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"– When Nobody's Looking"

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This story is No. 3 in the series "Identity Crisis". You may wish to read the series introduction and the preceeding stories first.

Summary: How do each of the Scoobies react, now that Xander has severed his ties to the Scooby Gang? Story No. 3 in the 'Identity Crisis' series, and immediately follows "Who Am I?".

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Multiple Crossings > GeneralGreywizardFR211689,2321116764,5519 Dec 0914 Dec 12No

NOTE: This story is rated FR21 which is above your chosen filter level. You can set your preferred maximum rating using the drop-down list in the top right corner of every page.

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Chapter One

Disclaimer: Is this really necessary? If anyone really thinks these characters belong to me, then I've got some *great* real estate investments I'd like to discuss with you. All of the really good characters belong to Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, etc., and to J.T. Edson in a later chapter. (I'm not telling you exactly which one - you'll have to read them to see which it is.) I'm just borrowing some of them for a while to show Joss how things should have gone in season 4. There is no intent to profit from this. Only the story is mine, and if anyone waves enough money in front of me, even that is negotiable.

Rating: NC-17, for bad language, detailed descriptions of violence and explicit descriptions of sexual situations.

Category: Multiple crossovers in later chapters. B/X, F/X, B/F, B/X/F, some W/X and W/T relationships - not necessarily sexual in nature. Warning: Some Angst ahead.

Time frame: Fourth season. This is an alternate universe branching off immediately after the end of 'This Year's Girl,' and picking up immediately after the end of 'Who Am I?'

Character Bashing: Not much, in my opinion, but I will note that I'm portraying Spike as the scheming, vicious, double-dealing bastard he was when he was first introduced and not the fluffy, candy-ass pseudo-Peaches-wannabe, 'I have a soul now, but I'm still exactly the same manipulative, bloodsucking bastard who tried to rape Buffy in season six' mess he was turned into later in the series.

Spoilers: Possibly some up through 'Graduation, Parts 1 and 2,' but after that it's *very* AU.

Feedback: Of course! It's like food, water and air to a writer.

Archiving: If you want to archive this, just let me know where, please.

Author's Note 1: This is the re-write of my first Buffy the Vampire Slayer fanfic, and one which I never finished, since it kept mutating away from the original idea I had started writing. I pulled it off some fanfic sites and have done some minor rewrites of several sections, but am now making it a series of several shorter stories, rather than the extremely long one. Let me know what you think of this, okay?

"word" is dialogue, { word } indicates a character's thoughts, and :: word :: indicates mental communication.

~~~

"Character is doing what's right when nobody's looking," – J. C. Watts

"Character is what you are in the dark." – Unknown

"Character, not circumstances, makes the person." – Booker T. Washington

***

Chapter 1


"Glad to see you all could make it here tonight."

Spike's voice held just the right combination of pseudo-warmth, condescension and arrogance as he stood at the head of the conference table and cast an appraising eye over the group gathered together in the meeting room in the back of Willie's bar:

A Polgara demon had arrived earlier to represent the reptilian and ophidian-based demon groups, an eight and a half foot tall Belgari demon was acting as a spokes-being for the batrachian and piscine demon branches and three vampires were present to listen in for the most powerful/influential of the various vampire factions currently residing in Sunnydale. All in all, none of them would have looked out of place at the Mos Eisley cantina, and in fact would have fit in quite easily, he reflected, as he tried to judge the atmosphere of the room's inhabitants.

{ Not a very friendly crowd here tonight, William my boy, } he told himself. { But on the plus side, there most definitely isn't an Einstein in the bunch, } he grinned inwardly, while his impassive expression didn't change a millimeter.

"I've asked you lot to get together here tonight to inform you of some very significant, very valuable information that affects the demon community as a whole that has just recently come into my possession," he announced.

None of his audience looked either very impressed or very interested in his statement.

"I'm sure you all are aware of the recent sudden increase in the number of unexplained demon disappearances, aren't you?" he asked, pausing for a moment to light a cigarette.

That did get a reaction. The Belgari demon sat up straight in his chair, as did two of the vampires.

"What, exactly, do you know about them, vampire?" the Polgara asked, in the glottal lingua franca used by most demons who were unable or unwilling to speak any human languages.

"Well, it seems that I've got some inside information on exactly who's behind the disappearances, and why," the bleached blonde grinned as he blew a stream of smoke into the air.

"You will tell us who is responsible for the disappearances," the Belgari stated, in a voice that resembled rocks grating against each other, "or I will tear out your internal organs one by one, and feed them to you. My lord the Duke's youngest cousin's prime vesgar disappeared ten days ago, and we have been unable to locate it. You will tell me now who is responsible and where they are, so that I can recover it and claim my bounty."

"Well, now, let me think about that offer for a minute," Spike replied, straight-faced, adopting a thoughtful pose with one hand on his chin and the other hand supporting his opposite arm.

"Hmmmm. Ah, no, I don't think so," he said with a grin after a moment's pause, as he shook his head negatively. "I don't think I care for that one very much."

"You will tell me now, vampire," the Belgari croaked, as he stood up and approached Spike, one hand reaching out for him, "or I will –"

His sentence remained unfinished, as Spike suddenly *moved*. Grabbing the Belgari's outstretched arm, he yanked hard, pulling the demon off-balance, and smoothly slid forward, driving his fist into the demon's throat, making it gasp in sudden pain and begin choking. As it reflexively raised both arms towards its throat, Spike drove two short, vicious jabs into an apparently extremely vulnerable spot on the side of its ribcage several inches below its armpit, then followed up with a rabbit punch to the base of its neck and a hammer blow to the side of its head. The Belgari toppled heavily to the floor, its head bouncing once against the floorboards before finally coming to a complete rest. A few thin lines of pale lavender blood dribbled out of the demon's mouth and nostrils to pool under its head, as Spike nonchalantly stepped over its body and picked his cigarette, which had dropped to the floor during the 'fight.'

Stubbing it out in the nearest ashtray on the table, Spike calmly resumed his spiel.

"As I was saying, before I was so rudely interrupted, I know what happened to the missing demons, I know who's responsible and I know where they are being held," he smiled. "What I'm looking for here from the lot of you and your people is some help in arranging for the disappearances to stop."

{ And for the lot of you to help make me the Lord and Master of the West Coast, } he thought to himself, as a feeling of satisfaction filled him.

~~~

"Oh Goddess! I messed up! I messed up really bad, and now he hates me! He hates me and he never wants to see me or talk to me again! Oh Goddess, what am I going to do? He hates me!"

Willow's only partially comprehensible, barely audible babbling litany of her mistakes was apparently on an infinite repeat cycle played at high speed as she paced back and forth between the living room and the kitchen doorway of Giles' apartment.

Tara patiently watched her beloved cross the floor repeatedly, as she had been doing for the past thirty minutes, a concerned expression filling her face, her eyes never leaving the redhead's restless figure as she sat quietly on one of the overstuffed chairs in the living room. It almost seemed as though the redhead was unable to hear her, she was so wrapped up in her self-recriminations, all of the blonde's questions directed to the other Wicca having apparently fallen on deaf ears.

Buffy was currently sitting in the other armchair, while Giles occupied one end of the temporarily-repaired couch, with Faith situated at the couch's other end. An untouched cup of tea sat cooling on the coffee table before each of them.

They had arrived at Giles' apartment around thirty minutes before, returning straight from their ill-fated, disastrous visit to Xander's apartment. The only words spoken since their entrance had been Giles' announcement that he would be in the kitchen, brewing tea, a statement which had been met with a resounding silence (and, of course, Willow's inane babbling). Upon his return from that temporary sanctuary, he had deposited a steaming cup in front of each of them before taking his place at the other end of the couch. Since then, no one had moved from their seat, as each of the occupants pondered the significance of the earlier events of the morning.

Faith looked around the room, taking in the reactions of each of the others to their current predicament.

Giles' brow was furrowed with concentration, absently cleaning his glasses, as he pondered how best to rectify matters and begin repairing the emotional train wreck that had claimed so many victims just a short while ago. In a remarkably brief period of time, they had, through their own enthusiastic efforts, managed to emotionally cripple the entire Scooby Gang. Had an enemy wanted to break the group up, he reflected, they couldn't have done nearly as much damage to them as they had managed to inflict upon themselves.

Willow had retreated into her current babble mode, apparently oblivious to the rest of the world, as she repeatedly enumerated her various transgressions against her best-friend-since-childhood and the apparent impossibility of ever gaining forgiveness for them. It was obvious that the sudden apparent renunciation of their lifelong friendship by her childhood companion and protector had shaken the young woman deeply, and she appeared to still be in some form of shock.

The blonde Slayer's expression, as she stared at her hands clasped together in her lap, was a combination of worry, anger, concern and several other emotions that Faith wasn't certain quite how to identify. It was obvious to the younger Slayer that the blonde's emotions were in turmoil as a result of last night's actions, especially given Buffy's reaction to Xander's taunts just a short while ago. Judging by the extreme nature of her response, the older Slayer was a lot more emotionally invested in her relationship with Xander than she had admitted or, possibly, had even realized.

{ Great, more relationship screw-ups I can add to my scorecard, } Faith dejectedly thought to herself. { And they're not even mine. }

Although not normally introspective, Faith was now busily re-tracing her actions of the preceding night, and trying to figure out what would give her the best chance of re-establishing any kind of relationship with Xander.

She had never actually had a *real* friend before meeting the Scooby Gang and becoming involved with them, and most especially, she had never previously had any kind of relationship with *any* man that didn't involve sex. She was, therefore, more than a little uncertain of exactly what kind of relationship she had had with Xander, let alone what kind of relationship she wanted to pursue with him, now.

The only thing she was certain of, though, was that unless she could find *some* way to re-establish some type of connection with him, she would never even have the chance to try to have any.

From the very beginning of their relationship, the first night she had arrived here in Sunnydale, he had always been polite and kind to her and had treated her with courtesy and consideration without ever seeming to expect any kind of payment in return – something that had made her feel uncertain and hesitant of how to respond to him. Not that she had ever shown that, though.

She had initially pegged him as gay when he didn't immediately start to come on to her after their initial meeting, but had then reconsidered that evaluation after witnessing his taste in clothes.

She had finally settled on categorizing him as a hopeless geek wannabe, desperately hoping for any peripheral glory that might splash onto him if he hung around the Slayer long enough.

Even that evaluation had gone by the roadside, though, once she had started actually watching him and seeing what he did with and for everyone else in the Scooby Gang. After several weeks spent actually watching and evaluating the varied interactions among all of the Scoobies, she had finally come to a significantly different conclusion.

Despite what the others might think, he was more than just the comic relief or the Donut Guy. Going by what she had heard from the others mention in casual conversations and what she had managed to learn on her own from Willy and other inhabitants in town, Xander was at least partially responsible for many more of the Slayer's successes than was generally recognized or acknowledged.

From everything she had heard, not only had he been the one to come up with the idea to 'neutralize' the Judge by 'acquiring' and using a Strella anti-tank missile to blow him into tiny little pieces that were later gathered up and safely disposed of, he had also been the one to actually steal the missile from a nearby Army base.

And hadn't the Soldier Guy knowledge that had enabled him to do that been gained during the Halloween fiasco, when he had safeguarded the blonde Slayer while she was under a spell that had turned her into a useless and defenseless 17th century noblewoman?

Hadn't it also been Xander who had performed CPR on Buffy after he and Angel had found her in the pool of water in the Master's lair?

And that wasn't even considering his contributions to the group during Graduation. Once again, hadn't Xander been the one to come up with the fuel oil and fertilizer bomb idea, and the one in charge of mixing the components and setting everything up? Hadn't he been the one to actually command their fellow student troops in their fight against the Mayor's vamps and demons?

To her way of thinking, the so-called 'Zeppo' had been singularly invaluable in keeping the Slayer alive during her first three years of fighting vamps and demons.

And yet his friends had still thought of him as useless.

More often than not, his initial evaluation of a situation had been more incisive and a lot closer to the truth than any of the others', including Giles or Wesley. And, considering the training those two most likely had undergone prior to their assignment here at Hell's equivalent of Grand Central Station, that alone should at least have entitled him to a bit more respect from his so-called friends, or at least from the two so-called adult advisors.

Instead, he was treated more like Jethro Bodine or Barney Fife – barely tolerated and treated like the village idiot.

His ongoing contributions to keeping up their morale and providing the always necessary emotional support were taken for granted and rarely, if ever, acknowledged, let alone thanked or praised, while his 'friends' took scant notice of the numerous signs of the emotional wreckage passing for his home life that she could so easily recognize.

{ They don't respect him. } Faith had finally managed to distill all of the conflicting emotions and feelings down into a single concise evaluation. { They care about him, but they don't have any respect for him or for what he does for all of them. They treat him like he's a child, not a man. }

The more she thought about it, the more she found it harder to understand. Why didn't they want him around?

{ What the hell, } she thought to herself, { I might as well ask. It's not like they can hate me any more than they already do. }

Looking directly over at the blonde Chosen One, Faith cleared her throat, then forged ahead.

"Why don't you want Xander hanging around here anymore, B? You still pissed at him because he lied to you?"

"What?" Buffy looked up at her, a confused expression on her face, as though she hadn't heard Faith's questions.

"I asked you, why don't you want Xander hanging around anymore? Are you still pissed at him because he lied about Red trying to cast the soul spell for Fang? Is that why you're punishing him?" Faith paraphrased her earlier questions, as everyone else paused to look up from their ruminations.

"What do you mean 'punishing him'?" Buffy demanded angrily. "And who are you to be asking me anything about what I do?"

"I'm asking because it seems like I'm the only one here who actually cares about Xander's welfare," the brunette answered calmly.

"I'll be the first to admit, I'm pretty emotionally screwed up when it comes to relationships with other people," she noted calmly, "but even I can see that your not letting Xander help you out with the Slaying was just hurting him. If you're not trying to punish him for something, then why don't you at least let him help with the research, even if you don't want to let him help with the Slaying?"

"Because I don't want him getting hurt," Buffy told her very slowly and deliberately, the glare in her eyes and the tone of her voice telling everyone present that she was starting to get even more pissed off than she currently was.

"You know Xander – he'd never be content to just help do research. He'd insist on coming along and then he'd end up getting hurt, or get someone else hurt while we were trying to keep him safe. That's what I told him, and that's what I'm telling you."

"You know, for someone who insists she knows Xander so well, you keep on saying some really stupid things about him," Faith said, as she looked the blonde Slayer in the eye. "Do you really think he's just been sitting home at night and watching TV or reading a book because you told him you didn't want him tagging along on your patrols? Do you really think that he hasn't been going out and patrolling on his own?"

"What?" Buffy's half-shout question was a mix of incredulity, disbelief, fear, horror and worry, as she leaped to her feet.

"He's been patrolling on his own? Is he crazy? Does he have a death wish or something? He'll be killed, if he goes out all by himself!!"

"Actually, I think he's been doing pretty well for himself, judging by what I saw last night," Faith disagreed.

"When I first saw him, out on the street," she hastily clarified her statement, as the blonde's glare went up two notches. "The X-Man took out four vamps, all by himself, in less than two minutes, and he made it look easy, B. I saw him while he was busy saving some air-brained bimbo who got picked up by a vamp at the Bronze from her 'date' and three of his friends, and none of them even managed to scratch him."

Seeing the look of disbelief on her predecessor's face, Faith changed her tactics.

"Just think about it a minute, B. Have you been as busy as you usually are for the past month or so?" she asked. "Still dusting the same number of vamps or fighting the same number of demons as you were a couple months back? Take a minute and think about it before you answer," she suggested, as she glanced over at Giles. "English, here, has already told me what he thinks."

After a moment, Buffy answered, her expression still murderous as she looked at the younger Slayer.

"No. It's been slower than normal," she reluctantly admitted. "But that doesn't necessarily mean Xander's been patrolling," she protested, albeit weakly.

"I didn't say it did. But let's check with the local expert on the subject for her opinion.

"Yo! Red!" Faith called over to Willow, loudly enough to interrupt the redhead's pacing and self-flagellating soliloquy.

When the hacker-turned-witch looked up blankly, Faith posed her question.

"I need you to answer a question about Xander. Take a minute and think over what I'm asking, before you say anything," the Dark Slayer suggested.

"Do you *really* think that Xander would stop trying to help out with the local vamp and demon problem, just because Buffy told him that she didn't want his help anymore and that she thought that he should stay out of it?" Faith asked in an even tone.

"Do you think he'd just sit back and not get involved anymore, or do you think he'd try to do something on his own? I'm not asking whether or not it'd be the smart thing to do – just whether or not he'd do it," she concluded her question.

Willow opened her mouth to answer, but then closed it as a thoughtful look crossed her face. After only a few seconds, a look of horror replaced the thoughtful expression, as she turned to Buffy, her eyes filled with tears.

"Oh no! Oh goddess!! Buffy!! She's right! He's been going out by himself! That's exactly what he would do!! And it's my fault! He's going to get himself killed, and it's all my fault!! I should never have agreed with you when you asked me to help keep him out of the Slaying," she choked out, as she gave Buffy a mixed look composed of pain, guilt and resentment that only Willow could pull off.

"I should have realized he'd never stop trying to help!" she sobbed to herself, as she slumped bonelessly into a sniveling heap on the floor.

"He won't talk to me, and now he hates me! He's going to get himself killed, and he hates me, and he's going to die hating me," she wailed, as she dissolved into tears.

Tara immediately moved from her chair to kneel next to her lover, and pulled her limp form up to embrace her and whisper quiet reassurances to her as she rubbed her back.

"I just wanted to keep him safe," Buffy murmured, her face distraught as she stared at the sobbing witch slumped on the floor.

"I didn't want anything to happen to him. That's all. I just wanted to keep him safe," she reiterated, before she turned to stare at Giles, a lost and despairing look on her face. "You know that – right, Giles?"

"Yes, Buffy," the Englishman agreed, finally replacing his glasses. "I believe that you only wanted to keep him safe, just as I did. Unfortunately, it appears that we buggered the whole thing up rather badly, and have only managed to succeed in alienating Xander, instead."

Listening to their conversation, Faith thought about the other question that had eventually come up during her information gathering the previous year, but which, through various problems with convenience and timing, she had never gotten around to asking.

{ May as well go for broke, here, } Faith told herself, as she steeled her resolve to ask the question for which she believed she had already figured out the answer. { If they're ever gonna have things right between them, she needs to know the truth about what he actually did. }

"Uh, Giles. I have a question," she began. "It's about Angel and Xander."

Seeing the puzzled looks the three original Scoobies gave her, the Dark Slayer took a deep breath before continuing. The look of apprehension on Giles' face made Faith wonder if he had guessed the question she was about to pose.

"What was Xander doing in the Master's lair the night Buffy got killed?"

"What do you mean, Faith?" Giles asked, puzzled. "He was there giving Buffy CPR. He was the one who brought her back to life," he explained, "since Angel didn't know the proper method of doing it, and was concerned that he might damage her lungs irreparably because of his enhanced strength if he did it improperly."

The way the ex-Watcher spoke seemed to indicate that he felt no further expansion on the issue was indicated or necessary.

"Yeah, I understand all about that part of him being there, and I can understand about Fang not knowing CPR, what with him being dead and all," Faith agreed with him, realizing now that the Englishman was trying to prevent his surrogate daughter from being hurt any more than she had already been. But the Dark Slayer was determined to finally bring all of the facts to light. One of the bikers she used to hang with back in Boston had an expression that she loved: "You gotta dig out the poison before you can heal."

And if there was ever a situation where that applied, it was here.

It may not make her sister Slayer happy to find out the truth hiding behind the image she had cherished for so many years, but her benefactor was entitled to have his accomplishments made public.

"But what I meant was, why was Xander down there in the first place?" the brunette asked. "Why did Angel drag him along if he was looking for Buffy?

"You can't tell me it was because he was expecting to find her drowned down there, and it sure as hell wasn't because he was a great fighter or anything like that," she went on. "The only reason I could see for Xander to be there is because Fang wanted to use him for bait as a distraction if he found B alive and in trouble, and I don't think even he would be cold enough to do something like that just on a chance.

"Or else –" she trailed off a little dramatically, but it got the blonde to respond, just as she had expected her to do.

"Or else what?" Buffy demanded, the look of anxiety on her face redoubling, as though she feared hearing the answer to the question she posed.

Giles and Faith exchanged a look that told the other that each already knew the answer, and after a moment's pause, Giles caved.

"Or else," he reluctantly admitted, "Angel did not bring Xander along.

"It was Xander who brought Angel."

"No."

The protest could barely be heard, even with Faith's enhanced hearing. Buffy was shaking her head in denial of what she had just heard, as her eyes began filling up with unshed tears.

"No. He loved me," she whispered. "He came down there to save me."

"Yeah, he did, B," Faith agreed with her compatriot. "It's just that the 'he' you're talking about wasn't Angel.

"It was Xander."

Faith darted forward then, to cradle the blonde Slayer as she collapsed into her arms in tears, rocking her gently and murmuring vague reassurances as she rubbed her back.

~~~

"Great. Just great. Another wonderful day in paradise. Like I really need this shit to be happening," Xander muttered to himself as he stalked down one of the lesser traveled streets in town, oblivious to the multitude of cautious and/or wondering stares he garnered from passersby on the street.

"My day didn't start off shitty enough, oh no! God, or whoever he put in charge of things up there, must have decided he wants to make me a butt monkey again. Well, this time, I'm saying, that's enough!

"DO YOU HEAR ME UP THERE?? THAT'S IT!! NO MORE!! I'M TIRED OF GETTING SHIT ON DOWN HERE! DO YOU HEAR ME??" he screamed in frustration, as he paused in the middle of the sidewalk and looked up at the sky. "THAT'S IT!! I'M NOT PUTTING UP WITH IT ANYMORE!!"

"What are you looking at?" he asked belligerently, as he noticed a couple staring at him, a worried look on their faces. "Can't a guy talk to his deity anymore without people looking at him like he's crazy? Dress up in robes or a clerical collar and go around talking to God, and nobody looks at you twice. But just wear your normal clothing and try to have a semi-private conversation with Him," he made a vague gesture toward the heavens, "and they want to lock you up."

The man hooked his arm around his girlfriend's shoulders and began to hurry her away in the direction opposite to that which Xander was heading, keeping himself between her and Xander.

Resuming his march through the neighborhood, he continued his rant, although he now did so silently.

{ Brilliant move, Harris, } he told himself sarcastically. { Now you're gonna have the SunnyHell PD out looking for you to put you away, dipshit. What are you gonna do next? I know!! Let's tell all the nice townspeople they're actually living on the mouth of Hell and that most of the stories they've heard about demons and vampires are true!! That ought to do it! }

Giving a disgusted sigh, Xander shook his head as he tried to decide what he should do next.

{ Might as well check in, } he told himself. { It's not like I have anything more important to do. } Pulling out his cell phone, he quickly punched in a series of numbers, then waited patiently for a response.

"Thank you for calling Ivory Chevalier Endeavors," he heard his own voice telling him a moment later. "There's no one available to speak with you at the moment, but if you leave a message, we'll get back to as soon as we can."

Pressing a new sequence of numbers in, he then listened intently as a male voice began speaking.

"Uh, Mr. Harris, this is Owen Twinnings. I've spoken with my partners and we've agreed that your services seem to be the best solution to our problem. We deposited half of your quoted fee with Mr. Stephenson as of five o'clock this afternoon, per your instructions, along with a key for your use, and we would appreciate your handling the problem at your earliest opportunity. The address in question is 6154 Larchwood Circle. If you need to contact us about any additional information, you can call me directly on my cell phone. You already have my number." The voice was formal and business like.

"I also want to personally thank you again, Mr. Harris" the voice went on. "If not for you, Marion and I would be visiting Shelley's grave, not attending her recital tomorrow night. I don't think that there is any way to thank you enough for what you did for us, but if there is ever anything I can do for you, please let me know. I mean that quite sincerely, sir.

"If there is ever anything at all that I can do for you, call me and I will do my damnedest to make it happen," Twinnings finished with conviction.

"Thank you, and may the Lord bless and protect you in all the dark places you may go."

A click and dial tone indicated the end of the message, and Xander hung up, a thoughtful smile on his face.

{ Nice to know *some* people don't think I'm incompetent. Hmm, nothing major on today's agenda. Guess I'll swing by City Hall for the plans and then take care of that little problem for them this afternoon. }

~~~

A slightly built man of average size and appearance, dressed in a rumpled flannel shirt and well-worn, threadbare jeans sat quietly at a well-worn desk in a small, sparsely furnished office. The room was dimly lit and vaguely reminiscent of some type of industrial operation. Darkened hulks of unrecognizable machinery were visible through the partially opened office door as well as the varied sounds of machinery being used.

"How goes the plan, brother?" an equally nondescript individual greeted the man behind the desk as he entered the room. Like the first, his clothes were somewhat shabby, the standard grey shirt and pants worn by maintenance workers across the country, perhaps indicating that the wearer had little interest in the opinion of any onlookers that he might encounter.

"Everything is proceeding much as we had hoped, Nathaniel," the jeans-clad man informed him. "The die has been cast, and now all we can do is wait, and pray that our hopes are not in vain."

"Are you sure that that the Gatekeeper is safe now, Gregory?"

"Yes, Nathaniel. Of that I am certain," the first man smiled. "Timothy located the Select last night by tracking her essence. Once we were certain of her location, Michelle then cast the binding spell. There can be no doubt of its success.

"See for yourself –" he gestured towards a small intricately carved crystal globe, "the old container is completely empty. Had anything had gone wrong, it would still be filled.

"Cease your worrying, my friend," the speaker tried to reassure his companion. "Our primary duty has now been accomplished. All that remains for us now is to move on and mark a false trail, that we may lead the Doombringer astray."

"I hope you are correct, Gregory," Nathaniel replied, his face filled with worry. "If we are mistaken, we are not the only ones who will pay the price. We will have brought doom upon the world."

~~~

"Good afternoon, Professor. How are you doing today?"

The demon formerly known as Professor Wallace Lindsey looked up in alarm from his scrutiny of the marble frieze he had been examining, his concentration broken by the unexpected interruption of his room's silence. He stopped his reflexive morphing into his 'game face,' as the other members of their community referred to it, when he recognized who his visitor was.

"Ah, Mr. Nails," he smiled, as he stood up from his desk as a sign of respect for the older demon, "I'm fine, thank you for asking. What can I do for you today?"

"Mr. Farrenworth instructed me to stop by and see how you were progressing with the translation he has you working on. Have you made any more progress on it?" the head administrator for the local vampire community inquired. "He indicated that in the last report he received from you, you believed you were on the verge of a break-through as regards to the translation. Have you made any further progress which I can report to him?"

"I'm not quite sure enough to state so definitely, Mr. Nails," Lindsey replied, somewhat nervously. "I am still not completely confident in the accuracy of my translations. In addition to being inscribed in a rather obscure dialect, I am beginning to believe the writer attempted to further conceal some of the key phrases and invocations required for this spell in allusions to either regional personages or religious or mythical references."

"Really? That is a very interesting idea, Professor," Nails commented. "What exactly lead you to that conclusion?"

"How familiar are you with this inscription that Mr. Farrenworth has me translating?" the former college lecturer questioned his visitor.

"Not very much, at all, I'm afraid," the other demon admitted. "From what I've been able to gather, it involves a summoning spell for one of the more powerful demon lords in the Infernal hierarchy, a Fourth Circle demon Lord named Appolion," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "Aside from that, not much else."

"Actually, sir," the historian corrected him, "if I am translating this inscription properly, this spell is not a mere summoning spell, which would require the being called upon to look favorably upon any requests made to him by the summoner, but a binding ritual which would require the demon lord to obey any command of the being successfully summoning him for a period of at least three years," the professor informed him, his exhilaration regarding his discovery lighting up his eyes.

"Can you imagine the power that this would give anyone capable of performing this spell?" he asked, his eyes wide as he considered the potential ramifications of his discovery..

"Having a Lord of Hell, even one of the minor Lords, at your beck and call for even a day would enable you to accomplish almost anything you could conceive of!" the former collegian explained excitedly. "Having him required to serve you for three years would enable you to rule the planet!"

"Well, that would certainly explain Mr. Farrenworth's interest in the spell," Nails agreed with the barest hint of a smile. "What seems to be causing the delay here, then?"

"Well," Lindsey began, his enthusiasm quickly deflated, "as just a single example, one of the beings the summoner needs to initially call upon in the beginning of the spell is, to quote the translation, 'that ascended acolyte of the demon lord most commonly worshipped in the northeastern part of the territory.'

"Without knowing exactly where this fragment originated, it will be extremely difficult to determine the identity of the being in question," he noted. "And there are any number of similar references scattered throughout the text.

"If I had access to some historical and religious texts for the region in which this fragment was discovered," the former college lecturer continued, "I might be able to narrow the names of possible candidates to a much more manageable number, but at present, with only the information I have available to me here, there are most likely several hundred possible beings that the writer could conceivably be referring to."

"Hmmm, I can see now why you seem a bit discouraged, Professor," the other vampire commiserated with him.

"What to do, what to do," he idly murmured to himself, as he paused for thought.

"Well, as a start, why don't you compile a list with a description of all of these various beings whose identities you are uncertain of, and then continue with your translation. I'll forward the list to Mr. Farrenworth, together with an explanation of the reasons for the present delay, and then we'll see how he wishes to proceed.

"How's that sound, Professor?" he proposed.

"That would be fine, Mr. Nails," Lindsey eagerly agreed. As long as there were buffers between himself and the dreaded kingpin of this group, the professor would be more than satisfied to maintain his present low-profile niche.

The one time he had actually met the much referred to, but rarely seen head of their little community, Mr. Farrenworth had, literally, torn into a vampire foolish enough to continue to argue with him after being given orders he hadn't liked. One of the again-deceased's flunkeys had then been given the task of sweeping up his leader's remains and discarding them into a waste can, as Farrenworth had then calmly moved on to the next item of business on his list.

Having seen the results of incurring Farrenworth's ire, Lindsey was now more than satisfied to let anyone else act as an interface between himself and the group's leader.

{ I need to finish the translation, } he reminded himself, as he watched Nails move off to the next task listed on his Day-planner.

{ After all, } he thought to himself, with a small smile, { maybe it *won't* be Farrenworth who actually casts the spell. }

~~~
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