The Dynamic Duo


The Menace From Hell

Sunnydale, CA. 1994

The streets of Sunnydale at night.

It was a rare night of calm on la Boca del Infierno. Even though the Hellmouth had been firmly shut for many years, the vampire Master trapped inside, vampires and many kinds of demons were still attracted to the town, though few of them realised why. That night, none of the demons were abroad. Perhaps it was the weather, a drizzly rain, or the related fact that the town's mortals—aka. the food supply—were mostly staying in as well.

Whatever it was, Sunnydale's owls and other natural nocturnal critters were glad of it. It was tough making a decent living as a predator, when you got competition from such types as Lucornis, virgin-eating she-mantises, or the Miquot clan.

One brown owl, having just snatched up a nice, tasty mouse, perched on a branch of one of its favourite trees. The chestnut stood in the back garden of a house belonging to a family of humans, who on any given night, were nice and quiet. With any luck, the owl would be able to finish its meal in peace.

Unfortunately for the owl, that night was not just any given night. It was the night of a birthday.

Suddenly, two out-of-key voices rudely disturbed the nightly silence through an open window, startling the brown owl so badly that it almost dropped its prey. Hooting indignantly, the owl took off, in search of a more quiet place to eat.

"Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday, dear Willow, happy! Birthday! To! You!" Xander and Jesse raised the volume another notch with every word, and that did nothing for their already limited singing capabilities. Willow didn't mind, though. She smiled giddily, flushed from the excitement. The three friends were all sitting cross-legged on Willow's bed. Xander and Jesse were holding—but not exactly hiding—their wrapped birthday presents behind their backs. Though Willow was of course intensely curious to see what was in the presents, she didn't really need them to be happy. Xander and Jesse were her best friends, and that they were there was plenty in the fun department.

Jesse had only joined their group a short while ago, since his parents had only moved to Sunnydale from out of state half a year ago. He and Xander had hit it off immediately, though. Their goofy attitudes and wacky sense of humour were almost identical. It hadn't taken Xander much effort to convince Willow to accept Jesse as a friend either. Willow and Xander had known each other since they were toddlers, practically their whole lives. They hadn't always been close, but since the beginning, there had been a bond between them, and now they were fast friends. Besides, Xander was just… nice.

Willow's only friend who wasn't at the party was Amy Madisson. Amy had never been such a close friend as Xander, but she and Willow still went way back. "Hey, where's Amy, anyway?" Xander asked, as if he'd read the redhead's mind. "Cuz that was some mighty good-looking brownie I saw waiting for us in the kitchen—mind you," he added quickly, "not that I'm suggesting we find more people to share it with!"

Willow looked at Xander and suddenly giggled. At the boy's abashed look, she quickly explained. "You've got ketchup on your chin!" While Xander was rubbing clean his chin, Willow answered his question. "Amy was gonna come tonight, too, but her mom wouldn't let her. She's on a diet again, and I think she figured out about all the brownies Amy has eaten at my place."

"Now that woman is a witch!" Jesse complained.

"Yeah," Xander agreed, "diets…" He shuddered emphatically.

The three sat in silence for a while, though their faces spoke louder than words ever could have. Xander and Jesse glanced at each other conspiratorially, wiggling around on the bed so that Willow could see every bit of their presents. Willow, for her part, made sure to look extra curious about what was in them. It was a time-honed birthday tradition.

When Xander began to look more eager to get on with it than Willow felt, she finally spoke. "So, guys," she asked innocently, "aren't you gonna give me birthday presents?"

Grinning widely, Xander whipped the present out from behind his back, but Jesse beat him to it. "Happy thirteen, Willow!" the boy blurted as he thrust the package into Willow's hands.

Unable to contain her curiosity any longer, Willow started to unwrap the present immediately. Xander and Jesse waited impatiently while she carefully pulled loose each bit of Scotch tape on the paper. There were a lot more of them then were strictly needed. "Coool!" Willow gasped when she saw what was inside. The others crowded in around her to see, too.

"Um?" Xander asked.

"It's a mousepad," Willow explained, "for the computer." And it was a great one, too, Willow decided as she looked closer, full of flowers and bright colours. "Thank you, Jesse!" It really was a great gift, since Willow's birthday present from her parents had been a subscription to the Internet. She had known that for some time, and so had her friends. Though neither of them understood what was all that great about it, they knew that anything that caused so much Willow-babbling must be absolutely wonderful. Or absolutely horrible, depending on your perspective.

Before Willow was nearly done studying the mousepad, Xander handed her his present. "Here you are, Will!"

Willow thanked him, and once again started unwrapping carefully. Xander's fingers were itching to help her and rip off the paper in one go, but he held himself back. "It's a Barbie!" Willow exclaimed, trying to sound surprised, but failing utterly. Xander had given her a Barbie for her birthday every year since her sixth, after she hadn't talked to him for a month for stealing and Barbiequing her very first Barbie.

Xander blushed, suddenly embarrassed about his choice of gift—was thirteen too old for Barbies? "I was gonna give you a TransFormer," he claimed, "but there ain't any girl-TransFormers, only guy-TransFormers."

"There's Arcee," Willow corrected him, "y'know, from the movie? But I don't think they ever made a toy of her."

"Look—see!" Xander blurted out, pointing a finger at the plastic doll. "It's office Barbie! Or something or other. Betcha she's got a computer, too!"

"It's great, Xander," Willow reassured him, and Xander grinned. She leaned forward and captured Jesse in a great big hug. "Thank you, Jesse," she said, and the boy mumbled that she was welcome. Willow then turned to Xander, and gave him a great big hug as well—one which maybe she let last slightly longer than she had intended to. "Thanks, Xand."

"Anytime, Willster," Xander replied generously.

Not long after that, Willow's mom called and the kids went downstairs to take care of the brownies. Meanwhile, there was a none-birthday-related topic that they'd been itching to discuss.

"So," Xander, ever the first to start talking, began with a mouth full of brownie, "next Friday. In one week exactly."

"The cotillion," Willow agreed.

"Good thing Ms Greenwalt never put that word in a spelling bee, isn't it?" Jesse added.

"Everyone at school seems pretty excited about it," Willow said. "Amy has been going on about her new dress all week. I suppose the dance will be nice, but I don't know what all that fuss is good for." In truth, the redhead wished she could get out of going to the cotillion altogether. She was probably going to look horrible in a dress, and Xander (and all the other boys in their year) were going to ignore her more than ever in favour of prettier girls such as Amy, Cordelia Chase or Harmony Kendall. Willow just knew that she was going to hate it, but even if she hadn't had to go anyway, she probably would have gone. After all it was the dance to celebrate their impending graduation from junior high. Next year, they'd finally go to Sunnydale High for real.

"My parents are making me wear a bow tie. A clip-on." Xander made a face that showed very clearly what he thought of this. "My parents never even notice what I wear…"

"I've got a dress," Willow said sympathetically. "How about you, Jesse?"

Jesse looked back with a glum expression. "I'm not coming," he told the other two.

"What!?" Xander and Willow exclaimed simultaneously. Oh, no! Willow felt as if she were suddenly losing half her allies for at the cotillion, which, come to think of it, she was.

"We're gonna visit relatives," Jesse explained. "Actually, we're leaving Wednesday night, so at least I'll get to miss gym class on Thursday."

"Cripey!" Xander cursed ridiculously. "Way to go with the planning, Jesse-parents. Won't they let you stay over?" he asked.

Jesse shook his head. "Already asked, but it's my aunt Petunia's fortieth or fiftieth birthday, and it's this whole big deal. I haven't even seen the woman since I was a baby."


"Yeah, I'm sorry too, Jesse," Willow agreed with the Xander-speak.

"It's OK." Jesse shrugged. "Harmony's still refusing to dance with me anyway. See how she likes it when she's all alone at the dance." Willow wisely chose to keep to herself the fact that as captain Cordelia's right hand, Harmony had her pick of the boys Cordelia discarded. Which were legion. "Will you guys take pictures of the dresses, though?" Jesse asked hopefully.

"They're gonna take official photos and put them in the yearbook," Willow knew. Jesse seemed to be satisfied that this meant he wouldn't miss anything.

"Well, I guess it's just the two of us then, huh, Willow?" Willow perked up. "The dynamic duo shall ride again! It is our destiny together to fight the evil menace of, eh, of bullies and evil ice-queens and all other demons of hell!"

Willow smiled. This she was liking. "Our destiny? Together?"

Xander looked at her as if his words had been as clear as 'the night is usually a pretty dark time.' "'Course! We cannot be separated, Girl Wonder, because the hellbeast that can defeat the combined might of the dynamic duo of Sunnydale has yet to be spewn—spawned, I mean!"

Elsewhere, twenty feet below Sunnydale, Luke made a slow circle through the subterranean chamber, lighting each of the exactly one hundred candles in turn. An indecipherable incantation came from his lips in soft tones. The mystical shield at the centre of the chamber hummed as Luke stepped through it. Soon, if Luke had his way, it would be no more. He sank to his knees in the exact centre of the circle of candles, and as he repeated his incantation again and again, he began to raise his voice until finally the air shook with the power of his words. "The sleeper will awake. The servant shall let forth the dog of war, and it shall prey on the innocent. The sleeper will awake! The suffering of the innocents shall feed the Mouth of Hell, and it shall grant passage. The sleeper will awake, and the world shall BLEED!"

Luke lowered his head, as if deep in thought. When he raised his head, his smooth, handsome visage had gone, and in its place were the rough-hewn ridges, sharp fangs and empty, yellow eyes of a vampire. "Master!" he spoke.

"Master, know even as you sleep in your imprisonment that your servants labour to ensure that you shall reclaim your rightful place. The Order of Aurelius shall bathe in blood again! Tonight, Master, I give freely of my own blood, so that you will again know the taste of it."

The candlelight reflected off metal in an ominous manner as Luke drew a long, slender blade out from underneath his robe. The vampire also took out a bowl half-filled with newt's eye and other mystical ingredients and a box of matches. He placed them on the ground in front of him.

Showing no hesitation, Luke placed the point of the knife to his breast, and began to intone, "The blood, poured directly from the dark heart is the summons." He plunged the slender blade deep into his breast, piercing his heart. Luke was obviously in a lot of pain, and yet he did not waver. He caught the blood—his blood—that flowed along the blade in the bowl, and then quickly lit a match and tossed it into the unholy mixture. It burned, and an intensely black flame rose up over the bowl, growing larger. The smell of the darkest of magicks was in the musty air, and the Earth herself shuddered in pain. Luke got to his feet.

"To the summons, the Azmarinth shall come!" The dark flame was now over three feet high, and just as wide. Suddenly, there was a flash of movement inside it, and a gigantic creature leapt through. The vampire looked down on the Azmarinth, the Bane of the Just, and was pleased. The creature looked much alike a huge, black dog, but the resemblance was only outwards. The Azmarinth was the harbinger of death. Blood dripped always from its claws and fangs. The smell of its breath made strong men vomit and its claws held deadly infections, but even those fates were gentle compared to its bite. "Go now!" Luke commanded the monster. It made even him feel uncomfortable. Fortunately, the creature obeyed him, and loped off, vanishing immediately in the darkness.

Then, finally, Luke took the knife sticking out of his chest in both hands, and pulled it out. "ahh, better," he breathed. "Yes, all is better now."

Sunnydale in the light of the morning sun.

Dawn seems such a hopeful time in any town. A new light, a new morning, a new day. In Sunnydale, dawn means you've lived through another night. A good thing, on most days. But today was Monday. The weekend was over.

Grumbling, Xander put his skateboard back in his locker. For all his nice words, principal Kaiser was really quite a strict headmaster. No skateboarding in the halls—OK, that, Xander could maybe understand, even though he had barely bumped into anyone at all. But no skateboarding during the breaks at all, not even on the schoolyard—that was just harsh. Now what was Xander to do with the rest of his time?

Willow was supposed to have this period off as well, but Xander hadn't seen her since Mrs Rosenberg had driven them both to school that morning. The Rosenbergs had seen him skateboarding on his way and given him a lift. Which was very nice of them and all, but now when was Xander supposed to practice skateboarding?

Loitering around, Xander noticed that there was some sort of commotion at the girls' lockers. There was a crowd forming. Smiling, he went to see what was up. Xander was approaching the crowd, and was about to ask Larry—one of the taller kids—if he could see what was up when some shot off from the middle of the crowd. Xander only caught a glimpse of her back before she vanished around the nearest corner, but he'd recognise those clothes anywhere: Willow.

Immediately, the crowd started to disperse. Xander took hold of Larry's arm to stop him, but then quickly thought the better of it and let go of muscleman's arm. Still, Xander was in luck. Larry was in a good mood, chuckling, even. "What is it, Harris?" he wanted to know.

"Just, what was so interesting here, a moment ago?" Xander asked, though he could guess, now that he could see Cordelia and her Cordettes standing at what had been the centre of attention. They were laughing in their standard 'aren't the fashion victims/the none-rich/the people we just don't like today funny' manner. Xander had a lot of experience with that laughter. So had Willow, though she always seemed to take it much harder.

"… and those clothes!" he could just hear Cordelia say. "The colours alone! Talk about the united colours of Benneton. There should be laws against that sort of stuff!"

"Yeah," Harmony agreed heartily, "and they should really make it illegal, too!"

"Chase was dissing that nerd, Rosenberg," Larry told Xander. "Really tore into her, too, this time. The nerd just ran off, all in tears." Larry paused to frown as his tiny brain processed who he was talking to. "Hey, Harris, aren't you and Rosenberg…" But he was talking to thin air. Xander had gone after Willow at the first mention of tears.

Knowing Willow, she was probably on her way to the eraser room, to hide out until it was time for class again. Xander knew every hidey-hole in the school—if not from when people picked on Willow, then from his own wide experience skipping class. He felt like hitting Cordy, but she was still a girl, no matter which level of hell she was from. Xander'd go call her names—he'd thought up some real good ones over the weekend, and hadn't had the chance to try them out yet—but he was more worried about Willow right now.

Xander heard the voices up ahead when he passed by the stairwell. Voices he recognised, but not nice voices. Doug and Terry, who were both only still in junior high because they had had to repeat more than one grade. "Nerd!" Doug was shouting. There wash a swish, as if from something flying through the air.

"Geek!" Terry added evilly.

"Give it back!" Xander heard Willow plead desperately.

"Y'know," Terry was saying as Xander came around the corner and into sight, "Cordelia is right, Rosenberg, you really are a loser wimp with no, em, with no…"

"Fashion sense," Doug supplied.

The two bullies were tossing Willow's backpack between them, over Willow's head. Willow, though she must have known very well that she could never take it back from the two much taller kids until they tired of their game, was running in between them, trying to catch her bag. If there was one thing Xander had learned in school, it was that there was no way he could stand such insufferable, brainless bullies.

"No," he said, loudly enough that all three of them paused and turned to look at him, "and thinking that if you pick on the same kids she picks on, Cordelia'll like you any better, now that shows admirable brainpower." Doug and Terry grinned at each other, and Xander made a mental note that sarcasm was lost on complete idiots.

"Xander!" Just the look on Willow's face at that moment was worth all the pain he was about to get himself into to Xander. There were still traces of tears on Willow's cheeks, but she looked at Xander as if his mere appearance was enough to save her.

He turned on Doug and Terry. "You are stupid, psycho, dumb, evil, idiotic bullies!" Xander took a quick breath and launched into the second phase of his tirade. It didn't take long to work at all. Terry dropped Willow's bag.

A few blows to the ribs and head later, Doug and Terry were stalking off, feeling fully avenged for the list of insults, and probably having forgotten completely about Willow. "Xander!" Willow exclaimed worriedly as she hurried forward to help Xander back to his feet.

"It's OK, it's all right," Xander hurried to assure her. "It's just a bloody nose. Wasn't meeting my quota of bruises this month, you see." Willow steered him towards a bench, and the two of them sat down.

"Oh, Xander… Why'd you do that?" The redhead found a clean handkerchief—her mother always supplied her with plenty—and gently pressed it against Xander's nose. There were only a couple of drops of blood, really. "I mean," she babbled on, "thank you, but you shouldn't get yourself hurt like that!"

Xander took Willow's hand in his and removed it from his nose. He sniffed noisily and looked directly at the redhead. "Willow, what was I telling you Friday? We're a team, we're the dynamic duo. When those jerks mess with you, they mess with me. We're meant to help each other out!" It just seemed to Willow as if Xander was always the one doing the helping out. Well, except for with homework, but how heroic were Mathematics and Trigonometry?

"Oh, look," came a condescending voice, "a trouble shared is a trouble halved, right? It seems losers find comfort in each other." Xander grimaced. He should have realised that he and Willow were right next to the Trig classroom, where their class had their next lesson.

Willow went very quiet, hoping that Cordelia and the Cordettes would just go away, but Xander looked at Cordelia defiantly, and said, "Yeah? You jealous?" Oddly enough, that's what Cordelia's voice had sounded like for a moment.

Cordelia sniffed haughtily. "Oh, I would be," she assured them. "I mean, if I didn't have any class at all." And she and the Cordettes walked away into the classroom, laughing.

Xander grumbled for a few moments, trying to come up with a good come-back, until he finally decided to simply pretend he'd won. "You see, Will," he said, "even Cordelia flees before the combined might of the dynamic duo of Sunnydale. And Cordy's way evil. She's like, the Evillest of Evillests."

"I wasn't much help," Willow admitted.

Xander shrugged. "Ah, we all have our own qualities, Will. When the time comes for the ultimate revenge of the dynamic duo, it'll probably be you hacking into the school system and deleting all Cordelia's grades or something.

Willow had to smile. "Is that destiny, too?" she asked.

"Oh, I hope so," Xander replied, nodding vigorously and grinning at the idea. "I certainly hope so!"

The Azmarinth, Bane of the Just, Nightmare of the Meek, ran through the streets of Sunnydale. The demon was like the wind; swift and at times of terrible destructive force. At the corner of Weatherly Park, the creature came to a halt. To the Azmarinth, the living greengrowing things of the park were as filth, but at least they were things that it knew, which could be said of little else that it had found here on top of the Hellmouth. It had been many aeons since an Azmarinth had last brought death to this world, and its appearance was very strange to the demon.

No matter. An Azmarinth brought death to the innocent, and through death, gathered the energy of life. Death never changed. Nor did life. That merely ended. And the shadow of innocence, though it had gone from most of the race of man, still remained the same in the hearts of man's cubs.

The moon was rising now, and it was time for the Azmarinth to begin its hunt. Tonight, it would take its first prey. The Azmarinth raised its head and led out a howl to put entire packs of wolves to shame. Throughout Sunnydale, mortals shivered, looked around, got up to lock their doors for the first time in years, but only those that had innocence in them could fully grasp the horror of the sound.

There, four blocks away, the Azmarinth sensed an innocent, out in the street. A boy, in his early teens, walking home from a friend's. He felt the fear. The Azmarinth breathed in his scent, all its senses focused on the hunt. It jumped forward. The boy never made it home.

A discoball hung from the ceiling of the auditorium, and Willow stood looking at it. She could have sworn that those things were, to quote Cordelia—*shudder*—so yesterday. It just went to show her how much she knew about that sort of thing. Willow liked it, though. The discoball reflected lots of different, nice colours, and it didn't hurt her eyes like strobe lights did.

Willow readjusted her dress and fingered the Star of David-necklace her father had given her. She had to admit, no matter how grudgingly, that the dress didn't look as terrible on her as she had thought it would. Willow had actually stood in front of the mirror for nearly five minutes before blushing profusely and hurrying downstairs.

The entire cotillion had actually been a lot of fun so far, far more than Willow had expected. There had been an official part, where they had all sat down and listened to some speeches. She'd sat in between Xander and Amy, so it had been fun. Then the photographer had come, and after that, the dancing had started, and still that odd thing fun had continued. Willow had talked some more with Xander and Amy. Amy looked absolutely wonderful in the blue, satin gown her father had got her. Xander kept fumbling with his ridiculous clip-on. Twice already Willow had not been able to resist the urge to straighten it for him, much to Amy's amusement and Xander's embarrassment. Still, Xander looked awfully, well, cute in his suit. Willow could barely look at him without blushing.

Unfortunately, the evening had spent its supply of fun too eagerly, and it seemed to be on its last legs now. Amy was off on the dance floor, dancing with Blain, a rich kid from their class. It was nice to see Amy have so much fun, but with Xander off trying to convince the band from Sunnydale High that was playing at the cotillion of his talent playing the flügelhorn, that left Willow all alone.

All of a sudden, Willow yawned. Well, she supposed it was getting late. On an ordinary night, Willow would probably have been in bed by now. Though lately, since she'd got connected to the Internet, her bedtime had become a bit more flexible.

"I tell you, Megan must be crazy to miss the cotillion."

Oh, great. Willow groaned. Cordelia and the bimbo squad had just stepped off the dance floor, and while their dance partners were eagerly fetching them drinks, they stopped to talk near where Willow was standing. The girls hadn't noticed the redhead yet, standing as she was in a quiet corner, but how long that was going to last was anyone's guess. Cordelia had been taking every chance she had been able to find to make Willow's life miserable during the past few weeks. It was almost as if Cordelia took it personally that Willow, Xander and Jesse managed to have so much fun together without her permission. Of course, Queen C picked on Xander and Jesse as well, but though she nearly always got the better of the exchanges of insults, it never had the desired level of effect on the boys.

"Well, if she's really missing, it's not as if she planned to miss it, right?" a dark-haired girl Willow didn't really know—Marcie, she thought she was called—said.

"And to think that she was supposed to come here with Greg Brubaker," Cordelia continued, ignoring the other girl. "I mean, it's not much—look at him dancing!—but it's certainly more than Megan has a right to expect of life."

"It's not like she's even a real missing person yet," Harmony contributed usefully, "that takes, like seventy hours or something."

"Well, Megan probably meant to come to the dance," Linda, another Cordette said, shrugging. "I heard she got the most expensive dress from the store downtown."

"Linda," Cordelia sighed, "if you mean to come to a cotillion, you don't go and get yourself kidnapped, duh!" The others all Tssk-ed their agreement with that bit of Cordy-logic. "Besides, Megan did not get the most expensive dress. I should know, I'm wearing it."

"Megan Bendis is missing?" Willow blurted out, and regretted it immediately. Bad Willow! This wasn't avoiding attention.

"Uh-huh," Linda quickly supplied, eager to show that she did indeed know stuff, "she never came home after ballet practice last night. Andy claims she saw Megan with a boy, but who's going to believe her? Megan normally always goes home straightaway."

"Linda! Are we talking to the riffraff now? What has got into you tonight?" Cordelia scolded Linda again and threw in a bonus insult to Willow without even acknowledging her presence. Yes, Cordelia was the best at what she did—what she did just wasn't very pretty. "Anyway, if you knew anything, you'd know that a boy from across town, from Wilkins School, went missing the night before Megan did. But, hello? Not like either of them is anyone. Kind of like you, Willow. Maybe you'll go missing next, if you're lucky. Then people might actually talk about you for once. That is, if they notice you're missing."

Maybe it was all Xander's talk about the dynamic duo, or maybe it was just that Willow refused to let anything turn her night sour, but this time she was determined to stand up to Cordelia. (If only Xander had been there to back her up; but there was still no sign of him.) "Oh yeah?" she countered at Cordelia. "At least if I disappear, people will look for me. If it was you, they'd probably just raid your wardrobe!"

Several of the Cordettes looked aghast, shocked that a self-professed geek dared talk back to their mistress. Willow was staring to feel pleased with herself, when she suddenly noticed the expression on Cordelia's face

"Oh, look, it's true," Cordelia said cruelly, "put a loser in a pretty dress, and she thinks she's all that. All right, the 'pretty' dress is a bit of a stretch, but I reckon someone from her twisted Bizarroworld might find it pretty."

"I—" Willow started, but she never got the chance to finish her sentence. Seemingly without looking, Cordelia pulled a boy out of the throng of people and swung him into Willow, spilling the half of the large Pepsi the boy was carrying on her dress. Willow recognised the boy. It was Jonathan, the shortest kid in their class. Jonathan was a fellow loser, but despite that kinship, Willow didn't really know him that well, or, at all. Jonathan spoke less with less people than even Willow did in all her shyness.

"Huh? Wha— I—" Jonathan was as surprised as Willow was annoyed and Cordelia was a rhymes-with-witch.

"Look here," Cordelia said in her snottiest tone of voice, putting Jonathan and Willow next to each other, "aren't they the cutest couple? Maybe we should name them prom king and queen… of Springfield!" The Cordettes all laughed obediently, though some of them looked as if Cordelia had lost them with that reference.

While Jonathan took it all in with wide-eyed confusion, Willow spluttered angrily, wishing she could come up with a response quickly enough. But it was too late already, as Cordelia put her nose in the air and resumed pretending as if Willow didn't exist.

"Come on, girls," the queen of evil suggested to her minions, "let's go see if the high school boys are here yet. You know, the older brothers Alexa said would come. Older boys are the only way to go." And off they were.

Jonathan took off a moment later, heading back towards the drinks table and still looking completely bewildered. Willow remained behind alone in her corner. A minute later, she had come up with not one, but two perfect comebacks to Cordelia's insults. Somehow, that only made things worse. Oddly enough, none of the insults Cordelia had thrown her way had bothered Willow much—same old, same old. It was just the fact that there never seemed to be any respite from Cordelia's belittling remarks, not even on this evening that was supposed to be about fun. That really got on Willow's nerves.

All of a sudden, Willow came to a decision. She was going home. The cotillion had been a lot of fun on the whole, but it was deteriorating rapidly, and Willow'd rather preserve the good memories. It was dark outside by now, and grown-ups were supposed to walk home the kids who weren't being picked up, but no one took that very seriously. Willow lived near enough to the school. What could possibly happen if she decided to walk home by herself?

Enjoying her surprising decisiveness, Willow set course to the girls' locker room at a brisk pace. This plan was a Willow-plan, so it automatically came in handy, thought-out steps. First she was going to change into the spare set of clothes from her locker—Willow had worn the extravagant (at least for her) dress under protest in the first place, so there was no way that she was walking home in it—then she would see if Xander was finally back and tell him that she was leaving, or else let Amy pass on the message, and only then would she do the actual walking home.

Willow's locker was neatly ordered, and she could just take out her clean clothes without having to look for them. She made a face when she saw that it was a skirt. There wasn't anything wrong with skirts in general, but after wearing the dress all night, Willow really wished she had some trousers. Oh, well, it was just for the walk home, anyway. Quickly, Willow changed into the skirt and brightly coloured sweater. Then she folded her dress as best as possible and put it in her backpack. The redhead was just closing the bag when it happened.

Amy came storming into the locker room, shrieking at the top of her lungs. Willow jumped to her feet, startled. "Amy! What's going on?"

Shedding her panic like last month's Trig assignment, Amy stumbled to a halt, raising her eyebrows when she saw Willow. "Huh? Willow?" she wondered. Then straightened her dress nervously and shrugged. "Oh, that? Don't worry, it's nothing much. But Blain tried to kiss me!"

Willow gasped, not sure whether she should laugh or be affronted on Amy's behalf. By the looks of it, Amy wasn't sure herself, either.

Blushing, the blond girl hurried to change the topic. "Willow, what happened to your dress? Are you leaving?"

Willow nodded. "Yeah," she confirmed, "it's been great, but I want to go, now."

"Really? I feel like the party's only just getting started." The two girls looked at each other, and both suddenly giggled. They were friends, but sometimes they had very different ideas of fun. "OK," Amy said, "I guess I understand. You'll be all right?"

"I will," Willow promised. "Oh! But if you see Xander, could you tell him that I went home?"

Amy nodded. "Sure. I will."

"Thanks." The girls said goodbye, and then Amy checked if Blain wasn't waiting in ambush right outside the locker room and went back to the party. Willow set off in the opposite direction. The music blared out noisily as she passed the open doors to the auditorium, but Willow set a firm pace, not even pausing at the darkness outside of the school building. It certainly never seemed so dark outside when you looked out of the window of your warm and—most especially—safe room at home.

"Oh, don't be a baby," Willow remonstrated herself. "This is Sunnydale—nothing ever happens here!" Still as she walked across the park towards her parents' house, Willow couldn't help but shiver. And it wasn't from the cold, either.

A terrifying howl suddenly pierced the nightly silence. Willow jumped, rapidly casting a look in every direction. That had sounded far too close by for her peace of mind. Coyotes? At this time of the year? Well, at least coyotes never attacked people. But Willow had heard coyotes howl before, and she couldn't truly convince herself that this bloodthirsty call had been uttered by the same creatures. Without meaning to, Willow found that she had quickened her pace.

The howl sounded again, even closer this time, and Willow was running, holding on tight to the straps of her backpack.

Then she made the mistake of looking over her shoulder, and she froze. An enormous, black dog was sitting in the shadow of a group of trees. It's just your imagination, she tried to tell herself, they can't possible make dogs that big. Unfortunately, logic didn't stop the dog from sitting there, staring directly at Willow with its glowing red eyes, as if… Again, Willow had to shiver. Willow usually liked animals, she really did, but something about this dog was just indescribably scary.

Slowly, carefully, Willow turned and began walking away. Before she had taken a single step, the dog had got to its feet, and before Willow even had the chance to think of running away as fast as her feet could carry her, the creature pounced on her. Its claws, trailing something that almost seemed like blood, caught Willow's skirt, and Willow shrieked as she fell to the ground, her backpack shooting up and banging into the back of her head. The dog jumped on top of the girl, its heavy weight crushing her painfully to the ground, and from the corner of her eye, Willow could see the red drool dripping of the hellish creature's fangs as it closed its jaws on her head.

Willow was as surprised as happy when there was no blinding pain or instant death a moment later, or even the moment after that. Only when the dog got off from on top of her and she was jerked along as it ran away did Willow realise that it must have got a mouthful of her backpack in its jaws. She breathed a sigh of relief, but had to cut it short as the dog began to ran, dragging Willow along helplessly. Willow struggled wildly, but against the might of the enormous creature, it was of no avail. The last coherent thought the girl had for a while was that she really shouldn't have jinxed herself so much by saying that nothing ever happened in Sunnydale.

Luke laughed harshly. When a creature of the dark laughed like Luke did, it always meant one thing: people were dead who didn't deserve to be.

Darla saw the bones littering the underground chamber, and it seemed a good guess that they were the ones Luke was laughing about. She sniffed the air. The bones had belonged to two humans, a boy and a girl, both young. The bones had been gnawed clean recently. The girl's probably that very night. Interesting. Had Luke brought a pet? "Luke," she said, "I've come."

Slowly, Luke turned around, the candlelight playing shadows over his vampiric face. "Yes," he breathed, "you have come to help raise the Master, have you not?"

The four centuries old vampire nodded. "It is time to begin preparations for the Harvest. There's only a few years…"

"Hah!" Luke laughed. "You seek to regain the Master's favour by returning to the folds of the Order of Aurelius in the hour of his need." The vampire's hand shot out suddenly and closed around Darla's neck. Darla gasped as her feet left the ground. "But have a care, Darla," Luke continued threateningly, "I rule the Order until the Master returns, and I have not forgotten how you betrayed the Order when you left with that whelp." Just as suddenly as he had picked her up, Luke let go of Darla and she dropped to the floor. "But no matter," he said, turning away, "you have arrived too late anyway."

Rubbing her throat, Darla asked, "Too late? Luke, what do you mean?"

"I have decided that we cannot wait for the time of the Harvest. Our Master has suffered this humiliation long enough. I have called forth an Azmarinth, and already it is gathering the souls of innocents. Only one more it will have to kill, I think. And then, this very night, the Azmarinth shall come to me filled with Darkforce and I shall slaughter it and the Master will rise from its blood and lead us to eternal darkness!"

Xander came dancing back into the auditorium only slightly miffed with the members of the high school band. They had been considerably unimpressed with both Xander's chosen instrument and with the way he played it. Having heard himself perform on the flügelhorn before, though, Xander couldn't really hold it against them.

Feeling giddy from the party-vibes, Xander felt the need to announce his presence, and at the top of his lungs, he burst loose in a slightly modified version of the theme to the old Spider-man cartoon. "Xanderman! Xanderman! Doing things only a Xander can!" A lot of heads turned Xander's way, but most simply grinned and shook their heads as they recognised him. Cordelia the shepherd drifted by with her flock and made some remark that was no doubt very scathing, but Xander the Rock Star pretended that he didn't see her. He didn't talk to the groupies.

Xander looked around for his pal Willow, but couldn't find her anywhere in the auditorium. There were a couple of other girls which sucked up the attention of Xander's eyes for a bit, but that was neither here nor there. Willow had probably gone to the bathroom or something, so Xander decided to wait around at the drinks table and keep an eye on the door, among other things.

It was probably not much later when Xander looked up from the empty pretzel bowl and remembered that he was supposed to be keeping an eye on the door, but since he wasn't wearing a watch there was no way to check.

Amy was at the table, though, with Blain trailing behind her like a grinning, wide-eyed puppy for some reason, and Xander walked over to her. "Hey, Amester!" he greeted the girl. "You seen Willow anywhere? She's pulled an Invisible Woman shtick on me."

"Oh, yeah!" Amy recalled suddenly. "She asked to tell you that she went home."

Xander frowned. "Home?" And without even telling him, no less?

Amy waved a hand dismissively. "Ah, you know Willow. She's not much of a party animal. She was probably just tired. Don't worry, she wasn't sick or anything. Simply wanted to go home."

"I don't know," Xander replied, worrying his lip. "For some reason, I've got a really bad feeling about this."

Amy laughed. "Whatever you say, Han Solo. Blain! Come on, we're gonna dance again."

"But…" Blain stuttered.


"Yes, Amy."

Xander went back to the snacks and waited for a minute longer, but even the snacks' seductive powers couldn't push Xander's bad feeling out of his head. It was bugging him so much that he decided he was going after Willow. If he hurried, he might still catch up with her—she couldn't have been gone long—or if Willow was home already, at least Xander could see that she was all right. Xander hurriedly put on his coat and was rushing through the school doors before he thought to tear off his clip-on. Automatically, Xander turned left around Naayéé Cemetery to cut across the park. Willow and Xander had walked to her home together after school for years, and he could have made it to Willow's with his eyes shut. Or almost. He'd given it a try once, but there were just too many bushes in the park.

This time, however, the boy looked ahead through the dark to see if Willow was still nearby. "Willow!" Xander called out, but there was no answer. He hadn't really expected there to be one. Xander continued on, trotting.

When he found the place of the struggle, Xander skidded to a halt. It was obvious that something violent had taken place here, although what exactly that was wasn't immediately clear. There were broken branches everywhere, and, from his experience with the neighbours' dog, Xander could make an educated guess that an animal had dragged something off through the bushes. Something really big. Dragged along by an equally over-sized animal…

"O, man," Xander muttered. "Willow?" Again, there was no reply. "I knew something was wrong," he complained, "I just knew it!"

At that moment the cloud cover broke, the moon lit up that dark corner of the park, and Xander noticed what he was standing in. Was that… was it blood? "Oh, man!"

All right, keep it cool, Xander told himself. There was no proof—not even any indication—that this had anything to do with Willow. It'd probably be best if he went to the Rosenberg's house first, to see if Willow wasn't safe and sound after all. Like hell he would!

"Oh, man!" Xander swore, and ran in the direction of the trail. For the first time in his life, Xander wished he was a boy scout—then maybe the trail could have told him something. At least it wasn't very hard to follow. By the looks of it, Willow—and Xander had by now thoroughly convinced himself that it was without a doubt Willow who had been Willownapped here—had been putting up a fight while she was dragged off.

"Oh man oh man oh man oh man oh man!" Where were they heading? Xander refused to stop and look around, keeping his eyes firmly on the trail and his feet moving quickly, but the tombstones that started popping up, Xander realised that they had turned back and were in Naayéé Cemetery. For a moment he wondered whatever had happened to the fence, but then he realised that he'd walked across the flattened remains of it a minute earlier. They didn't make fences like they used to.

Xander found he couldn't even laugh at his own lame joke. His concern over Willow was growing, and he could taste it like bile in his throat. There were few bushes and plants in the cemetery, so there weren't any broken branches, and Xander now had to guess as much as keep his eyes open to follow the trail. He swung around the corner of a mausoleum, and suddenly tumbled face-first in the dirt as his feet caught on something.

Cursing, Xander kicked free his feet, but when he saw what he had tripped over, the boy froze. It was Willow's dress. Instantly, Xander saw Willow again as she'd looked in that dress—very un-Willowish, but very pretty. He suddenly realised that he probably should have told Willow how pretty she had looked. Buddies or no buddies, Willow was still a girl, and girls dug being told that they were pretty.

Focus, Xander, focus! Willow's dress. No Willow. Made sense, she'd probably changed before leaving the school. But there was a lot of the stuff on the dress that looked way too much like blood for his comfort. Not good. Nowhere near it. Xander saw something else lying on the ground and picked it up to see what it was. It was a piece of Willow's backpack, soaked and apparently torn off by what were probably big fangs. "Willow's gonna be bummed. She loved that bag."

"Eeeeeeh!" Or, Willow might be concerned with entirely different things. Dropping the dress and the cloth from the bag, Xander sprinted off in the direction the scream had come from. He concentrated on the one positive thing he could think off: that scream had come from nearby. Using a radar sense he'd never known he had, Xander zoned in on the sound. Still, he almost ran straight by the place until a second panicked scream made him double back his last few steps.

Willow was inside a mausoleum. Xander took a deep breath, preparing himself for anything, and got ready to give whatever was scaring Willow so the thrashing of its life. He leaped in through the mausoleum's door.

And he couldn't help but freeze at what he saw. "Man, that's one hell of a big dog."

When the dog tried to drag her into the mausoleum, Willow screamed and started struggling wildly again. Those houses for the dead had always freaked her out. As many graveyards as there were in Sunnydale, she ought to have got used to them, but she never had. Willow threw her arms around the doorframe, and held tight.

She could hear her backpack tearing, and hoped that the dog would tear off another piece of it. The dog had already torn off a piece of cloth from the backpack on their way through the cemetery, and it had given Willow a chance to run away. If she hadn't stumbled and fallen, she might even have escaped.

Suddenly, the creature let go of the backpack, and Willow breathed a disbelieving sigh of relief. The dog wasn't giving up and letting her go now, was it?

It wasn't. Willow gasped when she felt the creature's fangs close around her leg. Out of utter fright, she lost her grip on the doorframe, so when the dog jerked on her to get her inside, Willow flew halfway across the mausoleum, rolling through the dirt and shrieking all the while. Her Star of David-necklace snapped and landed somewhere in the dirt.

Willow climbed up to her hands and knees, ready to take off if there was the slightest chance she could still escape. The dog was directly between her and the door, its red eyes glowing menacingly in the dim light of the crypt.

Whimpering, Willow retreated back into a corner as the huge animal got ready to leap at her. She'd been struggling all the time that the dog had taken to drag her to its lair, but none of it had been any use. If there was still any hope, Willow couldn't see it. The beast growled, showing off its fangs.

And then, out of nowhere, there was Xander, holding the dog by its tail as if that was going to do anything to stop it. Xander had compared the two of them with the dynamic duo more often than Willow could remember, and she'd always considered it a jest, but this rescue was as close a shave as any time Batman had come to save Robin's skinny neck. "Oh no you don't!" Xander shouted at the dog. "No one's eating any Willow here!"

"Xander?" Willow was stunned, frightened out of her mind that Xander would get hurt too, and oddly giddy about the fact that Xander was coming to her rescue. She scrabbled to her feet.

Then the next second began. The dog took a step forward, and Xander was jerked of his feet, flying right into the animal. While all the might of a thirteen-year-old boy's grip on its tail seemed negligible to the dog, it did notice that same boy slamming into it. Already half-jumping, the creature slammed out its paws to the ground, breaking its own momentum, and with a growl swung around to face its attacker.

Willow had to duck aside blindly to avoid being crushed by the dog's back half, and landed with her head and shoulders over the edge of a pit in the mausoleum floor. For a moment, Willow couldn't help but stay there and wonder what the hell a pit was doing in the floor of a mausoleum. The pit wasn't even the strangest part. On the bottom of the pit, three sharp spikes jutted up from the earth. The spikes looked so weird that they would have seemed out of the ordinary anywhere, let alone on the bottom of a pit in a mausoleum. Despite some engraved symbols on the ground around them, it looked almost as if the spikes had grown there, and recently—but that was of course impossible.

Meanwhile, Xander, who was rapidly coming to a better understanding of the term 'suicide attack', was backing away slowly. "Nice doggie," the boy tried. "Nice doggie." The beast growled insultedly.

Willow rolled over and got back to her feet. The way to the door was now open, and she desperately wanted to run for it, but now Xander was here. Something glittered in the beam of moonlight that shone in through the door opening, and with a start Willow recognised her Star of David-necklace. Of the three options open to Willow, going out of her way to pick up the necklace was definitely the least smart, after helping Xander and making a run for it, but Willow did it anyway. She snatched up the necklace, wrapping the cord around her hand and holding the star in the palm of her hand, so that she wouldn't lose it again. Then, with a last longing look at the door, Willow ran over to where Xander and the dog were fighting.

And fighting it was—the dog had slapped its claws at Xander, but the boy had thrown up his arms, and his suit had proven remarkably resilient. The thing's sleeves were probably mutilated, but Xander's skin underneath was still intact, and that was all he cared about at that moment. Now, Xander was backed in a corner deflecting the creature's snapping fangs with a brick he'd managed to find somewhere. It was keeping Xander alive so far, but he could tell that there was no future in the position. Xander was not taking bets on whether he or the dog would get tired first.

Willow was pummelling at the dog's side with her fists, but the creature never even seemed to notice she was there. Willow looked over at Xander, and for an instant, their eyes met. Not a word had been spoken between the two since Xander had so suddenly turned up, but none were needed to convey the thoughtless fright they both shared.

Suddenly, the dog advanced with a leap, and Xander went down. "Xander!" Willow renewed her attack, but it still had little effect. The dog grabbed Xander's leg, tearing the trouser leg, and tossed the boy through the air. He almost hit Willow before hitting the hard ground several feet away. Still ignoring Willow, the beast went after Xander. It opened its jaws wide, and this time it seemed intent on the kill as it jumped for Xander.

"NO!" Desperately, Willow leaped forward as well. She slapped the beast with an open hand, and in a stroke of luck, the Star of David from her necklace hit the creature straight in the eye. It howled with pain as if burnt, and stumbled backwards.

Dazed, Willow and Xander looked at the dog as it appeared to go mad with pain. Then, with a shriek, it fell over the edge of the pit, and was silent.

Willow and Xander both lay on the ground, panting. They looked at each other with wide-eyed shock, unable to believe that just like that, it was all over. Suddenly, Xander gave a rough laugh, and climbed to his feet. Willow followed suit. Still too breathless to speak, the two friends stumbled over to each other and hugged to reassure themselves that they were still there. Holding Xander tight, Willow came to the most amazing conclusion. My god, she realised. We're still alive!

The Azmarinth, Bane of the Just, Nightmare of the Meek, Devourer of the Innocent, howled in agony. Its eye burnt with a pain alike nothing it had ever felt before. The Star of David had cut its shape into it even before the burning began.

Its prey forgotten, the Azmarinth retreated. Deep inside, the creature knew that its eye would heal, that it could recover from nearly anything, and that then it would extract a revenge so painful that would make its kindred howl with admiration. But for now, all it wanted was to get away from the agony.

Stupidly, the Azmarinth moved backwards in circles, as if it could have got away from its own injuries. Too late, the demonspawn creature felt the edge of the pit beneath its claws. The sacrificial spikes on which it kept its prey while eating their meat were waiting below, jutting up sharply. Balancing on the edge, the Azmarinth managed a panicked cry. Then it went over and down.

And it was silent. Forever.

Leaning heavily on each other, Xander and Willow slowly—but as fast as they could manage—stumbled their way out of Naayéé Cemetery and back through Weatherly Park. Both of them were exhausted, more even from fear than from physical exertion, and they'd had plenty of both. Despite her usual compassion for animals, Willow couldn't bring herself to feel sorry for the dog. Falling on those spikes was certainly a nasty way to go, but no doubt the beast would have had to be put down soon anyway. She wondered idly if it had belonged to anyone. But mainly, Willow just felt relieved for her and Xander.

Now that it was over, and they'd safely fled out of the mausoleum, the danger all felt very unreal. Even as Willow's heart was still pounding like a couple of trolls with jackhammers, her logical brain was telling her that there was no way that that dog was as huge as she recalled it. Willow did notice that her logical brain was conveniently ignoring the fact that the dog had dragged her across a park and a cemetery without noticeable effort. She yawned, and her logical brain just managed to inform her that she was feeling so tired because the adrenaline was leaving her system before Willow firmly told it to finally keep its mouth shut.

"Huh?" Willow wondered when Xander steered them suddenly to the side. "Xander, where are we going?" Xander didn't reply, but instead squatted down and gathered something up from the ground. He got back up and handed the thing to Willow.

"My dress!" she realised delightedly. "Oh, thank you thank you thank you!" The dress was pretty disgusting, all clotted with… well, she guessed it must have been the dog's saliva. It was incredibly gross.

"Thought you might like it back," Xander said proudly. He paused for a moment, then added, "You should wear it again. Looked good on you." Willow blushed, but fortunately, it was too dark for Xander to notice.

"Thank you," she whispered.

"Welcome." They clambered over the remains of the iron fence, and Willow wondered whatever had happened to it. It looked like someone had driven a car right through it, except that there were no wheel marks in the ground. The dog could never have wrecked an iron fence, right?

They reached the path through park, which thank god was better lit than the cemetery, and Willow looked longingly in the direction of her home. Xander, with his arm draped around her, squeezed her shoulder, and Willow finally began to feel safe again.

"What's this?" Surprised by the sound of the voice, Willow and Xander looked around, but they'd already recognised who it was. Enough with the jinxing already! Willow chastised herself. A group of half a dozen Cordettes were coming down the path, Cordelia in the lead. Willow groaned as she realised what she and Xander must look like after all their rolling around in the dirt. In all likelihood, this was going to hurt.

"Well, you must be trying out the new fall fashion," Cordelia attacked. "I hear 'disgusting' was really hot back in the Middle Ages."

"I bet they were making out in the bushes!" Harmony suggested. Willow felt like sinking into the ground, Xander stiffened, and the Cordettes giggled.

"Pffft," Cordelia dismissed the idea. "They probably wouldn't know how—and do you think even Rosenberg there would let Harris kiss her? She's got enough fashion problems of her own. She hardly needs to get infected with his."

Xander shook his head tiredly. "Cordelia," he said, "now's really not—"

"Not a good time? Are we disturbing your concentration? 'Cause you were obviously doing something highly intellectual here in the dark, in the dirt—not to mention in such good company. Careful you don't overload both your brain cells, Xander."

Willow was not the kind of person to use the word hate easily—the We-Hate-Cordelia Club had only be named after long consideration; the We-Despise-Cordelia Club, the We-Hope-Cordelia-Gets-A-Lot-Of-Warts Club, etcetera, it had all been considered before going with the H-word. At that moment though, Willow was exhausted, filthy, scared and knew that Xander felt the same way, and Cordelia had chosen to stand between her and Xander and her home, the solutions to each of their problems. The word 'hate' seemed appropriate.

"Oh, shut up, Cordelia," Willow exclaimed tiredly.

Taken aback, Cordelia laughed to hide her discomfort. "What?" she retorted. "You think you—"

"Oh, please," Willow continued tiredly, "unless you have something new to call us, just stay quiet. What were you gonna say now? That we're geeks and losers? That we're not popular? That we dress badly?—I think that pretty much covers ten years of your insults. Cordelia, not a word you say is original—just like the rest of you."

When Willow finished, there were a few moments of stunned silence. Willow had her eyes closed and felt a strong urge to resume sinking into the ground, but then Xander punched her in the arm enthusiastically and whooped loudly. "Woo-hoo! Take that, Cordelia!"

Willow opened her eyes to find Cordelia mouthing wordlessly, and all the Cordettes were looking at her as if seeing her for the first time. Willow was shocked. As rarely as she used them, Willow had never got insults right before. Aside from feeling totally embarrassed, it felt remarkably good to give Cordy a taste of her own bitter medicine.

Fortunately, Xander was bright enough to know to stop while they were ahead, leave the Cordettes to stew in their own juices, and get the hell out of there while the mixed metaphors lasted. He turned Willow around and gently pushed her forward until her feet began moving on their own again.

"Let's get home, shall we?" he said, swinging an arm around Willow's shoulders. "I think two hellbeasts conquered in one night is about as much as our luck can take." Willow smiled and leaned in to Xander, content.

Harmony and all the others were bleating amongst themselves in an upset manner. They were no doubt telling themselves that Willow hadn't found their buttons, hadn't pushed them.

Cordelia remained silent. It bothered her, naturally, that for once she had not had a comeback ready in time, and that it was that fumbling geek Willow Rosenberg who had humiliated her in front of her friends only made it worse. What bothered her more, though, was the look she'd seen in Harris's eyes when Willow had stood up to her. He'd looked pretty beat, but when Willow spoke, his eyes had lit up with pride. Pride. Because Willow had dared stand up to her, Cordelia.

And now, the way the two were walking down the street together… Xander put his arm around Willow's shoulders, and she leant into him. They were so close that their friendship was obvious.

They were both geeks and losers. She was Queen C. She had everything—she was everything.

And Cordelia wondered what was wrong with her, that she felt so… jealous.

Walking back up the stairs, Willow studied the broken clasp of her necklace. It looked like it should be too hard to fix. Simply had to be bent straight. Good. She was really glad that she had taken the time to pick up the necklace, no matter how stupid the move had seemed at the time, while the wild dog was still after them.

"Xander," Willow said, pushing open the door and stepping into her room, "I *giggle*" Quickly, Willow raised a hand to cover the smile that was twisting the corners of her mouth. Xander was sitting on the edge of her bed, wearing a borrowed dressing gown. He looked totally ridiculous in the short, kimono-style robe, and from the looks of it, he knew it. "I put our clothes in the washing machine. It shouldn't take long," Willow hurried to continue as Xander glowered at her.

Willow—herself in her pyjamas—sat down next to Xander and tried hard not to laugh. "I'm sorry about the gown," she managed.

Xander shrugged helplessly. "Can't be helped. Better than going home in those clothes as they were, I guess. They were pricey. My parents would kill me if they knew what I'd done to that suit. At least the tears turned out to be a lot less bad than the stains" Willow's parents wouldn't have been too happy about the state of her dress, either, but fortunately they were out that night. Her father was on a business trip, and her mother was, well, somewhere or other. (Willow had got special permission to wait up for her, though, so she could tell/report about the cotillion. Her mother was planning a sociological study of school dances.)

Willow noticed a nasty bruise on Xander's bare leg and winced. All in all, they had both been very lucky in the injury department. Sure, they would be sore all over for days, but miraculously, neither of them bled anywhere.


"Yeah, Willow?"

"Thank you."

"… You're welcome, I guess," Xander replied. "Thank me for what exactly?" he wondered.

"For saving my life," Willow told him. "If you hadn't been there, that dog would probably have killed me. I couldn't do anything."

Xander looked at his friend. "We're fine, really. You saved my neck when that thing came after me. In fact, you hurt it somehow so that it felt into that pit—though I'm still drawing a blank on how that happened."

A shiver ran down at the memory of the animal's dying scream. "Don't remind me," she begged Xander. He sat closer to her, as if sensing her shiver.

"Point is," Xander went on, "because I do have one today, that you could have run away while the dog was looking at me."

"No I couldn't," Willow said, shaking her head softly.

"And neither could I," Xander agreed triumphantly.

But Willow still wasn't wholly satisfied. "Still, Xander," she insisted, "I don't know what I would have done without you. If you hadn't come to rescue me, I would never have had the chance to help you back. And it's not only about tonight either. If I didn't have you, I, I, I wouldn't even know the Charlie Brown Christmas Special! What if you'd never come up to me and asked me to come play that time in the sandbox when we were little, and we'd never met? If you hadn't been here, Cordelia probably would have had my head by now a hundred times over!" If I didn't have you, was what Willow was trying to express, what point would there be to the world?

"If if if if if if if! What is this, Willow? Word of the day?" Xander shook his head. "Of course we met, and of course we became friends! I told you this a thousand times, Willow, but I'll tell you again. You and me, we're a team—that's destiny!"

"Do you really believe in that?" Willow asked thoughtfully. "In fate, I mean, predestination?"

Xander looked lost in thought for a moment. He knew that when Willow asked something in that tone of voice, she was really curious about the answer—the serious answer. "I guess I do," he said. "I don't know about any god, or a whole great big plan for the world, but I'll believe that some things are just so right that there's no way they can not happen."

Willow smiled, suddenly feeling all warm inside, and leaned her cheek on Xander's shoulder. "I love you, you know that?"

Xander gave her a hug. "Course I know. And I love you too. You're the best friend ever in this or any parallel universe."

Darla felt a strange sort of glee at Luke's grim mood. She should, of course, be just as concerned as he was with the fact that the Azmarinth was mysteriously late. The Master's liberation should come before any personal concerns. But after the way Luke had put her down, rubbing his superiority within the Order of Aurelius in her face, he deserved to have his plans backfire. Darla knew that she'd always been a particular favourite of the Master's, but as long as the ancient vampire was still entombed, that counted for nothing.

And besides, Luke had been right on the money when he'd said that Darla had come mainly to regain the Master's favour after abandoning the Order for Angelus. She missed that handsome lad, but in the end he'd turned out to be a disappointment.

Luke's plan with the Azmarinth, however inventive it had been, had been doomed from the start. Everyone knew of the prophecy that foretold the Master's resurrection during the Year of the Harvest. The Order's numbers in Sunnydale were growing already. Luke's plan was merely a desperate attempt to gain the same favour that Darla was after.

When Luke entered the crypt, Darla hurried to catch up with him. If the prophecy was right, then Luke would find quite the disappointment inside, and she wanted to be there when he did.

Darla almost grinned when she saw Luke's face, although it took a moment before she figured out why the vampire looked so stricken. But then she stepped closer to the pit with the sacrificial spikes, and saw the Azmarinth. There were fresh human bones in the pit, lying around at least two of the spikes. Darla could smell them, even if the Azmarinth had chewed off all the flesh and cracked the bones beyond all recognition. What was impaled on the third spike, however—or rather on all three spikes in some degree—was not human. One of the spikes stuck out the Azmarinth's back, and from the angle in which it was lying, the other two spikes were buried somewhere in its body as well. A horrible burn disfigured one side of the creature's face, and Darla could smell the acid stench of the cold fire of a holy symbol. As shiver ran down her back. That was as painful for a vampire as it had undoubtedly been for the Azmarinth.

Darla admired either the cunning or the luck of the ones who had done this. It was not easy to slay an Azmarinth. If it hadn't been weakened by the burning first, it would probably still have managed to tear itself loose from the spikes and have healed almost instantly.

Then Darla looked at Luke again, and her smile returned, though she wisely kept it inside. He looked so bewildered! She sighed. It was too bad that she had to disturb the moment, but in not too long, the Sun would be coming up, and they had better get back underground.

"Come on, Luke," Darla soothed him, "there's no use crying over spilt blood." She took him by the arm and steered him to the door.

Luke let himself be led, but he looked back over his shoulder one last time. "I don't understand…" he spoke to no one in particular.

Darla shushed him. The imbecile. No flexibility whatsoever. "Now Luke, you should have known better than to mess with prophecy. Don't worry, though. We'll have our revenge once the Harvest comes. Whoever slew the Azmarinth will no doubt be drawn to oppose us again when our day comes, and then they will perish. Slowly. Nothing is without consequences. Everything will come together in the end. Such it is written in the Book of Destiny."


Like it? Then why not check out my original fantasy saga FULCRUM, available in e-book on Amazon Kindle and Smashwords, or start reading for free on my website TelltaleProductions dot nl (link in profile).