Author: Tim Knight

Title: Scooby Snacks: Sour Cream And Onion (hey, it was either that or Nacho Cheese and I like Sour Cream and Onion! So sue me!)

Dedications:
First, to Steve, for letting me play in the Wandererverse and having fun doing it <G>, and for giving me suggestions on one of these little tales. No I’m not telling which one.
Second, to Rebekah and Jack, the beta readers and Almighty Editors, who makes these stories what they are. Nuff said. Special thanks go to Jack for editing this batch and for making the hard choice of whether or not a certain pointy-eared half-elf should get a minor blow to her ego to keep it from growing too large...
Third, to Mike Weyer, for introducing Robin Goodfellow into the mix of the Wandererverse.


You Asked For It
Wake Up Call
Heir Apparent
Old Flames
State of Mind

You Asked For It

((Author’s Note: Unlike the other stories here, the title has NOTHING to do with the story. Instead, this is the "answer" to your "requests" (you know who you are, those who made them) to some of the stuff that happened during Shaw’s (in)famous Waterdeep mission as mentioned in Be Careful What You Wish For. This will hopefully have something for everyone (decide for yourself which categories you fall into); the action junkies, the Forgotten Realms/fantasy fans, the flashback lovers, the pervs, and the cloak and dagger people who just have to have at least one fic where the premise makes your head start humming the themes from Mission Impossible, Bond movies, or Get Smart.
Enjoy.))

Salaama’s Pleasure Hall
Dock Ward, Waterdeep, Toril (The Forgotten Realms)
20 June 1978 (1349 Dale Reckoning)

< The things I do for justice... >

Shawukay stared at her reflection in the full-length mirror and wrinkled her nose. She fought to stomach the disgust she felt for the latest outfit she’d donned for a night shift in her role as a waitress at Salaama’s Pleasure Hall. The one piece, black cowhide leather suit completely covered her back, a requirement given her situation, but the hole in the front...

< If Grandmother and Grandfather could see me now... > she mused dryly. She took another look at that part of her body this...clothing, and she used the term loosely, exposed. The top of the diamond-shape "cut out" started above and in between her breasts, exposing far too much for her liking, then moved downward to reveal much of her ribs and came to the bottom point about halfway between her navel and... < The less thought about that the better! > And the way it scrunched between her legs, making her feel... < Ugh. I always suspected when they said that being a Harper was not just a job; it’s an adventure, that they were lying dogs in need of some painful neutering performed with a rusty blade... >

Glancing down, she took in the black, soft-soled, thigh-high kidskin boots that only added to the illusion that she was some kind of free wheeling prostitute... She ground her teeth at the unworthy thought. < You are working alongside prostitutes, and you have seen that many of them are good people! Fool. How can you think such things about them after seeing what their world is like? >

She sighed; she had come to like the women working here, whether they were waitresses like her, women who gave their services to customers, or the simpler workers, like cooks, shoppers, and dishwashers. Salaama, the "Madame" (and senior Harper herself, her supervisor for this mission), ensured not only the girls’ safety, but their happiness as well; no one was ever forced to do anything they didn’t want to do, and Salaama considered all of them "her girls." They were the most handsomely paid strumpets in the land, nearly treated as well as princesses. She helped them to save and invest their money for the day they decided to leave her employ for a more respectable life. Rather than a businesswoman, the former desert dweller was a mother figure to them all.

< Of course, some like Dornias have very little they wouldn’t do... > The Harper smiled as she thought about the free-spirited half-elf, the only other employed by the Calishite warrior. They had become friends during the six weeks she’d been "employed" here. < Goddess, at least I have not had to ‘watch’ her exploits. It is hard enough watching and spying on men and women together just to see if they would be stupid enough to let slip that they are Zhentarim or Dragon Cultists... > She’d learned more in the last six weeks than she’d ever expected to have experienced during her entire lifetime; if she ever fell in love, she’d have a thing < or twelve! > to show a man. She shook her head and repeated her earlier thought. < The things I do for justice... >

The priestess sighed and shook her head; the clothing wasn’t the whole problem. Part of it was being cooped up in this building inside city walls, when her blood called out to her to escape into the forest just for a few days... < No. You have a duty to fulfill, and you will fulfill it. > She considered a possible alternative by chewing her bottom lip. "Perhaps Salaama will let me sneak out and spend a night or two at the Temple here in Waterdeep. At least then I can drop this ‘charade’ for a short time. Just enough to remind me of whom I am..."

She shook off her laments and looked again into the mirror, staring into her own eyes. Reminding herself that she had a job to perform (in more ways than one), she donned the enchanted earrings that would increase her already sensitive hearing. The special adhesive made them stick to her lobes, providing the illusion that she possessed pierced ears. The earrings were gold balls with a tiny coil dangling from them. At the end of the coil hung a piece of jet; designed to compliment her dark curls.

She tossed her free flowing hair, left unbound despite her personal preferences for tying it, and examined herself one last time. Satisfied with her appearance (if not her costume), Shawukay turned and left her bedroom, heading downstairs for a night of serving drinks, ignoring ogling sailors, and dodging errant hands.

*****

"Two ales, one zzar, and one Dock Ward Special," she said quickly, glancing around the bar and focusing the magic in her earrings to pick up any stray sounds from the patrons sitting alongside the bar that ran the length of the spacious front room of the Pleasure Hall.

"It’ll be a moment," Zalcar said, turning away to serve a sailor two stools away from Shawukay. She smiled; the forty-something woman was a former sea hand herself, and had proved it by taking on and tossing out more than one inebriated dock worker who’d thought public intoxication gave them the excuse to "handle" the waitresses.

That violated Salaama’s unspoken rule; you could look all you want, but groping the taproom employees was strictly forbidden. It didn’t stop a man from "accidentally" reaching out at the same time one of the servers walked by; that was the traditional contest of strike and evade between worker and customer. Most of the barmaids didn’t mind, so long as it didn’t go too far.

< If the men want company for the night, that is what the others are here for, > the ranger thought wryly. Not picking up anything from the nearby drinkers, Shawukay turned around to scan the crowd. Her eavesdropping was strictly hit or miss; if you picked up something useful on any given night, you considered the night a success. As she turned, her tight leather outfit started riding up again. Shivering at the rising heat in her belly and trying to ignore it in favor of her job, she mentally commanded the dangling earrings to do their work. When she heard Zalcar setting her own order on her tray, she sighed and gave up for the moment.

"Here you go, ‘Kay," the older woman said neutrally.

"Thank you," she said as she turned around and picked up the wide, round tray. The woman didn’t mean any offense by her gruff manner; while working, she was the consummate professional, even with her coworkers. In truth, Shawukay liked her attitude. "I am just happy they did not order food with it; I would be providing live entertainment trying to balance everything."

Zalcar grunted; that was as close to a laugh as Shawukay would get. The elf woman picked up her tray, properly balanced it as she’d learned to do during her time here, and returned to her customers’ table, her elven agility coming in handy as she weaved her way through tables and other barmaids, keeping her glasses from losing a single drop.

Shawukay arrived at her table and saw that the situation of her customers had changed; one of the mercenaries had Dornias sitting on his lap, laughing at some joke he’d made. She just mentally shook her head; the woman could pick out prospective customers like she picked out targets with her longbow.

She cleared her throat. When the people looked up, she pasted a professional smile on her face. "Here you are, gentlemen," she said casually, trying to act less formal then she usually did. She started pulling tankards off of her tray without even looking, another esoteric skill recently mastered. In less than a minute, she perfectly laid the last ale in front of the proper customer. "Enjoy your drinks, gentlemen. If you need anything further, please call for me. I am here to serve you."

The men, already tipsy despite having only arrived ten minutes ago, laughed at the feeble joke. One of them, still more clear headed than not, chuckled, "Why don’t you take a break, lass? You’ve probably been on your feet all night. Why don’t you take a seat?"

She fought to keep from groaning at what she knew was coming. "No, as I am working, sir. As is, there is not a seat to be had in the bar."

"I have one right here, lassie..." he said, pushing his seat back just a bit and patting his lap. "Plenty of room here, and it’s nice and comfortable."

"Thank you, but no," she said, hoping he’d get the message.

Unfortunately for her, her friend decided to take the hireswords’s side. Her tinkling voice sounded, "Oh stop being such a grandmother, Shawukay! It wouldn’t hurt you to enjoy yourself a bit. The others have everything in hand, so take a short break. The others do it when they need a little rest and it doesn’t break the rules if server and served both consent! It’s much softer than your bed...I know."

Shawukay couldn’t help it; she sniped back. "Considering your position, or positions, these men will likely need more than a ‘little’ rest! And I will not ask how you know what my bed feels like."

The men laughed at her barbs, but Dornias’ sky blue eyes just flashed at the jibes. A tiny smile curved her lips as she retaliated in good friendly fashion. "Then by all means, help me out so they get their rest that much faster." The other half-elf eyed her up and down, reminding Shawukay that her appetites went beyond the range of male mercenaries and sailors. "After all, if you don’t want to become even more multifaceted, you should not wear things that only serve to tease members of a similar gender."

The soldiers-for-hire bellowed out at her winning salvo, which had caused the Forestarm to blush a deeper shade of blue than she would have thought possible. She feebly fought for her self-control and reluctantly asked, "Do you gentle sirs require any food or other beverages?"

"I think I have all they need for now, oh She Of The Sensitive Ears," Dornias said flicking her hair back and revealing her own auditory organs. She knew how Shawukay hated people finding out about that, if not the reason. So she just said, "If they need anything mundane, I’ll let you know. For now, I’ll handle them..."

< With pleasure, > Shawukay said silently, nodding once and gladly turning away. As she looked around to see if any of her other customers were holding their hands up for her, she began contemplating what would pass for a suitable reprisal in her war of sarcasm with one Dornias of Waterdeep. < After all, > she thought, a sly grin twisting her lips, < what are friends for? >

Feeling some proper motivation, Shawukay’s walk unknowingly evolved into an actual strut as she strode to the kitchen to see if any of her fellow waitresses needed her assistance.

*****

Salaama stopped writing in her journal when the soft knock sounded. Marking her place and closing the book, she said, "Come in."

The door opened, revealing her fellow Harper; her shift had obviously ended. < I truly lost track of time tonight. I suppose it’s only natural; with Midsummer coming tomorrow, business is literally shooting through the roof like Shou rockets. And with the party, I will need everyone here. Especially if the usual patrons show up for one of my parties. > She cocked her head. "Good morning, Shawukay."

"Good morning," she answered; Salaama wished the girl would loosen up. She was only thirty-three after all! She walked in and closed the door behind her, taking a seat and reaching out, palm up. "I did not hear anything very useful tonight. Some mercenaries, sailors leaving port, and similar happenings. No evil seemed to be afoot tonight."

The former desert warrior took the magical earpieces from the junior Harper. "I’ll listen through what you picked up. I’m sure I’ll find something. That’s where experience comes in." Shawukay nodded. "All right, what is it? I know you well enough by now, child."

Shawukay winced. While she only looked thirty-five or so, an accidental encounter with a stronger-than-normal potion of longevity had literally taken seventeen years off her life, in the sense of making her a young woman once again. But it often made others underestimate her, and she had no qualms about taking advantage of that.

The young girl hesitated, staring at her hands, which rested on her bare legs. Finally she said, "I wanted to request permission to take two days to spend some time at the Temple. Tomorrow is Midsummer..."

Salaama’s heart ached at the request. "I’m sorry, Shawukay, but I need you here. The party is tomorrow, and I fully expect that former customers of mine, members of cabals that we do not particularly like and who have the worst interests of others in mind, will be here."

She fully expected Shawukay to go ballistic, given the warnings she’d been given about the half-elf’s temper. She wondered if it was good fortune that she "merely" glared at her and clenched her fists.

"Shawukay, you know how important this is," she gently reminded her. Despite the fact that Shawukay was not one of "her girls" in an employee sense, she still felt for the child, as both Harper and young woman. "I would not deny your request if I did not need everyone here. As you know, tomorrow is the Midsummer celebration that I hold every year. You have known this for weeks."

"It is one of the holiest days of my faith," the younger warrior said sadly. "I had thought..." Salaama watched as the hope faded in her eyes and the half-elf accepted the denial. "I am sorry, Salaama."

Salaama smiled a bit; Shawukay was the only one who didn’t precede her name with "Madame." < Not that I mind; it shows a streak of independence. I like that. > "A bargain then, fellow Harper." Shawukay glanced at her. "Wait two days after the party tomorrow night, and you can have two full days to go to your Temple and do what you must. Pray, commune with your Goddess, merely sleep. But truly rest. Although I cannot spare your services tomorrow night, you have earned that much. So I will not deny you some time off. I wish it could be more, but alas..."

"It is enough," the other Harper said thankfully. She stood up and licked her lips. "Dare I ask what insane outfit you plan on ‘inserting’ me into tomorrow night?"

"No, do not dare," the Southerner chuckled with glee. It increased tenfold at the "old" argument the two had "waged" for the last moon and a half. "Do not worry. It will be less revealing, yet more revealing, than your new favorite there."

"Why do I bother..." Shawukay muttered in disgust. She turned and left the room.

Salaama silently laughed over the girl’s modesty, which while making her seem prudish at times, did not interfere with the girl’s sense of duty. Knowing that she’d be wondering all day about what was in store for her that night, the woman once known as Death From The Dunes turned her attention to Shawukay’s espionage. She uttered the command words on the enchanted earrings and listened to the recorded conversations, taking notes so as to report to her superiors at her earliest convenience.

She found herself laughing anew at Shawukay’s exchange with Dornias, her favorite employee due to her unquenchable zest for life. Wiping tears from her eyes by the end of the exchange, she wondered, not for the first time, how a merciless Southern warrior had ended up serving the Harpers in a Northern pleasure hall.

< The things I do for justice... > she mused and chuckled to herself.

*****

Salaama’s Pleasure Hall
Dock Ward, Waterdeep, Toril (the Forgotten Realms)
21 June 1978 (1349 Dale Reckoning)

Shawukay felt the remaining bits of dream scatter like partridges flushed out of hiding. As she tossed under her covers, she hoped that whomever was knocking on her door would just let her sleep a little while longer...

No such fortune.

"Wake up, you lazy bar wench!" a melodic, soprano voice called out. "We have Midsummer preparations to make!"

She buried a groan. < How can she be so cheerful?!? I know she was up all night with at least two of those mercenaries! And I’m still sleepy from my ten-hour shift! > "Give me a moment, please!"

"That’s what you get for sampling the stock on Madame’s time, ‘Kay!" Dornias’ slightly muffled but too cheery voice sounded. "I’ll leave you to erase your hangover. But don’t take too long or Madame will dock your pay!"

"Go. AWAY!" she moaned.

Her only answer was a fading, trilling laugh.

"Goddess, what I would not give to have her disposition... or her constitution," Shawukay mumbled. Giving up on sleeping in, the half-elf reluctantly threw her covers aside as she brought herself into a sitting position. Settling her bare feet on the floor, she involuntarily winced from the cold that shot up through her soles. Running a hand through her tangled locks, the bleary-eyed cleric stood up and walked over to her washbasin. After splashing her face a few times, she began to feel "human" again. < Ha. Ha. >

Stifling a final yawn, Shawukay went about getting dressed. She pulled off the oversized tunic she used as a nightshirt and laid it on her bed. She walked over to the chest where she kept her clothing. Picking out a simple brown tunic and leggings, she started dressing so she could assist with the Midsummer preparations.

As she tied the laces of her pants, she thought about what the night would be like for her; her superior had promised that she would not serve drinks tonight. Instead, she was expected to mingle with the partygoers and do her duty, listening for information but still enjoying herself as well.

She stood back up and pulled a leather thong out of the pocket of her shirt. She tied her hair in a loose tail that terminated just above her tailbone.

< I suppose mingling is better than nothing, > she thought regarding her inability to be at the Temple that night. < I can at least find some enjoyment tonight. Perhaps I might even... > She broke the thought off, staring at herself in the mirror. < Who am I fooling? Finding someone to share a Midsummer tryst in the elven tradition, here of all places? > She shivered a bit. < Dornias is influencing my character far too much. Well, off to work. >

*****

"What do you think?" Salaama asked her, her mocha-colored eyes scrutinizing Dornias’ lithe and nearly nude body.

When both Calishite and Waterdhavian smiled at her, Shawukay folded her arms and frowned. "I think Dornias should thank the Seldarine that tonight is not the winter solstice."

Dornias put her hands on her bare, tiny hips, pretending ire at her attitude. "You could at least try to get into the spirit of things, you skinny prude!"

"I agree," Salaama said with a twinkle in her eyes. She looked over the two-piece "armor" outfit, which consisted of nothing more than the finest woven miniature metal links, once again. "What is wrong with the costume?"

"It does bring to mind the old saying about mages’ breasts in copper breastplates."

Dornias groaned, as Shawukay had intended. "Hanali forgive me for not seeing that one coming!" She spun around, jiggling her rump and causing the polished links to tinkle and sparkle, showing off more of what Shawukay already had seen quite enough of. She faced their employer again, a teasing glint in her sky-colored irises. "Madame, I don’t suppose you would be willing to ‘strongly suggest’ that Shawukay observe my ‘celebrations’ of Midsummer tonight? My dear friend might even succumb to that phenomenon called fun!"

When Salaama just sighed, as if she were the object of the experience addict’s teasing, Dornias playfully pouted. "Of course, to ensure that she actually learn something, I would suggest the ‘playroom.’ I could guarantee she doesn’t run off..." Shawukay groaned at that, wanting so much for Dornias to silence herself. Of course that only encouraged the ash-blonde woman, who eyed Shawukay like a red dragon inspecting new additions to its treasure hoard. "We could play ‘Capture of the Elven Princess!’ You could be the lady in waiting forced to endure the sight of the human warlord interrogating her beloved Princess, stretched out on the rack!"

Her blue eyes flicked over her with the look that told the priestess that her insatiable companion was imagining something she hoped would be kept private. Her hopes were dashed when Dornias put her imagery into her head. "You’d look wonderful in the chair, ‘Kay! You’d have a great view of all the fun! You wouldn’t even have to do anything; you could just sit and watch. And the chair’s comfortable, you know that; after all, you saw the ‘playroom’ when Madame gave you the tour!"

Shawukay shuddered at the image her irrepressible friend had conjured. After what had happened five years ago, even the thought of such a thing frightened her immensely. It was only the knowledge that Dornias was having fun with her, because they were friends, that kept her from throttling the stupid strumpet. She managed a hoarse, "Thank you, but no."

She closed her eyes to try and banish the maddening image, knowing Dornias meant no harm and just wanted Shawukay to ‘join’ in the fun. That made the image even stronger. < AHHHHHHHH! I will get even with your for this Dornias!!! >

Salaama, knowing something of her past, came to her rescue. "Dornias, stop teasing her," the proprietress scolded. "She’s twenty-four years younger than you are. She is not ready to be as hungry for new experiences as you."

"All the more reason for me to take her under my wing now," Dornias protested. "So she’ll be ready before she gets to my age..."

Salaama sighed. "Enough, child! Let her be!" She shooed the older half-elf out of the dressing room. "You’re ready for tonight, so go finish putting on your jewelry. Let me get Shawukay properly attired and we’ll be down shortly."

After the smirking, armor-wearing courtesan exited, Salaama idly said, "In her defense, child, your friend is right about one thing...you could try to see the fun side of the things she does, as opposed to being all business. It makes me think..."

"Of offering the patrons two half-elves for the price of one?" she sarcastically muttered.

"No," her supervisor chuckled at the witticism. She turned around, a wicked grin on her face. "You would find the chair comfortable."

Shawukay rolled her eyes, trying to ignore the rising heat in her cheeks. "I suppose I would. Fine, I’ll do as you suggest! I’ll allow Dornias to stretch my arms out and pin them against the cushioned boards at the wrists and elbows with those fleece-lined buckles and run those leather straps across my stomach, thighs, and calves, making them as tight as possible and OH MY GODDESS WHAT IN THE NAME OF KRIGALA AM I SAYING?!?"

She growled as Salaama burst into laughter coming straight from her belly. Still she managed, somehow, to refrain from throttling her superior. "Laugh all you want," she helplessly begged the desert warrior, "but let us leave this topic behind!"

Her dusky skin flushed from hilarity, the Southerner heartily agreed. "As you wish, child. We’ll not discuss it again."

"Thank you!"

*****

Salaama shook her head gaily, waggling a finger at her stubborn waitress. "Shawukay, I want to say something, just between us. It is Midsummer and I want you to celebrate it as much as the assignment allows. I mean that, child." As said child started sputtering, her own eyes watered with tears of laughter. She walked over to the flustered elf girl and gently rubbed her blue-tinged cheek with the back of her hand. "Shawukay, I will admit I know little of your Forest Goddess. Hailing from the Empire of Sands as I do, it is natural. But I do know the significance Midsummer holds for your mother’s People. So I do know that it should be more than a religious holiday for you." She smiled serenely, looking wise as a woman in her fifties should. "It is a time to also explore the sensual side of existence. Dornias follows this belief to the fullest."

"There is a difference between worshipping the Lady of the Forest and the elven Goddess of Romantic Love and Beauty, Salaama," her subordinate muttered, although it seemed like she had at least listened to the speech.

< Good. Perhaps she will enjoy herself tonight. >

Shawukay looked into her eyes, for once looking as young as she truly was. "Then why am I needed here? If you don’t need me to spy..."

Salaama sighed with concern. "As I said, I am almost certain that some of our enemies’ agents will be present tonight, as this is something of a neutral ground by my own rules. As the only spell caster in my entire establishment, I require your presence here as my trump card, should I need it."

*****

The Daleswoman understood that argument and silently conceded. "Very well, Salaama." She blinked a few times. "If I am to mingle, how am I supposed to know of whom I should focus the earrings?"

"I have something better," the Madame said cheerfully. She walked over to one of the many racks of clothing and sorted through the collection of garments. With a satisfied sounding, "Mm hmm," the senior Harper pulled out a light blue bundle. She turned back to her and held it up for inspection. "This will be listening for you; it has similar enchantments laid upon it." She started to speak, but Salaama cut her off. "It is magical, let us leave it at that. The workings of magic are beyond me, as I am no mage." Shawukay agreed as the owner of the hall held it out to her. "Put it on and I’ll show you."

With a fair amount of trepidation, the priestess took the bundle. Her hesitance turned to surprise when she felt the softness of the fabric. She examined the garment and saw it could cover her entire body, from her neck down to and including her feet. Her face crinkled in curiosity. "What is it?"

"Shou silk," Salaama said. Shawukay could hear the pride in her voice. "Quite rare and expensive. And as I said, it’s enchanted so that it will record all you hear tonight, like the earrings, but without conscious acts of will on your part. It requires no work from you, thus freeing you to have fun at the party. Here, I’ll show you how to get into it."

Salaama reached for a small knot of silk at the back of the neck hole and said, "Zamina." Shawukay’s eyes quirked as the knot slipped down about ten inches, just enough for her to slip into the bodysuit. She glanced up at her employer. "I hope there is a command word that will allow me to get out of it when the night is over?"

"The same one, but the suit only responds to my commands. So banish any hopes to the contrary," she chided with gentleness. "It is not as scandalous as your normal attire is, and this is much like the bodysuits worn by dancers in performances. So you have nothing to complain about." She pointed at the garment. "In you go, Harper."

Using the reminder that she was junior to her, Shawukay sighed and started removing her work clothes. She heard the shuffling of Salaama’s feet as the retired warrior turned around in respect for her. She threw the tunic down and started unlacing her leggings. Letting them spill to the floor, she stepped out of the puddle of deerskin and slid one leg, then the other, into the sky-colored suit. She started pulling up on it, surprised again by the smooth softness of the cloth as it rustled against her skin. Also surprising was how much strength the thin fabric held as it stretched. To her surprise, the young woman from Deepingdale found herself smiling. < Deceptively strong despite its appearance. I like it. >

She brought her arms through the sleeves and noted how the ends had two openings. She slid her hands through the ends, leaving the ends of the fabric between her first and second fingers. She turned around so that Salaama wouldn’t see her back and said, "Now what, Oh Fashion Conscious Madame of Waterdeep?"

Salaama turned around and smiled. "Sarishot."

A ripple of surprise flowed up Shawukay’s spine in time with that knot speedily moving upward and stopping at the base of her neck, just as she’d seen. Only this time she was inside of the suit. The older fighter smiled again, giving the Mielikkian the sick feeling in her gut that she had something else in store for her.

Again, she spoke magical words. "Tymoko ukien."

Shawukay jumped, feeling the suit tingling as yet another magic took effect. Her eyes opened in distress as the Eastern-woven garment seemed to take on a life of its own, tightening against her body and conforming to every square inch. She watched and gritted her teeth, since she knew that Salaama was enjoying her frustration and getting her fun in while she could.

< I will get even with her after I handle Dornias, > she vowed to Mielikki.

The tingling faded but that was cold comfort; the suit now moved with her, not even wrinkling when she bent her elbows or any part of her body. Goddess, it pressed tight everywhere, showing off every definition of her well-toned legs, her flat stomach, and even gave support to and showed the exact definitions of her breasts, even... < The things I do for JUSTICE! > She glared at the Madame, who just cocked an eyebrow.

"You cannot be serious!" she groaned, knowing full well how serious Salaama would be, for multiple reasons.

As she anticipated, Salaama nodded. "I told you it would be more and less revealing than last night’s clothing." She smiled and Shawukay was reminded that despite everything, Salaama was a businesswoman and did run a pleasure hall. "It doesn’t expose your skin in the manner of leaving anything bare, but it clearly shows our patrons your attributes, which are numerous in their own way. I admit, many Northerners seem to prefer large-busted humans, but there’s something to be said for supple, athletic elfwomen." She twisted the dagger in her silk-wrapped chest. "I know Dornias would have a great deal to say for supple, athletic elfwomen."

"Oh Goddess, she will be even worse than you are for tormenting me..." Shawukay sighed dramatically, resigning herself to having a night of revelry inside this damned costume. "I do not suppose you would reveal to me just what that phrase that turned this... thing into a second skin means in Common?"

"I could," Salaama said evilly. "The rough translation is, ‘lover’s caress.’ Quite appropriate..."

Shawukay just shook her head. "Ask a stupid question..."

*****

Shawukay moaned as the moment she’d been "dreading" came to fruition.

"’Kay! I LOVE your costume!"

< Oh no... > Shawukay moaned. She summoned up some gallows humor. < I, Shawukay Redarrow, being of tormented mind and battered judgment... > "Enjoying yourself, Dornias? Or should I say, enjoying me?"

The saucy fifty-seven year old’s eyes twinkled, eagerly appraising her. "Quite. Although I take exception to your teasing us in this fashion." She sent a nod to the minor Lord who Shawukay had engaged in conversation. "Really, making yourself into the ultimate example of ‘forbidden fruit.’" She arched an eyebrow. "Of course, if I find the right mage, I just might be able to form my own command words for that second skin of yours..."

"And have it fall off right here in front of everyone?" she shot, smiling despite herself. Having the verbal battles heightened her spirits.

"You give me far too little credit, youngster!" the courtesan scoffed. She walked up, the miniscule links covering her breasts shimmering in the candlelight. Shawukay shivered as her friend ran a finger up and down her collarbone. "I would use command words to make this lovely garment virtually transparent, that is... in the right places..."

"Salaama would kill you!" she shot back, her shiny hazel eyes defying her counterpart to counter that argument.

"If I’m going to die, I’ll die happy," she virtually purred. She leaned in close and huskily said, loud enough for those enjoying the war of words to hear, "I’d die very happy."

"I will have that carved as your epitaph," the ranger snapped out. < Take that! > She lifted her glass of elquestria and took a long, savory sip. "Of course, you do realize how many men would grieve your passing. Would you truly deny them nights to remember?"

That one, a double salvo that would force her to concede at least one side to her, caught Dornias. Dornias’ smile widened in happiness. "About time you won a round, Shawukay!"

"The first of many," she countered. < Why stop now? >

"Not if I have anything to say about it," came the retort. She stepped away from her, looking as saucy as always. "But as you know, it is Midsummer. And I for one have someone to celebrate with." She licked her lips to make Shawukay blush, and succeeded as always. "Last chance to place yourself under the tutelage of the Mistress, Shawukay."

She rolled her eyes. "I think ‘the Mistress’ will have enough to occupy her attention without a student to fuss over."

*****

Dornias tilted her head. "True enough." She glanced at the Lord, whose eyes had gone glassy as his imagination ran wild. "Then again, you have your own companion to tend to..."

Shawukay spat up her latest sip of rare elven spirits. With a smile of sadistic victory, the self-proclaimed Mistress turned and strode away, swinging her hips to impress anyone who had the good taste to notice, perhaps even Shawukay’s "Lord."

< After all, the more the merrier... >

*****

< Oh Goddess here she comes... >

Shawukay kept her face a neutral mask as Salaama virtually danced her way over to her. She kept one hand on her glass and the other on the hand of the minor Lord she’d been conversing with all evening. He’d taken the "liberty" of placing a "possessive" arm around her slim waist, but like Shawukay, he was not looking for anything beyond that. She took a sip of her drink to cover her smile as she remembered the nobleman’s exact reason. < Attending the party here to honor commitments he’d made to his friends, which in turn freed him from his family’s boring affairs. And the ‘boasting’ rights of attracting the attention of one of the Hall’s only two elfmaids. >

Again, she smiled inwardly appearing flattered rather than amused. Although it wasn’t much of a chore; the man himself was intelligent and good-natured. And now it seemed that Salaama was going to exercise her rights as the Madame and take the man off her arm. < Such is life, > she sighed, although she wondered; was it because she had something she required of Shawukay or to get the priestess to experience more fun.

She glossed over her fellow Harper’s costume once more, feeling a twinge of jealousy. The retired warrior somehow made her body, as muscular as some men she’d seen in her time, look as soft as any of the courtesans. The illusion was crafted by the silk ensemble she wore, which consisted of two pieces; one piece crisscrossing her torso in an "x" pattern, covering her breasts but leaving everything else above her waist bare; arms, shoulders, and three-quarters of her stomach, proudly displaying her abdominal muscles, which she could sway in one of those desert style dances if the mood suited her. It was at times like this that she was almost convinced that the Southerner had been born into this occupation.

The bottom was a pair of silk, gauzy pink leggings that were virtually transparent, turning her desert-dusk legs a shade of pink underneath the minor veil of fabric. They hung low on her hips and ended with cuffs at the ankles. She wore slippers native to Calimsham and had her hair arranged in an elaborate braid that peeked out of the hole in the top of her fez, trailing down her back. Completing her ensemble were thin rings, earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and anklets made of gold, the anklet on her right foot carrying bells that tinkled when she walked, creating music.

The half-elf brought her glass from her lips and smiled. "Madame Salaama."

"Shawukay," she said, allowing her accent to become thicker for once. Shawukay still marveled at how she could turn it on and off at a whim. < Another talent she might be willing to teach me. > But that would come later. Her supervisor openly appraised her companion. "I see you have met the Lord Zoran. You have good taste."

Shawukay flushed. "Actually..."

The man bowed to Salaama before she could go on. "Actually, she helps me appear to have good taste, rescuing me from a night of being out of my element and earning the ‘scorning’ jests of my peers, Woman of Peace."

Shawukay fought to keep herself from reacting; Zoran had just translated the meaning of Salaama’s name. < Does he know... >

"My Lord," the Madame returned with a tiny bow; this was her domain, after all. She gave him a smile that reminded Shawukay of a snake over a terrified bird. "You do have good taste, otherwise I would not order my wines from you. But I must ask you why you are monopolizing the time of a young woman with a firm sense of duty, which in this case is mingling?"

*****

Death From the Dunes smiled at the cryptic remark, wondering which of her juniors would get the point first. < Oh what I would not give to have the looks on their faces recorded by Shawukay’s costume along with the conversations. > she chuckled. To both youngsters’ credit, the comment’s purpose revealed itself to them at the same moment.

"I..." Zoran said, the first to recover, or perhaps the only one who had to recover. He turned to Shawukay, who was blushing again. Salaama knew it was from not recognizing a fellow Harper. "I did not know. My apologies."

"I did not mind," Shawukay said, turning her eyes onto the woman again.

Salaama knew that she was all but pleading with her to let them stay together. < If I did not have suspicions I needed confirmed, I would allow it; you two make an attractive couple, and perhaps a good liaison with each other after the party. > Salaama knew it probably wouldn’t happen; Shawukay wasn’t meant for a permanent assignment, especially not in the Hall, and not in this metropolis, despite the friendships she’d struck. < Still, I have always been a hopelessly romantic matchmaker at heart... >

"I would not have intruded if I did not need something observed," she finally said, gazing at Shawukay, who nodded once, not letting her disappointment show. < I can read you like a book, my dear. But duty knows no Mistress, not even I. > She lowered her voice so that no one else would hear. "As the owner of Salaama’s Pleasure Hall and the woman responsible for my daughters’ safety, I must remain in the public view. Zoran, you are a guest and known to supply my larder. And I would not ask you to skulk about like a thief in the night; I’ll not have your reputation sullied. Ours is a ‘business’ relationship, after all."

"But as a barmaid, I can and am required to see to your patrons’ satisfaction," Shawukay continued.

She gave the half-elf a warm smile; she’d become one of her favorites. "Yes. As it is, there were two of my friends that I have not seen in a long time, who arrived tonight. However, they seemed a bit... different. Their mannerisms have changed. I am hoping they have not suffered... undue influences to their character."

At the vague reference to charm magics, Shawukay slowly scanned the room with her jade-colored eyes, their wide sweep letting her keep the movement of her head to a minimum.

"You’ll not find them here," she whispered. She walked up and claimed her "privilege" of taking the Lord Zoran on her arm. "Shawukay," she continued on, raising her voice to a normal level so any eavesdroppers would think this business, "if you would, please see to the needs of any patrons who might be making use of the other facilities. Also see to your sisters. I think Dornias might require some assistance in refreshing her companions. If need be, I will have the cooks prepare more dishes."

Shawukay was swift; she got the hidden message inside of her order. < Check on Dornias and her customers, then report back. >

"Of course, Madame," she said with a slight bow.

Salaama watched her walk off, striding with a purpose. She then glanced at Zoran, who watched her walk as well, though for different reasons. "I chose her costume well, did I not?" she teased.

She just laughed at the Lord’s stammered attempt at a dignified response. "Come," she ordered. "We can make the rounds and discuss business. That way, your friends will claim you have even better taste than that shown thus far, and your parents will claim that even on Midsummer, you show your devotion to the family business."

Put that way, Zoran couldn’t argue with her. "Of course, Madame Salaama."

"When here, you can forgo the formality. But enough of standing around. Let us go and make ourselves visible." She grinned again. "After all, what good is making your friends envious if you cannot make it as overwhelming as possible?"

*****

< Where, oh where, has that courtesan gone? > Shawukay snidely groused to herself. She had grown impatient; roaming through the secret passages of the Hall (known only to herself, Salaama, and other Harpers who might have been here in the past), Shawukay had searched every one of Dornias’ usual haunts. She’d made the search fast and furious, to the forest warrior’s mind seeing everything but the one other half-elf in the entire complex. < And some of the things I did observe... Job. Adventure. Rusty castration... >

After checking out the two bathing pools, where courtesans employed for nothing more than bathing and massaging patrons were attending to some of the partygoers, Shawukay knew that there was only one place she hadn’t checked. Not Dornias’ bedroom, for doing business in one’s own quarters was forbidden; that’s what the private rooms with passages behind them were for.

< I truly need to dampen my sarcasm, > she sighed. She kept her thoughts private; the passages might be good for spying, but that didn’t mean one could shout to the Pantheon every time she was frustrated. < Goddess, I do not want to see Dornias with two customers in the playroom! >

Stifling her disgust at her friend’s "inconveniencing" of her Midsummer celebration, < Yes, celebration! I was having fun! >, Shawukay just added one more item to the column of revenge in their war of words. Letting a tight smile touch her lips, she thought, < Why not? It is Midsummer, a time to celebrate life. So much the better. >

She hastened her way to the playroom, hoping that Salaama’s suspicions were unjustified, all the more to have some fun at Dornias’ expense.

< Whoever said one couldn’t mix duty with pleasure did not know me. >

*****

"So you have many patrons amongst the nobility?" the man walking her into the playroom asked.

Dornias nodded; she had no reason to lie. "Minor nobility, I admit. But in a way they are much like me; they seek out new experiences. I could tell you so much about the fun we’ve had." She looked around the imitation dungeon, settling her gaze on the mirror that occupied an entire wall of the room. "But I’m sure you didn’t bring me here to talk about minor nobles."

"I know several," he said, glancing at his companion. "I would enjoy knowing what you could tell me about some of them, as then we could compare notes about you, my dear."

Dornias barely kept herself from rolling her eyes. "It’s pleasant to be remembered, my Lord." < And not so pleasant to have irate business competitors accusing me of selling their secrets. I do have integrity, you know. > And intelligence; she knew that most men would not "share" her with one another, but there had been occasions... < Mind back on Midsummer, dear. > "So, is this how you celebrate every summer solstice, my Lord?"

Being in the playroom meant getting into the proper role. The man quite obviously knew his role as well. He guided her over to the rack and picked her up with surprising strength, given his lean frame. He sat her on her rump with a gentle move, rather than power.

< Good. He’s the "gentle" type. >

He smiled and rubbed his hands up and down her arms, getting into his role. "You know, I’ve never had a half-elven woman before. This will be a unique experience for me." He seemed to remember his friend. "For us, I mean."

Dornias smiled coquettishly at him; she didn’t mind in the least. "So where shall we begin?"

The man glanced around and noticed the bar hanging from the ceiling. He smiled and nodded to it, showing her his attention. "I want to view as much of your beauty as possible," he said seductively, showing the courtesan that he was enjoying this as well. He smiled and rubbed her stomach, coaxing giggles from her throat. "That is, even more than I’ve seen so far."

"I do aim to please the Lords and Ladies," she giggled, wrapping her arms around the back of his neck. "This is your night, my Lord. I am merely here to serve you."

"Then let us begin," he said. He reached up and took her wrists, stepping back and guiding her to her feet. He led her over to the hanging bar, which had fur-lined leather cuffs hanging at both ends. "You are sure you do not mind this, Lady Dornias?"

"There is not much I do not mind, sir," she laughed. < You said you would show me something new! Let us get on with it! I want to enjoy this as much as you do! >

"Then let us begin," he said. As his companion silently walked around them and over to the lever, her chosen companion for Midsummer gently took her left arm and started placing the leather strap around her wrist. He tightened it firmly but not too much; he glanced at her before going on to make sure she consented. At her smile of approval, he repeated the procedure.

After finishing, he nodded to the man behind them. Dornias’ sharp hearing picked up the sounds of the lever being turned. She felt her arms being raised and soon enough, they were all but fully extended, leaving her stretched out in a standing position. She gyrated a bit and asked, "Now what my Lord?"

Her "Lord" smiled at her and pulled out a handkerchief, a question in his eyes. She rolled her eyes a bit. "It will not be the first time, sir. Please remember, I have been doing this longer than you have been alive."

He chuckled as if privy to some private joke. He inspected her one more time before walking behind her and bringing his arms around her head. She felt the silk enter her mouth and tighten against the back of her skull. She felt the "jerk" as her lover-to-be tied the scarf so that it wouldn’t slip off.

He stepped around her and she smiled as much as she could. Her eyes lit up so she hoped he saw she was ready for whatever he could possibly surprise her with.

He reached up and gently stroked her cheek. Getting into her role, she jerked a bit, as if resisting. He laughed in return, his eyes gleaming with amusement. Now his friend joined in by asking, "So is she the one?"

"Yes, quite," the one who’d enlisted her services said, confusing her a bit. He continued stroking her cheek. "Yes, she is definitely the one. You did hear her say she’s made love to many minor nobles. This would be the perfect chance to place ourselves amongst them."

< What is he talking about? > Dornias thought, feeling just the tiniest tremor of uncertainty. She buried it quickly; the man was probably getting into whatever role he was going to play. < The Inquisitor? Hanali, he said he had something original! >

The man placed a kiss on her forehead before stepping back. "Just so you know, my dear, I have nothing against you personally. You will be released after tonight, but I do have our agenda to carry out. Unfortunately, I cannot predict what will happen to you if you report this. Without proof, they’d likely think you insane." Her eyes must have given away her puzzlement, as he smiled wider. "I am going to show you something unique tonight, my dear. Consider it payment for allowing me to take your place with one of Waterdeep’s numerous petty nobles."

With that, the man’s skin shifted as it took on a wrinkled appearance. Dornias’ eyes went round and she tried to shout, but to no avail. The thing that took the place of her customer was a tall, gaunt gray humanoid that stood between six and seven feet tall, with a large head with round pitch-black eyes. Before she could get used to his new appearance his skin shifted again and in less time than it took her to realize the change had occurred, the half-elf was looking at... herself!

"Yes, I am you," "she" said, perfectly mimicking her own voice! "Or at least, for the rest of the night and most of tomorrow morning. I will return here later and my companion will release you from your..." She < I’m even thinking it’s a SHE! > looked around the room. "... impressive playroom. I can see why you like it in here. But for now..." She started forward again, and Dornias shook herself from her stupor. "For now, I have to learn how to play my role, dearest. For that, I need more than your body. I need your personality." Dornias shuddered, trying to say something, but it came out as nothing more than a mumble. "Don’t worry, my Lady," the thing said mockingly. "I merely need read your mind for a moment. It’s completely painless. In return, my friend will give you what you want; an experience you could only dream about. Name whom you wish to be with for one night, and he will become him. Or her, the choice is yours."

Dornias froze. The creature was offering her friend to become anyone? < What is the price? I will not pay it! Say what you will about courtesans, I, for one, have dignity and integrity, you bastard! >

Incorrectly sensing what she thought, she said, "All I ask is your silence on the matter. In return, you have the night of your dreams and three times the normal payment for your services."

Dornias growled a denial, which her doppelganger got the gist of. "So be it," her voice said with a soprano sigh. "Then he will simply give you a night of passion and shall leave you too exhausted to report our doings for several days at least." He quickly added, "It’s not like we’re going to kill you, my Lady. We aren’t bloodthirsty humans and killing someone as uniquely passionate as you would be a waste. But still, you have your uses..."

Dornias’ anger flared. Her rational mind noted the surprising lack of fear, but rather the furious reaction she had to someone doing this. She snarled behind her gag. Then she and her two "customers" had their attention shattered by the door flying open and someone’s piercing scream.

*****

Shawukay burst through the doorway, a shout erupting from her lips in the hopes it would distract the doppelgangers. She knew what they were, despite having never seen one; her Grandparents’ education had been quite thorough.

She cursed herself for taking as long as she did, but her imperfect memory of the exits and entrances to and from the passageways made her go through too many twists and turns for her taste. She blessed her good fortune that the shapeshifting creatures were too busy with their business of keeping Dornias complacent to harm her. Still, without time to properly arm herself, she had to resort to surprise and spells. The first she hoped to have, the second she didn’t; Mielikki had given her spells aligned for healing and divination that day.

< If that was what She thought I needed, I cannot gainsay her. Still, a flame blade would be a welcome touch about now... > She scanned her mind and came up with one spell that might even the odds a bit. As she fully entered the room, she glared at the doppelganger behind Dornias. "Shirak!"

A globe of light identical to those lighting the playroom ignited in front of the man’s eyes. He shrieked a bit and stumbled back, the globe being centered on his face.

The odds evened, or so she hoped, Shawukay strode in, staring at the imposter Dornias while the genuine article, trussed up like a buck laid out for dressing, just stared at her in seeming shock.

"Get away from her, doppelganger," the ranger ordered, clenching her fists and frantically searching her mind for a second spell capable of helping her.

To her surprise and irritation, the "other" Dornias seemed quite unperturbed by her sudden appearance. "I cannot do that. This is the best chance we have of implementing a plan years in the making."

"Then you pay the price," she snarled. She found a protection from evil spell and decided that if she couldn’t strike them down with magic, she could at least hinder their combat abilities. She started chanting and it spurred Dornias’ replacement into action.

She charged and Shawukay dodged, having an unforeseeable advantage; she was used to the movements of her own body. The doppelganger wasn’t used to being a half-elf. But even with the large size of the room they occupied, Shawukay knew her benefit was limited; the room was filled with furniture. < So to speak, > she thought wryly. She finished her spell and felt it take effect. < Now we have some help. >

"Dornias" turned around and said, "I hope you will not force us to kill you, child. We do not like leaving messes." She then began changing again. Shawukay could only wince, as the half-elf suddenly became a hulking, nine-foot ogre whose head grazed the ceiling. In Dornias’ voice still, the creature said, "Yield and we need not harm you."

< Goddess save me from overconfident shapeshifting strumpets... > she groaned. She started looking for a weapon while taking in her less than stellar tactical situation; outnumbered and out massed, no suitable combat spells, and two shape shifters who could become any humanoid shorter than a giant, one of whom was between herself and the door. "I apologize," she said, mocking the doppelganger by acting as "reasonable" as it was, "but I am afraid I must decline."

In Dornias’ voice, the creature then said, "Take her, but leave her unharmed."

Shawukay stiffened before realization caught up to her, but too late. A large mass crashed into her back, sending her sprawling to the floor under at least half again her own weight. Her head smacked against the floor, stunning her despite the lush carpet softening the blow. Stars exploded in her vision, rending her temporarily blind and limp. She was helpless to resist as whatever had just pounded her into wolf droppings shifted her around and picked her up.

She felt herself being gripped under both her arms and dragged on her heels. She fought to clear her head to resist, but the superhuman grip on her arms prevented her from even budging. Her subconscious cursed herself at being impulsive and reckless, taking on superior numbers without calling for reinforcements. Her mind also noted that it was because a friend had been in danger.

< Maybe Dornias will have that carved as my epitaph... > her sarcastic side wondered.

The half-elf felt the doppelgangers, whatever forms they were in now, sitting her on something. She felt two strange hands on each arm, stretching them out and bracing them against something. Dornias’ muffled shouts to her started rousing her as they started to regain cohesion.

She felt the softness of fleece against her arms through her silk costume and heard the buckles being fastened in place. She started at the realization and struggled, shaking off the fog that clouded her mind. The dizziness dissipated and she focused on her captors. The one she’d blinded still had the globe over its face, but he’d changed form; he was an umber hulk. Shawukay couldn’t help but stare; she didn’t know that the creatures could take that shape! But the reason why was obvious; umber hulks had poor vision and relied on their hearing and sense of smell, thus negating the advantages of her spell. In simple terms, the thing had trumped her quite nicely.

The doppelgangers began to shift again, one of them going to close the door, locking it so they wouldn’t be disturbed; another of Salaama’s "improvements." Shawukay pulled with all her weight, but whatever moronic carpenter had designed this blasted contraption, < I will find him, track him down, and wrack his spirit for this! >, had done his job too Goddess damned well. She even tried rocking by using her legs, but the restraints held. She didn’t bother to scream for help; the room was soundproofed except for the passageway and she highly doubted anyone else was in there.

The doppelgangers regained their male shapes, looking her over and considering her as she glared back and snapped, "Release us, now!"

"No, you’re too dangerous," the leader of the duo said, looking very respectful of her abilities. He glanced at his partner. "I had no idea they had a spell caster here." The other shrugged and the one who’d impersonated Dornias sighed. "No matter. You can guard them both. They aren’t to be harmed, only... distracted, you know better than I the techniques for doing this with elf women. But first let us be safe rather than sorry."

Shawukay could only struggle futilely. As she feared, the man walked over and finished the job of strapping her into the chair. With the same professional, dispassionate attitude he showed throughout, he moved to make sure she wouldn’t escape to warn the others or help Dornias. She tried kicking him, but he just sighed while dodging her less than impressive maneuver. Glancing at his partner, they both moved to fully secure her to remove the threat she posed.

The silent one efficiently shifted into the form of a small ogre, allowing him greater strength but keeping himself from being too cumbersome. He firmly grabbed her calves and pinned them against the chair, ignoring her futile struggles and not so futile cursing. She had no doubt Dornias would be grimacing at it.

The Dornias impersonator went about the business of wrapping the leather straps across her body at the stomach, over her thighs, and then at her calves. He then had the ogre pull her legs taut, making her wince. He brought the bottom strap up from under the chair and buckled it in place. He then placed her ankles into buckles identical to the ones holding her arms out. He buckled them in as tightly as he could without making her hurt. He stopped and glanced at her, knowing that he saw the hate in them.

He glanced at his partner, who had changed back into human form. "She is a mage or cleric. Can you keep her from harming you?"

"If she were capable of it," he spoke, showing that same damned icy calm, "we wouldn’t be talking."

"True." He nodded and turned his attention to her. He then concentrated and shifted back into Dornias’ body. "Young lady, I will make this quite clear; neither you nor your friend will be harmed unless you force my companion to do so. I would hate to be forced to go to such lengths, but I will do so if necessary."

"Kiss my buttocks, doppelganger!" Shawukay shouted. She fought to keep her eyes from going wide as she looked at the scene being reflected back at her by the mirror; everything depended on it. < How... >

"Dornias" sighed and started to speak, but never got to utter another world as a loud CLANG rang off his skull. As his eyes rolled up in the back of his head, the other started to turn, caught completely off his guard. He never even began to change as Dornias rammed the pole, edge first, into and through his mouth. The bloody end pierced through the lower end of his cranium, making him twitch and shiver in his death throes.

Dornias quickly pulled the pole out and let that one slump back to the floor, turning back to the one still wearing her body. She brought the pole up once again and brought it down like a club, smashing her "own" skull with the revolting sound of cracking bone. Shawukay could only stare as her friend stood there, pole in one hand, the other reaching up to remove her gag. Pulling out the knot, she said, sounding quite offended by the whole episode, "No thing, and I do mean, no thing, EVER tries to improve on me!"

She released her grip on the pole, letting it hit the carpet with a soft thud. She shook herself, as if releasing her anger, and turned back to Shawukay, a look of satisfaction on the other half-elf’s face. "Well, this is a Midsummer I shall remember very fondly."

"WHAT?!?"

Dornias smiled at her, as if she hadn’t just been trussed up, gagged, and confronted by someone taking on her appearance! The crazy courtesan strode over and just stared Shawukay up and down.

Gritting her teeth, she said, "You are certain they are dead?"

"Yes," the pointy-eared blonde shrugged, smiling even more. She walked over and sat herself down on Shawukay’s lap. Shawukay moaned and hoped it was her imagination that Dornias was breathing a little faster than normal.

"Would you mind releasing me?" she snapped, futilely pulling on the buckles and squirming her legs under the weight of her distracted "rescuer." She growled, "Dornias..."

Dornias sighed. "You’re no fun!" she pouted. Shawukay started to speak, but the woman lamented. "All right! All right! You can report to Madame on your precious Harper mission!"

Shawukay stared in shock. < HOW?!? > "How did you know?!?"

"Oh come on, ‘Kay!" she said with a giggle, shifting so she straddled the chair as if she weren’t pinned to it! "EVERYONE knows about Madame. We just don’t mention it for reasons like right now! We love her like she loves us. We’re a family, you ninny!"

"How did you know about me?" Shawukay asked, forgetting in her frustration that she had been subjected to this indignity in front of her friend, however close.

"It’s so obvious, ‘Kay!" Dornias cheerfully told her, placing her hands on the priestess’s immobile shoulders. When she growled like an irate tiger, Dornias giggled. "’Kay, you’re the only one here who isn’t an insider! By Hanali, ‘Kay, I was raised here! My mother was one of Madame’s best food buyers, for Goddess sakes! Those of us who didn’t grow up here, came here from the other halls in Faerun! But you? You just showed up seven weeks ago without references and Madame hires you? Besides, you never call her Madame. Did you think we wouldn’t notice? Your superiors really did not think things through, if you were trying to keep whatever mission you’re on a secret!"

"My superior is the Lady Silverhand herself!" Shawukay indignantly snapped. "The one from SHADOWDALE!"

"That one?" Shawukay nodded angrily. "Wow... tell me, what does she look like under those fighting leathers they say she wears? And is that silver color real..."

"DORNIAS!!!"

Dornias jumped a bit, making her legs cramp. "Dornias," she said, letting her head droop, "Make sure the doppelgangers are dead so that Salaama can be told about this!"

"But..." she said, rubbing Shawukay’s shoulders with a glazed look in her eyes. She moved downward and fondled Shawukay’s breasts. "I was right, you look sooooooo good like this..."

Shawukay’s eyes fluttered shut at the sensation of her friend’s hands touching her, the silk somehow intensifying the ticklish feelings that began to make her giggle. They only grew worse as the other half-elf’s hand trailed down to her stomach and began massaging her there, making the cleric shudder uncontrollably. It felt maddening and good at the same time and if she hadn’t been tied up like this... Then her mind snapped back to reality. "DORNIAS!"

Her second shout shattered her friend’s mood. "Shawukay..." she purred.

"Get off of me, ensure they are dead, and tell Salaama about them," she ordered. She fought down her irritation; she had freed herself... "How did you get free?"

Dornias smirked at her. "Hidden clasps in the chains. If you know how, you just flick your wrists and you’re free, just like that!" A snap of her fingers emphasized her point. Shawukay’s jaw flopped open, leading her friend to roll her eyes. "Shawukay, Madame is our second mother! She doesn’t make anyone do anything they don’t want to do! And the pole makes a nice, heavy deterrent in a pinch."

Shawukay could only shake her head, literally. "Goddess, I am never going to hear the end of this, shall I?"

To her surprise, Dornias’ smile faded a bit. "Until you leave. As much as everyone here likes you and wishes you’d stay. But you’re a forest girl, I’ve seen it before." Her smile rose again. "That’s how father is when he visits. He can’t stay here more than a ten-day before becoming claustrophobic. In fact..."

"Dornias, the doppelgangers?" she moaned. "Please do not make me regret my friendship with you even more than I already do..."

"All right. I’ll get our employer," the woman sighed. She stopped short of leaving, inspecting the "seated" Shawukay up and down again, and taking over a minute. "Like I said, this is one Midsummer I’ll never forget." She opened the door to leave.

"Dornias, where are you going?" she demanded.

Her friend favored her with a smile. "I’m going to tell Madame about the doppelgangers and that you’re keeping watch on them should they mysteriously resurrect themselves. I know she’ll have full confidence in your abilities to guard them. Then, I’m going to track down that handsome Lord you were spending the night with." Her grin and eyes became truly evil. "I think it’s high time I found out just how soft your bed is!"

"Dornias!"

The last thing she heard was, "It’s the least I can do for you after you gave me this BEAUTIFUL image to cherish! Don’t worry, I’ll share the details with you in the morning!"

The door closed, leaving the slack-jawed, chair-seated warrior priestess alone in the soundproofed room, kept company by nothing more than her own reflection staring back at her from the mirror.

"DORNIAS!!!!!"

*****

Wake Up Call

Riverside Medical Center
Los Angeles, California
24 August 1998

There was a gentle rapping on the door, followed by an all-too familiar voice. "Ms. McPhereson?"

Kendra dragged her gaze from the boring landscape on the other side of her hospital room’s window to look at him. "Good morning, Doctor McIntyre."

"How are you this morning?" the elderly surgeon inquired, his smile showing through his beard. "I just wanted to check in with you and see how you were doing, not to mention give you an updated prognosis of your condition."

She sighed heavily. "I see."

He picked up her chart and read it. "I’ve seen it before."

Kendra cocked her head. "Seen what before?"

"People who realize just how close they came to dying." She watched as his eyes became haunted. "I saw it for years when I served with a M*A*S*H* unit." Sensing her confusion, he continued. "During the Korean War, I was a Captain in the Army Medical Corp. I served in an Army field surgical hospital that can be completely broken down and transported on a few hours’ notice."

Kendra nodded. "I see," she said again. She glanced out the window for a moment, then said, "You are correct. I do realize how close I came." She held her chin up high. "But it is my duty to fight for the common good. I know that I fought to save...my fellow officers, so if I had died, it would not have been in vain."

He looked at her strangely and said, "You must be very devoted to your duty, Ms. McPhereson."

"Yes." Nothing further needed to be said on that, so she turned to the business of her recovery. "You were saying about my prognosis?"

*****

Trapper John McIntyre was again surprised by how this girl, only a month and a half removed from a six hour surgery during which she had flat lined for several minutes, could look so noble and magnificent while sitting up in a hospital bed, clad in nothing more than a hospital gown. He wished more officers had such steel at her age.

"Well," he said, while he took out some reading glasses from his jacket pocket and put them on, "your rate of recovery is simply astounding. Our original estimates had you in this bed for six months alone, not to mention the physical therapy you’d..." He looked at her over the top of his spectacles. "I’m not going to sugar coat it for you, Ms. McPhereson. Even with your miraculous rate of recovery, you’re going to have a lot of work ahead of you."

"Is that so?" she asked, seeming amused.

< As if she knows something I don’t, > he thought, uncomfortable with her cavalier attitude. He took the glasses off and said, "Ms. McPhereson, I hope you’ll understand. Your body suffered some of the most massive traumas a human being at any age can be subjected to and still survive. And I’m speaking as someone who served on the battlefield in Korea and Vietnam. I’ve seen soldiers who were torn up less than you were a month ago. Not many of them lived. Those that did, well..." He let her see the look in his mind’s eye through his physical ones. < If the eyes are the windows to the soul, I hope she’ll understand what scars mine has. > "Those that did survive were never the same. Physically or mentally." He sighed and said, "I’m sorry, but as a doctor, I feel personally responsible for my patients. I’m sure you understand."

She gave him a regal nod, again impressing him with her stoicism. "I do. Thank you, Doctor."

"Thank you," he stressed, going back over the file. "Ms. McPhereson, you have to understand, that although the physical damage is mending quite nicely, your body still suffered a great deal of stress and trauma. Your bones and muscles, for example, will heal very shortly, yet they will be weak from the long period of disuse. You’ll have to go through therapy, a great deal of it, to get back to the physical condition you were in before you were brought here."

*****

Explained that way, Kendra did understand and was thankful for his concern, despite her frustration that she wouldn’t be doing her duty any time soon, if his prognosis was correct. < I see no reason why it would not be. > She looked at his clipboard and asked, "Is there anything else?"

"Well, there is the matter of arranging your therapy when you’re released," McIntyre said, referring to his notes again. "From my estimates, based on your own rate of recovery, I dare say you’ll be out of this room and starting therapy in two to four weeks." He looked at her again, and she cocked an eyebrow. "If I may be frank?"

"Of course," she said with the barest of grins.

"You seem to me to be very devoted to your job." He hesitated before continuing. "As such, I’ll make my own request, although I mean no disrespect; when you start your therapy, take your time. Let yourself fully recover so that when you do return to duty, you’ll be at the top of your game, and not less than one hundred percent. I saw soldiers in Korea who were more concerned about getting back to the their buddies at the front lines rather than letting themselves heal." She saw the ghostly look in his eyes through his glasses. "A lot of them never made it home."

Kendra didn’t know what to think about that, but nodded in acknowledgement of his concerns, which she appreciated; the man was experienced in ways she couldn’t fathom. "I will give your advice a great deal of thought, Doctor. Thank you."

Seemingly satisfied by her blunt honesty, Dr. McIntyre nodded and said, "I’ll see you again in a couple of days."

She nodded and waited for him to leave her private room. As he turned left after exiting the door, she again saw the flash of black clothing pass outside her door. < Who in the name of God are they? >

She’d noticed the mysterious guards, if that were indeed what they were, switching at regular intervals. < But are they guarding me to keep me here, or to keep someone else out? > With her spotty memories of the first two weeks after the massive battle in Los Angeles, the Slayer had been unable to get more than the barest details of what had happened. She had flashes of Buffy, Mister Giles, and others, including several police officers, visiting her. She remembered when she’d come out of her drug-induced slumber for the first true time since fighting the Sixth Circle demon in the Forum, surrounded by flowers, balloons, and a six-inch high stack of envelopes which, to the last, had been stuffed with get well wishes, with a total of at least two hundred signatures.

She reflected on that, wondering why so many people would thank her for doing her duty, nothing more. Perhaps it was because she had nearly perished, but she dismissed that thought; Slayers died in the course of their duties. That was the way it had always been. Perhaps it was because she had saved their lives. People often reflected on things after confronting their own mortality.

She pushed those contemplations aside and decided on a course of action. < It is time for me to contact my Watcher and inform him of my state of health. >

Kendra picked up the phone and dialed a number known only to four people that she knew of; herself, her Watcher, and their counterparts, Buffy Summers and Mister Giles. The phone rang four or five times before she heard someone picking up.

A British voice asked, "Yes?"

Kendra glanced at the semi-opened doorway and whispered, "I need to speak to Mister Zabuto."

"Who is this?" the voice asked, sounding suddenly anxious.

"This is Kendra, the Vampire Slayer," she said proudly. "I need..."

Click.

Kendra’s eyes opened wide again, despite obtaining the same result as she’d received every time she called the Council or her Watcher. < Something must be wrong. > she decided. As much as she hated relying on others, given her current state, she knew she had no other recourse of action. She dialed a secondary number, one she’d been given by her Watcher before being sent to Los Angeles last month.

This time the phone rang only twice. "Hello?" a chipper American voice asked.

It took Kendra a moment to place the voice. "Willow."

"Kendra?" Willow’s voice said, sounding excited to hear her. "Wow! How are you doing?"

Kendra frowned at the phone. Here she was, only a month after being nearly killed, a near invalid, and wearing nothing more than a flimsy blue hospital gown! She reined in her temper as she realized that Willow was in fact genuinely asking about her well being. She sighed and said, "To tell you the truth? I am bored. I have nothing to do all day and..." She shook her head at this nonsense. "Willow, I need to speak to Mister Giles. I think something’s wrong at the Council, I..."

"Just a second," came the response. Kendra’s eyes blinked at the vehemence she could detect in it. < What is going on? >

"Kendra?" the librarian’s voice said with urgency, replacing the American girl. "What’s wrong?"

Kendra explained what had happened over the last week, how every attempt to notify the Council had resulted in them breaking the connection. After finishing, Mister Giles told her, "I’ll collect Buffy and Steve right away and come to you. Expect us in two or three hours. We...have much to discuss about the Council."

"I don’t understand," Kendra said, hoping the Watcher would explain.

"We’ll explain once we arrive. Don’t worry, my dear...we’ll clear up everything to your satisfaction." Then he hung up without saying good-bye.

Kendra stared at the phone for a few seconds before thinking, < At least he said something before hanging up. >

*****

Kendra looked away from the news reports when the trio walked into her room. She nodded to Buffy, her fellow Slayer, Mister Giles, Buffy’s Watcher, and then looked at the man Buffy was romantically involved with. < Steve, she called him. The bearer of Demon Slayer. > Even though she knew nothing about him, the fact that he wielded a Sword of Destiny meant he was worthy of respect, at the very least.

"Hello, Buffy," she said before turning to greet the Englishman. "Mister Giles."

"Hello, Kendra," the Watcher said. He stood behind Buffy as the other Slayer pulled a chair over and sat down. "I’m sorry I was so abrupt on the phone, especially with your being alone..."

"I am more worried about the Council, Mister Giles," she broke in. "Do you know what is happening?"

"Damn straight we do," Buffy said, startling her with the animosity in Buffy’s words.

Kendra blinked at the anger in her eyes. "What is going on, Buffy?"

Buffy glanced at the men in the room. They considered each other and Steve nodded to Giles, deferring to him.

With a sigh, Giles removed his glasses and said, "Kendra, I understand that some of this will be hard to believe, but I hope that you’ll believe me when I say that it’s all the truth. You are the Slayer and as a Watcher who lives only to serve you and Buffy please know I would never lie to you."

"What is it?" the puzzled Jamaican asked. "What has happened?"

"Well, it started the day after the battle ended, when you were injured by the demon. Buffy and Steve came here to check on your condition. They stayed until they were assured by more than one doctor that you were going to survive." Giles hesitated, as if not liking what he was about to reveal. His jaw became tight. "When we came to visit you again, your Watcher arrived, having learned of your injuries."

"He came for me?" Kendra said. She turned to Buffy. "You told me he had called. You did not tell me he came to see me. Why?"

"After what he tried to do, he’s lucky he’s still breathing!" Buffy blurted before she caught herself.

Kendra’s eyes widened. "What happened!" she demanded. "Is my Watcher all right?"

"Yes," Giles said simply, a touch of anger bleeding into his normal dulcet tone of voice. "Kendra, when he arrived, we explained that with your Slayer gifts, you would likely heal within three to four months."

"Yes, Doctor McIntyre agrees with you," Kendra said with a nod. "I will be ready when the time comes."

"Yeah, well, Doctor McIntyre didn’t try to kill you," Buffy snarled. Kendra looked at her in disbelief, causing Buffy to roll her eyes. "Kendra, when Zabuto heard you couldn’t fight for four months, he decided to finish what that demon had started and activate the next Slayer!"

Giles placed a calming hand on Buffy’s shoulder and said, "Kendra, please listen carefully. Mr. Zabuto felt that the world needed a healthy Slayer to fight the good fight. With you bedridden for three months at the least, how would the healthy Slayer be called?"

Chills ran up and down Kendra’s spine as the meaning of the Watcher’s and Slayer’s words became clear to her. She stared off into space, unable to do anything else while she processed what they had insinuated about Mr. Zabuto. < He was trying to activate the next Slayer. That could only be accomplished if... > She looked at Mr. Giles. "He was right, the world does need a healthy Slayer, Mr. Giles."

"Helloooo!" Buffy said, raising her hand up and looking stupefied. "I’m in the room here! What the Hell am I? Chopped liver?"

*****

Giles smothered a smile as Kendra pondered Buffy’s observation. She was right; with two Slayers, Kendra could be allowed the time to recover. He only hoped she would see it that way. "Don’t you see Kendra? Your Watcher thought so little of you, the Slayer he was charged with Watching, that he wanted to engage in what amounted to premeditated murder, to provide the world another Slayer. Yet Buffy was standing right in front of him at the time, and she and the others could hold down the proverbial fort while you recovered."

"But..." Kendra stammered, losing her cool, confident composure. She seemed to be in denial. His hypothesis was confirmed when she switched away from the uncomfortable topic. "Why does the Council hang up when I call them?"

Giles looked to Steve, who sighed. "Because of what’s happened while you were recovering, Kendra."

*****

Kendra was surprised when Mr. Giles gave this total stranger the floor. "What has happened?"

The man named St. Wolf began explaining how after Mr. Zabuto had been stopped in his attempt to murder her, by her fellow Slayer and her Watcher. Then the Council had sent a delegation to St. Wolf’s house. He described the meeting, in which Quentin Travers, one of the more well-known Watchers, had taken it upon himself to fire Giles on the spot, say that she and Buffy would be taken to England and given new Watchers, and gone so far as to threaten Buffy’s life in front of her, her Watcher, her friends, and St. Wolf himself, in the man’s own home.

"Wait!" she said, interrupting the American’s report. She stared him down and asked, "It is obvious that he failed in his threats, as Buffy is here. So I will ask again, what has happened to the Council?"

St. Wolf’s eyes became hard. "Do you really want me to answer that, Kendra?" She felt her own ire rising and nodded emphatically. He nodded back. "Fine. Even though my superiors, both immediate and overall, told Travers what would happen if the Council tried anything against you or Buffy, in any way, shape, or form, Mr. Travers continued to plot against you. Thus my overall superior turned our dear Mr. Travers into a duck."

Kendra’s jaw flopped open. "Excuse me...did you say, your superior turned one of the most celebrated members of the Council into a duck?!?" When all three nodded, she dully asked, "Who are your superiors?"

"My immediate superior is a man named Marc Le Chevalier," St. Wolf said casually. "He also goes by the title, Knight General of the Order of the Grail." The way the room went silent, Kendra could feel her heart pounding as he delivered the metaphorical punch line. "My overall superior is the sorcerer named Merlin. I assumed you’ve heard of him."

Kendra turned her blank face to Mr. Giles, who smiled back at her. "You do remember meeting that nice English gentleman named Arthur, don’t you? The one with Excalibur?"

"The Order is real?" she asked with a whisper.

"Who do you think’s been standing outside your door during the last month?" Buffy giggled. "Kendra, after Merlin showed Travers the door, the Council tried to get the Order of Teraka to kill me and Giles."

Kendra was stunned. "But we fought them when Spike and Drusilla hired them to kill you!"

"Irony sucks," Buffy said with distaste. "The crappy thing is, we know they’ve done it before. About a hundred years ago, a group of witches had a Slayer born in their town. They told the Council to go to Hell. After she was the Slayer for twelve years, they had the Order kill her so they could regain control of the Slayer again."

"I do not believe you," Kendra said, knowing how hollow the words sounded.

"Believe it," St. Wolf said. "Their people had no reason to lie to me about it, especially after telling them I was dating a Slayer."

She glared at the unknown equation in the room. "And who are you that you would believe witches over the Council?"

*****

Buffy snapped, "Hey, Kendra! Keep in mind that Jenny, Willow, and Amy are witches, too! Would you call them liars if they told you something like that?"

Kendra didn’t seem to have an answer, but she stubbornly looked at St. Wolf. "I would like an answer to my question. Who are you?"

Buffy shared a glance with Steve and nodded. "Go ahead, Steve. Give her the full treatment."

"Okay," Steve said, taking off his coat.

*****

Kendra watched with interest as Buffy’s boyfriend pulled his trench coat off and set it on the other chair. He reached to his side and, out of thing air, pulled out the gleaming katana known as Demon Slayer.

"You know about Demon Slayer, right?" Kendra nodded impatiently, so Steve just shrugged and reached down to his boots. He pulled out a pair of daggers and held them up for her inspection. "Can you feel the magic in these?"

"Yes," she said; she could feel something in them, a power that was a near match for the Sword of Destiny next to him. "What are they?"

"The Fangs of Tyr," he said simply, replacing the daggers and ignoring her look of alarm. He looked back at her. "Did you ever hear of a demon hunter called the ‘Wanderer?’"

She blinked in understanding; Mr. Zabuto had discussed what he dismissed as a boogeyman amongst demonkind. The pieces began falling into place as she realized just what kind of man her sister Slayer had come to love.

Needing some solid answers from someone she knew, she turned her eyes to Buffy. "Is it true?"

*****

"Yeah," Buffy said, feeling some sorrow for Kendra after what she’d been through. < Nothing like having your worldview shattered in one hour. > "Steve’s more than a demon hunter, Kendra. He’s a Knight Lieutenant and Merlin and Niume’s personal champion." She paused for effect. "If you want, Steve can call Merlin and ask him to come by and say, ‘Hi.’"

"No, I don’t think that will be required."

"Kendra," Buffy said gently, taking Kendra’s right hand into her own, "I didn’t like learning about this either. But it’s all true. A few weeks ago, Travers went nuts and hired some mercs to come and kill us all. Willow, Xander, and Cordelia nearly died because of them. If we hadn’t had a healer show up..." She choked back her tears. "Willow...the sweetest, gentlest girl you and I have ever known... almost died in my arms, Kendra. Almost died because of the Council."

*****

The Jamaican Slayer couldn’t believe what she’d missed while lying in a hospital bed. She softly whispered, "What else have I missed?"

Buffy and Giles took turns explaining the events that had transpired since she’d been injured. She listened intently to the descriptions of the battles that Buffy and her friends had been involved in over so short a time. They also explained the changes in some of the others, notably the women, who’d become literal Amazons serving the Goddess Artemis.

When they finished, they gave her several minutes to absorb the whole litany. She finally took a deep breath and asked the question she had to ask. "So what happens to me?"

Giles answered her. "As far as your recovery goes, Steve’s already arranged for your physical therapy. It will be handled by members of the Order, as will your resumed training, at least until you’re ready to resume your duties."

"What about my Watcher?" she demanded.

"That’ll be Giles," Buffy said with a smile that faded. "Kendra, you can’t exactly go back to that asshole who tried to smother you with a pillow."

"Why not?"

St. Wolf said, "Because the Council was warned that if they tried to take you back, they’d have to go to war."

Kendra’s eyes flashed. "With whom?!?"

He smiled, but there was little humor in it, which only infuriated her all the more. "The line starts with the Knights of the Order of the Grail, to be followed by the Justice Department of the United States Government, Merlin and Niume, and a few of our friends who have a soft spot for Slayers in general."

"Who?" she demanded.

Buffy said, "Smaug and Fragnar. They’re the dragons that gave Steve and me our swords. Then there’s Artemis."

"The Goddess of the Hunt would battle the Council?" Kendra said suspiciously.

"Wouldn’t be much of a battle now, would it, Kendra? She is a goddess after all. She’d have already kicked their asses, if she had thought Travers hadn’t acted alone when Willow and Cordelia were injured last week." Buffy then said, "And then there’s Robin." Kendra didn’t answer, since she had the sneaking suspicion that Buffy was laying a trap. The senior Slayer sighed and said, "Robin Goodfellow. He’s one of Oberon’s top guys."

"OBERON?!? The King of the Fairy Kingdom?!?" Kendra snapped. < Enough is enough! > "Do you honestly expect me to believe all of this?"

"Kendra," Giles softly said, "you have my word, as an Englishman and as Buffy’s Watcher, that we are being entirely truthful with you. You also have my word that we want what is best for you and your happiness."

Something in the way he said that, with the utmost sincerity, dissipated all of her doubts, both about the forces protecting her and Buffy, not to mention those doubts she had about what they’d said her own Watcher had tried to do to her.

< He wouldn’t... > she thought, knowing in her heart, however painful it was, that they had no reason to lie to her. She looked away and said, "I need to be alone."

*****

Buffy felt her heartstrings tugging at her; they wanted what was best for Kendra, but this was still a lot to absorb. When her injured friend told them to leave, her eyes teared up.

"Let’s go, Buffy," Giles said, gently squeezing her shoulder.

"Give me a minute, okay?" she requested as she peered deeply into Giles’ green eyes. He nodded indulgently and left the room with Steve.

She looked back at Kendra, who stared at her from the bed, trying not to lose that regal bearing that Buffy envied at times. "Why aren’t you leaving?" she asked.

Buffy stood up and moved closer to her sister Slayer. "I just want to say something, then I’ll leave."

"Yes?"

The Immortal sighed. "I know it’s a lot to take in, Kendra. I’ve had a lot of things to absorb in the last few months. Angel going bad, Greek Gods, finding out my boyfriend is a spy and that he works for Merlin, all kinds of things." She paused to let Kendra think about that. "But you might think about this, Kendra; last month, Sammy Z sent you here to fight Throlog, right?"

"I am the Slayer," she said, her pride resonating once more. "It was my duty."

"Mine too, but that’s not the point. Kendra..." she paused and folded her arms across her breasts. "We had two Slayers in L. A. last month. Funny thing is, we only had one Watcher with us. My Watcher was right there, facing the monsters at our side. He did it without Slayer powers or Swords of Destiny. And if he were with you, he would have thrown himself in front of that demon to save you. He would have done the same for me even though I’m Immortal now. That fact wouldn’t even have entered his mind...that’s how devoted he is to us." Buffy then stared deep into Kendra’s eyes. "Where was yours?"

Kendra started to grind her teeth, but Buffy barreled on. "Kendra, he didn’t give a damn about you enough to come here and fight by your side, but he cared enough to show up after the battle to try to kill you! On the other hand, we have Giles. He saved my life after Amy’s mom had put a spell on me. Later, he tried to go in my place to face the Master. He was so bent on keeping me alive, I had to knock him out to keep him from throwing his life away. And when Angel turned and it was all my fault, he was the one who never, ever wavered in his support for me. He’s that way with you, too, you know. Zabuto would have had to kill him to get to you. So, you see, when we have Giles as the model of what a Watcher should be, I have to wonder about the kind of Watcher the Council pawned off on you."

Buffy paused to collect her thoughts and flashed a thin smile at her sister Slayer. "You know, the first time you came here, I jokingly called you "She-Giles." Well, I’ve grown up a lot since then. I can’t think of a higher honor than to be compared to Rupert Giles." Moisture glistened in the blonde Slayer’s eyes. "You both are the bravest people I’ve ever known. You’d give your lives without hesitation to save others and I want you to know you’ll both always have my respect and love."

*****

Kendra deflated like an old carnival balloon; as much as she wanted to, the dismantling of her worldview didn’t allow her to mount a counteroffensive to Buffy’s arguments.

"Kendra, when you get out of the hospital, you’re gonna need to figure out what you want to do. If you come to Sunnydale, you’ll have more than a Watcher who’ll stick by you. You’ll have friends, people who care about you because you’re Kendra, not because you’re the Slayer." She paused. "You saw what we could do for people last month, Kendra. And by the looks of things..." She watched Buffy graze her fingertips along the Get Well cards on the table next to her. "Those people care about you, too. I’m your friend, Kendra, you know that. So’s Xander; he cussed Zabuto out for trying to kill you when he was the guy who was basically your Dad growing up; he raised you after all." She sighed once again. "I guess what I’m saying is, we’d like to have you join us. We all would."

Buffy smiled at her and picked up one of the envelopes. She pulled out a pen and wrote something down. "Here’s our numbers. Giles at home, my number, and my cell phone. If you get lonely or just want to talk, just dial, okay?"

Kendra was touched, although she didn’t know why. "I... I’ll do that. Thank you."

"Sure," Buffy said, giving Kendra’s shoulder a squeeze. She turned and walked toward the door, but said over her shoulder, "Oh...and if you ever tell Giles I said all that mushy stuff about him...I’ll deny it til the cows come home!"

After Buffy had left the room, Kendra sat there, motionless, for several minutes as she tried to reconcile what she knew about the Watcher who’d raised her and what people she trusted implicitly had told her about him. Frustrated, by everything, she slowly, stiffly, and painfully stood up for the first time since early July.

She staggered to the window, bracing her hands against the wall for support, gritting her teeth at the pain but not surrendering as other people would have. Battling against the agony of her protesting muscles, Kendra reached the windowsill and pulled a chair next to it. She turned the chair so it faced the window, then she fell into it, blessed relief passing through her lips with a soft whimper. Tears rolled down her cheeks, while Kendra focused on the sky. She watched the clouds roll by, absorbed by her thoughts of the future.

*****

Heir Apparent

Pryce Residence
Boston, Massachusetts
9 September 1998

The door flew open, swung one hundred twenty degrees, and slammed into the adjacent wall. Linda staggered into her house, struggling under the burden she carried. She was extremely careful, though, to avoid more harm befalling her charge.

The Watcher laid her frantic eyes upon the unfocused, glassy-eyed sixteen-year-old who had weighed her down. "Faith?" she gasped, her voice almost choking off. "Faith, stay with me! Don’t go to sleep!"

"I’m so tired..." Faith mumbled, disoriented and light-headed from her blood loss. "Don’t make me train today..."

"Okay, honey, we won’t. But just stay awake for me. Don’t go to sleep." Linda carried Faith into the den of her upper class home and laid her on the sofa. She arranged Faith’s body so that she’d be comfortable and rubbed the back of her hand across Faith’s cheek. "I’ll be right back, sweetie. Stay awake."

"Uh-huh... five-by-five, Boss Lady..."

Linda’s heart burst with happiness that Faith was at least coherent enough to refer to her by that blasted nickname. < Not the least of which because it irritates Wesley and Trent so. > Then the Council member stalked over to the dresser where she kept her Council supplies. Still shaking from the close call an hour earlier, she ripped open the second drawer from the top and retrieved her First Aid kit and other medical supplies. Then she carried the bundle back to the sofa.

It took one glance into those brown-green eyes to see that Faith was still dazed, but she seemed to be making some progress. She laid the items on the floor next to her and pulled her Slayer up into a sitting position. "Come on, Faith. Upsy daisy!"

Faith moaned as Linda lifted her. "You got any aspirin, Linda?" she moaned. "My head’s killing me."

"I know," she said, trying to keep her steady.

In that same dull voice, the teenager drawled, "I only drank a little vodka. Sorry..."

Linda stiffened and pushed down the tears that threatened to fall. < I only hope I can finish before we’re discovered. > She whispered, "Please God, give us enough time to get out of here before they arrive."

Linda unzipped Faith’s leather jacket, but it wasn’t easy, as it had be ripped in four places. Add to that the drying blood, it meant precious seconds wasted as she tried to pull the ruined leather free. Finally doing so, she then picked up the medical scissors and began cutting away her charge’s blood drenched t-shirt.

Faith seemed to be a little more coherent. "Linda? What’s happening..."

"You were hurt," she said without preamble. She cut the sleeves of the shirt and pulled it off. "You’re going to be all right, Faith. I won’t let anything happen to you."

*****

Faith’s foggy mind processed Linda’s weird statement. "If I got hurt, ain’t it a little late to be saying nothin’s gonna happen?"

She could have sworn she saw tears in Linda’s eyes. "Point taken, sweetie. But it’s going to be okay. I just need you to sit still and stay awake for me. I don’t want you to pass out."

"Slave driver..." Faith drawled, her eyes fluttering.

"And don’t you forget it, Slayer," Boss Lady said. Faith then heard her whisper, "Not my Faith..."

When she felt Linda reaching up and unhooking her bra, she hissed in pain when it stuck to her body. "Shit!" she snarled. "What the effin..."

"It’s okay. It’s okay," Watcher Woman cooed. "Just relax. I’m going to clean your wounds."

The dazed Bostonian mumbled, "So says every guy that ever took my bra off..."

"I’ll be right back," the uptight old woman said, not responding to Faith’s jibes.

She heard Linda running away and opened her eyes, trying to focus on her surroundings. What grabbed her attention was the state of her beloved leather. Tentatively reaching out her left hand, she gripped the shredded coat and moaned, "That was my favorite jacket, dammit. I want a rematch; that demon’s ass is mine."

"Maybe next time," Linda muttered, squatting in front of her. Faith slowly turned her gaze onto her guardian. For some reason, her Watcher seemed hazy. She gazed into Faith’s eyes and seemed to come to a decision. "Faith, relax. Everything’s going to be all right."

"Whatever..." she sighed before leaning back against the sofa. She closed her greenish eyes and just let the dizziness claim her.

She dimly heard the sounds of water sloshing, followed by it falling. Almost like wringing out the rag when Linda made her do her dishes. She almost giggled at the thought. < Bet you ten bucks doing housework ain’t a Slayer job... >

She was barely aware enough to feel the cold press of a wet sponge pressing against her breasts. Linda moved it around, as if she were wiping something. Faith’s head tossed slightly, part of her rational mind telling her that it was probably her blood that Linda was wiping off. < Like I care. Whatever it is, what Boss Lady’s doin’ feels okay... >

Then she fell into the oblivion of slumber.

*****

Linda knew Faith had fallen asleep but decided it was for the best. < She doesn’t need to know how close... > She choked on the thought. < Don’t think like that! > She finished wiping away the blood from Faith’s chest and ribs and gave the wounds another once-over. She dropped the blood-drenched sponge into the metal bowl, uncaring about the water that sloshed all over the rug. She then rubbed hydrogen peroxide into the wounds to cleanse them. Knowing from prior experience how much H2O2 would sting, she supposed it was a blessing Faith had fallen under.

< I have to hurry... > she thought as she grabbed some gauze squares. She ripped one out of its package and picked up the medical tape. Placing the gauze directly over the upper half of Faith’s left breast, she firmly put the square against the wound and proficiently taped it down. As always, Linda mused, the Council, however disorganized it was, was thorough when it came to training its Watchers. < The only place on Earth where the order of your classes is Demonology, Paramedic Studies, and Parapsychology. >

Linda repeated the procedure with Faith’s other breast, immediately below them, and then along the middle of her rib cage. She then picked up a roll of Ace bandages and went through the process of wrapping them around and around Faith in order to keep the gauze in place. More often than not, the movements of the human body were more than a match for the medical tape, which would come off at the worst times.

Linda replaced the medical equipment and laid Faith down. She picked up and unfolded the Afghan blanket on the back of the sofa and draped it over her dear Slayer. She then moved briskly, heading for Faith’s bedroom to pack her suitcase.

If she was to get Faith out of Boston before her fellow Watchers showed up, time was of the essence.

*****

Faith felt herself being jostled and weakly slapped at the hands moving her about. "Quit it...sleepy now..."

"It’s just me, Faith. Go back to sleep..."

She was so exhausted, she wasn’t going to argue with Linda. "’Kay. Wake me up when it’s time to eat..."

*****

"Sure, sweetheart." Linda’s lower lip trembled as she closed the passenger door of her car. She jogged around the front and climbed into the driver’s seat. She started the car, revved the engine as she shifted gears and took off, hoping to escape with her little tyke before they were found out.

She grimly swore that they wouldn’t get her. Ever.

"Not my Faith..."

*****

Marion Pryce’s Residence
Salem, Massachusetts
Early hours
10 September 1998

"Just a minute..." Marion muttered as she tried to collect herself. She trotted to the door, resolving that she was going to pound whoever was breaking her door down, at three in the morning, into snail snot. She tightened the sash around her heavy robe and looked through her peephole. Her heart soared at the first glance and she threw the door open. "Linda!" she exclaimed happily; it had been three years since she’d seen her favorite niece.

Her smile died as her mind processed the vision before her. Linda’s eyes were opened wide with panic, and her outfit, dark clothes that middle-class people would wear for working out in fall weather, contrasted with Marion’s remembrances of the primly yet fashionably dressed young woman. Still, it was the look of sheer desperation that imbued the matriarch of the Pryce family with her own sense of urgency.

"My God, what’s happened, child?" she inquired, stepping aside to let the child in. < Child? The girl’s thirty-two now. She’s a woman in every sense of the word. > "Linda, come in."

"N-no, I c-can’t," the younger member of the family stammered. Marion could tell it wasn’t from the cold. "I-I..." Linda’s rich brown eyes looked into hers, pleading shining through them. "I need your help."

"Of course!" Marion said, reaching out to hug Linda. She was surprised when Linda instead grabbed her by the arm and started dragging her out of the warm house. "Child, what are you doing?"

"Here..." she said, obviously preoccupied. Marion stifled her protests as she was dragged, barefoot and in her robe, to Linda’s Saab.

Marion saw the sleeping girl in the passenger seat before Linda pulled the door open and started maneuvering the girl to pick her up. "Linda, what’s going on? Who is this child?"

Not answering, her niece pulled the girl from the car and held her in her arms as she stood there. It took a supreme effort; Linda simply wasn’t much bigger than the slight girl she carried. Marion saw that she had on an old leather jacket like those that kids wore nowadays, as well as black-colored Levis and short hiking boots.

< My God, did she run the child over? > Marion wondered for a brief instant before shoving the unwarranted thought away. "Linda, tell me what’s going on!"

"Later. I-I... I have to get her inside."

Sensing that Linda was at the end of her emotional and physical stamina, the older woman nodded. "Of course, my dear. Let’s get you two in out of the cold!"

*****

Marion sat at her kitchen table, trying to understand everything she’d seen in the last forty-five minutes. First of all had been Linda’s messy and panicked appearance. Then there was Linda carrying the girl into one of Marion’s first floor guestrooms, where Linda had laid the unconscious teen on the bed, followed by her rushing out and grabbing luggage out of her car.

< And you know she packed in a hurry, > she mused. The luggage had been thrown in without planning, and it had only contained clothes. < Then there were the wounds. >

Marion had been unable to suppress a gasp at the sight of those bloody gashes running across the child’s torso. Linda hadn’t noticed; she’d been too busy redressing the wounds as if she feared they might become infected. Finally, after wrapping the Ace bandages back around the young woman’s chest, Linda had finished by taking off the girl’s boots and putting a blanket over her, before motioning for her and Marion to leave.

Marion watched Linda from across the table. Her niece, still looking disheveled for a scion of one of Boston’s oldest and most affluent families, was nursing a mug of coffee in both hands. The head of the Pryces decided to get some answers. "Linda, look at me."

Linda was plainly startled. "What?"

"What’s going on here?" she demanded outright. She tried to be gentle toward her shaken niece, but she wanted answers. "What’s going on here, dearie?" she asked again, this time projecting her honest affection for the younger woman. "Who is that girl?"

"I..." Linda obviously didn’t know where to start, so Marion sighed. "Very well, let’s start with an easy question. What’s her name and why didn’t you take her to a hospital? She obviously needs medical attention."

"No!" gasped Linda. She adamantly shook her head. "No doctors!"

Marion was shocked to see her normally sensible descendant so rattled. "Why not! She’s been badly injured!"

"She’ll be arrested..." Linda started before flushing. Marion just waited this time, allowing Linda to catch her breath. Taking a long sip of coffee, she seemed to calm down a bit. The two let their eyes meet before Linda began. "All right, Auntie." Marion grinned at the old name. "Her name is Faith Reilly. And the reasons I don’t take her to a doctor are twofold. The first is that she’d be arrested."

"On what charge?" Marion demanded.

Linda hesitated again, letting Marion know it was a touchy subject. "She... she was in a foster home, one that Social Services placed her in back in March. The foster father was going to rape her. She fought back and... she almost killed him. She didn’t know what was happening at the time."

"If it was self-defense..."

"She didn’t have a mark on her, and he outweighs her by a hundred thirty pounds," Linda remarked, sounding disgusted. "She ran away and his wife reported what happened to the police. She has no idea what he tried to do."

Marion nodded her head. "I see. What is the second reason you don’t seek proper care for her."

Linda’s head shot up, a rare sign of ire. "Because I don’t want my colleagues to know. They’d..." She shook her head. "It’s why I came to you and not Mother and Father..."

"I don’t understand." Marion wondered what would bring her child here, a good drive away from Boston. "What is there about me that made you think I could help you more?" Not that the matriarch minded; unable to have children of her own due to a miscarriage forty years ago, she adored her nieces and nephews, especially Linda. < Maybe that’s why she followed in your footsteps... >

Linda gave her a sad smile. "They don’t have Master’s Degrees in Mythology from Boston University."

Marion’s eyebrow quirked. "I don’t understand. What does my education have to do with this?"

"Only that you might be the single person in the family who doesn’t think I’m totally off my proverbial rocker," Linda chuckled, although it was forced. She shivered. "Take Faith’s wounds, for example."

"Linda, what caused those horrible gashes?" she asked, shivering herself. "It looks like that girl was attacked by a bear!"

Linda scoffed. "I wish what did that to her was as friendly as a bear."

"Linda, you’re not making any sense," Marion pointed out. < Time to get to the bottom of this. > "What caused those wounds? And what is that girl that you’re driving her dozens of miles, wounded and bleeding, in the middle of the God’s blessed night?"

Linda seemed to gather her composure and stared at her for several seconds. At length, she said, "What caused those wounds?" Marion nodded. "A Myziark demon. Imagine one of those Egyptian crocodile Gods without a tail, with a grizzly’s claws, and give it a Muscle Beach physique."

"My God!" Marion hissed. "A demon?"

Linda weakly nodded. She then glanced at the doorway leading out to the foyer. "We were cleaning out a nest when the bloodsuckers called in some help."

"Blood..." Marion muttered before getting the point. She demanded, "What in God’s name were you doing fighting vampires?!? Vampires are real?!?"

"I knew you’d believe me," she said with a sigh at the irony.

"Don’t be so certain. Assuming I do believe you," she growled at the half-hints being dropped, "What does this have to do with you and that girl?"

Linda took several deep breaths before draining her coffee cup in one long gulp. She set the mug down. "Do you remember the two years I spent traveling in England after graduation? Researching old myths of the British Isles? Like the Blarney Stone, the Tower of London, ghost stories from the Highland Clans about clansmen coming back from the dead?"

"The point, my dear. Please."

Marion watched Linda’s cheeks flush. She said, "Alright, Auntie. In the course of my studies, I came across some ancient and not-so-ancient references to a specific group of men and women, a secret society if you will."

"The Illuminati? The Komitati? The Masons?"

"Nothing so mundane," Linda told her. "Suffice it to say, I was curious. And as the saying goes, curiosity will sometimes kill the cat. In my case, the curiosity was returned by members of this group when I made inquiries about their history, just to satisfy myself. They took it as poking my nose where it didn’t belong. So when I was confronted by one of their members, I was surprised to find out that they actually existed. Rather than be offended that I had only been exploring the stories about them on a lark, Edwin, God bless that rogue’s sweet soul, offered me a position in their group. They don’t have many agents from the Western Hemisphere, you know..."

"Who are they, Linda?" Marion sighed. < She sounds so much like me when I’d give a discourse on a subject when I was her age. >

"The Council of Watchers."

"Never heard of them, my dear," Marion confessed. "My areas of specialty were the Mediterranean areas of Europe, Africa, and Asia Minor, remember? What does this Council have to do with vampires?"

"Everything!" Linda snapped. Marion saw the recrimination in her eyes at her outburst. "Aunt Marion, I’m sorry but..." Marion patted her hand to calm her. "Auntie, Faith..." Her deep brown eyes met Marion’s steel blue ones. "Faith... is the Slayer."

*****

Two hours later, Marion was on the phone, impatiently waiting for the exasperated young man on the other end of the line to stop babbling.

Finally, she gave up and spoke back in Yiddish. || Young man, I do not care if he is busy with versions of the Dead Sea scrolls. You will tell Mordecai, this instant, that I need to talk to him. || She paused at his protests. || Who am I? Tell Mordecai... Fine! Tell Professor Horowitz that Marion Pryce is calling from Salem, Massachusetts. || Another pause. || Yes, THAT Marion Pryce, from THAT Salem, Massachusetts. Now be a good teacher’s aide and tell him!. || < God, save me from low-level academic bureaucrats. >

A new voice came over the phone. "Mordecai? Yes, it’s me." She turned the phone to her other ear. "I’m well, thank you. I need your help with something... a research project. Yes, I know you’re busy, but this won’t take long." She sighed. "Let me put this on speaker." She flawlessly went through the motions and put the phone back on the receiver. "Can you hear me, my friend?"

"Yes," a heavily accented voice returned. "It’s good to hear from you again, Marion. It’s been too long."

"Yes, Mordecai, I know," she said warmly. She missed the old rabbinical scholar. "But I need your help on some research I’m doing. It’s to help my niece."

"Ahhh. The one who follows your footsteps?"

"Yes. But time is of the essence here. Can you help me?"

"For the woman who helped me, to use your American phrasing, ‘ace’ my final exams? Anything?" he barked in laughter.

Smiling at the memories of midnight cramming sessions, Marion said, "I will owe you one, Mordecai."

"No, we will simply erase one mark from my debt column. Now tell me, what do you want to know?"

Marion gulped and folded her hands together. "You’re an expert on the Torah, if I recall. I remember faint mentions about a legendary hero in it, but it’s been a long time. I need a refresher course."

"Who is this hero?" he asked with genuine curiosity. "Samson? David?"

Marion braced herself for his answer. "It isn’t a who, but a what. The Slayer."

"The Slayer?" he asked. To the woman’s ears, her old classmate sounded pleasantly surprised. "Now that is a rare subject, my dear. There are mentions of the Slayer throughout the Torah."

"Cliff’s Notes, Mordecai," Marion smiled.

"I can hear that smile here in Jerusalem," he grumbled before laughing. "Very well. The Slayer, according to our records, was not one specific person. There seems to be numerous Slayers, all young girls, throughout the history as recorded by the Torah. According to some versions, it was a Slayer that killed a demon at the Tower of Babel. There are other hints that Esther was a Slayer."

"Esther... the Hebrew who married the king of Babylon. The one who has a book in the Old Testament named after her."

"Yes, that Esther. However, more often than not, the Slayer mentioned is not always Hebrew. Sometimes, they are Egyptian, Persian... I’m sure you understand." He paused for a second. "The common link was that the Slayer, as recorded by the Torah, was Chosen by God, or the Gods, depending on who you were, to fight the demonic forces of Satan or other evil Gods. Does this help you?"

"Immensely," Marion answered happily. "It’s just what I needed. Thank you, my friend. I’ll call again soon."

"Good, Marion, good. It was good to hear your voice again."

She nodded as she heard the phone hang up. She placed her elbows on the table and tapped her fingers together. After spending several minutes thinking about what to do, she finally decided to start with her niece.

< After I get some sleep. > she sighed, standing up and finally heading back to bed.

*****

Marion Pryce’s Residence
Salem, Massachusetts
12 September 1998

Linda couldn’t help it. The look of disgust in Faith’s eyes made her laugh. She tried to hide it behind her hand, but Faith heard her.

The young girl’s reflection glared at her. "Laugh it up, Boss Lady." She wrinkled her nose. "I look like a DORK!"

"You do not," the Watcher countered. "You look lovely."

Faith’s pout showed her disagreement, but Linda was pleased; the one piece, light blue dress Faith wore made the inner city girl look very nice. "I don’t see what the problem is."

"Right," her Slayer growled. "Me in a dress? Come ON!"

"Now you know very well that we agreed that you would help my Aunt Marion in the museum," Linda reminded her, folding her arms to convey her decision. "I know you want to get back into the fight, but you can’t, Faith. You’re still on the mend after..." She cut herself off, not wanting to remind herself of Faith’s close call.

Faith looked at her, as if wondering why she was so worried. "Hey, no worries, Linda. Look, I can even..." She tried to throw a back punch but shouted, "OW! OWOWOWOW!!! Shit!!!"

"Young lady," an authoritative voice that reeked of "blue blood" rang out, "you shouldn’t speak like that. It’s a sign of poor breeding."

"Well," Faith shot back at Marion, who’d joined the pair in the bedroom, "I’m a street girl. Sorry I don’t have ‘good’ breeding."

"Faith! Apologize this instant!" she barked.

Faith winced and Linda caught it. She didn’t like playing on Faith’s desire to please her, but this time she did it. "You had no right to say that. Keep in mind, Aunt Marion’s letting us stay here until we’re sure the demon isn’t still looking for you. After what happened last time..."

Although Faith didn’t need the reminder, she was rightfully chastised. In a rare occurrence of swallowing her Irish pride, she held a hand out to her aunt. "Sorry, MP. I was just..."

"Trying to use your body in a way it’s not ready to be used," Aunt Marion said, staring her charge down with those blue eyes of hers. "I understand your impatience, my dear, but that is still no excuse for foul language." Linda watched as Faith’s eyes narrowed in their defiant manner, but Marion wasn’t having any of it; this was her house, and even Faith would respect her rules. However, she did allow Faith some dignity. She reached out and, rather than shake, gave it a gentle squeeze. "Just try to be a bit more careful, all right, my dear?"

"Okay, Mizz Pryce," her wild child said with grudging respect.

Linda smiled. < Faith wouldn’t respect anyone who let her walk all over them. > "Now that that’s settled, shouldn’t we get to the museum?" Faith grimaced again, but Linda shook her head. "Get moving, kiddo."

With a sigh of defeat, the Chosen One walked out of the room. Aunt Marion waited a few moments before turning back to Linda. "My dear, I truly feel sorry for you, having to put up with that one."

Linda bristled; she didn’t like people putting Faith down. She turned on her primly dressed aunt. "Aunt Marion, I’ll have you know that Faith is a good girl. Not only has she had an underprivileged life, she’s survived it and shown me sparks of the fine young woman underneath. Yes, she hides it behind the ‘tough girl’ exterior, but I know the truth; she’s desperate to be loved. She’s never had anyone who loved her unconditionally, and she wants to feel the same for someone. The problem is, she’s afraid of being used. And you know that as far as being her Watcher goes, having me assigned to her was good fortune for her." She let her look soften a bit. "Something she’s had far too little of in her life."

She watched as her Aunt looked into her eyes, searching them. Finally, a tiny smile etched itself onto her lips. "You love your ‘little tyke,’ don’t you?"

Linda froze. < How?!? > She thought she’d hidden it perfectly, but Marion just laughed.

"My dear child, it’s so obvious to me. You forget, I’ve always felt the same about you." The older woman came up and looked at her proudly. "You’ve always had a good head on your shoulders. And I can see that in your Slayer, even through her ruffian act." Marion hugged her. "I can also see your handiwork in her. You’ve done well."

Linda said, "Then you’ll do something for me?"

They separated and Marion nodded. "Name it."

She took a deep breath before speaking. With complete certainty, Linda told her, "I’ve told you that being a field Watcher is just as dangerous as being a Slayer." Marion nodded with motherly concern. "I’ve... made arrangements, just in case... just in case something happens to me, but Faith survives."

"What?" Marion asked.

"I’ve named her my heir," she said, not able to keep her pride in Faith from bleeding into her words. "I want to make sure she’s taken care of. And I need your help to do that."

"You want me to be the executrix," Marion guessed.

"And to make sure nothing happens to her," Linda added. She had to make sure her Aunt understood. "I love her so much, Auntie. I love her too much to see the Council put her under the thumb of some ass who won’t look out for her best interests." She glanced at the floor, gathering her courage. "I’ve left instructions with my lawyer. If I die, Faith is to be immediately brought to you. I don’t care what the Council will think of this. I care about Faith. I need to know..." She looked back into Marion’s eyes. "I need to know she’ll still have someone to love her."

Marion was taken aback, Linda could tell. But she needed this, to ensure Faith’s future would be a long one, not the tragically short one most Slayers suffered.

Marion’s eyes shined with love right then, and Linda was overcome with the knowledge that Auntie would honor her plea.

They hugged again before Marion looked at her, proud eyes twinkling. "Of course I’ll do it, my dear. I’d be proud to do it." She grinned. "Now I think it’s time we showed your dear Faith just why you’ve ‘enslaved’ her at the Museum."

*****

Salem Museum
Salem, Massachusetts
12 September 1998

The "dismal" and bored Faith watched Miss M unlock the front door and walk in, letting her and Council Girl follow her inside. She blinked as the lights went on and took in the front room of the museum.

"Okay, Marion," she said, taking in the historical recreations of items dealing with the Salem Witch Trials with a doubtful look, "is this deco supposed to be Early Trick or Treat, or Middle S&M?"

"Faith!" Linda snapped.

Luckily for Faith, Marion’s shaking shoulders showed she found that hilarious. She turned around and said, "My dear, if you don’t behave or keep control of that razor-sharp tongue, you just might find Linda throwing you into one of these devices."

The plucky Slayer glanced around at the various instruments used way back in the day; the dunking chair, the pokers, and the person-shaped cage. < Okay, I’m not gonna piss Linda off by making jokes about Auntie Em being around at the time they actually used this stuff. > Instead, she drawled, "You know, even I have my limits, but if you’ve got some cute warlocky hunk workin’ here, I might be willin’ to give one of these contraptions a spin."

By Linda’s loud moan, she knew she’d scored a hit on her Watcher in her normal way of showing she was still an independent woman.

Marion sighed and shook her head, as if trying to shake the image implanted in her mind. "Linda, my compassion for you has just increased twentyfold."

"I get that alot," Linda noted with a sigh while shooting the evil eye at Faith. "Faith, I’m going to say this just once. Behave or you will regret it."

"Yes, Mommmiiieee," she groaned. < You’re no fun today! >

*****

Unknown to Faith, Linda was beaming. < She’s still my Faith; stubborn, hot tempered, and totally irreverent. > She kept her stern visage up, though. < Time to make my darling girl speechless. > "Faith, go into the storeroom and bring out the box you find there. Marion and I need you to bring it out. After all, not all of us have super strength."

Faith stifled a wail at having to do grunt work and went to do as she was told.

Linda shared a look with Marion, who smiled. < Damn she’s being a good sport about that crack... She does like Faith. >

*****

Faith grumpily turned the lights on in the storeroom and walked in. Glancing around at the shelves, she saw lots of old dusty stuff on the shelves, but no boxes... < There we go! > she mused as she finally saw it.

Upon second thought, she wondered why this kind of box was in here. It was made of flimsy white cardboard, the kind you stuffed donuts into. She walked up to it, feeling a bit Wiggy about the coincidence. She saw the clear plastic top and couldn’t help but look in to see what the heck Linda and her Auntie wanted her to carry out there.

She was puzzled when she saw the writing on the thing inside until she finally realized what it said. In large, white frosty letters, she read...

HAPPY BIRTHDAY FAITH
SWEET SEVENTEEN

Faith just stared at it for several seconds. She hadn’t even realized Linda and Marion had walked in behind her until Linda’s soft, gentle hands squeezed her shoulders.

"Did you think I wouldn’t know?"

"I-I..." She sheepishly dropped her head. "No. Heck, I forgot myself..."

"Well I didn’t, Faith." Linda’s arms folded themselves around Faith in a warm, fuzzy hug. "Happy birthday, sweetheart."

"T-thanks..." she stammered, unsure how to handle this kind of family thing. "I... I don’t suppose my present is the hunk I mentioned..."

"If you’re good... MAYBE."

"LINDA!!!" Marion shouted.

Faith looked over her shoulder into Linda’s gleaming eyes. As one, they turned to Old Pryce, grinned, and shouted, "Spoilsport!"

*****

Linda watched the mischievous gleam in her Auntie’s eyes, which destroyed the prim, proper, scandalized image she tried to project. "You deserve her, my dear."

Knowing exactly what Marion had meant, she smiled and hugged Faith close. "Somehow...I think I can live with that."

*****

Old Flames

Lo Si’s Apothecary
Chinatown
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
17 April 1999

Lo Si sensed Caine’s approach before his fellow Shamballah Master said the name he was often referred to by the other. "Ancient?"

A smile crossing the old monk’s face, Lo Si turned and said, "Yes, Kwai Chang Caine?"

"I am going to visit Peter," the younger priest said, referring to his son who served with the local police. "Do you require anything while I am out?"

"No, my friend," the Ancient said with a chuckle. "I am fine. Now go and spend time with your son."

Caine bowed to him, Lo Si returning the gesture. As the junior Shao Lin exited the herbal shop, the old man turned his attention back to his plants and herbs.

*****

After taking his weekly inventory, Lo Si made himself some tea in the small kitchen in the back of his shop. As he sat at the table, enjoying his first cup of the afternoon, an old and dreaded sensation invaded his consciousness. The old Shao Lin shot to his feet with a grace and speed that men generations younger than him would have trouble matching, even with the proper training and conditioning.

He’d felt this Buzzing sensation many times in his long life, and it never ceased to make him feel every bit the sixteen hundred year old man he was. Hoping that this was nothing more than a coincidence, yet having the knowledge that such things were fantasies, Lo Si, Master of Shamballah, ambled toward the front of his shop, hoping that this likely young, even more likely foolish, Immortal would see reason and keep his head attached to his shoulders.

< Of course, > he thought wryly, < it pays to have the deck stacked in one’s favor. >

*****

Lo Si slowly made his way into the front of the store, just in time to see a man of medium height, with short black hair, turning the sign in the door so that anyone outside would read, "Closed." He then began drawing the shades down so that no one would see their business.

"I do not play the ‘Game,’" he said with a voice of authority. Lo Si drew himself up to look imperious and wise, < At least imperious. Wisdom can be relative. > "And as such, I have no desire to take your head."

The man who’d triggered the Buzz in Lo Si’s head turned around to face him, a tiny smirk of enjoyment on his face. "And just what makes you think you could take my head, old man?"

Lo Si smiled back. Granted, he didn’t cut the most imposing figure among Immortals; being short, even by ancient Oriental standards, looking to be in his dotage, with a long Fu Manchu mustache, balding head, and small glasses. His "visitor" was more imposing; two inches short of six feet tall, with a handsome Japanese face, silky black hair, dark brown eyes that might as well be called black, and the simple shirt and pants he wore did nothing to hide his trim, athletic body.

< Yes, if anyone seeing us for the first time were a gambling man, > the Ancient noted with dry laughter, < he would most definitely wager that I was a dead man walking. >

He said none of that to the other Asian Immortal. Rather, he folded his arms in the sleeves of his dark tunic and simply stated, "Several reasons, youngster." He took note that the Immortal winced, though the expression was exaggerated. "First of all, I have centuries of experience on you; your warning sensation is not nearly as strong as mine. I have been alive long enough to judge such things."

The two started walking in a circle, each man keeping his distance from the other, the better to gauge his opponent. "Secondly, I am no mere Immortal warrior; I am Shao Lin, and a Master of Shamballah."

The other Immortal stopped, faked shock rippling across his features. "Since when?"

"Nearly one hundred years," he chuckled. "I am surprised you never knew, having found me here of all places. And this leads to the third reason you will not take my head here, boy."

The taller man grinded his teeth. "And that reason is?"

"This is holy ground," Lo Si stated with authority that he would not have questioned.

The Immortal glared at him for a few seconds and folded his arms. Finally, he broke into laughter. "About time you learned your lesson."

Lo Si laughed along with him. "That is something, coming from you, my friend." He favored the Immortal with a smile of friendship. "How long has it been?"

"Fifteen, sixteen years," the other said after the barest of pauses. He paused before saying, "I’ve been busy with many things. Among them a student of my own... and getting married."

"Again?" the Shao Lin said, happy that his former student had found love again. < After losing his wife thirty years ago, I knew it would take time. > "Does she know?"

"She does. And she is part of the group I have joined," the man said. He looked at the back room. "I know you, Lo Si-sensei. You have tea on?" Lo Si quirked an eyebrow. "You haven’t changed in centuries, have you?"

"There is something to be said for tradition, pup," the mystic noted, feigning offense. "I would think one of your ilk would appreciate that."

The younger man paused, as if reflecting on that. "And look at what it cost me."

Lo Si nodded; he had been the youngster’s teacher, after all. "Is that why you come here today, of all days?" When the former pupil nodded, the apothecary said, "Come. Tea is best shared. Especially between old friends."

A smile came back to the good-looking Immortal. "Watch who you call old, Oh Ancient One."

*****

The duo sat down at the table. As Lo Si went to pour both of them fresh cups, the seated Immortal said, "Not exactly the most formal of tea ceremonies."

"What do you expect, young pup?" Lo Si snapped with good-natured gruffness. "I am only Chinese, after all."

"You have no appreciation for Japanese culture," the laughing retort came.

"And you do not appreciate the simple things in life," the monk shot back.

Sharing more chuckles over their banter, the Master poured two cups of steaming tea. He sat down and took his cup in both hands. "Enough of banter, my friend. Let us talk about what brings you here."

The man stopped the motion of bringing his cup to his lips. With a downward glance, he brought the cup back down and set it on the table. Lo Si patiently waited for the man to whom he’d been friend and teacher to bring up whatever topic had made him search him out.

Finally, he said, "You were right about one thing, Lo Si. The date does have significance, as you well know. But... it is also the year. I wanted to speak with you about things, perhaps to answer questions I still do not have the answers to, even after so long."

"Ah," Lo Si said. He thought about the subtle hint and decided that perhaps enough time had passed to speak of these things. "Very well," he said at length. "Where do you want to start?"

"How about the beginning?" he said with a shrug. "How did you know what would happen that day? Where to find me? That I was to become Immortal?"

Lo Si nodded at the questions. "When in doubt, start at the beginning. Very well, I knew what would happen because of a vision provided by the Powers That Be. I never made a secret of that with you or those above you." Before he could ask, the priest reminded him, "The vision was that I was to guide someone whose destiny was about to take shape."

"But I thought..."

"Yes, I know."

The younger Immortal realized that his destiny, which he’d at first wanted to reject, had been ordained by beings greater than Lo Si himself.

"So it was never meant to be," he said, ancient echoes of regret and other emotions peeking out from beneath the gentle exterior.

"No. I know that you are not the only one who understood this, despite the best wishes of others, including myself. We talked about it more than once." When the man looked at him, not looking surprised but interested, the old man nodded comfortingly. "Yes, you were not the only one who railed against the Gods for their cruelty, Raidon."

*****

Kyoto Prefecture
Japan
17 April 1778

Lo Si watched as the four vampires dragged the two bodies of dead samurai into the cave. < Portable larders for them, > he mused. A humorless smile tugged at his lips as he wondered what the soulless ones would feel when... < I do not have time for fun. It is time to set a young man onto his path. >

He started moving toward the cave, determined to ensure that these four walking corpses, the last vestige of an infernal army that had been gathered to conquer Japan, would not live to see another sunset.

*****

Raidon Nokuma gasped for breath; human instincts making him draw welcomed oxygen into his lungs. The nagging aches he felt were from the armor he still wore, but he was samurai. He would tolerate the pain.

Slowly sitting up, the twenty-five year old warrior rubbed his head, wondering where he was. He glanced around, trying to get his bearings. He quickly figured out he was in a cave, which told him that he was less than fortunate, if the arguing voices were any indication; they didn’t belong to anyone he knew.

Making his way to his feet, Raidon reached for his dai-sho so that he would not meet whoever had brought him here unarmed. His hand closed around empty air, causing him to look down at his sword belt. Not only were his swords gone, so were their scabbards.

He narrowed his eyes in perplexity before his short-term memory caught up with him. He realized why he was unarmed; he’d given his swords, the last physical reminder he had of his ancestors, to...

His throat contracted as his heart burst with emotion. < I gave them to Mai Sen. The woman... I love. It was the last thing I said to her before... > He paused in dread. < Before I died. >

He quickly felt for a pulse, a method taught him by the fairy woman who had declared her love to him only two weeks ago, at the end of a punch to his jaw. Phantom pain reared itself for a second, but was drowned out by the relief he felt at the tactile sensation of blood flowing through his veins. < I am alive. > he determined. His eyes narrowed as he looked around for any type of weapon.

His eyes fell on another body, that of Hiroshi, one of his fellow warriors. Grief and anger warred with the necessity of arming himself. Reaching down to the dead man’s belt, he drew Hiroshi’s katana and looked at the entrance to the next chamber.

*****

"I tell you we should rebuild our army!" one of the men said. "The Bearers are dead!"

"Leaving the Slayer, that new Bearer, and two golden-skinned Dragons!" came the counterargument. "I will not die in a futile battle against Dragons!"

< New Bearer? > Raidon thought, tensely gripping the leather-wrapped hilt of his appropriated blade. < At least the demon’s plan failed; there will be Champions of Japan again. > He shuddered as he remembered how the Bearers had fallen under the onslaught of the demon Krtog and his fellow demons; Tanetal, and the one his beloved had called... < Marilith. > She’d screamed at him not to fight her, but believing in the superiority of Bushido, he’d moved to allow the Bearers and that Spaniard, the Slayer Maria Delgado, to fight what he deemed the greater opponents, rather than a "mere" underling demon.

< Some underling she turned out to be, > he thought with a wince at the memory of the six-armed snake woman’s flashing weapons distracting him, just long enough to punch her poisoned sting into his heart. He remembered the last thing he’d seen before surrendering to the oblivion of death; the tear-streaked face of a fairy woman out of time, begging him not to make her swear the highest of oaths that would allow him to die with honor. He recalled his last words to her. < And I you, Mai Sen. > He took a deep breath in regret that he hadn’t seen it sooner. < I love you as well. >

Having determined that there were only four vampires in the room, and knowing exactly how to dispose of them, Raidon moved into the entryway and said, "You are about to die, demons!"

The vampires jumped, their nerves probably frayed from the ravaging of their army. He started forward, confident that he could at least take two of these walking corpses before they mounted a defense, but was suddenly sent to the ground, withering in agony from the pounding sensation that manifested itself without warning.

He heard the vampires overcome their shock, only to start wailing seconds later.

*****

Lo Si felt the Buzz begin and tried not to curse. < Too soon. > He’d hoped to send the demons back to Hell and explain the samurai’s new status to him peacefully and without interruptions. Obviously the Fates didn’t care what he wanted.

He stepped into the cave’s entrance and saw what he expected to see; the four vampires looking nervous and confused, while Raidon was on the floor, holding his head. Seeing one of the vampires spying him, he shouted, "RAIDON!"

He rewarded the stunned samurai’s obedient gaze with a smile as his eyes cleared. He started forward and with that same, authoritative voice, shouted, "Send them back to the underworld!"

*****

Raidon didn’t know what surprised him more; the sudden appearance of Lo Si, the Shao Lin monk who’d visited Hideo-sama, or the sudden vanishing of his headache. Attributing it to the Shao Lin’s mysterious powers, he stood up and brought his sword to bear.

One vampire, seeing the two-pronged fight his fellows were about to fight, chose to fight the samurai. The warrior, having trained in Bushido for his entire life, and in the specific ways of disposing of walking corpses for the last few months, stepped aside from the undisciplined attack. Years of battle-honed instincts coming into play like second nature, Raidon swung his katana in a downward arc. The masterly crafted blade cleaved through the demon’s neck like it was rice paper.

Focusing his attention on the battle, not caring about the dust particles that settled amidst the dirt floor, Raidon was soon shocked into motionlessness as Lo Si showed him, and the three vampires that rushed him, the reasons why mere mortals viewed Shao Lins with awe.

*****

The priest watched Raidon focus on the one vampire that went after him. Deciding that finesse was not something he wished to waste on these upright bodies, Lo Si gathered his chi and sent out a wave of invisible force that created a shimmering disruption in the air around the path of the blast.

The three vampires were caught full on by the manifestation of Lo Si’s abilities and thrown against the wall. As the trio of remaining demons sagged to the cave floor, Raidon took it upon himself to decapitate a second beast, making the odds even in numbers, but stacked heavily in his and the samurai’s favor in skills and powers.

*****

After making his second kill, the last of the Nokumas turned to see what Lo Si was going to do. He made some mystical gestures and sent another of those strange blasts at one of the remaining vampires.

The bolt seemed smaller but more focused, as evidenced by it ripping through the blood drinking creature and ripping his heart out through his back. The demon died screaming in anguish.

Raidon watched him for seconds before he shrugged, indicating that he didn’t care who eliminated the last creature. Nodding grimly, the young man moved to do what needed to be done.

*****

A few minutes later, the two men had finished taking stock of the items carried by the vampires. Lo Si told Raidon to take the weapons from Hiroshi, which of course caused an uproar over desecrating the dead.

Lo Si patiently said, "Nokuma-san, what good are these weapons to a dead man. You should use them to do battle for others."

"They belong to him!"

"Your blades belonged to you, yet you gave them away," the monk countered, sending his eyes to Raidon’s empty belt. "This is not the place for discussing what we must discuss, Raidon Nokuma."

"That much, we agree on," the stubborn samurai agreed, moving to pick up Hiroshi’s body. "If I have to, I will carry him back to Hideo-sama’s house."

"You cannot go back," Lo Si stated. < It always comes to this, > he sighed. "You died, Raidon-san. You died in the arms of the woman who loved you."

Raidon glared at him over the use of the past tense. "We are in love, Lo Si. I will not give her up without a fight."

Lo Si sighed. "You died in her arms, Raidon. What will happen when she sees her dead lover walking toward her? The woman who has spent the last decade of her life fighting vampires?" That stopped Raidon in his tracks. Lo Si nodded; he didn’t like this course any more than Raidon did, but he had to understand that his life, such as it was, was over. "Raidon, you are not a vampire, but you are different from mortal beings."

Raidon said, "Mai Sen has fairy blood."

"And she has human blood," the monk countered; they both knew that. "And as such, she has human mortality. It is only delayed, not halted."

Raidon growled, "I love her!"

"And she is destined to go back to her own time," Lo Si said. Raidon blinked, not knowing that she had talked of such things with him. "Yes, she told me as well. There are many things she discussed with me." He shook his head. "But that is not important, not now. What matters is that you have a path to travel, and I am here to guide you on your first steps. But, we must leave."

"We must find ground that is safe from any other vampires," Raidon reasoned, agreeing with a terse nod.

"No, youngster," Lo Si stated sadly, "you must leave Japan."

The look of shock on his face would have been comical under better circumstances.

"WHAT?!?" he bellowed.

"The only true safe ground for you, Raidon Nokuma, or for me," Lo Si said, giving the frustrated warrior his best mysterious look, "is holy ground. Now come or I will make you come with me." He smiled evenly. "Considering how easily I deal with demons, I think you know that you would not prove much more of a challenge." He held a hand out. "Shall we?"

*****

Lo Si’s Apothecary
Chinatown
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
17 April 1999

"How long did it take me to let go of her?" Raidon asked, looking into the bottom of his empty cup. "Three months? Four?"

Lo Si smiled. "Try six months. It helped greatly once you understood that it was simply not meant to be." Raidon glanced at him. "I know you still wonder, even though you have met many women, and taken... how many wives?"

"Four," Raidon said, smiling. Lo Si knew that Raidon had always married the women he loved, and he had always loved them with all his heart. "But you know what they say, Lo Si. ‘You never forget your first love.’"

"Your old flame," he chuckled. "And on this, the anniversary of the day you felt that love for the first time, you remember her fondly. That speaks well for you. I did not waste my time teaching you how to live as an Immortal."

"There is more, Lo Si."

"Yes?" the Chinaman asked, smoothing out his mustache. "What is it?"

Raidon smiled at him. "Your memory fails you, O Mystic One. What year is this?"

"If you must ask me that, then it is your memory that fails. You know as well as I do that it is nineteen ninety-nine."

Raidon picked up the kettle and poured himself another glass of tea. "And what year was Mai Sen from?"

That stopped Lo Si in his tracks. < This IS her time! > he thought. He had caught the rarely surprised Shamballah Master off guard. He glanced at Raidon. "You wish to find her." It was not a question.

Raidon nodded. "I would like to see if she has returned, or... if she is safe." Lo Si gave him a warning look. "Lo Si, it’s been two centuries! I am happily married, and I merely wish to try to discover her fate. Surely enough time has passed for me to find out that much."

"For you perhaps," Lo Si said with a touch of regret. "But perhaps not for her."

Raidon gave him a stony glare. "My youth relative to you aside, I’m too old for Fortune Cookie riddles."

"Very well, I shall speak plainly," he said softly. "For you, it has been two centuries since you loved her." Raidon rolled his eyes and nodded. "Raidon, she lives in this year. When she returns from Japan, she may only be months, perhaps mere weeks, removed from hearing you tell her, with your dying words, that you returned her feelings. If she has even returned; she purposely avoided telling us the month. She may still feel the pain of your loss. If you approached her now, when she may still be in mourning, and you told her that you are over your love for her and married to another woman... what would that do to her?"

Lo Si watched him gripping his antique teacup with white knuckles. "Raidon, I know you still feel guilt over leaving her as you did, but as I said in that cave two hundred years ago, it was not meant to be." He sighed and said, "Even though Hideo, rest his honorable soul, would have given his blessing to a union between the two of you."

"How can that be?" Raidon protested, remembering the Lord he’d served as a mortal, one that had been a second father to him. "Mai Sen’s own argument against us loving each other, besides the temporal mechanics..." Lo Si quirked an eyebrow. "I do watch Star Trek, Lo Si. But her argument to Hideo-sama was that beyond being only half-human, I would be expected to marry a woman of station." He chuckled dryly. "At the risk of sounding egotistical like Kentaro, I was considered quite the eligible bachelor in my time."

Lo Si chuckled at the joke. "Yes, but this leads to something she never mentioned... let me rephrase. Something she never dared mention, to you or even to Hideo, who she came to see as a father figure in the same way you did, was this; her mother, her elven mother, was the daughter of a House that had been considered nobility for ten thousand years. As much as she wished to deny it, she had the blood of a woman of station in her veins."

Raidon stared at him for a few moments. "Why did she never mention it?"

"Because above all, she was a priestess, as you well know," he started. Taking the kettle in his hands and pouring the last of the tea into his own cup, Lo Si added, "But part of it was that if you had known how long her family had been ennobled, it would have dealt a major blow to your samurai ego."

Raidon couldn’t help laughing at that, which had been Lo Si’s plan. The younger Immortal shook his head in remembrance. "No wonder the two of you got along famously. You were both so irreverent." He grinned, probably from the memories of some of the sarcasm and irreverence she’d directed at him. "Gods, I suffered enough of it. Although I like to think I have my own irreverent side."

Lo Si grinned back. "Nice to see you learned something from us. Personally, she doubted you would ever stop being a ‘tight wad.’ In fact, I remember when she had said about you, and I quote, ‘I wish he would take his katana, fold it in half, turn it sideways, and shove it point first up his conceited candy ass."

Raidon spat his tea on the table. "WHAT?!?"

"Well, according to Mai Sen, it was how women of the ‘future’ dealt with men who refused to admit they had their heads up their asses."

Raidon moaned. "I hate time travelers..."

*****

State of Mind

The Bronze
Sunnydale, California
2 September 1999

"Goddess!" I scream from my hiding place. "Just once can you NOT listen to that NOISE you call music?!?"

As always, my pleas for mercy go unheeded. Despite my grumbling, in more than one tongue, it’s for the best, I suppose. After all, I am in "hiding." Sometimes, this whole mysterious destiny "thing," to use the vernacular of these children...’sucks.’ Of course, there are benefits to keeping my presence hidden from the others. For one thing, I get to see the lives of those around me and see how they change. Yes, I get angry and brood over the fact that I can’t interact with them, but for now I take what I can get. That is, assuming my supposed "destiny" doesn’t leave me worse off.

Among the strange things I have heard are the stories of my beloved meeting herself, or more accurately, a double of herself, and a vampire to boot. Of course, I loved the images my Willow transmitted to me when she thought about Willow’s night with her Queen and Queen’s consort. That had me wishing I’d been the other Xander. And with that one’s strange idea of humor, that is saying plenty. Another thing I enjoy is Willow’s interaction with this so-called Dark Slayer, Faith. While Willow is closer to the Immortal Slayer, Buffy, I find Faith to be much more interesting. Not just for her personality, but her voluptuous body. Anyone who looks that beautiful she makes me long to possess Willow’s body, even for a few seconds, so that I can reach out and take that lovely maiden into my arms...

What?!? I have dreams, too!

Being a sword is not so bad. Really. For one thing, I do not have to sleep. That way, I can watch everything while others rest. Then again, I enjoy watching when they’re not resting. Watching my sweet Willow wrestle with either Faith or Cordelia and press her supple body against them while they’re on the ground... < Priorities again. >

As for their battles, I know that my secret might be revealed someday. Granted, I would have to reveal myself if it meant the difference between life and death, but being who I am, < Not to mention who I was, > I wryly think, I would risk revealing the truth in a heartbeat.

Especially for her.

Goddess knows, I already have.

*****

Sunnydale Cemetery
Sunnydale, California
28 August 1999

"This is quite dull!" I think to myself. "Just once, can we battle something other than these pathetic excuses for what you young people call vampires? What reason is there for you to be out here if you’re not going to do anything other than send these pathetic demons to the afterlife?"

Of course, fifteen minutes later, I remember the old phrase, "The Gods look down upon us... and laugh." There’s a reason it’s an old saying.

Because it’s true.

"Goddess damn the Fates, I take it BACK!!!" Since the demon and fifteen vampires approaching us don’t get struck down by rocks falling from Selune... oops. I always forget this world’s moon is called Luna. "Whatever." Sigh. These Earth children and their weird languages have corrupted me. The point is, whichever Moon Goddess is watching over Earth’s moon tonight, she is obviously too busy to answer my prayers.

It’s strange how, being entrapped in this stone, I can see those undead so clearly once my "blindfold" is removed. I count my blessings, such as they are, of being able to see something besides my love’s leather jacket. I smile, at least I imagine I do. No, I’m not on Earth drugs or extremely kinky, as my remarks about blindfolds might suggest. Goddess, I am no longer human. At least, not right now.

You see, I’m a sword. Or more accurately, I am the spirit locked inside the topaz set in the pommel of an enchanted short sword of sharpness. Confused? Good. Now you know how I still feel at time, after a century or so. Nice to have company, I grin to myself.

But back to business. Let us see; fifteen of these soulless vampires, barely worth my... wielder’s time individually, but a problem when working with this many.

I hear the familiar "shing" as my love grasps my handle and draws my blade from my metal sheathe. "I’ll take the big one!" my dearest Willow proclaims, sending shivers down my spine. Or what passes for a spirit’s spine; I am excited by her zeal, all right? She grips my hilt with both hands, ready for a fight.

"Wrath of God?" asks the woman next to my redheaded Amazon. "Amy," I remind myself. Like Willow, she’s an Amazon warrior and a witch. The blonde is a more powerful spell caster, but my Willow’s a better warrior.

"That seems warranted," says the other woman, Amy’s cousin.

The two begin casting spells, but my attention is drawn by a low growl and the sound of shifting bones. I growl to myself, too. HE’S changing.

With a loud howl meant to distract and frighten my beloved’s foes, her lover, in his werewolf form, charges the undead contingent. Some of them try to flee, but he ignores them, jumping into the fray against the braver ones. I watch in awe, as I usually do, at the skill these children wield against their foes.

Amy and Shawukay finish their spells and pull one of their favorite tactics; Amy’s rain spell followed by a nonmagical blessing by the Forestarm. Again, I wonder how hard it was for her to adjust to the change from Toril to Earth.

Philosophy can wait. The vampires start melting like some witch I’ve heard Willow think about, from some ancient kingdom called Oz. I read her surface thoughts and smile; once again, it is her combination of bravery, love, and aggressiveness that makes me shudder with pleasure every time we go into battle together.

Yes, she swings the sword that carries my name and allows me to live vicariously.

Willow’s anxiousness turns into action as she charges forward, the demon caught off guard by the reactions of the so-called Slayerettes attacking his lackeys, < I refuse to give these pathetic creatures the dignity of calling them minions, >, Amy and Shawukay then draw their own weapons and join the fray.

I fly out twice, once in a jab to a vampire’s heart, the second time in a slicing arc that removes a vampire’s head. "Very good," I say approvingly at Willow’s tactics, "One stroke, one kill."

The cousins are fighting back-to-back, demonstrating their skills with their blades. Shawukay’s better than Willow, I reluctantly admit, but even my fellow Faerunian admits that it is only because of her vast experience. At least the half-elf is truly not as arrogant as her own lover claims. Again, the battle draws my attention.

Oz finishes off his foes with absurd ease and charges the demon, whose confusion is turning to anger. Damn. I was hoping he would be rattled a little while longer.

With the growl of his namesake, my sweet Willow’s bardic lycanthrope leaps into the demon’s chest, biting and clawing with all his lupine fury.

Surprisingly, Willow and I both think the same thing, if for different reasons. Willow’s reaction is fear for the man she loves. Mine is for the hole his death would create in her heart. It’s selfish, I know. "I don’t care," I remind myself.

The demon is more irritated than harmed. Feeling the horror in my Amazon’s mind, the Abyssal creature grabs him and throws him aside. He lands with an "umph." He’s shaken. The demon lunges toward him, but my brave love follows her heart; she intercepts the beast and slashes.

I score a solid hit, drawing demon blood and relishing the scream of agony that I cause. He’s dared to frighten my Willow and will pay for his effrontery.

Willow swings me again and tries to do what I’m crafted to do; she aims for the shoulder joint where the upper arm attaches to the demon’s torso. He moves with surprising quickness and avoids the blow. So much am I concentrating on my wielder’s offense that I don’t see his other arm swing around.

I feel her pain and scream with her as his gigantic fist smacks her aside. We go tumbling to the ground. I feel Willow’s consciousness grow fuzzy and threaten to go into the domain of the Goddess of Dreams.

I hear the demon growl in the Abyssal tongue. I won’t translate because even I am not comfortable with the nighttime games of his nature. But I know that if I do not do something, this demon will have his way with the one who holds my heart. I do not weigh the risks; I act. I act as my dear, sweet Wicca would. I follow my heart.

It takes but the barest act of concentration, but the effects are...

"Amazing!" I shriek, immediately feeling the difference. My mind takes a few seconds to adjust to the confusing cascade of sensations running up and down my... body. I mentally celebrate. For the first time in so long, I have a BODY again! I can feel! I can breathe! I can... "Ahhhh!" Willow is on patrol during THAT TIME?!? "Damn it! Can’t I get one good turn of fortune?!?"

I turn on the demon, deciding to put my anger to good use. It takes a moment to get used to the sensation of wielding cold steel in my hands again. One good thing; I... all right, the sword does not lose its magic when I possess someone. Granted, it is easier that way, so I do not complain. It is amazing what a hundred years trapped inside magical gems will do for you. For me, it provided the gift of patience.

## All right, tanar'ri, ## I snarl with my Willow voice, ## it is time you were sent back to the Hell that spawned you. ##

The demon’s surprised by my use of Abyssal. He becomes cautious again. ## How do you know my tongue, little witch? ##

My lips curl into a sneer of disgust, again filling me with tingles at the simple knowledge that I’m solid again. My dearly loved Celcia was just too proficient with the blade for me to ever be an elf for a few minutes. "I know many things, ta’narri. The benefits of having elves for friends." There, that shouldn’t give me away; Willow has learned from an elf.

I charge forward, slicing away. The demon’s caught flatfooted; he sees my style has changed. Good. I want him confused.

I swing myse... my sword at his gut, making him suck it in. I smile as he makes the mistake I wanted him to. To get back at me, he lunges forward.

< Typical, > I say to myself, < All brawn, no brains. >

As he leans forward, I run forward a bit and slide. Going right between his legs, I come up and he stumbles. Since my weight is not there to catch him, he falls flat on his ugly, beaver-toothed face. Now that I have the upper hand, I do not waste time. I act like I think Willow would in this instance.

One of the first things I did after coming to be Willow’s sword was to read her thoughts when she patrolled. Not just when wielding me, to learn how she fought, but also when she did not use me. I learned more than her methods; I paid strict attention to her motives. It is what first attracted me to her. Later, I realized that in a way, we were so alike. We would give, or have given in my case, everything we are for love.

I pull out my... Willow’s Glock pistol. The tanar'ri’s still facing away from me, so I pull the trigger. It is almost too easy; the point blank range and the enchantments in the bullet send the silver projectile ripping into the back of his skull. I see bone, flesh, and what passes for ta’narri brains flying away in a spreading halo of body parts.

I put two more rounds into the demon’s body, just in case he has some form of regeneration abilities. One goes into his heart, of course. But just to be sure, the third round goes into the base of his spine. < Why let him get up at all, > I reason. < Spinal injuries are just as deadly as anything else I could do to him. >

Yes, when it comes to protecting the love of my... well, life, I am merciless. I feel the sensation, completely new, yet totally intimate, that my Willow’s recovering from the blow she suffered. Since I took over her body through spiritual possession, I do not have to suffer the consequences of the headache she will have. Still, we are... well, she is alive, but we are together. That is what matters.

I wait until the last second before relinquishing control. It is a delicate balance; if I hold on too long, Willow will realize I am here and she would fight me for control. I could never beat her; she is too strong-willed and I could never violate her like that. I love her so much...

I feel the swirling disorientation again, only this time the things I crave, physical awareness and feelings, are gone. I’m back home, such as it is. I quell my disappointment. My lovely little red witch is alive and happy. I read her surface thoughts and know she is wondering what happened.

I listen to them talk, mostly Oz and Amy. Shawukay’s performing a ritual of destruction on the body. I always liked priests that were on the side of good. So...I am partial to Silverstars, priests of Selune. Particularly if they are female...

As they offer their own theories about Willow not remembering how she defeated the demon, I hide a snicker. Hey, I have to get my amusement somewhere! Even if it is at my dearest’s expense on occasion.

It beats listening to that Xander fellow’s jests...

*****

Outside the Bronze
Sunnydale, California
30 August 1999

"Thank you, Willow!" I exclaim with love bursting through my heart as we walk out of the Bronze. I swear, I don’t know how Shawukay’s hearing stands up to that vapid noise Willow loves so much. My jealousy rears itself as Willow leans in and gives Oz a loving kiss. They start carrying on and it is all I can do not to wish aloud that I could possess Oz’s body to feel her body pressing against mine... "Take over a boy? And a skinny one for good measure?!? Goddess, what’s wrong with me?!?"

I know what’s "wrong." I am in love. Once again, I love a kindred spirit. I then groan at my own pun about spirits. Again, I watch the one I have given my heart, show her affection for the one she has given her heart. Sometimes it is difficult to determine whether I am jealous or envious of Oz. I should not be jealous; Willow would not be the woman I love if he was not in her life.

So yes, it is envy. I can only imagine what it would feel like to have our bodies pressing together in a mix of raw passion and all-consuming romance. Maybe I will know again someday. I can still dream.

But I have gained something, and my love gave it to me. Once again, I have the "memories" of living. I have the "memories" of physical contact and the sensations that come with it. Not faded impressions of my mortal life, but new, fresh tactile memories! I know how it feels to be alive again!

Willow ends her kiss and looks Oz in the eye. "I still can’t figure out what happened the other night," she muses.

Oz cocks an eyebrow. Say what I will about my rival, he loves her and is completely unflappable, which helps Willow when she needs someone emotionally stable to talk to. And he loves her totally. "Shaw’s idea sounded plausible."

"What? That it was a ‘Willow Hulk Mode?’" she asks with a flash of concern. "Not liking that thought."

"Well, she did say, ‘Willow Mode,’" he says, that tiny grin that gives her shivers but makes my teeth grind. "Besides, I think you’d look good green."

"Shut up," she playfully says, smacking him on the arm. "Let’s head to our place."

"Cool," he says, his typical response to anything. They exit the establishment and climb into his van.

I revel in the rush of lust and happiness that reigns in Willow’s petite frame. It is times like this that I do not mind not being able to "send" messages to her. I can hear her thoughts and feel what she feels, but to have her know that I experience some of what she "feels" when he shares her bed, well I love being her sword. Not only because she is almost as skilled as I was at her age, but because I can keep her alive. Just like I did against the demon. If my secret had come out, so be it. People, not to mention sentient swords, will do whatever it takes to save the ones they love.

With Willow, that means I am required to help her defend every single member of her team.

It takes twenty minutes to arrive at the apartment Willow and Oz share since they moved out of their respective parents’ homes. They quietly climb the stairs, smiling at each other like love struck teenagers... right. They are love struck teenagers. With what they face every night, and with the courage with which they face the darkness, it is easy to forget they are just as young as I was when Celcia and I first made love, right in the temple of Selune so many years ago.

Of course, Celcia did manage to make it throughout the night without calling her Goddess’ name in ecstasy fifteen times during a session. Poor Artemis. I wonder how She reacts to being associated with Her daughters’ orgasms.

Like I said, I have an unusual sense of humor. You handle spending eternity as a sentient sword your way, I shall do it mine.

*****

Six hours later, Oz and Willow finally fall asleep. They are exhausted, but I am not. Once again, I relish what I feel through my one-way link with my dear Amazon witch. When Celcia lost me, she never wanted another. While I originally cursed her, I still felt and appreciated her devotion to me. The thing was, she never grieved. That is why I was glad when Selune told her the time had come to let me go; it gave both of us the chance to move on.

I have. I am happy for it. I only hope that someday, somehow, I do regain a human body, so that I can thank her for letting me go, and letting me find love again, however unrequited and unknown.

The other thing is, I feel Willow’s emotions and her sense of the emotions Oz has for her. I admit, I also let myself feel everything that she experienced during their lovemaking tonight. I resolve not to intrude often, but for once, I am thinking about my own existence and myself.

I crave the physical. As it is, I can at least experience it vicariously through my love. While some might view that as intruding on her privacy, some might understand my point of view. Feeling what she feels in her human existence, just like I did through Celcia when I served as her blade, I maintain that most precious of commodities.

My own humanity.

Besides, with her stamina, I get all the sensations I can handle and more. I even feel exhausted, and I am a spirit! It is almost as good as taking Oz’s place in Willow’s bed, but not quite. As always, the good thing about being a spirit residing inside a jewel set in the pommel of a short sword of sharpness...

I might not have to sleep, but by Selune, I can dream!

Back

Home

Next