“All finished,” Drusilla reported. “I have woven a web of enchantments about the castle.” She moved her arms in sinuous waving motions and wiggled her fingers. “If anyone tries to sneak in then alarms will sound. They’ll go ‘miao, miao’, like pussies.”
“Good work,” Angel said. “I like to know that my perimeter is protected. Hey, I wonder why Giles never had Miss Calendar or Willow do that? It would have been useful. Not that it would have saved him from me, as I just walked in the front door, but it could have come in handy when we were fighting The Master’s gang, or the Anointed One’s bunch, or Chopstick. When I was on Giles’ side, that is.”
“I don’t know, Angel-kun. Perhaps they didn’t want to sacrifice the cats.”
“Cats? How many?”
“Fifteen,” Drusilla told Angel. “It’s a big castle.”
“Do you still have the bodies, Dru-chan?” Angel asked. “I know this guy, name of Clem, he has a Korean restaurant. Cats…”
A tremendous ‘boom’ interrupted his speech. The whole castle trembled. Windows shattered. A lantern fell from the audience chamber’s ceiling.
“The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” Drusilla shrieked.
Angel shook his head. “No, Dru-chan. It’s them. Someone set up us the bomb.”
The smoke cleared and Chopstick saw that the castle gates had been blown from their hinges. One of the yagura towers at the side of the gates had partially collapsed and rubble from the structure littered the gateway.
Chopstick turned to Wesley, who had provided the gunpowder and set the charges, and he frowned. “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”
Angel heard the mewing of the dead cats and rolled his eyes. It was blatantly obvious that the enemy was here and the alarms had been a complete waste of time. He roared commands and sent a body of spearmen rushing out to do battle with the attackers. A mob of mercenary ronin was already in the courtyard and Buffy’s group was massively outnumbered. The English sailors had set up their cannon to cover the gates and they were preparing to fire as soon as they had a clear shot.
“Chopstick’s gonna get slaughtered,” Angel gloated. “A frontal attack was a dumb move. The only down side is that we probably won’t get to take Buffy and the gaijin girl alive. Oh well, I got you babe, and Travers will just have to be satisfied with a cathedral.”
Drusilla tilted her head to one side and a frown crept over her face. “We face seven samurai,” she reminded Angel. “In all the legends seven righteous samurai never lose. Remember that one just man may become an army.”
Angel rolled his eyes. “Only in a world very different from our own, Dru-chan. Those are just stories. It’s not gonna happen. For a start, those guys are not samurai, and two of them are gaijin. Secondly, I have nine dozen wicked men on my side, not counting the guards we inherited from Giles, and my latest recruits are the famous Forty-seven Ronin led by Kenji Mizoguchi. Chopstick and Buffy are doomed.” The clash of swordplay from the courtyard was interrupted by a scream of agony and a wail of despair. Angel grinned triumphantly and turned to look in that direction. The grin was gone when he turned back to Drusilla. “Oh my ancestors! They’ve killed Kenji!”
The falling gates had crushed several of Angel’s men beneath their heavy timbers. Flying splinters of wood and pieces of rock felled others. The remainder of the newly-recruited mercenary ronin rushed headlong to the gate to meet the attackers. Chopstick and Buffy strode to the attack, closely followed by Wesley and Ampata, and swords flashed in deadly combat. Blood spurted and severed limbs flew. The attackers were unstoppable. When their leader fell the remaining ronin turned and fled. The way was clear for the baby-cart to enter.
Xander and Dalton propelled the vehicle between the gates and into the courtyard. Oz sat in the baby-cart and leveled a harquebus. He fired, felling a bowman, and snatched up the second gun. One of Angel’s harquebusiers fired in reply. The shot ricocheted from the baby-cart’s iron plates. Oz ignored the man, who would take half a minute to reload the cumbersome weapon, and instead shot at one who had not yet fired. He dropped his empty harquebus and picked up his paired kama ready for close combat. Ahead a score of spearmen were assembling into a phalanx. They saw the onrushing armored cart, deadly blades protruding from its sides, and quailed.
Angel strode out into the courtyard. “Let’s go to work,” he declaimed. He saw the cannon swing into position, aiming directly at the baby-cart, and saw Gunner Phillip turning the elevation screw while Gunner’s Mate Nigel held a torch ready to give fire. Angel rushed to the cannon and grabbed away the torch. “Personally, I always wanted to slay a wagon,” he said, and applied the flame to the touchhole. The priming charge ignited. A second later the cannon roared and its ball hurtled directly towards the baby-cart. The aim was true.
The elevation, however, was less accurate. The ball went low and passed under the cart. Oz was completely unscathed. Not so Dalton. Two pounds of hot iron struck him below the knee and sheared off his leg.
Cordelia probed the mechanism of the lock with the kanzashi hairpin from Harmony’s taka shimada hairstyle. Her tongue protruded from her mouth as she concentrated. Something moved within the lock and she was able to move the hairpin with less resistance. The tongue of the lock shifted and slid inwards. The door creaked open.
Cordelia peered out. There were no guards in the corridor. She opened the door wide and the five girls crept out of the cell. They crossed the passage and went to Giles’ door. Willow laid her hands upon the lock. “No wards on this one,” she reported. Cordelia inserted the hairpin into the keyhole and went to work once more. Within a minute she had sprung the lock.
Giles emerged, limping slightly, and beamed at the girls. “You’ve all done very well.”
Xander strained against the shafts to keep up the baby-cart’s momentum. Oz leaped down and joined him. Ampata knelt beside Dalton and examined his dreadful wound. Gunner’s Mate Nigel swabbed the barrel of the cannon. Gunner Phillip inserted a linen cartridge of gunpowder. Nigel rammed it home. The baby-cart thundered onwards towards the spearmen.
Buffy had acquired a bow from the body of one of Olaf’s men outside The Bonze. She unslung it from her shoulder, nocked an arrow, drew, and loosed. Phillip was raising a cannon-ball to the muzzle of the Falcon when her arrow struck him in the middle of the back. He arched in agony, dropped the cannon-ball, and fell to his knees.
Chopstick had seen Dalton fall and his face was now twisted into a snarl of berserk fury. He charged across the courtyard in the wake of the baby-cart and was right behind the vehicle when it slammed into the spear phalanx. Yari shafts splintered. Spearmen were bowled over or knocked aside. Chopstick leaped into the gap and his katana whirled and flashed. He killed eight men in five seconds and panic spread through the survivors.
Wesley shot a bowman on the walkway of the outer walls.
Angel dropped the torch and seized the fallen cannon-ball. He thrust it into the cannon’s muzzle. Nigel pushed the ball home with the rammer and then began to prime the cannon. Buffy put an arrow through his neck and killed him instantly. Angel heaved at the gun carriage, forcing it round, until he guessed that it was pointing at the now stationary baby-cart. Chopstick, Oz, and Xander were all close to their war wagon, fighting furiously. Angel spun the elevating wheel and the muzzle of the gun lifted. He picked up the torch, whirled it through the air to fan the flame, and brought it down to the touchhole. If he scored a hit then pieces would no doubt fly from the armor of the cart and inflict dreadful wounds on all in the vicinity. That this would include several of his own men didn’t matter to him at all. The important thing was to kill Chopstick.
The plaintive notes of a shakuhachi flute echoed through the dungeon corridors. Giles brandished a leg broken from a bench and Cordelia raised Harmony’s hairpin as if it were a dagger. That was the group’s entire armory of weapons. Willow and Jenny readied such defensive spells as they could muster with the pathetically inadequate components available to them. Harmony and Amber poised themselves for flight, although there was only one way out of the dungeons, and so there really wasn’t any avenue of escape.
The figure that came into view, however, did not look particularly threatening. A small man in shabby robes, with a basket-weave hat obscuring his face, and sock-sandals on his feet. He lowered the flute and bowed to Giles.
“Chancellor Flutie-san? Is that you?” Giles asked. The twin furrows that appeared between his eyebrows would have served as a good starting point for a hillside rice farm. “I thought that you were dead.”
The flautist tilted back his hat to display an entirely unfamiliar face. “Why does everybody think that I’m Flutie?”
“Uh, could be because of the flute?” Willow suggested.
“Look, the guy was a good Chancellor, but he’s dead, okay? Accidentally eaten to death after he slipped and fell into the Sumo wrestlers’ chankonabe pot. My name’s Whistler.”
“Well, you totally should play a shinobue instead of a shakuhachi,” said Cordelia. “Or you could try actually whistling. You do know how to whistle, right? You just put your lips together and… blow.”
“That goes ‘pfffft’,” Whistler pointed out. “Enough of the music discussion already, okay? I got some important information for you.”
“You are not someone whom I have seen in this castle before my, ah, overthrow,” Giles said. “You must therefore be one of Angel’s men.”
“Nice logic, but totally wrong,” said Whistler. “I’m a mystic monk and it’s my job to guide the good guys in their fight against evil forces from the spirit realm.”
“From the spirit realm?” Giles put his hand to his forehead and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Surely we face no such evil forces? Unless Angel is possessed by some spirit summoned up by Drusilla.”
“That’s not Drusilla’s thing, Giles-sama,” Whistler said. “No, nothing supernatural about Angel. He’s just an asshole. It’s that stone demon that you have locked in your treasure vault that’s gotten me involved.”
“Acathla?” Giles lowered his hand. “Oh dear. It’s a gateway to the demon realm, I believe. Don’t tell me that Angel intends to open it?”
“If I don’t tell you that it kinda makes my whole sneaking into the castle gig a little pointless,” said Whistler. “That’s what I came here to tell you.”
“I warned Drusilla of the danger it poses,” Giles said.
Jenny’s eyes flashed. “That little… conversation is something that we’re gonna have a long talk about later.”
Giles avoided her gaze. “She tricked me. I thought that she was you.”
Cordelia performed an eye-roll worthy of black belt status. “Hello? Demon invasion imminent, people. Can we leave the lovers’ quarrel for later?”
“Indeed. If Angel is so stupid as to withdraw the sword from Acathla we will all suffer a truly dreadful fate. How can it be stopped?” Giles asked.
“Best case, stop him from pulling out the sword in the first place,” Whistler replied. “If he pulls it out and Acathla wakes up then we’re in deep trouble. Then only way to close it is to decapitate Angel with Celestial Fury itself.”
“But he will be holding the sword,” Giles pointed out, “and the wielder of the Honda Fireblade is virtually invincible.”
Whistler nodded. “Give the Shogun a cigar,” he said. “I said we’d be in deep trouble. You pass the message on to Buffy and Chopstick. I’m not going anywhere near the fighting. I have this allergy to being shot or stabbed.”
“Buffy and… Chopstick?” Giles’ eyebrows soared as if they were kites of bamboo and silk. “The same Chopstick who is our deadly enemy? Who Angel claimed to have slain, and who at the very least must have been grievously injured?”
Whistler tipped his hat forwards once more, hiding his face, and slid the mouthpiece of the flute under the basketwork. “Chopstick’s not that bad a guy,” he said. “He’s Angel’s enemy, not yours. And Buffy fixed him right up. They’re working together on this. Who do you think is storming the castle?” Whistler began to play his plaintive tune again. He turned and walked slowly away.
“This is all very perplexing,” said Giles. “Wait a moment, Whistler-san. And will you stop playing that music when I’m trying to talk to you?”
Whistler ignored the Shogun and proceeded onwards around the corner of the corridor. Giles limped after him with the girls following at his heels. The music stopped. “That’s better,” Giles said, and turned the corner. He stopped dead in his tracks. Harmony walked into his back and nearly knocked him over. “I say!” Giles exclaimed. “Remarkable!”
Whistler had vanished.
Angel brought the torch down towards the cannon’s touchhole. An arrow streaked through the air and pierced his forearm. The point emerged on the other side in a welter of blood. The torch dropped to the ground and rolled away.
Angel stared for a moment at the bloody arrow transfixing his arm and then spun to face the archer. His jaw dropped as he realized that it was Buffy. “You shot me! How could you do that?”
“Really not that hard,” said Buffy, nocking another shaft. “You just pull back the string and let go.” She did just that. Angel dived for cover behind the cannon and avoided death or injury by mere inches.
“You don’t have to do this, Buffy-chan,” Angel called out. “Give yourself up. I don’t want to hurt you. You will be my favorite geisha.”
“And, what, share you with Drusilla? So not seeing the attraction.” Buffy cast the bow aside and pulled out her katana. She advanced and maneuvered around the cannon.
“At least you’d be alive,” Angel said, scrambling away. “You can’t possibly win. I have plenty of reserves. You’re gonna get wiped out by sheer weight of numbers.”
“Newsflash, Angel-san,” Buffy said. “I don’t have to fight them all. You just have to die. Then they have nothing to fight for. Giles can step right back into the Shogun’s sandals.”
“Shimata!” Angel cursed. She was right. His men were not hereditary samurai who would avenge him after his death. The Shogunate guards were loyal to the position, not to the man, and they would revert to being Giles’ men. The mercenary ronin fought for whoever paid them and would have no reason to fight on. The remnants of the ninja and yakuza followed Drusilla rather than Angel himself. However it had been Chopstick who had taken over the clan after slaying the Anointed One and strictly speaking it was to him that their allegiance was owed. If the Shogunate forces changed sides the ninja were likely to do exactly the same.
Angel’s eyes widened as he suddenly realized that his grasp on the Shogunate could be so easily broken. He should never have come out from the keep to join in the fighting. He had to get away, get back inside behind a screen of expendable warriors, and let them dispose of the threat to his position. First he had to get away from Buffy and that wasn’t going to be easy. With one arm badly wounded he would be at a considerable disadvantage if he pitted his two-handed Ôdachi against her katana. He needed an edge.
His evasive maneuvers brought him up against the pile of two-pounder cannon balls. He seized hold of one, whipped his arm around, and threw it at Buffy. The projectile struck her in the chest and knocked her to the ground. Angel rose to his feet and took a single step towards her. He put his unwounded hand to the hilt of his sword. Instinct warned him of danger and he looked around. Chopstick was running towards him at full speed, katana held high, and an expression of berserk fury on his face. Angel decided that discretion was the better part of valor. He spun around and raced back into the keep.
A man in black limped in through the castle gates, leaning on a cane, but moving at a surprisingly fast pace. He headed towards where Ampata was frantically trying to staunch the blood loss from Dalton’s dreadful wound.
One of the Forty-seven Ronin had been stunned by the initial gunpowder blast but had since recovered. He surveyed the battlefield and gasped in horror as he saw the decapitated body of his leader Kenji. His lips set into a tight line and he set off to seek vengeance. The closest of the enemy were a wounded warrior and a gaijin girl who tended to him. Not the most honorable of choices, perhaps, but they were the ones to hand. He drew katana and wakizashi and charged.
Wesley was up on the outer walkways, cutting and thrusting with his rapier, slaying Angel’s bowmen or forcing them to abandon their positions and flee. Every few moments he glanced down towards the Peruvian girl who had captured his heart. He turned his head, saw her peril, and his hand went to his pistol. He froze in horror as he realized that the gun was empty.
The man in black pulled a knife from his belt and threw. The ronin dropped in his tracks. “I’ll thank you not to interfere with my patient,” Doctor House of Flying Daggers growled. He limped on and stood over Ampata. “If you are not a trained nurse then get out of my way,” he told her. “Go and waggle your gaijin sword at those irritating spearmen.”
Ampata looked at him uncertainly. “Who are you, Señor?”
“Doctor House of Flying Daggers,” Dalton gasped out. “He told us how to cure Master Chopstick’s back injury.”
“And I was correct, of course,” the doctor said. “Your case is tediously straightforward. Hardly worth my time.”
“Ah.” Ampata bowed towards the doctor. “I thank you, Señor doctor.”
“Don’t thank me until you’ve seen my bill,” House of Flying Daggers warned. “Now go away and leave me to my work. Today would be good.”
“If you can just stop the bleeding, Doctor-ka,” Dalton said, “I can fight from the baby-cart.”
The doctor fixed him with a ferocious glare. “And you became an expert on the post-operative care of amputees exactly when? Be still.” His glare swung back to Ampata. “And why are you still here?”
Ampata flashed him a smile of such radiance that the glare melted away. “I thank you,” she repeated, and she picked up her rapier and ran to join Wesley.
House of Flying Daggers twitched his nose. The scowl returned to his face and he knelt down beside Dalton. His hands went to the wound. “Now, this is going to hurt you a lot more than it hurts me,” he said. “Something for which I am extremely thankful.”
Chopstick slid his arm under Buffy’s shoulders and supported her as she struggled to rise. “You okay, love?” he asked. “Looks like you took a nasty hit there.”
“I’m fine,” she told him. “Just a little shook up and bruised.” She sat up, braced herself against Chopstick, and rose to her feet. “I nearly had him. We would have been home free.”
Chopstick kept hold of her shoulders. “You okay with killing Peach Blossom now, then?”
“I guess.” Buffy sighed. “He’s not the guy I thought he was, Chopstick-kun. I think I’m seeing the real Angel now that he’s not putting on the big show for Giles any more. You’re twice the samurai he is.”
Chopstick’s eyes widened. “You called me ‘Chopstick-kun’.”
“I did not!” Buffy denied. “You misheard. Or, hey, slip of the tongue.”
“You did,” Chopstick insisted. “You can’t keep denying it. You’re my true love.”
“Am not,” said Buffy.
“Well,” Chopstick grinned, “Doctor House of Flying Daggers is right over there. Want to go over and tell him he was wrong?” The grin was brief and a worried frown quickly took its place.
“I’ll pass.” Buffy looked into Chopstick’s eyes. “You worried about Dalton?”
“Yeah,” Chopstick admitted. “Right bad hurt, he is. Hope he makes it. He’s stuffed anyway. Never heard of a one-legged ninja.”
“He could be a pirate,” Buffy suggested. “Or, hey, I could get Giles to give him a position. He’s big with the books and the research and stuff, right? Giles will so get on with him.” A twinkle came into her eyes. “And, hey, I’ll make sure that Mom knows what a hero he is. I could totally get with the match-making.”
“Fancy Dalton as a step-dad, then?”
“I could do worse,” Buffy said. She took a deep breath. “Okay, I’m pretty much over the all shook up thing now. We’d better get in there and deal with Angel for good.”
Drusilla snapped off the head of the arrow and pulled it from the wound. She muttered a charm and the flow of blood slowed to a trickle. “I can do no more for the moment, Angel-kun,” she told him. “You won’t be able to use that arm in the fight.”
Angel clenched his teeth. “If I have to fight Buffy or Chopstick like this I’ll get cut to pieces,” he said. “I can’t handle the Ôdachi with one hand. And it’s the wrong hand. If I switch over to a katana they’ll still have a huge edge.” He clenched the fist of his good hand. “I need the Fireblade.”
“Are you sure that’s wise?” Drusilla’s eyes were wide and her lower lip protruded. “There will be demons, and tentacles, and I don’t think I want to play those games.”
“The Overfiend is only a legend,” Angel said. “I’ll take the risk. I don’t think that I have much choice.” He gave a wry smile and looked at his arm. “I’m already covered in my own blood, so we’re half-way there.”
“Be careful, Angel-kun,” Drusilla urged. “If you see tentacle demons put the sword straight back.”
“I will.” Angel looked up sharply as the multiple crack of Wesley’s ‘duck’s foot’ pistol came from just outside the door of the keep. The clash of steel on steel rang out as the clamor of battle began anew. “Take command of what’s left of our men and hold them off, Dru-chan. I’ll go get the sword.”