While Judith continued to hold court over the room, each inhabitant, one by one, rose slowly to their feet, eyes glued upon the dominating figure. She smiled indulgently. "Did you miss me?"
"Just the part where we all got to take a hunk outta your skanky ass," snapped Faith.
Fluttering her lashes, Judith treated Faith to a mocking 'ooo, that hurts' look.
Moving stealthily toward Willow, Kennedy steadily put herself effectively between the redhead and the intruder. Consequently, she managed to overhear the conversation taking place between the two witches.
"So that's the- the Slayer who—" Tara was whispering.
"Who beat the crap outta Will, that's the one," interrupted Kennedy. She shrugged at the dark glare that issued from Willow's direction, adding matter-of-factly, "She did."
Willow was immediately indignant. "I was ambushed!" she protested. "Foul play!"
Further to the right and behind the group, Giles was whispering to Hannah and Wood. He had replaced his glasses and his eyes, glittering through the lenses like granite, never left Judith's face for an instant. Xander paused beside the trio for a moment and then, unobserved by anyone, sidled away.
"We don't want to make any sudden moves to attract her attention," murmured the Watcher, "but at the first possible moment, you two go get weapons and as many Slayers as you can find. Don't forget the tranquilizer gun and those darts."
Hannah shook her head vehemently. "I don't want to leave—"
"Do it," came the sharp command. With a slight but visible bristle of annoyance, Hannah returned the order with a curt nod as she and Wood began to slink warily toward the door.
Leaving Willow's side, Tara's unobtrusive movements had now brought her close to Buffy and, more importantly, next to Dawn. Catching Tara's eye, Buffy nodded meaningfully, conveying that protection of the teenager had been duly delegated. Secure in the knowledge of her sister's safety, Buffy joined Kennedy, where Faith had already assumed her position. The three Slayers thereby formed a clear initial line of defense between Judith and the rest of the room.
"Didn't get enough the first time, I take it?" queried Buffy.
"Suits me," Kennedy responded. She shot the blonde a quick glance. "You hogged all the fun."
Leaning on the railing above them, Judith simply smirked. "I think you'll find it a bit harder to beat me this time."
"Bet it'll be just as much fun, though," retaliated Faith.
"A serious ass kicking is a lesson I save for all my special students," Kennedy told her with a sneer. "Lucky you, you're in a class of one."
As the two dark-haired Slayers continued to banter with their adversary, Buffy turned to hiss at Willow. "Get back," she threw over her shoulder.
"But I can help," objected the redhead.
"She's here to here to kill you," snapped Buffy. "I need you back."
Clearly unhappy with the situation, it appeared as though Willow would voice yet another protest but at Buffy's withering look, she gritted her teeth and did indeed comply. She glanced at Tara, who was firmly ushering Dawn toward the Keeper.
"Ruth," whispered Tara, "can you protect Dawn?"
The teenager was working her way up to a full-blown protest. "I don't need—"
"Yes, you do," Tara told her, tone plainly communicating that there would be no further discussion.
She looked expectantly at the old woman, who nodded her confirmation. "She'll be safe as mother's milk."
Satisfied, Tara slowly crept back to the middle of the room. By now, Willow had reached Giles while Hannah and Wood were making good progress toward the door.
"So you came to, what?" taunted Buffy. "Make some idle threats?"
Faith arched an eyebrow. "Not impressive ones, neither."
"The Bringers didn't even talk, and they sounded scarier," baited Kennedy.
A momentary expression of irritation flashed across Judith's face. "You three," she sneered. "Always so superior. Thinking you had the answers. Well this time I—"
She stopped short in surprise as the easel that had been supporting the whiteboard suddenly landed squarely on top of her head. It was wielded by Xander, who had snuck out of the stacks behind her and aimed the blow with all the strength he could muster. His satisfied grin at the strike was, however, short-lived. Barely flinching at the assault, Judith swiftly turned and, almost in a blur, seized the carpenter by the throat with one hand. She held him aloft as she began to squeeze the air from his windpipe.
"Xander!" Buffy cried out as a gasping Xander attempted to swing at his opponent, arms and legs flailing wildly.
Wrinkling her nose with disgust, Judith shook the carpenter as though he were a rag doll. "You are entirely not worth my time," she snarled, losing interest and tossing him to one side with a nonchalance that belied the speed of his trajectory. He sailed over the railing, on a lethal collision course for the wall on the opposite side of the room.
Willow watched the perilous flight for no more than a nanosecond before taking action. Thrusting out her hand, she focused on the area where Xander's impact was imminent. "Pernă!" she muttered.
The summoned enchantment came none too soon, resulting in Xander not making contact with the wall directly, but with an invisible cushion that absorbed most of the crushing force. Nonetheless, he struck the buffer with a tremendous thud and groaning audibly, fell heavily to ground, unconscious but relatively unharmed.
The attack on the carpenter served as an opening volley for the trio of defending Slayers and without further ado, they moved quickly into battle mode.
Almost simultaneously, they leapt for the upper level, but however fast they moved, Judith was faster. Taking a step back, in one fluid motion she snatched Kennedy from the air. Realizing the predicament all too late, Kennedy could only turn with the momentum as she was hurled into the tall shelves behind, bringing two of the wooden constructs down in a shower of volumes.
Faith and Buffy each cleared the railing and rolled to their feet, directly attacking their target from both sides. More amused than threatened, Judith effortlessly moved out of the way of their intended blows and knocked them aside as if swatting gnats, not even bothering to counterattack.
While the Senior Slayers held Judith occupied and Kennedy extracted herself from the ruined shelves and books, Hannah and Wood were no longer bound by the need for stealth and they dashed from the library. Likewise, Giles moved swiftly toward the alarm affixed to a nearby wall. He promptly smashed the glass with his elbow before slamming a large red button with his palm.
Immediately, the room began to flash with the strobe of red lights, and sirens blared in the hallways outside the room. Locked in a world of swings and thrusts, dodges and parries, the four Slayers took no apparent notice of the change in their surroundings. The addition of Kennedy to the mix made almost no difference to the proceeding of the fight; although the trio was now able to land the occasional blows on Judith, their effects were nonexistent.
Tara knelt beside the unconscious Xander, checking the extent of his injuries while Giles and Willow watched the battle unfold – the former with intense scrutiny and the latter with nervous anxiety.
Simultaneously blocking head strikes from Kennedy and Faith, Judith brought a blindingly fast boot up to Buffy's midsection, knocking her backward. The invader showed no signs of slowing down, but her previous arrogant glee appeared to be slowly melting away into boredom.
Willow turned to the Watcher. "Giles, we have to do something! I- I could ..." Her brow furrowed in doubt and concern. "But what if I hit them? Buffy, a-and—"
Satisfied that Xander could be moved, Tara was now dragging him toward Ruth and Dawn. A momentary shimmer appeared around the pair, and then Dawn rushed out to help, relieving Tara of one of Xander's arms.
Giles' eyes did not leave the escalating conflict. "If we must, we'll go that route. But for now, simply be prepared."
Kennedy narrowly missed being struck in throat with an errant jab. Faith seized on the opportunity by grabbing the outstretched arm, but Judith simply hurled her up, over, and onto the ground, flat on her back with a teeth-jarring impact. A diving tackle from Buffy was the only thing that saved Faith from having her head crushed beneath Judith's heel, and the pair went tumbling to the floor.
Willow could only bite her lip in frustration as she watched her friends fighting for their lives. "I should be able to do something!"
Another shimmer heralded the return of Ruth's protection spell, this time encompassing Xander as well as Dawn and herself. Tara reappeared by Willow's side, also nervous but radiating calm. "We will."
Judith had won the grapple with Buffy and sent her flying before vaulting off her back and onto her feet. Her eyes met Willow's and a vicious smile materialized. The expression was not mirrored on the witch's face.
"You know one thing that really bugs me?" Judith queried aloud to no one in particular.
Faith and Kennedy were rushing forward, attempting to pin her against the wall, but Judith reared back and let loose a blazingly fast roundhouse swing that knocked both Slayers off their feet. Kennedy skidded across the floor, colliding once again with bookshelves that remained intact; Faith sailed over the railing, where she landed on a table with such force that it collapsed underneath her.
It took less than a second for Judith to leap the wooden banister and close the gap between herself and Willow, all in one fluid lunge. With the slightest, most offhand of gestures, she flung Giles and Tara far to either side of the redhead, leaving her exposed and vulnerable.
The grin she flashed was like the baring of wolf's teeth. "Leaving jobs unfinished," the Slayer concluded.
In the blink of an eye, Judith's hand had shot out, on a deadly course for Willow's throat. Mere inches from its target, however, the hand met with an invisible barrier that surrounded the witch. The impact sent tiny ripples throughout the energy field, but it held. Judith's face registered surprise for a moment, but she pressed forward, her fingers digging like talons, bending the shield as she moved inexorably toward her goal.
The strain on Willow's face was evident, as was Judith's enjoyment. It was only a matter of time, and they both knew it. Just then, Willow glanced over her attacker's shoulder to see the three Slayers regrouping. She regarded Judith with a restrained but triumphant smile. "This time? I have friends."
Judith smirked without bothering to look behind. "This time? So do I."
As if on cue, two glowing blue portals, one at either end of the balcony appeared. Out of each stepped a young, teenaged girl, clothed identical to Judith. Their eyes and the symbols over their hearts also glowed much like hers, although lacking the same fierce intensity.
Buffy and Kennedy paused for a fraction of a second to take in this development. There was clear conflict in their eyes, torn between the desire to help Willow and the need to route these new threats.
"I got Will!" Faith yelled, not turning back from her dash toward the front of the library.
It was all the confirmation the other two needed to hear, and each faced her respective opponent. A trickle of Slayers had begun to arrive on the battlefield, and Giles was there to distribute them among the three targets.
"Don't really think you're Red's type," Faith sneered, grabbing Judith. "Trust me, she likes 'em a little less homicidal."
Between a ferocious yank and the outward force of Willow's shield, Judith was pulled completely off-balance, and Faith spun on her heel to sling the younger Slayer into the opposite corner. Plaster spider-webbed behind Judith's head as she collided with the wall.
Wasting no time, Faith pressed her advantage, leaving an exerted Willow, panting and leaning against Giles for support. Within moments, Tara had joined them. As Dawn strained within the confines of her protective shield, Tara flashed the teenager a reassuring smile, confirming that Willow was okay.
On the balcony, Buffy and Kennedy were each flanked in battle by a pair of Juniors. The unknown Super Slayers clearly didn't posses the raw power that fueled Judith, but neither were they held in check by her arrogance – these Slayers were all business, and it was an effort for Buffy and Kennedy simply to avoid being maimed. Evading blows was the order of the day, and the occasional counterstrike they could muster was proving to be inadequate.
Faith was faring slightly better – her blows less desperate, her evasions less frantic. Despite this, however, Judith displayed not even the slightest hint that she was in anything less than complete control. And it was clear the smug, superior attitude was beginning to infuriate Faith.
Giles quickly directed the last of the most recent batch of Junior Slayers to their targets before turning to Willow and Tara. "We cannot allow any more of these advanced Slayers to appear. Is there some way you can- can block incoming teleportation?"
"I'm sure there's something in the books," offered Tara.
"The Belevoir Compendiums," Willow agreed, darting to the nearest table and grabbing two of the oversized volumes. She handed one to Tara, and the witches began to hurriedly flip through the pages.
Although Giles noticed that Xander was beginning to stir, a more pressing matter commanded his attention, as Hazel, Sonja and two other Junior Slayers arrived. They rapidly assessed the situation, and before Giles could make a move to dispatch them, Hazel darted toward Faith, who had just been doubled over by a knee to the midsection.
"I can't tell you how disappointing this is," Judith complained as she loomed over Faith. "Where's all the witty banter I've heard so much about?"
"Three ball, side pocket?" suggested Hazel as she drove the tip of a heavy steel weight bar into the back of Judith's skull. The Super Slayer staggered forward from the sheer power behind the blow and her head collided against the wall with a sickening crack. She slumped to the ground.
Faith was almost immediately on her feet. Panting for breath, she still managed to shoot Hazel a questioning eyebrow when the girl turned toward her.
Holding the bar aloft, Hazel grinned. "Weight room. I'm using whatever's handy as a weapon."
"No complaints from me," complimented Faith with smile. But the moment was short lived.
"Hey roomie," greeted Judith, causing Hazel to turn and realize for the first time who she had attacked. "Long time no see."
Even discounting the stunned surprise, Judith's fist moved far too quickly for Hazel to have any chance of avoiding the blow. Suddenly, she found herself sailing yards away as the steel bar clattered to the ground.
Across the room, Willow continued cycling through the pages of the book in her hands while Tara had begun, as carefully as possible, to move the exposed, still bodies of injured Slayers out of harm's way. Nearby, Xander had fully regained consciousness, and was now pounding and kicking on the inside of the forcefield that protected him, shouting at Giles all the while.
"Lemme outta here!" he demanded angrily. "I can help!"
Giles regarded the furious carpenter with an unyielding expression. "Xander, it will take more than raw courage – even courage as foolhardy as yours – to stand against one of these girls." He paused only momentarily to point newly arriving Slayers to their places on the battlefield, just as one of their teammates came soaring through the air to land several feet away. Almost immediately, Tara rushed to the fallen girl's side as Giles continued, "They are simply too powerful for a human."
"Look, you stand here and play pointy fingers all you want, but me? I'm gonna help my friends." Xander spun to Ruth, glaring. "Now let me out."
The old woman looked to Giles for confirmation, and with a sigh the Watcher nodded. Another shimmer appeared around the small group, and the barrier surrounding Dawn, Ruth and Xander dissipated. Xander turned away from Ruth to join the fight, only to be coldcocked by Giles. Precisely aimed across the jaw, the punch accomplished its goal – the carpenter collapsed on the ground in a heap.
"Xander!" Willow cried, seeing her best friend fall, out of commission for the second time that day.
Dawn focused an accusing glare on the Watcher, even as she knelt at Xander's side. "Oh my god! Giles!"
Giles regarded Ruth grimly. "Get that barrier back up." She immediately complied, and he stared at the unmoving Xander with a fond, subdued smile. "Heart of a lion," he murmured with affection. The expression quickly faded and he rolled his eyes before adding, "Sense of a pigeon." Shaking his head ruefully, the Watcher returned to surveying the battles, taking note of the open gape being leveled at him by Willow.
"He'll be fine," Giles assured her. "Believe me, I've been knocked out many times in my life."
Though still considering him with shocked surprise, Willow returned to scanning her book, only to snap her head up again as she heard Buffy's yell.
"Kelly, watch ou—"
The Super Slayer who had opposed Buffy had seized one of the girls and pinned her against the wall. Unable to move, Kelly could only watch in wide-eyed horror as the Super Slayer's fist, now glowing with the ethereal blue power sufficing her eyes and heart, was pulled back to strike.
With a primal grunt, the Super Slayer plunged her hand into Kelly's chest, submerging the glow within the helpless Junior's body. Save those individuals currently embroiled in a battle for their lives, every eye was focused in stunned disbelief at the sight before them. Surprisingly, there was no blood and despite the fact that her face was contorted in agony, mouth open in a silent scream, Kelly made no sound. Perhaps one second after the blow was delivered, Kelly began to dissolve, draining into the point of impact in her chest.
Buffy was the first to overcome her shock and she leapt into action, bringing the back of her hand across the Super Slayer's face, causing the attacker's head to snap to the side. She followed up with a kick to the chest that sent the enemy stumbling back, but it was already far too late. The few vestiges of Kelly that remained trailed after and flowed into the Super Slayer's hand, as if it were an irresistible black hole.
And then Kelly was gone entirely.
Buffy's outrage manifested in a yell of impotent defiance. She released a devastating roundhouse that sent the Super Slayer flying into and through the stacks of books and out of sight. The blonde Slayer and the three remaining Juniors with her didn't hesitate, they immediately took off after.
Seemingly oblivious to the events occurring across the room, Faith had now been joined by a pair of Slayers. She had grabbed the weight bar and was whirling it like a staff, high and low, back and forth. It was clear that Judith's posturing hadn't all been for show, however, and the Super Slayer was both fast and agile, nimbly avoiding every swing with apparent ease.
If Faith was unaware of the developments with Kelly, Judith was not. She cast a sneering glance over her shoulder in the direction of her cohort. "Idiot," she snarled. "We came here for the three-dish main course, not some appetizers."
The distraction was momentary, but enough, and Faith was able to strike a blow across the brow of her opponent's forehead. Judith turned to the Slayer with a mildly irritated expression, then grabbed the bar on an incoming swing and easily wrenched it from Faith's hands. "Let me show you how to use that."
Immediately, the steel rod was cutting through the air in Judith's grip. Faith ducked the first pair of swings, but her helpers weren't so lucky, and the cracks that resonated through the room indicated at least a few broken ribs for each one as they tumbled to the ground.
Judith whirled like a dervish, and before Faith could position herself for more evasion, the bar shot out, seemingly everywhere at once. Faith was struck in the stomach, chest, and head, all in rapid succession, before dropping to her knees.
Head weaving, blood trickling down the side of her face and from the corner of her mouth, Faith glared up to see her adversary toss the bar aside. Judith smiled at her hand as the flesh began to adopt an eerie blue glow. She very deliberately curled it into a fist as she glanced back down at Faith. "And speaking of main courses – I'm getting hungry."
Kennedy was faring little better on the raised second level. Those around her were either dazed, unconscious or physically unable to move enough to put up any fight. Kennedy herself lay prone, gasping for breath after being repeatedly battered. She stared helplessly at the glowing blue hand that was readying itself.
But Willow had seen it as well. The redhead thrust out her hand, and the Super Slayer's clenched fist stopped in mid-swing. Pulling it back, the Slayer again attempted to execute the killing blow, but with the same result. Without hesitation, she turned her head directly to the source of her trouble and gave Willow a hateful, malice-filled glare.
Judith had no such barriers to overcome. Her hand was now as bright as her eyes, and the time for games had clearly passed. She spared Faith a final self-satisfied smirk. "Goodbye," she said pleasantly, and plunged her fist down on the helpless Slayer.
Judith's aim for Faith's chest was straight and true – and blocked. Seeming to come from nowhere, Hazel managed to interpose herself between the two Slayers, and was impaled on the end of Judith's arm.
Faith's eyes widened as she watched Hazel's body stiffen and twitch. "No," she breathed.
But the denial had no bearing on reality. Standing before her, Judith continued the absorption, her face transfixed into near-ecstasy at the rush as Hazel steadily dissolved.
An explosion of wood splinters and books on the balcony preceded the reappearance of a Super Slayer tumbling across the floor, followed by Buffy emerging to continue unloading a barrage of attacks. The blonde's expression was a mix of anger and satisfaction as she threw an assortment of knuckles, knees and elbows at her dazed opponent.
"What's the matter, bite off more than you can chew?" Buffy snapped before kicking the Super Slayer into the wall with a boot to the stomach. Pausing a moment to survey the rest of the room, she could see that she was the only one with any reason to gloat at the moment.
Hazel had disappeared completely, leaving only Judith to stagger, as though slightly intoxicated from the experience. There were no words for Faith to speak – only a guttural cry that was ripped from her throat as adrenaline gave her the strength to launch herself at the unsuspecting Super Slayer. Judith and Faith tumbled to ground and Faith easily came out on top, squatting on the disoriented and prone Judith's stomach as she hammered down into her opponent's face with all the force she could muster.
Groggy as she was, Judith still coursed with power. Even the repeated pounding was doing relatively little harm, and after several seconds of the assault, she darted her head to the side, causing Faith's fist to burst through the floor. Judith seized the moment and rolled out from under Faith, but the other Slayer was unfazed. Yanking her hand free from the rubble of wood and tile, she didn't hesitate to attack again, swinging back and forth at Judith relentlessly,
Still, the Super Slayer remained true to her arrogance. "Come on, Fiver," she said, with an increased reverberation in her voice. "We thought the world of you. We looked up to you. This is how you avenge us?"
At the words, Faith's blazing eyes narrowed to slits. Her lip curled in a snarl of bottomless loathing as she seized Judith by the throat and hurled her to the floor in a rage.
Not far away, Kennedy had received a minor reprieve. She had been abandoned by the Super Slayer, who had chosen instead to eliminate the source of her problem: Willow. The intruder, glowing hand and all, was currently attempting to batter down a forcefield erected by the witch. Whenever the strangely colored fist would strike the shield, tiny ripples and discolorations would appear.
The worry in Willow's eyes made it clear she was losing much more rapidly than she had with Judith. Despite the threat, however, the witch refused to cast anything more powerful; her eyes darted around the room, its relatively crowded quarters obviously giving her pause.
With one final blow, the entire shield collapsed in a wave of dissipating energy, and with it, Willow collapsed to the ground, nearly unconscious. Sporting a predatory grin, the Super Slayer loomed for the kill, bringing her glowing fist to bare.
"Impedio," a voice intoned.
The Super Slayer's attack was again halted in mid-air and she turned to see Tara standing there, hand extended in a mirror image of Willow's previous posture. But where the redhead clearly had enough power to stop the killing blow against Kennedy with relative ease, Tara's arm trembled against the strength of the Super Slayer. The lethal fist moved ever closer to Willow, half an arm's length from its intended target.
Tara's teeth gritted. She stared through narrowed eyes. "I won't ... let you ..." Her quiet defiance carried little weight, however, and the Super Slayer pressed forward, slowly but relentlessly. Straining even harder, Tara fought desperately against the inevitable.
At that moment, a crackle ran through the air and both witches suddenly stiffened. Willow's body twitched and she gasped audibly, her wide eyes turning to Tara. The blonde, by contrast, was standing straighter, taller, steadier. All signs of her strain had vanished, replaced by sheer will.
The Super Slayer's arm – indeed, her entire body – was forced back and away from Willow. She struggled, but the motions quickly became smaller and smaller, as though she were becoming trapped in solidifying concrete, until nothing but tiny quiverings could be seen.
Tara's clear blue eyes were alight with calm determination. "I won't let you."
By contrast, Faith was in a frenzy, raining blow after blow upon Judith. There was no banter, no finesse, no thought involved. When the Super Slayer got up, she was thrown back down, or against a wall, or simply struck again. No escape was possible from the fury that was Faith. For the first time, concern etched itself into Judith's features.
"It's time we depart," Judith managed to gasp between blows. "But we'll see each other again soon, Fiver. We'll miss you."
A blue portal opened in the nearby wall. Faith snarled and tried to grab the Super Slayer, but was struck by a lucky backhand that sent her staggering off-balance. Judith fled through the portal, which instantly vanished behind her.
Similarly, a portal had appeared on the balcony, and the Super Slayer who was now being double-teamed by Buffy and Kennedy turned instinctively toward it. She made a dash and dove through just as Kennedy narrowly missed grabbing her by the foot. As with the previous gateway, it too sealed as though it had never been there.
The one remaining enemy was immobilized within Tara's magical grip. Giles crossed to Hannah, who had returned with Wood at some point during the battle. He relieved her of the tranquilizer gun in her hands.
"Is it loaded?" he asked.
"There should be enough in there to take down an elephant," she responded. "If it were also a Slayer."
He nodded and raised the weapon, taking aim. "Tara!" he warned.
Moving her gaze from the Super Slayer, Tara caught sight of Giles and his intention. Lowering her arm and exhaling heavily, the witch dropped her spell restraining the Super Slayer. The girl looked with bewilderment at those around her, then immediately began to search for an exit. Before she could even think of which way to move, she had already been shot with a dart from the gun. Snarling, she grabbed a table between herself and the Watcher and shoved it aside. While it did still go flying with a strength that was clearly above human, it was not the effortless action it would have been moments before.
Tara raised her arm as if to cast the spell again, but Giles was well ahead of her and had fired another dart into the Super Slayer, who was now breaking out in a sweat and dizzily shaking her head. She stumbled backward.
"Hey!" shouted Kennedy, grabbing the dazed girl and spinning her around, face-to-face. "This is for almost killing me."
A solid fist across the jaw, and the Super Slayer fell to the ground, out cold.
"I feel better already," Kennedy nodded to herself.
Now that the threat had passed, the others had time to process the sounds coming from the other side of the room. One by one, they turned to regard Faith, who was silently but determinedly tearing into the wall with her bare hands, as though a taunting Judith waited on the other side.
Buffy approached slowly, her eyes full of sympathy for her fellow Slayer. "Faith, she's gone."
If Faith heard her, she didn't show it. She continued her assault, leaving holes and cracks in the wall. Plaster dust and splinters were flying through the air, coating her face, hair and clothes. None of it mattered.
"Faith!" Buffy yelled, trying to break through to the other woman. She gripped Faith's shoulder and forcibly turned her around. There was no hesitation on Faith's part, and she lashed out at Buffy, who rolled with the punch so quickly she could only have known it was coming. Buffy quickly turned back to face Faith, her expression unchanged but still resolute. "She's gone."
Faith looked at Buffy, her desire to hit the blonde again only too clear. Instead, she slowly turned to stare at the ruined wall. Without a word, she threw Buffy's hand off her shoulder and stomped from the room, leaving the others to stand in subdued silence, surrounded on all sides by the carnage of the attack.
In the center of one of Slayer Central's interior rooms, smaller but otherwise virtually identical to the one occupied by Willow and Kennedy earlier, the captured Super Slayer sat in an upright metal chair. Her ankles and wrists were tightly shackled, the binding chains looped through cast iron rings which had been set into the concrete floor. The girl was conscious, but appeared groggy and rather ill, almost as though she had contracted a nasty dose of influenza.
Hannah stood against one of the walls, keeping an eye on the prisoner and glancing occasionally at Giles as he slowly paced back and forth behind Kennedy and Buffy, both of whom wore expressions of extreme irritation.
"How many of you are there?" demanded Buffy.
The response she received was in the form of a defiant glare."How many?" she insisted, but was met with no more success than before.
With an expression that displayed not even the merest hint of compassion, Kennedy stepped forward. "Stronger than us, faster than us ..." she mused in a deadly tone. "Maybe we're lucky and she feels pain more than us too." She quirked an eyebrow in the Super Slayer's direction. "Wanna help me find out?"
Kennedy looked up sharply as the opening door attracted her attention and Xander entered the room. The left-hand side of his jaw was swollen and already turning purple from where Giles had struck him. It seemed the carpenter had more troubling things on his mind, however; his face displayed both sadness and extreme concern.
Giles noted his arrival and moved toward the pair of interrogators. "Buffy, Kennedy ... See to Xander," he instructed firmly. "I'll continue working with our ... guest." It was with some reluctance that the Slayers complied, but comply they did and Giles loooked to Hannah, beckoning her to come forward.
Kennedy and Buffy followed Xander into one of the corners. "Did you find her?" questioned Kennedy immediately.
Appearing weary, Xander shook his head. "I looked everywhere nearby. I thought maybe she'd go to the Memorial, but I guess she isn't feeling too memorialous right now. She wasn't anywhere." Glancing at Buffy, he suggested, "I could maybe go downtown? I mean, she's gotta be somewhere, right?"
The blonde shook her head, her expression grim. "If Faith doesn't want to be found, I don't think you're gonna find her."
"We can't just leave her out there," Xander protested with an angry and frustrated frown. "She's in pain. She could ..." He swallowed hard, the words clearly not coming out easily. "I mean, you don't think she'll ...?"
"Hurt someone?" completed Buffy. "I hope not. And we won't leave her." Worry was still etched clearly on Xander's face, and Buffy assured him, "I'll find her."
The confidence in the Slayer's voice worked like a soothing balm on Xander's nerves, and he nodded his acceptance of her promise. With a heavy sigh, he regarded the restrained Super Slayer, jerking his chin toward the chair. "Getting anywhere?"
Kennedy's eyes narrowed. "In the sense that we're standing in exactly the same place."
Buffy huffed with frustration. "She's not talking. I dunno what more we can do. I mean, you can only ask the same question so many times."
"Your inflection is getting repetitive," Kennedy remarked, ignoring Buffy's glare. "I say we try something a bit less open to interpretation." She flexed her fingers into a tightly clenched fist.
Somewhat regretfully, the blonde Slayer shook her head. "I really don't wanna go there."
Kennedy rolled her eyes in disgust. "What other choices do we have? We can't go in blind, and we can't keep waiting. You saw them, they were weakened. It may be the chance we were looking for."
Xander looked from one to the other. "Yeah, but you guys said they just got woozy after eating one of you. What're we gonna do, bring along a bunch of the girls and offer 'em up as delicious candy?"
"Of course not," rejoined Buffy with a hint of snippiness. She folded her arms. "We're just running out of options, and I don't like the ones we've got left."
Thoughtfully, Xander considered the captive. "She's still under the influence, huh?"
"Yeah," agreed Kennedy almost sadistically. "That drug Giles used looks pretty hardcore."
"It is," Buffy nodded with conviction. "I've been on the receiving end." She noted Kennedy's look of surprise and started to explain. "The old Council used to have this test, they called it the, uhm ... the Crucible."
"Cruciamentum," Giles corrected.
The trio was surprised to suddenly find the Watcher within hearing distance as Hannah hung back with the Super Slayer.
"Tento di Cruciamentum," continued Giles. "The Old Council used to give it to each Slayer if she made it to her 18th birthday. This drug essentially renders a Slayer powerless, turns her into a normal girl. They would then ... lock her up with a vampire and- and see if she would survive."
Kennedy blinked several times as the words sunk in. "That has to be the stupidest thing I've ever heard."
"Believe me, as far as the Council's traditions go, this was nowhere near the stupidest thing," he told her with a weary sigh. Then, noting Buffy's arched eyebrow, hastened to add, "Though it came close, certainly."
A suspicious expression crept across Kennedy's features. "So," she pondered slowly, "you had this thing, are you planning to maybe...?"
Giles waved a hand in utter denial of the implication. "Good lord, no. Barbaric ritual. It was one of the first things we did away with. No, Robin found a small store of the drug while doing inventory on various storage facilities and warehouses that were leased to the Council. He brought it with him, thinking it might become useful at some point." He glanced at the girl in her greatly weakened condition. "I'm sorry to say he might have been correct."
"But this is good, right?" insisted Xander. "We arm up on dart guns and bust on in. Once you depower them, you don't have an army of Super Slayers, you have a Girl Scout troupe. Without the Samoas, which is just sad."
Giles' response was tinged with some ruefulness. "There simply isn't enough to go around. There was only a relatively small amount of the drug, and no copies of the exact formula have yet been found. Since I had no plans to reinstitute the test, I didn't see any reason to have it analyzed and then reproduced." He tugged off his glasses. "A bit shortsighted of me, I'm afraid."
"If drugging them's out, we need something else," stated Buffy emphatically. "It's all the extra power. If they're just regular Slayers, we stand a shot at beating them."
"Sounds good on paper," scoffed Kennedy. "Now, how do we do that?"
In yet another of Slayer Central's smaller and nondescript rooms, Willow and Tara sat across from each other at a long table. The surface was strewn with the fruits of their initial research – slim volumes and impressively heavy tomes. Using a forefinger to mark her place in the book in front of her, Tara reached out toward another and slid it closer. She flipped through the pages until she found the text she sought and then read the information with avid concentration. She double-checked her findings and then looked to Willow.
"I think I have a teleportation spell."
Willow dragged her eyes away from her own exploration and tilted her head, peering at the book Tara was now twisting in her direction.
"If we add peony here," Tara suggested, "and reverse this incantation ..."
Willow nodded." Yeah. Yeah, that looks like it'll work." She swiftly scanned the information. A frown of concern creased her forehead. "It's gonna take a lot of energy, though."
"Well there's a lot of people," Tara reminded her.
"This is true," Willow admitted thoughtfully.
"I'll see if I can find a way to make it more efficient," Tara informed her before adding, "And safe, of course."
Willow was in total agreement. "Absolutely. Don't need anyone going all Brundlefly."
Tara's gaze flickered downward at the page before her and then returned to Willow's face. "How are you doing?"
The redhead gestured to the many open books in front of her. "I've got a couple ideas knocking around. The way they ... they killed the girls, and how Giles said Judith started calling Faith 'Fiver' and stuff ... But they're just ideas right now. I'm working on it."
The blonde smiled gently. "I mean, how are you doing?"
"Oh!" Willow's eyes opened wide with sudden awareness. "Oh. I'm, you know ..." She trailed off, her sentence incomplete.
"I don't really know, that's why I asked," smirked Tara.
Willow gave a tiny smile. "I'm feeling okay. I thought I'd be all drained and stuff but, no." She shrugged her shoulders. "You sorta hammerin' through my shields and all aside, it actually felt sort of ..."
"Natural?" Tara supplied.
Willow stared at the book in front of her without truly seeing the printed text. "...yeah," she finally whispered.
"And you don't like that," pressed the blonde.
Willow closed the volume she had been studying and laid her clasped hands atop its cover. "Tara, yesterday I saw something straight out of my worst nightmares. I'm still a little bit stuck on that right now."
"Me too," conceded Tara. "I'm sorry for the hammering thing. I just ... I saw her coming and I couldn't stop her on my own. I just couldn't let her hurt you."
The redhead smiled brightly. "Hey, all for the not hurting. What you did, that was a good spell. I've been afraid to try it. Figured I might, you know ... do some weird global stop-time thing or something. Every time I try to psyche myself up to give it a whirl, I have flashbacks to that 'Twilight Zone' episode."
Tara's eyes twinkled. "Oh, the one with the stopwatch?"
"Yeah, brrr." Willow gave an exaggerated shiver, which earned her a chuckle from the other woman.
At that moment – just for that moment – as Willow gazed at Tara's amused expression, she smiled as though she had no cares in the world. There were no spells to be figured out, no army of murderous Super Slayers, no loss and death; there was only Tara's smile. But it was a mood that was lost as quickly as it had been found, and Willow refocused with a tiny shake of her head.
The gesture did not go unnoticed by Tara and she gestured to the piles of as yet unopened books. "I-I guess we should really ..."
"Yeah," the redhead hastened to agree. "Questions aren't gonna answer themselves."
There was a moment of hesitation before each returned to their respective volumes.
The door to the interrogation room opened slowly as a tentative Dawn entered. Turning, Buffy immediately noted the shaken expression and hurried to her sister's side. She threw a comforting arm around the teenager's shoulders.
"Dawn, you shouldn't be here."
Dawn blinked at the Super Slayer in the middle of the room. "Mr. Wood asked me to tell you guys that they've had to take some of the other Slayers to the hospital. They're pretty messed up. They're ..." She swallowed hard. "They might not make it."
Buffy absorbed the information with a nod. "Thanks," she told Dawn gently before adding, "Hey, you were doing good there, helping out with all the wounded and all. What do you think, maybe Doctor Dawn some day?"
A tiny trembling smile crossed the teenager's lips. "I gotta make it through senior year."
"Oh, you'll make it," was Buffy's confident reply, "even if I have to chain you in here myself with only your textbooks for company."
Through lowered lashes, Dawn watched Xander approach, his arms held wide. She gratefully accepted the gesture and treated him to a tight hug. He held her close and smoothed her hair.
"How you doin', Dawn Corleone?" he questioned, forcing a lightness into his tone.
Dawn shivered. "I just keep thinking about Hazel. I liked her. We weren't that close, but ... we could've been."
Xander increased the consolation level of his embrace. "I hear you. I come to Slayer Central all the time, but I never really got to know any of the girls. We keep talkin' about this Big Bad's army, but then I gotta wonder, is what we've got any better?"
Over his shoulder, the teenager watched Kennedy move toward them. "We're not trying to take over the world," commented the Slayer. "That's better in my book."
Xander released Dawn and stuffed his hands into his pockets. "Yeah, there's that." He shrugged. "I just feel so bad. I should've tried harder to get to know them."
"I knew them." Kennedy's voice was flat. Looking to Buffy, she noted the determined line of the blonde's jaw and corrected her statement. "We did. Hazel and Kelly, all of them ... they're good girls. At least they died fighting."
"Yeah, I'm sure they find that real comforting," Xander replied with bitter sarcasm.
"It's what we're born to do," stated Kennedy without apology. "But what we need now? Payback. And the only thing standing between us and that is this bitch." Her narrowed eyes focused with deliberate intent upon the metal chair and its occupant. The rest of the group followed her gaze.
The captured Super Slayer appeared no less sickly than she had previously, but her demeanor was one of strong resistance as she regarded both Hannah and Giles with a defiant stare. She was obviously a long way from her breaking point and this fact served only to further infuriate Buffy. Striding purposefully toward the captive, the blonde Slayer drew her arm across her chest and delivered a stinging backhand to the girl's face, snapping the captive's head forcefully to one side. A tiny bruise materialized high on the right cheekbone, but the challenging attitude was no less prevalent.
"Talk," Buffy insisted coldly.
The girl refused to flinch. "Go to hell," she spat.
"You first," retorted the blonde, poised to strike again. Moving quickly, Giles stayed the imminent blow by seizing Buffy's wrist.
His tone was intended to calm. "Buffy. Let's take a break."
The Slayer vehemently shook her head. "We need—"
"I know," assured the Watcher. "But we need a break, first."
He ushered Buffy toward the door, spreading out his arms to include Xander, Dawn and Kennedy within the sweep. Stepping to the forefront, he turned the handle and shepherded the group out of the room before following behind. He waited for a moment as they slouched their way along the hall and then turned back to Hannah. Arms crossed, she was leaning against the wall directly opposite the Super Slayer, the sole of one boot propped against the brickwork. She returned the Watcher's icy stare with an equally emotionless one of her own.
His instructions were given in a low voice. "Get me answers."
She responded with a barely discernable nod as he left the room and deliberately closed the door behind him.