Chapter 23: Sacrifices

Chapter 23: Sacrifices

                "So you're, what, just gonna walk around, hoping a Bringer'll just...show up?"  Faith was looking skeptically at Buffy and Buffy was frowning back, arms crossed and feet planted wide.  Her 'I am Slayer' stance.  But Faith had the same stance and Xander had to stifle the urge to laugh as they squared off.  Faith was the one person Buffy couldn't hold Slayer-status over.

                "I figure if this Caleb really wants me - us - to find him, he'll send one of the little creeps around.  And Giles' spell..."   Buffy looked over at Giles, who nodded, sighing.

                "Yes.  The spell," he replied, in a tone of long suffering.  Ethan, who was reading something and making rapid, scribbling notes, glanced up at them, his fox's smile quick and toothy.  He approved of the truth spell - had, in fact, practiced it on several people in the house until Giles had had a not-so-quiet word with him.  The household now knew that Kennedy had a crush on Tara, Dawn and Johnathan had held hands under the dinner table for three nights running, Buffy had called Robin Wood to bring him up to speed and had agreed to go on a date with him, and exactly what Spike liked about sex with Xander.  Nothing Spike wouldn't have volunteered - as he'd made perfectly clear on several other occasions - but Ethan had wanted to see if the spell worked on the undead.  'We don't know what the Bringers ARE, really.  Have to be prepared,' he'd said, laughing, as the mostly-horrified Potentials, Giles, and Anya had listened to Spike's recitation.  Xander was pretty sure Anya had taken notes.

                "Yeah, spell," Spike mumbled, face-down on the leather couch, the smirk evident in his tone, his body utterly slack, his t-shirt rucked up around his neck.  Xander was straddling his thighs, running knuckles, fingertips, palms and the occasional elbow up and down Spike's back.  Everyone else was clustered on the floor or the other couch, trying to plan some sort of strategy.   Dawn, Johnathan, Drake and Anya had taken the Potentials shopping, as training and work-outs and the odd surge of Slayer strength were hell on their limited clothing resources.  Actually, the possibility that most of the stores in Sunnydale were closed or closing meant that they were either an hour up the highway in Oxnard, or they were stealing clothes.   They'd all gotten remarkably...casual about things like that as Sunnydale had emptied.  Even the school was closed now, and Robin Wood had taken to patrolling with them occasionally.  He seemed to be - oddly interested in Spike.  It gave Xander the creeps.

                "So we'll go in teams?  Hit the cemeteries?" Oz was sparring with Miss Kitty, flipping her on her back and poking at her belly so she'd rabbit-kick his hand.  Sinclair was watching, tail-tip barely moving as Miss Kitty writhed away and then pounced again, biting lightly, her claws just barely scoring Oz's palm.

                "That's the plan.  Me and Faith, you and Derio, Xander and the amazing boneless vampire."  Buffy grinned at him, and Xander grinned back.  Spike made a half-hearted effort to flip her off but he could barely lift his arm.

                "You try bein' all stick-up-your-arse when these fingers are working their magic on you, Slayer.  Actually, a little something up the -"

                "Stop that, evil undead," Xander admonished, grinding his elbow in and Spike groaned and somehow sagged even further, practically a puddle on the couch.  He'd fought a wayward Fyarl demon the night before; had, in fact, beat it to death with a length of pipe.  He'd been in a bad mood - Kennedy's fault - and Xander had been initiating cheer-up-the-grumpy-vampire sex over a tomb when they'd been interrupted.  The Fyarl had gotten in a few good hits because Spike had been too pissed to duck.  So Xander was working out the kinks in muscles that... well, that weren't sore at all.  It was just fun.

                "Okay - and if we do come across one of them - what then?"  Derio sat up from his sprawled position beside Oz, dreads tinkling faintly.  Buffy looked a little uncertain.

                "Well - we need one alive so Giles and Ethan can do the spell, so...  I guess do your best not to fold, spindle or mutilate."

                "Right," Oz said, and pushed Miss Kitty into Sinclair, who immediately grabbed her around the throat with his paws and tried to bowl her over.  Miss Kitty fled, Sinclair in hot pursuit.

                "Just - please be c-careful," Tara said, breaking a long silence.  She looked up at the group, a small frown on her face.  "I just feel like...you need to be careful."

                "Do our best, pet," Spike said, propping his head up to smile at her, and she nodded.  Faith pushed away from the wall she'd been leaning against and bumped Buffy with her shoulder.

                "Let's get this party started, B.  I'm itchin' to deal out a little payback."

                "No folding, spindling or mutilating!  Just - bruising and contusions."  Buffy snagged an extra stake and they both strode out, bickering light-heartedly.

                "Yup, better plow," Oz said.  He stretched hard, arching up and back, hands over his head, and Derio ran an appreciative and possessive hand up his ribs.  Oz folded, snorting, and rolled over onto Derio.  They scuffled, half-changing and growling and Tara laughed.

                "You two are j-ust like Miss Kitty and Sinclair."

                "Only not as pretty," Spike muttered, and yelped when Oz pounced on him, knocking Xander back.

                "Hey!"  Xander scrambled to grab Oz and Derio tackled him, rolling them both to the floor with a thump, wolf's-eyes and claws, growling happily.

                "Children, really -" Giles started, but there was laughter in his voice and Ethan just hugged him around the neck, kissing his cheek and whispering something that made the Watcher blush.  Spike pinned Oz and lightly bit his neck - jumped to his feet, energized.

                *Up and out!  Let's find this bastard and get it DONE.*

                *Yeah - tired of this waiting and wondering crap.*   Xander crawled to his feet, hauling Derio with him and letting himself be mauled.  Derio snuffled into his neck and then kissed his cheek and bounced over to Oz.   Spike was shrugging on his duster, feeling over the pockets for cigarettes, lighter, flask, weapons.

                *Pack will win.  Pack!*  Derio'd gained some control in the link and he felt much better about that - didn't feel as if he were overwhelming them all with his emotions all the time.  It made him - bouncy.

                *Yes we will,* Xander thought, and tucked his arm into Spike's and they went out to find a Bringer.

 

 

                Spike's cell chirped in his pocket and he yanked it out, glaring at it.  Xander had forgotten to charge his.    "Bloody thing," he muttered, stabbing the 'on' button.  "What!"

                "We got one!"  Buffy yelled over the line, and Spike flinched.

                "Keep it down, Slayer.  All right - we'll head home.  Reckon we've got some news, too."

                "Great!  Whoops!  Grab his leg!"  The phone beeped several times as Buffy apparently hit the keypad, and then went dead.   Spike snapped his own phone shut and looked at the derelict winery one more time.  The Bringers were swarming it like bees to a hive, and he and Xander were sure there was something of interest there - maybe even this Caleb himself.  But there were too many, and it was hard to tell the layout of the building in the darkness.  Better, as Xander had said, to come back in the day and scout it - maybe send Oz and Derio in wolf form. 

                Beside him Xander was muttering under his breath, the soldier making an increasingly more rare appearance to count visible enemy troops and memorize all kinds of details.  Xander had said that for the last few months the soldier was shifting - becoming more a part of him, less a separate entity.  Merging memories until Xander wasn't sure what was 'him' and what was the soldier, anymore.  The hyena stayed stubbornly separate, much like Spike's demon.

                *Slayer's got a Bringer.  Guess we'd better head home.*

                *Yeah - can't learn much more here, anyway.  Oz?  Heading home.*

                *Home, pack,* faintly from Oz, who was across town.   One last look at the winery and they were trotting towards the mansion, rhythmic huff of Xander's breath, the link just a warm hum in the back of his mind. 

                The mansion was blazing with lights as they came down the stairs and crossed the small courtyard, seeing through the double doors the Potentials milling around the living room.  The Bringer was roped to a chair in the center of the room, hunched and small-looking in its black clothes, its disfigured face downcast.   Giles looked up from a sheaf of paper as they walked in.

                "Ah - there you are.  We're ready to start."  Giles gathered up a book and looked around, clearing his throat in his best Old Librarian manner.  "Everyone?  Everyone sit down and - and be quiet, please."  The Potentials slowly sorted themselves into ranks on the floor and Spike and Xander joined Oz, Derio and Tara on the steps.  Dawn was sitting beside Johnathan on the couch, almost but not quite holding hands.  Anya and Drake were cuddling on the other couch and Buffy and Faith were flanking the Bringer.  Ethan dropped a match into a bowl, sending the contents up in a quiet whoosh of greenish flame.  Giles read aloud, a short incantation in what sounded like Turkish, although Spike couldn't be sure.

                *What's that, then?  Not the truth spell.*

                *Something else,* Oz replied.   * The Bringer's mute - no tongue.  That's supposed to make it able to talk.* 

                "Tell us - what are you doing here?" Giles said, and the Bringer swayed, blind face turning from side to side in slow negation.

                "We follow our father - we serve that which came before all others," someone said, and Dawn squeaked and jumped, leaning away from Johnathan.  He was staring blankly at the Bringer.

                "Johnathan?"

                "It's all right, Dawn - it's the spell," Giles said softly, and Dawn nodded, wide-eyed.

                "But what do you do?  What is your specific task?" Giles asked, and the Bringer shuddered briefly, as if fighting the truth spell.

                "We are ants - beneath the surface - we build an arsenal, and we protect that which must be protected.  We are everywhere - we are legion..."

                "An arsenal - beneath the surface..."  Giles pondered, rubbing his forehead, and they all waited, little hissing ripples of whispered talk flowing out from the Potentials.  Buffy put her hand on the Bringer's throat and squeezed, just a little.  The Bringer thrashed, straining against the ropes.

                "What does Caleb have of mine - is it another girl?  What?"  Johnathan twitched, his fingers clawing at his knees.

                "Hurting us, hurting us!"

                "Buffy - please -"   Giles motioned with his hand and Buffy reluctantly let go.

                "The father has that which must be protected.  We build and we tunnel and we kill, kill, kill the girls - end the Slayers, end the line, end the light!"  The Bringer made a sort of strangled, rasping noise - laughter - and Faith backhanded it.  Johnathan jerked, then sagged a little.

                "Maybe it can't say -" Kennedy said, and Giles interrupted.

                "The truth spell should overcome that.  Perhaps - perhaps they don't know what they're protecting."  He walked up close to the Bringer and leaned in - put a hard hand on its shoulder, squeezing.  "Describe what you protect."  The Bringer writhed, mouth opening and closing, a rasping sort of gasp coming out of its mouth.  It wrenched at the rope that bound it to the chair.  "Tell me," Giles barked, *darkman* rippling out over them, and the Bringer shrieked, a strangled, tea-kettle sort of noise.

                "Light!  The light, the light - all power, all souls, for all time - they made it, we hide it - hide it!"  Johnathan's voice was shockingly loud and panicked.   The Bringer shook its head violently, jerking in the ropes, and Johnathan was shuddering, curling down in on himself.

                "Giles, is it hurting him?  Johnathan?"  Dawn hovered, her hand on Johnathan's shoulder, and Ethan leaned over the back of the couch, stroking a light hand down the boy's back.

                "He's all right, Dawn.  He's only talking for him."  Johnathan sat up abruptly, his lips curled back in a snarl.

                "We are everywhere and we take you down - chew your bones - hollow you out!  We will cut your throats and suck your marrow and drink from your skulls!  The Slayer-line is finished and the father will bless us - that which came before will bless us -!" There was a choked gurgle and a snap and Faith stepped back from the Bringer.  Its head lolled, unnatural angle, and Johnathan took in a sharp, gasping breath, his hands flying to his neck.

                "My - my - god, that was - that - my god -"   He looked dazedly around at them and Dawn rubbed his shoulder, consoling him.  The Potentials were whispering louder now, darting frightened looks at the dead Bringer - at Johnathan - and Spike could smell fear and despair and anger all moiling up from the crowd on the floor.

                *Nice show by little Miss Penitentiary but it's not gonna be pretty in here, in a minute.  Wanna break in with our news, divert them?*

                *Good idea.  Fuck - what in hell could they have?  What did it mean - 'they made it, we hide it'?*  Spike shook his head slowly,   tapping a cigarette out of his pack and lighting it.

                "Dunno, pet.  We'll see what Glinda and the Watcher make of all that mess."  Behind him on the steps Tara stirred and he and Xander both glanced back at her.

                "I don't think I make - anything of it.  At least - n-not yet."  Uncertainty came from her, echoed ever so faintly in the link with a *question question question* feeling, and Oz bumped her shoulder a little, smiling.

                "You'll figure it out, Tara - you guys are smart."  Tara ducked her head but smiled back, and Spike turned to watch Faith and Buffy drag the Bringer - chair and all - out of the room to the back garden and the cistern.

                *'Nother fire tonight, I guess,* he thought, and Xander sighed and stood up.

                *I could do without the odor of charred flesh again, you know?  Maybe we can just bury it.*   Xander went to the bottom of the stairs and waited until Buffy and Faith came back in, wiping their hands on their thighs, wearing matching looks of disgust.

                "Hey guys - when we were out, we followed some Bringers - they went to this old winery out east of town.  There were a lot of them there - more than me and Spike wanted to take on."  All eyes were on Xander now, and Spike felt currents shifting again, curiosity and a lessening of fear in the air.

                "Did you see this - Caleb?" Giles asked, and Xander shook his head.

                "No - we just looked it over from the outside.  They were coming and going - really busy.  We figure we can go look again in the daytime - see what the building is like.  I'd bet anything that's where he's camped out."

                "We should go check it out now," Buffy said suddenly, a look of determination crossing her face.   "Strike while the - the iron is all - irony!  Or whatever."  Spike snorted laughter and Buffy shot him a sour look.  "Don't start, Spike.  You know what I mean.  The advantage of surprise."

                "Not much surprise, if you ask me, since he's all but sent an engraved invitation.  Now's not the time, Slayer."  Spike leaned back, dragging on his smoke and Buffy's expression darkened.

                "Exactly!  He's - he's teasing us!  Dangling himself out there - he probably expects us to be scared and unorganized!  So if we go in now - hit him hard - he won't know what happened!"

                "I think -"  Giles stood slowly from where he'd been sitting on the couch, glasses in his hand and thumb rubbing over and over his forehead.  "I think Spike is right, Buffy.  It's - too soon.  We should know more about the winery - about what it is he's hiding.  Running in unprepared will only put us at a disadvantage.  And I don't think -"   Giles stopped and looked around the room at the Potentials - *just little girls, really,* Spike thought, seeing that look on the Watcher's face - that look of weariness and the desire for no more death - no more pain.

                "I don't think we should risk - anyone."

                "I'm not saying we just tear over there - I'm saying we get a plan, get our weapons - but go, tonight!"  Buffy looked hurt that Giles hadn't backed her.

                *She's always lookin' for the easy way.  Not her neck that's gonna get cracked if she sends all these children in there.*

                *Didn't know you cared,* Derio said, sly sideways glance at Spike and Spike huffed out smoke.

                *DON'T care, but the more of them between me and mine the better.  I want to END this - I don't want half our - army, or whatever you wanna call it, on their bloody backs because she can't keep her stake in her pants!  We're doin' this right -gonna burn 'em to the ground and sow with salt.*   Spike felt the demon surging up and he let it go - let it come out, snarling a little.   * Family - pack - that's the first and ONLY thing I care about.*

                *Love you...pack pack pack,* back from Derio, a contrite tone in the link and Spike turned and reached up the scant inches between them - took Derio's ankle in his hand and rubbed the bone with his thumb, looking at the boy.

                "Love you too, hermano.   Anything for you - all of you...  Don't doubt me."

                "I don't," Derio whispered.  Oz leaned into Derio from the other side and Spike felt Xander climbing back up the few stairs he'd gone down, settling back down and touching - completing the circuit.  Tara - above them on the stairs - suddenly reached out and put a hand lightly on Oz's shoulder, and Derio's, and the circuit jumped.  They all shivered, lost in the feeling for a long moment until a sharp exclamation from Buffy made them all turn and look.

                "Are you guys even listening?  This is important!"

                "We know it is, Buffy," Xander said, and *tired, tired, tired* from him, heartsick and so weary of the fight that Spike wanted to snatch him up and take him out of there - go far away and never come back.

                *Won't have a world to be in, if we can't stop this,* Xander thought softly, and Spike shook the demon away and lit another cigarette, knowing Xander was right but not caring - just raging at the hurt he could feel from his love.

                "Giles is right, and Spike is too, Buff - we really can't go in there tonight.  You didn't see - how many there were.  We need to do a recon in the daytime - see what kind of defenses they can mount, if the building is solid - lots of things.  Can't just -"

                 "Don't tell me can't, Xander.  I'm so sick of - standing here!  Sick of just reacting.  We need to act!"

                "You're right, we do!  But not like this.  Not without knowing more."  Xander crossed his arms over his chest and stood there - solid as the wood he shaped.  Buffy looked as if she were on the verge of tears, maybe, but suddenly she just slumped - turned around and ran her hands through her hair.  The Potentials were all frozen in place, staring wide-eyed, looking like they were scared to move.  Dawn and Johnathan and Faith had gone into the kitchen with Ethan - he could hear tea and maybe hot chocolate being prepared - and Anya and Drake were just holding each other, close as they could get.  Giles had slumped back down on the couch and now he looked up at Buffy again.

                "We do need to act - and we will.  But not - in haste.  Not without more knowledge."

                "I'm so tired of being on the defensive," Buffy said softly, her back still turned.  "I'm so sick of - running scared.  Please find something, Giles - find something and tell me because I don't -"  Buffy stopped and shook her head - walked slowly out of the room, out into the courtyard, aimless and hopeless.  Giles looked as if he might get up and follow her, but they all clearly heard the tone of her cellphone, and then her voice, saying "Robin?  I'm sorry I woke you -" 

                "I think - I'll have some tea, and go to bed.  Girls - time to go up, now.  We'll work out a patrol for tomorrow - a reconnaissance of the winery.  All right?  Good night," he added, not waiting for questions.  The Potentials gathered themselves up slowly, talking, looking alternately spooked or angry or determined. Anya and Drake got up as well, talking softly, sketching a wave to them up on the stairs and going kitchen-ward to say their goodnights.  Spike scooted over close to Xander to clear a path as the girls filed by, saying muted goodnights to Tara and Oz and Derio - avoiding the vampire altogether and Xander by proxy.  Only Kennedy stopped and stared at him for a moment - flicked her glance over Xander and shook her head.

                "Fuck off to bed now," Spike growled, and she flinched and headed up, two steps at a time.     Beside him, Xander yawned, stretching a little and then leaning heavily against Spike, burrowing his head a little into Spike's neck.

                "Let's go to bed, huh?" Xander whispered.   "Let's go to bed and worry about all this tomorrow.  Just wanna..."  Spike hissed in pleasure as Xander's fingers burrowed under his shirt and scratched lightly over his belly.

                "You're the smart one, pet.  Bed it is." 

 

 

                The daylight patrol hadn't told them too much more than they already knew.  The building was old but not decrepit - it wasn't falling down or missing parts of the walls, and Xander had the feeling that Caleb could barricade himself inside for as long as he liked.  And he was in there, this not-man of god.  They'd seen him once or twice, inspecting some project the Bringers were working on - strolling slowly along an avenue of overgrown grapevine, spurning the half-rotted fruit that littered the weedy aisle.   And after waiting for two days, Buffy didn't want to wait any more.

                "We'll never know any more than we already do, Giles," she'd argued, and Giles had finally given in.  At sunset, then, they were going to go in.   Faith was drilling a dozen or more girls in the courtyard, and Johnathan and Dawn were sharpening swords and axes.  Tara had decided to do a spell - a sort of 'locator' spell.  She had a hair from each girl, wrapped in a twist of paper.  She was making an oil to put on the paper and the girls, so that if they went in, and someone got hurt, or lost, they could be found.  The paper would glow until its owner touched it, and it could be used as a divining rod or a calling charm, Tara said, if someone was trapped and unable to get free.  She'd gone to the now-closed Magic Box to get a last few essential herbs to add to the oil that was steeping on the stove downstairs.   She'd taken a 'guard' of five Potentials and Ethan with her.   Buffy was in consultation with Giles in the library, studying the sketches of the winery Xander had made and plotting what she would do.

                Xander turned over in the bed, stroking his hand down Spike's back, watching and not watching Oz and Derio curled together across the room, talking softly between slow kisses.  The link was soothingly thick with *love happy mine yours*, and Spike arched into his touch and tilted his head a little, so Xander could kiss him.  Which he did, quite happily.  Until there was a squeal of tires outside, and a voice shouting - shouting about Tara, Bringers, took her! and Xander hadn't ever gotten a pair of jeans on that fast.  The four of them tore out of the room and down the stairs, to see Tara's 'guard' - disheveled and bloody - standing in a growing circle of shouting, hysterical people.

                "Shut it!" Spike bellowed, and the Potentials fell back, leaving the five standing, huddled.  Dawn was staggering in with their big First Aid kit, and Buffy and Giles also appeared at the run.

                "What happened?  Where's Tara and Ethan?" Xander demanded, and Amanda stepped forward, blood smeared under her nose and a set of bad scrapes all down her arm, showing under the torn sleeve of her shirt.

                '"It's - they - it was the Bringers!  They were there - at the shop.  They - did some sort of - of spell.  We couldn't see!  They grabbed - Tara and Mr. Rayne."  There was a muffled exclamation from Giles, and Xander glanced at him, the ripple of *darkman demonkiller* crackling over him like static electricity.

                "Where were they taking them?"  Oz asked, his voice urgent, and Amanda swallowed and flinched a little as Dawn tried to get at her arm.  Johnathan was holding a pad of gauze to Rona's bleeding forehead.

                "We - we chased them.  When the spell wore off.  We - killed wa-one.  They looked like they were going to that school?  The high school?"

                "Fuck," furious and vehement from Spike and Xander felt a chill go over him.  The Potentials were milling, whispering, and someone ran upstairs.

                "What the hell -"    *Why the school?  Why not the winery?* Xander thought, and then horrible suspicion blossomed, confirmed by Giles a moment later.

                "Johnathan -" Giles snapped, and the boy jerked around to face the Watcher.  "Why was Andrew trying to kill you at the Hellmouth - what was he trying to do?"  Johnathan paled - swallowed - then handed the gauze off to a Potential and stepped closer to Giles.

                "He - he said something about opening the gate.  About - calling the old ones?  The - Tur...  Tur..han...something...."

                "Turok-Han?" Spike asked, and Giles turned to face him.

                "Those are a myth - aren't they?"

                Spike shrugged, doing that thing with his hands that meant he was looking for his cigarettes.  "Angelus mentioned them once - something the Master used to rave about.  They're - different."

                "They're your race's...precursors, actually, if memory serves.  The Neanderthal of vampires.  Strong, fast - animalistic.   I wonder if that is the army the First is preparing for..."  Giles' expression began to go blank as he turned inward, searching his memory, and Xander clapped his hands sharply together.

                "Focus, people!  We need to go and get them back!  We need -"

                "Clothes - here -"   Vi and the Australian Potential - Donna - were shoving boots, shirts, and Spike's duster at the four of them and Xander couldn't help but grin. 

                "Thanks, girls."  They pulled on their clothes while Buffy grabbed weapons, talking rapidly to Faith.

                "This might be a trick - the First might be sending more Bringers here - anything.   Just - stay alert.  We're counting on you to protect the house."  Faith nodded, hefting an axe.

                "Yeah.  Don't worry, B, I got your back.  We'll be fine."

                "Giles - you better - you better stay here.  The wards -"   The wards were a permanent fixture now, but they would need to be bolstered if the Bringers or anything else started flinging themselves against them.  Giles looked agonized but he nodded sharply.

                "Yes, I...  Just find him, please," he said softly, and Buffy touched his shoulder, nodding. 

                "Everybody in the van - bloody bastards would pick the middle of the bloody day -"   Spike yanked his duster on and Oz took off at a run, heading for the back door and the keys that hung there.  The rest of them followed, silent and grim. 

                *She'll be okay, she'll be okay...* Xander thought, and squeezed Spike's hand hard when it slipped into his.

               

                *This fuckin' basement is starting to piss me off.  Maybe you need to blow it up again,*   Spike thought, and Xander snorted in agreement.

                *I think you're right.  Maybe that'd fix the First.*    The school at just after noon was eerily deserted, with trash and graffiti marring the halls. 

                *God - Sunnydale really is shutting down...*   It gave Xander the creeps.  As they ran, they could feel the energy of the Hellmouth shuddering and pulsing like a live thing, and the dreadful certainty that they were *too late, oh fuck, too late* crashed through them all.  As they leaped down the steps, Buffy in the lead, blood-scent slammed into them, making Derio and Oz shift halfway to the wolf, making the demon rise, snarling, in Spike.  The hyena rose as well because it was Tara's blood thick on the air - Tara's pain and terror and Buffy almost tripped in startlement at the chorus of howls that were torn out of them.

                *No, no, no!  God damnit, god DAMNIT we are not too late - Tara, fuck -hold on!*   They burst into the room that held the Hellmouth and for a moment Xander was too confused to really sort the images that were assaulting him; images that jumped and wavered in the flickering light of several torches.  Then it all became clear and he was launching himself across the room at a knot of Bringers and a scaffold of wood and iron and rope - a great wheel, where Tara hung naked and bleeding. 

                The Bringers crumpled under them, falling like flies, and Oz was climbing the wheel, claws scrabbling and scoring the wood, tearing at the rope with his teeth. 

                "Guys!  Help me!"  It was Buffy, in the shadows at the far side of the room and suddenly she flew backwards, crashing into a wall and crumpling down.  Something pounced after her - a wizened, grey-skinned creature - a hideous caricature of a vampire, and Xander felt his blood run cold.   The creature had fresh blood on its mouth.

                *Jesus.  Is that it?*

                *Turok-han.  Fucker's ugly.  Let's put it out of its misery.*   Spike launched himself, growling, and Derio hit the creature from the other side at the same moment, full wolf now.  Oz was cradling Tara, severing the last of the rope and lowering her gently, gently to the ground.

                *Oz?  She okay?*

                *Passed out - fuck, they cut her - she's all right, I've got her!*  Xander nodded and whirled back around, watching Derio latch onto the Turok-han's stringy calf and shake his head viciously, a ham-stringing maneuver that seemed to be working.  Spike was hacking with the small axe he'd brought; blows that were driving the other vampire back but weren't doing the damage Xander expected.  He readied his own weapon - a long, wide-bladed knife - and waded in.  Buffy joined them a minute later, her eyes snapping with anger, the torn sleeve of her coat flapping down around her elbow.

                "This bastard's gonna pay for that - this is the only nice coat I have left!"  Buffy swung her own axe, crashing it into the Turok-han's head, and it reeled and growled, clawing Derio's flank open, sending Spike flying with a hard kick and snapping Xander's knife off at the hilt.

                *Fuck!  Too strong - what are we gonna do?*

                *Take the fucker's head off!*   Spike staggered upright and darted over to the wheel - snatched up a length of rope.  He made a loop and ran back to the fight.

                *Derio - distract it for a sec, grab its leg again!* Spike directed.  Derio leaped and fastened his mouth on the torn flesh below the other vampire's knee and the Turok-han howled, sinking its clawed fingers into Derio's ribs.   The howl of pain that went up made them all cringe, and then Spike was looping the rope around the creature's throat, dodging a kick.

                "Slayer!  Grab on!" he shouted, tossing the rope-end to Buffy.  She caught it, winding it around her fist, and Xander grabbed up Spike's axe and chopped hard, sinking the blade into the Turok-han's chest.  It howled, wrenching at the axe, and then -"Pull!" from Spike and he and Buffy leaned backwards, pulling with all their might.  The rope tightened - sank into the stringy, grey neck - and the Turok-han scrabbled at it, tearing its own flesh.  The rope tightened further and then disappeared and suddenly there was nothing - there was a collapsing cloud of dark ash and the rope snapped out straight between Spike and Buffy.

                "Fuck!"  Xander leaned on the axe for a moment, panting, then jerked around at a moan coming from the shadows.  "Ethan?" he hurried over, peering into the darkness and almost stumbling over the mage who was lying in the dirt, arms and ankles tied.  "Jesus, you okay?"

                "For almost - almost being an appetizer, I'm - all right," Ethan said weakly.  Xander hauled him upright, wincing at the bloody wound on his neck where the Turok-han had apparently started to feed.  He worked quickly, undoing the ropes and getting Ethan to his feet, and they both made their way back to the Hellmouth seal, and the wheel.  Derio was whimpering, licking tentatively at jagged wounds down his ribs and back.  Buffy was standing helplessly, looking as if she wanted to help him but wasn't sure how.  Spike was on his knees next to Oz, gingerly wrapping his duster around Tara's limp form.

                *Tara - god - is she all right?  What did they -*

                "She's - been cut.  They carved - marks - into her..."  Oz snarled, his eyes flashing to black and back, and Xander saw the marks etched into her chest and stomach - runes that were still bleeding sluggishly.

                "God.   Oh my god -"   Buffy was pale, staring at Tara, and then Spike fastened up the front of the coat and gently, gently lifted her.

                "Let's get her the fuck out of here.  You able to walk, mage?"  Ethan passed a shaky hand over his face and nodded, jaw's clamped tight.  They went out and up, settling Tara gently into the van that Oz had parked right against the doors, so Spike wouldn't have to run through any sunlight.  The ride home was silent, and Xander cradled Tara's head on his knee, stroking her tangled hair back out of her face, his fingers trembling.   Spike was close beside him, holding Tara's hand and leaning into Xander's shoulder.  The smell of blood was thick in the air - blood from all of them - and the link was a tangle of emotions; fear, pain, despair - fury and guilt.  It built around them, spiraling upwards until Oz broke it, humming the wolf-chant out loud and forcing it into the link, overriding everything else.  Ethan, in the passenger seat, closed his eyes, humming scratchily along.  Buffy sat on the van floor, Derio's head in her lap, carefully stroking the bloodied muzzle and ruff of fur around his shoulders.

                "That's nice, Oz, that's...really nice," she said softly, closing her eyes, and Xander noticed the huge bruise and scrape that was down her jaw and neck for the first time.

                "You okay, Buffy?" he asked, and she opened her eyes for a moment and looked at him.

                "I'm...fine.  That - Turok-whatever, it was really strong.  If the First has an army of those..."

                "Have to get to the Hellmouth to get 'em out, though," Spike murmured, eyes closed.   "What we need is some C-4 and Sergeant Rock, here; bring the bloody house down once and for all."

                "Oh - I like that.  Fire pretty..."  Buffy grinned crookedly at Xander and gingerly touched her jaw, then settled back with a sigh, closing her eyes again.   From his seat Ethan made a small sound, weak chuckle, and Oz reached over blindly and patted his thigh.  They were all quiet after that, letting the soft words of the chant wash over them and through them, lulling them until they could be safe at home.