WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
Kara held onto the rope with both hands as Kendra climbed higher, off to one side just enough to avoid getting anything dropped on her.
“It’s nothing personal,” Kendra said. “It’s my duty now.”
“I don’t suppose you take bribes?” She glanced over her shoulder, to find Jason had worked his way only a few feet toward the portal. “Jason, we’ve got company.”
“I know. But I think I see some jagged rocks down there, just like in the movies.”
“Very jagged,” Kendra called up to him. “They hurt to land on.”
“Maybe you’d like to try cliff diving again,” Kara told her as she looked around for something to use as a weapon. There was a whole car load at the top of the cliff, but she hadn’t expected to need anything but a handhold down here. Her job was supposed to be to help Jason, who had all the weapon they should have needed.
“I’m not falling again,” Kendra said. “Even if I wasn’t under someone else’s control.”
“You’re very sure. Isn’t she very sure, Jason?” No rocks sticking out of the cliff face, no branches -- nothing.
“Could you guys please leave off on the banter? I’m trying to concentrate.”
“Don’t concern yourself.” Kendra gave a mighty leap and grabbed the rope below Kara. Kara screamed as the rope swung crazily, carrying her off her feet. As she dangled, barely hanging on, the dead slayer began climbing hand over hand.
“Jason! We’re out of time!” She glimpsed Jason, a yard or so further over, as he clutched a root with one hand and tried to unlimber the rocket launcher with another.
“Hold her off, Kara -- I’m trying to aim left handed.”
Easy for him to say. Kendra reached with one hand for Kara’s feet, intending to pull her down, so Kara kicked out and almost lost her grip in the process. The rope twisted around, taking its occupants on a wild ride.
Reaching up, Kendra managed to get a hand on Kara’s foot. She pulled, making them both slide down a few feet, but just before losing her grip Kara kicked out with her other foot and managed to get free. She drew her legs up, trying to stay out of her attacker’s reach, and glanced over to see how Jason was doing.
Precariously balanced, Jason managed to plant his toes into almost invisible footholds and twisted around, using both hands to control the weapon. The rocket would generate a powerful back blast -- and the rear of the launcher’s tube was aimed right at Kara.
There was no help for it. He had to accomplish the mission. She held her breath and waited.
Then Jason adjusted his aim. The rocket flashed, and a jet of flame reached out toward Kendra. The older slayer cried out, using one hand to beat at her smoking hair.
“I’ll help you put the fire out.” Kara kicked out with both feet, pounding Kendra squarely on the head, and was rewarded to see the dead slayer, flailing helplessly, fall out of sight into the lake below.
The box -- Kara looked up, and saw the portal still existed. But of the steamer trunk there was nothing but pieces of burning wood, arcing through the air to follow Kendra into the water.
“You did it. Jason, you did it!” Still holding the rope, she waited for the smoke to clear so she could help him back to the cliff edge.
But when the smoke cleared, Jason was gone.
For what seemed a long time Kara hung there, fighting tears that finally came despite her efforts. There had been no way, she knew, to fire that weapon and still maintain a hold on the edge of the cliff. Jason had to have known that, too, but he also knew what was at stake.
Finally she started up again, careful to keep her footing. From the sounds above, she guessed the fight was not yet done, and she could only pray Jason’s sacrifice was not in vain.
The ghost of Tara screamed.
Everyone on the battlefield stopped fighting, frozen in place by the unearthly wail and the ball of fire that erupted from the portal. The cry faded as a cloud of debris showered the ground, leaving the portal intact and Tara’s spirit on her knees, hugging herself.
Willow glanced at Kennedy, who waved her forward, then the witch fell to her knees beside the ghost of her lover. She reached out, but didn’t quite touch the pale form as it rocked back and forth, obviously in pain. The others could only watch.
Except Richard, who craned his neck to stare toward the portal. Smoke still enshrouded the area, but he could make out indistinct forms in the haze.
“What is it?” Hearing the anguish in Willow’s voice, Richard turned back and saw Giles and Xander crouched on either side, holding the young witch up. From what he’d heard of Scooby history, he could begin to image how much pain this must be causing them, and how much conflict Willow must feel about seeing her dead love again while her new one stood right behind her. But Kennedy, her own face carefully neutral, merely rested a hand on Willow’s shoulder.
“It’s all right,” Tara said. “There was -- a connection. But the container is destroyed, and I’m no longer bound to it.”
“What about the dead slayers?” Xander asked.
Tara shook her head. “The connection between dimensions is still there, although the power source he was using to call forth the slayers is gone. The ones already here are still under his command, and as soon as he figures that out --”
“Tara.” Giles reached his hand out but, like Willow, didn’t quite touch the slightly transparent figure before him. “What was in that box?”
Tara looked up at him, and a shudder ran through her. “A corpse, charged with magical energy. Me.”
Dawn felt better. Kind of.
Although she still felt drained, a little energy actually flowed back into her when the steamer trunk exploded. She managed to sit up as pieces of smoldering wood fluttered down on her. Then an ember landed on her hand and she smacked it away, cursing.
Wait a minute.
She looked up. For the first time her invisible cell was visible, outlined by smoke, and above her she saw a layer of haze drift by. Just above her, probably a foot, at most, over her standing height.
“Son of a --” Why no roof? A requirement to allow the magical energy flow? Or did Cheeseman rightly guess she was too stupid to check? Getting to her feet, Dawn reached up and could just touch the edge of her little cell -- it felt like glass, maybe an inch thick. “Robin!”
In the other cell, Robin looked up. Surprise registered on his face when he saw Dawn pulling herself up, using all her remaining energy to plant her feet against the side. “Let’s go, Robin. I will not --” She swung up, getting a foot over the edge. “Be a victim --” She straddled the wall and reached a foot down toward the portal, to see if it would hold her. “Again.”
Drawing himself up, Robin leaned against a wall for a long moment, watching as Dawn started working her way onto the seemingly insubstantial top of the portal. Then he grinned, and reached up himself.
Cheeseman looked away from the debris that rained down around his gateway, coughed a bit at the drifting smoke, and turned to Buffy. His skin had turned red all the way to the top of his bald head, so red he could give Sweet a run for his money. “You -- you ruined my plan.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Buffy glanced at the two dead slayers, who had fallen back from their attack when the box blew up and now looked on with confusion. Just in time, too -- one held the sword she had managed to get away from Buffy. “Now I’m going to ruin that wrinkled gray suit, which, by the way, buying off the rack is not for you. Next time you decide to take over the world go custom made, like your dancing buddy.”
Standing well out of fighting range, Sweet gave a little bow.
So, what was the sitch? While the Cheese Guy continued to sputter and curse, Buffy took a quick look around. Kara and Jason were nowhere to be seen, and Buffy feared the worst. The rope was still tied to the SUV, but the vehicle now rested on its side while Nikki, nursing the abdomen that had been pinned under its tire for so long, also took in the situation. Dawn and Robin were still alive; Dawn had even stood up, and for some reason was reaching over her head.
The last two slayers to emerge from the portal had joined the two who had taken on Faith and Trina. Two of them now lay scattered across the ground, literally hacked to pieces, while Faith and Trina were still standing -- but then Buffy realized, with a sharp pang of guilt, that Trina stood with the remaining two dead slayers, trying to tug a stake from the center of her chest.
Through the smoke, she could barely make out the main battleground at the rocky outcropping. Everyone there was just milling around, she realized. Had they won? Had the box’s destruction wrested control of the risen slayers from Cheeseman?
Shaking in rage, Cheeseman pointed toward Buffy and raised his voice. “Kill her, and kill everyone who has ever so much as given her a friendly smile.”
Every dead slayer lunged forward.
A roar rose from the outcropping, as the main battle erupted again, but although Buffy knew her friends were badly outnumbered, she had no time to devote to them. A delicate looking Chinese slayer swung her own sword at her, but Buffy threw herself backward, and the sword stabbed into the torso of the other dead slayer. The Chinese slayer said something that sounded much like an apology, but by then Buffy had gained her feet and there was no more time for words.
Cheeseman just looked on. “You won’t touch my suit. With the slayers I’ve brought back, and the rest of you who will soon be turned, I’ll have all the power I need.”
With all her resources committed, Buffy feared he was very much right.
Kara pulled herself over the edge of the cliff, got to her knees, and took it all in.
Closest to her was Nikki, who had just pulled a battle ax from the back of the SUV and was waiting while three attacking slayers -- including Trina, Kara realized with a start -- forced Faith backward toward her. The good guys were all in retreat, or surrounded.
No. No way was Jason’s sacrifice going to be for nothing. No way would she become a slayer, and see all the slayers brought under the control of evil in the same week. She dashed forward, then skidded to a halt behind Nikki and tapped her on the shoulder.
Nikki turned, and met a fist full in the face. She went down and lay there stunned, while Kara scooped up the ax and turned to run in the other direction. As she went by Faith she swung the ax in a great arc, slicing one of the slayers right down the middle, but Kara didn’t even slow down -- that wasn’t her main target. There was only one way to end this, so she continued on toward Cheeseman.
But she was only halfway there when someone grabbed her shoulder, and she spun around to see a fist coming at her nose. She tried to dodge, but the blow landed on the side of her face and she dropped, stunned. Opening her eyes, she saw Nikki standing above her, again holding the ax. “Hoist by your own petard, slayer.”
“My watcher taught me that phrase. It means I used your own moves against you, and now who’s got the power?”
Another voice answered: “He does.”
Nikki whirled, to find her son before her.
“He does, mom. But you don’t have to be used by him. You can take back the power.”
“This is bigger than words, bigger than will power. Get out of here, son, or I’ll have to kill you, too.” She hoisted the ax threateningly.
“I don’t think so. I’ll fight to free you, fight to the last.”
Nikki shook her head, looking indescribably sad. “I don’t have freedom anymore.”
“You can.” Robin glanced at Kara. “If the one who controls you is killed.”
Without a word, Kara leaped to her feet and ran.
“No!” Nikki dashed after her. Kara glanced back just in time to see Robin tackle his mother, and they both rolled on the ground, wrestling for the ax.
Now Buffy’s battle stood between Kara and Cheeseman. She tried to dodge around them, but the Chinese slayer saw her and swung the sword around, forcing her back. Buffy took advantage of the distraction to kick out, sending the sword flying through the air.
“Kill them!” Cheeseman screamed. “I want all the slayers to be mine!”
The Chinese slayer came after Kara, but one arm hung uselessly at the girl’s side, broken. Kara came in from that side with a hard kick, followed by a chop to the neck, and her attacker went down in a heap. She turned to help Buffy, but the other dead slayer had already been flung through the air, to land hard on her head. Together, Kara and Buffy turned toward the now defenseless Cheeseman.
“Dream,” Cheeseman said.
At first Kara didn’t realize what was happening. Then she saw them: spiders, hundreds of them, black and hairy and as big as her hand. They came toward her at an unnatural speed, climbing onto her legs and up her torso. Screaming, Kara stumbled backward, but the spiders kept coming. She turned to Buffy, begging for help.
But Buffy kneeled on the ground, tears running down her cheeks, her hands outstretched. There was nothing, no one around her, but The Slayer was clearly blinded by uncontrollable grief.
“On this plane of existence I don’t have to wait until you’re sleeping.” Cheeseman's voice was mild, pleasant. “The closer you are, the more I can reach into your mind.”
Buffy sobbed uncontrollably.
“I have the power, you see.”
Kara tried to scream, but the spiders were on her chest and back, then on her head, trying to get into her mouth. She flailed around in a panic, but couldn’t shake them off.
“I am the Big Cheese, now. I am the stuff of your nightmares --”
Then the spiders were gone.
Kara spun around, stamping her feet, thoroughly freaked out. Beside her, cheeks wet with tears, Buffy looked up in confusion.
The Cheeseman also looked confused. Gaze turned down, he stared at the point of Buffy’s sword, which now emerged from his chest.
Behind him, face twisted in rage, Dawn gave the sword a twist and shoved it in further. “I’m going nondairy. Nightmare that, you son of a bitch.”
“But --” Cheeseman fell to his knees, then craned his neck to look at the still motionless Sweet. “But I had a plan.”
Sweet just shrugged. “That’s show biz.”
Cheeseman fell forward, and lay still on the grass.
Immediately, the fighting ended. The dead slayers again fell back in confusion, looking around at each other. Those who had been dismembered ceased moving at all.
“Dawn --” Rushing forward, Buffy took her sister in her arms and started crying again. “You’re alive. You’re all alive.”
“It’s okay. It was a nightmare.” Kissing Buffy on the forehead, Dawn drew back a bit. “And I didn’t have to be rescued, did I?”
Buffy gave a choking laugh. “You sure didn’t. In fact, you saved the day.”
Kara watched them, unconsciously brushing at her clothes as if the spiders were still there. She had a feeling she knew what Buffy’s nightmare had been, and it didn’t involve insects.
Slowly, the two forces on the outcropping began to disperse, making their way toward the cliff. Robin and Nikki had fallen into each other’s arms, reunited at last, while Faith put her arm around Trina and spoke to her quietly. Dawn poked a thumb at Sweet who, incredibly, still stood there as if his side had won. “What about him?”
“What about me?” Sweet grinned. “Big post battle production number, maybe?”
“I don’t think so,” Buffy told him, but she didn’t appear angry. “I have a feeling your heart wasn’t in this little plan.”
“So why don’t you tell us what you were up to?”
“Just tagging along, really. Curious about our friend with the cheese.” Grinning, Sweet waved his hands to encompass the battleground. “The thing is, Earth is the swingingest place in the whole universe, full of music, dancing, partying -- well, he wanted it all to be like this. Death, pain, nightmares about cheddar and Roquefort . . .”
“What’s with the cheese, anyway?” Buffy demanded.
“Can’t account for fetishes. I say, what’s up with that suit?”
“You helped us?” Dawn asked, eyes wide. “But that riddle --”
“Sometimes the clues don’t get picked up in time. Cut me a break -- it was an ad lib.”
Dawn crossed her arms, looking contrite. “I thought you were one of the bad guys,”
“I suppose I just wanted my name above the title, this once. Besides, I didn’t do much -- gossiped a little, alerted some vampires that more slayers might come along, let a few spirits in on what my friend was up to. I was just a script doctor, you wrote the show. Now -- smiles, everyone.”
Kara braced herself, determined not to sing.
“Don’t worry, no song and dance this time. There’s a little Italian girl in Milan calling me -- I foresee a whirlwind courtship, a full book of new songs, and a burning new love -- so I must be going. Besides, you have an epilogue to author -- a lot of loose ends to be tied up. So I guess I’ll let you write your own finale.”
And in a multicolored flash, Sweet was gone.
Kara waited a moment, still expecting to burst into song, and she could tell by their looks Dawn and Buffy had the same fear. When nothing happened she asked, “What about all the -- the --”
“Dead slayers,” Buffy supplied. “The portal’s still open, for some reason. We should be able to get them back where they belong.”
Buffy turned to Dawn, who supplied the answer: “Traditionally, after saving the world, we get back to civilization. That, of course, means--”
Together the sisters finished: “Hitting the mall.”