The knocking at the door was insistent and loud. In any other town, the worst it could be expected to mean was that a psychotic ax murderer was making a house call. In Sunnydale, it could just as easily have been the Ancient One of the Order of Nosferatu looking for an invitation inside, a malevolent extraterrestrial dropping by for a quick abduction, or any one of a number very large, intelligent insects.
Willow was not about to take any chances. The little snub-nosed .38 loaded with silver bullets for lycanthropes went into a concealed holster behind her back. Three high-powered crossbows primed with hardwood bolts were within easy reach in various strategic location in the room. A novelty garlic spray on her key chain served for a good Sunnydale mace substitute. A SuperSoaker filled with holy water stayed at the ready in the umbrella stand near the door. And then, of course, there were enough religious symbols and wards in the place to keep anything short of a Major Power at bay.
A little paranoid, are we? asked Buffy when she saw Willow holster the gun.
Willow turned to Buffy, who was standing just off the living room in a hallway leading to the spare bedroom. In Sunnydale, paranoid is just another word for cautious. Since Im not exactly Slayer-caliber with the hand-to-hand stuff, I compensate where I can.
The knocking continued and Willow peered through the peephole of the steel-reinforced door. When she saw who it was, she hastily undid the five deadbolts. Giles entered quickly, looking tired and harried.
Giles, Willow said with a tone of genuine surprise. Youre here. I mean, here. Now.
Yes, well, so it would seem, he said a little breathlessly. Willow, I am sorry to barge in like this, but its very important. Buffy is in great danger. We have to find her before the Watchers do.
Consider me found, said Buffy, stepping from the hallway into the living room.
Buffy! said Giles with a start.
Ive been getting that a lot, lately, she said.
Youre here. I didnt nobody told me. But that isnt important at the moment. Whats important is that you get to someplace safe as quickly as possible.
Buffy crossed her arms and said, And a big hello-so-nice-to-see-you-its-been-a-long-time to you, too, Giles.
Giles hesitated, then said, Yes. Yes, of course. Very nice. And rather unexpected, I might add. This is not a good sign at all, I think.
Buffy arched an eyebrow. Wow. Such enthusiasm for the return of the Slayer.
Giles ran his hand through his hair, only serving to disorder it further. No, you dont understand. Youre here. Which means the Board may have been right all along. About the prophecy. You have to go, you see. Or it will end very badly, Im certain.
Whoa. Time out, said Buffy. Youre babbling. Lets just sit down and try to get ourselves on the same page.
Yes, the same page. Of course, Giles mumbled, sitting stiffly in one of Willows chairs.
Willow said, Im going to go get us something to drink. If thats okay.
Giles nodded. Yes. Thank you, Willow.
Willow moved off to the kitchen and Buffy drifted further into the room. She didnt sit down.
So, she said.
So, Giles echoed quietly.
Thats it? Ten years go by and all you can say is Youre in danger Buffy, theres a prophecy Buffy, hit the road Buffy?
Its a long story.
It always is.
Giles closed his eyes for a few moments, then looked at her. You dont know how very good it is to see you again. You have no idea.
No. I dont have any idea. And why do you suppose that is? she asked.
He nodded as he stared at the rug. Then he said something that Buffy never saw coming, that she never would have expected from him.
You dont have any idea because I never told you how very important you have become to me, even in your absence. Never told you how much how much poorer my life would have been without you as part of it.
What? she asked as she sat down on the couch.
He looked back up at her and shook his head sadly. Its not important, really. Not right now. There are much more important things we need to be concerned with.
No, I dont think there are, said Buffy.
For an instant, Buffy thought Giles was about to give in and explain, but just then Willow returned with a tray of iced teas and provided him with a way out.
Oh, Willow. Very good. Where was I, then? Right, the prophecy. And the Watchers, he said.
Its nice that you know where you are, but we dont, said Willow, handing out the glasses.
Then Id best start at the beginning
Buffy just sat, watching him, her mind somewhere other than on Slayer lore and ancient divinations. It was too easy to start living your life in accordance with what you thought they told you. They distracted you from more important things, more important feelings. After awhile, if you let yourself be caught up in their spell, they made you forget you were a human being instead of a blind instrument of fate or destiny.
Distantly she was aware of Giles saying something concerning a prophecy about the unification of light and darkness and the end of the world. That caught her attention.
The Apocalypse, she said, recalling the recent visions that haunted her sanity.
Giles stopped what he was saying. Yes, that would be the commonly used term for it. In any event, the Watchers are convinced that you, Buffy, are to be the agent of that Apocalypse. And they see your death as the only way to prevent you from fulfilling the prophecy.
Buffy stiffened. Excuse me? Did you just tell me that the Watchers want me dead?
Yes. Unfortunately. And against my wishes, of course.
I would hope against your wishes, said Buffy. Now, forgive my stupidity here, but I thought the Watchers were supposed to protect the Slayer, not put hits out on her.
Its rare, but on occasion a Slayer proves unwilling or incapable of discharging her responsibilities. Evil is quite fond of ineffective Slayers. It is able to go about its business in relative safety. So the Board, the controlling entity of the Watchers, has been known in these circumstances to eliminate, shall we say the current Slayer in order to enable a new one to be activated.
Activated. Like a robot, said Buffy, her thoughts dark and hard.
Yes. Like a robot, said Giles. Watchers arent supposed to become sentimental. They are supposed to owe their highest duty to ensuring that the eternal battle between light and darkness is maintained to the advantage of the light. We arent supposed to care more about any one individual than to that overarching purpose. Unfortunately, I havent exactly been an exemplar of that ideal, and as such I have become something of a problem for them. Which means they very likely have decided to kill me as well as you. Im sorry. There was nothing I could say to stop them. Not this time.
Not this time? Whats that supposed to mean? There were other times they wanted me dead? Jeez, Giles. Like I havent had enough to worry about with vampires and revenants and giant mantis women trying to kill me, now I have homicidal Watchers to deal with?
Its not something you should have to worry about in an ideal world. Nor are vampires and demons. But we cant wish them away. We shall just have to deal with them as best we can, said Giles.
Buffy rose, feeling slightly unsteady with a mixture of anger at the betrayal of the Watchers and fear that her recent visions of a Slayer-led Armageddon were prophetic rather than insane.
I have to get some air. Get my head clear. Well talk about this some more when I can deal with it better, she said. Then she took her jacket from the coat rack near the door and headed out into that one constant companion of her life, the night.
* * *
Um, Giles? I think you should really take a look at this, said Willow, transfixed by the television screen.
In a minute, said Giles. Buffy had disappeared into the night less than half an hour ago, but Giles had chosen to stay. He was currently deep into some notes he was making on a piece of paper. Willow had decided to distract herself from the whole affair by watching the evening news.
No, I think now would be a good idea. Really.
Very well, what is it? said Giles, turning toward the screen.
Its Buffy. Except its not. Look, said Willow.
And it was Buffy. Or at least it looked exactly like her, speaking to a reporter. The caption on the newscast identified the location as New York City, and the speaker as Lillith Prophet. The unusual and newsworthy thing about Ms. Prophet is that she apparently had gained, almost overnight, a majority interest in, or outright ownership of, a wide variety of legitimate businesses, from communications to agriculture to energy to defense.
Oh, dear. This is most troubling, said Giles.
Just a little, I would think, said Willow.
But it does explain some things, possibly. Lillith Prophet. Prophet. Yes, I think it makes sense, now.
You know what this means? asked Willow.
Not entirely. Not without a great deal of additional research. But it certainly does suggest that the prophecies of Buffy being the agent of the Apocalypse may not actually apply to our Buffy, but to this Prophet.
I dont understand this. How can there be another Buffy?
Im not entirely sure. But if theres one thing we do know after so long, almost anything is possible.
He looked down at his work again and threw down his pencil in anger. If I could just get this translation worked out, I think everything would make sense.
Willow moved over to him and glanced at his papers. They were covered with symbols and fragmentary translations.
Thats the prophecy? she asked.
Giles nodded. Yes. The Watchers have translated it as The Chosen of Light shall join into Darkness, and will bring forth a great destruction, and upon the ruins of the world shall the reign of the dark ones be brought forth again.
And thats why the Watchers think that Buffy must be killed? asked Willow.
But, their translation is wrong.
Their translation. The first sentence. Look at that glyph. That doesnt mean to join into. It means to be joined with. The cases of the verbs are different. One implies a willing participation, the other suggests a compulsion against ones will. Its subtle, but the Watchers should have picked up on it.
Giles looked at the glyphs with growing comprehension. Ill be damned. I think youre right. But how?
Giles, its not like I havent been studying up on this stuff all these years.
Youre amazing, Willow. What does it say, according to your understanding of the text? he asked, handing her a sheet of paper with the original prophecy on it.
Willow examined the sheet for several minutes, running several different permutations of grammar and syntax through her mind. Then she announced, It says, 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.
Giles leaned back in his chair and looked from the page in Willows hand to the television, which was now showing a commercial for a fabric detergent. Yes, thats it. I should have seen it right away.
Whats it? Should have seen what right away? Whats the detergent got to do with it? asked Willow.
Not the detergent. This Prophet. Its obvious why she looks exactly like Buffy. I knew it was theoretically possible, but I never seriously thought
What is it, Giles! snapped Willow.
The outburst seemed to bring Giles around and he fixed Willow with an intense gaze.
I believe that Lillith Prophet shares Buffys soul, he said.
* * *
Lillith Prophet turned from the expanse of windows that overlooked the nighttime tableau of Manhattan and waited for Sinclair to cross the marble floor to her monolithic black desk. A slight smile played at the corners of her mouth.
Youve done far more groundwork in preparation for my arrival than I would have expected of a mortal. Already I find myself in control of many of the instruments I will need to implement the agenda. I am impressed. And pleased, she said.
Thank you, Lady Prophet. Your praise is far more than I deserve, said Sinclair.
No, it isnt. Frankly, I have come to expect a certain level of incompetence on the part of mortals. But you and your Cabal have operated professionally and efficiently in every facet of this operation. That deserves recognition.
Sinclair looked immeasurably relieved.
What, Gabriel? Did you think I would slaughter you and your people as soon as the containment ward came down? That would be foolish, she said.
Its just that demons, your Ladyship, have been known to be unpredictable, said Sinclair.
Yes, the minor ones. The enthusiasm of youth. But Im an Elder Power, Gabriel. I have existed in one form or another for countless ages. Ive brought forth the Apocalypse on a hundred worlds, seen countless civilizations rise and fall, watched stars die and witnessed new worlds coalesce from their ashes. Thats a long life. When you live so long, you learn the value of restraint and planning.
So powerful, yet you still need us? Why? And to what purpose? asked Gabriel.
Ah, youre curious. I like that in a person. Blind followers are stupid followers. Tell me, Gabriel. You dont understand my purpose, yet you called me forth. You worked long and hard and sacrificed much for this day, and yet you really dont perceive the deeper meaning of Armageddon. So why do it? Why fulfill a prophecy you cant understand and that was never the whole truth to begin with?
Gabriel shrugged. It began, I suppose, as it does for most who serve your kind. A quest for power, an intoxication with the notion of embracing the darkness rather than the light.
But it didnt end with that, did it?
No. It doesnt take a genius to figure out that the darkness always in the end destroys those who embrace it. There is no power, no reward at the end of that road. Nothing but oblivion, and then only if youre lucky.
So why, then?
Because I did perceive, just a bit, that there was a larger design at work. That somehow this was all meant to play out in this way. I realized that it went beyond childish notions of right and wrong, good and evil. It was bigger than that, though exactly how I didnt know and still dont. But I wanted to have a role in it. Not a minor role, but a principal one.
Lillith nodded. Good. You are a shrewd one. And you have a reasonable sense of things. You are quite correct, for instance, about this going beyond good and evil. Evil is too often mankinds way of blaming his own failings on forces beyond his control. It is an excuse. An abrogation of the responsibility that comes with the gift of free will. I, and those who will follow me, are here to force the issue. To force this most promising and infuriating race to once and for all decide what it wants to be. If it fails the test, it dies. I am on the side of those who will try to see that they fail. Others, including my soul-sister, are tasked with the opposite. All of your history comes down to this moment, Gabriel. It is the beginning of the final battle for the hearts, minds, and souls of the human race.
* * *
Buffy wandered the quiet streets of Sunnydale for a long time after leaving Willows house. The crisp Fall air made her feel more alive than she had in years, and every familiar avenue and landmark seemed to put her in closer touch with the girl she had once been. Shed thought that the Buffy of old was long gone, but her ghost still haunted these dark, windswept streets.
Although she hadnt intended to, she eventually found herself standing across from where her house had been. It was gone now, of course. Destroyed in the final great battle for Sunnydale that had once and for all time closed the Hell Mouth. Before then, she thought shed known what evil was, thought she could deal with whatever it had to offer. But she had learned the hard way that she couldnt. No sane person could. The Abyss was vast and its capacity for horror infinite. That last battle had broken something deep inside her and left her empty of the fire and resolve that had once driven her. Shed never been back, not since she walked away that night into the darkness, and into her own growing madness and despair.
Someone had built a new house where hers had been. It was a nice enough little two story affair with white aluminum siding and a white picket fence. Something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. A final defiance of the dark and terrible things that had sought to make Sunnydale their beachhead into the world of mankind.
Buffy looked at the idyllic little place for a long time, and finally smiled. The world needed more white picket fences.
She glanced at her watch. Past twelve, but she wasnt tired. She toyed with the idea of seeing if The Bronze was still in business, but decided against it. That place, if it was still around, was for another generation. She had grown up, and in many ways grown old. Responsibility had a way of doing that to a person.
So she wandered through a place she hoped never to see again, alert but not really expecting any trouble. According to Willow, the graveyard had been a relatively quiet place since the last battle. It was once again somewhere in which the dead could find peace. Peace. That was one thing the dead had over her. If there was any place in the world where she could find peace, shed not found it yet. Maybe it was like the Holy Grail, an aspiration no one could ever realize. Or maybe it was only she who could never realize it.
She lay down on the cool grass near a familiar tombstone. All the ones in this older part of the graveyard were familiar, like old friends who would always be there for her. She watched the clear night sky for a long time, her mind drifting through the black, jeweled infinite. What am I in all that? she wondered just before she fell into a dreamless, visionless sleep.
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