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This story is No. 2 in the series "The Dragonfly Effect". You may wish to read the series introduction and the preceeding stories first.

Summary: Now that there's a Slayer, a Dragon-Half and a Magical Girl on the Hellmouth, things should start getting a lot safer...right? (Rated FR15 for some violence)

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Anime > Dragon HalfEarnestScribblerFR15211,65512627,92431 Jan 0918 Dec 09No

Learning From Experience

Author's Commentary:

I really must apologize for how long this chapter has taken. But if you've ever been looking for a job for more than a year without success, you know how damaged you can end up feeling. The rest of you…you can't imagine it.

In my case, that damage has manifested as writer's block. But even this long after my last post, I'm still getting positive reviews and good wishes from you, my public. So how can I not soldier on? I just hope this is up to the standards I reached in Chapter One.

By the way, the historical quote offered by Mr. Wuffles in this chapter is a bit misleading; I'll explain more in the end-of-chapter notes.

Standard Disclaimer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the creation of Joss Whedon and is owned by Fox Television (I think. If I'm wrong, smack me). Dragon Half is the creation of Ryūsuke Mita, and I'm not sure who owns it. Whatever, this is a work of fanfiction, use of the intellectual property is unauthorized and not for profit, I make no claim yadda yadda. We all know the drill. Let's mush on.


Learning From Experience

Every problem, goes the old adage, is an opportunity in disguise. There are difficulties to overcome, to be sure, but doing so can gain one far more than simply avoiding the problem.

Shekorikath, He Who Has Been Set Over That Which Burns Without Fire, First Lord of the Fifth Darkness, Master of Lodestones, Keeper of the Gates of the Seventh Torment, was currently faced with the opportunity of a lifetime.

He sat cross-legged in a complex pentagram and watched the Sorceress who'd trapped him there as she arranged the conjuring tools on a nearby table. She'd already conjured several gaseous balls of illumination that drifted about the cavern, shedding pastel light in various hues onto the underground island where she was working. The glowlights created a dizzying array of colored shadows, but the colors merged to bathe the table in soft white.

Today, she wore a silk bustier in purple so deep it was almost black. This was offset by a lavender bit of velvet that was only just long enough to be considered a skirt rather than, say, a belt. She would never see forty again; her light purple hair was streaked with gray, and the faint lines on her face and body clearly showed that she was no longer as supple as she'd once been. Nevertheless, she had kept her figure remarkably well, and the confident air of mature sexiness she exuded more than offset the fading advantages of her youth.

To Shekorikath, this was mostly a matter of academic interest, since he was, after all, not human. But purely as a matter of form, he supposed he ought to do horrifying, fatally perverted things to her body once he escaped from her trap. The screaming, though…he would enjoy the screaming.

Her preparations finished, Queen Vina hefted an enormous steel sword that had been lying near the table and jabbed its point nearly a foot into the ground. The blade must have been enchanted; she'd never have managed it otherwise. But, Shekorikath noted, the enchantment was laid over honest steel. He nodded in approval.

Vina combed her fingers through her hair, setting a loose lock back into place. She turned to face the demon.

"Shall we begin?" she asked in a mild and pleasant voice.

Oh yes. Opportunity indeed. But he had the beginnings of a plan. Then he'd see how she dealt with…opportunities.

"…And then, out of nowhere, she just goes off on us!"

Willow sat on her bedroom floor, her back resting against the bed, and she was cradling Mr. Wuffles in her lap. The puppy was curled up with his eyes closed, chin resting on her knee, and she was idly scritching his ears as she gazed off into the distance. Willow hadn't been crying, but her eyes were moist and her voice was strained.

"We were all having a good time, you know?" she said. "Joking and, and congratulating each other and stuff, and then all of a sudden Kendra's all up in our faces. 'Blah blah blah, this isn't a game for amateurs, blah blah blah,' and then she goes storming off like a little kid. For no reason at all!"

Mr. Wuffles stirred, opened his eyes and raised his head. "I don't believe it," he said after a moment.

"I know!" Willow said. "After we defeated that demon together, by which I mean mostly me, because honestly? She wasn't doing too hot on her own. You'd think she'd be grateful, but of course that's too much to ask, and where does she get off calling me an amateur anyway, after --"

"What?" Mr. Wuffles said. "No, you misunderstand. I mean I don't believe it was for no reason."

Willow floundered for a moment, groping for words.

"Huh?" she finally said.

The puppy hopped out of her lap and turned to face her.

"There's always a reason," he said, somehow managing to sound grave and serious in spite of his ten-year-old's voice.

Willow shifted her posture, raising her knees and hugging them to her chest.

"…Well," she finally said, "well, so what? She had no right to be such a snooty-pants, no matter what kind of lame, stupid reason she might have had!"

"You don't know that either," Mr. Wuffles sighed. "If you don't know her reason -- and neither of us do -- you can't say whether or not it was a good one."

Willow fell silent, hugging her knees even tighter and staring sullenly at the puppy. She shifted back to a cross-legged posture.

"Aren't you supposed to be my Guardian Familiar?" she asked quietly.

"Of course."

"Then, shouldn't you be on my side?"

Mr. Wuffles stepped forward and hopped up slightly, to rest his forepaws on her knee.

"I am on your side," he said. "Always."

"Well, what happened to 'my country, right or wrong?'" the redhead demanded.

Her familiar lowered his head and sighed. "It got misquoted and taken out of context so often that the original meaning was almost completely lost," he said.

Willow drew breath to deliver an angry retort, but belatedly realized that she had nothing. She worked her jaw silently a few times before shutting her mouth and waiting for the puppy to continue.

"'My country, right or wrong,'" the Mr. Wuffles quoted; "'if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.' Senator Carl Schurz, 1872. Everyone overlooks the qualifiers. He got a standing ovation, you know."

Willow stared through the opposite wall at nothing as she pondered this. "Oh," she finally said. She didn't really notice when the puppy climbed back into her lap, although she did resume scritching behind his ears.

"It's possible, you know," he said, "that Kendra doesn't even know, herself, why she blew up like that. But if something's troubling her…well, we could all use a little more understanding, couldn't we?"

"I guess," Willow sighed.

After a late dinner, Buffy was rinsing the plates while Joyce loaded the dishwasher. The teenager was back in her dragon-half form, the red of her wings and hair contrasting pleasantly with the pastel green of her blouse.

"It's weird," Buffy said. "I was always good at the routines, and I expected to be stronger now…but I'm also super good at acrobatics. Crazy good." She passed a handful of silverware to Joyce. "Scary good," she confessed.

"That'll be your dragon heritage," Joyce said as she slotted the silverware into the removable carrier.

Buffy pondered that as she rinsed out the pasta bowl.

"How do you figure?" she asked.

"Flying. A flying creature needs a much better sense of its body's position and motion in three dimensions than a human ever would. Unless they plan to be acrobats, in which case they need to train for years. But you, even in human form…since your ecdysis, your brain is still, what? Dragony. Wired for flight."

"Oh," Buffy said thoughtfully. She pulled the plug on the kitchen sink and watched it drain.

"Since my what now?" she asked.

"Ecdysis. That's the technical term when a snake sheds its skin, or when dragonkin undergo metamorphosis." Joyce hesitated. "I, ah, haven't used the term before, " she said, "because…"

"Because even when I have red hair, I'm still a blonde," Buffy said. "No, no, that's fine, I get it. I'm used to being a disappointment." She waved her hand dismissively as she turned away from the counter. She leaned against the refrigerator and sniffled loudly.

Stricken, Joyce only got as far as saying "Buffy…" before she noticed the teenager's shoulders shaking…with suppressed mirth.

"You --!" she said, as Buffy turned around.

"Gotcha!" Buffy laughed.

"I take it back," Joyce said. "You are a fiend from Hell."

After the dishwasher was loaded and running, they headed for the living room.

"So, practice went well then?"

"Yeah, I guess…but right after I went, the rest of the gang wound up fighting this big bug demon."


"Yeah. Right after I left for the gym, this critter attacked Dr. Gregory. Willow and Kendra had to fight it by themselves. If I'd hung around for two more minutes…!"

"Oh, honey! Are they all right?"

"Yeah, they're fine." Buffy sat on the couch and dropped her ring-amulet on the coffee table. "Well," she continued, "Willow was a little upset, but she said it was nothing. But Mom…I missed all the fun!"

Joyce blinked in surprise. She waited while Buffy cleared her mind and shifted into her human form. When her daughter picked up the amulet to put it on, Joyce knew she could speak without breaking the (currently) blonde's concentration.

"Fun?" she demanded, sitting next to the girl.

"Well, yeah!" Buffy fastened the chain and tucked the ring under her blouse. "I mean, okay, cheerleading is fun too, but how often do you get to carve up a giant bug?"

"Buffy," Joyce said, "fighting monsters and demons is…it's a deadly serious business. It's not some, some hobby!"

"Yeah, I know, Mom. But it's not like I'm just a cheerleader. Dragon Half, remember? And Kendra's a Slayer, and Willow's like this super witch girl, a Major Showboat or whatever she called it--"

"Buffy, it doesn't matter how powerful you are, there's always --"

"I know, there's always something bigger, badder, and more powerful. Namely me. Mom, don't worry. You remember why dinner was so late, right? Because I did a little training with Mr. Giles and Kendra after cheer practice. We put on some boxing gloves and did a little sparring--"

"And how did that go?"

Buffy hesitated, then shook her head with a rueful chuckle.

"Kicked my ass," she confessed.

"Well, there, you see --"

Buffy shook her head again, more emphatically this time.

"It was after hours," she said as she closed the Velcro-sealed wing holes in her jacket, "but it was still in the school. I had to stay in human form. Otherwise, I think we'd have seen a different story."

Buffy slipped on the jacket and stood.

"Gotta motor," she said. "Xander and Jesse'll be at the Bronze by now; they'll need me to walk 'em home."

Joyce followed her adopted daughter to the front door, thinking carefully.

"Honey?" she said as Buffy was opening the door.

"Yeah, Mom?"

"Do you ever wish you could go flying in the daylight?"

Buffy leaned against the doorframe. "Do I ever," she sighed.

"Well, I've only got a half day at the gallery on Sunday. Why don't you come with me? You can do your homework in my office, and then we'll drive out to the desert after lunch -- some place far enough away from anything that no-one will see you."

"…Really?" Buffy said, brightening.

"We'll make a day of it," Joyce said.

"You are the best!" Buffy squealed, hugging her like mad.

Giving Joyce a kiss on the cheek, Buffy whirled and ran off into the night, practically skipping. Joyce stood in the doorway, watching her go. Once the girl had disappeared from sight, she closed the door and turned away.

Twenty minutes later, she was in the basement, dressed for a workout and limbering up. She'd laid out a pair of exercise mats, and now she spent a good forty minutes, carefully stretching every muscle in her body.

Finally, she made her way to the shelves behind the furnace and hauled out a wooden box, wide and long but very flat. Setting it on the floor, she opened it to reveal a small metal shield and a short sword with a jeweled leather scabbard and a decorative crossguard.

Slowly, pausing to let her twenty-year-old memories guide her, Joyce strapped on the sword-belt. She carefully slipped her left arm into the shield's straps and let the once-familiar weight settle into place.

Drawing the sword, she hefted it in her right hand. It was just over two feet long, but it was solid, sturdy metal. For a sword, it was light -- but that was a relative term. She was going to feel this in the morning.

"Bigger, badder, and more powerful?" she muttered. "Oh, Buffy…older, sneakier and better trained will trump that every time."

Stepping out onto the mats, she started walking herself through the basic sword patterns.

The sports car arrowed down the highway toward LA. At the wheel, Cordelia was enjoying the handling capability that vampire reflexes gave her, jumping lanes just because she could. The light on the fuzzbuster stayed green, and she opened the accelerator to about 80 MPH.

On the passenger seat next to her, her new minion shifted uneasily, raising crinkling noises from the plastic seat cover that she'd insisted he use. By his own admission, he hadn't ridden in a car since he was ever, and it took some getting used to even without Cordelia's driving.

"Something on your mind?" Cordelia asked him.

"Just…wondering about our destination," her companion replied.

"Los Angeles. There's something the Master wants us to find out."

"Investigation?" he said. "I…have never done that."

"I know. You're the eviscerate first, ask questions never type. Relax, Fork Boy, I'll handle the forensics. You're coming along as backup, in case anything goes south on us."

Fork Boy nodded thoughtfully. He stared out the passenger window.

"I'm…" he began. "I'm grateful to the Master for allowing me this chance."

"Oh, hey, you totally deserve it."

He looked at her, eyes hopeful.


"…No, not really," Cordelia said. "You're on probation here. My advice? Don't screw up."

He nodded. "Even so," he said, "I'm grateful."

"You should be," Cordelia muttered, as she thought back to the previous night…

"You failed," the Master said.

"Must've been during one of my blackouts," Cordelia replied, "'cause I don't remember any such thing."

"Careful," the Master snarled. "I allow you a great deal of leeway, but I expect results to match. If you don't produce them…then your remarks cease to be charmingly refreshing, and become…insolence."

"Of course," Cordelia said smoothly. "My apologies." She lowered her eyes to the Master's feet respectfully. "It's true I didn't get hold of the girl's school records, but I did get a chance to see her in action. I was thinking of that as a partial win."

The Master gazed at her suspiciously for a moment before nodding.

"My plan was to send Colin and Stuart to Los Angeles to see what they could find out about this dragon girl," he said, "while you took care of the local investigation. But now that that's been put on hold…" He glared at her again. "You have some time on your hands."

"You want me to go to LA?" Cordelia asked, brightening.

"Investigate the incident at Hemery High School," the Master told her. "Find out if the dragon girl was involved. While you're there, see if you can find out anything about her background."

"Can I bring Colin and Stuart along," Cordelia said, "as backup?"

"Absolutely not," the Master replied. "You botched a simple assignment at the local school; now you've got something to prove. You're going on this mission alone."

"In fact," Cordelia said as she slowed to take the next off-ramp, "you'd better stay away from the rest of the Order. You don't want to intrude, right? While you're on probation, you'll make your reports and receive orders through me only."

"Of course," Fork Boy nodded.

Cordelia smiled to herself. She thought back to the other thing the Master had told her…

"You were human only recently, and fairly wealthy, correct? That's the main reason I'm sending you. You'll know how to handle yourself."

"That close to that many shoes?" she said. "It'll be as natural as breathing." She mentally reviewed that statement. "Used to be," she added.

"Yes, well, don't be too eager. We are the superior beings. We have no need for their mindless amusements. You are on a mission. You go there, you find out what we need to know, and you come back. You are not going there to have fun. Is that clear?"

She met his eyes and projected total sincerity.

"Perfectly," she said.

The opening chords of Shriekback's Nemesis screamed out of the speakers as Cordelia threw herself to and fro across the dance floor. Between the strobe lights, the swirling spotlights, and the smoke machine, the club was a madhouse of sensory overload. But her preternatural senses had no trouble sorting out what was important.

Despite the noise, she could hear the pounding hearts of the crowd. The smoke machine couldn't cover the scent of fresh blood, even muted as it was by still being inside the veins of the dancers. And the intermittent darkness and swirling light couldn't hide the two young men over by the bar who were watching her.

They weren't the only ones watching, of course, but they were the ones she'd singled out. They were young, probably still in college or just out of it, and therefore still thought they were immortal. They'd learn…

She whirled in place a few times, eyes half-closed as if lost in the rhythm, but moving closer. She nearly broke up laughing as the song reached the part about evil being an exact science, but held it together and let her eyes meet those of the nearer of the two men. She smiled to herself, letting him see her do it, and turned away.

After the first chorus, she left the dance floor and headed to the bar. She pretended to be slightly out of breath as she signaled the bartender.

While he was getting her drink, she let her eyes drift over to the two men again, then dropped her gaze to the bartop with a shy smile. She sipped at her drink and waited for them to come to her.

At just the right moment, she looked up. "Hi," she said with a smile.

"Hey," said the black-haired one with the boyish features. "You had some really good moves out there."

The blonde man with the chiseled jaw took a bar stool four spaces away and watched. Clearly, then, he was the wingman.

"Mmmm," Cordelia said. "That was nothing."

"Oh, yeah?" the brunet said with a hesitant smile.

"I've got moves no man has seen and lived," Cordelia replied with a wide, toothy grin. She knocked back the rest of her drink in one gulp and rather ostentatiously placed the empty glass in front of her. She stared at her prey expectantly until the penny dropped.

"Oh!" he said. "Can I get you another one of those?"

"Really? Um, okay, thanks."

Shekorikath knelt in the pentagram, bowing his head in servile fashion.

"What you ask…I don't see how it can be done."

Vina frowned at him, her eyes narrowing, and the welts, burns and lacerations across his warty purple skin seemed to throb even harder. But that was just torture, and he was a Lord of Hell; he'd endured far worse, and far more imaginative, just growing up.

"You don't have a life token," he pointed out. "No tuft of hair or scrap of skin…not even so much as a strip of cloth torn off an old diaper. How am I to track her? Please…you must have some idea."

No, what he had to be wary of was the brilliantly innovative summoning circle she'd used to call him up. Unlike other such circles, it was holding each molecule of his body in this dimension individually, and if it were canceled -- whether by her death, or by a simple act of will on her part -- he'd return to his native hell-world as a cloud of particles. It would take eons to heal back from that, and as for reclaiming even a fraction of the power and prestige he now held…well. Death would be preferable.

"I'm not refusing to do it," he said in response to her darkening glower. "You…" he lowered his gaze to her feet. "You have me at your mercy. If you knew how many Shift Realms there are…to search all of them…" He let his shoulders sag, even as he raised his eyes to meet hers once more. "Please," he said. "I don't know what to do."

It was galling, maddeningly so, to plead like that. The only thing that made it bearable was its utter insincerity. Shekorikath was stalling for time, saying whatever she'd listen to, while his mystic perceptions explored the circle and learned its ways.

Some of the tension left Vina's stance, though her expression remained hard.

"How did a brainless fool like you become First Lord of the Fifth Darkness?" she demanded. "You actually can't figure it out?"

Well, yes, he already had, in fact…but he was still playing dumb. Besides, his attention was elsewhere; he was wrapping lines of mystic force around the structure of the summoning circle. So long as she lived, he could do nothing to control the spell, but if she died, he'd be able to take over and maintain it. Then, he could start to modify it.

Vina sighed. "There are spells to reach some of the Shift Realms," she said with exaggerated patience, "but those would be easy to trace -- I wouldn't need you for that. It should be obvious, then, that they didn't use a spell. What does that leave?"

Shekorikath frowned in concentration, glad of the opportunity to do so without tipping her off. He just needed to tie off one line of mystic force, completing the secondary control circle…done!

"Oh!" he said as he pretended to realize. "They must have bargained with a demon!" He frowned. "But how does that help us?"

He gave his spell-weaving an experimental tug. The summoning circle didn't budge, which was what he expected. But the weavings he'd added didn't come loose. Excellent.

Vina, meanwhile, was rolling her eyes in annoyance, her opinion of his intellect clearly dropping by the second.

"Not a demon, you fool," she said. "Those moralistic idiots would never pay the price a demon would ask. So instead…"

"…An imp?" the demon lord ventured, with a look on his face that said he just didn't get it. He'd been practicing that look in mirrors for centuries.

"Yes!" Vina said impatiently. "Precisely, an imp!"

Shekorikath furrowed his brow in concentration, his middle eye rolling upward as he pretended to ponder that. He twitched the spell-weave one more time. Could he prevent her from canceling the spell? No. No, he couldn't. That meant…

"Imps honor their bargains," he mused out loud. "They pride themselves on it. They cheat, they make mischief, they exploit loopholes, but they honor their deals to the letter. To the letter, and not one angstrom further. And they love to brag about it to their fellow imps. So…"

"So…?" Vina prompted.

…That meant she'd have to die quickly. Too quickly to muster the concentration she'd need to cancel the spell and doom him. And he'd been looking forward to torturing her to death over a period of several years, too. Ah well…

"…So that's why they always keep a record of their bargains," he said. "Always."

"Now you're getting it," Vina said.

"Somewhere in the Archives of Hell," Shekorikath mused, "is a record of the bargain. If it doesn't say which Realm he sent the child to, it'll at least say which imp it was who sent her. Then I can just find him and ask him."

"And that's what you're going to do for me," Vina summed up. "Or else."

Shekorikath frowned. "There are proper channels for that sort of thing," he said. He causally rested one hand on his upraised knee, the fingers curled into a loose, relaxed fist. Inside that fist, a small, weak, but precisely shaped field of energy started to form.

"Proper channels?" Vina demanded scornfully. "Petition the Bureaucracy of Hell like a good little Black Sorceress? Sit around waiting for however many centuries it would take for them to process and prioritize? I am above such things."

She raised her head proudly, one hand on her shapely hip.

"Why else do you think I summoned a Demon Lord of your station?" she haughtily demanded. "Some lowly messenger demon would hardly suit my purposes. But you are not only the Keeper of the Gates of the Seventh Torment, but the First Lord of the Fifth Darkness as well!"

"Not to mention," Shekorikath added, "He Who Has Been Set Over That Which Burns Without Fire."

"Not to mention," Vina agreed with a superior half-smile. "You have the clout necessary to cut through all that red tape and bring me the information I need in a reasonable amount of time. And who but a Sorceress of my skill and power could have such as you at my very beck and call?"

"Who but," Shekorikath agreed in turn. "But you've forgotten one of my titles, and at the moment it's far and away the most important one."

Now it was Vina's turn to look confused, but on her it was genuine. "How's that?" she asked.

"Master of Lodestones," Shekorikath told her. He turned his hand palm up and opened his fist, and the tiny, weak and precisely shaped magnetic field within snapped into full power and instantly assumed full size, expanding beyond the summoning circle to cover the entire island.

Before Vina could do more than blink in surprise, the five-foot sword she'd driven into the ground -- the enchanted sword made of steel -- was yanked out of its place and whipped past her in a silvery blur. By the time she'd made sense of what she was seeing, it had circled the caged demon and was flying in her direction. Point first.

Two notions occurred to her at the same instant -- to dodge, or to cast a deflective spell -- and she might, just might, have been fast enough to accomplish either of them. But that moment of indecision made all the difference.

She had time for one sickening moment of realization before the point of the sword slammed into her chest, right between her exquisite breasts, and three feet of its blade burst out through her back. The momentum of the blow launched her body a full five yards across the pebble-strewn cavern floor. She bounced once, then skidded noisily across the pebbles before coming to rest by the water's edge.

The Demon Lord smirked at her unmoving form. "Let that be a lesson to you," he sneered.

Willow sat at her desk, studying her latest spell. It seemed to be…no, it definitely was a spell for piercing illusions.

"Huh," she said. "How do you get that out of defeating a giant bug?"

She turned her attention to the ring on the middle finger of her left hand. That one was a surprise, too; she'd expected it to disappear when she changed back from Silver Heart Witch Satin Rose to plain old Willow Rosenberg, but instead it had stayed. It was pretty, too; a narrow band of silver, supporting a butterfly made of silver filigree. She still didn't know what it did, but she'd figure it out soon enough.

"Amateur?" she muttered. "Hmph."

She closed the spellbook and tapped it with her wand, making it vanish. The wand followed suit a moment later, and she rose from her desk and turned to face her bedroom. Her eyes fell on Mr. Wuffles, who was curled up on her pillow and snoozing.

She stood there, looking at her Guardian Familiar and, she had to be honest, mentor, and remembered the Slayer's words that afternoon, and how they'd stung. Such harsh words, too, especially when they were shouted like that; especially when they were shouted by a girl who was normally so composed, who would never lose her cool unless something were really…

The redhead flicked her wand back into existence and summoned her spellbook again, flipping it open past all of her spells and stopping on the first blank page. She eyed the sheaf of pages that contained the spells she'd learned, and the blank section indicating what she still hadn't. The blank section was about ten times thicker. With a sigh, Willow vanished her wand and spellbook again and turned to get ready for bed.

Mr. Wuffles had been watching her from under nearly closed eyelids. Now he smiled a quiet little puppy smile and let them close all the way.

Buffy let herself in the front door. She'd been dancing pretty hard for several hours, and had decided to stick to human form and walk home. Besides, the promise of the weekend trip took some of the fun out of night flying.

"I'm home, Mom," she called out. There was no answer.

"Mom?" she called again after closing the door.

"In the basement, dear," came the faint sound of Joyce's reply.

"The basement?" Buffy crossed the dining room and entered the kitchen. "What are you doing?"

"Just getting a few things ready for Sunday."

"You need any help?" Buffy asked from the head of the basement stairs.

"That's okay, honey. Relax, I'll be up in a bit."

"Okay…actually, I've got cheer practice tomorrow morning. I think I'm gonna turn in."

"All right. Goodnight, Buffy."

"'Night, Mom. Love you."

"You too, dear."

In the basement, Joyce sat cross-legged on the exercise mats, in spite of the aching in her legs…and her back…and her shoulders…and, quite frankly, her everything. She resumed her meditations, and the aura of white light took form again.

The spell would simulate the physical effects of a full eight hours' sleep, as well as neutralizing the fatigue poisons that her exercises had generated in her muscles. After that, a modified healing spell, to recover in minutes from several hours of strenuous exercise…so she could do it all again, for the rest of the night. And the next morning, while Buffy was at practice. And all of Saturday night as well.

It was never a good idea to rely on such things for very long, and it was going to be a brutal, punishing two days. But she had to be ready by Sunday afternoon. She had to.

She'd promised, after all. She'd promised her brother and his wife that she'd keep their daughter safe. And whatever she had to do to keep that promise…she'd do it.

In the alley behind the club, Cordelia licked the blood off her lips. She leaned over the open manhole that she'd just dropped the brunet's body into and gave a little wave.

"Bye-bye," she said. "Thanks for a good time."

She turned to Fork Boy, who was crouching against the wall next to the manhole cover.

"Questions," she asked him, "comments?"

"I…prefer more screaming and terror, but I realize that stealth is better served this way," he said.

"Yes," Cordelia replied, "but in addition…" She tossed an empty wallet into the manhole. "We turned a profit. And we scored a base of operations for the weekend," she added, holding up a ring of keys.

Fork Boy nodded thoughtfully.

"I do wonder," he said, "what the point was of leaving that one alive."

He indicated the blonde, who was just beginning to stir. The latter's mouth was taped shut, and his hands were secured behind his back.

"Oh, well, him," Cordelia said. "That's because, unlike some high and mighty Aurelians I could name, I take care of my peoples. There's a time and a place for everything, including indulging in your little…hobby."

Fork Boy looked at her in amazement, a hopeful smile beginning to cross his monstrous features. Cordelia indicated the open manhole with a gesture.

"Just, you know, take him down there before you start, so we can stay low profile. And cover the hole, too, to muffle the noise. G'head, I'll wait."

Grinning eagerly now, Fork Boy grabbed the blonde man by the belt and dropped him down the manhole. There was a faint splash as the vampire minion turned to pick up the manhole cover.

"It takes so little to make them happy," Cordelia smiled wistfully.

Free. Shekorikath was free again. Yes, trapped in a mystic summoning circle, but one he controlled. First, he'd move it across the cavern floor to the Sorceress' body, then he'd collect her soul…and oh, did he ever have plans for that…and then he could seize the opportunity he'd won.

It would take some time, of course, but eventually he'd anchor himself in this dimension. No longer dependent on the circle to remain in the human world, he'd be able to build a power base, and then, well. The great Demon God Azatodeth had done the same, once upon a time, and he'd ruled a significant portion of this world for millennia. Before being slain, of course, which meant there were still risks, but that only meant more opportunities.

But, first things first. He pulled on his spell-weavings to move the circle…and nothing happened. He tried again, but to no avail. The circle's primary forces didn't even budge.

How could this be? With the Sorceress dead, the circle should be his to command. He glanced nervously at the body, lying in a crumpled heap…

And, with a scattering of pebbles, Vina stirred, tried to roll over -- the sword through her body prevented her -- and then sat up. She looked down at the sword hilt, still protruding from her chest. There was no blood; instead, a thin purple slime was oozing from both entry and exit wounds.

She gave an exasperated sigh, then raised her head to favor the Demon Lord with a murderous glare.

"And that," she snapped, "is gonna cost you."



Whew. Finally done. This chapter has been kicking my ass for just about eleven months. Really hope the next one doesn't take as long, and I really wish I could promise that it won't.


Those of you who know what's up with Vina, please don’t spoil it for others. I've been planning that last scene since half-way through the first story. It won't be a secret for long.

Senator Carl Schurz did, in fact, say what Mr. Wuffles quotes him as saying, but it was in reply to a similar quote from Senator Stephen Decatur -- one that lacked the qualifiers. Mr. Wuffles knew, however, that it would do Willow no good to know this, and might interfere in the lesson he was trying to teach her. Mr. Wuffles is no dope.

As always, reviews and commentary are welcome, even unfavorable ones (so long as they are polite and respectful of what I was trying to do here, even if you think I failed to do it).

The End?

You have reached the end of "The Claws That Catch" – so far. This story is incomplete and the last chapter was posted on 18 Dec 09.

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