The Wolf watched the sacrifice, and the sacrifice watched the clock, a sharp kitchen knife held in her lap. When the minute changed, she lifted the knife to her neck and slashed hard. There was time, before she lost consciousness, to question the act. She had felt fine, she thought, when she woke up this morning. For how long had she meant to do this? Why had the digits on the clock become her signal to end her life?
She saw the Wolf, naked and hungry, standing over her as she lay in her blood on the floor, and then her eyes closed and did not open again. The Wolf’s jaws lowered to her throat.
The phone rang in the early morning, and Giles woke up wondering, as he often did, if he was about to learn of a death.
It was Faith, calling from Cleveland -- five hours behind, meaning she hadn’t yet gone to sleep. Her voice was apologetic, but tense. “Willow wants to talk to both of us. She’s coming to you, if you’re okay with that.”
“Yes,” said Giles, reaching first for his glasses and then his dressing gown and slippers. He went out to the parlor holding the cordless phone, and found Willow already there. She was sitting on the couch, looking almost natural except for the way the light hit her. In fact, he could see places where it was going right through her.
She greeted him with a small, “Hi,” but he could only answer, “Willow, are you quite alright? You look…”
“Translucent?” she suggested. “Yeah. I’m under some strain. Is Faith on the line?”
He picked up the parlor telephone, set it on speaker, and turned off the cordless. Faith’s voice came through and cut straight to the chase. “We had another murder in town. Want to fill him in, Red?”
Another murder. Cleveland. Hellmouth. Buffy and Angel. Giles wanted to ask about them, but he knew that he would only interrupt the relevant news. “She was ripped apart like all the others,” Willow said. “All alone like the others. Along the same path as the others.”
Faith’s breath gave the room a second of static. “Spike and I are at the scene, but the cops won’t talk to us. Willow, I thought you’d plotted out the spiral so we would know when the next one was coming. Did you misplace a digit or something?”
“I misplaced a whole life,” Willow confessed. Giles noticed that her face was streaked with drying tears. “It must have been a, a homeless person, or someone nobody knew about. It wasn’t in the news. The sequence is further along than we thought.”
“Can you recalculate to account for it?” asked Giles.
She nodded. “But, Giles, this isn’t about getting our strike team into the right place at the right time. The death roll will keep gaining momentum as long as the Wolf has control of at least one human body. Soon he won’t even have to send assassins; the deaths will just happen, and all he has to do is take his host to the center of the spiral and be there when it terminates.” She drew a deep breath, then looked at him, and at the phone, with an oddly defiant expression. “Isn’t anyone going to ask what happens if he completes the quest? Or is it too obvious that he’ll be invincible and we’re all doomed?”
It was no wonder she looked so tired, Giles thought. She must have been researching incessantly, in addition to projecting herself all over the world to communicate with everyone, if she had come up with this much knowledge on the ritual in play.
There was a brief pause, and then Faith said, “So we’ll skip the strike team crap and go straight for the host.”
Willow stared at the floor. “How? We don’t even know who it is.”
“We have a decent lead,” Giles noted. “Two, in fact. Buffy called tonight…” he looked at the clock. “Er, last night. The owner of the club where the spiral will end is a man named Dameon Wolfe. A bit on the nose, but I would be even more surprised to find it was coincidence.”
“Howell doesn’t exactly look like a coincidence either,” said Willow. “Oz put me in touch with him, and he called me yesterday and said he knew how the ritual was supposed to work and he didn’t know how he knew. And neither of them are werewolves.”
Faith groaned. “Well, do they have to be?” Her voice became more distant for a moment as she spoke to someone on her end of the call: “I know, I’m talking to them right now. Hold on.”
Giles shook his head. He hadn’t sat down yet, and he realized that he was subconsciously hoping that his “guests” would leave before it was worth getting comfortable for the conversation. “No,” he said. “Buffy’s dream featured werewolves, but we don’t know if that’s of any importance.”
“It’s probably of any importance,” Willow countered.
“Okay, so what are we supposed to do about it?” Faith pressed her.
Willow’s form left the couch and paced the room, losing a little more opacity as it did. “I don’t know! You’re the one in Cleveland! Tell Buffy, tell Angel. Make Spike start earning his keep. Oz can get the wolfpack on your side. We’re running out of time. This is a virus. It’s only going to spread.”
There was a pause, with some unclear sounds coming from the speakerphone, and then Faith said, “Spike wants to know if the person the Wolf chose as his human body still has their soul.”
“Oh, Spike is the one concerned about that?” Willow snapped.
Giles cleared his throat and gave her a reproachful look, then answered Faith himself. “As far as we understand it, yes. But as the condition means progressive corruption, it seems that allowing a clean retreat to the afterlife would be the greatest act of mercy we can deliver.”
Both of the girls went silent. It crossed his mind that Faith was a disembodied voice, and Willow was a psychic projection. He was, in fact, alone in his own home.
He went into the kitchen and put the kettle on.