"The Witching Hour"
Without bothering to look over his shoulder, Riley asked, "Everybody clear on the plan?"
"Yeah," Graham replied with a nod. He double-checked the knife sheath tied to his thigh, making sure it wouldn't come loose when he had to move.
Straightening up from his crouching position over the duffel bag, Riley turned to face his friends and fellow soldiers. He met Forrest's expressionless gaze. Forrest nodded slowly. "I know the plan," he said.
Riley gave him a sharp nod and turned back to his task. Forrest watched him mutely. This wasn't going to happen. Riley was not going to throw his life away trying to save that vampire's whore. He knew Riley would probably never forgive him, but he had to do it. And he had found the perfect ally to help him make sure everything went as planned.
Buffy heard the footfalls in the hallway, but she didn't move. She had no desire to make this easy on them. She had no desire to be untrue to herself, or to Angel. They were nestled together on the bunk, snuggled under the thin blanket. Angel lay on his back and she on her stomach, pressed half beside, half on top of him.
The door swung open with a loud clang and Angel turned his head, looking not at the Council soldiers, but at Buffy. For the last twenty-four hours they had shared each other's company, talking, cuddling, making love, even dozing. It had been bliss like neither of them had previously experienced. But now it was over and the harsh world was intruding.
Angel's fingers dug possessively into the small of her back and she could feel the tension in his body. "Please don't do anything," she whispered. "I don't want my last memory to be of you in pain."
She knew he wanted to argue, but she held his gaze, her eyes pleading. He knew she spoke the truth and regardless of how badly he wished to defend her, he would not let her last memory of him be so horror filled. Slowly, his grip eased and his body relaxed.
"Christ," one of the soldiers muttered under his breath, his disgust evident. He walked over to the bunk. "Get up," he hissed, kicking the frame soundly.
Sans modesty, Buffy threw back the sheet and stood up nude, facing the soldier. She knew him. His name was Forrest and he was a friend of Riley's. He looked like he wanted to hit her, but Buffy watched him passively, accepting his disgust without reaction. She knew how she must look, even in the dim torchlight, having spent the last day in bed with Angel. Her hair was in a wild disarray and her flesh was covered with the evidence of their passion. His bite was still raw and red on her neck, his seed dried on her thighs.
And she felt absolutely no shame.
Forrest threw the drab gray dress at her and Buffy mutely caught it, dutifully pulling it over her head. This was her uniform. This was what a Slayer wore to be burned. It was too big for her, pooling on the floor around her feet. The neck was too large and it gaped, nearly baring her breasts. She did not complain.
Forrest backed her against the wall and watched over her as another soldier she didn't know injected her with yet more drugs. They would not allow her to escape her fate. The two men blocked Buffy's view of the bunk, but she heard another one of the Council soldiers order Angel to his feet. He complied wordlessly and donned his crumpled black pants.
Buffy met Forrest's eyes. "Whore," he sneered.
Holding her head high, Buffy met his gaze passively. She wanted to say something, but she dared not. The soldier wished her violence. He was looking for any excuse to send her slamming against the wall. For Buffy it would have been worth it just to clear her conscience, but it wasn't only about her. If Forrest hit her, she could not trust Angel to remain neutral. Her lover was already pressed nearly to his limits. If Angel attacked another soldier, he would die a very painful, prolonged death.
Forrest motioned towards the door and Buffy dutifully turned, walking barefoot across the cold stone floor. Shoes were not part of the uniform. She would die clothed only in the dress, unadorned save the vicious looking bite at her throat.
She wouldn't have had it any other way.
Angel watched Buffy as long as he could, but once they were outside, several soldiers marched her towards the Hellmouth while he was dragged to a waiting van. They weren't going to allow him to be with her until the end. That was not acceptable.
There were two soldiers, one on either side of Angel. His hands were cuffed behind his back and they held his arms. He sidestepped quickly, trying to twist his weight enough to break free of their holds. They were ready for the move. Simultaneously, they released him. One of the soldiers had a tazer gun and used it with deft efficiency. Before he could even begin to recover from the blow, they tripped him, throwing him violently to the ground, face first. Angel growled loudly, but they had him pinned.
Angel watched as two combat booted feet came into view directly in front of him. He rolled his eyes up, straining his neck to see the soldier that loomed over him. Angel's face split into a wicked grin. "Riley Finn," he sneered. "Why am I not shocked to see you here?"
At a command from Riley, the two soldiers pulled Angel to his feet, holding him between themselves. Riley didn't waste any time and before Angel could prepare, the soldier punched him as hard as he could in the stomach. Riley was a trained soldier and in very good shape. Angel couldn't defend himself. They all heard several of Angel's ribs crack under the blow. Angel grunted, slumping forward slightly.
"You're trash," Riley said. "You have no business here."
Angel shook his head pityingly, ignoring the pain that was already fading as his injuries mended. "You just don't get it," he said.
"Excuse me?" Riley growled, grabbing a handful of Angel's hair and forcing him to meet his gaze.
"She is mine to worry about, not yours," Angel replied harshly. "She will never be yours."
Riley's face contorted in rage and he hit the vampire a dozen more times. When he finished, Riley was breathing hard, shaking. He stepped back, looking down at his raw knuckles. Horror passed through him and he swallowed harshly. Riley accepted that violence was necessary to his job, but he had never enjoyed it. Never like this. He could taste bile at the back of his throat. What was happening to him?
"You have a choice," Riley said, his voice hoarse. "You can leave and I mean leave The City, disappear. Or you can die, here, now."
Angel looked at Riley, his expression guarded. Slowly, it dawned on him that the soldier boy was not working under Council orders. "What's your game?" he asked.
Riley stared at him for several long moments before saying, "She's not going to die."
Angel nodded slowly. "You're going to save her?" he asked, his tone slightly mocking. "You're going to ride in on your white horse and save the damsel in distress."
Riley flushed hotly, his lips pursed in a thin line. "You're the one to blame here. She is an innocent. She's sick. If we can just get her out of here, the Council will see their error. They will be more reasonable."
"You're a fool," Angel said evenly.
Riley's face darkened and he pulled back to swing again. Angel shifted his weight, throwing one of the soldiers off balance. The tazer had momentarily dazed him, but he was quickly recovering and with the help of Buffy's powerful blood, this close to the Witching Hour, he was stronger than he had ever been. He strained, pulling his arms forward and the handcuffs snapped. Riley was too shocked to react as Angel's fist sent him sprawling backwards across the ground. Twisting, Angel broke completely out of the grip of the other two soldiers and disappeared into the night.
The blindfold was unceremoniously ripped from her head, causing Buffy to blink rapidly as she tried to orient herself. It was a silent, cloudless night, oddly cool for the time of year. The full moon illuminated the site nicely.
The only other time Buffy had been here was for Justine's execution. It was strictly off limits, though Buffy wasn't exactly sure why. The Hellmouth was sealed centuries earlier. But symbolically at least, it was still a place of great evil. Just as the Council now viewed her to be. Evil. Salacious maybe, scandalous, wanton even, but Buffy didn't feel particularly evil. Maybe evil, like beauty, was in the eye of the beholder.
The large pole and the mound of kindling rested directly on top of the Hellmouth. Row upon row of absolutely silent people ringed it, creating a great sea of humanity. Buffy didn't know how many were present, but it seemed like thousands. She was certain the entirety of the Council was present, but it appeared that a good deal of civilians were in attendance as well. They stood back about twenty yards from the pole.
A dozen young girls were at the front of the crowd, holding torches. Potential Slayers, ranging in age from their late teens to preschoolers. The children the Council had wrested from their parents' arms now held the torches, ready to light Buffy's pyre, much as she had helped to light Justine's. Did they feel the same sickness she had felt? Did they wonder which one of them would be the next called? Buffy stared at their young faces, hearing only the crackling of the torches in the still night.
Forrest jabbed Buffy in the back, forcing her forward. She stumbled, but caught herself and kept walking. The hike from Nihil hadn't been exceptionally long, but in bare feet, on the oddly cold evening, it was taxing. The salted earth burned the numerous abrasions that blossomed on the soles of her feet.
Buffy walked to the pyre unassisted. There was no use in fighting. She saw Giles' face in the crowd, along with Holtz. Struggling now would only pain them, possibly driving them to do something stupid and futile for her benefit. She held her head high as she climbed the small mountain of kindling. Turning, she pressed her back to the pole and wrapped her arms behind it.
Graham shadowed her as she walked to the pyre, his face neutral. Buffy looked at him and wondered what had happened. Only yesterday he seemed squeamish when dealing with her and now, he faced her death without reaction. She did not know, of course, that Council soldier Graham Miller had no intention of watching her die this night. As he finished tying her hands with the magically reinforced bonds, he stepped back and returned to the rest of the humans. Buffy took a deep breath and felt the first pricklings of power roll over her. The Witching Hour on the Hellmouth. What a ride.
Holtz stepped forward from the crowd, a roll of parchment clasped tightly in his hands. He did not look at her and Buffy knew it was because he was not able. They all had roles to perform this eve and his was as Head of the Watchers' Council. He was her executioner.
He cleared his throat loudly and slowly looked around the circle of humanity that ringed the Hellmouth. His gaze was lingering, aggressive, reproachful. He shook his head in disgust and dropped his gaze, staring blindly at the ground. He clasped his hands together so tightly that Buffy could hear the parchment paper crumple in his grasp. He took a deep breath and blew it out quickly, raising his head with a sharp jerk.
Abruptly, he pulled the scroll of parchment paper open and held it up for all to see. "This is a Declaration of Execution," he roared, his rich, powerful voice reverberating in the still night. "Buffy Anne Giles," he read, using her real name for the first time in her life, "you are hereby sentenced to death for daring to test the bounds of Council hypocrisy."
Buffy blinked rapidly, staring at Holtz as there were quiet murmurings through the crowd. Her heart lurched painfully. He was going to do something stupid.
"The Council in its infinite wisdom," he sneered, his censure and sarcasm thick on his tongue, "has seen fit to punish you for showing enough spine to question the status quo, for daring to point out a wrong that has existed as long as the Council itself. A wrong that is the very cornerstone of the Council's power."
Quentin Travers and a small group of Council soldiers pushed their way through the crowd. "You overstep your bounds," Travers bellowed at Holtz.
Holtz turned on Travers, throwing the Declaration to the ground and crushing it under his boot heel. "No!" he countered with a roar. "The Council oversteps its bounds."
Travers was red faced, breathing hard as he stared down his nemesis. "You shall pay for this," he said, his quiet threat carrying clearly in the silence. "Even the Head of the Council is not above Council Law itself. You have overreached your authority. You will step down."
"Council Law is arcane and prejudicial," Holtz said dryly. "It was crafted at a time when humanity was on the brink of extinction, before science or magic could grasp what was happening. It was a doctrine created out of fear and ignorance and it is no longer relevant."
"It is our way!" Travers bellowed. "This is treason."
Holtz took a deep breath and released it slowly. He turned and addressed the ring of young girls. "If you would please," he said quietly.
Buffy and the rest of those present watched as girl after girl, walked to a series of tall wooden platforms that Buffy had failed to notice earlier. Carefully, they each climbed their respective platform. Buffy's vision flitted to Holtz and she knew that this was his doing. Travers sputtered impotent protest that went largely ignored.
In unison, the girls lowered their torches to large cauldrons. Buffy didn't know what the cauldrons contained, but they ignited with an audible whoosh. The air pressure surged and magic burst along Buffy's nerves, tingling over her exposed flesh before it dissipated in a rush. A wave of heat burst forth momentarily, pressing against her chilled skin - and then it was gone, leaving her feeling oddly bare. Buffy hadn't even been aware of the magic woven around this place, but as it left she felt exposed and raw, vulnerable.
The intensity of the light produced was momentarily blinding and everyone fought to cover their eyes. Buffy blinked and squinted, trying to accustom herself to the light as quickly as possible - even as she felt something else rising. The magic had been hiding something and when the oil in the cauldrons burst into flame, it pulled back the spell like a veil. When she was finally able to open her eyes against the glare, she gaped at the sight before her.
She watched as the rest of the humans present acclimated enough to take stock in their surroundings. There were several surprised yelps, but before long, the eerie silence permeated everything.
Buffy had initially been shocked at the number of humans present, but she was rendered speechless by the sight before her. In the bright light, she could clearly see row after row of black clad beings, reaching back until they finally faded over the horizon. Thousands upon thousands of vampires, outnumbering the humans present at least twenty to one. Her stomach contracted violently.
In the sea of DHSTs, on a high ridge stood Wesley and Lindsey. Buffy momentarily noted that Holtz and Travers weren't the only Watchers in the Council with a flare for the dramatic. Wesley waited until the implication of his show had seeped into each and every one of the humans present.
It rolled off the vampires in a palpable wave. Buffy reeled from the sensation, swallowing convulsively to prevent herself from vomiting. She felt woozy, sick. If she were prone to drinking, she would have thought it nothing more than a bad hangover. She was a Slayer and though she had been around many vampires in the past, it had never been like this. They were angry. She could taste their barely controlled rage like a metallic tang at the back of her throat. Their anger made them strong. They made no attempt to hide or to camouflage themselves or their nature behind false weakness.
Buffy was to be executed and the Council needed to make sure her death served a purpose. The idea was to bring her to her fullest potential of power and then kill her, releasing her power into the next Slayer. The combination of the Witching Hour and the Hellmouth were intensifying her power to almost painful levels. Faced with hostile vampires, her body demanded that she respond.
Her heart pounded in her chest and her lungs heaved as she waited for something to snap. Breathing hard, her mouth was open in a pant as she stared predatorily at the sea of undead. She eyed the vampires hungrily, the Slayer within her clamoring for blood, for the rending of flesh, thirsty for the violence of the kill. She watched them, their perfectly white skin glowing unearthly in the harsh illumination. They were still with a quietness intrinsic to the dead, their eyes oddly flat, almost reptilian in their coldness. Scanning the crowd, she watched them, predator to prey ...
Awareness slammed into Buffy as her eyes met Angel's, causing her breath to catch painfully in her throat. He was here. He escaped. He stood on the foremost edge of the vampires, as close to her as he could get. Buffy shook her head violently, fighting the need for blood screaming in her veins. What was she doing? This was insanity. Shaking uncontrollably, she looked at Giles in the crowd.
"The Hellmouth," he mouthed.
Buffy took a deep breath, pressing her eyes shut. She understood now why this place was forbidden. Even sealed and dormant its influence had almost caused her to start a war. It was the Witching Hour and her power rode her hard, infusing every fiber of her being with a heady, intoxicating strength. She had allowed herself to be blinded by its seductive lure. She would have charged headlong into the crowd of waiting, hair trigger vampires. She would have thrown their tenuous peace into upheaval.
She opened her eyes and met Angel's gaze again. She could still feel the vampires' power biting along her skin like so many pin pricks, but when she looked at him, some of it seemed to fade. It didn't make sense. Angel was a vampire, an old and powerful one, but when she looked at him, the Slayer within her quieted. Almost imperceptibly, she saw the corners of his mouth curve into a gentle smile.
The silence was broken by Wesley. "Vampires live among us," he said loudly in a voice that carried on the air. All of the humans turned to face him, intent on his every word.
"DHSTs are as much a part of Guardian City as the Council itself," he continued. "We depend on them. We need them to survive, but we treat them like animals. We abuse them. We exploit them. We extend to them none of the rights that we view as imperative to humanity."
"They are animals," Travers spat, but his voice was shaky, his fear evident.
"They were once human," Wesley said. "They possess souls as precious and finite as our own. They feel. They bleed. They love. And yet we do not acknowledge them or their suffering. We tell them they are lucky for the chance to be treated as slaves. We starve them and torture them with tags and collars and identification numbers. We strip from them their very names, their identities. We keep them as Pets."
Silence rang out as Wesley stopped speaking and even Travers did not dare open his mouth.
"They are strong," Wesley confirmed, giving voice to the fears rippling through the human crowd. "Stronger than us. And there are many more of them than the Council has ever dared admit."
People in the crowd glanced at each other nervously.
"They have hidden," Wesley said, "tired of the constant abuse and scorn directed at them by our beloved Council. They have lived underground, beneath our very noses for hundreds of years, biding their time. The Council teaches us to be wary of the vampires living in the Wastelands, but they think nothing of insulting those that live among us. They act as if the vampires within The City walls are harmless drones. They are not mindless animals. They are not domesticated. They are not impotent."
Buffy felt the fear ripple through the humans and it raised the hairs on the back of her neck. This was a potentially volatile situation. Hundreds of thousands of starving, pissed off vampires surrounded the island of humanity. Wesley was going to have to tread very carefully to keep this from turning into a bloodbath.
"We know we are in the wrong," Wesley said, addressing the entirety of the Council, his voice tinged with frustration and exasperation. "We have known for a very long time. We have sacrificed our precious Slayers rather than admit what we know. We have sacrificed them because they have dared to act out on what we know to be true, that DHSTs are an integral part of humanity, that they are deserving of equality, of affection, of shelter, both emotional and physical. These young women who are trained to do nothing but kill vampires are astute enough to grasp the situation, to die for their convictions rather than live the lies with which we bloat ourselves. Even now, at the height of her power, standing above the Hellmouth, this Slayer has enough sense to quell her instincts, to listen to reason."
Members of the crowd glanced nervously at Buffy and she swallowed audibly. She was shaking. The power continued to build in her small frame, overwhelming her.
Careful not to attract attention, Riley and his fellow soldiers inched forward. Behind them, Angel did the same thing.
"The choice is yours," Wesley said to the Council members. "But I suggest you make it quickly."
Holtz looked around the circle of his peers questioningly. Slowly, the Council members tore their attention from Wesley and fixed it on Holtz. "Quentin Travers has made his position clear," Holtz said. "He wishes to continue as we have these many years, regardless of the fact that it will lead us to ruin. He has suggested that I be removed as Head of the Watchers' Council. I want it known that I support everything Mr. Wyndham-Price has stated this evening. If I continue as leader of the Council, I will do it with the understanding that laws will be re-written and drastic changes will be implemented."
The humans murmured to themselves, looking warily between the sea of vampires and the two men dueling for control of the Council, Holtz and Travers. While everyone was distracted, Riley, Forrest and Graham made their way to the pyre. Pulling out a wicked looking ritual dagger, Riley cut Buffy's magically reinforced bonds. The Slayer was disoriented, her senses overwhelmed. Grabbing her by the wrist, Riley pulled her down from the mountain of kindling.
As she stumbled off of the pyre, Buffy slumped, going completely limp in Riley's arms. The power that had been building to a crescendo seemed to vanish without physical contact with the Hellmouth. Buffy's senses reeled from the sudden absence of power.
Oblivious to what was happening with the Slayer, the crowd's murmuring took on form. Holtz, Wesley and Travers knew that a consensus had been reached. The tentative glances, the sheepish expressions on the human faces told a story that didn't need words.
Wesley's crusade was successful.
And Travers failed. Definitively.
Angel broke from the crowd of humans and knew only that Riley held Buffy's limp form, a knife clasped firmly in his grasp. Riley was expecting Angel and was ready for the attack. He shoved Buffy into Forrest's waiting arms, managing to prepare before Angel leapt.
Riley braced himself, but the two went sprawling under the force of Angel's attack, rolling over and over as they both fought for the dominant position. Angel was in game face, growling and snapping at his opponent who was cursing and snarling in return. Several people in the crowd yelped in fear and skittered out of the way of the enraged males.
Travers' laugh carried on the air, prickling along the skins of those present. Something in the sound was wrong, broken, chilling. Even Angel and Riley in the midst of their personal war, stopped, turning their attention to the Watcher.
Travers looked around the circle of humanity, his vision finally coming to rest on Holtz. "You always won, Daniel, but not today," he said quietly. Turning his head, he looked at Forrest who held Buffy and nodded.
The soldier pulled a knife from the sheath on his thigh and dragged it across Buffy's throat.
"No!" Angel and Riley bellowed in unison, both of them reaching out a hand toward the Slayer.
Buffy felt like she was underwater, still fighting to regain her footing. Everything was muted and slow. Nothing seemed real. After she stepped off the Hellmouth, the surging power vanished, leaving her bereft and staggered. She was dimly aware of Angel, but nothing else until the intolerable pain.
The knife bit into her flesh deeply. The searing agony tore across her nerves, bringing her to consciousness the way nothing else would have. Blindly, she pushed at Forrest's arm, sending the knife clattering away as she tried to twist out of his grasp. Forrest was angry, intent on seeing her dead and he fought with every ounce of his considerable strength, wrestling with the wounded Slayer. Buffy lurched, trying to break free of his hold. She stepped backwards.
Onto the Hellmouth.
Buffy's body felt like it burst into flames. The rising crescendo of power that vanished earlier was back with a vengeance. Power tore through her body, reaching a blinding apex that blotted out every other sensation. She screamed wordlessly until consciousness abruptly snuffed into blackness.
[End Chapter 19]
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