WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
Kara stood in her bedroom, arms crossed, and stared at the items lined up on the dresser before her.
Her alarm clock had been squashed to half its size in an attempt to hit the snooze button.
The door knob to her closet -- no, the entire lock assembly, including the inside knob -- had been ripped completely out of the door during a clothes changing panic.
From her favorite Barbie jutted a nail file, thrown with enough force to pierce where its heart would be just as Kara woke from one of those strange dreams she’d been having.
Worst of all, the center of her iPod now sported a hole the size of her thumb, reducing the music player to a paper thin paper weight. All she’d been trying to do was play some Jessica Simpson. Her father was going to kill her.
“This is very weird,” she told herself, before turning again to the floor length mirror by the damaged closet door. She looked the same as she had last week, tallish and thin, with mousy brown hair, a narrow face, and the most horrendous braces imaginable. She pushed up the sleeves of her purple t-shirt and flexed her arms, but could see no more muscle than before she started damaging anything she touched.
“I’m, like, a superhero.” If she stayed a superhero, she’d destroy so much stuff her dad would go bankrupt.
As if he’d read her mind, her dad -- she somehow would have known it was him, even if someone else had been in the house -- knocked on the door. In one motion she jerked open her top dresser drawer, swept the damaged items inside, and shoved it closed again. It took barely two steps to cross the room, and she had to remind herself to be careful before turning the knob.
Richard stood there in his signature black -- in this case sweatshirt, sweatpants and Nikes -- carrying a book, as he usually did. Kara had never been able to figure out whether he dressed in black because it suited him, or if he was trying to live up to some kind of professional writer image.
“How’re you doing, kiddo? You’ve been acting a little off the last few days.” Richard adjusted his glasses, and tried to look nonchalant.
“Oh, I’m fine.” He started to speak again, but she’d learned since her mother died how to deflect these conversations. “It’s just that time of the month.”
Reddening, her father took a step backward and held the book up in a defensive motion. “Oh, okay --”
At that moment Kara glimpsed the book’s cover, and every sense went on red alert. It looked like a textbook of some kind, written by some Ph.D., with a title in lurid red over the black background: “Vampires: An Historical Treatise.”
“Where -- what --?” She leaned toward it, unaccountably transfixed.
“What?” Richard glanced down at the book, examining it as if a bug might be crawling across the cover. “I ordered it through an interlibrary loan. For some reason I’ve had a strange interest in this kind of stuff lately -- maybe I’ll insert some monsters into my next book, huh?”
“But --” Kara couldn’t take her eyes off the word Vampire, and she felt the blood rush hotly through her veins. “But you’re an historical fiction writer.”
“Well, an old time horror novel might be interesting, don’t you think? Vampires, werewolves, maybe a Frankenstein’s Monster or two.”
She shook her head frantically. “There are no such things as monsters.”
Richard watched his daughter for a moment, then shook his head with a sad smile. “Haven’t seen the news lately, huh?” He reached out to plant a kiss on her forehead. “Sorry it startled you. I know it’s not my normal boring historical tome, it just kind of clicked with me, like a light bulb. Now, why don’t you come wash up for dinner?”
Kara nodded, trying to control her breathing. “In a minute.”
After the door closed she leaned against it, fighting the urge to go running out into the dark. She belonged out there, somehow, out in the darkness fighting -- something. It didn’t make sense. Her father hated the dark, always had. Powerful outside lights illuminated both the front and back yards, and he’d rarely allowed her to be anywhere that wasn’t brilliantly lit -- as if he was afraid she’d disappear into the night.
She thought of that little patch of darkness in the side yard, behind the cherry trees, where the light didn’t carry. It had always fascinated her, but she’d never ventured into it; she just stood sometimes and stared into the blackness, as if waiting for it to speak to her. It never had.
But maybe it was about to.
“This is so cool,” Dawn said.
As soon as they’d entered the office, on the fourteenth floor of a downtown Chicago office building, she began darting around, exclaiming over the computerized room controls, the expensive artwork, and the view from huge windows that overlooked Lake Michigan. By the time the group gathered again, Dawn was practically giddy with excitement.
Buffy simply stood in the wood paneled lobby, as the others fanned out to explore an area that took up the entire floor. Most, like Giles, walked through the spaces silently, taking it in. Xander landed a few wisecracks, and once she heard Willow exclaim “Wow! G5’s with duel processors and 21 inch flat screens!”
Something about computers, Buffy assumed. The place kind of gave her the creeps, seeming too cold and sterile -- but what could be expected, of rooms that hadn’t been inhabited for decades? Someone had obviously come through now and again to update the technology, but otherwise she saw no sign of human habitation. She wondered if the Watcher’s Council sent robots in to do the work, but that thought brought back too many past memories, and she shook it off.
What finally perked her up was a shout from Kennedy, which brought her and most of the others into a huge gymnasium at the center of the space. It made the basement workout room at the Magic Shop pale in comparison. A line of attack dummies, two workout mats, an entire corner dedicated to gym equipment, and -- blessed be -- an adjoining room that held a small pool and a whirlpool bath. “That would have helped the bruises,” she murmured, taking in that and a massage table.
“Faith would love this,” Kennedy said, opening a cabinet to reveal racks of polished, perfect weapons. “Come to think of it, so would Robin.”
“They’ll see it as soon as he’s out of the hospital,” said Andrew, who had been unusual quiet -- for him -- throughout their trip here. It had been a long trip, too -- by chartered bus, as they tried to keep a low profile by avoiding the red tape of airlines.
Or maybe Giles had decided on the bus for different reasons. At one time or another almost everyone in the group broke down in tears during the journey, as the events of recent weeks finally caught up with them. That, and the stories, and the hugs, and the long talks -- the more she thought about it, the more Buffy realized there was more than one reason why Giles ignored the griping about having to take the slow way.
The new slayers made a dash for the weapons, and the room filled with whooshes and clangs as they swung swords, maces and staffs back and forth. “Careful,” Xander yelled, “you’ll put somebody’s eye out.” His face fell when he realized none of them heard his joke, so Buffy patted him on the shoulder and Dawn gave him an encouraging thumbs up.
At that moment one of the half dozen doors leading into the room opened and Giles walked in, just in time to dodge a dagger as one slayer knocked it out of another’s hand. Oddly, he didn’t seem overly upset as he joined Buffy and Xander in one corner of the room. “Jolly good, training already.”
Buffy looked at him, and realized the older man had an almost joyful gleam in his eye. “You’ve been to the library, haven’t you?”
“Indeed I have, and I’m happy to report it holds duplicates of most of the volumes lost when the London headquarters exploded. My personal library is here, too: Willow deserves credit for that."
Buffy frowned. "Willow?"
"She scanned my books into the computer, and they've been reprinted here."
Buffy's frowned deepened -- she hadn't known the Watcher's Council was receiving those scans, and she'd bet Willow didn't, either. But Giles continued on, not noticing her dark look. "It’s one of the most comprehensive libraries I’ve ever seen, and Willow’s exploring a very well equipped computer lab as we speak.”
At that moment Dawn and Andrew, dodging flying slayers, joined them. “Does the library have manga?” Andrew asked.
“Does it have what?”
“Japanese comic books,” Dawn explained, which earned her a surprised look from Andrew. “Hey, I read ‘Peach Girl’.”
“Oh.” Andrew seemed impressed, Buffy noticed, which could only mean they were discussing a geek thing. “I love Ranma, and Chobits --”
Dawn gave Andrew a smug look. “I always suspected you were ecchi.”
“Hey, that’s not --”
Buffy raised a restraining hand before the conversation could sink any further into nerdville. “Guys, this is a Watcher library, so don’t expect anything fun.”
“Yes, quite --” Giles did a double take, but chose not to argue. “The point is, this facility seems to be fully equipped. There are dorms -- well, individual rooms originally, but I’m sure there was never thought given to housing dozens of slayers. Also offices, kitchen facilities --”
“And a massage table,” Buffy pointed out. “If you really want me to stay, we need a masseuse.”
Hesitantly, Andrew raised his hand. “I could --”
“A world of no.”
“She’d break your fingers,” Xander warned Andrew. “Believe me, I know.”
As they spoke, the noise level in the huge room increased, much like an out of control high school lunch room, until they were practically shouting. Giving up, Giles led everyone but the new slayers through the door behind him, where a corridor took them to a gleaming office area. Willow glanced up from a console that looked like it belonged on a “Star Trek” set, her face shining. “Is this cool, or what?”
Buffy grinned, imagining what Giles thought of this particular room. “Looks like someone dragged the Watcher’s Council kicking and screaming into the 21st Century.”
“Yes, well . . . the library’s much larger. And the seating there is more comfortable.”
“Keep fighting it, Giles.”
They gathered in chairs behind Willow, who had gone into full mad scientist mode as she played over the keyboard. With a flourish, she made a flat screen, big enough to watch the Superbowl on, slide up from inside the console. “Have you found what I asked you about?” Giles asked.
“Yep, it was right where you said.” As Willow worked a map of the world appeared on the screen, and on that map little points of blue and red began flashing. “There they are,” she announced. “Our targets.”
They leaned in to examine the lights. “Blue for demons?” Xander guessed. “Naturally, red would be for vampires.”
But Giles shook his head. “This system uses a combination of technology and mystical arts to pinpoint the location of slayer potentials -- now slayers, of course. That would be the red lights. Any slayer who’s old enough appears in red; apparently, after Willow’s spell, the potentials automatically become slayers at the time they hit puberty.”
“Thank goodness it’s not earlier,” Dawn said. “Imagine a two year old slayer having a temper tantrum.”
“I want my stake!” Xander yelled in a baby voice. “Now!”
Giles cleared his throat. “The blue lights represent potential watchers.”
The group fell silent. Potential watchers? Buffy had assumed they inherited the position, considering the tales she'd heard. Besides, what magical skill did a watcher need? The ability to read without falling asleep? A mystically dry sense of humor?
When no one else spoke, she ventured, “What do you say to those guys? ‘You are the one chosen to watch over, think about and research the forces of evil’?”
“I haven’t the foggiest idea what we’ll tell them. We developed the system as a way of starting the Watcher’s Council anew in case our ranks were ever decimated by an attack, but that never happened -- until now. There is a certain mystical element involved, but mostly the computer searches databases for those with the mental and emotional capacity necessary to accomplish the mission.” As he spoke, Giles studied the map. “Look here, a potential watcher right by our small cluster of injured slayers recuperating in Los Angeles. It might be a doctor.”
“Well, it’s gotta be better than the old system,” Xander said. “Where we got winners like Wesley Windham-Price.”
“So we have to train not only slayers, but their watchers, huh?” Buffy shook her head. “That’s a tall order, Giles.”
“I know. But you know how incredibly dangerous rogue slayers can be. We must provide these new slayers with guidance and, unfortunately, that means training their watchers at the same time.” He turned to Buffy. “And that’s why I need you.”
Buffy shook her head. “I’m not --”
“You’re one of the oldest and most experienced slayers ever, Buffy. You have a huge wealth of experience to share, and that might help keep these other slayers alive.”
Buffy winced. Giles sure knew how to hit her weak points -- but then, who would know if not him? “I’ll help bring them in, for starters, then we’ll see.” When Giles started to protest, she raised her hand. “Getting them here has to be the first step, doesn’t it? Besides, I’ve got a personal errand to run, first.”
“An errand? Doing what?”
But Buffy shook her head. “It’s personal. But it won’t take long, and maybe I’ll bring some slayers and watchers back with me.”
Xander, Willow and Dawn chorused, “I’m going with you,” but again Buffy shook her head.
“We need to split up to find these slayers. Don’t worry, I’ll be all right.” To deflect further protests, she pointed to the map. “Giles, any idea where to start?”
He gave her a long look, then sighed and turned to the map. “I still have a few friends on the other side of the ocean who might be able to help us, so I suggest we start in this hemisphere. As you say, we’ll split the team up while it’s still safe to do so, before the forces of darkness can gather themselves again. I’ll work up some routes that will cover the most territory, but I suggest we start here.” He pointed to a place in southern Indiana, where a blue light stood so close to a red one that they bled into each other. “A slayer and potential watcher in the same small town, not too far from here -- that kind of coincidence is certainly serendipitous.”
“That’s a good thing,” Dawn told Andrew.
“Well, then.” Giles nodded, looking satisfied. “It’s a new beginning.”
“A new beginning,” Willow agreed, and the others echoed the words. All but Buffy, who couldn’t help remembering her last new beginning, and how it had disrupted her life.
He was a mean looking Ether Demon, green skinned, with huge tusks and horns growing in a line from the top of his head to his tailbone. He looked like he could break Cheeseman with one hand, and --
He was tap dancing. And singing:
I can’t tell you
She’s gonna get me
I’m terrified and
so scared I can’t pee
You gotta know she’s the meanest boss around!
Sweet rubbed his temples, willing his headache away. “That one would be cut off-Broadway.”
The demon did a little pirouette and kept going:
I don’t mean to
upset my captor
I’d rather leave you
dancing with rapture
But she’ll just kill me if I give out a sound!
Cheeseman had clapped slices of American over his ears, but apparently it wasn’t helping. “This is torture -- but not for him.”
Sweet snapped his fingers and the demon, now silent, collapsed onto the rubbery surface at his feet. “I told you it works much better in the human dimension. Not only are demons poor at rhyming, they have no rhythm. Still, even bad dancing will burn his feet off if you give it long enough.”
“I’d prefer not to take the time.” Tapping his chin with a finger, Cheeseman glanced around at the shimmering lavender sky, and the dark red trees in the distance. “Well, we’ll have to try it my way.” He pointed a finger at the cowering demon, who simply shut his eyes and lay still.
Sweet, who still wasn’t sure what his pseudo-partner was up to, poked the demon with a custom made tap shoe. “Did you kill him?”
“Shhh, I’m concentrating.” Cheeseman closed his eyes, and after a moment the demon’s limbs started jerking. It was dreaming, Sweet realized, and as the minutes wore on the sleeping demon started sweating and moaning. Then it lay still, and Cheeseman opened his eyes. “Poor thing couldn’t stand the terror. But I got what I needed.” He turned in a seemingly random direction and started walking, forcing Sweet to hurry to catch up.
“What terrible thing did you put into his dreams?”
“Bunny rabbits. For some reason, many demons are terrified of bunny rabbits.”
“Ah. And what are you terrified of?”
Cheeseman gave him a sharp look. “Mold.”
“Of course. I’ve always had a fear of going tone deaf --” Sweet stopped -- or rather, was stopped, as he bounced off what felt like a rubber wall. All he could see ahead was more red tinged meadow and what looked like burgundy palm trees. But Cheeseman had stopped just short of hitting the invisible wall, and now he held up a plastic wrapped package that he had pulled out of thin air.
“A gift for your ruler!”
Sweet raised an eyebrow. “Roquefort?”
“My best. From very contented ewes.”
An instant later, without a sound, the landscape seemed to split, falling away from them until they found themselves standing in a gleaming silver throne room. Everything -- ceiling, floor, and the raised throne ahead -- was of polished silver. Curtains to either side were of silver thread. Sweet thought it could use more contrast, but he had to admire the style.
When someone finally spoke it was a soft, feminine voice that seemed to come from everywhere. “I am Oz, the great and terrible. Who are you, and why are you here?”
Sweet and Cheeseman glanced at each other, then both looked around at the curtains. “I request guidance,” Cheeseman finally said.
“And I,” Sweet added, “am willing to be Dorothy, the mild and meek.”
“SILENCE!” the voice roared, but a moment later one of the curtains parted, and a girl glided toward them. Her skin was light and perfect, her hair jet black, and she wore a gauzy white silk gown that flowed behind her. A small golden crown perched on her head, and bright red flowers decorated the sides of her head. Sweet judged her to be in her early teens, although he knew better than to be sure this was her true form.
“I am Ozma,” she said in a sweet, soft voice.
Again Cheeseman and Sweet exchanged glances. “Really?” asked Sweet, who had always wished someone would turn the other Oz books into musicals.
“No, not really, I’m just messing with you. But it’s a pretty form, isn’t it?”
“Indeed it is, your majesty.” Cheeseman bowed, and held out his roquefort. “If this doesn’t satisfy you, I also have access to all the minds of the human and demon worlds.”
“Cheese binds me up terribly.” Ozma had a twinkle in her eye, but Cheeseman stepped back, looking insulted. “But I’m sure we could work something out.”
“I could arrange for some virgin sacrifices --” Cheeseman began.
“Well discuss it later.” Ozma moved to her throne and sat back. “You wish to destroy the Slayer.”
Cheeseman nodded. “Doesn’t everybody?”
Although he didn’t say it, Sweet actually kind of liked the Slayer. She had a nice singing voice, and her little sister could really cut a rug. As he thought that, Ozma looked at him and smiled.
“Not everyone. I, for instance, have little contact with the mortal world. Still, some powerful magic has changed the balance of power on Earth, and we all have an interest in seeing that balance restored.”
Cheeseman looked a little embarrassed as he admitted, “I had rather hoped to swing it in the opposite direction.”
“Of course you do, that’s the nature of evil. What did you have in mind?” As she spoke Ozma picked up a scepter beside the throne and waved it, causing two chairs to appear behind her visitors. Sweet sat down gratefully; those patent leather tap shoes were stylish, but uncomfortable as all get out.
“The slayers are being gathered together.” Cheeseman carefully laid the cheese offering on the floor beside him. “They would create a powerful army, and since The First left the mortal plane there’s nothing to oppose them. The Wolf, Ram and Heart have the power, but they seem to be staying out of it.”
Ozma nodded. “They’ve occupied themselves with some complicated plan of their own, but they’re not as devious as they believe.”
“So who would be powerful enough to take on an army of slayers?” Cheeseman waited.
When Sweet realized his partner wasn’t about to give his plan away easily, he decided to break the silence by joking, “Another army of slayers?”
Sweet stared at him, but Ozma just smiled. “And where would you get this army of slayers?”
“How many slayers are alive today? A few hundred? Less? The First killed many potentials, and others died in the final battle.” Standing, Cheeseman began to pace, rubbing his hands together. “And speaking of dying, how many slayers have lived and died since the first one, millennium ago? The average life expectancy of a slayer is -- what -- a few years, at most? Suppose a new one arises every five years, that would make 20 in just one century. Two hundred in the last century, four hundred since the birth of Christ -- the actual number’s surely much higher.”
Sweet stood, his carefully practiced attitude of bemusement vanishing. “You’re going to resurrect the dead slayers?”
Turning, Cheeseman offered a smile that to Sweet seemed truly insane. “Hundreds, thousands, under my control. Even if the living slayers have banded together by then, they couldn’t withstand the onslaught. Besides, imagine their reaction when they find themselves attacked by a superior force of their own kind?”
“Psychological warfare, as well as physical,” Ozma agreed with a frown.
“But --” Sweet was shaken by the pure audacity of the plan. “How? And how will you control them?”
“Magic can do amazing things.” Cheeseman turned to Ozma. “Yes?”
The girl nodded. “You will owe other powers a great debt, but it can be done.”
Grinning, Cheeseman rubbed his hands together. “Buffy Summers thinks she’s seen everything, but I have one last surprise in store for her.”