“You sure they’ll be okay in there?” Xander asked, nodding his head in the direction of Buffy’s house as he started up his car. He had left it parked in the alley behind her house in the hope that it would avoid being damaged from the rioting, and so far his plan had worked.
“As safe there as anywhere, I think,” Buffy said. She was worried too. “The Jocertas are smart. They’ll stay in the basement with the phone at the ready. If something happens, they’ll call 9-1-1 and bar the door.”
“Maybe we should stop and pick up Anya,” Dawn offered from the back seat. “You know, Slayerettes at full strength and everything?”
“I think she’s ‘helped’ about as much as she’s going to,” Xander replied bitterly. He knew she would come if they asked, but he just couldn’t get the picture of her and Spike together out of his head.
As the car reached the street, none of the three spoke about the other person they were each thinking of: Willow. Although their friend was undoubtedly useful, the thought of what she had done to Warren was foremost in their minds. She could still be dangerous, and the temptation to use her dark magicks to defeat Castillo would be strong. They didn’t want to lose her again.
Xander drove quickly, but took several side streets. He could see several large crowds on the main streets, yelling and holding up burning effigies of various people. Riot-control police had finally arrived and were vainly trying to disperse the crowds. It seemed better to Xander to avoid as much of it as possible. When snowflakes started hitting the windshield, he could hardly believe it.
“This guy must really be pissed at you, Buffy. Changing the weather and everything,” Xander said. “You have a knack for attracting the worst of the worst.”
“What can I say?,” she replied. “It’s my job.”
“Looks quiet,” Dawn observed when they finally pulled to a stop outside of the condo Xander had seen Willow emerge from.
“Yeah. Doesn’t look like the sort of place demons would manifest or whatever. But you never know . . .” Xander shrugged.
“Remember,” Buffy reminded them as they walked towards the door. “I’ll go in first, you two stay in the back and—“
“We know, Buffy, we know,” Dawn interjected, rolling her eyes. “You’re the Slayer. We got that.”
Buffy tried the handle and found it locked, as she had expected. She backed up a few feet and then shuffled towards it sideways. She brought her leg up on the final step and with a powerful sidekick knocked the door completely off its hinges. She dove through and came up in a fighting stance, ready for anything. The place was empty.
They searched it quickly. It looked lived in—food in the refrigerator, liquor in the minibar—but every scrap of paper in the place was gone. Nothing to identify who had lived there or what they had been doing there. After a few minutes more of searching, Buffy threw her hands up. “Looks like a bust. Any other ideas? If you were a really smart vampire raising a freaking demon, where would you be?”
“Wait a sec,” Xander said, walking to the phone. He saw a blank notepad there and scribbled on it with a pencil. Faint impressions of what had been written on the sheet above it appeared. “Look: ‘11 p.m., Weatherly Park.’”
“Nice going,” Buffy said, obviously impressed. “Very Hardy Boys!”
Xander nodded. “I read like twenty of them in junior high until I realized they were all exactly the same.” He looked at his watch. “That’s like twenty minutes from now. Why would he go back to the park again? Willow and I were there earlier tonight—there’s no frost demon there.”
“When we were just starting out, I would have raced over and stormed in, ready to kick some vampire ass. But this is so obviously a trap,” Buffy said.
“So what are we going to do?” Dawn asked.
“Race over there and storm in, ready to kick some vampire ass. We don’t have any other leads, and our time is getting short.”
“Don’t worry,” Xander said reassuringly. “The Xan-Man has a plan.”
“Xan-Man?” Buffy said, raising a skeptical eye. “I thought you stopped calling yourself that years ago. Remember, you said it was lame?”
“Lame? I never said that. Who said that?”
When they got back to the car, they found a note lying in the passenger seat where Buffy had been sitting. It was from Spike and printed in an odd, slanted handwriting. Buffy was annoyed at the idea of him watching her all the time, but she read it anyway: “Ran into a fellow I met a long time ago. Had a word, cleared up some confusion in the lad’s head. Should be quite the party tonight. Now remember, don’t blame me for the lot of them—they’re not mine.”
“What the hell does that mean?” Xander asked.
“I don’t know, and I don’t care,” Buffy replied. “He’s just trying to make points with me. But it’s too late for that.” She crumpled the paper up in a ball and threw it out the window. “Let’s head to the park.”
Wittingstone was not happy, and he cursed the fact that his driver had a cell phone. He sighed as he paced back and forth, clearing a narrow strip on the snow-covered grass. The wind had picked up, and it was coming down harder now. The worst thing was that he hadn’t brought a coat. He looked at the small gathering of figures milling around in front of him. Dressed in simple jeans and leather jackets, they weren’t cold at all—in fact, they were rather immune to changes in temperature. They shivered not from the cold, but from anticipation. Since he had brought them to Sunnydale, Mr. Castillo had kept his crew of vampires hidden. He had wanted to both make sure the Slayer was surprised and that he had a force held in reserve. After several days of pure boredom, they were anxious for fresh blood. Wittingstone knew they would be disappointed, however. Mr. Castillo was not likely to share his hard-won victory with them.
Although he was expecting something like it to happen, Wittingstone was still startled when a crossbow bolt came hurtling out of the darkness to embed itself in a vampire’s chest. It missed the heart, but the vampire still yelped in pain and tugged at it. A second bolt struck precisely the right spot on another vampire, causing it to burst into ash.
“Over there,” Wittingstone said loudly, but without shouting. He could see figures at the treeline about thirty yards away, hunched down.
The vampires rushed in the direction he pointed. They weren’t used to running in the snow, and he couldn’t help but smile at their comic antics as they slipped and collided into one another. The hail of crossbow bolts continued as the vampires advanced. Wittingstone walked in the attackers’ direction also, but stood well to the back and side of the vampires—he wasn’t about to be shot. As he drew closer, he noted that the attackers had a system. The male and Slayer shot the crossbows, as the younger girl, Dawn, reloaded them with bolts. It made a for a surprisingly effective attack, and three more vampires fell before the nearest were finally close enough to swat the crossbows away and engage hand-to-hand.
Wittingstone walked closer, slowly realizing that his feet were getting wet and that his shoes would probably be ruined. Another thing to put on the bill, he thought. He continued forward slowly, careful not to slip as the vampires had. The melee began in earnest, and he could see that the Slayer and her friends had abandoned the crossbows for stakes. Although almost a dozen vampires were still on their feet and attacking, he didn’t doubt that she would ultimately prevail. Her fighting skills made the vampires look like rank amateurs, and even with the burden of protecting her friends, she still slew vampires quickly and efficiently.
When Wittingstone finally came within speaking distance, only six of the vampires were left fighting. The boy, Xander, had been slightly wounded on one arm from a vampire’s claw, while the younger girl had been knocked to the ground and was just now standing up, guarded by her older sibling. Wittingstone prepared himself. He could feel the power of the demon flowing through him, ready to be released through his words. He wasn’t looking forward to it, however. If the process of completely entrancing just one girl earlier had been tiring, the consequences of attempting to do it to three at the same time could be quite painful. Yet it was what Mr. Castillo wanted, and Wittingstone never disappointed his employers. He had a reputation to maintain.
“There is no need to fight,” he said, loud enough to be heard over the din of the battle. “We are all part of the same community, and members of a community never want to hurt each other. We’re friends now, too. Friends don’t fight.” He watched as the vampires reluctantly took their cue and backed away. They weren’t affected by his words, however. Only humans could be influenced or controlled by Solasheyk’s power.
Wittingstone saw the male human tap the Slayer on the shoulder and then point in his direction. All three looked at him curiously. Wittingstone was confident he was getting through to them, and continued. “Throw down your weapons, friends. We can go for a drive, and meet some other members of our community. I’m sure it will be an enjoyable experience.”
Buffy, Dawn, and Xander dropped their stakes to the ground. Their jaws slackened slightly and they stared ahead, as if dazed. “Excellent. Right this way,” he said, motioning towards the street and his waiting sedan. They began walking. “We’ll see you back at the Hill,” he said to the vampires. When they had left, and the Slayer and her friends were in the car, he put his hands to his head and doubled over. The pain of channeling so much power was intense, and had given him intense headaches. His nose began to bleed, and it took him a few minutes to focus enough to stand up straight again. Mr. Castillo better be happy now, he thought, before getting in the front passenger side and instructing the driver to start the car.
There was only an inch or two or snow on the ground, but Wittingstone was no longer in a hurry and instructed the driver to take it slowly. He looked over his shoulder. The Slayer and her friends were quietly sitting in the backseat, staring straight ahead. Twenty minutes later, the car turned onto the road which would take themup Kingman’s Bluff.
Wittingstone looked up and over at the driver. The driver nodded towards the road. “We may have a
problem,” he said.
Wittingstone looked as the car crawled forward. A woman stood right in the middle of the road, facing them and holding something. A second later Wittingstone realized it was a pistol. He didn’t recognize the woman at first, but he never forgot a face—it was one of his fellow human operatives, a woman his employer used as a courier and for other odd jobs. Mr. Castillo must have a message for me, he thought.
He instructed the driver to slow down even further, and they pulled to a stop next to the woman. The driver lowered his window and the woman leaned in. She smiled, switched the pistol to her left hand, and then with her right hand punched the driver right in the jaw. Before he could stop her, she reached in and turned the car off, grabbing the keys. Blood spurted out of the driver’s mouth—he moved to open the door, but the woman held the pistol up in front of her and he changed his mind.
Wittingstone heard the rear door to the car open and then slam shut. He saw that the male from the back seat had gotten out and began talking to the woman. He was confused: without direct instructions, the boy shouldn’t have been able to do that. With the two so deeply involved in conversation, Wittingstone decided it might be a good time to leave. He turned from looking to the left and looked to his right, a hand on the door. He saw the Slayer standing there, arms crossed, and changed his mind as well.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Xander exploded. Amara was about the last person he had expected to see, and the fact that she was holding a gun—a real gun, like the one Warren had used to kill Tara and shoot Buffy—made him nervous.
He saw her lips move in reply and then remembered the earplugs. He yanked them out and heard her say something about rescuing him.
“We don’t need to be rescued, though I appreciate the thought. This is all part of the plan,” he said.
Amara stared, disbelieving. “Part of the plan? You mean, to be captured and taken to the hill where Castillo is?”
“Exactly,” Xander replied. “Clever, isn’t it? You see, we had these earplugs and we knew Wittingstone thought he could entrance us or whatever, so—“
“Well, I guess you didn’t need my help after all.”
“What are you doing here Amara? You’re involved in all of this, aren’t you?”
“Never mind. I just came to make sure you’re okay. I’m really leaving now.” She shook her head and
started to walk away. The wind and snow swirled around her as she trudged off towards her car. She was angry at him for being angry at her—after all, she had just tried to save his life.
He followed her. “Listen Amara, I’m sorry, okay? I know you’re just trying to help. It’s just that we got things figured out here. Except I don’t have you figured out.”
She turned and faced him, and decided to get it over with. “I used to work for Castillo. Still do, in fact. Errands, messages, things like that. Four years ago he asked me to go Arctic Ridge and make sure you and your friends stayed there until he arrived. I didn’t know what he was then.”
“And that’s why you disappeared after the lodge?”
“Right. I realized what was happening when the vampire attacked, and it all started to make sense. So I left. But a few months ago I get a call—Castillo has set up offices in a building here in Sunnydale, and wants people he can trust working for him. I remembered that’s where you said you were from, so I decided to come. I thought I might see you again—keep him from getting to you.”
Xander wasn’t sure how to respond. He had known her only for that one day, and although he remembered it fondly, he had never expected to see her again. Especially since he didn’t think she was really alive until just the other day. “That was . . . a very cool thing to do,” he said finally. “And maybe when all of this is over, we can—“
“Except I didn’t realize how much you would have changed. You’re not the sweet boy I met at Arctic Ridge.”
“You kinda caught me at a bad moment,” Xander said. “I mean, my best friend and my ex-fiancee are both . . . having problems right now. Not to mention the stress of dealing with Sola-something the Frost Demon.”
“It’s more than that,” Amara said. “You’re colder now. Bitter.”
“It’s just that I’ve grown up.”
“I don’t think so. But it doesn’t matter now. I really do have to go. Good luck up there, okay?”
This time he didn’t follow her when she walked away. He watched as she reached her car and drove down the hill and out of sight. She didn’t wave, and neither did he.
“Who was that?” Buffy asked when he returned. She had already removed her earplugs.
“Just a ghost from the past,” Xander replied. “Nothing that matters now. But it looks like our nifty plan has been royally screwed up.” He looked into the car and saw the driver’s split-lip and bloody chin. The idea of taking Castillo by surprise by pretending to be entranced had been a good one, and he was disappointed to see it would no longer work.
“I wish Giles were still around,” Buffy confided. “He always researched great ways to destroy demon-thingies. But I guess we did well enough against Castillo without Giles several years ago.”
“Yeah, other than that whole setting-the-resort-on-fire thing, we did great,” Xander replied.
Buffy made Wittingstone and the driver get out of the car and start walking downhill. She wasn’t keen on the idea of simply letting them go, but they weren’t vampires and she knew there was no way the police would do anything about them. Also, by the time they reached the city again, Castillo and the frost demon would either be defeated or Sunnydale would turn into Antarctica. Either way, the pair couldn’t do much more harm than they already had.
“So what’s the plan?” Dawn asked, as soon as Wittingstone and the driver were out of earshot.
Xander looked at Buffy, and Buffy looked at Xander.
“Well we better think of something else, and fast,” Dawn said. “It feels like the temperature is dropping every second.”
Buffy motioned for them to get back in the car. She slid behind the steering wheel and started it up. When everyone was strapped in, she drove up the hill, desperately trying to think of a plan. As they neared the top, she relaxed. She knew she was good at what she did, and she had people she trusted along with her. Plan or not, when the time came she knew she’d think of something and just do the best she could. It had always been enough before, and with any luck, it might just be enough again.