For all her experience, she had dealt with the aftermath of the Sepulcher like any other human stricken by an incurable disease. First fear, then anger, and finally resignation. She had reconciled herself with her fate, had come to relish the idea of her own demise - of putting an end to the anguish.
The intervention of Angel and Buffy had forced her one step backward.
All this grief. No doubt the First would be here soon. Like a slobbering hound maddened by the smell of blood.
< Now's a good time to pass out, Guardian > she thought, a bit hysterically.
She closed her eyes, shivering. The thick cashmere duster could do nothing against the cold that pervaded her soul. She gasped out, struggling to breathe, her throat closing up, sweat shining on her brow, and for the first time in about as long as she could remember, she felt the warning signs of a panic attack coming on.
Powerful arms encircled her and she fought instinctively against their gentle hold. Something was shoved over her mouth and nose and she struggled in terror.
"Calm down, Morghane. Breathe slowly... You're hyperventilating. Shh... Breathe, breathe..."
Finally, the words spoken close to her ear started to make sense and she breathed deeply into the end of Angel's shirt.
"It's okay. Shh. It's okay."
She quieted, and the shirt was removed.
"You have to trust us, Morghane. We'll get you out of here."
She shook her head weakly, overwhelmed by the anguish in Angel's voice.
And her soul fractured a little more.
Another arm wrapped around her waist. A hand soothingly caressed her bare calf.
"You don't... understand," she protested haltingly. "The First is... here. Lisandra can't... touch me... anymore. I could die... too soon. They will... they will... torture you. All of you. To get to me. Make me...feel. Your pain. I can't... I can't..."
"Shh." Coming from Buffy. "We can take anything the First can dish out, Morghane. It doesn't matter. Angel is right, you have to trust us. You're not alone in this. We'll make it. And Giles will find us. He never failed me before."
The Guardian refused to find any comfort in the Slayer's confidence. Her large, gleaming eyes bore into Angel's.
"Why did you come?" she asked again. "I was... ready. I wanted..."
"I know," Angel murmured against her temple.
"I'm... I'm so old, Angel. And I'm so tired. " She grabbed his shirt with what little strength she could muster. "I want it finished. I want to... rest. Why won't you let me?"
The large vampire softly kissed her brow.
"Because we are not ready to let you go."
It was snowing. Of all things.
In fact, this night gave a brand new meaning to the expression 'snow storm'. Not only frozen flakes fell heavily from the sky, but random lightning also erupted here and there - giving an otherworldly, slightly psychedelic aura to the deserted streets of Los Angeles.
Not that it was that big of a change, from Oz perspective.
The werewolf was presently hiding in a foul-smelling alley - identical to thousands of other such alleys in all the major cities of the world - scanning the streets for vampires. A radio nearby broadcast yet another report from some poor, dumbfounded meteorologist who rambled on about the freaky weather L.A. - and only L.A. - had been experiencing over the last forty-eight hours. And there was no way to predict if it would end anytime soon.
Oz had a little idea about that.
Personally, he didn't mind the weather so much, despite the pervading cold and the fact that he was pretty much soaked to the bone.
It meant that a certain spell hadn't completed itself.
And that a certain friend was still alive and kicking.
Now, to keep her that way...
Oz threw a quick, cautious glance around the corner of the alley, surveying the forsaken avenues of downtown L.A.
No minions of the fangy persuasion around.
All of the good.
Ignoring the twitch in his side and the blood dripping steadily from his hairline, he ventured out of his hideout, holding onto a makeshift stake like it was his new religion. Might as well have been - considering all the faith the gang constantly put in those little pieces of wood.
Walking hastily, his senses in full alert mode, Oz dashed across the street. The door of Angel's office beckoned to him like a sweet promise of heaven, for the second time that day.
They attacked as he reached the stairs leading to the entrance.
Three of them.
More than he could handle. Didn't mean that he was going down without a fight, though.
He raised his stake with frightened determination, legs slightly apart, falling back on the fighter stance he had seen Buffy adopt so often. He wondered if the others would hear the racket from the basement.
It wasn't quite a prayer, but it was answered anyway. And Oz was damn glad God wasn't too hung up on protocol that night.
The door burst open and Giles rushed through like some sort of British superhero, a crossbow in each hand.
< Robin Hood? > Oz took the time to puzzle out this sudden flash of trivia. < Or was it Ivanhoe? >
Without a word, Giles fired. That took care of the two vampires closing down on Oz nicely. The third must have had half a brain, because it took off without looking back.
Giles rolled an arm around Oz's shoulders, mindful of any hidden injuries.
"Oz! Giles, is he okay?"
"Get back inside, Willow," the Watcher ordered tersely.
A few steps and they reached the relative safety of Angel's office.
Xander barricaded the door behind them, using various pieces of furniture.
"They'll come back," explained Oz. "This is a public place."
Giles shook his head, guiding him towards the elevator. "Don't worry. Willow took care of that with a spell. As long as there's a living person in this building, they won't be able to get in uninvited."
In a small corner of his mind, Oz took note of that fact. Someone would have to inform Angel of that little tidbit of information the next time he tried to enter his own apartment.
The werewolf smiled at his girlfriend, who hovered worriedly in front of him.
"But... the blood."
"Just a scratch."
"We'll see about that," said Giles, not ready to let Oz walk around without support.
Three people was the maximum capacity of the elevator, so Xander took the stairs running and reached the apartment slightly ahead of them. Giles led the werewolf to a chair in the kitchen, where the quickly depleting first aid kit was open and ready to use. Willow wet a white terry cloth and gently cleaned up the wound on his forehead, while Giles hunted for some disinfectant and yet more bandages.
"Not that I want to rain on the people's parade but... why aren't you asking about Buffy?"
"Doyle had a vision."
Oz finally noticed the presence of the half-demon. Cordelia and him were busy securing the place, putting locks on the sewer access.
Invitation or not, better safe than main course.
The werewolf nodded thoughtfully. Doyle had a vision. It explained why the gang had been ready for him upstairs.
"What did you see?"
"Angel, Spike and Buffy. Captured."
The Irishman's voice was tight with badly restrained anger and frustration. His visions were usually sent as a warning of some impeding disaster by the Powers That Be.
This one felt more like the bad guys wanting to brag.
Doyle tugged on the lock with more force than necessary. Once again Angel, his friend, was in jeopardy, not to mention Morghane and the Slayer - even Spike - and there was nothing he could do. He snorted derisively to himself.
He was only the 'messenger'.
In a rare demonstration of empathy, Cordelia hugged him tightly from behind - not shying away from the unusual public display of affection.
Oz looked up into Willow's pale face. He could tell that she had been terrified by the fact that Doyle's vision hadn't mentioned him at all.
He deposited a sweet, soft kiss on her still trembling lips.
"I'm here. I'm okay."
The werewolf tore himself away from Willow's relieved smile and met Giles somber gaze.
"Are you well enough to share with us the details of what happened?"
"We were trapped in the tunnels, before we reached the warehouse. Lisandra was waiting for us with a full battalion. She lured us in a cave. Buffy, Angel and Spike made sure I could escape." No need to mention in front of Willow that the vampiress had coolly decreed that he should die. "I got away, and I realized no one was following me. So I backtracked." Willow grasped his hand tightly. "Their scent was still strong, so I was able to trail them back to the warehouse. That's when the vampires guarding the place noticed me. We played hide-and-seek for a while. You know the rest."
"Could you find the lair again?"
"No problem. I had to go above ground to lose them, so I have a fair idea of its location."
Xander handed Oz a towel and a dry shirt stolen from Angel's closet, then sat heavily at the kitchen table.
"That's all well and good," he said, letting his head fall in his hands with a sigh, "but admitting that we can infiltrate the place without getting ourselves killed, we're no closer to finding the details of the counterspell."
Giles growled softly under his breath. "I'm going to try and contact the Council again. I hope the bastards will have the decency to at least take my call."
"I think I can help with that," announced a deeply British-accented voice from the stairs. "I had to force a window to get in. My apologies. I made a lot of noise upstairs, obviously not enough."
Without any of his customary flourish, Wesley Wyndham-Price dropped his slightly bedraggled person in the closest chair.