PG13 for violence and bloodshed.
Summary: Damnation and Redemption are but two sides of one coin.
They jostle behind him in the thousands, and not a one touches his person. A chorus of sound undulates, setting his teeth on edge as it vibrates through his skull. From every throat rumbles a desperate plea, a moan of pain, of despair, or of denial. There’s the stink of carrion in the air. It is the smell of death and of decay. The atmosphere reeks, offering little in the way of fresh air. No matter. There are no lungs that require breath, anyway.
He waits and watches as the boat bumps up to the shore. The powerful figure at the helm stares at him from beneath its cowl. Angel cannot see its eyes but he feels the pressure of its scrutiny. He swallows his fear and steps forward. A bony hand, upheld, stays his feet. The hand reaches for his face and Angel recoils. The helmsman hesitates before beckoning with a finger someone behind Angel. A woman shuffles forward and places a coin into the skeletal palm. When she is seated, Angel can see that half of her face is gone. What is left is exposed tendons and bone. The left side of her face would have once been considered pretty, he thinks. Angel guesses her eyes could have been blue. The light surrounding them tainting all with a reddish hue, denies any colour other than corpse grey, graveyard black, and bloody red.
Not one for carrying money about his person, Angel slides a piece of twisted silver onto the waiting palm. The ring is examined before it disappears into the basket of coins at the helmsman’s feet. He is allowed into the craft, and again he waits as the hordes behind him gain access. He watches as mouths are opened and coins are plucked from within, as tokens are offered in exchange for the trip. When the boat is full, and it holds more than can be possible, Charon steers the boat out into the river Styx.
Angel doesn’t look down into the water, if it can be called that. Its flow is sluggish, the liquid viscous, and the drowning souls within its grasp cry out for help, their pleas battering at his hearing. It is never quiet in Hell. There is no peace. There is a continuous scream that builds behind his eyes and winds its way into his soul. He knows how easy it would be to give into the madness. An eternity is guaranteed to drive a soul insane.
A voice wriggles into his brain, like maggots.
“You are a demon.”
Angel is sure the ferryman sounds surprised but it is hard to tell.
“I have a soul.”
Charon leans near. Angel refuses to give into the urge to flinch. He cannot see into the depths of the cowl, even at the close proximity. Charon moves away, satisfied.
“Of course you do.”
Angel doesn’t know what to think of that.
She is chasing him. It was a mistake, an error of monumental proportions. She cannot leave him to this fate. She loves him and owes him too much to give a moment’s pause. She is chasing them, rather. He was snatched and dragged into Hell. It’s her fault. She rushes on, knowing she hasn’t a moment to spare.
The passengers in the boat stare at him as they did on the shore. They perceive that something about him is not as it should be. Maybe they sense he is one of their tormentors. He doesn’t disabuse them of this notion. It’s true. He was once.
The ruined and the able, all of them damned, shuffle off the boat at journey’s end. He is last to leave. The din of Hell surrounds them. The mass of the writhing dead covers the shore and its numbers continue on to the horizon. Demons with whips and chains divide between them the newly arrived. The demons are herding the cursed to their fate. Nine circles of Hell and this is the first. A lucky few will find themselves assigned here and to the other outer circles. The not so lucky, well... Angel doesn’t like to dwell. The demons notice his presence, and the lashings cease.
“You!” they snarl, pointing at him with taloned hands. Impossibly, their shout is heard above the clamour, and out of the crush three demons emerge. They’re larger than their companions and carry axes and swords.
“You dare to come here?”
Angel darts away and into the throng of misery. The demons follow. They do so by cutting through the crowd, literally. Dismembered corpses are left twitching and groaning in their wake. The dead cannot die in Hell. They are revived over and over, to suffer eternal torment, each agony designed specifically to suit. Hands clutch at him, urging him on. Behind him a mass of bodies weave a wall between him and his pursuers.
They catch up to him eventually, flesh and bone no match for hungry steel, and he turns and makes a stand, freeing the sword from beneath his coat. They lumber forward, not used to a victim that moves with his preternatural speed. Two heads are rolling away before the remaining demon realises its mistake. It charges, the axe in its hand a blur. Angel sidesteps and goes low, the point of his sword reaching up and into the demon’s chest. Blood oozes black from its mouth as it dies on his blade. Angel shoves the corpse off his sword and hurries up the slope. The damned follow, behind.
Buffy catches up to them, the demon’s progress having been hampered by dragging its struggling victim.
“Giles!” Buffy shouts as she attacks.
She tears her watcher from the demon’s grasp and pushes him away. He stumbles and lands on his hands and knees, panting hard with the exertion. Giles starts to shake with emotion. He is relieved to see his slayer, and although he knows that she has put herself in peril, he is grateful he isn’t alone. He stares about in trepidation. Buffy is using her sword to slice and dice. The demon is putting up a fight but it knows it won’t win. It has no weapons, and its claws and teeth are no match for Buffy’s blade. Giles’ gaze sweeps the abominable landscape. Active volcanoes spew ash and smoke on the horizon, and the sky is dark and red as if lit with eternal fire. He amends that thought. The sky is lit with eternal fire. The vegetation is dead and withered, their naked branches twist and knot in fruitless entanglement. The air is fetid. Its stench scours his nostrils, but it is breathable, and for that he is thankful. The demon is dispatched, and Buffy hurries over to him.
“Are you okay?” she asks, the tremble in her voice betraying her fear for him.
“You shouldn’t have come,” he answers with a shaky breath. “But I’m very pleased to see you.”
“I had to come. It’s my fault that you’re here.”
“We’re here,” he corrects her.
She helps him to stand. Giles touches his knees. His trousers have helped a little to prevent major injury but he can feel the scrapes all the same.
“We’re here because I was careless,” she replies. “I should have been more careful.”
“It’s not your fault, Buffy,” he reassures her. “I stood too close. The demon grabbed me before…”
“I was the one watching him,” Buffy interrupted. “I should have expected a trick. Willow must be frantic.”
“She’ll find a way, Buffy. Willow will open another portal and we’ll be able to escape.”
“She might find a way, Giles, but will we find the portal?” She waves her arm to encompass the scenery. “Hell’s a big place,” a movement catches her eye, “and not a friendly one.”
Below them, Giles and Buffy spy figures making their way towards them. Their gait is odd, disjointed.
“Come on!” Buffy grabs hold of Giles and begins to lead him back the way they came.
“There’s a cave up the hill,” he says. “There’s a chance we can hold them off up there.”
Buffy peers up at the hill above them. The way is filled with craggy rocks and boulders. The cave could be defended if, indeed, the dark hollow they can see is a cave. Buffy fears the cave is already occupied but she doesn’t voice her concern.
“Let’s go before our guests arrive,” she says, and they begin to pick their way up.
The figures below swell in numbers. They, too, start to climb.
Pathways twist and turn beneath his feet and he fights to keep to his course. The landscape around him contorts and settles into a new pattern. The marshland he is slogging through becomes a sea of bones. He is crossing the Desert of Desolation. A hot wind picks up. Tiny particles of bone scour his skin. He rips a piece of his shirt and ties it about his eyes and continues on, his vision restricted to where he treads. He loses track of time. The rhythm of placing one foot before the other lulls him to a waking doze. The wind whips away any lament he has been hearing. His followers are toiling behind him, miles away. They cannot keep up with his pace, but they do not give up. He despairs that they expect him to save them. In Hell there is no hope for the dead.
A shadow, darker than the others throws itself across his stride. Ripping the cloth from his eyes, he twists aside, and frees his sword. A demon, a huge brute is before him and stands beyond arm’s length. Its legs are the size of tree trunks. The arms crossed over a barrel chest are a match for its legs. In its hands are twin blades. Angel grits his teeth in anticipation. He can let nothing stand in his way. He launches himself at his foe.
The cave is occupied. Buffy has no trouble throwing the demon out. It’s small, child-sized, and ugly. It spits and snarls at her and, when she nicks it with her sword, it scampers away screaming abuse.
“I thought demons were the masters here?” Buffy says.
She and Giles are sitting on the slab of stone at the cave’s entrance. Her eyes are on the crest of the rise.
“There’s a hierarchy here like anywhere else, I presume.”
“But…” Buffy pauses for a moment. She is puzzled. “Hell is where the damned go. If you do evil then that’s your fate. If demons are evil, why are they the ones dishing out the punishment? Shouldn’t they be on the receiving end?”
“Demons don’t have souls. I know some of them believe they do but they don’t. Look at vampires, for instance.”
Buffy is thinking about vampires. One vampire in particular. Her skin prickles when she thinks about Angel and the years he endured in Hell. A demon with a soul in a place like this. What tortures must the other demons have devised for him. She shivers.
“And don’t forget there are many Hell dimensions.” Giles gives her arm a squeeze. “He may not have ended up here. Acathla…” he stops when he realises what he is saying.
Buffy is grateful for Giles’ attempt at making her feel better. It hasn’t worked. She is watching for the shambling figures to crest the rise, when he leaves her side. A pool of putrid water, if water ran red and gelatinous, glistens a few steps away. It is fed from a trickle that meanders uphill. It’s not enough of an oddity to cause comment. Giles stirs the liquid with a twig he has picked up. He sniffs it and makes a face.
“I hope we’re not here too long,” he says.
The dead arrive.
Angel is limping through a forest of knives, each step a brush against a blade. His clothing is in tatters. Impaled and aware, the dead stare at him as he passes by. They wriggle and contort and attempt to free themselves. Their screams follow him through the Forest of Agony. Angel doesn’t turn to look back. He knows the damned still follow, and many of them will end up sliced in pieces or stuck like a pig on a blade. He doesn’t know why they follow in his wake. He is a dead thing, the same as they. His soul is forfeit, as are theirs. It’s certainly not the demon factor. Demons are the jailors and the tormentors here. The damned should be running from him, not trailing behind. Angel wonders what Hell will send against him next time. It’s changing its landscape to discourage his journey, and the demon he vanquished back in the desert isn’t going to be the only one he’s going to face. He hopes that Buffy and Giles are safe, if safety can be had in the Underworld.
Ruined faces stare at them. At her, Buffy realises. The crowd have halted their advance, and gather, till Giles and Buffy face a semi-circle of dead souls. Buffy wonders why the bodies aren’t intact. They’re souls really, which has her acknowledging the fact that in Hell anything is possible. Perhaps this is part of their punishment, to suffer and decay as their corpses must back in the grave. She shivers again in memory. Back in her grave…
“Why are they just standing there?” she whispers to her friend and mentor.
“I think…” Giles’ reply is lost, when from above a demon swoops down on them. It is reptilian and winged. Not as big as a dragon but fearsome enough. Buffy shoves Giles behind her and snatches up her sword. The beast attacks by flying past and slashing at her with its claws. She averts the blow with her blade, and ducks as the creature’s tail lashes out as it climbs away.
Deep as thunder, a voice calls out to her. It is the reptile in the air.
“The Master will not be denied his prize. You are his now.”
Buffy’s grin is feral. “Yeah? Well, I faced a vampire who called himself The Master, and I defeated him. Come and get me.”
The demon descends in a rush, intending to pluck up its prey. Buffy spins about, slashing at the creature’s wings, and leaps onto the demon’s back. Her weight is an impediment and the creature struggles to gain altitude. It flounders in the air. Buffy’s blade bites deep where the demon’s head meets its spine. Its shriek is deafening, and it drops like a stone. Buffy somersaults away as the dying demon hits the ground.
With a smirk directed at the dead creature, Buffy says, “Whose prize are you now?”
Giles emerges from the safety of the cave. He eyes the demon with interest, and asks her, “Are you alright?”
The adrenaline is racing through her veins. Buffy feels invincible. She nods.
“I’m fine. Not a scratch.”
It is then that another demon descends from above to attack. Buffy barely has time to think, she is back in the fray. Giles ducks back into the cave, into safety. When he peers out he can see a commotion stirring the crowd. The crowd have turned their dead faces to the monsters trying to reach Buffy and Giles. The demons are overwhelmed. The damned have found a reason to fight back, and Giles wonders what that is. The demons are vanquished and lie trampled underfoot in mere moments. The lost souls return to their silent watch, their sightless eyes fixed on what is playing out before them.
Buffy leaps and dives about, slashing at the winged demon. She scores a slice across a wing, rending the tissue to the bone, and it tumbles to the ground. Buffy stabs it in the stomach and is rewarded with a spew of hot entrails. Its screech of pain rattles her teeth. To end its misery, Buffy separates the head from its body. Panting hard, hands on knees, Buffy assures herself that Giles is safe. He scampers out with a careful look skywards.
And somewhat belatedly, Buffy remembers they have an audience. She turns around. The crowd are imitating statues so still they stand. It is deathly quiet, and Buffy understands that it is a rare thing in Hell. Another oddity captures her attention.
“Mmm?” He is leaning over the demons’ carcasses, examining them.
“Giles. What’s that?”
He looks up to see what she is pointing at.
“Good Lord,” he says, before realising what he has said. In a place like this the Lord’s name isn’t bandied about. “Is that a leaf?”
Buffy kneels before a tangle of twigs. Giles crouches beside her for a better look.
“The bush is alive,” he says in wonderment, and gently touches the bit of greenery that is emerging from the twig.
“But,” Buffy begins to say. Giles, however, has returned to the pool of water. His shout hurries her over.
“The water is clear.” He scoops up a handful of water and tentatively tastes it. “It’s clean,” he informs her, and kneels to take a drink.
“What’s going on?” Buffy looks about in confusion. “What is happening?”
The land is shrouded in droplets of blood. The mist clings to everything it touches, its tendrils are everywhere. His hair, his skin, and his clothes are saturated. Angel is hungry. He can not, will not, lick his lips. The hilt of his blade is slick in his hand. He carries it unsheathed. He is expecting trouble. When it comes, it is in the form of a tentacled God. It rears up and lashes out at him. Angel’s blade is a blur of motion. He slices the appendages like dicing carrots on a kitchen block. The eye, when he pushes his steel through it, writhes in agony. An army of clones, far smaller but voracious all the same, attack him in fury, needing to avenge the death of their creator. It’s all a lie. The God is long dead, its minions too. They hunt the Mists of Loathing in the guise of beasts. This is their punishment. Their humanity has been replaced by their inner demons, the darkness in their souls. Angel rolls on the ground, crunching the creatures on his back. With his free hand he sweeps them from his clothing, their teeth tearing more rents in his garments. Discarding his coat, he puts on a spurt of speed and throws himself into the lake. The lake is plasma, thick and gluggy. The minions drown, and are swept away. Sword between his teeth, Angel swims close to the shore. His feet touch bottom. Plasma up to his waist, he trudges along, following the path that has been chosen for him.
Buffy and Giles stare at the crowd of onlookers. Bodies twisted and grotesque, dead and decaying, grey and whole, are becoming…
“Alive,” Buffy breathes, incredulous.
Faces are reforming, scars are diminishing, and wounds are healing before their eyes. The pallor of death is retreating, and a fresh glow of health is blossoming on dead flesh. Limbs begin to move, and fingers explore newfound vitality.
“Not alive, Buffy. Healing. This is extraordinary.”
“The leaves, Giles.” Buffy points at the bush. “The flowers,” she cries. The shrub has sprouted tiny yellow blooms. They stand out like miniature suns in the drab landscape.
“They’re alive. I think these people…”
Giles interrupts her. “They’re not people. They’re souls, remember? The form we see is what Hell has assigned to them.”
“Souls. People. What’s the difference?”
“Any semblance of life is just that. There are no miracles in Hell.”
A ripple stirs the crowd. Heads turn and look away, and as one the dead pivot until their backs are to the living.
Buffy strides forward, and is willing to push through the throng. They part before her, and she is left standing at the crest of the rise. Giles joins her. Below, Buffy can see a luminous light. Its glow is silver and cool like moonlight, and it is man-shaped. It is toiling upwards to where they stand. In its wake is an army of the damned. They cling to the light as a baby does to a nipple and they aren’t letting go. Giles squints at the shadows forming below. He can’t see what she sees, the man-shaped light, but the army of dead heading their way is unmistakeable.
“What is it?” he asks her.
Buffy backs away, Giles in tow. “Trouble.”
Buffy hefts her sword and adopts a fighting stance. Giles has collected a small mound of rocks. He is standing by, ready to throw.
“Do prayers get answered in Hell?”
“There’s always a first time, Buffy.”
They wait for the inevitable. And when it arrives it is in the form of a…
He is near his goal. The locator spell Willow laid upon him is drawing him towards Buffy and Giles, the only living people in Hell. A golden light beckons on a hill above. Its glow is like liquid gold. It burns bright, casting a brilliance that can be seen for miles. It’s a star, a beacon of hope in the darkness of the Underworld. It promises warmth, solace, and maybe, just, maybe, a brief respite from the holocaust of eternal suffering. He knows first-hand the salvation of the golden light. Like Moses parting the Red Sea, the host of dead souls makes way for him as he labours upwards. And when he crests the hill, he can see clearly, unmistakably, it is Buffy.
Buffy’s whisper is like a thunderclap in the silence. “Angel?” The blade in her hand falls to the ground.
“Buffy,” he replies, and he stumbles forward, dropping his sword, his strength almost gone. He has bled across the plains of Hell and his wounds are not healing as they should.
She catches him, bewildered that he is here. Her hands come away bloody when he regains his balance. Giles is at Angel’s other side, a hand out, just in case. The vampire is a mess. Giles’ expert eye surveys the tattered clothes and the gaping wounds showing through. There is so much blood Giles doesn’t know why Angel is not dust.
As if reading his thoughts, Angel mutters, “There was a lake…”
“Angel!” Buffy hugs him gently, overcome that he has ventured into the depths of Hell to rescue them. But then, this is Angel. There is nothing he wouldn’t do for her, she knows.
“Willow sent me,” he adds in explanation when Buffy has released him.
“How did you find us?” Giles asks, leading Angel to their stony seat. Angel sinks down wearily, glad to be off his feet.
“Locator spell.” Angel fumbles with his belt. Buffy sees there is a pouch attached to it. Angel pulls out a leather bag, “Herbs,” he says, and retrieves a bottle of water.
Giles’ eyebrows go up an inch. “Is that…?”
“Holy water, yeah.”
Buffy wants to shake him. “If the bottle had broken, you would’ve been…”
Angel waves away her concern. Besides, it’s a moot point. “We’d all be stuck here.”
Giles accepts Angel’s precious cargo. “The spell?”
Angel taps his temple. “In here.”
Giles straightens up. “The usual circle?”
At Angel’s nod, Giles begins to draw an outline of a circle using the herbs. Buffy squats before the love of her life and places her hands gently on his thighs. Her eyes shimmer with unshed tears.
His fingers slide around hers and he gives them a gentle squeeze. “How could I not?”
“I sent you here,” she whispers, her throat tight with emotion.
A little shake of his head. “It wasn’t your fault.”
She presses on, guilt weighing her down. “All those years.”
“Don’t,” his voice commands gently. There is nothing to forgive, in his mind.
Buffy’s heart swells with love. Her fingers grip his tightly.
Angel changes the subject. “You have an audience.”
Buffy glances at the onlookers from the corner of her eye. Puzzled still, she frowns.
“Yeah, what’s up with that?”
“You burn so bright, Buffy, it hurts my eyes.”
“What?” She doesn’t understand.
“The dead can see your soul. Its brilliance is blinding.”
Buffy is… she doesn’t know what she is. Dumbfounded, certainly. “My soul?”
“You have a champion’s heart. Your soul reflects that. That is what they are drawn to.”
Giles has been listening, going about his task. Buffy’s soul is a blinding light, and apparently, Angel’s shines too. Now he understands. Buffy has been twice dead, of course she can see what the dead see, at least here, in this Godforsaken place.
“The miracle,” he says in awe. “The healing, the water, the flowers.”
Buffy’s mouth drops open. “Oh.”
Angel nods, grinning at her.
Giles has completed the circle. Angel climbs to his feet.
He tells the watcher, “Sprinkle the Holy water, inside.”
Angel is ready to drop. He’s in desperate need of sleep. He isn’t aware that he sways. Buffy is there, her hand on his arm. He steadies himself.
“Holy water, Angel? You’ll burn.”
His smile is a weak one. “Gives burn in Hell a new meaning, doesn’t it?”
“Of course!” Giles’ quiet expletive turns their heads. The ground within the circle is smoking, benediction soaking into Hell’s skin. The skin ripples as if in agony. It hisses in anguish.
Buffy gives Angel a pointed look. “I’m just saying.”
Giles places the empty bottle in his pocket, and retrieves their weapons. He lifts his foot and crosses into the waiting circle.
“Best hurry,” he advises.
Buffy walks Angel over to their escape route. Before they step in, she says, “You glow too, did you know?”
He stares at her, not believing what he is hearing.
“Why do you think you have groupies?” She waves a hand at the people, for she has begun to think of them as people, who have swelled her crowd. “You’re all silver, like moonbeams on a lake. Cool and sleek and soothing. It’s your soul that cries out to them, Angel. It’s the soul of a hero, a champion, and of a good man.”
Angel is silent, dumbstruck. Is it possible that he has a future, other than one bound for this place? Could he even begin to hope? Looking down into Buffy’s eyes, he sees his hope reflected there, and smiles.
His boots protect him from the water, and it is hard to distinguish whether they smoke like the ground beneath their feet. Angel recites the spell, and a portal opens around them. They step through.
The souls continue to stand vigil long after the promise of hope has vanished. A circular patch of grass has sprouted where the portal had opened. The pool runs clear, and for a time, the sweet scent of flowers pushes back the stink of damnation.
There are many Hell dimensions in the Buffyverse. This is but one I chose to use. Charon, in Greek mythology is the ferryman of the dead. He would only ferry those who had proper burial rites, which included the placing of a coin beneath the tongue. The coin was his payment. The River Styx is but one of five rivers in Hades. Styx comes from the Greek word stugein which means hateful and expresses the horror of death. My imagination filled in the rest of the dimension.
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