hapter Thirty-Six - Black and Blue
The horror of learning the truth made Buffy's heart plummet to her queasy stomach.
She felt so dumb; The First had just been toying with her all along, making her think she was thinking for herself when really she'd been blindly following its plans at every step. The First had finally beaten them and it was all her fault.
As she processed the reality of their defeat, her insides churned angrily and a new wave of light-headedness made her nauseous. It was obvious now that the stinky sarcophagus gas was doing something to her deep within; changing her body internally into something horrible and new. Whatever it was in the gas, it was nasty and strong and she could sense it was truly evil. The burn in stomach didn't feel like she'd just eaten a bad burrito. For an icy weakness was spreading from her centre out along her limbs, an insidious numbness seeping slowly through her extremities until she could barely feel them anymore, like she was turning to stone under Medusa's flinty stare.
Dizzy and disorientated now her body was being quietly stolen from her, she couldn't keep her balance and she staggered, fighting Drogyn ineffectually as he tried to lift her off the sarcophagus. She felt as if she was plummeting backwards in slow motion. Out of her head. Flying…
… until she was placed gently back on her feet, returned to solid ground.
"Ugh," she wobbled slightly, her legs felt like liquid now. "Stupid legs."
Quickly, Drogyn dipped a shoulder under her arm and lifted her so she could stand up straight before she crumpled. "I'm sorry this has happened to you," he said, "I lament I have failed my sworn duty. Please ask of me any question you wish," He placed a comforting hand on her arm as he spoke, his words earnest and full of sorrow.
"What's happening to me?" she asked quietly; glad that she wouldn't have to fight him for answers this time.
He lowered his eyes and said, "You have been inflected."
Thankful for his support, she really didn't know what she would have done without him; she reached out, grasping at his tattered tunic to have something to cling on to. "Infected?"
He nodded solemnly. "I fear it may be too late."
Not understanding what he meant and finding the meaning of his words hard to grasp and hold on to as her mind floated, floated away, she furrowed her brow, just about hanging on to reality by her tingling fingertips. "What is it, supernatural flu?"
"It is much better than that." The smirk, the glee, was evident in The First's voice as it ran a loving hand along the top of the sarcophagus, its fingers idly tracing the branching cracks. Then, as if the entity had decided there was no time for such reverie, it pushed away and swaggered over to them. "Illyria, pet," it leaned in too close and whispered into Buffy's ear, "meet the Slayer."
As the ancient name was spoken, the Bringers moved as one, prostrating themselves on the cavern floor, as if acolytes of this great primordial god.
"Illyria…" Buffy muttered, tasting the name and not liking its flavour. Filled with dread, she wrenched her mind back into focus, fighting through the fuzz in her whirling head. "Illyria? Who's she?"
The First retreated and crossed its arms. It raised an eyebrow at Drogyn. "You know, don't you, Dro?"
Drogyn nodded slowly, his eyes full of regret as he looked down at her and answered, "I am afraid Illyria is one of the Old Ones that was left in my charge."
Buffy sagged against him, using his strong body to keep her from sinking into her knees. "I don't want to hear this, do I?"
"But I am afraid you must." Drogyn insisted, shifting to adjust her weight so he could pull her straight again. "Every one of these demons seeks its resurrection. Illyria is but one of those. Your body shall be its vessel."
"And me? What happens to me?"
"I'm sorry. I'm afraid you will…" Drogyn's voice was bleak and full of apology and sadness; there was little hope to be found there. "You will not exist any longer."
Buffy blinked, unable to process that revelation. "Then what? I die? I go back to heaven?"
"Then nothing," The First shook its head as it backed away to lounge against the sarcophagus once again. "Your essence shall be no more. You face oblivion."
That didn't make any sense. Buffy pointed a wavering finger at The First. "But you need me. I'm your sacrifice."
"Kind of." It agreed with a shrug of its shoulder that was far more casual than the situation really warranted. "Plus a side of revenge." Its demeanour changed at that, hardening as it stared at her, its face echoing Spike at his most dangerous. "Did you really think that something like the Deeper Well would just open up for some slayer's heart tossed into its depths? If it was that simple I'd have done it centuries ago. Not hard to find a slayer, even when there was only one girl in all the world. You see, you are just the beginning, Slayer. My little experiment. I have a well full of Old Ones and you made an army of slayers ready for them. Perfect vessels. Strong, limber and quick. Just what I need." It looked down at Wyndham-Pryce's cooling body without emotion. "And the Watchers? They did their part. This one sent them rushing to save some poor town not worth saving. Gathering all those new vessels together in Milton Keynes, each one just waiting to be filled." It looked back up at her, still grinning, still drunk on its victory. It drummed its fingers on the top of the sarcophagus as if it had all the time in the world. "There's a new Demon Age coming, eternal war, and the last human defence will fall. And the fun all starts here, with you."
"How can you do this?" Drogyn demanded; the outrage evident in the tone of his soft voice.
"It's complicated, I know." The First put out a hand as if to calm or stop him, but Drogyn didn't move. "Takes lots of work, lots of blood; lots of this and that and the other. And power. Real power. Yeah, there's rituals. Always is. Someone has to die; in a special place," it waved at the Well. "At a special time," it made a show of checking a watch it wasn't wearing, tapping its wrist with a pale finger. "And that time is, ooh almost now! Just need a bit more help. You see, it takes an Old One to open the Well. Bit of a paradox that, but I bent some rules. I can do that. There's nothing to stop me waking one of them up in the Well."
And then Buffy realised how the last piece of the puzzle fit into the plan. There was an Old One now living inside her, but all she had heard about them contradicted what The First was trying to do. "Why would it do that? Why would it free its rivals?"
The First's stare now grew serious and penetrating again. "Because I'll tell it to."
Lamely, because there was little more that her body could do, Buffy warned, "I won't let you do this!"
The First snorted, hardly impressed with her threats. "You will. You'll be dead. Don't worry, it'll be quick. Horribly painful, but quick. I can't wait to see the light go out in your eyes!" It grinned to itself, relishing that thought. "It's sad you know, if you'd been human, not just some bimbo pumped up on the magic of the Shadow Men, this might have taken a couple of days: Illyria slowly hollowing you out from the inside until you are nothing but a shell, but I won't get to relish it. That's the funny thing about the human immune system when it's strong, young, healthy; it fights too hard and just helps the infection along. And what's stronger than a slayer?"
Buffy mind raced, searching for a solution, while also trying to avoid – and failing – to take offence at the entity calling her a 'bimbo', as if that was important right now. She could barely stand and she only had Drogyn to help her; her axe was out of reach and Drogyn's sword was now lost somewhere out amongst the Bringers; there was nothing she could use now but her fists and her wits. She'd got by on less in the past. She wasn't a bimbo.
And then she had it. Nothing else had worked and this might be the only shot she'd get. Without hesitation, pushing through her weakness and trying not to think of The First's resemblance to her vampire lover, she reached out and pulled the obsidian knife from the lid of the sarcophagus. In one movement, she plunged it deep into The First's chest, ramming it right through its unbeating heart.
The perpetual smirk vanished and Buffy knew then she was right. It looked at her desperately, those blue eyes that were so easy to mistake for Spike's were shocked and betrayed as it clawed at the knife, trying to pull the blade free with hands that no longer had the strength to grip the hilt. It gasped, mouthing wordless obscenities, then toppled back, hitting the floor as it convulsed, its back arching in spasms. As the entity writhed, a thick, black steam issued from its exposed skin as its essence separated from its body.
Immediately, Buffy felt something rise up her throat to choke her. She coughed hard, trying to force out whatever it was that was blocking her lungs. She couldn't breathe, smothered from within. Coughing again was next to impossible when nothing would come. She could feel her lungs clench as she fought and failed to fill them. Drogyn held her tight around her middle, but there was nothing he could do except hold her steady and fuss. Then suddenly, just as she thought she couldn't stand the pain any longer, the blockage broke free and a bitter mouthful of the same black and hideous vapour came up so fast she spat it out as she spluttered to take a breath. Coughing out the last of it, it too rose up to join the rest pouring out of The First's pores. It billowed and rolled then disappeared upwards past the flimsy rope bridge far above them and out through the tunnels near the top of the Well.
As Buffy tried to catch her breath again, the Bringers came to life. Their master fallen, dead or gone, or whatever, now they were anchorless, disorientated; vulnerable without their leader to guide them. Where before they moved together in unison with common purpose, they were now disorientated and witless. Without will or reason of their own beyond their blind service, they panicked, or seemed to, fleeing in different directions at once. They fled for what remained of their lives.
All that was left of The First was a pale corpse, ashen skinned and sunken-cheeked. Spike. But not really. What was The First had departed, leaving that part of it that had been re-made in a poet-punk vampire's image; something now dead and empty, nothing more. Yet Buffy knew this was only half of the battle. She had driven The First out, but it hadn't just been banished for good. She knew that it was still out in the world, ready to regroup and return when it could. But she had done all she was able to; The First had got its revenge on her and she had little time left. Perhaps it would leave her friends alone now. That would have to be her victory.
The physical effort of wielding the knife and all the coughing had made her feel woozy again and Buffy found her mind was slipping away from her down a dark, fathomless tunnel. Her legs forgot they were meant to support her and she sank to her knees, oblivious to the chaos around her. Drogyn sprung to catch her, but he was only quick enough to ease her lightly to the floor.
She steadied herself on his arm. "I can do this."
With an iron resolve she gathered herself and let go, forcing her rebellious limbs to obey her. Her head swam as she propped herself up on her hands. Of course her body would do what she told it to, she was… she was... the Slayer!
She was, wasn't she?
She felt… odd now, uncomfortable in her own body as if it didn't belong to her anymore and she noticed a strange blue flush was starting to spread down her fingers from the tips, although she didn't think she was cold.
"Lady, I have you." A voice said kindly, soothingly. It was a new voice in her life, not Spike or one of her friends, but it was familiar. Friend, not foe. Where had she heard it before?
A sweat broke on her forehead as she reached out for the owner of the voice again and pulled herself to her feet.
Her fingers were turning blue! She had to stop this. Her hands weren't supposed to be some strange colour, unless she'd painted the nails that way, but blue? She wouldn't choose that. Totally not her thing. Shivering, she stumbled forward, finding each step with difficulty, but drawing herself up to fight whatever it was that was attacking her. She tried to look dangerous and defiant; neither of which she felt.
A hand was placed on her arm to steady her and it shook her insistently for her attention. She opened her eyes – she hadn't even realised she'd closed them – to focus on the man trying to get her attention. Dro… Drog… Drogyn, that was what he was called right? Weird name.
"Lady," Drogyn said, "you are strong and the infection is but new. You may fight this."
Forming words was tricky, but she managed one: "How?"
"You must push the demon out," he insisted. "Find something, anything that could contain it and cast it from you."
"What do you have? A mirror? A crystal on a necklace or a trinket perhaps?" He looked over at the two corpses in front of them. "If all fails, use one of them."
"No." She shook her head, regaining a little focus. "I can't. Spike. I… I have a crystal, I think. In my pocket?"
"That will be perfect." Drogyn rummaged through her coat, trying each pocket in turn. Then he pressed something into her hand. Fighting the fuzziness in her head and the conflicted muscles that didn't know who they belonged to anymore, she curled her fingers around the object he'd given her: the crystal Willow had insisted she take as she'd left the Retreat.
"Push Illyria out," he urged. "Cast the demon from you. It will fight you, but for now you are stronger yet."
Barely able to focus on anything other than the blue streak leeching the healthy colour from her arms, the crystal fell from her weak grip. Drogyn picked it up and placed it back in her palm, this time holding his hands over hers to keep it tightly in place.
"Push it out," he encouraged again.
She tried but she didn't know how to do what he asked. "How? I don't—"
"Push." He squeezed her hand and her head cleared; just a little, but enough.
The stone was the earth and reality and everything that was her. She looked up at Drogyn and nodded. She understood now. She fought the pressure within her with all she had, forcing the threat out of her body until the crystal started to vibrate with the energy she was pushing into it. This was working. Taking the chance, she shoved with her mind, throwing the presence from her body and out. The crystal, which been light and clear like a pale winter's sky, darkened as she struggled, the stain invading her fingers leaching into the stone, flushing the crystal with the deep indigo of a clear, moonless twilight. Suddenly the pressure became too much and the crystal sheared and shattered, exploding into a million tiny sapphire shards, but that didn't matter: Buffy was free and her head was all hers again.
Drogyn looked into her eyes, examining her closely, searching her gaze for any trace of the infection. "You are fortunate," he concluded. "Illyria has been banished. You may yet survive."
She nodded. She knew that was true.
He released her and Buffy found could finally stand by herself. No more staggering or knees like quivering Jello. She looked down at Wyndham-Pryce's body, trying not to look at again that the dead thing that wore her lover's face, but she hoped she had bought Spike the time to save him from the amulet. She tried not to think too much about that, there was nothing else she could do for him now. His fate was in the hands of her friends and their unacceptable plans. Instead, she tried to forget her powerlessness and concentrated on what she was going to tell Wesley about his father. She would need to choose her words very carefully. At least there was something good she could say about his death; Wyndham-Pryce might not have known it, but he'd given her the opportunity to win even in his betrayal. He might not have deserved the eulogy, but his son did; she would try to honour his father with that at least.
"Come, we must leave this place," Drogyn said as he recovered his sword from where the Bringers had abandoned it. He looked back at her as he slipped the blade back into its scabbard, waiting patiently for her answer. He looked as eager as she was to end this for good.
She nodded at him, ready. She wasn't going to argue with him, she'd had more than enough of the cavern, the ledge, or whatever it was now, she wanted to get back to her friends, to Spike, she needed to know if she had been quick enough, yet somehow now she felt hopeful that he was going to be okay.
But duty came before her worries.
She picked up her axe and followed Drogyn towards the exit to the caves. The Bringers and the fledging vampires were still out there and would need to be cleared up. There was still one hell of a battle to be fought out there.
This was not quite a victory to celebrate yet.
A/N: I can't promise the next chapter will write itself as quickly as this one.