Act Four

On the floor of the pit, approximately 18-foot deep and 10-foot in diameter, the three Slayers lay on the ground. A small amount of light filtered down from the opening. Momentarily stunned, Buffy blinked once or twice and then let out a small groan.

"Your rescue techniques bite," Kennedy complained, ironically having regained consciousness as a result of the fall.

Faith was also beginning to stir. "Next time we'll use more finesse," she croaked.

"You know," remarked Buffy thoughtfully as she rose on shaky legs, "on my remarkably extensive list of crappy days, this one's starting to rank."

Struggling to their feet the trio began to inspect their surroundings. Faith regarded the pit entranceway above with a critical eye.

"Too high," she determined and nobody disputed the fact. She took stock of the pit's length. "And not enough room for a running jump." Again, the statement was met without challenge.

Running a hand over the walls, Buffy delivered her assessment. "Smooth." She pounded on the packed dirt. "And hard."

"We can probably carve some handholds ..." began Kennedy, twisting her neck from side to side and wincing as a muscle protested.

The blonde shook her head. "That'll take too long. This wasn't naturally made. You can bet tall, gray and lumpy will be along any second to check this. I very strongly suggest we not be here when he does."

Faith paced the pit liked a caged panther. Her forehead was creased with concentration. "I think I got an idea," she announced slowly.

Both Buffy and Kennedy followed Faith's gaze as she jerked her head toward the mouth of the pit.

Faith looked meaningfully at Buffy. "B, think you could toss me up there?"

Buffy moved to stand next to Faith and considered the proposition from the dark-haired Slayer's perspective. She nodded speculatively.

"If you're jumping too ... yeah. I think so."

The trio exchanged knowledgeable glances, obviously now all on the same page.

"Let me go first," stated Kennedy. She turned to Faith. "You're the tallest. The few extra inches might be crucial."

With a curt nod of agreement, Faith took a step backward as Buffy moved to stand near the wall. Leaning over, she cupped her hands and then clenched the fingers tightly, holding the human stirrup low so as to provide the most amount of boosting power. She shot Kennedy a quick look.

"Ready?"

Kennedy was indeed ready for launch. She planted a foot firmly in Buffy's hands as the blonde gritted her teeth and steeled herself for lift-off. Kennedy first made sure that her balance was sound and then issued the countdown.

"On three. One ... two ... three!"

Amassing all her strength, Buffy tossed Kennedy upward at the exact moment Kennedy executed her jump. Sailing high into the air, she managed to gain a hold at the edge of the pit, but it was a rough landing and for a split second, it appeared as though she might slip back down. But then, she dug deep with her fingers and, legs kicking violently, pulled herself out.

Faith treated Buffy to a good-natured shove of success and the blonde grinned in response. Then, the pair stared with anticipation at the mouth of the pit and waited. The time seemed to drag and there was still no sign of Kennedy. Buffy and Faith turned to each other, each wearing a worried frown.

"You don't think she ...?" ventured the blonde.

But then, Kennedy's head reappeared.

"Did a quick sweep of the area," she informed her trapped companions. "No sign of Nimrod."

With a quick nod, Faith noted Buffy's inquiring glance as Kennedy dug the toes of her boots into the soft ground above and dangled her arms into the pit. No more words were required and none were spoken. Repeating the same procedure as before, Buffy hurled Faith into the air and Kennedy caught the outstretched hands with a smooth and effortless motion.

"Insert your obligatory weight joke here," Kennedy told the suspended Slayer with a grin.

"Ha ha," retorted Faith before shouting down to Buffy, "Get a move on, B. I gotta listen to much more'a Kenn's 'humor', I'm takin' my chances solo."

"Coming right up," was the reply.

The blonde critically eyed the set-up. Even with the combined arm length of Kennedy and Faith's entire body, it was still around a ten-foot jump. Backing up to the far wall, she flattened herself against it and then pressed her palms against the compact surface for extra take-off power. She came out of the blocks with arms pumping and a thunderous stride. Waiting until the last possible second, she gave a mighty thrust and reached out, gripping Faith by the shins. Immediately, Kennedy began to tug but was at a distinct disadvantage, lying as she was flat on her stomach, and she could make no headway.

"I don't have enough leverage to pull us up," she informed them. "You'll have to climb."

"Oh, this'll be fun," remarked the hanging Faith, tone dripping with sarcasm.

The blonde began to scale Faith's torso. "Believe me," she muttered through her endeavors, "when I've had this dream, you were nowhere in it."

Peering down at the spectacle, Kennedy shook her head ruefully. "I totally shouldn't've volunteered to go first."

It was something of a struggle, but Buffy eventually cleared Faith's body. Faith scowled as the blonde planted her foot firmly atop the dark hair to provide a final boost, but then she was gone and Faith looked up hopefully. Hauling herself to the surface, Buffy promptly crouched down next to Kennedy and then relieved the other woman of Faith's left hand. Together, they dragged the dangling Slayer from the depths and then all three collapsed in a breathless heap, staring down into the pit's interior.

"Alright," puffed Buffy, "show of hands: who's sick of this crap?"

Kennedy immediately raised a hand. Faith raised two.

Buffy nodded in agreement. "Then here's what we're gonna do ..."

----------

Hands clasped behind his back, Xander followed Tara as she inspected yet another apartment. This time, it was a loft, similar to one Giles had purchased for himself but less spacious. Nonetheless, it possessed a quaint ambience and the blonde was obviously delighted with what it had to offer. A leasing agent provided pertinent details as she led Tara toward one of the room's many large windows.

"As you can see," the woman pointed out, "the view is second to none." She paused and then gestured to her left. "And only a few blocks from campus." She turned to Tara and smiled encouragingly. "Restaurants and shopping are all within walking distance, and we're right on the major bus routes."

Immensely impressed, Tara nodded with great enthusiasm and peered through the window like a kid window-shopping on Christmas Eve. The blonde's reaction did not go unnoticed by Xander and he began to critically examine the area with something of a frantic expression.

Meanwhile, the woman continued to work on selling the place. "We have our own laundry facilities in the building, and cable is included."

Her pitch complete, the agent stood back and treated Tara to a satisfied smile, ostensibly secure in the knowledge that it was a done deal. Judging by the pleasure that shone in Tara's face, it seemed that the witch was only moments away from claiming the loft as her own, and appeared to be already decorating and personalizing the apartment in her mind's eye. Glancing at Xander, she edged toward him with an air of expectancy.

"What do you think?" she asked excitedly, attempting to keep her voice low.

The carpenter shook his head emphatically, his eye casting about the room wildly. "Uhh ... uhh, no good."

A look of sharp surprise crossed Tara's features as she arched a quizzical eyebrow.

Xander stared at the ceiling as he searched desperately for a reasonable explanation. "Termites," he announced with authority.

"Termites," echoed Tara dubiously.

The answering nod was certain. "Yeah. Insatiable little devils. This place is a magnet for 'em."

Tara frowned and crossed her arms, eyeing him cautiously. "Xander, the building's made out of solid concrete."

"Concrete termites?" he offered with a weak grin.

"Okay, that's it."

Grabbing the carpenter by the elbow, she steered him firmly toward the leasing agent. He complied without protest, rather like a small boy who had been caught with his hand in the cookie jar and knew he was about to get his knuckles rapped for the transgression.

Without loosening her grip, Tara addressed the realtor. "It's a beautiful apartment. I have your card, so I'll sleep on it and let you know."

The woman's features wavered between disbelief and disappointment. Her mouth opened as if she were about to say something, but Tara was already steadfastly dragging Xander from the apartment while leveling him with a somewhat angry glare. They walked to the elevator in silence. Head hanging low, the carpenter watched apprehensively as the blonde jabbed at the 'Down' button. The pleasantly muted 'ding' of arrival materialized much sooner than the carpenter would have liked and he shuffled between the open doors with reluctance.

As soon as the elevator began its descent, Tara pinned Xander with her eyes. "What is going on?"

"I'm being helpful?" The statement was punctuated with a toothy grin that was equal parts hopeful and charming, but the blonde remained immune and unimpressed.

"You have a very interesting definition of the word," she responded in a level voice.

Xander scratched his head. He zealously scrutinized the row of numbered buttons and studied the interior of the elevator with great interest. Tara waited. It was plain that she was well aware he was buying time – whether to articulate the truth or formulate yet another fib was less clear. Finally, the carpenter cleared his throat and jumped in with both feet.

"I don't want you to move out."

The elevator slid to a smooth stop. The pair exited and moved down the hallway.

"You could try, you know ... saying something," rebuked Tara.

"Well I was," insisted the carpenter. "In my special Xander-way."

As they emerged into the street, Tara treated Xander to a penetrating look, indicating that this was far from the end of their discussion.

The carpenter shrugged and dragged his feet as they moved to the side and out of the main lanes of pedestrian traffic. "Look, if I just said, 'Hey, Tara, don't move out', you woulda smiled and said you had to and that woulda been that. Then you're gone."

"I'm just moving out of the house," the blonde replied, her tone much kinder now, "not going halfway around the world."

"Sure, I know that," Xander acknowledged. "Not today, anyway. But ..." With a sigh, he turned toward her, concern pushing into his expression. "I can't even pretend to know what you must be going through. What those scary eye-guys must've done to you. But I'm getting to be something of an expert in 'friends coming back from the dead'-ology, an' if it's one thing I learned the hard way the first time around, it's that you do all you can to support those friends."

"Xander," the blonde assured. "I'm fine ..."

With a violent shake of his head, Xander forcefully contradicted the statement as Tara glanced away and watched the passersby with exaggerated interest. "You're not fine," he insisted. "Now I admit, you're puttin' on a heck of a better show than Buffy did, but you're not foolin' us. You think we don't see the thousand-yard stare?" In all seriousness, he took stock of her profile and then added gently, "Tara, I've heard you crying at night."

Seemingly ashamed at the mild accusal, the blonde ducked her head and turned even further away, but Xander was having none of it. Stepping around to face Tara directly, he raised her chin with a delicate but steadfast finger.

"It's okay." The carpenter's smile was compassionate. "But what Dr. Xander prescribes is at least four hugs a day an' lots of love and understanding from your family. An' that's sorta hard to get when you're hiding across town."

"I'm not hiding," Tara objected, but her tone lacked conviction.

"You are hiding," Xander persisted. "You've been hiding since you got here, an' it's killing you. I may not always be the most insightful Scooby, but I know a thing or two about hiding from painful stuff. It'll get you in the end, one way or another. Trust me on this one."

Tara cast her eyes downward once more. "I just ... I can't ..."

Xander was quick to agree. "I get that too, and it's okay. You don't have to now. But I promise, you'll have to do it sooner or later, an' the longer you leave it, the worse it's gonna get. Until then though, you shouldn't be alone. You should be with us. We want you with us."

"But Willow ..." Tara's voice broke as she spoke the name, betraying her fears.

"Please," retorted Xander, dismissing outright whatever the witch might be thinking. "Willow was the queen of forgiveness before she had a few bad Goth moments, you really think she's gonna hold a grudge now? On you of all people? You nearly did somethin' pretty bad, true. Do you two need to talk about it? Hell yeah. But you know what?" He affixed Tara with an earnest stare. "This isn't about Will. This is about you."

Xander sighed heavily at Tara's uncertain expression before continuing. "If you really, deep in your gut think that moving out is the best thing for you, then okay. We'll go back and look at everything all over again, an' I swear this time I'll be nothing but honest. We can go out and look every day from sun-up to sundown until you find the perfect place, and I'll back you 100 percent all the way. I'll even happily go furniture shopping—" He thrust a finger in the air at Tara to further emphasize his point. "—an' trust me when I say I'd rather have that brain-weevil thing from Wrath of Kahn in my ear than shop for furniture."

That earned him a tiny smile, and Xander pressed onward, becoming serious again. "But if you've got a doubt, even a microscopic one about leaving, then please – don't go. Cuz I know we're all a lot happier with you around, an' I got a hunch the feeling's mutual."

The blonde maintained her silence for a long moment and it appeared as though she were physically unable to utter any words. Instead, she threw her arms around Xander, enveloping him within a tight hug. Relief flooding his countenance, the carpenter hugged Tara in return, gazing down at her warmly.

"See, lookit that: one hug down already," he cajoled. "What say I take you home and we get the other three?"

With shining eyes, Tara nodded and then broke free from the embrace. The smile she threw Xander's way was one of embarrassment but undeniable gratitude. Together, they walked toward the car. As he opened the passenger door, Tara glanced in his direction.

"That brain-bug thing, always freaked me out," she confided.

"Me too," replied the carpenter with a fierce shudder of repulsion. "Gyiiaah."

----------

"She's awake!" announced a much-relieved Ginny as a groan escaped from Dawn's lips.

"Not too fast," cautioned Brenda worriedly, laying a restraining hand on Dawn's shoulder as the teenager started to move.

Dawn's response was confused and shaky. "What happened?"

Jackie stood up and crossed her arms. "Well, see, we were sort of relying on you for that part." The tone was sharp but relief was also apparent in her face.

"You did the flip-thing, then just ... passed out," Meghan explained. "It's only been for a few minutes, but still. You scared the crap out of us. We were two steps away from calling 911."

"Glad you didn't," breathed Dawn. "Buffy would've had a fit." With the help of Brenda and Jackie, she gingerly adopted a sitting position but almost immediately let out an acute moan, allowing her head to drop agonizingly into her hands.

"It's the headaches again, isn't it?" challenged Jackie.

Dawn winced. "Sort of. Never passed out before, though." She smiled weakly through the pain with forced humor. "That's new."

"New and scary!" twittered a concerned Ginny. "Dawn, I don't like this. What if something's wrong? What if you have a brain tu—"

"I don't," snapped Dawn.

"Sorry," came Ginny's meek response.

Dawn flashed her a feeble smile of apology. "No, it's okay. I just ... I don't think it's that."

"Then what is it?" demanded Meghan. "Because I gotta say ... random headaches, passing out ... It's not normal, Dawn."

"You've been putting this off for weeks," admonished Brenda with a frown, "but you have got to tell someone."

"Yes, please," Ginny practically begged. "Please tell someone."

Jackie was adamant in expressing her recommendation. "Tell someone or we tell them for you."

About to voice a protest, Dawn glanced at the four faces surrounding her. Each, in its own way, was determined and unswayable.

"Alright," she sighed, admitting defeat with marginal good grace. "I guess I've put things off long enough."

----------

"Hey," greeted Tara softly as she entered the Sanctum. Willow and Giles turned at the sound of her voice, both having been lost in concentration as they poured over the open book between them.

The redhead beamed at Tara's unexpected arrival. "Hey!" she returned sunnily. "Didja find lots of great places? I bet you're so excited, with the new place and the moving in, and the—" Willow's eyes lit up and she waved her hands in the air. "We can have a party! A- A house warming party! It'll be like your first official mess to clean up!"

"Sounds like fun," Tara agreed, then added, "Well, the party part. Not so much the messy part."

Willow beamed even more brightly. "I'm sure we can work around it. So." Folding her hands in her lap, she leaned forward encouragingly, anxious for every detail. "Tell us all about it!"

Closing the door, Tara ventured further into the room and took a seat next to Willow.

"Well, it's pretty big," she began. "Nice place. It comes pre-furnished with roommates and everything." Willow frowned in confusion. "It's like it was made for me," continued the blonde. "There's a sign up on my door already. It's in a good neighborhood – just down the hall from where you sleep, actually." Tara smirked a little shyly at Willow, who was now grinning with pure delight, the penny having dropped with an irrefutable 'cha-chink.'

Tara glanced at the floor before raising her eyes and looking directly first at Giles and then at Willow. "And the best part is," she smiled, "it already feels like home."

"You're not leaving?" asked Willow.

"I'm not leaving," Tara confirmed.

It seemed as though the redhead's face might just split into two equal halves if her grin managed to get any bigger. Tara echoed the smile, but she soon glanced away and scooted her chair closer to the table. "So," she declared. "I guess it's time to start working on stuff."

She leaned forward, regarding with curiosity the book which the pair had been studying so avidly. She threw the Watcher a questioning glance and arched her eyebrow. Giles, who had been observing the exchange between the two women with a pleased expression, duly accepted the cue and snapped out of his reverie. He turned the volume slightly so that Tara could better see the text and the notes that had been made concerning its content.

Willow continued to grin for a moment longer, then she too focused her full attention on the work at hand.

----------

Having made a complete recovery from the grit-infested assault, Barradon moved through the trees in a methodical and calm manner, confident that he had not lost the Slayers' trail. Pausing for a moment, he sniffed at the air and then turned his head slowly to the left. With a smile, he strolled leisurely in that direction. His smile widened considerably at the scene that soon met his eyes.

Suspended upside-down, about ten feet above the ground, Buffy dangled from the sturdy bough of one of the larger and more solid trees by a thick wire snare that was entangled around both her ankles. The Slayer looked for the most part none the worse for wear, though she was obviously quite dirty and the jacket of her tracksuit had gone missing at some point. An expression of amusement crossed the demon's face as he approached. Then, very pointedly, he surveyed the surrounding area.

"Abandoned, I see," he commented.

In typical fashion, Buffy didn't seem unduly perturbed by the observation. "I had a plan for taking you out," she sighed, "but they didn't think it would work. Then this happened, and, well ..."

"You're weak," Barradon told her with authority. "They were smart to leave you behind."

The blonde was most agreeable. "That's the conventional wisdom."

She crossed her arms. The gesture painted something of an absurd picture given that she was upside-down. "Now, I'm feeling generous," she stated cordially, "so I'll give you one last chance: give up the whole great gray hunter thing and you can still walk away from this."

The demon paused and stared at the blonde. An odd expression crept into his face. His mouth began to twitch and his nostrils began to flare. Then Barradon threw back his head let loose with a hearty roar of laughter. It was a full-blooded laugh, lusty and brimming with uncontrolled hilarity. The sound reverberated throughout the entire forest. But, as suddenly as the merriment had begun, it ceased and he focused on the Slayer with serious eyes.

"Your part in the hunt is over." His tone was matter-of-fact. "Now you die, and your friends will soon join you."

"Sooner than you think," Buffy rejoined cheerily.

Barradon was confused. "What?"

In less than a heartbeat, the demon was not only confused but also dazed as Faith, who had assumed an attack position behind him, swung a massive tree branch like a club and whacked him squarely in the back of the head. The force would have been more than sufficient to crush the skull of a normal person, but it only served to knock Barradon momentarily off-balance. Nonetheless, he winced with minor pain, although the recuperative period was virtually instantaneous and he whirled to face his assailant.

At the same time, from behind the large tree, Kennedy released the snare wire she was holding and Buffy fell to the ground, unraveling her bonds as she traveled downward. Landing on her hands, the blonde executed an athletic tumble that left her standing firmly on her feet. Shedding her allotment of the snare, Kennedy moved to join the blonde and then both of them rushed to Faith's side.

As Barradon brought his meaty fist down like a hammer to pound on Faith, she deftly used the thick branch to ward off the blow but grimaced as the bough snapped like a twig after deflecting only a small portion of the impact. The remaining force was enough to knock her back several feet into a tree and she hit the trunk with a heavy thud before sliding to the ground.

"A ruse," pondered the demon. His tone was complimentary. "Refreshingly different. It won't be enough to save you, however."

"'Refreshingly different'?" Buffy queried, her hands clasped behind her back. "What are we, a new soft drink?"

The demon declined to answer, choosing instead to advance murderously on the slowly recovering Faith.

Buffy sprang into action. Each of her hands had been sheathed in the material of her missing jacket, and one end of the half-inch steel wire snare was wrapped around each protected fist. With a snarl, she leapt for Barradon's back. Throwing out her arms, she looped the slack length of wire around the demon's neck and planted her feet squarely between his shoulder blades. Grunting with strain, the blonde Slayer gritted her teeth and pulled with every ounce of strength she could muster, trying her utmost to decapitate him on the spot.

Barradon's ebony eyes bulged slightly in their sockets, but not only did his head remain firmly attached, the skin was showing no signs of breaking. The effect was very much like attempting to behead a concrete post.

Attempting to take advantage of the situation, Kennedy entered the fray. "I was gonna follow up with some sort of 'punch' pun—"she smirked, aiming a mighty punch directly into Barradon's solar plexus. "But I think it was pretty obvious, don't you?"

The only outward result from the blow was that Barradon's muscles tensed and he surged against the force Buffy was exerting. With a great twang, the wire snapped, sending Buffy vaulting back through the air. The Slayer had just enough time to utter a small noise of surprise before landing flat on her back and skidding along the forest floor.

Kennedy observed all of this with a trained eye, and as Barradon stumbled forward, she dropped immediately into a crouch. With unerring precision, she lashed out with a brutal sideways kick, directly at the demon's left kneecap. Having already been attacked there once, the area was comparatively sensitive, and the monster grunted in pain. Kennedy allowed herself a satisfied grin as he was knocked further off-balance, and she quickly moved to take advantage. Another well-aimed kick to his side would have seen Barradon tumbling to the ground, but the demon had clearly decided enough was enough and this time he was ready.

As the Slayer's boot sped toward its target, the demon's hand came up and he caught it solidly. Instinctively, Kennedy tried to pull away, but much to her dismay, discovered she was held fast. She had just enough time to register the look of expectant pleasure on the hunter's face before he let loose with a resounding backhand. It was close, but Kennedy was able to pull back far enough to take only a glancing hit on the cheek that stunned her for an instant, and she fell as he released his hold.

Standing unseen at the demon's other side, Buffy was waiting for just such an opening and she seized the opportunity, using the momentum of Barradon's own swing to trip and throw him. For the first time, the Slayers had the satisfaction of seeing their opponent sprawled, flat on his back, on the forest floor. It truly was a Kodak moment and one that inspired Faith to charge.

Rushing to stand over Barradon, she plunged her fist straight down into his face. The direct hit carried much gratification but by now, it was becoming abundantly clear that this demon was not an enemy who could be taken out so easily. Raising an arm, he swatted Faith to one side but lack of leverage left him unable to summon sufficient force to effectively propel the punch.

Like a shark smelling blood in the water, Kennedy zeroed in once more on Barradon's leg, and made her third attempt. Raising her knee almost to her shoulder, she stomped powerfully on the joint. Barradon hissed with pain and Kennedy drove her boot into the demon's throat, but his recovery was so speedy that he seized her entire leg, twisting it too sharply for the Slayer to complete her spin. Consequently, she tumbled heavily to the ground.

Buffy made a valiant effort to restrain Barradon from getting to his feet, but the hunter simply would not be held. Landing a lightning jab to her stomach that knocked all the wind from her lungs, he tossed her aside like a rag doll and pushed himself up from the forest floor.

The only Slayer who had managed to regain firm footing by this time was Faith and she stood ready to go another round, holding her fists in front of her like a prizefighter. Kennedy was on her knees, presumably waiting for the surrounding area to stop spinning before she made her stand. A gasping Buffy, leaning on one elbow and, apparently wondering why every ounce of available oxygen had taken a sudden aversion to filling her lungs, slowly shook her head.

She took careful stock of the scene – and the powerful enemy – before her. Stumbling to her feet, she glanced at Kennedy, who had also now risen and was leaning unsteadily against the trunk of a tree. Buffy shook her head again as awareness dawned that while the three of them were coming up about even with Barradon, they were failing to gain even the slightest edge. Worse yet, the demon didn't appear to be tiring one iota, while the Slayers themselves were showing every sign of fatigue and battle weariness. The realization made her angry and she gritted her teeth, but there was no denying the inevitable. Her eyes darted around the area searching for something – anything that would provide them with an advantage. And then she spotted the very thing: a break in the tightly knit trees. Her eyes widened. It was the way out, she was sure of it.

"Come on!" she shouted. "This way!"

But Faith and Kennedy had engaged themselves once more in the endless exchange of throwing, blocking and dodging blows. Skipping aside to avoid a particularly lethal looking jab, Faith quickly glanced in Buffy's direction. "What?" she hollered.

"We can get out, over here!" Buffy urged.

Kennedy dodged a punch aimed at her stomach. "Buffy, this thing is a killer!" she yelled. "Who knows who it'll murder next?"

"Us if we don't get out of here and get some back up!" returned an impatient Buffy. "Now come on!"

Faith and Kennedy were clearly reluctant to leave but apparently, they too had reached the conclusion that discretion was the better part of valor. Turning, Kennedy sprinted in Buffy's direction. Faith hung around a while longer to get in a parting kick to Barradon's head – though it had little effect – before joining the other two. Then together, they made a run for the exit.

Barradon watched their departure for a nanosecond, weighing the distance between predator and prey. His eyes glinted as he realized, in all likelihood, he possessed the ability to still catch them and he took off with a giant step. His feet pounding the forest floor was akin to a rogue elephant lumbering through the jungle. Then, there was silence; an uncanny and oppressive silence. The Slayers had almost cleared the wooded area, escape was within their reach.

"Oh, shi—" swore Faith.

Barradon had materialized out of nowhere. The trio quickly scattered, only barely avoiding a head-on collision with the demon. With astounding agility, Faith ducked to his left and displaying equal skill, Kennedy repeated the action to his right, while Buffy – in a move that would have made a major league baseball player proud – slid effortlessly between the monster's legs. They united on the other side. Without missing a single beat or breaking stride, both brunettes took hold of one of the blonde's outstretched hands and pulled her to her feet. The entire performance had all the elegance and timing of a well-rehearsed ballet. They never glanced behind them as they sprinted forward, each diving for the forest edge – and each making it.

Blowing out huge gasps of air, the three Slayers scrambled to their feet and turned with defensive postures, shoulder to shoulder, anticipating Barradon's arrival. Quite obviously, they were taking no chances or placing any bets on the notion that he was not, in fact, still chasing them. But, as it happened, he was standing at the edge of the woodlands, making no further move to follow. He regarded them with some respect and inclined his head. Warily, the trio began to relax.

"Well met, Slayers."

"That's your opinion," retorted Kennedy.

"Me," added a scowling Faith, "I'm goin' for somethin' a few more shades of pissed off."

"This isn't over for you, is it?" asked Buffy. "The hunting and killing thing, I mean. Don't suppose we can convince you to retire to the Old Demon's Home and exchange stories of the good ol' days over chess."

The demon puffed out his chest. "I am Barradon of the Ohndi Clan," he told them, as though this statement were the only logical and acceptable answer.

"So that'd be a no, then?" questioned Buffy acidly.

Barradon's face assumed something of a smirk. "That'd be a no," he confirmed.

"Then you know we have to stop you," Buffy said flatly.

"I know you can try," he conceded.

A strained silence descended - Buffy staring at Barradon staring at Buffy. In unison, the Slayers began to step away, still not trusting the demon enough to turn their backs on him, but he made no move toward them. They hadn't gone too far, however, when Barradon's voice reached them.

"As Hamaculo said, I am forbidden from pursuing you again as targets until one of your years has elapsed. Should you attack me, however ... then as you say, 'all bets are off'."

Choosing to ignore the implication, all three Slayers turned around. No longer backing away from Barradon, they concentrated on moving forward.

"They always gotta throw out the parting shot," muttered Kennedy, mostly to herself.

"An' I'm comin' back for my knife!" Faith threw over her shoulder, loud enough so he could hear.

Barradon continued to smirk as he watched their departure.

Faith glared angrily at absolutely everything within her line of sight. "Bring 20, 30 of the girls, make a day of it. Smug bastard."

"We'll bring a bazooka too," said a determined Buffy. "I find that usually works best against tough, oddly colored demons."

Barradon nodded sagely at their retreating backs. "Next year, Slayers. Next year."

Then suddenly, without the slightest hint or warning, a single hand shot out and seized the demon by the neck. With a savage jerk, there was a loud crack as the cervical vertebrae shattered, severing the connection between brain stem and spinal cord. Barradon's body immediately went limp and the hold was released. The corpse fell heavily to the ground, eyes wide and staring. The toe of a black leather boot prodded the head that rolled back and forth with nauseating flexibility.

Feet stepped over the lifeless body and legs, sporting black pants, stood astride the fallen demon. The turtleneck was also black. Indeed, the entire outfit was strikingly similar to the one worn by the unknown intruder who had initiated the devastating assault on Slayer Central – with one noticeable difference. Even through the dark thick fabric of the sweater a throbbing blue light could be seen, just above the area of the heart. It pulsated in the shape of the Circle's emblem.

Crouching, with forearms resting on her knees, Judith stared in the direction that had been taken by the Slayers. They were still visible, but barely. She seemed to have changed little since her battle with Buffy, and bore none of the expected scars or marks that should have lingered after being engulfed by the magickal inferno. Her eyes, however, were vastly different; they now glowed with blue power – the exact shade of the sigil, which pulsed with precise regularity upon her chest. The effect lent her face an eerie and otherworldly look.

As she straightened, her lips curled in a cruel smirk and when she spoke, it was with the same reverberation heard in the voice of Slayer Central's anonymous assailant.

"For them, there won't be a next year."