A Darkling Plain

For the sword outwears its sheath
And the soul wears out the breast
And the heart must pause to breathe
And love itself have rest

The road ahead is glistening with rain.

It looks faintly familiar. But this might be a trick of the imagination. After all, how many solitary roads have I walked on rainy nights? A thousand similar journeys have defined my existence for the past hundred years.

A low, hanger-like building stands to the right, and as I pass it a gaggle of young women, all of them less than eighteen, approach from the left, and cross my path.

"No WAY!"

"I swear, it's ALL true..."

A door opens in the side of the building, and light and laughter flood out. They and their conversation are swallowed, leaving only their faint, synthetic scent.

(Not for the first time, I curse this century's scientific advances. Who decided it was a bad idea for women to smell like women?)

Suddenly, I find I must have some company tonight, even if it's the non-fragrant kind. I have to find a place. The hanger-like building will be as good as any. Although I feel all of my three-hundred and fifty years, I know I still look about twenty-eight. A mysterious and attractive older man, to girls of that age. Not too old to raise suspicion.

I go in, and once all the eyes drawn to my entrance have drifted away again, I melt into the shadows, and watch. Young men and women throng here as in every city and town I have ever visited. Listening, no, feeling the music they call their own. Bumping bodies together. Ritualised mating in public. It was the same in my childhood and in a way it's comforting that some things never really change.

And sometimes that same fact is my curse.

I don't interfere with any of them, I don't try to talk to them. Once in a while one of them will try to engage me in conversation, but I refuse to be drawn in and my monosyllabic answers drive them away. Now and then, a body will brush against mine, and my skin prickles at the casual contact. But I would never hurt them, these bright, young visions. I lurk and watch and vicariously enjoy the freedom of it all, and too soon, they drift away into the early hours of the morning. The building, which a few minutes ago was full of warmth and hormones and hope is now still and almost deserted. The bouncers don't notice me, crouching on a gantry overhead, and they too take their leave. I have full and vacant possession.

I roll my coat into a pillow and place it on a plump sofa by the bar, and then follow the ritual I have observed for the past five years, or more. Whenever I am taken to a new town, I do this. I sit on the sofa (to kneel seems wrong somehow), and concentrate with all my being, on a single thought.

"Please, God, Powers, whoever you are, *hear me*."

I tell them, I have served their purpose faithfully. I tell them, I'm reaching the end of my reason. I tell them, I need a release, soon. I tell them, I can't keep going much longer.

I tell them this, every time. I have no reason to think they attend me.

At dusk, I rise and leave to look around the town before total darkness descends. As I leave the club, I am struck with a sense of deja vu so strong it almost floors me. The building stands in a hollow, and is surrounded by a low jumble of warehouses and industrial sites. As the ground rises before me I can see fragments of a familiar skyline.

I rush towards the main square of the town, and find the proof I need. The twentieth century brick town hall remains intact.

They have sent me back to Sunnydale.

(Quote from So We'll Go No More A-Roving by Lord Byron)

 

I wander for hours; I don't know where I'm going or why. The rain is coming down again, and it soaks through my outer clothing. Eventually, along the seams of my shirt, I feel icy wetness against my skin. It spreads, and my usual coldness becomes, by degrees, colder.

[ ... you have killed me, and thriven on it, I think ... ]

The tombstones of Sunnydale's largest cemetery seem to huddle together and shy away from me as I pass. I leap to the top of the wall and drop down on the other side. Everything here is green and cool; the rain has liberated sharp fresh smells from the grass and trees. It is so quiet; the sound of my shoes swishing though the wet grass is all that I can hear. I pick my way across the sodden ground towards Buffy's grave, and half-kneel, half-collapse on the ground in front of it.

I never came back after she died. It would have been too painful, and served no purpose but to remind me of what was lost to me forever from that day.

[ ... how strong you are ... how many years do you mean to live after I am gone? ... ]

Buffy Summers
1981 - 2045

As I contemplate the inscription I find I have no interest in why the Powers have brought me here. Demons could be terrorising the populace, the Hellmouth might be yawning and groaning, the very Apocalypse may be gathering in the distance. I can't bring myself to care. And if I don't care, then what?

The turmoil of my shanshu leaves me no alternative but to live on. But I don't have to be an automaton. I don't have to take this; I don't have to do what they want. I have to live, but I can surely choose just to exist. A plan forms in my fogged brain.

The remains of the only thing I have ever really loved are under the soil in front of me.

I decide it's time I joined her.

[ ... will you forget me ... will you be happy when I am in the earth? ... ]

It's an easy matter to find a spade. I dig; the wet ground is heavy and the hole I make soon fills with water. I place the clods close to the edge. When it is deep enough for me to stand in, I get into the hole and use the spade to bring the soil in after me, and my fingers to arrange it so I'm covered. I am only a few inches under the surface when I finish, but it is enough.

The old ones had a natural affinity with burial. They slept in the ground and rose up each night afresh. It is only modern man's obsession with the space below his feet that has caused our behaviour to change. Sewers, fuel delivery systems, underground transport, priest holes and office basements. The whole panoply of tunnels that allow us direct access to their world, day or night. Since the night I rose, and Darla pulled me, shaking and dusty, to my feet, I have never returned to the earth; but the skills that enable me and every other vampire to escape a coffin and reach the surface are still with me. Slowly, inexorably, like warm tar spreading, I burrow lower.

After a few days, the rain stops and the water drains away. I am by this time three feet below. The soil above looks like it has been disturbed by a small animal. Curled into a foetal position, my temperature drops to that of the earth surrounding me, and I feel delightfully sluggish, wonderfully numb.

I wasn't foolish enough to think they would just accept my decision and leave me alone. I expected at any moment to be wrenched from my resting place and thrust into a new situation. But it never happens, and gradually, I stop waiting for it. Instead, they send more subtle messages.

[ ... don't torture me until I'm as mad as yourself ... ]

All the bad decisions I have ever made, are revived and sent to seduce me. Darla, dressed like a countess, loitering in an alleyway, waiting for me to brazenly accost her; Drusilla, damaged and distressed, pleading for a death I would never grant; Judy, fearful and shocked, turning away as a rope is slipped round my neck; Buffy, bruised and in pain, offering me the haven of her tender body on a rain-soaked night. They say, as clearly as words could, that this is another of those moments, when I will act selfishly and later, pay dearly.

If these visions are their only weapons, I am safe enough. I rest, and ignore the pull of the voices in my head.

[ Fragments from a conversation between Cathy and Heathcliffe in Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte ]

When I'm asleep, dreaming and drowsed and warm,
They come, the homeless ones, the noiseless dead.
While the dim charging breakers of the storm
Rumble and drone and bellow overhead,
Out of the gloom they gather about my bed.
They whisper to my heart; their thoughts are mine.

'Why are you here with all your watches ended?
'From Ypres to Frise we sought you in the line.'
In bitter safety I awake, unfriended;
And while the dawn begins in slashing rain
I think of the Battalion in the mud.
'When are you going back to them again?
'Are they not still your brothers through our blood?'

A vision: a light and airy place, with no distinct features save one. A figure stands ten paces in front of me. She seems tall, until I realise I'm seated. She is a woman in her early thirties, with short, cropped blond hair. She wears cargo pants and a close fitting t-shirt, both in neutral colours. She carries a pointed stick.

Buffy.

I brace myself for another round of guilt and recrimination, but then it occurs to me that this Buffy is from the happiest period of my life. She was, at that time, at the height of her powers as a Slayer. I was still working in Los Angeles; we were together frequently. Her sister, Dawn, had finished college and was making her way in the world, a testimony to Buffy's love and devotion. Things were as near perfect as they could be.

A change of strategy?

Vision-Buffy approaches me, and I feel the apprehension growing within. Is it The Power's intention to use my good memories against me too?

"Angel? Do you... know me?"

This is another oddity. None of my other visions have approached me. I nod my head and open my mouth to speak, then decide the better of it and clamp it shut again.

Buffy sighs and pokes the stake into the thigh pocket of her trousers, then straightens up and regards me, with an expression somewhere between a frown and concern.

"Do you know what's happening?"

"No." Finally, I speak, and my voice sounds hoarse and alien.

"Well, truthfully, neither do I. Are you dead?"

Somehow, this question is unexpected, almost shocking. "I've always been dead."

"You know what I mean."

"No. Resting."

"What do you mean, resting?"

I look at my hands. She doesn't understand, and why should she? When did she ever rest? "I... I've decided I can't go on working for The Powers. I'm... exhausted and... it's too hard."

Flashes... "it's painful, and it's hard, and it's every day, it's what we have to do, but if you're too much of a coward for that..." I clutch my head in my hands. For mercy's sake, stop!

I feel a warm hand on the back of my neck, and smell her perfume as she kneels in front of me. Her face buries itself in my hair and she whispers comforting things in my ear. "I know, baby. It's OK. I'm here."

I'm shaking. This can't be happening. But, it's Buffy. She's not a dream or a vision. She's tangible, she's here, I can touch her. I touch her.

"Can you... feel me?"

"Of course."

"Buffy, what is this? Where am I?"

"You don't remember?"

"Remember? There's nothing... I've never been here before..."

"You come here every time. And every time, you say that."

"I don't understand." I shake my head, maniacally, from side to side.

"Listen to me, Angel, and try to think. Stop... stop rocking. Please, please Angel - I can't stand it. Oh my god, no, Angel..."

I feel pain and I realise I'm rubbing my own face hard enough to draw blood. Buffy takes my hands and pushes me back until I'm lying down. She climbs on the divan beside me and pins all my limbs down with a hug that involves all of her, her arms, her legs and her body and her head. I cling to her and she winces at the force of my hold.

"Angel, you have to try. I can't seem to help you. I've wanted to and I've done what I can, told you what I know, but every time you come to me, it's all gone. Forgotten. Erased. I don't know."

The force of the word hits me. Erased.

"You're getting worse. Each time you come, you cope a little less, you're a little less recovered by the time you're taken back."

Taken. Taken back.

"You have to start fighting, baby, you have to."

Fighting? "It's all I've ever done, since you left."

"No, no, you have to start fighting *them*."

Them?

It takes several minutes before I realise she means The Powers That Be. A rushing sound fills my head, and I slip into oblivion.

"So, you're really not dead?"

An hour later, I've recovered enough to sit and be spoken to again.

"No, I think not. I'm just, in the ground. Weakened. Probably starving and delusional."

She pushes me and I nearly fall off the bed. "I'm not a delusion."

"No, right, I remember."

"Maybe... maybe it's because you're weak and you're in the earth near me. Near the Hellmouth. Maybe there's some sort of mystical whoosit going on."

"Does it matter if I'm dead or not?"

She shrugs. "If you're not dead, maybe they don't know you're here. Maybe you won't leave, maybe this time they won't take it all away."

I grind the heal of my hand into my forehead again. This is all too much to take in.

"You're saying that I'm being tortured by the Powers That Be."

"By someone. Come *on* Angel, what you've been put through, did it never strike you as cruel and unusual?"

I think about this and come to the conclusion that, no, it didn't. Everything I've been through, everything I've suffered, it was all to be borne because I had to make amends.

"The Powers..." I begin, unsteadily.

"...are allowing this to happen to you. If they really are a force for good, why haven't they stopped it?"

I stammer something about being a lower being, and she makes an impatient sound.

"You are the only person I know, that *knows* he's a lower being. You are the only person I know, that believes The Powers are guiding his every move. Angel, why do you think that is?"

Buffy is up and pacing. She's rubbing her hands together as she thinks, and I'm glad that one of us is together enough to manage to do three things at once.

"You have to go back."

(No. No, please. Let me stay.)

"Don't you see, this could be your one chance to find out. *If* you're not dead, and *if* they aren't aware you're here, then maybe they aren't watching you any more. Maybe you can turn the tables and watch them."

"I don't know how to get back. Can't we just wait and see what happens?"

"Wait until they decide to check up on you? No, this is the only way."

"What way? I don't understand."

She tucks the fingers of her left hand into the neck of her t-shirt and pulls the fabric over her shoulder. "You get your strength back. That's the way out of here. You wouldn't be here at all if you weren't so near death."

She guides my head into the shapely crook of her neck. I take time to run my nose up and down the soft skin there, and plant a few kisses just below her ear.

"Angel! Concentrate!"

Her blood flows into me and I hear the familiar gasp as she revels in the sensation, as she always did. I recall when I used to tease her about this when she was alive, and I mumble into her skin, "Any old excuse."

The last thing I hear is her laughing. Then the vision is gone. I am in a dark place again, pressed in on all sides by damp blackness, and I can smell the stench of my own rotting flesh.

[ Quote from a poem by Seigfried Sassoon. Transcribed from Remembrance by Pat Barker ]

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated.
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unpeturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy
They beat - and a voice beat
More instant than the Feet -
'All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.'

[ ... it's all gone ... forgotten ... erased ... ]

As I scramble through the dirt, her words echo in my head, and send shivers down my spine. I'm consumed by fear that they, whoever they are, will come for me again. I don't want to forget. Not a second of it.

She wants me to fight. Well, maybe I can. My hand reaches roots, then wetness, then air. I pause for a second. I trust my instincts, but I'm sick, I have to be careful. There's nothing, no burning, no pain. It must be night. I push to the surface.

I must make a pitiful sight. A shrunken, pale, hunched figure, caked with dirt and missing both shoes. The extremities of my body scream in pain and I smell like death. But it's dark, and there's no-one near, so I limp away under the cover of the night, and make my way towards Crawford Street.

[ ... maybe this time they won't take it all away ... ]

The mansion stands, forbidding as ever, and empty once again. I know it was briefly inhabited early on in the 21st century, Buffy told me so, but somehow it never seems to attract a permanent resident. I slip in through the atrium, and stand in the great hall, greeted by a host of memories. The very stone which was my first contact with this world after a century burning in the demon dimension lies in front of me. I can almost see Drusilla and Spike tormenting their poor victims. I spent a score of nights here watching Buffy drowsing in my arms, and I can relive any of them at will.

I try to stop the shivering, but it won't go away. I go from room to room, gathering all the contents of the mansion in front of the great fireplace. There's a jumble of things left behind by previous owners, residents or vagrants; I take it all. I break up the furniture. What I can't use, I burn, and soon a fire rages in the hearth. I heat water; there is, at least, plenty of that.

My body is thin and wasted, but I can feel the Slayer's blood zinging through my veins, plumping cells and regenerating tissue. I hear the scratching and scurrying of vermin in the cellar. By the time the fire dies away, I am clean and clothed enough for the journey, and there isn't a living rat left within a twenty metre radius of the building.

[ ... you have to start fighting ... ]

"Buffy, I'm trying. I will."

After the new day has burned itself out, I've formulated a plan. I'm going to head for the only place where access to The Powers has been granted to me.

The Gateway of Lost Souls.

[Quote from The Hound of Heaven by Francis Thompson ]

The Thicket is Thorny
Up snakes the glassy Tower
Here is no sweet Dovecote
Nor plump Lady's Bower

The wind whistles sourly
Through that Sharp land
At the black casement
He sees her white hand

He hears the foul Old One
Call quavering there
Rapunzel Rapunzel
Let down your hair

Filaments Glosses
Run trembling down
Gold torrent loosened
From a gold crown

The black claws go clutching
Hand over hand
What Pain goes shrilling
Through every strand!

Silent he watches
The humped One rise
With tears of anguish
In his own eyes

"He's gone."

"Gone? Where?"

"Sire, forgive us, we can't say."

"You let him go? YOU - LET - HIM - GO!"

"Mercy, we beg you..."

"Find him. Bring him back. We'll make him suffer for this. We'll make him wish he were dead."

"Sire... he is dead."

"Then we'll make him wish he'd never lived."

The bowl is still set in the wall, and I break the herbs and murmur the incantation. I hope the spell hasn't been changed, or the Gateway sealed, or new and uncooperative oracles installed; this is the only course of action I've been able to think of on the journey here, and if it doesn't work, I don't have a plan.

Before I can finish my plea for access, a sound alerts me to a presence, and I turn to see an old enemy smiling at me.

"Hello Angel." Lilah Morgan slinks towards me, seductively.

"Lilah. They're some powerful drugs you're taking, I must say. You must be, what? 140 years old? And you don't look a day over eighty."

She smiles again. Actually, in this light, she doesn't seem to have aged at all.

"And how's eternal life treating you, my love, any better than before?"

I wonder if she knows about my shanshu, and has just come to mock. It would be like her to get pleasure out of my torment, she's done so often enough in the past.

"What do you want, Lilah?"

"You know what I want."

I move like lightening and, seizing her neck, I pin her against a wall. She gasps in pain. "Now, I think we've been through this before..."

"Angel, please, I can't breathe..."

"...several times, and the answer has always been 'No'. Why do you keep bothering me? Can't you pay a fledgling to do it? Hey, perhaps if you really outdo yourself with the make-up and hormone injections, one of them will do it for free."

She tries to push me away, but I'm in no mood to let her off the hook that easily.

"I haven't turned anyone for several lifetimes, Lilah. I wouldn't turn Darla when she begged me to do it and she had a hold over me that you can only dream about. Why should I do what you want now? What's in it for me?"

I release her and she doubles up, gasping for air. When she straightens, I can see the answer to my question made flesh. She's a wreck. Jaw slack, crows feet that spill over her cheeks to her neck and thin, lifeless, greying hair. The spell she cast to cover my eyes has faltered and I can see that Lilah has finally grown old.

"What happened? Did you run out of coins for the meter?"

She screams and hides her face, muttering and cursing, and turns when the shield is up again; rejuvenated, smoothed and polished. I smile, with bitter amusement.

"Very good. No, really, I'm impressed."

"You bastard. I need you to do it because you're part of the Order of Aurelius."

"Get lost. I'm busy."

"Your Order's blood has rejuvenating powers, Angel, it's unique."

"Did Darla tell you that?" What a manipulative bitch she is, I think to myself.

"I need it. I can't be old."

"Then let yourself die, as you should have done years ago. I can't help you. Darla lied, or it was a joke. She hates you. Now, for pity's sake, go away before I'm tempted to kill you and put you out of your misery."

She admits defeat, sooner than I anticipated. Too soon. But, true to form, she throws a parting shot, "Looking for The Powers, are we? Going into the lion's den?"

I don't answer.

"Well," a tinkling laugh, "good luck with that."

I'm spared the necessity of finding a snappy retort as her magic slips again and the laugh turns into a jagged smoker's cough.

"Goodbye, Lilah."

As she leaves, I finish the incantation, and a flash of light transforms the stone wall into an archway. I step gingerly through it, and make my way to the oracles' den.

[ Poem from Possession: A Romance by A S Byatt ]

We were as men who through a fen
Of filthy darkness grope:
We did not dare to breathe a prayer,
Or give our anguish scope:
Something was dead in each of us,
And what was dead was hope.

And as one sees most fearful things
In the crystal of a dream,
We saw the greasy hempen rope
Hooked to the blacked beam,
And heard the prayer the hangman's stare
Strangled into a scream.

And all the woe that moved him so
That he gave that bitter cry,
And the wild regrets, the bloody sweats,
None knew so well as I:
For he who lives more lives than one
More deaths than one must die.

The anteroom is empty, as I half expected. A disgusting copper streak across the pale marble floor is the only sign of the violence that was done to the oracles I knew. It has never been cleaned away. I shudder as the events of that night come back to me. It was the last time I came here.

The oracles are gone, completely gone this time. But the corridor of light that they emerged from is still here. It has not been sealed by The Powers. I take a deep breath, and start to walk, slowly, into the whiteness.

It doesn't burn. It feels like sunlight, but it has no effect on me, other than to blind me temporarily with its brightness. I'm so relieved that I speed up and, when the corridor comes to an abrupt end, I fall ten feet, having not noticed that there the floor disappears.

I land with a resounding smack on more marble. It is cooler here, and less luminous. In front of me is a archway, blocked by a door. In front of the door, stands an oracle.

He is older that the oracles I knew. There's a flash of white at his temples and his face is more mature, more lived in. He regards me with alarm.

"Friend?"

I pick myself up and brush the dust from my clothing. "Friend."

"Ah," says the oracle, "I see you are a warrior for our cause. You are welcome, but did not my brother and sister tell you what you wished to know?"

A chill passes through me; the warmth absorbed from the corridor of light evaporates.

"Your brother and sister?" I stammer.

"Figuratively, figuratively. I meant, my fellow oracles that you have already passed."

"There's no-one there."

"No-one there!" The oracle exclaimed "No, that cannot be."

"I assure you ..."

"They would not desert their post. They are the best and ablest of us."

I look at my hands. "How, how long had... have they served?"

"For over 150 years, my friend. We oracles live for many hundreds of years."

I somehow can't bring myself to tell him that his brother and sister have been dead for over a century. How can he not know?

"I've come to beseech access to The Powers."

If I'd offered to paint the woodwork orange, I don't think the oracle could have looked more disdainful. "The Powers," he said, very deliberately, "do not deal directly with lower beings. That is why the oracles are here."

"Your sister oracle said I was not a lower being," I falter.

"Then she flattered you. Well, she is young and capricious. She will eventually learn not to encourage outsiders. Now, please, ask your question of me, and think no more of this wish to see The Powers."

"What do you know about me?"

"I know nothing. My post here prevents contact with the dimension you inhabit. My brother and sister... they are supposed to deal with all visitors to The Gateway. I remain here, my function is, to guard."

"Then how can you help me?"

"Access to The Powers is not possible. You have no choice but to confide in me."

"And if you cannot answer me?"

"My answer will suffice."

"I've been a slave of The Powers for over a century..."

"The Powers have no slaves. All warriors work freely for them. Even we oracles give our services without asking any return. Our magic, which is at times powerful, is at their disposal, for the common good."

"I want to be released from my fealty..."

"You are free to leave at any time."

"And I won't be snatched back? I won't be forced to live on? I won't be reborn into this body?"

The oracle shook his head, "The Powers do not play with life in this way. How can you come here and make these assertions? Are you quite mad?"

Maybe, I think, maybe I am. And now, angry. And I will have what I came here for.

I seize the oracle by his shoulders and push him away from the door. He flies at me, head down, and flings his arms around my waist. I swat him aside easily. As he falls to the hard floor, I hear a sickening crack, and stare in horror as his body settles, limbs spread, lifeless. His neck is broken.

In panic, I run. Back to the spot where I fell. I leap. I scramble down the corridor of light and out into the anteroom with the blood stain on the floor. Through the Gateway, I can see an assembled company. Lilah. One of the partners from Wolfram & Hart. A cloaked demon.

Waiting for me.

( Quote from The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde )

 

"What lies before me is my past. I have got to make myself look on that with different eyes, to make the world look on it with different eyes ... This I cannot do by ignoring it, or slighting it, or praising it, or denying it. It is only to be done fully by accepting it as an inevitable part of the evolution of my life and character: by bowing my head to everything I have suffered."

"And incomplete, imperfect as I am, yet from me you may still have much to gain. You came to me to learn the pleasure of life... Perhaps I am chosen to teach you something much more wonderful - the meaning of sorrow and its beauty."

"Take him back."

It's The Partner that speaks. He addresses the cloaked demon, who steps forward and stoops to come under the arch. Then he pauses, and sniffs the air.

"I can't."

"Take him back!"

"The Gateway leads to another dimension, Sire. My magic will not work until he comes out. The oracles hold sway here - their magic is the only force"

"Then we'd better go in and bring him out, hadn't we?"

All three enter the anteroom and advance towards me. I turn and go back the way I came. My feet scuff the stained marble I had gingerly stepped over earlier. Down the corridor of light, over the drop again, and up to the door that leads to The Powers.

They are coming after me. I give a last glance at the dead oracle, and lean over to close his eyes. Then, taking my courage in both hands, I push at the door. What was the use in running? I will throw myself at the mercy of The Powers, and beg their forgiveness. That was the plan anyway, it's just that there's now so much more to forgive.

The door is stuck but eventually gives under my weight and opens with a dusty creak. I hasten to shut it and look for a lock or a bolt. There isn't one. I can hear the voices of the others coming closer. There isn't much time.

In front of me lies a long room. At the opposite end I can see a short figure, standing in front of another door. As I approach, I realise the creature is an oracle.

The oracle is wizened. It's about 4 feet high, with straggling wisps of colourless hair that brush the floor. It carries a staff that exceeds its height, and its clothes are worn away to rags. Its face is creased and greyish. It has so many wrinkles that its facial features are almost lost, and it is only when it speaks to me I know that it has a mouth.

"Halt! Go no further, lower being. Explain yourself!"

Its voice is pitifully weak, like the oracle has lost the habit of talking. I put my hands up in a placating gesture, principally because I see the creature is trying to lift its staff to ward me away, and its wasted arms can't quite manage it. There will be no more violence.

I speak as gently and respectfully as I can.

"I'm here to beg your indulgence, old one."

"My indulgence? *My* indulgence? I serve The Powers and not myself."

"It is The Powers I have come to see - and you must allow me access."

The oracle looks as if it would like to bristle at this audacious request, but speaking so much has taken all its strength.

"No access to The... no access is permitted," and then, smugly, with a toothless grimace, "I guard their privacy well."

"You do," I agree warmly, "but mine is an unusual and urgent case and I must see them."

"They cannot be disturbed."

"They have disturbed me for over a century, old one, and now I am pursued by powerful enemies. So you see, I must have my way. Open your door and warn them that I am here."

The creature shakes its head from side to side and makes a low, grumbling sound. In my haste and eagerness for answers, I hardly notice its distress.

"How many are there, old one? What do they look like?"

"I have never seen them."

I don't believe it.

"They have no need of me, they are The Powers, they are sufficient unto themselves."

This is... unreal. "How long have you guarded them?"

It blinks. "How long?"

"Yes, old one, when did you first come here? Do you remember?"

The oracle runs a gnarled hand across its bald forehead, leaving an imprint in the dust that coats the wasted flesh. "How long... how long... no, I don't remember..."

I walk towards the last door and gently place the little being out of my way. When the oracle feebly tries to hinder me, I allow this but hold it off with one arm. After a few seconds, it is exhausted and grabs its staff with both hands, spent and wheezing.

There is no handle, and the door does not open when pushed. I take a step back and ram it with my shoulder, expecting to be repelled by magic, but the door crumbles to pieces under the force of the impact and I find myself on the floor of the inner sanctum, covered in sawdust and cobwebs.

[ Quote from De Profundis by Oscar Wilde ]

 

At the apex of the pyramid comes Big Brother. Big Brother is infallible and all-powerful. Every success, every achievement, every victory, every scientific discovery, all knowledge, all wisdom, all happiness, all virtue, are held to issue directly from his leadership and inspiration. No-one has ever seen Big Brother.

It is empty. The sanctum is just a room. On a dais at the far end, stands a Janus head, carved in white marble. The empty eyes wink and mock us both - me and the other poor soul who gapes at the room in disbelief.

Then, laughter.

The cloaked demon stands beside the Last Oracle, looking through the doorway in shock. The Partner and Lilah are, in a rare demonstration of humanity, holding on to each other because they cannot contain their mirth.

"Well," Lilah spits at me, "this is just so much better than anything I could have dreamed up."

The Partner becomes serious all at once, and turns to the demon. "Now, can we get him out of here and tidy this mess up?"

The demon shakes his head. "There would be no point, Sire. We have lost control."

"Nonsense! We can make him forget all this. We have made him forget and remember enough in the past. You can wipe his memory again."

No.

"And that might suffice for a short while, Sire, but in truth, these are all just tricks and devices. They can always be broken through, by anyone with the will. He had to want to believe it at the core. His faith is gone. We will never really be able to control him again."

The Partner looks as if he's going to explode. "Do I need to remind you of the serious purpose that brings us here today? THE APOCALYPSE! I've put a century into making sure we own him when it happens. Don't tell me we lost. Don't say it again."

"Sire, it is lost. He is lost. There's nothing we can do."

The Partner sweeps out in high dudgeon, followed by the demon, who is cringing and making low bows. Lilah makes to follow, but I step in front of her, eyes blazing, and she backs away, towards the dais.

"Wait!" I command.

"Let me go..."

"I want some answers first. You and Lyndsey did more to hurt me than anyone."

"So?"

"You owe me this much."

"I owe you nothing..."

"Tell me it's not true."

She shrugs.

"I helped people. I saved souls."

She steps warily round me; a mouse escaping the claws of a cat. I'm suddenly weak and paralysed with newly acquired knowledge, and she knows it. She sneers.

"The long view, Angel. The big picture. You've never been very adept at seeing it. They didn't care what you were doing. Even if you struck out at them occasionally. They didn't care how many souls you saved, so long as yours belonged to them on Judgement Day."

I blurt out, "It doesn't. It never will."

"So now they'll find some other prophecy to obsess about. Some other demon who claims he holds all the cards. It's a game Angel, and you're no good at playing it. You never were. Your destructive Passion, the light pollution of your soul; it blinds you to the blindingly obvious. You're like most of the human race."

Under my breath, "At least *I* have a soul."

I don't know if she hears me. She leaves, and I go over to the Last Oracle. It is sitting, chewing its lips and fingers between its gums and making pathetic jerking motions with its head. "Lower beings, no access, lower beings, lower beings, must guard..."

My heart swells with pity, and anger, and sympathy for this broken creature. I gather it up and place it on the dais, with my arm beneath its head for a cushion.

"Rest, old friend. The lower beings are gone. There's just me now."

It sits up with a start. "The Powers!"

What purpose would be served by telling it the truth?

"The Powers have work elsewhere that detains them, old one. You must rest and be ready to guard them when they return."

"I guard them well."

"You do." It lies back and seems to sink into the stone. A few seconds pass, and the being who has spent an entire lifetime guarding a vacant shrine, finally spasms and dies.

Epilogue

It hurts sometimes more than we can bear.
If we could live without passion, maybe we'd know some kind of peace.
But we would be hollow. Empty rooms, shuttered and dank.
Without passion, we'd be truly dead.

I awake. Light and air surround me once more. I'm cushioned, and from the aroma that coats my skin, I know Buffy is all around me; her breast supporting my head, her arms gathering me to her.

Round us both stand all the people who relied on me in life. Cordy, Wesley, Doyle, Kate, Faith. And Gunn - I leap to my feet and close him in a crushing hug.

"Gunn - it's so - oh god - so much better than good to see you..."

"Likewise, big fella..."

I look around at their faces, smiling, no, beaming at me. "Where are we?"

Their smiles inch wider. Gunn laughs, "Still looking for the simple answers, Angel? Didn't you learn anything in that dimension?"

"Is this... heaven?"

Buffy wraps her arms round me from behind.

"We don't know."

Laughter. The rest slap my arm, or chuck me on the shoulder, or shake my hand, or kiss my cheek as they leave.

"We don't care."

THE END



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