The infinite black sea of unconsciousness gradually resolved itself into something more concrete, and Buffy found herself back in the strange, baroque lodge where shed earlier met Cordelia and Principal Snyder.
But it wasnt either of them who sat across from her this time. This time, she stared into her own emerald eyes.
Lillith? she asked.
After a fashion, said her double.
Things have gotten a little complicated, Buffy. The others felt it would be prudent to retire from your universe for a little while. In fact, the only reason Im even able to appear to you is that I once shared your soul. Like it or not, that links us on a level which mere time and space have no jurisdiction over.
Oh, great. Of all the guardian angels I could get, I end up with Lillith, the Happy Prophet of the Apocalypse.
Not so happy lately, unfortunately.
So whats going on, Lillith? This isnt the final test you guys had in mind, is it?
Prophet shook her head. No. Oh, the Matrix was a part of it. And Iain. It was really a test of Giles, whether he could subordinate his need for revenge to a higher purpose. I suppose I cheated, a bit, giving you that death and life clue
Oh, that was you? Lousy clue, Lillith. Could you possibly have been any more vague?
Lillith shrugged. I tried. Cant knock one out of the ballpark every time at bat, you know.
Great. You hit a pop fly to the shortstop, and my world gets ejected from the game because of it. Youre something else, you know that?
Hey, I like you people. You wouldnt believe what Ive gone through just to wrangle this much of chance for you. Of course, its all moot at this point. Somebody went and rewrote the rules to the game, and its pretty well become an unmitigated disaster.
Yes. None of us ever thought the Watchers would do something this phenomenally stupid. They knew what the Avatar had done during the First War. That they could even consider trying it again its inconceivable lunacy.
You push even a rat against a wall, its going to turn on you and bite. You didnt leave them much choice with this little Apocalypse fixation of yours. I guess I didnt, either. Im not exactly their star pupil these days, said Buffy.
They had a choice, Slayer. Lilliths eyes flashed. They had a choice not to jeopardize every living thing in your universe just to save one world. And you know what? Maybe if theyd made that choice, it would have made my arguments for your planets continued existence all the more compelling. Instead, theyve done far more to prove that your race is lethally selfish than any of us Elder Powers ever could.
Buffy looked away from her double. It all rang too true, and the hopelessness in the Elder Powers voice told Buffy more than the words did.
I cant beat Kurtz, can I? she asked.
Lillith shook her head. No. Im sorry, Buffy, but not even the Dark Slayer can beat him now. And there is no time to assemble the kinds of powers that would be needed to do so.
So thats it, then. All the struggles, all the sacrifices, all the pain and death Ive brought to the people Ive loved it was all for nothing.
Maybe not. Youll never beat Kurtz in the way youre used to. But that doesnt mean you cant defeat him.
No riddles, Lillith. Please. This isnt a Tolkien novel and Im not in the mood to do the Myst thing, said Buffy, her own voice sounding tired and angry to her.
Its no riddle. Buffy, sometimes the only choice we have is the worst choice of all. As insane as this is going to sound, it may be that the only way to win this one is to lose. The Saber Sequence can save your universe from the Elemental Abstract, but at a high price for both of us. Im not supposed to tell you that, but Im willing to accept what that will mean for me and my kind. The question is whether you will be able to accept what that will mean for you if you take that path.
And just what will it mean for me? Buffy asked, a sinking, empty feeling opening deep within her.
Lillith looked at her with a strange mix of coldness and compassion.
It means that you must die, Buffy, she said.
* * *
Are you all right?
The severe gray light of winter sent a spasm of pain through her eyes, but she fought past it to focus on the speaker. Giles. And next to him, Willow. Gradually, the details of her surroundings began to fall into place in her mind. They were in her motel room, and she was lying in bed. She sat up and blinked back a wave of dizziness.
Finally, Giles question registered and she said, Giles, Im the Slayer. The way I look at it, anything short of dead is all right. What time is it? How did I get here?
Its eleven-thirty. When Mickey got your e-mail, he took some of the Dark Angels out to the roadhouse and they found you, said Willow. Her eyes were wide and filled with concern. What happened?
Our serial killer happened. His names Anton Kurtz at least thats what he said. I dont know where Iain got his estimates on this guy, but either Kurtzs found all the power-ups on this level or Iains an idiot.
Power-ups? asked Giles.
Buffy shook her head and regretted it as the world seemed to do a strange, slow motion rotation around several axes at once.
Sorry. I forgot you grew up pre-Pong. I mean I think Kurtzs been at the killing game again. Hes a hell of a lot stronger than Iain said he should be for six kills. I couldnt lay a glove on him. Hell, Giles, even the Dark Hunter was out of its weight class on this one.
Are you certain? asked Giles.
Oh, no. I just wanted to feel what it would be like to have a pile driver pound me senseless. Its how I get my kicks. Yes, Im sure. The guy dodged bullets. He even caught one. Ive never fought a corporeal demon who could do that, not even First Circle creatures.
This is bad, isnt it? asked Willow, looking at the Watcher. I mean, worse than the usual bad.
Giles nodded in the distracted way he had when his mind was racing along some winding scholarly trail. Yes. Very much worse, perhaps. If the Abstract has in fact begun to manifest its native powers in this plane, then we will have to rethink our approach.
Whoa. Approach? What approach? Nobody ever told me anything about an approach, said Buffy.
Willow and I have been going over some of the notes you found in Iains cabin, said Giles. Weve been evaluating some possible methods for defeating this Avatar. You just rest, Buffy. Im afraid Im very much out of my depth here. Accurately modeling cross-planar phenomena such as this gets into some frightfully complex multidimensional calculus. As distasteful as I find the notion, Ill need to discuss these developments with Iain before we come to any decisions.
Buffy affected a pout. Well, okay. But no killing him until this is over. Promise?
When Giles took his leave without committing definitively to that, Buffy looked darkly at Willow. Not the most reassuring answer I could have wished for. Youd better go with him, make sure those two play nice.
But I should stay here until youre feeling better, said Willow.
Ill be fine. Ive had a lot worse. Besides, I dont want you in the blast radius if Kurtz comes back. Ive been to enough funerals over the years, and I dont want to have to go to yours.
I really dont think something like the Elemental Abstract is going to give me much thought. Youre the one it seems to have issues with, said Willow.
Buffy scowled. Yeah, lucky me. Its amazing how many of these demonic whackjobs are pathologically obsessed with me. Id take it as a compliment, but frankly Id rather have a few less psychopathic admirers in my life.
Willow smiled reassuringly and started for the door. Then, remembering something, she stopped and moved to one corner of the room where Buffy saw her sword leaning against the wall. Willow brought it over to her and propped it by the bedside.
Just in case, she said.
Buffy nodded. Theres usually a case.
When Willow was gone, Buffy threw back the covers and got up. After the slight wave of dizziness passed, she pulled on her boots, shrugged into her coat and, concealing the sword underneath, left the motel to spend some quiet time in the mountains. She needed to think, and she knew that the decisions she would make over the next few hours or days would determine whether the universe lived or died.
The stakes in her war just kept getting higher, the price of failure became ever greater. And this time, she wasnt going to be able to win just through strength or skill. She felt certain Lillith was being honest with her about that. The question was whether shed meant the death part figuratively or literally. It was hard to tell with a natural-born manipulator like Lillith.
Somewhere in the recesses of Buffys mind was a faint glimmer of an answer, mixed in with memories of Elisa Hunter and Master Takedas zen conundrums and the hard lessons of half a lifetime spent as the Slayer. The answer was there. She just needed to figure out the details before it was too late.
* * *
Gabriel Sinclair stood in the center of the Cabals encampment and felt a profound, desolate weariness.
A stiff wind blew icy granules of snow around the massive stone menhirs of the Gehenna Key, among the tents, and against his cold-numbed face. The glittering white tempests swirled around the bodies that lay in a precise geometric figure around the Key, their dead eyes staring heavenward toward a destiny they had all spent their adult lives rejecting and disdaining.
All dead. Not that it hadnt been the inevitable end of the Cabals headlong rush to Armageddon all along. Ultimately, they had all known they would give their lives to fuel the Elder Powers weapon of destruction. What they couldnt have known about was the dark thing that had come into their midst and destroyed them before they could fulfill their long-held dreams of nihilism.
That dream had been Gabriels once, too. It hadnt been for some time now. Lillith Prophet had shown him almost from the start that the Cabals vision of salvation was as much a fairy story as those of comets bearing divine spaceships in their tails. He and the Cabal had brought forth Lillith Prophet into the world to help destroy it, to fulfill a prophecy of destruction that had never revealed as much about the future as they thought. But in their devotion to their prophecy, the Cabal had sown the seeds for its own invalidation. They had bonded the soul of Buffy Summers, the Slayer, to the Prophet of the Apocalypse, and in so doing had made Lillith Prophet into something more than just an unfeeling harbinger of death.
Slowly, over time, Lillith had begun to care. So had Gabriel Sinclair.
And when she was replaced as the Cabals liaison with the higher realms, he knew that there could be only one reason. The Elder Powers had decided to destroy the world not just bring forth a new age or force mankind to start over, but erase the world and all its wonders from the universe forever.
Once, he would have embraced the notion. He could do so no longer. Without Lillith to guide him anymore, he sought out Iain Leighton to learn the truth behind the Gehenna Key, and what Iain had told him of the Gehenna Matrix had appalled him. It was then that two men in desperate need of personal redemption had resolved to turn the tables on the Elder Powers. Maybe it would have worked. Maybe they would have eventually found a way to make the Saber Sequence work with only the lives of the Cabal to power it.
It was all moot, now. In a sense, it had all been rendered moot the day the Watchers had sent the power of magic through the Droagath Megalith and implanted a fragment of infinite darkness into the soul of a psychopath. The death of the Cabal was merely part of the final act of that tragedy.
Well, Gabriel, he thought, it looks like youve got your Apocalypse whether you want it or not.
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