WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
RETURN AND REGROUP
Sweet stared into the magic mirror, utterly mystified. “What an appearance. What a show. What the heck was that?”
“It was a spirit.” Ozma sat beside him, chin in hand, elbow resting on a small silver dressing table she had conjured up. She had replaced her crown, the red poppy blooms again adorned the sides of her head, and Sweet had to admit she looked absolutely radiant. It helped that her face was glowing, as if she’d just had a wonderful revelation.
“A spirit.” Cheeseman paced behind them. “A spirit that arrived just in time to show that witch the only real weakness my best warriors have.”
“Had,” Sweet corrected, which earned him a dirty look. He didn’t add that the spirit had seemed familiar to him, somehow. Of course, he’s seen a lot of ghosts in his time, and produced many himself.
He also didn’t point out Ozma’s expression to his partner. Ozma, whatever she or it was, seemed joyful. Clearly she knew much, much more than she was letting on.
But then, so did Sweet. He decided he would see this performance through, and wondered who would be around to take a curtain call.
“Well.” Cheeseman paused beside the other two, visibly forcing himself to calm down. “As I mentioned earlier, Willow was only an afterthought, a way to both make sure I had enough mystical energy and keep her from interfering. My original magic battery -- plan A -- is still in my possession, which means I have all I need to complete my mission. It only needs to trigger the reaction, after all. I’ll have calculated the proper coordinates in about two days, and then . . .” He giggled. “Then I turn the world into fried limburger.”
Ozma turned away, smile replaced by a queasy expression. Sweet, imagining a world made of smelly burned cheese, also felt his stomach flip-flop, but he again held his tongue.
After all, a lot could happen in a day or two.
With luck, Rupert Giles thought, nothing would happen in the next day or two.
Resting a freshly brewed cup of earl gray on the end table, he settled comfortably into an easy chair in the study, which itself was hidden away in the far corner of the vast library. There had been no word from any of his teams in the field, and since they were each equipped with a cell phone that could only mean all was going well. The slayers remaining in the building had retired to their dorm rooms early -- egged on, no doubt, by Giles’ suggestion that they study their Slayer’s Handbooks after supper.
That left the rest of the evening free for some quiet, light reading. Giles picked up a book on Latin translations of demonic outbreak histories, sipped his tea, and settled back with a contented sigh.
Giles had outgrown the desire for constant adventuring, and grown tired of tackling crisis after crisis over the past decade. He’d tried to retire to his ancestral home in England, but another emergency had called him back, then still another. His days of wanting action, of being Ripper, were long gone, and he yearned to be that country gentleman who spent his days surrounded by books and research.
Research into flowers, perhaps. Real flowers, not flowers that grew tentacles and tried to eat people. Or astronomy. Not astrology, but astronomy. Something completely unexciting, even by librarian standards.
But he was needed here, and he had always -- well, since becoming an adult -- accepted his fate to be a watcher, to train and educate and assist in the battle against evil. Someday he would be able to retire to that country estate, but it wouldn’t be soon. After all, his fellow watchers consisted of a slayer’s teenager sister, a one eyed carpenter, and Andrew.
Just as he put the cup to his lips for a second sip the door slammed open, and two bloody, battered bodies came limping in.
“Really, it’s hardly surprising,” Giles murmured to himself, but then he took a second look and leaped to his feet.
Buffy, whose startlingly short dress revealed masses of bruises across all four limbs, half carried Faith, whose jeans and shirt were soaked with blood. “Giles -- the infirmary is locked.”
“This way.” He took Faith’s other arm and led them back out into the hallway, pounding a fist on the entrance to the dorms as they passed. Chantel, an older slayer who had been a registered nurse and now traveled with Andrew, had trained some of the others as best she could in a short time, and it looked like the skills would be needed. He punched a code into the infirmary door lock, electing not to remind Buffy that he’d given her the code when they first arrived.
“Over here.” They stretched Faith onto one of the half dozen beds in the small, well equipped medical center, as other slayers started pouring in. “Rona, Vi -- get bandages and that diagnostic device.”
They stripped off Faith’s clothes, and discovered her only serious injury was a deep wound to the abdomen. “Robin . . .” she gasped, as Giles and Rona attached a diagnostic computer to her with bands, finger clamps and electrodes. Vi ran a scanning device over Faith’s torso, making Giles imagine she was being scanned right into the computer.
While Shannon fed information into a computer keyboard, Giles looked back at Buffy, who had settled back on another bed. “And you --?”
“Surviving.” He could see pain and exhaustion in her eyes, and anger.
“Low grade fever,” Shannon announced, reading a computer screen. “The computer thinks it’s septic shock.”
Giles glanced at the freshly applied bandage. Yes, whatever cut into her could have nicked her intestines, which would produce a nasty infection that even slayers would have trouble fighting off. “Bloody hell. Vi --”
“Got it.” Vi had already produced two hypodermic needles from another cabinet, but then she hesitated. “I’ve never actually --”
“I have.” Taking the first needle, Giles plunged it into Faith’s arm. Faith’s eyelids fluttered, then her breathing steadied and she lay still while Giles administered the second medication. By the time he finished Shannon had prepared an intravenous kit, and soon fluid was flowing into a vein in Faith’s arm.
The slayers waited, glancing uneasily at each other, until Giles waved them back. “She’ll rest now, while the antibiotic takes effect.”
“She should be in a hospital,” one of the newest slayers said, but Giles shook his head.
“It would cause too many questions, and Faith has a criminal record. With a little help, her healing powers will handle this.” He checked Faith’s breathing, then turned back to Buffy. “Robin --?”
“Kidnapped by demons.”
A hush fell on the room. “Kidnapped? Can you --”
“Green. Big. Claws and horns. Three of them, although only two got away. Oh yeah, and pretty much indestructible.”
“Then how --”
“I chopped off its head horn and shoved my dagger into its brain.”
“Yes, of course. But why didn’t you call as soon as it happened?”
Buffy lay back on her bed, threw an arm over her face, and closed her eyes. “Big Green Guys smashed the cell phone.”
The other girls murmured, while Giles tried to picture the creature. Buffy looked on the edge of passing out, but he had to get an idea of what was going on. He turned to check Faith’s vital signs and, although the computer seemed to think she was out of danger and she was resting comfortable, he realized it would be some time before she could add to the conversation. “I wonder what happened to the other two --”
The door burst open, and this time a whole gaggle of bloody people shoved through the door. “Make way, ladies!” Xander shouted, as two strangers carried a third past the slayers to still another bed. It was a boy who Giles judged to be in his mid teens, and his “Bikini Lookout Squad” t-shirt had been shredded by something that left deep gashes in his skin. He was conscious, but didn’t look like he wanted to be.
“What happened?” Giles asked, examining the wound while his helpers once more set up the diagnostic equipment. They only had three sets of the computer gear, so Giles gave Xander and the two others a quick once-over to make sure they wouldn’t have to break out the extra. Xander had a large purple bruise, complete with goose egg, on one side of his forehead. A man of Giles age, who wore a black sweatsuit, didn’t have any apparent injuries but moved slowly, as if his back was hurting him. The girl was a mass of small cuts and bruises, and her brown hair was tangled wildly around her shoulders, but she didn’t appear to be badly injured.
“Demons,” Xander said. “Big. Green. Horny.” Seeing the looks on some of the slayers’ faces, he added hastily, “I mean, as in they had a big horn on each forehead, and some little ones on their shoulders, and I’m pretty sure on their knees. They were after Dawn.”
Giles jerked around, realizing who wasn’t there. “After her?” She glanced down at Buffy, and realized the Slayer was sound asleep.
“Kidnapped her.” He sounded disgusted, as if blaming himself for not saving Buffy’s sister.
“Why didn’t you call me as soon as it happened?”
Xander threw up his hands. “After we got headed this way I remembered the cell phone, but the Green Guys smashed it.”
“Is he gonna be all right?” the girl suddenly asked. Giles looked at Shannon, who turned from the computer screen with a thumbs up.
“No, I’m not going to be all right,” the boy said. “Never again.”
Looking down at him, the girl gave a smile that revealed a flash of braces. “Sure you are, it’s just a flesh wound.”
“But it’s my flesh.”
All right. Green demons. Giles turned to Xander, who looked almost as bad as Buffy. “Who is this boy, and why did you bring him here?”
With that the girl jerked her head up, impaling Giles with a glare. “He’s a Scooby now. He’s here because a regular hospital would ask too many questions, and Xander said the watchers have the best medical equipment.”
Hm. A slayer, obviously, who’d been taught some history on the way here. Giles turned to Xander, who grinned sheepishly. “He proved himself, Giles -- fought off vamps and helped kill one of them, then took on the demons.” Xander quickly introduced the others and described their adventure, including his and Kara’s decision to bring Jason with them. “We had no way to track Dawn, but I thought you . . .”
“Perhaps.” He surveyed the crowded room. Those who were conscious all watched him, waiting. “Buffy killed one demon, and Kara the second. If we could track the third . . .”
“Um, sorry, Giles.” Willow and Kennedy marched in the door, leading a young black girl dressed in a track suit. “The third one kind of got fried.”
“Indeed. And none of you is injured?”
“My ankle’s almost healed up,” the girl said, sounding surprised. Another slayer, Giles concluded -- and he had a feeling they’d need all the help they could get.
It was Willow’s turn to tell the story, and by now Giles was so used to the description of the demons that the strange spirit caught his full attention. He didn’t even bother asking about the cell phone. “It was benevolent, then?”
“Well, it helped us,” Kennedy said, but Willow nodded.
“It was good, Giles, I felt it. I don’t know why, but it wanted to help.”
“Very well.” Something very, very big was up, something they hadn’t expected this soon after the defeat of The First. Clearly, Giles had miscalculated how quickly the forces of darkness would move in to fill the power vacuum. “Willow, I need you to try to pinpoint sources of unusual mystical activity. Those demons may be gone, but they were clearly being directed by something. When we find that something, we find Robin and Dawn. Kennedy, contact Andrew, and have him return here straight away. If we can’t find our friends any other way, we’ll have to fan out into a search of some sort.”
Kennedy looked doubtful at that. “We don’t know where to start searching. Those things covered half the country in one night.”
“But in a straight line, across the midwest. I’ll try to determine what they were, and how they were traveling.” He looked around at all of the people, well aware that the crisis was upon them and they were already short some of their most powerful players. “The rest of you get some rest. We’ll need all our strength when it’s time to move.”
Buffy was dreaming. Of that, she was quite certain. She stood on a sand dune, in the midst of a dry, vast and familiar desert, and looked at a beautiful young woman who wore a long, flowing gown and watched her with sad eyes. Tara, a young woman who’d been killed by a bullet meant for Buffy.
Hovering around Tara was her polar opposite: a prowling, wild haired woman with deep black skin, covered in animal skins and war paint. Well, others might not be certain it was a woman, but Buffy knew it was.
Buffy ignored the First Slayer for a moment, and spoke to the other apparition instead. “What are you this time? Spirit, or borrowed voice?”
“The walls between the spirit world and the earthly dimension are thinning.” Tara stood erect, moving nothing but her mouth as she spoke, and that made Buffy realize the other woman was just a mouthpiece, speaking for the First Slayer. It stabbed at her heart, reminding her both of past failures and of the First Evil’s way of communicating with her.
“We are being called,” Tara said. Her own voice, her own face -- but not her.
“We?” She looked at the First Slayer now, who continued to prowl around the Tara figure at a half crouch. “By who? The original Shadow Men, or their descendants? They’re all gone now except for Giles, and he didn’t turn out to be much of a company man.”
“By evil. Our living spirit works against us. What cannot be extinguished can be relit in the human world, but our control vanishes. We do not know what we are in this world. We have no anchor.”
“Who is we? Spirits?” Buffy felt like yelling in frustration. She hated these cryptic dreams -- what was so wrong with just telling people what was going on?
The First Slayer froze, staring with those wild eyes, while Tara spoke. “Spirits brought to flesh are controlled by those who summon them. Powerful magic takes powerful tools to build.”
While Buffy tried to decipher that, she suddenly realized why the First Slayer had stopped in her tracks. The ancient spirit stared at something off to Buffy’s left, and Buffy turned to see a fourth being had joined them. It was a disturbingly familiar little man, balding and bespectacled, dressed in a plain gray suit. Staring at the First Slayer, the man frowned and held up what appeared to be a chunk of pepper jack cheese, then turned to Buffy.
“She’s not civilized. She’s never even had cheese, you see.”
Buffy opened her eyes and stared for a long moment at the fluorescent lights on the ceiling. Something felt ready to fall into place, some idea or explanation . . . if that stupid guy with the cheese hadn’t interrupted, maybe she would have learned something important. Why did ridiculous, useless stuff like that insist on inserting itself into her dreams? Next thing you know, she’d be getting important information from Harry Potter in an ice cream truck.
She swung her legs over the side of the bed and sat up. Faith lay in the next bed, her breathing regular and her color much better. In another bed, Buffy saw an unfamiliar teenage boy, who was snoring softly. Okay. He was new.
Someone had removed Buffy’s boots and covered her with one of those too-small hospital blankets. Wrapping the blanket around herself, she padded out the door and into the dimly lit hallway, seeking someone who could explain the present situation. Let’s see . . . The infirmary was at one end of this hallway, which intersected a second hallway that led past the dorm rooms. That, in turn, met a third hallway which accessed the computer room and library, then a fourth that led past the living and kitchen areas and right back to the infirmary. The inside walls of those four hallways formed the gym and other fitness areas. Where was Buffy most likely to find someone awake?
She got her answer just as she reached the first intersection, when a girl draped in the exact same kind of blanket turned the corner and almost ran headlong into her. “Oh.”
“Sorry.” Buffy’s senses told her this was a slayer, even as she realized she’d never met this one. The girl looked weary and mussed up, as if she’d just awakened, and was barefoot -- in fact, Buffy realized, they must look remarkably similar at the moment.
“You must be Buffy.” The girl gave a slight smile, showing just a hint of metal that startled Buffy. A slayer with braces? “I’m Kara. I was on my way to check on my friend.”
“The boy in the infirmary?” Kara nodded. “Sleeping. I was on my way to check on what the heck’s going on.”
“Mr. Giles and my dad are in the library, doing research. That’s where to get an update.” Kara looked indecisive for a moment, then turned and walked beside Buffy down the corridor. “There’s something big going on, but they made us go to bed; said we’d need to be rested for tomorrow.”
“There’s always something big going on. Let me tell you the two real secrets of being a slayer: sleep whenever you can, and learn how to be sneaky around your watcher. You learn more both ways. So, who’s your father?”
“He’s my watcher.”
“You’re going to need some serious therapy.” They must have been the slayer and watcher the map showed together in Indiana, Buffy realized, which meant Dawn and Xander were back. Well, hopefully they’d be getting some sleep, too. At the door to the library Buffy paused, and whispered to Kara, “Remember, always sneak up on your watcher. Even if you don’t learn anything, it’s still fun to scare the crap out of them.” Kara grinned, and the two stepped silently into the room.
Two men sat with their backs to the door -- would Giles never learn? -- and at first Buffy had trouble telling them apart. Both had dark hair, were of average height, and wore dark sweaters. As she watched, both took off their glasses and set them down on piles of books. Only when the one on the left spoke did she recognize Giles’ very British accent.
“This is amazing. A compendium of Slayer prophesy that I had thought lost centuries ago, remarkable. Wherever did you get it?”
“From a priest in Kenya, by way of Ebay,” the other man replied in a midwestern accent. “It cost me a bundle, too.”
Buffy grinned, and moved a little closer to get a better look at a leather bound book the two had laid out between them. Latin, natch. Or Greek, or something.
“My Latin’s pretty rusty,” Kara’s father said. “I’ve only gotten halfway down this page, but it clearly relates to something called The Rising of the Slayers. Slayers, plural, which means our current situation.”
“And that’s what convinced you to let your daughter join us?”
“The idea of her being the only slayer, facing an army of darkness alone, that would have terrified me. But as one member of a battalion, I figured she’s in good company. Safe. Or at least, as safe as she could be.”
Giles gave him a sidelong glance. “Relatively safe, yes. But it’s still a dangerous business, which is why I suggested she be assigned a different watcher.”
Beside her, Buffy felt Kara stiffen.
“We can both handle it.”
Giles bent back over the text, giving Buffy the feeling he was avoiding the other man’s gaze. “Richard, one reason there were always so many watchers was because . . . because the loss of one slayer was always very painful. We’d train and direct, advise and supervise -- and become family. Then she’d be gone. Sometimes in a few years, all too often within a few months.”
Richard stared at him. “You’re telling me watchers are only assigned to one slayer, their entire career? Six months, a year, then retirement?”
“No, not always. I only had one slayer -- of course, Buffy was a special case -- but some worked with two or three over the course of their careers. in most cases Watchers trained the same potential until she becomes a slayer, until she’s clearly too old to be called, or until . . .”
“Most potentials never became slayers?”
“No, but they often still died violently. Then, for Watchers, there’s that decompression time, after our charge . . . passes. They must write reports, be interviewed, find out what they’ve done right or wrong. More importantly, they must heal.” Giles glanced at Richard again. “Again, it’s always extremely painful, even when it’s a girl we’ve known a short time. We must send them into danger, Richard, and sometimes they don’t come back. Can you handle that?’
“My daughter is my life. No one knows her better than me, and no one knows me better than her. If anyone can keep her alive, I can, and if she dies in this business it won’t matter to me who sent her into battle -- she’d still be gone.” The two men turned back to the book, studying it silently.
Kara’s sniff was barely audible. Buffy reached out and took the younger girl’s hand, giving it a reassuring squeeze.
“Say. Oh, my . . .” Giles suddenly straightened up. “This is . . .”
Richard looked at him. “You finished the translation.”
“Indeed.” But Giles continued to stare at the page. “This does not refer to one rising of slayers -- it refers to two risings, two groups of slayers.” Now he did look up, and in his profile Buffy saw a deeply troubled expression. “That’s what the vampire Kara killed was referring to. Two armies of slayers, at war with each other.”
Buffy and Kara exchanged a look. Bad, said Kara’s expression, very bad. Buffy decided it was time to announce their presence, but before she could speak Giles’ next words stopped her like a blow to the heart:
“But what does this have to do with the disappearance of Robin and Dawn?”