Chapter Twenty Five: Into Battle
The plans had been agreed, the teams organised and the assignments given. By general consent Buffy was accepted as overall general in chief. Also by general consent the aim was to shut the Hellmouth and shut it for good. This meant dealing not only with The First and whatever Bringers, demons, vampires and uber-vampires it could muster but with Jasmine and her followers including the Wolfram and Hart people. Nobody knew whether they would also be up against Glory and her minions.
Surveillance of the High School over the previous two days confirmed that it had been converted into a fortress. There were guards on all entrances, humans by day or at least those who looked human and others at night. Quite clearly the plan of the enemy was to protect the Hellmouth until it became time to use it to pull in the meteor. Once the meteor had devastated life on Earth, particularly human life and civilisation, the vampires and demons would emerge to take over the ravaged planet.
Sunnydale now seemed to be deserted both by humans and by vampires and demons with the exception of the Scooby Gang and its allies on the one side and the forces defending the Hellmouth on the other. This exodus appeared to have gone completely unnoticed by all the news media, including local media in the surrounding towns. There was not even any chat about it on the web. This created a great deal of puzzlement amongst the Scooby Gang and its allies.
"If The First's got enough influence to control the news it must be a lot stronger than we thought," suggested Xander.
"I didn't think anything could control the web to that extent," said Fred.
"But if it's that powerful why hasn't it won already?" asked Paige.
It was Leo who explained what was going on. He advised that the coming fight between the Forces of Light, represented by Buffy, Angel, The Charmed Ones and their friends and allies, and the Forces of Darkness represented by The First and it's allies had been designated a 'Contest of Champions'. This was a very rare event and had only happened on a few occasions in the past. What it meant was that the Powers of Light and the Powers of Darkness had agreed to isolate the battleground from the rest of the world.
"The rest of the world?" queried Willow. "What about the Hellmouth? Can The First get help from the Hellmouth or does it have to stick with what it has here already?"
"I'm afraid the agreement only affects this world," said Leo. "We can't rule out the Hellmouth being used to bring in more demons. It's up to us to stop that."
"You said this had happened before," said Buffy. "What happened on the other occasions?"
"Oh come on," said Cordelia. "Even I can work that out. We're here aren't we? That means the Forces of Light won the previous fights."
"Um," said Leo. "It's not as simple as that. The Powers of Light and Darkness work on a much longer time scale than we can imagine. There have been occasions in the past where the Forces of Light have been defeated and the Forces of Darkness have dominated the world."
"The old ones," said Wesley.
"Yes" said Leo. "That was one such time. We have to make sure something similar doesn't happen again."
The attack was set to begin at dawn. Since the Forces of Light were to be the attackers it was agreed that they might as well fight in daylight, as far as possible. Before the attack however a great deal of preparation was necessary.
Willow, Tara and the other magic users had not been able to duplicate the Battle Scythe but they had 'improved' the weapons that everybody would be using. They had made the weapons stronger, sharper and less likely to break or be damaged. In addition the Whitelighters had blessed all the weapons.
The hope was that one touch or one nick on a demon or vampire, of whatever sort, would prove fatal in the same way that holy water destroyed vampires. Even if it didn't quite work like that it was hoped that there would be some benefit from what was done.
The only exceptions were the sword and knives that Angel would be carrying because a quick check confirmed that he could not lay hands on the enhanced and blessed weapons. Angel himself pointed out that this was all to the good because it meant that vampires and demons would not be able to pick up and use any weapons dropped by the Forces of Light in the course of the battle.
Willow had been able to devise a spell to temporarily endow the potentials with the power of a slayer. "Why not everybody else as well then?" asked Dawn. "Why not make everybody here a slayer, at least for this battle?"
"Because it wouldn't work," said Giles. "Potential slayers aren't just ordinary people. They're potential slayers because they have the ability to hold the slayer power. Try to put that sort of power into somebody else and you'd probably end up killing them."
The other main preparation was magical. The information obtained from Lilah and surveillance had shown that the Wolfram and Hart teams had modern weapons deployed to protect the school. It wouldn't matter what powers the attackers possessed if they were all mown down by machine guns and rockets before they even reached the school.
Dealing with the modern weapons of the defenders was the task assigned to the Charmed Ones. They would cast a spell which would disable all modern weapons in the area of the school. Basically they would aim to maintain an area where such weapons simply did not work. An area where explosions would not explode, where guns would not fire, chemicals would not react and where only purely mechanical weapons like swords, knives and bows would be effective.
The spell would be cast by the four Charmed Ones immediately before the attack. It was felt likely that the Forces of Darkness would have their own mages who would immediately work to nullify the spell so the Charmed Ones would remain out of the battle and look to keep their spell going.
To protect the Charmed Ones from attack whilst they were spell-casting two of the newly charged up potentials, Chao-An and Colleen were to stay out of the attack. Buffy had suggested that Dawn be one of these stay behinds but Dawn had successfully scotched that by pointing out that she was one of the few people who knew her way around the school and would therefore be needed inside.
Buffy put her cellphone in her pocket and turned to Willow. "They've done it," she said. "We can go now."
From her position within the building closest to the front of the school Willow raised her hands and began chanting. As she did so she tried hard to clear her mind of concern for Tara. Tara had her own job to do and she'd be all right. Willow continued her chant and reached a quick climax.
A sudden irresistible wind blew up and struck the front of the school. All the windows shattered and blew in as did the main front double doors. With any luck the defenders behind those windows and doors would be at the very least temporarily disabled.
As soon as the doors sprang open Buffy led the charge forward. Right behind her were Rona and her team of slayers. Temporary slayers maybe but for the time being, apart from their relative inexperience, fully as strong and dangerous as any slayer had ever been. Holding their enhanced weapons they followed Buffy inside. Trying to keep up with the slayers were Giles, Xander, Anya and Amy.
Inside the front entrance to the school all was chaos. Chaos that was for the defenders with rubble and bodies strewn around but all according to the plans of the attackers. Buffy halted and Xander and Giles came up on either side of her. Meanwhile Rona and her team worked on the fallen defenders to ensure that they stayed fallen and quickly struck down those few who had been able to struggle to their feet or showed any sign of being able to recover.
"Well that was easy," said Amy who so far hadn't had to do anything.
"Make the most of it," replied Anya. "There was never gonna be much fighting up here in the daylight. It's down below that we'll really have to fight."
At that moment a strong earthquake struck. The whole building shook and lumps of plaster fell from the ceiling and walls. The quake however subsided and for the moment there was no serious structural collapse.
"Yeah!" said Xander punching his fist in the air. "That's one for modern earthquake proof building codes and zero for the bad guys."
Unbeknownst to Xander that wasn't the whole story.
Cordelia, Angel, Faith and Tara stood together at a window overlooking the front of the school. Together they watched the launch of the attack. As Buffy and her team ran forward Cordelia, Angel and Faith took hold of Tara's hands and arms. "Let's go!" said Faith.
An instant later they materialised on the second floor of the school in one of the classrooms overlooking the front entrance. Beside them Dawn and the rest of Angel investigations appeared courtesy of Leo and Jenny. Having helped with transport Tara and Leo disappeared to other duties. Tara to join Willow and be available to help with casualties downstairs and Leo to rejoin his wife and her sisters. Jenny remained in case of casualties amongst the attackers upstairs.
The classroom had been devastated by Willow's gale. All the bodies, dead and injured, seemed to be human. They were presumably Wolfram and Hart people. From the items strewn around they were in the nature of a SWAT team with plenty of weapons and ammunition.
As had been agreed beforehand no time was wasted on debate about what to do about the enemy. The team quickly disposed of those who showed signs of reviving. As this task was being completed the building was shaken by a strong seismic shock.
"Keep going!" said Angel as he saw the others hesitate. There'll be worse than this before we're finished."
As the shaking stopped Angel, Faith and the others, directed by their guide Dawn set about their assigned task which was to clear the upper floors of the school and prevent the enemies there from attacking Buffy and the others downstairs.
Across the road from the school Willow watched the attack go in with Kennedy and Wood. Tara materialised by her side and gave Willow a quick smile. Willow smiled back. So far so good she thought, all according to plan.
Willow took hold of Tara's hand determined that they would remain as close together as possible through the coming fight. As it happened it was just as well that they were linked because at that moment the ground shook.
For those without magical senses the earthquake might have been a co-incidence but both Willow and Tara knew it was not. It was the first counter attack by the Forces of Darkness. They would be quite happy to collapse the whole building and destroy all the attackers inside even if it meant killing any of their own people who were still alive at the same time. It might have worked had Willow not acted immediately.
"Still!" commanded Willow. At the same time she and Tara knelt down and placed their free hands flat on the ground. The earth movement and the noise associated with it gradually subsided. No major damage and hopefully no casualties but it had been a close run thing. Coming so soon after her other spell Willow was sure she would not have had the power to quell the earthquake without Tara's support.
"I'd better see if anybody's hurt," said Tara who orbed inside. Since Willow had no intention of letting go of Tara's hand she went with her.
Anya and Amy stood in front of the door to the basement and began their spell. As far as anybody could tell all resistance had stopped in the rest of the school. As she waited for the spell to be completed Buffy talked on her cellphone to the other groups. Everybody was deployed and ready.
Even without specific warning from Leo and the Halliwell sisters the example of Anyanka had shown Buffy and the Scooby Gang that it wasn't just the good guys who could teleport. A sudden attack from an area previously cleared was therefore expected and prepared for.
Angel, Faith and their team remained upstairs and continued to check out the rooms up there. Rona and her team were on guard downstairs and ready to follow Buffy into the basement. One change to the original plan was that Kennedy with Gwen, Wood and Vi's team of enhanced potentials was now staying outside the school. They remained on guard in case of an attack from elsewhere but clear of the school as a reserve in case it was brought down on the heads of those inside.
The other change to previous plans was that Willow and Tara were now on guard to counter another earthquake spell. This left Amy to lead the next magical attack which is why it was she, with Anya's help, who was carrying out the next spell.
At last the spell was complete. The spell concentrated the sunshine entering the school windows and doors and focused it on the door to the basement. Buffy now moved forward and delivered a savage kick to the door. The door collapsed inwards and Buffy, in a blaze of light entered the basement closely followed by the others.
Outside the school the second counter attack by the Forces of Darkness was getting underway. Now that there was no longer any need to husband resources The First had called out all of its remaining Bringers. They began pouring out of the buildings surrounding the school and began to head towards the school entrance. Either the town had not been as empty as had been assumed or the Bringers had been moved close to the school from elsewhere.
Seeing what was happening Kennedy called Vi and her team into a defensive block at the school entrance. While she had the chance she reported developments on her cellphone to the other groups.
Individually the Bringers were not very formidable but they had the advantage of numbers. They did not attack at once however but gathered in a mass some fifty yards away from the slayers, allowing their numbers to continue to build up behind them as more and more Bringers arrived.
Kennedy began considering her tactics. She quickly rejected attacking herself. Running into the mass of Bringers would result in many casualties amongst the Bringers but would almost certainly isolate the slayers from one another in the much larger mass of Bringers. This would prove fatal for at least some of the slayers. Sticking together was the only way they were going to get through this.
Suddenly arrows began to fly from the upper windows of the school. Some members of Angel's team were joining the fight by shooting into the Bringers. The casualties that this caused created a stir amongst the Bringers and now they began to move forward.
As the Bringers closed the gap between them and the group of slayers a bright light appeared in front of them causing them to stop. The brightness slowly diminished to reveal three women standing between them and the slayers: Jenny, Faith and Cordelia.
Whether or not the Bringers were surprised by the sudden appearance of the three women they gave no sign as they started forward in silence once more. Kennedy, Vi and the rest of their group started forward to join the three newcomers but stopped as glowing began once again.
The first glow had been produced by Jenny's orb. The new glow however was produced by Cordelia. Unlike previous occasions when Cordelia had shown her power, this time she seemed to be in control of what she was doing. After discussion with Tara and the other witches Cordelia now had a magic wand.
Cordelia's wand was in fact merely an ordinary piece of polished wood about a foot long which Xander had carved for her. Cordelia now used it in the way she had practiced to focus her witch power. The glowing was coming from the end of the wand and Cordelia now aimed this at the advancing Bringers.
Jenny and Faith stepped away from Cordelia and moved back to join Kennedy, Vi and the others. Whilst Jenny was unarmed Faith was carrying the Troll Hammer.
"What's she doing?" asked Vi directing her question to Faith.
"Magic," said Kennedy who was remembering the last time she had seen Cordelia use magic and what had happened to Harmony.
The glowing from Cordelia's wand had now reached the advancing Bringers and continued to brighten. The leading Bringers tried to move back away from it but were unable to do so because of the press of bodies behind them.
Now Cordelia's glow engulfed all the Bringers and continued to brighten until not only the Bringers but Cordelia as well could no longer be seen by Jenny and the slayers who found themselves moving backwards and having to shade their eyes.
After what seemed to those watching a long time but in reality was no more than about twenty seconds the glow began to dim until Cordelia could be seen once again. She was now sat on the ground exhausted. Jenny and Faith, quickly followed by the others started forward.
The Bringers were now milling around having lost their purpose. They were no longer silent but were talking and asking questions. In fact they were no longer Bringers but were once more completely human.
Buffy reached the bottom of the stairs into the basement and stopped. The basement was empty. Well empty apart from Buffy, the members of the Scooby Gang, Rona and her team and a young beautiful African American woman who walked forward towards them.
"You must be Jasmine," said Buffy. "You have no power over us. You can leave through the Hellmouth before we shut it down or we'll shut you down at the same time."
"What a miserable life you must lead," said Jasmine. "All this fighting, all this hatred."
"I don't need..." began Buffy.
"Where are we?" asked Giles. "This isn't the school basement."
Buffy looked around and discovered that they were no longer in the basement but instead were in a large dark cavern. Only the central area in which they were all standing seemed to be lit by lights hanging above.
"Enjoy yourselves," said Jasmine. "You'll all be perfectly safe here when the meteor hits." With that Jasmine disappeared.
Buffy turned to Willow and Tara. "Where are we, and can you get us back to the school?"
"I've been trying to orb away," said Tara. "But something's blocking me."
With the departure of Faith, Cordelia and Jenny and the ending of the threat of the Bringers outside, the group clearing the upper floors divided into three teams to patrol and make sure they stayed clear. Connor and Gunn were working together checking the west wing of the building, Wesley and Fred were working together checking out the east wing.
Angel stayed with Dawn in the central area. He accepted that Dawn now had slayer strength and power but he had no intention of allowing anything to happen to Buffy's little sister so he kept close to her, even though for the time being she had the speed and strength of a slayer.
In the west wing Gunn and Connor had found nothing, or to be more accurate nobody. However as Connor started to follow Gunn out of the final classroom at the end of the west corridor of the second floor he noticed a movement out of the corner of his eye.
On guard and holding his enhanced sword in his hand Connor turned back and saw a young blond haired woman standing at the back of the room. Gunn, having noticed that Connor was no longer following him came back into the room.
"Darla," said Gunn. "Oh boy, just what we need."
Connor turned to Gunn. "This is Darla? This is my mother?" he asked.
"Oh yes," said Darla walking forward. "I'm your ever loving mother. How is my little boy? Brushed your teeth this morning? Washed behind your ears?"
"What do you want Darla?" asked Gunn stepping forward and holding up his axe. "There's no place for you here."
"No place for a vampire with a soul?" said Darla. "And I thought you were broad minded."
"You have a soul" said Connor. "How come?"
"Well since you ask..." began Darla. "Watch out!" she cried her eyes going wide.
Connor and Gunn turned to deal with whatever had come into the room behind them to find nothing and nobody there. Before they could turn back Darla hit Gunn, knocking him out.
"You'd be surprised how often that works," said Darla to her son as she picked up Gunn's axe. She just as quickly dropped it again as it caused a burning sensation in her hand and up her arm.
Connor found himself unable to make a decision. This was his mother. The one person in the world who he had wanted to meet. He knew she was a monster, he had been told often enough by Holtz. However Connor was not stupid. He had learned that Holtz's point of view was not the whole truth. He couldn't let Darla kill Gunn but at the same time he couldn't bring himself to fight her.
"Pick him up and come with me!" ordered Darla taking Connor completely by surprise.
"Pick him up?" asked Connor puzzled.
"We can't leave him here," said Darla. "He's your friend so I don't suppose you want something to come along and kill him while he's unconscious do you? Anyway you can't expect your poor old mother to carry him." The last was obvious sarcasm as Darla could and had in the past passed for much the same age as Connor himself was now and was probably a great deal stronger than him.
"You do want to close down the Hellmouth?" asked Darla. Connor nodded slowly. "Then come with me!" she added and walked away.
"They all sort of vanished," said Mary the remaining member of Rona's team in the school. She had been gathering up fired crossbow bolts and had been slow to follow the rest into the basement. She had been just in time to see Buffy and the rest disappear from near the bottom of the basement steps and had rushed outside where she found Faith, Kennedy and the others.
By now Jenny had orbed away with Cordelia. Cordelia needed time to rest so Jenny had taken her to the house where the Charmed Ones, Leo and their guards were based.
"The plan still goes ahead," said Faith. "Buffy will be back. Buffy always comes back but in the meantime we've got to stop anything coming out of the Hellmouth."
"What to stop the same thing happening to us if we go into the basement?" asked Vi.
"We don't have any magic users," said Kennedy. "They're all with Buffy."
"For the moment we don't go into the basement," said Faith. "Kennedy, you stay out here with three of the girls. I'll take everybody else inside and we'll stop anything coming up out of there."
Faith had a sudden ominous thought and took hold of Mary's arm. It was a real arm, thus proving that Mary was really Mary. "Sorry" she said. "Just checking." This prompted a round of touching from the assembled group who all knew exactly what Faith had been thinking about.
Faith pulled out her cellphone and continued. "I'll tell the sisters and Angel what's happening. If Buffy and the rest don't come back soon I'll see what the sisters can do to close the Hellmouth."
Angel and Dawn met with Wesley and Fred. While waiting for Gunn and Connor Angel filled everybody in with the information that Faith had supplied. Everybody decided to join Faith's team once Gunn and Connor returned. However the minutes dragged by without Gunn and Connor returning.
"You guys go downstairs," said Angel. "I'll find them and bring them along."
"We all stick together," said Wesley. "We're just as worried about Gunn and Connor as you are." I am not going to be to blame for anything happening to Connor this time thought Wesley.
Dawn really wanted to find out what had happened to Buffy and the others but she said nothing as Fred chorused her agreement with Wesley. I am the only slayer with the group she thought so I'd better stick with them.
"OK then," said Angel. "Let's move."
Angel led the way into the west wing and at once picked up Gunn and Connor's scent trail. A few minutes later he led the group into the classroom where Darla had met her son. At once Angel was aware of a very familiar scent.
"Darla!" said Angel.
"Darla?" said Dawn. "Are you sure?"
"Positive," replied Angel. "Darla was here, and not long ago."
"Is this the only place she's been?" asked Fred "because you didn't mention noticing anything before you came into this room."
"She hasn't been in the corridor outside," said Angel.
"The doorway at the back of the room," suggested Fred prompting the group to head in that direction.
"The stairs there lead down to the fire exit at the side of the building," said Dawn.
"And down into the basement?" asked Wesley.
"Well no," said Dawn. "You'd have to go back round to the other corridor where all the slayers are. That's the only entrance to the basement."
Angel led the way down the back stairs. He was concerned for his son but was also wondering how to respond to Darla. Willow had told him about the soul spell she had done on Darla and Drusilla. One thing he did decide was that he would dust Darla (again) if she had done anything to Connor.
At the bottom of the stairs there were just three ways to go: Into one of the classrooms, back towards the main entrance with its guard of enhanced potentials or out the emergency exit.
Since the sun was shining outside clearly Darla had not gone that way and the lack of news and noise from the main entrance seemed to rule that out as well. Angel was just about to suggest a search of the classrooms when Fred opened the nearby janitor's cupboard. This proved to have a ladder leading down into the basement through a hole broken in the floor.
Chapter Twenty Six: Loyalties
Jasmine reappeared in the basement next to the re-established seal where Buffy or rather The First in the form of Buffy was waiting for her.
"Did you kill them all?" asked Buffy/The First.
Jasmine smiled. "That's my business," she said. "Now what do you..."
Jasmine was interrupted by clapping from a single pair of hands. The noise was coming from Glory who now walked slowly forward towards the other two.
"Brilliant, just brilliant!" said Glory. "You do realise what you've just done makes matters worse don't you? You might just have blocked off my only chance to go home."
"Then you'd better join the fight instead of sitting around on your butt," said Jasmine. "Your only friends are right here. It's about time you had the sense to understand that."
"You just won't listen will you?" said Glory. "No wonder you have to keep running away from world after world. With a talent for making enemies like yours you'll never be more than a small nuisance to others more powerful than you."
"This from someone who couldn't even beat a vampire slayer," said Jasmine. "Ooh, you'd better get out of here. I understand there's at least one more slayer around and she might be looking for you."
"Why don't you sort out your differences later after we've dealt with the immediate problems," suggested Buffy/The First.
"I'm looking at my immediate problem," said Glory staring at Jasmine. "In fact I'm just about to deal with it."
By now Glory and Jasmine were glaring at each other. Buffy/The First, incorporeal as she was now stepped between them.
"That's enough!" she ordered. "The seal is nearly ready to fully open and when it does..."
"You know you're not making any friends here by looking like that," interrupted Glory who glared at Buffy/The First.
"She's not your friend anyway," said Drusilla who now joined the other three. "Either of you. You do realise that after the meteor hits and most humans are dead there'll be enough vampires and demons coming out of the Hellmouth to make this, this thing corporeal. Once that happens it'll be in charge and you two will have to do as you're told."
The First now morphed into a copy of Drusilla. "Well, well, it seems the slayer's got a new friend." she said. "What a difference a soul makes. Well pretty soon we won't have to worry about souls any more."
"Is that what you guys want?" continued the real and apparently fully sane Drusilla. "The best you can hope for is to be minions of this guy. Do you remember when you used to be minions to somebody stronger? I bet that was great fun."
Glory already had grave doubts that the interests of The First and her interests were the same. Drusilla had now achieved her aim of placing the same doubts in the mind of Jasmine. Although both Glory and Jasmine claimed the status of Hellgods neither had started out as such powerful beings. Neither of them intended to return to a lesser status at somebody else's beck and call.
Glory looked at Drusilla. "You're sure about this?" she asked.
"You know I have The Sight," said Drusilla. "And you're both powerful enough to know the truth when you hear it. Once there are more demons in the world than humans The First gets its wish and becomes corporeal. That'll be a few minutes after the meteor hits."
Glory glanced at Jasmine and Drusilla/The First and then walked over to the seal. She held her hand over the seal and watched as one of the sections opened.
"What are you doing?" asked Drusilla/The First. "You're needed upstairs, not down there. What she says is true but it's not the whole truth. We can come to a deal about what happens after the humans are dealt with."
Glory giggled and shook her head. "Trust me, I'm the First Evil," she mocked. "Oh yeah, like I'm gonna fall for that."
Glory now entered the Hellmouth. Jasmine watched her go and then disappeared herself. Drusilla/The First glared at the real Drusilla and then also disappeared.
Darla now walked out of the shadows to join Drusilla followed by Connor supporting a still groggy Gunn.
"You heard all that?" Darla asked her son. Connor nodded. "You'd better fetch your friends down here. There isn't much time. They need to enter the Hellmouth, shut it from the other side and stop anything opening it again until this meteor is past."
"Why are you doing this?" asked Connor. "Why are you both doing this? Is it the souls?"
"A vampire is a thing," said Drusilla. "A soulless thing. I'm still a vampire but now I know what I am. I now have a choice and I choose not to be a thing any longer."
As she finished speaking Drusilla turned away and picked up two swords one of which she gave to Darla. She started walking towards the seal.
Darla started to follow Drusilla but as she did she turned back briefly towards her still confused son. "Come on, hurry up," she said. "For once in your life do as your mother tells you."
Prue put the phone down after talking to Faith. Quickly she told her sisters and the others what had happened.
Both Leo and Jenny tried to get a read on where Tara had disappeared to but without success. "I'd better join Faith and her people since Tara's not around at the moment," said Jenny. I bet I have to save Rupert again before this is all over she thought as she orbed away.
"Do you think we should go over there too?" asked Colleen. "They might need us now the others have disappeared."
"Looks like we'd better all be ready to join them over in the school," said Piper. "We can take all this stuff with us and keep the spell going over there."
"If the Hellmouth doesn't interfere with it." said Paige. "We don't want to fall into whatever trap got Buffy and the others."
"Pheebs," asked Prue. "Do you think you could check your mystic e-mail? Try to find out what our best course of action is?"
"You can do that?" asked Cordelia. "You don't have to wait for it to just hit?"
"Sometimes I can," said Phoebe looking around and thinking. "I usually need to hold onto something with a connection to whatever it is I'm trying to find out about."
"Take my hand," said Cordelia holding out her hand. "Perhaps if we work together we can really find out what's going on."
A search of the cavern by the slayers had shown no exits. Buffy and her companions seemed to have been transported to an underground cavern without any exit or entry. Short of a major effort to dig their way out through solid rock it seemed that magic was their only way of returning to the fight.
Willow, Tara, Giles, Amy and Anya had finished their discussions and were now preparing for a major magical effort. The plan was to enclose everybody within a magic circle and then transport everybody all together back to the basement of the school.
As well as the magic users there were The Slayer, the Battle Scythe, the enhanced potentials and their weapons plus the magical amulets worn by everybody. The plan was intended as a way of harnessing all of the magical power available at the same time and using it to break free of their present location. All preparations were interrupted however by the return of Jasmine who suddenly reappeared in the cavern.
Buffy strode towards Jasmine holding her scythe ready for use. "Nice to see you again," she said. "Now if you'll just hold still I'll remove that unsightly lump from your shoulders."
"If you kill me, not that you could, you'll never get out of here," said Jasmine causing Buffy to stop short.
"You don't know that," said Willow coming to stand beside Buffy. "We've got more magical power than you and it's white magic not black."
"Yes, I expect you have," said Jasmine. "Magic was never one of my strong suits. I couldn't do these teleportations without the Hellmouth nearby. But you need more than power. You need to know where you are. Even if you could get round that you don't have the time. Everything's coming to a head back at the Hellmouth. If you agree to what I want I can take you straight there."
"Is this really Jasmine or is it our Firsty friend playing games?" asked Xander.
"And does it make any difference anyway?" asked Anya.
In answer to this Jasmine crouched down and picked up a stone which she tossed at Xander. It bounced off him. "I believe that's the usual way of proving the point," said Jasmine.
"So you want us to believe that you've changed sides," said Buffy. "Why should we believe you?"
"You haven't heard what I want yet," said Jasmine. "You'll see that I'm still on the same side, mine."
"So what exactly do you want?" asked Giles.
"We're not gonna let you take over the world or carry on killing people." said Buffy.
Jasmine smiled. "I don't want the world anymore," she said. "Oh no, I can do much better than that."
While Angel, Dawn and Fred went down the ladder into the basement after Darla, Connor and Gunn, Wesley went along the corridor to the other side of the building to see Faith and her team and to inform her of what had happened.
Wesley had volunteered to go. He had had second thoughts about staying with Angel to search for Connor. Knowing that Giles was no longer about he thought it more important that Faith have the advice of a watcher, or at least an ex-watcher, to help her as it seemed she was now the acting leader.
As Wesley was telling Faith, Jenny and the others about Connor, Gunn and Darla they were interrupted by the arrival of the Halliwells and Cordelia who had brought Chao-An and Colleen with them and also collected Kennedy and her group from the entrance on their way into the school.
Cordelia and Phoebe explained to the assembled group what they had been able to find out by the prompting of their vision talents.
"Inside the Hellmouth?" queried Faith. "You're sure?"
"It's the only way," replied Cordelia. "We have to shut the Hellmouth from the inside otherwise it can still be used to draw in the meteor."
"And we have to guard it from the other side against anything that comes at us trying to open it up again and get out," said Phoebe.
"This sounds awfully like the 'Hordes of Hell' prophecy," said Wesley.
"Oh no!" said Cordelia. "Not another prophecy. That's all we need."
"Won't knowing the prophecy help us know what's gonna happen?" asked Kennedy.
"Huh, all prophecies ever do is tell you you're doomed unless you kill yourself or marry your mother or something," said Cordelia. "And if you do it you then find out it meant something completely different all along," she added glaring at Wesley.
"Somebody's coming upstairs," called Isabella who was on watch at the basement door. Everybody immediately readied themselves for combat but relaxed again when they saw it was Connor and Gunn.
"What happened?" asked Wesley, taking hold of Connor's arm to make sure it was really him. "What's Darla up to?"
Connor gave a quick account of what had happened both upstairs and in the basement. Gunn said nothing. He had now recovered from being knocked out but was as interested as everybody else to find out what had happened.
"So these vampires want us to follow them into the Hellmouth," said Kennedy. "Sounds like a trap."
"Except that's what Phoebe and Cordy also want us to do," said Prue.
"So does the prophecy," said Wesley.
Faith led the way down into the basement but she wasn't the first there. Angel, Dawn and Fred had already arrived by using Darla's back door. As everybody followed Faith down the stairs Angel was glad to see Connor amongst those following the slayer. He went over to Connor and Gunn to find out what had happened to them.
"Any more news about Buffy?" Dawn asked Faith.
Faith shook her head. "Nope," she said. "But don't worry, she'll be OK. She's got Willow, Tara, Giles and all the rest with her. No way will they miss the big fight."
As if on cue Buffy, Willow, Tara, Giles and all the rest appeared back in the basement. As if this was not a big enough surprise they were accompanied by Jasmine. Before those who were able to recognise Jasmine were able to do any more than direct puzzled looks in her direction Jasmine left.
"Don't forget," said Jasmine to Buffy as she walked towards the Hellmouth. "You play straight with me and I'll play straight with you." She stared into the seal and caused one of the sections to move aside allowing her to enter the Hellmouth by going down the steps underneath.
Everybody began speaking at once and it was a full minute before the din died down. Buffy had raised her hands for silence. Since everybody wanted to hear what she had to say silence finally descended.
"Look," said Buffy. "We're all in this together so I'm gonna tell everybody what I know then listen to what's been happening here. But we don't have much time so everybody make it quick."
Buffy explained that Jasmine had sent them elsewhere but had then agreed to bring them back. She said that Jasmine claimed not to trust The First and had decided to make her home on the other side of the Hellmouth. In fact she probably intended to take over from The First. Buffy had agreed not to fight Jasmine provided she stayed on the other side.
"Can we trust her?" asked Fred.
"We don't need to trust her," replied Buffy. "Provided she stays away from us we'll stay away from her. I think she's happy for us to fight The First and then take advantage of any damage we do. So long as she's on the other side when we finally close down the entrance we can't lose."
"It's OK," said Tara. "Willow's amulets are still working. We're not under her control."
"She couldn't control a Whitelighter anyway," said Leo.
Connor then explained what had happened with Darla, Drusilla and Glory before handing over to Phoebe who explained about the visions that she and Cordelia had seen.
"So what's that prophecy about Wes?" asked Faith.
Xander groaned. "Yup," he said "Just when things are at their worst you can always rely on a watcher to come up with some awful prophecy."
Wesley explained that the prophecy concerned was a quite famous prophecy called 'The Hordes of Hell'. Giles was also familiar with this prophecy and at his request Tara orbed to his room back at the house to pick up a book which contained details of the prophecy.
Tara was soon back. She handed the book to Giles who went into a corner with Wesley to study it. Willow walked over to Tara but was forestalled by Leo who wanted to speak to Tara along with Jenny and Paige.
All the Whitelighters together thought Willow who decided it would be polite if she kept her distance. I wonder what that's about. As Willow continued to watch the group it seemed to her that both Paige and Tara were upset by what they were being told by Leo and Jenny.
Willow walked over to the Whitelighters to find out what was going on. "What's up sweetie?" she said putting her arm around Tara as the Whitelighter meeting broke up. Paige went with Leo over to her sisters and Jenny went over to speak to Giles.
"I can't go with you," said Tara. "I can't go into the Hellmouth. It isn't allowed for Whitelighters."
This statement, so unexpected as it was, immediately created great confusion in Willow's mind. On the one hand Willow wanted to stay close to Tara and be with her during the coming battle. On the other Willow couldn't bring herself to be unhappy about the prospect of Tara staying behind in safety.
"Not allowed?" asked Willow. "Who won't allow it? Do you mean the Hellmouth will stop you entering?"
"No," said Tara. "It's not like that. Nobody's gonna stop me, it's just that I've got to stop myself."
Willow still didn't understand and gave Tara a puzzled look.
"Leo and Jenny say that if Whitelighters go in there then demons will be able to go into the Higher Realms," continued Tara. "It'll be like issuing them with an invitation. Even if we won this battle it'd mean we would have lost more than we'd won."
Paige was even more upset that Tara if that were possible. She had pointed out to Leo that she had never been a proper Whitelighter, she just had the powers of a Whitelighter because of her father.
"I've never been measured for wings," she said. "I haven't joined the union or been put on the payroll. Surely I don't count as a Whitelighter?"
"I think you do," said Leo. "I might be wrong but do you want to risk the consequences? I really don't think you should."
"But haven't you been there before?" asked Paige. "I remember a few times when you orbed 'down below.' "
"It's not the same," said Leo. "I only went to the fringes and I wasn't part of a full scale invasion."
"There's no getting round it," said Jenny. "We really do have to stay behind."
Giles and Wesley were at last ready to explain about the prophecy. As it was pretty clear that The Forces of Light would be going into the Hellmouth for the big fight Buffy had spent the intervening time organising the invasion.
As they would not be going into the Hellmouth Tara and Paige would do the magic to fully open up the seal and to shut it again after everybody else went through. Once on the other side the remaining Charmed Ones would perform a closing spell. That way the Hellmouth would be shut from both sides until the danger had passed. Because of this the Halliwell sisters would be the last through the seal.
According to Phoebe and Cordelia the next 48 hours was the critical time. If they could keep the Hellmouth closed down for that long then it would stay closed and there would no longer be any danger of it being used to pull the meteor down to Earth.
"48 hours," said Fred breaking the renewed silence. "In that case we'd better take a little food and water with us." That prompted the Whitelighters into another round of fetching and carrying to and from the house.
Of course everybody wanted to go through first, or at least first right after Buffy. Buffy therefore found herself insisting that the various groups that were used to working together should stay together as groups.
First through would be Buffy and the Scoobies including Wood. Willow and Amy would be ready to use magic to deal with any immediate magical threat. Faith would follow together with Vi and her team followed by Angel and his group. Next would come Kennedy, Rona and the other team of enhanced potentials and finally the Charmed Ones.
"Gather round everybody," said Giles with the book in his arms. "We'll explain as best we can what this prophecy says." Everybody gathered in a large semi-circle centred on the two watchers as they explained as best they could what the prophecy said and what it meant.
Tara and Paige completed the opening and stood aside to allow Buffy and the rest to descend through the seal. In view of what Giles and Wesley had said Willow had tried to say her goodbyes but Tara had refused to accept that their parting would be anything but temporary.
"But they said we have to shut the Hellmouth from both sides," said Willow who like almost everybody else had been thinking of the consequences of that. "If we win this battle we can't open it again, it'll be shut for good. And if we don't win it..."
"No," said Tara. "I don't care what it says in that prophecy. We'll be together again. I know it. Don't forget the trick with prophecies is what they don't say. They never give you the whole truth. I know you'll win and I know we'll be together, together always. Death couldn't keep us apart and nor can anything else." Tara had given Willow a final kiss and had then joined Paige in opening the seal.
Paige had had a final few words with her sisters, Leo had spoken to Piper and Jenny had had a quiet moment with Giles. By unspoken agreement all of the Whitelighters put on a front of perfect confidence in a successful outcome, whatever their private misgivings. Finally the Charmed Ones at the end of the procession entered the seal with Prue turning to give her youngest sister a final smile before disappearing below.
Tara and Paige now stepped forward to conduct the ritual to close the seal. As they continued they saw the seal gradually fade away as the magic being applied from both sides took effect. Finally they finished, looked at each other and wordlessly embraced before turning away.
Tara and Paige were now surprised to see that instead of just Leo and Jenny the school basement had silently filled with up with people. Not people Tara quickly realised but Whitelighters. There must now be fifty Whitelighters here she thought.
All of the Whitelighters, including Leo and Jenny, were dressed in white robes. Leo and Jenny stepped forward with white robes in their arms for Tara and Paige. As they did so Tara could see that both Leo and Jenny now had large swords which were sheathed on their backs. In addition there were swords for Tara and Paige with the robes.
"What's going on Leo?" asked Paige taking her set of robes and sword. "What's this all about?"
"Just because we can't go into the Hellmouth doesn't mean we're just spectators," said Leo. "Anything that gets past our people in there will have to face us."
With that Leo drew his sword which was a signal for the other Whitelighters to do the same. All at once the swords all burst into flame.
"Nothing, and I mean nothing, is going to get past us" he said.
Chapter Twenty Seven: Into the Mouth of Hell
"Well you took your own sweet time," said Darla to Buffy as Buffy reached the bottom of the stairs beneath the seal. "Lucky for you the bad guys aren't ready to fight yet."
Darla was standing in a wide rocky but largely level area which was like a balcony overlooking a vast plain below. The only other person present was Drusilla who was some twenty yards away looking over the edge of the drop.
The plain below was a barren wasteland. Nothing grew there, nothing had ever grown there. There was no sunshine just a gloomy, overcast and uniformly bleak sky. Occasional flashes of light came from several places over the horizon punctuated by rumbles of noise like distant thunder.
"So when did you stop being one of the bad guys," said Xander suspiciously to Darla as he came up beside Buffy. "You know there's no way we're gonna trust you, either of you."
Darla shrugged, unconcerned. "You do what you like," she said. "We're here for our own reasons." Darla walked away towards Drusilla.
"Perhaps it would be best if Darla and Drusilla stayed with Angel's group," suggested Giles. "He knows them better than anybody. From what Connor said Darla may have some feelings for her son, especially now she has a soul."
"I'll have a word with Angel," said Buffy walking away. "I need to speak to him anyway."
The Charmed Ones had performed their closing spell on the seal before descending to the bottom of the stairs. No sooner had they reached the bottom than the rough rocky stairway disappeared altogether. Now the area in which everybody stood had no exits either up or down apart from a long drop at the front down onto the plain below.
Piper stood and looked up at the way they had come. There was now no indication of an entrance, just an unbroken rocky ceiling far above. "So how do we get out of here again?" she asked Phoebe who stood next to her. "Do we all have to fly like you?"
"Those prophecy guys of Willow's were a little vague about that don't you think?" said Phoebe. "I'm hoping I get some sort of a mystic message when we've finished up here. Sort of like go to the third rock on the right and the secret passage hidden behind it will lead to the way out."
"We'd better concentrate on the job in hand," said Prue, "before we think of getting out. You were one of those who told us to come here remember. If we don't win there won't be anywhere to go back to anyway. "
Faith and Vi now deployed their group of enhanced slayers near to the edge of the platform on guard and ready for the first attack. Everybody else was assigned to carry loose rocks and boulders over to near the edge to provide ammunition to throw down onto the attackers when they arrived. Prue used her power to move more rocks than anybody else and quickly piled up large mounds at intervals along the edge.
"Over there!" said Vi pointing off into the distance where what looked like lines of ants were appearing over the horizon. Of course they weren't ants, they were just a long way away but they were moving fast towards Buffy and her troops and there were a lot of them.
"Seven attacks," said Xander. "That's what Giles said wasn't it? If we can hold off seven attacks..."
"The Seven Hordes of Hell," said Willow.
"Yeah, the Seven Hordes," said Xander. "Then we're home free."
"God," said Amy. "There must be thousands of them."
A few yards away Cordelia, Wesley, Fred and Gunn were also watching the approach of the enemy. Angel finished talking to Buffy. They embraced briefly before Angel joined his group and Buffy went back over to Willow, Xander and Giles.
"I count five columns of them," said Gunn. "Which one's the vampires? They make the first attack right?"
"They're all vampires," said a female voice from behind them. "Them and a lot more besides. You won't even survive the first attack."
The friends had turned on hearing the voice but only Gunn recognised who it was. It was his sister, his dead sister, or rather The First in the form of his sister. "See you soon," she said to Gunn and then disappeared.
Buffy and the others had decided on an aggressive defence. Rather than wait for the mass of uber-vampires to swarm all over them the defenders began to take toll of the advancing horde long before the vampires got close enough to do any damage themselves.
Prue sent wave after wave of rocks sailing over the edge of the platform and allowed them to drop onto the advancing vampires causing the destruction of many of the attackers. Meanwhile Piper, Phoebe and Amy worked together to cast a storm spell to concentrate some of the thick clouds above into heavy thunder clouds.
As the vampires reached the base of the cliff at the front of the platform ready to climb up, the rain clouds burst and bolts of lightning struck downwards amongst the vampires. The lightning strikes caused further casualties amongst the vampires, both from direct strikes and from the rocks struck from the cliff falling onto those below.
A further benefit was from the torrential rain making the rock face very slippery and thus more difficult to climb. The uber-vampires however proved themselves very adept at climbing very quickly so although they were slowed a little very few were actually dislodged by the rain.
These benefits for the defenders from the storm clouds were however incidental to their main purpose as Willow, Cordelia and Anya now performed their part of the plan. The chanting that the three now performed was not in fact a spell but was a blessing, a Wicca blessing that Willow had learnt from Tara and it worked perfectly.
Nobody had known whether all would go according to plan. Very often in battle things simply didn't work out but this time everything worked as well as the most optimistic forecast. The blessing, which Willow, Cordelia and Anya repeated over and over again was directed to the storm clouds and was intended to provide a torrent of holy water streaming down onto the vampires. As the blessing took effect screams from the vampires proved that the plan was working.
All of the vampires climbing the cliff rapidly disappeared in clouds of dust as did those under the falling rain at the base of the cliff. Concentrated as they were the clouds did not affect the mass of vampires further back who were out of the rain. Or at least not at first.
Prue now used her power to push the clouds back over the previously dry vampires, keeping the cloud movement steady at the right pace to wipe out all the vampires under the clouds before moving on. She was aided in what she was doing by the vampires themselves.
The uber-vampires were fearless and completely unaffected by the deaths of their comrades. They had been directed to attack and wipe out the Forces of Light so they simply kept coming forward determined to kill.
In other circumstances the advance of such a legion of deadly killers would have been irresistible but the uber-vampires now proved what had been shown over and over again in warfare: Being fearless and ferocious was no substitute for being intelligent.
The uber-vampires kept coming and they kept turning to dust. Eventually there were no more. Not only had they been wiped out but none of them had reached the top of the cliff and there were no casualties, in fact there were no wounds at all amongst the defenders.
There was a delay after the first attack which allowed everybody to get a little rest and refreshment. Since The First was undoubtedly not doing them any favours it appeared clear that the rapid destruction of the first horde had taken their enemy by surprise thus causing a delay before the second attack could be mounted.
"Is that the best you can do?" yelled Xander from the edge of the platform. "That was pathetic, quite pathetic!"
"Do you really think that's a good idea?" Willow asked Buffy. "Stirring up the First like that?" She half expected to see The First appear in one form or another but nothing happened. He's probably busy right now she thought.
"Maybe it'll get the First to lose its temper and attack before it's ready," said Giles. "Anything we can do to get it to make mistakes will help us."
"Make more mistakes," corrected Buffy in a loud voice, making sure that everybody nearby heard her. "It hasn't done anything right yet."
Faith walked over to the group. "It's the demons next, right?" she asked. "Any idea what sort of demons?"
"The prophecy just says demons," said Giles shrugging his shoulders.
"That probably means all sorts of demons," said Willow. "The big, the bad and the ugly."
Buffy now stepped forward to the edge of the platform. "Looks like they're on the way," she said staring at the horizon. Once again distant columns of fast moving figures had appeared over the horizon and were headed their way. This time however some of the enemy were airborne.
As the demons got nearer a strong wind sprang up blowing away from the platform area where the defenders were waiting. The high clouds above began to stream away towards the approaching army making it impossible to concentrate them into thunderclouds once more. Clearly the enemy had taken action to prevent the Forces of Light from using the same tactics a second time.
A hurried conference of the magic users decided to adopt a suggestion made by Phoebe. This time the Halliwell sisters carried out a Power of Three spell. With a strong wind already blowing the sisters' spell was even more devastating than it might have been as they stirred up an even stronger wind, quickly strengthening to a major gale in the faces of the advancing demons.
The airborne demons were quickly swept from the sky, some of them over the horizon and far away but most of them to crash onto the ground amongst their terrestrial brethren.
The falling airborne demons not only caused casualties amongst the demons below but also sparked off strife in the ranks. Marshalling large numbers of demons of different types and from different tribes made a potentially formidable force but most demons were not used to working together or taking orders.
Demons did what they could to save themselves from their falling brethren. This caused collisions and further injury in the ranks as each demon looked to save itself, even if it meant trampling on and killing others. Before long large parts of the advancing horde had come to a halt as the demons set about each other.
Parts of the approaching army continued on its way however and now drew near to the base of the cliff. The most eager of the demons raced ahead of the main body and leapt onto the cliff and began climbing upwards.
By now the slayers, the enhanced potentials and the other fighters were ready in three lines at the top of the cliff. The magic users held themselves ready for their next move. Once more the attackers were met with falling rocks from the defenders including large clusters dropped by Prue but this didn't stop all of the attackers, there were simply too many.
As the first isolated demons reached the top of the cliff they were quickly despatched straight back down again to the bottom by Faith, Vi and their group of slayers. Some of the demons, particularly the large ones, were unimpressed by their first sight of their opponents but did not live long enough to realise their mistake.
The weapons wielded by the defenders now proved their effectiveness as one touch was usually fatal for a demon, even if it didn't penetrate the thick hide of some of the more well-protected varieties.
As the demon army closed up to the base of the cliff the numbers reaching the top of the platform continued to increase and Buffy now stepped forward to join the fight along with the Scooby gang, Angel and his group. Only Kennedy, Rona and their team plus the various magic users now stayed back from the fight.
"NOW!" shouted Willow a few minutes later, using magic to ensure that everybody heard, mentally as well as audibly, no matter how engrossed they were in the fighting.
All of the fighters at the front of the platform now despatched their current opponent and stepped back. At the same time Kennedy, Rona and their team fired crossbow bolts into those demons that were still standing.
Now Willow stepped forward to use her power. "Back!" she commanded and swept all of the remaining demons from the top of the cliff. The respite would be brief however as the demons were being constantly replaced by others climbing the cliff. The respite however was long enough because as the next wave of demons reached the top of the cliff Cordelia, Amy, Anya and Giles completed their spell.
The front of the cliff began to shake throwing to the ground those demons who had now completed their climb and dislodging many of those still on the way up. Now parts of the cliff began to break away, taking with it many demons and crushing others below. Finally, as the defenders all moved back as far as they could the whole of the cliff front broke away and collapsed down upon the demon army which was now gathered closely up against the bottom of the cliff ready to join the fight.
The collapsing cliff took a while to settle and it was several minutes before Buffy and some others walked forward to the new edge and looked down. There was still a great deal of dust in the air but as it settled and blew away on the still strong wind it became clear that there were no living demons below.
The falling rubble had hit the base of the cliff and then flowed away engulfing the entire army gathered below. This movement of the mass of rock had been part of the spell that had ripped the rock free. The only movements that could now be seen were the small adjustments of the still unstable pile of debris as it gradually settled down.
"Guess that makes us 2 and O," said Xander with some satisfaction.
Buffy felt no satisfaction, just relief that they'd all survived. All survived? "Have we lost anybody?" she asked turning to the people around her.
As it happened there were three losses. Isabella and Annabelle of Vi's group had been struck down by demons and Fred had been hit by a rock thrown by a demon immediately after it had reached the top of the cliff.
"Where are they?" asked Buffy. "I want to see them."
"I saw Annabelle taken down by a demon," said Faith, "but as she hit the ground she faded away. No body. She was very brave. If she hadn't charged at it I wouldn't be here myself."
Vi confirmed that the same thing had happened to Isabelle who had been hit by one demon whilst killing another. She too had faded away and left no body behind.
A sombre Wesley gave a similar story as far as Fred was concerned. "She must have taken down a dozen of them with her crossbow before she went down," he said. "When she was hit by that rock she fell to the ground and just faded away before I could get to her."
"What's it mean Giles?" asked Buffy. "Why no bodies? What's going on?"
"I don't know," said Giles. "There's nothing about it in the prophecy," he added looking at Wesley.
"Maybe it's like vampires," suggested Wesley. "They turn to dust in our world. We fade away in their's."
"Except the vampires dust here as well," said Xander. Wesley shrugged.
"I know she's gone to a better place," said Buffy putting her hand on Wesley's shoulder. "Believe me I know."
Meanwhile Vi was talking to Willow and Piper. "I know we don't have any Whitelighters but can you or any of the magic users do anything to heal wounds?"
"I can try," said Willow. "I've seen what Tara did but I've never tried it myself."
Willow walked over to Gunn and Lakshmi the worst injured. As she did so she was thinking of Tara and how she healed. She crouched down next to Gunn and cleared her mind. "It's quite simple," said a familiar voice in her mind. "Just look at the wound and remember how the body should be without the wound, both inside and out. Don't forget, I'll always be with you."
"Tara?" said Willow recognising the voice, looking up and smiling.
"What?" said Gunn, breathing with difficulty.
"Hold still," ordered Willow looking at the large red scald mark over Gunn's chest. He had been hit by venom ejected at him by a tall green-scaled demon just before he had taken off its head with his sword.
Willow concentrated on the wound and was delighted to see the healing light appear over the wound, the light that she had seen produced by Tara. Gunn's wound repaired itself completely.
"So are you a Whitelighter too now?" asked Piper who had watched the whole time with Vi.
"Oh no," said Willow. "I'm not a Whitelighter. I think I did that because I'm still linked to Tara."
"Could you do it a few more times?" asked Vi.
Kennedy, Rona and their group had now taken over the guard position at the front of the balcony allowing the other group to move back to rest. It was one of this group, Elizabeth who spotted the next enemy threat. The monsters were on the way.
The monsters were not as numerous as the vampires and demons but they were bigger, much bigger and every one seemed to be unique. The smallest appeared to be the size of an elephant and the biggest the size of a large dinosaur.
Striding long at the head of the latest horde was a large ape like creature, for all the world like King Kong except for having four arms. Not far behind and to the right of the ape was what could only be described as a land octopus or squid. It had many tentacles at the front and seemed to just slither along at about the same pace as the fast striding ape.
The third front runner amongst the monsters was what could have been a survivor from the age of dinosaurs. It was a large four legged lizard, about twice the size of a rhino. As it trotted forward a long snake-like tongue shot in and out of its mouth. As it came closer a loud hissing could be heard coming from the creature.
The remaining monsters were either not in such a hurry as the three in the lead or they were not able to move as quickly. There were about a dozen more of them altogether of various shapes and sizes.
As the three leading demons approached the base of the cliff they were attacked, from the rear. The three slayers had hidden themselves in the rubble and now emerged after the first monsters had passed. Buffy attacked 'King Kong', Faith attacked the wannabe dinosaur and Kennedy attacked big Octy.
Buffy, using the Battle Scythe was able to surprise the giant ape and quickly inflict fatal injuries. She drove the point of the weapon into the creature's heart from the rear and then withdrew it to cut off its head.
Faith found herself with a more difficult task. To reach the lizard's head she jumped onto the tail and ran along the creature's back. The lizard quite naturally reacted violently to shake off the slayer and did so but not before the fast moving Faith managed to deliver a fatal blow to the head with the Troll Hammer.
Kennedy found herself with the most difficult task of all. She carried an enchanted axe but this did not have the same immediate impact as the weapons carried by the other two slayers. It was also more difficult to find a vital organ to attack sufficiently quickly to incapacitate the octopus before it did damage of its own. Kennedy therefore only managed to get in two blows to the head of the creature before being picked up by one of its tentacles and flung against the cliff face.
Buffy now set about the octopus while Faith carried the unconscious Kennedy up the cliff as quickly as she could before the remaining monsters arrived. Buffy found herself loping off tentacles as they came at her. As she did so she remembered a story of a creature which grew two extra arms for every one that was cut off. Hope it's not one of those she thought. Thankfully it wasn't.
Buffy left the third dead monster at the bottom of the cliff just in time to be able to climb the cliff in safety before the other monsters arrived. She arrived in time to see Willow work a healing on Kennedy at the back of the balcony.
Chapter Twenty Eight: Holding the Line
Buffy walked around the balcony area having a word here, a word there, trying to keep everybody's spirits up. Xander followed behind her, guarding her back and keeping a careful lookout. Nearly everybody left was spread around the perimeter of the area up against the rock walls that surrounded them on three sides.
The plan was to make sure that nobody was exposed unnecessarily by being out in the open. Anybody who moved away from the rock walls had to make sure that somebody was covering their back. The precautions were considered necessary in order to be ready for the next wave of attackers, the warlocks.
Buffy had distributed the defenders in groups so that an effective cross fire could be sent against anybody appearing in the middle of the area. The remaining loose rock had been piled up to give as much protection as possible against the fireballs that were the usual Warlock weapon. The description of the next horde as warlocks had at first caused some confusion until the Halliwells had pointed out that some of the demons that they faced were sometimes called warlocks.
The only people out in the open were two pairs of lookouts at the edge of the cliff, alert to spot any unexpected move by the enemy. Although the warlocks were expected to 'blink', that is to say teleport into the attack Buffy thought it best to take no chances.
Everybody was getting what rest they could. In particular the magic users were feeling the strain of repeated spell casting. Buffy walked past Amy who was sat with her back to the rock wall fast asleep and reached the Halliwell sisters.
"You know about these warlocks," said Buffy as she reached the sisters. "Why do you think they're taking so long?" So far several hours had passed since they had managed to kill the last of the monsters.
Phoebe shrugged. "The warlocks live on Earth," she said. "Not down here, at least most of the time. Perhaps it's taking the First a little while to round them up."
"The longer the better," said Xander yawning. "Maybe he's not paying them enough."
"We've probably messed up the First's schedule," said Piper.
"So by getting rid of these warlocks down here we'll help things back on Earth. Every warlock killed down here is one less up there after this is all over," said Buffy.
"I suppose," replied Piper. "If we win and if there is an up there afterwards."
"When we win," corrected Prue, trying to remain outwardly optimistic whatever her private misgivings. "There's no way anything's getting past us and reopening that Hellmouth." And no way anything's getting past me and getting to my littlest sister she thought.
Buffy continued on back to where she had started next to Dawn and Giles where Xander slumped down onto the ground, his back to the rock wall. Buffy had been the last of their pair to take a break so now she remained standing and on guard. As she did so she went through recent events and took time to mourn, however briefly, friends lost.
As the rest of the monsters had arrived at the base of the cliff they had been met with falling rocks and a volley of crossbow bolts. This inflicted damage on the advancing enemy but no immediate deaths. The monsters were simply too big and strong to be destroyed quickly by such means and although many of them had roared in pain they had all begun to ascend the cliff face.
The first to the top had been an ogre, a twelve foot tall, green skinned, immensely strong brute wielding a large wooden club. Prue had stepped forward to sweep him back off the cliff with her power. After that the monsters had then seemed to appear in a rush and the fight against them had developed into a number of separate combats with the defenders.
Piper had managed to explode what could only be described as a slime monster. A large black lump of a creature which had oozed up the cliff face and had threatened to engulf a couple of the enhanced potentials who found themselves backed up against the rocks. Although the slime monster had completely disappeared it left behind it a very pungent smell.
Connor had tried to skewer a sort of super heavy weight yeti with his sword but either the creature had some sort of immunity to such an attack or its heart and other vital organs weren't in the usual places. Without removing Connor's sword from its body the creature knocked him aside with a massive forearm blow knocking him unconscious and propelling him back twenty feet.
That was the last thing the creature would ever do however as it immediately slumped to the ground dead. It wasn't that Connor's sword had finally been effective. It was dead because of the loss of its head which had been neatly chopped off from behind by a furious mother vampire.
Wood had been the first fatality of the attack as far as the defenders were concerned. A tentacle had slithered rapidly over the edge of the drop and pulled him over the cliff before anybody could chop it off. Just as he went over the drop he had thrown his axe into the back of a large goblin type creature that screamed in pain. Wood had disappeared from view and could not be found after the fight.
Gwen had found herself faced with a very large flightless bird with red plumage and a large hooked beak. Goodness knows how it managed to get up the cliff she thought but that didn't stop her from pretty well cooking it with her full electrical power. Unfortunately as she turned away to give help elsewhere she had been flattened by a falling giant. Like the others who had been lost her body faded away.
The combat was ended when Kennedy, now restored to health by Willow had led a group of the enhanced potentials in a furious charge which managed to drive the remaining monsters back towards the cliff edge. At this point Willow, Amy and Cordelia had combined to send a blast of fire towards the creatures which destroyed the remaining monsters and cleared them from the area.
"Sorry guys," said Willow to those around her after taking a deep breath. "We'd have done that sooner but I'm afraid we're all slowing down."
Unfortunately the cost of each battle continued to be higher than the last. As well as Wood and Gwen a check afterwards had revealed that Wesley, Ingrid and Molly could no longer be found. Nobody had seen them fall but then nobody had been standing around taking notes. Everybody had been concerned with survival.
Voices, he could hear voices. They sounded familiar, as if he knew the people talking but he could not bring any names to mind. He couldn't bring his own name to mind. What's going on he thought?
For some reason he expected to be in pain, great pain, but he wasn't. He felt as if he had just woken from a long sleep and he had that comfortable warm feeling that it would be so easy to just turn over and fall asleep again.
"Wesley," said a familiar female voice clearly from the surrounding babble. "Wesley, wake up!"
Wesley? Who's Wesley? Then he remembered, he was Wesley and the voice was... Fred.
Wesley opened his eyes to see a concerned Fred leaning over him. Realising that Wesley was now awake Fred's expression of concern changed to her familiar broad smile.
"You can't just lie here you know," said Fred.
Wesley opened his eyes and sat up. "What...what's going on?" he asked wondering where he was, what was happening, how...? Then it hit and he began to remember.
"Fred?" said Wesley. "But I saw you... that is you uh..."
As he spoke Wesley looked around him. He was no longer in the same place he had been. As he looked he recognised more faces and then he realised where he was.
At last the warlocks appeared. The fourth horde from hell had finally arrived. They blinked in as expected but not one at a time nor as scattered individuals. Instead they suddenly appeared in a solid group in the heart of the balcony area. As soon as the warlocks arrived they started to form and throw fireballs at the defenders spread around them.
Piper immediately used her freeze power and all of the fireballs and some of the warlocks froze. With so many warlocks present however many of them were unaffected. The unaffected warlocks continued to form fresh fireballs to send against their enemies unaffected by Piper's power.
Many of the defenders would have died early in the battle had the tactics of the warlocks not been expected and had precautions not been taken in advance to deal with the threat they posed. As well as ducking behind rocks as much as possible all of the defenders were already wearing an amulet as protection against Jasmine. In preparation for the attack the charmed sisters and the other magic users had enhanced everybody's amulet to provide as much protection as possible against the fireballs of the warlocks.
Immediately the warlocks appeared everybody who was not already standing jumped to their feet and everybody started firing crossbow bolts and throwing knives, axes, rocks and anything else that came to hand. Warlocks that were hit by the blessed and enchanted crossbow bolts mostly just disappeared in a blaze of fire. Others who were hit by thrown knives and axes generally disappeared just as promptly.
Piper now switched to her other power to explode warlock after warlock. With crossbow bolts, knives and fireballs flying in all directions Prue was careful in using her power, not wishing to send something the wrong way by mistake. She concentrated on defending everybody as much as she could and returning the fireballs back to where they came from. Phoebe, armed with a crossbow of her own took her own toll of the enemy.
Buffy and most of the others who were used to fighting hand to hand held themselves back from rushing into the crowd of warlocks and cutting loose with their weapons. They continued to fire from a distance and kept behind cover as much as possible with their backs to the rock walls. That way the warlocks were given no chance to blink in behind somebody.
The Halliwells had insisted that to go out into the open against warlocks would be disastrous. Prue had explained:
"They can disappear from right in front of you, appear behind you and hit you with a fireball or something else before you can turn round."
"And these are the enemies you usually come up against?" asked Kennedy. "How do you deal with them?"
"Sometimes I wonder," said Piper. "You really need to have eyes in the back of your head and you have to be pretty quick on your feet."
"The odd thing is that once we start chanting a vanquish spell, the right sort of vanquish spell, they just sort of freeze," said Phoebe.
"You mean like Piper freezes them?" asked Willow.
"No, not like that," said Phoebe. "They just sort of stand there and let us destroy them. It's like once we start chanting the right spell they have to wait for us to finish it."
"Like rabbits in the headlights," said Xander.
"Do you mind!" objected Anya. "We have enough trouble without bringing rabbits into it. Giles and Wesley said nothing about a horde of rabbits otherwise I wouldn't be here."
"So could you do a vanquish spell on them as soon as they arrive?" asked Buffy. "Sort of hello, goodbye, don't call back."
"I'm afraid it's not as easy as that," said Prue. "A general vanquish only works on the weakest of warlocks and then usually only one at a time. For most warlocks we need to know something about them in order to do a vanquish spell specific to them."
"And we often need to use more than a simple chant," said Piper. "We usually need the right sort of powders and potions as well."
"We're better off using our powers to fight them," said Prue.
The weapons fired by the defenders, because of the way they were prepared, were nearly always fatal to the warlocks even if the wounds inflicted would not normally have killed them. The defenders however did not come off unscathed.
Whilst the defenders tried to avoid the hail of fireballs coming from the warlocks by dodging aside or ducking behind the rocks many of them were hit. The protection provided by the amulets was usually sufficient to prevent death or injury but not always. Sometimes two or more fireballs hit at the same time and this was usually too much for the protective amulets and resulted in the loss or injury of another defender.
The weapons on both sides were so effective that it only took a few minutes to bring everything to a climax. By now there were only the three most powerful warlocks left. They must have known they could not survive but they were clearly under orders to fight to the death and aware of presumably unpleasant consequences if they didn't do so because they made no attempt to teleport away.
As a last blast they combined to fire together at the cause of the death of so many of their comrades, Piper Halliwell. Prue managed to divert one of the three fireballs but the other two struck home even as the three warlocks dissolved in flame themselves because of the weapons striking them.
Buffy stood and hugged Dawn. Neither of them could believe that Giles was gone. Nobody had seen him struck down but he was one of the missing after the last of the warlocks had been destroyed.
Others had their own grief. With Piper gone there was no more Power of Three and that could have serious consequences before the fighting was over. Prue sat with her arm around Phoebe, neither saying anything.
Darla had entered the Hellmouth knowing it was a one way trip for her. She knew all about not being to blame for the deeds of her unsouled self but she couldn't believe there'd ever be forgiveness for what she'd done as a vampire. She'd pretty well agreed to become a vampire all those years ago. She'd forgotten a lot, including everything that had happened after her previous vampire death but that was something she did remember just as she remembered asking to be remade into a vampire after she had been brought back.
Connor had been healed by Willow after the fight with the monsters and had taken his toll of the warlocks but had then been one of the last defenders to be struck down by the fireballs. Darla had remained by his side all through the fight and had not realised that he had been hit until it was too late. Now she was in a very black mood indeed.
Also struck down were two more of the enhanced potentials, the Australian twins Mary and Elizabeth. Mary had been hit by two fireballs at the start of the fight and her grief stricken sister had then charged into the group of warlocks striking left and right with her sword. She had taken down four of them before being hit by three fireballs at once and disappearing herself.
Willow felt exhausted. She'd just finished another round of healing. She knew that she must be drawing strength from Tara somehow because otherwise she didn't see how she could possibly still be standing. It was only as she had completed her rounds that she had realised that somebody else was missing; Amy.
Piper, Amy and Giles all gone thought Willow. She tried to put aside her grief. She'll have time for that later. Anyway she thought, as Buffy said we know they're in a better place. The immediate problem was they were running out of magic users. What'll we do? According to what Giles and Wesley said only magic will stop the next horde.
"There they are!" called Faith from the edge of the cliff. "Three of them, just like Wesley said." The dragons were on their way. As yet they were distant specs in the sky. They gradually began to grow in size as they came nearer.
The plan had been for the charmed sisters to put up a magical barrier to the dragon fire which was the main and perhaps most deadly threat they faced from the dragons. If possible the charmed ones would use the barrier to send the dragon fire back at the dragons and destroy them.
Without Piper Buffy realised that there was no Power of Three and maybe no prospect of a magical barrier. On hearing Faith's warning call Buffy turned and hurried over to where Willow, Cordelia and Anya were talking to the three sisters.
Wait a minute thought Buffy, THREE sisters...what the...? As she got closer Buffy realised that there were indeed three sisters but that two of them appeared to be Prue. One of the Prues was sat on a rock seemingly unconscious with Phoebe holding onto her. "Two Prue's?" she asked, "how come?"
"Prue has the power to produce an astral double of herself," said Cordelia pulling Buffy away from the group of talking witches. "The problem is the astral double can't do magic so no Power of Three and generally Prue is inactive while her double is awake. Willow's trying to help them get round all that and link the astral double to Paige back on Earth so they can get the Power of Three back up and running. In the meantime the rest of us have got to keep the dragons away."
"Everybody spread out!" ordered Buffy as she walked away from Willow and the Halliwells followed by Cordelia and Anya. "Take cover if you can! Those things are like flying flame throwers."
"Anya and I'll throw what we can at them," said Cordelia "but I don't know how effective it'll be."
Meanwhile the dragons were getting a lot closer. As they did so it became clear that these were truly monstrous creatures. Suddenly the leading dragon dived and dipped below the level of the cliff at the front of the balcony area only to appear from below and land on the cliff edge. As it did so it opened it's maw to let out its blast of fire, intending to incinerate all the defenders at once.
What everybody had forgotten, including Buffy, was that there was another magic user present. As the dragon landed and got ready to blast everybody with its fire Drusilla stepped forward and threw a small black ball into its mouth.
The dragon, either through surprise or because of the effect of whatever was in the ball closed its mouth abruptly without sending out any fire. Clearly the attack from Drusilla had a serious and immediate impact on the monstrous lizard because it put its head back and roared in pain before turning away and leaping back up into the sky.
Now the dragon was heading away from the cliff as fast as it could go. Whether it had a plan to deal with what Drusilla had done or whether it was just rushing away from the source of its pain would never be known because only seconds after taking flight the dragon exploded.
This left two dragons remaining, two dragons that were now very angry at what they had seen happen to their companion and were looking for payback. They now dived together towards the defended area. Having seen what had happened to the other dragon the two remaining beasts sent their flaming breath ahead of them even before they landed.
Cordelia, with Buffy on one side and Anya on the other stood in the path of the approaching dragons. She held her magic wand outstretched in front of her in her right hand. Anya held tightly to her left. As soon as she saw the dragon flame appear Cordelia sent all the power she had left, together with all the power Anya could give her, through the wand.
The force coming out of Cordelia's wand diverted the dragon flame to either side, completely preventing it from entering the balcony area and doing any harm. Either because the dragons were only able to sustain brief bursts of flame or because Cordelia and Anya's magic had drained the oncoming dragons the flames went out after a few seconds. However the dragons kept coming and they were awfully big and had awfully big teeth and claws.
Xander could stand it no longer. He knew he couldn't stop one dragon let alone two but he wasn't just going to watch while three women he loved were torn apart. He was determined to do something, to get in some sort of blow on the dragons so he rushed out in front of the three women right into the path of the diving dragons.
What Xander had not realised was that Willow and the Halliwells were now ready with their spell, a Power of Three spell plus one. As the dragons touched down on the top of the cliff looking completely unstoppable they were hit by the vanquish spell.
The spell, although effective was not immediate. The dragons began to roar and scream in pain, all the time flailing around with their tails and claws. Large boulders were knocked out of the rock walls and amongst the casualties was Xander who was hit by a dragon tail and propelled into a pile of newly fallen rocks. He started to fade even as he was in the air and quite disappeared soon after he landed.
Buffy, Cordelia and Anya tried to get out of the way of the dying dragons but all were struck savage blows. Only Buffy had the slayer resilience to survive. The dragons finally seemed to melt away until they were no more. Looking at the rubble scattered all around Buffy wondered if anybody else had survived.
Chapter Twenty Nine: Challenge
So few, so few left thought Buffy as she looked around her. Only three magic users: Willow, Prue and Phoebe. The two senior slayers: Buffy herself and Faith and only three others: Angel, Rona and Caridad. Everybody else had now gone. Miraculously everybody who survived was uninjured apart from minor cuts and bruises.
The two dragons, in their dying frenzy had accounted for everybody else who had survived the previous fighting. Some had been taken out by direct blows from the dragons, especially their powerful tails but by far the most of them had been under some of the many rocks which the dragons had knocked from the surrounding rock walls.
After searching frantically and unsuccessfully for Dawn Buffy had been in shock. She had kept repeating to herself over and over: She's in a better place, she's in a better place. She's happy, she's really happy now. I should know.
Buffy stood up from the rock where she had been sitting and walked over to where Angel was standing next to Willow and the Halliwells.
"How you doing?" he asked.
"I'll be OK," she replied giving him a brief hug. "Anybody remember what comes next?" she asked as she broke the embrace. Does it matter she thought? Each attack is worse than the last. Can we survive horde number six and if we do what about number seven?
"From what I recall the last two 'Hordes of Hell' are a bit of a mystery," said Willow from her seat wearily slumped back against a large boulder. "Number six is 'The Masters' and number seven 'The Nameless' whatever all that means."
Faith said nothing from her position a few yards away keeping watch. She didn't feel like taking part in the conversation, any conversation, at the moment. She'd passed through grief and was now very, very angry. Whatever this First Evil was it had taken away nearly all of her new friends.
What Faith really wanted was to have her friends back again. Willow, Xander, Giles, the old gang had always been Buffy's friends, not hers. In fact even before the business with the deputy mayor Faith had not been close to any of them. Now she had had friends of her own and they'd been taken from her. She was therefore looking for payback. She just wanted to have something in front of her that she could kill or at least damage in a big way.
"I think there's more going on here than we realise," said Angel.
"What do you mean," asked Prue.
"I saw Darla get hit by some of those boulders that the dragons knocked down," he said. "She didn't dust, she faded."
"So what does that mean?" asked Buffy.
"I don't know," said Angel. "But she wasn't destroyed the way vampires are destroyed so maybe she was redeemed. Maybe by fighting here with us, with the forces of light, she redeemed herself."
"It's like I've been saying, they're all in a better place," said Buffy.
"OK," called Faith. "But we're still in this place and we've got more visitors coming."
Everybody stood up and grabbed their weapons. Prue, Phoebe and Willow held hands ready to work together to use whatever power they could still summon. Astral Prue didn't appear. After her previous exertions Prue wasn't sure she was strong enough to summon her astral self again so soon and anyway she felt she needed to see what they were up against first.
Everybody moved forward to get a good look at the three figures that were approaching.
Two others were watching the approaching figures. Glory stood in the rocks high above where Buffy and the others were gathered and carefully studied the approaching newcomers. Jasmine stood silently beside her doing the same thing.
This was the moment of decision. What Glory really wanted to do was destroy Buffy and her remaining friends before going back home. The trouble was that killing Buffy would only help The First and would probably mean Glory never went home. Glory realised that helping The First was the last thing she should be doing. Glory had no intention of setting up The First as her master which was why she had decided to act differently.
Jasmine glanced briefly at Glory before returning to her study of the approaching newcomers. Jasmine thought that Glory would probably do exactly what they had agreed but she was unsure of what Glory intended to do afterwards. She could probably rely on Glory to act in her own best interests but she was not confident that Glory always knew what those were. Oh well she thought. Time will tell.
The three approaching figures looked like humans except for the fact that they were flying. They were each standing on small platforms which were carrying them forward without any visible means of propulsion. The figure in the middle was female, the other two male. All three were wearing armour and carrying weapons.
The three newcomers landed at the edge of the cliff, walked forward and stopped. They were all very tall and looked to be completely human. The right hand individual, a black skinned, black bearded, heavily muscled character drew a large sword from over his shoulder and strode forward two paces.
"We are The Masters," he shouted in a loud voice. "This is our realm. Who comes to challenge?"
"What is this," asked Rona. "WWE with swords?"
"We're just here to guard the Hellmouth," said Buffy. "We're here to make sure it stays closed. We're not here to challenge anybody."
"But I am," said Glory as she landed from a leap from far above brandishing a sword of her own. "You look like my type," she said smiling at the bearded warrior. "Soft and cuddly."
"So am I," said Jasmine who arrived a moment later. "I'll take on mister sour face. I'm sure I can cheer him up, one way or the other." Jasmine's remarks were directed towards the other male newcomer a viking-like character with a winged helmet and long blond hair. Just like Glory Jasmine brandished a sword of her own.
What Glory and Jasmine knew but Buffy and her allies didn't was that 'The Masters' were a type of Hellgod themselves. Glory and Jasmine, by defeating their opponents could each gain what they wanted. Glory would gain enough power to return to her own realm. She would be able to do this without having to rely on Buffy's people to find a way to send her home and without being dependent of the doubtful goodwill of The First Evil.
Jasmine intended to take up residence in this hell dimension. By killing one of the resident Hellgods she would create a vacancy and at the same time gain sufficient power to become a force in the dimension. Both Glory and Jasmine had decided to take advantage of what was a rare opportunity to take on a single opponent. An invasion in other circumstances would almost certainly have failed as it could have meant trying to take on all three Hellgods at the same time.
Jasmine's opponent now pulled a large double headed axe from a sheath on his back and swung it around a couple of times to loosen up. He then made to move forward only to be stopped by a signal from his female companion.
"Before the fun begins who challenges me?" she asked. "There must be three challengers and two must win or you will all be destroyed." As she said this she produced her own weapon, another sword, but this was black and immediately burst into flame, a jet black flame.
Buffy stepped forward but was pulled back by Faith who now strode forward. "I challenge," she said holding the troll hammer high above her head.
"Faith!" said Buffy once again starting forward but Willow held onto her arm.
"Let her do this," said Willow. "With that hammer she's got as good a chance as you and we're gonna need you at the end."
"She's right," said Angel. "You have to be here for the last fight."
As Faith, Glory and Jasmine moved forward to fight 'The Masters' all six of the contestants disappeared.
"Hey," said Rona. "I thought we'd at least get to watch."
They did indeed get to watch however as Phoebe pointed out that all six fighters had appeared on the plain below.
At first it was not apparent to those watching who was winning the individual combats because all six fighters started cautiously. They were all dealing with unknown opponents. As time went by however all of the fighters speeded up. Suddenly Jasmine was hit a terrific blow by her opponent and knocked end over end a considerable distance. This contest was far from over however as Jasmine was immediately back on her feet and trading high speed blows once again.
Buffy and the others watching were quite clear that they wanted Faith to win her contest but were less clear in their feelings about Glory and Jasmine. Had they really changed sides and if so would it last? What would they do if they won? Would Buffy and her companions have to fight them next?
Meanwhile Faith's only concern was dealing with her immediate opponent. The woman, if that's what she was, was proving to be a difficult proposition. The sword gave the woman much greater reach than Faith had with the troll hammer. Faith found herself spending most of her time using the hammer defensively to knock away the sword.
Certainly Faith hadn't fought anybody this tough since the last of her fights with Buffy. In fact since Faith hadn't had the troll hammer when she fought Buffy this woman might just be tougher she thought.
Other problems for Faith were the speed of her opponent and the fact that she seemed able to anticipate Faith's every move. Landing a blow on her was proving to be next to impossible. At the same time Faith had already been singed a couple of times by the burning sword and appropriately it hurt like hell.
Until her fight with Buffy, Glory had never even considered the possibility of fighting and losing to anybody or anything. She had learnt differently and now she was using that experience to good effect. Glory's first instinct was to charge forward and simply destroy her opponent. She resisted that urge and concentrated on wearing him down and making sure he did no damage to her. Glory had in mind coming out of this fight not just with a win but unharmed and at full power. She knew that after this fight she might very well have another contest on her hands.
As the fight continued Faith gained familiarity with the style of her opponent. It was a style she knew very well but the odd thing was she didn't remember facing anybody like it before. Suddenly she realised what she was seeing. She's fighting me the way I fight other people. I wonder if the other 'Masters' are pulling the same trick she thought.
Faith made another attack, only this time she had switched the troll hammer quickly to her left hand to take her opponent by surprise. Only it was no surprise because the move was countered and Faith found herself dodging the return thrust of her enemy's sword.
Faith had deliberately attacked in an unusual manner, unusual for her that is but it hadn't taken her opponent by surprise she realised, not even a little bit. She's reading me she thought. She's not just copying my style she's reading me. I bet she thinks she's very clever. Well its time to change the rules.
Meanwhile Jasmine seemed to be getting pummelled. She hadn't been able to land a telling blow on her opponent but had taken a few herself. Although she continued to have her usual smile plastered on her face she was no longer feeling her usual cheerful self. For the first time she began to doubt the outcome of the contest.
Jasmine was suddenly down and Buffy and her companions watched as the 'Viking' character stepped forward to finish the fight with his sword. His blow never landed however as he was hit by the troll hammer hurled by Faith. The blow stunned the 'Viking' and he was still stunned as the fast recovering Jasmine took his head off with her sword.
This left Faith unarmed, or rather only armed with the knife she pulled from her belt, to face the armoured woman. Faith rapidly backed away from her opponent, dodging, weaving and feinting to throw the knife. The thing was thought Faith, would Jasmine now return the favour and help her or would she just watch what looked to be an unequal contest.
"You cheated!" screamed Faith's opponent as she advanced, sword held high ready to end the contest.
"Yeah," said Faith. "So sue me. I know some lawyers who'd be glad to take your case."
The armoured woman continued to advance and Faith continued to dodge, aided by the fact that she now knew what she was facing. Faith decided her best bet would be to get inside the guard of the other woman and take hold of her sword. She stepped forward to do this and then did something completely different by delivering a high kick to the head.
Faith's rapid change of mind had taken her opponent by surprise. She'd managed to think fast enough to negate the other woman's ability to read her. The problem was she'd not managed to knock down the other woman who had also kept her grip on her sword. Faith had however taken second prize because she was now closer to the fallen 'Viking' than her opponent. She immediately took advantage by rushing over to the body and picking up the troll hammer once more.
Faith had no time to wonder what Jasmine was doing or where she had gone. Whether Jasmine would have helped Faith or even Glory would never be known because soon after she killed her opponent she had disappeared. Buffy and the other watchers didn't know whether Jasmine had pulled the disappearance herself or whether it was a consequence of winning the contest.
Meanwhile Glory continued her battle with the black bearded Hellgod. Glory never had a very deep well of patience to begin with and she was now becoming more and more frustrated. Everything she tried was countered. She sped up and her opponent sped up, she stood and traded blows and her opponent did the same and gave as good as or better than he got. She tried high leaps and twists but found her opponent ready to counter with moves of his own. Overall Glory found herself taking more and more punishment and she was unpleasantly reminded of her fight with Buffy.
Suddenly everything happened at once. Faith managed to work a little space and hurled the troll hammer at Glory's opponent. At least that's what her mind said she was doing but at the last moment she hung onto the hammer and let it go in the opposite direction where it hit the armoured woman full on. She was taken completely by surprise as she had read Faith's first move.
Faith's opponent fell like a stone, the impact increased as the woman had been leaping forward to take advantage of Faith's original intention. Faith immediately followed up with her knife to deliver a killing thrust.
At the same time Glory's opponent clearly had some awareness of what Faith had done to Jasmine's Viking because he moved to dodge the hammer that he thought Faith was throwing at him. This was his one mistake as he had to momentarily divert his attention from Glory. Glory took full advantage and drove her sword into his face ending the third contest at the same time as Faith completed her victory.
Like Jasmine both Glory and Faith now disappeared. It wasn't the same as the fading away that had happened to the earlier casualties however but nevertheless they were both gone. Buffy half expected Faith to reappear back on the cliff top but as she continued to wait this didn't happen.
"Where do you think she went?" asked Rona. "Do you think she's alright?"
"You don't think she's being punished for breaking the rules do you?" asked Caridad.
"What rules?" asked Buffy.
"I don't think there are any rules," said Willow. "Except winning. If she hadn't won we wouldn't still be here."
"Waiting for the 'Nameless' to turn up next," said Prue.
"Is that what that is then," asked Rona pointing to the horizon.
Slowly advancing over the horizon towards them was a black cloud which rolled along the ground and began to occupy more and more space as it advanced.
Despite the strong wind that Prue and Phoebe conjured up the black cloud kept advancing towards them. It was clearly not in any way a normal cloud because it advanced steadily against the wind. As the wind seemed to have no affect at all on its progress the Halliwells stopped their efforts.
"Looks like this is it all right," said Buffy. "The question is, is it the cloud itself or something that's hidden in the cloud that we have to worry about?"
At that stage Prue noticed the familiar signs of her sister having one of her visions. "Phoebe! What did you see?" she asked.
"It wasn't so much a vision, more a message," said Phoebe.
"Did it tell you what's coming?" asked Buffy.
"No, I'm afraid not," said Phoebe. "The message was on the lines that we've got to get through this... this whatever it is. As long as one of us makes it through then the Hellmouth stays shut."
"That's pretty well what the prophecy said," commented Willow.
Everybody turned back to watch the approaching cloud. It was continuing to move forward slowly. It was now entirely over the horizon. It was sufficiently large to cover the whole balcony area on which they were all standing but not much larger.
Willow stood with the rest and watched the cloud continue to roll forward along the ground. She still felt exhausted but she hadn't done any spells since helping destroy the dragons. She felt that she could perhaps do one more spell before she was completely drained but certainly no more. But would spells do any good against this enemy? She couldn't see how weapons would be any use but what would be effective?
Buffy stood next to Angel with her Battle Scythe in hand. Angel was armed with a sword. He gave Buffy a quick hug and then stood aside far enough to be able to swing the sword freely. Buffy gave him a quick smile and then turned back to look at the cloud.
"Don't you think we should go down there?" asked Caridad. "The speed that thing's moving we could stay out of its way like forever."
"Yeah," said Rona. "It seems to be getting slower and slower. Maybe it's running out of steam. Can clouds run out of steam or do they run out of cloud?"
"We can't let it get past us," said Buffy. "We're here to stop anything getting past. It or whatever it's hiding might be able to reopen the Hellmouth."
"I wish it would just get on with it," said Prue feeling as tired as Willow. "Let's get this over and done with."
Prue's comment sparked a idea in Willow. "I think I know what it is," she said.
Everybody turned to Willow. "I think it's The First Evil," she said. "I know that's what it's called but it's not a name, it's a description not a proper name. I think the Nameless is The First and that's why it's taking so long to get here."
"I don't follow Will," said Buffy.
"It's playing games," said Willow. "The First always plays games, mind games. It's trying to scare us, scare us into running away or worrying about what's coming next."
"And what do you think's coming next?" asked Phoebe.
"More mind games," said Willow. "It'll try to use all our fears, our guilts against us. It'll try to drive us mad or have us kill each other."
"Or get us to reopen the Hellmouth," added Prue.
"But we've already shown we can deal with fear," said Caridad. "Or we wouldn't still be standing here."
"There's a lot of different sorts of fear," said Angel who was remembering when The First had targeted him a few years before. "Fear of death, yes we've faced that. But there's fear of failure, fear of loneliness... I won't go on."
"Well I fell guilty just by being here," said Rona who received stares from the others. "I mean why me?" she continued. "All those others have gone but I'm still here. They're as good or better than me. Why am I still here?"
Buffy took Rona's hand and looked her in the eye. "We all feel like that," she said. "It's normal. But we are here, nobody else, just us, so it's up to us."
The cloud suddenly picked up speed and surrounded them cutting off everybody from everybody else. Everybody not only lost sight of the others but sound of them as well. Everybody was suddenly alone.
Chapter Thirty: Mind Games
Phoebe had been standing next to her sister when the cloud suddenly rushed over the cliff edge towards them but now she was on her own. She shouted and walked about waving her arms around but couldn't find anybody else. As she moved about she became aware of a rising dread within her, a feeling that something awful was about to happen and she'd better get out of there as quickly as possible.
"Buffy!" called Willow, "Prue! Anybody?" But there was no reply, just a uniform greyness. Or rather not quite uniform because Willow could just about see shadowy figures moving at the edge of her vision. She moved towards them but could not seem to get any nearer. She thought about calling a witch light but decided against it in order to avoid draining herself any more before she really needed to.
Angel stood motionless. He had decided that whatever happened he would stand firm. If this was The First he was determined not to let it get to him again in the way it had done before. He had not expected everybody else to pretty well vanish but assumed that it was another trick.
As Angel remained in place and looked around him for any tangible sort of threat he heard whispering in his ear. He turned completely around but could see nothing. Listening intently he could not make out any words but the whispering seemed to be getting louder.
"Rona!" called somebody evidently in pain. Rona turned and rushed over to where she thought the voice was coming from but she got it wrong because the voice called again from behind her. "Help me! Please!" Rona dashed back again and only at the last moment managed to stop herself from rushing off the edge of the cliff.
Caridad stood shivering. She was cold, very cold. She started to move around to try to keep warm but she just seemed to be getting colder. "Hello!" she shouted but there was no reply. "What's happening?" she called but still no response.
It's a trick Caridad told herself, a trick, I'm not really cold. Oh yes I am she thought. Not knowing what else to do she waited, she gripped her sword and waited but as she did so she began to feel afraid. She had been afraid for a long time but this was somehow different, and it was getting worse.
As soon as the cloud appeared all around them Prue tried to use her power to drive it away. Either she was having no affect or all or the cloud that she was moving was simply being replaced by more cloud swirling back into place. She stopped and began to think. This thing plays mind games does it? Well perhaps this cloud is all in the mind. She began to concentrate.
For Buffy everybody gradually faded away. She went towards Willow but couldn't find her. At last she saw somebody standing still, holding a sword. It was Angel. He confirmed that like Buffy he had not been able to see or hear anybody else once the cloud had arrived. Together they walked through the thick clouds of vapour to try to find the others but without success.
"I've been thinking," said Angel. "This is Hell. The rules are different here."
"I know," said Buffy. "Not for as long as you did but I've been on a visit before. It was nothing like this though."
"There are many hells," said Angel. "I was there for years or that's what it seemed like. Perhaps we have to stay here for years."
"Time went differently in the hell I visited," said Buffy. "One day on Earth was several years in hell."
"It was the same for Connor," said Angel. "He was only gone for a few weeks but years passed in Quortoth. He grew up there from a baby to a teenager. Maybe we could be here until we die of old age and only a little time will have gone by on Earth. The First might just have to wait long enough and it wins anyway."
"You don't get old remember," said Buffy. "Anyway I don't believe that. If all it had to do was wait it wouldn't have made all those other attacks."
"Those attacks may not have come from The First," said Angel. "There are more powers than The First down here and we're not exactly popular with any of them."
Caridad was still cold, freezing cold. She hugged herself, jumped up and down and stamped her feet but nothing seemed to help. She kept moving within a small area but still couldn't see or hear anybody else. She was now quite terrified, terrified of the unknown, terrified of being alone, terrified that she was the last one left and that everything depended on her.
Suddenly she saw it. The stairway leading back up to the Hellmouth. Up those stairs was the way out. Up those stairs were friends. The Whitelighters were still there, they'd be able to help. She began to move in that direction.
Rona tried to stop listening to the voices but they still continued to cry out. She thought she could recognise some of them, they sounded like other potentials that had not made it this far. I've got to stand firm she kept telling herself. I might be the only one left. "You're not gonna trick me again." she shouted remembering how she had nearly fallen over the cliff edge. She started shivering.
Phoebe had considered flying up above the cloud to get away from the awful whatever it was that she knew was coming. The only thing that stopped her was the conviction that leaving the area was exactly what The First wanted her to do. Phoebe was terrified of what was coming but she half believed that the terror had been brought on by the cloud, The First or whatever it was. The other thing that prevented her from moving was another fear entirely.
Phoebe had lost one sister, maybe two but she still had Paige back on the other side of the Hellmouth. Paige was safe and sound and that's the way Phoebe intended it to stay. If she let this, whatever it was get past her Paige was the next in line as well as all those millions of people who would die if that meteor came down. As far as Phoebe was concerned nothing was getting past her to attack Paige. There would be at least one sister still standing when this was all over.
Willow had so far been visited by The First in the form of Buffy and then of Tara but she had tested each of them and they had both promptly disappeared. It was quite pathetic really she thought because The First should know that everybody knew by now that it could imitate the dead. It should really come up with a new trick.
But why hasn't it come up with a new trick thought Willow? Why doesn't it pretend to be Giles or Xander or one of the others we've lost since coming in here? Because it can't thought Willow. Perhaps what we've done already has weakened it or perhaps it's just too obvious.
Perhaps it's just distracting me while it works on the others thought Willow. Maybe it's not my turn yet she thought and shuddered. "Whatever you're up to it's not gonna work," shouted Willow. I hope, she added to herself.
"If this goes on much longer I think we should try to get clear of the cloud," said Angel to Buffy. "It didn't look all that big. Perhaps we can climb above it. We might be able to see everybody else from up above."
"You're wasting your time you know," said Buffy to Angel, "I'm not going anywhere. I know you're not really Angel, you're The First. You can come up with as much gloom and doom as you like I'm staying right here and you're not gonna reopen the Hellmouth."
Angel or rather The First smiled. "Then you're gonna be here for a very long time," he said. "If fact, with no way out you're dooming not only yourself but everybody else who came down here with you."
"But I'm not dooming the people back on Earth?" asked Buffy picking up on something The First hadn't said. "In that case I'm winning and, more to the point, you're losing."
"You think you know it all now don't you," said Angel/The First. "You know all about The First Evil, all about how to keep the Hellmouth closed, about how to defeat me. Well think again." With that The First morphed into Joyce Summers and walked towards Buffy. To Buffy's astonishment Joyce/The First slapped Buffy hard across the face.
"You're not my mother!" said Buffy stepping back. "Just because you're now corporeal. You're still The First."
"Yes she is," said a voice behind Buffy. "But I'm not."
Buffy turned to find her mother stood behind her. She turned quickly back to see The First/Joyce still in front of her and rapidly backed away so as to see both Joyces at once.
"This is a trick," said Buffy. "Another trick. I know you're stronger down here. It doesn't make any difference. The Hellmouth stays shut."
"I'm afraid you don't understand Honey," said the new Joyce. "The First always wanted you to shut the Hellmouth. It wants you down here permanently, where you can't stop it doing what it wants back on Earth."
"Perhaps you'll tell me what it wants to do back on Earth," said Buffy. "Since you know all about it."
"Oh honey," said the new Joyce. "You never used to be like this. Things must have been very hard for you since I died. I'm so sorry."
Buffy took a deep breath and tried to convince herself that the new Joyce wasn't getting to her. "Just... please answer the question."
"OK," said the new Joyce. "The First was woken up when you were pulled out of heaven. It created an imbalance that won't be restored until you return. Until that happens The First can still operate. It can keep trying to become corporeal and eventually it might be able to enter the Higher Realms itself because of the imbalance."
"So what are you saying?" asked Buffy.
"You've got to return," said Joyce. "You've got to go back to Earth and then you've got to return to heaven. It's the only way to stop it. I'll be there with you honey."
Prue continued to concentrate on trying to see what was there, what was really there, not the fog that she thought was clouding her mind. She knew that Phoebe must be somewhere nearby. There's no way I'm leaving her and I'm just as sure she'd never leave me behind she thought.
Prue had now devised a suitable spell chant and began to chant in a loud voice over and over:
"Clear my mind
Let me see
Bring my sister near to me"
"That's very clever dear," said Patty Halliwell. "But don't you think you should give this a little more thought?"
Prue nearly stopped chanting at the sight of her dead mother but forced herself to ignore her and continue. I'm not going to be distracted by this First thing she thought. It's not mom, not really.
"I think you're making a big mistake," said Patty Halliwell before fading away.
Phoebe heard a whispering but could still see nothing through the fog. She circled slowly with her hands outstretched but could feel nothing. The whispering continued and gradually became louder. Phoebe realised it sounded like Prue. At last she could understand the words of the chant and joined in. As she did so the fog thinned a little to her right and there was her sister. Keeping up the chant she went towards Prue and embraced her.
"OK," said Prue, "That worked, let's continue." She started chanting again with one minor change and Phoebe, holding tightly to her sister's hand once again joined in:
"Clear my mind
Let me see
Bring my friends near to me"
Willow had become used to seeing shadows and hearing whispers but being unable to come to grips with anybody or anything making the shadows or the sounds. She had gotten to the stage of trying to ignore them both. She had decided to throw everything into a last effort spell to try to get rid of the cloud and was trying to work out something suitable when one particular whisper began registering.
The whisper sounded like a chant, a spell chant and she gradually made out the words. She hoped it was the Halliwell sisters but anyway could not see how it would do any harm if she joined in. She added her voice to the chanting and began concentrating on the meaning of the words. Of course she thought as she continued with the chant, this cloud's only in the mind.
The whole cloud began thinning, at least for Prue, Phoebe and Willow. As it did Willow at last saw the sisters nearby and went over to them. Willow clasped hands with both Halliwells and all three witches continued the chant.
Buffy was now in a quandary. Should she stick to the original plan and stay put thus making sure that the Hellmouth stayed shut or was this second Joyce telling the truth? Was it really her mother and if it was, was she right in what she said or had she been deceived somehow? She suddenly smiled as she realised the solution.
"Now it's you who thinks she knows it all," said Buffy smiling at the new Joyce. "You think you're so clever but you've made a few mistakes and I know you're still The First and not really my mother." In fact Buffy knew nothing of the sort but she had played a little poker with her friends and had decided to bluff. The First doesn't know what I'm thinking she thought or we wouldn't have gotten this far.
"Well it's up to you honey," said the new Joyce. "Maybe you're right. You always knew more about what was going on than I ever did."
"Do you remember the tales of Br'er Rabbit?" said the other Joyce, the admitted Joyce/The First. "Don't throw me on the briar patch!" With that Joyce/The First laughed and disappeared.
Buffy knew the reference very well. The story concerned told of how the crafty rabbit got his enemy to do just what he wanted by telling him not to do just that. The First was still playing games by implying that even if the other Joyce was really the First she was telling Buffy the right thing to do knowing that it was the last thing Buffy would actually do.
Buffy now turned to the remaining Joyce. "You've forgotten something," she said. "You've forgotten I'm The Slayer." And that means I solve problems by fighting them she mentally added. With that Buffy swung the Battle Scythe at Joyce in order to cut her head off.
Buffy had decided to take the bluff the whole way. She still wasn't sure that this new Joyce wasn't really her mother but she did know that her mother was dead so she couldn't kill her and she knew from Tara and Jenny that her mother had moved on. The First on the other hand now seemed to have become corporeal, at least this side of the Hellmouth so perhaps the Scythe could now kill it. Maybe that was The First's big mistake.
The Scythe would have gone through Joyce's neck had she not moved but she jumped back to avoid its swing. Now Joyce snarled and morphed into the giant arthropod form that The First had shown on a few brief occasions. Pretending to be somebody as nice as my mom must be a real strain for something called The First Evil thought Buffy.
The First in its monster form was big and it was fast but that didn't faze Buffy. She was used to fighting big and fast monsters. In fact in the past few hours she'd been fighting bigger and faster creatures than the First was now. Buffy wielding the Battle Scythe was now more formidable than she'd ever been. Try as it might the creature could not get past the fast whirling blade.
Buffy was jubilant. She was right. It wasn't really her mother, it was The First all along and it had been trying to get her to reopen the Hellmouth. No way was she going to allow that to happen now. Now it was all down to fighting and that was just the way she liked it. Now she could really enjoy herself.
As the witches continued to chant their spell other figures began to appear out of the fog although as they did so it became apparent that the fog had not cleared for them. Rona was standing nervously clutching her sword and glaring suspiciously about her. Angel, less obviously nervous was doing much the same but Buffy and Caridad were missing.
"Look!" said Phoebe pointing upwards. Her call distracted the other witches from continuing their chant but by now the cloud had cleared, at least for the three of them and the halting of the chant did not bring it back.
Phoebe had pointed to Caridad who was twenty feet up the rock face and still climbing.
"What's she doing?" asked Prue.
"She's been tricked by The First," said Willow. "We'd better get her down."
Phoebe flew up alongside Caridad and put her arms around her and then dropped the two of them back to the ground.
"What... what's happening?" said Caridad. "What's going on?" She still seemed to still be unaware of the others as her questions were directed to nobody specific as she glanced around her.
"Caridad!" said Willow taking the girl's arm and suddenly Caridad could see them as the fog faded from her vision.
"You can see OK now?" asked Prue. "No more cloud?"
It turned out that Caridad had thought she was going up a stairway back to the Hellmouth entrance until Phoebe brought her down.
The witches now went over to Angel and Rona and released them from the cloud by calling their names from nearby.
"So where's Buffy?" asked Angel.
"She's here," said Willow. "I can feel her. We just can't see her. The First hasn't finished playing its games." She called Buffy's name but nothing happened.
"We'd better carry on with the spell," said Prue. "We need to bring her out of it with that before we can release her." With that she started another chant which the others quickly joined, even the non-witches:
"Clear my mind
Let me see
Bring The Slayer near to me"
Buffy continued to fight the creature. The fight was taking longer than she had expected but she was in no hurry. The Battle Scythe was proving to be powerful enough to damage The First. She had inflicted wounds on two of its legs and it had slowed down a little from when the fight had started.
The longer the fight went on the more confident Buffy felt. Instead of defending all the time she was attacking more and more. Most of the time now the creature was backing away and Buffy was moving forward. Maybe the magic in the Scythe is strong enough to kill the First thought Buffy.
"Buffy stop!" yelled Willow from behind her and Buffy stopped, more in surprise than anything else.
Buffy had been moving forward towards the creature but now everything seemed to change focus, the ground, the rock walls, the creature, everything.
"You're right on the edge," added Willow. "Move back."
Now Buffy could see two images in front of her. One showed the creature, still threatening her from a few feet away, with its back to the rock wall. The other image showed Buffy that she stood on the edge of the cliff, about to fall onto the plain below. Slowly, still keeping up her guard, she backed away. As she did so the other image and The First faded away.
Everybody gathered round and exchanged details of what had happened to them but Buffy wasn't the only one to keep up her guard with her weapon.
"Does The First count as the seventh horde?" asked Rona. "Because it wasn't exactly a horde. There was only one cloud or only one First Evil."
"I think horde was only a very approximate translation of the original wording," said Willow. "The horde might be all the people it pretends to be."
The cloud had now completely dispersed. "Is that it?" asked Buffy. "Is this real or am I being deceived again? We haven't killed The First but have we beaten it?" I wish Giles were here she thought. He always had an answer to the difficult questions.
"So what happens next?" asked Phoebe. "If we did win can we leave now? How do we do that without opening the Hellmouth again?"
"I don't think we..." began Prue but she stopped talking as everything around them rapidly faded from sight.
Chapter Thirty One: The Road Goes Ever On and On
Buffy's first thought was that the cloud was back again and The First had not finished playing with them. The blackout didn't last long however and as things began to come back into focus she heard voices chatting away all around her.
"It's Buffy," said one female voice. "Is that good news or bad news?" Good news I hope thought Buffy although I suppose that depends on who's asking.
"It's all of them," said another voice, this time a male voice, in fact the voice of... Xander!
Now Buffy could see the people stood around her, every one of them a familiar face. As well as Xander the group included Anya and Cordelia and, and there was Giles. As Buffy continued to look around she realised that the final seven defenders seemed to have been transported to rejoin those who had fallen earlier in the battle.
It was not only those who had gone through the Hellmouth who were present however. Willow was stood next to her looking as bewildered as Buffy herself felt until Tara rushed forward and hugged her. So if everybody's here she thought where's...
"Buffy," said Dawn running forward and hugging her. "Did you do it? Did you stop the First?"
"Did we?" asked Buffy as she pulled back a little from Dawn. "I think we did. But what just happened?"
"What happened Giles?" asked Buffy, happy to once more be able to turn to him for the answers. "Why are we here? Why are you all here? We thought you were all dead. Are we all dead?" As she asked the question Buffy realised that she was back in the basement of Sunnydale High.
"I think we'd better hear from you first," said Giles. "About what happened after I uh, left."
It took a while for all the hubbub to settle down and for people to do more listening than talking. When it did it became clear that everybody who'd gone into the Hellmouth had come out again. Everybody that is except Glory and Jasmine. Even Darla and Drusilla had returned there along with everybody else.
Most people had thought they were dying and had been surprised to find themselves unharmed back in the school basement. Others however had been struck down so quickly that they had no memory of injury or death. Their last memory had been of when they were on the other side of the Hellmouth fighting demons, monsters or whatever.
Buffy and the other seven last arrivals had no memory of being killed but they couldn't be sure that they too hadn't been struck down so quickly that they had no memory of what had happened. However there was Faith.
Buffy knew that Faith was still alive when she disappeared and she had appeared back in the basement straight afterwards so it might mean that Buffy and the last arrivals had just been returned back to Earth after their job was done.
Faith's wish had been to be back with her friends and after her victory her wish had been fulfilled. She had gone straight to the school basement where most of her friends had already returned.
Wherever they had gone after winning their fights neither Glory nor Jasmine had returned to the school basement like everybody else. What Buffy and the others did not know was that Glory and Jasmine had each had their own wish fulfilled by their victories. Glory to return home and Jasmine to make her home in the hell dimension.
After listening to the last seven survivors provide details of the final conflict with the First, Giles helped by Tara and Paige now did what tests he could and established as far as possible that there was no more Hellmouth.
"It looks like you did it," said Giles.
"We did it," said Buffy. "All of us."
"Yes," agreed Giles. "It looks like we did it. No more Hellmouth. That should mean no more danger from the meteor and with a bit of luck The First is locked away on the other side."
"So what's with all that fading away business?" asked Rona, "because if I'd known all you guys were OK it would have made things a lot easier back there."
"Yeah," said Caridad to a group of the other enhanced potentials. "Were you guys having a party back here while we were stuck in that awful fog?" The potentials now drifted away to the other end of the basement to talk about what had happened to them.
"Some party!" said Tara with feeling to Willow as the potentials moved away.
"Did something happen back here?" asked Willow. She was taking a rest sat on the ground with her back to the wall. Tara sat down beside her, put her arm around Willow's waist and snuggled close.
"After you guys went into the Hellmouth Leo called up a lot more Whitelighters," said Tara. "It was just as well he did because we needed them."
"Still some demons and vamps on this side huh," said Willow.
"Oh yeah," said Tara. "They thought everybody would have gone through the Hellmouth and they could open it up again from this side and take you all by surprise."
"But they got the big surprise then," said Willow.
"You should have seen me with my extra flamey sword," said Tara waving her arm around in mime of swordplay. She then went on to describe how she, Paige and the Whitelighters had dealt with the demons and vampires in their own battle back on Earth.
"Were we really there?" asked Buffy. "Or was it just our spirits or astral thingies or something?"
"You were really there," said Paige. "Or at least you didn't leave your bodies behind back here or anything."
"I think it's because you were all fighting on the side of Light," said Leo. "I suppose you can't stay dead in a Hell dimension when you're fighting on the side of Light."
"So we couldn't really lose then," said Xander.
"Oh no," said Giles. "What Leo said might be right, I don't know, but I do know that if we'd lost one of those battles the demons would have come into our world and destroyed it."
"Instead of us keeping the Hellmouth shut they would have been keeping it open," said Wesley.
"And the meteor would have hit," said Prue.
"So if we'd lost there and come back here alive we'd probably have been killed here soon after when the meteor hit." said Willow getting back to her feet again with Tara to rejoin the group.
"So does that mean we're safe from that meteor then?" asked Buffy. "Is there some way we can check?"
Leo orbed away to check with Whitelighter Central. He took with him all of the other Whitelighters apart from Jenny and Tara and of course Paige. Tara orbed Fred and Willow back to Castle Buffy to do a computer check through the on-line connections that Fred had used before. Phoebe and Cordelia worked together to see if they could obtain a vision or message giving the all clear.
The first to obtain information were Fred and Willow. They were orbed back by Tara.
"No worry from the meteor," Fred announced. "It hasn't changed its course. It's still gonna miss us with a lot to spare."
Leo arrived back and similarly confirmed that as far as he could establish with the elders the danger had now passed.
Despite their best efforts Cordelia and Phoebe received nothing in the way of further visions or messages which Prue announced was a good sign.
"I mean Phoebe only gets messages about bad things coming," she said. "She never gets an all clear message afterwards. No message, no bad."
"Same here," said Cordelia. "It's like the TV, only bad news allowed."
"So no mystic thank you or well done," said Xander. "I think we need a better agent."
"Well there's gonna be a big thank you all right," said Buffy. "We'll thank each other. After we've all had a chance to rest there's gonna be a big party at my place."
Buffy turned to lead the way upstairs into the school and off home when she met Wood coming downstairs.
"You're not gonna believe this," he said. "But Sunnydale has returned to normal."
"Normal," asked Dawn. "What's normal for Sunnydale?"
"The school's back in business up there," explained Wood. "No damage, no bodies, no fallout from the battle at all. Normal classes are in session. Rather than everybody walking through the school perhaps Tara and her friends could take you all away quietly."
Piper and Phoebe exchanged glances. "It looks like the Cleaners have been called in," said Piper. She explained to everybody nearby about the Cleaners and the previous experiences of the Halliwells with them.
Leo and Paige orbed the Halliwells back home after they had all promised to come to the planned celebration party. Everybody else was orbed back to Castle Buffy in groups by Tara and Jenny except Wood who went upstairs to once again take over as school principal.
Over the next few days it became clear that it wasn't just the High School which had returned to normal but the whole of Sunnydale. The general population had no awareness that anything unusual had happened. Nobody seemed to know that the town had been evacuated for a time and only those involved knew anything about a big battle taking place to save the world.
A phone call by Angel to Lorne in LA revealed that all was quiet in the city from a demon and vampire perspective.
"I think you got through several years' worth of bad guys," said Lorne. "The ones who are left are keeping a pretty low profile at the moment. If my club wasn't already out of business I'd be going out of business."
Lorne was given an invitation to the party. The rest of the LA people decided to stay on in Sunnydale until after the party. The only other person who was invited apart from those involved in the big battle was Kate. Gwen insisted on telling her everything that had happened, especially as by then there was no longer any problem about Faith.
The witches had all got together some days before the party to carry out the forget spell to clear Faith's record. The spell that was finally carried out was not in the end a world changing magic monk type of spell. What was done was to insert into the public record an official pardon which declared that Faith had been wrongfully convicted and had been legitimately released. Everything about her being a wanted fugitive was officially written off as an administrative snafu.
The return of Tara, Prue and Jenny was tackled in a more mundane way. There were no witnesses to the deaths of any one of the three women outside the circle of friends and relations. It was therefore decided to keep any magic track covering in reserve in case of future problems.
For the time being the group decided to offer a vague explanation of mistaken identity to any query. This was backed up by a few changes to certain grave stones plus the alteration of a few official computer records carried out by Willow.
The party itself five days later was a big success, well a big success for everybody who didn't want things to be livened up by soulless vampires, demons, zombies or worse.
"I think if any demons heard about this party and who's here they wouldn't stop running," said Angel.
"Is that running towards us or running away from us?" asked Buffy. "With my record for parties I should have just called another party every time I wanted to find a big bad. It would have come to the party. My parties always turn out bad."
"Until now," said Xander.
"Don't say that," chorused Buffy, Willow, Cordelia and Anya. Angel, Tara and Giles just smiled.
"Every time somebody says something like that something bad always happens," said Buffy.
"Buffy!" called Dawn from across the room, "Buffy!"
"I knew it," declared Buffy glaring at Xander as she went looking for Dawn. "This is your fault, whatever it is."
But of course it wasn't Xander's fault. Dawn and the other potentials were discovering that their upgrade to slayer power had just run out. They were all back to being potentials again.
Over the next two weeks the potentials, apart of course from Dawn, all left. Many of them went back to live with their families but not all of them had family to go back to. Wesley agreed to become watcher to Sophie and Ingrid who went with him and the LA people to live in the city.
Giles returned to England to start to rebuild the Watchers' Council. He took Molly and Lakshmi with him. Jenny also announced that oh so coincidentally she had been assigned to work in England for the time being and might be able to drop in on Giles from time to time. Darla and a very subdued Drusilla stayed long enough to attend the party but had disappeared from Castle Buffy by the following morning, destination unknown.
All three of the souled vampires had refused offers by Cordelia to try to make them human. Angel still felt that his job was not yet done and he would not be able to perform it as a human. Darla couldn't stand the thought of growing old after so many years of being ageless and anyway didn't want to risk what had happened to her before when she had returned to being human. Drusilla did not reveal her reasons to Cordelia. She loathed being a vampire but her power to know something of the future told her that she should stay the way she was, at least for the time being.
Buffy and Angel had a few nights together and some long talks before he went back to LA with the rest of the LA crowd. One impediment to renewing their relationship had been removed now that Angel no longer had the 'perfect happiness' curse hanging over him. Angel however remembered that it wasn't the curse that had caused him to break up with Buffy. He was still ageless and she wasn't.
Buffy was aware that she was no longer the same person she had been four years before. She wasn't sure that she wanted to be that person again. As always between Buffy and Angel nothing was finally decided. They would keep in touch, in better touch than they had for the past few years but they would continue to live separate lives for the time being.
Willow and Tara were in no doubt about their future plans. Willow would go back to college as would Tara at least to the extent that her Whitelighter duties allowed. Since Tara's witch charges were Willow, Cordelia, Amy and Anya plus keeping an eye on Dawn if she went in that direction she would be spending most of her time in Sunnydale anyway.
The days after the big battle was over showed no local vampire or demon activity at all. Tara's Whitelighter contacts revealed that activities by dark forces were at a low level world wide, possibly because of all the casualties they had sustained in the big battle. There was no trace of the presence of The First Evil anymore. For the foreseeable future it seemed that Tara would be called away very little from where she wanted to be.
Anya and Amy set about getting the Magic Box back up and running. Anya mentally revived her plans for future expansion beyond the confines of a small Californian town and asked Willow for help in setting up a Magic Box website.
Much to her disappointment Dawn went back to school. She found it a struggle at first having to pretend that everything was normal and she had just been absent with the flu but at least she didn't get any hassle from the principal.
Xander went back to work and began to think about dating again. It was while he was sat quietly in a corner eating his lunch on site one day that he overheard a nearby conversation that made him aware for the first time of the reputation that he had acquired in small town Sunnydale:
"Xander Harris?" said the first man. "Oh yeah, I remember him from High School. A complete loser."
"This can't be the same Xander Harris," said a second man.
"That's right," said a third man. "Our Xander must be the hottest guy in Sunnydale as far as the chicks are concerned."
"Yeah," said a fourth man. "Every time you see him in the Bronze he's surrounded by beautiful women. I don't mean good looking I mean seriously beautiful women, like Playboy or Hollywood beautiful and he's usually the only guy with them."
"I heard he goes to parties where he's the only guy there," said a fifth man. "Man, whatever he's got I want some of it myself."
The voices drifted away leaving a stunned and buoyant Xander.
For a while the slayers continued with regular patrols around Sunnydale but with no Hellmouth to attract them there was no reason for demons and vampires to come to the town and every reason for them to stay well away. It was while patrolling together one quiet evening that Buffy and Faith discussed future plans.
"I was thinking about going back to college with Willow and Tara," said Buffy. "What about you?"
"Never graduated High School remember," said Faith. "I don't think they'll let me in college. Anyway I'm not the college type. Nor are you."
"What do you mean?" asked Buffy. "I so am college material. Did I ever tell you my SAT results?"
"Hey," said Faith putting her hands up. "I'm not saying you don't have the brains. I'm just saying you're not the college type. Neither of us are college types."
"Just because you're not the type to finish High School doesn't mean I shouldn't go to college," said Buffy.
"You never got that did you?" said Faith. "You and Willow and all the rest. You all just thought I was stupid."
"Not stupid no," said Buffy. "But I think you should have finished High School."
"That's why you're different to other slayers Buffy," said Faith. "You think differently. You never thought through what being a slayer meant did you?"
"Spit it out Faith," said Buffy, now getting a little annoyed. "Just what do you mean?"
"OK," said Faith. "It goes something like this. The Chosen One, one girl in all the world, de dah, de dah. Fights the vampires and the demons yeah?"
"Yeah," acknowledged Buffy.
"A slayer's life is short, that's what I always figured," said Faith. "How long did Kendra last, a year?"
"About that I suppose," said Buffy.
"That's probably longer than some," said Faith. "How many people do you think would carry on going to school if they thought they only had a year or two ahead of them?"
"Well, some people enjoy school," said Buffy.
"Yeah," replied Faith. "But there aren't many Willows around. I once stayed up all night fighting vamps, killed about four of them, saved some lives and got it in the neck the next day at school for not handing in an essay on 'What I did on Holiday'. That's the day I dropped out of school. I figured I didn't have time for any of that crap."
"OK," said Buffy. "But everything's calmed down. There's no reason why I shouldn't go back to college. No reason why you shouldn't finish your education."
"No more Hellmouth so you're saying Sunnydale looks like it'll be a quiet little town from now on," said Faith. "OK, could be. But you're still the slayer and it's a big world. One day soon Giles or Angel or somebody else will call about some big emergency somewhere else. If you're in college you'll have to drop out again to deal with it. What'll you do? Are you gonna leave it to me and Kennedy?"
"Why not?" replied Buffy.
"Hah!" said Faith in complete disbelief.
After a while the patrols were stopped as no longer having any purpose. Buffy was back working at the school but had not given up on her plans to go back to college when the new college year started.
Faith was receiving an allowance from Giles and Kennedy had her family money behind her but both of them were becoming restless. When therefore they heard from Giles several weeks after closing the Hellmouth that he needed them in England to deal with an escaped 'Old One' and its minions they caught the first plane out. Buffy went with them leaving Dawn with Willow and Tara. However all that's another story...