DISCLAIMER: The characters are Joss’, of course.  And the chapter titles are courtesy of Miles Davis.
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY:  Sandrine used the voix mortelle, creating a series of shocks that are splitting the earth; Peter took Buffy’s place on the dais so that she could escape; Buffy retrieved Tara and the others and went back to the clearing but when Sandrine tried to attack them, Willow exerted her will and stopped her; Freddie and Clara worked to reverse Sandrine’s presence, but when it looked like Sira might be arriving, Giles sent Spike off to help Buffy…

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

Chapter 40: Prince of Darkness

He knelt over the young man’s unconscious body, able fingers pressing lightly into his wrist.  “It’s faint, but it’s there,” Giles said as he felt the thready pulse at his fingertips. 

“I believe I told you that already,” Clara said nonchalantly.

Glancing away from Freddie’s pale face, the Watcher saw her picking up the various items from the ground, tucking them away into her bag as if the earth wasn’t shaking beneath her seat.  “Pardon me for being concerned when a young man collapses into my lap,” he commented dryly.  “I suppose no matter how many potential apocalypses I may help avert, I’ll just never be comfortable bearing witness to one of my allies’ possible death.”

She dismissed his comment with a wave of her hand.  “The boy was never in any risk of dying,” she said.  “And you really need to relax.  We’re on the same side here, remember?  I wouldn’t have helped if I didn’t think I could do some good.”

“Well, you certainly weren’t recruited for your bedside manner,” he muttered as he worked at loosening Freddie’s shirt.  Perhaps a bit of fresh air would be enough to revive him.

Clara smiled.  “One of the benefits to having some clue as to what’s coming, I guess.  If I don’t seem concerned, it’s because I know what’s goin’ to be, is already been.  Nothing you or me can do at this point can change the tracks, Mr. Giles.  We might as well just sit back and enjoy the ride.”  As if to emphasize her point, the ground quaked beneath them, driving Giles to his knees in order to steady himself.

“My apologies if I’m not the sort to just ‘sit back,’” he barked at her.  His temper was short.  He’d watched Freddie get inhabited by the djab, then collapse into unconsciousness, lying there looking very much dead in spite of the contrasting argument of his heartbeat.  In the distance, he could hear the rumblings of what he was convinced could only be Sira, he had no idea if Buffy was safe, and here was Clara trying to tell him to essentially take it easy?  Perhaps he should’ve gone instead of Spike.  At least then, he wouldn’t have to worry about---.

“Your Slayer is safe, dearie,” she said softly, as if she was reading his thoughts.

His head jerked up.  “Then she stopped the summoning.”  He was about to exhale in relief when she shook her head.

“Sira’s already risen.”  Her eyes were enigmatic, shining back the glints of moonlight that managed to break through the clouds, the faintest hint of a smile curling her lips.  “Or did you think the ground splitting around us was the latest in horticultural experimenting?”

“So Spike got to her in time?”

“No, Peter did.”  Clara lumbered to her feet.  “There’s more at work here than you truly understand, Mr. Giles.  And not that I’m the type to be tellin’ people what they should do, but perhaps your energies might be better served in getting our young friend here back to the car instead of fussing about issues that’ll be resolved before you can even reach them.”

Before he could respond, his attention was diverted by Freddie’s groan of pain, a shaky hand reaching up to the young man’s forehead as if to stave away the pain.  “Sometimes, I really hate this vodou stuff,” he muttered as he struggled to push himself upright.

“Do be still,” Giles instructed.  He rolled his eyes when the ground refused to cooperate and rumbled again, pitching him against Freddie’s legs and knocking them both in a tangle of limbs to the side.

“Tell that to the ground,” Freddie said, and then frowned.  “And why’s this still all goin’ on?  Willow should be back now, right?”

“You tell me,” the Englishman muttered.  Scooping beneath the other man’s arms, he pulled him vertical as Giles managed to stand.  “But do so back at the car.”  He cast a glance sideways at a waiting Clara.  “Our work is done here.”  Silently, he added the prayed codicil, Let’s hope so at least, before pulling him away in the direction of the Desoto.

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

Xander frowned at the flash of white that appeared below him.  “Spike?” he asked in a forced whisper.

The white expanded to include the pale expanse of the vampire’s frowning face as he peered upward.  “Harris?” he quizzed back.  One brow lifted in immediate amusement.  “Up a tree, huh?  Should’ve seen that one comin’.”

“Buffy told us to wait here---.”

Mention of the Slayer’s name jerked Spike’s head back around again, peering into the clearing before him.  “She’s safe then?”

“Safe as she can be considering we’ve got the towering inferno out there,” Xander replied.

“What about Red?”

“Sh-sh-she’s in there, too.”  When Spike’s gaze swiveled to see Tara peering down at him from a distant tree, she smiled in acknowledgement, though her eyes were haunted.  “She tried attacking us, b-b-but something happened to stop her.”

The vampire nodded.  “You lot stay put,” he ordered as he resumed his course for the clearing.  “If Buffy wants you out of the way, then there must be a reason for it.”

He was gone before Xander could respond, and the brunette scowled as he squinted through the branches and watched him disappear into the night.  “Not that I’m hopping to be Sandrine’s next little mister matchstick,” he said, “but how come Spike’s the one who’s jumping into the fray down there and we’re scoping out the perfect treehouse spots up here?”

“Well,” said Anya from the branch behind him.  “He’s got vampire speed, vampire strength, not to mention it looks like he found Buffy without breaking a sweat.  Metaphorically speaking, of course.”

“Right.”  As he shifted his weight to try and look into the distance, a spray of leaves fluttered to the damp ground beneath him.  “Why does that still not make me feel better about this?”

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

No, Buffy thought in desperation as she pulled Willow’s lifeless form away from the opening crevasse.  I did not come this far just to lose her now.  Her heels scrabbled against the loose earth, the smoke in the air clogging her lungs, but the only thing that mattered to the Slayer then was what she was going to do to get her best friend breathing again.

Once Willow was stretched out onto a relatively flat piece of earth, Buffy pushed back the hair that was matted to her face by sweat, revealing the pale cheeks.  One hand slid behind her neck as she tilted her head up, but as she leaned over to begin mouth-to-mouth, a shudder convulsed the redhead’s frame, accompanied by a piercing scream that split the air.

The Slayer jumped back, landing on her bottom as she watched Willow bolt upward, green eyes huge and staring up into the clouded sky.  As her cry faded, her breathing became a little more labored, her chest heaving as she seemed to struggle to regain her composure.  Seconds passed, until slowly, Willow’s head turned to look over at the blonde.

“Buffy?”

She didn’t need Spike around this time to know who this was.  With a puff of relief, she launched herself forward to snatch her friend up in a huge hug, relief and gratitude combining in a wrenched sob from her lungs.

Feebly, Willow’s hands came up to pat Buffy on the back, but her gasping for air quickly made it clear that the Slayer was holding her too tightly.  She was smiling when they parted, though, the color very slowly returning to her cheeks.  “Next time you hear me complain about not being more assertive,” she commented, “you have my permission to just slap me.”

“Come on,” Buffy said, jumping to her feet and holding out her hand to offer assistance to the other young woman.  “We have to get out of this place before it falls apart around us.”

“We can’t,” Willow said, though she scrambled to her feet anyway.  “Can’t you tell?  She did it.  She summoned Sira.”

“Crap.”  Her gaze narrowed as she turned to scan the clearing, the smoke burning her eyes, obscuring more and more of the terrain.  Most of the demons were now gone, either fled or fallen, and it appeared that the tremors quaking the earth were finally starting to abate.  The ground still shook, though, and when she felt Willow’s hand grab her arm, turning her slightly so that she looked at the edge of the trees behind him, Buffy’s insides froze.

Calling it a serpent demon wasn’t entirely accurate, she decided.  Oh sure, it was scaled, with a flat hooded head rising from its snake-like body.  But serpents didn’t have arms, and they sure as hell didn’t have long, razor-sharp claws at the end of those arms.  And the whole rising up on back legs to stand taller than the trees themselves?  That sure as hell didn’t scream out, “I’m a serpent, look at me,” to Buffy at all.

“OK,” Willow breathed next to her.  “Who’s thinking the Mayor wasn’t the biggest asp in the garden right about now?”

Silently, Buffy agreed.  “How’re we supposed to kill that?” she mused out loud, and glanced at her friend out of the corner of her eye.  “You couldn’t have come back just a few minutes earlier?”

“Don’t look at me,” the redhead replied.  “I’m assuming your beef is with Freddie for dragging his feet on the vodou end.”

She didn’t get a chance to respond.  Where for a moment, the world had stilled to an unearthly silence around them, now it erupted into a shuddering screech as Sira launched himself through the air, flying over the heads of the two girls, driving them to automatically duck even though it was more than fifteen feet above them.  Buffy whipped around to see it land on the inner circle of the fire that ringed the dais upon which she’d spent most of the night strapped, and felt her stomach drop.

Peter’s unmoving body still lay there.  Waiting.

She was already running when Sira swooped in, knees pumping as she cleared the nearest of the cracks.  Not that she really thought she could make better time than a six-story snake who looked like he could fly, but she had to try.  That was the least she could do.

She wasn’t expecting the hard body to tackle her from the side, sending them both rolling too near the edge of one of the crevices.  Her body twisted from the tight muscles, but she stayed her punch when she saw the familiar platinum head bob up.

“What the hell do you think you’re doin’?” Spike demanded.

“It’s good to see you, too,” she retorted.  She leapt to her feet, dusting off her bottom as she turned to see Sira scoop up Peter’s body in the claws it sported as hands.  “Oh, fuck,” she muttered, watching the black man’s body disappear down the serpent’s gullet.

Spike squinted through the flames.  “Not that it makes a lick of difference now,” he said, “but just who were we serving up for dinner tonight?”

“That would’ve been Peter.”  She didn’t get it.  He could’ve run at any point, and yet, he’d stayed within the fire.  Almost as if he’d been waiting for Sira to show up.  But why?  It didn’t make any sense.

Until it stepped through the fire and rose up onto its haunches, looking directly over the two blonds heads to Willow behind them.

“Mistresssss…” Sira hissed.  “I await your command.”

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

As soon as he saw the serpent demon in the clearing, Xander was grateful for having been ordered to stay behind.  “You didn’t tell us that it was that big,” he complained to Anya.

“You saw the Mayor,” she countered.  “How big did you think it was going to be?”

“If I never see another snake,” he started, and then stopped when a flurry of movement out of the corner of his eye caught his attention.  Pressing his body into the branch, Xander inched himself out further along its length, his weapon running down the length of his leg as he tried to maintain his balance.

“What’re you doing?” Anya asked.

He didn’t respond.  Instead, his brown eyes bored through the darkness, watching the shadows emerge from the foliage in the distance.  The pale gleam of moonlight scattering from undead skin made his blood run cold, and he hesitated for only a moment before rolling from his perch to land with a squelch to the mire below.

“What’re you doing?” Anya repeated, her voice higher, more insistent.  She scowled as he began to walk toward the clearing.  “Both Buffy and Spike told us to stay here.”

“That was before they knew we were going to have more company,” he replied, and pointed.  “Iris and her vampire crew at two o’clock.”

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

Willow’s eyes widened as Sira rose to its full height in front of her.  For the briefest of moments, she almost wished that Sandrine was back in control; she had no doubts that the other woman would know exactly what to do at the moment.  She only had one idea, but somehow she doubted asking the demon to throw itself on the fire and self-immolate so that the rest of them could escape without any more fanfare would go over very well.

“Mistressss…” it repeated, and she was transfixed as it took a step closer to her.

“Hi,” she replied feebly, giving it a little wag of her fingers.  “Have a nice trip?”

Sira ignored her flippancy.  “What is my mistress’ command?” it asked.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Buffy and Spike---Spike?  When did he get here?---begin to skirt around the edge of the clearing, weapons drawn as their gazes were locked on the serpent gliding through the flames.  They were at just as much of a loss as she was, and though she could see that they were both ready to attack should the need arise, it was also obvious they were hoping they really wouldn’t have to fight something quite so large.

Think, think, she ordered herself.  But her mind came up blank, her nerves skittering across her skin as Sira oozed even closer.

A cool hand came down upon her shoulder, and Willow shrieked in fright, whirling to see Iris standing just behind her.  Her eyes glowed golden in the dancing light, and she growled in disappointment at the smaller woman’s reaction.

“Don’t tell me you’re scared of it now that we’ve got him,” the vampire chastised.

It was then that she realized one element of power she still held.  As far as Sira and Iris were concerned, she was still Sandrine.  The one who commanded the serpent demon to do whatever it asked of her.  The one who had the blonde vampire sufficiently cowed in order not to cross her.  That could still work in her favor.

“Back off,” Willow said as harshly as she could manage, quelling the tremor in her voice as she took a step away.  She held up her hands as if to begin a spell in Iris’ direction, and felt an inner flush of power when the other woman instinctively retreated.  “There is no we, Iris,” she continued.  “I’m the one who masters Sira.  Don’t ever forget that.”

“You can’t control him if you’re dead,” Iris countered, her voice cool even if fear played across her face.  She lifted her hand as if to wave at someone behind her, and Willow saw the sets of amber-colored eyes come gleaming out of the darkness.

“What’re you doing?” she demanded, and felt the magic boil within her hands, the sparks fly between her fingers.  Good golly Miss Molly, she thought.  I guess there’s a little more of Sandrine left in me than I realized.

Though Iris took another step away, she remained unflappable.  “Something I should’ve done ages ago,” she said.

Willow’s hands swept in a circle around the two women, encasing them in a ring of fire that separated them from the approaching demons. “Sira!” she shouted out as her gaze lifted to stare up at the serpent.  The decision on what to do just got made a whole lot easier, she thought. “Kill all the vampires!”

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

Buffy sensed the additional presences first, and turned just in time to avoid the assault from a pair of Iris’ minions.  They went soaring through the air over her head, but by the time she’d turned to face them, Spike had already tossed one onto the bonfire behind him, grinning in delight when it burst into flame with a pained scream, and was fighting it out with the remainder of the pair.

Willow’s command reached her ears, but the momentary satisfaction she felt at the unseen back-up was quickly replaced by grim determination when yet more of the vampires rushed to attack.  A roundhouse kick cleared those nearest to her, and she swung the sword in her hands to decapitate the first of the wave that followed. 

We can’t keep this up for very long, she thought.  They were far too outnumbered, and though Sira was dispatching the vampires in droves, there were too many of them pouring in through the trees, replenishing the numbers almost as quickly as she and the others fought to keep them down.  Geez, did she recruit every vampire in New Orleans?

At the edge of the clearing, she saw Xander and the others emerge with their weapons drawn, focusing on a single vampire at a time in an attempt to help with the fight.  It distracted her for a fraction of a second too long, though, and she screamed out loud, more in frustration than the actual pain, when a Neanderthal vamp tackled her around the waist, sending both of them into the mud and rolling dangerously close to one of the chasms that split the earth.

Its growls were too near her ear, and instinctively, Buffy threw her head back, feeling it connect with its jaw and loosening its grip.  It wasn’t enough to get it off, though, and he sank his fangs into her shoulder, biting down into the sinew with a ferocity that made her eyes water.

The scream of anger shot through the air, and almost as quickly as it had settled there, the weight above the Slayer disappeared, allowing her to roll away from the threat and to see a demon-faced Spike throwing the offending vampire onto the pyre behind him.  Blood mottled his face, dripping from a deep gash along his brow, but before she could say anything, he had dropped to her side, cool hands tearing the fabric away from her neck to expose the mark on her shoulder.

“I did not come all this way just to see you get taken out by a two-bit vamp with a Frankenstein complex,” he growled, pressing his hands into the wound to staunch the flow of blood.

She grinned, in spite of the glower that furrowed the ridges in his brow.  “Love you, too, Spike,” she said.  She grimaced when she tried to sit up, though, the pain shooting down her arm.

“Stop your bloody moving,” he ordered, but his secret pleasure at hearing her say the words softened his tone.  Quickly, he risked a look around, noting the vampires that were still trying to reach them and the relative calm that surrounded Willow and Iris.  He frowned.  “At least we don’t have to worry about Red,” he commented, and then lashed out with a heel when an approaching demon got too close, sending it flying backwards, straight into Sira’s claws.  “She’s the eye of the storm, it looks like.”

“Score one for our side,” Buffy quipped.  Pushing his hands away, she struggled to her feet, ignoring the ache that remained in her shoulder, the sticky feel of her blood running down her back.  “Now if we could only do something about Godzilla over there---.”

Her words were cut off as she was engaged in another battle, pulling away from Spike to face the aging brunette who’d sucker-punched her side.  That left the bleached demon to turn toward his own fight, but this time, the attacker that faced him towered in glowing scales for yards above him.

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

Fuck, he thought as he stared up at Sira.  Not that he hadn’t ever wished he was just a couple inches taller on the odd occasion, but somehow, up to this point, he’d never truly felt insignificant in stature.  Funny how looking down the wrong end of a snake demon as big as a redwood made one re-evaluate those kind of things.

A snap of Sira’s claws sent Spike sprawling to the left in order to avoid being sliced in two.  By the time he’d rolled onto his back, another claw had come down, narrowly missing skewering his thigh, and he flipped himself backward, over the chasm behind him, in order to gain a little more distance from the demon.

Clearly, he was the next target, though why Sira was choosing to focus on him, Spike had no idea.  It was then he remembered Willow’s words, the command to kill all the vampires.  Aw, Red, he thought with a scowl as he danced away from another swipe of those deadly pincers.  You couldn’t have been a little more specific and excluded me from the body count?

That thought was all it took for the solution to present itself.

Well, really, remind him of its presence.  Because he’d had the solution to his own safety all along.

Red.  Safe and secure from Sira.

Though his foot slid in the mire when he twisted his body away from the latest sweep, Spike was off and running, leaping the splits in the earth that stood in his way.  At his back, he heard Sira’s frustrated growl turn into a scream when he saw where the vampire was going.

Can’t bloody well stop now.

Not leaving Buffy behind to face this thing alone.

The shock that gleamed across Willow’s face was lost when Spike dove through the flames to tackle her head on, enclosing her in his embrace as he twisted her around to put her body between his and the approaching serpent.  Immediately, Sira froze, its head rearing back as it gazed down at the pair on the ground.

“Don’t.  Move,” Spike hissed in Willow’s ear.

She obeyed without question.  Slowly, he eased his body backward, struggling to a sitting position with the redhead resting firmly between his legs, her back pinioned to his chest.  He nearly growled when he saw Iris approach to their side.

“Are you crazy?” the female vamp said in amazement.  She folded her arms across her chest.  “You’re ten times more powerful than Spike.  Just set him on fire and be done with it.”

He rolled his eyes in annoyance.  What he wouldn’t give to just shut Iris up permanently for a change.

Apparently, Willow had the same idea.

“I think you’ve just outlasted your usefulness, Iris,” she said coldly, and looked directly into the serpent’s eyes.  “Kill her, Sira.”

She never had a chance to even move.  Before Spike could blink, the towering demon had lowered its nearest claw, its pincer slicing cleanly through the vampire’s neck to send a shower of dust raining down into his and Willow’s faces.

“About bloody time,” he muttered as the redhead began sneezing convulsively against him.

Sira’s head swiveled back to stare down at them, slitted eyes darting back and forth between its mistress and the demon of the sort she had ordered him to kill.  Around the clearing, the other vampires were starting to retreat, the death of their leader instilling the fear of failure into them.

“Tell him to leave me be,” Spike said, not bother to keep his voice low any more as he pulled the pair of them to their feet.

Willow did as he instructed, holding up her hand to bar Sira back.  With the immediate threat of the vampires diminishing, and Iris no longer a menace, the world of the swamp seemed to be at a stalemate as Buffy and the others slowly advanced upon them.

“Well…now what?” the redhead asked when they were all together.  Though she was fairly certain it wouldn’t do anything without her express order, she didn’t dare tear her eyes away from the demon before her.

The sound of clapping behind them was the first response to her question and slowly, everyone but Willow turned to see D’Hoffryn standing at the edge of the clearing.  “Excellent show,” he praised as he advanced upon the group.  “Thank you so much for sending Halfrek with the invitation.”

“You couldn’t have shown up a little bit earlier and given us a hand?” Buffy asked dryly.

“Oh, but I’ve been here all along,” he replied.  “Well, since Sira showed up, at least.  I just didn’t want to get in the way of all the lovely bloodshed.”  His eyes turned to Willow.  “I always knew you had it in you, my dear Miss Rosenberg.  You truly are a marvel.”

“Kinda busy here, D’Hoffryn,” Willow said, keeping her voice low and even so that she wouldn’t upset the serpent.

“Yeah,” Buffy agreed.  “So, if you’ve got something to say---not that we’re really all that interested right now anyway seeing as you didn’t even pitch in with the fight---I suggest you come out and say it.”

“But I thought you knew already.”  His gaze returned to the Slayer, his head held high.  “I’ve come to fetch my voix mortelle.”

 

To be concluded in Chapter 41: There Is No Greater Love