"Though much is taken, much abides; and though
--Albert Lord Tennyson
I ran until my lungs threatened to burst. I ran until my legs were ready to collapse. It still wasn't enough.
I was running away from my friends, my past, myself. And I knew that I couldn't run from them forever. Sooner or later, they all would find me.
I could deal with my friends. Even with my past. But myself...
That voice was always there. Condemning me, damning me for what I had done. I had never shared that shame before, I couldn't. If the other Scoobs knew what I had done, how I had betrayed Buffy...
As I stopped to rest, I looked around to see where I was; the middle of Whetherly Park, once the prime trolling ground for Sunnydale's vamps, now as safe as any park in America. I noticed the swing-set where I had played many times before, as a kid, with Xander pushing me, and later, in high school, with Buffy, just sitting in the swing next to me. We would talk about everything and nothing, and not care whether we resolved any issues, had made any decisions, or had changed our lives in any way. Just to be together, best friend to best friend.
And that was years before we fell in love. No, I take that back. Years before we realized that we were always in love with each other.
And I killed her.
I just sat on the swing, the one on the left side, the one where I always sat. I kept looking at the other swing, the one where Buffy always sat, expecting to see her there, but knowing that she was never coming back. I couldn't think, I couldn't cry, I couldn't breath. I found myself hoping that this was it. My death, to make up for hers.
"Hey, Wills," a familiar voice greeted me. Damn, still among the living.
I didn't say anything as Xander sat in Buffy's old swing.
"Gotta say, Wills," he continued, "not liking the fatalistic attitude."
"Gotta say, Xand," I answered, tonelessly, "not giving a rat's ass."
Xander looked at me, I could feel his eyes on me, I could feel his warmth, his caring, his generosity of soul. I knew that if he knew what I had done, he'd forgive me on the spot.
I didn't want him to forgive me. I didn't deserve it.
"This is the part where I ask if you want to talk about it," he quipped, "and you say you'd rather be alone. But that ain't gonna happen. Because I don't think it would be good to leave you alone."
"Thanks, Xander," I tried to put a happy face on, knowing that he wouldn't buy it, "but I'll be fine. I'll apologize to Giles in the morning."
"What about Sandra?" he asked. "You think you should apologize to her?"
"Why?" I turned to Xander, not caring if my facade of well being was fading. "I was just telling her the truth. She's caught in a dead-end career, literally, and if she doesn't get out, she'll end up like Buffy."
Xander appraised me, the sadness and caring in his eyes touching me like a searchlight. Seeing into my soul. I wanted to get away, but I was to tired. He finally said, sadly, "You still haven't mourned for her, have you?"
"I've been mourning for her every day this last year, and will mourn her for the rest of my life," I exclaimed. "Don't you talk to me about mourning."
"Well," Xander huffed, getting out of his swing and facing me, his voice approaching a shout. "That's pretty damn selfish of you." I pulled away as he said it, not believing what I heard. "You think you have the monopoly on mourning Buffy, just because you two shared orgasm privileges?"
My hand flew hard onto Xander's face before I knew what I was doing. I felt my hand ball itself into a fist, I heard the smack, felt the sting of his cheek on my knuckles, then it registered; I had hit my childhood friend. Hard.
He just looked back at me, and half-smiled, through a red swell that was soon to become a livid bruise. "Okay, I was out of line. But you're not the only one who misses her. Hell, I miss her every day. Not a day goes by when I don't think about her, expect her to tell me to shut up after I tell an awful pun, or give me her regular pep talk when things get rough for me. But I've let go of the pain, I got through it. And if you think that you're being fair to Buffy by keeping your pain alive, then here's a hot news flash for you; you're not."
I sat there, not believing what I had done. I just rocked gently on the swing as he stood before me, wanting to help, wanting to shout, wanting to slug me if that was what it took. The dam had to burst. I couldn't shore it up anymore.
"I--I killed her, Xander," I said, as the tears fell unchecked. I sobbed openly, as Xander scooped me up in his arms, holding me in a bear hug, assuring me, "No, Willow, no you didn't. If you're gonna blame someone, blame Oz. He's the one who pushed her into the Hellmouth."
"And I'm the--I'm the one," I continued between sobs, "who convinced her--that Oz--Oz was okay--that we could trust him--" I couldn't continue, I just let the sobs take over.
Xander pulled me away slightly, saying, "Look at me, Willow. She knew. She knew there was something wrong with him. Her spider-sense was ringing hard when he came back. She didn't know about his connection to Adam, but she knew that the wolf had taken over. That he had turned evil." I couldn't believe my ears. What Xander was saying made no sense. But the passion in his voice convinced me that what he was saying was God's truth.
"But why would she let him back in the Scooby Gang?" I asked, managing to control my crying a little.
"Because she wanted to keep an eye on him. You know what they say, Wills. Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer. She was too busy worrying about Adam and the Initiative, she didn't want a loose werewolf to bite us all in the ass--so to speak," he added when he realized his unintentional pun.
"But why didn't she tell me?" I asked.
Xander looked at me again, sadness in his eyes, and said, "I don't know, Willow. Maybe she thought that if you knew too much, Oz would get wise. She was fighting a war on too many fronts. I guess Oz was one front too many. And you had nothing to do with it. You didn't turn him evil, his curse did. He stopped fighting it, and just gave in. He embraced his evil side."
"'And once you start down that dark path'," I finished, in my worst Yoda impersonation, "'Forever will it dominate your destiny'." I started to giggle, which brought around a fit of giggles from Xander.
"Yeah, something like that," he gulped. We stood there, he comforting me, me allowing myself to be comforted. Goddess, it felt good to unload.
"You're the first person I've told this," I said to him.
"I guessed as much," he murmured. "You've been carrying it around for far too long. You needed to unburden, and I'm glad I was there. Now you can go on."
"How, Xander?" I asked as a new wave of tears threatened to take over. "I can't remember a time when I didn't love Buffy."
"So don't stop loving her," Xander said. "Just stop blaming yourself. She saved our lives more often than we've eaten in restaurants, you know that? Stay alive. Remember her. Hey, why do you think I became a cop? Because Buffy showed me that there's something worth fighting for. Because she did what she did, and we were there to help her. Now I'm doing the same thing. Helping others. That's what matters."
Helping others. Just like what I had said to her once. Shortly before we graduated from high school. That's what I want to do. Fight evil, help people. I mean, I think it's worth doing. And I don't think you do it because you have to. It's a good fight, Buffy, and I want in.
"God, I feel like a selfish bitch," I laughed, mostly at myself.
He just held me, let me cry it out, until the maelstrom passed again. For the first time in nearly a year, I actually was able to smile, and mean it.
"Thanks, Xander. I really needed this."
"Any time, kiddo. You want me to walk you home?"
"Can you walk me to Giles' first?" I asked. "I owe a few people some major apologies."
"No problem," he answered as he gave me his arm. "I told him and the others to hang tough until I got back." I smiled at him. Always thinking of the basic stuff, while Buffy handled the slaying and Tara and I dealt with the magic. Same ol' Xander.
"You know what happened to me today, when I was first given my badge?" I just looked at him as he spoke. "Mom and Dad were there at the ceremony. After I was given the badge, Dad came up to me, shook my hand and said, 'You done good. I'm proud of you.' Just like that."
"Your dad said that?" I was surprised. I knew that Xander and his parents rarely spoke to each other.
"Yeah, just like that," he answered, and I could tell that this new, tenuous bond between Xander and his dad had affected him profoundly. "I took this job because of Buffy, and now my dad's proud of me. How do you like that? One year after she dies, and she's still looking out for us."
I smiled more broadly, warmed by the thought. Buffy, perched on a cloud, looking after her friends still on Earth. I started to think that no just and benevolent God or Goddess would leave Buffy's soul in Hell, even if that's were she landed at first. It made me feel good to think of Buffy watching over me. I looked up at the sky, and imagined seeing Buffy's face among the stars. For the first time in a long time, I wasn't dreading waking up in the morning.
I thought that I could finally get on with my life. Thanks, Xander. Thanks, Buffy.
Xander and I walked slowly back to Giles. I was reveling in the sense of peace that had suffused me. I hadn't felt like this since losing Buffy. I really began to think that things would work out for me.
We started playing 'Slug-Bug', seeing who could spot the most VW Beetles. I threw Xander off by announcing "Y2K Bug", when I saw one of those new Beetles. We had a spirited debate whether that counted, or whether the newer cars should be included with the older models. Slug-Bug was something that Xander and I did as kids, and playing it again with him brought up so many good memories.
As we made sight of Giles' townhouse, we noticed a car that we didn't recognize in the driveway. When we got closer, I read the license plate; "QUEEN C2".
"Oh my dear lord", the rookie cop standing next to me whispered. We knew only one person who used that license plate. Xander shuddered. "Cordy?"
I hesitantly knocked at the door, and Giles answered. "Willow," he greeted me. "You and Xander had better come in." He ushered us inside rather brusquely. As I entered his living room, I noticed Cordelia sitting with the others, and Joyce sitting next to her.
Standing behind the couch, tall and stoic as I remember him, was Angel.
Angel and Buffy hadn't parted on the best of terms. Shortly after Buffy and I first became lovers, Faith had switched bodies with Buffy, and tried to take over her life (a situation that still made my skin crawl at the thought of it; I had made passionate love with Buffy, only to find out it was with Faith! I had to live in the shower for a week!). Shortly after getting her body back, Buffy tracked Faith to LA, only to find that Angel had been protecting her. Faith had manipulated Angel into giving her sanctuary, and by the time her deception had been discovered, the damage had been done. Buffy looked at Angel, her first love, and saw only an enemy. Shortly after that was the final battle with Adam, and I don't remember seeing Angel at her grave since then. And now he was here, with Cordy and Joyce.
Buffy once said that there were two things that she didn't believe in; coincidences and leprechauns. After seeing Cordy, Angel and Joyce waiting for me at Giles', I decided right then and there that I was never going to Ireland. No telling who or what I would find there.
"Hello, Xander," I heard Cordy greet her old boyfriend. "It's good to see you."
"Likewise, C," Xander answered, and I didn't feel any pretense in his civility. His voice was warm, his greeting genuine.
"Hello, Willow," Angel greeted me. "It's been a long time."
"Too long," I said. Whatever Buffy thought of him, I still had a soft spot for our favorite Vampire-with-a-soul. I went to where he was standing and hugged him. I turned again to Giles, and said, "I just wanted to apologize for wigging out back then. I didn't mean any of it..."
"I understand, Willow," Giles answered. "But that may be academic, if what Angel has told us is correct."
"Angel picked me up when he first got into town," Joyce explained to me. "He just told us why he's here." She stood up and looked directly into my eyes. I could see recent tears on her cheeks, but her eyes carried a glow of desperate hope. "She's alive, Willow," she whispered. "Buffy's alive!"
"Wha--" I could barely speak as I heard what Joyce was saying. "How--" A thousand thoughts and emotions collided within me. I felt my knees shake, threaten to give way. Angel sensed this, and directed me to the first available chair, which Cordy had promptly vacated. "How can that be?" I finally asked. "I saw her. I saw her die."
"No you didn't," explained Angel. "You saw her fall into the Hellmouth, but she was alive then. If my sources are right, and I have to believe they are, then she's still alive, trapped in the Hellmouth."
I was stunned. At first, I couldn't absorb this information at once. Buffy alive. Buffy in Hell. I heard myself whisper hoarsely at Angel, "So help me, if you're jerking my chain about this, I will kill you."
"He's telling the truth," Cordelia rose to his defense. "I saw her. You know that I became a seer after Doyle died. I saw her in the Hellmouth, just the other day. She was frozen, not moving, but don't ask me how, I got the feeling that she was still alive." She spoke haltingly, as though her experience as a seer disturbed her. She had told me that she didn't enjoy being a seer, but it had come in handy for her and Angel in the past.
"Her vision had been so strong," Angel continued, "that I had to consult the Oracles. Normally they're not exactly forthcoming with that kind of information, but they're exact words told me what I needed to know; 'The living is among the dead, the Chosen One must return'. I have to believe that they're talking about Buffy."
I turned to Angel, and looked back around the room. We were all trying to digest this news. The others had heard it from Angel moments before I got back, but to Xander and myself, it was new. Xander's jaw was unhinged, and just hung there. I guess that mine was the same way. "I need to be sure about this, Angel. Can you be certain? I mean 100 percent, absolutely, hand over heart certain that this is what the Oracles meant?"
"As certain as I can be about anything they say," Angel replied. "They're notorious for withholding information, unless it suits their purpose to tell, or if it's urgent enough. And if the Oracles are telling me that Buffy has to be rescued, then I believe them." He held out his hand to me, saying, "I need you, Willow. You and Giles are the only people I can trust to find whatever spell or ritual or whatever it will take to bring her back."
"What about Wesley?" I asked. "Isn't he on your payroll nowadays?"
"Wesley's good, but I need him to hold the fort back in LA," he answered. "Especially with Wolfram and Hart still giving me grief. I need you. Will you help me?"
I looked at him, trying to determine from his expression whether he was leveling with me. I finally decided that he wasn't kidding. He'd never do that to me anyway. Especially about Buffy.
I took his hand in mine and said, "Like you even need to ask." I looked at the assembled Scoobs and others around the room and said three words, which were greeted by loud agreement;
"Let's get Buffy!"
Over the next week, I dove into every search engine, every web surfer, every resource I could find to look for the key to the Hellmouth. Giles buried himself in his ancient texts, aided by Denise. The others did what they could to help; Xander and Sandra patrolled the town in their roles as cop and slayer, respectively. Tara reminded me to eat at least once a day. Cordy, Angel and Joyce provided whatever support they could. It felt for a while like the old Scooby Gang, like time passed backward to some day of great glory, when we were younger, when we felt invincible. Save the world, then party. That was us, the Scooby Gang, the Class Protectors, and we were back.
It was Tara that gave me the crucial clue; the source of the spell that we used to close the Hellmouth in the first place. I tore through that codex, rereading each passage until my eyes grew blurry from either the ancient script or the eye-screwing Celtic spirals on every page.
Finally, the book surrendered its secrets to me. I found what was called The Ritual of Restoration. I read and reread the passages until I committed them to memory, and then assembled the extended Scooby Gang at Giles' place to outline the Ritual;
"Okay, gang," I started. "According to the Cildargen Codex, the Ritual of Restoration will allow us to bring a soul wrongly imprisoned in Hell to its rightful place. Since it doesn't specify Heaven, I'm assuming that it will allow us to bring Buffy back. I'll explain the ritual first, then I'll field your questions.
"The ritual can take place only four times a year, on the first full moon following either the Spring or Fall Equinox, or the Winter or Summer Solstice. Fortunately, the Summer Solstice was last week, and the first full moon following it is in four days. The spell requires two witches or mages to open the portal to Hell. Tara, will you help me?"
"You got it," she answered.
"Thanks, Tara. Now, the rest of you, Tara and I will be drawing on your psychic energies during the casting of the spell. I need you at that time to concentrate on Buffy, on her well being, on any characteristic, fond memory, whatever. It has to be positive, the spell can only occur in a spirit of love and friendship. Are we on the same page?" The others nodded. I looked at Denise and Sandra, who were there with us. "I'm not sure about the two of you, since you never knew Buffy personally."
"That is true," Denise answered. "But we had always admired her, and if we can help her, we'd be glad to."
"Glad to have you on our side," I thanked them. "Now, once the portal is opened, the ritual calls for three of us to enter the portal, and retrieve Buffy. Preferably three who are especially close to her. I don't think I gotta tell you that I'm going in." I noticed Joyce starting to raise her hand, but I stopped her. "Sorry, Joyce, but only experienced Scoobs need apply. I'll need you topside to keep the portal open."
"I'll go with you," volunteered Angel. "I've been there, I know the terrain."
"Thanks, Angel," I smiled at him.
"I'm not gonna be outdone by Deadboy, here," Xander announced. "Count me in, too," I could hear him add under his breath, "Did I just say that?"
"You sure, Xand?" I asked. "This ain't just a grocery run to the Twenty Four Seven."
Xander turned around, answering, "Uh, yeah, I guess. After what Buffy's done for us, it's the least I could do. Besides, after a patrol of Hell, walking a beat will be no problem." I noticed Cordelia smiling warmly at Xander, and Xander took her hand in his own. I started to wonder what was going on between them.
I continued. "Okay, we have our posse. Now, once we're in, we need the rest of you to keep thinking good thoughts about Buffy. This will be like a candle in the window. It'll be our beacon to find our way out of Hell again."
"One question, Willow," Joyce raised her hand tentatively. "How will you find Buffy once you're in?" The others looked at her, clearly wondering the same thing. "I mean, you'll be passing through Hell, searching untold billions of souls for one soul. Can anyone else say 'needle in a haystack'?"
"Good point, Joyce," I said. "But you can always use an electro-magnet to pull the needle out of the haystack."
"Too bad we don't have a Buffy Magnet," quipped Cordy.
"But we do," I answered simply. I started to finger the Mizpah coin that I still wore around my neck. "Me. That's why I gotta go in. The key passages of the Ritual clearly state that only a soulmate can find the lost soul. Once we're in, according to the Codex, I must concentrate on Buffy. Once I empty my mind of all thought except for her, I'll get a clear sense of where she is. Once we find her, we'll send our thoughts out to you, and the portal will open again. That's why we need two mages. One on each side of the portal to keep it from closing for good once we're in."
I had finished explaining my plan, and awaited the questions. There were a few, but mostly they understood the plan. "Guys, I won't lie to you," I finished. "This is gonna get hairy. I'm talking serious world-threat level danger. If we don't pull this off, the Hellmouth may take all our souls, or split wide open."
"Wills," Xander commented, "I'd forget about your brilliant future in advertising."
"Like I said," I continued, ignoring Xander's jibe, "This isn't an easy or safe route. But it's the only way to save Buffy, and if Angel's right, we're gonna need her soon. This is entirely voluntary. You want out, there's the door, I won't think any less of you. Anyone want out now?"
Everyone shook their heads, or looked around. Finally Giles said simply, "I think I speak for all of us when I say, we're behind you all the way. For Buffy."
The others murmured, "For Buffy."
My heart was lightened by their instant agreement. I should have known better; they wouldn't back out now or ever, not if they could save Buffy.
"Okay, gang, four days from now," I finished. "Angel, Xander, I guess we're going to Hell."
And we passed through the cavern of rats.
The next day, I began to prepare myself.
It had been over a year since I had attempted any kind of spell. I had abandoned the practice of Wicca after Buffy's disappearance, blaming my inability in that area for what had happened to her. Now I had to rededicate myself to the art, to save her. I spent the next four days in silent meditation, cleansing my mind of all negative thoughts. I meditated repeatedly on the Wiccan Rule;
Bide the Wiccan Law ye must,
Just saying these ancient words somehow made me feel at peace with myself. I knew that this was right, that rededicating myself to the Goddess in this manner was what I was meant to do. Tara and I had begun to memorize the elements of the Ritual of Restoration, and what I thought would be an uphill struggle turned out to be as natural as breathing. In my secret heart, I felt that we would be successful. That we would find and save Buffy.
I needed that optimism to survive the days before we could complete the ritual. Angel had told us before, from his own experiences in Hell, that time passed much more quickly in Hell than on Earth. He had been stranded in Hell for a few months, our time, but it equated to many years in Hell. I hoped that he meant that symbolically, not literally. Buffy had been gone for over a year, how much time had passed for her? Buffy could be ancient, old enough to be my grandmother. Or long dead. Angel and I had talked about it the night before the ritual, and he could only say that the Powers That Be wanted her back on earth for some purpose. At least he was led to believe that by the Oracles. I could only trust that Angel was right.
For Buffy's sake, he had to be.
The night of the full moon, we were as ready as we were gonna be.
The site of the Ritual of Restoration was an abandoned graveyard. The former site of the Initiative headquarters. The site of our last battle against Adam. The site where we lost Buffy.
And the only site where the Hellmouth could be safely opened, to allow us to get Buffy back.
Xander, Cordy, Angel, Giles, Joyce, Denise and Sandra stood in a circle around Tara and myself as we began the ritual. We required silence from the other participants, and their complete trust. The spell could only work in an atmosphere of trust and love. No negative emotions.
I had noticed something going on just before we started. I looked at Xander as he spoke with Cordy. I could hear them both clearly, and what they said made me smile;
Xander started it, saying, "Well, Cordy, looks like I'm finally putting the Zeppo to rest." This comment, referring to Cordy's old opinion of him, made her sad to hear it again.
She looked directly at him, and placed a hand on his shoulder. "You know, Xand," she started, smiling for his benefit, "there's one thing about Zeppo that I just remembered."
"And what was that?" he asked. She didn't answer at first, she just wrapped her arms around his waist, and leaned in for a kiss. After the kiss, she lifted her face, stroked his hair, and smiled at him, and this time the smile was genuine.
"In those old Marx Brothers movies," she whispered, "Zeppo always got the girl." She kissed him again, quickly, and then said, "Come back alive, Xander. I always liked men in uniform." Xander smiled at Cordy, and anyone present could easily guess that their old passion had resurfaced. I had to smile as I watched them. Even though Cordy and I hadn't started as friends, that's what we became over time. And I gotta say, I always thought that she made a better choice for Xander than Anya. Of course, any woman in the world would have been a better choice than Anya.
Finally we were ready. I called for silence as Tara and I began the invocation with the Charge of the Goddess;
"Whenever ye have need of anything,
Keep pure your highest ideal.
Mine is the cup of the wine of life,
Before my face let thine innermost divine self
For behold, I have been with thee from the beginning,
I motioned for Angel and Xander to join us at the center of the circle. They each had to recite one line of the spell, as each of us called for one of the four ancient elements.
Facing east, I began it;
"All hail the guardian of the Watchtower of the East, guardian of the air.
Bless us with your grace this night,
Aid us as we breach the portal to the realm of the unliving,
To find the lost soul within!"
I felt a wind lift up and caress me as I performed the ritual. A power suffused me as I spoke the words. Yes, this was working.
Angel, facing south, continued;
"All hail the guardian of the Watchtower of the South, guardian of fire.
The wind blew fiercer, and I could tell that the others felt it too. Dark clouds formed on the horizon, and the electric smell of an oncoming thunderstorm filled the air.
It was Tara's turn;
"All hail the guardian of the watchtower of the West, guardian of Water.
Lightning bracketed the skies. We were unleashing powers I had never controlled before. I started to feel fear, but I wasn't going to let it conquer me. I would see this through, no matter the personal price.
Finally, Xander spoke;
"All hail the guardian of the Watchtower of the North, guardian of
A crash of thunder drowned out the invocation, but it was enough.
Finally, we spoke the final words in unison;
Gods and Goddesses, we call to thee,
The Goddess heard the words, and acted on them.
A bolt of lightning speared the space between the four of us, and the ground erupted below our feet. We managed to back away before being knocked off our feet, and were able to watch as our ritual had its desired effect.
A sinkhole formed at our feet, a vortex of unholy energies. The hole crackled with its power, with its hunger. As I stared into the abyss, a revelation came to me; into this pit were cast the souls of countless men and women, saints and sinners, martyrs and madmen. Into this pit Buffy was cast by Oz.
And, quite possibly for the first time, three souls were about to enter it willingly, expecting to emerge unscathed.
Well, too late to turn back, eh?
Tara turned to me, and I could see the tears forming in her eyes. She was afraid for me, and I understood that. Hell, I was afraid for me. But I think she was afraid for herself as well. She had confessed her attraction for me a few days ago, and was now throwing away any chance she had with me, to help bring back Buffy. My heart ached for her, and I wanted to comfort her, however briefly I could, before I left.
I think she understood what I was thinking. She just wrapped her arms around me in a fierce hug, and said, "Good luck, Willow."
"Keep a candle in the window for me," I answered.
"Extra flamey, right," Tara answered. "Go already!" She tightened her hug briefly and let go. I smiled at her and thanked her.
"Okay, guys," I said to Xander and Angel. "Last chance to back out!"
"Now why would I do a dumb thing like that?" Xander asked. "Besides, I stay behind, Cordy won't let me hear the end of it!"
"Let's do the deed, Willow," Angel added.
I nodded to my friends, and closed my eyes. "On three, then!" I shouted. "One!"
I could feel Xander holding my left hand.
Angel took my right.
And we jumped.
How do you describe the indescribable?
How can I give you a clear picture of what I saw when I opened my eyes and looked upon the landscape of Hell? Could anyone give a clear picture of it?
If Salvador Dali, Hieronymus Bosch, H. R. Giger and Clive Barker were to collaborate on a single work of art, that would encapsulate the darkest regions of the human soul, it would look like a Batman comic book compared to what I saw inside the Hellmouth.
We stood on a plateau, of shifting colors and textures. There was no fixed landscape, but shifting vistas and perspectives. We could only get a vague sense of things, of distances. And virtually everything in Hell was a world away from everything else, while being next to it as well. I know, makes no sense, but it's the only way to describe it. Even the three dimensions we take for granted in the 'real world' were arbitrary in this realm.
"'We few, we happy few'," Angel intoned. "'We band of brothers. For whoever sheds his blood with me this day shall be my brother'." He turned to us and said, "Shakespeare."
I nodded, thinking to myself of what this place reminded me of. "'Half a league, half a league, half a league onward'," I recited. "'All in the valley of Death rode the Six Hundred'. Tennyson."
Xander looked at us, and looked back at a horizon on fire. "'On the whole, I'd rather be in Philidelphia'. W.C. Fields." He grinned. Trust Xander to go for the jokes, even in Hell.
"So, Willow," Angel turned to me. "It's your show. Now what?"
"Now, I concentrate," I said, fighting back the rising tide of fear that threatened to undo me. I held my Mizpah coin in my hand, hard enough to leave an impression on my palm. I closed my eyes, shut out all the fear, all the uncertainty I was feeling, and concentrated on Buffy. Her eyes, her soft blond hair, her sweet smile. Everything I loved about her. I felt a strange feeling of peace, even in this unholy realm, as I brought her to the forefront of my mind and heart.
I opened my eyes, pointed, and said, "That way." Suddenly a path cleared itself before us, a path into an unearthly wilderness.
"Okay," Xander announced. "Since the other Five-hundred and ninety-seven look like a no-show, we'd better get this party started ourselves."
With that, we entered the Inferno.
We followed the path laid out before us, my sense of Buffy's presence being our only guide. Impenetrable woods flanked us on either side, and when I chanced a look behind us, our path was obscured by more wilderness. I turned to Angel for guidance, but he shook his head sadly.
"I wish I could be more helpful, Willow," he explained. "But this doesn't resemble the Hell I was trapped in. I guess it's true, we each make our own Hell."
"Any advice beyond that, Soul Boy?" Xander snapped at Angel. Angel just regarded him with a "you're-lucky-I-gotta-soul-because-otherwise-I'd-tear-your-heart-out" look.
"Just don't let anything spook you here," he said. "It's not real, everything here is an abstraction, taken from your greatest fears. Nothing here is real"
"And nothing to get up about, Strawberry Fields Forever!" Xander added.
"Well, you've been warned, Xander," I shuddered, "expect to see lots of frogs." Frog fear. Still one of my main weaknesses.
"A horde of Anya-headed frogs," Xander said, giggling.
"With Cordy's temper," Angel chuckled. Hearing Xander and Angel banter back and forth, I started to feel my fear abate. Like whistling past the graveyard. I concentrated again on the soul-signal I was getting from Buffy.
Suddenly, the forest was gone, and we stood before an enormous clearing. Like a vast desert, only without even a dune or sandbar to mark a landscape. I concentrated again. I felt her again. Stronger than ever, like she was right there in front of me. But why couldn't I see her? "Buffy," I said aloud, "If you're anywhere here, please, let me know. Show me. Come back to me." The signal coalesced in my mind, and suddenly, I knew. "Straight ahead," I announced. As I spoke, a shaft of golden light appeared in front of us.
Angel looked dubious. "Could be a trap."
"I don't think so," I said. "She's here, I know it!" I wasn't as sure as I sounded, but I had to say it. To convince the others, and maybe to convince myself.
We set out again, and the light stayed ahead of us. I was reminded of the Passover Story, of how Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt, and how God appeared before them as a pillar of flame at night and a pillar of smoke by day. I didn't know then what the light was, but it comforted me to think of God, or the Goddess, sending us this sign. It sure as hell beat the alternative.
Sure as hell. Strange choice of words there, Wills, considering the location.
As we moved forward, we heard noises, howls, cries, roars. Of agony, of unholy triumph, I didn't know. The light grew dimmer and dimmer, until it faded entirely. The flat landscape we walked gave way again, this time to a narrow corridor, infinitely high, six feet or so wide. At either side were iron bars, like jail cells. I took the risk of looking into one of them, and the sight chilled me to the marrow.
Oz. In his wolf/human transitional form. The form he was in when he betrayed Buffy, when I killed him in revenge.
Veruca, the werewolf who seduced him, who brought out his darkness, was with him, her human form fully submerged within the wolf. The two werewolves just glared at me, grinning ferally.
I jumped back toward Angel and Xander, who turned to see what was giving me the wiggens. Xander understood instantly; "Your greatest fears, Wills. Past enemies, vampires, demons, other assorted nasties we've faced over the years."
"Not real, not real, not real, not real," I repeated to myself over and over. It didn't alleviate the soul-chilling ice of Oz's eyes, entirely bereft of the good man who was once Daniel Ozbourne. I turned away from them and just kept moving forward. Always forward.
Suddenly, Xander jumped back, nearly bumping into me. "I do believe in spooks, I do believe in spooks, I do, I do, I do, I do believe in spooks!" he muttered.
Angel and I saw instantly what startled him. "Jack O'Toole," Angel recognized him. I nodded solemnly. I recall Xander telling us about him; while Buffy and I were concentrating on a demon who tried to open the Hellmouth, Xander tried to shake his insecurities by buying a car. He ended up hanging with a zombie gang, led by Jack O'Toole, a sadistic zombie who had his own plans for Sunnydale. Xander ended up saving the day for all of us, and we didn't know about it until later.
"Just move forward, Xand," I advised him. "He isn't real. None of it's real."
"Okay, he's not real. He's just a figment of my imagination. Oh, no he's not."
"Hey, soulboy," a voice beckoned from the cells ahead. A familiar voice, one that chilled us all.
Angel ran forward, toward the voice. He stopped short, and gaped at the speaker.
We blinked at the sight, and Xander asked, "Another Angel?"
"No," I corrected him. "Not Angel. Angelus."
The demon who wore Angel's face formed his lips into a jack-o-lantern grin. "Well, well, well. Don't you guys ever learn?"
"What, that you're just a figment of our imagination? We've all seen our greatest fears, the monsters that keep us up at nights. Mine just happens to be a piece of me. You think you can scare me just by appearing at the wrong time and place? News, Angelus, it doesn't work that way."
"I know that, friend," the demon laughed. "I know also that you're here to find your girlfriend. Or is that ex-girlfriend? That old happiness clause. Doesn't exactly make a great pickup line, does it? 'Hey babe, want to raise some Hell, literally?' I hear she's batting for the other team these days." He regarded me the way a vulture regards a large carcass in the middle of the desert. "Of course, you'd know more about that than I do-uhng!"
Angel grabbed his evil self by the neck, saying, "Not another word. I remember what it was like to be you, and I hated every moment of it. Now, give me a reason to let you live."
"How about 'you can't kill me', you putz!" Angelus spat back at him. "I'm you, Soulboy. I'm a part of you that you can't get rid of. You lose me, you lose you. I die, you die."
"Just tell us where she is, bastard!" Angel hissed through clenched teeth. He morphed into his vamp face, snarling, "I won't ask again."
"Hey, hey, peace, peace," the demon chided. "Don't get your delicates in a bunch, oh mighty anal-retentive one. She's right here," he gestured toward the end of the hallway. "Go get her."
We ran down the hallway, without even thinking whether we could trust Angelus. Or even if it was really Angelus. I saw Oz and Veruca, Xander saw Jack O'Tool, Angel saw Angelus. We all faced the monsters that hurt us the most. If we had beaten them by leaving them behind, I didn't feel it.
After an eternity of running, I felt something. The Buffy signal again. Stronger and stronger as we ran. Whatever that thing was, Angelus was honest with us at the time. Buffy was there.
We finally found ourselves in a central plaza, like an arena. Rows of cells surrounded the surreal prison yard, stacked twenty or thirty high. I squinted my eyes in the semi-darkness as I tried to see anything beyond the prison bars. A large crystal shard suddenly erupted from out of the center of the plaza. I ran toward the grisly grey shard, and stood back, thunderstruck at what I saw within the crystal.
In the exact same clothes she wore when she fought Adam that last time.
Her face holding the exact same expression of shock I remembered from the last time.
Her soul was embedded in that crystal. She had been trapped inside that shard from the second she entered this infernal place. In perfect suspension, unchanging. I couldn't even sense that she was aware of her surroundings.
Xander and Angel caught up with me, and saw her within the shard. "It's like she's--" Xander tried to grasp what he was seeing. "--frozen. Like suspended animation."
"Exactly what it is, Xander," Angel said. "She's been like this for God knows how long, no awareness, no consciousness. But I don't get it. She's responsible for the people in these cells being here. Why wouldn't they just torture her for eternity?"
"Who the hell cares?" Xander shouted. "Let's just get her out of there!"
"Feel free to jump in with a suggestion on how to do that, Xander," I said. "There's got to be a way to draw her out." I pondered this riddle for a few seconds, until I grew aware of the sounds of latches being unlatched, of bolts sliding out of doors, of giant hinges swinging open.
"Oh, God," Angel exclaimed, as the monsters were freed from their cells. I caught sight of their faces, their bodies; Vampires, demons, monsters. The Fear God, the Gentlemen, the Master, Lothos, the Hansel and Gretel demon, Trick, Kakistos, Belial, Mayor Wilkins, all joined by Oz, Veruca, Jack O'Tool, and Angelus. Nearly every foul thing that Buffy had faced over the course of her career as a Slayer. All in one place.
All glaring at the three of us.
"Oh, God," Angel repeated, "we were wrong. They didn't bring her here to torture her. They brought her here to keep her from escaping. To prevent her from slaying any of their brethren."
"And now that we're here," I guessed, gulping hard, "we tripped some kind of silent alarm?"
"And they're all here," Xander added, visibly shaking, "to stop us from getting her back. Any way they can." We said nothing else. There was nothing else to say. We could see it in that instant. We had failed to save Buffy.
Angelus, the ringleader of these monsters, stepped forward, arrogance visible in every stride, every look. He stopped just short of Angel's face, and announced, almost casually, "Well boys and girls, let's get ready to rumble."
And the monsters moved forward.