See chapter 1 for disclaimer.
It wasn't a vision, but it smarted like anything, just the same.
This was kind of a burning sensation, like nothing I'd ever felt before, which flooded my senses without warning, setting all my nerve endings alight with agony.
"Oh, my," Wesley breathed. Faith's mouth had dropped open, astonishment leaving her speechless, though unfortunately I was in no position just then to appreciate this rare event.
I lowered the hand I'd automatically raised to my forehead in anticipation of a vision, and stared in disbelief at the exposed skin of my hands. A strange light seemed to be burrowing outwards from under my skin, new patches of it forming and growing even as I watched. Where it touched, it burned, and it was spreading. Patches met other patches and merged.
What it felt like now reduced the sensation a few seconds earlier to an itch. It felt like I was being burned up from the inside out.
"What the...?" I looked to Wesley. Was this some kind of spell? If so, he knew a whole lot more about that sort of thing than I did.
If it was a spell, it was nothing well-intentioned. My whole body felt like it was burning up, like there'd be nothing left of me any second but ashes, just like any of the vampires we'd dusted.
A nicely ironic way to go, considerin'.
Wesley, the only one of us in any way qualified to defend against something like this, was preoccupied trying to keep a white-knuckled hold on Faith. A losing battle, I knew. Faith was straining forward to get to me; Wesley was holding up against her better than I'd ever have imagined he would, but it couldn't last.
"Faith, no," I heard his desperate voice faintly, through a haze of static. The room seemed to be getting an impossibly long way away. "It's some sort of malign magic. God knows, he must have made enough enemies over the years. There's nothing you can do except get caught up in it too. It could kill you."
"Like it could be killing him! I've got to do something!" Faith broke his grip - and probably very nearly his arm - and lunged forward.
"No, Faith!" Wesley cried, with futile horror. "It won't do any good for you both to..."
Oh, man. If I had to go the last thing I wanted was to take her with me. But there was nothing I could do to stop her. I couldn't move, pinned there by the sorcerous light. All I could do was watch as she reached out to me, her face a mask of determination...
No. She hadn't missed. That slayer hand-eye co-ordination didn't miss. Her hand had gone straight through me.
I realised I could see the floor through my magic-lined arms.
Damn it, I was being disintegrated. Burned up, slowly. In a moment there'd be nothing left-
Wesley was right. I had made a whole lot of enemies in this city. Some of them had tried to send people out after me more than once, in the past, and received a pile of dead or battered minions for their pains. And some of them - dark thoughts of lawyers flitted across my mind - might even have the financial whack to pay for me to be dispensed with by magic, from afar.
I should have thought to have my own protections set up against this kind of attack. Heck, I'd even had Wesley and his books available on hand there for a couple of months.
Too late now.
In the instant before I was too busy concentrating on dyin' to see anything much of the room around me at all, I heard Faith's scream.
It was a cry of rage and distress, a sound which tore itself out of her lips with a passion and fury I'd never dared let myself believe I could ever evoke in her.
'She must've been beginning to care, after all, to dredge up a cry like that,' I thought as the world receded. 'Damn it all, now I'll never know if we really could've had somethin' together.'
It was the last thought I took with me into the darkness.
I spent a long time in a fuzzy semi-aware state, wondering vaguely whether the demon in me meant I was bound for hell despite everything I'd done.
After about half an eternity it dawned on my overtaxed brain that I could still feel my body, and that there was far too much very real hurtin' going on in there for me to have crossed over to the other side quite yet.
I was lying on a hard, cold surface which chilled to the bone even through my layers of clothing. To be honest, a little hellfire might have been an improvement.
Fire... I recalled being burned alive. Didn't feel burned now. Just aching, the bruises from the earlier fight intensified now by the chill. And dead tired, like I'd had about fifty visions each after the other.
Which was all still pretty good considerin' I'd never expected to feel anything again.
My senses continued to return gradually, and I became aware that, wherever I was, there were others close by. At first the voices floated through my brain as distant noises without any trace of meaning. As time passed the sounds became words, and the words started to arrange themselves into sentences with some degree of coherence.
Two distinct men's voices, each snappish and irritable, each speaker obviously less than friendly with the other.
I peered out through slitted-open eyes, but I was lying face down and I couldn't see anything except their nifty, expensive and absolutely-bloody-freezing polished stone tile floor.
I stayed exactly as I was, resisting the temptation to try inch my head around for a better view. Whatever they'd brought me here for, I was pretty damned certain it wasn't anything good. I didn't want them to know I was awake and aware. Let them talk on, oblivious. Meantime, I'd absorb all the information I could about what in hell's name was goin' on.
"It didn't look like it went too well to me," one of the guys was saying. His voice was sneeringly aggressive, oddly muffled, slightly nasal, and he used the tone of someone addressing an employee. "The senior partners will be displeased."
Senior partners... Goddamned bloody lawyers. I might have known.
"Oh, come off it, now. What do you take me for? I'm quite aware you wanted the second spell yourself," replied a smooth, dry, amused voice in a decidedly English accent. The speaker obviously wasn't remotely impressed by his companion's attempt to pull rank on him. "The senior partners didn't mention anything about it. Besides, the spell worked perfectly, I felt it, so either the answer to your problems doesn't exist, or he's leverage against both people you're after. I'd go with the first personally - psychotic murderers tend not to collect too many friends you can use against them."
So this was the guy who'd magicked me here. Bastard.
"Looked to me like you had a hard time even getting him here. And as for the second spell, I think the sum we paid ought to deliver more than a fifty percent success rate. Aside from which... do you really want to go back where we found you?"
"He's here. I've done everything that was officially asked to cover my obligation to you people. As for the rest, I'd stay the threats. Do you really want me to mention to the senior partners your attempts to use their resources for your personal vendettas?"
"Look, Rayne..." The guy - the lawyer - floundered, sputtering to a halt, and changed the subject to a different gripe. "Are you sure you even brought him back? He still looks pretty dead to me."
'Dead...?' My thoughts parroted with alarm.
The lawyer continued, oblivious, thankfully missing any visible reaction I let slip in my shock. "It's no use to the senior partners if you've magicked them a corpse. They may think you're the man for these things, but I've done my research. I know your magic's screwy as hell. Practical jokes seem to be the best your tricks amount to. Costumes and candy bars. You couldn't raise a dead hamster."
A kick connected with my side without warning. I managed to change a yell of pain into what I hoped was a close approximation of a semi-conscious moan. "He's alive," Rayne's voice said dryly, clipped.
All this raising the dead talk... I'd not thought I could feel any more chilled, but I could feel it now, like splinters of ice running through my veins.
I'd thought I was dying. Rayne's spell had been to raise the dead. And he seemed pretty darn sure he'd succeeded.
Had I died after all, back in the office?
"He could be the wrong guy." Lawyer-boy was a persistent little weasel, give him that, his drawl measured and sarcastic. "He doesn't look much like the picture we have."
"Mercer, the picture you've got is so out of focus it barely looks human. He's Doyle. The spell was tied to his name, his identity. It's impossible that it could have brought anyone else."
Lawyer-boy descended into sullen silence. Rayne paced about the room inaudibly muttering to himself. After a few seconds Mercer said, insistently, "What about Faith, then?"
Her name jolted through me like an electric shock. Again, I had to have betrayed some kind of visible reaction, but their attention must've been elsewhere.
"What about her? You shouldn't be so surprised a murdering maniac doesn't have anyone close enough to use against them. Too bad, you'll just have to find some other way to get at her."
Another jolt. Murdering maniac, my Faith? Well, I guess the impression she makes upon the guys on the other side can't be too pleasant... But the description disturbed me, all the same, coming from a lackey of Wolfram and Hart of all people.
Mercer said, "I have one already. How about if I were to give you a little extra, to go after her separately? The senior partners don't have to worry, and we can forget mentioning anything to them about... anything else."
It occurred to me that if Faith was the other party they'd mentioned, I didn't have the slightest idea who it could possibly be they thought they could use me against. Surely not Wesley. And not Kate either, nobody would ever fool themselves into thinking she'd give in to that kind of coercion. It was baffling.
I couldn't think of a single other person who'd care enough what happened to me to be a possibility. They had to have made some kind of mistake.
One thing for sure, walking dead man or not, if they were going after Faith, I had to get away from there and warn her. Whatever the hell else was going on, and however mad the world had suddenly become.
Rayne was making indecisive noises which I interpreted to mean he'd accept but only after letting Mercer wonder about the answer for a while. He changed the subject - back to me. "Is he dangerous? You did say he was supposed to be some sort of demon hybrid, so perhaps you'd better restrain him before he wakes up. Because if he wakes up peeved, my magic goes towards saving my own skin. It's not in my contract to protect lawyers."
"He's not dangerous." Mercer's voice dripped contempt, though whether it was directed at me or Rayne was impossible to tell. "Far as I'm aware, he was just the Undead Avenger's messenger-boy, halfbreed demon or no."
Rayne grunted. "Better find something to restrain him with anyway. I noticed Wolfram and Hart has quite the collection of manacles, not to mention a uniquely expansive store of weaponry for a law firm." He chuckled, seeming greatly amused by the operation.
Sounded like my cue to leave. I'd learned as much as I would from these guys for the moment and I had no intention of ending up in chains. Plus, I didn't know who this fellow they were after might be, but their dismissal of me as no threat was just irritating. After all the trouble I'd given the lawyer-types in the past, I'd have hoped to rate a little more than that.
They couldn't have gotten me mixed up with someone else, could they?
Some other half-demon called Doyle? Oh, yeah.
I'd been listening carefully to the direction their voices and footfalls came from, trying to follow their progress in relation to me. I decided it would be best to take out the magical threat first, since I already had an idea what Rayne's magic could do to me.
Rayne was a pacer and I knew, following the betraying sounds of his feet and his dry, sarcastic voice that he should be quite close to me.
In fact, just about there...
I snapped my eyes open, rolled over, shot out a hand to grab an ankle, and wrenched the guy's legs from under him.
'Cept it wasn't quite that easy. My whole body was stiff from the cold and the enforced stillness, and put up considerable protest to the idea of moving. And my right arm, injured in the fight earlier, still wasn't up to much.
I managed to execute the manoeuvre in a series of clumsy, lurching motions. It only worked because neither of the guys had any clue I was even awake.
Rayne fell heavily and gracelessly, his long lanky form stretching itself across the floor with a brief curse that was cut off as his head hit the hard tiles. Satisfied he wasn't gonna be giving me any trouble for the time being, I turned my attention to Mercer.
Lawyer-boy, obviously no fool - and no hero either - was already practically out the door and opening his mouth to yell for assistance. I was somewhat surprised to see he had his neck in a stiff cast, and a bandage on one arm. Recalling the vendetta he had goin' against Faith, I wondered now if that was the result of a recent first-hand encounter.
I lunged for him, desperate to stop his yell for help. This required getting to my feet, which I sort of managed. My momentum carried me to him and gave out neatly in time for me to fall on him, dragging him down and cutting off his shout.
My hand over his mouth prevented him from attempting any further cries. He tried to sink his teeth into my palm and I leaned my weight hard against his neck cast. He got out a muffled curse, and something that sounded a lot like, "You fight as dirty as she does."
Guy must've met Faith.
Neither of us was currently in particularly good shape, but I knew what I was doing while all the fighting he was used to took place in a courtroom.
He managed to get in a couple of decent shots that didn't improve my day any, but following a few minutes of close, vicious scuffle, experience won out and when I'd bashed his head against the floor a few times he joined his cohort in a reluctant nap.
I rolled aside and lay on my back, breathing heavily, staring up at the ceiling. Trying to gather the energy to stand.
Someone might have heard. Someone might come in to check on these two. I had to move, and soon, because I was pretty sure I'd used up all the fight left in me for the time being.
If I didn't get out of there quick I'd be in chains, as they'd intended, with the only result of all my efforts that I'd be watched a hell of a lot more closely.
And then there was Faith.
I had to get back to her, back to the office. That cry, that look on her face when she thought I was dying... or, I guess I was dying...
Still didn't know quite what to think about that one. Couldn't wrap my brain around the idea I'd been raised from the dead.
Anyway, I had to let her know I was still around.
I forced my uncooperative muscles into action and made a painful progress to my feet. The circulation and feeling was returning to my limbs, but doing it in such a manner it made me kinda wish it wasn't.
I contemplated the unconscious Mercer and Rayne for a moment. I could kill them, end any further threat they posed to Faith and myself... but whatever else they were or they'd done, they were still human, and I wasn't entirely happy at the thought of slaughtering them while they lay helpless.
I pinched Mercer's suit, but otherwise left them as they were.
The suit was a little large, but it would have to do. I'd be far too conspicuous walking out of the basement and through the corridors of Wolfram and Hart's office building in my own battered and slightly charred clothes.
I ascended the stairs to the basement exit and stood for a long moment in front of the closed door.
Then, gathering up all the tatters of my composure, ignoring my various hurts, I pushed open the door and walked out of there. Through the corridors, past various employees, exchanging the occasional nod with a passing suit. I got to the foyer without discovery or even suspicion. Nobody spared me a second glance as I left via the main doors.
Emerging into the sunshine and petrol fumes of the LA streets.