Continued from Part 4D.
Part 4E: Colder Than the Khyber Pass
Damn, this is cold. I swear this is colder than Khyber Pass.
The fact that Xander could make the comparison, let alone know what a ‘Khyber Pass’ was, where it was, and what it looked like since he spent some time there dodging demons while trying to avoid sparking an international incident under the combined glares of both the Indian and Pakistani army, said a lot about his life.
The entire scene of quietly consulting Slayers was bathed in the bright halogen headlights of the Council house’s SUV. They had angled it as best they could so that the light was centered on the storage bay’s side door. Much as Xander wanted to believe that it would be enough to keep the monsters inside, he wasn’t willing to bet on it. If the Rwandan demons had any sense of self-preservation or any ability to strategize, Xander had an awful feeling that the monsters might take their chances.
“All right, gentlemen,” LaTisha’s voice snapped at the other Slayers. “Settle it down over there. I want a weapons-check. I’m about to do an inspection and I expect to see flashlights working and hands triple-wrapped in mittens. I want those fingers nimble and ready to squeeze, men.”
“I hate it when they say things like that,” Harold grumbled from his blind side.
Xander grinned, but didn’t look at him. “You’re new, aren’t you?”
“It isn’t the words,” Harold quickly backtracked. He obviously had expected Xander to agree with him, probably because they were the only two people in the war party with a penis. “It’s the way they say it.”
Xander leaned to his right and said to Bernie. “Really, really new.”
“Was cleared for field work four months ago,” Bernie said with a poker-straight face.
Harold apparently didn’t know when to quit. “The way they call each other ‘gentlemen’ and ‘men’ is insulting. It’s the way some people, men you understand, call each other—’”
“Ladies? Like the big tough Marines do in all the war movies?” Xander innocently asked as he turned his head so Harold was in his field of vision. It had all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, Xander knew, but what the hell. He needed to get his mind off what was coming and picking on Harold was as good a way to do it as any.
Harold finally got the hint and sputtered. “What I meant was that they say it as if men were the fairer sex incapable of holding their own in battle. Not that I would say that women, women who aren’t Slayers you understand, can’t fight as well as any man. It’s the sweeping statements the Slayers—”
Xander couldn’t resist. He threw an arm around Harold, leaned in, and whispered. “Hate to break to you Harry ol’ bean, but compared to them?” Xander jerked his chin toward the four Slayers going through their final check for emphasis. “We are the weaker sex.”
Bernie snorted a half-laugh while Harold gave him the kind of look that would curdle milk.
Xander removed his arm, straightened up, and added with a wicked grin. “Good thing they kind of like us, hunh?”
“Yes, indeed,” Bernie agreed. “I often feel cherished. Like family, honestly.”
Xander glanced at Bernie and bit back a laugh. “I was thinking more like a pet, but okay.”
“Ahhh, pet is a much better word,” Bernie nodded. “But I feel that we should qualify it as ‘intelligent pet.’ Much more accurate than simply ‘pet,’ don’t you agree?”
“Absolutely. They’d be lost if we didn’t fetch them their information, their books, their weapons, their newspaper, their slippers…” Xander dreamily trailed off.
“Are you two finished?” Harold asked.
The question, and the annoyed tone with which it had been delivered, cracked up Bernie and Xander. They were soon hanging off each other as they helplessly giggled.
“Good grief,” Harold grumbled.
LaTisha trotted over to them with Terri, Helen, and Kristin trailing behind her. “One more review of the plan and we’re ready.”
Xander clapped his gloved hands. “Right. Everyone remember what the key thing is that we all need to do?”
“Make sure that we keep the door to the storage bay shut at all costs,” the Slayers chorused.
“I know we’ve got the side door bathed in halogen light, but I’d rather not take chances. So open it just long enough to get in and get out. I can’t stress this enough: do not rely on the light to stop them from escaping. These things travel above ground in the dark, so if they can get beyond the wall o’ light, we’re going to lose them,” Xander said. “Also, don’t be fooled by the flowing motion they have when they move, because they move faster than you think. The last thing we need is for any of these things to around us to the outside. Once they reach bare ground they’ll burrow right down and we’ll never find them. Since we have a pretty good idea that they’re not being as picky about their food as they would be in their native environment, we can’t take a chance. Once they’re free, they’ll be able to move underground and pop up anywhere. By the time you’d hear of an attack, it’ll be over and you’ll have a dead body, maybe even several dead bodies, on your hands.”
The Slayers nodded at various points during his reinforcement. They were taking this point very seriously. Good.
“Now, the order of attack again,” Xander said as he rubbed his gloved hands in an effort to keep the blood flowing through them. “Terri will lead the attack and go for the closest demon first. She scored high, so I’m hoping she’ll make the fastest kill. If there’s a second demon, Helen will go to the next one in line. If there’s a third, Kristin. LaTisha? I don’t want you going after any demons unless there’s a fourth in there. If something goes wrong, we’re going to need a cool head and tag, you’re it. Bernie, Harold, and I will be wielding flashlights. If there aren’t enough demons to go around, the free Slayers are going to be wielding flashlights with us. We need to keep them boxed up as much as possible. And remember guys, if they do catch one of us by the toe, you're going to get hit with flashes on someone else's memories while you're still inside them. If that happens, you're going to be disoriented after you kill the demon because you'll be trying to sort out what memories are yours and what aren't. It might be a lot to ask, but if you find yourself with memories that aren't yours, try to get out of the storage bay as fast as you can as soon as you're done getting your Slay on. Are we clear?”
The Slayers nodded.
Xander drew in a deep breath. This was the part that made him really nervous. “There’s also been a slight change in plans. It occurs to me that it just might be better if instead of rushing in, we send in a scout to do a demon headcount.”
There was a slight buzz of movement as he Slayers exchanged glances. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Bernie glaring at him. She had ixnayed his proposal when he made it in private because it exposed him to attack. By ignoring her objections and putting this part of the plan directly in front of the Slayers, he knew he had put her in a tight spot. She’d either have to accept this bit of rebellion from him, or she’d have to publicly countermand him in front of the Slayers. A countermand would shake the Slayers’ faith in his abilities, could cause confusion, and could potentially throw the young women off their game.
Given the drawbacks of a direct confrontation, Xander was counting on Bernie letting it slide before the fight in favor of taking it out of his hide later.
“I know we initially were going to go for hitting the demons fast and hard, but it’s safer to know how many demons were up against before running in there with flashlights out,” Xander continued.
“Who’s going in?” Terri asked with folded arms.
“I am,” Xander said. “I’m the best choice. I actually know what they look like in the flesh, so to speak, as opposed to seeing drawings and grainy screen shots from video cameras. Even with those glowing blue eyes of theirs, they can be hard to see, especially in the low-light conditions we’ve got here. Also, they may look like shadows, but you can’t see through them. So, you could look in there and think there are only two of those things floating around, when really there are three because one is standing behind the others. I’m going in, doing a very quick headcount, and then I’m out of there. Understood?”
The Slayers nodded.
“Everyone to your corners,” Bernie said. “Mr. Harris, I believe we should consult about this change.”
Whoops. A slight miscalculation, Xander thought with chagrin. Bernie was furious. If the tone of voice wasn’t enough to tip him off, then the ‘Mr. Harris’ surely did.
Berne grabbed his right arm and yanked. He was forced to follow her as she determinedly paced a few steps away. His other option was to get into a tug-of-war match if he wanted to stay in one place.
As soon as they moved some distance away, Bernie whirled on him. “I believe I made my reasons clear for why we should not send anyone into that storage bay alone,” she said in a low, angry voice.
“Going in blind is a bad idea,” Xander quietly protested.
“You’re both right.”
LaTisha’s voice caused the two of them to jump.
The Slayer strode into Xander’s field of vision and stood there with crossed arms. “The original plan of running in blind made me nervous, although I could see why we might want to do it that way. One person alone will probably get toasted, so better if someone goes in with a partner. I’d feel better if we knew exactly how many we were up against, that way I won’t have to waste time shouting orders after we get in there.”
Xander nodded at LaTisha. “See? She agrees with me.”
“But I think you’re a really bad choice to be the scout,” LaTisha said.
“Hello? Field scout? That would be my job title, by the way. It also happens to be the job description,” Xander protested.
“And you’re the only one who knows the Emokillsus in-depth,” Bernie countered.
Xander repeated his rationalization. “Which is why I have to poke my nose in first because I actually know what—”
“We can’t afford for you to get attacked,” LaTisha interrupted.
“We can afford a Slayer getting attacked even less,” Xander argued.
“If you get attacked, and if the worst case scenario occurs, we will be bereft of your expertise. Letting you go in first is out of the question,” Bernie insisted.
“So we send in a Slayer instead? And if there are four demons in there, what then?” Xander asked.
“Unlikely based on Faith’s calculations,” Bernie said.
“Faith’s calculations based on my information,” Xander hotly responded. “For all we know that Italian spell could prevent the demons from attacking the hands that feed them, which we most definitely are not. Also — let me stress this — we don’t actually know the number of demons in there. They normally hunt in packs of three or four, not in packs of one or two.”
“Still not seeing why one of us can’t poke our nose in and count,” LaTisha grumbled. “And don’t give me the reason you’ve been repeating, because that’s a weak reason.”
“Because if there are three or four demons in there, we’re going to need all of you guys ready to go for the kill,” Xander said. “Sure, I know how to do it, but the point is I can’t do it as fast as you guys could. And what if they attack someone while we’re in there? We need speed. I want these things killed as fast as possible to cut back on the possibility of them attacking anyone or escaping. Also,” here Xander checked his watch, “Faith and the others have to be knocking on the godfather’s door by now. For all we know, some armed goons could be heading our way, so the sooner we’re done, the sooner we’re gone.”
“The risk to you is too great,” Bernie stubbornly insisted.
“The risk is too great for all of us,” Xander countered. “Besides, even if we all go in there at once, you can bet that they’ll be aiming for someone. We have no idea who they’ll judge to be the nummiest treat of us all.”
“If you go in there alone, you could get caught, which means you could end up dead,” LaTisha said.
Xander suppressed a shiver. If he wound up dead in Chicago, the level of complications that would ensue didn’t bear thinking about. That didn’t even take into account that the Council would have to haul his body back to England ASAP, which meant the potential trail of chaos could be a long one. Then there was the fact that Giles still had no idea how to safely dispose of his corpse. The one idea he and Giles had was forcefully shot down by both the Coven and Willow for what they said were ethical reasons. Right. Like letting his corpse be a centerpiece for a Hellmouth-like phenomenon was the better ethical choice.
However, despite the very firm ‘don’t you dare die’ orders he operated under, the fact was he still was the best person to do the sneak peek
“Trust me. I’m not going to die, if only because there’s four Slayers standing a few feet away ready to stop that from happening,” Xander said with more bravado than he felt. “Besides, I really doubt I’m going to get nailed. I have a flashlight, so I can hold them off for the less-than-a-minute I need. I’m not even going to let go of the door handle, so the second they get too close for comfort, I’ll be out of there so fast I’ll be a Xander-shaped blur. Believe me, ‘self’ and ‘preservation’ are my middle names.”
He could see from Bernie’s expression that he was finally winning her over, but that she was going to be serving him some choice words once they got back from to the Council house. LaTisha’s expression showed that she was still struggling with it.
“I say change your mind,” LaTisha finally said. “Send Harold in.”
“Mr. Four-Months-in-the-Field? No, I don’t think so,” Xander said. “And I’m not about to send in a Slayer, so don’t even think of volunteering one of your people. As for Bernie? Not a chance. She’s Head Watcher and we need her in one piece. So I really think that—”
“Susan had a dream about you,” LaTisha desperately interrupted.
Xander couldn’t help but smirk. “Nice try.”
“But it’s true,” LaTisha protested.
Bernie’s eyes widened. “What?”
LaTisha nervously looked over her shoulder at the other girls before stepping in closer. “Susan told me the other night. See, she didn’t say anything because she thought she was having a regular dream. When you came back from the stakeout and she saw you for the first time, she realized there was something to it.”
“Why didn’t you say something before?” Bernie said through clenched teeth.
“How about, ‘Why are you telling me this when we’re five seconds from chaos?’” Xander snarled. “You knew we were walking into danger, so if you got a warning you should’ve spoken up the second you knew about this.”
It was clear from LaTisha’s expression that she knew she was in the wrong. “But—”
“But, nothing.” Xander had to fight to keep his voice at a normal level. “Are you the Slayer boss or not? You’ve done this long enough to know better. Slayer dreams get reported. No exceptions.”
“Xander, please,” Bernie said as she placed a hand on his shoulder. “LaTisha, I best hear a good explanation for this lapse.”
“We don’t have time,” Xander said as he shook off Bernie. “LaTisha, I want it straight. What’s the nature of the danger? Keep it to that and we’ll deal with the rest of it later.”
LaTisha hunched her shoulders. “That’s just it. Susan didn’t pick up that you were in any danger. No death or dismemberment. Hell, not even a drop of blood. She said the dream was odd with a touch of menace and that was it.”
“Menace?” Bernie asked.
“Define ‘menace,’” Xander said.
“It was from some evil clown following you,” LaTisha said.
“An evil clown,” Xander repeated slowly.
“Any idea what that means?” Bernie asked him.
“Unh, I don’t know about evil clowns following me, although I can honestly say that I am not what you’d call a clown fan.”
“Would you think seeing one a bad omen?” Bernie tentatively asked.
“No. If I saw one, I’d think, ‘clown.’ Then if it got to close I’d punch it in the red rubbery nose just to be on the safe side,” Xander said.
Bernie and LaTisha frowned at him.
“I never claimed to be a deep guy,” Xander said with embarrassment.
LaTisha took a deep breath and tried again. “Do you know a man or woman by the last name of Hoffman?”
“As in ‘Dustin?’” Xander asked. “I should add here that I’m legally obligated to say that I have not, in fact, ever met Dustin Hoffman in person. I’m just using him as an example.”
LaTisha and Bernie were now staring at him.
“The confidentiality agreements and associated legal settlements say I haven’t,” Xander mumbled as he rubbed his gloved hands together to give them something to do. “There may even be a restraining order. Who told him to hire a chaos mage to do his official Web site anyway?”
LaTisha let out a breath. “So this might be something that’s already happened.”
“If I had actually met Dustin Hoffman, which I haven’t,” Xander quickly corrected her.
“We were going to tell you all about it after this was over,” LaTisha said. “All of us know that this is a situation that can spiral out of control really fast and that all of us, especially you, need to be at the top of our game. I made the call to tell you after we took out the Emokillsus. I then ran that by Susan. Her gut-check confirmed my decision.”
Xander released his breath. “I want to be very clear. Susan said I was not in any immediate danger.”
“Hardly the point,” Bernie firmly said.
Xander held up a hand to stop LaTisha from answering Bernie. They had already wasted too much time out here “Okay. Not in love with not being told about this sooner. Even less in love with the fact you told me about five seconds before I’m going to be walking in there. However, you did tell me, so that counts in your favor. The fact there’s no big, honking neon sign o’ danger hanging over my head counts even more.”
“Even though Susan seemed pretty sure you’d be okay, suddenly I’m less sure,” LaTisha said. “I wish—”
“Don’t say ‘wish,’” Xander hissed at her.
LaTisha and Bernie both backed up a step in the face of Xander’s vehemence.
“It’s a dangerous word. You have no idea how dangerous,” Xander added through clenched teeth.
“I was just going to say that if Susan were here, she might be able to get a better read on this,” LaTisha said.
“She’s not, we’ve still got demons to kill, we still don’t know how many we need to kill, and you just told me that you’re pretty sure I’m going to walk out of this in one piece,” Xander said. “I’m thinking short of an engraved letter from the future, we’re not going to get better confirmation that it’s pretty much guaranteed that I’m in no danger. So, let’s link arms, walk over to the SUV, and retrieve my flashlight so I can do a demon headcount. Or do I have to remind you that the clock may be ticking on unexpected armed-and-dangerous visitors showing up?”
Much to LaTisha’s frustration, Xander’s had managed to build a perfect brick wall against all of hers and Bernie’s protests. He was the perfect example of Grand-mère Boudreau’s saying: “That man ain’t nothin’ but pure stubborn.”
She stood next to Bernie as she watched Xander cautiously approach the side door to the storage bay. As he shined his light on the lock, her gut began to squirm as she became increasingly certain that Susan had gotten it wrong. He was not safe. There was no way he could be if he went in there alone.
Xander stood up, turned around, and waved her over.
“He’s not going in alone,” LaTisha murmured to Bernie.
“Make sure he doesn’t,” Bernie murmured back.
On that, LaTisha trotted over to Xander’s side.
“I could pick the lock,” he said quietly when she reached him. “But that would mean taking off the gloves. Assuming I could finish it before my hands froze, holding a flashlight afterwards would be pure torture.”
LaTisha studied the deadbolt and tested the handle. All it would take is a sharp pull to break the deadbolt, but too much pressure and the handle would snap off and they’d have to find a way to open the bay door that was big enough to drive a car through.
“As soon as you’re done, I want you to back off,” Xander said as he shuffled to keep warm. “If I’m not out in a minute-and-half, go in with hands set to squeeze.”
“You get a minute to demonstrate that Xander-shaped blur,” she firmly said.
He didn’t even pause at that. “Works for me.”
It was the only evidence LaTisha had that Xander was more nervous than he let on. Right there was her wedge. If she got in there first, there was no way he’d kick her out.
LaTisha pulled on the door handle and she heard the bolt give away with a satisfying snap. She was about to pull open the door when Xander put his hand over hers and ordered, “After you open it, back up and be ready to go in on my mark.”
“Wrong,” she said as she pulled open the door and quickly darted through the opening.
Behind her, she heard Xander’s frustrated, “Damn it.”
She stopped herself after a half-dozen steps; just short of the where the inky blackness began. The light from the SUV’s headlights sliced into the space at sharp angle. It served to illuminate her breath in a tantalizing manner, but not much else. She was about to brave the darkness, thinking she’d see better without the headlights interfering with her night vision, when all light was cut off with a metallic slam. She spun around and found herself staring into flashlight.
“I said keep the door shut,” Xander growled. “Get behind me.”
She thrust her chin forward. “Stay behind me.”
“We do not have time for this,” Xander grumbled as he swung his flashlight forward. “We need to back up because we’re too far from the door. There. I see one eye.”
LaTisha spun back around. “I don’t—”
“If you’re staying, try being useful. Turn on your flashlight.”
LaTisha yanked her three layers of mittens off her right hand with her teeth and then fumbled for the flashlight hanging from her wrist by a strap. She kept her eyes trained along the beam of Xander’s flashlight. For a brief second, she saw the flash of something — like a whisper of a shadow — flashing though the beam of light, but it was gone so quickly that she wasn’t entirely sure she had seen it.
“I can only see one eye, but I know that’s not right,” Xander muttered as he took a step to the left.
“I don’t see anything,” LaTisha said as she snapped on her light.
“Look above the beams. You should see the one eye,” Xander calmly replied. “It’s hanging back from the light. That’s good.”
“Shouldn’t we be shining the light in their eyes to blind them?” she asked.
“Doesn’t do any good.” Xander added in a distracted manner. “The eye on the one I see isn’t as bright as usual. I don’t know what that means, but we should definitely report it when this is over.”
LaTisha finally spotted the eye Xander was going on and on about. Based on Terri’s description, she expected a bright blue eye, not a shade that was dirty-dull. It was only then that she realized that the area around it managed to be darker than the already pitch-black interior.
“See just one,” she said. “Probably the same one you see.”
Xander shuffled again to the left, as if he were trying to get a better angle “I know that can’t be right. C’mon you bastards. I know you’re lurking behind your buddy.”
As soon as LaTisha wondered what he was doing, she remembered that Xander’s left eye was fake. He was probably trying to widen his field of vision. Not a bad idea, even if it meant they’d be drifting away from the door and each other. She mirrored his move and drifted to the right, hoping to spot a second and third dirty-dull blue eye.
As she slowly eased her way to the right, LaTisha got the sense of a shadow playing just out of reach of her flashlight beam. Considering how bright the halogen flashlights were, it was surprising that the interior of the storage bay wasn’t lit up. If she didn’t know any better, she’d think something had put a damper on the lights. She was about to ask Xander if the Emokillsus could do that, when a hard shiver momentarily froze her. As soon as it passed, she realized that the feeling was akin to someone walking over her grave.
“Fuck! It’s moving!” Xander yelled as he suddenly lurched back to right.
It bypassed me to get at him, LaTisha realized with a start. Believing that the Emokillsus already had Xander in its shadowy tentacles, LaTisha operated on pure instinct and lurched to him. Somehow, don’t ask her how, but Xander managed to not only reach her, but grab a handful of coat.
“Only one,” he tersely said. “Move!” And with that, she was thrown off balance as he used his leverage to shove her hard toward the door.
LaTisha spun around and attempted to shine the flashlight where she last saw the eye. Maybe with a wide enough sweep she could keep the tentacles away, grab Xander, and they could both get the hell out of here.
In the crazy flash of her wildly searching beam, she saw a flash of Xander’s profile. He looked over his shoulder and yelled. “Door! Now! We need—” He interrupted whatever he was about to say in favor of letting loose loud howl. The flashlight fell from his gloved hands as he charged beyond its light at God knows what.
It’s got him. It’s got him. Oh, shit. Oh, shit. Oh, shit…
LaTisha spun around and shot for where she thought the door was. Now that the flashlight was pointing away from the demon, the light was furiously bright and she was able to reach the door as easily as if the scene had been bathed in sunlight. Even though she was only a half-dozen steps away, Xander’s howl fell silent and she heard the sound of a body falling to the floor by the time she yanked open the door.
She yanked open the door and screamed, “Terri! Only one! Get in here now!”
She spun back around as she tried to remember the best place to stand. Xander said he had put up a wall of light between demon and victim, so that probably meant she should get herself between Xander and the Emokillsus. If she remembered right, she also recalled Xander saying something about how it wouldn’t go after anyone else until it was done killing him.
She did a quick sweep with her light before she finally found Xander lying twisted up on the floor with his mouth open in a silent scream. The shadowy tentacles seemed to be brushing around his body, as if testing for the softest spot for those tentacles to plunge into him. She was already moving when Terri burst into the space, followed her illuminating backup.
The strength of four more halogen flashlights lifted the smothering gloom that had earlier swallowed the power of two and LaTisha finally got her first full look at an Emokillsus.
Oh. My. God, she thought as she skidded to an uncertain stop on the wrong side of Xander. However, her mouth shouted orders on automatic. “Terri! Go for the dirty blue eye and dive in under it! Rest of you, line up on me! We’re forming a wall between Harris and that thing.”
Harold came to a dead stop next to her as he stared at what appeared to be an octopus made of nothing more than wisps of black smoke. “How on earth are we supposed to fight that?”
“With light,” LaTisha said shortly as she grabbed his arm and urged him to step around Xander’s twisting body so she could set up her Maginot Line. Harold was too busy staring to do more than follow her physical prompting and they were soon set up between monster and man. Bernie slotted herself to LaTisha’s right. Kristin and Helen took up the spaces to Bernie’s left.
Terri darted past them, ripping off her mittens as she went. She tripped a few times as writhing, insubstantial tentacles passed through her. LaTisha didn’t blame her. The shadows brushed around and through her and Harold as they moved to stand between Xander and the demon. The shiver that went through her frame every time contact was made seemed to be two-parts damp cold and one-part fear.
“Keep those lights centered on the demon! Make it back up some!” LaTisha shouted.
When Terri reached the demon’s side, she bowed her head like she was a charging bull and dove forward. She disappeared from view as the demon’s inky black shadow seemingly swallowed her whole.
The demon, for its part, did appear to be flowing backwards in an effort to put some distance between it and the line of flashlights. At this point, however, the interior of the storage bay was so flooded with light that whatever the demon had done earlier to dampen the power of hers and Xander’s flashlight beams seemed to have been effectively counteracted by overwhelming numbers. Suddenly, Xander’s 4 flashlights-to-1 demon scenario looked like good advice instead of the overkill she thought it was. Yet, despite the overwhelming light and their overwhelming numbers, the demon’s tentacles continued to flow around them, as if it was desperate to get as much as it could out of Xander’s writhing body behind them, halogen light be damned.
The most unsettling thing about this whole battle was that both the demon and Xander were completely silent. The only noise seemed to come from her chattering teeth.
“We need to get him out of here,” Helen shouted.
“Until that thing backs off we can’t,” LaTisha shouted back.
“The demon must be the one to withdraw first, either under its own power or because it’s dead.” Bernie shouted the explanation. “Removing Xander forcibly while the demon is engaged increases the chances of permanent mental trauma.”
LaTisha wondered why they were yelling. They could easily talk in a normal tone of voice and still be heard. It was almost as if they needed to yell, if only so it would actually feel like they were engaged in a battle instead of standing around, holding flashlights, and waiting for someone or something to die.
Kristin looked over her shoulder at Xander before looking around Harold at Bernie. Kristin obviously was thinking along the same lines as LaTisha because she kept her voice out of the non-shouting range. “Mental trauma, hunh? Is that worse than being dead?”
“She has a point,” Harold said.
The demon shifted and Terri suddenly popped back into sight. She stumbled slightly and shook her head as if she were trying to clear it.
LaTisha shouted over to her. “Terri! You need someone to—”
“I’m good!” Terri yelled back. She flashed a thumb’s up and dove back inside.
LaTisha ground her teeth in frustration. Clearly Terri was having a hard time of it. How many minutes had Xander been under assault? She had no idea. All she knew was that she had a hard deadline of 8 minutes, give or take, before he was dead.
“All right, everyone,” she began as she fought to keep her voice at a normal speaking level, “we’re going to start moving forward so we can force it back from Harris. Helen, I want you to break ranks and lay your hands on Harris. The second those tentacles pull away I want you dragging him the hell out of here. Got it?”
Helen cautiously moved out of the line. She left her flashlight shining on the demon as she did so.
“I still say pull him away now and take our chances. If we don’t manage to kill or drive off the beast, he’ll be dead,” Harold mumbled.
LaTisha shot him an irritated look. She hated that he had a point. “Helen, a little additional. If that thing doesn’t back off in four minutes, grab and run.”
“Got it,” Helen muttered as she crouched next to Harris’s twisting body.
“Right. Let’s step it up, people,” LaTisha ordered. “On the count of three, we take one big step forward in unison. One. Two. Thr—”
The shadowy demon disappeared and revealed a befuddled-looking Terri standing in front of them with something that looked like a large, flesh-colored snake squished in her hands.
“We’re having a talk about vampires…” Xander’s dead-sounding voice began. “You think I’m the hero of this piece…right where we left her in her coffin...”
“Oh, dear Lord,” Bernie said in a whisper.
LaTisha’s stomach clenched, but she didn’t dare turn around. All his deep, dark, painful secrets were spilling out of his mouth where anyone could hear. Maybe she could deal with it if there was just even a hint of emotion in his voice, but there was something so horrible about the lack of inflection that made her want to cover her ears.
Terri suddenly dropped to her knees as the dead demon fell from her hands.
“Things don’t just happen…” Xander said. “Thought you might need a friend…”
LaTisha, Bernie, and Harold jumped forward at the same time to get to Terri.
“Helen, get him the hell out of here,” LaTisha ordered as she raced to her friend’s side.
“Everyone’s dying around me…” Xander said.
Even though he was talking in an even tone, LaTisha winced as if he was screaming and the gibberish was bouncing off the metal interior of the room. She hunkered down next to Terri, who was shaking her head slowly as if she were trying to clear it.
“Are you okay?” Harold asked as he crouched down on the other side of Terri.
“We’re buds…don’t you remember…that’s a plus…” Xander said.
“Yo, girlfriend, you with us?” LaTisha asked Terri.
“Helen, get Xander out of here,” Bernie ordered. She sounded as unnerved as LaTisha felt. “Kristin, help her lift and carry him to the SUV.”
“But, Terri—” Kristin began.
“I don’t want that…just tell me about your friend…” Xander said.
“I’m okay,” Terri said in a loud, shaky voice. “Just a little…I need to sit.”
“You are sitting,” Harold pointed out.
“It wasn’t you I was hating…” Xander said.
“Get him out of here now!” LaTisha barked. “And call the doc and tell him to be on standby. We’re coming in hot.”
“Guess who just got mean…” Xander said.
“Ooowwww,” Terri whispered with a shiver. “Headache.”
“Sorry,” LaTisha said as she slung and arm around Terri’s shoulders.
“I’ve been lucky too many times…” Xander said.
Not this time, LaTisha thought grimly as she looked over her shoulder, just in time to see Helen and Kristin get Xander into position so they could carry get him out of the bay using the fore-and-aft carrying method.
Terri began to shiver harder. “My hands are cold.”
“If you’re so unhappy…” Xander said.
“I’ll see if I can find your mittens,” Harold volunteered. As soon as he left, Bernie immediately took his place.
“I just want it to stop…I can’t stay…they keep following me…” Xander said as he was carried out.
“Terri?” LaTisha tentatively asked. “You’re not looking so hot. You sure you didn’t get zapped while you were in there?”
Terri slowly turned her face to LaTisha. Her eyes were haunted and her lower lip was trembling. “I saw.”
“Saw what?” LaTisha asked.
“Xander’s memories, no doubt,” Bernie said. “He did warn us that those who go inside the shadow to kill the demons would get ‘flashes’ of the victim’s memories.”
Terri winced and shook her head. “Who’s Dee Hofferin?”
LaTisha and Bernie exchanged glances over Terri’s head.
“No, no. That’s not right,” Terri mumbled as she rocked back and forth. “I meant ‘what.’ What is Dee Hofferin?”
“Do you mean D’Hoffryn?” Bernie sharply asked.
LaTisha’s jaw dropped open. Hoffman, Dee Hofferin, D’Hoffryn. I think we have a loser. Where have I heard that name before?
Terri slowly swiveled her head until she was looking at Bernie. “D’Hoffryn?” she uncertainly asked.
“Is that the name you heard?” Bernie asked with intensity.
Terri slowly nodded as she turned her thousand-mile stare to the wall in front of her. “D’Hoffryn. Yes. That’s the name.”
“Vengeance demon,” Bernie whispered.
“Are you kidding?” LaTisha said. “Wasn’t Harris’s dead ex an ex-vengeance demon?”
“He can’t stop. All gold turns into straw and dust in the end,” Terri muttered.
LaTisha couldn’t help it. She turned her head and stared at the open door. Her breath puffed in the cold, as she willed her heartbeat to slow down. Susan said Dream Harris’s evil clown had shouted something like that after Susan had tried to attack it. What was it? There was also something about gold turning into straw and dust, but I never could make that one out. That’s right. That’s what she said.
Terri shook herself. “Sorry. I don’t feel so hot. I have a headache from…Xander forgot to mention that. The headache. After, I mean. This D’Hoffryn is bad news. Very bad.”
“Understating the case, I think. D’Hoffryn isn’t just any vengeance demon. He’s the leader of that particular accursed tribe,” Bernie said with venom. “He’s quite a powerful demon. His minions travel this plane of existence, but he doesn’t often do it himself, unless he’s recruiting another hapless girl to do his bidding and wield the power of the wish.”
“That’s where I’ve heard the name. Anya’s ex-boss,” LaTisha muttered. “Sonuvabitch, Andy. You got that one dead right.”
“Harris pissed him off. The D’Hoffryn guy,” Terri said.
“Dear, Lord,” Bernie prayed. “It’s a wonder the man is still alive.”
A curse? LaTisha wondered. Nah. Couldn’t be. Given Harris’s reaction to the word ‘wish’ before they walked into this mess, LaTisha couldn’t imagine Harris messing up, making a wish, and then ending up with a monkey’s paw clutched in his hands. It just didn’t track.
Harold reappeared holding four of Terri’s mittens. “I wasn’t able to find all six. You’ll only have two layers instead the three you came in with.”
Unless Harris wasn’t the one that made the wish, but instead was the guy who was at the wrong end of one, LaTisha realized.
But if Harris is cursed, wouldn’t someone know? LaTisha wondered as she snatched the mittens away form Harold and begin putting them on Terri’s hands.
“You’re welcome,” Harold said with rolled eyes.
Of course they’d know. It’d be an open secret, LaTisha thought. It’s gossip you’d be in on if you’re high enough up in the food chain, but probably wouldn’t filter down to our level.
“Thanks,” Terri said to LaTisha as she carefully flexed her hands inside the mittens. “We’ll have to burn these later. Right now, I just want my hands to get warm.”
Your friends haven’t seen with their ears yet.
Son of a bitch. Son. Of. A. Bitch. It was starting to fall into place. Harris had seen this demon before, so whatever was going on with him might not be in force here and now for whatever reason. When Susan tried to get information, Dream Harris said he wouldn’t willingly tell them anything. But, if they could “see with their ears” they’d get the right puzzle pieces to figure out the whole story. It was then, and only then, they’d be able to smash that stupid evil clown.
Susan’s dream set this up! I’ve got to go now, LaTisha desperately thought as she hopped to her feet. “I better go check on Harris,” she said aloud to the others. “Terri, I hate to rush you, but—”
“Yes, we need to leave as quickly as possible,” Bernie agreed.
“Give me a few secs,” Terri said. "Everything in my head's all scrambled."
“Right. I’ll be in the back of the SUV with Harris,” LaTisha answered as she raced from the storage bay.
As soon as she broke into the open, LaTisha forced herself to slow down so she could get a good read of the scene. Although she expected that Xander would’ve already been hauled into the back of the SUV and made as comfortable as possible, she was surprised to see that Kristen was pacing around outside with her head down.
“Harris,” LaTisha barked as she closed the distance at a jog.
Kristin’s head shot up and she regarded LaTisha with wide, nervous-looking eyes. “In the back on the cargo floor. I couldn’t — it was — I —”
LaTisha stopped and regarded her with alarm. “You call ahead to the doc?”
“Yeah, I did like you said,” Kristen said. “Where is everyone? We need to get him—”
“I’m going into the back with Harris,” LaTisha interrupted. “I want you to open all the passenger doors and get your ass in a seat. We’re leaving skid marks as soon as we can.”
Kristin shook her head. “Yeah, okay. Unh, sorry, but I just couldn’t stand listening—”
“Move girl,” LaTisha snapped as she yanked open the rear passenger side door. As she hauled herself inside, she could hear Xander’s dead voice continuing with his broken soliloquy.
“This isn’t real…if you want a life take mine…”
The third row of seats was down and Xander was on his back staring empty-eyed at the SUV’s ceiling. He was already covered with the SUV’s emergency blanket and Helen’s coat was off and folded underneath his head to serve as a temporary pillow.
As for Helen — Helen who played up the “selfish angle” so often that LaTisha believed it; Helen who constantly joked that it was a good thing she got paid to be a Slayer because there was no way she’d do it for free — she was holding Xander’s hand and gently brushing his hair off his forehead as if hoping that it could offer some kind of comfort.
“Take my life please…” Xander said.
As LaTisha clumsily clambered over the seat to get into cargo area, Helen looked up with a worried frown. “I don’t know what to do,” she helplessly said.
“Shhhh. It’s okay. You’re doing great,” LaTisha said as she settled herself on the other side of Xander.
“Follow me the rest of your life...” Xander said. “This is my life not yours...”
“Nothing I do seems to work,” Helen said. “But I can’t just leave him alone because it’s not—”
“Shhhhh. Listen,” LaTisha said as she held out a hand to Helen and stared into Xander’s face.
“She nearly died protecting me…Willow, my window has been stuck at a week for…let it go Buffy… ” Xander said.
“I don’t think we should. Listen I mean,” Helen said. “It’s, unh, rude. I’ve already heard a lot that I probably shouldn’t have.”
“What do you want Rona…Buffy let it go it’s just talk…cold cold cold…what are you doing Vi...” Xander said.
“We have to listen,” LaTisha said. “Start seeing with your ears, girl.”
“But—” Helen began.
“It could save his life down the road,” LaTisha tersely said.
Helen’s mouth snapped shut as she regarded LaTisha with alarm.
“I’m not going to let you win…maybe that security guard couldn’t either…there has to be something good in this…it’s not over…” Xander said.
“Susan had a dream,” LaTisha clarified as she leaned closer. “Now listen.”
“This isn’t a joke…I’m flattered but I don’t feel…all because I said no to Vi…I’m running out of room…disease with me…” Xander said. “You let that thing touch you…I don’t want to know any of this...”
LaTisha could hear the beginnings of a conversation between Bernie and Kristin outside. She resisted the temptation to glance over her shoulder to see how Terri was doing as the other Slayer crossed the space between the storage unit and the SUV.
“There’s blood everywhere…I can’t do this any…of course D’Hoffryn doesn’t care…”
LaTisha sucked in a breath as soon as she heard the name. “C’mon, Harris. Tell me what’s going down with you,” she muttered.
“Kristin, help Terri get in,” Bernie’s voice snapped. “Harold, you drive. I’ll be on the phone telling the medic our ETA.”
“Another dimension is the only… I’m the black cat…” Xander said. “Don’t tell me you can’t…you did it to Olaf…”
C’mon. Give me something I can use, LaTisha silently prayed.
LaTisha leaned closer to Xander as bodies piled into the passenger cabin. She didn’t look up. She didn’t say anything to the others. All of her attention was focused on the one person who didn't even know she was there.
“Terri, keep it together,” Kristin said.
“Tell me the truth…” Xander said. “I don’t know Anya…”
“’M fine,” Terri muttered. “Headache.”
“The only gold I’ve got…” Xander said. “It’s the fricken doctors…”
“We have to go now,” Bernie snapped.
As the SUV’s engine sputtered to life, Xander said, “Would it be easier if I were dead…”