Part 1

The cantor finished the incantation and Sinclair could actually feel the cascade of energy from the VonAlbrecht ward as it came down around the Sword of the Prophet. The Sword itself still hung there, suspended hilt down above the ages-old, rune-carved, circular stone dais. The dais concealed a Nexus, a confluence of several planes of existence.

He smiled. A feeling of deep, profound satisfaction coursed through him. Not elation or joy, but satisfaction. A job well done, his mission all but fulfilled except for one final deed.

He stepped forward from the ring of robed and hooded Cabal members and approached the Sword. As he reached the base of the dais, he pulled back his hood and recited the words that had been etched into his memory in the endless years of planning for this day.

“And when the Prophet of Darkness shall be joined with the Chosen of Light, there will come unto the World a great Destruction, and upon the ruins of the Old World shall the Dominion of the Fallen be raised anew. Thus it has been foretold. Thus let it be.”

He grasped the Sword by its hilt and, absent the VonAlbrecht ward that had kept it secure for so long, it came easily to him. He stepped back, watching the flames of the chamber’s torches flicker sinuously along its polished length. Then he approached the dais again and placed the weapon in a carved depression in the center, a depression shaped expressly for the sword that it now received.

Light flared from the runes in the dais, the chamber resonating with unleashed power. A column of pure, ethereal fire leapt from the dais to the ceiling, momentarily blinding the assembled Cabal. And then something appeared in the midst of the incandescing energy. It began as a darkness that grew and took recognizable form. And when it was finished, Gabriel Sinclair looked into the same eyes that had been the last living sight of so many of the Children, into the face of an enemy who was now his most powerful ally in the universe.

*                              *                              *

The final bell of the day rang and Willow had to raise her voice above the din of students eager to storm the gates of freedom. “I want you to read the section on binary trees. If you understood the chapter on binary heaps, you shouldn’t have a problem with them. If you didn’t, come see me.”

No one stopped for help. Within moments, the Advanced Computers class was gone, even Percy Whirton, who normally needed to be pried from his workstation by force. Willow smiled. Percy couldn’t wait to get out of class because had a date for the evening. Well, stranger things had happened in Sunnydale.

“If that’s what they’re teaching in Computers these days, I’m going to have to stay for the remedial class.”

The box of diskettes Willow was fussing with dropped to the desk, flinging its contents across the hardwood and onto the worn linoleum floor. She turned to the speaker, momentarily unable to generate a coherent thought.

“Oh … um … Buffy,” was the extent of it, in that half-stating, half-questioning voice she used when doubting what was right in front of her. “What I mean to say is … Buffy!”

It was, too. Her friend was standing in the classroom doorway, dressed in jeans, black tee shirt, and a leather jacket. A large duffel bag rested on the floor beside her. It was not an apparition from the past, no delusion brought on by the cafeteria food. This was the real thing.

Buffy smiled, but it was an uncertain smile that spoke volumes about self-doubts and regrets. She waved hesitantly. “Um … hi, Willow. You look … you look terrific.”

“Oh. Oh. I can’t believe … I mean, I was just going to go for coffee. So, maybe you’d like to come, since you’re here and all, after all. No, that didn’t sound right …” said Willow.

“Will, stop. I’d love to.”

Willow smiled awkwardly. She bent down to pick up the wayward diskettes and said, “It’s nice to see you, Buffy. I’ve missed you.”

“And I’ve missed far too much. But especially you,” said Buffy, looking very sad suddenly. She looked quite small to Willow just then. Buffy Summers had always seemed ten feet tall before, regardless of her actual inches. Now she just seemed like a lost kitten. Somehow, that in itself was more profoundly disturbing than any undead minion or ancient demon they had fought together in the past.

It made Willow feel very cold, and more than a little frightened.

*                              *                              *

“I was beginning to think you weren’t ever going to come back,” said Willow as they sat at the corner booth in the Daily Grind coffee house, a recent addition to the Sunnydale social scene.

Buffy took a sip of her cappuccino, the foam leaving a white mustache on her upper lip. Willow thought for a second that Buffy looked like her high-school self again, as if no time at all had passed for them, as if the universe had just stopped one day ten years ago and had decided at this moment to pick up again exactly where it had left off.

“I wasn’t going to,” said Buffy. “Sometimes you don’t have a choice. And sometimes you do have choices and you have to take the difficult one.”

“You never were one to take the easy way out,” said Willow.

Buffy looked down into her coffee. “I’m not so sure of that. Vanderdecken Psychiatric Center wasn’t exactly the most courageous way I could have found to face my demons.”

Willow reached out and touched her friend’s hand lightly. “No one blames you for that. The things you’ve seen, what you’ve had to do, the sacrifices you’ve been forced to make — you did better than anyone could ever have expected of another human being.”

Buffy smiled wistfully. “Thanks.”

“It’s true.”

“Maybe. Anyway, I’m back now.”

“Why?” asked Willow. Then, thinking that perhaps it sounded like an accusation, she added. “What I mean is, you said you had a hard choice to make coming back here, but you didn’t explain it.”

Buffy was silent for a long moment, then said, “I don’t know why, exactly. Something’s coming, something very big and very dark, and all I know is that this time the bad guys might really win. Forever.”

Willow studied her friend, and could see enough of the old Buffy to detect something else beneath the surface. “But there’s more, isn’t there?”

Buffy nodded, shifting her gaze from Willow to the coffee to the traffic outside. She returned to staring at the cup, turning it absently on the table. “Yeah. There’s more. This time, I think I might be one of the bad guys.”

*                              *                              *

“She must be eliminated before the prophecy can be fulfilled. The wording is clear,” said the well-attired man at the head of the table. He had a deadness to his voice. In fact, the whole man seemed as dead and colorless as his perfectly fitted gray suit.

Giles could see agreement flicker in the eyes of the other members of the Board. “No, no it isn’t at all clear. Prophecy by its very nature is uncertain, cloudy. We can attempt to interpret it, but more often than not we only succeed in imposing our own predispositions onto that interpretation. Prophecy only makes clear sense in hindsight, I’m afraid. And even then it is subject to gross misinterpretation. It is not an acceptable tool by which to set policy. Certainly not policy of this magnitude.”

A hard-faced woman several chairs down stubbed out her cigarette in an ashtray and said, “I’m inclined to agree with the Director on this. The prophecy appears unambiguous on its face. I don’t see how you can interpret this one any differently.”

Giles shook his head and ran a hand through his hair. “This is all very rash. The tablet was only just uncovered. We cannot be certain of its provenance, nor can we be sure of its context without further excavation of the site. Not to mention that the dialect is particularly obscure and the translation is subject to error. If even the nuance of one word is incorrect, your thesis could be completely erroneous.”

Another man, gray-haired and unsympathetic-looking, said, “Unfortunately, we do not have the time to await the results of an excavation and study that might take five years to yield even minimal correlating evidence. I’m afraid we must act. The Slayer must die or the world will be plunged into darkness and chaos, the Seven Seals will be broken, and the Apocalypse will engulf the world.”

“We will put it to the vote,” said the Director. He placed an elaborate ceramic jar on the conference table. “Voting black indicates a vote for termination of the current Slayer and the activation of her successor. White supports Watcher Giles’ position.”

The jar made its rounds, but Giles knew it was a foregone conclusion. Although the balloting was done in secret, with no member revealing which color marble he or she dropped into the jar, the anonymity only served to bolster the resolve of those leaning toward Buffy Summers’ death. There were far more votes for that ultimate sanction this time than last time, when he had managed to block the Board from issuing the termination order. Their motives had seemed logical to them at the time. If the current Slayer could not or would not discharge her duties, then the way had to be cleared for a new Slayer. But Giles knew in his heart that it was wrong, because he knew Buffy Summers the person, knew the intelligent, witty, compassionate human being who lived behind the title of Slayer. And for the same reasons, he knew this decision was unforgivably misguided, however lofty the Board’s motives.

Salvation would never, could never, come through murder.

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