Unexpectedly, the room became impossibly hot and suddenly unbreathable, as if superheated by the vapors of Hell in all of its fury.
Angelus wasn’t really sure what do next. The revelation he had made about Xander’s secret, yet bottomless love for the slayer being essentially the greatest torment his soul could endure, had shattered the vampire’s hopes and spoiled all of his fun. There really wasn’t much else he could do to torture Xander any more than the boy already felt inside. The only thing the vampire could think of was to force Xander to see the sight ahead of him. He’d heard the child screaming painfully earlier, and so he assumed the slayerette had seen it before. But if he could make Xander look at the thing before him, really look at it, Angelus knew he could truly scare him. And that’s what this whole thing was about, not just the fun, albeit it was that, but to make Xander experience horror in its truest form, make him live out his foulest nightmares as though they were real. In short, Angelus wanted to terrify every part of Xander—drive him literally insane.
“Xander, old buddy, old pal, you with me?” Only breathing. “Hey there, open your eyes for a second.”
Weakly: “No.” “Come on, boy. I’ve got something you’ll really want to see, unless, that is, you’ve seen it already.”
In a tiny fit of rage, he spat, “Go to hell.”
“Come on, boy. I’ve been there and done that, remember?” Angelus stated in a disbelieving tone of voice. “I thought we had already gone through this whole ‘returning form Hell’ thing. Guess not. Maybe sometime later.
“Anyway, I want you to open your eyes now, and I mean ASAP.”
With more conviction this time, Xander refused, “No.”
“Xander, don’t make me force you because I will, and believe you me, it won’t be at’all pleasant.”
Xander squeezed his eyes shut even tighter as a sign of defiance and clenched his hands together in an act of prayer behind the pole to which he was attached.
“So be it,” the demon mumbled as he sent a hard punch to Xander’s stomach, feeling the kid’s young muscles constrict under the vampire’s fist as his body absorbed the blow as best it could. Xander hacked roughly a few times and spewed blood all over himself, dribbling saliva down his lip in snake-like trails only to drip onto his chin, mixing with the blood previously oozing from his lower lip. “Open your eyes,” Angelus demanded tediously.
“Na…Na…never,” he managed between strained gasps for air.
Another unmerciful punch, yet Xander still refused. Another one, followed by another, each one more painful than the last, and each one contained more rage. Incredibly, Xander held strong, trying to allay the effects of every blow by thinking of his dear, sweet Buffy. She’d be so proud to see her normally wimpy friend standing up to the enemy like this, denying the tormentor his demands, even if that tormentor were Angel. That thought alone was enough to give Xander the strength to fight this demon to end all other demons.
“So, the valiant knight refuses to give in to the demands of the bad guy, eh? Well aren’t we just the courageous one, hmm?” the beast mocked acidly. He paused to prod Xander’s injured ribs delicately with feathery fingers, working them between the fragile bones, each individual little touch making Xander wince. “I’d say more along the lines of obstinate fool.
“Well, I know something you don’t know. Our beloved slayer is on her way right this very instant, charging ahead with unparalleled speed, with the rest of our zany Scooby Gang friends, just to save you. Ah, the power of love. What wouldn’t they do for you, Xand? Where wouldn’t they go? They’d thrust themselves blindly into the hands of danger, all to rescue measly little you? It boggles the mind!” Angelus brought his two fingers to his temple and shook his head incredulously. “I always knew you guys were a bunch of loons, but this is beyond my capacity for words!
“You know how I know they’re on their way? I have this sort of, well, sixth sense, and it’s tellin’ me that they’re close—real close—to finding out our whereabouts. Know what that means, doncha? It means, I’ve gotta start gettin’ this party ready for our esteemed guests, which, consequently, means I have to finish you.” He paused briefly and looked for a reaction. None. “No hard feelings, right? I mean, I promised Buffy that when she got here, you’d be nothing more than a quivering mass on the floor, and, you know how I always like to keep my promises. At this point, well, frankly… you’re not a quivering mass just yet, but I can fix that as easy as one, two, three.” Angelus snapped his fingers for emphasis.
“I’m sure she wouldn’t mind any if you didn’t live up to your little agreement,” he wheezed lightly.
“Ah, but I couldn’t do that. A promise is a promise after all, and what kind of guy would I be if I broke that promise?”
“Oh, I could think of a few things you already are without even this talk about keeping promises.”
He smirked slightly. “Come on, open your eyes. For me?” he asked sweetly, his voice laced with sugar and, at the same time, arsenic. Angelus stopped when he noticed Xander hadn’t opened his eyes yet, and then continued forward, “If not for me, then for Buffy. Let’s not disappoint her; she wouldn’t like that one bit. Let’s go, open ‘em up.” He gave Xander a few light slaps on the cheeks to wake him up, then proceeded to increase intensity with each new smack. Xander could feel his face growing black and blue as blood vessels broke and wept syrupy blood under his deceptively soft skin.
One particularly strong hit jarred his eyelids open, and his body went slack, while his jaw dropped as he caught a glimpse of the “present” Angelus had for him. Though he’d seen the sight before, Xander was even more revolted than the last time. The first time, he really hadn’t paid attention to the sacrilegious display that was spread in front of him, hadn’t left his eyes open long enough to see all of the gory details—hadn’t wanted to, for what was before him was almost to incredible to believe.
There, directly ahead of him, hanging obscenely on a meat hook was the vomitus, decaying mass that was the once beautiful and talented computer teacher, Miss Calendar. Her head was still bent at an unnatural angle from when Angelus had broken it and her decomposing limbs were stretched out like a body on a crucifix. Her appendages hung loosely from her joints, with their gangrenous, ancient skin flaking off and dripping thickly to the floor. The body itself was enough to make Xander gag on his own blood. But what really repulsed him was the devilish rat from earlier, with its greasy brown coat and beady red eyes that glared at Xander with a look of contempt that mirrored Angelus’ own toward the young male slayerette. It hissed viciously and climbed the rotting corpse as it would any tree, sitting triumphantly down on the woman, its fat rump plopping down squarely on the crown of her head, with its wormy tail hanging before her glazed eyes like a stray hair. It seemed to Xander that, although she was dead, Miss Calendar’s body had somehow become reanimated, and her pustule-coated hand swiped at the tail to brush it out of her view just as she would have done it, if she were alive. Such were the hallucinations Xander suffered as a result of the exposure to the graphic scene.
A flock of rats was gathered at Miss Calendar’s dangling feet, each one staring up at what Xander hypothesized was the chief rat—the rat king—towering above them all on its meaty throne.
Xander couldn’t restrain from retching any longer the moment he saw the rat king slip lovingly down her thinning hair and begin to nibble on the crumbling ear of Giles’ favorite computer teacher. Maroon colored vomit poured from his mouth and down onto his T-shirt, winding sticky streaks over his chin and around his neck, soaking his shirt collar.
One by one, the great mass of hell-born ilk swarmed over the corpse, licking it ever so intimately with their multitudinous tongues in order to savor the rotten meat’s seemingly delicious flavor. Probably all of them thought that this was the greatest meal they’d tasted in an incredibly long time.
Xander’s gag reflex went crazy, producing nothing more than stomach acid, which only succeeded in burning the lining of his throat. He wanted nothing more than to turn away and cry, but, unbelievably, found himself gawking in wonderment at the prodigious number of the wicked, hornless little demons. The sight had mesmerized him somehow, captured his attention and piqued his sadistic instincts, refusing to let him look away. Wave after wave of the humongous horde climbed onto the teacher and tore greedily at her deteriorating body, gnawing mostly on her flesh, taking bits and pieces of cheek and nose as their yellowed, beastly teeth sank into her unyielding flesh; yet, mysteriously, Xander still could not glance away. His eyes burned with anger and resentment; however, there was nothing he could do but lie back and watch—his mind had lost control of the situation long ago.
“I hate to break up this lovely scene,” Angelus began, pulling Xander out of the trance he’d fallen into, “but I really must be going; I have a party to set up. Take good care of Jenny while I’m away. Oh, and FYI, keep your eye on those rats. As soon as they finish with her, they’ll be all over you. I’d save up my strength if I were you, cause you’re gonna need all of what you got left to fight off those persistent little suckers. And remember…think lovely thoughts.” Careful not to disturb the feeding frenzy that neighbored the door, Angelus eased out of the room with a wanton grin painted like a smile on a circus clown on his face and left the slayerette alone with the decomposing body and the rats and his thoughts.
Xander really had no desire to be left in the dark at that moment; therefore, he didn’t close his eyes to sleep, only shifted his gaze to focus on the whirling fan and become lost in the incessant, ceaseless circular motions of its blades as they hacked the invisible air to shreds. The fan was a sign of the never-ending circle of human existence: it keeps going and going, chopping away at the smaller obstacles. But when something too large for it to handle comes along, it stops, gnawing at the problem; however, in the end, it can not do anything to rid itself of the obstacle, so eventually it gives out, its light extinguished.
Oh Lord, save me because I don’t think anyone else can.
Whoa, wait, where’d that come from? Me love Xander? No, that’s Angel. I’m just really anxious to see him to see him, and I’m really stressed out. He’s my friend and I don’t want to lose him that’s all, which’s as far as it goes.
She paused her thinking to glance down at the sparkling cross and turned it over in her hand, then resumed mulling over the strange old feelings. Right, that’s all it is, deep concern. Buffy wasn’t truly convinced herself, but at the moment, she didn’t think she could handle loving someone new. What if she lost him like she had Angel? What if Angel were the one to kill Xander? Buffy didn’t believe she could take that. She couldn’t lose another love, not now.
Analyze later, Buffy. You’ve got a friend to save! The slayer took her own advice and raced off to the Rosenberg household as fast as her “four legs” could carry her, kicking up the freshly fallen raindrops and flinging them back into the air, crying the whole time for all of the gang to return to its meeting spot instantly. She prayed desperately that her words hadn’t been swallowed up by the ravenous storm, and luckily, as it turned out, they hadn’t been.
The whole group was assembled on Willow’s porch steps, each member engaging his or her own nervous habits: Giles was pushing up his glasses repeatedly; Willow was picking at a nail; Cordelia was continuously combing her hair with her fingers; Faith was tapping her foot incessantly on the wooden floor; and Oz was pacing back and forth rapidly. They all stopped the very second Buffy climbed the stairs and stood tensely amongst the crowd of wide-eyed gatherers. The silence was strange, but no one wanted to get his or her hopes up, so no one asked anything, just waited for the slayer to say something, anything. Finally, Faith couldn’t take it anymore, and she just turned and blurted, “What is it, B? What’d you find out there?”
Before Buffy could even reply, Oz cried, “We’re sorry, Buffy, but none of us could find anything. Believe me, we searched long and hard—so hard that all of us feel as though our heads are gonna fall right off our necks—but there wasn’t anything to be found. Nevertheless, I promise you, I won’t give up until I find something. I—”
“Oz, Oz! Relax, I’ve got good news. I found something.” And Buffy paused for the excited gasps from her friends to die down before she continued. “It’s like an omen, or some other kind of supernatural thing like that. Xander left it here for us to find; I just know it. It’s gonna lead us right to him. Soon enough we’ll have our friend back!”
“Oh, Buffy!” exclaimed Willow. “That’s good! I mean really good as… as in great! Actually, I don’t mean that either cause it’s even better than great, it’s, it’s…”
“Fantastic?” Oz suggested casually.
“Yeah, fantastic in an incredibly terrific way.”
“I know, Will. I sorta figured that out the moment I found it.”
“Well, yeah. So, so what is it?” the witch asked eagerly.
“Remember his last birthday, when I bought him that gold cross with the engraving? Well, I found it lying on the ground, pointing up the street.”
“But, Buffy,” Giles questioned, “how do you know Xander planted that cross for you to find? I mean, when would he have time during the kidnapping to leave it? Besides, how would he have even known where he was being taken?”
“Geez, Giles, why do you always have to be Mr. Negativity?”
“I’m just being realistic. This situation certainly calls for realism, don’t you think?”
“Oh, I see, you’re all for demons and giant preying mantises on any other day of the week, but if something like a simple little cross is found lying on the street, it automatically means nothing because it doesn’t have a magic incantation or an super old, stupid inscription on it in some dead, ancient redneck language.”
“That’s not true. At least it gives us the location of the attack. We now know where to center our search for clues, and maybe we’ll find something concrete, something that won’t lead us further into the wild goose chase we’re now on.”
The slayer scowled deeply at her watcher. “Giles, don’t you ever experience those moments where you just know something to be true? Don’t you ever encounter a weird tingling in your stomach that tells you something, and you know those feelings to be right? You know, when something inside’s wiggin’ you out completely—that kinda feeling? Well, that’s what everything inside me is saying –actually screaming. And I know it’s real, as real as those demons and giant preying mantises, and I can’t deny it.
“Also, the inscription, it’s practically giving me precise directions. Well, precise in an extremely vague sorta way, but still. You know what it reads? It reads: ‘Let this be your guide. From: Buffy To: Xander.’ Coincidence? I’ve had too much experience in my line of work to believe in those, and so have you. Now, I say we follow up on this lead. The cross was pointing to him. Xander wants us to come find him. It’s time to bring him home.”
Giles sighed, “All right, Buffy. Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that this cross is pointing to Mr. Harris, how does that help us any? There are billions of places in Sunnydale alone for a bloodthirsty vampire seeking revenge to hide a boy. Why, he could be in San Francisco, for all we know! This clue is so nebulous, I don’t see how we can benefit anything from it.”
“No, Angelus wouldn’t leave Sunnydale’s limits. He has his sights set on the great nasty vampire vs. street-tough slayer showdown. If he leaves, he knows he’ll probably never get it. You see?” Rupert nodded reluctantly, still not accepting her theory, but giving in to her finally; she was the slayer after all. “Good. Willow, what’s at the end of your street?”
Willow cast a fast glance down the roadway, straining to see through the veils of fog that clouded not only the streets, but her memory, as well. The mat of ethereal gray sifted through the droplets of rain, its tiny molecules of water barely visible to the naked eye “It’s basically all apartment complexes and abandoned buildings; it’s a pretty depressed area of town. My mom always told me that’s where all the missing shopping carts from K-Mart end up.”
Buffy disregarded the red head’s last comment and said, “Abandoned buildings, eh? Perfect place for a rogue vampire to stash away a kid. Let’s go.”
They all reentered the whipping rain and howling wind that tugged roughly on their umbrellas and snapped their coattails against their legs, their fading silhouettes becoming one with the storm as they made their way to their friend and a still unsure destiny.