They stood at the mouth of the cave, side by side, looking out across the blasted and wasted landscape of Hell. For all the bleakness of both the place and her mission, Buffy felt a profound sense of happiness, a contentment shed not known in a long time. Never known, perhaps.
Angel broke the silence.
Youve pretty much been going around in circles, he said.
But I followed the road.
Yeah, thats the problem with this place. You see, your perceptions of the environment tend to affect it, alter it. Even unconscious fears or desires can have a very real influence. In this case, I would bet that deep down you probably dont want this confrontation with the Prophet, so you ended up going in circles.
Buffy though about it and said, Its more than that. I dont really want to be the Slayer. I never wanted that. Ive accepted the role, but part of me has always rebelled against it, rejected it.
Angel sighed. I can take you to Lillith Prophet, but I cant make you want to be the Slayer. Maybe it would be crazy if you did want to be her. But between now and when we arrive, youre going to have to decide that, because if you show any weakness to Prophet, shell destroy you.
I know. And you know better than anyone that when its time for an old-fashioned good-versus-evil slugfest, Im always the Slayer first and Buffy second, she said. This is one Slayer who isnt going down without one hell of a fight.
I wouldnt expect anything less of you, said Angel.
Well, she said. A beat passed and she continued. I suppose wed better get started. How far do we have to go?
Prophets palace is about half a days journey from here. Thats half a day by your watch. That sort of reference doesnt really have much meaning here.
Then wed better go. The sooner I get this damned chore over with, the sooner we can start our lives again.
They headed out into the infernal heat of the demon plane, and Buffy wondered if she could really be as brave as she sounded when the time came. She thought hard about that, and finally decided she didnt know.
* * *
I really think at least one of us should be at the museum. I mean, what if Buffy comes back and were not there? asked Willow.
Giles looked up from his work at the small table in the temporary warehouse headquarters and said, I can appreciate your concern, but theres no telling when shell return. Camping out in the basement of the museum isnt an option, long-term. It would attract attention to us, and more importantly to the portal. We cant risk one of Prophets followers discovering it and destroying it. Then Buffy would be lost to us for sure.
Willow nodded uncertainly. Still, it doesnt seem right. What if shes hurt, or or I dont know.
Giles moved over to where Willow was sitting on the old couch and put a reassuring hand on her shoulder. Willow, if Buffy manages to fight her way through the minions of Hell and make it back, Im sure shell have the presence of mind to use the pay phone down the hall and call us. Collect, if need be. Now, in the meantime, you have a job at the high school to attend to, and I have a great deal of research to do if were going to stand any chance of anticipating the next move in the Elder Powers little chess game.
So, what youre saying is even if Buffy succeeds, this isnt the end of it.
No, very likely not. Elder Powers dont just pop up on a whim. They always have a plan, an agenda. We have to find out what that is if we and Buffy are going to stop it.
Willow nodded, moved over to the laptop computer shed set up near Giles workspace, and booted the machine up. She cracked her knuckles dramatically, like a pianist getting ready to perform.
In that case, youre going to need my help, she said, smiling.
* * *
In the back of her mind, Buffy had expected a dark, forbidding castle perched on a storm-swept, rocky spire. Or at the very least, a gothic-looking palace of somber granite and cold slate roofs.
Probably the last thing she expected was that Lillith Prophets regional headquarters in Hell would look like something out of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. It had an in-ground swimming pool, for Heavens sake. A pool!
The whole estate, its Mediterranean-style white stucco walls and red clay tile roof glaring in the supernatural day, sat on a low hill that afforded its tenant a spectacular view of a whole lot of nothing. After two days of traveling through that nothing, Buffy was beginning to understand why demons always had such a major jones for getting into her world.
She returned her attention to the mansion shimmering in the heat a hundred yards away. Incongruous amid the surrounding desolation, delicate rose arbors and sparkling fountains adorned Prophets domain, making it seem almost inviting.
Great. I come all the way to Hell to fight Ultimate Evil, and I find out that the devil is really Martha Stewart, she said.
Angel didnt appear to be in the mood for levity.
Hey, cheer up, ya big lug. Whats the point in waging war on Hell if you cant have a sense of humor about it?
She punched him lightly in the shoulder.
This is a bad idea, he said.
Yeah, well, it probably is. But unless you got a better way for me to get the deed to my soul back, this is the way its going to have to be.
Yeah, I suppose so. Whats the plan?
Gonna go up and knock on the front door.
Tell me youre joking again, said Angel.
Nope. If all Prophet wanted was my head on a pike in her courtyard, she would have sent everything she had at me as soon as I stepped through the portal. She wants something from me, and that gives me an advantage.
I wouldnt be so sure. Elder Powers arent exactly tolerant of lesser beings getting in their way.
Lesser beings? You and Giles went to the same charm school, didnt you? Buffy teased.
The point is, you shouldnt think you know what Lillith is up to. Sometimes what those entities do makes sense only to them.
Buffy smirked. Sounds like a good description of guys, if you ask me. Cmon, I dont want to be late for the end of the world.
She set off toward the palace at a brisk pace, and Angel had to hurry to catch up.
* * *
The front gate to Lilliths palace had an intercom on it. Buffy decided that sometimes it was better just not to ask questions about some things. If demons wanted intercoms, or cell phones, or satellite dishes, that was their business.
She pressed the buzzer.
Prophets residence, came a female voice from the speaker. Buffy supposed it sounded like her. She couldnt be sure. She never recognized her own voice when she heard it.
Slayer-gram, she said.
Angel rolled his eyes and Buffy chucked him on the arm again.
About bloody time, answered the intercom. Sweetened or unsweetened?
How do you take your iced tea? Sweetened or unsweetened?
Oh, said Buffy. Sweet, with a twist of lemon.
She glanced at Angel, who was standing with his hands in his pockets, looking unhappy at the whole thing.
Bolts clicked back within the gate, and Buffy pushed it open.
Come on in. You, too, Angel. Always nice to have one of the Kindred stop by. Well, former Kindred, in your case.
They passed through the gate and made their way along a well tended red brick path that passed through an ornamental courtyard and under a marble-columned arcade before it brought them to the main entrance of the house. The heavy double doors swung inward silently.
Inside, the palace was blessedly cool. It was also very upscale, all done in fine Italian marble and intricate tile tessellations. For a demon hangout, it certainly had a certain level of class. On a little table in the center of the main room sat a tray with two glasses of iced tea and a full pitcher beaded with moisture. Buffy looked at them longingly.
Go ahead. Its not poison, and its not some sort of trick to corrupt your soul through temptation. The least an Elder Power can do is be a gracious host.
The voice came from a broad flight of marble steps leading in a graceful sweep up to a gallery that ran around the edge of the great room in which they stood. Descending the stairs, dressed in an elegantly tailored white silk dress, was Buffy.
Or rather, it was Lillith Prophet, looking exactly like her soul mate standing in the room below.
Hello, Angel. Thank you for delivering my soul-sister intact. I trust your payment was satisfactory? said Prophet.
Buffys eyes went wide as she turned to Angel, shock warring with disbelief.
What? she asked, desperation and anger in her voice.
Angel looked just as surprised as she did.
I he began, and Lillith laughed.
Oh, you humans are so easy. That was just a little test on my part. I wanted to see something and I saw it. Looks like you, Buffy, dont trust tall, dark and handsome here as much as you might think you do, said the demon.
Why should she? Angel asked. Ive terrorized her, lied to her, killed people she cared about. Why in hell should she ever trust me?
Lillith pretended to think about that for a moment. This is true. She turned to Buffy. And you, you should be ashamed of yourself, playing Angel for such a sucker no pun intended.
Excuse me? asked Buffy.
Oh, who are you trying to kid, asked the Prophet. She walked over to a sword stand at one end of the room and lifted a Japanese katana longsword from it. She unsheathed it and laid the scabbard aside.
Buffy tensed, but Prophet made no move to attack. She merely pointed the weapon with one hand at Angel and said, What if I told you that you could save the world from the coming Apocalypse if you killed him? Its a deal I have the authority to make and enforce. His life for billions.
Buffy looked at Angel and back to Prophet, her heart suddenly pounding. No, dont make me do this again, she thought.
Well? asked Lillith impatiently.
No. Absolutely not, said Buffy firmly.
Absolutely not. Hmm. Are you sure about that? This is not an academic question. I really can make his death the prerequisite for mankinds salvation.
Buffy shook her head. I I dont know! Look, what do you want from me?
You dont know. Thats a sad answer. Deep down, you do know the answer, though. You made the decision before, why should you decide differently the next time?
Damn you, said Buffy.
Thats not a threat that has too much resonance with me, Buffy, said Lillith. She turned to Angel. So, she doesnt really trust you, and you cant really trust her not to run you through with another sword someday because of some misguided desire to protect a race of people who wouldnt stop to help her if she were bleeding in the street. What a perfectly dysfunctional couple.
Enough, said Buffy sharply. You got a problem with me, lets work it out Slayer to demon. Leave Angel out of it, leave the word games out of it. Just you and me.
Ooh. Sounds like Buffys gotten in touch with her own bad self again, said Lillith.
Prophet made a flamboyant half-curtsey with the sword still in her hand, and said, As you wish, mlady. Angel, you get to stay here. Make yourself at home. Have some tea. Theres even some Guinness on tap in the rec room if you want it. But we ladies are going upstairs to have a little girl-to-girl talk, see if we cant come to some understanding that doesnt involve me getting Slayer blood on my beautiful marble floors.
Buffy, dont. Its a trick, said Angel.
I know, said Buffy. But were going to have to play this one out by her rules, I think. Please stay here. For me.
Listen to the Vampire Slayer, Angel, said Prophet. You interfere with us, and as far as Im concerned, mankind forfeits this round. Score one for the Fallen Ones.
Buffy left Angel behind. He looked like a lost child, something that would have seemed incomprehensible to her only moments before. Then the Slayer took over, and her mind became sharp and deadly.
* * *
Fulfilling a contract in broad daylight was not exactly a dream assignment come true. It was definitely a challenge, but largely an unavoidable one. This Giles seemed to spend the vast majority of every day either in the local museum of natural history, or in an old warehouse right on the border between the residential and industrial sectors of Sunnydale. He never came out after dark, and only occasionally appeared during the day to run small errands or visit his apartment.
The problem resolution facilitator had considered entering the warehouse by night and attempting to fulfill the contract that way. Hed discarded that idea early on. Watchers were by definition very careful and somewhat paranoid. Entering the warehouse would be to enter unfamiliar territory, and there was no telling what he might run into there.
No, it would have to be handled this way. And soon, too. The word had just come down from his employers: do it. The next time he had a clean shot at the target would almost certainly be the last. Unfortunately, hed lost the primary target, the Slayer. Hed find her eventually, but he couldnt guarantee it would be soon.
The secondary target had entered the warehouse several hours before with a civilian hed been in frequent contact with over the last several days. That was an unfortunate complication. Potential witnesses were always a bad thing, but that didnt mean she would be terminated. That wasnt part of the contract.
He looked down through the open window of the old apartment overlooking the entrance to the warehouse, took a long swallow of black coffee from his battered stainless-steel thermos, and wondered if after this job a vacation might be in order. France, perhaps, or Tahiti.
* * *
Off the second floor gallery, toward the back of Prophets house, was a high, arched chamber of black and gray marble columns, like a cathedral of darkness. Above them, the ceiling writhed with intertwining visions, beauty and horror commingling and separating, ever in flux, but never one without the other. Between the cyclopean columns, the walls were continually shifting, one minute solid and black, the next instant looking out upon a measureless void, the next bringing visions of verdant rolling countrysides or bone-strewn killing fields.
Buffy made an effort to pull her gaze from the hypnotic and terrifying sights, focusing instead on Lillith Prophet, in the lead. When the Elder Power reached the center of the chamber, she halted and turned on her twin.
Tell me, what do you want? Its not a trick question, but I want you to think about it and answer me honestly, said Prophet.
Buffy, several yards away, said, I want a way to bring Angel back through to the other side with me. And I want my soul back.
A simple enough pair of desires. Both might be something we could arrange, if you were to join me, said Lillith Prophet.
Join you? Youve got to be kidding.
Not at all, child. You arent some mindless tool of destiny, Buffy. Being the Slayer doesnt make you a slave. You have free will. You can choose your own destiny. That destiny can be a grave right here, or it can be power beyond your imagination. Just think what we could accomplish together.
Destroying the world wasnt on my to-do list for today. Sorry, said Buffy.
The Prophet shook her head. Poor girl. You dont understand Armageddon at all, do you? You wear that cross, but you obviously slept through some important Sunday school lessons. My dear Buffy, Armageddon is not about pointless destruction. Its about the establishment of the New Kingdom, the dawn of a new age for mankind. Im just here to help decide in whose name that Kingdom is established.
I kind of like the Old Kingdom just fine. Id rather not see it destroyed just yet. But thanks for the job offer.
Come now, Buffy. You cant deceive me. I know your soul, and I know you yearn to break free of the responsibility of being the Slayer. You want your freedom, and theres nothing at all wrong with that. Humans were born to be free, not slaves to the desires, beliefs, or commandments of others. Take control. Break the shackles. Join with me. Let me show you the future.
My future wont be me fighting for the evil Ive spent my life destroying.
Lillith waved dismissively. Good. Evil. Youve claimed to fight for one against the other for so long, yet have you ever once really stopped to examine it? You act as if evil is some sort of interloper, crashing humanitys genteel garden party. Well, let me tell you something, child. You dont need my kind to bring evil into your world. And we dont come unbidden. No matter how many of us you kill, no matter how many vampires or ghasts or revenants you send back to the Pit, evil will remain because in the end, you people want it in your world. You like it. You glorify it in movies and music and in your wars and in your secret dreams. No, if you slew a hundred thousand, a million of my kind, there would be ten million to take their place. Because in the end, the battle isnt waged here, between demon and Slayer, but in the mind and soul of every man, woman, and child. And you know what? My sides been consistently winning since the Dawn.
You think I dont know that? asked Buffy. You think I havent stayed awake nights in quiet desperation, knowing that I could win every battle for the next thousand years and still be no closer to winning the war? Well, I have. And you know what I decided? Maybe I cant save humanity from itself, but I can sure as hell keep people like you off my lawn.
Prophet nodded. If you can continue fighting, knowing your cause is futile, then you are either one of the bravest people Ive ever known, or youre just a fanatic.
Buffy shook her head. You dont know me. You may share my soul, but you dont know me. Im not brave and Im certainly no fanatic. Im just a woman who cant sit by while the world goes to hell around her. Maybe my way isnt the best, but its the only way I know.
Lillith extended her arms out from her sides, palms upward, looking for a moment almost angelic. Then lets finish it in the way you know. Goodbye, soul-sister.
Fire erupted from beneath the floor at the Prophets feet, tearing up through the marble. It gathered in intensity, then with startling speed spread forward in a line directly toward the Slayer.
* * *
Giles glanced at his watch and rubbed the back of his neck. He glanced up at Willow, who was still working on running some texts through a translation program of her own devising.
Would you like to go get something to eat? he asked.
Huh? asked Willow, looking up from the computer screen and blinking uncertainly in Giles direction.
Im a bit hungry, and I thought we might head out for a quick bite, somewhere. Your choice.
Comprehension dawned on Willows face. Oh. Food. That would be really good, as a matter of fact. Ill just get my coat and we can go.
* * *
Angel almost didnt see them until it was too late. Hed done as Buffy asked and stayed out of the fight, but he remained within reach in the event he was forced to disregard her stubbornness. She and the Prophet were still upstairs when the Harvesters started coming.
He made a face. He hated Harvesters. They were the scavengers of the hells, feeding on the souls of the damned and the flesh of the dead. Their four-foot-long, beetle-like carapaces glinted a metallic rust color as they advanced into the otherwise pristine palace. He knew why theyd come. With two such powerful entities in conflict, they were almost guaranteed to find something worth feeding on.
He backed up a couple of steps along the staircase to give himself a small tactical advantage. The first Harvester up the steps was an easy kill, a quick stab with the sword through its brain stem before its limited intelligence could process the threat. But its death-throes alerted the others. They paused in their advance, antennae twitching with agitation, sharp and deadly mandibles gnashing with a disturbing clicking noise.
All at once, as a group, they turned and came at him.
* * *
Ive acquired the secondary target.
What about the primary? Do you have the Slayer? came the cold voice over the mans earpiece.
The man spoke quietly into his microphone. Negative.
He steadied his breathing, settling the bright red reticule of the electronic sight on the head of the man he had been sent to kill. The rest of the world receded around him. The small, bare room in the old apartment building, the sounds of the street three stories below, the rhythmic bass of a passing car stereo all of it disappeared from his mind. There was only himself, the weapon, and the target.
When several precious seconds went by with no response, he said, Advise.
More seconds were wasted, his target moving off. It would have to be soon, or this opportunity would be lost.
You are cleared for action. With the Secondary Target eliminated, the Slayer will come to us. Take the shot.
His breathing steadied once more, and he swore silently. The Watcher, Giles, was already too far off for a guaranteed head shot. He lowered the sight to the mans torso as his target turned to speak to the young woman civilian.
Slow exhale. Gentle pressure on the trigger. No anticipation of the shot. And after years of spec-ops training, there was no thought, just the instinct that came from endless hours of practice and repetition.
The rifle bucked into his shoulder, but he was not aware of it as he stayed with the sight picture, watched the target stagger back and fall to the ground. The round had gone exactly where intended, a perfect kill shot.
The sniper rose and briskly, but not hurriedly, broke down his weapon and stowed it in the briefcase that concealed it. Then he adjusted his tie, donned the nice gray suit jacket that he had draped over a wooden chair, and walked out of the rear entrance of the apartment building and into the refreshing Autumn air. A faint scent of food wafted to him on a gentle breeze. Italian. Yes, Italian sounded like it would make a perfectly fine lunch.
* * *
Buffy hardly even had time to assess the threat before she rolled away from the advancing wall of hellfire. It passed so close by her that she felt its heat through her clothes, felt sweat bead instantly on her forehead.
Nice. Beats trying to fire up the old Propane King out back, huh? she said as she regained her feet.
She used Prophets momentary distraction with the spell to close the gap between them quickly, hoping to make it more difficult for the demon to use her spells again. Prophet seemed hardly to notice her approach, but when the Slayer brought her sword around in a killing stroke, it met only steel.
Almost causally, Lillith had unsheathed her katana and parried Buffys attack, all in one smooth motion and without even looking at her.
Not good enough, said the demon. Not nearly good enough.
Lillith pushed against the crossed swords, forcing Buffy back several feet. The two faced each other, weapons at the ready, each waiting for the opening that would end the battle in an explosive instant of violence.
You know you cant possibly win. Youre not stupid. So why? asked the Prophet.
Because this is what I am, said Buffy.
Prophet smiled and lowered her sword, inviting attack. Then take your best shot, Slayer.
Buffys attack was textbook perfect, fast and smooth and accurate. Lillith parried it as easily as if she were fending off a small child, the clash of steel on steel loud in the large room. Another attack, and another, and a fourth, each swatted aside with seeming indifference by the creature that shared her face and her soul.
Thats the spirit! said Lillith.
From deep inside her, Buffy could feel the first stirrings of real fear. She couldnt win this one. There would be no last minute trick, no final bit of Slayer luck this time. She was dead. Desperation clutched at her momentarily before something changed in her. Another sense intruded on the cold fear, a vague but perceptible presence, an odd sense of control and understanding of things beyond herself. And a profound calmness. She broke off her latest attack and moved out of swords reach of her opponent.
The Slayer lowered her weapon and waited.
The Prophet watched Buffy relax her guard, and did the same. Something unspoken passed between them, but Buffy wasnt sure what, exactly.
So be it, said the demon, and a spinning, saw-toothed disc of blinding energy leapt from her hand.
* * *
Giles! yelled Willow, kneeling by the prone form of the Watcher.
There was no response from him as he lay there, nothing to indicate life
The sudden intake of breath startled her and she made a strangled little noise. Giles eyes snapped open and he blinked.
Ouch, he said. That bloody hurt.
Well, I think so, yes, he said, sitting up on the sidewalk.
Youre lucky you werent shot in the head, she said, taking his arm and helping him to his feet.
I dont know. Some people say its the hardest part of my body, actually. But all the same, Im rather glad for the police vest. An odd contraption for a schoolteacher to have in her wardrobe, but certainly useful in this instance, he said, looking a little bit dazed.
With my hobbies, you have to be prepared for anything. Like, last summer when I went to Germany to track down the Riemann Key? Well, there was this gang of new wave vampires, and they had these guns, so
Yes, Willow. Ill be very glad to listen to the story. But dont you think, perhaps, we might want to get off the street before our friend with the rifle decides to take another shot at me?
* * *
The second two Harvesters fell easily, one to a crushing blow from one of Angels boots, the other to a slash from his sword that severed it in two at the thorax. The fourth managed to sink its mandibles into his pants while he fended off several more that swarmed toward him.
Angel fought almost blindly, centuries of experience still ingrained in him despite the loss of the demon that had possessed him. The Harvesters were outmatched, but they outnumbered him, and it was not a fight he was confident he could win.
A pincer sank into his forearm as he dispatched two of the creatures almost simultaneously. He lost his balance and fell backwards onto the stairs, his breath knocked out of him. There were definite drawbacks to being human again, he thought as he scythed his sword at yet more attackers. He dashed the Harvester on his arm against the wall and it came off with a painful tearing of flesh and muscle. The remaining demons rallied and came for him.
This is going to be close, he thought in the instant before they were upon him.
* * *
The disc of energy came at her so fast that there was no time for conscious thought, no time even for training to take over. There was only instinct, primal and hidden to the waking mind. Buffy raised an arm to ward off the magical blade and, incomprehensibly, it stopped a mere foot from her face, seemingly straining against some invisible barrier.
She was so surprised that she very nearly lost her head. The sudden connection with whatever newfound power had welled up inside her faltered briefly and the magical disc slipped a few inches closer before she recentered her mind and gained control of the phantasmal blade again.
Lillith regarded her darkly, her eyes hard and cold.
Too little, too late, said Prophet.
The spinning blade edged closer.
Buffy steadied her breathing, tried to empty her mind, to be aware only of the new power that burned like a distant beacon. She let that beacon grow brighter, hotter, not willing it to do so but simply allowing it free reign within her. It washed over her, through her, along muscles and nerves and synapses. Than all at once, she knew she had it.
The disc shuddered, then careened away, ricocheting off a large column and grazing Lilliths sword arm before it struck a wall and vanished in a shower of sparks.
For the first time, Buffy saw surprise on the demons face as it looked down at the bloody gash on its upper arm. More than surprise. There was fear there, too.
Goodbye, soul-sister, said Buffy, and a dagger of pure energy lanced from her outstretched hand.
The dagger buried itself in the Prophets chest and vanished with a sudden release of energy. Prophet stood perfectly still for a moment, then looked at Buffy and laughed. She staggered, then in a whorl of blue light, Lillith Prophet was gone, her katana suspended momentarily in space before it clattered to the floor.
Buffy extended her index finger and cocked her thumb like the hammer of a gun. She put the finger to her lips and blew away imaginary smoke from the imaginary barrel.
Gotcha, she said.
Her breathing was harsh in her throat, and her lungs burned. But she was alive. In the end, thats all that counted. That, and her soul. She couldnt tell for sure if it had returned fully to her. She could only take it on faith that it had. Funny, how something she couldnt feel or see or verify had been important enough for her to venture into Hell itself to reclaim. A lot of her life had been like that, fighting the denizens of the dark not for some vision of winning for the world an earthly paradise, but because there was something within her she couldnt see or explain that made her continue the fight against all odds and sober reason.
She put the thought away for future reflection and then remembered the other reason she had come to this Godforsaken place. She retreated through the cursed cathedral and hastily descended the staircase, nearly slipping uncontrollably on some sort of giant insect carcasses strewn halfway down.
Silence answered her.
The fear that shed so recently vanquished gnawed at her again.
Angel! she shouted into the emptiness of the great room. She looked around, hoping to see a movement, a shape, anything.
Dont you do this to me, she said softly.
Do what? came Angels voice from a side corridor. He emerged from the hallway a little slowly, blood soaking one sleeve of his shirt. In one hand he held, by its antennae, the corpse of the ugliest, if not the biggest, bug that Buffy had ever seen. How about dinner?
Buffy breathed again.
Angel, drop the bug, she said.
The Harvester dropped to the floor with a sharp thud.
I can think of something Id much rather you held on to, she said, moving toward him with an evil gleam in her eye.
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