The book of fours, p.1
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       The Book of Fours, p.1
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           Nancy Holder
The Book of Fours

  The entire condo started rocking, tilting up and down. The walls buckled, the floor cracked apart and jutted up in large sections, like pieces of ice.

  The ceiling lobbed huge chunks of itself to the floor. Glassware shattered. The tiles on Giles’s stairway popped off, and the bannister collapsed.

  “It’s the big one,” Faith yelled.

  “Willow!” Buffy shouted. “Willow, tell Kendra to run!”

  Then up from a fissure in the floor, a swathed head jutted upward. A torso followed, then arms. It was holding a box. It rose into the air as the apartment shattered and split apart around it.

  As the condo blew to pieces with the force of an explosion, a second covered head appeared.

  The ceiling collapsed, trapping Buffy, Faith and Giles in mounds of rubble. Buffy struggled, horrified, as the creatures pulled out axes and started gliding straight for Giles, who was pinned.

  And who stared helplessly back at them.

  Thank you for downloading this Simon & Schuster ebook.

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  Historian’s Note: This story takes place during the third season.

  This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination, and any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

  No question about it, Lisa Clancy—this one’s for you.


  No writer is an island:

  Thanks so very much to Joss Whedon, Caroline Kallas, and the cast and crew of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to George Snyder of Mutant Enemy, and Debbie Olshan of Fox. All you Bronzers out there, especially Allie Costa and Angela Rienstra (and mom Pat), you are superfun! My undying affection and gratitude to the Merry Pocketeers: Micol Ostow and Liz Shiflett. Dear, dear agent mine, Howard Morhaim, aloha pumehana. Same to Stacey Schermerhorn. And big aloha to John and Shannon Tullius, Liz Engstrom, and her sister, Cheryce; Katherine Ramsland, John Saul, and Mike Sack, and all the other MWRetreaters, especially my students: Phyllis Melhado, Penny Buckely, Debbie Viguie, John Oglesby, Bill Duke, Skip Shockley, Kelly Watkins, Hillary Buckman-Palmer, Diane Button, Ruscha Robbins, and Joan Sawyer. Thanks for all you have taught me.

  Lee Sigall, you rock. So do you, Rev. Andy Herron-Sweet. Karen, Neal, and Rachel, Grace, je vous aime.

  And more love than can be expressed to the Mariotte-Hart-Holder-Jones continuum: Jeff, Maryelizabeth, Holly, Belle, and David; Leslie and Will; Elise and Hank, Richard, Teresa, David, and Sandra and Bill.

  And of course, to Dot, Sasha, David, Sugar, Spice, Muffin, Gray Mouser, and Grenaldine—what’s life without total chaos?

  I have seen no more evident monstrosity and miracle in the world than myself.

  —MONTAIGNE, 1533–1592


  The town of Sunnydale could no longer contain the forces—natural and not so much—that had tried for nearly a century to tear it apart. Hellmouth ground zero had reached critical mass. The air was saturated with energy; wind and rain blew at hurricane force. The soaked ground shook and ruptured, trapping houses, cars, and people in flows of mud. Beneath the weight, men, women, children, and yes, even vampires, froze into statues like the ash-coated victims of ancient Pompeii. Fires raged everywhere, burning whatever lay in their paths—buildings, people, and the entire population of the Sunnydale Zoo.

  As the forces of nature and the beyond mounted, each rock, each tree, each atom of each cell flew apart in a bacchanalia of destruction. More people had perished inside the cursed city’s perimeter in the last twenty-four hours than in the previous twenty-four years. Buffy knew that as she stood high atop Dead Man’s Point with the others, death was the victorious gladiator parading down below on Main Street, a clutch of skulls in his waistband, his sandals sloshing through a river of blood.

  The ground raged beneath the feet of Buffy, Faith, Cordelia, and Willow, whole chunks of the summit soaring into the air as others smashed into the wind and the waves. Blocks of stone and brick—the remains of the lighthouse—catapulted through the storm as deathdealing projectiles. From below the Point, flames of crimson, scarlet, and brilliant orange geysered toward the heavens, as if to burn the very stars themselves.

  All that had gone before—the fires, the quakes, the floods, and the windstorms—were an unspeakable promise of what was to come. A mere taste of what hell on Earth would really be like.

  If we fail.

  We have to stop the Gatherer, and we don’t know how.

  This was the last battle, and they all knew it, felt it, were as ready as they could be for it. Cordelia’s chin was up, her fists balled, and Buffy, though very tired, was primed. But Faith was badly injured and could barely stand; and Willow had staggered from her bed in the intensive care unit at Sunnydale Medical Center to be here.

  “Thought I knew what the end of the world was gonna be like,” Faith shouted, at the opposite end of the row of four.

  Standing to the left of Buffy, Willow yelled, “But it’s worse.”

  Cordelia bellowed, “No small talk! Stay focused.”

  Buffy remained silent, but her mind was racing. She was strategizing. They desperately needed a plan other than the current one of fighting until they died.

  If the Gatherer gets both Faith and me, it will completely suck up our primal Slayer force and there won’t be any left . . . There will never be another Slayer again. Ever. And this demon will destroy the planet without any opposition.

  But the portent says there must be four to kill it. We are the Four, Faith and me and the other two. But . . . last-minute substitution okay? Or not?

  She hazarded a glance behind herself, taking in the others of the good side, about twenty feet away. Brave friends to the end, they had fought their way through the cataclysm to be here on the summit for the battle: Giles, Xander, and Oz, who were crouching to avoid being blown away, and Angel, who stood with his feet planted wide apart, his duster soaked with rain as it flapped in the gale. Their faces covered with mud and soot. And blood. No one had made it this far without his share of damage. No one had died yet, either, and Buffy’s throat tightened as she thought of how things could have turned out.

  Kneeling slightly apart from the others, dark-haired Kit Bothwell, grim and determined, was speaking, praying, or chanting an incantation. The young Watcher was an accomplished sorcerer, and he had courageously joined their ranks, despite the fact that their fight looked to be a lost cause.

  Angel’s dark eyes caught Buffy’s, held them. She could almost read his mind: Don’t think like that. Don’t think that all is lost.

  Buffy, damn it, kill that thing and live through this.

  Slowly, she nodded. Angel nodded back. Her heart hurt from loving him, and in that moment, she understood a lot more about self-sacrifice than before, and she found it in her heart to forgive India Cohen.

  When I die, will the pain stop? Or will my love for him keep me wandering on the Ghost Roads, forever?

  The sky exploded. It shook, rippling from a sonic boom that threw Willow to the ground and sent Faith reeling. The others grimaced with pain and covered their ears.

  Here it comes.

  Buffy took a deep breath. Quickly regrouping, the other girls looked at one another, then at
her, a little less steady, a great deal more frightened. Faith was on the other end of the row; on her right was Cordelia, and then Willow, who stood beside Buffy.

  Then, as Buffy locked gazes with each one, they grew taller, more solid, surer. In turn, each favored Buffy with a smile. Faith winked and Willow made as if to shake her hair out of her face, although she was as bald as a billiard ball.

  As if on cue, the four young women joined hands.

  “We are the Four,” Cordelia yelled.

  “We band together,” Willow cried.

  Faith whooped. “And we’re gonna kick some ass!”

  Buffy was proud to stand with them; their backs straight, their chins high. Despite terrible odds, they were there to do what was right. What they must do, even if it demanded worse than their deaths.

  We are warriors. We are protectors.

  Another tremendous skyquake boom shook Buffy, rattling her bones as if she were a string puppet. Clouds and smoke whirled and eddied, so thick the hurricane-force winds and rain couldn’t blow them away. The earth shook with renewed force; bolts of lightning shrieked through the clouds and landed inches from Buffy and Faith on the outer points of the line. Neither one of them flinched as they rode out the eruption of giant fissures in the earth. There was nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. This was it.

  Then the fires rose all around Dead Man’s Point, even on the sea side. The ocean waters themselves were burning. Smoke began to circle the summit, rushing, moving, becoming a spinning dervish, whipping up faster and faster until it whistled like wind. It formed a cone that shot upward, to a point so distant Buffy couldn’t see it.

  Far above them, a single pinprick of light burst into a ball of light; the sphere expanded across the black sky, lighting up their surroundings as brightly as a summer’s day. It was as if the sun had come out in the middle of the night.

  “Angel, be careful!” Buffy shouted, turning toward him.

  Her vampire love was running for cover. Despite the wind and the rain, the back of his duster was smoldering and tiny flames danced along the hem.

  Suddenly, without warning, Willow let go of Buffy’s hand and broke from the line. She wheeled around as if she were going to tackle Angel and throw him to the ground.

  “No! Willow, we have to stand together!” Buffy shouted.

  But it wasn’t Angel Willow ran to; she zigzagged crazily toward Kit Bothwell, struggling against the storms. The wind knocked her injured body like a giant taunting a kitten. She fell, got to her feet, and stumbled onward.

  Cordelia screamed, “Come back here!”

  Willow paid her no heed. No one else ran after her. Transfixed, they watched her racing toward the newcomer. They had their orders: to stay and fight; not to break ranks for any reason.

  Not any reason.

  “I saved you once,” Willow cried, running toward the man. “Kit, Kit I love you!”

  She flung herself into his arms, then turned around and faced the other three, and the vast, penetrating brilliance. “Take me back!” she shouted. “Take me back, fully, and leave them all alone!”

  Before Buffy realized what Willow was doing, the redhead had raced to the edge of the summit. She tottered there a moment.

  Buffy whispered, “No. No.”

  Willow’s last look was saved not for Buffy, or Oz, but for Kit. Then she threw open her hands and let the wind tear her off the precipice. For a moment, the wind buoyed her up, and then she fell.

  Everyone was mute with shock.

  Then the brightness was extinguished like a fragile candle flame, and through the darkness—strangely—Buffy caught her first full view of the Gatherer. Her mouth went dry; her face went numb; and she thought, It can’t be this horrible. I must be seeing things.

  But it was there. This was no dream, no waking nightmare. This was really happening.

  “I walk,” it proclaimed.

  The stars shook.

  Rigid with terror, Buffy thought of how they had gotten here, and wondered how they would ever leave this place alive.

  The Book of One


  The Ghost Roads, in Timelessness

  For India Cohen the Vampire Slayer, her return to awareness came like the switch of a light. One instant off, the next on:

  I’ve been dead.

  I’m not dead now.

  I was the Slayer, and I died. That sucker killed me. That gross mummy-guy found me and opened his disgusting container of skin and bones, and that demon-in-a-box jobbie leaped out of it. It had an axe, and it hacked me to shreds, cut off every part it could, and emptied my body of everything inside it like a hotel maid dumping out an ashtray.

  The bummer is, I let it.

  The whole time I fought it, while Kit was screaming at me to run and Mariposa was barking, I knew I was going to lose. It was the worst moment of my life, to realize that I wasn’t going to pull it off. You’re the Slayer, you fight long enough, you think no one can beat you.

  I slayed for three years. In my line of work, that’s a long time. But I could have kept going, and I know it.

  Maybe I didn’t try hard enough because I knew there’d be another Slayer to take my place. I’d never kidded myself that I was indispensable. As soon as Kit explained the whole Slayer system to me, I realized I was just one of many Slayers, fully interchangeable, engaged in a battle that was never going to end.

  When he told me I was the Slayer, he tried to make me feel special—“one girl in all her generation”—but that’s not really true, is it? Because when that one dies, there’s another. And another. And another. So much for one per generation.

  It’s just one per lost battle. And we seem to lose fairly often, don’t we?

  Still, there is the matter of being Chosen. No one else could take my place until I lost my place.

  As the old saying goes, “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”

  Yeah, but they get the best seats.

  What I hoped for was to stall the demon long enough for Kit to grab my puppy and get himself the hell out of there. Kit, my Watcher, would be the first one to tell me that I violated my duty, which is to survive. I am—I was—the Slayer. Watchers are much easier to replace.

  But oh, Kit, I hope you made it. I hope you’re still alive.

  All right, truth: I sacrificed myself because I loved him. It’s as simple as that.

  Kit, I wish . . . no, I don’t wish you were here. I’m glad you’re not.

  It’s no fun being here.

  There’s another Slayer, isn’t there? Of course there is. The new girl in town. My replacement’s certainly been activated, and she’s fighting the good fight. And when she dies, someone else will pick up where she left off.

  Like a pet white rat on a wheel in a cage.

  Who knows how long I’ve been here? Maybe there have been fifty Slayers since my death. Maybe everybody’s left Earth and there’s a Slayer on Mars.

  As for Kit, my dearest love: I don’t know if I managed to save you, but if I did, my defeat was worth it. Slayers are replaceable, and Watchers, too, but there will never be another man like you. You are—you were?—my life, my soul. The way we two meshed was beyond supernatural.

  If I had ever needed proof that magick exists and that Slayers’ dreams come true, you were that proof.

  But dreams end, too, and nightmares take over. That thing that attacked me . . . I don’t think I ever saw anything more grotesque. Did that crazy British vampire conjure it up? When she started screaming about it back in Spain, was she foreseeing my death at its hands?

  My death. When the creature was cutting me apart, and the pain stopped, I knew that that was the precise moment of my death. It stopped, and I stopped, and I was . . . gone. I have no idea how long I’ve been gone. Apparently, there is nothing after we die, in spite of all the discussions Kit and I had about souls and vampires and demons and portals into other dimensions, some of which are like our version of hell.

  Which now, I’m thinking how horribl
e, creepy. After all that effort and sacrifice to save the world from the ultimate evil, the answer is that after we die, we just circle “none of the above”? That the afterlife—the results of all that battling between good and evil—is an absolute zero?

  I feel incredibly stupid. And used. I can’t believe what a waste it all is. Right now, I’m willing to believe that hell is better than nothing. That it’s better to suffer in agony than to be nothing.

  Because I’ve been nothing. Nothing at all, and that sucks. I guess the universe had no more need of me, so I got shoved in a trunk and left in the great cosmic attic with the divine dust bunnies of the hereafter and the cobwebs of time and space, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

  But if that was where I was, why am I back?

  How am I back?

  Who brought me back?

  * * *

  Oh, my God.

  Pain is shooting through me now. Unimaginable. Unbelievable. It’s worse than when I was hacked apart. It’s searing me like a piece of meat. It’s skewering me. It’s shredding me.

  I can’t escape. I can’t make it stop. I can’t even tell where it’s coming from. And if I have no body, how can I be hurt like this?

  I must be in Hell after all.

  I can’t stand it. I have to stop it. I have to fight it.

  But there is nothing to fight. I’m alone. I don’t know how to escape. Must make a plan . . . I am the Slayer.

  Oh, God, if I could trade this for oblivion, I would. I’d choose to climb back into the trunk. I would. This is past enduring. I can’t take this.

  Hello? Whoever? Wherever? Make me nothing again. Only, stop this!

  No. No, I don’t mean it. I would rather take this pain than feel nothing. I’d rather be tortured than cease to exist.

  But it hurts. It hurts more than I can take, and I’m a Slayer. I have the highest pain threshold of any human being on the planet.

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