DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course.  And the chapter titles are courtesy of Miles Davis.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY:  Sandrine has lashed Buffy to a stone dais in preparation for sacrificing her to Sira, the Scoobies have split up to get ready to stop the summoning, and Giles and Spike are guarding Freddie and Clara while they try to send Sandrine back into the ether…

*************

Chapter 39: Dark Magus

Spike’s gaze was sweeping the darkened shadows of the clearing when he heard the small question from behind him.

“Did anyone remember to bring a flashlight?” Freddie asked.

Out of the corner of his eye, he caught Giles turning to look back at the pair on the ground.  “What on earth do you need a flashlight for?” the Watcher asked, annoyed.  “I don’t see you reading from a text or anything.”

“I can’t tell which root this is,” the young man said.  “I don’t want to mess this up.”

Clara’s exasperated sigh almost brought a smile to the vampire’s face.  Guess even the all-knowing ones can get peeved at the lad, he thought in amusement.  “Just give that to me,” he heard her say, followed by the rustling of some leaves and the clicking of beads.  “Now.  Start your prayers.  Let’s get this show on the road.”

Her orders were punctuated by a rumble trembling the ground beneath the vampire’s feet, and Spike stumbled awkwardly before regaining his balance.  As his head whipped around, a series of growls emanated from the darkness around him, and he stiffened as his senses went into alert.

“Please tell me that wasn’t because of the wrong soddin’ root,” he said in a low voice.

“We haven’t even started yet,” Freddie replied shakily.  The whites of his eyes gleamed as his gaze darted around, his hands beginning to shake against his bended knees until Clara reached across and settled hers on top of his.

“Then I suggest you do,” Giles said grimly.  “Before---.”

He was cut off by a much louder version of the growl, and a flash of scales tackled him to the ground, his blade slicing fruitlessly at the air.  Spike was to him in a second, grabbing the demon by the scruff of the neck and tossing him aside, shielding the two on the ground behind him from further interruption as Giles scrambled to his feet.

“Get to it!” the vamp barked to Freddie, swinging his sword as the demon lunged forward again, its slitted eyes glowing red against the ebony background.  Knew this was too easy, he thought as the adrenaline of the fight began to dictate the fluid movements of his body.  He ducked a powerful fist with a determined smirk.  Couldn’t have the vamps here before sunset so the bitch brings in the back-up.  Should’ve seen that one comin’ a mile away.

When the demon’s fist clouted the side of his head, sending him sprawling sideways with a shower of stars suddenly obscuring his vision, he thought irritably as he shook it off, Should’ve seen that comin’, too.

*************

At least she could still see, even if being forced to stare up at the star-laden sky was all she was limited to.  Being bound and gagged had not been on the books for this plan, and the fact that she could hear the demons Sandrine had brought along as protection until the vampires could show up shuffling around in the distance did little to assuage Buffy’s alerted nerves.

When the dais vibrated beneath her back, she grimaced behind the gag, hands reacting instinctively to loose themselves from their bindings.  OK, she’d been willing to play along with the hogtying when she thought the others would get rid of Sandrine before she’d actually summon Sira.  But, in her experience, earthquakes never announced anything happy and shiny, so the time for pretending was over.  She just had to break free of the ropes, get out, and take her risks in trying to take Sandrine down on her own.

The strain of her biceps was frozen by a scalding hand curled around her wrist, and Buffy turned her head to see Peter’s blistered face peeking over the edge of the platform.  He was kneeling on the ground on the side furthest away from the mambo, with burns scorching his exposed skin from where he’d come through the ring of fire.  Slowly, he lifted a finger to his mouth to indicate she should remain silent, and she rolled her eyes.  Didn’t he see she was gagged?

Through the crackle of the flames, she heard the distant sound of Sandrine’s voice, chanting words in a language she didn’t recognize, and started struggling again.  This time, Peter’s hands came up to help her, working the knots in the rope with surprising ease.  As soon as her wrists were free, Buffy reached up and pulled off the cloth that covered her mouth, exhaling deeply in glorious appreciation of the fresh rush of air to her lungs.

“Your friends wait,” Peter said in a voice only she could hear.  “Directly behind me, there is a clear path out of here.  If you are quick, the demons will not see you before you are free.  Your friends are not that far away.”

“And Spike?” she asked, and then cringed at how selfish that sounded.  “Is he…are Freddie and Clara doing the vodou thing to get Willow back?”

Peter nodded.  “Everyone is doing their share,” he said simply.  “The people you choose to surround yourself with are very brave.  It is my honor to have had this opportunity to help you, Buffy Summers.”

Her muscles tensed to rise from her prone position, but the definitive tone of his voice made her pause.  “That sounds remarkably like a good-bye speech,” she said just as quietly.  “Trust me.  I’ve heard and said more than my share.”

“You need to hurry,” he said, ignoring her accusation.

“You mean we need to hurry.”

Peter’s eyes were fathomless as he stared back at her, unblinking and inky in his solemnity.  “Someone must stay or the mambo will be alerted to our presence,” he explained.

Her eyebrows quirked.  “Oh, and the fact that her sacrifice has morphed from a petite, blonde, white girl into a seven-foot, bald black man won’t be obvious at all.  Something tells me she’s a little smarter than that.”

“The flames obscure enough.  As long as she can see a body, she will not question it.”

“I’m not leaving without you,” she argued.

“You do not have a choice.”  With a liquid grace, he yanked her from the dais, pulling her body beneath his as he rolled sideways onto the surface.  Both his hands shoved her in the direction of the fire, and she stumbled onto the soft ground.  “Go,” he said.  “Time is not currently on our side.  You must make haste.”

Her lips parted to argue, but another rumble shook the earth, sending her hands flying out to steady herself.  By the time she looked back at the dais, Peter had turned away, his eyes closed, and she could see his mouth moving silently.  Praying, she thought as she rose to her feet.  As she bent over and made a dash through the dancing flames, the heat momentarily blinding before the sultry air of the night embraced her on the other side, Buffy added her own to his unspoken words, because even if nobody ever heard them, positive thoughts never hurt.

*************

The words rolled from her tongue, her eyes shut as her face tilted toward the heavens.  Yesssss, Sandrine thought as she felt the electrical power from the staff she held vertically in her right hand resonate through her fingers, binding and tingling and setting the small hairs on her arms on end.  Starting before sunset had been the smartest idea she’d ever had.  By the time Iris arrived with her entourage, Sira would be summoned and firmly under her control.  His power would be hers.  And her enemies, would be his.

Nothing could stop her now.

*************

There weren’t many attacking them, maybe four although it was often hard to tell, but they were strong, and determined, and…

Giles wrinkled his nose as he swung his sword at the nearest’s midsection.  And quite definitely the most foul-smelling creatures he’d encountered since moving to the US, he thought as he risked a moment to wipe away a stream of blood that was trickling in his eye.  An amalgam of scales and orifices oozing various secretions, the demons carried no weapons, choosing instead to fight with the claws they sported as hands.  Their size made them clumsy, and already Spike had skewered one, with a second about to fall under his onslaught.

Behind him, Giles could feel the charge of the spell Freddie was chanting, but the true power emanated from the seer, her focus channeling the young man’s words into the ether, calling forth the djab so that he could return Willow to control of her physical self.  They had been lucky so far.  Not one demon had made it past either him or Spike.  If they could just keep it up long enough, everything would be all right.

He hoped.

“Watch out!”  Spike’s voice sluiced through his momentary distraction, and Giles pivoted in time to evade the crashing forms of the vampire and his prey rolling through the muck.  They ended with Spike on top, and his blade glimmered in the moonlight as he plunged it through the demon’s neck, quelling its growl with a bloody gurgle.

“Two down,” Spike said with a smirk, hopping to his feet, his tennis shoes almost glowing in the dim illumination.  He shouted in protest as Giles shoved him aside, the Watcher thrusting forward to impale the demon that had been about to sink its claws into the vampire’s back.

The older Englishman pulled his sword back with an audible squelch, scowling when a shower of fluids rained upon his trousers.  Turning, he proffered his free hand to Spike, saying, “And one left to go.”

Spike hesitated, his eyes narrowing as they darted from the extended palm to Giles’ face, before his mouth settled into a firm line.  “Right,” he replied, taking the offer with a firm grip and hopping to his feet.  An approaching growl with an accompanying fetid stench caused the two men to circle in unison to face the remaining demon.  “Let’s show this wanker a thing or two about English superiority, Rupert.”

The smile that quirked the Watcher’s lips was unexpected.  “You do realize Buffy would have a few words about either one of us expressing such an opinion, don’t you?” he queried in amusement.

Spike’s foot lashed out, connecting with the approaching demon’s torso and sending him back onto the ground.  “Don’t really see the Slayer around at the moment, do you?” he said with a responding grin.

For the briefest of moments, Giles chuckled.  Maybe having Spike around a bit more might not be such a bad thing after all.

*************

“It’s been more than five minutes!” Xander exploded, his voice a hiss of frustration.  “No more waiting, Tara.  I say, we get in there and we get Buffy out.”

“Too late,” the blonde witch murmured. 

Her eyes were fixed over his shoulder, and Xander frowned at being so obviously discounted.  “It’s not too late,” he argued.  “Buffy needs---.”

“Buffy needs what?”

He whirled at the sound of the Slayer’s voice, and nearly collapsed in relief when he saw her tiny form standing in front of him, eyes wide as they looked around her friend.  “Nothing, obviously,” he said.  Without even realizing what he was doing, he dropped his weapon to scoop her into a bear hug, hugging her tightly before setting her back down on the ground.  It was only then that he realized she was alone, and his smile faded.  “Where’d tall, dark, and scary get to?” he asked.  “He did find you…right?”

A shadow passed over Buffy’s face.  “Where are Spike and the others?” she asked, ignoring his question.  “They didn’t have any problems getting Freddie and Clara set up to up to vodou Willow out, did they?”

Tara shook her head.  “We split up when we realized Sandrine was already here.  Do you know what those tremors were a minute ago?”

“Patience isn’t one of Sandrine’s better virtues.  I think she’s starting the party early.”  Buffy turned back to face the direction from which she’d come.  “We need to get back there before she gets any further.”

“But her summoning won’t work now,” Anya said as the trio trailed after the Slayer.  “She doesn’t have a sacrifice for Sira any more.”

“I wish I could say that was true,” Buffy muttered.  Louder, she added, “No going in until I say so.  Sandrine brought guards of the non-vampire variety.”  She took a deep breath.  “Now, let’s go.”

*************

No, no, no, no, no…

Not that chanting denial inside what remained of her consciousness was going to do any good, but as she felt the power course through the body she was being forced to share, Willow’s sense of helplessness could find no other outlet.  It was happening, and the hairs on her neck were prickling from the energy created by the voix mortelle, the skull perched on its end glowing.

If it opens its mouth and screams, I swear I’m going to officially wig.

Slowly, Sandrine opened her eyes, and Willow found herself staring up into the sky, clouds rolling and forming directly over her head.  The mambo was smiling, the beginning of a laugh creeping into her throat, and with a definitive thrust, lifted the staff to point directly at the dark grey cumulus.

The earth shook again, but Sandrine retained her balance, watching as the magical power she’d been generating with the staff leapt from the skull’s eyes to pierce the cloud with a brilliant flash.  A clap that resided somewhere between a screech and a boom cleaved the air, reverberating against her eardrums with a force that made her spine pulse, and the trembling in the ground grew.

Oh, sweet Hecate, here it comes…

It was with great reluctance Willow allowed herself to follow the mambo’s gaze as it lowered to the dais in the distance.  The fire was high, much higher than when they’d started, and it distorted the shape of Buffy’s body that could barely be discerned through the flames, making it appear longer and darker than she knew could be possible.  She knew from Sandrine’s thoughts that Sira wouldn’t be under her control until he accepted her sacrifice, but judging from the fissures that were already starting to form in the earth around them, it wouldn’t be that long now before he showed up.

It was then that she caught the flash of movement in the far edge of the clearing, sinking into the other woman’s confusion as she slowly stepped to the side in order to see more clearly.  Her eyes narrowed, and then widened as Buffy stepped from the trees, Tara directly behind her.

“No,” Sandrine hissed, her head whipping around to look at the dais again.  That was unmistakably a body that was resting there, but who it could be, neither woman knew.

Willow’s flash of excitement at seeing both her best friend and Tara, armed and ready for action, dissipated almost as quickly as it arose when she felt the rising anger inside her throat.  Panic made her freeze, and as the magic still thrummed in her body from the summoning, she could feel Sandrine pulling it forward, focusing it on her fury, her free hand extending and pointing at Tara---.

Noooooo!!!!!

*************

Not possible, Sandrine thought angrily, as her eyes fixated on the two blondes across the clearing.  The Slayer and the little witch’s lover.  There was no way they could be here; Buffy should still be on the dais and Tara wasn’t supposed to even know the summoning was happening tonight.

Yet, there they were.  And Sandrine wanted nothing more than to get rid of them, and everything they represented, once and for all.

As the power bubbled and scalded beneath her skin, her hand came up, ready for the fire to erupt and eradicate the blights from her plan.  Determined glee spread her lips into a vicious smile, and her eyes glittered in anticipation of seeing them burn.

The scream exploded inside her skull, bouncing and blinding and making her flesh seethe in pain.  Sandrine echoed its cry, the voix mortelle slipping from her grasp as her hands came up to clutch her head.  For the first time, her balance faltered, and the redhead dropped to her knees as she vomited into the earth.

Behind her lids squeezed tightly shut, her eyes seared as the pain receded.  What the hell…? she thought raggedly.  If she didn’t know better, she would’ve thought it was her own voice inside her mind, but then that wasn’t…

And the possibility of what it could be iced the ache, steeling her limbs as her fingers clawed into the dirt.

No.

The little witch was gone.

It couldn’t be her.

…Could it?

*************

The shriek that came from Sandrine’s lips reached them across the clearing, sending shivers down Buffy’s spine and compelling Tara instinctively forward.  Only the Slayer’s arm held her back, stopping the witch from rushing to her lover’s side, and she turned wide, anguished eyes to the smaller woman.

“What h-h-happened?” Tara asked.

“I don’t know.”  Buffy’s gaze was riveted on the writhing redhead in the distance.  The scream had sounded bestial, wracked in pain, and the fact that she was now getting sick didn’t bode well.  Is this what happens when Willow comes back? she wondered.  Briefly, she noticed the struggle the demons guarding the clearing were having with the tremors that were splitting the earth, and saw at least one fall into a chasm as it opened beneath him.  “Give me the gris gris,” she ordered quickly, and held out her hand.

Tara slipped it from her neck and passed it over.  “What are you going to do?”

“If that’s not Willow yet, I want to be there when it is.  Iris and her crew haven’t shown yet, so we’ve only to got to deal with the scaled ones here and the tremors.”  She turned back to look at Xander and Anya coming up behind them.  “Stay in the trees,” she instructed.  “And be careful of the cracks.  If you have to, climb a tree or something.  Just don’t fall into anything.”

And with that, she took off in a dead run for the other side of the clearing.

*************

The tremors were getting stronger, and not twenty feet away, Spike saw the beginning of a split in the muck, the ground opening as if to relinquish the last of its treasures.  “Shit,” he muttered, frowning as he took a step closer to it.  There weren’t any more demons to be threatened by, but Freddie and Clara were still at it behind him, his voice low and clear in spite of the hum that seemed to fill the air.

Where the vampire was staring at the ground, Giles’ gaze was trained on the sky, watching the hole that had formed in the clouds fill with a dazzling silvery light.  “Damn it,” Giles muttered.

Two sets of blue eyes met.  “We didn’t make it, did we?” Spike asked unnecessarily.

“I’m afraid not.”  He glanced back at the pair on the ground before looking off into the distance.  “Can you find Buffy?” he quizzed.

Spike inhaled deeply, and then nodded.

“Go to her.  If Sira arrives, she’s going to need as much help as she can get.”

“What about the mojo makers?”  He gestured toward the display between Freddie and Clara.

“They’re almost done.  There shouldn’t be any more threats from those demons.  I’ll get them back to the car as soon as they tell me it’s time.”  He watched as the vampire turned and began to run into the inky darkness.  “And watch out for those fissures!” Giles called out after him.

*************

She almost didn’t make it when a crack opened in front of her, sending the Slayer in a rolling leap to its other side in order to avoid falling in.  When she came to her feet, Buffy realized she was only a few feet away from Sandrine now, and that the redhead’s shriek had finally died away.

“What have you done?” Sandrine rasped, sweat from the fire and her pain gluing single strands of hair to her cheeks.

“Me?”  Buffy asked innocently.  She cocked her head as she looked down at the other woman.  “You’re the one with the pointy stick this time.”  They both looked down at the voix mortelle that rested on the ground between them.  “If you’ve got a problem with the weather, maybe you shouldn’t have done your little raindance.”  Behind her, the Slayer could hear the crackling of the fire burn higher, the occasional spark electrifying her skin when it escaped and landed on her.  I sincerely hope Peter’s making a run for it, she thought grimly.  Because I’m just a little too busy at the moment to go lend an extra hand there.

“She’s in…my head.”  Sandrine winced, her eyes fluttering closed for a moment before returning to glare at the blonde.  “How did you do it?” she asked again.

“I assume you’re talking about Willow.”  Slowly, she took a step forward.  “I hate to break it to you, but you never really got rid of her.  Willow’s been in the back seat all along.  And in just a few minutes, she’s going to be in the driving seat.  It’s over, Sandrine.”

“No.  I refuse to believe that.”  Her hands came up before Buffy could jump out of her way, but the magic died in a spray of sparks as soon as it reached the gris gris, scattering around the Slayer’s feet to sink into the mud.

“I don’t know why.  Who do you think let Spike go?  Did you really think I could’ve found him so fast?  I mean, I’m flattered and all, but c’mon, think about it.  Would I have helped him escape without at least taking his clothes along?  Have you seen how sexy he is in that coat?”  Another step, another few inches closer to the staff.  “It was all Willow.  She’s the one who confirmed for us that Freddie would help us.  She’s the one who got rid of your spell so that Spike could get away.  And she’s the reason you’re going to lose.”  Another step, but this time, Sandrine’s hand shot out to curl around the slim shaft.

A fresh quake sent both women sprawling, forcing the mambo to release her grip on the voix mortelle.  As Buffy scrambled for purchase, she felt suddenly weightless, as if she was floating on a bed of air, and realized with a split second to spare that the earth was crumbling around her.  She launched herself upward, using the loosening ground for whatever leverage it would provide, twisting her body to angle it away from the chasm that was spreading where she had been.

Rolling to safety, she looked up in time to see the staff disappear into the hole, and Sandrine scampering as close as she could to its edge, a look of horror on her face.  “No!” the redhead screamed in frustration.  But the cry immediately turned into one of pain, Sandrine’s body whipping backward as her eyes rolled back into her head. 

Buffy was at her side as quickly as she could leap the fissure, her fingers pushing back the damp hair that clung to her neck to settle on the hollow at its base.

Her breathing was rasping, her pulse even more erratic, and as the Slayer knelt there, the throbbing eased, softening as it slowed, until finally…it disappeared.

“No…” Buffy murmured in shock, as she stared down at her pale friend.

 

To be continued in Chapter 40: Prince of Darkness