Of Shadows and Demons Mackie - www.idol-pursuits.tv Disclaimer: The Sentinel and all its trimmings belong to Pet Fly Productions and Paramount. I'm just out playing with the boys. Disclaimer: Buffy, the Vampire Slayer is owned neither by me nor Pet Fly Productions, et al. It's Warner Brothers and Joss Whedon. If you're a Buffy fan, this story follows What's My Line? and precedes Surprise. If you're not a fan of the show, it's not important to understand where the story falls in the Buffy time- line. Of Shadows and Demons by Linda S. Maclaren "Life is stranger than fiction, but not so popular." -- Anonymous Part One Jim Ellison thought he had never been so grateful to be home. The loft was uncommonly cold and quiet, but it was such a relief after thirty-six hours of a non-stop assault to his heightened senses, he didn't care if he spent the night in a freezer as long as there was blissful silence. First, he'd escorted a small-time embezzler back to New York City for trial, and the man had talked the entire flight, blaming everyone and everything, even El Niño, for his predicament. The New York cops had been glad to have their fugitive returned, and a couple of them had taken Jim out for a night in the "big city", a night which included enough sights, noise, smells and booze to keep a sentinel on sensory overload for a year. Still, he'd managed without embarrassing himself too badly, although the cops kept laughing at him for jumping every time a taxi horn sounded - man, New York was a cacophony of blaring car horns! On the flight home, he'd been unable to get his preferred aisle seat, and had found himself sandwiched between two feuding teenage sisters who'd traded insults for the entire trip. He'd tried nice, he'd tried stern, he'd even tried authority by enlisting the help of a flight attendant; but in the end, they'd defeated him, and he'd been forced to sit and endure, there being no empty seats on the plane. Teenagers! Also, he was certain he could still hear the constant, monotonous roar of jet engines inside his skull, an annoying susurrus punctuated occasionally by what sounded suspiciously like a taxi horn. Finally, he was home - and where the hell was Sandburg? Jim dropped his flight bag on the floor and glanced around the deserted loft. He saw the note on the table immediately and picked it up. Blair's handwriting started out neatly enough, probably as a courtesy, but as his thoughts overran his pen, his words turned into his more familiar scrawl: Jim, welcome home. I made lasagna, it's in the fridge, and if you get back before Thursday, it should be OK. An archaeologist friend, Dana Gentry, asked me to come down to her dig outside of Sunnydale, in northern Calif. I don't know much about Pacific or Northwest tribes, but she insisted, and you know me - when a pretty woman calls...Be back by the weekend. I took the bus so I could do some reading, so my car should be in its usual spot. Stay out of trouble. Me. Beside the note sat Blair's laptop and cellular phone, indications he was in the mood to "rough it" in the wilds of Northern California. Jim explored the refrigerator, found the lasagna and unwrapped the dish. It looked and smelled delicious, even if it did have tofu masquerading as meat beneath the sauce. He scooped a huge slice onto a plate and stuck it in the microwave to heat, then grabbed a beer. Much as he liked Sandburg, it felt good to come home to a little peace and quiet... Part Two Dana Gentry, sixty inches of barely harnessed energy, met Blair at the bus station in Sunnydale. Anyone seeing her would have made an instant judgment that she was lesbian, but they would have been wrong. Dana never wore makeup, never bothered to dress in anything but grungy khakis, and wore her hair in a buzz cut because she spent her life on digs and couldn't be bothered with all the little cultural emblems of her gender. She grabbed Blair in a hug that almost drove the breath from him. "Blair, why haven't I been getting postcards from strange, South American sites that all have names beginning with a hawking noise?" "Thank you for that imagery, Doctor Gentry," Blair answered once he'd disentangled himself. She grinned. "Doctor Gentry," she echoed happily. "Yep. Finally. When do I get to read your name on the doctoral list?" "Uh, I got a little sidetracked," Blair admitted. "It started heading in a different direction." Dana flung his backpack into the bed of an ancient Datsun pickup that hadn't seen a car wash since Carter was in office. "Passenger door's wired shut, you'll have to crawl through from my side." Blair scooted across the seat through the driver's door and kicked happily through all the catalogs, journals, food wrappers and other detritus littering the floorboard. It reminded him of other digs in other countries, of shoestring budgets, sponge baths, eating out of warm cans, rocky ground to sleep on, bugs and other crawly things, and the sheer exhilaration of it all. He'd been away from this sort of fieldwork for too long, and realized he missed it deeply. His fieldwork now was in a city, with its civilized comforts, his continued university work, and all the amenities. It didn't feel like fieldwork at all, and perhaps that was what bothered him most. He'd made the choice to do it, of course, first because he'd been fascinated to find Jim Ellison, then because Jim had become a friend who needed Blair's help more than either of them had anticipated. Blair wouldn't trade the friendship for anything, but there were times he dreamed of remote places and strange, exotic cultures... "Hey, Sandburg, you fading on me or something?" He grinned. "Just remembering old times, Dana." She drove like a maniac, pointing out various highlights of Sunnydale. "It's a one-mall, one Wal-Mart kind of town," she confessed, "although, there is a rather fun teen hangout called The Bronz. That's our big time Saturday night." "Uh, I probably won't be staying that long," Blair apologized. "I need to get back." "Yeah?" Dana chuckled as she rammed the little truck through about half of the required gears and took a road out of town. It was a brilliant, sunny Monday afternoon, and Blair relished the warmth pouring through the open side window of the Datsun. Days this perfect, especially in late fall, were rare in Cascade. "You're studying the police? You turning into a sociologist on me, Blair?" "No." He tried not to sound defensive, but he hated having to justify his cover story. "You won't find a more primitive sub- culture than a police force." He wished he could tell her about Jim, about his abilities, about the incredible bond between them as Sentinel and Guide. But he couldn't. "What's this site you're on now?" "A small encampment," Dana explained. "Yahi, Maidu?" She grinned at him. "You've been doing your homework." Blair returned the grin with a shrug. "I know just enough about your work to make a complete fool out of myself." "Good guesses, although this region is more likely to have been Pomo or Miwok. Your tribes were a little farther to the north." She slipped smoothly into her lecture mode. "As you know, the Indians in this region were pretty peaceful, settled. The coastal tribes fished, the inland ones hunted, grew stuff, traded with other tribes, and with a few notable exceptions, they didn't fight much with the Spanish or each other and were converted to Christianity pretty early on following the conquest. Their history is difficult to decipher because they didn't build with stone and mortar, but rather with the plentiful wood. The damp environment here has destroyed much of what they did accomplish. I think you'll find our dig a little disappointing after some of your South American sites." "No, I have an idea what to expect," Blair replied. "How did you find it?" "A high-school student was out hiking, had the sense to realize he'd found something when he stumbled across it. The local science teacher checked it out, and also had the sense to keep the site intact and not try to dig it on his own. So he called the university, and here I am." "And why am I here?" Blair asked, watching the meager suburbs of Sunnydale give way to cultivated pasture and finally to woodlands. The little truck started to climb as the road wound into the foothills. "Because I haven't got a clue what I've found," Dana admitted. "That's why you didn't answer my question about what group used the site?" Dana nodded. "I really don't mean to sound mysterious, but I don't want to taint your first impression." "OK," Blair agreed mildly, intrigued. If Dana Gentry, an expert on Northern California archaeology, couldn't figure out what she'd found, how could he possibly help? Several miles later the terrain became mountainous, and the woods gave way to forest; an old growth area of redwoods protected under California law. The venerable trees towering over them reduced the forest floor to semi-darkness, which was cleaved by shafts of brilliant sunlight. After awhile, Dana turned onto a rutted, narrow forestry track. They bounced along in companionable silence for a time until the road ended. Two other equally battered pickup trucks were parked there. Dana shut down the engine. "Trail head," she explained. "We hoof it from here." "How far?" Blair asked, wondering if he should leave some of his stuff in the truck. "Two miles, a little less," Dana answered. "Are you sleeping at the site?" "Yeah, nearest motel is back near Sunnydale, and it's almost as bad as tenting it. Besides, we can get an early start in the mornings." "Yeah, you always were a slave driver," Blair chided, hefting his backpack and deciding to cart it all with him. Besides, he might need some of his reference books if he wasn't going to look a complete idiot in front of the rest of the crew. He'd read a lot of material about the primitive cultures of Northern California during his bus ride from Cascade, but he was far from being an authority on any of it. The hike was rugged and steep up a narrow, rocky trail. Dana pushed a hard pace. Blair kept up with her, but it was difficult, and he vowed he would get more exercise in the future. Living in the city had made him soft and lazy. Maybe he'd start riding his bike to school. Yeah, and have permanent pneumonia from all the rain and cold. It was early afternoon when they reached the camp. Three small two-man tents, two portable camp tables, a stove, several lanterns, a somewhat larger tent and a fire pit defined the little community. The rest of the team were just finishing lunch, and they greeted Blair with hot coffee and leftover spaghetti. It smelled wonderful after the packaged snacks and roadside diners he'd endured on his bus ride. Blair stowed his gear in the larger tent, which proved to be where the bulk of cleaning and cataloguing of artifacts was done, as he'd suspected. They had set up a spare cot for him and cleared out one side of the tent so he could set up his own sleeping area. He dumped out most of his backpack onto the cot, repacking only his notebooks, field tools, and flashlight. He felt unbearably old as he was introduced to the rest of the team. Sandy Crenshaw was a tall, lanky girl with a warm, toothy smile. Stu Kowalski was stout, broad and entirely too serious. Both were sophomores at Dana's university, and they were still excited about their first dig. Rodney Ballantine was Dana's assistant, a grad student working on his Master's thesis. The other two were the original examiners of the site, a high school student named Blu and the science teacher, Mr. Blake, who was barely older than Blair. Blu (short for Blumenthal, he admitted, red-faced), was a large, soft high school freshman who appeared to spend way too much time in front of his television set or computer screen. Judging by the nerd-like signs of taped Coke- bottle frames, Blair suspected the latter. Needless to say, both Blu and the science teacher were excited to take part in chronicling the find for both the Sunnydale and school newspapers. When Blair had finished his meager lunch and listened to tales of the site - as he'd suspected, it was very small but apparently rich in material -- Dana pulled him aside. "OK, here's some of the stuff I don't want the locals to hear for the time being, although the rest of the team knows what we've found." "Secrets?" Blair asked, surprised. "Not so much secrets, as confusion," Dana continued impatiently. "This site is an encampment, not a community. These people were not warlike, and yet we have found the remains of at least seven corpses, all men, all apparently killed violently - hacked to death is the best evidence we have so far." "The Spanish?" Blair asked, repulsed as always by ancient violence. Things really hadn't changed much over the centuries; only the weapons of death had improved. "Looks that way, except for two small things - preliminary examination of the bone injuries indicate just one weapon was used, probably a sword or other long blade, but the site itself seems to predate the arrival of the Spanish in this region. It's hard to tell because I'm talking perhaps just a few decades here, but we've compared geological records with Spanish history, so the data appear sound." "So one killer?" Blair theorized. "What geological records are you talking about?" "Earthquakes. The encampment sits on a fault line. That's probably what buried it in the first place. A small earthquake a few months ago opened a fissure and revealed it again. Even stranger, we've found a ton of religious artifacts - both Christian and Indian, some of it perhaps from as far east as the Seneca. I think, and mind you, this is just one of those wild guesses that come to you after you've tossed and turned half the night - I think this was some sort of heavy-duty, multi-cultural ceremonial site, and someone didn't approve of what was going on here." Blair frowned. This was all a bit much. "Are you sure the site hasn't been contaminated? I mean, I know the locals traded as far east as Colorado, but wouldn't this many diverse religious objects in one place indicate it was some grave robber's cache, and he just never came back for it?" "Why do you think I'm doing so much tossing and turning?" Dana retorted. "Besides, a cache doesn't explain the bones." Blair let out a breath. "Whew. Can you show me what you've got?" Dana took him into the large tent and began to lay out her evidence. Even Blair had to admit it was compelling, although there were some things he didn't recognize and had to take on faith that Dana knew what she was talking about. Bits of bone and feather, dried herbs and bits of stone in ancient medicine bundles; everything pointed to a major religious ceremony. There was even a deformed and badly pitted cross, probably carried by a missionary or conquistador as the conquest spread north in search of gold...except Dana seemed certain the site predated the arrival of the Spanish. So how had a Spanish sword and a Christian artifact come to be here without a Spaniard to carry them? Then she revealed the bones, brown and flaky, that had been removed from the site and showed him numerous enhanced photographs to prove a single blade, probably a sword, had caused all the injuries. "Most of the remains are still in the ground - we're taking great care in excavating them. Everything in this soft, moist soil is so fragile, there's little left except vague outlines and chemical traces. We have to capture the images on special film, because it's doubtful we'll actually be able to recover anything more substantial." Blair was impressed in spite of himself. Digging with dental pick and soft brush had never been his favorite pastime (although he'd done his share of it), which was one of the reasons he'd chosen anthropology instead of archaeology as his major. He preferred the living present, especially in his study of primitive cultures, to the guesswork reconstruction of the ancient past. But this was fascinating. There was nothing conclusive, but the facts seemed to fit Dana's theory, bizarre as it seemed. "Ready to go up to the site?" she asked after he'd pored over the artifacts and her notes. "Yeah." "It's all uphill," she teased. "I don't care if it's on the summit of Mount Whitney," he retorted with enthusiasm. "That's what I figured you'd say," Dana said with a grin. They went outside, and Dana gathered up her crew and tools. The high school student and science teacher decided to sit out the afternoon in camp, preparing their updates for the newspapers. The path to the site was even rougher than the one they'd hiked to camp. It was actually a game trail, not a hiking trail at all, and when Dana veered off into the trees, Blair wondered how the freshman had managed to stumble across it in the first place. It was not exactly a place he would have picked to go for a walk in the woods, especially if he were as fat and flabby as the kid appeared. "I'm bringing you out above the site," Dana explained, stopping on a rock ledge and pointing downward. Blair looked into the small clearing a half-dozen feet below. To the untrained eye, it was just another open spot in the forest floor, unimpressive and without character. But to a trained archaeologist, it revealed a wealth of information. A grid of stakes and string had been laid out by the team. It extended several yards to either side of a long, narrow fissure that bisected the little clearing. In spots only a few inches deep, the fissure widened at one point and dropped several yards into the earth. Even from above, Blair could not see the bottom. If the students were working inside it, it had to be both dangerous and exciting. Areas of the grid surrounding the trench had been dug to a depth of several inches, one portion to a couple of feet. "This is the actual ceremonial site," Dana told him. "We've found remains of several fires, and most of the ceremonial artifacts have come from here." She pointed to her right. "Over there is where we found the bones - we can't tell if they were positioned in any religious manner because they've shifted a lot during the centuries and been disturbed by wildlife. It's actually amazing anything survived at all." "Have you turned up any research to indicate this was sacred ground to any of the indigenous cultures?" Blair asked, looking down into the fissure and wondering at the vague sense of unease that came over him. Sure, he wasn't fond of heights (fond? Hell, terrified was more like it...), but the drop from the ledge was only a few feet, and he was in no danger of tumbling into the chasm. "I have two students going over every scrap of research back at the university," Dana said. "So far, nothing points to this area as having any significance to anyone." Blair noted the other students were getting antsy. "What's up?" "They're eager to show you what else we've found," Dana said. "I've forbidden them to talk to you about it until you've seen it." "It," Blair repeated. He looked at the three students in turn; all of them were grinning and obviously excited about whatever "it" was. "OK, show me." Dana led them away from the site, up the steep, rocky slope behind them to another ledge, this one higher and much larger. A huge, ancient tumble of granite boulders, some as large as houses, scarred the side of the mountain, and Blair sincerely hoped he wouldn't have to go up there. But Dana stopped on the larger ledge and pointed out a recess amid the rock. "It's in there." Blair shrugged out of his backpack and dug out his flashlight. With a perplexed look at his grinning companions, he started cautiously into the shallow cave, Dana and the others pressing in close behind him, eager to see his reaction. It made him a little nervous - he hoped he wouldn't disappoint them. The opening led to a small cavern formed by the overlap of granite boulders, but it was deep enough to require a flashlight to penetrate its depths. His light quickly found the end of the cave, and he stopped abruptly, the others piling up behind him. "Well?" Dana demanded. Blair struggled to find his voice. "It's a joke, right?" "Oh, sure, I've missed your baby blues so much, I had to concoct this elaborate practical joke just to get you here." The three students giggled. On legs that felt suddenly weak, he moved forward and studied the slab of rock more carefully, his fingers tracing but not touching. Dana crowded in beside him. "Blair?" "It's - it's Incan," he whispered at last. "Yes!" Dana crowed happily, and the students clapped and all started talking at once, telling him about how the cave had been discovered purely by accident, about how Dana had refused to let them excavate the find until she got Blair to see it, all of them jostling around him in their excitement to get close to the inscribed rock slab. "Can you read any of it?" Dana demanded when Blair appeared oblivious to all the excitement around him. Everyone settled down and waited silently, straining to hear his reply. "I think so," he answered quietly. God, some of the symbols were as familiar to him as his own handwriting - Sentinel...Guide...Spirit...Sacrifice... "Come on, Sandburg, don't keep us in suspense," Dana said impatiently. "What are we going to find behind this slab?" "It's a tomb," Blair said softly. "At least, I think it is - there's a lot of this tablet I can't translate without my notes. An Inca shaman is buried behind this rock." A guide, he wanted to tell them, but he couldn't. Or at least he thought it was the Guide; he couldn't be sure without studying the stone inscriptions more fully. Nor could he explain the feeling of intense sadness that flooded over him, threatening to bring tears. "I keep running in circles," Dana said. "On the one hand, I have pretty conclusive evidence this site predates the arrival of the Spanish. And yet, we have a Spanish cross and likelihood of a sword, which makes it seem probable our Inca came north with them, but why would he do that? The Inca and Spanish were at war. The Inca were conquered before the Spanish pushed this far north, right?" Blair nodded numbly, his eyes still traveling over the carved symbols, trying to find more meaning. "These carvings represent very powerful magic," he concluded after a bit. "It's some sort of binding spell. We're not supposed to disturb it." "Are you nuts?" Dana shot back. "This could be the discovery of my career, one which I'm willing to share with you, by the way, handsome, and you're telling me to leave it alone?" "It's a warning," Blair insisted quietly. "Like King Tut's tomb?" Sandy Crenshaw said happily from inches behind his left shoulder. "It's curses to anyone who dares to defile it? Like that?" "Like that," Blair agreed solemnly, shaken. He'd never felt comfortable with archaeology, the disturbing of ancient burial sites and sacred grounds, but he'd also never felt this strongly about it. Maybe because he felt a kinship to the one entombed behind the rock, or maybe because he was inexplicably uncomfortable in the close confines of the cave, with all the others crowded around him. Or maybe because he couldn't translate all of the symbols on the slab. It was a warning, of course, that much he had determined with ease, just as he knew it was a tomb. But why was a guide here, in Northern California, entombed right next to another religious site? Or were the two sites connected? And where was the Sentinel? "You can't move the rock," he said suddenly. "What if he was entombed here for a reason, and the other site was where the spells were cast to ensure this cave would never be opened? The practitioners must have used every magic they could find - including Christian - to keep this place hidden and secure." "An evil Inca warrior," Dana said, intrigued. Blair shook his head, dismissing his speculations. If a guide was buried in the chamber, how could he be evil? "I don't know," he mumbled uselessly, his feelings of unease growing with each moment he remained in the cave. "I knew this site was important," Dana said happily. "OK, we've already documented everything on this side of the tablet - I have a ton of photographs and notes, and we've combed every inch of this outer chamber for artifacts. It's time to move this rock and see what's behind it." Involuntarily, Blair took a step backward, colliding with the others but almost unaware of it. "You can't," was all he said. He knew it was useless, just a stupid gut feeling from an anthropologist too wrapped up in his own South American studies to feel comfortable in these alien surroundings, confronted by a mystery he could not comprehend or unravel. He sounded all too possessive of a find over which he had no claim. How could he explain the dread, the fear that moved his feet slowly backwards as one of the students started a video camera while his companions began to carefully, slowly, push the stone aside under a constant barrage of instructions from Dana. It sounded like a vacuum being released with a rush. Air shifted, the dust and mold of centuries disturbed for the first time and loosed from their confinement. Blair had backed almost to the entrance of the cave, so he was a few feet behind the others when the heavy tablet finally shifted. Something lunged for him, snarling and savage, and he saw the black panther with absolute clarity. With a cry, he tried to dive out of the way, felt the enormous beast plow into him, shoving him down and aside - to safety, he realized even as he fell. Something else, ephemeral as a gust of air, brushed his skin and swept past. It felt so unbelievably evil, just its touch left him feeling horribly weak and violated. A hissing sibilance filled his head with its passing... Sssklaalaasss.... Then his impetus carried him over the side of the ledge, and he started to fall. Part Three Dozing on the sofa, Jim Ellison suddenly shot upright, the roar of the panther and the cry from his Guide still ringing in his ears. Damn, but that had been one hell of a dream... Only he knew better. Where was the note Blair had written? What was the name of that town? Part Four Buffy had gone still so suddenly, Giles barely had time to pull his swing. As it was, his staff connected solidly with his young protégé and sent her sprawling to the mat. Never, in all their months of practice, had he ever gotten the upper hand, but he instinctively knew it had not been his skill, but rather the Slayer's distraction, which had enabled him to best her. "Buffy, are you all right?" he asked anxiously, dropping his staff and hurrying to help her up. She was already back on her feet. "Giles, something's up." "So I gathered. Can you be a little more precise?" She shook her head. "Just a feeling. Give me your keys. I need to borrow your car." "Are you sure? I'll be glad to come - " "No, it may be nothing." But it hadn't felt like nothing, that weird sense of unleashed evil. "No, it was definitely something, but I don't know what. Just something really, really bad is coming our way." "'By the pricking of my thumbs...'," Giles mumbled absently, fishing for his car keys. "All right, I'll rally the troops for your return," he went on, handing her the keys. When he realized what he'd done, he tried to grab them back, but she was too quick. "Buffy, no," he insisted. "You don't have your driving license." "I'll be careful," she promised, giddy from her moment of rebelliousness. "I don't think it's a good idea - " "Please, please, please?" she schmoozed, batting her eyelashes and playing the ingenue for all she was worth. Giles knew he didn't stand a chance when she was in such a silly mood. "Do you have any idea where you'll be taking my car illegally?" "No. I'm just winging it." Buffy almost ran from the library, leaving Giles to ponder the wisdom of loaning his car to a sixteen-year-old girl who was just 'winging it'. But she was the Slayer, after all. He'd learned to trust her instincts, even if she didn't have a driver's license. Part Five "Hey, Blair, are you all right?" Blair opened his eyes and stared up into concerned faces. He looked around; he had fallen just a few feet down from the ledge, and a bush had cushioned part of his landing amid the granite. Nothing felt broken, for which he was grateful, and he sat up gingerly. The coarse rock had abraded the skin on his hands and arms, and torn a hole in his jeans. He could feel more rawness on his face. By tomorrow, he'd be aching and black and blue from his tumble. "What happened?" "Some kind of fumes is all I can figure," Dana explained. "Took us all by surprise. You're the only one who passed out, though. It just made the rest of us feel woozy." That was when Blair remembered the slab of rock shifting, then Jim's animal spirit guide pushing him to safety, and the evil force that had touched him briefly before moving on. He shivered at the memory of it. "Do you have a phone?" he asked abruptly. "No. Cell phones are no good here between the mountains," she answered impatiently. "We're going to start examining the tomb, now that it's aired out a bit. You up for it?" Blair shook his head. "There's nothing important in there now," he said, confusing her. "I have to get to a phone." "I'll drive you into town tonight," Dana promised. "Right now, I've got some bones to document." "Dana - " Blair began angrily, then stopped, realizing the futility. He tried to sound more reasonable. "Dana, just do me a small favor, OK?" "What?" "Treat him with respect, OK? He was - special." "Special how?" "He traveled four thousand miles to get here," he said awkwardly, not able to tell her the truth. "That makes him special." Dana looked confused. "I didn't plan to toss his bones into a pile, you know," she said. "I respect every site I work." "I know, I guess I'm just feeling groggy," he said. "I'm going back to camp." This confused Dana even more. "All right. I didn't think anything would keep you from this find, but suit yourself." Blair stood up, civilly wished everyone a good dig, and hurried back toward the campsite. Something was driving him onward, something that went far beyond his scientific curiosity over the contents of the tomb. He knew Jim was in danger; the black jaguar had told him. Back at the camp, he found a note from the high school teacher saying he and Blu had called it a night and were heading back for Sunnydale. He sprinted down the trial, hoping to catch up with them and hitch a ride to town, but he reached the trail head and saw one of the trucks was already gone. Struggling to regain his breath after his wild dash in the thin mountain air, he checked the nearest truck and found it was unlocked. Jumping inside, he searched until he found the keys under the seat. The engine wouldn't turn over. With a curse, he tried the other truck, the battered Datsun that had brought him here. Though the keys were in it, the engine also refused to start. Grumbling at his abysmal bad luck, he headed down the dirt track, determined to find the highway and hitch a ride to the nearest phone. The numerous minor cuts on his face and arms had started to sting, and he belatedly thought of the antiseptic cream in his backpack. The aches and pains of his recent tumble were just beginning to make themselves felt. Although it was just after five-thirty in the afternoon, it was already dark when his feet finally touched pavement. The mountain air had turned cold, and he had only the light jacket he'd worn on the bus trip. His heavier coat was back at camp, along with all the rest of his gear. Even his flashlight was gone, probably lost when he'd fallen off the ledge. And Dana wouldn't come looking for him; she'd assume he'd caught a ride with Blake and the high school student, Blu. The darkness was not quite absolute, but the night was moonless, and the redwoods shut out most of the starlight. He could not see his feet on the pavement, so he moved into the center of the road, where he could just see the white centerline, and started walking in the direction of Sunnydale, hoping he would see headlights soon. An hour or so later, he almost had a heart attack when a deer jumped across the road directly in front of him. It was then he realized how alone he was, walking a deserted road in the dead of night, the forest black and impenetrable around him, the night sounds foreign and somehow menacing. Perhaps hiking into town had not been such a good idea, he thought fleetingly. But his imperative to get to a phone overcame his fear, and he kept his feet moving. Besides, he knew he could never find the dirt road again to take him back to camp, so his only option was to keep going forward. Two cars passed him, and each time he moved to the side and tried to wave them down. Obviously, the sight of a disheveled, longhaired hippie did not inspire anyone to stop. Where was the forest service when you really needed help? Or a cop? Or a kindly old grandmother with more compassion than common sense? He was cold and miserable when a third car thundered past, and he didn't even bother trying to flag it down. It was going the wrong direction, anyway. He heard it brake and slow, and turned to see the car swing into a U-turn and come back toward him. Nervously, he waited for it to pull up beside him. This was a little more compassion than he'd expected, and it made him suspicious. A car full of drunken rednecks was not his idea of a good time in the woods. But this car was a battered old Citroen, not exactly a redneck vehicle of choice. The driver's side window rolled down and warm air wafted out, reminding him just how cold he was. "Need a lift?" asked the young girl behind the wheel. "Uh, yeah," Blair answered with relief. Someone obviously hadn't told this teenager about the dangers of picking up strange men on the side of the road. "Cool car." She gave him a look that said she doubted his sanity after such a remark. "Do you have a driver's license?" What was she going to do, ID him? "Yes." She opened the driver's door and scooted across to the passenger seat. "Then you drive." Blair climbed behind the wheel and shut the door. The heater felt good. As he put the car in gear, he asked, "Where are we going?" She pointed straight ahead. "But you were going the other way." "And you were going this way," she said. There was no arguing with that statement. "I need to get to a phone," he explained. "No problem. By the way, my name's Buffy." "I'm Blair. Thanks for giving me a lift." In the faint light from the dashboard, Blair examined his rescuer. She couldn't have been more than sixteen or seventeen, a trim, good-looking young woman with the aura of someone carrying a large burden on her young shoulders. She glanced over at him suddenly, her expression enigmatic, and he looked away in embarrassment. "What are you doing out here?" she asked. "I was up at the dig," he explained, then waited to see if she understood him. "The old Indian site?" she asked. "I read about it in the school paper. You're an archaeologist?" "Anthropologist." "And you had this sudden urge to make a phone call." Blair nodded. "Yeah. None of the trucks would start, and the teacher, Mr. Blake, and his student had already left." "You must have left in a big hurry," Buffy continued. "Must I?" "No coat, no flashlight," she pointed out. She was observant, Blair gave her points for that. "I needed to get to a phone," he repeated awkwardly. "Did you get a wiggins?" "A what?" "A freaky feeling, a sense of impending doom, something fishy, something nasty, evil, vile, cursed, wicked, heinous, depraved, foul, supernatural - have I touched on it yet?" How could she know? Blair just shook his head, unable to lie outright, unable to tell a complete stranger what he'd felt in that cave. "Well, you didn't say I was nuts, so I must have touched on it," she concluded as he sped past the Sunnydale city limits. "Any phone will do," he said. "I have a calling card." In fact, Jim had bought him one last Christmas, since Blair seemed determined to forget his cell phone at the most awkward times, or else allow its battery to go dead. "And I know just the phone," Buffy insisted, directing him to the high school. It looked deserted at this late hour, and probably was. "Won't it be locked?" "Not yet, the library is still open," Buffy promised, leading him through a side door and down the empty corridors. A janitor mopping the floor looked up, saw her, and resignedly went back to his cleaning. Students weren't allowed after hours, but this was the girl who spent so much time in the library with Mr. Giles, so he pointedly ignored her. Whatever happened in the library was none of his business. Giles looked up as they entered. "Good Lord," he commented softly. Blair looked down at his dusty, ripped clothing and noted the number of dirty, minor abrasions on his hands from his fall from the ledge. He figured his face was equally bruised and scraped, and his hair was probably all over the place. All in all, not a reassuring figure to present to this neatly dressed Englishman who looked so mild-mannered he could be nothing but the librarian. "Giles, Blair - Blair, Giles," Buffy said, then indicated the two students seated at the large library table. "Willow and Xander." She pointed to her right. "Phone." "Thanks." Blair could feel all eyes on him as he hastily went through long string of numbers that would connect his calling card to the appropriate long distance service and complete his call to Cascade. The phone in the loft rang, and in total disregard for his prayers, the answering machine picked up. "Jim, are you there, man? Pick up if you are." There was only silence. "OK, listen...I need to get in touch with you. It's important. When you get in, don't go out again, OK? It's really, really important, Jim, so please stay put. I'll call back in a few hours. Don't go anywhere, OK?" Figuring he'd babbled enough, he hung up, and then repeated the whole dialing process and reached Simon at home. "Simon, it's Blair." He listened for a moment. "Yeah, I know, sorry I had to call you at home. Have you heard from Jim?" He listened some more. "OK, Simon, this is important. I want you to put out an APB on him." The squawk over the receiver was audible to everyone in the room, and Blair flinched at the assault on his ear. "Please, Simon, just listen to me. It's important. I need to find Jim. Try his cell phone, maybe the office. I don't know. Just find him for me, OK?" He covered the mouthpiece and looked at Giles. "Is it OK if I leave this number?" Giles scrawled hastily on a piece of paper and handed it to him. "This phone or my home phone. One of these numbers will reach you." "Thanks." Blair repeated the numbers to Simon, and hung up. "Thanks for letting me use the phone. I really need to get in touch with someone." Everyone was staring at him. "What?" Giles shrugged, looked at Buffy. "Is he what sent you racing off to God knows where?" "He is," Buffy said confidently. "He was hitchhiking in the forest, up near that old Indian site." "Well, that explains absolutely nothing," Xander said amiably. "He doesn't look evil," Willow commented. In fact, she thought he was kind of cute, in spite of all the cuts and bruises. Way cute. Down girl. Blair felt himself losing his grip on reality. "I'm not evil." He frowned. "What are you talking about?" Surprisingly, it was Buffy, not Giles, who took control of the conversation. "Look, we can tip-toe around this all night, or we can just come straight with each other. Something bad happened at the site. I felt it. I think you did, too. Trust me, Blair, when I say we'll believe whatever weird story you think you can't tell us." "I doubt it," Blair mumbled, feeling a little off-balance by her assurance. What could three high-school students and a librarian do to help him? He needed his computer, his notes, all the photographs Dana had taken of the Inca carvings in the rock tablet. He needed to save Jim, and he didn't even know what from, much less how. Then he realized Willow was idly tapping the keyboard of a computer. Maybe he could find some research on- line... "It's an unidentified site," Giles said helpfully. "Not a settlement, but some sort of encampment." "It's a religious site," Blair admitted reluctantly. "I think they conducted some sort of desperate ceremony to trap an evil spirit in a cave up there." Damn, that didn't fit in with the Guide, so why did he keep coming back to an evil spirit? What was his subconscious trying to tell him? "And you let it out," Xander accused bitterly. "As if we don't have enough demons running around already, you had to go and let out another one." Blair stared at him. "What?" "Demons," Willow explained hastily. "We're sort of a club that collects information and stories about demons and evil spirits and...things." "Except you're not a club," Blair said quietly, almost to himself. He looked at Buffy. "You felt it escape the tomb." Buffy nodded. "Around here, demons are a little more than an academic pursuit." "Well, this one was certainly real," Blair agreed, unable to contradict her. "Did you actually see it?" Giles asked gently, aware this young man was stumbling around on very unfamiliar ground and still trying to get everything in focus. "No, I felt it," Blair admitted, joining them at the table, finally feeling comfortable enough to sit down with them. "It wasn't corporeal, but it might have been looking for a host." He ran his hands through his hair, dislodging assorted bits of rock and grass. "That must sound crazy." "Not to us," Buffy assured him. "So it didn't find a host?" "I don't know." Blair didn't know how much he could reveal without getting into subjects he didn't want to broach. "It was like air - heavy air. It touched me, but I was falling off a ledge at the time, so it missed me. I don't know if it found someone else." "And then you felt a sudden, overwhelming need to make a phone call," Buffy added with a trace of sarcasm. "To warn someone? Or get help?" Blair could only stare at her. What was she, psychic? Buffy suddenly buried her head in her arms. "God, this is getting us nowhere!" she said, her voice muffled. She raised her head. "Just tell us what you found!" "It was a tomb for a very special Inca shaman," Blair said, and waited for the fireworks. "Inca?" Giles repeated in amazement. "That's - that's almost - " "Unbelievable?" Blair concluded. "Almost unbelievable," Giles agreed. "But did he pursue the demon north, or did he bring it with him?" Blair was surprised at how quickly everyone accepted his bombshell and moved on to other issues. "Why was the Inca special?" Willow asked. "Did he have the power to stop the demon, and if so, why was he entombed with it?" She looked at Blair. "How do you know he was Inca?" "There was an inscribed rock tablet covering the opening of the tomb," he explained. "I'm a student of South American cultures. I recognized the inscriptions and was able to translate some of them." "So he made his own warning label," Xander commented, and off their looks, he said, "Well, if the slab was written in Incan or whatever, it's a cert none of the local boys did it, right?" "He entombed himself?" Blair mused aloud. "Somehow, he got the evil into the cave with him, and sacrificed himself to trap it?" He felt a wave of dread all the way down his toes. He didn't feel like sacrificing himself to trap anything. "You're certain the shaman himself wasn't the evil you felt?" Giles asked. Blair shook his head. "There were two distinct entities -- one attacked me, the other pushed me to safety." Although, could he be that certain? After all, if he believed he'd been saved by Jim's animal spirit, then only one entity had escaped the cave. But he refused to believe in an evil guide; something in the core of his soul rebelled against the idea. "I need to use the phone again," he said anxiously, jumping up and heading for it. It rang before he got to it, and he snatched up the receiver, heedless of the fact that it wasn't his telephone. "Hello?" He sighed with relief. "Simon. What's up?" He listened, and the others watched his face go pale. Morosely, he said, "Thanks, Simon. I guess we'll take it from here." He hung up and went back to the others. "My friend, Jim, the one I'm trying to find - " "The one who's either in danger or you want to have help you," Buffy cut in. "Yeah. They found his truck at the airport. He's grabbed a flight into San Francisco with a connection to Sunnydale. He should be arriving in a couple of hours." "Is this good or bad for our side?" Xander asked pointedly. "It means he felt it, too," Buffy said. "Why is this guy so special that he could feel an evil thingee escaping from wherever the heck he is that requires a jumbo jet to get him here?" It took Blair a moment to wrap his mind around the convoluted question. "Cascade, Washington," he answered at last. "I don't think he felt the evil, exactly," he continued awkwardly. "I think he knew I was in danger." "Cool," Willow said. "A literal psychic friend." "A very confident psychic friend," Giles observed, "if he just jumped on an airplane without first trying to reach you by telephone. He had to know with absolute certainty he was needed here." "Or is he being lured here?" Blair murmured injudiciously, thinking out loud. "OK, what's so special about this guy?" Buffy demanded. "Is this evil whatever looking for any host, or just a specific host - like your friend?" "I don't know," Blair admitted, feeling miserable. "I just know he's going to be in trouble, and I don't know if I can help him." "Your Inca shaman has me troubled," Giles mused. "I keep thinking there should be two. There are a lot of myths throughout primitive South American cultures. So many stories, in fact, spanning such a broad period of time, they've become the stuff of legend. They concern a tribal watchman, a very special warrior with enhanced powers and great skill who protects the tribe from harm. He has a shaman companion, someone of equal but different skills. Could the entombed shaman be one half of this special pair?" He stood up. "Wait, I have some information on the pair. It will just take a moment to find - " "A sentinel and guide," Blair murmured. "Exactly," Giles agreed happily, returning to his chair, thoughts of his reference book abandoned. He looked at Blair thoughtfully. "Is the Inca in the cave a guide?" Blair nodded miserably. "Then where is the Sentinel?" "I don't know," Blair admitted. "I didn't have time to translate all of the tablet, but I know the word 'sentinel' is there." And there were seven corpses to explain, all of them killed by the same blade. A sentinel could have done it if the cause or provocation were sufficient. "Giles, you're losing us here," Buffy said, speaking for all three teens. "Sorry," the librarian apologized. "The Sentinel had heightened senses and could detect danger or threats over great distances. He could sense changes in the weather, and follow the migration paths of game without actually having a trail to follow. His sensory acuity enabled him to fight with great skill. His Shaman/Guide tutored him, helped him enhance his skills, helped him control them." Blushing suddenly, he looked at Buffy. Blair didn't miss the look that passed between them, but he didn't have time to pursue it further. "Look, I've got to get to the airport and meet Jim." He frowned. "And then I have to convince him the threat is real." "Rooted in the mundane, is he?" Xander asked sympathetically. "A place I used to detest until I found out its alternative." "If he's a target, I'd probably better go, too," Buffy said. Blair expected someone to object to this young girl placing herself firmly in the danger zone, but everyone seemed to accept it as the norm. "And we'll be here," Giles promised, "researching demons and the like. It would be nice to be able to put a name and face to this menace, preferably before we have to confront it." "Sklalas," Blair blurted suddenly, amazed he had remembered the word and could actually pronounce it. "Bless you," Xander said. "What?" asked Giles in surprise. "The name sounded something like Sklalas," Blair explained, wondering if he'd simply imagined the word during his tumble off the rocky ledge. Giles sighed heavily. "Oh, dear." "I take it we're not talking a minor-league entity here," Buffy offered dryly. "Afraid not," Giles agreed. "Sklalas is very major league indeed." He smiled without humor. "Still, a name is what we needed, and a name is what we got." He looked at Blair. "Perhaps you'd best clean up first, before you meet your friend." "I've got a clean shirt and a jacket you can borrow," Xander said. "We always stash some extra stuff here in the library." Blair was somewhat bemused. They kept spare clothing in the library - in case of long stakeouts or unexpected conflicts, they could change before going home to their parents? God, what were these kids up to? "Thanks," he replied sincerely, and Xander led him to the bathroom and went to get the clothes. Part Six Refreshed and reclothed in a tee shirt sporting the name of a rock group he'd never heard of (and he'd heard of many of them) he met Buffy at the library door. "Thanks for the ride to the airport." "Let's get one thing straight," Buffy said, heading toward the car. "We are all in this together, in spite of the fact that we're both obviously keeping secrets and guarding our turf, OK? We believe in the evil you sensed in the cave, and we believe what you told us. If your friend is in danger, we'll help him." "How?" Blair asked as he automatically accepted the car keys from her and got behind the wheel. "I don't know how," Buffy admitted. She pointed to the exit of the parking lot. "But Giles will figure it out, or you will, or Willow. It's what we do, and we're still alive to talk about it, so we must be good at it." Blair was silent as he followed Buffy's directions toward the small commuter airport that served Sunnydale. It could handle the smaller passenger jets, but not the jumbo ones, which was why Jim had caught a connecting flight. Nervously, he wondered just what sort of Twilight Zone movie he had stumbled into...and yet, his own experiences - with Jim, with animal spirit guides, with Incacha and the Chopek and all the rest of it - were no less unbelievable. If he doubted his newfound allies, he might just as well doubt everything he'd come to believe about Jim and himself. "The airport closes at midnight," Buffy told him, "so he must be on the last flight out of San Francisco. The place will be nearly deserted, so it will be an ideal spot for an ambush." "An ambush?" "Do you fight?" Buffy asked instead of answering. "Not unless I have to," Blair admitted. "Then let me handle any trouble," she told him. Abruptly, she asked, "Who's Jim?" "Jim Ellison," Blair explained automatically. "He's a detective with the Cascade PD." "But you're not a cop." Buffy didn't need to make it a question. "No, I'm a consultant to the department." "Consulting on what?" "Actually, I'm doing my doctorate on the police," Blair started to explain, but he was tired of the cover-up and didn't bother to explain further. "What about your club? You said demons are more than an academic pursuit." Buffy could certainly ask a lot of questions, but she seemed loath to answer them. "Anything I tell you will sound crazy," she said. "I get the feeling you and your friend will learn the truth firsthand." "I'd still like to know what we're up against," Blair persisted, feeling oddly detached from the bizarreness of the conversation. He'd learn what truth firsthand? Buffy shook her head. "Just be ready for anything," she advised, directing another turn. They reached the airport at last, and she showed him where to park in the nearly deserted lot. "Do you have change for the meter?" He fumbled for quarters, and they managed to buy themselves an hour in their chosen parking place. They walked into the terminal, and as Buffy had predicted, it was nearly deserted. A single person was closing up the ticket counter, another dozed at the car rental desk, and a few visitors awaited the last airplane in from San Francisco. They passed through security and went to the gate where passengers would disembark. Standing by the windows looking onto the parking ramp, with taxiways and runways beyond, Blair saw only two unattended prop planes and a few parked vehicles. Even the ground crew was sparse, although someone would have to be there to meet the arriving jet. Buffy paced, her eyes constantly searching the area both inside and out. She prowled like a hunter, Blair realized with a start, or like someone who was used to being hunted. Finally, an attendant came to the small desk by the doorway to the parking ramp and put up a small sign announcing the arrival of the flight from San Francisco. Support crew sauntered over to guide the taxiing jet to its chocks, and a baggage hauler drove his little cart into view. As they watched the landing lights approach, they both became more and more tense. Finally, the small commuter jet rolled to a stop and shut down its engines. Ground crew rolled the debarkation steps into position, and the exit door opened. "Announcing the arrival of Flight 910 from San Francisco," the desk attendant said helpfully over the PA system, although everyone waiting for the flight was already standing at the windows. Passengers began to debark slowly down the steps. There weren't many - a young woman with a small child, two obvious businessmen, an older couple still dressed in matching Hawaiian shirts and clearly returning from vacation. Jim was the last one out - making a pass at the flight attendant, probably, Blair thought irritably. The first passenger was already coming through the door into the terminal before Jim started down the steps. He looked well enough, Blair thought, but a little tired and badly in need of a shave. Probably sick of airplanes by now, after flying to and from New York, and now down here. How was he going to explain everything, make Jim understand there was a very real threat here? Jim reached the bottom of the steps, his flight bag in one hand, his jacket slung over his shoulder. He looked to his right as he walked, and his steps hesitated a bit before continuing. Blair looked, too, and saw three men approaching. More ground crew. "Trouble," Buffy said, heading for the door. Blair followed her, and they barged outside, heedless of the attendant's surprised shout that they couldn't go out there. Jim had paused again, putting down his bag to shrug into his jacket as he assessed what he obviously saw as a threatening situation. He was surprised to see Blair dashing toward him, and even more surprised to see a teenage girl veering toward the three men whose appearance had aroused his suspicion. Blair faltered midway when he realized Buffy had left his side, and he looked uncertainly from her to Jim, who was pretty much mimicking the same behavior. Then, almost as one, they turned and headed for the girl, converging on her from both sides as she faced the three men dressed as ground crew. As the odds equalized, their would-be opponents turned and fled. Unruffled, Buffy turned and held out her hand. "Hi, Jim, I'm Buffy. Welcome to Sunnydale." "Thank you," Jim answered, accepting her handshake. He looked at Blair, frowned at the numerous cuts and bruises. "Are you OK?" "Yep," Blair said stupidly. "You?" Jim sighed, bemused. "What just happened here?" "I don't know," Blair answered truthfully. He looked at Buffy, who shrugged. "Why were you suspicious?" she countered to Jim. "Cop instincts," he replied, returning to pick up his bag and lead the way into the terminal. The desk attendant had been on the verge of calling security. "Sorry," Buffy apologized. "My brother - haven't seen him in years. I got a little excited." As proof, she latched onto Jim's tall frame and hugged him, much to his surprise. "All right, but it's really very dangerous for you out there," the attendant chastised. "Thanks for your concern," Blair said, heading off with his companions. Dangerous! If she only knew the half of it -- ! Jim seemed amused by the girl clutching his arm, then he looked critically at Blair's garb. "What is that you're wearing?" Blair looked down at his tee shirt. "Haven't a clue. I had to borrow some clothes. All my stuff is still back at the dig." "The Dingoes," Buffy explained, her eyes moving relentlessly around the terminal. "It's a local band, plays at the Bronze sometimes. Do you have any luggage?" "No, just my carry on." Jim sensed her tension and put his own senses on alert. But the airport terminal seemed perfectly normal, mostly deserted, the few remaining people in the process of leaving. "You lied about cop instincts," Buffy said suddenly. "How did you know those three men were a threat?" Jim looked down at her from his greater height and more than doubled years of experience, but he could not intimidate her. "How did you?" he countered blandly, giving Blair a what-the- hell-is-going-on-here? look over the top of her head. Unfortunately, Blair didn't have any answers. "All I know is that you're in danger," Blair said quietly. "I'm in danger?" Jim echoed. "From who?" "Whom," Buffy corrected automatically. Giles was rubbing off on her, she realized with an inward grin. Her English teacher would be pleased. They reached the car and climbed in, Buffy relinquishing the front passenger seat to Jim's longer legs. As Blair drove away from the airport, she rested her arms on the back of the front seat and said, "Blair, you convince him." So Blair told his story, sensing his friend's stubborn disbelief grow as the tale progressed from the ordinary to the absurd. Even to Blair, it sounded fanciful. He'd alluded to the panther saving him without going into specifics, but he heard Buffy's sigh of disappointment as she recognized his attempts at secrecy. Back at the high school, Blair parked the car while Buffy hastened on ahead, leaving the two men arguing as they followed more slowly through the deserted halls. Jim finally took a good look at his surroundings. "Where the hell are we?" he asked, looking at the long rows of student lockers. "Sunnydale High." "Perfect." Somehow, walking the deserted halls of a high school at midnight seemed a suitable counterpoint to the absurdity of their conversation. "Come on, Jim, what about those three men at the airport?" Blair kept his voice low, but there was no masking the frustration he was feeling. For a moment, he didn't think Jim was going to answer, but then the detective replied very calmly, "They were dead." "What?" "I probably haven't told you this," Jim went on a little apologetically, "but I seem to have this natural, low-level sensory thing all the time now. You know, like a normal background level?" Off Blair's scowl, he hastened to continue, "Well, I'm more aware when it's not there - like when you're not in the loft when you're supposed to be, stuff like that." "Thanks for getting around to telling me," Blair grumbled. "It's like breathing," Jim retorted. "Unless it gets difficult, I don't give it a lot of thought." Blair was still upset. "OK, OK, but what about the three guys?" "I just didn't sense any of the background 'noise' I would have associated with people coming toward me. When I tuned in, I couldn't detect any heart beats or breathing." "So they were dead," Blair murmured dryly. "OK, you won't believe my crazy story about an evil entity, but three dead guys walking up to you at the airport doesn't even phase you." Good lord, he sounded demented! Jim chuckled. "I figure it was just some kind of sensory anomaly from being stuck in too many pressurized airplane cabins or something. Everything was fine by the time I went inside the terminal." "Uh-huh," Blair agreed doubtfully. "Was Buffy 'alive' when we came outside? Was I?" Jim's footsteps hesitated a fraction, but by now they were outside the library doors. "Yes." Before Blair could pursue his logic further, Jim had pushed through the doors, leaving Blair no choice but to follow. Buffy and Giles were leaning against the heavy library table, their arms and ankles crossed in almost identical poses. Blair noticed Xander and Willow were gone, but evidence of their research lay strewn across the table. "So, how did you know the three guys at the airport were dead?" Buffy challenged without preamble. Jim and Blair exchanged glances. "What makes you think I even thought it?" Jim returned calmly. "They were vampires," Giles said quietly, watching for their reactions. For a moment, Blair was too stupefied even to realize Jim had turned on his heel and headed for the exit. When he finally realized his friend's retreat, he jumped to stop him. "Jim, wait a minute." "And listen to this nonsense?" Jim shot back in irritation. "No thanks." "Please!" Blair's tone was anxious and pleading, and Jim didn't like being the cause of it. Reluctantly, he turned back. "OK, I'll listen," he agreed tightly, but it was evident his mind was already made up. Giles could tell from the stubborn set of Jim Ellison's jaw that he had an impossible task ahead of him. "My name is Rupert Giles," he began quietly. "I am the librarian here at Sunnydale High School. I am also a Watcher -- a Guide, if I may borrow the expression." Jim glanced at Blair, whose mouth had dropped open in baffled surprise. Giles continued: "My job is to train and advise the Slayer, she who stands against the vampires and demons that stalk the dark places of our world. In each generation, there is only one." He nodded to Buffy. "Buffy Summers." His two guests were rooted in their places, Jim's expression one of annoyance, Blair's still wide-eyed amazement. In for a penny..."The high school -- this very library, in fact - - sits over a portal known as Boca del Infierno." "Mouth of Hell?" Blair translated in a shocked whisper. Boca del Bullshit, Jim thought ungraciously. "Exactly," Giles answered. "It is a place where evil energy converges, and it attracts demons like moths to flame. It's what brought Sklalas here hundreds of years ago." Jim looked at Blair. "Sklalas. That's your demon, right?" "He's not my demon," Blair objected. "I didn't conjure him up. I wasn't even sure I had the name right." "You heard the name correctly," Giles said softly. "Sklalas is an ancient demon, although he's gone by many names since the dawn of recorded history. Rather than recite a long list of the names, suffice it to say most of them translate as 'Evil One' or 'Eater of Souls'. By any name, he is the destroyer of all life. If he succeeds in unleashing the demons of hell, humanity will be wiped from the face of the earth." Jim's expression had shifted to mild amusement. "And you," he said, looking at Buffy, "intend to stop him." Buffy nodded. "With your help. The two of you seem to be part of the equation now. I don't know why the demon went after Blair instead of several closer targets, or why some animal spirit lunged out to save him. But you're involved whether or not you believe us." Blair frowned, trying to digest all the information from an open- minded and scientific point of view, but the whole process was beyond him, considering the subject matter. "Where do vampires fit in?" he asked cautiously. Beside him, Jim snorted back a laugh. "A large contingent of vampires inhabit the area around the hellmouth," Giles answered, pleased the young man was at least considering the possibilities. "They live in tunnels beneath the city, and are a willing army for the forces of darkness." He faced Jim Ellison's skepticism without flinching. "I know you don't believe us, but a check of our local police files will give you ample evidence of a significantly heightened crime rate involving missing persons and unsolved murders." "You're right, I don't believe you," Jim acknowledged, wondering if these two were dangerous or merely kooks. "You ignore the evidence of your own senses at great peril, Mr. Ellison," Giles returned calmly. "Has your friend told you what happened to him?" "He has." "Do you trust him?" With my life. Giles had cornered him without even trying. "Yes." "Then believe him even if you doubt us. Be extra vigilant, and understand you are in great danger." Jim rubbed tired eyes. "I understand we're on the first plane out of here in the morning," he said. He realized the two strangers were sincere in their beliefs and concerns, but he wanted Blair as far away from their influence as possible, even if he didn't understand their game. What kind of fantasy had his partner bought into? "Jim - " Blair began. "Tomorrow, Chief," Jim cut in. "With or without you." It was an idle threat, but Blair couldn't know that; Jim would get him on the plane one way or another. Giles sighed. "I don't know if distance will ensure your safety." He glanced at Buffy. "It's after midnight. I'll take you home." Buffy shook her head. "Mom's out of town for a few days, so I might as well stay out and play. I think I'll do a quick patrol around the cemetery." She gave Jim a caustic look. "See if there are any figments of my imagination rising from the dead." She strolled past and out the door without another glance for either of them. Jim just shook his head in bewilderment. Blair still looked uncertain, doubting the wild story told by Giles but convinced of his own experience at the cave. The conflicting emotions were perplexing. "May I offer you the hospitality of my home?" Giles asked. "I have a spare bedroom with its own bathroom - one double bed, I'm afraid, but quite comfortable." "A motel will be fine," Jim assured him, "but thanks anyway." "Fine, I'll drive you there," Giles replied without argument. He really hadn't expected Jim to trust him. After all, cops were by nature a skeptical breed. But still, a man with heightened senses, a sentinel no less, should have been a little more receptive to the unusual. At least, he deduced these men were Sentinel and Guide; it explained their behavior and reticence. Part Seven The drive to the motel was silent and socially chill. They had to wake the night manager to rent them a room, and the man grumbled absently as he sleepily supplied the requisite forms and handed over a key before heading back to his warm bed. Giles offered Jim his hand. "In case I don't see you again, have a safe trip, and please stay cautious." Jim hesitated, finally accepted the handshake. "Thanks, we will." Giles held out a handful of wood secured with a large rubber band. "Humor me as well, and keep these with you, all right?" Jim took the bundle, shook his head in amusement when he saw the wooden stakes. "Sure, whatever." "Good night, then," Giles said reluctantly, turning away. "Goodbye," Jim said to the retreating back. He tried to sound polite, but he had a notion his tone implied 'and good riddance'. What the hell - it was the way he felt about the whole situation anyway. It was after one in the morning when they finally opened the door to their room. Clean queen-sized beds were flanked by veneer- covered cubes mounted to the walls as end tables, each supporting a small bedside lamp. On a slightly larger shelf between the beds stood the telephone, a phone book and the ubiquitous King James Bible. A small round table and two chairs sat in front of the window, while the wall opposite the beds sported a dresser and a TV. All in all, it looked like almost any motel room anywhere in America. Jim negligently tossed the bundle of stakes onto the table. Automatically, Blair flopped down on the bed nearest the bathroom, since he knew Jim preferred the bed closest to the door and windows; probably some sort of protective instinct. "Jim, none of this makes any sense," he said idly. "If it's all some sort of hoax, what's its purpose?" "You got me, Chief," Jim admitted, tossing his flight bag on his bed and rooting for his bathroom kit. "Did you actually believe anything they said?" Blair's expression tightened with annoyance. "How would you sound explaining about sentinels and guides, heightened senses and animal spirits?" he countered. Jim sighed. "Then you believe them?" Blair's voice was quietly intense. "I didn't say that. I only know what I saw and felt and heard in the cave this afternoon. It was evil, Jim...and I felt it long before I met either Buffy or Giles." Jim closed his eyes tightly in weariness and rolled his shoulders to work out the kinks of too many airline seats. He wasn't in the mood to deal with any of this weirdness. "Why don't we sleep on it? In the morning, we'll book a flight out of here and figure out a way to get your stuff from the dig." He disappeared into the bathroom and closed the door against any objection. There didn't seem to be much point in further discussion, not while Jim was being so stubborn. "OK." Blair wished he'd had Giles stop at the Wal-Mart (assuming it was of the "open 24- hours" variety) so he could grab a toothbrush and other little essentials. He'd feel positively grungy by morning. Maybe there was a store close by where he could buy some stuff. He reached for the phone book to check the yellow pages. There was a knock at the door. "Now what?" he muttered, getting up and going to answer it. Aware he was in an unfamiliar city, he was grateful for the peephole in the center of the door. Through it, he saw a motel maid with a large stack of blankets clutched in her arms. He opened the door. "Yes?" She looked about twenty, and her smile was radiant. "Our heating system is acting up. The manager thought you might need a few extra blankets if it goes out altogether." "Oh, thanks," Blair said, stepping aside. "Just toss 'em on the bed there." As she walked past him, he abruptly remembered how grumpy and sleepy the manager had been. He didn't seem the sort to have a neatly dressed maid standing by in the middle of the night to deliver extra blankets. Suspicious now, he swung toward her, only to be shoved from behind as four men pushed into the room. "Thanks for the invite," one of them murmured. And right before Blair's horrified eyes, they transformed from being ordinary-looking thugs into something out of a nightmare. Desperately, he scrambled backwards, stumbling over the corner of the bed but keeping his feet. He heard the bathroom door open - Jim would have felt Blair's panicked response all the way into the next county, but the younger man didn't turn around to see his friend's reaction to the monsters crowding toward them. He couldn't take his eyes off them. Vampires! his mind screamed at him, even as he consciously dismissed the absurdity. Surprisingly, it was Jim who recognized and acknowledged the truth first, probably because he had his senses to assure him these intruders were without heart beat or breath. The wooden stakes were uselessly out of reach, but he slammed a foot into the nearest bedside table, toppling the lamp and the complimentary box of tissues. The wood splintered under the force of his kick. Thankfully, it wasn't pressboard beneath the veneer, but rather cheap pine, which split without crumbling as he reached to tear a broken piece free of the wall. The five were on them in an instant, swarming around and over the beds to drive the two men into the corner and trap them there. Jim slammed one with his left fist, knocking the attacker off balance into the one dressed as a maid. With his right, he finished yanking the top off the bedside cube, used both hands to smash it down over one raised knee to break it smaller, then drove the makeshift stakes hard under the breastbones of two of his adversaries. What happened next was both startling and fateful. The two vampires simply disintegrated, wafting into dust before Jim's startled eyes. But in the next instant, he inhaled a lung full of the gritty remains and fell to his knees, eyes streaming with tears, his nose clogging and throat tightening in the most severe allergic reaction he'd ever experienced. Gasping and helpless, he felt two more vampires grasp his shoulders, forcing him down. Where was Blair? What was happening to him? Instinctively, he shoved upward, freeing himself momentarily, and grabbed toward the spot where he had last seen his partner. His hand closed on warm skin as Blair struggled with his own adversary, and Jim lunged sideways into them, breaking them apart. Blair fell backwards with a grunt and toppled into the open closet. The third vampire joined its companions to help slam Jim back to the floor. He couldn't believe their strength! Almost able to draw air into his lungs again, but with tears streaming from his eyes rendering him nearly blind, he managed to see Blair lunge out of the closet. Another vampire exploded into dust, which settled over Jim and brought on another spasm of breathlessness. Abruptly, the weight of the last two vampires vanished from his back, and the fight was over. "I just can't let you grown-ups out of my sight for a minute," Buffy complained, long wooden stakes still clutched in either hand. Blair, who was barely on his feet, staggered and sat down on the floor, too stunned by the events of the past few minutes to function. He heard Jim struggling for breath and forgot his fear to reach out to his friend. "Jim!" he said urgently. "Are you OK?" "No, I am not OK," Jim croaked back at him, scrambling around for the box of tissues on the floor. He grabbed a handful, and jammed them to his nose barely in time to corral a violent sneeze. Then he grabbed another handful of tissues and dabbed at his running eyes. Finally, he was able to take a shaky breath and stagger to his feet. "Excuse me," he mumbled, retreating to the bathroom and slamming the door. More sneezing erupted from within. Giles stood in the doorway behind Buffy, a wicked crossbow with a loaded bolt gripped in his hands. So much for the image of a mild-mannered librarian. "Is everyone all right?" "Sneezy seems to be having a little problem," Buffy answered, "but yeah, I think we're OK." Blair crawled up to sit on the bed. "Easy for you to say," he complained. "Those were really - I mean, those guys were actually - " "Vampires," Buffy completed helpfully. "Yeah." Blair sighed. He took a deep breath and managed to quell the myriad thoughts tumbling haphazardly through his mind. "Why are you here?" "We knew you wouldn't believe us," Giles explained in his quiet manner, "but we also knew you were in danger. The best way we could think of to convince you was to permit you to have a - what shall I call it? -- baptism of fire, but we wanted to be close by in case you needed our help." Jim finally emerged from the bathroom. His sneezing had been reduced to sniffles, and his eyes, while still red and swollen, no longer teared so heavily. "Here's something for your journals, Chief," he said somewhat weakly. "I'm probably the only guy in the world who's allergic to vampire dust." "An antihistamine, perhaps?" Giles suggested. Blair shook his head. "He has trouble with anything stronger than aspirin." "I see." So much for enlisting a sentinel to help with vampire slaying, he sighed to himself. Still, "At least you appear to be convinced of the danger." Jim nodded slowly. "I'm stubborn, not stupid," he agreed. He looked at his partner, who still seemed a little overwhelmed by it all. "We've just been traded to a whole different league," he observed. "You gonna be OK with it?" "Yeah," Blair replied softly but with certainty. "You guys actually did OK," Buffy said with admiration. "You took care of three of them." Jim thought back on events. He remembered the two he'd nailed with the makeshift stakes from the bedside stand, but the third - "You got one?" Blair indicated the closet. "You tossed me in among the coat hangers. Long, wooden coat hangers." "Thoughtful of me," Jim agreed mildly. "Your big mistake was inviting them in," Buffy went on. "Don't ever, ever invite a stranger into your place after dark, at least unless you're sure he has a heart beat." "Rule Number One," Blair murmured, filing away the information. "Once again, I'd like to offer you my hospitality," Giles said. "You took care of the first attack, but there may be others tonight." Jim looked around the destroyed motel room and pictured the huge bill that would show up on his credit card. Vampire attacks were probably not covered by his insurance. Ah, well. He grabbed his kit out of the bathroom and stuffed it back into his flight bag, discarded used tissues in favor of some new ones, and looked at his partner. "We may have to rethink that morning flight." "Good. I really want to do some more translation of that rock tablet Dana found in the cave," Blair replied. "Remember, it's not just vampires that are after you." Jim grimaced. "Right. Sklalas, eater of souls." He trailed after the group as they left the room. "One thing at a time, Chief, one thing at a time." As an afterthought, he picked up the bundle of wooden stakes he'd tossed so negligently onto the table a lifetime ago, back when he'd believed vampires were simply a figment of an over-active imagination. "Speaking of things," Blair said, "is there an all-night drug store where I could pick up some stuff?" Part Eight So they ended up at Wal-Mart at two o'clock in the morning. Blair grabbed a shopping cart and headed into the store, promising to be "just a few minutes", while Jim leaned against the magazine rack and started flipping through the pages of Sport Utility Magazine. Giles and Buffy waited just inside the entrance, Buffy stealing several thoughtful glances in Jim's direction. "What is it?" Giles asked quietly. "Oh, I don't know," Buffy answered truthfully. "He just seems so - self-contained." "As if he has very strong boundaries and allows only a very few people to get past them?" Giles returned. "Exactly. And he's so - comfortable - with himself." "Comfortable?" "Satisfied - like he doesn't need a whole lot of things to be happy. He's content with what he has; probably has his money in CD's and mutual funds, doesn't have a whole lot he wants to spend it on." She grinned to herself. "I'll bet he pays for Blair's things tonight, though. It seems like something he'd do. Blair's a student, probably doesn't have much in the way of extra cash." "Do you think he's supporting Blair?" "I don't know. It seems like a natural extension of things." "The Sentinel/Guide thing, you mean?" "Yeah, like that." Giles smiled at a notion. "Then by the same extension, shouldn't you be supporting me?" Buffy laughed outright. "If that's the way it's supposed to be, you and I are destined to remain financially challenged for a long time yet." "Are you starting to like him?" "Well, he's just so fine," Buffy replied, relaxing so much she forgot she was talking to Giles and not one of her school mates, "a real hotty. He needs to lighten up a bit, though. I'll bet he has a drop-dead smile." "He also has very good ears," Giles reminded her with a chuckle. Buffy felt herself blush to the roots of her hair and chanced another sidelong glance at the object of her admiration. Unbelievably blue eyes met her own, and Jim responded to her discomfiture with a wide, slow smile. As she'd predicted, it was absolutely devastating. Her embarrassment grew, and she looked away first. But that smile had been worth it! "I'm gonna see if I can find Blair while walking around with one foot in my mouth," she muttered, retreating hastily into the store. As promised, Blair didn't take long. He pushed his cart up to the checkout counter, and Jim put down the magazine to join him. Buffy didn't say anything, but she couldn't look at Jim as she hastened through the check stand and went back to Giles. Blair had picked up a few essentials - underwear, socks, toothbrush, deodorant, shampoo, and a pair of sweats, which were his chosen form of pajamas. Still, the total came to more than thirty dollars, and he had to borrow a five from Jim to cover it. With his little shopping foray out of the way, the group returned to the car. Buffy was silent and chagrined during the drive to her house, and she murmured a hasty good-by before hurrying inside. "Did something happen between you two?" Blair asked curiously as they drove on. "Just a little conversation I wasn't supposed to overhear," Jim admitted with a grin. "She didn't mean anything by it," Giles hastened to assure him. "It's just one of those teenage things." "Yeah, but she was pretty accurate with some of it," Jim answered truthfully. "Yes, occasionally she shows a real spark of maturity," Giles admitted. "Then, suddenly, she'll fret for hours about what to wear to the next football game. As one of the few adults in her life, I find it all a bit daunting at times." "She doesn't have a father at home?" Jim asked. "No, he lives somewhere else, and her mother is a very nice person who sometimes tries a little too hard to be 'hip' to do either of them any good - she truly loves Buffy but perceives her as unreliable, flighty and rebellious." "So she doesn't know Buffy's the Slayer," Blair said. "That must be rough on the kid - I mean, even Superman's parents knew who he was." "Buffy lives in two worlds," Giles admitted with a sigh. "As you saw tonight, one of them is a place few people know exists." Blair went almost preternaturally quiet, and Jim looked at him with understanding eyes. They'd almost forgotten the motel and the attack on them. Their world had been turned upside down, and there was no going back. Somehow, they'd have to deal with it, and quickly, because if the last few hours had been any indication, there wasn't going to be a lot of quiet time to adjust to the new realities of life. Giles' house proved to be exactly like the man himself - comfortable, unpretentious, perfectly in balance with its surroundings. The librarian showed them the guest bedroom with the bathroom en suite, then said, "I leave for work a bit after eight, so you'll have to fend for your breakfast or join me around seven." "We'll get up with you," Jim agreed. "You don't have to cook us breakfast, but I would appreciate a lift to get a rental car." "Not necessary," Giles assured him. "I intend to take you both up to the site myself. I'm rather looking forward to seeing it. As for breakfast - I do a rather good omelet, and the orange juice will be freshly squeezed, if that suits you." "Sounds good," Jim admitted, and Blair nodded his agreement, his eyes already on the double bed. Its size meant he and Jim would have to get rather cozy, but under the circumstances, Blair didn't mind a bit. Sleeping next to his Sentinel was about the safest place he could imagine. They exchanged good nights and Giles closed the door behind him. "What a weird day," Blair murmured, emptying his pockets onto the top of the small dresser. "That's one way to describe it," Jim agreed, following suit. He pulled two twenties out of his wallet. "Here." "What's this for?" Blair asked in confusion. "Let's just say I don't like being too predictable, especially where sixteen-year-old girls are concerned," Jim said. "It's a private joke. You don't need to understand it." "Cool. Let me know the next time you're feeling like this. I could use a new car." "Just for that, I get first dibs on the shower." Jim grabbed his flight bag and jumped into the bathroom before Blair even had time to react. When he came out a few minutes later, showered and ready for bed, Blair had changed into his sweats and stuffed his dirty clothing into the shopping bag. He looked asleep on his feet as he walked by Jim and went to take his shower. Jim usually wore only his briefs to bed, and he hadn't thought to bring anything more suitable in his flight bag. After all, he hadn't contemplated playing footsies with his partner. Well, they'd just have to cope. He added his own dirty clothes to the shopping bag, thought he might need a shopping trip of his own if he didn't do laundry soon, and crawled under the covers on the side of the bed nearest the window. Blair wandered out a few minutes later, crawled in beside him, and was asleep so fast a "good night" barely slipped past his lips. Jim turned out the bedside lamp and stared at the ceiling. It was not so easy for him to go to sleep. First, he recognized the sleeping patterns of his partner, closer than normal, but still as familiar to him as his own breathing. Beyond the room, the refrigerator, water heater and furnace revealed their individual sounds of operation, and he could hear Giles slipping into a deep sleep in his room down the hall. Outside, a car passed occasionally, and a neighbor's dog ventured through its doggy door into the yard, took care of business, and went back inside. Finally, when he felt familiar with the nighttime rhythms of his new surroundings, he permitted himself to fall asleep. Part Nine He awoke at 6:30 to the smell of fresh coffee, toast and eggs. He glanced at his bedmate, saw Blair wrapped like a cocoon in most of the blankets, and sighed over his mostly sleepless rest. Despite his body's demand for more sleep, Jim stumbled out of bed and took care of his morning routine, skipping the shower since he'd taken one just hours before. Shaved and dressed, he poked sourly at the mound still occupying the other half of the bed. "Come on, Wiggles, rise and shine." Blair's tousled head emerged grumpily from beneath the covers. "Wiggles?" he inquired sleepily. "Yeah. You never keep still during the day, I don't know why I expected you to be any different at night," Jim retorted. "Oh. Sorry." Blair's head dropped back toward his pillow. Jim whacked his partner where he figured his butt should be and was rewarded with a yelp. Blair emerged again, irate. "What was that for? I said I was sorry." "That was for stealing all the covers." Jim looked more amused than genuinely angry, so Blair just smiled sheepishly. "Get dressed. I want to get a vampire primer from Giles before tonight." "A - " Blair sighed, remembering where they were and why. "I was hoping all my bad dreams were just that...dreams." "No such luck," Jim commiserated. "The logical part of my mind doesn't want to believe it, but unless we were drugged and hypnotized, there's just nothing to do but accept that last night really happened." He winced at his own words. Deep down, he really didn't believe it. He felt as if he were playing a role in some piece of horror fiction, and when he was finished, the world would somehow be the same as it had been before he'd exited the passenger jet at Sunnydale Airport. It was a vain hope, but one which he stubbornly embraced. "I'm going downstairs to grab a cup of coffee," he muttered finally when their locked, troubled gazes said it all. He found Giles at the dining room table, his face stuck in a book. The librarian looked disgustingly fresh and rested. "Good morning," Giles greeted cheerfully, getting up and heading for the kitchen. "I've got coffee, orange juice, toast, and rather good eggs, if I do say so myself." "Sounds great," Jim admitted, glancing at the open book. It was written in Latin, and the illuminated text bore graphic images of torture and execution. "A little light reading over breakfast?" Giles delivered a steaming plate of eggs. "Sit and eat," he urged, juggling coffee and condiments with surprising dexterity. He returned to his own seat and closed the book. "Actually, there's never enough time to do all the research one needs to do." "Do you happen to have a histamine blocker in your medicine cabinet?" Jim asked a little reluctantly. "I think so, but don't you have problems with medication?" Giles replied. "Yeah, but I haven't tried a blocker," Jim explained. "If I take one this morning, any adverse reactions will probably wear off by tonight, and if I don't have a bad reaction, then maybe I can do some good if we run into trouble." "Sensible thinking," Giles approved, getting up. "I'll just go check." He returned a minute later with the requested medicine, and Jim downed two tablets with his coffee. "Thanks," he said, dreading the possible onset of side effects. Having his senses go haywire was not his idea of a good time, but choking to death on vampire dust was even worse. He was willing to try the pills. Blair finally straggled downstairs in a somewhat pulled together state. "Good morning," he mumbled in their general direction. Giles played the solicitous host again and got him comfortably settled with breakfast before pouring himself another cup of coffee. "Are you going in to work today?" Jim asked. "Briefly. I need to tell Principal Snyder that I'll be doing some research out at the dig. Why?" "I was wondering if you have a - tutorial or something - on vampires." Again, Jim felt himself grimace, as if he couldn't believe the words coming from his own mouth. "Actually, Willow has been working on just such a document," Giles admitted. "I think you'll find it an interesting read." "No doubt." He glanced at his friend, who was unusually quiet. "Something wrong?" Blair shook his head. "No. I'm just wondering how I'm going to convince Dana to let the three of us onto her site," he confessed. "She can be very critical about amateurs fooling around at her digs." "That shouldn't present a problem with your inventiveness," Jim replied, unworried. He finished the excellent omelet, buttered a slice of toast, and felt ready to take on the day. Actually, he admitted to himself, the day was not the problem...it was the night. Giles seemed preoccupied as he gathered up his books and piled them in a neat stack. "I'll just be a minute," he excused himself absently, retreating up the stairs. "I'll put out some clean towels in your bathroom for tonight." Blair saw the expression on his partner's face. "What is it?" "He's not thinking about towels," Jim replied. Blair took a drink of coffee. "So? I'm not exactly thinking about breakfast, but I'm eating it." Jim smiled slightly and shook his head. "I wonder why he needs to search our stuff?" "You think -- ?" The younger man just shrugged. "Doesn't matter. We don't exactly have anything to hide." "No, I'm just curious, that's all." Perhaps Giles wasn't being as truthful as he pretended. It was just one more perplexing bit of information to add to the puzzle. When the librarian returned a few minutes later, he seemed much more relaxed. "If you don't need anything else, shall we get on the road?" His two guests obligingly cleared the table and rinsed the dishes in the sink before stacking them in the dishwasher. Giles certainly approved of well-mannered houseguests. As promised, they were on the road a little after eight. "I just need to make one quick stop," Giles explained awkwardly, pulling into a driveway and climbing out. "I'll just be a moment; you two can wait here if you like." "No problem," Jim assured him, wondering why the librarian seemed eager to have them stay in the car. Giles went up to the door and knocked. An attractive, dark-haired woman answered and greeted him warmly, but he nervously gestured her back inside. Suspicious, Jim turned up his hearing, but the librarian apparently had anticipated the intrusion and took the woman to the rear of the house, where he reduced his voice to the merest whisper. The woman followed his example. Jim just shook his head. "Curiouser and curiouser." Blair glanced up from the Latin text he'd fished off the top of the pile of books. "What is?" "Giles and the woman." "Maybe she's his girlfriend." Jim shrugged. "Maybe." Giles returned in less than five minutes and got behind the wheel. "Sorry about that," he apologized. "School business. Couldn't wait. Might not see her at school if we're going out to the dig." He seemed to realize he was making too many excuses, and fell silent as he backed the car out of the driveway and headed toward the high school. The school grounds were alive with activity: buses arriving, parents delivering children, students milling. Jim and Blair felt many curious eyes on them as they followed Giles through the crowded halls to the library. Willow and Xander sat at the library table, Willow industriously typing on her computer, Xander unsuccessfully trying to balance a pencil on his nose. They both stopped what they were doing to meet Jim. What a hunk, Willow thought, smiling shyly. What a stormtrooper, Xander thought ungraciously, aware of Willow's reaction. "Don't forget your first class starts in a few minutes," Giles told them after introducing Jim to the others. "Willow, Detective Ellison and Mr. Sandburg would like to read the tutorial you've been creating." "Sure," Willow gushed happily, almost giddy as the two men moved up to sit on either side of her. "Vampire 101," she proclaimed proudly, calling up her file. "I can handle this if you need to get to class," Blair said. She relinquished the mouse but didn't move her chair. "No, I'm fine," she assured him, basking in the closeness of two of the most gorgeous guys she'd seen in a long time, old or not, bruised or not. Some days, it just paid to show up early. "Any sign of Buffy?" Giles asked, not really expecting an affirmative answer. Buffy rarely appeared before the last possible moment; she was not a morning person. "Actually, I talked to her on the phone," Xander replied. "She told me all about Sneezy and his Five Dwarfs." Jim spared a sideways glance, realized the kid was just struggling with a bout of teenage jealousy, and grinned in self- deprecation. Sneezy. Well, he'd earned it. "I'll leave you to it, then," Giles said, casting a warning glance at Xander. "I have to see Principal Snyder." The vampire primer was filled with practical advice - how to spot a vampire (one sure clue was a wardrobe that included a leisure suit or a Nehru jacket); what to do if you spotted a vampire ('run like the dickens' was Blair's personal favorite); how to kill one (wooden implements seemed to be the only sure way); the myths that were true (holy water, crosses, etc.); myths that weren't true (vampires turning into bats or needing to sleep inside a coffin); preferred haunts; likely hiding places; a long list of confirmed victims; a longer list of suspected victims; those who had risen again and those who had succumbed to Buffy's patrols. There were also brief biographies of vampires known to inhabit the area around the hellmouth, and Jim read this information with great interest. There was an entry for the Master - dusted (literally) - and more recent listings for a punk-looking couple named Spike and Drusilla. The latter's story read like a pulp thriller, one of the sort filled with references to "heaving bosoms" and "throbbing manhood". "Willow - class," Giles reminded her gently upon his return, aware he was interrupting one of her finer fantasies. "OK," she sighed, pushing away from the computer. "See you guys later." She sounded hopeful, and beamed when they smiled and thanked her. Xander guided her toward the door. "Feet should touch the floor, Will," he chided softly. "Wafting like a limp balloon is so uncool." "Oh, and I suppose you've never wafted?" she countered as they exited. Jim and Blair exchanged grins. "Interesting troops you have," Blair commented. "Yes," Giles agreed, "and yet we do surprisingly well considering the opposition." Jim had to agree - all his military and police training had been rendered useless by a single lung full of terminated vampire. It wasn't an auspicious beginning to his slaying career, if indeed he was going to have a slaying career while in Sunnydale. In truth, he didn't care to see another vampire ever again, but the thought of leaving the city while some undefined threat loomed over him was even more distasteful. And while he was in the area, if he could help lessen the burden of responsibility on the young shoulders of the Slayer, he knew he had to do it. Gratefully, he realized he was experiencing only a minor reaction to the histamine blockers - a mild headache and some rather funny flashes of light at the periphery of his vision. As if reading his mind, Giles asked, "How are the pills working?" Blair jumped on the question like a pit bull on a chihuahua. 'What pills?" he demanded. Jim held up a placating hand. "I thought I'd try some histamine blockers," he explained calmly. "They seem to be working." "Really?" Blair forgot his anger at this potentially positive news. "No side effects?" "Some, but nothing nearly as bad as the cold medicine," Jim assured him. "If this works, I might actually be useful if we run into any trouble tonight." Even making excuses, he couldn't bring himself to say vampire again. Talk about living in denial! "If you're done reading, we should really start for the site," Giles said apologetically. "Not without me," Buffy said from behind him, having entered in time to hear his statement. "You've missed quite enough class without this little field trip," Giles pointed out calmly. "What if you get into trouble?" Jim smiled slightly. "Daylight troubles I think we can handle," he replied. "Besides, who's always complaining about not having a normal life?" Giles continued. "I meant a normal social life," Buffy retorted, "not a normal academic life." She sighed, recognizing defeat. "OK, but if you're not back after my last class, I'm coming after you." "Frankly, I wouldn't have it any other way," Giles assured her, "but just how do you intend doing that?" She smiled smugly. "I took Mom's car keys." Giles was aghast. "You didn't drive to school, did you?" "Not," Buffy assured him, amazed he even had to ask. "It's for emergencies only." This logic defeated Giles, who just threw up his hands in despair. "You really are getting far too independent for your own good," he observed at last, giving his guests from Cascade an expression that clearly read you-see-what-I-have-to-put-up-with? Jim smiled in perfect understanding; he frequently wore the same expression himself when dealing with his partner. Part Ten It was another glorious California day, and Jim leaned back in his seat to enjoy it. Thoughts of vampires, demons, and evil spirits disappeared in the brilliant sunshine. As long as he didn't think about last night too much, he could almost convince himself he was just working on another case, a case of Blair's temporary insanity. Almost. Giles drove very slowly along the rutted dirt track leading to the trailhead. After all, his Citroen might have been old, but it still served him well (most of the time), and he had no desire to abuse it unnecessarily. As it was, the shocks and springs groaned as the wheels rolled through the ruts and holes. There were no other vehicles at the end of the road. "Jim, there should be at least two trucks here, maybe three," Blair said anxiously, concern for Dana and her students evident in his voice. "I know our local contingent planned to stay away today," Giles said. "The school is giving the freshman class an aptitude test, and Blu would not have been excused from taking it. Mr. Blake is probably administering the science portion of the test." He switched off the engine and tried to convince his mind that the incessant rocking motion of the car had stopped. "Let's check it out," Jim said, knowing it was pointless wondering where the rest of the group had gone. Perhaps there was a simple explanation, perhaps not. Either way, sitting in the car wasn't getting the job done. Blair led them up the trail to the camp. Everything was as he'd last seen it, except no one was in residence. At least there weren't any indications of violence; for one horrible moment, he'd imagined vampires descending on the little group during the night and leaving only exsanguinated corpses behind. "Come on," he urged the others. "I think I can find the site again." He dashed up the rugged game trail, the others close behind him. He slowed after a bit, looking for the place where Dana had left the path, and there had been enough activity in the area that he had no trouble finding it. Instead of coming out on the small ledge where he had first overlooked the site, he stumbled directly into the clearing and stopped. There was no one here, either. It was as if the archaeological team had simply disappeared. "If they vanished, their trucks vanished with them," Jim pointed out logically. "They've probably just taken the day off or something." "I hope you're right," Blair agreed. At least he was assured nothing bad had happened here. The site looked exactly as he'd last seen it. Jim looked around, his expression grim. "This place gives me the creeps," he commented quietly. "Me, too," Blair agreed. "No, I mean this place really gives me the creeps." Giles was intrigued. "Do you also have a heightened sixth sense?" he asked curiously. "He does," Blair confirmed with a grin. Jim grimaced. "I prefer to call it good instincts," he contradicted, "but if you guys can't feel how evil this place is, I may have to change my opinion." Blair walked into the clearing, careful to keep clear of the areas marked off with twine. He could see where the others had walked and kept to their path, and he instructed the others to do the same. Jim, however, didn't move from the edge of the clearing. Blair looked at him with a frown. "You really do feel something, don't you?" he asked. Not surprisingly, he felt the same undefined sense of unease he'd felt the day before, when he'd first laid eyes on the site, but it was nothing compared to what Jim seemed to be feeling. "Absolutely," Jim answered. "Whatever went on here was not good magic, Chief. It's like even the dirt was contaminated with bad vibes." "Can you focus in on any particular spot?" Blair asked. "Does one area feel 'hotter' with bad vibes than another?" Jim sighed. Somehow, he should have known this was going to happen; Blair just couldn't keep from experimenting. Although, maybe in this instance, it was justified. Whatever doubts he'd had about his partner's bizarre experience in the cave were gone now. He was convinced there was something truly evil here. Reaching outward with his senses, he allowed his eyes to drift aimlessly over the surface of the ground. When he finally saw something, it really did look like a 'hot spot'. He pointed to an area just outside the excavation. "There." Blair went to the spot and crouched down. With his fingers, he dug through the soft top-layer of forest floor, sifting deeper and deeper through the decayed organic matter until he'd dug down about a foot. "I think someone was here already," he said at last. "Someone used a shovel to dig a hole in the compacted dirt beneath the top cover." "Some sort of powerful talisman?" Giles contemplated aloud. "Dana found a lot of religious artifacts," Blair answered, "but whoever dug here probably wasn't a professional." "And there's no way to tell how long ago the hole was dug," Giles said, discouraged. "Recently," Jim speculated. "Whatever was taken might have been the catalyst that started all the fuss - finding the site, excavating it, opening the cave, everything." "The kid, Blu?" Blair said. "He's the one who reported the site. I was always curious why a kid so obviously out of shape would have wandered over such a rugged trail to find this place." Jim shook his head in bemusement. "So a fat freshman wanders in here and what? - gets possessed or something?" It sounded absurd the derisive way he said it. Further speculation was interrupted by a sudden gust of wind that swayed the tops of the redwoods. All three looked skyward, and the gust returned from the opposite direction, moaning through the branches. Blair stood up. "This is definitely weird." The little clearing went silent for a long moment, and then the wind whipped through again, much lower now, stirring up dirt and fallen leaves, sweeping small pebbles and branches into its vortex as it roared like a defiant dragon. "Get down!" Jim shouted urgently, throwing himself flat. Giles lost his balance and fell into one of the shallower excavation holes. The wind-driven particles smashed into his face, and he closed his eyes tightly and covered his head with his arms to keep from being blinded. Blair dove toward the ground, but a stronger gust lifted him and drove him toward the edge of the chasm dividing the clearing. Realizing what was about to happen, he tried to jump out of the way, but it was as if a strong hand were guiding him to the widest point of the break. Helplessly, he toppled over the edge and plummeted downward, his hands scrabbling uselessly at the edges and bringing an avalanche of topsoil down on top of him. His last thought was regret that he hadn't asked Dana just how deep the fissure was... As quickly as it had started, the wind died. Jim was on his feet in an instant, rubbing at his eyes to clear away the grit, desperate only to see the aftermath of the bizarre attack and not concerned with potential injury to his vision. Giles, covered in a heavy layer of leaves and grit, rose from his concealment, shedding dirt. There was no sign of Blair. "Sandburg!" Jim shouted, forcing himself to enter the clearing despite the evil he could feel radiating from the ground around him. There was no answer. It was only when he saw the fissure that he realized what must have happened. As he approached the edge, the soft topsoil was disturbed, and some of it slid over the edge. Falling to his chest, he crawled forward, shifting as little dirt as possible, until he could peer over the side. Below, no more than nine or ten feet, he could see the upper portion of Blair's body. The lower portion was either pinned by the fissure or buried in dirt, Jim couldn't be sure. All he was certain of was that Blair wasn't moving. "Is he all right?" Giles asked anxiously from behind him. "He's unconscious," Jim reported grimly. "We need to clear some of this top soil back so it doesn't fall in and bury him. And we need a rope." "I'll go back to the camp and see what I can find," Giles said. "You start clearing back the dirt." Part Ten Blair tasted dirt in his mouth, coughed, and opened his eyes. Why was it he couldn't go into the woods without being shot, beaten up, held hostage, nearly drowned, knocked unconscious - or toppled into a fissure by some demonic wind? As moderate awareness slowly returned, he realized he was firmly pinned in the chasm, and he couldn't feel any solid ground beneath his feet. How the hell deep was this thing anyway? Only his upper torso, jammed into the narrow cleft where he had fallen, kept him from plummeting further. The pressure made breathing difficult, and his weight was supported mostly by his arms and shoulders. He tried to lift himself up, but found he was wedged too firmly. "Sandburg, you OK?" Jim called down to him. Blair looked up, saw his partner only a few feet away. "Man, I'm stuck like a cork in a bottle," he complained. Jim was right at the edge of the fissure, his chest partway over. He reached down. "Can you reach my hand?" Blair tried to reach upward, felt his weight shift a little further down. Immediately, he lowered his arm again. "Uh-uh. There's nothing under me but space, and I don't know if it's six inches or sixty feet." Some more topsoil drifted down, and he averted his eyes and held his breath until it settled. "Giles is bringing a rope," Jim said. "You were knocked out. Are you sure you're OK?" "I think so," Blair answered, still a bit dazed. At least, he didn't feel any pain beyond a dull throbbing in his temples, and he figured that was probably raised blood pressure from his heart and lungs working so hard sandwiched between the sides of the fissure. "OK, I've got to clear away more of the topsoil. I'll be ready to come down for you in a minute." "OK," Blair agreed, silently willing his partner to hurry, knowing his prayer was not needed because Jim would be working as quickly as he could. The air around him suddenly grew heavy and seemed to come alive. Before his widening eyes, he watched shadow turn to light and light to shadow, as if he'd fallen into a photographic negative. Oh shit, now what? <There is no need to be afraid> He looked around wildly for the source of the voice, but of course there was no one near him. Fear quickened his breathing, and he could feel his heart pounding against the constricting fissure that held him captive. "Who are you?" he whispered, afraid Jim would overhear and think he'd become delirious. Well, maybe he had. <I am Tlalaqueh. You found my bones in the cave.> "Oh, hey," Blair protested, forgetting to whisper. "It wasn't my idea to open the tomb." Although logic told him it was impossible to speak with a spirit, he didn't want to take any chances by arousing the ire of this particular spirit, impossible or not. <No, your companions were foolish and ignored the warning.> "You're the Guide who trapped Sklalas in the cave," Blair murmured. <No. I am the Guide who tried to defeat Sklalas and lost.> Oh, boy. "You lost?" <Sklalas possessed me in spite of all the magic I used to repel him. There was barely enough of my spirit left to hold onto the demon as Xihuichua entombed me.> "Xihuichua," Blair echoed faintly. "Your Sentinel?" The answer was wistful. <My Sentinel.> Blair's fear was rising quickly to overcome his curiosity at this strange conversation with the dead. "Are you still possessed by Sklalas?" Sklaaaaalassssss.... Man, where had that come from? He twisted his shoulders and strained his neck to see, but the chasm was as empty as ever. "He's here, isn't he?" he moaned faintly. <Yes, but your friend is protecting you.> Blair felt relief wash over him. "Jim?" <No, your new friend.> He nodded slightly. Giles. He should have guessed. "Your Sentinel killed seven of the demon's followers with a Spanish sword, didn't he? Where did he get the sword?" <Xihuichua wanted to stay and fight for our village, but I knew we faced a far greater danger in the north. I think he hated me for forcing him to leave his people and his family to follow my bidding. During our long journey northward to confront Sklalas, I permitted him to take a weapon from a Spaniard. I had to prove the invaders were not white gods but merely mortals from a different land. Once Xihuichua examined the entrails of his enemy, he believed.> The Inca shaman sounded tired, as if the question and his answer were irrelevant, which Blair supposed they were in light of the current situation. <We took the silver cross as well. It contained powerful magic. We needed all strong magic to fight Sklalas.> Strange images filled Blair's thoughts -- vivid memories of slaughter and blood, the desperate, doomed effort to defeat a monster. Crying out against this invasion of his mind, he was powerless to prevent it. For one horrifying instant, he thought he, too, was being possessed. But the images faded, and he was left with a mental weariness. He felt as if he'd spent an all-nighter cramming for an exam, and perhaps this wasn't far from the truth. With total clarity, he knew the translation of the stone tablet and what Tlalaqueh wanted him to do. He felt despair. "If you failed with all of your magic, how can I hope to defeat him?" <You possess powerful magic, young shaman. Your new friend possesses powerful magic as well. And your Sentinel is strong, almost as strong as Xihuichua, and he was a mighty warrior.> Blair tried to take comfort in the spirit shaman's assurances. "Yes, Jim's spirit animal warned me of the danger in the cave." He felt rather than heard a ghostly chuckle. "No?" <I had to warn you, make your Sentinel sense your fear and come to you. I chose a form you would accept easily.> So, he hadn't seen Jim's animal spirit guide after all, Blair realized a little sadly. It had just been an old shaman's conjuring trick. Then he grinned at how jaded he seemed to have become. After all, wasn't he talking to the spirit of the same shaman, and wasn't that pretty special? In fact, wasn't that pretty damn well amazing? Suddenly, the colors of the chasm righted themselves, and the shafts of sunlight beamed brilliantly again through the dusty haze of his earthly prison. Tlalaqeh was gone, leaving behind a vague emptiness and the knowledge of what had to be done. Sklalas, however, was still with him. He could feel the demon's presence, and sense -- something -- coalescing into being. He was afraid to look, afraid to see what was taking form just a few feet from him. And where the hell was Jim? "Jim, what's taking so long?" he shouted a little desperately. "Take it easy," came the calm answer from above. "It's only been a minute." A minute? His conversation with Tlalaqueh had lasted just a minute? He saw movement out of the corner of his eye. A sense of dread consumed him as he looked toward its source. A large rat peered back at him from about four feet away. But it was no ordinary rat. This one was huge, its fur matted and coarse, its eyes yellow and terribly bloodshot...the eyes looked human. Sklalas had taken form. "Sandburg, what's wrong?" Jim asked anxiously, sensing the sudden increased beating of his friend's heart. "Uh, Jim, there's something down here," Blair replied uncertainly, never taking his eyes off the strange, abhorrent beast. "Some thing?" Jim echoed, a sharp edge to his voice. He was getting really tired of all the supernatural crap. "A rat," Blair answered, although he knew it wasn't a rat. The ugly creature bared its teeth - huge, yellow fangs snapped at the air, and Blair twitched, felt his body shift a little further into the vise that held him prisoner. "Oh, man," he breathed, fear threatening to turn to panic, and panic could be a deadly adversary right now. "Just take it easy, Chief," Jim urged quietly from above. "We're almost ready to come down for you." Part Eleven Above ground, Giles expertly secured two ropes to the nearest tree. Jim had cleared a lot of the loose top soil away from the edge of the crevasse, so there was little danger of more dirt falling in and burying the young man trapped below. "Perhaps it would be best if I went down," the librarian said. "I'm somewhat smaller and lighter." Jim thought about the offer. "I don't know. He says there's a rat down there, and judging from his reactions, it's not some ordinary rat." "I see." Giles sighed. "I apologize - I hadn't considered the possibility of an evil manifestation here at the dig." Jim held up a warning finger. "I'm just barely coming to grips with the idea of - vampires. Don't start throwing evil manifestations into the mix. I am not Indiana Jones." "Very well. I only meant I hadn't planned for this contingency, so I'm afraid you'll have to be the one to climb down after all." "I intended to anyway," Jim assured him, testing the ropes and tying one end into a passable harness. "But let's try the easy way first." He tossed the rope over the side. "Sandburg, can you slip this over your shoulders?" Blair caught the end of the rope and tried to slip the loops over his arms. Nearby, the rat had gone into some sort of angry convulsions, hissing and clawing at him, but not getting any closer. Enraged, it gnawed savagely at the dirt and rock, it's body writhing with fury. Blair tried not to look at it; at least he didn't seem to be in any danger, much as the sight of that ugly, twisting body sent tremors of fear through him. "Sorry, Jim, I can't get the loops past my elbows. If I lift my arms, I just slide deeper into the crevasse." He tried grasping the rope and pulling himself up, but he couldn't budge. His breathing was becoming more strained. If he slipped downward a little further, he might become too tightly wedged to draw air into his lungs; he could die of suffocation. The rat seemed to sense his dilemma and lunged at him suddenly, gaining only a few inches of ground but causing Blair to flinch away and sink a bit more. His arms strained to hold his weight as his position became more awkward. Suddenly, from far beneath him in the depths of the chasm, he imagined he could hear faint scrabbling, as if something were clawing its way up toward him. It was his imagination...right? Right? "Jim?" he murmured a little desperately. "OK, I'm coming down," Jim promised. He had tied the second rope into a similar harness, which he slipped over his own shoulders. Giles set himself and held the rope tightly, prepared to lower the other man into the chasm. As for Jim, he supported as much of his own weight as he could, bracing his legs against the sides of the fissure and carefully walking himself downward, searching for every foot and hand hold he could find. It was only a few feet down to reach his trapped partner, so he was down in less than a minute. As he planted his feet on either side of the narrow crack that gripped his friend, he looked up to gauge the distance to the lip of the fissure. It was a little father than he'd first guessed - an outstretched arm was still about three feet short of the rim. He reached down and took hold of Blair's upper arms. "I'm going to lift you out of there - are you sure you don't have any back or shoulder pains?" "Just get me out of here, Jim," Blair practically begged him. "It's getting hard to breathe." And whatever was creeping toward him from below was getting closer...if it touched him, he felt certain he'd be driven out of his mind. "Come on, Jim!" "OK." Jim wasn't unduly worried; if Sandburg had enough breath left to talk, then he wasn't in danger of suffocating. Bent over as he was, Jim found himself eye to eye with the strange creature his partner had described. It had stopped its writhing and now stood perfectly still, eyes glaring at Jim with unnatural brilliance. "Partner, that's not a rat. It's a - a thing." "Jim, hurry up!" Blair pleaded, on the brink of panic as his wildly spinning imagination conjured a horrific beast slithering toward him from below. Jim lifted. The first bit was the toughest, because the trapped man was wedged so tightly in the crevasse, but once Jim was able to free him by just a few inches, the rest went smoothly. Blair was able to get clear of the narrow fissure and crawl to his knees. With one hand, he gripped the spare rope, with his other he held a death grip on his partner's belt. "Come on, time to try getting up," Jim urged gently. It was a tight fit with the two of them jammed together in the cleft, but Blair managed to struggle to his feet. A groan of pain escaped him. "What's wrong?" Jim asked in sudden concern. "My hip," Blair answered, clenching his jaws against the sudden burst of agony. "I must have bruised it in the fall." The pain made him dizzy, and he was grateful for Jim's strong support. Jim helped him adjust the second rope around his shoulders. "You're safe now," he said. "With a bad hip, you won't be able to support your weight climbing out of here, so I'm going to go up first and help Giles pull you up, OK?" Blair nodded. "Hey, Jim, can you see how deep the crevasse goes?" "Already looked," Jim told him. "And?" "And you don't want to know." Blair's grip on the rope tightened until his knuckles turned white. "Did you see -- I mean, is there anything else down there?" Jim's frown of confusion was the only answer he needed. "Sorry," he murmured, not bothering to explain why he was apologizing. "Can we just get out of here, please?" He chanced another glance at the rat, which had stalked closer. It was now only a foot or so away. And it looked bigger...a lot bigger. Whatever force was holding it back was weakening rapidly. "Oh, man." Jim looked too, and tried to stomp the creature under his foot. It scuttled back out of the way, hissing and snarling. "Come any closer, and I'll squish your little rat brains all over this place," he promised grimly, feeling stupid for talking to an animal. The animal in question narrowed its feral yellow eyes -- and grinned. Ssssklaaaalassss.... The sibilance filled with chasm above and below, as if a thousand voices had whispered the name in benediction. "That's it, we're outta here!" Jim said abruptly, thoroughly shaken. He hauled Blair closer. "Grab my shoulders, and hang on." He called up to Giles. "We're coming up." "I'm ready," Giles called back, bracing himself again. Going up was easier than climbing down; Jim could almost climb out by himself using the numerous hand and foot holds, so he was able to carry Blair's weight without putting an additional burden on Giles. Within seconds he was at the rim, and he swore he could hear maniacal laughter from the vile abhorrence they had left behind. With Giles help, he managed to get Blair to solid ground, then he climbed out of the fissure and regained his feet. Blair tested his hip. It hurt, but he was able to put weight on it. By tomorrow, it would be stiff and bruised, but at least he hadn't broken anything. Again. Hanging onto Jim, he peered into the shadowy depths of the crevasse, but he couldn't see the predatory manifestation of the demon or anything else out of the ordinary. "Jim, I'm never going into the woods again," he swore. Giles looked bemused, so Jim explained, "Sandburg's like a magnet for trouble, and it only seems to get worse whenever he goes into the woods." "By the way," Blair added, addressing Giles, "thanks for whatever magic spells you put on us." His partner did a mental double take. "What?" Giles smiled slightly. "Actually, I can't take the credit. The woman you saw me with this morning - Jenny Calendar - she's the one with the magic. I asked her for a protective spell for the two of you." Jim still looked disbelieving, so Blair said, "That's why Sklalas couldn't get at us down there in the crevasse - some force was holding him back." "Sklalas is a rat?" Jim asked doubtfully. "Undoubtedly, except in this case, he also manifested himself as one," Blair explained. With a sigh that spoke volumes about his wavering grip on reality, Jim looked back at Giles. "So that's why you went through our stuff this morning," he said. "You needed something of ours to give to your friend." "Yes, but the two of you are surprisingly neat house guests for bachelors," Giles said. "I managed to retrieve a few hairs from the trash bin and a few more from your combs. I wasn't sure it would be enough." Jim suddenly turned his head to look up the rocky slope backing the clearing. "There's someone up there," he said quietly. "The shaman's bones," Blair said desperately. "We have to get up to the cave." Walking was difficult and painful, and trying to hurry only increased the agony, but with Jim's support, he hobbled quickly toward the granite boulders of the slope. "Jim, it's only a few hundred yards up there. Don't wait for me. Just go!" "I'll help Blair," Giles assured when the other man hesitated. But Jim could read the urgency in his friend's expression, so he reluctantly left him and started the mad scramble up through the boulders. When the others reached him a few minutes later, they found him helping a very groggy Rod Ballantine. "I found him unconscious," Jim explained. "Someone gave him a pretty good whack on the head." Rod managed to focus. "Oh, hi, Blair. What are you doing here?" "I brought some friends up to see the dig," Blair replied. "Where are the others?" "Sandy broke her arm this morning. Dana and Stu took her down to the emergency room. I stayed here to keep an eye on the site." The young grad student grimaced. "I was doing some more preliminary work in the cave when someone hit me from behind." Blair found Rod's flashlight on the ground and switched it on. The bulb still worked and the beam was strong. "Will you be OK for a minute?" he asked. "I need to check something." "Yeah, I'll be OK," the young man assured him, leaning back against the rocks and cradling his head in his hands. Blair led the way into the cave, Jim and Giles behind him. When they reached what had yesterday been the end of the cave, the flashlight illuminated the Inca tablet, now propped carefully to one side of the opening it had covered. "Amazing," Giles breathed, thrilled by such an amazing sight in the redwood forests of Northern California. "It's almost too much to believe." Blair entered the inner chamber just far enough to shine his light over every inch of it. The little space was empty save for a few scraps of dried leather and a bit of cloth. "Damn," he muttered to himself. "What did you expect to find?" Jim asked. "Bones. Sklalas managed to possess Tlalaqueh when the old shaman tried to defeat him, but after Xihuichua trapped them here in the cave, Tlalaqueh was able to bind the demon to his bones. The spell has weakened a bit over the centuries, so once he was released from the cave, Sklalas was able to venture a short distance -- like as far as the crevasse." Jim blinked. "What?" he asked helplessly. Giles, of course, had no trouble following the course of Blair's narrative. "And someone has stolen the shaman's bones." Blair nodded. "If the spirit of Sklalas is reunited with his medicine bundle, he'll become powerful enough to regain his human form, and then he may damn well be unstoppable." "His medicine bundle," Giles murmured. "That's the residue of evil Jim felt in the clearing. That's what was buried in the hole you uncovered." "Yes." "How do you know all this stuff?" Jim asked a little suspiciously, trying to process too much paranormal input with his overstressed cop sensibilities. "Tlalaqueh told me." "Tlalaqueh?" "The Guide who was sealed in here with Sklalas." Jim cast his eyes heavenward. "Swell," he muttered. He was a long way out of his depth, with a hundred questions he wanted to ask, but he tried to approach it as just another piece of detective work. "What was going on down there in the clearing all those centuries ago?" Blair spoke quickly, his voice echoing hollowly in the small cavern, which gave a suitable resonance to his words. "Sklalas put out the word - probably along a psychic plane - to invite any evil-doer who wanted to achieve immortality to come to this site. All sorts of practitioners of the dark arts responded to his call. He conducted some sort of ceremony to transfer their spirits into his medicine bundle, and each spirit who joined it only gave it -- and therefore Sklalas -- more strength." "So the guys basically died," Jim said, unimpressed. "Not much of an immortality." "The bodies died, but a lot of religions believe in an afterlife. These evil men and women knew their spirits would not find peace in the hereafter, so they wanted to stay bound to the earth in order to avoid their final judgement." "OK, but why here?" Jim insisted. "The hellmouth," Giles said abruptly. "Sklalas desires only the total annihilation of every living thing on earth. He'll unleash all the demons of hell and rule them as he gloats over the destruction of our world." Jim was not convinced. "Which accomplishes exactly what for him?" Blair was a little exasperated with Jim's determination to remain grounded in solid police procedure. "I don't know -- the sense of a job well done?" Giles smiled slightly. "Jim, the realm of the supernatural is both unpredictable and frequently illogical. Sklalas desires to destroy the world -- what comes after is of no concern to him." "OK." Jim sounded irritated with himself at his inability to accept the truths he'd witnessed with his own eyes. Vampires and demons -- or at least giant, malevolent, mutant rats -- existed. He'd seen them, touched them, killed them. The realm of the supernatural had become reality. So he decided just to go with it. "So he's going to open the hellmouth?" Blair nodded. "Tlalaqueh died stopping him centuries ago. It's up to us to stop him now." Jim didn't look confident. "Chief, I don't think either one of us is exactly up to saving the world." That observation couldn't find a suitable response, so they went back outside to check on Rod, who was on his feet, swaying a little but upright and apparently recovering. "What did you find?" he asked. "Nothing," Blair answered. "The tomb is empty." "Ah, Dana's gonna kill me!" Rod groaned. "She wanted to study the bones more closely in situ." "Are you up for the hike back?" Jim asked. "We need to get you to a hospital." "Yeah, I can walk." The little group went back down the slope and returned to camp. It was already noon. Blair found his backpack, which he had left at the cave yesterday, now sitting on the bunk he was supposed to have slept on last night. He packed up his belongings and found the thick stack of photos Dana had taken of the stone tablet. As he joined the others outside, he held the folder up for Rod to see. "I'm going to borrow these for awhile - I promised Dana I'd do a translation." Although he was fairly certain he could translate the tablet with ease, he wanted to test his theory as further assurance his "vision" in the chasm had been real and not a figment of his fearful imagination. "Sure, I'll tell her if she doesn't just deck me first," Rod answered glumly. "I can't believe someone stole those bones!" They went back down the trail to the car, then endured the long, bumpy drive back to the paved road. After that, time passed quickly and they were soon at the emergency room, where they were going inside just as Dana and the others were coming out. Sandy Crenshaw had her left arm in a sling. There was a flurry of explanations, after which Dana's anger erupted in full force. "Just what the hell were you doing messing around my dig?" she raged at Blair. Wisely, Jim decided to practice a little discretion, and he took Giles with him in search of something to eat. Besides, the librarian wanted to find a phone to contact Buffy. He didn't want her driving up to the site to rescue them from some evil force only to find they'd already left. In fact, he didn't want her driving anywhere. "Look," Blair reasoned when her tirade had wound down, "Jim Ellison is my friend from Cascade, and Mr. Giles is the librarian from the local high school. They were interested in visiting the dig, and when we got there and couldn't find anybody, I got worried and checked out the site." "And trooped all over it," Dana accused. "Not too badly, I hope," Blair apologized. "Look, I hadn't planned on it, but I fell into that damned crevasse. The other two got me out again - I don't think we damaged anything, but I was a little more concerned with saving my butt than worrying about a few more bits of pottery." Dana sighed. "Any idea who cold-cocked Rod and took the bones?" Blair just shook his head. "Sorry - by the time we found Rod, the attacker was long gone." "Well, it's a short list of suspects, because only a few of us knew about the cave, and two of them were with me here at the hospital." "I swear I didn't have anything to do with it, Dana," Blair promised. "You were awfully interested in it yesterday." "I didn't want you to open the tomb," he returned calmly. "I sure as heck didn't want to take anything from it." She thought about it for a long minute, then nodded. "That leaves just the locals - the kid and the science teacher." She gave Blair a hug. "Sorry I was so suspicious." "That's OK. Under the circumstances, I might have felt the same way," he answered, warmly returning her embrace. "By the way, I borrowed your photos of the Inca tablet. I'll do the translation for you." "You'd better," Dana threatened lightly. Jim and Giles returned then with sandwiches and a soft drink for Blair, which he accepted gratefully. "You want to have your hip x-rayed while you're here?" Jim asked. "In case you fractured it?" Blair shook his head. "Nah, I can walk OK, and the doctors would just have me walking around on it anyway. What's the use?" Jim shrugged. His partner had a point. "What about your head? You were unconscious for awhile." "No, I wasn't," Blair assured him. "I was just stunned, that's all." Off Jim's doubtful look, he added, "Really." The two groups finally parted, everyone back on speaking terms. Dana and her crew went back toward the emergency room to check on Rod, while the other three went out to the car, where they sat and ate their meager lunches and discussed their next step. "If Sklalas needs you alive, why did he risk toppling you into the crevasse, where you might have been killed?" Giles puzzled. "Actually, Tlalaqueh was responsible for knocking me into the crevasse," Blair explained, uncomfortable under Jim's sudden withering look. "He didn't mean to," he hastened to add. "He just wanted to talk to me." The older man sighed. "I'm starting to worry about that knock on your head." "Jim, with all the weirdness going on, why isn't it possible an ancient guide spoke to me?" Blair was angry and hurt that his friend didn't believe him. "And he did know about the medicine bundle," Giles pointed out. Jim held up his hands in surrender. "Sorry. I guess my weirdness meter got pegged last night, and it hasn't come down enough to accept any new input." "OK." Blair accepted the apology. "And who's this Zee-which-a-wah?" Jim tried to wrap his tongue around the word without much success. Blair chuckled. "Close enough. That's the name of your Sentinel counterpart, the one who had to seal his own Guide in the cave in order to trap Sklalas." "As long as I don't have to seal you up inside anything," Jim muttered. Except maybe inside the loft, where his Guide could keep out of trouble. Maybe. With help. And luck. Lots and lots of luck. "This ceremony to return Sklalas to human form," Giles continued. "Did Tlalaqueh give you any indication when it's to take place?" "No, but the vampires have a book that lists the necessary rituals, and they need a shaman to recite the words." Giles looked impressed. "You got all that from your vision? How remarkable." "So Sklalas is after you," Jim said. "He doesn't care his furry little rat's ass about me." "He could be very serious about killing you," Blair objected. "He wants revenge against all sentinels for losing to Tlalaqueh and Xihuichua. But I think he wants you alive -- what better body to use to regain human form?" "Why, thank you very much," Jim murmured with a cheesy smile. "I was referring to your genetics," Blair countered with an incredulous shake of his head. Jim became serious. "Why were vampires waiting for me at Sunnydale Airport? I mean, how did they know I was flying in?" "If Blair is correct about the demon's psychic abilities, he undoubtedly felt your approach from a great distance," Giles speculated. "He'd want to keep you from being in a position to protect your partner." "Fat chance," the Sentinel murmured softly, almost to himself. "We must find out when this ceremony will take place," Giles went on. "Perhaps it's tied to a phase of the moon, or a particular season. It could be imminent." "So we raid a vampire nest - where the hell do they live anyway? - and grab a book," Jim said uncomfortably. "Not something I'm looking forward to." "And perhaps not necessary," Giles agreed. "I think Buffy may have some ideas for us." He started the engine. "I telephoned her. She'll meet us in the library." Part Twelve They joined up with Buffy at the library, which the two men from Cascade figured was their normal base of operation. She was doing some sort of complicated calisthenics routine on a training mat, but stopped when the others came in. "Pity about your night job," Jim observed in admiration. "You'd make one heck of an Olympic athlete." "Thanks," she replied, toweling off a light sheen of sweat and pulling on a bulky sweatshirt over her exercise gear. Giles made a pot of coffee in his office while Blair explained the day's events to the Slayer, who found a simple solution to their problem. "I'll make a patrol around town," she said. "If there's no activity, we'll know the ceremony may be tonight. If the vamps are out doing a routine midnight brunch, then we'll know the ceremony is some other time, which leaves you with the problem of figuring out when." Giles returned with a tray bearing coffee and cans of soda. He allowed everyone to serve themselves as he unlocked the cage where his most precious books were kept. "I think I may have some useful references." "I'll help you," Blair promised, joining him behind the mesh. "You also said you might have something on sentinels. If you run across it, I'd love to see it." "Of course." "Should we call Xander and Willow?" Buffy asked. "I'll do it," Giles promised. "We'll need all eyes to help with the research." Blair glanced at his partner, who was sitting at the library table, his hands around his coffee mug, his eyes downcast. "Jim?" He looked up. "I'll go with Buffy." "Bad idea," Blair objected, the hunt for books forgotten as he returned to the table and sat down. "They'll be after you." "Maybe," Jim agreed quietly. He couldn't explain that he had to go; this whole macabre situation had him freaked, and if he didn't face it now, he might never find the courage again. Besides, he wasn't going to permit a sixteen-year-old girl to risk her life for him. "I want to test the histamine blockers. If we're going after Sklalas and a legion of vampires, I need to know if I can handle it." Blair wasn't convinced, but he saw the odd, haunted look in Jim's eyes and figured there was no point in arguing. "OK," he agreed reluctantly. "I don't think it's a good idea, either," Buffy said, but she sounded as if she knew her objection would be ignored. When men were on a macho trip, their testosterone levels rendered them deaf and dumb -- dumb as in stupid. Jim seemed decent enough for an old guy, but she hadn't seen anything yet to bolster her confidence about his usefulness in a fight, at least in a fight against vampires. She tried to be tactful. "If you're along, a big group might come after us, and I might not be able to -- I mean, we might not be able to fight them off." Nice try, Jim thought. He shook his head. "Whatever happens, you are not responsible for me, all right? But I need to find out sometime whether or not I can do this, and tonight is probably as good a time as any." His argument had a certain logic. She sighed, then grinned in surrender. To Giles, she said, "In the meantime, unless you find something with pictures of really cute guys in it, we'll stand guard. Once you find your books, we'll get Blair safely back to your house, I'll go home and change -- and by then, it will be dark." "Guard us from what?" Giles asked, amused at her efforts to avoid joining in the research. "I dunno -- evil shaman?" Buffy countered brightly. "The last we saw of Sklalas, he looked like a rat," Jim observed with a smile. She made a face. "I loathe rats." Part Thirteen They started their patrol in the cemetery, and Jim had the feeling Buffy started most nights this way. The night was clear, with a crisp chill to the air as a gentle reminder that this, after all, was autumn. "Mind if I ask you a personal question?" Buffy tried for a casually indifferent shrug and felt she succeeded. "Go ahead." "How do you feel about being the Slayer?" She thought about it for a long time as they threaded their way toward the dark center of the cemetery. "It's not a career I would have chosen," she admitted finally. Then she laughed softly. "Actually, on career day, I tested very high for a possible career in law enforcement." Jim smiled. "That must have been a blow." "A total bummer," she agreed, then hastened to add, "Not that it isn't right for some people, but can you see me wearing one of those belts with a thirty-eight on one hip and a bunch of wooden stakes on the other?" "Sam Browne," Jim explained. "What?" "The utility belt." "Oh." "You could be right, although as a rookie, you'd probably pull a lot of night shifts." Jim tried to keep it light, but he really didn't understand how she could do it -- lead two totally separate lives and still keep her emotional equilibrium. At least she had good friends to help her, but was that enough? "What about you?" she countered. "What about me?" "How do you do it?" Jim shook his head. "I'm in a different position. My heightened senses enable me to do a better job in my chosen profession. I can fit into practically any career choice, although Sandburg seems to think a sentinel is predisposed to having a job that helps people. But you, and Giles, and to some extent, Sandburg -- you each have to shuffle two disparate lives, one of which you have to keep secret from the rest of the world." They'd reached their destination, which looked to Jim like any other part of the cemetery except for a newly covered grave. Buffy casually perched on a neighboring headstone. "Most of the other kids think I'm whacko," she admitted. "I got kicked out of my last school because I burned down the gym -- which just happened to be hosting a vampire buffet." "And your mom doesn't know." Jim sensed a sadness in her despite her glib facade, as if the burden of her secret life made it impossible for her to be truly happy. "I can't tell her," Buffy said awkwardly. "She wouldn't understand." "She might surprise you." She shook her head. "No. Telling her would only complicate things. I mean, how would you feel if you knew your daughter hunted vampires for a living?" "Good point." Buffy's expression faltered and her confidence slipped for a just a moment, so he asked, "What were you just thinking?" She didn't look as if she wanted to answer. Then she shrugged. "Just that Giles has never told me the average life span for a slayer. I don't think I've ever heard of one dying of old age, though." Jim sighed, sympathetic to her plight but helpless to relieve it. As far as he knew, they were both alone in their uniqueness, but only Buffy stood foursquare against an army of demons with only her Watcher and a few close friends to back her up. He hoped it would be enough to ensure a long and fruitful life. To drag his thoughts away from his depressing contemplation of her chances, he looked at the glum surroundings. "Why are we here?" Buffy nodded toward the new grave. "I think this one will be rising tonight." Jim felt a ripple of dread through his nerves. "I hope it's not someone you knew." "Actually, she was a senior at my school. She died in a car crash, but the boy who was supposed to be with her wasn't in the car. He's a vampire." "Do they all rise from the dead?" Jim asked uncomfortably, the feeling of unreality coming over him again. His query felt like a line from some Stephen King thriller. How could he be seriously asking such an insane question? "No, only some of them," Buffy admitted. "Sometimes, they just kill you, and you stay dead." He grimaced. "I'm fairly certain I find that thought a comfort." He glanced at the newly dug earth. Far below, he could hear faint scrabblings and inhuman grunts of effort as something sought to free itself from the depths. Automatically, he took a step back and removed a wooden stake from the inside pocket of his lightweight jacket. "You can hear it?" Buffy asked curiously. He nodded. "Cool." Still, she didn't move from her seat atop the neighboring grave marker, although he sensed an increased level in her watchfulness. The soft dirt shifted a little, and a tiny hole appeared. Soil flowed into the opening like sand through a funnel; he could see every grain. Deliberately, he looked away and took a deep breath. This was not the time to risk a zone out. Suddenly, the earth erupted, and an abhorrent figure, a mockery of human form, launched from the grave. She -- it -- landed on its feet and leered at Jim. Anticipating a convenient first meal, the loathsome creature said, "Hi, Honey, I'm home." Jim drove the stake in hard and low beneath the breastbone, angling it skillfully upward into the heart as he'd been taught to do so long ago in the Army. He wondered if his instructors had ever anticipated this particular use of their training. The newly risen vampire disintegrated. Jim coughed once, but he'd cautiously held his breath during the attack, so he wasn't sure if the histamine blocker had worked or if he'd just been lucky. Stupidly, he murmured, "Sandburg could have told you fast food is bad for your health." Buffy nodded approval. "Nice job." Jim looked faintly bemused, as if he couldn't believe what he'd just done. "Thanks." He looked across the cemetery and saw three more figures approaching. "More company." Buffy jumped down off the headstone. "My turn to show off," she told him lightly, and strode forward to meet them. Jim had to admit he was impressed. Buffy was small in stature, but she certainly packed a punch. Her moves were fast, economical, and skillful, and no commando could have removed her adversaries with greater efficiency. In fact, if he cared to be brutally honest, she could probably take him in straightforward, hand-to-hand combat. How could she possess so much strength in that tiny body? After she'd dealt with two of them, she straddled the chest of the third, her stake held against his chest. "The ceremony for Sklalas," she growled at her captive. "When and where?" The vampire just bared its fangs and hissed defiance. She drove the stake home, then stood up. "I think we've had enough fun for one night," she commented. "Unfortunately, I think they've just gotten started," Jim countered, his keen sight picking up four separate groups of three approaching from different directions. "Sometimes I hate it when I'm right," Buffy murmured, returning to Jim's side. "They're after you." "I know," Jim answered. "Just remember what I said -- you are not responsible for me, OK?" "I'll bet Blair says that to you all the time," Buffy retorted. "Do you ever listen to him?" "Damnit -- !" But there was no more time for argument. Together, they moved toward the group closest to the cemetery exit. Three vampires between them didn't seem like bad odds, but they were forced to go on the defensive when their opponents engaged in delaying tactics. This gave the other groups time to close in. Realizing they were outmaneuvered and outgunned (so to speak), Jim deliberately broke away from Buffy and rushed toward one of the other groups. As he'd expected, the bulk of the forces converged on him, leaving Buffy to cope with the three adversaries determined to thwart her efforts to go to his aid. When it was over, Buffy slumped exhausted to the ground. She was totally, undeniably alone. The other vampires were gone. Jim was gone. Twelve vampires had come after them in that last attack, and that didn't include the three from the first assault. She had killed several but was uncertain of the exact number; she'd lost count after dealing with the group trying to keep her from going to Jim's aid. But the odds had been too great, and more adversaries had moved to block her efforts as she'd seen him being dragged away. She'd fought and fought, but by the time she had defeated them, the others had disappeared with their prize. She got up from the damp grass and stretched to relieve the soreness of her overworked muscles. It was time to face Giles and Blair, to confess her failure (which, a little voice lamented from deep inside, wouldn't have happened if Jim had listened to her and not insisted on coming out on patrol...) Still, she wasn't looking forward to watching the sparkle dim and finally go out in Blair's unbelievably cerulean eyes. Part Fourteen "We have to go after him," Blair urged anxiously, his tension causing him to pace the living room floor with quick, agitated strides. When the others didn't answer, he stopped and looked at them. "What?" "We can't go after him now," Giles explained gently. "The odds against us are too great." Blair knew he was dependent on these two for help; he was completely out of his depth in this situation, and he relied on them for information and support. But he was vehemently opposed to the idea of waiting. "How do we even the odds?" "We wait for an ally," Buffy answered simply. "What ally?" "The sun." Blair shook his head. "Dawn is hours away! Anything could happen between now and then." "Blair, if they plan to kill him, he's already dead," Buffy said, her words blunt but her voice gentle. "If they plan to bring him over, that's also a done deal. If they're keeping him alive, he'll still be alive at sunrise." He stared at her in confusion. Her words were clear and succinct -- why did he have such a hard time comprehending her logic? Jim dead? It was unthinkable. And what did she mean by -- "God, you think they might turn him into one of them?" He felt an odd shortness of breath that threatened to make him dizzy. "It depends on how valuable he is to them," Buffy replied, watching the paleness come over the young man, wondering if he would faint from the strain. Without another word, Blair turned and raced up the stairs. They heard the bathroom door slam. "Giles--," Buffy began worriedly, but the librarian just held up a hand. "Leave him alone for awhile," he suggested. "He seems a resilient young man. I think he'll be all right." "I'm sorry I messed up so badly," Buffy said quietly. Giles was quick to contradict. "Detective Ellison knew the risk he was taking. I think it was partially his ego and stubborn pride that sent him with you tonight, but also his concern for your welfare. He still doesn't understand what you are; he sees only a sixteen-year-old girl with too much dangerous responsibility. You did nothing wrong." "I couldn't save him." "The odds were overwhelming. I doubt all of us together could have saved him." Part Fifteen Blair leaned against the closed bathroom door for a long minute, his thoughts alternating between the churning in his belly and his anxiety for the safety of his friend. When he was certain he wasn't going to throw up, he went to the sink and splashed cool water on his face. It did little to settle the wild racing of his heart. If they had killed Jim... He couldn't finish the thought. Jim was strong and tough; if there was a way to survive, he'd find it. And if they'd turned him into a vampire? Blair felt a jolt of tension that actually rocked him on his feet, and he grabbed the edge of the sink to steady himself. To kill Jim would be a tragedy; to turn him into a mockery of everything he stood for and held dear was a perversion beyond comprehension. Jim would choose death over such an ignoble fate; but then, he wouldn't have a choice, would he? So Blair would have to make the choice for him. Could he do it? Could he look at the person he knew as Jim Ellison and see beyond to the monster residing within? Could he drive a stake into the heart of his best friend and not see a glimmer of the man remaining in the depths of those blue eyes? Maybe he could. Would he? That was another dilemma altogether. The horrible irony of the situation was sickeningly clear to him. Centuries ago, a Sentinel had been forced to seal his Guide inside a cave to thwart a demon. Blair didn't know if Tlalaqueh had died slowly from starvation or quickly in some spiritual battle of wills against Sklalas; it didn't matter. Xihuichua's anguish at condemning his Guide to certain death would have torn him apart. At this moment, Blair understood all too clearly how Xihuichua had felt. Although the situation was reversed, the interconnectedness of Sentinel and Guide was inviolate; when one suffered, so did the other. The possibility of having to destroy his Sentinel to combat a greater evil was the most terrible irony he could conceive. No. If that became necessary, he would have to remind himself that Jim Ellison was already dead. Instead, although he faced the image of his friend, he would be destroying a monster just like those that had killed him. With a little smile of self-deprecation, Blair realized it was much easier accepting the notion of "revenge" rather than a sacrifice for the greater good. It didn't matter, really. Whatever helped him get through the next few hours was all that was important. Revenge burned like a bright flame against the coldness of his fear. And if they -- the brethren of vampire -- had brought him to this, then he would commit the rest of his strength, his courage, and his life to destroying as many of them as he was able. They would have destroyed more than one soul tonight. He took a shuddering breath and let it out slowly, then went back downstairs to the living room to join the others. Willow and Xander were there as well, and they all looked at him, seeing the dead fatalism in his eyes, knowing what it meant. "It's exactly four hours and twenty-three minutes until dawn," Giles said softly. "We'll be in position thirty minutes before then." Blair nodded. "What's the plan?" Part Sixteen He opened his eyes slowly, aware first only of the throbbing in his temples, the cold dampness of his prison, and the strong duct tape binding his wrists and elbows painfully behind him. But the transitory state was momentary, for in the next instant, his senses were assailed so violently, he snapped back to awareness with a gasp of agony. He was in a charnel house! The sickly-sweet stench of death was like a palpable cloak, wrapping invisible tendrils around his body. Desperately, he searched his mind for his olfactory tuner, concentrating as Blair had taught him, but an atavistic fear from the dark, primitive roots of his brain refused to surrender to more rational, modern thinking. Each breath drew a foul mist into his lungs, the air itself thick with a miasma of decay. He'd smelled death before -- the bowel odors of natural death, the tangy copper-penny smell of blood from violent death, the pungent stench of rotted corpses. It was all here, and more as well -- the death of centuries, corporeal and evil, a twisted corruption of nature. He looked around quickly. He was in an old runoff system. Light was dim, supplied only by candles, and water dripped from plant roots that had penetrated the concrete walls and ceiling. Pools of rancid, stagnant water mirrored the faint, flickering light. And he could see them, seemingly dozens of them, standing far back in the shadows, their eyes upon him. They were all dead, but they were watching him. He shivered in the cold and fought against a different chill, a chill of deep fear. Slow, light footsteps approached, their measured tread echoing faintly off the walls, and Jim nearly stopped breathing himself when she entered the room. She was a willowy thing, dark haired and dreamy eyed, pretty in a freakish sort of way. Her white dress shifted around her thin frame in loose, billowing folds. He remembered her from Willow's vampire tutorial: Drusilla. She stopped in front of him. There was no heartbeat, no body heat to signal her essence, only a stronger odor of long-dead flesh. She sat down sideways on his lap, her touch icy even through his slacks. When she spoke, the air necessary to vibrate her vocal chords washed frigidly over him, redolent of decay. "Hello. My name is Drusilla." She spoke with a British accent. He didn't look away from her, nor did he answer. He was still desperately trying to control his breathing. Logically, he knew if he breathed through his mouth, the stench would lessen, but he had a strong belief he would taste the death in the air, and the lurid thought kept his jaws firmly clenched. She ran both hands over his face, her fingers leaving behind a sensation like dry ice, at once burning and freezing, as she toyed with his eyelids and brow, the sides of his nose, the outline of his mouth. "You're so pretty," she whispered dreamily. "I can feel your heart, and smell your terror. I like the smell of fear. It adds a special nuance to the feast." She rested icy fingers against the pulse beating rapidly through his carotid artery. "I could bring you over," she continued idly, her lips nearly touching his, and she smiled as she felt his heart rate increase dramatically. "You are a servant of the mortals. You help the weak and defend the helpless. I would enjoy stripping that from you -- slowly -- so you would realize each agonizing step of your transformation. I would steal more than your blood and your life. I would take your conscience, your sense of duty and honor, love and devotion...turn you into a creature without mercy or regard for mortal man." She smiled as the images unfolded in her warped mind. "Your first kill would be your friend -- I'd make certain of it -- because to watch him realize the truth as he dies about what you've become would be an elixir for the spirit." She saw the horror reflected in his eyes and crooned, "Oh, I know you'd rather die first, but I wouldn't let you. I control your destiny." Jim shook his head and tried to look away, but he found his gaze held by the insanity in her eyes. "I can't bring you across, though," she sighed. "With your special abilities, you would be too powerful. You could become the leader, perhaps even a new Master, and I love Spike too much to risk it." She kissed him, her hands cradling his face as she drove her tongue deep inside his mouth. He tried to pull away, but she was uncommonly strong and held him without effort. He gagged at the cold, dead flesh invading him, but he would not attempt to repel it -- there was no way in hell he would bite that lifeless tongue! So he did his best of endure it, but it went on until he was certain he would pass out from lack of air. Then she released him, and he gasped and choked, his worse fear realized as the very essence of death invaded his throat and violated his body. He could taste death, feel it in every cell. Along with it came the fear, building and swirling through his bowels, a fear unlike any he had ever known, weakening and numbing in its intensity. Never had he felt such complete and overwhelming terror. "Spike is my lover," Drusilla went on in her dreamy singsong, heedless of his gasps and trembling body. "He's very weak right now. A long drink of your blood will revive him, I'm sure. Your blood is very strong." "So you're going to kill me after all," he choked out, relieved he at least would die as Jim Ellison and not be condemned to the living death of her kind. "No, sorry," she answered. "We have a new and powerful ally. We will give him your body, and once he possesses you, you will kill the Slayer." Kill Buffy? Murder a sixteen-year-old girl? So much had his world been upheaved, he didn't doubt her words for a moment. Although he could feel the runaway terror of his thoughts consuming him, his control slipping away, he knew enough to deceive her by pretending ignorance of Sklalas. It was training ingrained from his years in covert ops, but he had to make a strong, conscious effort to hold onto this thread of sanity. "What new ally?" Drusilla shook her head. "I don't want to spoil the surprise, but he is an ancient enemy of all living things, from a time before even my kind walked upon the earth." She touched his face again sadly. "So pretty, but Spike will be hungry now." Abruptly, she got up from his lap, and he felt his fearful trembling turn to violent shudders that cramped his stomach muscles with their force. Two vampires, wearing what he'd come to think of as their "true" faces, came forward and lifted him easily from his chair. Firmly grasping his arms, they dragged him between them out of the room, following the diaphanous form of Drusilla. Jim couldn't fight them, for his ankles were bound with the same unyielding duct tape as his arms, but he still writhed desperately in their clutches. They took him into a bedroom, furnished entirely in white, and flung him down beside the bed before departing. Drusilla knelt beside him and helped him sit up. He stared at her, flinching away but trapped by the angle of wall and bed. A new wave of weakness engulfed him as a cold breath tickled the back of his neck. "What have we here?" inquired a soft male voice. "A little snack, my love," Drusilla said, and Jim craned his head to see the face of a blond man peering at him over the edge of the bed. "His blood is strong. It will help you regain your strength." "Lovely," Spike agreed. He leaned over, and Jim automatically tried to wrench away, but they had him pinned helplessly between them. "Join me?" "Love to," she answered dreamily. Their faces transformed into demons, and two sets of fangs sought his neck... In what had to be the ultimate perversion of the fight-or-flight response, Jim felt his senses spiral further out of control, opening him to every nuance of the horror awaiting him. Desperately, he clenched his jaws against the scream trying to claw up his throat as the last of his sanity fled. Part Seventeen It was still dark when the group convened around a manhole cover on a quiet side street several blocks from the high school. Overhead, a thin layer of clouds hid the stars and reflected back the glow of the city's street lighting, but this dim luminescence only accentuated the darkness where they stood. They huddled together, partially to thwart the pre-dawn chill, partially to give them the illusion of safety. All they needed was a campfire to complete the picture. "OK," Buffy said, "it's twenty-eight minutes until official dawn, thirty-six until the sun is where we want it." She grimaced. "I know you've been aching for me to say it -- so, it's time to synchronize our watches." "Cool," Willow murmured nervously. "How do we do that?" "Us GI-Joe types know," Xander assured her with a mock snap to attention. Idly, he wondered if future Halloweens could be as productive as this last one had been. He'd dressed in the costume of a commando, and by some bit of magic, he'd actually become one. It had been weird...and neat. Maybe next year he'd dress up as a nuclear physicist...or Don Juan; he could just imagine the possibilities. With the detail of synchronized watches out of the way, Giles continued, "After thirty-six minutes, our window of opportunity decreases with every minute that passes." "We'll do what we're supposed to do," Xander promised. "Just make lots of noise so we know you're coming." "I don't think a lack of noise will be a problem," Buffy returned grimly. She glanced at Blair, who didn't appear to be listening. "Are you OK?" He looked at her, his expression anxious but determined. "Yeah," he answered softly. His eyes still looked haunted by the possibility of what they might find once they entered the tunnels beneath the street. Xander held out a bundle of wooden stakes. "Here, I carved these for you," he said awkwardly. "I hope your friend is OK." Touched by his sincerity, Blair accepted the stakes and put them in his jacket pocket. "Thanks." "OK, let's do it," Buffy said, popping the manhole cover as easily as pulling the tab on a can of soda. Within a second, she had slid down the metal ladder into the tunnel beneath. Blair followed a little more cautiously but as quickly as he could. Topside, Giles consulted his watch and slid the cover partway back into position; Xander and Willow quickly walked away to carry out their part of the plan. Abruptly, Blair touched Buffy's arm. When she stopped and looked at him, he said quietly, "I should have asked this sooner, but how do you know where Jim is being held?" She had hoped he wouldn't think to ask. "Can I just say I have a friend who knows these things, and leave it at that?" "One of them?" Blair asked in surprise. Reluctantly, she admitted, "Yes." Hope flared. "But I thought all vampires were evil." If just one vampire had retained some goodness, then surely Jim, even if he'd been forced to become one of them -- "Blair, it was a one-time deal." Buffy had to convince him. If Jim were now a vampire, they couldn't afford to hesitate even a moment in their obligation to destroy him. "It was a gypsy curse to give him a conscience to make him suffer for all the evil he'd done." "OK, but I know how to research these things," Blair insisted. "If there's a chance I can duplicate this curse with Jim -- I mean, if he's become one of them -- " The hope in his eyes died, and he shook his head. "No, he wouldn't want that." "You have to be OK with this, Blair," Buffy went on. "I have to know I can trust you to do what has to be done." He nodded. "If he's become like them, I don't know if I can kill him," he admitted softly, "but I promise I won't get in your way." It was the hardest promise he'd ever made, and he wasn't certain he'd be able to keep it if the need arose. "Then let's go," she said. "We're wasting time." Quickly, she led the way through the dimness. Avoiding the fetid puddles of stagnant water, she moved confidently through the maze, going from flood channel to access tunnel with the ease of someone who regularly traversed these byways. She paused at an intersection and pointed right. Blair looked into another tunnel, this one sloping gently upward toward street level. It was too dark to see the end. "This is our way out," she said quietly, removing a can of spray paint from her jacket and spraying a bright yellow happy face on the wall, adding a large numeral "1" beside it. On Blair's nod, she continued down the main tunnel. Their path wasn't always horizontal; sometimes, she took them down either ladders or cement steps to yet more tunnels, each level older and more tumbledown than the ones they left behind. At every change in direction, she sprayed a happy face at the intersection so Blair would be able to find his way back in the event they became separated in the near-darkness. Finally, he saw the faint flickering of candlelight in the distance. His tension increased with each step forward -- they were approaching the trap that had been set for them. As they rounded the last corner, Buffy signaled a halt. Ahead was a large space, the floor a filth of stagnant pools and fallen debris. Roots hung from the ceiling like skeletal fingers, their tips dripping water into the pools beneath. The gentle plop of each drop was the only sound to break the silence, but Blair could feel eyes peering at him from the dark recesses of the room. The air reeked of decay and various pungent chemical odors, and he wondered if they were beneath a factory. Lying on the floor in the center of the room, his arms and ankles bound with duct tape, lay the unmoving figure they had come to rescue. Suddenly heedless of the dangers, Blair hurried forward and crouched beside the still form, his hand reaching to check for a carotid pulse. When he found it, rapid but steady beneath his fingers, the light returned to his eyes. "Thank God," he murmured in profound relief, reaching for his pocketknife and beginning to cut through the layers of tape binding Jim's ankles. He felt Jim stir and try to sit up, so he grabbed an arm and helped. Jim sat dumbly, his eyes closed, his head drooping, as Blair finished cutting the tape fastening wrists and elbows. "Jim?" Slowly, Jim raised his head until he met the concerned eyes of his friend. His expression went from gradual recognition to alarm. "Chief, it's a trap," he gasped. "You've got to get out of here." "Yeah, we're going to," Blair assured him. "Can you stand?" Jim shook his head. "Can't. Too weak." It was then Blair saw the twin punctures on either side of his friend's neck. "Ah, man," he whispered in shocked understanding. "Damn -- " Buffy reached down and took Jim's other arm. "Come on. Time to go." Together, they helped Jim to his feet. He swayed a little, but managed to keep his balance. As the three turned toward the exit, they found their way blocked by a crush of vampires. "Oops," Buffy murmured, but she didn't sound particularly distressed. Jim tensed; he knew he wasn't up to this fight. Blair held onto his arm to help him, and slipped him a wooden stake from the stash in his pocket. "Hello, Slayer," the one leading the group said in sibilant satisfaction. "We've been expecting you." "Good," Buffy answered lightly, "after the way you ignored me in the cemetery, I was starting to think the bloom had faded from our relationship." "Your confidence will be your undoing," the vampire continued as the group tightened ranks and approached. "Do you really think you can defeat all of us?" "I was planning to have a little help," Buffy admitted. The vampire looked at Blair, who was pretty much occupied with keeping Jim upright and mobile. "Him?" the hideous creature sneered derisively. "Actually, no," Buffy returned calmly, her gaze shifting behind the group. "Him." Almost comically, the group turned as one. Giles had approached unheard and unseen. As the vampires faced him, he lit the tall flame of a pipe lighter and held it in front of an aerosol can of hairspray. As he pressed the spray button, a very satisfactory stream of fire shot from the nozzle, scorching the flesh of their adversaries and sending them scattering in a mass of terrified confusion. "Go!" Buffy yelled at Blair, who needed no second urging to make for the exit, Jim stumbling alongside but managing to stay on his feet. As they passed Giles, the librarian unslung his favorite crossbow from his shoulder and started forward to help Buffy hold the rest of the vampires at bay. Blair hurried as fast as he could while helping Jim. The possibility of escape gave Jim the strength he needed to keep moving despite an almost unbearable weakness in his legs, and their progress was so swift that when they finally encountered a vampire in the tunnel, they simply mowed him down. Blair paused just long enough to drive a stake into the beast's heart. Behind them, they heard shouts and screams and curses as the vampires found their trap turned upon themselves. Their cries echoed eerily off the tunnel walls and overlapped until they merged into one inhuman shriek. Jim made it up the stairs, but looked aghast at the ladder. Then, with a resolute shake of his head, he started to climb, Blair right behind him. When he finally reached the top, he collapsed, nearly out of breath, then moaned as some hidden pain made his body tremble uncontrollably as if gripped by some sort of seizure. Anxiously, Blair urged his partner back to his feet. "Come on, Jim, it's just a little further." They continued along the tunnel. A pounding of footsteps behind them caused Blair a momentary panic, but it was only Buffy and Giles catching up after the fight. Giles looked a bit rumpled, but Buffy looked surprisingly invigorated. "Giles, give me your last can of hairspray and the lighter," she said. "I'll stay here for a few more minutes; you help Blair get Jim outside." "Don't be too long," Giles urged her, complying with her instructions. "There may be other ways to reach this point in the tunnel." "I won't give them that long," Buffy promised, and gently pushed him on his way. With Giles holding onto Jim's other arm, they made even better time. Blair had no idea they'd traveled so far through the tunnels, but the spray-painted happy faces kept assuring him they were going the right way. At last, they reached the final tunnel, the one sloping upward toward street level. They were about halfway along it when Blair heard more footsteps gaining on them. Grimly, he took the stake from Jim's hand. "Giles, get him outside," he said, releasing his hold on his partner's arm. "Blair, keep moving!" Giles said desperately, still staggering forward with his burden. Jim was so totally out of it, he didn't realize Blair was no longer beside him. "Just go!" Blair shouted, turning to face the attack. Irresolute, Giles shook his head, but he knew the wisest course of help lay in reaching the doors at the end of the tunnel. The vampire struck Blair hard enough to send them both to the icy concrete, and the tumble caused him to lose the stake. Desperately, he swung his fist into the face of the hideous monster, but the blow had little effect. In a few seconds, he realized he was fighting a losing battle against a much stronger opponent, and he struggled to free himself from the iron grip pinning him to the ground. Helpless, he looked up into the repulsive travesty of human features on the face of his adversary, and he saw the mouth leer open to reveal its lethal fangs. Frozen in horror, he watched the face descend toward him... A terrible shriek of metal filled the air. Sunlight streamed into the tunnel, washing over the pair. The vampire screamed in agony and fell back, its face and hands smoking where the light had touched. It fled back down the tunnel, where Buffy casually staked it as it passed. She walked up to Blair. "Nice timing, wasn't it?" Blair struggled to his feet and turned toward the opening of the tunnel. The huge doors at its mouth were now wide open, showing a city street beyond. The sun, barely risen above the eastern mountains, shone brilliantly in a gap between two office high- rises across the boulevard. Its light penetrated more than halfway down the tunnel, but with each passing moment, as the sun rose higher, the depth of its infiltration shortened. "You forgot the plan, didn't you?" Buffy continued calmly, turning him toward the exit. Embarrassed, Blair could only nod, unable to look at her. "Sometimes, survival is measured in inches." "Inches is good," he mumbled inanely, finding his voice and his feet at approximately the same time. He hurried alongside Buffy toward the tunnel mouth, where Giles and Jim had finally made it outside. They reached the sidewalk, where Buffy paused to help Willow and Xander close the big metal doors to the tunnel and secure it so city inspectors would not realize someone had outsmarted their meager padlock. Blair started toward Jim, who abruptly pushed away from Giles and staggered toward the street. A horn honked briefly, but he was oblivious to it, his pace as uncoordinated as a drunk's. Blair dashed after him, heedless of the traffic dangers. Partway across the street, Jim tore off his jacket and threw it to the ground, his disjointed stumble not pausing. He had reached the center divider when Blair finally caught him, the others hurrying along behind. The median was landscaped like a small park, a pedestrian strip between two opposing streams of traffic with a bus stop and U-turn lane for city transportation defining its narrow borders. A small fountain, its water supply turned off, stood forlornly in the center of the landscaped area. Jim would have continued blindly forward, but Blair grabbed his arm. "Jim, what's wrong?" Jim shook him off violently, pacing back and forth with stiff, agitated steps. "Get the hell away from me!" he growled heatedly, arms jerking. He looked demented. His hands flailed at his shirt, tearing off the buttons, and he discarded it with the same disregard he'd shown his jacket. His fingers clawed at his arms, drawing red welts across the skin. Blair was not to be deterred. "Jim, you've got to calm down, OK?" he said urgently, trying to reach beyond his friend's panic. "Someone will call the cops, and if they find you like this, they'll stun you or something and take you away. I won't be able to help you. You've got to listen to me!" Jim turned on him with enough anger suffusing his face to make Blair take a step backwards. "Just shut up, will you?" he fired back, his eyes wild. And then he saw the others -- Buffy and Giles concerned, Willow and Xander absolutely terrified by his rage. It was their fear that made him stop his frantic pacing. He trembled, his body rigid with tension, his hands gripping his upper arms so tightly the knuckles were white. His skin would be bruised by tomorrow. "Giles, will you please get the car?" Blair asked calmly, his eyes never leaving Jim. "Of course." Herding Xander and Willow ahead of him, Giles hurried off, Jim's jacket and shirt clutched in his hands. Buffy waited quietly several feet away, ready to tackle Jim if he lost it again. A minute later, Giles pulled his car illegally into the bus stop, and Blair urged Jim into the rear seat. Buffy joined the others in front, which made it a little cramped but gave the two men some privacy in the rear. Quickly, Giles pulled out into the flow of traffic, grateful a police officer hadn't seen his illegal maneuver and issued a ticket. There would have been too many awkward questions about the man huddled so desperately in the back seat. "We can work through this, Jim, but you've got to help me here," Blair said quietly, realizing Jim's attitude was a sign one or more of his senses were wide open, running completely out of control. Jim groaned, hearing the voice of his Guide, not quite ready to listen to it. He rocked against the back of the seat, mumbling obscenities in rhythm to the wild thumping of his heart, his cursing as random and compulsive as Tourette's syndrome. But Blair kept talking, quietly and calmly, and finally Jim paused long enough to listen to him. He managed to take a breath that wasn't followed by a curse. Encouraged, Blair kept his voice low and tranquil. "Can you tell me what you're feeling?" Jim's words were tight, each one an effort. "Death," he murmured helplessly. "It's all over me...inside me. I can smell it, taste it." Blair paled. No wonder Jim was so freaked. "OK." He'd never had to deal with sensory images in the past tense -- what Jim was feeling had already happened to him; the traces were lingering in his mind and overpowering his ability to tune into the present. The taste of death? Every image he heard described was filled with death, decay and evil. They were potent words, rooted in primitive fear and mystery, much harder to dispel than loud noises or bright lights. It was the most challenging work Blair had ever done as a guide. He realized Xander was holding something toward him. Taking it, he saw it was a tube of spearmint flavored Chapstick. He nodded approval as he uncapped the tube and wafted it beneath Jim's nose. The strong scent caused Jim to jerk away in surprise. "I need you in the here and now, Jim," he said firmly, keeping his voice low. "All the other stuff is in the past. If we're going to tune down your senses, we've got to do it in the present." Jim looked at him, and for the first time Blair realized he finally had his friend's complete attention. It was a step in the right direction. After several minutes of gentle, quiet coaching, Jim's senses seemed to be practically back to normal. But he was still trembling uncontrollably, his fingers digging brutally into his arms. "Jim, what else are you feeling?" Blair asked, knowing there was something more, something they hadn't dealt with yet. Jim sought the words he needed. "Spiders," he mumbled. "Spiders?" Blair echoed blankly. "There aren't any spiders on you." Jim shook his head. "Inside me," he whispered. "Millions of them, crawling through my veins." Oh, boy. Blair realized this could be a genuine, current feeling, perhaps the result of the feeding by the vampires. "OK," he said with quiet determination. "Just like the pain meter -- we're going to tune it down until it's gone." And by the time Giles pulled into his driveway, they had. Jim was pretty much recovered when Giles shut off the engine. Embarrassed to realize he'd had an audience, he muttered, "Sorry." "Nothing to apologize for," Giles returned quietly, obviously shaken. He was amazed Jim had managed to hold onto a single thread of sanity with his heightened senses assaulted by such vicious perversions as he'd heard described. With an assist from Blair, Jim climbed out of the car. He felt stiff and weak, a little dizzy. Every joint ached. "Man, I need about sixteen hours of sleep," he said simply, then realized his upper body was covered only by his tank tee. "What'd I do?" he asked in confusion. "You had a bad couple of minutes," Blair returned calmly. "Kind of like the DT's." Jim just shook his head, too tired to worry about it. Giles looked at Buffy and the others. "Just give me a minute to help him get settled, and then I'll take you three home. You've been up all night, and I don't think going to school is a good idea." "OK," Buffy agreed reluctantly, starting to climb back into the car. "Buffy," Jim said as she turned away. She looked back at him. "Thanks." She gave him an aw-shucks grin. "Just doing my job," she said. She nodded toward Blair. "He's getting pretty good as this slaying business himself. A few more stakings, and we'll make him an official slayerette." "No thanks," Blair said fervently. "I'll stick to psychotic killers and mad bombers -- you know, the normal mayhem." Part Eighteen Jim immediately took a long, hot shower, then put on the last clean pair of boxers in his flight bag. Gratefully, he crawled between the bed covers, the sheets cool and soft against his skin. A moment later, Blair came in with a hot cup of tea and a stack of photos. "I think Giles believes a cup of tea will cure just about anything." Jim sat up to accept the cup. "He may be right," he agreed, breathing in the fresh, mellow aroma. It was strong but surprisingly crisp, and he sipped it gratefully, reveling in the heat and flavor that drove the last of the foul taste of Drusilla from his mouth. He nodded toward the photos. "Are those from the site?" he asked tiredly, trying to get his mind to focus. "Yeah. They're Dana's shots of the stone inscriptions. I thought I'd do a bit of work on a translation." He scooted a chair closer to the bed and propped his feet against the mattress. "Do you mind?" Blair's concern was transparent, but Jim only smiled and shook his head. Frankly, he welcomed the company. He finished the tea and turned over to lie on his stomach, his cheek against the pillow. "Wake me at dark," he said, his voice muffled. "I may never want to sleep at night again." "No problem," Blair agreed simply. A minute later, he knew Jim was asleep. He studied the photographs quietly for awhile, occasionally making a note as new thoughts occurred to him. An hour passed. Jim moved in his sleep and groaned as his stiffened muscles protested. Blair put aside his notes and shifted over to sit on the edge of the bed. He could see the puncture marks on the side of his partner's neck, and he shuddered to think of Jim's ordeal. The wounds themselves were an angry red, the skin around them puckered and bruised. Did vampire bites get infected? Should he have insisted on cleaning the wounds immediately? Blair quelled the rapid flow of his thoughts. There would be time for speculation later. Right now, he turned his mind toward wondering if vampires secreted an enzyme to keep blood from clotting, something similar to what a mosquito used when biting a victim. That might account for the sensation Jim had described as having spiders crawling through his veins. It gave Blair shivers just thinking about it. No wonder a Slayer was chosen young -- youth adapted more readily to the strange and bizarre. Even though Blair had killed vampires, he still had trouble actually believing in them. How much harder for Jim, who hardly even read fiction, to deal with a reality turned inside out? Jim moved again, and another groan escaped him. Blair put his hands gently on his partner's back. The muscles beneath his fingers were absolutely rigid with tension, or perhaps with lingering aftereffects of the vampire feeding. For a second, Jim rebelled against the touch, but even in his sleep, he must have recognized the hands of his friend and Guide, for he quickly settled again. Blair began to massage away some of the tension, and Jim's breathing soon became slower and deeper. He was finally, truly at rest. Part Nineteen Jim awoke several hours later in the same position in which he'd gone to sleep. The bedside chair now held a stack of clean laundry. The table lamp was on, and he felt Blair's arm draped protectively across his back. He turned and found his Guide lying fully clothed atop the bed covers, his glasses still on his face but one side piece unhooked from behind his ear. Notes and photos were scattered over him like large snowflakes. Blair stirred and mumbled. "Jim?" "Yeah -- sorry I woke you up." "'S all right." Blair turned his head and caught his glasses as they slipped down his nose. "What time is it?" Jim glanced at his watch. "Just after five." "Morning or night?" Jim smiled in spite of himself. "Evening." He rolled over and sat up, surprised at how weak he felt. Blood loss. He drove the unpleasant images from his mind. "You OK?" "You mean for someone who's had his whole belief system ripped apart and scattered like so much confetti?" "Yeah, I guess." "Then I guess I'm OK." Blair sat up and made a futile attempt to catch all the paper that cascaded off him. "You're going to be difficult, aren't you?" Jim sighed. "No." He leaned back against the bed's headboard. "There were just always certain things I believed in, and things I didn't. In spite of everything else that's happened, up until last night, vampires and demons were definitely in the latter category." "So maybe you're gonna have to rethink your positions on crystal healing and astrology and alien abductions," his friend observed mildly. "Yeah, maybe." Blair smiled slightly. "Well, if you start turning into my mom, I'll let you know." Jim grimaced. "Hell, Blair, I didn't mean -- " "No, it's OK," Blair interrupted calmly, "I know you weren't insulting Naomi, or me, or anyone else. I only mean all that stuff is window dressing. You're still who you always were." "Am I?" "Sure. You're the Sentinel -- always have been, always will be. You protect people, whether from murderers, vampires, or two- headed cat people from Delta-Theta-Zeta Three." "God, now I have to fight space aliens?" Jim groaned, but he was smiling faintly. "Whatever, they're all the bad guys. Who or what they are -- " "Just window dressing." "Yeah." "So these guys were just another street gang with really bad hygiene?" Blair shook his head. "They were vampires, Jim. Don't try to deny the reality of what they are. Just don't let it become central to who you think you are." Jim ran his hands through his hair, then down his face, trying to drive away the last remnants of sleep. "Are nightmares OK?" "I'd say they're mandatory." Blair figured he was due a few of those himself, considering. "Your subconscious will be playing catch-up for awhile." "Good." Jim swung his legs over the side of the bed, then stood cautiously, aware of his weakness but pleased there was no more dizziness. "I'm going to put on some clean clothes, then see what Giles keeps in his refrigerator." He picked up his stack of clothing and his bathroom kit. "You were busy while I was sacked out." Blair shrugged. "I was too keyed up to think straight, and laundry is pretty much a no-brainer." "Thanks." "You're welcome." Blair reached for his glasses and notes. In the small bathroom, Jim impulsively decided on another shower. Running the tap as hot as he could stand, he let the water pound out the last of the soreness in his back and shoulders, then dried off and dressed in clean clothes. He looked in the mirror and saw he needed a shave, but the thought was sidetracked by the sight of the twin puncture marks on either side of his neck. A surge of dread rippled through his body, and he gripped the sides of the sink. But he did not look away from his image in the mirror. Just another type of wound, no different than a knife or a bullet. Except he was still coming to terms with adding vampire to his list of villains. He remembered Drusilla and didn't resist the memories ripping around inside his mind. They were part of him now, but not part of who he was. Blair was right. They were just more bad guys. It was time for a little payback. Satisfied the worst was behind him, he went back into the bedroom. Blair's attempts to go back to work had failed, and he was sprawled sideways across the bed, arms dangling over the side. He was sound asleep. Pausing just long enough to be sure his partner was sleeping peacefully, Jim ventured downstairs, where he found Giles still poring over his musty tomes at the dining room table. "Coffee's fresh," the librarian said without looking up. "Milk and sugar if you take them." "Thanks." Jim went to the kitchen, found everything he needed assembled neatly by the coffee maker, and returned to the dining room with a steaming mug. He lifted the mug in a salute. "Thanks again." Giles looked up. "For what?" "Fresh tea leaves, fresh coffee beans -- I don't believe you're always this fastidious." Giles smiled faintly. "Actually, no. But last night's assault on your heightened senses -- not to mention your sensibilities -- must have been horrific. Fresh coffee seems a small enough indulgence under the circumstances." "It's appreciated," Jim returned gratefully. "I also smell pizza." Giles grimaced. "Buffy was here for awhile this afternoon so we could discuss our options. Like most teenagers, she believes in combining the major food groups with as little fuss as possible. However, if you don't care for pizza, I can probably throw something together." "Pizza's fine." Jim waved Giles back down as the librarian started to stand. "I can find it." He had no trouble locating the leftover pizza and a napkin. Eating a piece with his hands, he stood in the doorway and watched Giles at work. Guide...Watcher. Perhaps not so very different. Sentinel...Slayer. Not so much difference there, either, he realized, wondering how Buffy carried such heavy responsibility on her young shoulders. In many ways she appeared a normal teenager, but Jim had felt her unusual strength and witnessed her skill. The skills were learned, enhanced by her natural agility. But her strength? It was more than something taught or acquired. It was part of her, part of her legacy as a slayer, just as Jim's senses were part of his legacy as a sentinel. Teenager, high school student, daughter, friend; as Sandburg had said, all just window dressing. She was the Slayer. He was the Sentinel. Could he cross into her world and still get the job done? His track record so far had been abysmal. When he'd finished the pizza, he poured another cup of coffee and sat down across from Giles. "What are you researching?" "I'm hoping to find a key to stopping Sklalas." "The ceremony to -- what's the phrase...make him corporeal? -- is soon, isn't it?" "Yes, but since he wants to become corporeal in your body, he may have to alter his plans a bit." "But tonight or some other time, we still have to stop him." Jim's voice was grim. "Yes, and the sooner the better," Giles admitted. "If he can't take you, then perhaps he'll settle for someone else. After all, it won't take him long to realize there are far more potent weapons in the Twentieth Century than heightened senses to ensure his dominion. He simply has to find access to them and be willing to use them." "And there's no doubt he'd be willing," Jim concluded. Blair wandered downstairs. "Sorry I flaked out," he mumbled sleepily. "Doing the laundry really took it out of me." Jim smiled. "Not to mention slaying vampires at the crack of dawn." "Oh, yeah, that too," his partner admitted wryly. He sniffed the air. "I smell pizza. Did you save me a slice?" "There may be one or two left." Blair returned from the kitchen with a plate and two slices of pizza, which he attacked with relish once he'd sat down beside Jim. "Jim, how are you feeling?" Giles asked as Jim stole some sliced pepperoni off his partner's plate. "Pretty damned useless," Jim admitted. "Every time I go up against those monsters, I wind up on the losing end." "The odds in the cemetery were just too great," Giles pointed out. "It wasn't just the numbers," Jim replied bitterly. "The histamine blocker didn't help. The second I inhaled, I was virtually helpless. They didn't have any trouble taking me down." There were other things that had happened, too, things he didn't want or need to tell Giles; but as much as he didn't want to, he knew he had to tell Blair, sooner or later. Sooner... A faint shiver stole through his body, the remnants of the odd tickling sensation he swore were spiders crawling through his veins. That was one memory he didn't want to relive right now. His partner didn't miss the expression of dread. "What is it?" Jim shook his head. "Just the spiders again," he answered as casually as he could. "I've been thinking about that," Blair said, his mind switching into research mode. "Giles, do you know if vampires secrete an enzyme to prevent blood from clotting?" "Like mosquitoes, you mean?" Giles said with interest. "I don't know if any actual research has ever been done, but I haven't read all of the Watcher journals." Jim closed his eyes and massaged the bridge of his nose with his thumb and first finger. It didn't stop the sudden wave of irritation that jerked him to his feet. "Just great, Professor Sandburg -- let's see how clinical you feel after you've had a pint or two sucked out of you." He strode from the room, leaving Blair shocked and pale behind him. "God, I am such a moron," Blair murmured after a moment. "Excuse me." He got up from the table, picked up Jim's coffee cup, and followed his partner upstairs. Giles just shook his head in sympathy, sensing his young counterpart (and Giles had come to think of Blair as another sort of Watcher) was still very uncertain of his place in the relationship between Sentinel and Guide. He clearly had fallen into the role unexpectedly, without a proper foundation...at least the Watchers were trained and prepared for their responsibilities. Part Twenty Jim was sitting on the far side of the bed, his back toward the door, when Blair came into the bedroom. "Jim, I am so sorry, man," he began with deep sincerity. "It's OK," Jim answered, not turning around. "I over reacted." Blair walked around the bed and sat down in the chair. "No, you didn't," he said, handing Jim the coffee mug. "Even after all this crap we've been through the last couple of days, it still seems unreal somehow, you know? Jim, we've killed vampires -- do you realize how insane that sounds?" Jim nodded, his hands cradling the coffee mug. "I keep thinking that when we finally get back home, I'm not even going to remember what happened here unless something triggers a memory." "I'm definitely never renting another vampire movie," his roommate admitted with a shiver. Jim scowled, his thoughts returning to his present dilemma. "There's something I have to tell you." "What is it?" "About what happened," Jim began, then paused awkwardly. Blair had always been a good listener. When you were talking to him, you could tell you had his complete attention and a sympathetic ear. Sometimes, it made talking easier. Right now, it just made it tougher. Jim stared straight ahead, his eyes focused on something outside the bedroom window. "In the tunnels?" Blair prompted. "Yeah." Again, there was a long silence. "With Drusilla." Jim only nodded. Blair tried to find a way to pry loose his friend's thoughts. "You were afraid." This time, a head shake. Blair was startled. "You weren't afraid?" Jim winced. "I've been scared a lot in my life," he admitted quietly. "A time or two, I even thought I was terrified." He paused again, then struggled to add, "But unless there's a word to describe something beyond terror, I had no idea what it was until I came to down there." Blair didn't try to make light of Jim's experience or the emotions he'd felt. "It sounds pretty normal to me," he said. "Do you think you should have felt differently?" Again, Jim just shook his head, the image of Drusilla invading his thoughts and causing him to break out in a cold sweat. The very thought of her turned his bowels to water and made his testicles to want to crawl back up inside him. "This isn't about that. Something else happened." "What?" Jim faltered on the words. "My senses went berserk," he tried to explain. "Like an automatic adrenaline rush, only worse. The more frightened I became, the more my senses went wild. I couldn't begin to control them." He stopped abruptly, hearing the panic start to creep into his voice and forcing it back. "My senses are supposed to help me survive," he said finally. "In this case, they just made me helpless." Blair tried to imagine what it must have been like - the smells, the sounds...the unbelievable feeling of vampire fangs piercing the artery, sucking out life and vitality. He couldn't do it. The thoughts were just too horrific. "OK," he said a little anxiously. "It's a new wrinkle, but we can work through it." "That's not what this is about," Jim told him. "I just wanted you to know what happened. I wanted you to understand, if it happens again, I probably won't be much good. I don't want you to get hurt - or killed - if - " He stopped, too confused and ashamed to go on. "It's OK, Jim," Blair said softly. "We'll find a way; we always do." He laid a hand on his friend's shoulder and gave a gentle squeeze of support. "Anyway, we have a plan." Jim was silent for a minute as he sorted through his jumbled feelings. "I'm not going to like it, am I?" he asked at last. "Probably not." "I'll bet it revolves around you walking into a trap." This time, Jim's voice was grim. Blair tried to keep it light. "At least it's something I'm good at." "You're right. I don't like it." Realizing his partner was prepared to be stubborn, Blair stood up. "Anyway, we'll be downstairs hashing out the details. Come down when you're ready." Jim listened to his best friend leave the room and sipped from the mug cooling in his hands. Seldom in his life had he felt so helplessly disoriented. The first time had been immediately following the helicopter crash in Peru that had killed his team, when he'd regained a semblance of awareness amid the heat of organic and mechanical destruction. With his body wracked by pain, he'd focused on the dry, leathery touch of Incacha's hand against his face. The second time had been when his senses had kicked back on-line after a five-year dormancy. Convinced he was going insane, he'd focused on the voice of the man who would become his best friend and Guide. And the third time was right now, when he had to cope with reality gone mad, a reality filled with vampires and other demons previously relegated to the world of harmless fiction. He'd never felt so defenseless against an adversary, and no other foe had filled him with a sense of such enervating helplessness. With a surge of self-loathing, he thought that, of the six people tasked with saving the world, he was the weakest and most useless of them all. And that, he concluded firmly, would not do. With a sigh, he stood up and went downstairs. Part Twenty-One A council of war was gathered around the dining room table. "Have I missed anything?" he asked without apology, giving Blair's shoulder a squeeze as he joined the group. His partner looked at him a little anxiously, then relaxed when he saw only calm confidence. "No," Giles answered, "Willow and Xander have only just arrived. We were about to discuss our plan." The librarian sounded a little hesitant, as if he realized Jim was used to being in charge. He didn't want this to degenerate into a battle for leadership. "Go ahead," Jim prompted quietly. Giles addressed the group, who stood or sat as their urge dictated. "We've checked several pertinent references, and none of them specify a day or time when the ceremony must take place. Therefore, I think it's safe to assume the ceremony can be performed any time the need for it arises." "So we're going to try to force Sklalas' hand?" Jim concluded. "Exactly. We already know a shaman is required to recite the incantation necessary to release the demon's spirit from the bones to which it is bound." "And that would be me," Blair said, picking up the thread of the explanation. "I'm going to kind of make myself available until they get around to snatching me." "Couldn't that take weeks?" Xander asked skeptically. "I don't think Sklalas is all that patient," Blair assured him. Jim nodded in agreement. "We'll make airline reservations tomorrow, make them think we're leaving. If they don't act tonight, we'll certainly provoke a response by tomorrow night." Blair looked surprised. "You're OK with this?" "Not hardly," Jim retorted harshly, "but unless there's a reason to wait, I say we destroy this bastard now." Giles nodded his agreement. "Further research seems pointless. There's little enough available, and most of that is repetitious." "So what does your research tell you is going to happen when they get their hands on Blair?" God, he hated the thought of that! "They'll take him to the ceremonial site, which is wherever they're keeping the old shaman's bones and the medicine bundle. Blair will have to speak the incantation to release Sklalas from Tlalaqueh's binding spell. Thus freed, Sklalas will then absorb the power from his medicine bundle and obtain the strength he needs to regain human form and open the hellmouth." Jim turned to his partner. "You can read this incantation?" "I doubt it," Blair admitted ruefully. "It's probably written in a language I've never even seen, much less tried to speak." "So what's gonna happen when they find out you can't do what they want?" Giles looked grim. "We must act before then." "I can probably come up with a little of the old mumbo-jumbo routine," the young anthropologist assured hastily to forestall Jim's objections. "It'll buy you a few minutes to get into position." "How do we destroy the medicine bundle?" Jim pressed, only slightly diverted. "A little twentieth century magic," Giles replied. More fucking magic! "And you know how to do it?" Blair chuckled. "Science, Jim," he explained with a grin. "Just good, old-fashioned chemistry." The Sentinel, with his instinctive need to protect his Guide, still wasn't convinced. "OK, let's say we've destroyed the medicine bundle -- what about Sklalas? You said yourself, the spell binding him to the bones is weakening. Won't his spirit or essence or whatever eventually get loose?" "That's a bit of magic I know about," Blair answered a little smugly. "The Inca tablet -- the inscriptions tell me how to strengthen the spell." He frowned, sadness suddenly overtaking his expressive face. "Tlalaqueh has held onto the demon's spirit for centuries. I wish I could find a way to give him a little peace." "Uh-uh, Chief, no fancy attempts to rewrite the script," his partner said firmly. "If this plan has a chance of working, we go with it. You're in enough danger as it is. I'm not gonna let you risk your life any further just so you can help a guy who's been dead for hundreds of years." Blair looked stubborn for a long minute, then finally nodded glumly under the strength of Jim's determination. "OK." "OK," Jim repeated, satisfied. To Giles, he said, "And what will we be doing while my partner is saving the world?" Buffy had an answer for that particular question. "The usual, slaying vampires and anything else that gets in our way." "And making certain nothing gets near the medicine bundle until we can destroy it," Giles added. "Killing vampires is not something I'm very good at," Jim admitted, the sense of helplessness threatening to reappear. He shook it off. Even if he only managed to kill one vampire before his allergies overtook him, it was still one more monster gone. "Perhaps you should stay here," Giles suggested, although he knew the idea would be rebuffed. As expected, the proposal was met with a firm, negative head shake. "I can track Blair's heart beat, so we won't risk losing him in the tunnels. We'll have a better chance of taking them by surprise. After that, I'll just do whatever I can." "No, Jim," Blair protested. "The next allergic reaction could be even worse. It could kill you." "I am not staying behind," Jim countered with heated resolve. There was no way he was going to let his Guide walk into a trap without proper backup, no matter how skilled the Slayer and the Watcher. Damnit, Blair was his responsibility! Willow had been quiet up until now, knowing her part had been concluded with the research. She and Xander were seldom included in any dangerous plots, although they frequently found themselves in trouble without even trying. "You know," she began tentatively, "my mom is really allergic to dust. When she vacuums, she has to wear one of those little paper face masks." It was as if time stopped while everyone looked at her with varying expressions of surprise and doubt. Hesitantly, she added, "Have I just been outrageously stupid or incredibly brilliant?" Jim frowned. Could it really be that simple? "I think I have a disposable painter's mask in the garage," Giles offered quietly. "Thank you," Jim returned just as calmly. "I'll also take one of your crossbows if you have a spare." Willow smiled proudly. "I guess that means I was brilliant." In answer, Jim leaned over and gave her a kiss -- on the cheek, of course. Part Twenty-Two It felt very empty and cold to Blair as he entered the deserted library. Shadows filled the depths between the rows of bookshelves even after he turned on the light, while silence hovered like a physical presence, pushing against his ears. Ignoring his fanciful imaginings, he took out the keys Giles had loaned him and opened the cage where the weapons and most important books were kept. With no particular subject in mind, he started examining the spines of the ancient texts. Within moments, he felt the pull of their magic and began to linger over the titles, his fingers gently touching their stiff leather binding. It was almost enough to make him forget he was here as bait. An unopened box caught his attention, and he crouched down to fold back the cardboard flaps. More books. He lifted one out and read the cover: one of the Watcher journals Giles had mentioned, this one dating from 1889. No wonder the librarian was having such a hard time going through all the tomes -- if this box was any indication, there must be hundreds of them! He lifted out some more; different dates, different handwriting, but all describing the seemingly never-ending battle against the forces of darkness. A more slender leather volume lay amid the rest, and he picked it up. While it could be easily mistaken for a Watcher journal, it was not part of that group. Instead, it was the diary of a Spanish priest who had come to save the savages of old California. It was difficult making any sense of the old-style script and the odd manner of phrasing, but Blair managed to translate a bit of it. He smiled in delight when he figured out what he'd found. The smile faded when he realized he was no longer alone in the library. Putting the diary back into the box, he stood up, left the cage, and locked it behind him, pushing the keys back through the mesh to deter the intruder in case he wanted to get in there for some reason. But the visitor wasn't interested in books. "Hello, Blake," Blair said with a sigh, grateful he was facing the high school science teacher and not the freshman, Blu. "What brings you to the library so late at night?" "You do," Blake answered simply. "You have a mission to perform, and I've been instructed to bring you." "You're the one who dug up the medicine bundle, aren't you?" Blair asked quietly, his voice sounding flat in the heavy stillness. "You don't seem surprised." "I'm not. We figured out it had to be either you or Blu. Everyone else was accounted for, unless there was someone we didn't know about yet." Blake sneered. "You think you're so smart, don't you, Mr. Fast- track-to-a-doctorate. Jeez, you perpetual academics make me sick." Blair felt an unexpected twinge of sympathy. "I take it your life hasn't gone exactly as planned?" "No shit, Sherlock. You think I like teaching high school science to a bunch of dumb-heads who don't care about anything except the labels on their clothes or which boy scored on his last date?" "I'm sorry." He sounded sincere because he was; sometimes, it seemed as if the course of his own life was heading away from what he really wanted to do -- teach advanced anthropology and conduct field studies -- while real life kept diverting his attention. "Do you really think Sklalas is the answer?" Blake snorted. "I've made the greatest scientific discovery in history," he said arrogantly. Blair had to agree. "Yes, you have, but do you think Sklalas is going to hold up his plans just so you can write a brilliant paper about him? Man, he's going to destroy the world, and no one will ever know what you've accomplished." "I'll know," Blake insisted. "And you'll know -- and so will all the other stuffy old professors before I'm through with them. Sklalas has promised." Blair felt the shadows moving around him and knew Blake had brought backup. With a quickening heart, he sensed the air shift slightly as two vampires stepped up on either side of him. He hoped Jim and the others were waiting outside as planned; and he hoped he had the courage necessary to see this night through. If the nerves jumping through his gut were any indication, he was going to have a hard time keeping a grip on his fear. "Well," he murmured sarcastically, "if you place your trust in a demon, don't be surprised when everything goes straight to hell." "Move," hissed a soft voice in his ear, and strong hands gripped his arms to propel him forward. Blake checked the hall, then led the two vampires and their prisoner away from the school. Part Twenty-Three As the eerie dimness of the old tunnels closed around him, Blair felt his nervousness increase. There was no point in resisting -- the vampires were far too strong -- and this was part of the plan anyway, so why risk injury? He shivered in the cold as they took him deeper into the forgotten passages. Occasionally, he passed one of the happy faces Buffy had spray-painted on the walls during his first foray into the depths; they were reassuring only in that he knew where he was. Finally, they reached the large, dank room where Jim had been held prisoner. It was ablaze with torches, the flames reflecting off the stagnant, filthy pools of water glistening with the sheen of chemical refuse. They took him up a rusty metal ladder to a platform where a spillway joined with this main waterway. The large circular opening of the old pipe was blocked with a grid of iron bars. Another cement block served as a makeshift table; at one time, it had probably diverted the force of the floodwaters surging from the pipe. Now, it held an old leather overshirt piled with dark fragments of human bone. Tlalaqueh. Next to it was the rotted remains of the medicine bundle. Blair felt as if he could sense the evil radiating from it. The two vampires escorting him pushed him toward the concrete table, but he instinctively tried to draw away from the medicine pouch. "There, there, no need to be afraid," a soft voice cooed from beside him. He swung toward the source, then cringed from the female vampire who had crept up unnoticed until she was right beside him. Flinching, he stepped back, only to collide with one of his guards, who held him fast. He found his voice. "Hi," he said inanely, his voice tremulous but still spirited, "you must be Drusilla." She fondled the soft curls of his hair and breathed deeply of its herbal scent. "I see my reputation has preceded me," she murmured in his ear, her chill breath stabbing ice into his marrow. "Do you know what we're going to do here tonight?" "Free Sklalas from the bones of Tlalaqueh and reunite him with his medicine bundle," he managed to reply, feeling panic start to overtake him. Drusilla was so freaky and repellent, he felt certain he would faint if she bared her fangs at him. It was no wonder Jim's confidence had been so badly shattered. "Good boy," Drusilla approved. "Do you know how we plan to do that?" "I have to read something from an ancient text, right?" Blair hazarded, not bothering to add that he really didn't understand a lot of ancient writings without his reference materials. They'd find out soon enough, unfortunately. "A shaman is required to read the incantation," Drusilla agreed. "And a shaman's voice must recite the words." It sounded suspiciously like a enigma to him. "I thought that's what I said," he pointed out, trying to keep eye contact with her abhorrent features. Drusilla just smiled dreamily at him. "Yes, yours will be the voice." Oh, boy. She was having too much fun with her riddles, and he was too frightened to attempt to figure them out. "Get on with it," ordered a coarse British voice from the lower level. Unnoticed by Blair, a dozen or so vampires had gathered in the chamber. The one who had spoken was in a wheelchair. Spike. "Don't rush on my account," Blair murmured hopefully. Drusilla's smile broadened in appreciation of his mild attempt at humor. Without a word, she turned toward the table and picked up one of the smallest fragments of bone. Blair watched in growing horror. He had no idea what she was doing, but this was not supposed to be part of the ritual to free Sklalas. It had to be something else, something they hadn't considered. What the hell was she doing? Murmuring unfamiliar words in a singsong voice, she placed the bone in a stone vessel and began to grind it with a pestle. Its fragile form was quickly reduced to a fine powder, and she placed the grinding tool aside. Still chanting to herself, she turned back to Blair, her eyes half-veiled in an apparent trance state. She took his hand and raised it to her lips. Trying to pull away was useless -- he couldn't believe how much strength she possessed in that frail-looking body. Softly, she caressed his palm, first with her fingers, then with her mouth, but her eyes never left his face as she reveled in his mounting terror. Repulsed by the feel of her frigid lips, he tried to curl his fingers into a fist, but she wouldn't let him. With a gentle sigh, she buried her fangs into the soft pad of muscle and flesh opposite his thumb, and he cried out in pain and fright. Reluctantly, she withdrew her mouth and held the bleeding wound over the mortar, where his blood dripped to join the powdered bone. Ten drops, and then she released his hand. He clutched it to his abdomen, his fingers curling tightly against the fabric of his shirt to stem the bleeding. Stirring the concoction in the bowl with her index finger, she began to chant again, more forcefully this time. Raising the bowl in front of Blair's terrified eyes, she lifted her index finger, gore dripping from its tip, and drew a line down the middle of his forehead. He tried to pull away again, but the strong hands of his guards snarled in his hair and held him motionless. More lines of blood and bone crossed his forehead, and then his cheeks. Each one burned like fire, searing his skin, and he groaned against the pain. With a final flourish of words, Drusilla brought the tip of her finger directly between his eyes and pushed. He screamed as he felt flesh and bone part beneath her touch, and a rod of pure, molten fire drove into his brain, consuming him in flames from the inside. And then he slumped limply into the arms of his captors. Part Twenty-Four As Blair's cry echoed through the tunnels, Jim faltered, his hands going up to cover his ears as the sound overwhelmed his hearing. In the next instant, he broke into a run. They were almost to the ceremonial chamber, he was certain, and he was just as certain it was the same room where he had been held prisoner the night before. With one portion of his frantic thoughts, he remembered the need for stealth, but speed was his main concern. Buffy and Giles were right behind him, their own fears rising as the last of the scream died away, leaving only hollow silence in its wake. He hadn't quite reached the end of the tunnel when he halted, falling to his knees in reeling confusion, refusing to believe what his ears were telling him. Buffy and Giles crouched on either side of him. "What is it?" Giles asked in the merest whisper, aware Jim's hearing was wide open in order to track Blair through the maze of tunnels. It took a long moment for Jim to answer as he tried to cope with the dreadful reality. "Blair's heart beat," he murmured finally. "What about it?" "It's -- gone." Giles wavered between guilt and confusion. "No, they need him for the ceremony." "A sacrifice?" Buffy offered quietly, pushing aside a surge of sorrow that threatened to distract her from what had to be done. "No, a sacrifice is not part of the ritual." Giles wished the tone of his voice held as much confidence as the words themselves. Managing to thrust aside his rising fear for Blair's life, Jim climbed to his feet and started forward again, his emotions carefully closed off. Without another word, Slayer and Watcher followed. They reached the end of the tunnel quickly. Crouching down beside the wall, Jim realized he could still hear two heart beats. One of them was Blake's, which he'd identified earlier at the library, but the second one, which should have been Blair's, was of someone else. How could that have happened? He peered cautiously into the room and saw a group of vampires gathered on the main floor, their attention focused on something just to Jim's left. He moved a little farther into the open to get a better look, and what he saw sent cold fear coursing through his belly. This was followed quickly by white-hot rage. Drusilla stood on a raised section of concrete, where several drainage pipes had once emptied their runoff into the chamber. In front of her, Blair hung apparently lifeless between two male vampires. Jim frowned in confusion. One of the hearts he sensed was coming from his Guide, and yet it was not the familiar, comfortable rhythm he knew better than his own. Before he could question this contradiction, Blair lifted his head and stood to support his own weight. His captors released his arms and stepped back. Dead blue eyes appraised Drusilla. "Hello, Sklalas," she whispered. "Welcome to the Hellmouth." Jim drew back and stared at his companions. Buffy looked just as confused. "I thought you said -- " "It's not Blair," Jim interrupted softly, his voice flat. He turned a glacial stare on Giles. "Is he some kind of zombie or what?" Giles shook his head, but it was clear he'd been thrown off stride. "Possession seems more likely." A surge of anger toward the librarian caused Jim to take a deep breath to control himself. "Damn it, you said Sklalas was bound to Tla -- whoever's bones!" And hearing that sheer nonsense fall from his own lips aroused his anger all over again. How the hell could he have listened to this crap? No one knew what was going on; no one had a clue how to deal with the madness! Giles spoke in a quick whisper, not to excuse himself but rather to puzzle through the incongruities. "According to what Tlalaqueh told Blair in the chasm, Sklalas is bound to the shaman's bones. They must have found a way -- " He trailed off, deep in thought. "They must have used some of the bones in a possession spell. If Sklalas has control of Blair, then Tlalaqueh must be with him as well." Jim's eyebrows went up of their own volition. "So they're both possessing Blair?" he asked, thinking there was enough clutter already in his partner's convoluted mind without the addition of warring factions of good and evil. The consequences became frighteningly clear to Giles. "Sklalas is a shaman, as is Blair. He knows the words to the ritual. Sklalas will use Blair's voice to recite the incantation and free himself. We mustn't let that happen!" "OK," Jim said, rising to his feet. "You do what you have to do. I'll see what I can do about distracting Sklalas and getting my partner back." "You can't just walk out there!" Giles protested. Jim smiled grimly. "Hell, if Sklalas is psychic like you figured, he already knows I'm here." With that, he stepped into the open. The cold, dead eyes of the demon that looked liked Blair focused on him at once without a trace of surprise. "Welcome, Sentinel." Part Twenty-Five "Hello, Sklalas," Jim greeted coolly, moving into the chamber and drawing attention away from the tunnel mouth where his companions were hidden. "You've improved since the rat persona." The demon inclined his head in a brief nod -- Blair's body jerked like a marionette, his movements wooden. "Not my final form," Sklalas agreed blandly, "but sufficient for my needs at present." Jim took another step, and the vampires gathered on the lower level moved toward him. He raised the crossbow negligently with his left hand, not really aiming at anyone in particular, although his first impulse was to put the bolt through Spike's heart. Still, the vampire leader was in a wheelchair, relatively harmless compared to the others. "Who wants to be first?" he asked conversationally, then casually redirected his aim and shot one of the vampires on the platform. Even as the creature disintegrated to dust, Jim drew a stake from his jacket sleeve with his right hand and sent it sailing toward Drusilla. Dashing toward the platform caused his aim to be off slightly, and the vampire queen could be very quick when she wanted to be. Screaming in fear at the nearness of death, she twisted desperately away from the wooden missile and took it in the back of her left shoulder. The impact caused her to lose her balance, and she fell from the platform into Spike's lap. Buffy and Giles attacked from behind, first with crossbows, then with stakes as they surprised the group and gave Jim the time he needed to climb onto the platform. With a stiffened arm, he shoved Blair aside and drove another stake into the second vampire. Although he had the painter's mask hanging ready around his neck, he chose to hold his breath instead, since this vampire was his last nearby adversary. As the creature exploded into dust, Jim turned toward the demon, who was already scrambling for the medicine bundle. Strange words spilled from Blair's lips as his voice began to recite the incantation with fervid determination. They grappled, falling as Jim fought to keep Sklalas from reaching his goal. Wincing with guilt, he backhanded Blair across the face to stop the flow of words, then rolled to his knees and used one arm to sweep the fragile medicine bundle off the makeshift table; it fell to the main floor amid the chaos of fighters. "No!" Sklalas howled in Blair's voice, the desperation stabbing through Jim's heart even though he knew it was not his Guide's anguish he was hearing. Blake, ignored in the struggle, saw it fall and lunged forward, determined to claim it once again for himself. Giles, swinging his unloaded crossbow like a club, sent him sprawling into a deep puddle. Giles didn't know what sort of power the medicine bundle possessed, but he knew Blake had once been a gentle if unremarkable teacher. Discovery of the relic had clearly done something to bring out all the dark resentments previously buried in his mind and make him a willing servant of Sklalas. It was prudent to keep everyone clear of its influence until he could destroy it properly. With this goal in mind, he drove back a vampire that attempted to grab it, then used a stake to finish the creature for good. Although aware of his duty to secure and ultimately destroy the medicine bundle, another part of Giles' attention was focused on the Slayer. In his mind, he knew he had to guard the ancient artifact or all of humanity would suffer the consequences, but in his heart, he knew victory would be empty if it meant he had not kept Buffy safe as well. So he guarded her back, using his weapons when he could, shouting warnings when an enemy tried to take her unawares. Buffy fought as if she, too, were possessed. Anger charged her spirit, and she went skillfully on the offensive, her moves quick and decisive even as she ran out of stakes and took up her remaining crossbow bolts to use as effective substitutes. Drusilla, who possessed the power of second sight, didn't need a vision to realize her plans for Sklalas were doomed. Pushing Spike's chair with frantic impetus, she abandoned her followers and fled with her lover. On the platform, Jim was engaged in his own battle, one in which he was at a disadvantage because he did not want to cause injury. Fueled by the demon's anger, Blair's body had surprising strength. Always wiry and quick, he wrestled away from Jim and lunged to his feet, kicking and hitting without concern for his own possible injury. But then, to Sklalas, Blair's body was merely a tool to be used as needed. Jim snagged an ankle, and Blair went down hard, the breath momentarily driven from him. Struggling back to his knees, the Sentinel removed a vial of holy water from his pocket and uncapped it, then poured the contents into the mortar containing the mixture of bone and blood. He didn't know if it would do any good, but he wanted whatever magic residing in the bowl to be neutralized if possible. Sklalas grabbed for him, knocking the vial aside, but most of the water went inside, where it boiled and sizzled. With a scream, Blair fell to the floor, his body arching and spasming as if in the grip of a seizure. Flailing on the concrete, heedless of injury, he writhed in helpless torment. Jim caught him, preferring to accept the pummeling to his own body rather than leave Blair to slam painfully against the floor. Even now, Sklalas strove to say the words, but some force seemed to be thwarting him. Had Tlalaqueh and Blair somehow united against the evil shaman? Whatever was happening, Blair was being assaulted with wave after wave of agony, his stamina being pushed to the limits. A minute later, the struggling figure collapsed in Jim's arms. "Hold your breath!" Buffy shouted a warning just a moment before Jim felt cold hands grab his shoulders. He'd been so intent on his Guide, he hadn't sensed the threat, but he closed his eyes and held his breath as his attacker wafted to dust around him. He realized both Buffy and Giles were beside him now, guarding his back as he held his Guide. On the lower level, the remaining vampires had fallen back to regroup. Spike and Drusilla had vanished. Jim didn't know if they'd escaped or been killed. Right now, he had to think only of escape, and that path led straight back through their adversaries. Giles popped the cap off a small can of lighter fluid. Blair flinched, moaning in despair, and opened his eyes. "Jim," he whispered faintly as his questing eyes finally focused on his friend. "You're going to be OK, Chief," Jim assured him quietly, grateful to once again hear the familiar heart beat, however furious its rhythm. He took a handkerchief from his pocket and started to clean some of the ritual markings from his Guide's pallid face. Weakly, the young man struggled to push the hand aside. "No," he murmured painfully, every word an effort. "Stop -- Giles." Frowning, Jim reached up and gripped the librarian's wrist. "Giles, Blair's trying to say something." "There's no time," Giles said anxiously, but he crouched down, trusting the Slayer to keep an eye on things. "What is it, Blair?" At the tunnel mouth, the vampires stood uncertainly, their leaders vanished. Although assured by their superior numbers, they weren't certain of their loyalty to Sklalas. A couple took a tentative step toward the humans, then halted again as Buffy wagged an admonishing finger at them. Blair began to speak, but once again, the words were in some strange language he could not possibly know. It was clear the strain was costing him dearly. Automatically, Jim reached to stop him, but his fingers hesitated the merest breadth from touching. This was his Guide, the person he trusted above all others, not the spirit of evil. "How are we doing, Buffy?" he asked softly, never taking his eyes off his partner's agonized face. "Oh, just peachy," the Slayer replied glibly. "Me watching them watching me. Kinda boring, really." Giles smiled suddenly as he listened to Blair. "Oh, of course, what a brilliant idea," he murmured, rising to his feet. "Jim, tell me as soon as he finishes the incantation." "Sure," Jim agreed dumbly, not understanding a bit of what was going on, only willing his Guide to quit struggling so hard to say the mysterious words that obviously held significance for everyone else but him. "I think the situation is about to heat up," Giles observed calmly, totally oblivious to his unintentional double entendre as he upended the can of lighter fluid. As the liquid streamed down to soak into the dried leather of the medicine bundle on the floor of the lower level, the vampires stirred and surged forward. Blake, on his knees in the stagnant water and still groggy, was equally decisive when he realized what was happening. With a scream of desperation, he launched himself toward the old leather bag, determined to shield it from the flammable liquid with his body. At the same moment, Blair smiled almost beatifically and closed his eyes, and Jim said, "He's finished." Giles dropped a lighted match. The medicine bundle went up with an explosive rush, also consuming Blake in flame. The science teacher screamed in agony and sought to quench to fire in one of the pools. The chemical residue coating the fetid water ignited, and the whole room suddenly exploded in one great fireball. Jim crouched protectively over Blair, while Giles lunged to pull Buffy down; her attention had been on the vampires. In its quest for oxygen, the fire sucked greedily at everything around it. The huge drain pipe behind them proved to be a savior; a swift inrush of air surged through the passage, feeding the flames while at the same time forcing them back. It all happened in a few brief seconds. The vampires that were not consumed fled in mindless confusion from the inferno, which died down almost immediately as the chemicals burned up. Acrid fumes filled the heated air, but the draft from the drainpipe keep fresh oxygen coming in for the humans to breathe. A few of the dangling tree roots descending from the ceiling danced in the remnants of the breeze as smaller, more patient flames fed upon them. Giles straightened and looked around cautiously. "I say, that was a bit unexpected." Sitting up, Buffy shot him a caustic look and brushed futilely at her filthy clothes. Giles had the grace to blush. "Was that just too terribly British?" he apologized quietly. "Just too," she agreed with a grimace. Jim straightened up, Blair still held protectively in his arms. The young man was unconscious, and Jim stroked the sides of his face gently, removing the last of the bloody symbols with his handkerchief. "Blair? Come on, Chief, I need to be sure you're OK." Blair opened his eyes and blinked in confusion. After a moment, he focused on Jim. "Hey," he murmured weakly. Jim smiled. "How're you doing?" "Tired," Blair admitted, one hand clutching Jim's sleeve with weak but determined resolve. "Is it over?" "I think so," Jim replied, trying to sound confident. He looked at Giles. "Is it?" "Yes," the librarian admitted. "But we'd best get out of here before the vampires regroup." Jim looked down at his partner. "Can you stand?" he asked, remembering it hadn't been all that long ago that Blair had asked him the same question in this very room. "Think so," was the faint answer. Giles reached down to help Jim get Blair to his feet. "The binding spell you recited," he said. "You bound Sklalas to the medicine bundle, didn't you?" Blair swayed a little, unable to stand without Jim's support, and nodded wearily. "And then you destroyed it," he confirmed haltingly. "Does that mean Sklalas is gone?" Jim asked anxiously. Blair managed a shrug. "Maybe." He gestured toward the cement table and the meager pile of bones. "Jim, we're taking those with us." "Fire has always been an element of purification, so perhaps he's finally gone for good," Giles said, wrapping the old, brittle fragments inside the dried leather shirt. Slinging his crossbow across his shoulder and tucking the bundled bones beneath his arm, he took Blair's other arm with his free hand. With Buffy leading the way, her crossbow once again loaded and ready, they climbed off the platform and left through the tunnel. Blair closed his eyes, trusting in his friend to keep him safe. His steps faltered with weakness, and he leaned gratefully into Jim's strength, surrendering himself to the solace of that embrace. He was so unbearably tired.... The tunnels were deserted, and after what felt like hours of trudging and climbing through endless darkness, they reached the open air. The night was cold, and Blair shivered against it. He opened his eyes and looked skyward at the stars glittering over head, and he smiled at the beauty of the heavens. Little things previously taken for granted suddenly seemed almost achingly special. Awkwardly, he climbed into the back seat of the Citroen. Jim climbed in beside him. "Lie down on the seat, Chief," he instructed gently. "You're looking a little pale." "'M 'K," Blair protested, his words slurring badly as he slipped toward a faint. Jim just pushed him down on the seat and lifted his legs, sliding beneath them so he could find some room to sit. "Other than a touch of shock, you mean," he said fondly, monitoring Blair's hear rate and breathing. He smiled when he saw a bit of color return to his friend's cheeks. Blair fell asleep without another murmur. As Giles started the engine and pulled away from the curb, Jim looked at him in bemused wonder. "We just saved the world, didn't we?" "Yes, we did," Giles agreed, heading toward Buffy's house to drop her off. "Do you do that sort of thing often?" Giles smiled. "Probably more often than you'd care to think." Beside him in the front seat, Buffy grinned in agreement. "And I didn't even break a nail," she observed drolly. Jim had no idea if she was kidding or not. Part Twenty-Six They spent the next two days slipping back into the more familiar routine of "normal" life. There had been too many alterations to the cut of the cloth to make a truly comfortable fit, but time would soften the hard lines and blur the mismatched seams of a reality irreparably skewed off center. Blair slept a lot, regaining his strength and emotional equilibrium after his ordeal. Against his strongest prediction, it turned out to be a deep and restful slumber; apparently, his subconscious hadn't quite come to grips with what had happened and couldn't even conjure a decent nightmare. When he wasn't resting, he was writing furiously in his notebooks, filling page after page with his recollections of every moment, which he would sift through and organize at some later time. He questioned Jim closely about his allergic responses, and tried to draw out his thoughts and feelings about Drusilla. But there were some things Jim just wasn't able to discuss in depth, and Drusilla was one of them. He doubted he'd ever examine that experience too closely, even in the safety of his own thoughts. Since learning both Spike and Drusilla had escaped from the ceremonial chamber, he was even less inclined to talk about it. Giles calmly returned to work at the school after assuring his two guests they were welcome to say as long as they liked. Although eager to get home and leave the horrors of Sunnydale far behind him, Jim realized Blair needed the rest, so he gratefully accepted the offer. Buffy showed up once to complain about the grade she'd received on her history test. The triumph of saving the world was inconsequential compared to the possibility of failing a class. She was so completely -- sixteen -- Jim could almost forget she was the Slayer. They puttered around in quiet companionship, visiting the archaeological dig so Blair could give Dana back her photographs and deliver the promised translation of the Inca stone tablet. The anthropologist omitted references to the binding spell, and spun a guileless tale about the missing bones, claiming they'd vanished without a trace. On their last morning in Sunnydale, they cleaned the guest bath and bedroom, changed the sheets on the bed, did laundry and dishes, and allowed Giles to drive them to the airport during his lunch break. Buffy had an English test that day, and the group had already said their good-byes the night before. Life simply moved on. Finally, they were heading home on the second leg of their journey. A commuter hop had taken them to San Francisco, and now they were aboard a 747 bound for Seattle. In the center seat, Blair stirred and opened his eyes. "I think I'm setting some sort of record for fading out," he muttered, straightening and stretching carefully in his allotted space. On the window side, the other passenger in his row had her nose buried in the latest Stephen King novel. Next to him in the aisle seat, Jim smiled. "I think we're entitled." Through the airplane's window, he could just make out a bit of blue sky and cloud, and felt a little sorry he hadn't chosen a window seat. Daylight had become a precious miracle; it was no wonder the Navajo had a ceremony for greeting each new dawn. With memories of Sunnydale fading behind him, and the familiar environs of Cascade still a few hours ahead, he felt it was a good time to deal with one last issue. "I've been meaning to ask you about something," he said at last, somewhat uncomfortable referring to what had happened to them over the past few days. "Uh-huh." "About your new bunk mate." Jim paused awkwardly. "I mean, do you intend to keep him in the loft?" Blair grinned. "Does that bother you?" "Well -- yeah, it does. I mean, uh, he's not just a bundle of bones, is he? It's his spirit as well, right? Didn't the original binding ritual trap him as well?" It felt just as strange talking about this stuff now as it had when the whole weirdness had begun. But Blair was comfortable with it. "Yeah, but I don't plan to keep him around for long." He reached into the magazine holder in front of him and pulled out the thin leather volume he'd borrowed from Giles. "I found this when I was looking through a box of Watcher journals." "What is it?" "I haven't been able to figure out a lot of it, but it's the diary of a Spanish priest who worked at Mission Santa Barbara. He talks about a really old Indian, different from the others in the area, who told him tales of a great battle against an evil demon. The priest thought it was amusing nonsense, and he wrote it down like a work of fiction." Jim's eyes widened. "Xihuichua?" he asked. "Yeah. I'm guessing he was heading home to Peru, but I think burying Tlalaqueh in the cave just took all the heart out of him. He settled with the Chumash and spent the rest of his life with them, adopting some of their peaceful ways. Somewhere along the line, he seems to have made friends with this priest." "So you think he's buried somewhere near the Mission?" Blair nodded enthusiastically. "I'm going to find him and try to get permission to return Tlalaqueh and Xihuichua to their village in the Andes. I'd like to bury them side by side." "That could take months -- years -- of diplomatic haggling," Jim pointed out. "And that's only after you find the Sentinel's grave...if you find it." "I know." The younger man didn't look the least daunted by the challenge. "Do you figure Xihuichua's spirit is still hanging around? I mean, wouldn't he have moved on or whatever it is spirits are supposed to do?" "I don't know. His spirit might still be wandering restlessly, unable to find peace. I've got to find out, make things right if I can." "Why would he -- it -- he -- do that?" Jim asked curiously. Blair's expressive face abruptly closed off, and he seemed to draw in on himself. Jim knew he'd struck a nerve, and he didn't even know how he'd done it. "Chief?" he asked in bewildered concern. Blair shrugged off the memory of how he'd felt when confronting the possibility of Jim being turned into a vampire. "Uh, I just think I understand how Xihuichua would have felt after sealing Tlalaqueh in the cave," he murmured a little uneasily. Jim's imagination fled to the realization of how he'd feel if confronted with the same dreadful choice. "Sorry...I guess I didn't think it through far enough." "It's OK," the younger man answered, grateful Jim had drawn his own conclusions and not pressed for details of Blair's feelings. He never wanted to experience such a profound sense of loss again -- and he'd felt it simply by anticipating the possibility of Jim being destroyed. How much worse for Xihuichua, who'd known with certainty that he was killing his Guide and friend? Of course, Blair and Xihuichua were separated by centuries of cultural differences. Perhaps Xihuichua had felt very little grief, accepting his obligation without any of the emotional conflicts that challenged Blair's thinking on an almost daily basis. But no. Talking with the spirit of Tlalaqueh had revealed the depth of the dead Shaman's love for his Sentinel; the feelings surely must have been reciprocated to some degree. Xihuichua had felt anguish. With a start, he realized Jim was talking again. "And you'll be able to release Tlalaqueh from his own bones, right?" "Oh, yeah, no problem -- the ritual was spelled out on the tablet." Jim nodded. "No problem," he repeated. Yep, they were definitely going to have some truly weird conversations in the months ahead. "OK, you can keep him in your room. But I swear, the first time something goes 'bump in the night', he's out. I don't care if you put him in the trunk of your car or in your office, but I'm tired of spirits, demons, vampires and whatever cluttering up my life. I won't have any disturbances in the loft." Blair managed to restrain a laugh at his partner's utter sincerity. "OK, I'll tell him." Satisfied, Jim leaned back and closed his eyes. "You didn't happen to catch the news last night, did you?" he asked. "How'd the Seahawks do?" THE END Note: I have to thank Shellie for her proofreading and suggestions that helped me finish this story. She is the reason I finally was able to type those two little words...THE END. May I please go to sleep now? And a big "mahalo" to Gina for enduring endless rewrites and conferences while in the midst of her own creative efforts. To Eagle Eye (Jen) and Paulette: Your comments and suggestions as you attempted to jumpstart me out of my writer's block were inspirational. I could have written a novel based on your ideas! I wish I'd had the energy to incorporate more of them in the final product. Thanks also to Laura Picken,who showed it could be done. "Shadows and Demons" took almost a year to write. Although it was finished except for the final confrontation, aspects of the original version ended up on Buffy's season finale, so a little (try a major) rework was in order. A bad case of writer's block last spring really slowed me down, and that was followed by the spirit-numbing S2, after which I had trouble writing anything at all. "Recovery" was self-therapy as we began the renewal campaign, and "Toad in the Toidy" was -- well, a snippet. Anyway, I'd read Laura's "Blessed Protector" soon after finding TS fanfic, and my story was begun shortly thereafter. So, yeah, I could have gestated a foal in the time it took to write this. I apologize for the lengthy delay in posting the second half, and promise never to do anything so incredibly dumb again. Thanks to everyone for their patience and kind words of encouragement as I floundered through this morass of my own making!