Part 13

When Hudson couldn’t reach anyone either by pager or phone, he knew something was up. Yeah, it could’ve been the terrain, but everybody affected at the same time? Not likely. Which probably meant the Dark Angels had an op underway. And that in turn meant that time had just gotten very short.

Angel glanced over at him from behind the wheel of the car. “More problems?”

“Just keep your eye on the road, man. Don’t want to end up decorating some rock down in one of these ravines,” said Hudson as he reached behind him for the duffel bag on the back seat. He came up with his squad radio and dialed in the standard tac frequency. “Hudson here. Sarge or Ms. Summers, either of you out there?”

Aston’s voice responded. “Off the bloody radio, Hudson. We’re under operational protocols.”

“No can do, Sarge. I can’t talk on an open frequency, but things are about to get real bad real fast. Can you pull the plug on your op?”

“Not a chance. We’re beyond our commit point.”

“Then tell me where you are. This is no goddamned joke, Sarge.”

“All right, but pay attention. I’m only going to give you the coordinates once,” said Aston.

*                              *                              *

Her entrance into the clearing was greeted with the achingly sad opening strains of the prelude to Wagner’s “Parsifal”, flowing out from the camp’s public address system and over the pristine solitude of the beautiful, snow-bright valley. The music stirred an old memory, a memory of Elisa Hunter on a cold February night in Berlin. Elisa, alone in the swirling snow, with the same music drifting lonely and forlorn from the Berlin Philharmonic performance in the concert hall beneath the roof on which she stood.

The vampire she hunted hadn’t shown that evening, leaving her alone with thoughts that drifted wistful and reflective with the music. Something had changed for Elisa that night. Where before the Dark Hunter had instilled in her only the harshness and uncompromising instincts of the world’s most lethal predator, Elisa at that moment had come to understand that the Eternal War was not just about the efficient application of death. It was about cherishing life, about truly appreciating what an irreplaceable and rare gift it was, and about confronting all those corrosive forces in the world that sought to cheapen that value, that tried to debase its miracle. Sometimes that meant killing vampires and fighting vast supernatural evils. Sometimes it just meant a discreet donation where it would do some good, or an anonymous helping hand to someone who desperately needed it.

And sometimes, it meant walking a dark and solitary path down which no one else could follow, on which there could be no companionship for the journey, and where there could never be a return from the road’s end.

Deep inside, Buffy had always known these things. It had just taken a brave and lonely woman’s memory to clarify them and give them form.

“I knew you’d come. When it comes down to it, you’re terribly predictable,” said Kurtz from the center of the Gehenna Key. “I took your music criticism to heart. I hope you like this better. It seems fitting for a funeral.”

“I don’t know. In your case, I’d go with ‘Highway to Hell’,” she answered, looking past him to the deathly still form of Willow on the black stone altar at the center of the Gehenna Key’s ring of magical stones. Buffy’s enhanced senses could pick up on Willow’s shallow, irregular breathing, so at least she was alive. Nevertheless the image brought with it a stab of fear.

Stop it. Moonlight on still water. Isn’t that what Master Takeda says you’re supposed to think about? Or are you supposed to be moonlight on still water? Oh, to hell with it. Just fight. It’s what you do best, she thought.

When she was within a few yards of the Key, Kurtz said, “That’s far enough. Lose the sword.”

Buffy dropped the weapon in the snow.

“And the automatic. No more surprises, little Slayer,” said Kurtz.

She regarded him evenly as she stripped off her heavy winter coat and removed the shoulder holster with its .45 semiautomatic. It joined the sword on the ground.

“That’s it. No more toys,” she said.

“Then come on in. The water’s fine,” said Kurtz, smiling.

Her eyes alternating between Kurtz and Willow, she walked forward, through the invisible wards of the Gehenna Key, the magical barriers that would let her in, but which would not let the Dark Hunter out.

Kurtz sneered. “Weak, sentimental fool.”

He raised his sword over Willow’s chest and paused there, knowing he could drive it into her beating heart before Buffy could ever hope to stop him. Buffy knew he was taunting her with her helplessness, daring her to make a move and bring about the death of her best and most cherished friend. She fought down the anger that flashed behind her eyes, centered herself as her swordmaster had trained her over the last nine months. She found her strength burning deep inside, and hoped it would be enough.

“You were going to kill her no matter what I did, weren’t you?” she asked him.

“Of course. Evil is as evil does, after all. You’ll understand, in the end. You’ll hear the music, understand the beauty of the verse. With their dying breath, they all do,” said Kurtz.

Buffy shook her head. “Sorry, but a poetry appreciation course from you isn’t part of the Slayer core requirements. I can’t let you kill her, Kurtz.”

“You’d like to think that, wouldn’t you? But you don’t have a choice. She dies now, and you watch it all.”

“Ain’t gonna happen. I’m not going to play by your rules.”

“My rules? Little Slayer, these are your ridiculous rules. You come in here unarmed, expecting a fair fight? Evil cheats, child. There are no rules to this game.”

“The Slayer might play fair, Kurtz. But Buffy Summers and the Dark Hunter? We’ve got a lot fewer principles,” said Buffy.

She raised her hand and from the surrounding mountains a .50 caliber bullet plowed through Kurtz’s head, knocking him backwards several feet. He fell face up in the snow, most of his head gone, a spray of blood and gore fanning behind him garishly on the white snow. But even now, the Abstract began to repair the damage, regenerating bone and skin and brain tissue. It wouldn’t take long.

Buffy rushed over to the semi-conscious Willow and undid her bonds. She picked up a handful of snow and ran it over her friend’s face, bringing her around. Willow’s eyes snapped open and focused on Buffy.

“Oh, Buffy. Hi.”

“You okay?” the Slayer asked.

“I don’t know. Am I still alive?”

“Yeah. Still alive.”

“Then I’m okay, I guess.”

Buffy helped her up off the sacrificial altar and Willow quickly regained her feet. Her eyes strayed to the prone form of Kurtz.

“Wow,” she said. “That’s really pretty gross.”

“Get out of the Key, Will. He’s going to be on his feet any minute now, and he’s not going to be in a good mood. Do you know enough about the Key to help Giles program this thing?”

Willow nodded.

“Good. Do it and let me know when you’re done.”

“Buffy, Kurtz killed the entire Cabal. He’s stronger now. A lot stronger,” said Willow in a rush.

“I know. But it doesn’t matter. This fight was inevitable from day one.”

Willow looked at her with sad, frightened eyes, and Buffy knew that she saw through the grim facade of the Dark Slayer to the all too vulnerable woman underneath. It was hard to fool Willow, hard to hide from someone who knew you better than you knew yourself.

Buffy hesitated, then hugged her friend close. When she let go, she said, “We both always knew it would happen sooner or later. You just take care of yourself, and don’t be sad. I wouldn’t want you to be sad. You’ve always been the best part of me, Will. You always will be. Thanks — for everything.”

Tears streaked Willow’s face as she said, “I’m sorry, Buffy. If I hadn’t been so careless …“

“This isn’t your fault. Don’t you ever think that, you hear me? It was going to come down to him and me and the Gehenna Key one way or the other. You just help Giles program the Key. That’s all that matters right now. That, and just one other thing,” said Buffy.

Willow ran a hand across her eyes and said, “Sure. Anything.”

“The Key’s perimeter acts as a containment ward. I can’t leave as long as the Dark Hunter is inside me. So if you’d be so kind as to toss me my sword on your way out, I’d be very grateful to you.”

Buffy watched with a dull ache in her throat as Willow left the confinement circle and carefully picked up the sword. The weapon was passed across the invisible barrier, and as her hand closed around the familiar hilt, Buffy forced a brave smile for her companion.

Then she remembered something, something she would never forgive herself if she’d forgotten.

“Willow, tell Angel … tell him that whatever he may have thought of me the last few months, I never stopped loving him. Not for one minute.”

Her friend nodded, fresh tears welling in her eyes. “Of course.”

Giles and Hancock came up behind Willow and the Watcher put a hand on her shoulder.

“It’s time. We’d best get to work,” he said. Giles, cool and professional and so very proper. But when he looked for a long moment at his Slayer, Buffy could see how very much she was about to hurt him. It had always been inevitable. Down through the centuries, it never ended any differently. They both knew that. It was Giles who would be made to live with it, though.

She shared a poignant, resigned smile with him and nodded. There was no need to say anything.

Allowing the Dark Hunter into the forefront of her mind, Buffy turned away from her friends, wiped down the enchanted blade of her sword with a clean silk scarf, then leaned against one massive stone menhir and waited.

*                              *                              *

“Where’s Buffy?” was the first thing Angel asked when he and Hudson found Aston’s position.

Hudson was stowing his global positioning unit. “Can it, bro. Man’s got orders, ain’t gonna compromise operational security, not even for you.”

“He’s right. I’m not. Can’t have you trying to play hero at the moment, I’m afraid,” said Aston. “Now, what was so bloody damn important that you couldn’t tell me over an open channel?”

“Sorry about that,” said Hudson. “The mole would have overheard. Couldn’t risk it. Look, we have to find out who this mole is right now. We’re out of time, Sarge. Someone’s got a tac nuke out here, and I think we’re down to the two-minute warning with no time-outs remaining.”

Aston cocked an eyebrow. “An atomic device. You don’t say. Fascinating.”

“It ain’t fascinating, it’s just scary as hell,” said Hudson. “And we won’t find it unless we find our mole.”

“That’s easy enough to do,” said Aston. On some level, Hudson admired the man’s stalwart British calm. On another level it drove him positively nuts.

“How’s that?” asked Angel.

“Well, everyone’s out in pairs. If our boy is getting his toy ready for show and tell, then all we need to do is find out who’s suddenly dead since the initial report-in, and we’ll know which pair the traitor belongs to. And since two minus one is one, we’ll have our bad boy.”

“That’s a pretty cold assessment,” said Angel.

“It’s a pretty cold bloody business, now isn’t it?” asked Aston.

The Sergeant spoke into his field radio. “Dark Angel team, Dark Angel two. I want everyone to report in — now.”

The three men listened, hardly breathing, while the Angels reported in one by one. Dark Angel Six reported, then silence.

“Dark Angel Seven, report, over,” said Aston.

A dark, deadly expression crossed the Englishman’s face and he looked squarely at Hudson. “Taggert. North ridge. Let’s go.”

*                              *                              *

It was so tempting to simply kill Kurtz while he was incapacitated.

With the Masamune katana, it might even have been possible, but Buffy knew that to do so might very well doom them all. While the elemental evil was ensconced in Kurtz’ body, it was as trapped inside the Key as the Dark Hunter was. But were she to kill him before the Saber was complete, the surge of energy Iain had predicted might allow the shard of evil within Kurtz to break through the containment wards, and then there probably would be no hope for anyone. Chances were, it wouldn’t escape. Chances were it would just kill her from the sudden release of confined energy. Chances were … but she couldn’t afford to take any chances, not with the universe itself in the balance.

Besides, she had to run the Saber, and God help her, she didn’t think she had it in her to take her sword and run herself through with it. Far easier to die fighting than to do that.

So Buffy watched as Kurtz rose, whole and unmarked once more. She watched as one of the sniper teams tried the same trick twice. She watched as Kurtz simply sidestepped the large caliber bullet and wagged a reproving finger in the direction of the mountains.

“Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice … well, you know how that one goes,” he said as he turned toward Buffy.

“I came for a rematch, Kurtz. I want the championship belt back, and figured I’d get it by carving it out of your hide,” said the Slayer.

He was about to say something when he became aware of the activity beyond the confinement circle. Kurtz glanced at Giles and Willow.

“What are they doing?” he snarled.

“That would be telling,” said Buffy.

“They can only delay the inevitable, you know. Even if they ruin the Gehenna Matrix sequence, even if they destroy the Key itself, you’ll still be dead and I’ll have all the time in the world to finish what I’ve started.”

Buffy shrugged. She needed to buy time. If she were to be killed before the Saber was programmed, it would all be for nothing, and Kurtz really would win.

“Maybe. Maybe not,” she said.

A vague shadow of uncertainty crossed Kurtz’s face. His cold blue eyes narrowed. “What are you up to, little Slayer? You think you have some cute trick up your sleeve to save you and your world? If so, you’re sadly mistaken.”

“Oh, I don’t have any trick to save myself this time, Kurtz. And you know, I really don’t even care all that much. Life, death. Death, life. I’ve seen so much of both of them that I can hardly tell them apart anymore. You ever study zen, Kurtz? No? Neither did I, until recently. The medieval samurai used to believe that you could never truly be a great swordsman unless you could view death and life with equal impartiality. No favoring life to death, because once you do that, then your mind is on surviving rather than winning. Not caring about surviving is a very liberating thing. It clears the mind, focuses the perceptions, gives clarity where before there was fear and worry. So you see, I know I’m not getting out of this alive, and I don’t care. All I care about is taking you down with me. And I wouldn’t bet against me if I were you.”

“Big talk, little Slayer. But in the end, you’ll be afraid. They all die bleating in terror at the end. It makes it all so much sweeter.”

Buffy raised her sword and held it at the ready. “Then let’s find out who’s right.”

Kurtz smiled and started towards her. “As you wish.”

*                              *                              *

Taggert had been the spotter for the backup sniper team, and they found Corporal Banks, the marksman, slumped over his rifle, a .45 caliber hole in the back of his head.

In the new-fallen snow, it had been easy enough to track Taggert’s movements from there. Aston, Hudson, and Angel found him in a small open area, hunched over a large metal box the size of a steamer truck.

If that’s a “suitcase nuke”, thought Angel, then the Soviets had some big suitcases.

Taggert must have heard their approach, because the blond, hawk-faced commando drew his service sidearm and squeezed off a shot before either Hudson or Aston could bring their own weapons to bear. The .45 caliber bullet splintered bark and wood from a nearby pine, and Taggert used the momentary distraction to make a run for it.

“Now, where in bloody blazes does he think he’s going? Does he think he can outrun the gamma rays?” mused Aston.

“He’s mine!” snapped Angel. He started after the fleeing traitor.

“Yo, man,” said Hudson. Angel turned and Hudson tossed him his own sidearm. “You might need that. I gotta stay with the Sarge.”

Angel nodded his appreciation and headed off into the woods.

“Well, nothing like getting shot at to add a bit of flavor to a day,” said Aston. “Now, let’s see about this little atomic bomb, shall we?”

“How much time we got?” asked Hudson.

Aston glanced at the digital timer on the weapon. “Oh, very nearly four-and-a-half minutes. Plenty of time. Might even have a smoke before getting busy.”

“Just disarm the damn bomb, Sarge,” said Hudson. “Make me feel a whole lot better when that thing stops ticking.”

*                              *                              *

She was totally defensive, but holding her own, which surprised her. Buffy had never seen anyone so fast with a sword. It was like defending against a threshing machine, and she could only imagine what it looked like to an outsider. The two blades moved in a blur, supernatural reflexes handling them with inhuman skill.

But she was managing. Barely, but that was enough. She fended off another furious series of slashes and thrusts and retreated quickly. Kurtz missed her cleanly as she dodged, his sword sparking off a stone menhir. She backed up and put the altar between them to give herself a chance to catch her breath.

“Running away so soon, little Slayer? I’d hoped for a little more sport from you. Chasing down frightened rabbits isn’t much fun, and the aesthetics are disappointing,” said Kurtz.

“I really wish you wouldn’t call me ‘little Slayer’. How would you like it if I kept calling you ‘little sociopath’?”

She glanced over toward Willow and Giles, and wondered what the hell was taking so long.

*                              *                              *

For Willow, the urgency and desperation of the situation had managed to edge out sadness and fear long enough for her to force her mind to the task at hand. But it was hard, and she saw that Giles was faring no better. He was clearly distracted, and having trouble thinking clearly.

Whatever brave English facade he liked to maintain to the world, Willow knew he was only human.

“I just don’t see how to translate from Iain’s mathematical specifications to the symbolic representations on this dolmen,” he was saying. They were standing over a broad stone with a carved, oblique face that was, for lack of a better word, the control panel for the Key.

Willow was still feeling a bit addled from her encounter with Kurtz, but adrenaline and urgency had done wonders for returning some sharpness to her thoughts.

“Think for a second. You’re looking at it like it’s a text, but that’s not what these markings are. What Iain’s mapped out in his notes is a hypergeometry. The markings on this dolmen are also hypergeometries, but represented in two dimensions instead of four. You have to think of it as a two-dimensional shadow of a three-dimensional shadow of a four dimensional object.”

Giles looked confused.

“Any time would be really good!” yelled Buffy while she dodged a Kurtz lunge.

Willow glanced quickly toward the lethal blur of steel that was the battle between Dark Slayer and Elemental Abstract, did her best to swallow her fear, then turned back to the dolmen. “See these control artifacts? The carved cylinders? They’re indicating the vertices of a hypergeometrical object, in this case a Gehenna Matrix. We have to define a series of vertices that will give us the hypergeometry Iain plotted for the Saber.”

Giles flipped to a page in the notes. “Yes, that much I understand, but going from Iain’s table of vertices for the Saber to that two-dimensional representation, it’s certainly not intuitive.”

Willow was only half listening as she lost herself in the web of radii and arcs and vectors that filled the dolmen and joined the vertices in nearly infinite combinations. Based on her limited knowledge of the Gehenna Matrix, she began to see how the spatial relationships of four-dimensional geometry could be translated to this abstraction …

“Okay. I think we can do this. I know we can do this. Just start reading me those vertex coordinates. Slowly,” she said.

“Vertex one: two, negative four, sixteen, eight …” began Giles.

*                              *                              *

“Bloody antique, isn’t it?” asked Aston calmly as busily set about unscrewing the screws securing the device’s cover plate.

Hudson wasn’t listening. He slapped the laptop computer on the side of its display in frustration. The cellular modem simply wouldn’t lock onto a cell in the infernal mountains, and they didn’t have a satellite modem with them at the moment.

“Might as well put that toy away,” said the Englishman. “I really don’t have time right now to read through the instruction manual. It’s just an atomic bomb, not a damned Rubik’s cube. I think I can handle it without the blueprints. Now, if you’d be so kind as to pick up a screwdriver from the pouch and give me a hand, I’d be rather pleased.”

*                              *                              *

“… negative sixteen. That’s the last of them,” said Giles.

Willow pushed home the last of the cylindrical control artifacts and the lines and arcs that connected the selected vertices burned brightly with mystical energy. She looked at Giles and both of them found themselves suddenly unable to finish what they’d started. Neither of them could bring themselves to tell Buffy, not when they knew full well what she intended to do.

Giles glanced from Buffy to Willow with a lost and hopeless look in his eyes.

“I can’t,” he said.

Willow nodded. “I know.”

Suddenly, for Willow, it was all very clear. Impulsively, she grabbed Giles’ .38 revolver from his waistband holster and turned it on Kurtz. With an angry growl, she emptied the cylinder at him from behind, firing until the hammer clicked impotently on a spent shell casing. Her fusillade caught the preoccupied killer off guard and staggered him against a nearby menhir.

“I am not going to let you take away my best friend!” she yelled. “Now, Buffy! Kill him!”

Buffy caught her eye, realization dawning quickly, and the Slayer smiled. Buffy readied her sword for the kill and moved in to finish the creature she had tracked for so long.

*                              *                              *

The Dark Slayer reacted to the changing dynamics of the battle with inhuman swiftness, but Buffy herself was a step or two behind it. She grinned at Willow with a mixture of surprise and pride at the quick thinking of her friend, and then the Dark Slayer was back in charge and she closed on the sagging form of Kurtz.

She raised her sword, the steel a splinter of lightning suspended in space, and then Kurtz turned toward her. But it wasn’t Kurtz anymore. It was the Elemental Abstract made flesh, and clawing through the threshold between its malignant plane and her own.

Their eyes met, and she saw in him all the black infinity of unseen Creation, the vast and secret parts of the universe that humans were never meant to see. The boundless and unknown horror broke over her like a storm surge to batter at the walls of rationality erected by the human mind so that it might remain whole and unfractured amid an insane reality. It flooded through the deep and hidden recesses of her soul, found her fears and her vulnerabilities, and carried her into the darkest parts of her own private hell.

She found herself where sixteen years of nightmares always ended, where Buffy Summers always, inevitably, came to a Slayer’s preordained fate, and where she knew her friends would die along with the world that she would, in the end, be unable to save.

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