Zeppo 6: Deus Ex Machina
Part 5: In the Line of Duty

Xander ran. He ran until his muscles burned and his veins pumped battery acid. Then he ran some more. Running allowed him not to think about the direction his life was taking. Not to think about how Faith would react when she found out about what had almost happened.

He was sure that, while Cortana might love him the same way he loved Buffy and Willow (and yes, Cortana), she wasn't truly IN love with him. One of the first things he'd done after the fateful Halloween night, when he'd first become a Spartan, was read up everything he could about the Halo universe. He'd scoured the official Bungie website, committing everything there to memory. He then went out and bought every book he could find about the game, official and unofficial. They still sat on a shelf in what Faith called his Study, above the desk that he used when he had to write up after-action reports for the Initiative.

The core problem, as far as he could tell, was Dr. Catherine Halsey; the surrogate mother of the SPARTAN II's, head of Project MJOLNIR and mastermind behind the ORION Program. All the reference material pointed to some romantic feelings on her part towards the Master Chief, and those seemed duplicated in Cortana, who was literally a clone of Dr Halsey's mind.

Xander had long ago come to his own conclusions as to just what sort of person Dr Halsey was, and he found himself drawing unpleasant parallels with Maggie Walsh. The idea that someone with that same powerful and creative interlect, but with absalutly no restrints or controls on their actions, might belive she was in love with him was terrifing on more than one level.

The echo of a scream woke him from his daydream, and he skidded to a halt, his enhanced hearing zeroing in on the direction the sound was coming from. He instinctively reached round to the small of his back, but the gun that he normally kept there was missing. Silently reprimanding himself for leaving the house completely unarmed after dark, he looked round until he saw a length of metal piping lying in the entrance of a nearby alleyway. Although not up to the standards he was use to, it would be more than enough to deal with most threats, given his enhanced physical strength and reflexes.

Holding his impromptu weapon in one hand, he started off again.

The sound of screaming got louder, a sign that he was either getting closer, or the person he was rushing to help was in more pain. He was already moving so fast that he was almost a blur, but he pushed himself as hard as he could; getting to the point where his vision started to go grey from lack of oxygen getting to his brain.

Reflexes took over as he crossed the last road. Thankfully, while most of Sunnydale's denizens still refused to admit just what went on in town after dark, very few were stupid enough, at least on a subconscious level, to venture out after sunset. Thus, he only had to volt over one car, landing on the side walk with enough force to crack the concrete. Using his momentum, he rolled forward as he landed and sprang back up onto his feet without missing his step. The alleyway narrowed just before a sharp bend and Xander skidded, sending up a spray of water from a puddle before coming to a complete stop.

A blond woman in an immaculate red dress was holding Dawn up off the ground with a single hand around the young girl's neck, almost choking her. Her other hand was held back and straight out, almost like she was about to stab Dawn with her extended fingers. He reacted instantly, swinging the metal pipe round with all the force he could muster.

The woman moved so fast that even Xander's enhanced eyesight couldn't follow: one moment she was holding Dawn by the throat, the next she had grabbed the pipe out of the air and ripped it effortlessly from Xander's hands. Turing to face him, she smiled as she swung the pipe round and hit him in the chest with enough force to send him flying into the ally wall. The brickwork crumpled under the force of impact and Xander felt the air leaving his lungs as he sank to the floor.

"XANDER!" Dawn called out, worried.

"RUN!" he yelled back, pulling himself to his feet and getting into a loose fighting stance. Based on what he'd seen already, he probably didn't have a hope in hell of defeating the strange woman, but he could probably keep her occupied long enough for Dawn to get away and call the others.

"Maybe a challenge at last?" The blond woman smiled, tossing the pipe over her shoulder and advancing with an easy swagger, "And are you going to tell me where my key is?"

"Lady, I have no idea who you are or what you're talking about," Xander took half a step back, tensing his legs, "but I already don't like you."

He leapt into the air, spinning round in a bid to get behind his opponent. But she was just as fast, and grabbed him by the throat and slammed him backwards into another wall, before reverencing direction and smashing his face into a trash can. Xander tasted the coppery tang of blood on his lower lip as he was lifted into the air clear above the strange woman with no apparent effort, then unceremoniously dropped to the ground. He gasped for breath as he felt the air being driven from his lungs for the second time in under sixty seconds.

"If you don't know where me Key is, then I see no need to keep you around." his opponent bent over him, grabbing him round the throat to keep him from getting his breath back as she straightened out her hand as she had done with Dawn, "But you still have some use: as a snack!"

Xander didn't even have time to contemplate her words before she jabbed her fingers down into his forehead. The pain was indescribable, and if he'd had the breath, he would have cried out in agony as the world around him slowly went dark. The being known known as Glorificus drank deeply from his sanity, empowering herself in the process. She felt something different, like another presence was lurking in the back of the young man's mind, but put it down to the mind of the flesh and blood prison she had been confined to for so long.

Finishing, she looked around the alleyway: of Dawn there was no sign, and despite having just fed, she could feel her hosts mind struggling to regain control. Sighing, she turned and started back towards the shoebox he called an apartment, ignoring the deathly still Xander at her feet.

She didn't see his eyes open as she turned the corner and disappeared from sight. She didn't see him slowly sit up, looking at his hands as if seeing them for the first time, or the way he effortlessly flipped to his feet and looked round.

"Well now," The Master Chief muttered to himself, "What's happened this time?"

To Be Continued...