"Can I help you?" It was a nice voice asking the question, but she didn't appreciate the offer. She didn't need help. Why would she? She could get up, if she wanted to. "Ma'am?"
"Leave me alone." She tried to swat the owner of the voice away, but her arms didn't move. Where did he get off calling her 'ma'am', anyway? Just how old did he think she was?
"Ma'am, you can't stay there. What's your address? I can help you home, or--"
"Get off me. Know what you want. After... one thing. Everybody."
"I was going to say 'or I'll get one of the ladies to do it.' I have several women on my staff." He started to pull her to her feet, but she fought back, recovering control of her limbs soon enough to fend off his various advances. Fight, her instincts told her. She could fight. She was good at it. She had saved her own life many times, and the lives of others, and even with arms that felt like lead she could do a lot of damage. The nice voice shouted out in pain, and a moment's satisfaction coursed through her - then she was sleepy again, and just wanted to be left alone. There were more hands now though. Insistent ones. She struggled, but they dragged her upright anyway, heaved her roughly along. She felt her feet scrape on a hard floor. That was right; she was inside. A bar. A dingy, quiet little place, where she had thought that nobody would object to her slowly drinking herself into oblivion. Apparently they did mind. The toes of her shoes caught on the doorstep, bumped against stone - then the insistent hands let go, and she was falling face down onto gritty tarmac that stank of dirt and exhaust fumes. Voice echoed above her - the staff of the bar, shouting at her not to come back; the man she had hit, threatening to sue her or press charges; passers-by swearing at her sudden arrival in the way of their hurrying feet. She ignored them all. The tarmac was as comfortable as the hard wooden floor of the bar. Bothering only to drag herself into the shadows close to the wall, she let her head drop down onto the ground, and closed eyes that hadn't been seeing anything anyway. The police would probably move her along - they usually did. In the meantime, though, she could shut the world out with her carefully constructed barrier of whisky, and wallow in pity and hate. Self pity - but not self hate. The hate she reserved for others.
For Angel. The vampire, supposedly with a soul, who had caused a man she loved to come into her life, to inspire and to lead her, to give her a purpose and a sense of joy. A man who had died in her arms, old and twisted and so consumed with hate that he had never spared a thought for her feelings.
For the boy. Connor. The boy who had been born against all the odds; whose birth had screwed everything up. Who had taken away the man she had loved - had needed - and had returned him old and anxious to die. To die for him. For the boy and for his father, and for that ultimate revenge.
And Pryce. The gallant, twisted, honourable, brutal Pryce. Angel's loyal servant and eventual betrayer. The man who had forced her to help Angel - and worse. Far worse. The man who had forced her, with the help of a small, dark room, to look at herself too closely. Had made her see herself. Made her realise what she was, what she had become - and, after it all, hadn't killed her. Hadn't allowed her even that. She hated him even more than she hated the others, and it was his face that floated in front of her eyes now, even as they rested, closed, and pressed against the litter that clogged her bed. She hissed venomous threats, but didn't hear them. Either she hadn't said them aloud, or hadn't said them loudly enough to rise above talking pedestrians and the engines of coasting cars. She went on muttering anyway - spitting curses and exclamations of loathing at the many faces now filling her semi-conscious head. Angel, tall and leather-clad. Heroic. Hateful, to her at least. Connor. So young, and yet so much older than he should have been. A part of Angel even if he didn't want to be. Pryce, all shadow and stubble and rumpled clothing. Lost - but not the way that she was lost. Somewhere else, in a place of fallen heroes. And she hated him so much.
"Then why not do something about it?" The voice seemed to be inside her head, so she assumed it was her own - until she registered how happy it was. How cheerful. Her own voice was never like that. She opened her eyes, blurry from hot, angry tears, and turned her head. It took a moment for her vision to start working again, and even then what she saw didn't make much sense, for in the midst of the hurrying human feet, none of which seemed affected by the obstacle, a little grey creature stood. It was bent and bulbous, with a long, sharp nose, and its sleek skin was the colour of dirty rainwater; dirty streets; polluted air. It grinned at her without an ounce of warmth or good humour, and its grey teeth glinted wetly between thin, hard lips. Seeming to move at - to exist at - a different speed to the oblivious legs around it, it came closer and closer to her, and leant down so that its face was bare inches from her own.
"Then why not do something about it?" There were wicked grins in that voice - snaps and bites and clackings of sharp, malicious teeth. She felt her numb face form itself into a frown.
"Do what... about what?" Her voice was slurred, and for a moment she wished that she hadn't got so drunk - until she remembered how much better it was to be that way. How much simpler. The teeth clacked and clattered noisily.
"Them. The ones you hate. Take your revenge. Send them to hell, destroy their lives. Use your imagination. And all the malevolence, all the malice, all the spite there ever was in all the world, will make it all come true." A long, misshapen finger reached out and touched her forehead, right between her eyes, and for a moment everything was clear. Spite. It sounded childish, but it fed the fires of her brain. So much sharper and more brutal than revenge. Spite. It even sounded like stabbing knives. Like giving those she hated all that they deserved. Her face twisted into its first smile in a long, long time.
"Why not do something about it?" she said at last, and the creature cackled and took her hand. She felt its hard skin, sleek and hot and dry, and she felt the malice that lurked inside its bent, ugly little form. Just touching it felt invigorating; felt like approaching justice. She clung on, and grinned, and let her heart fill with spite, as around her the world faded away.
Los Angeles had always been a sunny city. A place of warm weather; of sun-bleached blondes hoping to catch the eye of a film director; of heat-cracked tarmac and regretful, sunburned tourists. Right now though, as he stood by the door of the Hyperion hotel, Angel could only wonder if it was no longer to be anything like so sunny a place. It was hard to imagine how the sun could rise again at the end of a night like this one, though he longed so much to see its light again. To him it was deadly, but he yearned for it nonetheless. Anything to end this dreadful night. No moon lightened the heavens; no stars decorated the skies tonight. There was just darkness, and burning orange hail falling from above. The city looked like he felt - and the way he felt right now, that was very bad indeed.
It was usually so much more simple. A monster came. He fought it. Sometimes his team helped, sometimes they kept back and let him do all the work. But always the outcome was the same. He won. The monster died. Humankind was safe, until the next threat. That was how it always happened. How it had been since he had first joined the fight against evil, with Buffy in Sunnydale in 1997. He always won. Until now.
He didn't know where the creature had come from, or why it was here, or what it wanted. He didn't know how he was going to defeat it. All he knew was that it had come as close to killing him as anything had ever done before, and his body ached accordingly. His body, his heart and his soul. The pain came from the many deep wounds caused by his hopeless battle, but it came from other, less obvious sources as well. Less physically obvious sources. After the battle's end, with his strength and his spirit at their lowest ebb, he had seen the woman he loved with the son he wished would love him. Now the betrayal mingled with the more tangible agonies, and he felt sure that the sun could never shine again. Not in this city.
"Angel?" It was Wesley, fading out of the shadows in the time honoured fashion that was Angel's own. Of course it was Wesley - everybody else was trying to sleep. Gunn and Fred had wandered off together, searching for some safe, quiet place within the hotel where they could not see the rain of fire, or smell the burning, or hear the cries of frightened neighbours. Lorne hadn't even made it that far. He was sprawled upon one of the seats in reception, a glass placed neatly by his feet. Usually he would have drunk more, but tonight his body's inability to be affected by alcohol had been more than he had wished to confront.
So now there were only Wesley and Angel, as there had been so many times before, in the old days. After Cordelia had gone home to bed, or to an audition; after Gunn and Fred had gone out on a date, or just decided to call it a night - so often Angel and Wesley had stayed at it, reading, researching, wondering - or fighting all that needed to be fought, in Angel's case. He would come back from his late night jaunts to find Wesley still working; because Wesley had been raised to work, and didn't seem to know how to do anything else. It had been quite companionable. The city asleep, never knowing what they were doing for it; the two of them, drinking coffee and reading books centuries older than either of them. Now that was as screwed up as everything else.
"Angel?" Footsteps that would have been soundless to human ears came closer. Angel didn't turn around.
"What?" He spoke more harshly than he had intended, mostly because he felt so very bad. He regretted it immediately. These days Wesley was even easier to hurt than he had been in his shy and nervous days, even if he didn't let it show anymore. Sure enough there was not so much as a flicker of emotion in the voice that answered him.
"Cordelia. She's not here, and--"
"She's fine. I thought I made that clear." This time he couldn't keep the irritation from his voice.
"I saw her." He turned then, very slightly. "After the fight. Don't worry about her. She's fine."
"Well that's... good." Clearly Wesley was picking up on the dark mood Angel couldn't hide. "I'll... probably be going then."
"You're going home? Tonight?" Angel turned around fully, amazed at this turn to the conversation. "You'll never get there. Not in this... this storm or whatever it is. There are plenty of rooms here at the hotel."
"I prefer my own. We made it back here alright, and the fire was falling then." The voice was clipped, and it came from shadow. Turning around hadn't given Angel a better view of his impenetrable companion; it had just made the figurative distance between them seem greater than ever. He sighed.
"Wes... Look it's been a long night. We both took a hell of a beating. It's raining fire and there's a demon out there somewhere that's killing more people than we'll probably ever know. Don't be an idiot."
"I'm an idiot? Because I'm the one who was wandering around out there alone, and who's been standing out here all this time? You're not impervious to flaming meteorites, Angel." Wesley's voice was like ice, and Angel regretted his words. He felt bad - did he want everybody else to feel that way too? But Wesley was so damn touchy these days. It was impossible to skirt around him all the time. Angel wandered back towards the door, wondering if there was any chance of getting any sleep himself.
"I didn't mean to say 'idiot'," he muttered, with no real conviction. He was angry and hurt, and it was impossible to keep that mood to himself right now. In an ideal world it would be Lorne bearing the brunt of it all; ever buoyant, ever receptive Lorne, who was always ready to sort his way through Angel's moods. Lorne was asleep, though, like all sensible people who were able to do so just now. "Just... come back inside. At least wait until the fire balls stop coming before you try going home."
"If they ever stop."
"Yeah." It should have been a comfort to know that he wasn't the only one lost in the depths of misery and despair, but needless to say it wasn't. Wesley followed him in looking awkward, hanging about at a distance as though suspecting that he wasn't really welcome; or not caring enough to worry about that at all. Typically all the lights were turned off - they all seemed to have a fondness for darkness lately, thought Angel. He wanted to slam the lights on, and at least mimic the sun he so wanted to see, but the darkness was easier to face right now. He gestured towards the coffee machine, making a stab at hospitality, whilst wishing that he was alone to wallow in his despondency.
"Coffee?" he asked. Wesley shook his head. He was still standing there, looking formal and awkward, and distinctly sullen. "We've still got some tea around somewhere. Fred wouldn't let me throw it away." He realised that he had said the wrong thing again, and sought for an exit. "Not that I'd still want to throw it out. That's all... well that's over now, right? I just... I was pretty angry then."
"Yes. So I recall." He didn't elaborate, but it was obvious what he was remembering; Angel trying to smother him with a pillow, screaming out his rage in a hospital ward. Angel had no idea what Wesley thought about that incident, and he didn't want to. Things like that were for Wesley to work through by himself. The human was watching him now with eyes that were so guarded and closed he made Angel himself look open and emotional. Angel sighed, breathing out a big lungful of unnecessary air. He couldn't handle this. Not tonight. The demon, the resounding defeat, the apparently impending apocalypse - plus whatever was going on with Cordelia and Connor - all of that was too much to deal with anyway, without the Crown Prince of Brood to worry about as well. Crossing to the coffee machine, he poured himself a mugful that he didn't think he wanted, then headed for the nearest chair. Wesley was still watching him, battered enough to give Angel a good indication of what he himself must look like, closed face given a reflection of the hidden inner turmoil by the background of falling fire outside. Too alike, thought Angel grimly, and too, too different. Especially nowadays. He levered himself to his feet again almost immediately.
"I'm going to bed." He left the coffee behind, and for a moment thought quite seriously about appropriating one of Lorne's bottles of vodka in its place. "Choose a room, Wes, they've all got beds in them. Nothing else is going to happen tonight. We can afford a little sleep."
"Yeah." For a second it looked as though Wesley might smile, but in the end his expression didn't change. "Goodnight."
"Night." He left quickly, needing solitude. Wesley wouldn't be heading for the bedrooms, he knew; he would be turning to the books, looking for something that might help to defeat the creature that had so soundly beaten them all tonight. The camaraderie of late night reading and research was something that Angel had been missing just a few short moments ago, but he didn't take up the chance to revisit those days now. The silence of his room called him, along with the chance to indulge the misery he couldn't shake. Misery that an uncharitable part of him wanted to blame on Wesley - after all, Connor would hardly have been in a position to go to bed with Cordelia if Wesley hadn't done the things he had done. He growled, angry with himself for letting the anger and depression get out of hand, but not really willing to make the effort to rise above it. Everything was wrong tonight. Everything. He felt that he was more than entitled to mope.
Downstairs, Wesley stood alone in the lobby, watching the shadows of the falling fire. It all seemed less horrific if he watched only the shadows, rather than turning around to watch the barrage itself. Nearby Lorne mumbled faintly, but Wesley didn't hear him. He was thinking of the huge beast that had come so close to killing Angel. There had to be something about it in one of the books, surely - something so powerful couldn't have gone unremarked upon? Pouring himself a cup of coffee he didn't especially want, but which with luck should help him to stay focused, he headed over to the research material. Sitting up awake all night here was no different to sitting up awake all night at home; so settling himself in a hard, straight-backed chair, he picked up one of the many books that he seemed to know so well, and started to read. He didn't notice the small, grey, bulbous creature that scuttled across the floor. He didn't see it paw at the several books lying on a chair; didn't see it scurry out into the lobby; didn't see it peer at Lorne, or sniff at the empty glass at his feet, or stand for a moment to admire the flaming skies. What he did notice, several seconds later, was the text in the book before him beginning to blur. He rubbed angrily at his eyes. He wasn't that tired, surely? It had been a long and painful night, but goodness knew he had had worse injuries. Sitting down as he was now, things didn't even hurt too much. It didn't seem to matter. Even as he was telling himself that he was alright, the words grew and shrank before his eyes, and in a fury he pushed the book away, watching as it skidded across the table. As it rippled. As it wobbled and shook, and shivered in tandem with the room... Panic gripped him, and he was beginning to stand up; beginning to turn around; beginning to call out to Lorne; when the shaking in his vision turned everything unintelligible. The world broke up around him, but worse was to come. Seconds later it blinked out of existence completely.
The landscape was bleak and flat - horribly flat. For miles in every direction it stretched out, empty of any feature, with nothing to break up the monotony. The ground was dry and coloured red, and there was a distinct redness in the strangely hazy sky. Two suns hung above, as red as everything else; lazy somehow, in their half-hearted glow. Angel stared up at them, uncertain why he wasn't bursting into flames. Often when he dreamt he saw suns; big, hot, shining suns that made his skin prickle and burn. It was natural, he supposed - the sun was a subconscious fear of most vampires. Almost every human being loved it, and all vampires had been human once. Angel could still remember the wonderful feel of it, from long ago days. Now it was one of the few things that could kill him. This time, though, his dream-world seemed to have presented him with two suns that apparently had no desire to see him combust. He stared up at them, wishing that things were not quite so red, and thought unpleasant things about the featureless landscape. Quite why his unconscious mind had thought to bring him here he couldn't imagine. If dreams had secret meanings, what could a dream about empty red deserts mean? He thought about asking the question aloud, but the oppressive silence of the dead place seemed to force him to remain quiet himself. It looked as though no sound had ever been made here, and perhaps never would be. Depressing. Lonely. Time, he though decisively, to wake up.
"Angel?" A voice. Not a voice that he expected to hear in this place; but then he had been sure that he would hear nothing at all, so any sound was a surprise. "Angel?"
"Wesley?" He turned, wondering how anybody could have arrived when he could see for miles and hadn't seen anyone approach. Still - people appeared from nowhere in dreams. Such things were one of the ways you could be sure that you were dreaming. He frowned at Wesley, a little surprised by the way that he looked. Wesley was not that rare a visitor to Angel's dreams, but he generally had something approaching a uniform appearance. Not always in a suit necessarily, but always with glasses, clean-shaven, and with the old expression of awkwardness and innocence on his face. This though - this was Wesley as he was in the real world now - battered, unshaven, decidedly bedraggled. His face still bore the marks of the fight against the beast, and that didn't make sense either. Angel liked his friends to be safe in his dreams. It was the only place where he could be sure that they would all be alright. He tried a welcoming smile.
"Hey Wes. Here to help me wake up?"
"I don't think you're asleep." He was speaking in that guarded tone; the one he had been using ever since Angel's return from his watery tomb. The welcoming smile on the vampire's face turned to a definite frown. Wesley never behaved this way in Angel's dreams. He still spoke with enthusiasm there; like a child eager to please a parent.
"This isn't a dream, is it." Angel stared up at the red-tinted sky, and especially at the looming suns. They were not deadly to him, which was nice, but he enjoyed their warmth far less now that he knew he hadn't simply invented them in his subconscious mind. Wesley shook his head.
"I can't imagine that we could be sharing a dream, no. Or a nightmare. So where are we?"
"And how did we get here?" Angel pointed up at the sky. "Pylea? I wasn't affected by the suns there."
"True. This isn't like any part of Pylea that we saw when we were there, but without Lorne to ask, I don't know. Certainly the suns seem smaller here, but seasonal differences might account for that. If the planet's ellipse is particularly long..." He trailed off, apparently assuming that he was being too longwinded, and looked away instead. "We could try looking for someone? If it is Pylea, it may be that your fame..."
"Always supposing that we've travelled to the now Pylea. We've been picked up and dumped somewhere, and not with any portal that I noticed. Who's to say we haven't travelled in time too? I mean, that's possible, right?"
"Not according to modern science, no. At least, so the leading physicists would tend to suggest." Wesley shrugged. "But then most leading physicists wouldn't agree that it's possible to open a portal to a demon dimension either, so who knows?" He crouched down, feeling the dry, sand-like earth. "Perhaps this is a desert? Pylea may well have them."
"On the other hand, this might not be Pylea at all." Angel kicked at the ground. "And how the hell did we get here? I don't remember seeing all the whirly lights and bendy furniture, and all the wobbly stuff there was when we went through the portal before. And how did we both end up in the same place? You said that was unlikely when we went to Pylea."
"Well I don't know!" Always short-tempered and quick to offence these days, Wesley reacted hotly. "I was reading. The words started to blur, and then suddenly I was here. It might have been anything that caused it. A spell, a demon... Possibly the demon that we fought earlier tonight?"
"Why? Why would some demon that we were no match for, find the need to throw us into some other dimension? Assuming that's where we are."
"Few places on Earth have two suns." Wesley stood up. "Lorne was just in the next room. Apparently whatever got me didn't get him as well. Interesting."
"And Fred and Gunn aren't here either." Angel folded his arms. "So who wants the two of us out of the way? Wolfram and Hart?"
"What interest would they have in us? You might always have been a thorn in their side, but they've never bothered with the rest of us." Wesley brushed the dirt from his hands. "No, there has to be something else."
"You think? You don't figure that maybe Wolfram and Hart aren't happy about one of their best operatives having a relationship with one of my people? You don't think maybe they'd rather get you out of the way?"
"One of your people?" Wesley's voice was like ice. "I am not one of 'your people', Angel."
"Wolfram and Hart might not know that."
"Wolfram and Hart know everything - and besides, I think I've been making my position quite clear these last few months. It's why they sent Lilah to me in the first place. Which, incidentally, is absolutely none of your business." Wesley turned away, beginning to walk across the barren land. "Now I propose to find out where we are. What you do is your own affair."
"Wes..." It was too late. Already striding away, Wesley was either out of earshot or determined to pretend to be. Angel muttered sourly under his breath. He couldn't seem to say the right thing lately. Every time he thought that relations were improving between the two of them, they seemed to drift apart again. Gone were the days when Wesley shared jokes with him, to say nothing of coffee, beer and even hugs. Now the only thing between them seemed to be icy silences. Angel thought about everything that had caused the break down of their friendship, and couldn't deny that he still felt the resentment stirring. Connor's childhood gone. Connor's relationship with Cordelia changed forever. Angel's relationship with Cordelia apparently gone forever. With resentments like that still to be dealt with, perhaps he couldn't really complain that he and Wesley no longer seemed to be friends. Muttering rude things under his breath, he began to walk forwards - and collided headlong with something that hadn't been there before.
"Ow!" The something had fallen over, but it stood up quickly and came up fighting. Angel deflected a blow before he even saw it coming, and had to pull the punch he had sent as a follow up when he saw who it was he had been about to hit. A small, slight something. A very familiar something, with a very familiar sulky scowl.
"Dad." It wasn't a question - more an accusation. "What's going on? Why did you bring me here?"
"Me? I didn't bring you here. I didn't bring me here." Angel looked towards Wesley, but the human had already noticed and was on his way back. "I don't even know where here is."
"I do." Connor turned at the sound of Wesley's footsteps, and managed a glare nearly as unpleasant as the one he had directed at Angel.
"Really?" Wesley, through the guarded tone he always seemed to have in conversation these days, sounded interested. "How so?"
"Because I couldn't fail to recognise it." Connor spat the words out as though his simple statement was intended as an insult - but then Connor so often spoke that way. All attitude and resentment, thought Angel. Just like another 'son' of his, back in Sunnydale. "This is Quor-toth. My home."
"Quor-toth?" Wesley looked about, seeing the red sky and the empty vista in a new light now. "But that's impossible. There are no portals into Quor-toth. You can only get there by forcibly ripping holes in the fabric of reality. How the hell--?"
"Forget the how, if you want to stay alive." Connor's contempt was clear. "An ordinary human won't last five minutes here without being very careful."
"Holtz managed," pointed out Angel, before remembering that it wasn't a good idea to mention the boy's foster father within Connor's hearing. Sure enough his son's eyes all but spat flame.
"My father," he said, emphasising the title just to make a point, "was a very special man. He fought all his life. Against things like you."
"And I've trained all my life. I think I'll do alright." Wesley's voice was as icy as it had ever been, in perfect contrast to the pure heat of Connor's own. "Where are we exactly?"
"The plains of Kor-moth. And it's sunset. We should get off the plains before night comes, or none of us will stand a chance." Connor sounded torn between his enjoyment at being the one with the knowledge, and annoyance at having to impart that knowledge. "The creatures that come out at night here are deadly. Nothing else comes here then."
"That explains why the place is so empty." Angel nodded. "Come on then. Let's get moving."
"Don't try to give me orders." Connor began to march away, without a single look back at the others. Angel sighed.
"I can't do anything right," he muttered irritably. Wesley shot him a glance that was almost friendly.
"He's just showing off the home advantage," he said softly. "This is his world, remember."
"Yeah." Angel's eyes flashed in much the same way that his son's had done. "And who's fault is that?" Overtaken with a sudden rage that could have no other target, he stalked off, leaving Wesley far behind. The human stared after him for a few moments, stung more than Angel could ever have imagined. For a second he stood where he was, viewing the horizon and thinking about striking off on his own. He didn't want to be with these two. Not now. Not in this place. In the end though, coming to the obvious conclusion that there was nowhere else to go, and not quite ready yet to give himself up to the creatures that stalked this place at night, he swallowed his pride and set off after the others. He turned his emotions off, and seemed to shrink physically as he walked, retreating back into the shell he had built up around himself. Let them have their anger, he reasoned. They had earned it. Possibly he deserved it. They could deal with all of that when they had reached shelter. Always supposing, of course, that there was shelter to be reached. Already the sky was darkening, and he thought that he heard, in the distance, a mighty voice shriek out its desire for food. Quickening his step he tried not to think of such things. They could find a way out of this.
Just as long as the three of them didn't end up killing each other first.
It wasn't easy to run on the dry ground. What had seemed solid enough when they were just standing worked against them now, making them slip as they ran. Stubbornness alone kept Wesley upright; Connor seemed practised enough, and Angel's natural vampiric strength and balance kept him from falling over - but none of them found it easy. At times the sand was ankle deep or more, slowing even Connor's fast pace; and behind them the sounds of hungry native beasts were not receding. A faint wind was beginning to grow, as the red tinted suns grew redder, and lower, and the temperature began to fall.
A rabbit ran across Wesley's path - or something that looked like a rabbit. His natural sense of curiosity encouraged him to slow or stop, but sense prevailed and he ran on. It proved to be as well that he did, for seconds later the sands around the rabbit shifted and swayed, and in the blink of an eye a giant mouth rose up and engulfed the small creature, crashing back down into invisibility. Wesley stumbled.
"It's not like home, Wes." Angel's face was set like flint. This was his first glimpse of the world that his son had grown up in - of the trials and dangers he must have faced every day of his young life. It was not a nice thing to see. Even if his glare was not directed at Wesley personally, Wesley himself saw it that way; felt the accusation and his own accompanying guilt. He could almost wish that the creature beneath the sand might swallow him too.
They had been running for some time when the suns disappeared completely. The redness was gone from the world then; in a rush almost, as though the colour was fleeing for its life. A new colour replaced it at once, rising up from the opposite horizon in the shape of a huge blue-white moon. The new light washed over the sand, changing its colour, seeming to change its texture, its mood, its nature. Connor slowed to a halt then, looking around like a wild animal. Angel stopped beside him.
"Something wrong?" he asked. His son's hot eyes shot him a disparaging look. "Aside from us being here. Why did you stop?"
"It's night." The boy turned in a circle, watching as Wesley caught up. If he was impressed at the human's ability to keep pace for so long with a vampire and a... whatever exactly he was... then he gave no indication of it. "If you two have weapons, now's the time to use them."
"I don't see anything to fight," commented Angel, drawing the stake that was very often his only weapon. Connor's eyes retained that disparaging gleam.
"You don't see them. They see you. We'll have to move more slowly now. You run, they feel your vibrations in the sand."
"Like fish in distress," muttered Wesley, thinking of sharks. Connor didn't answer. He was looking around, head cocked slightly on one side. It rather looked as though he were showing off, enjoying his position as resident expert.
"Something's coming," he said at last. Angel turned in a slow circle, stake gripped firmly in one hand.
"Such as?" he asked. Connor didn't so much as look at him.
"Could be several things," he said, his voice very soft. Clearly he was listening carefully. "The Kor-moth - the things this plain was named for - they're most common. Pray it's them."
"They're... friendly?" asked Angel, without much hope of a reassuring answer. Connor favoured him with another withering stare.
"They're smaller than some of the other hunters. Less ferocious. Their bite is deadly, but they only have one head each. Makes it easier to avoid getting bitten."
"I suppose it would, yes." Wesley made a sharp, practised movement with one hand, and a collapsible sword snapped out from somewhere up his sleeve, settling neatly into place ready for use. "Any special way to kill these things?"
"The usual." Connor, who had no particular interest in demons, and was apt to think that Wesley was a little peculiar with his habit of collecting information about all of the various kinds, merely shrugged. "Cut it into enough pieces, it's not going to be eating anybody."
"And if you've got nothing to cut with?" asked Angel, waggling his stake in a faintly urgent fashion. Wesley bent to his ankle, sliding a surprisingly large dagger from some hidden sheath. He threw it over, and Angel caught it neatly.
"Thanks." He tested its weight. "How the hell does this thing fit into your sock?"
"It doesn't." Wesley wasn't looking at him anymore, his eyes fixed instead on the horizon. "It's a magical weapon. Doesn't take up any space--"
"Won't be much good for stabbing things then," growled Connor. Wesley didn't so much as blink.
"--Except when its stabbing things," he finished, somewhat curtly. "And it'll cut just about anything."
"It'd better." Connor was also staring at the horizon, and his rather more attuned eyes were seeing things that the others were not. "Get ready."
"For what?" Angel's own inhuman eyes could see more than most, but so far all that he was able to discern against the blue-white sands were the rising plumes that marked the movement of something. He couldn't see what sort of creature it was. "Is it invisible?"
"No." Connor was already going into a battle ready stance, his eyes narrowing. One hand went inside his jacket, and he drew a short, curved sword from his belt.
"Then where-?" Angel broke off as the ground beneath them gave a mighty shake, and the sand began to move. It was splitting apart, in two diverging waves that were rising higher and higher into the air. Connor's hand tightened on his sword.
"Here," he spat, in answer to the question - and as if on cue a beast burst up out of the sand. Angel saw three heads snapping furiously at the end of a thick, translucent neck, and watched apprehensively as the creature lifted itself up higher on wide-footed feet. He whistled softly.
"Okay. Not a Kor-moth then."
"A Krell." Connor's voice dripped with hatred. Clearly he had experience with the breed. Wesley brandished his own sword, eyes hard.
"This one poisonous as well?" he asked. Connor shook his head.
"Doesn't need to be."
"Fine." The former Watcher dodged a trial strike by one of the heads, eyeing the formidable leg muscles as they began to tense beneath the translucent skin. "It's getting ready."
"It's always ready." Connor was moving to one side, eyes never leaving the point on the creature's neck where its heads split out into three separate divisions. "Those leg movements are like a form of communication. It's spreading the word."
"Great. We get to be fair division of snacks." Angel wished that his dagger was as long as the two swords. "Er... why is it just standing there?"
"It's waiting." Connor was waiting for something too - that much was obvious.
"Waiting for...?" prompted his father. Connor's lips twisted into a thin, faintly mocking smile.
"The rest of it."
"Oh. Great. 'Cause it's not quite big enough yet." Angel brandished the dagger. "Can we start cutting it up now, or do we have to play fair in this dimension?"
"It's part of the hunting strategy. This bit's like the lure. We move on it, the rest moves on us. All those heads, but it's still got lousy vision. It uses vibrations to find its prey." Connor grinned with just a little too much enjoyment. "Just as well I'm here, dad. You can't go hitting every monster you come across."
"So do you have any suggestions?" Wesley slowly turned his back on the three headed creature, looking for signs of further company. "Stand here and hope it goes away?"
"It won't. It knows we're here." Angel watched the swaying heads, beginning to notice a pattern. "Where's the rest of it? Under the sand?"
"Could be anywhere. It's one creature, but lots of different ones at the same time."
"A gestalt. Interesting." Clearly Wesley meant it, but Connor's eyes spat flames at him.
"I'm glad you like it. Stop moving around. It'll come."
"And you want to stand stock still until morning?" Wesley's eyes sought out Angel's - which was a recent first, the vampire noted. He nodded, understanding Wesley's plan.
"They'll come in a circle," he said. "Bound to."
"It would certainly make sense." Wesley had his determined face on, which as far as Angel knew meant that he didn't give a damn what the outcome of the battle was. "Ready?"
"Yeah." Angel nodded once, hard, then turned his back and looked only towards the outlying sands, conserving his great strength for whatever numbers were to come against them. Behind him Wesley gave his sword an experimental swish, then with a gleam in his eyes that was faintly reminiscent of Connor's own hot stare, he launched himself at the nearest of the three heads. It jerked back with a startled squawk, the second head making a quick thrust at him which he dodged by going into a roll. Sand filled his mouth, but he came up without a pause, stabbing with the sword and catching the creature at the juncture of two heads. Only a thin dribble of blood welled up, but the creature roared nonetheless, and all three heads lifted up and poised to attack. Connor whirled around.
"It's coming!" he shouted, sword raised. Wesley didn't bother turning to look. Caught up with just trying to avoid the three heads, he had no time to worry about other beasts. He heard the sound of something tearing forward through the sand though, and felt the vibrations beneath his feet. Moments later he heard a roar as well, and darted forward. A shower of sand poured down on him as six more three headed creatures, drawn to the morsel fighting the 'lure', all converged upon a single point. He caught a brief glimpse of Angel, atop one of the creatures, stabbing at its neck with the enchanted dagger - then saw nothing but sand as he was forced to dive to one side. One of the creatures hit the ground hard, its three heads splaying out painfully. Connor was ready, stabbing one through the top of the skull, before dodging aside and dispatching an airborne head in the same way. Half blinded with sand, Wesley stabbed yet another head through the eye, then ducked underneath the creature's own neck. Another head tried to follow him, and Angel gave a yell, piercing it with a single blow. Something screamed, more through rage than pain, and Wesley saw a rush of scaled skin and hooked, yellow claws. He darted to one side, slashing and stabbing as he did so, and was barely able to remain upright as the circle of creatures thrashed and writhed in return. Angel was still above it all, riding the back of one of the monsters like some bizarre rodeo performer, using his height to attack the creatures at their own level. One of the many heads tried to snatch him from his perch, but with a one-handed cartwheel that would have made an Olympic acrobat turn green with envy, he propelled himself onto the neck of another beast, and killed it with one almighty blow to the point of the neck where all of the heads branched out. The size of the dagger's small blade seemed to be no handicap, and he was convinced now that it grew every time he used it. It wouldn't have surprised him. Goodness only knew where Wesley bought his weapons from; no conventional source, that much was clear. As the creature beneath him died, he leaped back to his first mount and from there to another, sliding down part of the neck in order to dispatch the head that had been about to attack Connor from the rear. There was no sign of thanks in the furious eyes that turned to watch him, but he hadn't been expecting any. The one thing more inconvenient to Connor than being killed, Angel was sure, was being saved from death by Angel himself. In all honesty Angel would probably have felt the same about his own father, which didn't make him feel any better about the situation now. Dancing aside to avoid decapitation as another head rushed him from behind, he swung the dagger like an axe, and watched in satisfaction as it slit open the neck of the nearest of the creatures. It wasn't a mortal blow, but the animal fell back anyway, its heads snapping furiously at empty air. All of the animals seemed to be moving back now, unwilling, perhaps, to continue trying to eat these rebellious snacks. For a moment they snapped half-heartedly at the threesome and at each other, then with a mighty roar that seemed to make the earth quake anew, the first of the beasts - the 'lure' - threw back each of its heads in sequence, and shook them vigorously. A tail rose up out of the sand behind it, slapping back in a fountain of dancing crystals and choking dust. Two, three times more it smashed the tail down, then with a second furious bellow, the creature turned and hurled itself back beneath the sand. There was a second when all was still, save for the sands righting themselves once again, before all at once what remained of the other beasts also turned about and disappeared. Angel, Wesley and Connor were deluged by uplifted geysers of sand that for a moment seemed to block out the moon - then finally there was true silence; true peace. Wesley's shoulders slumped.
"That seemed like a good idea to start with," he muttered, around a mouthful of sand. Angel smiled.
"It was a good idea. Alive aren't we? And we haven't been eaten."
"We were lucky." Connor was already walking away, apparently enjoying the fact that he wasn't half as exhausted as Wesley. "But there's a lot more out here to worry about, even if those things don't come back for another go. We still have to get out of the plains as soon as we can."
"How much further?" asked Angel, but Wesley was already striding after Connor. If the boy could keep up unflaggingly, then so could he - that much at least was clear on his largely impassive face. Angel sighed. "What is this, the Sullen And Stubborn Championship?"
"I want to get out of this plain. There's nothing here." Wesley didn't slow his step, or look back as he spoke. "Something sent us here, Angel. We're not going to find out what when we're in the middle of nowhere."
"There aren't exactly any hotspots of civilisation," shot back Connor, speaking, like Wesley, without looking back. "You'll be lucky to see another living soul - that isn't trying to eat you - before morning. Even then, there aren't any real sorcerers here, and certainly no scholars. If we were sent here whoever did it is probably back on Earth."
"Good point," put in Angel, by now hurrying after the others. He drew level with Wesley, but there was no sign of the walk turning into a companionable one. "Which leaves us where?"
"Finding a way out. Connor did it once before, and we found a way out of Pylea in the end." Wesley pulled out a cloth as he walked, and cleaned up the blade of his sword. For a moment he made Angel think of Giles, cleaning his glasses with a similar, if smaller, cloth. Seconds later the sword was back in its spring-loaded sleeve, and Wesley was staring ahead once again, cold and hard. Angel tried to think of something cheering to say, but couldn't. Instead he merely quickened his pace and went to walk with Connor instead. At least in that awkward silence was an emotion that he could properly understand.
Despite Connor's exhortations of dangers innumerable beneath the sands, they encountered no further threats in the desert. Gradually the texture of the ground began to change, and vegetation showed itself in irregular patches. Bit by bit the greenery took over from the sand, and soon they were striding into the beginnings of a forest. It looked primordial somehow; deep and dark and damp. Angel looked about without enthusiasm. Forests were not good places to be in, tactically speaking. It was always too easy for something to creep up unannounced.
"Do you know where we are?" He asked Connor. The boy nodded once, briskly and unemotionally.
"There's only one forest that borders the plain. The forest of Haf-dath."
"Nowhere around here has a very friendly sounding name, does it." Wesley drew his sword again, obviously as uncomfortable with the terrain as was Angel.
"It's not a very friendly place." Connor began to push his way through the trees. "Don't touch anything with red leaves, don't eat anything growing on any of the trees, and watch out for the wildlife. They'll probably be out of the way since it's night now, but don't count on it. Be especially careful of the birds."
"Birds?" Angel couldn't help thinking, Hitchcock-like, of the ordinary common or garden type, but Connor's expression told him that his mind was travelling in the wrong direction.
"Birds," his son reiterated, as though to a small child, and flapped his arms in illustration. "Ten foot wingspan, teeth worse than the Krells'."
"Birds with teeth?" Wesley was obviously fascinated. "Possibly a parallel of an early Earth species. Much larger than Archaeopteryx, but quite possibly something similar nonetheless."
"You won't sound so interested when it's biting your head off." Connor pointed up at one of the trees. "Tall ones, with leaves like that. That's what they prefer."
"And people call Los Angeles a jungle." Angel weighed the dagger in his hand. "Any nocturnal animals we need to worry about?"
"Just the insects. Night biters. They're not poisonous, but they can slow you down well enough." Connor held up his hands to indicate the size of the creatures, which apparently was about eight inches long. "They're attracted to fresh blood. Anybody bleeding?"
"No." Angel didn't need to look at either of the others to be sure of that - he could smell only the strange, alien scent of drying Krell blood. "Where are we heading next?"
"There's a sort of settlement on the other side of the forest. Demon hybrids."
"Demon hybrids?" The disgust in Connor's voice reminded Angel of the problem his son had always seemed to have with Lorne. "But it's near where I first came into this place, and where I managed to leave it."
"A hotspot?" This much Angel understood of inter-dimensional travel. "Wes?"
"Who knows. There are no portals to Quor-toth, but there may be something else." The mere mention of Connor's first banishment to this place had been enough to send Wesley back into unresponsiveness. The spark of light that had come into his eyes at the mention of giant toothed birds had gone, and his body language showed that he was shut off from the world once again. Angel wondered if there was something that he might be able to say, but Connor was already setting the pace, striding off through the thick vegetation, and Wesley was not far behind. The vampire scowled at their retreating figures, thinking sour thoughts. They were as bad as each other, really, although he knew that in many ways he was no better. He could sulk with the best of them, and often did. This though - this was stupid. They were stuck here together, and here they were barely speaking, save to listen to Connor's ungracious descriptions and explanations. They should be working together, not staying resolutely apart. A tickling on his leg distracted him from his thoughts for a moment, and he brushed thoughtlessly at an insect that had settled there. His hand met with a solid obstacle, and he glanced down to see a stubby red creature some half a foot long preparing to sink a set of mighty fangs into his skin. Shock jerked him back to full attention, and he swung up the dagger, striking the creature heavily between its short, ugly wings. It exploded in a burst of black blood, clearly the contents of its stomach, and Angel wiped off the knife in disgust. For a moment his mind drifted to thoughts of Connor, a tiny child no more than a few months in age, being deposited into this place of such horrors, and his mouth set into a hard line. This time when he stared after Connor and Wesley, it wasn't with a look of frustration. Everything that his son was, came as a result of this place. Every obstacle that existed between him and the father who wanted to be his friend was there because he had been brought here. In truth that was largely the fault of Daniel Holtz, but Holtz was not here. Holtz was dead - and Wesley was not. Hurrying to catch up with the others Angel's thoughts drifted away from the idea of necessary co-operation, and into the realms, once again, of bitter recrimination. He was angry now; and every echo in his mind of the things he had seen so far in Quor-toth made that anger grow all the more. His son had been forced to grow up here. Maybe somebody needed to pay.
They reached the settlement just before dawn, after an entirely joyless trek through the forest. Angel's resentment grew with every glimpse of a giant insect - with every red-leafed tree that they passed, with its piles of accompanying dead creatures, killed by contact with its lethal vegetation. With every image that drifted though his mind of the child he had lost, and the son who hated him now. Occasionally, as they walked, Wesley stole a glance back at the vampire, and Angel saw the dark, distant look in his colleague's eyes. The look that said so much about misdeeds done, guilt long suffered and punishments forever undergone. For some reason every such look made Angel feel worse; so much so that, by the time they reached the hybrid settlement, Angel no longer wanted to look at Wesley at all. Every emotion that Wesley hid so skilfully was a mirror to his own; the wish for a forgiveness that could only be granted by himself - and probably never would be. That was something that Angel understood all too well. He had taken children in the past - killed them too, which was worse than Wesley's crime - and here he was growing more certain that he could never forgive what had been done to his own son. How could he hope to gain forgiveness for himself one day - to atone for his own crimes - when he couldn't find it in himself to forgive the lesser crime perpetrated upon himself? He glowered at Wesley's back, and felt guilty for his dark thoughts. This was stupid. Unconstructive. Pointless. He hadn't felt this unfriendly towards the Englishman back on Earth - if anything he had been feeling a thawing; a return to old civilities. Here though - here it was all so different. Here he could see things that in the past had been able only to haunt his dreams. Here was a place that seemed to magnify every emotion. Twist every thought. Maybe it was something in the air. At any other time he would have been able to suggest the theory to Wesley; watch him mull it over; listen to him thinking it through. Now, instead, he could only keep it to himself and think about what might have been - which served to make the resentments grow ever more.
"This is Tain." It took Angel several seconds to register that Connor was speaking - sulkily and with many resentments of his own, but still speaking. "There's not much here, but it's the only settlement where you won't get ripped apart on sight. Don't waste time on niceties. Just ask your questions and we'll leave."
"Are the people here friendly?" asked Angel. Connor's eyes spoke of disgust, prejudice and mockery, none of which were new things for the vampire to see in the face of his son.
"They're not people. And no, they're not especially friendly. But I doubt they'll try to kill us. They have no interest in humans. Or what appear to be humans."
"Humans come through here?" It was the first time that Wesley had spoken since the talk of hotspots some hours before, and Angel's eyes snapped over to him, almost surprised by the sound of his voice now.
"They might. I mean things that look like humans, from other dimensions I suppose. It's rare, but gateways open sometimes." Connor shrugged. "Mostly when people come here they don't survive. Some did, and that's where these hybrids come from." His eyes narrowed. "Abominations, Holtz called them."
"Holtz came from an intolerant time." Angel phrased the sentence carefully - calling his old enemy a bigot in front of the boy who had loved him as a father was no way to build bridges. Connor nodded though.
"Maybe." He pointed ahead. "The... hotspot, you called it?... if it exists, it's on the other side of the settlement, by a lake. When I left I did a sort of spell thing there. It helped me force my way through the dimensions."
"I didn't think you approved of magic?" Angel quite liked the idea of his son struggling with unfamiliar words and rituals in order to find his way home, but Connor of course had a talent for wiping the rare smiles from his father's face.
"I don't approve," he said, with force. "But I wanted to find you and kill you. For my father." His eyes travelled to Wesley. "Blood, fire and water. Blood of a native, water from the lake, and the hottest fire you can build. It made the surface of the lake burn."
"And if the hotspot has gone cold?" asked Angel. Wesley shrugged.
"We're not dealing with conventional portals; there are no such things here, so I doubt we have to worry about that. In the meantime..." He gestured ahead. There were faces appearing in the doorways of the scruffy, pathetic little houses that made up the settlement. Inquisitive faces, bearing no immediate signs of hostility. Angel took a few steps forward.
"Hello?" He put the dagger away, and held both his hands out, in what he hoped would be recognised as a sign of peace. Connor shot him yet another disparaging glance.
"You don't make friends with them. They don't respect that."
"Maybe I'm not looking for their respect. I just want a few answers." He walked on a few more paces. "Er... does anybody here speak English?" His answer was a stream of something guttural from one of the darkened doorways, and the tall, faintly scaled figure of a human-like creature loomed up out of the receding night. He looked from one to the other of the three new arrivals, and stared lopsidedly at the sight of Connor. Whatever expression he seemed to be conveying did not look especially friendly.
"You recognise the language he's speaking, Wes?" Angel didn't take his eyes off the brawny hybrid. There was something about him - and particularly about the way he looked at Connor - that the vampire didn't trust in the slightest.
"I didn't catch much, but the syntax sounds familiar. I used to have a demon contact from Quor-toth, and these people probably speak much the same language."
"Then say hello. And start grilling them about portals."
"Right." The Englishman stepped forward, retracting his sword blade as he did so. Angel listened blankly to the staccato jumble of words that the Englishman snapped off, then to the similar, faster barrage that the hybrid returned. There was nothing familiar in the sound as far as Angel himself could tell. They might have been discussing the weather, quantum physics, or the beauty of the local women - it was all the same to him. Connor was watching with suspicion, but he made no comment during the exchange. Only when Wesley fell silent did he speak.
"Well?" As usual there was no particular grace or courtesy about his question. Wesley addressed his reply to Angel, which was very likely his way of responding to Connor's manner.
"He knows about gateways to other dimensions," he announced. "He speaks of them as splits in reality, and his people worship them. I suppose if their ancestors originally came here that way, it makes a sort of sense."
"Portal worshippers." Angel nodded. "And?"
"And they've made it their life's work to study them. Possibly in the hope of travelling to some legendary ancestral world one day. They have equipment - magical equipment, not the scientific kind - that tells them whenever a tear opens anywhere on this planet. They have rites that have to be observed at such times."
"Which is leading where?" asked Connor, anxious to lead the conversation away from the local culture and move towards something that might prove useful. Wesley's already protectively blank expression didn't alter.
"Nothing has forced its way into this dimension in a long while. I'm a little unclear about their measurement of time, but I think we're talking months at least. Or years. Time moves differently here, don't forget. It could be years to them just since Connor left."
"So we didn't come here that way." Angel offered the hybrid spokesman a smile. "Does he have any ideas how else we might have got here? Some... different kind of portal?"
"No portals, Angel. Not of any kind." Wesley rapped off a quick question in the strange language, and received a terse reply. "He says magic."
"Portals and dimensional gateways aren't magic?"
"Sort of. Call them magical science, if you like. They can be explained away by either field. What he's talking about is pure magic though. Spells. Nothing native."
"They're not capable of that sort of thing here?"
"Nobody wants to live in Quor-toth," spat Connor. "Aside from the beasts like the Kor-moth and the Krell and the like, anybody with a chance of getting out, takes it. If these people could do that kind of magic, they'd have done it a long time ago."
"Like Connor said earlier, Quor-toth isn't known for its skilled magicians," Wesley spoke now in the clipped tones of a man forced, once again, to revisit past deeds he regretted. Connor's outburst had certainly struck home. Angel nodded.
"Great. Well then... they don't have anything edible here do they?" Wesley's eyes widened slightly, and Angel glared. "I'm not asking for a... nibble or anything... from anybody important. I don't mind a rat or two, or the equivalent. It's been a long night."
"True." Wesley spoke once again to the hybrid. "He says they have food, but they don't give it to just anybody. Angel, I'm not sure that I really trust these people. His language shows increasing signs of hostility."
"They're demon hybrids. What do you expect? Smiles and good cheer?" Several of the other locals were starting to crowd around, and Connor pointed his sword at them. "I told you - you have to make them respect you."
"Seems to me they already know exactly how they feel about you." Wesley's sharp eyes flicked across to Connor, but the boy had no interest in anything that the human had to say. He merely smiled.
"Holtz and I fought these people. It was a long time ago to them - time moves faster here, as you said. But they're a long-lived race."
"And they still remember you. You must be very proud." Wesley tried speaking again to their contact, but this time even Angel, with no knowledge of the language, could recognise the hostility that came in the answer. He felt reflexively for his dagger, and saw Wesley's sword slide out once again from his sleeve.
"Er... trouble?" he asked. Wesley nodded very slowly.
"I rather think there might be, yes. It seems we're no longer as welcome as we were a few moments ago."
"We were welcome a few moments ago?" Angel didn't remember noticing that. Wesley shook his head.
"Well, no, not really. But we're less welcome now. I was asking for some food before we leave. I thought they might be happier about the idea of giving us some supplies if they knew that we were moving on."
"Apparently they don't like vampires very much." Wesley shrugged. "I tried suggesting that there might be some pests of some kind that you could help them with, but apparently they don't like that suggestion very much either. Blood drinkers are... well, I take it that the word he used is one of their least friendly. We should probably leave now."
"Always supposing they let us." Angel looked around at the other inhabitants of Tain, all closing in, more easily visible now as the dawn continued to lighten the skies. It was a surprisingly attractive sunrise, and Angel might have appreciated it at another time. "What's going on, Wes?"
"They think we're dangerous. Remember I said that they worship the tears in reality? Well since we didn't come here through one, they think we might be dangerous to the... I don't know... gateway spirits? Something like that. I think they're talking about sacrifice. Some words can be ambiguous in any language, but I'm fairly sure about that one."
"Sacrifice?" Angel shook his head. "Why can we never meet nice people?"
"These aren't people." Connor turned in a slow circle, watching the hybrids closely. "And it's you that they don't like, remember?"
"Wanting to sacrifice us is nothing to do with Angel being a vampire." Wesley was also beginning to turn in slow circles, his narrowed eyes fixed upon the menacing natives. "I suppose this means that we're fighting our way out again?"
"Usually a good plan." Angel took a step forward, contemplating putting on his other face. "Which way, Connor?"
"Straight through the town. You can't miss the lake. Getting there doesn't solve anything though. We don't have the things we need to build a fire hot enough for the spell."
"And there's no telling if it'll work anyway." Wesley barked off another volley of guttural speech at their contact, but apparently didn't get much of an answer. "So much for these people not being interested in us."
"You didn't have to talk to them about how we arrived here, or about him being a vampire. If we'd talked with our swords from the outset, there wouldn't be any problem." Connor seemed about to turn his sword against his companions, rather than the more immediate enemy around them. Angel tried glaring him into silence without any success, then looked over to Wesley.
"Any chance of talking our way out?" he asked. Wesley shook his head.
"Not now that they know what you are. Sorry about that. Seems there used to be a tribe of blood drinkers near here who decimated the population a couple of generations ago."
"You got all that from him?" Angel nodded at their surly contact, who had now drawn a knife of his own. Wesley nodded.
"More or less. Their language isn't precise, but I think we can assume that--" He broke off. The hybrids were all about them now, in a ring three or four men deep. "Angel, I appreciate that you don't want to be the first to draw blood, but how long do you think we can stand here doing nothing?"
"You can stand around for as long as you like." Connor spun his sword with enthusiasm. "See you by the lake."
"Connor!" Angel made a move for his son, but with a war cry that sounded as though it had been learned in the madness of Quor-toth, the boy hurled himself into the crowd, his sword whirling ferociously. The line of locals broke up, and Connor burst out through the barricade looking flushed with exultation. Wesley raised an eyebrow.
"He does have an admirable way of getting down to business."
"Yeah." Angel nodded at the enraged citizens of Tain. "And of landing us in even more trouble."
"Perhaps." As a wave of the hybrid locals swept towards them, Wesley went into action, swinging his spring-loaded sword against the staffs and hacking blades that came against him. He handled himself so well these days, thought Angel, before he was caught up in his own battle, and had no more time for such thoughts. Trying to avoid hurting anybody too much, he cut his way determinedly through the masses. Fortunately there were no great fighters here - they relied upon numbers and brute force, and against his superior strength they had little chance. Breaking out of the crowd he looked around for Wesley, and saw him also surfacing. He swung his sword as warning that the crowd should stay back, then ran off after Connor. Angel followed. A yell went through the hybrid ranks, and he knew that they were following, but just as they had no great finesse at fighting, they had no particular speed, and it was no great task to stay ahead. The lake loomed up in his vision.
"What do we do when we get there?" asked Wesley. "Dive in and hope they can't swim?"
"It's a plan." Angel glanced back over his shoulder. "A few friendly natives. Is that too much to ask? In Pylea they treated me like a hero."
"In Pylea they tied me to a stake and said they were going to cut my head off." Wesley also glanced back over his shoulder. "I know a few spells for making fire, and I can probably make the surface of that lake burn. If you don't have any qualms about spilling some native blood..."
"I'm becoming less inclined to object all the time." A powerfully flung stone struck Angel on the back of the head, and he winced. "I'll spill all the native blood you want. Damn, that hurt!"
"You weren't supposed to bring the whole town with you!" Running to meet them, Connor looked eager to leap once again into the fray, but Angel tugged him back.
"Never mind that," he said urgently. "The spell for creating a door. How did you--"
"I told you. Fire, water, blood. There's the water. Make me a fire that'll set the lake alight, and I'll get you the blood. After that it's simple. Some words I was told by some creatures that showed me the way." He neatly ducked another stone, which caught Wesley a resounding blow on the shoulder. "So are we going to fight them or what? I think they're past the standing and staring phase now."
"I'm on it." Wesley strode towards the edge of the lake, sizing it up mentally.
"Hurry up!" Turning to face the advancing locals, Angel cast his eye across them, ceasing to bother to count after the first twenty men. "How much blood do we need, Connor?"
"Not much." The boy sounded almost regretful. "But a little extra can't hurt, can it. You prefer taking the left or the right?"
"Can't say that I really care either way." Angel dodged another stone. "Keep your guard up."
"You don't need to tell me how to fight these people. I've been doing it since I was a child." Connor's eyes hardened for a moment as he thought, no doubt, about his previous life here. Angel didn't think he had ever in his life wanted anything more than to get his son out of this dimension, right away, and back safe on Earth. He didn't think that Connor had ever wanted anything more, either. And of course, as usual, there was no time for such reflection. With another mad yell Connor was running forward, sword above his head, and Angel, without hesitation, rushed after him. There were probably better ways for fathers and sons to bond - but so far he hadn't had much opportunity to find one.
Back at the lakeside, Wesley was chanting feverishly, trying to block out the voices and crashes that echoed in his ears. So long as the sounds of fighting continued, he knew that he was alright; that Angel and Connor were still on their feet. As long as they remained that way, he had to stay focused on what he was doing. He concentrated as best he could on the sound of his own voice and the rhythmic force of it, recalling to mind the pages of the old book from which he had learnt this spell, many years ago. He had practically learnt to read from books like that, and it was easy to recall them to his memory. Easy to focus on thoughts of those printed, illuminated words, the hand cut paper, the rough and well-worn leather. Behind him he heard somebody yell out in pain, and began to chant faster. Angel and Connor might have super powers, but they couldn't hold out against so many people indefinitely. The decisive move in all of this had to be his.
With a crack so loud that it might almost have been the sky breaking, a flicker of flame sparked across the ground at his feet, and he smiled breathlessly. Heat. It hit him like a wave, drying all the moisture on his face and making his lungs feel uncomfortably dry. He had to back-pedal, watching with tired glee as a burst of flame raced across the ground and ignited the surface of the lake. Hot, bubbling, boiling water frothed up around the edges, and Wes turned back, tearing his eyes away from the sight to see what Angel and Connor were up to. They were in trouble - that was no surprise, although the sheer number of fighters raged against them was. He flicked out his sword once again, and raced back to join them.
"Connor!" He gestured back at the lake, and the boy grinned in a surprisingly mercenary fashion.
"Be ready," he said, although something in his voice suggested that he had every intention of making this journey without them. Wesley put it down to his general sense of paranoia, but Angel's eyes snapped away from his opponent to look sharply at his departing son.
"We'll be right behind!" he shouted, Connor didn't answer. Wesley fell into his place in the defensive line, and shot a sideways glance at Angel.
"He won't, er..." he began to ask, but the glower he received in answer shut him up before he could think about finishing the question. He nodded, and turned his attention to the locals. They were furious by now, their fighting spirit buoyed up by their struggle against two seemingly indestructible foes. Angel's strength was incredible, and Connor's wasn't far behind. Wesley, even with his own lately much improved fighting skills, was not able to match the pace that the boy had set. The hybrid residents of Tain identified him immediately as the weak link, and a sudden onrush tested him to the limit. Angel swore softly under his breath.
"Back up to the lake," he ordered, not that Wesley had much choice. By now he was on the retreat anyway, forced backwards by sheer weight of numbers. He wanted to steal a look back to see what Connor was up to, but it was impossible; even Angel was too busy to make the attempt. All that either of them could do was listen, in the hope that when the gateway came - if it came - they would be able to hear. It didn't make Wesley feel any more confident knowing that he didn't have a clue what to expect. This was not the sort of portal awakening with which he was at all familiar.
At the lake's edge, his shoes smouldering in the heat, Connor was holding his bloodied sword over the crackling flames. Splashes of boiling water leapt up at him and prickled his skin with their heat, but he barely noticed them. Pain was no stranger, and he had a greater constitution than most. Walking forward, the blood beginning to drip from the point of his sword, he started to chant the words that he would never forget - the words that had rescued him from this place once before. A wind rushed through his hair and he tipped his head back, staring up, looking for the whirl of air and sky and sound that signified the beginning of his journey home. The wind rushed, the flames crackled. Wesley stumbled up beside him, face streaked with fresh blood, and hair wildly awry.
"What's going on?" He looked around, listening to Connor repeating unfamiliar words. Connor ignored him. This wasn't how things had worked the last time. The portal should have appeared by now. He wanted out of here. The last time he had been stuck in Quor-toth for years, and he had no intention of suffering the same fate now. His voice grew louder.
"How's it going?" Angel's question was as unwelcome, and as ignored, as its predecessor. Connor's eyes squeezed shut. Behind him the crowd of locals surged forward, and spinning around, Wesley did his best to deflect them from the frantic spellcaster, trying to match the force of the attack and not standing the slightest chance. He went down hard, borne to the ground by a tide of fighting, pushing, struggling semi-demons. Angel lost sight of him and swore again, somewhat more forcefully this time.
"Connor!" he shouted furiously. "Where's the portal?" But behind him his son was standing still now and silent, his sword hanging by his side, and the flames across the surface of the lake were dying down to blank, wet nothingness. His shoulders slumped.
"It didn't work. I can't break through." His eyes sought Wesley, looking for a door at which to lay the blame, but Wesley was in no condition to acknowledge the accusation. He was at that moment being hauled to his feet by a gang of locals, who were being none too gentle about it. Blood obscured much of his face, and the dazed look in his eyes confirmed that the fight was over, for him at least. Angel growled.
"I take it that we're not getting out of here," he hissed. Connor didn't answer, but the broken look on his face said it all. Angel weighed the knife in his hand. By his reckoning he could fight his way into the crowd, do a fair bit of damage, and wind up being inevitably defeated. Either that or he could run, or swim, and maybe stay ahead of the pursuit, and in the process leave Wesley behind. The human would certainly not be making a break for it alongside him. A slow, rueful smile inched its way across Angel's face, and he lowered the knife to his side.
"You're giving up," Connor accused him. Angel nodded.
"For now. They won't kill us straightaway. Sacrificing types never do. There'll be rituals. Chanting. Symbols being painted." He stuck the knife into his belt and held up his hands. "We might get another shot at an escape."
"And we might not." Connor didn't look like he was planning to go quietly, but he didn't stop Angel from reaching out and pulling the sword out of his hand.
"The spell didn't work," he said firmly, though as gently as he could. "We're not getting out of here that way. We have to think again." Connor's eyes surveyed the crowd of hybrids, standing around them in a semi-circle and being as menacing as a semi-circle could be when made up of people who were too nervous to advance any closer.
"I don't understand it," he said at last. "It should have worked. Last time I forced my way right through to the Earth. Right through reality."
"But not this time." Angel shouldered Connor's sword, then took a step towards the crowd of locals. "We surrender," he told them, well aware that they didn't understand. It wasn't the dignified line that he would have preferred, and it certainly didn't do a great deal to make his son feel any better, but it summed up the general situation rather well. Very many pairs of suspicious, hateful eyes stared back at him, and he smiled as encouragingly as he could. He was still trying to think of some better way of illustrating his intentions when his vision momentarily blurred. He blinked, looked about and blinked again. Tain, and all of its inhabitants, had vanished completely.
The last thing that Wesley remembered with any real certainty was being dragged upright by a rather excitable crowd of what felt, distinctly, like the enemy. He remembered nausea, confusion, and a considerable amount of pain, to say nothing of disillusionment - then, suddenly, his perception shifted. The world moved. It took him quite some time to realise that he had moved with it.
He was lying on his back on what felt like grass and stones, staring up at a deep blue sky. Giant flying lizards swooped and dived, clearly enmeshed in a ferocious battle, against a backdrop of red-edged clouds. Every so often one of the lizards unleashed a bellow of flame that caused one of its opponents to erupt into a ball of incandescence, and sparkling scales tumbled from the sky. Blood fell like rain, smouldering softly. Nearby a tree burst into flame, and a gust of black smoke set Wesley coughing violently. Somebody hauled him to his feet again, but only one set of hands this time. They were no less rough than the last lot, but they felt less threatening. He brought the coughing under control.
"Yes. Come on. We need to find some shelter."
"Dragons." He pointed upwards, to where the leaping, gliding, swooping creatures fought their aerial battle. A sheet of flame erupted through the centre of the mob, and two of the animals crumpled into ash. Chunks of burning flesh spat and crackled and rained down upon the ground. Angel gave Wesley's arm a tug.
"Shelter," he said firmly, and pulled his companion over the rough, stony ground. Wesley stumbled, but righted himself quickly enough. His mind was clearing, now that there were no longer any hordes of local strong-arm men trying to use his head as a volleyball. He looked around, taking a greater interest in their surroundings.
"Tain?" he asked, for quite obviously they were no longer there.
"No idea. One minute there, the next..." Angel might have snapped his fingers to finish the sentence, had he been of a mind to do so, but such frivolities were far from his thoughts just now. He pushed Wesley through the low entrance of a cave, and flopped against the rocky wall. Behind them the lizards were swooping lower, and chunks of the ground exploded in sequence under a barrage of fiery breath. Another tree disappeared in a fire ball, and the ground shook slightly. Wesley whistled.
"Dragons," he said again, with less confusion and more enthusiasm than before. "Actual dragons. You know, this backs up an old theory that such legends arose when some animals from another dimension found their way through to our reality." His tone of voice and rush of words were so like the old Wesley that Angel almost smiled. Connor, however, was far less touched by the sweet nostalgia of the moment.
"I'm glad you like the idea," he said, his voice vicious and forceful. Wesley looked up, openness and enthusiasm vanishing behind the barrier that so often hid his face and eyes nowadays. "Those creatures will fight until this whole area is in flame, or until they're all dead, which is the same thing. A few more burning bodies raining down and it'll all be burnt beyond recognition anyway - and us along with it. They're Maroshk, and they don't stop fighting once they've started."
"Great." Angel peered up at the fighting beasts. "And if they see us? Or do I really not want to ask that one?"
"If they see us they'll eat us." Connor sat down on a rock, glowering fiercely. "Look, what the hell just happened? We were in Tain - now we're in the Maroshk Lowlands. Did I manage to open a portal, and we got sucked into it?"
"Just us? None of the people of Tain?" Angel shook his head. "Anyway, there was no bending. No whooshing. Just instant travel. Wes?"
"Sounds like magic again, like the kind that brought us to Quor-toth in the first place. The same person perhaps."
"Somebody rescued us," mused Angel. Connor shot him a poisonous stare.
"Or maybe somebody just didn't want us dead yet," he suggested. Wesley nodded.
"I'm inclined to agree. After all, we must have been brought here for some reason."
"I didn't ask for your endorsement." Connor's voice and face were so ferocious that even Angel was taken aback. Needless to say, though, Wesley showed no reaction. Every shred of emotion remained on the other side of the invisible mask that showed no sign of crumbling. Connor threw a stone across the cave, and muttered something under his breath.
"It's your fault," he said eventually, directing the words at Wesley with a glare of remarkable proportions. "You made the fire wrong. You must have."
"No mistakes my end." Wesley's quiet confidence was convincing, although Connor didn't care for it.
"Well I did my bit right," he snapped back. "And it worked the last time I did it. We know it did." Angel intervened before his son's temper grew even more out of control.
"I'm sure you both did your best," he said pointedly. Neither of his companions acknowledged his words, and he glowered at them both. "But it might not be as simple as just repeating old steps. Remember, Wes? The night that Connor arrived in the hotel?" Wesley's eyes drifted away to stare out of the cave mouth, and Angel realised his mistake with a jolt. He sighed. "Sorry. Of course you don't. Well the point is, I did a spell to try to get into Quor-toth. Lorne kept trying to warn me that I didn't know what I was getting into, but I did the magicks and I opened a tear right into something."
"The slugs found it," mumbled Connor. "They got through. I couldn't follow at first, but I made them tell me, and I managed to make the tear big enough to get through after them." He slumped back against the wall of the cave. "So the spell doesn't work unless some kind of tear already exists. Where does that leave us?"
"Looking for another way." Wesley was still staring out of the cave entrance, watching the furious dragons. He tore his eyes away with an effort, and fixed them on the downcast, angry boy. "We should start with finding out why we're here."
"But who could have sent us? Who knows that kind of magic?" Angel started to pace, not a great idea in the cramped cave. "Wolfram and Hart? They have all kind of sorcerers on staff."
"But no reason for wanting to send us here. Angel, we talked about this." Wesley edged to one side to allow the vampire to continue his pacing. "This is something concerning us - the three of us - particularly. What is there that links us?"
"Wolfram and Hart," shot back Angel, but he held up a hand to forestall the objection, and nodded. "Yes, I know. It's unlikely. Well the only other obvious one is Holtz, isn't it. He's the only person the three of us specifically have had dealings with."
"Holtz would never create a spell to send me back here." Connor's voice was guttural, low and dangerous in its tone. "He only ever wanted for me to get back to Earth."
"That'll be why he brought you here in the first place," muttered Angel. Connor glared daggers at him.
"He didn't know what Quor-toth would be like. He thought he was saving me from you." He looked away. "Anyway, Holtz couldn't have set up a spell to send us here. He'd have died rather than use magic. He hated it."
"Plus, he's dead," pointed out Wesley, earning himself one of Connor's ferocious glares. Angel nodded again, jumping back into the conversation before it could take off down another argumentative track.
"So not Holtz then." he said. "Which means what?"
"That we're on the move again." Wesley climbed to his feet and gestured outside. "The dragons are flying away."
"Flying away?" Connor scrambled over to join him by the entrance. "The Maroshk never stop fighting until only one of them is left. It--" He broke off, and pointed at the sky. "Look."
"Storm clouds gathering?" Wesley whistled softly. "Bloody hell, they gather fast here."
"We can walk through a rainstorm. It won't kill us." Angel stepped out of the cave, but Connor dragged him back, rather more forcefully than was necessary.
"Not rain storm. Acid storm," he said, and pointed at the sky. "It doesn't rain water here. This isn't Earth."
"Acid?" Angel looked doubtfully up at the sky, now almost black with the accumulating cloud. "What kind of acid?"
"Strong acid. How do I know what kind? I'm not a chemist." Connor retreated from the cave mouth. "You go out there, it'll dissolve you in minutes. I've seen it kill before. Only the local plant life is immune."
"Oh great." Angel slumped back against the wall. "How long will it go on for?"
"Usually in bursts of some minutes. I don't know, we didn't have much way of marking time when I was here before. It rains a while, stops for a bit, then starts up again, until the clouds go away."
"And how long will that be?" Wesley didn't like the idea of being trapped in the cave any more than did Angel. Connor gave another of his careless shrugs.
"A day? A week? I can't say. I shouldn't think we can sit it out here though. If we're lucky we can find places to shelter as we go."
"Great. Go crazy here, or dissolve en route." Angel took another look up at the sky, and was just in time to see the rain begin to fall. It came down with force, striking the ground hard, in a mess of smoke and foam. Clearly whatever the chemical composition of the ground, it didn't mix well with the acid now pouring from the sky. The acrid odour of the reaction reached the cave, and Angel winced.
"Yuck. So supposing we manage to run from tree to tree between downpours, and not get eaten by the acid, where do we make for next?" He shot a sharp look at Wesley. "And no more settlements. We should have known that that wouldn't work."
"There aren't that many more settlements; not that we could go to without being ripped apart on sight. The only other intelligent creatures on this world are as dangerous as anything you've ever encountered." Connor gestured out of the cave mouth at the world that lay beyond. "There are a lot of other places we could go to from here though. There's the Fire Pits, or another couple of forests, or the Mountains of Death. Holtz could never pronounce the local name, so he gave them one of his own. It fits."
"Tough for rock climbing, huh." Angel was eyeing his boots, which had been hit by some splashes of rain and were now smoking gently. He scattered some earth over them and hoped for the best. Connor scowled.
"They're razor sharp," he said, showing his customary disdain for his father's sense of humour. "Touch them and you'll lose your fingers. They're also full of crevices, that house all kinds of creatures. Giant demon spiders, flying snakes, you name it. Go within a mile of the mountains, you'll be in for trouble. And all that's only if the winds don't get you."
"The winds?" queried Wesley, wondering just what else there was to learn abut local weather patterns. Connor nodded.
"Two, three hundred miles an hour at least, and cold enough to freeze water on contact. Sometimes colder. Some days it'll freeze your lungs instantly, and shatter your eyeballs - at least that's what happened to the guide that Holtz had when we first came here. Holtz found him later, when things had died down a bit, and he'd been practically flayed by the wind."
"Okay, so the mountains are out. And I'm not happy about heading into any more forests. What about these Fire Pits?" Angel wasn't excited by that prospect either, but one of the options had to be less bad than the others. It stood to reason. Connor made a face.
"The name is self-explanatory. It's a region full of pits of fire. Lava, flame, boiling mud, gases. There are creatures who live in some of them, but they don't venture out much. They need the heat. They look a bit like the Maroshk, but less substantial. I've never known them to be a threat except to other beasts."
"And it's okay for walking through?" asked Angel. Connor scowled.
"As much as anywhere here is. This is a hell world, dad. You don't seem to understand that. Anywhere you go you risk weather that could wipe all life on Earth off the map. Creatures that can tear you apart before you know they're behind you. Birds twenty feet across that suck your blood, worms longer than any snake on Earth that kill just by touching you. Frogs with teeth an inch long, flying rats that'll swarm all over you and leave nothing but bones before you've got time to draw your sword. That'd be fatal even for you. Then there's the plants that spit venom, the trees with poisonous fruit and leaves, the bottomless pits that can open like trapdoors under your feet. Nowhere here is safe. Nowhere is 'okay for walking through'." A strange look came over his face and he slumped down against the far wall, apparently spent. Angel opened his mouth to say something, but couldn't even begin to find the words. It was Wesley who spoke in the end.
"We'll get out of here," he said softly, not meeting anybody's eyes. "I know you hate to be back here, but we will get out. I promise."
"You think I care for your promises?" The look that Connor shot him was pure poison. "Who the hell are you, anyway, except for some magic loving rent-a-researcher that even my father's band of misfits don't like to talk about anymore? This is my home. This is the only place where my life has ever made any sense, and maybe I don't want to leave. Maybe I prefer being here. No matter how much I try to read about and experience the Earth, all I ever see of it is a screwed up mess of a city full of people like the ones my father employs. And people like you. So make your promises. See if I care."
"Connor, that's no way to--" Angel broke off, for his remonstrations, intended for Wesley's benefit, were falling upon deaf ears. Connor didn't care for them, and Wesley wasn't listening. If his face had been a blank mask before, it was now more so than ever, and Angel doubted that anything he could say would have an effect. He rubbed his eyes.
"You don't really mean that," he said in the end, trying a different tack. "Look, Connor - I've been to hell. The real thing, not just a hell dimension like this place. Try spending an unfathomable length of time in a world of fire and constant torture, where every moment is about unimaginable pain. And that was a kind of home to me, and probably what I thought I deserved. But do you think that meant I wasn't glad to get out? You think I ever want to go back there, no matter how crazy life gets on Earth? Only a fool would wish that, and I'm no fool. Neither are you. There's nothing wrong with wanting out, and Wesley's right. We will find a way, and I promise you that too. I know you hate me, and that's probably only to be expected, but I keep my promises."
"What about him?" asked Connor, barely looking at Wesley. The Englishman's eyes stirred from their perusal of the floor, and settled, without emotion or engagement, upon Connor's hostile face.
"The benefit of being a 'magic loving rent-a-researcher' is having rather more chance of finding a way out of here than either of you." He frowned slightly. "If it's a dislocation spell that got us here, I can just about come up with one of my own, but the ingredients could take us months to collect together. I can't even be sure that we'd find them here. Our best bet might be to perform a sort of detection spell. Something that can tell us what sort of magic has occurred here recently."
"And that'll help even if the spell that brought us here originated on Earth?" Angel was trying to draw Wesley out of himself, back into some kind of connection with the world, but that was a game that the Englishman was not playing. He shrugged.
"I can't be sure, but there should be trace elements. Besides, there was that second spell, that moved us out of Tain. That should show up too."
"And how do you do this spell?" asked Connor, with no sign of a decrease in his hostility. Wesley stared at him for a moment or two, then shrugged again, for all the world as though he cared not a jot for anything.
"A few ingredients, an incantation. It's not the simplest of spells, but I've performed it before."
"What ingredients do you need?" Connor just sounded subdued now, his anger temporarily done. Wesley ticked a few items off on his fingers.
"A white feather, a toadstone, the dried shells of several beetles... I think I can do without the distilled water. Is any of that likely to be near here?"
"A toadstone. That comes from a toad?"
"Yes. From inside it. Are there any toads here?"
"Yes." Connor smiled sardonically. "They're a foot long and they'll bite your hand off given the chance, but they're here. There's a lake near the Fire Pits where they live."
"Then I guess we're heading for the Fire Pits." Angel stared out at the rain. "Once this stops, anyway. What about the beetles and the feather?"
"The beetles won't be too hard. There are insects all over the place, just like there are on Earth. They're big, like the ones from the forest that we travelled through last night, but they're usually only dangerous if they swarm."
"We need long dead ones, anyway."
"Fine. The Fire Pits again then. They get drawn to the fires at night, and a lot die there. The ones that don't burn up are scattered all over the place. The white feather isn't so easy, but there are birds that have them. They're rare though. Very rare. I've only ever seen them by the sea, and that's a week's walk from here at least. Another colour any good?"
"Not really. White symbolises the blank canvas that the spell writes itself upon. Without it I don't know what we'd get. Probably no more than an indication of magic having been performed, and we already know that it has been. We need to know what kind of magic has been performed. But I suppose it's a start."
"Yeah. Better to be doing something than just wandering aimlessly about." Angel peered hopefully up at the sky. "Does it look like the rain is slowing down?"
"I doubt it. Yet." Connor folded his arms and tipped back his head, closing his eyes to effectively shut himself off from the other two. "Try to get comfortable, but be ready to run. You never know how long there'll be between showers. Look for a wide-spreading tree. It's the best kind of shelter we're likely to get. Caves like this are rare. Most of the rock isn't all that acid-proof."
"Knowing that the roof could give in at any moment gives my confidence a marvellous boost." Wesley gazed out of the cave at the uninspiring sight beyond, and tried not to think of the young Connor doing much the same thing in years gone by. If his own strange and troubled childhood had shaped him into the man he was today, what did a childhood spent in a world of acid storms and freezing winds and giant, terrifying creatures do to somebody who had been raised in their midst? Guilt stirred again, but he fought it down. This was not the time for mulling over old crimes. Apparently, though, if Connor's body language was anything to go by, it was also not the time for mending bridges. Angel offered him an awkward half smile, but Wesley couldn't make his mouth respond in kind, and in the end Angel looked away. He looked faintly hurt, thought Wesley - but maybe it was easier to ignore old wounds and make new starts after two hundred years worth of living. For himself, Wesley couldn't forget the feel of violent hands, and the pillow intended to crush the life out of him - it was as hot in his memory as the feeling of utter loss that had accompanied it.
"Who do you think is behind this?" Angel spoke softly, and Wesley took a moment to realise that he was the one being addressed. Connor, apparently, was sleeping - or dozing like an ever alert wild animal, more unlikely. The former Watcher turned his head, looking towards the vampire he would once have done anything to please - and from whom he now felt irretrievably isolated. He shook his head slightly.
"You were right. Holtz is our only common thread. There might be others who could have a grudge against the two of us, but Connor as well? And it all seems so... so petty."
"Sending us to the darkest of the hell dimensions is petty? You always did have a gift for understatement, Wes."
"I don't mean it like that. Think about it. We were sent here, but as soon as things started to get out of control, we were whisked away somewhere else. A plain where it rains acid - but where there's shelter just nearby. It's as if somebody is trying to make life unpleasant for us, without it quite becoming fatal. Sending us here in the first place - somewhere Connor loathes, somewhere you hate to see, and somewhere I..." He trailed off. "Well I think it's fair to say that it's the last place either of us ever wanted to end up in, especially with Connor alongside us. The world he had to grow up in. It kills you ever time we see or hear about the next horror, and it's driven us all further apart. Before we came here, things felt... well. As though maybe they were starting to thaw. A little. Now? After seeing all of this, Angel; after seeing how your son was forced to live; will you ever look at me in the same way? And I already find it harder to look at myself in a mirror than you do. I'm feeling a lot worse right now."
"Yeah. I guess I see your point." There seemed to be little point in pretending that Wesley was reading the signals wrong, and that things weren't really so bad between them. "So you think this is just somebody's way of getting at us in little ways, rather than just going for the obvious and killing us?"
"They could have done that on Earth. This is about somebody not liking us very much. Somebody with an axe to grind, and a whole lot of spite. At least that's the way it looks."
"You're probably right. Not that it helps us much. Once upon a time I guess I'd have suspected Lilah Morgan, but now I don't know what to expect from her."
"It's not Lilah." Wesley had a harshness in his voice that suggested Angel was treading on some very thin ice; or perhaps just that it made Wesley very uncomfortable knowing that the vampire was aware of his dalliance with Wolfram and Hart's lethal leading lady. Angel tried out a searching look, but Wesley was by then avoiding his gaze completely.
"Do you trust her?" he asked eventually. Wesley's eyes widened.
"Are you kidding? Do I look that stupid? But she's not behind this. I can't claim to know what's between us, but I know that she doesn't think of me this way. I've got no doubt that she'd love to send you here to suffer, but she wouldn't send me too. She enjoys tormenting me back on Earth too much for that."
"Just so long as you know what you're doing."
"Irrelevant, isn't it, since we're in different dimensions right now. It's not going to do much for our relationship." He almost flinched at the sound of that word. "Or... whatever." He shifted uncomfortably under the scrutiny. "Anyway, we know it's not her."
"Maybe." Angel pushed himself to his feet. "The rain's stopped."
"Then don't hang about." Somehow Connor was already at the door, peering up at the sky with a suspicious look on his face. "It's very grey out there. I shouldn't think we've got much more than five minutes so come on." He strode out. Clouds of acrid smelling steam rose from the ground with each step that he took, but he didn't hesitate. Hoping that their own shoes were similarly up to the task, Angel and Wesley followed.
It was the most bizarre walk that Wesley had ever taken in his life - or ever hoped to take. Between sudden, unpredictable cloud bursts they scurried from makeshift shelter to makeshift shelter, pressed almost on top of each other to fit under the branches of unlikely looking trees, or scarred, grim bushes. Their shoes smouldered, their clothing became speckled with holes from stray droplets, and they all bore the scars of the acid rain. The acrid fumes made breathing hard and everywhere around them the ground fizzed and smoked. Huddling under the trees during one of the storms, hoping against hope that the hot breeze wouldn't stir the leaves too much, Wesley stared out at the foaming landscape. The sky flashed different colours as the acid fell through the layers of cloud and hot air, and the weirdest rainbow he had ever seen hung in what he thought was the western sky - always supposing that the sun moved from east to west in Quor-toth. It was a twisted nightmare of a rainbow, marred with sickly yellows and greens, the reds and purples flashing and swapping their colours with each new flurry of rain. Angel stared up at it as well.
"This is one screwed up world," he muttered, kicking away a fizzing, dissolving lump of rock that rolled towards them, pushed by the force of its own chemical reaction. Connor scowled; his usual expression of course, but this time with more force behind it than usual.
"Sky's clearing," was all that he said though, apparently choosing, this time, to keep his rages to himself. "If this is the last downpour we'll have to make a quick break for it when it ends. The Maroshk will want to finish what they started, and we don't have a cave to hide in anymore. We can't count on being whisked away at the last minute every time we're in danger."
"So how do we avoid getting eaten?" asked Angel, who was beginning to feel decidedly testy at this relentless onslaught of sulks and sourness from his son. Connor nodded at the far horizon.
"They won't fly over the Fire Pits. The heat maybe, or the fumes, or maybe just the local wildlife. I don't know. We should be alright provided we can get there before they catch us up."
"And provided the local wildlife aren't too interested in us," pointed out Wesley. Connor shot him the latest in a series of withering stares.
"You'll be alright, so long as you don't fall into one of the pits - and then the animals will be the least of your worries anyway." The glare became an unpleasant smirk. "Although when I say 'you'll be alright', I mean so long as the fumes don't get you, or the geysers."
"You're a great travelling companion, you know that?" Wesley pushed away from the tree as the rain came to its end, not waiting to be sure that there were no more drops to fall. Overhead the sky seemed to be clearing, but he wasn't sure yet that there was not going to be another downpour. The horizon, and its promise of reaching the next stage of their journey, was more than merely inviting however, and he struck off towards it without waiting to see if the others were following. Above the rushing clouds were blowing away as fast as they had originally gathered, and the twin suns were once again fully visible. They seemed larger than before, a hot yellow colour, though diffused a little by the wisps of evaporating acid vapour that still hung in the air. Connor broke into a run, overtaking the other two.
"Come on. The Maroshk will be out soon." He sped up, racing ahead with an impressive turn of speed. Wesley glowered at the fast retreating back.
"Show off," he muttered, but he followed the advice even though he had no chance of matching the pace set by the other-than-human boy. The ground was still wet from the rain, and spray leapt up with every step, setting the ankles of their trousers smouldering. Angel scanned the sky as they ran.
"Dragons," he commented, intentionally copying Wesley's tone of voice from earlier. Wesley's head snapped up as well.
"I'm tempted to say 'cool', but it's hard to be that impressed when you're running for your life." He almost tripped, and Angel caught him by the scruff of his neck.
"Fall over here and you might just lose your hands," he pointed out. Wesley nodded.
"Good point." He was still rather too preoccupied with the Maroshk to run properly, but he kept up the speed well enough, in between the sort of longing skyward gazes that suggested he was longing for a camcorder and a notebook. Angel hurried him along.
"I think they've seen us," he said. Up ahead Connor looked back, his enhanced hearing allowing him to catch Angel's words easily enough.
"They have. Keep running." He was off again, showing no concern for the fate of the two men behind him. Wesley wasn't showing any greater concern himself.
"They're amazing," he whispered, transfixed by the mighty flying lizards. As they swooped closer it became easier to judge their size than before, and Angel estimated their wingspan to be as much as twenty feet. A burst of flame scorched the air overhead, and a tree ignited. This time it was Angel's turn to slip, as his foot caught the edge of a lingering puddle of acid. Wesley righted him.
"Are you okay?" he asked, rather urgently. Angel gave him a hefty push onwards.
"So long as my shoe holds out! Now run!"
"I am running!" The human sped up, listening to the wing beats of the approaching creatures, and fancying that he could already feel their claws sinking into his shoulders. A bloodcurdling shriek filled the air, and he felt a wave of heat wash over him. A near miss, apparently, from a burst of fire that he saw strike the ground several feet away. Boiling acid sprayed up and he ducked reflexively.
"Stop looking back, Wes. Forget the damn research and just run!" Angel caught him once again by the back of the shirt, hurrying him on by sheer force, and ignoring the indignant protests. Another burst of flame hit the ground close by, and this time the earth shook. Both men nearly fell.
"I think we're nearly there." They were struggling up a rise, which seemed to be the very horizon they had been aiming for earlier, and the swooping Maroshk were closer than ever. One of them made a strike, but Angel's heightened reflexes allowed him to get himself and Wesley out of the way of the stabbing claws. They struggled on, slipping and sliding, burning their fingers on residual acid, thankfully diluted now by the more alkaline soil. They almost fell up the rise in the end, then stood atop it for one brief moment before three of the Maroshk attacked at once. Angel pushed Wesley, Wesley pushed Angel, they both tried to leap aside - and in the moment's confusion both lost their footing together. When they fell, down a short, uncomfortable slope, it wasn't on acid-soaked soil but on rough, uneven rock. One of the Maroshk slammed hard into the ground above them, legs splaying and a plume of fire forcing its way out of the long, surprised throat. It missed both of the intended titbits, and the pair of them, exhausted, struggled to their feet.
"What-?" began Wesley, at the exact moment that Angel was beginning the same question. The Maroshk, righting itself, fixed them both with a baleful stare, but made no further attempt to attack. Connor sauntered over.
"I told you. They won't do anything here. This is the place of the Fire Pits. It won't come any closer." He seemed to like flaunting that fact in front of the downed beast, but it merely hissed at him, apparently not interested in flambéing something that it was not going to be able to retrieve. With a mighty shake it took off back up into the sky, and Angel flashed one of his rare grins.
"Well that was close."
"Yes." Wesley couldn't help staring after the creature, as fascinated as before. "Is there any water near here? I want to wash my hands. It feels like the acid is eating all the skin away."
"It's not. It gets weaker after it's hit the ground." Connor gestured about. "But there's plenty of water here, if you want it. Just so long as you like it hot."
"Hot?" Wesley looked around. "Oh. I see."
They were in another Quor-toth beauty spot - a landscape more ghastly, more scarred, than the Maroshk Lowlands, with their acid-shaped terrain and bleak, armoured vegetation. Here the land was flat, and mostly of rock, but it was blistered at every turn. Pools of lava bubbled and spat, pools of mud did likewise, pools of water and who knew what chemicals hissed and fizzed and spewed forth clouds of noxious fumes. Geysers of water hurled themselves skyward at unexpected moments, appearing out of the ground where there had seemed to be no openings before. The ground shook every few minutes, and lava slopped out of its rocky vats at every vibration. The heat was intense in patches, less unbearable in others, and the ground felt hot underfoot, reaching up through the acid-weakened soles of their shoes. It was as miserable a place as any that Wesley could have imagined; and his dark mind had many a miserable dream.
"I think this is my favourite place yet." Stirring himself, Angel crossed to the nearest pit of fire. The heat dried his skin, but not needing to breathe made it less uncomfortable for him to be in such close proximity to the flames. He looked about.
"There are insects here," he announced. "Nothing that looks much like a beetle though. You have any preferences, Wes?"
"Tradition says something black and shiny, but I suppose we could experiment. In a sense we're feeling our way blind here anyway, using alien ingredients as it were."
"Looks like some kind of moth... maybe a wasp... Something with eighteen legs..."
"I'll get us a toad." Connor struck off on his own, and Wesley let him go. It would be insulting to suggest to the boy that he wait for company - after all, in a sense this was his world. Angel emerged from a cloud of faintly purple smoke, blinking it out of his eyes.
"Where's Connor off to?" he asked. Wesley almost jumped at his sudden reappearance.
"Toad hunting," he said. "Do you want me to follow?"
"No. Let him go. Maybe the time alone will help him to cool down a little." Angel wiped the sweat from his forehead, and smiled. "Which is what I could do with myself just now. Here." He handed across two shining black beetle-like creatures, long dead apparently, and each at least four inches long. "Not much bigger than some Earth species I suppose, but they're unfriendly looking things, aren't they."
"Aren't they just." Wesley looked at the dead creatures, and particularly at their impressive mouth parts. "Now I need somewhere to... ah." He headed for a place where the rocky ground dipped slightly, creating a sort of makeshift bowl. "This should do."
"It's not exactly a cauldron, but I suppose it'll do the job." Angel stood nearby, watching as Wesley ground up the two beetles into the depression, with a chunk of rock serving as a mortar. Pulling off a shoe, he used it to carry some water from one of the boiling pools, and poured it on top of the powdered shell. It took several trips, for the acid heat left his shoes little more effective as a water carrier than a sieve, but the task was completed eventually. He slipped the shoe back on then, and stirred the fledgling potion into a coloured soup.
"We don't have to drink this, do we?" asked Angel. Wesley shot him a sour look.
"Not unless you especially want to. Any sign of any white birds when you were looking for those beetles?"
"No. Not that I was really looking. Any brain waves as to what we can use instead?"
"No, not really." He stirred the potion some more. "I hope Connor hurries up. In this heat this stuff might dry up before it's ready."
"He'll be along. Something tells me he won't have any trouble finding that toad." He glow of paternal pride lit up Angel's so often serious eyes. "He's pretty resourceful, don't you think?"
"Yes." That much he couldn't deny. There were plenty of other, less complimentary, adjectives that also applied, but 'resourceful' was fair too. "I just wish he didn't see me as some kind of lower life form just because I have an interest in magic."
"Wes. He doesn't--" Angel broke off. "Well, maybe he does... a little. He's okay with most people though, under the scowls. I think he's getting better."
"He hates Lorne because he's green, Angel. How's that any different to hating Gunn because he's black?"
"Well it's not exactly the same thing..." Angel sounded slightly defensive now, if basically in agreement. "Gunn isn't actually a demon, you know. The shiny head's just a fashion statement." He shrugged. "Anyway, he's a teenager. You can't expect him to be polite to all his father's friends. When you were a teenager, were you... Okay. Bad example."
"I know I was rude to my father's friends when I was Connor's age. Then later I actually ate a few, which is even more rude, when you think about it." That last actually made Wesley smile - a proper, broad, spontaneous smile, that immediately won itself an echo from Angel. The vampire held the smile for a moment, then let it drift away into an expression of reflection and faint melancholy.
"I've missed this, Wes," he confessed quietly, not really sure what reaction his words were likely to get. "You and me, just talking. Gunn... Well it's not the same with him. No matter how close we get, the whole vampire thing will always be a barrier between us. He probably doesn't even notice it anymore, but it's always there. It never was with you."
"We come from different worlds, Gunn and I." Wesley seemed about to say something more but it was at that moment that Connor reappeared, carrying a large dead creature under one arm. He flung it to the ground at Wesley's feet, an expression on his face that was half pride, half contempt.
"A toad," he said, rather redundantly. Wesley looked down. Sure enough, the creature was a toad - or, at least, was superficially identical in appearance to the Earth animal of the same name. This creature was at least a foot in length, however, and its mouth was filled with teeth nearly an inch long. He nodded.
"Okay. Because this isn't going to confuse the potion any."
"You know your magic, Wes. You can make it work." Angel's voice was encouraging, but Connor's reappearance had brought the barriers crashing back down, and Wesley was off once again in emotional isolation. He shrugged.
"Doesn't work like that," was all he said in answer, but he got to work immediately, cutting open the dead animal and laying its innards out on the ground. "It ought to be dried," he mused, but with everything else being such a giant work of blind experimentation, he had to hope that it would be one more thing that wouldn't matter too much - besides, he had to do something, or they might wind up endlessly wandering this insane world for the rest of their lives. Selecting the unedifying ingredient from the slimy mass in front of him, he put it into the mixture. Neither of his two companions could distinguish the words that he muttered as he did so, but apparently it was a part of the spell, for the mixture at once began to bubble. Wesley cleaned off his knife very thoroughly.
"I need to concentrate," he announced, as he settled himself cross-legged before his cauldron of rock. "Best keep out of the way for a while."
"Yeah. We'll go take a look around." Angel gestured to Connor to follow him away, but the boy seemed fascinated by what was going on. Wesley was apparently oblivious, so Angel settled down to watch too, listening to the intense chanting of obscure Latin verse. There was a compelling rhythm to it, and an impressive focus. It seemed as though Wesley had been putting in a good deal of practice since striking out on his own. Angel had to wonder what kind of practice, and to what purpose, but if it benefited them all in the end, he supposed that he shouldn't look the gift horse in the mouth.
With a last flurry of words, Wesley raised his knife and used it to cut his palm, dribbling the blood in a circular pattern over the contents of his bowl. The smell of the blood made Angel feel unexpectedly hungry, and he crushed the thought with distinct embarrassment, comforting himself with the certainty that nobody had seen him lick his lips. Wesley's eyes were closed now, the lines on his forehead showing that he cared nothing for what went on around him, and Connor was watching the proceedings with no less intensity. He was edging closer, trying to hear the words that Wesley was now whispering so very quietly. Angel wondered why he was so interested - as far as he knew his son didn't speak Latin - but the boy had always been curious. Angel couldn't deny that he was interested as well - fascinated by the swirl of blood that didn't disperse, and showed up clearly against the black liquid; by the bubbling of the giant toadstone; by the gradual change in colour of the potion as a whole. Black to purple to misty, marbled grey, the blood still as red and as distinct as ever. Wesley's voice grew fainter, fainter, drifting away until his lips moved soundlessly, and a thin tendril of marbled grey mist drifted from between them. It floated like a snake several feet above the ground, then curled up on itself, and tied itself in loose, lazy knots. A shudder ran through Wesley's thin frame, and the contents of the cauldron began to spit - then with a sudden, frenetic bubbling, it boiled over, slopped out onto the ground. A flash of light came from somewhere - inside the cauldron perhaps - and Wesley's eyes snapped open. The cauldron was boiling itself dry, but nobody was paying any attention to it anymore - all three pairs of eyes were focused on something that stood nearby. Something that squeaked in shock and shook its fists, and vanished as though it had never been there - but something that had, for a second, been as clear as day. Wesley stopped chanting, the cauldron fell silent, the tendril of mist ceased to exist. He grinned.
"Did you see it?"
"A demon," snarled Connor, with all of his usual contempt for that category of life. Wesley nodded.
"A Malvolus. That explains a lot."
"A Malvolus?" Angel didn't think he had ever heard the name before, but then there were an awful lot of demons. Wesley nodded.
"A malice, or spite, demon. They search out those who bear great resentment, or who harbour particular grudges, and offer them a sort of revenge. Not in the way of a vengeance demon - a Malvolus doesn't see itself as a champion of a particular group of people, and it doesn't especially thrive on the chaos it causes. Instead it feeds on ill feeling. The acts of revenge that it grants are often childish or petty. It has no desire to kill, because that would end its feast. It merely makes life as unpleasant as possible, and then suck in the... well... the bad vibes, I suppose you could call them. Once invoked it's known to stay around for years, even dogging a victim for life. You might think that you've hit a patch of bad luck, but in truth somebody who believes that they've been wronged by you is secretly wishing you ill."
"This isn't a minor act, though. This isn't screwing up our business accounts, or making us fall down the stairs or something. We've been sent to Quor-toth, Wes! What is this - Super Malvolus?"
"No. More likely the person it forged its link with is more bitter than most. Somebody with a real axe to grind. Maybe somebody who made a specific wish, rather than just wanting for bad things to happen in general. I wonder who."
"Never mind. So do we kill this creature?" Connor looked as though he were already anxious to be off upon this task, his blade drawn and his jaw set. The fact that their quarry was invisible didn't deter him at all. "Perform the spell again. Make it visible. We'll be ready for it this time."
"I can't. It was taken by surprise last time - that's why the spell worked. It must have been something to do with the unusual ingredients. Besides, it wouldn't make any difference. Even if you could kill it - and that's not easy - we'd still be stuck here. We want to revoke its spell, not leave it in place."
"So what do we do?" asked Angel. Wesley stared at the sticky remnants of his potion, recalling old lessons and research sessions to his tired mind.
"Kill the person behind the Malvolus," he said thoughtfully, beginning to count the ways on his fingers; "perform a cleansing spell, which should negate the ill deeds already done, and counteract the demon's bad aura; or persuade it to revoke its own spell. I don't know of any other ways."
"The person behind it is presumably back on Earth," commented Angel. "What about a cleansing spell?" Wesley shook his head.
"Beyond my powers I'm afraid. You're talking about undoing things that have been done - not turning back time necessarily, but something very similar. You need real power for that."
"Don't sell yourself short, Wes. You looked pretty good just then." Angel was being perfectly honest, but Wesley did not share the high opinion of his skills. He shook his head again.
"You're talking about a different magical league here Angel. It's true that I know rather more than the Watcher Council likes to teach, but a cleansing spell of this magnitude is far outside the range of my abilities. Besides, it needs precise ingredients. None of the sort of improvisation we've used here."
"Which leave us persuading that thing to help us." Connor clearly didn't think much of that plan. "Why the hell would it do that? How do we go about making it?"
"I can come up with a spell that'll hold it. Once it's imprisoned, and it can't feed anymore, perhaps it'll consider doing what we want."
"And then as soon as it's sent us back to Earth, it'll start all over again." Connor shook his head. "We should kill it."
"I already told you; that's won't work. Besides, it won't start all over again once it's put everything right. Traditionally a Malvolus can't strike twice in the same place. It can be invoked more than once by the same person, but not for the same reason. The chances of it being a problem for us again are slim."
"Sounds good to me." Angel could see that Connor had further objections, but he was determined to keep them diverted. "So how do we go about catching it?"
"That's the difficult bit. It's invisible, and it knows we're on to it. It'll be very sneaky from now on. It can't be far away, though, and with you two having such heightened senses, not to mention the super strength and speed, I think we've got a good chance of grabbing it. Then all I need to do is spin the spell. It might take some time, but in theory it should all be okay."
"So where do we start?" Angel was wearing an almost comically eager face, which was set off nicely by his almost tripping into the erstwhile cauldron. He frowned, and scowled at the hole in the ground as though blaming it for merely being there. Wesley shrugged.
"Find it. Now that you know there's something here, what are your chances of... I don't know. Sniffing it out?"
"I'm not a police dog, Wes." The vampire turned away to where the small creature had been seen. "I don't suppose you have any idea what a Malvolus smells like?"
"Smell doesn't tend to feature large in Watcher training, no." Wesley pointed vaguely to where they had caught their glimpse of the indignant demon. "Can't you pick up any traces? Something to work with?"
"Actually I can't smell anything - bar that potion of yours, anyway." Angel sniffed again. "Hey, that's weird."
"Probably not. That toad smelt pretty strong. We'll have to think of something else."
"No, I don't mean that. I mean, really, I can't smell anything. Wes, I've been around strong smells before, but I can still detect other scents that are around. It's a... a predator thing, you know that. And even if I can't smell anything else at all, I can always detect blood. The tiniest amounts. Your hand is still bleeding. I could smell it before. Now? Nothing."
"Nothing at all?" Wesley looked down at his hand, still lethargically dripping blood, and gave it a good shake to spread the scent around. "Now?"
"Nothing." Angel looked towards his son. "I can't smell Connor, either. I can always smell him when he's nearby."
"Thanks. But we don't need your abnormal sense of smell, old man." Connor headed purposefully towards the place where the demon had been. "If it's got to be close by to feed on us, we can catch him just by being fast."
"Actually I have a nasty suspicion about that, too." Angel was moving jerkily, hopping from one foot to the other as though to test something. "Anything seem different to you, Connor?"
"The way you're moving. Muscle control. Anything?" Angel made a sudden grab for Wesley, who, startled, leapt backwards with a shout of surprise.
"Angel! What the bloody hell are you doing?"
"Proving a point." Angel shook his head sadly. "Wes, I don't mean to sound rude, but even with the training you must have been putting in lately, there's no way you could dodge me. You know how fast I am."
"Yeah." Wesley was remembering when Angel had demonstrated his speed in the past. "But Angel..."
"Yeah. I know." Angel was silent for a moment, thinking, then gestured to the rocks around them. "Down on the ground, Wes. I want to try something."
"Now really isn't the time," Connor told them. Angel glared at him.
"You too. Over here, and sit down on the ground. We're going to try some arm-wrestling."
"Are you kidding? You'll tear his arm off." Connor, apparently, thought that this was not such a bad idea, and came over to join in. He sat down on the ground beside his father, and looked on expectantly. "So go on then."
"Don't rush me." Rather afraid of what he might be about to find out, Angel rested his elbow on a nearby rock. "Ready?"
"I guess." Wesley took Angel's hand, and settled his own arm into position. "Go?"
"Go." They pushed with equal vigour, both with something to prove. Wesley was expecting Angel to win straight away - the vampire was stronger than any living human, and by rights nobody but another vampire should have a chance against him. Instead, though, Angel's forehead creased into a frown of sheer effort. He was genuinely struggling. Only in the end, when his relative muscle size finally gave him an advantage over the much less heavily built Wesley did he manage to triumph - and then only with a sweating brow. Disgust clouded his face and he turned away with a curse. Struggling to wrestle a human. There were probably more embarrassing things that could happen, but he couldn't think of any just now. Connor moved in to take his place, youthful certainties brimming over.
"Come on then," he challenged Wesley, and settled in to position. Wesley eyed the proffered hand with suspicion. As Connor had pointed out, Angel at full strength could rip somebody's arm off when playing this game - but Wesley trusted him not to. He didn't even begin to trust Connor the same way. Angel was flexing his fingers stupidly though, a very confused look on his face, and coupled with the apparent loss of his sense of smell, this spelt trouble. Wesley caught Connor's hand, waited for the signal, and found the struggle over almost before it had begun. Defeating Connor was easy, and in barely a second the boy was crushed, staring at his now horizontal arm with an expression of outrage and utter shock. He looked up.
"Language," interrupted Angel sharply, before his son could finish the question. Connor glared at him poisonously.
"Screw language, What's happening?"
"Our strength and speed. Our instincts." Angel looked over at Wesley. "Everything you said could help us to catch that damn demon. He's stolen them. You had to say it aloud, didn't you."
"It's rather hard to be heard otherwise." Wesley caught a particularly lethal glare from Connor. "Look... it'll be alright. It's not as though it's permanent."
"It is so long as we're here. And since the only way we can get out of here is with our strength and our instincts, it certainly looks to me like this might be pretty damn permanent, actually Wes!" Angel's shoulders slumped. "Which means I'm stuck with ordinary human strength. I haven't had ordinary human strength since 1753. I don't know how to be ordinary. And how the hell are we supposed to fight monsters with ordinary human strength?"
"The same way everybody else does." Wesley looked up. "Some of us have been managing this way for years, you know."
"Yeah - with me to help out." Angel stood up. "We can't see this thing, Wes. We don't know where it is. Even if we did, it would probably outmanoeuvre us in no time."
"It's not big. It has no great strength. It relies simply on making life unpleasant for us - casting spells to bring misery. Beyond that it's no more deadly than a toy."
"A toy that took my strength!" Angel turned away, muttering angrily to himself, and Wes sighed.
"Well this is helping. It feeds on bad vibes, remember. You're handing it a bloody feast!"
"I don't care!" Angel drew in a deep breath. "We should... I don't know. Try to think up a new plan I guess. One that doesn't involve strength, obviously."
"Yeah, well we'd better do it somewhere else. It's going to rain." Connor gestured to the skies, and Angel let out a growl of frustration.
"Well that's just perfect. What could be better than another damn acid bath?"
"It doesn't rain acid in the Fire Pits." Connor was beginning to stride away, his gait awkward at first as he acclimatised himself to the notion of there being something missing in the movement of his muscles. "We still need to find shelter though. Come on."
"We're coming." Wesley slid his knife away, and struck off after Connor, taking satisfaction in the sight of the boy now having to flinch away from the pools of ferocious lava and boiling gases. It seemed unfair to enjoy the boy's discomfort, but goodness knew Connor could be unbearable at times. There was a certain pleasing irony in seeing him taken down a peg or two now, even when it could turn out to be to their considerable disadvantage.
"Where are we heading for?" he asked as they walked. Connor didn't look back.
"Shelter," he answered, unhelpfully. Wesley nodded.
"Not far. Nearly there." The boy slipped as a geyser erupted from the ground nearby, but the look on his face was one of such fury and humiliation that Wesley did not offer to help out. Instead he carried on walking, not daring to look back at Angel bringing up the rear in case the vampire was in a similarly clumsy, and unfriendly, mood.
"Interesting," he observed instead, when they had been walking for a little longer. "It's getting dark up ahead, but not here where we are."
"Not exactly. Quor-toth doesn't work the way Earth does. It has a dark side, and you're seeing the beginning of it."
"If there's a dark side, then surely the this side should be in permanent sunlight? We've had a distinct night and day."
"Like I said - this place doesn't work like the Earth. Probably two thirds of it is in constant night. The rest has a day as well as the night, but the days aren't long ones. Just don't think about going into the dark place. It's usually freezing, and the storms are almost constant. Plus there are creatures there that make the ones on the light side look friendly. I used to hunt in there. It's where the best food is found, but it probably wouldn't be sensible to go there right now." The notion of Connor speaking of what made sense was a new one, but Wesley bit back his surprise. Perhaps it was the strength and air of invincibility that gave Connor his impossible ego. Without it he showed signs of being almost bearable.
"We're going to have to find something to eat if we're going to stay here any length of time," he pointed out. Connor nodded distractedly, but his eyes were floating to Angel. Apparently he thought that his father had less need to hunt, since he had two walking lunch-boxes travelling with him. Wesley rolled his eyes.
"He couldn't even if he wanted to. Not with so much of his strength gone. Now where's this shelter?"
"Over here." Connor turned left between two bubbling pits of yellow gas and water that made the air impenetrable with their fumes. The stench of ammonia - or something very like it - was almost unbearable, but once the air began to clear, a low cliff of sorts was clearly visible, with an overhang that created a form of shelter.
"What's at the top of the cliff?" asked Angel as he caught up with them. "Yet another delightful feature of the Quor-tothian environment?"
"Just a plain. It's a sort of no man's land between the dark side and the Maroshk Lowlands. A free for all, food wise, if anything is stupid enough to stray into it. I've seen creatures falling out of the sky to attack others that were fool enough to be seen there. It's rare that anything ventures out of the dark side, but when they do it's always into the no man's land. The creatures from there are the only ones I've ever seen defeat the giant demon spiders."
"Oh yes. Them. One resident I have no intention of being introduced to." Wesley looked up to the sky, invisible now through gathering clouds of coloured vapour. "You're right, it does look like rain."
"Then get undercover." Connor retreated beneath the overhang, looking rather unsure of himself. It couldn't be easy, Wesley reasoned, being stuck in a world of such horrors when the one thing that had kept you safe there in the past had been taken away. Following Angel, he settled himself into the shelter, and stared out at the hot, mad world that lay beyond.
They didn't have long to wait for the rain to come - and when it did, even the things they had seen so far were not preparation enough. Like tiny spears it fell, more like hail than rain; a vicious, pelting storm of solid glass. It struck the ground in a torrent of chinking and snapping, beautiful in its forest of refracting drops, but quite, quite deadly. When Angel put out a hand to test the strength of the deluge, his palm was pierced straight through by a shard of glass nearly three inches long. He gasped.
"Ow! And it's hot!" He tried to extract it, but the heat of the thing burnt his fingers so badly that he couldn't take hold. "It must be almost molten!"
"Nearly. Sometimes it falls as a sort of liquid, but it can be even more dangerous then. Ever breathe in raindrops during a storm on Earth?"
"I see your point." Wesley helped to pull out the shard of glass, and turned it over in his hands. "Sand could be caught up by the wind, perhaps, somewhere on the planet, then carried much as water vapour is carried in clouds. Then when it reaches the Fire Pits, I suppose it must hit pockets of superheated air. It must be pretty hot right above all those pools of lava, and there's no telling how hot all the liquids and gases and other substances can get. The heat and the sand combine to make glass." He seemed pleased with his theory, and nodded slowly. "Glass rain. Fascinating."
"Glass rain. Painful." Angel took the shard back, and held it up to the light. His blood ran down its length and dripped onto the ground at his feet, but all that he could smell was the ammonia-like gas escaping from the pits nearby. He threw the shard aside, losing it almost immediately in the crush of its fellows. He should have been able to keep his eye on it - to keep track of it as it was rolled about and buffeted by the many falling others. Instead there was just a blur of squabbling glass. Angel scowled, and nearby, quite unconsciously, Connor mirrored the action.
"The Malvolus must still be nearby," said Wesley eventually, somewhat oblivious to the prevailing mood. Angel's dark and preoccupied eyes turned to glower at him.
"Well if you have a plan to capture it, don't say it aloud."
"I'm supposed to communicate telepathically, am I? Or have you suddenly developed a fluency in sign language?"
"Oh shut up, the pair of you." Connor stirred himself, coming over to join the pair moping at the edge of the overhang. "I thought the plan was to stop feeding this creature all the bad vibes it wants."
"Yeah, because you've been so cheerful and co-operative so far today." Angel folded his arms, going unequivocally into Sulk Mode. Before, apparently, he had only been warming up. Connor glared daggers at him yet again.
"Sure, dad. Because I had such a lot to be happy about. Yanked out of bed, dumped back into this place with my two most favourite people for company - who have been so very friendly and welcoming, incidentally."
"Oh, so it's 'friendly and welcoming' that you want, is it?" Angel turned on him suddenly, brow darkened into one of his most formidable frowns. "Friendly and welcoming like Cordelia is friendly and welcoming?"
"Not really, no." Showing no sign of remorse that his father apparently knew about what had happened with Cordelia, Connor smirked slightly. "You're not really my type. Either of you."
"Neither's she. Not really." The anger seemed to be ebbing out of Angel now, as fast as it had gathered, just as, outside, another kind of storm was blowing itself out. The last of the glass smashed itself into the piled drifts of its brethren, and the ebbing wind collected it into grotesque, sharp edged patterns. Angel stepped warily out of the shelter.
"Is it going to rain again like it did in the Maroshk place, or are we okay for a while?"
"The rains are rare enough here. There'll be a hell of a wind sometime in the next few days that'll clear away all this debris, but I doubt we'll see another storm for a few weeks at least." Connor's expression darkened at the idea of spending that long in the world he had hoped never to see again. Angel nodded.
"Good. Because I'll be damned if I'm going to keep sheltering from flying skewers. We've not been here a whole day yet, and I've had to fight monsters, dragons and really, really annoying people type... people. I've had acid rain on me, glass rain on me, and apparently if I want anything to eat, I've got to go into a freezing cold storm of permanent night in order to fight for it with even bigger monsters. Ordinarily the night bit wouldn't be a deterrent, but right now I don't want to deal with it. I would really really like to go home."
"How do you think I feel?" Infuriated, Connor turned on his father. "I grew up here! When you were sitting in your nice comfortable hotel, with your regular meals and your nice warm bed, I was the one having to escape from giant poisonous spiders and hungry flying Maroshk! And you think you want to get out of here? It's always about you, isn't it."
"I didn't mean--"
"No, damn it! It is always about you. You're the great 'vampire with a soul', the only one anybody knows about, the great, invincible hero sorting life out for everybody, and making everything better for everybody, but you don't even try to make things easier for me. You don't begin to understand what I'm going through, do you. And you don't care. All you're interested in is who I'm sleeping with, and how that might affect you. What's happened to your strength and instincts, and how hungry you are. And don't forget that that was what got us thrown out of the hybrid village. You."
"And in the meantime, there's some creature keeping us here, and we're giving it the biggest feast of its life. Can't you see that there's only one way we're going to defeat it?" Wesley's head lifted sharply in alarm at that, and he too tried to break in.
"Connor!" The boy, however, was oblivious.
"Can't you see that the only way we're going to defeat it is to--"
"No!" yelped Wesley, to no effect.
"--all work together? Co-operate? Get along?" He stopped, looking from Angel to Wesley and back again. "What? You know it's the truth. If we work together then we've got a chance of catching it."
"Yeah," admitted Angel, voice strangely heavy, "I suppose it would be the best way - if you hadn't just broadcast it to the world!"
"Well I didn't think, damn it!" Connor was furious now, his eyes hot and bright, his face almost entirely drained of blood. "The walking genius here just made the same mistake, so what are you yelling at me for?"
"Because maybe you need yelling at!" Eyes equally fierce, Angel was bellowing at a volume to rival that of his son. "So you lived a rough life here all that time - I'm sorry! But is that any reason to act like a complete jerk all the time?"
"Angel, I really think another spell has been cast." Trying to intervene without making things worse, Wesley kept his own voice low. "After what Connor said about us needing to co-operate, the Mal--"
"Yeah, you start bringing that up too. 'Connor screwed up'." The boy turned on him, fists clenched. "Well what about your screw ups? If it wasn't for you, we probably wouldn't have been sent here. If it wasn't for you, I would never have been sent here!"
"Yeah, and I'd still have my strength to protect him with," put in Angel.
"Who the hell says I need you to protect me?" Done with Wesley for the moment, Connor turned instead upon Angel. "Like I said, it's all about you."
"Sounds to me like you're the one who's self-obsessed. Poor little Connor, who never could see the truth right in front of his face. Who believed a nutcase like Holtz so much that he'd rather be alone than catch up with the loving family he missed out on. Who locked his own father up in a box and dropped him in the sea!"
"Yeah? Well I survived here for years without you. You've been here one day, and you're acting like it's the end of the world!"
"Because it might just be the end of the world! In case you didn't notice, when we left it was raining fire there - and no matter what weird things come out of the sky in this dimension, that sort of thing is not supposed to happen back there. And then there's the big hell beast that started it! I have got to get back!"
"Oh will the pair of you just shut up!" Wesley's voice was sharp and cold, and as such it cut through the sound of the much louder voices as though it had a far great volume of its own. Angel glared at him.
"And who asked your opinion? It's your fault he hates me in the first place!"
"I hate you because you're an evil vampire who should have been staked two hundred years ago!" Connor took a step forward, almost nose to nose with his father now. Wesley could cheerfully have staked them both.
"And right now I'm close to hating the pair of you!" he exclaimed in frustration. "Can't you see this is another trick by the Malvolus? Fight it!"
"Oh shut up!" Connor gave him a hefty push. "Who cares what that twisted little demon is doing? We're going to have this out now. He loves to parade about the place being all heroic and proud of his endless 'paying for past crimes' - like he's better than everybody else because he's got a soul he actually thinks about - and all the time he's not even human. But he thinks I should love him anyway, just because years and years ago I lived with him for a few months. Because he's my father - although he doesn't know how - I'm suppose to do what he says, and smile nicely, and--"
"Oh do be quiet." Wesley turned away, by now exasperated to the point of explosion. "So your father wants to make friends with you. My condolences! Now is any of this likely to help us to get out of Quor-toth?"
"Right now all I care about is making him listen to me!" Connor's eyes had not left Angel's face. "I want all of this out in the open, when he can't go off rescuing people, and saving the world. When he's got nowhere else to go. Why should I care about you, 'dad'? Why should I think of you as anything other than an evil son of a bitch?"
"Because contrary to appearances, you've got a brain somewhere inside that head. Try using it." Angel leaned in a little closer, so that there really was very little distance between them. "Now grow up."
"Yeah. Because it's always me that's at fault." His movement slow, sneaky, Connor drew the short sword that he carried in his belt. "Always playing the father, always claiming he loves his son, and never doing anything to prove it. Do you even have a heart? Huh dad? Should we find out?"
Almost in slow motion, it seemed, the knife flashed as it leapt, as it swung, as it dove. Wesley, with the benefit of distance, saw it before Angel did, and shouting a warning he dashed forward. He had no idea why he was doing so - a knife thrust was hardly likely to do that much damage to Angel. He reacted out of some kind of instinct, such details forgotten, and seized hold of Connor's wrist before the knife could strike its blow. The boy swore and struggled, and Wesley dragged him backwards, tripping him neatly so that he crashed heavily to the ground, leaving his sword in Wesley's hand. The Watcher threw it aside.
"Now will you please shut up and listen to sense!" he roared, startling even himself with his anger. Angel's hand descended upon his shoulder.
"Did you just hit my son?"
"Huh?" Wesley glanced back at him. "Not exactly. I just stopped him from stabbing you."
"You hit my kid! What - kidnapping him and getting him sent to a hell dimension wasn't bad enough? Now you want to start beating him up now he can't fight back anymore?"
"I can fight back." Connor struggled to his feet. "I thought I told you I don't need you trying to look after me."
"Shut up and let me handle this." Angel gave Wesley a push that was almost more of a punch. "Want to try hitting me too, Wes, or do you keep that just for kids?"
"Don't be such an idiot, Angel. It really doesn't suit you." Wesley felt like the only sane person in a world full of madmen - or possibly the lone madman arguing with the more rational ones, sensible enough to have given in to their frustrations. "You have got to rein in your temper!"
"No Wes, actually I think I should be doing what Connor said. Getting a few things out in the open. Airing a few grievances."
"Hey. I haven't finished yet." Connor was looking around for his sword, new accusations and epithets lining up in waiting to be heard. Angel and Wesley turned to him as one, and as one yelled him into silence. Angel glared with such fury at Wesley in response that it put all of Connor's earlier glares to definite shame.
"Don't yell at my son!"
"Stop acting like such a prat!"
"A prat? You think I'm being a prat? I lost my son because of you!" It was a blow that hit soundly below the belt, and if Angel had been trying to silence the Englishman, he couldn't have found a better way. The wind went out of Wesley's sails like air from a rapidly draining balloon, and he forgot his attempts to defuse the situation in an instant. It even seemed that he shrank visibly, and he went into a hasty and shaky retreat. Angel hadn't finished though, the heat of his own anger and frustration combining with the tricks of the Malvolus to send him over the edge. He reached out before Wesley could back away further, and caught his ever faithful friend by the collar of his shirt.
"Now." Angel's eyes flashed yellow and his teeth loomed large. "I've got a few things to say about that."
"Oh great." Connor was all but spitting flame. "Now he chooses to go evil."
"I'm am not evil!" Angel morphed back into his human face as though Wesley were completely forgotten. "Why is it that every time I lose my temper the whole world thinks I've lost my soul again?"
"Is this instance possibly because there's a spite demon trying to get us mad at each other." Wesley broke free of Angel's hold, secretly rather glad for strength-draining spells. "Get a hold of yourself, Angel."
"Get a hold of myself? Let me just think about... No. Bad idea." With a brief roar Angel sprang, and although he had none of his usual strength or grace, the force of his leap was still enough to cause him to crash into Wesley before the human could jump aside. They fell to the ground, rolling over and over in a furious struggle. Connor thought for a moment about interfering, or possibly even joining in, but in the end he kept back. Somehow even he, with his less than developed sense of empathy, could tell that this was a grudge match in the purest sense. Sheer anger drove the pair on the ground; the weeks of resentment that had grown between them since Holtz had taken Connor away; the weeks of missed opportunities to rebuild bridges, and say things that should never have been left unsaid on either side. All made the fury between them grow more furious still.
They came to their feet after a minute or two, both bruised and panting, both looking decidedly dishevelled. Angel growled faintly, Wesley just glared - but there was as much emotion in his eyes as there was in Angel's bestial sound. Slowly they circled each other, friendship forgotten, long months of comradeship thrown aside. Angel was seeing just his grievances, and Wesley, who at first had been trying merely to defend himself against the sudden attack, was now just as angry and ready for a fight as was Angel. Wesley might not be able to turn his eyes yellow, or morph his face into that of a demon, but he was as able as any vampire to look thoroughly cold and pitiless. His hands clenched and unclenched, but the knife didn't slide out of its sheath. Not yet. Angel didn't draw his weapon either. Blunt instruments were so much better for the working off of long held frustrations, and he wanted to set about it right away. Circling finally done, glaring finally finished with, they turned as though at an unseen signal, and instantly went into the attack.
Angel struck the first blow, but it didn't land with a fraction of the force he had intended. Wesley was quick enough on his feet, and he was far more used than Angel to fighting without super-strength. Coming back in to the attack, he landed several punches before Angel could recover his balance. The vampire lashed out in a fury, and this time struck a blow that took full advantage of his greater weight. It caught Wesley on the side of the head and he fell to the ground.
"Get back up, Pryce." Angel was still anxious for further action, and Wesley was happy to give it to him. He grinned crookedly, climbing slowly to his feet and showing no sign of the fatigue that was affecting all of them. It had been a long day, and a long night, and before that had been a night back on Earth that had been one of the longest and hardest that Wesley remembered. But that was a different time and place to now. Quor-toth seemed to remove so much that was of Earth, and infect everything with its taints and its auras. Even without the influence of a Malvolus, a human thrown into that darkest of the hell dimensions could soon find himself fighting violently amongst friends. So it was that Wesley and Angel gave thought to nothing now save the fighting; and to Connor it looked as if they might never stop. Falling into a rhythm as Angel grew accustomed to his new level of strength, they feinted and attacked, dodged one another and circled, first one knocked flat and then the other. Even now Angel was the stronger, but Wesley had a speed and tenacity that prevented that strength from being the advantage it might otherwise have been. Dodging Angel's more devastating blows kept him standing more often than not, and soon Angel was wild with frustration. His fangs and yellow eyes, brought out at the start of the fight, disappeared, and the reappearance of his human face emphasised his anger.
"I am so gonna kick your ass," he growled. Wesley circled warily.
"So you've said. You're not doing so well as yet."
"Oh I will." Angel lashed out with a kick that Wesley dodged, taking him straight into the path of a follow up punch. He tried to duck, but couldn't be quick enough, and the blow collided solidly with his cheek bone. He fell to the ground. Angel's face split into a broad, unfriendly grin.
"Gotcha," he exclaimed, moving in for the kill. Wesley rolled aside before the next kick could land, making it up to his feet with an effort. He spat blood.
"You got lucky," he claimed. Angel laughed coldly.
"You can't keep this up, Pryce. We both know how much bigger than you I am. One punch in the right place, and you're out for good."
"Maybe. But if we're talking luck then it could still go either way." Wesley blinked blood from his eyes, unsure whether it came as a result of Angel's attacks or from his beating at the hands of the beast back on Earth. "I'm stronger than you think I am, Angel."
"Yeah. Strong enough to betray your friends and kidnap their children."
"I was trying to save both of you! The prophecies--"
"He's my son, Wes! Maybe you don't know much about fathers and sons, but you should at least be able to guess how it feels to me! My son!"
"My life. My friends. My whole world. We've both lost a hell of a lot through this, you know. I've lost everything that ever mattered to me. Everything. So don't rattle on about what hurts. I'm sorry. Now stop talking and get back to the fighting. I think that's what we'd both rather be doing."
"You said it." Angel raised his fists. "Think you can carrying on ducking and dodging any longer, or are you finally going to stand still and take what's coming to you?"
"On Earth I might just do that. This place has a freedom of expression that's really quite refreshing. I don't think I'm ready to give in just yet."
"Sounds fine to me. But I'm still a vampire with or without the strength. Chances are there's nothing you can do that'll really hurt me." With that Angel rushed for him, but Wesley side-stepped easily, tripping Angel headlong into a pile of glass shards. The vampire rose to his feet slowly, shaking the debris from his hair, and knocking splinters of it from his skin. He growled, furious at the insult to his pride, as well as the many stinging injuries to his head and shoulders.
"You'll pay for that."
"You're all talk, Angel. You know how many of the stories of Angelus say that? All talk."
"You really think Angelus is all talk? You want to see what else I can do? Maybe you wanna talk to Giles about it."
"Just fight, Angel."
"Hey, you asked for it." They clashed again, this time perhaps even more fiercely than before, in a ferocious battering of fists that left both of them bloodied and reeling. Angel was not used to his punches being less than decisive against a human, and was equally unused to being so affected by a human's attacks against him. It fed his fury and his frustration, and, in turn, his clumsiness. Wesley was fighter enough to be able to exploit that - but not strong enough to exploit it enough. Angel's punches still did more damage to him than his own did in return. Watching it all, Connor was beginning to wonder if they would ever stop - at least before one of them was dead.
"Hey?" He was trying to get in close, trying to get between the pair of them, but couldn't find an opening. "Listen to me. With all this ill will, surely we can - I mean--" He had to leap aside as the battling duo, locked together, crashed to the ground at his feet. He cursed his inability to play any real physical part in what was going on, and tried yelling at them again.
"This demon. With all these bad vibes, isn't he--" Again he had to break off and leap aside as the struggling pair rolled across the ground. This time when he leapt, however, he tripped and almost fell into the melee, cursing the loss of his powers even more wildly than before. He stumbled back, kicking out at Angel and Wesley, and collided heavily with something behind him. Something small and hard. Something alive - and invisible. They crashed to the ground in a heap, the creature underneath, and Connor scrabbled desperately for a handhold. Something squealed and he snatched at it.
"Hey! Hey!" He was calling for help, but Angel and Wesley were concerned only with each other. Grappling madly on the rocky ground, they rolled this way and that, first one on top and then the other. The glass drifts teetered and fell, scattering about the ground in noisy disarray. Connor raised his voice.
"Angel? Pryce? Damn it, dad, will you stop fighting for two seconds?" He struggled to his feet, a madly wriggling, invisible creature caught between his hands. "I think I've got it. Dad?!"
"Huh?" The sound of his son's voice, calling him by title rather than by name, and for once without sarcasm, roused Angel from the depths of battle as perhaps no other sound could. He glanced up then, and for his pains was immediately sucker-punched. Wesley grinned through a mouthful of blood, and finally made it to his feet.
"My compliments for the distraction," he said with amusement. Angel blinked stupidly, then rolled aside to avoid a very ungentlemanly kick. He stumbled up, trying to divide his attention between the furious Englishman and the boy with his angry and invisible catch.
"Don't 'Wes' me. If you're going to try to tear my head off, I'm going to fight back. I'm nobody's punch bag, Angel. Not even yours. Not here."
"No, I - Connor - Aw, hell." He wanted to carry on fighting; wanted to direct every one of his baser instincts into trying to beat Wesley Wyndham-Pryce into nothing more than dust; but Connor had caught something, and it was all too clear what that something was likely to be. It was almost a shame that it should happen now - but then Connor seemed to like getting in the way.
"What are you babbling on about? Don't tell me you've had enough?" New tough guy image aside, Wesley seemed to be acting as someone very much other than himself. As though his personality were fracturing, which wasn't too unlikely. Angel was faintly aware that much the same thing seemed to be happening to himself.
"Wesley... just - just not now." He headed over to Connor, slipping on the loose glass shards that scattered the ground. "Have you still got it?"
"For now! He's going to start casting spells soon enough though, right? We need to... to magic him something quickly!" Connor was still fighting for a better hold on the creature, wincing every so often as it made a stab at him with one of its claws. Wesley reacted to the sight at last, frowning at the struggling bundle of apparent emptiness.
"The Malvolus," he realised, sounding distinctly dazed. Angel nodded.
"Can you contain it before it magicks itself free? Quickly, Wes!"
"Oh it can't. Magic itself. Free." Wesley rubbed his head, apparently surprised to see the amount of blood that came away on his hand. "It can't cast magic for itself. Only to affect the happiness of its targets, and it's probably going to do that, so yes. Contain it." He frowned. "Oh."
"I can't seem to remember... It's as though... I... Sorry." He fumbled through his pockets. "Need chalk. I think."
"Here." Angel picked up a piece of whitish rock. "Will this do?"
"I... seem to have absolutely no idea." Wesley took it, sketching out a circle on the ground and muttering in Latin as he did so. "Something's wrong, Angel... But I think this is what we need."
"Oh that's reassuring." Connor rolled his eyes. The demon was struggling more violently now though, and he took that as a good sign. "What do I do with this thing? I can't hold it much longer!"
"You don't have to. Put it in the circle, but take care not to scuff the edge." Wesley was looking confused, and backed away to sit on the nearest large rock whilst Connor deposited his charge. The moment that it was within the circle the Malvolus appeared, and it shook its small, knobbly fists at its captors.
"Nice work Connor." Angel slapped him on the back, and the boy actually smiled.
"It was an accident really," he admitted, but Angel didn't care.
"So you found it by accident. You still held on, even though it stole your strength." Angel beamed proudly, then looked towards Wesley. "What's next?"
"I don't know." He was frowning deeply, staring at the demon in its circle, disorientated by the sudden end of the fight, and Angel's business-like change in manner. "I suppose when it's in the circle it... must be powerless. In the meantime we have to find a way to make it fix whatever it's done."
"Wesley, you're not inspiring much confidence here. You think it's powerless now?"
"I don't know. I don't seem to know anything, Angel. There must be a reason why I wanted to draw a chalk circle, but..." He looked up, a decidedly anguished expression just about showing through all the blood. "I think it took away my occult knowledge."
"Huh?" Angel shot a look over at the demon, watching them all with an expression of faint triumph. "But you still remembered what to say when you were drawing the circle though, right?"
"Yes. I suppose."
"Right." Wesley wanted reassurance, even from the man who had just been trying to kill him, but all Angel felt he had time for now was a more basic form of encouragement. "Whatever you did seems to be working, even with that thing and its tricks. Maybe enough of what you know is too ingrained to be forgotten, even by magical means." He nodded, liking his theory. "Keep at it, Wes. Think. How do we make this thing retract its spells?" He looked back over to the furious little creature, and smiled crookedly. "I could start pulling bits off it, if it'll help."
"It might." Wesley rested his head in his hands, trying to think of anything that might be of use. "Damn it, I just can't think of anything."
"I'm trying, okay?" He rubbed his eyes, and again seemed surprised to see the blood that came off onto his fingers. "Although, you know, if you read some of my books occasionally, instead of relying on me every time you want a difficult question answered, this wouldn't be such a problem now."
"Oh, well pardon me for not having spent my entire life having magic and the occult drilled into my brain."
"You don't have to. But since you've been part of magic and the occult for two hundred years, you'd think some of it would have rubbed off!"
"Oh don't start fighting again for goodness sakes. You won't be any good to anybody with your brains leaking out of your ears." Connor sat down heavily, and frowned at the other two. "What? Why are you staring at me?"
"We're not... exactly." Angel looked faintly apologetic. "It's just that you being the one trying to stop a fight. Well it's a little, er..."
"Hugely unprecedented?" suggested Wesley. Angel nodded.
"Yeah. Pretty much." He shrugged. "Sorry, but it's true." He was rather expecting a glare to come in response, but instead, to his surprise, Connor smiled.
"Yeah." He shrugged slightly, looking oddly like Angel himself during one of his more awkward moments. Somewhere along the line his attitude seemed to have dissipated - but then right now they were all very tired. "I know. I guess I do get pretty angry a lot of the time."
"You're a teenager," offered Wesley, equally ready to bury the hatchet, at least for a while. "I think it's part of the package. Or so people tell me."
"Maybe. I can't say that I know that many 'teenagers'." Connor seemed unfamiliar with the word. He gestured about at their surroundings, or more precisely at Quor-toth in general. "I just don't want to be mad right now. Being here... is supposed to be all about hostility and hatred. Maybe it's time to stand up to that."
"That does make a lot of sense," suggested Angel, with rather a rueful smile. "I seem to have felt nothing but different shades of rage since I got here. I could certainly do with a break."
"Good." Connor smiled as well, perhaps with slight embarrassment. "I guess we've all had enough fighting amongst ourselves. To last a lifetime."
"You... really mean that?" Angel didn't dare hope. "Connor... I've never wanted to fight you. Not ever. Not here... and certainly not back on Earth."
"I don't know about back on Earth." Connor shrugged, looking at the ground. "But watching you two nearly kill each other here because of some trick... Well. It's made me see that we've all been manipulated, haven't we. In all sorts of ways. Here and back there."
"Yeah." For a second Angel looked over at Wesley, but the Englishman wouldn't hold his gaze, and looked instead to the ground. "Yeah, I guess we have."
"And here, now, with you. Seeing everything go wrong, and none of us able to do anything about it. It... makes me think. Holtz said that Quor-toth was like poison, turning us into darker, crueller people, but coming back here again seems to be having an opposite effect. I suppose I really must be tired of all the anger."
"I know I am." Wesley was staring at the ground, rubbing the stubble that made a mess of his once clean jaw. "I've been angry for so long - with the world, with myself, with Angel, with Lilah. With myself some more." He summoned up a very small smile. "Beating you up must have been good for me, Angel. I seem to have knocked loose a few demons."
"Hey, just who was it doing the beating up?" Angel smiled suddenly. "Look at this. The darkest hell dimension, a demon who's been making our lives miserable, and we're getting on better than ever before. Maybe we should be tormented more often."
"No thanks." Connor looked over at Wesley. "So did you think of anything yet?"
"No, not really. I'm afraid my memory really does seem to have been wiped clean. I think I know a few spells for making people more suggestable, but I doubt they'd work on a demon. Besides, they call for specific flowers, and we're not likely to find them here."
"Keep at it." Angel frowned suddenly. "Listen, is it just me, or is the ground shaking more than usual?"
"The ground is always shaking here. It's the Fire Pits." Connor was staring at his shoes, largely oblivious to the world around him in his attempts to imagine how it might feel to be back on Earth, with this new lack of anger towards his father. Angel shook his head.
"This is different. The way the ground shakes here usually is more general, and it originates down deep. This is more specific, and I don't think it comes from underground."
"Yes, I know what you mean." Wesley didn't sound terribly interested though, his attention mostly taken up by his determination to recover something of use from his magically drained memory. "Maybe I could try a hypnosis spell? They're not difficult. Or at least, I don't think they are."
"Magic is dangerous enough without you trying it with your memory gone." Connor stood up, beginning to pace up and down beside the chalk circle. "Can't we just make it help us?"
"Demons are tough. It's not easy to coerce them." Angel looked over at the creature, now sitting still and regarding them all with an expression of faintly malevolent smugness. "Do they have any natural predators Wes?"
"Spite demons? Not that I know of. They're a minor breed. There's very few of them, so they'd be unsustainable as a prey species." He looked up sharply. "You know, you may be right. It's possible that I do know some of this stuff too well for his magic tricks to take it all away."
"Then keep thinking!" Angel followed Connor's lead and stood up, beginning to pace as well. They made a mismatched, if at the same time strangely similar, pair as they crossed in front of and behind each other, walking restlessly up and down. The demon giggled. Angel ground to a halt, then swung to face it.
"Will you shut the--" He broke off. Connor glanced over at him.
"What, you're happy to yell at the rest of us, but he gets off--" He also broke off, as his new line of sight allowed him to see what Angel himself had just spotted. Wesley, who was facing the wrong way, had no idea what had attracted their attention, and looked up in surprise.
"Are we not finishing our sentences anymore?" he asked, attention only partly resting with them. Angel pointed, slowly and with a faintly awed expression on his face, up to the top of the overhang - the roof of their shelter during the glass storm. Wesley stood up, galvanised by Angel's demeanour, and turned slowly around to see what was up there - up at the very edge of what Connor had referred to as a no man's land. When he saw it he tried to swallow, but his throat muscles refused to work. He really didn't blame them. Standing on the edge of the overhang, staring down at them with eight, gleaming black eyes, was a spider. A spider with legs at least ten feet long.
"What are the chances it won't leave the no man's land?" asked Angel, very, very faintly. Connor wasn't sure that he dared move in order to look at him.
"About zero. If it's come this far out it must have been chasing something, that it probably lost. It'll be hungry."
"Ever fought one before?" asked Wesley. Connor seemed to swell with pride.
"Yes. Several. I was a legend on this world." He deflated a little. "But I had real strength then, and speed that a lot of demons would kill for. You move fast when you've got eight legs, especially when they're that long."
"I'll bet." Angel felt for his knife, moving as slowly as he could. The blade looked horribly small compared to the size of the spider, but it had to be better than nothing. "Okay, here's the way I see it," he said quietly, trying to sound at least partly confident of success. "We either free the demon and see if it tries to save us again, or we try to fight this thing."
"You have to get underneath and stab it on the underside. That's how I always killed them. I used to use a spear at least five feet long, because with those legs you need the length. You have to be quick, too. Really quick. These things move like lightning."
"It's not moving like lightning now," pointed out Wesley. Connor nodded.
"Like the Krell, I think they mostly work from sensing vibrations. It won't move until we do."
"We run, it gets a fix on us, and it runs too." Angel looked distinctly less than happy. "And right now it can run a whole lot faster than we can."
"And unless we sit on each other's shoulders, we're not going to be able to stab it," put in Wesley. Angel nodded.
"Looks like it." He looked over towards the Malvolus. "What are the chances of the demon helping us?"
"They way he got us out of Tain?" Wesley shook his head. "We're wise to him now. Let him use his magic and he'll cut his losses and leave us to die, rather than waste energy saving us again. Logically speaking, anyway. I can't say for sure."
"Seriously, Angel. I can remember a few spells and some basic demonology, but the rest is gone. For all I know he'll be happy to save us again. I'm just saying that it wouldn't make any sense for him to bother."
"Then we'll follow your instincts." It was, strangely enough, like hearing the kind of praise he had been waiting for all of his life - but there wasn't the time to savour it, for Angel was continuing. "Which leaves us with trying to make a run for it. Connor, will that thing go over into the dark side?"
"No. None of the creatures that live on this side will go in there. Not for anything."
"Just you, huh," commented Angel, with some pride. Connor shrugged.
"Like I said - better food. That might be why everything there is so much bigger than here."
"Which suggests another point. Why run from one big, scary monster into a place with countless hundreds of bigger, scarier ones?" Wesley didn't think much of the plan. Angel weighed his knife in his hand.
"Because they might not find us. This one already has. On the other hand, since it can run a lot faster than us, running away might be a pretty stupid idea."
"I'd like to suggest that standing here indefinitely, staring up at a giant spider, might be even stupider." Wesley slid his knife from his shirt sleeve, trying not to flinch too much when the eight huge black eyes snapped around towards the source the of the noise. "There's three of us. That's got to equal one regular Connor, right?"
"Thanks," Connor shot back, not sounding very happy. Angel shook his head.
"I don't think attacking it together will do any good. Splitting up might be our best chance." He looked over at his son. "That overhang creates almost a cave. If one of us was to get right to the back of it, could that thing reach in?"
"With a few of its legs maybe, but not with its fangs - and that's what counts. But it might be able to prise somebody out."
"You have a particular plan?" queried Wesley. Angel nodded.
"If one of us runs, the spider will follow that one. Right?"
"Probably." Connor didn't sound completely certain.
"Only probably?" Angel winced. "Well, if one of us runs beneath that overhang, as far in as possible, then the other two could make a break for it. Maybe get to the dark side before it cottons on. Then..." He trailed off, out of inspiration. "Well then we'll see."
"Fine." Wesley sounded as though he had absolutely no faith in the plan at all, but he seemed happy to go along with it. "Then I'll be the decoy. You two are still pretty clumsy from having your strength taken away."
"True. But right now, you're a lot faster than me. The two of you are the best ones to do the running."
"I'm the one with the experience fighting spiders," Connor said firmly. Angel smiled.
"I don't know. I'm pretty good at scooping them out of the bath and putting them out of the window. You're going, Connor. That's final."
"Angel, I don't think..."
"Wesley." Angel spoke quietly, but with all the authority he had used in the old days, the simple days, when he was the unchallenged boss of the firm. He didn't need to say anything else. Certainly the flicker of his eyes towards Connor was enough. Wesley nodded.
"Just say when," he said quietly. Angel's smile became a little broader, and his eyes turned to look up at the gigantic spider, standing like a sentinel at the top of the rise. Its fangs were wavering in the breeze, and a drop of poison as big as one of Angel's hands welled up. Yellow and green, it hung thick and sticky from the tip of one fang, then dropped heavily to the ground.
"Fine." Angel offered Connor a brief, and he hoped fatherly, smile. "Go."
He moved almost with his old speed, before either of the others expected him to move, leaping towards the overhang. At the same time, with a quite staggering speed of its own, the spider moved too. It leapt from the cliff, hitting the ground almost within arms reach of Wesley, who had to fight to remain standing still. It turned around, and its splayed legs brushed the ground, touching his shoe, his trouser leg. At any moment he expected it to whip around and clamp on with those giant, dripping fangs. It didn't. With its eight legs skittering about on the loose glass fragments, it charged straight for Angel. Wesley moved as slowly as he could towards Connor, and grabbed him by the arm.
"I want to stay." The boy had a talent for looking ferocious, but it was a less worrying look when it didn't have inhuman strength to back it up. Wesley shook his head.
"Poison can't hurt him. He'll be alright. Now come on."
"Then why are you so worried?" The boy tried to pull free, but couldn't. Wesley began to drag him away.
"Come on. It could catch on to what we're doing at any moment. We don't have time for this."
"No, wait! Look at its legs, there's something--" The boy moved closer to the beast, trying to get a closer look at its back legs as it set about forcing its way beneath the cliff, but he was no longer any match for Wesley. The former Watcher was too strong for him, and with only the briefest of struggles, dragged him away. They ran for the dark place then, as quietly as they could, and as fast as they could, all too aware that the spider could easily overtake at any moment.
Angel had never before had much cause to regret his size, but crammed in to the back of the space beneath the cliff he would have been glad to be shorter and slighter. The sharp legs of the spider pressed against him, scratching for a hold, trying to lever him out of the space. He wasn't sure that he needed to be afraid of being caught, but if it ate like the spiders on Earth, and tried to liquidise his innards and suck them out, then it might turn out to be fatal even for him. Even if it wasn't, he couldn't allow the thing to try it too soon. Not when there was a chance that it might still get after Connor.
He tried to fight back as best he could, when it first began to scrape at him, but the knife Wesley had given to him barely scratched the thick legs. They were coated in tiny hairs that clearly combined together to form an impressive kind of armour. He tried stabbing instead of cutting, but it had hardly more effect. A thin dribble of black blood stained the blade, but there was no change in the speed or tenacity of the attack. No let up in the animal's frenzied scrabbling. It was a constant fight to avoid being dragged free of his den.
With a remarkable effort that showed just how determined - and hungry - the creature was, it forced three of its legs forward, pressing its great body against the cliff. One of the legs pressed at his shoulder, another scraped at his waist. He tried to beat them off. If he was going to be embraced by a creature, he would rather it wasn't by a giant spider. Oblivious to his attacks it scrabbled more insistently, and he felt himself inching forward. His fingers clung to jutting pieces of rock, but without his former strength to aid him, it was a hopeless task. The sharp, pointed ends of the legs clung to his torso, and he abandoned his attempts to stay in his refuge. Instead he switched all that he had into attacking with the knife. It bounced off more often than it sunk in, but the blood came nonetheless. As, inch by gradual inch, he was dragged forward, so, inch by inch, did he make his own gradual progress, until one of the legs digging so insistently at him fell loose and dropped to the ground. Black blood spurted out from the stump, spraying him and costing him his vision temporarily. It didn't slow the creature at all. Onwards and outwards it dragged him, and he redoubled his efforts upon a second leg, stabbing and hacking without finesse until he could feel the prickling hairs of the creature's body against his own. It had got him. He stared up into the dripping, clasping jaws, and stabbed at them instead. Poison splashed onto his skin, and the sudden pain of it shocked him. Acid. Oh good. Closer and closer the spider drew him until the fangs grazed his chest and the remaining legs threatened to break half of the bones in his body. He stared at his knife - Wesley's knife - with its clearly magical blade and who knew what dubious origin, and hoped, wildly, for the best. And stabbed. Into the closest of the eyes went the blade, sinking in as though into rubber, bringing forth a gush of more black blood. Angel nearly lost hold of the knife. The spider reared back, the fangs punctured his skin, agony burned through him - and he saw his only chance. As the fangs widened to get a better grip, his knife leapt forward, sinking between the fangs into whatever lay beyond. A tremor ran through the creature holding him, and a rush of acid gushed over him. Angel yelled, unable not to, but knowing that he couldn't stop now he stabbed again and again. The grip on his body loosened - he struck again and the legs began to quiver. The fangs shook. He stabbed again - and suddenly, unexpectedly, he was free. He crashed to the ground and landed hard, struggling backwards away from the creature as it teetered above him. Black blood dripped down on him, and seven baleful eyes burned with hate - and with defeat. Struggling away backwards on elbows and heels, he watched the remaining legs wobble and bend, then the spider crumpled up into a heap. It didn't move again. Angel cleaned his knife in the nearest bubbling, boiling pool of water, splashed what he could bear onto his skin to wash away the acid, then took off at a run for the dark side. He was exhausted, but he wasn't going to waste time in rest. He had to find his son as soon as he could.
Wesley's first impression of the dark side was the cold. It hit like a sledge hammer as soon as he had entered the darkness; a sudden drop of temperature that hit even before the wind struck a blow of its own. A powerful, ferocious wind, like ice travelling at speed, howling in his ears and threatening to freeze his lungs. Connor took his arm.
"This way." His words were almost lost, but Wesley heard them before they vanished completely.. He shook his head.
"We have to wait for Angel."
"Have to get undercover!" Connor pulled at his arm. "It's not safe here."
"It's not safe anywhere." Wesley said it only in his normal voice, not bothering to shout above the wind. Connor seemed to hear him though.
"It's never safe. But here it's worse. They watch the border, because the no man's land is a source of food. You think that spider was bad? It's nothing to what's over here. Now come on!" He led the way over rough ground, almost invisible in the darkness. Thick mud sucked at their feet; sharp rocks sliced through their acid-weakened shoes. Wesley tripped over something that stank of death, and sharp fragments of bones jabbed at his ankles. Connor fell down, and Wesley hauled him up again.
"I can't see a thing!" he shouted. Connor felt wet under his hands, covered with the blood of whatever dead creature they had fallen into. It was impossible to see the blood, just as it had been impossible to see the corpse; the darkness was all but complete.
"This way." Sounding more tired than before, Connor directed him towards a place of thickly growing trees. He had to lean on Wesley to get there, for the powerful wind was nearly too much for him. Wesley could feel his own strength ebbing fast.
"In here." Connor forced his way between two thick tree trunks, to a place where the wind was less strong, though the cold no less intense. Here the darkness was even more impenetrable, but the ground at least felt more level, with no more stabbing rocks or sucking mud. Wesley shivered. He really wasn't dressed for this. Beside him Connor shivered as well, and much more violently.
"The last time I was here I dressed myself in the furred skins of the Dak'ma, and fought a long and violent battle with three Koshyn demons. I killed them with a sharpened stave, and Holtz and I feasted on their flesh for ten days. Even here, where the world is darker than almost any other world, in any dimension, they feared me. But now? Now I can hardly walk here without your help. I can't stay upright, can't withstand the cold. With all the sharpened staves in all the realities, I couldn't kill one Koshyn right now. It would bite me in half before it had a chance to wonder why the Destroyer can no longer destroy."
"It's nothing to be ashamed of, Connor." Wesley, who had never had great strength, could understand the boy's frustration at having none now; but Connor was not looking for empathy and understanding. He hunched himself up against the cold, and tried not to think of the powers he had lost. Wesley felt the tremors from the boy's helpless shivering and reached out for him, pulling him closer. Only now did he realise that, however inappropriately he might be dressed for such weather, Connor was even more so.
"You're barely wearing anything," he exclaimed. Connor shivered mutely for several moments before answering.
"I was in bed," he said at last, through furiously chattering teeth. "Felt the spell, pulled on something." He laughed briefly. "Be worse being here with no clothes at all, right?"
"I suppose." Wesley decided to change the subject, to help them keep their minds away from thoughts of the cold. "So, er... what local animals should we be looking out for?" He heard a faint laugh. "That bad?"
"Like I said before, anything you've seen in Quor-toth so far is nothing compared to the dark side. Nothing."
"You have a talent for putting people at their ease, you know." Wesley looked about, not at all reassured by the fact that, if there was some huge beast coming, he wouldn't be able to see it. "Is it always this dark here?"
"It's the dark side. There is no light here, unless you bring it yourself." Connor fumbled in his pocket. "Do you have any matches? I thought I did, but I don't seem to have anything."
"I think I have a cigarette lighter." Wesley pulled it out, and felt for Connor's hand in the darkness to pass it across. "Don't drop it. We'd never find it again."
"I know." There was a rustling sound as Connor climbed to his feet. "Get a good branch, and wrap some vines around one end. They burn well, and they last."
"Right." It was not easy to hack a branch loose from a tree, and collect a selection of vines, for in the darkness everything seemed strange. Wesley couldn't get used to being in a place where his eyes never got used to the dark; where there was no small scrap of light. His mind filled in more detail to explain away the vague shapes he saw, but it was not enough to make any work easier. Nonetheless they succeeded in the end, and Connor used the cigarette lighter to set fire to the vines wrapped around the end of his branch. The light flared up, as though excited by the chance to spread itself in this infernally dark place. Connor smiled.
"Of course you know this'll probably attract every demon for miles around?"
"Yes. Knowing our recent luck, I'd imagine it would." Wesley touched the end of his own torch to Connor's, and soon their shelter was brighter than ever. Somehow it contrived not to be warmer, despite the fire, but the light was comfort enough to make the cold more bearable. "We should look for Angel. Will these things burn well enough to stay lit in all that wind?"
"Usually." Connor weighed his torch in his hand, rather unnerved by the prospect of going back out into a demon stronghold with none of his former powers. His free hand clenched tightly around the handle of his sword. "Are you ready?"
"I think so."
It was Wesley who led the way out of the shelter, back out into the wildness beyond. The flames of his torch dipped and bowed in the fierce wind, and he found it even harder than the flames to stand upright. The wind hit him like the blows of a furious enemy, threatening to suck the air from his lungs before he could make use of it, and burning his skin with its chill. It did not seem quite so bad as before, though, with the fire to light their way - giving form to the dead creature they had tripped over; highlighting the tree roots, the rocks and the other hazards; allowing them to skirt the patches of thick, wet mud. Wesley held his torch up high to get a better look at the foliage.
"Any of these trees poisonous?" he asked. Connor shook his head.
"Maybe if you eat them. There's nothing like the red-leaved trees back on the light side though. At least, not that I've found. Just watch out for the tree demons. You can't tell them from the trees until they move, and they hate all living things. Or at least, they seem to."
"Is there anything in Quor-toth that isn't about hate?" The voice was clearly Angel's, but both of the others swung around with weapons ready. He waved at them in awkward greeting. "Hi."
"You look dreadful," Wesley told him. Angel nodded. What with acid and blood he could well believe it.
"So do you," he offered in return. It was Wesley's turn to nod.
"We've all looked better. The spider?"
"Dead. I don't think I tasted very nice." Angel smiled rather hesitantly. "I may start avoiding spiders from now on though. As a general rule? Don't try to get yourself eaten by one."
"It's certainly not high on my 'to do' list." Wesley gestured back the way the vampire had come. "So do we get back out of here now? Not the best place to dawdle in."
"Probably not." Angel looked about at the bleak landscape, with its grotesque trees and scattered corpses. "We should get back to the Malvolus. Maybe we could threaten to bring it here if it doesn't help us."
"I might know something that can help us with that thing." Connor seemed unwilling to elaborate just yet. "There might be a way to make it send us home."
"Right now I just want to get out of this wind!" Out of the shelter of the little refuge, the constant gale was so powerful that Wesley could hardly hear himself speak. He held out his torch towards Angel. "Lead the way then."
"Don't look at me. I've been wandering about for a couple of minutes trying to get a lead on you two, and I'm down one set of super-senses, remember?" Angel looked from one to the other of his companions. "You do know the way out of here?"
"I usually enter the dark side from the other end of the no man's land. From here my sense of direction is a little confused." Connor looked left and right. "We came this way, past the dead creature. It can't be far."
"It seemed like we were walking forever, but we can't have been here very long." Wesley took the lead, heading in what seemed the most likely direction, and expecting all the time to be blown off his feet. "I can't believe you used to come here by choice, Connor!"
"I am indestructible." The boy paused momentarily, remembering his recent altercation with the beast at the place of his birth. "Well - nearly. They had never seen my like here."
"Muscle and brains beat just muscle. Most of the time." Angel couldn't help beaming proudly at his son, and he ruffled the boy's shaggy hair. "You're pretty incredible. You know that?"
"Yeah." The boy grinned immodestly. "I just hope that spite demon hasn't taken my sense of direction. Wes - is there a twisted tree ahead? We wouldn't have seen it coming in, but with these torches it ought to be visible now."
"It's there." Wesley held up his torch. The tree was black, and twisted like a spiral staircase or a corkscrew, entirely smooth save for the branches that reached out at intervals in their own twisted shapes. There were few leaves, but those that had braved the cold and the wind were black as well. Black and coated in slime, giving off a scent of leaf mould and decaying flesh. Connor nodded in satisfaction.
"We need to start moving to the right more now. After that it can't be far at all before we reach the light side. We have to hit the right place though. A lot of the forest here is impassable, and I don't want to have to go on too big a detour. I don't think I've got the strength."
"Me neither." Angel did not often find the cold a big discomfort, given his own low body temperature, but in this place the weather was unpleasant even for him. Never before he did he think he had missed being able to blow on his hands to warm them, for the only air a vampire could blow was cold, and of no use in warming icy fingers. He wanted to help warm the shivering Connor, too, but his cold body was of little use for that either. All that he could do was take the rear, doing his best to be some kind of wind break, and maybe make the going a little easier that way.
They walked for another five minutes, though it felt more like fifty or five hundred. Without having had the respite of the refuge in the trees, Angel felt the power of the wind more than the other two, and his pace was soon flagging. Although the wind was with them now, instead of against them, still it was a struggle - a struggle to remain upright, a struggle just to stay on their feet. Angel cursed the Malvolus for at least the hundredth time that day, and forced his feet to carry on moving. The way that things were going, it really should have been no surprise when he saw what was waiting up ahead.
It seemed at first to be a great, black shape - a looming gulf in the world ahead of them; and but for the fact that it moved, Angel might have believed that it was just that. A patch of emptiness, blacker even than the blackness that surrounded it. The light of Wesley's torch picked out details that filled in a few gaps though - showed a set of claws that gripped the ground; a pattern of scales on thick, bowed legs; a ghosting of muscular shape beneath an impossibly broad chest. It was no more than seven feet tall - small compared to the spider - but when it turned to face the light it was no less terrifying. A set of massive fangs thrust upwards from its lower jaw, and four bulbous pink eyes gleamed with reflected fire. In this place of perpetual darkness eyes were for the most part either non-existent or ultra-sensitive, and the creature growled unhappily at the sight of two such very bright lights.
"A Kron." Connor shifted his grip on sword and torch, and stared up into the pained pink eyes. "We don't want to tangle with it."
"We can't tangle with it!" Wesley lowered his torch a little. "Right now I don't have the energy to fight a child."
"None of do." Angel took a few steps to the right. "We could make a run for it? Try to get back into the light?"
"We could try. The Kron won't usually leave here. Their eyes are too sensitive." A hard look came over Connor's face. "Maybe we can use that to scare it off."
"Maybe." Angel reached out, grabbing his son's torch. Just like the spider before it, the Kron reacted to the sudden movement, and growling deeply it lowered its head. A long tongue lolled out between the massive set of fangs, and one huge, clawed hand scratched at the hard, broad chest. Angel waved the torch at it, and watched its unpleasant eyes follow the light with suspicion. "Wes? Get ready with your torch. We're going to give this guy something to really make him uncomfortable."
"Right." Without needing to be told, Wesley moved off to the left, leaving Connor alone and unlit in the middle. The creature's eyes flickered towards the lights now on either side of it, then with a twitch of its long nose, it turned its attentions to Connor instead. It began to move forward.
"I hope you know what you're doing." Connor took a step backwards, but was all too aware that he didn't have the energy left to make a proper retreat, and certainly not to defend himself. He doubted that, even fully rested and in a less hostile environment, he would have a chance against a Kron with only human strength to back himself up. Still back-pedalling, his feet slipped on mud and he crashed to the ground; and the Kron lowered its head and charged.
"Now!" Leaping almost into the path of the creature, Angel thrust his torch first at its legs, then at the vegetation around it. Wesley was already setting light to the nearby bushes, watching them as they smouldered, sparkled, and finally burned. The Kron saw flame leaping upward on both sides, and its little pink eyes blinked and teared at the sight of so much bright light. It stumbled backwards, away from the flames, and hauling Connor to his feet, Angel and Wesley followed it. The monster roared its fury, and gnashed its teeth, but it made no attack. It was interested only in escaping from the fire. Second later, as an answering roar rose above the wind somewhere far back in the trees, the Kron stumbled out of the forest and out of the dark side - but not into the sunlight that Angel and the others had missed so much. Instead it backed into the wild red light of the sunset that they had last seen in the plains of Kor-moth. So much for the refuge of sunshine.
There was no time to glory in the warmth and the lack of wind. Stumbling, exhausted, from the forest, Angel and the others broke into a shambling run, horribly aware that they had to get away from the Kron before it recovered from the disorientation caused by the firelight.
"We're in the no man's land," panted Connor, barely able to get the words out. "We have... to head for the cliff... get out of here."
"I'll second that." Angel changed course, rearing away in what he trusted was the right direction, and hoping that the Kron did not follow suit. Flinging his torch after the creature in an attempt to confuse it further, he seized his son by the arm and quickened his pace by as much as he could manage. Their speed did not increase by a great deal, but it felt better than not trying at all. Only when they had almost reached the cliff edge did they realise that Wesley was not with them.
"What is he-? Wesley!" Angel turned about, calling out to his old friend, but the former Watcher wasn't listening. He stood stock still near to where the Kron still staggered aimlessly, and both knife and torch hung uselessly by his side. He was staring at a cloud of dust rising up in the distance, and also at a swirl of blackness that was deepening the fringe of the dark side.
"Wesley, come on!" Angel didn't think that he had the energy to run back and pull him away, and it was a relief when the Englishman turned at last to look at him. He came then, hurrying over to the others at an urgent jog.
"We've got company," he panted as he arrived. "It's getting too dark to make out details, but there are a lot of animals heading this way."
"Yes. Let's worry about that later, shall we?" Angel led the way to the cliff edge, and together they climbed down, back to where the Malvolus still sat, miserably, in its little chalk circle. Wesley paced around the dead spider, and whistled softly.
"I'm impressed. I'd never have imagined that you could do it without your strength."
"Hey, I'm a hero, remember?" Angel grinned happily. "Although I'm not altogether sure how I managed it. I guess sometimes it pays to be dead already. Makes it much harder for anything to kill you."
"The less dead amongst us have plenty to worry about though." Connor gestured back up the cliff. "Look."
Above them, in the sort of stand off guaranteed to chill the blood, the Kron was facing six creatures that had to have come from the dark side. They were as large and as muscular as the Kron itself, and their basic shape was the same; but each creature had four huge arms instead of two, and twisting horns to crown their broad, flat heads.
"This place gets better and better." Wesley turned to the Malvolus, then looked back up the cliff as a familiar shaking moved the ground beneath his feet. "Isn't that the same vibration we felt before the spider appeared?"
"Yes. I think that's what that cloud of dust was." Connor stared up at the overhang, but it was impossible to see what else might be up there in the no man's land. He turned his attention to the dead spider instead, almost as though he were looking for something. "There'll be more than one of them this time."
"Then we've got to be quick." Angel joined Wesley beside the Malvolus. "We can cut our losses and run - and leave this thing behind - or we can stay here and get eaten by our friends up there."
"If we run, he might not still be here when we get back," pointed out Wesley. "That chalk circle might stop him from performing any magic, but it won't necessarily stop those things from attacking him. I think it's one way only."
"So there's no point in sealing ourselves inside one?" asked Angel. Wesley shook his head.
"There are ways, I think. I don't remember how to do it all though. There's too much missing from my memory."
"Then it's still fight or fly." The vampire shrugged. "Well. Run or get eaten, anyway. We don't have time for long deliberations, guys."
"But we might have another option." Connor had been circling the corpse of the spider, hunting for something that he thought he had seen before Wesley had hauled him away; as well as surreptitiously comparing the size of the thing to those he had fought against himself in the past. Now he reached out, plucking something from the hairs of the creature's back legs. "I'm not so sure that you're what killed our friend here. Look."
"At what?" Angel was rather distracted by the Kron, and the halting start to its battle against the six new arrivals. "Connor, they're going to notice us soon."
"They're Drak. Blind and deaf. With that thing up there, they won't smell us, either. Not until they've finished with him. Just take a look at this." He held up something that looked like wisps of vegetation. "This is bloodweed, I'm sure of it."
"Bloodweed?" Angel knew something about the flowers back on Earth, mainly thanks to Drusilla and her sporadic attempts to keep gardens over the years, but this was a new one to him. It looked much like a spiky green cobweb, or perhaps the dried roots of some plant. "What about it?"
"It grows on most demon worlds, or so the stories say. Here it grows quite a lot in the mountains. On its own it's harmless, but mix it with demon blood, and it becomes lethal. To most demons, anyway."
"Wes? You recognise this stuff?" Wary of touching it himself, Angel didn't take it away from Connor. Wesley shook his head.
"It could be chocolate blancmange for all I know. Stolen memory, remember? Angel, we have got to get away from here. We're probably too late as it is."
"And given that none of us is really able to run too well just now, too late really is too late." Angel sighed. "Bloodweed, huh."
"There's nowhere near enough of it to deal with that lot up there." Connor's eyes tracked to the Malvolus. "But maybe..."
"Yeah. Maybe." Angel stepped into the chalk circle and caught the little demon by the back of the neck, lifting it up into the air. "Wes? Keep an eye on that lot up there."
"And do what? Keep them chatting until you've finished?"
"I don't know! Just warn us if they look ready to jump down here." Angel gestured for Connor to come closer, and watched the little demon as it eyed the wisps of weed in the boy's hand. "You know what that stuff is?"
"No." The demon did its best to look as though it wasn't trying to get away from the plant. Connor smirked.
"Send us back to Earth, or you'll die."
"You don't mean it. Kill me and you'll never get back there. Let me go and we might make terms."
"You expect us to trust you?" Angel gave the creature a fierce shake. "If we kill you, we'll just have a harder time of getting back to Earth, that's all. We'll manage it one day. But you'll never go anywhere again. What's it going to be?"
"Er, Angel? Tell him to decide quickly, or it won't be bloodweed that kills him." Wesley was staring up the cliff, where four giant spiders had just come into view. For now they seemed more interested in the Kron and the six blind Drak than in the smaller, less obvious targets at the bottom of the cliff, but Wesley couldn't help thinking that he and his companions would wind up being the victory feast for whoever won the battle to come. Angel didn't bother looking up.
"What's it going to be?" he repeated, shaking the creature again. Its teeth rattled in its little grey head, and it growled and spat in protest.
"You won't kill me," it said angrily, though its eyes had still not left the bloodweed. Connor grabbed hold of one of its arms, and wrapped a sprig of the weed around its wrist.
"Why don't we wait around and see whether or not that's true?" he asked. The Malvolus tried to tear the weed away, but Angel held its other hand back.
"Back to Earth," he told it. "We'll let you live, and even let you go about your business. Just send us back to Earth." He didn't even flinch from making such a deal. The Malvolus might bring down who knew what sorrows upon other innocent victims, but Angel was concerned only with saving his son. Connor was more important to him than anybody else. The rest of the world would just have to take it chance.
"And you won't kill me?" The demon stopped struggling, and looked from Connor to Angel, then back to its wrist. "Really?"
"They won't, but those things up on the cliff might." Wesley was watching the growing battle with horrible awe, glad that his position meant that he could only see a part of it. The Malvolus tore its eyes away from the bloodweed long enough to catch a glimpse of the fight overhead. As if to emphasise the danger, a shower of stones crashed down over the edge, and bounded away through the glass and rock below. Wesley only just escaped being flattened by a particularly large chunk.
"What's it to be?" Speaking with a sense of calm that he didn't feel, Angel gestured for Connor to bring the rest of his bloodweed closer. The Malvolus struggled to move away from it.
"Not supposed to make you happy," it muttered in the end, sounding rather like a sulky child. "Don't know that it'll work."
"Try," Angel told it. The demon scowled.
"Retract the spell," it mumbled irritably. "Retract it and maybe..." It looked up at its captor, and nodded its unpleasant head. "I'll do it. Keep that weed away from me, and I'll do it. Send you home. Free you from all of this."
"Just like that it's a deal?" Angel was suspicious, but gestured for Connor to pull off the bloodweed. The boy stayed close enough to renew the threat if necessary, but the Malvolus was doing its best to look friendly and trustworthy. Wesley came over to join them.
"I could almost be sorry to leave," he said without any conviction whatsoever. "That's quite a fight going on up there."
"You want to stay, Wes, you're on your own." Angel looked back to the Malvolus. "He gets his knowledge back too, right? And we get our strength?"
"Your strength, your speed, your ability to smell all your friends. Whatever." It turned its head to watch what it could see of the fighting, and its sharp little eyes followed the trajectory of somebody's severed arm as it flopped to the ground nearby. "But you're asking me to do something I've never done before. You're asking me to do something my kind never does. It might send you spinning off into three different worlds."
"Connor? Bring that bloodweed back." Angel tightened his grip on the demon, and it swallowed hard.
"Okay! Okay! Just get me out of this circle."
"So you can cast any damn spell you want? I don't think so." Angel didn't like the idea at all. The Malvolus favoured him with an impressively scathing stare.
"I can't do magic in this circle. You want to get out of here, you have to let me go." It smiled unpleasantly. "And make you mind up quickly, unless you want that lot up there to see you first."
"We have to trust it, Angel," Wesley said softly. "I appreciate that it sounds insane..."
"Maybe I want to get out of here too?" The Malvolus eyed him craftily. "Think of yourselves as possessing a grudge; wanting revenge for being sent here. Then I'm honour bound to spite the one who sent you here by sending you back. By undoing all that was wished upon you."
"And you're offering this openly?" Angel was still suspicious - and, he was sure, with good reason. "Can you see anything hidden in this, Wes?"
"He's a spite demon. If he wants to cast a spell to spite someone... I don't know. There's too many holes in my mind." Wesley shrugged. "But I do know that we're running out of time. It's a risk, but... if you want to get Connor out of Quor-toth, I think it's a risk you're going to have to take."
"Yeah." Angel nodded, then turned to his son. "Connor?"
"I'm happy to take the risk." The boy smiled, with a warmth that Angel had never seen from him before. "I just want out of here. Wherever we end up... Well. I know we'll be okay if we're together."
"Then we're decided." Angel shook the boy's hand. "You're a brave man, Connor." He looked over at Wesley, who was still somewhat distracted - purposely now, perhaps - by the creatures on the cliff. "Hey. Pryce."
"Yes?" Momentarily he looked alarmed, as though expecting that their return to good relations was over. Angel clapped him on the back.
"Kidding. Look, just in case this doesn't work - I'm glad we've sorted out our differences. We were always supposed to be friends, Wes. I'm glad that's what we are again."
"Me too." Wesley smiled a little awkwardly. "When we get back..."
"When we get back we can all start afresh. Work together to stop that beast. Really together, I mean. Connor?"
"Yeah dad." The boy was smiling, as cheerfully and as openly as Wesley thought he had ever seen - not that he had often seen him smile properly before. Angel had to smile too, both in response to the boy's expression, and, best of all, to the increasingly familiar sound of that title being spoken by his son.
"You're coming back to the hotel. You and Cordelia. Right? If the two of you... well... I can deal with it, I guess. But I want you with me, where you belong. Right?"
"Sure. I... I'd like that. Maybe we could do some catching up. Once the beast is defeated."
"You got it." Angel dragged the boy into a titanic hug, enjoying the sound of his surprised laugh. It felt so good - so perfect - to have his son in his arms again, and to have his friend beside him, and to know that everything was going to be alright. The kind of alright that it hadn't been in many, many long weeks. He might not have been quite so happy had he seen the smile on the face of the Malvolus; but he didn't see it, and all that he saw instead was the smile of his son.
"We should get going," he said at last, and pulled back slightly from Connor's embrace. "Everybody ready?"
"And how." Wesley's eyes trailed back to the cliff, to where the fight was reaching its end. Two spiders and a Drak remained, and all of them had at last begun to realise that there was something going on beneath them. The Drak was sniffing the air, and its eyeless head turned towards the flickers of magical fire that the Malvolus was beginning to spin.
"Time to go, then." Angel took one last look around at the world his son had grown up in - the world he now felt privileged to have seen. It had, after all, helped him to understand the boy at last, and had played a part in bringing them back together. Maybe Quor-toth wasn't such a bad place after all. And throwing one arm around his son's shoulders, and the other around Wesley's, he stepped forward into the fire, and led the way home.
Connor awoke in bed, warm and comfortable, and filled with a sense of completion. He had been dreaming of Quor-toth, or thought that he had - but it didn't take much to show him that he was safe now. Cordelia was beside him, and he had just enjoyed the greatest night of his life. The world felt wonderful, for all the dangers facing it. He felt the sort of happiness that made life seem as though it could have no sorrows in it. He didn't need Angel. He had been a fool to think that he did.
Several miles away, in the hotel, Wesley snapped awake with a jump. Had there been... something? A sound perhaps? But no, the world was the same. He stood up, leaving his books behind, and went out into the lobby. The rain of fire had ended, and save for a few isolated blazes in the street, the world looked safe again. For now. He should be going home, he reasoned. Better to be there than risk facing the others when they awoke in the morning. This was not a place where he was welcome anymore. He didn't think it ever would be again. Checking the load in his guns just in case of danger in the streets, he headed for the door. He didn't pause on the threshold. Didn't glance back. With the exception of the sleeping Lorne, there were no friendly faces here; nobody to watch him go and bid him farewell. In his heart of hearts he felt as broken and as sad as the burning streets of LA looked to be. Not that he dwelled on the thought. Any sorrows that Wesley felt were those that he felt sure he deserved. Just as he felt sure he deserved the hatred that most of those back at the hotel undoubtedly felt towards him.
Angel saw him leave. He was standing at one of the windows upstairs at the hotel, and saw the small, dark figure walk outside into the street. He wondered about calling the fool back, and making him stay until daylight, but he couldn't rouse himself to try. Wesley could look after himself, more or less; and besides - Angel was finding it hard to care for the human just now. Tonight he had seen the woman he loved take his son to bed - the son who had tried to kill him, and who hated him so much. A part of that at least was Wesley's fault, or was to Angel's current way of thinking. Angel didn't feel ready to forgive that, and didn't think that he ever would be. Inside his dead chest, his heart felt more dead than ever, and the sorrow and the anger combined to make him feel even worse.
His son... the baby he had loved so much, lost to him forever. How could anything now fix what was broken between them? It didn't seem likely that anything would. Closing his eyes to the misery inside him, Angel turned about and walked back to his room. If he had seen the Malvolus hiding nearby, he wouldn't have known what it was, though he might have wondered at the glee on its face. The spite demon had had the last laugh. Of all the tricks it had played over the years, it didn't think that any had been better than this most recent one, of letting its happy victims wish their way back into misery. Its work here was done. Clapping its hands merrily, it disappeared into nothingness, and headed off for pastures anew. Left behind, the vampire who had come so close to happiness flopped down onto his bed and stared up at the darkened ceiling. Outside the dawn was just arriving, but to the broken-hearted Angel with his many, many sorrows, the world was the darkest it had ever been.
And with his past, that was truly dark indeed.