PART TWELVE: 5th October 2004 - 25th November 2004
Chapter Four: Through The Gates of Hell
Toni stood in the center of the basement with her arms held out to the sides as Buffy readjusted the scabbard belt around her hips.
"You don't want it too high or you'll have to fumble for the hilt."
"The sword isn't too heavy, is it? It's no good if you can't hold it up."
"It is fine." The broadsword was apparently Buffy's favorite and Toni felt strangely honored to be allowed to take it with her. "How long do I have?"
Giles looked from his watch to where Willow and Marco were standing eight feet apart, chanting rapidly. "Just under five minutes."
Buffy was still fussing with the belt. It was distracting but Toni sensed her need to help and was not going to turn down her close proximity.
"If any nasties come at you and you don't have time to swing, jab the sword in their eyes," Xander came over as he offered the advice. "That normally slows them down."
"Or in the balls," Kennedy added. "That slows them down even faster."
Xander patted her shoulder heartily. "Good luck."
Kennedy nodded the same as they both got out of the way.
"Thank you." A shimmering green speck was forming between Willow and Marco and Toni watched it apprehensively. "The cloaking spell is in place?"
Dawn nodded. "It'll activate as soon as you step into the portal." She pushed her sister out of the way to give Toni a quick hug. "Good luck."
Touched, Toni returned it. "Grazie."
"Don't we have anything else to put the invisibility potion in?" Buffy asked, fiddling with the titanium flask hanging from the other side of the sword belt. "This is too bulky."
"No. It has to be something that won't break easily," Andrew said. "In case Toni falls or gets, you know, beaten up. Not that you will," he added hastily.
"I am sure I will." Toni smiled at him. "But I, and the potion, will be okay. There is enough for both of us?"
"Should be," Dawn explained, "Willow could only make two hundred milliliters but we did the math this morning and calculated the correct dosage you'd both need based on your BMI and the length of time you're likely to be down there, allowing for a twenty-five percent reduction in Faith's body mass because obviously she'll have been on a hell of a diet recently."
She listened with interest if not much understanding. When Dawn had apparently finished, she asked, "So what is the dosage?"
"Oh," Dawn laughed. "Right. That'd be helpful. A mouthful should be enough to last you twelve hours, Faith probably closer to fifteen, which should be plenty as long as you don't, you know, guzzle it if you get thirsty."
Toni nodded. Giles noticed she was watching the slowly growing green ball of light and checked his watch again.
"Three minutes," he said calmly.
Everyone but Buffy, Giles and Troy had retreated to the far side of the basement now, not wanting to get in the way. Toni appreciated it but if felt more like they were standing back in case something went wrong. None of them wanted to be sucked in to the portal with her. She didn't blame them. Now that the moment was here she was wishing she had never offered for this foolhardy mission.
"Here." Troy held up a key. Its tarnished gold appearance glowed sickly in the green light coming from the enlarging portal. "This will make things easier than last time."
"The Key to Hades?" The precious metal felt warm and clammy in Toni's hand.
"When I procured it for the ritual I never thought I would need to use it so literally. Now you will not have to wait for the gates to open. You can let yourself in."
Toni chuckled, pocketing the key. "And make myself at home?"
Troy smiled but his eyes were haunted and dark. "I am sorry for this, my friend. If I had..." he trailed off, shaking his head. "If I could go in your place..."
"What is done is done." Toni glanced down at Buffy, who was now inexplicably making sure her t-shirt hung smoothly down under the belt. "If I had to do it again... I would change very little."
The portal was now a few feet in diameter, bathing the whole basement in bright, sparkling green. "Ninety seconds," Giles informed her.
"Buffy, stop." Toni took her hands to prevent her from trying to de-crease her clothes. "Hades will not care if I am wrinkled."
Buffy straightened up. "Sorry. I just..."
"Everything will be okay, cara, I will bring Faith back to you."
"I know, but just..." There were tears in Buffy's eyes. "...Look, I want you to bring her back more than anything, but if things get really hairy down there...if it doesn't look like you can do it, I mean, just...get yourself out, okay?"
Toni knew she couldn't do that. There was no point coming back to Buffy without Faith, so she gave something half way between a nod and a shake of her head.
"Fifteen seconds," Giles said, his voice still exuding so much calm it almost stilled Toni's nerves.
"I must go now," she whispered.
Buffy nodded but then cupped her face and pulled her into the most exquisite kiss Toni had experienced in two and a half thousand years. The gentle touch of lips and the soft dip of Buffy's tongue into her mouth made her want to cry.
"I love you," Buffy murmured. "Whatever happens, I love you."
Toni nodded, running her fingertips down Buffy's cheek. "I love you too."
And then she pulled away abruptly, turned, and as the portal reached its full strength, ran straight into the glowing green disc.
She had expected the fizzing energy to hurt as she passed through but it didn't. She was aware of a moment of intense pressure, like the air was squeezing her body tight, and then she was running out into Laconia.
She stopped and gazed around. This had once been a lush place, a paradise leading to hell. Over the centuries its true nature had leaked out to taint the earth and now it was barren and rocky.
Adjusting her weapons and supplies, she sighed as she strode towards the dark cave entrance. "Here we go again."
Everything had gone smoothly so far, except for the colony of bats she had disturbed in the tunnel. She could still feel splatters of their acidic crap burning her skin but that would heal soon enough. It was hardly even an ounce of the suffering she could expect later.
At the end of the cave system reality was naturally thin. It was one of only a few places on earth where Hades could be accessed without being dead. Not that that made it any easier for the average person, or the average demi-goddess either. The last time she had been given two hours worth of long-worded incantations to recite before she could pass through. This time, thanks to the rituals they had performed over the past two weeks, it would be quicker.
Clutching a red gem Willow had given her, she said in a loud voice. "I am here."
At first she thought it hadn't worked, but after a minute the ghostly spirit forms of Marco and Willow formed in the air beside her.
"Hey, Toni!" Willow gave her a wave; her voice sounding like it was coming from a long way away, which it was. "Everything okay so far?"
"I have batshit all over me," she grumbled.
"Eww. Do they have baths in Hades?"
"Yes. If you like them boiling hot."
"Well, I always say a nice, hot bath is good for what ails ya."
"No, Willow, I mean literally boiling hot."
"Antonella, this will be the last time we can be with you."
She looked up at Marco, floating cross-legged just above her head. "Any last advice?"
"You know more of the terrain than I do, I'm afraid, but I can tell you that Tartarus will be far more brutal than what you experienced before."
"Faith may be quite wild when you find her."
"That will not be anything new."
"Uh, she might not be very happy to see you either," Willow said hesitantly.
"Again, something I am accustomed to."
"Just for the record, I think it's really awesome that you're doing this for Buffy."
Toni smiled. "I am a good secondary girlfriend, si?"
"Aww, you're not a secondary girlfriend to me." When Toni raised an eyebrow, Willow added, "Um, you know what I mean."
"Shall we proceed?" Marco asked.
He and Willow synched themselves and then began to chant again. A glittery blue vertical puddle appeared on the rocky wall and when it was large enough, she said goodbye and stepped through.
On the other side black clouds broiled relentlessly in the sky, threatening teeming rain at any second. The landscape was desolate and mostly mud-brown.
Toni adjusted the sword and flask comfortably and began to walk. The air grew steadily warmer until, despite the clouds, it felt like she was walking in one hundred degree heat.
Hours later, Toni stood by the edge of the river. This was the first real hurdle.
The Ferryman, Charon, was waiting in the middle of the Styx. If Toni was to toll the bell he would come to fetch her, but her current invisibility would cause him to think it a false alarm. Even if she was able to creep onboard she would, more than likely, only end up stranded in the middle of the river until the time the bell was tolled again.
She watched the wide expanse of the river for a while, seeing it bubble and gloop as things moved below the surface, and decided no matter how invisible she might be, she was not swimming it. In the end she walked a mile down river from the ferry crossing and spent half a day making a raft from half-rotten deadwood and long, yellow-green grass. All the way across, as she rowed with a thick, heavy branch, she was convinced she was about to sink to the bottom of the murky depths.
She was soaked from the waist down with stinking water when she finally beached on the far shore.
Buffy paced the basement. "Why aren't they back yet?"
Willow looked at her watch. "It's only been a few hours."
"Exactly! Why aren't they back yet?"
"It could take several days for Toni to reach Tartarus," Troy said. He was lying down on his cot but didn't look particularly relaxed.
"But time moves faster there, right?" she asked him. "It does in most hells."
"Two days here is roughly a week down there." Troy sat up, scrubbing his hands back through his hair. "Damn, I need a cigarette!"
Willow looked at him in surprise. "I didn't know you smoked."
"I don't anymore."
"Well, if it makes you feel any better, I think I'm just about to pick up the habit," Buffy said, still pacing anxiously.
On the horizon, matte-black iron gates waited for Toni, stretching to the zenith of this world. She left the half-dead rushes along the river bank and crept forward. When nothing immediately pounced on her she started to walk swiftly until she heard the thud of heavy paws. Turning her head, she saw the giant beast charging toward her and started to run. She knew it was a mistake at once; now she had started a game! Cerberus gave three playful barks simultaneously and chased her. Toni didn't have a hope.
She spun on the spot and shouted in Greek, "Sit!"
No; no hope. The giant dog only obeyed one master. He launched himself into the air and landed on Toni, knocking her flat on her back. She threw her arms up to defend herself but the big mutt, whining in excitement, still managed to lick her face all over with all three tongues.
"Okay, boys, okay, enough!"
Despite the fact that she was still speaking in Greek, Cerberus showed no signs of understanding her. Or maybe he was just too overwhelmed to listen. He probably didn't get many living people to fawn over these days. His mane of snakes were even hissing elatedly but although they seemed to be in a good mood, she kept her hands as far away from the writhing mass as possible as she attempted to push the monstrous dog away.
The riotous welcome went on for some time before Cerberus bounced away from her. She slowly got back to her feet, wiping slobber from her face with her wrist. He watched her, all three heads grinning widely as he panted, his long dragon tail wagging furiously.
"Try and remember how pleased you were to see me when I leave."
He gave three little yips of promise but she didn't believe him.
Cerberus whined as she walked away but Toni's undivided attention was now on the Gates of Dis. They stretched up into the bank of heavy grey cloud and were as wide as a Los Angeles freeway. When she finally touched them, the metal was so hot it stung her hand.
Toni took a look around. There was no one in sight so she slipped the key out of her pocket and into the forbidding, Gorgon motif lock. She wouldn't know if the cloaking spell was working until she saw someone and they didn't see her.
The key turned easily and noiselessly and despite the gates being taller than she could see, they swung open with just a slight push. She slipped through, looking left and right cautiously. No visible danger so far.
She walked through the overcast heat for hours before she reached the city of Hades. Standing on the outskirts, she looked around in shock. Last time it had been a maze of simple mud huts, now it was block after block of rundown tenement buildings; a ghetto of breeze-block monstrosities.
The dull grey sky had turned darker, making the thousands of shades aimlessly walking the streets more visible to the naked eye. They couldn't see her - thanks to the cloaking spell - but their wailing played on her nerves.
She wanted to keep going but when exhaustion started to pull at her heels, she spent the remainder of the night in Hell's equivalent of an underground garage. There were no cars but hundreds of shades huddling together to escape the cold above ground. The pitiful noises they made prevented her from getting more than a couple of hours of fitful rest.
She was walking again before whatever passed for dawn here; she still had a long way to go.
After crossing the Fields of Mourning - a trip that depressed her even more than she already was feeling - Toni spent the next night under a prickly bush. It had been the best protection against the cold she could find. She managed even less sleep than the night before.
Over the next week it became a routine: walking for as long as she could, interspersed with short periods of restless sleep. Knowing that no food consumed in Hades could pass into the mortal world, she could only eat when she really needed to, and then sparingly. This wasn't difficult; it was easy to eat very little when there was very little to eat. Fruit trees were surprisingly plentiful in Hades, even in the darker realms, but their fruit was sour and gave her a stomach ache. Still, she took what sustenance they offered before moving on.
Buffy sat on the floor of the basement, hugging her knees as she stared at the shimmering green portal. It was only the size of a soccer ball right now but she stared at it, waiting, hoping, that it would suddenly grow and spit out Faith and Toni.
"Have you even slept since she left?" Kennedy asked. She was laying on her front on Troy's bed, chin propped up on the back of her wrist as she watched Buffy watch the portal.
Troy was upstairs, taking advantage of the bed Faith hadn't used in six months. Buffy didn't care enough right now to stop him. He could be sleeping in her bed and she wouldn't give a crap. Not like she was using it.
"I had an hour last night when Giles was down here," she yawned now as she was reminded of the concept of sleep.
"I'll keep watch if you want to shut your eyes."
Buffy turned to her, surprised by the offer. "No, that's okay, but thanks." She smiled at the younger slayer. "And you don't have to babysit me either."
"It's not babysitting, it's keeping you company."
Buffy nodded and went back to watching the portal. They sat in silence for several minutes.
"So, if only one of them could come out of there, who would you want it to be?"
Buffy turned to Kennedy sharply. After a beat, she snapped, "I can't answer that."
"Sure you can. What name popped into your head before you decided you couldn't admit it to yourself?"
Buffy shook her head and stared at her knees.
"Well, who is it?"
"Fuck off, Kennedy." Buffy stood up and started pace again. "I can do without your company."
Kennedy rolled on to her back and laced her hands behind her head. "Sorry, can't leave. It's my turn to babysit."
Buffy growled and put a dent in the brick wall.
On the eighth day, or possibly the seventh or the ninth, Toni's cloak of invisibility started to fail.
Trudging monotonously along, she took no notice of a group of grey spiny devils digging trenches in the bare earth until one took notice of her.
He called out and she looked automatically. He was pointing directly at her.
Without pausing to think more than that, she started to sprint, her sword and the flask of potion slapping against her thighs.
Somehow she eventually outran them and, too scared to try and sleep that night, she climbed a bone white, leafless tree to keep watch until dawn. At some point fatigue forced her to doze and she woke up hours later with a colony of venomous ants using her as a shortcut across the branch.
Their poison made her weak and she had to stop walking many times that day to throw up the sickness inside.
"What do you think she's doing right now?" Buffy asked.
Xander was leaning against the wall at the bottom of the basement stairs. "I don't know, but I know you need to go take a shower."
"You've been down here five days, Buff! Trust me, no offense but nothing is smelling fine."
"Huh?" She sniffed herself. "Oh." She'd been wondering why he was keeping his distance. "I can't leave."
"I'll stay down here and keep an eye on that thing." He pointed at the small glowing disc.
She shook her head. "I can't leave."
It was a sheer drop. Toni stood on the top of the cliff looking down into a crevice in the ground that made the Grand Canyon look like a pot hole. She couldn't see to the bottom because of the thick layers of darkest night that covered it.
She knew there was no easy way down without needing too look. You didn't just wander casually into the deepest pit in hell. The best she could hope for was that there was some way down. After walking furtively for several hours along the cliff edge looking for a hidden path, or perhaps a ladder, - expecting to be discovered at any second - she gave up on that approach.
She drew Buffy's broadsword and, sitting down so that her legs were dangling over the edge, plunged it between her knees into the hard rock. Once she was sure it would take her weight, she pushed off of the edge until she was hanging from the hilt. When the initial fear-soaked rush had passed, she let go with one hand to feel around for something to grip with her fingers. Her feet sought out suitable cracks or lumps to hang on to as well. And then, pressing close to the cliff face, she used her extra adrenaline - and she had a lot of that right now - to pull the sword out of the rock and force it in again near her hip.
She repeated the dangling, the scrabbling precariously for purchase and the sword maneuver again and slowly, with her life flashing before her eyes in a constant repeating loop, she descended into the pit.
Exhaustion caused her to black out thirty feet from the ground and she fell, breaking her left leg as she landed awkwardly, still only half-conscious. The only luck was the sword falling with her, and landing within reach.
She reset the leg herself, grinding her teeth together to prevent herself from yelling out and attracting attention. After, sweating profusely from pain as much as the close, humid air, she lay with the sword gripped tightly in her hands in case she had to use it.
It took twelve hours for the bone to knit enough for her to stand and she killed four demons from her prone position that happened upon her in that time.
'Buffy would be proud,' she thought happily, but didn't have it in her to do more than grimace slightly less stiffly.
When a week had passed, Buffy had to admit defeat. Between her own over-ripeness and the natural funky smell of the basement it was getting hard to keep a serious vigil in front of the portal without gagging.
She'd insisted that Troy, Willow, Giles and Kennedy were in the basement while she took a quick shower. She figured with a God, a Witch, a Watcher and a Slayer down there they could handle anything that might go wrong.
Not that she knew what might go wrong, it wasn't like anything could go wrong on their end; she just needed to be down there. When both of them, or just one of them - she knew it was a possibility however much she hated to admit it - popped out of there, she needed to be the first thing they saw. And, God, did she need to see them!
She'd been prepared for a twenty-four hour wait but now it had been...way more hours! Nearly eight whole days! What were they doing down there? Her brain was filled with images of Toni dying painfully before she ever made it to Faith. Or of Faith being dead when she got there and Toni dying on the way back. How would she know? She could sit in front of that portal for six months and never know for sure whether they were ever coming back.
She showered fast but thoroughly. If she was going to spend another week down in the dankness under the house she wanted to be as fresh as morning dew first. She should probably take some air freshener down too. It would keep the place smelling a bit better and if they hadn't come back in another couple of weeks she could huff it and put herself out of this misery.
No sun ever penetrated the eternal night down here but the air was as hot as the hottest desert all the same.
Toni, exhausted to the point of falling over, cleaved an evil minion in two with the sword and snap-kicked another away from her. Buffy's lessons had proved very useful after all. If she ever made it out of this foul hole she would thank her in ways hitherto unknown by any human - if Buffy let her.
She leapt after the demonic being she had so far left alive and held the sword over it. "Tell me! Or suffer the fate of your brethren!"
Its hideous face turned left and right, seeing the many bloodied corpses of his species, and gurgled at the sword point digging into his throat.
"Tell me where the human is!" she demanded.
It was a long shot. The creatures down here didn't have a word for fear because they lived it every day of their lives. Death threats were just another day at the blood-pits for them. They responded to authority though and apparently Toni was exuding just enough of it.
The demon gurgled out what she needed to know.
"Don't you think they should be back by now?" Buffy was sitting halfway up the basement steps.
She had just taken her second shower in two weeks and was throwing a small bouncy ball up in the air and catching it, over and over again. The urgency of the mission had left her a few days ago and now depression had set it. It must have; it was the only explanation for why she was willingly having an amiable conversation with her arch-nemesis. And no, it wasn't Andrew.
"I would have hoped so, but it could have taken Toni several weeks to traverse Hades alone and I have no true knowledge of how vast Tartarus is."
Buffy threw the ball. It bounced once on the stone floor and then Troy, sitting on his cot, caught it.
"So you can't give me any kind of time-frame?" she asked. "Like, is it at least going to be sometime this month?"
"I would hope so." Troy bounced the ball between his feet a few times before throwing it. It bounced by the stairs and Buffy caught it. "I miss her too, you know."
"You don't deserve to miss her."
"That is irrelevant."
Buffy knew it was. She bounced the ball to him. "What's going to happen when they get here?"
"Faith will come back to me, she will give birth to my son and we will live forever as a happy family."
"No, I mean really?"
Troy bounced the ball back to her. "I do not know."
Toni was beginning to think she had been lied to when she reached the final cage and there was nothing but a pile of dirty white rags inside. She clenched her fists and spun around, prepared to find the exact same creature again and hack it slowly into pieces like she should have done before.
A soft whimper made her stop and turn back to the bars. She peered into the heavy, smoky gloom and thought she saw the rags twitch.
"Faith?" There was a louder whimper. "Faith, is that you?"
There was a barely audible growl of, "Fuck off!"
Toni still couldn't be sure. She walked around the cage, checking over her shoulder to make sure no one was coming. When she reached the bundle of white she could make out arms and legs, a thatch of greasy, matted dark hair and the tattered remains of what had once been a very inappropriate wedding dress.
"Leave me alone, asshole," the unmoving lump muttered.
"This is how you speak to your rescuer? I will never understand what Buffy sees in you."
"My rescuer? Hah, that's fucking rich." There was finally some emotion in Faith's voice - anger - to make her recognizable. "Like you rescued me yesterday, and the day before that? Bitch, if you wanna taunt me, then fuckin' taunt, but drop the buddy act. It's just getting boring - and I already got all the boring I need in this cage. So either get on with it or move the fuck on to harassing someone else."
Despite the antagonistic tone, Toni had been pleased at first. There was still passionate and articulate - well, as articulate as Faith had ever been - spirit in her. It would be much easier for the two of them to escape if Faith was not a broken shell Toni had to protect. But she may have been too hasty. Faith clearly wasn't quite right; at best she was just delusional from hunger and sleeplessness. At worst, she might be insane from whatever torment she had suffered down here.
"Faith, I have not seen you since the wedding."
"Yeah, you tried that one last week. Didn't buy it then either."
Toni took a step back and surveyed the cage. It was made of long, thick branches, grey with soot. It would hold any of the other wretched humans trapped down here but a Slayer should have been able to escape. Toni could probably snap them with a couple of punches. That told her much about Faith's mental state; if she wasn't crazy, why was she content to stay inside the cage?
She hunkered down beside the branch bars, closer to the motionless mound that was the Slayer, and spoke slowly. "No, it has been four weeks since I last saw you."
Faith made a noise like a tired game show buzzer. "Wrong! See, if you were really that bitch, you'd know my wedding was months ago."
"For you, si. Time moves faster down here. On Earth it has only been one month. Faith, look at me and see the truth."
"Didn't wanna look at you when you were real, really don't wanna look at you now."
"Do I not feel real?" Toni put her hand through the bars and touched Faith's shoulder.
The next thirty seconds passed very quickly and painfully. Faith shot up to her knees and Toni felt bony fingers close around her wrist. Her arm was twisted until the elbow locked and she was sure it was going to dislocate, but before that could become too much of a concern, Faith yanked her forward, forcing her hard into the bars. Long, deadly thorns sprouted from the branches, snagging in her clothes, then sank deep into her skin, making her cry out at the sharp, piercing pain.
"Said you could taunt, not touch!" Faith snapped, bending her arm back, making the thorns dig in deeper.
Toni cried out again, tears of pain clearing paths on her dirt-smudged cheeks. She turned her head away, felt the searching barbs prick her ear lobe and raised her other arm to protect her eyes.
"Shit!" Faith let go of her arm. "Shit. Tone?"
The pressure had gone but the inch long spines were still buried in the flesh of her arms, her shoulders, her chest and stomach. There was one poking through the thinnest sliver of skin at her neck like a needle at rest. Movement hurt, made it feel like the thorns were growing inside her, so she tried to stay as still as possible. It wasn't a good long-term plan she had to admit.
"What finally gave it away?" she grumbled, trying not to move her jaw too much.
"Ya never acted like such a pussy every time I did that before."
"Then obviously you are a pussy too. You are still in the cage."
"Yeah, after the first three dozen times I got stuck like that, I decided it was just damn less painful to stay put. Besides, I got bigger problems."
With great care and as little movement as possible, Toni began to extricate herself. The thorns had twisted inside her flesh and pulling away, however slowly, caused fresh blood to seep through her already red-stained t-shirt.
"It will be okay. Your problems are almost behind you now."
"I doubt that."
"It will not be easy, but despite your weakened state you obviously still have good reflexes. That bodes well for our escape."
"My reflexes probably won't be the problem."
Toni was finally free. She sat for a moment until the sharp pain dissolved into a mild burning sensation, then stood up.
"You think you will never get out of the cage?"
She drew her sword and proved Faith wrong with a few clean swipes. The cut branches fell to the ground harmlessly, giving Faith more than enough room to climb through.
"No, wasn't really thinking about the cage."
"Then you are concerned that your muscles have lost their strength? That you will not be able to fight the monsters that cross our path? That is not a problem. I have an invisibility potion that should last us until we are out of Tartarus at least."
"Okay." Faith finally stood up. "Did you bring enough for three?"
Toni saw her large, rounded belly for the first time. "Merda!"
"I'd say that about sums it up, yeah."
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