Uncertain Ground – Chapter 9
Dressed all in black with a Bowie knife encased in a serviceable black nylon sheath at his side, Riley stood in front of the makeshift altar he’d set up before the gaping hole in the cave floor. Setting up the ingredients for the spell, he checked his watch. There was still more to do before he could start the ritual and he was running short on time.
The generator had been turned off, Riley no longer having a need for electricity at this point, and the cave was illuminated with fire torches at six foot intervals along the wall, casting long shadows into the room. The former soldier walked over to the far side of the chamber to check his prisoners. Both Ethan and Dawn were bound at their hands and feet and gagged.
“Oh, don’t look like such a kicked puppy, Rayne! You had to know that I knew you had no stomach to sacrifice the Key,” he sneered, squatting beside the chaos mage. “She’s fooled you. In fact, she’s fooled everyone into thinking she’s a real girl. Well, I know what you are, Dawnie,” he taunted as he turned his attention on the frightened young woman huddling beside Ethan. “And you’re going to open the Hellmouth for me.”
Dawn’s eyes widened in fear. She’d always liked Riley. Sure he’d been annoying at times, but he was cute and he’d always been nice to her while he dated her sister. Now she decided that the man who stood before her resembled him in appearance and flat Midwestern accent only. This new Riley was a monster.
The ex-commando turned his attention back to the sorcerer, grabbing his collar and raising him to his feet before dragging him over to the altar.
“I do like you, Rayne, but like you, I need to protect my own interests first, you know how it is. I am sorry that it is going to hurt so much, but I need your power to perform the ritual.”
Buffy and Giles watched the spectacle unfold from their perch in a shadowed area near the entrance to the cave, lamenting the loss of the drone of the generator to mask their noises. The Slayer put her hand on her Watcher’s arm and motioned for him to go rescue Dawn. He nodded and started to go before he turned back, reaching out to touch her cheek with his fingertips.
“Be careful,” he mouthed, his eyes betraying his emotions.
Buffy gave him a confident smile and whispered, “You too.”
Riley glanced at his watch again, a wicked grin spreading across his face. “Showtime!” he declared before he started to chant in an ancient language Buffy couldn’t identify. Ethan dropped to his knees, writhing in pain as the spell started to extract his magick from him.
The Slayer kept an eye on her Watcher while he made his way over to her sister. As the chanting grew louder, Ethan started to scream, diverting her attention to him as he clutched his hand to his chest as a ray of burgundy colored light flowed from him into Riley.
Buffy had seen enough and, defying the nerves in the pit of her stomach, stepped casually out into the light. “Hey, Riley,” she interrupted.
Her ex-boyfriend turned around to face her, his chanting halted and his face twisted in surprised rage.
“You do know that Ethan’s kind of worthless as a sorcerer, don’t you? I mean Chaos… what a stupid deity to worship. Uncontrollable. And he hasn’t practiced magick in what? Four or five years? Honestly, Riley, how do you think that’s going to go for you? Sounds like you are just asking for trouble, if you ask me.”
“I didn’t ask you!” he shouted. “How did you get here?”
“I fell down a crevasse,” Buffy answered matter-of-factly. “Now I need you to stop this plan of yours. You’re not a monster, Riley, you know this is wrong.”
He laughed, though there was no mirth in it. “No, you see, I am... she made me a monster and I fought it for so long. But you can’t deny who you are. You know that. You’re the Slayer. I thought for so long that you could just stop being the Slayer, that you would change for me. Let me be the stronger one. But you couldn’t. In the jungle, I finally realized that I can’t stop being what I am... a monster… a demon.”
“You’re wrong, Riley, you’re a man. One who knows right from wrong, one who learned to see the grey areas, but who also knows there are absolutes out there as well. You’re a good guy who was taken advantage of and who had too many drugs pumped into his system. Those drugs make you believe you are a demon, Riley, but that’s not the truth,” she entreated, trying to appeal to the human side of him.
“It is the truth!” he roared, pulling his knife from its sheath as he lunged for her. His ritual was in jeopardy. After all the careful planning, the months of preparation, he was so close to leading his army to glory, so close to achieving the greatness expected of him by his former mentor. The Slayer wouldn’t foil those plans this time.
Giles waited until Buffy had Riley distracted. He approached Dawn who sat on the ground bound and gagged watching the action intently. He lightly touched her shoulder and she jumped and turned, recognition registering when the tears formed in her eyes. He held a finger to her lips before removing the gag.
“Are you all right?” he whispered, pulling out his utility knife to cut the ropes at her hands and feet.
As soon as she was free, Dawn threw her arms around his neck and he returned her hug fiercely. “Just scared and a little sore,” she answered quietly, showing him her bruised and bloodied wrists.
“I’ll take care of those as soon as we get back to camp,” Giles muttered before leading Dawn around the edge of the cave, trying to get her to safety.
Stopping, he took a moment to check on his Slayer. Whatever she had said to Riley, he’d taken umbrage with, and they were now circling each other near the altar. Ethan was out cold on the floor, too close to where Buffy and Riley were for Giles to think about rescuing him.
The former soldier charged the Slayer. Buffy attempted to kick the weapon out of his hand, but he anticipated her move and spun to the left, slashing her right arm and drawing blood. She felt the pain as the knife sliced through her bicep, blood flowing steadily down her arm.
Riley grinned wickedly. He’d gotten one up on the Slayer. “Can’t remember the last time I drew first blood on you,” he bragged.
“You never did,” Buffy retorted. “Of course, you were never one to take advantage and use a weapon against an unarmed person either.”
“We’re not sparring,” Riley shrugged, lunging towards her again. He was relentless, and much stronger than he had been when they’d first met and he’d been hyped up on Maggie Walsh’s steroidal cocktail.
The Slayer weaved to her right, landing a punch to her former boyfriend’s jaw, sending him sprawling to the ground, causing him to lose the knife on impact. “No, we’re not,” she agreed, walking over to kick the knife down the pit.
Riley growled and pushed himself up before charging her and taking her down. They wrestled on the ground, neither of them able to take the advantage, grappling dangerously close to the pit, knocking the altar over the edge. Incensed, Riley reared up and got the upper hand, pinning Buffy beneath him.
“I’m not the weakling I once was,” he said through gritted teeth.
“You put that all on yourself! Your weakness was never physical strength, Riley,” she countered as she tried to free herself. “And you’re not as strong as you think you are. You need both hands to control me. That gets you nowhere.”
Buffy bucked her hips and rolled, breaking Riley’s hold on her, and she scrambled away from him, regaining her feet in the process. As he rose to his full height, Riley looked over to where he had held Dawn and found her missing. Unable to believe how badly his day was turning out, he scanned the cave and found her running towards the lava tube following Buffy’s Watcher. Shooting a quick look at the Slayer and gaging that he had a several second head start, Riley took off after Dawn. Buffy followed closely behind, but had difficulty catching up since she had put some distance between herself and Riley to regroup after she had broken free from him.
“Giles! Dawn!” she called, alerting them to the danger heading their way. “Look out!”
Giles stopped his progress, putting himself between the young woman and the deranged ex-military officer. “Keep behind me, Dawn,” he called out to her, bracing for a collision. “If he gets through, run!”
Lowering his center of gravity to take the hit, the Watcher put his good shoulder forward in an old rugby block. As Riley neared, Giles closed his eyes, anticipating the hit, but it never came. Instead, he felt a gust of wind and when he opened his eyes, his assailant had changed course and had been lifted off his feet at a ninety degree angle.
Buffy watched in confusion as Riley soared through the air and hit the wall near the pit. Turning around, she saw Ethan Rayne, hand raised out in front of him, fall to his knees before tumbling into an unconscious heap on the floor. Realizing he’d used his magick to save Giles and Dawn, she ran to him and checked for a pulse, breathing a sigh of relief when she found one.
Riley shook his head, dazed from the collision with the wall. It took him a moment to find his feet and he wobbled as he stumbled forward, drawing himself nearer to the edge of the gaping hole in the ground with each step. Bits of rock fell from above and hit him on the shoulder when the ground started to shake and roll beneath him. He lost his footing and fell, desperately looking for something to hold onto as the earthquake heaved him closer to the pit where he’d planned to open the Hellmouth and unleash his demon hoard.
Buffy threw herself across Ethan to protect him from falling rock, hoping that the cave would remain intact, since there was no way she could drag him towards the safety of the wall as the earth violently shook. Raising her head, she searched for Giles and her sister, but was unable to locate them through the tremors, while off in the distance she heard Riley scream in terror.
When the earth stopped shaking, Buffy called out, “Dawn? Giles? Are you okay?”
Giles had drawn Dawn into his arms and held her beneath the entryway to the lava tube where they and rode out the earthquake together. He looked down at the girl he thought of as a daughter, his eyes silently asking if she was all right. She nodded her head and he called out, “We’re fine.”
“Stay where you are,” she commanded as she stood, casting her eyes around the cave in search of Riley.
She could hear grunts and straining noises coming from the pit and she carefully made her way over to the edge. Leaning over, she saw Riley hanging onto a secondary ledge about two feet below the ground.
She laid herself down on the ground and extended her arm. “Give me your hand, Riley.”
He struggled, trying to find something to perch his feet on. Sweat trickled down his face as he fought to hang on. Looking up into her eyes, his expression softened. “I can’t,” he said. “I don’t have the strength.”
“I do. Hang on. Let me lower myself a little.”
“No!” he yelled, his voice desperate. “Don’t… don’t touch me. Things are… clear right now, but I don’t know how long they will be. I don’t want to take you down with me. Just take your sister and Rayne and get out of here.”
“Riley, don’t do this. Graham and his people can help you. He’s worried about you.”
The former commando let out something that sounded like a laugh. “They will court martial me, find me guilty, and I’ll spend the rest of my life in an institution unless I escape again. There is no helping me, Buffy. I killed my men. I killed my wife! I killed the people who tried to help me, and I was going to kill Ethan and your sister so I could kill more people. Why? Because Professor Walsh tells me to. All. The. Damned. Time! She doesn’t stop.”
“They can find a way to help, Riley, to make her stop.”
“But that’s the problem,” he grunted as he shifted his hands on the ledge. “I don’t want to. And... I can’t. I held it at bay for years. It started when my heart was going to explode and after that, I let the vamps suck blood from me. I wanted the demons to consume me. I wanted my demon, the one that she implanted, to consume me.”
“Riley, listen to me, just reach out and grab my hand. Come on. We’ll get you the help you need, we’ll make her stop. Let us help.”
“The demon knows your sister is the Key, Buffy! He... I won’t stop and Professor Walsh won’t stop commanding it. Go away.”
The veins pulsed in his neck as Riley struggled to hold on. “Tell her… tell Dawn I’m sorry. She’s a good kid.”
“I can hear her voice again, Buffy, and I can’t… do this anymore.”
Riley let go of the ledge and fell silently to his death. Pushing herself up to her knees, Buffy looked down into the abyss, a lump forming in her throat. She knew something about the ones who didn’t want to be saved. She’d learned that long ago from her friend Ford who felt he could cheat death by joining the ranks of the undead. She hadn’t been able to save him and there was no saving Riley. Standing up, she swallowed hard and turned from the pit, making her way over towards the entrance to the cave.
“Buffy!” Dawn left Giles and ran for the safety of her sister’s arms. and the two girls reunited in a tight embrace as their tears flowed.
“It’s over, Dawn, it’s over,” Buffy soothed. “Are you okay?”
“Better now. You’re here... and Giles. I’d almost given up hope.”
“Hey! You gave up on me?” Buffy teased lightly.
“No! It’s just... Riley...”
“Yeah, he really had this all planned out really well. If it weren’t for Ethan leaving us those clues, we might be chasing our tails in Prague or something.”
“Ethan really helped me out, Buffy. He made things... not so horrible.”
“I’m kinda revising my feelings about him,” Buffy admitted.
“So, why were you so late?” Dawn teased back, trying to lighten the mood.
“Well, we kinda overslept,” Buffy admitted.
Dawn gave her a pointed look. “Are you revising your feelings for Giles too?”
Buffy slapped her sister on the shoulder. “Get your mind out of the gutter.”
“Oh, you so are. Totally!” the younger Summers laughed.
While the sisters were bonding, Giles wandered over to a struggling Ethan and helped him sit up. “How are you feeling, old chap?” he asked congenially.
“Like someone tried to rip my magick from me,” the older man groaned. “But, I will recover. Could you and your Slayer have cut it any closer?”
“We’ll try harder next time.”
Ethan let out a chuckle and clutched his chest. “I’m too old for this shit, Rip,” he complained.
“Nonsense,” Giles dismissed. Handing Ethan his Janus medallion, he said, “It found its way back to you.”
“Thanks to you,” the sorcerer said gratefully, getting to his feet.
Giles extended his hand. “Thank you, Ethan, I mean it.”
“All debts paid?” the sorcerer asked, his brown eyes searching the green ones for forgiveness.
“All debts paid,” the Watcher confirmed, his expression providing Ethan with the absolution he needed.
Securing the medallion around his neck, Ethan muttered, “Go check on your Slayer. She’s bleeding.”
Patting Ethan on the shoulder, Giles left him to return to Buffy and Dawn. On his way, he detected the familiar smell of ozone in the air and knew his old friend had teleported out of the cave. Where ever Ethan turned up, he’d have a hell of a time recovering, performing that spell on such depleted energy reserves.
“Godspeed, Ethan,” Giles murmured.
When he reached the two Summers women, they pulled him into their embrace and he felt relief flow over him. The only thing left was to find their way out and head back down the mountain, but as ready as he was for a warm bed, a hot shower, and a shave - and not necessarily in that order - he realized how tired he really was.
As they withdrew from their group hug and started to head for the alcove where their gear was stored, a Special Forces team drove their way through the entrance to the cave, guns raised. The little party halted immediately and put their hands in the air. Graham followed through the entrance and ordered his men to stand down.
“Buffy,” Graham greeted as he entered. “Good to see you and Mr Giles alive! Andrew contacted me with your last known coordinates after he’d suddenly lost contact with you yesterday.”
The Slayer smiled at him. “Aside from a few bumps and bruises we’re fine.”
“Glad to hear it,” he said, his eyes scanning the chamber for his lost friend.
Buffy placed a hand on his arm, her eyes full of sympathy. “We lost Riley, Graham. I’m sorry.”
“What… What happened?” he asked, unable to conceal his shock.
Over the next several minutes, Buffy, Giles, and Dawn briefed the Army captain on what had happened with Riley.
“And Rayne?” Graham asked.
“He’s gone,” the Watcher said impassively as he shoved his hands into his pockets. “But I want it on record that Ethan was instrumental in our being able to track Riley and stop his plans.”
“Don’t worry, Mr Giles, we won’t pursue him. We’re not sure why he was still being held, he should have been released years ago. I’ll personally open an investigation into it.” Graham stepped back, assessed the three survivors, and called the medic over to look at them. The injuries they had were more significant than the few bumps and bruises the Slayer had mentioned earlier. “As soon as you’re declared fit, we’ll get you back to civilization. From here on out, we’re treating this as a recovery mission for one of our own. Thank you.”
As the medic led the group over to his triage area, Buffy turned to the Army captain and said, “I’m really sorry, Graham.” The Special Forces officer gave her a tight smile and headed off to work with his men to recover their fallen comrade.
The harsh afternoon light reflected off the snow and ice, causing discomfort to the three sets of eyes that had become used to the darkness of the underground cave and tunnel system. Even Buffy and Giles’ glacier glasses did nothing to help curtail the pain as their eyes took time to get used to the daylight. One of the young Special Forces soldiers offered Dawn his sunglasses and she took them gratefully with a shy grin.
Meeting the exhausted and injured trio at the air base, Andrew took control of the situation. He’d secured rooms for Buffy and Dawn at the hotel Giles still had the suite at, made sure they were fed, and ensured that the Council jet was ready to take them back home the next day. Both Dawn and Andrew sensed that something had changed between the Watcher and Slayer, but it wasn’t until the pair said goodbye on the tarmac at Gatwick Airport that their suspicions were confirmed.
“You promised me we’d talk, that we’d sort all this out,” Buffy said around the lump in her throat, taking his hand in hers. A part of her wanted to be angry with him for not having addressed the issues between them earlier, but she knew that would be unfair and they needed to break the cycle of hurt and blame. There simply had been no time and they’d all practically fallen asleep on their feet.
“I’ve not forgotten,” he replied softly, pale green eyes searching her darker ones. “But you have to get Dawn home and situated so she can start her summer semester the day after next, and I have to answer to the Board as to why I commandeered the corporate jet, took advantage of Council resources, and risked the life of the senior Slayer to save a civilian.”
“And make sure a Hellmouth wasn’t opened,” Buffy added. “If they punish us for this, I will quit… again,” she declared petulantly as she gazed across the runway.
“As will I,” Giles agreed. Buffy turned her attention back to him, her sylvan eyes heavy with unshed tears. Taking a deep breath, he continued, “Buffy, if what we have is something we both want, it will still be there when we see each other next. My feelings on the matter have not changed, nor will they.”
“Of all the goodbyes, this seems like the hardest” she declared. “I miss you already.”
Giles wrapped her in his good arm, the shoulder he’d injured strapped and the arm resting in a sling. “Ring me when you get home? Let me know you both are safe?”
“Okay. Expect more expensive phone bills. I plan on going over my minutes.”
“I’ll authorize the expense reports,” he chuckled. After gently placing a soft kiss on her lips, he whispered, “You’d best board the plane now.”
Nodding, she held onto his hand as long as she could before letting go. When she dropped it, he placed it into his pocket as he watched her climb the stairs to enter the private jet. She turned to say goodbye, but found that words escaped her. Instead she waved and gave him a sad smile. Removing his hand from his pocket, he returned her wave before the pilot closed the door.
Giles felt a profound sense of sadness as he turned and walked to the Council car, joining Andrew for the trip home. He’d found his Slayer again, and he’d learned that she was the one who stirred his soul, the one for whom his heart beat. Why he hadn’t just followed her to Paris, Council be damned, he just didn’t know.
Looking out the small window next to her seat, Buffy watched miserably as Giles entered the company car. Her days and nights would be lonelier without him. She had been amazed at how quickly she’d come to realize that he’d been the one she’d been searching for, the reason that she didn’t seriously date after the destruction of Sunnydale, and at how quickly her heart had accepted him back into her life and in such a different role. She raised her hand to touch the plexiglass, in one last effort to say goodbye, wondering if Giles was looking out the car’s dark tinted window at her. As the plane started to taxi to the runway, tears escaped her lashes and Dawn drew her into her arms, allowing Buffy take comfort from her.
On to Chapter 10