By Barb Cummings
Sequel to A Raising in the Sun
The Internet was a wonderful thing.
Some older Watchers scorned it, but Quentin Travers was a pragmatist, if an aesthetically minded one. No cords or monitors or CPUs marred the oak-paneled, leatherbound dignity of his study, but in less hallowed areas of the building they had their place. Less than an hour ago, the color printout on his desk had been a hash of data in a digital camera in Sunnydale, California. Half an hour ago it had been scanned, panned, and fed across the globe to email@example.com, and fifteen minutes ago his aide Rumson had delivered it to his desk in glorious full color photoprint.
Travers added it to the photos already gracing his desk, placing them side by side on the blotter—a pictorial history of Buffy Anne Summers and the vampire William the Bloody over the last six weeks. Since the debacle of Buffy's Cruciamentum, he had known that to keep proper tabs on this particular Slayer, the Council would have to resort to subtler channels than the usual Watcher's reports. Fortunately the Hellmouth was a hotbed of demon gossip with no dearth of residents who'd willingly pass it on for a suitable remuneration.
Travers allowed himself the unobserved luxury of rubbing his eyes as he studied the newest photograph. The picture was grainy and marred by motion blurs. In the background, a group of indistinct figures struggled against the whitewashed side of a building; in the foreground Buffy Summers balanced on the hood of a black sedan, stake plunging into the chest of a vampire caught on film in mid-dissolution. Her undead paramour was a smudge of black and ivory on the opposite side of the car. He checked the date stamp in the corner. Slayer and vampire at large on the streets of Sunnydale at 11:43 PM, Pacific Standard Time.
Losing the chance to get the Summers girl into Council hands was a disappointment, but then, he'd expected Angelus to betray his side of the agreement. Now the only thing for it was to wait—wait, and hope. At any minute the Search Committee might identify a new Slayer, and Buffy Summers would become, for the time being at least, irrelevant. The phone rang, and he snatched up the receiver before it could mar the quiet of his sanctum a second time. "Travers."
"Good evening," said a chilly voice on the opposite side of the Atlantic. "Though I daresay I wasn't intended to have one, so I rather grudge you yours."
"Rupert? I'm... surprised to hear from you. I thought our last conversation was rather final. Have you reconsidered?"
"Giles, if you please; I reserve my Christian name for people who haven't ordered me killed in the last forty-eight hours. Perhaps you recall the subject of my recent researches?"
"There's been little else on my mind lately." Travers leaned back in his chair, the fine leather upholstery creaking softly beneath his shifting weight. "I never planned on killing you, Giles. Surely you know me well enough for that."
"We both know one another very well." The proffered olive branch was, if not precisely flung back in his face with the dove of peace roasting over its ashes, roundly ignored. "In the last week I've amassed considerable evidence that the Slayer's powers are of demonic origin."
"Indeed?" Travers fenced his words about with caution. "Given what you've discovered, I'm sure you realize exactly why we're willing to take measures which might, under other circumstances, be considered extreme? You swore an oath, Giles. You know the consequences of breaking it."
"That oath was to protect the world first, and serve the Council second." Giles's voice was a drawn rapier. "At present it's my considered opinion that the latter is incompatible with the former. You're attempting to summon a new Slayer, one you can mold more to your liking than either of the current models. I am hardly a squeamish man, and there are some cases in which I might call your actions justified. This is far from being one of them. You have two working Slayers, and there is no excuse for resorting to murder simply because they are both inconveniently stubborn. Consider my resignation tendered." There was a brief pause. "Buffy would like to speak to you."
"Hey, Mr. Travers." The loathsomely perky California accent should have robbed the words of all menace. "Just calling to congratulate you on your spanky new Slayer."
"Miss Summers." Travers pressed the discreet button which summoned Rumson. "I suppose you're going to offer me the lives of my men now?"
"That would be a no."
Dead, then. Irritating. The only question was at whose hands. "What did you do to them?"
"Personally? Nothing. Mr. Smith's enjoying the spacious accomodations at the local precinct house. The breaking and entering and assault charges ought to keep him occupied for awhile. Mr. Weatherby and Mr. Collins are under house arrest, so to speak. You can talk to them if you'd like."
Not dead, then. Surprising. "If you please."
There was a scuffling noise, and then Collins's hoarse voice rasped out, "Travers? Is that really you?"
"The same, Mr. Collins." Travers drummed his fingers on the edge of his desk. This was the second Slayer-related operation Collins had bollocksed up. "Even bearing in mind that the primary purpose of this mission was to distract, I am less than pleased with the results you've obtained."
"The bloody vampire was supposed to be neutered!" Collins snarled, dissolving into a cough.
The phone was snatched away and Buffy's too-perky tones overrode Collins's ire. "Chat time over. Want to talk to Weatherby now? I think he can talk. Spike got a smidge over-enthusiastic, but under the circumstances, I'm having a hard time bringing the moral outrage."
Rumson appeared in the doorway of the study, and Travers motioned him over to the desk. Quivery and inoffensive as the White Rabbit, Rumson, until you put a throwing dagger in those long nervous hands. "Miss Summers, I'm a busy man. If you're not intending to trade my employees' lives for... whatever compensation it is you've determined you desire, might I ask what the purpose of this call is? What do you want from me?" On his notepad he wrote HAVE THEY FOUND HER YET? Rumson blinked watery blue eyes beneath near-invisible eyebrows, and dashed his hopes with a mournful shake of the head.
The banter dropped out of Buffy's voice like the bottom out of technologies stocks. "I'm not asking you for anything, Travers. I'm telling you what you get. Smith's going to stay in jail and meet his court date. Angel and Faith will be picking up and delivering Weatherby and Collins to LAX tonight. They'll have their passports and whatever money they have left after Anya deducts our expenses for food, board, and medical care. They will get on a plane to England along with their L.A. partners in crime, and we will never see them again—them, or any other member of the Council. And just in case you have some idea that six months from now you can point Spanky in our general direction and tell her to come back with her dress shield or on it? They say knowledge is power. Faith and I talked it over and we think a brand new Slayer needs all the power she can get."
Travers sighed. "What are you implying, Miss Summers?"
"Just keeping score here. Faith's not happy, Spike's not happy, Angel's not happy...oh, and me? I'm not too happy, either. That's one junior Slayer, two moderately nasty vampires, and the senior Slayer who's kicked all three of their asses. Fair to poor under-informed Spanky? I don't think so. The minute I think you're after us again, every single potential Slayer in the world is gonna get a copy of Giles's research, all condensed down to words of one syllable. Got it?"
"Miss Summers..." She was bluffing; she had to be. Rupert Giles might have contact addresses available for most of the potential Slayers in training, but historically, the Council had failed to identify almost half of all Slayers called until their powers manifested. Still—fifty percent of the pool of potential Slayers polluted... "...believe me, I have as little desire to deal with you in the future as you have to deal with me." There was a knock at his door and Travers looked up, rubbing the bridge of his nose. Rumson popped up in the doorway, skittered over to Travers's desk, and handed him a memo. One short sentence. Two small words.
One by one the knots in Travers's gut unraveled. Yes. He scarcely heard the conciliatory words falling from his own lips as he smoothed the paper across the mess of photos on the blotter and traced that glorious word found with loving attention. He took a deep breath and sank back into his chair, hanging up the phone without the slightest idea what he'd agreed to—none of that mattered now. Disaster had been averted for the moment.
The Summers girl thought she'd won—it was true; he couldn't afford to unloose the serpent in the garden now. Not now, and not until the Council's new instrument had been contacted, indoctrinated, and properly trained. It might take years, but the Council, unlike any of the mere mortals who made it up, had time.
All the time in the world.
Buffy stepped back and squinted at the precarious Jenga-tower of bags and boxes with the aplomb of a veteran, rose up on tiptoe, and made a minute adjustment to the position of the Gap bag. Spike's eye, blue and sardonic, appeared in the arrow-slit between it and the Imaginarium box. "You know, love, if I were the uncharitable sort, at some point I'd remind you that you're stronger than I am."
"I am the girl," Buffy replied with serene aplomb, beckoning him onwards with an imperious quirk of one finger. "You are the guy. I shop, you transport. It's the circle of life."
"We're fast getting to the part of the circle where I collapse and they find my cold dead body buried under a pile of Lion King memorabilia," Spike grumbled, but there was a grin tugging at his lips even as he spoke. He'd spent most of the afternoon setting his crypt to rights again, and after a good stiff workout with Buffy at the Magic Box, he'd expected they'd do an early patrol. Instead (after a shared shower during which a few other things got good and stiff) she'd promptly dragged him off to do what Slayers did third-best. Or perhaps second best; Buffy Summers was as keen at spotting a half-off rack of Donna Karan as she was at taking out a vamp with a thrown stake at twenty paces. He hadn't been on a serious feminine shopping expedition since San Francisco, the first week after meeting Harmony, during that brief moment of whiskey-fueled insanity when he'd decided that a clingy, brainlessly adoring chit was exactly what his ego needed in order to recover from the bruises inflicted by Drusilla dropping him like a hot crucifix for the second or third time in as many years. Of course, the current occasion was a bit lacking in the trail of screaming and eviscerated clerks department, but it was surprising how little that detracted from the experience.
This close to Christmas, Sunnydale Mall was still crowded at eight o'clock on a Monday night. The stores were packed and both levels of the promenade were a-swirl with people—old, young, pale faces and dark ones, talking, laughing, cursing, children jostling in line to see Santa. The fact that she wasn't one of the salesgirls swimming against the human tide seemed to cheer Buffy no end. Spike followed blindly in her wake as she plotted her lines of attack from storefront to storefront, and did his best to ignore the hopeful hints his stomach was sending brain-wards while the blood, sweat, and tears of multifarious humanity assailed his nose. Should have grabbed some pig earlier. I can be good. I can. Oooh, that one looks tasty...
Funny, though, how many of the faces in the crowd were ones he recognized. There, the pimply kid with his britches hanging off his arse, hanging out in the doorway to the Virgin Megastore and pretending to be cool for the benefit of a pair of giggly eighth-grade girls. Dawn's friend's Lisa's brother, that one—couldn't rightly eat him. There were a couple of the birds he'd caught a glimpse of at Anya's party, lost among the shoe racks in Ross Dress For Less. The wrinkly old bint berating a mall security guard was the elder Mrs. Kohlermann, and there in the Kay-Bee Toys was that bloke from Xander's work, staring with hopeless bewilderment at the ranks of Buzz Lightyears. You couldn't really eat someone you'd been introduced to. Pudding, Alice. Alice, pudding. Well, you could—not like he hadn't before, but how far would he have to go, these days, to find a victim he could kill without a second thought? "Oi, Dawn'd look smashing in that one, eh pet?" He jerked his chin in the general direction of a display window, that being the only part of his body free at the moment.
Buffy gave the mannequins the once-over, her uncanny retail powers divining the precise sweater he'd indicated, despite his invisibility behind the wall of purchases. "It'll be marked down another twenty percent by Saturday. We'll come back."
"Someone else might get paws on it first, love, and then Bit'd be disappointed and I'd have to kill them, so buying it now's a step towards keeping me on the straight and narrow, innit? Come on, the bank book can handle it." Never mind the world might be ending Friday; it was coming on Christmas, and if that wasn't a reason for indulging...
Buffy hesitated for a second, her eyes on the blue and silver beadwork spangling the sweater's yoke, obviously wavering between maintaining her hard-won frugality and the yearning to splurge for the first time in almost a year. Another second and she plunged into the holiday melee, cutting out a saleswoman with the finesse of a border collie corralling a recalcitrant sheep. Spike leaned against the nearest counter and watched Buffy at work with a smile that wouldn't have been entirely out of place on the face of the man he'd once been. Times like this, he could almost appreciate what Anya saw in money. It wasn't the same kick as strolling into a store, taking what you liked and killing anyone who objected and a few who didn't, but purchasing power had its allure, especially when you'd gone for a while without it.
Buffy emerged from the fray with the bright eyes and triumphant grin of victory, clutching yet another bag which she managed somehow to hang off a corner of his existing load. "I think that's it for tonight." Unable to put an arm round him with the bags in the way, Buffy tucked one hand into the rear pocket of his jeans, branding a nice toasty palmprint on his arse. "I don't want to blow the whole bankbook on presents, now that there's actually a bankbook to blow." She grinned, nose wrinkling adorably. "Besides, I can't get your presents while you're hanging around watching me like a hawk."
Presents, plural? He'd lined up a few things for her, of course, but he hadn't really expected... Spike juggled a few boxes, attempting innocence and ending up in the general vicinity of bouncy anticipation. "Not as if I can see anything right now but the backside of a sales receipt, pet."
"Unh uh. Don't work your sinister attraction on me, mister. It's gonna be a secret." She gave him a playful smack on the rump. "Let's stow the loot and get dinner before you start drooling on the mezzanine."
It was while they were cramming the last of the bags into the rear of the Cherokee that Buffy noticed it. "Hey." She nudged him in the ribs. "Spike, was that tree like that when we got here?"
Spike glanced up from the Rubik's Cube of packages inhabiting the back half of the Jeep and frowned. The parking lot was a vast expanse of asphalt broken up by random islands of cement-enclosed greenery, spindly, sad-looking acacia trees and scraggly dwarf oleander. Several of them were dead or dying, victims of the water crunch, but he was moderately certain that the ones nearest the car hadn't been among them. "Doesn't mean they're still down there, love—how long does it take the weedkilling mojo to set in?"
"I'm not sure." Buffy walked over to the island and fingered the sere thorny branches of the acacia. A shower of tiny brown leaves fluttered to the ground as she let the branch go. "But it's more than we found last night, right?"
True; Sunday's patrol had been a repeat of Saturday's; complete bust, redeemed only by the unaccountable absence of further Willow-machinations. Which probably meant only that Red was up to something on the sly, now. "Where's the nearest sewer access, over on Ballantine? I don't fancy burrowing through a foot of macadam with my fingernails."
"We could go home and get a shovel—wait, is that—?"
Spike slammed the Cherokee's tailgate shut and followed Buffy over to the small, unassuming grid of dull gray steel set in one of the low spots in the pavement—part of the parking lot's drainage system. He dropped to his haunches beside her and eyed it dubiously; it was less than half the size of the one they'd crawled down chasing Tanner's lot. Buffy met his eyes, hooked her fingers into the slots and heaved; the grate came up with a clang. "Here goes nothing," she murmured, and shimmied down into the darkness.
Spike waited for a second, ears cocked, until he heard a splash and an 'oof!' He swung both legs into the drain, raised both arms over his head and pushed himself off. For a second he fell free; then the shaft narrowed further and he came to a jolting halt, shoulders wedged tight against the damp gritty walls of the drain. Bloody hell. This was what came of living healthy; a few months ago he'd have scraped through. A hand groped his calf, then wrapped firmly around his ankle and tugged. He forced all the air out of his lungs, and fell another five or six feet to the bottom of the shaft. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness he realized that they were in a natural cave rather than a sewer tunnel—apparently the construction crew building the parking lot had decided to shave a little off their costs. The floor of the tunnel was still inches deep in oily water, runoff from the recent rains.
Buffy was crouching motionless beside him, shoulders rigid. Spike tuned out her heartbeat and listened: echoes of lapping water, underground creaks and gurgles, and—there. He touched her shoulder and pointed; the sound of multiple sloshing footsteps. As one, they faded back against the tunnel walls and slipped closer to the noise, dark water purling about their ankles like liquid silk.
The cavern was long and low-ceilinged, patchily illuminated by phosphorescent lichen. A knot of dark-robed figures made their surefooted way through the water, never pausing, never stumbling, guided by eldritch senses surer in the dark than any vampire's. Each of them sported a short, curved blade at his hip—that was new; apparently the previous dust-ups had taught them a thing or two. They were carrying some sort of contraption, a pole decorated with a flayed, bloody hide—human, Spike could tell from the smell of the congealing blood—stitched back together and stuffed with something foul. The stink of black magic almost drowned out the stench of uncured skin.
Buffy's body jerked against his, and her fingers dug hard into his shoulder—bloody hell, this would be hard on her, wouldn't it? She'd feel for the bastard, whoever he was. Spike was grateful to be unburdened by compassion; just the physical stink of the thing was enough to make him want to heave. Buffy looked up at him, pale green fire glinting in her eyes, and behind it a question clear as speaking: six of them, armed, two of us, not. Except it wasn't really a question at all, was it, seeing that his answer was writ just as plain in his sharklike grin, and she knew it before she'd asked.
They shot out of the darkness in utter silence, Buffy going low, Spike going high, striking their targets in perfect, deadly synchrony. Spike blocked a slash from the Bringer's wicked little knife with his right forearm and drove his left fist into his target's ribcage with his whole weight behind the blow, feeling bones crunch and shatter and lungs collapse. Beside him Buffy'd ripped her opponent's knife from his belt before he could draw it; the blade flashed up and down again, eerie half-light bleeding along the cresent edge. The Harbinger went down with a scream, hamstrung; the heady metallic scent of not-quite-human blood flooded the cavern. Then they were back to back, just him and Buffy surrounded by the remaining four Bringers, the advantage of surprise gone, and it was sheer brutal punch and kick and bash heads into walls till Buffy took another one down and he snapped the neck of a fourth.
The last two Harbingers dropped the scarecrow thing they carried and ran, splashing awkwardly through the water with their sodden robes tangling about their knees. Spike sprinted after, leaping clear of the water and landing on his fleeing target's back, arms flung in a chokehold round its neck. His fangs tore deep into the juncture of neck and shoulder, ripping through muscle and tendon and rendering its knife arm useless. The Harbinger wailed and staggered as Spike gagged on inhuman ichor; the thing's blood tasted like motor oil tinged with battery acid. His prey collapsed beneath him, shock and blood loss glazing its eyeless face as the hood fell away and it bubbled out its last breath. Spike rolled off and watched with interest; you could drown in two inches of water, all those child safety ads claimed, but he'd never seen it happen before. Bloody brilliant.
Buffy drove her purloined blade into the gut of the last Bringer and yanked it out, the curved tip drawing a glistening loop of intestine with it, delivered a straight-legged kick to its jaw and danced back, ready to pounce if it wasn't dead yet. For a long tense minute they stood back to back, watching, listening, and in Spike's case sniffing for clues, but the only sounds were the gradually diminishing slap of the waves the fight had stirred up and their own breathing.
"What is that... thing?" Revulsion thickened Buffy's voice as she edged over to the abandoned... whatever it was. Spike sloshed over and knelt to examine it; this close, he could see that the skin hadn't belonged to a Bringer; except for the cuts made during the clumsy flensing, the eyelids were intact. "Is it for some kind of spell?"
"Dunno, but whoever it was died within the last couple of days. Skin's not been salted like we did with the Sluorn hide—see here? It's starting to decay already." Spike started to roll the thing over and stopped, hand half-way to the puffy, distended shoulder. Three days ago this had been a walking, talking human being. He forced himself to reach out and touch the clammy, flabby hide. There, no different from a thousand other dead things. Buffy clapped a hand to her mouth as the grotesquely distorted features surged up out of the oily water, and Spike looked up at her, anxious. "You all right, love? Not winning any beauty contests, this bloke."
Buffy swallowed and nodded, bending over to study the pale, distended face, committing it to memory. Spike gazed down with her, plagued by a strange itchy annoyance. He hadn't anything so human as grief or guilt or outrage to spend on total strangers, and the fact of messy, painful death didn't bother him in the slightest, but one of the people in the town he'd come to call home wasn't there any longer. The idea that Willow had been involved gave him a queer turn. "Isn't supposed to be this way, is it?" He poked at the skin-doll. Drusilla would have loved it, wanted a whole set for tea parties. And he'd have cheerfully gotten her one, brought her a whole family to play with, Mama, Papa, and two-point-five children. The point-five child still struck him as funny. "Will doing...that. She's supposed to be—dunno, better than I am, right? You all are." I count on you being better than I am.
"Sometimes I wonder." Buffy rose with a shudder, folding her arms across her belly. "It may be evidence, but I'm not touching it. Do you have your lighter with you?"
Mystified, Spike felt in his back pocket and produced the Zippo. Buffy took it, flicked it to life, and crouched down, extending one hand to set the tiny blue flame to the skin-doll at the furthest possible remove. For all the thing was soaking wet, the fire caught immediately, and the cavern began to fill with oily smoke. Buffy stood and handed him the lighter, her jaw set and hard. "Come on, let's get out of here."
The bronzed man in the quetzal-feather headdress and the cloak of flayed human skin walked out of the wall and stared at her, his dark eyes full of contempt. "Cíhuatl. Acattopa Achtontli?"
Willow lay on her cot and ignored him, and after a moment the apparition snorted, twirled its obsidian-studded war club and disappeared. Willow continued her listless inspection of the ceiling. They kept coming—the tall, grey-bearded man with the eyepatch and his small, thin, fox-sly companion; the woman in the blue cloak, crowned in radiance; the fat man with too many arms and an elephant's head; and countless others, flickering in and out of existence but always and ever spiraling inexorably towards the hell-born omphalos of Sunnydale. Gods or spirits or demons living above their station—in the end they were small potatoes. They were a reflection of human desires and hopes and fears, and she was working for—no, with—something bigger than all of them, older than all of them.
For all the good it did her.
She saw the old man's face all the time now, raw and bleeding, in the grain of the timbers shoring up the fractured ceiling of the main cavern, in the random scuff marks in the sand of its floor. In the faces of his comrades, whose eyes followed her accusingly. In the darkness behind her own eyelids, where nothing was ever still and quiet any longer.
Willow ignored the voice. She was getting good at ignoring things.
It's been days. You have yet to secure the girl. Your Harbingers are dying. The Slayer and her playtoy disrupted the completion of the ritual sacrifice. Time is running out. Your work will have been for nothing.
"I don't care," she whispered. On Saturday morning, she'd had twenty-seven Harbingers left. Every morning since, a few more were gone, shot through with crossbow bolts if they lurked in the general vicinity of the Summers house, or ambushed when they ventured outside the veils of illusion she'd cast about her tiny domain. She couldn't just pull them into her sanctum sanctorum forever; she needed them to fetch food and supplies. How was she going to ride herd on the crazies if she ran out of Harbingers and what did it matter if the world ended in three days?
"You can create more servitors," Jenny whispered in her ear. "Doing so requires access to the Seal of Danzathar, which is currently buried thirty feet beneath a bulldozer on the grounds of Sunnydale High." She pursed her lips. "And the Hellmouth is currently so unstable that it's possible the ritual would fail in any case."
"Well then, I guess we're just screwed, right?"
Her vampire self was sitting on the edge of her cot, sneering. "Ooh, yeah, lie there all pouty-faced and oh so guilty, Willow. Let the world die around you—that'll make it all better, won't it?" The familiar face went alien as it thrust close to her own, sprouting fangs and ridges. "If you stop now, you're nothing but a murderer, a frightened, power-hungry child so terrified of the dark you burned down your own house to ward it off." The voice—her voice—dropped to a cajoling purr. "But if you gather your courage and go on, my nummy treat, the tears of gratitude from a whole planet will wash the bloodstains from your hands."
Willow stared at the dark. "I hate you."
Young Buffy giggled. "Pronoun trouble, Wills?"
It didn't look like much, the Hellmouth, even open, as long as twenty-headed snake demons weren't pouring out of it. At the moment, it wasn't even glowing or giving off hallucinogenic fumes. A twenty-foot crack in the earth, like hundreds of other earthquake faults in California, encircled by a spiderweb of yellow CAUTION! tape and a pair of bulldozers flanking it as jealously as bison protecting a calf. For two, almost three years now, the site of the former Sunnydale High School had been an urban war zone, officially the casualty of a catastrophic gas main explosion following an earthquake. It had been fenced off and ignored for as long as possible by the Board of Education, until the rising grumbles of parents tired of busing their children elsewhere had forced the city into action. In the last few months, the sagging old fence had been replaced by a shiny new one, and trucks and bulldozers had rumbled into action like giant mechanical bumblebees, ferrying their loads of debris away.
Over half the lot was now a bare, tire-raked expanse of earth, barred with the long black shadows of heavy machinery. Bare, but not deserted. Buffy crouched at the lip of the pit, Dawn knelt beside her, and Spike bracketed Dawn on the other side. Half a dozen nylon ropes trailed past them, down over the edge into the depths of the Hellmouth. At some distance from the others, Tara and Anya sat cross-legged on a tatami mat, facing one another, eyes closed, lips moving in a soft, ceaseless river-run of mystic plainsong. The lone white pillar candle on the ground between them did brave if fruitless battle with the impersonal glare of construction floodlights.
"The all quiet on the Willow front," Buffy said, voice hushed. "Any clues yet?"
Giles, standing a few paces behind them with a stopwatch in one hand, stilled a gesture towards his glasses with the other. "Every spot where one of the lights touched down Friday night was a site where a dimensional portal has been opened in the past," he said. "Kingman's Bluff was the site of a major temple to Proserpexa once. One of those tedious sects whose chief sins lie in the execrable prose of their sacred writings, but they did attempt to raise several dangerous entities before the temple was destroyed in an earthquake in the early thirties. The dimensional fold in the cavern where the Master was trapped, the old warehouse..."
"She sealed the doors with blood," Tanner whispered. He was huddled in one of Xander's too-large coats, watching the proceedings with large haunted eyes.
"Yes." Giles's voice sounded worn, scraped thin over inner pain. "The skin-doll you destroyed was very likely made from the remains of the initial sacrifice. Had you not destroyed it, it would have been brought here to the Hellmouth, thrown in to finish the spell."
"It doesn't look so bad." Dawn was whispering too, though there was no reason for it. She leaned forward, her hair falling over her shoulders. "It's just like the climbing wall we did in Phys Ed, right? Except with a jillion-foot hole underneath."
Buffy unfolded her arms from across her knees and laid a hand on her sister's shoulder—half comforting pat, half don't-fall-in death-grip. "If it's one of the walls with melting watches draped over the top, sure. It starts getting seriously Billy Pilgrim down there after awhile. I fell faster than the demon I jumped in after—just because I really needed to, I think. But you'll be staying in one spot, and we can't be sure—"
One of the ropes jerked and went taut, interrupting, and Buffy scooted back from the edge and pulled Dawn with her as a figure, dark but for a single glaring cyclopean eye, emerged hand over hand from the pit. Spike reached down, took hold, and hauled it effortlessly over the edge. Xander staggered to his feet, gasping, and switched off the light on his hard hat. "The world is weebling. Or is that just me?" He sat down on the tread of the nearest bulldozer and Anya jumped to her feet and pulled his helmet off. He leaned into her side—world endage had its points, Buffy guessed; wedding squabbles seemed to be a thing of the past. "My brow thanks you. Not technically fevered, but who am I to turn down a good stroke? How long did I last? I feel like the final stages of a sleep-deprivation lab."
Giles held up the stopwatch. "Twenty-five minutes." Xander leaned back against the Caterpillar and moaned. "And a maximum depth of sixty-five feet, if we're to trust our measurements. Right then. The protection spell does give us another twenty feet of penetration, at minimum." The Watcher glanced at Tara. "Are you certain you can't increase the range?"
Tara snuffed out the candle. "Not unless I go down with her. This close to the Hellmouth we're lucky I can get it to work at all."
"We might need to try sending you both down, then. We've got to make sure Willow gets all the way in." Buffy peered into the abyss. If Spike made another Nietzsche joke, she'd thump him. "As far down as we can get Dawn and not suffocate her or turn her into a newt, anyway."
"Which is why we're using Joe Average as a guinea pig instead of the girl with the super-powered metabolism or the guy who only inhales on special occasions." Xander got up with a groan and gave Anya a more-than-usually fervent squeeze. "I'm gonna need a rest and refuel before we try it again, guys. Pizza break."
"So...there are, like, ledges, right?" Dawn asked as they trooped wearily back to the Magic Box half an hour later, laden with pizza boxes and two dozen Krispy Kreme hots—more like tepids by now, but still fairly high on the food-of-the-gods scale. "I'm not going to be hanging in mid-air?"
Buffy frowned. It had been so long ago, and she hadn't exactly been scouting for scenic outlooks. "I don't remember any ledges, but I was more looking for large icky demons."
"There are two-inch wrinkles you could call ledges." Xander laid the pizza out on the table. "Or you could call them deathtraps waiting to happen. But I think we can do better than that. We're gonna need more rope, and some foundation bolts, two-by-fours, a winch, a cargo net—"
Tara scribbled another item on a list of spell components and handed it to Anya. "We still need a reliable teleport block. And if we can get hold of some tiger's eye—the stone, I mean—"
Spike propped an elbow against the counter in direct defiance of the 'Do not lean on glass' sign and Buffy bent to inspect the pizza choices. Pepperoni and pineapple, sausage and onion, and all-veggie, without... She looked up, meeting Xander's pained dark eyes. "I got it without the bell peppers this time," he said, waving one hand over the array of pies. "Just—I don't know, just in case Willow walks in the door and says 'Really belated April Fools!' and we all laugh."
Buffy grabbed a slice of pepperoni and pineapple and the nearest book in a language she was competent to pretend to read. She opened it at random and stared at the crabbed lines of text. She had no idea what she was looking for, there was never an index anyway, and this was a Willow thing, darn it. Her thing was sneaking looks at the dirty woodcuts and hiding a copy of Glamour in the flyleaf. "It's just wrong, isn't it?" She rubbed her nose, hoping it would relieve the prickling in her eyes. "Research party without Willow? It's like water running uphill or white pumps after Labor Day."
"For all we know, she is here," Anya said, plunking another pile of musty tomes down on the research table between Giles and Tara. "She could be spying on us this very minute."
Tara's lip quivered. "I'd know. If she were w-watching us. She's been...I haven't sensed anything since Friday night." A large fat tear slid off the end of her nose and blotted the parchment in front of her. Spike held out a handkerchief in wordless penitence. Tara took it without looking at him, but her fingers lingered on his for a second longer than necessary. Spike was treating her with the same exaggerated gentleness he'd used when she'd been brainsucked, and Tara seemed to allow his clumsy attempts at kindness as much because it made him feel better as because she required them. She blew her nose and shoved the book into the center of the table. "I think this spell may help. It's for purifying air, but I think we could adapt it to make a kind of Hellmouth survival bubble."
As the others crowded around the book, Buffy corralled Xander. "We'd better get going if we want this set up and tested by tomorrow night." She nibbled on a donut. "Spike and I can truck the heavy stuff. Is your boss going to notice all this stuff walking off the site?"
Xander shook his head. "Not if it tiptoes. Oh, and on a personal note? I'm not only not fired, I may get a battlefield promotion, since Tony hasn't shown up for work since Friday."
Anya beamed at him. "Sometimes it's an advantage working in a town where traumatic neck injuries are so common."
Xander looked askance at Spike. "Uh huh. You do have an alibi for all of that night, right?"
Spike gave him a two-fingered salute. "See if I ever do you any favors."
Buffy abandoned her book to its fate and drifted to the front of the store, peering out through the security shutters across the front windows for sign of Harbingers. Coast clear. She leaned into the doorframe, forehead to the glass, wondering idly what she ought to wear to Sandra's party if the world didn't end. Maybe she could blow just a teensy bit more of the bankbook on something new for herself. After a moment she realized that Xander had scuffed up beside her, hands shoved into his pockets. "She's really planning on doing it, isn't she?" he asked, voice husky. "I didn't believe she'd go through with it. It's Willow." His shoulders slumped. "If we could talk to her, just once more..."
"We'll get another chance," Buffy said. "Phasers on stun, right?"
Xander nodded, unhappiness plain on his face. "I always thought that no matter what happened, the four of us would always come out of it together, you know? And then you died. Now Giles is going back to England, and..." His head dropped and he stared down at the worn toes of his work boots.
"It's OK, Xander," she said. Keep it soft, keep it firm. It hurt her badly enough, and he'd known Willow forever and a day longer than she had. "I know you'll always be here."
"That's just the thing, Buff." He sounded miserable. "I won't. I mean, I'll be here. In Sunnydale. If you ever need extra help, or contracting, or pizza, the Xandman is your man. End of the world, holler and I'll come running. But as far as the day-to-day slaying goes—" He took a deep breath. "After the wedding, I'm done. Anya and I have been doing a lot of talking, and...she wants a family, and I can't—if I have kids, I'm gonna be there for them every night. The whole idea scares me shitless, but if I can't face my own monsters, then what the hell have I been doing facing down other people's for the last six years? This promotion at work—I could be making real money if I put my back into it. Enough that we could seriously think about the white picket fence thing. And—God, say something, Buffy, please tell me you're not mad!"
He looked so bereft standing there, all awful shaggy haircut and worried brown eyes. Not the geeky kid she'd run into on the high school steps any longer; her Xander-shaped friend had gotten taller and broader and God, Xander was a grown-up. Tears welled up in her eyes, and Buffy laughed. "Xander—you love what you do, don't you? The building stuff?"
He blinked. "Well... yeah. It's—I'm good at it. Really good. And it's maybe just ordinary work, but I'm... The world's ending, and I'm thinking about next year."
"The world's always ending. If we don't live like it isn't, we'll never live at all." She pulled him into an impulsive hug, and Xander hugged back, hard enough that she almost felt it. "You've found your life, Xander. How could I be mad about that? That's why I do this end-of-the-world stuff to begin with, so people can have lives. And you're one of my favorite people." Buffy drew away, smiling up at him. "And kids—not a problem. You'll be a great dad."
He snorted. "Yeah, my family photo album is itemized list of everything not to do." He glanced back towards the research table, where Spike was arguing with Giles over a translation. "Does it ever...I mean, kids. The concept. Do you ever see yourself as a mom? Because me as a dad, every time I get close the brain shorts out."
Buffy shrugged, lacing her arms beneath her breasts. "That was Angel's big deal, not mine. My fantasies only made it as far as the big orange-blossom and Vera Wang wedding. Two AM feedings and diaper changes, not high on the romance meter. Kids might be something to think about if I live long enough to retire..." Sudden, stunning thought: that might really happen, with three Slayers running around. Her expression went mischievous. "Of course we'd have to adopt. Or see if the sperm bank has any short blue-eyed donors with curly brown hair and killer cheekbones." Xander was gaping at her, and Buffy giggled. "Oh, come on, Xander! This is the twenty-first century. If Spike's tadpoles don't make the swim team it's not the end of the world. And speaking of which..."
Back at the research table, Buffy slipped an arm around Spike's waist. He enveloped her in one leather-clad arm, nuzzling the top of her head with that low purring rasp of a growl. Across the table Xander was doing the same to Anya, minus the growling. Giles was pointing out a relevant passage of the spell as Tara and Dawn looked on, absorbed in the acquisition of knowledge and pizza. "I love you all," Buffy said, softly enough that even Spike cocked his head as if he weren't sure he'd heard right. She swallowed. "I—I just wanted to say that once. Without, you know, death threats attached."
Dawn clipped her shoulder lightly and smiled. "Hey. Wouldn't be you without death threats."
The black-robed man knelt and held out the tiny, precious object in both cupped hands. "As you instructed, Exalted Vessel."
Willow suppressed her squick and plucked the wad of Juicyfruit from his palm, holding the gum between thumb and forefinger in a manner calculated to minimize surface contact. It was still gooey, crusted with dirt and, with any luck, spit. Gross, but necessary. Tara and Anya had come up with a counterspell to her more generic locator spell days ago. She'd picked strands of Tara's hair off her own sweater, spirited wadded-up Kleenex from Dawn's backpack, and dispatched one of the crazies to Spike's crypt to bring back scraps of cloth stained with things even grosser than used gum. "Are you sure it's Xander's?" she asked. "Because if I end up tracking one of his beer-bellied construction buddies across half of Sunnydale again—"
The hooded head jerked down between dusty black shoulders, hoping to avoid decapitation by the edge in her voice. "I observed him discard it myself, Exalted Vessel."
"Fine. Dismissed." Willow watched it slink off to join its remaining brethren around the reassembled altar. She took the gum over to a small brazier set up before a large map of Sunnydale. The sullen vermillion light painted her face with blood—out, damned spot. Willow crouched before the brazier, took up a handful of incense and sprinkled the tiny beads of resin over the coals. Each grain melted with a hiss and a crackle; fat green sparks flew up around her and the air filled with a pungent, nose-prickling scent.
Even magic brought no pleasure now. She hadn't slept more than four hours at a stretch in days, and sometimes she could almost believe that there was nothing more to the universe than the endless tangle of caverns and tunnels—Many fall down to the Underworld, but few return to the sunlit lands. What she wouldn't give for the scent of burning Marshwiggle. Willow brushed the last of the sticky residue off her fingers and held out one hand, palm flat, and dropped the wad of chewing gum onto the coals. "Alexander Lavelle Harris, protraho."
The magic might fail to delight, but at least it didn't fail. On the map of Sunnydale pasted to the cavern wall, a glowing mote labeled 'Xander' appeared, moving slowly along Main and joining the half-dozen other dots milling about the town: Buffy, Dawn, Spike, Tara—her very own Marauder's Map. She still hadn't been able to get anything from Anya or Giles; anyone who'd worked with magic as long as they had grew suitably paranoid about destroying items which might be used against them.
Willow sat back on her heels and watched the tiny golden lights. Xander was at work. Tara was on the UCS campus, not all that far away. Buffy and Spike were...crap, not again. She jumped to her feet, shoved the nearest Harbingers out of her way, and raced over to the irregular row of scrying bowls set up along the nearest cavern wall. Poured-concrete birdbaths, a big step up from pie plates. In each shallow bowl the silvery surface of the water revealed a different set of murky images. Willow passed a hand over the nearest one and the picture flared to life. Buffy and Spike, squared off against four or five Harbingers. They must have broken through the tunnel roof inside her protective ring of illusions.
She clapped her hands together with a shouted word that left her throat raw, and the world disintegrated around her. A queasy moment later reality snapped back into focus and Willow was standing in the middle of the tunnel, twenty feet or so behind the line of Harbingers. A pile of fresh rubble from the new hole in the ceiling half-choked the passageway opposite, and Spike and Buffy stood side by side, taking advantage of their newly-created higher ground halfway up the treacherous slope. They'd brought weapons this time, short swords suited to close fighting in an enclosed space, and one Harbinger was already lying spreadeagled at the foot of the little hill, the slowly widening pool of its blood darkening the earth below.
"Thicken!" Willow cried, thrusting both hands out, fingers crooked to rake power from the air around her and send it lancing towards her targets—she'd trap the Harbingers too, but that couldn't be avoided. The air grew glassy and opaque for a second, but refused to solidify, resisting her command. Someone had a counter-spell going. She reached out of herself, feeling for telltale traces of power—there; gauzy veils of pale green and violet clouded the aether around the interlopers, sending her spells awry. Tara and Anya, working in concert. A counter-spell that powerful had to be chanted continuously to work, so if either of them lost their concentration... She knew where Tara was; if she sent a Harbinger to distract her, maybe even bring her here—
Buffy's cell phone rang, loud and brash against the muffled grunts of the fight, and she fell back a step, pulling her cell from within her jacket while Spike surged forward in a flurry of short vicious slashes and jabs. "Kind of busy here, G—what? You're sure? Oh, God. We'll be right there." She stuffed the phone back in her pocket and dove back down the hill of debris, stones rolling beneath her boots. "Dawn's missing," she gasped, grabbing Spike's arm. "This can wait." Her furious green eyes met Willow's. "I'm trying really hard to remember we're friends, Will. If she's hurt, expect an attack of early-onset Alzheimer's."
"What?" Willow yelped, stung by the left-field accusation. The darkness drained from her eyes. "I haven't—" But Buffy was already clambering back up the pile of earth and stone, Spike at her back. One after the other they leaped upwards and were gone, Buffy sending one last angry, disdainful look over her shoulder.
Willow stood there in confusion for a moment, as the remaining Harbingers cringed against the wall, waiting for orders. What was going on? With a muttered incantation she teleported back in the main cavern and strode over to the locator map. Buffy's, Spike's, and Tara's lights were all closely grouped now, and heading across town with a speed that indicated that they must be in a car—probably Spike's, since it was still an hour or so shy of sunset. Xander's light had left the job site and was heading in the same general direction the others were taking.
Anya was probably still with Tara, and Giles might be with them, with Xander, or on his own. But all of them were converging on one spot. Dawn's sigil glowed all by itself, in the middle of the city block Willow knew better than almost any other. The old high school. The Hellmouth. Why would Dawn go there? Dawn was perfectly capable of haring off on some wild-eyed scheme, but why now? Was there some third party in play here, one of the wandering godlets, maybe? Or had the First decided to take matters into its own immaterial hands, luring Dawn away with visions of her mother or something? Or was this some big fake-out on Buffy's part to get her out in the open? Buffy was like an overprotective lioness where Dawn was concerned; how likely was it that she'd willingly allow her sister to mess around in the gateway to a hell dimension?
There was no way to tell without more information, and no way to get information without going after it. Willow turned to the nearest Harbinger. "Any of the crazies that aren't too many french fries short of a Happy Meal, get them together, and bring them here. You'll be coming too, except for whoever needs to stay behind and do the altar-chanty stuff." She snapped a finger. "Come on, Skippy, move it. We've got work to do."
She could feel the stirring, power arising and spreading its wings within her. There's little time left, the darkness said, no longer speaking in the voices of her dead, but in its own—old and deep and terrible, like the inexorable shifting of stone, like the petrified fang of some antediluvian terror piercing her heart. Willow Rosenberg, are you strong enough to do what must be done?
Willow tipped her head back, closing her eyes, parting her lips, spreading her arms wide. Every light in the cavern snuffed out simultaneously, and the darkness rolled in—an endless inky midnight which had inhabited the fastness of the Earth since the dawn of time, the cold depths of interstellar space chilling the molten heart of a young world. The darkness rolled in—into the cave, into her eyes, into her heart. Willow's eyes opened, and her gaze was a night without stars. "I will be."
"Ready?" Buffy asked.
Xander nodded, checking the safety before slinging the gun over one shoulder. "As I'll ever be." He craned his head back, eyes tracing a path up through the insane jungle gym of twisted girders. Two-thirds of the way up two or three massive steel beams intersected. Yeah, he could do that. Leap from wall to shattered wall like Spiderman on acid. He felt curiously light. Springloaded.
Buffy's hand lingered on his arm. Spike pulled the box of ammunition out of his duster pocket and handed it over. "S'pose I should wish you luck, but I don't want the fact I haven't got round to eating you yet get you thinking we're mates or anything."
"Yeah, I hate you too." Xander tucked the box in his pocket. The contents rattled against the case. Death-rattle. What the hell was a death-rattle? Something you gave baby ghouls?
Anya looked up at him with tear-stained cheeks and said, "You're coming back down from there alive, Alexander Harris, because we're getting married in twelve days and I refuse to let our future children be orphans. Also, I love you. I had to wait a thousand years to find you, and I can't wait another thousand, so—so don't die."
It was an order, not a request. Not one he had any qualms about following, either. So he held Anya tight, and Tara patted his hand, and Giles cleaned his glasses, and then he was climbing. He couldn't die, and that was that. Xander hauled himself up on a rusty hunk of rebar, the heavy length of metal and high-impact plastic at his back thumping against his spine as he climbed. The charred remnants of Sunnydale High loomed up around him, a twisted mass of steel beams and shattered hunks of brick and concrete.
Xander stretched full-length along the slanting rain-streaked surface of a fallen wall—part of the gym, maybe. From his vantage point he could see almost the whole city block. Except for the bulldozers guarding the Hellmouth, the heavy earthmoving machinery was mostly off at the other end of the lot, but half a dozen trucks were parked along the fence, next to the ranks of Porta-Johns, waiting for sunrise and their next loads of debris. Down below on the cleared portion of the lot was a chaotic mosaic of tire-track whorls, each separate treadmark casting its own crisp black shadow in the lunar glare of the floodlights. One small step for a man, one hell of a fall for Xander Harris.
There was movement along the fringes of the rubble pile; Tanner, Giles and Anya had taken up stations of their own, each of them setting up the crystals and candles and stinky herbs as necessary. Teleport block. On the bare earth next to the Hellmouth, Tara knelt and bowed her head—not serene, but composed, the hidden steel in her soft face very near the surface. Buffy and Spike were helping Dawn on to the winch platform; Dawn had a small metal box clutched in both hands. Her pale, set face disappeared as the line on the winch uncoiled, lowering her into the depths. Spike kicked the winch's locking mechanism closed, and he and Buffy disappeared into the shadows.
Xander felt terribly alone. No protection spells for him, nothing that might draw Willow's attention. Buffy's big solemn eyes looking up at him. "You're the best shot of all of us. And we can't afford a second one. It's got to be you." Army guy training and a white-trash childhood spent potting pigeons with BBs, and now he was taking a bead on his best friend. He pulled the ammunition case out of his coat pocket and opened it, examining the rounds inside—one was as good as the next, he supposed, but it was always so important to Willow that she pick out the exact right notebook, the exact right pencil... He chose the nearest one, unlimbered the gun, fitted the round into the chamber, and eased the barrel through a notch in the cement, sighting through the crosshairs—It's Colonel Harris, with a rifle, in the Book Depository!
She was right. It had to be him. Just as it had to be Buffy when it was Angel that needed taking down. He wouldn't want it to be anyone else.
Willow gathered power in both hands as she walked, drawing in ribbons and scraps of old spells from the air and weaving them together. Willow hoarded power from the borrowed store the First had granted her, letting it boil and seethe in her belly. Willow leached power from the bones of the earth with each step, drawing it upwards to coil and flower in her heart.
Willow took power, tamed it, shaped it, and unleashed it. "Open sesame!"
The gates facing the street blew off their hinges, flying across the bare ground in a white-hot searing fountain of molten aluminum. Willow prowled through the gap, all sass and slink, eyes gleaming obsidian, her auburn head crowned with silver flame. No more fear. No more doubt. Those things were luxuries she didn't have time for any longer. A phalanx of robed Harbingers flanked her on either side, and in their wake the sorrowful remainder of Tanner's people shuffled along. The crazies clung to one another, their whimpers and moans lost on the rising wind.
She could feel the opposition to her presence. The chanting grew louder as she approached the Hellmouth, a complex interplay of voices, Anya and Giles and a less-familiar baritone. Tara's beloved voice rose above them, solitary and pure as a nightingale above the chirping of sparrows, and the tears burned Willow's cheeks as they fell.
Dawn was out there, a wellspring of verdant power, a siren call to anyone with ears to hear it—out of sight, but far from out of mind. So were the others, but she'd deal with them later. Getting Dawn to the altar of the First and doing what she needed to do was paramount. Teleporting more than one person was tricky, but far from impossible. Willow reached out and grasped cords of magic, scarlet and silver, violet and gold. "Inanitas per subvectant!" she cried, her voice grown larger than the rest of her. Power surged out to make her will manifest, ribbons and ropes and cables to bind time and space to her will.
The tripartite chant of her enemies (enemies now?) rose higher, each word a knife cutting a strand in the net of her power. The aether rebounded, resisting her efforts, and her spell twisted, unraveled, and ebbed away. Willow fell back, her thin chest heaving, lips peeled back over white teeth. Her hair fell in wild elflocks about her face. "OK, that's pretty impressive, guys, but I don't have time to piddle around." She turned and waved the nearest handful of Harbingers forward. "The girl we want is in the Hellmouth. Get her."
On the fringes of the barren lot, in the interstices of the chain-link and the cornices of shattered walls, translucent figures were gathering, corner-of-the-eye shimmerings, walking heat-mirages in the dead of winter. A dragon floated by overhead, its voice the clangor of a thousand brazen gongs. A massive red-bearded man with a hammer, a cat-headed woman in a sheer cotton sheath, a giant coal-black raven. Dozens of them, hundreds of them, blurring in and out. A naked youth with dark curling hair and cloven hooves sat on the edge of the concrete slab, grinning at her. It toyed with a set of reed pipes and said something in a language she didn't understand. Great, she was being haunted by Zamfir. Willow sent a blast of violet lightning its way, pulverizing the concrete. The apparition laughed and faded away.
The Harbingers spread out across the expanse of naked earth, tearing down the sawhorses with their spiderwebbing of yellow plastic ribbon. They converged upon the Hellmouth and fanned away again in confusion, ants who'd lost their scent trail. Willow looked more closely and caught a familiar spell-trace—Dawn must be holding the cookie tin with the talisman for the spellcloak in it.
There were always loopholes. Tara sat oblivious on the edge of the Abyss, spinning the skein of words which kept Dawn safe in the mouth of Hell. Straw into gold, just like the fairy tale. Willow gestured, and the Harbingers turned on Tara.
Buffy catapulted over a crumpled bank of gym lockers, a sword almost as long as she was tall raised high over her head. Her blade flashed in deadly quicksilver arcs to the right and left, and the hands of the Harbingers nearest Tara fell twitching to earth, the severed veins splattering chaotic arabesques of crimson across the dirt. Spike's inhuman roar drowned out the chant for a second as he followed her, suspended in mid-air for endless seconds on black leather wings—wow, vampires got hang time. The descending head of his battle-axe ripped into the black-robed figures, toppling Bringers like saplings. The two of them fought like a single creature, striking, feinting, hazel eyes and gold blazing alike as they painted a portrait in carnage among the Bringers. Crouching Slayer, Hidden Vampire. You never really understood Buffy yammering on about being a force of nature until that force was unleashed against you, backed up by Death incarnate in black leather and peroxide.
But Willow Rosenberg was a force too, above and beyond nature or death. "Sica flammae, aboleunt!" Willow shouted. The incantation left a trail of violet fire in the air behind it, each word an incandescent dagger. Buffy dodged, barely, and the spell-blade creased her cheek, leaving a livid scorched streak. Spike whirled just in time to trade a fist-sized hole in his shoulder for a fist-sized hole in his duster. Willow didn't wait on the results of her spellcasting; she was already waving the crazies forwards. "Get the girl while the Bringers distract them! Hurry!"
Spike had lost his axe, the blade half-sunk in a concrete block and no time to pry it free. Buffy flung him the sword and went Michelle Yeoh on the nearest crazy—wading in with kicks and punches instead of tempered steel, but she wasn't pulling those punches, either. Spike caught the blade one-handed and drove it into the belly of an oncoming crazy—Jim? Ronnie? Ramon?—lifting the man half off the ground as he ripped the blade free in a fountain of blood. Willow'd seen Buffy kill people before. Human people. Gwendolyn Post. Half a dozen Knights of Byzantium. Maybe even a few crazies during the assault on Glory's tower. But there was still a tiny horrified shock in seeing Spike make his first human kill in three years, and seeing Buffy ignore it completely.
Two of the crazies had reached the winch, and together they wrenched the crank free and started hauling Dawn up. Willow heard a shriek as the winch platform jerked and thumped against the inner wall of the Hellmouth. Buffy hauled the men off, sending them flying head-first into a pile of bricks, while Spike snapped a Harbinger's spine across a fallen pillar. Vampire and Slayer stood back to back around Tara and the abandoned winch.
She had to break through the counterspell. Willow reached out for more power and a corona of silver and scarlet flared up around her. The world faded away and everything was stripped to its essence: the ragged pulsing wound of the Hellmouth, the raw unmolded power of the Key, the intertwined flames of the Slayer and her consort. Lesser flames burned closer to hand, feeble things she could snuff out at will. One of the fallen crazies went up in a pillar of colorless fire, screaming as his soul was stripped from his body, and both were dissolved into the raw stuff of magic. Willow spoke a Word that left her throat raw and bleeding and reached out. The air around Giles went sulfurous and cloudy; he collapsed, choking, his glasses shattering on the rubble.
Another crazy dissolved, another Word, and Anya staggered to her feet, wailing in terror, her eyes glued to some invisible terror. A third, and Daniel Tanner was struck dumb. Only Tara was left.
"Volo me!" Willow was hovering in mid-air now, halfway over the Hellmouth. She outshone the stars overhead; actinic light radiated all around her, painting jet-black shadows in every direction. The Medusa's nest of her hair crackled and writhed in the inferno of her power and her eyes were the void itself. Buffy stood on the winch platform below her, tiny and indomitable, Spike at her side and her sword in her hands once more. Foolish little Slayer. In the lambent gold of her aura were the lingering traces of the Raising spell, tiny threads of indigo raveling and falling away as they were no longer needed. Willow reached out with infinite delicacy and precision, to pluck the last of the threads away.
There was the Slayer, that force of nature, sword dropping from limp hands to clatter on the dead earth below. Falling to her knees, gasping for breath...
Willow laughed, high and wild and triumphant, and began her descent.
Xander remembered Willow when she was only the smart shy kid, the one too honest to let him copy her math homework, but who spent hours explaining binomials in words of one syllable till he could scrape by with a gentleman's C. He remembered Buffy when she was carefree and curvy and one vampire was a serious fight. They'd both traveled so far beyond the realm of Xander Harris, Ordinary Guy, it wasn't funny. And there was Spike, the Slayer of Slayers, and Tara, who was no slouch at the magic biz, and Giles the walking encyclopedia of the supernatural, and Anya the ex-demon...
Right now, Xander Harris, Ordinary Guy, was the most important person in the world.
On the field below, Buffy collapsed to her knees, and Spike, torn between her and Dawn, was distracted for the moment it took for Willow to lash out with a scourge of ebony lightning and swat him aside like a bug. Then she was soaring down towards the Hellmouth, glowing like Jean Grey about to torch the planet of the asparagus people. Xander swallowed fear and love together in one sickening lump, cocked, aimed, and squeezed the trigger.
The dart Willow'd enchanted herself, the dart powerful enough to take down a Krallock demon with a touch, flew straight and sure to embed itself in her thigh. For a heartbeat Willow froze, her eyes wide and shocked, and then she wavered, spinning, searching the darkness for him. Her lips moved—You too, Xander?
He couldn't see the magic, but he could see what it did. An invisible tsunami raged across the vacant lot, flinging the bulldozers aside like Tonka toys. Beneath him the snap and scream of displaced metal and stone drowned all other sound. The vast jackstraw pile of broken walls and twisted spires of rebar shifted and shuddered overhead, and the last thing Xander thought before the sky fell was, But I promised...
Continued in Part 36