Interlude: Good, Bad, and Ugly, Part 2

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October 13 - 21 Ethan

Ethan Rayne smiled as he pulled up behind the small store he'd rented for the next month a couple hours after dawn. Ethan had known better than to be out and about in Sunnydale when the sun was down. He was looking forward to the next few weeks. Moreso, he was looking forward to the denouement of his latest scheme in two week's time.

It had taken him an entire year to prepare for this offering to Janus. Many would see it as paradoxical that a major offering to a Chaos God could involve so much planning and preparations and so little spontaneity. It would seem, to most people, to be a bit of an oxymoron. Ethan, however understood that serving a chaos god did not mean chaos at all times, even when making an offering. That was part of why he was a valued acolyte. Janus welcomed any acts of chaos performed in his name, but it took time, effort, and more importantly control to pull off anything involving more than a handful of people, or with any kind of complexity.

It had all begun the previous Halloween, when Ethan had performed a private, personal ritual, dedicating himself to the task of a major event. He had then spent the next weeks gathering as many costumes and other bits and bobbles that could be used as parts of a costume as he could get his hands on.

That had been the easy part. The rest had not been anywhere near as easy. Imbuing each item with the appropriate spell had taken months. The spell was fairly draining and there were hundreds of items to enchant, and he had other commitments besides the costume project, which meant he could only do a couple of items each day during the week. He was generally able to churn out quite a few on the weekends, though. Hand-crafting the control totem had taken another two months, both because of his other commitments and because of the complexity of the crafting and the spells that had to be worked into the totem. Tying all the bespelled items to the totem had involved a two-day marathon with no sleep or food and little water, and a week's recovery time.

He'd also had to find the right spot for the event to take place, procure a store from which to sell the costumes to the unwary, and somewhere to live for the duration. Coming to Sunnydale was a risk, but he couldn't quite resist taunting Ripper with his mere presence. Ripper would doubtlessly assume him to be up to something, but Ripper would never figure out what it was Ethan was planning. Even if Ripper examined the costumes, he'd not figure it out. The spells were undetectable until they were triggered. And then it would be too late.

The true beauty - the true chaos - of the whole plan was that the spells on the costumes did not dictate a specific effect. The spell changed its victim depending on their perceptions of what the costume was. That was why so much of Ethan's stock was fairly generic and moldable to different purposes. For instance, he had hooded robes, which depending on what the wearer had in mind, could end up being anything from a monk to a Jedi. And while older or more well-informed children would default to a generic 'Army' soldier in the camo fatigues, the younger or less well informed would end up as anything from Army to Marine. The dresses would provoke a similarly wide range of changes.

Well, he'd better get a move on. The quicker he got his wares set up, the more people who'd buy them. Ethan got out of the truck he'd rented to haul the costumes here in, and pulled the key to the store's back door out of his pocket.

It took him until just past lunch to haul in all the boxes. Fortunately, the store came with racks and shelves enough for his wares. Doubly fortunately, Ethan had pre-organized the costumes when he packed them, so all he had to do was open a box and start hanging or stacking. But that would wait until after he'd had a bite to eat, and had put out the flyers he'd made announcing his store, so that he might have custom as soon as tomorrow.

By the time he called it quits an hour before dark, the store was almost completely set up. He'd have a few last things to do tomorrow, but not much. A few last posters to put up, money to put in the till so he could make change, and the bin of smallest bits and bobbles to put near the register, and he'd be done.

A week later Ethan was quite pleased. He'd already divested himself of a nice portion of his stock. He anticipated that the following week would see most of the rest of it sold. He knew that sales of costumes would increase almost exponentially by the time the 30th had rolled around. Interestingly, thus far Ripper seemed to be oblivious to his presence, though Ethan did not expect that state of affairs to continue indefinitely.

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October 13 - 21 Spike

Having the Dominga chit around both helped and made things worse for Spike. He'd gotten so used to having someone to look after that Dru's death had left a humungous hole in his unlife that not even wrangling with the Court could fill. Working with Dominga helped, because she was pretty clueless about the modern world and needed a lot of assistance. At the same time, she wasn't Dru, and her being around rubbed the fact that Dru was gone in Spike's face.

Fortunately, he'd been busy enough with the Court that nothing had really come of it one way or the other. He'd had his hands full keeping the minions under control and not feeding on the out-of-townies. He'd even had to dust two of the stupider and more stubborn minions. They'd kept trying to go after the folks he'd told them not to.

In better news, the training was starting to do some good finally. Spike had taken to giving all the minions a couple drops of his blood once a week. This was really only feasible because Spike's Court was so small - less than two dozen vampires all told. A couple drops of blood once a week wasn't anywhere near enough to bring them to Childe level, but it would, over the long term, increase their intelligence until it was much closer to their 'living' IQ, and push their strength and speed that little bit further above human norms as well, since the weakest of the minions were more or less human-normal in terms of strength and speed.

This week had begun Spike's first big long-term project after taking control of the Court. When he'd originally chased out all vamps that refused to swear loyalty to him, he'd left the suckhouses alone. They hadn't been being governed by any one vampire, not even the old Master or the Anointed One, and Spike had had enough to do just getting the Court set up and under control the way he liked. Some of the minions still used one of the suckhouses - something Spike was absolutely in favor of. After all, it reduced the number of dead bodies that the Slayer would feel duty-bound to avenge.

That said, while the concept of suckhouses was a damn good one, Sunnydale's execution of the idea left much to be desired. The buildings that had been used were in godawful shape, which meant that not many humans would go anywhere near them unless they were truly desperate. Nor were the humans that donated really being taken care of, which was dumb as hell.

The way Spike saw it, humans in suckhouses were basically milk cows. They were an investment - you had to take good care of them for the best results. You had to feed them well, treat them well, make sure they were healthy and happy and that the feeding process was as non-traumatic as possible. Do that, and the blood you got would be of better quality, and the human far more likely to come back without having to resort to 'hooking' them on being bitten.

Spike had already found a place he liked as the location for the 'new' suckhouse. He planned to 'dry out' the surviving 'donators', as every last one of them was hooked on being fed from. It wouldn't be a fun process for them, but it was necessary. Hooking them might make it easier to feed from them in the short term, but long-term it meant finding replacement donators far too often, as humans that got hooked would seek out being bitten again and again until they'd been drained dry if they weren't stopped. Most hooked humans lasted less than six months because of that. By contrast, a human that wasn't hooked could conceivably donate blood for decades.

He wasn't any too sure that the current donators would be viable as long-term donators - they might get hooked again - but drying them out and sending them on their way was a better option than killing them and bringing the Slayer down on the Court. He'd already begun to put out feelers for new donators at the college. Experience had taught him that college students were perpetually strapped for cash, and thus the easiest to lure in. They didn't have to know that the money they'd be getting in exchange for donating blood had been raided from the abandoned vampire hideouts around town by Spike's minions.

Once the suckhouse was fully up and running, Spike planned to take advantage of it fairly frequently himself. He didn't intend to give up hunting entirely - he enjoyed it too much for that. Even if he hated hunting, he needed to do it to keep in shape against the Slayer or some other Master Vampire coming after him. But the minions would be far more likely to use the suckhouse if they saw him using it. Not only that, but him stopping by unpredictably would keep any trouble to a minimum.

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October 13 - 21 Sam Zabuto and Kendra

Sam Zabuto was somewhere between confusion and horror. It had become clear, thanks to Kendra's reports, that a Court was not only extant in Sunnydale, but thriving. Oh, the Watchers had known that there was a Court here, but it had not been worrisome as the old Master had been trapped and largely ineffective. The Court had been dependent on numerous low-ranked minions who were incapable of enforcing any kind of order and discipline for its functioning. That no longer seemed to be the case, which puzzled Sam as well as alarmed him.

Sam assumed that the Court had been taken over by an enterprising minion. Because of this, it did not occur to him that the new Master was part of the cause of the current drop-off in demon population/trouble-causing. Had he known the new Court Master was actually a Master rather than a minion with delusions of grandeur, he would have been far more willing to entertain the notion. As it stood, he dismissed the possibility out of hand.

What Sam could not figure out was how Giles could possibly permit the Court, no matter its level of organization and effectiveness, to continue to exist. Nor could he understand how Summers didn't go after the Court even without Giles' direction. It was so bad that Sam has actually stopped thinking of Summers as a Slayer, because Slayers just *didn't do that*. They didn't permit vampires and demons to exist in their presence. Especially not when the damn things had organized themselves.

There was clearly something wrong with Summers. According to Kendra's reports, she retained Slayer strength and speed. Sam was of the opinion that Summers' death, however temporary it may have been, had stripped some of the less tangible components of a Slayer from her. He'd originally thought it was just that she was one of the rare Slayers not to be raised by a Watcher, but it had become clear that the problem went deeper than that.

Kendra was properly horrified by Summers' intransigence and ineptitude. She was also rather put out at not being allowed to eliminate the Court herself. Unfortunately, Kendra doing so would alert at least Giles to the presence of, if not another Slayer, then a threat that needed to be neutralized. Well, it would have if Giles was a proper Watcher, at any rate. Despite Giles' apparent dereliction of his duty, it was unwise to risk garnering his attention as their primary remit was to observe and report. They could not gather unprejudiced data, nor observe without interference if Giles or Summers knew of their presence or were otherwise on their guard.

Kendra had also been rather put out at the fact that there was a minimum of demons to slay in Sunnydale at the moment, despite its reputation as a mecca for demons of all descriptions. It almost seemed as if some of the worst troublemakers had left for some reason. A certain amount of population fluctuation was to be expected in a place like this, especially when the local Court was in flux. This level, however, was unusual and inexplicable. It was enough to make Sam wonder if perhaps a stronger Vampire than he thought had taken control of the Court. But even the likes of Kakistok, one of the oldest and hardest-to-kill vampires in the country, didn't have this sort of effect on other demons, so Sam was still at a loss.