DISTRIBUTION: When all parts have been posted, the completed work will be available at my site, http://www.zeroimpact.com/ Please ask if you'd like to archive it somewhere.
SUMMARY: Doyle's lost in the land of the dead, and Angel Investigations gets a new case. Set after "Parting Gifts".
DISCLAIMER: "Angel" and all of its characters are actually the property of Joss Whedon, David Greenwalt, the WB, 20th, and Sandollar/Kuzui, Greenwolf and Mutant Enemy. No infringement is intended.
FEEDBACK: Please don't feed the animals. Please do feed the ego.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This has sorta become a series. "Apparitions" is the first part. There will be more at some point. Yay. Eternal thanks to Chelle and Anez for the excellent and ego-inflating beta-reading.
-- PART ONE --
The Irishman paused, shivered, and exhaled a puff of misted breath into the cold, still air. He was no longer Irish, nor was he a man, and in truth he had no breath or lungs to breathe. But he knew none of that; he only knew that the icy breeze had invaded every fiber of his being, that the river which flowed beside him seemed to lead to nowhere, and that he hadn't laid eyes on a single being aside from himself in the hours that he had wandered at the water's banks.
Hunger gnawed at his stomach, and the biting air made his eyes water. His teeth clashed violently together, chattering, but the sound was muffled by the heavy gray mist that blanketed the riverbank, and it didn't carry very far. His arms were wrapped across his chest and his hands were seeking warmth but finding none in the space between bicep and body. His feet had long since become numb, and it caused him to stumble over whatever small obstacles presented themselves.
He stumbled over the large ones, too, and finally lost his footing when a body suddenly became visible in the mist; the Irishman tripped over an outstretched foot and went sprawling in the sharp, dew-coated grass.
The body, which turned out to be an old man seated on a sizeable stone, said something in a language that didn't immediately register in the Irishman's mind. But long-forgotten memories surfaced, and the English translation spilled through his brain like cold water.
"Watch where you're stepping, Francis," the old man said. The language was Irish, though somewhat antiquated. Doyle translated quickly in his head, trying to keep his mind from straying to his days as a schoolboy, learning the language, and even better days when he'd imparted that knowledge to his own pupils. It was hard to keep the memories at bay, for some reason, but he concentrated on formulating his own reply, and the language returned to him.
"I'm sorry," Doyle replied in halting Gaelic, wincing at the rusty unused sound that inflected the language when it came from his mouth. "I didn't see you there."
The old man snorted, his gnarled fingers picking idly at a blade of grass between his fingers. "There's much you don't see, boyo," he replied, switching abruptly to English and acquiring a distinct Dublin brogue not unlike that of the man he was speaking to. "There's much that escapes your notice."
Doyle frowned, glancing around them and seeing nothing but scraggly vegitation, the shimmering black waters of the river, and the gray mist that blanketed everything in sight. "Where am I?" he asked, hoping that the old man would know the territory, or perhaps have a cabin nearby, with a raging fire and thick potato stew...
"You're here," the old man replied, a gap-toothed smile tugging at the deep wrinkles and folds of his face, deepening the creases. "You're where you need to be. Back at the beginning."
Doyle's frown deepened and he looked around again, trying to find something familiar in the terrain. "But what is this place? Is this real?"
The old man shrugged and stood, bending over carefully to retrieve a bow and club from the ground, slinging one over each shoulder. "It could be the afterlife," the old man said thoughtfully, his free hand rubbing at his chin. "Or it could be a hallucination. Maybe it's all in your head, if there's anything left of it." The old man chuckled as he began to shuffle off into the dense fog and perpetual twilight.
"Wait!" Doyle cried, halting the man with a hand on his shoulder. "Please, I don't know where I am, and you're the only person here. Could you please tell me where I am? How to get home?"
"Ask someone else," the old man answered, shrugging off the restraining hand and continuing to walk away. "I have poems to compose."
"But there's no one else here!" Doyle argued, eyes straining to watch the old man's retreating back.
"The shore is busy with the dead," the old man replied over his shoulder.
The Irishman's hands curled into frustrated fists as the old man disappeared, and his eyes scanned the riverbanks again, searching for any signs of life.
The first hint of movement was barely visible from the corner of his eye, but it was there nonetheless; Francis snapped his gaze to the small glimmer of life, and was surprised to see a woman standing there. When he glanced back up the bank the other way, the space was packed with men, women, and children, all standing anxiously at the river's banks. And suddenly, either way his eyes searched, there were people. Hundreds of them moved silently about the riverbank. Most didn't look at one another; many didn't seem to notice that the others were there at all. All were devoid of color, cast in shades of gray and blending in with the mists around them.
On the river, long boats emerged from the fog, steered by lean men with small deer-like antlers on their cowled heads. They paused at the banks not far from where Doyle stood, and each time a boat stopped several people would pile in. Sometimes they were simply ferried across the water to the opposite shore, and sometimes the boat carried them further downstream until they disappeared into the haze that hid the world.
The shades along the banks ignored Doyle when he tried to speak to them, and they ignored him when he pressed closer to the water's edge. He stood close to the water's edge, watching the vessels come and go in a seemingly endless stream, the slender boatmen indistinguishable from one another.
When one of the boats slipped up to the bank right in front of Doyle, he tried to take a step back, but the ghosts on the shore were already pushing forward, and he stumbled into the boat with them. The silent boatman simply pushed them across the placid waters to the other side, where the ghosts scrambled out.
Doyle didn't move. The boatman looked at him expectantly, and when the Irishman still didn't move to get out of the boat, the horned man tilted his head toward the shore.
"I want you to take me home," Doyle told the boatman. "I think I understand that I'm dead and all. I get that, I'm not in denial. All I'm saying is... I'm not gonna take death lyin' down. Now shove off with your little stick and take me back, or I want to see your supervisor, bud."
The boatman was impassive, his shadowed face blank, so Doyle lunged from his seat, wrapped one antler in a firm grip, and twisted sharply. The boatman didn't make a sound, but he stumbled to one knee, and his smooth face finally cracked into a grimace.
"You listenin' to me, man?" Doyle growled. He tried to will his demonic face to the fore, tried to force the spines to erupt from his skin, but the change wouldn't come, so he made due with what he had. "I'm cold, and I'm hungry, and I'm not much in the mood for uncooperative attitudes."
"Your life is gone, Alan Francis Doyle," the boatman finally replied, his answer whispered in a strange, deep voice. "I cannot take you back."
Doyle's teeth clenched together, the muscles in his jaw tight and his grip tightening on the boatman's antler. "We'll see about that," he replied tersely. He gave the antler another sharp tug, then released it altogether and sat down on the narrow wooden bench again as the boatman climbed back to his feet.
The boatman needed no further urging; his face once again impassive, he set the long pole in his hands against the riverbank and pushed the boat back out into the flow of the water. The boat drifted gently, urged along by the boatman's pole, and in moments they vanished into the fog.
-- PART TWO --
Cordelia Chase dreamed of blue eyes that sometimes turned green. She dreamed of strong arms wrapped around her, and pressing a kiss to his collarbone, soft chesthair brushing at her nose. She dreamed of smooth, pale skin, and wide, loving smiles. She dreamed of a single pained scream, and her phantom lover crumbled to dust in her arms.
Cordelia scrambled into wakefulness, clawing her way toward consciousness until she finally wrenched herself from sleep, her breaths coming fast and the bed sheets were twisted around her feet. She glanced at the clock, and it looked back with an impassive face, glowering sullenly into the darkness. She didn't have to be to work for another two hours, and after several late nights at the Agency, she knew she could use the rest. But his scream still echoed in her head, and she could almost smell his aftershave, as if he'd just exited the room and the scent had lingered behind him.
Biting her own lip and cursing the tears that welled in her eyes at the mere thought of Doyle, Cordelia disentangled herself from the sheets and walked slowly across the room to the bathroom, intent on washing away the morning's grief and forgetting his scream in the hiss of the showerhead.
She'd been in the shower for nearly an hour when the vision came; it hit her just as she bent over to turn off the water, and it felt so much like a physical blow that for a moment she feared that someone was actually attacking her. But images followed on the heels of the splitting pain, and she surrendered herself to it, on her knees and hunched over in the bottom of the shower. When the vision finally vanished and took the paralyzing pain with it, it left an intense throbbing in her head, and she realized dimly that blood was streaming down her face from a wound on her forehead. But already the vision was fleeing her mind, and she hurriedly bundled herself in a thick towel, drying a hand and moving as quickly as she could stand back to the bedroom, where she retrieved the pen and pad from her nightstand and wrote down every detail that remained in her mind. There weren't many, but it was something.
A drop of her blood slipped delicately from her chin and landed as a tiny splatter on the notepad, and she sighed, rising carefully to fight off dizziness as she headed back to the bathroom to treat her wounds and prepare herself for the day ahead. She had a feeling that more long nights were ahead of her.
Wesley insisted on checking her head when he came into the office that day, but she batted his hands away and scowled until he backed off again, leaving her alone. She ignored him as she checked the answering machine, deleting the single message, and she paid no attention to the injured-puppy look on his face.
Sometimes she could swear she still felt Doyle's hands on her, his fingers pressing against the soft flesh of her waist as they shared that single, passionate kiss. After her dream -- which had been a very good one, until it had turned into a nightmare instead -- she couldn't abide another man's hands on her.
She knew it was crazy. She knew that she needed to move on. She knew that he was dead. And she knew that she hadn't been in love with him. Had loved him, yes -- as a friend, and a brother, and the annoying little drunk that he was. But there had been no time for "in love". They hadn't had much of a chance. Fate had been unkind.
But she clung to him, anyway, to the memory of a grin that hid his true self-conscious nature and gentle lips as they brushed against hers. She held those memories close to her heart, because they were all she had left of him.
When Angel emerged from his apartment later in the afternoon, he found Cordelia seated at her desk, apparently deep in thought, and Wesley at the far end of the couch, his nose buried in a demonology text but his eyes sneaking glances at the young would-be starlet.
"Morning, Angel," Cordelia said absently, handing him a folded piece of paper as he passed her desk, headed for the coffee machine.
"What happened to your head?" he asked, dropping the note onto the table as he poured himself a cup of coffee. Doyle had promised to show Cordelia how to make something that could actually be called coffee, but he hadn't gotten around to it before...
Angel grimaced and dropped that line of thought, turning around and leaning on the edge of the small table that held the coffee maker.
"Duh," Cordelia snapped, gesturing to the note, which still sat on the table behind Angel. "I had a vision. Smacked my head on the faucet in the shower."
Angel raised an eyebrow at her, wondering at her sharp tone, and she immediately dropped her head, muttering an apology. "What's the matter, Cord?" he asked, gently.
"I miss him," she answered, quietly and honestly, and no one had to ask who she meant.
The vampire's gaze dropped to the floor and he frowned, his own grief surging to the surface again. It had been nearly a month, but the wound was fresh. Wesley was wise enough not to intrude on the moment, and returned his attention to his book. Angel hesitated, torn between comforting Cordelia and leaving her alone with her grief. He decided on the latter course of action and set his mug on the table, reaching for the note instead of for the girl.
Cordelia tried not to look at him with too much gratitude on her face, thankful for his understanding but not wanting to cause him more pain than he already carried. Instead, she carefully studied her fingernails and listened to the rustling of the note paper as Angel unfolded it, his eyes scanning the contents.
"Melanie and Phoebe Gray, 478 Barker Street. Get anything else? Like how we're supposed to help them?"
Cordelia shook her head. "We're not supposed to help them," she answered. "They're going to help us."
When the sun finally set, the trio piled into Angel's convertable and hit the road, headed for Barker Street. They were all uncharacteristically silent: Cordelia stared at the passing scenery without seeing it. Angel gripped the steering wheel, his hands clenching and then relaxing their hold. Wesley was sullen in the back; he didn't attempt to draw Cordelia into conversation as he normally would, and instead he just sighed loudly several times, hoping someone else would speak first, before he finally gave it up and decided to study the car's leather interiors.
"Cordelia," Angel finally said, as they exited the freeway, "you must've seen more in your vision. Do you have any idea what this is about? Or who these people are?"
She turned her head to glance at him, then looked back at the passing scenery. Her slender shoulders shrugged, and one hand rose to brush back the locks of hair that the wind had blown over her face. "There's not much to tell you," she said. "It was mostly freaky disconnected stuff. Really weird. Like a slide show from your Aunt Ethel's vacation in Bizarro-Land. Just images. None of them made much sense."
"Could you make any of them out?" Wesley asked, leaning forward between Cordelia's seat and Angel's, trying to get close enough to be heard over the road noise.
Cordelia shrugged again, and didn't bother to look at him. "A boat," she finally answered. "Horses in a field. An old man, frowning. Lightning. A wide, black river. Your usual messed up vision-y stuff, but moreso. I couldn't make any sense of it. The only real clue I got was the names and address."
They quieted as the car rolled to a halt at the side of a narrow residential road. "Barker Street," Angel said. "478. Maybe they'll have the answers we're lacking."
His long coat shifted around him as he exited the car, and he strode ahead of Cordelia and Wesley up the short walk to the front door, where he rapped his knuckles firmly on the wood. They stood together on the small porch, waiting for some reply. Thick, heavy clouds rolled across the moon, casting the entire street into deeper darkness. Cordelia shivered and frowned, a new headache developing in her temples and a sense of unease draping her like a shawl, raising the fine hairs at the back of her neck and making her clench her teeth.
The door swung open, and before Cordelia even turned back to see who had opened it, her bad feeling intensified.
-- PART THREE --
At first, Doyle thought that the only sounds on the river were the rustle of the boatman's robes and the gentle slosh of his stick in the water. But as their journey progressed, he began to pick out other noises. Somewhere on the riverbanks, reeds rustled, then stopped abruptly, as if someone were lurking there. The water, too, was disturbed; he saw ripples occasionally, things that looked like the backs of large fish, causing ripples as they moved just below the surface. The boatman gave no indication that anything was amiss, and did not seem to notice the noises, which only made Doyle more uncomfortable.
"Where are we going?" he asked, suspicious. Even in the dense blanket of fog, his voice sounded strangely loud to him.
The boatman didn't look at him. His antlered head was focused on some point beyond Doyle, and that was when the half-demon realized that they were no longer alone on the water.
The other boat skimmed up alongside them even before he could turn to look behind, and the antlered boatman in Doyle's vessel dropped his pole and in one smooth motion, leapt across the several feet between boats to land with his fellow boatman in the other craft. Both men wore expressionless faces as Doyle's guide sat down, and the second boatman halted his vessel, only to begin easily guiding it back upstream.
Doyle's quick reflexes allowed him to catch the pole his boatman had dropped before it could be lost to the water, and he grabbed it firmly with both hands, his heart pounding at how close he had come to being cast adrift on the river. Somehow he knew that he wouldn't like what he'd find at the water's end, or in the water itself.
When he looked back, the two boatmen had nearly disappeared into the fog once again, but the one who had taken him this far looked back at him, expressionless. His strange, deep voice carried back over the water, though his lips scarcely moved.
"There are things worse than death, Francis," he said. "Mind that you do not discover them. I can take you no further... only you can see your journey to its end."
Doyle could barely hear the boatman's last words as the other vessel vanished into the mist, and he stood carefully, leaning forward to hear the antlered man's fading voice.
When no further words came, and Doyle was completely alone on the river again, he gripped the long pole harder, then sank it into the water until it hit the river bottom, slowing the boat down.
"Does everyone here have to be so feckin' cryptic all the time?" he muttered to himself, a frown pulling at his lips and brow. "Is it so hard just to say, 'Oh, right, boyo, to get back to the land of the livin' you go down the river a stretch, hang a left, and the train station's right there'? As if everybody callin' me 'Francis' isn't bad enough..."
He trailed off, unnerved by the sound of his own voice spreading out across the water. He kept his balance carefully, not wanting to overturn the boat, and surveyed his surroundings. He could see nothing else on the water, and only when the light breeze shifted the fog could he catch glimpses of the short scrub and protruding rocks along either bank.
There was a sound of rustling in the reeds again, but he could see nothing. The boat bobbed gently against the water's sedate movement as he kept the vessel stilled. Somewhere to the left, the water gurgled and the glistening back of some creature was visible just underneath the ripples generated by its passage.
Something hit the bottom of the boat. Doyle could feel the impact through his shoes and he started, nearly falling out of the boat; another audible thunk, and he pulled the pole from the riverbed and set the boat moving downstream again.
Whatever was under the water only intensified its attack when the boat began moving again; the blows to the hull came harder, and Doyle could only grit his teeth and propel the boat faster, his movements clumsy with inexperience and increasing fear.
When Doyle spotted a clear bit of bank ideal for landing, his boat was already taking on water. Cracks and holes in the hull admitted a steady stream of water, and already he was up to his ankles. The shore drew nearer, and Doyle prayed that the boat would hold together long enough to get him there. There was another loud thunk, the sound of cracking wood, and near his feet, something hissed.
He was nearly ready to jump out of the boat and into the water, but whatever had made its way into the boat, there would be more in the river, and he wasn't ready to risk it. With nearly a yard left to propel the boat before he could safely leap to shore, Doyle looked down to see what kind of creature he now shared his boat with.
The thing was wedged into a hole in the hull, halfway in the boat and halfway out, plugging the gap quite effectively with its slimy girth. It was a fish -- or at least, that was the only way Doyle could classify it -- with a long head, shining silver eyes, and clawed fins that it was attempting to use to pull itself further into the boat. It looked up to meet his eyes, and opened a mouth bristling with sharp teeth, another hiss issuing from its pulsing gills.
Doyle tried to maintain control of himself for as long as possible, fighting the fear of the animal that made his hands shake and sweat roll down from his hairline. There was another groan of wood, and a wet slither as the fish broke free from the hole and splashed into the water that had accumulated around Doyle's feet. The hull scraped through gritty mud as he shoved the pole one last time and thrust the vessel forward into the riverbank. Doyle jumped over the bow and out onto the muddy bank, scrambling to get away from the water and the toothy fish that was looking to make a meal of his feet. He could see the fish's dark, glistening body thrashing about in the boat; it hadn't been half in the vessel after all; only the front portion of it had been lodged in that hole, and now that he could see the thing, he guessed that it was at least two feet long.
The fog hung mostly over the water, instead of the bank, and when he was finally able to tear his eyes away from the remains of his boat, Doyle was afforded a better view of his new surroundings than he'd had on the where the boatmen populated the river.
The vegitation was thicker here; around his soaked feet, tall grass swayed with the slight breeze. Bushes ringed the small bank, grasping at his pantlegs with thorny arms. Behind him, large trees rose up from the damp earth, clustered close together and crowding the riverbank. Their bark was dark and rough, and their barren branches stretched skyward, crossing with one another to form a thick canopy. From the flat bank he'd just landed on, a thinly defined trail -- probably made by deer, or some other creature he didn't particularly want to contemplate -- cut through the trees and led into the forest. Overhead, thick black clouds gathered, covering a perpetually gray sky. Thunder growled in the distance; lightning skittered, blue-tinged white, underneath the belly of the clouds.
With the distinct feeling that he had only one option, Doyle sighed, pulled his worn leather jacket tighter around him, and stepped into the woods.
-- PART FOUR --
The house on Barker Street was overheated, and the heat flowing from the vents made the air heavy and cloying. There was a smell like scorched metal, and it clung to Cordelia's tongue when she breathed, making her mouth feel like it was filled with glue. Angel didn't seem to notice the change in temperature, though Wesley obviously did; the Englishman loosened his tie, his mouth hanging open as they followed their hostess down the long, narrow hallway.
In life, Melanie looked much like she had in Cordelia's vision, but this time there was no blinding pain accompanying the image. Her smile was warm, her teeth white and even, her skin a smooth chocolate brown, her dark eyes sparkling and her black hair contributing to the effect with a lustrous shimmer.
Cordelia hated her immediately.
"My sister and I have dreams," Melanie explained, her long, flowing black dress shifting around her feet as she padded barefoot deeper into the house. "Since we were children, we've had dreams. People, places, things that will happen... and we've seen you, Angel."
The room they finally emerged into, at the back of the house, was spacious and tastefully decorated. Three couches formed a U in the center of the room, facing a fireplace that roared despite the temperate January weather. Another woman sat on the couch, her shining white hair clinging to the cushions behind her head. Her skin was white, and her eyes a faint pinkish color. Though she was obviously an albino, her face was identical to Melanie's in all but color. She smiled, and her teeth were nearly indistinguishable from her lips.
"Hello, I'm Phoebe. Please, sit," she invited, reaching out to take her sister's hand as the dark woman sat down beside her. Cordelia and Wesley sat on the couches opposite, perched on the edges of their seats and obviously uncomfortable. Angel remained in the doorway, his large frame and long black coat seeming to fill the exit.
"I see you are not at ease," Phoebe began. "And for this I will make your visit quick. You have been sent to us by the Powers That Be, because you need our help. This is a matter of great importance and your roles are essential."
Her words seemed to spark Wesley's interest, and he leaned forward, his elbows on his knees and an eager expression on his face. "What sort of mission is it?" he asked.
Melanie smiled at him indulgently and took up the tale. "There are certain rules," she explained, her face turning somber again, "which govern the way that our world interacts with others. There are protocols for handling the transit of humans, demons, the dead of all worlds. Sometimes the rules are bent, but disaster is the only outcome when they are broken."
"And someone's trying to break these rules?" Angel asked, trying to lead them to the conclusion. He crossed his arms over his chest, itching to get out of the house but unable to determine why.
The strange sisters nodded in unison, but only Phoebe answered his question. "A soul -- recently deceased of our world -- is attempting to cross back into our realm, into life. He's strong, willful, and we believe that he might succeed."
"And if he does?" Wesley inquired. Cordelia shifted next to him, her mouth closed and a frown etched on her forehead.
"It would open rifts between our world and the lands of the dead," Melanie replied seriously. "Many of the dead are unwilling to admit that they *are* dead, and many would return to our world instead of moving to other realms, as they should. There would be poltergeists in every home, spirits wandering every street, chaos and bloodshed caused by the angry phantoms of the dead."
When Melanie finished speaking, a heavy silence descended on the room, but Cordelia quickly broke it. She stood abruptly, the couch shifting under her motion and groaning as it gave up her weight. Her eyes -- as haunted as the vision the sisters had painted of the future -- met Angel's for a moment before she fled back down the hallway, toward the front door. Angel watched her go, and decided not to pursue, giving Cordelia a moment alone.
"Is she alright?" Phoebe asked.
"Not ill, I hope?" her sister added.
Angel shook his head. "She's fine. It's just been a rough night. Is there anything more you can tell us?"
They nodded at him in perfect synch, then looked at one another, rising smoothly from the couch in one motion and moving to the fireplace mantle, where they collected a few large jars and blew the dust from their lids.
Without a word, they both sat down daintily on the floor, setting down their jars around them. Phoebe pulled a large silver dish from under one of the couches and set it down between them, then uncorked one of her jars.
The liquid that Phoebe poured into the dish was black and thick, like oil, but didn't have any odor that Angel could detect. The albino poured out enough of the sludge to form a thin covering over the bottom of the dish, then recorked her jar and set it aside. Melanie followed suit, uncorking one of her jars and pouring just a small amount of the liquid in to mingle with the black oil. This time it was a substance that Angel recognized; the smell that suddenly filled his senses was that of blood. It was human, and fresh.
Other liquids were quickly added; incense and more oils all swirled together under the dish was brimming with it and could hold no more. The sisters chanted together softly in Latin, but Angel could scarcely make it out. They seemed to be turning the filled dish as a scrying bowl. Their heads bent together over it and they peered into the liquids with frightening intensity, then suddenly leaned back again. Phoebe looked up, and Melanie twisted to look over her shoulder. Their gazes landed on Angel, and he found himself straightening and unfolding his arms, his nerves twisted and strained.
"Already he has completed a part of his journey," Phoebe said. Her voice seemed deeper and her pink eyes had gone a little red, but Angel was sure it was a trick of the light. "He has survived the first peril and he walks the spirit world alone."
Melanie picked up without pause. "He will return to our realm as nothing more than a shade, but his journey will lead him to the water's side, where spirit forms flesh. He must be banished back to the land of the dead before his body is reborn."
Both sisters slumped visibly, suddenly appearing worn. The liquid had vanished from their scrying bowl, and they pushed the dish aside, clinging to one another for support.
"I hope that this information has helped you," the albino said. "And if it doesn't, may the Powers watch over us all in the dark times ahead."
Angel frowned, muttered a quick thank-you, and left the house with Wesley trailing close behind him. The scent of the blood remained in his nostrils, and matching aches formed in his teeth and forehead as he fought the demon inside of him that pushed for release. Outside, he spotted Cordelia leaning against the side of the building, her arms wrapped tightly around her stomach and her head lowered; long, dark hair obscured her face from his view.
The two humans and their vampire companion climbed into Angel's convertible without a word passing between them, all lost in their separate thoughts as they left the house behind.
Inside, Melanie and Phoebe watched the trio's departure from the living room window. Their weariness was gone, and their own silence was only broken as the car's taillights faded into the night.
"Do you think they'll succeed?" Melanie asked her sister, absently taking the albino's hand.
"They're nothing if not determined," her sister replied, with a knowing smile. "They'll do as we've told them, because they see no reason to distrust us. The little Seer did have us in her vision, after all."
They regarded the night together in comfortable quiet for a time, and then Melanie sighed, releasing her sister's hand.
"Get some sleep," she murmured lovingly to her sister. "The partners are expecting us bright and early at the firm tomorrow morning."
Phoebe nodded her acknowledgement, and received a quick peck on the cheek from Melanie before her dark-skinned sister turned and vanished into the even darker hallway. The light from the crescent moon splashed in the windows and glowed off the albino's white skin, and the gleaming teeth in her smile.
-- PART FIVE --
The noises began when he was too deep inside the woods to flee blindly in terror, as instinct commanded. From all directions, though scarcely simultaneously, he could hear the brittle snap of branches, the rustle of displayed leaves, and the soft sound of more than one mouth breathing.
Doyle stuck to the narrow path and searched the surrounding foliage carefully with his eyes, but he never saw whatever it was that kept pace with him through the woods. His own feet crunched loudly in the dense ground cover of weed-laden grasses and fallen leaves, and the sound made him wince, wishing he could stop moving until the things following him grew bored and left him alone.
He seriously doubted that they would, though, and that had him worried.
His troubles multiplied when the engorged black clouds above finally unleashed their storm; though the thin branches of the trees surrounding him were tightly knit, they didn't shelter him from the tiny droplets of water that fell in a freezing torrent from the sky. He was quickly drenched, and his pace slowed as he was forced to maneuver around deep puddles and lift his feet from the thick, grasping mud. He could no longer hear the passage of the things in the woods; the rattle of the rain drowned out whatever other sounds that the forest might have yielded.
His head was down in an effort to keep the rain out of his eyes, and he watched carefully for puddles and holes filled with water, wary of twisting an ankle. So the appearance of the ground was his first awareness of change, and he was suitably surprised when he found himself with one foot mired in deep mud and being assaulted by rain, and the other foot planted in deep green grass, warmed by the sun.
He took another stumbling step before his brain even registered that something was happening, and suddenly he was standing in a warm, sunlight meadow. Turning to look behind him, he saw no path, but the trees looked healthy and in the full green bloom of spring, very much unlike the forest he had formerly been traversing. The meadow itself was lushly green as well, and highlighted by large stretches of blooming flowers, which swayed back and forth with the warm breeze.
Doyle himself was still sopping wet, his shoes caked with mud and his clothes plastered to his body. He raised his hands to rub the water from his eyes, making sure that the peaceful -- and very warm -- scene before him was a reality. It remained even when his eyes were clear, and he smiled a very wide smile before stepping further into the meadow.
The sound of tinkling laughter and running water drew him downhill, and he stumbled his way closer to the sound, his legs burning with fatigue from his walk through the forest and his throat suddenly feeling very dry.
The girls were seated at the edge of a small, clear stream, their brightly colored, intricate dresses pooled around them in the grass. Their voices rose above the gurgling sound of the water as they laughed at something one of them had said, and their smiles made their beautiful faces shine. Their horses milled about nearby, outfitted in dyed leather harnesses and all the finer trimmings, grazing peacefully on the lush green grass.
The entire scene made Doyle achingly tired; he wanted to drink the water, lie down in the grass, and sleep for eternity surrounded by lovely girls. But he wasn't an idiot. He'd grown up Irish with a grandmother who had delighted in telling tales of knights and heroes. He knew a set-up when he saw one, and he knew that when things looked too good to be true, there was probably something very mean and very hungry waiting nearby to gnaw on his head.
"Ladies," he greeted, so as not to startle the women with his presence, and the laughter abruptly halted, their big-eyed gazes turning to him.
"Good sir," one of them cooed, standing up and sashaying her way closer. "You must be tired and thirsty. Come... drink from the stream and dry your clothes in the sun. We will keep you company." Her smile was seduction and sunshine, and he found himself stepping up to the banks of the little stream, smiling a bit too brightly at the five other girls seated in the grass.
They returned his smile with the sun-warmed laziness of cats, and it infected him, too; his knees weakened and he slumped bonelessly in the grass, the scent of pansies and rosemary filling his nostrils. The sun's yellow touch heated his cold skin and slowly dried his wet clothes, and he promised himself that he would only linger for a moment to dry off and rest his tired legs before continuing on his way. The girls, now spread out around him, sang softly to themselves and each other in beautiful melodies, their long, delicate fingers plucking flowers to add to their growing bouquets.
Just as his heavy-lidded eyes slid shut, a soft hand touched his brow, startling him into wakefulness again. He looked up to see the girl who had first greeted him smiling gently down. He knew their game. He knew that he was in very deep trouble if he stayed and that no good would come of it. In his grandmother's stories, they always lured unsuspecting men in this way. He knew that they were the predators and he was the prey. And he didn't care.
It was warm in the meadow, and he was very tired.
The girl's touch grew bolder, and she slid her fingertips down his cheek, scraped her nails along the length of his throat, began unbuttoning his shirt. He sighed, and did not protest. The other girls edged closer; he could hear the rustle of their dresses in the grass. They giggled, a sound like tinkling windchimes, and another hand joined the first, tugging his button-down aside, untucking his t-shirt and running a hand up underneath.
Something hit his face and trickled down his cheek; the smell of dewy grass suddenly turned to the smell of rain. The hand on his stomach felt rough and calloused, and the ground beneath his back was wet.
Doyle's eyes flew open and he scrambled to his feet, narrowly evading the hands that grasped at him. The spot where he'd been resting was little more than rough grass and slick mud, the clear stream he'd rested by was a muddy trickle of dirty water, and the meadow just a clearing where no trees stood to shelter him from the rain. The girls with all their finery now leered at him with clear malicious intention from underneath their ragged cloaks and cowls. They seemed to still be as beautiful as they had appeared, but their eyes were black now, and heavy scars formed intricate ritual patterns on their hands. Doyle backpedaled rapidly, nearly slipping in the soaked earth, and when his back slammed into something, he remembered the horses.
He half expected to turn around and see sinister riders on the animals now, but none were there. Where horses of white and brown had stood, though, there were now only massive steeds of shining black, their worn leather tack slick with moisture. The animals themselves appeared harmless enough and simply stood, watching the proceedings with little interest.
Doyle looked back at the girls, who were advancing calmly, confident that he would not escape them, and looked back at the horse he'd run into. It blinked back at him with round brown eyes, and he made his decision. He'd never ridden a horse in his life, and it showed with the laborious attempt to get his foot into the stirrup and the three tries it took to haul himself into the saddle, but once he had both feet firmly in the stirrups and reins in his hands, he was confident enough that riding the horse would be better than running on foot. The girls had advanced as he mounted, and they tried to pull him down, but he tugged his feet from their grip, gave his horse a sharp slap on the rump, and managed to cling to the saddle as the animal took off at a gallop.
The saddle was slick with rainwater and the horse moved quickly, but Doyle squeezed the animal's sides with his knees and tangled white-knuckled fingers in the beast's mane. There was no sound of thundering hooves to signal a pursuit, but far behind him, he could hear the girls' tinkling laughter again.
-- PART SIX --
Angel sat on the front edge of Cordelia's desk, one thigh resting on the smooth wood with his foot dangling above the floor. His arms were crossed over his chest, and he frowned, his eyebrows drawing together and his head tilting slightly to the side as he regarded his young assistant.
Cordelia stood at the window behind her desk, looking out. There was little more than alleys and walls back there, and nothing interesting to look at, but it was obvious that her surroundings were the last things on her mind.
"Cordelia," Angel said, softly. She didn't seem to hear him, her eyes still fixed on something far distant -- most likely, Angel guessed, the past. "Cordelia," he said again, louder this time.
She blinked once, startled, and finally turned away from the window. "Yeah?"
Angel sighed, standing, and stepped toward his own office. "Let's talk."
Hesitating, Cordelia glanced at Wesley, who had claimed the entire couch, himself seated at one end and an array of books spread out along the rest of the cushions. He glanced up from his research of the spirit world long enough to smile encouragingly at her, then he turned his attention away again, muttering to himself as he contemplated the books, clearly fascinated by their contents.
Cordelia smiled back, though Wesley didn't notice, and she followed Angel into the office, the door clicking softly shut behind her.
As an admittedly elitist snob in Sunnydale, Cordelia had been involved in too many staring contests to count. And she'd won them all, though a combination of haughty demeanor and ice-cold determination.
But the ice had thawed since her parents had lost their money, and the attitude had fallen victim to her efforts to survive LA. It'd been a long time since anyone had tried to stare her down. She was out of practice at staring right back.
At least, that was what she told herself to explain the fact that she'd lasted only a few seconds under Angel's intense gaze before averting her eyes.
They sat like that for maybe a minute; he stared at her, and her eyes looked at anything but him. Time stretched out for Cordelia, and she shifted awkwardly in her seat.
"I'm worried about you," Angel said, softly. The concern was easily detectable in his voice.
"I'm fine," she answered, still not looking at him.
"You're not," he countered, and his gaze left her face. He stood, abandoning the chair behind his desk and coming around in front of it, taking the seat next to Cordelia's and leaning over the space between to take her hand. "You're hurting," he said. "That's healthy. But you're getting lost in the past, Cordelia. And I need you in the present."
She abandoned her detailed visual study of the back of his desk clock and her eyes finally met his. "Remember that time Doyle saved me from a vampire? I was going to ask him out for mochas, and then his wife walked in. Remember?"
Angel nodded. Cordelia's fingers gripped his tightly, and her other hand joined in, covering his knuckles. She leaned over the arm of her chair, regarding him intensely.
"I keep thinking," the girl continued. "What if Harry hadn't walked in right then? What if we'd gotten those mochas? What if I'd really given him a chance and listened to what he had to say? What if I'd paid attention to him? What if I'd realized that I felt something for him and that he felt something for me before it was too late for us to do anything about it? And I keep coming back to the same answer with every question."
He didn't have to urge her to go on, but his thumb swept gently over the back of her hand in a small, comforting gesture.
Cordelia bit her lip for just a moment, and tears welled from her eyes, streaming down her cheeks and gathering at her chin. "I could've loved him," she said. "I would have. Deep down, I know it."
In the many days since Doyle had died, Angel couldn't remember Cordelia ever crying in front of him. Not really crying, anyway; there would be tears in her eyes, and a quiver in her lip, but she'd bravely held it in. Somehow she must've known that Angel had needed her strength, at first, to combat his own pain. But he was the strong one now, and it was Cordelia's turn to break down.
Her shoulders shook with her sobs, and the pain of loss twisted her face. Her hands left his to clutch at her stomach as though she were ill, and her hair fell over her face as she dropped her head, pulling in halting breaths.
After a hundred years of guilt and pain, Angel knew exactly what she felt like. She felt the same way he had when he'd walked away from Sunnydale and Buffy. The same way he had when the Oracles had returned the day to him, and the love of his life had walked away, never knowing of the time they'd spent together as human lovers. She felt the same way he had when Doyle's scream had echoed through the cargo hold and their friend had vanished in a flash of killing light.
Angel abandoned his seat only long enough to scoop Cordelia into his arms, and then he sat again, cradling her in his lap. Her legs hung over the chair's arm, and her face burrowed instinctively into his shoulder, her fingers clutching at the material of his shirt.
"It's not fair," she gasped, against his chest. "It's not fair."
He nodded his agreement, his cheek resting against the top of her head, and said nothing. She cried for a few long, agonizing minutes, until her grief left her tired and feeling weak. After taking another moment to compose herself, she slipped gracefully from his embrace.
She grabbed a handful of tissues from the box on his desk and carefully dried her eyes, wiping the tears from her face. "Thanks," she whispered, meeting his eyes somewhat bashfully and offering a small smile.
"Feel better?" he asked, pushing himself up from the chair and giving her some distance by putting his desk between them again.
"About losing Doyle? No. But maybe... about getting on with life. He's not coming back... but I'm stuck here without him, so I may as well forget about what didn't happen and just remember what did. Right?" She smiled again, and Angel smiled back as she straightened her shoulders, lifted her head a bit higher, and exited the office.
Angel slumped into his chair once she was gone, resting his head on folded arms, the tip of his nose touching the surface of his desk. Cordelia's grief made his own pain surge to the surface again, made him want to keep himself hidden away in the office with the lights off, brooding and contemplating the ache in his still heart.
Only a month before, he could've expected the door to open and Doyle to waltz in, inviting himself to take a seat. The young Irishman would've rambled on about getting out and having fun until Angel almost felt like doing just that, or he would've asked about Cordelia until Angel's mind was distracted from his own problems.
But things were much different than they had been a month ago, and now there was no Irishman to lift his spirits; there was only the hole in his life where his friend had been. Without lifting his head, Angel reached on and flicked off the lamp. No cheerful brogue intruded on his depression, and the office remained dark and silent.
-- PART SEVEN --
Doyle had been riding for at least five minutes, and the sisters had been out of sight and out of earshot for three of those before he had the presence of mind to release his death grip on the horse's mane and grab for the reins, which rested further up on the animal's neck. With the strong leather strap in his fingers, he pulled back, gently at first, then harder, until the horse's pace slowed to a trot, and then a walk.
With the flight from certain death no longer on his mind, Doyle's body reminded him of other things: that he was tired, wet, very cold, and now covered head to foot in mud. The freezing rain had become a drizzle, slowly sluicing the mud away and replacing it with a bone-deep chill. Though it seemed simple enough, Doyle had never ridden a horse before, and his legs were unaccustomed to straddling anything so broad as the large animal's back. But riding was decidedly better than walking, and even if it stretched his legs a bit, that was preferable to slogging through the mud. The horse's large feet handled the terrain effortlessly, and it didn't seem to mind the work.
"Good horse," Doyle praised, with a smile. One hand stretched out to pat the damp side of the animal's muscular neck, and he settled deeper into the saddle with a slight creak of leather.
The trees were quiet, devoid of chirping birds and busy squirrels. But from somewhere in the woods, there was an answering creak, and a sound he'd come to recognize as a horse's footsteps. Frowning and hoping it was only an echo, Doyle shifted in his saddle again. The leather groaned audibly, but no complimentary noise came from the trees, though he could still hear the footsteps of another animal, and more from the other side of the trail. They seemed to be drawing closer.
This time, he didn't even care what was lurking in the darkness. Odds were it wasn't anything good, and he felt that he'd had more than his share of trials lately. He gave the horse a sharp kick, and managed not to tumble back over its rump when it quickly responded, setting off at a fast gallop.
Holding on with his knees again and crouching down over the horse's neck, Doyle quickly found the animal's rhythm and moved in counterpoint, the reins clutched in both hands as he clung to his steed and tried to keep his seat and his cool.
He found the latter to be the more difficult; it was easy enough to stay on the horse, but it was harder not to panic when he heard the flurry of hooves tearing up the trail behind him. He didn't dare to look back, knowing that he definitely would fall off his own horse if he tried. But his pursuers didn't make him look back; their horses were faster, and they were obviously more experienced on horseback. He caught only a glimpse of cloaks and helmeted heads before an armor clad arm shot out, slammed into his chest, and threw him from the saddle.
His body fell backwards, but one foot caught in the stirrup, and he hit the ground mostly head-first on the right side of the horse, which kept running, dragging him along for several paces before his foot slipped free and he finally rolled to a very painful stop. His horse kept going, vanishing into the trees. His attackers did not.
There were two of them, clad entirely in shades of gray and seated on pale gray horses. They blended into the fog like phantoms -- which he supposed they actually were, considering the location. Both were dressed like old English knights, with dull sugarloaf helms and heavy cloaks around their shoulders, casting the rest of their armored bodies in deeper shadow. Their gloved hands gripped the reins with confidence, and their heels guided their horses with an ease born of experience.
The horses pranced with tightly controlled energy, their feet churning up the earth and coming dangerously close to stepping on Doyle. The knights looked down on him impassively from their much higher perches, and then they drew their swords.
The fall from his horse had left Doyle fairly addled, and he could feel blood streaming down one side of his face. He scrambled to his feet and only the very real need to flee kept his knees from buckling.
"Hey, fellas," he greeted, looking up at the two phantoms and wishing that he could watch their faces instead of the blank metal of their helmets. "We can -- we can talk about this, now, there's no need for bloodshed, yeah?"
Misted breaths came from the horses' mouths and hung in the air, blending with the fog. Then Doyle noticed that thin plumes of mist rolled from the animals' flanks, too, and from the knight's cloaks, and he realized that both riders and mounts were made of the fog. But they were still real enough, and even a dead man like himself could die a bit more permanently.
The horses pranced closer. The swords were raised to the ready. Doyle slowly backed away, only to lose the gained ground again when the knights nudged their horses closer still.
"Really, y'know, I'm already dead, so there's no need to kill me. I'm nothin'; Hell, when I was alive I was nothin'. I'm just a messenger!"
Doyle stumbled over a fallen branch and nearly lost his footing, sure that he was done for. But the horses had stopped advancing, and when Doyle looked up, the knights were sheathing their swords.
When one of them spoke, he couldn't even tell which it was; the voice was deep but insubstantial, as if it had come from the fog itself. "Where do carry tidings, Messenger?"
He stood up straight, pulled back his shoulders, and tried to put on a brave front while his mind frantically searched for a reply. "The... portal," he said, sending a silent prayer to his patron Saint Francis. "The portal to the living realms."
Neither knight moved, but something in the forest did. Doyle flinched back from the sound, hoping that if he had to run, his legs would carry him. But all that emerged from the trees was another pale gray horse, this one without a rider but outfitted with saddle and bridle. It stepped calmly up to stand alongside the two knights, and both men and beasts looked at Doyle.
"We will escort you, Messenger," the voice said, and Doyle had little choice but to step forward and awkwardly mount the riderless horse. The knights turned their animals and set off at a walk, leaving the path and vanishing into the woods.
After a moment of Doyle trying to figure out exactly how to guide the horse where he wanted it to go, the animal gave up waiting for him and followed the others on its own.
Though it had been like perpetual early -- albeit foggy -- evening on the path, it was darker inside the forest. The trees allowed less light through here, and where light did penetrate, it filtered down in shafts, so that some spots were dark and others lighted, giving the entire place an odd spiderwebbed appearance.
Doyle kept a sharp eye out for the branches that threatened to unseat him, and his horse stayed obediently on the knights' heels, so he didn't worry about getting separated from his strange guides. The forest was strangely calm, but he had a feeling that things wouldn't stay that way for long.
-- PART EIGHT --
When he heard the knob turn and his office door swing open, Angel kept his head down on his desk, squeezed his eyes tightly shut, and imagined Doyle standing in the doorway. He could visualize it clearly in his head: the half-demon would linger for a moment with one hand on the knob and the other on the doorframe, regarding Angel's bowed head with a small frown. Then he'd retreat again, closing the door softly behind him, leaving the vampire to his thoughts.
Doyle had always known when to leave him alone and when to intrude.
Before some foreign voice could rudely destroy the illusion he'd built in his mind, Angel let the mental image fade away, lifted his head, blinked his eyes open, and glanced at his clock. It was nearly morning; he'd fallen asleep at his desk. Mentally berating himself for dozing off when he should've been helping Cordelia and Wesley with research, he turned his eyes to the doorway.
Wesley looked distinctly uncomfortable, his head turned to glance back pleadingly at Cordelia, who paid him no attention. The former Watcher had yet to fit into their group; Angel and Cordelia were drawn together not just by their previous knowledge of one another, but by their shared grief, too. Wesley had only ties from Sunnydale, where he'd been a passing crush to Cordelia and a pompous annoyance to Angel. He was constantly trying to prove himself to them, and to remain independent of them at the same time -- which served only to make him nervous and awkward, instead.
"Come in, Wesley," Angel ordered softly, snapping the lamp back on and ending the Englishman's hesitation.
The other man stepped inside the room, leaving the door open, and took a seat in one of the chairs on the other side of Angel's desk. He sat uncomfortably, too, perched on the edge of the seat and not relaxing back into it... as Doyle might have done.
Angel sighed, resting his elbows on the desk and pressing his fingers to his temples. He took one deep breath, then another, and tried to focus on the present. He'd told Cordelia as much only twenty minutes before, but now he seemed to be having trouble practicing what he preached.
Wesley didn't speak; he just studied a piece of paper in his hands and frowned, muttering to himself a little and tracing some path on the page with his fingertip. Angel waited a moment, watching the human expectantly before he spoke up.
"You found something?" he prompted.
Wesley's head popped up guiltily, as if he'd completely forgotten that Angel was there. "Yes," he answered, placing his paper -- which turned out to be a map -- on to the desktop, and sliding it across toward Angel. "Melanie and Phoebe, as you may recall, told us that this rogue spirit would return at 'the water's side, where spirit forms flesh.' We may have found such a place." He stood, leaning over the desk to inspect the map, then pointing to a spot within a deeply forested area. "It's an energy point, of sorts. Also said to be a weak point in the fabric between this world and the afterlife -- much as the Hellmouth is a weak point between here and Hell. It's actually a cave which extends quite a ways underground. The cave is dominated by a large lake -- the measure of which has never been taken -- whose waters are said to contain some magical power."
Angel leaned over the map, assessing the spot and taking note of its distance from where they were. "Ever notice that everything strange and sinister seems to happen within a two hundred mile radius?" he mused.
Wesley glanced up at him, thrown for a moment by the interruption. "Yes, well... I imagine if it were further away the Powers That Be would call on some other poor fellow to put his neck on the line," he speculated. "As a vampire, you are somewhat limited in arranging sun-free travel."
"Good point," Angel replied, a small smile curving his lips at the young man's inability to leave any question unanswered and unpondered. "So you're sure this is the spot?"
"As sure as we can be," Welsey nodded, leaning back and taking his seat again, somewhat more relaxed this time, comfortable now that he was treading familiar scholarly territory. "The native tribes used it as a place for vision quests, and shamans often visited to establish a dialogue with their ancestors. When the European explorers and settlers arrived, the natives simply stopped going there. One author speculated that they didn't want to draw attention to the place and have it spoiled by the invaders, but it did make its way into the books. Very few people have visited the place in the last couple of centuries."
"And there's a precedent for people returning from the dead at that spot?"
Wesley nodded, leaning forward, his eyes sparkling. "We found an account of a shaman summoning up the souls of ten dead warriors to fight against a group of cavalrymen who'd been cutting a swath through local villages. As the telling of it goes, the shaman performed a ritual which brought the warriors back from the spirit world. They appeared as faint, shimmering apparitions on the opposite side of the lake. The shaman instructed them to step into the water and walk toward him, and they were completely submerged. When they came out of the water on the other side, they had completed the journey from dead to living. Flesh had formed from the water, and they were men again, just as they had been before their deaths -- flesh and blood, vulnerable, but alive."
Angel knitted his fingers together, raising them to touch his lips as he absorbed the story. "How did that turn out for them?" he finally asked.
"Well," Wesley answered, slowly, his eyes shifting as he recalled the story. "They slaughtered the cavalrymen, returned a bit of peace to the region. But then strange things started happening. There were odd noises in the woods at night. Children disappeared from their beds. Men were found horribly murdered. The people blamed the reborn warriors, and the shaman was forced to kill them again and complete a very intricate ritual to send the spirits back where they belonged. A ritual which, I might add, has since been lost to the ages... so we won't have that luxury. At any rate, the disturbances stopped when the warriors were killed, and that was the end of that."
Angel nodded, picking up a pen from his desk and circling the area on the map in the bleeding ink of a red felt-tipped pen. "So assuming that this spirit will be attempting to cross over soon, and since we have no idea when, how do we stop it?"
"It can only happen during the full moon," answered a new voice, from the doorway. Wesley turned his head to subtlely -- at least, he thought it was subtle -- admire Cordelia's silhouette in the light from the outer office. Angel watched the younger man with an amused smirk as Cordelia crossed the floor to sink into the only empty chair. "There's some sort of lighting thing," Cordelia continued, waving one hand in a we-won't-discuss-the-technicalities gesture. "On the one night a month that the moon is completely full, the light of it reflects into the cave. Apparently that's key. Figures. And as luck would have it, the big night is tomorrow."
Cordelia crossed her legs and folded her arms across her chest, very clearly indicating that she was finished. Angel nodded once to her as small thanks for the research, and then regarded both of the humans seated across from him.
"I take it you have a plan," he said.
"We do," Wesley replied, sitting up a little straighter. "We've discovered a spell that should send the spirit back to where it belongs -- namely, not here. It should be begun after the spirit has appeared on the opposite side of the lake, and will have to be completed before it breaks water on the nearer shore."
"We're leaving," Cordelia announced, abandoning her chair and moving back toward the door. "We need to sleep. I'll visit the magic shop and get all the stuff we need, and we'll all meet back here a couple hours before sundown."
Wesley nodded in agreement and stood, as well. He passed Cordelia in the doorway, picking his coat up from the couch and exiting the front door with only a small farewell wave cast over his shoulder. Cordelia lingered just inside Angel's office, watching him with a slight frown on her face.
"Go downstairs and get some more sleep," she ordered. "Try not to think about how crappy life is and just rest. I'll see you later." Then she turned to retrieve her own jacket, and moments later the outer door shut again.
Silence descended on the office, broken only by the vampire's footsteps as he retreated to his downstairs apartment to rest and prepare for the task ahead. He had a feeling that their task would be more difficult than it first appeared.
-- PART NINE --
The ride through the woods stretched on, but Doyle couldn't tell how long. The watch he'd worn that day was still on his wrist, but the hands were frozen at the moment he'd died. Time meant little here, anyway, and it could've been hours or days that he followed the phantom knights through the tall, black, somber trees. His horse stepped gently through the deep grass and loam, and a century passed, a heartbeat, a year, before they arrived at their destination.
The knights broke through the trees first, with a rustle of leaves and the soft fall of pine needles. Doyle followed soon after, emerging into a clearing where the sudden emergence into sunlight dazzled him. He blinked rapidly, willing his eyes to adjust.
His escorts had fallen behind him; they lurked where the darkness of the forest met the clearing's light, and when Doyle looked down, he could see why. His horse had become insubstantial in the light; he could see the ground through its body, and it flickered as the fog that made its body began to dissipate in the light of the sun. With a short cry of alarm, he pulled his feet from the stirrups and slid off of the animal's back, then tugged its head with what was left of the reins and gave it a solid slap on the rump, sending it running back into the shadows again. The fog fed it once it was there, but it quickly vanished from his view, wandering into the trees.
The two horsemen lingered just inside the cover of the trees, watching him silently. He raised his hand in a parting wave, somewhat confused as to what they expected, and called out, "Thanks, fellas."
Seemingly satisfied, they turned their horses and vanished without sparing him a second look.
Doyle was amazed at their odd behavior -- odd in that he had expected them to eat him or lob off his head or something of that nature -- but he wasn't about to look a gift horse the mouth, metaphorically speaking. He watched them disappear, then turned to see where they'd led him.
The clearing wasn't very large, but it was fairly scenic. A few hundred feet from the treeline, a sheer cliff of rough gray stone rose impossibly high into a shining blue sky. Moisture sparkled on the rock, and on the dense green grass that stretched out across the open space. There were wildflowers, too, blanketing the ground in a rainbow of colors and filling the warm air with sweet aromas.
But the most stunning feature was the portal itself. Doyle hadn't even been sure that such a thing existed, but his gamble had paid off, and the knights had led him straight to it -- probably something to do with codes of honor and not shooting the messenger, but he really couldn't be sure.
The portal was carved directly from the rock, forming a very large doorway, and the protruding archway around it was intricately carved with magical symbols of all sorts. Some he recognized, most he didn't, but the place pulsed with power, and it sent a shiver down his spine.
He approached the portal cautiously, ignoring the wildflowers and the sweet smell in the air, focused only on the gateway, his salvation, his ticket back to the living world, back to Cordelia and Angel, and far from the misted land of the dead. When he stood before the portal, it was easily three times his height, and a pick-up truck could've fit through with plenty of clearance. Shining black filled the intricate archway, looking like soft oil. He stretched out a hand to touch the inky surface, expecting his hand to go straight through, and his body to follow.
His palm landed flat against the solid obsidian rock.
Doyle bit back the anguished cry that rose in his throat, but he couldn't resist punching the wall in frustration. The surface did not yield, but the two center knuckles on his right hand split, and blood oozed from the wounds, dark red and slick.
He grimaced, clapped his left hand over his right to stop the trickle of blood, and looked back up at the portal. This time, there was something looking back at him.
He jumped back, a startled yelp escaping his lips, and nearly lost his footing in the tangle of tall flowers around his feet. The face stared impassively at him, thrusting out from the shining surface, just the thing's face showing through. It looked like a lion, but the countenance was massive, filling the entire black face of the portal. The planes of the face were angular, chiseled; stone eyelids slid over obsidian eyes in a lazy blink. Pointed ears twitched and swiveled in Doyle's direction. The mouth opened to reveal long, sharp canines. Traces of Doyle's blood had remained on the surface that had become the figure's chin. A long, rough tongue snaked out and cleaned the fluid from the stone.
The mouth closed, and the expression on the beast's face could only be called a smile.
"Delicious stuff, demon's blood," the face said, conversationally. The animal's face was very animated as it spoke, the motion fluid, and its voice was deep and quiet. "It's so... potent."
Doyle stood slack-jawed, his hands hanging at his sides, wondering if he should flee, or if he'd even be able.
"Well, speak up, demon," the lion said, and though they were nothing but inky black, Doyle got the feeling that the best's eyes were rolling in exasperation. "What is it you want?"
"I -- I want to go home," he stammered, searching for the right words but having no idea what the right words might be.
"Home?" The lion arched one stately brow and smiled again. The expression made him look hungry. "And where is home to you, little demon?"
"Los Angeles," he answered immediately. "I want to go back to my life."
The lion's smile became more and more disturbing each time the creature formed that expression. But this time it closed its eyes and sniffed with its nose. Doyle could feel the tendrils of fog surrounding him before he could see them; they flitted around him, dissipating, and vanished into the lion's nose, inhaled by the stone beast.
"The mists say that you have no life to return to, Allen Doyle," the face replied, finally. "The mists say that you died a noble death. To return to your life would erase your atonement. But this is no matter. Your body is gone. You have nothing to return to."
"There has to be a way," Doyle argued. "I don't care about my atonement. I care about my *life*, and I want it back!"
"There is not a way," the lion growled back, baring his teeth.
"Well, if there isn't a way, then what's the point of this portal? Huh? You gonna tell me it's just here for decoration?"
The lion's mouth snapped shut. It was silent. Its eyes, now washed with a shifting surface of angry red, bored into him. "You have a point," it finally admitted, looked chagrined. The red fled from its eyes, and the tongue slipped out again to lick absently at one side of the upper lip.
"So how do I get back?" Doyle prompted.
The face smiled again, but this time it was unmistakably a leer. "I eat you," it answered.
"E-eat me?" Doyle stammered, taking a step backward.
"Eat you," the face repeated.
Doyle took another step backward. But the face pulled out from the wall, and a thick neck formed, extending the beast's reach. Its movement was lightning-fast, its mouth wide and pitch black as it swallowed him whole.
-- PART TEN --
The lake shimmered like oil under the beams of their flashlights, and Cordelia sighed, listening to the reverberation of Wesley's voice through the cave. He spoke softly, his voice a whisper as he yammered nervously to Angel, who wasn't really listening. Cordelia didn't pay attention to what he was saying, either; she was seated on the stone floor, leaning against the rough wall, her eyes focused on the other side of the lake, which she was ostensibly keeping an eye on. But her mind was miles away, on a ship called "Quintessa".
"The moon will be at its zenith in two minutes," Wesley warned, interrupting her grim thoughts. "Cordelia, could you lend your light over here? I need to finish getting these things set up so we can proceed."
She sighed a much put-upon sigh and stood, brushing dust and dirt from the seat of her jeans and taking a few short steps over to Wesley's side, shining her light on the things he'd laid out on the cave floor. The objects were dark and ominous in the dim light of her flashlight, but she'd purchased them herself during the day, and she knew what they were. Crystals, herbs, oils; even household items like a lighter and a ceremonial knife -- which admittedly was a household item only for Angel, but she *had* found it in his apartment. Wesley and Angel had drawn some intricate magical symbols on the floor with sticks of colored chalk, but they didn't glow or make noises or otherwise indicate that there was power in them -- so she had to step carefully to keep from rubbing them out with her shoes.
"Almost time now," Wesley muttered to himself, sounding almost giddy, as he lit several candles with Angel's Zippo. The scent of jasmine immediately filled the air, and thin trails of smoke wound from the wicks into the darkness that cloaked the cave's ceiling.
They waited a few more moments, and there was no sound in the cave except the soft sound of breathing from the two humans.
The moon reached its zenith in the next moment, and the effect was sudden: white light flooded in, illuminating the rough stone walls. The lake lost its oily appearance, and suddenly it looked like a giant pool of liquid mercury, silvery and deep.
Then a shimmering gray figure appeared across the water, and Wesley began chanting.
The lion had no throat, and no stomach, and no other real body to speak of. Doyle was only aware of being inside the giant stone mouth for a single moment, then a sensation like his intestines were being pulled out through his nose. And suddenly he was standing on the shore of a silver lake, his toes at the water's edge.
Across the lake, he could see three figures, but they didn't look real; they were insubstantial, indistinct, shimmering, like his foggy horse had been in the light of day. He could hear one of them chanting; the sound carried across the water, and the stabbing pain that quickly developed in his head told him that the spell being cast wasn't one in his favor.
He put one foot in the water, testing the depth, and found it remarkably shallow. His foot began to tingle in a strange mixture of pleasure and pain, and he frowned, stepping in with his other foot, too.
When he looked up again, the figures were still blurry, but as his eyes lit on the last of the three, the image snapped sharply into focus. Cordelia stood there.
Ignoring the odd sensation of the water, Doyle took a deep breath and leapt in, submerging himself; he stayed below the surface, swimming as powerfully as he could manage toward the opposite shore.
Cordelia was suddenly finding it difficult to breathe. Wesley was crouched near her, and Angel stood on the former Watcher's other side, watching the water with a anxious frown on his face. He hadn't recognized the spirit -- but Cordelia had.
She'd seen Doyle's sorely missed face looking back at her from the other side of the water. She'd seen the recognition in his eyes before he'd leapt in. She knew he was coming back to her. She knew that was supposed to be a bad thing.
She didn't care.
Wesley and Angel were both too surprised to react when she blew out the candles. When she tipped over the bowls of scented oil, they reached out to stop her. And when she used her foot and the oil on the ground to smear out the magical symbols on the floor, Angel tackled her, bearing her down to the stone floor.
"What the hell are you doing?" he growled. His body was pressing hers into the floor, and his face had shifted into a vampiric countenance. Cordelia could only whimper and anxiously watch the water as Wesley frantically attempted to set things back up so that he could continue the spell.
Underneath the water, everything was silver. Though his eyes were wide open, Doyle couldn't see anything in front of him but more blinding light, and he squeezed his eyelids shut, stretching his arms out in front of him. The pain in his head had only intensified each time his legs kicked to propel him, and he finally stopped, taking a break from the strenuous swimming, sinking slowly into the seemingly bottomless stretch of water.
His legs had cramped first, but his entire body felt strange now; the tingling he'd experienced on his first step into the water quickly intensified into a burning pain that erased all thought from his mind. His lungs began to burn, and he kicked out again, desperate to reach the shore.
With each motion of his legs, he grew closer to the shore, and memories began to flee his mind. He forgot the river, the old man, the boatman, the fish and the forest. The memories vanished, one by one, stripping away his recollection of the girls in the clearing, the horses, the knights, the portal and the lion.
His lungs still burned in their thirst for air, his body screamed with pain, his mind was confused when stripped of its memories, and he was blinded by the light in the water. He could feel his face shifting, from human to demon and back again several times before it settled on human and he managed to exert the control to keep it that way. When his outstretched hands touched stone, his fingers curled around it and his toes found a purchase, and the light grew brighter as he neared the water's surface.
When his head broke the surface and his torso followed, the water splashed loudly, roaring in his ears. His eyes blinked open, and his mouth gaped as he frantically sucked in the cool, clean air. He shivered violently, and coughed, and it was like being born again.
He could recognize two of the three figures on the shore now, though he didn't know that he'd already seen them from the other side of the lake or why he was there or why they were there or anything that had happened since the "Quintessa". They were only a few feet away from him, on dry land; the man he didn't know stood off to one side, holding a sword and looking like he intended to use it, even if he didn't know how. Cordelia was on the ground, her body trapped underneath Angel's as if he were shielding her with his own body -- or pinning her with it.
"Cordy?" Doyle spoke in a whisper, his voice low and rough, as if he'd never used it before. He took another step toward the shore, the water covering him to the hips. He realized he was naked, but didn't really care.
Angel let go of Cordelia, climbing to his feet and taking her elbow to help her up. They both stared at him, and he took another uncertain step forward. His legs were weak, and the gradual stone slope that formed the lakeshore cut and abraded the soles of his bare feet. The water stung in his wounds, his head was still pounding with a migraine worse than any he'd ever felt, and tears streaked unnoticed down his cheeks.
The only sound was the slosh of water around Doyle's hips, until the stranger spoke. "We have to kill him before he leaves the water," he said, his upper-crust English accent just making that phrase sound even worse to Doyle's ears.
Angel reached out with one hand and pulled the sword from the other man's hands, tossing it behind him. The metal blade rang out loudly against the rock floor. "We can't do that, Wesley," Angel said, indulgently, as if he were explaining to a child why the sky was blue.
Wesley sputtered. But Cordelia didn't bother to argue with him or cut him down or any of the usual things she might've been expected to do. Instead, she walked down the slope of the shore and into the water. She didn't seem to mind that she was getting soaked, or that the water was freezing.
Doyle took another couple of unsteady steps forward to meet her, and they collided somewhere in the middle, their lips meeting in an act of spontaneous, silent agreement. His arms wrapped around her, and her hands slid over his shoulders, their bodies pressed tightly together. Their tongues, accustomed to verbal battle, sparred more physically. A small flash of blue light passed from her mouth to his as their lips parted, and his head dropped, exhausted, to rest on her shoulder. The moon moved on, and the ethereal silver light abruptly left the cave, leaving them in darkness until Angel and Wesley snapped on their flashlights.
She led him from the water, over the Englishman's loud protests, and they wrapped the shivering half-demon up in Angel's trenchcoat. When his feet stepped onto dry land, everyone but Doyle stopped and listened... but the world continued to turn, just as it had.
"They didn't take your warning seriously," one of the partners said, breaking the silence in the boardroom. "They didn't prevent his return."
Phoebe averted her eyes, looking down at the tabletop. Her sister met the partner's gaze, instead.
"He's returned, that's true," she answered. "Something made them stop before he could be sent back. They allowed him to leave the water as a living man despite the story we told them."
At the head of the conference table, Mr. Hart leaned forward, his fingers steepled in front of him and his youthful face lined with a friendly smile. "That's alright," he told the sisters, his tone cordial. "So he's alive again. That can be remedied."
Melanie and Phoebe glanced at one another, shifting uneasily in their seats. Mr. Hart leaned back into his chair, and his white-toothed smile grew wider.