Disclaimer and credits will be found after the end of the chapter.
Drunkard's Walk XIII: Glory Hound
by Robert M. Schroeck and Helen Imre
0. Breathe Into Me And Make Me Real
Nothing in the entire universe ever perishes, believe me, but things vary, and adopt a new form. The phrase "being born" is used for beginning to be something different from what one was before, while "dying" means ceasing to be the same. Though this thing may pass into that, and that into this, yet the sums of things remains unchanged. — Ovid, Metamorphoses
What we call the beginning is often the end.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
— T.S. Eliot, "Little Gidding"
Svata Orosia, Czech Republic
A lone man, clothed in brown monk's robes and sandals, knelt shivering in the middle of the room and stared, almost unseeingly, at a small casket set on the floor before him. Candles in the sconces along the stone walls and large freestanding iron candelabras provided meager light in the open, empty space.
Once this dark room, with its low multi-arched ceiling, unpainted walls and rough statues of saints, had been a chapel. Most importantly, though it had fallen into disuse over the long years as the number of monks in the monastery dwindled, it was still consecrated ground. Perhaps that would provide some small measure of protection and stave off disaster long enough to ensure they completed their imperative task.
Brother Esven had spent nearly all his adult life preparing for this day. Even so, he had hoped never to see it. He had hoped against all hope that their translations and calculations were wrong. After all, there had been disagreement in the community over several salient points in the codices. Some said that the fated day was not due for another twenty-seven years. Still others insisted the passage read as one hundred and twenty-seven years. They asserted that there was still time. He had known in his gut that they were wrong, were merely frightened children hiding under bedclothes, and so he had plotted and planned accordingly.
To his unending regret, today he was proved right. Earlier today, It had been sighted. As soon as word reached him Brother Esven had contacted the head of the Orosian Knights, asking for their intervention, and by so doing had knowingly sent that good man and all those who served him to their deaths. The lives of those martyred men had secured them very little time in which to perform the rite... But, surely, it would be enough. It must be.
He had cleansed the area, first with holy salt water and then with incense, chanting the required prayers and incantations all the while. He had arranged four ritual candles about the casket, lit them using a Word and his will, then set four guardian seals around each of the candles to prevent their failing during the rite. There was little more needed, just his remaining brothers to add their strength to the work, and they would — must! — arrive soon. Everything was ready.
Brother Esven wished then that they had been able to find a place above ground secure enough in which to do their great rite. He would very much have liked to see the sky, to feel the wind upon his skin, to hold the song of birds in his ears... Just to know the presence of life in the world once last time. He had no illusions. He would not leave this room alive.
Then he heard them coming. Their sandaled feet slapped frenziedly against the stone of the corridor as they ran. Their breath came as frantic gasps and little moans of fear. It must be close behind them! All the sacrifices he and his fellows had made might yet be rendered meaningless.
Brother Esven reached out and opened the casket, resolving, whatever else might happen, that the culmination of his life's work would not be failure.
Drawing in power from the world around him, he began internally reciting the Words. He worked quickly and deftly from long practice, shaping the power pulled from the rocks and air of the monastery and feeding it into what lay hidden in the casket. Redolent with the strength, gentle solidity and ineffable pain of hundreds of lives spent over hundreds of years in worship and peace, the power itself steadied him and lent him focus.
He began to weave the Words and power together, building... No, this was more organic, more natural... He was birthing a new form to hide the precious object. A form that would, perhaps, allow for growth and change. Or, even better, it might just offer a chance at true salvation. If he could only make it more real, more human...
That was right, he suddenly knew. That was the approach he must take. He started to add pieces of his own life to the pattern... Then inspiration moved him to reach out to their eventual target instead. It was hard for she was so far away.
His brothers stumbled, panting, into the room. Two of them. Only two when at least six had been expected. No matter; it must be done.
They slammed the double doors shut behind them, clawing the thick locking bar into place.
"It's coming! It's going to kill us!"
"Our lives aren't important! We have to protect the Key!"
They made him proud. So scared, their number so diminished, and yet determined. He pulled the mingled terror and resolution off them and threaded it into the working. The fear did not, as such emotion can, cause instant disintegration and chaos. Rather, the urgency of their emotions quickened the flow of the pattern, made it easier for him to reach out, across the great gap of miles, to the life he sought.
The door was as secure as it would ever get and there was no time. They rushed forward to join him on their knees around the box. As they did so, they discarded the extra, now obviously useless, supplies they had gone to fetch.
"Help me perform the ritual!" He ordered brusquely and they stretched out their arms over the open casket with him, beginning to chant aloud. The minute they joined him the spell just seemed to click into place.
He was startled at the ease with which it came together — almost as if his missing four brothers were in fact there, lending their power. Whether it was his meticulous preparation, their endless rounds of practice, their combined determination — or possibly Deity smiling on their endeavors — something made the working go absolutely right at this the necessary moment. Now if only they had time to finish!
The doors shook suddenly in their frame, bouncing under a brief, testing pair of blows. The doors were not as strongly built as they might be, but the locking bar, a young telephone pole made from oak, was strong and should hold long enough. God above, hold it long enough!
However, the pounding distracted Brother Miklos. He turned, frightened anew, to stare at the increasingly feeble barrier between him and the ravening Beast without. His voice and energy wavered. Brother Esven could feel the whorl of energies faltering and starting to fragment in response.
"Concentrate! ...Concentrate!" Brother Esven adjured. They were so close now! Miklos jerked around, wide eyes flying to meet Brother Esven's. Taking visible grip of his emotions, Brother Miklos gulped down his fear and returned to chanting. The work came right again instantly, almost miraculously.
The hammering continued, growing in intensity. Dust from the mortar around the stone frame of the door floated in the air. The doors began to sag under the punishment and the bar began to creak ominously at having to support both the pounding and the doors' weight.
A wind suddenly rose from nowhere, whipping around the laboring brothers. It grew in forcefulness until it tore at their clothes. As it did so, a light rose in the casket, making the wildly dancing flames of the guardian candles inconsequential. It flooded over them in a brilliant green incandescence.
The light and wind together washed over the room so powerfully that they overwhelmed the sound of the assault on the entrance. While the brothers could still see each other chanting, they could only feel the chants inside their heads and hearts — there was no way their ears could possibly hear anything over that wind.
At the heart of the chaos a tight glow of magical energy rose slowly from the casket. They chanted more intensely, more urgently. Then, in a last, tremendous burst of light and sound, the energy fired itself upwards and simply vanished.
Their voices failed in the sudden silence and calm. The brothers, half-blinded, half-deafened, and absolutely drained, sagged with relief. It was done. The Key was gone to someone who could protect it better than they ever could.
Their triumphant mood lasted but a second. The locking bar abruptly surrendered its unequal resistance with a hard, sharp report. It broke in two and the doors flew wide, bouncing off the walls forcefully.
It stood framed momentarily in the doorway. There was blood on its hands and face, but, strangely, none on its clothing.
"Copak to deláte zde? (What are you doing here?)" It inquired, and its voice was young, bright and disturbingly pleasant.
1. I've Been Through The Desert On A Horse With No Name
One night in Bangkok and the world's your oyster
The bars are temples but the pearls ain't free
You'll find a god in every golden cloister
And if you're lucky then the god's a she
I can feel an angel sliding up to me.
— Murray Head, "One Night In Bangkok", from Chess
I'm just a lonesome traveler
The great historical bum
Through history I have come.
— Woody Guthrie, "The Bragging Song (The Great Historical Bum)"
Character is what you are in the dark. — Lord John Whorfin
Local date unknown, location unknown
I woke up with a faceful of cactus.
What? Who am I, you ask?
Well, if — as I've been intending — these logs and journals of mine do finally end up in the Warriors computer system as an archived account of my extradimensional exile, then you should know who I am already. The consolidated files ought to be properly tagged with authorship and subject for ease of search and reference, and supplemented by a brief biography giving you the personal context for my narrative, not to mention proper abstracts summarizing the contents of each of the major divisions. So if you've got the clearance to access this information through the Warriors computer system, you damned well ought to know who I am even if you're being a silly bugger and reading the individual documents out of order.
If you don't have clearance, you have bigger problems than my identity. Most likely in the form of the intimidating omega-class metahuman who is even at this moment looming over you and preparing to do something unpleasant to the spy they just found.
On the other hand, if you are reading this after, say, finding my bleached bones and rusting equipment in some dimensional backwater, you naturally would have no idea who I am. (You might not care, either, but that's something I won't get into.) So, in that case, Gentle Reader, allow me to introduce myself: I am Douglas Quincy Sangnoir, Colonel, security chief of the United Nations Metahuman Peacekeeping Force Warriors Alpha, based in London, England. I was a handsome devil by the standards of the variety of humanity into which I was born, and gifted (if that's the right word) by the vagaries of genetics with a mixed bag of extras that lifted me above the average member of my species and into the category of metahumanity — people with powers, as folks in most universes would put it, although in my homeworld the terms most commonly used were "metatalents" and "metagifts". I was ejected from my native timeline by enemy action, and I have spent the vast majority of my life so far jumping from universe to universe trying to find my way back to my home and my wife — to no avail if you are indeed reading this after finding my bleached bones et cetera.
Anyway. Back to where we came from.
I woke up with a faceful of cactus.
Under ordinary circumstances this would be a painful experience for any normal person, but I am not a normal person by any measure, and only rarely are my circumstances ever truly ordinary.
I was also wearing a helmet that enclosed my full face, so while the cactus filled my field of view, it didn't actually touch me. Some might say that that wouldn't really count as a "faceful", but if you ask me having needles scrape the lenses of my goggles qualifies.
Having decided that this position wasn't one I felt inclined to maintain for any length of time, I rolled over. A certain squishy crunching emanating from under my butt and back revealed that I had more than just a faceful of cactus, and not for the first time I was grateful that I wore both leather and body armor.
Cactus patches are not known for being friendly to uninvited visitors.
The act of rolling over revealed several things. One of them was a brilliant blue sky unmarred by more than a token effort at clouds. The other was that my every joint and muscle was less than pleased with my initiative, and they were all clamoring to lodge their individual protests at my unwise and unwarranted action.
I told them to fuck off under my breath and kept rolling over onto my hands and knees, in preparation for an absolutely radical attempt at standing upright.
There are times I really hate waking up after a worldjump. Especially when the straps on my motorcycle fail to keep me in the seat when it comes to a halt.
This was one of those times, in case you hadn't figured that out.
After I cleared the fuzz out of my mind and checked to see that God's Toothpick was still in its holster, I took stock of my surroundings. There wasn't much to see — the small patch of cactus in which I'd landed pretty much defined the terrain: a familiar hardpan desert of the type that surrounded Los Angeles (and made up much of the rest of Southern California, for that matter). Baked solid and rocky, it was a kind of landscape I had grown up around, and in some rather odd way it said "home".
A quick glance at the plant life also said "home", or at least "Earth" — there was nothing alien here. So I was probably in some parallel again. (Quite honestly, it was an overwhelmingly safe bet. Of all the worlds I'd found myself in, only a few had not been some version of Earth — and of those all but one had been other planets which were part of civilizations that had at least known of Earth.)
As I stood there looking about myself, the wind picked up, a hot, dry breeze that stole the moisture from my lips even as I licked them. I glanced at the sky to check the position of the sun and then at the HUD in my helmet for the compass reading. Looked like mid-morning or thereabouts. And already this warm. I was going to need shelter, or at least shade, and pretty soon. I wondered if there were a settlement anywhere nearby.
Well, I had one way to find out.
Ten minutes later I was sitting on my motorcycle at about three hundred meters or so, looking down for any signs of sentient life with both normal and magesight. It was a tad cooler up there — altitude plus being away from the hardpan re-radiating heat both contributed to that — but I wasn't really paying attention to the temperature, except on a distracted, abstract level. Instead, I was busy grumbling at myself — again — for never getting around to putting some electronic magnification in my helmet's goggles. This was because normal sight wasn't much help — there were no obvious signs of civilization, at least none close enough or large enough for me to make them out with the unaided eye.
Magesight, on the other hand... Well, the desert was speckled with tiny flashes — the rudimentary souls possessed by the various higher animals. The brief sparkles of golden light were almost impossible at times to make out flashing against the off-brown/off-tan of the baked soil below me.
But that was okay, I wasn't paying much attention to them.
In fact, my entire attention was taken up by the absolutely monstrous source of magic I spotted far, far to the southeast of me. And when I say "monstrous", I mean it literally — it was a source of the darkest mystic power I'd ever seen outside of one of those dimensions that fancied themselves a Hell.
And I didn't know what it was. It wasn't a node. Nodes are, for lack of a better analogy, like ponds or lakes: placid-seeming, mostly still bodies filled by the flow of environmental mana into them. This thing was the complete opposite, a fountain or a geyser spewing dark-aspected mana out into the world around itself. If I had been pressed to put it in terms of my experiences, the only thing I could have likened it to was the tether I had encountered decades before in a Japanese temple tended by a group of Norse goddesses. (No, really.)
I suppose I should note, because few people are even aware they exist, that a tether is a place where aspected mystic power flows out of the physical world and into a divine or infernal realm. This mana fountain thing looked just like the last couple tethers I'd encountered in my travels. Only running in reverse.
I stared at it for a few minutes. Gods knew how many miles away it was — it was mostly over the horizon — but with my bike's top speed distance wasn't really a serious factor, and lacking a river or a road to follow, it was the best candidate I had for a guide to civilization.
Assuming there even was civilization on this particular Earth. That was never guaranteed.
(And might I say, I really hate empty Earths. I've been stuck in more than a few — one time for going on more than a year — and let me tell you it's not my favorite experience. I'm too much of an adrenaline junkie to cope well with the boredom of day-to-day survival tasks for very long. When you start looking for 250-kilogram-plus predators to beat up in order to get a little excitement in your life, there's something wrong. And when you've done it for so long that the 250-kilo-plus predators run from you, you've spent entirely too much time in the wilderness.
Deciding sooner was a whole hell of a lot better than later, I flipped up the mollyguard that protected the "Mode Select" switch and poked it firmly with the tip of my forefinger. The bike vibrated faintly as the cantilevers on which the wheels were mounted obediently swung upwards — one to the left and the other to the right. As I watched the dashboard reconfigure itself, I chuckled at the memory of the time Usagi had been riding with me when I'd switched modes. She'd shouted out "Mitsubishi Power, Make-UP!" then broke down into helpless giggles.
Now extended horizontally like wings to either side of me, the cantilevers locked into place with a pair of solid clicks that I felt through the bike's saddle. A low, pleasant "thrummmmm" of power spooling up immediately followed. I nodded to myself, checked the status of the inertial compensator (optimal), toggled the entire stealth suite on (just in case), and dialed the strength of the virtual cockpit field up to full. Oh, and I set my arrival point in the autopilot's memory so I could use its backtracker to return here if I needed to. This might be one of those universes where I could only leave from the same spot I arrived, after all; there was no way to know at first, and I didn't want to lose my exit in a few hundred square miles of rocks, dirt and Joshua trees.
With all that taken care of, I finally swung my bike around to bear on that fountain of dark mana and gunned the throttle.
It's a damned shame I can't hear my own sonic booms, but by definition I'm going a whole lot faster than they are.
I'd covered not quite a hundred kilometers before I spotted the road. I first saw it as a distant black thread against the dusty yellow of the desert, and by the time I'd figured out what it had to be, I was pretty much on top of it. So I made a big figure-8 to shed some speed and drop subsonic, then swooped down to take a look.
It was a good sign: asphalt, somewhat weather-beaten but not decaying, with familiar standard lane markings in paint that had been applied no more than a few years earlier. Just off the shoulder, a slightly battered green sign with a distinctive and familiar shape not unlike a point-up Reuleaux triangle pronounced it to be California State Road 154. It looked like any reasonably well-maintained desert road in the version of Southern California in which I'd grown up.
And in one direction, east-southeastish, it wandered off in the general heading of that mana fountain. Good.
I went back up to a couple hundred feet and started following the road at about 300 K per — fast enough to make good time, slow enough to spot any more interesting landmarks.
Like the gas station I found half an hour later.
Just like before, I cut my speed and altitude to inspect this lone outpost of man in the otherwise featureless desert. Parking my bike next to a rust-pitted pump whose hose had been reduced to dangling shreds of crumbling rubber, I took a slow walk around the structure as a hot breeze whipped by.
The few surviving signs were in familiar American English with no oddities of spelling or orthography, suggesting a timeline with a substantially similar history to that of my homeworld. (You don't want to know the trouble I had in the world where the Roman Empire had (re)incorporated about half the Greek alphabet, unaltered, into its own.) The construction looked middle-20th Century — anywhere between the 1940s and the 1960s.
Judging by the size of the building and the little of its interior I could see through the seams between sheets of plywood, it must have been pretty successful once, but its current decrepit condition suggested its glory days were long, long past. Boarded-up windows and flaking paint eroded by wind-blown grit made it pretty clear that the station had been closed for years, maybe decades. Worse yet, it had a kind of forlorn abandonment to it; it felt almost like the ruins of a lost civilization, and when I realized that I shivered despite the heat and hoped it wasn't an intuition. The station clearly came from an era that should have had air travel, but thinking back I couldn't remember spotting any aircraft or contrails in my short time awake; I hoped that I had merely been inattentive instead of, say, in a world where there wasn't anyone left to fly.
The only thing worse than the simply empty Earths are the post-human empty ones. They're a little easier to survive in, thanks to the various leftovers one might find, but are infinitely more depressing. When they're not outright deadly.
I growled angrily at that line of thought, spun away from the decaying faux stucco, and kicked a chunk of crumbling asphalt deep into a copse of Joshua trees. Then my stomach growled, and I was yanked back to my proper priorities. I had at least a month's nonperishable rations packed away at the bottom of one of the panniers — thank you again, Skuld, for dimensionally transcendent cargo space — but I didn't want to break into them unless there were no other option available.
"No other option," in this case, translated to "dead Earth devoid of people", and there I was, back on that depressing line of thought again.
I swore under my breath and stalked back to my bike. A few moments later I took off with enough power to dent and warp the ancient pumps with its side-leakage. And as I sped toward that dark mana fountain, I kept my eyes out for jets overhead.
Thankfully for my state of mind, I spotted a moving car on the road just five minutes later, driving at a fair clip toward the east-southeast, in the direction of the darknode. For the simple joy of it, I slowed to its speed and paced it all the way to its destination.
And I actually cheered when I saw the first contrail a little after that.
Two hours later I was camped out in a motel room in lovely, scenic Sunnydale, California, population 35,000, and home to one monstrous ugly mother of a dark-aspected mana fountain. I had a table full of books and papers in front of me, and I was stuffing myself with the first genuine Wendy's Triple with cheese that I'd had in more worlds and years than I cared to think about. A Wendy's burger, a large fries from McDonald's, and a Snapple lemon iced tea — ambrosia. Manna from heaven.
(No, "manna" — not "mana". Two different things entirely. A lot of people mix them up, though. Then again, a lot of people are stupid.)
I settled a little deeper in my seat as I chewed, and browsed the copy of the Sunnydale Press — the local newspaper — that I'd picked up after getting a local bankroll. The Press, as it turned out, was a morning paper — I'd been lucky to find a copy this late in the afternoon. The masthead claimed a circulation of well over a million, which I found hard to believe in a burg that boasted a population one-thirtieth that number. Who the hell was buying the other 965,000-plus issues every day? Weird.
Hell, the whole town was weird. How weird? Geeze, where do I start? Okay, first off, the stuff I'd noticed on my way in. When you approach a town from above, you can learn a lot about it that isn't obvious to people traveling through it on the ground. And boy, did I learn things about this Sunnydale. From the air, I'd spotted at least four big (big? hell, freaking huge) cemeteries, just on the side of town I was approaching. There were other open areas further off that I was pretty sure were more graveyards, but were too far away for me to be sure without going there or using a song.
But that wasn't the only thing I spotted while circling and looking for a good landing spot. I counted a good twenty church spires poking up over the lower parts of the skyline. Which meant there were likely just as many more houses of worship whose architecture didn't go for pointy towers. This was weird because, well, at least at home the usual per-capita for churches in the United States is one for every three thousand or so people, depending on the state. I couldn't remember what California's usual ratio was, but even so, just the twenty that I could see were almost twice as many as ought to be in a town that size, on the average.
Anyway, it took me maybe ten minutes to decide which isolated cul-de-sac to use as my landing strip. That was weird thing number three — outside of a hefty industrial/docks district, a biggish airport, what looked like a good-sized college campus, and a rather modest main drag along with a commercial strip a few blocks deep to either side of it, the town was mostly a maze of twisty little roads all alike, with way more dead ends and blind alleys than any modern city planner would allow. From the ground, it would look like any suburban development that's been designed to slow down traffic and prevent high-speed drive-throughs, but from the air it was a lot more sinister. It was like the edges of the town were designed to be a giant maze that would trap the unwary and the careless.
Anyway, I landed in one of the more distant cul-de-sacs with full stealth mode running, then cut the suite and headed for the "downtown" area. On my way I passed one of those big "Welcome to..." signs you see in a lot of rural towns and more remote suburbs, which is where I learned the name and population of Sunnydale.
Once I was working my way slowly toward the main drag and a cluster of motels near the commercial district, I noticed additional strangeness. More churches with lower architectural profiles, just as I had suspected there might be. An unusual number of funeral homes. And as I got closer to the center of town, an increasing number of 24-hour businesses, including a disproportionate population of pawn shops and "We Buy Gold and Jewelry!" outfits.
I found this last observation more than a bit disturbing — it implied the possibility of a serious crime problem. But the town didn't look like it was suffering from a crime wave. Yeah, there was an empty shop or three on most blocks, but everything looked like a well-maintained and almost stereotypically prosperous suburb.
Like I said, weird.
As soon as I was in the downtown area proper, I picked several of the "we buy gold" places at random to dispose of some of the valuta I carry between universes for just such a purpose. The local laws must be pretty lax, because I didn't have to fill out any forms or even answer any questions — well, other than, "how much you got there, boy?" I got some good deals, at least by Homeline standards, and walked away from them with a few thousand of the local dollars in my pocket.
I made my way to a newsstand, picked up a copy of the local paper, an atlas for the state (I was, as I had expected from the highway sign, in some version of California), an almanac, and a copy each of Time and Newsweek. Then I went looking for food and shelter.
Fast food was easy to find — I skipped a rather unsavory-looking joint that called itself the "Doublemeat Palace" in favor of more familiar brands. A motel room was equally easy to find. Which brings me back to where I started.
Burger in hand, I noshed and read, starting with the local rag. I idly noted that it was September 13, 2000. Wow. Compared to the time displacements I'd suffered on some of my other jumps, that was practically the day I left.
(I really wish I had a better grasp of N-dimensional geometries, but I only studied as much higher math in college as I needed for my engineering degree. And what little arithmancy I'd actually mastered at Hogwarts wasn't much help, either. If I had a couple good references or textbooks, I'm sure I could puzzle it out, but for the moment I was simply left wondering if getting closer to the date I was expelled from Homeline meant I was getting closer to Homeline itself.)
The next thing I noticed was the Sunnydale Press's circulation oddity. After a moment's though I filed that away and moved on to the headlines of the day.
One burger and most of the fries later, I had determined several additional things about my latest stop.
First, like the vast majority of the worlds I had visited, this version of Earth had no metahumans. I'd been hopping from timeline to timeline for at least a hundred and fifty years, probably more, as best as I could determine. (A few of the worlds I'd visited seemed to exist in a timeless "eternal now" in which duration was an entirely subjective thing. And to be frank I still couldn't be sure just how many months I'd spent training the Guardians, thanks to Usagi playing at silly buggers with both time and my memories there at the end.) Unfortunately, after all those decades I still had no clue why Homeline and a handful of other universes were the odd men out when it came to true metahumanity. I resolved to spend some time discovering what this world might have in common with all the others, if I were here for more than a couple days.
Second, among the divergences from Homeline was Sunnydale itself. I'm a California boy, born and bred, and even if I am from L.A. I'm not so self-centered that I don't still know the rest of the coast. Sunnydale sat on the same patch of land as Santa Barbara back home. Not precisely — its town center was maybe a mile or so from where Santa Barbara's was when I left, and the city limits were a good deal smaller. Which was because it only had about one-sixth the population of Santa Barbara, best as I could recall. So not really a straight analogue, even if it did still have the same area and zip codes. Likewise, what had been Santa Barbara County back home was Sunnydale County here.
The geography was a bit different, also. Again, if I were remembering right, the north edge of Santa Barbara ran right up against a line of mountains and chaparral, including a big national forest. Here, though, there was a wide, broad desert between the city and the mountains — the one I'd landed in.
Usually geography doesn't vary that much between versions of Earth, so that was pretty weird. Especially since the rest of California seemed to be more or less unchanged. I wondered if maybe the tether-thing had something to do with it.
The weirdest thing about Sunnydale, though, was that the paper had a four-page obituary section to match its giant economy supply of cemeteries. And not big obit articles, but the one- or two-column-inch, tiny-type "thus-and-so died, services at J. Random's House of Embalming on Tuesday" things. There was the usual variety of causes, including the gonzo ones that, if they make it into the paper at all, offer the careful reader the opportunity for guiltily inappropriate laughter. In this case it was an accident with a barbecue fork.
So I laughed. When I read the first one, that is.
By the fifth, I wasn't laughing any more.
By the tenth I was frowning.
And when I finished the obits, I swore in every language I knew plus a couple I didn't. According to the paper, in the previous week at least fifteen people — none of them connected to each other in any way that I could determine other than residency in Sunnydale — had all died from neck wounds inflicted with barbecue forks, evenly split between "accidents" and "gang violence". Another half-dozen or so had been victims of "animal attacks". And several more had been coyly attributed to an unspecified "neck trauma".
I should have known when I saw how darkly-aspected that tether-thing was.
This gods-be-damned town had vampires.
It was with this thought foremost in mind that, about an hour later, I grabbed my helmet and trotted out to my motorcycle. Settling myself into its saddle, I pulled on the helmet and snugged up the chinstrap before slipping into magesight and getting a fix on the dark tether.
Before I went to sleep in this town I wanted to check it out from close up. I wasn't entirely sure just what I'd do when and if I found it, but that didn't matter. I needed to get a better measure of just what it was before I could feel really comfortable anywhere in Sunnydale.
So I pulled out of the motel parking lot and began a slow process of homing in on the tether-thing's exact location. This consisted mainly of driving a few blocks then stopping to check its position with magesight, followed by correcting my course as necessary, repeated ad infinitum until I finally landed on its doorstep. Which it took me about half an hour to do.
When I finally zeroed in on the tether, I found the ruins of a low, sprawling building atop it. Even without the slightly weathered sign promising the immediate reconstruction of Sunnydale High (to be completed, it claimed, a year ago), I would have pegged the building as a school right away. Its proximity to the dark tether gave me reason to worry for the students that used to go there — well, that and the evidence that much of the school had been damaged by an explosion centered pretty much right on the tether. I checked it via magesight again — the tether didn't look unstable, but a lot of things that exploded tended not to look like they would.
I thought about it for a few moments, then muttered, "The hell with it, I'll survive" before finding a sheltered place to park my bike (with its anti-theft systems set to "Fucking ouch!"). I glanced around for a moment, then popped up the headlamps on my helmet and climbed into the rubble.
The closer I got, the more the tether seemed to be located underground. Once inside the ruins of the school, I found the first partially-unobstructed stairwell I could and began to pick my way down. When I reached the last step, I was pleasantly surprised — unlike the upper levels, which were scorched and littered with fallen beams and other architectural junk, the basement was actually in reasonably good condition. In fact, when I considered the debris patterns I had walked through, I realized that the explosion that had pulverized the school had to have originated at or just above ground level. Reassured that its floor was unlikely to collapse under me, I stepped into the cellar proper.
It was a typical example of its type, with old/surplus desks and chairs stacked along the walls, dusty file cabinets, boxes with labeling both cryptic and not in black magic marker, and the occasional bit of decommissioned sports equipment that had somehow migrated down there. The air smelled of dust, heating oil, and the last traces of the smoked-ham scent that's sometimes left behind after a big wood fire. Laced through all the rest, though, was something faintly acrid and vaguely familiar. With a start, I realized it was the unique and distinctive tang of explosives residue, aged and weak but still there.
I stopped short and thought about that for a moment. Someone had deliberately blown up the school?
Cool. I'd always wanted to do that when I was a kid.
Of course, getting the ability to actually do so kinda cured me of that, but, still, cool.
In a disturbing, anarchistic kind of way.
So, anyway, once I got over the minor zing of discovering someone had really and truly enacted the dreams of millions of schoolchildren, I started exploring. Having deduced the presence of vampires in the town, I was of course being extremely careful, but it turned out to be unnecessary — the ruins of the school were empty of life or unlife almost to the point of total sterility.
The basement, being in far better shape than the upper levels, was much easier to explore. It took me barely five minutes to discover an exit — a rough doorway in what should have been a solid exterior wall that instead led to an apparently natural cavern. I raised an eyebrow, checked the location of the tether, and shrugged to myself before stepping through the opening and into the caves.
From there on, there was really only one way to progress — down. The school turned out to have been built on top of a natural cavern complex that was shaped vaguely like a funnel. Around the edges passages and switchbacks wove in and out, but except for the one that connected to the cellar above they ultimately led in only one direction — down toward the center.
There, I found myself in a round chamber that showed signs of having been enlarged, or at least shaped, by intelligent beings. It was about seven or so meters across, and right smack dab in the middle of the floor was a big bronze disk that looked almost like a hatch, about a meter and a half in diameter, maybe a bit more. It had been cast or sculpted with an elaborate bas-relief design centered around that old classic, the pentagram-and-goat's-head. Surrounding and interpenetrating the design were hundreds of rune-like characters from no alphabet that I recognized.
A quick glance with magesight verified a few things. First off, the tether-thing was directly underneath the "hatch", although it was hard to tell just how far down it actually was. Second, the design and the runes composed some kind of ward or seal, which was active and powerful — but geared entirely toward keeping objects and entities from passing it; it did nothing to stop the dark radiations that the tether emitted. Obviously somebody's idea of "good enough".
Well, that wasn't good enough for me. Not if I were going to be living in this town for more than one night.
Unsnapping the buckles on my jacket flap, I reached for the indelible marker and the six smooth, round pebbles that I had tucked into my inside breast pocket.
Corner of Revello and Angelucci Drives, Sunnydale, September 13, 2000, 6:51 PM
Riley Finn sat in his Jeep SUV a few blocks short of his destination and wondered how his life had gone so far off the rails — even though he knew how. Hell, he'd helped derail it. Because it had been the right thing to do.
A few short months ago he'd had almost everything he'd ever wanted. He'd had a place in an important government organization doing important government work. He'd been a clandestine hero defending his country, leading his men in the fight against monstrous evils wherever, whenever needed. All that had been missing was love — and he'd known that would come someday.
Then, as one does, he'd met a girl. Buffy Summers. She was beautiful and fun ...and special. They'd fallen in love. Eventually he'd found out she was more special than he could have imagined.
Riley had to admit that working for the Initiative had felt like being Batman, Captain America and Spider-Man all rolled into one. Your typical dashing, oh-so-romantic superhero. Only the girl, who was supposed to be the rescued maiden, all tearful and grateful, turned out to be Wonder Woman.
She fought the monsters, too. Unlike him, however, she had been Chosen by Fate (capital letters required) and mystically granted the strength, speed and endurance necessary to carry the battle to the enemies of humanity. Which she did, with vigor. More importantly to his upright soul, with honor.
Part of him had been awed and impressed and had loved her even more. Another part of him, one he hadn't known was there, had been, quite frankly, appalled... Worse, jealous. That had been a new experience for him. A humbling experience. He was still trying to come to grips with the unwelcome realization that he could be petty and mean.
Most disheartening of all, she not only hadn't needed him to rescue her, but in the end it turned out she was more effective at his job than he was.
Despite the fact that he had access to some of the best tech that government money could buy.
Despite the fact that his superiors had played God with his body.
By experimenting on his entire unit with drugs and biochemical modifications, which they had neglected to mention to their erstwhile guinea pigs beforehand, his superiors had literally attempted to create super soldiers a la Captain America. So long as they achieved the results they wanted, they hadn't cared what happened to the "test subjects". A certain amount of mutation and death in an experimental population of this kind was just to be expected.
People he had trusted completely, to whom he had been utterly loyal, had used him as a pawn. And made him complicit in what they did to the men under his command. That last was what really burned. As a soldier, if an elite one, he had expected to be put to use when needed, as needed with little regard given his opinions, feelings or personal needs. That being so, he had expected, at the very least, that the righteous war they were fighting would be fought righteously.
It had mattered so much to him that he had initially resisted seeing the truth of what the Initiative was doing. The truth of what he was doing in their name. When Riley was finally able to accept it, he had joined forces with the special girl he loved (and her strange little band of friends) and brought down the organization he had also loved.
Now? Well, now, they fought the monsters together. As civilians. Riley had to admit, if only to himself, that he felt naked and bereft, like an ex-cop denied his badge, his authority, and the camaraderie of his brother warriors.
And the unworthy part of him couldn't help noticing that, no matter how well he did his share of the work, no one noticed him when Buffy was around. Ever since he was little he'd wanted to be a hero. And he was one. But he'd thought he was Batman and, with Buffy, not only was he not Batman, he wasn't even a second-rate Robin.
The Slayer was mythic. The people who worked with her were mere footnotes, historically speaking.
Well, since that had to change, if only for his own sense of self-worth, it was going to change. He was going to find a way to make his mark. To be with her, he could do it. For love of Buffy, he could do most anything. And, since she loved him, too, she would meet him halfway...
Or, so he'd always thought.
Guiltily he realized that he wasn't as confident of that as he had been. Up to now, there had never been a doubt in his mind. But things were a little different. Riley felt he couldn't take anything for granted about Buffy's emotions. She had acted so strangely recently, letting Dracula bite her, hiding it from everyone — from him. It had shaken him deeply. She might merely have been controlled by the legendary vampire's "showy Gypsy stuff", but the incident had left a funny feeling in his gut. Something didn't feel right. And he just wasn't sure what it was.
"You're not going to solve anything like this," Riley muttered aloud, abruptly starting the engine and driving on. "...There isn't anything to solve anyway."
Tonight they would lay his idiotic misgivings to rest. First, he was taking her to a movie. Almost Famous was supposed to be pretty good. He hadn't been able to find a decent chick flick and while Art of War might be more fun for him, The Specials and Highlander: End Game might be too much like work for Buffy. If there were one thing he didn't want on her mind tonight, it was anything like work.
After the movie, he had reservations at this quiet little restaurant on the coast. His buddy had recommended it for its romantic atmosphere and fantastic food. After a little wining, dining and soft candle light, he would get the blanket he had stored in the back of the jeep and take her for a long walk on the beach. Maybe they would lie back together and look at the stars. Just them, the night sky and the sea. A perfect time and place to tell her again what she meant to him. And to show her.
With visions of tangled blonde hair, smooth warm skin and moist parted lips singing in his head, Riley jerked to a stop in front of Buffy's house. He picked up the huge bouquet of roses lying on the passenger seat and reached for the door...
The front passenger-side door flew violently open before he even touched the handle. So did the rear one. Buffy climbed in, mid-tirade, and slammed the door behind her. It was like a storm exploded inside the car.
"Just be quiet, Dawn! I've had more than enough! You're only coming because Mom made me bring you, so don't push your luck!"
An adolescent girl jumped in the back, her long, smooth dark hair swinging and green eyes ablaze. What the he... Oh yeah, Dawn. Buffy's kid sister.
"It's not like I want to go with you and Riley! Why would I want to be around you two? Watching you drool all over each other... or whatever?! Just drop me off at Lisa's and I'll go with her!"
Riley sat back with a sigh and closed his eyes. After a moment he straightened, turned to Buffy and held the bouquet out to her. The sisters' argument was punctuated by a brief "Ooooh, flowers!" before promptly resuming.
He pulled out his cellphone and began to dial the restaurant.
September 14, 2000, 9:30 AM
I didn't expect my little addition to the seal on the darknode to have an immediate effect on the local magical environment. But like damming a stream feeding a pond, it should make the level of mystic nastiness noticeably lower after a while. I couldn't help but smile at the thought of how anyone — mage or critter — dependent on that power might react when the well began to run dry.
Thankfully, I didn't have to worry about that. I had other things to worry about.
Decades of experience in previous timelines had hammered the lesson in — the odds that I'd find a song to open a gate out of my latest stop on my first try were near to non-existent. In the hundred and fifty years or so that I've been searching for home, I think I've found a gate on the first night only twice. (That of course doesn't count the illusion Usagi gave me of doing so after I spent however the hell long it was in her world.)
But even though I knew it was futile, I tried anyway, in the privacy of my motel room. Fortunately, this time my body clock was not too far out of sync with local time. (My biorhythms would synchronize with the local clock within a few days, but this soon after a jump it was still running by the last world I'd been in.) It was actually a bit fast — I made the attempt at a little after eleven PM Pacific Daylight Time. So I picked an unused song from the standard list of candidates and gave it a try.
And no, it didn't work.
More than a hundred and fifty years of disappointment had also taught me to take it in stride, though. I merely spat out a particularly vile obscenity in Black Lectroid before shutting my helmet down and crawling into bed.
The next morning I considered my options as I ate breakfast in a nearby diner. As charming as Chez Roach was, I needed a more cost-effective place to live if I were going to be here for any length of time. That meant money — which I had. More importantly, though, it meant, just as in any other late-20th century Earth, documentation. And, ultimately, a job.
I chugged the last of my tea and strolled back to my motel room. On the way there I snagged Eimi out of one of my bike's panniers.
Back inside, I locked the door, made sure the drapes were pulled, and set the laptop down at the minimal desk affixed to the wall opposite the bed. I flipped it open and hit the power button, then dropped to my knees to peer at the wall behind and under the desk. Nothing. Well, it was a relatively low-tech Earth, after all. Standing up, I snagged the phone, pulled it over, and after confirming that it was jacked and not hardwired, unplugged the line connecting it to the wall.
While I did that, the laptop finished booting with an orchestral flourish that momentarily filled the room with a lush swell of music. A moment later, the media player opened up full-screen to display an animated graphic of a girlish face. The art style wasn't native to my homeworld, but seemed to be very common in most of the Earths I'd visited — simplified lines sketching out a heart-shaped face with a pointy chin, the barest hint of a nose, a small Cupid's-bow of a mouth, and positively huge blue eyes behind a stylized pair of glasses that were little more than two circles and a few connecting lines. It was all topped off by an abstract shock of black hair. With blue highlights.
(Everywhere I find this style, I should note, it's universally acknowledged to be stereotypically Japanese. This made — and still makes — absolutely no sense to me, because the faces rendered in it rarely if ever look Asian. And needless to say, it bore no resemblance whatsoever to any Japanese commercial art with which I was familiar from Homeline. If you ask me, it looks more like some offshoot of Disney's style than anything even remotely Japanese. But that's neither here nor there.)
Behind the glasses, those big blue eyes tracked across to "focus" on me. "Well?" came out of the laptop's speakers in the voice of an eager teenager.
"And good morning to you, too, Eimi," I replied with a faint smile. "Nope, no luck, still not home yet."
Eimi's animated face pouted. "Well, darn. I suppose that means it's time to fake up an ID for you again. So, what have I got to work with, connection-wise? I don't detect any wireless access points in range."
I held the end of the phone line up to the screen. "Looks like the same standard RJ11 line we've seen in dozens of other timelines."
The pout came back. "That's all? Not even a real network connection?"
I shrugged. "Sorry. Either the world or just this motel isn't advanced enough for an in-room port to the local Tapestry." (Yes, Eimi used the terminology from her timeline, and I used that from mine. We each understood what the other meant, so no big deal.)
She rolled her eyes. "Well then, I suppose if I must..." There was a little grinding noise as a jack extruded itself out of the side of the laptop. "There."
"Thanks." I plugged it in, sat down, and with Eimi's help began the far-too-familiar process of building a new false identity for myself.
This was quite a bit easier than it had been at the start of my exile, thanks to the piece of anomalous computing technology in front of me. Originally an off-the-shelf laptop from an early 21st-century Earth that wasn't too far behind Homeline techwise, it had been subjected to a weird substance the folks in that universe called "handwavium", among other names. Basically, handwavium was ultratech-in-a-drum — paint, spray or soak a gadget with the stuff, and overnight said gadget would get transformed — radically upgraded into something that might have come out of Star Trek.
Nobody knew what it was or where it had come from, but by the time I left that timeline they were using it to turn cars into spaceships and colonize their solar system. I had about a liter of the stuff with me in a sealed and locked canister, heavily duct-taped; I planned to study it thoroughly when I finally got home.
Anyway, before volunteering to come along with me on my trip home, Eimi and her hardware used to work with a fellow by the name of Noah Scott. I'd arrived more or less in Noah's lap, and if it hadn't been for his quick thinking I might have suffocated from my own engine exhaust. In thanks, and to pay for the food and air I used, I helped him finish the space station he'd launched and in which I had landed.
Eimi had been one of his first experiments with handwavium. She'd started out a fairly ordinary IBM Thinkpad of the period — which is to say, no great shakes by the standards of Homeline's computers — before getting dunked in a vat of the stuff. Afterwards, though, she'd become an armor-sheathed megaframe the size of a large trade paperback, with more memory and processing power than I could exhaust under almost any circumstances. Not to mention an AI who showed evidence of a soul under magesight.
"So," Eimi declared. "Who do you want to be in this world?"
I grinned. "How about a dot-com billionaire again?"
Eimi scowled in a manner highly reminiscent of Skuld at her cutest. "Baka!"
I shrugged, still grinning. "What can I say? I liked it, the one time I did it."
Eimi's animated hand, forefinger extended, appeared in the media player window and she shook it reprovingly at me. "I'll remind you that you worked for that one, Mister! I didn't make you ridiculously rich, you did. I can't create the kind of trail a genuine billionaire leaves behind out of thin air, you know!" The hand vanished from the window. "Besides, what did you do with all those billions anyway? Bought a fancy-schmancy circus from a corporate raider and gave it back to the guy who started it, just so you could be a clown on stage."
"There was more to it than that, and you know it," I muttered.
She went on as though I hadn't said anything. "I swear, you have no idea what to do with money."
I rolled my eyes. Eimi wasn't the least bit greedy or miserly; the lecture came because she was conscientious and thrifty, and my filthy-rich upbringing left me just casual enough about money (when I had it in quantity, at least) to grate on her more parsimonious habits. "Yes, yes, you've mentioned that before. Several times. Look, I was only joking about the billionaire thing."
"Good, because the twenty-odd years you spent in that world were such a fluke."
Animated eyes rolled to match my own. "Right. So let's get started faking your history."
I settled more comfortably in my seat. "Good. We'll begin with the usual."
Eimi couldn't produce driver's licenses and other paperwork out of thin air, but she could (with the proper connectivity) make authorizations for "replacement copies" appear of out thin electrons. By lunchtime I had a couple bank accounts and enough basic ID papers and cards to go hunting for a place to live, plus a proper registration and set of license plates for my motorcycle. And while I'd been off at various government agencies picking those up, Eimi had scouted the local real estate market and had even set up an appointment for me with a broker.
As I rummaged around in the panniers for something a bit dressier than my leathers to wear to that appointment, Eimi gave me the rundown on what she'd learned.
She had discovered in her research that real estate in beautiful suburban Sunnydale was incredibly inexpensive in comparison to prices elsewhere in this here-and-now's California. This was, we concluded after a brief discussion, an economic side-effect of the (as-yet admittedly conjectural) vampire population — there were a lot of houses and apartments on the market, left behind when their owners/lessors became the latest victims of an unfortunate barbecue fork accident. And as any student of Econ 101 will tell you, a glut in supply means low prices. Houses were dirt cheap in Sunnydale, and nice upscale apartments cost what poorly-maintained college-town student digs would rent for anywhere else in the country.
I didn't have to like vampires to like this. For once I wouldn't have to live in a shithole flophouse for my first few weeks or months in a new world.
Buying a place was right out, though. I mean, if I had really wanted, with a little luck Eimi and I could find and crack all the necessary institutions to give me both the credit history and the funds to buy a house. But I generally try to avoid outright monetary fraud when setting up a new identity. That's why I carry trade goods from world to world, after all.
Furthermore, an apartment lease is easier to get out of on short notice than a 30-year mortgage. If/when I found a gate out of Sunnydale, I wanted to be able to pick up and go without having to spend three months trying to sell my house first. And finally, home ownership comes with a whole lot of overhead and maintenance that I'd rather leave to a landlord.
Thus it was that when I met up with my realtor, it was to look at apartments. Furnished apartments, to be precise, of which there also was a significant supply on the market.
Significant enough, in fact, that I found and closed the deal on a great place before five that afternoon. It was a new building, constructed only a couple years earlier, and it showed in a style that appeared to be influenced — though not too strongly — by Frank Lloyd Wright. With its white stucco, bold wrought iron accents, and rather irregular and asymmetric structure, it struck my sense of whimsy; the large windows and broad patios that most of its apartments had didn't hurt, either.
It was clearly intended to appeal to people in the high-tech industry, because among the building's other features was its own dataweave with high-speed Tapestry access. (Well, "high-speed" for this here-and-now — by the standards of the world that was growing ever more distant to me, it was rather slow.) Eimi would be ecstatic at the news. (On second thought, it was likely that not only did she already know, she had selected the complex for that very reason.)
Anyway, above and beyond the physical plant, it was around the corner from a couple convenience stores, not far from both downtown (in one direction) and a good-sized shopping center (in another), and reasonably convenient to the commercial-industrial district where I hoped to find a job. (About which more later.) On the bad side, it was also uncomfortably close to a cemetery, but honestly, there was no place in Sunnydale that wasn't uncomfortably close to a cemetery.
(Oh, yeah, that made me suspicious. Like I wasn't already.)
When I got there I was welcomed by the building manager, a woman by the name of Cathy Cohen, who seemed determined to both rent to and flirt with me. She gave a hard sell on both fronts.
The apartment she showed me didn't need the hard sell. It was a spacious layout on the third floor that sat well to the back of the building but still overlooked the entire complex all the way down to the street some sixty-one meters away. While I'm not that fond of the earth tones used to decorate the place, pretty much the rest of it rocked: the spacious master suite with huge walk-in closet, the big open design of the living-dining-kitchen area, and the positively huge windows with a southern exposure — along with the fact that it all came furnished — made it a big win in my book. That Ms. Cohen was also happy to sign a rental agreement on the spot when I expressed my intent to take the place was just gravy.
(Ms. Cohen herself needed a bit more than a hard sell. She had beautiful eyes and a pleasant enough figure, but that was about it — the rest of her features could be charitably described as "strong," and her hairstyle didn't do anything to soften them. Even if I weren't faithful to my wife, I wouldn't have been the least bit tempted. Especially once she started sounding just a tad... desperate. Poor woman.)
Anyway, the place was an "abandoned" rental, so I got a real bargain for picking up the remaining time on the lease. I paid my deposit (first month and last month's rents, plus a bit more to cover cleaning) with cash on the barrelhead, signed the paperwork, bid farewell to the good Ms. Cohen, and had my motorcycle parked in my assigned space before sundown.
Highway 101 Westbound, 30 miles from Sunnydale, September 14, 2000, 7:03 PM
Miklos worked the rosary in his jacket pocket with one hand as he listened attentively to his seatmate. There was no need to be impolite to the young man sitting next to him. Even if the bus seat were less comfortable than the plank benches in the dining hall back at the monastery, and even if Miklos were in fear for his life, it didn't excuse rudeness. At the thought of the monastery his breath caught and his fingers fumbled on a bead as he imagined the state in which It must have left his home of so many years. Then he caught himself and forced himself to calm again.
"I mean, I had my choice of plum locations for my internship," his seatmate growled, launching for the third — no, fourth — time into his complaints. But Miklos wasn't counting. "I mean, with my class rank and background, I had Johns Hopkins headhunting me — Johns Hopkins!"
The young man drew a long sigh, and Miklos glanced over at him as he reached the last bead and began the rosary anew. He had the look of an athlete to him, the monk thought, lean, muscular and disciplined, topped with a somewhat shaggy head of hair that Miklos thought might be brown, though the faint yellowish illumination of the bus's reading lights made it hard to be sure. Even so, something about him felt... decadent. Or maybe that was just his childhood indoctrination talking, back from the days when Czechoslovakia was still a Soviet client state — tarring all Westerners, all Americans, with a handy brush.
"Anyway," the young man continued after he ran out of breath for his sigh, "that's what I thought I was getting. But my sister" — just like every other time in his long monologue, he spat the word like a curse; Miklos thought she must be a most unpleasant person judging by his seatmate's attitude — "decided that she knew better. She talked to her people, and the next thing I know, every hospital that wanted me yanked their offers back, and the only thing open for me is a teaching hospital in the ass-end of nowhere in California. Just coincidentally where my sister has some 'interests'." He growled, actually growled, which had alarmed Miklos the first time he'd done it. "Damn her!"
Miklos felt that he really should reprove the young man for his casual blasphemy. It hadn't worked the first three times, though, and he did, after all, have much larger matters about which to worry. He had carefully wrapped and packed the Sphere of Dagon in his luggage, as he did not dare carry it on himself amidst the bustling crowd of passengers. Once he arrived, he needed to unpack it as soon as he could find a private place to do so, lest he be without its protection. It had only been by virtue of its holy light that he had escaped the Beast when It had savaged the monastery — well, that and the Beast's complete concentration on venting its fury upon Brother Esven for their successful defiance.
He suppressed a sigh as he wondered, as he did every time his mind was free to wander, if his flight were the act of a coward rather than the valiant escape of the last resistance to the Beast. Even though he had done so with the silent encouragement of Brother Esven as the older man had been slowly flayed alive by the Beast, Miklos still felt that he had somehow betrayed his brothers in the Order by fleeing. But surely the Slayer needed what he knew, and despite its fragility the Sphere was, if not exactly a weapon, a useful tool for her to use in the battle against It.
As his seatmate continued his endless rant about his sister and her machinations, Miklos tilted his head back against the rest at the top of his seat, closed his eyes, and drew a long, slow breath in through his nose. The filtered, aseptic air from the bus's air conditioner, devoid of any trace of man or nature, chilled his sinuses and the back of his throat. Only twenty-seven more miles to go.
Dufflebag slung over his shoulder, Ben Wilkinson stepped down off the bus and onto the cracked concrete of the platform. He took a deep breath, getting a lungful of diesel fumes and slightly stale sea air in equal proportion. He grimaced slightly and walked into the bus station to ponder his next step.
It wasn't as though he'd really wanted to come to Sunnydale, as he'd mentioned to his seatmate on the ride from Los Angeles. A nice enough guy, Eastern European of some kind he'd gathered, and a bit on the quiet side. Ben appreciated a seatmate who wouldn't gab nonstop. In any case the fellow — Ben realized he'd never gotten his name — had scampered off to retrieve his bags from the luggage compartment as soon as his feet had touched the ground. Ben hadn't bothered with packing more than the bare minimum — knowing his sister and her "staff", he no doubt had a limited but borderline-acceptable wardrobe already waiting for him.
Steeling himself for the experience, he stepped into the bus station proper to find a pay phone and call... Ben frowned, then dug into a pocket to pull out a scrap of yellow lined paper. Dreg. That's who. What kind of name is "Dreg"?
Intent on finding the phones, Ben didn't notice the arm reaching out of the shadows until he felt a tug on his sleeve. He whirled, fist raised, to see instead of the expected assault a brown-clad figure cowering behind a pair of scabby, almost scaly hands raised in obvious placation. "Please do not strike, young master," the figure moaned fearfully from the depths of a hood, its voice surprisingly pleasant. "I am Jinx, dispatched by the order of Her Splendiferousness to meet you here and take you to the dwelling place She has had prepared for you."
Scowling at the mention of his sister, Ben relaxed and lowered his fist. When no blow fell, the cloaked figure dropped its hands and cautiously straightened. As it turned to face him, Ben got his first good look at one of his sister's flunkies. About five-foot-four of rough-skinned humanoid in brown monks' robes, with a face that was considerably pointier in its extremes than a human's and solid black eyes, all of it topped by a disheveled shock of equally black hair. Ben raised an eyebrow. Knowing his sister, he'd been expecting something a bit more horrific than this... this...
For a moment the phrase "hobbit with leprosy" flitted through his mind. This was one of his sister's demonic henchthings? This cringing little sycophant? About the only thing horrible about it was its smell. Well, geeze. He stared at the thing until it started to hunch and shuffle nervously. "Young master?"
"Okay, I'm here." Ben glared at the creature. "You've met me. Now what?"
"Yes," Jinx simpered. "Her Utmost Deliciousness is most... miffed that you refused the limousine she had engaged to bring you to Sunnydale. She feels that, as distinguished as their honored history may be, Greyhound is far too declassé to be suitable transport for your respected self. She only sought to have you brought to the Hellmouth in proper style."
"Well, you can tell Glory — again! — to stuff it," Ben snapped. "She may be able to screw up my life whenever she wants, but I'm going to do things my way as much as I can. She should remember that."
Jinx shook his head while looking anywhere but at Ben. "You should not defy the most generous Glorificus like that, young master."
Ben sneered. "What's she going to do, kill me?" He spun on his heel and strode out of the bus station, and after a moment, Jinx skittered off after him.
September 14, 2000, 8:37 PM
I spent most of the evening unpacking — not everything, of course, just clothes, toiletries and a few incidentals. A couple souvenirs. My framed photo of Maggie and myself kissing against the skyline of MegaTokyo. Likewise the shot of Makoto and me at Tokyo Disneyland, with Usagi and the rest of the girls horsing around in the background. A couple other pictures of friends and loved ones from my travels.
As I filled my closet and dresser, Eimi watched me from where I'd set her laptop up on a nightstand. She was patched into the local Tapestry through a wall port near the bed and so only part of her attention was on me, but a part of Eimi's attention is usually larger than the whole of most meat-people's attention. That's just a fact of life with most AIs — they have processing cycles to spare for just about anything they want to do at any given time, at least on the human scale. I was actually a little flattered that with an entire new Earth's online archives available to her — even as sparse as they probably were compared to either of our homes — Eimi still cared to watch me and kibitz on how I organized my shirts.
Gods know how she could, though, as I was hanging them up in the master bedroom's walk-in closet, and was out of direct line-of-sight from her screen and vidcam. Eimi had shown evidence of some kind of expanded sensor suite in the past, though, and I just chalked up her ability to mock me for hanging my shirts up in spectral order (from red on the left through purple on the right) to one of the unexplained abilities the handwavium had added to her hardware.
"I suppose you're going to hang the black shirts to the left of the red to represent infrared," she called out, "and the white ones to the right of that purple button-down to be ultraviolet."
I stopped with a hanger holding my favorite black dress shirt still in hand. "You know, I hadn't thought of that." I nodded in mock thoughtfulness. "Not a bad idea at all. Thanks, Eimi!"
"Mouuuuu..." Befitting her (allegedly) Japanese rendering style, Eimi was just as fluent in Nihongo as she was in English. She drew out the rough equivalent of "ah, geeeeeze" with exactly the tone and accent of a genuine Tokyo schoolgirl. "I should know better than to give you ideas. Does this mean I have to address you as 'High Programmer' now when you wear a white shirt?"
I stuck my head out of the closet door and gave her look that I hoped expressed my confusion at that out-of-left-field comment. "Huh?"
She rolled her eyes. "Never mind. Obscure reference, more trouble than it's worth to explain."
I looked at her flatly. "That has to be the first time in years I've been the one getting told that."
"So glad to be of service!"
I snagged another armful of shirts on hangers out of the open pannier and retreated back into the closet. "Yeah, right."
"So," Eimi called after me, "have you given any thoughts to defenses for our new base of operations here?"
I stuck my head out of the closet door and rolled my eyes at her visual pickup. "'Base of operations'? It's not like we've moved into Warriors' Mansion, you know." I ducked back in and continued hanging shirts. "I'm going to set up layered wards using the pebble-and-Sharpie method right away," I shouted from the depths of the closet. "Plus I have a few tech measures in mind."
As I stepped back out to extract more clothing, Eimi made a thoughtful kind of noise, then asked, "What about a Fidelius?"
"Oh, yeah," I said. "Just what I need. Make my apartment completely vanish from the ken of Man, right down to the copy of the building's blueprints filed in the bottom drawer of the Sunnydale Public Works department."
"No better security short of getting a god to sleep on the couch," Eimi pointed out.
"That never worked when Hexe crashed at our shared flat," I muttered. "She just woke up grouchy."
"Seriously, security's the problem," I pointed out, gesturing with the hanger and black polo shirt I had in my right hand. "No one remembers the apartment even exists, right? So how do I prove to the surly doorman downstairs that I have a right to enter the building? He won't even be able to see my key. Then there's the fact that the Fidelius needs a wardstone a damned sight bigger than a breadbox to anchor it." I yanked a few more casual shirts (on hangers) out and strode back to the closet. "Nah, too much trouble. Plus!" I stuck my head back out again. "While I may have a complete decompilation of the ritual handy for translation directly into the spellcasting system of one's choice, I am obligated by Federal law to point out that I can't cast a Fidelius. I'd have to find a trustworthy mage to do it."
"Oh," Eimi said in dulcet tones of duh, "right."
I hooked my load on the rod and stopped for a moment to consider an idea. "Eimi, analysis and projection, please."
"Okay," she replied. "What do you have in mind?"
I screwed up my face in thought. "That Billy Joel-Cyndi Lauper collaboration we picked up a few worlds back — 'Code of Silence'. Odds on using it to produce a Fidelius-like effect?"
After all the decades we'd spent together, Eimi had assembled what she described to me as an "imperfect but functional model" of how my metatalent processed songs into other metagifts. It would have been just a curiosity except that it did a slightly better job of predicting what a song might do than I did.
Eimi closed her animated eyes and "hmmed" absently as she retrieved the song and its lyrics and fed them into the model, which she had once described to me as the deformed bastard child of a neural network and a Bayesian belief graph. She wouldn't tell me any more details of its structure and functioning than that, save that she could tweak it at will to reflect any new results that didn't match its predictions. I think she was afraid that if I knew how it worked, my subconscious might change how it worked, just to spite her.
Anyway, after several seconds she stopped "hmm"ing and opened her eyes again. "'My sources say no'," she declared. "Less than 10% chance. And too many lines in the song suggest the 'silence' is voluntary and not enforced."
"Oh, well." I shrugged and turned back to my task. "Still, it wouldn't hurt to get the components just in case I need them, though. I might want to set up a secure workshop somewhere. With magical power so thick on the ground around here, the likelihood of finding a mage is probably pretty good."
"What are you going to do, then, have a stonemason carve you a wardstone?"
"Sure, why not?" Back to the pannier and more clothes — slacks and jeans this time. "If I'm right about this town, there's going to be more than the usual number of them out there plying their trade. I'd be surprised if there weren't at least one for each cemetery. I'm sure one or more of them will be willing to take on an odd little commission with no questions asked. And it's not like they need magical ability just to carve the sigils and glyphs."
"Point," Eimi allowed. "And if that doesn't work, I'll bet you can always find a willing sculptor in the Art Department over at UC Sunnydale."
"Oh yeah, good idea." Back out for more pants. "Beyond the magical stuff, there's the tech measures I mentioned. Number one with a bullet: using the various parts I've collected over the past few worlds, plus a little luck, I think I can kitbash a decent force field generator. I set it up to conform to the apartment walls, and voila! Instant fortress."
"For as long as you have power," Eimi snarked.
I smirked back at her. "Measure number two: independent power. How's a vest-pocket fusion reactor sound to you?"
"Dangerous." Eimi studied me. "What are you going to do, crack open the handwavium?"
"Nope. Plans I got from a world before we met, but haven't really needed before now. I can build the whole thing myself, and start off the fusion reaction with a song."
Eimi closed her eyes and considered this. "You'll let me look at those plans first before you do anything?" she asked, opening her eyes again.
I stepped back into the closet to hang up the slacks. "Sure. Be stupid of me not to."
"Smart man," she said with an audible grin, but when I came back out her expression was as innocent as it's possible for an animated image to be. "So, okay, force wall, plus unlimited power. Any, ahem, 'active' defenses?"
I chuckled. "By which you mean anything that will turn invaders into stains on the rug, costing us our cleaning deposit, don't you?"
Shrugging, I reached into the pannier for more slacks. "Oddly enough, that might be a little harder to arrange. I mean, I've got the Nemesis staff, I could probably rig that with some kind of autonomous sensor thingy, but one shot and it'd take down half the building. Not to mention being kind of large and obvious. And anything small enough to be inconspicuous is impractical right now. I don't exactly have much in the way of weapons-grade... hello, what's this?" While reaching for the "hook" part of more clothes hangers, my hand had closed around something small, hard and cylindrical that shouldn't have been there. Drawing it out I held it up.
It was a little glass vial, maybe about three centimeters long and one across, inside of which was a small amount of a deep red liquid. "What the hell? I know I packed you inside a padded box and put you with the other valuables."
"Doug?" Eimi asked.
I turned and held it out to her. "Belldandy's little going-away present. It was in with my clothes."
Turning the vial in my hand and watching the slightly viscous contents slosh and coat the inside of the container a transparent red, I flashed back to the moment I had received it. It was from the world so many decades before where I had found the Norns improbably living in a Tokyo suburb, and where I had played such a critical role in the lives of two of their siblings. Months after the excitement had all died down I'd finally found the song that would let me leave that world. I'd actually been on my motorcycle, firmly seated, strapped in the saddle and ready to depart, when Belldandy had stepped forward and pressed the vial into my hand.
"There will come a time when you will need this," she said.
I looked down at it. The color and viscosity of its contents had made it clear what they were, but I just had to ask. "Bell... what is this?"
She gave me that beatific smile of hers and replied, "A drop of blood from each of us, and with it a gift: From the Past, wisdom. From the Future, hope. From the Present, faith. From Moments, vigilance. From Eternity, perseverance. And from all of us together, love." She wrapped her hand around mine and closed them both around the vial. "When faith calls to faith," she added, "you will know what to do with this."
Well, it had been more than a century, and I still didn't know what to do with it. I just kept it packed away in its own custom-made, foam-cushioned, locked case and never took it out.
So what the hell had it been doing in a different pannier entirely, rolling around loose with my shirts and slacks?
I said as much out loud, and Eimi snorted delicately. "It's god-stuff. It's probably half-sentient and wanted out for a reason."
I considered that. "Yeah, I'll bet you're right. Though damned if I know what that could be." Casting a dubious glance at the little glass container, I placed it carefully in one of the tray-like hollows of the silent valet on top of my dresser, and went back to unpacking my clothes.
About half an hour later I ducked outside and picked up a handful of pebbles from the gravel border that circumnavigated the building. Returning to my new home, I pulled the same Sharpie I'd used at the ruined high school out of my small, somewhat haphazard kit of magical tools, and went to work marking them with certain combinations of Futhark runes taught to me by a goddess.
As crypts went, the layout of this one was fairly odd. Externally it was much like its neighbors, a whitewashed gothic confection with the name of a half-forgotten local family carved above the door. Internally, however, the space was unexpectedly large. There were sarcophagi, as might be expected, but just two and they were widely spaced apart, leaving the center of the room and the area closest to the door empty. A few thin yet long windows, liberally smeared with dust and grime to block direct sunlight, were set just below the ceiling. For real light, there were a multitude of sconces filled with thick white and cream candles here and there on the walls. College cast-offs all.
The airiness and lightness of the space was one of the reasons he had made this his home. But it was the sarcophagus nearest the door that had sold him on it. It did not actually hold the moldering remains of some human. Well, not since he had pitched them out and opened the false bottom. What it did do was lead down into a many-chambered cave below. That was really his lair. And that cave had any number of entrances into the labyrinthine tunnels beneath Sunnydale.
The lone occupant of the crypt slouched back comfortably in his scavenged armchair several feet from the door, stirred the contents of the mug in his hands and shook his head at the vagaries of the characters in "Passions". The TV, the brightest source of light in this abode of the dead, was showing the episode he had taped earlier in the day while he slept.
A beat up mini-refrigerator, "liberated" from the nearby college like so many of his furnishings, sat against the far wall, humming cheerfully. On top of it a clock radio also hummed as red numbers glowed and changed on its face.
Best thing he'd done in months, cheating that win at kitten poker so he could get the place wired. Maybe he'd steal himself a Tivo sometime soon, catch up with the human race.
All the ambient noise in the room had not distracted him from hearing movement outside, so when the door slammed open and a white mist began to theatrically billow in he didn't even bother looking around.
"Thought you'd drop round, you poncy bastard. Where's my eleven quid?"
This mist abruptly stopped billowing and just fell in on itself, condensing with a sharp clap into a man. He gave a grunt of disgust. Of average height with shoulder-length black hair, he was dressed in a blousy white shirt of the finest cambric, nondescript but well-cut black trousers with a red paisley silk cummerbund, dark leather shoes that just about screamed "hand sewn", and a long, flowing black cape. With his Goth-fashionable pale skin and sharp features, he was the "compleat vampyr" stereotype.
The man in the chair was a direct, almost harsh, contrast to all this flowing gypsy romance. His short hair, cut in an abrupt Punk style, was bleached to screaming whiteness. He wore a tight black t-shirt, tight black jeans, and heavy black boots on a whipcord frame. He was a man who looked deceptively slim and harmless one moment and muscled and powerful the next. His fingernails were smudges of black against the white ceramic of his dining hall mug. The face below that crisp hair was craggy, yet handsome. The disparity of dark eyebrows with his violently white hair and his pale skin made the blue of his eyes stand out.
"What 'eleven quid', you troglodyte? Can you not even give a proper greeting? ...Or sire a decent maid? This place is filthy." The "vampyr"'s accent was, naturally, something Eastern European, contrasting strongly with the other's lower-class British speech. His fine lips curled in a sneer as he looked around the dingy crypt before fastidiously gathering the ends of his cloak close to his legs and moving forward. He stopped, with a studied air of nonchalance, squarely between the man in the chair and the glowing TV.
"Please, why would I want to be polite to you?" The platinum blond man in the chair glanced up over his mug with scornful, dancing eyes as he continued to unconcernedly spoon the mushy contents into his mouth.
The cloaked "vampyr"'s disgust grew. "Spike, what is that... swill you are eating? Smells distinctly like polecat from where I am standing."
"Where you are standing, mate, is between me and my soaps. And tonight's menu contains a lovely bit of marten, mixed with a soupçon of AB negative. Hard to get, that. And, naturally, Weetabix for texture. Great stuff." There was bravado under the light words.
The "vampyr" laughed, apparently delighted. "So they spoke the truth! You have been neutered by the cattle! William the Bloody is reduced to drinking the blood of animals. How very appropriate!"
Spike kept his temper, but just. He resisted the urge to rub at the back of his head, near his nape, where that damned chip was buried. The damned technological genie burned him every time he tried to feed normally... Every time he so much as went to attack a human.
Gulping down the last of his meal, he set the mug on the floor beside his chair. Then he stood with deliberation and moved into the intruder's space, going face to face with him. There were some minor consolations to his condition — the chip only concerned itself with humanity. Vampires and others of demon ilk were fair game. So, while he couldn't eat normally, violence was still on the menu. Especially here in good, old demon-ridden Sunnydale.
"You're one to crow," he said, his voice a low and meaningful growl. "The Slayer sent you packin', I hear. Tail between your legs. Your little nancy-boy ways didn't impress the girl, did they?"
His opponent leaned into the confrontation as well, dark eyes alight with sudden anger and intent. "In all the years you have been here it seems to me that you have done little to impress the Slayer, yourself!"
"Ah, but then I have been here years and she ain't done for me yet. Though she's tried. And I ain't the one callin' myself the bloody 'Prince of Darkness' only to get my bollocks handed me like any other fanged wanker. Heard you got staked." The last was said with stark satisfaction.
His mood shifting like the wind, the glee in his eyes unmistakable, Spike whirled away to the open door and held it pointedly. "If you're not gonna pay me for that book you burnt, bugger off. I'm not in the mood to rehash old times with has-beens."
"Nor would I waste more of my time bandying words with a useless fool, so I will go." Gathering his cloak and his dignity about himself, Dracula stalked in cool, majestic anger towards the door. Only to have Spike grab his shoulder and pull him back, shutting the door before he could pass through it.
"Hang on a moment," Spike said, suddenly speculative. "You're never that easy to get rid of when you want something. And you wouldn't've come without some end in mind. ...What are you here for?"
The dark man shook him off. His nose wrinkled in distaste. "Do not touch me, let alone come so close to me, while you reek of vermin."
Backing off, he moved across the crypt until most of the room and one large open sarcophagus separated them.
"I had come to share information with you. For reasons I cannot now recall, I felt inclined to look after your interests. You have reminded me why I have avoided your company these many decades. It is a lesson I shall not forget."
"Yeah, you and me, both. So, just tell me — then you can get the hell out of here and I can get back to the show before Timmy ends up in the well."
For a silent moment, Dracula looked unseeingly into the sarcophagus. All his hauteur drained from him. When he finally spoke it was in a quiet tone, bare of any arrogance, almost afraid. "There is something here. ...Or, maybe, it is not here. Yet. But it will be. A darkness... I can feel its power, but I cannot tell what it is. It would eat the world if it were not so ... focused."
His gaze rose to snare Spike's like iron manacles. "You and I, old though we are, powerful though we are, are as nothing before it. There is something it wants. Something it needs. And it will have it."
For a moment there was only silence and the soft sound of all the incongruous electronics in the room. Then Spike, making an effort, barked a laugh.
"Hello! Hellmouth! There's only a bloody great sucking hole to Hell right in the center of town. When isn't there evil rampaging up and down the streets?"
He swung the door wide again and gestured emphatically with his head. "Since your 'darkness' seems to be chasing you outta town, don't let me keep you." All uncaring swagger he turned his back on his uninvited guest, grabbed his mug off the floor and headed to the fridge for a refill.
When the door shut quietly Spike's shoulders dropped. He set the dirty mug down on the shelf with the blood packs and dug a hand into the cardboard carton on the shelf below.
"Brilliant, just brilliant. The end of the world — again — and no bloody beer..."
Even though he barely got a momentary buzz no matter how much he drank, Spike knew he needed more beer to think this over. Would it be best to hide? Or could he possibly find some way to use the impending catastrophe for his own profit? Or should he just get a bag of peanuts to go with his beer and pull up a seat for the show? The fireworks between something that dark and powerful and the Slayer would likely be the best entertainment for years.
Or maybe he should just wait and see. It wasn't like he'd been told much more than "duck", really.
He shrugged into his black leather duster and headed for the local Circle K, not bothering to lock his crypt behind him. Actually, he didn't even know if it could lock. The unambitious local fry would never dare to steal his stuff or set up an ambush in his lair no matter what kind of rumors were circulating. Spike was well known to take as much delight in killing his fellow undead, and other demons, as he took in killing humans.
After the Initiative put their minuscule cattle prod in his head, Spike had felt neutered. Powerless and useless. Things he hadn't felt since he was alive. Though his inability to feed from humans was terrible, he had eventually found ways to compensate for that.
What had really torn the heart out of him was being unable to fight. As nice as slaughter was, to him it had always been a poor second to the sheer joy of battle. Spike simply loved to fight. It had been a glorious night when he realised that, as long as his opponent was not human, he could do whatever he liked, however he liked, to whomever he liked. Now when he went out he rather hoped there would be someone lying in wait when he got back.
Outside, the night was warm and pleasant. The sky above the graveyard was a cloudless field, limitless and littered with stars. The breeze carried a faint tang of salt from the shore. Spike found that, looming disaster aside, he felt pretty good. In fact, he felt downright poetic.
As he strolled through the cemetery then along the darkened streets to the store, he contentedly played with some verses in his head. The plethora of strip malls and convenience stores around the town was another small gift the dearly departed mayor had generously provided to Sunnydale's demonic constituents — hot and cold running drinks at hand any hour of the day or night.
Trying to find something better, something more interesting, than "thud" to rhyme with "blood", Spike wove around a couple of cars parked between him and the storefront. Throwing his mostly smoked fag to the curb, he stepped up to the door then paused in the act of reaching for the handle. There was a motorcycle parked nearby, hidden from sight by the cars until now. It looked like something from a sci-fi movie. Its rider must be in the store.
He wandered over to take a better look. Sleek and powerful, it reminded him of fighter jets he'd sometimes seen on the telly. Like it would be better suited to tearing through the air than rolling down a highway. And its instrument panel was ... odd. It was broad and tall, and had seams and hinges. Did it swing open somehow? It reminded him of one of those bloody stupid kids' TV shows. "The Transformers", or something.
There was a toggle switch labeled "mode select" covered by a piece of plastic that would have to be flipped up before the switch could be used. There were other unlabeled switches and a variety of dials as well a small LCD screen with a tiny keypad underneath it. And there was one big red button marked "SCRAM".
"Like the freaking space shuttle!" Spike breathed, impressed and, he was willing to admit in the privacy of his own head, just a tad intimidated. He liked speed as well as the next bloke, but hell! Whoever rode this thing was some kind of custom bike nutjob of the worst variety.
He bent nearer then paused as something jarred him out of his fascination. Out of the corner of his eye he caught an aborted darting movement near the far end of the store. It wasn't much. Just the tiniest edge of brown, rough cloth popping in and out of view. Like some grubby mendicant priest had been dying for a Slurpee but changed his mind at the last minute. A scuttling, jawa-like movement.
He took a quick breath through his nose, trying to catch a trace of whatever it was... And immediately regretted it. Whoa... He'd scented piles of rotting dead that smelled cleaner than that.
This was Sunnydale. Despite the stench, it could be nothing. On the other hand it was just as likely either something he could profit from or something that meant him no good. There was also the possibility it ran because it had seen him. It was a thing out of place and things out of place intrigued Spike.
The roof of the Circle K was fairly low. Darting forward, he chose a section where posters taped to the windows obscured the customers' view and jumped up, catching the edge and hauling himself up. He wasn't worried about people at a distance noticing him make a leap no ordinary human could. People here were conditioned not to notice things. However, if he shoved his differences directly in their faces they might be forced to sit up and pay attention and that would never do. Especially since he couldn't kill them all to shut them up.
He crossed the roof swiftly and silently and looked over, hoping to pounce on whoever, whatever, was there.
But there was no one there. There was no movement anywhere.
"Fast little bugger," Spike muttered under his breath, dropping down to examine the area. The scent came from between some houses in the back and went all the way up to the building's edge. Where it abruptly stopped.
Either the jawa priest-thing was really good at hiding or it must have turned around and raced back along its own path. He wasn't inclined to follow the scent. He could smell most things just fine, but a tracker he was not.
He took another quick look around, then, satisfied he was alone and losing interest, he went back to the front door. Wherever, whatever, they were, it was no skin off his nose. Until the next time... if there was one.
He didn't bother going back to the bike, either. Not having anywhere to go, he wasn't looking to steal any transport. Even if he had been, Spike wouldn't have touched that thing anyway. It might be cool but it was too damned complex.
Once inside the store he headed straight for the coolers filled with beer. He grabbed a case of his usual, balanced it lightly on his shoulder with one steadying hand, then made sure to pass the junk food on his way back to the register.
A bag of Doritos, some jalapeno chips, and a couple of Hohos later he was standing on line waiting to pay for his selections. Despite what some people might think there were places where he was always careful to pay for whatever he took. After all, if you robbed and killed everywhere you went, eventually you weren't welcome anywhere.
The line was moving slowly, perhaps because the clerk seemed to have been born more than two cans shy of a six-pack, but Spike wasn't in any hurry. He casually looked over the other customers in line.
Directly in front of him was a drunk couple. A big blond bruiser had tucked his little brunette woman under his arm, where she plastered herself against him. It was obvious that without each other as props they would have quickly been sprawled out on the floor. They were really repulsively happy as well as sloshed. Almost cute in a train wreck sort of way.
In happier days, they would have been prime targets. It would have been great fun playing evil villain to the guy's tragic white knight and then, after working up an appetite, he'd not only have been well-fed but buzzed, too. So many birds with one stone.
The guy in front of them was obviously the owner of the "superbike" outside. He had a motorcycle helmet in one hand — an oddly futuristic one, go figure — and a small basket of necessities in the other. He was blond, too. Almost the same shade as the bruiser, but his hair was close-cropped and neat.
As the person at the register finished paying and headed out the door, the biker stepped forward to put his basket on the counter. Now that was interesting. Spike found himself noting the way the other man moved. Centered, balanced. Some kind of martial artist, perhaps? On the other hand, this was California; maybe he was just a yoga instructor.
The big bruin and his woman wavered on their feet, eclipsing the guy, and forcing Spike to take an extra step to the side to see him clearly. He was only a little shorter than Spike, who stood a grand total of 5' 9", and was dressed casually in worn jeans, sneakers, and a dark T-shirt with something written on it.
As the clerk ran his items over the scanner the guy tried, pleasantly, to make small talk. But it was early morning in Sunnydale and the clerk was clearly a native. He knew the unconsciously accepted golden rule. Don't talk to people you don't know. Especially at night. The guy's attempt at conversation ended up being a monologue. It didn't seem to bother him.
"Do you get a lot of business at night? I'm just getting a few things to tide me over tomorrow morning... I'm new in town and haven't had a chance to go shopping yet... Where is the nearest supermarket, by the way?... Oh, and the Home Depot?... I've got to buy some Illudium Q-36 'cause my new home seems to be infested with a pretty nasty sort of pest. No idea? That's ok."
He paid, grabbed the bags off the counter and headed out the door. As he did, Spike finally got a chance to read the T-shirt. In cracked white letters against a faded, dark blue fabric it read: "I VISITED MEGATOKYO AND FREED THE BOOMERS AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS LOUSY T-SHIRT."
In his time Spike had been all over Asia. One of his proudest kills had taken place in China — his first Slayer — and he'd been to Tokyo a couple of times. At least he thought it had been Tokyo... He may have imbibed one too many sake-soaked sararimen to keep all the cities straight. But he'd never heard of anyplace called "Mega-Tokyo".
The bruin suddenly lost his balance, falling over with an almost bovine bellow of surprise. He tried to break his fall, grabbing wildly at anything in reach, but nothing he touched was strong enough to hold his plummeting weight. He fell into a large rack of candy, like a massive wave falling on the beach, and took it down with him. Brightly colored packages flew everywhere. Spike couldn't help laughing.
The guy's bimbo had darted off, oblivious to the chaos she left in her wake. Emitting an excited squeal of delight, she began pawing through a spinning display of hats and sunglasses. After a moment, she snatched up a garish pink pair of shades shaped like the eyes of a cat and nearly succeeded in blinding herself putting them on. Too bad she had failed. Spike would have paid good money to see that.
The boyfriend flailed helplessly amidst a sea of Twix, Snickers, and Almond Joys, crushing them haphazardly in his vain attempts to stand. He had not stopped bellowing and was starting to turn a sullen red. As drunk as he was, he might work himself into a bigger furor and start vomiting any minute.
That was something Spike could do without. Shaking his head, Spike nimbly avoided the thrashing arms and set his stuff on the counter. The register jockey was staring, probably trying to decide whether he should help the fallen man up or just call the cops. Or maybe he simply liked to stare. Spike couldn't tell.
"Oi, mate!" Spike snapped his fingers in front the clerk's eyes. The clerk jumped and oriented. "Just ring me up, okay? Then you can deal with the Keystone Couple..."
A strange noise was just barely discernible over the drunk bellowing and the woman's shrill exclamations of realization and dismay. She had turned around to show off her glasses and found her Lancelot ineffectually thrashing on the floor like a turtle on its back in the sun. Things were only going to get louder and more annoyingly stupid when she tried to help him.
"Ring. Me. Up." Spike ordered the clerk, looming dangerously. Despite his lack of brains the clerk knew a predator when he saw one. He obeyed immediately.
What the hell was that sound? A faint high-pitched whine — almost like a small jet engine cycling up — came from the car park. That damned bike! Spike threw cash at the clerk, grabbed the case and bag of junk food off the counter, and slammed out the door just in time to see a motorcycle's taillights vanish down the street.
That bike and its rider were definitely out of place. Were they part of the "coming Darkness"? Or just another factor in the strangeness that was Sunnydale? ...Yeah, this might be fun.
Positive thoughts, Harmony recited to herself. Positive thoughts.
So what if her lair was all dank and dirty? She had minions! Her! Harmony Kendall! Not bad for someone who just two years ago had been mortal and a pathetic little follower of that conceited — and she really hadn't had any right to be conceited! — that conceited bitch Cordelia.
How cool was that?
Pretty darned cool, if she said so herself. She couldn't help but feel good about that, and by extension about herself. And that made it oh so much easier to be a Master Vampire. It was all about confidence.
At least the self-help books she kept in the back of the crypt said so, and so far they'd been one hundred percent absolutely wonderfully right! She'd inventoried her strengths and weaknesses, decided on the goal of being a Master Vampire, visualized her success as already achieved, and then with the confidence of knowing she had already succeeded went forth to claim her accomplishments.
She ran a hand through her mane of blonde hair and wished she could still look at herself in a mirror. Confidence would be so much easier if she could be sure she still looked her best.
Stepping up onto the low platform at the end of the cave, she looked out over her subjects. That's what they were, her subjects, and she was their queen.
She viciously suppressed the urge to frown. Four wasn't a lot of subjects. But they were just the first of what she was absolutely one hundred percent sure would be many many more. As her successes and reputation grew, more minions would flock to her, and she would become the undisputed Mistress of the Sunnydale underworld. Harmony almost clapped her hands and squealed in delight at the thought before remembering that she had to display a little dignity before her boys.
Her boys. (And girl. Have to stop forgetting that. But poor Peaches wasn't much of a girl even when she wasn't wearing game face... A truck driver was a bit low-class, but when you're starting out you take what you can get.) Anyway, wasn't that a kick? She'd even sired one — Brad had been pret-ty yummy as a high school jock, and now he'd be yummy forever. The thought gave Harmony a little frisson of desire.
And who knew what a turn-on siring could be? It was almost as good as sex! She refused to pout at the thought that her little Blondie-Bear had been holding out on her all this time. Spike would pay for that and so much more, oh yes he would, the next time they met. Then he'd see who was really a Master Vampire.
Oh, they were all staring at her like they expected her to say something. Why would... right, right, she was the Master Vampire here. Almost forgot that. She bit her lip and tried to think. She needed to come up with something... She glanced to the side, where her collection of unicorns (all boldly rescued from her former home) now resided. There was something there... Right!
"Okay!" she chirped. "I want to thank everyone for coming tonight. We're at the beginning of some really, really big things here, and I just know that in a few months, or maybe even just a few weeks, you'll all be glad you were here from day one. In the meantime, though, we have to start small. Tonight, I am sending you, my faithful lieutenants, to strike at the Magic Box!"
"The Magic Box?" asked Brad with a puzzled look. Harmony rolled her eyes. Yummy, but dumb.
The big one — she kept forgetting his name — nudged him with an outsized elbow. "The magic shop downtown."
Brad's eyes widened in recognition. "Yeah, right! Okay, now I remember."
Harmony nodded sharply. "That's right. The magic shop." She flounced across the small cavern and into a chair that was entirely insufficient as a throne. She glared at her minions for a few moments as they milled about. "Well?" she snapped. "What are you waiting for?"
As they dutifully trooped out, Harmony sighed and shook her head. Some vampires were dumb as... as... as... someone who was really, really dumb.
September 16, 2000, 8:43 AM
I wouldn't have expected it before coming to town, but reading the Sunnydale Press had much the same effect for me as reading one of Stephen King's gorier novels — I was both rather disbelieving and mildly nauseated at all the unnecessary deaths, and vaguely incredulous at the offhanded way they were handled. Case in point: The previous morning a shopkeeper had been found murdered and his store ransacked.
Now, in most towns the size of Sunnydale, that would have been a headline in at least 24-point type above the fold on the front page, with no less than three or four long columns of natter on investigations, speculations and official statements by police who had barely begun to scour the scene of the crime for clues. There would also be promises of increased vigilance and a straightforward determination to track down the perpetrator of this heinous crime and drag him before the judicial bench and see that justice is served. The editorial page would have a huge column expressing community outrage and demanding action. If it were an election year, maybe even the local state senator would weigh in.
Here? Three column inches on page four. The bottom of page four, wedged in at the side of a near-full-page ad for "Jack's Discount Furniture Outlet" under a much larger article about the local 4-H club's crop of giant pumpkins. The only official statement was a quote from a lower-level cop (who sounded entirely too bored to be looking into a felony murder) implying the ultimate futility of the investigation, along with the disturbing note that this was the fifth time in recent years that a proprietor of that particular shop had been killed.
A dark intuition had me turn to the (many, well-populated) real estate pages when I'd finished the article. Sure enough, the shop was already on the market, less than 24 hours after the death of its owner had been discovered.
"Who does this kind of thing?" I asked, brandishing the newspaper at Eimi's optical pickup. "I mean, the guy's not been dead long enough for anyone to take his will in for probate, let alone begin disposing of his estate."
Eimi nodded slowly. "It's almost as though his death had been a foregone conclusion from the start."
I grimaced. "Given the history of that shop, you may be right." Resisting the urge to wad the newspaper into a ball, I instead folded it roughly and tossed it across the living room to land with a fluttery thud on the peninsula end of the kitchen counter. "Is it even possible to get a job in this town if your boss may turn up next on the barbecue fork hit parade?" I glanced over at Eimi's concerned face. "Did we make a mistake moving right into the center of town?"
"Well, it's not like we had many options unless you wanted to commute half an hour each way," Eimi pointed out. "Sunnydale is surrounded by desert on one-and-a-half sides and ocean on the rest. Unless you want a shack out among the Joshua trees, the closest option is, hmmm...." Her window shrunk into the corner of the screen as a Tapestry reader spun open to a page entitled "Google" in bright primary colors. This was wiped away by a map of the continental United States as it existed in this universe, which itself was replaced by a map of Sunnydale. The map scrolled first west and north, then south and east. "The closest settlement with the kind of infrastructure we both need is San Buenaventura, which is about 55 kilometers away." The reader window closed and Eimi maximized herself again. "Well, it's much closer than a half hour if you don't care about attracting attention..."
I rolled my eyes as I gathered up my breakfast dishes and put them in the washer. "You've made your point, Eimi. We're staying in Sunnydale and looking for work here. Speaking of which..." I closed the washer door and turned on my heel. "Time for me to change and head out to my first interview."
"That's a good boy."
"Damned snarky electronic freeloader," I mock-grumbled, and she laughed merrily.
September 17, 2000, 11:04 AM
His glasses glinting in the light from the nearby floor lamp, Rupert Giles studied the spines of the books on the shelf before him. They were old, leather-bound volumes, dyed a deep night-black. In the center of both spine and cover were bright crimson squares, almost blood-red in hue, within which their titles were imprinted in gold leaf. Despite their age, though, he could tell that they were well-cared for. No dust had settled upon them, and the leather of their bindings was still smooth and uncracked despite the years since their printing.
Yielding to his curiosity — though not without a certain foreboding — Giles selected a volume at random, drew it from the shelf, and began to leaf through it.
The language within was not one with which he was fully conversant — nor the arcane topic which it addressed, to be completely honest. The text was laced with Latin, but the pleasure and comfort he might have gotten from that familiar tongue were banished by the use to which it was being put. The skin between his eyebrows furrowed in consternation. There was something almost ... obscene ... about Latin, the language of the Church and much high magick, being employed in this fashion.
Behind him came the sound of a door opening suddenly, and Giles started almost guiltily. He turned to see the owner of the office — a fellow about ten years older than himself, well-dressed and more than a bit effusive — striding in.
Giles snapped the tome shut, but not before the other man commented, "Ah, you've an eye for older books, I take it, Mr. Giles?"
Giles returned the volume to its place on the shelf, then removed his glasses to polish them. "Ah. Quite."
The blur that the other man had become made a motion that only years of experience allowed Giles to interpret as a nod. "First editions, those. They were my father's. I've got the latest printings to work from, of course — Miller & Starr is the definitive compilation — but there's no denying sentimental value, eh?"
"Ah, yes, indeed," Giles said, replacing his glasses. The world swam back into focus, revealing once again the other man's aristocratic features.
"And on that note..." The fellow slid behind the desk and settled himself into the large maroon leather chair there. Giles followed suit, seating himself in one of a pair of much less impressive chairs which faced the desk.
Picking up a sheaf of papers which an assistant had placed there while Giles had been waiting, he began leafing through them as he spoke. "The late Mr. Julier left behind a number of debts that his estate will need to settle. Normally, by state law this would be dealt with in the third phase of probate, and we're barely into the first phase. However, probate tends to run rather speedily here in Sunnydale," and with that he looked up and gave Giles a rather nervous smile completely at odds with his confident manner.
Giles simply nodded and waited.
The smile faded and the lawyer harrumphed. "Yes, well. Unless anything unusual happens, I will be acting as the estate's Personal Representative, per Mr. Julier's will."
"I beg your pardon, Mr. Thursby," Giles interjected. "Personal representative?"
"'Executor' is the more commonly-used term," the lawyer explained cheerfully.
"I see," Giles murmured. "Please go on."
With a little nod of acknowledgment, Thursby continued, saying, "Now while it is normally somewhat irregular for me to act as the PR in advance of the official court appointment, again it's not uncommon in Sunnydale." Again that nervous smile. "I have just gotten off the phone with the unfortunate Mr. Julier's few living relatives, who all reside out of state. Given that they have no interest in owning and operating his shop, and that you are offering cash, they have agreed to sell it to you."
"Good lord," Giles breathed. "That was much quicker than I had expected."
Thursby nodded. "Now to be honest, the shop cannot actually be sold until much later in the probate process. But what we can do until then is set you up in a short-term lease contract with a buy option, which you can then convert to an outright purchase as soon as it's permissible. This will let you move into the space immediately and we can justify it as keeping the estate's assets working and earning a profit instead of lying fallow."
"And just how long would it be before I could officially buy the shop?" Giles asked, leaning forward with almost unseemly eagerness.
"Given the speed with which probate usually runs in Sunnydale County..." Thursby paused and considered. "I'd say no more than four, possibly six, weeks. But you'll be able to take occupancy as soon as the police are finished with their investigation." He coughed uncomfortably. "Naturally, the estate will pay for cleaning the premises before you do."
"Excellent!" Giles suppressed the urge to leap to his feet. "How do we start the process?"
Thursby grinned approvingly. "I can have all the necessary paperwork drawn up by tomorrow afternoon."
A genuine smile spread across Giles' face. "Splendid."
September 19, 2000, 3:30 PM
He had the look of a kindly grandfather — a friendly manner, thinning grey hair that faded to a bald patch at the back, wide eyes that seemed almost innocent, and a distracted, shuffling way of moving that suggested an agile but aging man valiantly resisting the inevitable decline of his body. He was slender and a bit shorter than average, which added to his apparent harmlessness.
B'henzh'al D'hoqq — better known to almost everyone as just "Doc" — was quite fond of his apparent harmlessness.
Not that it was entirely an act — unlike many of the other non-human inhabitants of Sunnydale, he had no need to prey upon humans, and to be frank he quite enjoyed their company. His door was always open, and he always had a smile and a cup of coffee for visitors, regardless of their nature. As the late mayor had proven for so many years, "evil" didn't have to mean "unpleasant," and life was so much more enjoyable if you didn't have to worry about angry folks of any persuasion.
And he really was a grandfather, after all, though it had been decades — centuries — since he had last seen his spawn's spawn. His accidental exile to the human world had all but broken his heart, so learning that Glorificus was in Sunnydale (along with, he anticipated, her Key) had returned to him a hope that he had thought long lost — the hope that he might return to his home dimension. To be sure, he was a Reform Glorifican, unlike those pathetic little Traditionalist troglodytes who waited on her hand and foot. But given the circumstances, Doc doubted Glory would turn away a true worshipper just because of a minor disagreement over a point of doctrine... or twelve. She didn't have enough followers of any denomination left to ignore — or kill — anyone who still offered their devotion, after all.
Not that he'd just been sitting around for the last dozen or two decades thinking wistfully of his home dimension. Although he was an extremely minor spellcaster, Doc had also been a scholar of magicks all his adult life — and despite his unwilling presence here the Hellmouth was an ideal natural laboratory in which to observe, study and test almost every style and tradition of magic known across the many demonic dimensions. He hadn't actually intended to go into business, but when he freely shared what he'd learned with anyone who asked, he found his querents were often grateful enough to pay him in favors or goods. And in the process he gained a reputation as a sage that kept the querents coming, asking — and paying.
As a result, Doc found that within a few short years he was able to live as comfortably as he cared to, given his modest needs and tastes. And at the same time he, in his quiet, unassuming way, slowly built up a surprisingly extensive network of contacts and obligations — most of the latter owed to him rather than the other way around. Combined with being considerably wealthier than the average sewer-dwelling denizen of Sunnydale, this gave him the luxury of liking humans for themselves. Oh, they were indisputably inferior to almost every kind of demon — Doc wasn't a radical egalitarian, after all. But they grew on you, like a friendly pack of dogs, and Doc would be the first to admit that he even had favorites and friends among them. True, they were limited and parochial, unable to handle the greater truths of the multiverse without considerable help, but they were certainly good company for a homesick old demon.
And it did his old heart good to get the occasional friendly wave from a neighbor while on his way to the corner convenience store for a few necessities. Wealth and influence were all very well, but friends — even limited, inferior ones — made it easier to cope with his unfortunate and involuntary exile.
He returned the wave with his usual smile, the slightly unfocused, absent-minded one that was actually genuine. The Gibersons were good people for mere humans, he mused distractedly. As he ambled along the walk toward the store, he patted his clothing, suddenly unsure if he'd brought his wallet. The effort of confirming its presence in his right front trouser pocket redirected his attention from his internal musings back to the external world, just in time to feel the presence of a powerful magical field unlike any he had ever encountered before.
"Oops, sorry, sir! 'Scuse me!"
The surprise froze him in his footsteps just in time to avoid running into a fit, blond human male hurrying along the sidewalk. Clad in worn jeans and a blindingly-white polo shirt, the human was both a stranger and, amazingly, the source of the field. Doc's eyes widened as his mystical senses detected something more...
Gurnenthar's bloody giblets! The human had a Celestial Mark on him! No, wait, there were two... three...
Doc stumbled backwards, absently nodding an acknowledgement to the fellow as, incredulous, he counted and identified the tightly-knotted bundles of Celestial power attached to the man's soul. There was one in the palm of his right hand, from the Guardian, and another on the left ring finger, from an avatar of Apollo if Doc weren't mistaken. His lips bore Marks from both the Warrior and the Crone. The Maiden had marked his right cheek while another avatar, this time of Aphrodite, had marked his left. Finally two Marks rested upon his brow: one from the Mother, and...
Doc barely suppressed a gasp. The Stormsdaughter, whom both Hell and Heaven thought dead, or what passed for dead among the True Gods. But her Mark on this human was vital and active in a way that put the lie to that bit of common knowledge. Now this was information that would be of value to a great many of his contacts...
Doc's eyes followed the human with eight — eight! — Celestial Marks on him as he hurried off, a lightly-loaded plastic shopping bag swinging energetically from one hand. He let out a breath. From his brief scan, he'd gotten the distinct impression that some of those Marks, maybe all of them, had been on a hair-trigger. If he'd approached that young man with anything close to hostile intent, there was no telling what might have occurred. He silently gave thanks for his academic nature before segueing into a vague dread of what would happen the first time that young man met any of Sunnydale's more powerful — and more inimical — nonhuman inhabitants.
Like Glorificus, Doc realized with a start. He glanced at the convenience store before deciding his shopping could wait. He needed to learn more about that young fellow. He didn't think that any of the gods who had marked him would respond to an attack upon him by personally manifesting, but Glorificus already strained the terms of the Truce. Only her disavowal of alignment with either side kept her presence in Sunnydale from shattering it entirely — but one of that young man's Patrons might feel it was precedent enough. The new Guardian in particular was said to be rather impulsive at times; he might risk breaking the Truce if one of his Favored were in danger.
And if the Truce were broken, Doc's hope of returning home would die with him in the resumption of hostilities.
His air of affable distraction evaporated as Doc turned all his considerable talents toward the task of following — and learning all he could about — this mysterious young man.
September 21, 2000, 8:42 PM
A few worldjumps after Skuld rebuilt my motorcycle, I worked out a system for packing its panniers that has served me rather well in the ensuing decades. The left pannier held most of my clothing, especially the stuff that needed to hang straight without folding. The center one, which rides behind me above the rear wheel, holds souvenirs, toiletries, valuables, the few real paper books I carry with me, and whatever clothing doesn't fit in the left pannier.
And in the right pannier, I keep my working tools.
I had no sooner brought it into the living room than Eimi noticed. "Oooh, time to break out the toy box," she noted.
"Yup. I'm going hunting tonight," I confirmed as I carried the pannier over to the dining table, set it down on one of the chairs, and undid the latch holding its lid shut.
I'd spent the previous two days and nights mainly familiarizing myself with Sunnydale. Long walks and low-altitude flights under full stealth all over and around the town gave me a good handle on navigating through the maze of streets.
I also spent a few bucks and about twenty minutes making a couple of sturdy oak stakes. Which I'd then started carrying on my person at all times.
"You'll be glad to know, then, that I have spent the past two hours analyzing information from police records and newspaper morgues for the last ten years," she declared proudly.
I looked over at her and grinned. "Meaning you've got some likely vampire haunts for me to check out."
The animated face smirked. "I have some very suggestive statistical patterns."
"Cool." I reached into the pannier and began pulling out all the little toys and tools I'd been accumulating over the years. At first they were just souvenirs, as much as the various pictures and doodads in the center pannier were, but after a decade or two I noticed that while I might still be adding new knowledge, moves and skills to my repertoire, I wasn't getting faster, stronger, or tougher — as I should have.
Let me explain. In my line of work back home, metas and near-metas who actively use their abilities on a regular basis typically undergo a kind of high-speed improvement in their physical and mental conditions — you know, the old Nietzschean "what doesn't kill me makes me stronger" thing. It's very rapid to start with, but slows down over time as the meta approaches his peak potential. However, it never actually stops — I knew a few long-lived types who were freakin' awesome in everything they did simply because they never stopped improving over the centuries.
Except I had. I could only guess that whatever the Three had done to me to halt my aging, way back when I left Megatokyo, had also locked my personal improvement somehow. I could learn new things, yes, and expand my knowledge, but no amount of weightlifting or physical conditioning improved my strength or endurance (for example) — not even decades' worth of it. (Fortunately, it also seemed to work in the opposite direction — nearly two decades of sitting behind a CEO's desk in one world hadn't added so much as a kilogram to my body, and none of my muscle ever turned to flab.)
Outside of learning and knowledge, it also seemed to affect my mental condition as well. After some of the stuff I'd seen and experienced on my journeys, I suspected that I couldn't be driven insane (and I could just imagine the obligatory snark from Hexe at that — "you can't drive somewhere you already are!"). My memory was as good as it always had been, too. I just seemed to have hit a wall as far as getting "smarter" was concerned. (Insert second obvious and obligatory Hexe snark here.)
Naturally, paranoia about this unexpected constraint prompted me to start building up an arsenal that I could use if my native abilities were ever insufficient to address a challenge. This started with the katana Buckaroo had given me, although I didn't think of it that way at the time. But I did after a few more years, and after I'd gathered a rather impressive collection of useful goodies.
Which after a few dedicated minutes' unpacking would lay in several carefully categorized piles on the dining table — except for God's Toothpick, which I had on me in its holster; I never went anywhere without it any more.
"So," I said as I began unpacking and making those piles. "Tell me about these patterns."
"Well," Eimi replied, "we had already figured out most of the code phrases — you know, like 'barbecue fork', 'wild animal attack', stuff like that." She snickered. "Did you know Sunnydale has a gang problem?"
I looked up and over at her screen. "You're kidding. If they do, they'd be the most whitebread gangs I've encountered since we were in that 'West Side Story' timeline. I don't think I've seen more than two or three people of any ethnicity other than white here."
"It's another code phrase: 'gangs on PCP'. Judging by the newspaper and police reports, it usually means a mass vampire attack."
"Ah," I said as I quickly retrieved various odds-and-ends — not everything I had in that pannier was a weapon, or useful. "So, you figured out all the official euphemisms or explanations or whatever. What then?"
"Simple," Eimi said as I tossed a broken Paragon City HeroCom unit on the "junk" pile. "Once I knew what to look for, I pulled all the incident reports I could for the last ten years from all available online sources. I doublechecked any autopsy results I could find to filter out 'ordinary' deaths that happened to look like vampire attacks, as well as other deaths that didn't — to eliminate bad data. Then I plotted the remaining incidents geographically and temporally. I can pretty much tell you where to go for the best chance of finding a bloodsucker in action."
"Assuming there really are vampires in this town, which we haven't actually confirmed yet, that's certainly useful," I murmured absently. "Only the last ten years?"
"The patterns change the farther back you look — apparently the favored hunting grounds shift and move over time. So it would just muddy up the analysis."
"And frankly, after looking at all the records I'm convinced we have vamps here. I'd be surprised if it all turned out to be innocent. Well, not innocent, but you know what I mean." She paused thoughtfully then continued. "I should also add that a little over four years ago there was a noticeable drop in vampire activity for some reason. And whatever it was, it stuck around — the death rate now is about half what it was in, say, 1995."
My eyebrows crawled up onto my forehead. "Really?"
"Yup. Can't tell why — that's not in the archives. But it's clearly there. Despite that, the patterns of the remaining predation remained the same."
"Okaaay... So, o fantabulous oracle," I continued as the piles grew bigger, "reveal to me the optimum route to take in order to maximize my chances of finding a vampire — if there really are any — in action."
I looked up at Eimi, my Nemesis staff in hand. "Well? Where should I go?"
"Well," she said as I laid the unwieldy steampunk-styled device next to the Browning Ultrapower and the other weapons, "we have several statistical clusters. At the top of the charts: There are a collection of back streets and alleys that provide rear access to most of the buildings along the main street and its parallels. These are ostensibly for deliveries and employees."
"But let me guess — every bar and nightclub opens on them, too, and people use them for entrance and egress."
"You'd be right," Eimi answered. "Those alleyways are ground zero for all kinds of 'gang' and 'animal' attacks."
I thought about that for a moment, and made my selections from the piles before me.
"Then that's where I'll start."
END OF CHAPTER ONE
This work of fiction is copyright © 2011, by Robert M. Schroeck and Helen Imre, and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.
Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and the settings and characters thereof, are copyright by and trademarks of Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy and their licensees and partners, and are used without permission.
Oh! My Goddess, and the settings and the characters thereof, are copyright by and trademarks of Kosuke Fujishima, KISS and Kodansha Ltd., and are used without permission.
"Paragon City" and "Nemesis staff" are copyright by and/or trademarks of NCSoft/Paragon Studios/Cryptic Studios, and are used without permission.
"Douglas Q. Sangnoir," "Looney Toons", "The Loon" and any representations thereof are copyright by and trademarks of Robert M. Schroeck.
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