Damned If I Don't, Damned If I Do
Part Three of The Damned Series


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PART TEN: 24th to 25th September 2004
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Chapter Three: What's Worth The Price is Always Worth The Fight

Buffy didn't remember getting knocked out. She'd definitely been conscious enough to know exactly how much hot water she had landed in.

It must have been shortly after that. She vaguely remembered a whole bunch of the red demons swarming onto the turret behind a dappily dressed Felacio and then, possibly, as she tried to rise quickly, the grey demon's puny fist, looking larger than usual and coming for her face.

Damn! She'd been knocked cold by Felacio? That wasn't just annoying, it was embarrassing!

Little by little she got a sense of her bearings and situation.

Dark, dank and cold were first, followed by the fact that she was tied to a pillar. And when she said tied, there were several coils of thick rope securing her in place. One around her chest and waist that kept her back straight and her arms tight at her sides and another that wound around her knees while yet another bound her ankles.

She struggled against it, trying to find some give, but there just wasn't any. She was stuck. Troy wasn't taking any chances then. Shackles - the restraints most villains preferred - even around wrists and ankles gave a little room for movement, say the room to put a well-aimed thigh into a groin. Like this even a head butt would be out of the question unless the thoughtful villain came close enough to kiss her.

She'd known jumping out of that plane had been a stupid thing to do! Sure it had gotten her inside the castle walls quicker than she could have hoped but a lot of good it did her now.

She gave a frustrated shout that echoed, and struggled again anyway just for something to do. When her energy subsided - it had been a very demanding twenty-four hours - she slumped against the cold pillar.

She'd bet good money she was in the dungeons. The air held the mustiness of a damp, closed-in underground space. The only light came from the flickering flames of oil-soaked torches - her second clue that she was still in Troy's castle, him being such a fan of them.

There was one on the wall in front of her and more stretching away into the distance, giving the shadows something to hide from. Dozens of archways and pillars were illuminated. Beyond her personal pillar the archways led to small doorless cells and the closest torch glinted off the remains of the previously mentioned more traditional iron shackles and highlighted shapes on the floor that looked suspiciously like human bones.

Okay, being down here was getting less fun by the second.

She started struggling again, hoping something would have changed somehow since the last time, but stopped abruptly when she heard a door opening somewhere.

She waited and sure enough a few seconds later a troop of the red guards marched towards her. They spread themselves along the walls and just stood there, staring straight ahead.

"Hi, how's it going?" she tried, just to see what they would do.

Nothing, as it turned out. They didn't move, barely blinked, certainly didn't start up a friendly conversation that might eventually lead to her getting out of there.

"Strong and silent types, huh? You must have the girls crawling all over you."

Still nothing. And great, now her nose was itching. Probably thanks to the torches or the stale air. She craned her neck to try and scratch it on her shoulder but it was in no way satisfying.

So she glared at the nearest guard instead.

"Fine, you don't want to play nice? When I get out of this - and I will get out of this - I'm going to kill you." Her voice was menacingly calm, despite how empty the threat was right now. "Actually I'm going to kill all of you, but you first and you the most painfully if you don't LET ME GO!" she shouted the last bit and struggled against the merciless ropes again.

The guard didn't even flinch.

"Threats will not help you," Troy's composed voice suddenly came from the deep shadows beyond the arches.

She stilled, staring hard into the darkness. "Thought you'd be getting busy by now."

"The only thing that will spare your life is your cooperation," he continued as if she hadn't spoken.

"Then you might as well come over here and kill me," she answered. "Because I'm not known for cooperating."

"I know. It's one of the reasons I dislike you so much."

Buffy rolled her eyes. "Is that supposed to hurt my feelings?"

"I dislike you, but I thought I could trust you. Did you not tell me you have Faith's best interests at heart?"

"Tell me how getting knocked up by you is in Faith's best interests?"

"I do not expect you to understand. But I have been on this earth many more years than you; I think my judgment outweighs yours."

"Think what you like. I'm still going to stop you."

Troy finally stepped into the light of the torches. He looked her up and down. "How exactly?"

She didn't have a ready answer so she tried something different. "Look, you don't have to do this."

"Yes, I do."

"Not this way," she tried to reason. "How's Faith going to feel when she finds out? I don't think your marriage is gonna last long when she realizes you tricked her into having your baby."

"If that happens it will be unfortunate, but it will not matter in the end. The only thing that matters is the child."

"I thought you loved her."

"I..." Troy hesitated.

"Yeah, well, I suppose it doesn't really make a difference as long as she's under your spell, or power, or whatever it is, right?"

"I have told you before, Buffy, I have no power over Faith. Only that which comes from the love she feels for me."

"Oh, come on! Faith completely changed when she met you. You can't tell me that was pure coincidence. That she just woke up on the day you decided to make your move on a slayer and realized all she'd ever really wanted was to be in a serious, monogamous relationship? That instead of living every second like it was the most important second of her life, like every one was a celebration of her freedom, a reward, part of the glory of surviving, she took one look into your baby blues and decided what she really wanted was to be married in six months with a kid on the way?"

"Perhaps that is exactly what she wanted... and I was simply the only one offering it." Troy sounded smug.

Buffy glared hatred at him, getting the insinuation all too easily.

~~~ ("So you want like the whole thing, the flowers, the candy, dating and such?") ~~~

~~~ ("Are we for real here? 'Cause I want it to be, but...") ~~~

Troy continued blithely, not caring that she was stuck in the mud down memory lane.

"However you choose to see it, I assure you it all comes down to fortune, not mind control. I have no direct authority over Slayers. I can manipulate the world around you..."

The torches flared brighter and Buffy blinked in surprise as the gloomy greys of the dungeon became brighter, happier colors. Sunshine yellow for the walls, mint green for the stone floor.

"Or teleport you..."

She was standing in their homely kitchen back at Wendigo Hollow. Troy stood next to her, gazing around fondly at the familiar room. Hearing Willow's voice from the dining room pulled Buffy from her surprise and at once she went into action. If she could make it to her, she could raise the alarm.

"Ah ah ah."

She heard Troy snap his fingers and the dungeon, once again drab and dark, swirled into place around her. The wrist-thick rope was cutting into her arms, legs and chest again.

"Asshole!" He was playing with her! It would be hard to be more pissed than she was right now.

Troy stepped in front of her again. His smile grew smug. "I can even change your clothes for you. After all, that pretty dress really is wasted on my rat-infested dungeon."

He pointed a finger at her lovely, expensive lilac dress and it vanished.

"No!" she yelled, clenching her eyes shut in mortification.

Getting what basically amounted to pantsed in front of a bunch of strange demons by Troy would be distressing for anyone, but she couldn't even cover herself with her arms! It took her a moment of useless struggling to realize she wasn't completely naked.

She looked down at herself and then wished she hadn't. "Oh, eww! What is this?"

It was a pair of the most unflattering granny panties to ever foul the fashion market. They sagged at the waist and at the butt but were tight enough in the crotch that nothing was being left the imagination. So tight, in fact, that if she'd been born a boy, she would probably be kissing fertility goodbye right now.

They were painful and unflattering and weren't even the worse thing.

The bra wasn't either. Although it was large, tight yet saggy, padded enough to give her the impression of a top heavy sumo wrestler and itchy for reasons she didn't want to think about.

The worst thing was the stains. The sickly yellow ones that screamed pee at her even in the torchlight. Granny underwear was bad enough. Unwashed Granny underwear was so, so much worse. All she wanted to do was rip them off; naked would actually be better, but with the way she was trussed up that wasn't an option.

"Gross!" she said, still pulling on her bonds futilely.

"But," Troy continued what he was saying, ignoring her comments of disgust, "a Slayer's power, their mind, their identity... is their own. The demon magick instilled in the first of you defies divinity of any nature. And besides, Faith was more than willing to make her sacrifice with little encouragement from me."

Buffy stiffened. "What do you mean?"

"She could follow her heart's true desire - you - and spend every day torn between right actions and wrong decisions or she could relinquish her heart's destiny - by choosing me - and leave behind all of the moral uncertainties that would have plagued the rest of her mortal life."

Buffy went cold. "Did Faith know about this choice when she made it?"

"The implication was, you could say, subliminal." He gave her a smile and started backing away. "And now I am afraid I can stay no longer. Faith is waiting for me to dine with her upstairs."

As the darkness swallowed him she pulled against her rope restraints, glaring at the demons as they filed out after their master and then down at herself again. She pulled a face.

"Hey, wait a minute," she yelled. "At least zap me back into my dress!"

*****

Troy cleared his mind of Buffy Summers at last now that the situation had been taken care of. She wouldn't be leaving the dungeons until he allowed it. Not only was she tied up tightly but he had demons posted outside the doors - not inside; he didn't want to risk her making friends with any of his more susceptible employees - and at every door between there and his suite of rooms.

Now he gazed with pleasure at Faith, smiling as he refilled her crystal glass with champagne.

They were having dinner on the west turret, over-looking the oldest corner of the town and then, behind it, the sparkling blue of the lake. The sun was starting its sultry descent towards evening. It was as beautiful and near perfect as the woman in front of him and could surely be nothing short of a positive omen.

"The dress, you are happy with it?"

While he had met with associates at Benedetta's vineyards that afternoon, indulging in sweet white wine and wedges of creamy cheese as he gathered together the last of the relics, Faith had been having the final fitting for her wedding dress at Nonni's.

His palm smoothed over a wrinkle in the brilliant white of the table cloth - a fresh one to that which Buffy had crash landed on - as he spoke and then fiddled with his own glass. A nervous excitement was coursing through him that he wasn't used to and couldn't seem to mask.

"The dress is the bomb. You're gonna just die when ya see me walking down that aisle," Faith promised him, her eyes lighting up again as she talked of it. "Never thought I'd ever find a wedding dress that didn't suck, ya know? And I know I don't give the chick a lotta credit, but Tone really came through this time."

Yes, he silently agreed. Antonella had been a greater asset than he had hoped for when requesting her help so many centuries before. Despite the unfortunate attachment she had formed with her work she had indeed come through splendidly.

Keeping Buffy busy while he was courting Faith. Giving Faith a reason to distrust Buffy's feelings towards her. Finding a way for Faith to have the perfect dress. Helping Buffy to arrange the wedding. And being his confidant throughout. All the way through to placing the Scrolls of Socrates safely into his hand a few hours before, Toni had been undeniably invaluable during the last months of his quest. She was a great friend and he would make sure she received the reward he had promised her. He might not even mind if she chose to share that reward with Buffy.

The iron studded door to the tower opened and one of his many Goran servants came out. The sunlight reflected strangely off of the paleness of its flesh and Troy blinked as it hit the silver tray the demon was carrying too, momentarily blinding his vision.

"Oysters?" Faith's nose wrinkled.

"What is a romantic meal for two without oysters?"

"Edible?"

Troy laughed. "Try them. They taste very good with the spinach and chilli sauce."

"Spinach?" Faith asked with the same delectable little wrinkling of her nose.

He smiled broadly, took a half shell in his palm and held it up in front of her. She remained reluctant at first, as if steeling herself, but on noticing his noticing, shrugged it off.

"What the hell, right?" She placed her hand on his, but let him raise the shell to her mouth and tilt it. She chewed briefly and swallowed, before muttering, "Dunno what she made all the fuss about."

"I'm sorry, Fai?"

"Huh? Oh, nothing, just thinking out loud." She grinned at him. "So, your turn."

Smiling, he picked up his own oyster shell and tipped the contents into his mouth without preamble and gestured for her to take another.

Personally he did not much like the taste or texture of oysters, which was why they were not eating them raw. Neither were the oysters designed to be an aphrodisiac tonight - he was sure enough in their chemistry to need no mollusk guarantee. The slippery dish was simply the starter for the fertility-enhancing meal he had researched carefully and then asked his chef to prepare.

He asked more questions about the dress as they devoured the oysters between them, growing amused as Faith became more and more coy about it.

"Quit it, I tell you anymore it'll ruin the surprise," she said eventually, laughing. "What's your tux like?"

He shrugged one shoulder. "Like a tuxedo, I suppose."

"But it's a normal one, right?" she checked. "You're not gonna embarrass me with big blue ruffles or nothing?"

He smiled, about to promise she wouldn't be disappointed, but he could sense something, someone, calling out to him. It started as a chanting whisper deep in his mind, but steadily grew louder until it was speaking clearly over Faith asking him another question about his wedding attire.

He was not the kind of God who heard people's prayers. He imagined he could if he wanted to, but it had been so long since anyone had tried that the knack was now almost forgotten. Besides, it had been next to impossible for humans to get their attention even in the Golden Age without a blood sacrifice or two to strengthen the signal.

The voice calling, invoking the ancient pathways, was unfortunately familiar, however. A mix of sinister sycophantic fawning and mildly malicious arrogance that could only belong to a spirit tethered to the earth by duty.

He listened as the dark voice threatened and cajoled, covering his silence with the last of the oysters and a mouthful of champagne.

Mapanos' power would reach its pinnacle as the sun dipped below the horizon and the Decider of Destinies was simply showing off and begging attention as he had been all day. Whispering in his ear, as it were, to remind him of tasks and obligations he had yet to fulfill. As if he could possibly forget. He had spent time unimaginable searching the globe for and recovering the powerful totems of his kin. Now that the completion of his calling was at hand, he hardly needed the intrusive nature spirit locked securely in his dungeons to jog his memory.

No, Mapanos was nothing but a necessary nuisance to simply be endured until the ritual was over.

*****

Buffy pulled her body this way and that but the stupid rope still wasn't giving her an inch. She didn't even need an inch; a couple of centimetres might have been enough to wriggle something free. It wasn't giving her that much either

Troy had left a while ago. She wasn't sure when the ritual would start or how long it would take but hadn't Quantiaro said it needed to be completed by sunset? She didn't have the vampire senses that told her how long until the sun went down, but her own senses were telling her it couldn't be that many hours away.

She'd done her best, come this far, but unless a miracle stopped by soon she was going to be tied up down here while Faith and Troy made sweet, sweet baby-making love just half a dozen floors above.

"Miracle, miracle?" she cooed, just on the off chance. Then, after a moments pause. "Eostre, Eostre?"

There was nothing, not that she had really expected more, Eostre had only ever shown when she felt like it. And then there was something. A noise like a... sheep?

Well, the fertility goddess had been a rabbit and a donkey; was a sheep so far-fetched?

She tried again, "Eostre?"

Something moved in one of the cells and she tensed as she realized it was coming closer. Anything could be down here and a sheep probably was that far-fetched.

It stopped just at the edges of the torchlight and bleated again. Leaning her head forward as far as she could it took her eyes a second to adjust to what she was seeing. Not a sheep, a... goat?

"Eostre?"

The animal hocked up a cud-loogie and a stream of something silvery caught the light before landing with a splat just in front of her bare feet.

"Ewww!" She pulled a disgusted face. "Since when can goats spit?"

Actually she knew nothing about goats that she hadn't learned in fairytales. Maybe goats spat at everyone. Or maybe this was an evil goat trained by Troy just to make her stay that much more unpleasant.

She watched the animal carefully. A gnawed through length of rope, much thinner than the type holding her, was attached to a collar around its neck. The collar, a simple red ring of pressed cord looked familiar. Now she came to think about it, the goat itself looked familiar.

Why would she recognize a goat? She couldn't remember the last time she'd seen a goat outside of TV. Actually, yes she could.

"Hey! I know you! You're Nonni's goat!" she said, more excitedly than the company really warranted. Just how long had she been down here alone?

I know you too.

Startled, Buffy twisted her head from one side to the other, trying to see where the voice had come from. She was still alone as far as she could tell.

"Who said that?"

I did.

"Who?" she demanded. Her eyes settled on the goat again. "Eostre?"

Don't make me waste any more of my dinner on you.

She frowned. "Are you really talking to me?"

No.

Well, at least that was cleared up.

I am a figment of your imagination.

"Fine. Feel free to go away then." She closed her eyes, hoping that when she opened them the goat, hallucination or not, would be gone.

You seem scared.

"Not scared, just taking precautions against future psychotic flashbacks," she muttered to the figment of her imagination.

You are scared.

It was no wonder she was thinking that, because she was, scared of what she couldn't stop whilst stuck down here. She slowly opened her eyes. She needed to get a grip; there had to be something that she could do!

You are scared because The Immortal has all the power now. Huh? She never called him The Immortal! And you realize you have been but a pawn in his...

Buffy pulled her head back, eyes narrowing, as she accused the goat, "I just saw your lips move!"

Well, I am chewing the... damn!

"Aha!" The goat turned away as if to walk back into the cell. "No, wait! Forget the 'aha'. Who are you?"

There was only one person, or spirit maybe, that he could be though, right?

So she answered her own question. "You're... Mapanos... maybe?"

No, I am your imagination.

"My imagination is not a goat."

How do you know?

"Well... I don't for sure, but I think it's highly unlikely."

As unlikely as a talking goat?

"So far this year I've met the Easter Bunny and had an in-depth conversation with a Winnie the Pooh poster so, no, a talking goat doesn't even make a five on the unlikely scale. Now are you Mapanos or not?"

The goat turned back around. I might be. What is it you want?

"Well for starters you can tell me what you meant about me being Troy's pawn."

You already know, deep down. Troy has used your love for the fair Faith to further his quest.

"No, I've been doing everything I can to stop his quest!"

Like planning his wedding while he collected the treasures he needed to fortify his imminent son's future? I am sure that slowed him down lots.

"Ya know, I'm starting to see the good points of Eostre's vagueness," Buffy huffed and then yelped in disgust as a shot of cud hit her foot. "You're really not a fan of the Easter Bunny are you?"

Eostre is a romantic fool. She cares more about getting the 'curtain kiss' than about what really matters.

Buffy wrinkled her nose. "What's a curtain kiss?"

The kiss that comes just before you ride off happily into the sunset.

"Oh." For a moment there she'd thought he'd meant something else and blushed faintly at her mistake. "So what really matters?"

The bigger picture. She groaned; she was so sick of the bigger picture. For example, what happens after you ride into the sunset? Not just for you, but for everyone. That is what a true Keeper of Destiny should be concerned with.

"And that's what you are? A Keeper of Destiny?"

The goat nodded and then backed up a few steps and sat down. It occurred to her that goats looked ridiculous sitting down, but didn't mention it.

I am... a prophecy paper-pusher, you could say, because prophecies need to be pushed through despite people like yourself thinking otherwise.

Buffy shook her head. "I don't think so. Maybe the occasional one is pretty harmless, but for the most part they need to be stopped."

Did you know there was a prophecy that stated you would slay the Master?"

Buffy frowned at the mention of his name, but that fear had long since been quashed. "You can't be that good at your job then, because that prophecy said the Master would kill me."

The goat shook his head now. She'd never realized how many expressions a goat could have either as he seemed to mock her with his lower lip.

There were both. There was also a prophecy that stated you would slay Angel. Although you sleeping with him was something nobody had foreseen. Another that said you would defeat the demon prince Barvain, although someone else beat you to that. And another that said, strangely enough, that you would be poisoned by a demon and go on to live a long and happy life in an alternate dimension where demons did not exist.

The out-pouring of prophecies she'd never heard of unsettled her. Didn't they have a pretty good system of detecting them - usually called Giles?

You obviously countered that last one quite successfully or you wouldn't be here now, Mapanos went on. There was also a prophecy, oh it would have matured around Christmas I believe, that stated you and Faith would, what was it? Oh, yes, live happily together forever. That was why Eostre got involved - there's nothing she likes more than star-crossed lovers - unfortunately for her, you both managed to screw that one up.

Buffy turned her head away. She didn't want to hear any more. This goat didn't talk like a divine spirit. He was probably a demon come to torment her. After all, whose word did she have except Toni's that Mapanos would be any help? And could she really trust anything Toni said anyway?

*****

Troy blinked when he was alone inside his mind again. Mapanos crowing of his proximity to the Slayer still ringing in his ears. They were tied up far apart from each other, but... perhaps he ought to check.

"What just happened?" Faith asked immediately; better able to read him now than he would have preferred. "You went into some kind of weird, trance-y thing."

He smiled to reassure her, taking her hand again across the table. "Perhaps wedding stress."

"Yeah, right. Like you've had any part of it to stress over. Me and Buffy have been doing all the hard work."

She was still eying him, not so much with suspicion, but clearly expecting more of an answer than he had given.

"It is nothing. It has just occurred to me that I forgot to make an important call this afternoon. That is all."

"Hey, no way!" She pulled her hand back and pointed an accusing finger at him. "You've been running 'round working for the past month while I've been sitting here waiting for you. You promised me you were done now until after the honeymoon."

"And I am, except for this one small thing."

"No." Her tone was adamant. "This is supposed to be the big, romantic weekend break you promised me for being away so long. Whatever call it is can wait till Monday when I'm at the wax place with B."

Her obstinate attitude displeased him, but he couldn't allow that to show, not tonight of all nights.

He made a conscious effort to smile. "It is very important, Fai. I assure you it will not interfere with the rest of our night."

"Oh come on! Whatever it is can't be that big a deal. Not like the world's gonna end just 'cause you don't make one little call." He obviously wasn't schooling his expression as well as he wanted or maybe she had just remembered who she was talking to, because she frowned and asked, "Or maybe it is?"

He gave a soft chuckle. "The world will not end, but it may feel like it to some."

"Fine, whatever," she said with a disappointed sigh and picked up her champagne glass.

He couldn't leave her now, he realized, without upsetting her mood.

It was maddening, for this matter needed to be settled; Mapanos had to be reminded of where his loyalties were supposed to lay. There should be no question that Mapanos would follow him faithfully. After all, he was Eostre's exact equal and opposite. Not to mention that he held the spirit's future in his hands almost as securely as the spirit held his. But tonight was too important - he was just too close now - to risk having Buffy manipulate the Prophecy Overseer's natural tendencies towards impartiality.

And hadn't Toni once warned him of the elder Slayer's resourceful ability to overcome all impediments?

He should have gone against his own ethics and had her killed when she'd first arrived in Rome but it would have been dangerous to risk Toni's allegiance and his pride had wished to see the Slayer beaten fair and square without resorting to such underhand tactics as murder.

And besides, it was much more fun to win when the loser was alive to know they had lost.

Their waiter for the evening came back to clear the tray of oysters from the table before Troy had decided the best course of action. As the demon explained their next course would be ready in five minutes Troy barely listened, but when Faith sullenly moved to the edge of the turret and lit a cigarette, he made a decision.

"Ask Felacio to bring it up."

The demon looked surprised, for Felacio was one of Troy's lieutenants, second only to Marco, and far too important to deliver food, but he knew better than to question his master.

He bowed back through the door, saying in Italian, "As you wish, sir."

*****

Buffy sighed; the silence was getting to her.

"Okay, prophecies go both ways. But where do you come in?"

I work with the stars and the signs to make sure a prophecy given by the Oracles comes in successfully. I nudge a person here, manipulate a circumstance there so that what is meant to be is... well, be. The goat spoke candidly. Sometimes, of course, someone like you comes along and messes the whole game up, but for someone like me... that just makes it all the more of a challenge.

"I see." Buffy nodded. She couldn't do a lot else. "So Troy's prophecy, where's the fun in that?"

The goat spat some despondent cud onto the stone floor in front of him.

There is none, that's for sure. It would have been, it has a lot of creative potential, not to mention the kudos it would have brought when I pull it off, but he took out all the joy when he shackled me to it.

"Shackled you to it?"

Yeah, about three hundred years ago. Bastard. It was my first time trying Goat too. There I was, minding my own, munching on some Scottish heather and BAZAM! Suddenly The Immortal was my lord and blasted master! You do this or you die. Then you do this or you die. And then you do this or... well, you get the picture.

"But I thought you were a spirit?" Buffy asked, confused.

I am! But once Marco got hold of me I was a spirit trapped in a goat's body.

"For three hundred years? You don't look three hundred years old."

Thanks, sweetheart, but trust me, I ain't no kid.

"So, what?" Buffy tried to shrug but only managed a head wiggle. "You stay as a goat forever? How does that help him in the long run?"

Ah, see now that's the crux of it. My assistance is something he wants. The bastard has enough enemies, doesn't wanna risk me making this any harder for him by whispering in the wrong ears, but... but! I also got something he needs! The second that sun goes down I'll be at full strength. The sun and the earth are fully aligned today and at sunset the ancient mystical energy that creates twice a year will be rushing through me like water over Victoria Falls. Troy needs that power. Conceiving the boy is his destiny, but that's just the start of it, see? For the next prophecy in line to have a chance, the boy needs a proper start in life.

"But Troy's probably the richest man, sorry God, on the planet. Not to mention he's a god! What better start can a kid have?" Buffy asked, before amending slightly, "Other than a better dad, naturally."

He needs a hero's birth rite Mapanos answered simply. The bits and bobs The Immortal has collected will take him so far, but the power, my power, that'll seal the deal. With juice like that power-blasted into his soul at the moment of his creation, well, he'll have the potential to be an unstoppable force in the Universe.

"But why would you want to help him? He made you a goat! He's had you trapped as his slave for hundreds of years. Surely if you're so powerful right now, you can stop him from taking what he wants. The universe has enough unstoppable forces. It doesn't need a human-shaped one as well."

I could stop him, but I won't. It wouldn't be in my best interests and, no offense, Slayer, but my best interests have to come before the world's.

"You're an ass!"

No Eostre's an ass, I'm a goat. And being a goat ain't quite as much fun as you might think. My only ticket out of Billy-goat Gruffdom is giving The Immortal my power.

"How's that work?"

There had to be a loophole in this somewhere. Hopefully Mapanos would get to it before she turned into one of the skeletons in the cells.

He only gets it if he releases me but he'll only release me if he gets it. So we cut a deal. After he's done the deed with his Chosen One he needs to make a blood sacrifice, see? That's a deal-breaker from the old Gods; they're huge on blood sacrifices. If plant life had been given the sentient genes back in the day there never would have been gods, not like you know them anyway...

"You had a point?" Buffy reminded him tetchily.

Right. So he needs a blood sacrifice and he has to make it within an hour of planting his seed. Cutting his own palm will not work either. He has to kill something. Preferably a human - Gods love that - but as you probably already know, The Immortal's not your average God, that's why he's still around when the others all pretty much hightailed it when things stopped being so rosy for them. Anyway, he's not big on killing humans these days so he's going to sacrifice me.

Buffy waited a beat but Mapanos just gave her the goat equivalent of a shrug.

"And you're okay with that?"

This had to be her in. If she convinced him she could save his life if he helped her, surely he would go for that?

Of course I'm okay with that. He kills me; my spirit is released from this body. My spirit gets released and I'm, well, a spirit again, the way nature intended me to be.

Oh, not so much an in then. But maybe...

"What if I killed you? To release your spirit, I mean," Buffy clarified when he gave her a look. "You help me rather than Troy and I'll release you instead."

I like your spirit, but no can do, sweetheart.

"Troy has to be the one to release you," She realized with a sinking heart, "because he trapped you."

No, but you can't just kill me. You do that and I'm just trapped in a dead goat forever. Needs to be a blood sacrifice like I said, that was the deal.

"But it doesn't have to be Troy? Someone else could sacrifice you and you'd still be released?"

The goat did that strange shoulder-shaking shrug motion again.

She spelled it out. "Could I sacrifice you and you'd still be released?"

How are you gonna do that? No prophecies coming your way tonight unless I'm really out of the loop. And I know I'm not.

"What about Faith and I? If I can stop..."

Mapanos cut her off with a shake of his hairy head. That prophecy sailed months ago. You had your chances. Neither of you wanted it.

"I wanted it!"

Not enough.

"Maybe we'd still have a chance if Troy was out of the way."

Maybe you do, but its not prophesized, and that makes it out of my jurisdiction.

"Can't you make a prophecy about it?" she asked desperately.

That's now how it works, sweetheart. I don't make them, I just see they happen. Besides, you ask me, you and Faith don't deserve another shot at destiny. You've had three! The first time you drove Faith to the dark side, the second time you drove her into Troy's arms and the third time - the chance Eostre gave you - you blew that too. You wanna talk about a force that'll drive the Universe insane? My guess it'd be you and Faith living happily ever after.

Angry tears filled Buffy's eyes and for a moment she couldn't respond. Mapanos didn't look sympathetic, maybe that was beyond a goat's range of expression, but his voice was less brash as he continued.

Every prophecy, fulfilled or failed, changes the world. You've both gone out of your way to foil your heart's destiny and since then the world has moved on. Things are as they are now; you can't do anything to change it.

"No. I don't accept that. Maybe Faith and I have run out of destiny, maybe! But I can still change the fate of the world for the better. I can still stop Troy from ruining her life. And you have to help me."

Mapanos rolled onto his side and started rubbing his flank across the stone floor as if he had an itch. That still didn't stop him talking.

This should be interesting.

"I'm serious! Troy taking over the world can't be good for anyone. You're a nature spirit! Aren't you supposed to be all about balance?"

Nah, that's balance demons. We're all about the earth surviving. The Immortal's plan won't endanger it anymore than humanity's current path will. It may even be the key to give it a few more million years if his son uses his power wisely.

"But he wronged you!" she insisted. "Don't you want to get back at him?"

For the first time in the conversation Mapanos paused. Not for long though.

I'd like to, but as I said, our paths are entwined.

"But what if I...?" Buffy thought for a moment. What could she do? What could she persuade him to do? "What if there was a way to fulfill a prophecy that's already passed? Like a retroactive prophecy."

He didn't shut her down immediately, but was dubious as he asked: What do you mean?

"I put the pro in stopping prophecies before they happen, but what if this time I fulfilled one after it happened? What if I could make it so that Faith chose me instead of Troy?"

Impossible at this stage.

"Nuh-uh. There has to be a little time left until sunset. That means if I can reach her I have a chance to change her mind." It was a hell of a long shot, but she didn't need to admit that right now. "If I can do that, I can stop Troy's prophecy and re-open the bets on mine, right? That'll give you the points for fulfilling a prophecy that should have been dead and buried and, as a bonus, give you the kudos for stopping Troy's even though you're a goat!"

It made perfect sense to her, but she held her breath waiting for Mapanos' answer.

*****

Troy joined Faith, looking out over the lake. He stole her cigarette and had a quick puff of it, and as she turned to him, still irritable, he raised his eyebrows at her playfully.

"What? You're on my ass to quit all the time but now you've taken up the habit? Figures."

He took another draw on the filter and handed it back to her.

"I smoked throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries," he said conversationally.

"Why'dya quit?"

"I wanted to live longer."

She turned to him incredulously and after a second she laughed and shook her head. He grinned and stepped behind her, circling her with his arms.

She leaned back into him and absently he rubbed her stomach, thinking of the future.

"You are unfortunately mortal. You should give them up."

"Yeah, I'm working on it," she sighed and pitched the half-smoked cigarette over the turret.

Together they watched it fall hundreds of feet below into the moat.

"You should go make that call if ya gotta."

"No, you are right. I will send Felacio to take care of it."

He bowed his head to kiss her, pulling her back into a better mood. He could feel her responding to his affections but even as she turned in his arms he sensed some hesitation lingering in the touch of her lips.

He pulled away just enough to ask. "Is everything okay?"

The door opened again before she could answer and they both turned to see Felacio with a food-laden tray.

*****

My duty is to help The Immortal; by doing otherwise I will fail in my responsibility. How can that be good for me?

"Okay, so your colleagues might frown upon you, but all you've gotta say is that you were punishing him for trapping you. Wouldn't that get you a little respect?"

Mapanos was silent again.

Buffy pushed her advantage. "You can't be getting much respect now, what with being a goat for three hundred years!"

I am the Spirit of Autumn! The Essence of the Dying Months! I command respect no matter which body I am in!

She'd angered him, but hopefully in a good way.

"And yet you're happy to let Troy treat you like his bitch!"

She wanted to go into a rant about all of Troy's bad points but knew that overselling it might do her more harm than good. After all, you could lead a goat to revenge but you couldn't make him drink.

I am not his Nanny! I would gladly thwart him! The goat quieted a little. But you seem to forget I am ensnared by our deal. With no blood sacrifice I will be trapped by him forever. As much as I like your fighting talk, I must think of the big...

"Don't say bigger picture, please! What if I could sacrifice you?" She talked over his imminent interruption. "No, really. There has to be some way. What if we made a deal right now? What if I say I'll sacrifice you if you give me the chance to go and stop Troy's prophecy?"

It's not specific enough.

Buffy huffed out a breath. This was getting too complicated. "Okay, what if I sacrifice you after I've stopped Troy's prophecy? Foiling a prophecy like this has to be as potent as fulfilling it, right? What if it needed a blood sacrifice to make sure it was fully stopped? That would be within the rules wouldn't it?"

Mapanos scratched an ear with a hoof - that had to hurt - and then shook himself. There would have to be stricter terms.

That wasn't a no!

"Like?"

Like if you didn't sacrifice me Troy would be able to try again. With Faith.

"But if I was successful, he wouldn't be able to."

You forget who you're dealing with. Goat I may be, but incapable I am not. If I want Faith to stay with Troy it will happen.

"But surely the prophecy is only good for today?" she asked, worried. "When else is he gonna conceive his kid?"

It would be unprecedented to change the date of a prophecy, but then that is what you are trying to do right now. If you succeed it wouldn't be unprecedented anymore would it?

"But your power. I thought he needed..."

My power will be as strong again one year from now.

"Okay, so I promise to sacrifice you." How hard could it be? "You have my word. I stop the prophecy and then I kill you to make sure he doesn't get to try again. That would release you, yes?"

I believe so. But what if you cannot stop The Immortal from impregnating Faith?

"Then he wins and sacrifices you just like the two of you planned. No harm, no foul."

This is most unorthodox.

"But I bet that'll count in your favor in the long run. You'll be the goat that out-foxed a snake. You'll be the Keeper of Destinies that's so good at his job that he pulled off a prophecy everyone else had given up on."

She could tell he was giving it serious thought. How? Maybe because he'd stopped talking for a minute.

You'll be in grave danger if you try and stop The Immortal. If you succeed he will do his utmost to destroy you. Even if you don't succeed he will more than likely tear your life apart in revenge for trying.

"I know."

The very best you could hope for would be to end up as a goat.

"I know," she said again.

And you still think this is the right thing for you to do? Really?

"I know it is! For me, for Faith, for humanity, for you! If I don't... Troy gets away with too much too easily. If he truly wants to save mankind, or whatever he's telling himself, then he should be doing it the right way. He's a God! He can do pretty much anything he wants upfront. And tricking Faith into having his baby is not upfront. It's deceitful and... and cruel! Faith'll fall pregnant not realizing what she's carrying..."

The boy'll be mostly human, Mapanos said as if he was being encouraging. A demi-god, sure, but his human attributes will be strongest. They'll have to be. And they can be enhanced by his upbringing.

"So, you're saying maybe nurture over nature could stop him from being an evil overlord?" she asked skeptically.

Well, no. I'm a big fan of nature over nurture, obviously, but I'm saying he's not going to be born a monster. When, if, Faith gives birth, it'll be to a baby, not a fiend with horns and forked tail.

"You say that like it's a good thing!"

Well. Mapanos did the goat-shrug thing again. It's better than being born with the horns and tail, surely?

*****

Troy sprinkled the last of the herbs into the large bath he was running for Faith and then, as the water neared the brim turned off the faucets.

He stared into the steaming water, his thoughts far more scattered than he cared for. He had heard nothing from Felacio since they had descended into his suite. That was a good thing; the less disturbance caused to their evening the better, but it was leaving him worried that something had gone wrong.

Faith appeared in the bathroom doorway, naked. "That ready yet?"

He smiled and held out his hand, encouraging her into the room. "Yes. You should get in while it is still hot."

"You're not joining me?"

He hesitated. "I will, but first... Felacio was unable to handle the matter himself. I really must make..."

In truth, although Felacio's silence bothered him, he had more pressing matters to attend to now.

"Sure, whatever."

He watched, a little upset that she hopped so unceremoniously into the water. The night called for more finesse, but he could hardly ask her to get out and do it again. Her cavalier response bothered him too. Only a short time ago she had been angry at the thought of him leaving her side, now she barely seemed to notice he was still in the room.

It was a blessing in some respects. He had planned this bath to give him time to perform the necessary rituals, but her indifference made him loathe to leave her even for a minute.

He knelt at the side of the bath. "You do not mind bathing alone?"

"What? Oh, no - whatever, ya know." She grinned. "Just don't be gone too long or ya gonna miss all the bubbles."

He nodded slowly. There seemed to be something missing in her grin; it lacked its usual vivacity. She leaned towards him but paused for a moment as if unsure of something before kissing him.

As she pulled away, again, he asked, "Is everything okay?"

She stared into his eyes for a while before nodding. "Sure, why wouldn't it be?"

"I can think of no reason."

He was reading too much into this. So worked up was he about the night to come that he was on edge. It was not a familiar feeling for him and not one he liked. It was strange, considering how long he had waited for it, but now he could not wait for the night to be over. Only then could he relax again.

He kissed the side of her head, already damp from the steam, and stood again. "I will not be long."

"Troy, uh..."

He turned in the doorway. "Yes, my love?"

*****

"You know what? I think you've been tamed." Buffy began derisively. "Maybe Eostre's a lovesick romantic but at least she has the guts to go for what she believes in. You're so scared of pissing Troy off and screwing up the deal you made that you don't even care what's right or wrong anymore. It's the people that need your help, not the Gods; they can take care of themselves. Eostre gets that! And that makes her a better Keeper of Destiny than you by a long shot. So she may be an ass, but... but at the end of the day, you're just a goat."

Mapanos went from a sitting start into a run and butted her in the stomach, hard. Yep, she'd pissed him off now. Luckily the ropes around her saved her from any harm his short horns might have done but it still winded her a little.

From close range he butted her a few more times and then said, You know, I think you have a point.

She smiled triumphantly.

Giving The Immortal the opportunity to kill you might be the high point of my imprisonment.

Her smile didn't go but it did turn more grim than victorious. "I'll take my chances."

It was funny hearing a goat chuckle. You do have other options, you know?

"What options?"

You could leave Faith to her current destiny. Stay with Toni. I know you two are already close.

Buffy didn't let herself think on that. "That's not an option."

Sure it is. Maybe you two are made to be together. No prophecies, sure, but...

"It's not an option," she repeated through gritted teeth. "Now are you helping me or not?"

Sure, Slayer, keep your... someone else's panties on.

She was trying not to think about that either, about what she was wearing. It wasn't important. It was gross, but she could be wearing a diaper and fairy wings and it wouldn't deter her from the mission. He butted her waist yet more times. If she'd had use of her limbs she'd have kneed him away. He had his reasons though as it turned out. It took a few tries before he was able to lean his front hooves comfortably against Buffy's thighs and then he drove his mouth against the ropes like a buzz saw.

After a few seconds of the really strange vibrating sensation against her midriff, Buffy asked. "Is that actually doing anything?"

Yefth.

One of the coils around her stomach fell away. It was only one, but the relief was still immediate, stopping her ribs from feeling quite so constrained. Mapanos hooves moved a little higher as he began on the next coil.

*****

Faith held his gaze for a long time before closing her eyes and slipping deeper into the water.

"Nothin'."

He watched her. Something about her demeanor was persistently troubling him. "I just have one important call that must be made."

She didn't even open her eyes as she said, "Well, hurry the fuck up, yeah; this is supposed to be our night."

"And it will be." Smiling, Troy went to the bathroom cabinet and took out three bottles of scented anointing oil. "I brought you special oils from Tunisia. They are supposed to rejuvenate the skin and promote love-making."

Slowly a grin formed on Faith's lips. "I'm all for extra-special screwing oils."

He set the bottles on the side of the bath, in easy reach for Faith. They weren't really from Africa; they were a blend of herbs and secretions Asklepios had mixed for him, essential to his ritual.

"Use a little of all." He winked at her. "I am told we will not be disappointed."

"Yeah, sure. Don't be long, okay?"

"Is everything...?" She looked annoyed before he'd even finished the short sentence so he trailed off and tried a different approach. "I bought something else for you."

He went through to his bedroom to fetch the ceremonial white negligee he had asked Benedetta to make. After taking a bolstering breath he carried it back into the bathroom and held it up.

"Do you like it?"

Faith gave it a look, appearing completely under-whelmed, but then she smiled. "Sure, it's really...uh, white."

Troy frowned. "White?"

"I meant pretty," she said quickly. "Pretty and white and lacy and... am I getting baptized tonight or something?"

Troy chuckled. "I was aiming for sexy when I picked it out."

Faith raised an eyebrow but she chuckled along. "I guess... if you're into virgins."

Laughing softly, Troy draped the negligee over the towel rail and squatted down to kiss her.

She kissed back but gave no resistance when he pulled away. Perturbed by this he kissed her soundly again. The same thing happened when he gently, reluctantly moved back from the edge of the bath.

Staying close, he regarded her solemnly. "Are you sure...?"

"I'm fine!" She pushed playfully at his chest. "Now get out of here so you can get back quicker."

He nodded and backed out of the room, smiling at her. "I will not be long, Fai."

"You better not be."

She grinned at him but it faded away even before he turned from the room.

Suddenly not wanting this next part to take any longer than it had to, Troy moved swiftly once he was out of sight.

*****

"So, how well do you know Toni?" Buffy asked, trying to sound as cool as a detective and not like an inquisitive girlfriend.

I know everything about Toni, He said out of the side of his mouth, still managing to gnaw if a little more awkwardly.

"Like what?"

She used to race tortoises in Greece two thousand years ago.

Buffy's nose scrunched up. "What?"

Antonella won with her thoroughbred's five years in a row. She was quite the star. That was before her... mishap, obviously.

"Two thousand..." She shook her head. Focus on important stuff. "I was thinking of more contemporary facts than that."

Another coil came loose. Above her waist; only her shoulders were bound now.

Mapanos had to stretch his neck to reach the next coil, but just he got his teeth to it.

Contemporary? Not sure how that will help you, but okay. Antonella has a wonderful soul. Unfortunately that soul has gone to waste recently. She wants someone to love - she's that kinda of person - but she can't do it. Not her fault, just the way it is.

Mapanos hopped back down with a satisfied look. Buffy shrugged her shoulders, making the chewed through coils of rope slither to the floor. Stretching her arms was bliss. After hours of hardly being able to move even her pinkie fingers, getting full range back in her upper body was pure paradise.

"What do you mean it's not Toni's fault?"

Mapanos started gnawing at the rope around her knees as he answered.

Not my place to say, but I will tell you: no way did she deserve that fate. A slap on the wrist is one thing but what she got... no one with a single decent cell in their body deserves that.

Buffy was intrigued. Even if she hadn't been in love with Toni - and okay maybe she wasn't really, because she shouldn't be, and she'd always tried hard not to be in love with people she shouldn't be. Never actually succeeded as such, but always tried hard and Toni, well, but Toni...

"You can't leave it like that! What did she get?"

You're her lover and you don't know?

He was mocking her now. She didn't really mind as long as he kept on gnawing.

"It never came up in conversation."

You should ask her. It's a good story. He said between quick-fire bursts of chewing.

"Doubt I'll get the chance now." And if there was any regret in her tone she didn't mean for it to be there.

Shame. She'd be perfect for you.

Enough of the rope around her knees had been chewed through that she could move her legs a little, giving her the room to wriggle out of the rest. She doubled over to rub her shins and then stretched her legs like she'd stretched her arms.

"How so?" she asked, distracted by the joy of being able to move again. "Toni's been lying to me, using me, from day one. She's as in this as Troy is. I can't be with someone whose mission in life is to bring about the very thing I'm fighting against." Her legs felt numb so she paced up and down to get them back in good working order, muttering under her breath, "No matter how I feel about her."

Ever think maybe she's just a pawn too?

She had. Ever since Quantiaro had told her the scrolls were in Japan. Unfortunately thinking it didn't make it so.

"Is she?"

Maybe.

"Convincing."

*****

Through the hidden door at the back of Troy's walk-in closet all the modernity of his suite disappeared. It was dark and the stone wall was cold to his touch as he patted along it to find the niche that held the oil lamp and matches. The darkness was only mildly less extreme once there was light, but familiarity led him surely down the steps to the small hidden room.

Once he had candles lit and placed at the five points of the carefully drawn irregular pentagram - the largest point in the direction of the setting sun - Troy set about removing the ancient artefacts of his brethren from a number of heavy wooden chests. He arranged them in a circle inside the candles, making sure each one touched at least two others.

He consulted the Book of Japheth now and then to make sure he was correct as a precaution; even though he had read it many times since acquiring it.

The papyrus Scrolls he handled with the care he would his new born son. Their age made them crinkle in his hands and he winced as blackened fragments fell away from the fire damaged one. He mouthed the first passage of words to himself before setting them safely to one side.

*****

Buffy was ready. She'd yanked a length of rusty chain from one of the cell walls and wound some of it loosely around her left hand. It wasn't the best weapon in the world but the best on offer. It would add a little zing to her left hook and the rust-fused bracelet of iron at the other end gave it mid-range possibilities too.

Mapanos was now walking with her down the corridor, his hooves tap tapping on the stone as the torches blasted their stretched profiles against the wall.

It would have been easy to get lost down here. Through every arch were more dark stone corridors with their own host of shadowy archways. Her first stroke of luck all day came when she realized the demons had only bothered lighting the torches that led in a straight line to the nearest door. It was an oversight on their part or they'd just been sure that she wouldn't escape her bonds - either way, it was a point in her favor.

Buffy's lucky streak - already a long time in arriving - ended abruptly when she tried the door.

"Dammit!"

It wasn't just that it was locked, she'd busted through many a locked door before, but not generally ones built like this. It was old and gnarled and when she tapped her fingers on it, felt as thick as the tree trunk they must have carved it from. Swirly bands of dark iron decorated the surface. This was a door fit for a dungeon, literally.

"I can't bash my way through this."

Mapanos put his mouth to it, but the centuries had hardened the wood and the ironwork covered too much of the surface; he couldn't get his teeth enough grip to try gnawing. It would have taken too long anyway.

There are other doors.

Mapanos trotted through the nearest arch. Buffy pulled the nearest flamey torch from the wall and turned to follow him. A noise made her stop and turn her head to the door. A building this old, it was bound to suffer from a few creaks and groans as it settled down for the night.

She frowned, worried Mapanos was getting too far ahead of her; she didn't want to lose him in this warren of pillars, but before she could follow the large, un-bash-throughable door slowly opened towards her.

*****

The Victorian birdcage swung gently on its ceiling hook in the corner of Troy's ritual-prepared sacramental chamber as its occupant grew agitated, hopping from perch to perch.

"It is okay, my friend," he spoke softly to it in Greek as he steadied the cage with one hand and opened the wire door with the other. "You are among family again."

He held his hand to the opening, index finger extended, and the diminutive white dove hopped onto it with no hesitation.

"The years have treated you well, little one," he said soothingly, stepping with care into the circle of ancient artefacts.

Kneeling, he had a moments pause while he considered what to do with the bird on his hand, but the dove seemed to translate his predicament and fluttered up to land on his head.

All around Troy glittered gold save for the stone tablets set directly in front of him - he would begin and end there, with the most important of all.

He placed his right hand flat against the smooth surface of the tablet, feeling the words carved into the surface on his palm, and began.

"With these words may Athena grant you the Power of Wisdom."

Without pause he moved to the next item.

"With this Sceptre may Demeter grant you the Power of the Earth."

"With this Caduceus may Hermes grant you the Power of Swift Flight."

He reached the far side of the circle.

"With this Key may Hades grant you Power over Death."

"With this Bow may Apollo grant you the Patience of the Hunter."

"With this Trident may Poseidon grant you the Strength of Storms."

He laid gentle fingertips on warm feathers.

"With this Dove may Aphrodite grant you a Sense of Beauty."

"With this Apple may Eris grant you Power over Discord."

He drew a sign in the air and then, closing his eyes, placed both palms on the stone Tablets.

"Through the power of this ritual,
the wisdom of my elders,
the grace of the hour
and the grateful blood of Mapanos, Keeper of Destinies,
and with faith as our centre and our triumph,
let my son - let our son - be conceived
on this eve and so begin his journey that will deliver
us from devastation."

He held himself still for a short time, relieved that the first part was over.

Standing, he released the dove back into the birdcage. "Thank you, my friend. Tomorrow you shall have your freedom back at last."

*****
Felacio stood framed in the arched doorway, his own burning torch held aloft. Buffy stared in surprise. The pale demon did the same, obviously stunned to see her there and not tied up fifty feet away.

When they finally regained the presence of mind to stop gaping at each other, a shower of sparks erupted like falling orange stars as their torches clashed together.

"Bad move, bad move!" She yelped as embers landed on her bare arms and legs, but she couldn't jump back out of the way.

Staying in the doorway with him was the only safeguard against him locking her in again. So, hoping hard she didn't stand on any of the hot cinders lighting up the floor, she pressed forward; grappling with the head demon as she tried to push her torch closer and set him on fire. It would have been easier if he wasn't so intent on doing the same. Could she smell burned hair? She better not be able to smell burned hair!

"Miss-a Summers, this will be better for you if... Oof!"

The pressure Felacio was applying disappeared as he staggered back, his torch waving wildly in the air above his head. Mapanos had charged forward and butted him hard in the stomach. The goat jumped away and skittered back out of sight immediately, but Buffy could hear him bleating in amusement from the shadows.

The goat's horns weren't big or pointy enough to do any damage but it gave Buffy the vital space that she needed. Holding her torch safely to the side she brought her left hand around in a hard swing. Her chain-wrapped fist smashed straight into his face and he went down hard, smacking the back of his wrinkly grey head solidly on the stone floor. He probably wouldn't be getting up for a while.

"How do you like it?" she asked his prone body, flexing her fist a little. The chain had hurt her hand, but probably not as much as it had hurt his face. "Not much I hope."

The torch he'd carried burned against the wall and the floor now, making the air smoky but not burning anything but itself. She coughed a little. It was time to go. With one last look at Felacio she brought the torch up above her head again and made her way along the tunnel-like corridor.

Don't forget our deal, Slayer! Mapanos called after her. You pull this off you better come back and sacrifice me!

She half-turned back towards the door and called softly, "I won't forget. I'll be back as soon as I can."

If you don't I'll find a way to make sure you have a goat-shaped shadow for the rest of your life!

She pulled a face. "In that case, I'll definitely be back."

Good girl.

*****

Faith was just coming into the bedroom as Troy left the closet. "What were you doing in there?"

"Checking on my tuxedo for the wedding," he lied easily.

"It's in there?" She looked over his shoulder and then with a sudden grin tried to dart around him. He caught her around the waist, joining in her laughter.

"Do not ruin the surprise! Promise me, can I trust you while I take a shower?"

"Sure, whatever, but just so you know, I don't want that many surprises on my wedding day." She swatted his bottom. "Now hurry up before I get tired of waiting and just do myself!"

"I would not blame you. You do indeed look very sexy in that negligee."

She looked down at herself. "If you say so. More Buffy's style than mine."

He went swiftly into the bathroom then, not wanting her dwelling on the other Slayer tonight. He left the door open while he was in the shower so that he could still talk to her.

"I am sorry I have kept you waiting tonight, Fai. Unfortunately it was unavoidable."

"Yeah, whatever, don't sweat it."

"I will make it up to you the moment I have finished preparing."

She poked her head around the door. "Preparing?"

"Bathing," he corrected himself. "For you. For our special night."

She raised an eyebrow. "Okaaay." Her head disappeared again.

*****

The steps up from the dungeon were long and windy. She was glad she had the torch but it didn't help her to see around blind corners so she took it slower than she wanted to. It was better to be the tortoise and get there in the end than be the hare that ran right into a bunch of red demons and got skinned.

There was a door at the top of the steps just as thick as the one below; thankfully Felacio had left it ajar. She took a deep breath, tightened her chain-y fist and pushed the door open.

She'd had no idea where the steps might come out, but it was fair to say the middle of a busy kitchen wouldn't even have been on her list of guesses. Startled, she stared at the bustling Goran demons, not sure how to react until she saw one of the red ones behind the door and then instinct took over.

He opened his big mouth wide to shout a warning as he lunged towards her. Buffy thrust the flaming torch forwards to keep him at bay and accidentally gave him a lesson in fire-eating. He can't have been a quick learner because his head suddenly ignited from the inside and flames leaped from his ears, nose and even his eye sockets after his eyeballs had popped.

Cringing, Buffy let go of the torch and backed away, looking around wildly for the best direction to run in. The blazing demonic spectacle had drawn the rest of the staff away from their duties and she had to move before they had a chance to surround her.

A couple of them were already close enough to block her escape route, waving sharp kitchen knives at her with more implied menace than actual skill. She skipped to the other side of the demon whose head now resembled a melting jack-o-lantern, feeling the heat coming from his face on her own as she gave him a hard push into the looming Gorans.

Spinning in a half circle, she planted a foot in the stomach of the next red demon to run at her, kicking him backwards, and then let her momentum carry her the other one hundred and eighty degrees. Then stopped dead, arms held out to the sides for balance, trying to pull her nose into her face, as the meat cleaver dropped like a guillotine right in front of her. Once the lethal blade was safely below any of her protruding body parts she caught the meaty Goran forearm wielding it and held it steady as she snapped the bone over her knee.

Then she ran like hell into the space she'd created.

*****

Faith was sitting on the edge of the bed staring out of the window when he came out of the bathroom. He watched her in silence, awed by her beauty in the dying light. He lit a few candles and fetched the chocolate-coated strawberries from the living room before joining her on the edge of the bed.

"What is troubling you?" he asked softly.

She turned quickly, as if startled to find him so close.

"Nothing." She took a strawberry from the bowl in his hand; her white teeth flashing as she bit into it. "See?"

He regarded her for a moment. "You have not seemed yourself all evening."

She finished the strawberry. "You've not been around enough recently to know how I usually seem."

"I'm sorry."

"Quit apologizing!" She sighed and took another strawberry. "It's fine. Just... if you knew you were gonna be busy tonight we could have done this tomorrow. And I coulda done something else, or something."

He frowned. "Like?"

"The wedding's in a week. I probably should have stayed in Rome, ya know, in case..."

He cut her off. "You have done a wonderful job, Fai. The wedding is perfectly prepared. Now is the time for you to relax."

"Buffy's done a wonderful job, you mean," she muttered, before continuing more strongly. "And I don't call sitting in a bath wondering where you are for half the evening relaxing. What were you doing that was so important anyway?"

"Business." He could feel panic begin to pool in the pit of his stomach. This was not the ideal time to have a meaningful conversation, especially this one. "It is not interesting."

"Obviously more interesting than me."

"I promise you, I have been thinking about you all evening."

"While you were doing what?"

"I told you."

"You haven't told me jack! You never tell me jack." She stood abruptly. "I'm gonna be your wife in a week and I have no idea what you're doing half the time."

He forced himself to relax. "I have spent most of our time in Rome securing our future."

She laughed. "What does that mean?"

"It means I am The Immortal, Faith; the last true one on this Earth and there are many Higher and Lower Beings out there that do not think I should still be here. The last few months I have been doing everything in my power to guarantee that once we are married you will be considered untouchable by the malignant forces that wish you harm for being with me."

He hadn't realized how angrily he had been speaking until silence followed his outburst.

*****

Buffy heard the raucous noise in the Great Hall before she reached it, but she only had two directions to go in: back to the demons who knew she'd escaped or forward to where they were still oblivious.

A horseshoe of long tables had been set for a banquet and a whole bunch of... people didn't cover all them. A bunch of humanoid males, some of which could have been human, were enjoying the feast immensely, and loudly.

She couldn't help wondering if Troy knew the definition of 'romantic evening.' Most men knew better than to invite all their friends over on the night they were hoping to get laid. On the other hand, good! Because this many extra bodies would make her more invisible and with the amount of noise they were making right now hopefully she could run right by. The grand staircase she needed was only just there. All she had to do was get to it before anyone looked up.

"Hello! Has Morty hired us a serving wench for the evening?" Buffy's head snapped in the direction of the big bellowing voice that boomed over the general hubbub. "My lord, what is that he's dressed her in?"

He looked human and tweedy, he sounded English and smug. There was no mistaking the air of Watcherness about him. She grit her teeth and put her head down to hide her face as she bolted for the stairs.

There was a red demon guarding the bottom. Not only were they slow learners they were slow reactors too. She zipped past him and up the stairs, leaving him flailing his arms about to catch her a second too late. He wasn't so slow in thumping up the stairs after her though. Reaching the first landing, she bounced on her toes a little and then span into a high kick when she was sure he was right behind her.

The surprise on his face as he flew backwards down the long flight of steps back to the main floor would have been something to savour if a crowd of banquet guests hadn't been peering up at her with equal surprise.

She turned from their questioning eyes and ran.

*****

"Look, I'm sorry." Faith turned away from his glare. "I'm not even mad at you about any of that shit. I'm just..." she gave a dark chuckle. "The weddings real close and I'm getting kind of jittery about it is all. 'Nother reason I should be in Rome right now. Buffy's pretty good at..."

"At what?"

"At talking me down when I start freakin' out like that."

He reached out and took her hand. "It sounded to me as though you talked yourself down. Perhaps you do not need Buffy as much as you think you do."

Her eyes looked lost for a moment but then, with a shrug, she shook it off. "Yeah, maybe."

He tugged her closer to the bed. "Let me show you how much I have been missing you."

She allowed him to take her in his arms, kissed him as sensuously as he kissed her, but as he twisted smoothly to lay her down on the bed beside him she pulled away, struggling out of his embrace.

"Jeez, what's wrong with you? I'm trying to talk to you here and that's all you can think about?" she demanded angrily as she pushed him forcefully away.

"I... I am sorry. I..." He shook his head, bewildered.

In the candlelight her wild eyes looked equally mystified by her own behavior.

"Jeez!" She scrambled off the bed and turned away, leaning with both palms braced on the wide stone brim of the window. "Ya think I'm fuckin' nuts, right?"

"Of course not, but... I do not understand."

"And ya think I do..." Faith shook her head. "I guess..."

Troy did want to be understanding, he truly did, but this had run on far too long now. Nothing could be allowed to interfere with the course of this night, nothing, not even the mother of his child.

"It's just we've not really talked in forever."

"Then talk to me," he offered as he stole from the bed and snuffed one of the candles beside it.

"I guess... maybe things are... I don't know...I'm probably just bein' stupid."

"You are never stupid, Fai."

Sending a prayer for forgiveness to several of the more ethical Goddesses and thinking, ironically, how proud his Father would be of him in this moment, he picked up the heavy black iron candlestick and moved silently up behind her.

"Nah, I'm definitely bein' stupid right now. I mean, what the fuck is my problem? We've made love a thousand times, right, so why the hell am I raggin' on you for it now?"

Troy stopped in surprise, the solid candlestick raised above his head ready to strike. "Made love?"

"Slip of the tongue." She turned to him, grinning now, and he hid the candlestick behind his back. "Making love's for pussies, right?"

She wrapped her arms tightly around his neck and pulled him down to her level, kissing him with enthusiasm, in a way she hadn't been all night, licking into his mouth, biting his lips, nails raking through his hair.

When she pulled away this time, she shoved his chest to make him fall back across the bed. He bit down on the pain as a rather large iron candlestick dug into his bare lower back; and then again when she jumped playfully to land astride his hips.

"We can do better than pansy-ass love-makin'," she drawled, her hands stroking up and then scratching down his chest. "You can give me more than that, right? Way better than that."

"Of course, but... perhaps tonight we could..." She swooped down to kiss him and he scrambled ungainly further onto the bed, pushing the candlestick to the floor as he did so. "Perhaps," he began again once he could speak, "tonight we could take things slower. This is a special night, a romantic one..."

"Sick of romantic." She pulled on his white ceremonial trousers, accidentally, or not, ripping them from his legs. "Need the good stuff tonight."

"By Zeus," he muttered as she roughly gripped his shaft and then winced at invoking his father's name at a time like this.

His eyes shut as she slowly, firmly, accepted him all the way in. He kept them closed as she rode him, trying to focus his mind and gather his thoughts. She always felt so good, so in control, better than any other mortal and most supernatural beings he had lain with. It wouldn't do to lose himself in her tonight, however, at least, not until he was ready.

*****

The floor above the gruesome stained glass window opened out into another large hall. Red demons sat on benches around a large fire place, fifteen at least. They seemed to be toasting something over the flames on long sticks - it probably wasn't marshmallows.

They were talking to each other in a demon language with Italian accents and so far hadn't noticed her. The lighting in the hall was electric, but the lamps were old fashioned and far apart. The fire was the brightest light making the rest of the room seem murky, its features indistinct.

Buffy could live with being indistinct for a while if it helped her sidle along the wall to the next staircase.

She was halfway there when something looked up and straight at her. The creature was lying on its stomach, huge paws stretched languidly out in front of it and the firelight playing across its sandy-haired back. As it lifted its big, white, feathered head, she was fixed with a piercing eagle-eyed stare, and she wasn't speaking metaphorically.

What the hell was it? She'd paused, but now she started sidling again, a quick sidle this time, silently willing the creature not to draw any attention to her. A long thin tail with a tuft of hair at the end started to weave slowly to and fro, causing other sandy lumps to stir from their fireside snooze and look up. A pair of big white wings flaring up, silhouetted by the flames, caught the attention of the demons.

Time to stop sidling and start running. A heart-stopping cross between a roar and a screech followed her up the stairs, making her legs pump harder and faster.

*****

As if from very far away the words from the Scrolls slowly came to Troy. He used ancient Greek and let them roll out on his steadily increasing breaths - ad-libbing when the physical pleasure got the better of him.

"Let this... this beautiful mortal vessel accept my seed.
Let my seed flower within the vessel.
Let our flower bloom within us, like a... like a...
...something bright with destiny.
Mapanos hear me.
Father... I mean, Zeus hear me.
Let the vessel...
let Faith, oh, Faith
bear the fruit of our blessed fusion.
Let..."

"Ya still with me, babe?"

He heard her, felt her hair brush across his face, her lips against his jaw, but he couldn't let himself be distracted any further. Wrapping his arms around her, he smoothly rolled them until he was on top.

He lost his train of thought completely as she wrapped her legs around his hips. She felt so... He hadn't made a contingency plan for this. He had to keep himself as emotionally detached as possible. It wasn't easy to ignore what his body wanted, but determined to put himself back into a position where he could concentrate, he pushed up so he was arms length from her.

"Hey, no, I wanna..." she started to protest, playfully squeezing her thighs tighter, but then he recognized her tone darkening "Have you still got your damn bluetooth gizmo in?"

"I'm sorry?" As her hand left his shoulder to grab his ear he jerked his head to one side, breaking the smooth, enjoyable rhythm he'd set. "No I..."

"Then why do ya look like you're talking to yourself?" she demanded, fingers still probing around for wires or an earpiece.

"I was... I was..." He had no time to do anything but clutch at straws now. "I was whispering words of love to you."

"Oh." After a few moments the probing turned to stroking. "Didn't get that with the way you're all the way up there."

He half-sighed, half-grunted as he lowered himself back over her. "Is that better, my dear?"

He almost added, 'Can I get on with it now?' but wisely thought better of it.

After a few moments, as the momentum of their coitus increased once more, he remembered where he had been interrupted and began chanting softly again.

"Can't you at least speak in English?"

With a wordless shout of frustration, he ignored her request and pounded harder into her. His Greek chant became louder and louder as he felt her relax once more, her own enthusiasm returning as she sought the pleasure she knew he could give.

*****

Buffy finally skidded onto the landing she wanted. Doors lined one wall but there was only one on the other side, Troy's suite being that big. Two guards of the red variety were standing either side of it. She'd planned to use a little more subtlety if she made it this far, not wanting to arouse the suspicions of anyone on the other side of the door until she was ready, but with a kitchen full of servants, a banquet's worth of guests and a hall full of demons - not to mention a pride of the frightening winged beasts - maybe chasing her, subtle had to be shelved.

She ran at them without slowing down, whipping the chain at the closest one so that the shackle end caught him in the face. He staggered backwards, into his buddy, who's shout for assistance was cut off as she followed the chain - now held taught between her hands - and rammed into his mouth like a gag. Sharp yellow teeth broke with a horrible crunching noise. Holding it in place, she dragged the other demon up - still dazed from the shackle - and wound the rusty iron around his neck.

It all happened in seconds, neither had even time to draw their swords.

When they were chained nicely together she ran them backwards towards the end the corridor. There was a door there leading to the turrets. It was as good a place as any to hide these two. She threw the bolt open and yanked hard on the wrought iron black handle. Looking anxiously back over her shoulder for company, she gave them a shove through the open door.

Two long screams made Buffy look out the door in alarm and then jump back in even more alarm. There was no turret there, just... nothing. And then, a long way away, the ground. The screams seemed to grow fainter as they went on and on.

"Well, how was I supposed to know?" She felt strangely guilty about giving the demons the drop. "What idiot has a door leading out into thin air anyway?"

At least the demons were out of sight - and probably unrecognizable to anyone now. She pushed the door closed again and hurried back to Troy's suite. She didn't understand why no one was chasing her up the stairs. She'd taken plenty of twists and turns to get here, but surely none of Troy's staff could be in any doubt of her ultimate destination. Which was here. She listened for noises on the other side of the door but everything was quiet.

"Don't be locked," she murmured to it, and - hey, presto! -- her streak of luck was stretching on.

She still had no game plan beyond the obvious. Just how she was going to convince Faith to choose her right now when she'd had no luck before, she didn't know.

She slipped though the door. The living room was empty. Through the windows she could see the sky painted in the bright colors of sunset. Please don't let her be too late. Low voices came from the open bedroom door, giving her hope she wasn't.

Rush in, make as much of a fuss as possible, declare undying love in front of Troy if she had to. Whatever it took to fuck up his moves and put Faith off of sex with him for tonight at least. Stopping the prophecy had to come first. If she couldn't make Faith pick her, couldn't keep her promise to Mapanos, she would at least have another year before she had to go all through this again. Presuming Troy didn't strike her down where she stood.

'He won't, not in front of Faith.'

Maybe it was a naive thought, but there was no time for dwelling on it anyway. Her bare feet were already padding softly towards the door, towards the voices that were less voice-y now and more moany.

Her feet froze on the threshold, giving the rest of her no choice but to follow suit. Her throat froze too and the 'No!' she wanted to shout only echoed around her head.

She wasn't too late! They were... well, they were doing what they'd been doing on the homemade porn tape Xander had found, but they were still doing it! Which meant she couldn't be too late. There was still time to... to...

Her vital mistake was locking eyes with Faith. The surprise at her entrance quickly morphed to guilt, regret and then a hungry longing.

Buffy's ears didn't seem to be working anymore but she saw her name fall from Faith's breathless lips and then...

*****

It was time. The window was going from bright orange to purple as the sun slipped over horizon. The last words of the ritual were spilling from his lips into Faith's ear. He was ready. So was she. This was the moment he had been living for his whole existence. Her body suddenly stiffened, and she breathlessly said something he didn't catch as she jerked her head up from the pillow. It had almost sounded like...

And then she was climaxing, falling back against the bed as the pleasure overtook her, bucking under him as she helplessly screamed out...

"Oh fu... fu... uhn... Buffy!!!"

What? WHAT? NO! It was too late to try and stop now.

Cursing violently, Troy came hard inside Faith; completing the ritual.


Chapter Four

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Part Ten Quick-Jump:

Chapter One || Chapter Two || Chapter Three || Chapter Four || Chapter Five || Chapter Six || Chapter Seven || Chapter Eight || Chapter Nine || Bonus Chapter


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