Buffy felt tension gnawing at her temper like a rat at a fraying rope. The rope was giving way strand by strand, each setback and frustration of the past months slicing like rodent teeth through the twine of her self control. And now this. Another secret hidden from her by a man she should have been able to trust with blind faith. Another lie in a long list of them, perpetrated by Giles, by Jenny, by Xander, and perhaps most of all by herself the list seemed endless, sometimes.
She fought back the rising anger and returned her attention to Giles.
I never told you very much about your predecessors. Part of that was so that you wouldnt be reminded of their deaths, and by extension your fate as
Giles, still the Watcher despite everything, glanced over at Special Agent Hancock and stopped speaking.
As Slayer, Giles. You can say it. He knows about it, although Im pretty certain he doesnt believe me, said Buffy.
Iain was sitting very quietly against one wall of the cabin, eyeing his guests with more curiosity than nervousness. Buffy was becoming convinced there was something profoundly not right about the man. Just the eccentricity of genius, perhaps, but sometimes she thought she glimpsed something darker there.
Giles glanced disapprovingly at Hancock and then turned back to Buffy. Is there anyone youve ever met that you havent told about being the Slayer? You know the rules, Buffy.
The rope snapped. Rules? Did he think she was still a child? That after everything shed been through and sacrificed, she still gave a rats ass about the Watchers goddamned rules?
Oh, thats good. You go postal on me, very nearly kill one of the only people who might be able to pull the plug on this whole Apocalypse deal, and then you get on my case. Well, Ive got news for you, Giles. Im not in high school anymore. You are not calling the shots here. In case you hadnt noticed, Im running this fucking war now, and Ill decide who needs to know what.
The blunt, unexpected profanity had the desired effect. Giles hesitated, taken off guard by it.
I he began.
Save it, she said. She suddenly felt rather guilty for the outburst. He hadnt deserved it. Or maybe he had. Damn it, just once she wished she could get her head straight about her interpersonal relationships. Just dont act like Im still sixteen. In almost every way that counts, Im closer to four thousand. Okay?
Yes, of course.
She managed a halfhearted smile. Great. Now, what about my predecessors?
Giles face darkened, and a hard, dangerous glint came into his eyes.
This creature, was like me, once. A Watcher. With a Slayer. Except that he committed the worst possible sin any Watcher could commit. He looked at the man. Perhaps youd prefer to tell the story, Iain. Lets see if you can turn betrayal and complicity in murder into something self-righteous and noble.
Iain waved him off. Oh, heavens, no. Youre doing a fine job of lynching me, Rupert. Dont let me stop you now that youve gotten up such a head of steam.
Shut up. Both of you, snapped Buffy. You two want to have a pissing contest, do it on your own time. Now, whats this about murder?
Giles spoke with venom as he kept his eyes fixed on the object of his hate. He sold his Slayer out. To a group of vampires in Sussex.
Buffy felt a breath catch in her throat. What?
He turned to her, and Buffy could see deep pain in his eyes, pain from some distant nightmare that had emerged from the darkness to haunt his daytime world. His voice was soft and the slightest bit unsteady as he said, I was only eighteen at the time. Too young to be assigned to a Slayer, and far too rebellious at that stage anyway. Her family and mine, they were very close, you know. Her name was Amanda Pierce, and I had known her all her life. A charming, wonderful, intelligent girl. But cursed, as you all are. Little could she know, though, that her biggest curse was her own Watcher.
Giles paused to take a ragged breath before continuing. He betrayed her. Deliberately allowed her to walk into a trap. But the vampires they werent interested in just killing the Slayer. They wanted to make an object lesson of her, to send a message of blood to the Watchers and the next Slayer. When when I found her a week later, all I could do was watch helplessly as she died in my arms, this poor, innocent girl who never wanted any of this, whose only dream since age six had been to become a concert pianist.
Buffy felt the Dark Hunter rise ominous and black in her mind, Hunter and Slayer entwining into a single, infinitely cold harmony.
Is it true? she asked Iain. She said it so quietly that it might as easily have been the gentle, deathly chill whisper of dried leaves on slate.
Oh, yes. Its true. Insofar as it goes, said Iain, with no evident fear or contrition in his voice. He looked at Giles. But in your blinding hate for me, you never saw the whole truth, did you, Ripper?
Truth? Thats some word coming from you, said Giles.
The Board, Giles. You know its the truth. You know it because they planned the same for Buffy. The Boards not in this game to lose. Slayers only stay alive until theyre killed fighting or theyre of no more use to the Cause. And Amanda Pierce, my friend, was never going to be a useful tool. You and I both knew that. The Board knew it, too.
A tool? She wasnt a tool, Iain. She was a human being, said Giles.
She was a tool, said Buffy acidly. We all are, the whole line of Slayers from the beginning on down. Were robots. Cannon fodder. We slay, we die, were replaced, and nobody remembers who we were or why we died. Were not human beings, Giles. Not to the Watchers, not to this damned uncaring universe.
After that, Buffy was darkly silent for a long time, and everyone seemed to know instinctively that it was no time to intrude on her thoughts.
A sharp rap at the door to the cabin brought her out of her brooding ruminations.
Expecting company? she asked, rising. Then she remembered the telephone message. Of course. Shed forgotten about it in all the insanity.
Iains eyes darted from the door to the Slayer. Just dont do anything stupid. We need his help.
Whose help? asked Buffy.
Gabriel Sinclairs, answered Iain.
Buffy froze with her hand above the door latch. Gabriel Sinclair, leader of the Cabal that had brought Lillith Prophet into the world and forced Buffy to fight for her soul in Hell itself. Gabriel Sinclair, the man whose pursuit of the purity of Apocalypse had led all of them to this final, winner-take-all contest with the Elder Powers.
Oh, she was going to enjoy this.
* * *
The man hidden among the dense evergreens that encroached on the little clearing rubbed his gloved hands together with childish glee.
Oh, this is grand. Simply grand, he said to himself as he watched that fool leader of the Cabal, Gabriel Sinclair, approach the door of the cabin. Its always so wonderful when everyone comes to the party.
He looked over his shoulder to something only he could see. Isnt it just wonderful? I knew youd agree. You like a party, too, dont you my hungry friend? Of course you do. And the others, Im sure theyre just as eager. Not long now. Soon. But first we must let the dramatic arc rise a bit higher. You understand drama, yes? Its all in the timing, you see. It is the timing that takes an average production and raises it to the level of art. And I do so want the Slayers death to be a work that will stand the test of time. So just a few more minutes. The waiting will make the end so much sweeter.
The man looked back toward the cabin and the door that opened to the dimness within.
Yes, delightful. Absolutely perfect.
* * *
Lillith! exclaimed a surprised Gabriel Sinclair as the door swung open.
Buffy grabbed him by the front of his coat and pulled him inside.
Not quite, she hissed as she slammed him up against one log wall of the cabin. Why settle for a copy when you can have the original Buffy, huh?
She heard the breath wheeze out of his lungs and pressed her forearm against his throat. Ive waited a long time to tell you how very grateful I am to you for stealing my soul and giving me the opportunity to go on the Hell extended package tour. You know, there are parts of damnation that are really worth the trip. Almost exactly like North Dakota in January or Death Valley in August. Would you like to visit?
Buffy! snapped Giles.
The Slayer playfully patted Sinclairs cheek a couple of times. Oh, were just playing, Giles. All in good fun.
She spun him around and pushed him into one of the cabins easy chairs. Suddenly, he found himself staring down the barrel of her .45.
Give me a good reason not to give in to temptation, Gabriel. But make it quick. Im one of those nervous sorts. Never know when Im going to twitch at an inopportune moment, said Buffy.
Finally getting his wind back, he managed to croak, The Key. Iain myself trying to stop the Elder Powers using it.
Sure. I believe that. That ones right up there with I didnt inhale. She pressed the barrel of the gun against his forehead. Two out of three, Gabs. Come on. Lets see who blinks first.
Summers, said Hancock. He placed a hand on her shoulder. This isnt you. This isnt who you are. Back off for a few minutes, before you go down a road you really dont want to.
Something in his voice found its way through the red haze that fogged her mind, and she suddenly saw herself as shed just minutes ago seen Giles: out of control, unpredictable, dangerous. Hancock was right. This wasnt who she was. It wasnt who she wanted to be.
She backed away, engaged the guns safety, and holstered it.
Okay. Everyone just put your personal issues aside for a minute and try to be professional adults, said Hancock firmly. He looked at Buffy and made a quick nod in Gabriels direction. Who, exactly, is this?
Buffy took a couple of deep, calming breaths, trying to find the tranquil center of her personal tempest, and said, Hes the head of the Cabal.
Then Iain is right. He may be of help. Hancock turned to Giles. Maybe he can clarify what that symbol means.
Giles looked surprised that he hadnt thought of that himself. He retrieved a folded Xerox sheet from his coat pocket and handed it to a shaky Gabriel, who was slowly recovering his senses.
He glanced at it and shook his head, then offered it to Iain. I dont know. Looks vaguely Ophitic. You have any idea?
Iain perused the sheet and suddenly looked like hed found a fly in his soup.
The Avatar Project, he said with obvious distaste.
That piqued Buffys interest. Angel had mentioned something called the Avatar Project, but he and Hudson hadnt nailed it down yet. And what, pray tell, is an Avatar Project?
Its the Boards doomsday weapon, their attempt to fight evil with evil, said Iain. Most people think of Hell as the ultimate evil in the universe. But its not. Far from it. There are things far darker, and this is one of them. It is, if you will, elemental evil, a force so pure, primordial, and alien to us that to even give it a moral dimension such as evil is to trivialize it. It is, more accurately, the opposite of life. Un-life, if you will. Anti-life.
So, no big prize for guessing its motives, huh? asked Buffy.
It has no motives, not as we would understand it. No goals or desires. It simply is, and that existence is predicated on the extinguishing of all life in all its forms, everywhere. As we breathe and dont think anything of it, so this entity destroys life.
This is all interesting, I guess, in a Clive Barker, H. P. Lovecraft sort of way, but it doesnt tell me what this thing has to do with a serial killer whos cutting up teenage girls, and why this symbol was burned into each one of them said Buffy.
Are you telling me that youve seen this symbol on people? asked Iain.
For the first time, Iain looked genuinely unsettled. Then the Avatar Project has escaped the Boards control. The mark is the result of a soul tap used to store life energy psychokinetic energy, souls, whatever you want to call it. It means the Avatar has been recreated, and is growing more powerful with every death.
Buffy shook her head. Wait. Youre several steps ahead of me. Just start at the beginning.
We need to go back rather a long way for me to explain it, back to the war between the demons and mankind that drove the demons from this world. You see, when things started to turn very bad for the demons, they undertook the construction of a new device that several of their most brilliant minds had devised. This was the Gehenna Key, which by now you are all rather too familiar with, I expect. But they began to run out of time the Key was a more complex, difficult project than anyone had expected, and they knew they would never finish it in time.
So they gambled on a desperate course. Ages before, upon first coming into this universe, the demons had found an artifact, the most ancient thing any of them had ever encountered. Billions of years old. Eventually, they learned its secret. They figured out its purpose. But that purpose frightened even them. Nevertheless, great need often leads to taking great risks, and so at the end they used the artifact.
Let me guess. This artifact opened one of those pesky portals and let the Ultimate Evil into the universe, said Buffy.
Iain shook his head. No, if that had happened, none of use would be here right now. This planet wouldnt be here. In fact, the whole universe would be dead. What the artifact did was allow them to embed, I suppose is a good word an infinitesimal fraction of this un-life into one of their own. They called it the Elemental Abstract, and their term for the one who was joined to it was the Avatar.
But the Abstract, even such a small piece of it, was too powerful and too chaotic to control. It slipped the Compulsions, Wards and Containments that the demon necromancers had placed on it, and it started to destroy. Man and demon alike, it didnt care. It killed tens of thousands, using their life energy to strengthen its presence in this world.
Then it learned of the newly completed Gehenna Key. It seized control of it, and where once it had been seen as the demons salvation, in the Avatars hands it became the ultimate weapon of genocide. It programmed the Key with the sequence we call the Gehenna Matrix, but not the localized Klein Variant the Elder Powers want to use. No, this one was designed to obliterate all life, everywhere. And I do mean all life, across this entire universe.
Obviously that little plan went less than perfectly, said Buffy.
Only just. The Elder Powers saw what was happening and in a great battle, they and the other First Races destroyed the Avatar and secured the Key.
Which they conveniently held onto for their own use, Buffy interjected.
You dont give up the most powerful weapon in the universe, said Iain.
Giles said, But none of this explains why the Abstract has resurfaced, why there is a new Avatar. How is it possible, without this artifact you mentioned?
You should know, Ripper. After all, youre the one who pointed the Watchers in the right direction, back when you were still just a researcher, said Iain. There was a sadistic satisfaction in his voice.
I dont understand.
Thats always been your problem, hasnt it? Always so into your books, you never stopped to think through the implications of your research. But the universe isnt here for your intellectual amusement, Rupert, and some of the secrets you once helped unearth have come back transformed and made monstrous.
What are you talking about? asked Giles.
You call me a monster for placing the Eternal War before my Slayer, and perhaps I am. But what does that standard of judgment make you? After all, my actions merely ended with one death. Yours may result in the death of everything, because you, my friend, led those imbeciles on the Board right to the Droagath Megalith when you translated the Apocrypha of Eibon for them.
Giles face looked ashen. The Antarctica expedition.
Buffy decided that the verbal sparring match had gone on long enough. Okay, lets skip right to the last page. What about the Antarctica expedition, and why do we care?
Twenty-two years ago, certain passages in a book known as the Apocrypha of Eibon led the Board to something in the Antarctic, said Iain. The thing they found was nothing less than the Droagath Megalith, the very artifact the demons had used to create the Avatar.
How do you know this? asked Giles. You havent been a Watcher since since Amanda.
Oh, wake up, Ripper. Im far and away the best theorist theyve had in the last two centuries. Who the hell do you think they come to when they want someone to figure out how a Gehenna Key works, or how to operate the Droagath Megalith?
You created a new Avatar? snapped Buffy, a dangerous note in her voice.
Of course not, said Iain. I was asked to create an implementation scenario, to work out the necessary spells, determine the type of individual that would be best suited psychologically to becoming an Avatar, all the little mundane details. But I rather quickly concluded that it would be far too dangerous, and I warned them as much. Didnt even give them any of my work.
Yeah, well, I guess the Surgeon Generals warning just wasnt enough to keep your friends from their power fix, said Buffy. There was absolutely no humor in her voice.
So it would seem, said Iain.
How do I stop it? she demanded.
Buffy raised an eyebrow. Im really beginning to run out of patience, Iain. Im fully capable of finishing what Giles started if I get irritable, so youd better stop playing games.
Iain looked more annoyed than intimidated. What I was going to say was, it depends on how many sacrifices the Avatar has performed.
Six. Six that we know of, anyway, said Buffy.
Iain did some mental calculations. Thats a fair amount, but not insurmountable. At two or three sacrifices, the host personality will have been almost completely dominated by the Abstract. At six, the Abstract has become quite well entrenched in this plane, but the host body is still vulnerable and can be destroyed, effectively severing the Abstracts connection with this world. If it gets to around ten to fifteen sacrifices, the Abstract will begin to manifest its native powers through its host, making the Avatar virtually indestructible by anything but the most powerful binding or exorcism magics. Above about twenty-five, were well into Elder Power territory. And beyond thirty or so well, its not worth even trying at that point. Best just to say your good-byes and make your amends.
I though you said this thing had tens of thousands of sacrifices under its belt when it was defeated the last time, said Buffy.
Defeated, yes, but by a hundred thousand demons and a thousand Elder Powers, Archangels, Divas and Aeons, said Iain. I dont think we can count on those kinds of resources this time.
Buffy rubbed her temples, trying to massage away the beginnings of a migraine. As she did so, something flashed at the edge of her perceptions, like a nighttime landscape illuminated just for an instant by the searing brilliance of a lightning strike.
Weve got company, she said.
Vampires? In the daytime? asked Giles.
No. Much, much worse. And my sword is in the truck.
What are you talking about? asked Hancock.
Demons, Win. Powerful ones, and Im afraid our guns wont do much good. Itll slow them down, sure, but without silver and iron rounds, I cant do much real damage. I need my sword for that. It was forged with demon-slaying enchantments laid on it, said Buffy.
Youre serious, said the agent.
Oh, yes. Deadly serious, she said. Then she made her decision. Okay, Ill need your service weapon and Giles revolver. Ill have to blast my way to the truck and hope I can get to my sword before they get to me.
* * *
Buffy stood with her back to the door of the cabin, letting her surroundings penetrate past the walls of her mind to the unconscious instincts behind them. She centered herself, finding first the coiled shadow of the Dark Hunter, then the distant, clear fire of her own growing power as a Slayer. Shadow and fire met and commingled, twining into one terrible, deadly weapon.
Outside her, time expanded and slowed. Unnecessary distractions receded while important sounds, sights, and smells sharpened to a razors edge of perception. And beyond the keen blade of her heightened awareness, there was something else. It was her Slayers innate sense of evil magnified and refined into a finely honed tool. She could feel the demons etheric signatures, knew where they were, felt their unnatural power like slivers of black ice in her mind.
Buffy started forward toward the Cherokee in the commando half-crouch Sergeant Aston had drilled into her until in had become an instinctive, natural way to move with a firearm. Halfway across the gulf separating vehicle and cabin, the demons came for her.
She never broke her stride as she twisted slightly to bring the first creature under her sights. It was fast, like the Guardian demons shed once faced in Hell, but even more powerful and possessed of a malign intelligence the Guardians lacked.
The .45 bucked, and in her state of awareness Buffy could see the slide as the hot gases forced it back, could see the bright brass of the cartridge as it arced, spinning, into the cold mountain air. She could see the orange-red sparks like miniature fragments of Hell erupt from the barrel. And she could see, just for an instant, the tiny metal bullet as it raced flat and true toward its target.
The creatures head, a strangely inconstant visage that shifted insanely under her gaze, snapped backwards as the slug hammered into it. And even as that first bullet found its destiny, the slide came back again and a simple chemical combustion sent another piece of death toward its victim.
A second, third and fourth demon were moving up behind her in an enveloping circle. She spun even as she continued forward and swept the line of half-visible, shadowy monsters with the .45, slowing and staggering them.
Buffy kept moving briskly toward the truck even as she smoothly ejected the guns magazine and replaced it with a fresh one. A groan of protesting metal and springs sounded from the Cherokee as something big and unseen settled on top of it, raking deep scars across the black enamel paint.
She broke with Astons military training and retrieved Hancocks service weapon from her waistband. She leveled both guns at the invisible enemy and opened fire.
A shriek erupted from the air around the vehicle, and something large but unseen tumbled from the roof into the snow. Buffy felt something behind her and fired blindly over her shoulder with the .45 while shattering the rear drivers-side window of the Cherokee with the nine millimeter. She wasnt about to waste time trying to open the door.
She made it to the truck just as all five demons began to close simultaneously to finish their cornered victim.
In the space between two heartbeats, the enchanted, seven-hundred-year-old Masamune-forged katana was free of its scabbard and scything around behind her in a lethal iaido draw. It cleanly took the head of the nearest demon and continued around in an arc of silver lighting until it became a lethal spear impaling a creature behind her. Then the sword was in play again, the steel a complex and living thing in Buffys hands. It danced among the demons, the woman at its center as calm as a still lake on a moonlit night, and as inexorable and destructive as a hurricane tearing through the feeble works of mankind on its way to a primal, ancient destiny.
In the distant reaches of her mind, Buffy was well aware that just two years before, any one of these demons could have killed her easily. They were that strong. First Circle entities almost certainly. Yet along the continuum of those two years, the balance had tilted, and now it was Buffy Summers, the worlds first Dark Slayer, who was the ultimate predator in this fatal hunt of darkness by light and light by darkness. There was no ego involved in that realization. It simply was.
The sword struck home through the invisible monster from the truck, the blade wrenching in her grasp as the thing thrashed and died, and then it was over. Slowly, her heightened state of mind ebbed to something more normal, and she was aware of the harshness of her breathing in the cold air, and the disconcerting, warm wetness that spread across her upper arm. She looked down through a rent in the down jacket to see blood welling from a shallow, raking claw mark. But she felt no icy hand at her heart, or opium fog clouding her mind, so at least the wound was not poisoned. Shed been down that road before, and didnt want to try it again.
Something at the border of her perception drew her gaze to the edge of the forest that ringed the clearing. Just for a moment, she was certain she saw someone there, watching her from the shadows. Then he was gone, leaving Buffy oddly disquieted.
She carefully wiped down the Masamune blade with a silk scarf, replaced it in its plain wooden scabbard, and started back to the cabin, where Hancock stood at the open door, looking at her with a mixture of disbelief and shock.
Well, theres your proof, she told him as she slipped past him into the warmth of the small wooden house.
She smiled to herself, secretly pleased with her own skills. But it was a satisfaction tempered by a nagging doubt. Whoever it was she had seen among the trees bothered her in a way she couldnt put her finger on. It was a vague dread, a feeling that whatever her abilities and past successes, something had just fundamentally shifted in the universe in a way that made it all as moot as knightly cavalry in the age of F-15 fighters and thermonuclear bombs. And just for a second, she felt certain that the days of the Slayer, of all Slayers, were shortly to come to a very abrupt and final end.
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