It's nice to know that I'm not the only one irritated by insistent bitterness about BtVS/AtS after the fact. But then, I kinda knew that judging by how all of you guys strike me as being in the same mindset.
*waves to new friends and lurkers*
Hello, all. One thing you might notice is that I occassionally suck about responding to comments. For that, I deeply apologize. Comes from having waaaaay too hectic a RL and gnoshing on interesting writing challenges. I'm trying to do better. I just want you to know that I deeply appreciate the time and effort you give from FBing here and on Fan Fiction Dot Net, even if I don't always get a chance to respond.
Right now, I'm working on polishing up a new part of Living History and I have to tackle my Faith-Xander piece for ship_manifesto </span>and I'll try to respond to the all the responses for my rant sometime tonight. *wheeee*
So much for going to bed early.
Anyway, the usual riff:
Up to part 58 can be found here
Continued from here
Since the separate parts in this are actually somewhat short (and because I feel hella guilty about sucking on answering comments and want to at least try to clean some of the delayed responses this week), all of Part 59 is here in one go.
Hope you like...
“Crap. Crap. Crap. Crap.”
The sounds of fighting echoed and bounced off the cavern walls, encircling one very muddy, tired, and annoyed Slayer.
Buffy glared at some of the smaller tunnels branching off from her current path. She was pretty sure she remembered Willow saying that the largest cave was the main one and would take her to the grail’s location. The problem was that Dawn and Xander could be anywhere down here.
Okay. Think. What do I actually know? Buffy winced. Maybe stopping to ask Faith a couple of questions before she took off might’ve been the smart thing to do in this situation.
What she knew was that Dawn was with Catherine and that they had found the grail, but there was some sort of problem. Xander was actually involved with a fight and working with four of the Slayers. So, assuming Dawn didn’t get mixed up with whatever it is Xander and the others are fighting, she could already be on her way to the surface.
That left one option: find the fight and she’d at least find Xander.
Buffy concentrated on the echoes to see if she could guess which of the branches might take her to the battle. She thought she had it narrowed down to two options: straight ahead to the grail or a tunnel to her left.
“Eeny-meeny-miney-mo, catch a monster by its toe, if it hollers stake it good, eeny-meeny-miney-mo, the one I choose is you.” Buffy grimaced as her pointed finger landed on the tunnel to her left. She could tell that it was going to be rough going over the rocks. From this angle, she just couldn’t see how there might be an epic battle going on between a monster, four Slayers, and Xander in that direction.
The again, maybe the tunnel was a short cut?
Yeah! I bet that’s it! HAH! Slayer hearing strikes again. Can’t fool me!
Feeling much more confident about her decision, Buffy hauled herself over the rocks partially blocking the entrance. It wasn’t until she managed to stand upright and begin the arduous task of going forward that it hit her: she was completely unarmed.
Catherine very quickly figured out the little drawback to J’Nal’s spell: Andrew and Dawn couldn’t get anywhere near her without getting an attack of the screaming paranoias.
Taking off her coat and wrapping it around the Grail helped only a little bit, but given that they’d just spent the past five standard minutes trying to organize themselves enough to leave through the narrow tunnel, she was willing to accept “a little bit.”
Catherine was forced to hang back while Ruda accompanied Dawn and Andrew down the tunnel.
“Perhaps I should take it,” J’Nal offered apologetically, “I might be able to take the edge off the spell until we get back to their household.”
“Would you have to exert your magical abilities to do it?” Catherine asked.
“Then the answer is no. I keep it.”
“Besides, I know I’d feel better if your hands were free,” Tikri said nervously. When J’Nal and Catherine finally spared her a glance, she added, “In case someone needs to cast a spell to get us out of trouble.”
“She’s got a point there,” Catherine grudgingly allowed.
J’Nal and Tikri entered the tunnel, leaving Catherine to take up the rear. She hunched over her precious burden as she clutched the cloth-covered Grail to her chest. The sounds of fighting were still going strong, which meant they’d probably have to fight their way out. Terrific. Fighting while holding on to the Grail was not going to be easy. How something as simple as bringing along a knapsack to carry the Grail slipped everyone’s mind was anyone’s guess.
When she stepped out of the tunnel and into the fight arena, the reaction to her arrival underscored just how much of a problem J’Nal’s spell was.
A Slayer to her immediate left whipped around to face her with a snarl before turning white, dropping her sword, and crabbing away from the Watcher Honoria as quickly as possible. The escaping Slayer nearly ran over her teammate in the process.
Violet, who was nearby engaging a monstrously large snake, became distracted. “What just…” Violet began as she turned to look at Catherine. Her question was cut off when the snake took the opportunity to strike by trying to swallow the girl whole.
Violet let out a bloodcurdling holler as she jumped back fast enough to prevent herself from becoming a snack. The snake’s fangs still managed to catch her sword arm, leaving behind a bloody trail that ran from shoulder to wrist. Needless to say, Violet lost her weapon in the process.
Catherine desperately scanned the open ground, trying to find a spot that was absent of present-day people. Although there were plenty of those, getting to them was going to be another matter entirely. Furthermore, even if she could get clear of people who’d be affected by J’Nal’s spell, she was still in the middle of a fight, which meant sooner or later someone was going to get close enough to her to cause problems.
“Xander!” Dawn was screaming at the top of her lungs. “Where’s Xander?”
Catherine’s eyes widened as she desperately searched the area around her. “Alexander! Alexander where are you? Alexander!”
The other three Slayers, seeing that their companion was wounded, charged the snake to drive it away from Violet. With a distinctive war cry, Ruda joined the fray. Catherine’s Slayer struck with smooth precision as her weapons flashed through the darkness. The other Slayers were clumsy by comparison only because they were still learning; a point that was driven home by the sheer terrible beauty of a Ruda loosed on an enemy she could hurt.
Catherine jittered with indecision. Instinct and training told her to help Violet get out of harm’s way and then to join the fight. Reality told her that the last thing she should do is let go of the Grail. Through the chaos, she saw J’Nal raise his hands in a threatening manner.
“J’Nal! Wait!” Catherine screamed.
The Prima witch froze.
“Get Dawn and Andrew to safety!” Catherine shouted. “Do not use magic unless you absolutely have to!”
Catherine trusted her prima witch to know that he wouldn’t cast spells unless someone was threatened with immanent death.
“But Xander!” Dawn yelped while that weasel Andrew cowered behind her.
“I’ll find him!” Catherine yelled back over the din.
In the meantime, Violet managed to clear the fight, landing close enough to Catherine that the Watcher Honoria wondered why the Slayer hadn’t gone fetal on the ground.
“If you’re worried, Xander’s playing bait,” Violet explained.
“Bait?” Catherine asked. She was treated to the odd sight of Violet moving toward her at a snail’s pace. The girl looked like she was fighting every instinct to run like hada. Founders, she is a brave one, Catherine thought.
“Yeah,” the closer Violet got, the more she began to shake, “the plan was for the snake to chase him and get trapped in one of the tunnels so we could kill it without getting eaten.”
Catherine could only watch in sick fascination as Violet inched forward. The Slayer was trembling so hard that she looked like she had the shimmy-shakes. “Maybe you should stay there,” Catherine said.
Violet nodded, but took that one step closer.
“I’m going to make a wild guess,” Catherine said loud enough to be heard over the noise of battle, “someone decided to change the plan.”
“If the snake catches him he’ll be killed,” Violet protested.
“As opposed to four Slayers being killed?” Catherine snarled back. “Let’s get one thing clear: Watchers are expendable. Slayers are not.”
“But…” Violet protested.
“Don’t you get it? He was doing his job when he attempted to lure your enemy to a place where you could more easily kill it.” Catherine glared at Violet. She whirled around and faced the battle scene. Things were not going well. The snake still seemed to have the upper hand, despite its wounds. The girls were clearly tired. Ruda’s attempt to help was for naught.
Catherine looked down at the cloth bundle in her arms. She had just the ticket to cow that snake right into submission.
She unwrapped the Grail, dropped her coat on the ground, and charged forward. She held the Grail out in front of her like a cross. The snake saw her and froze.
Catherine stood pat and held the Grail above her head. If this snake was from this time, it should fall apart like the present-day Slayers.
(*My shiny thing! What are you doing with my shiny thing?)
The snake feinted in confusion, forcing Catherine to retreat. The hada! It should’ve retreated by now!
Either the snake was immune to magic, or it wasn’t from this time. Right. Change of plans. Catherine shook the Grail at the snake and bolted for one of the tunnels, screaming as she ran, “Get everyone out of here now!”
“Wait!” one of the Slayers shouted.
(Get back here with my shiny thing! Stop! Thief!)
“That’s an order!” Catherine shot back as she disappeared down a tunnel.
The snake was busy untangling itself in preparation to go after Catherine.
Lisa ran over to Vi’s side and began pulling the struggling Slayer away.
“We have to stop her!” Vi shouted as she saw the snake begin to slither after the Watcher Honoria.
“You’re wounded. We have to get Dawn and Andrew out of here,” Lisa said firmly. “We’ll come back after we get you and the others to the staircase.”
“But don’t you see?” Vi argued. “She went down the same tunnel Xander did.”
“Then you better stop fighting me and start running for that staircase,” Lisa grimly replied. “Because we’re going to need all the help we can get.”
“Fan-fucking-tastic, Xander Harris. How do you do this to yourself? Geee, Howard. It’s simple. I’m an idiot.”
Xander had placed the crossbow within easy reach and managed to shed the quiver. Throwing axe was likewise discarded, also within easy reach. Sweat poured off his forehead in rivers as he fought to remain balanced on his knees despite the uneven ground. The tips of his fingers were sore from scrabbling against the rocks holding his left foot captive and his back ached from hyper-extending backwards to reach those rocks.
And dare he mention the pain? Because right now it was pain-a-palooza. He wasn’t a hundred percent sure, but his ankle and his leg hurt so much he was willing to bet that he broke something.
“See, the thing is, Howard,” Xander grunted as he stubbornly attempted to arch his back and reach for the rocks holding him fast, “someone in our happy little group needs to be the damsel in distress. As it so happens, I am that damsel. Why, Xander Harris, don’t you resent your constant need to be rescued? Sometimes Howard, sometimes. It just would be nice if I could switch off with the others, you know? Maybe one week Willow needs to be saved, the next week Buffy. While we’re at it, let’s throw Dawn and Giles on the rotation. But I’m not bitter. Noooooooo. Well, maybe a little bitter. Know what would make me less bitter? If the woman saving me would help me up onto her white horse and carry me away to a place where we could live happily ever after with lots and lots of orgasms.”
He stopped his rant. Closed his eyes and swallowed hard. “Yeah,” he added quietly, “so much for that plan, right Anya?”
Talking, even talking to himself, was definitely of the bad. He should stop it right now.
One more mighty effort only resulted in more sweating and heavy panting. He stopped stretching, an action that had the spring-back effect of pitching him forward. His reflexes were fast enough that his hands stopped his face from mashing into the ground.
“Now what?” he asked.
Rhetorical question got him an echoing growl.*
(*Ooooh, no. Not falling for that trap again.)
Xander shook his head in irritation. The four girls were probably holding the line, but how long before one of them got killed?
He looked up at the cavern ceiling and said, “I could use some serious ass-saving right about now. So if you could just hurry up?”
Right on cue, Catherine burst around the bend like several hellhounds were hot on her heels. Xander yelled as Catherine nearly trampled him and then cowered as an overwhelming sense of fear overpowered him.
“Alexander!” Catherine shouted happily. “You’re all right.”
About all he could do was try to curl into a ball and cover his head with hands. Magic, magic, magic, magic, magic, something inside him sang a warning. Hurts, hurts, hurts. Makeitgoaway.
“Oh. Sorry. The Grail.”
Somewhere in his overwhelming panic he could hear Catherine retreat. His blind fear eased to a simple feeling of niggling worry and he peered up.
“J’Nal cast a spell on the Grail to keep people away,” Catherine said apologetically as she put the Grail down on a nearby rock. “He, unh, went a little overboard.”
“Oh, wait. Let me guess,” Xander struggled to get to his knees, “he whammied the grail so we’d all turn into a quivering mess if we got close? How not smart, considering, oh, we were in the middle of fighting a huuuuuge snake.”
Another growl* prompted Catherine to look over her shoulder.
(*I think I’ll try this way. Cut you off at the pass.)
“I don’t think it’s following me,” she said absently.
Xander glared. “Let me get this straight: you decided to play bait? Are you out of your mind?”
“Hey! Look who’s talking!” Catherine began her protest, a protest that was cut short by Buffy’s entrance, which featured a yell and a pratfall that would make Jim Carey proud.
Good thing Xander provided her with a nice, safe, soft landing spot.
Xander yelped and again was forced to catch himself with his forearms before he pitched headfirst into the rocky floor. This resulted in a stream of invectives as his already battered body parts became more battered.
“Hey!” Buffy swatted playfully at him. “Is that any way to treat the girl who’s here to help?”
“You know, any more help and I’ll be dead,” Xander complained. “Get off!”
Buffy rolled to her feet with a giggle. It quickly died down when she got her bearings. “Where is everyone? And does anyone else feel like something’s watching us?”
“Xander tried to draw off the snake,” Catherine quickly cut in.
“I’m telling you,” Buffy looked around, “I’m a little uneasy.”
“I tripped and fell and got stuck,” Xander interrupted. “My foot’s wedged.”
“You’re stuck?” Catherine asked as she moved to kneel next to Xander. “Why didn’t you didn’t say anything?”
“Could be because someone tripped over me with a grail enchanted to cause people to turn into piles of scaredy-cat goo,” Xander said.
“Good thing I’m immune, hunh?” Buffy asked as her eyes scanned the cavern. “You know? I think we should be going, as in right now.”
“Immune, hunh?” Xander shot Catherine a glare.
Buffy grimaced. “I’m guessing not so much.” She took a deep breath. “Okay, where’s everyone else?”
“Dawn, Andrew, Tikri, and the four Slayers are being evacuated under J’Nal’s protection as we speak,” Catherine said. “My guess is that they’ll bring back help.”
“No! Bad idea!” Buffy said. “They’ll get lost if they come down here.”
“Buffy’s right,” Xander agreed. “Bonus, I think you should get out of here, too.”
“We’re not leaving you,” Catherine said.
“You heard her,” Buffy said with crossed arms.
“Fine! Buffy can save me, but you have got to go!” Xander shouted in frustration. “We’ve fought too damn hard to get that stupid grail…”
“No!” Catherine said in the voice of someone who was not used to being contradicted. “I’ll just help…”
“You are not going to help. You are going to get your ass and go.” When Catherine opened her mouth, Xander exploded, “For Christ’s sake, we don’t have time to argue. You got the grail, so Move. Your. Ass.”
“I don’t leave my people behind,” she said flatly.
“Hey! I’m going to be here!” Buffy protested. “No one’s getting left behind.”
“That’s not the point,” Catherine said.
Xander’s arm quickly snaked out and he grabbed Catherine by her collar, pulling her down so they were face-to-face. “Let’s get one thing straight. I am issuing you a fucking executive order to run like hell. You don’t have a choice because technically speaking I’m your fucking boss. Got me?”
A pair of furious brown eyes glared down into an equally furious living brown eye and a matching glass one.
To Xander’s amazement, Catherine broke first. She closed her eyes. “Yes, Harris-rah.”
She gave a curt nod and scurried to scoop up the Grail.
“Better go out the way I came in,” Buffy said. “I think it’s a short cut.”
“Better take my crossbow while you’re at it,” Xander added.
“Oh, but leave your sword, pretty please?” Buffy asked. “I’ve got nothing on me.”
Catherine nodded unhappily as she took off the sword and scabbard slung crosswise across her back and placed it on the ground. She took a deep breath and charged past the pair, stopping just long enough to grab the crossbow and quiver.
As she passed, a feeling of dread paralyzed Buffy and Xander. The feeling only began to fade when Catherine began clambering over the rocks behind them.
A low growl* echoed through the caverns.
(*Well, well, well. What’s this I smell? Walnut Brain?)
Buffy grabbed the scabbard and slung it over one shoulder. She returned, dropped to her knees, and began worrying at the rocks holding Xander fast. He could hear her fighting to keep her breathing under control while she worked.
“Great, just great. Way to go all noble there, stupid,” Xander snarled to as he peered into the darkness in front of him. “I hope it bites our heads off, because then I know we’ll be able to keep on living since we don’t actually have brains.”
“Ummmm, can you hold off on that hope? Because I really, really don’t feel like carrying my own head under my arm,” Buffy said with a grunt. There was a sound of a clattering rock and just like that, Xander was free.
“Can you stand?” Buffy asked.
Xander slowly got to his knees before forcing himself to stand on his right foot. Using Buffy like a makeshift crutch, he slowly put more weight on his throbbing left leg. The results were less than impressive. “Yeah. Ouch. Oo. Oo,” he groaned through clenched teeth.
(*You and me, Walnut Brain. Then I get my shiny thing back.)
“Broken?” Buffy asked.
Xander was again standing on his right foot, keeping his left leg bent and his left foot elevated. “I-I-I don’t think so. Hurts like hell, though.”
Buffy looked worriedly around. “Can you move?”
(I think I’ll try this way instead.)
“Do I have a choice?” Xander asked. “Where do we end up if we follow Catherine?”
“It dumps us back into the main tunnel.”
“Let’s go that way then.”
“You sure?” Buffy asked doubtfully. “I mean, it’s really rough doing and I don’t know if you’ll be able to make it.”
“I’ll make it because I have to,” Xander said grimly.