Forest – Day
Faith laid out a sheet of paper on the ground and quickly sketched a rough map of the Presidium encampment, as the other slayers and watchers looked on. A short distance away, Brell crouched on the edge of the crater, keeping an eye on the demons within and trying to get his radio earpiece to fit.
“Look right?” Faith asked. The others nodded. “Okay then,” she went on. “This is what we’re up against. This,” she pointed to a square, “is our boy, up on top of his carpentry castle. Red, what do you guys need to declaw him?”
“Brell, can you zoom in on the leader?” Willow asked through her radio. She and Rowena studied the LCD screen on her palmtop as Brell fiddled with the sniper scope Mia had given him.
“Ugly guy,” she noted. “Nothing I’ve seen before.”
“I know this one,” Rowena interjected. “It’s a Princeps demon. Physically weak –”
“But magically powerful?” Willow guessed.
“Capable might be a better word,” Rowena replied. “They’re very good at doing magic in a controlled setting, but they’re not recorded as being much trouble in a direct encounter. Their skill relies on their ability to create circles that are perfectly tuned to them specifically, sort of like amplifiers. Their innate magic is increased tremendously, but it limits their ability to improvise.”
“Get him out of his circle and he can’t do anything but flop around like a caught fish?” Faith surmised.
“Very likely.” Rowena nodded.
“What do we need to do to mess up his circles?” Mia asked Willow.
“Well, they’re delicate, so…not much. Break the circles, move or destroy the components, anything really. Oh, and if you see anything magic-y involving a model of the area, smash it. I’m guessing it’ll have to do with the camouflage spell. Breaking the spell might help distract him.”
“We can do that,” Mia said confidently.
“That leaves us to bind him,” Willow said, glancing at Jeff. “What do you think? We could risk an iron seizure.”
“I’m game,” he said.
“Risk why?” Faith asked.
“It’s our best shot at taking him, but it’s short-ranged,” Willow explained. “We’d have to be in the crater, probably around about here.” She indicated a spot on Faith’s map.
“Then you’ll need protection,” Faith decided. “Ken, you and me. Rowena and Brell as well, with the heavy repeater crossbows. What do we know about these guard demons?”
“Not much,” Rowena said. “I don’t recognize the species, but according to Brell, they’re part of this Night Cult. Our weapons should work on them, he says. Some of their weapons are unusually ornate, which means they may have magic attached.”
“I wouldn’t be able to sense it either way,” Willow added. “The camouflage spell and all those circles on the scaffold are too powerful. They’d drown out anything small and simple.”
“Okay,” Faith nodded. “Mia, how do you want to handle this?”
“We can take about half the guards before anyone notices,” she said thoughtfully. “Their patrols are strong, but predictable and regular. We’ll get them in ones and twos when they’re out of contact with each other, take them down before they get a chance to use their weapons, magical or otherwise. Say, three teams – Saida and I will circle around and come in from the far side, Janet’s team from the flank, Francesca with you from here. We take the easy marks, then keep stalking and sniping as long as we can until someone sounds the alarm. When that happens, we charge, take them by storm. You guys hold back for a few seconds when Janet and I lead our teams in – that’ll put most of the fighting on the opposite side of the scaffold from you.”
“We run in, secure a zone, do the spell,” Faith concluded. She looked at Willow and Jeff. “You guys need a minute?”
“Thanks,” Willow nodded.
Faith, Mia and Kennedy returned to the crater, peering over the edge and whispering comments to each other.
“You’re sure you’re ready for this?” Willow asked.
“Sure I’m sure,” Jeff said firmly.
“You realize you’ll be doing most of the work?” Willow persisted. “An iron seizure needs a lot of raw power, and I’m pretty sure I’m not back to that level yet.”
“I’ll be fine,” Jeff insisted. “I know the spell. I’ve gone over the theory and components plenty of times.”
“I’m sure you have,” Willow said with a grin, “but this isn’t theory. This is for real.”
“I have done it for real,” Jeff said hesitantly, “once…on an action figure, granted…but it worked perfectly, first time!”
“You know you shouldn’t be experimenting with battle magic without checking with me and someone there to keep watch,” Willow warned.
“I know,” Jeff nodded quickly, “but it was just a tiny version of the spell… and it was a while ago, before you were mentoring me.”
“Okay, no harm done,” Willow agreed. “At least you’ve had some practice. But this guy’s no toy; he’ll fight back. Mia and her team will target his circles, but they’ll have their hands full with the guards, so they may not be able to break them all immediately. It’s good that you’re confident, but don’t be overconfident. If it gets dangerous, you break the binding, okay?”
“We don’t want to lose this guy,” Jeff argued. “You said he’s high-ranking. He could know all kinds of things!”
“We don’t want to lose my best student either,” Willow warned. “Realize, Jeff, you can lose a battle but still win the war. I’ll be there to help you. There’re some spells I can do to smooth your casting, and if it looks like it’ll help, I’ll throw a few random spells at the mage to distract him. Don’t make me have to worry about you at the same time. Do the binding, keep your head down, and no heroics,” she finished sternly.
“You can trust me,” Jeff insisted, meeting her gaze.
Watchers Council – Slayer Rec Room – Same Time
Xander sat on the large puffy leather couch and flipped through the channels on the big screen TV. He had just settled on a Kung Fu flick when Vi walked in. She marched to the couch and plopped down next to him with her arms crossed.
On closer inspection Xander noticed numerous traces of what looked like oatmeal sticking to her hair and clothing. He watched her for a moment. “Dare I ask?”
“Andrew,” she said quickly, staring at the TV to avoid eye contact. “He booby-trapped the kitchen to keep the slayers from sneaking food. I’m going to kill that little geek. I just blow dried an hour ago.”
Xander surveyed Vi’s head. “I hope you’ve got a good shampoo, ’cause that stuff is really caked in there.”
“What kind of person rigs a door to drop oatmeal on someone’s head?”
Xander laughed loudly. “Oh, I did that to Willow a few years ago. She was shampooing for a week.” He continued laughing until he saw Vi’s glare. “Which I’m sure won’t happen in this case.”
Vi grabbed her head. “I don’t think my Suave will be able to handle this.”
“Suave? Pfft.” Xander shook his head negatively. “You should use Herbal Essence. Here, feel how silky smooth my hair is.” He tilted his head toward her.
Vi petted him several times. “Wow! That is silky smooth.”
Xander pulled his head back up. “See the trick is to buy the shampoo and conditioner separately. It costs a little more, but you get more volume in your hair.” He smiled, but soon realized how un-macho he sounded. “Or so I’ve been told.”
Vi laughed. “Nice try. Hey, what was it you were saying before?”
Xander sat up. “Oh. I uh…” He took a deep breath. “I just need to say that –”
A loud siren blaring through the Council cut Xander off. Both he and Vi shot up. “Fire alarm,” Xander said.
VI sneered, “Andrew!”
With that, she ran out of the room, leaving Xander alone with the noise of the siren.
Edge of Crater – Moments Later
Mia lay against the rise at the edge of the Presidium crater, following a pair of demons with her sniper scope as they methodically walked the edge of the crater floor. She took a deep breath as the creatures neared a structure, walking towards the space behind it, between it and the edge of the crater wall.
“Got the inner,” she whispered. “Count of three.”
“Got the outer,” Mia heard Saida respond through her radio, from her position several yards away.
“Three…two…one…” Mia squeezed the trigger at ‘zero’ and watched as her target jerked, then slumped to the ground. His partner had no time to react before a tiny spray of black blood leapt from his neck, and he too collapsed with barely a sound.
“Two down,” Mia announced. “Four minutes ’til they notice a patrol’s not where it should be.”
“Two down here,” Francesca radioed in.
“Three,” Janet reported via the radio. “Moving on.”
Mia touched her earpiece and nodded absently. Then she scrambled quietly down the incline to the crater floor, with Saida following her. Glancing warily towards the wooden structures nearer the center, they dashed from their hiding place to wait, crouched, behind the stone edge of a fire pit, as another pair of demons rounded a corner and headed slowly towards them.
From across the crater, Janet glanced down at where her two squad-mates were stealthily moving around both sides of some kind of storehouse for rotten meat, closing in on the trio of demons guarding its entrance. As the muffled sounds of their silenced weapons firing reached her, she hefted her long-barreled rifle to her shoulder and snapped off a shot, taking down a demon in the act of dragging an animal carcass towards a pool of steaming mud.
Scaffold – Same Time
The Princeps demon stalked from one circle to another, muttering arcane syllables under its breath. Steam rose from its throat, as if the air was cold in spite of the sunshine. But instead of dissipating, the steam formed strange runes hanging in their air, which then drifted down into the huge wooden structure beneath the scaffold.
Forest – Same Time
“Three minutes,” Francesca whispered, taking aim at a lone demon guard gazing steadily, and ineffectively, at the tree line.
“Okay, you remember what you have to do?” Willow whispered to Rowena and Brell, crouched by her side.
“Make circle in oil,” Brell said, holding up the jar of oil he held.
“Mark the compass points,” Rowena added, tapping each of the items she held in turn: a small piece of wood and a lighter, two vials of powder and a ceremonial knife. “Earth at north, salt south, the blade east and light the wood at the west.”
“Jeff?” Willow asked.
“I’ll be ready as soon as the circle’s done,” he said confidently.
“Stay focused,” Willow told him. “He’ll be strong, especially until some of his circles have been broken. Don’t try to overwhelm him all at once, and don’t draw too much power. Just build steadily, let me help control the flow. Remember, things are going to be going wrong on the ground for him really fast. Let him get confused and distracted, then take advantage when he does.”
“Yep,” Jeff said. “I’m ready.”
“I know.” Willow smiled.
Crater – Same Time
Mia and Saida took careful aim from their position, lying behind a slight rise in the ground. Twenty yards away, another pair of demons came into view, staring resolutely ahead of them.
“Ready, steady, go,” Mia whispered, pulling her trigger.
Saida’s shot caught her demon in the side of the head, dropping him instantly, but the one Mia had aimed at stubbed his toe on a rock, and was just bending over as her bullet glanced off the thick carapace covering his head.
“Ji –” he yelled, before Mia’s second shot silenced him.
“Fe na? Jis teko?” a voice sounded from a nearby building. Several demons appeared at once in doorways, looking around in confusion.
“God dammit,” Mia muttered. “Weapons free. Repeat, weapons free!” She stood quickly and sprayed the nearest building with gunfire, killing two demons. Saida fired a grenade into another, blasting it to pieces.
Atop the edge of the crater, Janet watched the fireball from the explosion rise above the tops of the crude wooden buildings. “Go, go, go!” she ordered, rushing forward. She and her squad quickly established a kill zone, cutting down the wave of demons that charged in ragged order towards them.
Faith could also see the explosion. “We’re up,” she said. Gripping her crossbow and sword tightly, she scrambled over the edge alongside Francesca. Willow, Rowena, Jeff and Brell followed, with Kennedy on their flank. They sprinted and slid down to a depression in the ground at the crater’s edge, the slayers glancing about warily.
“Let ’em run,” Faith said, spotting several groups of demons emerging from buildings and racing towards the other side of the crater. “Wait…wait…okay, let’s go!”
The group ran forwards, with the three slayers killing any demon who happened to look back with crossbows and gunfire. More explosions were sounding from beyond the scaffold, along with the chatter of gunfire.
“Five more yards!” Willow called.
“They’re gettin’ antsy,” Faith warned, as more demons noticed their presence. “Fran, let ’em have it!”
“My pleasure,” Francesca said griml. She returned her P90 to her waist and pulled a hulking mini-gun from its harness on her back. With a shrill whine, the weapon fired, tearing through the nearest group of demons.
“Here,” Willow said loudly, over the noise, “quick, two yards wide, go!”
“Brell do,” Brell replied, crouching and letting the oil spill from the jar, tracing a circle with it in the dirt and mud. Rowena quickly laid out the four items at each cardinal point, finally letting the lighter’s flame play over the wood, starting it smoldering. Faith and Kennedy dropped to their knees on either side of the circle, steadying their aim as they fired bolt after bolt into any demons within range.
“Ego advoco ut aminus ut necto hic haec hoc venefic,” Jeff recited, quickly sitting in the center of the circle, with Willow kneeling behind him. “Exaudio mei imperium itaque pareo…I feel it working!”
“Find your target,” Willow said, doing her best to keep her voice calm. “Fran, the circles!”
“Gotcha,” the slayer replied, swinging her cannon up to bear on the top of the scaffold. With careful aim, she blasted either side of its top, staying clear of the Princeps demon but shattering the corners of the platform he stood on, sending his intricate ritual components flying.
“Got him,” Jeff said. “He’s strong…God, he’s strong…” His eyes changed from their usual blue, slowly clouding and darkening.
“Control it,” Willow warned. “Don’t try to use too much at once. You control the magic, it doesn’t control you.”
Jeff swallowed and leaned forward, pressing his palms to the ground. He took a deep breath, and his eyes began to lighten again. “Got it,” he said in a shaking voice. “I’ve got it…he’s fighting.”
On top of the scaffold, the demon mage strode back and forth, scrabbling among the remains of its circles. It reared up and hurled a piece of blackened, dried flesh down at the group on the ground beneath it. Kennedy quickly turned and fired her crossbow, picking the piece of meat out of the air and sending it spinning off to one side. It landed on the roof of a building, crashing through the loose assembly of animal skins. A moment later, the whole structure exploded from within.
“Yikes!” Rowena shouted, crouching down, as the heat and sound of the blast washed over them.
“Steady,” Willow said to Jeff. “I’ll keep him busy.” She got to her feet and raised a hand towards the demon standing high above her.
“Encase!” she yelled.
A golden haze formed around the demon, but just as quickly he tore through it with a claw and pointed down at Willow, sending a bolt of darkness flying towards her. The witch gritted her teeth and extended her palm. A beam of light leapt from it, like a searchlight, catching the dark sphere in mid-air and tearing it apart.
“Incandesco!” Willow shouted in reply, making a complicated gesture.
The air around the demon mage rippled in a sudden heat-haze and he fell into a crouch, shielding his head with one arm while the other thrust upward. Just as quickly, the air crackled with frost, and he stood again, staggering slightly. At the same time, a burst of gunfire from the opposite side of the scaffold shattered more of the magical paraphernalia around him.
“It’s working,” Jeff said. “I’ve almost got him, I’m close!”
The demon reared up, as if to attack again, then abruptly whirled around and dropped down between the slats of the scaffold, disappearing from view. Jeff shouted and fell on his side at the same moment.
“Jeff!” Willow exclaimed, crouching to help him.
“I’m okay,” he said quickly. “Just a jolt…I lost him, he’s gone!”
“Reconnect,” Willow said. “Just take your time, you had him before, just do the same again.” Jeff righted himself and concentrated, but shook his head.
“Nothing,” he said, frustrated. “The binding’s there, but there’s no target, nothing. It’s like he’s just vanished completely!”
“Return to Vor?” Brell suggested.
“I’d have felt a portal, no,” Willow shook her head. “He must have more circles in there, something hiding him from the –”
“Right,” Faith said, rising. “Stay here, get ready to bind the thing.”
“What’re you going to do?” Rowena asked her.
“He’s got circles, I’m gonna break ’em,” she replied. “Ken –”
“I’m coming with you,” Kennedy said.
“Stay here,” Faith said. “Keep them safe, and that’s an order.”
“Faith, wait,” Willow interrupted. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea. He could have anything in there.”
“You got a better idea?”
“Well at least take me with you. You can’t defend against magic –”
“Uh, guys?” Francesca called.
They all looked up to see the entire scaffold trembling. Pieces of wood began to break off and crash to the ground, as it shook more and more violently.
“What the hell?” Kennedy said rhetorically, as the entire, huge structure creaked ominously.
“Get back!” Willow yelled.
“Wait, let me try again!” Jeff insisted.
“Leave the circle,” Willow yelled. “Go! Go!”
Grabbing Rowena by the hand and Jeff by the shoulder, Willow ran back towards the edge of the crater, followed by Brell and the slayers.
“I thought this weapon thing was supposed to not work here!” Kennedy yelled, as a huge section of scaffold collapsed with a tremendous crash.
The whole group paused briefly, now out of range of the falling debris from the scaffold’s collapse. “I’d say they worked out the bugs,” Rowena suggested.
“We’d better get it un-working pretty damned fast! What the hell is that?!” Kennedy yelled. She pointed as something rose up from within the wooden structure, tearing the top of it to pieces, sending it crashing down on the buildings all around it.
As the rest of the scaffold fell to pieces, a titanic form was revealed. Composed of massive wooden trunks, twisted together with gigantic layers of bark covering it, was a huge, headless body, easily ten stories tall, dwarfing everything around it. Its legs were thicker than the most giant trees, its arms were long and massive, ending in tangles of writhing wooden tendrils, and its torso was a mass of gnarled wood, seemingly impenetrable. Where its heart should have been was a cavity, inside of which was the Princeps demon, its arms and legs sunk into the twisted wood around it. The giant lifted itself to its full, tremendous height, then took a step forward, the end of its leg, covered in thick roots, tearing out of the ground behind it. Then it slammed back down again, making the earth tremble beneath it.
“Jesus,” Faith whispered, awestruck, as the huge construct towered over them.
End of Act Three