Oz stopped at a red light, trying to juggle the map and grip the wheel at the same time. This town was a maze and the sudden fog which had just fallen over the city, like a theatrical curtain after the comedians last bow, didn't help matters any.
He was lost.
The sky had this peculiar luminosity of early mornings in the Highlands. Despite the penetrating cold, people strolled along the streets - delighting in the unexpected weather. The smell of snow came up from the ground. A light drizzle covered the dying vegetation of a thin glazed layer of wetness.
A gigantic elm appeared through the mist, ghostly vision of the ram of an icebound expeditionary ship - its crew condemned to a slow agony.
All in all, not your typical Californian fall.
The light turned green and Oz decided to park for a while, hoping that the fog would lift eventually. He turned slightly in his seat to look at his passenger.
Morghane was sleeping, holding her duster tightly wrapped around herself. The weak daylight flowing through the windshield accentuated the twin bruises under her eyes. She had stopped shivering some time ago.
He didn't want to wake her, although he knew that he had no other choice. Time was of the essence. Yet he couldn't help but think the Guardian shouldn't be huddled in the cold seat of his van but warm and safe in a bed - being coddled by two motherhens who just happened to be vampires.
He considered turning around, taking her back to Angel's apartment while she slept, but thought better of it. He had no right to make any decision for her.
Just as he was getting ready to turn the engine on again and give one more shot at finding the address Morghane had given him, she stirred.
"Oz? Are... are we there yet?"
He shook his blonde head. "I think I'm lost."
She smiled faintly. "It happens."
"The weather is getting worse."
She squinted, trying to distinguish something through the frost-covered window. "Performing High Magick on this plane does that. Disturbs the climate. It's going to get worse as the spell gets closer to completion."
Oz nodded. "You look...better."
Morghane shrugged, massaging a sore shoulder. "I performed a small strengthening spell this morning. Earth magicks, not Guardian magicks. A strengthening spell is a lot like sniffing a line of coke." She frowned. "Without the psychotic side-effects." She smothered a yawn. "Where are we?"
"Montrose and Madigan. I think."
"Then make a right after the next light," said Morghane, stretching like a cat. "Falson street should be a couple of blocks down on your left. We have to hurry. Angel and the others should have regained consciousness a while ago. They could still track me down."
Oz engaged the van back on the street. "Maybe you should let them help."
"There's nothing to do, Oz. You shouldn't even be here. Why don't you go back to Willow? She must be worried sick waiting for you."
Morghane looked at Oz oddly for a few seconds - he felt like an open book under a scholar's gaze - then pushed a red strand of hair away from her right eye. "We know we're on the wrong side of ironic when half the good guys feel the need to redeem themselves for stuff they aren't even responsible for."
"Didn't Alanis say something like that?"
"Funny, ah, ah, Oz."
Morghane kept silent, but as they approached their final destination, she lightly brushed his hand on the gear shift.
"When this is all over, you should have a good long talk with Angel. Learning to deal with your wolf is much like sharing your body with a demon, Oz. You two are very much alike in many ways."
"Willow told me that werewolves and vampires didn't get along well," said Oz.
"Hm. Yeah. I could tell you stories about the last werewolves v. vampires war. It involved a lot of intestines spread out over a vast field in the middle of Dobershire." She mused out loud, perplexed. "Why Dobershire of all places? Nobody knows. Well, no one who's still alive to tell the tale anyway." She sighed wearily. "Divided we fall, Oz. The feud between your two species go back to the time when human souls lost mastery of the vampire body in favor of the demons. But this could all change, you know? Vampires could win control back from the demon. Werewolves could subdue the beast..."
Oz parked in front of 67 Falson street without a word.
"Talk to Angel. Talk to Giles. You'll see, Oz." She opened her door, and her words went up like ephemeral clouds, lost in the fog. "There might be hope for all of us yet."
Morghane walked up to the old building, Oz at her side, and her boots disturbed the glum stillness of a small puddle. She found herself outside with relief. She filled her lungs with icy air and enjoyed the cold mist caressing her cheeks and threading through her hair. She found the weather comforting. It reminded her of the fields and the moors of her childhood - a few fleeting, cherished memories that she held close to her heart.
The cold was her element.
She considered the heavy wooden door in front of her. The sign announced "Colm Newman - Ancient Books".
"Oz. You should leave now."
He did not answer or acknowledge her words in any way and she didn't bother to repeat herself.
Morghane liked Oz.
He was gifted with a surprising acuteness for one so young. He understood that words were often powerless to express an idea essential and immanent. He was of such a rare intransigence that he often chose to remain silent - precocious wisdom that only came with an arduous past. Life hadn't always been kind to Oz, she could tell, yet he had remained fiercely loyal, generous and compassionate. A good man. She could have wished him a gentler future - but it would have been futile.
She knew what awaited them all.
She slid her hand in her duster's inner pocket and revealed a small silver key.
"You've got the key?" observed Oz. "Cool."
"This place belongs to the Council. They have one of those in all major cities and the lock is standard. Some kind of sanctuary for use by either Slayer or Guardian. Wesley gave me a contact number for Lisandra - I called her and fixed her a meeting here tonight. We're early, but I had to get away when I had the chance."
Morghane inserted the key in the lock, opened, pushed the heavy oak door and stepped in.
She let herself be surrounded by the sweet, heady aroma of old parchments, leather bindings and worm-eaten wooden shelves. The shop was dark, narrow but deep. Thick volumes with pine-green or faded-brown covers lined the walls. Distractedly, her gaze lingered on the red and gold publications of 'Murray & Sons'.
"It's a real bookstore?" asked Oz behind her.
"Yes. I called ahead and told them to close for the day. We should have the place to ourselves. Let's go back there."
They squeezed between the piles of codex, in quarti and other incunabulae. Massive shelves hid showcases sheltering manuscripts illuminated with fine gold, fourteenth century volumen and Latin editions in octovo.
A flight of stairs led to another level, but they ignored it. They entered a second room larger than the first. Other showcases displayed Italian daggers, misericords, damascened blades, rapiers with half guards and nineteenth century Scottish schiavonas.
"Wow. Buffy's heaven," said Oz.
Morghane nodded absentmindedly. She leaned over a schiavona < Republique of Venice, stamped by Piccinino > and took the sword by the guard. She caressed the cold steel of the blade.
Which battles had it seen? How many lives had it taken? A history that Morghane hadn't really experienced, yet memories that she shared nonetheless. She had participated in so many wars. And they were all the same.
She closed her eyes.
Napoleon's army stranded on the banks of the Moskva. The screams of the fighters, the groans of the dying, the uproar of cannon fire, the horses neighing in fear - blood mixing with snow and mud... other images. Battalions of Highlanders sacrificed, charging under the fire of the Old Guard. And the perjured supplications of the fallen, heckling a god who had forsaken them.
Alone at the instant of their death.
She knew all the subtle nuances of solitude. To be alone in the middle of a crowd, to be alone surrounded by her family, by her friends, to be alone in the embrace of a lover. To be alone with her fear, her sadness, her pain, her anger, her joy too - which was maybe the worst of all. She was familiar with the unhealthy, comforting attraction of isolation.
There are mute prayers and silent requiems.
She would be alone at the moment of her death too.
She laid the sword down respectfully, opened her eyes and lifted her face to look at Oz.
Morghane's eyes widened. She lifted a trembling hand and was surprised to find her cheek damp.
Oz took her elbow gently and led her to a plush wing chair. He went down on one knee before her.
"Can I help?"
"I... no. Thank you, Oz."
She stood on shaky legs, took a few steps away from the werewolf and faced an engraving illustrating Saint John's Revelation 12:7 - signed by Dürer himself. The Guardian contemplated her reflection in the glass. She would have liked to live like one of Shakespeare's characters, study the flow of reality in the mirror and learn the rhythm of the tides. But she had never been given the leisure to indulge herself.
"All this time, I've lived life like a traveler condemned to other customs and a strange language. The nature of humans - which is to die - brings them together. It has always marked me as being apart." She shrugged. "Not anymore."
A knock resounded from a third room behind them and they jumped.
"There's another entrance?" asked Oz.
"Yes. These places are always designed with the words 'hasty exit' in mind. There's probably an entrance to the sewers in the back."
Whoever it was knocked again.
Morghane frowned. "If it's Lisandra, she's early."
"A sewer entrance... vampires?"
The Guardian shook her head. "Can't get in. Not invited. Stay here. You've taken enough risks..."
The young man stood in front of her without pronouncing a word. Didn't look like he would budge any time soon.
Morghane sighed. "Very well. Just... be careful. If you get hurt, Willow might just find a way to summon my soul back or something."
Oz almost smiled.
"You know what Lisandra looks like?"
"No idea. But I should be able to tell by looking at her, feel her magick. And Guardians are marked." She pulled on Angel's shirt to expose her left shoulder. A small symbol was tattooed on her light skin. "It's a magickal seal." She smirked. "Kind of like a tag. It directs the magick to the Guardian. The Rapture activates it."
Oz nodded and grabbed a sword at random.
Morghane pushed open the door of the third room and switched the lights on. No windows.
Again, someone knocked on the back door.
The Guardian turned the knob and pulled.
The door opened on a flight of stairs which, like Morghane had predicted, led to the underground.
And at the top of those stairs stood a stunning blonde woman who looked to be about twenty. She was dressed much like Morghane usually was - in black. She wore a long flowing dress, a leather coat and high-healed knee-high boots.
She smiled. A beautiful smile.
Morghane stepped back in shock. "Dia liom."
Oz looked confused but brandished his sword just the same.
Slowly, deliberately, the attractive newcomer crossed the threshold.
"Being successor to the Guardian, Watchers tend to let you in on your word alone."
Morghane clenched her fists until her nails dug into her palm. "Oh my God."
"Yes, you said that already, darling."
The werewolf had no intention of leaving Morghane behind to face an enemy - whoever this woman was. Sure wasn't a friend judging by the Guardian's horrified expression. He turned his head around to gauge their avenues of retreat.
A dozen vampires blocked their escape route.
He faced the woman again. She stood closer to the Guardian now.
"They were waiting upstairs all along, Morghane. The things the Sepulcher can do to your senses. Tsk, tsk."
Lisandra grinned wickedly.
Her smile revealed a lot more teeth.
And Oz - who knew enough to understand that an apprentice Guardian turned vampire spelled disaster of biblical proportions - felt fear.
"Time to make room for the new generation, Guardian." Shooting an arm out, Lisandra closed a clawed hand against Morghane's throat - breaking the skin. "And leave a bloody-looking corpse."