By Nan Dibble
Sequel to Old Blood
SECTION VI: INTO THE LIGHT
Chapter Twenty Three: The Chaos Stone
The SITs discovered the pile of old weapons with cries of joy and admiration. Pouncing on them, they refused breakfast and weapons practice in favor of sharpening and polishing the blades, bringing the leather back to a sticky luster, rubbing linseed oil into the hand-smoothed hafts. Spike was surprised because the weapons were plain and had seen years of hard use whereas their usual weapons, the Renfaire goods, were all tarted up with enamel work, etched curlicues and banding, tassels, and the like. Far prettier.
Drawing a whetstone along the blade of a Napoleonic cavalry saber in long even strokes, Kim commented, “Tourist trash. Better than nothing, but really. Now this, this is real. Anybody could tell. Look how it takes an edge! I could cut wood with it, not that anybody’d want to, and it would slice right through. Hit bone and it wouldn’t shatter. The balance is perfect. Just gorgeous! Tell me about this one, Spike.”
So he settled down and started working on a Syrian blade modeled on a Roman short sword and told Kim the history of the saber and why it curved the way it did, how it wasn’t for thrusting but slicing, long arc of swing. Why it wasn’t wielded two-handed like the similarly shaped katana. And after that, nothing would do but his demonstrating the weapons in turn, all the SITs crowded against the walls and perched in a tight row along the back of the sofa.
Picking up a long-hafted battle axe, Spike said, “Axe like this, it’s a fine weapon for fighting afoot, but it needs space. Not for close quarters or attack in a group. Too easy to slice your chums on the backswing. And not the best weapon for children such as yourselves: too top-heavy.”
“Upper body strength,” the sofa row chorused in a disgusted sing-song.
“No shame in it. Best weapon is the one you can use the best, the one won’t get you killed. Not the prettiest or the longest. Fit the weapon to your strengths, then fit yourself to the weapon. Learn it so it’s a part of you. Learn its powers and its limits, ‘cause everything’s got limits. Can’t take out the opposition at ten paces with a saber but might with a good throwing knife or even a slingshot, though we don’t have any of those.” Spike stopped to consider, then put the thought away. No time now to add a new weapon or get the children, the Potentials, trained with it. “It’s all in the circumstances. Axe like this, it’s good against massed opposition, most particularly with swords because then, see, you got the reach of them. But if you can’t dance fast with it, they’ll come at you on the backside of the swing. And no particular good against archers. And the good part about that is?”
Just about every hand went up. Spike nodded at Gail.
“Present opposition has no archers!”
“Right you are. Biters are dumb as every other vamp, don’t like using weapons at all, the glorious stupid purity of size, quickness, strength, and the ever-reliable fists and fangs. Barehanded and just about unbeatable against unarmed opposition. And the Bringers with their wavy knives and berserker tactics, just come at you, no defensive moves at all. So long as there are still people here, the First can always make more Bringers and so isn’t sparing of those it has. You lot have every advantage but one. You’re well armed and well trained, you’re experienced in lots of different situations, you know your team moves and your proper distances so you’re not blundering into the arc of somebody else’s swing or getting in each other’s way. You listen for the signals that tell you how the whole fight is going, so you push or back off together, nobody gets stranded and surrounded. What’s the one thing they got goin’ for them that we don’t? ‘Manda.”
“Numbers. And reinforcements. We’re all we’ve got.”
“Exactly so. So our defensive moves are as important as our offense. We got to keep ourselves alive because there’s no more of us coming to replace any casualties. Better to duck out and wait for a better chance than keep going and get hurt bad or maybe killed. We’re lucky that way: nobody here apt to go all crazy and berserker. Except me sometimes. And I can get away with that why?”
Amanda answered, “Because if they don’t kill you outright, if you’re not dusted on the spot, you heal. Eventually. And you’re still a maniac in a fight, and it’s still stupid, because we need you to watch and understand how it’s all going and call the signals for us. So we wish you’d think to be a little more careful of yourself, Spike.”
Spike shrugged, smiling. “I just do how I do, you know that. Not really made for a general. Just pretending as best I can. Not used to sending others to do my fighting for me, much less a bunch of children. Potentials. But I don’t forget so quick as I used to--have to credit me for that.”
Spike sobered, laying the axe down, because he could see no way he’d be with them when the big fight came. Couldn’t be helped, but he still regretted having to surrender this partnership. They’d have to choose a new commander from among themselves. Nobody else was trained or fit.
Kennedy commented, “It’s going to be soon. Isn’t it.”
“I expect. Pretty soon now.”
Kim said, “When it’s time, I’d really like to use that saber, Spike. I know there’s not enough of the fine weapons for everybody and we probably ought to cut cards for it, but if it’s OK with you for us to use them and if I get high card, I’d like to put first dibs on the saber.”
Noise erupted, everybody calling to claim some weapon. Amanda settled things by getting the deck and letting everybody cut. It took two draws. Drawing a face card granted the option of claiming one of Spike’s weapons. A third draw settled the order of claiming. Practically apoplectic with glee, Kim claimed the saber.
“Now, show some sense,” Spike warned them. “Don’t anybody claim one of my old toys if it doesn’t feel good to your hand. If it’s too heavy or too long for you to control the swing and the whole of the blade, hilt to point. If you can’t dance with it, you don’t want it. No amount of dumb sentimental goop is worth adding to your risk, and reducing your effectiveness, by fighting with a weapon that’s not fit for you. ‘M almost sorry now I fetched ‘em back. Didn’t imagine you lot taking to them like you have. ‘Tisn’t a fine weapon if it gets you hurt. Or killed. Wouldn’t want to be the cause of that.”
Nobody answered him. Everybody ignored him, busy with the weapons claiming.
There was a lot more of that than there used to be: got too fucking independent by half while he was away. Since he’d given them back to themselves. Frowning at the floor, worrying, Spike wondered if he should try to do something about that or let them be.
Best they be independent, not waiting on his every word, since they’d be going into the fight that way. Maybe the old weapons would build their confidence and be lucky for them on that account, against logic. Hard to know or even guess right, a thing like that.
And every one of them bandaged someplace on an arm from feeding him up so fine over the past weeks. But none needed today, of course: last night had been someday. Spike felt as though he wouldn’t need to feed or sleep ever again. As to shagging, that was something you could never get a surfeit of. Though it was true Buffy had been hard to waken and had threatened to call in sick rather than return to Casa Summers and make ready for work…. Fair worn out, she’d been. And not from blood-loss, neither.
Slayer healing renewed the supply within minutes. And not much needed, no more than a couple of deep swallows, then little sips at appropriate moments, at the last instant before explosion. More and more an automatic part of the reflex of release, a completed circle. After the first few times, no more needed to set them both off than the press of his mouth to the mark.
Slayer and vampire, each doing for and seeing to the other. The achievement of what felt like a state of corporeal grace and entire contentment. It made glorious, complete sense, but who would ever have imagined such a thing except in a dream?
Explaining, “I didn’t want to reveal anything about this until we had a reliable way of guarding our thoughts,” Angel set a box on the weapons chest.
When Angel opened the box, Willow turned her eyes away after one glance. The object inside was disturbing: if she tried to look at it steadily, she was gonna throw up--not because of its appearance but because of its roiling incoherent energies.
Angel went on, “It was a dimensional key. I tracked it down hoping it would give access to a dimension that can’t be reached by spells or conventional portals. It doesn’t. It’s been spoiled--randomized--by being sealed in a Hellmouth for at least a thousand years. One of the stories connected to it is that it was originally Atlantean. According to the story, the fall of Atlantis was caused by the opening of a Hellmouth there. Or maybe its collapse. Anyway, this was supposedly involved. It’s called the Chaos Stone.”
Willow chanced another quick look. Bitter fluid filled her mouth and she swallowed it down. The original shape of the object could no longer be discerned. About the size of a melon, it was encased in a lopsided grey accretion of shells cemented in sand. It had been underwater for a long, long time, gnawed by the sea.
Mouth twitching, eyes narrowed and pained, she blurted, “I can’t heal that.”
“You don’t have to. It’s fine for our purposes the way it is. What we’ll need you to do is amplify it. Increase the range of its signal.”
“It’s not a key. It’s a dimensional rift and everything’s trying to pour through. A mini-Hellmouth in its own right!”
“Yes, I know.” Angel shut the box again and latched it. The horrible feeling coming off it decreased a little. “The box provides some shielding. You might want to add some wards to the house, and maybe the box, to keep the signal contained. But I’ve had it in my hotel suite for over a month without any problem. There can’t be significant leakage. Otherwise I would have had company, since no invitation’s needed to approach it.” Angel looked at her to see if she understood that as a vampire, his residence in a place created no mystical barrier to intrusion by other vampires, as a human’s would.
Willow knew that: vampires had no right of place. Willow also understood that, unpleasant as she found the Stone’s emanations, vampires would be attracted to them as they were to the Hellmouth itself. She asked Angel bluntly, “Why aren’t you affected?”
“I don’t let myself be. It’s a matter of control.” He shrugged. “Spike was all over the thing when I showed it to him, last night.” That plainly pleased him.
“Yeah,” Willow responded tightly. Thinking about Angel and Spike and control, all together, made her almost as sick as the Stone did. She backed away from the box, one hand gripping the other. “All right, it’s here. I’ll ward it. Then I’ll see what I can do with it on my own. Working with a talisman with that kind of power takes a circle. A coven. An experienced coven. You’re expecting a lot here, Angel.”
Angel showed no reaction to her anxious, resentful look. He said soothingly, “I’m sure a witch with your power will find a way. Borrow power, if you need to. I’m certain you know how to do that. This is half the equation, Willow. The other half is the amulet. So this is important.” He started toward the door. Since it was mid-morning, Willow figured he had come through the tunnels and would have to return that way. With the door open, Angel turned to say, “Be sure you have it locked down by dark.”
A breakfast of tea and gnawed fingernails provided Willow with no means of safe approach to the Stone, much less manipulating its energies. Sure, easy for Angel to tell her to borrow power. Leech power was more like it. Drain people of their natural energy like a vampire going through a congregation or a schoolroom. That would be a bad business. Not outright dark, if the circle was willing, but extremely dangerous.
On a panicked impulse, she called Giles. She wouldn’t discuss the problem on the phone. Although both she and Giles were protected, the phone lines weren’t. She just asked him to come.
When Giles arrived, Willow opted for lawn chairs in the yard, in the sunshine. She felt frozen to the marrow. “I don’t know what to do about this, Giles. Could you maybe contact the coven for me? Ask them to lend power?”
“Willow, you know better than that. The Stone is not a Natural object, and Natural forces are not going to contain it. The coven would refuse, considering the attempt both abhorrent and useless. No point, I’m afraid, in even asking them.”
Willow blurted, “You stored power once. That time. Couldn’t you do it again? Drain off and store as much as you can, then let me tap into it?”
Giles thoughtfully looked in the direction Willow was looking: toward Casa Spike and the Potentials leaping and turning in weapons drill in the yard. “I am not a mage, Willow, as you know. I can accept power: I cannot take it. And yes, unless we are to involve total and uncomprehending strangers, which really isn’t feasible, the Potentials are the only possible source numerous and vital enough to endure such a drain. Which would affect their ability to function as fighters for some considerable time. Even if all went well.”
“Yeah.” Willow laughed bitterly. “And my record in controlling myself in a power drain is so fantastic. My record in handling that much power, once I got it, without going all black-eyed and veiny is even more fantastic. Giles, I really, really don’t think I can do this! I know it’s important, and I want to help, I’ve been waiting to help, doing my meditations and everything, but this is too much, I can’t do it--” Fists against her eyes, scrunched up all tight in the chair, Willow began to bawl. She was such a terrible nerd loser, letting everybody down, able to imagine what was needed but bone-afraid to do it, stupid awful nerd coward loser, helpless when faced with a real crisis or anything with real power.
A hand came down on her shoulder and, beside her, Kennedy’s voice demanded coldly, “What’s this all about?”
Willow looked up. In her swimming vision, Kennedy was glaring at Giles, suspecting him of being responsible for Willow’s distress.
Willow felt even worse, realizing that she was making such a pitiful exhibition of herself that the SITs had noticed from the next yard. They were coming, concerned. Giles abruptly rose and returned to the house as Willow tried to explain there was nothing anybody could do, except maybe there was, but she didn’t dare try it, sucking energy out of them all.
“Maybe we need to set up another roster,” remarked Kim, some kind of joke Willow didn’t understand. Kim bristled when told by Kennedy to shut up. Kim accused, “You’re just being a bitch on account of the saber.”
“I don’t want any of his filthy old rat-stickers. I didn’t even cut for one,” Kennedy retorted.
Several of the other SITs started getting into the quarrel, leaning forward into each other’s faces, scowling, loud-voiced. Spike’s sardonic drawl cut in and the SITs gravitated to him as he reached the sufficient shade of the maple tree, discarding the blanket he’d used to cross the sunny open space. The Potentials pointed indignantly, claiming injury and disrespect, many gesturing with long sharp weapons. And Giles came back with the box.
“Ah,” said Spike in the tone of one to whom everything was now clear. “Everybody, settle. ‘Tisn’t you, it’s what’s in that box there. Stone of Discord, or whatever the hell it’s called. Why are we so lucky, Rupert?”
Giles crossed the yard and started explaining. The SITs grudgingly separated to give him space, and after a moment Amanda brought and opened a chair for him. When Giles sat, Spike dropped into his usual feral crouch, head cocked, listening while his eyes slowly scanned the SITs. They quieted, most settling on the grass, when they found Spike looking at them.
Spike called to Willow. She didn’t want to go, admit her coward loser nerdiness in front of everybody. But Spike couldn’t come to her, not in the broad daylight, so she forced herself across the yard.
Instead of demanding why she wasn’t doing what was necessary, Spike remarked sympathetically, “Gets into your bones, doesn’t it. Sets your teeth on edge, like.” That, of course, only made Willow feel worse. “Think maybe I can sort that a bit. No harm to trying, anyway. Let me have your hands here a minute.”
His upturned waiting hands let Willow know what was expected. Not knowing what else to do, she sat down, about knee to knee with him, and put her hands in his.
Something changed. Eased. Stilled.
Wide-eyed, Willow asked, “What did you do?”
“Sorted you, just a little. Damped down the edge where it was bothering you so.” Releasing her hands, Spike looked from her to the box Giles held. “Let me have that, Rupert.”
“Spike, do you believe that’s wise?”
“Not gonna hurt me none. Not as well as I know it. Just set it down. Now, how about if you all back off a ways. Go on, clear off.”
When he was satisfied with their distance, Spike opened the box and took the Stone into his hands. He was quietly poised, holding it, eyes shut, face calm. Nothing to see in the normal way. But when Willow looked with other sight, she found his aura flaring, closing, leaning oblong, twisting: like a sheet warping and cracking to a high wind.
Willow muttered to Giles, “He’s actually channeling the damn thing!”
Willow just shook her head. All she could think of was the contrast between Angel’s grim self-control that refused to let the Stone affect him, and what she saw as Spike’s serene acceptance, poised in the midst of chaos. Letting it in. Letting it affect him and yet in a curious way unmoved by it nevertheless. It was frantic and flailing; he was at rest, comfortable within it--as casual about doing this chore as any other.
She couldn’t maintain othersight long enough to see what happened. But she felt it happen. Like an overcast upon her heart, lifting. Her conviction of worthlessness and inadequacy retreating, dissipating.
Spike sighed and set the Stone back in the box. “Should be a bit better for you lot now,” he remarked, shutting the lid.
Giles asked, “What did you do?”
“A little hard to describe.” Spike busied his hands getting out a cigarette and lighting it. Small chores to occupy his hands, no different from holding the Stone, that became simple in the doing and nothing remarkable at all. “Hellmouth itself doesn’t bother humans much. High School’s built right on top of it, after all, yet it’s rare for anybody to come down with anything worse than a case of the fidgets. Buffy works there most every day and it doesn’t trouble her. So I guess one way to say is, I tuned it to the same resonance as the Hellmouth, damped down the extra harmonics it was putting out. If it’d been music, I’d say I transposed it to a different key you can’t hear so well as we can. Or adjusted the bandwidth, or the spectrum, same difference. A matter of feel, and there’s not really words for that. Stone’s still doin’ what it did, just not anymore in a way that should trouble you lot so much.”
Willow prompted, “But how could you do it? With no energy draw, no--”
Spike shrugged. “Used to it, I expect. Tuned to it, my own self. Demon here, an’ all. So no great matter to latch onto it, let it latch onto me, more like…. Something like lifting a load. Take it up, then come to balance with it. Like I said: hard to describe.”
Giles remarked gravely, “You must have an extraordinarily strong sense of balance, then.”
“Yeah,” said Spike, with a slow, reflective smile. “Got it back, seems like. Had to get rid of a whole lot of things first. Distractions. But with them all set aside, the rest has come back to balance. Know what I am. What I’m for. What I’m doing….” Rising, he looked around at the SITs. “So, my treasures, what exactly do you think you’re doing hanging about here, idle as sheep?”
As the SITs scattered and Spike pulled the enveloping blanket over his head to make the sprint back to the shade of the porch, Willow watched until he was safely there, then bent to scoop up the box.
She could amplify the Stone’s force now the way Angel wanted. She could braid it and tie the skeins with blue ribbons. She could bring it to a steady boil like a teakettle and make it whistle Dixie. Whatever its effect on demons, its power was no longer power over her.
She’d had it all backward. She’d believed she needed to control things, external forces. Manipulate them. Whereas what was required was that she change herself and let herself be changed. Willow finally saw what the coven had been wittering on about, all those months. What Tara had tried, over and over, to tell her. She had to find her own balance. Then the rest would fall into place.
She regarded the vampire with happy, ungrudged admiration.
Spike was going to close the Hellmouth and Willow was going to help him. She no longer had any doubt or any resistance to the prospect.
For Anya to stick a Closed for Inventory sign in the front window of the Magic Box and lock the door before noon on a business day showed Dawn that Anya was really serious. So Dawn was actually gonna have to make good on her claim to being the onsite representative of the Powers That Be.
Well, she’d try, because she had to. And they’d squash her like a bug. She just knew it.
While Anya bustled about, collecting nice candles and other unnecessary but decorative paraphernalia, Dawn remarked, “I told Spike to think of Her as Lady Gates. So he could have a person in his mind, that he could imagine, that he was dealing with. But She’s not. She’s a Power. She’s not even a she: She’s a They. Might as well think of having a chat with the Pacific Ocean. I’m the only part who’s a person, a single viewpoint. And I was soooo stupid to make you a promise like that!”
“Well, it’s not as though I twisted your arm,” Anya responded, entirely without sympathy. “You named the bargain, I didn’t. I fulfilled my part, exactly as contracted. Now I expect you to perform yours. And it’s in your own interests, after all: if Spike incinerates, you go poof. I can’t imagine you’re looking forward to that.”
“I could go poof just as easily here in the shop--”
“Hadn’t thought of that.” Biting her lip, Anya started rapidly gathering up everything she’d put down. “Training room, then. Away from the merchandise. Well, come on, and bring the crystal.”
That was the only object that actually was needed. A big hard lump in a red velvet drawstring bag. About grapefruit sized. Dawn took the bag by its cords and dragged after Anya into the annex.
Anya was setting up again on one of the benches by the streetside wall. Dawn plunked the bag down and got a glare. Anya said, “Take care with that, it’s very valuable. I lent it to Spike, and he left it laying in the alley. So I couldn’t even bill him for its use, not that there’d be any point in it. He never has anything anyway. It’s a wonder it wasn’t damaged. Just spill it out. Gently. Without touching it. And you don’t have to tell me about the Powers, I’ve been dealing with them for years. I just think of large international conglomerates. Absolutely no personality, nothing you could hit, but intention and effects, oh, yes. Arashmahar is more a committee consensus than an actual place. It’s there because everybody has agreed to believe it’s there. Rather like Lourdes or the South Pole. Consensus reality can be very annoying, let me tell you: get out of step with everyone else and you start sinking through the floor. Very disconcerting. Particularly in multi-story buildings.” Anya lit several pillar candles and a stick of patchouli incense and considered the effect. “Now, are we all set?”
“I suppose so,” Dawn admitted, and sank down on the bench.
“Hold hands, then. You touch first because you’re the broker and I’m the client.”
With Anya’s hands resting on hers, Dawn made a squint-eyed, wincing face and set her fingers on the crystal.
Immediate attention. Something vast, whipping around to attend. Immense disapproval focused from interstellar distances upon one extremely tiny and frightened point.
“It’s that bargain,” Dawn said. No reason not to speak, They’d understand her just as well no matter what she did. “You can find it if You review. I made it a couple of months ago before You reabsorbed me. The one with Anya.”
“Hello,” Anya trilled. “I’m Anyanka, formerly of Arashmahar. Quite a lot of experience, as a Justice demon, in making and keeping bargains. I’m the client, and it’s very kind of You to take a moment to attend to this. I know it’s trivial to You to the point of utter insignificance, but from our limited perspectives as mortals, it’s quite important to us and we do appreciate it. The bargain was made in good faith and fully kept in all respects on my part. I deal in wishes. So if it’s agreeable, I’ll cast my request as a wish. I wish--”
Anya broke off because the Presence had located the bargain and was doing the equivalent of holding it up with two fingers at the furthest possible remove from Itself. Viewing it with immense distaste.
Dawn was made to feel how utterly and stupidly reckless it had been for her to tender such a promise. She had no right to commit the Powers to anything.
“But You took it. When You took me. It’s right there, and You can’t pretend it isn’t. I promised on Your behalf and spoke with Your voice, and You didn’t repudiate it because You didn’t repudiate me. It wasn’t for myself, after all.”
As proof, Dawn offered up the gestalt of circumstances and splendid altruistic motives that were the context of her asking Anya for a simple little teleport into the basement, so she could see how badly Spike was hurt and decide what to do about it. That had been very important, and she’d promised Anya a favor--anything in her power--as reward for help, and corresponding unnamed but dire punishment if that help were withheld. A bit melodramatic, perhaps, but quite straightforward in its terms.
“I’m sure You’re aware,” Anya said, “of the present situation involving the Hellmouth here in Sunnydale at the present time. In fact, I’m quite certain You are, considering the degree to which the Powers have been influencing events and some of the people involved. Quite blatant, actually. In the nicest possible way, of course. And nobody could be more thoroughly in favor of closing the Hellmouth, as the direction Your influence has taken indicates is also Your intention, than myself. Nasty nuisance and always has been, and the alternative would be catastrophic to this dimension. I know it’s not much, but it’s become home, and I can’t believe you want to cede control of it to a Personage of such limited imagination as the First Evil. After all, what does the multiverse need with yet another hell dimension? In its present state, it at least has a mildly diverting variety.”
“Anya,” Dawn muttered urgently. “They know. And They don’t care about your opinions, one way or the other. Get to the horses, Anya!”
“Certainly. To business, then. Given Your involvement in the situation, You certainly know who Spike is. The vampire who dreams about the amulet. I want a period of 100% guaranteed total invulnerability for him within a range of three miles, in all directions, from the Hellmouth. This period is to begin two hours before he begins the attempt and last for two hours, local time, after he completes it, whatever the result. And during the attempt itself, of course. No loopholes, no exceptions. And nothing to hinder his freedom of movement or his freedom of choice. No dropping a hill on him, for instance, or burying him in some pit. He goes in intact and he comes out intact.
“Given that this is a service he’s performing in part at Your behest, I shouldn’t think You’d find this an excessive precaution or reward for services rendered. I simply think his interests should be safeguarded. These are very reasonable terms. I--”
The crystal sagged and melted into a puddle of dull slag. Contact was broken.
Snatching her hands away, Anya exclaimed, “Well, that certainly was rude and sudden, and I’ve lost the price of a very valuable crystal in the process.”
“They agreed, Anya,” Dawn announced glumly.
“They agreed to your terms. On one condition: when Spike goes in, we have to go in with him. With no invulnerability clause.”
Continued in Chapter Twenty Four: Hellmouth