Ch. 14 - Before It Gets Better
“Busy little bees,” Ethan mused as they were lead down into a cavern that had been dug out under the winery. Bringers scurried all around, ignoring them. Some were still digging out the space with picks and shovels, some were hauling dirt and stone, and some were just standing in wait.
They followed the First to the center of the cavern where a large, rough-hewn pedestal of stone still stood. Atop it emerged a sharp-bladed instrument of destruction.
“A scythe,” Magister puffed, unimpressed.
“Shiny trinket,” Ethan added, looking over the weapon colored with red and chrome. “Very roadster.”
The First turned around and stared at them both with tightly controlled anger. “If you two are finished playing with each other… I will tell you exactly what this is.”
“It’s the weapon from that little prophecy you sent me to find,” Ethan interrupted with a shrug. “The one meant only for ‘Her’,” he said the word in a mock-reverential tone.
“This,” the First stamped one of Its Buffy-shaped feet, “is perhaps the most powerful weapon ever forged. It courses with the power of the Slayer line, from the first to the last.”
Magister crossed his arms with vague amusement. “You seem tense,” he nearly teased.
“Do I? I wonder why that might be? I wonder if it’s because I worked so hard to create generals and kings to lead my armies on to glory, and now here I am stuck with a couple of insipid, insufferable, squabbling little school boys!”
The vampire grinned. “If you’re going to use such big words, you might want to choose a different face.”
“You are supposed to be the most dangerous, intelligent, and cunningly evil creature still living on this pitiful little planet!”
“High praise from your most impotent evilness.” He bowed his head a bit, looking up at the First with a joyously evil smile on his lips.
The vision of Buffy stamped the ground again. “You’re supposed to be my all-powerful right hand on Earth!”
Ethan chuckled as he watched the exchange. “I tried to warn you. Ripper is always Ripper.”
“He wasn’t this infuriating as the other one,” the First hissed.
“Oh, yes he was. You were simply expecting it from an enemy. Not so much from your personal puppet.”
“As I understand it,” Magister was now strolling casually around the scythe, “You have a powerful army, but no skills to lead it. Therefore, requiring mine. And you do not mean these lumbering lumps of clay,” he gestured at the Bringers around him, “but a massive force of Turak-han, each with the strength ten vampires. However, said army remains stuck inside the Hellmouth, and you must first destroy the Slayer line to make way for its opening and your army’s emergence.”
“Yes! And I had set everything up for you to wipe them all off the planet in one fell swoop, but you chose to play with your little whore and that insignificant human instead.”
“Patience,” Magister purred. “Some tasks are to be savored. Some pain is meant to be prolonged.”
“Pat-- Really? Do you realize how many millennia I’ve waited in the darkness for this moment?”
“Then why have you not yet taken this all-powerful weapon and ordered one of these minion to cut down your opposition? Seems quite the effort for such a minor inconvenience.”
The First smirked. “By all means, take it and show me how easily they fall before you.”
An eyebrow subtly rose on Magister’s unreadable face. “Ethan, Dearest, if you wouldn’t mind?”
The Sorcerer’s heart leapt at the unexpected endearment. He nearly melted with the softly melodic voice Ripper directed at him. Of course, he did not miss the change in the tone of the conversation, but, still high on his new-found power and being invincible, stepped up next to the stone with confidence. He reached out, wrapped his hand around the shaft of the weapon, and gave a hard yank. It didn’t budge. Glaring at the rebellious item, he tugged again, putting all of his power behind the motion. This time, not only did the weapon refuse come, he began to feel a buzzing throughout his body that grew into a tremor. Every nerve ending activated in pain. He felt like he was going to be pulled apart molecule by molecule. Ethan unhanded the weapon and fell to his knees.
“What the bloody hell?!” he shouted breathlessly.
“So, not left here for you then,” Magister commented matter-of-factly to the First.
“Hardly,” the First stood next to him, looking down at the still trembling sorcerer. “It was forged in the time before. When the few humans there were still cowered from the dark, and the last pure demons had a chance to take back this world. Seeing their opportunity then, and foreseeing this future, all the white witches of the Earth gathered in secret. They forged this weapon, most giving everything they had to it. They worked alone and hidden, but I was watching. Even though I had been beaten back and my strength no longer had form on this plane, I was watching. I watched as it was used to destroy the last of my demons to walk the world. And I watched as it was hidden here, humanity rising and writhing above it, to await this day.”
“A little warning…” Ethan puffed irritably.
The First chuckled. “He was wise to invite you to try your luck. You still have the tatters of a soul. If he had touched it, it would have tried to incinerate him.”
“And you would have lost your general to a childish joke.”
The vision of Buffy pouted at Its vampire. “I’m sure you would have dealt with the situation. And it is nice to see at least some of your selling points are true.”
Ethan stood up, still glaring at them, but more for show than true anger. “Right then. If neither of us can touch the damned thing to wield it, what’s the point of digging it up?”
“I believe the protection is only part of the stone encasing it. If it can be removed…”
“A weapon meant for the Slayer,” Magister mused softly. “It seems the solution is simple. We merely request that one come and retrieve it for us.”
“Don’t be too rash,” the First warned. “In the hands of a Slayer this weapon could dice you both into mincemeat before you even smelled her behind you.”
“Too bad we didn’t ask Faith to stay,” Ethan smiled darkly. “You could have just asked her nicely. When we were done using her for other pleasures, of course.”
“Faith is too easily manipulated. And what is the point of playing the game without a challenge?”
“Just don’t let that cocky streak of yours get you turned into a pile of ash,” the First warned before disappearing.
“So, you have plans for some entertainment?” Ethan grinned at the vampire.
“First, I have a message to send.”
“Is there really nothing you can do?” Kennedy spoke softly, laying in the bed and facing Willow.
The Witch shook her head slowly against the pillow. “He’s gone this time. For good. I… I just can’t believe I’ve lost him forever.”
“I’m so sorry. If that means anything right now.”
“It feels strange. He was always there. Even when he was away, he was somewhere in the world. You know? I could feel it. Or, at least, I imagined I could. Now there’s nothing.”
“I wish I could make it better.”
“Now it will only get worse before anything ever gets better.”
Kennedy reached out to gently caress the other woman’s cheek. “I won’t let him hurt you,” she whispered. “I know he--”
“He loves me,” Willow clinched her eyes shut. “In the only way a demon can. He loves what I can be to him.”
“Well… He’s not the only one. If he wants you, he’ll have to come through me.”
Willow opened her red-rimmed eyes and stared into those before her. “He will,” she breathed. “He won’t think twice about it.”
“I’ll give him something to think about. I promise.” Kennedy slowly curled her hand behind Willow’s head and pulled her into a tender kiss. Willow begin to pull back, but stopped when the warm lips moved to her cheek. The taste of salt filled the potential’s mouth as she tenderly continued, trying to dry the tears with her love and caring. She only held on tighter when she finally felt the exhausted redhead accept her comfort.
“How many fingers am I holding up?” Anya chirped.
Xander gave a deep sigh, trying to shift into a more comfortable seated position in his bed. “I said I can see light and blurry blobs. And you’d better not be holding up just one.”
Anya blew an annoyed raspberry. “As if one would be any challenge.”
“You’re recovering just as expected,” Dr. Pryce chuckled. “The vision in that eye should steadily gain focus in the next hours and days. As for this one,” she finished fixing the new bandage around his head, making sure the cover his left eye, “All we can do now is keep the patch on to let it rest and hope.”
“Thanks, Doc. When do you think you’ll let me get back to the others?”
She gave his shoulder a motherly pat. “Let’s wait until you can tell which way you’re charging. Then we’ll talk about returning you to the fray.”
“They’re gonna need all the help they can get.”
“Yes, I can imagine.” The elderly Watcher looked out the window to see the sun dipping low on the horizon. “Anya. I’ve been at it all day and think I might pop out for a breath of fresh air. Do you mind keeping an eye on everyone while I’m gone?”
“I guess I can,” the ex-demon sighed. “Just don’t be too long.” She thought a moment and added, “It’s not safe.”
“I’ll be sure to keep a watch.”
There was a pleasantly cool breeze to greet her when she stepped outside. Dr. Pryce inhaled the sweet air deeply and continued on to a set of steps leading down to an empty parking lot. Leaning a hip against a low concrete wall, she fished a single long, thin cigar out of her pocket and held it under her nose.
“I’d think a doctor would know better these days,” a low voice came from behind her.
The elderly woman lit her cigar and took a long puff. “I haven’t had one of these in nearly thirty years. A last indulgence tonight seemed in order.”
“You were expecting me,” Magister stepped into the light of the decorative lamppost.
She glanced at him, unafraid. “You should know I made sure the building has been warded against you. If you have come to prey on the wounded and helpless, you might find getting to them a challenge.”
“If they were of any concern to me, I could easily send Ethan or the Bringers in to finish them. Fearing only me is foolish of you.”
“I don’t think so,” the Watcher turned to face him. “You are too prideful to have lackeys do what you can accomplish yourself. And you enjoy the act of killing too much to let another take the pleasure from you.”
Magister grinned. “You know your little magick tricks can’t stop me for long.”
“Perhaps. But they are an inconvenience. If that’s all I can provide in this fight against you, then it is what I shall do.”
He chuckled softly. “You’ve left your children guarded, but you have come outside to face me with no protection yourself. A foolhardy act. Even for a Watcher.”
Dr. Pryce blew a cloud of smoke at him. “As long as you’re here with me the others will have that much more time to prepare.”
“You are not afraid.” He seemed intrigued.
“No. I’m too old and too tired to be afraid of one more vampire. Do you really think you’re the first I’ve ever stood face to face with?” The elderly woman rolled her sleeves up and unbuttoned the top of her blouse to pull the high collar aside. Scarring from dozens of bite-marks littered her arms and neck. “I was a young female Watcher at a time when the Council thought a woman’s only use was as bait. I survived that and those old men, why should I be afraid of you now?”
“Impressive,” the vampire bowed his head in sincerity. “To go from the oppression of watcher tradition to become a physician and field agent. You truly are a formidable woman.”
A vision of Quinten Travers appeared beside him and rolled its eyes. “Why are you still out here meddling with this inconsequential woman? Kill her and continue your mission.”
Magister noted the tensing of Dr. Pryce’s jaw and knew he was not the only one the First was visible to. “A case in point, I would assume.”
“If this ghost truly wanted to earn my ire, there were plenty worse before Quinten ever saw a scrap of power. I believe this vision is for you.”
Magister grinned again. “Oh, I am sorely tempted to abandon my intentions here and keep you as one of mine.”
A spike of fear shot through the elderly woman’s eyes, but her voice held no hint when she spoke. “No one wants a vampire around who actually looks a hundred years old. Better you get on with it.”
“Yes, get on with it!” the First shouted.
The vampire turned on the irritant. “You are a blunt instrument. A graceless shadow. You see your joys only in the ends and not the journey. Take pleasure in the moments, in the little things. Finding the weakness of a worthy adversary. Uncovering pain they never knew they could endure. Showing them the rapture of torments that contain an eternity in each continuous moment.”
Red rose on Travers’ face as the First grew more, and more angry. “Fine! If I have to force the issue…”
In a blink of his eye, Magister stood facing two new humans. Lilah Morgan and Lindsey McDonald, lawyers he knew all too well from Wolfram and Hart. His eyes began to glow and his fangs stood on edge at the sight of them. Hatred boiled within him.
“Shit!” Lindsey looked around frantically. “How’d we get here?”
“I don’t know, but you better have a good weapon to pull out of your pants.” Lilah directed his attention to the very familiar vampire before them. From her own back pocket, she produced a small cross and held it out. “Listen. We were just there to do a deal. It was an accident.”
“Yeah. If the little banshee hadn’t scared the hell out of everyone…”
“Silence!” Magister roared. “It’s your fault she’s gone. I will have your blood to pay for hers.”
“Kind of figured we were beyond reason here.” Lilah pushed Lindsey in front of her, trying to buy time to run.
The vampire grabbed Lindsey mercilessly, holding him off the ground by the upper-arms and preparing the exact his terrible vengeance. But something stopped him. He had witnessed terror in this man’s eyes before. Now there was none. His eyes were… dead. They were false.
“Get out!” he bellowed, dropping the victim he held and expelling the intruder from his mind.
“How did you do that?” the First stumbled into view, showing distress with heavy breaths and a submissive posture.
“You dare attempt to violate my mind?” the vampire’s growl was a low, deadly rumble. “You and your pitiful manipulations. Your weapon is fear. Yet I have none. You turn to rage, but lack the nuance to make your illusion all-satisfying. You cannot control what you don’t understand. So you will stand and watch. Watch while I retrieve your army from Hell. Watch while I lead it to subdue this world. And watch as, after all of that, I use it to finally finish you.”
“You can never,” the First hissed back. “I am Evil. The original and all-powerful.”
Magister leveled a penetrating gaze on the ghost. “And I am better.”
“Have it your way. I’ll finish this while you insist on playing with your mice.” A group of Bringers came around the corner of the building, heading for the entrance. The force of the shockwave that intercepted and tore them apart was felt for a mile in all directions.
“They’re mine!” Magister warned with a growl. “All of them.”
Frustrated and angry, the First vanished.
“You did it,” Dr. Pryce whispered in amazement, rubbing at the bruise that was sure to come up where she had been grabbed. “You drove it out of your mind.”
Returning to his human features and civil tones, Magister held a hand out to help her stand. “It skulks in darkness and weak minds. We both know there are more certain and… visceral ways to induce fear.” He began to slowly circle his victim, inspecting her. “Mortal men fear death. But not you. You have decided long ago that you would die for any of your charges, and so the threat has lost its bite. But your life isn’t the only thing I could take.”
“If you’re thinking about something else,” the old woman sighed, “I lost that a long time ago, too. But I’m flattered you would consider it.”
Magister chuckled. “If only I had the time. The use of forbidden pleasure as a torment is often as effective a tool as pain.”
“Think highly of yourself, don’t you?”
“Oh, how I would like to show you. But I need you to deliver a message for me. So, that leaves me to unravel the enigma you present. What is it you fear?” he whispered close to her ear. “You are a doctor, but a doctor cannot heal without her hands. A Watcher, but what is there to watch with no eyes? A teacher, but how do you pass on knowledge with no tongue?”
Dr. Pryce swallowed hard, but determinedly stood her ground. “You make no threats that time hasn’t made already,” she breathed. “I hope you don’t mind if I’m too tired for cowering and crying.”
“We shall see,” he hissed in her ear as he grabbed her and both vanished.
“What was that?” one of the wounded potentials stumbled into Xander’s room.
“Stay calm,” the young man sat up. “Maybe just an earthquake?”
Anya stared out the window. “Earthquakes don’t normally come with lightning. At least, not around here. When I was called to the--”
“What should we do? Some of us can still fight, but not many.”
“An,” Xander grabbed for the ex-demon’s hand. “If he’s outside attacking the building…”
“I know. The Doc’s somewhere out there.” Anya took a deep breath and made the frustrated sound of a child being forced to do something adult. “Fine! You, Girl, see if you can gather everyone together. Try to watch out for each other. I’ll go find Dr. Pryce.”
“Anya,” Xander held on to her. “You charging out there alone too isn’t going to help anything.”
“I’ll be back. I promise.” She pulled away from him and hurried down the stairs to the hospital entrance.
Outside the doors, she found carnage. A splatter of blood and body parts she would have been proud of in her heyday. But they were all Bringers. She recognized symbols drawn around the entrance as those used to invoke powerful wards. The building had been protected, defended even. But there was no sign of Dr. Pryce.
“So, how are you finding your new general?” Ethan asked casually when Diedre appeared in front of him with her arms crossed and tapping her foot in agitation. “Told you off, didn’t he?”
As he watched, a huge grin formed on her face. “He is incredible, unmatched, magnificent!”
“Yeah, heard Di say that about him before. Only not so much using those words.”
“Do you know,” the First paced forward, all but ignoring him. “He was able to drive me from his mind. He kicked me out and slammed the door. I can’t remember any being with such self-control and willpower for a thousand years. And then you know what he did? He dared to threaten me! He said that when he was done with this world, his next conquest would be my existence.”
“Well, Ripper always did have that rebellious streak.”
“I am the First. I am true evil, undeniable and unstoppable. And he swept me aside like a gnat. I, well, if I didn’t know better, I would never believe that he is nothing but another mongrel vampire. I haven’t seen such brazen darkness since the last pure demon walked the Earth.”
Ethan sighed. “I’m glad he’s met your high standards.”
“I mean, I could have done without his little tantrum destroying my followers… But acceptable losses.”
“You went after those he’s decided are his, didn’t you?” Ethan grinned. “That is one thing you’ll always find in him. Very possessive. Rupert may have been more subtle about it, but… Go after one of his people and you’ll always regret it.”
“Fine. I can let him take care of his own. In fact, I think I’ll enjoy just watching for a time.”
The sorcerer dipped his head in reverence. “If I may. Since Ripper has proved himself acceptable to you. I wonder if I might be allowed to fetch him a small gift. To celebrate our impending victory, and to… consummate our eternal alliance.”
Diedre’s dark eyes held laughter as she studied him. “You mean ya’ hope he’ll be grateful enough you’ll get in his pants.”
“From your lovely lips to... well, your ears.”
The First eyed him. “This thing won’t distract him from his task, will it?”
“On the contrary, I believe it will eliminate a distraction.”
“Then, by all means, present your offering and reap your reward.”
Ethan grinned and gave a slight bow before stepping back and vanishing in a whirlwind of smoke and lightning.
The scream echoed not only through the house but through the neighborhood. Buffy hurried to the front door and pulled the unlucky girl who had opened it inside. On the porch, strung up spread eagle, was Dr. Pryce. Her stripped back was facing them, and carved into her flesh were the words, ‘Buffy come alone’.
Buffy held everyone back. “Wait! I’ve seen this before.” As she said the words, fire spread across the wounds with a searing, but not consuming, flame.
“Make a hole!” Faith was there a moment later with a fire extinguisher, hosing down the flames.
Buffy clenched her jaw and her fists, trying to keep control of her anger. The terrified girls all around her did not need to see her lose it. She felt Spike brush past her on his way out to help Faith. Stripping off his coat, he flung it over the mutilated woman, trying the spare the potentials any more of the gruesome sight.
“Cut it down,” Buffy ground out.
The vampire nodded and worked his way around to the front of the body. His sudden shout made everyone jump. “She’s alive! Buffy, she’s still alive!”
“Get her down from there,” Buffy ordered. “Bring her inside.”
Spike and Faith worked as quickly and gently as possible. They wrapped the old woman up and carried her into the house.
“Don’t look,” Spike glanced up into all of the young, frightened faces before him. “Please look away.”
Buffy stepped beside them and had to screw her eyes shut against the awful sight. Both hands were mangled beyond recognition and dried blood caked sunken eyelids and an empty mouth.
“Why would anyone do this?” a shaky voice whispered from the crowd.
“This is his way of sending me a note,” Buffy murmured angrily.
“No!” Another cry came from upstairs. Kennedy was flying down so fast she nearly rolled to the bottom. “She’s gone! She’s gone.” She grabbed the front of Buffy’s shirt as if trying to both beg forgiveness and place blame. “I only closed my eyes for a minute, I swear. How can she be gone?”