Standard disclaimer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and all such related things, © Mutant Enemy and many other people with big scary lawyers. We're borrowing them without permission, but you said you were done with 'em, so we're hoping you won't mind so much. Stories, images, characters you don't recognize, those are all by 4Paws. Yes, we'll take the blame.

Setting: Set in the continuation-verse, which picks up about three months after the end of "Chosen". So, spoilers for pretty much everything, including any "episodes" in this series that have come before it.

Notes: Here we go with my most ambitious 'fic project ... well, ever, basically. A virtual continuation of a show with a whole heck of a lot more story to tell. Since deciding to do this project I've discovered that there are, in fact, many Season 8's ... but this is the only one with the Jet Wolf Seal of Involvement, so that guarantees freshness. Or something.

Episodes are posted to www.btvschosen.com weekly, at 8pm EST on Tuesdays, all pretty and HTML'd with graphics and oo! Credits. We have credits, too. Eps will appear the following Friday or Saturday on ff.net. So if you don't want to wait all that extra time (and really, how could you?), the site is the way to go.

(7 May 2004)


The Chosen: A Buffy Virtual Continuation

Episode 5: "Fringes"
Story by: Jet Wolf & Ultrace
Written by: Jet Wolf

Act Four

The frantic clacking of an air hockey puck was the prevalent sound in the rec room as Judith attempted to introduce Sonja to the finer points of the game. The score coupled with the almost pained expression on the blonde's face didn't speak highly of Judith's success. The room was fairly well populated that night, with three Slayers playing pool at the nearby table and five occupying the couches and chairs that surrounded the TV.

Willow and Kennedy walked in, mid-conversation. "I'll try," Kennedy relented, the effort put into the words indicating how little she was likely to output.

"She has a lot to offer," commented Willow helpfully.

The Slayer huffed. "I'll bet."

"Play nice."

"Hey, this is me bein' nice."

"You can be nicer."

Throwing Willow a sidelong glance, Kennedy sighed deeply, realizing she was fighting a losing battle. "You drive me crazy."

"That's not niiiicer ..." Willow sang with a cheerful grin.

Kennedy smiled broadly, not even trying to make it convincing.

The redhead patted her girlfriend's shoulder proudly. "There's my little trooper!" she exclaimed as though speaking to a very small child. Giving Kennedy's arm a shove, Willow grinned. "Now go woo me with your ability to propel plastic discs on jets of air."

"Well since you made it sound so sexy ..." the Slayer commented with a barely suppressed eye roll.

Willow smiled mischievously. "You should hear me talk about ping pong." Kennedy raised a very questioning eyebrow, but all she received in response was the enigmatic smile.

With a final odd look, Kennedy focused on the playing Juniors. "I got winner," she announced, just as Judith sank her final shot.

"A winner is me," declared Judith, smirking as Sonja glared at the scoreboard as though it were personally to blame for the totals it displayed.

Glancing at the nearby table, Sonja decided, "We'll play billiards next." She stared dejectedly at the paddle in her hand. "I play much better with a big stick."

"I've lost all ability to relate to you," remarked Kennedy, taking the paddle and moving into Sonja's now vacated position.

Willow moved slightly over Judith's shoulder to get the best view of the game. Or, perhaps more accurately, to get the best view of Kennedy playing the game. Sonja stood next to Willow as the match began.

Several heated minutes passed with only Kennedy managing to score once. The Senior Slayer was extremely enthusiastic about the game, bringing her typical competitiveness to even recreational activities. The goofy grin on Willow's face indicated that she in particular enjoyed Kennedy's enthusiasm. The witch was so wound up in her spectatorship that she didn't even notice Giles enter the room, and jumped slightly when he touched her shoulder.

"Willow, if you're free, I very much need to see you," Giles said with an urgency that Willow completely missed.

"Oh! Giles!" she enthused. "We wanted to come up and see you earlier, but you were all locky with the door. Xander bought you the cutest—"

Sighing the long-suffering sigh that only he could pull off without seeming too insulting, Giles interrupted. "I'm sure he did, and I'll be delighted – and admittedly, mildly terrified – to see what Xander could have purchased for me that could be called 'cute'." The Watcher emphasized the word as though it were thoroughly distasteful. "However that will have to wait. We have a breakthrough on the creature that attacked Kennedy last week—"

At this, Kennedy immediately became interested, sticking her hand out to intercept the puck as she straightened and focused intently on the conversation taking place across the room. The game halted, Judith also listened in, turning slightly so she could hear better, despite the fact that the pair were only a few feet behind her. Sonja had the best view of all, and she too was blatantly eavesdropping.

"—and I believe that I have discovered a way for you to uncover who summoned it. Now, we just ..." Realizing for the first time that he had an audience, Giles trailed off, beholding the three keen faces he hadn't intended to include in the conversation. He cleared his throat uncomfortably. "Perhaps we'd be better served continuing this in my office...?" he directed to Willow, extending his arm expectantly to escort her out of the rec room.

With an apologetic glance at Kennedy, Willow mouthed "Sorry", but the Slayer shook her head to let the other woman know that it was okay. Willow smiled in gratitude and left quickly with Giles.

-=-=-=-

It wasn't until the end of my day that I fully began to appreciate just how resourceful this new Council can be. By and large I remain unimpressed with their overall lack of cohesion, however they have a tenacity about them that I grudgingly admire. Not long after receiving word of the Mogari's nature, the Watcher had tracked down a spell that he believes could in fact trace back its source. Again, I stress my firm belief in the Circle to immobilize any such probes, however as we are all aware, information is the best defense. I will do my utmost to gather the specifics of this spell and report back on my findings at the earliest opportunity.

-=-=-=-

Kennedy watched Willow leave, then turned back to the air hockey table. "Now, where were we?"

Also lingering at the rec room entrance, Judith tore her eyes away and returned to the game. "You were pretending you were gonna beat me," she smirked.

"Oh yeah, that's right," Kennedy nodded. "You were trapped in some strange delusion. It's all coming back to me."

Sonja was the last to look away from the door, as though staring at it long enough would somehow allow her to tag along. Still deep in thought, she moved to the side of the table, standing at the center between the two opponents. "That was all very mysterious," she finally mused, absently watching the puck speed across the surface of the table. "What do you think it was about?"

"Eh, it's Watcher stuff," came Kennedy's off-hand reply, her eyes never moving from the table even a fraction.

"You don't find it interesting?" questioned the blonde with surprise.

Kennedy shook her head. "Nope, not really. I'm more a hands-on kinda girl. I leave the wondering about what I fought to the brains, and they leave the killing of the next one to me. It's a beautiful partnership."

Considering this carefully, Sonja frowned at Kennedy for a moment, then looked to the other girl. "How about you, Judith?"

"Seemed pretty interesting to me," she agreed. Glancing up, Judith jerked her head at Kennedy. "Maybe you can find out from Willow what it was all about later? Fill us in. Enquiring minds wanna know."

This little distraction was all Kennedy needed, and she scored another goal. "How about you get more interested in giving me at least a tiny bit of competition here, huh?"

"A bet, then?" challenged Judith, recovering the puck and dropping it on the table in front of her. "I win, you get the dirt from Willow and share with those of us less fortunate."

Kennedy was intrigued. "And if I win?"

She was met with an evil, confident grin. "Not gonna be an issue. I haven't lost a game of air hockey yet."

"First time for everything," Kennedy replied, almost exactly mirroring the grin.

That was all the confirmation Judith needed. She threw all her might behind the paddle and sent the puck flying toward Kennedy. She was ready for it, however, and returned it to the other side of the table with equal force. The game continued in this fashion for several minutes, both girls thoroughly engrossed, aided by the fact that Sonja had decided to play cheerleader for Team Judith. So much speed and strength was behind each stroke that the puck became little more than a blur, only a constant, rhythmic clack reporting that any contact was being made with it at all.

As the puck sped toward Judith's goal, she shot out her paddle to intercept and clipped it. Deflected from its target, it careened off the table, aiming directly for Kennedy. The Senior Slayer ducked just in time as the puck zoomed overhead. The wall wasn't able to duck out of the way so well, however. Rather than bouncing off into areas unknown, the projectile traveled with such power that it became embedded. Next to three nearby puck-sized holes. The Slayers watching TV turned at the noise and regarded the damage, then returned to their program without a word.

"That doesn't count," stated Judith with conviction.

-=-=-=-

Giles strode quickly into his office, Willow a few paces behind. From her obviously comfortable position stretched out in Giles' chair, Dawn jerked her head up, surprised by their entrance. She had reclined the chair almost horizontally, her feet propped on the desk, and seeing the pair startled her so much that she nearly fell. Nevertheless, she succeeded in maintaining her balance and dignity, albeit barely, and flipped her feet off the desk. In what she hoped was a sneaky and covert manner, she brushed away any lingering traces of her boots from the polished surface. Giles was thoroughly absorbed, however, and missed everything, although Willow was perfectly aware and smirked a greeting at Dawn.

"We've pinned down that the creature must have been summoned using one of five conjuring spells, based upon its primary characteristics and apparent function," explained the Watcher, grabbing an open book from his desk and bringing it over to Willow.

"I'm thinkin' it's probably the akello recit," added Dawn, "what with the bloodlust and all."

Willow smiled wistfully at Dawn. "Lookit you, all with the bloodlust." Giving an exaggerated sniff, she wiped away a faux tear. "They grow up so fast."

Dawn rolled her eyes while Giles completely ignored the conversation altogether. "There's a spell that can be used to trace back the line of mystical energies used in powerful spells," he reported, lifting the book in his hands. "Its original purpose was for witches to police themselves against dangerous uses of dark magick, but I believe that with a little creative manipulation, it will suit our purposes just fine."

"The only sample we have of the thing is a week old bloodstain, though. Do you think that'll be enough?" Dawn asked Willow as she lazily swung Giles' chair from side to side.

Taking the offered book, Willow intently reviewed the text in front of her. "Wow, this spell isn't messin' around," she commented, impressed. Giles and Dawn watched the witch as she read. After a minute or so, she glanced up, talking to herself. "Hmm. If we substitute orris root and wait for the first day of the new moon, and with some cleansing rituals ..." She trailed off, still pondering, then focused on the others. "This won't be easy, a-and I can't just go do this, like, now. It's gonna take some serious preparation – we're talkin' a- a week or two. Maybe even three. But yeah. I think I can do it."

Giles exhaled the breath he had been holding and relief flooded his features. "This is our only lead, and I'd rather not wait around until the next one of these decides to deliver itself to our doorstep. From the description, I doubt very much that it will be of much help in answering questions. However long it takes you to prepare and whatever you need, just let me know," insisted Giles. "It's crucial that this spell work. Everything hinges on getting this information."

Willow's face became etched with consternation. "So no pressure then," she whimpered.

-=-=-=-

With a slightly off-key clack, the puck screamed through the air, landing solidly in Kennedy's outstretched hand. Over her shoulder were now five long holes. The Senior Slayer was not amused. "That's gotta stop," she demanded. "Xander's gonna whine for a month if you destroy any more wall."

Opening her mouth to respond, Judith was interrupted by Faith's rather unusual entrance. Held out well in front of her was Norg, dangling several feet off the ground by the scruff of his well-tailor suit. The little demon had crossed his arms and was glaring at Faith, as though hoping to convey the very depths of his insult. If she was picking up on it, Faith clearly didn't care.

"Lookie what I found at the door," annouced the Slayer, hoisting Norg higher and displaying him to the group. "Anyone order a single-serve demon to go?"

The assembled Slayers chuckled and Faith opened her hand, unceremoniously depositing her cargo on the floor. Landing with a thud, Norg hastily scrambled to his feet, readjusting his suit jacket and brushing himself off.

"Honethtly, I did thay I came in friendthip," he grumbled, the glare pinned at Faith never once wavering, not even when the room erupted into quiet giggles at his lisp.

"Which would be why the only thing hurt is your pride," she replied, nudging the demon with her toe. "Now spill."

All other forms of entertainment forgotten with the new arrival, the Slayers formed a half-circle around Faith and Norg. Some were wearing blank, vaguely hostile expressions, but most appeared to find the notion of a tiny demon in a tiny suit adorable beyond words and seemed uncomfortably close to "Awww!"ing. To these would-be admirers, Norg flashed his most charming smile, apparently heedless of the fact that the teeth somewhat ruined the cute angle. In short, he generally enjoyed the positive attention.

Puffing up to make himself more important, achieving mixed results at best, Norg began his narrative. "I wath out tonight, minding my own bithneth, when I heard thith terrible thrieking coming from a nearby alley. Being the community thervith-minded demon that I am," he ignored the obligatory eye rolls and doubtful glances, "I went to thee what I could pothibly do to render my athithtanth. I thaw a woman, crying that a monthter had just thtolen her baby. And indeed, there wath a horribly oafith-looking demon running away with the poor thing cradled in his armth. I followed him, and he appearth to have holed up in a warehouth on 10th and Cornell." Norg concluded his explanation with an expectant look at the gathered Slayers.

"That's not too far from here," one Slayer said to her neighbors.

"We can be there in a few minutes," agreed another.

Faith and Kennedy, both with similar cross-armed stances, eyed each other skeptically.

"And we're believing you ... why now?" Kennedy asked the demon with a furrowed brow.

Craning his head up at the Slayer, doing his best to make eye contact, Norg replied smoothly, "Come on ladieth. I juth want to help you out, thave a life. It'th all very thelfleth," he assured her.

"Uh-huh," replied Faith dubiously. "Now try it again without lookin' like you're lyin' through your teeth."

"Okay, tho not thelfleth nethetharily," the demon admitted. "But hey, I figure thith can be the thtart of a beautiful relationthip. It may have pathed your notith, but I'm thomewhat vertically challenged." Norg held a hand over his head for unnecessary emphasis. "Believe it or not, little guyth like me, we don't have it tho eathy in the demon world."

Kennedy nodded at the demon's attire, still regarding him with the utmost suspicion. "That suit doesn't exactly scream 'hard times' to me."

"I do apprethiate the finer thingth, yeth," Norg said with an indulgent air as he smoothed the lapels of his suit. "But I get by uthing my brain. And my brain'th telling me, a town full of Thlayerth? That'th the thide you want to be on to enthure future enjoyment of thaid finer thingth."

Rolling his eyes at the two Senior Slayers who remained unconvinced, Norg threw his hands into the air with frustration. "Oh for— Look me up," he commanded. When all he received in response were blank stares, he sighed heavily and very carefully explained as though speaking to someone profoundly stupid. "Armod'th Demon Anthology, Volume 5. Page 315, if memory therveth. Do pleath tell me there'th at leatht one among you who can read?" he asked, seeming to half expect the answer 'no'.

Faith ignored the comment and pointed to one of the girls, jerking her head toward the library. The Slayer raced out of the room at top speed as the two Senior Slayers continued to glare suspiciously at Norg.

"The clock'th ticking down on that poor infant'th life, ladieth," he reminded them.

Kennedy took a threatening step forward, causing Norg to stumble backwards and his cool exterior to drop momentarily. "We find out you're lying to us, the baby's not the only one who's running out of time."

Book in hand, the girl ran back into the room and handed the volume to Faith. Casting a final glance at the demon, she opened the book and after several flips, arrived at the indicated page. She scanned through the text as Kennedy peered over her shoulder.

"'Quivel demon'," Faith read. "'Native to the Ohngard dimension. Usually found around potent energy convergences that attract strong forces, both positive and negative. Due to its diminutive size, it survives by making itself useful to whatever forces it perceives as giving it the most protection. Alone, the Quivel itself is ultimately harmless'." The book closed with a snap and all eyes returned to the demon.

"Not the motht glowing review ever written on uth, but thith hopefully allayth thome of your fearth...?" Norg queried pleasantly.

Kennedy ignored him and asked Faith, "What do you think? Can we trust him?"

"Probably not, but if some kid's life's at stake, we can't really afford not to check it out," answered Faith, the other Slayer nodding her agreement. "You stay here, keep an eye on him. I'll get some of the girls and we'll go make like heroes."

Unconcerned at the increased glare from Kennedy, Norg examined his fingernails.

Faith pointed to half the gathered girls, preparing herself for action. "Okay, you guys with me," she commanded. The selected Slayers began to file out of the door. "The rest of you stay here. Kennedy's in charge."

Reaching out, Kennedy caught Faith's arm just as the older woman turned away. "Think we should tell Giles or ... Buffy or something?"

"Nah, we can take care of it. But you don't hear from us in half an hour, tell Oxford."

As Kennedy nodded her understanding, Faith jogged out of the room after her team.

-=-=-=-

Flanked by half a dozen or so less-experienced Slayers, Faith stepped into the warehouse. To say it looked run-down would have been an insult to run-down warehouses everywhere. There appeared to be only one tiny light bulb in the entire place, but the illumination filtering in from outside was enough; the target's silhouette easily stood out across the building.

The demon was big. Even accounting for tricks of shadow, he was at least six and a half feet tall, with hulking arms and a solid-looking torso. They could make out the outline of his open maw, and the fangs that were revealed.

Totally dwarfed by comparison was the baby he was holding up with both arms. Slowly, he brought it closer to his mouth.

"Jesus!" one of the Slayers quietly gasped.

"Okay, no time for discussion," Faith instructed quietly but with an authoritative force. "Gina, Christi, you get the kid and get him out. Rest of us takes down Big Ugly."

The girls nodded their understanding, and Faith led the movement forward toward the demon. She moved stealthily just long enough to get within good range, then stood up to make herself more visible. "Yo!"

The demon whirled his head toward her, completely stunned by her appearance.

"You gonna just eat it dry like that? I hear they stick in your throat."

Clearly caught off-guard by this turn of events, the demon clumsily moved the arm holding the baby behind him. He spoke with a powerful, raspy voice despite his surprise. "What? Who? What are you—?"

"Put the kid down," Faith advised, advancing slowly. "Then we can chat, woman to ... thing."

The demon glanced behind him briefly as if he didn't know what was already there. Gina and Christi were spreading out from the rest of the group as he turned back to them, a mixture of fear and anger crossed his face. He set the baby down on a nearby crate. "You ... You saw ..."

"And boy do I wish I hadn't," Faith sneered, continuing to advance.

She slowed her approach only slightly to keep a defensible stance as the demon began lumbering toward her. As he fully stepped into what passed for light in the warehouse, the group could see that he looked much like a standard demon, except that he was really big and for some reason sported two sets of ears.

"I won't let you tell ... You can't tell anyone!" he snarled.

Faith held her hands up in a placating gesture. "Hey, no sweat. Your snack of choice – not quite the hot topic you'd think."

"You won't tell!" he bellowed, and sprung at her with surprising speed; she had enough time to prepare herself for his attack, and the Slayers around her moved out accordingly. Gina, followed by Christi, had arrived at the crate and gently picked up the baby.

For the Slayers, the fight between Faith and the demon was something to behold. No amount of practice sparring in the training room or observing of Slayer-on-Slayer combat could compare to the sight of their toughest member going toe-to-toe with such a powerhouse. The two exchanged a few casual but escalating punches that were intended more for sizing up the competition than doing damage. The demon then upped the ante with a strong blow which struck Faith's jaw and sent her spinning.

Acting on instinct and utilizing her momentum, Faith turned her spin into a powerful backhand that caught the monster by surprise. As he stumbled back momentarily, she pounded him a few more times in the head and across the chest. It didn't accomplish much in the way of harm, but even so, his defense became slow, sloppy and weak. She stopped attacking and stood almost entirely upright.

"This is the big threat?" she asked herself in amazement.

Seconds later, the demon lunged into a football-style charge. The Slayer braced herself, but his sheer mass was such that she was pushed off balance and back until she collided with the wall. Before he could capitalize on his position, Faith delivered a one-two combination of knee thrust and groin kick. His bulk caused her kick to land in his stomach instead, but it successfully knocked the wind out of him all the same.

Using the wall for support, she was able to shove him back out to the center of the room with her legs. As she straightened, the demon doing likewise, she glanced at the intimidated Slayers around her, all of whom were giving him a wide berth.

Smirking, Faith crossed her arms and took a step back from the regrouping creature. "This ain't Sunday brunch, folks, step up. Time to put that training to some use."

For just a moment they hesitated, indecisive, until a short girl with cropped blonde hair stepped forward to take her shot. Her foe had now regained his composure and the two proceeded to duke it out. The girl took a different tack on the fight than Faith, actually bothering to dodge the demon's swings, which were growing slower by the moment.

His durability wasn't lessening, however, and, seeming to realize she couldn't hurt him, he started to ignore her punches. A slow but lucky jab to the solar plexus left her all but paralyzed long enough for him to grab both her arms at the elbows and deliver a solid head-butt. The thud echoed throughout the warehouse.

A look of concern danced across Faith's face, but it was brief. "Teamwork, people!" she shouted, spurring the others into action.

Another Slayer, short with curly brown hair hair sprinted up to the demon and hit full-force with a spinning kick. It was enough to make him release his victim. Her savior didn't fair much better with attacks, but she improvised cleverly with a feint to his head that actually ended up as a kick directly on the kneecap. The demon fell heavily to one knee, howling in pain.

She seized his head, intending to twist, but he was too fast and grabbed her arms. However, he was unable to stop the third Slayer, a tall and lanky straight-haired brunette, from successfully snapping his neck and finishing the job.

As the demon collapsed to the floor in a lifeless heap, the blonde stumbled to her feet, still a little dazed. "Holy crap. Are they all like that?"

Faith restrained a chuckle. "Sometimes. That was your first non-vamp, huh?"

"Yeah," the blonde admitted, ruefully rubbing her forehead.

"Not bad. You'll get better." Faith turned to the entire group as she spoke. "You did okay, but'cha can't just sit around on your butts like that. You ain't gonna run, then you gotta hit, an' hit fast. Remember to help each other out. You're all your best chance of survival."

The lesson at an end, she went to Gina and Christi. "You got the kid?"

Gina gave her a hesitant look. "Uh ... Sort of?"

"What do you mean, sort—" Faith began, her voice trailing away as she looked past the two to see what lay on the crate. It was a baby doll, immaculately dressed in a tiny pink frock patterned with little yellow daisies. Its eyes seemed to sparkle despite the dim lighting, and it even wore a diaper.

"Oh man," she groaned, sporting an unusual expression of distaste. "That's just twelve kinds'a wrong."

-=-=-=-

Norg all but skipped along the darkened street, swinging his briefcase and humming a tuneless melody. The little demon was clearly in good spirits, wrapped up in whatever happy world he was currently inhabiting, and consequently paying little attention to his surroundings. As he passed an alleyway, he failed to see the shadowy form, which watched him intently. Very few details could be discerned, but it was obvious that the figure, like Norg, was well dressed, slightly reddish, and quite probably not human.

"Norg," a voice called out as he strode by without a glance. The tone was refined, inspiring, and contained just a hint of malice. It brought Norg up short and he whirled toward it, startled, but quickly recovering and moving to stand in front of the owner's voice.

"Thir!" he exclaimed with a joy bordering on sycophantic. "I'm thurprithed to thee you. I wath heading back to make my report."

"My last meeting let out early, I thought I'd see how it went," the figure explained conversationally.

"Great," enthused Norg. "Fantathtic. Better than we'd hoped. The Thlayerth were thuthpithiouth at firtht, but I think I won them over." The last statement was tinged with pride, and the little demon puffed out his chest.

"And Marv?"

"Detheathed."

"Excellent." The statement was laced with approval. "He was a disgrace to us all."

Norg nodded emphatically, a beaming smile plastered to his face. "I couldn't agree more. Playing with dollth?" He snorted in disgust. "We do have a reputation to uphold."

"The Slayers are certainly more effective than a pink slip," mused the figure thoughtfully. "And no need for severance."

"It'th a fantathtic idea. But then, that'th why you're the bosth, Bosth."

"True," came the agreement, although there was no conceit in the word, simply a statement of fact. "How did the Slayers take finding out that it wasn't a baby at all?"

Shrugging, Norg waved a hand dismissively. "Angry at firtht, figuring I'd thet them up or thomething. But I thimply told them that, bathed on the human woman'th reaction and my own eyeth, I had no reathon to think it wath anything but genuine. Thinthe it wathn't a trap for them and they themthelveth believed it to be a real child, they didn't quethtion it much. They interrogated me a bit more, but finally dethided I wath harmleth and let me go."

The pale light from a nearby streetlamp glinted off the teeth of the taller demon as he smiled amid the shadows. "This has been a most productive day," he decided cheerfully. "So what do you think? Karaoke bar?"

Norg grinned and followed his boss into the darkness.

-=-=-=-

The new Council remains an interesting experiment, but it is clearly no more than that. Once we are at full strength, they will fall, and when they fall, the rest of the world's chaos will soon crumble after them. This simply isn't a question. Order must prevail.

-=-=-=-

A large, modern conference table was situated in the center of an otherwise unadorned room. Those seated around the table, twenty in total and all male, were impeccably groomed and dressed in a manner that would do any CEO proud. Only one was speaking, the others paying rapt attention to his words. He was reading from a paper-thin device, light gray in color, which gave the appearance of being highly technological. As the man spoke, lines of text traveled up the surface, seeming to appear by magic.

"I will continue to gather information and include all I can in forthcoming reports," the man continued reading.

At the head of the table, his fingers steepled before him and brow creased in thought, sat a man whose demeanor was the very personification of control. Every strand of graying brown hair was in place, his moustache trimmed to lengths that, had they been measured, would have been identical. Each movement he made, including every blink of his eye and every breath that he took, seemed calculated. This was a man devoted to order and there was no room in any aspect of his life for anything but.

Although his disfigurement would have been alarming enough on its own, the aura he radiated only served to draw further attention to the huge, perfectly straight scar on the left side of his face. The puckered skin was pale and shiny, as though the injury had occurred at some point in the man's distant past, but this in no way made the scar any less prevalent, a fact emphasized by the absence of his left earlobe. The elongated scar stretched from where his earlobe had once been, cutting a smooth swath across his cheek and culminating at the corner of his mouth, where the healed flesh had distorted the upper lip into a perpetual smirk. Despite this, however, he rarely appeared amused in the slightest.

Except for now. He smiled.

-=-=-=-

"Again, I thank the Assemblage for this opportunity to serve them."

The training room was dark, quiet and completely empty, save for one solitary figure standing before the rows of mirrors that composed one of the walls. Typically they were used for those working out on the weight machines to check their positioning, or practitioners of various martial arts to monitor their form. Tonight, however, one of the mirrors was glowing faintly, a rich blue that permeated the room and enveloped it in an ethereal light. The glow pulsated, breathing, it seemed, with a life of its own.

Her report complete, Judith waved a dark crystal in front of the mirror. The intensity of its glow increased for a moment, the crystal echoing the color and hue, before both fell dark and again appeared normal.

Judith remained standing in front of the mirror, regarding her image impartially. Clad only in a thin tank top and pair of boxers, it was apparent that she had recently gotten out of bed. She displayed no emotion whatsoever, nor did she pay any particular attention to the marking over her heart, barely visible beneath the top's strap, of an eye affixed upon an oddly shaped staff.