Part 14

Sunndydale spread around her like a cold tomb under an angry sky of roiling, black clouds. The street in front of her house stretched empty and dead before her, as empty and dead as the rest of the town. Its houses regarded her silently through the soulless eyes of dark windows, and seemed now and then to shift in perception-bending ways, as if these things of wood and glass had somehow found a grim sort of pseudo-life.

Then her attention was drawn to something else, and as her eyes followed it upward from the center of the town, she felt a deep, primordial fear clutch at her, and even the Dark Hunter itself shrank away and grew cold. The Abstract loomed miles high in malevolent majesty over the dead town, a ten-dimensional tower of blackness whose oily tendrils writhed with grim deliberation around and through an invisible, central axis.

No prophetic nightmares, no journey through Hell and back, nothing in all her dealings with the evils of man and demon were more than a laughable parody of this majestic and malignant antithesis of life.

Buffy looked into the frozen depths of her own doom and for one long moment knew that her life was over. Then, even as night-black filaments snaked forth from the Abstract to claim her life and soul, the old power that had defeated Lillith Prophet stirred once more within her and she did the only thing she could do.

She ran.

*                              *                              *

Angel ran with ruthless purpose through the snow-covered forest, seemingly more wolf than man. His universe had become narrowed to the man who wove among the trees a dozen yards in front of him.

He felt a primitive thrill of the hunt that he’d not felt since becoming human again, and in the secret parts of his soul he reveled in the ancient power of the feeling. He was gaining on his prey, and he knew nothing could stop him. This man had tried to kill Buffy, had tried to take the life of the woman he loved more than anything else in the world. It had taken that knife-sharp realization to sweep aside all the complexities he’d heaped on his feelings for her, and to reveal the brilliant and simple truth that lay beneath them.

And with that revelation came a molten anger at this creature that would so casually end the life of a woman who had sacrificed so much for an undeserving world, who had time and again chosen others over herself, and who had even risked an eternity in Hell to give a damned man a chance at setting right his black and evil past. She deserved better than death in a nuclear inferno. Far better.

Angel tackled Taggert from behind and bore him to the ground, his gun wrenching out of his grasp as he fell. They tumbled down a short slope and became separated. Angel quickly found his feet and sought his quarry.

But his quarry had found him first.

“Go back to Hell, you goddamned freak,” said Taggert.

Angel turned to see the Dark Angel leveling a Colt semiautomatic handgun at his head.

*                              *                              *

With a seismic rumble, the ground to either side of the street erupted, and from the bowels of the earth rose great crosses in endless rows, lining the road like nightmare sentries, their crucified victims staring down at the fleeing woman with dead, accusing eyes.

Dimly, through panic and desperation, Buffy was aware of the faces. She recognized them, even the ones she had never seen. All of them were there because of her, dead because she hadn’t been good enough, or hadn’t killed a particular vampire in time, or — worst of all — because so often she had allowed her duties to come second to her own selfish needs.

She could feel the pursuing shadows of the Abstract as she ran, sensed them as thin strands of frozen nothingness that coursed around buildings and obstacles with remorseless, relentless purpose. It was purpose without thought, pure instinct, with no moral or ethical component, just a mindless and savage impulse etched into an endless void.

Before her, the street exploded in a geyser of blacktop and earth, and what rose to bar Buffy’s way brought her to a sudden stop. Her last reserves of will ebbed as she stared up at seven crosses and seven dead women. Six of the women were the girls she failed to save from Kurtz, three to either side of the seventh victim. But it was the seventh that tightened against Buffy’s heart and tried to crush whatever was left of her faltering resolve.

It was her mother.

The lifeless gaze that looked down at Buffy tore through her with a keen edge honed by twelve years of self-loathing and guilt and regret. It flayed her from within, laying bare the demons of her own mind, the demons that had for so long sought an opening to emerge and destroy her.

Buffy’s thoughts spiraled into chaos and despair as a lifetime of sorrow worked on her sanity like water behind a failing dam.

Then she felt the Abstract’s shadows take on form and substance behind her, and the heat lightning of anger ripped through the confusion. She turned, not knowing how the knife came to be in her hand and not caring. She only wanted to kill, to destroy, to burn away all the pain with the purifying fire of hate and rage and savage violence.

She drove the dagger home with a primal snarl, the blade tearing easily through flesh and muscle, cleaving effortlessly into the beating heart and spilling an exultant cascade of blood hot and wet over her hand and along her arm.

Too late, Buffy saw the face of her victim. Too late, she saw that she had brought to horrible life her own prophetic nightmare.

“Buffy, why?” asked Willow.

Buffy could see the incomprehension in her friend’s eyes, could see the innocence and life and love that once lived there flicker and grow cold like an ember swept skyward on an Arctic wind. A small, ragged breath escaped Willow’s lungs as a solitary tear traced a silver path along one pale cheek. And then she was gone, taking with her the last bit of light and hope that remained in Buffy’s heart.

The Slayer sank to her knees, cradling her murdered friend in her arms, her mind dull and leaden. She held Willow’s head against her chest and rocked back and forth like a mother comforting a small child, her tears mixing with Willow’s blood, her sobs aching in her chest.

Somewhere in the recesses of her mind, she wanted to believe that it was all an illusion, an elaborate fantasy. But somehow it felt all too real — the blood and the ebbing warmth of Willow’s body, the salty taste of her own tears, and above all else the pain and grief.

She looked up at the deadly grace of the Abstract, watched as it reached into her mind and soul to claim her life, to offer her the oblivion that in the deepest dark of her nights had always seemed so inviting. No more Buffy Summers, no more destinies, no more of the endless cycle of death and loss that bounded her universe. Just cold nothingness. And she welcomed it.

But a part of her refused to invite that final death inside. From deep within her, the Dark Hunter desperately stabbed through Buffy’s sorrow and fractured the phantom world around them.

*                              *                              *

Aston tugged hard on the handles attached to the bomb’s cover plate and with a sudden scraping of metal, the metal panel pulled free.

“Hey, man, be careful with that thing,” said Hudson.

“Relax, ya bloody granny,” Aston replied with studied nonchalance. “It’s an atomic bomb. Nobody booby-traps atomic bombs any more than they put self-destruct buttons in nuclear power plants. No, this is just a little exercise in not doing something blatantly stupid that might expose the plutonium in this little baby. That would be unpleasant.”

With the cover plate off, Aston began to trace the wiring inside with his eyes. The business end of the weapon was a soccer-ball-shaped sphere the size of a small honeydew surrounded by a shell of shaped plastic explosives. The explosives had detonators leading off to the capacitors that were in turn linked to the power supply and timing elements.

“So that’s a nuke, huh?” asked Hud.

“Not all that impressive, is it? Just a plastic explosives shell designed to explode in a very precise way and compress a mass of fissionable material until it reaches criticality. Then ‘boom’. Goodbye, thanks for all the fun, see you in the next world.”

“You can disarm it, though, right? I mean, pull the plug or something.”

“Well, looks like the power supply’s a bit tough to reach without disassembling some more of this thing. Rather not do that. I poke around too much, I might accidentally create a short or cause a voltage spike to one of the plastique charges. That wouldn’t set off a fission reaction, but it would send a lot of toxic plutonium into our general vicinity. Nasty, nasty stuff, that.”

“That’s comforting,” said Hudson.

“Isn’t it though.”

“Can you just get on with it? I mean, I don’t want to push here, but I’m thinking that two Russian minutes are the same as two American minutes, right?” asked Hudson, his eyes fixed on the steadily declining numbers of the bomb’s timer.

“You know, if you Yanks would just have a proper tea at four o’clock like any civilized people ought to, you wouldn’t all be so anxious and stress-prone.”

Aston reached into his pack and came up with an anti-static bracelet. He snapped it around his wrist, then grounded the wire trailing from it to the metal framework of the bomb. Then he produced a pair of wire cutters, which he twirled in one hand like a gunfighter.

“A minute twenty,” announced Hudson.

“I can see the blasted numbers, Corporal. I may not be your friend Mr. Kerschel, but I can manage counting fairly well, even without using my fingers and toes.”

As Aston was speaking, he suddenly snipped something inside the weapon housing. Hudson flinched, but there was no explosion. The snip was followed by a dozen others as Aston quickly severed the conveniently bunched leads that were to supply power to the thirty-two individual charges of plastique.

When he was done, he looked up and winked at Hudson. “Well, that ought to do it. Been fun, this. Have to give it a go with less time on the clock the next time, though. Add a little drama to the whole affair.”

“That’s it? It’s done? The clock’s still ticking.”

“Yes, so it is. Tell you what. If it reaches zero and the bomb explodes, I’ll buy you a pint of lager at a pub of your choice,” said Aston as he fished a candy bar from a pocket of his parka. He peeled away part of the wrapper and added, “I say, how do you suppose Angel is getting on with our friend Taggert?”

“Oh, shit,” said Hudson, dashing off to find both traitor and former vampire.

Aston watched him disappear into the woods, then said to himself, “Damned excitable, these Americans.”

*                              *                              *

The dark vision of Sunnydale spun away in myriad fragments, leaving Buffy standing within a cold chamber of black marble. Around her, cyclopean columns rose to support a vaulted roof that seemed lost in gloomy shadows and the intertwining phantoms of her own mind.

And in the center of it all was the realization of her nightmare prophecy. She stood over the obsidian altar and looked down at Willow. Her friend’s eyes were closed, and she seemed so at peace, lying there robed in white silk, her delicate face framed by the copper halo of her hair. She could have been sleeping but for the crimson stain that spread across the shimmering fabric.

In her hand, Buffy held the dagger, the blade dripping beads of scarlet over the pristine white of Willow’s sleeve. Buffy let the dagger fall, its impact on the hard floor loud in the all-consuming silence of the chamber.

So, it had all happened. It was no illusion, and the Dark Hunter’s convulsive act of self preservation had been no more than the last effort of a trapped animal. The scenery had changed, but the central truth remained constant. Buffy no longer cared about the Dark Hunter’s will to live. She didn’t care about being the Slayer or saving the world. She had become the very thing she fought, had succumbed to the seductive poetry of evil.

The line between Slayer and murderess had been crossed. It was a sin that could never be made right. No redemption could ever lift this death from her soul. There was nothing left for her. Nothing at all.

She bent down and picked up the dagger, mesmerized for a moment by the patterns of blood and flickering torchlight on the bright blade. A trivial thing, that piece of steel. Such a simple creation, yet it had the power to change the course of lives in a single instant of thoughtlessness. It had the power to kill. And for Buffy, it had the power to heal.

The point of the blade hovered just below her sternum. A simple thrust, angled into her heart, and it would all be over. Buffy closed her eyes and pulled the knife upwards toward its fatal rendezvous.

*                              *                              *

Angel reacted without thought.

He lashed out with a vicious, looping kick that sent the Colt spinning out of Taggert’s grasp. Even without his vampiric strength, he was a tough fighter, with survival instincts won from hard experience against some of the biggest sociopaths ever to walk the night. And over a decade spent in Hell itself had only made those instincts harsher and more deadly.

Taggert recovered almost immediately, drew a large combat knife, and came for him, the knife weaving through the air in a series of figure-eights designed to confuse and unbalance him.

Angel refused to be drawn into a mistake. He backed off, shrugged out of his coat, and wrapped it around his left forearm.

“You shoulda held onto your gun, vamp,” snarled Taggert.

“For you? That’s just overkill. Besides, I like it up close and personal.”

“Big talk, parasite,” said the traitor.

Taggert lunged with the knife and Angel smoothly knocked the blade aside with the heavy padding of the coat.

“Watch it, Taggert. I think that kind of remark violates corporate policy on discriminatory workplace practices,” said Angel, distracting his opponent while he struck out with a hard kick to Taggert’s knee. But the commando saw it coming, spun away and delivered a vicious backhand that Angel managed to dodge just enough to avoid taking the full force of the blow.

He backed off as Taggert came at him again, and something old and violent stirred in him. Angel’s vampiric demon was long gone, but he well knew that there was a little demonic darkness lurking in the atavistic part of everyone’s soul.

Then Taggert made a mistake. He never expected Angel to cheat.

Angel’s boot caught the advancing commando hard in the groin, and Taggert sagged to the ground holding his crotch, the knife forgotten. A brutal, open-handed palm to his head rounded things out, sending the Dark Angel sprawling in the snow, dazed and at the edge of consciousness.

Angel shook his hand as if he’d burned it. “Ow. You’ve got a damned hard head, Taggert.”

*                              *                              *

Something grabbed her painfully by one wrist, and the blade was interrupted in its deadly path.

Buffy looked up into the infinitely azure eyes of a dead woman.

“Elisa?” asked Buffy.

“Damn it, Summers! Haven’t you learned anything from me? Haven’t you learned your worth by now?”

“I killed Willow. I nearly killed Angel. You died saving me. Even my own mother died because of me. What ‘worth’ could there possibly be?” asked Buffy.

“Enough of that. I didn’t turn my legacy over to a fool. Don’t you get it? That thing out there found what it thinks is your biggest vulnerability — your love for your friends — and it’s trying to use that to destroy you. Don’t let it, because that love isn’t a weakness, Buffy. In fact, it’s the greatest strength you’ll ever have.”

Elisa made an expansive gesture to encompass the chamber and Willow.

“This is only real if you allow it to be. You decide whether this is the future. That abomination outside can only win if you give in to those inner demons that for all these years have tried so hard to destroy what you are. Don’t do that to yourself, don’t do it to me, and don’t do it to Willow. You and I, we can beat this. We are created Slayer and Redeemer, the Angel of Darkness and the Demon of Light. We are the Chosen Ones who stand between the world and the Abyss. Fight this thing. You’re a lot stronger than I ever was. Die if it’s our destiny, but die as a Slayer and a Dark Hunter and as Buffy Summers, not as a victim.”

And then Buffy understood. It had been so simple all along. Until it came fully into her universe, the Elemental Abstract had no power over her that she didn’t give to it. So, like its avatar Kurtz, it resorted to staging and deception to achieve is ends. She also knew now that the Abstract was nothing she hadn’t faced before. It had always been a part of her, the voice that so seductively offered her the endless nothingness of death. She recognized it now, remembered it hovering in the cold reaches of her soul when she’d run a sword through Angel. She remembered it hounding her across a continent in her hopeless, ten-year flight from herself. And she remembered its familiar presence from the long, drug-clouded nights and days in Vanderdecken Sanitarium, when she’d thought her mind was gone and she’d longed for oblivion. Oh, the Abstract was real enough, and it could destroy her universe with ease. But it couldn’t use her to do it unless she granted it that power.

And she refused.

Elisa was gone, and fire snaked around the perimeter of the room. It rose up along marble pillars and tumbled in hypnotically beautiful waves across the ceiling.

Buffy backed away from the altar as the flames engulfed it and the too-real vision of Willow.

Somewhere within her, all the loss and grief and anger that had for so long been her constant companions became sharpened in a single, blinding instant to a sword’s point of lethal fury. But this was not the thoughtless fury that had killed the phantasmal Willow. This time it was a rage for life — her life, and the life of her friends. And it was something else, too. It was a rejection of all the forces that had sought to control her destiny for sixteen bitter, hard years.

From deep inside, a primal scream built like the beginnings of a thermonuclear fire. Then it burst from her, chilling and terrible, and with it came the full unleashed strength of Slayer and Dark Hunter and Buffy Summers combined.

The Elemental Plane and the Abstract at its heart shattered like a mirror, the shards spinning black and terrible into an endless void.

Buffy stepped from night into the blinding fire of an exploding sun as the interior of the containment circle erupted into an inferno that nothing born of the rational universe could survive.

*                              *                              *

For a brief instant, Willow was blind and deaf. And flat on her back. The concussion of the sudden explosion had thrown her backward from the Key like a rag doll. She sat up, a little dazed, and blinked away the afterimage of the brilliant white fire that had obliterated the inside of the circle.

She raised her eyes to the holocaust that had engulfed both friend and enemy, and despair gripped her. The fire surged skyward in a blazing column, piercing the low overcast and roiling the clouds where it stabbed through them.

“Buffy, no,” she said softly. She felt tears hot on her cheeks in the cold mountain winter. “Please, no.”

Vaguely, she was aware of Giles helping her to her feet, then she turned away from the devastation, buried her face in his chest, and cried.

*                              *                              *

Within the maelstrom, Buffy felt an infinite peace, at one with the immense and unknowable powers that lay at the heart of creation. It was the same energy that had burned in her when she’d fought Lillith Prophet all those many months before. Now, though, that power was almost infinitely purer and stronger. If not for the Dark Hunter that shared her fragile body, Buffy knew she would have been obliterated in an instant by the primeval energy that coursed around and through her and her dark enemy.

Kurtz looked at her, his eyes fire and his face a mask of hatred. But beneath the hatred there was something more. There was an undercurrent of fear, a sudden realization that immortal beings were not indestructible. An eternal force of Darkness had looked upon its own mortality, and it was afraid.

The sword in Buffy’s hands burned as white-hot as if it had just been drawn from the forge that made it. She raised it over her head.

Kurtz raised his own weapon to parry as the Dark Slayer’s blade slashed downward in a blinding, fiery arc, trailing flame and delicate tendrils of smoke in its wake.

Molten steel met molten steel. Buffy’s sword cleaved through Kurtz’s and continued on.

Kurtz’s eyes went wide as he stared for the first time into the eyes of a far more lethal predator than himself. Then the Slayer’s blade struck home and it was over. Kurtz’s body, severed momentarily from its magical protections, flared to ash, and then even the ash was incinerated in the furnace of elemental fire. The fragment of primordial darkness escaped its incarnation. Immune to the mystical inferno but trapped within the containment ward, the shard of un-life found itself inextricably captured and devoured by the remorseless Gehenna Key.

As the great machine came alive, the inferno at the heart of the circle receded, leaving Buffy Summers alone in the center. The sword dropped from her hand and she sank to her knees, exhausted and drained.

The Key methodically carried out its arcane program, the Saber Sequence expanding invisibly into the hidden geometries of interplanar space and recreating them in its own image. In its blind and mindless purpose, it tore the minions of the dark planes from their ancient foothold in Buffy’s universe and exiled them to the shadowed places that had given them birth.

The Apocalypse had come at last, and the Slayer had brought it to pass. But no one, not even the Elder Powers, could have foreseen just whose world would end, whose Judgment Day it would become.

The Saber closed on the primordial nexi that joined the material world with the realms of despair and pain, and in one timeless, infinitesimal instant, severed them forever.

Buffy felt the powers of Darkness fade from the world, and felt the Dark Hunter bid her a victorious and melancholy farewell as it left her to find the next battleground in its eternal war. She was strangely sad to see it leave, but it left behind the memories of its hosts. It left behind the sword-saint Hideyori Yojeimon. It left behind Seamus Black and Morgan Rutherford and Kwan Li and all the others. It left behind Elisa McKenna, the woman who in her death had taught Buffy Summers so much about life.

And it left behind something else. Where before there had been doubts and regrets, self-recriminations and bitterness, there was now a deep satisfaction. It was a satisfaction not with having been the Dark Hunter, or in being the Slayer, but in being, at the end of the day, Buffy Summers.

It was a new feeling for her. She liked it.

Buffy smiled and knew that her long, desperate war was finally over.

*                              *                              *

Hudson found Angel sitting on a log, one boot placed firmly on the back of an unconscious Taggert. He was absently whittling a piece of pine into the rough beginnings of some sort of animal, but he seemed preoccupied with something else entirely.

“He give you any trouble?” asked Hudson.

Angel looked up and tapped the tip of his boot against his prisoner. “Him? Nah. I needed the exercise, and he made a pretty good heavy bag. Since you’re not in duck-and-cover mode or kissing your ass goodbye, can I assume Aston did his thing with the nuke?”

Hudson glanced at his watch. “As of a couple of minutes ago, we either died or we didn’t. Since there is no way heaven could possibly expect me to look at your ugly mug for the rest of eternity, either we’re in the other place or we’re still living and breathing in Pine Crest.”

“Aston say anything about what Buffy was up to?”

“Sorry, boss. The man was a little preoccupied. Besides, it’s all need-to-know. Boss lady’s one for keeping secrets, it seems. I saw the fireworks, though — which don’t mean a whole lot, necessarily. Lots of bad-ass light shows in this business.”

Angel pocketed the carving and looked distantly into the woods. For the first time, Hudson saw the deep worry that lined his face and flickered in his eyes.

“I’m scared to death to go down there, Hud, you know that? I don’t want to make it real, don’t want to find out something I don’t want to know.”

“Ain’t gonna change nothing, you just sitting here wondering.”

Angel hefted Taggert’s knife and with a deft throw buried it in the trunk of a nearby tree. “My whole life has been delimited and defined by death. So why does it hurt so much when I think about hers?”

“I think you know the answer to that.”

Angel nodded and looked down at Taggert. “C’mon, let’s get this s.o.b. on his feet and go find out if I have anything left in this life that’s worth a damn.”

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