I O I O I
For only having been a candy witch a couple of days, Willow had an impressive ring of guardians. There were giant rock candy porcupines shooting quills like delicious candy darts. She had another Gummi Golem on defense and squads of gingerbread men throwing explosive fireball gumballs.
All of which were getting destroyed wholesale.
Willow was still new at this, and didn't have many of her creations to lose. Even though she'd been cooking at a whirlwind pace and employing all of her friends as apprentices to help it was all she could do to keep up the rather stiff pressure they'd thrown on the enemy. She did not have many spare resources just lying around. Well, baked stuff, anyway. Certainly no medieval witch ever had anything like the scale of ingredients that Willow had acquired. But she'd had limited time to bake things.
So it would not be very long at all before her minimal guard force would be totally wiped out.
Fire was the bane of candy witches. It was not the only bane, but it was probably their ultimate one. Sugar burned, so did syrups and virtually all of what they used were based on things that fire ate more greedily than people.
If it couldn't burn, you couldn't eat it. And if a person couldn't eat it, a candy witch often didn't make it, as that was the basis for most of their powers. There were exceptions, but not terribly many of them.
The gummy golem Willow had placed on guard was literally torn apart by the slavering beasts who attacked it, and its pieces fell, burning, to the ground.
A gummy golem could handle penetrating attacks and ignore blunt trauma, but the jaws of its attackers were meant to rend and tear into chunks, which was what it was vulnerable to.
But Willow had begun surrounding her base with many types of guardians. And she had already begun the tactically wise step of having varieties of these, so what could defeat one would not do as well against another.
Her sugar porcupines were the next step in the 'scissors, rock, paper' response, because anything that rent or tore its foes would find it almost impossible to hurt them through their impressive defense of hard candy quills; which she'd already rigged to fire at their enemies.
It was a good move, tactically sound... yet utterly useless.
When those porcupines emerged from shallow caves to meet the threat, the pack of hellhounds that had destroyed the gummy golem bounded up with howls of fury, the fiery auras over those black furred bodies igniting those guardian's quills before the demonic dogs were in any danger.
So her sugar guardians burned, and the terrified gingerbread men fled after their first few lofted fireball gumballs exploded uselessly against the fire-immune demonic attackers.
Then those hellhounds resumed following the traces of scent left by the last gingerbread men to attack the mayor's interests.
I O I O I
The alarms had no sooner sounded than the Scoobies were watching this confrontation on a giant mirror.
"So, did you put television cameras out there?" Amy asked her redhaired friend, impressed with the signal resolution.
"That wouldn't explain the mobile point of view," Cathy corrected, being more sure this was something magical.
Still concerned with the scene, Willow gave her a distracted shrug. "Granny taught me this trick. Most practitioners of candy magic develop ingenious and effective scrying methods out of simple necessity - they are trapped in their houses and both like and need to see what is going on in the outside world. It's almost a calling card of this business to be almost perfect in some form of scrying. Practice would make us so, if nothing else."
"So, what are you going to use to stop them?" Marcie asked.
Willow shook her head, again concentrating on the scene where the last of her sugar porcupines were burning away. "If you are asking what I have that can't be burned, the answer is 'nothing'. Everything I bake is flammable. It's one weakness of this style I have no clue how to overcome."
"Gingerbread men carrying pot lids to use as shields?" Amy suggested, but Willow once again shook her head.
"Against one, maybe. But this is a pack, and packs of dogs encircle what they are fighting." Xander spoke absently. He was absorbed with the tactical implications of what they were viewing as those demon dogs resumed the chase. "Shields only defend from one direction."
Willow was also worried. "Besides, even if my candies were fast enough not to be encircled, those hounds are giving off auras of fire, and can breathe out cones of more. Demons have always been a big risk to candy witches, so Granny insisted I learn about some varieties, and hellhounds have always been one of our worst dangers. They can find our lairs, defeat most of our guards by heat alone, and frankly terrify gingerbread men. How fast they are makes no difference. Gingerbread men are cowards at heart, and only go to a fight they feel certain would be easy and fun. Hellhounds are neither."
Xander's eyes had been focused on the distant scene, watching as those dogs paused to snif the ground before bounding on. "They are tracking us by scent, so sooner or later they're going to find our base."
"Pity those rains have stopped." Amy frowned. "They could have washed the scent trails away."
"It's not an accident, I'm sure," the heir of Zorro intently supplied. "They had it rain prodigiously when they felt that it could benefit them, and it stopped when it could have hindered them."
"Weather magic is not easy stuff," Cathy raised her brows, impressed.
Willow nodded. "Yes, but it does exist, and if anyone had the specialists on tap who could do large amounts of it, it would be someone like our mayor, who from all we've read, is very well connected."
"Okay," Xander straightened up tall. "We have two things we need to do at once - get someone out there to stop those hell hounds, and I'm volunteering, and we also need to obscure the scent trails so they lead so MANY places that it's all but impossible to trace them here. Willow, can you send your candy goons all over, doing more strikes and, I dunno, just... stuff?"
The redhead smiled over her childhood friend reverting to form under this pressure. He hadn't always been the cool, collected hero he was now. It was nice and soothing, reassuring her to see bits of that still remained.
"Can you kill hellhounds?" Cathy questioned seriously.
"Well, a pencil launcher won't do it," he replied with an easy grin. "Too bad our nightlife isn't all vampires, all of the time. It would be easy, then."
"Eh. Oh, well. Comes with the Hellmouth options package." Jesse shrugged. "You wouldn't want our fight against evil to be boring, would you?"
"I'll go with you," Amy volunteered, snatching up her bow. "They might burn arrows, but not before they punch through flesh."
"Are you sure about that?" Her mother worried.
The daughter taught by Robin Hood gave her mother a solemn nod. "Yes. I saw the rate at which they burned those candy golems. Sugar burns better than wood, yet still if my arrows were sugar they'd last long enough to strike and do damage. Arrows have punching power air-launched quills do not."
"Good," Xander gave a decisive nod, before turning back to Willow. "You work out something to disguise our trails. We'll take care of the immediate danger."
I O I O I
The longbow in use during Robin's time could easily kill a man at a distance of over four hundred yards. To qualify as an English longbow archer of medieval times required passing a test where you were required to hit a man sized target twelve out of twelve times at a distance of two hundred yards. That's greater accuracy and greater range than is expected of modern riflemen.
Only snipers even approach that standard of accuracy, and that's using high-power scopes, not the standard Mark-I Eyeball. So it becomes a little easier to understand how ridiculous amounts of practice and training were required to produce these men.
However Robin's band were all accepted as exceptional archers, every one, and Robin more than most. In fact he was often held to be the finest archer in all England, and he'd wanted to pass every bit of that skill on to his many times removed great granddaughter.
Amy had four arrows in the air at the same time, and the first dozen hellhounds vanished as they got pierced in a single sheet of incoming fire.
"Well, that was incredibly easy!" the Merry Maid declared.
"Don't speak so soon," Xander gave warning in a dreaded whisper.
More howls broke over the hills and cresting a ridge four dozen more of the flame-wreathed hellhounds appeared. Accompanying them, making the four hundred pound dogs look like puppies around its ankles, was a creature so four, so cruel, that there was no chance they could fight with it and live.
"They made those up!" Amy declared, indignantly pointing a finger at the creature.
"Unfortunately not," Xander disagreed, hunching lower behind a rock, just peeking over the edge of it. "C'mon, we've got to get out of here fast. Can you take out the hellhounds accompanying it? That way at least it couldn't track us, and we'd stand a good chance of losing it in these hills."
Sighing, the blonde shook her head. "Sorry, I only brought two dozen arrows. It was twice as many as I thought I'd need."
"I don't suppose you can hit the big one?"
"I've got the archery training, but not the muscles. It was my mind that did all of the work, not my body, so I'm stuck with a simple deer-killing bow, not one that can punch through both sides of an armored knight and his horse. Sorry, but the big, armor-plated monster is just a bit out of my league. I could easily hit him, but I wouldn't hurt him."
Xander drew himself up. "Well then, back to plan one. You shoot all of the demon dogs and we lose the big one in these hills."
"I told you, I don't have enough arrows!" Amy objected to this plan.
The heir of Zorro summoned his ancestor's horse and swung up into the saddle, tossing her a dramatic grin as he settled. "Don't worry. Getting them back is my job."
And with that he spurred the mighty steed and galloped off to the scene of the first dozen hellhounds' destruction.
Steeling herself, and trying hard not to think of the danger he'd be in rushing out to recover her ammo for her, Amy raised her bow and pulled the nock back to her ear.
One thing was for sure. She couldn't afford to miss!
In the near distance the balrog roared, shadow and flame made flesh.
I O I O I
"I don't know what else to DO!!" Willow cried in frustration.
"Well, raiding a medical supply warehouse was probably a good idea. At least we can set up a clinic down here if they get injured," Marcie tried to be as helpful and reassuring as possible. Wanting to do something, Willow had sent out a raiding party of her super-fast two legged cookies to fetch back some medicine. Although on the scale of the theft they were perpetrating, raiding a major medical supply distribution center, they'd more likely be able to build several hospitals than patch up one boy's owies. But hospitals weren't what Willow wanted. She wanted her Xander back, whole and in one piece!
Luckily it was Jesse who was able to step forward with some ideas. "Okay, they are out there right now," he tried to disguise a wince as Xander just barely ducked under a snap of the balrog's whip as he dropped to hang out of the side of the saddle, scooping low to snatch up three arrows out of the corpses of the hellhounds they'd gotten lodged in, pounding by on a charge as fast as the legendary steed Tornado could carry him.
Willow was crying, unable to look away from her mirror. The films had not done the ancient menace justice, and Jesse had to wonder what ties to the occult Tolkien might have had to portray the beast so accurately.
Shaking himself out of a momentary stupor, he continued, "Anyway, they are out there to buy us time to obscure our tracks, and I don't think that more raids bringing stuff to our cave is going to do anything but paint more lines pointing here."
"Then what do you suggest we do?" Marcie challenged.
Jesse gave her a prankster grin. "Why, paint lines going elsewhere, of course! Didn't you play D&D? If you have foes tracking your scent, and you can't make your scent go away, then make sure it's found everywhere!"
Smiling, he leaned forward, pressing the idea. "They are tracking by scent the trails of our gingerbread men, and right now those trails all lead back to a single point - here. But if we send them out again, not to go anywhere near that fight, but to run up and down and around, all over these hills, then instead of following a road they'll be trying to untangle spaghetti! Don't you see? It won't be an arrow pointing at us, it'll be a spider web covering this whole area, and if we make it dense enough they'll never find the center."
Willow flinched and cried out, hands covering her mouth as Xander's dash was caught by two hellhounds who had interposed themselves to stop his escape. His full-tang carbon steel sword turned out to have the fault that carbon steel was amazingly brittle; once more a show weapon and a display piece more than a functional piece of armament. He sliced into one of the demon dogs with it and the sword broke before the gnarled hide did, proving once more that halfway decent was in no way an acceptable standard for swords.
High carbon just wasn't tempered steel. It makes a big difference in weight, balance and durability as well as the ability for it to retain an edge, and he knew enough from having read those books to know that by now. They needed real weapons, and they needed them yesterday.
That, and some protective amulets and things would go real well about now.
Luckily he was able to fight his way clear regardless, driving off the fiery hounds with splashes of holy water, then another dash of it over his shoulder into the face of the balrog who'd nearly approached close enough to grab.
But that exhausted what he'd carried as far as holy water supplies.
"What if they look for traces?" Marcie quipped, trying hard to draw attention back to the problem Xander was risking his life to grant them time for fixing.
"Then leave those everywhere as well!" Jesse shouted, throwing his arms into the air. "Have them dig holes, mess stuff up, transplant bushes just for the sake of it and collect litter for all I care! If they are looking for our marks on the countryside, then better to have too many than too few! That way at least they'd have to get detectives in to try and figure out which mean something and which don't, and Sunnydale is remarkably short on police detectives just about now!"
Now Marcie smirked. "Yeah, and I don't think they'd care to call the FBI in to investigate a couple of gingerbread men."
Jesse nodded. "They'd be interested in the thefts, but couldn't bear to think of the true nature of the perpetrators. And, unable to believe in the nature of the criminal, they'd be next to useless at tracking the crime."
"But... if they kill all of the hellhounds..." Willow couldn't take
her crying eyes off the scene depicted on her giant scrying mirror as Xander
turned and charged the demons again, this time spraying them ahead of time
pencil launcher - this one outfitted with better drive wheels and engine.
It couldn't kill them, but he was firing at eyes.
"There will be more," Marcie regretfully shook her head. "If there's one thing you guys have shown me, it's that the forces of evil have numbers on their side. So if this works, they'll just summon more of them."
That sobered Jesse. "Yeah, and laying spaghetti trails will just delay them. I don't know how we'll deal with these things permanently."
Zorro-Xander had just ridden back to Amy, and the archer had loosed the recovered eight shafts, piercing half the remaining hellhounds and pinning them to the ground. Things were getting harder for them as many of her arrows had broken during impact, or while Xander recovered them, so there were fewer good shafts to bring back to her each time.
The balrog had also stepped on a few, and more than a couple had burned up in one fiery aura or another. So ammo was getting scarce.
Marcie herself winced at the sight of Xander riding off yet again. "Yeah. If Willow's Grandma couldn't beat them, then I don't know we'll do."
Jesse folded his arms and declared, "We'd better do something, because Xander is out there risking his life buying us time, and so far we haven't done anything constructive to show for all the danger he's been through."
Suddenly galvanized, Willow stood up, firmly declaring through her tears, "I'm more powerful than Granny ever was, because I'm half the age she was when she'd really started to get a handle on her skills and made her first lair."
"So what are we going to do?" Both of her friends turned to her curiously.
The redhaired candy witch hiccuped, wiping away her tears. Her Xander was going to win, and she'd use the time he'd bought them to cover their trails! "First thing is we'll do as Jesse said. I'll send the gingerbread men all over, up and down these hills laying trails."
The witch paused as other thoughts hit her, then she smiled. "In fact," she hiccuped again and had to furiously scrub away a new wash of wetness, "I was going to say I was worried by all the recent rain having left puddles and streams, but I just thought of a way to make use of that! And a supply of good water is very important to proper baking!"
I O I O I
Unlike vampires, balrogs did not come with a handy list of weaknesses. In the one account they had of one, it'd even wiped out a powerful nation composed of thousands of well-armed dwarves. Dwarves were not stupid, they'd have tried more things that whacking on it with sticks.
Among the very first things they would have tried would've been to collapse tunnels on it, crushing it with a few million tons of rocks. So it was a very real possibility that the demon could not be hurt by mere physical damage because dwarves excel at dishing that out in any number of inventive ways.
If dwarves were famous for anything, that was it. Gold and gems were part of it, but they were universally regarded as tough fighters, and they built fortresses better than anybody, and the whole aim of a fort was to drop so much hurt on the enemy that they'd rather do anything than attack you.
That one of these balrogs could wipe out the largest and wealthiest dwarven nation of a world pretty much by itself should be able to scare anybody.
Also, in the one account they had of one of these things, during its fight with Gandalf it got dropping into a massive underground lake. And it was part fire. So if massive amounts of water didn't hurt it, they didn't know what to try.
So the Scoobies just accepted that they weren't going to beat it. They didn't even plan to try until after performing a great deal of research into how.
And until then they were going to hide.
I O I O I
Balrogs are very nasty things, and the only sure cure for one is a Gandalf, which they don't happen to have. Actually, not even Gandalf was a sure cure. It came close, per the story, and none of them are even close to his level of accomplishment.
But then, that wouldn't be the first demon in the Buffy universe that it took an army and a couple of Slayers to destroy.