The ritual was taking place between ecology and horticulture, easy enough to find following the sounds of chanting. Lilah waited behind the safety of a bookshelf while Reyner's team ghosted out around the aisles to surround the anonymous robed figures.
The chanting, raw and discordant, grated on her nerves. The voice speaking didn't sound like it came from a human throat. She concentrated on her fingers, twisting them tightly in the fabric of Wesley's ugly jacket, and watched for the moment everyone fell into position.
Wesley was eying the action taking place around him, looking something of a restless fifth wheel, forced to stay back and watch others lead. He'd crossed his arms; she suspected to keep himself from fidgeting.
Lilah smiled and stroked her fingers down his sleeve. No problem, of course, with a take-charge attitude. If anything it was a pleasant surprise.
Nervous and irritable, darkly concentrating upon the tableau of the ritual in progress, he shook her hand off.
The circle of eleven figures hidden within dark robes was formed around a twelfth, and it was he who chanted. His robe was open, the hood hanging down his back. A tall man, with severe-cut greying dark hair, prominent cheekbones and nasty eyes. Lilah wrinkled her nose in disgust. Mortimer Chaney. That hack.
In front of him was a small altar, and upon it an oily black globe the size of a bowling ball that seemed to suck energy and light from the air around it. Scratches visible on its surface, too irregular to be decoration, too deliberate to be the random damage of years, might have marked out the shapes of runes though they looked like no symbols she recognised. The room seemed to grow darker the longer the artefact fixed her gaze. She realised the edges of her vision were blurring into malevolent black shapes that crept and shifted, and she tore her eyes from the Naminore an instant before it was ripped anyway from her view.
Her thoughts cleared. Time resumed its normal pace.
Wesley's hands trapped her face, painfully rough, and he frowned at her through their frame.
She pressed a finger to his lips, warning him against sound. He gestured frantically, and she understood it wasn't her phasing out that formed his principal concern. Chaney was approaching the end of the rite. Reyner and his team were waiting to make their move.
She nodded. It was time for an intervention.
Lilah stepped out from hiding, strode through the unmarked boundary of the circle, tapped her foot and cleared her throat loudly.
The chanting dried up with an unmanly squeak.
"Mort Chaney. Why doesn't it surprise me to find your dirty little fingers in this dark magic pot?"
There was a motion behind her. She heard Wesley grunt and a heavy impact. An acolyte slumped forward onto the ground almost at her feet.
"Next?" Wesley queried roughly. He joined her, casting a glance between herself and Chaney. "You know this... individual?"
"He's a chaos mage. I should've guessed. Who else would be dumb enough to summon a hell dimension down on top of themself?"
Chaney drew himself up indignantly, evidently recovered from his initial shock. "I don't appreciate this denigration," he said pissily. "I think a certain Wolfram and Hart bitch and her new pet Watcher are overlooking the fact they're outnumbered six to one." He drew a long, serrated knife and took a step towards them.
A click sounded. Lilah smiled as Chaney froze.
"Ah. Actually, no," she purred, as seven men armed to the teeth with the best small arms money could buy melted out from the shadows. "But... before you get shot to ribbons, Mort dear, would you care to tell us how in the hell you got the heads-up about the Naminore? There's no way you were alive before the glamour spells were put in place. It's beyond the realm of mortal comprehension how you've survived sixty years on this Earth."
"Fifty-four," Chaney snapped. "And I happened to attend the death bed of an ancient member of my order, who - oh, screw you, Morgan." He folded his arms in a sulk. "You can stay curious. It isn't as if you don't intend to kill me anyway."
She shrugged. "I never made any promises. As for the rest, I can live with my curiosity."
Backing off - not that she had any qualms about the aim of the men, but she knew from experience that blood had a considerable splatter-distance - she raised a hand to signal Reyner. Simultaneously, Chaney leaped to take the last chance he'd ever get.
A broad gesture and an improvised piece of magery snatched the rifles from the hands of the team, but couldn't recall the bullets already fired. Chaney, swathed from thigh to opposing shoulder, dropped to the floor convulsing, his blood splashing up.
The Naminore seemed to swell hungrily at the baptism.
Lilah staggered amid a hail of bullets. Her heel gave, skewing her balance, and a weight slammed her down just as she'd thought she'd caught herself. The weight pinned her and breathed hot and heavy against her ear. Its hand covered hers, pressing her palm flat against the tiled floor.
"Don't move," hissed Wesley.
"Get off me, you asshole."
The last of the gunfire dispersed, Wesley rolled away and she sat up, gasping, in time to see him borne to the ground by a tackle from an acolyte obviously a linebacker in his spare time. She hurriedly retreated from the action to reclaim her hiding place behind the shelf, almost tripping over Wesley's abandoned case.
Three of the chaos acolytes and one of Reyner's men had been cut down with Chaney. The chaos mage's final spell had reduced the automatic weapons to piles of scrap cluttering the floor, and in the absence of firearms Reyner's men and the acolytes were skirmishing with manly enthusiasm. Lilah accorded them enough of a disdainful glance to establish the Wolfram and Hart team firmly in control of the affray, then left the boys to it.
She watched Wesley knock out the man who'd jumped him and stagger upright again, mildly scuffed. When he took a purposeful step towards an acolyte taking on one of Reyner's men, she briefly ventured from safety to pull him back.
"What are you doing?" he snapped, leaning dizzily against the shelf for all his protesting bravado. He produced a handkerchief from somewhere and dabbed at a cut on his hairline.
"At our level," she sniffed, "You have to learn to let others do the legwork. We don't fight. We have minions to do that. Damn it, Wesley, there are rules. You don't put your neck on the line doing the menial work."
Disgust twisted his expression. "You really are-"
"Yes, I really am. But look at the Naminore and tell me that there's someone else here who can stop it if you go get yourself killed."
"With Chaney dead and the activation ritual incomplete, there shouldn't be any danger-" He squinted at the excitedly pulsing black globe and frowned. "Although I daresay having an open conduit to a hell dimension in the middle of LA can't really be a good thing. I suppose other unpredictable effects are possible. But we can't get to it for bodies now anyway, and if I don't help, that man is going to die-"
A final twist on the henchman's neck caused him to explode in a cloud of green dust even as Wesley broke her grip. Another of Reyner's people jumped the offending acolyte and demonstrated his displeasure by jamming a knife into the man's back.
"See? Minions." Lilah smiled gleefully.
Wesley stopped in his tracks. "I..."
"Thought they were human? We started looking for alternative options after that first fiasco in your old hotel. These guys, the evidence destroys itself. No bodies. It's a sweet deal."
His open-mouthed stare gave her a warm, fuzzy glow inside.
Reyner and the final remaining minion were finishing off the last of Chaney's people. Lilah bent down to retrieve Wesley's case and pressed it into his hand.
"Come on, let's do what we came here to do."
Whoever had recently gone in through the sewer entrance at the back of the library hadn't pulled the cover back down right. Fred's wild guesses aside, at least that meant they'd probably got the right place.
"Real smooth," Gunn said as he yanked up the grille.
Fred slid lithely through before he could move to check out the waiting dark first, and called back up, "It's all alright. All nice and quiet down here."
Right; girl had lived in a cave for five years. Sometimes he forgot that. Forgot how the dark was home and the normal ingredients of human fears posed no threat, not rats nor spiders (he almost grinned at the memory of her being called up to rescue Cordelia or Wesley from the occasional eight-legged brute of the Hyperion's mutant population) nor the mere absence of light.
Gunn really didn't want to think about her acclimatisation to the stuff of nightmares over the course of five years. He slid down into the dark to land at her side, boots squelching on shallow dampness, and pulled the cover back over after them, setting it slightly out of place as he'd found it.
Neither did he want to think about the need to hope whoever was doing this ritual was human so he could cut out their internal organs for the last component of the reversal spell. He'd never killed a human being, leastways not so far as he knew and he hoped to God he knew correct, but the memory of that incident as a stupid kid stuck in his mind, Bobby's blood on his hands after the fight and the relief when he found out the other boy was gonna pull through.
Nuh. Not thinking about it.
They headed along down the sewer, Fred too quiet at his side and he knew she didn't want to do this either. Could hardly blame her for not wanting to go back to this place or anywhere like the other, and he had to be strong for her, and be ready to do what was needed. If they failed... if there was any possibility they really could end up in some other demon dimension... Damn. The girl had gone mad in a cave over the course of five years in a world where humans were cattle. And Pylea - Pylea hadn't been a hell dimension, not as such, not for real.
"Do you feel it?" Fred asked. "The air - it feels kind of heavy. Static. Like a thunderstorm."
Gunn did feel it. "You think we're too late?"
"I... I think if we were too late we wouldn't be here to wonder." Her voice was shaking. "But I think it's started. I think we're gonna have to do... I think we should hurry."
They quickened their pace, though not so much they'd alert anyone left on guard with the noise of their haste. He tightened his grip on the axe as they made their way up into the basement, patted the uncomfortable lump of the crossbow zipped inside his jacket.
There was nobody waiting there, but he jumped as much as Fred did when the unmistakeable sound of gunfire ripped the air.
"Shit." Gunn looked sourly between his axe and her crossbow. "I'm guessing we're gonna have a serious armament problem."
"Who're they shooting at?" Fred wondered. Out of the sewers, she shivered nervously at his side. "Do you think it could be ritual shooting?"
"We should get moving." No choice. No chance now to get away.
"Right." Fred's left hand was bunched in the corner of his jacket, leaving him both hands free, her other hand holding the trembling crossbow ready. In the stark light of the library she was paler than even her norm.
Whatever the shooting had been about, it had stopped now, and they wove between aisles of shelves trying to track where it had come from. The air still felt charged and expectant; the faint noises of disturbance and murmurs of voices emanating from somewhere close by seemed to echo in it.
Gunn tried again not to think about the man he'd have to kill.
Then he turned a corner and his heart near thudded its last at the sight greeting him, 'cause things had just gone and gotten about a thousand times worse.
A circle of corpses and neon dust spread out around an altar with something on it that looked like the Evil Glowing Basketball From Hell, and standing over it muttering in some language that wasn't English-
Wesley added the mandrake root to the smouldering pile of spell components beside the Naminore on the altar, careful not to touch the night-black globe or let it draw his gaze too close. He didn't want Lilah having to snap him out of its trance a third time; twice had been tedious enough.
"Sheep's blood," he said. She handed him the vial and he poured it over the ashes, quenching the last of the fire. The smoke thickened and blackened, rising in truly unreasonable quantities. He choked and pulled out his handkerchief to press across his nose and mouth, and at his side, her complexion already a peculiar shade, Lilah crushed a sleeve against her lips.
After the initial gush the smoke dwindled to a slim chimney. The air around them cleared gradually and, with some relief, he allowed himself to breathe again.
All that needed be done now was read out the words, completing the spell to reset the balance of the dimensions, purifying the Naminore. He fervently hoped that his reinterpretation of the spell without the clause to consign its caster's soul to an eternity of despair would still work as intended.
Lilah was smiling and looking on approvingly as he took up the scroll - the original, taken from Mortimer Chaney's corpse, splattered with blood, a bullet hole piercing one corner - and began to read.
As the words passed his lips he could feel the power gathering in his own blood and bone, and the increasing effort it took to drag the words out at all. Despite his awareness of the spell's necessity and his pessimistic preconceptions of the issue as an already lost cause, he still had to fight down fears for the safety of his own soul.
Three lines from the end, the thought crept through his focus that Lilah had gone very still. His voice wavered on the guttural syllables of the next line, but he pressed onward. There really wasn't much left to-
Cold, sharp steel settled against his scar and silenced his determination.
"I really wouldn't," said a voice he recognised all too well, with an edge of danger in it that he could never recall having directed towards himself before.
He looked up from the scroll into the eyes of Charles Gunn. What he saw there dissolved his fear and reconstructed a familiar numbness in its place.
"Gunn." His voice in his surprise came out far more gentle than he could have intended, the result being that he spoke his former friend's name with a soft intonation not vastly different from how he'd said it a hundred times before, and surely there was something wrong there?
Gunn's face twisted in disgust and he didn't move his axe. A little way beyond him, hurt shock in her face, Fred was holding a crossbow to cover Lilah, Reyner and the other remaining non-human minion.
"I don't believe this. Man, I know you betrayed us, but - you're working for them now?"
Wesley felt a warm trickle down his neck from his scar. He took a breath and raised his head higher, baring his throat in obstinate challenge. He'd taken a bullet for this man once. Could Gunn kill him, after all they'd been through together?
He pondered his own approach to the question; the analytical interest where presumably there should be emotion. He said, "Outside contracted," and shrugged in faint apology, but couldn't hide his amusement at Gunn's horror. "You know how it is. You have to take the work where you can find it. I'm sure that maxim featured in your life on the streets on more than one occasion."
Gunn looked as though he'd very much like to take a swing. Evidently Fred thought so too, as her voice cut between them, "Charles, don't."
She took a step closer, careful to keep the crossbow on Lilah. Her eyes were wide and fearful. "We can't do this, Gunn," she said, something terrible and torn underlying her voice. "We can't."
"Can't do what?" Lilah asked. "Kill us? Of course not. You're the goody little two-shoes. Not even the ones who're vaguely dangerous."
Lilah did not know Fred and Gunn terribly well, Wesley reflected. Even Fred now glared at her as though she'd like nothing better than to use the crossbow in her hands. He'd seen them both more than ready to kill before.
"Lady, I will stake you through the heart if you don't shut the hell up, human or not," Gunn said.
Wesley leaned forward as much as the axe would allow to share a mocking confidence. "It won't help. You know she hasn't got one."
The hate in Gunn's eyes should've stung, and didn't.
His next words, however, threw Wesley's thoughts into confusion.
"Fred. Get the knife."
Fred really wasn't liking this. The evil lawyer woman was looking vastly entertained and Charles was looking like killing someone and Wes was looking vaguely puzzled and apprehensive in a manner that was all too much like the kind friend he had been rather than the traitor he'd become - and she knew what Gunn was thinking, she could see his intent in his eyes and face and every line of his posture and she had to stop this, stop it now, because they just couldn't-
"Gunn, don't," she said again. She had to break through to him. "Get away from him. Let me talk to him. Wesley! Wesley, you can't be working for these people. I know you meant to save Connor by taking him, even if you betrayed Angel, and I know that doesn't excuse anything, but-"
"I know," he interrupted, eyes cold now, voice rough and pitiless and not anything like she'd ever heard him sound before. Even when he'd been mad and trying to kill her with an axe, his voice had stayed scarily soft. "The road to Hell is paved with them. Let's not do this. Save it, Winifred."
"No, no, we have to do this. We can't save it because we have to save you, because otherwise he's going to kill you so, you see, it's not like there's gonna be another chance."
"Fred." Charles' tone was annoyed. His hands shifted on his axe. "I need that knife. This thing, it's a bit unwieldy for delicate organ-extraction."
Lilah's eyes were wide, impressed. "Wow. You really would kill him, wouldn't you? This guy who was your friend two years, fought beside you, even took a bullet for you... I think our people may have seriously underestimated you, Charles. We never did extend you a job offer, did we?"
"I said shut the hell up, you poisonous bitch." Gunn's eyes left Wesley a second to glare at Lilah.
Wesley grabbed the shaft of the axe with both hands, that tatty old bloodstained scroll scrunching between his palms and the wood. "What the hell's going on? Kill me? You're here to kill me?"
Even as a traitor, the question was taut with disbelief, as though he couldn't imagine any reason they'd do that. Fred had a cold feeling beginning to gather in her insides - not just the fear that had been there before, the fear at what they'd have to do, but the feeling that something wasn't right. They could be making a terrible mistake.
"Charles, I think maybe-" She jumped and gave a shriek, her fingers fumbling, coming close to shooting Lilah by accident as the remaining Wolfram and Hart minions took advantage of Gunn's preoccupation struggling with Wesley to make their move. Gunn took a hand off the axe to reach inside his jacket; withdrew the crossbow there and shot without hesitation, casting the weapon instantly aside as Wes came close to wresting the axe away. Fred gasped as a black-clad man who'd looked entirely human dissipated into greenish dust, and spun around to loose her own crossbow at the second.
"Crap," muttered Lilah.
She didn't waste time trying to reload, but snatched the knife from their bag of spell components instead, brandishing it at arms-length. She'd killed things with a knife in Pylea. They hadn't been human, she didn't know what it would feel like to kill a human, but she knew how to kill, the feel of the blood and the heartbeat dying beneath her fingers. Lilah must have seen; she kept her distance.
Fred risked a glance at Charles. Wesley had forced the blade back from his throat while he was distracted, but Fred knew from almost a year's worth of practise sessions that Gunn was the stronger, the result of the fight inevitable.
"Your man's got better instincts than you do," Lilah called over to Wesley, seeming oblivious to his danger.
"I am so not his man... in any sense," Charles said, getting flustered at the double-entendre, to skanky-lawyer-lady's obvious delight.
"Lilah. It's not the time for head-games," Wesley snapped. "Gunn, Fred, please - I don't think you realise what we're doing here, how crucial this is. Let me explain-"
"Wes-" The moment stretched, Gunn squinting at Wesley as though trying to find something in the bleakness of that barely-recognisable face. Then the moment snapped, and Charles regained the axe by unexpectedly jerking the shaft forward to crack across Wesley's jaw. He backed off, spinning the weapon, and glared at Lilah. "Enough of this shit, lawyer lady. You two, both of you step back from your Souvenir From Hell snow globe. Now."
"Wait, you don't understand." Wesley followed, his movements unsteady and his hand clasped to the side of this face like he had to hold his jaw together. "Fred," he turned to her instead. "You'll listen to me-?"
"Don't touch me!" In her haste to retreat, she tripped over the bag with the spell components, sending its contents scattering. Wesley looked down and froze.
When he looked up again it was in unquantified shock. "Those are - you were going to-" He was down on his knees, rummaging through the bag before she could do anything to prevent him. When he surged up she saw the book clutched in bone-white fingers. "Garvensal's Compendium?" he choked. "The spell in here - do you have any idea what it would have done to you?"
It broke her heart that he had such passion left in his fear for her. More so that Charles was watching, and now he would know.
She nodded dumbly, unable to lie.
"What's he talking about?" Gunn demanded.
Lilah's peal of laughter split the air. "You mean you two, you came here to save the day? Oh, that is so priceless..."
Gunn rounded on her. "I am gonna kill you the next time you open your mouth." He turned back to Fred. "What's he talking about, 'what that spell would've done to you'?"
"I-I-" she stammered.
"The price for working that particular form of the rite, as indeed with all of the original forms, is the caster's soul," Wesley said tersely. "I suspect she wanted to spare you the choice, Gunn." He paused, then his whole body flinched as though he'd been punched. "You thought that I-"
"You can keep your mouth shut, too," Charles began, before the words sunk in and he turned back to Fred with pain in his eyes. She looked away, unable to face it. "You were gonna-"
He'd come so close to her he'd forgotten about Wesley, who dived for the altar, tearing open the crumpled scroll in his hands. Words ripped from his mouth. The language wasn't English or Latin, but she recognised what he said verbatim.
They were the words she'd been practicing in her head most of the way over in the van.
Lilah moved to help Wesley, latching onto Gunn and trying to hold him back.
The last lines of the reversal spell. Inside Fred's brain, the world re-ordered itself with a neat click.
"Charles, wait! No!" she yelled, and leaped to help Lilah. "You mustn't stop him!"
Their strength wasn't enough to hold Gunn back, as he reached over the altar to grab Wesley's throat, strangling the last of the words into silence, yanking forward as Wesley's eyes widened in fear and he gurgled a warning.
The Naminore, caught between them, flashed a blaze of liquid darkness at the contact, and Fred screamed as the world disappeared around her for the second time in her life.