Thursday, October 23, 2014

Hell Frozen Over: Chapter Fifteen [BUFFY]

CHAPTER FIFTEEN: FOUR YEARS AGO

Giles saw Michael run out of the room after Angel, but knew he wasn’t fast enough to catch up to the techno-slayer before he reached the hallway—he just had to hope that Angel had managed to escape and hide somewhere. Giles quickly stuffed his pockets with stakes and a cross, just in case more vampires happened to show up, and rushed towards the riddled door. As long as this Michael thinks I’m on his side, Angel and I have an advantage, he thought.

Just as he reached the double doors and pushed them open, everything went dark. The power is out an accident or? A generator somewhere distant kicked in, and the hallway was lit by the eerie glow of “Exit” signs and emergency lights. He heard muddled voices and a door slam somewhere in the distance. He thought about running for the exit, but decided against it. If Angel is still alive, he might need me.

Giles walked slowly along a hallway in the direction of the gymnasium. He cautiously stepped across an open area where two hallways intersected, when suddenly his face was illuminated by flashlights.

“There he is!” he heard a voice shout, and then the rumble of automatic weapons. Wooden projectiles began bouncing off the floor and walls all around him—it looked like the rifles lost much of their accuracy and power when fired at anything more than twenty or thirty feet away. Giles caught just a glimpse of his attackers and sprinted down the corridor—they were dressed exactly like Michael. He panicked and choose hallways at random.

Again, the darkness and silence pooled around him. Have I lost them—or are they still after me? And why are they firing at me anyway? Maybe they thought I was Angel. He realized that he must be near the cafeteria as he edged along carefully, his back to a row of lockers. He heard another door slam in the distance, and then a slow creaking noise quite nearby. One of the lockers! Giles realized, just before a hand covered his mouth from behind.

Giles, although a Watcher and not a Slayer, was still trained to defend himself. He thrust his elbow straight back, catching his attacker in the stomach, doubling him over. Giles turned and was about to bring his fists down on his assailant’s head when he realized who it was.

“Angel!” he whispered, perhaps too loudly. “Oh dear. I’m dreadfully sorry. I thought you were—“

“Never mind,” Angel croaked, still holding his stomach. “We can’t talk here. Follow me.” Angel limped along as he led Giles to a small closet he had found earlier in one of the classrooms, screened from the hallway by a bookshelf. It was dusty inside, obviously unused for quite some time.

“He’s still out there?” Angel whispered.

“Not just him—I think he’s part of a group. They’re all after you Angel, each equipped with those weapons.” Why doesn’t the Council equip a Slayer with such equipment? Giles wondered idly to himself. “But I think if we reach the cafeteria, which should be just around the corner, we can use the doors there to escape.”

“No,” Angel said. “I don’t think we can run. They’ll keep hounding me until they’ve caught me, and who knows how many people will be hurt along the way. I don’t know why they’re after me, and I don’t want to kill them, but I will if I have to.”

“The one in the library told me his name is Michael Tintsman. He thinks you killed his family several
months ago.”

“That’s absurd,” Angel said. “Listen.”

They heard a door slam, and then a few moments later another door slammed. The slamming was moving closer to them.

“He’s going from room to room, checking each one. He’s headed our way,” Angel said grimly. His neck was still sore from where the vampire had bitten him earlier, and his leg ached from where the dart had embedded itself in his calf. His body would heal these wounds faster than a human’s could, but they still hurt.

“We have to think of something. He and the others won’t stop until you’re dead,” Giles whispered. “But maybe . . . do you know where the science lab is?” he said, his face lit with inspiration.

* * *

Angel opened the door to the high school’s basement as quietly as he could. He remembered that it wasn’t that many months ago he had rescued Giles, Xander, and Willow from the boiler room when it was filling with toxic gases. He felt sorry for the kids attending Sunnydale High. Centered right on top of the Hellmouth itself, it seemed that pretty much anything that could go wrong did go wrong, and Sunnydale High students usually suffered the brunt of it.

Tonight, of course, he was entering the basement for a rather different purpose. Giles had told him that there were two main doors to the basement, one on the west side of the school and one on the east side. By entering the basement through the west door, and coming out the east door, he could traverse almost the entire length of the high school without setting foot on the floor above, and thus, presumably, avoid the vampire-hunters that were after him.

The plan seemed to be working out well. Angel crossed almost half of the basement without hearing the slightest thing. Even in the complete darkness, his eyes allowed him to make out shapes nearby, and so far he was the only thing moving.

As he drew closer to the far side, he could see the other door sitting at the top of a set of stairs. A very faint light shone through cracks in the door-frame. He reached the bottom stair just when the east door started to open. He rolled out of the way, and pressed his back against the side of the stairs. Looking up, he could see that two of the vampire-hunters were coming down the stairs, both armed like Giles had said. Something about one of them seemed familiar however. He certainly wasn’t Michael, but . . . then something clicked, and Angel realized it was one of the vampires he had fought just a few hours ago at the warehouse district.

Vampires teamed up with humans to hunt other vampires? It sounded strange to his ears, but then he realized that was exactly what he and Buffy did together on occasion. Still, he knew that these vampires were soulless creatures bent on murdering him. He wondered how it all fit together as bootsteps echoed through the small basement and the pair of hunters descended to the basement floor.

Angel considered trying to sneak up the stairs and out the door, but if they heard him, he would be cut down with nothing to shield him. Instead, he followed softly behind the pair as they advanced across the room in the direction of the west door, the one he had come in through.

He waited until one of the vampires stood directly in front of the other. Carefully edging himself to a position just a few feet from the rear vampire, he leapt on top of him, his left arm wrapping around the vampire’s neck while his right hand reached for the vampire’s hand holding the rifle. Angel squeezed the vampire’s neck and hand simultaneously, causing the vampire to jerk around and fire his rifle in a wide arc all across the room.

The other vampire, although lucky enough to avoid being shot in the heart by his companion’s rifle, was burned horribly when the impact from one of the projectiles shattered the small container holding his tank of holy water. He began writhed on the floor in agony, oblivious to what was happening around him.

Angel held on for dear life as the vampire bucked like a bronco, spinning around wildly in every direction trying to shake him off. He’s incredibly strong—stronger than I am! Angel realized. There weren’t many vampires that had been alive as long as he had been, or could match his strength. What Angel didn’t know was that the exoskeleton the vampire wore increased his already-formidable strength to even greater levels.

The rifle clattered to the floor when the vampire let go of it and reached up with both hands to grasp Angel’s shoulders. With a herculean tug, he flipped Angel over his back and sent him flying into the air, only to crash into and through the east door, which shattered like a pane of glass from the force of the impact. The vampire picked up his dropped weapon and advanced up the stairs, ignoring the moans of his companion. He reached the doorway and thrust the rifle out quickly to the left and then back to the right, but it was no use— Angel was gone.

* * *

Agony jolted through Angel’s bones with every step he took. He looked like a hunchback in the corridor, bent over and using the walls for support. He had heard something “pop” in his back when the vampire had thrown him through the door--combined with the wounds he had already suffered, he knew he couldn’t take much more punishment like that. I’m close to the lab though, he thought, just a little further. I have to get the timing just perfect though.

The door to the science lab was at the end of the hall, and Angel reached it just as Michael Tintsman emerged from another doorway nearby. Angel hesitated just a moment to make sure he had been seen, and then plunged through the doorway and into the lab. This better work, he thought.

Michael yanked the door open. He raised the rifle just as he saw Angel leap at Giles. Angel’s claws and fangs were out, his face contorted into the visage only vampires wore. Giles screamed out in fright and backpedaled behind a desk as Angel rushed towards him, saliva dripping from his fangs. Michael wanted to take a shot, but he couldn’t risk hitting the librarian—the wooden bullets would kill a human just as easy as they would a vampire. Even worse, he only had a few shots left and his supply of holy water was already exhausted. If the vampire caught him weaponless . . .

Giles screamed again as Angel grabbed him roughly by the shoulders and sunk his fangs into his neck. The librarian’s hands scrabbled for any weapon he could find on the desk, knocking beakers and containers off it in his panic. Finally his hands found a wooden ruler some student had left there. Giles adroitly snapped the end off on the edge of the desk and plunged it into Angel’s chest.

From the angle, it was difficult for Michael to see exactly what happened, but he knew the result when Angel gave out a bloodcurdling scream and then fell behind the desk as a thick burst of ash and dust flew up, covering Giles and the desk top.

Michael ran over and joined Giles behind the desk. The floor left a faint ash outline of a human figure. Giles was holding a hand to his neck as blood trickled through his fingers.

“You . . . you killed him!” Michael said shocked that a librarian could destroy the creature he had been hunting for months and which had escaped him twice.

“Yes. I ah, guess I did. What a vicious creature that Angel was. It was close, wasn’t it?” Giles said, his eyelids fluttering slightly from the loss of blood. “I suppose we should be leaving then, now that it’s finally all over. And I guess you can tell your ah, friends, that Angel is finally dead,” Giles said helpfully, as he and Michael walked towards the door.

“Friends?” Michael said when they emerged into the hallway.

Giles dropped to the ground instinctively and pulled Michael down with them, as more projectiles flew right over their heads. Giles had seen a band of the vampire-hunters out of the corner of his eyes coming from the left. He glanced quickly to the right, intending to run in that direction, before realizing it was blocked as well— several of Spike’s bunch of vampires were rushing towards them.

They were trapped between two armies. And Angel’s not around to help us anymore, Giles realized.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Realms Toowoomba Session # 50 [RPG]

[26 Kythorn 1372 continued]

After descending the shaft, the adventurers find themselves in a large room brightly lit by magical lanterns. The walls are lined with metal desks covered by gleaming tools and blades. Three large steel pedestals are in the room as well, each connected through strange, segmented tubes to large vats filled with liquid. Grooves in the floor lead from each pedestal to a metal grate in the center. Moving into the room, the adventurers can see that on one of the pedestals is a humanoid shape covered in a white sheet. Ralkin and Dolcetto carefully examine the vats and tubes, and Dolcetto surmises it may be part of a process to preserve corpses in a life-like state after death. Daisy volunteers to lift the sheet, and finds the corpse of a strange elf with black skin and white hair. Dolcetto laments the fact that no one in the group possesses a spell to speak with the dead.

Daisy moves closer to the grate, and notices something shiny in the dark red pool below. She removes the grate and reaches in to grab the sparkling item, but her hand burns from contact with the liquid. Suddenly, the pool seems to ripple and rise up, spreading out of the drain. A tentacle of the viscous liquid forms and tries to wrap itself around Daisy, but she leaps away just in time. Daisy slashes at the pool with her greataxe, only to discover she's caused the pool to split into separate masses! Further attacks split it even further, until there are four puddles, each lashing out with pseudopods! Syd channels divine energy and manifests a huge column of fire in the middle of the room, destroying three of the masses instantly! Seconds later, Dolcetto summons a monstrous centipede, and the creature is able to destroy the remaining threat. Undeterred, Daisy peers into the pool under the grate and, with Dolcetto's telekinetic ability, retrieves five small garnets and 2 small, incredibly sharp single-edged blades.

The adventurers continue into a corridor lined with intricate tapestries and tanned leather hides of various animals and humanoids. Dolcetto and Ralkin decide to search for secret rooms, and together unearth a hidden chamber. While Ralkin sets about figuring out how to open it, Dolcetto advances to the end of the corridor, where a wide aperture, barred by a portcullis, leads to another room. Here, T'Klack stands ready for battle. He invites Dolcetto to enter the arena, and says that she honours him by her presence. He wishes her a long and glorious death and moves towards the lever to raise the portcullis.

Before he can act, however, Dolcetto opens a conduit to another plane of existence and brings forth a fiendish centipede to fight in the arena on her behalf! Soon, more monsters appear to do her bidding, and T'Klack struggles to escape their attacks. He does kick the lever to open the portcullis and moves to engage Dolcetto in hand-to-hand combat, but before he can reach the archway, he finds one of the centipedes has wrapped itself around him! T'Klack seeks escape the only way he can, and starts to slowly fade from the Material Plane. Trying to press her advantage, Dolcetto enters the arena and taunts T'Klack for fleeing. He promises to return as soon as possible, but after he leaves, a strange bout of insanity comes over Dolcetto, and she begins to attack her own summoned creatures! Seeing Fargrim watching this in the adjacent corridor, she even challenges the dwarf to enter and fight, to which Fargrim replies "I will strike you down!"

Once T'Klack appears again, Dolcetto once again orders her creatures to fight him. The four-armed foe grabs hold of the loremaster and bites her, but she manages to fight off the effects of the burning venom that runs through her body. Finally, the other adventurers decide to intervene. Realizing that Dolcetto must be affected by a powerful magickal field, Syd succeeds in dispelling it and then transforms into a massive lion to rush into the fray along with Daisy and Fargrim. With swipes from his massive paws, Syd easily decapitates T'Klack. Dolcetto keeps fighting, however, even charging Syd with the rapier she took from Markus. The others manage to knock her unconscious without further injury.

Meanwhile, Ralkin and Myst survey the contents of the secret room. Dusty shelves hold various pieces of armor and weapons, all jet black. Myst takes these. A chest, almost the size of a footlocker, lays on the ground next to the shelves, and appears to be made out of a heavy black stone. When Ralkin opens the chest, he spots a spider-shaped amulet inside but palms it and declares that the chest is empty. He then walks back and hides it under the corpse of the dark-skinned elf in the previous room! The kenku is then forced to hide, however, as Garry enters the room and seems hungry.

When the adventurers have assembled, Ralkin pulls the amulet from under the corpse and says it must have been hidden there all along. He and Myst decide to search T'Klack's body for useful weapons and equipment. Fargrim and Daisy decide to make sure Dolcetto has no weapons on her in case she is still crazed when she awakens. Daisy innocently tells Myst that Dolcetto has equipment belonging to Gelkar, and an annoyed Myst removes all of Dolcetto's gear.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Diary of Jizana M'rell: Entry # 6 [RPG]

RECORDING ROD ACTIVATED

MASTER ENCRYPTLOCK ENGAGED

RUN TIME 250/12765 14:47

BEGIN VOICE RECORDING

Sian is here now, and to use a crusty old analogy, the past weeks have lost their substance like a dream (or nightmare?) loses its reality upon awakening.  I can hardly be around her without smiling like a little girl.  The Jedi Masters and the Rules and the Dark Side Spirits and the Intrigue all seem stuffy and somewhat silly when we're together.  I had forgotten how much I missed her.  Now she really is all I have left and I'm not going to lose her too.

Of course, what happened before is all-too-real and very serious.  The other day I was almost choked to death by Fremad.  I suppose you could say "we had a falling out."  I must give Carn credit, Fremad was as powerful as he said.  Yet I knew I could handle him, and I was right.  I can do anything when I put my mind to it, the Jedi will see that someday and ask me back.  The experience was not one I wish to repeat, of course--drawing him inside me felt--I don't know . . . dirty.  Still, I wish Fremad had not been a spirit so I could have seen his face when he realized I knew his weakness.  The others think he's destroyed, but I know he is not.  This is not over, but I am ready.

The others laugh because Bes has kicked me out of the Academy.  Will they still laugh when they find out I am now an Instructor?  I'll be researching and teaching philosophy and history.  Though I'm really only staying because Sian is here.  I mean, I like philosophy and history but I'm not passionate enough about it to do it for the rest of my life.  But it's not like I have many options here.

Bes said something about me and the Darkside and that's why I couldn't continue training.  What a joke!  Have I ever lied, stolen, killed, or intentionally harmed anyone for any reason?  And how quickly they forget!  I was the one who stopped the Sarama from sending a message from the Holoterminal.  When Orowisp was hurt and the others were standing around mumbling, I was the one who did what was necessary to get to the library and find out what the hell was going on.  When Carn was hurt, who did he call for help?  Me.  When Fremad was sending lightning bolts and hurling trees, who had the guts to do whatever it took to stop him?  I did.  Darkside indeed.  Trust me, if I had wanted to go over to their "darkside" they would know it.  (and who has ever heard of an evil pacifist?)  They'll see though--anything a Jedi can do, I will do better.  And when Master Bes begs me to take the Trials and become a Knight, I may just say "yes."

END VOICE RECORDING

RUN TIME 250/12765 15:03

RECORDING ROD DEACTIVATED

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Diary of Jizana M'rell: Entry # 5 [RPG]

RECORDING ROD ACTIVATED

MASTER ENCRYPTLOCK ENGAGED

RUN TIME 248/12765 18:08

BEGIN VOICE RECORDING

Still in the West woods.  Donab told us that Carn had been captured by the Nosh Sarama.  The other initiates decided to go mount a "rescue."  I made the rather obvious point that anything able to capture a Jedi Master would take care of them rather quickly, but as usual, they didn't listen to me.  I decided to head back to the Academy, tell Master Bes everything, and be done with it.  I'm tired of keeping secrets.

On the way back though, the "Unseen," Fremad, spoke to me again.  I think he wanted me to keep going back to the Academy, but he reminded me that if I did, they would just rush into the Nosh Sarana lightsabers-a-blazing and soon there would be piles of skewered Sarama-steak all over the forest.  I realized that when it came down to it, the Nosh Sarama and I both had the same point of view: the Republic had screwed them over, and it was about time something should be done about it.

So I turned around and headed back to the Nosh Sarama village.  I figured the others would have charged in and been captured or killed by then, but I knew I could talk to the Nosh and see what was going on.

Lo & behold of course, as soon as I try to make contact with the Nosh to talk things over peacefully, I see the other initiates running and jumping around with ignited lightsabers as if this was a holo-vid of "Jedi Knight IV: The Unleashing."  To their credit, they had found Carn.  Of course, I could have gotten everyone out without sliced-and-diced Sarama.  But the others don't worry about things like that, and any chance of talking to the Nosh is over now that they think I was helping the others.

Carn finally told the others about Ishtar, which was good--cleared the air of a lot of things, and I can at least see a bit better now why he did some of the things he did.  Even as bad of shape as he was in though, I almost strangled him when he started spouting off about some stuff he should have known better about and that I won't go into here.  And in his grand style, as I turn to walk back to the Sarama village, he cries out in his most sincere: "Jizana, if you leave us now, you'll die.  Fremad is too powerful to face alone!"

Well, I kept walking, and here I am, safe and sound.  Once the Sarama awaken, I'll have a guide show me back to the Academy.  Fremad may like to talk, but I can handle him.

Actually, I think I hear the others approaching.  I'm sure this will be interesting.

END VOICE RECORDING

RUN TIME 248/12765 18:27

RECORDING ROD ACTIVATED

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Adam-17 is a Learned Jack who Commands Mental Powers [RPG]

Several weeks ago, one of the players in our regular D&D campaign ran a one-shot using a relatively new RPG called Numenera.  The concept is that the game takes place on Earth millions of years in the future during a time where most technological know-how has been lost.  It's not post-apocalyptic like Gamma World, but an age of rediscovery and exploration.  The world is permeated with nanobots, and every PC has some sort of innate ability to control them to do certain things.  I'm not explaining it well, but suffice it to say it's an interesting and unique angle for a RPG.  Having downloaded the core rules, there's a lot I really like about the mechanics and approach of the game, including a few extremely clever concepts, and I could definitely imagine running something with it in the future.

The one-shot we played turned out to be the adventure "Seedship" from the back of the core book.  Our PCs started in the small village of Druissi and were asked to explore a strange structure in the ground that used to provide heat to the village but now was cold and leaking an orange ooze.  The players, not the PCs, know that the structure is really a half-buried starship.  After some fun exploration and dangerous shenanigans inside, everything went to hell and we had to run for it--but not before my character extracted several strange power-supply eggs for sell, not realizing that inside each egg was an alien consciousness that would eventually take control of anyone who possessed them!  Here's my PC:

Adam-17 is a Learned Jack who Commands Mental Powers

Tier: 1
Effort: 1
XP: 3

Might: 10 (edge: 0)
Speed: 10 (edge: 0)
Intellect: 19 (edge: 1)

Trained Skills: Genetics, Defense (Speed), Geography, History, Identification

Special Abilities:  Can use light & medium weapons, Trained in one skill of choice, Flex skill, Pierce, Skill with defense, Trained in 3 knowledge areas, Few Social Graces, Connection, Crystal, Mental Esoteries, Minor Effect Suggestions, Major Effect Suggestions, Telepathic

Cypers (Limit: 2):  Intellect Enhancement (adhesive patch applied on back of neck adds 1 to intellect Edge for 1 hour)

Oddity: Metallic hoop that sharpens any blade

Equipment: Explorer's Pack, Light Tools, Bedroll, Crystal embedded in forehead, Buzzer  (w/ 4 mags), Dagger, First Aid Kit, Book on Genetics, 41 Shins, Book on Repairing

Other: strange disk from ship; 6 power eggs from ship

Armor: none

Attacks:  Buzzer: reduced difficulty by 1, DMG: 2
Dagger: reduced difficulty by 1, DMG: 2

Discovered after a landtremor in a secret vault with 21 other infants in strange pods.  Locals adopted and sold the seemingly-perfect infants.  Adam-17 went to a rich family in an urban centre who flaunted his extreme intelligence despite not loving him.  Not an adult, Adam-17 has set out to find his only true kin: the 20 other pod children.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Buffy Comic Project: "The Death of Buffy, Part 3"

Buffy the Vampire Slayer # 45

(Dark Horse Volume 1, 1998-2003)

Creators:  Tom Fassbender & Jim Pascoe (story), Cliff Richards (pencils), Joe Pimentel & Will Conrad (inks)

Setting:  Between Seasons Five & Six

T.V. Character Appearances:  Spike, Xander, Willow, Giles, Buffybot, Tara, Anya, Buffy, Dawn

Major Original Characters:  Trio of Demon Brothers, Coma (seller of magical items), Mr. Richardson (high school principal)

Summary:  The three demonic brothers of Doc talk with Willow about destroying a mysterious scroll in exchange for providing her with a resurrection spell.  They explain that they were sent to retrieve the scroll but when they read it, they realized it was too dangerous to exist.  Willow incinerates the scroll with her magic and walks away with a book containing a resurrection spell that is supposed to be reliable in the hands of a great practitioner who wields an urn of Osiris.  In the sewers below the city, however, a giant egg cracks once the scroll is destroyed and a massive elephant-sized bird of prey emerges.  Guardians flee and tell Coma that the bird, called the Luper, has hatched.  The Luper's first stop is the house of the three demonic brothers, and it kills them easily.  The next day, the Scoobies escort the Buffybot to a local mall to try to improve its social interaction.  There, they run into Principal Richardson who is suspicious.  That night, at the Bronze, Willow shares with her friends her view that it's time to bring Buffy back.  They react with dismay and anger, but decide to think about it.  Afterwards, Coma finds Willow on the street and tells her that the scroll she destroyed had a protection spell on it to unleash the Luper (the natural enemy of the demonic brothers) and that the Luper must be killed before it starts killing innocents in Sunnydale.  Willow tracks down and destroys the Luper.  Spike provides Coma with a rare ingredient (Malian twigs) that she can combine with Ezekiel's Bane to travel to Africa to complete her surgery.  Willow persuades Xander, Anya, and Tara to join with her in the ritual to resurrect Buffy, and it works.

Review

I love the concept of showing what happened in between Seasons Five and Six, and this story arc did help fill in some unexplained gaps.  This issue in particular, however, feels very rushed and I wonder if it was intended to be longer (there's a mention on the letters page that the creative team would be leaving after next issue).  The characterization and artwork are still pretty good, but the plot is rather shaky.  I still have no idea what was in the scroll that the demonic brothers were after, who sent them for it, why Coma was protecting it, etc.  Nor do I know what sort of surgery Coma plans to have (or why).  So all in all, a bit of a let down to an otherwise excellent idea.

Notes

* Willow's fight against the Luper is really oddly intercut with her talking to the Scoobies about bringing Buffy back, making for a confusing read--we don't even actually see her defeat the creature.

*I have to assume the writers were planning on building something with Principal Richardson, because his one-page scene is pretty weird.

*  The letters page contains a funny missive from a fan about Season Six's dalliance between Buffy and Spike, referring to the Slayer as a "necrowhore."

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Hell Frozen Over: Chapter Fourteen [BUFFY]

CHAPTER FOURTEEN: THE PRESENT

Although the rally wouldn’t start for a few more hours, by late afternoon hundreds of dedicated First Principles members had already arrived at Weatherly Park, determined to stake out the best places to watch. For the next hour, people slowly trickled into the park, but then suddenly it was if a dam had burst and hundreds and hundreds of people hurried to secure a place. By sundown almost four thousand people gathered before the stage, surrounded by tall speakers, electric lights, huge “First Principles” banners, and several crews from Sunnydale’s television and radio stations. Although far smaller in size than the crowds that assembled annually at other Sunnydale events—such as the Thanksgiving Day parade—First Principles was considered quite the phenomenon by most reporters, especially considering the organization was barely three weeks old.

Anticipation was in the air. Many in the crowd had already attended at least one First Principles meeting, but most of them had also brought a friend or a relative, and some had even brought their whole family. Non-First Principles people had found it hard to turn down something that promised patriotism and community, especially since the Fourth of July was just a few weeks away. Many of the reporters in the audience considered it remarkable that the crowd was in such high spirits considering how warm it was--Sunnydale was always warm in the summer, but today, as predicted, was the hottest day the town had suffered yet. On the outskirts of the crowd,
vendors set up stands charging exorbitant prices for bottled water, while other vendors sold hastily manufactured First Principles T-shirts. The vendors were in perhaps the best spirits of anyone—the organization had given them carte blanche when it came to merchandising, and had even taken the unprecedented step of refusing a cut of the profits. It was as if money simply didn’t matter to First Principles.

The crowd continued to swell. Dedicated First Principles members grew even more tense and excited as the beginning of the rally drew closer and closer. They walked around excitedly and often jumped up and down to get a better view of the empty stage. Energetic conversations regarding the importance of community, vigilance, and all of the other tenets of First Principles took place throughout the crowd. When the beginning of the rally was less than half an hour away, the crowd began chanting “First Principles! First Principles! First Principles” Slowly at first, but then faster and faster. Within minutes it was loud enough that several networks had to cut to commercials in the middle of their live broadcasts.

“Will, you sure picked a great day to make us stand in a crowd of several thousand people,” Xander said as beads of sweat rolled down his face. His shirt, half-unbuttoned and with rolled-up sleeves, was soaked with perspiration.

He looked over at her. She didn’t respond, but instead kept her attention focused raptly in the direction of the stage. He didn’t think she could actually see it, considering how many people stood between her and it, but she stared intently all the same. He kept a hand on her arm, both to make sure they weren’t accidentally separated and to keep any First Principles goons from snatching her away.

He shifted his weight and looked around, hoping the damn thing would get started already. He scanned the crowd and something nagged at the back of his mind. He looked around again, and then gently pulled Willow with him as he squeezed through the crowd and walked around for several minutes, eyeing everyone carefully. It was as he had thought: Every single person here is white. Sunnydale’s no Philadelphia, but it’s not Finland either. And not a single wheelchair or cane or seeing-eye dog—no disabled people. No gay couples holding hands. It’s like Mayberry, only Barney Fife’s about to get up on stage.

The crowd had been chanting loudly and rhythmically but hushed instantly when Wittingstone appeared on stage, dressed as always in his dark suit and pinstriped shirt. He was momentarily dazed by the spotlights, but quickly found his way to the microphone and adjusted it. Thank the gods this is the last time, he thought, looking out over the crowd. He glanced to the side and saw that Michelle was pouting—she was slated to introduce him, but Wittingstone had decided to go it alone. It doesn’t matter anymore. No more niceties or shaking hands with strangers or having to smile as idiots jabber on. Just one more speech—a very special speech—and I can go back to being myself. 

He looked out at the audience again and began to speak.

***

Castillo was nude. It was what the ritual required, and although his entire body was covered with deep scars that even a vampire could never fully heal, he felt no hesitation or embarrassment. He walked, with a slight limp, around the summoning circle and carefully checked for the slightest error. This was no mere spell of communication with other planes like he had cast before—this was to be a full-scale manifestation, and the ritual had to be carried out with precise attention to detail or serious problems could result. Still, the fact that he was a relative novice at magic did not dissuade him from undertaking the dangerous ritual. He’d come too far to stop now, when what he had been waiting four years for was finally within his grasp.

When he had checked the circle and was satisfied, he paused for a moment to look out over the city. He stood on the top of Kingman’s Bluff, a place of great mystical power in Sunnydale. He had been surprised to find that the hilltop had been damaged somehow, with trees uprooted and grass overturned. It hadn’t been like that when he had scouted it several months ago, but this would not disrupt what he was going to do.

With all of the lights coming from the busy city below, he couldn’t tell where Weatherly Park lay. But he knew the crowd would be assembled and that Wittingstone would be delivering the proper speech, as instructed. It was time to begin.

The ritual was long and complex. It included recitation of several difficult incantations, but Castillo had studied them carefully and did not stumble. One portion of the ritual required the fresh hands of young men. He removed these from their jars carefully but gleefully—he had handled their collection personally, disposing of troublemakers within First Principles at the same time. He interlaced the fingers of two of the severed hands—one from each man—and continued with the ritual.

The wind picked up as he completed the summoning spell. He stood back and waited patiently. Soon the wind grew stronger and stronger. The smallest speck of white appeared in the center of the circle. It was really there, however, not a representation or a blurred image as Castillo had communicated with before.

He watched as the speck slowly, very slowly, grew larger. A thin smile showed on his face as he
contemplated the enormity of what he had done. It worked—the barrier is weakened. Once the hatred comes— and enough of it will, if Wittingstone does not fail me again—Solasheyk will be strong enough to shatter the rest of the barrier. Of course, this little box had better do as promised or the frost demon will melt as soon as he arrives.

Castillo walked over to the wooden chest. It was sitting unceremoniously on the hilltop, several yards away from the summoning circle. Except for the runes carved carefully into it, it looked like little more than a child’s toybox. He bent down to examine it one final time. The Cask of Winters. The power to unleash the very essence of cold itself, to chase away one season and replace it with another. And everyone thought it was just another Norse myth. When will they learn that every myth is a forgotten fact? Perhaps when Sunnydale in summer becomes like Moscow in winter. When everything Buffy Summers loves is buried under a dozen feet of snow and trampled on by a demon from the netherworld. When I am finally satisfied and avenged.

He cast the spell of opening he had obtained from Anya days before. It was a simple incantation, and completed in seconds. The runes of the chest began to glow a bright white in the darkness. Castillo looked back to the summoning circle. The white speck had grown larger, pulsating slowly, and was now the size of a fist. He reached down and with a steady hand flipped the lid of the chest open.

He was blown back several feet as a mystical blast of cold and ice shot streamed forth from the chest and headed towards Sunnydale.

***

Dawn breathed a sigh of relief as she noticed that the oppressive heat was finally starting to dissipate thanks to the cool breeze that blew through town. She picked up her pace, feeling energized in the cooler air. It was still warm—but better.

“So I still don’t get what the big deal is about this guy. Vampire? Okay. You’ve slayed like a hundred thousand of them.”

Buffy shrugged. “I’m not sure why Spike’s freaked out either. I mean, I’m surprised Castillo’s back too— usually when I throw bad guys off cliffs, they stay down. But I wouldn’t worry about it. Castillo’s a powerful vamp, but nothing really special. I don’t really even remember that much about him. I think he was smart—like maybe he stayed awake in World Lit while I napped? But I can handle him.”

“You sure?”

“Yep. This time I’ll just plunge a stake in his chest before I throw him off a cliff.”

Dawn smiled as they hurried through the streets of Sunnydale. They had left Spike to his own devices back where the tunnel had collapsed and were now planning a quick stop at home to clean up before heading to the rally.

“Well, he has to have something up his sleeve,” Dawn observed as they turned on to Revello Drive. “I mean, organizing First Principles and all that—a lot of trouble just to have groupies.”

Buffy’s reply was cut off by the shriek. She turned and readied a weapon, only to see an hysterical woman rushing towards them, tears streaming down her face.

“Isn’t that your friend?” Buffy asked.

Ex-friend. Jamie.”

Dawn stood there with arms crossed but was almost knocked to the ground as Jamie crashed into her. The larger girl wrapped her arms around Dawn and sobbed. Dawn rolled her eyes at Buffy, who shrugged slightly but looked concerned. Buffy knew what Jamie had said about Willow, but she hated to see someone in such obvious distress.

Dawn was disgusted by the feeling of  Jamie’s tears running down her neck, and pushed the girl away. She wasn’t one to forgive easily, and as Buffy well knew, she could hold a grudge.

“What do you want?” Dawn snapped.

Jamie blubbered incomprehensibly but Buffy managed to pick out a few words.

“Who’s dead?” Buffy asked, suddenly becoming alarmed.

“He—he said he didn’t need me, but that the other’s had ca—caused trouble by drawing your att atten— attention!” Jamie sobbed.

“What others? Where?” Buffy demanded.

She pointed feebly towards a side street.

“We’re just a few blocks from the house,” Buffy said, looking at her sister. “Take her home and get her cleaned up. Call her mother maybe. I’ll check this out.”

“I don’t want to take her home--you know what she said about Willow and Tara. I hate her!”

“First Principles is messing with people’s minds, Dawn. Like it did yours. She probably didn’t really think all that stuff, but right now I don’t care. We can’t just leave her wandering around at night.”

Buffy strode quickly down the street, her senses alert and ready for action. It took several minutes for her to find what Jamie had spoken about. Two crumpled forms were on the ground in a narrow alleyway behind a row of houses. Buffy knew corpses when she saw them, and these two were definitely dead. She walked over to get a better look--it was difficult to make out details in the darkness. She checked their necks first and found the twin puncture marks she had expected. This one looks like that guy Dawn liked—Timothy. Not sure about the other one. She crouched down closer and then looked around. What happened to their hands?

***

“This is all about the whole Spike thing, isn’t it?” Anya asked indignantly. “So Xander sends the first pretty girl he can get his hands on to come here and show off that he’s found someone too. Well frankly, I don’t care. I’m over him, and I just don’t care.”

Anya held her chin high but couldn’t help noticing how pretty this girl really was. She regretted the fact that it had come to this, but she put a hand to the door and prepared to slam it in the girl’s face.

“Listen!” Amara said, jamming a foot into the doorway. “I’m not dating Xander. I swear. But I can’t seem to find him and I’ve been trying to tell him he’s in danger.”

“Danger?” Anya opened the door slightly.

“Yes. This guy I used to work for—Castillo—is back in town. He’s planning on unleashing this big winter demon thingie. But first he has to get enough people in town mad enough, because that’s where the demon gets its power. But as long as it has a human to channel through, the demon can use its power to influence people—getthem to hate each other, and make itself stronger.”

“Listen lady, I know demons okay? I am one. And this all sounds—“ Very possible actually. I remember being told the stories as a child. “Solasheyk the Frost Demon, also known as the Winter Wraith and the Norse Scourge?”

“I don’t know,” Amara replied impatiently. “But once Castillo makes it cool enough for it to fully manifest, and I’m sure he’s figured out a way, Sunnydale’s going to be flattened by the worst blizzards it has ever seen!”

“I don’t think Sunnydale has ever seen any blizzards,” Anya replied. “Though I’m not sure.”

Amara shook her head in frustration. “Just tell Xander, okay? I’m leaving, and I won’t be coming back. Just let him know.”

“Why do you care so much,” Anya asked, narrowing her eyes.

“He’s a sweet kid,” she answered simply. “He made me laugh once, a long time ago. I owe him one. That’s all.”

***

Xander slipped the earplugs in just as Wittingstone began to speak. He had purchased an ample supply of them for construction work, but he had never been so grateful for them as he was now. Although he couldn’t hear what the speech was about, he didn’t see any reason to end up like Dawn or Willow, and prepared accordingly.

Willow and every single other person in the audience was listening carefully, however. No one was chatting away in the audience or thinking about what they were missing on television. They were all focused on Wittingstone, registering every word he spoke.

“One way or another, this is the last meeting of First Principles,” he announced, gathering their attention immediately. “Tonight will see either our greatest victory or the realization that it is too late for First Principles to triumph.” He paused momentarily while several in the audience shouted out “Greatest Victory!” “My friends—no, my community, we are on the cusp of something special tonight. We have a chance—or should I say it is our destiny—to make Sunnydale a First Principles community through-and-through.”

The crowd cheered wildly as Wittingstone worked to remember the next portion of the speech. He knew that Mr. Castillo would not be forgiving if he were to fail. Not that that’s likely, he thought. Nothing in the world exists for them now but me.

“Yes,” he continued. “The time for waiting, for talking, for contemplating is over. We’ve talked before about the importance of being proactive. Well tonight, ladies and gentlemen, I want each and every one of you to be proactive. In fact, I want you to consider yourself as soldiers, fighting a war to protect your community from those outsiders who even now surround our homes and threaten our way of life.” Wittingstone stopped briefly to allow the audience to boo and jeer “outsiders.” This lasted several minutes, and he could tell the crowd was becoming angrier and angrier.

Xander noticed this as well, and started edging Willow towards the edge of the crowd. He was surprised to see that she didn’t carry the same expression as the others, however. She just looked . . . defeated. He saw her lips move and realized she was trying to speak to him. He removed the ear plugs and put them in his shirt pocket.

“I said I’m tired. I’m ready to go home. It’s getting chilly. Why did you bring me here?” They were the first words Willow had spoken since they had left Xander’s house.

He looked at her carefully, confusion evident on his face. “I’ll get you out of here,” he shouted, unsure of whether her sudden change of heart was a good thing or a bad thing.

Wittingstone continued on as Xander and Willow pushed through the crowd. “Yes, warriors,” Wittingstone said. He noticed the breeze and knew Castillo had actually gone through with it. “Warriors are who you are. And the war is going on right now, between community and loneliness, between tradition and experimentation, between morality and degeneration. There is a war going on, right now, between First Principles and outsiders. These outsiders are dangerous—they don’t share what makes our community great. They envy us. And given a chance, they will tear us down. But there’s still time to win this war—if each of you begin to fight it right now!”

The crowd reacted to Wittingstone’s last words as if a bomb had gone off. They cursed “outsiders” at the top of their lungs and started reaching for anything that could double as a weapon—folding chairs, tree limbs, baseball bats. Seconds later the enraged crowd surged en masse towards the street. Wittingstone left the stage quickly and motioned for his driver. “Bring the car around. I’m finished here. We’ll wait things out in Los Angeles. Be quick about it!”

“Why aren’t we moving?” Willow asked. Xander held her close to him as they stood with their backs up against a tree. The crowd flowed around them, holding weapons aloft and scanning for “outsiders” everywhere.

“I’ve got two answers for that, Will. The first is that I’m glad you’re back to normal—at least considering everything that’s happened—and I want to make sure you’re okay. The second—well the second is that I think this crowd is going to riot, and I don’t want to be on the streets of Sunnydale when it starts. Anyone who’s not a believer in First Principles is going to be in trouble.”

“Where’s Buffy?” Willow asked dreamily. She rested her head on Xander’s shoulder.

“Somewhere on the streets of Sunnydale,” he replied.

Next Chapter