CHAPTER TWENTY: THE PRESENT
Several minutes after a determined Buffy slid behind the wheel, the sedan crested the snow-covered hill. It was coming down as hard as she had ever seen it, but Buffy didn’t slow down. She knew they were running out of time, and wanted to get it over with—one way or another.
The top of Kingman’s Bluff was a flat plateau with steep sides all around it. Xander was familiar with the place. It was here that Willow had raised an unholy temple from the ground and set about destroying the world. It was here she had finally realized the enormity of what she was doing and had collapsed in his arms, the agony of Tara’s death flooding into her and racking her body with sobs. Seeing the hilltop again put Xander into one of his rare despairing moods. He missed Tara too, of course. But what he hated was seeing his best friend in so much pain and not being able to help. Willow wouldn’t let him, or anyone else, in. She had distanced herself from the world, and he knew that no matter how many frost demons or vampires they destroyed, she wouldn’t suddenly snap out of it.
Buffy hit the brakes hard, and the car slid for several feet in the snow and ice before coming to a stop. She got out quickly, and the others followed. She was staring into the sky above the hill, with a hand over her eyes to help deflect the glare from the snow. She could hardly believe what she was seeing.
“Is that what . . . it looks like?” she asked quietly.
“I guess it is,” Xander replied.
Buffy, Xander, and Dawn looked on as a giant, vaguely humanoid shape almost thirty-feet tall hovered over the hilltop. Its body and limbs looked like they were composed of ice, and even through the swirling snow they could see its mouth was a gaping maw of icicle teeth. It wasn’t complete ye —the left hand was a stump where the elbow would be on a normal human. They could see it slowly filling in with ice and snow though, and knew that when the demon’s arm was completed, it would be fully manifested. It would be free—and near impossible to stop.
Buffy’s instincts told her to tell Dawn to get back in the car and stay there. But Buffy had promised to stop trying to shield her sister from the dangers they faced. And more, Buffy doubted the car or anywhere else in Sunnydale would really be safe from this monster, once it was set free.
“And me without my flamethrower,” Xander cracked bitterly as they trudged towards it. The snow was deep here--at least two or three feet--and made for slow going.
The whirling flakes died down slightly, and they could make out a human-sized figure limping towards them from the far side of the hill. It carried a small chest in its arms, with the lid open. From the chest, a steady stream of ice flowed upward into the sky, and then spread out.
Winter in a box, Buffy thought. Handy.
The approaching figure set the box down and limped closer. It drew itself up to full height, and as it began to speak, the wind suddenly stopped and everything on the hilltop was deathly silent.
“Ms. Summers,” Castillo said, “how nice of you to drop by. And you brought company? Excellent. I’ve been looking forward to this moment for a long, long time. I trust you will find it suitably . . . dramatic?”
Buffy looked at the vampire carefully. She barely recognized him because he simply didn’t look much like the Castillo she had encountered before. He was nude now, for one thing—but the terrible scars all up and down his body, and on his face, made him look like a disfigured monster. Even his facial expressions were different. When Buffy had seen him before, he was calm, confident, and in control. Now his face clearly showed hatred and barely suppressed rage. She decided she might be able to exploit it.
“Dramatic?” she asked. “More melodramatic. Remember the bad comic book super-villains we talked about? Well, congratulations. You’ve become one. What’s next? You tie us up on some mechanized death-trap right before a hidden announcer says ‘Same Bat-Time, Same Bat—“
“I’m only going to tell you this once, Ms. Summers. Shut up!” Castillo said through clenched teeth. “You are the most insufferable . . . Ah, but I forget myself.” He closed his eyes for a moment and then spoke again, more calmly this time. “Can you imagine what it was like for me to linger at the bottom of that cliff, my body broken, for months on end until I was well enough to move? Can you imagine the pain and the—“
“Well it was your idea to do the whole cliff-thing,” Buffy interrupted. “Remember? Something about Sherlock Holmes or something. I don’t really remember. It was kinda lame.” She judged her distance to the open chest as she said this, and decided she couldn’t reach it before he managed to intercept her. At least not from where she was standing.
“I remember,” Castillo replied. “And what I neglected to mention was that after Sir Doyle’s famous protagonist fell to his apparent death, he was . . . resurrected, shall we say, just a few years later.”
“That’s great,” Buffy said. “Literature. I like that. Danielle Steele, V.C. Andrews, Stephen King. I read all the great classics.” She continued to goad him on as she edged closer. Behind her, Xander and Dawn stood anxiously, not quite sure what Buffy was doing or what they should do.
Castillo sighed at her words and put his hands to his face. He drew them away and shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said. “But I’m going to kill you now. However, unlike last time, I have prepared words appropriate for the occasion. ‘For only in destroying I find ease/To my relentless thoughts.’ Milton, Paradise Lost.”
Heeding their cue, a score of Castillo’s finest suddenly burst from underneath the snow where they had lain in wait, claws extended and fangs salivating in anticipation. Castillo had kept them hungry, and now they were ready to tear something apart. Buffy, Xander, and Dawn were surrounded and stood back to back, their wooden stakes looking pitiful. The wind picked up again, the snow swirled, and a tremendous roar came from above— Solasheyk had almost completely manifested. It was then that Buffy realized Castillo hadn’t intended the vampires to kill her, but simply delay her until the demon was ready. She realized that judging by the fact that the demon was now missing only the tips of its fingers, his plan would probably work.
“The chest!” Buffy shouted.
The trio of friends fought like cornered tigers, slashing and stabbing with their stakes frantically as the vampires swarmed all over them. They pushed in the direction of the chest, but the vampires knew what they were trying to do. A moment later, scratched and bleeding, Buffy and her friends were only a few steps closer than they had been before—and it seemed like there were more vampires than ever.
“Keep fighting” Buffy yelled. She staked another vampire and dodged to the side, looking for an opening. Two more vampires stepped in front of her, and she threw herself back to avoid a fist. She dodged in low, kneeing a vampire in the chest and then brought her stake down and stabbed it in the back, piercing the heart from the rear. She barely had time to breathe before another vampire stepped up in its place.
Dawn and Xander were barely holding their own. They had had some practice fighting vampires most of it in the field, like this—but fighting a vampire one-on-one was something quite different than fighting a group of voracious vampires, each intent on scoring points with Castillo by being the first to claim a prized victim.
Buffy staked another vampire and then looked up. The snow swirled so hard she could barely see the demon, but she could tell she only had perhaps a minute left. As soon as it manifested, Sunnydale could kiss itself goodbye. She spun to avoid a high kick and saw that Xander and Dawn were still on their feet. She knew she could get out of this crowd and reach the chest—after all, she could jump over fences and walls when she put her mind to it—but it meant leaving Xander and Dawn, and they wouldn’t last a second without her around. It was a moment of choice she had never wanted to face Sunnydale or her friends—but she made it without regret. She stayed where she was and continued fighting, hoping against hope that something would happen to turn the tide of battle before it was too late.
Dawn danced in place, stake held up high, waiting for one of the vampires to come within range. Her jaw was sore—one of them had gotten in a lucky shot—but otherwise she was still feeling pretty good. She saw one of the bloodsuckers stumble in the snow and shot forth, jamming the point of the stake into its heart just as Xander’s stake did the same thing, barely an inch apart.
“Hey!” Xander said with half a smile. “There’s enough to go around. Get your own!”
“My bad,” Dawn replied, swinging around to realize two vampires had picked her as their own.
Several of the vampires suddenly started screaming, and Buffy wondered if the snow had turned to rain—liquid water was splashing all over her and the others. The vampires surrounding them threw up their hands and fell to the ground, rolling around in the snow to try and cool off. They didn’t know the terrible burning sensation was caused by holy water that had hit them and then frozen to their ski —try as they might, they wouldn’t be able to get the stuff off.
Buffy staked another vampire and looked around for her next target. It was then she realized there weren’t any more—all of the vampires had either been destroyed or were on the ground, screaming. She looked around and saw a man dressed in green armor running full speed towards Castillo. She recognized the type of armor from the woman in the caverns who had collapsed the ceiling. And almost buried me and Dawn alive. She didn’t know quite what to think when the man leaped and tackled Castillo, screaming something about “Maggie and Kate.”
Castillo and Tintsman rolled around in the snow until, with a vicious strike, Castillo knocked his opponent back. Castillo stood up, panting. “Who the hell are you?” he said.
Tintsman stood up as well, tears in his eyes. “You’re Angel,” he said. “The Angel of Death. Spike was right. It makes sense now—Electrotech, the project, all of it!”
He rushed Castillo again, but the vampire landed a solid shot to Tintsman’s jaw and staggered him. The vampire laughed dryly.
“Ah, yes. I do seem to recall a pitiful bureaucrat standing in the way of the Sunrise Project. Maggie and Kate did you say? According to the activity report, I believe my boys had . . . quite a time with them.”
Tintsman bellowed so loudly that everyone—Buffy, her friends, even the remaining vampires stopped what they were doing and stared at him. His face was a mask of pure rage and although he tried to speak, no words would come. Castillo looked surprised and, without intending to, stepped back a few feet. Tintsman was blind to anything but his enemy now. He charged forward again and slammed into Castillo like a freight train.
“They both look insane,” Xander said, coming up behind Buffy. He held his wrist, trickles of blood dripping into the snow.
“Well good,” Dawn said. “Problem solved.”
“Not yet,” Buffy said.
Solasheyk the Frost Demon had manifested fully, and it looked even larger than before. It began to move, slowly at first as if flexing its non-existent muscles, and then faster. It drew its head back and then pushed it forward. A hail of razor-sharp icicles flew from its mouth like a dragon breathing fire. Buffy barely had time to push her friends to the ground before a thick icicle embedded itself in her side. She screamed out in pain and looked down to see her blood was already mingling with the ice and starting to freeze. She desperately tried to think—she couldn’t remember if you were supposed to pull out arrows and things like that or leave them in.
A shadow passed over her and she realized the demon was moving towards her and the others. Castillo and Tintsman still fought, each delivering brutal blows to the other. Buffy forced the pain away and stood up. She started to get dizzy and knew she was going to black out, but willed herself to keep going. There was something left she had to do.
She moved as fast as she could towards the open chest. Pain laced all the way up and down her left side where the icicle was still embedded. She was grateful for the pain though—she knew it would help keep her conscious. Blood dripped into each footprint she made in the snow as she half-jogged, half-ran. In the back of her mind, she realized that Solasheyk had focused on her for some reason. Better me than Xander or Dawn, she thought.
Although she didn’t want to, she couldn’t help but look up at the demon. Its sheer power was almost magnetic. It reared up and inhaled, drawing snow and ice into its mouth. A second later another volley of ice spikes, larger than the first, were flying directly towards her. She jumped towards the chest, landing slightly behind it. It shook slightly with the force of all the snow and ice still streaming from it. She glanced at the deadly fusillade and then with one last, final burst of energy, she grabbed hold of the lid and forced it closed.
It was like turning a light switch on and off. It suddenly stopped snowing, the wind fell to a faint breeze, but most of all, the temperature reverted instantaneously back to normal. It was suddenly a normal Sunnydale summer’s night, hot and humid. The snow quickly began to melt, but the effect on Solasheyk was even more dramatic. It was like he was being flushed down a drain. The demon’s entire body started to shrink and spin, more and more of his mass sucked into the dimension he came from. He gave a tremendous roar as his ice body melted, dripping water all over the top of hill.
The razor-sharp ice spikes were still flying. Even if Buffy had the energy, there was no time to run. She closed her eyes and waited for the inevitable. Tintsman, still locked in combat with Castillo, saw what was about to happen.
“I won’t let you hurt anyone else!” he screamed, charging his foe again and knocking them both toward Buffy. At the last possible moment, the pair fell in front of her and the thick volley of spikes embedded themselves into them instead of her. Castillo was disintegrated and Tintsman torn into pieces, but she had been completely shielded.
She was still bleeding, however, staining the snow around her a dark crimson. She tried to stand up but she couldn't. She saw Xander and Dawn rushing towards her and heard sirens in the distance. She knew she was going to be okay, but her side hurt like hell and everything was going blurry.
Xander reached her first and cradled her head with his arms.
“You know what?” Buffy said through pain-clenched teeth, a moment before unconsciousness came. “Winter sucks.”