PREDATOR VS. SLAYER, PART 5 (CONCLUSION)

Title: Predator vs. Slayer, Part 5 (Conclusion)
Author: Gyrus
Email: gyrus1001@hotmail.com
Disclaimer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the creation of Joss Whedon and the property of Fox Television. The story itself is my own.
Summary: A trio of alien hunters pursues the ultimate human prize.
Rating: PG, for violence.
Author's Notes: Finally -- the last chapter. Hope you enjoy it.

-----

At the northern end of what was once the second-floor hallway of Sunnydale High School, Buffy, Willow, Xander, Tara and Anya stood in a tight circle on the blackened floor. They spoke in whispers.

"Xander, are we all set?" Buffy asked.

"Completely," he answered. "The north stairway's blocked off, and the front stairs have a nasty surprise waiting."

"How're you fixed for weapons?"

"The blaster is toast - you just can't steal decent high-tech weapons from the government anymore - but I have all of Riley's stuff. And Anya's packin'."

"This is so exciting," Anya said, bouncing slightly on the balls of her feet. "The space monsters will look at me and go, 'Look, it's little defenseless Anya,' and then, POW! A surprised alien with a hole in it." She held up her revolver. "You know, if more women had had these in the old days, I wouldn't have been nearly so busy."

Xander looked slightly aghast. "If the NRA needs a spokesdemon," he said, "I'll have them give you a call."

"Just remember," Buffy cut in. "No guns after the first part of the plan. With all of us running around in here..."

"I hear you," Xander replied. "That's a nice piece you've got, yourself." He pointed to the four-foot-long, two-handed sword that hung from Buffy's hip.

"It's from Giles' special collection," Buffy said. It was a modern replica of an Italian sword from the 1400s - in other words, a 15th-century weapon made with 20th-century steel.

"Careful," Xander said, "you'll make Mr. Pointy jealous."

Buffy turned to Willow and Tara. "Are you two ready?" she asked.

"Yeah," Willow answered. She held up a small cloth bag containing a variety of herbs and a lock of Buffy's hair. Tara's held up a similar bag, but which included a few strands of Riley's hair instead of Buffy's.

Willow didn't say anything more, which Buffy found a little troubling, given Willow's tendency to babble in the face of scariness. Buffy figured Willow must be focused on the task ahead; the spells Willow and Tara were about to cast were complex and would require their complete concentration.

Just then, there was a chirping sound from Buffy's back pocket. She was carrying Riley's cell phone.

Buffy answered. "Yeah?"

"Buffy, it's Giles. The map is gone from my door; I imagine the aliens will arrive in the next few minutes."

"Thanks," Buffy responded.

"I'll be there as soon as I can. Be careful," Giles said, and hung up.

Buffy turned to the others. "Game time. Let's get to our spots."

She wished she could think of something more to say. But what would it be? Thank you for risking your lives to help me - again? You're my best friends in the whole world? Please don't get killed?

She looked at each of them for one unnecessary moment.

"Good luck," she finally said.

-----

Willow watched as the others filed out of the hallway - all except for her and Tara. The first part of this plan was theirs alone to carry out.

They waited for two minutes. The spells would be a tremendous drain on both of them, and they wanted to begin only when the aliens were well on their way to the school.

It was the longest two minutes Willow could remember. She stood at the end of the hallway, staring at the second hand on her watch.

Finally, it was time.

Willow swallowed, then took the bag of herbs and hair and touched it to her forehead, her chest, and her stomach, just below the navel. Tara did the same, but never looked at Willow once, nor Willow at Tara. A glamour could be ruined if anyone glimpsed the caster while the spell was being woven.

Eyes closed, Willow reached out her hand and found Tara's. Willow could feel her own magic flowing and mixing with Tara's, growing stronger; Willow knew that the connection between them could increase their power exponentially.

The two witches began to chant in the quietest of whispers, and in perfect synchrony. It was the same words, over and over, invoking the benevolent powers of an ancient Sumerian deity.

"Goddess Inanna, work my will, protect me from all harm or ill. Goddess Inanna, work my will..."

-----

Taghryn and Ghrall entered the school through a side window, cautious of the traps they knew awaited them. The question was, where in this large, ruined structure would the traps lie? More importantly, where would the prey be?

They walked carefully down the hall. Reghya was somewhere nearby, recording the hunt, but not wanting to distract his children from their work.

As Taghryn looked around, she realized that the humans had been clever in choosing this site. The extensive damage to the building made the external fixtures unstable; the Hunters could not climb to the second level without risking a fall from a damaged drainpipe or a loose piece of mortar. What was more, one of the two stairways was blocked by rubble.

Taghryn looked at the main stairs, which appeared clear. She reached over and touched Ghrall's hand to communicate with him in the silent stalking language.

Only one way up, she said. I don't like it.

Ghrall replied, There may be more options. We will look for them before taking the obvious path.

They moved carefully along the hall. A minute later, Taghryn took Ghrall's hand again.

What is that? she fingered, pointing to a rectangle of metal recessed into a wall.

Ghrall quickly saw what Taghryn was talking about. It was clearly a door, but it was solid metal. All the other doors in the building were wooden and had windows.

The two Hunters moved to the metal door and tried to push it forward, until they realized that the door was designed to slide sideways. The mechanism that accomplished this was destroyed, so Taghryn used her knife to pry the door open far enough that she could wrap her powerful fingers around the edge and pull.

Inside was a tiny room. There were controls of some sort on the wall next to the door.

It must be a device for moving between levels, said Ghrall. He pushed a few of the buttons on the control panel, but to no effect.

It is inoperable, Ghrall signed.

Taghryn pressed gently against the ceiling with her hands, searching. Her efforts were rewarded when a section of the ceiling lifted up.

She peered upwards through the square hole she had created. Once Taghryn was satisfied that no dangers waited above, she pulled herself up through the hole and gestured for Ghrall to follow.

Now they stood in a vertical shaft. The height of it was spanned by metal cables, connecting the conveyance below to the ceiling above.

Taghryn tested the cables and found that they would easily hold her weight. She and Ghrall climbed them as quietly as they could until they reached the second level, where they found another sliding door like the one below. Using her knife again, Taghryn pried the door open just a crack and peeked through.

All she could see were a few feet of damaged floor and a broken wooden door on the other side. The walls adjacent to the doorway were lined with many upright metal containers, their doors bent and broken. A bank of storage units, perhaps.

Ghrall climbed up next to Taghryn and looked through the door, also.

We need to go out there, he signaled.

Taghryn, still hidden by her sight-shield, went first. She pulled the elevator door open far enough to step through and immediately noticed an odd smell, like medicinal plants. Then Taghryn stepped through the door and quickly looked both ways down the hall.

Much to Taghryn's surprise, the prey stood waiting at the northern end: the light-haired female, who was Ghrall's quarry, and the large male, who was hers.

Ghrall moved into the hallway next to Taghryn. Pointing at the two humans, he shouted "There!" and brought his plasma weapon around to fire.

Taghryn knew something was wrong. The odd smell, and the fact that the prey wasn't moving or attacking, all spelled danger.

"Wait, there is-" she started, but Ghrall fired before she could stop him. The bolt of blue energy flashed out and struck the human female in the chest.

And bounced back.

Ghrall never had time to move; he could only watch for the microsecond it took for the blast to return along its original path. Then his ears rang with the sound of his plasma weapon exploding as the energy bolt struck it. Searing pain enveloped Ghrall's shoulder and the right side of his face.

Taghryn saw the two humans at the end of the corridor suddenly transform into two completely different ones - both females, from what Taghryn could tell. They did not appear severely injured, but they slumped to the floor nonetheless.

Then another pair of humans leaped out from a doorway near the end of the hallway and began shooting with firearms. Taghryn pushed Ghrall out of the way, back into the elevator shaft; she leaped through a doorway on the other side of the hall. Nonetheless, Ghrall was hit in the leg and abdomen by two projectiles before getting out of harm's way. None of the bullets hit Taghryn - her sight-shield made her more difficult to target.

They have many tricks, Taghryn thought as the bullets stopped flying. I will show them one of mine.

She pulled a dull metal sphere from her belt and, reaching only her hand and wrist out through the doorway, tossed the sphere into the corridor.

-----

Anya stood with her revolver in both hands, arms straight out, watching the corridor. Xander desperately fiddled with Riley's Beretta. The gun had jammed after only two or three shots; Xander wasn't sure if the gun had screwed up somehow, or if he just hadn't loaded it right. His military know-how seemed to be getting rustier all the time.

"I know I hit it at least once before it went down the elevator shaft," Anya said excitedly, never taking her eyes off the hallway. "Maybe we should go after it. You know, take it out, drop the hammer, blow it aw-"

"There's still one more of those things up here, Anya," Xander interrupted in a loud whisper. "I think I saw it for a second. I was going to take a shot at it, but then Mr. Beretta here got constipated."

"Eew," said Anya.

Suddenly, there was a clank of metal against the hallway floor. Looking towards the sound, Xander and Anya saw two things - Buffy, stepping out of her hiding place at the far end of the hall, and a metal ball with many small holes in it that rolled out of the doorway across the hall from the elevator. The ball began spraying some kind of gas or smoke, thick and black, into the air. Buffy looked at it with furrowed brow, until the smoke blocked Xander and Anya's view of her.

"What the hell?" Xander said as the smoke oozed towards them. He had gotten his gun unjammed and was just about to chamber a round when a huge, humanoid blur leaped out of the smoke and knocked him down.

Anya raised her pistol, but the barely-visible alien turned and backhanded her, knocking her to the floor, too. Her gun skittered down the hall into the smoke.

Xander got to his feet just in time to see his assailant draw a wicked-looking metal knife, the shiny blade far more visible than the hand that held it. The alien slashed horizontally at Xander's midsection, and Xander had to stumble backwards to get out of the way.

Anya glanced at the smoky hallway, then at Xander. Her gun was gone, and her boyfriend was about to be julienned by a very large extraterrestrial.

There was only one thing to do.

Anya got up fast and ran headlong at Xander's attacker. "YAAAAGH!" she shouted as she leaped up and landed on the alien's back. She clung tightly with her legs, trying to choke the creature with one arm and pulling at what she assumed was its hair with the other. The humanoid staggered and spun for a moment, trying to dislodge her, then recovered from its surprise and brought its knife arm around to stab her. Anya was forced to let go and fall backwards to avoid the blade.

Anya landed painfully on her tailbone and scuttled backwards, retreating from the huge alien. It didn't chase her; instead, the creature raised its arm to throw its knife at her.

Suddenly, the monster roared as Xander pressed Riley's taser into the creature's back. Electricity coursed around the alien's body as its invisibility device shorted out. The humanoid's huge body and masked face became visible.

The creature lashed backwards with a kick, catching Xander square in the chest and sending him straight into the wall behind him. Bits of burnt plaster flew when Xander hit, then settled around him as he collapsed to the floor, unconscious.

The creature turned on Anya. Even with the mask on, it looked pissed.

-----

Spike ran in through the main entrance of the school building. He had his beer and potato chips in one hand, his lawn chair in the other. The aliens had left Spike behind; he hoped he hadn't missed anything.

Shouts and thumps drifted down from somewhere upstairs. Spike booked down the hall to the main stairs, kicked the stairwell door open, and ran up the first few steps.

He turned the corner on a small landing and dashed up the next flight of stairs, not noticing when his ankle caught a tightly-stretched length of fishing line. Spike became aware that something was wrong only when a metallic booming sound caused him to look up. Several 55-gallon oil drums were rolling down the stairs at him, bouncing loudly over one another as they came.

Spike turned and started to run back down the stairs, but it was too late. A barrel hit him in the small of his back and squashed him against the floor at the bottom of the stairs. The other barrels, like enthusiastic defensive linemen, piled on top of him.

Bollocks, Spike thought. I'm going to miss everything.

Spike could barely shift the barrels on top of him, even with his superhuman strength. The drums seemed to be filled with rocks, or maybe pieces of broken mortar from the wrecked school building.

"Hey!" Spike shouted, struggling harder against the barrels. "Big masky guys! Don't start killing 'er without me!"

-----

Buffy moved as quickly as she could through the black smoke that filled the hallway, unable to see more than two feet in front of her. She could hear yells from Xander, Anya, and the alien somewhere up ahead.

Buffy emerged from the smoke just in time to see the alien, now fully visible, advancing Anya with its knife. Anya was on the floor, trying to crawl backwards through a classroom door. Xander lay unconscious in the opposite doorway. Willow was slumped next to Tara against the back wall, completely out and looking as if she had a bad sunburn. Tara was still moving, and appeared to be trying to pull Willow through the doorway Xander was in, but Tara didn't even have the strength to move her own body, much less Willow's.

"Hey! Space face!" Buffy shouted at the alien, drawing her long sword.

In one motion, the creature turned and whipped its knife at Buffy's chest.

-----

Giles yanked up the parking brake handle of his Citroen in what was once the teachers' parking lot of Sunnydale High School. Then he grabbed the hand crossbow and spiny-headed morningstar that occupied the passenger's seat. Giles could hear sounds of a fight coming from the second floor. He ran through the main entrance to the school and headed for the stairs.

Suddenly, one of the huge masked aliens stepped out of the elevator shaft.

Expecting a blast from the creature's energy weapon, Giles leaped sideways and took cover in a janitor's closet whose door had fallen off long ago. When no blasts came, Giles peeked out into the hallway.

The alien approached, but it was limping; fluorescent green-yellow blood oozed from wounds in its leg and belly. The creature was burned on half of its face, and somewhat dazed. Giles deduced that Willow and Tara's spell must have worked, reflecting the alien's energy blast back on its source just as it would a malevolent spell.

Seizing the opportunity, Giles stepped into the hallway and fired his hand crossbow at the alien. The monster saw Giles and tried to dodge the bolt, but the alien was too slow; the small arrow struck it in the chest. But the creature continued to advance.

Giles backed away, trying to load another bolt into his small crossbow. The alien removed a metallic cylinder from its belt and extended it into a pole, perhaps seven feet long. A U-shaped, barbed tip emerged from one end.

A spear, Giles thought. He looked down at the morningstar that hung from his belt and suddenly wished that he had brought a weapon with more reach.

Giles dropped his crossbow and turned to run, but the creature lurched forward and jabbed with the spear. The tip caught Giles in the back of his calf, making a pair of deep wounds. Giles grunted with pain and fell to the ground.

Oh, good show, Rupert, he thought crazily as the alien pulled back for another strike. When you get to heaven, remember to tell them E.T. sent you.

-----

Buffy almost died.

The alien's knife sped straight towards Buffy's heart; only Buffy's Slayer reflexes got her long sword up in time to partially deflect the spinning blade. But it was an incomplete block; instead of penetrating Buffy's chest, the knife bounced handle-first into Buffy's forehead. The Slayer reeled backwards, stunned.

Her assailant cocked its head slightly, following her. In the smoke that hung in the air, Buffy could see the three glowing red beams of the alien's laser sights, moving towards her in a slow motion arc like a deadly searchlight. Buffy tried to move her legs, to run, to fall, but whoever operated the switchboard between her brain and her body seemed to be out to lunch.

There was a loud bang, a puff of plaster dust erupted from the corridor wall.

Buffy's world sped up again. She turned her head to see that Xander had just fired his Beretta at the alien. He had apparently regained consciousness and crawled to his dropped weapon, but had been too woozy to aim properly.

The alien turned its head to look towards the noise, and its laser sights turned with it.

Buffy ran forward, raised the long sword, and swung it at the alien's neck with a cry. But instead of beheading the creature, the sword blade struck the base of the plasma weapon on the humanoid's shoulder.

Sparks flew. The electrical discharge blinded and stung both alien and Slayer, forcing them apart.

The alien recovered first. It reached one arm back between its shoulder blades and drew a short, single-edged sword. The weapon reminded Buffy of an item from Giles' collection, one used by hunters in Medieval Germany to finish off wounded animals. In other hands, the sword might have been less than a match for Buffy's much bigger blade. But the alien's superior height and reach would easily compensate.

Buffy glanced quickly at her friends. Xander had collapsed again. Tara was still moving and having a bit more success dragging herself and Willow away from the fight. Anya, emboldened by Tara's example, had crept over to where Xander lay and was to help him through the doorway next to him. Buffy knew that Xander had knocked a hole in the exterior wall of that room and hung a rope ladder through it for escape purposes.

Buffy turned back towards the alien.

"Just you and me then," she said, raising her sword. A familiar feeling of cautious excitement filled her, as it often did when she faced a particularly dangerous enemy alone.

"Let's get it on," she said.

-----

Giles rolled out of the way and onto his back as the spear-wielding alien stabbed at him. The ex-Watcher still had his morningstar in hand.

Despite his pain and fear, Giles' years of weapons training suddenly came back to him. Giles grasped the butt of his morningstar with one hand and the top of the shaft with the other; when the alien stabbed at him again, Giles used the shaft of his weapon to knock the spear tip aside.

Giles let go of his morningstar and used both hands to grasp the end of the spear. The alien instinctively tried to yank its weapon away from Giles; instead, the creature's great strength pulled the former Watcher to his feet.

Giles lashed out with his good leg and kicked the large humanoid in its wounded thigh. The creature growled loudly with pain and buckled slightly. Giles yanked at the spear, then lunged forward with his good leg and pushed the monster with both hands. The creature fell heavily, surprised.

The ex-librarian limped past the monster and grabbed the hand crossbow off the floor. He could hear the monster rising to its feet behind him.

Giles forced himself to stay calm. He pulled back the bowstring and hooked it in the ready position, then reached into his jacket pocket for a bolt.

Bloody hell, Giles thought. Most of the crossbow bolts were broken from his fall.

The creature was limping towards him, now maybe fifteen feet away. Giles found one good bolt and set it in place. Then he turned around.

The alien was right there, holding the spear in one hand. It pulled back to stab Giles through the chest.

Giles fired.

The small bolt caught the alien through the throat. The creature gave a gurgling roar and fell, dropping the spear and scrabbling at the bolt in its neck.

Giles had done all he could. If the monster died, good; if it didn't, Giles was in no shape for a rematch.

Cursing his situation, Giles limped for the exit.

-----

Reghya also cursed and ran down the hall towards Ghrall. The older Hunter had done his duty and recorded the fight, but now he had to help his child.

Unfortunately, Ghrall had panicked and pulled the projectile from his throat, causing the wound to bleed profusely. Reghya tore a strip from his vest and pressed it against Ghrall's neck, but it was too late. The combined blood loss from Ghrall's various wounds would soon kill the younger Hunter.

Ghrall could not speak; his vocal cords were too badly damaged. Instead, he clumsily pulled off his Huntmask with one hand and grasped Reghya's hand with the other, using the stalking language.

It was a good hunt, Ghrall said.

"Yes," Reghya replied, trying to control the sorrow in his voice. "You did well."

Not well enough, Ghrall replied. I am sorry.

Reghya was moved. Ghrall was less concerned with his own death than with his performance in the Hunt.

Ghrall reached over to his wrist and pressed the button that released the yuragh, the hunt-leader's band, from his arm.

This is Taghryn's now, Ghrall said.

As Reghya held Ghrall's hand, Ghrall closed his eyes, and his body was wracked with the final spasms of death.

-----

Buffy and Taghryn circled carefully, swords at the ready. Buffy held her long sword's handle over her right shoulder; the alien kept its own weapon high above its head.

The alien took a huge step forward and brought its sword down in a diagonal cut. Buffy raised the handle of her long sword over her head and angled the blade forward and down. The alien's blade struck Buffy's and slid off, deflected.

Continuing the motion, Buffy brought her sword around behind her and made her own diagonal strike. The alien leaped backwards out of the way, but still received a superficial cut across its upper arm.

Buffy kept up her attack, sweeping her blade back up again along the same diagonal line. This time, the alien was ready; it stepped back again and whipped its own sword sideways, catching Buffy's from behind. The combined force of their attacks knocked the sword out of Buffy's hand.

"Oops," she said, moving backwards as her assailant raised its blade. "Um, time out?"

-----

Reghya climbed the back stairs, almost completely invisible; his lack of weapons simplified the outline of his body and made it easier for the sight-shield to conceal. The yuragh in his hand was the only visible sign of his presence.

He had to give the yuragh to Taghryn. She was hunt leader now; it was her right and duty to wear it.

And, if necessary, to use it.

-----

The alien swung its sword horizontally at Buffy's head; she ducked just in time to avoid it. But the slash was only meant as a distraction; the giant humanoid followed it with a roundhouse kick which thumped against Buffy's ribs. Buffy stumbled sideways, pain lancing through her side.

The creature's sword looped around and cut again, straight down. Buffy leaped forward and to the right, avoiding the blow. Now in punching range, she slammed her right fist into the alien's stomach, then a hard left into the creature's chest.

But the alien was not deterred. It smashed the heel of its free hand into Buffy's chin, sending her flying down the hall. Her butt, back, and head all hit the blackened floor simultaneously.

Dazed and weakened, Buffy watched the alien approach. It lifted its sword for the finishing blow. Suddenly, it spoke, its voice inhumanly deep.

"DIE," it said. And swung.

With tremendous speed, Buffy rolled onto her side and out of the blade's path. She felt the vibration in the floor as it hit. Then she rolled back and kicked upward. Her foot hit the alien's sword arm in the wrist; there was a wet cracking sound. The alien dropped its sword and backed off as Buffy sprang to her feet.

"Sorry," Buffy said. "I can't die until I've seen Graceland."

She leaped into the air and kicked the alien in the chest. Then she landed and raked her hand across the creature's face, tearing off its mask. The alien's deep-set eyes looked back at her, filled with pure, feral killing instinct.

The creature threw a hook punch at Buffy with its good arm; Buffy ducked and came back with an elbow to its solar plexus. The alien staggered backwards and held up its bad wrist. A pair of short, curved blades sprung from the alien's sleeve.

Buffy charged, but the alien slashed with its retractable blades and caught her shoulder, cutting her deeply. Wincing, Buffy kicked at the monster's stomach, pushing the alien back; then she leaped up and spun in a crescent kick that caught the monster in the head. The alien turned all the way around and lashed out backhand, trying to cut Buffy with the back side of its claw-like blades. Buffy caught the creature's wrist and twisted.

The creature fell to its knees; it roared with agony as the broken bones in its forearm scraped against one another.

"OK," Buffy said. "Here's the deal. I'm going to let you up, and you're going to go back to your planet - where apparently every day is a bad hair day - and tell all the other aliens that it's not 'human season' on Earth anymore. Got it?"

The alien said nothing; it only grunted with pain.

Buffy talked slower, trying to make it understand. "Go home. Never come back. Do you understand?"

She didn't see the knife the alien drew from its boot until the blade was speeding towards Buffy's throat.

Buffy caught the alien's knife arm just in time; the knifepoint stopped less than an inch from her neck. The alien, still on its knees, tried to force the knife towards her chest. Buffy's other hand released the alien's broken arm and grabbed the good one; now it was one arm against two.

She turned the knife and pushed with all her strength. The creature resisted; Buffy kicked it hard in the stomach. The alien lost control over the knife for a split second, and the point drove straight into the huge being's chest.

The creature screeched loudly and struck at Buffy wildly with its open hand. It slammed into Buffy's face; her head snapped painfully to the side.

Then the monster fell over dead.

-----

Xander, Anya, Willow, and Tara, all in various states of injury and exhaustion, dragged themselves back into the hallway.

"Did we win?" Anya asked, her voice all too lively.

Buffy looked up. "Unless this thing can bounce back from a knife through the heart, I'm thinking yes," she said.

"But where's the other one?" Willow asked.

Buffy insisted on searching for it alone. The others were too badly incapacitated to help, anyway, except Anya, who was nonetheless perfectly willing to stay out of harm's way.

Buffy slid down the cable in the elevator, thinking it wise to follow the same path the aliens had come. She discovered the second dead alien in the first-floor hallway, and spotted Giles limping towards the exit.

"Giles!" she shouted. "We did it!"

Giles turned around. "The other creature is dead?" he asked, pain and hope both evident on his face.

"As disco," Buffy replied.

"Well done," Giles said. He started to limp towards her.

Buffy glanced at the lifeless humanoid at her feet. "You, too," she said.

Buffy looked towards the front stairwell, where she could see part of one of Xander's 55-gallon drums through the doorway. "Huh," she said as she and Giles made their way towards the stairs. "One of the aliens must have set off the trap without getting caught in it."

"Slayer? Is that you?" a voice echoed from the stairwell.

Buffy recognized the accent immediately. "Spike?" she called.

She turned the corner and found the British vampire pinned under several oil drums. Near him was a mangled lawn chair, along with a crushed back of potato chips and a puddle of what smelled like beer.

"It's about bloody time. Get me out of here!" Spike cried.

"What are you doing here?" Buffy asked.

"Well, I...I was just, um, comin' back from, uh, the store! Yeah, with some beer and crisps, see! Yeah! And-" he looked at the crushed lawn chair, "um, stealing some lawn furniture, you know, to dress up the old crypt a bit. I heard some bangin' around in here, so I came in for a look."

"OK," Buffy grunted as she rolled a pair of barrels off of Spike. "You came, you saw, you got squished. Now go home."

Spike got up, dusted himself off, and straightened his coat. "Right," he said. "Well, look at the time." He looked at his wrist, even though he had no watch on. "Got to be gettin' back," Spike continued. "Mexican football on the Spanish channel tonight. Hate to miss it." He took off at a half-walk, half-jog for the entrance.

Buffy turned to Giles. "OK, that was just weird," she said, as they started up the stairs.

-----

Reghya was more confused than he had ever been in his life.

He had watched Taghryn's final confrontation with her prey from the end of the hall, and he couldn't understand the outcome. How could Taghryn have lost? She was one of the best Hunters of her generation, and yet her prey had killed her almost single-handedly. HUMAN prey. Admittedly, a super-normal human, but it still should have been no match for a skilled Hunter like Taghryn. Her defeat was not merely bad luck; the human had matched Taghryn in strength, skill, and wits. No prey should be able to do that.

But Reghya set his confusion aside. The hunt was over. What was important now was to retrieve Ghrall and Taghryn's Huntmasks and to properly dispose of their bodies. Cremation was the only acceptable method, which meant either burning them, or...he glanced at the yuragh.

Or whatever was necessary.

-----

"I wonder what the deal is with the masks?" Xander mused aloud as his picked up the alien's lost facial covering. "I mean, it's not to conceal their boyish good looks."

Xander put the mask over his face. Giles was about to caution him when Xander said, "Cool! It's got infrared vision!" He looked up at Buffy. "Look, Buffy's all orange!"

Buffy was kneeling on the floor, examining some of the alien's weapons. "Orange?" she said, distractedly. "Yuck. Brings out my zits." Then she added, "Of which I have none."

"Maybe you'll cool down to a nice auburn," Willow joked.

Willow noticed what looked like a small, sliding control on the side of the mask, which Xander was still holding over his face, looking around. When Willow moved the control, Xander said, "Whoa, everything looks different now."

He handed the mask to Willow. "Hmm," she said, looking through it. "Looks like ultraviolet."

She fiddled with the control again. Suddenly, it looked as if it were raining lightly inside the room, except that the rain went in all directions instead of just downward.

"Hey," Willow said, "I think it's got a radiation detector. I can see the background count inside the room."

Willow went into the next room and looked out the window. "Yup," she called. "It's a little stronger outside."

"All right," said Giles. "We can examine everything later. Right now, I think several of us could use a visit to the Emergency Room."

"Great," Xander said, rubbing his head where it had slammed into the wall. "I hear if you get nine concussions, they'll treat the tenth one free."

Buffy was kneeling over the dead alien, examining its weapons. "Wow," she said. "This thing has more knives than Julia Child. And some other weapons I can't begin to figure out. Boy, if the Initiative were still around, would they love to..."

Her voice trailed off as she sensed something odd. A slight motion in the floor, as if something huge were moving very carefully right up behind-

Buffy sprang to her feet, but it was too late; something huge grabbed her from behind. It pulled Buffy's wrists behind her and threaded its left arm between her elbows and her back, pinning both of Buffy's arms against its body. The creature's other arm, almost completely invisible, went around her neck.

Buffy slammed her head backwards, trying to hit her assailant in the face with the back of her skull. But the creature was so much taller, her head only hit its bony chest, which hurt her at least as much as it.

Suddenly, the creature's invisibility ran off of its body like a liquid, revealing a huge, masked alien like the others. Buffy was taken by surprise; she had thought there were only two aliens.

"GIVE TO ME," the creature boomed.

But Buffy was only partly aware of the enormous humanoid's words. Her attention was held by a band around the creature's wrist, which was emitting little beeps a little less than once per second. Rolling her eyes downward, Buffy could see that the wristband also had a green LED display of some kind. Three symbols were visible. One symbol changed every time the device beeped; the next symbol changed only on every eighth beep.

As Buffy watched, the third symbol changed.

A countdown, she thought. This is so not good.

"GIVE TO ME," the alien repeated.

Then, a moment later, "OR DIE."

-----

Reghya did not like what he had been forced to do, but he had few other options. If the humans would not give Ghrall and Taghryn's bodies back to him, then the yuragh would destroy them all. Reghya would also die, but that was better than letting the humans commit who knew what sort of defilement of the bodies of his dead children.

Two of the humans were pointing firearms at him, but Reghya was unconcerned. Humans were mutually protective; they would not risk harming their fellow just to kill him.

Reghya's only problem now was the language barrier. The local human tongue was different in every way from the Hunters' language, and Reghya had only managed to learn a little of it in over a month of study. He didn't know the human words for "corpse" or "body" or "dead".

The small female human still struggled uselessly in Reghya's grip, but the Hunter was too consumed by his thoughts to pay it much mind. He regretted that he hadn't learned the human language better, that he couldn't make them understand him. And he regretted that he would not be able to send the records of this hunt home. Reghya's children, Taghryn especially, had been great hunters, and it saddened Reghya that their last adventure would go unremembered by his people. The other Hunters would assume that Reghya, Ghrall, and Taghryn had died in an accident, or had been killed by ordinary humans. They would never know about the exceptional prey that had hunted Reghya and his children even more skillfully than they had hunted it.

-----

Buffy continued to struggle in the giant humanoid's grasp, but no amount of twisting and thrashing would dislodge its grip. She tried to kick at its shins with her heels, but she couldn't get enough windup space to do any damage. Picking up both feet did nothing; the huge being could hold her up easily.

The others were stared at Buffy and her captor, unsure of what to do, when Willow walked back into the room. She was still wearing the alien mask.

"Hey, guys, what-? Oh!" she said when she saw what the others were staring at.

Xander, still pointing his gun at the creature, gestured with it towards the alien's wrist. "Does everyone else agree with me that that thing is a bomb?" he said.

"Oh God," Willow said. "I see little lines coming out of it." She swallowed hard. "I think its nuclear."

"There are h-houses all around here," Tara said with horror. "Hundreds of p-p-people."

Giles stepped towards the alien, raising both hands to signify that he was unarmed.

"Please," he said, slowly and loudly. "We don't understand what you want!"

"GIVE TO ME OR DIE," it repeated. "SLAY-ERR GIVE GHRALL TAGHRYN TO ME!"

"Give what?" Anya said, looking exasperated. "What's a crawl tag-grin?"

Buffy looked down. She was still right in front of the dead alien's body. Stretching her legs as far as possible, Buffy reached her feet towards one of the dead humanoid's boots.

Suddenly, Buffy clamped the soles of her feet around the handle of the dead alien's other boot knife. She swung both legs upwards and then back, driving the knife up to the hilt into her captor's calf.

The creature cried out; its hold on Buffy weakened. She got her right arm free and elbowed the alien's ribs twice, breaking several of them. Then she turned and smashed the same elbow into the monster's jaw.

The humanoid released Buffy completely. She front-kicked it in the stomach, then leaped up and smashed her foot into its masked face. The alien fell to the ground and lay there, barely moving.

Buffy turned to the others. "Come on," she said, hurriedly waving them forward. "We'll drop the bomb down the Hellmouth in the library. I don't care how powerful it is, it can't-"

"Buffy," Xander interrupted. He pointed at the wristband. "I don't think we have time."

The first of the three symbols was completely gone.

-----

Reghya could barely think. Blackness swirled before his closed eyes; his head swam from the impact of the human's blows, which were as forceful as any Hunter's. The human had been as clever as one, too, in the way it had used its feet to wield Taghryn's knife.

Strangely, Reghya's mind drifted back to a moment from his childhood. He remembered his parents' garden, where his father grew prickle-leaf and greenberry to season their meat. Most of the prickle-leaf grew in a great bunch in the center of the garden, but a few individual plants were scattered here and there, growing on their own. One had even sprung up outside the garden; somehow, it survived in a small wedge of dirt between the roots of a tree.

Reghya opened his eyes. His mask was malfunctioning, the images blurred and discolored, but he could see that the human, Slayer, was standing over him.

Now I understand, Reghya thought.

You are the prickle-leaf.

-----

Xander and Willow ran forward and began frantically pushing buttons on the alien's wristband. The countdown continued.

Upset beyond reason, Buffy grabbed the fallen humanoid by the shoulders and shook it.

"Turn it off! Now!" she yelled, not knowing what else to do. Tears of rage and frustration welled in her eyes.

"You don't have the right to do this! We're not just animals you can hunt for fun! We're human beings!"

The second symbol on the wristband vanished. Eight seconds left.

"TURN IT OFF!" Buffy screamed.

The creature reached its other arm over, slowly, painfully, and pushed three buttons on the wristband. The countdown stopped.

The creature turned its head to look up at Buffy.

"SLAY-ERR," it said. It was working hard to speak; its jaw was probably broken.
"SLAY-ERR. NOT. HUMAN."

It took an agonized breath.

"SLAY-ERR. IS. HUNT-ERR."

Then the creature stopped moving.

-----

Reghya awoke in darkness.

He could feel something crumbly, like dry shreds of paper, all over his back and legs. From somewhere above him, he could hear tiny whistling sounds, like the calls of the tree-flyers on his home world.

Opening his eyes, Reghya saw thin blue shapes above him, waving in the slight breeze. Bits of orange sat on the thin forms, occasionally hopping from one to another, or flying out of sight altogether.

What a strange place, he thought. Is this where the dead go?

Gradually, Reghya became aware of pain in his jaw and ribs. It seemed unlikely to him that the dead felt pain. Then he remembered that his vision was blurry because his Huntmask was damaged. He reached up and pulled it off.

Reghya found himself lying in the forest. The ground was covered with dry leaves that had fallen from the trees above. That explained the sensations on his back. Earth birds, small but loud, sang in the trees.

He looked to his left and saw the bodies of Ghrall and Taghryn laying near him. Tracks on the ground indicated that a wheeled vehicle had brought them here, weaving amongst the trees. The forest floor, along with some of the trees, was blackened in spots, and Reghya realized that this was where his children had first faced the two humans.

Reghya corrected himself. Not humans. One human, perhaps. And one Hunter with a human face.

He rose to his feet. With great effort, he picked up Ghrall's body and began to carry it to the drop ship. It wasn't far; he would be back for Taghryn soon.

It was important that he get them home. He had to cremate their bodies publicly, so that he could explain to everyone what had killed them. And tell the others never to visit Earth again.

One did not hunt other Hunters.

-----

Buffy, Giles, and Xander headed back towards town in Joyce's SUV, which they had borrowed to take the aliens' bodies back into the woods. Giles had objected at first, questioning the wisdom of leaving a nuclear-armed creature to its own devices in the forest. But Buffy believed the alien would do no more harm.

"If it wanted to blow us up, it would have," she said. "I think it just wants to take its friends' bodies and go home."

"Yeah," Xander agreed. "I'm just glad not to have to change my mailing address to Ground Zero."

Giles' brow furrowed. "I still don't understand how you convinced it, Buffy," he said.

"Or what it meant when it called you a hunter," Xander added.

"I don't know," Buffy said, her brow furrowed.

"Perhaps..." Giles started, then trailed off.

"What?" Buffy asked.

"Perhaps it felt some sort of connection with you, saw you as a, a colleague, an equal. A fellow hunter."

Buffy lifted her head, sudden anger in her eyes. "I am nothing like them," she said vehemently. "They hunt people for sport, for fun! What I do is totally different!"

"Of course, of course," Giles agreed. "Not the same at all."

"Yeah," Xander said. "Totally different. I mean, you slay to protect the world. It's not like you enjoy it."

"Right," Buffy said. Her voice grew quieter. "Right."

They drove the rest of the way in silence.