Xander stared in horror as Willow's light dimmed, then went out completely. “Please, God, no,” he whispered as she began to fall, her speed increasing. She would hit hard enough that no one would survive it, not even a Slayer. With a frantic look around, he shouted, “Help her! Please, anyone! Help her!”
Frightened and helpless looks were his only answer. After all, anything that could so casually dismiss Willow, robbing her of her power, and tossing her aside, was surely going to destroy them
. Apathy and fear kept everyone not a Slayer in place. All of the Slayers present gave him helpless looks full of baffled anger as they tried to figure out what to do. At that moment, Xander wished that Giles was there, instead of being on his way to Cheyenne Mountain to help with the situation with Buffy. At least he would be able to figure out a way to save Willow's life, when all Xander could do is rage in his heart. Then he felt sudden relief as one person moved forward.
Anna, Willow's youngest apprentice, rushed up to Xander. Dirty brown hair, barely shoulder length, hung in disarray from being awakened so early. Sleep smudged eyes, a shade lighter than Xander's, looked up at him. Altogether she appeared to be an ordinary fourteen-year-old girl of, at best, average looks. But Willow didn't choose anyone “average” to be one of her apprentices. With clumsy fingers, she handed him the knife she still held, saying, “You're going to have to do it, Xander. If I cut myself, I'm going to pass out. The sight of blood, ya know?” Xander didn't question her use of blood magic. After all, that was why they had all been gathered there in the first place, in case Willow needed the extra power.
And now, with Anna, there wasn't time to try to gather power from the world around them with Willow due to make impact in mere seconds. Also, with the Powers against them, no supernatural entity would extend their aid. So they were constrained to their own power. Power like this. Blood. The power of life itself. So be it. At Xander's curt nod, Anna began a chant, low, but continuously rising, tone changing from beseeching to demanding, as the cadence continued.
She didn't pause in her spell, but her quick nod to Xander, followed by her eyes looking quickly away, gave him the go ahead. Xander took the razor sharp dagger and sliced a shallow cut into Anna's forearm. A golden glow began to suffuse her hands and the tone of her chant began to command. Command of the Earth. And it began to work.
Xander watched as Anna put up hands as if to catch someone. He could visibly see Willow's speed decrease. But she was still going too fast. Anna chanted louder, imperiously, and Willow slowed further. Still, she looked as if she would hit as hard as someone falling off a two story building. Xander began to try to see exactly where Willow would land, hoping to catch her.
He just had the spot picked out, only five or so feet away from where Anna still chanted, when a hip bump pushed him completely out of line. Staggering to stay upright, Xander turned furious eyes towards the person who had bumped him. Faith's saucy eyes looked back into his. “No offense, X, but a Slayer you ain't. Give Red the best chance she's got. Cool?”
No, but Xander wanted his Willow alive and well. He would do anything to achieve that. Including be relegated to sidekick for the rest of her rescue. “Please save her, Faith.” The look that accompanied his words belied the “please”, but Faith merely nodded in understanding, her eyes dark with sympathy.
“Five by five.”
Willow was now close. Close enough that Xander could see the limpness of her body, unconsciousness or death having claimed her. Faith never took her eyes from Willow, and as she grew close, sprang up into the air. Almost, Xander thought she mistimed her leap, but Faith was a Slayer. She caught Willow at the height of her arc, and cradled Willow into her arms. Legs of spring steel took the shock as Faith effortlessly absorbed force that could have broken the legs of a normal human being, merely dropping into a deep crouch. She had a triumphant look on her face as she rose to her feet.
From behind him, Xander heard Anna's voice. “I'm bleeding...” Turning swiftly, he caught her before she hit in the ground in a dead faint. Xander hugged the young girl in gratitude.
Faith's raspy voice sounded from behind him. Xander turned to see her holding Willow out to him. The exchange was made less than gracefully, but with no one hitting the ground, Xander counted it as good. He swiftly carried Willow over to one of the benches that littered the garden area inside the courtyard. Placing her on the bench, Xander started checking her vitals, waving away Sharon Taylor, their resident RN. On something like this, he probably had more practice that she did. With an understanding look, she took off, probably to take care of Anna's cut.
Willow's pulse was slow at only fifty beats per minute, but it felt strong. Her breathing was slow and steady. She did not appear to be injured in any way. She appeared to more asleep than unconscious. As Xander checked Willow, he was struck by the expression on her face. She looked more at peace than at anytime he had ever seen her, at least that he could recall from the last several years. All of the Scoobies had experienced tragedy in one form or another, with peace being something sought after, but hard to achieve. But Willow appeared to have found it somehow in the middle of a battle. Tenderly stroking her face, Xander wanted more than anything for her to tell him about it in that endearing, babbling way of hers.
Looking up, he noticed that they had attracted an audience, all of the staff of the Jenny Calendar School for Girls surrounding them. While he would have liked to have had privacy, Xander could understand their need for reassurance. Standing up for a moment, he announced, “Willow seems okay. I don't know what happened, and we'll have to wait for her to wake up to tell us. So take a deep breath and try to relax, folks. Also, I wouldn't mind it if anyone feels like rustling up some breakfast.” This last brought some chuckles out of people as they seemed to understand for the first time that things were going to be okay. While a few continued to stay nearby, most drifted off to start the day.
Xander turned his attention back to his girl. He would wait however long it took, which in the end turned out to be about half an hour. Xander detected a slight hitch in her breathing that told him she was waking up. Xander was ready when Willow's eyes fluttered open. “Hey, there, beautiful girl. You had me worried.”
Willow sounded confused when she spoke, “Xander, are you here with me in Heaven?”
Gravely, Xander shook his head. “Nope.”
Alarm began growing in Willow's eyes. “Are we in Hell then?”
Quickly Xander moved to reassure her. “Wills, you're alive. I'm alive. Everyone's alive. It's okay.”
Willow tried to sit up and failed. “Whoah, head rush.” She clutched Xander's sleeve from her prone position. “Xander, we have to evacuate. The Powers are coming. They...”
Xander gently interrupted. “Willow, it's been nearly half an hour since you fell. Wouldn't they have destroyed us by now if they wanted?”
Willow's eyes grew big. “Oh. Oh! Let me check.” She closed her eyes and her breathing, which had quickened as her anxiety took over, now slowed as Willow entered a meditative state. Five minutes or so passed, then she opened her eyes.
At the look in her eyes, Xander felt the not so faint stirrings of alarm in his gut start all over again. “What?”
“There's good news and bad news.”
“Give me the good news.” After all, Xander reasoned, they were still alive so even the bad news couldn't be that bad.
“The Powers aren't here.”
“Kinda knew that, Wills. What the what?”
In a rush, she told him. “The Powers stopped for some reason. AndIthinkitwasbecausetheygotdistractedbyBuffyandnowthey'regoingafterherandIdon'tknowwhat'sgoingtohappen...”
Xander put his mouth over Willow's, interrupting the flow of her babble. After a moment, he stopped kissing her. Yep, he thought smugly, works every time. “So the Powers are after Buffy? Are you sure?”
Willow nodded, the shook her head. “Kinda maybe? It's the only explanation. Plus something's up with the Slayer essence. It's all restless and... twitchy.”
Xander's eyebrows rose. “Twitchy? It's twitchy
At Willow's worried look, Xander stopped teasing. He gently lifted her from the bench and into his lap. Stroking her hair, he spoke words he wasn't sure he really believed, “Willow everything's going to be all right. Buffy can win this thing. Hell, after all we've been through, if you told me she could walk on water, I wouldn't doubt it.”
Willow's eyes remained doubtful. “I hope you're right, Xander. I really, really hope you're right.”
Illyria stood upright as she accepted the surrender and fealty of the surviving Jaffa. Her shell was cracked and bleeding, but she felt a sense of triumph that had been sorely lacking since her reincarnation. For the first time, she felt... whole. She had defeated her enemies and now they knelt at her feet, hers to do as she wished. Though individually weak, they had fought bravely and would make a fine army, once they recovered from their wounds. Perhaps her destiny lay out here in the stars, far away from the world that had seen her primacy fall, that had seen the collapse of the Primordium.
Almost, she had lost here. The large guns that had fired at her despite her tactic of keeping their own troops around her as protection had badly hurt her. But she was Illyria, who had lived seven lives at once. Who had ruled the Primordium for endless millions of years. She would not
be laid low by such as these. She would not
yield to mere pain. She had found the strength to oppose them, then destroy them. After that, it was child's play to crush all other resistance. In the end, the survivors had yielded.
Behind her, she could hear the sound of the Gate dialing. The last of these “Jaffa” that survived would be done swearing fealty to her before anyone from Earth could come through and interfere. Beside her stood Rec'arn, who she had made leader of her forces. When she had destroyed the large guns and all had seemed lost, he had launched himself in a great leap at her in an effort to destroy her despite the futility of it all. Such mad courage needed reward, so she had spared his life, merely rendering him unconscious while damaging him only slightly. Once he revived, she had burned off the silver tattoo on his forehead, feeling approval in the way he had stood still despite the pain. She had then inscribed a symbol that had stood for her forces millions of years before. As it healed, it filled her with a yearning for the past.
Turning to Rec'an, she commanded, “Guard well those who come through the Astria Portis. No harm is to come to them. There will be one who is insolent, but no harm must come to her as she is the pet of another such as I. Also, there will be one who is to become my Qwa'ha Xahn. Guard him especially well.”
Rec'an, despite the splint that immobilized his left arm, struck his chest with his right fist. “As you will, my lord.”
Illyria had the oddest sensation as he turned away to convey her orders. Touching her face, she could feel her mouth upturned into what these puny humans called a “smile.” Horrified, she quickly resumed her usual stoic expression, somehow hearing Fred chortle with amusement in the back of her mind. In despair, Illyria wondered how she would remove from herself this taint of humanity. Like a weed, however she pruned, it seemed to grow back twofold. She was tainted and she could not rid herself of the taint. Even “Fred” wasn't real, merely a reflection of the memories Illyria had absorbed when “Fred” was annihilated in the fires of her resurrection. Just as Fred had been infected with an aspect of Illyria, so now was Illyria infected with an aspect of Fred. She could only wonder if it would destroy her as she had destroyed Fred.
Emotion gnawed at her reason. How could these humans withstand it? How did they avoid insanity? Should Buffy ascend, Illyria planned to ask her to change her back. Back to what she'd been so long ago. Even if it meant exile. Even if it meant death, that formerly unattainable transition to nothingness. Then she wouldn't think so much of... No! Illyria used iron-hard discipline to control her thoughts. She would not
think of him. She would not.
Figures began to leave the Astria Portia. Finally. Illyria welcomed them, even the annoying one. Anything to contain her thoughts. Ruthlessly suppressing those self-same thoughts, Illyria strode forward to present Buffy's pets to her new army.
Eve skipped forward down the ramp of the Gate into this new world, dodging around Dawn and Daniel Jackson. Wow, another alien world. It even smelled different from Earth, although that was hard to tell over all of the scents of death that surrounded her. Thirty or forty of those Jaffa the General had been talking about were still alive, carefully stacking bodies to one side, apparently in preparation of burying them.
Eve could feel Buffy, somewhere off over that big hill to her left. What she wanted more than anything was to run off and go straight to her. But Dawn had asked her to stay close to help keep an eye on the Jaffa, so that was what she would do. Still, it was going to be good to see Buffy again.
Eve could see the wrecked remains of the big guns that had been firing at Illyria in the last images she had seen. That had been cool. She only wished that she had been here to help Big Blue. It would have been fun to fight at her side. Unfortunately, it was the only time that Illyria seemed to have fun. Still, Illyria seemed to know how to deal with the bad guys. They were all working really hard. Well except for one really big one who was standing watching the others work.
Eve walked up to him and stared up into his face. He looked somewhat ordinary except for a nasty burn on his forehead in the shape of a... Hmmm. Eve decided that it looked most like a chicken with too many legs. Weird. Eve met his cool, detached gaze with one of her own. Finally after getting into a staring contest for a couple of minutes, she grew bored. “Who are you?”
The Jaffa spoke, “I am Rec'an, first prime to Illyria, Goddess of the Primordium.”
Eve nodded sagely. “So Lyri already has you toeing the party line, huh?”
“I do not know what you mean. You must be the Annoying One that she warned us about. Do not worry. None here will harm the pet of Illyria's brethren.”
Eve stared at him, flabbergasted. Finally, she found her voice, “Annoying
? Well, that's... actually kind of fair. The first one anyway. I do live to annoy Lyri. After all, she needs to be taken down a peg or two. Know what I mean? It's all God-to-gods or 7-lives. I mean, who talks like that? Lyri, that's who.” She smiled at the strain that was starting to show on the Jaffa's face. “Don't worry Ricky, I'll keep her from brainwashing you too much. I mean, you can't help being born a Jaffa. We'll get you fixed. I'll see you later and we can talk more.”
With that, Eve walked away, deliberately avoiding the area where Dawn, Illyria, and Daniel congregated. Along with the fifty or so green-clad soldiers that had accompanied them. She wondered if she could see anything interesting from higher ground after spotting a hill just a couple of hundred yards away.
Eve had just started towards the hill, when she crossed some exposed bedrock. Instantly she stopped. Dropping to the ground, she pressed her ear to the rock, feeling the vibrations. This was so not good. Leaping to her feet, she ran as fast as she could towards Dawn.
Dawn said, “Illyria, can we get a move on? Your minions seem to have everything under control here. Let's go see Buffy.” Since they had arrived, they had been attempting to persuade Illyria to lead them to Buffy, but she had been stubbornly obdurate about leaving the Jaffa she had captured. It was starting to get on Dawn's nerves and had already gotten on Major Frost's, who hadn't been too happy to see hostile Jaffa still armed when they had arrived.
Illyria's head went back in affront. “Those around us are to become the seed of my army. I will not abandon them here. They will accompany me...”
Eve came running up. “Guys! Big trouble! We gotta move it!”
Dawn managed to grab the excited teen and attempted to hold her still, an all but pointless exercise in futility. “What's going on, Eve?”
Eve's excited eyes met Dawn's and she began to babble, “IwasboredsoIwantedtoseeiftherewasanythinginterestingtoseefromthehillovertherebutIdidn'tgettherebecauseIcrossedsomebarerockandcouldfeelthevibrationsofanarmyheadingourway!”
Dawn was trying to make heads or tails of what Eve had said, when Illyria announced, “The Annoying One is right. There are thousands of troops headed our way. We must go.” Turning away, she shouted, “Jaffa, Kree!”
Immediately all work ceased and everyone headed their way. For a moment, Dawn was worried that Major Frost was going to order his men to attack the Jaffa as they ran up, all holding weapons. However Daniel in his usual inimitable style defused the situation. Strolling over to stand at Illyria's side, he smiled and casually waved everyone forward. Daniel's very presence as well as how relaxed he was worked to diffuse tensions. However, Dawn could feel the tension in him as she stood next to him. She decided he was one smart cookie. No wonder Illyria wanted him for her high priest.
In no time, they were doing a kind of jog-walk, while continuing to maintain radio silence. If Buffy and the others were captured, the worst thing they could do was alert the Jaffa of their presence. If they weren't, then there was still this “army” to account for. It would be beyond dangerous to get the attention of several thousand Jaffa. If Jaffa these were. Regardless, they needed to make direct contact.
Which is where Eve came in. She knew exactly where Buffy was from the moment she entered this world. So they were using her as a human locator beacon. So far it looked as if Buffy was still at the base where she was supposed to complete her offworld training. Or at least close by. Soon, they would be there.
Rec'an marched at the side of his Goddess, prepared to defend her with his very life. Not that she appeared to need much defending compared to many of the Gods the Jaffa served. When she had appeared, like Death Incarnate, he had been frozen. Not in fear, but in a kind of dismay that she
wasn't who he served. Still, he had done his best to destroy her, ordering his troops forward into death. And when they had failed, he had sacrificed still others, ordering the guns to fire despite his Goddess being surrounded by twenty Jaffa. None had survived the bombardment.
For a moment, he had thought he'd won. A feeling of triumph mixed with sadness had stolen over him. Then she had stood tall and had strode right into the teeth of his fire, somehow surviving and destroying his guns. His men quickly followed. Until the first had yielded. Rec'an hadn't yielded, throwing himself into battle against her in a last ditch effort to destroy her. But he had failed, swatted aside as effortlessly as you would a child.
Rec'an regained consciousness in time to hear her proclaim the Goa'uld as false gods. To hear her name herself Illyria. And that she was a true god, if diminished in this time. If this was Illyria diminished, how much more proud would he be to serve her at her height? She spoke of plans she had, of building a great army to overcome their enemies. Rec'an could see that his men were under her spell. But then so was he. Rec'an would serve her. Do her bidding. Die for her. Willingly. For the first time, he didn't feel like a slave, but instead a free man.
Eve coursed ahead, reluctant to reduce her pace to the slowpokes behind her. The army was getting closer. They needed to hurry. But the Jaffa behind her were already at their limits, having fought a battle just hours before where more than half their number were slaughtered. The earth troops were fresher, if lacking the snake thingie that helped the Jaffa cope. But both groups seemed to move like molasses.
If they would just let her run
, she would have already been there. With Buffy. Who wouldn't let a little thing like an army worry her. At least she was armed, having lifted Buffy's spare sword from where it was hidden in her bedroom. After all, Eve reasoned, Buffy wouldn't want her to come to an alien planet unarmed.
That be entirely un-Slayer-like. Which wasn't Eve at all.
Eve paused for a moment, feeling the others catching up to her. She could feel Buffy, just a short distance ahead. Over that rise straight ahead. Eve almost took off, but she could feel Dawn at her back. Looking over her shoulder, Eve could see Dawn struggling to keep up. Buffy's sister was in good shape, but this run had put a lot of stress on her. Daniel seemed to be keeping up fine and even on occasion, helping Dawn. Eve narrowed her eyes in consideration. Except for him being so old, Daniel seemed a much better match for Dawn than Riley.
Certainly they were interested in the same things, which made more sense than Riley, who according to Autumn was only interested in Dawn's cleavage and something else which she wouldn't talk about in front of Eve. While this might be true, Eve chose to keep herself above gutter gossip like that. Besides, the age thing wasn't that important when the guy was basically keeping you from falling on your ass in exhaustion.
Finally, everyone was caught up, which again allowed Eve to run forward. Except Dawn snagged her arm and between huffing breaths, got out, “Eve pant
With a put upon sigh, Eve grabbed Dawn's other arm, and giving Daniel a brilliant smile of encouragement, proceeded to pull them both forward. Soon she would be with Buffy and everything would be all right.
Buffy stood chatting with Samantha Carter and wolfing down the first food she'd had in what felt like days. That it was some type of army rations didn't bother her in the least. As bad as these things were supposed to be, they were still better than a Doublemeat Medley from the Doublemeat Palace. At least there was plenty of it. Buffy had already had four plates worth. And she was rapidly getting better at deflecting the curious major with her questions about magic, gods, magic, and more magic. Like the latest question, for example.
Samantha looked at her with exasperation. “But why
doesn't your sword need to be recharged? I mean the “magic” is an effect, right? Not an inherent ability of the item, right? Doesn't magic follow laws of cause and effect?”
Buffy waved her hands in surrrender. “Sam, I don't know. Sorry, but I am not an expert on magic. I mean, I can say “Bara bara himble gemination” and poof! There's a rabbit!.” She watched Sam's jaw drop as the rabbit in question went scampering off. “Or I can say something else and a book catches on fire. But everyone who has even a little magical ability can do those. The other stuff is Willow's territory. You really should be talking to her.”
Waving a hand in front of Sam's face, Buffy frowned and turned towards Jack. “I think I broke her.” Of course, even he was looking a bit startled at the arrival of a bunny out of thin air. And Sam seemed to be recovering. At least she'd turned her eyes from the spot where the rabbit had arrived at to stare at Buffy in an accusatory manner.
Sam opened her mouth, then closed it. Buffy could see the effort it cost her not to ask about the rabbit as she continued her questions, “Okay, no more questions about magic. But what about what you said about becoming a god? Will you become an ascended? Or will you actually become what our texts refer to as a God, like Allah or Yaweh? And how do you know the Jaffa at the Gate were dying? You never did explain that.”
Buffy squirmed uncomfortably as she met Jack's amused gaze from where he sat behind his 2IC, casually leaning back in a folding chair. When she hadn't answered his
questions sufficiently, Jack had quietly sicced Sam on her. Which was so not fair. Now instead of playing “will she” “won't she” with Graham, Buffy was stuck here trying to answer things which she hadn't even thought about. And it was rapidly growing tiresome. And distracting, as she suddenly realized what that odd feeling she had been getting was. There was a Slayer nearby, not of the original group that had arrived with her. And something else.
Buffy rapidly stood up, ignoring Sam's latest barrage. Dropping her plate, she headed out of the tent, to the fresh air outside. This was not good. Really not good. Briefly she lent her ear back to the two Air Force officers as they followed her out.
“Summers, what's up? Is there a problem?”
Buffy turned and met jack's gaze. She was about to explain when she heard a familiar voice shouting her name that really shouldn't be there. Buffy spun back around just in time to meet ninety pounds of girl as Eve launched herself into Buffy's arms. Staring at the teen in astonishment, Buffy looked up to see Illyria, Dawn, and Daniel striding up, the latter two breathing heavily, while behind them appeared to be dozens of Jaffa and maybe a hundred soldiers, heavily armed and in camo.
Again, Buffy was about to tell Jack what the situation was when there was a rumbling in the air, which heralded the presence of four Ha'tak
-class ships landing on the nearby peaks. At the same time, several thousand Jaffa troops began to approach from over the surrounding hills.
They were well and truly screwed. Buffy finally found her voice. Speaking directly to Jack, she announced, “You could definitely say that, Jack.”
Jack stared at her in horror, then around at the surrounding ships and troops, then back to her. “Fercryinoutloud, Summers!”