing deeply, trying to control herself. I look up, and see tiny trails of blood running from her nipples, where the thorns are now tearing her. Her nipples are responding to that pain by crying for attention. When that first pin is safely in place, holding her labia closed together, I walk up to the other end of the table. She looks at me, and there is still trust there. She has no idea what is to come. Something unfamiliar moves within me, prompting me to share a little of that trust, in my own fashion, and I bend down to her abused breasts. Without moving the roses, I take the closest nipple into my mouth, and suckle hard on it, sending a surge of desire through her, and through me. My blood mixes with hers as the thorns rip at me, just as they rip at her, and yet she sighs in pleasure, and her nipple grows and swells. Delicious. When I’ve paid the same attention to the other, I go back to my main area of play, tasting the blood that still runs down my throat. I, too, am in pain now, but that is perhaps as it should be.

I press four more pins through her labia, taking the same slow care with each, as they stitch her together. I know every inch of this woman’s body, but I also know every inch of any woman’s body. I know where all the nerves are. As the steel slides atom by atom into the golden flesh, I wonder whether to graze one of them. That would make her scream, would perhaps make her break her fragile bonds, and then I would have to punish her. I can feel the rush of blood to my cock at the thought of it. But I don’t want to cause too much damage, not tonight. I want other things. And so, with each needle, I take care to guide it safely past those nerves. Prolonging and sharpening the pain like this will test her enough. For now.

And, after the second pin is placed, she cannot help it. With each new pain, she gives small, soft sobs, and with each hitch of her breath, the thorns sink a little deeper.

She carries five of my pins now, the tiny jewelled insects decorating her beauty, rose against her gold. I have many more of them, but I only need another four. I press one in from the top of her left labium to the bottom of the right, weaving it through both flesh and the pins that are already in place. The next goes in the opposite direction. The one after that is harder – there is so much metalwork to thread through, as I guide it safely from the top of her right labium to the bottom of her left. The final one, from left to right, takes the longest of all. The pain for her is bad, as I push the needle slowly through her flesh, angling it just so, but I don’t help her by hurrying. Rather, I take pleasure in each slow movement, each soft cry.

On that last piercing, to prolong the thrill of the journey a little more, I hold the needle steady within the labium, and then move it, back and forth, rocking it gently, this surrogate shaft making gentle love to her flesh, the point scraping along the sides of its path through her, as if to find a place to pleasure her. She gives a short cry, but then is silent again, and I finish guiding it through her.

Now, I stand back for a better look at what I have wrought. I have her fastened up to my satisfaction, chaste and warded, but carrying a dangerous gift from me. I have left only her clitoris naked and exposed, vulnerable to anything I should wish to do. Her skin is already laced with the first stirrings of blood, almost hidden by the lattice of satin ribbon and bitter-sweet roses. She remains unmoving and silent, now, in the form that I have decreed, still submitting to the darkness of my wishes. There is very little blood on her vulva, but that is because her tissues have emptied, and resumed their unaroused state. Time to change that.

I bend down to her clitoris, that tiny jewel of flesh, and start to work, gently at first, and then more roughly, as I know she likes it. I lick and suckle there, and at her imprisoned labia, and when I do, the points of the pins tear at my tongue, but I don’t stop. Producing a pure work of art should always be painful to the artist.

She cannot resist me. She tries not to breathe too deeply, but she cannot help herself. She tries not to move, tries to obey my instruction, but her body lifts up, as far as it can, to meet my mouth. With every movement, the thorns shift further into her flesh. Those in her nipples are doing all my work for me, and I see that she is trying to press harder against them, as if they were my fangs. I can’t help but smile, because that pleases me, and I don’t punish her for moving. That will come soon enough.

A tiny trickle of blood starts to run from the lattice of needles that I have woven into her outer labia, and I lick it up, savouring the many tastes of her.

Then, as I start to suckle hard on her clitoris again, every sense is screaming to me that her climax is close. Gently, I start to press the fingers of one hand into her anus, one finger at a time, not far in, and very carefully, moving with her as she tries to grind down onto my invading palm. It would be much too easy to press upwards, hard against the ball lodged in her vagina, and to make her bleed from that pressure alone. That would be a crass and inelegant way of achieving my purposes, fit only for those with less imagination than I. What happens to her now, she will do to herself. My fingers are there simply to enhance what is to come.

My own needs are becoming urgent. My erection is hot and heavy, straining and demanding. I want to be inside her, but I will wait for that consummation. I have another to bring about, first.

And then she starts to fly. I bite down hard, and there is no hope for her. I keep my fangs buried in and around that nugget of flesh, as she thrashes and moans, and as her cunt squeezes hard against the torment that I have stitched inside her. She understands what I have done, but she has no choice. Her own muscles clutch at it again and again and again. I keep her flying for an impossibly long time, using every dirty vampire trick of lips and tongue and teeth and touch that I know, and she rips open her most delicate, blood-swollen tissues every time she clenches around my gift.

The steely taste of that lattice of needles is soon drowned in the copper of her blood, filled with the savour of her pain and her pleasure. Almost, almost, I come from the sheer wonder of her, but I manage to hang on. My turn will come later, sheathed in the bright ruby of her life force.

And then she is finished. Her legs are trembling in agony, her breasts are liberally streaked red, and blood trails have carved a different pattern over all her golden skin. The flow of blood and juices from her vagina has lessened and will soon stop, for now. But she has only whimpered, she hasn’t screamed. My brave girl. Better for her, perhaps, if she had given in. I want to hear her scream, against my explicit instruction, and I will make sure that happens. The thought excites me so much that I almost spend on the spot. That would never do.

I walk to where I can see her face, and the pain that is written there so clearly. She thinks that I will release her now. Not so. Not for a long time yet. A work of art is to be enjoyed at leisure.

I lower my zip, and my cock needs no further invitation. As I press myself to her lips, she thinks that this will be the final act of the night. Oh no, my love.

You will pay your homage to the artist. I will feel your lips, your tongue, your teeth working their unique magic, and perhaps I shall feel your tears fall as I ram my own climax down your throat, as deep as I can reach.

And then I shall go back to you, to the canvas that I have created, and I shall bring you off again and again and again, in ways that you cannot yet imagine, and I shall feast from you again and again and again as my gift is clasped into your every embrace. Perhaps, in the end, you will reach your limits and you will break free, but I don’t think so. I think you will accept everything that I give you, tonight.

I will have your every muscle crying out for relief, I shall have your most erotic flesh burning with an unbearable fire, and I shall hear you scream before I take you tonight. We will have travelled round this virtuous circle of pain and pleasure so many times that you will think that you have nothing left, that I have milked every climax from you, given you so much pain that pleasure cannot come again, and so much pleasure that you can no longer tell the difference from the pain, before I undo what I have done. And then I shall lose myself in you, revelling in your blood and your nails and your teeth. And I shall prove to you from the depths of your pain and your satiation that I can wring from you reactions that you never dreamed you could have, more than you ever thought possible.

And I shall look at my creation and see that it is good.

+++++

I start awake, suddenly, ripped from a dream of lovingly torturing a woman long dead, and wincing at my urgent erection.

I told you once that 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. Perhaps I am wrong to have corrupted her to my desires, and perhaps for this alone I will go to Hell, to an eternity of the sort of agony that will teach me the error of my ways. But in my dream, as in life, I enjoyed the beauty of what I have done to her.

You think that I am sick, and perverted? Perhaps so. Those notions are less frightening, less offensive to a demon than to a human. But tell me this. Does what you have just heard not make your blood run hotter? Are you not experiencing a little… moisture… from what I have told you? Do you not feel yourself longing for a touch, a kiss, a hand on your thigh? Who is the more perverted? I, for admitting what I enjoy? Or those who hide their prurience behind a façade of dishonest prudery?

Never mind. There are more important considerations. I know what I dreamt. It was from Angel. I can’t let it lie, though, because I know something that he apparently doesn’t.

“That was your dream?” I ask him. When he replies, I can feel that he’s faint. Showing me has taken most of his strength. Still, two weeks ago, he couldn’t have done as much.

“Not a dream. It was a... torment. It happened. At least, they made it seem as though it did.”

“It did.”

“Did what?”

“It happened. I did it. I remember it well. Look.”

I show him, and he’s silent. I know what he’s thinking, though, because I’m thinking the same thing. Did I do that to Buffy because he was doing it, in Hell? Or did he do it in Hell because I was doing it on Earth?

Strange and ineffable are the ways of Hellfire.

++++++

Angel falls silent after that, exhausted. I hang around the place for two days, invisible to everyone except the rats and mice, the cats and the horses. Oh, and a dog. The Gileses seem to have a dog. It’s a biscuit-coloured Sealyham terrier, and whenever it’s out of the house, it insists on scampering across the stable yard and barking frantically at the bottom of the ladder up into the loft. Its antics are winding up the horses, and so Penelope – that’s Rupert’s wife – has to put it on a lead. There’s some muttering about rats, and I have to retire into the camouflage of the darkest corners as a stable hand comes up to lay traps baited with crispy bacon.

For all my waiting, I can discover nothing to suggest that there’s the least knowledge of the arcane in this household, nor any interest in pursuing it. Except, of course, for whatever Giles’ mother knows, and she clearly isn’t going to tell him.

I consider whether to force her to spit out the truth, and to reveal the other side of Giles’ birth father, the side that has been so carefully hidden from the son, but I don’t see what purpose that would serve. It might even make him feel well rid of it all. And he would see me as no better than he would expect.

Giles has a comfortable life, a loving wife, and a family in the offing. He knows nothing of the lover who should be by his side, or the pseudo-daughter who will be waiting for him all those thousands of miles away. Buffy will need him. I’m certain of that. I think I once told you that I sometimes get dreams, premonitions, feelings. Maybe they’re the result of the blood I’ve taken from Aurelius, or perhaps from all the sorcerers and witches I’ve eaten, although they were usually powerless fraudsters. Whatever the cause, it isn’t a strong skill, but it’s there. It’s that that gives me the certainty Buffy will need Giles in the future. And that I will, too.

I sit in my corner, trying to rationalise it all.

“Perhaps Giles isn’t meant to be part of your circle this time around.”

Angel’s back, and I’m back to talking to myself.

“You know better than that.”

He does. He must share the same skill.

“Perhaps if you befriended him? We were friends... at first. And afterwards. Well, not friends, exactly...”

I know what he means. Back in those days when I was Angel’s prisoner and a constant torment to him, when he first met Giles the two of them struck up the makings of a real friendship. I changed all that, of course, with Jenny... Yet, afterwards, once they had reached an accommodation, there was always respect.

As I think of the gypsy, I can see in my mind’s eye a small cameo image. It’s me, standing in an endless catacomb, a labyrinth of dark tunnels, tiers of niches carved into the walls. In each niche lies a... I don’t know what to call it. Not a crystal exactly, but some living, scintillating version of that, each sparkling with its own colours. The one in front of me is bathing me with light, a balm on my spirit. It’s Buffy. I know it is. Only she makes me feel this way, her radiance offering me the only blessing I’m ever likely to get.

A few feet away, though, is a more darkly-glowing light. It’s Jenny. I know that, too. And a Giles-presence inside my head yearns towards it, with absolute need.

I try to catch the vision, to place it in context, but it’s gone as soon as it came. I know it’s truth, though, that I have been there and seen that, and Angel knows it too.

Giles’ need and love for Jenny might have been as great, in their own way, as mine for Buffy. Is it so different here? Why has he married that milksop brunette, instead of waiting for the dark heat of the gypsy?

“Because he knows no better.”

He’s right.

And who will be Buffy’s Watcher, if he isn’t?

“Have you considered that you might be intended as her Watcher? Rather than...”

Her Watcher instead of her lover? Is that to be my punishment in this lifetime? The test of my resolve to yoke myself to Buffy’s Powers? But what would be the point in that? We work as a team. We work together. We... balance each other in some strange way.

Her Watcher and her lover then?

“No. She needs someone like Giles to offset your influence, especially while she’s young and impressionable. You wouldn’t do a good job. Neither would Wesley.”

He’s right, but who says that the Powers ever worried about things like that?

“You do.”

He’s right about that, too. I believe that someone, somewhere, is carefully orchestrating events to make this a second time around. But why?

Father Robert has made me weapons of war, and with some apparent urgency, too. Again, why?

And someone, somewhere, is trying to prevent this reconvergence. For the third time, why?

If I know the why, that will also tell me the who.

Deep inside me I know that the path we take is for me to determine... well, perhaps for me and Angel. And Buffy. But I also believe, with absolute certainty, that there is no time to waste, that there is only so long before we’ll all be needed. I just don’t know any of the details or the purposes. I feel blind and deaf, sniffing my way through the darkness. Like a dog.

Father Robert talked to me about the Akbash dog, and he asked some questions. “If a sheep strays away from the flock, into territory where the shepherd doesn’t want the other dogs to go, might a different sort of dog be wanted?”

My instinct tells me that Giles has already strayed – or been herded – too far from his flock. He is settled and happy with a successful business, and a family. He will stay here in England, and he will never find Buffy, never know he even needed to. Nor will he ever find Jenny. This girl is not her. I know his feelings for the gypsy as though they were my own. And I know his feelings for this girl, as I knew my feelings for Darla. And so, I come back to the first thought that I had when I learned what had happened. Giles needs the proper motivation.

Angel rallies again. “You can’t. He’s happy. What gives you the right? You can’t do it to him.”

Maybe I can’t. But I must and I will. The right of it I will take from a sword and a dagger, and a five-year old girl. The responsibility, though, is mine.

+++++

My lurking has told me that the Gileses will leave for home tomorrow. If it were done, then ’twere well it were done quickly... Or something like that. Macbeth had that right.

Every night, the girl has taken the Sealyham for a walk before they go to bed. She’s always alone. I suspect that it’s a few brief minutes of welcome solitude for her amid the claustrophobia of her in-laws. She doesn’t go far, just to the end of the lane and back. It’s quite safe. There are no dangers here. Not until now, anyway.

I wait for her at the garden gate, my moonshadow long on the grass, remembering my Tennyson.

Come into the garden, Maud, For the black bat, night, has flown, Come into the garden, Maud, I am here at the gate alone; And the woodbine spices are wafted abroad, And the musk of the rose is blown.

This other black bat is waiting for you, Maud. And I am alone.

At the sound of her approach, I slip back a little into the deeper darkness of the gateway arch, bearing its load of honeysuckle. The dog is first on the scene, scampering up as fast as it can, a snarl on its lips, a big dog in such a tiny body. An Akbash, going up against the wolves in defence of its mistress. I make it quick, and scoop it up to break the fragile neck. It doesn’t even have time to whimper.

Further down the lane, Penelope calls for the dog. “Willow!” she calls. “Here, Willow.” My hands ball into fists, and it takes a real effort to uncurl my fingers.

Her footsteps are soft on the grass, but they are as loud as a drumbeat to me. Normally, I would take her from behind. That’s so much easier and safer for the predator. Instead, I do her the courtesy of stepping out in front of her.

She falters, and glances around, no doubt looking for the support of her dog.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “Are you lost?” Only the English would say they were sorry to an intruder.

“No, Penelope, I’m not lost. Not anymore.”

She stands still then, shaken by my use of her name. I step aside, and behind me she sees the sad bundle of fur. One hand flies up to her mouth, the lead dangling uselessly from the other. Frantically, she searches around for some way to get to the house, but I’m standing squarely in front of the gate in the spicy musk of the last woodbine flowers, and running away means turning her back on me. She doesn’t want to do that. Besides, she’s heavily pregnant. Running was never going to be much of an option.

She opens her mouth to scream, in the hope that rescue will come to her, when I do her the final courtesy of letting her see the monster that I am. The scream dies before it’s born, as the breath catches in her chest at the sight of me. The last thing that I can do for her is to take her in pleasure rather than pain. I do that from the front, too.

As I drink her life down, her belly is pressed against mine. In a very few moments, the baby within her begins to lose the rich, oxygen-bearing blood that sustains her, and she kicks out in her desperation to breathe. I can feel her, her movements becoming more frantic, and then weakening. I take no pleasure in this, but I’ve killed babies before. I’ll get over it.

Penelope, too, kicks out in the paroxysms of ecstasy and death. I allow her the one, but I stop before she’s quite taken by the other, laying her down in the shadow of the gate. I’m not going to turn her. I want Giles free to follow a necessary destiny. I want Giles angry, yes, but motivated to learn about vampires and slayers and watchers. I want that witch of a mother to tell him the things that he should know. I don’t want him as an insane homicidal maniac like Holtz coming after me. And I can never confess any of this to anyone.

Gently, I stroke a strand of hair back from her face. “I’m truly sorry.” I don’t show her my human face, though.

Her features twist with effort as she tries to live. “What are you?” she whispers.

I’m still stroking her hair. “I’m just a demon, a monster, nothing more.”

She isn’t satisfied with that answer, but she has no breath to ask more. Only her eyes follow me as I stand up, and gaze down at her. Perhaps it’s Angel who wants the mental image with which to flagellate himself, but for once I’m not arguing with him.

I slip back into the shadows as the door opens, and Giles wanders out, gazes up at the moon with a smile, and then turns to face the path, waiting for his wife. After a few moments, as his eyes become accustomed to the night, he peers more intently at the path, seeing the dark huddle for the first time, and then he sets off at a dead run. He falls to his knees, stroking her hair, like I did. I can see the glimmer of tears in his eyes as he cradles her in his lap.

“It was a devil,” she murmurs. “A devil with the voice of an angel, and it made me fly.” Her head falls to one side, exposing my fang marks, and she’s still. She won’t move again. I judged it right, then. That’s something to be pleased about. There’s nothing else. The picture of that scarred and mutilated Akbash dog comes back to haunt me, and that collar is cold around my neck.

+++++

He’s my bane, my curse, and he gives me no peace. He hasn’t since he first really understood what I intended to do. Angel. At last, I tell him to shut up, and with a wrench of will, I push him far down into the depths of my consciousness. He won’t like what he sees there, but I’ll deal with that later.

Father Robert told me about Drogyn of the Deeper Well, in the Cotswolds, and I’d planned to call on him when my business here was done. I, or Angel, or are we now the same entity...? Whichever, I feel too blood-boltered to go there. I don’t know this Drogyn, but if he’s on a par with Father Robert, he’ll probably see me, like Banquo’s Ghost, although in this case, I’m the slaughterer, not the slaughtered.

Still, there’s been no sign of Illyria, and as long as that remains true, there’s not a deal of urgency. Drogyn is going to have to wait until a better time.

The soul of Angel is the one who is covering himself with guilt along with the blood. What I’ve done shouldn’t bother me, because it was the right thing to do. But it does. And my anger is rising: anger at the guilt, anger at the need, anger at the Universe in general: anger because I’m so fucked up. And that anger takes a familiar form. I need something to kill.

There’s prey all around me, of course. I could have a killing spree, a massacre that would make Europe tremble, but would it make me feel better? Already, I can smell the blood in my nostrils, feel the bone snap between my fingers, just as the Sealyham’s did, just as so many have before. Just as Jenny’s did. Shall I forever be slaughtering Giles’ lovers?

I head towards the nearest town, one that will have its share of ne’er do wells, but I’m haunted by a pair of wide open hazel eyes, and a gentle baby’s touch. I was wrong. This is my affliction, my curse. Even as a child, she holds me in the palm of her hand, just as much as she did a lifetime ago. My bane and my blessing. Will she count my sins in this lifetime, and find me wanting?

Cursing, I turn the car away from my intended target, and pull into a lay-by. I think that my people detect the murder in my voice, because they get Ixolon for me as quickly as they can.

“That paedophile in Sunnydale. You know about him?”

“Yes, Angelus. Ezrafel told me.”

“I want to know where he is. Soon as you can.”

Ixolon knows that means Now.

“Angelus...” He trails off, wondering how to put what he has to say.

I know what it is. Even for me, the Norag won’t divulge how they do what they do, but I’m well aware that it’s exhausting work. I’ve used them a lot in a short time.

“After this, you can rest. I promise.”

There’s a pause, and then he says, “It will take us a couple of hours.”

“Fine.”

While I’m waiting, I go back to the nest of vamps that I used. They’re just dust when I leave. They knew too much.

The paedophile, it turns out, is still in California, not very far from Sunnydale. My people are slipping. I’ll have to see about that. Later, when I have time.

When I land in California, there’s a hand-written message waiting for me, sealed in a long, white envelope.

Angelus

Was that truly the only way?

Robert

+++++

I told you a long time ago that demons are driven by the darker emotions, chief among which is anger. I’m a demon, and I have more anger than most. Life with Buffy forced me to channel that anger differently, to use it and to tame it. Life under the Dark Lady taught me to chain it up and to unleash it on my enemies in the most terrible way. I’m trying to remember all those lessons now.

The hours that I’ve spent getting from England to California have fanned the flames of that anger. I’m angry with Angel. He may be caged somewhere in one of my darkest corners, but I still feel his silent censure. I’m angry with Giles for making what I’ve done necessary. I’m angry with whoever caused the death of Giles’ father, and set him on the path that took him away from his flock, and I know all too well who that was. It has to be the Wolf, the Ram and the Hart.

And I’m angry with myself, in all sorts of very complicated ways.

Receiving that message from Father Robert is the last straw, and now I’m angry with him, too, for that piece of condemnation. What the hell else was I supposed to do?

And so the anger within me gathers force, a black tide of roiling malevolence. I need to unleash it, and only blood will appease it. The child molester will do for a start. I don’t want anyone with me, and so I dismiss the retainers who’ve come to meet me, and set off to the address I’ve been given.

The man I’m looking for lives in what can only be described as a mansion. In Sunnydale, he lived in an apartment much like the one that Angel had when he first came to town. Downmarket.

It’s a significant change, and I have to wonder about it.

I decide that it’s worthwhile doing a bit of reconnaissance first, instead of barging straight in, even though I’m impatient for the kill. I’ve learned patience. Some, anyway.

The mansion itself bears all the signs of being very new. Less than five years old, I’d say, which means it’s been built since I’ve been... gone. There are some serious railings around the property, although they won’t be a problem for me. Inside the railings there’s mature shrubbery, and inside that there are patrols. I can hear them, and I can smell them. They aren’t human.

Interesting.

I work my way around the outside of the perimeter, and there are five demons on patrol. Not enough to worry me. As I get back to the gate, a car draws up, and I withdraw deeper into the shadows. A guard exchanges a few words with the driver, and then opens the gate. As the car drives in, I decide to watch for a while.

There are five cars, in quick succession. Perhaps they’re having someone for dinner. When I’m sure that there aren’t going to be any more arrivals, I hop over the railings and wait in the cover of the bushes until one of the guards comes past.

I’ve seen that they have a set pattern of patrol. At each end, they wait until they meet the neighbouring guard, and then they set off again. If I take one out, they’ll be missed very quickly, and so I have to take them all out. Not a problem.

They’re Kexar battle demons, very human looking, but very strong. Still, they fall to a stake or a knife as easily as anything else. I’ve already taken two of them, at the cost of some bruised knuckles and a bad taste in my mouth. The skinned knuckles are healing already, but the mouth-puckering alkalinity needs real blood to wash it away.

Now, I’m waiting for the third guard to heave into view when there’s a disturbance just off to the right, and behind me. It’s not much, and I’m upwind so scent is no help, but it doesn’t sound like a cat or an owl to me. I do one of the things I do best. I allow myself to disappear into the darkness, and wait.

“I don’t know why you had to come!” It’s said in a whisper, but it’s a boy. A youth.

“She’s my sister, too!” The reply is hissed. A girl.

“We don’t know for sure that she’s here. You should go back, in case I get caught.”

It’s good advice, but it’s met with a snort of indignation. They’re making too much noise. Maybe not if the guards had been human, but the Kexars have much better hearing, and they’re so fast and strong that I’m not sure I can take more than one at a time. I could let these two be taken, of course, but the resultant commotion would undoubtedly get in the way of my plans. Besides, they’re little more than children themselves, and isn’t it children that got me into this?

That must be an Angel thought.

“No! I’m not going back!”

That is definitely too loud. The Kexar patrolling this stretch is due here in a few seconds. Ah, there he is, trotting up fairly briskly, all his attention focused on this one spot. I make sure I’m well concealed, ready for the hopefully silent ambush, but the interlopers haven’t noticed him. The girl gives a soft groan.

“I feel really strange,” she says. “And my stomach hurts.”

“I told you not to come,” the boy hisses. “This isn’t a job for girls.”

“Right. You’ve got eyes in the back of your head? You don’t even need someone to watch your back?”

“Not someone groaning with stomach ache, that’s for sure. Stealthy is what we’ll need.”

It’s too late for that. The closest Kexar is here. The teenagers must hear the rustle of the foliage, because they fall silent. The demon knows they’re there, though. He’s the one that’s stealthy, as he pushes quietly through the branches towards them. I take him from behind, thrusting my stake into his heart. He falls without a sound. That’s three down, two to go.

I pull out my stake, black with his blood, and wipe it on the rotted leaves underfoot. When I look up, the girl is staring at me through the branches, her eyes wide with horror.

Faced with an apparent murderer, she shows a striking lack of survival instinct. “You killed that man!” she accuses me.

I bend down and open his mouth to show her the fangs of golden ivory, and then pull back his collar to show her the chain of yellow scales around the base of his neck.

“You think so? Doesn’t look like a man to me.”

I hook my hands under his shoulders and drag him deeper into the shrubbery. The girl doesn’t retreat, but she winces in pain again, holding her abdomen. The boy puts his arm around her and stands next to her.

“Who are you?” he demands.

“Someone who wishes you’d shut up before you bring the other guards down on us.”

“What guards?” he asks.

“Exactly. You’re a liability here. Go home.”

It’s the girl who answers me. She can’t be more than fifteen.

“No! Our sister is missing, and we think she’s in there.”

“What makes you think that?”

“When we walked past here earlier, I could just feel her!” She looks defiant in the face of such a vague explanation.

Her brother tightens his grip warningly. “No need to tell everyone our business, sis. Come on, let’s get going.” He starts to lead her out of the shrubbery and onto the open grass around the house.

Before they can take more than a couple of steps, I get in their faces, blocking their way. “Go home. You’re getting under my feet.” I reach out to push them backwards, and, with a scent flare of fear and anger, the girl reacts on instinct. She throws a punch that knocks me backwards and almost breaks my jaw.

I find myself on the ground, flat on my back. There are a lot of broken branches under me, which means there was a lot of unwelcome noise. My head is spinning and my face hurts. Well, there’s a turn-up for the books. Now we know why she was getting stomach cramps.

As I get up, she’s still standing there with her fist clenched and a look of shock on her face. She didn’t know she could do that. She smells different, too. The queen is dead. Long live the queen.

I think the mantle of Slayer has just changed hands, and who would guess that it would do so under my very gaze. Again. Well, anyone who’s ever had anything to do with the Powers would, I expect.

She won’t be much use just yet. I remember watching Buffy’s first efforts at Slaying, from behind Angel’s eyes. I’ve never seen anything so funny. This new Slayer will need to do something, though, because I can hear two sets of feet approaching.

“Keep him back,” I nod to her brother, “and just try to distract one of these two. Don’t close in, you haven’t got the experience yet. You’ll be killed.”

“What does he mean, sis? What’s going on?” The boy’s in the dark. There’s no time to enlighten either of them.

“Can you do it?” I ask her. She nods, uncertainly. She may be uncertain, but she’s got nerve.

The footsteps are almost here, now. Silently, I move back into the shadows, and she pulls her brother away from the broken branches. He opens his mouth to ask something but she puts her finger to his lips, and he subsides.

And then there is no more time.

The two Kexar arrive together. At first they aren’t sure whether they have a problem, and then they catch the scent of the two youngsters, and start silently in their direction. That’s not what I wanted. I’m not close enough for a silent ambush, so I make a noisier approach. They turn back to me, and it’s game on. I should have brought something more than a stake.

Trading blows shows me that two together is going to be really hard work. I’ve had three tries at staking one of them, and now I’ve lost the stake. It’s on the floor, somewhere, and I’m hoping one of these bruisers doesn’t find it before I do, or I might be in real trouble.

Then I see a frightened face peering through the branches. It’s her. The new Slayer. She pushes through to the small clearing that we’ve made, and almost loses her balance. She’s found my stake in the simplest way, by treading on it. She picks it up and hurls it indiscriminately. It lodges in my chest, on the right side, fortunately, but it’s not an improvement.

I can’t help the snarl when I rip it out, but I manage not to go into demon face. One of my assailants turns towards her, and with a real effort, I manage to drive the wretched piece of wood through the other one’s cheek. This distracts him just long enough for me to get a grip, and I’m grateful to hear the snap as his neck breaks. I’m even more grateful to find that he’s one of those demons who actually die when you break its neck.

And then I’m on to the other one, as the Slayer unleashes that punch of hers, and knocks us both flying. This time, I’m prepared, and get out from under before he lands. Before he can recover, he, too, has a broken neck.

I’m exhausted, and in pain. And my jacket and shirt are ruined, in no condition for me to gatecrash a party. Oh, well, I shall have to go en déshabillé..

The boy and girl reappear.

“You weren’t supposed to try and kill me,” I grouch.

“I’m sorry,” she says, and she’s white faced with shock. Her brother doesn’t say anything. “Let me look at it.”

“No.” I don’t want someone poking around my half-healing wounds. “I’ve got work to do.”

“What’s your plan?” The brother’s found his tongue.

I pick myself up off the ground. “I’m going in to see what’s what.”

They insist on following me up to the door, and I insist they wait outside. They shouldn’t see what might be happening in there, especially if their sister is involved. I don’t say that, to them, of course. I just ease the leash on my slow-burning anger.

They stand to either side of the door, out of sight of those inside, and I go in. I think they’ve agreed to that so that I can be the distraction they need by being the one to get killed. I don’t begrudge that. It’s a good strategy.

I don’t burst in with my stake held high; I simply walk in. The door is unlocked, and there’s no one to stop me. There’s a large hall, and there’s a feast happening in it.

Maybe a dozen males are sitting around the hall, mixed humans and demons, with one fat and ugly sonofabitch at the head of the proceedings. Servants are waiting on them all, and there are dozens of servants. They’re all children. One young girl struggles with a tureen that’s too big for her. She’s the first one to see me. She’s about five years old, and she has blonde hair and large hazel eyes. Like all of them, she’s naked, wearing only bruises, dark fingerprints all over her pale flesh. The leash snaps.

When I’ve finished, the children are huddled silently in a corner. Everyone else is dead, except the Slayer and her brother, both of whom are breathing hard and holding a bloodied chair leg. But I’m the one who’s done the killing, holding a large knife that I don’t even remember picking up. Human, demon, it made no difference, and this particular guard hound is glad of it.

There is one other who’s alive. The master of this house. He’s writhing on the floor from a kick to the genitals. Probably more than one. I turn to the Slayer.

“What’s your name?”

“Clare.”

“Clare, I want you to take care of these children while I finish up business here. Can you do that?”

She looks at the silent huddle of naked children.

“They aren’t all human, are they?”

“So?”

“No, I suppose it doesn’t make a difference.”

“Is your sister here?”

She shakes her head.

“You.” I point to the brother. “What’s your name?”

“Justin.”

“Justin, go and look round the place. I bet there are more.”

He nods, and heads off at a run.

Now I really am tired. I’m covered with blood, and not all of it is someone else’s. And I’ve got a long day ahead of me. Or maybe two. I don’t want to have to do all this thinking as well. I go over to the oldest of the children. He’s definitely demon, and he looks about nine. He shrinks back from me, his face fearful.

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

Clare answers for him. “I guess he’s not really used to seeing people torn limb from limb in front of him,” she says, acidly. “And he probably thinks you’re going to do the same to him.”

I toss the knife behind me, and that seems to reassure him, but only a little.

“What’s your name, boy?”

“Zamus.” He can’t keep the tremor of tears out of his voice.

“Zamus, do you think you could take someone with you and go find some clothes for everyone?”

He nods, and tugs at the hand of a Chinese girl, and they go off on their errand. Then, I dig into my pockets for a piece of paper and a pen. I write down Father Robert’s address, and hand it to Clare, with most of the money in my wallet.

“I want you to take the children there. Can you do that? Father Robert will know what to do.” I suspect that Father Robert will recruit most of them to his cause if he can’t find their parents.

“What about you?”

“I’ll follow on. There’s something I have to take care of.”

“Him?” She points to the demon behind this little group of monsters.

“Yes.”

“You killed all of them. Including the humans.”

“Do you think only demons should die?”

“I don’t know what I think. I didn’t know people like this existed until ten minute ago.”

“Believe me, you‘re going to find out a lot more about ‘people like this’, Clare. I’m grateful to you both, by the way. I gather you had my back.”

“Yeah. Well....”

Just then, there’s a loud shout from deeper in the mansion, and Justin runs in with a young, dark-haired girl in his arms. Clare runs over to her, and hugs her. I gather that’s their missing sister. Another ten or more children are walking hand in hand behind him. One starts to cry when she sees the mess in the hall.

It takes about an hour before they’re all dressed, and then they follow Clare and Justin out of the door, in a silent crocodile, leaving as much space as possible between themselves and me.

+++++

I’ve locked all the doors, and now I’m enjoying a shower. It feels good to get the sticky rainbow of blood off my skin. My chest still hurts from Clare’s stake, but that’s the worst of my wounds. Friendly fire. The rest are no worse than cuts and bruises.

My captive? He’s still downstairs in his hall, but he’s the one that’s naked now. Oh, I’m not worried that he’ll go anywhere. I’ve nailed his hands and his prick to the table. He’s not moving a muscle.

I’m going to teach him about abuse and the meaning of pain. I’m not entirely sure how I’ll finish him off yet. There are so many, many ways. But I want his face recognisable. This is going to be an object lesson for others, too.

When I’m done with him, I shall call a clean-up crew, and make sure that what’s happened here becomes known in all the right places. I want the demonic equivalent of his head on a pike, and all the others, too. As I said, it’s an object lesson. It wouldn’t be, if no one else knew about it.

But first, before I start my tuition, I want to clean myself up, get rid of all this shed blood. My clothes will never be the same again, but that doesn’t matter. I shan’t need them while I’m here, and the clean-up crew can bring something for me.

And I know now what I need to do afterwards. Angel’s roused himself enough to whisper in my ear, but I didn’t need him to do that. The Slayer has no support, hasn’t had since the death of Buffy. Without help and guidance, and proper explanations, that girl Clare will be killed in a few days or a few weeks. None of the students at Alchemy is anything like old enough or has enough knowledge. They are mainly teenagers themselves.

Until there’s a more suitable arrangement, I shall have to do it. A guard dog to guard the guardians, although I’m not sure this was truly what Father Robert meant. Still, I hope he wasn’t right about there being a more terrible evil than me being out in the proverbial hills, somewhere. And does this mean that the shepherd has had to go away? Doing what? A cold shiver travels down my spine, and won’t go away, even when I turn up the heat of the water.

Something’s coming. But it won’t be here in time to stop me from what needs doing here. First, I’m going to fuck him within an inch of his life, spend into him all the anger that’s knotted in my breast, and wipe away the memory of Giles’ face as he cradled his wife in his arms. That’s likely to take a long time. After that, I’m sure I can find something useful in the kitchen, or the tool shed. I’m very inventive.

Angel is silent within me. Is he disapproving, again? Or not? I have no idea. But perhaps, if I run out of ideas, he’ll have a few to share.

+++++

I’m in an agony of impatience waiting for Angelus. I’ve just come back from my home dimension, from Hylek, and I am concerned for my king, Haraeth. I am concerned for all my people.

Now I need to take counsel with Angelus.

When I first returned, all seemed well. I presented myself at Court to make the report that would be expected of me, but Haraeth was away, visiting some distant part of his realm.

I went back to my small home, in which I have been well content, but in which I have spent very little time since meeting Angelus and Buffy. It is looked after by a housekeeper, in Angelus’ employ, and he has been with me these many years. But there has never been a woman here. I live a very great deal longer than humans, and I am an academic by nature. So, there are some who might say that I am cold-blooded, lacking in emotion and with no drive to procreate, but that would not be true, or, at least, not entirely.

I am generally placid, and I am normally ruled by my head, not my genitals. Even so, I am a male, and I do have hormones. And I have one hundred years of hardship to make me consider my future. I should like a wife. And children.

And so, I invited the Handfaster to my home. There is no exact equivalent word in your language, but this is as close as I can get. Handfaster. Each town has a Handfaster, an older woman who acts to introduce prospective partners to each other. Usually, it is the parents who will invite the Handfaster to find candidates for their offspring’s hand. My parents are dead, and so it was I who sent her the formal invitation.

When she came, she inspected the house, and its garden, and made notes on what she found. This is normal. They interview employees, relatives and friends, as well as interrogating the candidate. I use the word ‘interrogating’ advisedly. It’s all a very nerve-wracking experience. What is comforting is that candidates of the opposite sex are grilled in an equal fashion. You know what you’re getting.

And so she enquired into my likes and dislikes, my habits and my history. It is unthinkable to lie to the Handfaster, but everything that is said is in strictest confidence. This is an unbreakable trust for a Handfaster, and never has it been abused. The law provides draconian punishment – eyes put out, hands lopped off, tongue cut out, and the offender exiled to the wilds, at the mercy of every predator, large and small – but it has never been needed, never broken. This is what makes the Handfaster such a success. She knows everything about her candidates. There are no secrets.

Still, when she asked me to talk about my life, and what I have been doing, and why my house has been so little occupied, it was difficult for me to speak candidly. Yet, she was very skilful at drawing me out, even though the interview took several days.

When she had analyzed me until I felt that I was no more than a dismembered corpse on the university slab, she was very thoughtful, sitting back in her chair and sipping at the tea that Saldano had made for us.

“Well, Ezrafel son of Mestahan, son of Delazor, you are quite a challenge.”

I sipped my tea disconsolately. I may be a little older than most of her candidates – much older, if our hundred years in the Dark Lady’s realm are taken into account – but I had thought I might have something to offer. Perhaps she understood my disappointment, because she gave a small and secretive smile.

“It is not because of what might be amiss with you, son of Mestahan. It is finding someone with the scope to share your life. You are an unusual man. I shall enjoy this. I shall return in eight days.”

When she had gone, Saldano and I shared a meal. I did not ask him what he said to her – that would be a gross abuse – but he was a good companion on that night, and I hope I was, too.

The next morning, I made my way out of the city to the Hantar estate, Angelus’ base in Hylek. It was there that I got my first indication that all was not as well as I might have hoped.

Hylek is still a clan-based society, and each clan has its own warriors. Being a warrior is an important role in our culture, and isn’t just about fighting. The warriors carry out what you would know as policing functions, they are our premier athletes, and they are role models for codes of conduct, as well as being our defenders and protectors.

Angelus stands apart from the clans, occupying one of the smaller estates – small yet still substantial, strategic and wealthy – that belong to the larger clan of House Orbath, the King’s House. Yet he follows our ways when he is here, and has around three hundred and fifty warriors under arms at any time.

When I arrived, there were few warriors to be seen, just enough to maintain the security of the estate in time of peace. Perhaps. I called for Nayati, still Captain of our forces after all these years. In peacetime, Angelus has several retainers on this estate who are more senior to Nayati when I am not there. In time of war, he takes precedence above all except Angelus – or Buffy, when she is Angelus’ mate.

And so, Nayati and I are in a position to enjoy each other’s company as equals, and ill-matched as we might appear, we do. Perhaps we’ve been welded into comradeship by learning to live with Angelus.

He liked the tea that I brought back with me – we have our own plantations now, on the estate, and although they are still in their infancy they will make Angelus even more wealthy, I am certain – and so we shared a pot.

“Are we short of warriors, Nayati?”

He sat back with a sigh. “The rest of them are with the King, Ezrafel.”

It seems that the King isn’t just visiting parts of his realm. Men are fighting and dying, and he has quietly called on his loyal retainers to supplement his personal army. It isn’t public knowledge yet, but it will be when the first wounded soldiers get back.

I mentioned this to Nayati, that there may be panic if rumours start to fly.

“Where did you become so wise in the ways of war?” he asked, with a smile.

“I’ve followed Angelus through a world of perpetual war for the last hundred years.”

Slowly, he started to tell me what he knew. When he had finished, I knew that I must tell Angelus. This was both urgent and important. If I don’t find him straightaway, the Handfaster will have to wait. She won’t like that, but needs must.

When I got back to Sunnydale, I called Angelus, but, unusually, his phone was switched off. After half a day of trying, I headed for Alchemy. Father Robert, if anyone, will almost certainly know where he is. Angelus has been perplexed by Robert’s seeming omniscience, and I, too, have wondered about this man.

On my way up the steep path to Alchemy’s Fortress, I caught up to two teenagers who were leading about three dozen children, aged from perhaps four to about ten. The older boy and girl were carrying two of the smaller children, but there were others who were beginning to grizzle with tiredness.

When I reached the front of the column, I made my bows to the two leaders, and asked if I could be of assistance on the long climb. The girl bridled, and placed herself between her charges and me. There was something about her scent...

Then I had it. She’s a new Slayer.

“I have no wish to offend, Slayer, but if you will allow me to carry one of your smaller charges to the gates, I would be honoured. I mean no harm.”

She relaxed a little, but she refused me. The children clustered around her and the boy, keeping a distance from me. The scent of fear was as strong as the scent of exhaustion.

“And what did you mean, ‘Slayer’?” she asked, sharply.

Oh, dear.

I dissembled, and took my place at the end of the line, ready to catch any child who should fall.

And now we are inside the walls of the Fortress, and Angelus is not here, but Father Robert tells me that I must wait, and there is no time.

+++++

When I’d finished with the demon, I cut out his heart and fed it to the crows. Then I went to check on a few things that had bothered me about the guests in this mansion.

The offender had been a Kwaltor demon. By the time I’d finished with him, I knew everything there was to know about him, from history to psychology to anatomy.

The humans present at his table had been his procurers. He kept this stable of children, all pretty, with humanity an optional extra. He would keep a child until it was too old to appeal to him, and then he would sell it on, usually to a demon dimension, but not always. By that time, they were well-trained and obedient, which went someway to offsetting the loss of value because of... wear and tear. He lost something himself for that admission.

The demons present had been guests, some from this dimension, most not. They were clients, prospective clients, and high status demons he wanted to impress. He told me everything he could about them, and then he made a lot up. But there was something about one of them... Something I’d seen and yet not seen.

I can’t really tell much from the pieces, and so I set about reassembling them, putting the parts together roughly on the floor. When I’ve finished, I stand back to survey the grisly scene. Clare was right. I must have taken most of these apart by hand. Strange. I was so angry that I don’t remember. Not until later do I ask myself how much Angel might remember...

But, there is something niggling at my memory, and it doesn’t lie in any of the humans. Which of these pieces belong to the one from Sunnydale, I neither know nor care. He’s dead, and that’s all that matters. All their heads will be on that proverbial pike, too.

But the demons... I look over the reassembled bodies carefully, and then I have it.

There’s one with skin the colour and texture of weathered oak, high cheekbones and yellow, slotted eyes, like those of a goat. I’ve seen his sort before, but not here. They were invaders, migrants, an entire nation moving into the Dark Lady’s realm, running from something even more fearsome than they were. They wanted conquest, not peaceable settlement, and so I wiped them out, or took them as slaves to work for Her pleasure. I never even knew what they called themselves. We called them the Burners, because of what they did to their captives. None were left free, or so I thought.

Now, one is here.

Shaking off a foreboding, I call for the clean-up crew, and head for the shower. When I’m clean and respectable again, I’d better follow Clare and Justin. I wonder what Robert will think of the proposition I have in mind?

I arrive to find that the Slayer and the children are here, but only just. The youngsters have been settled into two large dormitories, one for the boys and one for the girls, and those of indeterminate gender allocated to one or the other as seems most appropriate, and Robert is meeting with Clare and Justin. Surprisingly, Ezrafel is there, too.

I open the door and slide into Robert’s study unnoticed. Robert, for once, is looking tired, and I wonder what he’s been up to. I can’t see Ezrafel’s face, because he has his back to me, but every line of his body radiates anxiety. Justin has his arms crossed defensively, and Clare is sulking. They are in mid-conversation.

“No, Clare,” Robert is saying. “You must stay here for a while. There is much that you have to learn, and I have no one to send out into the world with you.”

“I don’t understand,” she says hotly. “You haven’t explained what this... this Slayer thing is yet! And whatever it is, you’re wrong. It’s nothing to do with me.”

“Ah, but it is. Angelus, would you care to explain?”

Not unnoticed, then. I cross the room to join them.

“The Slayer protects humanity,” I tell her. “It started off as a Vampire Slayer, and it’s really been no more than that for most of its history, but for the last hundred years or so, demons, fiends, Apocalypses, they’ve all been grist to the mill of the greatest Slayer ever to have lived.”

I fall silent, remembering, and so do Robert and Ezrafel, but Clare doesn’t understand. She’s got her own things to worry about.

“I never heard such rubbish. There’s no such thing as vampires.”

Robert gives a tired laugh. “You’ve brought me a mixed bunch of human and demon children, you’ve told me about this man who tore demons limb from limb to free the children, and you say you don’t believe in vampires? That flies in the face of all the evidence, my dear.”

She’s fighting a rearguard action, and she knows it. I don’t blame her. Knowing that there was no Watchers’ Council anymore, I should have made sure that things were more prepared. I should have done that while Buffy was alive, but I just never wanted to think about after... And I suppose I never really expected another Slayer to appear. What with breaking the line, and having Faith appear, but without a successor, I somehow expected that the old magic had died. Having given Buffy my word, I just thought I’d step into the breach, that she would live on as Slayer through me. Stupid.

Yes. Right. I just didn’t think. What’s new? Now it’s time to make up for that.

“I’ll take her out to do the job, Robert. Who better?”

Ezrafel starts to interrupt but I tell him to be quiet. “Master!” he expostulates.

“Master?” Clare asks, with contempt.

Robert sighs. “You must forgive Ezrafel, my dear. He uses the terms of courtesy from his own world, and will continue to do so. He means something different than you would mean.”

Clare doesn’t look as though that’s gone down well, and Ezrafel ignores the explanation.

“Hear me, Master.”

“Later Ezrafel. In a few minutes.”

He subsides, but the air of anxiety intensifies.

“You’ll act as her Watcher?” Robert asks.

“If I have to. I’ll fight beside her, too, until some of your fledglings are ready to do it.”

He smiles, and I can see that he’d hoped for that.

“Good. But then, there are things she should know, aren’t there?”

He wants me to tell her what I am, but I’m disinclined to talk about myself just now. He’s the one who breaks the silence as she looks from one to the other, puzzled.

“You can tell her yourself, or I can tell her behind your back. I know which one I’d prefer.”

Oh, well.

“I’m one of the things that doesn’t exist. A vampire.”

She steps backwards, away from me. She doesn’t quite believe, but she’s unsure, remembering what she saw me do with her own eyes.

“Why would I trust you, even if I believed all this rot?”

“You shouldn’t trust me. But if you don’t work with me, you’ll be dead in a week. If you don’t go out and find them, they’ll come and find you. And you won’t be able to protect yourself, or your brother, or your little sister, or your parents. You won’t even see the demons coming, although your gut might tell you.”

She’s appalled. She lays her arm protectively over her abdomen, remembering her cramps that night. They were nothing to do with menstruation. She knows it and I know it.

“I suggest that you stay here for a few days, Clare,” Robert says. “Get to know Angelus, do some training with him, listen to him when he tells you what a Slayer is.”

She stares at me defiantly.

“If you’re a vampire, show me!”

“I’m not a goddamned freak show to be paraded around! Besides, what do you want me to do? Sprout a cape and a widow’s peak hairline?”

I can hear Robert tutting.

“She’s going to have to see sooner or later. Why not now?”

Now it’s me who’s feeling sulky, but I stop arguing and let the best and worst of me come to the fore. There’s a gasp from both the teenagers.

“Why would you do this for me? Why aren’t you out doing what vampires do?” Clare asks at last, softly.

“No more talking.” I’ve got a stone in my chest, and I can’t stand here chatting about myself. Not now. Not yet. “Get yourself settled in, tell your parents whatever you’re going to tell them, and we’ll start your education tomorrow.”

“Master,” Ezrafel interrupts in almost a wail. “You cannot! You must hear me.”

Even I can’t ignore the urgency in his voice. I can see from Robert’s face that he’s as much in the dark as me. That can’t be good.

“What is it, then?”

“Haraeth is fighting on the borders of his kingdom. It isn’t commonly known, and he has taken only his personal troops and levies from his most loyal retainers. Two hundred of your warriors are with him. I have not been to see for myself, but from what Nayati tells me, there are invaders, hordes of different nations on the move, ousted from their lands by more powerful nations. Master, I believe that this is the Dark Lady’s wars all over again, but in Hylek now. Haraeth doesn’t know how it was, doesn’t understand, and he has not enough men. He needs your counsel if Hylek is to be saved.”

Damn it all.

There’s a hush in the room. Clare and Justin have no idea what is happening, but they are bright enough to understand that this is a matter of the greatest importance, and they don’t interrupt. It’s Ezrafel who breaks the silence.

“Master. Please. You must go to see Haraeth. If he is overrun, you know that there is no one to replace him. His sons are still too young. You remember how it used to be. Hylek will descend into civil war, if it survives at all.”

Still I say nothing. I’m remembering the demon that I’d made into a dissected map. The Burner, a demon that shouldn’t be here. And there is an image in my mind. It’s the picture of time that Drusilla brought me. Time runs a little differently in Hylek than in our dimension. It runs even more differently in the Dark Lady’s realm.

I’ve been back, what? Six months now? That’s ten years in her time.

Ideas parade themselves for my inspection, and that mental image changes. The dimensions are lying like a series of concentric circles, or the layered strata in a cliff, the Dark Lady’s on the outside, then Hylek, then our own. There may be others, but my mental picture can’t include them until I have more information.

What if some nameless force were breaking into those layers?

Robert asked me a question. ‘Perhaps the shepherd knows that there’s something more dreadful in the hills than wolves and bears. Might the shepherd then not need a guardian more terrible even than the Akbash, in defence of the flock?

Is this that more dreadful thing? The Dark Lady’s would be first – if any dimension existed beyond hers, it surely would lie in ruins now. Then Hylek. Is our dimension next, or are there others? Where does Adraste lie?

“Robert, where does Adraste lie in relation to our dimension and to Hylek?”

He shrugs. “I don’t know. Aurelius visits there a lot. Perhaps if you ask him...?”

“No!” It comes out a little too sharply. Aurelius is with Palestrina. I wouldn’t disturb them for the world. I make my mind up.

“Robert, you will do what you can to find out how Adraste relates between ourselves and Hylek, and any other dimensions. Ezrafel. You must go to Haraeth, and explain your ideas. Tell him that I concur, and that I will join you both as soon as possible. Find out as much as you can about who is invading, where they come from, and what has driven them to Hylek. You were with me every step of the way. You know what to do as well as I do."

I dig into my pocket, and bring out a piece of black iron, a link from a chain, turning it over and over in my fingers.

“I have somewhere else to go, first.”

Ezrafel doesn’t immediately understand, shocked, I think, by my cavalier orders to Robert, but you must remember that he is a seriously intelligent academic, used to analyzing problems to death. And after one hundred and seventy years, he knows me very well. His expression clears, and he moves to stand in front of me, almost breast to breast.

“You’re going back there? Are you mad? Have you completely taken leave of your senses? Last time was bad enough. What do you think will happen if she catches you there again? She will be the end of you!”

He pauses for breath, but not long enough for me to say anything. I can almost feel the heat of the fury roiling through him. He sweeps up a knife that is lying next to a sword on a nearby table, the knife that Robert has made for me, and he casts the sheath aside. He holds the knife to my heart, its point pricking through the material of my shirt.

“Do you have a death wish? Now, when the thing that you most want is so close? Do you want me to make it quick for you, which she assuredly will not do? I have followed you through fire and flood and heart-stopping terror, Master, and I would do so again, but this is the extreme of foolishness. You cannot go. Do you think she will have forgotten you? Or do you think she will welcome you with open arms?”

We exchange stares, and then I move the knife gently away. “One thing you’ve overlooked, Ezrafel. That’s a knife, not a stake.”

He throws the knife down and stalks across the room to stare out of the window. His anger isn’t spent, but he’s afraid of what he might do.

“You see that I was correct,” Robert says to Clare, with the ghost of a smile. “When Ezrafel calls Angelus ‘Master’, he does not mean it as you might mean it. And yet, it is true. You might find it useful to think on the nature of servitude.”

Might it, indeed? That’s meant for me, too. Robert seems to be going into lecture mode. Well, lecture me this, old man.

“Ezrafel. I must go. If I believe your instincts – and I do – then I need to see whether the Dark Lady’s realm is as I left it. If it is, then we might be wrong. If we’re right, then things will have changed. I must know. I have no choice. I can’t be sure of saving Hylek otherwise.”

Robert smiles at the arrogance, but he doesn’t correct me. Ezrafel looks round at me from his position at the window. “Then I will go instead.”

“No. No. I can’t allow that. Going to Haraeth will be dangerous enough. I’ll leave as soon as I’ve...”

I remember where I am, but Robert knows what I was going to say.

“There’s blood in the freezer, and a microwave in the kitchen. Take as much as you can. But, you’ll remember that you made a commitment to Clare. What of that? She needs a mentor.”

He’s right. And he can’t do it either, if I’m sending him to find out about other dimensions. I’m mildly surprised he hasn’t objected.

“I’ll send for Estevan before I go. He’ll be here within three days. He’ll be your tutor and guardian until I get back. Listen to him and do what he tells you.”

“Now look!” she explodes. “Not you, and not this Estevan...”

Robert grins. “She’s a typical fiery Slayer, don’t you think? Time for us all to prepare. There’s work to do now that Angelus has allocated our tasks to us.”

There is, indeed.

+++++

I always knew that I would have to come back here, but I thought that would be at some unspecified time in the future, when my psyche had healed a bit. I could never have thought it would be within six months of leaving.

I know this land. I’ve fought over most of it. I’ve bled over most of it, too.

Robert was right. I used its name, its secret name, and I felt its power. Some resonance within the iron link has brought me here. Let’s hope he’s right, and it will get me back again.

I recognise where I am in this old and diminished land. I’m close to the castle that is the home of the Dark Lady and her sons, the Wolf, the Ram, and the Hart. It’s the depths of winter. I’m wearing my old clothes from last time I was here. Like the iron collar and chain, these clothes had too much of me in them to leave behind, and Robert has had them cleaned and repaired, as if he knew they would be needed. They’re black, so any remaining blood stains don’t show.

Why am I wearing my old killing clothes? Because I don’t want to bring anything through from our world. I want to disturb this dimension as little as possible. I want nothing to unnecessarily attract her attention, nor to ring mystical alarm bells. And I don’t want to stand out in a crowd.

I remember where the old market place is, and it’s as crowded and foetid as ever it was. I can cut a purse with the best of them, and it isn’t long before I’ve got a pocket full of money. I can think about buying a horse. It’s much easier to steal the money than to steal the horse.

They aren’t, of course, actual horses. There are a number of types of steed in this world, and none of them are in any way related to good old Dobbin. The animals in this town are fast and have staying power, despite their appearance. They have the appearance of having been designed by a committee of people who needed the functions of a horse, but only had a locust to work with. Still beggars can’t be choosers.

I want to get away from the vicinity of the castle as soon as possible, and try to find a less dangerous source of information. I’m tempting fate by being near her. There’s a small village off to the north where traders regularly meet before going their separate ways. Traders always know what’s going on. After a few drinks, they’ll even talk about it.

I’ve made a good bargain on the horse – let’s call it that – so I use some of the leftover money to buy a heavy cloak, which will look appropriate for the weather and will hide me as much as possible. Then I set off on the two day ride to Tringmalee.

The road is much as I left it at first, but then, as night starts to fall, I reach an area that’s been damaged by a major landslip. The road is being rebuilt, and the new surface of finely graded stone is still unfinished. It needs a few dozen wagons over it to compact it. I’m looking for somewhere to stop for a few hours, more to allow the beast to graze and rest than for my sake, when it starts to limp. It’s no good to me with a bruised foot.

It seems that the road is too new to be properly beaten down, and a piece of stone has lodged in my mount’s foot. I’m bent over, tending to it, when a work party marches down towards me. No, not a work party as such. It’s a coffle of shackled slaves. The guards in front threaten me with a whip, intent on moving me and my mount out of their way. I curb my temper and make way for them to pass, pulling the hood of the cloak well over my face.

The men shuffle past in their chains, filthy, weary, and dressed in rags. Many of them carry the scars of old injuries, as well as lash marks. They all have their gazes firmly fixed on the ground before them, their faces so thickly caked in stone dust, and hidden behind their long, unkempt hair, that I can’t see them. None of them looks up at me. None, that is, except the last one. His eyes meet mine, and despite the depth of shadows beneath my hood, I see a flash of recognition from him. He keeps glancing back as he walks. Then he stumbles, falling to his knees, bringing the slave in front of him down, too, and a guard starts to lay about the man’s shoulders with a thick and heavy whip.

Lines of dark red soon mark the man’s back. The two fallen slaves struggle to get to their feet. As they do, I see their hands and feet quite clearly. They show the marks of crucifixion, and I can see, as I’ve seen so often before, in my mind’s eye, the lines of crosses from which the men of my Northern Army hung, at the whim of the Dark Lady. I know that man. He was a member of that army. I thought they were all dead.

I watch them as they trudge away. Before the curve of the road takes them out of sight, that last man turns again, to look at me, and gets another beating for his pains.

I need to know more.

It’s impossible to be stealthy with a horse, even a travesty of a horse like this one, and so I find a secure place to tether it, and set off to follow the slaves. They don’t go far. About half a mile off the road, there’s a large hollow in the hills, and that’s filled with a rough and ready camp.

The guards have tents of wood and hides. And fires.

The men, still shackled, must huddle into shallow burrows in the hillsides, with only a ragged blanket to keep them warm. The work party that I followed seems to be the last one back. Now, all the slaves line up in front of one of the cooking fires, and bowls of food are handed out. Their meal, at least, seems to be substantial. I suppose that, as far as the Dark Lady is concerned, the work these men do is worth the cost of feeding them enough to do it.

There are about five hundred of them. Were they all my soldiers? Is this everything that’s left of that mighty army? Or was that one man just an incredible coincidence and the rest are gone?

My senses are overwhelmed by the sights and scents of all these captive men. That’s the only explanation I can give. Because, there’s a movement behind me, a soft footfall on the rocky outcrop I’m lying on. I turn, to find the point of a sword at my throat. True, it’s an old and rusty sword, probably not sharp enough to hack even a melon in half, and the hand that’s holding it is shaking, but I’m in no mood to be skewered tonight, so I lie still to see what will transpire.

At the other end of the sword is a young man. If he were human, he’d be about eighteen, I guess. He’s dressed in dark clothes, just as I am, and his first words are a whispered hiss. He’s skulking, like me, then.

“Who are you?”

“Just a traveller. I was curious.”

“Curious about what?”

“What was happening here. Who these men are.”

“You don’t know?”

“Like I said, I’m a traveller.”

“You’d have to have travelled a very long way not to know.”

“I have.”

He’s hesitant, unsure.

“Look, can I stand up? This rock’s freezing. And I’m unarmed.”

He takes a few steps backwards and motions with the sword for me to get up. I do, in as unthreatening a manner as possible. I could disarm him in a heartbeat, of course, and I may yet do so, but I’m intrigued.

“Take off your cloak.”

I do, and do a twirl, so that he can see there are no swords or knives in evidence. He’s still reluctant to put the sword down.

“What’s your name,” he asks.

My name is anathema, and will be remembered with fear and loathing I should think.

“Liam. What’s yours?”

“Iason.”

“Iason, let’s get away from here, before someone catches us and adds us to the workforce.”

“They won’t do that.” He’s moving away as he speaks, though, and I follow, glad to be leaving behind that valley of suffering. “They’ll add us to the cooking pot. They don’t mix other prisoners with the soldiers.”

“What?”

“I’ve seen it done before.”

At least that won’t be my fate. But now I really want to know more. Soldiers? Plural?

He’s got a horse tethered not so far from mine, a knock-kneed, elderly beast. We put the encampment behind us, and set up our own fire in a glade of trees that has a spring and grazing for the animals. He’s got no food, and I’m sick of hearing his belly rumble while we’re looking for somewhere to stop, so while he gets the fire going, I go hunting. I bring back two small creatures that resemble rabbits without the long ears but with a longer tail. I’m trying not to think of them as large rats, because I still shudder at that phase of Angel’s existence.

I’ve had the blood from them, which was faintly nauseating, but I eat some of the meat to appear more... normal...to Iason.

Between mouthfuls of bony meat and stale bread, he tells me that he’s searching for his father, Ivaris, a loyal member, he says, of Angelus’ Northern Army. I remember Ivaris. I remember them all.

The Northern Army, he says, was indeed crucified, on the day that Angelus disappeared, but they were taken down at the end of the day, and have been slaves ever since. Taken with them were one tenth of the men of each of the other three armies, to teach everyone the consequences of disobedience and rebellion. It’s all the fault of Angelus, Iason says. Angelus deserted the Army, and left them to their fate. Angelus Abaddon was a coward in the end. Angelus was responsible for the loss of Iason’s father, and many other brave men, in the ignominy of slavery or the dishonour of a slave’s death. May Angelus’ name be cursed forever.

I’m silent for a long time after that. The army came for me, because they thought that the Dark Lady would kill me. I never came back for them.

Yes, says Angel, wearily. Whatever you do, other people always finish up paying the price.

I wrench my thoughts away from such unprofitable territory. There’s nothing I can do about the soldiers, but there’s something I came to find out.

“What of the borders,” I ask Iason. “Do they still stand? Are wars still being fought?”

“I don’t know,” he confesses. “I’ve been searching for my father, and when I’ve been away from home I’ve been hiding out most of the time. Pias would know.”

“Yes. Pias would know. But Pias is dead.” I try to keep the savagery out of my voice as I recall Pias, my second-in-command, being dragged to the stake, where he was to be burned, for leading the Northern Army in search of me.

“Why would you say that?” Iason is astonished. “I saw him only two days ago.”

I make him take me. As soon as he realises that I know Pias, he won’t tell me anything more about him, but leads me back towards the castle.

We get there a couple of hours before dawn, and the township is as quiet as it ever can manage, with those who live in the daylight not yet up, and those who live under the moons winding up for the night. We lead our horses back through the market place, until we get to the area that spills out towards the castle itself. Yesterday, I avoided this part. It was too close for comfort.

In the centre, in a small open space among the press of stalls, is a stone pillar, and Iason leads me towards it. Not until we’re very close do I see the naked man huddled in its shadow. He’s chained to the pillar, beneath an inscription.

Until the last soldier of the rebellious Northern Army is dead, Pias shall remain here in place of his master.

Anger, slow and deep, starts from my gut and spreads through my veins like a fire. These men bled and died for her, to rebuild her empire.

I bend over the sleeping man, touching his shoulder gently. With the reflexes of a soldier, he’s awake instantly, scuttling backwards, trying to get as far away as possible, and then he looks up and sees me.

“Pias...” I don’t know what to say.

“Angelus?” he breathes. “Angelus? You’ve come back for us?”

I shake my head, bound by the truth. “I didn’t know you were alive.”

Iason steps back, his sword half drawn. “Angelus?” he snarls. He’s a demon, remember. It’s a real snarl. “You are Angelus? The Deserter?” There’s a loud scrape of metal as he pulls the sword out.

I take hold of his wrist. “Start making a racket, and we’re all dead.”

I could break his arm if I wanted, but I don’t.

“Put it up, boy, put it up. You know nothing about this.” Pias can barely talk, but his voice still has authority. Iason obeys, but with a bad grace.

There are two chains holding Pias, both of them thick and heavy. Iason’s sword won’t break through those. I take a secure hold of them, and pull. The things I’ve done, perhaps even some of the people I’ve eaten, these have all made me stronger over the years. I channel all that strength and all my anger into that attachment point, and it slides out like a cork from a bottle.

I help him to his feet, and wrap my cloak around him, but now I feel stupidly exposed, here, so close to her.

“Come on,” I say to Iason, “help me get him onto the animal.”

Iason doesn’t want to help me, but he does want to help Pias, and so he complies. We get Pias into the saddle. These beasts are fast and full of stamina, but they lack in strength. They can’t take two riders.

“Lead him outside the town,” I tell Iason. “Where shall I meet you?”

“We could take him to my home,” he replies, although I can see he’s reluctant. “I live alone, now, and there are no close neighbours. It’s on the Southgate road.”

I know the road he means, so, with a short burst of vampire speed, I get away from the vicinity, and then wait for them to catch me up. I’m not sure what I’m going to do now. There’ll be hell and the devil to pay, when she knows that Pias is gone. The one thing I didn’t want to do was stir up a nest of hornets, and that’s exactly what I’ve done.

It’s well past dawn when we reach Iason’s home. It clearly used to be a smallholding, although it’s overgrown and fallow, now. But, there are outbuildings where we can hide the animals. And there are tools, so that I can strike off Pias’s shackles. That must cause him some pain, but he doesn’t flinch.

By the time I’ve tended to the beasts, Iason has put food on to cook, and has helped Pias to get cleaned up. My old captain is naked when I get into the house, and there are burn scars on his feet and legs. She must have pulled him off the bonfire almost immediately. I think that he must be in continual pain, and they will be a constant reminder of the horror.

“I’m glad to see you alive, Pias.”

“And I you, Angelus. We hoped you’d been banished, but we feared you were dead.”

Then his legs give way beneath him. I’m quick to catch him, to hold him up, and suddenly we’re embracing, a warrior’s embrace. There are tears in his eyes, and I feel awkward, but I can imagine all too clearly what he has suffered.

“You were stupid,” I tell him. “All of you. You should have left me to my fate.”

“Like you’ve just done now?”

Iason’s scowl is fading, but only a little. “You’re about the same size as my father,” he says. “I’ve still got his clothes here. I’ll find some out for you.”

Pias is weak and ill, but I know that it’s nothing that time won’t heal. Time, decent food, and distance from the Dark Lady. Except, he may never be free of pain in his feet. I don’t know. I need a medic to tell me that. When he’s dressed, Iason and I help him to eat. He’s half-starved, so he can’t take much at a time, and Iason only has eggs, stale bread and cheese, although I discover that there’s a goat out the back. Well, something that looks like a goat. I send him out to find it, and then there’s goat’s milk, too.

“Iason thinks you might know how the borders stand,” I say to Pias, as I cut up some of the cheese. I can’t think how a man chained to a pillar would know such a thing.

“I do,” he whispers hoarsely. “At least, I think so. They hold where you left them.”

Does that mean that my theory is wrong? That what is happening in Hylek is unconnected?

“There are no more nations on the move?”

He takes a few sips of milk before replying.

“No. There are no major nations left. At least, there are none left alive. There are still a few stragglers, small clans, family groups, individuals, even, and I hear they come with tales of terror.”

“What are they running from?” I must have an answer to this. If it is the same invaders in Hylek, Buffy would require me to deal with the situation. Besides, I find that I don’t want to accept the thought of Pias, and the other men I’ve fought with, falling to whoever it is. The Dark Lady, now... They’re welcome to her.

“That I cannot say. I don’t think anyone can. None of these stragglers will say any more than we got from the nations who came before them. ‘Total destruction’ is the best they could do. They tell us that anyone who lingered long enough to see didn’t make it out at all.”

There’s something else I have to ask.

“How do you know this, Pias?”

He gives me the ghost of a smile, all the more welcome on his grey and exhausted face.

“You wouldn’t think it possible, would you? But, the soldiers from the castle, when they were sent with food for me, or to clean up after me, well, some were kinder than others. They gave me news of family, friends, the realm... Even if they could never talk for long, they would tell me what they could. A few brought salves and balms. Occasionally they would bring me something to wear, as long as it didn’t look too obviously different to the old rags. And there were always the traders to listen to.”

He pauses, but I don’t think he’s finished. He takes a few more sips.

“She’d come past every day, and it always amused her to taunt me. I think you really got under her skin.”

“Why did you wait so long to return?” The outburst from Iason is sudden and defiant. “It’s been ten years!”

So it has.

“Time runs differently,” I answer, as gently as I can, trying to remember what it’s like to be a teenager. “In my world, it’s only been half a year. It took me a while to recover, and I’ve had things to do...” Most of those things remain undone.

He gapes at me, and so does Pias, as he spoons up a little of the bread soaked in milk. I explain to them my notion of dimensions as spheres within spheres, with this realm lying towards the outside. Neither looks convinced, so I try harder.

One sport that was always very popular here was chariot racing. Chariot is the nearest word I can find for those skeletal death traps. It’s a good example.

“Think of a chariot race,” I tell them. “When the drivers come to a tight turn, the horse on the inside must be steady as a rock, able to slow down and to anchor the rest of the team. The horse on the outside must gallop much faster than any of the others to cover the extra distance. Imagine they were travelling in a complete circle. Each horse must always travel at a different speed in order to maintain their position. Otherwise, there would be a disaster.

“Now imagine that this realm is the horse on the outside, and my world is the horse on the inside, and the speed they travel is how time flows.”

With a shrug, I reach for a spoonful of baked egg to give to Pias. “That’s the best way I can explain it. And I’m probably wrong. What do I know about it?”

“What of the horses in between?” Iason asks. He’s a bright boy.

“There are other dimensions. One is Hylek. I have people there. It seems that they have intruders on their borders now. That’s why I needed to know what was happening here. I would have come back, sooner or later, because there are debts to pay, but I’m glad I came back sooner.”

Pias has eaten enough for now, with his shrunken stomach. We settle him into a comfortable chair and tuck a blanket around him.

“Tell me about your world,” he says.

Despite a hundred years of fighting together, I’ve never talked about myself or our dimension. I couldn’t bear to. It was too painful. Now, I tell them about our world, about this bright, vibrant place, so full of scent and colour and life. So different from this old and tired dimension, where even time itself seems worn out. Ours is so young, and full of possibility.

“I should like to see it,” Pias says, when I’ve finished. Iason nods.

Pias shuffles around to find a more comfortable position. “Did you have a girl waiting at home for you?” he asks, suddenly. We’ve never had discussions like this. Only Ezrafel knew my secrets. Almost, I don’t reply, but... Why not?

“She died just before I came here.”

Pias nods. “I wondered at first why you were so reckless that you seemed not to care whether you lived or died, or what happened to you. Then, afterwards, I thought I understood.”

Pias had a wife who died in childbirth. I’m uncertain whether to tell him what came next, but perhaps it will give him something to hope for.

“The thing was, when I got back, I discovered that she had been reborn. She’s five years old, now, and she is just the same.”

“This is possible?” he asks, more animated than he’s been since we rescued him.

“I don’t know whether it’s possible here, but it has happened there. Perhaps we aren’t so different.”

“Was she a vampire, like you? Is she that, now?” Iason asks. He barely understands what a vampire is – there aren’t many here.

I can’t help but laugh. “No,” I say with a smile, to take away the offence. “She was the Vampire Slayer, the best there ever was, and the Slayer of everything else as well. I imagine she will be so again. She saved the world a lot, you know.”

I’m getting maudlin. I’m never maudlin. Well, there was that one time with Darla... It must be Angel. This is his doing.

“Angelus and his Lady. I hope we’ll see her.”

Pias’s words are starting to slur, and I can see he’s more than a little fatigued. I’ve got as much as I can get for now, I think, and it’s time for me to see whether I’ve got the key that opens the door to home.

“I have to get back. I’ve probably overstayed my welcome this near to her, anyway.”

“Oh, she isn’t here,” Iason tells me. “She left the castle three days ago, heading south. Will you... will you take all the soldiers with you?”

He clearly thinks I’m bigger than I am. Perhaps he’s begun to think of me as some sort of demi-god. If so, he’s going to be sadly disappointed again. My reply goes against my vanity, but it has to be said.

“I’m not sure I can get myself home. This travelling between dimensions isn’t a power I possess. I’m reliant on others. And it’s rare and difficult on my home world. I can try to take both of you back. I’d like you to come.”

Come back to what, I’m not sure, but there must be plenty of room in the Fortress.

Pias rouses himself. “No. I must stay. I have to find a way to free those who still live.”

If anyone can do it, he can.

“I will come back. I promise you I will come back.”

“You have this Hylek to save. And your own world, if the contagion has spread that far.” Pias has an interesting way of wording that.

“Perhaps. But I will come back. And if you all want to leave for a younger, stronger dimension, I will find a way to do it.”

“And we would become the invading nations?”

“You know what I mean. The Dark Lady won’t let it rest if you start freeing her prisoners. You should look for my coming, if you want to leave.”

They both nod, and I really do mean what I say. I can’t leave all these men here. Either that, or She has to go.

Iason says, “We will be ready. This land will be ready.”

Pias asks, “What about your children?”

“WHAT?”

+++++

There are very few places on Earth that aren’t weighed down in some way by the press of humanity. I have travelled widely, of course, but I have lived most of my life in Cairo. I have therefore learned to live amongst the ever-present throb of millions of closely-packed heartbeats without being driven to a feeding frenzy.

Nevertheless, living in such close proximity with such a mass of my natural prey still stirs up the juices, so to speak. A vampire’s hormones are a powerful thing. One of the best ways of working them off is sex. But, Palestrina is only fourteen. Thousands of years of human history may have considered her to be nubile, but I don’t, and I won’t welcome her back by being faithless, just to scratch an itch.

So, I have brought Palestrina to the isolation of Amitai. We have seen the Seven Wonders of the World, both ancient and modern, we have walked the streets of Earth’s greatest cities, and we have seen the most beautiful places that our planet has to offer. Now, though, we are lounging on purple sands on the edge of a lilac ocean in Amitai.

Amitai is one of our Universe’s other dimensions, as are Hylek and Adraste. And the Dark Lady’s realm. And perhaps others that I’m unaware of. Each of these dimensions is a complete Universe in itself. Or perhaps the worlds there are reflections and refractions of our own. I don’t know. They aren’t easy to get to, though. I discovered this one by accident.

Amitai has human-like inhabitants, but they are few and far between, and in its own way the realm we are in is as beautiful as Earth, an Earth that has only just become an Eden.

The sands are warm, under the scarlet sun, and I think it’s time for a swim. Sekhmet sprawls across our clothes as we frolic around in the waves. The sea here is teeming with life, and tiny fish and other curious creatures tickle across our skin.

Back on the beach, as I wrap her in a towel the size of a sheet, she puts her hand up to my cheek. Her fingers trace the line of my lips with a touch that makes me wish she was a couple of years older.

“I can’t stay with you,” she whispers.

There are no words to describe the pain that lances through me. It’s hard and sharp and physical. I stay still, not daring to move, hardly daring to speak, hoping beyond hope that I have misunderstood. Then I take her hand in mine.

“You won’t leave me alone again?”

“I must.”

After all these centuries, these weeks have been too few. I wish she’d simply staked me. Then she relents.

“For a little time, anyway.”

She must have seen the desolation that was in my eyes.

“You thought I meant forever?”

I nod, abashed. She stands on tiptoe to kiss my cheek.

“Aurelius, you are such a fool. You know that our future lies together. You’ve seen it for yourself. I tell you this. We will always find each other. Always. I cannot say that neither of us will ever die again, because we will. But I promise you, never will we be apart for anything like as long as we were this time.”

She burrows into the shelter of my arms, flesh to flesh, her warmth pressed into my soul.

“I’ve not told you yet why I could not come back to you before.”

No, she hasn’t. She said that she would talk about it when she was ready. Did she already know she would be leaving me, when she first came back?

“I have been learning, through other lifetimes, my love. Learning things that will help us all to survive. You have seen the prophecies. You have even written some of them. So have I.”

Ah, yes. The prophecies. Fundamentally, Angelus and Buffy will save us all, every living thing. They’re unlikely to be able to do it alone.

“Sometimes,” she tells me, “I have been in places where time almost stands still. Time in our own world has raced ahead of those places, and a single lifetime there might be ten on Earth.”

It was the other way round for Angelus. Time’s a strange thing. She pauses, and I know that she’s steeling herself for whatever else she has to say.

“Husband, I have had other lives and other lovers.”

I start to tell her that it doesn’t matter. After all, so have I. But, she puts her finger against my lips and stops me.

“And I have had children. We have children, if you will accept them. When the time comes, I shall know where to find them.” The rest comes out in a rush, a frightened bird of a confession. “They... they aren’t all human.”

I hold her tightly, her heart throbbing like a wild thing against my silent breast.

“The other men are of no importance to me. I can never give you children. Yours will be as precious to me as though they’re my own, no matter who they are.” Those aren’t just words. I mean it. “And besides, my love, I have children of my own, although fewer than there were, and I hope you can care for those, too.”

She gives a small sob, but when she looks up at me, tears sparkling on her lashes, she has a smile to rival the sun.

“You’re leaving me to find them?” I ask her. “Can I not come with you?”

She shakes her head.

“That time hasn’t come yet, although it isn’t far away. I have something to do now though. I should have done it before coming back to you, but I couldn’t bear to be on the same plane as you, and not see you. I obeyed my heart, and not my head.”

I’m grateful for that, then.

“I must find Acathla for Sekhmet. That, too, I’ve been trying to do. He is not in any of the Underworld or Hell dimensions.”

“You’ve been to those?” I’m shocked.

She kisses my nose. “Yes. I’ve seen a lot, and I have learned, but never enough. I now know that he’s still here on Earth. I just have to find him.”

“I can help you do that, surely?”

There’s a whimper from by my side, and we both look down to see Sekhmet. She may be a vampire sabre-tooth cat, but she’s very intelligent. She’s a demon, under that skin, embodied into the cat by Set, out of spite, to separate her from Acathla. Having her sire me as the first Aurelian vampire was just collateral damage so far as he was concerned, or so I thought at first. It’s been a long time since I was so sure about that.

“Yes, you most certainly may, but then I have to be able to return him to life. And I’m not yet sure how to do that. The first task is to find him, and discover which path will return him to us.”

Sekhmet whimpers again, and I caress her head.

“I will be with you through it all. I can help you. So can Sekhmet.”

“No, love. I should like that, but once we’ve found him, you must stay to look after Angelus and Buffy, and I must find what I need to know elsewhere. We should leave tomorrow.”

And with that, I have to be content, and so must Sekhmet.

+++++

The iron link has brought me back to Sunnydale, to the ruins of my home. I was afraid I might need some ruby slippers, but this worked surprisingly well. But, why has it brought me here? I can only imagine that I spent so many hours thinking of her, and our life together, that she is engrained within the metal. I find myself wondering how she is, whether she’s well, whether she misses me, but I daren’t go to look. The last thing I want to do is scare her parents away from Sunnydale. I should have to take direct action then, and I know that would not augur well.

I all but ran away from the Dark Lady’s realm, after that time with Pias and Iason, but I can’t run away from my head. I am here with the notion of children occupying my every thought. Pias told me that they had accompanied their mother on her journey south, or I should have had to risk breaking into the castle to see her. I should probably have stormed her apartments, and no doubt become her prisoner once more. And that, too, would not augur well.

But she has stolen something from me, and then hidden them away. Pias says they are never seen. He doesn’t know what they are or what they look like. But everyone knows they are there, and whose they are.

There will have to be a reckoning. Somewhere, I must find the strength and power to face her.

I stalk around my empty estate, my mind full of these things, but not so full that I don’t see movement out of the corner of my eye. It’s a handy skill, peripheral vision. I do my thing, melting into the shadows, to find that a solid body is suddenly standing behind me. Arms as strong as steel clasp me tight, but I don’t fight. I have the scent.

“You‘re getting careless, boy.”

“I knew it was you,” I say nonchalantly, and entirely mendaciously. He took me completely by surprise. Aurelius’ snort of disbelief tells me I haven’t succeeded in fooling him. I’ve succeeded in something else, though. His needs are obvious, hard against my back, and he lets me go only with reluctance.

Palestrina strolls up the grassy slope. Like Buffy, she isn’t a classic beauty and yet, if any woman’s face could win a man’s heart, it’s hers. Aurelius stands back to look at me.

“Hmm,” he says, thoughtfully, raking me up and down. “Not as sartorially elegant as usual.” He walks all the way around me. “On the other hand, you do look like the war leader from Hell.”

“I’ve just come back from the Dark Lady’s dimension. Haven’t had chance to change yet.”

“Are you quite mad?” he asks, as astonished and angry as Ezrafel.

“I... I needed to know whether the borders were still holding. That’s all.”

“No, that isn’t all. But you can explain it to me later. To us... If that’s alright with you...” He holds out his hand to Palestrina, and she takes it.

Now it’s my turn to be astonished. Aurelius expects to be obeyed. There are no ifs and buts, just simple obedience. Not that I don’t argue with him, because I’m his beta male, and I get away with a lot of things. Now, though, he’s asking me if I will accept Palestrina in the same way, and with the same authority. Still, I have done, and will do, the same for Buffy. And I don’t have a problem with it.

He’ll know I’m concealing something if I don’t tell him everything. I would have told him about everything except the children, but if I keep that from him, he will know. And he will think that I’m not telling him about whatever secret he senses because of Palestrina. I wouldn’t do that for the world, and so I know I must tell him. And I don’t want to. Not until I know how I feel about it myself. We’ll have to see how that plays out.

“Of course,” I reply, with some bravado, “but only if you tell me all your secrets, too.”

Palestrina reaches up her hand to stroke my cheek. She’s so warm, so vibrant, so full of power.

“Poor Angelus,” she says, with a sad smile. “So vaunting, so full of swagger, so tightly wrapped within his armour. So unsure of himself, so vulnerable, so easily hurt.”

She stands on tiptoe and gives me a brief kiss. Her lips are sweet and honeyed.

“Be careful,” I say. “You’ll spoil my image as the war leader from Hell.”

She pouts, but her eyes are smiling.

“I presume you still have a hotel in this town?” Aurelius’ tone is brisk.

“At least one.”

“And you keep a decent wardrobe there?”

“I expect so.”

“Well, since you’ve burned down the place where we were going to spend the night, I suggest we all put up at your best hotel. Your treat. Our bags are in that copse of trees.”

+++++

Both Aurelius and Palestrina take calmly the news that Hylek is under attack, and my thinking about dimensions.

“I will talk to Father Robert,” she says, as she tucks into a large piece of turbot. “I know something about this, and so does Aurelius. We will compare notes.”

Aurelius is less calm when I tell him about the children. Something flickers behind his eyes, something that looks guilty.

“Did you know about them?” I demand. It’s more of an accusation.

“No. Truly, I did not. But I can see why you would be concerned. We will need to prepare, so you won’t do anything rash, will you? Like go and face up to her in her own castle?”

He knows me too well.

“No, he won’t,” Palestrina observes serenely. “You have learned a great deal of patience, haven’t you, Angelus? And you want to see the children, not their dismembered bodies, if the Dark Lady feels spiteful.”

I hadn’t even thought of that. She’s right, though. She pushes her empty plate away.

“But for now,” she says, “I need your help. I think you know where Acathla is.”

Sekhmet sits up from where she’s been lounging.

“Sure. Acathla’s dead. A long time ago. His body, that is. I’ve no idea where his spirit is.”

“His spirit is nowhere to be found. I’ve searched everywhere. Therefore, I must find his body first, and search from there.”

I sit back, swirling the liquid in my glass, and exchange glances with Aurelius. I’ve never spoken to him of this. It was years before Buffy told me what had happened, and by then Aurelius and I weren’t on speaking terms.

“Giles and Buffy and her friends smashed him up and put him through a stone crusher. He’s roadfill, somewhere around Sunnydale.”

Sekhmet roars, and then she lies down, her head on her paws, and stares at me unblinkingly. I capitulate.

“Okay, okay, I’m sure we can find him. We’ll look to see what records still exist of building projects at that time. It would be easier if Ezrafel was here. But we’ll manage.”

Sekhmet blinks and sighs.

“You know,” Aurelius cuts in, “it would be so much easier if you rebuilt the mansion.”

So it would.

The next day, a phone call or two is all it needs to transfer the estate into the name of a new purchaser, for the look of the thing, and to get an architect working on new plans. It might be a two year project from now to completion, they warn me. I tell them they have one year.

The night in between is spent surfing the public records – and some of the more private records – and Aurelius and Palestrina leave me to it. Sekhmet stays with me, her huge head on my thigh as she anxiously scans the screen with me. Even after all this time, I hadn’t realised she could read.

Buffy never told me what had happened to the pieces of Acathla and, since Giles actually did the disposal, it’s possible she never knew. We find him, eventually, among the stone chippings that surface the car park for the picnic tables that overlook North Sunnydale from the surrounding mountains.

The first piece is, of course, the hardest, until Palestrina pounces on a grey stone with some indentations. If you squint hard, in just the right light, it might be part of the inner ear lobe. Or then again, it might just be a bit of rock with striations. Or a bit of fossilised sea shell. Still, we take that sliver of silvery grey rock as our template.

Having got the scent of the stone, Sekhmet is a great help then, digging frantically away at an area of the car park, just as one of us is meticulously searching it. Eventually she is banished, and has to watch from the height of a picnic table.

I remember Acathla all too well. He was a big demon. There will be a lot of pieces. It takes a month of night-time excavations. This is too popular a spot to dig up in the daytime. We don’t finish until I’m sure we’ve sieved and sifted every square inch.

I’ve commandeered one of my smaller warehouses, and it now has a heap of stones on the floor. By eye, it’s about the same bulk as I remember Acathla to be, but there’s a hell of a lot of leeway in ‘by eye’.

“There could be important bits missing,” I say, as we stare at the heap.

“Isis never did find Osiris’s prick,” Aurelius offers morosely. “She had to make a false one.”

“Sekhmet’s a sabre-tooth cat. Maybe it would be better for him if, you know, we haven’t found it.”

Sekhmet growls at me, and I say, “Sorry.”

Palestrina thumps us both on the arm. “Will you two stop it? If we haven’t got all the pieces, we’ll go and look some more.”

Aurelius sighs theatrically.

“Husband,” she says sternly, “you are as bad as your great-grandchild here.”

“Husband?” I ask, with a raised eyebrow. Surely he hasn’t married her yet?

“Our union may have been in my last lifetime, but that doesn’t mean that it hasn’t lasted into this one,” she tells me primly.

I hold that thought for further consideration. I like it.

“How are we going to reassemble him,” I ask. “Can you, well, just snap your fingers and say the magic word?”

“Don’t be silly.”

I watch as she walks over to the heap. I wasn’t joking. I really wasn’t. I’d hoped a quick bit of magic would work. I’m sure that’s what Willow and Tara would have been able to do. Maybe different sorcerers have different powers?

She sits down and picks up a piece at random. She closes her eyes and concentrates, the stone clasped in her hand.

“Oh, merciful Lady, no! Not for all this time!”

As she opens her eyes to look up at us, tears spill over on to her honey-gold skin. “It’s no wonder that I couldn’t find his spirit. He isn’t dead. I can hear his silent scream!”

+++++

Palestrina has left us, with a renewed urgency, and Sekhmet is prowling round like a demented beast. I think Aurelius and I feel like doing the same thing. We are both temporarily bereft of our loved ones, but we do have hope. Many times in the last few weeks I’ve almost gone to see Buffy, and many times, either Aurelius or Palestrina has stopped me. They’re right, but it doesn’t feel like it.

Now, though, we have a problem to occupy us – how to reassemble the petrified but living body of Acathla. We’re both sitting on the floor, trying pieces together at random. I have a feeling we aren’t well suited to the task.

“I shouldn’t be here, Aurelius. I should be two other places at once. I have to go and talk to Haraeth as soon as possible, and I’m committed to training the new Slayer and working with her.”

“Want to keep her alive as long as possible?”

What he means is that I want to give Buffy as long as possible to grow up before the mantle of Slayer is passed on to her, as it surely will be.

“Of course.” I survey the two pieces of stone in my hand, and place one gently back on the pile. “Tell me, what sort of person would make a good job of this?”

He gives that some consideration. “An archaeologist. Or someone experienced in restoration of archaeological artefacts.”

Two days later, there’s an advertisement in the heavyweight newspapers for someone capable of restoring a shattered archaeological treasure. Applicants are asked to come to the hotel the following weekend. There’s only one acceptable candidate.

Rupert Giles.

+++++

It’s a long way to where Haraeth is fighting, and the only way is by horse. At least it’s a real horse this time, and Haraeth has set up a series of King’s Waystations along every major road. That makes travelling quicker. Still, I have a lot of time to think.

Giles showed absolutely no signs of recognition, of me, of Sunnydale or of Acathla. I hoped I’d shown no signs of recognition, either, although I was shaken when he appeared. He was clearly running away, although he said nothing of the sort. And he was clearly looking for something to occupy both his mind and his body, as well as paying his travelling bills.

They say that the eyes are the windows of the soul. If so, his soul is a place of desolation, with a thirst for knowledge, and a hunger for vengeance. It’s a dangerous mix. I do regret what I’ve done to him, but I really hope that Ripper never finds out. Angel may be a glutton for punishment, but my survival instincts are better.

If I had any doubts that we are all being moved around like pieces on a chessboard, these have been dispelled by the ease with which Giles has been returned to the gathering nexus. Whose games are we caught up in?

And I am certain that a different hand tried to interfere, and to set him on a path that would never cross with ours. Was it the Dark Lady’s sons? And why?

Is there going to be one of Robert’s tasks for me here? Or is it simply that our lives gather around Buffy like bees around honey?

I don’t have enough information, and so the questions keep propagating themselves, giving me something to fruitlessly brood about as I ride. One thing about which there is no question is that if anyone can reassemble all those pieces of Acathla, it is Giles.

When I left, he was finding what he referred to as the corners of the jigsaw, pieces that came from the outside of the ‘statue’. Of course, he has no idea what he’s putting together, beyond the picture that I drew for him, or what he’s become involved in, but I noticed when I searched his luggage that he had a couple of rather unremarkable books about vampires, and a list of other books to find. I think his new life has begun.

Occasionally, I reach up to feel the hag stone that I’m still wearing. While I was at the Fortress, Robert saw it, hanging on its inexpertly knotted piece of string, just as Buffy had given it to me. Within a couple of hours, he came back to me, with a beautifully braided black leather thong.

“You might lose it if the string breaks,” was all that he said, as he held out his hand for the stone, and then looped the braid securely over it. Like a small boy with treasures, I have her string still, though, in my pocket.

Haraeth and his small army are in a temporary bivouac in the shelter of sand dunes. The dunes are sparsely covered with tall, coarse grass, its leaves so sharp that the edges can easily slice through the skin of a horse. That’s good protection against someone sneaking up on you.

This sea of rolling sand marches down towards a huge area of flat salt marsh surrounding what seems to be a limitless river delta, the separate channels braiding themselves through the water and mud. Beyond that, at the limits of the horizon, is ocean.

Haraeth has turned into a very good king, popular with the majority of his subjects. He’s not one of those huge and muscle-bound warriors, being of just average height and lithe, but he’s brim full of vitality and presence. You can never miss him in a crowd.

The failed coup that brought him to power saw the Great Houses all but extinguished. Since then, there have been a few attempts to dislodge him, all of which have been put down with ruthless efficiency. I said that he was a good king. I didn’t say he was a weak milksop.

He’s sprawled on the ground with his troops, eating his evening meal in the warm, salty breeze. I send the twenty men who have accompanied me to get their own food, and after I’ve sent my horse off to the picket lines I make my way towards him. When he sees me, Haraeth leaps up and strides over, embracing me warmly.

“Well met, Angelus!”

I think he’s pleased to see me. Ezrafel emerges from round the end of a sand dune. He, too, looks pleased to see me. I look about at the rough encampment.

“Looking a bit defensive, Haraeth?”

He laughs. “Someone’s been reading his Art of War. Oh, yes, Ezrafel told me you’ve spent a lot of time at war. I expect to hear more about that.” He, too, looks around. “You aren’t wrong, I’m afraid,” he adds with a grimace.

Ezrafel will only have told him the bare bones of what I’ve been doing for a hundred years, although not nearly so long in Haraeth’s time. Anything I tell the king will also have to be an edited version, and not only for my pride. When we first got to the Dark Lady’s realm, Ezrafel was forced to sell me into slavery to her, in order to save me from what was definitely a fate worse than death. He had absolutely no choice, but this culture has a definite taboo about betrayals. Ezrafel might not fare too well, and I can’t have that.

But first, I want to know why Haraeth has this defensive camp.

“Walk with me,” he says.

“There’s no end to them,” he explains, when we’re out of earshot of the rest. “And I don’t know where they’re all coming from, to be truthful. They’re from lands that I’ve never heard of, from over the sea. They are peoples not known in Hylek, and always it’s the same story. Larger, fiercer, more desperate tribes, are driving them from their homes because something even worse is killing and evicting them.”

“It’s the same story as in the Dark Lady’s dimension, Haraeth. When I started fighting there, it was to rebuild her empire, and to defeat all the warring factions. Later, it was against peoples exactly like this, running before other migrations. And then it was peoples that seemed to have no place in that dimension at all. I think it’s the same phenomenon.”

He rubs an old scar on his forehead, a gesture of worry with him.

“You’ll tell me more, later, about this. But, if you think this is the same, then it’s affecting different parts of our Universe. That’s something bigger than any one king or army can hope to stand against. Does it affect your Earth, too?”

“Not that I know of. I’m trying to learn more about what’s happening. But the borders I left for the Dark Lady are holding. I’m afraid that the destruction beyond might be total, and there’s no one left to invade. I haven’t been to look, though.”

He goes back to rubbing the scar. “My advisers want me to mobilise the entire army, to call up the levies, and to repel all comers.”

“Good advice,” I tell him, my tone neutral. “What has Ezrafel said?”

“That I should make peace wherever possible.”

I breathe a sigh of relief. Ezrafel and I learned the same lessons. Perhaps it just took me longer.

“That’s good advice, too,” I tell him. “Better, I think.”

He looks at me quizzically. “I’d have expected you to be more... assertive... than that.”

“It took four armies to re-establish her realm, and to fight the invaders,” I explain, “and she has a lot more men under arms than you can muster. Like her, you have room for those you can live with. Only fight those who won’t submit to you. To do that, you’ll need a strong army to posture with. Show them you mean business. ‘Force, and fraud, are in war the two cardinal virtues.’ Thomas Hobbes.”

He nods. He can see the sense in what I say. Speak softly, but carry a big stick, and be prepared to be sneaky.

“Yes,” he says. “We don’t have enough men to waste. And if we have newcomers, they can join us in defending the land. They will add to our strength.” He squares his shoulders. “Thank you, Angelus. I’ll think carefully about your advice. Now, can you stay with us?”

“For a few days.”

“Good. A short march away, there’s a migrating nation with twice the number of warriors that we have. You can try your negotiating skills on them.”

+++++

The Dark Lady is back in her castle. She has been showing her domain to Angelus’ offspring. She thinks they’re old enough to start learning. The oldest three girls are still in the South, with a trusted tutor. They’ll be back in a year.

There were seven from the second pregnancy, four girls and three boys. None of them are human, but they all have grown into a deadly grace and beauty. She has just come back from the nursery, and she is well satisfied. Ailith, her maid, is brushing her hair, the copper-washed tresses glowing with health and vitality. She remembers all the times that Angelus did this, and she smiles to herself. There will be other times, she knows.

Shadows flicker in the dim light behind her, and Ailith stops what she’s doing. When the Dark Lady turns, there are two beings in her room. She recognises them, and, expressionlessly, she waves Ailith away. These two are the Consorts of the Lady. That other Lady, who has supplanted her. Because she knows them, so do her own Consorts, those two godlings who have dwindled under her iron rule, who have been diminished until they are nothing more than residual appendages, a pair of penises, incorporating their functions of Creation and Destruction.

She doesn’t understand why that other Lady should allow so much freedom to these two. And she doesn’t know how they got here unchallenged, or what they might want. That makes her uncomfortable.

“Where is your mistress?” she asks them. “Is she here to interfere again?”

Destruction, that creature of dark planes and angles, shimmers and becomes the human form that Aurelius once saw. Now, though, he’s naked. He closes the door to her chamber, and lounges against it.

“You never did understand the concept of free will, even for your Consorts, did you?” he remarks, equably.

The pearlescent mists of Creation coalesce into an identical human form. Almost identical. The difference is only in the expression on their faces, in the look in their eyes, in the way they hold themselves. The Lady can tell them apart. So can the Dark Lady. Creation sits down in one of her chairs, fully at ease.

“Why are you here?” She tries to keep the querulous note out of her voice, but doesn’t quite succeed.

“You’ve done well with the children,” he tells her.

“You’ve seen them?”

“Of course,” Destruction answers, coldly. “And you’ve mainly kept your other surviving sons, the Wolf, the Ram, and the Hart, under control. There were those two incidents with the snakes, but I think those have been retrieved, at some cost. Oh, and the one with the Pit, of course, but Angelus saved the day there, too.”

“You didn’t need to come here to express your appreciation. Flowers would have been fine.” She speaks with a levity she doesn’t feel. Her instincts tell her that this isn’t a social call, and her instincts are true.

Creation is on his feet in a heartbeat, with his hand around her throat. “Just make sure that it doesn’t happen again. Remember that you live at our sufferance.”

She refuses to drop her gaze. “We could test that if you wish,” she says, coolly, but her heart is hammering in her breast because she knows the danger she is in. She thinks they can hear it thumping, and she’s right.

He lets go.

“We’re looking to the future, now. You’re going to spawn us some offspring.” Destruction stops lounging against the door, and he’s by her side with superhuman speed. Then, without any apparent movement, he’s lounging on her bed.

“Never!” She spits the word out at him, but he just smirks at her.

Creation speaks softly, from the chair at the back of the chamber once more. He calls her by her true name, and she must listen.

“You will do this because it will make you more powerful, and it will rejuvenate your lands. Look at you, and at what bearing the children of Angelus has done for you.”

“It’s been better than anti-wrinkle cream,” Destruction smirks, as he turns onto his back and stretches out, his head resting on his clasped hands.

Creation frowns at him, then returns his attention to her. “You know that Angelus does not... have the power that we have.” He almost said the wrong words there, but retrieved it with barely a pause. “Your empire is old and tired, your lands are losing their fecundity, just as you did. Even your quarries and mines produce stone and metal that is without strength. There’s little of vigour left here. Angelus has restored you. We will give you and yours so much more. We will bring new life to all aspects of your dimension.”

“Enough to challenge the one who holds your leashes?”

Neither of them answers.

“Together we could be strong enough,” she muses. “I could take you both for my own, once she’s dead. You don’t need to lose your power.” Her voice is honeyed, seductive.

“Don’t fool yourself, Lady.”

“Then I want something more.”

The two exchange a glance, and Destruction gives Creation a small nod. They’ve anticipated this.

“You may ask something of us, in the future,” Creation tells her. “It may not be to the detriment of Angelus or his family, nor may it obstruct our aims. Apart from that, you may ask.”

She nods. “Very well.” She stands, with languid grace.

Destruction reaches up from his position on the bed, and tugs at the belt of her robe, watching appreciatively as it falls open.

“My turn first, I think.” He takes her hand and pulls her down to him.

Creation watches from his chair. The Duality are walking a very fine line here, and a mistake might bring disaster to them all. Too much power, and this predecessor of theirs might become their successor. They know, too, that some of the Dark Lady’s offspring will be... troublesome. But, this Universe will need the others, and there is now so little time. The children of godlings do not grow quickly.

He watches as Destruction runs his long-fingered hand over her creamy hip. She’s so unlike their own lover, the one who waits impatiently for them to be finished here. The Lord of Darkness moves to cover her, and feels the extra appendages shift, waiting for him to become vulnerable.

“Keep those two poor bastards under control,” he tells her, “or I’ll rip them out and give them a merciful ending.” Her laugh is deep and throaty, as he presses forward into her.

+++++

The Lady’s welcome for her returned lovers is not warm. The cosmos feels her petulance, and they must coax her back to them. She knows that what they have done with her rival was necessary, but she doesn’t have to like it, especially since she knows that this once will not be enough. They will have to go back. They take her to their tiny, private dimensionette, where they make her feel loved and wanted and theirs once more.

When harmony is restored, they go to spy on the Dark Lady and her lands.

Her belly is already swollen. She’s carrying another big litter.

But other things are gestating in the land.

Pias has persuaded Iason that Angelus did not willingly leave them, and has made the boy understand that the vampire is their best chance of freedom. Now, they both dare to hope for a future when Angelus, and perhaps the Slayer who was his lover, the Lady of his heart, will come back for the salvation of his armies. And perhaps of the rest of the people. Unspoken between them, but threaded into every word and deed, is the dream that Angelus might, in some way or another, lead them out of the Dark Lady’s dying realm.

But they know that they have to be in this for the long term, because now they have understood how time moves differently. It might be a long wait. How best to prepare for that? And how best to ensure that the Dark Lady doesn’t slaughter her one-time slave-general the moment he sets foot here? And how can they keep the enslaved soldiers of the Northern Army alive?

Once they have made their decisions, they leave Iason’s house, afraid to stay any longer.

Soon, captive soldiers start to disappear in the night. In the evenings, after being fed, the shackled men huddle into their burrows, shallow depressions in the hillsides wherever they are camped. In the mornings, some are gone, leaving only empty shackles behind. At first, it’s only a few, ones and twos, then a handful, and then it’s tens and dozens, each night.

Stories grow up about dark monsters from the Underworld, and their need for living flesh, for living blood. As the disappearances mount, the guards speak amongst themselves of ghastly shadows moving in the mists and of the fate that meets all those who get in their way. They start to leave the captives to their doom, and report the losses as natural deaths, not unnatural abductions.

Pias prays every day that they will continue to fear the spirits of the night, and that no one will think of other explanations. Stolen shackle keys, for example.

In the wild places around the utmost borders of the realm, new towns and villages grow, where the soldiers are healed and fed, and then prepare for Angelus’ coming.

Meanwhile, Iason takes to the road, just another homeless, rootless wanderer. He tells stories to earn a meal or a bed for the night. He speaks of tales of high adventure from the golden days, when heroes walked the land. And always, he tells his audience of the myth of the future, that when the land is threatened, their last hero, Angelus, will return to save them. He and the Lady will save the world in its hour of greatest need. This much is promised.

These stories of a once and future warrior/saviour fall onto fertile ground like water onto parched earth.

Others pass on Iason’s stories and prophecies. Some say that Angelus left and will return on the wings of a thundercloud. Others say that he never left, but still walks the land, waiting to be called. Yet others say that he is still here but is sleeping in a great cavern, or beneath a hill, surrounded by his warriors, and that he will awaken when he is needed. The world should look for his coming.

Soldiers start to build shrines against that coming, and leave small gifts, asking for aid and blessings in times of danger. Then they start to wear, concealed somewhere on their bodies, a tattoo of a winged lion, as a sign of their belief. Eventually, they start to sacrifice, to spill the blood of bulls and lions in a libation to the gods, to ensure that their war leader will return.

Always, Angelus is paired with the Lady as the saviours of the world in its time of greatest peril, the Hound of Heaven come back to drive away the terrors.

The Dark Lady knows what is said. How could she not, when her power swells along with her belly? At first, she thinks that ‘the Lady’ might be her hated rival, and some of the storytellers are put to death in public and horrific ways. The stories spread even faster, like wildfire.

But then she realises that here, in her own realm, she is the Lady. She has no other name to her people, not the Dark Lady, not Ereshkigal, not even her true name. There is no indication that her people are looking to anyone other than her to stand by Angelus. The idea appeals to her. So, she begins to tolerate these new myths.

She doesn’t understand that when the Duality spoke to her of revivifying her domain, that promise of new life included renewing the potency and power of imagination and belief. And of the desire for freedom.

She doesn’t see the secret underground meeting places where a very few of the most trusted adherents perform rites to Angelus and a golden-haired Lady, and where senior members of the sects speak of plans for the future.

And she doesn’t see how refugees, in ones and twos, take these future legends to the neighbouring dimension, Diza, and to the one beyond that, Luchell. Peoples everywhere have their own threats of Armageddon.

In Diza, they have a tradition of winged celestial beings called angels, and so they say that the name of the promised champion is Angel. Word reaches Luchell from both Diza and the Dark Lady’s realm, and so to be safe the Luchellans compromise by building their new mythology around two champions, Angel and Angelus. As word spreads through the cosmic spheres, it seems that the Universe has been made a promise. Angelus would be appalled, if he knew, but he would still be amused. Angel would simply be appalled.

The Lady and the Duality watch this birth of a new mythology, this nascent religion, this flowering of belief. Creation smiles at his two lovers. “And so it begins,” he tells them.

+++++

By the time I get back to my own space and time, the Slayer, Clare, is dead. Estevan died, too, defending her. They killed their attackers, half a dozen battle demons of a type that even Robert hadn’t seen before. When Robert tells me, and shows me a poor sketch of them, I remember Haraeth asking, ‘Does it affect you too?’ Now, I start to wonder about that.

Ixolon has gathered up Estevan’s ashes, and scattered them with the rest of our fallen, in Buffy’s rose garden. This little garden, now more of a cemetery than a garden, still survives the ravages of time and fire, and the perfume surrounds me as I make my last farewells to Estevan. He was with me these many years, and I shall miss him badly, as a friend, a retainer, and a lover.

Ixolon also knows where the next Slayer is. This one, I don’t approach. I simply shadow her, and do part of her job for her. She’s jumpy, nervous, aware that something is lurking in the shadows. That makes her vulnerable, and one night she’s concentrating on the unseen me, rather than the demon that’s lying in ambush for her, with predictable results.

With the third one, I try a different strategy, more open, more visible. She lasts longer.

And so we go on. My home is rebuilt, not quite the same as it was before, and my household moves back into it. I don’t, though. I move from town to town, and city to city, from one seedy hotel room to another, from one Slayer to another.

Occasionally, I pay a visit back to Sunnydale. Not once do I go to visit Buffy, although I long to do that. My people tell me that she is alive and well, and that must suffice for me.

It takes Giles eight months to reassemble Acathla. I suppose that it’s a form of kismet that the one who broke him should be the one to repair him, even if Giles can’t be told the joke. He’s done a very good job. I hope that the stone cement he’s used to glue the bits together won’t be important when it comes to bringing the demon back, but there’s no other way.

We didn’t quite get all the parts. Acathla is short of three fingers, one eye, and his prick, as well as having a few gouges out of his body. I’m sure... well, almost sure... that he didn’t have a prick the last time I saw him, so we can hope that it has a mystical existence somewhere in this petrifaction. The fingers and eye were definitely there, though. We scour the car park again, but without luck. I imagine they’re in some small boys’ treasure chests, classified as Interesting Rocks.

After Giles is finished, I spend an hour or so sitting in front of Acathla, trying to find any sense of life in him. But there’s nothing. I don’t know how Palestrina sensed anything at all. He’s much as I saw him, when I left him in my house while Drusilla inveigled me into taking her and Spike on a world tour, and we made that fateful, and unwilling, visit to Egypt. So many memories...

When I say he’s much as I saw him, that’s overlooking the missing parts and the jigsaw appearance, of course. And the sword. There’s no sword. I wonder what became of that? Does he know I’m here? Do you think that he can see me? Or hear me?

After that visit, I don’t go back. I lock up the warehouse and give the key to Aurelius. And then I get on with doing the things that Father Robert wants me to do.

Sometimes, I go back to Hylek, to see how Haraeth is holding out. It’s becoming a warrior realm, with every male serving time in the army. But they don’t need to fight much. When newcomers see the force of arms backing the warm welcome, they generally opt to accept the latter. Huge tracts of land in Hylek that were untenanted and unfarmed are now under the plough, with new inhabitants, and Haraeth has granted them clan status. It’s working well.

There are times, though, when conflict is inevitable, and at those times, men from the new migrant tribes fight as fiercely for their new homes as native Hylekians. Nothing welds people into a single nation like fighting and dying together. That’s working well, too.

At home, there are incursions from time to time of demons that I don’t recognise, always battle demons that I’m afraid are scouts for fierce and undesirable nations. As time passes, these incursions become more frequent, as though there were an increased urgency for them. But these are never demons that humans could live with. If the Slayer doesn’t get them, I do. I worry about them, though, and send word back to Father Robert.

Sometimes, I have to master an overwhelming urge to go back to the Dark Lady’s realm. To find out what is happening to Pias, and to Iason, and to the soldiers who were taken because they were mine. But that’s the thing. They were mine, and she will suffer for taking what’s mine. I can’t make her suffer until I’m ready, and have the means to do so. My time will come, but until then, I must wait, and not bring disaster on them by premature action.

Even more so with those creatures that Pias told me were my children. If it’s true, then she cannot keep what is mine. I must recover them. I try not to think of what Buffy’s reactions might be to a couple of litters of children. Perhaps I should make sure her affections are fixed before I tell her about those. And recovering them won’t be easy, if I want to get them back alive.

More than once I test the water with Father Robert, to see whether he knows anything of what is happening there. Each time, his face becomes grave, and he turns the subject, with a shake of his head. Each time, I return to the current Slayer, unsatisfied.

I’ve learned that I can’t stay aloof from the Slayer, whoever she is at the time. It doesn’t work. I’m forced to work more closely with her, to teach her what a Watcher would teach her. The boys at the Fortress are too young, too callow, to be of use for that. After a while, though, some of the older students come with me. It’s on the job learning.

+++++

I’m looking for the new Slayer, the latest in a line that I’ve followed for a decade. We know the general location of this one, but she keeps moving around. We think she’s on the run from something. Then again, I found something here that made me want to go on the run. It was a fighting unit of demons... no, I can’t possibly call them demons. They were way beyond demons. They came slithering up into the sewers, more arms than teeth, and more teeth than even a dentist would want. They are also very fast, very agile and very strong.

I slaughtered them all in the end, but I’ve got some serious wounds to show for my trouble. The Slayer is going to have to wait for a day or two, if she’s still alive.

So, I’m huddled in this pit of a hotel room trying not to get blood everywhere, not for the sake of the furnishings, but because my food supply is limited. The flow is slowing, and the lacerations and punctures will start to knit together soon, but I’m not in a good mood. I’m even thinking of trying to have a conversation with Angel, to help the hours pass.

Oh, he’s still here, and over the years, he’s become a bit more active, and just as disapproving. He knows he can’t take over the body or the mind, though. He’s not strong enough for that yet. Even after a decade, he hasn’t forgiven me for killing Giles’ wife. Well, neither have I, but it was necessary, and there’s no point crying over spilt milk. However, he’s unbent a bit in the last couple of days. We saw Jenny, looking even more of a sultry gypsy than ever. She was buying a bus ticket to Sunnydale. Rook to Knight 4. The game goes on.

I’m on my second pint of blood when an image comes to mind. It isn’t something I recognise, but I know what it is. He’s been rummaging around in my memories. He does that sometimes. This time, he’s come up with something that’s been hidden from me.

I see myself standing in a long tunnel of a cavern hewn out of black rock. There are niches everywhere, orderly rows of them, from floor to ceiling. Each one contains a crystalline form, each different, each one scintillating with its own colours, lighting up this entire catacomb with shimmering rainbows. Behind me is a form that I know to be Buffy. I’ve come here to fetch her back from death. I know I did that, but I remember none of the detail.

This is one of those hidden details - it’s the spell of the Underworld that does that, that hides away what happened. Angel wasn’t with me at that time. He was in his own Hell. This memory must be new to him, as well as me. Giles was with me, though, and Angel has just discovered that fact.

In front of me, the niche contains a darkly crystalline form. I know that it’s Jenny. I can take her, or I can take Buffy. I can’t take both, and Giles’ pain is all-consuming. Angel wallows in it.

You tried to bring Jenny back.

Yes. Apparently I did.

He’s silent for a while, long enough that I think he’s gone away again.

It wasn’t your idea to reassemble the Judge, to bring an end to humanity.

No.

Angel knows the Judge was Spike’s present to Drusilla. Spike was always easily led. But, it was probably more his idea than hers. He never thought through consequences, either. But after Angel left the building, even Spike knew I wasn’t playing with a full deck.

And you weren’t sorry when Buffy finished the Judge off.

No.

I knew she’d somehow manage it. I never doubted, for a minute. And why the hell would I want to do away with humanity? I’ve never been one for starvation and, even as unbalanced as I was then, I knew that after the good times of mayhem and panic and death, there’d be a dry spell to end all famines.

And Acathla. It was that night you spent in Buffy’s bedroom, wasn’t it? You knew then that you’d never be able to kill her, because you couldn’t stop loving her.

Yes.

I spent hours watching her breathe. Watching her, sketching her, inhaling the fragrance of her, listening to her heartbeat. I knew I’d never be free of your feelings for her. Yours, and then mine, although I tried to pretend it would pass.

It was that night – and the night we were possessed. The night of Grace and James. The night I couldn’t scrub her off my skin, or find enough blood to wash the taste of her off my lips.

So you decided to kill everyone, including yourself.

Yes.

Am I so transparent? I suppose it takes one to know one.

Slowly, more images come to me. In exchange for messing about with my mind, Angel shares with me some of his more painful moments. And I don’t necessarily mean physical pain. It’s a comradeship of misery. I suppose he wants to admit that we’re more alike than he’s cared to say before.

And then we share some memories of sex. It’s a blatant effort to cheer ourselves up. The thoughts of human males turn to sex every six minutes, on average. We’re no different. He’s no different.

After a few wonderfully erotic minutes, he reminds me about a particular set of memories I shared with him of Buffy, the ones involving my special spiky toy and the red roses, memories that we’d shared more closely than either of us knew.

You... We... were very... cruel. Did she just accept that? Did she never retaliate for that?

Can I honestly tell him? I suppose he’ll only go rummaging around in my skull if I don’t. Besides, I suspect we might both find it amusing, although there’s a certain amount of humiliation for me. We could do with some amusement, tonight, even when it’s going to be at my expense.

I settle back as comfortably as possible, and let the images play themselves out as I slip into a restless sleep.

+++++

My love is standing in front of me, watching. I know that I have just undressed for her in the demonic equivalent of a peacock display. Or maybe the human equivalent. Who knows, anymore? I love to feel the weight of her gaze on me, but not as much as I love…

The feel of her hand, as she runs it over my collar bone, over a nipple, down to my hip and then…

Ah. Not yet, it seems. I thought that she would follow the trail round into more interesting territory, but she didn’t. And I can’t make her, just as I could not have stopped her. My arms are chained to the ceiling, and shackles around my ankles are fixed to the stone floor. She has made sure that every muscle is stretched to tautness, my limbs spread as wide as possible.

We are in my basement, but this time we are in the more serious part, simply because she wanted stronger chains and attachment points, ones that I myself would feel confident to use on almost anything. It seems she doesn’t quite trust me, and perhaps she’s right. I’m not entirely sure I trust myself, this time. I have enjoyed her often in the play room, but tonight is her night. This is the first time she’s done this, the first time that the tables have been turned. I have spent many hours today wondering what she would come up with. I’m about to find out.

I expect that she will, in some way, ask me for guidance. I wonder what I shall reply when she does? I suppose I shall tell her what I would do. I should be honest with her, if I want us both to get the maximum pleasure tonight. Still, she seems to have some ideas of her own, as she scrutinizes me speculatively. Now, she’s stroking my cheek, and looking deep into my eyes. Yes, my sweet, yes, but can you see that I am more than ready for you? Her voice is like warm honey as she whispers to me.

“Now, Angel, I think we have some settling up to do, don’t you?”

She always calls me Angel, and I try not to mind.

“Settling up?”

“Yes, I think so. You really hurt me last time, you know.”

I remember. I remember oh so well. I got a little… carried away, but only a little, surely? But that is why I am here, in chains, tonight. I promised her this, when I saw that I had overstepped the limits. I keep my voice smooth, too, although I feel a frisson of anticipation.

“But I made you feel good, too, didn’t I?”

“Hm. I suppose. Then there was that leather jacket you wouldn’t buy for me…”

She’s manufacturing excuses here, although I don’t hold it against her. I like playing games. She has more than enough money to buy a whole shop full of leather jackets. Anyway, I know the one she means. It was in a dismal candy pink, a dreadful thing. I do believe that she has set me up. As I said, I like games. I play along with her.

“You belong to me, and I didn’t want to see you in that.”

She reaches down to my cock and takes a pinch of skin from the shaft between her fingernails. Then she nips, hard, making me gasp. I manage to turn it into a leer, without too much trouble. She caught me by surprise, that’s all.

“I’d shut up if I was you, before you get yourself into any more trouble.”

She walks away, then, pensive. She stands at one of the benches over by the wall, her back to me.

“I think we’ll start with punishment for what you did to me last time. Don’t you agree?”

I remember her previous words, and keep silent, but I think I probably have a smug expression on my face. When she walks back from the shadowy edges of the room, she has something shiny and silver in her hand. Well, more than one thing, but it’s the shiny, silvery knife that I notice first. I recognise it well. It’s one of mine, a small bone-handled one, the blade just a sliver of itself from years of honing. Its original purpose was for filleting fish, but it’s filleted more than that for me. I don’t believe she knows that, though.

She presses it flat against the front of my penis, the point sticking into my balls. Once more, she looks deep into my eyes as she talks, perhaps looking to see if vampires are as fearful of their equipment as human males.

“Angel, what would happen if I went in for a bit of… pruning?”

The knife moves so that the blade – the very sharp blade – is pressing against the root of my shaft.

“Would it, you know, regrow?”

I bend my head down as far as I can to her, and put on my most sultry expression.

“You would go very dissatisfied. Is that what you want?”

I’m wondering whether there’s any chance of getting out of these chains by brute strength alone. The knife presses a little harder, and I can feel the sting as the skin parts.

“Would it? Would it come back the same?”

Now I can feel a tiny trickle of blood, and the wound begins to smart.

“Want to find out? You’ll be as sorry as me if it doesn’t.”

Surreptitiously, I’m testing the chains, to check whether there’s any give in them. I’ve seen vampires with bits amputated. I’ve no idea whether regeneration can work that far.

Suddenly, the knife is withdrawn, although I can feel the chill of its passing. She reaches up to kiss me, but instead she takes my lower lip between her teeth and bites. It’s hard enough to draw a drop of blood. It seems that it’s going to be rough play tonight. My excitement mounts, stretching the half-healed knife-wound to a new trickle of blood. She stands back to inspect me, then leans down to suckle at the cut. The hiss I give is nothing to do with pain. When she rises again, she delivers the promised kiss and her tongue delivers my own blood back to me, musky with desire. Oh, gods…

And then she’s gone. But not far. She just puts the knife down on my worktable, standing in the nearby shadows. She could have more light if she wished, but she has chosen the set-up of the room. She was down here for quite some time this afternoon, arranging everything to her satisfaction. Tonight, I’m a guest, in my own property.

When she comes back to me, there is just one thing in her hand. It’s… Oh! Now where did she find out about things like that? It’s a cock plug. She opens her hand, and disquiet trails its chilly fingers up my spine.

“That’s… big.”

She regards the object carefully, but when she replies, her voice is casual, matching her shrug.

“Is it? It’s so hard to get the scale of these things from pictures.”

She holds it up for me to see more closely.

I don’t have one with a shaft longer than six inches. This is longer. Seriously longer. I can accommodate it, I think, but there is more. It’s thicker, too, perhaps a third of an inch across, swollen to a double teardrop-shape at the base, and that part is of a size that I don’t care to contemplate. If this is more than scare tactics, if she really means to shove that down my urethra, it’s going to produce a really unique experience. A complicated metal harness to hold it in place, and an extra ring on top of the shaft, completes this bit of penis torture.

“Still, we had to make it a bit bigger than usual…”

I’m thinking ‘We?’ as she trails off and deftly twists the shaft apart from the bulb at the bottom. There’s an inner shaft. It isn’t plain and smooth, like the outer one. I think I may be gaping just now, and I make sure my jaw is firmly shut.

“Do you remember one of your favourite toys, my love? The one you used last time?”

I do, indeed. My spiked ball. I don’t use it often, because it takes her longer to heal from that than from almost anything else that I’ve chosen to adorn her. But I do love it. Now I am to be repaid in kind, I think. The inner shaft of this… thing… has six small swellings, about the size of a pea, set at regular intervals. Each one bristles with spikes. I’d like to say they were tiny, but they don’t look so small to me. So fascinated am I with this contrivance, in the manner of a rabbit with a dancing stoat, that I almost can’t process the thought that’s wandering around my synapses. How the fuck is she going to get that down? Even more urgent thoughts are pressing about what will happen if she does get it down, but I squash them back ruthlessly, although I give the chains another tug.

“No, dear, you won’t get out of those. I used the ones for the Zantork.”

Shit. The Zantork are a fortunately rare, but enduringly hostile, species of demon, with the strength of a dragon locked up in the size of a Shetland pony. I know they’ll hold a Zantork, and so they’ll hold me. Unless she unlocks them, I could moulder to a skeleton in these, before my wrists would slip free.

“Where… where did you get that from?”

My voice sounds hoarse, even to me, and the question is not at the top of my list. It sounds less wussy than the others, though. She seems abstracted when she answers, self-absorbed, as if deciding quite how thoroughly to ream me out with her toy.

“Willow magicked it up.”

“Willow!”

It sounds indignant because I am. Indignant, I mean. Willow? She talks to Willow about what she and I do? I’ve never talked to anyone! She doesn’t answer, though. She slips the outer shaft carefully back, and I thank my dark and direful gods that she’s been playing chicken.

The warm touch of her hand is followed by the cold silver of that elongated ovoid, as she starts to push. I can only watch, fascinated as, like a snake swallowing an egg, my penis swallows that plug. The feeling is indescribable. Literally. Several times I have to swallow hard – my throat that is – and it takes all my willpower not to be seen to squirm. It fits. Just. As if she’d used a ruler. But it doesn’t fit comfortably. From the expression on her face, she already knows that. I wait for her to snap the metalwork around the head of my cock, but she doesn’t, yet. Instead, she grasps the ring and tugs, and the outer shaft comes away clean. If I could, I would double over at the red-hot agony of those spikes, but I can’t and so I put on a brave face. I’m guessing there’s worse to come.

“How do you intend to get that out, when we’re done?”

She stretches up to whisper in my ear.

“That depends entirely on how well-behaved you are, tonight.”

Oh gods. She gives my penis a flick, making it bob up and down.

“Change.”

I don’t hear her for the moment, so fierce is the pain.

“What?”

“Don’t make me ask you again. Change.”

I obey, and change into game face.

“Stay like that until I tell you.”

Yes, ma’am. She goes to the table and picks something up, although she hides it from me. Then she kneels down in front of me and starts to use her mouth.

Oh, by the pit of hell itself…

I’ve been close to orgasm for a while now – just looking at her can do that to me – but as she uses lips and tongue and teeth around the inconvenience of the open metal harness, there’s going to be a big problem. Even bigger than the obvious one.

“Buffy…”

She looks up.

“Be quiet, Angel.”

I stare down at the disaster waiting to happen. She goes back to her task. I cannot stay quiet. She doesn’t understand.

“Buffy…”

She squeezes the shaft, and I whimper as those spheres dig in deeper.

“Quiet, I said!”

She hasn’t fastened the harness around the head of my cock. If she doesn’t, and if she brings me off, that thing is going to come shooting out of there like a hellish champagne cork, tearing me to pieces on the way. Even the spikes, huge as they feel, won’t be enough to keep it in place, I don’t think.

“Buffy, you need to…”

She squeezes again, and I think it’s as hard as she can. I feel the trickle of blood. She pulls my cock downwards, and then sucks hard on the very tip, around the metal shaft. I can only moan. Never has any member of either species, or any submissive anywhere, struggled so hard to keep back an orgasm, not even when it was Darla’s tiny hand wringing my balls, and the price of disobedience was steep. Buffy’s hands are everywhere, and her mouth and her tongue…

Two times two is four, two times four is… no, three is…

She stands up and kisses me full on the mouth, delivering to me the blood she has taken. Then she presses her lips against my upper fangs, and her blood joins with mine, running over my tongue in an ecstasy of hormones, dragging me inexorably nearer the edge.

She kneels down again, and although I try not to look, I see the swirls of blood over my skin where the cuts on her lips are not yet healed, and I feel the pressure of her mouth, the tantalising touch of her fingers… and then one hand creeps between my legs, the hand that’s holding something I cannot see, and something warm presses gently against my anus, opening me up just a little, and then something is sliding inside me, and it’s far too big to be her finger, but it isn’t the normal shape of a plug, and she’s manipulating it until she finds just the right spot, and sucking hard on the head of my cock… Resistance is futile.

And she has the first scream of the night through the waves of pleasure and pain, as my orgasm grinds against that infernal barbed metal, and as my semen builds up behind the dam that she has created. She keeps it all in place by the simple expedient of holding it there, as I’m wracked by the rhythms of completion.

Only blood is expelled from around the plug, and she waits quietly until my spasms stop. I’m breathing heavily – we never lose that habit – and she doesn’t move until I start to quieten. Then, before I can shrink too much, she stretches me back up, and snaps the harness into place. It’s tight, even for me in this half-flaccid state. I think grimly of how it will feel when she has aroused me again.

Worse than the pain in your dick, just now, a small voice asks? About par for the course, is the only answer I can find. And, of course, there’s no shrinkage possible now. Between the clutching barbs on the plug, and the harness holding me tightly at the top of the over-long shaft, there’s quite a stretch going on, not to mention the thickness of the filling she’s stuffed inside me, and the overfullness in my balls, as all that seminal fluid stays trapped. I wonder how long she’s going to keep it in place. Then I remember how long I have kept her, wringing climax after climax from her, around my own thorny toy. Better not to ask, perhaps.

She sees the sweat running from my hairline – vampires do still sweat, under stress, even in game face – and she goes back to the bench by the wall, bringing a towel, and a damp cloth. She cleans me up gently, first my face and chest, and then my penis, and then she presses that soft towel all around. Already I start to swell for her again. I’m right about the pain from that harness, as my engorged flesh pushes through and around the complicated metal design.

“There’s a good boy.”

There’s a what?

When she comes back from my worktable again, she has a long, long needle in her hand. Unlike the pins that I sometimes use on her, this has an eye, a large one, and is threaded through with a thin strip of soft leather. And it’s a sewing needle, much harder to push through. Whatever she’s got planned, I think that this is going to hurt. I don’t know the half of it.

She runs her fingers gently up and down my cock, and then leans in towards me.

“Change back.”

I do, although that will intensify the pain. We tolerate wounds much better in demon form, even though we feel it more, if that makes sense.

“Kiss me.”

Oh, I’ve been waiting for that. Such a simple pleasure, a kiss, and yet so consuming in its delight. The warm pressure of her lips, the way she slips her tongue into my mouth… I would give a great deal just now to be able to wrap my arms around her and simply love her. When she breaks away, the result is everything that she wanted.

She takes her needle and thread in one hand and my penis in the other, and she starts to stitch a cock ring, in running stitch around the base. She’s immediately rewarded with the second scream of the night as the point of her needle finds a decent-sized nerve. She doesn’t know enough about internal anatomy, and she knows damn all about needlework, even the housewifely sort.

“Buffy…”

It sounds like a gasp, to me, but it’s meant to be her name, and the start of a sensible sentence.

“I’m sorry, Angel. I forgot to ask, earlier. Did you want a safe word?”

She looks at me, all solicitousness.

My teeth snap shut, and she settles back to her stitchery. By the time she’s finished, not only is my penis covered in blood, but so are my hands, from where my nails have dug into my palms.

“There! That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

I remain silent. She grasps both loose ends of her strip of now-bloody leather and briskly pulls it through my shuddering flesh until the free ends are equal in length. Then she ties a knot and yanks on it hard to tighten it.

“Was it?”

“No…” I manage to get out, as she wraps the ends around again and ties them off on the lower side of my cock. Not too bad at all, apart from two punctured nerves that are setting my teeth on edge with their screaming, that is. She stands back, a small frown knotting her brow.

“Will that work?”

“My dick?”

Her laugh is silvery.

“No, silly, the ring.”

“Damn right it will.” I expect it will become so embedded, it will have to be cut out, in the end. That’s going to be fun. The little voice comes back. Not nearly as much fun as the spikes on that plug are going to be, it says.

“You don’t really need it with this… this abomination, though.”

“You mean that you don’t need it? No, but it looks pretty. I think we’ll let it stay.”

Pretty is not a word I would have used for it, or for any other of Buffy’s needlework skills. Stakes, yes, sewing, no. We have people to do that sort of thing.

“And the abomination?”

“Oh, that stays, too. Good. Now, that leather jacket.”

Against all common – and uncommon – sense, I argue. Perhaps it’s to take my mind off my throbbing cock. In any event, I’m not at my best for choosing my words.

“You didn’t really want it, and it made you look like a cheap hooker.”

She goes to the worktable, and when she turns back to me, she has things in her hand. One of them is that knife.

Never cheap, Angel. Whatever else, I am never cheap.”

Oops. I don’t suppose it will help my cause to intimate that she’s an expensive hooker, so I keep silent. She is expensive, though, but I don’t begrudge her a penny.

“Still, you’re half right. I didn’t really want it. I just enjoy making you wriggle in shops.”

That’s unfair. I’m good in shops. I can frequent all the best lingerie shops and adult shops without turning a hair. She hasn’t finished, though.

“So, I’ve got choices to make here, and I’ll let you make half of them. You said that I was your property. If that’s so, it works the other way round, too. I think I’ll write on you, put something on your skin to remind you of that. I’ll let you choose.”

She holds up the two objects in her hands. One is that very sharp filleting knife. The other is a fountain pen. My fountain pen. My expensive gold Waterman fountain pen.

“I need to choose whether I write your name or my name, and whether I use the knife or the pen. Which choice do you want to make?”

She waits, expectant. This one is easy. She wants to write her name, therefore that’s the choice she wants to make. And Buffy or Angel, they’re the same length. Probably just the right length for where I guess she’s going to write. Besides, that knife isn’t suitable for name-carving. It would make a mess. I don’t realise then what a cunning and inventive lover I have, although I should have known.

“I’ll choose knife or pen.”

“Okay.”

“Pen.” The sensation of that will be… interesting, if she writes where I think she’s going to write. And she’d better not ruin the nib.

She picks up my little worktable and brings it over, positioning it close in front of me. What the fuck… She’s hammered a huge nail into it – it’s almost a frelling spike! That’s a goddamned antique! A Queen Anne piece. I fight back the urge to growl at her, because I’m in no position to actually do anything about the rape and pillage of my furniture, and I wait to see what’s going to happen. I’ll deal with the matter of the table, and possibly my fountain pen, later. Another day.

She holds my penis down onto the table top, next to the nail, and keeps it there. Then, before my horrified eyes, she takes her long, long needle and starts to press it through the head of my cock, through the upper oh-so-sensitive layers, slowly, carefully, and with her little pink tongue running over her lips as she works. She has to manoeuvre the point because she keeps hitting the metal of the harness, and I confess to a yell as she does so. But, the look in her eye says ‘safe word?’ and I shut up again very quickly.

Then she fishes up the loose ends of the leather lace, winds each end once around the protruding lengths of needle, and then knots them to the nail, so that my cock is flat on the table. It hurts like a bitch, and let’s not forget what all this moving and twisting is doing to that godsdamned barbed shaft. To prove that point, blood starts to drip around the end of the metal shaft. Tenderly, she wipes it away.

“Pen, you said?”

“Yeah.” I haven’t got breath for any more than that.

“O-kay.”

She untwists the cap.

“Buffy, don’t ruin that, it’s a good pen. I like it.”

She looks at me as if I’m insane, and then she starts to write. In capitals, starting at the root of my own abused shaft. That’s when she gets the third scream of the night. She’s filled it with holy water. Bitch!

The letters sizzle and steam, sinking in like acid. I tug futilely on the chains. I’ve no idea why, because I can’t get free, and even if I could, I’m staked by the genitals. But I can’t do nothing, and I definitely can’t watch as my cock burns.

“Angel! Stop being such a baby! I diluted it, ten to one.”

Oh, my innocent love. You can’t dilute holy water, at least, not in those volumes. It either is holy or it isn’t. There’s no in-between.

She carries on writing the whole thing. For this, she isn’t even using the name I gave her. She writes Buffy Anne Summers. Before she finishes the ‘B’, I must scream again, I can’t help it. The knife would have been infinitely better. It’s an agony that I want to curl around, and to weep from. But I can’t do the one and I won’t do the other. Her name seems to go on forever, especially as she is writing very, very carefully. Everything must end, though, and at last she’s done. Her name is spelled out down the length of my penis, in slightly shaky weeping red letters, rather cramped up at the end where she ran out of space. That will stay there for days. The knife would have been over and done within an hour or two.

She unfastens me, pulling the needle blithely out, and moves the table away, out of my sight. That’s four hundred years old, and now it’s been staked… I know how it feels.

“If I unchain you for a few minutes, will you be good?”

I am seriously tempted to make a run for it, but then I remember all the artistry that I have put into the things I’ve done to her, and the pain she has endured. I haven’t been able tonight to teach her any finesse; she’s blundering her way through her first time as the S part of S&M, but she has certainly been inventive. Even if she’s involved Willow, although that may have been a lie. She’s entitled to some payback.

“I’ll be good.”

She walks behind me, giving a playful prod at whatever she’s shoved up my butt as she does so, then she tugs the overhead chains together on their pulleys. I feel her lock the wrist manacles together before unhooking them from the chains. She bends down to unfasten my ankles. My limbs are momentarily stiff and sore, and before I have chance to bring my feet together, she kicks the back of my knee, and I’m down on the floor. Before I can react, she grabs hold of my shackled wrists, and drags me bodily round until she can refasten the manacles to one of the floor attachments so recently vacated by my feet.

My roar is one of anger at the deceit, and of pain, as my already-agonised dick is dragged over the rough stone floor. But worse is to follow. I feel her hand between my legs, grasping my balls, and there is then a decided snap. I struggle to get as far up as I can, and she gets yet another scream.

“What the fuck is that?”

She bends down and whispers to me.

“It’s called a humbler.”

I know what it’s called. It was a rhetorical question. What I meant was, what’s it doing on me. She’s trapped my balls in a device that will keep me on my knees. She has my knackers in a vice! It will be impossible to stand, so long as she keeps this infernal thing on. I can’t even kneel up, but must stay here in a damned crouch. The bitch!

When I see it later, it’s a beautiful piece of work, carved ebony, and very heavy. It’s much superior to others that I’ve seen. The carvings are tiny scenes from erotic Indian art, if you’ll believe that. It has two long curved pieces, hinged together, with a tiny gap in the very centre, and that gap is what is currently trapping my stones. They’re isolated on the far side of this device, which curls around the back of my thighs. It might be possible to reach around and manoeuvre it forward, through my legs, although that’s likely to finish up in some serious damage. I can’t even try, though, because I’m chained in this humiliating huddle.

She walks round so I can look up at her.

“Now, that leather jacket…”

“I’ll burn the damned shop down before you get that leather jacket,” I growl.

She examines her nails minutely.

“Play nicely, Angel, or it could get a lot worse.”

I just growl. There are worlds of meaning in there, but no words. She shakes her head, disapproving, and walks back out of my sight. I feel her doing something to this infernal gin trap, and then there is the sound of something being screwed into place. What that is becomes apparent very quickly. She has added an ebony ball-crusher plate, and, to make it more interesting, it’s full of tiny spikes. She tightens that plate until she hears a sharp intake of breath and a small whimper, and then she gives the wing nuts a couple more turns for good measure. I squeeze my nails into the meat of my palms again.

It’s then that a dreadful thought occurs to me, perhaps something that my mind has invented to distract me from my hurts.

“How did you find out about all this stuff?”

She has, after all, been very creative. The thought continues on its trajectory.

“Who have you been talking to? Who’s told you?”

Who have you been practicing with? I’ll have their head on a plate or their dust in a dustpan.

I can almost hear the shrug.

“They’ve all been very helpful. So many of them seemed to know just what you would like.”

The roar is one that should have had her in fear and trembling. It’s the roar of a male vampire who has found that there may be rivals. Does she tremble? What do you think? I try to remember whether anyone of my household has been guilty of shifty glances or sniggers, but there’s nothing. Is she rattling my metaphorical chain as well as these real ones?

“Who the hell are ‘they’? Buffy…”

I hear a breathy swish and then the sharp sting as a cane cuts across my backside. Again and again and again, until it feels as though she’s sprinkled holy water there, too. She hits almost as hard as Darla did. She doesn’t stop until a mis-swing lands the tip of the cane onto my balls, squeezed out beyond the protection of the crusher plate. That certainly merits a yelp, and I feel the trickle of blood.

I’m on my knees and elbows by now, my head resting on my forearm, my cock throbbing unbearably, my balls a single turn of the screw from agony, and my ass burning, when her feet appear in front of me. They’re bare. I look up those long shapely legs, and further up to the rest of her most delectable and definitely naked body. She smiles, and then she sits down in front of me, her legs parted.

“Want something to eat?”

Despite my hurts, I don’t need asking again. The scent of her musk, the sound of the blood pulsing through her veins, these are the things that truly have me prisoner. She nestles up to my mouth, and there is no question of lack of trust here. I could bite her, I could damage her, I could drain her, but she knows I won’t do any of those things. I do the other thing instead. As I bend to my task, she puts her hand out, and threads her fingers through my hair, stopping me.

“When you’ve done that, I want you inside me.”

“Like this?”

I can only see a shadow of her shrug.

“That’s what we’re here for.”

It will hurt. It will hurt like hell, but she’s taken as much from me. It’s only fair.

“Anything you say.”

“Anything?”

“Everything.”

Her laugh is delighted and makes me want to smile too, even knowing that this night is going to be long and painful. She’s going to put me through the wringer. I’m still smiling, as I reach out to taste her.

++++++

When I awake, I’m curled around the wounds that haven’t healed yet, my erection throbbing painfully from the dream. Those things happened so long ago. She’s dead, and I’m not the same as I used to be. Quite possibly, neither is she.

That night, though, I learned about trust. I’d told her to surprise me, and she had, but she’d never thought for a moment that I would hold against her anything she did. That I would seriously retaliate. Except for the table and the pen, of course. I could never use the pen again. Apart from anything else, she’d spread the nib, but the holy water would never quite wash out. I have it still, somewhere among my store of possessions.

I don’t think I ever threw anything away that had been touched by her. I still have that pink leather jacket, too, although she never wore it. Well, not for anyone else to see.

Angel’s laughing at me, although not unkindly.

You learned more than trust, didn’t you?

Yes, I did. I learned, if I didn’t know it before, that she didn’t have the same range of tastes as I did, and that she never would. I was the one who redefined myself. After that, I never overstepped my limits in that sphere of activity; not with her, at least. I make no such claims for anything else, but I was more careful to redefine my notion of ‘play’.

But now, it’s time for something to eat and something to hunt, and a Slayer to find. Time to do my job. I get what I can only call a quizzical look from Angel. Very well. Our job.

I know I’m not going to stay here long. In six months, Buffy will be sixteen. I plan to be in Sunnydale before then. I’ve waited long enough. Hank has deserted again, and Joyce is doing the single mother thing, and Buffy is, well, Buffy.

You’re surprised that I’ve waited so long, without seeing her? So am I. Many times I’ve been tempted, and I’ve rehearsed innumerable arguments both for and against inserting myself back into her life. Angel gave me the clincher.

He said, “If you become her friend while she’s too young, she may never see you as more than a father figure, or an old family friend. Are you willing to risk that, for the sake of waiting?”

I greeted that with my usual bluster and sarcasm, of course, but he might be right. And so I have stayed away from her. I dare not screw this up. But, Angel met her when she was sixteen. Call me superstitious, but I daren’t leave it any later. Besides, I want to enjoy that young, fresh, unspoiled Buffy. Strangely, I do not mean that in a carnal sense.

So, for now, I’m back-up and mentor to one of her predecessors. It’s odd, to think of it like that, especially when you get to know the girls. And so, on the whole, I don’t get to know them more than I need to.

+++++

It’s almost winter when I head back to Sunnydale. It’s a month to her sixteenth birthday, and my instincts have been nagging at me for days. My instincts are always good, so I’m not waiting any longer. Maybe she’s falling in love with someone else. Not possible, I tell myself, but there’s that little worm of worry. That must be coming from Angel.

Still, on other aspects, we have remarkably similar thoughts.

What will our first meeting be like? Last time, he met her in an alley, when she knocked him onto his ass. We won’t be repeating that. She first met me when I was unkind to her after we’d made love. I’d experienced every second of that night, alongside Angel, and I’d loved it. I just didn’t understand that I did. We won’t be repeating that, either.

Now, as I drive, I’m fantasising about the future; about that first moment when our eyes meet; that first contact as we accidentally brush against each other; the first electric touch of skin on skin, the first sweet kiss, searing away all the years of separation. Those will be fewer for her than for me, of course.

And then, when she is ready for me, when she truly knows that she loves me, then... This time, I shall be first, not him. I shall be the first to caress her golden skin, first to run my hand over her silken breast, first to suckle at that little rosy nipple... And then... and then, I shall be the first to breach that barrier, that film of flesh that holds such mystical significance, first to bring her to the ultimate enjoyment of the most erotic bliss. First, only, and last, for all the length of our days.

I will make her happy in every way that I can devise, in all aspects of our life, and she will do the same for me. I won’t even begrudge Angel his share of that.

“She might have a high school sweetheart already.”

Be quiet.

“What if she really does think of you as just another older man?”

Don’t be ridiculous.

“What if she won’t give you a second look?”

Shut up.

“And what if, this time, all you’ll be is her Watcher? Could you bear that?”

SHUT. UP.

+++++

The new mansion is finished, furnished, and full of my household and our goods and chattels. Apart from lost comrades, it isn’t exactly the same as before. There were bits of it that she didn’t like, and I’ve changed those. Otherwise, even the furnishings are much as they were before. I want her to be able to return to a home that’s familiar.

If I have any uncertainties about seeing Buffy again, that can only be as a result of Angel’s nerves. I’ve got no doubts. Even so, I decide to take things slowly. I start by watching her, becoming the lurker in the darkest shadows. It’s always my best role.

My first sight of her after all this time comes as she opens the door to let Willow and Xander out of her house, and it’s as powerful as a fist in the gut. I barely notice the other two, because all my attention is on her. She stands in the doorway, with the light from the hall a nimbus behind her. Her hair glows a soft gold. She looks exactly as I remember her, when Angel first saw her.

She’s happy and smiling as she waves her friends goodnight, and watches them walk down the street. She turns to go into the house, but she pauses, and looks back, wrapping her arms around herself as though from a sudden chill. She seems to be searching for something that she knows is there, but can’t see. She may not be the Slayer, but she knows I’m here, and yet she isn’t afraid. I’m glad.

She closes the door, and I’m about to leave and follow Willow and Xander when a cold nose presses against my hand. Damn. He shouldn’t have been able to sneak up on me like that. It’s Max.

He’s older now, a big, muscular male, silver around the muzzle, but he’s still doing the job I asked him to do. Father Robert found a use for me. He made me his hound, the hound of heaven, perhaps, unlikely as that might seem. Max has been my hound. The hound of hell, would you say? Yes, well...

He’s also head of his family. The alpha male. That thought makes me nostalgic. It really is well past time I reasserted myself, and turned my attention back to my branch of the House of Aurelius. And to Buffy.

+++++

She first sees me in the Bronze. Oh, yes, it’s still the Bronze, or should I say it’s the Bronze once more. It’s been a lot of things in the time since Buffy’s last High School days, including rebuilt a couple of times, but we’re going through a revival of turn of the Millennium styles, and the name has been resurrected. I’m in a shadowy corner, wearing a dark leather jacket and dark jeans, and a white shirt. I’ve chosen my wardrobe deliberately, remembering how she first saw him. My clothes definitely aren’t the vampire-stuck-in-the-1970’s look that he affected then, but it might mean something to her.

She comes in with a small entourage. Willow and Xander are among them, but just now I have no time to take note of them. I only have eyes for her.

She’s wearing a moss green top that displays her golden tan to perfection, and a pair of tight white jeans that perfectly displays other assets. Around her slim neck, she’s wearing a circular pendant of clear crystal. The chain it’s hanging from is the underworld chain that I gave her when she was five years old, with its complicated pattern of links that defies the eye to follow.

She’s talking to one of her companions as they make their way to a cluster of easy chairs. As she draws level with me, though, she falters in whatever it is she’s saying. Her feet falter, too, and she comes to an uncertain halt. As her companion, too, stops and looks back at her, wondering why the conversation has stopped in mid-sentence, Buffy finds a new certainty and turns to stare at me. Her eyes meet mine, and I see in them a question and then a smile, even though her brow is furrowed in an effort of recollection. I can feel my answering smile, although I’d intended to remain aloof.

I hear her companion’s words. “Do you know that guy?”

The spell is broken. She looks round quickly. “Yeah... I... I don’t know. I mean, no, I don’t think so.”

You will, my love, you will.

Satisfied, I stay for a little while longer, watching. She doesn’t turn back to me but her body language, the set of her back, tells me that she badly wants to. When she gets up to go to the bar for another glass of vanilla caramel latte, I walk past her to the door. Buffy used to have a personal field, an aura, that seemed as large as Saturn’s rings. I didn’t need to see her to feel her in my flesh, blood and bone. She was the Slayer then. It’s my intention to only allow my sleeve to brush against her bare arm, to feel that aura once more, though it might as yet be furled up tightly. Not to touch skin to skin, though. I want to save our first contact of flesh for another meeting.

Then I see her pendant more closely. It’s a hagstone. The stone that she gave me weighs heavy on my breastbone. The thought that she might be having nightmares weighs heavy on my heart. Later, I wonder whether she might be having something akin to Slayer dreams, and I don’t know what to think about that, except that the current Slayer is still alive and well. Or was, last night.

The sight of the hagstone makes me lose concentration, and my hand touches hers as we draw alongside each other. Fleetingly, her fingers curl around mine, and she lifts her eyes to mine, once again, as the fire of memory sweeps along my nerves. Then her hand is gone, and she’s turned away in confusion. I want to sweep her up and reclaim her here and now, but it isn’t time yet. I must wait. I must keep control.

I only remember Willow and Xander after I’ve left. They look exactly as I’d known them before, although there’s no indication yet of Willow’s witchery. And then I see, out of the corner of the eye of memory, a couple sitting to one side of the bar, unnoticed in my preoccupation. Oz. It has all the appearance of a gathering of the clans, and I ought to have a bad feeling about that, but I don’t want to dwell on such things when I have this new Buffy to illuminate my thoughts.

It’s a week before I let her see me again. I don’t want her to think that I’m stalking her. I’ve watched her every night, and several times, I’ve weakened and used the Gem of Amara, and watched her during the day. She hasn’t seen me, but sometimes, she must have known I was there. I’ve watched her stiffen as she gets close to me, seen her turn around, looking for something and finding nothing. At these moments, she wears a frown as she tries to puzzle out just what it is she senses, but there’s no scent of fear from her.

So, our next meeting is still entirely innocent. I’m leaving the coffee shop with a black coffee in my hand as she walks past. I’ve picked my time carefully, and she’s alone. Before she knows what’s happening, we’ve collided, and the coffee is sliding out of its container. She’s as quick as a cat, and the dark liquid slides past her harmlessly. Not so much as a drop has splashed her.

Her hand flies up, and she catches the falling cup.

“You’re quick,” I tell her admiringly.

“It’d be better if I looked where I was going,” she says, that shadow of a frown between her eyes again.

“I’ll take all the blame. I wasn’t paying attention. I remember you from the Bronze.”

“We’ve met before,” she says. It’s half question, half statement. “Before the Bronze?”

There’s no coyness or simpering flirtation, just that clear-eyed gaze. I’d like this girl even if I didn’t love her. What does she remember? The time when she was five? Or does she remember something of... before.

“It’s a long time since I was in Sunnydale.”

That answer doesn’t satisfy her, which was my intention.

“I have to go,” I tell her, before she can speak again, and I’m pleased to see a flicker of disappointment shadow her eyes. “Are you often at the Bronze?”

“Most weeks,” she says.

“I look forward to it.” I remember the days when men made sweeping bows to the women they admired. I remember the days when every man wore a hat and doffed it to a lady as a mark of respect. For reasons I can’t explain, I’d really like to make one of those gestures just now, but I simply give her a smile, and turn away from her.

The weight of her gaze is like a caress on my back as I walk down the street.

+++++

I watch her every day. My whole attention is on her. Most people who have found themselves in that position have finished with broken minds and broken bodies.

I follow her to school. I wait for her to spend time with her friends, and watch what they do. I follow her home, and make sure that nothing happens to her. Always, Max is with me. His mate, Alysia, is in pup, and each day I make sure that he has something special to take back to her. He has spent years, watching Buffy like this, making sure that nothing hurts her, but now he’s simply my companion, as I take back the weight of that responsibility.

I love watching her. I love to see how her skin glows under the sun, and its more subtle sheen under the softer light of the moon. The curve of her cheek, the mischievous smile, the softness of her smile, all these are as precious to me as the anticipation of our eventual union.

She knows I’m there. Well, not me, specifically, but someone or something. It’s not something that causes her alarm. She has, of course, been shadowed by a wolf for almost eleven years. She knows who to trust at her back. I hope.

Nevertheless, it’s two weeks before I let her see me again. I’ve watched her in the Bronze, with her friends. She doesn’t know that it’s my presence that she can feel, and at first every time there’s movement by the door, she wants to look round and see whether it’s me. She’s strong enough not to, but later she sits so that she’s facing the door. Oh, she isn’t waiting in some sort of pathetic hope. She doesn’t even know she’s doing it. I’ve put a key in the lock of her memory, and I’m waiting for the right time to turn it, but it’s already having an effect on her.

Only when she’s almost given me up do I take the next step. She takes her glass to the bar for a refill of her favourite coffee, and I’m there, next to her.

“I hoped I’d see you here.” I smile at her reassuringly.

“Okay, you’ve seen me. Was that it?” I love that sharpness.

“Can I buy that for you?” It’s vanilla caramel latte again. It wasn’t her coffee of choice before, so it seems that there will be new things to learn about her. I look forward to it.

She shrugs. “It’s okay, I’ve got it.”

I place the tips of my fingers on her wrist, fleetingly, as though in accident, and then draw back. It was momentary but sight, scent and touch, all my senses tell me that this is exactly the Buffy that I have waited for, the woman who is bound to me with bonds forged of eternity. She looks down at her wrist, and I wonder whether she can still feel my touch.

“I’d really like to drink coffee with you,” I tell her.

The smile she gives me is brilliant, worth every second of the century of my captivity to the Dark Lady. The Bronze is crowded tonight, with no spare tables, and she’s clearly ready to simply stand at the bar. I think I surprise her by picking up the two drinks and leading her over to her group. I settle her down and then a word here and a look there produces a chair for me, and a space in the circle of her friends.

She hasn’t even asked me my name. Perhaps there was a feeling of familiarity, and she didn’t think of it until too late, but she’s suddenly aware of the problem of introductions.

“I’m Angel,” I say, as I sit down, and there’s that tiny crease in her forehead again. I’m greeted politely, but regarded with a mixture of interest or mild resentment, largely depending on the gender of the person doing the regarding. There’s a moment or two of inhibition, but I ask a question about the band that’s about to come on stage for the second set, and that inhibition passes. Oz is in the band, so nothing’s changed there, either.

I don’t try to have a conversation with Buffy. Instead, we exchange a few comments, and for the rest of the time I sit back and watch her in her current milieu. Things are going to change for her, I’m sure, and not just because of me. That simple touch gave me another taste of the power that’s roiling through her, just beneath the surface. It isn’t active yet, but it’s close, as though it’s waiting for the word to go.

Why am I playing it this way? This is a courtship, not a hole in the wall affair, and will be conducted with all propriety, and in the light of day. Well, you know what I mean.

And Angel is happy with the softly-softly approach, which means he isn’t giving me earache.

When it’s time for the group to go, I offer to walk Buffy home. I’m pleased to see that the boys of the group don’t much like the idea of entrusting her to a stranger, and we all set off in the same direction. Gradually, the other members of the group peel off to their own homes, and then there’s just me and her.

“I like your pendant,” I say to her, as we walk. She’s still wearing the crystal hagstone.

Her hand flies up to it. “Thanks.”

“It’s an interesting shape,” I persevere.

“I found it,” she offers, eventually. “It was in the grounds of that burned out mansion that used to be on Crawford Street. You probably won’t remember it. It’s been rebuilt now. I used to go there a lot. I liked it up on that hill. This was lying by the door of that little mausoleum.”

“Isn’t that private property?” I ask. “You know, fenced off and all?”

She shrugs and grins. “There wasn’t anyone there at the time.”

I can’t help but laugh, even around the shadow of pain. The hagstone, which should only be formed by the action of water, was on my land nowhere near a river. Moreover, it was outside the mausoleum. Buffy’s mausoleum. I can feel ourselves caught evermore in the tide of destiny.

Now, we’re outside her house.

“What are you doing tomorrow?”

“Cheerleading practice.”

I knew that, but her slight note of disappointment is good to hear.

“Can I walk you home afterwards?”

There’s that smile again. And that’s what I do.

+++++

I walk down a set of concrete steps, the newness of them still acrid in my nostrils. Because of the slope of the hill, the rooms on this side aren’t entirely beneath ground level. A small window of glass bricks set high in the wall allows filtered light into this stairwell. The door I want is locked. You’ve seen what I had in my basement. My new home has the same arrangement. A leopard doesn’t change its spots, and a vampire like me doesn’t change his darker needs.

What you haven’t seen is the rest of the basement, this part where I now stand in front of the locked door, and brace myself for what is to come. It’s entirely harmless and domestic, compared to what you already know, but it’s also a place of exquisite torment. Everything of Buffy’s is here. Her clothes, diaries, jewellery, favourite possessions. Everything. As I enter, I can still smell her among the racks of coats, and dresses and skirts. There’s a faint scent of Aurelius, too. He must have packed these things himself, when he moved everything.

I untie one of the knotted tapes that hold the holland covers closed. I fold back the smooth, creamy linen to expose a rainbow of colours. I stroke the soft, silken crepe of a long white dress. It shimmers with the milky colours of the finest pearl. I bought it for her to wear on our pearl anniversary. She loved it. After long, long minutes of remembrance, I fasten up the covers once more. What I want won’t be found there.

It’s Buffy’s birthday in a few days. Sixteen, again. She was already sixteen when he met her. I’m in good time, compared to that. The thing is, what to give her?

You know how it is when you start hunting through a cupboard full of half-forgotten but treasured possessions, not seen for a long time? A ten minute hunt turns into hours of nostalgia. I stay in the basement for half the day. My household knows not to disturb me, so no-one sees the tears I shed. Only Angel.

In the end, I choose three pairs of matched silver earrings, graduated studs with an engraved Celtic knot design, tiny but perfect. They’ve been carefully stored in their red velvet box. They’re beautiful enough to appeal to her again – I hope – but not so expensive as to make her uncomfortable about accepting them. And he gave her silver, last time. I still have that cross. I’ll give it to her when she becomes the Slayer.

Against all expectation, instead of whisking her away and spending time with her alone, I spend her birthday with her and her friends, at the Bronze. A romance conducted in the light of day, remember? Metaphorically speaking, at least. I made her promises on her death bed, and it’s time I started to keep them.

So, I’m sitting among her friends, although I’ll never be one of them, listening to their youthful banter, and weighing up what she has become. She was older when we met her before, but not by that much. And yet, she seems much older now. Not in her looks. She’s definitely half child, half adult, as her girlish charm morphs into the beauty of a young woman. Not in her overt mannerisms, either. She’s assuredly a high school student and a teenager.

No. It’s something else. I can see it in her eyes, and I can hear it in her blood. It’s in her scent, too. She may be a teenager, but she’s a teenager who, in one step, will cross over the boundary into womanhood. It’s her soul. Her soul has the wisdom of age. In that moment of realisation, I want to hold her to me, to protect her, to warm her heart with my own, and to never let the world of demons and Slayers hurt her, to allow her to stay at this innocent age for as long as possible. Personally, I blame such impulses on Angel.

At last comes the moment for gift giving. There’s no Giles, of course, and Cordelia isn’t yet one of the group. And there are others we still have to meet along the way. Xander has bought her a nickel silver charm bracelet of dangling red plastic hearts. By sheer good fortune, there are some crosses mixed in with the hearts, so it might be of some use.

Willow has bought her a small mirror for her purse, and I make sure to stay out of its sightline as Buffy shows it around. It’s in a slim bronze frame that’s set with a variety of small crystals. She points them out to Buffy, and explains their properties: health, for this one, strength for another, good fortune for yet another. Protection from dark forces for yet another. As it turned out, it wouldn’t be dark forces that Buffy needed protection from, or not entirely.

Then Willow turns round and waves to the band on stage. It’s Oz’s band. They’re called My Baby Ate My Dingo. Something, somewhere, must have a sense of whimsy. Oz gives her a thumbs up, announces the birthday to much raucous and good humoured whistling and applause, and they strike up a new song. I’ve no idea what it is, and the noise is so appalling I can’t even try to hear the words. I expect they’re still in their learning-to-play phase, but Buffy seems pleased.

“Oh,” she says, jumping around in her seat, “let’s dance!”

I know what Xander is about to do, but I get in first. I don’t say anything. I simply hold out my hand to her, across the table, palm uppermost. She looks confused and shy, but she slowly reaches out to take it. I close my fingers around hers, and rise to my feet, drawing her up with me.

Xander takes it with a bad grace. “Let’s all dance together with the birthday girl,” he announces, not even looking at Willow. I don’t care what they do, but they aren’t doing it with us. I lead Buffy out onto the floor, although I’m not going to prance around as Xander is wont to do. No. I remember her in a dance with him, last time round, that was calculated to make Angel jealous, more of an act of mating than anything that should be performed in public. This time round, I’m the only one she’ll dance with like that, but not tonight. It’ll just be a decorous shuffle, this time.

The music is too loud for talking, but I don’t care. Her body is saying everything to me that I need to know. She fits me as perfectly as ever, as we move in rhythm. Her scent fills me, a mix of the lavender and jasmine in her currently-favoured toiletries, and her own musky hormones. The dark magnetism of the Slayer isn’t there yet, but soon... I should have cut out my tongue before I had that thought.

Her heart is beating a little faster than usual, and so is her breathing. Her lips are slightly parted, with just the edges of her little white teeth showing. I can’t help but smile down at her, and I’m sure there’s a touch of tenderness there. Angel is making me such a wuss.

I’m lost in the sight of her, until even the music is no more than a distant sound. It’s an idyll that can’t last, of course, and it’s Xander who brings it to an end by almost knocking her over in his gyrations. It was probably deliberate, although with him, who knows? But it was also probably a good thing.

I take her back to her seat, and Xander and Willow follow us. The band takes a break and Oz strolls over, to sit next to Willow. He’s as monosyllabic as he ever was, and I do miss his spare wit. I hope he’s back to stay with this little group.

I offer to go and get some hot chocolates, which is the youthful drink of choice tonight, and as I stand to leave, a familiar girl hurries in to the club. It’s Tara. I’m glad she’s here. That took a lot of manoeuvring on my part, since her family were well and truly settled in the wrong part of the country. Not much else had changed for her, though, and so when she chose to escape, she found that there was a friendly bystander ready to help her and keep her safe. And to guide her to life here. What? In my youth, certain members of the English aristocracy would pay men to dress in rags and live the life of a hermit in their caves and ruinous follies, so that their friends could come and be entertained. My retainers were much more comfortable than that as they waited for Tara to make a break for it. And just as patient.

And it seems that Tara’s already made the right friends. She pulls up a chair between Willow and Buffy, and I know that the past is going to work itself out again. I have some satisfaction about that, but also a smidgen of worry, as I go for the drinks.

When I get back, Tara has given Buffy a gift. The girls are all giggling secretively together, and Buffy is closing up her handbag. From the scent, though, it’s something like an adolescent love philtre. Believe me, Buffy really doesn’t need one of those. Still, it’s made her laugh, and I have to smile, too. Tara is showing, early on, some of her talents. That, too, is pleasing.

It’s in a happy, laughing mood that everyone sets off for home. This time, Buffy’s house is the first one that we reach. Perhaps with some obscure sense of teenage discretion, the others wait a few yards away, although Willow and Tara are clearly making efforts to keep Xander occupied.

As I say a grave goodnight to her, I dig into my pocket for the small velvet box.

“You did have something for me!”

“You can always be sure of it.” I keep my tone light and teasing. Nothing should be too heavy and melodramatic about this wooing. Her eyes are wide with delight, but as she opens the box, a darkness passes over them at sight of the earrings. No, not a darkness. A shadow. Not even that. How can I explain an echo of the spirit? And yet, you would have recognised it if you had seen it. I did.

She looks up at me, uncertain, and then all resonance of recollection disappears, and she gives me a sunny smile.

“They’re beautiful. Thank you.”

I brush a stray wisp of hair away from her face.

“You know, I sometimes take a walk in the park just after sunset. I’ll be there tomorrow. If you’d like to walk with me, we could...” What could we do? I can’t take her slaying and I won’t take her back to my home. Not yet. “I could take you for an ice cream...” There’s a quizzical look in her eye, and I’m starting to flounder here, and then I remember Willow’s pep talk to Angel. “Or for a cup of coffee,” I produce, triumphantly.

She gives a tiny crow of laughter. “Maybe,” she tells me, but I can see that, in this case, maybe definitely means yes.

“About half an hour after sunset?”

That quizzical look is back. “What? You’re working by sundial now?”

It’s my turn to laugh as I hold up my hands to show my naked wrists. “No watch, no sundial, no clepsydra, no nothing.”

“Clepsydra?”

“Look it up.” She’s as bright as they come, but I remember well how she has to be motivated to do homework. I turn and walk towards the three who are still waiting, but then I turn back and watch her until she’s safely inside. Having said my goodbyes, I head home, leaving Xander to walk the other two girls to safety. I don’t get far before, with a small oath, I retrace my steps. I don’t rejoin them, though. I just shadow them to make sure they all arrive unharmed. Even Xander.

If only I could have that night over again...

When I eventually retire to bed, it’s a long time before I fall asleep, and my dreams are troubled. Not by the Dark Lady. She hasn’t been there for a long time. These troubles are nameless and formless. I’m sinking further and further into a darkness that even I find terrible, and then the grasping shadows are dispersed as a radiant white stag bursts through them, his head high, the points of his antlers glinting.

I remember the stag, on the night of our wedding. This is the same one. I remember him bending his neck for me to drink, and then the sharing of blood in what felt like a pact that I never truly understood, except that it involved Buffy and Angel and me, and the stag was somehow both the messenger bringing that pact about, and the seal upon it.

Now he’s here again, driving away the nameless evils. Why?

Blood runs down his shoulder, exactly as it did all those years ago. He turns to look at me, and then he’s gone, and I wake up in a tangle of sweaty bed linen. I stop for nothing more than to pull on a pair of jeans before running downstairs to my study, and the library that it contains. The stag is a symbol, and I need to know exactly what of.

Ten minutes later, I sit back in my chair, perplexed. I knew that the stag is a Christian symbol, and now I understand its meaning. It represents a person ready for baptism. Well, my soul has been baptised, for all the good it did him, and I don’t think it’s going to work for me, either. It cannot be that. But perhaps baptism is about cleaving to a new life? About becoming something different, with a new future? And isn’t that the promise I made her? That I would become something different? That I would try for salvation?

Has the stag been sent to warn me, or to prompt me? To claim fulfilment of that promise? Or to do something I don’t yet understand? I don’t know. But I do know that it wasn’t just a dream.

I spend the rest of the afternoon in fruitless introspection, but then the sun at last falls below the horizon, and I can find comfort, and excitement, in a meeting with Buffy. For that, I’ll even have the ice cream, if I have to.

I decide to walk to the park, rather than drive. After all, it’s a fine evening, and a stroll will do me good. It takes longer to walk, of course, or at least, to do so as a man, a human man, but I’m not worried about that. Keeping her waiting for just a little while will make her more anxious to see me. Besides, she might be playing games with me, and arrive late. I’ll play the game myself, first.

Me and my games...

It happens before I even reach the park gates. The link between us, the link that has remained silent for so many years, since she was five years old and had been taken by the Pit, flares into urgent reality, with her silent scream.

I set off at a dead run, her need beating through every cell of my being. The trouble is, I have the general direction, but not the specific. That slows me down, as I hunt for clues: sensory or psychic, or just plain hunch, I don’t care which.

Then I scent vampire, and not one of mine. It happens occasionally. This is still the Hellmouth, and it attracts them. They don’t all die, but most are too stupid or vicious to be of use to me. It’s in the right general direction, and so I make best speed towards it. I haven’t gone more than a couple of hundred yards when I’m brought up short. There’s a young girl, and she’s in the act of staking the vampire that I’m tracking.

It seems to happen in slow motion. I see the stake slide easily into his ribs, and he’s no more than dust on the evening breeze. Before he’s even dispersed, she swings round in my direction. She’s got long black hair that fans out in the wind of his destruction, giving her a dark halo that shifts and glints like a raven’s wing in the moonlight as she launches herself through his sifting dust, powering down the gravelled path towards me. Then time snaps back into joint, and I’m fighting for my life. And for hers.

I sidestep her first charge, and it carries her past me in a flurry of familiar hormones. She’s a Slayer, and one who’s been recently called. At least, she wasn’t the Slayer I left a few weeks ago.

The stake whispers down towards my chest, and I backhand her onto the grass. She’s strong. I’m stronger. I hope. She comes at me again, and another backhand draws blood from the corner of her mouth and sends her to her knees. Buffy’s summons in my head takes on a new urgency, a new terror, and I cannot stay to exchange blows with this child!

She doesn’t know that, though, and she somersaults to her feet and aims a kick for my groin. She misses, but the impact momentarily deadens my thigh, and I stumble.

My people should know about a new Slayer...

She delivers an uppercut that almost breaks my jaw, and now I’m on the ground, rolling to avoid that damned piece of wood.

Someone is going to suffer for this...

I snatch at her right wrist and miss, but I block the next blow from her left hand and step aside to avoid the swinging stake.

Me. I should suffer. It’s my fault. I should have known.

That moment’s inattention when Angel and I both seem to be blaming me leaves an opening for her and her foot connects with my genitals. There’s no time for the blinding pain, but I can’t seem to move a muscle. Instead, it’s Angel who steps up and takes the body into a tucked roll across the grass, and gets it to its feet ready for the next onslaught. He feels the same pain as I do, but he’s had even more practice. And he’s implacable. Buffy’s cry is more frantic than ever.

My senses are overwhelmed by the pain in my gonads, or I would have been more prepared for what’s about to happen, but a bank of cloud races over the moon, and in that instant, my sight is better than hers. My leap takes me behind her. She whirls, trying to find where I am, but I’m out of her sight, and then I have my arms laced through hers, and my hands clasped tightly together behind her neck. She’s helpless.

“I’m Angelus,” I say into her ear. “Part of Alchemy. I’m on your side. And a girl’s in trouble. I have to go to her.”

I relax my grip, and find that I’ve misjudged it completely. She rounds on me, her face grim and set, and the stake whistles down, striking my collar bone. That saves my life, but the bone breaks. Not only does it hurt like hell, but my right arm is now disabled.

Damn it all to hell. Who is this girl?

The answer, or part of it, rises up out of the surrounding bushes. Clouds still cover the moon, and I don’t think that he can see my face clearly, but I can see him. Not for the first time, I fail to ask myself a pertinent question, which is, how did he know about the brand new Slayer? It’s Wesley Wyndham-Price, rogue demon hunter and apparent self-appointed Watcher. And he has a crossbow.

He looses the bolt, straight at my heart. Before I can collect myself, there’s a snarl by my ear, and a long grey shape launches itself through the air towards him.

It’s Max.

The bolt takes the wolf in the chest, but his momentum carries him forward and he falls onto Wesley. Wesley stumbles backwards, overwhelmed by the weight of such a large animal, and the force of its soaring leap. His head cracks against something and he lies still beneath the grey wolf.

I need to see whether either of them is alive. I need to explain to this young Slayer that I’m no threat to her, but there’s no time for any of that. No time at all. Buffy’s soundless screams are filled with terror and loathing, and the summons says ‘Now, Now, NOW!’

The Slayer is coming for me again, and the stake plunges into my chest, but on the wrong side. Now I have two serious wounds, hampering me in my efforts to get us both out of this alive. It would have been over now, if I’d been prepared to kill her. She’s all fists and feet, leaving me no time to even pull the stake out from between my ribs, and she does me that favour, in a burst of roaring agony. Now she has her stake as well. I backhand her again, sending her stumbling backwards.

“I don’t want to kill you,” I grit out. “There’s someone in danger...”

“Yes, you,” she says. “I’m going to kill you like the animal you are.” These are the first words she’s said in our encounter. Her accent is French, although she doesn’t look French. Old French colonial, maybe.

She leaps at me in a flying kick, and the screams in my head turn into despairing pleas. A single word. “ANGEL!” I sidestep and snatch her wrist, pulling her in to me, and then I snap her neck. There was no more time. There was no more time...

A whimper behind me tells me that Max still lives, but I can see that it isn’t for long, and there’s no time... I have to find Buffy.

It takes me only seconds to do so, but it seems like minutes... hours. She’s lying on the grass, unconscious, blood dripping from her temple from where her head has been hit hard. Six boys are clustered round her, and the scents of sex lie heavy on the air, laced through with alcohol and cocaine. I have been too long. Her clothes are torn, and she’s covered with their semen. One of them mounts her, and she starts to rouse, tries to resist, turns to me and looks straight into my eyes. Then his fist hits the side of her head, and she’s lost again.

With a roar, I leap among them, ripping them away from her, tossing them as far as I can. It isn’t until they start scrambling backwards, horror engraved on their young faces, that I realise I’m in game face. I don’t know when I changed. If I was like this when Wesley saw me, that might be the only blessing to come out of this night.

My first instinct is to slaughter them, and oddly there’s no disagreement from Angel. But I have no time to waste on them right now. Buffy’s hurt and needs me. I can find them any time I like, and slaughtering would be far too merciful.

I bend down to her, my fingers on the bleeding wound on her temple, and with my touch, the ceaseless screaming in my head stops. On my knees, I cradle her to me, my vision blurred from unshed tears, as I rock her gently. Her breathing is clear, her heart strong and steady. She has more personal hurts, more lasting, but it’s nothing a hospital needs to fix, especially since there has been one other fundamental change. On this dreadful night, at my hands, the mantle of the Slayer has passed to her.

The best place for her is with me.

Awkwardly because of my own hurts, I pick her up. My collar bone is grating fire, and we have a long way to go, but I can ignore that until I’ve tended to her. Cradling her as gently as I can, I set off for home.

+++++

I don’t want help from anyone when I get home, not even one of the women, and I send everyone about their business. My business.

Once in my rooms, I carry her through to the shower. She’s still unconscious, but quite lightly, now. She’ll rouse before long. I want her to feel clean when she does, at least physically. I’ve got something to do first, though. Grabbing the first thing to hand, a glass, I scoop into it as much of the mingled semen as possible. I doubt I’ll need it, but just in case... I want to be sure that I’ve identified the right men.

Then I strip off her ruined clothes, turn on the water, and step into the shower with her. My own clothes don’t matter. The cubicle is large enough to hold her in my lap as I soap her down, and allow the hot water to sluice away the remains of her violation. It doesn’t even occur to me at the time that she might not want such personal attentions from me.

I soap her down again and, as tenderly as I can, I wash out her vulva and vagina. The water reddens with her virginal blood. Not all of them penetrated her, but at least one did. They’ve taken something precious to us both. Anger, red and ragged and bloody, coils through me, and it’s Angel who reminds me that I have a responsibility here. I must care for her, rather than for my own need for vengeance. He’s right, at least for now.

I continue to clean her up, with as much tenderness as I can, until I’m satisfied that every vestige of them has been washed from her. She’s swollen and grazed, and I would rather be back under Aurelius’ whip than have had this happen to her, but I’ve seen much worse.

Drying her is difficult, because of my injured arm, but I manage it, and then I lay her on my bed. Barefooted, and dripping water after me, I run down to the basement, brushing everyone else aside on the way, and search through the chests of Buffy’s clothes. I put aside all the silks and laces, and pull out a long cotton T, candy pink with a rainbow on the front. It’s perhaps incongruous, but the silks and laces are even more so.

I take the stairs three at a time, and hurry back to Buffy. I don’t want her waking up alone, in a strange place.

She murmurs as I pull the nightdress over her head, and tries to brush me away as I lay her back on the pillows. All I can do now is wait. I’ve known a number of Slayers over the last decade, but I’ve not seen one hurt like this at the moment of her calling. I expect her healing powers will start kicking in soon. Quickly, I towel off and get changed, and then I sit by the bed and watch over her. It’s a poignant feeling when I realise she’s wearing my earrings.

When she finds her way back to consciousness, she wakes quickly. Eyes wide, she takes in her surroundings. Suddenly she pushes herself backwards against the headboard, curling up defensively. Then she sees me.

“What have you done to me?” she hisses.

“Nothing...” I start to say. “Buffy...”

“It was you? You...”

She slides quickly off the bed and backs away from me, and she pauses, as discomfort and perhaps even pain become apparent to her.

“You raped me?”

“No... No...” Not this time... “I found you...”

She isn’t listening. She’s shaking her head with the effort of recollection, and with denial of what she thinks is the obvious.

“Buffy...”

“Don’t touch me!” she spits. “Just...” She makes a warding action with her hand, so reminiscent of her. “Just don’t come near me!”

“Buffy... Please... Let me tell you...”

“No! Don’t say anything!” Her face is rigid with disgust. “I trusted you!”

Fear is a stone in my heart. It’s imperative that I explain. Imperative that she should hear me, let me tell her that I had no part of this violation. Not this time round. You did it last time. Perhaps this is your punishment.

Gods preserve me from that, because why should she be punished, too? I don’t know how much she remembers.

“Buffy, I did nothing...”

“Don’t come near me!”

She won’t hear me. She can’t hear me; her thoughts are in so much turmoil. She picks up the nearest object to hand, which happens to be a large nineteenth century Murano glass bull. It’s solid, and very heavy. I take that fateful step, and she hurls the bull.

Even as it leaves her hand, she understands that something about herself is different. Her face tells me as much. Generally, if a woman throws something at you, standing still is the best defence. This flies straight and true, and so fast that I have no time to move. It smashes against my forehead, just in front of my temple, and ricochets off to smash against the wall in an explosion of glass shards. The impact fells me to the ground, half stunned.

She raises her hand to her mouth in shock at her sudden strength, and then she opens the door and flees, barefooted and wearing only that short nightdress. According to Ezrafel, who saw her go, she took in none of her surroundings, but she made straight for the front door. At least she seems to have dredged up a memory of where it is.

Ezrafel starts clucking round me like a mother hen. I shut him up and tell him shortly to clean up the mess. Then, without even stopping to wipe away the blood, I set off to look for her.

I know where to start, and I’m right. She’s in her room at her home. I’m hidden in the branches of the pine tree, although I’m sure that if she cared to give it her attention, she would discover me. She’s not in that state of mind, though. She’s clearly just arrived, and I think she’s come up the tree just as I have done, because her mother is downstairs, and I can’t see how she wouldn’t have to explain arriving in a nightdress.

She’s standing in front of the mirror, and suddenly she rips off the pink cotton T, and throws it into a corner. I should look away, but I need to know whether she has found more hurts on her way home. At least, that’s what I tell myself. Then she runs to the bathroom, and I hear the water running as she tries to shower away whatever memories she has.

I stay until she climbs into bed, wearing a pair of pyjamas that seem to be covered in demented sheep. They make her look more like a child than ever, and I wish I had some little trinket, such as I used to bring, and that it would make her feel better. It’s far too late for simple things like that, though, and she curls up under her comforter, and cries herself to sleep.

My very presence has surely brought this on her. She was there to meet me. Without that, she would be safe and sound. How many ways can I find to hurt her? Unbidden, a poem I read a long time ago forces itself into my thoughts.

Because I see these mountains they are brought low Because I drink these waters they are bitter Because I tread these black rocks they are barren Because I have found these islands, they are lost Upon seal and seabird dreaming Their innocent world My shadow has fallen.

Is that all I’m good for? Hapless destruction? It seems so. Angelus, Lord of Destruction.

I can hear that her breathing is becoming more regular. The odd hiccup left over from her fit of crying has gone. I take one last look at her. Only then do I leave, and make my way to the park. Wesley and the dead Slayer are gone. Max’s body remains, though, and I carry him back, to be buried in my garden. No one ever had a more faithful servant, but the wages of that sin were death. I’ll grieve for him later, when I have space from my greater grief.

Unless I can get her to hear and understand me, to let me explain, then my dreams are no better than ashes, and I really don’t know what I shall do. You understand as well as I do what grief and anger can do to me. Will Angel’s presence be enough to save the world? I don’t know. I truly don’t know. It seems that neither civilization nor repentance runs all that deep with me.

+++++

I’m watching my master closely. It’s been two days since Buffy fled from here, and he hasn’t stirred from the house since. For most of that time he hasn’t even stirred from his rooms, and when he has, everyone has walked softly around him. I don’t know exactly what has happened, but I have a good idea. My sense of smell may not be as good as his, but it’s better than average, and I have eyes to see.

I need to go back to Hylek. I only came here for a brief visit, to see whether he had commissions for me, and I have a message for him from Haraeth, who urgently needs to discuss new and worsening developments there. If Angelus does not go, then I must.

But how can I leave him, just now? If I go, who will stand up to whatever excesses his grief and his temper might drive him to?

And so I stay, and the world turns, bringing who knows what upon us. And I wonder who else is watching us, in the bitterness of our lives.

THE END
August 2008

Author’s notes

1 I had intended to cover the period of Buffy’s childhood and early teenage with a number of stories, which would have charted the development of Angelus’ relationships with the returning characters, and their role in this ongoing story. However, there are many, many things I want to write, including at least two more B/A series.

So, I’ve come to a decision. ‘Hound of Heaven’ has been made to cover a whole decade, and will be the penultimate story in this series. This means that certain story lines have necessarily been truncated. I do hope that, in glossing over some parts rather quickly, I haven’t spoilt your enjoyment. Look out for the conclusion of the series, in ‘Schism’, which I hope will be along much more quickly than this has been.

2 Bite pressure of a wolf This is an impressive 1500 lbs per square inch, more than twice as much as a German Shepherd.

http://www.californiawolfcenter.org/wolffacts.htm

3 Sea krait Like all snakes and lizards, male sea snakes have two penises. They are called hemipenes, but each is an autonomous independently functioning penis and only one is used during mating. Mating takes place for long periods and sea snakes must surface for air during that time. The female controls breathing and as she swims to the surface the male is pulled along attached via the hemipenis. At the surface the male needs to gulp for air or he has to wait until the next time the female comes up to the surface to breathe. Males are unable to disengage until mating is finished.

Read more at: http://homes.jcu.edu.au/~sci-bhl/sea_snake_biology.htm

4 Hag stones Hagstones are stones that have a hole running all the way through them, and are usually found in streams or rivers, and at the seashore, where running water has created the hole in the stone. This may be one of the reasons why they are considered so powerful, as it is a common belief that magic cannot work on running water, and these stones have been holed by running water and so retain that influence of protecting from magic.

In Brand's Antiquities, we find the following quote: "A stone with a hole in it hung at the bed's head will prevent the nightmare. It is therefore called a Hag Stone from that disorder which is occasioned by a Hag or Witch sitting on the stomach of the party afflicted.”

Sounds like just what the doctor ordered. Read more at:

http://www.thepilot.uk.com/holystones.htm

5 God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time. Home in that Rock Carter Family 'My Clinch Mountain Home’ 1928-1929

6 Tempus est mensura motus rerum mobilium. Time is the measure of movement. Auctoritates Aristotelis A compilation of medieval propositions drawn from diverse classical and other sources (ed. J. Hamesse, 1974)

7 Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory Forgotten what it looks like? Check out the Museum of Modern Art:

http://www.moma.org/collection/browse_results.php?object_id=79018

8 Angelus’ sword Curious about pattern welding, Damascus steel, moiré steel, wootz steel and their relationship to glass beads?

Start here: http://archaeology.about.com/b/2006/12/01/damascus-steel.htm

The sword is partially based on this long sword:

http://www.reliks.com/merchant.ihtml?pid=2020

9 Bay wood Bay is good for more than just cooking:

http://www.pfaf.org/database/plants.php?Laurus+nobilis

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bay_laurel

10 Space Here’s the tough stuff coming up.

Here’s some thinking on the shape of space: http://www.spacedaily.com/news/cosmology-01f.html

And here’s some of the latest thinking, deranged or not, on space and time and hypertime and no time. Makes you wonder what these physicists are on... But it’s interesting stuff

Is time slowing down? http://blog.wired.com/wiredscience/2007/12/scientists-time.html

Hypertime – why we need two dimensions of time: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2007-10/ns-h-w101007.php

Why time is about to become space: http://arxivblog.com/?p=71

This one’s a bit harder, but it has diagrams: http://www.redicecreations.com/article.php?id=3178

Dark matter Something we don’t know much about:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2006/feb/06/starsgalaxiesandplanets.spaceexploration

Dark energy: Something we don’t know anything about:

http://www.space.com/scienceastronomy/astronomy/cosmic_darknrg_020115-1.html

Quarks and bosons and their ilk From Fermilab:

http://www.fnal.gov/pub/inquiring/matter/madeof/index.html

11 Cotswolds

A very popular part of Britain, and encapsulates what many visitors to Britain think of as typical Olde England.

http://www.the-cotswolds.org/top/english/intro.shtml

12 Theology, theogony and theomachy Trust Angelus...

Theology - the rational analysis of a religious faith. Theogony - the genealogy of the gods. Theomachy - strife among or against the gods.

13 The Akbash This is the picture of the dog that so disturbed Angelus, with information about the Akbash on the following pages (can you tell the goats from the dog on the last page?)

http://people.unt.edu/~tlt0002/adogs2.htm

These are pictures of the male and female dogs that I described (the first photo on each page)

http://www.geocities.com/yards_per_young/akbas.htm

http://akbashclub.com/adaabreedprofile.htm

And here are some lovely pictures of the dogs with their flocks: http://akbashclub.com/adlgds.htm

Awwww.........

14 Suffolk houses Traditional Suffolk houses were often pink, and it truly was often obtained from an admixture of pig’s or ox blood. Or sloe juice.

http://norfolkcoast.co.uk/curiosities/cu_suffolkhouse.htm

15 Come into the garden, Maud... Maud (1855) Alfred, Lord Tennyson

16 Force, and fraud, are in war the two cardinal virtues. Leviathan (1651) pt. 1, ch. 13 Thomas Hobbes 1588 - 1679

17 There is a homely old adage which runs: Speak softly and carry a big stick... Theodore Roosevelt

18 The white stag There’s a lot of symbolism attached to the white hind – or white stag. This article summarises a lot that can be found in bits and pieces elsewhere. You could say that, ultimately, the white stag is not only a creature of the gods, but is a god himself, symbolizing the creative life force of the universe--sex, life, and also death.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-514249/How-magical-white-hart-inspires-legends-thousand-pubs.html

19 Murano glass Venetian glass is world-renowned. Glass-making was exiled to the island of Murano because it was too much of a fire hazard to remain in the city. I have a pretty Murano glass bull, a reminder of my visit, but it’s very much twentieth century.

http://www.doge.it/murano/muranoi.htm

20 Because I see these mountains... Shadow Kathleen Raine 1908-2003


This story is told from several different points of view. 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…
Rating: ADULT for sex and violence and torture, but in a very tasteful way, of course… You should be used to this by now... But, this story deals with a couple of difficult subjects. You’ve been warned.
Summary: Buffy’s back from the dead. So everything’s going to be alright, isn’t it? Isn’t it?
Content: B/A/A (us) Sequel to ‘Duality’ and takes place immediately afterwards.
Distribution: The Angel Texts http://www.octavesoftheheart.com/angeltexts/ You want it? Really? Gosh. Just tell me where it’s going please.
Disclaimer: None of these characters are mine. If they were, I’d look after them better. No money will ever be made from this fic.

Feedback: Pretty please. Send it to Jo
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