"Well, this is interesting," said Jack, looking around after they'd dropped through the portal from Pylea. "Where the hell are we?" They were in a spacious lobby, its furnishings covered with dust sheets.
"It's the Hyperion Hotel," said Willow.
"I think I could have guessed the hotel part. Where is it?"
"An old hotel, used to be run by friends. We're in Los Angeles, but we're a long way from the cars. Wonder why Lorne sent us here?"
"Damn," said Kennedy, twisting the arm of one of the prisoners, who was making his fourth attempt to escape. "Stay put you moron, I don't want to break anything." He glared at her but said nothing. Dana held the other, who wasn't trying to struggle and seemed petrified with fear.
"Doesn't look like anyone's been here in a while," said Sam, gesturing towards the main doors. "There are some footmarks in the dust, but they aren't very fresh."
"That was us, a couple of weeks ago," said Willow. "We had an idea that our friends might hole up here after they took down Wolfram and Hart, but it looks like they didn't make it."
"How are we doing for time?" asked Kennedy. "I lost my watch somewhere in Pylea."
"You sure it was in Pylea?" asked Jack. "It might be awkward if it turned up in Russia. Speaking of which," he pulled his phone out of his pocket "I'd better check in with the General and arrange some transportation. What's the address?" Willow told him, and he went off to one side of the lobby and hit the speed dial.
"It's just after eighteen-thirty," said Sam, looking at her own watch. "Wait a second, it's locking onto a time signal... make that eighteen forty-two."
"Time must run at a slightly different rate in Pylea," said Willow. "It happens sometimes. In some of the Hell dimensions it's a few years for every hour that passes here."
"That could be useful if you needed to beat a deadline," said Daniel.
"If you don't mind being enslaved, tortured, and worked to death in a couple of hours."
"Could the time change be an entropic effect?" asked Sam.
"Doubt it's as simple as that," said Willow. "Too many other things stay the same."
"What about..." Sam began, then suddenly realised that Willow wasn't paying any attention. Neither were Dana or Kennedy.
Daniel started to say something, but Teal'c held a finger to his lips and pointed his staff weapon towards the door. Sam loosened her holster straps, and Jack said "call you back" and closed his phone. They listened as faint footsteps came along the path towards the entrance, keys rattled in the lock, and the door swung open.
"Who the hell are you?" asked the stranger, a blonde woman a little shorter than Sam wearing a green dress and carrying an overnight bag.
"Who's asking?" said Willow.
"I'm... I've seen your picture, haven't I? In Angel's office?"
"That's right. Willow Rosenberg."
"I'm Nina Ash. I'm a friend of Angel's."
"You must be, if he gave you the keys."
"He said I should come here if I had to, and there's nowhere else to go." There was something in her voice, a hint of desperation, and she kept glancing at her watch.
"Willow," murmured Kennedy, "I'm getting a weird vibe off her."
"Okay," said Willow. "We don't know what's happened to Angel. Can we help?"
"Angel said I could use the cellar."
"There's a cage there. Angel said your boyfriend..."
"Oh crap!" said Willow. "How long until moonrise?"
"About five minutes," said Nina. "I got stuck in traffic."
"This way," said Willow, leading the way to some stairs. "Te... uh, Murray, better come along with your stun gun." Teal'c gave her a puzzled look but followed them down, his hand on his zat.
"What the hell was that about?" asked Jack.
"Werewolf, I guess," said Kennedy. "Willow used to date one, before she fell for Tara. "
"I've got to see this," said Jack.
"Oh no you don't," said Kennedy. "She'll be stripping off before she rips her clothes apart."
"Okay... Shouldn't you be slaying her or something?"
"Not if she's caging herself. Something must have gone wrong with her usual arrangements, I guess."
"Angel..." said Daniel, "wasn't he the vampire Lorne mentioned? The one with a soul?"
"That's right," said Kennedy. "Never met the guy myself, but Dana did, I think."
"Hit me," said Dana. "Stopped me killing Spike."
"Well, we've all had that impulse..." She was interrupted by a mournful howl from downstairs, followed by a dull metallic thud. A minute later Willow and Teal'c came into the foyer. "Everything okay?" asked Kennedy.
"She was out by a minute or so," said Willow, "but she was already in the cage so it didn't matter too much."
"She became a formidable beast," said Teal'c. "Fortunately the Zat was not required."
"Will she be all right down there?" asked Sam. There was another howl, and Teal'c shut the cellar door.
"It's a strong cage and believe me, nobody in their right mind will go anywhere near her, not even vampires. She's obviously done this before, she's got some blankets, a change of clothes and a flask of coffee for the morning, and a leg of lamb to eat overnight. She'll be fine. Would have been okay without our help, I think, if she'd found the cellar in time. I've left a card with our contact details with her stuff."
"How will she get out?" asked Daniel.
"Combination lock," said Willow, "Angel must have had it fitted. She won't be able to work it while she's a wolf."
"How come she's here?" asked Kennedy. "How come we're here, for that matter? Kinda weird coincidence."
"She says she nearly got out last night, didn't think the storage locker she's been using would hold her another night. As for why we're here, there's been a couple of dimensional portals opened in this lobby, it may be a natural weak point. I'm not sure I'm buying the coincidence though."
"What do you mean?" asked Jack.
"Someone knew that she'd be here today and steered us towards her, I think."
"Lorne?" asked Sam.
"Maybe. Or the Powers That Be, it's the kind of crap they like to pull." She looked around a little angrily, as if expecting one of the Powers to appear. Nothing happened.
"Do you think Nina's important in this?" asked Kennedy.
"Doubt it," said Willow. "I'd guess it's more of a long term thing. They want us to look after her, keep her from going feral or something."
"Any way you can find out?"
"Sure, next time a higher being drops by I'll ask. Don't hold your breath waiting though."
"Know the feeling," said Jack.
"Really?" asked Willow.
"Sure. We've run into higher beings. You ask a question, nine times out of ten they don't answer, if they do you usually end up more confused than when you started."
"Sounds about right. What were they, aliens?"
"Usually we can understand aliens, they're shooting at us. But genuine higher beings, that's something else. Especially when they're trying to be helpful."
"I'll take your word for it," said Willow, "most of the stuff we run into is about as unhelpful as you can get."
"I'd better get back to the general," said Jack, "he's probably a little worried."
He went off a little way and finished the conversation, then said "After I called the first time he organised some Air Force Police to collect these guys. They ought to arrive in about ten minutes. Oh, and guess what?" He didn't leave time for anyone to guess. "The Russians have issued a Foothold..." He noticed a puzzled look from Willow "..that's a warning of possible enemy activity. Seems a couple of guys in chain mail with tattoos on their foreheads were caught at one of their secret facilities, then got sprung before they could be interrogated. The way they describe it, they vanished in a flash of light that might be a Goa'uld transporter. We've been asked to send a team to help with the investigation."
"Imagine that," said Kennedy.
"What have we told them, Colonel?" asked Sam.
"That we're getting a team ready, of course."
"If you like you can blame us," said Willow. "The Russians know about us."
"We might have to take you up on that," said Jack, "but for now we'll play it like we know nothing. It'll give us an excuse to send in an inspection team, check the place out and see if we can figure out why the Knights are interested."
"Sooner or later they'll check the camera tapes," warned Willow. "There may be someone looking already."
"You really don't mind carrying the can?"
"They won't be happy, but they know we get up to all sorts of weirdness. They needn't know you guys were there, we can say it was a Watchers Council extraction squad. That ought to confuse things nicely, especially if we get Riley to do the explaining."
"Didn't you say the Watchers don't exist any more?" asked Jack
"We're rebuilding," said Willow, "but we've kept kinda quiet about the specifics. The old council had its own little army, recruited from British special forces units, they'd be the guys for that sort of operation."
"Why should Finn do the talking?" asked Daniel. "Is he unusually persuasive?"
"No, but he's got huge amounts of soldier-cred all through that region, ever since his guys stopped Tunguska Two. Get him to show you the gold medal they gave him, it's kinda cool, like a pentagram."
"Gold Star Medal of the Hero of the Russian Federation?" asked Jack, while Sam said "Tunguska Two?"
"Don't ask," said Kennedy. "Object lesson in why some people shouldn't mess with magic."
"Andrew had good intentions..." Willow began, but was interrupted by the arrival of the police. It took about ten minutes to arrange everything, then Jack and Teal'c went off with the prisoners and their guards, while Sam and Daniel went to drive Willow, Dana, and Kennedy back to pick up the cars. In the cellar below the Hyperion Nina Ash prowled her cage for an hour so, howling and chewing on the meat she'd brought with her, then curled up in the blankets and went to sleep.
"They're not talking," Jack said the following morning. "Not even name, rank, and serial number. About all that we know is that they do speak English, and that they speak Russian with Ukranian accents when nobody's around. But so far all that they've done is say that they won't talk and tell each other not to talk."
Willow looked around the office SG-1 were using and said "You said you have special interrogation methods."
"We do," said Sam, "but they're risky and extremely painful. We need White House authorisation to use them, and right now the President isn't very happy with us."
"The Russians," confirmed Jack. "It isn't going to be a diplomatic incident, Finn apparently saw to that, but they know it was us."
"Oh, they're prepared to cooperate, but it's going to cost us somewhere down the line. We'll probably have to give them more access to the Stargate or something."
"Can't be helped. Anyway, can you do something to make them talk?"
Willow looked at the floor, and Kennedy put a hand to her shoulder. After a long pause Willow said "You sure there's no alternative?"
"There are always alternatives," said Jack, "but they're sometimes illegal, also mostly slow and fallible."
"Okay. Get one of them, the guy that was scared of Dana. The darker guy with the moustache. He looked a little more impressionable." Jack dialled the guard house and gave the order.
"Where is Dana anyway?" asked Sam.
"Sleeping," said Willow. "Dennis is looking after her until we get back."
"Another spell?" asked Daniel. "is that good for her?"
"No," said Kennedy, "just really tired. She didn't sleep properly while we were in Pylea. Too much demonic activity."
"Can Dennis handle her if she wakes and decides to go for a walk?" asked Sam.
"No, but he knows how to get help if it's needed." There was another uncomfortable pause, then Willow said "When the guy comes in I'm the only person who can talk until I've done the witchy stuff. Once he starts talking it might be okay to whisper to me, but it'd be better if you pass me notes. Kennedy, be ready to act on my cues, like we did with the guy with the zombies."
"Zombies?" asked Daniel.
"There was a shaman with dancing zombies at the carnival. Would have probably won a prize if we'd let him go through with it."
"The Rio carnival?"
"No, worse thing we get there is an occasional vampire hitting the crowd, there are so many religious groups in Rio that it kinda puts them off. This was the Notting Hill Carnival in London. Guy had this whole Michael Jackson 'Thriller' thing going."
Eventually two guards arrived with the prisoner, now wearing baggy orange overalls. "Make yourself comfortable," said Willow, pointing to a chair. "We're gonna have to wait for your General to arrive." The prisoner glared at her but said nothing. "Sit. Don't worry, we're not gonna hurt you." The Knight sat, warily. "You guys, take off his cuffs." One of the guards looked enquiringly at Jack, who nodded.
"You know," said Willow, "this has all been a big misunderstanding. We didn't kill your guys, that was Glory and her henchmen. And we killed her for you..." As she talked her eyes very gradually darkened. "As for the Key, that's long been destroyed, although the news has been a little slow reaching you."
"The Key is the Link," the Knight said defiantly, "the link must be severed, that is the will of God!"
"The link was severed," said Willow. She swayed from side to side slightly as she talked, and gradually the Knight was starting to sway in response to her movements. "You know that Glory was killed at Sunnydale, with her gone and Sunnydale gone there's no way that the Key could be used, even if it still existed. Your General knows that, he'll be here soon to explain it to you."
"The Key is the Link, the link must be severed, that is the will of God!"
"You've been out of touch," said Willow, "How long was it the Russians had you prisoner? Six months?"
"Six months?" said the Knight, sounding confused.
"Sure. You must have lost track in prison. A lot's happened while you were gone. Any minute now your general will be here, he'll explain it to you. I think I can hear him coming now. Kennedy, go let him in."
Kennedy went to the door, opened it, and stood to one side. Willow looked towards the door, semingly following someone's movements. The Knight watched, then snapped to his feet and made a gesture that Jack guessed was a salute.
"It's time for you to explain yourself, Soldier," said Willow. "You've done well, but the Key has been destroyed. Stand at ease and report on your mission, so that the record of your heroism can be added to our archives."
The Knight hesitated.
"Report, Soldier," barked Willow.
Swaying on his feet, facing an imaginary general, the Knight began to report - in Russian. Sam and Daniel took notes, Jack passed a series of questions to Willow. Eventually Sam signalled for Willow to stop.
"Okay, Soldier, you've done well. Now..." she snapped her fingers, and the Knight looked around, confused, then howled with rage and flung himself towards the table. Willow said "Thicken" and he slowed, clawing at the air, which seemed to be shimmering slightly, as the guards caught up with him and cuffed him again.
"Release. Okay, keep him separate from the other guy for now, don't want them comparing notes." The guards hustled him out again. Willow turned to Jack and said "I can try to do that again with the other guy if you like, but I'm pretty sure he spilled his guts. Want to tell me what he said?"
"Mostly it was the sort of thing you get from any militrary debriefing. What happened, how he was caught, how you kidnapped him, that sort of thing. The real meat was the mission objectives."
"And..?" asked Kennedy.
"They were reconnoitering for a raid into the complex, looking for something called the 'Old Temple.'"
"I think a more literal translation is 'church,'" said Daniel.
"What do they think they're gonna find there?" asked Willow.
"Something they called 'The old magics.'"
"I think that could be 'ancient' rather than 'old,'" said Sam.
"Bad news either way," said Willow. "Things have a habit of getting more powerful the longer they've been around. Did they know where this temple is?"
"No, he wasn't told," said Jack. "He was supposed to study the movements of the guards and the layout of the place, time the patrols, and so on. They were supposed to stay there until the end of the week then head back to a rendezvous point to be extracted."
"That gives us a couple of days, I suppose. Do you think their friends know they've been captured?"
"Maybe. It depends if the Knights were monitoring the Russian signal traffic, or had more people watching the place. My guess would be no, unless the Russians have made it obvious, those guys didn't have radios, and didn't know anything about another group."
"What about the Key?"
"What is the Key?" asked Daniel.
"We've been through this already," said Willow. "You really don't need to know."
"It's just odd. He never got very specific, but the Russian word for 'key' takes the masculine form, and every time he referred to it, without actually using the word 'key,' he described it as 'she' or 'her.' I'll have to check the tapes, but I think they did that when they were talking to each other."
For a moment Willow sat staring at Daniel, then she pulled out her 'phone, pressed one of the speed dial buttons, and said "This is Willow. I'm gonna put on Doctor Jackson, he's just told me something you need to hear." She handed it to Daniel; he hesitantly said "hello?"
A male voice with a British accent said "Doctor Jackson? Go ahead, please."
"Right. I was just telling Willow that one of the Knights was using feminine nouns when he referred to the Key. I think they both did."
There was a long pause, then the voice on the 'phone said "Oh, bloody hell. Thank you, that's rather important. Could you put Willow back on?" Daniel silently handed the 'phone back to Willow. She listened intently, then said "Okay," and disconnected.
"Well?" asked Jack.
"They can't know for sure," said Willow, half to herself.
"That... that Tara was the Key. What I don't get is why they're still after her, they must know she's dead."
Jack stared at her, and tried to guess why she was lying.
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