[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] Ongoing...
 

Episode Seven - Revelation

Janice handed me a stake as we walked down the school corridor together. I handed it back.

'Thanks, but no thanks,' I said. 'According to Clem, this guy isn't going to be bothered by a bit of wood. There should be a mace in the bag somewhere.'

Janice began rooting around in the big black holdall she was carrying over one shoulder.

'And like how come I have to carry all this stuff anyway?' she complained. 'What did your last slave die of?'

She produced the mace and handed it to me. I swung it a couple of times, testing the balance.

'You get to do the fetching and carrying because I'm the one that has to pound this guy's face in,' I explained. 'Unless you'd prefer to do the honours?'

'Uh-uh,' Janice replied. 'This is a new top and I really don't need to get demon blood on it.'

I stopped and appraised her.

'You so do,' I deadpanned.

Janice scowled, then started rooting through the bag again.

'There must be something sharp in here somewhere,' she muttered.

'Hey,' I said. 'You look like a million dollars and you know it.'

We started walking again. Our footsteps echoed through the otherwise empty halls.

'Want to tell me who all the effort is in aid of?' I asked Janice.

'Can't it just be for me?' Janice asked. 'With everything that's happened lately, I think I've sworn off relationships for life.'

'Tell me about it. How is Chrissie anyway?'

'Now there's a tricky question if ever there was one,' Janice said. 'She and the baby are doing fine. You know we went to the hospital the other day?'

'No,' I said. 'Nobody said anything.'

'Well, now that it's not a big secret anymore, we figured it was a good idea to get a doctor to make sure everything's like okay and the good news is that everything seems to be right on track.'

'Good,' I said.

'You weren't worried, were you?' Janice asked me.

'A little bit,' I admitted. 'It's a magical pregnancy, right? You can't blame me for being a little…concerned.'

Janice smiled and touched the pentacle around her neck.

'All babies are magical, Dawnie,' she said.

'Yeah, right,' I retorted. 'Does Drew see it that way?'

'Well, no, so point to you, I guess,' Janice said. 'Chrissie wanted Drew to go with her when she went to see the doctor, but he wouldn't even discuss it. I was second choice.'

'And I wasn't even on the list,' I said. 'Thanks a bunch, Chrissie.'

'Come on, Dawn, it wasn't like that,' Janice said. 'We would have asked you, but you've been so busy lately with Tara and Zauriel and everything…'

'I wish,' I replied, 'but they don't tell me anything. Well, nothing that isn't a cryptic crossword clue. I'm supposed to be the key to saving the world. Doesn't that entitle me to know a bit about how that works?'

'Guess not,' Janice said.

'Guess not,' I agreed.

We rounded a corner and I motioned for Janice to stop.

'You'd better wait here,' I said. 'This could get messy.'

'So like how does Clem know this guy anyway?' Janice whispered back.

'Apparently they go to the same demon bar,' I explained, keeping my eyes on the classroom door up ahead. 'When he heard he'd enrolled here as a substitute teacher he gave me the four-one-one.'

'And when you heard that he was keeping some of his class behind for 'extra tuition'…' Janice began.

'I figured it might be worth checking out,' I concluded.

'You know, Dawn,' Janice said, 'this might all be perfectly innocent. Maybe he just enjoys teaching.'

At that moment, screams erupted from inside the classroom. The door was flung open and a couple of students ran out, their clothes torn and bloodied.

'Or not,' Janice continued.

I slammed the head of the mace into the palm of my hand.

'Time to go to work,' I said.

* * *

A man was waiting at the school gate. He was grey, but not in a nondescript, boring kind of way. He was grey the way tempered steel is grey. His suit was grey. His hair, swept back from a widow's peak, was grey. His eyes, also grey, sparkled with intelligence. The most vibrant thing about him was his burgundy tie.

'Gemma,' he called out as the students raced out of the main school building.

Gemma stopped and turned to face him. There was a gash in her cheek where the demon had struck her and she wiped the blood away with the back of her hand.

'Who are you?' she asked. 'What do you want?'

'My name is Azazel,' the man replied, 'and I want you. A friend of mine is looking forward to meeting you.'

'Is that right?' Gemma said, her lips curling defiantly.

'Yes, that's right, Gemma,' Azazel said. He started to walk slowly towards her. 'Or do you prefer to be called Gem? My driver is waiting for us, Gem. Let's not keep her any longer than we have to.'

'If you think I'm going with you then you've got another thing coming,' Gemma said. 'I am so out of here.'

'Such a childish display of defiance,' Azazel remarked. 'So small. So pointless. I've made better girls than you bark like dogs for me, Gem. You won't be any different.'

He stepped closer.

'Get away from me!' Gemma yelled, raising her arms and balling her hands into fists. 'I'm warning you, I…'

'Let me guess,' Azazel said, 'you know kung fu. I do hope so. The more physical ones are usually the most pleasurable.'

He raised his hand and reached out for her. Gemma leaned away, but not quite far enough and Azazel's fingertips brushed her cheek. Gemma's arms fell limply to her sides.

'Still want to fight me, Gem?' Azazel asked.

'Fight you?' Gemma asked, shocked. 'But I love you. You're…you're like some kind of angel.'

'Out of the mouths of babes.'

Azazel put an arm around Gemma and leaned in close, smelling her hair.

'Exquisite,' he said. 'It's almost a shame to give you away. Almost. I'm a collector, you see, but I consider myself something of a connoisseur and you, Gem, don't quite make the mark. Lucky for you.'

'Have I done something wrong, master?' Gemma asked.

'Master. I like the sound of that,' Azazel said. 'And no, you've done nothing wrong, Gem. Nothing at all. Now, will you come with me?'

'Anywhere,' Gemma replied.

* * *

The school grounds were deserted when Janice and I emerged.

'You just had to be right about the demon blood, didn't you,' I was saying. 'This shirt's ruined.'

'You could always say the blue's a feature,' Janice suggested.

'Was that meant to be funny?' I asked.

'I try,' Janice said, grinning from ear to ear.

'Try harder,' I muttered.

A black limousine drove past us. Gemma was looking out of one of the windows, her gaze glassy and vacant. But Janice and I were too preoccupied with the state of my wardrobe to notice.

* * *

'Shh. It's okay. I've got you.'

Ruth held Piv in her arms and gently rocked the younger girl as she cried. It was two in the morning and Ruth and Helena had been woken by Piv's screams. Another nightmare. Nightmares weren't exactly a rarity among the girls in Mrs Clemens' care - after what they had suffered, that was hardly a surprise - but Piv seemed to suffer worst of all, perhaps because she was the youngest. Ruth had taken it upon herself to look after Piv, perhaps because she was the eldest.

'What happened to her?' Helena asked. She was sitting on the opposite side of the bed. 'Why are her nightmares so bad?'

'You'd understand if you knew what Dormouse had been through,' Ruth said softly.

'Well, that's why I'm asking,' Helena said. 'You never did explain.'

Ruth shook her head.

'Not here,' she said. 'Not now.'

'I want to help,' Helena protested.

'You are helping, Helena,' Ruth replied.

'No, no, leave me alone,' Piv murmured, flailing her arms. 'Get off of me.'

'Come on, Piv, wake up,' Ruth said as the girl fought her. 'It's just a dream. Snap out of it, kid.'

'Let go of me!' Piv yelled. 'Hurts!'

She swung her arm violently and it connected with Helena. Surprised, Helena tumbled off of the bed and landed uncomfortably on the floor.

'Helena, you okay?' Ruth asked, glancing behind her.

Helena lifted herself up. Her eyes were yellow and slit and her nails were lengthening into claws.

She snarled at Ruth.

'Oh boy,' Ruth said.

* * *

There was a single light-bulb in the room, but it wasn't on. The only light came through a barred window near the top of the door and by that light Janice could make out the bulb, unencumbered by light-shade, swinging slowly from the ceiling. Janice wasn't alone in the room. There were other people curled up on the floor. She could hear them breathing.

'Hello?' she whispered. 'Hello? I know you're there. Talk to me.'

Receiving no answer, Janice reached across and tried to shake some action out of one of her neighbours.

'Hey,' she said, 'say something. Even if it's just get lost.'

The girl Janice was shaking spluttered as she woke up.

'Wh-what's going on?' she asked.

'Sorry,' Janice said. 'I'm Janice. As for what's going on, well I was hoping you could tell me.'

'Janice?' the girl said. 'It's me. Gemma. Gemma Felton.'

'Gemma? What are you doing here?'

'I don't know. I've tried, but I just can't remember.' Gemma hung her head. 'I remember Mr Turner - you know, the new teacher. He…I don't think he was human.'

'He wasn't,' Janice confirmed.

'He wasn't? How do you know that?'

'Doesn't matter,' Janice said hurriedly. 'Just go on telling me what happened.'

'Well, okay,' Gemma replied. 'Mr Turner…he…he just tore off his face and he was all wrinkled and brown underneath and he had all of these teeth. He grabbed Becca with these long fingers and he started peeling off strips of her and... and eating them. Oh god.'

Gemma turned away and wretched. Janice covered her own nose and mouth with her hand and waited until Gemma was finished.

'Sorry about that,' Gemma said eventually.

'That's okay,' Janice replied. 'Take your time.'

'It's not easy, you know,' Gemma said. 'I think I'm wearing the same clothes I was when… I can't tell without the light and I don't want to think about him undressing me. So I'm still covered in her blood.'

'I'm sorry,' Janice said. 'Maybe we shouldn't talk about this if it's too hard for you…'

'No, no,' Gemma interrupted. 'I want to. I want to try and understand what's happened to me. To us.'

'Go on.'

'Well, I…I ran. I wanted to help, but I couldn't and…'

'It's not your fault,' Janice said.

'I got outside and there was this creepy guy and he knew my name and…'

'And then what?'

'I don't know,' Gemma said. 'The next thing I remember is waking up in here with all these other girls.'

'How long have you been here?'

'A day. Maybe two. But that's not counting the time I can't remember.'

'Right. And you haven't seen anyone else? Someone must feed you, right?'

'There's this big guy, built like a mountain,' Gemma said. 'He drops the food off, but I can't tell you much about him. When he opens the door, it's so bright that he's just a shadow.'

'But there's like a bunch of you in here,' Janice pointed out. 'Haven't you tried rushing him?'

'Once,' Gemma replied. 'He broke Cindy's arm.'

'I'm sorry.'

'If that's the worse he does to us, I think we're lucky,' Gemma said.

Both girls jumped as something began hammering on the door.

'Is that him?' Janice asked.

Other girls in the room were beginning to stir now, woken by the noise.

'I don't know,' Gemma said. 'He's always used a key before.'

Janice began to clamber to her feet.

'What are you doing?' Gemma asked, trying to pull Janice back down.

'I want to get a better look at our host,' Janice told her.

'But he'll hurt you like he did Cindy.'

'I'll take my chances.'

The door fell inwards, striking the ground with a heavy metallic clunk. Janice had to shield her eyes from the glare of the light outside, but she could already tell that the figure in the doorway wasn't humanoid. It was a big cat.

'Kit?' Janice said as her eyes adjusted. 'Kit, is that you?'

The leopard padded over to Janice and started licking her hands.

'Is he…is he yours?' Gemma asked.

'Kit's a friend,' Janice replied. 'Now come on, we're getting out of here.'

Having first run her hand through the fur on top of Kit's head, Janice stuck her head out of the door.

Big mistake.

Their host, as Janice had referred to him, was lumbering down the hall. He was huge. Eight, maybe nine feet tall and seemingly made out of roughly hewn blocks of stone, with great stone wings sprouting from his back.

'Where are you going, little one?' he rumbled.

Janice turned to run, but the creature's appearance belied its speed and in a split second it had grabbed her hand in one of its own. And it was squeezing. Janice felt the bones shatter and she screamed.

'So fragile,' the creature said. 'That's why we want to help you. We're going to make you the giants you deserve to be. It's for your own good.'

Janice couldn't see what remained of her hand - it was completely engulfed by the creature's stone paw - but she could see the blood trickling down her arm.

The pain was too much and she blacked out.

* * *

'Helena, calm down. She didn't mean to hurt you.'

Helena lunged for Piv, but her claws swiped at empty air as Ruth dragged the girl to one side. Scooping Piv up in her arms, Ruth staggered back towards the bedroom door. Helena crouched on all fours at the foot of the bed. She rocked back, preparing to spring.

'You don't want to do this, Helena,' Ruth said. She lowered Piv to the ground, positioning herself between the girl and Helena.

Helena snarled.

Ruth took hold of the corner of the duvet.

Helena sprang.

Ruth tore the duvet off of Piv's bed and caught Helena in it as she flew through the air, bundling her up tight. Helena was struggling to get free and Ruth knew she could not hold her for long.

'Enough!' Ruth met Helena's gaze unflinchingly. 'We're all friends here.'

Helena paused and her claws began to retract, though her eyes remained cat-like.

'What's happening to me?' she sobbed.

'I don't know,' Ruth admitted, holding tightly to Helena. 'But we're going to find out. I promise.'

* * *

Janice sat bolt upright in her bed. She looked at her hand. It ached, but was otherwise undamaged. Had it only been a dream? But it had felt so real.

She swung her feet over the side of the bed and padded over to her mirror. She examined her reflection for a minute, running a finger through her hair in a vain attempt to straighten it. Then her reflection distorted, like the surface of a lake when a stone is thrown into the water. Gradually, the ripples died away, but Janice was no longer looking at herself. She could see Kit in the mirror.

'You did this, didn't you,' she said to the leopard. 'Why? Some kind of message? That's right, isn't it? All of that was real, which means those girls are in trouble, which means we have to help them.'

Kit growled and faded away, Cheshire Cat style. Janice wasn't watching. She was already pulling on her clothes.

* * *

'I don't believe it,' I said.

'Look, I know it's kind of weird,' Janice replied, 'but the vision was real.'

'Yes, I reckon it was,' I agreed. 'I just don't believe we let Gemma get kidnapped right under our noses.'

'Well, you were, like, a bit preoccupied at the time,' Janice said.

We were in my bedroom. Janice had raced over to my house and interrupted Hank, Lydia and me having breakfast. We were eating in uncomfortable silence so I was glad for the excuse to disappear for a bit.

'So what's the plan?' Janice asked me.

I shrugged.

'I guess you're going to have to handle this one,' I told her.

'What?' Janice exploded.

'I was going to give you a call later,' I said. 'I'm going away for a bit. Tara and Zauriel have finally agreed to explain my destiny to me, but apparently they can't do it here. There's stuff I'll only understand if they show it to me or somesuch. I was hoping I could leave you in charge while I'm away.'

'I don't know if I can,' Janice began.

'You'll be fine,' I said. 'Here, you'll need these.'

I gave her the keys to all of the chests in my room. Since Lydia had discovered my occult bits and pieces I was taking extra special care.'

'And if Dad asks, I've gone on a field trip.'

'Field trip,' Janice repeated. 'Right.'

There was a beating of wings outside my window.

'That'll be my ride,' I said, opening the window. I glanced at my watch. 'He's early. I guess I could stay for a bit if you want.'

'Go already,' Janice said. 'You've been waiting for this for, like, forever. Don't let me keep you.'

I grinned.

'Wish me luck,' I said.

'Good luck,' Janice replied.

I grinned at her then stepped through the window and into Zauriel's waiting arms.

Janice slumped down on to my bed, cradling her head in her hands.

'Where is she?' Ruth demanded as she threw open my bedroom door.

'And hello to you too, Ruth,' Janice said.

'Dawn's dad said she was in here,' Ruth continued.

'You just missed her,' Janice explained, standing up. 'She's gone off with Zauriel. Is there anything I can do to help?'

'Yes, there is,' Ruth said. 'You can tell me what the hell you people are doing to help Helena. You promised her that you'd find out what was happening to her, but so far you've produced squat.'

'Wesley was looking into it,' Janice began. 'Look, I've got to go and see him anyway. Why don't you come with me and we can ask him about Helena at the same time?'

* * *

'So what do you propose we do about this?' Wesley asked.

He was standing beside the bookcase. Throughout Janice's account of her dream he had been pacing the room, occasionally pausing to pick up a book or an ornament of some other odd and end that he could turn over in his hands. Janice had felt that maybe he was ignoring her, except that whenever she paused in her narrative, Wesley was always able to fill the silence with a relevant question.

Janice rolled her shoulders.

'I was kind of hoping you could tell me,' she replied.

'Well, you haven't exactly given me a lot to go on,' Wesley pointed out.

'It's enough,' Pike said.

Pike was sitting on the sofa. He had been there when Janice and Ruth had arrived. He and Wesley had had things to discuss. It made Janice suspicious. She knew that I trusted Pike, but she didn't know him and she didn't like the fact that he and Wesley were having secret meetings without us one little bit. But she had enough to worry about right now so she kept her peace.

'If we can get hold of something belonging to one of the girls, Veruca can track her,' Pike explained.

'Great,' Janice said. 'Let me round up the others and we'll come with.'

'No, I don't think so, Jan,' Pike said.

'What?'

'No offence, but you're just kids,' Pike said, 'and it's not even like one of you is a Slayer. My team can handle this.'

'But…'

'Janice, you'd only get in the way and if my people have to protect you then they're putting themselves at risk.'

'But we can help you,' Janice protested.

'You've already done your bit,' Pike said. 'Now just sit this one out and let us do ours.'

He stood up.

'We'll have to finish our chat some other time, Wes,' he said.

Wesley nodded and Pike turned and left.

Janice rounded on Wesley.

'Well you were a lot of help,' she said. 'Why didn't you stick up for me?'

'Would it have made any difference?' Wesley asked. 'Don’t forget, Pike hasn't seen you in action.'

'But you have,' Janice pointed out.

'Yes, I have,' Wesley agreed. 'And my advice to you is to gather your forces and start an investigation of your own.'

'What's the matter?' Janice asked. 'Don't you think Pike can handle it?'

'Given the identity of his allies,' Wesley replied, 'let's just say I wouldn't want to trust the safety of those girls to him if I had other options.'

'Well that's all well and good,' Ruth interrupted, 'but if you've all quite finished with your games of one-upmanship, I want to know what you're doing about Helena.'

'Ruth, I understand your concern for your friend, but this is important,' Wesley said.

'Read my lips,' Ruth said. 'I. Don't. Care. You promised to help Helena, but so far you've done nothing for her. What's the problem? Too busy saving the world?'

'Ruth, I came here for the sole purpose of helping Helena,' Wesley replied coldly.

'You came here to keep an eye on Dawn,' Ruth shot back.

'Dawn never needed me to look out for her,' Wesley pointed out. 'My colleagues sent me here to keep an eye on her, but I came here for Helena.'

'In that case, I can see why your friends in L.A. wanted rid of you. You're not exactly good at getting results.'

'Janice,' Wesley said, 'I'd like to speak to Ruth in private. Why don't you make a start on your investigation and I'll call you if I think of anything I can do to help.'

Janice looked slowly from Wesley to Ruth and back again.

'Okay, I guess.'

'So what is it you didn't want the witch to hear?' Ruth asked once she heard the door to the apartment close.

'Sit down,' Wesley said.

'Now wait a minute…'

'Sit down,' Wesley snapped.

Ruth sat.

'Thank you,' Wesley said. 'Contrary to what you believe, I haven't been idle on the matter of your friend. Based on the evidence I've so far collected, I've managed to come up with a number of theories to explain her condition. However, these are only theories. I'm still working to confirm which, if any of them, is in fact the case.'

'So why didn't you tell us any of this?' Ruth asked.

'Because what I've found is more than a little disturbing,' Wesley said. 'Until I know for sure, I thought that saying something might do more harm than good.'

'And what gives you the right to make that kind of decision?'

Wesley paused.

'You care about her, don't you.'

'Of course I do.'

'I mean, more than just as a friend.'

'Helena and I are close.'

Wesley nodded.

'I'll tell you what I've found out so far,' he said. 'If, after that, you want to tell Helena, I won't stop you.'

* * *

'To be honest, Jan, I think we might be better leaving this one to Pike,' Drew said.

He and Janice were sitting at the kitchen table. Through the back window, Janice could see Drew's parents pottering around in the garden. Mrs Kowalski, her hands protected by heavy gloves, was weeding the borders while her husband was trimming the hedge. He was taking his time about it, though, only bursting into frenetic activity when his wife glanced his way. When Janice had arrived, Mrs Kowalski had fussed over her, making sure she had something to drink and plenty of biscuits - Janice had felt that it would be impolite to refuse, even though she wasn't particularly hungry - then left her alone with Drew.

No one had mentioned Chrissie.

'I can't believe I'm hearing this,' Janice said.

'All I'm saying is that they've all got super powers and we…well, what have we got?'

'Experience,' Janice replied without hesitation. 'This is our town. We can't just let them take over.'

'It's not a competition,' Drew said. 'We're all on the same side.'

'Like tell them that,' Janice said. 'Look, we could help them, but we have to convince them to let us.'

'And how do you propose to do that?'

'We solve the mystery first,' Janice said. 'Then they'll have to take us seriously.'

'Some hope,' Drew muttered.

'Well I'm not just going to sit back and let them walk all over us,' Janice said. 'So are you in or not?'

'I'm in,' Chrissie said.

She was standing in the kitchen doorway. She was visibly putting on weight now. If Janice hadn't pressured her into revealing her pregnancy, she would not have been able to keep it secret much longer.

'You were going to ask me, weren't you?' Chrissie continued.

'Well, I…um…what with the baby and all…'

'I'm fine,' Chrissie said. 'Better than fine. I feel great. And you need me.'

'Well…' Janice began. She glanced from Chrissie to Drew, who was studiously not looking at his ex-girlfriend.

'You need me to work magic,' Chrissie said, placing her hand over Janice's.

Janice jumped. She felt as if she had just stuck her fingers in a light socket, but in a good way. Energy leaped out of Chrissie and coursed through Janice. She glanced around. Everything seemed sharper, all the colours richer, the noises clearer. She heard Drew's mum and dad teasing one another as they worked. She heard the chorus of birds in the tree and, as she listened closer, she was able to pick apart each voice and identify which melody belonged to which bird. And there was something else in there, a hammering, a heartbeat, pounding away in her ears, shaking her down to her toes. It wasn't her own heart, nor was it Chrissie's - she could identify those as separate, softer drumbeats. Her eyes widened as she realised what she was listening to. It was Chrissie's baby.

She snatched her hand away and crashed back to small, subdued reality.

Chrissie was smirking.

'See what I mean,' she said.

Janice nodded.

'I guess you're in,' she said.

'Then count me out,' Drew interjected.

'But Drew…' Janice began.

'No,' Drew said, 'I am not going anywhere with…with her.'

'I've got a name, Drew,' Chrissie said.

Drew ignored her.

'So who's it going to be, Janice,' he asked, 'me or her?'

'Drew, can't we leave our personal problems out of this?' Chrissie said. 'People need our help.'

'Tell Chrissie,' Drew said to Janice, 'that she may be able to turn off her emotions whenever she likes, but I can't just forget she cheated on me.'

'I didn't cheat on you, Drew,' Chrissie insisted. 'This baby was conceived before I met you.'

'You're carrying another man's child,' Drew yelled. 'Maybe that doesn't mean much to you, but it sure as hell means a lot to me.'

'Drew, I'm sorry,' Chrissie said. 'Please believe me. I never wanted to hurt you.'

'Well it's a bit late now, isn't it,' Drew said.

'I love you, Drew,' Chrissie continued. 'I thought maybe we could be a family, the three of us.'

'Chrissie, I'm seventeen,' Drew said. 'I'm not ready to be a father. I want to have a life.'

'I don't want to do this alone,' Chrissie said softly.

'Well, maybe you should have thought of that before…'

'That's enough, Drew,' Janice said firmly. She got up and joined Chrissie at the door. 'I need Chrissie's magic. Whether you can be bothered to help out is entirely up to you.'

Then she turned and walked away.

* * *

'Where are we?' I asked.

It felt like we had been flying for hours and, while it was comfortable snuggled in Zauriel's arms, my legs were starting to go to sleep.

'Approaching the outermost circle of Heaven,' Zauriel replied. 'Tara will be waiting for us down there.'

'It's beautiful,' I said as I surveyed the landscape far beneath us. 'I wish Janice could see this.'

'Ordinary mortals can't pass between the dimensions,' Zauriel told me. 'At least, not this way. As the Key, the breaching of dimensional boundaries comes easier to you.'

'Nice to know there are some benefits to this gig,' I replied. 'What's that noise?'

In the distance I could hear shouting and the clash of metal.

'War,' Zauriel said. 'Brace yourself. We're about to land.'

'Is that the war you were telling me about?' I asked as we descended. 'The one between the angels?'

'I suppose you could say it's between angels, but no, this isn't the war we are concerned about,' Zauriel said. 'This particular conflict has been waged since…well, not quite since the dawn of time, but getting on that way.'

Zauriel glided down to a gentle landing on the smooth grass. I jumped down from his arms, but my legs were too numb to hold my weight and I stumbled. Zauriel caught me.

'Take your time,' he said. 'The outermost reaches of Heaven border the outermost reaches of Hell. Both sides guard their boundaries fanatically. Come with me. We should get a better view at the top of that rise.'

We climbed slowly because I was leaning on Zauriel the whole way. He didn't seem to mind. When we reached the top, the sight of the battle took my breath away. The ground had been torn up as far as my eyes could see. Barbed wire and trenches criss-crossed the disputed territory and I could hear the crack of rifles and machine guns as the sides took shots at one another. Bass rumbling filled the air as tanks motored across the landscape, their progress impeded as mines detonated beneath them.

'Wow,' I said. 'I never expected angels to fight with guns and tanks and stuff.'

'Is that how you see it, Dawn?' Tara asked.

I hadn't heard her approach, but she was a ghost so I guess that was to be expected.

'What do you mean?' I asked.

'What are you studying at school,' Tara asked, 'in History class?'

'First World War,' I replied. 'Why?'

'You're not in your dimension any more and your senses aren't designed to cope with this one. Everything you see here is converted by your brain into some kind of equivalent you can comprehend.'

'So you're saying that angels don't fight with guns.'

'I doubt that very much,' Tara said. 'Look at Zauriel. You see him as a good-looking guy with big white wings, but is that because he really looks that way or because that's what you've been taught angels look like through books and paintings and stained glass windows?'

'Well?' I asked Zauriel.

'How should I know,' he replied. 'I was human once, just like you. My perceptions of this place are just as skewed.'

'People have different expectations of Heaven,' Tara continued, 'and the truth is that they all see it the way they expect it to be. No one's disappointed.'

'That's Paradise for you,' Zauriel said.

Let me get this straight,' I said. 'If we all see what we expect, then if we expected to be punished after we die then would we?'

'That's what happened to Willow,' Tara said. 'She earned herself a place in Heaven, but she couldn't accept that she had.'

'All sins are forgiven here,' Zauriel added, 'but only you can forgive yourself.'

I could still hear the shelling in the distance.

'Are we safe here?' I asked.

'We should be,' Tara said, 'so long as we keep our heads down.'

'Most importantly,' Zauriel said, 'nobody is going to think to look for us here.'

* * *

'Trix?'

Janice and Chrissie had found the demon propping up the bar in the Fish Tank. He was string into a half-empty pint glass.

'What do you girls want?' Trix drawled. 'Can't a guy drink in peace any more?'

'We came for your help,' Janice said.

'That's the only time you people show any interest, isn’t it,' Trix said, 'when I can be of use to you.'

'Look, there are a bunch of missing girls who need our help,' Chrissie said. 'You can be maudlin all you want after we've found them.'

'Can't,' Trix said.

'Can't?' Janice replied.

'I've got a prior engagement.'

'These girls' lives may be in danger,' Janice said. 'What could be more important than finding them?'

'None of your damn business.'

'Leave him, Jan,' Chrissie said. 'He'd be more of a hindrance than a help anyway.'

Trix grunted something in response and returned to his drink.

'Did I hear you ladies right,' a demon croaked as he slid off of his barstool, 'some girls going missing over town?'

'That's right,' Janice said.

'Well, seems to me they won't miss two more.'

The demon flexed his arms and serrated spines popped out. He licked his black lips with his tongue.

'Trix?' Janice said

'Like we need his help,' Chrissie muttered.

She reached out and took hold of Janice's hand. Across the room, a pool cue began to float above the table and then it shot through the air towards the bar. The demon gurgled and toppled face first on to the sticky floor when the cue impaled him through the throat.

'Anyone else want to try and take us?' Chrissie asked. 'Didn't think so.'

Hand in hand, Janice and Chrissie walked out of the bar. Once outside, Chrissie collapsed against a wall, panting.

'You okay?' Janice asked.

'I'll be fine in a minute,' Chrissie said. 'Just need to get my breath back.'

'Maybe you should go home and rest.'

'I'll be fine,' Chrissie insisted. 'You'll see.'

* * *

Azazel was watching her from across the street. He was sitting in the back of his black limousine, eyes fixed on the yellow house.

Piv had just emerged.

'Here my pretty one,' Azazel whispered.

He eased open the car door, then stopped sharply as another girl exited the house. This one was not at all to Azazel's taste, but he could be patient. He was used to waiting.

* * *

'Hey, Dormouse, wait up,' Ruth called as she closed the front door behind her. 'Where are you off to?'

'Just down the shops,' Piv replied. 'We're out of milk.'

'And whose fault is that?' Ruth teased. 'Mind if I go with you? I could do with stretching my legs.'

The pair of them began walking down the street, Ruth slowing her pace to match that of her shorter companion.

'Thanks, Ruth,' Piv said suddenly. 'You know, for last night.'

'Don't be silly,' Ruth said, cuffing Piv playfully across the back of her head. 'What are friends for?'

'I'm serious,' Piv said. 'I never had a sister, but if I did have one, I'd want her to be just like you.'

Ruth put a hand on Piv's shoulder and brought her to a halt, turning her so she could look the younger girl in the eyes.

'I'll let you into a secret,' she said solemnly, 'you do have a big sister and she is just like me.'

* * *

Azazel licked his lips. Piv and that other girl were returning. He glanced up and down the street. It was dangerous, snatching her here in front of her new home, but the temptation was too great for him to resist.

The girl with the pink hair had stopped at the corner for a quick cigarette. It was a disgusting habit, Azazel thought to himself as he tried to work out it she could see the door to the house from where she stood, and spoiled the taste of the meat. Opening the car door, he strode confidently across the road.

'Hello, Pavinder,' he said as she inserted her key in the lock.

Piv jumped and dropped the carton of milk she was holding. It bounced down the three steps the led up to the front door and then split open, spilling milk at Azazel's feet.

'Pleased to see me?' he asked. 'I know I've missed you. You were always…special.'

'Get away from me!' Piv tried desperately to open to door, but her hand was shaking so much that she couldn't get the key in the lock.

'Surely you don't mean that, Pavinder,' Azazel said, reaching across and brushing a lock of dark hair from her face.

Piv's eyes glazed over and the tension drained away from her body.

'Now come with me.'

'Get away from her!' Ruth yelled.

Azazel swore as he spotted the other girl racing down the street towards them. He found obvious displays of magic to be vulgar in the extreme. Still, if it was a choice between being vulgar or losing his prize…

He waved his hand and a fireball flew from his fingertips. It struck Ruth in the chest and knocked her off of her feet.

'In the car, Pavinder,' Azazel commanded. 'Now!'

* * *

'I don't understand any of this,' I admitted.

'That's why we're here,' Tara replied.

We were sitting on a small hill. Well, specifically we were sitting on a checked blanket having a picnic. I could still here the sounds of combat in the distance. Zauriel offered me a sandwich. It was prawn and mayonnaise on brown bread.

'Well,' I prompted when no one else seemed about to say anything.

'Sorry,' Tara said. 'I'm just trying to work out where to start.'

'How about at the beginning?' I suggested.

'Now that's a very long way back,' Tara said. 'Still, it's as good a place as any. In the beginning, everything lived forever.'

'But then came the Fall,' Zauriel continued, 'and with the fall came Death.'

'Death?' I said.

'Lifespans were suddenly finite,' Zauriel explained. 'You lived for a bit and then you died.'

'Well, sure,' I said, 'but what does that have to do with me?'

'We're getting to that,' Tara said. 'Death isn't just a concept, Dawn. Death is an actually entity.'

'What, you mean like you or me or Wesley?'

'Not…exactly,' Tara said. 'Death isn't really that simple a structure, but there is an individual Angel of Death whose job it is to harvest mortal souls.'

'Okay, assuming I accept that - and to be honest, it's making my head spin - what's the problem?'

'The problem is that angels themselves can die,' Zauriel said. 'It's very rare - usually - but it can happen.'

'And this Angel of Death is dying?'

Tara nodded.

'I can't say as I see a problem,' I said. I looked at the sandwich in my hand. 'Aren't you two going to eat?'

'I'm dead,' Tara pointed out. 'I don't need to eat. But I can if it will make you feel more comfortable.'

'I'm having a picnic on the border of Heaven and Hell discussing the Angel of Death while a war rages in the background,' I said. 'Whether you have a sandwich or not isn't really going to make much of a difference.'

'Do you remember Jed?' Tara asked.

'Yes.'

Sometimes, when I closed my eyes at night, his image came back to haunt me, lying twisted and broken in his hospital bed, begging for release but unable to die.

'He was just the first,' Tara continued. 'If the Angel of Death dies then that's what it's going to be like for everybody. Sure, you'll all be immortal again, but all you'll have to look forward to is an eternity of agony suffering injuries and diseases that would otherwise have killed you.'

'There's a bigger problem,' Zauriel added. 'Many angels fear that, when that happens, chaos and disorder will grip the Earth and that, sooner or later, that chaos will spread to Heaven. It could mean the end of Paradise.'

'That's why they want to unmake the Earth,' Tara said. 'They see it as cutting out a cancer so that the rest of the body can survive.'

'But you don't,' I said.

Zauriel shook his head.

'There are a few of us who aren't ready to give up on Earth just yet.'

'And that's where you come in,' Tara said. 'You were created to bridge the gap between the living and the dead in the hope that you could find the source of the problem and fix it.'

'But I'm… I mean, the Key is like a gazillion years old,' I said. 'How long have you been planning this?'

'What can I say?' Tara said. 'You're talking about people to whom fifteen billion years and six days seem roughly the same.'

* * *

'We're talking about the end of everything,' Gideon said.

Trix felt uncomfortable sitting in the wing-backed chair in Gideon's study. Gideon's butler had prepared their drinks and then retired to some hidden corner of the mansion leaving Gideon and Trix to talk in private.

'That's some story,' Trix said, shifting his weight in the chair.

'Ain't it just,' Gideon agreed, 'but it's all true, I promise you. Just look in your Bible, Trix. The End of Days is upon us. We're going to be judged Trix and we'd better not be found wanting.'

'You sure of that?'

Trix swirled his brandy around in his glass. He didn't like the stuff, but he didn't want to insult his host so he occasionally mimed taking a sip.

'Sure of what, Trix?' Gideon asked. 'I'm telling you, it's all Book of Revelation stuff. The seven seals are being broken.'

Trix squirmed.

'It's been a while since I read my Bible.'

'That's okay, Trix,' Gideon said. 'It's not as if the Lord's going to give you a multiple-choice quiz. He'll take a look at what's in your heart and, if I'm any judge, I say you're one of us, which means he's gonna like the look of you, my friend.'

'Well that's reassuring.'

'Did you hear about the boy in the hospital, Trix? The one they said couldn't die?'

'I heard.'

'I hear your friends knew him.'

Trix sat up straighter.

'I've never told you about any friends of mine,' he said.

'Come now, Trix, we're all on the same side here,' Gideon said. 'We don't have no secrets.'

'In that case,' Trix began, 'then you should know that I thought they were my friends, but the truth is they only care about me when they can use me.'

'Is that what Anyanka did, Trix?' Gideon asked. 'Did she use you and then discard you with the trash?'

'Ain't that the truth,' Trix drawled.

'See, it's nothing to be ashamed of,' Gideon said. 'They're liars and deceivers the whole lot of them. That's what they do. But you're among friends now. You're home.'

'You were talking about the boy,' Trix said.

'The first sign of the coming Apocalypse. Death is losing her grip.'

'And that's a bad thing?'

'Not for us.' Gideon smirked. 'At the Time of Judgement, the Angel of Death will be the last to die. So it is written. Don't you see, Trix? The moment we've been waiting for is at hand. We will all be judged and those of us who are pure will be welcomed into Heaven.'

'And the impure?'

'Will be cast into the lake of fire,' Gideon replied, 'but that needn't concern us, Trix. You and I and the others like us will be welcomed with open arms. There will be no more death, no more grief or crying or pain. The old ways will have disappeared and all that remains will be pure and beautiful and truly wondrous.'

* * *

'I take it the recruiting's not going all that well?' Wesley remarked as he opened the door to his apartment to let Janice and Chrissie in.

'We seem to be suffering from a drought of friends,' Janice told him.

'I can relate,' Wesley said. 'I suppose it might be too much to hope that your familiar has provided you with another vision that might point us in the right direction.'

'All quiet on the feline front. Sorry,' Janice said.

'Ah well, it can't be helped, I suppose.'

'What have you found out?' Chrissie asked.

'Nothing.'

'Nothing?'

'Nothing at all,' Wesley confirmed, 'which in itself tells us something.'

'It does?'

'Oh yes,' Wesley said. 'My collection may not be the Watcher's library in London, but it's still pretty impressive and for something as distinctive as a stone angel - that was how you described it, wasn’t it, Janice - yes, for something like a stone angel not to be noted at all suggests that records relating to it and its kind have been deliberately excised.'

'You mean someone's covering something up?' Janice asked.

'I mean someone's covering something up,' Wesley said.

'Then why didn't you just say so,' Chrissie muttered.

They were interrupted by a loud hammering at the door.

'I'm a popular man tonight,' Wesley quipped as he went to open it.

Helena was standing outside. Ruth was leaning on her for support.

'What happened?' Wesley asked. 'Ruth, are you hurt?'

He led them to the couch and Helena set Ruth down.

'I was attacked,' Ruth explained hoarsely.

'Attacked?' Janice said. 'Who by?'

'Who do you think?' Ruth said. 'The guy doing the kidnapping. He's got Piv.'

* * *

'So what do we have to do?' Trix asked. 'If we really are so pure of heart, can't we just wait until they come down and judge us?'

'If only it were that simple,' Gideon said. 'Not everyone is eager to accept the coming end.'

'You've got to admit that's kind of understandable,' Trix said.

'Indeed,' Gideon agreed. 'Who wants to see the world they know come crashing down around them? Even those of us who know what will follow are scared by the prospect. I sympathise with them, Trix, really I do. But they must be stopped.'

'Go on.'

'There is a group - a small group, but a significant one for all that - who believe that they can stop the end,' Gideon said. 'They are wrong. There are a few in this group who know this to be false and are consciously out to deceive, but most are merely victims of a lie they want to be true. They can't stop the destruction of Earth, but if they do manage to interfere with the divine plan then no one will be saved when the time comes. Is that what you want, Trix?'

'But isn't there a way to save everybody?' Trix asked.

'I wish there were, Trix,' Gideon replied, 'but comfort yourself with the thought that everyone who deserves to be saved will be. The only people who will be condemned to the flames will be those who were judged and found wanting.'

Gideon stood up and crossed to the window.

'So, now you know everything,' he said. 'Can we count on you?'

* * *

'It was that creepy guy,' Ruth said. 'The one that girl told you about.'

'Who, the stone angel?' Chrissie asked.

'No, the other one. Mr Grey Suit. Looks like a lawyer.'

'What's wrong with lawyers?' Janice asked. 'My sister's a lawyer.'

'Poor girl,' Ruth said.

'Hey, she's really good at it,' Janice protested. 'Right now, she's being headhunted by a top L.A. firm.'

'Really?' Wesley asked. 'Which one?'

'Something and Hart,' Janice said, 'I think. Is it important?'

'What's important is finding Piv,' Helena interjected.

'It would help if we had some kind of clue to go on,' Chrissie said, 'but at the moment we've got squat.'

'Would the reg. number of his limo help?' Ruth asked.

* * *

'Okay, so Death is dying, but that's okay because I'm the Key and I was created to go and find out what's wrong,' I said. 'Is that about the size of it?'

'Couldn't have put it better myself,' Zauriel said.

'How?'

'I'm sorry?'

'How am I supposed to do all that?' I asked. 'A few pointers might be nice.'

'Yes, well…'

'Zauriel,' Tara interrupted. 'Look over there.'

I followed the line indicated by Tara's pointing finger.

'What are they?' I asked.

I could make out three of them. They looked like shiny bronze wheels hurtling through the sky.

'They're Ophanim,' Zauriel said, 'of the first triad of angels.'

'And they're friendly? Please tell me they're friendly.'

'I don't know,' Zauriel said. 'They may be allies or…'

'Great.'

'Get behind me,' Zauriel instructed, spreading his wings so that Tara and I could hide behind them.

I glanced over my shoulder.

'I don't think that's going to help,' I said.

More wheels were approaching from the other direction.

'How tough are these things?' I asked.

'Ophanim administer divine justice,' Tara said, 'and they don't do it with just a stern word.'

Now that they were closer, I could see that the wheels were on fire and that they were filled with eyes.

'Here they come!' I yelled.

'Get down!'

One of Zauriel's wings snapped backwards, knocking me off my feet. I didn't fall fast enough, however, because I felt one of the Ophanim sweep past my face before I struck the ground. I glanced up to try and get a better look at my attacker, but my eyes were filled with blood.

* * *

'I'm in,' Trix said.

'Are you absolutely sure?' Gideon asked. 'It will set you against your former friends.'

'Emphasis on former,' Trix said, 'and I know what I'm doing.'

'In that case,' Gideon said, offering his hand, 'we're delighted to have you aboard.'

Trix took Gideon's hand and they shook to seal their agreement.

'Just tell me how I can help,' Trix said.

'Well, there is something,' Gideon began thoughtfully.

'I'm all ears.'

'You've met Zauriel, I believe,' Gideon said, 'the angel that led your friends astray.'

'What about him?' Trix asked.

'He belongs to Lucifer,' Gideon said. 'He was handpicked to join Lucifer's army. I can think of few things more despicable than an angel who has willingly turned his back on the light.'

'So what do you want me to do?' Trix asked.

'Remove Zauriel from the equation and the others would be free from his corrupting influence,' Gideon said. 'Who knows, they might even come round to our way of thinking.'

'Consider it done,' Trix said.

* * *

'Thank you for your time,' Wesley said before slamming down the phone. 'Of all the irritating, unhelpful, obstructive…'

'No luck?' Chrissie said, grinning.

'No,' Wesley admitted. 'They won't even admit that they own the car, let alone who they leased it to.'

'It was a long shot,' Janice consoled him. 'I guess we'll just have to try hacking into their records and get the information that way.'

'Shame none of us are that hot with computers,' Chrissie said, looking up from the laptop that was open on the table in front of her.

'We found out who the limo was registered to,' Janice pointed out.

'True, but that wasn't exactly computer wizardry,' Chrissie replied.

'No, that was a whole other sort of wizardry,' Janice said.

The two girls joined hands and the computer lit up with activity. Windows opened and closed on the screen in rapid succession and data streamed past too fast for the eye to follow.

'Doesn't it bother any of you that what we're doing is, well, illegal?' Helena asked.

The others looked at her.

'Just asking,' Helena said.

'Here we are,' Chrissie said when the laptop's frenetic behaviour had ceased. 'The limo is out on hire to a Mr A. Kidd. There's an address here.'

'What's the A stand for?' Janice asked.

'A, apparently,' Chrissie said. 'He doesn't seem to have a first name, just an initial.'

'Who cares,' Ruth said. 'We've got the address so let's go already.'

'I'll look out some weapons,' Wesley suggested.

'Don’t bother.'

'Who said that?' Chrissie asked. The voice seemed to have come from over by the door, but there was no one there. Or was there?

'Marcie, is that you?' Janice asked.

'No fooling you, huh?' Marcie said.

A bloody handprint appeared on the wallpaper.

'Are you all right?' Wesley asked. He crossed the room to try and help her, but could only gesture vainly as he tried to work out where she was standing.

'I just went ten rounds with an animated brick wall,' Marcie replied. 'It takes it out of a girl.'

Chrissie stood up and stepped away from the sofa. She watched the cushions compress as Marcie collapsed on to them.

'Is there anything we can do?' Wesley asked. 'Janice, why don't you get the first aid kit from the bathroom.'

'No, I'm good,' Marcie insisted. 'I'd say it looks worse than it is, but…'

'Quite,' Wesley agreed.

'What happened to Pike and the others?' Chrissie asked.

'Captured,' Marcie said, 'or worse. That thing knew we were coming and boy is he strong.'

'How did you get away?' Ruth asked.

'Hello,' Marcie mocked. 'Invisible, remember.'

'We'll get them back,' Janice promised. She had fetched the first aid kit anyway and Marcie took it from her. It seemed to hover in mid-air as she opened the box and examined the contents.

'Haven't you been listening?' she asked. 'This thing was all over us and we're professionals. You kids don't have a hope.'

'I wouldn't be too quick to write these girls off, Miss Ross,' Wesley said. 'I've seen them do seemingly impossible things before and I'm sure they can do it again.'

'This thing's got Piv,' Ruth said. 'I don't care how hopeless you say it is, I'm going after her.'

'The same goes for me,' Helena confirmed.

'Chrissie?' Janice asked.

'I keep telling you,' she replied, 'you'll need my help. I'm with you every step of the way.'

'Attitude like that will get you killed,' Marcie said.

'Maybe,' Janice said. 'Maybe not. But I guess there's only one way to find out.'

To be continued…

 

 
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