‘Oh dear,’ Fred said.
Wesley peered over her shoulder and out the window. ‘Oh my. This is bad. This is very dire indeed.’
‘It’s everywhere now.’
Wesley nodded. ‘The magic seems to have accelerated at an alarming rate. It’s almost doubled its distance. It makes one wonder ...’
‘What? Makes you wonder what, Wesley?’
‘It makes me wonder if it will ever stop. We could be looking at a global catastrophe. Zombies taking over the world. Fred, call everyone together. They’re too spread out. Anything they can do now will be ineffectual.’
‘What are you going to do?’
‘I’m going to call the Coven again.’
At the back of the shop, seated at the table, the goth girl raised her hand. ‘Is it time to break out the herbs yet? Because it sounds like I’ve got some catching up to do.’
Angel and Cordelia had blocked up the only corridor that led down to the morgue. Several doctors, nurses, hospital porters, even a patient, provided the human stopper along with a desk, three filing cabinets, and a swivel chair on wheels that was completely pointless.
Angel hung up his cell phone and marched over to the reception desk. ‘You,’ he said to the woman behind it. She was short and round, with a mop of curly grey hair and a clipboard. ‘You’re in charge.’
‘No, that would be Mr Parkinson.’
‘Not today. It’s quiet now, but there are more bodies in the deep freeze. They might stay that way, but they might not. You need to make sure that barrier stays in place.’
She nodded, her expression irritated as though she didn’t appreciate a young monkey like Angel stating the obvious. What was obvious about any of this was beyond Angel’s comprehension.
‘You seem to know an awful lot about this. What’s going on? Is it a disease?’
‘Yes,’ Cordelia cut in. She extended her hand over the desk. ‘Cordelia Chase, head, uh, specialist person at the STD.’
‘CDC,’ Angel whispered, not without a hint of waspishness.
‘Of course, Doctor Angel. Just testing the toxin hasn’t addled your already tiny little brain. Listen, sister, nurse, reception person, whatever, this ... disease is new.’
‘You don’t say, honey.’
‘Right, well, it’s new so we don’t know what effects it has.’
‘It reanimates the already dead,’ Angel interrupted, ‘but we have no idea about anyone who dies after exposure. You need to liaise with every department head and quarantine anyone who dies.’
‘In case they get up again and attack us,’ the woman said in a disbelieving tone. Sometimes Angel wondered exactly what it would take to open these people’s eyes. Actually, he really didn’t want to know.
‘Exactly. If you can quarantine and secure them, great, if not, you need to sever the head from the body or break the neck.’
‘I know, it sounds difficult. Cordy, give her your mace. Breaking a neck is easier than it sounds—’
‘I know that, I’m a nurse!’ She snatched the mace, and Angel wondered if a nurse knowing exactly how to break a neck was a comforting thought or not. He wasn’t going to stick around to think about it.
‘Why aren’t we staying?’ Cordelia said as she chased after him.
Angel pushed through the fire exit and jogged down the stairs.
‘Because the spell is nearly ready and the walking dead are starting to overrun.’
‘So? They’ll be everywhere soon anyway. What does it matter?’
‘It matters because they’re about to overrun down main street. If they reach The Magic Box, we’re all screwed.’
All around him, grass tumbled and dirt shifted. A terrible stench rose into the air and Xander gagged on it. The vampires weren’t playing anymore; they were fighting for their lives. The crying, the sobbing and screaming around him was loud enough to send a man mad, but Xander felt angry. Too noisy. He couldn’t hear Anya. Was she awake? Was she trying to get out? Should he help her, start digging down?
Earth from the grave next to him built up into a mound and spilled like a volcano. The ground quaked and Xander ignored the hands clawing at the earth on his other side.
‘Anya, I’m sorry. We’ll stop this. I promise. You have to believe me. You have to—’
Xander fell sideways. His face crushed hard into the ground and he felt a great weight digging into his side.
‘It hurts! Oh sweet Lord, it hurts so much. I’ll kill you!’
Xander twisted onto his back and shoved hard. The zombie, a middle aged man, brown suit hanging from his withered and bony body, fell back hard. It was difficult to tell with all the surrounding noise, but Xander was sure he heard bones breaking. And by the zombie’s scream, Xander was doubly sure with bells on.
He scrambled away and another body lunged at him. He stumbled but kept his balance and staggered to his sword. He yanked it from the ground and spun back, his blade slicing decomposed flesh and brittle bone.
The brown-suited zombie climbed unsteadily to its feet. It couldn’t straighten now and stood in a stoop worthy of the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Xander charged it without allowing himself to think and the zombie’s head spun into the air.
He tried to turn back to Anya’s grave, but he was shoved to the ground again. ‘What is this, Night of the Living Dead or skittles? Get off me!’ He pushed it away and swiped with the sword, but his aim was haphazard and wonky, and the zombie lurched and fell. Instead of slicing through the zombie’s neck, Xander’s blade went straight through its chest. The sword was stuck.
‘Oh no, oh crap. Why couldn’t you be all squishy and breakable like the last guy? Nobody likes a hard-ass, you know.’ He pulled at the sword, bracing his foot on the zombie’s chest.
‘What’s happening to us?’ croaked a voice to Xander’s left. A young man, or at least he had been once, leaned on Anya’s headstone. He examined his arm with close scrutiny, his mouth hanging open in a shocked and grotesque fashion. ‘What is this? Why do I hurt?’
‘Um, no easy answer to that, but if you’d care to take a number and wait until I’m done here, I’ll sure try to give a full and accurate brief.’ Xander pulled on the sword and in the distance two more zombies turned slowly towards him.
He could chance a run, charge a path through them. Mostly they were entranced by the furiously battling vampires. But Xander had the attention of three, four if you counted the one pinned to the ground by his sword. That guy was pretty darn rapt.
‘Did you do this? Did you give us this pain?’
Xander heaved at the sword and finally it gave way and slid free.
The young zombie leapt. ‘I’m rotting! You did this me! I’LL KILL YOU!’
Xander backed up quickly, his sword catching on the ground and making him stumble. He picked it up and swung it back.
The previously skewered zombie bit down into Xander’s thigh. It stung and shocked him, and again he couldn’t get his swing right. The young zombie dodged the blow and threw itself at him.
Xander fell back, his sword dropping to the ground and his head smacking against Anya’s tombstone. His vision clouded, turned purple and wispy and, above him, a pale face opened its rotting mouth and screamed.
‘Anya,’ Xander said, and then he passed out.
Dawn swung hard. This guy was tall, fresh, walked straight and high, and Dawn had to jump to get the angle she needed to separate the head from the shoulders. She felt the burn of aching muscles in her biceps and her fingers cramped from the tense grip she had on the handle of her sword.
Loosen up, she thought to herself. The sword is you, you are the sword, blah blah. No, actually, you’re just you, the sword is just a sword but this is your town and you’re gonna hack away all night and all day if you have to and when every single zombie is back in the Land of the Dead you’re gonna go home, take a long hot bubble bath, force Spike to make you his hot chocolate Special, and treat yourself to an evening of Spongebob.
‘You’re standing between me and my cartoons!’ she yelled, and swung her sword at the next dude in line. Its head sailed through the air and landed with an audible squish.
She took several steps back and surveyed the scene before her. Twenty walking bodies, most of them staring right at her, a few of them just staring. They were at the top of main street. The zombies had overrun the cemetery and they were determined to get to a more civilised area. Maybe they were looking for familiarity? Dawn was damn sure that if she woke up from the dead, the first thing she would do is get out of the cemetery. They second thing she would do is get some decent concealer because, boy, green-tinge was not a good spring look.
Beside her, Gunn grunted, swung, swore and turned to the next zombie. ‘Too many,’ he said, and lifted his chin towards the top end of the street. More walking dead emerged, this time from the other direction.
‘Revello Street Cemetery must be overrun, too,’ Gunn said, and lopped off another head. The zombie behind it bared wobbly, brown teeth and ran towards them.
‘Jesus!’ Gunn and Dawn sidestepped, but this one was faster than the others, more alert. This one didn’t lumber. This one laughed.
‘You will know death,’ it sneered. ‘You will know our pain. KILL YOU!’
It stretched its arms out, rotted sleeves dangling, fingers bony and clawed. It charged at Gunn, quick like a panther, seized his neck before he could so much as flinch. His sword dropped to the ground with a clatter and his eyes bulged and watered. The zombie sunk its teeth into his neck.
Dawn fought to get to him. She hacked at several zombies in her way, sliced off the head of one lumbering past her and ran screaming towards Gunn. It was the cry of a warrior, and Dawn didn’t care if she sounded like Captain Caveman.
Accidentally cutting off Gunn’s head would be a big whoops, so Dawn charged and ran the zombie through with her sword. It relaxed its grip and Gunn wrenched free.
‘Thanks,’ he said, and swept his sword from the ground and brought it crashing down through the fallen zombie’s neck.
‘This is not good,’ Dawn said. More zombies appeared at the top of the street, too many, and they were moving faster. ‘It’s like they’re waking up.’
‘You top of your class?’
‘I mean it’s like they start out groggy and they wake up. They’re getting quicker, stronger.’
Gunn nodded. ‘Where the hell are the others?’
‘Angel and Cordy are on their way. I haven’t heard from Spike and Xander.’ She said that firmly, confidently. They were okay. They were always okay.
The zombies staggered down the street. They pounded on store doors, smashed the windows, tore at each other.
The Magic Box was two hundred yards away. They couldn’t be allowed to reach it.
Nothing ruined a perfectly good paintjob like a squashed zombie. It rolled over the hood and Angel groaned. ‘I should have swerved,’ he said.
‘Yeah, and I should have moved to Hawaii and got a tattoo on my butt; deal with it.’
Angel glanced over at her. ‘Tattoo?’
They passed one of the larger cemeteries. It was crawling with the undead. The vampires and a smattering of demons were holding them back, but Angel wasn’t confident they would have the upper hand for long.
If the New York Coven came up with something good, hopefully it wouldn’t matter.
He swerved around the next zombie, briefly mounting the sidewalk.
The turning for main street was just up ahead, but if he took the left turning it would lead them to—
‘Don’t even think about it.’
‘Spike might need help. And how did you know what I was thinking?’
She looked at him and her expression was sad enough that Angel had to turn away. He kept his eyes on the road in front and gripped the steering wheel tighter.
‘Spike will take care of her,’ Cordelia said. ‘The others need us.’
‘But what if—?’
‘Leave it, Angel.’
‘And Xander, we haven’t heard from him either.’
‘You saw the cemetery. It’s overrun like the others. If he got out, he’s on his way. If he didn’t ... No, he got out and he’s waiting for us, so let’s just shut up and finish this.’
Angel said nothing. He watched the road and prepared himself. The odds were bad and he wasn’t sure he’d ever had worse.
The lights were out, candles lit, and the herbs were burning in a large brass censor. Beside it, a rat with its belly cut open in one long slit twitched and died. In the centre of the table, a white crystal glowed and throbbed in the dim light.
‘This is cool,’ the goth said, and Fred wrinkled her nose and gave her a dirty look over the top of her glasses.
‘Shh,’ said Wesley. ‘The timing must be perfect.’ He picked up the rat and watched the clock closely. The little hand steadily counted the seconds. ‘Start the incantation,’ he said, and the three of them repeated the few lines they’d spent the last fifteen minutes memorising and practicing.
The little hand ticked. The rat leaked blood over Wesley’s fingers.
Xander woke to the vague sensation of movement. It wasn’t that everything was moving around him, it was he who was moving. He was being dragged. Consciousness quickly gripped him and he struggled, struck out with elbows and fists. Something connected with something and he fell to the ground.
‘Oh god, Anya ...’ He forced his eyes open and came face to face with Spike.
‘It’s not Anya, it’s me. Come on. We’ve got to get out of here.’
‘Wait, wait, what?’ Xander sat up, or rather was yanked up. The cemetery spun and Spike went around and around with it. ‘Need to barf.’
‘Hold it in.’ Spike stopped spinning, but then he seemed to spin a different way and then Spike wasn’t quite so fuzzy anymore and he was hacking a short-sword through someone’s throat. She was tall and thin, golden blonde hair wispy with age.
‘Anya, no!’ Xander turned away and threw up. It burned his throat, but his heart hurt more. It was pounding in his chest, as though it had been pierced by that very same short-sword. ‘Oh gods, oh gods.’ His stomach heaved again and he retched until he thought his heart and his head might explode. ‘You killed her, you killed her, you—.’
‘No!’ Spike squatted down in front him. ‘It wasn’t her.’
Xander shook his head. This was all too much. He couldn’t think straight, could barely breathe. ‘It was. I saw her.’
‘You didn’t. Come on, we’ve got to keep going. This place is crawling.’
‘I saw her. She ... Where is she? She was right here.’
‘No!’ Spike took Xander’s face in his hands and turned him towards Anya’s grave. ‘She didn’t rise, love. I don’t know why, but she didn’t.’
Xander squinted at the grave, pushed Spike away and got to his feet. It was undisturbed, a small patch of peace amongst so much chaos. ‘Anya,’ he whispered, and turned back to Spike. ‘Why?’
Spike shrugged. ‘No idea.’
‘But ... are you sure she’s ... dead? Maybe she’s alive again and can’t get out. Those coffins are tough.’
‘I’d hear her. She’s still at peace, love, I swear.’
Xander shook his head. Could he really be that lucky? He had a sudden thought.
‘Didn’t rise either.’
Xander didn’t get time to question it. A zombie that had been lumbering somewhere behind Spike shook its head and turned to face them. It made a noise like a snarl and ran at them, arms outstretched, screaming, greenish fluid spilling and splattering from its lips.
‘DEAD! YOU’LL BE DEAD!’
It was fast, too fast even for Spike, and the two of them went down in a tangle of fangs and fury. It attached itself to Spike’s cheek and bit down. Spike cried out in shock and pain and his blood spattered Xander’s face as he dropped to his knees to help his lover.
Where was his sword? Where was Spike’s? Too quick. It was happening too quickly. Pressure on his back. Dirty breath tainting his face and neck. Xander tried to throw it off. Too strong.
Spike stabbed with the short sword, his angle awkward, so Xander snatched it, delivered a powerful blow to the zombie behind him and then carved though Spike’s attacker until it flailed once and went still.
‘We need to get the hell out of here,’ Spike said, his cheek almost black with blood. ‘Right bloody now.’
The street was packed with bodies and unfortunately most of them were still standing. The air reeked of decay. Angel could taste it at the back of his throat, tangy, sweet.
They came from both ends now, faster, angry. They broke everything they touched, such was their rage.
Angel ran them down, bowling them over like decomposing tenpins. Fuck the paintwork, he thought, and slammed on the brakes. He put the car into reverse and sped over the ones he’d missed.
‘Now!’ he said, and wrenched open the door. Cordelia did the same and together they finished off the ones still on their feet. It wasn’t long before the ones they’d first run down started to stir, and they pulled themselves to their feet, agony painting their faces. Angel shook his head, dismayed, and finished the job.
‘Glad you could finally join us!’ Gunn called over. He and Dawn were covered in blood and fluids, filthy with dirt and decay. ‘They’re closing in!’
Angel glanced back at The Magic Box. The living dead ambled towards it, groaning with pain, reaching for something: relief, revenge? Maybe they could sense the magic. Above them, the sky crackled and flashed.
‘Uh-oh,’ Dawn said.
The zombies paused, blinked slowly and deliberately, ignored the fluids dribbling from their lips.
‘Did Wes fix it?’ Cordelia asked.
Gunn shook his head. ‘They’re still standing and the sky is still psychedelic so I’m going with a no on that.’
It was like someone had flicked a switch. One minute they were doing their zombie thing and the next they were standing around like they were weighing up the pros and cons of the weather.
And that moment, everything changed again. The sky cracked and fizzed and Angel felt the magic rush down his spine. He kept his grip tight on the hilt of his sword and felt pain consume him. It hurt to be dead. It hurt to exist, a paradox of his own condition. Alive yet dead. Walking but not breathing. His heart and lungs screamed for life and his body denied them. Neurons fired in his brain over and over and over and over. Start, go, breathe. Live. His body was on the edge of life, but he knew it could never be so. He was taunted, tortured. Life was flooding every pore, every cell, but it was like oil and water, blood and oblivion.
Angel felt nothing but pure rage.
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.
Wesley’s fingers trembled and the rat wobbled in the palm of his hand. The groaning had turned to screaming, and the windows and door shook as they were impacted from outside. Then the door slammed open and Angel stood in the opening, panting, his eyes yellow and his top lip curled up in a snarl.
The rat trembled and Wesley reached for a golden dagger.
Main street was swarming with bodies, some lying inert, some dragging themselves along the ground, but most screaming and running, throwing themselves at the buildings, tearing open doors, jumping through windows, ripping apart everything they could reach.
Spike yanked the steering wheel hard and slammed on the brakes to clear a path through them. At least that’s what he meant to do. Instead he drove the DeSoto straight into The Espresso Pump. He hoped Xander was thirsty.
‘Spike? Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!’
‘’M fine. Go. They need help.’
‘You’re not fine. Clearly. You’re even paler than usual and you’ve gone extra toothy.’
‘It’s the magic. It’s doing something to me.’
Xander just stared at him, horrified, and Spike didn’t want to imagine all the things that were going through his head, because they were probably the same as the things in his own head. The magic was changing him, twisting him. It was like his very being was buckling, the contradiction of his existence for the first time exposed. He could feel his heart trying to beat, but it couldn’t. It was on the cusp and it hurt. Life was right there. He could feel it. He could smell it on Xander. He wanted to touch it, feed on it, make him pay for it.
Immense pain. Denied life, Spike felt only fury.
Love to kitty_poker1, the best beta in Spander Land and beyond. Thanks also to literati and amejisuto for their help and encouragement.