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Unconquerable Souls

Chapter Text

Out of the night that covers me,

     Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

     For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

     I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

     My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

     Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

     Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,

     How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate,

     I am the captain of my soul.

—“Invictus,” by William Ernest Henley

 

Angel entered his apartment alone, carrying a plastic sack in one hand. He walked to his fridge without turning on any lights and pulled open the door. The white shelves, bare except for a few containers of pig’s blood, seemed to taunt him. He took one of the containers out and set it on the counter, then carefully arranged the fresh ones from the butcher at the back, moving the remaining two from last week to the front. He filled one of his two cheap cooking pots with water from the sink, then turned the stove on and set the pot on a burner.

After bringing the water to a simmer, he lowered the container of pig’s blood into it with a pair of metal tongs. He’d done this enough times now that he didn’t need a timer or a thermometer to know when the blood’s temperature would reach roughly 95°F. When it was ready, he pulled it out of the hot water and poured the contents into a large mug. He took a sip and savored it. Pig’s blood might not be all that great compared to human blood, but it was a far cry better than rat, and it actually tasted good when it was reheated.

Two weeks ago, there had barely been room for blood in his fridge next to the assortment of low-fat yogurt containers, soda cans, skim milk cartons, and boxes of leftover Chinese takeout or pizza slices. Two weeks ago, his clothing had shared the space in his wardrobe. His shampoo, soap, and razor had shared the shelf in his shower. His bed had been warm.

Angel brought his mug of blood over to his chair, flicked the lamp on, picked up his sketchbook, and sat down. The sketchbook was full of drawings of Buffy. The first time she’d caught him with his charcoals, she’d been confused and embarrassed. She’d pressed the knuckle of her right forefinger to the scar on her lips—a tick he’d come to recognize as an expression of insecurity. He’d assured her that he couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful subject.

He drank the blood and flicked through the sketchbook. Most of the drawings showed Buffy smiling or laughing. It didn’t happen often in real life, so he tried to immortalize those moments whenever possible. The sketches still paled in comparison to her actual presence.

The mug was empty and he was about to start working on a new sketch when a sound in the hallway outside the apartment made him freeze. In under a second, he was at the door, hand on the knob. He could hear the heartbeat of the person in the hall. Based on the quality of the sound of the footsteps, he could guess at an adult female of average height and slight build, though possibly carrying something heavy.

He waited until he heard a faint metallic scratching and felt the doorknob shift slightly. Then he jerked the door open, seized the would-be intruder by the throat, and slammed her against the wall to the left of the door. “Who are you?” he snarled. “Why were you trying to break in?”

The woman was in her early thirties, with dark eyes and shoulder-length black hair. She had a bulging bag slung over one shoulder. “Let me go!” she cried, hands tugging uselessly at his fingers. “I’m not here to hurt you!”

“Are you with the Watchers’ Council?” said Angel, his grip tightening—not enough to cut off the blood flow to her brain, but enough to significantly increase her panic.

“No! No, my name is Janna Kalderash!”

Angel jerked away from her as if he’d been burned. She stared at him, rubbing her throat, her heart still pounding frantically and her breathing ragged. Neither of them spoke. Angel watched her warily while his insides twisted with guilt, waiting for her to say something. It took her several minutes to get her fear under control. Then she stepped away from the wall and took a deep breath. “I grew up in the U.S. I’m Jenny Calendar here. The elders of my clan back in Romania sent me to California because they fear the curse has been weakening.”

“Weakening?” said Angel. It was his turn to be afraid. Did that mean it was possible for him to lose his soul? “Why?”

“I don’t know. I’m supposed to try to find out, and then do whatever I can to make sure it doesn’t break.”

“Is that why you were sneaking in at 8:30 in the morning?”

She averted her eyes, her cheeks flushing with embarrassment. “There’s a spell I was going to try. Sort of a diagnostic. It might not even work, but I was hoping to slip in, cast it on you in your sleep, and then leave before you noticed anything.”

“And you couldn’t just ask?”

She folded her arms and raised a sardonic eyebrow. “My job is to do recon on the monster my clan swore eternal vengeance against. I was hardly going to call and make an appointment first.”

“What, do you think I want to lose my soul?”

“Don’t you?”

“Well, I won’t deny that it would make things a hell of a lot easier for me, but innocent lives are worth more than my own peace of mind.” She looked completely taken aback by this answer. He decided to elaborate, in case she still wasn’t convinced. “More than that, there are people here I care about.” Their faces flashed through his mind. He swallowed. “If the curse broke, they’d be the first ones I’d go after.” Now he was the one who couldn’t meet her eyes.

He sensed more than saw the shift in her posture. “Will you let me try the spell?” she asked, slipping her bag off her shoulder.

He looked up at her, surprised at the new absence of hostility in her tone. “Do you need help setting anything up?”

“If you don’t mind. It’s just some candles and herbs.”

They spent the next five minutes arranging all the materials for the spell in the middle of the apartment. When they finished, they sat across from each other on the floor in the center of a circle of white candles, a small altar of incense between them. Jenny was reading silently from the very old, leather-bound book she had open in her lap. When she finished, she looked up at him. “Ready?”

He nodded. She reached across the altar and placed her right hand over his heart and her left against his forehead. Then, she began reading out a passage from the book in a slow, clear voice. The language sounded very similar to Romanian, but it must have been a different dialect, because Angel only understood a few phrases here and there. He got the gist, though; she was asking for the power to see into his soul.

After about a minute, she finished speaking. Confused, he started to ask if it had worked, but before he could utter a syllable, a burning heat ignited in his chest, beneath where Jenny’s hand rested. It intensified and expanded until he feared he would burst into flames from the inside. In seconds, it spread through his whole body. He tried to yell, but his throat wouldn’t work. Had she really just come here to kill him? He opened his eyes and saw that a blue-white light was coming from inside him, shining out from every inch of his skin. It was bright enough even to glow through his clothing. Then, in an instant, the light and the burning ceased, leaving him blinking in the relative darkness of the light from the lamps and candles.

Jenny sagged forward, her hands falling away from him.

“Did it work?” he asked.

“I guess,” said Jenny dryly. “I was hoping for the kind of result I get when I run a diagnostics test on my computer. Seems like this kind of magic isn’t that specific.”

“Why? What did you find out?”

“It’s more like what I saw,” she said, now rubbing at her temples. “There were two women, both sorta little, with blonde hair. One was dressed in white and carrying a sword, the other was a vampire, dressed in black.”

Angel stood up and retrieved the sketchbook from the lamp table beside his chair, then went to his bookshelf and pulled down another, much older sketchbook. He flipped through the old one until he found what he was looking for. He returned to his seat on the floor across from Jenny and held up both sketchbooks. “Are these the women?”

It was still daytime, but Sunnydale’s utility tunnels were extensive enough that getting to Willy’s bar was a fairly simple task. How the rat-like little man had come out of the two years of the Master’s reign alive and with his business still profitable was a mystery Angel preferred not to try to solve. He strode into the main room of the bar. Willy was behind the cash register, counting money. It was after hours, so nobody else was there. Willy didn’t look up until Angel was right across the counter from him. Then he swallowed.

“H-how’s it going, Angel?” he said.

“Swell, Willy,” said Angel, resting his hands on the counter about three feet apart. “I need to know what you’ve heard lately about new vampires in town.”

“Oh,” said Willy. “Actually, uh, I-I’ve been trying to keep my nose out of that stuff lately. Really! I’m a changed man.”

“Cut the crap,” said Angel. “This place reeks of vampires and demons like it always does.” He leaned a few inches closer. Willy leaned back, his heart pounding like a cornered rabbit’s.

“Okay, fine,” he said. “Look, you didn’t hear this from me. There is a vampire operation setting up shop, but the leader ain’t exactly new.”

“Let me guess,” said Angel. He held up a hand to chin height. “About this tall, blonde, dressed to kill, and pissed that the Master’s dead?” Willy swallowed hard again, which was all the confirmation Angel needed. “How many guys do you think she’s got, and where have they been holing up?”

“There’s probably a couple dozen of them. They’re out in that old mansion on Crawford Street.”

“Thanks, Willy,” said Angel with a cold smile. “I don’t see why you’re always trying to make this so hard.”

“I don’t like being taken advantage of,” said Willy with an attempt at dignity.

“Taken advantage of?” said Angel, feigning offense. “Why would I ever want to take advantage of you?”

“How should I know?” he said, closing the cash register’s drawer sulkily. “All I’ve ever done is try to be a good friend to you.”

“I’m sure you have.”

“It’s God’s honest truth,” said Willy. “I got nothing but concern for you.” He leaned forward. “I heard the Slayer moved out of your place. You two going through a rough patch?”

Angel leveled a flat stare at him, then turned to go. “We’re not that good of friends, Willy.”