Chapter 43: The Long Now
Fandom: Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Warnings: Graphic violence, adult language, sexual situations, character death, rabbits.
Disclaimer: The characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are owned by Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Fox studios and maybe various other entities that I am unaware of but totally respect and admire. This story is not meant to infringe upon anyone's rights, only to entertain.
.Chapter 43: The Long Now
As he passed back through the O.M.G. Huge Hole in Deck 16, Andrew got to thinking that maybe this wasn’t the smartest idea he’d ever had in his life. And that was really saying something. After all, there’d been some major oopsies along the way.
Let’s review, shall we?
1. “The Trio” – In retrospect, the short-lived feelings of camaraderie and youthful, devil-may-care panache were far outweighed by the fact that Warren turned out to be psychotic. Also, Andrew almost never got to hold the really cool guns.
2. Killing his B.F.F – Okay, sure – Jonathan only became his B.F.F after Warren went to that big Trek Reunion in the sky. But, anyway, Andrew killed him. Stabbed him to death. ‘Nuff said about that.
3. Becoming a “Watcher” – Now, you’d think this would be a step in the right direction: fighting alongside those of the Lawful Good alignment, learning all about fighting and magic and the History of the Vampyres. But, see, what they don’t tell you about is all the Big Honking Lies you have to tell all the time. It’s like, “Oh, hey, what did you have for breakfast, Andrew” and then you lie about it. Like, seriously, almost that bad. Also, Giles put a computer chip in his brain that made him have to pee at weird times.
4. Becoming “Not a Watcher” – Again, maybe there are a few contradictions here and there. But Andrew Wells was a complex man, full of contradictions and paradoxes and parallelograms and metaphors. And it’s not like he had any real job experience, other than “evil henchman” and “Slayer chaperon.” So he became a cashier hooked on anti-depressants, instead.
5. Summoning an Ancient Hell Demon from the Ulcerous Womb of the Ten Thousand Hells – At the time, this didn’t seem like such a bad move. Andrew knew from experience he wasn’t so useful in the traditional “fight of our lives” scenario. But he was pretty darn good at summoning demons, and when the opportunity arose, he grabbed that brass ring so hard! However, he also messed something up in a major, major way. Not only did he call the wrong guy, he wasn’t even sure which wrong guy he called. The thing claimed its name was “Melvin Peterson.” Which, Ha! Whatever. Demons, you know? Those dudes lied all the time! Probably part of some demon code or something. Anyway without the creature’s real name, Andrew had about as much chance of sending the big guy back as he did of winning a first bid auction for a vintage Zukuss Bounty Hunter in the original blister packaging…
Andrew looked back at the gloomy monster again. It seemed to be having trouble keeping up with him, now. The jumble of mismatched organs that once seemed so scary was starting to remind him of one of Warren’s failed Doomsday machines, with all those rusty parts he used to scavenge from junkyards and garage sales and abandoned military silos that barely even fit together, no matter how much he furiously soldered them.
He waited patiently on the gangway while the demon slowly wriggled its way through the gash, apparently still a little bloated from its meal of Fury de Jour. Andrew still wasn’t totally sure what having a manifestation of pure Guilt in his belly had done to Melvin, but if it was anything like the way Andrew usually felt, then he guessed he sort of felt sorry for the guy.
They rounded the parapet in stony silence and then started down the caged-off stairs. Melvin oozed Slinky-like in his summoner’s wake, and the creature’s weirdly familiar funk made Andrew begin to wonder if “guilt” was really the main thing that separated the good guys from the bad guys.
They’d all done bad things at one time or another. Willow killed Warren, and tried to destroy the world. Anya and Angel and Spike killed buttloads of people. Giles did ten bad things before he brushed his teeth. Xander… well, he wasn’t totally sure what Xander’s badness was all about, but from the look of the guy it had almost definitely involved innocent people getting splattered or deep-fried in one way or another.
Plus, there was the whole leaving Anya at the altar thing. And there was the whole leaving Anya to be chopped in half while Andrew hid under a pile of dead Bringers thing…
6. The Whole Hiding Under a Pile of Dead Bringers Thing
Anyway, that wasn’t even the point. The point was, Andrew knew they all felt guilty about this stuff, and he knew they all tried to make up for it in their own strange ways. And maybe Melvin would try to make up for it too, in time.
But that can’t be all there is to it, Andrew mused. Because guilt is just a feeling, and feelings aren’t enough. Because there’s some price you need to pay.
Just wish I knew what it was.
They eventually reached the big spooky vault at the bottom of the stairs. At the top of an access ramp, Andrew recognized the long corridor that led to the computer room, the one Angie stuck him in a few hours ago.
The lights were all still running on emergency power and therefore creepy-dim. He told the demon to sit tight – which it did, because it was, you know, a big fat lump of guilt with a side of guilt sauce now – then he started ambling up the ramp on his own. As he went, he felt his grip loosen around the Case of Kabloowie a little and realized he was starting to feel a little bit more hopeful about everything. Andrew was no Warren or Willow in the brains department, but he was fairly sure he could point and click their way outta town-ski in no time flat.
Not that he wanted to run away or anything. Andrew Wells felt his mojo rising, mister! When it came to an Apocalypse, he was down like a clown eating a pound of ground round, Charlie Brown. He would be there with bells on.
Not literally – that’s just a thing some people say.
Although if the Apocalypse in question had some kind of dress code that called for bells, then Ring-a-Ding-Ding Miss Thing.
And just as he was thinking this, he heard a familiar voice behind him.
“Andrew,” it whispered.
He turned around.
He could still see the face, somehow, lurking just underneath the Picasso spaghetti mess. She seemed to be smiling, but the teeth were broken real bad and the lips were swollen purple bands and everything around them was slick and red except for her coal black eyes.
She punched him in the stomach, really, really hard. Andrew guessed it must have been some kinda weird kung-fu punch, though, because it didn’t really hurt at first, but then, a couple of seconds later, he felt like his legs and his feet were on fire and were underwater and didn’t really belong to him anymore.
That’s when he looked down and saw the knife.
Kennedy had put it inside of him, all the way to the handle.
“Oh,” he said.
And then Andrew Wells fell down and down.
And he kept right on falling.
Buffy was using her noodle, now, trying to implant her commands in the beastie’s pea-sized brain. But Nancy was moving much faster, her parts blurring like spectral wings as she pinwheeled away from the charge. The Doctor had no combat training, and seemed not to need any. The slave army of Shadow Demons was driving her now, and all their instinct and their dark, old strength suddenly seemed more potent than anything a Watcher could ever hope to teach.
As if to prove this last point, the Nurse grabbed Buffy’s new pet by an errant leg. Swinging them like a discus, she sent both rider and mount sailing into a heat-apron that coughed out periodic clouds of white steam. Buffy's mount twisted at the last possible moment to protect its master from the blow, but she could feel the thing’s thighs quiver as it rose to its feet.
Nancy came galloping in on all fours, her limbs moving in grotesque concert. She reached them in a matter of moments, but didn’t pounce. Instead, she prowled in a semi-circle a few yards out of reach, her body still feral, still less than human, but using her noodle now, too.
The Beast let out a long and anguished howl, the sound of the monster’s simple loyalties being torn along a seam. Buffy felt its body shudder as it sank to its haunches, the mountain of muscle melting becoming a whimpering pile of Jell-O.
“Our Imperators cannot harm me, Miss Special,” Nancy sang. “And neither can you. The dark princess has fled your castle walls.”
Buffy grit her teeth, tried to will her mount back into the fight. But it was no use. The Nurse had already locked the monster with her eyes. It watched in helpless adoration as its author closed the gap, mewled in horrible ecstasy as her hands crumpled its skull like a wad of typing paper. The rest of its big body went down like a capsized ship. The wreckage of it dumped Buffy directly at the killer’s feet.
Nancy tilted her head and smiled her curious smile. Her hands glowed like Mother of Pearl when she held them out again, this time reaching down for Buffy’s face.
There was something so slow and strange and beautiful about the way Nancy Stark moved now. The woman had become a dream of herself, had reached the end of that long journey into midnight where pain became futile, and love impossible.
And Nancy smiled and smiled, and looked down into Buffy’s soul and she said: “For thine is. Life is. Thine is The. This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimp-”
A shot rang out.
Then another. Then another.
Three thick, crimson lines raced down Nancy’s chest. She fell.
Dawn was standing behind her, less than five feet away, the gun still clenched in her hands. She was crying, but her tears were like molten steel. “You know,” she said, “I really suck with this thing. But even I can’t miss from here.”
Buffy wrenched herself to her feet. A second later they were wrapped up in each other’s arms. The world vanished under the smell of the girl’s shampoo, and the soft strum of fingers against her the back of her neck. All the memories came flooding back – not the fake ones those monks cooked up, but the real ones, the ones they made together with their hearts.
“It’s okay,” Buffy said. “It’s gonna be okay now.”
And although it was a lie, it was a good lie, the best of all lies. And though the Now’s black maw nearly covered the sky, though she was all out of cards to play, as Buffy stood there holding her little sister in her arms the words almost felt true.
Of course, this feeling didn’t last long.
Like a monster from a bad horror movie, Nancy lurched back to her feet, bones cracking, muscles shivering like fish out of water as they knit her flesh together, as the clouds boiled away the pain.
“I mean, bullets?” she scoffed. “Oh sugar. Grow up…”
It was not the moon that shined down on Willow, now. That pale mirage had already evaporated, along with all the falsetto planets and the whopping lies of stars. Not even Ethan Rayne’s illusions were dense enough to hide that big, gaping hole in reality. It hung heavy in the sky like a headman’s axe that seemed to be swinging closer and closer; but she knew that this wasn’t true. It was all of them that were moving, all of the possible realities being gradually drawn forever into this blackest of all wells.
It kinda hurt to look at it, and so Willow looked at the store instead. And, that kinda hurt to look at, too.
The place appeared as sweet and innocent as always, a squat womb of violet and white stucco that could’ve been a cupcake shop. The Box filled a certain vacuum left by a certain high school that was blown to smithereens – more precisely, a high school that Willow and her friends had blown to smithereens – and it sometimes felt like most of the important events in her twenty five years of life had happened right here. These were mostly not memories of the fond and wistful variety. Like everyone else she ever loved, the most important events in Willow Rosenberg’s life tended to be on the sucky side.
She’d fought Giles here. Fought Buffy here. Almost killed and died here. In a way, this place made Willow everything she ever was. Buffy had a weapons chest, Giles an education, Xander a…
Well, he had a toolbelt.
But, these four walls became Willow’s weapons chest and her education and her toolbelt. She was changing so fast back then, every day plunging deeper and deeper into the Art.
Of course, the Art was mainly science, at its root. Most Buzzing Blessed Bees didn’t ever get that part of it. When you went beyond all the rites and rituals and funny sounding words, the bone and marrow of Magic was all about the transference of matter and the equilibrium of energy – real Stephen-Hawking-type stuff. Scientists performed acts of magic all the time. The main difference was that they needed to first construct elaborate machines to aid them, whereas mystics used themselves as the machines.
Still, down at the very heart of Magic lay something the world of Science could never prevail upon. Once you’d plumbed a certain depth, the rules all exploded and the old maxims crumbled to dust, because down at the bottom was the horrible realization that there was no bottom. There were always sharper weapons and better lessons and handier tools – so many, in fact, that you inevitably had to invent enemies to kill and problems to solve and broken things to fix.
Once upon a time, Willow Rosenberg had hit that sea floor and kept going, digging deeper and deeper and unearthing secrets that were never meant to be unearthed. One of these secrets had nearly cost them Everything. And as if the theft wasn’t bad enough, now someone in their hearts was about to serve the sentence for her crime.
A life sentence, in fact. And considering whom it was, Willow imagined that could end up being very, very long time.
So, she opened the door. They were hunched up against the base of the checkout counter, the blonde woman curled in his lap like a beloved child. The vampire was motionless except for the hand stroking her hair. From where Willow stood she couldn’t see the wound, nor the twin rivulets of blood escaping down the side of her neck. But she knew all that stuff was there, anyway.
Spike’s golden eyes tracked her under his tortured white brow. “That you, Will?” he asked. The sound of his voice was a hoarse and wretched whisper, absent all the creature’s old wryness.
“Yes. It’s me.”
“I can do it,” he wept. “I can do it. Just give us a minute. Just give us one minute.”
When Willow knelt down next to them, she noticed that their right hands were entwined. He was clutching them to one breast, feeling for the beat that was faint but still present, and the roaring fire that had died down but was still warm. Spike’s tears glistened as he stared down at that indestructible heart of hers, like frozen sheets over stone cliffs. Willow caught one of them with her thumb, smoothed it across his cheek. “You’ve done enough,” she whispered. “This isn’t for you to carry.”
When the monster gazed up at her, his features transformed like a wind blowing across a field, turning the yellowed tips green again. The eyes that materialized were storms at sea. So, she wept too as she reached down to take her from him. Spike’s arms protested, but this vampire was very brave and somehow full of love. Willow knew he deserved mercy, even if she had to force it on him. She told him this with her eyes and with her mind, and for a crystalline moment the two were so close that the witch could barely hear Xander’s footsteps on the stairs, or his voice crying out her name
Tara’s white glow was still roaring through Willow like a river. It made the Slayer’s body as light as air as she carried her back through the open door and out into the street. She could feel four feet trail slowly after her, but she kept her back turned to them so they wouldn’t see what came next. Not because she didn’t want them to think of her as a killer – Willow Rosenberg was that, and more, and worse – but because she didn’t want this next image to follow them down into their dreams.
Willow cradled her old friend’s head to her chest, not daring to whisper an apology for what she was about to do. A moment later, she could feel the heat welling up from the war-ravaged world's molten core. It howled up through the soles of her feet, and was channeled and focused through the thousand polished mirrors of her quiet astral house.
When the heat reached its breaking point, she unleashed it on a long, deep breath, a wolf blowing down a straw house. For a moment, every cell of Buffy’s small body glowed like smelted iron, as if that blinding flame inside her was finally being set free.
Then she was gone. Willow watched a cloud of embers carry off the last remnants of her, like fireflies escaping into dark summer fields.
What happened next was a little.
The sky howled, suddenly filled with a legion of wounded and ravenous wolves. When she looked up, the Now’s monstrous black sun was twisting into a crumpled scar, a hundred glowing storms were erupting along its edges.
The effect of the Slayer’s death had been much quicker than she anticipated. She would have to move faster than ever before. She remembered the feeling again – racing on no legs through the darkness, a hare pursued by a certain reptile who would inevitably catch her.
She turned to face them. “Grab hold of me,” she commanded.
The boys ran to her, pitching and yawing under the onslaught of the Now’s death throes. They all braced each other tightly, struggling to stay upright in the terrible wind. Willow closed her eyes and strained for those Other Legs.
The trees and houses of Rayne’s illusion were giving way to the sudden inversion of energies. A thousand empty homesteads blew to toothpicks in the gales. After a moment of stalled panic, she felt the old track shoes grind beneath her and then they were moving, the three of them gradually rising towards the eye of the storm. As they got closer, the particles of their bodies started swirling faster and faster inside some phantom centrifuge. Even with her eyes shut, Willow could see the cracks healing, the darkness gradually being bricked away by the Big Everything’s brilliant old shape.
And when she saw it she ran faster still, her mind melting away in the blur until all that was left inside of it was the goal line: a certain rooftop in a place called England, where twin fires were about to be snuffed out forever.
It was barely visible in the distance. The door was closing, the tunnel collapsing.
She reached out her hands.
Stark kept coming, backing them slowly towards the ledge.
Buffy tucked Dawn behind the good arm, trying to shield the girl’s eyes.
“Don’t look at her, Dawnie,” she whispered.
When the Shadow Demons boiled away Nancy's wounds, it seemed as if she let the Now siphon out the last of her humanity. The thing she became was preternaturally lithe and boneless – arms and fingers obscenely elongated, head writhing and weaving atop a snakelike neck. Buffy could see fine black threads funneling into the top of the little monster’s head, sculpting her into some final, godlike form. Whatever Nancy had in mind for her new Hobbyhorse Universe, Buffy felt a sudden twinge of sympathy for whatever poor bastards would be cursed to live in it.
The swirling black disk was almost upon them, too close now to see all of it at once. The dome-like membrane that Nancy used to imprison the Council now seemed too small to contain it, and the thought occurred that the black surface wasn’t a skin at all, but more of a window into a place beyond time and reason, where all the realities had been hung like stars.
Not that it mattered. It was a barren wasteland now; all the worlds vanishing back into the eternal blank from whence they were bourn. This was the great undisturbed void that painters touched when they signed their names, the lips authors kissed when they typed the words “The End.”
“Two Miss Specials for the price of one,” Nancy hissed. “Good. Time is short, and we must feed.”
The back of Buffy’s heel touched the edge of the drain pan. She shot a backward glance over the lip. It looked like a good fifty-foot drop onto the front steps.
It would be enough.
Everyone’s expendable, she thought. Even the Slayer.
Especially the Slayer
She ignored the Doctor’s rambling threats, and guided her sister’s face close to her own.
“Dawn,” she said, “It’s time for us to go, now. It's time to go be with Mom.”
Dawn nodded back, forcing a smile that was brave enough to break stone.
Buffy held the girl more tightly than she’d ever held anything in her life. She tried to think of a prayer and then she just tried to think of a goodbye.
They climbed out onto the ledge.
And then, something strange began to happen in the sky.
The Now’s shape trembled for a moment, like a stone skipped across a black pond. It twisted violently, rung by invisible hands.
Things got a little special effects-y, then. Cavalries of blue electricity raced across the sky, exploding into brilliant novas wherever they met. Nancy’s newly serpentine head twisted up at it, a scream of rage and horrified loss pouring from her throat.
“How?!” she was shrieking. “How?! How?!”
Then, before she could gather the strength to move, Buffy saw the tiny circle of light. It was sailing out of one of the fissures in the Now’s new scarlike form, blazing down at speeds that would make a NASA test pilot blush. It was headed right for the roof, she realized. Getting bigger and brighter.
Like a promise.
We’re not breathing, he thought.
That can’t be good.
(Well, for most of us anyway.)
Xander tried to look, but it was no dice. The light on the other side was so brilliant that blood red clouds were drifting across the backs of his eyelids. Hurricane winds seemed to whip in from all angles, holding him together and tearing him apart at the same time. He could feel the others’ arms clench him closer and tighter, like the World’s Scariest Group Hug.
There was a piercing whine of a missile screaming down to earth.
He braced himself.
What happened next was pretty disorienting. When he opened his eyes, they were standing on a familiar-looking roof. Nearby, some kind of big crazy tree had smashed up through the building’s envelope, causing lord knows how much collateral damage to the surrounding ductwork and superstructure.
Talk about a pain in the butt to fix…
No! Concentrate, Xanzibar San…
Buffy. Buffy was there.
Dawn was there.
They were standing out on the ledge.
Something else was with them, something Not of the Good. It stretched long white arms like a fossil’s wings, screamed at the churning, psycho nightmare of the sky. “I’ll kill you!” it swore, and Xander knew it meant business.
Instinctively, he looked to Super Witch. Willow’s skin was ghostly pale, soft lips frosted to blue. When he tried to shake her, she went limp and slithered to the floor.
He turned to the only other one with a chance. “Spike!”
The vampire’s blue eyes burned back at him, as though they were trying to spin the gears faster than ever before. Then he was running, leather coat flapping like a cape. Xander stood watching him for a delirious second, then knelt to gather Willow Rosenberg in his arms.
And she was as cold and as lifeless as a block of ice.
I’m runnin’, but I can’t feel my legs. The sky is full of angry stars, now. Too many to count, but who’s bloody counting?
I can see her face out across the way. She’s got Dawn with her, the pair of them pressed tight as palms. She looks in a bad way. I swear to myself she won’t be the only one.
I can see a white form swaying at them like a serpent. I don’t know what I’m doing, or what I have left inside me to do it with, but I am bloody well doing it anyway. When I holler my nonsense word, the thing that turns to face me is chimerical – a fiend that defies all rules of decency and design. A glimmer of recognition passes through those chemical cesspools Nancy Stark calls her eyes and then I am on top of her, slashing away with both arms. We are both uneducated in our violence. As my hand finds her throat, it occurs to me that there is no one to really teach you how to be a monster.
Stark gibbers wildly as we crash to the floor, rolling over and over, my coat slapping the blacktop like a flag in wind. She tries to ward me off with one of those misshapen masts she is using for an arm and I mechanically bite it, bite it before my fangs even have a chance to slide down and I am roaring a muffled roar and she is screaming something into my ear that sounds like a soddin’ poem or a chemist’s recipe or some deranged combination of the two.
As we struggle to murder each other I keep praying that the old undead edge will kick in, the one that forces time to slow to a drip drop, but it doesn’t, and time doesn’t slow but instead keeps goin’ faster and faster, and above us the sky is bellowing like a mad vicar, and the black sun that I saw in the street outside the shop and at the moment of my death, that great black mirror ringed by spiders, is twisting like a sneer up there as the brittle stars explode all ‘round it.
When we claw back to our feet, everything goes wrong. Nancy’s head whips at me atop a serpent’s throat. It has become a Morning Star of flesh and bone. Her teeth as long as mine, now, longer even. The tusk of a canine rakes open a long gash in my cheek on one pass, gores deep into my shoulder on the next.
I can see neither Buffy nor Dawn nor Xander nor Willow anymore. There is only the Nancy Thing, a monster driven by the same absence that has driven me since God forgot when.
A clawed fist rings home on my temple and suddenly I am flyin’ without wings or a ticket. When she comes for me this time she is Become Death. Her teets hang low on her frame like an ancient pig’s, and her pink eyes have gone as red as sultry pools of blood.
Her forearm is sharp when it slams down, lined with daggers of her own imagining. I twist at the last moment, and her blow sends up an ocean spray of blacktop and concrete.
Her strength is mammoth, apocalyptic. I jump up anyway, a punch-drunk boxer who don’t know when he’s licked, don’t know when to stay down for the count, don’t know when the bell is rung.
Everything is running on full melt. I get a few good ones in. I land a king hit, right between those horrible eyes. I follow with a slashing right hand on her liver, if she still has one. She gives me a incredulous look that tells me it hurt, and I decide this is the best I could’ve hoped for: to mildly annoy and waylay a shiny new God.
I want to try it again, but I am already worn down to a cinder. I feel weak as a newborn lamb when she wraps her long, misshapen arms around me, sinks her talons into my back. I suspect she will cut me into red steak now.
The world is moving slow, at last and too late, time dribbling out like the last few beats of a heart.
She opens her jaws.
And I am ready.
After this long, long time, I am ready.
And the last thing she’ll see is me protecting her.
“Manus? Was it Manus?” Drusilla squinted at Zophiel hopefully, trying to catch his eye again. The old sot still seemed so thoroughly absorbed with his wine, either despite all these latest unsettling developments or because of them. “It was Manus, wasn’t it?”
“Well even if it was, it hardly matters now, my dear.” While he wasn’t exactly irritated, the archangel’s reserves of patience with this line of conversation did seem to be dwindling. “I mean,” he added, “you have no mouth left to utter it.”
“But that seems like such a small detail, sir.” As she said this, Drusilla suddenly became aware that they were no longer in the field, but rather in a plush and genteel parlor, the sort where one of means might hold a fashionable salon.
Zophiel was different as well, his tattered rags exchanged for a gentleman’s tails. “Ah, but the small details are the most important ones. After all, who ever heard of a large detail? Or, even, a detail of average size, for that matter?”
While Drusilla sensed he had a reasonably good point there, she kept shaking her head. Though, of course, it was not her head, which was the problem to begin with. She didn’t feel sadness about this particular detail. Quite the contrary, she was elated to see that monstrous old prison finally crack and crumble, and it was only in the aftermath that she began to sense the wider diameter of what was lost. The warlock Ethan Rayne had sprung his wicked trap, and now he walked the earth filled with the strength of more devils than she could reliably count.
She closed her eyes again and watched him go about his business of slowly thrashing the Watcher to death, his eyes black with pure evil. Jailer or not, she did care for Rupert. He was brave and cruel, but one did not repay cruelty with more cruelty. Or, at least, Drusilla did not. And, besides this, there was love inside of him, just as there were wild storms of love inside all of them. They were blind to it, of course, because it came so naturally to them. They deserved better.
As she thought all of this, she felt Zophiel’s eyes upon her, studying her face as though he’d seen it for the first time. “Do you really think so?” he said.
“Yes. I know that I shouldn’t, but I do.”
The world turned again. Gone now was the exquisite parlor and the fancy tails. Instead, they stood in the well of magnificent library, Zophiel bespeckled and garbed in the Watcher’s old tweed jacket. He was drawing a dusty old book from one of the shelves, a rather serious look set upon his wine-flushed features. “Here we are,” he murmured as he thumbed to a certain page. “For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
Drusilla frowned back at him. “Doesn’t seem all that helpful. I mean, she’s already returned.”
“Details, my dear girl, details,” he said, a mote of that old, impish jest sinking back into his voice. “It’s not the return bit that’s important, but rather what thou art to begin with.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s all a circle, child. The shape of infinite, incremental change that is fated to return from whence it begun. If there is a way forward, then there assuredly must be a way backward.” After he said this, Zophiel made a very odd gesture, removing his spectacles and polishing them in one hand. “But, of course, there is a price. And if the Abomination is to be allowed to walk the Earth again, it is a heavy toll indeed.”
Drusilla pondered the words for a moment. “What is this price, sir?”
He shook his head sadly. “I am forbidden to tell you,” he told her, “except that you must be the one to pay it. It is a very old rule.”
The way the angel looked at her was suddenly so mournful that it broke her heart. “Oh please don’t cry, sir,” she pled, wiping a single tear from his weathered old cheek. “I’m certain it will all work out for the best.”
“O child, you were never meant for that terrible land below,” he sobbed. “So beautiful, were you, that I dressed myself in rags. So loving, were you, that I drowned my blood with wine to warm my small, cold heart. The Mystery is mysterious even to the Seraphim, in the presence of your grace.”
Zophiel wept freely now. They were sitting in the bright field again, and she was holding the angel in her arms, stroking the matted grey feathers of his hair. “There, there,” she whispered. She could feel the wind coming now, hunting her from the lush green hills on the horizon. It whispered the cost of the resurrection on its wake, and while the toll was every bit as devastating as the angel had implied, it was far too late to change her mind. “Perhaps we shall meet again, someday,” she said, as the savage current came upon her. Its gusts blew the sand of her immortal soul sideways, sweeping her up into the sky bit by bit. “After the final war, at the mouth of Time’s long river…”
Zophiel put one hand through the dissolving cask of her cheek, as though he yearned to touch her one last time.
Then he was receding into the distance, becoming smaller and smaller until the angel himself seemed to be a speck of ash and the field had darkened to an indigo swamp. And the heavens grew darker and darker as she flew, black tendrils coiling and slithering, folding her into some terrible womb. She could hear Miss Edith’s voice giggling beyond the threshold, a saw scraping a sheet of rotting iron. It was getting louder, drowning out all thought.
And that’s when Drusilla realized she would only have the one moment, the one small chance.
She closed her eyes.
The face leered down at him, a more chilling mask than ever before. The power was beginning to change Rayne on some fundamental level, burning away whatever atoms of humanity were left inside. One hand lightly slapped Rupert’s cheek. It was a thundering blow, setting off another string of bombs inside his skull.
“Alas, poor Ripper,” the monster sang, cradling the Watcher’s chin in his iron fingers. “I knew him, Horatio.”
Rupert spit his goodbye, a red glob of blood that landed just east of the bastard’s nose. As one half of himself steeled for the killing blow, the rest roared like a wounded lion, daring it to come.
A second ticked away. Then another.
His enemy was thinking again, wanting to be sure he had relished every bloody moment of it.
That’s when Rupert saw it happen. Over the warlock’s shoulder, he spied long trains of ash began to swirl together, knitting a familiar shape solid. Ethan followed his eyes to it. He comprehended it a fraction of a second too late.
“Manus!” the vampire’s voice rang out.
Ethan screamed. Rupert watched him stagger sideways across the arena floor, the black liquid billowing out of his eyes and ears and nostrils like octopus ink. The demon’s fury was terrifying. Viscid claws and tentacles lashed blindly at the air, every ounce and inch shuddering with rage at the warlock’s treachery.
Rupert crawled over to the box, the incantation’s final words choking out of his lips. The demon dove down at it, its ancient flesh elongating into a glistening black rope as it flew. Just before the last of it vanished into its eternal prison, before the Watcher clapped the lid shut, two wisps peeled free into the air. One fled upwards, disappearing through the ceiling to reunite with its petite blond mistress.
The other’s journey was far, far shorter. Faith’s lungs fired out a hard breath as the ribbon of smog burrowed its way into her ear.
Summoning some last vestige of strength, Rupert clambered to his feet. Drusilla was some twenty feet away. She was freed from her bonds, now, mouth hung open as if to memorialize the very large and important word that had just poured out of it. The sword still lay where Rupert had tossed it, and so he picked it up and limped back to the spot where Ethan was kneeling, using the blade as a makeshift crutch.
The warlock was still shaking. He peered down at his fingers in disbelief, as though trying to understand how the entire world had managed to slip through them. Giles stood directly in front of him, tilting the man’s chin up with the tip of the saber. “Well Ethan,” he said, “it appears, at long last, we find ourselves in the…”
He would never finish the sentence. Faith’s hands were a blur around Ethan’s neck. There was a sound like a broomstick snapping in half, and then the bastard just flopped over, dead as Dickens.
Rupert frowned at her, despite himself. “I had a bit more to say, actually.”
“Yeah, don’t you always,” Faith shot back. Her instincts seemed aflame again as she spun to face the other threat. But Drusilla was a fleet-footed wench when she wanted to be. She was well on the other side of the palaistra, now, backing slowly into the shadowy mouth of the eastern gate. Rupert saw Faith’s frame harden, preparing to make a dash, so he rested a hand on her shoulder.
“Let her go,” he told her.
“You’re obviously jokin’, man!”
“No I am not.” A moment before the shadows swallowed her, the vampire’s golden gaze locked to his. Those hypnotic old jewels seemed to conceal something altogether new, now. It was something Rupert Giles had never in all his years seen before – and, if he were to confess it, something he would prefer to never see again.
The monster smiled as if she’d heard this thought. And then without another word, Drusilla vanished into the dark depths of the hypogeum.
“Well that's just great!” Faith said. “So, what now, G?”
He took one last glance around, surveying the great, bloody mess they’d made. “Well, it’s gotten a bit stuffy, down here,” the Watcher said. “What say we step out for a breath of fresh air?”