On the darkened streets of Trillium, an intense battle was taking place. From each side, demons moved in to surround the hapless Slayers. Unfortunately for the demons, however, Buffy, Faith, Kennedy, and a dozen or so of their trainees were proving to be not so much hapless as they were brutal. Bodies and associated parts were beginning to litter the street like discarded soda cans and fast food rubbish.

As though it were some manner of carnage-based fashion show, each of the main Slayers wielded a different weapon, tailoring it to their own unique style. Buffy drove her axe into the midsection of one large assailant, nearly cleaving the monster in half, just as Faith delivered seven separate wounds with a pair of twin daggers. Kennedy, eschewing the brute attacks of her peers in favor of a terrifying ballet of death, spun around her victims, lopping off limbs and heads as she went.

The newer Slayers mostly watched their seniors in action, attacking when opportunities presented themselves, but the vast majority of evil's felling came at the hands of the three. The demons, realizing this, started to scatter and run, some with success, many less so. One unfortunate victim met his end at the blade of Buffy's axe, and his head went sailing through the air in an almost surreally graceful arc.

Time stopped, Slayers and demons frozen alike. The head floated motionlessly in the air, a quizzical look on its face. Only this miracle appeared to have stayed the vicious hand of Buffy and her implement of destruction. Gritted teeth and narrowed eyes only added to the fearsome countenance.

A demon wearing a well-tailored lime green suit stepped in front of the stilled image, which was revealed to be a video display. The demon was several inches shy of six-feet tall with shiny red skin and yellow reptilian eyes that shone with keen intelligence. He flashed a wide, charming smile at his audience—vampires, demons, monsters and every other sort of nightmare fuel imaginable. All were intently focused on the video, and that attention shifted to the demon as he spoke, deferring to him naturally as their boss.

He gestured to the frozen Buffy with a wave of his hand. "Slayers. Our enemies. We all hate them." His voice was rich and inspiring, but the Boss was using more venom now than honey. "Time was, this city was ours, now we're practically in the middle of a turf war with a bunch of little girls."

The gathered denizens of the dark murmured amongst themselves in agreement. There was much grumbling about the Slayers.

"But that's okay. There've been some setbacks, but this doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing." The Boss shrugged. "Heck, it might even be one of the best things that's happened to us."

There was more murmuring of agreement. A few demons enthusiastically threw in a few "Yeah!"s for good measure. Then they seemed to actually start to comprehend the last part of their leader's statement and there was a low voice of dissent.

"Yeah, we owned this city, and no one could stand up to us. And we all started to get soft." He pointed to a member of the crowd. "Admit it, G'thanj, we can all see the flab you've developed over the last year." Without waiting for reaction, he pointed clear to the other side of the room. "And you, Mariad. You probably couldn't bend a steel girder to save your life now."

The crowd was shifting more towards the agreeing side, although some still harbored reservations. As is likely to happen when addressing a large group, there were some demons on the slow side who had completely lost track of the conversation and weren't even sure what he was getting at.

The Boss was not about to let that fact slow him down. "Bottom line is, this city belongs to us and we're going to reclaim it. These Slayers come in and threaten to kill and maim honest demons just trying to put in a hard night's evil. It's time we struck back!"

With this statement, he achieved unanimous agreement, signified by cheers from all segments of the gathering. The Boss crossed his arms and smiled, just as a jagged, exotic-looking weapon whirled from out of the crowd, impacting between the eyes of the projected image of Buffy Summers.

"Hard Day's Night"

Story by: Jet Wolf and Ultrace
Written by: Ultrace
Additional Material by: Jet Wolf
Tireless support and mucho de editing assistance by: Novareinna

Original Airdate: Tuesday, 13 July 2004, 8pm EST

Act One

The Boss and Norg casually made their way through the halls of the building. Little was going on. Following the end of the meeting, most demons, devils and the like were probably out doing their thing. Only a few could be seen, walking by or occupying the rooms that the pair passed as they conducted business.

Norg held a small pad in his leathery hands, taking notes as they went. "And I think the thpeeth went over very well."

The Boss smiled. "Thanks. Now, how are things as far as numbers go. Don't go blood-coating it or anything either."

They moved past the cafeteria. Its lone occupant was a large, many-spiked demon who dwarfed his chair and even the wooden table, one meaty fist gripping what looked like a human femur as he proceeded with much gnawing. Health and diet-related posters lined the walls, most prominently including a "food pyramid" which listed without reservation kittens, babies, brains, hearts and blood as being among the core fare of a healthy demon. The nearby chalkboard listed that day's entrée as oven-roasted football player, guaranteed to contain enough meat to satisfy even the most demanding appetite.

Norg referenced a page of his notepad briefly. "In thpite of the Thlayerth'th many, uh, thlayingth, memberthip ith up."

"Seriously?" asked the Boss, receiving a nod from his assistant. "Well, I'll be damned. Literally." He considered for a moment. "Make a note to put Jesson down for a raise. Looks like his marketing campaign paid off after all."

"Lookth like it."

"Who would have thought?" the Boss inquired rhetorically. "That whole ‘So Evil Your Own Mother Will Hate You' theme sounded lame, but it did the job. I'm surprised."

Norg nodded, then hesitated for a moment, verifying some figures. He looked up again. "But—"

"Ah, I knew this line of talk was too good to be true," the Boss admitted with a shrug. "What's the catch?"

They were passing the workout room, somewhat more occupied than the cafeteria from earlier. In one corner, a surprisingly squat vampire was pressing weights, while near the entrance, a pair of scaled demons, hides an ever-changing mixture of chaotic blues, were tossing around a medicine ball. At least, it would have been a medicine ball if it hadn't been larger and made entirely of stone. The immense, smooth-hewn boulder weighed at least half a ton, but each demon threw and caught it without difficulty.

Another demon, tall and covered with bristling black fur, wasn't satisfied. "Come on, you worms!" he yelled. "Bethelas would be ashamed to know you represent his forces in this dimension!"

The two demons, looking like giant lizards who had been the victim of graffiti, only grunted and threw the ball harder.

With the noise of the room behind them, Norg continued. "Due to all the Thlayerth many thlayingth, almotht nobody can make quotath. Ith hurting morale."

"No big surprise there," acknowledged the Boss. "Membership up, but acts of mayhem and violence down due to interference? You got missed quotas."

"Ath a rethult, there ith talk on the floor about lowering the quotath..."

The Boss spread his arms wide in mock amazement. "How did I know that was coming? No can do, Norg. See, if I lower the goals because of this, next thing we know, nobody'll be hitting their marks, just so they can get them set even lower. One of the drawbacks of an organization like this—I can't exactly count on good intentions."

Norg nodded. "A very good point."

"See, the solution isn't to expect less, but to provide the reason and tools to achieve more."

"Wow, that'th deep," Norg said, looking up at his leader before flipping ahead in the notepad to jot down this new bit of wisdom.

"Yeah, I tell you, that Demonic Leadership seminar was some of the best money I spent this year. That and the little electronic basketball game. Anyway, I'm feeling charged up. We're going to kick this place into high gear."

The two continued their amble down the hall, moving past a closed door marked "Counseling." A cardboard sign taped to the front indicated "Therapy Session in Progress, Do Not Disturb."

They had only gotten about ten feet past the door when a black, slime-oozing body came flying through, landing on the hallway floor in a shower of wood splinters and glass. A bespectacled gray-skinned demon with a greenish mane of hair stuck its head out of the door to hurl a volley of abuse. "You're a pathetic pansy loser. No one loves you. You make me sick! Go home!"

The Boss clasped his hands behind his back, surveying the walls and ceiling as they moved. "So, what else have we got going on?"

"Thorry to report, Clark didn't pay hith memberthip dueth again," Norg remarked with a pained expression.

"That's the second month in a row, right?"

"Yeth, thir."

The Boss uncrossed his hands and made a show of examining his well-trimmed fingernails. "He give a reason?"

"Thomthing about not retheiving proper benefith from the group. That he wath ethpecting more protecthion from Thlayerth. But rumor hath it that he hath thomthing of a gambling iththue."

"Is that so."


The Boss remained expressionless. "Well, regardless of the reason, two months is two months. Clark knows the rules as well as the rest of us do. And without rules, we're just a chaotic bunch of monsters running around, you know?"

Norg nodded. "Yeth, thir."

"We'll have to see to it that he becomes an example of what to not not do..." The Boss considered the words. "Of what to make sure you don't not do... To... Eh, you know what I mean."

"Underthood, thir."

Another group of demons, vampires and other unclassifiable beings had been gathered. This crowd was larger than the one earlier in the evening, easily numbering a half-hundred of the denizens of darkness. The entire assembly could have been mistaken for perhaps a meeting of the PTA, except for the profusion of horns, scales, fur and claws. Despite their many differences, they sat, amicably chatting amongst themselves, some in tongues that had never before been heard by human ears.

"But how do you get yours to remain tender?" one demon asked another. "I find that once I disembowel, the innards become tough within a matter of..."

Nearby, a female vampire was relating her own tale. "So I tell him, ‘Stick it where the sun shines, pal!"

Into this cacophony of the damned walked the Boss. He strode to the front of the room, but his presence alone did not induce silence. "Okay, folks, let's settle down. Time to call the meeting to order... Or at least a more organized form of chaos."

This had almost as much impact as asking them the time of day. Less, in fact, since few of them wore watches. They continued on with their business.

"...and the first vamp says, ‘Do you realize what's at stake here?'"

The Boss looked to his side. "Norg, if you would."

"Thertainly, thir."

Opening his mouth, which suddenly expanded to nearly the full size of his head, the diminutive demon let out a bellow that made the entire room shake and threatened to bowl over some of the smaller demons by sheer force of sound.

Instantly, silence pervaded the room.

"Cheers," the Boss thanked Norg, before turning back to the rest of the room. "I know the past few months have been rough for us all, and this month isn't going to be any different. Since the Slayers have come in and set up shop, seems like you can't swing a kitten—or eat one, for that matter—without a Slayer showing up to cause trouble."

A rather small-looking demon on one side of the crowd, who looked like he couldn't decide if he wanted to be furry, leathery or scaly, spoke out. "Tell me about it. Just last week I had to fight two of those brats."

At least three dozen heads turned to stare at him dubiously. "Okay, so I had to run away from two of those brats," he admitted with a shrug. "Whatever. You get the point."

"We all hear you," agreed the Boss, walking back and forth, "even if your exact details may be a bit suspect. But things don't have to be like this. I'm confident that with hard work and perseverance, we can stand strong and show these Slayers what's what. That we're not gonna take it."

A vampire in the center of the group raised his hand. The Boss stopped in mid-stride to address him. "Yes, Jim."

"Uh, how exactly are we going to do that? I mean, yeah, they're little girls and all, but they're pretty strong, and they're fast, and there's a bunch of them, and—"

The Boss spread his hands. "It's true, no sense in denying it. They have numbers, they have speed, they have strength. But we have numbers and strength too. Even better, we have information." He waited a moment for that to sink in. "We've seen what they can do, what they're capable of. We know all about the leaders in their gang of sanctimonious ruffians."

He continued his pacing in front of the group. "What do they know about us? Not much. ‘Stakes against vampires. Cold iron against the Inabas. Peanuts against the Agumbra.' Stuff like that."

The masses snickered. A tall, ashen demon whose skin might have been carved from stone waved a hefty fist at the culprits. "Hey, shut up. We can't help it if we're allergic."

The laughter stopped and the Boss went on. "While they don't know that we as a group exist, we know all about them. Our spies and agents watch them, and our warriors who manage to escape alive bring back useful knowledge. Observe."

He gestured to someone in the back of the room, and the lights dimmed. The light of an unseen projector illuminated the wall behind him, empty of adornment. "Know Your Enemies" appeared in blood-red letters on a dark grey background.

"These are the movers and shakers of the Slayer Empire. We know their strengths, all we have to do is find their weaknesses. Take them out, their whole game collapses and we rule again."

So saying, he clicked the button of a control in his hand. The words behind him melted away into a canvassed image depicting a horde of demons standing triumphant over their fallen knightly victims. A few moments of silence were taken for the picture to sink in properly.

"First up, Dawn Summers."

He clicked the button again. A new picture appeared and, unlike the painting before it, this one was clearly doctored. Dawn stood in the forefront of the scene, arms crossed, lips formidably set, and eyes glinting with untold knowledge. Flames roiled in the background, with a clear message: where she goes, destruction follows. Despite her impressive demeanor, there was little reaction from the crowd.

"Not an actual Slayer, but a child, created from an ancient source of almost unfathomable mystical energy," explained the Boss. "This power, older than recorded history, provides a deceptively young-looking girl with deep wisdom and maturity."


Lying on the bed in her room, Dawn rolled over onto her stomach. She absently yet intricately twirled the phone cord around her finger. "She did not say that. She did? No way! No way! No way! You are such a liar, Jackie, I'm so sure. No way!"


Another click of the button and a new picture appeared, as doctored as the one before it. Xander stood tall and proud, holding up a struggling demon by the throat and squeezing the very life from its body with one cruel hand. A villainous smile was prominent in Xander's features. Some portions of the crowd let out a slight hiss.

"Alexander Harris," the Boss announced. "An enigma. No one is quite sure what powers he wields, but he has been with this cadre since the beginning, so there can be no doubt he possesses incredible abilities. The menace of his eye patch only adds to the fearsome countenance of this foe."


The television played forth its colorful scene, holding Xander entranced in its display. A closer look revealed that it was in fact airing an episode of 'Popeye the Sailor Man'. It appeared to be the one where Popeye rescued Olive Oyl from Bluto.

"No matter what you sez I yam, I yam what I yam an' thas' all that I yam!" the titular character declared boldly. Xander erupted into a burst of laughter that even his dearest friends would have described as "extremely dorky."


The Boss called up the next screen. There floated Willow, black hair and eyes, and veiny skin. Her hands were outstretched, emanating waves of awesome energy that poured forth onto her hapless victims while her still-image face was locked in a maniacal cackle. On the screen, several demons were frozen in mid-air where they had been sent flying by her unrestrained powers.

An audible boo erupted from the crowd, along with a strangely incongruous catcall. Several demons glared in the direction of the amorous admirer before the Boss refocused their attention. "Willow Rosenberg. The Red Witch. Her name alone can strike fear into the hearts of the bravest of demons. With the power to wield the very elements, she can kill a hundred hundred of our brothers and sisters with but a glance of her black, bottomless eyes."


Willow braced herself as she stood, assuming a posture of intense focus and pointing both hands outward toward her target.

"Hecate, aid me in my noble desire
Force abdication of my resisting foe
May the events I wish henceforth transpire
Lest my vengeful wrath evermore grow.

Her fingers made a final commanding gesture to complete the spell and discharged their mystical buildup. At the center of the kitchen table, a closed mayonnaise jar shuffled an inch slightly across the surface then became still. Willow picked up the jar and twisted the lid savagely. It refused to budge. Willow visibly pouted.


The next featured Giles, and if there had been doubts about the edited nature of the previous images, there could be none here. The Watcher stood straight and orderly, arms crossed. He was dressed in the robes of a Chinese strategist with a feather fan in one hand. Spread out behind him was any army of young girls, each bearing a white flag with the black insignia of a hand holding a wooden stake. Pillars of smoke arose from the far distance, no doubt the charred remains of any who dared to cross the master.

"Rupert Giles. The brilliant mastermind and coordinator of the Slayers. His leadership skills are second to none, and his ability to know where to position his troops and how best to utilize them is so profound as to be almost precognitive."


Giles wandered through the parking lot, surrounded by cars on all sides. He looked this way and that, to no avail.

"Where is that bloody thing?" he asked no one in particular.

After some fumbling in his pocket, he pulled out a set of keys attached to a small oblong object. He pointed the plastic device hopefully at the sea of automobiles and jabbed at a button. He was summarily greeted by the flashing lights and chirping horns of half the cars in the lot.


The screen flashed, and Kennedy appeared, earning the first concerted gasp from the audience. The Slayer was in a most unlikely position, performing a handstand while staking a vampire behind her. The latter act was accomplished with a wooden stake held between the feet, her arched body propelling the implement of death into the helpless foe. In spite of all this, her hair remained perfectly in place and not trailing on the ground as might be expected.

"Kennedy. A natural Slayer. Her strength, grace and beauty in battle easily rank her among the most deadly of her kind, despite having had her powers for less than a year."


Kennedy, reclining in the rec room's Laz-E-Boy, reached over to grab the Coke next to her as the television played. Bringing it to her lips, she took a tremendous gulp and downed the contents, pausing afterward to emit a loud belch while crushing the can in one hand.

Placing the empty container back onto the table, Kennedy yawned hugely and scratched the back of her head.


In contrast to Kennedy's extreme action shot, Faith's picture looked almost restrained, until the bodies became apparent. She had adopted the position of performing a side kick, having just connected with a demon and propelling it backward. Her hand grasped a well-used and bloodied battleaxe. A score or more of demon bodies—no doubt the source of the weapon's uncleanliness—surrounded her, in some areas rising as high as her knees. There was a sharper intake of breath from the crowd, and some of the more squeamish even turned away.

"Faith. The Dark Slayer, a primal force of rage and violence—untamable, unstable and deadly."


A loud snore permeated the room where Faith lay on her bed, one arm dangling over the side. The proliferation of beer cans on the floor indicated that this was not merely an afternoon nap. Suddenly and without warning, she rolled over, landing unceremoniously on several of the beer cans, crushing them. A moment later, unphased by the development, the snoring continued.


Buffy's visage was the final one to appear. Despite no outward display of violence, Buffy's picture managed to convey twice the menace of those that had come before. She was depicted as a Rambo-type, dripping with weapons. A sword waited in each fist for the next unfortunate victim. A crossbow was slung across her back, cocked and loaded. A silver cross was around her neck and duel bandoliers of wooden stakes criss-crossed over her chest. This woman was all business, and her business was death. The only depiction of action in the image was hordes of fleeing of demons, running for their very lives. The silence that greeted this picture was telling, almost as if the creatures were afraid the slightest noise might bring the Slayer to life.

"And finally," the Boss concluded, "Buffy Summers. The Legendary Slayer. She is the Boogey Man for little spawn everywhere, the story your parents tell you to keep you in line that actually turns out to be true. So gifted, so talented, it's been rumored she is ultimately unkillable."


Buffy reached over and grabbed the obstinate jar of mayonnaise from the center of the table. Placing her hands around it, she gave a quick twist, frowning when the lid refused to move. Bracing herself, she made a second attempt with the same results. Adding gritted teeth to the mix, she gave a final effort, but still the jar remained stubborn, and she set it back on the table with a pout.


"Truly these are formidable foes," said the Boss as the screen faded and the lights returned to the room. "But ultimately, no one is unkillable. Buffy Summers herself has proven that more than once. They can be beaten; the trick lies in being clever enough to figure out how." He spread his arms to the group. "And that is what we are discussing today. We are strong. We can come up with a way to stop this reign of terror."

The members of the gathering looked back and forth to each other. Though many glances were exchanged, few words were.

"Come on, now's not the time to be shy. Let's hear some ideas."

A leathery-skinned monster near one of the corners stood up. "We could attack them with something. Something they'd never expect."

Everyone turned to look at him, waiting for the rest of the statement, but his expression clearly indicated that was all the statement he had. "Like, uhh... Erm..." He bit his lip lightly with an assortment of jagged teeth. "Like-like... Hummus."

The words settled on the crowd like a heavy and uncomfortable weight. Another demon, with skin less leathery and infinitely more veiny, stood up about twenty feet away. He jabbed a webbed finger at the first. "Fhamaget, I have lived on this plane of existence for a full 2,810 years and never have I heard a plan so stupid."

Fhamaget rounded on him angrily. "That is so like you, Malkan! You and your high-and-mighty—" at this he lapsed into a surprisingly accurate imitation of his opponent, "'Ohh, I've been on this plane of existence for a full 2,810 years. I'm so perfect, my eviscerating skills are best, having been honed for a full 2,810 yea—"

"That's enough," interrupted the Boss, cutting him off. "We're not here to fight, we're here for ideas. This is what we call brainstorming, people. There are no bad ideas in brainstorming." He paused for just a moment. "Except that one. Sit down, Fhamaget."

A furred demon, in tinges of red and yellow, spoke up from the other side of the room. "We could all rush in together and attack them. Together."

"Then we'd all be dead together," another nearby pointed out.

"Oh, yeah."

"The problem seems to be," a third, near the center of the room, began, "that when they're around, they kill us. So maybe that's the secret. We kill them when they're not around."

Malkan raised his hand. "I'd like to point out that I stand corrected. That is quite possibly the most stupid plan I have heard in my full 2,810 years of existence." He lowered his hand in silence, only to speak out again a few seconds later. "No, the hummus was stupider."

A vampire stood up, although a little unsteadily. His outfit suggested that he had just come from a punk rock concert, and his glazed eyes suggested that while at that concert he had snacked on a druggie. "We could invite ‘em over for dinner."

Slowly and in an almost worrying unison, every head in the room turned to him.

"And then we could like, poison their food or somethin'. And the ones that didn't eat, we could just jump all over ‘em and beat the crap out of ‘em and stuff."

The Boss seized upon the momentary confusion to speak up before anyone could attack the vampire's suggestion. "Okay, I'm hearing some, uh, good stuff here, but let's keep at it. I want you all to think tonight of ideas on how to put these people away. We'll meet at this time tomorrow to hammer everything out."

This was one thing that the entire assembly could agree on, and he received many nods of assent.

"Also, everyone make sure to check the patrol roster, especially the Dusk Shift. There's been some updates and changes since Roger got decapitated last Tuesday. There'll be a collection coming around tomorrow to send a bouquet of hearts and spleens to his widow, so everyone remember to come with an open wallet and chip in for good ol' Roger."

There was a collective bowing of heads in memory of their fallen comrade.

A pair of similar demons were walking through a park, sticking mostly to the shadows, despite the fact that it was night and the park was not particularly well lit. The creatures appeared to look almost like warthogs, were warthogs to suddenly start walking on two legs and have inch-long spines protruding from their necks. There was definite skulk-action going on, with the two demons staying close together. They seemed to be on the prowl, but chatting in quiet voices as they did so.

"...and you just know that Vrishella is giving a little 'extra' attention to make sure she can move up in the ranks," the first complained bitterly.

The second murmured appreciatively. "Mmm. Wouldn't mind a little extra attention from her myself."

"You don't want any of that, trust me. Word has it..." Glancing over his shoulder, he moved close to his companion. "...that she has fun on the other side of the fence too. If you know what I'm saying."

"You mean... Humans?" Disgust was painfully, prominently evident.

Nodding his head, the first didn't bother to repress his sneer. "And she is a shape shifter, so..."

"Eww, eww, ugh!" He started rubbing his arms vigorously, obviously feeling unbearably dirty for his thoughts.

"Yeah, that was pretty much my reaction."

Calming, the second became contemplative. "The wife probably wouldn't be too happy if she found out anyway."

"How is Celina?"

"Eh, the usual," he replied with a shrug. "She's always moaning about the job, how I'm never around to help raise the kids. I keep telling her, it's my job to bring home the dinner, not raise it." He rolled his beady little eyes hellward, as though searing for answers. "She doesn't even have to cook it. You do that and it loses all its flavor."

"Yeah, Kathy says marrow tastes better when the bone's been roasted too." The first shook his head ruefully. "Females."

"Can't live with ‘em, can't sacrifice ‘em to Gas'tirzal the Damned," chuckled the second, earning an enthusiastic nod from his partner.

The two continued through the park, turning toward the entrance. Off in the distance, they spotted a elderly woman walking her dog. It was an ugly mutt, with a thoroughly unattractive face that could have been spliced together from the least appealing features of twenty different breeds.

"Alright, now we're talking," grinned the first demon, rubbing his palms together eagerly. He made a step forward, but stopped when his partner laid a restraining hand on his arm.

"No, man," he said, shaking his head.

Confused, the first gestured at the retreating figure of the woman. "Don't tell me granma's got you spooked."

"No way," responded the other with an offended tone. "But the pooch..." He shrugged and scuffed his bare, hoofed foot in the dirt. "Kinda reminds me of an old girlfriend."

The first squinted at the mongrel, then glanced back his partner with an unreadable expression. After a moment, he sighed and dismissed the potential victim with a wave of his hand. "Fine. Pity, though. Walkin' the dog out here at this time of night... She's just asking to be picked to the bone."

"I dunno," replied the second as they continued their patrol, "she'd probably be a bit stringy. And anyway, don't forget what we're really after."

"Yeah, I know. Slayers." A moment of silence passed, then he broached, "Hey, you think we really got a shot of bagging one tonight?"

Shrugging, the second demon replied, "Never can tell. I know we can do better than some of the others. Oh, did you hear Loraine going on at lunch?" he asked excitedly. Shaking his head, his partner's expression indicated he was anxious for the latest gossip. After an appropriately dramatic pause, he continued, "She swears she actually gave one a sprained ankle while running away."

The two demons shared a hearty chuckle at the very idea.

"Riiight." Disbelief dripped from every inch of the demon.

"Like Loraine can even run in those heels she wears," added the second with an incredulous eye roll.

"And I don't think any Slayer's going to sit tight while she puts on—" Suddenly his head jerked up, and both demons froze. "Hey, did you hear that?"

"Hear what?"

"This," a voice replied from behind them.

The two demons turned to find themselves face-to-face with a pair young girls, one with curly blonde hair and the other with a long brown ponytail. They were unfamiliar, clearly younger and less battle-hardened than your average Slayer, but both held weapons in a way that said they knew how to use them.

"Well, well, the night's looking up," commented the first demon, unintimidated.

"My thoughts exactly," retorted the brunette Slayer.

The two groups launched themselves at the other, but it was a painfully short fight. The blonde finished first, ending her battle with a sword thrust to her demon's gut, then withdrawing the blade and, bringing it around in a wide arc, decapitating it. The other Slayer chose instead to exchange physical blows, and was grappling with her opponent. She quickly gained leverage and forced him to the ground on his stomach, arms pinned behind his back.

The second demon sighed heavily. "Well, shoot, there goes my 401k."

In a quick motion, the brunette wrenched his neck with an audible snapping sound. Within seconds, both of the demon bodies dissolved into a mist that quickly dissipated, leaving no trace.

The following evening, a pair of pictures were being added to a giant bulletin board, finding a place amongst dozens upon dozens of others. The pictures were of the two warthog-like demons, taken during happier times. One was gnawing on a fresh, vaguely femur-shaped bone, while the second was mugging an obviously faux-scary face at the camera. The creature hanging the pictures stood back to examine its work. The photographs looked at home amongst the sea of others hanging underneath a banner reading "Gone But Not Forgotten."

Elsewhere it the building, the Boss had reassembled his staff.

"I know we're all broken up about last night's tragic loss. Those two were the most lovable Deveraths you could ever hope to meet. Their murderous sprees were an inspiration to us all." The Boss paused for maximum effect. "But this is exactly why we cannot falter. We must stand together to staunch the cascading rivers of goodness. For Sam, for Bliwslevteibon, and for my favorite pen that Sam sadly happened to have on him when he disintegrated."

Enthusiastic cheers erupted through the assembly, and the Boss smiled.

Act Two

The Boss gestured to Norg, and the little demon quickly moved toward the audience, a thick stack of papers clutched in one clawed hand. Bouncing up and down, he tried to see around the toweringly thick gray demon who had placed himself in the front row. All efforts to obtain an accurate headcount were abandoned after several fruitless hops, and with a sigh, Norg simply shoved a random handful of papers into the demon's hands.

"Take one of each and pasth them back," Norg ordered, moving to the next row and repeating the action, sans bouncing.

The shuffling of papers and interested murmurs filled the room, and the Boss smiled at the low buzz of excitement. Pacing back and forth before the assembled creatures, his own copies firmly in hand, he proceeded to explain.

"We've developed an incentive program that will help you all to meet your quotas and thirst for blood. For each act of murder, chaos and destruction you manage to perform against the Slayers and their group, you can earn points." He held aloft the colorful pamphlet, the audience following his direction and focusing attentions on their own copy.

"These points, as you will see, can be turned in for any number of exciting prizes. If you save up, or get bold and lucky, you could snag some sweet goods, like, say," he flipped the pamphlet over to the appropriate picture, giving his voice a tempting lilt, "a month's supply of fresh virgin's blood? Or the equivalent foodstuff."

The eyes lit up on one half of a two-headed demon. It leaned over to its counterpart and pointed excitedly to one of the pictures. "Ooo, I like the clock radio!" it enthused. The second head nodded its complete agreement.

Continuing to pace, making sure to focus on each of those gathered, the Boss continued. "Big points will be awarded for any grievous bodily harm that you manage to inflict on the three main Slayers, or their people, and if you manage to kill or bring back one of them... Well, that's just crazy big scoring there."

Slowly, the gears began to turn, and the creatures looked at each other, plans formulating.

"Proof will be required for every act, so if you want to make it simple, just bring in their heads. Or for those of you with an artistic flair, you can take photos. Heck," the Boss enthused, "wouldn't a videotape of your victory be something to watch at the next office Ascension Party?"

Norg had returned to his place at the side of the room, all of the papers having been fully distributed. The atmosphere had become undeniably charged, and the Boss was pleased. "As a little extra bonus," he announced, "the first one to bring in proof of at least a maiming will receive...a limited edition set of Vyarian Sacrificial Daggers!" It was a very convincing impression of a game show host, and the effect was much the same.

"Oooohhh," the crowd breathed as one. Even those who didn't breathe.

"Bottom line," summed up the Boss, "we don't care how you cause damage, just do it. You can go solo, or you can use teams. We want the Slayers and their people hurting. Bad. Now. Any questions?"

Receiving none, he nodded his dismissal, and the room erupted into sounds of chairs being scraped back and enthusiastic chatter as the gathering filed out of the room. The Boss watched all of this with a very satisfied smile.

It was early evening, the sun still projecting enough light to see by, but the sky had turned a magnificent rainbow of pinks and oranges and shadows were growing long. A non-descript house, normal in its archetypical suburban-ness, stood in apparent innocence. Inside however, the three demon occupants were each trying their utmost to appear as though they were average joes. T-shirts and jeans were the order of the day, displaying an undying love of science fiction, fantasy and anime respectively. Their faces, while possibly passing for human at first glance by a very near-sighted person across the street, bore a slightly too-large mouth with a disturbing number of extra teeth, as well as a small ridge of horns starting at the base of the neck and vanishing into the depths of the shirt. All three were scrawny, sadly lacking in the muscle department. Had there been sand nearby, each would have been guaranteed to receive a faceful from the first available Charles Atlas fanatic. But despite their complete lack of any physical presence whatsoever, there was a keen intelligence, clearly visible in their slitted red eyes.

A large device, shiny and covered with dozens of blinking lights, was hemorrhaging wires. It rested on the kitchen table, connected by a thick umbilical cord of electronics to a small dish-like transmitter that pointed out of the nearby window at the neighboring house.

Unlike its counterpart, the house in question was bristling with personality, something of a reflection of those who owned it. It was, almost literally, drenched in the Christmas spirit for starters, conveying the impression that Santa and his twelve tiny reindeer had stopped by early and thrown up all over it. The snow-covered lawn featured every imaginable commercial Christmas icon in lighted, wooden, stand-up, occasionally animated glory. Clearly, no rhyme or reason had been invested into coordinating attempts. The same could be said for the streams of lights that covered every available square inch of the house, merrily twinkling in the still-light sky. Solid colors, white, and streams of rainbows all clashed and competed for Christmas light supremacy. The overall effect was one of multiple decorative battles being waged with no clear victor in sight. Which, given the fact that Buffy, Willow, Xander and Dawn all lived there, was likely not far from the truth.

The demons ignored the eyesore, however, instead huddling over the device on the table and its component parts.

"Make sure you've got the wires set up right," stated the first demon, a short creature with straight brown hair.

The second glared at his companion. He, too, had dark hair, although it was deep black, bushier, and seemed prone to standing up straight. "I've got the wires set up right," he insisted, bending back to the task at hand.

The first nodded. "Sure, it's just that if they're wrong..."

"They're right," came the snapping, irritated reply.

"...then instead of frying their brains, we'll give them telepathy and precognition. Which is, y'know, pretty much not what we wanna do."

Slamming the screwdriver down on the table, the second demon appeared for a moment as though he would like nothing more in the world than to stomp on the annoying little short thing next to him. "They're right, okay?!" he snarled instead.

With a nonchalant shrug, as though it wasn't particularly important to him, the first demon replied, "Okay."

"But this circuit's in backwards." The new voice was nasal, whiny, and caused the second demon to gnash his not inconsiderable number of teeth together. Standing up from where he had been hunched over the device, the third demon, a blond, tilted his head to one side. "That would either give them super strength or cause them to multiply. We're trying to make them stupid, not invincible."

"Hey, is it my fault that reverse-engineering a plasma enhancement system is so hard?" asked the second defensively.

"But the circuit board's labeled." Sure enough, the board the third demon had pointed to was very clearly marked ‘This way forward'. Complete with helpful little arrows which made it abundantly obvious they were not forward.

The second demon angrily bapped the third's hands out of the way, and, very smoothly tugged the board free, flipped it around, and easily slotted it back correctly. Tightening a few final screws, he leaned back and surveyed his handiwork. "That's it," he announced with an unmistakable hint of pride in his work. "Charge her up."

So intent were they on their device, none of the demons had bothered to check on the target. Someone was now perched on the rooftop, wrestling with a newly-installed satellite dish.

"How about now?" Xander called out.

"Nope," Willow replied, her voice muffled from the warm comfort of inside, but still audible.

Xander readjusted the dish to a slightly different position. "Now?"

This time Buffy provided the necessary information. "Nope."

Frowning, Xander tried another angle. "And now?"

Willow's voice was excited. "Wait, that's... Yes... Just about... Nope."

"Come on, Xander, make this work," demanded Buffy. "You can make a functioning scientific calculator out of a lump of wood. One that even does the little ‘E' thing. This can't be that hard." Despite not being able to see her, it was abundantly clear that the Slayer was pouting. "I was promised 198 channels of full-color, brain-rotting goodness. I have 198 channels of crap."

Frustration reigning, Xander gritted his teeth and appeared to very much want to hurl the satellite dish, and possibly large sections of the roof, complete with its gaudy happy wooden Santa at the chimney, crashing to the ground below. "If you'd like to come up here an' do it yourself, O Mistress of the Air Waves..."

"Just move it left," Buffy insisted, choosing to ignore the carpenter's generous offer.

Willow strongly disagreed. "No, right!"


"You're really startin' t'cheese me off."

"Bring it, Sabrina."

Exasperated, Xander smacked the dish, caring little as he redirected its trajectory from the rapidly darkening sky to the neighboring house. Ignoring everything else, including the sounds of petty bickering from inside, Xander stomped across the roof to the ladder and quickly made his descent.

All of this went unnoticed by the trio of demons.

"It's ready," reported the short one.


The blond demon threw a lever and immediately the machine began to glow as waves of energy built up inside. With little warning save a high-pitched whine, the transmitter at the window disgorged a stream of bright white light that sped towards the Scoobies' house.

Headed directly for the satellite dish.

"Uh-oh," he gulped.

The beam collided with the dish, and in a remarkable quirk of fate, lingered for a moment, seeming to stew on what it had received before returning the energy from whence it came.

"Evasive maneuvers!" the second demon cried, looking around frantically.

"Too late," moaned the first.

The light poured into the house, bathing the demons and their machine in an eerie green glow for several seconds. Having the energy returned was obviously not a part of the machine's design, and it overloaded within moments, shorting out and spewing sparks in all directions.

Once the light had dissipated, the three demons turned to look at each other with blank expressions.

"Light... Pretty..."

"So pretty..."

The sun-soaked street was a haven, an illusion of peace and sanctuary to all who beheld it. With bitter hatred coursing through his every twisted, feral feature, a vampire strode forward. The shadows were thick in the wooded area from which he emerged, creating an impenetrable barrier against harsh and lethal rays of light. He halted on the edge of the shadowed land, a mere step away from the a fiery and painful death assured to those of his kind. The vampire was tall and imposing, nearly six and a half feet of pure muscle, leather and scowl. A low, menacing growl escaped his throat as he surveyed his target, the cheerful house across the street and its unsuspecting occupants.

"Time to die, Slayer," he snarled with unwavering certainty.

Extending his hand, the vampire relaxed his fingers to reveal a perfectly round crystal ball. Inside was a red, smoky haze, constantly moving, shifting and reinventing itself, like a tiny universe that was created, lived, died and was reborn with each passing second.

"Are you ready to bear witness to history?" the vampire questioned, his deep voice reverberating with strength and power.

As one, three more vampires emerged from the safety of the deepest shadows, a male and two females. These were considerably smaller, and while still guaranteed to strike fear into the heart of the average citizen, entirely normal and unimpressive as vampires went. Each carried several thick blankets draped over their arm, and they clung to them desperately, like the lifelines they were.

"Why do we have to be here again?" one of the smaller female vampires questioned, making sure to keep her tone deferred and respectful.

The larger vampire continued to admire the crystal in his hand with unabashed adoration. "You are here to watch me destroy her. You are the audience to my appointment with destiny. For years I needed the proper tool to orchestrate her defeat and now I have it." Admiringly, the vampire rotated his hand, absorbing the crystal from all angles. "The Eye of Hagganon. With it, I have the strength of a hundred Dwy'ar demonkind. With it, I am immune to the downfalls of our kind. With it, I am unstoppable."

"The Slayer and the Witch are right across the street." A barely contained note of panic was evident in the second female vampire's voice. "Any minute, they could—"

With a wave, he severed any further discussion along those lines. "They could do nothing. With this, I can tear them in half as easily as raising my hand. A flick of my finger could knock their heads from the shoulders, and the mere roar from my throat would rend their flesh and grind their bones to dust. I will do all this to them and more. And you will watch me. You will be the first to bear witness to the power of the new way."

Swallowing hard, the smaller male ventured, "Others have said—"

"I am not others," interrupted the larger. "I traveled this entire world, sacrificed years of my unlife and endured the many trials. I am the one who will be a decider of the Apocalypse, a true force of darkness."

One of the females shook her head in wonder. "Wow, you really want that set of sacrificial daggers."

Save for a slight twitching look of acknowledgement at the truth of the statement, the larger vampire ignored her. "It is time. The moment of triumph, when I, with my own hands—"

A sudden harsh, inhuman squealing pierced through the tranquility of the street. It surprised all the vampires, particularly the leader, who was flustered for a moment that his posturing had been interrupted. Startled, he jumped involuntarily, and the open palm upon which the Eye rested jerked back. Newton's law asserted itself immediately, and the crystal dropped to the ground, rolling immediately into the bright sunlight.

The moment the orb left his possession, everything about the vampire leader changed. Whereas before he was a stately figure, proud and sure, he instantly became a simpering mass. "Nononono, wait! Come back! Pretty please!" he begged, scrabbling at the empty space where the artifact had been but unable to move further than the line of shadows.

Heedless to his pleas, the Eye rolled happily from the grass to the sidewalk and with a cheerful ‘tink!' into the road where its momentum continued.

The source of the squealing soon became all too apparent, when a car—a sensible family sedan—tore around the corner at a speed that should never be reached in a sensible family sedan. The vehicle sped down the road, paying little care to anyone or anything that might be in its path. Had the vampire been paying particular attention, he would have doubtless recognized Dawn Summers behind the wheel, a gleeful expression of utter delight on her face, making it an even more striking contrast to the harrowing look of barely contained terror worn by her passenger, Rupert Giles.

Time seemed to slow as the car came within distance of the rolling jewel. The wheel of the car connected with the orb. Tiny, imperceptible shards drifted into the air, the sunlight glinting off of each and every splinter. They were soon joined by more and more as a fine red mist scattered into the wind and dissipated on the cool winter breeze. Without so much as a bump, the tire pulverized the Eye into sparkling dust, then sped off down the street and out of sight.

Stunned, the vampire slumped to his knees in the shadows, staring at the powder coating the small section of road where the artifact had once been. His fingers twitched in the air impotently, as though he were attempting by hope and will alone to force the remains whole again. "Noooo, my orb..." he choked, his voice thick and warbling.

"Dude," the smaller male vampire said with a disbelieving chuckle, "sucks to be you."

The second female vampire turned to the first, a contemplative expression on her features. "You ever notice how you get these things that are mega super-powerful, make you invincible, yadda yadda, but they themselves are made out of, like, the most fragile substance in the world so that they break if you breathe on them the wrong way?"

The other mulled over her words. "Huh. Irony."

Glancing at each other, the vampire trio shrugged and disappeared back into the shadows, leaving the largest of them crying like a little baby.

The thick clouds overhead obscured any possible light from filtering down from the heavens. The night was deep and foreboding, the hour late. Dark magicks charged the air. Only the pale glow cast by the seemingly random placement of a half-dozen candles illuminated the area, but the demon didn't seem to mind. It was impossible to tell exactly where he was located, save on some sort of residential street that, given the hour of the night, was deserted.

Tall and lanky, he was clad in an ornate and expensive-looking robe. On the ground, he had drawn a circle, edged with complex runic lettering and other symbols. Nearby, incense burned, and only barely revealed by the candlelight was a small but prominent pool of fresh blood. The demon ignored all of this, focused instead on the open book in one hand while the other traced arcane gestures in the air over the circle. He chanted, his voice crisp but partially mumbled, as though he were uncomfortable speaking aloud.

"From the upper reaches down to you I call
The circle drawn, the nine symbols await
My will alone for you to obey is all
uh— To seal the loathsome and reviled's fate."

The demon winced just slightly as he stumbled over the final line of the incantation, but that was soon forgotten as the ground beneath his feet began to shake. The symbols tracing the edges of the magic circle flared out with lights of green, red and blue, then subsided. A strange sort of tear appeared over the circle, a warp in the fabric of space itself. The anomaly folded inward, then bounced back into place, seeming to spit something out.

Indeed, a creature had appeared in the circle, utterly dwarfing it and everything else within sight by its huge girth. In proportions, stance and appearance, it looked to be an overgrown demonic gorilla. Muscles rippled from every inch of its body. Each breath condensed in the cold air, giving the appearance that it could spew fire at any moment. "Grrragh. Grrrrrarargh," it rumbled, a noise felt as much as heard. It affixed its beady eyes on the mage, watching his every move.

"That's right," the mage agreed, "I have called you forth. I demand of you only a simple task—to kill those residing in that house."

Extending one long, bony finger, the mage pointed to the Scoobies' home, some distance away but unmistakable with its glaring, multi-colored, contentedly twinkling eyesore.

The creature's gaze traveled to the house and then back to the mage. It seemed amenable to these instructions, growling again but not antagonistically.

"And once that's done," giggled the mage to himself, gleefully rubbing his hands together, "those prizes are good as mine. Clock radio, here I come."

"Grrarargh," commented the creature. "Grra—errgh?" It blinked, tilting its head to one side. "Clock radio?" it queried in a stilted voice.

The mage waved a dismissive hand. "Don't worry about that. Just go forth and destroy, my minion."

Straightening, the creature pulled itself erect, now nearly twice the height of the mage. Its hulking arms still hung at its sides, the knuckles turned inward, giving it a simple-minded appearance. But when it next spoke the tone was refined, displaying no lingering traces of being either guttural or unfamiliar with the English language. "Now, hold on there. We need to discuss this clock radio issue a bit further."

Stunned beyond words, the mage gaped up at the demon, his jaw hanging open for several long moments as he vaguely pointed at the object of his disbelief. The creature simply started back, waiting for some further discussion on the matter. Finally, the mage found his voice.

"You... You can talk?"

"Well, yes, obviously." In the darkness, there was no way to tell if it rolled its eyes, but such action was certainly implied.

"But, what happened to—?" Unable to articulate, the mage hunched over, grunting as he mimicked a gorilla's posture and movements.

The creature brushed the actions aside. "Oh, that. That's just my cover. I put it on when I get summoned." Becoming more serious, it frowned down at the still stunned mage. "Now, then, you did summon me, true. But since it seems like I'm going to be the one doing all the killing here, I think I should reap the spoils."

Slowly the surprise at his brainless minion having brains became replaced with pique. The mage shook his head resolutely. "I don't think so. I summoned you, you go kill like I say, and I'll take the rewards, thank you."

"Uhh, no. Try again."

"Hey, you have to do my bidding!" Whining was definitely on the horizon. "I made the sacrifice! I burned the incense!"

"Oh, yeah, you really went all out there," responded the creature snidely. "A rat and some dime-store incense?" Tasting the air, it sneered its utter contempt. "Is that strawberry? And your recitation of the summons—I've eaten third graders with better oratory skills." It was an effort, but the creature crossed its arms in front of its huge barrel chest and sniffed haughtily. "You know, I almost didn't even bother showing up."

The mage's mouth opened and closed of its own accord. "I—Hu—Are you mocking me? How dare you?!"

"Come on. You summoned me with a rodent and fruity incense, you stumbled over the incantation, and your nine summoning circle symbols?" The creature waved his paw at the circle he was standing in. "You only have seven. Honestly, what kind of control over me were you expecting here?"

Flexing his arms, the mage tossed the book he was still holding to the side and began rolling up the sleeves of his robe. His arms were thin, toothpick-like, and entirely pathetic. "I think you're about to find, beast, that I don't need incense or a circle to control you."

Accepting the challenge, the creature hunched over into its initial posture and bared its fangs. "Killing you may not bring me rewards... But sometimes killing is a reward unto itself."

The two forces clashed together in a fierce battle, their howls and screams echoing throughout the quiet neighborhood. In her upstairs bedroom, Dawn rolled over in her bed, paying little attention to the muffled sounds that roused her. With a contended sigh, she snuggled further underneath the covers.

Another night found a pair of demons, possibly twins, crouched behind the bushes lining a well-kept yard and carefully monitoring the Scoobies' house nearby. Each demon was bald and clad in standard military fatigues. The only characteristic distinguishing one from the other was a tattoo, clearly visible on the backs of their heads. The first, his tattoo a detailed depiction of a howling, fanged, canine-like skull, was peering through a pair of binoculars that was trained on the targeted house.

"Harris," ‘Skull' reported.

"Check," responded the second, his tattoo was very simple by contrast – a red heart wrapped in a banner reading "Mom".

Skull swept his binoculars to the right, focusing on another window. He watched intently for several seconds before stating, "Rosenberg."

"Check," ‘Mom' confirmed.

"Who are we missing?" questioned Skull, still searching.

"The girl. Dawn Summers."

"Wasn't there another?"

"The Slayer, Kennedy. Our intel says she doesn't live there anymore."

Shrugging, Skull moved to another window. "Oh well, can't have everything." Another moment passed then he announced, "Got the girl."

Mom allowed a brief smile to touch his lips before dropping back to clean professionalism. "That's all of the targets. Commencing with ‘Operation: Clean Sweep'." He reached into the camouflaged duffel bag at his feet and pulled out a small control. Flipping a series of safety switches, the demon concluded by punching the large red button in the center of the device with obvious relish.

Skull replaced the binoculars in bag and turned to his companion. "How long?"

"Timer's set for one minute. Safety precaution."

"We're far enough away," Skull complained with a frown.

"Protocol is protocol," countered Mom without apology.

Shrugging again, Skull let the matter drop. "Ah, well, won't be enough of the place left to make a book of matches. That's worth a minute's waiting."

"Forty seconds."

Anticipation building, the two demons watched the house intently.

"Where did you put it?" Mom asked, breaking the moment.

"Basement," replied Skull, his eyes still riveted to the target. "Next to some boxes. Did it this afternoon when they were all out."

Looking up from his watch, Mom announced, "Twenty-five seconds. Prep for explosion."

Reaching into the bag, Skull produced two pairs of protective goggles and handed one to his partner. They both hurriedly donned the eyewear and crouched down, bracing themselves against the coming force.

"Ten seconds... Five seconds... Four... Three... Two... One... Impact."

A bright flash of light exploded from inside the house and the two demons stiffened, waiting expectantly for the shockwaves, but none came. After several seconds, they peered over the edge of the bushes. The house was totally dark, not even Rudolph's nose so bright was shining. But that detail aside, it was perfectly intact.

The demons glanced at each other curiously, even as the voices from inside the house drifted within earshot.

"Heh, sorry, guys," apologized Willow sheepishly. "Looks like I, uh... I-I guess I kinda blew all the electronics in the house. New spell and all." She chuckled uncomfortably. "It wasn't really supposed to do that."

"Wait, can TiVo record, even with no power?" a nervous Xander questioned.

"Nope," Buffy replied matter-of-factly. "Sorry Xand."

"I'm sure we'll get it all up and running again in no time," Willow reassured. "A-A few hours, two days, max."

"I'm gonna miss ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy'?! Noooooooooooooo!"

Xander's anguish reverberated outside, but the two demons were too busy trying to figure out what had gone wrong.

"Dud?" Mom suggested. "Bad fuse?"

Skull shook his head firmly. "No way. We had everything double-wired and cross-checked. All six wire systems and three fuses would have had to fail."

"I know, but something went wrong."

The two were so engrossed in their conversation, they both failed to notice as Kennedy, sleek, silent and deadly, approached them from behind. She walked slowly, stepping so carefully as to not cause even the slightest sound, not even the crunching of snow beneath her boot. With a gesture, Kennedy summoned to her side a half dozen Junior Slayers, all mimicking her motions and equally as stealthy. The scene bore more than a passing resemblance to a cheetah presenting prey to her cubs for practice.

Unaware of the looming danger, Mom pulled off his goggles and tossed them into the bag. "We need to investigate."

In complete agreement, Skull nodded. "Covert Op procedure three. Reconnaissance mission."

"Get in. Find the cause. Get out."

Behind them, Kennedy stepped back to allow the Juniors their opportunity. She pointed out the assignments, then crossed her arms and smiled, settling in to enjoy the show.

Rising to their feet, the demons turned, getting their first glimpse of the six eager Slayers bearing down.

"Oh, crap," stated Skull.

Mom gulped. "Affirmative that, soldier."

While Slayer Central itself was brightly lit, the grounds surrounding the large building, save by the front entrance, were primarily shrouded in darkness. A silhouette stood silent vigil in the trees surrounding the building, keeping watch on a busy patch of hallway inside as Slayers and Watchers went about their business.

The moon emerged from behind the clouds, casting a silvery light upon the figure. The eyes were the most striking feature, a piercingly deep blue. The figure was human—a young female specifically, perhaps 17 or 18 years old. Lean and fit, she was dressed conservatively in a long-sleeved black shirt with no other adornments and functional black jeans. Her dark brown hair had been cropped short in a style that was entirely unflattering but undeniably efficient. Uncaring that the moon might possibly reveal her presence, had anyone inside looked out, she held her ground, arms crossed and face impassive as she observed.

Silently, a second figure crept out of the shadows and toward the girl. It was larger—at least twice her size in terms of height and sheer mass—and most definitely not human. It stalked closer and audibly sniffed the air. The girl remained motionless and unconcerned, displaying no outward appearance that she had heard anything.

The demon cocked its head to one side and sniffed again. "Slayer," it rasped, and closed the remaining distance between them in two long strides. Lashing out, the demon went to seize her shoulder in its three-fingered grasp, claws gleaming in the moonlight. But as fast as it moved, the girl was faster, and in a move quicker than the eye could follow, she whirled around and grabbed the creature's wrist in mid-strike. The demon tried to jerk its hand away with an irritated growl, but its eyes widened when it discovered it could not pull its arm back, not even the tiniest fraction of an inch.

"Slayer?" the girl repeated. The word resonated and seemed to be comprised of multiple voices, all speaking in perfect synchronicity. Her expression betrayed nothing, no hint of effort visible as she tightened her grip and the sound of snapping bones filled the air.

The demon grunted in pain and lashed out with its other arm, catching the girl in the chest with razor-sharp talons that should have cut her to and through the bone. It was shocked when the girl not only didn't fall, but gave no indication that she was injured in the slightest.

With the barest flick of her wrist, the girl easily slung the towering demon over her shoulder, where it landed solidly on the ground, momentarily stunned. Slowly, as though she had all the time in the world, she circled the demon. She gazed down at it while it looked at her, fear beginning to take hold. Its eyes darted to the girl's chest, where there should have been nothing but an open, bloody wound. She did in fact have a row of shallow, minor cuts, but they were healing before the demon's very eyes. After a moment, the only lingering evidence of its attack was the tattered hole ripped in her shirt. The skin was once again whole, perfect and unmarred, save for the tattoo over her heart of an eye atop a key.

The girl regarded the demon with no emotion whatsoever. "We're nothing so common as a Slayer," she stated with her lyrical, inhuman voices. "We're so very much more."

The cacophony of early evening chaos in Slayer Central completely drowned the agonized scream of the demon just outside.

Act Three

Once again, the Boss and Norg were moving through the hallways. It was late, and things were even quieter than before, the majority of the demons scrambling about in the darkness outside, in an attempt to try and lay claim to promised prizes.

The Boss stopped to examine a crack in the wall. "What's the situation on the Clark front?"

"He appearth to have gone into hiding."

"He must've gotten wind of the plan," shrugged the Boss with a frown as he scraped at the peeling plaster with a sharply hooked fingernail.

"Already done, thir," confirmed the little demon with a self-satisfied smile. "I have eyeth and earth everywhere."

"And teeth."

For a moment, Norg appeared confused and his smile faltered. "Ethcuth me, thir?"

"Nevermind." Apparently satisfied, the Boss took a step away from the wall. "Take care of him. You know what to do. And while you're doing that, see what you can find out about anything going on with the Slayers."

"It thall be done."

The pair reached the end of the hall, arriving at the threshold of the Boss' office, marked by an impressive door carved from solid oak. He let out a long sigh. "In the meantime, I have to give them a call."

"You have my condolentheth," Norg commiserated solemnly before taking his leave.

Having resigned himself to his fate, the Boss opened the door and entered. It was a nice place as offices for the demon leaders of union-type organizations went. The chair was a shiny black leather, the desk was polished mahogany, and there was even a window, although for security reasons it was continuously locked and barred. The desk sported various knickknacks, like the hollowed-out human skull converted into a pencil holder, and a special set of ink-blood pens.

Settling down in the comfortable chair, the Boss picked up the phone and punched some buttons. A few seconds passed before he spoke into the handset. "Connect me with Demon Resources, please."

He whistled tunelessly and surveyed his office while he waited. The walls were mostly bare but held a few important adornments: awards and plaques for an assortment of achievements with long-winded titles, along with various "Team Pictures". One such photograph featured several demons having a great time and mugging for the camera, while a terrified young woman—presumably a virgin—was chained to a stone slab behind them.

Taking a deep breath, he put on his best smile. "Why, hello, Myrtle. Yes, it's me. Yeah, it's been a while, hasn't it?" He reached over, removed a pencil from the holder and began twirling it in his fingers. "Oh, she's doing fine. Hasn't she called? She asks about you all the time." His forehead wrinkled a little at the response. "Well, I'll just have to remind her then. I'm sure she'll love catching up."

Setting the pencil back in the holder, he began to flip through the sheaves of papers littering his desk. Some of the pages contained lists of names, a few of which had been crossed through in red hi-lighter. But the bulk of the sheets appeared to be some sort of blank form letter.

They read, "Dear. Mr/Mrs. _______, it is our sad duty to inform you that ______ was killed by ______ while..." and so forth. The missive in its entirety was somewhat reminiscent of demented and funereal Mad-Libs.

After a lengthy pause, the Boss spoke up again. "I'm glad to hear that. He sounds like he's on his way to becoming quite a chaos beast, just like his father. I look forward to having him in the fold. But the real reason I'm calling, sad to say, is that I need some headhunting done." He listened to the response on the other end and then chuckled. "No, not that kind of headhunting, I'm afraid. I'd be first in line for that myself. No, truth is, I need a little beefing up for the staff."

He paused again, allowing the other party to speak, then studied the papers carefully before silently counting numbers to himself. "If you could have about ten by tomorrow evening, that would be fantastic. Make it a mix if possible. I know it's tight but this is a busy and exciting time." He listened for the answer. "You're the best, Myrtle. Look for a little something extra next time we get some fresh bones in. You take it easy, okay? Bye."

He hung up the phone and let out an exhalation of breath as all traces of the smile instantly washed away from his face.

"God I hate them," he muttered.

The papers were still awaiting his attention. He selected a quill from the tray on his desk, dipped the nib into a nearby inkwell and started to fill in the assorted blanks, mumbling to himself as he did so.

"Dear Mrs..." He checked the list. "...Pjinty. It is our sad duty to inform you that your mate was killed by..." he chewed thoughtfully on the feathered end of the pen and wrinkled his nose at the taste. "...a rabid and bloodthirsty swarm of Slayers while in the noble act of—" referencing a report on a separate sheet, he went back to the first, "—attempting to blow up a house full of people. We deeply regret the inconvenience that this causes. Know that—" another look at the report, "—Chamalin was the very best among us and his loss will be missed. To pick up his personal effects, please come by the office at your convenience. Signed..."

With a series of fine flourishes, he scrawled a multitude of strokes upon the paper. "Me," he said in a cheerful voice. Tossing the paper aside, he picked up the next. "Dear Mr... Jefferson."

The intercom situated on the corner of his desk buzzed, and the Boss leaned over to push its lone button. "Yes?"

A sultry and beautiful feminine voice greeted him. Its tone was soft and soothing as though honey were being poured over bars of pure golden sunlight—if indeed such had the ability to produce a sound. "Your midnight appointment is here," she sweetly remarked.

The Boss chewed absent-mindedly on his plume for a moment and wrinkled his nose again. "Refresh my memory."

The voice continued its exquisite chiming. "The interview with Fearsome 500. Mr. Qxalgyltmn is here to discuss the successes and challenges of working in the midst of the new Slayer threat?"

Recognition flashed across the Boss' features. "Oh, yes! Please, send him in."

"Yes, sir."

Throwing open the desk drawer, he gathered the loose papers with careful consideration, patting them together and shuffling them into a neat and tidy pile. He then tossed whole thing unceremoniously out of sight and pushed the drawer closed again. He looked up as the door opened, revealing a tall, muscular creature, adorned with at least two-dozen small horns on its head and empty, soulless sockets for eyes. The thing's tongue, too long for the mouth, protruded, flicking and quivering in the air. It was a horrific sight, but the Boss flinched not, merely gesturing for the creature to enter.

The monstrosity opened its mouth to speak. "Mr. Qxalgyltmn, sir," dripped the honeyed words. It was the same melodic tone as had been heard over the intercom.

The secretary stepped aside, and the actual guest entered. In comparison to his escort, he was relatively small, well dressed and sedate. His skin was dark green and there was a total absence of any nasal feature whatsoever. A protuberance of piercings decorated the sides of his neck, continuing down the arms.

"Thank you, Marsha," the Boss said to the secretary who stepped out, closing the door behind her.

He gestured to a chair. "Thank you," the demon replied, settling down and smiling at its comfort.

"Can I have anything brought in?" asked the Boss politely. "Coffee? Blood? Oil for your metal?"

"No, but thank you. I must say, interesting secretary you have."

"Absolutely," agreed the Boss. "Nalliforsch Beast. Very rare in this dimension. As my mother would say, she could scare the fire out of a hellhound." He smiled wistfully before adding, "But oh, what a voice."

Mr. Q produced a pencil and pad from his jacket pocket. Dapping the tip of the pencil on his tongue, he looked to the Boss expectantly. "I know you're a busy demon—"

"Oh yes. Much to do. There is evil afoot. I'm hoping to keep abreast of it, and possibly get a-thigh or a-wing on the side." The Boss grinned broadly, finding himself incredibly amusing. Which was just as well, as Mr. Q didn't appear to share that opinion. Sighing, the Boss leaned back. "So much for levity. You have questions?"

Lowering his questioning eyebrow, Mr. Q referred to the notepad. "First things first—the Slayers. It was bad enough when there was just one of them ruining everything for the rest of us, but now... Most of demonkind has been paralyzed, afraid to move forward. But you, with a nest of Slayers right next door, have thrived. Why do you think that is?"

"Innovative techniques designed to specifically target and enhance our core competency, with an eye toward quality and excellence, while simultaneously shifting the competition's paradigm toward lesser productivity and greater... Uhm, re...cli...vivi...tivity." The Boss' smile was broad and reassuring.

Mr. Q's pencil had been flying over the paper, but he faltered as the answer trailed off and he glanced up with a frown. "I'm sorry, what was that last word?"

The Boss coughed just once before answering. "Reclivivitivity."

"Reclivivitivity," the interviewer repeated, sounding out each syllable very carefully.

"Oh, of course," replied the Boss confidently. He glanced at Mr. Q with an appraising eye and just a tinge of superiority. "You have heard of reclivivitivity before, haven't you? I mean, you must have, being such an outstanding journalist for a top-level magazine. It's all the latest rage in the business world. You know. Among true, serious professionals, that is," he added pointedly.

The little demon picked up on the implications immediately and nodded his green head so enthusiastically the metal bars embedded in his neck clacked together. "Absolutely! Why, I think Simon will be doing a feature article on..." He paused, frowning slightly. "...reclivivitivity for the March issue."

"Smart sentient being, that Simon," responded the Boss with an approving tone. "You can never have too much information on reclivivitivity."

Still wearing a slightly puzzled expression, Mr. Q flipped to the back of his notebook and jotted down a quick note, then turned back to the questions at hand. "The structure of your organization has set the underworld buzzing with excitement. How exactly would you describe your company?"

"Well first, I wouldn't call us a company. In fact, I don't believe a word has yet been created to sum up the totality of our endeavor." Mostly to himself, he added, "Though I'm starting to think I could invent one." Back to the interview, he continued. "We have employees, true, and our foundations can be traced back to the finest companies this dimension has to offer... You know the ones I mean."

Mr. Q responded to the obvious wink with a knowing smile.

"But we're so very much more. We've weaved a union concept into the very heart of our business. In exchange for modest dues, we provide a service to the working class demon." He began to tick reasons off on his fingers. "Direction, focus, unity, and a swell dental plan."

Once more, Mr. Q's note taking was interrupted and he tilted his head, blinking in disbelief at the Boss. "So let me get this straight," he attempted to clarify. "You have employees... But they pay you."

A slightly smug smile provided all the confirmation necessary.

"That...is ingenious," the awed interviewer commented, admiration trickling from every word.

"I try hard," the Boss simply replied, inclining his head to accept the compliment.

Still blinking in wonder, Mr. Q returned to his notepad. "Ingenious," he repeated, "but it does lend a new sinister air to a rumor that's been floating around about your business. Something about a ‘nobody gets out alive' policy?"

The Boss waved a dismissive hand. "Lies. Fabrications. Untruths. Slander created by entities jealous of our success."

"So the reports of you deliberately manipulating events—say, situations involving Slayers, death and mayhem—in order to rid yourself of undesirables are unfounded?"

"Completely. And what's more, those accusations hurt. Deeply. You can't tell I'm hurt because I have too many teeth to pull off complex facial expressions, but take my word for it. There's pain going on here. Big time pain. And if I find out who's spreading those unfounded accusations, there'll be pain going on there, too."

Leaning forward eagerly, the interviewer appeared excited. "Can I quote you on that?"

"Word for word. What good is an evil demonic force for darkness, chaos, and unbridled havoc if it can't posture threateningly?"

Pointedly, the Boss glanced at his wrist, and the demon received the social cue loud and clear. "Just one more question," he urged, proceeding only when he received a confirming nod. "Tabby or Calico?"

The Boss scratched his chin thoughtfully. "I'd actually prefer a nice Mexican Hairless. Not so much to get stuck in your teeth, you know? And it always has a nice spicy kick. But at a push... Tabby. Stick with the basics."

The crack of a cue ball scattering the neat triangle of its colored brethren cut through the air of the rec room. The television blared with the sounds of late-late night programming but neither Kennedy nor Hazel were participating in either activity. Instead, both were focused on a sheet of paper that the senior Slayer held in her hand.

"What did you do to the victim—check all that apply," Kennedy read aloud. "Bruise/stubbed toe, broken limb, organ damage, disembowelment, decapitation?"

"I'm guessing that one's worth more than a stubbed toe," commented Hazel with a mildly trepidacious expression. "Looks like some weird sort of contest. Pretty crazy, huh?"

Kennedy turned the paper over in her hands, studying the front and back as if she expected it to bite. "Where'd you get this?"

"We found it on patrol last night, this demon thing dropped it. Oh yeah," Hazel reached into her pocket. "It had this, too."

Accepting the somewhat wrinkled brochure, Kennedy studied the colored pictures carefully.

"It looks like the sort of thing you'd get at school. Prizes, for selling the most candy?" Hazel offered.

If the first sheet had puzzled Kennedy, she was now rapidly approaching befuddled. She examined the listed prizes critically. "Okay, now I'm disturbed. It's one thing to be a minion of darkness just for the hell of it, but—Oooo, hey! Clock radio."

"I'd definitely pick that over—" Hazel pointed to one corner of the sheet, "—‘a dozen hearts, assorted flavors.'" She wrinkled her nose, disgust obvious. "I'm guessing they don't mean chocolate."

Regaining her composure from the sudden clock radio outburst, Kennedy settled into nonchalance. "This is all pretty junky. Or just plain weird." She squinted at the paper. "Why do I not feel reassured by the presence of cute, fluffy kittens on this thing?"

"Oh, but hey, they have daggers too," Hazel pointed out, indicating the bottom of the page marked "Special" in huge lettering.

"Really?" Kennedy asked, suddenly interested. She looked at the aforementioned section, then her expression drooped. "Oh, they're sacrificial, not for combat." Glancing at Hazel, she questioned, "What kind of demons had this?"

Hazel frowned as she searched her memory. "Little. Blue. Kind of like... Big Smurfs. With horns." Using her fingers, she demonstrated the approximate placement of said horns, then lowered her hands and sighed. "So much of my childhood has been tainted since coming here."

"I suppose we can tell everybody to be extra careful, but little demon guys in a contest to win cheap prizes?" the Slayer summarized. "Not feeling too intimidated."

The discussion was interrupted by the entrance of another Slayer with short blonde hair, who marched into the rec room, carrying Norg by the scruff of his suit. He was making a valiant effort to remain dignified, despite the fact that such was well nigh impossible.

A few of the Slayers playing pool turned to look at the newcomer, then, having perceived an utter lack of threat, returned to their game.

"We have a visitor," the newcomer announced.

"Norg?" Kennedy asked.

Norg bowed slightly at Kennedy. Or tried to. Given his situation, it came off more like he had an itch he couldn't quite scratch. But he tried, and that was the important part.

"Mith Thlayer," he greeted.

"You know him?" Hazel asked Kennedy.

Kennedy nodded. "Yeah. He showed up a while back. Gave us info on how to find some baby-eating demon."

At this, Hazel's disgusted expression from earlier made a surprise return. "Eww?"

"Turns out the demon just liked playing with dolls, though."

The look of disgust shifted to disbelief. Hazel shook it off. She pointed to the diminutive evil. "So, he helped us? Why?"

"Look at him. He's tiny, weak, pathetic, and needed our protection," Kennedy replied with a shrug.

"Truly, you know how to flatter," Norg responded dryly.

Cutting to the chase, Kennedy demanded, "What do you want?"

Norg put his hands up in a mock gesture of surrender. "I come theeking thancthuary."

Immediately, Hazel's face melted. "Oh, listen to him! He's just too cute!" she cooed.

At Kennedy's nod, the blonde Slayer set Norg on the ground. The little demon straightened his jacket, preening for Hazel and favoring her with his least-fangy smile. He even threw in a wink for good measure.

Unmoved by the small demon's attempts to be charming, Kennedy crossed her arms. "We're not hell's halfway house here, Norg, but you're in luck. I'm kinda bored. So you got info on some action for me? Something a little more solid than Mr. Barbie n' Pals?"

"Ath a matter of fact, I do." Norg turned to her with a smile. "A demon by the name of Clark hath been cauthing grief for the localth. I happen to know where he'th hiding."

"Wait, ‘Clark'?" Hazel asked, shaking her head as though something had lodged in her ears and was preventing her from hearing correctly. "The demon's name is ‘Clark'?"

Neither Kennedy nor Norg acknowledged the question. "Gimme the address and we'll go check it out," the Senior Slayer declared, then jabbed a decisive finger in his direction. "You stay here until we get back."

Hazel pulled Kennedy to one side. "So we listen to his info then let him hang out here?"

"He's harmless enough, as demons go. If we can get some tips to really dangerous types, seems an even trade-off. Plus, if it turns out to be a trap or something, I know where to go to kick his ass later."

Hazel remained a little dubious at the logic involved, but accepted the judgment. Kennedy's eyes lit up with a thought. Grabbing the papers she and Hazel had been looking at earlier, she turned to the demon. "What do you know about this?"

Norg accepted the offered sheets and studied them carefully. Not even a champion poker player could have read his face. "Well, I'm not well-verthed in thethe matterth, but the clock radio appearth to be of ekthellent craftthmanthip."

"I mean, do you know who's behind it?"

"I'm afraid I have no idea," he admitted. "But I will keep my eyeth peeled and let you know the moment I learn anything. It'th the leatht I can do in return for your kindneth." He started to put the pages in his pocket. "I can take thith to my thourtheth and thee what they know—"

"Don't think so," Kennedy retorted, snatching the papers from his hand. "We'll have better luck with it here. But thanks for the generous offer. Now where's this Clark?"

"You'll find him in the downtown dithtrict. He'th holed up in the abandoned bookthtore on Twelfth Thtreet."

Kennedy glanced to Hazel. "It was just about patrol time anyway. Haze, round up our group. At least we've got a new first stop tonight."

"They say variety is the spice of life," the girl agreed sunnily. "Though I always thought it was nutmeg."

Grinning widely at her joke, Hazel waited expectantly for a reaction other than the stare being leveled at her. She let out a small embarrassed cough. "I'll just go, then." She nodded to herself, clearly thinking this the best possible option, and jogged out of the room.

The Slayer who had brought in Norg had stayed for the conversation, and Kennedy addressed her. "Lock him in one of the empty classrooms, will you, Kelly? He doesn't get out until I get back."

Kelly nodded, and Kennedy quickly moved out of the room. Renewing her grip on the scruff of Norg's jacket, the blonde lifted him into the air once more and carted him down the hall, much to the amusement of passersby.

"Tho... What'th going on tonight?" Norg asked casually.

Frowning, Kelly regarded him with curiosity. "What?"

"I mean, any planth to go out anywhere? Perhapth to a nithe graveyard or darkened alleyway? A group gathering of thome thort?"

The Slayer slowly swiveled Norg by the collar so she could stare at him, narrowing her eyes. "You're... Are you asking me out?"

Norg appeared genuinely shocked at the concept. "No, no of courth not! I thimply—"

Kelly either hadn't heard his exclamation or chose to ignore it. "Because first of all—demon. Snappy dresser, but still. Second, you're what, three feet tall?"

"That'th a low blow," Norg responded in a wounded tone.

"Well, you're a low guy," she countered. "Get some lifts, and we'll talk. Until then..."

Arriving at her destination, she opened the door and placed Norg firmly inside. The room did indeed appear to be mostly unused, inhabited only by a few chair-and-desk combinations. There were no windows and no wall adornments.

Kelly closed the door behind her, and Norg heard the click of a lock. He glanced around despondently at the bare, drab walls of his surroundings. "Well, that could have gone better." His expression turned to one of concern. "I can't go back to the Bosth empty-handed. He'll be tho dithappointed... And pothibly violent."

With some effort, Norg was able to clamber onto one of the chairs, situating himself in it studiously. He produced a small pad of paper and a miniature pen from inside his jacket pocket and, after much contemplation, began to write, speaking aloud as he did so.

"‘Thlayerth planning big move thoon. Much redecorating occurring, which is jutht ath well becauth Thlayerth have no fathion thenth.'"

He examined his handiwork and rubbed his chin. "Hmm. Not bad, but let'th go for thome real dirt... ‘Appearth to be intenth rivalry between Thummerth and Faith. Gileth, ith thick with an unknown illneth which, praithe Halinor, could be fatal...'"

The Boss continued to work at his desk, completing the form letters but with an air of glee that seemed inappropriate, given the subject matter. He scribbled away, no longer bothering to refer to the reports as he did so.

"Dear Second-Leiard Kor'kchal. It is our sad duty to inform you that your mate was killed by... A twenty-foot flying vampire slayer, while in the noble act of... Attempting to buy a grape slurpee..."

The door to the office flung open, and in burst an iridescently-colored, scaly demon. The Boss looked up, the beginnings of irritation settling into his face.

"Boss! You gotta come quick!" the demon begged.

"What is it?"

"It's Thompson," the demon declared. "He's captured the Dark Slayer!"

An expression of surprise and elation suffused the Boss' features. Without delay, he leapt from his chair and dashed out the door. He had only gone a few feet before he found Thompson, a large demon with almost as many scars as he had muscles. A squirming bag rested on the big demon's shoulder, the sack made miniscule by comparison to the demon's mass. He gently set his swag on the floor, as though careful not to damage the goods before the captured Slayer could be disposed of in the most suitable unsavory fashion.

As the Boss came to a stop in front of him, Thompson flashed a broad smile. "That lava lamp is as good as mine."

Act Four

The Boss rubbed his hands together joyfully, and the sound of a rough surface being sanded filled the air. On the ground, the burlap sack continued to squirm, a pupae waiting to release its contents to the wonder of all.

"Good work, Thompson," the Boss smiled approvingly. "How'd you manage to do it?"

The demon beamed at the praise. "Easy pickings. Caught her by surprise. She was going down this alleyway and I struck from behind, like a Xenian Viper. She never saw what hit her."

"Excellent use of stealth tactics, then," congratulated the Boss, clapping excitedly. "Whatever it takes to get the job done." He gestured to two well-built demons nearby. "Open it up."

They knelt next to the captive and tugged on the sack ever so slowly, almost unreasonably so, as if to prolong and savor the moment. Or, quite possibly, out of fear of what would be revealed and what might happen to the unfortunate soulless who had done the revealing when the Slayer emerged. As the bag was pulled back enough to reveal legs, the prisoner lashed out with a savage kick, but it easily missed any target. Startled, the demons yanked the sack free and hurriedly moved out of range.

The figure inside was female, wearing jeans and a t-shirt. A hood covered her head, obscuring any features. With the sack removed, she struggled to her hands and knees, but then remained still, not attacking or making any sudden moves.

"Oh, I've seen Steve Irwin do this," one of the demons observed in a knowing voice. "Wrap a towel or something around an animal's head and it gets all docile and stuff."

"Well, let's see what we can do about that," the Boss chuckled. He looked at Thompson admiringly. "Gotta say, beautiful touch with the hood. I just love the suspense." Gesturing to the girl, he added to the demon, "Go ahead and pull it off—you've earned it."

Thompson moved behind the girl and swiftly removed the hood with a dramatic flourish. The Boss had prepared his most evil grin to meet her, but it now faded into confusion and then great dissatisfaction.

"This...is not the Dark Slayer," he calmly observed as his eye began to twitch.

Thompson initially appeared as though he didn't understand the words, then comprehension blossomed in his tiny demon brain. "It's not?" he queried, moving around to the front of the girl to get a better look.

"No, it is not," the Boss snarled, his fingers curling into a fist that shook at his side. "It looks nothing like her."

"Well, it kinda does," Thompson responded, lamely attempting to salvage a shred of dignity.

The Boss, having been all geared up for violent Slayer death, was not handling his disappointment well at all. Taking it out on Thompson was obviously his preferred method of coping. "No, it doesn't! Look at this!" he yelled.

A printout of Faith from the presentation a few days earlier hung on the wall, a lasting symbol of hatred and goals to be achieved. The Boss tore it down in one fluid motion and stormed back to the nervous demon. He pointed at the frozen and ferocious Slayer's face. "Look at it! This hair is clearly chestnut! This hair—" he indicated the girl, "—is raw sienna. These eyes?" He waved the paper in the demon's face. "Mahogany! Those eyes?" He jabbed a clawed finger at the terrified girl again. "Emerald! They're not even the same base color!"

"Well, it was really dark..." Thompson began, his gaze shifting first right then left as he tried to think up a plausible excuse and largely failed.

Still fuming, the Boss retorted, "Yes, nighttime tends to be that way!"

"A-and her back was turned..."

All eyes were on him now, and the Boss' anger was only slightly more intense than the pressure on Thompson to justify the mistake. Eternal shame was going to be unavoidable unless he was able to turn this around quickly.

"Plus, you know humans. They all look the same." His tone dripped with derision for humans and all their ilk, trying desperately to redirect scorn from himself to the species in question.

Several of the gathered demons looked at each other and nodded, conceding this statement as true. The Boss, however, was not to be dissuaded. "'All look the same'?" He shoved the picture into the girl's hands. Stuck in a near-paralyzed stupor, the girl seemed even more confused than before at the rapidly deteriorating situation. The Boss loomed over her. "Tell me, does that look like you? Does it?!" he demanded of the girl.

"I—Uh—Geh—" she stammered.

"I didn't think so!" he declared victoriously. "Even the trembling human thing agrees with me! I'm bitterly disappointed, Thompson. You've taken me away from important work, raised my hopes and then dashed them upon the cruel rocks of life. Even worse, I lost a bet and owe Norg ten bucks." Gritting his many teeth together, the Boss narrowed his gaze furiously at Thompson. "I hate losing."

A demon behind the Boss snickered. "This is just like that time when he thought he had the witch."

Thompson thrust his finger over the Boss' shoulder at the offender. "Shut up, Williams! I did have the witch! She must've used some...witchery-type magic or something!"

"To turn herself into a guy?" mocked Williams with an evil smirk.

The other demons had merely been observing the exchange, but at the retort they erupted into laughter. Thompson's skin changed to a bright reddish-purple hue as his anger rose. Everyone's attention sufficiently diverted, no one noticed the girl scampering away for her life, the printout still clutched in her hands.

The horde had gradually backed away from Williams and Thompson, forming a loose circle around them. The atmosphere was growing tense, and violence was inevitable. Standing back with his arms crossed, the Boss appeared perfectly fine with watching things unfold for the moment.

"He was dressed like a woman," Thompson shot back. "How was I supposed to know?"

Williams waved his hand dismissively at Thompson. "You just suck man. Admit it and move on with whatever passes for your life."

"Oh, big talk from the guy who got scared off by two of little Summers' school friends."

Apparently, this struck a nerve. Williams' eyes suddenly flared a brilliant green, and he jumped from words to action. Springing forward, he assailed Thompson with a savage barrage of clawed attacks. In return, Thompson balled his fists and bared his fangs.

The ferocity and sounds of combat were akin to watching two jungle cats battle for mates and territory, but it was destined to be short-lived; the Boss quickly gestured to several of the other demons who stepped in to break up the fight.

"Okay, time out, both of you. Stop acting like children."

"He started it," they both protested in unison. "Did not!" they shouted simultaneously at the other.

"And I'm ending it. Let it go. Let bygones be bygones. Remember, we're on the same side here." Before he could spout any more clichés, the Boss jerked his thumb over his shoulder, indicating the discarded burlap sack and smiled. "It's not as if Thompson came back empty-handed, at least we can enjoy this little—"

He turned to the empty space formerly occupied by their captive. "—girl who is no longer here," the Boss concluded without missing a beat. His smile dissolved for the second time in several minutes as he scanned the surrounding area. Frowning, he turned to his assembled demonic cadre. "Where did she go?"

Panting, the girl raced down the darkened streets in a near-blind panic, occasionally stealing a glance over her shoulder to see if she was being pursued. So intent in what may be behind her, she had no chance of stopping when a figure stepped from around the corner, directly in front her.

The two collided, and the escapee bounced, as though having run into something solid and unmovable. She tumbled to the ground, her fall only slightly cushioned by the snow. The figure assumed an immediate defensive stance, but relaxed almost as soon as it saw who had "attacked."

"Damn!" Faith exclaimed as she knelt next to the girl. "You okay?"

Still gasping for breath, the girl regarded Faith for several seconds. She blinked at the Slayer, her eyes reflecting a mixture of confusion and residual fear.

Faith squinted at the girl's head, concerned. "Crap, you get a concussion? I'll never hear the end of it if you did."

"I-It's you!" the girl finally managed to get out.

Faith nodded cautiously. "Yeah, usually."

"No, no, you're the one they were talking about!" the girl blurted in near hysteria. "There-there were these monsters, and they took me and they were talking about some sleigh in the dark, and—"

Faith held up her hands in calming gesture. "Whoa, slow down. Try breathing. Hear it helps."

Accepting assistance, the girl got to her feet and took a few deep breaths while constantly checking to see if something terrifying was bearing down on her from behind. Assured at least for the moment that she was relatively safe, she tried again. "Some monster things grabbed me, threw something over my head, stuffed me in a bag... They took me somewhere..." She strained to recall the details. "Bright, lots of lights but no windows. Cheap carpet. Smelled like floor wax and paper. They—they kept talking about some sort of 'dark sleigh' or something and how they had it. But one of them said I was wrong."

Faith's expression showed that she was following along, but just barely.

"Then one of them grabbed this picture and said it was who they were looking for. It's you."

Faith took the offered sheet and examined it. She tilted her head to the side, narrowing her eyes as she studied it carefully, then a pleased grin appeared. "Check me out, I'm popular. An' badass too, lookit that kick," she added with admiration.

The girl didn't seem particularly impressed by Faith's on-paper kung fu exploits; still a bit nervous, she stole yet another glance over her shoulder.

"But how'd they ever mistake you for me?" the Slayer wondered, eyeing the girl. "You're at least three inches taller, and I wouldn't be caught dead with that hair." The girl was too frazzled to take much notice of the implied insult, and Faith returned to studying the exaggerated depiction of herself, turning the printout this way and that.

"They started arguing and I ran away, but..." the girl trailed off. "Can-can you help me?"

Faith snapped back to full attention. "Yeah, no problem." Scanning the area, Faith doubled checked; it was deserted, no sign that the girl was in any immediate or continuing danger now she had made her escape. "Okay, first step is to get you home safe. Don't worry about those guys. They were probably... Uhh, college pranks."

The girl wasn't sure she had heard correctly. "College pranks?" she repeated disbelievingly.

"Yeah," Faith confirmed a little too quickly. "Too much learnin', does somethin' to your brain, you know?" She made wild gestures at her head. "Makes it snap."

The Slayer added an assuring nod to this explanation. It wasn't particularly convincing, but doubtless made as much sense to the girl as anything else she had experienced, so when Faith began moving down the street, she followed without hesitation. That Faith's footsteps made almost no noise in the snow compared with her own loud crunching was lost on the girl.

"Thank you," she said sincerely.

"Hey, no prob, livens up the evening," Faith shrugged.

A thought began to occur to the girl, and she frowned slightly. "Why aren't you freaked out by any of this?"

"Oh, I got experience with... College kids. And hey." The printout was proudly displayed. "Just found out I got a fan club. Can't wait to meet ‘em."

The halls of Slayer Central were comparatively chaos-free, given the usual standards. Considering the time of night, it was likely that most girls were out on patrols, though several were chatting amiably in the recreational room, watching television or catching a quick game of pool.

Kelly stood in the hallway, leaning back against a single closed door. Nearby stood her fellow Slayer Lynn, towering a good five inches over the other girl, but neither seeming to feel any advantage from that height difference.

"So, he was hitting on you?" boggled Lynn with an intrigued expression.

Screwing her face in disdain, Kelly shuddered. "I think so. I dunno. It was creepy, though. I mean, they never train us on how to actually talk to demons, y'know? You don't see Faith all—" she straightened her posture and pantomimed pointing to a nonexistent chalkboard, "—‘if the demon wants t'know what you're doin' that night, tell ‘em you ain't down with that.'"

A suggestive grin crept over Lynn's lips. "Is he cute?"

Kelly regarded her companion with disbelief, jaw hanging agape for a scant few seconds before snapping shut. "You're scary, Lynn."

"What?" the other Slayer protested. "I'm just asking."

"No, he's not cute. He's a demon. He looks like a demon. A three foot tall bundle of leathery skin in a nice suit. I know guys in the Math Club with more going for them."

Lynn held up her hands in defense. "Fine, fine, ‘scuse me all to heck, geez."

Kelly was having trouble letting it go; she shook her head a little. "'Is he cute?'" she muttered with an undisguised sneer in her voice.

Faith, rapidly approaching from the far end of the hall, had a determined look in her eye that caused both girls to stand a little straighter, as though at attention. When she was within earshot, the Senior Slayer demanded, "Where's Kennedy?"

"She took her patrol group to check out a tip from that Norg thing," Kelly supplied helpfully.

"Norg's around, huh?" asked Faith, a little surprised, but apparently pleased. Kelly nodded and jerked her thumb behind her. Casting a side glance at the door, the Senior Slayer smirked. "An' here I just got word that he had a little bet with some fans of mine. Ain't that convenient?"

With an evil grin a mile wide, she reached for the knob.

Norg continued to admire the functionality of his temporary prison. Or perhaps he was contemplating the deeper mysteries of life. He may have simply been wondering when Kennedy was going to get back. Regardless of his inner musings, he was sitting quietly in his chair when Faith entered the room. He flashed his best smile, which she didn't return.

"Mith Faith."

With no fanfare whatsoever, she strode to the demon and grabbed him by the throat. Within a heartbeat, he found himself hoisted against the wall. It wasn't a favorable position for any demon, much less one of his size.

"Ath alwayth, a pleathure," he choked politely. "Pleathe don't kill me."

"Tell me what I wanna know an' that ain't gonna be a problem."

Norg tried to use Faith's wrist to ease the pressure on his neck, but failed miserably. Seeing little other option, he acquiesced. "Thoundth like a deal to me."

"Heard somethin' kinda interesting tonight," began Faith conversationally. "Got a bunch'a people who wanna meet me. Which is five by five, cuz I suddenly got a jones to meet them too." She cocked her head to the side. "Thing is, I dunno where they are, an' I ain't real big with the detective thing. But luckily, I hear they know you. Which is good, cuz that means you know them too. Get me?"

Norg attempted to nod, but found the going difficult due to his neck's lack of accessibility. The Junior Slayers, tentative at first, had settled a respectable distance away that still afforded them a good view of the action, and watched the master work.

Faith seemed satisfied with Norg's attempted agreement. "Now, I could sit here an' ask you questions, get answers, figure it all out myself. But I ain't that patient. Instead, I'm gonna ask just one question."

Gasping for breath, Norg managed to retain his composure. "I can rethpect effithenthy," he coughed.

"Now who's this bet with, an' where do I find ‘em?" Considering her words, the Slayer shrugged. "Guess that's two questions. But hopefully you don't mind."

Gears turned in the tiny demon's mind as he squirmed under the force of the Slayer's grip. After a few long moments, he arrived at an answer. "I don't gamble, ath a matter of profethionalithm."

Faith maintained a fake politeness which was entirely intimidating. "I'm sorry, that's incorrect," she responded, pulling Norg away from the wall just a little and slamming him back against it. The little demon's eyes threatened to burst from their sockets. "Try again," suggested the Slayer, managing to make it sound much more like a command. "This time, try t'remember that thing about me killin' you."

Norg's second answer came much more quickly. "The Bosth! I have a bet with the Bosth!" he croaked.

Relaxing her grip, Faith allowed Norg to drop to the ground. He landed solidly, and his first act of newfound freedom was to vigorously rub his throat.

"Who's the Boss?" demanded Faith.

"I always thought it was Tony Danza," Lynn whispered to Kelly, who nodded her agreement.

"He runth our corporation," Norg confessed.

Faith crossed her arms, a subtle indicator that while she was no longer squeezing the very life out of him, that situation could easily be remedied. "Corporation?"

"Thort of a demon union."

Kelly couldn't restrain her surprise. "Demons have a union?"

"Do we have a union?" Lynn questioned immediately after.

Faith ignored them. "What's this bet?"

"It'th part of our lateth morale-boothting inthentive program. Our memberth are competing to thee who can cauthe the motht damage to the Thlayerth or their friendth. I bet the Bosth that the first capture wouldn't actually be a Thlayer at all." He couldn't help adding in a slightly smug tone, "Thoundth like I won."

"Doing good so far. Bonus round. Where is he?"

Norg appeared disinclined to answer, but Faith, arms still crossed, balled one of her fists, cracking knuckles in the process. The demon's reluctance vanished. "The headquarterth ith downtown, at the bathement entranthe under the bar at Fourth and Porter," Norg was only too happy to report.

Faith smiled her special fakely-sweet smile. "Thanks. Nice doin' business."

She headed for the door, stopping only when a confused Kelly asked, "Wait, what if he's lying?"

Although answering the Junior, every ounce of Faith's attention was directed to Norg, who squirmed uncomfortably under her penetrating glare. "He better hope he ain't, ‘cuz I'm locking him in this room, and if he is lyin', then I'm gonna come back and make him wish he hadn't."

With that, the three Slayers exited the room. True to her word, Faith closed the wooden door behind her, and a highly audible click informed Norg that he was once again a prisoner. Unlike with Kennedy's departure, however, his expression registered nothing but relief, as though the emptiness of the room were a comfort following this latest encounter

He allowed himself to flop backward, lying on the cold tile floor as he breathed a sigh of relief. "Interrogated by the Dark Thlayer and thurvived! What a thtory for the netht offithe party!"

On the other side of the door, Faith wasted no time in turning to the other two girls. "I'll grab the weapons. You two split up and get a half-dozen girls each. We meet by the main doors in ten minutes."

Fifteen Slayers strode through the darkened streets, each well outfitted: some carried daggers, some had swords, and others clutched crossbows. Most carried a combination of the three. They moved in a wedge formation, the girls fanning out on equal sides behind Faith, who was calling out instructions as they moved.

"Okay, accordin' to the girl-not-me, she saw ten or twenty demons in here," Faith reported without checking over her shoulder, assuming everyone was following and paying close attention. "Could be more. But they won't be expectin' us. Surprise'll give us the advantage. Still, be careful."

She passed an alleyway, where a formidable-looking demon with a snake's head and taloned hands was loitering. It glanced at Faith and its serpentine features pulled back into a smile, the forked tongue slithering along scaled lips in anticipation of a meal. No sooner had it taken the first step toward the street than another row of Slayers passed by, and then another. It examined the group intently, even holding up its hand to do some quick calculations on its fingers before reaching a definite conclusion. Slowly and quietly, so as to not draw any attention, it withdrew into the shadows and out of sight.

"Game plan," Faith continued. "We bust in, take down everything that ain't human. You fight in pairs, an' if you get in a jam, you yell. We stick to the entrance ‘til we see if we gotta back out for breathing room. Questions?"

None came, and the march continued in silence. The girls were all business; there was no chattering, no indication that this was anything less than a life-or-death situation. Their faces were set in grim, determined expressions.

"Score," noted Faith as they turned a corner and spotted the described building. It appeared innocent enough at a casual glance—the outside looked like nothing more than "The Broken Bottle" bar. Closer inspection, however, revealed that the large figure standing at the side door was not the bouncer he initially appeared to be. Instead, he was a burly demon, seven foot tall and not lightly built. He had just lit a cigarette and was holding it with his prehensile tongue. Taking a long drag, he settled back against the wall with closed eyes and a satisfied smile. Lazily, he opened his eyes again, and for the first time, his gaze settled on the small army of Slayers steadily approaching.

While he was well-endowed in the muscle and sinew department, he didn't seem particularly gifted, intellectually speaking. Even so, comprehension slowly dawned as he resolved the facts of the scene before him. His tongue involuntarily relaxed its grip, and the cigarette dropped to the ground.

The Slayers and the demon were now fully aware of each other, but while the former were approaching casually, if determinedly, the latter seemed paralyzed with indecision. Finally, common sense kicked in and he moved to open the basement door and make a run for it.

"Deborah, Paige, Kelly," was all Faith said.

The three girls raised their crossbows and each unleashed a single bolt with a unison of twangs. It was a harbinger of doom for the unlucky demon. As the missiles embedded themselves in his back, he crumpled to the ground without opportunity to even turn the handle.

"Nice job," Faith complimented, continuing the advance. "Reload."

Currently performing the important task of keeping the seat in his office warm, the Boss pulled back the lever on a small device in front of him. A sphere tied to the object was launched in an arc through the air, colliding with a plastic barrier rather than sailing through its hooped target. It ricocheted lamely to the side. The orb seemed to want very much to keep going, but was tethered in place, and so simply sat ineffectually on the desktop after a few half-hearted bounces. Reclaiming it, the Boss placed it back on the lever with care and tried again. Several times. In each instance, the ball failed to perform its sacred duty.

The Boss frowned and, although alone in his office, glanced around briefly to make sure he wouldn't be spotted. Quickly snatching the tiny basketball replica, he manually dropped it into the plastic basket. A series of primitive beeps ensued, and the Boss waved his hands in the air, cheering for himself. After a brief moment of this, all jubilation vanished, and his shoulders slumped.

"That was entirely unsatisfying," he muttered, darkly glaring at the machine.

The intercom chose to buzz at that moment, and as though grateful for a distraction, the Boss punched the button. "Yes?"

Marsha's voice came through clearly. "Sir, I thought you'd like to know: the Slayers have arrived."

His expression lit up. "Somebody actually captured Slayers? Real Slayers this time?"

"Real Slayers, yes sir. But not exactly captured. Instead, it appears as though we're being invaded and everyone is being killed." Despite the severity of the situation, her voice remained calm and pleasing, the mark of an excellent secretary.

Absently, the Boss flicked the lever again, and the ball sailed gracefully into the basket. A series of congratulatory beeps spewed forth from the game, but the Boss paid no heed. His skin turned a shade or two of paler red, verging on an unhealthy salmon color. "That's a significant difference," he finally stated.

"Yes, sir, it is."

With a sigh, the Boss steepled his fingers. "Contact PR. Tell them I'm going to need a new campaign. Really fast." He glanced warily at the closed office door. "And hold all of my calls."

"Yes, sir."

He clicked off the intercom, scooped up the electronic basketball game in a protective arm, and crawled under his desk to hide.

The secretary's description had proved accurate. Only a short distance outside of the Boss' office, the Slayers were indeed killing everyone. Demons poured out of the woodwork, only to have their blood or entrails pour away as they were sliced to ribbons. In a stunningly precognitive parallel to the "Know Your Enemies" presentation, Faith was brandishing a bloodied axe against all comers, demon bodies strewn about her. Her entourage exercised their skills in pairs, with two Slayers standing on the landing of the entrance, sending crossbow bolts sailing over their allies' heads as they picked off demons one at a time. The other Slayers had opted for melee combat, and were attacking with weapons and bare fists.

A pair of demons rushed the Dark Slayer, but found her axe at the ready; it neatly lopped off the head of one and in a smooth motion, buried itself in the other's chest. This wasn't enough to bring the demon down, so Faith yanked the axe free and, spinning back in the other direction, decapitated the second as well. The speed and ease with which she dispatched anything in her path made Faith not unlike the very image of a demon herself.

There had been little doubt about the outcome from the beginning, but those demons thinking they had a chance were quickly learning otherwise. Blood of varying colors spattered the area as the battle inevitably turned in favor of the Slayers. The final blow to demon morale came as two of the junior Slayers took down a hunched, three-hundred pound mass of power with only a pair of daggers. Most of the survivors lost their nerve and broke ranks to run for their lives. Those who stood their ground were quickly mowed down. Most of the attempted escapees soon joined their fallen brethren, as daggers, bolts, swords, axes and even a stray letter opener that had been swiped from the reception area sailed through the air after them.

The massacre wasn't absolute, and a tiny handful of minions managed to scamper off through exits and into the night, but the short battle was over for all intents and purposes. The Slayers stood, victorious.

Faith surveyed her troops. "Anybody hurt?"

One of the Juniors held up a hand. "I broke a nail."

"Buy some press-ons. Anybody else?"

They all shook their heads. Satisfied, Faith turned to the wreckage, surveying the area with interest. Despite numerous stains of blue, ochre and several unidentifiable fluids, the immense bulletin board remained the dominating fixture. Six pictures, similar in design to her own but of Buffy and the others, still hung prominently. Smaller, but far more numerous, were pictures of all manner of demonkind under the "Gone But Not Forgotten" section.

"Hey, I think I remember that guy," Faith mused to herself, peering closely at the image of creature resembling a large bull, sporting a mohawk and proudly wearing a ‘Horny For You' t-shirt.

"Looks like liver was on next week's potluck menu," Lynn observed from another wall hanging. "And... Kitten chow." She looked to Faith hesitantly. "They're talking about cat food, right?"

"Must be nice livin' in your world," the Senior Slayer smirked. She shook her head at the board. "Man, this is just messed up. Shame B had to miss out on this."

At that moment, Buffy was engaged in a different manner of battle. The living room television patiently scrolled a list of channels that seemed indefatigable, but her eyes were narrowed as she stared at Willow, Xander and Dawn, who were similarly glaring at her and each other.

Buffy's finger jutted out at Xander. "We are not watching ‘Voyager'."

"But it's the episode where the doctor makes a hologram of this woman to save her life and falls in love with the hologram," he defended stubbornly. "It's a classic."

"Yes, and it's a classic that you can watch with an antenna. We have satellite now. We should be watching satellite-worthy things," the blonde admonished. "Like ‘Sabado Gigante'."

"What?" exclaimed Dawn, gaping at her sister. "That's a Spanish show."

The Slayer blinked, clearly waiting for the point. Meanwhile, the screen cheerfully suggested any one of eleven different flavors of ‘Law and Order', but no one took interest.

"Aaaaand, it's not in English?" Dawn continued. "You don't speak Spanish. You don't even know what the title means."

"I do so!" protested Buffy. "It means... Uhh... ‘Big Sabado.'" She crossed her arms defiantly. "And you should be supporting my attempts to be multicultural."

"You can absorb other cultures and watch ‘Iron Chef'," countered the teenager. "And hey, you might absorb how to cook while you're at it."

"Oo!" Willow interrupted, eyes fixed on the screen. "The Learning Channel has a documentary on nanotechnology put together by the British about German and Swiss researchers." She beamed at her discovery and turned to the others. "That's three times the multicultural goodness."

A far cry from the enthusiastic response she was expecting, the others looked at Willow as though she had suggested impaling themselves in the thigh with a salad fork would be a nifty way to spend the evening.

Willow rolled her eyes in disgust. "Oh, so a ‘Star Trek' episode you've seen a dozen times, a very strange and incomprehensible foreign variety show, and a cooking contest with—" she glanced briefly at the onscreen guide before turning back "—conger eels is okay, but an actual learning experience? That gets me the crazy girl look?"

Xander raised his forefinger pointedly. "It's worth mentioning that ‘Voyager' has the Kazon, Trabe, Ocampa, and a bunch of races I can't even pronounce without a second tongue. You wanna talk culture? And they're light years beyond nanotechnology."

The final straw having been laid upon the burdened camel's back, negotiations broke down, the four arguing voices blending to form an incoherent yet tasty babble soup. For all intents and purposes, each appeared content to keep up the fight until the others gave in or fell unconscious from exhaustion, but the satellite had other ideas.

A brief spurt of static danced across the screen. As one, four heads turned to regard it, hoping against hope that their imaginations were playing a cruel trick. A second flicker appeared, bringing jitter along with. Four expressions dissolved from irritation into a hesitant, almost begging stare, but their silent pleas availed them not. The picture quickly degenerated, resulting in complete static after a few seconds and then the dreaded ‘NO SIGNAL'.

A collective groan sounded through the house. "Not again!" lamented Dawn.

Willow was grim. "You know what this means."

Buffy jerked her thumb at the ceiling. "Okay, Xander, back outside. We need our fix, so you need to fix."

Grudgingly, Xander resigned himself to his fate and dragged himself toward the door, sighing heavily. "Suddenly, I'm thinking an evening of throwing myself off the roof would be more enjoyable."

Into the decimated and vacant ruins of the once mighty and proud organization stepped the Boss. He carefully picked his way through bodies, broken tables, crumbling cubicle walls, and chunks of concrete and plaster. Everything was wreckage and rubble as far as the eye could see. Somehow, despite there having been no fires lit whatsoever, smoke wafted through the ruins, pleased to be able to provide ambiance.

From the other side of the carnage, Norg approached, either freed or escaped from captivity. Hesitantly, he approached the Boss, who was kneeling down to fish something from the debris.

"Why did they have to break our ‘Best Up and Coming Force of Darkness' plaque?" the leader asked with a heavy sigh as he examined the splintered remains in his hand. "That was just harsh."

Norg happened upon an unscathed table near one side of the room. Astonished, he walked over to it. After a single touch with his finger, however, it instantly collapsed into a heap of fractured legs and splintered boards. Norg regarded it with an ‘of course' expression.

"Doth our inthuranthe cover acth of Thlayer?"

The Boss shook his head. "Somehow I doubt it. Those underwriter guys are sneakier than I am."

Rising to his feet, the Boss put his hands on his hips, surveying the wreckage again. "Maybe it's time to look into a new line of business," he mused aloud before making his way toward the exit.

Following at his side, Norg considered. "Cuthtomer Thervithe, perhapth?"

A visible shiver ran through his leader's body. "Ugh, no. Even I'm not that evil."

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