Chapter 41: The Ups and Downs of Modern Architecture
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 41: The Ups and Downs of Modern Architecture
Buffy watched Kennedy slowly rise to her feet, her eyes broadcasting ten degrees of murder. All of her henchmen were still shell-shocked, still out of it. One staggered in little circles, muttering to herself. Another sat cross-legged in the grass, picking dandelions like a schoolgirl. Kennedy screamed when she saw this one, the sound full of wounded horror. Then she went for the axe.
This is it, Buffy thought. Just let it happen. Let go.
Kennedy dragged the weapon behind her like it weighed five hundred pounds, burning a brown line into the lawn with its blade. With her Slayer strength gone she seemed somehow more monstrous than ever before. The blood had dried to a black bib down the front of her shirt, and her chin was set at a low angle against it, the teeth forming a skull grin there.
“You stupid bitch!” Kennedy snarled. “You think it’s gonna make a difference? I was learning how to fight when you were still playing with fucking Barbies!”
When the brunette got within range, she cranked the axe up over her head like someone about to split a log. Buffy’s body was shaking involuntarily, as though each inch of flesh was suddenly aware of how fragile it was.
But she refused to close her eyes. It wasn’t her style.
And this is the reason she saw it. On the roof of the Council Library. Down across the sloping grass, at the far end of the quad.
It was the figure of a young woman dressed in dark fatigues, shimmying across what seemed to be the limb of an enormous tree. She watched the girl clamber down onto the macadam and start whirling around in terror. Something white was snaking its way across the branches after her. As the executioner’s blade came sailing down, Buffy saw the girl’s face. It was familiar.
The axe fell.
Buffy slipped sideways at the last possible moment, watched the blade whoosh by and plant itself deep in the dirt.
Kennedy started grunting and twisting, trying to free it. Before she could, Buffy wound up a big right hook and sent it sailing towards the brat’s temple. It landed an inch too high, pounding a broad pan of skull instead. At the moment of impact, something seemed to explode inside her hand, like a bottle crushed under a tire.
The teeth of shredded bone bit back hard. The feeling wasn’t foreign to her, but the permanence of it was. Buffy grabbed her wrist and shrieked at the shattered, throbbing thing at the end of it, trying to will it solid. But the demon was no longer there to knit the wound together, or boil away the pain.
Kennedy was stung but moving, more pissed off than ever. She abandoned the axe, and drew a sharp buck knife from a sheath in her boot.
There was something so mundane about it all. This was not a superhero fight anymore. They were just a pair of wounded animals on a prairie plain. Kennedy was going to bring Buffy Summers the knife, and stab her to death with it.
Fight or flight, she thought.
Fight or flight.
And, she flew. She just turned and bolted out across the yard, ran hell for leather, Kennedy pursing her with long, athletic strides. The terror was real now, and acid-hot. She could feel milk running in her legs and all down her spine as the monster kept gaining, getting close enough for Buffy to hear her ragged breaths. “It’s okay,” she was saying. “It's okay, Buffy. I just wanna show you something…”
At the edge of the library’s long manicured lawn, Buffy tried to somersault over a row of shrubbery. She fell, stupidly, the inches all like miles now, and it gave Kennedy the chance to pounce with the knife. Buffy’s old judo leg extended– almost shyly now, aware of the consequences – and she watched in breathless horror as the brunette went sailing overhead.
When Buffy scrambled back to her feet, the pain in her right hand was a second heartbeat, a roaring thump that drowned out all rational thought. The frailty she felt throughout her body was like a dark and howling wilderness. It filled her with more raw panic than the Council’s old narcotic ever did.
But the training still lingered in her bones and brains. She felt herself raising her broken hand above her head, the saber tip of the fist giving way to the long axe edge of the forearm.
She tucked her other arm into a low brace, framing her upper body with a brittle box of flesh and bone. Closed her eyes.
Somewhere out in the darkness, Kennedy sifted back to her feet, the blade twirling in her hand triumphantly. “Waited a long time for this,” she said.
Buffy heard the woman’s footsteps chomping into the soil, felt the shifting weight above them carve kinetic sculptures in the surrounding air. This was a move she'd practiced a thousand times before, and yet it felt as new as an infant's first step. She denied herself a small prayer. Let everything in the world fall away.
As Kennedy's blade flashed out, Buffy the Ex- Vampire Slayer felt the trap of her forearms snap shut on the wrist behind it. She twisted her hips and, a half inch from her heart, the knife popped loose and went spinning into the grass.
She didn't have time to celebrate. Kennedy roared and kept coming, completely unhinged now. She piled up punches in twos and threes. They seemed to land everywhere, a windmill bruising soft meat.
Buffy felt a stone-like fist crash against her ear and heard something like microwaves humming as she veered close to Dreamland. She saw a white rabbit diving into a hole.
Do not follow it. Your death is there.
She dug deep. Shook her head clear, pulled herself out of the tailspin. But, between the busted hand and the Greek Chorus of ovens, she was reduced to playing pure defense, now. Buffy tried to keep her wits, tried to hear Giles droning on and on about spheres of control and momentum dispersal zones. But somehow the only move she could locate in her playbook right now was the one that told her to stagger slowly backwards, hiding fearfully behind the cage of her own arms.
As the battle inched towards the library’s front steps, Kennedy began using her legs again, stabbing three of them through the middle of Buffy’s guard. When the last of these hit, she felt a horrific sensation in her side, like a seam bursting open stitch by stitch.
Seizing the high ground was the oldest rule of all, so Buffy went for it. She mounted the steps sideways, making herself as narrow a target as possible. As the ovens faded away she could hear her sister’s voice cry out from the rooftop, followed by loud bark of gunfire and a frightening roar.
Kennedy came stalking up the stairs after her – but warily, her rage suddenly clouded by the strange goings-on above them.
“Is that kid sis?" she snarled. "That why you took us here, Buff? So she can watch me kick what’s left of your ass?”
Near the foot of a lion statue, the brunette made her move. She tried to feint her way inside with a couple of jabs and then suddenly shot her entire body forward, sending it bowling into Buffy’s knees. They went down hard, and Buffy felt the back of one shoulder-blade crack against a concrete lip. Kennedy came crawling up Buffy's body like it was a ladder, digging short, vicious punches in along the way. “Fuck you up,” she croaked.
A bright and freezing hand began to squeeze Buffy’s heart. It felt like she was having the first real fight of her life.
And she was going to lose it.
Because she’s right about you, she thought.
Because you’re a nobody without it.
Kennedy’s leg entwined her own, locking them together at the hip. She rammed her fist over and over into Buffy’s liver and kidney, trying to rip the seam open. The damage was real there. She could taste her own blood. A few more punches and it would all be over.
Something started whispering to her. It was a voice she hadn’t heard in a very long time. It was Merrick's voice.
This isn’t how it happens, it said. You can still save her, Elizabeth. Save all of them.
Check your weapons.
She quizzed her aching body. The knee still worked. As Kennedy came clawing over the top for another punch, Buffy swung it hard into the side of her breast. A big breath fired out of the little monster’s lung, causing her to crumple forward like a wave
Now, how about that elbow?
Buffy grabbed the front of the woman’s blood-drenched shirt and began slashing right-elbows across her face. The third blow clipped Kennedy’s chin, and she felt the brunette suddenly soften in her grasp.
You know where she belongs. Put her there.
She used the momentum to swing them both over sideways. Kennedy’s body suddenly became a big catcher’s mitt gripped between the jaws of Buffy’s knees. She watched herself tangle her fingers in a mane of dark hair and bash the base of Kennedy’s skull against the lion’s pedestal. It felt hard and good. She did it again.
An unforeseen reserve of adrenalin kicked into overdrive, and Buffy began raining down elbows again. They slammed into their target like hammers striking steel, and the reverberations roared into her broken fist. But she was ignoring the pain, now. Ignoring everything but the work in front of her.
Within seconds the brat’s face was swelling like a balloon animal, and the flawless nose was dented sideways at a gruesome angle. Kennedy kept crying and wailing, her fingernails scraping blindly for purchase. But Buffy kept weaving just out of range and hammering away like a master sculptress.
Pain is your Art.
And you are going to make her your masterpiece.
Time seemed to lose its substance.
When it returned, Kennedy’s roars had faded into a sort of wretched mewling. All of the angular beauty had vanished from her face. The eyes were swollen to gruesome slots. Fresh blood gushed from her mouth, and when she opened it to lisp the word “please,” a broken shard of one front tooth glistened back like a red fang.
Buffy dismounted, every nerve screaming for more action. But the deformed wreck that had been Miriam Kennedy Corliss could only shiver and twitch and choke on her own breath. Whatever darkness had driven the woman’s Holy War seemed to be spilling out all over the cold concrete stairs.
It was over. The Cause was dead.
Buffy turned back to the roof.
The angle was too sharp to see anything, but she could hear the Nurse’s ragged voice sawing through the air. She couldn’t understand the words, but the tone was bitterly familiar. She was dancing again.
In the same moment, something terrible caught Buffy's attention in the sky.
It seemed suddenly that the dome of the Now was not black after all, not really. At its apex, directly above the library, an even darker hue had begun to emerge. The shape was like an inverted sun, and just as painful and confusing to look at. The edges of it writhed like a ring of spiders around the deepest of all wells.
It was a mouth within a mouth. It was getting larger.
Buffy limped up the stairs as fast as she could, knees and ankles still groaning at her like this was all a poorly timed joke. Forgetting herself for a moment, she spun a vicious kick into the front door.
Pulled the handle instead.
When he finally stopped, he was in a small anteroom at the base of the stairs. Spike remembered this place well. It had once served as his private back door into all of their lives.
Though he hadn’t realized it at the time, the leap of faith this pathway symbolized had bridged a staggering chasm. That’d been her doing, too. They pretended they were independent, sure, but they had all quietly bent to her whims in those days. Barely even knew they were doing it, he figured. The world always seemed to shape itself around her.
He became part of that world, and had shaped himself around her too. Something important had happened that long ago afternoon in his crypt, on the run from the Slag Goddess. He couldn’t explain it. Not then nor now nor sodding ever. Maybe she couldn’t either. Maybe it was all a product of her imagination, or of her hubris. Regardless, she had invited him into her little Catharsis Club that day, allowed him to crawl into her shoebox world of forfeit and salvation along with the rest of them. A hundred false starts later and he was still doing it; still crawling and slithering his way through all the trap doors and rat holes Buffy Summers left open for him. Still trying to shape himself around her beautiful form.
A log. A bed of stone. A cool river current.
He gazed up at the final ten feet of stairs between them. The illusion seemed spiteful now. Ethan Rayne, Spike realized, was an especially vicious monster, prone to such profound depths of evil that the cunt himself probably didn’t know what lay at the bottom of it all.
But Spike knew. This was a final invitation into her beating heart. One final joke, cruelly played.
Through the portico, he caught a glimpse of her shadow sliding across one of Willow’s old herbal racks. The form of it was elongated, the neck almost ropelike in the moon glow.
And to me, though Time’s unflinching rigour,
In mindless rote, has ruled from sight
The substance now, one phantom figure
Remains on the slope, as when that night
Saw us alight.
The Shanshu had been a joke as well. The poets had it wrong, he realized. All of those sentimental fools and vacuum salesmen, all their daft tangles of words; this was not a world of their doggerel, but a businessman’s world, a banker’s black and red world. All was built upon the back of the Bargain and the Deal and the Trade, and the ensuing winners and losers of such transactions wandered adrift ever after, never quite sure who was who. And when all was said and done, their degree of uncertainty was the sodding Art of it. Losses and gains were all a matter of perspective, and only the supremely foolish ever imagined themselves the winners for very long.
This was the stuff that arch comedy was made of: fools strutting about, believing they’d won the better part of the bargain. In their own grand farce, Angel was a Fool’s fool and Spike was the fool who followed him, the pair of them tilting like drunkards at every fulsome cup the Fates dangled before them.
The audience claps and hoots, those phantoms in the darkness beyond the stage.
And, lo, the deal was struck and sealed. And, lo, fortune’s favored fool took the chalice he was offered, and it was not filled with Mountain Dew this time 'round.
Because the Rule of Mouths still applies. Because the River Lesson doesn’t stop at the river’s edge.
The Shanshu prophecy spoke of a vampire with a soul. Long lost and hard-won, this ghost was the most jealously guarded of all treasures. And, following that very old crocodilian rule, it also happened to be quite delicious.
In fact, so tasty and succulent a delicacy was the soul of a monster, the Crown Prince of Darkness himself had once bargained for a heaping bloody plate of it. He'd offered to postpone his return to Earth for one thousand years in exchange for the gastronomical ecstasy such a dish would provide.
When the bargain was struck, the Devil sent forth his Familiar to collect, the ice wraith known only as the Shibborrhim. It raked its talons over that poor wanker’s stolen ghost, slicing it to bite-sized ribbons for its master to politely chew and swallow. A thousand years passed, that way, The Beast slowly digesting his gourmet snack.
And then it came time for another bargain to be struck.
Of course, it was all blasphemy of the highest order; this Monster who prattled on about Love and Loss and all the yearnings of his 'soul'. He was made to love her and, in that hoary logic of the River Love, to devour her.
So now, the end was arriving, neat and sharp and clean and proper. And when it was done, he would take the dead twin’s place here. He would become a restless vapor haunting an empty world, starving itself ever so slowly to eternal sleep.
He straightened Nikki’s coat and watched himself float towards the river’s bright surface, as hollow and weightless a vessel as Drusilla ever was. Spike was dressed neither as the driftwood nor the stone, but as the rippling water that glistened in the sun, the one that lured God’s beloved creature down to the water’s edge. Everything got thirsty eventually.
When he called her name, her shadow stiffened momentarily on the cupboards, and then came bobbing over for a drink, growing smaller as it got closer.
I look and see it there, shrinking, shrinking,
I look back at it amid the rain
For the very last time; for my sand is sinking,
And I shall traverse old love’s domain
“Always these games,” Ethan cooed. The warlock stalked across the palaistra’s hard packed clay, his shadows trailing him like a pack of wolves in the trikirion’s red flicker. “Haven’t we evolved beyond this yet, Ripper?”
After his first ill-conceived assault, Rupert Giles wasn’t taking any more chances. The strength Ethan had stolen from the Shadow Demon flowed though him on a monstrous tide. A single, glancing blow had launched the Watcher like a bloody football across the length of the arena.
As soon as he’d regained his wits, Rupert folded himself into the Cloak of Kabandha and began prowling the darkened rim of the stadium – invisibly, he hoped – and probing for some advantage. As if to mock his disappearing act, Ethan lifted a ten foot section of risers straight above his head. “Here kitty, kitty,” he snarled, then hurled the armature like a discus. Rupert watched it careen high into the grandstands, slats of hard steel clattering apart there like popsicle sticks.
Rupert turned his attention to Faith again. The girl still lay in a lifeless heap on the floor, close to the pile of ashes that used to comprise Drusilla. Even if the slayer wasn’t dead, the Ethan had drained her as dry as a bone. He doubted she'd be much use in a fight.
And neither would you, Rupert mused. You can’t fight him. Not like before.
His long ago duel with Willow immediately began to scroll through his mind. “Borrowed power” she had called it, and this was largely true. Despite the Watcher’s celebrated command of ritual and rite, his mystic abilities amounted to no more than a collection of antiquated parlor tricks and benign conjurations. In point of fact, Ethan’s newfound physical superiority was almost trifling compared to the edge the warlock would wield in a duel of magics.
But, luckily, Ethan seemed in no great hurry to cast any spells. Rupert could see it in the way the fiend was swaggering to and fro, stopping only to primp and pose and smile that hideous smile of his.
Because the bastard remembers, he thought. All those humiliating beatings his old mate Ripper administered over the years. He remembers every moment.
And now he is going to beat you to death. Slowly.
That left only intellect. Cunning. Up until a few minutes ago, Rupert had assumed he held the clear advantage there. Now, he wasn’t so bloody sure. He slunk to the mouth of the target-practice range, taking care to muffle his footsteps. A compound bow rested up against the shoulder of a squat, stone battlement, there. Rupert’s invisible fingers crept into a nearby quiver, and then gently slid an arrow into the groove.
As soon as Rayne paused to gloat again, Rupert rose, Apache-swift, aiming and drawing and firing in the space of a single breath.
The shot was a sure kill, its trajectory tracing directly into the target’s black heart. A moment later, Ethan was sinking to the floor, his hand clutching the shaft at the point of impact.
Giles immediately raced over the barricade and across the floor, grabbing a sword as he went. He intended only one well-practiced stroke. He'd separate the head from the shoulders as he would a common vampire.
But when he reached the foot of the body, he realized his mistake. Ethan eyes were wide open. He grinned wolfishly as his hand fell open and showed the bloodless arrowhead resting harmlessly in the palm.
Rupert sent the blade singing down anyway, praying that somehow this speed would eclipse the other. But Ethan merely rolled sideways and sprang to his feet, everything about him preternaturally fast now. He grabbed a saber from the rack and brought it flashing forth.
They strafed together across the floor, fencing like barmy actors and kicking up gales of dust. Ethan toyed with him, mostly, exposed vast openings in his defense only to cheerfully close them at the last possible moment.
Under Rupert’s subtle direction, the battle drifted into the maw of the southern entrance’s colonnade. They snaked through the brace of pillars there, using them for shields. Suddenly, the warlock pirouetted away from one of Rupert’s desperate lunges, and casually sunk his sword tip into the fleshy triangle below the trapezius.
“A hit, a very palpable hit!” Ethan bellowed, playing to some invisible audience.
Giles staggered backwards, clutching the wound. He grit his teeth. “A touch, a touch, I do confess,” he said, and tossed his blade to the ground. “You’re right, Ethan. Enough of these games.”
The warlock’s treacherous leer faded as he crossed back under the entablature. “Quite right,” he said. “No worries, old boy. I have a few more errands to run, today, so I’ll make this as quick as…”
“Lapsus!” Rupert roared, both hands raking the air in a downward arc.
It happened fast. The arena filled with a noise like thunder as the long lintel connecting the columns cracked down the middle. Chalky dust exploded from the wound as the entire architrave caved in on the spot where Ethan was standing. The savage shift in leverage brought the pillars crashing down with it. They piled atop the wreckage in a way that reminded Rupert of dominos, each fall filled with more resounding finality than the last.
When it was over, after the dust had settled, all Rupert could see of Ethan Rayne were the heels of his shoes, poking out from the rubble like a pair of unblinking eyes. He spit his goodbye at them.
Fare thee well, love.
And may devils sing thee to thy rest.
Rupert returned to the circle, where the elements of the botched ritual were still strewn uselessly about the ground. The remnants of the vampire Drusilla had all but blended with the dusty clay, vanishing there alongside all hope. He knelt beside Faith, feeling for the heartbeat. It was faint, but still there. It occurred to him that even without the Shadow Demon’s ancient power, she was still so very strong.
He crumpled into a heavy pile, then, every old joint near bursting. He tried to let the tears come, but they met a wall of old bark.
All was lost, it seemed. They’d had only one chance at this. Before he destroyed Drusilla, Ethan had cast one final, powerful illusion. He’d made himself appear to be the Box, the demon’s only home outside of the bodies of its hosts. Now, the box was shattered, the demon within it was exorcised, once and for all.
It hardly seemed to matter anymore if the warlock was right, whether Spike and Xander would indeed catch up to Willow’s sacrificial lamb in time. Without a Slayer to ward them off, the forces of darkness would slowly rise to smother the world and everyone in it. All was lost. All was…
A little blue square winked up, in the corner of his vision. Words began to form next to it.
GILES THIS IS ANDREW...
Andrew Wells wiggled his ear faster than he’d ever wiggled anything before. He told Giles all about Jonathan and Warren and the blue lady and the girls in the lava lamp room and his brilliantly forged and executed plan and the briefcase, which turned out to be a bomb – a briefcase bomb (awesome) – and about Dawn and how she reactivated the WatcherNet (which, well, of course she did, because how else could this be happening?) and how she wanted him to go to the underground railroad thingee and how he couldn’t find it and stuff.
When he was done, he took a deep breath and waited. And waited.
STAY WHERE YOU ARE, the green square said. WILL SEND HELP SOON.
Then the square was gone. The words didn't exactly give him a warm fuzzy. Things had become a little complicated since their little tête-à-tête with the evil Slayers. While Andrew tried to make sense of the stupid GPS, Melvin’s tummy ache had gotten worse and worse. At first he wouldn’t stop screaming, which was bad enough. Now, he didn’t make any sound at all. He just slowly dragged himself along, his big body smooshed up against the wall, his heads scraping the metal surfaces like nails on a chalkboard. He barely even seemed alive. It was the spookiest the demon had ever looked, which was really saying something.
“Okay, you’re really freaking me out,” he said. “Please say something.”
The demon stopped when Andrew stopped, but didn’t seem to hear a word he said. His big, weird limbs were still trailing lifelessly behind him, filthy with all the grease and grime they’d swept up along the way.
“Okay fine, be that way!” Andrew yelled. He stormed off in a huff, and after a moment heard the scrape, scrape, scrape of the monster blindly following him again.
Andrew stared down at the briefcase again. The knuckles were snow white and aching where he gripped the handle. He was holding it tighter than a fully loaded mint condition 1980 Darth Vader Collector’s Case in a hectic GenCon parking lot. Andrew didn’t know too much about nuclear bombs, but he had a sneaking suspicion that they probably shouldn’t be dropped.
It was all so stupid. It was like ‘hey, Andrew, thanks for all your awesome help getting the big bomb away from the bad guys and stuff. Now just sit there with your big lame Hellbeast who won’t even talk to you and wait for us to get around to picking you up.
Oh and forget the thank you part, too.
"Stay where you are," he sniffed. "As if."
He stared at the little map thing in his WatcherVision again, scrolled it up and down and sideways, zoomed in and out. It was no use. All the hallways still looked exactly the same, and there were all these little dots moving around all crazy, and sometimes Andrew couldn’t even figure out which little dot he was supposed to be. Stupid WatcherVision.
He started wondering again about Polly and the others, and then about Lieutenant Ruddock and the rest of Elite Strike Force B-Squad. He suddenly wished he’d never left the room Angie had stuck him in, the one with all the computers in it. He probably could have figured it all out from there. He scrolled the map to look at that place again, cursing his bad luck. It wasn’t even like it was that far away. Stupid room. Not like it was worth crying over now. Wasn’t like he could just…
“Oh,” he said. “Okay, yeah!”
Let’s go there.
Dawn ducked behind an air conditioning unit the size of a highway billboard. She checked the ammunition clip, cursed, and then checked it again.
Three bullets. One, two, three.
She'd hit it pretty hard. That much, she was sure of. The creature had come swimming up through the branches after her, screeching like a bat, its claws grazing her ankles. She hadn’t gotten much of a look at it, what with the whole running-for-her-life thing and all. She only caught flashes of cadaver-white skin and that creepy pair of glowing pink saucers it used for eyes. She had to swing hard from the end of the last branch to clear the breach in the ceiling. The monster surfaced a few heartbeats later, scrambling across the gap with a savage speed.
So, Dawn hit it hard. The gun jumped like a living thing in her hand, spraying a long arc of death up the blacktop and across the splintering bark and then, finally, into the center mass of the monster. The creature shrieked as the bullets tore their way home. Tusk-like fangs snapped at the wounds until it finally lost its grip and went plummeting back through the hole.
When its cries had faded, everything went quiet for awhile. That’s when she heard Kennedy’s voice, sifting up like smoke from the courtyard below.
"...So she can watch me kick what’s left of your ass?”
When she peered over the lip of the cornice, she saw the two women fighting. It was different than Dawn expected; their moves all awkward and weirdly slow. She had started to take aim with the rifle, but it was already to late, the pair of them tangling in close quarters on the steps.
Then the voice arrived again, the same terrible drawl that had taunted her while she tried to save Frank. Its owner floated up through the breach like a nightmarish balloon, pink gaze tilted upwards at the jet-black sun. It was shaped like a woman; but then again, so was Dawn, so she had her doubts.
And that was when she dove for cover, when she cursed her greedy trigger finger for using up all those bullets.
“There is such a thing as a tesseract,” the voice sang, the sound a strange blend of concentration and wicked glee. “I’ve seen it, child. Touched it with my eyes. Come, and let me show it to you…”