WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
THE RISING OF THE SLAYERS
Someone cried out, then another gasp arose from the slayers as they saw two of their own -- who had both died in combat with The First’s forces -- emerge from the portal. One was armed with a wooden stake, the other’s hands were empty, but Buffy knew an unarmed slayer was a weapon unto herself.
She also knew that she'd made a terrible mistake, a mistake made clear when the slayer who Amanda had killed rose up again, looking annoyed. That slayer jerked the dagger from her own chest, handed it to Amanda, and picked up the battle ax, then turned to stand beside her killer. The two others passed the Cheese Guy to take position beside their dead comrades, while two more killed slayers emerged from the shimmering portal.
“The Rising of the Slayers . . .” From the tone of Giles’ voice, Buffy knew he was kicking himself for not figuring it out, just as she was.
“Dead slayers!” Xander cried, with considerably more emotion. “Now what do we do?”
“What we always do.” Holding her sword high, Buffy turned to rally her troops. “Hit them hard, before any more come through! Force them back through the portal!” She raced forward, dodged Amanda’s attempt to slice her with the dagger, and against every instinct rammed the sword into the dead slayer’s belly. At the same instant a crossbow bolt flashed by, burying itself in Amanda’s upper chest.
“Ow.” Amanda twisted away, tearing the sword out of Buffy’s grip, then pulled it from her abdomen. “Damn it, Buffy, that hurt.” She grabbed the weapon by its hilt and swung it at Buffy, who barely ducked in time.
More slayers emerged from the portal, two by two. The Cheese Guy, looking enormously pleased, rubbed his hands together and stood near the entrance, watching them go by.
Ducking Amanda’s swings, Buffy had only glimpses of the rest of the battle as her compatriots moved in. Xander yelled, “Shoot them in the head! It always works in the movies!”, apparently forgetting that no one had any guns. Someone did manage to get a crossbow bolt into the forehead of a slayer, but the dead girl merely broke it off at the base and continued attacking.
Still, if they couldn’t kill them . . . Buffy ducked under Amanda’s next swing and swung up with both fists, breaking her hold on the sword. She kicked the girl away, caught the weapon in midair, found another dead slayer who was trying to get past Kennedy’s ax swings -- and with one quick motion lopped the slayer’s head off.
Time froze, as Buffy waited to see what had happened.
The head came to a stop, its eyes giving Buffy an angry glare, while the body stumbled around, trying to scoop the head back up. Not what she had hoped for.
“I just want to say --” Kennedy gave a mighty swing and cut the body in half “-- Ick.”
The severed torso quivered, arms and legs sweeping out in an attempt to grab Kennedy.
“Ick,” Kennedy repeated, stepping around it to rejoin the battle. Behind her, Willow gave the animated corpse a horrified look, then dodged another dead slayer and called to Buffy. The young witch pointed toward the cliff.
Buffy turned to see the same scene as before, with the glowing portal, the shabbily dressed little man, and the two invisible cubes holding --
Dawn and Robin now slouched in their prisons, looking listless as they gazed out at the battle. They were being drained of energy, Buffy realized -- not literal blood, but lifeblood. With hundreds, maybe thousands of dead slayers yet to come through, there was no chance Robin and her sister would survive powering the portal -- slayer family connection or not. But before she could think of a plan, a new voice sent a shiver to her very soul.
“Hello, Buffy.” The girl, skin black as the night around them and hair in cornrows, advanced on her with the same cool expression she’d worn while alive. “In the middle of the action again, I see.”
“Kendra.” It couldn’t be -- this was too much. “Kendra, you don’t have to do this.”
“Our bodies are whole again, but our minds are not our own. We do have to do this.” Kendra charged forward, ramming into the slayer she was once called on to replace.
Kara was trying hard to respect Faith for all that experience and ability, but she was getting thoroughly sick of the older slayer.
Faith stood rather unsteadily against the SUV, listening intently. They'd heard a sudden squawk on the radio, then some jumbled voices that walked over each other, then nothing. It had made Faith, who’d been a total grouch since the others left, practically spastic. To make matters worse, Jason had started joining in:
“Kara, I could use those weapons they brought. My old man had me totally immersed in all that military stuff, you know that. I could help them.”
But Kara, fighting her own impulse to jump in, stubbornly shook her head. “Jason, If I’m going to be a slayer, that means knowing when to take orders --”
“-- And knowing when to take initiative. They have a dozen radios, and if they need us they’ll call.”
“Unless they think we can’t help,” suggested Trina, who still sat with Jason at the picnic table.
“Or unless they were sneak attacked,” Jason added.
Kara realized she was pacing between the table and the parked vehicles, so she stopped and tried to slow her racing pulse. “It’s not time to go all worst case scenario. Not yet.”
“Yes, it is.”
It took a moment for Kara to realize this was a new voice, and by the time she whirled around the others were already staring at a woman who stood just a few yards from the table. She looked about Kara’s age, with long black hair adorned by a crown and flowers and, incongruously in this wilderness, a long white gown. In one hand she carried a scepter that had, at its tip, a fanciful letter Z inside a circle.
“Oh my God,” Jason gasped. “Ozma of Oz.” Seeing the questioning look Faith shot him, he added, “I’ve heard.”
Jason was right, Kara thought -- it was the exact image of the girl ruler of the Land of Oz, a fantasy character of the book series her father read to her and Jason as children. What next? Dorothy and the Scarecrow, popping in by way of the Nome Kingdom? Never again, she promised herself, would she ask if things could possibly get any weirder.
“There’s not much time.” Striding over to Jason, Ozma waved the scepter within inches of his ribs. Jason was too stunned to respond, but Trina jumped to her feet and started to come between them. “It’s all right, slayere. I haven’t much power here, but I’m going to heal him.”
“Who are you?” Faith demanded.
“A friend.” She smiled at Jason, who raised his shirt to stare in astonishment at the place where the demon had raked his chest. The skin was now unmarred, without even a scar.
“And you know this friend?”
“Um . . .” Standing, Jason gave Faith an embarrassed shrug. “Well, she looks just like a character from these books I used to . . .”
“Oh, books. No wonder I don’t recognize her.” Taking two steps forward, Faith pointed an accusing finger at their visitor. “Who are you, really?”
The girl’s features began to change. Although still dressed in the gown, she grew taller. Her hair shortened, features changed, and as Kara watched she aged some fifteen years. “I also loved the Oz books as a child, and when I received some visitors who might have recognized me, I chose Ozma’s form for a disguise. I have little real power. I’m only a spirit, after all, who used to dabble in magic on the earthly plane.”
She moved toward Faith, but the slayer backed away. “Okay, so you can get young without drugs or surgery. But that doesn’t give me any reason to trust you.”
The woman rolled her eyes. “I helped your friend, didn’t I? And I can make you ready to fight again, although that will drain most of my power.” When Faith still looked doubtful, the woman waved her scepter and an image formed nearby, like a movie screen. They saw their friends, falling back as a force of young women attacked them. Near the edge of a cliff Buffy, cut off from the rest, desperately dueled a young black female who seemed her equal.
The woman turned back to Faith, and held out her hand. “The dead walk tonight, and I was able to come with the rest of them. You never knew me, but your friends knew me as Jenny Calendar. Will you let me help you?”
Buffy had fought Kendra before. It hadn’t gone much better that time.
The other slayer had managed to knock the sword out of Buffy’s hand and now the two dueled hand to hand, coming perilously close to the edge of the cliff as they punched, swung and kicked. For the moment they were almost alone: the number of dead slayers equaled the living, now, and kept on fighting even after taking a huge amount of damage. Buffy had heard Giles instruct the others to fall back, toward the outcroppings at the clearing’s edge, where they would have the advantage of high ground.
“We always fight to a draw,” Kendra complained, as she whirled to try a high kick.
Buffy deflected it, but Kendra dodged out of range of her return punch. “You’re a snappy dresser, but way too uptight. That gives me the advantage.”
Kendra threw herself forward, and for a moment the two grasped at each other, equally matched and motionless. “Buffy -- if things were different, it would be good to see you again.”
Kendra’s words were so sincere that Buffy almost faltered. “Then why -- can’t you fight it?”
“Our bodies are here for his purpose. We’re here to kill all slayers, so he can control them.”
“The Cheese Guy? Come on.” Bracing herself, Buffy head butted her former friend, sending Kendra reeling. “Even Giles wears more interesting clothes than that guy. What, they don’t have designer shops in hell?” This had to stop. She glanced around, and took three quick steps to the left to position herself. As long as Kendra didn’t figure out what she was up to . . .
“I was in Heaven,” Kendra protested. Buffy felt a stab of sympathy, remembering what it was like to be torn out of paradise, but when Kendra rushed forward she was ready. She dropped down, kicking out with her legs, which sent Kendra up and flying through the air.
Right over the cliff.
Gasping for breath, Buffy climbed to her feet and glanced around. From here she saw the portal from its edge, and was shaken to see more slayers appear out of what appeared to be thin air. With the Cheese Fella following his troops, the only thing visible were the two tiny prisons and the box, and that gave Buffy her first glimpse of the power flow involved. Ribbons of multicolored energy, similar to the Northern Lights, flowed from Robin and Dawn into the locked steamer trunk, and from there into the base of the portal.
Base . . . She watched the flow of energy for a long moment. It went into the bottom of the box, and from there into the bottom of the portal. They had tried to attack the trunk from the sides, but if energy could get into it from underneath, maybe something else could, too. Grabbing her walkie, she pushed the transmit button. “Kara, I need that heavy weaponry here now.”
Faith’s voice replied. “We’re on our way.”
But could they get here in time? Buffy looked around for her sword, intent on joining the battle again, but her attention was drawn to a slayer striding through the portal. A rather slight looking black woman with an afro, she stopped at the edge of the cliff, instead of immediately attacking the living. She turned to gaze up at Robin, who lay on the bottom of his invisible cage but looked back intently.
“I’ve been counting,” Robin said, his voice so weak Buffy could barely hear it. “I knew you were due.”
“It won’t make a difference,” the woman said. “In fact, I’m going to be leading the attack. I’m one of the most experiences slayers, you know.” She smiled gently. “One of the oldest, when I died.”
“Old enough to have a child.” Robin smiled back. “I still love you, mom.”
“And I love you, babe,” Nikki told her son. “But it doesn’t change what I have to do.”
“Where’s your stake?”
Nikki stared at him, looking puzzled. From across the portal Dawn, who had been watching, looked equally bewildered by the sudden change in subject, and Buffy knew how they felt.
“You always carried a stake you made yourself, long and thin so you could hide it in your coat sleeve. You called it Mr. Finger.” Looking more tired by the second, Robin paused to catch his breath. “You used to say you loved to give vamps the Finger. And you always had a switchblade in your jacket pocket. Where’s your blade, mom?”
Nikki patted at her torso, looking for her black leather jacket, and found it missing.
“Guess you lost the weapons in that last fight with Spike, didn’t you? Before he killed you.” With his last ounce of strength, Robin raised his head to give Buffy a pointed look.
Oh -- oh! Grabbing her walkie, Buffy shouted into it. “Everyone, the dead slayers only come back with what weapons they had on them when they died. That’s your advantage -- most are unarmed. Don’t let them have any weapons!”
She didn’t have time to listen for an acknowledgment, because Nikki was now coming toward her. The black woman’s face was glowing, and she gave a prideful smile. “My baby -- even with his last breath, he’s always thinking.” She paused long enough to scoop up Buffy’s discarded sword. “There -- now I’m armed.” Then she gave the living slayer a look of regret. “I’m really sorry about this.”
“It’s not your fault,” Buffy told her, as she looked around for an escape route. Her back was again to the cliff, but it looked like Nikki wouldn’t fall for the same trick.
“No. What a shock, when I came out of that portal --” She shook her head, then raised the sword. “Someone could have just run me over with a truck.”
And at that moment, someone did.
Richard helped Giles to his feet, and together the two men dragged Willow over a boulder just as a dead slayer made a grab for her foot. Richard reached out with his sword and, wincing, sliced the slayer’s hand off.
“We are so losing,” Xander said, as he gained the top of a rocky outcropping that suddenly looked much smaller. “Willow, how about a little protection spell?”
But Willow, who was nursing a bruised thigh from falling as she climbed the granite boulders, shook her head. “I’m about magicked out.”
Covered by slayers who threw rocks and shot their final few crossbow bolts, the last of the living group gained the relatively flat top of the rocky area and formed a defensive circle. They had managed to make it across the meadow with the further loss of only two of their own, owing largely to the fact that they were armed and most of their opponents weren’t. But their long range weaponry was out of ammunition, they'd managed to completely incapacitate only a few of their attackers, and more were entering the fray every moment.
Richard glanced around at a battlefield lit by the full Moon. Some of the dead slayers were starting to work their way around the outcropping, but most were still on the meadow side, so he touched Giles’ shoulder. “If we’re going to make a break for it, now's the time.”
Frowning, Giles stared across the meadow. By the cliff two figures faced each other, while moonlight gleamed off one flashing sword. About forty dead slayers edged forward, while the strange looking little man Richard once saw in a dream stood near the center of the meadow, watching it all with keen interest but little concern. “Buffy is --”
“We can’t reach her now.” Richard took the other watcher by the shoulder, but Giles shook him off.
“We don’t leave someone behind, especially now. She’d . . . rise.”
“You told me about making sacrifices.” Giles glared at him, but even as he spoke Richard shifted gears. “Besides, maybe we can work our way around through the woods, get to Buffy, then retreat back to the vans. We’re not going to do anything here but get cut down, one by one.”
“I don’t think we could reach Buffy in time --”
Both men froze, watching in astonishment as an SUV emerged from the woods and ran down the woman who'd been fighting Buffy. It stopped on top of the body, then four figures piled out as Buffy reached for the dropped sword.
Richard was glad to see Buffy saved, but his heart dropped as he realized one of the people who'd saved her was his daughter, now thrown into battle despite everything. They were only yards from the portal, and more slayers would come through that mystical door any second. “Rupert, we have to join up --”
Too late. Sensing they might soon face a second front, the dead slayers rushed the outcropping from three sides, clawing their way up the rock as the overwhelmed and exhausted defenders began to fall back. A retreat was now the only alternative, and Richard realized that meant leaving the others -- leaving Kara -- behind.
But as much as he feared living without his daughter, an instant later he discovered that might be a moot point. Somehow, from somewhere, a new group of attackers had come up from behind them, and a dozen whooping slayers laden with weapons dashed up onto the rocks, into the rear of the living slayers --
And through them, to slam into the wall of dead slayers with a clash of weapons.
One small, slight young man stopped beside Giles, leveled a crossbow at a dead slayer that had just reached the top of the outcropping, and with one shot sent her plummeting back into the meadow. Then he turned to give the watchers a shaky salute. “Reporting as ordered, Mr. Giles. Chantel stayed back at the road with our -- incapacitated slayer.”
“Perfect timing, Andrew,” Giles replied, his voice flooded with relief. “But how did you find us so quickly?”
Andrew got a very strange look on his face, and pointed behind them. “We had a guide.”
The watchers turned, just as a wispy, glowing phantom settled to the surface and coalesced into something just a bit more solid.
“My phantom.” Willow had a pleased look on her face, but it froze as the glow faded and the apparition that had saved her before became fully visible for the first time. Her legs gave way, and Xander barely managed to keep her from falling despite his own shock.
Surprised at their reaction, Richard turned to Giles, but the other watcher’s eyes were wide, his face bloodless. “My God.”
Attracted to the commotion, Kennedy turned from the battle, then rushed to her stricken lover’s side. She faced the spirit, battle ax at ready, apparently certain it had attacked Willow, but then paused to stare uncertainly. “Is . . . is it . . .”
“It is,” Xander whispered.
For the first time, the apparition spoke, but it never took its eyes from Willow. “You have to hold a little while longer, and draw their attention. Buffy has a plan, now.”
The sound of battle seemed to drop away, as the others digested that. Then Giles cleared his throat and said, quite calmly, “Thank you, Tara.”
Sweet materialized beside Cheeseman, who promptly demanded, “Where have you been?”
Sweet, who had expected that response, clapped his hands against his chest in mock horror. “I’m a dancer, not a fighter.”
To his surprise Cheeseman accepted that, which could only mean the battle was going well for him. “Just don’t send my troops into synchronized kicking, this is a critical moment. Have you seen Ozma?”
“Ozma isn’t as powerful as either of us had been led to believe. I think it’s reasonable to assume she isn’t able to physically appear in the earthly plain. This is your first trip here, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” Cheeseman stared off toward the outcropping, where shouts, screams of pain and the clashing of steel rang out. Dozens of fighters swarmed over the rocks, armed with everything from maces and battle axes to sticks, rocks, or bare hands. “I find it intoxicating.”
Sweet gave a noncommittal hum, and turned to survey the entire battlefield. Only a few bodies were scattered over the meadow, and it made even him a little queasy to see that, although all were hacked into pieces, those pieces still moved and some even tried to drag themselves back into battle. A pair of slayers marched resolutely toward the fight, while two more were just emerging from the glowing portal. Dawn and Robin sprawled across the bottom of their see-through cells, barely moving. Not far from them, a body struggled where it was pinned beneath the wheel of an SUV. A rope had been tied to the hitch of that vehicle, and as Sweet watched five figures gathered where the rope led over the cliff edge.
“How long,” he asked, trying to sound noncommittal, “do you think those two can survive at the rate you’re siphoning off their life energy?”
“It’s only their power of movement that’s been weakened so far. There's plenty still in them, enough to bring back every slayer right back to the very first one.” Cheeseman glanced back at the portal, caught sight of the SUV, and frowned. “That could be a problem.”
“yes,” Sweet agreed with a nod. “The battle’s going well here. You’d better go handle that situation personally.”
Cheeseman’s aura of confidence faded, and for the first time fear crossed his face. “You mean -- myself?”
“They do seem to be attacking that portal, the key to all your plans, and only a hundred or so slayers have passed through, so far. Surely a being of your considerable cheesiness isn’t frightened?”
“No, of course not.” Squaring his shoulders, Cheeseman motioned for the two slayers who were about to pass by to join him, then glanced back at Sweet. “And you?”
“I’m right behind you.” Way, way behind you, Sweet thought, as he trailed the group.
“This is so cool.” Jason slung the bulky rocket launcher over his shoulder.
“You only have one shot,” Kara cautioned, “and we don’t know how far we’ll have to go to get it. We might even have to get right underneath.”
“Yeah. Now aren’t you glad I taught you how to rock climb?” Looking way too enthusiastic, considering the circumstances, Jason pulled on a pair of leather gloves and paused at the edge of the cliff. “Wish we had better equipment. Or a helicopter. Is it tied off to the SUV okay?”
“The knot looks good,” Nikki called from under the vehicle’s frame, even as she stretched out in a desperate attempt to untie the rope. “Say, does anyone know if Spike is still alive?”
“Charbroiled,” Buffy replied, her voice tight.
“Good. I hope it hurt.” Although she continued her attempt to reach the rope, Nikki gave the others a sympathetic look. “Don’t worry, it’ll work. Just watch your back.”
“And hurry,” Trina added. “Look.”
Kara, who was also donning gloves, glanced up and saw two slayers and the Cheeseman striding toward them, trailed by a nattily dressed demon with red skin. Cheeseman gestured to two more slayers as they came through the portal, and both also turned toward the SUV. “We can’t get into position before they reach us.”
“Leave that to us. I want to have a talk with that guy.” Buffy hefted her sword and stalked toward the larger of the two groups.
“Trina, we’ve got the two who just came through.” Faith also started off, but Kara stopped her.
“They can’t be killed -- again -- and that means you three against four unstoppable slayers and two demons. More slayers will come through any second.”
Faith just grinned at her, and hefted a mean looking battle ax. “They can be incapacitated, and look -- I’ve got an edge on them.”
“You go, girl,” Nikki called.
“Just hurry.” Faith and Trina hurried off to meet their challenge, and Kara turned to see Jason had already gone over the edge.
She looked down to see him a dozen feet below, bracing with his feet while he slid slowly down the rope. “I need real gear,” he told her. “This is harder than I expected.”
“Dad said the same thing about life once.” Ignoring the thought that she might never see her father again -- and the sounds of fighting that suddenly broke out nearby -- Kara clutched the rope and dropped over the edge, climbing down quickly but taking care not to drop on top of her friend. “You’re about twenty feet down. That’s far enough, now look for a ledge or something.”
“It’s dark,” he complained, dropping another few feet.
“Night’ll do that.” The cliff shadowed them from the moonlight, so it was indeed dark. She remembered she could see better than Jason, and called out to guide him onto a narrow ledge, barely wide enough to rest a foot on. A moment later she settled beside him and, as they both clutched the rope, looked up toward the steamer trunk.
It was clearly visible, glowing from the energy that flowed to and from it -- and there was, indeed, a seemingly open area at its base, surrounded by the flow of glowing vapor. If Jason could put a rocket into that undefended space, it might stop the dead slayers in their tracks -- but they were still too far off to one side. “We need to get under it more. Can you see any handholds?”
“I got it -- the ledge widens out some.” Jason left the rope and, clutching finger and toe holds, began to edge toward the portal. Before she could follow, Kara heard a noise and glanced downward.
They were not alone. Another girl, skin so black she looked like the Cheshire Cat with only glowing teeth and eyes showing, climbed steadily toward them. She was soaked, and a ragged gash scored her forehead. And she looked pissed. “You’re a slayer?” she asked when she saw Kara had spotted her.
“I’m Kendra, and I’m going to kill you and your friend. I just thought you should know.”
The Cheeseman fell back as Buffy approached, but she didn’t stop. Faith and Trina were already engaging their foes, and Buffy didn’t know how long she had before still more slayers popped through the portal and attacked her from behind. “I’m so tired of you.”
The little man spread his hands. “I’m just trying to spread the word of cheese.”
“You’re just a dirty old man, a peeping tom spying on people’s dreams.” The slayers attacked, and Buffy had to stop talking as she parried them with the sword.
“True,” Cheeseman said, “except for the dirty part. I try to maintain strict standards of sanitation, which is mainly why I haven’t come down before now. But I like it here. I think I’ll take over. What’s a little dirt?”
One of the slayers managed to get behind Buffy and grabbed her by the hair, while the other lunged forward and reached for her sword.
The Cheeseman just laughed.