Disclaimer: The Sentinel and all its trimmings belong to Pet Fly Productions and Paramount. I'm just out playing with the boys.
Disclaimer: Buffy, the Vampire Slayer is owned neither by me nor Pet Fly Productions, et al. It's Warner Brothers and Joss Whedon. If you're a Buffy fan, this story follows What's My Line? and precedes Surprise. If you're not a fan of the show, it's not important to understand where the story falls in the Buffy time-line.
Of Shadows and Demons
-- by Mackie/
"Life is stranger than fiction, but not so popular." -- Anonymous
Jim Ellison thought he had never been so grateful to be home. The loft was uncommonly cold and quiet, but it was such a relief after thirty-six hours of a non-stop assault to his heightened senses, he didn't care if he spent the night in a freezer as long as there was blissful silence. First, he'd escorted a small-time embezzler back to New York City for trial, and the man had talked the entire flight, blaming everyone and everything, even El Niño, for his predicament. The New York cops had been glad to have their fugitive returned, and a couple of them had taken Jim out for a night in the "big city", a night which included enough sights, noise, smells and booze to keep a sentinel on sensory overload for a year. Still, he'd managed without embarrassing himself too badly, although the cops kept laughing at him for jumping every time a taxi horn sounded - man, New York was a cacophony of blaring car horns!
On the flight home, he'd been unable to get his preferred aisle seat, and had found himself sandwiched between two feuding teenage sisters who'd traded insults for the entire trip. He'd tried nice, he'd tried stern, he'd even tried authority by enlisting the help of a flight attendant; but in the end, they'd defeated him, and he'd been forced to sit and endure, there being no empty seats on the plane. Teenagers!
Also, he was certain he could still hear the constant, monotonous roar of jet engines inside his skull, an annoying susurrus punctuated occasionally by what sounded suspiciously like a taxi horn.
Finally, he was home - and where the hell was Sandburg?
Jim dropped his flight bag on the floor and glanced around the deserted loft. He saw the note on the table immediately and picked it up. Blair's handwriting started out neatly enough, probably as a courtesy, but as his thoughts overran his pen, his words turned into his more familiar scrawl:
Jim, welcome home. I made lasagna, it's in the fridge, and if you get back before Thursday, it should be OK. An archaeologist friend, Dana Gentry, asked me to come down to her dig outside of Sunnydale, in northern Calif. I don't know much about Pacific or Northwest tribes, but she insisted, and you know me - when a pretty woman calls...Be back by the weekend. I took the bus so I could do some reading, so my car should be in its usual spot. Stay out of trouble. Me.
Beside the note sat Blair's laptop and cellular phone, indications he was in the mood to "rough it" in the wilds of Northern California.
Jim explored the refrigerator, found the lasagna and unwrapped the dish. It looked and smelled delicious, even if it did have tofu masquerading as meat beneath the sauce. He scooped a huge slice onto a plate and stuck it in the microwave to heat, then grabbed a beer.
Much as he liked Sandburg, it felt good to come home to a little peace and quiet...
Dana Gentry, sixty inches of barely harnessed energy, met Blair at the bus station in Sunnydale. Anyone seeing her would have made an instant judgment that she was lesbian, but they would have been wrong. Dana never wore makeup, never bothered to dress in anything but grungy khakis, and wore her hair in a buzz cut because she spent her life on digs and couldn't be bothered with all the little cultural emblems of her gender.
She grabbed Blair in a hug that almost drove the breath from him. "Blair, why haven't I been getting postcards from strange, South American sites that all have names beginning with a hawking noise?"
"Thank you for that imagery, Doctor Gentry," Blair answered once he'd disentangled himself.
She grinned. "Doctor Gentry," she echoed happily. "Yep. Finally. When do I get to read your name on the doctoral list?"
"Uh, I got a little sidetracked," Blair admitted. "It started heading in a different direction."
Dana flung his backpack into the bed of an ancient Datsun pickup that hadn't seen a car wash since Carter was in office. "Passenger door's wired shut, you'll have to crawl through from my side."
Blair scooted across the seat through the driver's door and kicked happily through all the catalogs, journals, food wrappers and other detritus littering the floorboard. It reminded him of other digs in other countries, of shoestring budgets, sponge baths, eating out of warm cans, rocky ground to sleep on, bugs and other crawly things, and the sheer exhilaration of it all.
He'd been away from this sort of fieldwork for too long, and realized he missed it deeply. His fieldwork now was in a city, with its civilized comforts, his continued university work, and all the amenities. It didn't feel like fieldwork at all, and perhaps that was what bothered him most. He'd made the choice to do it, of course, first because he'd been fascinated to find Jim Ellison, then because Jim had become a friend who needed Blair's help more than either of them had anticipated. Blair wouldn't trade the friendship for anything, but there were times he dreamed of remote places and strange, exotic cultures...
"Hey, Sandburg, you fading on me or something?"
He grinned. "Just remembering old times, Dana."
She drove like a maniac, pointing out various highlights of Sunnydale. "It's a one-mall, one Wal-Mart kind of town," she confessed, "although, there is a rather fun teen hangout called The Bronz. That's our big time Saturday night."
"Uh, I probably won't be staying that long," Blair apologized. "I need to get back."
"Yeah?" Dana chuckled as she rammed the little truck through about half of the required gears and took a road out of town. It was a brilliant, sunny Monday afternoon, and Blair relished the warmth pouring through the open side window of the Datsun. Days this perfect, especially in late fall, were rare in Cascade. "You're studying the police? You turning into a sociologist on me, Blair?"
"No." He tried not to sound defensive, but he hated having to justify his cover story. "You won't find a more primitive sub-culture than a police force." He wished he could tell her about Jim, about his abilities, about the incredible bond between them as Sentinel and Guide. But he couldn't. "What's this site you're on now?"
"A small encampment," Dana explained.
She grinned at him. "You've been doing your homework."
Blair returned the grin with a shrug. "I know just enough about your work to make a complete fool out of myself."
"Good guesses, although this region is more likely to have been Pomo or Miwok. Your tribes were a little farther to the north." She slipped smoothly into her lecture mode. "As you know, the Indians in this region were pretty peaceful, settled. The coastal tribes fished, the inland ones hunted, grew stuff, traded with other tribes, and with a few notable exceptions, they didn't fight much with the Spanish or each other and were converted to Christianity pretty early on following the conquest. Their history is difficult to decipher because they didn't build with stone and mortar, but rather with the plentiful wood. The damp environment here has destroyed much of what they did accomplish. I think you'll find our dig a little disappointing after some of your South American sites."
"No, I have an idea what to expect," Blair replied. "How did you find it?"
"A high-school student was out hiking, had the sense to realize he'd found something when he stumbled across it. The local science teacher checked it out, and also had the sense to keep the site intact and not try to dig it on his own. So he called the university, and here I am."
"And why am I here?" Blair asked, watching the meager suburbs of Sunnydale give way to cultivated pasture and finally to woodlands. The little truck started to climb as the road wound into the foothills.
"Because I haven't got a clue what I've found," Dana admitted.
"That's why you didn't answer my question about what group used the site?"
Dana nodded. "I really don't mean to sound mysterious, but I don't want to taint your first impression."
"OK," Blair agreed mildly, intrigued. If Dana Gentry, an expert on Northern California archaeology, couldn't figure out what she'd found, how could he possibly help?
Several miles later the terrain became mountainous, and the woods gave way to forest; an old growth area of redwoods protected under California law. The venerable trees towering over them reduced the forest floor to semi-darkness, which was cleaved by shafts of brilliant sunlight. After awhile, Dana turned onto a rutted, narrow forestry track. They bounced along in companionable silence for a time until the road ended. Two other equally battered pickup trucks were parked there. Dana shut down the engine. "Trail head," she explained. "We hoof it from here."
"How far?" Blair asked, wondering if he should leave some of his stuff in the truck.
"Two miles, a little less," Dana answered.
"Are you sleeping at the site?"
"Yeah, nearest motel is back near Sunnydale, and it's almost as bad as tenting it. Besides, we can get an early start in the mornings."
"Yeah, you always were a slave driver," Blair chided, hefting his backpack and deciding to cart it all with him. Besides, he might need some of his reference books if he wasn't going to look a complete idiot in front of the rest of the crew. He'd read a lot of material about the primitive cultures of Northern California during his bus ride from Cascade, but he was far from being an authority on any of it.
The hike was rugged and steep up a narrow, rocky trail. Dana pushed a hard pace. Blair kept up with her, but it was difficult, and he vowed he would get more exercise in the future. Living in the city had made him soft and lazy. Maybe he'd start riding his bike to school. Yeah, and have permanent pneumonia from all the rain and cold.
It was early afternoon when they reached the camp. Three small two-man tents, two portable camp tables, a stove, several lanterns, a somewhat larger tent and a fire pit defined the little community. The rest of the team were just finishing lunch, and they greeted Blair with hot coffee and leftover spaghetti. It smelled wonderful after the packaged snacks and roadside diners he'd endured on his bus ride.
Blair stowed his gear in the larger tent, which proved to be where the bulk of cleaning and cataloguing of artifacts was done, as he'd suspected. They had set up a spare cot for him and cleared out one side of the tent so he could set up his own sleeping area. He dumped out most of his backpack onto the cot, repacking only his notebooks, field tools, and flashlight.
He felt unbearably old as he was introduced to the rest of the team. Sandy Crenshaw was a tall, lanky girl with a warm, toothy smile. Stu Kowalski was stout, broad and entirely too serious. Both were sophomores at Dana's university, and they were still excited about their first dig. Rodney Ballantine was Dana's assistant, a grad student working on his Master's thesis. The other two were the original examiners of the site, a high school student named Blu and the science teacher, Mr. Blake, who was barely older than Blair. Blu (short for Blumenthal, he admitted, red-faced), was a large, soft high school freshman who appeared to spend way too much time in front of his television set or computer screen. Judging by the nerd-like signs of taped Coke-bottle frames, Blair suspected the latter. Needless to say, both Blu and the science teacher were excited to take part in chronicling the find for both the Sunnydale and school newspapers.
When Blair had finished his meager lunch and listened to tales of the site - as he'd suspected, it was very small but apparently rich in material -- Dana pulled him aside. "OK, here's some of the stuff I don't want the locals to hear for the time being, although the rest of the team knows what we've found."
"Secrets?" Blair asked, surprised.
"Not so much secrets, as confusion," Dana continued impatiently. "This site is an encampment, not a community. These people were not warlike, and yet we have found the remains of at least seven corpses, all men, all apparently killed violently - hacked to death is the best evidence we have so far."
"The Spanish?" Blair asked, repulsed as always by ancient violence. Things really hadn't changed much over the centuries; only the weapons of death had improved.
"Looks that way, except for two small things - preliminary examination of the bone injuries indicate just one weapon was used, probably a sword or other long blade, but the site itself seems to predate the arrival of the Spanish in this region. It's hard to tell because I'm talking perhaps just a few decades here, but we've compared geological records with Spanish history, so the data appear sound."
"So one killer?" Blair theorized. "What geological records are you talking about?"
"Earthquakes. The encampment sits on a fault line. That's probably what buried it in the first place. A small earthquake a few months ago opened a fissure and revealed it again. Even stranger, we've found a ton of religious artifacts - both Christian and Indian, some of it perhaps from as far east as the Seneca. I think, and mind you, this is just one of those wild guesses that come to you after you've tossed and turned half the night - I think this was some sort of heavy-duty, multi-cultural ceremonial site, and someone didn't approve of what was going on here."
Blair frowned. This was all a bit much. "Are you sure the site hasn't been contaminated? I mean, I know the locals traded as far east as Colorado, but wouldn't this many diverse religious objects in one place indicate it was some grave robber's cache, and he just never came back for it?"
"Why do you think I'm doing so much tossing and turning?" Dana retorted. "Besides, a cache doesn't explain the bones."
Blair let out a breath. "Whew. Can you show me what you've got?"
Dana took him into the large tent and began to lay out her evidence. Even Blair had to admit it was compelling, although there were some things he didn't recognize and had to take on faith that Dana knew what she was talking about. Bits of bone and feather, dried herbs and bits of stone in ancient medicine bundles; everything pointed to a major religious ceremony. There was even a deformed and badly pitted cross, probably carried by a missionary or conquistador as the conquest spread north in search of gold...except Dana seemed certain the site predated the arrival of the Spanish. So how had a Spanish sword and a Christian artifact come to be here without a Spaniard to carry them? Then she revealed the bones, brown and flaky, that had been removed from the site and showed him numerous enhanced photographs to prove a single blade, probably a sword, had caused all the injuries. "Most of the remains are still in the ground - we're taking great care in excavating them. Everything in this soft, moist soil is so fragile, there's little left except vague outlines and chemical traces. We have to capture the images on special film, because it's doubtful we'll actually be able to recover anything more substantial."
Blair was impressed in spite of himself. Digging with dental pick and soft brush had never been his favorite pastime (although he'd done his share of it), which was one of the reasons he'd chosen anthropology instead of archaeology as his major. He preferred the living present, especially in his study of primitive cultures, to the guesswork reconstruction of the ancient past. But this was fascinating. There was nothing conclusive, but the facts seemed to fit Dana's theory, bizarre as it seemed.
"Ready to go up to the site?" she asked after he'd pored over the artifacts and her notes.
"It's all uphill," she teased.
"I don't care if it's on the summit of Mount Whitney," he retorted with enthusiasm.
"That's what I figured you'd say," Dana said with a grin. They went outside, and Dana gathered up her crew and tools. The high school student and science teacher decided to sit out the afternoon in camp, preparing their updates for the newspapers.
The path to the site was even rougher than the one they'd hiked to camp. It was actually a game trail, not a hiking trail at all, and when Dana veered off into the trees, Blair wondered how the freshman had managed to stumble across it in the first place. It was not exactly a place he would have picked to go for a walk in the woods, especially if he were as fat and flabby as the kid appeared.
"I'm bringing you out above the site," Dana explained, stopping on a rock ledge and pointing downward.
Blair looked into the small clearing a half-dozen feet below. To the untrained eye, it was just another open spot in the forest floor, unimpressive and without character. But to a trained archaeologist, it revealed a wealth of information. A grid of stakes and string had been laid out by the team. It extended several yards to either side of a long, narrow fissure that bisected the little clearing. In spots only a few inches deep, the fissure widened at one point and dropped several yards into the earth. Even from above, Blair could not see the bottom. If the students were working inside it, it had to be both dangerous and exciting. Areas of the grid surrounding the trench had been dug to a depth of several inches, one portion to a couple of feet. "This is the actual ceremonial site," Dana told him. "We've found remains of several fires, and most of the ceremonial artifacts have come from here." She pointed to her right. "Over there is where we found the bones - we can't tell if they were positioned in any religious manner because they've shifted a lot during the centuries and been disturbed by wildlife. It's actually amazing anything survived at all."
"Have you turned up any research to indicate this was sacred ground to any of the indigenous cultures?" Blair asked, looking down into the fissure and wondering at the vague sense of unease that came over him. Sure, he wasn't fond of heights (fond? Hell, terrified was more like it...), but the drop from the ledge was only a few feet, and he was in no danger of tumbling into the chasm.
"I have two students going over every scrap of research back at the university," Dana said. "So far, nothing points to this area as having any significance to anyone."
Blair noted the other students were getting antsy. "What's up?"
"They're eager to show you what else we've found," Dana said. "I've forbidden them to talk to you about it until you've seen it."
"It," Blair repeated. He looked at the three students in turn; all of them were grinning and obviously excited about whatever "it" was. "OK, show me."
Dana led them away from the site, up the steep, rocky slope behind them to another ledge, this one higher and much larger. A huge, ancient tumble of granite boulders, some as large as houses, scarred the side of the mountain, and Blair sincerely hoped he wouldn't have to go up there. But Dana stopped on the larger ledge and pointed out a recess amid the rock. "It's in there."
Blair shrugged out of his backpack and dug out his flashlight. With a perplexed look at his grinning companions, he started cautiously into the shallow cave, Dana and the others pressing in close behind him, eager to see his reaction. It made him a little nervous - he hoped he wouldn't disappoint them. The opening led to a small cavern formed by the overlap of granite boulders, but it was deep enough to require a flashlight to penetrate its depths. His light quickly found the end of the cave, and he stopped abruptly, the others piling up behind him.
"Well?" Dana demanded.
Blair struggled to find his voice. "It's a joke, right?"
"Oh, sure, I've missed your baby blues so much, I had to concoct this elaborate practical joke just to get you here." The three students giggled.
On legs that felt suddenly weak, he moved forward and studied the slab of rock more carefully, his fingers tracing but not touching. Dana crowded in beside him. "Blair?"
"It's - it's Incan," he whispered at last.
"Yes!" Dana crowed happily, and the students clapped and all started talking at once, telling him about how the cave had been discovered purely by accident, about how Dana had refused to let them excavate the find until she got Blair to see it, all of them jostling around him in their excitement to get close to the inscribed rock slab.
"Can you read any of it?" Dana demanded when Blair appeared oblivious to all the excitement around him. Everyone settled down and waited silently, straining to hear his reply.
"I think so," he answered quietly. God, some of the symbols were as familiar to him as his own handwriting - Sentinel...Guide...Spirit...Sacrifice...
"Come on, Sandburg, don't keep us in suspense," Dana said impatiently. "What are we going to find behind this slab?"
"It's a tomb," Blair said softly. "At least, I think it is - there's a lot of this tablet I can't translate without my notes. An Inca shaman is buried behind this rock." A guide, he wanted to tell them, but he couldn't. Or at least he thought it was the Guide; he couldn't be sure without studying the stone inscriptions more fully. Nor could he explain the feeling of intense sadness that flooded over him, threatening to bring tears.
"I keep running in circles," Dana said. "On the one hand, I have pretty conclusive evidence this site predates the arrival of the Spanish. And yet, we have a Spanish cross and likelihood of a sword, which makes it seem probable our Inca came north with them, but why would he do that? The Inca and Spanish were at war. The Inca were conquered before the Spanish pushed this far north, right?"
Blair nodded numbly, his eyes still traveling over the carved symbols, trying to find more meaning. "These carvings represent very powerful magic," he concluded after a bit. "It's some sort of binding spell. We're not supposed to disturb it."
"Are you nuts?" Dana shot back. "This could be the discovery of my career, one which I'm willing to share with you, by the way, handsome, and you're telling me to leave it alone?"
"It's a warning," Blair insisted quietly.
"Like King Tut's tomb?" Sandy Crenshaw said happily from inches behind his left shoulder. "It's curses to anyone who dares to defile it? Like that?"
"Like that," Blair agreed solemnly, shaken. He'd never felt comfortable with archaeology, the disturbing of ancient burial sites and sacred grounds, but he'd also never felt this strongly about it. Maybe because he felt a kinship to the one entombed behind the rock, or maybe because he was inexplicably uncomfortable in the close confines of the cave, with all the others crowded around him. Or maybe because he couldn't translate all of the symbols on the slab. It was a warning, of course, that much he had determined with ease, just as he knew it was a tomb. But why was a guide here, in Northern California, entombed right next to another religious site? Or were the two sites connected? And where was the Sentinel?
"You can't move the rock," he said suddenly. "What if he was entombed here for a reason, and the other site was where the spells were cast to ensure this cave would never be opened? The practitioners must have used every magic they could find - including Christian - to keep this place hidden and secure."
"An evil Inca warrior," Dana said, intrigued.
Blair shook his head, dismissing his speculations. If a guide was buried in the chamber, how could he be evil? "I don't know," he mumbled uselessly, his feelings of unease growing with each moment he remained in the cave.
"I knew this site was important," Dana said happily. "OK, we've already documented everything on this side of the tablet - I have a ton of photographs and notes, and we've combed every inch of this outer chamber for artifacts. It's time to move this rock and see what's behind it."
Involuntarily, Blair took a step backward, colliding with the others but almost unaware of it. "You can't," was all he said. He knew it was useless, just a stupid gut feeling from an anthropologist too wrapped up in his own South American studies to feel comfortable in these alien surroundings, confronted by a mystery he could not comprehend or unravel. He sounded all too possessive of a find over which he had no claim. How could he explain the dread, the fear that moved his feet slowly backwards as one of the students started a video camera while his companions began to carefully, slowly, push the stone aside under a constant barrage of instructions from Dana.
It sounded like a vacuum being released with a rush. Air shifted, the dust and mold of centuries disturbed for the first time and loosed from their confinement.
Blair had backed almost to the entrance of the cave, so he was a few feet behind the others when the heavy tablet finally shifted. Something lunged for him, snarling and savage, and he saw the black panther with absolute clarity. With a cry, he tried to dive out of the way, felt the enormous beast plow into him, shoving him down and aside - to safety, he realized even as he fell. Something else, ephemeral as a gust of air, brushed his skin and swept past. It felt so unbelievably evil, just its touch left him feeling horribly weak and violated. A hissing sibilance filled his head with its passing...
Then his impetus carried him over the side of the ledge, and he started to fall.
Dozing on the sofa, Jim Ellison suddenly shot upright, the roar of the panther and the cry from his Guide still ringing in his ears. Damn, but that had been one hell of a dream...
Only he knew better.
Where was the note Blair had written? What was the name of that town?
Buffy had gone still so suddenly, Giles barely had time to pull his swing. As it was, his staff connected solidly with his young protégé and sent her sprawling to the mat. Never, in all their months of practice, had he ever gotten the upper hand, but he instinctively knew it had not been his skill, but rather the Slayer's distraction, which had enabled him to best her. "Buffy, are you all right?" he asked anxiously, dropping his staff and hurrying to help her up.
She was already back on her feet. "Giles, something's up."
"So I gathered. Can you be a little more precise?"
She shook her head. "Just a feeling. Give me your keys. I need to borrow your car."
"Are you sure? I'll be glad to come - "
"No, it may be nothing." But it hadn't felt like nothing, that weird sense of unleashed evil. "No, it was definitely something, but I don't know what. Just something really, really bad is coming our way."
"'By the pricking of my thumbs...'," Giles mumbled absently, fishing for his car keys. "All right, I'll rally the troops for your return," he went on, handing her the keys. When he realized what he'd done, he tried to grab them back, but she was too quick. "Buffy, no," he insisted. "You don't have your driving license."
"I'll be careful," she promised, giddy from her moment of rebelliousness.
"I don't think it's a good idea - "
"Please, please, please?" she schmoozed, batting her eyelashes and playing the ingenue for all she was worth.
Giles knew he didn't stand a chance when she was in such a silly mood. "Do you have any idea where you'll be taking my car illegally?"
"No. I'm just winging it." Buffy almost ran from the library, leaving Giles to ponder the wisdom of loaning his car to a sixteen-year-old girl who was just 'winging it'. But she was the Slayer, after all. He'd learned to trust her instincts, even if she didn't have a driver's license.
"Hey, Blair, are you all right?"
Blair opened his eyes and stared up into concerned faces. He looked around; he had fallen just a few feet down from the ledge, and a bush had cushioned part of his landing amid the granite. Nothing felt broken, for which he was grateful, and he sat up gingerly. The coarse rock had abraded the skin on his hands and arms, and torn a hole in his jeans. He could feel more rawness on his face. By tomorrow, he'd be aching and black and blue from his tumble. "What happened?"
"Some kind of fumes is all I can figure," Dana explained. "Took us all by surprise. You're the only one who passed out, though. It just made the rest of us feel woozy."
That was when Blair remembered the slab of rock shifting, then Jim's animal spirit guide pushing him to safety, and the evil force that had touched him briefly before moving on. He shivered at the memory of it. "Do you have a phone?" he asked abruptly.
"No. Cell phones are no good here between the mountains," she answered impatiently. "We're going to start examining the tomb, now that it's aired out a bit. You up for it?"
Blair shook his head. "There's nothing important in there now," he said, confusing her. "I have to get to a phone."
"I'll drive you into town tonight," Dana promised. "Right now, I've got some bones to document."
"Dana - " Blair began angrily, then stopped, realizing the futility. He tried to sound more reasonable. "Dana, just do me a small favor, OK?"
"Treat him with respect, OK? He was - special."
"He traveled four thousand miles to get here," he said awkwardly, not able to tell her the truth. "That makes him special."
Dana looked confused. "I didn't plan to toss his bones into a pile, you know," she said. "I respect every site I work."
"I know, I guess I'm just feeling groggy," he said. "I'm going back to camp."
This confused Dana even more. "All right. I didn't think anything would keep you from this find, but suit yourself."
Blair stood up, civilly wished everyone a good dig, and hurried back toward the campsite. Something was driving him onward, something that went far beyond his scientific curiosity over the contents of the tomb.
He knew Jim was in danger; the black jaguar had told him.
Back at the camp, he found a note from the high school teacher saying he and Blu had called it a night and were heading back for Sunnydale. He sprinted down the trial, hoping to catch up with them and hitch a ride to town, but he reached the trail head and saw one of the trucks was already gone.
Struggling to regain his breath after his wild dash in the thin mountain air, he checked the nearest truck and found it was unlocked. Jumping inside, he searched until he found the keys under the seat. The engine wouldn't turn over.
With a curse, he tried the other truck, the battered Datsun that had brought him here. Though the keys were in it, the engine also refused to start.
Grumbling at his abysmal bad luck, he headed down the dirt track, determined to find the highway and hitch a ride to the nearest phone. The numerous minor cuts on his face and arms had started to sting, and he belatedly thought of the antiseptic cream in his backpack. The aches and pains of his recent tumble were just beginning to make themselves felt.
Although it was just after five-thirty in the afternoon, it was already dark when his feet finally touched pavement. The mountain air had turned cold, and he had only the light jacket he'd worn on the bus trip. His heavier coat was back at camp, along with all the rest of his gear. Even his flashlight was gone, probably lost when he'd fallen off the ledge. And Dana wouldn't come looking for him; she'd assume he'd caught a ride with Blake and the high school student, Blu.
The darkness was not quite absolute, but the night was moonless, and the redwoods shut out most of the starlight. He could not see his feet on the pavement, so he moved into the center of the road, where he could just see the white centerline, and started walking in the direction of Sunnydale, hoping he would see headlights soon. An hour or so later, he almost had a heart attack when a deer jumped across the road directly in front of him. It was then he realized how alone he was, walking a deserted road in the dead of night, the forest black and impenetrable around him, the night sounds foreign and somehow menacing. Perhaps hiking into town had not been such a good idea, he thought fleetingly. But his imperative to get to a phone overcame his fear, and he kept his feet moving. Besides, he knew he could never find the dirt road again to take him back to camp, so his only option was to keep going forward.
Two cars passed him, and each time he moved to the side and tried to wave them down. Obviously, the sight of a disheveled, longhaired hippie did not inspire anyone to stop. Where was the forest service when you really needed help? Or a cop? Or a kindly old grandmother with more compassion than common sense?
He was cold and miserable when a third car thundered past, and he didn't even bother trying to flag it down. It was going the wrong direction, anyway.
He heard it brake and slow, and turned to see the car swing into a U-turn and come back toward him. Nervously, he waited for it to pull up beside him. This was a little more compassion than he'd expected, and it made him suspicious. A car full of drunken rednecks was not his idea of a good time in the woods. But this car was a battered old Citroen, not exactly a redneck vehicle of choice. The driver's side window rolled down and warm air wafted out, reminding him just how cold he was. "Need a lift?" asked the young girl behind the wheel.
"Uh, yeah," Blair answered with relief. Someone obviously hadn't told this teenager about the dangers of picking up strange men on the side of the road. "Cool car."
She gave him a look that said she doubted his sanity after such a remark. "Do you have a driver's license?"
What was she going to do, ID him? "Yes."
She opened the driver's door and scooted across to the passenger seat. "Then you drive."
Blair climbed behind the wheel and shut the door. The heater felt good. As he put the car in gear, he asked, "Where are we going?"
She pointed straight ahead.
"But you were going the other way."
"And you were going this way," she said.
There was no arguing with that statement. "I need to get to a phone," he explained.
"No problem. By the way, my name's Buffy."
"I'm Blair. Thanks for giving me a lift."
In the faint light from the dashboard, Blair examined his rescuer. She couldn't have been more than sixteen or seventeen, a trim, good-looking young woman with the aura of someone carrying a large burden on her young shoulders. She glanced over at him suddenly, her expression enigmatic, and he looked away in embarrassment.
"What are you doing out here?" she asked.
"I was up at the dig," he explained, then waited to see if she understood him.
"The old Indian site?" she asked. "I read about it in the school paper. You're an archaeologist?"
"And you had this sudden urge to make a phone call."
Blair nodded. "Yeah. None of the trucks would start, and the teacher, Mr. Blake, and his student had already left."
"You must have left in a big hurry," Buffy continued.
"No coat, no flashlight," she pointed out.
She was observant, Blair gave her points for that. "I needed to get to a phone," he repeated awkwardly.
"Did you get a wiggins?"
"A freaky feeling, a sense of impending doom, something fishy, something nasty, evil, vile, cursed, wicked, heinous, depraved, foul, supernatural - have I touched on it yet?"
How could she know? Blair just shook his head, unable to lie outright, unable to tell a complete stranger what he'd felt in that cave.
"Well, you didn't say I was nuts, so I must have touched on it," she concluded as he sped past the Sunnydale city limits.
"Any phone will do," he said. "I have a calling card." In fact, Jim had bought him one last Christmas, since Blair seemed determined to forget his cell phone at the most awkward times, or else allow its battery to go dead.
"And I know just the phone," Buffy insisted, directing him to the high school. It looked deserted at this late hour, and probably was.
"Won't it be locked?"
"Not yet, the library is still open," Buffy promised, leading him through a side door and down the empty corridors. A janitor mopping the floor looked up, saw her, and resignedly went back to his cleaning. Students weren't allowed after hours, but this was the girl who spent so much time in the library with Mr. Giles, so he pointedly ignored her. Whatever happened in the library was none of his business.
Giles looked up as they entered. "Good Lord," he commented softly.
Blair looked down at his dusty, ripped clothing and noted the number of dirty, minor abrasions on his hands from his fall from the ledge. He figured his face was equally bruised and scraped, and his hair was probably all over the place. All in all, not a reassuring figure to present to this neatly dressed Englishman who looked so mild-mannered he could be nothing but the librarian.
"Giles, Blair - Blair, Giles," Buffy said, then indicated the two students seated at the large library table. "Willow and Xander." She pointed to her right. "Phone."
"Thanks." Blair could feel all eyes on him as he hastily went through long string of numbers that would connect his calling card to the appropriate long distance service and complete his call to Cascade. The phone in the loft rang, and in total disregard for his prayers, the answering machine picked up. "Jim, are you there, man? Pick up if you are." There was only silence. "OK, listen...I need to get in touch with you. It's important. When you get in, don't go out again, OK? It's really, really important, Jim, so please stay put. I'll call back in a few hours. Don't go anywhere, OK?" Figuring he'd babbled enough, he hung up, and then repeated the whole dialing process and reached Simon at home. "Simon, it's Blair." He listened for a moment. "Yeah, I know, sorry I had to call you at home. Have you heard from Jim?" He listened some more. "OK, Simon, this is important. I want you to put out an APB on him." The squawk over the receiver was audible to everyone in the room, and Blair flinched at the assault on his ear. "Please, Simon, just listen to me. It's important. I need to find Jim. Try his cell phone, maybe the office. I don't know. Just find him for me, OK?" He covered the mouthpiece and looked at Giles. "Is it OK if I leave this number?"
Giles scrawled hastily on a piece of paper and handed it to him. "This phone or my home phone. One of these numbers will reach you."
"Thanks." Blair repeated the numbers to Simon, and hung up. "Thanks for letting me use the phone. I really need to get in touch with someone." Everyone was staring at him. "What?"
Giles shrugged, looked at Buffy. "Is he what sent you racing off to God knows where?"
"He is," Buffy said confidently. "He was hitchhiking in the forest, up near that old Indian site."
"Well, that explains absolutely nothing," Xander said amiably.
"He doesn't look evil," Willow commented. In fact, she thought he was kind of cute, in spite of all the cuts and bruises. Way cute. Down girl.
Blair felt himself losing his grip on reality. "I'm not evil." He frowned. "What are you talking about?"
Surprisingly, it was Buffy, not Giles, who took control of the conversation. "Look, we can tip-toe around this all night, or we can just come straight with each other. Something bad happened at the site. I felt it. I think you did, too. Trust me, Blair, when I say we'll believe whatever weird story you think you can't tell us."
"I doubt it," Blair mumbled, feeling a little off-balance by her assurance. What could three high-school students and a librarian do to help him? He needed his computer, his notes, all the photographs Dana had taken of the Inca carvings in the rock tablet. He needed to save Jim, and he didn't even know what from, much less how. Then he realized Willow was idly tapping the keyboard of a computer. Maybe he could find some research on-line...
"It's an unidentified site," Giles said helpfully. "Not a settlement, but some sort of encampment."
"It's a religious site," Blair admitted reluctantly. "I think they conducted some sort of desperate ceremony to trap an evil spirit in a cave up there." Damn, that didn't fit in with the Guide, so why did he keep coming back to an evil spirit? What was his subconscious trying to tell him?
"And you let it out," Xander accused bitterly. "As if we don't have enough demons running around already, you had to go and let out another one."
Blair stared at him. "What?"
"Demons," Willow explained hastily. "We're sort of a club that collects information and stories about demons and evil spirits and...things."
"Except you're not a club," Blair said quietly, almost to himself. He looked at Buffy. "You felt it escape the tomb."
Buffy nodded. "Around here, demons are a little more than an academic pursuit."
"Well, this one was certainly real," Blair agreed, unable to contradict her.
"Did you actually see it?" Giles asked gently, aware this young man was stumbling around on very unfamiliar ground and still trying to get everything in focus.
"No, I felt it," Blair admitted, joining them at the table, finally feeling comfortable enough to sit down with them. "It wasn't corporeal, but it might have been looking for a host." He ran his hands through his hair, dislodging assorted bits of rock and grass. "That must sound crazy."
"Not to us," Buffy assured him. "So it didn't find a host?"
"I don't know." Blair didn't know how much he could reveal without getting into subjects he didn't want to broach. "It was like air - heavy air. It touched me, but I was falling off a ledge at the time, so it missed me. I don't know if it found someone else."
"And then you felt a sudden, overwhelming need to make a phone call," Buffy added with a trace of sarcasm. "To warn someone? Or get help?"
Blair could only stare at her. What was she, psychic?
Buffy suddenly buried her head in her arms. "God, this is getting us nowhere!" she said, her voice muffled. She raised her head. "Just tell us what you found!"
"It was a tomb for a very special Inca shaman," Blair said, and waited for the fireworks.
"Inca?" Giles repeated in amazement. "That's - that's almost - "
"Unbelievable?" Blair concluded.
"Almost unbelievable," Giles agreed. "But did he pursue the demon north, or did he bring it with him?"
Blair was surprised at how quickly everyone accepted his bombshell and moved on to other issues.
"Why was the Inca special?" Willow asked. "Did he have the power to stop the demon, and if so, why was he entombed with it?" She looked at Blair. "How do you know he was Inca?"
"There was an inscribed rock tablet covering the opening of the tomb," he explained. "I'm a student of South American cultures. I recognized the inscriptions and was able to translate some of them."
"So he made his own warning label," Xander commented, and off their looks, he said, "Well, if the slab was written in Incan or whatever, it's a cert none of the local boys did it, right?"
"He entombed himself?" Blair mused aloud. "Somehow, he got the evil into the cave with him, and sacrificed himself to trap it?" He felt a wave of dread all the way down his toes. He didn't feel like sacrificing himself to trap anything.
"You're certain the shaman himself wasn't the evil you felt?" Giles asked.
Blair shook his head. "There were two distinct entities -- one attacked me, the other pushed me to safety." Although, could he be that certain? After all, if he believed he'd been saved by Jim's animal spirit, then only one entity had escaped the cave. But he refused to believe in an evil guide; something in the core of his soul rebelled against the idea.
"I need to use the phone again," he said anxiously, jumping up and heading for it. It rang before he got to it, and he snatched up the receiver, heedless of the fact that it wasn't his telephone. "Hello?" He sighed with relief. "Simon. What's up?" He listened, and the others watched his face go pale. Morosely, he said, "Thanks, Simon. I guess we'll take it from here." He hung up and went back to the others. "My friend, Jim, the one I'm trying to find - "
"The one who's either in danger or you want to have help you," Buffy cut in.
"Yeah. They found his truck at the airport. He's grabbed a flight into San Francisco with a connection to Sunnydale. He should be arriving in a couple of hours."
"Is this good or bad for our side?" Xander asked pointedly.
"It means he felt it, too," Buffy said. "Why is this guy so special that he could feel an evil thingee escaping from wherever the heck he is that requires a jumbo jet to get him here?"
It took Blair a moment to wrap his mind around the convoluted question. "Cascade, Washington," he answered at last. "I don't think he felt the evil, exactly," he continued awkwardly. "I think he knew I was in danger."
"Cool," Willow said. "A literal psychic friend."
"A very confident psychic friend," Giles observed, "if he just jumped on an airplane without first trying to reach you by telephone. He had to know with absolute certainty he was needed here."
"Or is he being lured here?" Blair murmured injudiciously, thinking out loud.
"OK, what's so special about this guy?" Buffy demanded. "Is this evil whatever looking for any host, or just a specific host - like your friend?"
"I don't know," Blair admitted, feeling miserable. "I just know he's going to be in trouble, and I don't know if I can help him."
"Your Inca shaman has me troubled," Giles mused. "I keep thinking there should be two. There are a lot of myths throughout primitive South American cultures. So many stories, in fact, spanning such a broad period of time, they've become the stuff of legend. They concern a tribal watchman, a very special warrior with enhanced powers and great skill who protects the tribe from harm. He has a shaman companion, someone of equal but different skills. Could the entombed shaman be one half of this special pair?" He stood up. "Wait, I have some information on the pair. It will just take a moment to find - "
"A sentinel and guide," Blair murmured.
"Exactly," Giles agreed happily, returning to his chair, thoughts of his reference book abandoned. He looked at Blair thoughtfully. "Is the Inca in the cave a guide?"
Blair nodded miserably.
"Then where is the Sentinel?"
"I don't know," Blair admitted. "I didn't have time to translate all of the tablet, but I know the word 'sentinel' is there." And there were seven corpses to explain, all of them killed by the same blade. A sentinel could have done it if the cause or provocation were sufficient.
"Giles, you're losing us here," Buffy said, speaking for all three teens.
"Sorry," the librarian apologized. "The Sentinel had heightened senses and could detect danger or threats over great distances. He could sense changes in the weather, and follow the migration paths of game without actually having a trail to follow. His sensory acuity enabled him to fight with great skill. His Shaman/Guide tutored him, helped him enhance his skills, helped him control them." Blushing suddenly, he looked at Buffy.
Blair didn't miss the look that passed between them, but he didn't have time to pursue it further. "Look, I've got to get to the airport and meet Jim." He frowned. "And then I have to convince him the threat is real."
"Rooted in the mundane, is he?" Xander asked sympathetically. "A place I used to detest until I found out its alternative."
"If he's a target, I'd probably better go, too," Buffy said.
Blair expected someone to object to this young girl placing herself firmly in the danger zone, but everyone seemed to accept it as the norm.
"And we'll be here," Giles promised, "researching demons and the like. It would be nice to be able to put a name and face to this menace, preferably before we have to confront it."
"Sklalas," Blair blurted suddenly, amazed he had remembered the word and could actually pronounce it.
"Bless you," Xander said.
"What?" asked Giles in surprise.
"The name sounded something like Sklalas," Blair explained, wondering if he'd simply imagined the word during his tumble off the rocky ledge.
Giles sighed heavily. "Oh, dear."
"I take it we're not talking a minor-league entity here," Buffy offered dryly.
"Afraid not," Giles agreed. "Sklalas is very major league indeed." He smiled without humor. "Still, a name is what we needed, and a name is what we got." He looked at Blair. "Perhaps you'd best clean up first, before you meet your friend."
"I've got a clean shirt and a jacket you can borrow," Xander said. "We always stash some extra stuff here in the library."
Blair was somewhat bemused. They kept spare clothing in the library - in case of long stakeouts or unexpected conflicts, they could change before going home to their parents? God, what were these kids up to?
"Thanks," he replied sincerely, and Xander led him to the bathroom and went to get the clothes.
Refreshed and reclothed in a tee shirt sporting the name of a rock group he'd never heard of (and he'd heard of many of them) he met Buffy at the library door. "Thanks for the ride to the airport."
"Let's get one thing straight," Buffy said, heading toward the car. "We are all in this together, in spite of the fact that we're both obviously keeping secrets and guarding our turf, OK? We believe in the evil you sensed in the cave, and we believe what you told us. If your friend is in danger, we'll help him."
"How?" Blair asked as he automatically accepted the car keys from her and got behind the wheel.
"I don't know how," Buffy admitted. She pointed to the exit of the parking lot. "But Giles will figure it out, or you will, or Willow. It's what we do, and we're still alive to talk about it, so we must be good at it."
Blair was silent as he followed Buffy's directions toward the small commuter airport that served Sunnydale. It could handle the smaller passenger jets, but not the jumbo ones, which was why Jim had caught a connecting flight. Nervously, he wondered just what sort of Twilight Zone movie he had stumbled into...and yet, his own experiences - with Jim, with animal spirit guides, with Incacha and the Chopek and all the rest of it - were no less unbelievable. If he doubted his newfound allies, he might just as well doubt everything he'd come to believe about Jim and himself.
"The airport closes at midnight," Buffy told him, "so he must be on the last flight out of San Francisco. The place will be nearly deserted, so it will be an ideal spot for an ambush."
"Do you fight?" Buffy asked instead of answering.
"Not unless I have to," Blair admitted.
"Then let me handle any trouble," she told him. Abruptly, she asked, "Who's Jim?"
"Jim Ellison," Blair explained automatically. "He's a detective with the Cascade PD."
"But you're not a cop." Buffy didn't need to make it a question.
"No, I'm a consultant to the department."
"Consulting on what?"
"Actually, I'm doing my doctorate on the police," Blair started to explain, but he was tired of the cover-up and didn't bother to explain further. "What about your club? You said demons are more than an academic pursuit."
Buffy could certainly ask a lot of questions, but she seemed loath to answer them. "Anything I tell you will sound crazy," she said. "I get the feeling you and your friend will learn the truth firsthand."
"I'd still like to know what we're up against," Blair persisted, feeling oddly detached from the bizarreness of the conversation. He'd learn what truth firsthand?
Buffy shook her head. "Just be ready for anything," she advised, directing another turn.
They reached the airport at last, and she showed him where to park in the nearly deserted lot. "Do you have change for the meter?"
He fumbled for quarters, and they managed to buy themselves an hour in their chosen parking place. They walked into the terminal, and as Buffy had predicted, it was nearly deserted. A single person was closing up the ticket counter, another dozed at the car rental desk, and a few visitors awaited the last airplane in from San Francisco. They passed through security and went to the gate where passengers would disembark. Standing by the windows looking onto the parking ramp, with taxiways and runways beyond, Blair saw only two unattended prop planes and a few parked vehicles. Even the ground crew was sparse, although someone would have to be there to meet the arriving jet.
Buffy paced, her eyes constantly searching the area both inside and out. She prowled like a hunter, Blair realized with a start, or like someone who was used to being hunted.
Finally, an attendant came to the small desk by the doorway to the parking ramp and put up a small sign announcing the arrival of the flight from San Francisco. Support crew sauntered over to guide the taxiing jet to its chocks, and a baggage hauler drove his little cart into view. As they watched the landing lights approach, they both became more and more tense. Finally, the small commuter jet rolled to a stop and shut down its engines. Ground crew rolled the debarkation steps into position, and the exit door opened.
"Announcing the arrival of Flight 910 from San Francisco," the desk attendant said helpfully over the PA system, although everyone waiting for the flight was already standing at the windows.
Passengers began to debark slowly down the steps. There weren't many - a young woman with a small child, two obvious businessmen, an older couple still dressed in matching Hawaiian shirts and clearly returning from vacation. Jim was the last one out - making a pass at the flight attendant, probably, Blair thought irritably.
The first passenger was already coming through the door into the terminal before Jim started down the steps. He looked well enough, Blair thought, but a little tired and badly in need of a shave. Probably sick of airplanes by now, after flying to and from New York, and now down here. How was he going to explain everything, make Jim understand there was a very real threat here?
Jim reached the bottom of the steps, his flight bag in one hand, his jacket slung over his shoulder. He looked to his right as he walked, and his steps hesitated a bit before continuing. Blair looked, too, and saw three men approaching. More ground crew.
"Trouble," Buffy said, heading for the door.
Blair followed her, and they barged outside, heedless of the attendant's surprised shout that they couldn't go out there. Jim had paused again, putting down his bag to shrug into his jacket as he assessed what he obviously saw as a threatening situation. He was surprised to see Blair dashing toward him, and even more surprised to see a teenage girl veering toward the three men whose appearance had aroused his suspicion. Blair faltered midway when he realized Buffy had left his side, and he looked uncertainly from her to Jim, who was pretty much mimicking the same behavior. Then, almost as one, they turned and headed for the girl, converging on her from both sides as she faced the three men dressed as ground crew. As the odds equalized, their would-be opponents turned and fled.
Unruffled, Buffy turned and held out her hand. "Hi, Jim, I'm Buffy. Welcome to Sunnydale."
"Thank you," Jim answered, accepting her handshake. He looked at Blair, frowned at the numerous cuts and bruises. "Are you OK?"
"Yep," Blair said stupidly. "You?"
Jim sighed, bemused. "What just happened here?"
"I don't know," Blair answered truthfully. He looked at Buffy, who shrugged.
"Why were you suspicious?" she countered to Jim.
"Cop instincts," he replied, returning to pick up his bag and lead the way into the terminal. The desk attendant had been on the verge of calling security.
"Sorry," Buffy apologized. "My brother - haven't seen him in years. I got a little excited." As proof, she latched onto Jim's tall frame and hugged him, much to his surprise.
"All right, but it's really very dangerous for you out there," the attendant chastised.
"Thanks for your concern," Blair said, heading off with his companions. Dangerous! If she only knew the half of it -- !
Jim seemed amused by the girl clutching his arm, then he looked critically at Blair's garb. "What is that you're wearing?"
Blair looked down at his tee shirt. "Haven't a clue. I had to borrow some clothes. All my stuff is still back at the dig."
"The Dingoes," Buffy explained, her eyes moving relentlessly around the terminal. "It's a local band, plays at the Bronze sometimes. Do you have any luggage?"
"No, just my carry on." Jim sensed her tension and put his own senses on alert. But the airport terminal seemed perfectly normal, mostly deserted, the few remaining people in the process of leaving.
"You lied about cop instincts," Buffy said suddenly. "How did you know those three men were a threat?"
Jim looked down at her from his greater height and more than doubled years of experience, but he could not intimidate her. "How did you?" he countered blandly, giving Blair a what-the-hell-is-going-on-here? look over the top of her head. Unfortunately, Blair didn't have any answers.
"All I know is that you're in danger," Blair said quietly.
"I'm in danger?" Jim echoed. "From who?"
"Whom," Buffy corrected automatically. Giles was rubbing off on her, she realized with an inward grin. Her English teacher would be pleased.
They reached the car and climbed in, Buffy relinquishing the front passenger seat to Jim's longer legs. As Blair drove away from the airport, she rested her arms on the back of the front seat and said, "Blair, you convince him."
So Blair told his story, sensing his friend's stubborn disbelief grow as the tale progressed from the ordinary to the absurd. Even to Blair, it sounded fanciful. He'd alluded to the panther saving him without going into specifics, but he heard Buffy's sigh of disappointment as she recognized his attempts at secrecy.
Back at the high school, Blair parked the car while Buffy hastened on ahead, leaving the two men arguing as they followed more slowly through the deserted halls.
Jim finally took a good look at his surroundings. "Where the hell are we?" he asked, looking at the long rows of student lockers.
"Perfect." Somehow, walking the deserted halls of a high school at midnight seemed a suitable counterpoint to the absurdity of their conversation.
"Come on, Jim, what about those three men at the airport?" Blair kept his voice low, but there was no masking the frustration he was feeling.
For a moment, he didn't think Jim was going to answer, but then the detective replied very calmly, "They were dead."
"I probably haven't told you this," Jim went on a little apologetically, "but I seem to have this natural, low-level sensory thing all the time now. You know, like a normal background level?" Off Blair's scowl, he hastened to continue, "Well, I'm more aware when it's not there - like when you're not in the loft when you're supposed to be, stuff like that."
"Thanks for getting around to telling me," Blair grumbled.
"It's like breathing," Jim retorted. "Unless it gets difficult, I don't give it a lot of thought."
Blair was still upset. "OK, OK, but what about the three guys?"
"I just didn't sense any of the background 'noise' I would have associated with people coming toward me. When I tuned in, I couldn't detect any heart beats or breathing."
"So they were dead," Blair murmured dryly. "OK, you won't believe my crazy story about an evil entity, but three dead guys walking up to you at the airport doesn't even faze you." Good lord, he sounded demented!
Jim chuckled. "I figure it was just some kind of sensory anomaly from being stuck in too many pressurized airplane cabins or something. Everything was fine by the time I went inside the terminal."
"Uh-huh," Blair agreed doubtfully. "Was Buffy 'alive' when we came outside? Was I?"
Jim's footsteps hesitated a fraction, but by now they were outside the library doors. "Yes."
Before Blair could pursue his logic further, Jim had pushed through the doors, leaving Blair no choice but to follow.
Buffy and Giles were leaning against the heavy library table, their arms and ankles crossed in almost identical poses. Blair noticed Xander and Willow were gone, but evidence of their research lay strewn across the table.
"So, how did you know the three guys at the airport were dead?" Buffy challenged without preamble.
Jim and Blair exchanged glances.
"What makes you think I even thought it?" Jim returned calmly.
"They were vampires," Giles said quietly, watching for their reactions.
For a moment, Blair was too stupefied even to realize Jim had turned on his heel and headed for the exit. When he finally realized his friend's retreat, he jumped to stop him. "Jim, wait a minute."
"And listen to this nonsense?" Jim shot back in irritation. "No thanks."
"Please!" Blair's tone was anxious and pleading, and Jim didn't like being the cause of it. Reluctantly, he turned back.
"OK, I'll listen," he agreed tightly, but it was evident his mind was already made up.
Giles could tell from the stubborn set of Jim Ellison's jaw that he had an impossible task ahead of him. "My name is Rupert Giles," he began quietly. "I am the librarian here at Sunnydale High School. I am also a Watcher -- a Guide, if I may borrow the expression."
Jim glanced at Blair, whose mouth had dropped open in baffled surprise. Giles continued: "My job is to train and advise the Slayer, she who stands against the vampires and demons that stalk the dark places of our world. In each generation, there is only one." He nodded to Buffy. "Buffy Summers."
His two guests were rooted in their places, Jim's expression one of annoyance, Blair's still wide-eyed amazement.
In for a penny..."The high school -- this very library, in fact -- sits over a portal known as Boca del Infierno."
"Mouth of Hell?" Blair translated in a shocked whisper.
Boca del Bullshit, Jim thought ungraciously.
"Exactly," Giles answered. "It is a place where evil energy converges, and it attracts demons like moths to flame. It's what brought Sklalas here hundreds of years ago."
Jim looked at Blair. "Sklalas. That's your demon, right?"
"He's not my demon," Blair objected. "I didn't conjure him up. I wasn't even sure I had the name right."
"You heard the name correctly," Giles said softly. "Sklalas is an ancient demon, although he's gone by many names since the dawn of recorded history. Rather than recite a long list of the names, suffice it to say most of them translate as 'Evil One' or 'Eater of Souls'. By any name, he is the destroyer of all life. If he succeeds in unleashing the demons of hell, humanity will be wiped from the face of the earth."
Jim's expression had shifted to mild amusement. "And you," he said, looking at Buffy, "intend to stop him."
Buffy nodded. "With your help. The two of you seem to be part of the equation now. I don't know why the demon went after Blair instead of several closer targets, or why some animal spirit lunged out to save him. But you're involved whether or not you believe us."
Blair frowned, trying to digest all the information from an open-minded and scientific point of view, but the whole process was beyond him, considering the subject matter. "Where do vampires fit in?" he asked cautiously. Beside him, Jim snorted back a laugh.
"A large contingent of vampires inhabit the area around the hellmouth," Giles answered, pleased the young man was at least considering the possibilities. "They live in tunnels beneath the city, and are a willing army for the forces of darkness." He faced Jim Ellison's skepticism without flinching. "I know you don't believe us, but a check of our local police files will give you ample evidence of a significantly heightened crime rate involving missing persons and unsolved murders."
"You're right, I don't believe you," Jim acknowledged, wondering if these two were dangerous or merely kooks.
"You ignore the evidence of your own senses at great peril, Mr. Ellison," Giles returned calmly. "Has your friend told you what happened to him?"
"Do you trust him?"
With my life. Giles had cornered him without even trying. "Yes."
"Then believe him even if you doubt us. Be extra vigilant, and understand you are in great danger."
Jim rubbed tired eyes. "I understand we're on the first plane out of here in the morning," he said. He realized the two strangers were sincere in their beliefs and concerns, but he wanted Blair as far away from their influence as possible, even if he didn't understand their game. What kind of fantasy had his partner bought into?
"Jim - " Blair began.
"Tomorrow, Chief," Jim cut in. "With or without you." It was an idle threat, but Blair couldn't know that; Jim would get him on the plane one way or another.
Giles sighed. "I don't know if distance will ensure your safety." He glanced at Buffy. "It's after midnight. I'll take you home."
Buffy shook her head. "Mom's out of town for a few days, so I might as well stay out and play. I think I'll do a quick patrol around the cemetery." She gave Jim a caustic look. "See if there are any figments of my imagination rising from the dead." She strolled past and out the door without another glance for either of them.
Jim just shook his head in bewilderment. Blair still looked uncertain, doubting the wild story told by Giles but convinced of his own experience at the cave. The conflicting emotions were perplexing.
"May I offer you the hospitality of my home?" Giles asked. "I have a spare bedroom with its own bathroom - one double bed, I'm afraid, but quite comfortable."
"A motel will be fine," Jim assured him, "but thanks anyway."
"Fine, I'll drive you there," Giles replied without argument. He really hadn't expected Jim to trust him. After all, cops were by nature a skeptical breed. But still, a man with heightened senses, a sentinel no less, should have been a little more receptive to the unusual. At least, he deduced these men were Sentinel and Guide; it explained their behavior and reticence.
The drive to the motel was silent and socially chill. They had to wake the night manager to rent them a room, and the man grumbled absently as he sleepily supplied the requisite forms and handed over a key before heading back to his warm bed.
Giles offered Jim his hand. "In case I don't see you again, have a safe trip, and please stay cautious."
Jim hesitated, finally accepted the handshake. "Thanks, we will."
Giles held out a handful of wood secured with a large rubber band. "Humor me as well, and keep these with you, all right?"
Jim took the bundle, shook his head in amusement when he saw the wooden stakes. "Sure, whatever."
"Good night, then," Giles said reluctantly, turning away.
"Goodbye," Jim said to the retreating back. He tried to sound polite, but he had a notion his tone implied 'and good riddance'. What the hell - it was the way he felt about the whole situation anyway.
It was after one in the morning when they finally opened the door to their room. Clean queen-sized beds were flanked by veneer-covered cubes mounted to the walls as end tables, each supporting a small bedside lamp. On a slightly larger shelf between the beds stood the telephone, a phone book and the ubiquitous King James Bible. A small round table and two chairs sat in front of the window, while the wall opposite the beds sported a dresser and a TV. All in all, it looked like almost any motel room anywhere in America. Jim negligently tossed the bundle of stakes onto the table. Automatically, Blair flopped down on the bed nearest the bathroom, since he knew Jim preferred the bed closest to the door and windows; probably some sort of protective instinct. "Jim, none of this makes any sense," he said idly. "If it's all some sort of hoax, what's its purpose?"
"You got me, Chief," Jim admitted, tossing his flight bag on his bed and rooting for his bathroom kit. "Did you actually believe anything they said?"
Blair's expression tightened with annoyance. "How would you sound explaining about sentinels and guides, heightened senses and animal spirits?" he countered.
Jim sighed. "Then you believe them?"
Blair's voice was quietly intense. "I didn't say that. I only know what I saw and felt and heard in the cave this afternoon. It was evil, Jim...and I felt it long before I met either Buffy or Giles."
Jim closed his eyes tightly in weariness and rolled his shoulders to work out the kinks of too many airline seats. He wasn't in the mood to deal with any of this weirdness. "Why don't we sleep on it? In the morning, we'll book a flight out of here and figure out a way to get your stuff from the dig." He disappeared into the bathroom and closed the door against any objection.
There didn't seem to be much point in further discussion, not while Jim was being so stubborn. "OK." Blair wished he'd had Giles stop at the Wal-Mart (assuming it was of the "open 24-hours" variety) so he could grab a toothbrush and other little essentials. He'd feel positively grungy by morning. Maybe there was a store close by where he could buy some stuff. He reached for the phone book to check the yellow pages.
There was a knock at the door.
"Now what?" he muttered, getting up and going to answer it. Aware he was in an unfamiliar city, he was grateful for the peephole in the center of the door. Through it, he saw a motel maid with a large stack of blankets clutched in her arms.
He opened the door. "Yes?"
She looked about twenty, and her smile was radiant. "Our heating system is acting up. The manager thought you might need a few extra blankets if it goes out altogether."
"Oh, thanks," Blair said, stepping aside. "Just toss 'em on the bed there."
As she walked past him, he abruptly remembered how grumpy and sleepy the manager had been. He didn't seem the sort to have a neatly dressed maid standing by in the middle of the night to deliver extra blankets. Suspicious now, he swung toward her, only to be shoved from behind as four men pushed into the room.
"Thanks for the invite," one of them murmured.
And right before Blair's horrified eyes, they transformed from being ordinary-looking thugs into something out of a nightmare.
Desperately, he scrambled backwards, stumbling over the corner of the bed but keeping his feet. He heard the bathroom door open - Jim would have felt Blair's panicked response all the way into the next county, but the younger man didn't turn around to see his friend's reaction to the monsters crowding toward them. He couldn't take his eyes off them. Vampires! his mind screamed at him, even as he consciously dismissed the absurdity.
Surprisingly, it was Jim who recognized and acknowledged the truth first, probably because he had his senses to assure him these intruders were without heart beat or breath. The wooden stakes were uselessly out of reach, but he slammed a foot into the nearest bedside table, toppling the lamp and the complimentary box of tissues. The wood splintered under the force of his kick. Thankfully, it wasn't pressboard beneath the veneer, but rather cheap pine, which split without crumbling as he reached to tear a broken piece free of the wall.
The five were on them in an instant, swarming around and over the beds to drive the two men into the corner and trap them there. Jim slammed one with his left fist, knocking the attacker off balance into the one dressed as a maid. With his right, he finished yanking the top off the bedside cube, used both hands to smash it down over one raised knee to break it smaller, then drove the makeshift stakes hard under the breastbones of two of his adversaries.
What happened next was both startling and fateful. The two vampires simply disintegrated, wafting into dust before Jim's startled eyes. But in the next instant, he inhaled a lung full of the gritty remains and fell to his knees, eyes streaming with tears, his nose clogging and throat tightening in the most severe allergic reaction he'd ever experienced. Gasping and helpless, he felt two more vampires grasp his shoulders, forcing him down. Where was Blair? What was happening to him?
Instinctively, he shoved upward, freeing himself momentarily, and grabbed toward the spot where he had last seen his partner. His hand closed on warm skin as Blair struggled with his own adversary, and Jim lunged sideways into them, breaking them apart. Blair fell backwards with a grunt and toppled into the open closet. The third vampire joined its companions to help slam Jim back to the floor. He couldn't believe their strength!
Almost able to draw air into his lungs again, but with tears streaming from his eyes rendering him nearly blind, he managed to see Blair lunge out of the closet. Another vampire exploded into dust, which settled over Jim and brought on another spasm of breathlessness.
Abruptly, the weight of the last two vampires vanished from his back, and the fight was over.
"I just can't let you grown-ups out of my sight for a minute," Buffy complained, long wooden stakes still clutched in either hand.
Blair, who was barely on his feet, staggered and sat down on the floor, too stunned by the events of the past few minutes to function. He heard Jim struggling for breath and forgot his fear to reach out to his friend. "Jim!" he said urgently. "Are you OK?"
"No, I am not OK," Jim croaked back at him, scrambling around for the box of tissues on the floor. He grabbed a handful, and jammed them to his nose barely in time to corral a violent sneeze. Then he grabbed another handful of tissues and dabbed at his running eyes. Finally, he was able to take a shaky breath and stagger to his feet. "Excuse me," he mumbled, retreating to the bathroom and slamming the door. More sneezing erupted from within.
Giles stood in the doorway behind Buffy, a wicked crossbow with a loaded bolt gripped in his hands. So much for the image of a mild-mannered librarian. "Is everyone all right?"
"Sneezy seems to be having a little problem," Buffy answered, "but yeah, I think we're OK."
Blair crawled up to sit on the bed. "Easy for you to say," he complained. "Those were really - I mean, those guys were actually - "
"Vampires," Buffy completed helpfully.
"Yeah." Blair sighed. He took a deep breath and managed to quell the myriad thoughts tumbling haphazardly through his mind. "Why are you here?"
"We knew you wouldn't believe us," Giles explained in his quiet manner, "but we also knew you were in danger. The best way we could think of to convince you was to permit you to have a - what shall I call it? -- baptism of fire, but we wanted to be close by in case you needed our help."
Jim finally emerged from the bathroom. His sneezing had been reduced to sniffles, and his eyes, while still red and swollen, no longer teared so heavily. "Here's something for your journals, Chief," he said somewhat weakly. "I'm probably the only guy in the world who's allergic to vampire dust."
"An antihistamine, perhaps?" Giles suggested.
Blair shook his head. "He has trouble with anything stronger than aspirin."
"I see." So much for enlisting a sentinel to help with vampire slaying, he sighed to himself. Still, "At least you appear to be convinced of the danger."
Jim nodded slowly. "I'm stubborn, not stupid," he agreed. He looked at his partner, who still seemed a little overwhelmed by it all. "We've just been traded to a whole different league," he observed. "You gonna be OK with it?"
"Yeah," Blair replied softly but with certainty.
"You guys actually did OK," Buffy said with admiration. "You took care of three of them."
Jim thought back on events. He remembered the two he'd nailed with the makeshift stakes from the bedside stand, but the third - "You got one?"
Blair indicated the closet. "You tossed me in among the coat hangers. Long, wooden coat hangers."
"Thoughtful of me," Jim agreed mildly.
"Your big mistake was inviting them in," Buffy went on. "Don't ever, ever invite a stranger into your place after dark, at least unless you're sure he has a heart beat."
"Rule Number One," Blair murmured, filing away the information.
"Once again, I'd like to offer you my hospitality," Giles said. "You took care of the first attack, but there may be others tonight."
Jim looked around the destroyed motel room and pictured the huge bill that would show up on his credit card. Vampire attacks were probably not covered by his insurance. Ah, well.
He grabbed his kit out of the bathroom and stuffed it back into his flight bag, discarded used tissues in favor of some new ones, and looked at his partner. "We may have to rethink that morning flight."
"Good. I really want to do some more translation of that rock tablet Dana found in the cave," Blair replied. "Remember, it's not just vampires that are after you."
Jim grimaced. "Right. Sklalas, eater of souls." He trailed after the group as they left the room. "One thing at a time, Chief, one thing at a time." As an afterthought, he picked up the bundle of wooden stakes he'd tossed so negligently onto the table a lifetime ago, back when he'd believed vampires were simply a figment of an over-active imagination.
"Speaking of things," Blair said, "is there an all-night drug store where I could pick up some stuff?"
So they ended up at Wal-Mart at two o'clock in the morning. Blair grabbed a shopping cart and headed into the store, promising to be "just a few minutes", while Jim leaned against the magazine rack and started flipping through the pages of Sport Utility Magazine.
Giles and Buffy waited just inside the entrance, Buffy stealing several thoughtful glances in Jim's direction.
"What is it?" Giles asked quietly.
"Oh, I don't know," Buffy answered truthfully. "He just seems so - self-contained."
"As if he has very strong boundaries and allows only a very few people to get past them?" Giles returned.
"Exactly. And he's so - comfortable - with himself."
"Satisfied - like he doesn't need a whole lot of things to be happy. He's content with what he has; probably has his money in CD's and mutual funds, doesn't have a whole lot he wants to spend it on." She grinned to herself. "I'll bet he pays for Blair's things tonight, though. It seems like something he'd do. Blair's a student, probably doesn't have much in the way of extra cash."
"Do you think he's supporting Blair?"
"I don't know. It seems like a natural extension of things."
"The Sentinel/Guide thing, you mean?"
"Yeah, like that."
Giles smiled at a notion. "Then by the same extension, shouldn't you be supporting me?"
Buffy laughed outright. "If that's the way it's supposed to be, you and I are destined to remain financially challenged for a long time yet."
"Are you starting to like him?"
"Well, he's just so fine," Buffy replied, relaxing so much she forgot she was talking to Giles and not one of her school mates, "a real hotty. He needs to lighten up a bit, though. I'll bet he has a drop-dead smile."
"He also has very good ears," Giles reminded her with a chuckle.
Buffy felt herself blush to the roots of her hair and chanced another sidelong glance at the object of her admiration. Unbelievably blue eyes met her own, and Jim responded to her discomfiture with a wide, slow smile. As she'd predicted, it was absolutely devastating. Her embarrassment grew, and she looked away first. But that smile had been worth it!
"I'm gonna see if I can find Blair while walking around with one foot in my mouth," she muttered, retreating hastily into the store.
As promised, Blair didn't take long. He pushed his cart up to the checkout counter, and Jim put down the magazine to join him. Buffy didn't say anything, but she couldn't look at Jim as she hastened through the check stand and went back to Giles. Blair had picked up a few essentials - underwear, socks, toothbrush, deodorant, shampoo, and a pair of sweats, which were his chosen form of pajamas. Still, the total came to more than thirty dollars, and he had to borrow a five from Jim to cover it.
With his little shopping foray out of the way, the group returned to the car. Buffy was silent and chagrined during the drive to her house, and she murmured a hasty good-by before hurrying inside.
"Did something happen between you two?" Blair asked curiously as they drove on.
"Just a little conversation I wasn't supposed to overhear," Jim admitted with a grin.
"She didn't mean anything by it," Giles hastened to assure him. "It's just one of those teenage things."
"Yeah, but she was pretty accurate with some of it," Jim answered truthfully.
"Yes, occasionally she shows a real spark of maturity," Giles admitted. "Then, suddenly, she'll fret for hours about what to wear to the next football game. As one of the few adults in her life, I find it all a bit daunting at times."
"She doesn't have a father at home?" Jim asked.
"No, he lives somewhere else, and her mother is a very nice person who sometimes tries a little too hard to be 'hip' to do either of them any good - she truly loves Buffy but perceives her as unreliable, flighty and rebellious."
"So she doesn't know Buffy's the Slayer," Blair said. "That must be rough on the kid - I mean, even Superman's parents knew who he was."
"Buffy lives in two worlds," Giles admitted with a sigh. "As you saw tonight, one of them is a place few people know exists."
Blair went almost preternaturally quiet, and Jim looked at him with understanding eyes. They'd almost forgotten the motel and the attack on them. Their world had been turned upside down, and there was no going back. Somehow, they'd have to deal with it, and quickly, because if the last few hours had been any indication, there wasn't going to be a lot of quiet time to adjust to the new realities of life.
Giles' house proved to be exactly like the man himself - comfortable, unpretentious, perfectly in balance with its surroundings. The librarian showed them the guest bedroom with the bathroom en suite, then said, "I leave for work a bit after eight, so you'll have to fend for your breakfast or join me around seven."
"We'll get up with you," Jim agreed. "You don't have to cook us breakfast, but I would appreciate a lift to get a rental car."
"Not necessary," Giles assured him. "I intend to take you both up to the site myself. I'm rather looking forward to seeing it. As for breakfast - I do a rather good omelet, and the orange juice will be freshly squeezed, if that suits you."
"Sounds good," Jim admitted, and Blair nodded his agreement, his eyes already on the double bed. Its size meant he and Jim would have to get rather cozy, but under the circumstances, Blair didn't mind a bit. Sleeping next to his Sentinel was about the safest place he could imagine.
They exchanged good nights and Giles closed the door behind him.
"What a weird day," Blair murmured, emptying his pockets onto the top of the small dresser.
"That's one way to describe it," Jim agreed, following suit. He pulled two twenties out of his wallet. "Here."
"What's this for?" Blair asked in confusion.
"Let's just say I don't like being too predictable, especially where sixteen-year-old girls are concerned," Jim said. "It's a private joke. You don't need to understand it."
"Cool. Let me know the next time you're feeling like this. I could use a new car."
"Just for that, I get first dibs on the shower." Jim grabbed his flight bag and jumped into the bathroom before Blair even had time to react.
When he came out a few minutes later, showered and ready for bed, Blair had changed into his sweats and stuffed his dirty clothing into the shopping bag. He looked asleep on his feet as he walked by Jim and went to take his shower.
Jim usually wore only his briefs to bed, and he hadn't thought to bring anything more suitable in his flight bag. After all, he hadn't contemplated playing footsies with his partner. Well, they'd just have to cope. He added his own dirty clothes to the shopping bag, thought he might need a shopping trip of his own if he didn't do laundry soon, and crawled under the covers on the side of the bed nearest the window.
Blair wandered out a few minutes later, crawled in beside him, and was asleep so fast a "good night" barely slipped past his lips.
Jim turned out the bedside lamp and stared at the ceiling. It was not so easy for him to go to sleep. First, he recognized the sleeping patterns of his partner, closer than normal, but still as familiar to him as his own breathing. Beyond the room, the refrigerator, water heater and furnace revealed their individual sounds of operation, and he could hear Giles slipping into a deep sleep in his room down the hall. Outside, a car passed occasionally, and a neighbor's dog ventured through its doggy door into the yard, took care of business, and went back inside. Finally, when he felt familiar with the nighttime rhythms of his new surroundings, he permitted himself to fall asleep.
He awoke at 6:30 to the smell of fresh coffee, toast and eggs. He glanced at his bedmate, saw Blair wrapped like a cocoon in most of the blankets, and sighed over his mostly sleepless rest. Despite his body's demand for more sleep, Jim stumbled out of bed and took care of his morning routine, skipping the shower since he'd taken one just hours before.
Shaved and dressed, he poked sourly at the mound still occupying the other half of the bed. "Come on, Wiggles, rise and shine."
Blair's tousled head emerged grumpily from beneath the covers. "Wiggles?" he inquired sleepily.
"Yeah. You never keep still during the day, I don't know why I expected you to be any different at night," Jim retorted.
"Oh. Sorry." Blair's head dropped back toward his pillow.
Jim whacked his partner where he figured his butt should be and was rewarded with a yelp. Blair emerged again, irate. "What was that for? I said I was sorry."
"That was for stealing all the covers." Jim looked more amused than genuinely angry, so Blair just smiled sheepishly. "Get dressed. I want to get a vampire primer from Giles before tonight."
"A - " Blair sighed, remembering where they were and why. "I was hoping all my bad dreams were just that...dreams."
"No such luck," Jim commiserated. "The logical part of my mind doesn't want to believe it, but unless we were drugged and hypnotized, there's just nothing to do but accept that last night really happened." He winced at his own words. Deep down, he really didn't believe it. He felt as if he were playing a role in some piece of horror fiction, and when he was finished, the world would somehow be the same as it had been before he'd exited the passenger jet at Sunnydale Airport. It was a vain hope, but one which he stubbornly embraced.
"I'm going downstairs to grab a cup of coffee," he muttered finally when their locked, troubled gazes said it all.
He found Giles at the dining room table, his face stuck in a book. The librarian looked disgustingly fresh and rested.
"Good morning," Giles greeted cheerfully, getting up and heading for the kitchen. "I've got coffee, orange juice, toast, and rather good eggs, if I do say so myself."
"Sounds great," Jim admitted, glancing at the open book. It was written in Latin, and the illuminated text bore graphic images of torture and execution. "A little light reading over breakfast?"
Giles delivered a steaming plate of eggs. "Sit and eat," he urged, juggling coffee and condiments with surprising dexterity. He returned to his own seat and closed the book. "Actually, there's never enough time to do all the research one needs to do."
"Do you happen to have a histamine blocker in your medicine cabinet?" Jim asked a little reluctantly.
"I think so, but don't you have problems with medication?" Giles replied.
"Yeah, but I haven't tried a blocker," Jim explained. "If I take one this morning, any adverse reactions will probably wear off by tonight, and if I don't have a bad reaction, then maybe I can do some good if we run into trouble."
"Sensible thinking," Giles approved, getting up. "I'll just go check."
He returned a minute later with the requested medicine, and Jim downed two tablets with his coffee. "Thanks," he said, dreading the possible onset of side effects. Having his senses go haywire was not his idea of a good time, but choking to death on vampire dust was even worse. He was willing to try the pills.
Blair finally straggled downstairs in a somewhat pulled together state. "Good morning," he mumbled in their general direction.
Giles played the solicitous host again and got him comfortably settled with breakfast before pouring himself another cup of coffee.
"Are you going in to work today?" Jim asked.
"Briefly. I need to tell Principal Snyder that I'll be doing some research out at the dig. Why?"
"I was wondering if you have a - tutorial or something - on vampires." Again, Jim felt himself grimace, as if he couldn't believe the words coming from his own mouth.
"Actually, Willow has been working on just such a document," Giles admitted. "I think you'll find it an interesting read."
"No doubt." He glanced at his friend, who was unusually quiet. "Something wrong?"
Blair shook his head. "No. I'm just wondering how I'm going to convince Dana to let the three of us onto her site," he confessed. "She can be very critical about amateurs fooling around at her digs."
"That shouldn't present a problem with your inventiveness," Jim replied, unworried. He finished the excellent omelet, buttered a slice of toast, and felt ready to take on the day. Actually, he admitted to himself, the day was not the problem...it was the night.
Giles seemed preoccupied as he gathered up his books and piled them in a neat stack. "I'll just be a minute," he excused himself absently, retreating up the stairs. "I'll put out some clean towels in your bathroom for tonight."
Blair saw the expression on his partner's face. "What is it?"
"He's not thinking about towels," Jim replied.
Blair took a drink of coffee. "So? I'm not exactly thinking about breakfast, but I'm eating it."
Jim smiled slightly and shook his head. "I wonder why he needs to search our stuff?"
"You think -- ?" The younger man just shrugged. "Doesn't matter. We don't exactly have anything to hide."
"No, I'm just curious, that's all." Perhaps Giles wasn't being as truthful as he pretended. It was just one more perplexing bit of information to add to the puzzle.
When the librarian returned a few minutes later, he seemed much more relaxed. "If you don't need anything else, shall we get on the road?"
His two guests obligingly cleared the table and rinsed the dishes in the sink before stacking them in the dishwasher. Giles certainly approved of well-mannered houseguests.
As promised, they were on the road a little after eight. "I just need to make one quick stop," Giles explained awkwardly, pulling into a driveway and climbing out. "I'll just be a moment; you two can wait here if you like."
"No problem," Jim assured him, wondering why the librarian seemed eager to have them stay in the car.
Giles went up to the door and knocked. An attractive, dark-haired woman answered and greeted him warmly, but he nervously gestured her back inside. Suspicious, Jim turned up his hearing, but the librarian apparently had anticipated the intrusion and took the woman to the rear of the house, where he reduced his voice to the merest whisper. The woman followed his example.
Jim just shook his head. "Curiouser and curiouser."
Blair glanced up from the Latin text he'd fished off the top of the pile of books. "What is?"
"Giles and the woman."
"Maybe she's his girlfriend."
Jim shrugged. "Maybe."
Giles returned in less than five minutes and got behind the wheel. "Sorry about that," he apologized. "School business. Couldn't wait. Might not see her at school if we're going out to the dig." He seemed to realize he was making too many excuses, and fell silent as he backed the car out of the driveway and headed toward the high school.
The school grounds were alive with activity: buses arriving, parents delivering children, students milling. Jim and Blair felt many curious eyes on them as they followed Giles through the crowded halls to the library.
Willow and Xander sat at the library table, Willow industriously typing on her computer, Xander unsuccessfully trying to balance a pencil on his nose. They both stopped what they were doing to meet Jim.
What a hunk, Willow thought, smiling shyly.
What a stormtrooper, Xander thought ungraciously, aware of Willow's reaction.
"Don't forget your first class starts in a few minutes," Giles told them after introducing Jim to the others. "Willow, Detective Ellison and Mr. Sandburg would like to read the tutorial you've been creating."
"Sure," Willow gushed happily, almost giddy as the two men moved up to sit on either side of her. "Vampire 101," she proclaimed proudly, calling up her file.
"I can handle this if you need to get to class," Blair said.
She relinquished the mouse but didn't move her chair. "No, I'm fine," she assured him, basking in the closeness of two of the most gorgeous guys she'd seen in a long time, old or not, bruised or not. Some days, it just paid to show up early.
"Any sign of Buffy?" Giles asked, not really expecting an affirmative answer. Buffy rarely appeared before the last possible moment; she was not a morning person.
"Actually, I talked to her on the phone," Xander replied. "She told me all about Sneezy and his Five Dwarfs."
Jim spared a sideways glance, realized the kid was just struggling with a bout of teenage jealousy, and grinned in self-deprecation. Sneezy. Well, he'd earned it.
"I'll leave you to it, then," Giles said, casting a warning glance at Xander. "I have to see Principal Snyder."
The vampire primer was filled with practical advice - how to spot a vampire (one sure clue was a wardrobe that included a leisure suit or a Nehru jacket); what to do if you spotted a vampire ('run like the dickens' was Blair's personal favorite); how to kill one (wooden implements seemed to be the only sure way); the myths that were true (holy water, crosses, etc.); myths that weren't true (vampires turning into bats or needing to sleep inside a coffin); preferred haunts; likely hiding places; a long list of confirmed victims; a longer list of suspected victims; those who had risen again and those who had succumbed to Buffy's patrols. There were also brief biographies of vampires known to inhabit the area around the hellmouth, and Jim read this information with great interest. There was an entry for the Master - dusted (literally) - and more recent listings for a punk-looking couple named Spike and Drusilla. The latter's story read like a pulp thriller, one of the sort filled with references to "heaving bosoms" and "throbbing manhood".
"Willow - class," Giles reminded her gently upon his return, aware he was interrupting one of her finer fantasies.
"OK," she sighed, pushing away from the computer. "See you guys later." She sounded hopeful, and beamed when they smiled and thanked her.
Xander guided her toward the door. "Feet should touch the floor, Will," he chided softly. "Wafting like a limp balloon is so uncool."
"Oh, and I suppose you've never wafted?" she countered as they exited.
Jim and Blair exchanged grins. "Interesting troops you have," Blair commented.
"Yes," Giles agreed, "and yet we do surprisingly well considering the opposition."
Jim had to agree - all his military and police training had been rendered useless by a single lung full of terminated vampire. It wasn't an auspicious beginning to his slaying career, if indeed he was going to have a slaying career while in Sunnydale. In truth, he didn't care to see another vampire ever again, but the thought of leaving the city while some undefined threat loomed over him was even more distasteful. And while he was in the area, if he could help lessen the burden of responsibility on the young shoulders of the Slayer, he knew he had to do it.
Gratefully, he realized he was experiencing only a minor reaction to the histamine blockers - a mild headache and some rather funny flashes of light at the periphery of his vision.
As if reading his mind, Giles asked, "How are the pills working?"
Blair jumped on the question like a pit bull on a chihuahua. "What pills?" he demanded.
Jim held up a placating hand. "I thought I'd try some histamine blockers," he explained calmly. "They seem to be working."
"Really?" Blair forgot his anger at this potentially positive news. "No side effects?"
"Some, but nothing nearly as bad as the cold medicine," Jim assured him. "If this works, I might actually be useful if we run into any trouble tonight." Even making excuses, he couldn't bring himself to say vampire again. Talk about living in denial!
"If you're done reading, we should really start for the site," Giles said apologetically.
"Not without me," Buffy said from behind him, having entered in time to hear his statement.
"You've missed quite enough class without this little field trip," Giles pointed out calmly.
"What if you get into trouble?"
Jim smiled slightly. "Daylight troubles I think we can handle," he replied.
"Besides, who's always complaining about not having a normal life?" Giles continued.
"I meant a normal social life," Buffy retorted, "not a normal academic life." She sighed, recognizing defeat. "OK, but if you're not back after my last class, I'm coming after you."
"Frankly, I wouldn't have it any other way," Giles assured her, "but just how do you intend doing that?"
She smiled smugly. "I took Mom's car keys."
Giles was aghast. "You didn't drive to school, did you?"
"Not," Buffy assured him, amazed he even had to ask. "It's for emergencies only."
This logic defeated Giles, who just threw up his hands in despair. "You really are getting far too independent for your own good," he observed at last, giving his guests from Cascade an expression that clearly read you-see-what-I-have-to-put-up-with?
Jim smiled in perfect understanding; he frequently wore the same expression himself when dealing with his partner.
It was another glorious California day, and Jim leaned back in his seat to enjoy it. Thoughts of vampires, demons, and evil spirits disappeared in the brilliant sunshine. As long as he didn't think about last night too much, he could almost convince himself he was just working on another case, a case of Blair's temporary insanity. Almost.
Giles drove very slowly along the rutted dirt track leading to the trailhead. After all, his Citroen might have been old, but it still served him well (most of the time), and he had no desire to abuse it unnecessarily. As it was, the shocks and springs groaned as the wheels rolled through the ruts and holes.
There were no other vehicles at the end of the road.
"Jim, there should be at least two trucks here, maybe three," Blair said anxiously, concern for Dana and her students evident in his voice.
"I know our local contingent planned to stay away today," Giles said. "The school is giving the freshman class an aptitude test, and Blu would not have been excused from taking it. Mr. Blake is probably administering the science portion of the test." He switched off the engine and tried to convince his mind that the incessant rocking motion of the car had stopped.
"Let's check it out," Jim said, knowing it was pointless wondering where the rest of the group had gone. Perhaps there was a simple explanation, perhaps not. Either way, sitting in the car wasn't getting the job done.
Blair led them up the trail to the camp. Everything was as he'd last seen it, except no one was in residence. At least there weren't any indications of violence; for one horrible moment, he'd imagined vampires descending on the little group during the night and leaving only exsanguinated corpses behind.
"Come on," he urged the others. "I think I can find the site again."
He dashed up the rugged game trail, the others close behind him. He slowed after a bit, looking for the place where Dana had left the path, and there had been enough activity in the area that he had no trouble finding it. Instead of coming out on the small ledge where he had first overlooked the site, he stumbled directly into the clearing and stopped.
There was no one here, either. It was as if the archaeological team had simply disappeared.
"If they vanished, their trucks vanished with them," Jim pointed out logically. "They've probably just taken the day off or something."
"I hope you're right," Blair agreed. At least he was assured nothing bad had happened here. The site looked exactly as he'd last seen it.
Jim looked around, his expression grim. "This place gives me the creeps," he commented quietly.
"Me, too," Blair agreed.
"No, I mean this place really gives me the creeps."
Giles was intrigued. "Do you also have a heightened sixth sense?" he asked curiously.
"He does," Blair confirmed with a grin.
Jim grimaced. "I prefer to call it good instincts," he contradicted, "but if you guys can't feel how evil this place is, I may have to change my opinion."
Blair walked into the clearing, careful to keep clear of the areas marked off with twine. He could see where the others had walked and kept to their path, and he instructed the others to do the same.
Jim, however, didn't move from the edge of the clearing. Blair looked at him with a frown. "You really do feel something, don't you?" he asked. Not surprisingly, he felt the same undefined sense of unease he'd felt the day before, when he'd first laid eyes on the site, but it was nothing compared to what Jim seemed to be feeling.
"Absolutely," Jim answered. "Whatever went on here was not good magic, Chief. It's like even the dirt was contaminated with bad vibes."
"Can you focus in on any particular spot?" Blair asked. "Does one area feel 'hotter' with bad vibes than another?"
Jim sighed. Somehow, he should have known this was going to happen; Blair just couldn't keep from experimenting. Although, maybe in this instance, it was justified. Whatever doubts he'd had about his partner's bizarre experience in the cave were gone now. He was convinced there was something truly evil here. Reaching outward with his senses, he allowed his eyes to drift aimlessly over the surface of the ground. When he finally saw something, it really did look like a 'hot spot'.
He pointed to an area just outside the excavation. "There."
Blair went to the spot and crouched down. With his fingers, he dug through the soft top-layer of forest floor, sifting deeper and deeper through the decayed organic matter until he'd dug down about a foot. "I think someone was here already," he said at last. "Someone used a shovel to dig a hole in the compacted dirt beneath the top cover."
"Some sort of powerful talisman?" Giles contemplated aloud.
"Dana found a lot of religious artifacts," Blair answered, "but whoever dug here probably wasn't a professional."
"And there's no way to tell how long ago the hole was dug," Giles said, discouraged.
"Recently," Jim speculated. "Whatever was taken might have been the catalyst that started all the fuss - finding the site, excavating it, opening the cave, everything."
"The kid, Blu?" Blair said. "He's the one who reported the site. I was always curious why a kid so obviously out of shape would have wandered over such a rugged trail to find this place."
Jim shook his head in bemusement. "So a fat freshman wanders in here and what? - gets possessed or something?" It sounded absurd the derisive way he said it.
Further speculation was interrupted by a sudden gust of wind that swayed the tops of the redwoods. All three looked skyward, and the gust returned from the opposite direction, moaning through the branches.
Blair stood up. "This is definitely weird."
The little clearing went silent for a long moment, and then the wind whipped through again, much lower now, stirring up dirt and fallen leaves, sweeping small pebbles and branches into its vortex as it roared like a defiant dragon.
"Get down!" Jim shouted urgently, throwing himself flat.
Giles lost his balance and fell into one of the shallower excavation holes. The wind-driven particles smashed into his face, and he closed his eyes tightly and covered his head with his arms to keep from being blinded.
Blair dove toward the ground, but a stronger gust lifted him and drove him toward the edge of the chasm dividing the clearing. Realizing what was about to happen, he tried to jump out of the way, but it was as if a strong hand were guiding him to the widest point of the break. Helplessly, he toppled over the edge and plummeted downward, his hands scrabbling uselessly at the edges and bringing an avalanche of topsoil down on top of him. His last thought was regret that he hadn't asked Dana just how deep the fissure was...
As quickly as it had started, the wind died. Jim was on his feet in an instant, rubbing at his eyes to clear away the grit, desperate only to see the aftermath of the bizarre attack and not concerned with potential injury to his vision. Giles, covered in a heavy layer of leaves and grit, rose from his concealment, shedding dirt. There was no sign of Blair.
"Sandburg!" Jim shouted, forcing himself to enter the clearing despite the evil he could feel radiating from the ground around him. There was no answer.
It was only when he saw the fissure that he realized what must have happened.
As he approached the edge, the soft topsoil was disturbed, and some of it slid over the edge. Falling to his chest, he crawled forward, shifting as little dirt as possible, until he could peer over the side. Below, no more than nine or ten feet, he could see the upper portion of Blair's body. The lower portion was either pinned by the fissure or buried in dirt, Jim couldn't be sure. All he was certain of was that Blair wasn't moving.
"Is he all right?" Giles asked anxiously from behind him.
"He's unconscious," Jim reported grimly. "We need to clear some of this top soil back so it doesn't fall in and bury him. And we need a rope."
"I'll go back to the camp and see what I can find," Giles said. "You start clearing back the dirt."
On to the final part