Vor Hell Dimension – Presidium Citadel – Panopticon – Some Time Later
The Lover walked in a leisurely manner around Willow, watching her with a faint smile. Around them, creatures and humans were appearing, fighting, killing and vanishing, almost too quickly to follow. Vampires, demons, the Mayor’s myriad servants, Adam’s half-machine demon hybrids, Glory’s misshapen slaves, Bringers, monsters, all were appearing out of quick-forming mists and charging at Willow, each being dispatched at the last moment by short-lived images of Buffy, Xander, Giles, Willow herself or other friends and allies from years past.
“You have led a charmed life,” the Lover commented idly. A Vutch demon fell prey to a momentary Faith armed with a flamethrower, then both vanished as quickly as they had appeared.
“That’s one way to look at it,” Willow replied tensely, frowning in concentration. “After nine years of this, a ‘normal’ life might start looking attractive.”
“Not to you,” the Lover said, sidestepping a snarling vampire and slayer locked in combat and nearing Willow. “You enjoy this. Even now.”
“I think you’re getting us confused,” Willow snapped.
“Am I?” the Lover asked. Amid the melee of illusions a moment of calm appeared, Willow and Buffy silently talking. “You stayed with her, when you had the chance to leave. After that,” she gestured to where an image of Sunnydale High School, appearing eye-wateringly full-sized even within the smaller Panopticon chamber, was exploding, incinerating the giant demon within.
“Tell me it was duty,” the Lover challenged, standing in front of Willow. “Tell me you acted out of benevolence towards your fellow creatures. Not because being a warrior, being chosen, filled a void in your mind.”
“Maybe then,” Willow admitted. Her gaze hardened. “But not now.”
“Yet you continue to face the dangers,” the Lover said. “Day after day. You have little magic, no fighting skills – why are you so essential, that you put yourself in harm’s way?”
“You’re the one who thinks I’m essential,” Willow shot back. “What would you have done if I’d been killed after the Engineer died? If the force field had stayed up and I’d been burned alive in his machine? Or any of the fights after that? What if some random demon had just snapped my neck before I knew what was happening? Could’ve happened. You certainly killed your share, what if I’d been one of them? Where would your precious destiny have ended up then?”
“We never aimed to kill you,” the Lover said calmly. “To do so would have dispersed the nexus you represent.”
“I’m surprised you let me wander around,” Willow sneered. “You should’ve grabbed me the moment you had the chance.”
“On the contrary,” the Lover shrugged, “had you been killed in some peripheral incident, the consequences would be easily manageable. We would destroy those that had defeated you – the effect would be the same, I assure you. Perhaps it would have been less convenient than to have our fate contained within a single being – you – but we are patient. In time, we would have reclaimed the power you stole from us, even if others had then stolen it from you.”
“The enemy of my enemy is my next victim,” Willow scoffed. “Ever wonder why you’re not popular?”
“Has your method worked so much better?” the Lover smiled. “There –” She broke off as an image of Buffy dropped her guard, letting an illusory Angelus lunge at Willow. All motion in the Panopticon stilled in a heartbeat, with the vampire’s fangs poised a fraction of an inch from Willow’s neck. Willow glanced down, then gave a frustrated sigh.
“Admirable resolve,” the Lover commented. “And you were quite correct – had you taken your own life, or indeed allowed your life to be taken, our position would have been…difficult. You would take our power to your grave. However, you severely underestimate the control I can exert over you in this place.”
The Lover gestured to Willow’s hand, which moved of its own accord, her fingers closing around a wooden stake that materialized out of thin air. As if pulling puppet-strings, the Lover guided Willow’s hand to Angelus’ chest and drove the stake gradually through until the vampire exploded into dust. The remains faded from being even as they drifted to the floor.
“You will die here,” the Lover promised. “But only in the manner I choose, and at the proper time. But if you wish to continue to struggle, do so.” She gave a little smile as the force holding Willow motionless in mid-air ebbed away, leaving her standing free. “You are a most stimulating opponent, and the checkmate can wait.”
Volcanic Range – Same Time
Faith stood beside Creed, with their two small armies arrayed before them in the rock valley.
“All groups, check in,” Faith said into her radio, while Creed spoke to the sightless demon beside him.
“London ready,” Lexa reported, from where she and her slayers stood at the head of a group of a hundred demon swordsmen.
“Tokyo ready,” Nozomi said. Behind her and her group, a diverse group of demons was busy calming and readying dozens of hulking, armored demon beasts.
“Johannesburg ready,” Liona echoed, her slayers leading bare-skinned Scarmen with foot-long claws.
“New Delhi ready,” Sabina said, with a bizarre variety of demon mages milling about her and her slayers.
“Sydney ready,” Haley added, she and her slayers accompanied by heavily-muscled demons wielding clubs and maces, all their weapons wreathed in magical fire.
“Moscow ready,” Sasha said, as her slayers and the demons with them checked their crossbows and longbows.
“Black Ops ready,” Mia confirmed, she and the four slayers she led joined by grim-looking demons with strange, unearthly weapons.
“Watchers ready,” Giles finished in a steady voice. Beside him stood Reteesk, with dozens more of his kind interspersed among the watchers. Faith nodded and turned to Creed.
“Now or never,” she said.
“An apt phrase,” he replied, turning to the demon mages spaced around the army in a wide circle. “Begin casting!” The mages each began to work their art, in varying manners – some cutting ritual scars in their chests, others drawing patterns of fire in mid-air with their fingertips, some scattering powders and bones about themselves. Slowly, a dim light began to pierce the gloom of the hell dimension.
“Fasten seat belts, tray tables in the upright position,” Faith muttered to herself. She glanced at Creed, who seemed equally ill at ease waiting. “Hey big guy,” she said, “what’re you gonna do when this is over? Assuming we kick ass and all that?”
“I had not considered the matter,” the demon replied thoughtfully. “I wish…to return to my home. In this season, I would be harvesting my crops.”
“You’re a farmer?” Faith asked. “Get out of here! No kidding?”
“No kidding,” Creed nodded, echoing the expression with some unfamiliarity. “I did not concern myself with great affairs. I did not consider myself to have the courage for such things. When my companion was taken prisoner by the creatures the Presidium had chosen to rule us, I watched him die. For thirty-seven days, he refused to yield to them, no matter the suffering they inflicted upon him.” The towering demon closed his eyes, and spoke quietly. “Nor did he ask me to leave. His final gift to me was the courage to stand against this evil, as he had done. His death was a victory against them. As I swore mine would be.” He looked down at Faith. “Until this day, I never believed there would be another kind of victory. Perhaps for others, long after I had died. But if I should stand alive on the field of battle, and see the Presidium fallen…I do not know what I would do.”
“Worth finding out,” Faith suggested quietly.
“Yes,” Creed agreed, looking to the horizon, beyond the curtains of magical energy slowly rising from the ground around them. “It may be.” He glanced down at Faith again. “What of you?” he asked. She shrugged.
“Drinking, dancing, very good sex,” she replied. “Roughly in that order.”
“It is a good plan,” Creed said solemnly. A brilliant pulse ran through the portal forming around them, catching the demon’s attention.
“Prepare yourself,” he said quietly.
“Is this gonna be another nausea-inducing road trip?” Faith asked with a grin.
“No,” Creed replied. “This is a simple spell, and your kind will suffer no ill-effects. But we do not know what we are about to face.” He turned and raised his voice. “Mages, locate and engage Presidium magic as soon as our portal concludes! Unmake any nascent portals you sense, and search for the dimensional nexus! Begin attacking immediately!” He looked down at Faith again. “They will know when we arrive. We do not have the luxury of time.”
“Fine by me,” Faith said, gripping the Scythe tightly as the portal flared into life around them. “I’m not much for luxuries anyway.”
Earth – Conference Room – Same Time
Buffy and Heli leaned forward over a large map of the city, wearing identical thoughtful frowns.
“You’re sure about this three-way strike?” Buffy asked. “This nest looks like it could be big – better to go in step-by-step from the top, right? Split your team three ways, each mini-team is weaker than the whole would’ve been.”
“But that risks vampires getting away,” Heli pointed out. “If it is a big nest they’ll certainly have escape tunnels, probably to the sewers and storm drains. But those would have to be on the edge of the nest – if we go in from three sides at once, we pin them in the middle. Any that want to escape have to go through us.”
“You’re not worried they will go through you?” Buffy asked.
“Not a chance,” Heli shook her head. “There’s nothing to suggest these are more than just normal vamps. We’re trained for this – hit them hard from multiple angles and they’ll get confused. Get them confused, get among them, wreak havoc.”
“Ah, wreaking havoc,” Buffy nodded. “The Faith strategy.”
“No kidding,” Heli smiled. “She’s taught us all the tricks.”
“Okay then,” Buffy said, straightening up. “Watcher branch says you’re good to go.”
“Thanks,” Heli acknowledged.
“Hey, you’ve got the experience,” Buffy noted. “I’m still kind of in ‘she alone will fight the demons’ mode. Speaking of, though, that thing Rita and her watcher saw last night, I’m thinking I might go check it out tonight, just to be sure. It might be nothing, or a non-hostile demon, but I’ve got an ooky feeling…”
“I’ll have some girls briefed if you need backup,” Heli offered. “Not that I imagine you will…” She broke off as the room began to shake subtly, and her cup began vibrating its way toward the edge of the table.
“What’re the odds that was natural,” Buffy frowned as the tremor subsided. She opened her cell phone and hit speed dial.
“Al, talk to me,” she said, as soon as the other end picked up. “Uh-huh…Thought so…No, stay at it, I’ll call you. Skye’s still in the building? Good.” She closed the phone and looked at Heli.
“Althenea says it was magical,” she said. “Ethnic…no, etheric disturbance.”
“It wasn’t as pronounced as the previous ones we’ve attributed to the Presidium,” Heli said.
“Maybe not, but something’s going on,” Buffy said. “I’m putting the HQ on alert.”
“I’ll handle the slayers,” Heli offered, heading for the door.
“Okay, be back in fifteen minutes,” Buffy called after her. She then dialed her phone again. “Tracey? Yeah, we felt it too. Round up Skye, Macmillan, Dr. March and whoever’s in charge of Riley’s commandos, meeting in fifteen minutes. If you need me before then, I’ll be with Becca. Thanks.” She closed the phone and looked out the window at the sunlit parkland beyond.
“Damn it, Giles,” she whispered, “What’s happening down there?”
Vor Hell Dimension – Presidium Citadel – Panopticon – Same Time
“Would you really take your own life, for the chance to hinder us?” the Lover asked, as she wandered around a semi-formed replica of Willow’s Coven Room. She picked up books and jars of spell components as she strolled, idly inspecting them before moving on. Willow, still in the part of the Panopticon that retained its original form, crossed her arms and frowned.
“You said it yourself,” she replied. “If I’d done it, your position would have been ‘difficult’.”
“You’re that sure of your friends?” the Lover asked over her shoulder, her fingertips tracing the cover of a spell book. “You’d give up your life now, give up any future opportunities you may have, and trust them to succeed in your absence?”
“The Council isn’t just a personal bodyguard,” Willow retorted. “They can do without me. And don’t kid yourself with this whole ‘I find you intriguing’ bit – you’re not engaging my interest. If I see a big red button with ‘self-destruct’ written on it around here, you won’t even have time to blink before I push it.”
The Lover chuckled to herself, which made Willow’s frown deepen. They both turned as a doorway opened on the far side of the chamber, revealing one of the Lover’s minions.
“Mistress –” the creature began.
“I am not to be disturbed!” the Lover snapped. She swept an arm through the Coven Room illusion, banishing it in a heartbeat.
“More than you already are,” Willow added, doing her best knowing grin. The Lover glared at her.
“Apologies, Mistress,” the minion said, bowing low. “The remaining renegades and their human allies have resurfaced.”
“Their destruction is the Flayer’s concern,” the Lover said, transferring her glare to her subordinate. “Why interrupt me?”
“They…are here, Mistress,” the minion said slowly, as if confused by the Lover’s reply.
“Here…” the Lover repeated blankly.
“A portal penetrated the fifteenth tertiary hex,” the minion explained. “In the region of one thousand demons, and the remaining Council humans, are within the null barrier and advancing on the Citadel.”
The Lover stared at her minion for a moment, then quickly crossed the chamber and placed her hand flat against part of its strangely carved wall.
“The Araneum is under attack,” she muttered to herself. “Weave and cadence battle magic…”
“Your unity, Mistress…?” the minion asked.
“Is my concern,” the Lover snapped at her. “The threat is insufficient. Have the Flayer marshal his troops. The Destroyer will join him. Assign the fifth and seventh choirs to circumvent the hostile portal magic, in case reinforcements are necessary. All other choirs are to defend the Araneum. Go.”
“Mistress,” the minion acknowledged, bowing and leaving.
“You have done this,” the Lover said quietly, turning to face Willow.
“Surprise, surprise.” Willow smiled. “Araneum…web. They’re attacking the magic holding Vor together? Boy, you are in trouble.” She looked around idly. “I wouldn’t like to be around when that spell falls over…should be quite a bang, huh?”
“As I said,” the Lover replied patiently, approaching Willow, “the threat is insufficient. You recall the Arena? A single choir cast that spell, and it was not taxing. I have just assigned seven of my nine choirs to defend the Araneum from incursion by your friends’ magic. There will be no breach.” Willow scoffed.
“If Andrew were here,” she said, “I’m sure he’d make a comment about this being a fully armed and –”
“operational battle station,” the Lover finished her sentence. To Willow’s startled expression, she added: “Now do you begin to understand how complete our knowledge of you and your allies is? I know every one of your friends better than he or she does him – or herself. The same applies to your newfound allies from among our conquered races. There is nothing any of them can do that has not been foreseen, prepared for…defeated before it has begun.”
She approached and stood directly in front of Willow, staring down at her. Willow met her stare, not giving an inch.
“And you, Willow Rosenberg,” the Lover went on, “you I know best of all. None of your taunts, your lures, your strategies to delay and distract will change what happens here.” She raised her clawed hand to Willow’s hair and ran her fingers through it.
“I know you perfectly,” she said. “You should be proud…but not hopeful. There is no hope left for you.”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” Willow said fiercely, pushing the Lover’s hand away.
“I know you will,” she replied without rancor. “But it won’t make any difference.”
Earth – Watchers Council – Giles’s Apartment – Same Time
“Buffy,” Becca said with a smile. “Is everything okay? The tremor didn’t damage anything, did it?”
“Nah,” Buffy shook her head. “Tiny one, back in sunny California they wouldn’t’ve noticed it. Still…”
“What?” Becca asked.
“Althenea says it’s almost certainly something to do with the Presidium,” Buffy said. “They could be on the move. There’s a meeting in a few minutes for strategizing and whatever, I just wanted to let you know beforehand.”
“Thank you,” Becca said quietly.
“I wanted to ask,” Buffy said, hesitating. “Um…do you still want to go to the hospital?”
“Well, ideally I won’t be having the baby in my living room,” Becca replied. “You mean here? The infirmary?”
“I checked with Dr. Miller,” Buffy explained. “They’re fully set up for births. Giles had all the equipment bought and installed in case anything came up with a demon pregnancy or something like that, that couldn’t go to a normal hospital. He said he’s one hundred percent sure we can handle a normal human delivery. We’d have to get a doctor in, of course, a specialist Obi-Wan, or –”
“OB-GYN,” Becca corrected.
“Yeah, that,” Buffy nodded. “It’s just…” She knelt down in front of Becca. “I really don’t want even the slightest thing to go wrong. Giles left me in charge, yeah, but he’s family,” she said, gently touching Becca’s stomach, “and this little guy is family too. If anything happened with the Presidium, you’d be safer here, both of you.”
“That’s…something to think about,” Becca admitted.
“You don’t have to decide now,” Buffy said quickly. “There’s still plenty of time to go to the hospital, right? I have to go. I just wanted you to know, so you could decide.”
“Thank you,” Becca said. Buffy nodded and started to stand up. “Buffy?”
“Call my OB,” Becca said. “Dr Abraham, her details are in the file.”
“You want her here?” Buffy asked.
“Find out if she’s willing to make a house call,” Becca replied. “I think you’re right, this would be safer.”
“I’ll get her here if I have to throw her over my shoulder and carry her,” she said enthusiastically.
“Buffy?” Becca asked. “If so, try to throw and carry her nicely? I’d like to still be on speaking terms with her during the delivery, if that’s doable.”
Vor Hell Dimension – Hillside – Same Time
Robin and Giles conferred at the base of a slope, with the combined Council and demon armies strung out behind their command group, while demon and slayer scouts crept stealthily up the hill.
“Ro’s found some mages who know vampire magic,” Robin said quietly. “She says they’re ready to try Kennedy’s idea.”
“Is Kennedy ready?” Giles wondered.
“I wouldn’t have expected it from her, either,” Robin shrugged. “But as times for wild all-or-nothing ideas go, this is a good one.”
Far above, one of the slayers reached the top of the ridge, peered over and crouched back down to whisper into her radio.
“I’m up,” Faith said simply. Robin nodded and watched her sprint up the slope, with Creed loping along behind her.
“I keep telling myself I’m getting better at this,” he said quietly to Giles. “Trusting her to take care of herself. Truth is, I’m scared every damn time.”
“You’re not alone,” Giles replied. He gave a sigh, then switched on his radio. “Xander, are the weapons ready?”
“All set, boss,” Xander replied from where he was waiting, a hundred meters away on the edge of the command group. Beside him, a group of demons were standing by, carrying the remnants of the Council’s arsenal. Vi, finishing with a check of her slayers’ weapons and suits, approached him.
“What’s the word?” she asked.
“Nothing yet,” he said. “Just Giles double-checking.” Vi nodded, glanced up the slope and then looked back at Xander.
“Some of the demons are saying this is it,” she said quietly. “Over the top, I mean. They can sense what’s out there, how close it is.”
“I’m getting a bit of a foreboding kind of vibe myself,” Xander admitted. He looked up at the sky, where menacing clouds were swirling in strange patterns. “Could be the décor, of course.”
“Could be.” Vi chuckled.
Ridge – Same Time
Faith reached the top of the ridge and peered over, staring out onto a vast circular plain, ringed with mountains. Veins of dull metal ran through the rocky ground, forming patterns miles wide. The vast designs glittered as lightning coursed through the brooding thunderclouds piling high in the sky above. At the center of the plain, at the heart of its design, the Citadel speared into the sky, tall, unearthly and menacing.
“Yowza,” Faith said to herself, standing up to get a better view. Creed, alongside her, looked balefully at the distant structure.
“That is it,” he rumbled.
“The spell’s in there?” Faith asked.
“That is the spell,” the demon replied. “Our covens use circles and artifacts to augment their magic. This is such a structure.”
“The whole tower?” Faith wondered.
“And more,” Creed nodded. “The ground, the sky, what we breathe, the light we see…we are inside the magic that holds the Presidium’s empire together. That tower is its heart.”
As he spoke, the dark clouds began to swirl more quickly, the arcs of energy within them flashing closer and denser, building into a tremendous storm. Huge thunderheads swelled from the clouds and reached down toward the plain surrounding the Citadel.
“The natives are restless,” Faith murmured. “Let’s give them something to worry about.” She switched her radio to broadcast on all channels. “All groups, advance!”
Hillside – Same Time
“This is it,” Xander said grimly. “Watch yourself.”
“You too,” Vi nodded, turning to her team. Xander looked up the slope as the humans and demons around him stirred and began their march. Then he found himself whirled around as Vi grabbed him from behind, pulled him to her and kissed him firmly, unreservedly, passionately. Slowly Xander’s arms went around her and he returned the kiss. The two of them remained locked together for a long moment. She then pulled back, gazing fiercely at him.
“When this is over,” she said in a low, firm voice, “you and I are going to continue that. Don’t you dare stand me up. You hear me?”
“Yes ma’am,” Xander said, breaking into a grin. Vi smiled, nodded, then turned and rushed over to where her team was advancing.
Elsewhere on Hillside – Same Time
“We are ready,” Tephros said to Kennedy. He and an entourage of demon mages surrounded her as they climbed the slope, nearing the ridge top.
“Okay,” she replied tensely. “When I give the word, magic me up.”
Elsewhere on Hillside – Same Time
Jeff exchanged a nervous glance with Dawn as they climbed the hill, with the remainder of Creed’s mages around them.
“Don’t hold back now,” Dawn said quietly. “You can do this.”
“What if I get something wrong?” Jeff asked, scowling down at the ground. “It could…”
“Hey,” Dawn said, gripping his arm. “This is for Willow. No second guessing. Just get it done.”
Citadel – Panopticon – Same Time
“Such a shame,” the Lover said to Willow over her shoulder, as she watched the image hanging in the air in front of her. An entire side of the Panopticon chamber seemed to have vanished, offering a view out over the plain, to where more and more tiny figures were appearing on the distant ridge. “They will all perish, all your friends. For what?”
“They’re going to break your spell,” Willow said defiantly.
“Why?” the Lover suddenly exclaimed, rounding on Willow. “Why, to what purpose? Everyone, all the people you care about, that you risk your life for, they will all die! And for nothing! In a futile effort to prevent us from accomplishing the very goal they seek! The eradication of evil – they are going to throw their lives away! Don’t you understand?” she demanded.
“You’re not like us!” Willow yelled back. “You’re not eradicating anything, you are evil!”
“Don’t be so reactionary!” the Lover snarled. “The potential of your life demands better than that. See.” She gestured, and a figure formed between them, a young teenage boy.
“Jesse,” Willow breathed, as the figure’s features resolved.
“Cut down before he had even truly lived,” the Lover snarled. “Killed by a petty creature who didn’t even know his name. And her…” The image of Jenny Calendar faded into view. “Murdered – stalked and killed merely to engender grief in another.” Images began appearing faster and faster, crowding around Willow as the Lover spoke. “Cordelia Chase, used and discarded by selfish powers, left to die by inches. Larry Blaisdell, struck down as he selflessly defended his fellow students. Chloe, driven to suicide by a needful, soulless creature. Anya, Lily, Amy, Rona, Rachel, Marsha, Janet – hundreds, thousands, millions of them!” The Lover shoved aside the crowd around Willow and leaned down to her, staring right into her eyes.
“There is not, nor has there ever been,” she growled, “a soul that has died without knowing pain, without knowing fear, without being brutalized, beaten and ignored by life. All this pain is the only gift your powers have ever given you. Why do you fight to keep it?”
“How many of them did you kill?” Willow retorted, sweeping a hand around to encompass the images milling around them, appearing and disappearing. “How much pain did you cause?”
“We did not make this world,” the Lover said stiffly. “But we will remake it, and then…then all this will be over. Can you understand what it would be to live in a world without evil? Where kindness and warmth could flourish without being consumed by darkness?” She seemed almost pained as she spoke to Willow. “Where love would endure, not as a blackened, beaten relic of the past, but pure and whole? Where all these deaths, all this pain, would never have been?”
“Love?” Willow demanded. “Look out there – there’s a boy whose mother you killed. There are girls who were as close as sisters to the slayers your demons killed. There are widows and orphans and survivors of families you destroyed! I don’t care what it is you tell yourself you’re doing, but I do not want to live in any world you bring into being.”
“This,” the Lover said quietly, as the Panopticon darkened, and a new form began to take shape – walls, floor, ceiling, sunlight streaming through a window, a rumpled bed –”this would not have been, had we prevailed in time.”
“I don’t want to be here,” Willow said, as a figure faded into being – shining blonde hair, smooth skin, a harsh patch of red staining a bright blue shirt.
“This senselessness,” the Lover said in a low growl, “is the legacy of your gods. This is what we would undo. Stand here, look at her, and tell me you would take the side of the powers who allowed this to happen.”
Citadel Plain – Same Time
“Hold the line!” Faith ordered, as the ragged army marched down the slope, towards the plain and the distant tower, now almost invisible among the heavy clouds that wreathed it. “All groups, hold your formations!”
“There,” Creed said, pointing ahead just as they reached level ground. Faith looked up to see a huge bank of clouds surging out above the plain ahead of them, thickening to a dense black fog that writhed and coiled like a living thing.
“Ranged weapons!” Faith ordered. “Prepare to fire! Here they come!”
The thunderhead surged and broke, stabbing the ground with lightning, and then dozens of huge, dark shapes erupted from it. Massive winged creatures took sight on the army before them, folded in wings studded with sharp-edged metal plates, and began to dive.
End of Act Two