I O I O I
Cordelia sized up her target. Bad hair? Check. Bad complexion? Double check. Pimple city was putting it mildly. Overweight? Wow was that checked! Badly dressed? Well, it was obvious the poor creature had SOME fashion sense, but it was just as obvious the Sunnydale Mall (which had been inexplicably closed a few weeks this summer) didn't stock cutting edge fashions in her size, which crossed the line of simply overweight and lay somewhere between 'fat' and 'Jabba the Hutt'. The coke bottle bottom glasses and frequent gas outbursts were simply icing on the cake. This person was a perfect target. Cordelia would have cheerfully enjoyed shredding her, giving the poor, unpopular girl daily lashings with her acid tongue until she had such a miserable reputation she'd never escape it without moving out of town.
The trouble was, this girl was herself.
Cordelia broke down crying in front of the mirror of the PE locker room after school, just as she'd been doing in frequent fits since the problems started back in mid-summer.
Everything she'd once loved in life had deserted the poor rich girl. Her pride in herself, the respect of her peers and the approval of parents, even her carefully cultivated insults. Cordelia was finding out that having a waspish tongue was only fun when you were at the top of the food chain. When you were at the bottom it had a habit of offending those above you, and hurting them only got you more hurt delivered in turn.
Which was why, as proof of this, she was currently nursing a black eye and swollen lip from where one of the boyfriends of the girls she'd been insulting had beaten her up, and the reason she'd been staring in the mirror, applying first aid supplies clumsily, in the first place.
"Ow! Whatever happened to 'don't hit a lady?'" Harmony asked, nursing her own bruises obtained in a similar scuffle.
"It died out along with chivalry. Feminism now teaches us that punching a girl is the same as punching anyone else. So if they deserve it, sock it to 'em!" A third member of the Cordettes observed unhappily.
I O I O I
"What have you found?" Merrick asked without preamble as Polly appeared in the newspaper offices at the end of the day of classes, closing file drawers to give his attention to her report.
The girl replied, unruffled by his short tone as she was accustomed to it, and taking orders. "Nothing, yet. I am unfamiliar with the environment and do not know what signs to be alert for in hunting prey of this type."
A normal girl would have said something more like, "I don't even know what I'm looking for."
Merrick gave her an affirmative grunt, grateful they taught Slayers to be more precise in their use of language. They both knew WHAT they were looking for. Finding it was another issue entirely. Necromancers were a skittish lot at the best of times.
That was why they were infiltrating the school in the first place. Magic users could be assumed to know a thing or two about Slayers. The appearance of normalcy of a young girl attending classes was a good cover for approaching a target who might flee at the slightest warning of being hunted.
That Polly was out of her depth was expected. They did not teach Slayers to operate in this type of environment; not that there was no need, far from it, but it was impossible to get the majority of them to focus on their training if they had too many distractions.
Distractions such as public education abounded in.
Still, a few sacrifices had to be made when the target was of significant importance. He reopened the file drawer he had been working on. Really, these cabinets were such a convenient design. Open it one way it was perfectly ordinary, open it with a certain spell under your breath and you had entirely different contents. He could, and had, concealed his entire Watcher library in among the newspaper files with no chance for an idiot to stumble upon them. Really, his patron on the council had come through on this one.
Merrick retrieved a file, speaking as he added to its contents. "As you are well aware, simple minded undead can be hunted in fairly simple ways. Using yourself as bait is a classic, as is patrolling their hunting grounds. But the users of dark magic are more intelligent and more alert. Fortunately for us, as that means sooner or later the local magic community will become aware of their newest member. You'll just have to establish contact with them, discretely of course. Pretend to be some nervous thing in search of a love potion or good luck charm to assist you on certain class exams."
Polly gave a serious nod more at home on a soldier than a schoolgirl. "So where do I find the local magic users?"
The Watcher winced as he replied, "It would be easier to tell you where they weren't. Half this town appears to have connections to the occult, though a disturbing portion remain unaware of it."
"Heavy magical support, then?" Polly surmised. According to stories she had read out of the Watcher Diaries that would make the mission a cakewalk, if it were true (though it rarely ever was).
Merrick almost laughed. "Unfortunately not. Most experienced magic users avoid this place, both for the presence of a large number of demons and the dark energy. But there does seem to be an appalling number of amateurs and dabblers, who no doubt have a high proportion of those experimenting with the dark as here it is so easy to reach. So I would count on as much magical opposition as support - if not more so."
Polly winced. As useful as magical support could be, opposition by magic was just as bad, if not worse!
Glad she was correctly reading the scenario, Merrick gave her a sober nod acknowledging that and continued, "It doesn't help that this summer a small scale magical war was fought in this town, demonologists and a shaman on one side, and a candy witch on the other - at a minimum. A war like that one makes everyone magical keep their heads down for a while, for fear of being drawn into a second round. Also, the lingering traces permeate this village almost as much as Hellmouth energy, making our divinations return false positives. That is why we are here to explore on foot. But it does complicate a normally routine contact. Getting friendly magical backup has never been as much of an issue before."
Privately, the man expertly hid his gladness that her conditioning had taken hold so she was not wondering why the Watcher's Council did not field more magical support for the Slayers on their own, because even he had difficulty understanding all of the politics involved in that decision.
"What of the rest of the newspaper staff talking about minor curses?" Polly asked seriously. "Could they be in our local witch coven?"
Merrick dismissed her concerns with a disdainful sniff. "Hmph. I know a spell for aura sight. I've been arguing for years that it ought to be taught to all Field Watchers. Reading auras can tell you most things about a person or demon, and you know more about quantum physics than our little class does about magic: you realize that it exists, and that it affects you, but have no understanding of what or how it is doing whatever it does. They are the same with regards to magic. No, they will be a concern for us only so far as getting this paper published on time. Their auras show they are perfectly ordinary, for this town anyway. They must have hired out to some local witch to cast those curses for their petty revenge. But that is part of what I speak of: a surprising portion of the local population at least know of magic, and who they can get to cast minor spells, even if they themselves are perfectly ordinary. You might do well to ingratiate yourself with them, actually, as they represent exactly the sort of person you want to emulate on your hunt - A person who is aware that magic exists, and occasionally hires it, but does not practice any herself. Befriend them and they may even share their sources."
Again Polly nodded in that serious, out of place way for a beautiful girl her age. "What are the risks of faulty information and ambush?"
"Trivial, at best," Merrick answered absently, finished updating his file and returning it to the cabinet. "While not as adept as someone who can see auras naturally, my spell is perfectly capable of picking out casual magic users by their auras. Aura cloaking spells do exist, but are obscure and the difficulties are so extreme only a few paranoids become any good at them. I do not feel you are in any reasonable danger children their age have become adept at them. The amount of work involved is simply beyond the grasp of your average teenager - but particularly entertainment glutted Americans."
I O I O I
In their secret underground lair Jesse was leaning up against a wall beside a door waiting for the others. His usual playful air absent. "I take it you saw?"
"How could I miss it?" Cathy asked as she came up at the head of the girls.
Xander came out of the washroom Jesse had been guarding. "Ok, we all know the other kid in our newspaper class is possessed by a demon. It's obvious. It's all over her aura like one of those tacky, great big, blinking neon signs from the fifties, only reading 'demon possessed girl here!' And our editor? I've never seen anyone so touched by dark magic, and considering we live on the mouth of Hell, that's saying something."
"To be fair, we don't have many experienced magic users here," Willow amended. Dang! There went her plan to 'accidentally' stumble in on Xander taking his after-sports bath again.
Amy bounded into the hall gladly. "Hey guys? Great news! Did you know that the Smith twins are into cutting? Remember when we were in fourth grade they were the most popular girls in sixth? Apparently they have fallen from that exalted state and their lives as unpopular juniors are so depressing they cut themselves in twisted attempts to make it worse and therefore feel better about themselves. Don't ask me how that works."
"Why is Rachel and Shelly being depressingly goth great news?" Marcie raised her head from her Bible to inquire, more than a touch puzzled.
Amy relaxed back into her chair as they reached their favorite conference room. "Simple. Those healing cantrips we can't practice, because we don't have any wounds that need healing? Well, they cut up their flesh regularly, making small wounds about the size we could cure with cantrips - so of their own volition they create the raw material we need to practice our healing magic on. So if we could somehow enter into an agreement to cure them, they'd get to do more of their thing without long term cost, and we'd get to improve at our healing magic. If they're going to be doing it anyway, we might as well learn a little medicine from it, right? I mean, where's the harm?"
Cathy pondered her daughter's proclamation, then added, "It makes me wonder, I've lost track of so many friends that I'm not even tied into a good rumor mill anymore, but do you guys know anyone on the bondage scene? I just thought if we could get involved in the after-event cleanup we could be dealing with cuts and bruises, abrasions and burns and all sorts of minor injuries, learning how to heal them and expanding our medical spells."
"Fairly limited trauma medicine," Jesse evaluated, thinking the matter over carefully while his pose screamed 'indolent teen'. "We won't be learning to fix broken bones or organ damage... well, unless the people are so extreme they are basically demons, in which case we'd have to kill them. Nor will this help us study how to deal with various diseases or poisonings. It's all fairly simple thug club comedy cleanup, but useful to know how to correct all the same."
"Distasteful, but necessary. I see your point." Xander agreed. "Magic has an advantage over the regular medicine we are practicing up on in that it's fast. Sealing over cuts in seconds instead of just assisting the body's ability to do it, which is pretty often fairly slow. Knitting flesh takes time, normally."
"And this way we also get practice on our diagnostics." Cathy offered. "We meet up with the bondage subject in her clothes and see which of her wounds we can identify just using the spell. Then she tells us, and we get our test graded, so to speak, learning where we have to improve."
"It's all surface tissue damage, nothing internal." Willow evaluated to get her own take on matters firmly settled in her mind. "Still, it's not as if we won't pick up those types of injuries if we get in a fight. It's not life-threatening, but knowing how to fix that stuff still isn't bad. The standard 'beaten up by jocks' thing we used to go through had plenty of that, so we can assume other combat injuries would include at least some of that type of injury. And the help learning our diagnostic spells would certainly be welcome."
"Actually, as far as the organ stuff?" Jesse offered his own idea to the bunch. "Let's find us some smokers and drinkers and do work on their lungs and livers! It's not uber-serious stuff at our age, yet, but it's a start, a fairly minor one, but that's exactly what our cantrips need at this stage - we're just starting out."
"We'd have to develop lung and liver curing cantrips, but you're right, that's one way to study improving them." Xander concurred, before slapping his hands together. "Okay! Now that that's all settled, and the Scoobies are all gathered in our secret underground headquarters at the start of the first week of school ready for the year to begin, and having just heard each other's progress reports. It is now time for the big issue to get addressed!"
One or two mystified looks met more cunning ones.
Xander settled the whole question by spreading his hands and saying, "C'mon! We all want to continue on as heroes, and the area definitely needs us. But we don't want to get caught using the candy paradigm again. So how are we going to do it? What is our playbook going to look like from now on?"
"How about we take a page out of the book of my ancestor and start robbing the rich to give to the poor?" Amy suggested.
"No," Xander shook his head. "I like the Robin Hood idea, I really do; but his paradigm really depended on having a safe ground, in his case Sherwood Forest, on which he was effectively invulnerable. He knew his home ground so well and had such a large force of elite, armed men to defend it that no one else dared to come against him there. Our country would just napalm the place. No, for our situation I think my ancestor had the right idea."
"And now I think is the perfect time to shout 'Hey, look! I've developed a Batarang!'" Xander volunteered, with a big grin, holding up a black boomerang of the distinctive shape.
"Nice, but I don't think you should really use it." Willow disapproved.
"Oh? Why not. You said I should be leaning this direction." The boy was honestly puzzled that his great reveal of their new theme had failed to get the vast surge of approval he was looking for.
He even knew who was to get each costume!
Marcie volunteered the answer to his confusion. "True, but think about it. If you start appearing as Batman they will at least look for a Bruce Wayne. What are the clues from the comic books? He keeps his secret lair in a cave, which you do. He is uncommonly rich, which you are, and he lost his parents to street crime, which you did. You do not have a great deal of company in filling out those criteria. No, it would make their search uncomfortably narrow and put you on a very short list of suspects."
Amy contemplatively strummed her recently crafted lute, fetched from beneath the table where she stored it. "You're right about the forest, we don't have a home ground to defend, unless you want to count our Candy Caves - which we don't want to because the whole point is to not let anyone else know they exist..."
"Which is a great reason never to call them Candy Caves again. Because that just gives away too much information," Jesse interjected. "Anyone hearing that knows they are underground, and can probably figure out they were created by our recent Candy Witch, may she rest in peace," he put his hand over his heart in mock solemnity and cast a wink over towards Willow.
He really was no different, well, not much anyway, than before he'd met his great ancestor. He was just a great deal smoother and more successful a flirt and tease.
"A point," Amy conceded. "But the problem with a character like Zorro, or Batman, or even the Scarlet Pimpernel nowadays is that other people have read those comics or heard those stories, too. They know the profile to look for. Wealthy (which we are, no denying that, and any government agency that chooses to investigate, like a mayor's office, will find that out pretty quick), laid-back (again, that's our history) people going out under cover of darkness to fight evil. Given our society's obsession with forensics, they'd solve who our secret identities are pretty quick. Then it's curtains for us."
"Aha! But there IS an answer for that!" Xander sat up at attention, crowing, "There is a reason why my distant ancestor never got caught, you know."
"Oh? Do tell?" Now he had the attention of the entire audience of Scoobies.
He got up, the more effective to tell this story, "Simply put: he could be in two places at once. My ancestor was never caught because he always had an alibi, usually of the very best sort, often vouched for by the very people he would be fighting against. And the reason they vouched for him was because he WAS there in their presence when this masked bandit was off elsewhere putting his evil troops to embarrassed shame and killing off his demons."
Everyone sat up and began to pay him strict attention.
"How?" Amy and Jesse chorused, leaning forward in professional interest.
Xander smiled. "Ah. There is, in the Los Angeles area, not far from the La Brea Tar Pits actually, a set of sacred Indian caves that were holy to the local tribes, only few dared to set foot therein. Well, those caves were right on Don Diego's land, and in fact his fireplace was built over one of their entrances, with a loose stone at the back. Kids explore everything, so when he was a young lad Zorro discovered this, and my beloved ancestor was like most boys and couldn't be restrained from going inside to explore. He'd gone through every corner before realizing they were held as a dread danger and avoided. But once he'd set out on his crusade against undead and demons, he needed a place to base himself out of that they could not reach."
"And his answer was these caves," Jesse concluded for him, in a somewhat shocking 'that's what I would have done - experienced veteran talking' tone of voice, his mannerisms undergoing a total change from laid back slacker to deadly warrior before relaxing once again to where it was hardly noticeable that the momentary switch was ever there.
'Then again, maybe he HAS changed?' Willow thought.
Xander nodded. "You're right. The energy of those caves judged you, and if you were not worthy of their help you got destroyed upon entering them. And being holy, it was evil and their minions the caves disagreed with. Before you ask, the local Indians loved Diego, and some of their shamans added spells to the caves so nothing evil can even find them, and stretched this so it applied to the servants of evil as well. So no sending posses of innocents to do the work of evil and apprehend you. The caves later got cloaked under additional illusions, then got sealed on Zorro's death. But I know how to reopen them."
"That gives us an unassailable ground," Cathy remarked curiously. "I thought you were arguing against the Robin Hood paradigm?"
"Too far away to cover the Hellmouth effectively," he dismissed the idea with a wave of his hand. "Besides, it's mostly an unimproved cave system, not exactly my idea of comfort. Resting on grass under trees in the sunshine is one way to rob from the rich; squatting in dark, damp caves is something else. Not my idea of fun. My ancient ancestor did leave some training gear around there, and set up stalls to keep Tornado, but it's not exactly my idea of comfort all the same. No, I was suggesting them for an entirely different purpose than using as a sheltered home turf."
"And that would be?" Jesse inquired with a delicately raised eyebrow, the picture of cultured aristocracy (giving Willow the wiggins).
Xander grinned. "Those caves were what gave Zorro his power to be in two places at once. Attuning to the cave you made a special connection granting it power to create a double that, while temporary, was wholly and completely you. You even get the memories of what it's done while active. What's more, it can even be injured and, so long as it doesn't die, the next time you summon it your double will be at full health. Being made out of shadowstuff, the duplicate leaves no traces of itself, hair or blood or torn garments or anything else, behind. But it also can't withstand the light of day."
"How is that different from a golem?" Cathy inquired professionally. "A well crafted one can have strength and endurance far superior to the man who made it. For that matter, well made zombies can have limited human skills."
She ought to know, a good portion of the city services of Sunnydale were now run by zombies she'd created, while she collected the paychecks.
Xander nodded the point, but returned, still grinning, "But both of those are automatons acting on previously given sets of instructions. Magical robots, in other words. Now I'm not arguing that robots can't be useful, but they don't have the human cunning or ingenuity needed to become a figure like Zorro. The constant adaptation is what makes up the difference in that kind of activity, and any adaptation at all is impossible for an automaton. They do what they are told, nothing more. This doppleganger, so long as you remain true to the cause of righteousness, can run off to do things using your skills and abilities, including reasoning and memory. The only drawback is that you lose your ability to cast a shadow while it is active."
He gazed across the faces of his friends. "That's why Zorro always had a perfect alibi. You could effectively project yourself beyond your body and literally be in two different places at once. The real you didn't have a shadow while this was happening, which is why Zorro mostly appeared at night, when the spells to create a fake shadow weren't as difficult. So Don Diego could go to parties and look normal, and if he was distracted a bit from maintaining the spell to hold up a fake shadow, others were drunk, so he fit right in."
"What's the catch?" Cathy asked.
Others noticed Xander suddenly looking uncomfortable.
The oldest witch in the group smiled. "Proxy spells like that one always have a catch. I know a scrying method that creates an invisible, flying eye that can go for hundreds of miles, and whatever it sees, you see. Scrying from it is simple, easy and accurate. But it isn't a very popular method, because if anyone detects the eye and destroys it, you lose one of your own from the backlash. So, I repeat, what's the catch?"
"Well," Xander admitted, plainly unwilling to, "My ancestor said that when the shadow him died he nearly did from the shock, and it wasn't until the next new moon that he could cast a shadow again, and then another month before he could create another doppleganger."
"Well, that's not so bad, then," Cathy declared, shocking everybody. "What?" She answered their stares. "This double will only be doing what we would do if we didn't have it. So if it dies, we've seriously screwed up. Then there is the system shock, that at least has been survived once. That's a much better cost than just dying outright, as it gives you a chance to live through it. No, that's much better than losing an arm or a leg, as I'd been fearing. I'd guess the cave has some buffer mechanism that prevents you from dying outright. Like I said, all proxy spells always have costs like that."
She fluffed her hair, shaking it out, while casually expounding on her points. "If we go out in person, and die, we are dead. That's simple. If we go out and live, but some forensics specialist figures out 'you know, Clark is never around when Superman is', then they've got our identity and we're worse than dead, because they'll capture and torture us for information, and make sure to catch the rest of us. Furthermore, if we go out and die, or just leave drops of blood or hair behind, then they can take that body, or whatever DNA traces we left, figure out who we were, and catch the rest of us."
She gave the rest of the kids a sober look that was quite out of character for her usual demeanor. "No. This way, even if our clone dies, and we die too, we are still better off because even in death we won't betray our friends. I'd much rather my real self die in bed, or at a party, dropping dead of a heart attack than leave my corpse out on a battlefield where the enemy can wring it for secrets, or animate it as a zombie, or whatever, to fight against us."
No one said anything about it being a little hypocritical for her not to want to be animated as a zombie, considering how many she had active at that point. But they could see her idea about not wanting to be used against the group.
Xander tapped the table. "I'll go out this weekend to activate those caves."
I O I O I
This was a difficult chapter to write, because of the very things they are talking about here: how are they going to operate as heroes, now that the Candy Witch is officially dead, and how are they going to hide their secret identities when (not if) the enemy comes looking. Because they do talk about a very real problem, in that other people have read the comic books, too.
And we, as a society, are obsessed with forensics. Everything is labeled, numbered and measured to the ninth degree, with experts ready to study any glob of spit left behind. And how do you get in dramatic fight scenes without the heroes ever getting wounded?
You don't. Then, if they can be identified by any trace of DNA left behind, they are hosed. Their identities known and hunted by a bureaucracy that will never forget, nor forgive, a rebellion against it.
So I had to invent an answer, and came up with this method.