Paracelsus’ Sword

Paracelsus’ Sword

By Jo/The Librarian

Rating:PG
Summary: Someone is stealing bodies. Is it a job for the paranormal detectives? Or for the ordinary lot? And why is the date important?

***

It was one of those shops. It was tucked into a side street, almost invisible to the passing world. You can find them in any large town, and a lot of small towns, too. The entrance is always deeply recessed, with a small door that jingles a bell when it’s opened. It isn’t always clear from the window display what the shop is selling. Sometimes you find that it’s antiques, sometimes it seems more like musty old junk. Sometimes the place is filled with speciality items such as musical instruments, or military memorabilia. Or things for railway enthusiasts. Occasionally it’s an old fashioned herbalist with cabinets full of tiny drawers, the wooden fronts glowing from the constant polishing of use and of beeswax, scented with the herbs and spices and strange vegetable matter of years gone by. Of centuries gone by. Sometimes it’s all of these things.

The proprietor of these different incarnations of The Shop might change, but if you look closely, there’s always a similarity, as if they were struck from the same mould, and then decorated to look different, just like the shop.

Currently, this shop was dealing in antiques. It had done all of the above, though, and more. Anyone who had patronised its various personas would have realised that the owner looked familiar. Differently dressed, perhaps; a different hairstyle and shaving habits, certainly; but similar, nonetheless, although the man himself would have denied all knowledge of The Shop before now.

In this current now, the man was reading a missive that had been pushed through his letterbox in the hours of darkness. The handwriting was crude, but its message was simple.

If you want to see the boy again, bring it now. You know where to come.

He pushed the note into the pocket of his trousers and reached underneath the small counter to press a hidden button there. As he did so, there was a low click from the wall to his side, and a long narrow panel opened, the wooden front sliding silently up. He lifted out a long, thin, cloth-wrapped bundle. Tucking the bundle beneath his arm, he walked out of the shop, turned the sign to read Closed, locked the door and then stepped out into the street, and into the early morning haze.

***

Joshua was frightened. He was only eight years old, and he badly wanted to go home. He wanted his mother and his father, and the comforting embrace of his grandfather, even if he did always smell of snuff and cloves and brandy.

Joshua knew that he had been a bad boy. Because it was summer, and because there were no busy roads to cross on his way home from school, his mother had said that, on Fridays, he could walk home with a couple of his friends who lived nearby. It had made him feel very grown up.

Yesterday, though, he’d been in the school library, talking to his history teacher, and he hadn’t realised that John and Peter had already set off without him. He’d had to walk home alone.

Never, ever talk to strangers. Never, ever get into a strange car. Never, ever take sweets from a stranger. His mother had been very clear about those things. And he never did. Except that, as he’d walked home alone, feeling very grown-up and strangely nervous, hitching his back pack a little because his chest seemed tight, a man had called him by name. The man had told him that his grandfather was worried about him, about why he was late home from school, and he’d been so relieved to know that he’d been missed that he didn’t question why his mother or his grandfather hadn’t come for him. Didn’t ask why they had sent this strange man.

Instead, he had got into the big, black car, and had accepted the toffee that the man had offered him. The crinkly, shiny paper that it was wrapped in had seemed so normal, just like the man. He’d started sucking the toffee, and then he’d known nothing else, until he’d woken up here.

He had no idea where here was, just that it was dark and cold. A single bare but dim light bulb hung from the ceiling, and caused the pale walls around him to glimmer a little. An iron chain was fastened to a ring around his ankle at one end, and to the wall at the other, and he’d pulled and pulled, but he’d only made his hands and his ankle bleed.

So, he’d knelt on the cold, damp floor, and he’d prayed as his mother had taught him, making the sign of the cross and asking Our Lady for help. Then, just to be on the safe side, he’d prayed as his grandfather had taught him. He’d placed his hands, bloodied palms flat down, on to the floor, and asked the Great Mother Earth to show her magic in this place, and to help him. To send someone to take him home. He’d stayed on his knees for a long time, like that. Then he’d curled up against the wall and cried himself to sleep.

***

The shopkeeper stood at the threshold. Once he crossed over it, he would be committing himself to things that he abhorred. But what choice did he have? The child was here, his grandson, for want of a better word. The boy was blood of his blood, and now hostage for the bundle that was tucked beneath his arm. He’d sent the only plea for help that he’d dared, and he had no idea whether it would be understood. He squared his shoulders and strode forward.

He found them where he expected to. A large circle containing a pentagram had already been drawn, with perfect proportions. Care had clearly been taken to get it absolutely right. There were half a dozen of them – there would be more soon, some human, some less so. A tall, commanding figure dressed in dark clothes stood with his back to the shopkeeper, but seemed to be aware of the man’s approach. In the act of turning, before he could even have seen the newcomer, he spoke in greeting.

“Hello, Philip.”

“Francis.”

Now the two were facing each other. Philip, the shopkeeper, stared into the other man’s face, a pallid face, eyes a washed-out colour that was neither green nor grey nor blue, but none the less intense for their lack of definitive pigment. Francis, for his part, saw an elderly, stocky man, grey-haired, dressed in an old-fashioned woollen cardigan over a white cotton shirt, a tweed jacket and brown corduroy trousers that had seen better days.

“You brought it, I see.”

Philip took the few steps that separated them, unwrapped the cloth bindings, and removed the plain leather scabbard, uncovering a sword that gleamed softly in the dim light.

“Take it. Just give the boy back to me.”

Francis looked shocked.

“Good Lord, no. You fail to understand, Philip. You will wield the sword. You will be part of this great enterprise. Then you can have the boy back.”

Philip swallowed down the bitter taste that had flooded his mouth.

“Let me see that he’s still alive.”

“But of course. As soon as the trial run is successfully completed, I’ll take you to see him personally. We’re just waiting for everyone else to arrive, and for the rest of the, ah, requisites, shall we say? Then we can get on with it.”

It was the best he was going to get. He wrapped the sword back up again and went to sit down quietly, out of the way. Those gathered continued with their preparations.

***

There are many names for her. Some call her Mother Earth. Some call her Gaia. Some speak of a genius locus. There are many names, and many ways of thinking about the living planet.

She may have a heartbeat measured in centuries, and the patience of millennia, but whatever she is, she is a mother. And she has senses. She hears with a trillion ears. They may be furry or fleshy, they may be no more than pits in the side of a snake’s head, or lines on the side of a fish, yet they all hear. She sees with a trillion eyes. They may be compound, or faceted, simple, camera or mirrored, yet they all see. And she feels, with the nerve pulses of a trillion organisms, large and small, animal or vegetable or something in between.

Now, she senses… What can she sense? A gathering storm? A confluence of events that causes a ripple through the network of energies that overlies her skin? And although she has not the consciousness of a human, does not react in the way that a human reacts, cannot be seen to move in the way that humans move, nevertheless she turns her full attention to the thing that has so disturbed her.

Something watches through every jewelled insect eye, feels through every beating protozoan cilium, hears through every twitching ear. Something reaches out, through the nerves of every spreading fungal mycelium and every forest root run; stretches with bones of granite and sandstone, of basalt and chalk, sinewed by seams of quartz and gold, of silver and lead. Then something sends out messages, carried by air and fire, by earth and water.

***

He’s walking through the rustling forest, the trees on either side of the broad woodland ride seeming to bend over, their new leaves whispering to him, too low and too many for him to catch their meaning. Small, scuttling things go about their business in the undergrowth on either side of the path, the remnants of last year’s dead leaves crackling beneath their tiny feet in a susurration of grace notes that seem to him to have replaced the essential melody, so that he cannot understand. Whenever he draws alongside these smallest of forest dwellers, they seem to stop and stare at him, intent on imparting some message that he cannot fathom.

Somewhere, in some broader glade, he stops and presses his ear to the bole of a mighty beech, and thinks he hears the pounding of its heart. He’s missed the great systolic thump of early spring, and now it’s the steady flow of rivers of sap just beneath the smooth grey bark that murmurs to him. There is a pattern, but he cannot grasp it.

Further down the path, he has to push his way through ferns that have overhung the path, the intricate architecture of their green lace suddenly as meaningful as any demonic text, if only he could read it.

When he reaches the stream that babbles alongside the ride for a hundred yards or more before turning back into the forest, he sees tiny fish, and even tinier insect larvae that have built for themselves houses of stone, glued together with spit, and all of them seem to turn to him, to look at him with accusatory eyes, condemning the slowness of his comprehension. And then something rises up towards him from the glass-clear water. There is no accusation here. There is love, and a plea for him to understand, in those moss-green eyes, those eyes as green as the cat’s, and there’s a weight on his chest that he hasn’t felt for months and he seems to be wrapped around with thorns, and he thinks that he may never be able to breathe again if he doesn’t understand what these eyes are trying to tell him…

Breathing hard, Giles woke from his dream to find Zillah on his chest, staring intently at him with Ella-green eyes. The cat was kneading gently, just the very tips of her claws brushing against his naked skin as her paws pressed down, and she was purring softly. Shaking his head in an effort to free himself from the lingering threads of the dream, he reached out to stroke her. She gave him one last stare before blinking, then she butted her head against his hand, and became just a cat again, a darker shadow in the dark greyness leading up to dawn. She leapt lightly from the bed with a loud miaow.

The cat. It had just been the cat. The cat that had once been Ella’s.

Giles looked at the bedside clock. Four o’clock. The sun wouldn’t rise for three-quarters of an hour. He huddled back down, but every movement brought the rustle of clean bed linen, carrying words that he couldn’t quite hear. As he tossed and turned, the birds outside started to rouse themselves into the dawn chorus, every trill and whistle meaningful if only he could understand. The house added its own dawn chorus, with slight creaks and less identifiable noises as the old building continued to cool down after the heat of the day. Every last one of those noises seemed to be a call to him.

Just before dawn, he gave up, and went downstairs to make a cup of tea. He wished that Buffy and Angel were here, perhaps to talk to, or more likely just to be company, but they were at the flat in Bath, enjoying some time together. He didn’t begrudge them that. But he felt alone, amongst his ghosts.

***

Giles spent the best part of the day in his book-lined study, vacillating between matters spiritual and matters temporal, and periods of brown study, although for an hour, just after lunch, he walked the grounds by the house. John was with him, and the time was spent in animated conversation. From time to time, John would make notes on a crumpled sheet of paper. The day was fresh and clear, with the westerly wind bringing the scents of may blossom and fresh green growing things. He missed those when he went back inside, and so he threw open the windows downstairs, and brought the spring day into the house.

The postman, too, brought something to brighten the day, an invitation from the Westbury Cidermen for a competitive evening with their archrivals, the Trowbridge Cider Tankers. The invitation was for all three of them. The Cidermen were completely free of gender bias, despite their name. He wondered briefly whether they’d be free of species bias, too, especially knowing how much Angel could drink. No, not drink. A competitive cider evening would be very little to do with drinking and all to do with quaffing. You spill a lot more. He looked more closely at the invitation. Oh, there was preliminary work to do first. The Cidermen had arranged several tastings, for the best cold cider cup. No doubt the Tankers had done the same. When they were done, each society would field one full barrel of their preferred recipe, on Midsummer’s Eve. Recipe suggestions to be sent to the Cidermen’s President, Mrs Lillian Groom.

He smiled a little mischievously as he thought of what Buffy might make of the rather roistering atmosphere in the cider barn – Angel, he was sure, would make himself right at home – and Lisa would be there, of course. Perhaps Buffy and Angel could have a little fun researching some really hard-hitting cider recipes, so that they could all contribute to the mayhem of the Cidermen’s preliminary tastings.

But his mind couldn’t hold on to any of the day’s happenings, as the dream wound itself through every other thought.

Towards evening, he lifted a strange little book down from one of the top shelves – Reaching Across the Veil, not one he made much use of – and everything around him seemed to fade into the background as he ran his hand over the cover. It was heavy black silk, faded now to a rusty brown, stuck onto stiff card. The binding was homemade, the pages and covers handstitched together, with no spine, the folds in the sheets of paper left bare. Neither was there a title on the outside, just careful old-fashioned writing on the title page. The whole book was handwritten, the penmanship thick and heavy and in obscure lettering, the ink a black that was almost as faded as the cover.

This had been a volume loaned to him from the Watchers’ Library just before the acolytes of the First had blown the Council Headquarters to hell. He’d had a boxful of obscure books sent over in the hope that there might somewhere be a clue to defeating the First, or at least stopping it from impersonating dead people. In those days, Buffy had never been stronger, had never been more fragile, and he’d been terrified that if the First started to impersonate Angel, it would have been more than she could stand. He’d wanted to stop that, if it happened. It was the last boxful of books that he’d had from the Council, and this volume had held unexpected secrets…

It also held dangers. The author of this book had died in an asylum, or as much of an asylum as they had had in those days. It seemed that he hadn’t quite made it back across the veil. Not all the way. With a mental wrench, Giles put the book down onto a small side table, but he didn’t put it away.

That night, he made a cup of cocoa for himself – always good for a sound night’s sleep – and read a few pages of some instantly forgettable best selling thriller before being claimed by soft arms that trailed the starlit clouds of Night.

***

He is here in the forest, quite alone. Alone and without human company, that is, yet there is other life in this place. He stands in the sunlit ride, and through the silver-grey boles, he sees a red deer hart, poised and attentive. The deer’s every muscle seems to shiver, as if flies troubled it. The head, lacking all sign of antlers at this season, is turned a little in his direction, and he can see the red membrane inside one nostril as it flares wide, trying to catch a scent perhaps. A tiny trickle of blood runs over the hart’s brow, as if its weapons have been taken by force, leaving it emasculated. He sees one large, liquid black eye, gazing straight at him, with an entreaty and a plea. Of the other eye, all that he can see is the sweep of long, dusky lashes. The hart’s ears are twitching, frantically testing all directions, trying to find whatever it is that has alarmed it.

There is no sound at all, and so it surprises him as much as the deer when he sees the arrow standing proud of the russet ribs, just behind the deer’s shoulder. It has caught the animal in the heart, and he sees the blood from broken lungs dripping from that one flared, red nostril, all the brighter against the black muzzle. The hart collapses, almost gracefully, falling first to its knees as its strength fails. Then its hindquarters give out, and it collapses to the ground, still upright, as if it were about to sedately chew the cud. Inappropriately, he wonders whether deer do chew the cud, and then the animal falls over onto its side. It raises its head as it makes one doomed attempt to rise, its legs flailing in an effort to find the ground, and then it is dead. He doesn’t need to go closer to the body to know.

Now, he is aware of real silence. He had thought that there was no sound in this place, but the only sound missing had been the hiss of the arrow, and the thud as it hit flesh. It is as if the hart had stabbed itself. The ear of memory brings back to him the sound of birdsong, and the whisper of the breeze through the new leaves and the new grasses, the rustle and scuttle of the smallest occupants of the forest floor, the music of the brook at his feet. Memory’s inner eye reminds him of the trembling movement of the leaves, the small flurries as birds delved among the foliage, the sheer colour of butterfly wings in sunlight, and the shimmer and dart of tiny fish in the water. All that has stopped, with the death of the deer, and now there truly is nothing, nothing at all.

Yet, as he stands, an alien noise breaks the silence. As if they had appeared from nowhere, the body of the deer is now covered with a new skin, a moving, buzzing, black, bristly pelt. Flies. Millions of flies. There is a sudden explosion of movement in all directions as the flies leave the body, and he sees that all that is left of the hart is a glistening, heaving mass of corruption and maggots. The flies are everywhere. And then sound returns to the forest. It is the sound of death as leaves and birds and insects fall from the trees, tumbling against each other to lie in an unmoving carpet amongst the mulch of last year’s finery. Every sound, the rustle of leaves, the tiny rasp of insect carapaces on feathers, is an unheard message, each one standing as his accuser. In the brook, the tiny fish still shimmer, but they will never dart again, lying with their silvery sides reflecting whatever light remains in this place, their mouths open in that final gasp, as if they had given up trying to tell him anything at all.

He is rooted to the spot, and he now sees that this is true in every sense of the word, as brambles push up through the carpet of death, their tips circling, like dead men’s fingers, looking for something to clutch. They have found him, just as they have found every tree in the forest. The pliant stems have scrambled up his feet and legs, then frozen into thick, immovable ropy canes, while the greener tips still search out thornholds around his body. He raises his arms to fend them off, but the thorns catch him from the rear, and he cannot stop them. The sound of the flies is like a rasp, rising and falling, always louder. As the brambles gain a stranglehold on the trees, he sees the smooth grey bark split, and sap oozes out like golden blood.

Held fast, he casts one last despairing glance at the stagnant stream that used to run past his feet. Something is rising from the depths, something that is as trapped by rank corruption as he is, as the deer was. Bubbles of fetid gas and rotted vegetation rise from the streambed and the stench clogs his nostrils. He wonders what it is doing to the creature that is trying to free itself from the foulness of the water, whether it can survive this; and then it reaches the surface.

All that he can see is a pair of emerald green eyes. Cat’s eyes. Ella’s eyes. The look in them is one of expectation. Then, the light in those eyes starts to dim, as the brambles tighten their hold on him. Slowly, the light is extinguished, and the eyes glaze over, and, unseeing, are given over to death. His shout rings out over the forest, over even the buzzing of the flies.

“NO!”

***

Giles sat up in bed with the echo of that shout ringing in his ears, his throat hoarse, and sweat running down his back. The buzzing was still there, though, and the brambles. It was a few seconds before he was able to collect himself sufficiently to understand that Zillah lay on his legs, her claws sunk deep into the flesh of his thighs, purring in a loud, harsh voice that was unlike her normal, gentle sounds of contentment. Her green eyes, Ella eyes, were fixed on him. He remembered that cats also purr when they are hurt, and he wondered if she was injured.

Shaking off the remnants of the dream, he put a hand out to her, to disengage her claws, and to feel for injuries. She blinked, and her eyes were just Zillah eyes, and then she leapt lightly off the bed and trotted from the room.

Giles ran a hand over his face, and sat with his head resting on his bended knees for a while, before he tried to sleep again. When he did, he tossed and turned for a little time, but the pillow was hot and void of all comfort, and the dream refused to fade, simply replaying itself over and over again in his head. So, he got up and made tea. It was 2 a.m. He went into his study, wrapping his dressing gown tightly around him in the chill of the spring night.

Reaching Across the Veil still lay on the little table. He pulled another book down from the top shelf. This one was almost as old, but was properly bound, in dark brown calfskin, much scuffed. It was called The Keys of Enoch and, like the other book, it contained magic.

What he needed to do seemed best done outside, open to the elements, to the sky and the earth. Still in his dressing gown, he drew the figures of power in flour on the ground. Flour for the staff of life. Then he burned the proper candles, arranged just so, and he cast the proper herbs, and he said the carefully constructed words of summoning. After that, there was nothing to do but wait. The wind, more mournful now than it had been in the light of day, soughed around the corners of the house and through the branches of the trees, rustling the new foliage. A bird, perhaps startled from its sleep, sang a few plaintive notes from the nearby hedgerow. A scudding cloud cast its shadow over the moon. Somewhere, a fox barked in alarm. There was nothing else.

He should have expected it. Still, he went back into his study and sat with eyes red-rimmed, until the first rays of the sun lightened the eastern sky.

***

It wasn’t very much past dawn when Giles arrived at Lisa’s stables. No one else was about as he saddled up Windsor, so he left a note on the door, in case anyone thought that thieves had been there.

He spent all day hacking around, pursuing a course across the downs to the southwest of Westbury, and pursued in turn by memories of the dream. He was starting to think of it as The Dream, and that had to stop. He missed Ella, but after her death he’d never been haunted by her, not as he’d been haunted by Jenny. As he rode, though, the whisper of Windsor’s hooves in the grass, the sighing of the wind around him, the high and plaintive notes of the larks, all seemed to carry codes and messages that he was supposed to understand.

He stopped for lunch at a free house in the tiny village of Codford St Peter, nestling into the banks of the Wylye valley. St Peter was now part of the larger village of Codford St Mary, but he always liked this hamlet better, and gave it the historical identity that he preferred. There were plenty of people at the pub, eating, drinking and laughing around the benches in the beer garden, and a waitress brought him a ploughman’s lunch and a pint of bitter while he held Windsor. He loosened the girth and took the bit from the horse’s mouth so that he could graze, while Giles sat on an out-of-the-way tree stump by the riverbank and ate with one hand, keeping hold of the horse’s reins with the other. Windsor was especially well-mannered, demanding only the whole of Giles’ bread and most of his salad. It didn’t matter, because he wasn’t that hungry, so he made do with the cheese and the beer.

When they were both ready to travel on, he cut roughly northwards across the downs towards home, taking a wide, looping course to avoid the village of Imber and the huge tract of land surrounding it that was the dangerous Army firing ground. That way eventually took him up the steep and narrow lanes that led to the Westbury white horse. A perfect representation of an eighteenth century horse, and still shining white after its recent clean-up, he found time to wonder about the original figure that had been cut into the chalk here. That had been a much more primitive thing, until a long-dead steward of the equally deceased Lord Abingdon had ‘improved’ it. He liked the idea that the original had celebrated Alfred’s victory over the Vikings over twelve hundred years before, but it could never be known if that was true. He glanced up at the present-day figure, all grey cement and white paint, and suddenly, the original sprawling figure, as he remembered Gough’s drawing, seemed to overlie the later tamed beauty, and he thought that he could hear the neighing of horses, and perhaps the clash of swords, and he could almost make out the sound of human voices, shouting words to him that he couldn’t quite distinguish. Then it was gone, and only the stately figure remained on the steep chalk slope.

He pottered around that evening, but the long ride had left him stiff and a little sore, and he went for a soak in the bath. He didn’t want to listen to the sounds that might be contained in the running water, and so he stood on the landing outside his bedroom, and watched the last, long rays of the dying sun as they bloodied the landscape, before he climbed into the hot water. Then, surrounded by welcome silence and the ashwagandha-fragranced steam, he dozed a little.

*** He’s back in the forest, and it is unharmed. He trails his hand through the rippling stream, listening to the chuckling of the waters. The tiny fish that he’d seen before come and nibble at his fingers, tickling them. Somewhere, a bigger fish splashes as it takes a mayfly, perhaps the last one before darkness settles itself over the forest.

Abnormally sensitive hearing picks out the slither and munch of the tiniest denizens of the earth.

Everything here is a language, and he doesn’t have the key. He cannot understand. In frustration, he slams his hand into the streambed. All the tiny fish dart away, but even their leaving seems to have a pattern to it, like the letters of an unrecognised script, and then everything is gone.

***

Giles jerked awake to find that the bathwater was now cooling, and it was full dark outside. He towelled off roughly, pulling on his pyjamas over still-damp skin, and would have gone straight to bed except… Except, he heard soft voices. Were they real, or were they more incomprehensible sounds in his head?

Wrapping his dressing gown around him, he padded downstairs. As he did so, the voices, still pitched low, became more distinguishable, and he smiled in relief. There was also a very welcome aroma drifting up the stairs. He found Buffy and Angel sitting in the kitchen, drinking freshly brewed coffee. They returned his smile as he helped himself to a mug.

“Just visiting?”

It was Buffy who answered.

“Giles, we’ve both had some really weird dreams, and we thought you might do the Joseph thing.”

***

It was early afternoon when Angel woke up. Buffy had already left the flat, and it wasn’t long before he was ready to follow her. John had built an ornamental covered pergola, a walkway that ran from the garage flat, along the shady north side of the utility wing and to the courtyard door into the house. Giles had found, from somewhere, a series of deep cisterns, some stone, some lead, all decorated, and all old. Angel suspected that some of them might be old Roman coffins, but he’d said nothing. These were placed against the uprights of this arbour, and already there were climbing plants in them, ready to start cladding the structure. Thick trellis had been used overhead, with loose wooden slats temporarily laid over it in a solid sheet. These slats would be taken away when the evergreen ivies and winter flowering clematis had made a solid enough roofing to keep out the sun. It was decorative as well as useful, and Angel was grateful that it allowed him to come and go at any hour. He’d already thanked John, who’d carefully constructed it, with a bottle of fine Irish whiskey.

Buffy and Giles were in the study, with Giles checking over his notes. They’d exchanged experiences last night, and now was the time to try and make sense of it all. Angel took a seat a little away from the others, next to a small table beneath one of the windows – this one faced north, and the other faced east, so he was safe in this room for the rest of the day.

He’d been surprised that he’d had dreams that seemed to have something in common with Buffy’s, and even more surprised that Giles had had a similar experience. The details for all three of them were different, but the tenor remained the same: there was something they needed to hear and understand. His had been the most frightening of the three. There had been the pattern of sounds as his flesh sizzled under holy water, the crackling language of fire as it tried to consume him, the voices hidden in the minute whisperings of soil-dwelling creatures as he’d waited to rise, and the literal language of the heart as he listened to it pounding, then fluttering and faltering while he drank his victims down. Nightmare snapshots such as these weren’t unusual for him, but the difference lay in the conviction that, this time, in all of these, something was trying to speak to him.

Buffy, lying alongside him, had had slayerdreams. Now, it seemed that Giles had had watcherdreams, if there were such a thing.

As he waited patiently for the other two to finish their reprise, he moved aside some papers to find the coaster for his coffee mug. One sheet fell to the floor, leaving behind it a small pile of brochures for stable buildings. Angel smiled. The wreckage of the old stable had been cleared from the front paddock, on the other side of the ha-ha, the grass was coming through nicely now, and Giles had been able to acquire the field just behind the house. It was laid down to rapeseed at the moment, but when that was harvested, the whole thing would be ploughed and harrowed and laid to pasture. With a new stable, and an extra field, Giles’ horses could come home.

He bent down to pick up the fallen sheet, and that was a surprise. It was lined out in John’s brusque hand, and it showed rough plans for flower gardens around the house. Angel knew that there had once been flower gardens, but as Giles’ parents grew more infirm, they’d had them levelled and laid to lawn, leaving only some mature shrubberies and some trees. Since Giles’ return from California, there had been neither time nor mental space for him to reconsider the external layout of the house. Now, apparently, he was ready to do that.

As he looked at the plans, Angel became aware that the other two had fallen silent, and were looking at him.

“Nice idea, Giles. Be good to see some colour out there. I can take the night shift on the digging if you like.”

He passed the plan to Buffy.

“I can help, too. Hey, do you think that this house stands on some of those Roman remains that you seem to get around here? You know, some ancient villa?”

Giles grinned.

“I doubt it very much, Buffy, but I’ll take all the help John can get…”

The afternoon was spent in looking up dreams and portents.

“Forest. That means natural forces. Social activities of a happy nature. Ready to explore.”

“Deer. Everything related to a deer is favourable. A long-lasting friendship, good business affairs and fortune in love. I like that one.”

“It didn’t feel like that, Buffy. It felt more like a warning.”

“Flies. You are feeling annoyed by friends and maybe thinking of doing something foolish. There is a postponement of success. Angel, you aren’t going to be annoying, are you? I mean, that dress was a real bargain…”

Angel looked up, his frown deepening.

“Dress? Annoying? When am I ever annoying? Did I buy you a new dress?”

Giles smiled, appreciating the fact that there was another helpless, clueless male in the room.

“Perhaps this is more the thing. Insects. Overall, a dream of insects denotes financial gains, abundant means, and also a mystery will be solved. Now that would be a good thing.”

They bantered on, trying to find a pattern, something recognisable, delving into ever-darker books, until Giles tossed an ancient book down onto his desk. It was Slayer Dreams vol xviii 1547-1622, a thick volume, its red leather binding crumbling to the touch.

“None of this makes any sense.”

Knowing that he hadn’t finished his thought yet, Buffy and Angel remained silent.

“None of it has the right feel to it. However we interpret what we’ve found about dreams and portents, the overall tenor is wrong. It’s as if whatever caused these dreams is using a different language. What do you think?”

They both nodded. There was nothing here that seemed in any way to fit how they had felt in those dreams. They were in the process of discussing other approaches when a car crunched over the gravel in the courtyard. Giles went to the door, and Angel recognised the visitor’s voice as Detective Chief Inspector Collins. He was shown into the safety of the drawing room – a very normal room this, with no esoterica, no ancient books, no scrolls, and definitely no weapons of any sort. Ever. That was the safe room for visitors.

A moment later Giles put his head around the study door.

“DCI Collins. He wants to see all of us.”

That Collins was a tall man wasn’t hidden by the fact that he was lounging at ease on the settee. His long legs stretched out in front of him, casually crossed at the ankles. He’d come in a suit, but he’d discarded the jacket, which now lay next to him. Angel saw a man in early middle age, still fit, dark hair just starting to grey at the temples, and a pair of candid grey eyes.

As they seated themselves, Collins reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out an envelope. He addressed Angel.

“I came to say thank you for all the help you’ve given us with the murders at Corbett’s farm. I’ve managed to get you some fees as our expert witness. Standard rates, but this might say thank you a bit more loudly than I can.”

He held out the envelope.

“I had it made out in the company name. I hope that was all right? I thought that Accounts could probably cope better with that than just a cheque for Angel, although it might have been a near run thing.”

Angel looked inside the envelope and then passed it to Giles.

“Thank you. That was thoughtful, although not necessary.”

Giles coughed a little at that, and passed the envelope to Buffy, who was signalling her impatience. When she looked at the cheque, she saw shoes and a new summer wardrobe.

“And I came to ask you something else.”

It was Giles who answered.

“Ask away.”

Collins sat up and folded his hands together, suddenly uncomfortable.

“Bodies are being stolen. We’ve looked into the possibility that people are taking them for their parts, so to speak, with some sort of medical scam, but that seems unlikely. I know that harvesting body parts illegally might be big business elsewhere, but in this country, there isn’t yet an active black market, thank goodness, and in any event, I gather they usually only take bits and pieces, and leave most of the body.

“I’m aware that there are lots of other strange things that people can get up to with corpses, so I just wondered if you’d heard of anything more… paranormal… happening.”

Collins ground to a halt. He was essentially an old-fashioned man, and didn’t like to detail some of the things that he’d recently read about, especially in mixed company. And especially when the sole woman present was blushing rosy red with embarrassment. Giles had bent his entire attention on Collins, and it was Angel who answered.

“Yes,” he said, his voice low and grave. “I do hear that people can get up to all sorts of things with corpses.”

Buffy gave a soft, choking cough and hurried out of the room. Collins started after her, a worried frown on his face.

“Is she okay? I didn’t mean to upset her…”

“No, no,” Angel reassured. “She’s fine. She… she’s had one of those summer coughs. It’s almost gone now, but I expect she’s gone for a glass of water.”

It seemed that he was right, because Buffy returned just then, wiping her eyes with a piece of kitchen towel. She smiled sweetly at Collins as she sat down.

“I’m sorry, you were saying?”

“Yes, start at the beginning,” Giles added.

“Well, we wouldn’t actually have been anywhere near knowing what was happening if it hadn’t been for a smart constable, and a lucky break. One of the Wessex uniform boys, with some aspirations to be a detective, was off duty and using this instant messenger thing to a friend of his in the Thames Valley force. The friend mentioned that he was trying to track down a corpse that went missing yesterday from Oxford, and that rang a bell with young Ronnie. One was lost in Bristol the day before. He ferreted around and he’s found four missing bodies in total, all within the last week. All young men, all comparatively complete and healthy corpses – if you know what I mean.”

Here, he threw an apologetic glance at Buffy for speaking of such things, but she nodded him on.

“I get it. No big auto crashes, no major injuries, nothing to spoil the bodies.”

“That’s right. They’ve all vanished without a trace, and before any sort of autopsy could be performed, so they really are complete.”

She frowned, and they all waited for her to voice whatever it was that was troubling her.

“Did they have any wounds? Any… animal bites? Severe blood loss?”

“No, nothing at all like that, on preliminary inspection. I wonder, can you think of any reason? Any weird festivals that I don’t know about, any strange occult rituals?”

Giles looked at Angel and Buffy in turn. They both shook their heads. Well, they could think of lots of reasons, but none that seemed appropriate here. None, at least, that they felt able to talk about without talking among themselves first.

“Off the top,” he said to Collins, “no, nothing comes to mind. That doesn’t mean there isn’t something, so we’ll get on it right away. If we find something, we’ll give you a call. We’ve still got your number, I think?”

Angel nodded an affirmative.

“Thank you. I hope you can come up with something. They seem to have struck in one place or another most nights. I’ve got a few men watching mortuaries that haven’t yet been hit, but that’s blind guesswork. I’d prefer to be a bit more effective.”

With that, he took his leave, and the Project Paranormal team prepared to hit the books and the internet.

Angel was thoughtful.

“Giles, there is the possibility that these are vampires, but I’d expect them to be much closer together, not scattered at random like this. The bodies have none of the typical signs, and there are no reports of associated clusters of deaths. I don’t think the answer is going to be so simple. Apart from that, there are lots of reasons why bodies might be taken. Scavengers of one sort or another, although there’s no reason for them to want complete bodies unless they’re making sure they get all their vitamins and minerals… Then there’s necromancy, or necrophilia, or anything else beginning with necro-. Zombies, of course, and some other forms of the undead. Some black magic rituals, although mostly they prefer their victims to still be alive. Where do you want to start? And how much do we want to tell Collins?”

“Why don’t we start with a general trawl through, see whether there’s anything odd going on, and whether there are any other portents we need to take account of. With a bit of luck, it really will be just body part harvesting, despite Collins’ doubts, and the remaining cadavers will turn up minus skin, corneas, chunks of bone, and whatever else they want. Distressing for the bereaved, but much better than the alternatives.”

And so they settled down to research, Angel on ceremonies and practices that required fresh cadavers, Buffy on demonic feasts and festivals that fell at this time of the year, and Giles on dreams and portents. Every so often, Giles would make some telephone calls to contacts who might know whether zombies were back in fashion. He found nothing but ignorance. When she’d exhausted the merrymaking possibilities, Buffy moved on to surfing the net to check for other clues to disappearing corpses.

They came up with the Feast of Maiduif, thought to be held every two hundred and fifty years, on 17 May. It had been speculated that human corpses were involved in that, although there were no surviving human spectators to confirm this.

Then Angel found the Feast of Joan of Arc, celebrated by a few rare demonic sects claiming to be the source of the voices in her head that had so inconvenienced the English. They held their festival on 30 May, and charred bodies sometimes turned up afterwards. They’d all been female up to now, though. Buffy countered that with the Waccaran Mysteries, celebrated by Waccar demons on 5 June, about which very little was known, hence the appellation ‘Mysteries’, but associated with the disappearance of a number of humans.

Giles offered the Agonies of Nilammon, on 6 June, in which captive humans were treated as the sect’s founder had been – tortured to death over a long period. His next find was a ritual involving the patron saint, Dymphna, an Irish girl who protected against possession by demons. Her feast day was 15 May, and had been known to provoke a backlash from young demons suffering an excess of demonic testosterone, and looking for any excuse for some action.

None of these were satisfactory, but they were the best that they had come up with. The only way of improving their chances of solving the problem was to be able to get out in the field and ask questions, probably using Angel’s patented burst of violence. They had nowhere to start, though, and so they started here, with more research. Buffy became more and more impatient as the day wore on, and even Angel could be heard tutting under his breath.

Much later, as Buffy and Angel were crossing the courtyard to their own bedroom, she felt his arm snake around her waist.

“So, you think there are all sorts of strange things that you can do with a corpse?”

She punched him in the ribs hard enough to make him grunt.

“That’s what you said, not me!”

“You seemed to find it funny – or was that really a cough you developed?”

She couldn’t help but laugh.

“Stop winding me up!”

“Why? I thought we might go and explore some of those strange things… And if you’re already wound up…”

“Ah, if you mean that sort of winding up…”

They’d reached the foot of the external staircase, and he unhanded her, but only long enough to turn her towards him and to wrap both arms around her, pulling her in for a long and satisfying kiss. Then they went upstairs to explore.

***

He was back in Hell, or so it seemed. He was bound, and in the dark, and something was trailing across his skin in large, looping, fiery scrawls. There seemed to be a pattern, a shape that he should understand, and he thought he might, if only he could see. With that thought, the darkness lifted, until it was no more than a misty greyness. His naked skin was clear and unblemished, but in front of him sat a large scorpion. Its tail was held high and forward, as if it were ready to sting, but the sting itself, a small drop of venom clinging to the very tip, was curled backwards.

At a distance, it’s hard to see the head of a scorpion, sitting deep beneath the thick, protective, carapace, and yet he was certain that the scorpion was staring at him. He couldn’t move his body, but if he moved his head, the scorpion skittered around until it was once more face to face with him. He wondered whether he was back in hell – ‘My father chastised you with whips…’ Been there, done that… ‘But I will chastise you with scorpions.’ Was that what this was? When he spoke, his throat was dry and voice was cracked and hoarse.

“What do you want?”

Foolishness. As if the scorpion could want something. Yet, it gave an answer, of sorts. Its tiny, clawed feet clicking on what could only be a stone floor, it darted forward onto his thigh. There it paused and, raising itself high on its legs, it leaned forward, its stare now intense. As he watched, it raised the sting, and slowly, slowly brought it forward and down until it rested against his flesh. He could feel the coolness of the liquid seeping from the tip. Then, there was a smarting prick and a flash of fire as the sting was thrust into his flesh. The scorpion continued, again and again, deliberately positioning the sting and then stabbing it sharply in. With each sting, it repositioned itself, until the red, raised marks on his thigh formed a large, coiling pattern. It matched the way in which the arachnid now held its tail high over its back. It was the number 6.

***

She lay in the sunshine on a grassy hillside. The grass was short, close-cropped, and very fine-leaved. It felt springy, and although she didn’t remember coming, she knew that when she had walked here, her feet had bounced on the turf at every step. She should be getting back. There were things to do, urgent things, although she couldn’t quite recall what they might be. And so she lay, enjoying the heat, and the sun on her face, and the sound of birdsong, the singer too high for even slayer eyes to pick out in the clear cerulean sky.

And then the bird fell silent, and a huge bank of cloud loomed into the east, filling the horizon. It wasn’t the stately white cloud of an English summer downpour. Rather, it roiled and seethed, a greasy purple colour, shot through with red and black and orange, as if it were unaccountably on fire. It boiled over the sky, blanketing completely everywhere it went. As she watched, a ragged edge of the cloud, cleaner in colour than the rest, broke away and sped in front of the heaving mass. As that ragged edge passed over her, snowflakes as large as her palm fell all around. They lay, pristine in their lacy beauty for a heartbeat, and then melted away.

A solid shadow fell to her left, and when she looked, Kendra was by her side. She wore a red choker around her neck. No, not a choker. The thin line, with delicate drops suspended from it, was the gift of Drusilla’s fingernails. She was studying a snowflake.

“They’re beautiful. We never get these at home.”

“Kendra, you’ve lost your accent?”

“Some things you lose, some things you gain. I’m still me. I’m me in you. I exist in you now. I am what you want to remember, nothing else.”

The red line around her throat disappeared.

“Why are you here?”

Kendra shrugged as she held out her palm for another snowflake.

“It’s your dream. You tell me. It’s all here, you know. You don’t need me here to see it.”

She took Buffy’s hand in hers and held it out for a snowflake.

“They’re all different and they’re all the same. Look at them. Let them speak to you.”

She traced her finger around the hexagon, counting the sides.

“One, two, three, four, five, s…”

And then Kendra was gone, and with her the grass and the sky and the snow. All that was left was the fire.

***

He was back in the forest. The new beech leaves, still the colour of young peas rather than the deeper, older green that they would become, sighed and whispered in the breeze. Then the breeze stiffened, and a blast of heat gusted through the forest. In its wake the leaves, shrivelled and seared around the edges, fell onto the path around him.

The grey-barked trees were stripped of their new greenery, the young twigs browned and withered, yet still they leaned towards him and murmured. The breeze sprang up again, eddying around his feet is if it were confused, dazed by the violence they had just witnessed. As it brushed past, uncertain, now stronger, now fading, it whipped the leaves into small piles, caught against the low undergrowth at each side of the path. The few that were left in front of his feet had fallen into curving figures, a script scrawled along the woodland ride, a never-ending repetition of the figure 6.

***

Giles was the first one to wake the next morning, ready to start work on both dreams and corpses. Almost ready. Angel and Buffy arrived as he was yawning over his coffee in the breakfast room. Angel shushed his love into silence until hot, buttered croissants were ready for the two humans, and more coffee made for all of them, with a glass of blood for him. Then she could be contained no longer.

“It’s something to do with 6. We both had weird dreams again. They both were about sixes...”

“So was mine.”

Angel took a deep drink of his blood – strange how he no longer felt uncomfortable about that in this company – and asked, “So, what do we know about the number 6?”

They moved into the dining room. With its west-facing windows, there was no need to draw the curtains yet, and none of them felt like excluding the bright sunny day outside. Books and papers were spread around, and the new bluetooth-enabled laptop brought in from the study. To the mystery of the disappearing bodies, and the enigma of their dreams, was added the riddle of the numbers. They started with numbers.

“Hey, you guys? Did you know that as at now the average UK home has 4.7 television sets? So who’s got 3.7 of ours, and what do they do with them all?”

Giles looked confused and Angel simply smirked at Buffy’s non-sequitur. Google had its limitations when given broad search criteria. Then it was Angel’s turn to look puzzled, as a thought struck him.

“Giles, are you sure that we weren’t seeing a 9 upside down? Easily mistaken?”

“I… I don’t think so. I had no doubts when I was dreaming. What about you two?”

Both of them shook their heads, but the seeds of doubt had been sown.

“Let’s continue with 6 for the moment, and then move onto 9.”

Buffy took the laptop after their second cup of tea.

“Wow, look at this. December 5th, 1664, a ship sank in the Menai Strait, with just one survivor, a Hugh Williams. Same place, December 5th 1785, ship sinks, one survivor, a Hugh Williams. Same thing, 1860, and again a Hugh Williams hits the only jackpot on the Menai Straits. You don’t think…”

Buffy looked up at two confused expressions.

“Well, we’re looking for odd things. Maybe Hugh lived a very long time! Is the Menai Straits anywhere near here? Or the Malverns? Look here… Are you interested in a mansion for sale with fifty-five thousand books? Sounds as though that would suit you, Giles. Sorry, not a mansion. A monastery. Or an abbey. Or something. Stanbrook Abbey. It’s got too few nuns to keep going. They’re selling up and moving to Yorkshire.”

Giles’ face showed a little-boy longing at the prospect of fifty-five thousand books, but he sighed and continued with his work. An hour later, it was his turn.

“My goodness, Angel, I see that a whole batch of the ancient laws imposed on Ireland to keep the natives at bay are to be repealed.”

Angel quirked an eyebrow. Buffy moved to look over Giles’ shoulder and started reading.

“They’re losing an Act of 1360 which makes provisions against people associating with the Irish, using their language, or sending children to be nursed among them. Aww, honey, we aren’t illegal anymore. After six hundred and forty six years…”

Giles laughed and Angel looked puzzled.

“I’ll do this one, Buffy. Also a 1366 Act which forbids intermarriage between the English and the Irish. You’re American, Buffy, doesn’t say anything about Americans.”

“Me, me, me, Giles… The 1181 Assize of Arms Act, which forbids Jews to wear armour. That one’s been around a long time.”

“You’ll like this one, Angel. The 1310 Act that only those of the English nation are to be received into Religious orders.”

Angel had started to chuckle, and now broke into a full laugh.

“Are you two serious?”

They both nodded vigorously.

“I’ll say we’re serious. It said so in a newspaper about... um… oh, yes, two months ago, so it must be true. I imagine these laws must have been a great burden to you as a young man…”

Giles’ eyes were twinkling as he said it, and it was Angel who put on the mock stare.

“Work. Remember? Oh, and the one about associating certainly was a great burden, more observed in the breach, if you know what I mean. The one about Religious orders, well, what can I say? But, if we’d known the one about armour, we’d have found some poor unfortunate Jew and dressed him up in a stolen suit of armour. High spirits, you know… Still, good to see that armour can now be the costume of choice.”

It was lunchtime before they’d all accumulated enough to start comparing notes. By that time, half of Giles’ library seemed to be spread over the table and over the floor. Buffy pushed the laptop away with a sigh.

“Six means equilibrium, harmony, balance. That’s a good thing, right?”

“Union of polarity, the hermaphrodite represented by the two interlaced triangles. The upward-pointing one is male, fire, the heavens. The downward facing one is female, the water, and the earth.”

“Are you reading the Da Vinci Code by mistake?”

“NO! I’m reading Beneath Mathematics, by Arnold Spinker, and a very turgid volume it is, too! ”

“Oh. Well, this says that six is the symbol of luck, love, health, beauty, chance. That’s another good thing, right?”

“In Hebrew it’s meditation and intelligence. There were six days of Creation.”

“In Chinese, it represents the Universe – four cardinal points plus above and below.”

Angel put his book down. “There are three of us, dreaming about sixes. 666. That’s the number of the beast, isn’t it?”

Giles gave a snort of derision.

“ ‘Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six.’ Rev:13:18. That the one?

“It’s more the number of sensationalism and a lack of scholarship! It started with the study of gematria, in which each letter in an alphabet is assigned a number. The majority of people seem to think that the number 666 gives you the Latin name of Nero, which it doesn’t unless you add another letter in, but you can also get 666 from Bill Gates’ name, and from www. Actually, I have some sympathy for that viewpoint, come to think of it…”

He shook his head a little regretfully.

“But, a lot of other people believe it means the Papacy. No, the man who wrote Revelations lived when Nero was dead and cremated. He thought in Hebrew and wrote in Latin. He was writing about the frailty of man, warning about greed and the lust for power. Six, in biblical terms, is the number of imperfection. 666 represents a tripling of imperfection, in matters religious, political and social. It’s the number of Man. I don’t think it’s any more than that… Mind you, Nero died on 9th June; perhaps there’s something significant about that date. It’s only about a week away… Perhaps it should be 9 that we’re looking at after all.”

There was something like an awed silence for a second or two.

“So, forget the Devil. Imperfect man is going to be recreated into something perfect and beautiful and intelligent. Sounds like the sales pitch for becoming a vampire.”

Angel’s smile as he said it was impish, and Buffy wanted to hug him. He was showing his dry wit more often nowadays, but it still wasn’t often enough for her. She gave her voice a tone of mock resignation.

“Oh, well, I suppose it’s the time of year for another apocalypse.”

Giles looked in mock disapprobation over the top of his glasses. “Not one more apocalypse. I simply won’t allow it.”

He stared off into space for a few moments.

“Mind you, I’ve just remembered that the 9th of June is the start of the World Cup. That could be pretty apocalyptic.”

Buffy wrinkled her nose.

“World Cup?”

“Football. Or soccer to you, I suppose. Takes place every four years. Perhaps there’s some sort of esoteric link between the death date of Nero, who used to like to play for the masses if you recall, and the 2006 World Cup? Hm?”

“Giles, you’d be amazed at how important things like the World Cup can be to demons. The rivalry, the passions… the gambling.”

“Yes, Angel, but it happens every four years. Why should this one be special?”

Giles paused, then, and said more seriously, “Do we think that these dreams are in any way related to the disappearing corpses? Have we found anything at all useful on that? I haven’t…”

He trailed off as a car drew up in the courtyard with a crunch of gravel. It was DCI Collins, and his sergeant, Gavin Lincoln.

They took the policemen into the breakfast room and offered coffee. Collins looked harried, to say the least, and Lincoln looked grim. The sergeant ostensibly moved his notebook into his inside pocket. Collins pushed his mug to one side a little and asked the question uppermost in his mind.

“I hope you’ve got some news for me?”

“Well, unless you want to hear about zombies, vampires or Frankenstein monsters, not much, I’m afraid. Or Bill Gates, I suppose. Or even the World Cup. What about you?”

Giles smiled to try and lighten the disappointment, and the policemen looked puzzled. The moment passed, and Collins scrubbed his hand through his hair before answering.

“We’ve got one corpse back, and gained another.”

He took several sips from the hot coffee before continuing.

“A couple of days ago, a man walking his dog found a body buried in a shallow grave in some woodland in the West Midlands. This morning, the identity was confirmed as the very first corpse to go missing last week.”

“Someone went to the trouble of stealing it and then just buried it?”

As she asked the question, Buffy could feel her palm itching for a stake.

“No.” Collins seemed reluctant to continue, but the others kept silent until he did. “No, they didn’t just bury him. He was badly burned over almost all of his body. The pathologist says that he curled up into a ball to escape the flames, and he put his hands over his face to protect himself.”

“You mean the man that was already dead?”

Giles took his glasses off and gave them a polish, as he waited for the answer to his question.

“Apparently so.”

“And the body was… normal… otherwise?”

“So I’m told.”

“Any chance that this was a natural occurrence, the result of the fire?”

“About as much chance as England winning the Ashes twice running.”

Buffy didn’t follow cricket.

“That would be a no, then?”

“A definite no.”

“What about the other body?”

“Well, that was found washed up on the coast, south of Bristol. He was a middle-aged man who’d been beaten to death, but not until after he’d been tortured almost to death. Coastguard thinks the current might have brought him from any point east of Ilfracombe. Or he might have gone in where he was found.”

“And you think the body is linked to this case?”

“I think it’s possible. In any event, he’s got your name and address in his address book. He was French. Ever heard of a man called Michel Benoit?”

“You think we’re involved in this?”

Buffy’s question was more of a challenge.

Collins’ smile was thin. He looked at the three of them, such a strange assortment as they were. A middle-aged librarian who had found time to be a world expert on some ancient artefacts; a young woman who looked as though she belonged on a California beach; and a cultured young man who could sense bodies in the ground. He’d checked them all out, of course. He’d got a lot of background. A history of teenage violence for the girl; a woman dead in Giles’ bed; a lot more that he’d still got to look at in detail. And Angel? He’d found him at Angel Investigations in Los Angeles, and that was all. No record of entry into the UK. No other information. Apart from the business in Hollywood, it was as if the man had never existed. There would be other names, he supposed, and he would find those out. But, at the end of the day, although they all seemed to be involved in things that Collins would almost prefer never to find out about, these were not people who would top his Most Wanted list.

“I’m not that desperate. Yet. So, do you know Michel Benoit?”

The last question was directed at Giles, who looked down in thought.

“Yes, I think I do remember that name… But it’s a long time ago… yes, I was at a conference with him, ten or fifteen years ago. We corresponded on professional matters occasionally for the next couple of years.”

“What sort of professional matters?”

“Ancient artefacts, but just for the moment, I can’t recall which ones. It will come to me. If you give me a few hours, I’ll check my records.”

“Good. Please do that. Meantime, I’ll get back to sticking pins in maps to put people on watch at mortuaries…”

“Why don’t you look at the obits?”

Buffy was familiar with obituaries – she’d used them often enough as a shortcut to checking out new vampires due to rise. Gavin Lincoln was slower to understand than Collins.

“Why check those?”

“They seem to be after fresh young bodies without much in the way of injury. Check the obits and see who fits the bill.”

Collins shook his head.

“Very often the obituaries won’t get into the paper until a few days after the death. That’s too late. They seem to want fresh bodies, and they take them pretty well on the first night, before even an autopsy can be done. Thanks for the suggestion, though.”

Angel had been deep in thought, and then he turned to Buffy, giving her a long look. He hoped she’d go along with what he was going to suggest.

“If the obits are too late, you need to give them some actual news. They seem to have a source of information about where there’s a body that meets their specification. Give them what they want – a newly-deceased, undamaged body. One whose whereabouts you know. And make sure the press know about it.”

Collins looked sceptical.

“You mean I should do a bit of police brutality in the cells?”

“No. You can give them me.”

“What?”

“WHAT?”

“!”

***

When it was over, Philip had a strong enough stomach not to vomit, but it had been a close call.

Francis had brought over to him the large black tome that he’d been leafing through, and had seated himself on the bench by Philip’s side, for all the world as if they were comfortable companions. The book definitely spoke against the comfortable companions thesis. It was called The Book of Nativities, which might sound innocuous enough, but it had a subtitle. Of the Earth’s Cycles of Death and Rebirth, and Mastery Thereof. Francis had run his hand over the skin that formed the book’s cover, and that simple act had made Philip shudder a little. Legend had it that one of the most powerful demons in Hell had given the skin from his thigh to make this cover, and that one day, he would claim it back. Personally.

“You know what you need to do, Philip?”

Philip had nodded miserably, and wondered whether Michel Benoit had received his note. He hated to think that he’d put the mild-mannered archivist in harm’s way, but of the few people he could trust, he’d been the nearest to the artefact that was his best hope of giving a warning, and the man would surely understand the cryptic message that was all he’d dared send.

Francis had seemed satisfied that Philip would play his part, and watched silently as the preparations were completed – the perfect drawing of a pentacle inside a circle, the dark light provided by an outer circle of black candles, interspersed with sprigs of yew and lilac, and bowls holding smouldering chrysanthemum leaves, all plants associated with death and the Underworld. Philip found it all a little melodramatic, and unnecessary, particularly since he didn’t think they’d got the fundamentals right. He wasn’t about to tell Francis that, though.

They had laid the body inside the circle, taking off the gris-gris as they did so, a small cloth bag he’d hung around the man’s neck to keep the body fresh until it was wanted. Philip knew that it worked better than refrigeration in the short term. It should do. After all, he’d made them up himself, at Francis’s… request. He normally didn’t like to associate his work with voodoun, but he didn’t want to associate at all with what was happening here, and so he thought of it as a gris-gris, as if that could assuage his conscience. He’d do anything, though, to get the boy back unharmed.

When the body was in position, and the ritual ready, Philip had been called on to do what he’d been brought here to do: the thing that he would have to do several times more before this was over. Other than Francis, the important people hadn’t been here today, of course, since this was an experiment, a trial run, to make sure that everything worked smoothly ahead of the big day. There had just been half a dozen of the Initiates.

The spirit – a small and insignificant one in comparative terms, although powerful enough to act as a good test subject – had been summoned. Then it had all gone wrong. The book’s author surely hadn’t written of the flame and heat that had accompanied the demon, burning the dead man beyond any hope of use. Nor had Francis anticipated the reaction of the body, curling away from the fire, trying unsuccessfully to defend himself. The movements of the corpse, the greasy smell of burning flesh, and the sound as it sizzled – these things would live with Philip for years to come. If there were any years to come.

***

They’d argued for what seemed like long hours, but were only long minutes. ‘They’ did not include Angel, in the sense that Angel allowed all the arguments to sweep over him, with no visible effect.

Giles, however, understood.

“No, no. Angel’s right. You can give them him. It will work. I think…”

“Have you two run mad?”

It wasn’t a Buffy expression. It was one she’d picked up from Giles. She’d liked it because it gave her a good visual, and it was doing that now. She couldn’t imagine what was going through their skulls – were they going to share with two strangers, two policemen, just what Angel was? She needn’t have worried. In the face of the men’s patent disbelief, Angel’s explanation was smooth.

“I’ve studied some of the deeper meditation techniques, where you can bring your body’s functions almost to a halt. I’ve been taught by masters… By Eastern masters. I can carry this off. They’ll never know the difference.”

He hoped. If it was human business, he’d almost certainly get away undetected. Probably. If it was demon business, that might be different, but he’d face that problem when he had to.

Collins stood up abruptly.

“No. I can’t endanger civilians like that.”

His eyes, though, said that he’d liked the notion. Buffy, for her part, breathed a sigh of relief.

***

During the rest of that day, they followed dead end after dead end, as they threw themselves back into research with a new sense of urgency. Now, the creation of zombies was back in the mix, with a vengeance. They had amassed a depressingly large amount of material but nothing that stood out. None of Giles’ contacts had professed any knowledge of stolen bodies, other than the media reports, nor of any zombie activity. There was definitely no noticeable clustering of vampire activity. They began to wonder whether bodies were being stolen here to use in another country, but what would be the point of that? Bodies were always freely available everywhere. It was a law of nature.

Buffy dearly wanted to go and hit something, to make the object of her attention tell her the answers under penalty of extreme violence, and even the normally imperturbable Angel was becoming impatient with their lack of progress. Yet still they were in the maze, without even a thread. Not for the first time, Giles silently cursed the loss of many of his old circle of contacts, and the dearth of new ones.

They worked on into the not-so-small hours, before it was impossible to ignore the fatigue. Giles was the first to capitulate, tossing down a priceless incunabulum as though it were the evening paper, which also lay on the table.

“I’ve read this page a dozen times in the last hour, and I haven’t taken in a word of it. I need to get some sleep.”

Angel put down the 18th century anthology of demonic festivals rather more carefully, and Buffy pushed the laptop away from her.

“Yeah, just a few hours…”

She trailed off as she thought of what might await her in those few hours. What might await all of them. Angel smiled, amused. Not at the prospect of dreams, or, rather, Dreams, but at the way he could read Buffy’s fears like a book. He wished that he’d got as much from the real books. He made his voice a question.

“ ‘To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub…’?”

She simply nodded, and Angel started to sort through the mounds of books and papers, stacking them neatly. He didn’t want to remember the rest of the quotation. Giles shook his head.

“Don’t worry about clearing up, Angel. We’ll do that in…”

He was interrupted by the telephone. They were accustomed to phone calls at odd hours, but somehow the shrilling ring held ominous overtones. Giles answered. It was Collins. He sounded weary and angry at the same time. Another body had disappeared, the loss noticed only fifteen minutes ago, but no trace could be found. Was Angel still offering, and could he really do it?

Buffy wrapped her arms around herself, hugging her ribs, looking down at the mass of yellowing pages on the table. She didn’t say a word. Angel looked at her for a long moment, testing her scent, reading her body language, and then he nodded to Giles. The assurance was given. Collins would come before lunch.

If any of them had dreams that night, they were the normal everyday dreams, the processes used by the mind to rationalise and store what it had learned during the day. They slept in late, while their minds processed. Martha, when she arrived the next morning, saw the jumble of books, the laptop still running, the sinkful of coffee-rimed mugs, and went about her chores as silently as she could, so as not to wake anyone who might be sleeping in the house.

***

Francis wasn’t stupid, by any means. Far from it. Philip watched in silence as the old circle was carefully erased, and something new drawn. A double circle. Or, rather, two circles that intersected in the pointed oval of the Vesica Pisces, one of the most potent figures in sacred geometry. Francis had learned.

The Vesica Pisces. Symbol of the joining of deities to produce offspring, and that thought was too dreadful for Philip to contemplate. Vesica Pisces. A source of immense power and energy, and exactly what Francis ought to have had in the first place. Perhaps the most powerful figure in the Age of Pisces, and one that might have a desperate life of its own in bringing that Age to a close.

The dark lights were lit, supported by the bowls of sacred plants, and the Initiates made ready.

A new body was brought to the chamber, and the gris-gris removed from around its neck. It was placed in one of the circles, and Francis gestured to Philip. For the sake of his grandson, the older man hid the reluctance that he felt, and did what he’d been brought here to do. When he’d finished, the body spasmed, and opened its eyes, fear and confusion contorting its expression before it smoothed into blankness. The Initiates recommenced their chanting.

A new spirit was summoned in billowing smoke and flame, but the heat of its passage was confined to the far circle. The other circle, together with the Vesica Pisces and the rest of the cavern, were all protected by walls of power, walls of magic. The living body remained undamaged. As the portal receded, the summoned spirit, a dark, featureless, humanoid shape, approached the lines of the vesica, but dare not go further. It looked hungrily at the body.

“Move it into the vesica, Philip.”

Obedient to Francis’ command, he held his hand out to the living dead and pulled it to its feet, grateful that, although it had life, the creature’s soul was long gone. The Initiates took up their chanting again, a new spell this time. As he pushed it forward into the oval space, the creature stumbled and fell into the far circle. With a howl of triumph, buoyed up on the words resonating around the chamber, the spirit wrapped itself around the body and sank into the flesh. Then it was gone from sight.

Abruptly, the chant terminated, and all those gathered in that chalk-cut cavern held their collective breath.

The man in the circle stood up and inspected himself closely.

“Very nice.”

As he spoke, he looked at Philip, still standing in the other circle. Philip turned his back to hide his despair.

***

They all slept well that night, without dreams, or at least without the sort of dreams that you remember the next morning. Collins and Lincoln were there half an hour before noon. As Martha let them in, they could see that the sergeant’s face was set in a frown of disapproval. There were no preambles.

“Angel, are you absolutely sure that you want to do this?”

Angel nodded, without even looking at Buffy. Her scent radiated her dislike of the idea, hidden to human eyes behind a bland exterior, but he knew that she was resigned to it.

“I’m grateful. But if I had someone who could do what you claim to do, I wouldn’t entertain using you for a minute. This could be dangerous and, if we go ahead, you’re going to have to do exactly as I tell you. Understood?”

Angel nodded again. There was no point arguing the toss. He’d just do as he felt necessary when the time came. Collins held his hand out to Lincoln.

“Pass it over, Gavin.”

The sergeant passed over a capsule.

“This is a tracking device, and a very expensive piece of kit,” Collins explained. “It’s got a radius of two miles. We’ll be parked up close to the mortuary where your ‘body’ will be kept, and as soon as we see the signal start to move, we’ll be following. When we’re sure we’ve ID’d the vehicle you’re in, there are three unmarked cars around the town ready to trade places with us so they don’t spot us too easily.”

He held out the capsule.

“You need to swallow it. We’ll get it back in the… natural… course of events, but it’ll stay in place for three days. We’ll have you back by tomorrow morning, though.”

Angel stared dubiously at the capsule. If he swallowed it, they wouldn’t ever get it back, but more importantly, he was pretty sure that demons and new technology would fail to co-exist. He was also pretty sure which one would win. That wouldn’t help the tracking system…

Not unnaturally, Collins misunderstood his hesitation.

“It looks quite large, but it’s shaped to go down easily.”

“Okay. I’ll be back in a minute.”

As Angel stood, Buffy rose with him, but he shook his head and she sank back into her seat. Once outside the drawing room, he stepped across the hall and into the toilet next to the study. Bolting the door, he took out a pocket knife, then pulled off his shoes and dropped his jeans. He braced his right foot on the toilet seat as he opened the knife. It was a red Swiss Army knife, given to him by John and Martha last Christmas. He’d been amazed that anyone would want to give him a Christmas gift, amazed and oddly touched, and he always had this with him. It had proved surprisingly useful, although no more surprisingly than now. So far he hadn’t needed to use the implement for getting Boy Scouts out of horses’ hooves, but this sharp little blade would be perfect.

Grabbing a handful of toilet tissue, he made a deep cut on the outside of his thigh, wincing with the sharp flash of pain, and pushed the capsule in. He pressed down hard with the wad of tissue. With his sluggish circulation, he bled more slowly than humans, but he did still bleed. The cut was deep, and before he felt it close over, he’d thrown the first blood-soaked wad into the toilet bowl, and was on his second. The skin was slightly lumpy over the capsule, but it would stay there, unharmed, until he cut it out again. Or until his body pushed it out, but that would be a while yet.

Flushing the bloody tissue away, he dressed, then rejoined the others. It was Giles who told him what they had agreed – the plan that the three of them had devised before the arrival of the policemen.

“Angel. We’re going to play it all for real. You’re going to die of unknown causes, here. We will be out on some errand while you enter your state of… erm… deep meditation. The ambulance crew will be summoned. We grieving relatives – you don’t mind us being relatives, do you? - will refuse a post-mortem on the grounds of strongly-held religious belief. There will be mutterings from police sources about a judicial application for a post-mortem in case of suspicious circumstances.

“The local newspaper will find all this out, and it should be sufficiently interesting to be syndicated at least across the South. The truth won’t be known to anyone who doesn’t need to know. The Chief Inspector and the Sergeant will leave in a few minutes, but will stay close so that they are the first to respond. Buffy and I will take Martha to the shops for something while you decide where to make yourself comfortable – the hall, I suggest, or they’ll take chunks out of the door jambs with the trolley – and we shall be suitably overcome when we arrive back and find you suddenly and inexplicably deceased. How does that sound?”

Angel grinned.

“Sounds very mysterious to me. Perfect.”

And so it was.

When Giles and Buffy brought Martha and two rabbits back from the expedition to the butcher’s, entering by the courtyard door, Angel stood in the kitchen doorway, waiting for them. He moved forward and sat down in his chosen spot. Buffy, seeing the warmth glowing from his skin, bent over and whispered in his ear.

“Have you fed?” “A couple of pints at body heat. I’m good for a while now.”

Then she amused him with a girly shriek, dropped her own shopping of magazines and fruit in a dramatic arc across the floor, 999 was duly dialled, and Angel lay back and arranged his long limbs artistically across the tiles. The ambulance crew arrived with some speed, Collins and Lincoln hot on their heels, and the paramedics pronounced life to be extinct. Giles saw Collins momentarily close his eyes in sheer relief.

The crew, with some help from Lincoln, and a great deal of interference from a sobbing Buffy and a few loose oranges, managed to lift the body onto the collapsed trolley. Angel was swathed head to toe in thick white blankets, strapped firmly onto the trolley, and taken out to the waiting ambulance without so much as a telltale wisp of smoke, although Giles thanked Providence for an overcast day and a sudden summer thunder shower as the trolley was wheeled out of the door.

The policemen remained behind, and when they judged the ambulance to be halfway to the mortuary, Lincoln used the radio in the car to instruct a police constable to meet it there and alert the pathologist that the family had instructed that no post mortem be held. The pathologist’s advice was requested on whether it was appropriate to make a judicial application for an autopsy. He rejoined the others in the house with a grim smile of satisfaction on his face.

“If someone is scanning police radios, or getting information from people in the chain, everyone now knows that there’s a young, unautopsied body on its way to the Trowbridge mortuary.”

Sure enough, within half an hour, a reporter from the local press had arrived, and the bandwagon was rolling. Buffy felt afterwards that she made such a good grieving lover because she’d had so much practice, but she only shared that thought with Giles and Angel.

***

It was past nine o’clock and dusk had fallen. One street away from the mortuary, a large, dark blue van was parked in the brightening glow of a streetlight, apparently where the owner thought that car thieves would be reluctant to risk being seen.

Inside, a sotto voce argument was taking place. Gavin Lincoln and a technician were huddled around a computer screen, concentrating on the flashing point that was Angel’s tracer. Collins was arguing under his breath with Giles and Buffy, who had arrived ten minutes before, as the last rays of the setting sun had bloodied the rooftops.

“This is no place for civilians. You should leave the job to us.”

He’d varied the words, and tried to make different sentences with the same meaning, but this one had no more effect on Buffy than the others had.

“I want to know what’s happening to my boyfriend,” she repeated stubbornly.

Collins sighed, and Giles smiled at him with something approaching sympathy. He’d argued with Buffy before they came here, although for different reasons, but she’d worn him down, too. And in truth, he felt that the operation would be safer with her here. He couldn’t tell Collins that, though.

“It’s dark now, and there’s no way to tell who’s watching. You’d better stay, then, in case someone sees you leave and it blows the whole thing.”

They found a place to sit in the crowded van and, from somewhere, Lincoln produced cups of coffee for them. Then everyone settled down to wait.

***

Angel lay in the dark chill of the reception room for the deceased, simply waiting. Hours ago, he’d lost the body heat gained with the hot pig’s blood, and even through his jeans and sweater, the metal trolley was cold on his back. If he stayed here much longer, he’d have no need to feign rigor mortis: he’d be stiff as a board anyway. He was covered by a dark green sheet, but he knew that there were two other bodies in the room with him. They were both freshly received, ready for work to begin on them in the morning. He hoped that wouldn’t include him. He’d had one scare already. The pathologist had instructed the technicians to prep him moments before the constable had appeared and stopped proceedings.

Apart from the bodies, he was alone with the odours of disinfectant and death. The staff had all left for the day – in a place as small as Trowbridge, there was no need for a night shift. For perhaps the dozenth time, he wondered whether their ruse had succeeded. It would be a waste of a perfectly good evening if it hadn’t.

When he heard the snick of a door latch, he reckoned that it was about two in the morning. It was highly unlikely that the residents of Trowbridge were still abroad this late, even on a Saturday night.

There were three men. They took a look at the other two bodies first, both closer to the door than he was, and both elderly women. When they lifted the sheet from his face, he heard one whisper, “That’s the one.” He was lifted from the trolley onto a stretcher, and the green sheet laid back over him. The men at each end staggered a little under his weight, but he soon felt the fresher air around him. He heard the doors of a van as they were pulled open, and his stretcher was quickly pushed inside, grating on the metal floor. Something smelling of strong herbs, and other things, was put around his neck, and then he was left alone.

The sound of the engine told him that it was new and powerful and carefully driven to avoid unnecessary attention. He thought they were going westward, and hoped that Collins’ trinket worked, more for Buffy’s sake than for his own. He’d been sure all along that he would have to live on his wits as this unfolded. He could feel the pocket knife – the only weapon he had other than those given to him by the demon – and then he cleared his mind to listen for any clues that would reveal their destination.

***

Buffy put down the evening newspaper that she’d been reading. It was the late edition, and it carried a small paragraph that read, ‘A young man was found dead in mysterious circumstances today at a house in a remote part of Westbury. Both police and relatives have made no comment, but it is understood that the family are refusing to permit an autopsy that would determine cause of death.’ A chill ran up her spine, and she hoped that she hadn’t been foolish to allow this. She was almost sure that Angel would have backed down if she’d made an issue of it. Almost sure.

The technician grabbed everyone’s attention, then, calling out softly to Collins.

“He’s on the move, sir.”

Then, it all happened at once, and afterwards no one was able to agree on the exact sequence of events. The best that they could manage was that there seemed to be a soft implosion of air, everything around seemed to glitter for a brief moment of time, as if there had been some sort of summer lightning, and then the lights went out. All of them. The technician swore that someone jogged his arm, his coffee sprayed all over the computer and the keyboard, and there was the lively sound of frying electronics.

Collins barked out savagely, “Get the bloody tracking system up and running now,” and then let loose an even more savage expletive as Buffy wrenched open the van doors and ran down the street.

“Lincoln! Get after her!”

Giles was outside the van by now, and saw Buffy disappearing into the darkness, her black leather trousers and jacket melding into the night. He knew that it was useless to try and catch her, but he watched Lincoln make a valiant attempt. The sergeant, running as fast as he could, was left standing.

She reached the mortuary door to find it locked and secured, and she paused briefly, uncertain. But she couldn’t feel Angel. She should be near enough now to be able to feel that tingling she got when he was close at hand but unseen. There was nothing. In one swift movement she broke the lock and then pounded down the corridor, to the room where Angel had been left. There were two sheeted bodies and an empty trolley. She ran back out, almost colliding with Lincoln as he panted in her wake, but the street was as utterly empty as it had been when she first ran into it. Lincoln’s voice behind her said it all.

“Bugger.”

Back at the van there was a strained atmosphere and frantic activity. The technician succeeded in booting up a laptop, and started searching for the signal. Collins was on his mobile, issuing orders to the remote units. Look for any suspicious vehicle large enough to hold a body, he told them, but he knew it was clutching at straws. The technician gave him more bad news.

“There’s no trace of the signal, sir. It must be out of range already.”

Giles put his arm around Buffy’s slim shoulders.

“He’ll be fine. He can take care of himself.”

“Yes, but he was relying on us…”

Collins turned to them with a stricken expression.

“I… I’ve let you down. I’m sorry…”

Buffy held up a hand, refusing to listen to more.

“Don’t be sorry. Find him!”

***

They drove around Trowbridge for hours, but Buffy could get no sense of Angel, and they could see nothing out of the ordinary, no one acting suspiciously, except themselves. In the end, with the sun halfway over the horizon, they had no choice but to go home.

Giles made Buffy snatch a few hours’ sleep, the better to carry out the rest of their own search. He didn’t bother going to bed. He simply stretched out on the couch. Sleep was a long time coming, as the night’s events replayed themselves in his memory. He knew there was something that he was missing, but every time he thought he might come near to remembering, his mind seemed to shy away, like a frightened horse. When at last he fell into an uneasy sleep, he dreamt of faceless body snatchers, of dead demons and of magic.

When they woke, neither of them was refreshed. Martha said nothing. She simply produced coffee and a late brunch, and stood over them until they had eaten and drunk. She took the remains back to the kitchen, then went to the fridge to get more milk. Angel’s blood filled up one corner, shocking and accusing. She shut the door quickly, and blew her nose. No need for tears just yet.

“Buffy, I’m going for a walk. I shan’t be far.”

“Giles! Now isn’t the time for walking!”

He reached over and patted her hand.

“I’ve got something in my head, Buffy, and I can’t quite grasp it. Every time I think it’s within reach, it shimmers away, like a mirage. Everything else is wrapped in cotton wool, anyway. I just need some fresh air.”

Buffy nodded disconsolately.

He wasn’t out for long. The day was overcast again, threatening rain. The clouds were the huge Atlantic confections that promised summer storms, rising up like great white chalky cliffs and grottoes, boiling out of the blue sky-sea. As he walked out onto the downland, he could hear the rabbits thumping the alarm as they raced back to their warrens, and some predator high in the sky sounding its lonely, whistling pee-oo. A buzzard, he thought, absently. I remembered that. Why can’t I remember the rest?

When he got back, he’d made one decision. Aristotle and Zillah were sitting in the hall outside the study door, one each side, absolutely motionless, in their best Egyptian cat god pose. As he opened the door, though, they made a rush to get into the room. Giles, with the ease of long practice, stuck his leg out and caught them both. He closed the door firmly behind him. They were back in their guardian poses when he came out, and he felt their eyes on his back as he went to find Buffy.

She was in the family room, poring over some maps. When she looked at him, her expression was fierce, as fierce as Angel’s demon ever was, but he could tell that she’d been crying.

“I thought I might get a sense of him, somehow…”

“Here’s something that might help.”

He held out to her the object retrieved from the study. It was a polished crystal, a long piece of clear quartz, on a leather thong.

“It’s for scrying…”

She took it, dubiously.

“Willow was the one for magical finding. Tell me what I’m supposed to do again.”

“Hold it over the map, and concentrate hard on Angel.”

“Aren’t I supposed to hold something of his?”

Giles’ smile was small and wry, and made him look young and vulnerable.

“Tell me that you aren’t something of his, body and soul.”

The smile she gave him back was dazzling, and she settled down to concentrate.

***

Collins was in a towering rage. So far as he was concerned, there were no other cases on anyone’s desk today. Last night, he’d widened the search to neighbouring forces, and technicians within a fifty-mile radius hunted for the missing tracer. There was nothing. By midday, he had widened that to a one hundred-mile radius. There was still nothing.

Lincoln had wisely refrained from saying ‘I told you so’ and was busy co-ordinating the work of the technicians. Privately, though, he thought there was going to be hell to pay for this particular piece of insanity. Collins was the best detective he’d ever come across, but he was a rule breaker. Oh, nothing to do with planted evidence or forced confessions – he’d have nothing to do with perverting the course of justice. He was just…unconventional. Using a civilian in this operation was just about par for the course. Now, it seemed as if that civilian might turn up dead. And then there really would be hell to pay.

***

The scrying hadn’t worked. It seemed as if the crystal had tried to swing but the motion was immediately damped down. Giles’ temper snapped an instant after Buffy’s. She threw the crystal hard at the wall, just as he snatched the maps up from the table.

“Come along, Buffy, let’s try something else.

***

Wherever they were going, they got there before sunrise, but not by much. Angel was carried on his stretcher into somewhere with the unmistakeable scent of underground. It wasn’t dank, like a badly drained cellar, or foetid like the sewers. It was simply earthy and cool. The further he was carried, the less air circulation he could detect, even under his sheet, and the more the place seemed to weigh on him, as if there were vast tons of hillside above him. The journey seemed to take forever. At one point, he heard the rapid breathing of fear, coming from a few feet away, and thought he could smell tears.

When at last it was over, he’d seen nothing of whatever he’d been carried through, but then he was lifted from his stretcher and placed on a cool but lumpy floor. The sheet was removed, and he almost blinked. After a moment, his captors left. When he was satisfied that he could hear their footsteps receding into the distance, he opened his eyes. He was surprised to find that he could only do that with some difficulty. He was in a large, white-walled chamber – a man-made cavern hacked into pure chalk. There were bodies in here, several, although he couldn’t yet untangle their individual scents to do a head count. They were fresh bodies, though, with no more than a few hours of decay in them.

He could smell more of whatever had been hung around his neck, and began to wonder if this was something magical, to keep the bodies so fresh. At last, he was sure that his only company here were the dead and he decided that he could risk movement. That was when he discovered that movement was beyond him. As he struggled, he was unable to raise so much as a finger. For the first time that night, he felt real fear.

***

Giles and Buffy stood on the corner of West End and Doggetts Lane, looking doubtfully at the doorway in front of them.

“A demon bar called Punters?

Buffy’s voice was incredulous. Giles’ voice was perhaps more weary as he looked at the blackboard on the pavement.

“And they’re having Happy Hour in, oh…” He looked at his watch. “Five minutes.”

“Happy Hour starts now,” Buffy muttered, taking the single stride to the wood and etched-glass door. Giles heard the crack as the lock broke.

Travis was alone on this Sunday evening, standing with his back to the door. He looked round as Giles stepped down the two shallow stairs and across the wooden floor, its nightingale notes accompanying his every step as he threaded his way through the tiny cast iron, glass-topped tables and the flimsy round-bottomed chairs, inappropriately cheery in their Wedgwood-pink dralon upholstery. Buffy took position just inside the door. The sign hanging from the doorknob still announced the bar to be Closed, and she left it like that.

“We’re not op… Oh. It’s you.”

“Hello, Travis. I don’t think I’ve seen a yuppy demon wine bar before.”

“No, well, there wasn’t enough money in the demon trade, especially with a slayer in the village. There were never more than one or two a night, mainly passing trade. Can’t make a living out of that. It’s all human trade now. Plenty of trippers staying around here in the season. We do snacks, too. Pannini, stuff like that. Can I get you something? On the house?”

“No, thank you, Travis. All you can give me is some information.”

Travis’ expression turned sulky.

“I don’t know anything. No demons, no information.”

Giles spoke with studied patience.

“Travis, the only reason I’ve left you alone is because you occasionally give me information. If you can’t help me, then I’ve no reason to leave you alone anymore, have I? Now, my friend is missing, along with several corpses. Tell me what you know.”

“Nothing. I don’t know nothing.”

Giles’ hand lashed out and gripped the front of Travis’ shirt. Almost faster than the eye could follow, Giles smashed Travis’ nose onto the counter, pulled him partway over, and then cracked his elbow into the man’s cheekbone.

“Tell me what you know.”

“Nuddin’. I don’t know nuddin’!”

The elbow cracked in hard again, twice. The patient tone was now terrifying.

“This is my friend that we’re missing, Travis, and you know how I don’t like my friends to be in trouble. But, it’s her boyfriend. She’s even more testy about it than I am.” He looked meaningfully towards Buffy. “Would you like us to change places? Let her ask the questions?”

Travis started to splutter, but Giles continued as if he’d made no sound at all.

“Me? Well, I’m inclined to think that we should take advantage of your cooking facilities to serve you up your own intestines in a nice béchamel sauce…”

“Giles!”

Buffy’s voice was shocked and, from his position sprawled across the counter, Travis looked up at her gratefully.

“We don’t have time for sauces. Just rip out his intestines, Giles, and feed them to him!”

Giles smiled. If Travis had been in a position for comparisons, he would have thought that it was a smile that belonged to Angelus, not the mild-mannered librarian. Even Ripper had never worn a smile as disarmingly ferocious as this one.

“Okay…”

He found it hard to speak, and had to spit out a tooth and a gobbet of blood before he could continue.

“There’s been some excitement lately, but none of them were willing to share. Then these guys came in a couple of weeks ago, humans and demons together. They said nothing to me, I swear, and they didn’t let me overhear much, but everyone else skipped town after that. There have been no demons in since that night. That’s when I gave the place a makeover. There’s been nothing since then. Nothing!”

His voice was rising in pitch, rising in panic. Giles’ voice was silky, his expression bland.

“But you did overhear something?”

“They said that this year was the year, the once in a thousand year chance, and it was going to happen this time, the biggest thing ever. Then they saw me and they shut up. I heard they’d come after some guy from Hendaye, though. Been scoping things out, expecting him, maybe even followed him. I never saw him, though, least not so’s I know.”

“Hendy? Just off the M4? Wales?”

“N..no, I don’t think so. They pronounced it Hendaye. And they’d caught a smuggling boat, and had to come ashore at Porlock. Wherever they were going, they were making their way east from here.”

“They wouldn’t be on a smuggling boat from Wales…” Giles was musing almost to himself. “Hendaye… Hendaye…” His elbow lifted.

“There’s nothing else. I swear it! Nothing at all!”

Giles pushed Travis back to the far side of the counter.

“If you hear anything else, I can’t imagine that you wouldn’t tell me. Straight away. You would, wouldn’t you?”

Travis nodded vigorously, drops of blood flying onto his white shirt and the glowing brown woodwork. As satisfied as he could be, Giles turned back to the door. As they left, a young couple stood outside, uncertain. The young man addressed him.

“Is it open yet? We were looking for something to eat…”

Giles looked at his watch again.

“He’s had a bit of an accident, he said, so he won’t be open just yet. It’s just gone five. You could try the little tea shop in Market Square. It’s the one called The Cheese Wring. Pottery and souvenirs on the ground floor, tea shop upstairs. They do nice things on toast at tea time.”

***

As they drove back to Summerdown House, Buffy tried to think of something other than the missing Angel. He could take care of himself, damn it, and she should trust him to do that!

“So, that will be one less informant for us?”

“Why would you think that, Buffy? Between you all, you managed to beat Willie up for information more than once, and he stayed around. What? You thought I didn’t know about that? Tsk! I had a go at him a couple of times, myself.”

Buffy chuckled at the thought of that.

“Now that he’s changed his clientele, there’ll be no more demon informants for Travis, though.”

“That’s what you think,” Giles scoffed. “He’s got extensive cellarage under that bar. He’ll just move his less human visitors downstairs. So far as I know, there are no resident demons in Westbury – and I believe I would know – but there’s a lot of power around here - in the ley lines, in parts of the landscape, in some of the old monuments. That attracts transients. They all know about Travis. We’ll be able to use him again.”

He turned his thoughts back to what they’d been told. There was something there… Something he should have made links with… Once more, the thoughts skittered back into obscurity.

“What was this Hendrix place he mentioned?”

As Buffy asked the question, Giles was distracted by a gaggle of tourists who almost ran into his path, and he answered without thinking.

“Hmm? Oh, Hendaye. Place in France. It has a famous artefact – a cross. It was what Michel Benoit and I corresponded about for a while…”

He turned to Buffy in horror.

“Why didn’t I think of that before? I remember it so well…”

Even as he said the words, the thoughts started to evaporate, like water on desert sands.

“Buffy, something is interfering with our memories and perceptions. It’s as if there were a ‘don’t see me’ spell. We need to go back to the mortuary as soon as it’s dark.”

He drove home much more quickly, then. Once there, Giles collected the necessary supplies and made charms. There was rosemary for remembrance, pansy for thoughts, sage and hawthorn for protection, and some more esoteric items. He murmured a few words to activate the ingredients and then divided the mixture between two muslin bags. His own he put into his shirt pocket, over his heart. Buffy wrapped a piece of black cord around the neck of hers and wore it as a necklace, the little bag stuffed down into the neck of her blouse. It was as if she had been given back half her brain, without her ever having been aware that it was missing.

“Can you think clearly?” Giles asked her.

“Much better,” she approved. “Let’s see if I can find Angel now.”

He shook his head.

“I’m sorry, it doesn’t work like that. The charm creates a…a ..personal bubble free of the magical interference. The spell started with Angel himself, I think… I imagine they’ve done this with each stolen body… but it will still be in place, so you won’t be able to reach further than the extent of this protection ward.”

So it proved. Giles had to find another crystal to replace the one that Buffy had shattered, and he’d made a mental note to ask John to re-plaster that piece of wall, but this new, rose quartz crystal performed no better than the last. The research went better though.

Giles disappeared into the loft, and came back with a shoebox covered in dust and small pieces of plaster, fallen from the roof slates. Written on the outside, in his firm lettering, was ‘Hendaye – Benoit’.

They sat in the breakfast room, and Giles spread photographs and documents out on the table. He sorted through them and extracted a few before gathering the rest back into a pile.

“Buffy, you need to understand a little of the background of this. I’ll try to keep it brief. Hendaye is in the far south-west of France, in Basque territory that was troubled for centuries. Go any further, and you’re in Spain. This cross was originally placed in a graveyard, probably in the mid 17th century, and then it was moved to a rather prominent place in the village, for reasons unknown.

“It’s to do with something we know quite a lot about…eschatology…”

Buffy interrupted, utterly indignant.

“Giles! Wash your mouth out! I have never eaten…”

The ex-Librarian, ex-Watcher gave her a grim little smile.

“No, Buffy. You’re thinking of scatology. And in any event it would be scatophagy. Eschatology is the study of the end of the world. The Apocalypse.”

Buffy subsided. That was definitely something she knew about. All three of them did. Satisfied that she was listening, Giles continued.

“Now, many religions have a view that the world will end. Some of the ancient peoples, the South American civilizations, for example, thought that it would end rather often, in the grand scheme of things. The Maya, for one, believed in cycles for the Earth, in cycles of time. They thought that the Earth had already passed through several different Ages, and each Age ended in its own unique way – fire or flood or ice or what have you. They thought that some of mankind survived, but were changed, different. A bit like Noah’s Flood, but rather more apocalyptic. Their calendar ends in 2012, and many commentators have interpreted this as meaning that after then, there would be no more time to measure.

“Some joker called McKenna postulated a fractal time wave theory that, at the end of the Mayan calendar, there would occur an omega point of infinite novelty, during which anything and everything conceivable to the human imagination would occur simultaneously, and time would end.”

“Well, that seems to describe my life most days, but Giles, the monument, please, before even Angel expires of old age!”

“Sorry, yes… Right. This monument is said to be something of the same, to be a warning of the ending of the present Age. It’s been called ‘The Monument to the End of Time’ and has been the subject of endless speculation, mainly by people who should write with nothing sharper than a crayon. And the Watchers’ Council treated it with academic disdain, although I rather think their Most Secret department kept an eye on going theories.

“The man who’s dead, Michel Benoit, corresponded with a few people, including myself. He was an archivist by profession, but he was particularly interested in Apocalyptic literature and artefacts. I was one of the people he wrote to.”

“If he was into apocalypsi, he should have joined the team years ago,” Buffy muttered. “Giles, I get all this need to understand the background, but what does this have to do with missing bodies, and found bodies, and Angel? Especially with Angel?”

“I don’t know, Buffy, but we’re going to find out. Michel, the last I heard, didn’t live in Hendaye. If we assume that he must be the man referred to in that conversation that Travis overheard, then he must have been to Hendaye before he came to wherever he was killed. He had a full photographic and written record of the cross already. Therefore, he must have gone for a purpose that we can only speculate about. So, let’s get facts before we speculate.”

“Do you think he was coming here to see you?”

Giles thought about Buffy’s question for a few moments, before replying.

“I think we must assume so. Michel and the cross and the bodies and this thousand year opportunity – they have to be connected. If they aren’t, then…”

He didn’t need to finish. If those things weren’t connected, then they were barking so far up the wrong tree that they might never find the right one in time. Buffy shuddered at the prospect. She thought of Angel, alone, without any sort of help or back-up, and was only dimly aware that Giles was speaking again.

“It’s been a very long time since I looked at this, and so much has happened since then that I can’t remember it very well, so let’s work through it. Shall we do that together? We’ve got a couple of hours until sunset, and I don’t want to go back to the mortuary until it’s dark. How about it – let me talk you through it and see what we can divine?”

Buffy knew that Giles didn’t really need her for this, but was giving her something productive to do in this hiatus. She nodded gratefully.

“Very well. The cross has three components – there’s the upper part of the cross, the pillar, and the base. The parts don’t really look as though they belong together, and that may be a clue…”

He pulled a photograph from the small sheaf of papers that he had extracted from the box. Buffy saw a Roman-style pillar, mounted on a rectangular base, and topped by an inscribed cross that looked as if the lower part of it had been replaced at some time. It stood in front of what appeared to be a typically Mediterranean whitewashed house, surrounded by small neat flowerbeds. The brilliant red geraniums and the white, sunlit wall gave it a feeling of cheerfulness, of normality, which was odd for something that was supposed to mark the end of time.

Giles was polishing his glasses, his naked gaze abstracted, and she could tell that he was ransacking his memory for important points.

“The cross itself is inscribed on one side with INRI. Now, if you leave aside the normal Christian context here, the inscription has been given a number of different esoteric interpretations. The one that Michel favoured, so let’s start with that, is that you could view this as the initial letters of the Hebrew words for Water, Fire, Earth and Air – the four elements – take the Egyptian gods who have been held to embody those elements – Isis, Apophis, Osiris and Isis again – and find a cycle represented there, by the primary aspects of those gods. A cycle of Life, Death, Resurrection and New Life…”

Angel, Buffy thought, that’s what’s happened to Angel. More than once. Does this mean he’s in more danger than we thought? Is he a part of this? She tried hard to concentrate on what Giles was saying, to force down her fears for her lover.

“… and that’s the first reason why it’s been considered Apocalyptic. Moreover, on the opposite side are two X’s, stacked one on the other…”

He peered closely at the photograph.

“And yet I can see only one… Perhaps the top piece of the cross has been broken – I’ve never seen it, myself – but Fulcanelli, the alchemist and magician, specifically pointed it out and thought it a reference to the twentieth card in the Tarot pack, the XX. The Last Judgement.”

Buffy’s teeth ached with the need to tell Giles to shut up, to hurry up, to just get to the bottom line. She kept her mouth shut, though. Giles wasn’t wasting time, or lecturing for the sake of it. The last time he’d looked at these archives was over a decade ago. He was rifling his memory as fast as he could, and what he was saying simply marked the synthesis of memory with what was happening in the here and now. If she tried to hurry him, it would only break his chain of thought, and slow him down. Her fingernails dug into her palms though, with the effort of concentration. The time when spring turned to summer had, for her and for Angel, always been the time for apocalypses, apocalypsi, and she’d no idea why she’d thought that this year might be different. She needed to learn as much as she could. So, she trowelled a patient expression onto her face, and listened.

Giles peered more intently at a photograph.

“Oh, wait, perhaps he meant this – see? The X of the second inscription is aligned beneath the single X. Hmm…. Write this down.”

Buffy obliged as he spelled out the letters of the inscription.

“ ‘OCRUXAVESPESUNICA’, or ‘O CRUX AVES PES UNICA’. On the face of it, ‘Hail, O Cross, our only hope’. There’s a lot written about transposing letters, making SPES into SEPS, which means snake, and making UNICA into UNCIA, which means 12th part, and they’ve talked themselves into thinking that it refers to the serpent pattern that you get mathematically from the equinoxes and the solstices…”

“Giles! English, please!”

“Oh, well, in short, that you can divine a date from all this. I’m surprised they didn’t say put an ‘I’ in AVES and birds become our only hope…”

“A date? A when date? When like now? Remember what Travis said. Once in a thousand years. Tell me that’s really not going to be now!”

“Well, it’s a thousand to one chance, then. I can’t get much from the pillar – that’s variously the world tree, the backbone of Osiris, the galactic meridian, and other such rubbish…”

“The date, Giles! The date!”

“Oh! Right, just a minute… I’m sure it must be here somewhere… Let’s look at the pedestal first, perhaps…”

Buffy sat back in her chair, her arms crossed in a position of unmistakable irritation, but she held her peace. As if he had her whole attention – and despite her body language, he was sure that he still did – he pulled out some photographs.

“The pedestal has carvings on all four sides. There’s an eight-pointed star; a moon, with a human face, in its last quarter; and a very angry sun face with a six-pointed star in each corner. Not at all Christian symbolism, are they? There’s disagreement about what these might be, but they might each represent one of the Tarot cards, the Star, the Moon and the Sun, in which case, the fourth side might well represent card XX, The Last Judgement. Now, where’s that one and what will it tell us…”

He laid down the photographs in his hand. The Star he placed to the east, the Moon to the north, the Sun to the West. Then he hunted among the papers and found a fourth photograph. With a gathering frown, he laid it to the south. Buffy’s hand flew up to her mouth as she gasped in shock. The fourth photograph was of a carved oval, filling the whole side of the pedestal, and divided into four equal parts by a cross. Each quarter of the oval contained an ‘A’, carved with the crosspiece of the letter not straight, but broken into a downward-pointing v-shape.

“Bloody hell. I’d forgotten that.”

***

Angel had lain undisturbed for the entire day. He knew that it was only an hour or two until sunset, and he really wanted to be mobile by then. So far, ‘mobile’ meant that he could blink, and maybe lift a finger, but that was about it. He’d been running through every form of release spell that he knew, and the results so far weren’t encouraging. He tried to relax, and dug deeper into his memory. Magic was a contract of sorts. It always required some consideration, a payment to give value to the transaction, and so he dug the nail of that one capable finger into the meat of his palm so that a little blood would flow onto the white chalk floor. Then he started the next silent incantation, calling on the powers of the Earth, hoping that they could hear despite his lack of voice.

***

Philip sat with Joshua cuddled close into his side, dozing. Francis, satisfied by the spirit they had raised and clothed in human flesh, had allowed him to wait out the rest of the time until the ceremony here, with the boy. Francis had even allowed him to bring the sword, and it lay on the floor next to them, wrapped in its sheath of cloth. The boy was still chained to the wall, his ankle rubbed red and raw from the chafing of the iron ring. Philip had managed to wrap his tie around the rough metal to cushion it, but Joshua was still in pain.

They’d been here for days now, and the boy had spent most of that time alone in this chamber, close to the bodies of those fated for the next transformations. He’d cried himself out, though, and spent most of his time in a half doze, escaping from this harsh reality. A guard, one of the minor initiates, had been in to see them perhaps an hour ago, bringing food and drink. Philip didn’t think they’d be disturbed again tonight. Tomorrow night: ah, well, that would be different.

As he listened to the boy’s shallow breathing, an occasional hitch showing his distress even in sleep, he wondered whether Michel Benoit had understood his message, and whether the Frenchman had remembered the existence of Rupert Giles, last of the Watchers so far as Philip knew. Their shared understanding might just be enough to foil the unholy plot that was being hatched here.

Then he wondered whether Francis had yet realised that he didn’t have the most important requirement for the evil that he intended to raise. He had almost everything, but not quite… That most important element was gone, beyond the reach of Francis, unless he had learned a sort of magic that no longer existed in this dimension. Philip offered a few silent words of thanks to the spirits that Angelus had apparently died in Los Angeles, two years ago. He’d breathed a sigh of relief when that truth had been revealed to him. Without Angelus, Francis could, and would, create a hell on earth, but mankind had prevailed over the demons once, and could do so again. With Angelus, Francis would succeed utterly, and wouldn’t be the only one to live to regret it.

As he mused, he heard a soft scuffle from the far passage, the one leading to the cavern where the bodies were stored. None of the initiates was down there, only the dead, and Philip wondered whether the cave harboured hitherto unseen rats or bats. Francis would be most displeased if rats ate his bodies.

Philip’s heart almost stopped, then, when a dark-haired man, a man who should surely be a corpse, slithered on his belly, painfully slowly, into the dimly lit circle of light cast by the low-wattage bulbs.

Sensing his grandfather’s fear, perhaps, in that uneven heartbeat against his cheek, Joshua roused, and tried to scream when he saw the apparition. Philip put a hand over his mouth until he could be quieted, and then stood up, placing himself between the boy and the man. His sword was in his hand, the cloth wrappings and the scabbard discarded.

“What are you?” he hissed.

The man had difficulty in replying, forcing his throat and mouth to move with obvious effort.

“I’ve come to help. Can you take this thing off my neck?”

***

“It doesn’t have to mean him! It could be a lot of other things! A for Apocalypse, not Angel. Besides, that A doesn’t look exactly like his. It’s different.”

Buffy was white with shock and her voice pleading. Giles wanted to reassure her, but he needed the truth more. She always understood that, and she would understand now.

“It’s true, this crosspiece on the letter A is higher than on Angel’s tattoo, but that may not be meaningful. Think of your Slayer dreams, Buffy. Do you get exact detail, or is it more of an impression?”

She remained silent, seemingly transfixed by the photograph.

“Buffy, looking into the future isn’t an exact science. Think about it. If this cross is really a warning, then whoever devised it lived long before Angel was born, either humanly or demonly. And things are far, far different now. It must have been like looking down a long tube, getting a tiny piece of picture, and then trying to put all those tiny pieces together, not helped by the fact that you wouldn’t understand half of what you’d seen. Planes and trains and cars and skyscrapers and flushing toilets – what would you make of them?

“Think of Ezekiel. Whether he had real visions, back in the 6th century BC, or whether he’d just had one too many bowls of magic mushroom soup, he was trying to describe something that was real to him, but it comes out as incomprehensible wheels within wheels. He simply didn’t have the vocabulary…”

Buffy felt a lot like Ezekiel as Giles hesitated, and fell quiet.

“What is it, Giles? What are you thinking? We haven’t got to worry about Ezekiel as well, have we? Because you know that we’ve got quite enough to worry about as it is…”

Giles shook his head.

“No, Buffy, I don’t think so. It’s just… well, Ezekiel’s vision included four winged beings with four faces. They had the face of a man, of a lion, of an ox and of an eagle. It’s the four faces given to the Evangelists, hundreds of years later, and I was just wondering if that was the meaning of the four A’s. That Angel’s tattoo was one of four. He has the winged lion, but are there another three… What has Angel told you about how he got the tattoo, and what it means?”

“Nothing. We’ve never discussed it. Well, not like that…”

As she trailed off, Giles the ex-Watcher looked up in astonishment, and for a brief instant of time, his thirst for knowledge overcame his good sense.

“Buffy, you must have had him naked any number of times now. What on earth do you two get up to when you’ve got his clothes off? Don’t you ever just talk?”

***

Angel had watched the man and the boy carefully before making himself known to them. He had sensed a lot of emotions in that chamber, but nothing that led him to believe that these were abductors of the dead. The last spell, the spilled blood and the incantation to the Earth goddess, had had a small but noticeable effect. He’d managed to recover enough control to crawl, albeit very slowly, and he’d worked out that the barrier was contained in the little bag around his neck. It was quite beyond him, though, to take it off. If one of these wouldn’t do that, then he was, in the vernacular, stuffed.

The man stood in front of the boy, uncertain but protective. He might look like an elderly shopkeeper, but he still seemed to be comfortable with the sword, an old fashioned broadsword, with a large knob of a pommel to balance the weight of the blade. It had taken every ounce of Angel’s strength to answer the man’s question and ask for help, but it seemed that he hadn’t done enough to allay suspicion. No surprise there, then.

“Who are you?”

Angel gritted his teeth and tried to activate those parts that produced speech. The words came out frail and reedy, and not at all calculated to imbue confidence.

“I’m an investigator, looking into stolen bodies. I’m Angel.”

He expected a look of incredulity when he mentioned his name. Unlike its female counterpart, Angela, it was a particularly uncommon name in Britain – so far as he could tell, it was currently unique to him, despite being the name of the definitely unangelic husband in Tess of the D’Urbevilles – and strangers always thought that he was taking a rise out of them. This man didn’t think that. This man blenched, and gripped the sword tighter.

“Angel? Angelus?”

Here was a turn up for the books. Feeling never more helpless and vulnerable, Angel tried to ignore the sword.

“Not any more. Not for a long time.”

The man’s reaction was entirely unexpected. He sat down heavily next to the boy, who was staring at the two of them, utterly confused. He put his arms round the boy and held him close. Thin, silvery lines ran down his wrinkled cheeks, tears that he let fall unchecked.

“Then we are finished. It’s over.”

***

Buffy’s flaming cheeks waved the red flag of danger at Giles, and he in turn flushed a rosy pink.

“I…I’m sorry, Buffy. I can’t think why I said that. Can we just start that bit again?”

She surveyed him for one long moment, and then suddenly burst out laughing. The sound of pure amusement was so incongruous in all the fear and worry, and so very right, that Giles joined in the laughter.

“Don’t worry, Giles. When we get him back, I’ll make sure that Angel gives you a talk, man to man, about what people do with their clothes off when they’ve spent years not being able to do it.”

It took a good five minutes for them to regain their composure, but they felt all the better for it.

When he’d mopped his eyes, Giles absently used the same handkerchief to clean his glasses, leaving damp little streaks over the lenses. Buffy held out her hand for them, and gave them a quick polish on the hem of her blouse. There was no time to be wasted looking for clean handkerchiefs.

She stared morosely at the pictures of the pedestal, and then picked up the photograph of the cross at the top.

“Perhaps we should put the ‘I’ in AVES and say that birds become our only hope…”

“His tattoo isn’t of a bird, Buffy. It’s the winged lion.”

“Yes, I know, but according to you, the telescope of time isn’t all that exact. Perhaps they mistook it?”

Giles prodded the photograph around a little, as he explored his own thoughts.

“You might be right. This belongs on the south side of this arrangement, according to Benoit’s correspondence. It’s the position of Fire and Earth. Does that tell us anything?”

Buffy shook her head, but she silently thought that Fire and Earth seemed well suited to Angel and his own particular circumstances. Giles seemed to concur, and he changed the subject abruptly.

“How many apocalypses has Angel faced now?”

“On his own or with the Scoobies?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, should we count Acathla? Because he did stop that one…In a way…”

Giles didn’t see her clench her fists beneath the table, but he heard the tension in her voice. He thought it best to pretend he hadn’t.

“…There was that really weird thing with Jasmine that he doesn’t like to talk about. And there was the one where he died in Los Angeles… And there was last year…”

She fell silent, and Giles couldn’t immediately find anything to say. When he had swallowed back the lump in his throat and the anger in his heart, Giles ran his finger over the photograph, as if he could feel the carved stone beneath its skin.

“Perhaps this means the number of times that Angel has lived – has been born, so to speak. He was born as a human, he was born as a vampire, he was reborn as a souled vampire, and then he was literally born again, thanks to the Coven. Or…

“Perhaps this means that he has to face four Apocalypses before he faces this? Or perhaps we don’t count Acathla, and this is a prediction for the fourth one. One that might succeed, or …”

Buffy remembered the prophecy that Angel had told her about, that he was critical to the success of the Apocalypse, but that no one knew which side he would be on. Well, that seemed to be the story of Angel’s life. He brought them about in some helpless, hapless but very determined fashion, and then he stopped them. Perhaps that’s what the prophecy meant all along. Except for the ones that she herself precipitated, of course. Did the prophecy still apply? Was this something that needed Angel in order to be successful? Or did it need him to stop it? Or, as with the Acathla debacle, was he cast in the roles of both Destroyer and Saviour?

Giles seemed to be thinking the same thing.

“Buffy, we’ve only scratched the surface of this thing, but most of those who’ve studied this monument seem to conclude that it tells of the coming of a new age on Earth, accompanied by hellfire, an end to the world as we know it. If Angel is key to whatever is happening, then we’ve handed him to them. On a plate.”

***

Angel sat on the ground next to Philip and Joshua, his arms wrapped around his knees. They were all silent. Philip had removed the gris-gris, and was toying idly with the leather thong of the small pouch with one hand, while the other was firmly wrapped around his grandson’s shoulders.

After Angel had asked for help, this elderly man had sat, crying without making a single sound, for what had seemed like hours, leaving Angel paralysed and vulnerable to anyone and anything. Eventually, though, he had wiped his face and come back to the vampire.

“You died. In Los Angeles. You brought down those demons – for a little while.”

If Angel was expected to lie, he decided to be a disappointment.

“Yes. I died there.”

“Then why are you here now?”

His jaw muscles and his throat were aching with the effort of speech, but he said as much as he could.

“Brought back. The Coven. Hilda.”

The man had looked carefully at him, then, but had asked no more questions. Instead, he had bent down and pulled the little leather pouch over Angel’s head. The paralysis had gone, as he felt freewill return to his body, but Angel still hadn’t moved. The man’s sword was pointed unwaveringly at his eye. Until he tested his limbs after the long hours of confinement, he wasn’t absolutely sure that he could move swiftly enough to avoid that blade.

“Why did the Coven bring you back?”

“They said that my work wasn’t finished. There was still more for me to do. The Powers That Be had told them so.”

The man gave a grunt of disdain.

“Powers That Be damned…You’re still a vampire?”

“Yes, but my soul is fixed. I can’t be Angelus again.”

The man had laughed then, softly so as not to attract attention from those in the higher caverns, but the sound of that bitter, mocking laughter had raised gooseflesh on Angel’s soul.

“I wouldn’t be too sure of that.”

He’d stood poised, as if contemplating whether to use the sword, and then he’d backed off.

“Hilda usually knew what she was doing. Get up. Unless you’re going to take on the entire body of Initiates, then you’ll need to wear this for their next inspection, or they’ll finish you off. I’ll deactivate it.”

He’d sat down then, next to Joshua who, with the resilience of childhood had ceased to be in terror of what he’d thought was the living dead, and now was watching the two older men, fascinated. Angel, not wishing to loom over the pair of them, had seated himself a few feet away, keeping the man between himself and the boy, so as to appear less of a threat.

The man had allowed the sword to trail over his legs while he unscrewed the top of the outsize pommel. Angel could see that letters were engraved around the top part, worn but still distinct. As the man loosened the top, Angel could see each letter in turn. There were five, and when he’d shuffled them in his head to find the starting point, he felt his stomach lurch.

AZOTH

These were even deeper doings than he’d been afraid of.

Inside, the pommel was hollow, but not empty. It contained something… something that acted like a liquid but looked like a powder, and was a brilliant cherry-red. The man took one small grain out on a tiny ivory spatula that he produced from one of his pockets, and he dropped that into the gris-gris. Then he closed up the pommel of the sword.

“The spell has been denatured now.”

Angel looked at him carefully, sorting through long-ago memories. He’d never met this man, if he was right about who he was, but he’d seen a woodcut once. The picture resolved itself before the eye of memory. The man in that primitive portrait had had this very sword, and looked very much like the person holding it.

He took a chance.

“Should I call you Theo? Or Philip? Or did you keep Paracelsus?”

The man shook his head briefly, glancing towards Joshua, but he didn’t try to deny it.

“I’m called Philip.”

Angel nodded, then, not sure what else to say. And so they sat in silence for a few minutes, Joshua looking from one to the other, uncertain of what had just happened, but sensing that an important truth had eluded him.

It was Angel who broke the silence.

“Tell me what’s going on.”

***

Collins sat at his desk, bracing himself to make a report on the current debacle. His Superintendent had summoned him, and that could only mean one thing. Dennis the Menace had caught on to what was happening. Collins had thought Superintendent Dennis Menzies had been too busy with his convivial lunch at the Licensing Committee’s monthly deliberations, and this evening’s shindig at the Vintners’ Association, to notice the unusual amount of activity at the station. He’d been wrong about that, clearly.

He scrubbed his hands through his hair. He’d got a good record for results, the best in the West, really, but in this man’s force, he guessed that you were only as good as your last result. This one was bidding fair to be a catastrophe. Almost twenty-four hours on, and there was no trace of the tracker. It was entirely possible his civilian was dead.

He must have been mad to agree to the suggestion – mad or desperate. And yet, Angel had seemed so serenely confident. He’d known the man was… different… after the dreadful affair at Corbett’s Farm. Different, and he thought, remarkable in some indefinable way. And illegal, too, he was now as sure as he could be, without actually speaking to Immigration. He had no intention of doing that. Not yet.

This affair of the vanishing, and reappearing, bodies was going from bad to worse. No one else on the force would have considered that there might be anything less than natural about it, and yet he’d come to that conclusion rather quickly. Mad or desperate.

He remembered how the blonde girl with another odd name – Buffy – had left Gavin standing as she ran down that street to look for her vanished boyfriend, and wondered just who these two were. He knew that the Gileses had always been associated with a rum set of people. Nothing criminal, of course, they’d been much too upstanding for that. Just odd.

And he knew that Gavin disapproved of what he’d done in taking up the offer of help. He wondered briefly whether Gavin had shopped him to the Superintendent, and immediately decided he was being unfair. Dennis the Menace had enough sources of his own.

He was just standing up to take that long walk down the corridor when his phone rang. He snatched it up, praying for good news. It was Forensics. They’d found something on the Frenchman. In him, actually.

He almost ran down the corridor, but not in the direction of the Superintendent. In fact, Dennis the Menace was forgotten entirely.

***

“What about the when, Giles? How long have we got?”

Giles rummaged back in the shoebox. Eventually he pulled out a piece of yellow paper that had been folded in two. It had words written on the outside in a careful hand. ‘The Precession of the Equinoxes’. Inside was a drawing of two concentric circles, divided by a horizontal axis labelled ‘Autumnal Equinox’ at the left, and ‘Vernal Equinox’ at the right. A vertical axis read ‘Galactic Centre’ at the top and ‘Galactic Edge’ at the bottom. The circles themselves were divided into twelve equal segments. The signs of the zodiac were carefully drawn in, circling clockwise in one and anti-clockwise in the other.

“Giles! I don’t need my fortune told! I want to find out where Angel is!”

Giles was silent, and Buffy restrained herself from a further outburst with increasing difficulty. He studied the chart carefully, and then sat chewing one leg of his glasses. Abruptly, he frowned.

“Oh, Hell.”

“Giles! I want to hit something. I really, really want to hit something, but I don’t want it to be you! What’s going on?”

“This is a chart that Michel managed to derive from the Cross. It’s a process that happens over very, very long periods. About 26,000 years long.”

“Giles!” Buffy almost wailed. “We don’t have 26,000 years.”

“No, but look here.” He pointed to one of the divisions on the chart. “Thirteen thousand years ago, the constellation of Leo was rising over the horizon on the day of the Spring Equinox. Many people think that the Sphinx dates back to then, the Lion on the ground, facing the Lion in the sky. And perhaps, now, the Lion on Angel’s back. But, the constellations appear to move around, circling the sky, so that approximately every 2,000 years, a different one rises on the Spring Equinox. You’ve heard of the dawning of the Age of Aquarius? Well, 13,000 years ago, it was the Age of Leo, and in another 13,000 years it will be the Age of Leo again.

“But see what Michel has done here. He’s put a date against Leo on the Spring Equinox, here on the inner circle, 10,958BC, which us near enough thirteen thousand years ago. And he’s put a date here, on the outer circle, by Aquarius. 2006AD. Because constellations aren’t well defined in the sky, and their boundaries aren’t clear, there are many different calculations as to when the Ages change, but Michel thought it was 2006AD. But it isn’t Aquarius that he was interested in – at least, I don’t think it was. Look where Leo is.”

He pointed to that end of the horizontal axis labelled ‘Autumn Equinox’.

“We are exactly halfway through the cycle. Leo becomes the sign ruling the horizon for the autumn equinox. That’s the time when the Earth is heading into winter. The season of death. Appropriate, I suppose.”

“So, when’s the autumn equinox? Have we got time to get ready for it?”

“September 21, Buffy. But I seriously doubt that all these abducted bodies – and Angel – will be kept hanging around until September.”

“Giles! I need something a bit more definitive than some time in this calendar year…”

He sat still, his mouth slightly open, a far-off look in his eyes. Then he startled her as his fist smashed down onto the table, making the coffee cups rattle.

“Thank you, Buffy. Damn it, I’ve been so slow… The calendar year didn’t always start in January. Centuries ago, the calendar year started in March, on the spring equinox. If Michel’s calculations are right, and just now I really, really don’t have time to check them, then the cross shows us that 2006AD is definitely the year in question. Now, we just have to find the exact date, but at least we know it started in March, not January. It can’t be as far forward as autumn equinox – they surely wouldn’t be taking bodies this early. Summer solstice also seems too far away, I think.”

Buffy flung out of her chair, her arms wrapped around herself in an effort not to strike out with frustration.

“Why couldn’t he just write this stuff down in plain English?”

The riposte was immediate and savage, the cod-American accent almost perfect.

“Well gee, Buffy, I don’t know. Maybe next time we see him, we could ask his cold, dead body!”

The compunction was just as immediate.

“I…I’m sorry, Buffy. I’m tired and worried, as well.”

She walked around the table and put an arm over his shoulders.

“It’s okay, Giles. We’ll find him.”

“Wait… The Star, in the Tarot, is equated with Aquarius. Suppose Aquarius and Leo point the way. The event starts with the spring equinox and the old New Year, in March, that’s in Pisces, and is finished by the autumn equinox in September… The Moon equates to Pisces. That’s a double sign, Buffy. Two fish, one swimming one way, one swimming another. The dark and the light of the soul.”

They both fell silent as the weight of evidence clanged around them like falling civilizations. Giles was the first to speak.

“And the Sun face in the Tarot is equated to Leo again. But I can’t see a pointer to exactly when. We’re long past Pisces – that’s February to March. Aquarius was even earlier, and Leo isn’t until July and August.”

He knuckled his temples.

“I’m getting a headache with this. I suggest that we go back to the mortuary – the sun will have set by the time we get there – and then, after an hour or so away, maybe some more of this will make sense to me.”

“What do you want to do at the mortuary?”

“See if we can track a spell.”

***

“So, this Francis is going to usher in a new Age, with fire and brimstone and demons? That’s been tried before, you know. We stopped it then, and we’ll stop it now.”

Phillip hugged the boy closer.

“This is different. This has been foretold for centuries.”

Angel thought of what he’d once told Lindsey about foretelling, and how that had come back eventually to bite him in the ass, with the loss of the promised shanshu. Now he could say it and be really sincere about it.

“Don’t believe everything you’re foretold.”

Philip’s smile was thin.

“When you first crawled up that passageway, I thought of killing you. When I’ve finished, you may ask me to.”

“No. I won’t. If it’s all the same to you, I’d prefer to try and keep my skin as intact as possible. Whatever is going to happen, we can find a way that doesn’t involve getting us killed.”

“You said that your soul is fixed?”

“Yes, thank God.”

“You might want to take that sentiment under advisement. Do you understand the properties of my laudanum?”

Philip pointed to the pommel of his sword.

“Well, I know it wasn’t the tincture of opium type of laudanum used by the Victorians. It was something you came up with in the 1500’s. In its powder form, it was used for renewing the body.”

“Precisely. It brings those bodies back to life.”

For the second time that night, Angel felt his stomach lurch.

“It makes them living humans again?”

His voice betrayed him, full of painful eagerness. Philip gave him a long look, and then shook his head.

“No. It won’t make you human. It restores the body to what it was, no more than that. Once life is extinct, it cannot work miracles. What it will do is to make them living flesh, but they will have no soul, no reason, just base animal instincts. They are to be vessels to receive the spirits of the most powerful demons in Hell, to allow them to incarnate in this dimension. If Francis has his calculations and his rituals right, that is.”

“Where do I come into this?”

“There is something in Hell that is altogether more powerful than any of the others that Francis will raise. It is their master. It will take more than Francis’s spells and magicks to bring that one across, and to keep it here in the form of real flesh. Without that, it will simply burn up any body that has been prepared to receive it.”

“So…?”

“You have a soul and a demon, yes?”

“You know I do.”

“They should provide enough power to bring about that incarnation. One spirit alone would not suffice, but two…? I think that will do. Of course, both spirits will be completely used up, destroyed. You still think that I shouldn’t kill you? That your death would not be more merciful to you and to the world?”

Angel thought of Fred, and the annihilation of her soul by Illyria.

“I’ll take that under advisement. Now, when is all this to take place?”

***

When they got to the mortuary, the street was deserted, and the last oranges and purples were fading from the western sky. The east was already dark enough for what Giles had in mind, and the rest of the sky would follow in a matter of minutes.

His preparations were simple and swift. He had a bag of powder – geranium for a gathering, ipomoea for binding, white chrysanthemum for truth, enchanter’s nightshade for witchcraft and witch hazel to acknowledge a spell. And a few other bits and pieces of a darker nature.

He stood with his back to the door of the mortuary, said the words of invocation to the spirits of air and earth, and then scattered the powder in a wide semicircle before him. A breeze sprang up, and the powder drifted away.

“Now we wait.”

It wasn’t for long. Gradually, a shimmer of silver, like metallic moonlight, opened up before them in the east. The shimmer coalesced into a single pale shaft. The ghostly trail pointed as straight as an arrow, flashed once, and then was gone.

“If we go a few miles, we can do that again, right?”

Buffy’s voice was filled with anticipation and hope, and he hated to quash it.

“I’m sorry, Buffy. We have a direction, but the magic used is much stronger than mine. We won’t get a result again. But at least it’s a start.”

They got back into Giles’ car, and Buffy pulled out the road atlas. The trail that they had seen led north-east. Giles ran a finger over the page, tracing the path of the spell.

“Somewhere between here and Norwich, I’d say. At least that will give Collins somewhere to aim for, to let him narrow down the search.”

Giles reached for his phone, and as he did so, it shrilled its own summons.

“Yes.”

“Speak of the devil! We were just…”

“We’re in Trowbridge.”

“Yes, of course. We’ll be there in ten minutes.”

Collins was waiting for them in the courtyard, pacing like a caged bear. Lincoln was perched on the edge of one of the stone cisterns, wearing a disapproving look.

Buffy was bursting with the news.

“North-east. They took him to the north-east. Giles says on a line between Trowbridge and Nor-wich.”

Three male voices chorused, ‘Norrich’.

“You Brits should write things like you say them, then.”

Giles put his key in the door and turned back to the policemen.

“Coming in?”

Giles took them through into the drawing room. The safe room. No exotica. Against protests from Giles and Buffy, Lincoln was despatched to make coffee. Buffy, remembering Angel’s blood in the fridge, went into the kitchen with him, producing mugs and coffee and sugar, and then pouring milk into a milk jug before returning the bottle to the fridge. She stood in the doorway to the breakfast room watching him, while they waited for the kettle to boil, then she pulled the door to, shutting away all the papers they’d been working on, and carried the milk and sugar into the drawing room.

As Giles wondered whether he’d closed the door to the breakfast room, with the pile of papers about Hendaye, Collins pulled a plastic evidence bag from his pocket. Inside was a piece of paper that had seen much better days. It had been folded into a tiny square, and even though it was now unfolded, the creases were deep. It had been torn untidily from some larger sheet, and there had once been writing on it, which was now faded into scraps of letters. The whole thing was stained and crumpled beyond the straight creases.

“Michel Benoit had this.”

Giles frowned.

“And it’s taken until now to find it?”

“Well, ‘had’ is a bit of a euphemism.” Collins glanced at Buffy, but Giles nodded to him to continue.

“He’d swallowed it. It had gone beyond the stomach and was in the gut. We’re lucky there was anything left of it at all. I think that whoever beat him to death was looking for this, and he died rather than tell them. Or at least held out as long as he could. We’ve no way of knowing whether he gave them what they wanted.”

Giles looked down at the floor in silence, remembering the mild-mannered Frenchman. He felt Buffy’s hand on his arm, and gave her a thin smile.

“Is anything on there legible?”

“Very little.”

Collins pulled out another sheet of paper from his pocket, and scanned it.

“Almost nothing from the outer layers has survived, but there are a few fragments on the inner layers. We’ve got something that might be ‘Directions’ and then a few lines where we can make out nothing but the occasional trace. Then there’s a word that looks like ‘Headage’, and some unreadable words. The only other line we can make out is probably ‘The Devil shot’. The rest is too far gone.”

Giles held out his hand, and Collins gave him both items. Before he’d even looked at them, Giles muttered, “Hendaye, not Headage. We were told that Michel came here from Hendaye, and I think that’s right. What did he find…?”

Just then, Lincoln came in with four mugs on a tray. He put them down on a coffee table, but said nothing.

“The Devil shot… Could the lab make nothing else out at all?”

“No. But Wykes, who’s very good indeed at his job, said that if he had to guess, there were two other similar lines, before what you say is ‘Hendaye’. It looks like they were just notes, jottings, like you’d take a series of telephone messages. All over the place.”

“There are places called something like The Devil’s Shot… I wonder…” Giles looked up from the paper in the evidence bag. “I’m really going out on a limb here, but the most likely scenario we can find is a ritual, or event, that can take place only once in a thousand years. Maybe even less often than that…”

Lincoln snorted, but Collins didn’t flinch.

“…If you were to know of such a thing, how could you be sure that others like you would also know where to gather, and at the right time? You can hardly rely on the personal ads. You would leave clues in imperishable places, perhaps. Notorious places. I think that Michel found something that led him to Hendaye, and that he was either on his way to the next place, or on his way here, for help. If we can find what this Devil Shot means, perhaps that’s where we should be looking.

“Just now, we’ve got nothing better to go on. I suggest that Buffy and I concentrate on that, and you try to find that tracker. I’ll get the maps and we can work out the exact direction Angel was taken…”

Collins interrupted him.

“How do you know which direction they took him?”

Giles took a deep breath.

“I think you’d be more comfortable not knowing. Now, the other thing that we need to narrow down is the date. Sometime between the equinoxes is as good as we’ve got so far. Today’s date is…” As he hesitated, Buffy glanced at the digital display on the sideboard.

“It’s still just 6th April…dammit, that’s not right. Why do you guys switch everything round? 04.06 is 06.04…”

Giles’ eyes widened in sudden shock.

“Buffy…!”

“…So that makes it 4th June…”

“BUFFY!”

“ for another hour or so… What? Giles? What is it?”

“I have the date! 06.06.06. It can’t be anything else. Angel was right. And the dreams… It’s the number of the beast. The once in a thousand year date. Revelations tells us that the Dragon is bound for a thousand years… ‘and after that he must be loosed a little season’. And the date comes under the sign of Gemini. The Twins.”

He visibly blenched as the implications sank in, and Buffy clenched her fists. She was having no more evil twinning from Angel, thank you kindly. Giles was already thinking ahead.

“If it takes place at midnight on 6th June, we’ve got 24 hours, give or take.”

Lincoln was aghast that they might be taking seriously what was clearly the nonsense of New Age fantasists, but Collins didn’t cavil. He turned to his sergeant.

“We’ll check the maps with Mr Giles and Ms Summers. When we understand the projected route, you get everyone onto that line, and make sure that they pick something up. I’ll stay here to help. Keep in touch.”

Giles remonstrated with him, worried that having an outsider here would hamper them dreadfully, but even as he spoke, Collins was stripping off his jacket and rolling up his sleeves. It was Buffy who made the decision.

“Giles, I don’t care who knows what, and what we have to share, but let’s just get onto it? Please?”

Giles nodded abruptly.

“Bring your laptop in here, Buffy. Very well, DCI Collins…”

“Call me Ian.”

“…Ian. You can get onto the net and see what you can find about Devil’s Shot or Devil Shot.”

Collins frowned.

“I’m not very good at the internet…”

“Well, now’s the time to learn.”

***

Lincoln walked out to the car, a rolled-up map in his hand. The DCI had run stark, staring mad. Right from the word go, this case had been disappearing down the toilet, and everyone was going to carry the stench of it.

He’d been told that the Superintendent had gone incandescent when Collins had failed to appear as summoned, to give his report. Only the formal dinner at the Vintner’s Association had distracted him, but tomorrow morning, well, that would be a different matter. The soft and smelly was really going to fly. He hadn’t been a sergeant that long, and he’d prefer not to be on the receiving end when it hit the fan.

Sighing, he reached for the radio, and began to give the technicians their instructions.

***

“In 24 hours?”

Philip nodded miserably.

“The ceremonies will start with the incarnation of the major Lords of Hell in the hour or so leading up to that, and then they’ll go for the big one on the stroke of midnight. The beginning of the sixth day of the sixth month of the sixth year of the millennium.”

“But Francis doesn’t know about me?”

“No. Francis has a talent for magic, but he is impatient and shallow. He has no… no application. He skimps the research. He gets things wrong. His trial incarnation failed because he started with the body in the same circle as the summoned demon. The body was too badly burned to be usable.”

“I think that must be the one the police found. That explains a lot. But he’s doing it differently now?”

“Yes, the second test went perfectly. He worked out that he needed to use a vesica pisces…”

“The bladder of a fish?”

Philip smiled a little.

“No. The oval formed by two overlapping circles. It’s a very powerful figure.”

Angel nodded. He remembered now.

“So, he managed to get his demon incarnated. They were going to kill it – they summoned a very minor one, with not much power – but they decided to keep it locked up somewhere in case they needed a spare body.”

Angel had no real doubts that he could fight his way out of the cavern system if he had to, but what would that accomplish? He wanted to catch them in the act, not have them scatter, to reconvene somewhere else and start again, perhaps with better knowledge of what they needed to truly succeed. Of who they needed. But could they do that? He asked Philip the question.

“Yes. This is the most propitious date, and someone as theatrical as Francis would be bound to choose it. But, they can get perfectly good results at other times. There are prophecies, warnings that have been left for those who have understanding of these matters. But, they aren’t prophecies that say this is the date when these rituals must be carried out. They are the result of visions, warnings that this is what has been seen to happen on this date, unless those with understanding can stop it. They are just ways of communicating the danger, ways that will last through the centuries. The events aren’t inevitable. They aren’t destiny. They are just events on the calendar, that can be changed.”

Angel knew all about the changeability of destiny. He tried to think of something else.

“We can’t be sure that they’ll save me for last. It might go better if they take me for one of the early incarnations. I could stop the thing before it gets started.”

Philip looked him over.

“You’re by far the best of the bunch. Of course Francis will save you until last. Only the best for the Prince of Hell.”

That was cold comfort.

“Why are they starting with dead men? Why are they making you restore a semblance of life, instead of starting with living humans?”

Philip gazed up at the roof of the chamber in the earth, as if he could see something through the 300 feet of rock and soil above him. It took him a while to answer, and Angel gave him the time.

“Francis isn’t stupid, by any means, but he is a fool. He thinks that by doing this, the power of the demons will be weakened, that he will have magic strong enough to control them, to make them do his bidding. He has spent far too much time as a follower of Aadlevaar. He believes the things that are peddled in his Demonic Mysteries.”

“Is he right?”

“They will be weakened, yes. For a few hours. Then they will be very angry indeed, but they will have built up their full strength, and he and the Initiates will suffer. If the Prince of Hell has left anything of them to suffer, that is… Francis intends to summon him in one of his less powerful aspects. He doesn’t understand that an aspect is just that – an aspect. Once you incarnate the thing, you get all its aspects.”

Angel grimaced at the thought. Philip kept his tone conversational.

“I could chop your head off right now, you know. Then there would only be the next level demons to deal with. Bad enough, but not impossible.”

“Will you stop with the wanting to chop my head off? We need a better plan than that… one that involves less chopping.”

Philip looked at the sleeping Joshua, and then back at Angel, reminding him of the frailty of mankind. Angel amended his last reply.

“Okay. But not yet.”

***

By 2.00am, they had the Devil’s Jumps in Sussex, one Devil’s Stone in Devon, and another in Dorset, the Devil’s Humps in West Sussex, the Devil’s Arrows in North Yorkshire, and the Devil’s Quoit or Quoits all over the country. There were Devil’s Dykes and Ditches and Mouths, a Bed and Bolster, a Ring and Finger, and a Den, all of which they put to one side. Giles had ruled out Devil’s anything in any other country but the British Isles, but somehow the Devil’s Marbles in Australia had crept in, and so they had that, too.

Apart from some odd weathering and some standard-looking cup and ring marks, they all seemed to be singularly inscription-free. They had perhaps twenty individual targets, some more promising than others, but none of which could be discounted, and none of which were called the Devil’s Shot. Or the Devil Shot. Or even the Devils Hot.

They had their notes spread out in the drawing room, although the rest of the house was ablaze with light, too, as Giles had ransacked each room for the texts that he rarely needed to consult. Some of the books that Giles and Buffy had used in the study were harmless enough, but Giles wasn’t at all sure what the policeman would make of the rest of them. So, all the original source material stayed in the study.

As Giles shuffled through the notes, Collins offered to make coffee. They were all flagging and needed a wake-up shot. Buffy, once more thinking of Angel’s blood in the fridge, was up from her chair before him. No good could come of him seeing that.

Giles was in a quandary. As he was considering his next actions, Zillah leapt lightly onto the table, and started batting at the papers with her dainty black paw. Ari sat nearby, watching her inscrutably. Collins snatched at the endangered notes, as Giles lifted her down. She promptly hopped back up again, and the notes started to slither around. He got up, gave her a cuddle, and shooed both cats into the hall, closing the door firmly on their indignant looks. Then he went back to brooding. He didn’t want the policeman here, poking into things that it was better he knew nothing about, but he was rapidly coming to the conclusion that, for what he had in mind, he needed Collins there. Buffy and he needed to make a field trip. But, which of these was the one to visit? They surely didn’t have time to visit all of them. And what were they looking for?

As Buffy brought in their three mugs, they were startled by an unholy caterwauling in the hall, as if the impatient devil had come to them. There was the thump of books hitting the floor, the slithering noises of papers sliding from their appointed heaps, and the other, less identifiable noises of Ari and Zillah playing a favourite game – who can get around the room fastest without touching the floor. And they were in the forbidden room – the study.

When he got there, the wreckage was as bad as he had feared. Everything that they had been working with was strewn across the floor, all the carefully separated heaps now disordered and jumbled. The two cats sat in the clear centre of the floor, washing each other. Giles bent down to pick up the one book that lay open in that central space. The cats hadn’t been out for hours. There had been no rain for a week and the ground outside was dry. Yet this book, open at the picture of the Devil’s Arrows, had a clear paw print on the photograph. It was small and neat. It was Zillah’s. Giles bent his head and said a silent thanks.

Back in the drawing room, Buffy and Collins sat in silence as Giles gave his decision about where they needed to go. Giles knew that Collins was bursting with questions, but had the patience to save them until a more appropriate time. That might not be a good thing. Still, things were what they were, and it couldn’t be helped now.

“Buffy, I want you to get a few hours’ sleep.”

“No, Giles. We need to find Angel, and we need to stop the… the whatever he’s been caught up in.”

She’d just managed to stop herself in time from saying the ‘A’ word.

“I know. But the Devil’s Arrows are where we need to start, and they’re two hundred and fifty miles away. Neither of us got more than two hours’ sleep last night. We’re no good to him if we fall asleep on the road, and crash.”

“I can sleep while you drive.”

He put his hand on her shoulder, gently.

“But I can’t. Three hours, Buffy. We can spare that. We have to spare that, otherwise we might all finish up… well, you know.”

He’d almost said the ‘D’ word.

She wanted to shout and scream and plead, but she was the Slayer, and she knew that Giles was right. If he hadn’t said it, she would have done, sooner or later. Better sooner. She was already far more tired than she had let on. She could only imagine how Giles felt.

“I’ll come with you.”

Giles turned to Collins.

“Thanks, but no.”

He paused, but it had to be said.

“I think we’ll need you back here.”

Buffy said nothing, but he knew exactly what she was thinking when her hand gripped his arm. Collins, on his own, poking into heaven knew what. Giles didn’t try to dislodge her hand.

“Your lab man said that there were other lines on the paper you got from… from Michel. I think there might be other places to find. We won’t have time to come running back here. We may need someone to do more research for us. Can you do that?”

Collins knew that he was way out of his depth here. But, he was good at body language. He knew that the tension in this room wasn’t just about the missing Angel. It was about him, sure, but there was more. He remembered some of the strange and terrible and unexplained things that had happened in the last couple of years, many of which had seemed to centre around this house, and then he remembered that he was already in for a serious bollocking from Dennis the Menace. How could it get worse?

“I’ll stay.”

Buffy went up to one of the bedrooms. Giles and Collins each settled down on one of the couches in the drawing room. Ari curled himself up against the warmth of Giles’ stomach. Zillah sat outside the study, pleased with herself. Most of the house still blazed with lights, a beacon against the darkness.

*** “When do they bring your breakfast?”

“I don’t know. I’ve no idea what time it is. We haven’t been outside in days. I think it’s days…”

“It’s about an hour after sunrise. Maybe 5.30. It’s Monday.”

Philip looked up at him, curious.

“How do you know?” “A vampire always knows sunrise and sunset. It doesn’t matter where we are. Even when we can’t smell it, we still know.”

He hadn’t been able to smell the sunrise under water, but he’d still known. He’d counted every single day, when he’d had the wits to do so.

“Well, I still don’t know when they bring breakfast, but they will have been celebrating all night, so I’m very sure it won’t be this early. Why?”

Philip had a sudden fear, with all this talk of breakfasts. He wondered how long it had been since Angelus had… eaten. And then he wondered what, as Angel, he ate, but decided that at this point he preferred not to know.

He saw the vampire smile, amused.

“I’m not going to snack on you. I just thought I should make myself scarce before anyone finds me here.”

“Oh.”

“I couldn’t see the layout of the caves when they brought me in. Can you tell me?”

Philip nodded and reached for the sword. Using the very tip, he scratched an outline on the floor.

Angel studied the map for a moment, committing it to memory. He also recognised from the cavern system just where he was. Appropriate, really.

“Got it. Get rid of that now. I’ll stay down there, with the bodies. Just do what they brought you here to do, and leave the rest to me. When it all starts to happen, make sure that you and Joshua stay behind me. I’ll protect you.”

I’ll protect you, and the world, by dying, if I have to, Angel thought, but we’ll leave that as a very last resort.

Philip looked down at Joshua. The boy was starting to rouse from sleep, disturbed by their talking, quiet though it had been.

“He’s still shackled. They may leave him here.”

Angel rose, silent and graceful, and walked over to where the boy’s chain was anchored to the wall. Bending down, he grasped the chain and tore its mountings from the soft chalk. Then he pressed it gently back into the hole, packing the gap with pieces of rock, which he crumbled easily between his fingers.

“Not any more, he’s not.”

As he walked back down the passageway, he wondered where Buffy and Giles were, and what they were doing now.

***

Zillah and Ari were walking all over Giles, their soft little feet surprisingly heavy as they pulled him from a jumble of chaotic dreams. He looked over towards the clock, and then fumbled blearily for his glasses. 6.30. Time to get up. Way past time to get up.

Collins was snoring softly as Giles headed for the kitchen, his stockinged feet silent. As he left the drawing room, he called quietly up the stairs. Buffy answered immediately, from one of the bathrooms.

By the time he’d carried out his own ablutions, made coffee and warmed some croissants, she was heading over to the flat. He knew what she was looking for. Perhaps it was the quiet activity, or perhaps it was just the smell of coffee, but Collins came into the kitchen, rumpled and bleary-eyed.

“Upstairs, turn left, there’s a bedroom immediately on the right, bathroom’s on the left as you go in the door.”

Collins nodded gratefully and took himself off. Giles called after him.

“There should be some razors in the bathroom cabinet if you want. Otherwise, give me a shout. You can use mine.”

He was answered by a grunt. Taking advantage of the moment, Giles went out to the storeroom by the garage. This was where the bulk of his magical supplies were kept. He selected what he thought he might need. Back in the house, he raided the weapons cupboard in the utility wing, cramming as much as he could into an innocent-seeming sports bag. Then he sat down to a hurried breakfast. They might have as little as seventeen hours, so what price indigestion?

Buffy returned, laden with a bag that he knew would contain weapons for her and for Angel, and with a cool box which he was pretty sure would have nothing for the two of them to eat. Angel might need blood. Buffy was being prepared.

As they gulped down the hot coffee, tearing huge pieces off the croissants, they heard the unmistakeable sounds of water from upstairs. They were both startled, then, by a knock on the door.

“It’s way too early for the postman, Giles.”

It wasn’t the postman at all. It was Lisa, with Badger nudging at her shoulder. Giles thought that the normally bubbly blonde looked exhausted.

“Giles, I’m sorry, I just wanted to check that everything was alright here. All your lights have been on all night. I was just hacking Badger out, and I saw they were still on, so…”

“Thank you, Lisa. Everything’s fine here… But what about you? You look…erm…”

He floundered a little, his sleep-deprived brain not sure how to express concern while not offering insult. At that moment, Collins came down the stairs.

“Ms Forsythe, is everything alright?”

A synapse twitched for Giles, and he saw an extra straw to clutch at. Lisa had already seen Angel in demon face, and had neither flinched nor told tales. She knew very little, but perhaps, if she would stay here with Collins, just maybe things would work out better.

“Lisa, why don’t you turn Badger out into the paddock, and come in?”

***

As they left Summerdown House, Giles wondered briefly whether to take Angel’s Porsche. It was faster. Buffy shook her head.

“If he’s hurt, there’s nowhere to put him in a toy car like that.”

That was true enough. The Discovery was as fast as they needed. They had a four and a half hour journey ahead of them, and on a Monday morning, to boot. A Porsche wouldn’t get them through the traffic jams any quicker. They loaded their bags into the boot, and then Buffy settled herself into the passenger seat, equipped with notes and maps. And directions. No matter how much he loved the woman-child next to him, Giles could never be fond enough to call her good with directions. He’d taken a few minutes to run off the suggested route from the AA website.

The first half hour or so, travelling up towards Bath and the M4 was easy enough, and he told her what he hadn’t been able to say with Collins in the room. He told her about Zillah’s footprint on the Devil’s Arrows.

She was silent for a moment, and when she next spoke, she was diffident, uncertain.

“Giles… do you, do you think that Zillah was Ella’s familiar?”

It only hurt a little to reply.

“Buffy, witches’ familiars are just pets. Besides, Zillah’s never obeyed anything in her life except her own hedonistic pleasure! You don’t think she’s possessed, do you? She’s like any cat.”

“Then why are we going to a place that she trod on?”

“Because she was Ella’s f… pet.”

Buffy’s next question was even more diffident, her voice small.

“You think Ella sent those dreams to us, and sent us a message via her…cat. Why don’t you summon Ella? You could ask her directly what’s happening.”

This time, Giles’ throat ached as he answered.

“Because there’s nothing of Ella left. No soul, no spirit, no essence, no intelligence. She was subsumed completely into the power of the Earth.”

He didn’t want to go further, but he thought of how Angel never flinched from making painful admissions, when they were necessary. He swallowed hard, to help him get the words out.

“Besides, I’ve tried. It didn’t work.”

He couldn’t say any more.

“You’re wrong, Giles. She may not be Ella anymore, but something in the Earth still cares for you. Something knows that you care for it.”

He smiled at her.

“Then it cares for you and Angel, too.”

***

For Collins and Lisa, there was little to do but wait. When Lisa went to make coffee, she saw some bags of blood tucked into a corner of one shelf. They might, of course, be for jugged hare, but she remembered the face that Angel had unknowingly shown her when she and Buffy had cut him from the grasp of the Syriak demon. What would a face like that eat? Still, whether it was for food or for jugged hare, blood and policemen never mixed. A brief hunt through the cupboards produced a small earthenware casserole dish with a lid, and she concealed the bags in there, returning it to the corner where they had sat before.

Giles had explained to her that Angel was missing in action, so to speak, and that they were trying to find him. That they might need help once they got to Boroughbridge. Of course she’d agreed to stay. She’d rather be out of the house just now, anyway. The relationship she’d been in was coming to a sharp and bitter end, and being here was so much better than watching him pack. She’d spent most of the night walking the dark and deserted lanes and byways of the Wessex countryside, always guided by the blaze of lights at Summerdown House. She’d spent an hour amid the warm fug of the horses in the livery stable, and then she’d taken Badger out for an early morning ride. That had brought her here, and here she had purpose for a while. She’d stay.

They’d drunk coffee in the silence of strangers, and then she’d started to do some tidying up before Martha arrived. She’d done the dishes, and stacked the loose papers and books into some sort of ordered heaps, and then she’d gone back to the drawing room, to make polite conversation, while they waited.

***

During the first hour, they made good time. They’d done the seventy-odd miles that took them from the M4 to the M5 and towards the M42, and the huge conurbation around Birmingham. Buffy didn’t need to ask the meaning of the term ‘Traffic Blackspot’ on the AA directions. She could see it all around them. The next twelve miles took them almost another hour, and then they were out of the claws of the Birmingham traffic and off to the M1 and The North. The stretches by Nottingham and Sheffield had them both fuming quietly again, and when they got close to the Woolley Edge services, Giles asked if Buffy wanted a break. They’d travelled more than 200 miles, and he wasn’t sure when they’d get another chance.

She nodded briefly, and he pulled in. Minutes for a trip each to the facilities, more minutes to refuel the car, and they were away with a takeaway coffee each.

When they reached the relatively level farmlands of Boroughbridge, in North Yorkshire, it was well after 1 o’clock and much later than they had expected. As Giles pulled off the A1 motorway and onto a bridge running over the road, he pointed across the carriageway to a field of wheat.

“Giles, they’re huge!”

“The other one is bigger.”

They were, indeed, huge. He pulled over beneath a hedge by a small semi-circle of grass that marked the junction of the main road into the town, and a small lane running up the side of the long, narrow cornfield. There was just room for the Discovery to fit by the side of the lane here – anywhere else, and he would have been blocking it to other traffic. In the field were two purplish-grey shafts of millstone grit, each of them eighteen or twenty feet tall. The stones strode across the ground, seeming to weigh it down with their size and their age.

There was nothing to stop them from going into the field, and so they made their way around the edge, to the smaller of the stones. Smaller, in relative terms, that is. It stood by the edge of the field, almost beneath a tree, and was thicker in girth than the slimmer, taller stone standing isolated among the growing grain. Each of the two stones seemed to have been carved at the top, with regular fluted channels tapering for several feet down the sides of the shaft. They looked a little like long, slim hands, the fingers fused together. He’d read that this was natural weathering, but it was easy to doubt.

“If these have got any inscriptions on, don’t you think someone would have found them by now?”

“Not necessarily, Buffy. It depends on how determined anyone was to hide whatever’s here.”

“So they put these stones up…”

“I don’t think so. These have been here since the late Stone Age. They’re probably at least as old as Stonehenge. I’m sure the people we’re tracking – or their predecessors – simply took advantage of the local name. There were probably five originally. One is completely lost to us, but the fourth was broken up in the sixteenth century and used to build a bridge over one of the nearby rivers. We’d better hope the one we wanted wasn’t one of those two…”

“We’d better get looking, then. I’ll take this one, you can wade through the wheat to the other.”

It didn’t take long to establish that there were no inscriptions, no pictures, no Stone Age masons’ doodles on any part of the stones that they could reach, just some vague dimples on one shaft. At length, Giles pulled a small packet of grey powder from his pocket and sprinkled a little over the dimples. He said a few words of Latin, and Buffy held her breath, but nothing happened. Giles looked disappointed.

“What did you do, Giles?”

“This little concoction should have let us know whether these cup marks contained any coherent message, but it seems not. Time for something bigger, then…”

“Bigger? Why didn’t you do that first?”

“Buffy, we are in an exposed field, a few yards from the main trunk road to Scotland. I would point out to you, as if you could miss it, that the A1 is extremely busy, and there’s also a not inconsiderable amount of traffic coming along the road at the bottom of this field into Boroughbridge. Additionally, I would point out that just on the other side of the hedge where my car is parked is an estate of houses. I don’t want to use bigger. I want us to inconspicuously find what we need and then drive away completely unnoticed.”

“I know, Giles. But you must have learned by now that it never works out like that.”

Giles didn’t grace that with a response. Instead, he took another small packet from his pocket, this time with a deep blue powder in it. He flung a pinch of the powder up into the still air, calling on the powers of air and earth to aid them. There was nothing.

He repeated the ritual on the second, taller stone. The result was the same. Nothing.

“So? That was bigger?”

“Yes, Buffy, that was bigger. There’s nothing on these two stones. Let’s go and look at the third.”

She turned around and around, checking out the whole field.

“Is this one invisible, then?”

“No. It’s over here. I think.”

Buffy followed him back towards the car. As they stood on the little semi-circle of grass, he motioned to the other side of the Boroughbridge road, and they ran across between the speeding cars. Giles was a little breathless when they reached safety. Buffy was a lot breathless when he turned her round and pointed.

On a line with the other two stones, but separated from them by this road, stood the third surviving Arrow. It was almost hidden, in a tiny fenced enclosure, a wooden five-barred gate at the front, and a flimsy stile at the back, and on each side mature trees hemmed it in. It stood captive and alone. And it seemed to be trying to reach up to the light, to outgrow the trees.

Buffy looked up at it in awe.

“That must be twenty feet tall.”

“Twenty-two, actually,” said Giles, consulting his notes. “So, we’d better get started. There’s a lot to look at.”

There certainly was a lot to look at, but it seemed that there was very little to find. Admitting defeat, Giles took out his small bag of what Buffy referred to as ‘bigger powder’. Standing behind the stone, he flung a pinch of the powder up into the air, and said the words of invocation. He was answered by a flash of purple that left behind a steady glow of soft light, a corona around the head of the shaft of stone.

“Yesss!!”

Relief and excitement burst from Buffy as she twirled in a circle.

“Um. Buffy.”

“Yes, Giles? Go read, or whatever you’re going to do next.”

“It’s whatever you’re going to do next, I’m afraid. The inscription is up there.”

“WHAT?”

***

Lincoln wondered when Collins’ luck would run out. Dennis the Menace was down with food poisoning (read hangover), and so his DCI would live to breathe another day. Lincoln had just spent the last hour in serious discussion with the technicians who so far seemed to have failed to earn a single penny of their grossly inflated salaries – inflated when compared with, oh say, a hard-working but newly-appointed detective sergeant. They now had a Plan B, but it would take time.

Lincoln got on the phone to Collins, to tell him all the good news at once.

***

“You aren’t serious?”

“Buffy, someone has to go up and find out what’s written there!”

“Whatever happened to inconspicuous and unnoticed?”

“Just do the best you can.”

Hands on hips, Buffy surveyed the stone pillar. The rock itself was rough stuff – Giles had told her it was used for making millstones, hence its name – and would tear her hands to shreds as she slipped back down it. Because there were no handholds. There was just the fluting on the top, and a hell of a long way up before that started. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, trying to calm herself, to muster all her Slayerness.

“Angel could do this,” she muttered under her breath, and then found she’d said it louder than she’d thought.

“So, are you going to admit that he can do things that you can’t?”

Nettled, she gave Giles a sour look and then weighed up her options. Suddenly decisive, she headed for the sycamore tree on her right. Its branches looked strong enough.

“Buffy? What are you doing?”

“Trying to be inconspicuous.”

She leapt up and took hold of the lowest branch, then pulled herself up and started climbing.

***

Collins was growing restless. Thanks to mobile phone technology, he’d got his finger on every pulse that was available to him, but none of them were telling him very much except that the case was in critical condition. And now he had two women to contend with. Giles, it seemed, had called Martha, and Martha was here, making lunch. And keeping him from snooping around. Exactly as Lisa had kept him from snooping around before Martha’s arrival. Well, not snooping so much as checking things out. Learning what was where. And what was what.

Resigned, he wandered into the dining room, lured on by the mouth-watering aroma of warm chicken liver salad with bacon and wild mushrooms. Lisa followed close behind. There was nothing to do but eat, and wait. He wondered what was happening in Boroughbridge, and then gave himself over to what was on his plate.

***

The last major branch on the tree, as Buffy climbed, overhung the Arrow, or almost so. She scrambled along it, listening for the first sounds of cracking as opposed to creaking. She was glad that she’d not had time to change out of her dark leather trousers and jacket. Any brighter colours would have stood out like a… like a very bright thing up a tree. She’d been surprised at how late in the year it was before the trees in Yorkshire started to leaf up, and even now, some of the ivy-encrusted trees around her were still not long past breaking bud, with only a young, thin canopy. This one, though, had been earlier than most, and the fresh new foliage provided some cover for her.

Now she was as far along the branch as she dared go, and the Arrow was still a long way off. It was more feet than she wanted to think about. Still, she’d fallen further than this before. And it killed you, said a traitorous little voice in her head. Trying to ignore that little voice, she jumped.

Giles, his fists clenched, saw her leap, and his heart leaped with her. She scrabbled for purchase on the glowing crown of the stone, and then she was up. There was no safe foothold, so she perched herself – rather uncomfortably, he thought, astride the column, and started to examine the folds and crenellations in the rock.

“Toss me up a pen, Giles.”

He cursed himself for not remembering such a simple thing, and did so. She caught it on the second try.

“Paper?”

“You’d never get it up here. No, I’m good.”

She rolled up her sleeve and started to write. Occasionally she repositioned herself so that she could see the rock where she’d been sitting. When she’d finished, she came down again, courtesy of the sycamore. Safely back on the ground, Giles could see that she was scratched and bloodied. He didn’t want her to have to go up there again, but he had to know.

“Did you get it all?”

“Yep! It was carved onto the edges of those channels in the rock.”

She rolled up both sleeves and showed him her arms. He groaned.

“Ogham. Why did it have to be Ogham…? Yes, they used the edges of rocks for carving these…”

“Giles, I really think we should be going.”

As she pulled him through the gate, he could see that there was a small huddle of people in the gardens over the road. They were pointing towards the pearly-lilac glow that crowned the Arrow.

“I think you’re right.”

They dodged the traffic back to the Discovery, and Giles got them away as quickly as he decently could. He headed back south until they came to Wetherby, about ten minutes away, and pulled off there. On the way, Buffy had spent the whole time picking bits of foliage, and twigs, and the odd beetle, out of her hair. She looked like a slightly worse-for-wear wood nymph. A tub of wet wipes in the glove compartment helped her finish the clean up.

A sprawling white-walled pub on a corner of the High Street caught their attention. The Angel Inn. What else could it have been?

“This one do you think?”

Giles nodded. He bought them two pots of coffee and plates of sandwiches, and they took them out to the beer garden, a pretty little square of flowers and grass and budding rose bushes, and some solid wooden furniture. Giles put down the tray on a table near the building.

“Don’t you want to be further away?”

“No. I’ll be back in a minute.”

When he returned, he was carrying the laptop. He set that down next to the tray, which now held mainly crumbs.

“Hungry?”

“Not any more.”

She gestured a query at the laptop.

“Wireless internet access. I spotted the sign as we came in. Our house guests can start to earn their keep.”

Buffy frowned.

“Do you think it was a good idea, leaving them there?”

“Don’t you trust Lisa?”

“Yes. Yes, I do. She knows Angel is something…different, and she hasn’t said a word to anyone.”

“Then it’s Collins you’re worried about?”

Her forehead screwed up even more.

“I don’t know… I have a feeling…”

She trailed off and Giles finished her sentence for her.

“A feeling that he’s a good guy?”

She nodded, but dubiously.

“I have the same feeling Buffy, and sometimes you have to go with your instinct. We’ll protect them both from too much knowledge, but we really did need someone there, and there was no one else. Now, I hope you brought that spiffy new phone of yours?”

A doting Angel had bought her a camera phone only a fortnight ago, so that she and Dawn could exchange snapshots. Giles had told him to put the thing down as a business expense, and it was now about to justify that decision. He took photographs of the runes penned onto Buffy’s forearms, and prepared to make the call.

“If we’ve got internet access, why don’t we just look them up?”

“Because the runes on the websites are baby’s runes. Play things. We need the real, ancient ones. I had terrible problems using the web information for transliterations until I got hold of a copy of Besthaven’s Ancient Alphabets. If they haven’t raided the study already, I’ll get Martha to dig it out for them while we grab a bite. Or should I say, while I grab a bite.”

“I could manage another sandwich.”

Giles’ smile was tired, and so Buffy held out her hand for some money while he handed out instructions to his newest recruits.

***

Collins felt that if Giles were marking them, he would hand out A for effort and E for attainment. Or maybe E for effort, too. They made painfully slow progress with the unfamiliar work, and the wretchedly unfamiliar book that Martha dourly handed to him. He could tell that she didn’t quite approve of his presence.

The book. Giles had known which alphabet to look up – something called Ogham, but why on earth the hopefully long-deceased Besthaven hadn’t chosen to actually put an index in was quite beyond Collins. So, Lisa held up one of the perks – perhaps the only perk – of being a Detective Chief Inspector, his own camera phone with the runes pictured on it, and they leafed through the book, examining an amazing range of almost identical-seeming squiggles. At last, though, after a number of e-mails seeking information, support, and just plain encouragement, they found the right set of pages, and the work went more quickly after that, although the first effort left something to be desired. They had written the runes on separate pieces of paper, with the translation underneath, and then arranged them according to the sequence shown in the photographs.

VILSQUAT THEDE

Lisa looked at the translation – no, transliteration, Giles had said – carefully, and then announced, in a no-nonsense and practical tone of voice, that brooked no disagreement, “You’ve got that wrong.”

Disregarding his protestation of unfairness, and shared responsibility, she tugged the pieces of paper from his failing grasp and examined them closely. Then she shuffled them round.

THE DEVIL SQUAT

It was Collins’ turn.

“I don’t know that that’s any better.”

Lisa frowned at the new words.

“It rhymes.”

“What? It rhymes with what?”

“The last one. The last one was The Devil Shot, and now we’ve got The Devil Squat.”

“Do you know what it means?”

“Not the foggiest.”

“Who’s going to tell them, then?”

***

“The Devil what?”

“You’re sure?”

“Okay, get onto the net and see what you can find, please. Keep in touch.”

When Giles put the phone away, Buffy was looking at her watch.

“Giles, it’s almost three. Have we got the place yet?”

“I don’t think we’re at the end yet, but let’s have a look at what they’ve got.”

He told her what the runes meant, and then he opened up the laptop and googled ‘Devil + squat’. As he hunted through, Buffy asked him something that had been niggling her, but had so far been buried under the mountain of worry she already had.

“How long will the bigger powder last back at the Arrows?”

“Hm? Oh, until midnight. They’ll either find some rational scientific explanation for it, or they’ll call it mass delusion. Hah! I bet that’s it! Come on Buffy, back to the car.”

“What? Thank goodness. Where to now?”

“Chesterfield in Derbyshire. It’ll take about an hour and a half from here.”

***

Collins and Lisa found nothing better to fit the clue, and so Chesterfield it was. In fact, it took almost two hours, as they caught up with the early afternoon rush hour traffic again. As they sat impatiently at the approach to the conjunction of the M1 and the M18, Buffy found room for another question.

“Giles, why didn’t you just use this reveal spell on that paper that they found in your friend?”

Giles reached into his pocket and pulled out the plastic evidence bag. The stained document inside glowed in the same pearly lilac.

“I did. There’s nothing to help us. Michel identified two other clues before Hendaye, but he’d found the answers to those. ‘The Devil Shot’ was the next on the list. That’s when I got the idea that there was this idiotic clue hunt to go through. But we’ve nothing else to help us. I think the spell would have been strong enough to see off stomach acids, but he simply hadn’t got that far.”

He handed the bag over, and Buffy could see that he was right.

“Do me a favour, will you? Just write down everything on that paper, exactly as it appears? Before the spell dissipates? That’s just in case…”

Chesterfield was clearly visible for miles, thanks largely to its parish church, St Mary and All Saints. The building that Buffy was later to learn was the largest parish church in Derbyshire stood high above the profile of the town, and would have been remarkable for that. What it was more remarkable for, even at a distance, was the shape of its spire.

It twisted. It leaned. It was, in short, crooked, like a shallow half turn on a corkscrew.

“The legend, Buffy, is that the Devil sat on the spire and, well, squashed it. The reality is that when this spire was built in the late 1300’s, they used green timber, which was usual, and they clad it in heavy lead, which wasn’t. Also, after the Black Death, there was a dire shortage of skilled tradesmen… Ah, I think we can park here… Have you got any pound coins for the meter? I think you took all mine at the pub.”

They walked over to the church. Giles inspected the list of services in the porch.

“Evensong at five o’clock. Drat. There’s only a few minutes to go. We’re going to have trouble poking around while there’s a service on.”

“Maybe whatever we’re looking for is outside.”

“We’re in trouble if it is. A town centre church on a warm and sunny afternoon is not the place for clandestinely crawling all over the outside. Let’s do as much as we can, though. Then I suggest that we attend church and see whether anything looks promising. They’ll probably lock up after the service, so to prevent asking you to break and enter, I think we try and conceal ourselves.”

“So that you can ask me to break and exit?”

“Precisely.”

***

Angel lay where he had first been positioned, the deactivated gris-gris around his neck. He’d heard men come into the chamber that held Philip and Joshua, bringing water and breakfast. There had been nothing to suggest that they had found the loosened chain.

Then other men, men more powerful in magic, had come down to this very bottommost chamber, the one that had once been the profane holy of holies. Oh, yes. He knew where he was now.

The three who’d been here, two minions trailing in their wake, had determined which body should be used when. He wondered what criteria their decisions had been based on, but they hadn’t discussed those. Philip had been right. He was to be the pièce de résistance, and saved until last.

He had a plan – sort of. If the plan worked – and there was absolutely no guarantee of that – then the major part of the night’s activities would be foiled. But, would the rest be too much for Buffy and Giles? If there were seven incarnated top-ranking demons left when the smoke cleared, could they deal with them? What was Buffy’s plan?

And the men who’d been down here? He was pretty sure he knew who one of them was. Who it was that led this particular pack. That worried him as much as the rest of it, and it weighed in the balance of letting this play out for as long as possible to see who else was involved.

To top it all off, he couldn’t leave Philip and Joshua down there, to die. No, the plan he had, sketchy as it was, and reliant on demonic rage for its success, was the best way to go. Probably. He hoped that Buffy and Giles were close at hand. They must know by now that this was nothing to do with normal police business, and he wondered how they’d fobbed off Collins.

He’d tried to be rational about it, and examined his conscience on whether he was being stupid and vainglorious in wanting this thing to play out, but everything in him, everything that he’d learned over these hard, hard years, was screaming at him that he needed to take out the spider and the whole of its web. Otherwise there would be no security that the matter was over for good. Sometimes you needed to listen to your gut instinct, especially when demon and human instincts agreed.

Such thoughts circled around and around in his head as he switched into stealth hunting mode and stretched his senses to the uttermost, trying to discover everything that was happening in the caverns above him.

***

They’d given a very cursory glance to the most accessible parts of the church’s exterior.

“It’s HUGE. Why does it have to be so huge?”

“It’s the largest parish church in Derbyshire.”

“It would be. Of course it would be.”

There was nothing obvious to look for, not even to tuck away for post-darkness exploration. Besides, if they were still here after sunset, they would almost certainly be too late. The game would be lost, and it seemed that Angel would be lost with it.

With nothing obvious outside, they’d slipped into the church just as evensong was starting, and had stayed for the service. Now, they were lurking in St Peter’s chapel. Buffy hoped that St Peter was a forgiving sort.

“I thought you said this was Church of England?”

“It is.”

“It’s not what I expected. They have Masses, and things.”

“There’s Low Church, and there’s High Church, Buffy. This is High Church. That’s good, because they might have kept some of the older things that other churches would have turfed out. We need old.”

“Are you going to use the bigger powder again?”

“It won’t work in here, Buffy. There’s sacred, and there’s profane, and in this space, our earth magic is definitely profane.”

“I don’t know why you couldn’t just magic up a spell to tell us where Angel is.”

“We tried, Buffy. It only got us so far. Besides, using magic always has consequences of one sort or another. You saw that at the Devil’s Arrows. Sometimes, they’re unexpected consequences. You should know that by now. Magically, we’ve done as much as we could, and that’s been little enough, but even so, we might have set things into play that we don’t want. Whoever took Angel uses strong magic. Maybe they put a more successful type of magical tracer on him than the police were able with their new technology. Maybe whoever put that don’t-see-me spell on him now knows that we’re looking. Forewarned is forearmed, and that’s the last thing we want. No, Buffy, the old-fashioned way is best until you get to point non plus. Trust me.”

Giles had been whispering, but Buffy held up her hand.

“Sh!”

They heard footsteps and then they heard the key turn in the lock, and then they were alone.

There was a table at the back of the church with pamphlets about its history. Giles picked one up.

“Buffy, I’ll look around down here, but I suggest that you go up to the spire. I think that’s the most likely place.”

They quickly found the tower door. It was locked.

“Just break the lock, Buffy.”

“I’m pretty sure that despoiling church property is worth a few years in Hell.”

“And I’m pretty sure that stopping an apocalypse gives you a get-out-of-jail-free card.”

“Sure?”

“Buffy…”

Just then, the lock snapped and she pulled the door open. A little fumbling found the thankfully modern light switch. As she started up the stone steps, he called softly after her.

“For goodness’ sake, be careful.”

Her voice drifted back down.

“We’re in just the right place for you to summon up some goodness…”

***

Collins was pacing up and down the drawing room, as were the cats. Occasionally, they would stop, and Ari would wash Zillah’s face. She leaned into his pink little tongue as if she were…

Collins dragged his attention away to his companion. Lisa was leafing through the Besthaven book, making some sort of notes about it. Just then, Martha came in to announce that she was bringing dinner into the dining room, and if they’d nothing better to do than pace until Mr Giles or Miss Buffy got back in touch, then they might as well come and eat it.

When they’d left the room under Martha’s supervision, Zillah hopped gracefully onto Lisa’s warm cushion, and curled up tight. Ari sat upright next to her, an Egyptian cat god guard as she tumbled into restless sleep. Her paws twitched and her eyelids fluttered as she dreamed The Dream.

***

It was a long way up the stairs, but when Buffy got to the top, she could have wished that it had been longer. The timber beams of the spire were exposed to view, and were like some surrealist’s nightmare. Instead of being straight and true, they curved and curled and bent, reflections in an architect’s hall of mirrors. Even she could see that there weren’t enough cross beams to tie the whole lot together, and when she examined the foundations of the beams, she visibly paled.

The space here was remarkably clean and neat. Unlike Giles, downstairs, hastily leafing through a pamphlet for information on inscriptions, she wasn’t to know that there were regular guided tours up here, and so she was inclined to think the worst. Which, of course, wasn’t as bad as the rest of the worst. She’d tried to remain the Slayer all day, to be strong for Giles, and she knew he was trying to do the same thing, to be the confident Watcher, but up here, on her own, she could admit to her fright. When they got this over and done with, and when she’d got Angel safely back again, she was going to beat him to death for being so hare-brained. She didn’t know what with, yet, but something that took a really, really long time to beat a vampire to death.

As she prowled around, she could see that, without help, it was utterly hopeless. There was nothing in the tower here, and the rest of the spire was a long, long way up. She wanted to scream with frustration, but instead she focussed herself, drew on every fibre of Slayerness, closed her eyes, and thought of Ella.

It seemed to her that a spring breeze caressed her cheek, and there was the scent of earth in her nostrils. Earth and candlewax. When she opened her eyes, she thought she saw a dark shadow among the wooden timbers above her, and then she heard a cat miaow. She’d know that voice anywhere. She looked up, and high over her head she saw light and shadow, and something cut into a beam.

There was only one way up. Saying a word or two of thanks, she took off her shoes and started up, hanging monkey-fashion. She wondered whether she should tell Giles that perhaps the sacred and the profane might not be so far apart after all.

***

Giles, meanwhile, was in his own circle of hell. He’d examined the Poor Box, which had more steel bands and rivets than was good for it, but which dated from the promising 1600’s, and he’d examined the lectern, which was of a similar age, but there was nothing. He’d climbed onto pews and scrambled around walls, in a church that had entirely too much ornamentation for an operation like this. And he was aware that time must be running out fast. The leaflets were a help, telling him what was new in the church and what was old. The north transept had been almost destroyed by fire in 1961, and he hoped that what they needed hadn’t been in there. He was scrambling up to examine the rood beam when he heard the side door open, and just managed to conceal himself by the Foljambe family tomb before the newcomers entered the main body of the church.

Flower arrangers. It was the night for the people who came to decorate the church with flowers. And they were between him and the door. What’s more, they were going to be between Buffy and the door. Drat and blast.

As they worked they chattered in hushed whispers, and he could see that they were in no hurry. He simply couldn’t afford to wait here and let Buffy be discovered opening the door to the tower. Keeping low, he scurried up the side of the nave, on the far side of the gothic pillars from the half dozen women and their wretched flowers, and then he sauntered back, as if he had come in by the unlocked door. He kept his voice as loud as he reasonably could, hoping that Buffy would hear. She should be down any time now.

“Oh, hello. I wondered if I might watch?”

One of the women, iron-grey hair and sensible shoes belying a youthful face, turned to him with surprise.

“I’m sorry, the church is closed now.”

“Oh, I didn’t come for a service. I… I’m new to Chesterfield. I… er… I was a member of the flower arranging team back at my old church. I wondered if there might be room for another member here? If you don’t mind a man, of course…”

“Oh! Oh? Well, yes, of course. That would be nice. I’m Jane, this is Eva, and…”

The introductions blurred one into the other for him as he kept his ears pricked for a sound from the tower. He realised suddenly that he’d missed a cue.

“Oh, I’m Rupert.”

“Well, Rupert, would you like to do an arrangement for the Holy Cross chapel? There are a pile of flowers over there, and the vase is still in the chapel. See what you can make of it?”

As they worked, they talked, and Giles kept his voice pitched so that Buffy must hear. He thanked Providence and his mother, who had done all her own flower arrangements, and his own proclivity for watching everything, even at an early age. He almost forgot to slice off the drying ends of the stems, to allow the flowers to drink, but Eva offered him a pair of shears, just in time.

He’d had vases of flowers at home, but they had been arranged à la Giles. Hold the vase in one hand and the bunch of flowers in the other. Bring both hands together. Now, he tried to call to mind all the wonderful still life Old Masters that he’d seen, with bowls of burgeoning blooms, petals almost ready to fall out of the painting, and to copy them. He wasn’t sure whether he was in any way successful, but his efforts seemed to meet with approval and, more importantly, the attention of the flower arrangers was on him, not on the rest of the church. Nevertheless, he felt that it was a mercy when he saw Buffy’s head appear around the door. She gave him a nod and then she silently made good her escape from the church.

He bid his farewells as quickly as he decently could, with promises to return the following week, and headed out for the car. Buffy was pacing impatiently when he got there, but Giles was in no mood to notice that. His ordeal, and fatigue, made him snappish.

“Buffy, what on earth took you so long?”

“Oh, I don’t know Giles, maybe the fact that I had to monkey-climb up about fifteen feet of roof beam, without much in the way of handholds… Do you have any idea what that does to a girl’s nails? And by the way, do you know how that spire is attached to the tower? It isn’t. The wood just sits on top of the stone, and there’s nothing holding it together! A good wind could blow it off!”

“Well, it’s been there since 1362, so I imagine it will last until we get out of town. What did you find?”

Buffy showed him a new set of Ogham runes, on the outsides of her arms this time.

“This is not a good look. Remind me never to get tattooed! Oh, wait – one of your friends already taught me that.”

He glowered at her, but got out the camera phone without further comment. When photographs had been sent back for transliteration, she settled back into her seat.

“What now?”

“I’ve no idea which direction to go in. Let’s wait a few minutes to see what they find. I could murder a cup of coffee, though, the stronger the better.”

“You stay here, and I’ll go rustle one up while we wait.”

She hadn’t been gone more than a few minutes when Collins rang back.

“THE DEVIL BEGOT.”

“What?”

“That’s what the runes say. ‘The Devil begot.’ Best we can do. There’s one rune we couldn’t account for, though.”

“What do you mean?”

“It isn’t a rune. At least, it isn’t Ogham, and it doesn’t appear to be in any other alphabet from Besthaven. Next suggestion?”

“Which one is it?”

“Last one on the right arm.”

Giles looked at the stored images. The unidentified one was complicated, much more complicated than a rune should be. There were two hearts, one above the other, and the line delineating the left side of the upper heart continued outside the figure, running in an arch over the top and ending in a triangle, rather like the head of an arrow. A thick shaft struck down through the centre of the upper heart, below which it forked into two, each fork piercing one of the lobes of the lower heart. In the other direction, the shaft extended upwards, and a horizontal line crossed it, to be itself crossed on the left side by two other straight lines, giving the shape of a simple star. The right arm of the crosspiece angled backwards and upwards to form a triangle with the shaft, which still continued upwards to take the unmistakeable shape of a sword, with a hilt and a large round pommel.

Giles stared at this complicated figure. There were many interpretations, he was sure, but with Buffy and Angel, two hearts pierced together, well… And since Angel could, simplistically, be seen as two selves, two spirits, two halves of the same heart… He shuddered a little and tried to tell himself that he was exhausted and hungry and running on nothing but adrenalin and fear, and definitely being fanciful. Then he traced a shape with his finger. The shaft, the main crosspiece and one of the lines that formed the star created a letter ‘A’. Damn and blast!

He scrambled around in the car for a blank sheet of paper, copied the figure, and then ran back into the church.

Jane and Eva, and whoever the others were, were still there. Only slightly flustered, he moderated his pace as he approached them.

“I say. I don’t suppose anyone has seen a mason’s mark, or a piece of church graffiti, like this have they?”

He proffered the sketch.

Jane bit her lip as she studied the figure.

“Ann, doesn’t your Jack have a collection of mason’s marks?”

The otherwise anonymous Ann peered over Jane’s shoulder.

“It looks familiar. Let me see… Oh, I know, it’s one of those churches further down in Derbyshire, Further south, I think, not in the Peaks. It’s famous for something… Something old. There’s a mark just like that there. Sorry, I can’t remember where it is, though.”

“Thank you! Thank you very much!”

Giles ran back to the car to find Buffy waiting with coffee and burgers.

“Get in Buffy, quickly. And dial Collins.”

He pulled out of the car park as he rattled off directions to Collins. Derbyshire, church, mason’s mark, church graffiti, something for which a church might be remarkable. He’d make a guess at direction while they were looking, and pray that he went somewhere near.

It was ten minutes before Collins rang back.

“We’re still looking on the web, but I rang my oppo in the Derbyshire force. He suggested Melbourne.”

Melbourne? Melbourne, Australia?”

Giles remembered the Devil’s Marbles and groaned. Buffy looked horrified.

“No, you idiot. Melbourne, Derbyshire. There’s some sort of famous painting of the Devil there. Sounds like it might be what we’re looking for. By the way, what would it take to part you from your cook/housekeeper? She’s a treasure.”

Giles said something rude as he ended the call, and then blushed when he remembered Buffy’s presence. He told her their destination, and she wrestled with the Road Atlas and the map light in the glove compartment. Somehow he managed to gulp down the burger and most of the coffee as she called out last minute directions, changed her mind, and then changed her mind again. It was now past eight o’clock, and they were definitely running out of time.

***

The journey from Chesterfield took about an hour, through places that were entirely incomprehensible to Buffy – Tibshelf, Swadlincote, Swarkestone… Where do they get these names, she thought. She wasn’t being frivolous. Anything was better than thinking about what might be happening just now. If she did that, she would freeze. She was the Slayer, damn it, and it was her job to stay focused, even if that meant thinking inconsequential thoughts. Images flashed through her mind, of Angel in danger, of Angel hurt, of Angel… NO!

“Giles, why did they name this place after Melbourne, Australia?”

Giles was silent for a moment, and then sighed.

“Buffy, I forget sometimes how young you are, and how little you know about this side of the Atlantic. It’s nice. I see things through your eyes, all fresh and new. But they didn’t name the village after the Australian city. It was the other way round. One of Queen Victoria’s Prime Ministers, Lord Melbourne, lived in the village, at Melbourne Hall. Melbourne, Australia was named after him.”

“And the Hall is still there?”

“Why, yes, and still in private ownership. I think it’s been in the same family for almost four hundred years.”

“We aren’t going to have to rip that apart, too, are we?”

“Hopefully not.”

Giles didn’t add that they hadn’t got time to rip anywhere else apart. He knew he didn’t have to, that Buffy already understood as much. Having left the church of St Mary and All Saints, they arrived, a little after nine o’clock, at the church of St Michael with St Mary. The coincidence wasn’t lost on them. Buffy groaned when she saw it.

“Why are all the churches so large in this country?”

“They aren’t, as well you know. But, we certainly seem to have found all the biggest ones today.”

It was a very large, very imposing building, and very visible.

“Giles, there’s no way we can go breaking into this building in broad daylight! Someone will have the police on us before I can climb a drainpipe. Why do you have such late sunsets in summer!”

“No.” He was despondent, but there was no point in giving in to it, not after coming so far. “And it’s all to do with latitude and the tilt of the Earth… Let’s try the door anyway. You never know.”

The door was open, and there was no one inside.

They looked at each other in astonishment, and then Giles saw the list of services pinned up in the porch. Monday, 9.00pm. Meditation Zone. Twenty minutes of stillness and quiet reflection.

“We’ve got about ten minutes,” he muttered.

“We solve this very fast, or it’s breaking and exiting again, then…”

Inside, the church was beautiful, with unusual galleries and walkways around the clerestory, but they had no time to dwell on architecture. What caught their attention was on the arched wall of the central tower, directly facing the congregation when there was one. They had found what they were looking for. It was a wall painting, of the Devil. He had fangs, and feathered angel’s wings and other… attributes, and he stood astride two women.

It was mediaeval, and faded. The colours, if they had ever been any brighter, had now dulled to earth shades of brown and grey and cream. In some areas, there were blank spaces where the paint had either been scraped off or had succumbed to the exigencies of time.

Giles practically ran back to the table by the door, with its collection of pamphlets about matters of local interest. And about the church. He was muttering as he came back, thumbing through the leaflets he had picked up.

“This place had a Royal castle – it was a manor of Henry I, which is why the church and the Hall are so big. The church was built around 1120, for the king, which would make one of those upper galleries a royal pew, and most of the original building survives. The castle’s gone, but the Hall was the rectory for the church… Oh!”

Buffy hissed her displeasure as Giles stuttered to a halt.

“Do not tell me that we’ve got to pull the Hall apart. I swear, I’ll have lost patience by then.”

“No, Buffy… at least, I don’t think so, not yet. Henry I gave this manor to the Bishops of Carlisle, as a southern retreat when they needed to make an escape from all the raids and invasions. The Hall was the rectory house for the Bishops…”

“Carlisle…”

“Yes. I’m afraid so. It’s all like a spider’s web, isn’t it? We simply don’t have the knowledge or the time to track the weaving of it. We can only blunder on.”

“Time’s passing. We’ve got five minutes. Let’s blunder…”

“Yes, of course. I’m sorry. Let’s see if we can make sense of it. This is a unique church painting – there’s nothing else quite like it, and people really don’t know what to make of it. Now… We have two women, facing each other, and holding a round object between them. Some people think that represents a stolen Host, but it looks rather large for that. Large, and the wrong colour; it’s grey. The women have the Devil standing over them, on their backs, you might say…”

“Giles, he’s got…wings… ang-”

Giles interrupted her, anxious not to let her finish.

“Yes, yes, I think you should consider them to be merely stylised representations…”

He looked at her face.

“And the fangs. It was the best they could do in the…” He consulted the pamphlet. “… late thirteen hundreds.”

“The other thing is the best they could do as well?”

“Yes, yes,” he replied, testily, embarrassed. “I don’t imagine any of them had actually seen the Devil’s member. Let’s press on…”

“Let’s not! Someone’s coming,” she hissed.

Giles looked around wildly for a place of concealment, but Buffy took him by the hand and pulled him towards the doorway to the upper galleries. While the church was carefully and respectfully closed up for the evening, they hid themselves in the royal pew until the doors were locked and they were left alone.

***

Collins was once more stalking the drawing room. Lisa was curled up on a settee, asleep. Ari was sprawled along the back of it, his legs hanging down on either side, although he was simply lounging, rather than asleep. Zillah sat on her haunches, on guard in the doorway, but who could say whether she was keeping them in or keeping something out? Martha sat in the kitchen, wishing that the rightful occupants of Summerdown House would hurry back. All three of them.

Collins was on his cell phone, talking to Lincoln. Neither of them had considered going home yet, but both were reaching the limits of exhaustion.

“No, damn it, I can’t talk any louder. There are people asleep here. Tell me you’ve got some news.”

“Almost. The technicians have nearly finished rebuilding this tracking system. I didn’t understand most of what they said, but they’re increasing the gain, I think. We’ll get false hits, but we should be able to eliminate those pretty quickly, they assure me. Somewhere along the corridor you’ve identified…”

Collins noticed that ‘you’. He’d take responsibility for this, alright, but he hoped that Lincoln wasn’t saying that he washed his hands of his DCI.

“… one of the forces ought to be able to find him. If he’s there. Half an hour more, they tell me. Tops.”

“Keep me informed.”

***

Giles had a torch, which was handy on the old stone stairs. When they got back down to the body of the church, it was clear that the day had faded too much to see the old painting properly in the remaining light, and the torch was brought out again.

“These two smaller demons at the sides – they look as though they’re going to disrobe the two women. What would you say, Buffy?”

“The Devil begot?”

“Yes, I think that’s what we are meant to see, the obvious meaning and the reassurance that we have the right place. But these things can have deeper layers, and we definitely need that now. What time is it?”

“Quarter to ten.”

For not the first time, Giles cursed the loss of the Watchers’ Council library. Never the Watchers’ Council – it was clear the world was better without the corrupt and bigoted organisation it had become. But the library… He thought with longing of the countless books that had been available to the Watchers, and even of the fifty-five thousand books up for sale with whichever abbey it was that housed them. All he had here were a few pamphlets for the general public, a phone link to two people he was trying to avoid giving too much knowledge to, a worried slayer and his own overtired brain. And a rude wall-painting.

“This banner across the painting, Buffy… it’s lost too much paint to be absolutely certain of the lettering. The accepted version is ‘ic est celia deabol’.”

“Meaning?”

“ ‘Here is the something of the Devil.”

“Something?”

“Celia is a name, not a Latin word. It’s a name. It means heavenly. ‘Here is the heavenly of the Devil? Makes no sense…”

Buffy straightened suddenly, and held up her hand to stop him.

“Yes, Giles. It does. You say this has layers of meaning. What’s the obvious layer?”

He shuffled through the leaflets again.

“A few people think that this is a Black Mass, but that’s most unlikely, in a church. The preferred interpretation is that this is a warning against vanity. That the round object is… oh, that it’s a mirror. I thought it might be a crystal ball…”

“Did they have crystal balls then?”

“The Druids were using crystals for divination 4,000 years ago. In mediaeval times, lots of people had crystals to see into the past, present and future – sorcerers, fortune-tellers, gypsies…”

“Gypsies? I might have known they’d be mixed up in this. Okay, so they had crystals, and might have had balls. Let’s keep to the point.”

“That’s it, really. Women shouldn’t be vain. Very popular theme at the time.”

“So, whoever hides this message hides it in a popular theme in a royal church, so that no one will look deeper, but with luck it will be preserved?”

“Yes, Buffy. But you see something else in it?”

“Oh, yeah. I may be way off, Giles, but the Devil looks to me like it might be kicking those little devils off the women. It’s got angel’s wings, it’s got dark and soulful eyes, and vampire teeth, and now you tell me that this round thing might be a mirror. Mirrors and vampires, and crystal balls to see the future.”

“It’s a bit of a leap, Buf…”

Giles stopped suddenly, and excitement dawned on his face.

“Buffy, this isn’t a set of clues left by devil worshippers for their successors. These clues are for people like us - possibly done by the same people who did the Hendaye Cross. ‘This is what we’ve seen. This is what you must know. It can be prevented.’ ”

“Yes, and Angel’s in the middle of it again. Damn him! He can be the Devil or he can be Angel. That’s what this is telling us. But where? Where are we supposed to go? It doesn’t seem to be happening here! I don’t hear any chanting. Do you? There’s always chanting…”

Giles looked back to the leaflet he had open.

“Someone thinks that the word ‘celia’ should read ‘cellam’. ‘Cellam’ means secret place, or storehouse. ‘Here is the secret place of the Devil’. The name is here, Buffy, the name of the place we need to get to. I’m sure of it. perhaps it’s underneath the plaster. Or…”

He ran his hands around the edges of the painting.

“Giles, lots of years in hell for breaking a unique church painting.”

“Ouch!”

He pulled his hand away and Buffy saw that there was blood on the pad of his middle finger. There was a paint-free area, an area that might be an old repair for crumbled plaster, or that might be something else, just where the Devil’s right hand should be. It was smeared with Giles’ blood. She delved into her bag and pulled out a tissue, which she passed to him, and a nail file, with which she started scratching at the plaster. A piece fell away, and she saw that a shard of glass had been embedded here. The point that had stood slightly proud of the surface of the plaster had a gleam of red on the very tip. She dug the nail file in deeper. It was only a matter of seconds before she had excavated the glass. It was slightly curved and had obviously been broken from a large vessel. Something was etched onto it. Giles took it from her.

“Roman glass. Perhaps it was all they had that was certain not to rot or corrode over the years. A message in the Devil’s right hand, needing a sacrifice of blood to find it…”

He peered at the tiny lettering.

“The Devil begot St Francis…”

“What! What does that mean? We go to all this trouble for another riddle!”

Giles’ gaze was abstracted for a moment, but then he seemed to gather his awareness up again.

“Hmm? What did you say? Oh no, Buffy, it’s perfectly clear now. I’ve been such a blind fool. I should have thought of this right at the start. I believe I know exactly where this is happening. Come along. We need to get out of here. What time is it?”

Buffy checked her watch as they ran to the side door.

“Coming up for ten o’clock.”

“Then we have to hurry. It must be two hours away.”

She had no time to waste on niceties then, and the door lock gave way to one quick flick of her wrist.

“Are you going to call the policeman?”

“No. Much better they stay out of this. I’m afraid the police wouldn’t know how to deal with what I think we’re going to find. It’s safer this way.”

She nodded approvingly, and then they were in the car and away. Giles explained to her as he drove.

***

“Guv, they think they’ve found him!”

Collins moved further away from the still-sleeping Lisa, juggling his phone as he did so.

“Where?”

“Near High Wycombe. The locals there say that the signal comes and goes, but they’re sure it’s the tracker. They can’t pin it down exactly, but they’re still cleaning it up.”

“Get down here and pick me up. Now.”

“Right, guv. What about the locals? And back up?”

Collins had a bad feeling.

“Organise back up from the locals, but tell them to stay put until we get there, wherever that turns out to be. Get a few of our better lads down there, and tell them not to make any noise about it. We don’t want to upset the locals, but I want to know who I can trust. And you’d better get a pursuit driver to take us.”

“You think there’ll be a chase?”

“I don’t know about that, but High Wycombe is two hours away, and we’ve reason to think something is going down at midnight. It’s now ten-twenty, you’re dog-tired, and you aren’t driving me at pursuit speed for a hundred miles. Get a driver and get down here.”

“Yes, sir. And guv? What about Rupert Giles and Miss Summers?”

Collins thought about that for a moment, thought about what they might find.

“They’re civilians. Leave them out of it.”

“You aren’t going to tell them?”

“No. I’m not. It’s safer this way.”

***

The Hellfire Club. Angel lay absolutely still, open to the tiny movements of air, the least vibrations of the rocks around him, the smallest traces of scent, the faintest sounds from the cavern system above. The upper levels had never been free of Initiates since he’d been here, but new people had arrived now. Things were starting to happen, here in the Hellfire Caves. For the thousandth time, he wondered where Buffy and Giles were.

The Hellfire Club, the plaything of Sir Francis Dashwood, never called that in its own lifetime, but with a variety of names that the club had revelled in. It had come into being at about the same time that he had. That Angelus had, he amended. Angelus had known all about the Friars of St Francis of Wycombe, although he’d never managed to get an invitation. He simply could never have been important enough. Angelus had been pissed about that, but Angel was pleased, for the very pragmatic reason that he would have already been recognised otherwise. No, only important people had been members of that particular club. Really important people. Francis himself had been an MP and Chancellor of the Exchequer, and a few other significant things as well. Members of the club had included the wealthy and titled, and it was rumoured that the Lord Mayor of London, not to mention at least one Prime Minister, had also been among their number. Benjamin Franklin had dropped in when his travels permitted.

Mostly, the members had been out for orgies of wine and women, but there’d always been a core of something else. He’d never really believed that it was about Satanism, though. Well, that was one thing he’d been mistaken about.

Francis Dashwood. He was supposed to have died in 1781, but Angel knew better now. Philip had refused to disclose just why he’d been coerced into providing Francis with a supply of his laudanum, but Francis and Philip were alike now. They had the means to endlessly renew themselves, to shed the skin of age, like the eternal serpent, and to go on. They might be fixed as middle-aged men, but until they died they would never change beyond that. Like him.

It had been a strange feeling to discover that Philip wasn’t just Philip, but was that famous and infamous alchemist and physician, Paracelsus. Paracelsus, who was older than Angel himself was. That was a thought that took some getting used to. To find, now, that Francis was also older than he was, even if only by about fifty years, was also really… weird.

Francis Dashwood. Not the name he went by now, of course. He must have had many names over the centuries, dropped out of sight for a while and then come back as someone new. He was still a well-known figure – and hadn’t that been a surprise? – but knowing who he was certainly explained how his current persona had survived. He’d always known how to provide what the great and the good – and the not-so-good – craved.

This was something Angel would have to face one day, now that he was leading a more settled life: how to hide the fact that he never aged. He hoped he wouldn’t need to worry about it for many years yet, but the time would come. Get through today, he chastised himself, before worrying about all those tomorrows that might never happen…

He pictured in his mind the drawing of the caves that Philip had scratched on the floor. What had he said? ‘It starts with the Entrance Hall – that’s long and straight. The passageway turns sharply left. Just after a small dead end on the right, you come to The Circle. Then there’s another long, straight passage, and at Franklin’s cave, the exit is on the far right. That leads down to The Banqueting Hall…’

Here, Philip had drawn a complicated cavern system.

‘This has a passageway around it, with tunnels connecting it to the main cavern. Then The Triangle, which Francis likes to think of as a woman’s, you know…’

Angel had nodded him on, to spare the man’s blushes.

‘Then we are here, in the Miner’s Cave. The River Styx, you will have crossed to get back up here, and then the chamber where you were taken, The Inner Temple.’ So, here he lay, in the Inner Temple, surrounded by dead bodies and the odd votive statue. At least he knew what to expect if he had to make a run for it. Not that he would.

He dragged his thoughts back to the here and now as he heard footsteps in the tunnels. There were several men approaching. Moving time had begun.

He and the seven other bodies were carried back up the tunnels to The Banqueting Hall. There, they were arrayed neatly around the two overlapping circles that had been carefully drawn on the floor. Angel reckoned it was about ten o’clock. He could hear the sound of cars arriving, but they weren’t cars that he recognised. More Initiates, he thought. Or did they still call themselves Friars? Whatever they were, this ceremony wasn’t going to be about wine and women and orgies.

There was no sign of Buffy or Giles, not by sound or scent or that gut feeling that told him his slayer was close. Nor could he find any trace of the policemen, which reassured him that his new family were unlikely to have come to harm. It meant that he was on his own, though. That was probably as it should be. This was, apparently, his Apocalypse to win or to lose, and his toss of the dice would be a desperate bid indeed. Buffy would be there if he failed, and that was a comfort.

The Initiates were making their preparations, cowled and anonymous in their voluminous dark robes. He might not be able to see their faces, but he would know their scent, now, anywhere that he met them again. And he knew that some weren’t entirely human. Or even mainly human.

Fresh candles were laid around the circles, together with sprigs of yew and lilac, and bowls of chrysanthemum leaves. Angel could hear the sounds of conviviality further up the cave system. Someone was wining and dining, but so far as he could detect, there were no women there. Just the great and the not-so-good, then, filling their bellies and winding up their nerve for the coming emprise. He wished that he could make them understand just what danger they were courting, but then he realised that they already understood that. They just thought that other people would be facing the danger, and that their part in this obscenity would make them safe. Selfishness and folly.

Within the hour, the Initiates, as if to a signal that only they could hear, arrayed themselves around the double circle, and stood waiting. Somewhere up the passage, a small silver bell rang, and the sounds of feasting ceased. The pheromones of fear and excitement accompanied the sound of feet, and a small crowd of Friars joined those already in the Banqueting Hall. These, too, were robed and cowled, but in white, and they were clearly less comfortable with their attire than those in the dark robes. Angel could see their faces as they fiddled with the deep hoods.

He was astonished although, when he had time to reflect, he thought that perhaps he shouldn’t have been. Powerful people wanted a new start for the Earth, and this was how they had chosen to bring it about. He remembered that the old membership rolls had included MPs, a Chancellor of the Exchequer, a Lord Mayor, a Prime Minister, and the wealthy and powerful. Not much changed, then, although he couldn’t see a Lord Mayor. Not sufficiently in favour, he supposed. That man was surely…? And the one over there? Well, there was no surprise they were standing at opposite ends of the group. They were reported to fight like cat and dog… They weren’t the same individuals as in the old days – Philip had only ever given the laudanum to Francis – but it seemed that the same power constrained its wielders, its slaves, to walk the same path.

Although his lips never moved, Angel smiled grimly to himself. If his plan worked, there was a fair chance he would bring all of these people down before the night was much older. Literally. He couldn’t imagine that their master – and he didn’t mean Francis – would not punish failure severely. He didn’t know who would be left alive in an hour’s time. He wondered how the spin-doctors would deal with that, come the morning.

The two groups remained separate, seemingly wary of each other. The light-robed newcomers formed a restless knot of rather more than a dozen just inside the mouth of the passageway back to the surface world. The dark-robed Initiates, humans and demons both, stood quietly, surrounding the circles of power on the floor. Francis, in his black robe, walked around the circles, lighting the candles and the bowls of herbs. The bodies, unfeeling and unknowing except for one, lay around the walls of the cavern. They were naked, except for one, and that one was very grateful indeed for his advantage over them.

At a signal from Francis, one of the Initiates peeled away from his fellows, and walked further into the earth. When he returned, Philip was following him obediently, the sword gripped in his hand. Angel could scent Joshua quietly drawing a little closer.

And then it began.

The first of the bodies was carefully lifted into the nearest circle. Francis began his incantation, and the chanted spell was picked up by the Initiates. At the end of each part, Francis paused, and the white-clad Friars intoned the refrain that they had been taught. Angel felt contempt for them. Like their predecessors, he was sure they had first just seen Francis as someone who could procure a good time for them in absolute secrecy, but it had grown from there. These were people who should be making life better, safer, for nations, and they were here to usher in hell. He hoped they’d feel its full benefits, just as he had.

A thin smoke began to gather in the far circle, gradually thickening until a shape could be seen in its roiling darkness. A huge red maw opened, showing fangs of ivory white against the scarlet and the black, and then there were eyes, hard and dark, surrounded by golden-yellow. The beast roared, and Angel could have sworn that the breath of hell rolled out of the circle. He hoped that Francis had this summoning under control.

Then Philip walked forward and stood with the sword poised over the breast of the dead man. One quick thrust, and the sword had pierced to the heart. The man who had once been Paracelsus unscrewed the top from the sword’s pommel and scooped out a tiny pinch of the red laudanum. He pressed this into the wound made by the steel, and then he straightened up and waited.

The wound closed over. The dead man shuddered, and was still again. After a moment, he convulsed. Then he stood up, remaining in place patiently like an ox. Or like a zombie, Angel thought. The chanting strengthened and Philip stepped in to the circle. He took the dead man by the shoulder and steered him to the vesica, the overlapping oval between the two circles, and gently propelled him into it. Instantly, the clotted shadows swooped around the man, enveloping him, hiding him from sight, and then vanishing into every orifice. When the shadows were gone, the man was on his knees. Slowly, unsteadily, he stood up, a new, darker light in his eyes. He looked down at himself.

“I like this.”

Then he staggered a little, from weakness and disorientation. Initiates ran forward and broke the circle, helping the newly incarnated demon into the living world. He was dressed in a scarlet robe, and then he knelt by the side of the circle, gathering his strength and waiting for what was to come.

As the circles were repaired, Angel almost cast his plan aside. Here was an incarnated lord of hell, and just now it was as weak as any other newborn. What was he doing, lying here, waiting? Playing the long game, he reminded himself. You need to winkle the evil out of here, like a weevil out of a nut. If you jump up and start slaying now, there are enough demon Initiates to take you down before you finish the job. Stick with the plan. It was sensible, but it was hard. If he failed, he was leaving a giant economy size job for Buffy.

Another body was moved into the circle, and the chanting started again.

***

When they reached the Hellfire Caves, Buffy, in a prescient moment, told Giles to pull up short of the car park. It was ten to midnight, and Giles remonstrated that they were several minutes short of the caves. Buffy, though, was in full hunting mode.

“There’s someone up ahead. Be careful.”

They ran from the car, staying low, keeping to the cover of shrubs and trees where they were able, holding their weapons bags carefully so as not to make unnecessary noise. Buffy was right. There were a lot of cars – and people – in the car park. Buffy pressed Giles back into the shadows as a police car sped up from the same direction they had come. There was no time to see who was in it, but both of them were pretty sure they knew. The attention of those in the car park was drawn to the police vehicle. Using that distraction, Buffy and Giles fled up the path to the entrance, passing the large notices that read ‘Closed for a Private Function’.

***

“Bloody hell!”

Collins was appalled by what he saw in the car park, and he was only a little quicker to catch on than Lincoln was. Perhaps a dozen, maybe more, large dark cars occupied the gravelled space, each with an attendant driver. A few had larger more muscular attendants than mere drivers. He turned to his sergeant.

“Get the numbers of each vehicle – don’t let them know you’re doing it, or you’ll be directing traffic for the rest of your career. Which won’t be very long. When you’ve got the numbers, get the hell out of here, both of you, and put them somewhere safe. As long as you’ve got that information, you’ve got ammunition and armour.”

“Sir, we can’t possibly do any good here. Just look at what we’ve got. These guys are going to make mincemeat of us, and I don’t just mean the heavies! Some of these are Ministerial cars. This is bigger than you…”

“Without fear or favour, Gavin. Damn it!”

The last curse was uttered as he saw two dark shadows slip into the entrance to the caves.

“They’re in – Giles and the girl.”

Before Lincoln could even question him, he was out of the door and heading for the caves. Some of the bulky men were heading after him, more quickly than one would expect from men of such size. Lincoln finished scribbling into his notebook and thrust it at the driver.

“Here, Pete, take this and get out of here.”

“What about you?”

“You think I should leave him in there? Go get some reliable backup. You know what to do.”

With that, he was off after Collins, but one of the bruisers pushed him to the ground, and he waited until they’d all gone before he followed.

***

Now it was Angel’s turn. Seven red-robed, newly-incarnated and very powerful demons knelt around the twin circles, and he’d lain in fear that one of them would detect his presence, even if the demonly Initiates hadn’t. He wondered whether the false gris-gris had saved him from that, because so far, he was just another dead body to them. Francis had finished removing all the paraphernalia that had been used in summoning the seven demons. Now, he replaced it with new and different items, red candles, different herbs, powders sprinkled around to reinforce the circles.

As he allowed himself to be carried into the nearer circle, Angel despised the man’s arrogance. He’d almost exhausted himself and his followers in raising these monsters in quick succession, and yet he still thought that he would have the strength to control one who was vastly more powerful. Once again, the incantations – and the summoning – began.

At first, only a few wisps of vapour appeared, and then something started to pour into the other circle, swelling and billowing, but never breaching the protections that bound it. It was the red of a cardinal’s vestment, and it swirled and coiled, seeking freedom from the wards that imprisoned it. Soon, it had filled the entire circle, a churning tempest of malignancy. A figure started to form within the depths of the boiling cloud.

There was a face, almost human, but grotesquely elongated, and with huge, forward pointing horns. The torso was human but, below that, the joints and proportions were all wrong for a man. Instead, they were the shaggy, pelt-covered legs of an animal with enormous cloven hooves. A lashing tail curled high over the monster’s back, a tail that divided, and divided again, into nine separate parts, each ending with a ghostly serpent’s head. And the Beast was red. The red of blood, of forges and of fire, not from pigmentation, but from heat. Angel could feel it, searing his skin. As the figure solidified, it grew until it towered over everything in the cavern. Francis had really summoned Old Nick himself, and he was going to unknowingly give him the gift of Angel, body and soul and spirit.

He wondered briefly whether his demon would have a better chance of beating the monster in front of him, but decided that if things went badly wrong, he’d prefer to die as himself. Or at least, as the part of him that he liked to think of as himself, on a good day.

Philip stooped down to unfasten Angel’s shirt, baring his chest and uncovering the flesh over his heart, and then he stood with sword poised. As he did so, Joshua, who had been hiding in the tunnel, raced into the cave and to his grandfather, carrying his loosened chain as he ran. In one smooth motion, almost unnoticed as those gathered there turned around to look at the boy, Angel snatched the sword out of Philip’s grasp, and came to his feet, facing The Devil himself. The chanting stuttered and faded, as the Initiates gaped with horror at the living man who had dared to breach their sanctuary and take arms to stop them. Francis struggled to keep the spell alive, sweat from the effort running down his face.

The apparition swung around so that it was face-to-face with its challenger, and it mocked him, its hollow laughter echoing through the tunnels. With a voice like the clang of iron, it boomed its derision at him.

“Why, if it isn’t the little vampire… Angelus, come as you have been foretold, to provide my gate into this dimension…”

He cut it off.

“Gates can be locked. You aren’t getting in this time.”

Philip and Joshua stepped into the circle behind him, and he raised the sword.

***

Buffy pounded down the tunnels followed by Giles. She had the sense not to outdistance him. Whatever was down there, it would need the two of them. Her slayer senses were assailed by the smell of earth and candlewax, exactly the scents that had come to her on the spring breeze up in Chesterfield’s crooked spire. And then they heard a voice, like the din of Hell itself, and both of them ran harder. They ran down long, straight tunnels, lamplight reflecting off the white walls, and they ran through caverns without noticing shape or size. She knew that they’d found him before she saw the knot of white-robed men in front of her. She heard his voice say, “Gates can be locked. You aren’t getting in this time.”

She shouldered her way through the ruck of bodies, men paralysed in fear, perhaps, but she didn’t care. They were in her way and she shoved them aside. She felt Giles’ hand on her shoulder as he, too, pushed his way through. She thought she heard footsteps in the tunnel behind her. Collins, perhaps, but she had no time to dwell on it. Her attention was on the drama in front of her. Without any conscious volition on her part, she reached into her bag and pulled out a sword as she watched Angel lift the sword in his own right hand, as she saw the man and the boy who were sheltered by his flesh and bone and blood from the horror that was only inches away from him.

She watched him as, shockingly, terribly, he tilted his head sideways, as he shifted his grip on the sword hilt, and as he raised the blade high. Time froze for her, sliced into an infinity of wafer-thin fractions of an instant, as he put the sword tip to his right temple and, with one smooth, never-ending movement, thrust it into his skull and out through the other side. He didn’t crumple or stumble or collapse. Instead, graceful in this as in all things, he fell to his side, amid a spray of ruby drops that poised in mid-flight, seemingly held by the weight of cosmic gravitas, glistening darkly in the candlelight. His Descent took a lifetime, an eternity, forever, his body following a perfect and everlasting arc, an angel falling from sky to ground, vital dust brought down to Earth.

As he reached the climax, the fulfilment, the consummation of that aeons-long Fall, she saw his left hand stretch out and his fingers brush against the far circle, erasing the tiniest part of it and breaching its magical defence. And then the cavern exploded into smoke and heat and flame and roaring sound. It became Earth and Fire.

There was more noise behind her, breaking through the endless, boundless glacier of frozen time that surrounded her, like a hammer through glass, and she understood what Giles was shouting at her.

“RUN!”

And run she did, with Giles and Collins helping her to push a group of white-clad men back down the tunnel. She could feel the heat at her back as the fires of Hell followed them through tunnels and caverns and out of the entrance. Hands snatched at her through a mass of men clustered around the cave entrance, and Lincoln pulled her and Giles and Collins into the shelter of an alcove, pushed them down to the ground, and covered them with his own body.

She saw the flame lick over Lincoln’s back, and as soon as it passed, still clutching her sword, she pushed him down and rolled him in the grass to douse his burning clothes, and then she ran out into the courtyard. It was filled with men and demons, their hoods come loose as they tried to beat out the flames that licked at them. She left the humans to the attentions of others, and she turned her sword on the flaming demons. Not one escaped her, except those who fell to Giles’ axe.

***

She sat by the side of Angel’s bed. They had managed to get him to the car, despite his greater weight, and Giles had insisted that he be cared for here, in one of the main bedrooms rather than in the garage flat. There was a bandage around his head, although the wounds seemed to have stopped bleeding hours ago, but he had not yet regained consciousness.

It had been hard to get him away from the carnage at the Hellfire Caves. Someone must have had the presence of mind to dial 999, and when the entire emergency services had turned out, it had seemed to make an unnoticed escape impossible. But, somehow, in all the confusion, they had managed.

As soon as she had dealt with the demons, she and Giles had crept back into the blackened tunnels. They’d needed their torches – whatever had happened had burned out the lighting – and the smell of charred flesh had made them both want to vomit. There were many, many bodies scattered around the chamber, burned beyond recognition, and they had to step carefully over them. Angel, miraculously untouched by the fire, lay within the shelter of the circle. Of the man and the boy who had been in there with him, or of the sword that she had seen Angel thrust through his skull, there was no sign. There were just a few grains of red sand in his hair, over the wounds, and they glittered unnaturally in the torchlight.

Unconscious, he had been a dead weight, but somehow they had managed. Collins had seen them as they came out of the entrance to the cave, and he had waved them through. And so, they had made good their escape. Giles had proved remarkably adept at head bandages.

She’d refused to leave. She’d pulled up a comfortable armchair and had dozed a little, leaning across the bed, waking up stiff and sore. She’d gone for a shower, and had carefully washed Angel. He was fastidious, and even though he was unconscious, she believed that he would know he was clean and feel better for it.

That done, she simply sat, holding his hand, waiting for signs of life from a dead man.

***

They’d put him in the small central bedroom because it was the easiest to sun-proof. The door stood ajar as Giles walked down the landing, carrying a luncheon tray for her: a few delicacies to tempt her appetite, and a pot of tea. There was also a glass of blood for Angel, in case he woke. The scene inside touched him deeply. It wasn’t so much the sight of the living holding hands with the dead, waiting for him to rise, but of two lovers cast into heroic moulds that so far had failed to release them even for death itself. He thought that the only peace they would ever truly find was with each other.

He felt a pang of regret for the loss of Ella, and then he remembered the dreams. Buffy had been right. Something in the Earth still cared for him, and had called on him in its hour of need. He felt honoured by that. It cared for Buffy and for Angel, too, and his mind’s eye recaptured that moment when the deer, shorn of its weapons, had fallen in the forest, the moment of warning that Angel might be slaughtered to give life to the Lord of the Flies. There had been sorrow that Gaia herself would die if that were allowed to happen, but he knew in his heart that there had been sorrow, too, for the three of them. Sorrow and love. He wished he’d understood it all sooner.

Maudlin old fool, he chastised himself, and then he decided that, between them, they had as much right as anyone to be maudlin. At least, they were still here to maudle – and if there were no such word, then there should be. He just hoped that Angel would be all the way here. A sword through the skull might be tricky stuff to mend, even for a vampire.

He still needed to find out from Angel exactly what had happened, but he knew what he’d seen, there in the Hellfire Caves. Angel had faced down Old Nick himself, and he’d won, but at what cost to himself? He wondered if The Devil held grudges. More immediately, what he didn’t know, and this also troubled him, was how much Collins might have seen. He’d felt the policeman’s hand on his shoulder just as the fires of hell were loosed, and then all hell had indeed broken free, and there was nothing for it but flight and then fight. But if the policeman had seen… With an effort, Giles pushed all those thoughts back into the little space that he kept for ‘later’, and made some small noise as he pushed the door further open.

***

Giles came in quietly with the luncheon tray for her. As he put the tray down on the table beneath the screened-off window, she felt Angel squeeze her fingers. There was a sharp intake of breath as she gasped in relief, and then he opened his eyes. She didn’t let go of his hand, but her first words were words of anger.

“Angel, don’t you know by now that you haven’t got enough brains to be losing them like this…”

He squeezed tighter and gave a small, tired chuckle.

“I love you too…”

Anger forgotten, she threw herself on his breast and simply held him. She felt his arms creep around her, his hands caressing her back, soothing her, and then there came a knock at the courtyard door. Giles slid out of the room, unnoticed, to answer it.

He was back a few minutes later.

“It’s Collins. He wants to know if you’re alright. I really don’t know how much he saw last night. What do you want me to tell him?”

“I’ll come down.”

Buffy almost stamped her foot.

“You’ve probably got a chunk of brain missing! You can’t go socialising with policemen! Not yet, not until you’re healed.”

“I’m okay, Buffy. I’ve got a bit of a headache, but I’m okay.”

“Let’s take a look.”

On those words, Giles started to unwrap the bandage. When he’d finished, both he and Buffy peered intently at Angel’s scalp, pressing the hair aside to give easier access. They could find no sign of injury. Giles suddenly cracked out laughing.

“I’m sorry, I feel like the nit nurse…”

The others merely looked at him in bemusement. He quickly sobered up.

“Angel, we found some grains of fine red substance in your hair… Not sand, but something like it. Something strange.”

Angel smiled a reassurance.

“I’ll tell you everything later, but for now, let’s see our policeman.”

Buffy put out a restraining hand to stop him getting up.

“You’ll tell me one thing now. Why? Why did you do that? You frightened me to death.”

He took hold of her hand, lacing his fingers into hers.

“We knew they needed bodies with as few injuries as possible. Francis was always going to have trouble holding the summoning when he got to Old Nick, and I needed to make my body unsuitable for him, to make sure that there was an angry magical backlash that would take them all out in one go. Francis had the means to fix flesh and bone, but fixing brains is a lot harder. I was betting it couldn’t be done in time. I knew it wouldn’t kill me, and I was fairly sure it would be okay. Eventually. Well, I had reason to think so… I’m sorry, love, but it seemed better than letting Philip hack my head off.”

Giles coughed discreetly to remind them of his presence.

“Philip?”

“Later. You’ll get it all later – and you can tell me what you were up to. You were up to something, right? You weren’t just sitting around waiting for me to call? Because I didn’t take the phone, you know… Did the tracker thing work?”

He looked from one to the other, both of them standing in appalled silence. It was the ex-Watcher who regained control of his jaw muscles first.

“Sitting around? Sitting around! No, we were not sitting around, and no the tracker thingy did not work!”

Giles finished off with a harrumph that made Angel smile, until he realised that Buffy hadn’t yet had her say. Oh, well, lots to look forward to later. But that reminded him…

His pocket knife was on the bedside table. As Giles and Buffy vacated the room to keep Collins occupied, he swung himself out of bed, sitting on the edge for a few seconds to gather his wits and his balance – his headache was worse than he’d wanted to admit, and he felt remarkably dizzy – and then he carefully sliced into his thigh, wincing as he did so, and pulled out the tracker. He pressed the wad of discarded bandages against the wound until the sluggish flow of blood had stopped, then pulled on some sweats before going to face the long arm of the law. He stopped on the way to wash his blood off the tracker. No sense being careless.

They were in the drawing room. Collins looked as though he hadn’t slept in a week. Perhaps he hadn’t.

“I wanted to say thank you, and to see how you were.” Collins gestured to Buffy and Giles. “I’ve already thanked them, and said sorry they had such a wild chase to find you…”

Angel quirked an eyebrow, but the rest of the household maintained an innocent front and a stolid silence that seemed to Angel to be a little… vengeful.

“… and I’m sorry the tracker didn’t work. At least, not until Gavin bullied the technicians into practically rebuilding the system to make it more sensitive…”

Giles interrupted him.

“How is Sergeant Lincoln?” He glanced over at Angel. “Angel doesn’t know what happened yet. He’s just come round. I should ignore anything he says, if I were you. I doubt he’s back in his right senses yet.”

That made Collins smile, but the news on his sergeant was good, too.

“Second-degree burns on his back. He’ll be in hospital for a few days, but he’ll be fine. No lasting injury.”

“I’m glad. He was very brave.”

In the ensuing silence, while everyone wondered what to say, and what to hold back, Angel proffered the tracker. Collins took it and put it in his pocket. When he pulled his hand back out, he had a small square of folded paper in it. He started playing with it, turning it round and round in his fingers.

“I shouldn’t have used you in this, you know. I’m sorry for that. My judgement is usually better.”

“No. It was just the right thing to do. And anyway, it was my decision.”

Buffy looked as if she would argue, and so Angel repeated himself.

“It was my decision.”

Collins’ smile was a small thing, tired and vulnerable, but he didn’t disagree.

“I’ll get you some fees and expenses. You’ll deserve every brass farthing, all of you.”

He drained the last of his coffee.

“I… I can’t stay. I’ve got to go and give my report to my Superintendent, and there’s a lot of mess to clear up. Some important people were killed last night, and others badly hurt…”

“How many did you save,” Angel asked. He remembered that knot of politicians, barons of commerce and the like, standing at the entrance to the Banqueting Hall, and he wondered if any had lived.

“Eight. Their minders rushed them off pretty quickly – the ones that weren’t too badly burned to do their job. There were a lot of injuries, as well as a lot of deaths. I managed to deal with the ones that… the ones that didn’t look, erm, quite right. The ones that had sword wounds. Or worse.”

He glanced at Buffy and Giles, who kept up the innocent look.

“I couldn’t do it alone, but some of our boys were there. They’re getting used to odd things, it seems…”

“Francis? Did he get out? Well, you’d know him by another name.”

When he gave Collins the name, the man shook his head.

“I only know that I didn’t see him, so I suppose he’s one of the bodies we can’t identify yet. I didn’t know he was involved. I should have suspected, seeing who the others were. We’ll be doing DNA analysis on the bodies, but that will be some time yet. It takes a while.”

“What about the ones in red robes? There were seven of them.”

Collins shook his head again.

“No, Angel, none of those made it out, at least not that I saw. We logged seven bodies in the remains of red robes, gathered round in a circle with some of the others. Burned to a crisp, just a few pieces of material left on their backs, protected from the flame. How did you manage…? No, Giles said not to ask you too many questions. So, I’ll go and make my report, and I rather think that everything will be hushed up after today. There are some people who owe their lives to you three, and they know it. Fortunately, I don’t think they know who you are, and I’ll try to keep it that way.

“Which reminds me. A policeman’s lot is never done. I’ve just learned that a new problem has apparently moved into my patch. I shan’t have time to deal with him just yet – I mean, can you imagine the paperwork that all this will take? – but I shall have to look him up sooner or later. Best forger I ever came across. Specialises in official paperwork, passports, that sort of thing. We’ve never managed to pin anything on him, never managed to identify any dodgy documents. He’s really good. I don’t know, if it’s not one thing, it’s another…”

With that, he stood and took his leave. Giles escorted him to the door. When he returned, he saw that the square of paper that Collins had been toying with lay on the coffee table, and he picked it up.

“Oh, he’s forgotten this…”

Angel shook his head. “No, I don’t think he forgot it at all.”

When Giles opened it up, there was a name, address and telephone number. Nothing else. Angel took it from him.

“I think I should pay Mr… Smith… a visit, don’t you? If he’s as good as Collins says?”

Giles couldn’t think of a thing to say, so he picked up the copy of Besthaven’s Ancient Alphabets that still lay on the coffee table. As he did so, the pages fell open and a piece of paper fluttered out. It was an index, neatly compiled in Lisa’s handwriting.

***

A couple of evenings later, the Westbury Cider Men were making merry on the front lawns of Summerdown House, under the watchful eye of their president, Mrs Lillian Groom. Watchful, and slightly intoxicated, but that was fine, because the Cider Men, equal opportunity drinkers that they were, together with what looked like half the old village, were all rather intoxicated. They were doing the final cider tasting tonight, making their choice from six different recipes, for the Cider Cup that they would field in their Midsummer’s Eve challenge to the Trowbridge Cider Tankers. The Tankers had won the challenge three years on the trot. Not this year, she thought. Not this year.

An impromptu band was playing silly music so that people could indulge in silly dancing, the cider was flowing by the barrel, and Martha Fletcher had provided an al fresco buffet that was fit for a king. All was right with the world, thought Mrs Groom.

Other people had that thought, too. Angel and Buffy were cuddled together under the pergola that ran over the door, thankful that this side of the house faced east. The sun was almost down, but not quite yet. They were watching the antics on the lawn. Angel had professed himself shocked that Lisa and Collins should be… dancing. He had to use the word dancing because he couldn’t find an alternative, and that was nothing to do with missing brain cells, of which there were none, thank you so very much. Thanks to Philip, he had a full complement again, more quickly and perhaps more certainly than his own healing abilities would have done … And hadn’t Giles been surprised to find out who Philip was… Angel smiled at the recollection.

He looked down at Buffy, and found that she was watching John Fletcher and his latest helper. She felt Angel’s eyes on her, and snuggled closer.

“I almost killed him, you know.”

“John? You almost killed John?” His voice was playful, teasing.

“No, brainless, not John. Stephen, or whatever he decides to be called. How many times has he changed his mind now? Twenty? Thirty? No, when we went in for you, and found him chained up in one of those side caves, I knew he was a demon in a man’s body, but he was so pathetic… And he did help to carry you out of there. We probably couldn’t have done it without him.”

He let his fingers walk softly up and down her ribs, enjoying how she arched towards him.

“He was the test summoning, just a minor demon. He doesn’t seem to have any real harm in him… I’m glad you let him live. He can help John dig out the new flowerbeds before he moves on. Save us a job.”

Stephen knew they were watching him, knew that he lived by their grace and favour. He looked at the world around him, and wondered whatever he’d done to be so favoured. The taciturn man standing next to him, John, had shown him grass and flowers and a hundred other growing things, and said that he might help to create this beauty. He breathed in the scents of this world and vowed that he would do nothing to make them send him back to the world of smoke and flame and ash from where he’d been summoned. Nothing. Already, he loved this place. And this borrowed body was better than he could have expected. It would last him for a very long time. Yes, he thought, all’s right with this world. He looked over to the demon and the Slayer behind the glass, and smiled.

“You know, Angel, I constantly give thanks for shopping trips to London, for the fact that Paris and the rest of Europe is easy access from here, and we’ve got Bath to go to for half the week, but I like it here. I didn’t think I would, and there were times when I just wanted to run away – and without you and Giles, I would have. But now, I’m glad we’re here. I love it. I’m making friends. It feels like home.”

Yes, thought Angel, contentedly, all’s right with this world.

Every rose has a thorn, though. The last rays of sunlight faded outside.

“Come on, enough sitting around, Angel. Let’s dance!”

The End

Author’s notes:

I’m not Dan Brown, and while I’ve put in a lot of factual information about real places, the only connection between any of them is admittedly only in my imagination. I think. Here’s some more information, if you’re interested.

1. Gaia
James Lovelock hypothesized that the living matter of the planet functions like a single organism and named this self-regulating living system after the Greek goddess Gaia. But you knew that. More at Wikipedia:

2. Houses of stone glued together with spit.
Some insects have this endearing habit. Caddis fly larva are very good at it.

3. Ella.
Ella was Giles’ girlfriend in season 1. She was a witch, and she gave her life, together with the rest of the Coven, to save the world in ‘Slayer’. And it wasn’t just her life. Her very essence became part of the organism we call the Earth.

4. Westbury Cidermen
The West Country is famous for producing cider and perry (perry is cider made from pears). The cider that we are talking about here is not the stuff you buy from the supermarket. This has the ability to crinkle paint, and the roughest of it is called Scrumpy. You can’t drink very much of it before getting legless. The best of it is excellent stuff indeed.

5. Hart
There has been confusion, so I’ve put in a clarification. This hart is nothing to do with Wolfram and. This is a red deer stag during the part of the year when it has shed its antlers, and when it is properly called a hart. The term is also usually reserved for a male over 5 years old.

6. Codford St Peter
The village of Codford St Peter has been merged with the village of Codford St Mary, but I couldn’t resist using the name. It’s exactly where I said it is, but I’ve no idea whether it has a pub on the river. Here’s information and pictures.

7. Free House
Licensed public houses are, roughly speaking, either tied houses or free houses. Tied houses belong to a brewery chain, and sell that brewer’s beer and spirits. Free houses are just that, and sell whatever they like.

8. Imber/Army Firing Ground
Very, very large chunks of Salisbury Plain have been given to the army, in several discrete areas, and they use these for training exercises. The village of Imber is in the centre of one such area, and is deserted, which is a good thing, since it’s regularly used as target practice. Interestingly, the 700 year old church in Imber is the church of St Giles. It’s a Grade II* listed building, and decorated with 15th century murals. You’d think someone would try to do something about that, wouldn’t you? The Army say they are doing a very good job of preserving wildlife in their areas, and who would disagree? Here’s information and pictures of Imber.

9. Westbury white horse
There are a lot of white horses on the extensive chalk downlands in southern England, as well as other chalk-cut figures. The one at Westbury is real, and what I said about it is real. From something primitive that might be about the spirit of horse, or might commemorate a great victory by Alfred the Great over the Viking invaders, it was re-cut by the steward of the then local landowner to be a rather pretty 18th century drawing of a real horse, and is now concreted over to save the trouble of re-cutting it regularly. More info

10. Ashwagandha
This is used in Indian herbal medicine – Ayurveda – for its ability to increase vitality, energy, endurance and stamina, promote longevity and strengthen the immune system without stimulating the body’s reserves. It also has the ability to nurture the nervous system, counteract anxiety and stress to promote a calm state of mind, and has powerful anti-inflammatory properties, being a specific for treating arthritic and rheumatic conditions. It is also supposed to be the most potent aphrodisiac in the entire botanical kingdom. It’s properly called Withania somnifera. Clearly, every garden should have one.

11. Scorpions and whips
‘My father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions’
1 Kings 12:14

12. Number of TVs in the UK
Apparently, at the time of writing, the average UK home currently has 4.7 TVs. I want to know who has my other 3.7, and can I have one back…

13. Hugh Williams
This really appears to be true, according to Sandi Toksvig’s column for the Sunday telegraph on 12 March 2006. Weird.

14. The Statute Law Revision (Pre-Union) Bill is intended to repeal Acts of the English-run Parliament sitting in Ireland between the Norman Invasion and the 1800 Act of Union, as reported in the Daily Telegraph on March 13 2006. This is the Republic of Ireland, not Northern Ireland. Takes them a while to get around to this sort of housekeeping. Makes me feel better about the cobwebs.

15. Numerology
There’s masses written on Numerology. Here’s just one three addresses to get you started.

22. Hendaye
Hendaye is an interesting coastal town, a jumping off point for Spain from the French Pays Basque. It has another claim to fame, though, a mysterious Cross. There is a mass of information about it on the Internet. Here are some of the sites I used, and they have photographs of all parts of the cross. I compressed the information mercilessly, and I edited some of it very creatively, but the raw data about the Cross itself I gave accurately. http://www.touradour.com/TOWNS/hendaye/HENDAYE.HTM http://kithraskrystalkave.org.uk/hendaye.htm http://www.sangraal.com/AMET/hendaye.html http://users.gloryroad.net/~bigjim/hendaye.htm

23. eschatology Try these for a starter:

24. Fractal time waves
It has been posited that a fractal time wave will carry the Universe into what is called an omega point of infinite novelty during which anything and everything conceivable to the human imagination will occur simultaneously, and time will end – that will be on 21 December 2012. It’s called Novelty Theory. If you can make more sense of it than I can, it’s at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Novelty_Theory

At least it’s novel…

25. Angel’s tattoo
Sources of pictures of Angel’s tattoo are rapidly disappearing, but here’s a picture that not only shows you the tattoo on skin, but also shows the original winged lion from the Book of Kells. This story uses the particular form of the letter ‘A’ in the tattoo.

26.Paracelsus
This story is named for the Swiss physician, chemist and alchemist who lived from 1493 - 1541. His true name was Theophrastus Philippus Aureolus Bombastus von Hohenheim, or some variation on that. He took the name Paracelsus later in life, meaning "superior to Celsus", an early Roman physician. He habitually carried a sword with a large round pommel, with AZOTH inscribed around it, and in which he carried his mysterious substance, laudanum. This was said to be a powder of the reddest colour that yet behaved like a liquid. It could renew the body, or it could transmute metals. Powerful stuff. This was a very interesting man. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paracelsus http://www.forteantimes.com/articles/157_paracelsus.shtml http://azothgallery.com/azoth_defined.html

27. Age of Leo
There is so much written about the Precession of the Equinoxes that you don’t need more information from me do you? You do? Okay, try this and this for starters, but remember that it’s all about as real as my story… Although the equinoxes do, indisputably, precess.

28. Cup and ring marks
Cup and ring marks or cup marks are a form of prehistoric art found predominantly in the upland parts of the British Isles but also in some parts of continental Europe. They consist of a concave depression, no more than a few centimetres across, pecked into a rock surface and often surrounded by concentric circles also etched into the stone. Sometimes a linear channel called a gutter leads out from the middle. The decoration occurs as a petroglyph on natural boulders and outcrops and also as an element of megalithic art on purposely worked megaliths such as the slab cists of the Food Vessel culture, some stone circles and passage graves such as the clava tombs and on the capstones at Newgrange. Oh, and no one actually knows what they were for.

29. The Devil’s Arrows
They really do exist. Here’s information, and a number of photographs. If you look at the aerial photograph, you can even see the lane and the semicircle of grass where Giles parked.

30. Ogham
This is a bottom of this page

32. I see it often, and I’ve told you the truth, except that, so far as I know, there are no Ogham runes inscribed on the spire woodwork. However, it’s true that there is no apparent fixing between the stone tower, and the beams of the spire resting on it.

33. Masons’ marks
Mediaeval masons left their signatures on the work they did, as masons’ marks. Here are some from that currently very popular place, Rosslyn Chapel: The leftover figure in my story is not a mason’s mark, but it is real. Almost. It is an amalgam of two pieces of church graffiti from New Shoreham church – it’s figure b in the following, with the sword of figure c.

34. Tibshelf, Swadlincote, Swarkestone
I joke not. They exist. I love writing about places near me – we’re so weird!

35. Carlisle
Ares’ story, ‘Vampyre’, which precedes this story in season 2, is set in Carlisle. Before I saw ‘Vampyre’, I had determined that Melbourne Church would feature in ‘Paracelsus’ Sword’. I hadn’t, however, read all the information, and was not aware that Melbourne was given by Henry I to the Bishops of Carlisle. You see what a spider’s web Project Paranormal weaves? It is bending events around itself. Be afraid. Be very afraid. 36 Melbourne, Derbyshire Here’s more information on the place and the church and its painting. I’ve twisted it only the tiniest bit – so far as I’m aware, there is no piece of inscribed glass embedded in the plaster. Please don’t go knocking bits of plaster out to check.