Faith and Katako met with a clash of blades, neither Slayer giving an inch. Faith was all flash and anger, and the movement of her blade reflected her helter-skelter approach to life. Katako’s disciplined response to Faith’s attacks, however, offered no advantage.
Buffy hurried to where the two Slayers battled, nearly tripping as two zombies rose when she crossed their grave. She quickly swung the scythe with precision, beheading both in a smooth, continuous motion, which ended when Buffy let the blade drop and it dug into the ground.
“Dammit!” She tugged on it, releasing it with too much force and landing on her butt. After looking around and seeing that a stray zombie was the only witness to her embarrassment, she muttered, “Thank god Andrew’s in Vegas. This moment so did not need to be captured for ‘Watchers’ Funniest Slaying Videos.’”
With a flurry of feints and thrusts, Faith pushed Katako back several yards. “Whatsa matter, Kat? Havin’ a hard time keeping up?”
Katako’s face went flat with rage. “You are nothing! Even more than the false one, you are a disgrace to the Powers That Be.”
“Oh yeah? What do you know about it?” Faith charged Katako again, swearing loudly when the other Slayer sliced open her right forearm.
“You used your gifts to murder innocent people,” she replied, feinting unsuccessfully.
Faith slapped Katako’s blade away and looked at her with disbelief. “Excuse me? If we want to do a body count, you’ve got the blood of way more dead innocents on your hands than I do.”
“They were not innocent! They were falsely called, destroying the balance between good and evil,” Katako snarled. She attacked again and Faith met her with equal force.
Buffy ran toward Faith and Katako, veering suddenly when she saw two more zombies approaching. She beheaded the first one she reached, and she was swinging at the second one when she was knocked down by a third emerging from the ground just a few feet away.
Using the scythe to push back the zombie that tackled her, she grunted, “Can’t you guys… just… go back to… bed?” She pushed it far enough away that she could swing the scythe and remove the zombie’s head.
Still seated, she sliced at the last of the group, removing the dead woman’s leg just below the hem of her plaid burial dress. When the zombie fell, Buffy pushed herself up, pausing to catch her breath.
Staring down at the corpse, she wondered, “What is it with burying people in the ugliest clothes they can find? I still can’t believe Dawn let them put me in that god-awful black thing.”
As the zombie started to push itself up on its remaining leg, Buffy swung the scythe cleanly and separated the body and the head. She didn’t notice the small spark of white energy running along her blade.
“All those fencing lessons are finally paying off,” Wood said, slicing through the neck of a zombie getting too close to a distracted Willow who was oblivious to the danger.
“Will, anytime you’d like to settle down and lower the dead, I’d really appreciate it.” Xander called out. “And you might wanna look where you’re going. Tombstone straight ahead.”
“Here! This is perfect!” Willow called out excitedly, dropping her supply bag and kneeling to the grass.
“No chance of doing this in a nice, defensible mausoleum?” Wood hacked at a zombie that had been buried with a wooden arm that ended in a double-hook.
“I’m not liking this plan to picnic in the sun, Will. The ants are swarming here!” Xander objected.
“It’s a child’s grave and it’s fresh,” Willow said urgently. “We lucked out.”
Xander finished off the zombie he fought before turning to her with his mouth open. “And may I say how disturbing that comment was?”
“Only if I can tell you to get over it,” she said offhandedly. “The grief that hangs over this spot will help strengthen the spell. Plus, bonus points for a Catholic burial because of all the blessings.” Willow began to unpack various bags of herbs as Xander and his men kept the encroaching zombies at bay.
“So you don’t see the inherent risk in camping out on a fresh grave while zombies rise around you?” Wood asked warily.
“If the child rises, it will be easy… and deeply upsetting… to behead. Just keep the rest of them away from me. The spell won’t take long.”
“You were throwing a few fireballs earlier,” Xander said. “You gonna be okay for energy?”
Looking resolute, she nodded. “I’m okay and this is more in the nature of a super-charged blessing than anything else.”
Xander retrieved his radio. “Cyclops to Warbling Watcher… Team Sitting Duck has secured a location and will be moving on to operation ‘Undead Banquet.’ Happy thoughts welcome right about now.”
“In English, Xander,” Giles voice sounded irate, even through the tinny speaker.
“Willow’s starting the spell. Keep your fingers crossed.”
“Understood. Keep me apprised of your status.”
“Just listen for the screams,” Xander said nervously as a group of ten zombies burst up from the ground surrounding them. “And let’s hope they’re not ours.”
“They sound like they might be in trouble, sir. Should we go back?” Margaret asked, jogging a few feet ahead of Giles.
“Don’t mind, Xander. He’s a bit of an alarmist, but he’s good in a fight. I’ve no doubt they’ll have the situation under control soon enough,” he said, his eyes focused on the wooded hillside.
“Xander wouldn’t want us to go back,” Carrie said. “From the things he’s told me, he and Willow make a good team. Let’s work on getting to Dawn.”
As the undergrowth of the forest grew too dense for quick passage, Margaret started to use her machete to clear a path through the foliage. “Perhaps we should take another way up. There’s a clearly marked trail just beyond that stream,” Margaret gestured but Giles didn’t bother to look.
“I don’t want to make it any easier than necessary for him to see us coming.”
“He’s one man, sir. Can his power hold out that long?”
“Unfortunately, yes, particularly since he’s stealing magic to supplement his own.” Giles began to use his own sword, snapping thicker branches in two as he pressed on.
“Sir, do you know what Rayne wants with the younger Miss Summers?”
“All too well,” he said, hacking viscously at a blackberry bush.
When he finished reducing it to a lump of broken branches and crushed leaves, Margaret asked cautiously, “Is he likely to kill her?”
Giles considered the question for just a moment. “I suspect death would be Dawn’s preference, if it comes down to it.” He pushed up the hill and the two women followed.
The fire snapped and crackled as Ethan poured another cupful of his special dry mix over it. The flames rose for a moment then settled back to an even burn and the sorcerer set the cup aside and returned to his potions.
“I missed you,” Dawn said quietly.
“You’ve already said that, luv,” Ethan responded unemotionally, without bothering to look over at her.
“I mean it, Randall. When you went away… when they drove you away from me I was lost.”
Ethan paused in his preparations and turned to look at her. Dawn lay on her side on the cot, her concerned eyes shimmering with the dim green hue of her energies.
“I was lost too. That’s why I came back. I came back for you, Dawn.” He stared at her for a long moment and could see the worry plain on her face.
“But they’ll drive you away again or worse. They’ve said so,” she warned him with a sorrowful glance. “I can’t lose you again, Randall.”
“I refuse to lose you either, Dawn. I’ll make very certain it doesn’t happen.”
Buffy caught up to Faith and Katako then stopped to watch them fight. Neither had an advantage, and each seemed determined to kill the other. “So much for redemp… shit!”
At least a dozen zombies, one of which had once been a Council soldier, moved toward the three of them. “Faith! Katako!”
“Kinda busy, B!”
“Got more important things to worry about… like dead things?” Buffy ran past Faith and Katako toward a zombie trying to aim its rifle at them.
Katako sneered at Buffy’s back. “My sensei’s army will not harm me.”
“Oh yeah?” Faith sprung up to vault over Katako and take out a zombie that was reaching for her from behind.
Turning quickly, Katako glanced at the beheaded corpse. “It would not have harmed…” Another zombie reached around and grabbed her by the throat, lifting her into the air.
“You know what?” Dawn pushed herself upright, swaying dizzily as she slipped her feet from the bed to the ground.
“What’s that, luv?” Ethan paused his preparations to glance over at her.
She smiled back at him, eyes considering him for a long moment. “Shave it!” She said conclusively.
“Pardon?” He chuckled, confused.
“I think you’d look better without the beard.”
“Is that so?” He said with amusement.
“Not that it’s ugly or repulsive or anything…”
“Thank you for that much,” he huffed.
“… but with the grey, it makes you look… I don’t know… old.”
“Hate to break it to you, princess, but I am old,” he said with a bitter smile.
“You’re not old, you’re mature. Besides, you’re only as old as you feel.”
“If that’s the case, at the moment, I’m twenty-one again, thanks to you.”
“Just let me play dress up with you and give you my fashion seal of approval and you’ll be GQ-ing it up in no time.”
“What are you playing at, Dawn?” he asked suspiciously.
“Just that you aren’t some relic, Randall. Why dress the part when you aren’t?”
“So off with the beard and I won’t look so ungodly awful then, is that it?”
“Have you ever tried going beardless, besides at birth, I mean?”
“At one time, years ago.”
“You have a nice smile but it’s hidden under all that… that scruff. Smile for me, Randall?”
Katako was dropped abruptly to the ground. When she looked up, she saw Buffy standing there, the zombie’s head at her feet. “You were saying something about your sensei’s army?”
“It… It was a mistake… He has been ill…”
“Duck!” Buffy didn’t wait for Katako to follow her order. Instead, she stepped around the younger woman and took out yet another zombie. A ripple of white energy ran from the scythe up along her arm.
Without looking away from her own targets, Faith called out, “How ya doin’, B? Hangin’ in there?”
“Gotta say, Big Red seems to be making things easy for me.” She took out another zombie, caught the head reflexively and whipped it at another incoming monster. “Three points for the Buffster!”
“Yeah, I know. I spend too much time listening to Xander,” Buffy said as she swung at two more zombies who had joined the fray.
Katako beheaded a zombie that was reaching for her throat. Frowning, she spit out, “You spend too much time talking!”
The three slayers backed up in unexpected unison, stopping only when they realized they were back-to-back with one another. Buffy frowned as she swung out at another zombie. “Getting really tired of people telling me that.”
Elspeth’s tensed body relaxed suddenly. “Balance.”
With a wary eye on the older woman’s legs, Deborah leaned forward and asked, “What do you mean by balance?”
“It is being restored,” she said quietly, her eyes drifting shut.
With every blow of the scythe, Buffy grew stronger. As the blade whipped through the torso of a stumbling corpse, a strong crackle of energy raced from the scythe to her hands. From there, it ran up her arms and to her torso, where it contracted around her heart before suddenly expanding throughout her body.
Buffy stepped forward, shaking as the glow faded. “Come on, Red, what’s with the backfire?” she asked in confusion. As she stared at her weapon, a zombie staggered toward her and she instinctively kicked out, sending it flying backward. She watched it fly into a tree and then looked down at the scythe with a wondering grin. “Cool!”
Faith looked back at her. “What was that?”
“Don’t know, but damn it felt good!” Buffy’s exuberance was interrupted by the arrival of two more zombies. She separated the heads easily with one swing, and on the return swing she sliced through all four legs.
A scream sounded and Xander watched as two more soldiers disappeared within the center of a huddle of frenzied zombies. As the cries died, Xander called, “Will, gimme something. We’re losing people left and right!”
Willow finished the final phrase, and with a spilling of a mixture of salts and holy water onto the grave, the ground began to hum. A strong vibration radiated outward, traveling past Xander, past Wood, past the Council soldiers and then beyond. All eyes moved expectantly to Willow.
“It’s up!” She yelled out in victory.
“I don’t see anything,” Wood responded, nervously pivoting around for physical evidence of the spell. “Shouldn’t there be a sign, like fireworks or something?”
“No light show with this one. It’s a binding spell that confines the undead to the soil from which it emerged.”
“Excuse me?” asked Wood.
“She grounded them to their coffins without supper,” Xander clarified.
Wood shook his head in amazement. “Got to hand it to you, Willow, you certainly know your stuff.”
Xander waved at some Council soldiers near the entrance, and got on the radio to explain what had happened. “Go through the cemetery and get the wounded to the hospital while we go after Dawn,” he ordered.
“Okay, now that’s just upsetting,” Wood muttered, staring across the graveyard.
Willow followed his line of sight. “What is?”
“The way they’re just slithering back into the ground like that.” He shuddered. “Creepy.”
“Hm. You might be right. And I’m thinking Giles might need us right about now,” she said. “Ready?”
They started a brisk pace toward the forest, weaving through the landscape of tombstones and sinking zombies.
Ethan swayed abruptly. He leaned forward, bracing himself against the cavern wall, gasping.
“Randall, are you okay?”
“I’ll be fine.” He took a deep breath and turned to walk toward her, but fell to his knees, body shaking. He turned away quickly as he began vomiting against the wall. The bile was dark red against the grey stone. As he stared, green stars appeared to flicker in the fluid.
The three Slayers watched as the zombies stopped in their tracks, then began fading back into the ground. When no others came close, they relaxed. Buffy touched Katako’s shoulder gently. “See what it’s like? Having someone at your back?”
She stiffened at the words. “It was not meant to be like this.”
“Heat of battle, decisions had to be made,” Faith said. “It was either make a bunch of Slayers or let the world die.”
“That’s what you say,” Katako said, turning swiftly, her sword raised. She sliced down hard, aiming for Faith’s head.
“Hey, Warbling Watcher!”
Giles shook his head and turned back to Carrie. “I do hope you realize what you’ve gotten into with him.” As she laughed, he pulled out his radio and said, “For god’s sake, Xander, what is it?”
“You got something against code names?”
“Quite a few things, actually. Given your general tone, is it safe to assume the threat has been nullified?”
“If that means that zombies fell down and went boom, yeah, it does.” After a brief pause, he added, “How’s Carrie doing?”
Giles glanced at her with a quick smile. “Quite well. You’ll see for yourself as soon as you catch up to us.”
Buffy caught Katako's arm in midswing, effortlessly holding the sword upright. "No. That's what I say."
Katako looked down at her, incredulous. “This is not possible. The gods have stripped you of your gifts.”
“Actually, Ethan Rayne stripped me of my gifts,” Buffy said. “The gods just gave them back to me.”
“I do not know this Ethan Rayne.” Katako tried to pull out of Buffy’s grip, but she wasn’t able to do more than struggle ineffectively.
“You have got to be kidding me!” Faith stood there with her sword at the ready.
“I don’t think she is. I think Ethan may have done something to her.” Buffy gathered her thoughts, then said, “The man you call your sensei is lying to you.”
“He’s not!” Katako jerked her arm out of Buffy’s grip and took several steps backward.
“Would your sensei have allowed zombies to attack you if he’d been in control of them?” Buffy spoke quietly and with urgency, and she remained where she was when Katako moved away.
“He is weak… because of you…”
“Not because of me, Katako. Your sensei, your true sensei, was killed by a demon attack, wasn’t he?”
She shook her head as she backed further away from Buffy and Faith. “No. He’s alive. He’s simply weak. The girl will help him regain his strength.”
“Your Watcher’s dead, Katako. The bastard who sent you after Dawn isn’t who you think he is,” Faith said, taking a step toward Katako.
Katako stood there, indecisive for a long moment as she looked between Faith and Buffy. Then she raised her sword above her head and charged, screaming, “You lie!”
At the sound of someone crashing through the bushes, the group stopped. After a pause, Margaret made her way to Carrie’s side and signaled to the other two Council soldiers to take up flanking positions. Without a word, Giles pulled Carrie behind him and set himself into a defensive posture.
A moment later, a familiar uniform appeared amongst the trees. Margaret relaxed slightly exclaiming, “Harold Beamis! You scared me half to death!” She frowned. “You look terrible! What happened…”
Her eyes wide open, Carrie cried out in shock. As Margaret turned toward the sound, Harold raised his rifle.
“Get down, Margaret!” Giles shouted.
Harold squeezed the trigger, falling backward at the sharp recoil. Margaret grasped her side and sank to her knees, her face a picture of complete surprise. The soldier to her left pulled out his machete, and with economical movements, beheaded the corpse of Harold Beamis. He kicked the gun away, looking up warily to see if any other zombies would follow Harold.
Carrie pushed past Giles and landed heavily next to Margaret. She moved the other woman’s hand away from the wound and started examining it.
“How… extraordinary,” said Margaret, her voice faint and astonished.
“He was already dead, Margaret,” said Carrie. “I need to cut away part of your shirt so I can see the injury, alright?”
Margaret started swaying on her knees, and Carrie said to Giles, “Hold her up until I can get a look at this.” When Giles put steadying hands on Margaret’s shoulders, Carrie pulled the fabric gently away from the skin to begin cutting it and telling the other soldier, “There’s a space blanket in my duffle. Pull it out and spread it on the ground. We’ll need to put her on it in a minute.”
Faith brought her sword around quickly, and Katako impaled herself on it as she charged blindly forward. The young Japanese girl stiffened as the blade penetrated, running through her cleanly. Her sword dropped from her hands as she brought them forward to grab desperately at Faith, fury in her eyes.
“Oh, shit,” whispered Faith. “Why did you have to do that?”
Buffy lowered her head sadly. “Let go of the sword, Faith,” she said softly.
Faith did, stepping backward with a look of faint horror on her face. “Oh god.”
Katako fell to her knees. ”Demo… watashi wa Erabareshi mono.” She dropped to the ground, her eyes staring lifeless at them.
“Fuck!” Faith cursed, shaking her head. “I thought we had her, I let myself hope, damn it! Damn it!”
Buffy spoke firmly, with a harsh edge. “It wasn’t your fault. Don’t you dare start second-guessing yourself now.”
“It was her choice, Faith.” Buffy took hold of Faith’s arm and started dragging her away. “We still have someone we can save. Now come on.”
Ethan wiped his mouth, and struggled to his feet. He turned resolutely away from the wall.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Dawn asked, worried. “You don’t sound so good. Did you just throw up?”
“I’m fine. Just a bit tired is all.”
“Did you catch my cold, or whatever it is I have?”
“Please, Dawn, go back to sleep,” he responded quietly. “You need to conserve your energy.” He moved back to the fire and took several swallows from a nearby bowl and then picked up a leaf out of a bowl and began to chew on it. He then sat and began measuring out ingredients.
Dawn watched silently for a moment. “Whatcha doing?” she finally asked, leaning forward on the cot to get a better look.
“Nothing that concerns you.” Ethan answered absently. He poured the contents of a plastic bag in a ceramic pot and began crushing the roots with a polished stone.
“Can I help?”
“You already have, my dear. More than you will ever know.”
“Can I help more?”
“Yes, by being silent, luv.” Ethan poured some clear fluid from a small bottle into the mixture and smoke began to rise up. “Please, I need to concentrate.”
“If you say so.”
“This is silly, Randall. I’m fine. Let me help…” Dawn stood up awkwardly, staggering unevenly. Ethan pivoted around in time to see her lose her balance and begin to fall. He leaped up to catch her and she gripped his arms. She leaned against him, breathing hard and slowly, her eyes lifted to meet his.
Faith and Buffy stopped at the sound of gunfire further up the hill. They glanced at each other once, before racing up.
Under Carrie’s direction, the two soldiers carefully moved Margaret to the space blanket. Carrie pulled her supplies out of the bag, setting them neatly on the ground before taking out a pair of latex gloves and donning them.
Giles crouched down and asked quietly, “How bad is it?”
In a normal tone of voice, Carrie answered, “It’s worse than…”
The two soldiers spun around at the sound of someone else coming up the path, and both raised their weapons.
Buffy and Faith crashed through the brush and the soldiers turned their guns to fire. Buffy dove to the ground and rolled into one man’s legs as Faith leaped forward to wrest away the other soldier’s rifle. “Whoa, Big Boy,” said Faith to the one she had disarmed. “You could hurt someone with that.”
Buffy looked up at Giles. “Is that any way to say hi to your honey?”
He reached down and offered her a hand up. “It is when Council zombies are on the loose. For so many reasons, I am glad you weren’t one of them.” He pulled Buffy close to him. She hugged back, hard enough to make him wince. “Buffy, please, those ribs were recently rolled down a flight of steps…”
She leaned back enough so she could see his face and raised her eyebrows. “Problems?”
His eyes widened. “Your strength… it’s…”
“Back. Yep!” She grinned happily.
“I think Big Red gave me a power-up.” Buffy looked down to where Carrie was working on Margaret, and her face lost its happy glow. “Oh shit. How badly is she hurt?”