And apologies for not responding to comments. I will get to them.
All parts can be found here.
Continued from Part 2A.
Thanks to his pot of doubleplusstrong coffee, a hot shower, and a shave that miraculously didn’t result in him cutting his own throat, Xander was feeling something resembling human, or at least human-ish enough to realize that he could’ve been just a little bit more polite to the two Slayers that crossed his path already.
Yikes. He’d have to apologize, even though he knew from personal experience that doing it would be fraught with peril, especially given his current state of mind. He was so tired and stressed out that the filter between Id and mouth was not exactly working right. Chances were pretty good he’d manage to screw it up and insult the two Slayers even more.
First, though, he’d have to try to find out their names. For the life of him, he couldn’t remember what they were. Then he’d have to find a way to apologize to them in front of witnesses, since personal experience told him that was the safest course of action.
He checked his travel alarm to see how much time he had left before the meeting, only to discover that he had five minutes to make it. He shot out of his room and walked quickly down the hallway to the stairs. After getting turned around a few times on the first floor, he made to the Head Watcher’s office with a minute to spare.
He paused before entering and silently cursed. He’d hoped to get to the Head Watcher early so he could ask her some pointed questions about who had identified their problem demon as the one from Rwanda. If Andrew had gotten there before him, there was no polite or subtle way he could ask the question.
When he opened the door, the sight before him was both good news and bad news. The good: Andrew hadn’t showed yet. The bad: Faith was already slouched in a chair. The really bad: the Head Watcher was chatting with Faith like they were on friendly terms.
As he closed the door behind him, Faith said, “Yo, Harris.”
“Unh, yo yourself,” Xander muttered as he shoved his hands in his pockets.
To his surprise, Faith got out of her seat and made a formal introduction. “Bernie, this is Xander Harris. Knew him back in the day from the SunnyD. I guarantee he’ll get to the bottom of this. Harris? This here is Bernadette Turner. Bernie’s been the Head Watcher of this house from the start. Me and Robin did the initial scouting around for her so she could pick the best location for the house.”
Xander was bowled over by Faith’s diplomatic social butterfly act. He couldn’t imagine the Faith he remembered ever doing something like this, let alone saying anything actually nice about him on top of it. He highly suspected that Faith didn’t believe a damn word she said about him, but Madame Turner didn’t know that. Robin was obviously a good influence on her.
“Hey, sorry about not checking in with you myself last night,” Xander said as he crossed the room and held out his hand. “I wasn’t the most coherent person on the planet.”
“It’s quite all right, Mr. Harris,” the Watcher said as she shook his hand. “I understand that you flew here before you had a chance to catch your breath. I take it the problem in Bangkok has been resolved satisfactorily?”
“Just Xander, please,” Xander said as he backed up a step.
“Only if you call me Bernie,” the woman said as she took her seat.
“Bernie,” Xander acknowledged with a nod. He noticed that for some reason Faith was still on her feet. “The emergency in Bangkok turned out to be human evil as opposed to supernatural evil. Niran, he’s the Head Watcher in Bangkok, had a feeling they were being zoomed, but couldn’t prove it because the locals clammed up when his people started nosing around. They needed someone no one knew to come in, blend with the Western sex tourists, and check out the deal.”
“Pity you wasted the trip,” Bernie remarked.
Xander paused and mentally rehearsed his answer. The last thing he needed was to say something rude to the Chicago Head Watcher and add her to the growing list of people he alienated since landing at O’Hare. He was just putting together a diplomatic response when Faith, again to his utter shock, stepped up to the plate.
“Ain’t a wasted trip if he cracked the case and stopped people from dyin’, right?” Faith asked.
Bernie winced. “You’re right. I didn’t mean for that to sound like it did.”
The Watcher’s apology said a lot about where she stood on what some Watchers vaguely called “collateral damage as a result of protective action.” It was a small thing, really, but it was big enough that Xander was able to relax.
“It’s okay. Human law, not our business, yada yada. I know the drill,” Xander said. “All I did was put a stop to a scam where the mob claimed to have a soul-eating ghost on retainer as an enforcer. Since there’s not a lot I can do about the ongoing protection racket this gangster was running, I technically didn’t step over the line. Besides, going to the police,” Xander shrugged, “wouldn’t do any good. The gang targeted illegal brothels with underage girls that catered to the Western pedophile demographic, so it wasn’t like they were clamoring for official help. The most I did was just put a temporary halt to the scam to shake down the illegals. The only good news, if you can call it that, is that they probably won’t try pretending they’ve got supernatural firepower in the next protection scheme.”
“A rather unhappy happy ending if you ask me,” Bernie agreed.
“The whole trip was depressing, and not just because of the murders,” Xander said with a shudder. “The only bright spot in my week was I got to watch Clem put the fear of demons in a bunch of ganstas who were armed to the teeth. All he had to do was smile and most of them ran screaming into the night.”
“Clem? No shit.” Faith grinned. “They must’ve known shit-all about demons if Clem scared the piss out of them. So, how is the kitten addict?”
“Enjoying my vacation in Bermuda,” Xander grumbled.
Bernie and Faith exchanged glances.
“Shit. You gave up your vacation to come here?” Faith asked.
Xander was sure that he imagined the sympathetic way Faith asked that. Either way, he really didn’t want to talk about it, especially since it would sound like he was whining, even though his last vacation involved a hospital stay post-Caleb eye poke-age. Besides, he needed to take advantage of Andrew being elsewhere.
“Actually, before we get off topic, I need to ask you who actually eyeballed your demon,” Xander said.
“No, Andrew wasn’t the one who saw the Emokillsus,” Bernie sighed.
Xander managed not to wince on hearing the demon’s name. “Ahhh, so you’ve already figured out that as far as eyewitnesses go, Andrew is the guy you never put on the stand.”
“Sussed that out the first day he was here,” Bernie said with an impish grin that lit up her face. “Still, I can honestly say that I’d be hard-pressed to find a better administrative assistant. Furthermore, his cooking skills, barring those hideous Christmas cookies of his, are first rate.”
“Just keep him away from the magic books,” Xander said.
“And the weapons, and the training area, or any other mystical gee-gaw and hoo-haw you trip over,” Faith added with a wicked grin. When Xander looked questioningly at her, she added, “I’ve been hearin’ the stories. That email Willow sent out after Brasilia went boom? Classic. Just readin’ it made me want to block my ears. Never knew you could yell like that in an email.”
“They had to shave Willow’s head,” Xander said.
Faith coughed to cover the laugh.
“At least the scalp burns were only minor,” Xander added. “Kennedy’s skin was this shiny coppery color for a month. From what I understand, there are still patches of skin that refuses to revert back to flesh tone. Bikini-wearing is totally out until they can fix it.”
Faith whooped as she doubled over with laughter. “No wonder why they hauled Andy’s ass out of Brazil,” she said between gasping breaths.
“Back to the Emokillsus before Andrew arrives,” Bernie interrupted.
“Sorry,” Xander apologized while Faith brought herself under control.
“As it so happens, the demon and its handlers were spotted by Terri, Kristen, and Helen,” Bernie continued. “All three girls are level-headed as a rule. Terri especially isn’t prone to jump at shadows. She’s more the sort who automatically starts poking and prodding if she thinks something doesn’t look or sound right. The only more reliable eyewitness would’ve been myself or LaTisha, my Lead Slayer.”
“Had the girls been reading up on exotic demons before this?” Xander asked. “I ask because it’s happened to me twice before. Slayers start getting into the weird-demons-they’ll-probably-never-meet part of the curriculum, and next thing you know they’re seeing them everywhere.”
“LaTisha and Terri are the only two who’ve advanced far enough for that course. Even though I considered it, I highly doubt it, in large part because of Terri’s personality,” Bernie answered. “Besides, none of the three girls immediately identified the Emokillsus as such. They came back with a description, and nothing more. It was in the Watchers’ investigations that we uncovered the likely culprit.”
Xander ran a nervous hand through his hair. It sounded like Bernie and company had done due diligence before sounding the alarm. Even so, it had to be a case of misidentification. Before he could open his mouth to ask more questions, there was a knock at the door.
“That must be Andrew,” Bernie said before she raised her voice and invited, “Come in!”
“Sorry I’m late,” Andrew said as he rushed through the door. “Some of the girls needed a little pep talk for the battle ahead.”
Andrew immediately engulfed him in a hug that bordered on a squeeze. “It’s nothing. I think some of the girls are nervous about meeting you.”
“Andrew? Need oxygen,” Xander said.
“Sorry.” Andrew stepped back, but left his hands resting on Xander forearms in such a way that Xander was half-tempted to ask Andrew if he was about to give him a kiss. “It’s been so long since I’ve seen you, the wounded, world-weary traveler.”
“I’m not—” Xander began.
“You’re looking tired. I should brew you my extra-special coffee, which I don’t keep in the kitchen because then all the Slayers get into it and they’re bouncing off the walls, poor girls. It’ll wake you right up,” Andrew continued babbling. “Have you talked to Willow recently? I hope she’s still not mad. That was a total accident. You know I’d never hurt her on purpose, right?”
Xander jumped in the minute Andrew took a breath. “I know, Andrew. As for Willow, she’s finally calmed—”
“Oh, good!” Andrew grinned. “I was afraid she was still mad. Maybe I should send her some cookies for Christmas, to show my honorable intentions.”
“That’s really not—” Xander began.
“And, Faith!” Andrew spun away from Xander and began heading for the Slayer. “How are you?”
“Bloated. Cranky. I’m on the friggin’ rag, Andy-boy. How the fuck do you think I feel?” Faith asked with a growl.
Xander choked. “TMI, Faith!”
“And it’s colder than a witch’s tit out there. Good thing I just hauled my ass from Anchorage, ’cause I at least got the threads to keep the cooch from freezing, otherwise my mood would really be in the toilet.” Faith added with a scowl at Andrew. “So, I’m warnin’ ya now. I’ll break your arms off and beat you to death with them if you even think of touching me.”
Andrew squeaked and looked pleadingly at Bernie. While Andrew was distracted, Faith grinned at Xander and gave him a broad wink.
Oh, that’s so not fair. Faith can play that card whenever she wants. I need a squishy red card like that, Xander sourly thought.
“Please excuse, Faith. She had a rather rough flight into Chicago the other day,” Bernie smoothly told Andrew.
Andrew nervously smiled, but resisted the urge to hug Faith. “Oh. Unh. Well, I am glad to see you, Faith, even though you’re,” here he lowered his voice, “not well.” He stepped back and added in a louder voice, “I’m trying out this tea that I found at the local Chinese herbalists’. It helps with all those little aches and pains during that time of the month.”
“I can’t imagine a worse idea,” Xander said.
“I go with him to the herbalists and supervise the purchases,” Bernie said meaningfully to Xander.
“Bernie’s taught me so much about Chinese herbs and their uses.” Andrew was practically vibrating with joy. “My head has 63.4% more knowledge than it did before I got here.”
Xander resisted the urge to ask how Andrew knew even down to the decimal point that his brain had that much more knowledge. He almost envied the guy. Something had to be said for actually feeling smarter the more you traveled, as opposed to feeling increasingly dumber and more ignorant like, say, himself on any given day.
“Andrew, we do need to start the meeting,” Bernie said as she held out a pad of paper and a pen.
“Yes, ma capitaine,” Andrew said with a salute as he took the pad and pen. He settled into a nearby chair and waited expectantly with intense expression on his face.
Xander self-consciously cleared his throat and began. “I read your reports on the plane ride over. While it seems like you’ve done everything you could to confirm that you have a Rwandan demon here, there are a couple of things that make me think that it might still be a case of misidentification.”
“So it might not be an Emu. Iiiiiiiinteresting,” Andrew commented as he scribbled.
“Emu?” Xander asked in a confused manner.
“He means Emokillsus,” Bernie said.
“Yeah. Right. Okay.” Xander shifted uncomfortably.
“Mind sharing why you think so with the rest of the class? And are ya gonna sit at some point?” Faith asked.
Xander startled. “Oh. Sit. Sitting good.” He immediately took possession of one of the padded chairs in front of Bernie’s desk. Faith waited until he was settled before flopping back into the chair she had been sitting in when Xander first walked into the room.
“I’m rather hoping that it is a case of misidentification,” Bernie said as both Faith and Xander sat. “And let me add my voice to Faith’s request in asking why you believe it to be the case.”
“Well, first off, the location is wrong. These demons pretty much are all Rwanda, all the time,” Xander explained. “Now if they were spotted in a country next door, like say, I dunno, the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Uganda, it wouldn’t even be an issue. But this is practically on the other side of the world in a climate that’s so alien to them that I just can’t see how one of these things would be able to survive.”
Faith leaned forward and rested her elbows on her knees. “Hmmm, Rwanda’s gotta be a hell of a lot hotter than Christmastime Chicago, so right there I can see what you’re saying.”
“The theory is that climate’s part of it,” Xander nodded. “The bigger part is that, unh, Chicago hasn’t exactly been an epicenter of tragedy recently.”
“We do have gangs and other big city ills,” Bernie frowned.
“But Chicago hasn’t hosted a genocide that wiped out a million people, give or take, in the past 10 or 15 years,” Xander said. “And Chicago hasn’t been involved in any wars both before and after said genocide, right?”
Andrew dropped his pen. Faith and Bernie openly stared at him. Xander had to fight against hunching his shoulders under the weight of their stares.
“I remember putting this theory in my original report.” His voice sounded just a little bit strangled.
“What theory is this?” Faith demanded.
“You didn’t read the report?” Xander sharply asked her.
Faith managed to put on a contrite face. “I started, but zonked out somewhere on page two, so I gotta lean on you for all my intel. I’ll get it in later. If I got any questions after I read it, I’ll hit you up.”
“The Emokillus are attracted to violence,” Bernie explained as Andrew broke out of his paralysis and scrambled to retrieve his pen. “I simply assumed that, due to Chicago’s crime rate, we had met that criteria.”
Xander swallowed. “You’re not even close. You’d need mind-blowing, this-can’t-possibly-be-real, civilization-shattering, human-on-human violence to come close. And it isn’t so much the violence, it’s the aftermath when you’ve got people walking around with psychological scars. The worse the memories are, the stronger the attraction. Willow described it best. It’s like there’s this psychic scream in the aftermath and that’s really where these demons’ happy hunting grounds are.”
Faith let out a low whistle. “They like bloodshed that leaves a million people dead? A million people?”
“In three months,” Xander quietly added as he stared at his fingernails and willed his own little psychic scream over remembering all the stories he heard to go away.
“When did this happen?” Andrew asked. For once, he sounded genuinely and sincerely upset.
“Back in ’94.” Xander shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “And no, I didn’t know it was happening at the time. Hell, I didn’t even know it happened until I hit the country. In 1994, I was in seventh grade and worried about Tommy Kaye shoving me in my locker and slamming the door shut, so not much with the global awareness at that age.”
“A million people.” Faith seemed to be stuck on that point. “That’s one hell of a psychic scream.”
“Well, Rwanda did get sucked into two wars right after that. In the Congo. So it’s more like a million dead with repeated body blows on the population after that,” Xander said.
Bernie pinched her nose in a way that achingly reminded Xander of Giles. “In short, an Emokillsus would more likely be found in Cambodia or the Balkans or in Iraq than they would in Chicago. It’s no wonder you have serious doubts about the report.”
Faith held up her hands. “I don’t wanna hear it. Let’s focus on a horror I can actually kill, okay?”
“There’s more,” Xander said.
“Well, I’ve been running out of new and interestin’ nightmares,” Faith remarked. “Let’s get it over with. How bad?”
Xander could feel that his smile was strained. “Actually, I think the rest of this will be easier to handle. It’s mostly a list of what the Council eggheads have been able to figure out while observing them in the wild.”
Faith glared at him. “You make it sound like Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom.”
“Yes, but Marlin Perkins didn't kill the animals he observed in the wild and we do,” Xander pointed out.
“I believe Xander misspoke,” Bernie shot him an amused glance. “What he means is what the Council Watchers and Slayers observe about these creatures in the course of hunting them down.”
Faith immediately relaxed and grinned. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to get in your face like that. I just had this mental picture of all these Watchers hanging around with cameras to catch one of the newest demons on the block on film and doing shit-all to stop it.”
Xander blinked. He knew that Faith, in theory, apologized to people. It’s just that she had never apologized to him.
“Okay, I’m caught up on my notes,” Andrew announced. “I’m ready to record new information.”
Xander startled. He had forgotten that Andrew was even there. “Right. Back to the other reasons why I think this was a misidentification. First, let me just make sure I’ve got my facts right.”
Bernie nodded encouragement.
“Your Slayers were chasing four vampires and lost them on the grounds of a storage place. They were skulking around and looking for their guys when they see a 7-foot tall demon shaped like a floating jellyfish, color black, with one glowing blue eye right in the center of where a face would be if a jellyfish had one.”
“Which is precisely the description we have of the Emokillsus,” Bernie said.
God, I wish she’d stop using that name. “They also saw that it was being herded through the area by several people wielding halogen flashlights and one guy chanting something that sounded like a spell in Italian,” Xander continued. “Right then, once of the vampires tried to grab one of your Slayers from behind. She flipped him onto his back and staked him.”
“That was Helen,” Bernie nodded.
“Even though the scuffle took about a minute or two, by the time the girls got their act together, they had lost their demon and people surrounding it,” Xander finished. “Believing that the demon and friends had probably ducked into one of the storage units, they looked around, but couldn’t find anything. Then they came back here to report what they saw. Repeated trips to the storage facility haven’t turned up anything, but a quick hack into the records revealed that the facility is owned by a holding company that is owned in a roundabout way by some nasty characters, namely the DiBennedito crime syndicate.”
“That is the nut of it,” Bernie nodded again.
“Well, the only thing that even vaguely points to you being right is the physical description of what they saw, and the fact that they were keeping it boxed up by halogen flashlights,” Xander said.
Faith smirked. “These things are scared of flashlights?”
“Halogen light. It doesn’t matter if it’s a flashlight, headlights, or a lamp. Halogen makes them back off, but doesn’t kill them,” Xander answered. “It’s the same principle as waving a cross at a vampire. They back off just far enough to get out of reach, but doesn’t throw them off their game so much that they’re not working out a way to get around you. To get them to retreat, you’d need to basically create a wall of halogen light between them and their target.”
“Got it,” Faith snapped a nod. “So, tell me how to kill it.”
Xander waggled a hand. “That’s where it gets a little bit tricky, and that’s where we get into the whole bit where I point out why I don’t think this demon is a Rwandan demon.”
“Yes,” Bernie prompted.
“First off, these demons always hunt in packs of three or four at night,” Xander explained. “Your Slayers only saw one.”
“It could be possible that the others were already in whatever storage bay this one was being taken to,” Bernie frowned.
Xander shook his head. “Near as I can figure out, and as far as anyone studying them has ever seen, they’re always in a crowd. The going theory is that they’re either family groups or linked on some mystical level. A lone wolf has never been seen in this species.”
“Near as I can tell, they’re new to us, so just ’cause we ain’t seen it yet, doesn’t mean it can’t happen,” Faith pointed out.
Xander hated the fact that it was a good point, although he wasn’t sure if it was because Faith was the one who made it, or if it was because he really, really wanted a misidentification. “The other thing is that between feedings, these things sink into the soil. The only time they pop up is when their prey step right on top of them. And by the way, they don’t even leave a hole in the ground when they pop up or sink back down, either.”
“Like demonic landmine only without hurting the environment,” Andrew murmured as he took notes.
“If you don’t count killing people as hurting the environment, I guess that works,” Xander said through clenched teeth.
Andrew grinned. “Why thank you, Xander.”
“Unh. Yeah.” Xander shook his head over the fact that Andrew missed his point. “Your Slayers saw it traveling above ground. These demons just don’t do that. For all we know, they travel underground during the day or between feedings. But above ground? Even at night? No.”
Faith snapped her fingers. “Maybe the spell kept it from sinking out of sight?”
Xander looked at Bernie. “How did the Slayers know it was a spell?”
“Kristin is bi-lingual in English and Italian. From what I gather, her mother spoke it to her as a child,” Bernie answered. “From what she was able to hear, it sounded rather like a spell, although if pressed she’s not willing to swear to it since the only time she’s ever heard spells were if they were spoken in Latin or English.”
Xander winced. “Even so, it makes her better qualified than most to say it was a spell.”
“Still could be a misidentification, though,” Faith said with frown.
Xander shot her look. “I think I’m getting whiplash. First you’re poking holes in my theory that you’ve got it wrong, now you’re backing me up.”
Faith didn’t seem to be insulted. “Just checkin’ out all the angles before we go on the attack.”
Wow. Robin really was a good influence. Faith thinking before staking? This was something completely new. Okay, Faith showed some skill at thinking first before jumping into trouble when she temporarily stepped into Buffy’s shoes back in Sunnydale, but this was a whole different level.
“Fair enough,” Xander carefully said. “So, I’m waiting to hear your argument for why I’m right.”
“Seems to me that if this thing goes below ground between meals, stashing it storage space won’t do much good,” Faith shrugged. “It could still sink through the floor.”
“Ahhhh, that’s where you’re wrong,” Xander corrected her. “It can only sink into the soil. The second it gets on top of anything like cement or asphalt, it has to retreat to bare ground before it can pull its earthworm trick.”
“Which explains why it would be traveling above ground,” Bernie interrupted. “There’s no bare earth inside this storage complex. The whole area is paved over with asphalt.”
“And the storage space would have a cement floor,” Faith pointed out.
Xander didn’t like the fact that this was sounding more and more possible the longer they talked. “Even so, they still have to get that demon from Rwanda to here.” Xander hoped he didn’t sound desperate. “I can’t even begin to imagine how even one got captured alive, let alone transported without hitting some bare earth where it could make its escape.”
“Can’t be captured, but can be killed, right?” Faith asked slowly.
Xander nodded. “The way these things feed is like this: innocent person with massive amount of PTSD or mental trauma steps on top of where they’re hiding. They pop up around the person, essentially putting their victim in the middle of the group. They swipe the person with their tentacles. The person then lives every bad memory they’ve got all at the same time. Sometimes they go catatonic, and sometimes they get incoherently violent in an effort to get away before they drop like stone to the ground. It depends on the person, I think. Then, tentacles plunge into the person, and they start sucking out the life force. When they’re done, all that’s left is a dried husk. If there’s someone else within a yard or two with equally sucky or worse memories, they go for meal number two.”
“Yikes,” Andrew shuddered as he scribbled away.
“Their limit seems to be three,” Xander continued. “Once they hit three, or they run out of people with equally bad mental trauma, whichever comes first, they sink back into the ground to hunt another day.”
“Still waiting for the how to kill them part,” Faith said.
“When they’re feeding, they’re distracted,” Xander explained. “You can yell, scream, holler, run right through the tentacles, slash at them with a sword. Nothing works.”
Faith frowned. “Wait. Run right through the tentacles?”
“They’re mostly incorporeal,” Bernie explained. “In essence, and please correct me if I’m wrong Xander, they are literally shadows.”
“Like the shadows of Z’ha’dum,” Andrew muttered.
Xander ignored him. “Except right in the dead center of the shadow. That part’s physical. Problem is that it’s a very small part that’s basically constantly moving around the shadow’s center.”
“Like a light bee!” Andrew excitedly exclaimed.
“A what?” Faith asked as she turned her frown on Andrew.
“A light bee, like Rimmer had in Red Dwarf back when he was a hologram?” Andrew explained in a rush. “Except now that Rimmer is human, he doesn’t have a light bee any more. But when he was a hologram, it was basically this little metal ball that moved around inside his hologrammatic body and he was projected around it.”
Faith looked to Xander. “Does that even make sense to you?”
“Figures,” Faith grumbled as she folded her arms.
Xander grit his teeth and told himself not to take it personally. “Yes, Andrew, you got it right. Now I need to translate for the geek impaired.”
Andrew squeaked his happiness and began scribbling away.
“Faith? I want you to think of the biggest, fluffiest Persian cat you can possibly imagine,” Xander began.
“Okay,” Faith said suspiciously.
“Now, imagine shaving that cat,” Xander continued.
“Only if I got me an army backing me up, but okay,” Faith said.
“And in the center of that cat is a smallest mouse you can imagine. Except, instead of having a head, tail, and feet, it’s just the mouse body that’s constantly moving around right about where the cat’s heart would be,” Xander concluded.
Faith nodded as comprehension dawned. “So basically, you’ve got this tiny demon bouncing around in the center of this big shadow.”
Xander let out a relieved breath. “Exactly. In order to kill it, you have to walk into that shadow, feel around with your hands until you capture this squirmy little thing that’s about ten inches long and five inches around, and squeeze with everything you got.”
Faith licked her lips and regarded Xander through hooded eyes. “Too easy. There’s a catch.”
“First, you have to push your way into the center. There’s some resistance that slows you down. It’s not as slow as molasses to move around in there, but it’s pretty close. Second, you’re completely blind. It’s pitch black inside that shadow,” Xander said. “Then, you have to capture the physical part of the demon before it sucks all of the life force out the person it’s feeding on, and they suck it out pretty fast. From the time they plug in to the time the person’s dead, you’ve got eight minutes, tops, to capture and kill it. Otherwise, your person is dead and you’re left feeling around for a demon that’s already sunk back into the ground. Keep in mind, in that eight minutes, you’ve got to repeat the process for three or four demons.”
Faith blew a breath through her pursed lips. “One Slayer can’t do it, let alone one regular joe.”
“On this point I am confused,” Bernie said. “The demons won’t turn on their attackers and attempt to feed off them?”
“No. That’s because they feed through their tentacles.” Xander wiggled his fingers to illustrate. “So, the good news, they don’t plunge their tentacles into themselves to get at you. The bad news, once the feed is done, they become aware that you’re there. Even if they’ve got a person with really bad memories nearby, they just sink back into the ground to escape you.”
“So unless they’re feeding, they’re utterly passive,” Bernie remarked.
Xander nodded. “There’s more.”
“More bad news, I bet,” Faith said.
“While you’re in there, you get…unh…flashes,” Xander said.
“Flashes?” Bernie asked.
Xander was back to looking at his fingernails. This part was hard to explain. “Remember what I said about them triggering every bad memory a person’s ever had to incapacitate their victims?”
“Yeah,” Faith slowly said.
“You don’t get the full brunt, but you do pick up on some of it,” Xander said. “A scene here and there. Not really full sound and color, but…enough.”
Faith paled. Bernie looked grim. Andrew kept scribbling.
“Shit. So you saw…” Faith began. Her voice trailed off when Xander’s head shot back up and he looked at her.
The tense silence held until Xander cleared his throat and he looked at Bernie. “It was a smart move, calling for backup.”
“Protocol. This demon has a five black-star rating. Unless there’s an apocalypse on the horizon, one contacts the Council so they can send in additional expertise,” Bernie said.
“Yeah, well, sounds to me like these demons go in after an apocalypse happens,” Faith remarked. “Which means I’m startin’ to lean towards Xander’s view. Unless Chicago’s body count if a hell of a lot higher than the papers are sayin’, ain’t no way that demon can be one of those things from Rwanda.”
The funny thing was that Xander was less sure than he was before the meeting started that Bernie and her Slayers were wrong.
The remainder of the meeting was dedicated to logistics. Xander proposed and immediately got support for setting up a stakeout of the storage facility in lieu of running in blind with stakes blazing.
His insistence that he do it alone, however, ran into resistance. Frankly, if this demon was one of his Rwandan monsters, he wanted to expose the Slayers to it as little as possible, at least until after he had a chance to get a look at everyone’s personnel file. As for Faith, he already knew that he didn’t want her within a million miles of it, and was doing everything in his power to convince her that he could do a stakeout on his own.
Unfortunately, Faith and Bernie weren’t budging. It didn’t help that they had a pretty good weapon to use against him. He was already in the realm of exhausted where it would be so easy to make a mistake.
In the end, they struck a compromise. At no time was he or his stakeout buddy to approach the demon if they saw it. Instead, they’d follow from a distance and try to figure out if it was a look-alike or the real deal. Finding out why a bunch of people were seemingly keeping it as a pet was low on the agenda, but if they happened to find out it would be a bonus.
Score one for the Xan-man.
Unfortunately it didn’t feel too much like a victory. Faith was going to be his stakeout buddy. In the morning, Terri — one of the Slayers who had spotted it — and Susan would relieve them and take over. Then it was Faith and him again after sunset.
So much for keeping Faith a million miles away from it. Worse, it was shaping up that she’d be his shadow from sundown to sunrise.
The meeting broke up with Andrew promising to make Xander a monster thermos of his world famous “extra-special coffee” before he and Faith headed out to scout the area and dig in for their stakeout; Bernie insisting that they program the house’s emergency line into their cells “just in case;” and Xander promising he’d take a two-hour power nap.
He hoped it wasn’t obvious that he was crossing his fingers behind his back when he promised that power nap.
Andrew was the first to leave, mumbling that he had to enter his notes tout suite into the house’s computer system while it was all fresh in his mind. Xander made his escape while Bernie and Faith exchanged pleasantries.
As Xander stood at the base of the stairs and pondered how he could best stall so he could walk back into Bernie’s office without being seen, Faith popped into the hall.
“Hey. Glad I caught you before you headed up,” she grinned as she sauntered over to him.
Xander hoped his answering smile didn’t look like a grimace. “No, I’m not going ditch you and head to the storage place by myself.”
Faith snorted. “Like to see you try. ’Sides, I know better where we’re goin’ than you do.”
She had him there.
“Anyways, I wanna run something by you,” she continued. “I was thinkin’ of maybe putting together a little training exercise for the girls, y’know, to prepare them for feeling around for little demons in the dark.”
Xander raised an eyebrow. He was surprised that Faith was already thinking that far ahead. “Well, we don’t even know if we’re up against Rwandan demons.”
“True ’nuff,” Faith shrugged. “But the way I figure it, if we are, it’s better if we’re prepared. If it we’re not, a little training like that ain’t gonna do no harm.”
“Okay. What’s the training idea?”
“Based on what you said these things are like, here was my brain blast for an exercise.” Faith crossed her arms as she leaned against a wall. “I was gonna nudge one of the girls to point me to the stash of condoms and then I was gonna fill all those puppies with water.”
Xander nodded. Every Council house had either a hidden or not-so-hidden stash of condoms. The relative hidden-ness of the condoms depended heavily on where the house was located, the local view of unmarried women having sex, and average age of the Slayers. Since this was Chicago, said condoms were probably located in some central location where all the girls could easily get to them.
“Then, I was going to find a string or a small rope, tie one end to the condom and fling the other end over a pipe or a beam or somethin’, you know, like those piñatas you see in Mexico,” Faith continued. “From there, I draw a circle on the floor, blindfold one of the girls, spin ’em around like they’re gonna play pin the tail on the donkey, and walk ’em into the circle. While they’re trying to catch and squeeze the condom, I’ll be working the free end of the rope makin’ it swing around and raising and lowering it.”
Xander was stunned. “That’s, unh, that’s a pretty good idea. That’s about as close as you can get to the experience, actually.”
“Yeah,” Faith wrinkled her nose. “Can’t figure out to fake the situation so they’re up against resistance while trying to catch it. Can’t figure out how to do the psychic friends’ network flashes neither.” She paused and looked at him speculatively. “And I ain’t too sure I wanna. So give it to me straight. These flashes. How bad are they while you’re feeling around in the dark?”
Xander clenched his hands behind his back. “Bad enough. Worse if you’re tentacle bait.”
Faith’s body went very still, but her eyes were actively scrutinizing him in a way that made him feel very uncomfortable. “Did one of these things get you?”
“No,” he shortly said. “I know just based on what I’d seen from the survivors.”
Faith jumped on that. “Survivors? Way you were talking, I thought death was pretty much the only option unless the demons were killed at light speed.”
“Line of halogens, remember?” Xander said. “Get a big enough crew, you can get the demons to back off far enough so you can get the victim out of there. We managed to save a handful of people, but—”
“Not enough to help you sleep at night. I hear that,” Faith nodded. “Still, good to know. Another weapon in the bag of tricks can’t hurt.”
“The best option is to not get caught,” Xander snapped.
“Whoa.” Faith held up her hands. “I was just saying—”
“Because I’m telling you right now, whoever gets caught doesn’t snap out right away,” Xander said in a growl. “They’re stuck living all their least favorite memories for days afterwards. Then, if they manage to not go insane, there’s the physical recovery. At least three or four days. I can’t be here that long to nurse someone back to health. I can be here a week. Two, tops. After that, I have got to go, or—” Realizing just in time that he was about to say too much, Xander snapped his mouth shut.
Not soon enough, as it turned out. “Or what?” Faith asked.
Xander mentally scrambled to find a good excuse, because the can of worms he almost opened would’ve resulted in a conversation he didn’t want to have with someone he didn’t particularly like. “Another mission,” he said lamely. “I’ve got to head off to, unh, actually I can’t tell you where I’m going. But Giles needs me to do my snoopy thing, which, well, isn’t a shock. I mean, it is in my job description since I’m a field scout and all.”
Faith didn’t look like she completely bought it, but it was pretty obvious she wasn’t going to push. Xander knew it was probably because she really didn’t really care one way or the other about his busy and wacky travel itinerary. Now that he thought about it, his quick cover-up probably wasn’t even necessary. The fact he almost slipped, and then overreacted, was just another warning sign that he was too tired to be doing anything right now.
Faith jerked her head down the hall. “I better go track down some Slayers and let you hit the sack, ’cause I know you didn’t get any sleep on the plane.”
Xander’s eyebrows crunched low. “How do you—”
Faith grinned at him. “That Matheson demon. Ever since I read about it, I’m too fucking paranoid to even blink when I’m airborne. Since you were the first one to actually eyeball one of these suckers while it was trying to smash a window mid-flight, I figure if I’m paranoid, you must spend all your time trying to fashion those cheap Styrofoam coffee cups into weapons.”
Xander shook his head. He couldn’t possibly be having this conversation. “How do you even know about that?”
Faith shrugged as her grin got wider. “Unbelievable as this sounds, I’m plugged into the gossip network.”
Xander heart stuttered in his chest. “How plugged in?”
“Enough so’s people keep me up on the Sunnydale veterans. Only person I’ve lost track of is Vi, and that’s ’cause it seems like no one knows where she’s gone.” Faith gave him a friendly nudge with her elbow. “And even if I wasn’t, man, the shit you get into is impossible to miss. Every time you discover a new demon, it goes out over the network practically the second you file a report. Robin’s a big fan, by the way. Every time one of your reports crosses the transom, he’ll stop everything he’s doing and hunker down to read. Says reading your stuff is better than watching 24, and he’s a huge 24 fan.”
Oh, he did not want to have this conversation right now. Unbelievable. The one area where he didn’t want to go was the one area that Faith actually gave a shit about, even if it was probably because Robin gave a shit. “Look, I really need to—” he jerked his head at the stairs.
“Right. Smell ya later,” Faith said.
As she sauntered down the hall, Xander made a show of walking up the first three steps. The second she turned the corner, however, Xander backtracked and tiptoed up to Bernie’s office.
“Come in,” she said in response his soft knock.
The second he walked in, Bernie flashed him one of her mischievous grins. “I had a notion you’d backtrack.”
“I’ll make this simple,” Bernie said. “If this demon is an Emokillsus, you most likely want to keep Cheryl isolated from it.”
Xander’s eyebrows rose, even as his stomach clenched on hearing the demon’s official name.
Bernie put her elbows on her desk, folded her hands, and rested her chin on top. “I’ve been reading as much as I can get my hands on about this creatures. Nasty pieces of work. In truth, I was hoping, like you no doubt, that the girls were in error. Unfortunately…” her voice trailed off in a sigh.
Xander recovered. “I need to see the files of everyone in the house.”
“I can assure you—” Bernie began.
Xander held up his hands. “I can tell you don’t want to put anyone in danger if you don’t have to. But I’ve dealt with these things. You haven’t. I’d just feel better if I could look at their files myself. Something might raise a red flag for me that might get by you. Y’know. Fresh eyes — or eye in my case.”
Bernie sat back and looked at him with a frown. “I would be more than willing to do so, except the protective seal prevents people under a certain clearance level from reading them. You understand. It’s for the—”
“Slayers’ protection in case some enemy is nosing around for dirt. I know,” Xander interrupted. “But I have clearance.”
“You’re a field scout,” Bernie said. “Field scouts do not have that kind of clearance and you know it. I can promise you that Cheryl is the only one who could potentially be in danger, but I can’t — and won’t — simply turn over the files to anyone. You may be safe now, but field scout can be a hazardous occupation. Say you get turned? Or fall under demonic thrall? It has happened to others and you know I can’t take the chance of it happening to you. The fewer people who know the information in the files, the safer it is for the girls. Surely you can see that.”
Xander sighed. He knew she was watching out for her people. Despite her immediate refusal, he figured he could sweet-talk her eventually into letting him see those files. However, the clock was ticking. If the worst happened, he didn’t want to be put in a position of scrambling to find out more information about the house’s Slayers while everyone was arming themselves for a demon hunt.
He only had to pull clearance once in almost three years on a Head Watcher, although in that other case it was because the guy was a total ass. It looked like he was going to have to do it again.
“Take me over to the security lock,” Xander said with a weary air. “If that doesn’t convince you, nothing will.”
Bernie’s expression became uncertain. “Just press your hand on the closet door in the corner.”
“This one?” Xander asked in surprise as he pointed to a wooden door to her left.
“Don’t let appearances fool you,” she responded. “It’s a bit of glamour because I simply couldn’t stand looking at an iron fireproof and spellproof door.”
“They did good work,” Xander remarked as he did what she asked. He pressed his palm against the surface of the door and announced, “Harris, A.” A series of low tones followed by the sound of locks releasing let him know that he was recognized and accepted.
Xander turned around and saw that Bernie was on her feet.
“I’m sorry. I’m simply…going by the series of tones, I’d say your clearance is higher than mine,” she said.
Xander couldn’t resist a mischievous grin. “It’s higher than the guy who actually supervises all us lowly field scouts.”
Bernie looked nonplussed.
Xander shrugged. “One of my best friends is the Slayer who’s been kicking demon butt the longest. My other best friend happens to be one of the most powerful witches on the planet. And, to top it off, how many field scouts can honestly say that they spent their high school years driving the First Watcher nuts because they kept taking all the books with the naughty woodcuts out of the library and returning them late?”
Bernie chuckled and shook her head. “I believe that puts a new twist on the phrase ‘the old school network.’”
“So I can see the files?” Xander asked. “And I mean everything you’ve got, even if it’s a scrap of paper with doodles on it.”
Bernie sobered. “Thank you.”
“Making sure that the Slayers aren’t put at needless risk,” Bernie said.
Xander shoved his hands in his pockets and resisted the urge to shuffle in embarrassment. “Scout, remember? Kind of my job to check out an area before a team of Slayers parachute in with stakes set to dust. So, unh, the Slayer you think is the most vulnerable. Her name was Cheryl, right?”
“Comes from an alcoholic household. The parents were neglectful for the most part. She spent quite a lot of time bouncing between various relatives, many of whom were barely more fit to raise her for one reason or another,” Bernie explained. “Truthfully, I think we’re the only stable family she’s ever had.”
At least she had relatives who gave enough of a shit to try. He wasn’t bitter about Tony, Jessica, and his useless extended family. Not. At. All.
“Despite her difficulties, Cheryl’s a very sweet girl and surprisingly somewhat naïve,” Bernie continued.
Nah. She just wants to believe everyone’s better than her family and she’s willing to lie to herself to make it true. Just wait until she finds out how even the nicest person in the world will turn on her when she tries to do the right thing, even if she does handle it in the most stupid way possible while doing it.
Jeez. That one wasn’t even directed at either Tony or Jessica. His brain was just brimming over with resentment. Just when he thought he was ready to forgive, along comes a moment of clarity. He was so fucking tired of being furious all the time, yet he couldn’t even begin to let it go.
“As for the others,” Bernie shrugged. “I honestly don’t see any outstanding problems. Just the same, I’m relieved that there’s someone in the house who can access the records and is willing to make sure.”
“Thanks,” Xander sincerely said.
“However,” Bernie’s mischievous grin reappeared, “I believe you made a promise to get some sleep. Since I highly doubt the girls will be called into action this evening, your review of the records can wait until tomorrow. I’ll be sure to smuggle them up to your room while you and Faith conduct your surveillance.”
Xander wrestled with himself, since he really did want to get a look at the files as soon as possible. However, exhaustion and the promise of a very long, cold, uncomfortable nighttime stakeout with Faith won out. “Fair enough,” he finally agreed.