Buffys beeper sounded just as she was about to settle in with her novel again. It was edging past seven in the morning, and Willow was still asleep, tired from her long night of reassuring a frightened and vulnerable Slayer. Buffy hadnt really been able to sleep after her nightmare, though. However logical Willows reasoning was, Buffy just couldnt shake the cold dread of that vision.
A chill ran through her at the thought and she returned her attention to the beeper. She scrolled through the message on the liquid crystal display.
Flash traffic: Possible Victor activity in vicinity. Ref Flash Msg 3227-6.
It was an alpha page from the DH Groups operations center. It meant that there was reliable intelligence concerning vampire activity somewhere around Pine Crest. Of course, with her in the area, almost any report would be taken seriously by the analysts. Not only were they not about to take chances with their boss life, they also knew full well that where the Dark Slayer went, trouble usually followed.
She returned to her room, booted up her laptop computer, and linked into the Groups secure server. Then she entered the Flash Message number, her decryption key, and her password. The Threat Assessment Report scrolled onto the screen along with a full color map of the Reported Area of Contact. It was five miles south, at a place called the Garden Spot Roadhouse.
Buffy felt an old excitement run through her. Shed been doing far too little honest-to-goodness vampire slaying lately. It would be a nice change of pace to get in touch with that part of herself again. Nothing clarified the mind like a simple, straightforward fight against evil. It was far preferable to the psychological labyrinth of the serial murders and the sinister, universe-threatening reason for them.
With a cold smile of anticipation, she typed a quick e-mail for Aston to let him know where she was headed. Then she shut down the computer, pulled on her coat, and gave the Dark Hunter free reign in her mind and soul.
* * *
Buffy scanned the exterior of the Garden Spot Roadhouse for a few minutes from inside the Cherokee.
It wasnt much, just an old wooden building with its windows boarded over and a realtors sign protruding from the snow near the road. Abandoned it may have been, but it apparently wasnt unoccupied. Out behind the structure were almost two dozen motorcycles, big Harleys that Buffy couldnt imagine trying to ride through the present road conditions. They must have been there since before the weather had turned bad.
Satisfied that the place was probably a deathtrap for anyone currently inside it, she double-checked the police vest she wore beneath her coat, grabbed her sword from the back seat, and exited the jeep.
A quick walk around the perimeter of the building revealed nothing out of the ordinary, and she shortly found herself standing at the front door. The door was steel, but Buffy could see that the wood around it was rotted from the extreme elements of the Pacific Northwest.
Painted on the door was a symbol. The Avatars symbol. The signet of elemental evil, of un-life, of the thing that had helped steal the lives of six innocent children. So, that was the game. A test, or trap, or maybe just an amusement on the part of her murderous quarry.
Buffy approached the door and paused. She smiled a small, cold smile. Were they really so stupid? Even when she was sixteen years old, she would have felt so many of them in one place. Fools. Dead fools. But there was no need for carelessness in the name of heroism, either. She seriously considered just dousing the place with the contents of the jeeps gas can and letting daylight do her work for her, but then decided against it. Fire would destroy any evidence or information that might be inside, and that was something she couldnt afford to lose. She knew too little about her mysterious quarry as it was, and she sensed that time was running short for her to figure things out.
Besides, after seven months of playing cat and mouse, with only a few good old-fashioned throwdowns, the less rational part of her was itching for a real fight.
She returned to the Cherokee and unlocked a metal footlocker in the back. She studied the contents, kicking herself mentally for not bringing along one of Elisas cutest little inventions a fully automatic paintball gun with holy water in the capsules instead of paint. Buffy had used it several months before while taking down a high-level Vampire Council meeting in Chicago. The results had been spectacular, in a morbid sort of way, and had completely decapitated the Midwest vampire syndicate.
But she hadnt brought that particular toy to Pine Crest, not expecting to have to deal with large numbers of vampires out in the middle of nowhere. It was impossible to take along an arsenal that could deal with every conceivable threat, and holy water just didnt cut it against the more powerful creatures shed been facing lately. The loss of Pandemonium had gotten quite a few heavy hitters really mad, and some of Hells contract killers were very, very tough.
Returning her attention to the weapons at her disposal, she made her selection. Buffy had come to appreciate the utility of a good, old fashioned twelve-gauge riot gun. Loaded with silver and iron buckshot, it was almost invariably a one-shot, one-kill weapon with vampires at close range, and did a number on just about every other kind of corporeal demon as well. Not a subtle choice for sleepy little towns like Sunnydale, perhaps, but just the thing for a nice, remote, target-rich environment like the Garden Spot Roadhouse.
Whatever points for style she might loose, shed make up for on body count. The part of her that was the Dark Hunter found the notion appealing.
The gun and her sword would stand her in good stead, but she decided to add to her options anyway. She was too old and too experienced to take the kinds of foolish chances she had as a teenager. That wasnt just the former Dark Hunters talking, either. It was her own, hard-won life lessons. Looking back on some of her mistakes going after an ancient vampire like The Master with a crossbow, taking on rooms full of vampires with improvised stakes or bare hands it was a minor miracle she ever lived long enough to leave Sunnydale.
Not that there was anything wrong with wooden stakes. She slipped several finely carved and balanced ones through specially sewn pockets on the inside of her jacket. The stakes had leather loops attached to them so she wouldnt lose them while fighting.
She racked a round into the shotguns chamber, rested the weapon on her shoulder, and went back to the door. The jamb barely put up a fight when she broke it in with one hard kick. She ducked out of the way, expecting gunfire. None came, and she edged back toward the entrance in a crouch.
The quartz-halogen light attached beneath the shotguns barrel played back and forth along the dark interior of the bar. It revealed nothing but a rather thin man in a black linen suit sitting on a small bandstand at the far end of the room. He was perched on a tall wooden stool and smoking a cigarette. As the bright circle of light fell across his face, he winked at her, and Buffy knew without a doubt it was the individual shed glimpsed at Iains cabin. He wasnt physically very impressive. Of average height and slight build, with disarrayed brown hair and pale blue eyes, there wasnt anything about his person that might be considered intimidating. But when Buffy tried to look past the surface to what lay beneath, her senses found only an infinite, frozen darkness. There was very little that was human within this man.
Buffy concentrated on localizing the vampires. Twenty-four no, twenty-five of them, some behind the bar and safely out of the daylight spilling through the open doorway, some of them hiding in the two bathrooms, the rest in the storeroom.
A trap. Vampires liked traps. They fancied themselves clever. It wouldnt make any difference, unless one of them got exceptionally lucky. Which could always happen, Buffy reminded herself. Cockiness could be lethal. Being the Dark Slayer didnt make her immortal or unbeatable. It just meant that these jackasses were going to have to work for it.
Well, no point in delaying the inevitable, she thought. She stepped fully into the barroom, keeping her eyes on the strangely disconcerting man on the stage and her mind on the etheric signatures of the vampires. The problem was, the man unnerved her. That distraction was just enough that she didnt even notice the heavy wooden partition swing down to cover the open door, and it startled her as it slammed into place. The bar was thrown into utter darkness save for the small island of light from Buffys gun.
The man on the stage fingered a small infrared remote, and a bank of colored spotlights above the stage began a pre-programmed choreography, playing their red, blue, purple and white beams in dizzying patterns around the squalid building. He stood up and spread his arms wide.
Welcome one, welcome all, said the man. I will be your host for todays entertainment. Anton Kurtz, at your service. If its okay with the audience, well move right along to the main show. I know its customary to have a preliminary act, but youve already seen it, my dear Buffy. Did you like my killings? Those first few were amateurish, but I think I perfected the medium toward the end, dont you?
You think youre a killer? Dont make me laugh, Kurtz. Me, now, Im a killer. Ive killed across this whole world for four thousand years. Im the undefeated world heavyweight champion of death. You dont even make the national rankings, said Buffy, hoping to gain an early psychological advantage. Whatever sick mind game he was trying to draw her into, she wasnt going to fall for it.
He nodded. Yes, and what an artist you are, my dear. As both Slayer and Dark Hunter, your work has been the standard to which all the rest of us aspire.
I really can live without you as a groupie, said Buffy. She glanced at the bar. So, are your friends going to come out and play, or am I going to have to take all my toys and go home?
Kurtz raised his voice and said, You hear that, boys? The little Slayer wants to play. Howd you like to accommodate her?
Six vampires, big ones in biker leather, stood up behind the old bar.
One of them, a huge creature with tattoos up and down both arms, smiled. Shes cute, Kurtz. You mind if me and the guys have some fun before we kill her? Havent had no fun in awhile, aint that right, guys?
The others nodded or shouted their animalistic assent, one of them looking straight at her and licking his lips suggestively. None of it bothered her at all. Shed heard all the threats and bravado before, and it never changed the outcome.
Isnt it past your bedtime, you guys? asked Buffy.
Yes! Yes! The famous Slayer banter. Excellent, effused Kurtz. Oh, you are just perfectly wonderful, arent you, little Slayer?
Yeah, Im a real princess, said Buffy. Can we just get going here?
Dont be so impatient. It ruins the mood.
Trust me, the moods going to get pretty well ruined regardless. Why drag it out?
Kurtz smiled. Very well, then let the Rave begin!
Suddenly, a pounding techno dance track filled the barroom to deafening levels and several strobes began to flash in time with the kaleidoscopic aural assault.
Even as the first group of six vampires vaulted over the bar with their guns and knives and bats, Buffy could see Kurtz out of the corner of her eye, waving his arms as if he were conducting the impending violence in time to the music.
The riot guns report was almost buried under the throbbing synthesizer line as the weapon hurled silver and iron death at the nearest vamp. The creature caught it full in the chest, staggering back in a strobelit succession of stop-motion movement before disappearing in a cloud of dust.
A brutal, relentless bass line came in as the other vampires opened fire with handguns and shotguns of their own, and Buffy upended a heavy wooden table and dove behind it for cover. Life wasnt the movies. You didnt stand openly in a free-fire zone like some action movie icon and expect to live to the next reel.
She returned fire one-handed and halved the vampires numbers before the doors to the bathrooms and storeroom opened to spill forth the remaining undead bikers. The Dark Slayer smiled. The vampires had made a mistake. As long as she didnt make one herself, they were doomed. Too many of them, packed too tightly, would make it hard for them to use their guns without damaging one another. They would almost certainly opt for more personal weapons. It had always been their way. And in a knife fight, it wouldnt even be a contest.
Bolting from cover, she fired into the oncoming mass of creatures as fast as she could chamber the shells. The gun ran empty and she ruthlessly rammed the weapon into the face of a nearby vampire before tossing the useless firearm aside and fluidly drawing her sword.
The iaido draw severed a hapless target through the midsection, the enchanted edge cutting through bone and sinew and muscle as if they were no more substantial than a Boars Head olive loaf. The creature was already disintegrating before the blade had even made it all the way through to the other side.
Strobes and colored spotlights dazzled off the gleaming steel as the weapon described a dizzying and deadly accurate pattern around the Dark Slayer. Somewhere in the cold machine that was her fighting mind, she sensed a revolver being leveled at her. She made a slight alteration in the pattern of her attack and the gun fell to the floor along with the hand that held it. An aluminum baseball bat arced in a lethal trajectory for her skull, only to deflect off the katana that materialized as if from nowhere to parry it.
With a one-handed slash, Buffy decapitated a nearby vampire, then spun nearly one-hundred and eighty degrees, and launched a hardwood stake into the heart of another demon several yards away who was bringing a shotgun to his shoulder. The dust of fallen vampires swirled around the combatants, the lights illuminating the macabre cloud so that it seemed to burn with the hellfire from which the creatures came.
Some detached and soulless part of her ticked off the numbers. Fifteen. Ten. Five. One.
The blade took off half the final vampires head in a spray of blood and brain tissue before the doomed creature disappeared from the universe forever.
Despite the still-pounding music, a strange calm descended over the room, as if in the wake of the battle the universe itself had paused for a few seconds to catch its breath.
Buffy just stood in the middle of it all, her sword raised and unwavering, the lights sliding like colored liquid over the whorls and eddies of the burnished, bloodstained steel and reflecting like struck sparks from the Dark Slayers cold, emerald eyes.
Kurtz did something with his remote control, and the music faded out. Then some of the house lights came up to illuminate parts of the room while leaving others in dramatic shadow.
The sudden, startling silence was broken by the sound of clapping. Kurtz. He was applauding.
Bravo! Bravo, my Divine Diva of Destruction! Splendid. You are exquisite. Truly worth the price of admission.
He picked up a bouquet of roses from behind an amplifier and tossed it to her. She sliced it neatly in half in mid air with her sword.
Your taste in music sucks, said Buffy, lowering the weapon to her side.
Kurtz shrugged. In retrospect, youre probably right. A more daring artistic choice would have been Puccini, or perhaps even Verdi. Oh, well. Maybe next time.
I wouldnt count on a next time. Besides, my soprano scares small children. Ill tell you what, though: in a couple of minutes, youll be able to do a passable job as my understudy.
She twirled the katana in her hand to underscore the point.
Oh, come now. Havent you had enough of severing things for one day?
I think I can fit a little more into my schedule, said Buffy. She looked around her at the accumulated dust and biker clothing. Surely you couldve done better than these guys, Kurtz. Vampires stopped being much of a challenge some time ago. I mopped the floor with your First Circle cronies. What on Earth made you think the undead Hells Angels were going to do any better?
You misunderstand, little Slayer. This was not intended to kill you. It was merely a piece of theater, performance art if you will. Death is an art form, but with an immediacy and primal resonance unlike any other. Unfortunately, so much of it is performed so amateurishly in your society. Such wasted potential. But you you give it an elegance and beauty so sorely lacking in these uncultured times. Forgive me if I simply couldnt pass up an opportunity to watch such perfection of technique and interpretation once more.
So what was with the First Circle Entities and that invisible thing out at the cabin? Was that just another sideshow for your amusement? asked Buffy.
It was a test, which you just happened to raise to the level of art. I needed to see how strong you were. First, to find out if you were strong enough for what I need you for; and second, to find out if you were too strong for me to kill, said Kurtz.
You were too strong for me to kill. Ive taken steps to remedy the imbalance.
This is cute tough-guy talk, Kurtz, but why dont you just cut through the crap and tell me why youre here. What do you want?
Im here because Ive decided you deserve a chance.
Uh-huh. What, is it written in the Bad Guy Union contract somewhere that you have to spoon out all information in little bits like you were a character in a bad USA Network detective show?
I like you. You have spirit. Fire. That appeals to me. It can take you far, to places and heights and ecstasies you never dreamed possible. Or it can lead you down the cold path to your grave. You have a choice now. Theres a fork in your road and I want you to seriously consider which one you will take.
You know, Lillith Prophet gave me the same join the Dark Side speech already. It didnt work for her, and its not going to work coming from some ectoplasmically amped psychopath.
Black fire burned behind Kurtzs eyes. Lillith Prophet is nothing. She and her whole arrogant race are even now cowering in fear of my coming. I am the Way, the Truth, and the Dark, not she.
Oh, I love the Antichrist riff, Kurtz. Cut an album for the club scene. Go on tour. Open for Marilyn Mansons comeback tour. But get the hell out of my face. Ive got an Apocalypse to avert, and you just wasted half a year of my life making me think you were the key to it. But youre not. Youre just a cut-rate Damien wanna-be, said Buffy.
She wanted to believe that, but she knew better. Nevertheless, she wasnt going to give the bastard the satisfaction of knowing just how much he troubled her subconscious, or how agitated the Dark Hunter became in his presence. Even now, it paced inside her mind with a chill, high-strung apprehension, like a predator in a cage anticipating a storm that gathered black and oppressive on the horizon.
Im so very disappointed in you, Buffy. You had such boundless potential. This world was yours for the taking, if youd had the imagination for it. This pathetic race would have groveled at your feet and thanked their God for a strong hand to guide them into the darkness of their own festering hearts. You know thats what they want. They dont want the light when the dark is so much more seductive. Thats something you just never understood. You never really appreciated the pure poetry, the divine art of evil, Buffy. For all the chances youve been given, you never truly let it inside. You never understood it. Thats a shame, like going through life without ever hearing Beethovens Ninth, or never staring on a clear, dark night into the endless sea of stars. Evil, true evil, is a thing of sublime beauty. It is perfection. It is to know the mind of God through its mirror opposite, to see the eternal light in the endless dark. I wish I could explain it to you, but it isnt something that you can know through words. It must be felt. You have to live the darkness, take inside and make it part of you. You must make love to it, let it consume you, melt into its passionate embrace and die in its erotic fires. Evil was never your enemy, Buffy. It had so much to give you, but you were too blind and stupid to see that.
Buffy shook her head. If you think the darkness isnt part of me, Kurtz, youre the one whos stupid and blind. There are things inside me thatd make you whimper in terror if you ever saw them. But I wont let those nameless abominations destroy who I am. I wont let them define me. So spare me the dime store philosophizing. Im not interested.
Kurtz actually looked hurt and disappointed.
Im sorry you feel that way, he said. Truly, I am. I would have hoped you of all people would understand. I see now I was wrong. You really dont understand. And whats worse, you dont want to understand. Thats very disappointing to me.
Youll get over it.
Such anger. I dont understand it. I come to you with love and understanding, and you return that tenderness with anger and sarcasm, said Kurtz.
Buffy found herself being drawn into a very disturbing psychological landscape. Love and understanding? Is that what you think killing those girls was?
They were nothing. You cant love something that has no value, Buffy. I did them a favor, killing them. At least in death they serve a higher purpose, where in life they would merely have acted out their vacuous lives, contributing nothing to the universe. But you, you are special. Youre unique. You are that precious, beautiful fusion of light and darkness, the dualities of humankind brought into an elegant, transcendent harmony. You are a symphony, Buffy, a symphony of life and death. Such a thing should be loved. It should be cherished. And it saddens me that you would leave me no other option than to destroy it. I would sooner raze the Sistine Chapel or smash the stained glass of Chartres, but if you leave me no choice, I will do it.
Buffy brought her sword to the ready, the steel a thin sliver of harnessed lightning before her eyes.
Kurtz sighed. Im sorry, Buffy. I tried to save you. But if it is death you want, then it is death you will find. I am not without compassion, though. I wont let your death be a meaningless one. Far from it. It is the least gift I can give you.
Shed had enough. Her mind became clear once more, life and death balanced perfectly on a razor thin edge of existence.
Buffy took one hand from the hilt of the sword, reached inside her jacket, and drew her .45. She leveled at the smirking face on the bandstand and pulled the trigger.
Kurtz seemed to lean easily to one side and the bullet missed.
Thats not very nice, he said.
Undeterred, she fired the remaining six cartridges in rapid succession, bracketing her strangely elusive target. None of them even touched him. The seventh bullet passed near his left ear and Kurtz plucked it out of midair as it went by.
He opened his palm and looked at it.
That, he said coldly, was impolite. I see you need a lesson in proper behavior.
Sorry, but the whole Ernst Stavro Blofeld shtick doesnt work for you, she said. She managed to keep her tone up to her usual standards of casual sarcasm, but she didnt feel it. She felt scared. It wasnt a feeling she was used to since becoming the Dark Slayer.
And then she realized the truth. It wasnt Buffy Summers who was frightened by Kurtz. It was the Dark Hunter itself.
Well, frightened or not, the Hunter was just going to have to come along for the ride, because it was time to do the old Slayer saber dance.
She spun the Masamune katana in a lazy circle and said, Come on, its Slaying time.
Kurtz made a theatrical little leap from the stage and spread his arms like a gymnast after a successful dismount. She met his gaze directly and felt a sudden chill. There was a disturbing intensity in those pale blue eyes, like the cerulean fire of a frozen electric spark.
Say goodnight, Gracie, she said, and the blade flashed toward its inevitable, lethal destiny.
But she was out of synch, Buffy and the Hunter and the Slayer all out of harmony in Kurtz presence. The stroke was ill-timed and a fraction of a second too slow. She knew it, as a skater knows when a double axel is going to land badly, and Kurtz knew it, too.
Even as it happened, a part of her couldnt help admiring the consummate skill and fluidity of the aikido disarm that twisted her wrist painfully and sent the perfect blade flying from her hand. The sword arced up out of her grip, then the tumbling blade returned to bury itself point-down in the wooden floorboards.
Before she could react, Kurtz grabbed the front of her coat and lifted her off her feet. In the same motion, he slammed her viciously against a support column, knocking the breath from her body. He let her go and Buffy sank to the floor, her lungs unresponsive and her head dazed from the impact.
Kurtz smiled as he claimed the sword and laid its edge along her throat. Buffy looked up at him and realized that there was nothing she could do to stop him from killing her. Nothing at all.
Well, well, well. So were not so invincible after all, are we little Slayer?
Buffys vision blurred slightly, and she felt a sharp pain at the back of her skull. She felt strangely vulnerable and weak at the moment, the Dark Hunter and even the Slayer seemingly just beyond her grasp behind a hazy curtain of pain and surprise.
What, no witticisms? No final bon mots to mark your passage to the next world? asked Kurtz.
Hows this? A priest and a rabbi go into a bar began Buffy, spite overcoming common sense.
Kurtz raised the sword and plunged the blade downward. Buffy flinched despite herself. But the sharpened steel didnt meet flesh and bone. Instead, Kurtz drove it into the floor beside her.
Sorry to be a tease, little Slayer, but now isnt the time or the place. I just wanted you to know that I can have your life anytime I want it. You need to know that. That understanding is part of the beauty of the whole thing. It is the seduction before the final consummation. As much as it saddens me, youre already dead, Buffy. Its just a matter of staging at this point.
Buffy watched him disappear like a wraith into the dim shadows of the bar, a sense of dread tugging at her spirit with the dead weight of a corpse. For the first time since becoming the Dark Slayer, she knew she was in deep trouble. What was even worse, the Dark Hunter knew it, too, and it skittered across her mind like an agitated shadow.
The pain in her head grew at once sharper and more distant, and a seductively comfortable drowsiness washed over her. The world receded into blackness and nightmare, and the odd thing was, she found herself strangely at home in the dark visions of her subconscious.
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