DISCLAIMER: Everything but the plot is Joss'.  Too bad. 
PREVIOUSLY ON BUFFY:  Buffy has witnessed firsthand how vamped William brought Melly back to prove himself to his mother once and for all, only to be jerked from the spell when Dolly ignored Giles’ order and brought Cortina back to her caves, negating the spell and leaving Buffy and unconscious Spike alone with the Soul Eater…

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

Chapter 34: The Impulse of Thy Strength

Buffy’s nostrils flared as she took a step toward Spike and the Soul Eater.  “I said…get.  Your hands.  Off him.”  Though her eyes were fixed on the pair in black, recognition of her surroundings finally broke through her worry.  Her dream.  When she’d first been warned of the Soul Eaters.  This was the same place.

“Did you like what you saw?” the demon asked, ignoring the warning.  “Was it a pleasant experience for you?  My poor William.  So lost.  So tortured because he felt abandoned by those he’d sought to protect.”  Her blue gaze gleamed in the dark night sky as she looked up at the Slayer.  “He killed her, you know.  In front of his mother.  She tried begging for her life, and when that didn’t work, she tried using the child to influence him.  ‘Would you rid your sister of her mother as well?’ she cried out.  It was all far too melodramatic for words, let me tell you.  And then, when it was all over, darling mummy called him a monster and said that his actions were reprehensible.  Worse than anything his father had ever done.”  She laughed, and the crystal tones sliced into Buffy’s flesh.  “He ran then.  He couldn’t even bear to look at her, to see the disappointment in her face.  He loved her so much, and she betrayed him.  Well, that’s what he believed, at least.  It’s a shame you had to miss it, though, but then again, you wouldn’t have seen it anyway.  You would’ve been dead by that point.”

“Spike killed a lot of people before he got his chip,” the Slayer said tersely.  “Vampire, remember?”

“And that does not bother you?”

“I’m not exactly dancing in the aisles about it, but that doesn’t matter now.  He’s changed.  He’s…different.  And…why am I talking to you when I should be kicking your ass?”  She started to rush forward, only to stop when the Soul Eater’s hand clawed against Spike’s chest, fingers digging into the muscles as tiny droplets of blood began to bead the pale skin.

“Come any closer and I shall tear his heart out and eat it right before you,” the demon warned.

The threat worked, stilling the Slayer’s steps as she felt a gentle breeze begin wafting over her arms, resonating its gentle palpitations in synchronicity with her heartbeat.  Careful, she thought.  First step is to get that bitch away from Spike…

“He’s out for the count,” Buffy said out loud.  “You can help yourself to him any time.  Me, I’m just going to get more and more pissed off if you insist on messing with my boyfriend.  The smart thing would be to do me first, because let me tell you, you really don’t want to go all Bond villain on me.  I’ll kill you before you get to how you hatched your evil plot.”

The Soul Eater smiled, cruel, cold.  “You will get your turn,” it crooned.  “And you mustn’t worry.  My William will still be here when we are done.”

OK, not what she was expecting to hear.  “What’s that?” she asked with a frown. 

“Vampire, remember?”  The demon’s tone was a mockery of the Slayer’s own words.  “He hardly needs his soul to subsist.  Of course, he won’t exactly be William, either, or Spike for that matter.  He’ll be more like…”  There was a pause, as its eyes flickered away, searching for the memory.  “…Kralik?  Was that the creature’s name?  The one your Council sought to test you with?”

Dread settled in Buffy’s stomach, weighing her spirits.  “How do you know about him?”

“You forget.  We have been a part of your dreams as well, Slayer.  Shared in your memories.  We know as much about you as we do about my William.”

“Stop calling him that!  His name is Spike!  And he is not yours.  Not if I have anything to say about it.”  She couldn’t think about what the Soul Eater might do to him.  All Buffy knew was that she had to put a stop to this once and for all.

It laughed.  “But, my darling Slayer,” it said, “how can you stop us if you are not here…?”

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

The explosion embedded shards of the gourd’s shell in Giles’ hands, shredding his palms so that rivulets of blood dripped to the earthen floor of the cave.  Dawn’s scream registered just moments later, and he turned his body, a grimace of pain contorting his face, to see Cortina and Dolly off in the distance.  Anger quickly replaced discomfort, and the Watcher dropped the remains of the gourd to the ground.

“What in blue blazes have you done?” he demanded from Dolly.

“The spell,” Willow said, rising to her feet.  Her wide eyes were darting between the pair of newly arrived demons and Giles.  “I didn’t finish it.”

He held up his bleeding hands for her to see.  “I am well aware of that,” he said tightly before his furious blue gaze slid back to stare down Dolly.  “I told you not to go get her.  Do you have any idea what you have done here?”

The smell of copper hung in the air, surging Cortina forward to stand before the Englishman.  Taking his hands in hers, she quickly scanned the slivered flesh.  “We need to get this attended to,” she said, lifting her eyes to look at him.  “Let Dolly get Buffy and Spike out of here, while I---.”

“Giles?”

The sound of his Slayer’s voice both chilled the Watcher’s bones and accelerated his pulse in excitement as he looked back over his shoulder to see Buffy struggling to sit up.  A tired hand rubbed at her eyes as Tara scooped her arm behind her back, assisting in the final few inches.

“Thank god,” he muttered, and pulled away from Cortina, heedless of the injuries to his hands as he rushed to the side of the bed.  “Buffy, are you all right?”

“I’m…”  She didn’t finish the thought, her hazel gaze landing on the pale form of the still-sleeping vampire beside her.  All remnants of her sleep vanished from her body as memories of the dream and the position she’d left them in came rushing back.  Ignoring the others, her hands shot out, grasping him firmly by the shoulders.  “Spike!” she called, shaking him.  “Wake up!  C’mon!”

“Buffy, it’s all right.”  Giles’ voice was calm, and he had to fight the instinct to reach out and pull her away, his own blood beginning to trickle down his wrists.  “Dolly is here now.  We’ll merely teleport you away---.”

“It’s too late for that!”  He wasn’t moving, and somehow, the Slayer knew that nothing she was going to be able to do was going to rouse him from the deep slumber.  Something was wrong with him, something because of the magic, and now he was helpless to defend himself.  “That bitch is there, and she’s already got him.  Or is starting to get him.  Taking him away now isn’t going to do anything but leave his soul behind for her to snack on.”

“What are you talking about?”

She shook her head, laying back down on the bed.  One hand traced the pale outline of his muscled arm, the worry darkening the grey-green of her eyes into a summer storm at sea.  “He was still unconscious when I woke up.  I think it’s part of whatever broke Willow’s spell.  God, and she was there, and she was back in control, and she kept making these threats.”  Tears welled in her eyes, but she refused to let them spill, turning her head to look at her Watcher.  “I have to go back to sleep.  I’m going to end this.  Here.  Now.”

He knew there would be no arguing with her, and sighed, his shoulders slumping.  “Cortina will have to leave again,” he said quietly.  “I will put you under myself this time.”

She couldn’t help the relief that flooded her face.  “Good,” Buffy said.  “Because I’ve had just about enough of the angst-fest as I can handle.  If I’d had to watch one more hour---.”

“What are you talking about?” Willow interrupted.  “You and Spike have only been asleep ten, fifteen minutes.”

Buffy shook her head.  “No way.  I had to sit through that whole party, bored out of my mind, and then there was the stairs, and the fire, and…no.  There’s no way all that crap happened in ten minutes.”

“They were dreams,” Giles explained.  “They don’t occur in real time.  They’re condensed, and while it may feel like days may have passed, in actuality, it’s only a few seconds, or minutes even.”

“Does that mean…you…haven’t done anything about Mom yet?”  Buffy let her gaze slide to Dawn’s, and frowned when the teenager gave her an almost imperceptible shake of her head in denial.  “But there’s still time…right?”

“Yes, but not very much.  Our window is closing.”

For the first time, she seemed to notice her Watcher’s wounds.  “When did you get hurt?”

The look he shot Dolly was venomous.  “When Willow’s attempt to cease the spell she’d cast for Spike was interrupted,” he explained.  “I’m fine.”

The tiny squeak that escaped Dawn’s mouth interrupted them, and Buffy turned her head just in time to see the scratches appear out of nowhere on Spike’s chest, invisible claws digging into his flesh to leave scarlet trails in their wake.  Her breath hitched in her chest, fear of losing him gripping her in its thrall before resolve kicked itself back in.

“OK,” she said, and her voice was firm, no evidence of her anxiety showing.  “This is what we’re going to do.”  She looked at Willow.  “You need to put me under again---.”

“No, not Willow,” Giles interjected.

“Yeah, not Willow,” the redheaded witch concurred.  “I’ve made a big enough mess of things as it is.  I’m not feeling one hundred percent okie-dokie about not screwing this up even worse.”

“No, it has to be you,” the Slayer explained.  “I need you to arm me this time, though.  When I left, it was just me, Spike, the Soul Eater, and one lonely honking mountain.  I’m not going back there without a weapon of some sort.”

I can do that,” Giles argued.

“You have to get fixed up ASAP,” Buffy said.  “Because you, Tara, and Dawn have to do the spell to get Mom back.”

“Me?”  For the first time since returning to the caves, the teenager brightened.  “I get to help?”

“It requires three, right?”  She waited for Giles to nod.  “Then, yeah.  You get to help, Dawn.”  Her eyes drifted to Cortina, who still stood at the foot of the bed.  “You’re going to have to go away again.”

The Vrolek nodded.  “I know.  I’m so sorry---.”

“Don’t be.”  Buffy’s face softened.  “If Willow’s spell hadn’t gotten stopped when it did, things were about to get pretty uncomfortable for me there.  And I think Spike would be more than a little upset if they’d gone much further, too.”  She didn’t want to think about how badly the vampire was going to feel as it was, knowing that he’d been responsible for what harm had befallen her.  Right now, she just had to concentrate on getting him back, safe and sound.

Taking a deep breath, the Slayer stretched back onto the mattress.  “Let’s do it.”

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

It was the same as she’d left---the knolls dotted with flowers bending slightly in the wind, the dark clouds beginning to roll in across the midnight sky---with a single exception.

Spike and the Soul Eater were gone.

“No,” she breathed, the lone word floating away from her on the air, echoing into the breeze in infinite cries, and she began turning in place, her gaze searching the horizon for any sign of where they might be.  She couldn’t be too late.  Though the wounds to his chest had worsened before she’d left, Spike had still been very much there, not a pile of dust.  Except, hadn’t the creature said that devouring the vampire’s soul wouldn’t kill him?  Merely madden him, turn him into a crazed demon who probably would thrive on the pain the chip would provide when he tried to feed.  Not good. 

But she wasn’t going to consider that possibility.  The Soul Eaters hadn’t entered the caves yet; Dolly was adamant about that.  And there’d been no telltale odor like there had been when she’d encountered them in her home upon finding her mother’s body.  No.  She was going to go on the belief that Spike was still all right.  Well, relatively all right, considering the pain he was probably in.  For his sake, Buffy hoped that he was still unconscious.  At least then, he could be oblivious to what was happening to him.

Finishing the circle, Buffy found herself staring back in the direction she’d arrived in, and her face immediately grew angry when she saw the portly figure of the guide who’d led her through Spike’s memories standing before her.  A sword dangled from his hand.  “You!” she spat, and before she could even think, her foot lashed out, connecting solidly with his chest, sending him reeling to the ground with the weapon flying from his grasp.

She stopped, frowning.  She hadn’t been able to attack him before.  Something was different.

He didn’t seem fazed as he lumbered back to his feet, but there was no smile on his bland face.  “You are a very willful young woman,” he said.  “Do you always hit first, ask questions later?”

“What are you doing here?”

“I believe you requested to be armed.”  He leaned over, picking up the sword that he’d dropped before holding it out to her.  “I am delivering your weapon.”

“Oh.”  Buffy frowned as she took it.  “But…you were the one who was all messenger guy during Spike’s dream.  I’m not back in it somehow, am I?”

“No.  I’m merely the manifestation of the magic that has been used on you by Miss Rosenberg.”

With a roll of her eyes, the Slayer shook her head.  “She couldn’t have manifested you as Brad Pitt?  Remind me to have a talk with her when I get out of here.”

Around them, the wind began to quicken, lifting the ends of Buffy’s hair to swirl gently across her cheek.  “You must hurry,” the messenger said.  “They near.”

“Hurrying’s great and all, but in case you haven’t noticed, Willow messed up again.  Spike’s not around here---.”  She never got to finish the sentence.  A clap of thunder almost completely coincided with the brilliant lightning that cleaved the air, startling the Slayer into looking up into the sky.  The clouds now completely covered the heavens, and she could feel the first faint drops of rain begin to fall, peppering her bare arms in hundreds of tiny pinpricks.  By the time she lowered her head again, the messenger was gone.

But she wasn’t alone.

It had abandoned the form of Spike’s mother, and now hung in the air before her, solid and yet not, neither male nor female, its palsied features accentuated by the ebony pools that glittered back at her.  At its feet, the vampire was crumpled into a heap, blood running in crimson stripes across his now-naked form, beginning to wash away with the onslaught of the rain.

“You are persistent,” the Soul Eater said.  “But your efforts are futile.”

“I don’t think so,” Buffy said tightly.  She raised the sword.  “Something tells me you might be partial to a little slice and dice.”

“Though I think you’re foolish, I must to admit to admiring your bravery.  It will sustain us for quite some time, I believe.”

She was tired of its little word games, and launched herself forward, soaring over Spike’s body to thrust the blade through the shoulder of the Soul Eater.  It was more solid than it appeared.  The sword cut clean through, sending both of them tumbling away from the vamp, and Buffy felt a shower of whatever the creature’s blood spray against her face, mingling with the rain there.

Clutching its shoulder, the demon rose to its feet, black eyes staring at her in pained surprise.  “How?” it hissed.  “What is this?”

Buffy stood.  “It’s called pain,” she said.  “And it’s something you’re about to become very well acquainted with.”

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

Willow watched as the trio huddled around Joyce’s body.  She regretted not being able to be a direct part of it, but Buffy had needed to get back into the dreams as quickly as possible, and with Giles needing medical attention, there was no other option.  Still, her part was hefty, and she knew it.  It was just pointless wishing she could be everything for everybody.

Their voices were a murmur in the closeness of the cave, rising in volume as the winds that whipped around outside began to beat against the roof.  It had found a way inside, and the first hints of a breeze were beginning to lift the ends of their hair, fear creeping into their thoughts as they fought to rescue Joyce’s soul before it was too late.  Just because the children of the wind were after Buffy and Spike, didn’t mean that they might not decide to help themselves to the others while they were at it.  They just might be in the mood for an hor doeuvre before the main superhero course.

A blue glow began to form around Joyce’s corpse, vibrating in rhythm with the chanting, growing to a swell that encircled the quartet.  Their words never stopped, never slowed, but even from where she was sitting next to the bed, Willow could see the excitement in the youngest Summers’ body, her eyes glowing brightly in anticipation, her breathing quickening.

On the bed, Buffy twitched in her sleep, capturing the witch’s attention for a moment.  Her gaze flickered to the wounds that now marred Spike’s flesh.  The scratches had been joined by a series of burns along his arms, and though she was worried about his welfare, part of her was also relieved because nothing showed yet on the Slayer.  She figured that had to be good.  Unless it meant that Buffy hadn’t reached wherever Spike was.  Then…

Even as she thought it, though, the tiny line of crimson appeared along the young blonde’s brow, dripping down her temple to stain the pillowcase beneath her head.

Crap.  Spoke too soon.  OK, thought too soon.  Still…crap.

Behind her, the chanting stopped, and Willow tore her gaze to look back and see the blue darken to black, surging in a dangerous swell that knocked the three spellcasters to their backs.  Unconsciously, she jumped to her feet, but even before she was completely vertical, the glow was gone.

Dawn was the first to react, scrambling to her feet to gaze down at her mother.  She waited, wide blue eyes scanning the body, looking for a sign—anything---that would tell them that it worked.  Color…same, still ashen.  Eyes…same, still closed.  Chest…same, still still. 

Wait. 

Not still. 

She found herself holding her breath, riveted to staring at her mother’s upper body, waiting for it to recur.

Seconds passed.

And there it was again.

The movement up.  And down.

Joyce Summers was breathing on her own.

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

She had managed to get it distanced from Spike’s still immobile body, and the pair fought in the rain, the Slayer armed, the Soul Eater not.  Only once had the demon made contact with the coldly focused Buffy, and the blood that now ran from the gash in her forehead colored her gray world in scarlet, clinging tenuously to her eyelashes before either a blink or the rain drove it away.

The Soul Eater was not as fortunate.  It had been unaware of its ability to be hurt within the dream, and even the first attack by the Slayer had not put it completely on the defensive.  Buffy had taken advantage of that, the sword slicing through the air in savage strokes that left screams of the creature’s pain in its wake, driving her foe back, farther from Spike, weakening it with every blow.  She had yet to strike the fatal one, though, the weather doing its best to even the playing field, even if it didn’t realize it.

“Be thankful you’re not playing dress-up in Spike’s mom anymore,” Buffy said as she rolled out of the way of one of the Soul Eater’s kicks.  “Because after everything that’s happened tonight, I’m having some serious aggression issues when it comes to her.  You’re getting off pretty lucky.”  Her hair had fallen over her cheek, but she was oblivious to the annoyance.  She had only one goal at the moment, and personal grooming just didn’t factor into it.

“Wouldn’t that be apropos,” the Soul Eater snarled.  “Although perhaps you would like this one better?”

It shimmered in the air, and Buffy hesitated as the familiar shape of Joyce appeared before her, the wounds she’d inflicted now marring the flesh of the woman who bore her, the anguish of torture screwing up her classical features.  “No,” she whispered.  “You’re not her.  I’m not going to let you do this.”

“Buffy…please…”  It was Joyce’s voice, and the first time the demon had invoked the Slayer’s true name, turning it into an entreaty that made her attack falter.  “You kill me and we can never be together again.”

“Not…true…” she replied through gritted teeth.  Except with it looking like her mother, she was no longer sure she could fight it.  Not after everything that had happened.  Could she be the one to strike her down dead?

Except it’s not her, luv, she could hear Spike saying in her head.

It wasn’t really him, she knew that.  His unconscious form was still sprawled in the grass, soaked through from the storm, and they’d never been able to communicate that way inside their dreams.  But she knew him well enough to know that’s what he would say if he was up.  He would be there, standing at her right arm, helping her when she needed help, guiding her when she needed guidance, stepping back when she needed to step forward.  And he would not want her to give up now.

“Not her,” she repeated and sent out a silent plea to her friends back at Cortina’s that they had had enough time to attempt the resurrection spell.

One last look.  Lock the bitch’s position in her head.  Memorize it.

Focus.

She closed her eyes, and letting her Slayer senses take over, lunged forward, feeling the sword sink into the soft flesh of the creature before her, shattering bone, slicing sinew, sucking at her arm as the weight impaled on the blade sagged to the ground.

Eyes open.

Focus.

Blink to clear the rain…the blood from her vision.

And see the palsied face of the Soul Eater staring up into the clouded heavens, the black eyes now dull, its blood flowing freely from the extensive wound in its chest.

 

To be continued in Chapter 35: From the Dim Verge of the Horizon