Rae, having been there once before, knew right where to take them.  She hadn't even needed to change before they got there; her black tank top, cobweb shroud, and anemic white makeup blended in nicely with the clothes of many of the others wandering around this part of town near the Witchery By The Castle.  Nabob, however, was forced to go undercover for the assignment, and in place of his regular non-descript street clothes and leather jacket he now wore a black trench coat.

     Pondexter had likewise been dressed in a black trench coat that could have been identical to Nabob's, and he wore a toque over his head, hiding his strikingly blonde hair.  Although it was hard to see with the trench coat, he also wore a pair of hand cuffs…small ones which nevertheless surrounded his wrists securely, with a couple of inches of heavy chain binding them together.  They were a strong model used frequently in maximum-security prisons.  He walked down the street in front, while the two Slayers followed very closely behind, both of them with concealed weapons trained on the felon.  Pondexter walked smoothly along the sidewalk, however, keeping his cuffs concealed as much as possible, occasionally taking a loving puff of the Marlboro he held in one hand.  So far he hadn't given them any trouble at all.  So far.

     If he stepped out of line for even a second Nabob would put a bullet through his skull.  Hopefully he wouldn't have to do that until after he revealed this ‘contact' of his.

     It took Nabob no time to realize that Rae had known what she was talking about when she called the place they were going a dive.  Even in the dim light provided by dying streetlamps-the sun had faded several hours ago-one could see that the building's outside was drab, weather-worn brick, with an old-fashioned wooden sign dangling above the door with the name Witchery By The Castle etched onto it.  He could only hope the inside would be something of an improvement.  He wasn't an optimist by nature, though.

     "No Rush yet," he murmured needlessly as they approached.  All that meant was that there weren't any major sources of evil or undead in the immediate vicinity.  The forces of darkness didn't always manifest themselves in ways deemed most convenient to Slayer physiology, unfortunately.

     "You worry too much," Rae said airily.  She looked totally at ease, a woman in her natural environment, as she practically dragged him forward.  Making sure that Nabob still had Pondexter-who had remained strangely quiet during their short trip-covered with his gun, Rae approached the evil place's door and swung it wide open.

     A wall of smoke so thick that it was damn near tangible was the first thing that rushed out to greet them.  Then came the smell…horribly odious and yet almost totally familiar.  Well, familiar to anyone who had been stalking evil for a good part of their life.  It sent a shiver right up Nabob's spine.  As they entered the doorway, though, his bad feeling about the place got infinitely worse.

     "Rae, there's a glowing red pentagram etched onto the ceiling," he whispered to her. "Why is there a glowing red pentagram etched onto the ceiling?"

 "Quiet!" she hissed back at him. "Just try to ignore it."

     Nabob gulped and took a look around at the rest of the "establishment", trying to force his eyes not to keep wandering back up to the signature of evil on the ceiling above him.  Through the thick smoke and vile stench he could make out a truly dismal place; the place had obviously once been a bar, and it still had a number of tables set up out front, with more private booths lining the walls.  That was where any sane comparison ended, though.  Each booth had a demonic-looking polished skull hanging from the divider, and through the murky atmosphere Nabob could make out any number of unholy symbols and blasphemous graffiti painted lavishly across the walls, mostly in red.  The bar was likewise satanic-looking, with dirty glasses lining the countertop, while the wall behind it sported a frighteningly large collection of evil trinkets, from candles in human-shaped skulls to ornate carvings and figurines, all mounted onto the wall somehow.

     Pondexter looked around, suddenly seeming to be entirely in his natural element. "Told you the décor was cheery, didn't I?"

    The current occupants of the place, perhaps two dozen or so, were likewise a mixed bunch.  They seemed to be an untidy mess of various lower American subcultures.  There were a number of large, unwashed men sitting by themselves at the bar or at the tables, cradling their drinks, who were obviously only here for the brew and didn't care about the décor.  A few wiry, extremely suspicious characters hid away in the shadows of the booths, watching any newcomers with squinted, lustful eyes.  And, to round them out, there were a number of young men and women-mostly women, surprisingly-dressed not unlike Rae was.  They were scattered around the place, the majority of them in various groups, huddled around in their pitch-black clothing.  It was obvious that some were dabbling in magic from the unsavory incense that they were burning.

     Rae squeezed his hand reassuring-obviously thinking the same thing-and it was only at that moment that he realized that she was holding it.

     "All right, Pondexter, where's your man?" Nabob asked.

     The criminal glanced about for a second-not nearly long enough to actually take a good look around the smoggy establishment. "He's not here."

     "Then what the hell was the point of this little exercise?"

     "Don't get your scrotum in a knot," Pondexter said in a relaxed fashion. "He'll be here.  He always comes here.  We may just have to wait a while.  Let's sit down so that I can have another smoke in peace, shall we?"

     With the greatest reluctance, Nabob waved him over towards one of the unoccupied booths…which had the image of a goat's head painted onto the wall.  Nabob's purified blood bristled.  He sat down with Rae across the dirty table from Pondexter, who removed another cigarette from his package and lit up.

     "Been a while since I had one of these babies.  You've got good taste in smokes, Nabob."

     "They can kill a man, you know."

     Pondexter's mouth parted in a quaint smile again. "So can I.  And with far less hassle."  He pulled in a lung-full of smoke. "Of course, neither of you has to worry about dying from smokes.  Every time you Rush your body accelerates its own healing process…takes care of any pesky tumors or cancers you may have contracted from things like these."  Puckering his lips, the killer blew a thin stream of smoke directly into Nabob's face.  The Slayer hardly flinched.

     "You know a lot about Slayers for somebody who's eventually going to wind up on the wrong end of a stake."  Rae growled at him.  Nabob saw her finger twitch across the trigger of her gun, which she now had trained on the captured assassin under the table.

     "When you live in the shadows, you learn a thing or two about the light along the way."

     There was a brief moment of silence in which all three occupants of the booth scanned the Witchery By The Castle.  Calling this place a pimple on the underside of the city's sweaty ass would have been too kind.  Not far away a group of anemic teenagers huddled together around what appeared to be a small alter, offering up a prayer to some pagan god.  Several individuals kept casting suspicious glances over towards the newcomers, however. The sooner we can get out of here, the better.

     "You'd better be sure about this contact of yours," Nabob said, changing the subject. "If it turns out he doesn't know anything about the Plague Sever, you're going to be the one who pays for it.  We don't like having our time wasted by cheeky scum like you."

     He shrugged, obviously bored with the lecture. "I've had my last breath of fresh air-if you can call this fresh-and I have my smokes.  I'm ready to die.  However, the man you seek does possess knowledge of the Specter.  You have my word."

     Nabob snorted. "The word of a murderer.  The word of a man who may have sent one of my friends to their deaths."

     "Dirk?"  Pondexter asked, contemplating for a moment. "He was a half-cocked shit.  His own fault that he rushed over here like this.  Your kind will be better off without him."  At that moment Nabob was forced to fight back his primal urge to kill an unarmed man like he had never had to before.  Fortunately for his continued existence, Pondexter peered out of the booth towards the front door and nodded his head in satisfaction. "There's our man now."

     Slowly, Nabob turned and peered from the booth as well.  Through the smoky veil of the Witchery By The Castle he could make out a new figure staunchly striding in through the creaky door, his step full of casual resolve.  Nabob did a double take.  He fits in here about as well as a Blade Fiend at a mosh rave!  The man, perhaps in his late forties or early fifties, wore a sharp brown suit, impeccably creased, with a criss-crossed tie and a bulge in his back pocket indicating a noticeably large wallet.  A few inches taller than Nabob would have been standing up, he gave the impression of being wiry, although it may have just been the light.  He had neatly-cropped brown hair and a receding hairline.  His face was seemed as sharp and pointed as a knife, emphasizing his features, and he carried a black attaché case.

     Perhaps it was his face, or perhaps it was the casual way he carried himself through the Witchery By The Castle towards a table, but something about this new arrival distinctly reminded Nabob of his friend Dirk.  He tried to shake off the feeling…it wasn't Dirk, he knew.  The Slayer Cajun would never be caught dead in anything more formal than jeans, and the Slayer was noticeably larger.  All the same, though, an edge of wariness remained lodged in his mind.

     "What the hell is he doing in this place?" Nabob said out loud. "He looks like the type that they would sacrifice to Satan here, not the type that would come willingly."

     Pondexter shrugged, but his knowing smile was far more revealing. "Maybe he enjoys the food.  Perhaps you should ask him."

     Nabob watched as the man walked over to a table on the far side of the Witchery By The Castle, unbuttoning his coat and draping it carefully across the chair, then sitting down.  "What's his name?"

     "Solomon."  He pursed his lips. "Want me to introduce you?  I do offer classes for the socially inept."

     "Shut your hole and I may consider not drilling you a new one," Nabob snarled, then beckoned with his gun. "Let's go see him."

     The unlikely trio…two Slayers and a shackled assassin…slowly rose from the booth, the first two keeping the latter on the business ends of their concealed firearms.  Apprehensively, they meandered through the mottled collection of tables, benches, and chairs that smiled like dried piss, and quietly approached the man's seat.  If he noticed them coming, he gave no indication of it.  Drawing nearer, however, something flashed before Nabob's eyes, almost a vision of Dirk's face transposed over this Solomon's features.  It faded instantly but left a residual familiarity about the man.  Along his spinal cord, the Chimneysweep could feel a tingle, as though part of him was bordering on the Rush, but fading away just as quickly.  He brushed it aside for the moment…there was work to do.

     ‘Solomon' did not show any awareness of their presence until Pondexter sat himself down in the chair directly opposite him.  Then his cold, steel eyes glanced up. "Rashanan…?"  His voice sounded raspy, old beyond its years, yet still full of poise.

   Rashanan?  Nabob assumed it was a code name or something, but he made a mental note to question Pondexter about it after they got back.

     "Hello Solomon."  The prisoner's face remained totally unbroken, still maintained in its passionless, smiling poker face. "Join you for a drink…?

     "I'd heard that you were finished," Solomon murmured, studying his companion's face.  "I'd heard that the Purebloods finally caught up with your trail.  I suppose my sources have made a grievous error…" Only then did he glance up at Nabob and Rae. "Or have they?  You've brought friends with you, Rash…or should I say, Lucas."

     "Mister Solomon, you now have a gun trained upon your forehead," Nabob said on cue, indicating the bulge in his pocket. "We're going to ask you a few questions.  If you answer them the way we like, everybody walks out alive."

     Solomon's eyes flashed and the idea of a smile played across his face.  Again, for a brief instant, the wave of familiarity washed over Nabob. "Beretta M9, model 92F nine millimeter combat pistol.  Military-grade.  Standard issue Marine Corps sidearm."  His face mirrored the contempt in his voice. "I've never had much of a fondness for Italian weapons myself."

     Nabob fingered the Beretta M9 in his pocket nervously, hoping that this Solomon was simply one of the NRA enthusiasts who could give the caliber, make, and year of a weapon from a hundred yards away.

     "Do introduce your friends, Lucas," the older man continued. "I'd hate to be shot by a man whose acquaintance I had not made.  Are they military?  CIA?"

     "Better," Pondexter chuckled. "ASG."

     "Ahh, so they did catch up to you!" he nodded in understanding. "And I suppose they've agreed to let you run free if you can point them towards the bigger fish?"

 "Not quite, but close enough."

     Solomon smiled…a dire, evil smile that made Nabob's skin crawl as though he was covered with live maggots. "Then I suppose they don't know just how big of a fish they've managed to find.  Please, go ahead and ask your questions, Slayers.  I am nothing if not an obliging man."

     "Your pubescent pal here," Rae said, "told us that you have information regarding the whereabouts of something we call the Plague Sever Specter.  Do you?"

     "What a coincidence.  There was another young man claiming to be a Slayer who was in here two nights ago asking the exact same question."  He smiled smugly at Pondexter. "Small world, isn't it?"

     Nabob's finger braced against the trigger of his Beretta and gritted his teeth, anger suddenly rollicking through him. "Dirk…what did you do with Dirk?"

     "Well, that would just be the question, now wouldn't it?" Solomon said, leaning forward and folding his arms atop the table. "If I answered it, then we wouldn't be able to have any fun."

     "Answer the goddamn question or you're going to be having your fun on the inside of a very small pine box!"

     He leaned back again, shadows obscuring much of his creased face. "You are already at a disadvantage in seeking the Plague Sever, Slayers, because of your very nature.  You fear it, not because it can kill you, but because it can rob you of who you are.  The Specter, on the other hand, has no need to fear you.  You are its prey, that which it feeds upon to sustain itself.  Searching for a predator that can smell your fear and has tasted your blood is only a road to self-destruction."

     "I'm not afraid to die," Rae replied. "Not if it means ridding the world of the Specter in the process."

     Solomon sneered. "Foolish, foolish Slayer…you can't rid the world of this magnificent creature.  It is bound as intimately to this plane of existence as you and I are.  Possibly more so."

     "How would you know?  The Specter is an abomination that needs to be destroyed."

 "Young lady," Solomon replied darkly, "it takes an abomination to know one."

     The beginnings of a Rush again began to tingle their way up Nabob's spine, but just as quickly faded.  He chanced a quick look around the room.  Many eyes were upon them, but other than that nothing had significantly changed.  Right now, though, he didn't even care about the extra attention.  Every intuitive nerve in his body was screaming for him to get out of the Witchery By The Castle, and he was only a split-second away from following that instinct.

     "The Plague Sever, as you call it, is a unique creature on this world," the older man continued. "Imagine being the last of your kind, Slayers.  Can you comprehend how lonely it must be?  Knowing that you are not only at the very top of the food chain…feeding on the life energy of your prey…but also knowing that you are damned to do so alone for the rest of your existence?"

     "We don't have time for this, Solomon.  Where's the Specter?"

     "Time," he repeated with mocking disdain. "You poor Slayers never seem to have enough of it, do you?  But you're right, you are running out of time.  All of you Purebloods are, but you two in particular."

     "Bad feeling…" Nabob whispered to Rae, who kept her gaze focused upon Solomon.  His eyes darted down to Pondexter, who was nonchalantly lighting up another cigarette.

     "Oh yes, you should have a bad feeling," Solomon said smugly. "In fact, being Slayers, you should have more than a bad feeling right about now."  His eyes blazed. "What a pity that you don't."

     Nabob pulled the Beretta out from his pocket, cocking it and leveling it directly at Solomon's head, only distantly aware of the general murmurs that instantly fluxed through the establishment. "Last chance, Solomon."

     Then, right before Nabob's eyes, Solomon's aged face seemed to disappear.  In its place, hazy as though part of a surreal dream, was somebody else's face appearing over top of it.

     Dirk's.

     "What's wrong, Slayer?" he said, voice still Solomon's but taunting features now all belonging to Dirk. "You gave me one last chance.  I turned it down.  Put a bullet through my head."  The Cajun's features turned up in a ferocious grin. "Or can't you handle gunning down one of your own in cold blood?"

     Even as he stared on in horror, Dirk's features melted away yet again, reverting back to Solomon's…only now he was changed.  As he rose up from his chair his face seemed to contort slightly, changing, his skin tightening over the bone and causing his wrinkles to vanish.  A pair of vicious fangs seemed to grow out of his mouth, completing the transformation.

     Nosferatu …vampire…whatever you wanted to call them, it was now painfully obvious that Solomon was one of their kind.  The word "kindred" seemed to circulate amongst the bystanders.

     And an instant later it was equally obvious to Nabob that something else was terribly wrong as well.

     He hadn't Rushed.

     Fortunately his survival instincts and well-honed reflexes didn't need the Rush to automatically react to the situation.  The Beretta-already pointed squarely at Solomon's forehead-flashed violently as he depressed the trigger, and the vampire was knocked backwards by the nine millimeter round's force, gray matter and blood splattering messily on the wall behind him.  It wouldn't kill him, but it might slow him down just enough…

     Nabob shot a glance over at Rae, and immediately saw that she hadn't Rushed either.  Panic surged through him.  Here they were in a room with a vampire, and the Rush refused to come to them.  Had they somehow been exposed to the Plague Sever without knowing it?

     Speculation would have to wait, though.  "Rae, watch Pondexter!" Nabob shouted as he leaped over the table, simultaneously reaching under his trench coat and pulling out a gleaming silver stake from his bandoleer.  Launching himself off of the wooden table, Nabob descended, hoping to jab the undead creature through the heart before it had a chance to recover from the gunshot.  He should have known better, he realized, a split second before a powerful arm drove upwards beneath him, grabbing him by the throat and holding him in mid-air.  Solomon, face covered with blood, snarled up at him, even as the wound in his skull began to close by itself.

     "You're quick, Slayer," he said, breath coming in quick gasps as he tightened his grip upon Nabob's neck. "But then again, all it takes is a man with a gun and an itchy trigger finger to put a bullet in somebody's head.  Let's find out if you have anything more, shall we?"

     With that the Chimneysweep was flung aside with all of the finesse that one would bestow upon a used tissue.  After tumbling through the air for a handful of seconds, he landed with a resounding crash, upsetting a table and several chairs and sending the patrons who had been sitting in them scurrying away in screaming retreat.

     Solomon then sprang back up to his feet, right into the sights of Rae, who now had her own Colt .45 pistol pulled out and gripped in two shaking hands.  The weapon barked, but this time even she wasn't quite fast enough, and in a blurred motion the vampire sprang out of the bullet's path.

     "Rashanan!  Down!" Solomon shouted, and Pondexter, still cuffed, flung himself out of his chair even as the vampire reared back and delivered a ferocious kick to the table at which he had been seated.  The force of the blow splintered the table and sent several large chunks flying towards Rae.  Hitting the floor, she let out a cry of pain as several jagged wooden splinters pierced her flesh.

     The vampire then turned its predatory attention back towards Nabob, who was just beginning to struggle his way back up to his feet.  With a couple of fluid bounds, Solomon charged at him, knocking the Slayer back down into the mess of overturned furniture from which he had just crawled.  The Beretta in his hand fired twice, in vain, before the vampire slapped it from his hand and out of his reach.  The Chimneysweep tried his best to fight back, but without the Rush he was simply no match for the unholy strength possessed by the Kindred.  Within seconds Solomon had him pinned, hands quickly contracting upon the Slayer's throat.  A twisted grin appeared on the vampire's face as he began to strangle the life out of Nabob.

     Across the room, Rae gritted her teeth in pain as she forced herself back up, her hands now covered with blood but still managing to hold onto her firearm.  Seeing the vampire bring down her partner, she lifted her trusted Colt pistol and took aim…

     "Hey sweetcheeks…"

     Her head snapped around to see Pondexter standing right beside her, his cigarette still lit and in his mouth.  That was all that she had time to see, though, because the instant she wheeled around the assassin blew hard, launching the hot cigarette butt out of his mouth like a projectile and straight into her eye.  Rae reeled backwards, eye burning with pain as tears poured out and blinded her.

     "Son of a bitch!" she shouted, wheeling about and taking aim at the large blur in her vision that she knew to be the assassin. "No chances, Pondexter!"

     "That's right, babe, aim for the gut…" he cooed as she pulled the trigger.  The Colt spat fire.

     Rather than the almost-satisfying sound of a bullet piercing flesh, however, there came a metallic snapping sound and the thwang! of a ricocheting bullet.

     Although still blinded, Rae could almost see his cruel smile. "…Hit the chain…"

     Suddenly free of his shackles, Lucas Pondexter lunged forward, lashing out with one of his powerful, trained fists and catching Rae squarely in the jaw.  Simultaneously he made a grab for the gun, only to miss by an inch as Rae flailed backwards.  She hit the floor, the gun skittering out of her hand and beneath a table in the corner.  Hovering above his prone opponent for a fleeting instant, Pondexter breathed the triumphant air of a free man once again.  He raised his arms, staring at the metal shackles now broken, and the short chains dangling downwards.

     "Thanks, honey…" he said, a renewed venom surging up in his voice.  As Rae-still dazed and prone-gazed up at him, she could almost see him transforming…not into a vampire, but into an altogether new man.  His face seemed to almost glow with dark anticipation, and she could feel the strength emanating from him.  It was the kind of strength that part of her told her she should be taking comfort in, but as she looked upwards she saw that there was no comfort to be derived from this cruel power.  All of Van's warnings instantly flooded back to her.  This was the killer he had spoken about before.  "I won't forget to return the favor sometime."  With that he lashed out, descending upon Rae with the cold ferocity that was his nature.

 On the other side of the Witchery By The Castle, Nabob could feel the cartilage in his throat snapping as Solomon held him down with savage fury.  He struggled with all of the strength he could muster, but without the Rush to aid him it was like pushing against a stone pillar.  The vampire's grip was crushing, and the Slayer could almost feel the life being tangibly forced out of his body.  In one of his hands he still clutched the gleaming silver stake, but Solomon's grapple left the Chimneysweep's arm at an awkward angle, unable to bring the stake around to stab at a vital organ.  The gun was too far away…he was too weak…

     Death hovered above him, tantalizingly close, offering to release him from his pain, to sweep away the burdens of this world and to free him from the life he despised.  Death had been with him on the rooftop, and had followed him every step of every day.  Now he reached out to it, charmed by its enchanting allure…

     As he did, though, something pulled him back.

     Some feeling deep within him that refused to abandon this mortal coil so easily.  Not without…

     Rae…

     The death-like haze that had shrouded him evaporated, and Nabob struggled on.  Taken slightly aback, Solomon's grip weakened for a split second.  The stake was still at an awkward angle, but an idea suddenly sprang into his mind.  Releasing his futile attempt to break the vampire's hold, he instead raised his free hand to the stake and impaled it upon the silver artifact.  Blood trickled down his wrist, but the pain was meaningless.  Here was his weapon to fight with, one that the vampire couldn't simply knock away.

   A Slayer's blood is Divine…pure…the antithesis of the undead, the voice of one of the master Chimneysweeps who had trained him rattled through his mind.  If the two ever meet, only one will walk away.  The Divinity has sworn it will be us.

     These thoughts in his mind, and with a quick prayer in his heart, Nabob thrust his hand forward.  The blood from his wound splattered across Solomon's face.  For an instant, the vampire hesitated, unsure of exactly what had just happened.

     Then, so to speak, all Hell broke lose.

     Solomon screamed out in horrified anguish as the streaks of Divinely purified blood began to sear through his flesh, bubbling and boiling upon contact like some sort of deadly acid.  He clawed at his face to get it off, only to spread the burning to his hands as well.  The vampire sprang away from Nabob like a frightened animal as the Slayer fought off oblivion and rose back up to his knees, his hand now red with his own purified blood.  He lunged forward, a cry of pure rage on his tongue, ignoring the flaring pain.  Solomon reeled backwards, desperately trying to avoid being struck again.  More blood splattered across his body, and the vampire loosed an inhuman wail.

     "Clever little Pureblood," Solomon hissed, fangs still clenched in pain. "But you're still too weak to win this fight."

     "Come…come a little closer…" Nabob rasped, holding his bloodied hand out before him like a crucifix. "I can see your fear, vampire.  You may be in bed with the Specter, but you're still afraid to face the Light!"

     Solomon snarled something nonsensical and began to circle the wounded Slayer, a predator probing at its intended prey.  This particular prey, however, was no longer defenseless.

     "We shall finish this later, Pureblood, mark my words," he said. "By the time we are finished with you, you will have lost much more than your life."  The vampire turned its head to see where its mortal companion now was.  Nabob could see scars across its face from where his blood had splattered. "Rashanan! Go!"

     The killer, hunched over Rae's bloodied form, slowly raised his head.  His eyes met Nabob's, and for a fleeting instant their minds seem to touch.  They were both killers, in two violently different ways, and in that moment all of the darkness inside of him seemed to swell as he met the murderer's gaze.

     Then, faster than Nabob could have imagined, Pondexter was out the door, running free into the open wind of an unguarded world.  When his eyes turned back to Solomon, the vampire was gone as well.

     It was over, at least for now.

     Before he could consciously realize he had done so, Nabob had ran over to Rae's crumpled form.  Her face was blood-stained, with a few splotches of gunpowder marking her pale features as well.  She was breathing, though, and when he approached she opened her eyes just wide enough to see him.

     "Lie still," he whispered to her through clenched teeth, the wound in his hand suddenly beginning to throb. "Help will be here soon."

     "Y-you need it more than I do…" she said quietly, gently taking his bloodied hand. "You're bleeding worse than I am."  Her eyes met his, and a sensation totally unlike the one he had felt looking at Pondexter built inside of him. "I'm…I'm sorry, ‘Bob…this is all my fault…"

     Struggling to stay awake, he bent forward and gently kissed her forehead.  Somewhere in the distance there came the shrill sirens of approaching police cars.  There should be at least one Slayer hidden amongst their ranks to bury this incident in bureaucracy.  For now, though…

     Holding Rae tightly, he fished into his back pocket and brought out an electronic device that could easily have been mistaken for a wallet to anybody staring at his ass.  It was, in fact, a small brown box, with a single bulb embedded into the center of it.  Fairly unremarkable in itself.

     That bulb was flashing brightly.

     "Don't worry," he whispered into her ear. "Nothing's your fault.  Everything's fine."

     He stared at the small electronic box again.  As he held it, there was a slight hum from the processor inside of it…a processor that was receiving its signal from a synchronized GPS satellite orbiting miles above them.

     That satellite was receiving its signal from a microscopic electronic implant embedded into the back of Lucas Pondexter's neck.

     "Soon this nightmare's going to be over.  I promise."

     She was already asleep in his arms.

***************

VI.  "The Hunt and the Date"

    "TADAAAAA!" sang Rachel as she struck a post in the hallway.

    She was a vision of loveliness, all decked out for a date.  Her wavy brown hair was getting long again.  Last fall she had cut it about half as long as it was when they had met in the old washeteria so long ago but now it was almost longer than it was back then, pulled back in several rows with little butterfly clips holding the masterpiece in place.  She was wearing one of those extremely sexy tie in the back tops, a modest powder blue color,  and a pair of form-fitting brown leather pants with sensible walking shoes.  For even her this was a VERY daring outfit.  She seemed to have gained more and more confidence with her appearance the closer she and Ted grew to one another.

    "Drool.  I think he's impressed." smirked Amy as she handed Ted a washcloth.  "Don't slobber on my roommate, Cajun."

    "Uh-huh..." moaned Ted as he continued to stare at his girlfriend.  His GIRLFRIEND!  Man, that's a word you didn't hear around CWAL HQ very often!

    "Don't wait up!" Rachel said as she got her keys out of her purse and tossed them Ted's way.  No way she was gonna find a decent pocket in that outfit.  "You're buyin' cutie!" and she was out the door.

    "TIMMAH!" cried Ted as he slipped out of the little house behind her.

*******
 

     Since the Great Holy War, the Ambiguous Slayers Guild had understandably shied away from using old abandoned warehouses as gathering places for its agents.  It hadn't been all that long ago that a thousand Slayers had met a fiery, collective end in one of them at the hands of Sephroth, and it was still a memory that hung heavily in the mind of most members of the Guild.  Although there were many Slayers out there who had to fight hard to keep from laughing at the poetic irony of a thousand barbecued Rednecks, no Slayer would have claimed to have wanted to see it happen again.

     Not publicly, anyway.

     As such, this particular gathering was held in the board room of the local Best Western Inn.  It had been commandeered easily by the Guild since the hotel management was still indebted to them for helping with a rather unfortunate circumstance in the penthouse suite involving an angry ghost, two foreign sightseers, and a used condom.

     Fifteen Slayers were now gathered around the board room table, and fifteen sets of impatient legs fidgeted restlessly beneath it.  The usual suspicious odors that tended to hover around any area frequented by Slayers-Redneck was conspicuously absent.  This was no joint operation.  Thirteen of the Slayers present were Cajuns, their thick southern accents filling the room with a low rumble of conversation.  The other two Slayers were Chimneysweeps.

     "How are you feeling?" Nabob whispered over to Rae for perhaps the twelfth time since the meeting had begun a half hour ago.

     "Not as good as I will be once you stop worrying so much," she hissed back at him. It had been three hours since they had stolen away from the smashed bar and limped their way back to safety, and both of them had spent most of those hours in one of the rooms here in the Best Western sleeping off their experience.  In separate beds.

     All the same, both of them still sported rather large bruises and cuts.  Nabob was hurting, as he felt as though his windpipe had decreased in diameter by about an inch, and the bandages on his hand didn't stop the fact that there was now a large hole in it from reaching his brain.  Rae had brought home three cracked ribs courtesy of Pondexter.

     "Why shouldn't I worry?  I insisted on bringing Pondexter out of his little cell in the first place and nearly got us killed.  It's my fault you got hurt."

     Rae sighed and quietly laid her hand on top of his underneath the table. "Listen to me, Nabob.  If I was blaming you for what happened, you would know it.  Trust me."

     "So knowing that you could be horribly angry at me and never speak to me again is supposed to make me feel a lot better, I suppose."

     She smiled and leaned a little closer. "There isn't anything you could do that would make me want to stop talking to you."

     "Really?"

     "Yes…"

     "And why would that be?"

     Rae hesitated, but only for an instant. "Because…I…"

     "Ahem!"

     The two Chimneysweeps looked up, and Nabob felt his cheeks turning a bright red as he realized that the attention of all thirteen other Slayers was on them.  Great, he muttered inwardly, I can fight down vampires with or without the Rush, but I still blush like a schoolgirl.

     The Slayer at the head of the table-the one directing the meeting-was well-known to both of them as Chalice, the crippled black Cajun who had been spearheading the hunt for the Plague Sever since Halloween last year.  He glared at the two Chimneysweeps with mock severity. "Now, if we're all done with de fraternizing, maybe we can git back do de operation…?"

     Nabob cleared his throat. "Sorry, sir."

     Rae giggled, and the impression that he was back in High School threatened to overwhelm him.

     "Thanks to precautions taken by de Chimneysweeps holdin' Lucas Pondexter in custody," Chalice continued from his wheelchair, fingers steepled on the table, "we kin know precisely where he was taken.  A microscopic signal reflector was implanted into de bastard's neck when he was first caught.  This little device can't be traced by de enemy, since it don't actually send no kind of signal itself.  Rather, it ‘reflects' signals dat we send so dat we can track its location."

     "An' how are we gonna send out these signals, Boss?" one of the Cajuns cracked. "You shoot ‘em out your ass or sometin'?"

     There was a round of general laughter, but Chalice just glared. "Go git yo'self a tan, boy.  Normally this kinda thing wouldn't do us no good, see, but since the Great Holy War we've had a few extra allies in a few extra high places.

     "The Canadian Dominion, God bless ‘em, are usin' their network of satellite sensors to lend us a hand on this one.  Them canucks have been tracking Pondexter from orbit for the last two hours, since they managed to pinpoint him.  He's moved around a bunch, but now he's pretty much sittin' still."  Chalice's penetrating eyes swept the room. "That's our cue to bring down some righteous whoop-ass on him and his undead buddies.  And, from our understanding of the Chimneysweep reports, that might include the Specter."

     There was a quick round of table-pounding and general ruckus.

     "We're goin' in tonight," he continued, "fully armed and  full of pie.  If the Specter is really here, we gonna hit it hard, with everything we've got.  Stakes, holy water, crucifixes, sanctified baseball bats…if all dis stuff can't put that Specter down, den we're in more trouble than we thought."

     "And for God's sake, don't let it touch you," Nabob spoke up. "We think that the Specter may have somehow totally drained Dirk's life force, and one of the vampires is now manipulating it magically so as to shield the negative energy he feeds off of from us.  Don't let that happen to you."

     "If you find any of dem vamps with somebody else's face on like ‘Bob here told us earlier, you cut those bastards down first, you hear?  If you leave ‘em to the last then you might run out of Rush before you run out of undead.  So pick your targets real careful-like, understand?  We've got reason to believe dem vampires may be workin' in conjunction wit de Plague Sever, maybe utilizin' the life energy it steals to shield their presence.  So be mighty careful, see?"

     Another general mumbled growl of understanding and approval from the assembled Cajuns.

     "All right, gear up," Chalice ordered. "We got one hour before we go in.  The van will be parked outside.  If I catch any one of you at the bar between then and now, you'll be eatin' your meals through a straw well into de next life!  Now get movin'!"

     The hall cleared remarkably quickly.  The Cajuns filed out, most in good spirits.  They had been fruitlessly tracking the Specter in vain for a long time now, and the anticipation was reaching its climax.  That they were sitting down willingly on what was very possibly the situational equivalent of a mulching machine conveyor belt was far from their minds.  Rae got up as well, citing that she wanted to change her bandages before they went in.  Nabob watched her leave, eyes lingering a little too long as her willowy, black-clad form swayed out of the room, an apparition unto itself.

     He didn't even hear the wheel chair pull up beside him.

     "So what's the matter with you, boy?" Chalice demanded. "You got a little…problem…or somethin'?"

     "What?"

     "I asked if you had a problem wit de old equipment.  Why aren't you up there helpin' her change her band-aids?"

    Nabob's face flushed again. "No, my equipment is working fine, thank you.  If you think there's something between me and Rae, it's strictly…"

     "Well, obviously there ain't nothin', dumbass," Chalice said. "But there sure as hell should be, and it's written all over de two of you.  I may be trapped on four wheels but I ain't gone blind just yet."  He glanced towards the board room door that Rae had walked out of.  "My eyes seem to be working better'n yours, matter of fact."

     " I know perfectly well…"

     "Then why ain't you gone and done sometin' about it yet, boy?  You need to open your eyes.  A Slayer's life can be a mighty lonely one.  What we have in our blood binds us to the Divinity in a way we can't fully comprehend, an' it breeds a single-minded devotion that you can't find anywhere else.  Sometimes a Slayer can find some passing comfort with others, like me with some o' dem fiiiine ladies at the nursing home…"

     Nabob unsuccessfully tried to keep himself from shuddering. "Look, life was hard enough as it was ten minutes ago.  That mental picture didn't help."

     "Sorry.  But my point is that unless we gather to either get real piss drunk or go hunt down some big-ass evil, de Slayer's life's a solitary one, see?  To find someone in your life who's a constant is rare enough.  To find someone to love…" Chalice shook his head. "For most it's like seeing a light in the distance, boy.  Only you're close enough to reach out and touch it."

     He sighed. "I just…don't know, Chalice.  My life's been one long stretch of darkness for as long as I can remember.  Everyone can see it in me.  It's been what's kept me on the streets rather than climbing the ranks in the Chimneysweeps.  They don't trust me enough.  They know I'm not like all the other Slayers as well as I do.  When I see Rae, though…" he shook his head. "When I see her I think that I can almost see a way through that darkness.  And that's too much to put on any person."

     Chalice put a big calloused  hand on Nabob's shoulder. "You know what?  The Divinity…God…whatever you want to call Him, chause, He's got a plan."

     "So I've heard."

     "Then think about it.  Maybe He don't want you livin' in the darkness like you have been.  Maybe that there girl's meant for you.  Sure as de Nine Hells looks like it to my tired old eyes."

     Nabob hesitated as the world seemed to come to a screeching halt around him.

     "You get pretty quiet when de truth kicks you in de teeth, don'tcha?" Chalice smirked, grasping his chair's wheels again and pushing himself towards the door. "Life's short, ‘Bob.  Don't let her pass through your fingers."

     Then he was gone, leaving Nabob sitting in contemplative silence.  He slowly removed a wooden stake from the bandoleer strapped across his chest and began to whittle at it with a jackknife, careful to avoid putting too much pressure on his wounded hand.  It was a habit he had picked up from GAV…no, it was Ted now, wasn't it?  Another constant reminder of what the Specter could do.  The mightiest, most promising of Slayers, taken down in an instant of pain and weakness.

     His mind flowed back to Solomon's grim words.  The Specter was the predator, the ghost lurking within the darkness of his soul.  Within the hour he would be going out to face it, and he knew that he was afraid.  Afraid not as much of the Plague Sever as he was of what hid in the confines of his own soul.  It was the force that had taken him up to the rooftop time and time again…the force that had tried to embrace death when Solomon's cold fingers had closed around his throat.

     The blade of his knife dug into the stake savagely.  Had it been living flesh, it would have gushed blood.

     It was only then that he realized just how tired he still was.

    Maybe I do love her, was the last thought that passed through his mind before his head bobbed down to touch his chest.  The knife clattered to the floor, and Nabob, fatigued from a restless night and the effects of the pain killers, slept the fevered sleep of a man fighting a battle within.
 

************

    The drive to the local Olive Garden Restaurant  was picture perfect.  Dusk had set in and left everything looking sort of blue and surreal.  Street lights slowly yawned to life as their photosensitive eyes triggered one by one in an almost random fashion, first near trees where it was shadier, then the rest followed suit, changing day to night.

    Light wasn't the only thing that changed when the night came.  The air seemed to grow more sultry as the temperature approached the dew point.  The pressure shifted just a bit.  The smell in the air seemed more intense.  On nights like this if the wind blew in from the west just enough, one could even smell salt air of the ocean even though you might be miles inland.

    The biggest change when the night comes, however, was the feeling.  The atmosphere and mood of the night compared to day was like apples and oranges.  It was like another world existed in the shadows and was just coming out in the last minutes of blue dusk to take its place for the next twelve hours or so.  The white had retired for the evening and the black was ready to reign after this ever so brief period of grey had finished its moments of allotted daily time to referee the transition between the two.

    And then it was dark.  Ted knew the kinds of things that dwelled in the darkness.  He had seen the worst of them, but one of the things that hadn't changed with him when his life changed so dramaticly after he gave up the mantle of Slayer emotionally was his ability to take the darkness inside, the memories of horror and terror and all the grim truths about the night, and put them away in a little room in the back of his mind.  This little room was so secure and was tucked in so deep that even bad events that may have been hours away would suddenly feel like they hadn't happened in years.  Only the strong could cope with the grim truths and still carry on with their lives enjoying the warm truths life had to offer.

    That's why Ted was able to sit with Rachel and talk that wonderful small talk while Billy Joel sang of the good dying young on the radio in Rachel's white ‘95 Buick Skylark, and he could will it as though all the nasty things that had happened to him over his brief but historic tenure as a Slayer had simply never been.  Ted was just realizing how often he thought in run-on sentences when Rachel parked the Skylark and jumped out into the Olive Garden parking lot eager to dive into breadsticks and salad.  It was the perfect peace on this side of town to foil the turmoil that was about to break out on the other side.

*******************

     With the assistance of their helpful contacts within the Canadian Dominion, they managed to track Pondexter's location to the downtown core.  Not surprisingly, it was one of the ghetto areas that any adult couple with sense would move out of before having children.  From high above, the pothole-marked streets bore a distinct resemblance to a teenage with particularly bad acne.  Night had settled once more, and a number of fires had been set in garbage cans to provide warmth for the vagabonds and street thugs.  The back alleys provided a veritable labyrinth of decay, a bee-hive mockery of human civilization.

     Around one of these fires, however, there lurked creatures that were far from human.

     Perched high above them, on the fifth-story rooftop of a condemned apartment building that bordered the back alley, Nabob watched with gruesome satisfaction as the hole in his hand slowly began to close and heal before his very eyes.  The Rush surged through him, healing his battle wounds and making him whole once more.  The enemy was near, but he hadn't been seen yet.

     Beside him was Rae, her eyes glowing a soft incandescent blue with the same sweet Rush that he felt.  Being the only Chimneysweeps in the hunting party, they had been assigned to scout ahead, to make sure that they weren't being deceived somehow.  Gazing down from the rooftop, they could see the dark figures prancing around the fire, Rush-enhanced vision clearly pinpointing their prey.

     "…Repeat, there are nine individuals down there currently," Nabob was whispering into his encrypted Slayer communication device. "I'd say at least four vampires, from the way they carry themselves, but it's a safe bet that anybody down there who isn't undead is a collaborator.  Recommend slay-on-sight, over."

     "Copy that," Chalice's heavy voice came back. "Any sign of Pondexter?"

     Nabob squinted. "No clear ID, but any of them down there might be him."

     "What about the Specter?"

     "Negative on that, but it could well be invisible.  Proceed with caution."  He'd seen wraiths before, vicious disembodied spirits, on the bridge of the Dominion flagship during the Battle of Mojave, but somehow he knew that this spirit would be different.

     "Copy.  Now stay put, stay quiet, an' stay out of sight.  De boys are on their way, ready to stake out some heartache.  We'll call when we're in position.  Chalice out."

     With an inaudible sigh he rolled away from the ledge, and felt Rae follow suite beside him.  For a brief moment the two of them lay, side-by-side, oblivious just as much to the danger five stories below as they were to the smothering polluted air that surrounded them.

     "Now we wait," he whispered, only distantly aware of even doing so.

     "Mmm," she replied, not taking her eyes off of him. "Penny for your thoughts."

     "I…uh…" Nabob's words caught in his throat. "The mission.  There's going to be a lot happening in five minutes…"

     "The mission," she repeated without enthusiasm, taking his hand and tracing a finger where the wound had been. "Always the mission."  She was quiet for a moment. "Can I ask you something, Nabob?"

     "Anything."

     "Why do you hide what's inside of you?"

     Nabob looked at her hand caressing his.  Life is short. "I'm…afraid, Rae.  Afraid of what it might mean if I open myself up.  There's so much inside of me that's dark…I'm afraid of hurting somebody with it.  Somebody like you."

     Rae took in a breath. "Let me tell you something.  You know what I used to be…a girl totally consumed by darkness.  I dressed in black.  Cut my wrists for fun.  Did drugs when I felt like it.  I lived in the shadows because…because I was afraid.  I was terrified of what I would do if I ever came out, Nabob.  But I did.  I found the light, and I followed it here.  And here I found you."

     For most it's like seeing a light in the distance, boy.  Only you're close enough to reach out and touch it.  Nabob's heart pounded inside of his chest. "Rae, when did you stop being afraid?"

     Her fragile eyes looked deeply into his. "Are you sure you want to know?"

     "I wouldn't have asked if I didn't."

     She sighed, as if the memory had tangible pain of its own. "I was seventeen.  Like I said, drowning in fear and darkness.  I thought I was having fun, even though every moment was spent in fear.  I was at a party...Goth party.  Real stereotypical, I suppose, but there's a reason that stereotypes form.  There were a lot of drugs going around…booze…blood-letting too.  My friends were really into that.  I'd been to these things before, but this one time…this one time it was different.  Things were getting too wild, too out of control.  And there was this man there, big, tall, handsome, all dressed in black.  I didn't recognize him.  He'd been around all night, and when things got heated up he took my best friend by the hand and led her away from me…away…" a tear streamed down her face.

     "They made out for a while, but soon I could see that something was wrong.  I was drunk or stoned or something, so I didn't realize it fast enough, but he was a real vampire, not just one of the kids with a blood fetish.  He started kissing her neck, then slowly bit in.  I remember the blood, and I remember thinking that…he was killing her…" Rae allowed a shuddering sigh. "That was the first time that I ever Rushed.  The hormones, the stress, the presence of the undead…it all finally broke through.  I thought it was something I took at first, some new pill I'd popped.  But then…then I saw this creature murdering my best friend, and I knew."

     Nabob stroked her jet black hair gently. "I'd hate to have been that vampire."

     The tears were flowing freely from her eyes now. "He didn't see it coming.  I knocked him through two walls and a picture window before he high-tailed it away.  I wasn't able to save my friend, though.  She died on the way to the hospital, and I remember crying at her grave, just like this."  Rae wiped her tears and tried to compose herself a little. "I spent the next six months hunting that vampire, but it was at that moment that I realized I wasn't afraid any more.  I didn't need to be.  I had found my light, and I've followed it ever since."

     Time was precious, he realized, but for half a minute silence hung between the two of them, perched upon the rooftop as they were.  Their hands clasped together, every breath and minute motion heightened by the Rush.  Every feeling, every emotion seemed to pass through each other freely in a perfect moment in time.  It was as though their birthright as Slayers bridged the divide between two individuals, and for a fleeting instant…

     Nabob leaned forward, his lips gently brushing against the velvet-soft skin of her cheek, her breath long and comforting upon his face.  For a long instant they caressed.

     "Perhaps I've found my light too…" was all that he could whisper.

     Then the communicator card beeped to indicate an incoming signal, shattering the moment.

     Never before had the urge to toss the damned thing off of the rooftop been so strong in Nabob's chest.  As it was, though, that would have been counter-productive on a frightening number of levels, so he slowly broke the gentle embrace and brought the card up.

     "This is Nabob, I copy."

     "All men are in position an' we're goin' in, you read me?"

     "Yes sir…"

     "I can see de bastards from where I'm standing.  Stick wit de plan, secure the perimeter an' make sure none o' dem slip past us, over."

     "Copy that.  Make some good use of those legs, Chalice."

     He heard muffled laughter over the communicator, and then the signal ended.  He peered over the ledge cautiously.  All of them were still there, gathered around the flaming barrel.  Any second now, their world would explode…

     "Hey…"

     He felt Rae's hand on his shoulder and looked back to see her, smiling over at him, eyes now clear of their tears of remembrance.  He couldn't ever remember seeing anything as beautiful.

     "I'm thinking you lied to me," she said calmly.

     "Why would…about what…?"

     "Dancing.  At the café, you told me that you couldn't dance.  But at the Witchery By The Castle I saw you pull off some fancy footwork even without the Rush."  Her smile broadened a little more. "When this is all over I'm dragging you onto a dance floor whether you like it or not."

     Nabob grinned crookedly.  It felt good. "You're on."

     And then, side-by-side, looking down into the run-down ghetto alleyway, they watched intently.  Heartbeats came and went, and Nabob wasn't sure whether they were his or Rae's.  Too long had passed since the call.  Had something gone wrong?  Why didn't…

     Then it began.  The lightning descended as individual points of righteous wrath emerged from between the nooks and crannies of just about every building, screaming ferocious rallying cries.

     The vampires, for all of their longevity, wisdom, and knowledge, never saw it coming.

     Slayers charged, some with stakes in hand, others slinging vials of holy water.  From several corners automatic weapons fire exploded, mowing through some of the dark figures gathered around the barrel.  Two were knocked flat and did not rise.  He hoped one of them had been Pondexter.  The rest seemed to shrug the piercing bullets off, turning to face their attackers.  The light enhancement of the Rush allowed Nabob's eyes to follow the battle almost precisely.  The two forces, light and darkness, clashed in the middle of the battlefield, the flame-licked trash can toppling over and spilling flame along the ground.  Stakes soared through the air, blades shrieked, guns barked, and the messy melee was joined.  One vampire went down under the blows of three Slayers, its body turning to ash as a silver stake pierced its heart.  A Slayer was knocked away, flung into a brick wall with a resounding crash…

     Then one vampire broke free and began to run.  Fire licked at Nabob's eyes.  It was Solomon.

     "Stay here!" he shouted to Rae, already on his feet, stake in hand, bounding across the rooftop with mighty leaps. "This one's mine!"  His eyes followed Solomon, saw the mysterious vampire try to flee into a darkened alleyway and into the bowels of the ghetto that it led to.  They would lose him for sure in there, Rush or not.  And this one they couldn't lose.  He wouldn't lose.

     Nabob leapt the space between two apartment buildings effortlessly, moving at lightning speed along the rooftop until he reached the dark corridor.  He could see Solomon disappearing into the shadows already.  Clutching the stake in his hand fiercely, Nabob held his breath and sprang downwards, gathering momentum and force as he went.  The timing was expert.  At the last second he roared out a primal challenge, and Solomon hesitated, looking up…

     His knees drove into the small of the vampire's back with the gathered force of a five-story fall.

     Solomon screeched in pain as an excruciatingly loud snap! was heard.  Stars flashed in front of Nabob's eyes as the two struck the ground, leaving a notable indentation in the hard concrete.  Rolling with the momentum, the Slayer tumbled forward and back onto his feet.  The fall would have broken many bones without the Rush.  Fortunately, this time he had it on his side.

     He felt like smiling.

     The vampire's eyes shot up and saw Nabob standing there, hate suddenly channeling through him.  The Chimneysweep could see Solomon's face ripple, and for a dreadful instant there again was his friend Dirk, helpless, screaming out for him…

     The Rush remained, though.  They were still close enough to the other vampires, who were obviously without the benefit of this mystical shielding.

     "You're a tough one, Pureblood," Solomon hissed, his squirming growing more violent with every passing second as the negative planar energy that gave him unlife began to heal his crushed back. "A fascination, really…"

     Nabob lunged wordlessly, primed on impaling the vampire through the heart with his stake and putting an end to this small branch of madness.  Solomon, however, was still quick.  He managed to roll out of the way just in time to avoid the blow, scampering up to his feet and standing  across the alley from Nabob.  The two foes glared each other down, circling one another, Solomon still obviously wounded and moving like a cripple.  A crippled vampire, anyway, which was still significantly more fluid than a regular human would be.

     "You've changed, Pureblood," he rasped. "Before I could smell your fear.  What happened to that delicious darkness inside of you?"

     Nabob brandished the stake and allowed a defiant grin to come to his face. "I found my light."

     He lunged, stake whistling through the air as he closed the distance between the two of them.  The vampire parried with an arm, reeling under the force of the blow that he deflected.  Nabob's fist spiraled out, catching the vampire under the chin in a violent uppercut that slammed Solomon back into the decaying brick wall.  The Slayer tried to follow up, launching his foot up in a Rush-powered kick.  He wasn't quite fast enough, and Solomon spun out of the way, his foot crashing through the brick alleyway wall and staying there.  As he tried to pull it loose, Solomon side-stepped and pivoted, then launched himself forward, slamming into his opponent.  The wind was almost knocked out of Nabob as he was flung into the wall.  Gasping for air, he couldn't stop himself from crumpling to the ground.  Hissing with excitement, Solomon pressed his sudden advantage, pulling Nabob's head up by the hair and delivering a powerful blow to his face with his curled fist.  The Chimneysweep's head cracked on the wall and his vision disappeared in a flurry of exploding stars and blood.

     "Still only human…" the vampire sneered as he let Nabob collapse to the ground. "You may have found your light, but you're still no match for…for…"

     Nabob's hands had curled around his leg.

     He pulled downwards, and Solomon's stance, far from concrete, wavered.  He toppled to the dirt, and Nabob managed to raise himself up to one knee, vision still obscured by trickles of his own purified blood, maintaining an iron grip on the vampire's leg.  Mustering all of the strength that he could, he flung the dark creature like a giant hammer, slamming him into a motley collection of overflowing garbage cans, disturbing the sanctuary of several alley cats.

     Kicking free of the grip, Solomon staggered back upwards, but was obviously beginning to slow.  Nabob too stood, pulling out a fresh stake, this one of glittering silver.

     No words were exchanged.  Solomon moved to attack, his fists flying through thin air where Nabob had been a second ago.  Tired and injured, the vampire was still moving faster than a human could have.  To Nabob, though, he was in slow motion.  He seized one of Solomon's arms as it passed harmlessly by his head, and with as much force as he could call to his command he brought it in upon itself.  The crack was audible, though muffled by Solomon's scream, and the Slayer moved in, his fists moving faster than even his own eyes could follow as he pummeled the vampire.  Then, with the quick movement of his fingers, the stake was brought to bear.

     It punctured the vampire's chest, just below his heart.  Solomon grabbed at it, trying to pull it out of his body, but Nabob's grip was stronger.  As the vampire fell one last time, Nabob clambered on top of him, pushing the stake in as far as it would go.  Blood trickled from Solomon's mouth, gaping wide open.  From elsewhere, the sounds of battle were beginning to fade away as well.  For a second, once more, their eyes met, Slayer and vampire, hunter and hunted.

     "M-my only regret…" Solomon spat with his dying breath, "…is that I w-won't be here to…see you…die…"

     Then the stake finally punctured home, and Nabob was alone, the corpse beneath him collapsing into dust and ashes, the final words still resounding in his head.  Triumph surged through him.

     "All right, Dirk…" he breathed, burying his head in the disintegrating ashes. "Rest with the Divinity now, my friend."

 The sounds of combat were now faded completely from the main ghetto battleground.  Slowly looking up, Nabob could see that they had won the day.  The Slayers stumbled forward to meet him, bloodied and bruised but triumphant.  He held his breath, waiting for the Rush to fade and for the pain to finally begin to set in.

     He waited…

     And waited…

 Then his eyes shot open as, from somewhere down the dark alley, there came a low roar, like a thunderstorm rolling over the plain.  A horrible, horrible roar that gradually built itself up into the moan of a thousand damned souls rolled into one.  As it came closer, the sound of clicking teeth could be clearly heard above it.  Pins and needles rose up along Nabob's neck, and some part of him unconsciously acknowledged how cold it had suddenly become…he could see his frost-stained breath as it emerged from his mouth.  No amount of light could keep the fear from swelling within him as he looked down the looming alleyway, his eyes catching a faint glimmer, a nigh-invisible phantasmal form coming down the alley towards them.

 The Plague-Sever Specter was upon them.
 
 

*******************

    Two Fettuccini Alfredo's and a shared Tiramasu dessert later they were on their way to the corner video store to rent Mission to Mars.  Ted, a huge fan of NASA, couldn't resist watching the movie again and daydreaming over how far the human race would go in his lifetime and how soon he'd be able to see images of the American flag being placed proudly on red soil.  It would be the hi-lite of human achievement in his lifetime and he couldn't wait.  He even kept updated pictures of the growing International Space Station on his desktop because it was the single most exciting thing NASA was doing these days as space technology crept along at a snail's pace.  Had they really not been to the moon in 25 years?!  GEEZ! The movie was the closest thing scientifically to how a Mars shot would really go and its images really sparked his imagination.  Sure, Fron and the Canadian Dominion had technology that could zip a few hundred men to Mars and back in under a minute as routinely as one might go out to get the mail on the street corner, but that was cheating!

    "Well I'd be bothered if I were you."

    "About what?"

    "Argh!  You're daydreaming again!  LISTEN to the Rachel!  The Rachel likes to be heard when she speaks!  The Rachel gets PISSED when the Rachel is ignored!"

    He loved it when she spoke in the third person.  The Rachel was cute.  "Sorry!  I caught you mentioning age or something?"

    "I asked you if you were telling the truth when you said you didn't care that I would be graduating and you're still just a Freshman.  I mean, I'll be a part of the American workforce for 3 years before you even start your internship."  She spoke so casually but concentrated on the road and gripped the wheel with both hands.  Rachel hated driving at night.  Said she had trouble seeing.

    "You're right.  That sucks.  Why don't you quit school and work at McDonald's for the next three years in poverty so we can graduate together."  He said it with such a strait face that she had to pause a beat to realize the sarcasm of his joke.

    "I'm a lousy cook.  They'd never hire me."

    "Well, there's always shoe sales..."

    "I'm serious!"

    "Well I'm not!  I'm proud of you!  You're about to walk out into the real world with a Bachelor of Science at a reputable university!  How cool is that?  Of coarse it doesn't bother me!"

    Deeet!

    "Well, I'd be bothered if my younger significant other was all free and clear of secondary education while I toiled on foreign language and English 101 assignments on an endless basis."

    "Well, it's not like French class is a big deal.  Most Cajuns speak half french from birth anyway!  Easy credits, ‘Bay!"

    She paused for a minute, glanced down at his keychain, then forced herself to ignore it and ask him one last time. "You're really cool with this?  Because you know I'd do anything..."

    "Rach....it's all good, ‘Bay.  Don't sweat it.....

    Deee...eeT!

    .....I just hope you're cool with paying for dinner for the next three years with your huge scientist's paycheck."

    "As if!  I hope you like Peanut butter!"

    "And you think there's big money in television?  We're going to be an old and impoverished old couple some day and it's all your fault for not going into law like I told ya to!"

    "Yeah, right!  Like we need another form of bloodsucker in our lives!"

    Dee...t!

    They both frowned.  There was no ignoring it.  It was that sound they weren't supposed to hear anymore.  A sound that could shatter their world if they allowed it to, simply by acknowledging it had even existed.  It was the sound of the old life they had put behind them.  Why did he even carry that thing around anymore?!

    ASG issue key chains were good anywhere on the planet.  They both received satellite down-linked signals in the form of text messages and transmitted responses based on voice-activation. The problem was that their power cells only lasted a couple weeks because of the powerful transmitters they carried.  Ted had only carried his old key chain around as a souvenir of the old days.  It, along with an old fedora hat and leather jacket back in his room at CWAL HQ were all that was left of the old life for him and he was okay with that.  The thing shouldn't have even worked anymore.  The cells should have died months ago from disuse and never being recharged.

    The key chain was a tiny piece of technology only an inch square and a quarter of an inch thick, coated in titanium with a gavel and hammer engraved and crossed on both sides, the insignia of the Ambiguous Slayers' Guild.  It was worn and scratched from being carried around in his pocket for the last 5 years or so.

    So why the hell was it making noise now?  It should be dead!  The ASG wasn't a part of his life anymore and they KNEW not to contact him anymore.  He had asked them not to and they had promised!  Maybe it was a social call.

    As they gazed at each other Ted finally spoke.

    "I...Ah'm sure it's nothin'.  Prob'ly it's last dying breath picking up someone's pocket pager signal or somethin'..."

    Pale and almost terrified as though being haunted by a ghost from the past, he reached into his pocket and brought out his keys with the titanium square attached by a small but sturdy chain.  The text was simple and direct and for some reason read out on his dead old keychain messenger in a color he had never seen before: an unnatural and ghostly green.

    "Nighteye.  Gothic Cemetary.  Now."

    Ted blinked and tried to swallow, but his throat had gone to cotton.  He blinked again and the message was gone, his scratched old keychain a dead piece of metal in his hand.  Had it said anything at all?  Was he going crazy? No.  She heard the beeping too.  Probably saw the green glow.

    "What is it?"  Rachel had pulled over and was staring at Ted with an EXTREMELY worried look on her face.  If he was going to cover this up, he'd better start putting on an Oscar-winning performance!

    "Those jerks!" Ted said, his voice cracking from a dried throat.  He swallowed and smiled an almost genuine smile at the sound of his voice.

    "Who?!  What?!"

    "CWAL.  They're having plumbing problems and are too lazy to hire someone so they want me to look at it."  Ted chuckled a little and thought ahead a few phrases so she wouldn't know what was up.  He had no idea how she'd react if she knew the old life had just jerked him back into covert mode.

    "Oh...well...good thing we're about to wrap the night up anyway.  We both have tests Monday morning.  We can hit the books tomorrow no problem, right?"

    "You're on, and this time YOU'RE buying.  Pizza this time!"

    "It's always pie with you."

    "Mmmmm....green olives..." Wow...that was too easy...she's convinced!

    Dropping her off at her place and walking away from a warm home and a welcome embrace was a very hard thing for Ted to do that night.   Suddenly, after life had almost assumed a nuance of normalcy, he was walking out into the unknown again.  Why?  Why not just ignore the message?  It had to be a practical joke...what would filth like Nighteye want with him anyway?  Any other evil person's name and he'd have ignored the page. He wasn't a Slayer anymore.  The ASG had no business bringing him in on this operation.  Maybe it was because he had experience with Nighteye?  Well, he'd give those Slayers a piece of his mind when he met them.  Why the heck at a graveyard?

    Ted hated graveyards.  He had lost his Rush in a graveyard.  It was supposed to be a safe place.  It was supposed to be hallowed ground; a refuge for the holy from the dark things.  The Specter obviously wasn't slowed down by holy land...it ripped through a half dozen Slayers as if they were paraplegic bog snails.

VII.  "Angel Eyes"

    In reasonable time he was speeding along Oceanic Avenue South towards the graveyard in the BiB, his trusty SUV and the only thing from his past that he refused to let go of.  He wouldn't let this little messenger mystery ruin his evening.  He'd march into that graveyard, tell whoever it was that they cut his date with the most wonderful girl in the world short, possibly kick their ass, and be back in his bed in time for a rerun of Deep Space Nine over a Physics text.

    It was possibly this haste that led Ted into Gothic Cemetery without so much as a fedora hat to warm his head.  No armor. No weapons.  Little more than a scapula metal in the shape of a crucifix around his neck, a symbol of his faith, to protect him from the dark things.  There was very little of GAVAL left in this person as he pushed open the squeaky gate to the resting place of so many deceased Californians.

    In the dark Ted squinted across the gently landscaped hills of the cemetery for the Slayer or Slayers he expected to be waiting for him.  He tried not to look alarmed or even angry.  He would simply tell them to leave him alone unless they wanted to grab a beer.  He wanted to tell them that his relationship with the ASG would be simply plutonic if anything at all.  He wanted to see to it that he was never paged again, that they used phones if they wanted to talk to him, and even then only to discuss normal things; sports, politics, the latest episode of Farscape.

    "When I said now I didn't think I'd be waiting two hours."

    The voice came out of the dark and almost made Ted jump, but he had nerves of steel from his past experiences with the unknown and held his emotionless posture while trying to see the face that was attached to that voice.  He didn't need to see the face...he already knew who it was, and was quite startled by who it was despite the now great clarity that came with the eerie green message.  It wasn't the Slayers at all paging him.  Who else could get a weeks-old depleted power cell to operate with zero tampering if not a dark magician like Nighteye.

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