Year of the Specter Stories...

 Rush No More
and Rush No More, Part II
would preceed these stories...

By Z....

SLAYERS BEWARE! The Year of the Specter has begun!

- - - - - -

Year of the Specter: A New Friend
by Z

The Irvine Starbucks was a happy place. Sure, random violence was common, but it was all in good fun. The only ones who looked worried were the Slayers, these normally jovial pie eating destroyers of evil had something on their minds.

But that didn't concern Kadgric, his was just a happy little boy who was too busy trying to have fun. He didn't even know who these Slayers were, he met GAVAL, who seemed like a nice person. He also knew Mr. Phasmus, he was very serious and always kept an eye on Kadgric whenever he was near, the little creature didn't know why. There was also that Miss Razael, she was nice. And Miss Exile, she was nice too, just Miss Razael was nicer.

Kadgric walked along the halls to see Dad's lab.

"Hi ya Dad."

"Hello Kadgric," Z replied looking up from his work. "How was your day?"

"Me and Crystal were watching the vets play Starcraft. It was funny when Fron zapped Pez for the Ultralisk rush he did. So, what are you doing?"

"Oh, just some things for Phas."

"Like?'

"Its all top secrety."

"Does involve Miss Exile?"

"yeah."

"Why is she so mean to you?"

"Its a long story. I'll tell you later."

"Um, ok."
"I'm kinda busy here, and if I don't meet my deadline, bad things will happen."

"Like what?"

"Most of them involve Miss Exile weilding very large sharp things and lots of pain."

"That doesn't sound good."

"Oh, it isn't."

"I don't wanna bug you. See ya lata"

"Bye."

Kadgric walked out of the lab and kept walking. He looked around at the scarred, charred, and overall destroyed and rebuilt walls of CWAL. Yep, this was home.

Then something caught his eye. It was a brief flash, then nothing.

There it was again. Then he saw it.

"Hello?" He asked out loud.

The flash stopped, it was some kind of strange figure that wasn't quite there.

"Hello?"

The figure inched toward Kadgric and poked him.

"Huh?"

The figure inched away.

"You see me?"

"Who are you?"

"Have . . . no designation . . ."

"Really? My name is Kadgric."

"Kadgric..."

"What are you?"
"I am ...here."

"No silly, that's where you are. What are you? You look like a ghost or something."

"Can others see me?"

"Huh?"

"I can tell. You are different . . . different from everyone else here."

"I'm the only me I know of. I wanna ask you the same thing. Anyone else like you?"

"No . . . not anymore."

"That's sad. Did they go away?"

"Yes."

"Are they coming back?"

"No."

"So you're all alone?"

"Yes."

"I can take you to see Crystal, she always cheers me up."

"I must leave now. I must feed. Good bye."

"Bye."

The figure flew off though a wall and was gone.

"What a nice guy." Kadgric thought to himself.

But, outside the Starbucks, where a Slayer once stood, now was the corpse of a dead man.

Later, inside the lab, Kadgric walks in again.

"So, are you done with work?"

"Yeah. Where were you?"
"I met a new friend! He's kinda invisible and only I can see him!"

"Heh, how cute, an invisible friend. You'll have to introduce him to Crystal eventually." Z said jokingly.

"Maybe later, he sounds shy."

"Oh well, not all invisible friends can be dealt with, I guess."

"Yeah, but he's a really nice guy."

And outside lay another body of a Slayer, the Plague Sever Specter had struck again.
 

T h e E n d

- - - - - -

Thanks to Gav for the help
 
 
 

by Lothos

(Year of the Spectre) Seeds of Mayhem Sewn
Posted by Lothos , from 203.109.252.15 on May 09, 2001 at 18:10:01 :
 

(It was the odd time of morning where the sky turns a black that is if anything darker than it is at night, because at the edge of one horizon there comes a line of light. The blackness of the sky tries harder because now there's competition.)

(A man in a battered fedora looked at the darkening sky and the thin band of light gathering before him, and continued to walk steadily forwards.)

(Gaval wanted to sleep, and he wanted to forget. He wanted not to feel anything for a while, to sink into blissful ignorance and rest.)

(And he wanted not to have to think about what he had done.)

(Gaval reached the building and staggered inside, shutting the door carelessly behind him. He looked around to find that life was pretty much as normal for CWAL around daybreak. Every flat surface was covered with sleeping forms of various species, snoring cheerfully and ignoring the blasphemous concept that some called ‘morning.' There was however, one conspicuous gap that caught Gaval's attention, in that the traditional lurking spot where Lothos would bask in the comforting glow of TV radiation was empty.)

(Gaval dragged a chair jerkily out from under a table, ignoring the nerve-scraping squeak of the wheels on the floor. He allowed himself to collapse bonelessly into the chair and slumped forward into the table, pressing his face against the cold surface as if pressure and determination would drive away the memories and pain. Gaval looked around wearily; possibly it was better that Lothos wasn't around. He didn't want to have to talk to other people now, because he'd have to face himself as he did.)

(There was a sonorous thud as Gaval led his head drop forward onto the table, his world closing down to the warmth of his own breath caught against the table top, the sound of his own heartbeat and breathing, and his own blurred reflection.)

(Heavy, running footsteps approached from below.)

(Gaval sits up with weary resignation as Lothos bursts through the door. The tall, rangy man is grinning with an excited glee, while gesturing wildly with a whittling knife and other sculptors tools. Enigmatically, he's also covered in gobbets of a glistening, pinkish substance.)

Gaval: (Wearily) Morning Lothos.

Lothos: Allo! My creations! THEY LIIIIIIVE!

(At this, Gaval allowed his head to drop back to the table. Just for once, this wasn't going to be his problem.)

(There was a pause, before Gaval pulled the suddenly leaden weight of his head up off the table, and asked the Dread Question.)

Gaval: What creations might these be?

(He looked up to see three giant figures of roughly human form, but at least eight feet tall. They had odd caricatures of human features on them, but their heads were different shapes. They were all composed of the same unwholesomely wet pink substance that covered Lothos in chunks.)

Lothos: They're SPAM WARRIORS! (He pulled out a dictaphone and pressed a button) *Click... DUN DAAAAA! *

(Gaval spent a careful moment considering the scene.)

Gaval: Technically man, they're flesh golems.

Lothos: Nah, flesh golems are different. These are... SPAM WARRIORS! *Click... DUN DAAAA! *
Gaval: (Gives up) Do they have names?

Lothos: I call them Larry, Curly and Moe. Otherwise I get confused which is which, so I made sure that I can remember, so...

Gaval: You carved their heads into the appropriate shapes.

Lothos: YUP!

(Gaval, clearly feeling that in all fairness, this was a little bit too much for him to be expected to cope with, given the circumstances.)

Gaval: So you spent the night creating three monstrosities from what appears to be undead spam, and then animating them? To what purpose?

Lothos: (Dismissively) I haven't decided yet. Either fighting crime, being sent to fetch things, or helping me start my own Everlasting Spam factory. They'd be like Oompah Loompah's, but -

Gaval: - 8 Foot tall and made of undead spam?

Lothos: (Ecstatic) EXACTLY.

(Gaval nods wearily, seeing all the ways that this can go.)

Gaval: I'm sorry man, but I think I'm just going to go and rest for a while, okay?

Lothos: You don't want to help me teach them tricks? Hey, what about that vampire hunting junket that people were embarking on, and that I wasn't allowed to come too because I always set the chimney sweeps into re-enacting Mary Poppins?

Gaval: (Smiles weakly at the memory) And the time that you helped us make pies.

(Gaval chuckled quietly. An entire force enhanced with the power and very essence of divinity had been laid up by an encounter with food produced by the Iron Gulleted Fiend to Whom No Spice Holds Fear.)

Lothos: Yeah, that vampire-hunting excursion. What happened? Where is everybody? There's usually a nice big booze up after any given evahl slaying session.

(Gaval shut his eyes tightly and went back to communing with the tabletop.)

Lothos: Hey, I remember! You vanished for a while. What did you wind up doing?

Gaval: (Mumbling) Trying to forget.
Lothos: Why? Oh yeah, Exile has apparently come out during the interim.

(He considers thoughtfully)

Lothos: I hadn't realised that Dark Templar transvestites turn into Anime chicks, but each to their own, I suppose.

(Gaval is staring at him incredulously.)

Lothos: It's the only explanation that I can come up with! Hell, doesn't bother me as long as he's happy.

(He gestures at the ever-patient giants)

Lothos: Want any spam? I'm kinda sick of the stuff by now.

(Gaval gestures no with reticent disgust.)

(Lothos looks at him appraisingly.)

Lothos: Are you okay, comrade? Normally you'd have shouted the house down and at least tried to stake something when I try something like this. You look a bit upset.

Gaval: No, I'm fine.

Lothos: You're talking into a table and contriving to ignore towering behemoths of undead processed meat. This is not the behaviour of the slayer we know and love. You want to shout at me for a while? I don't mind. It usually makes you feel better.

(He considers)

Lothos: Apart from the times you seem to be verging on apoplexy, but you can't have everything.

(Gaval stays silently communing with the tabletop.)

Lothos: I think that the guys who went out a slayin' were planning on coming back here, I guess you're early. Want some breakfast? I think I'm allowed to make cereal.

Gaval: (Tight lipped) No thanks, I'm fine.

Lothos: Should I lay in any for the others?

(Gaval snaps up, fury and pain in his eyes.)

Gaval: They're dead, all right?! I found out last night when I was with Racheal. Rae's dead, a lot of the others are dead...

(He subsides into agonisedly staring into space.)

(Lothos' eyes widen in surprise and shock, before he smiles slowly in a gesture far more about revealing teeth than expressing anything resembling humour.)

Lothos: (Through clenched teeth.) Who?

Gaval: (Voice dead of all emotion) It's more of a ‘What.'

Lothos: (nods) Where?

Gaval: I don't know.

Lothos: How?

Gaval: (Voice weary and lifeless) It's called the Plague Sever spectre.

(Lothos sits bolt upright.)

Lothos: (Points and roars) HALLOWEEN!

Gaval: (Nods) Yeah, the thing that got me last Halloween.

Lothos: (Grimly) The Slayers wouldn't let me go after it.

Gaval: They couldn't, Loth. It went through the agents of the divine like Spectre Treats, and you, as we know, are at best tolerated by the divine.

(Lothos leans forward, intensely businesslike. Gaval sits back in the chair appraisingly, as this is a frame of mind not regularly visited.)

Lothos: I've been thinking about that. I have a few ideas I want to run past you.

(Gaval nods gently.)

Lothos: This thing is invisible and drains things to death. And it finds Slayers particularly tasty, yes? It takes away the Rush.

(Gaval nods, trying to contain the memories of the anguish.)

Lothos: Excellant! I want to volunteer.

(Gaval looks at him incredulously, starting to get angry.)
Gaval: Weren't you listening?! This thing KILLS SLAYERS! It killed the taskforce sent to get it, and seems to be working with vamps! RAE IS DEAD!

(Lothos leans back, grinning in a particularly feral way that for a moment reminded Gaval of the Spectre's deaths-head grin.)

Lothos: Why do you THINK I want to volunteer?

Gaval: You're not a slayer, so –

Lothos: - Exactly. I've got the advantage.

(Gaval stared at him mutely.)

(Lothos takes the gap to mean that he can continue.)

Lothos: (Grin broadening, if that is possible.) I've got no Rush to lose, comrade.

(Gaval collapses slowly into the chair, the ramifications of that beginning to dawn.)

Lothos: Slayers go into battle with this thing knowing that there are three possible outcomes: they die, they lose the Rush but survive, or they get out unscathed and MAYBE win. For non-slayers, it's the same as any other battle. Worse that can happen is that we die.

(He gestures expansively.)

Lothos: And that's not going to be a problem for me.

Gaval: Why the hell not?

(Lothos gestures with a metal pipe that had clearly been a solid towel wrack until it'd been torn free on the assumption that it would be useful.)

Lothos: Because if it comes anywhere near me I'll tear its frigging nipples off!

Gaval: How am I going to argue with that?

Lothos: Exactly. Face it, Gav. You're going to NEED non-Slayer shock troops. You guys have too much to lose, and simply put, I want a piece of the thing.

(Gaval pushes away from the table and paces agitatedly.)

Gaval: No! No way in hell. Too many people have died already.
Lothos: Nothing can be done about that. We just have to minimise how many MORE are going to die before this thing gets brought down? And what happens if it does get brought down eventually, drowned in Slayer blood, and then NightEye, Namrock or Hod knows who else starts trouble? Look at the big picture, comrade. Slayers are too important to risk.

(Lothos shrugs.)

Lothos: Besides, I cheat.

(Gaval's guts knot at the mention of NightEye's name.)

Gaval: Too many people have already died because of me. The Holy War, and now this…

Lothos: *Pfft * Puhleeze. Lots of good people died in the war. You're entirely right! I'd almost forgotten that as soon as Zenogias or Namrock took over the world they'd settle down out of the phase they're going through and start playing nice! ‘Oh look, the world is mine! I crawled here over a mountain of bodies! But I'm all right now, would you like some toast and tea'?!

(Gaval smiles incredulously despite himself, despite the pain.)

Lothos: To hell with that. People die in war. That's why its war. A lot MORE would have died if we'd lost.

(Lothos leant back in his chair, which creaked protestingly.)

Lothos: Catch 22. You're going through hell because a lot of your people have died with you as a leader. That's because you care. Better you in command than a heartless man, comrade.

(Gaval looked up, guts twisting both through gratitude and regrets.)

Lothos: Anyway. Time to get organised. The sooner we gather some shock troops and figure out where this bastard is, the sooner I can cry havoc and unleash undead spam vengeance on their arses.

(Gaval paused. He knew the rangy man well enough by now that he wasn't simply going to let this lie, and there was enough truth within the statements that he began to think. What was the quote from ‘The Shawshank Redemption'? Gaval paused in consideration, and smiled grimly. ‘Get busy living, or get busy dying.' An image of Racheal's face popped into his mind and he cringed inwardly as much as he wished she were near. He couldn't let her know what he'd done, and all the while he had Lothos looking at him expectantly.)

Gaval: See if you can get hold of Fron.

(Lothos grinned ferally.)

Lothos: All roight!
(Gaval watched him go. A significant part of him still wanted not to be involved with any of this, because he knew on some levels that it would all end in tears. Then again, there was very little he could do to not be involved while still being himself, and he had already paid such a high price…)

(And one that he suspected he hadn't even seriously begun to pay yet.)

Gaval: Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more…

_ _ _

Any good?

Probably not.

Lothos.
 
 

Year of the Spectre: Plans of Darkness

by Nighteye

***Shadowlands***

In the gloom that is all which remains of the daylight under the perpetual cloudcover, nighteye was standing in front of a small altar, grinning. While it was already more than a week ago, he remembered it as if it was only yesterday. Oh, how had he enjoyed those screams...at quiet times, he could still hear their echo in the back of his mind...

His thoughts began wandering...in his mind he could see Gaval's face again, twisted in pain and terror while he performed the ritual. No doubt he would feel quite guilty... Diablo had been angry at first, for what he'd done...but when he laid bare his evil plans and the role Gaval was to play in them, he cought a hint of a smile on Diablo's lips...It almost made him look nice. Nighteye chuckled at that thought...

But now, it was time to check on the slayer, to see how the plans were proceeding...

Solemly, Nighteye placed an obsidian bowl on the altar, and filled it with water from a nearby pool. The water was impure, poisonous, and so he cast a small incantation to purify the water. He took out a small vial, adorned with many gems, and added one drop of angel's blood to the water, causing a whitish illumination of the surface of the water. It was almost ready... Nighteye traced a circle of runes etched on the outside into the bowl, murmering an incantation. Each rune he finished glowed up red, until the circle was complete.

Then, Nighteye summoned an imp, and with one swift move pulled out it's heart. He etched a single rune into the heart, and threw it into the center of the bowl. The heart dissolved, spreading an obsidian veil across the water's surface. Nighteye held his hands above the bowl, palms down, and spoke some words in ancient demonic language: "Cat'ra Imis'ra Gaval!"

Slowly the obsidian water surface wavered and dissappeared to reveal Gaval walking on a sidewalk in the streets of Irvine. He looked to be down and depressed. While he did a good job of hiding most of it, Nighteye could see the guilt on his face. Perfect. Things were going as planned.
A little insurance couldn't hurt, though, and tormenting a slayer was always fun. Nighteye casted another small incantation, and on the pavement in front of Gaval, a glowing green eye symbol appeared. Gaval startled, cringed in pain at the memory sparked, and ran as if to escape the memory. Nighteye grinned. Finally, his evil talent would gain recognition. His enemies underestimated him, didn't think he was a real threat...how wrong he would prove them to be...soon...

Nighteye returned from his dark contemplations and self-reflection and shifted his attention back to the visage in the bowl. Gaval was still running, and turned quickly into an alley when he saw 2 fellow slayers walking furter down the street. So, Gaval now began to distrust his fellow slayers, although he'd probably wouldn't admit it. Very good...the slayer didn't want his fellow slayers to find out what he'd done. His behaviour along with his new-found rush, the moment Gaval revealed it's return, would get the other slayers suspicious, making them all the more eager to find out. Now if he just placed his pieces right...

Before lapsing into another round of contemplation, Nighteye turned his attention back to the bowl where he could just glimpse how the 2 slayers were hunting the Plague Sever after Gaval had gone into the alley. He grinned. They wouldn't stand a chance against the Sever. He shifted the focus of the spell on the Sever for a moment to watch the condition it was in. The Plague Sever had apparently fed well. Nighteye grinned again...things were definately looking up.

Shifting the spell's focus back to Gaval, he noticed Gaval running into CWAL HQ. He probably thought they could help him, cure the taint. Nighteye smirked. How wrong he was. There was only one way to cure the taint, and deep inside, Gaval knew it. That he couldn't yet admit it to himself, was pathetic. 'Is that a sign of inner strenght? I think not', Nighteye thought mockingly. CWAL couldn't aid him in this. Within one year, Gaval had to learn to rely on his own strength. Not on the strength of the Divinity or his friends. His own. Then, and only then, would he truly make a worthy opponent.

After having checked up on a few other parts of his great masterplan, Nighteye emptied the bowl and let out a bone-chilling laughter, sending shivers up the spines of several demons standing nearby. Soon his plans would unfold in all their dark glory. Soon...
 
 

Year of the Spectre: Interlude 1

[The Irvine graveyard. A small, unassuming figure bobs to and fro between the rows of graves, crouching silently behind some and continuing onward, just as silently. It moves more slowly as it approaches the auras of light that are given off by the party who have seemingly set up camp here.]

[As it approaches the camp, it slows, barely moving, blending in as well as possible. It reaches into the air, and impossibly, pulls out a sharp object, and with brilliant speed, pounces on the nearest figure.]

Snark: AH! IT'S EATING ME!

Mr 8): [keeps gazing at the arcane light coming from his fists as he begins to trace patterns in the air] Pomodoro, get off of him. He's still useful. And where's that enchanted silver stake I told you to fetch?

Pomodoro: I gots it here, bozz. I keeps it with me. You want?

Mr 8): No, not quite yet. Shine some light on the subject, will you?

Pomodoro: Yes, bozz. [Grabs a flashlight and points it at another figure, nearby]

Neogoth: [snarls]

Mr 8): Calm down, I'm trying to concentrate, here. I wish Mana was here. He's got more experience in magic.

Neogoth: You promised me mocha. Where is my mocha?

Mr 8): Didn't you understand the first time? I need an UNDEAD subject, and you're the only one I've got available. Besides, our manpower has been reduced lately, and I can't have our agents go out and find any others.

Neogoth: This doesn't explain anything. And besides, there are plenty of mummies lurching around underground.

Mr 8): Rely on Phasmus? You must be joking. He charges more than the mayor. Who's the mayor of this stink hole again?

Galileo: Phasmus.

Mr 8): Figures.

Neogoth: What about my mocha?

Mr 8): What, are you joking? I said undead. I can't have your vampiric qualities fade now. I'll let you have some later. Maybe I'll let you eat some of the Starbucks employees while we're there.

Neogoth: Starbucks? Please, I have SOME taste. That's like eating cheese at McDonalds!

[The entire group shudders]
Copernicus: [The circumference of my body is the equal mass of a class 2 supernova]

Galileo: I'll ask. He wants to know what we're doing here.

Mr 8): Well, I came across a few spell books that got couriered in from the planes this morning. And I decided that it would be possible to use some of my power to raise a few undead minions. I think that they would be a little more efficient than the current ones.

Snark: I want a drum. A big one, with shiny brass handles, and a big stick to bang it with. Like this! [He begins to walk around, waving his hands and making low ‘oomph']

Mr 8): See?

Neogoth: How do you know that you can control them?

Mr 8) Like I said, I don't. That's why you're here. I think that if I study you in your vampiric state I can duplicate it to a certain degree.

Neogoth: And if you can't control it?

Mr 8): Well, if it's useful, we'll feed it Snark.

Neogoth: Someone actually wants to eat him?

Mr 8): Who cares, at least that way he'll be useful.

[At that point, there is as small flash of light from the symbols that are still glowing in the air. As the last one is completed, they seem to merge, and flow into the nearest grave]

Mr 8): It's ALIVE! [Mad cackle]

Neogoth: No it isn't.

Mr 8): It'll take it a while to claw its way through the topsoil. Pomodoro, are you sure this is the grave with the mobster in it, right?

Pomodoro: Yes, bozz.

Mr 8): Good. No mistakes this time. Oh, and have a portal ready, just in case.

Pomodoro: Yes, bozz.

Galileo: I have reason to believe that we have a visitor.

[The group turns to Galileo, who points them to a faint yet instantly recognizable figure, shrouded in mist]

Mr 8): A spectre! This is much better that I had even imagined! Oh yes…

Neogoth: Try to command it!

Mr 8): Let's see if I can communicate with it first…

[The spectre regards them all, focusing his gaze on Mr 8)]

Mr 8): Ah… umm… hello!

Snark: Hey! There's a hand on my leg!

[The group turns to Snark, just in time to see him crumble to the ground as a wraith rises from the grave Mr 8) had been working on]

Mr 8): If that's the wraith that I summoned…

[Everyone turns back to the spectre]

Mr 8): Pomodoro! Portal! NOW!

Pomodoro: Yes, bozz!

[A shimmering yellow portal opens, through which Pomodoro deftly flies through. It closes just as quickly.]

Mr 8): Shit.

[The wraith suddenly springs into action, jumping for Mr 8). At the exact same time, the group begins to run]

Mr 8): Neogoth, grab Snark. Galileo, get out of here. All of you move. I'll try to command the wraith, see if I can't control it. GO!

[The group begins to run]

Mr 8): No, fools! When I say stuff like that, you have to stay and help me fight!
[He turns back to the two undead, the wraith now staring at him with hunger. The spectre is still staring at him with apparent curiosity; it's eyes glowing brighter in the gloom.]

Mr 8): Cheese, anyone?

[The wraith chooses this moment to spring into action, Scrabbling for any exposed part of him to suck out his life force. It quickly gets a hold of his throat, and sighs with content as Mr 8) begins to crumple. It's glowing eyes dim with apparent pleasure, then, suddenly, it gasps, eyes blazing, reaching for it's own nonexistent throat]

Wraith: [choke] Tastes… like… CHEESE!

[Within seconds, the wraith dematerializes]

Mr 8): Pomodoro?

[The creature reappears]

Pomodoro: Yes, bozz?

[Mr 8) smacks Pomodoro several times]

Mr 8): That's for deserting me. Now I have an errand for you. Go find Gaval. Tell him a message for me.

Pomodoro: Yes, bozz?

Mr 8): Tell him that there's a spectre on the loose. And tell him that Krustybanger can't touch him.

To Be Continued
 
 

**********
The Merry Month of May

by DARKLIGHT
**********
"Gaval went nuts, you say?"

A long, empty gulf of time yawned. "Screamed at the top of his lungs in the main room. I was five floors' worth of armor and soundproofing away and I made out some of the words. Settled down afterwards, except for Lothos' intermittent bellowing.
I'm sure you're ecstatic." Ivory clicked on marble in the gloom.

"No. For that he'd have to trip and run himself through on a fence post. This just puts me in a pleasant mood."
"Such affection for your fellow being."

"He's a over-righteous twit with the self-control of a hungry Acheronian battle hound. Embarrassing himself with public outbursts is what he does best." There came a stony grating sound.

"Really, Kanyil. He's had a hard week. Let the poor guy have an off day."

"I'd really rather scrape my tongue with a dagger." A brief indecisive ticking, and a final thump. "You're in danger, Laeryn."

It was a marvelously constructed chess set, suited to the tastes of the refined – and wealthy – collector. Each square in the base was carved of either marble or obsidian; all were blemish free. Carved in the stone frame, tiny warriors clashed against each other in a graphic portrayal of the sterilized warfare enacted by the figurines scattered about the surface. Every figurine was lovingly carved from the stone of its matching squares… although there were obvious differences. The white knights charged on dragonback, the black king was a towering balor tanar'ri. The few pawns left to either player depicted sneering imps or dancing sprites. The bishop threatening the balor held aloft a sorcerer's staff and garbed himself in robes.

The board's white squares gave off a subtle warmth when touched, mirrored by its corresponding side's pieces. Black's minions were not so tangible, but they remained visible to the red-glowing eyes of the players. A mere lack of light did not bother one with infravision.

The room's single candle was long snuffed. The game had progressed for hours, moves and comments coming as infrequently as rain in the desert. The little figures glowed softly in their eyes, easily picked out from the background by minute differences in heat, made easier by the minor enchantment placed on the set to warm it. Long minutes passed. A delicate hand reached forth and slipped the king diagonally. "No longer."

The counter-move came almost instantly. A rook jumped up from the opposite extreme, sliding into place two squares left of the balor. "I think I have won this one." An elegant flick of a wrist later Kanyil murmured, "I stand quite corrected. Victory to you in two, I'd say." The queen that had swung up to capture his rook – and pin his king near a corner – had incidentally been placed so its grinning face pointed directly to his.

Laeryn nodded, watching the patterns of heat swirling on his opponent's face. They pulsed quietly in tune with his lifebeat; the dark elf wasn't annoyed. "A good game, though." Laeryn regarded the chessboard thoughtfully as he rose, brushing errant locks of hair back behind his long ears. One of Earth's few treasures, he reflected. He and Kanyil had discovered the game several months before and taken to it with relish. A game of patience and planning ahead… It had practically been designed with elves in mind, they'd decided. Sitting in Kanyil's underground shelter for six hours, not moving and in inky blackness, was something most humans might find hard to tolerate for long periods.

He re-lit the candle, bringing light back to the cave; their infravision's glow left their eyes. Luminance draped itself over Kanyil's unassuming bed, the small table holding the game, and the large cabinet holding Kanyil's clothes. A badly battered chest in the corner held his adventuring gear: ropes, sacks, potions, compasses, rations, and a half-hundred other necessities for any roving warrior. A larger, more ornate and certainly better maintained case displayed a pair of black-metal blades surrounded by a starburst of similarly tinted daggers. The adamantite weapons were Kanyil's pride, his focus in life. The ebon metal of their blades reflected the drow's own jet-black skin, a comparison Laeryn never failed to make. Kanyil worked his weapons like extensions of his own arms.

Elven runes engraved in the wood spelled out one of the drow's favorite lessons. "Fear cuts deepest and teaches fastest." Laeryn disagreed. A lesson learned in terror fled all too swiftly when danger vanished.

Kanyil tossed his hands behind his head, burying them in stark white hair. "You're better than me. These last few games haven't even been fair." A tip of his head indicated the board; Laeryn's inanimate army visibly outnumbered Kanyil's.

"I'm more patient than you are." Laeryn shot the drow a grin. "That's why I win."

The dark face, as finely hewn as that of his pale-skinned surface elves, nevertheless managed to cut a hole through Laeryn with the calm malevolence flashing over it. "You wait, faerie."

The elf nodded, unbalanced but swiftly recovering. Kanyil never exactly enjoyed letting little things like that wriggle through his adamantite self-control, but sometimes it couldn't be helped. Born and raised in an environment where being second best could be lethal, and where any elf with pale skin and dark hair instead of the reverse was soon a corpse, his first instinct sometimes managed to get through. And he knows it does. Keeps me on my toes. "In any case, it had occurred to me that we might want to, shall we say, see what we can dig up about Gaval's recent adventures. You know. Just to keep up to date."

"Meaning we go find him and dredge the stuff out of his mind because we're suspicious conniving sneaks?" Kanyil interpreted hopefully, the candlelight capering in his ice-blue eyes.

"You know me better than that," Laeryn retorted, returning to the chair. "I'd much rather we find out what could get him that angry."

"Less fun that way, but I suppose it'd save time cleaning blood off the daggers later," Kanyil mused thoughtfully. Laeryn aimed a sharp kick at his knee; the drow idly shifted his leg around it and rapped him on the shin with his heel. There would be a bruise, if the sharp protest from the limb was anything to trust. "Right. We'll try it your way."

Laeryn wiped a hand across his forehead in mock-relief. "Whatever would I do without your approval?"

"Everything you do now, just with less heckling." The elf said something impolite in Elvish. Kanyil chuckled. "You asked for it."

The elf stood up again, fingering the hem of his tunic. "Best start now, since we've nothing else to do. I'll pry something out of whoever was awake this morning; Rask, at the least. You feel like checking around town for any brutal and costly failures in the ranks of the Slayers?" The two elves cringed involuntarily, but more at the possibility of having to interact with the Guild. No big loss if they'd screwed up again. Humans in general were fine, if bothersome, but the Slayers' only actual noteworthy traits were their Rush and their smell. Any idiot with a haste potion and a minor strength enhancing enchantment could roughly duplicate the Rush, so… That they'd managed to walk into the world's most obvious ambush in the Holy War just made them doubly ridiculous.

"Yes, I'll do it," grumbled the warrior, standing up. "If nothing else, I might get to laugh at Gaval."
"At least do it behind his back."

"Aiming to become an archon someday, bladesinger?"

"Do shut up. And get going. I'll be back in my room if you find anything."

**********
Laeryn flicked through the cracked and yellowed leaves of an ancient black-bound tome. Sigils like the web of a deranged spider crawled the length and width of the papers, a few – perhaps by some trick of the light, perhaps not – reaching out for the one reading them like the tentacles of a kraken. He murmured the words to himself as he read, the eldritch mantra seeping into the air and hanging there, oily and quietly deadly. Silver runes etched into the walls of the room throbbed with every syllable, blanketing the innumerable varieties of lush flowers, bushes, and vines that coated the floor, walls, and ceiling. A touch of home, as Laeryn called the botanical masterpieces. Kanyil often expressed amazement that the elf could coax such life from a thin layer of soil in room in CWAL HQ, of all places.

A sweep of his hand drew a meteoric arc above him. The runes flashed and subsided, the air's heaviness dissolved. Laeryn raised his head from the book and rubbed at his eyes. Necromantic manuals were never meant for casual reading. That this particular book was one of the few remaining copies of The Magicks of Life and Death, one of many different journals by Fistandantilus, deepened the inherent risk. Most books related to magic held some sort of key. Here, speaking the words aloud heightened comprehension, but the potent archmage Fistandantilus had been a man of little sympathy for the unskilled or careless. A single misspoken phrase might blow up half the building, and too much in one sitting was equally dangerous – the aura slowly building up nearby had hinted at dire consequences.

But the reading had been enlightening. Ever so enlightening.

Gently closing the cover and wrapping the text in slender platinum wires, Laeryn replaced the book in the large cabinet along one wall. Other books of dissimilar size, color, and material occupied most of the shelves. Most professed to be treatises on magic or monsters or planar societies of some sort; one fat manual, labeled the Codex of Beasts and Beings, had dozens of markers protruding from its pages. Along the bottom row were thinner volumes, spellbooks. The elf fingered one gently, running a hand along the green spine. The collection was small for a spellcaster as old as him. Magic's allure tugged at the elf, but he was just that – an elf. He studied history, learning its lessons; with over a millennium to live, he could not afford to repeat the mistakes of the past, lest they chase him for eternity. Laeryn's world, Krynn, once boasted many puissant mages.

He had noticed, unsettlingly, the number of them to descend into dark madness.

Care and thought was the key, he knew it. The true test of magic's students was not how large the fireball, but when and how it was used. A power word could smash the sight from a man, but if it didn't need to be permanent, a simple light or darkness enchantment thrown on the eyes had the same effect. Cutting loose with a barrage of powerful spells only served to tarnish the mind and, especially on Earth, attract unwanted attention. Best to reserve strength for when it became unavoidable.

If all else fails, I still have my sword. Laeryn lovingly stroked the sheathed blade leaning against his bed. He had practiced only infrequently over the past months. That was probably a mistake. The elven bladesong, his preferred fighting style, faded swiftly from the mind, it complex movements necessitating constant practice. Kanyil would have a sparring partner again soon… as long as the flash bastard didn't use his own in-born magical tricks to levitate over the elf's head.

His eyes slid back to the manual he'd returned to the bookshelf. Perhaps another review of the material…

The small window clinked. Kanyil hung outside, upside down, waving cheerfully and tapping on the glass with a dagger. His cloak and hair splayed out under him, obscuring the admittedly dismal view of a couple of stores near CWAL HQ. He held a canvas-wrapped bundle in his arms. Now what could that be? A short command phrase, and the window glowed, unlocked, and rose to allow the drow entry. Kanyil heaved his burden in to Laeryn. Then he grabbed the window and flipped inward, twisting like a snake to fit through the modest opening.

Laeryn hefted the thing slightly, measuring its weight. "Feels like a bundle of firewood."

Kanyil simply smiled. "Your search go well?"

"I suppose it depends on your definition of 'well,'" Laeryn said, still nudging the parcel interestedly. "Rask wasn't paying any attention this morning, useless electrical abomination that it is, and nobody else was awake at the time, but it appears we're not quite out of luck. Wait a moment."

Laeryn whistled a complex tune, a signal used in his home forests to call for assistance. His door opened, and a small figure holding a doll and a teacup scampered in. Kanyil's face screwed up. "You're a madman. She's less reliable than a frightened kobold."

"Don't be so harsh. Crystal, tell him what you saw."

The small dark-haired child grinned precociously – drawing a faintly sick look from Kanyil – as she dutifully recited, "Mr. Shaggy Man."

"…Go on," Laeryn said, gesturing meaningfully and ignoring the raised eyebrow from the other elf.

"Oh." Her face scrunched up in thought. "He was fillin' up a big water pistol scuba tank with some of the water from Mr. Pie-Man's keg downstairs."

She beamed at them. Laeryn picked up a cookie from the table and handed it to her. "Now go back outside and play. If I need you again, I'll call." Crystal tottered off; Kanyil regarded him neutrally. "The story's bizarre, but it makes sense with a bit of thought. Lothos stomped out a few hours back with one of those giant water guns that need backpacks for storage. Odd behavior, no? He usually carries that axe of his. Gaval keeps a barrel of holy water down in the Newbie Dungeon for emergencies. Gaval and Lothos were conversing early this morning."

Kanyil tapped his fingertips together. "Gaval convinced Lothos to do something for him. Or Lothos convinced Gaval to let him do it, more likely. I truly hope Gaval has not sunk that low, in intellect or desperation, to go to Lothos voluntarily." He reconsidered. "I am wrong, I do."

"Gaval's mental state is unimportant." Four strides took Laeryn to his shelf, where he removed a small paper scrap. "Earth is noticeably short of fiends, so that reserves holy water for undead and priests of opposing faiths. Usually, at least. Around here…" He checked the note. "I don't suppose Earth has any surprisingly evil artifacts vulnerable to immersion in holy water around, does it?"

"Aside from that sword of Sephroth's, and Zarkal, I don't think Earth has many artifacts period."
"Right, right, just checking if you knew something I don't." Laeryn folded the note and slipped it into his belt under the clip for his sheath. "Not too many priests of demonic powers locally, we'd have found them, so let's go see what the local undead are up to. Give me my sword."

"Hold up," Kanyil ordered. "Check the sack."

Laeryn knelt down and put the bundle on the floor. His supple fingers untwisted the silken twine holding it together. The canvas split and fell away, dumping a pile of debris onto the soil. "Eh? What's so special about a pile of sticks, some chunks of glass, and a packet of dust from-" His almond-shaped eyes crinkled. "I'm stupid. A pile of stakes, some chunks of vials, and a packet of vampire remains. I'm impressed you dug this stuff up so fast. The ASG is usually good about cleaning up after itself."

"They're strapped for men lately." His face reflected a devilish delight. "From the look of things, anyway, you'd need a professional landscaping team to clean up that place. It was an alley down in the broken-down district; a couple of beggars heard the gunfire, they spread the news all over the local underworld and we both know how easy it is to find them. Bullet holes and broken Slayer weapons all over the place, and I found a xerat scar right under a five-story building."

Laeryn shivered. Xerat were nasty gargoyle-like beasts that inhabited ruins carved in cliffs back on his Outer Planes. They adored snatching travelers, shaking them wildly, and propelling them to their death below. Thus had the cracks in stone formed by a falling body acquired their Sigilian name. "How many people?"

"From the scuffling marks, over a dozen Slayers and about half a dozen vampires, give or take a few on each side. It's a real mess." Kanyil shook his head, setting his ivory hair swinging. "Somebody splattered against a wall. And it felt like there was something else floating around. Kinda reminded me of that damned lich in Automata. Took weeks to root him out…"

He's reminiscing again. Kanyil had done mercenary work for centuries before joining up with Laeryn – who had done the same, although with slightly more scruples – and he enjoyed comparing tales with the elf. "Big undead, then. Probably the head of the vampire circle they were raiding. From how Gaval's moping, I'd guess he sent them their guts in wrapped parcels. It must have… surprised them…" His eyes half-closed in consternation.

"As would I," Kanyil said with a half-hidden chuckle. "Well, that's that mystery solved. What say we go back to tracing Sephroth and Zarkal? We nearly had the marble last time, in Islamabad."

Laeryn hesitated. The three-way magical war had been ongoing since November of 1999, when Zarkal had managed to get away from the ruins of Manhattan. Now Earth was experiencing its first magical feud in centuries, with demon, artifact, and elf furiously tracking each other and waiting for a chance to strike without summoning attention. They'd been remarkably successful; he wondered if anyone else on the planet even had an inkling. To battle in the open invited interference by other agencies, but this silent war dragged on, and might do so for centuries to come at its current rate.

And yet…

He stood up and walked to his window. How in the Abyss could the Slayers have missed the approach of a vampire so devastatingly powerful? And if they hadn't – something Laeryn suspected – then something had killed a dozen forewarned Slayers without much of a sweat. Impressive… but not a vampire. It couldn't be. Those weren't strong enough, and with their slew of vulnerabilities it could never hold off that many Slayers for long.

"Kanyil," he said, looking back over his shoulder, "I think we should take a little trip."

"You already had leads on those two? Terrific." The drow hopped up, a spring in his step. "We'll pop back and get my swords and we can go check this out. Maybe snag a few potions, just in case."

Laeryn allowed a faint smile to break through. "Actually, I think we'll need your sack of holding more than anything else."

"…Eh?"

**********
A trickle of ancient dust settled purposefully onto Kanyil's head. "This is not what I expected when you mentioned a fact-finding trip, Laeryn."

High shelves rose over his head, leaving only a few feet of space between their grime-encrusted tops and the rudely carved ceiling. Lichens and mosses clung to whatever flat surfaces existed, and the rest of it held ugly, blocky pictures of humans doing whatever in the hells this religion demanded. The catacomb, surprisingly moist for something that professed to store books, boasted puddles of muddy water every few feet. His boots, had he not made sure they were proof against moderately powerful acids – let alone water – would have soaked through long ago.

The books, to Kanyil's amazement, were well preserved. If he were any judge, the deterioration of this storeroom had begun less than a decade ago. Much longer and most of the works, shabby and ancient things, should have fallen to ever-present molds and fungi. Their spines displayed languages Kanyil had never even heard of, so he supposed they were exceptionally old. He snorted to himself as he tugged one out of place and flipped it open; the pages held pictures of men battling dragons. He looked down the book-lined canyon, holding the leaves up for easy sight. "They call these dragons? What kind of clueless moron drew this? Dragons don't have that many horns."

Sitting under a wisp-like orb of magical light, studying a brittle scroll with the aid of a translation spell, Laeryn hissed peevishly. "I'm trying to study, Kanyil, and you're supposed to be watching the girl. Where is she, anyhow?"

On cue an alarmingly pink figure levitated over Kanyil's head. "This place is spooky. Hey, neat!" Crystal, motes of fey pink light clinging fuzz-like to her, darted above a bookcase and returned holding a foot-long rat by its tail. It gyrated wildly in hope of escaping, gnashing its teeth at her fingers and hissing like a broken steam pipe. "I'll name him Mr. Fuzzles."

"Crystal, what did I say about disease-infested underground vermin?" Laeryn chided as he continued reading. While probably destined to be a genius later in life, Crystal's inordinate fascination with all things animal hadn't allowed her formidable mind to come to bear on extremely important concepts like "rabies."

She innocently said, "He lives in a cave outside Irvine?" Her memory was unsettlingly good, too. Too bad she rarely comprehended meaning.

"I'm going to harm you, Laeryn," Kanyil announced pleasantly.

"I hadn't been able to find you and I was annoyed. Crystal, put the rodent away and get the sack. I shall need this scroll." Laeryn rolled it up. "A brief listing of the undead the ASG had encountered before the year 1300," he told Kanyil. "Maybe we'll find some clues in there."

The drow shrugged and crouched down, then leapt straight up. His fingers easily caught the top of the shelf, and he hauled himself up. His eyes easily pierced the absolute blackness spreading for a hundred feet in all directions. "I didn't know there were vaults this large under Rome."

"They're mainly owned by the Vatican," Laeryn said. The elf took a large bag from Crystal and dropped the scroll inside. It disappeared from sight as it passed through the mouth. "I read about them in an old encyclopedia. They store all sorts of records, stolen treasures, and artifacts down here. The bastards have thousands of valuable works down here. They should be in a museum, available to everybody, not stuck down here in the cold and dank."

Kanyil frowned. Few elves agreed with hiding history, for their lives spanned huge portions of it. If something happened, it happened. Learn from it and move on. Trying to cover things up only fostered myths and recurrent mistakes. "We'll have to fix that- Hold it, somebody's just come in." A lamp bobbed down the arch-framed stairs. Kanyil knew there were guards up there, but the three hadn't entered from above. Teleportation was by far tidier than breaking and entering. "Keep silent. I'll take him."
"Don't kill-" Laeryn broke off, fuming. The drow was already gone, sprinting along the narrow, low space with inhuman agility. "Damn him to the Abyss, he's bent on calling the guards unto our heads. I don't want them to notice… Come on, Crystal, let's get further back in the room. Try to stay quiet," he tossed back to her as he gathered up his bag and set off. The girl nodded gleefully and skipped along after, the light orb sticking close to her.

Near the back, the cavernous chamber opened up into what appeared to be an artifact storehouse. Statues, golden chalices, heavily engraved weapons and armor, carved frescoes… I knew they had immense treasure down here, but this is madness! I could buy and furnish a castle with this hoard. This stuff belongs in a museum, Laeryn stammered furiously in the confines of his own mind, too angry to speak the thought aloud. How can they conceal this down here? Have they no respect?

Crystal pattered up to a rack holding rusty chain mail and a dagger whose blade was gnarled and twisted like an ancient tree trunk; a small sticker announced them to be around fifteen hundred years old. "Funny lookin' knife," she said. "What's all this stuff doin' down here?"

He wondered if he should bother trying to explain human greed yet. Clever as she was, the girl was yet young and innocent.

"Somebody wants it here, I suppose. But not all of it belongs here," he added darkly. "We'll just-"

A robed man stumbled out of the darkness betwixt the shelves, pasty-faced with absolute terror. His arm snaked around behind him, held in place by the shorter, lithe figure directing his movements. Kanyil held a dagger to his charge's throat and waved cheerfully to Laeryn. "He didn't make a sound when the knife touched him. Smart man," he said approvingly, removing the dagger and kicking him solidly in the small of his back. The human tumbled at Laeryn's feet. Crystal chanted something and floated back up into the air to get a better view.

Sympathy twanged in him. Kanyil jumping out of the darkness, thrusting terror deep into the spirit, was not an experience he would relish. "Just knock him out. We don't need his help, we're only looking for books about Earth's undead."

"Are you kidding? This guy could be a great help." Kanyil prodded him forcefully with the knifepoint; a small crimson stain appeared on the white cloth. "If I read the robe right, he's a cardinal… or a bishop, never could keep them straight. You people have quite a bit of influence with the ASG, don't you?" The man shook his head fearfully; Kanyil belted him. "Don't you?"

Laeryn put a hand on the drow's wrist. "No torture," he said warningly, "subtle or not. You know I don't like it, and we have Crystal here, too."

Kanyil regarded the girl bitterly. "It's so much faster than asking vapid questions."

"No."

"All right, all right. But you, human, are going to cooperate, or I'll ignore my companion's admonitions." Which, of course, I will, if he decides to be a fool.

Laeryn crouched down before the man. "Now, sir, I'm curious. What exactly happened the other day in Irvine? I'm quite sure you know."

"Nothing." The man's teeth were chattering so hard he'd need to see a dentist if it kept up much longer. It was probably the presence of Kanyil, holding an adamantite dagger and standing outside the circle of light so that he was only a cloaked shadow with burning red eyes.

"Now you're insulting my intelligence."

The man swallowed; he looked to be on the urge of vomiting. "The ASG is secret, its operations are not to be discussed outside of meetings…"

"Consider this a meeting," Kanyil whispered softly.

"…A team of Slayers was ambushed by the Plague Sever Spectre while attacking a small circle of vampires. That's all I know! I swear it! You'll need to ask someone closer to the Guild if you want more."

Laeryn grinned delightedly. Plague Sever Spectre. I've never heard of that. It isn't in the Codex, and that has almost every variety of undead known to the planes… or at least, the planes back home… If I could document a new undead type from this little cluster, I could trade the data to the Codex's editors in exchange for something useful. I'm always in the market for more magic. "Are there books on it?"

"Yes. That shelf over there. We… kept them near the back because we thought they'd died out…"

Kanyil whistled quietly. "And killing an aasimon gets rid of it permanently."

Laeryn glared patiently, but moved to the shelf indicated. "Well, well. On the Gruesome Spectre of the Moors, Tomes of the Dead, Lurker of the Shadows… That sounds like an undead monster to me. I'll take this one, and this one, and-"
"INTRUDERS!"

A dagger was rocketing from Kanyil's hand before the second syllable finished leaving the man's mouth, but it could do little to stop the echoes of the cardinal's shout. With a vile curse Kanyil approached and ripped the dagger out of the back of the man's skull. "Gods-damned human! He'd have gotten out alive if he'd kept his fool mouth closed. I hate priests, they always figure they'll end up in their deity's good graces for doing something obscenely half-witted…"

"Too late now," Laeryn muttered tightly, shoving an entire shelf of books into his satchel. "I hope there are fiends chewing on his head. Crystal, grab the dagger and the big golden cup over there. Kanyil, pick out some books or museum pieces you think we ought to take back."

The drow grinned and immediately headed for a pile of old weapons. Angry yells touched his ears from the entryway; he kept careful track of the approaching footsteps. "There should be something valuable in here."

Why is that not surprising? "Okay, we're going to have to leave real fast when they get here, so-"

"No, just keep going," ordered Kanyil. He handed the elf a large gold-engraved Norse claymore. "Hang on to that, I want to examine it. Take whatever else you like. I'll… occupy them while you two work."

"More corpses. Grand. We're both going to end up in Gehenna when we die."

Kanyil bowed and, with a powerful leap, propelled himself onto the top of the shelves again. He started running, silent even to Laeryn's ears. Seven sets of feet splashed through the wet room. They aren't even trying to be quiet. Either they're heavily armed or just overconfident. It may well be both. Thousands of allies wait above us, after all.

He stopped and flattened out along the bookcase, his slim frame and dark coloration blending well in the gloom. Several instants later the party of investigators tramped around a bend and passed right beneath him, their flashlights flashing on the floor; humans born and raised under the sun often forgot that underground presented an extra arena of combat. Smiling, Kanyil counted the weapons. Three men with guns, four with… oak stakes. He shook his head. Slayers. Let's catch the bastards by surprise… Battle was more than plain brute force. To strike an enemy with terror could break him and send him fleeing without effort, or slow his retaliation.

He slid his swords out, knocked back his cloak, and rolled off the ledge, landing deftly behind the group. He dashed forward and hamstrung a straggler with a sure strike, decapitated the man with the blade's sister, and jumped straight up, letting his cloak billow and his hair stream wildly. As the men whirled, he reached the top of his arc and started to fall.

The humans saw before them a black-skinned apparition, eyes the red of embers and hair alive, twining among itself like snakes. Its hellishly black swords, painted now with the blood of the comrade they found lying at their feet, snapped forward, thirsting for more. Fear cuts deepest, he thought with a cruel twist of his lip. The two trailing gunmen crumpled within moments, Kanyil's swords cutting them down as if they were paper dolls. The drow danced back out of range, allowing the men to see their friends fall. If they were smart, they'd throw down their weapons and run, give in to the fear that stunned and doomed them. He didn't intend to kill them if he didn't have to waste the effort.

A stakeholder cocked his arm back, but his hand trembled so that he needed a moment to aim. Kanyil wasted no time, bounding in and knocking the stake from the air with a sword tip even as it left the hand – and drilling that tip into the man's neck. The man fell limp, and Kanyil jerked the corpse in line with the gunman, who had finally raised his rifle. The stream of bullets bit into the flesh and set it dancing wildly. Sidestepping and shifting the impromptu shield, the warrior used his other sword to force back a Slayer intending to jump on his back.

The rifleman's automatic clicked mockingly. Kanyil smiled fiercely and heaved the corpse away, bowling over the second Slayer. Then he waded into the three men, idly wondering if Laeryn had left yet.

As the last man fell, Kanyil poked his flank with the toe of his boot; it came away bloody. "You people are out of practice. You mustn't get many invaders around here…" He listened silently for a while. He still heard the sounds of Crystal and Laeryn fishing around for interesting treasures. "Hey, Laeryn! I'm going to head up and see what kind of diversion I can arrange! Leave whenever you feel like it, I'll get in contact later."

"What?!" Laeryn shrieked across the vault. "Are you insane?"

"Yes. See you in a while!"

**********

"Right, let me see if I understand this… This news report states that 'a mysterious terrorist killed seven guards in an underground vault at the Vatican. Then he proceeded to rob the place of many artifacts-'"

"That was you."

"Quiet. "Continuing, '-slay three sentries left to watch the entrance-'"

"Wait, that doesn't tally. I only killed two, I just chopped the other's side open. And two of the ones downstairs were only wounded."

"Stone floors. Human skulls. '-sprint through the halls of a major church and attract several squads of gunmen whose attempts to stop him merely destroyed several dozen statues, jump out a third story building, and land on a power cable which he used as a tightrope to escape into the crowded city beyond.' The Vatican has publicly condemned the actions of the 'hooded, cloaked, and possibly insane assassin' and 'there are indications that the man may have been a Muslim holy warrior from the style of his concealing garments.' The governments of several Middle Eastern countries 'immediately declared their outrage at the accusation' and 'vowed to match insult for insult.'"

Laeryn sighed, crumpling up the paper and casting it aside. "You're impossible. And too lucky."

"That was purely skill," protested Kanyil, contriving to look hurt.

The answer was a raised eyebrow. "Twelve guys with guns and you don't have a scratch on you."

"That's a lie." Kanyil pointed to a slim cut on the back of his hand. "That stone chip really stung." And I ducked through a crowd of tourists to avoid the storm of bullets, but I see no reason to tell you that.

"I should never have gone to fetch you. You'd have fun getting back her from Rome." His face turned a sick shade of grey. "You would, wouldn't you."

Kanyil grinned broadly and clapped the elf's forearm. They were back in the elf's room, sitting at Laeryn's little table. Crystal bounced on the bed, to Kanyil's disconcertion. "But it was fun, and you got your books, so that's all that matters."

"Aside from the pile of corpses you left, and the international incident."

"It's no worse than the tavern in Pandemonium – which was all your fault."

"I told you never to speak of that again."

"Coward!" taunted Kanyil cheerfully. "You're just aggravated that the githyanki you were arguing with had friends."

"Anyway, I read the portions of those books relevant to that Spectre thing," Laeryn told him. His hand took in the pile of books and other items taken from the vault. Set aside from the others was a small scroll. A very interesting scroll indeed. I'll be having a chat with someone tonight. "It appears to me to be some kind of supreme spectre, like a greater mummy compared to a regular mummy. Seems like it's deeper submerged into the Negative Energy plane. Who on this planet even knows of the existence of other planes, I'm not sure. There was no author on that book. He's dead by now."

Tapping his knuckles together thoughtfully, Kanyil murmured, "Means the usual tricks wouldn't work to kill it."

"I'm betting that way, too. No little tricks with inversion spells."

"Those are always hilarious, though…"

"Too bad. Even allowing for ignorant-peasant-style hyperbole, the thing they're describing here is a nasty beast." Laeryn placed a scroll on the table and unrolled it, tapped a picture of a deformed skeleton fastening talons into a shriveled man's body. "If I'm not mistaken, it might be half the reason why there aren't many – or really, any – mages around here."

"Oh?" Kanyil leaned closer, curious.

"This paragraph here-" Laeryn indicated a series of scribbles that Kanyil couldn't decipher. "-refers to an 'unseen beast, that tracks our shamans and farseers no matter how they run, throwing dreadful fear into them.' It's from some African tribe, I think. That small red book at the top of the pile is a journal of a Slayer from a while back, and it tells how a spectre managed to follow him for miles even though it was well out of sight. It tracks life energy being magically manipulated, I'd say, maybe why Slayers attract it like flies. Simple logic says it'd probably be best for local humans to drop the talent for magic or drop their chance at a long life span. Whether it'll find us tasty, though, I don't feel like testing."

"The benefits of being from elsewhere," Kanyil quipped.

"Don't get cocky. Earth's similar to the home cluster, so if we get caught I'd lay odds we'd be up the Styx without a marraenoloth."

"So, are we going to go kill this thing?"

"Gods' blood, no! I still need more information. Got to get a meticulous first-hand observation."

"I see. You've gone mad."

"Never. I'm just… extrapolating from past actions. You know how the Codex's editors sometimes reward people for giving them detailed reports on powerful and unique monsters? Descriptions, combat prowess, special powers?" Kanyil nodded warily. "What'll they offer for a ridiculously powerful undead, do you think?"

"A lot," the drow answered fervently.

"Exactly. I was thinking some rare spell scrolls, myself, but I'm open to suggestions."

"A vorpal sword," he shot out instantly. His eyes widened as another thought occurred to him. "Forged of adamantite."
"Now you've gone mad," laughed the bladesinger. "I don't think any mage will spend five years enchanting a sword like that for somebody else."

He shrugged eloquently. "'Twas worth a try, faerie. I assume we now have to track the beastie down? This should be an interesting trick. I hate to say this, but your divining skills are abhorrent. A blind hobgoblin could find this spectre better than you and your magic, especially since we don't know where to start looking. It could be in Canada by now."

"It's probably still nearby," reasoned Laeryn. "If only because there are still Slayers in the region – 'the unliving don't waste food,' as they say. Not to mention Crystal and myself." He froze, ice tinkling through his heart. Crystal. It might just decide to try to eat her. I'll have to watch the poor girl carefully while this thing is around. "And it's only been a little while since it was last seen. So I'm not going to try to track it. I think, instead, we'll set ourselves a little trap and bring it to us. Then we can have it on our own- You okay?"

Kanyil sat staring at the pile of rescued artifacts. He slowly rose and picked up the knife Crystal had first noticed back at the Vatican. "Where did you find this?"

"On a rack. I've never seen an Earth weapon like it, so I decided to bring it up from that tomb of knowledge. You want it?"
"…Yes," he replied softly. "Yes, indeed. Was there a plaque or something talking about it?"

"A marker. Had 'around A. D. 500' written on it. A new addition to your collection?"

Kanyil held the dagger up to catch the last glints of the sun as it set. "You might well say that." Abruptly he opened the window and began to climb out. "I have to go. Good luck with your spectre."

Laeryn snatched the hem of his cloak before he'd entirely disappeared. "Where're you off to? I might need your help, you know."

"You'll be fine. Just obliterate it if you can't study it safely."

"Yes, but where are you going?"

"Nowhere that matters," he murmured, ripping the cloth from Laeryn's fingers and disappearing down the side of the building.
The elf indignantly crossed his arms over his chest. Kanyil disappeared for no reason sometimes, often with no prior warning. He'd learned to cope, but sometimes the timing was bad. "That was inconvenient. I suppose I'll have to make do, though. Crystal, I think I'm going to need your help." By Eli, I'm sinking as low as Gaval.

**********

Night overtook the land, as it had for eons. The stars tinkled brightly, incapable of understanding the tiny creatures that whiled away their brief lives under the soft light. Humanity throughout California turned itself in, sealing itself against the dark with soft comforters and blissful dreams.

And miles from the urban sprawl of Irvine and Los Angeles, a forest clearing glowed brighter than a stadium.

A full menagerie of fuzzy woodland creatures padded uncertainly around the perimeter. Called into existence without prior warning by a small child in a sweater – one who lacked fundamental knowledge about reproductive drives – they were left wanting in the reason-for-being department. Only the lithe elf etching symbols in the air kept them near the meadow. It seemed… safer to be near him.

Laeryn 's concentration excluded the animals entirely. They would stick around regardless of what he did simply because of his race – an advantage, a disadvantage, and a fact of life rolled into one – and in this case he wanted them here. They were a source of magical energy, just like practically everything else in the clearing now that Crystal was here. She shot around like a psychopath on drugs, breathing life into whatever struck her fancy. The tall cliff face backing the cleared area sported a filigree of shining letters proclaiming the supremacy of cotton candy. Rocks had become piles of whipped cream and ice cream. A forlorn-looking tree's flowers flashed and were stuffed animals.

Magic, the books had intimated, might attract this thing. Crystal's spectacular wild surges stood out against the negligible background magic of Earth as a supernova obscured a flashlight. The presence of the two raised the area's eldritch visibility a light-year over the surrounding state.

Verdant irises flicked to Crystal, playing happily with a bemused anteater while munching on a bag of chocolates. Did this spectre delight in raw force or had it developed a taste for refined power? Innocence or wisdom? Academic musing. Laeryn had no intention of allowing the monster to sink its unalive tendrils into the girl or himself. Some of the locally accumulated energy arose not from Crystal's freewheeling efforts, but from a few smaller preparations he himself had engendered. A lopsided boulder protruding at the base of the cliff. Indistinct shimmering around the elf. Flattened grass thirty feet to the side. Strange breaks in the lower surfaces of the rock face. Three hours of preparation time had been amply filled.

He checked the sheets of parchment clipped to a writing tablet by his foot. Flowing elvish script summarized the important notes he'd gleaned from study of the Slayers' former books. Line three read: "'Take heed, ye young hunters, the fiend betrays its coming by the clacking of stones on stones.' Spectre makes some sort of clattering noise as it moves. (Semi-material after all? Or similar to poltergeist's chains?)" He'd be able to hear the thing easily, then, if humans could hear it before it attacked. Whether he could track it the same way he knew not; none of the books told if the sounds emanated from the same spot as the undead itself. Humans relied on their ears far less than elves. And the worse off they are for it…

"Crystal, come over here. I think," he said as yet another animal dropped onto Earth from the nether regions of her mind, "the place is quite ready."

"Awww…" Her pout dissolved. "Can I bring Mr. Fuzzles?" She picked up her newest conjured victim.

"Who? …Crystal, send the blasted rat back to Rome," he told the little wizardess.

Her eyes widened as if the thought was beyond her. The rat, for its part, started snapping at its tail in hopes of escaping the evidently deranged biped swinging it about as if it were a yo-yo. "But… But he likes me! And he's so cute! He's got such funny fur!"

"I'd be justified to label that 'mold,' Crystal," said Laeryn wryly. His gaze hardened. "Just teleport the poor animal back." It committed no crime, it doesn't deserve this. With a sulk, Crystal chanted a short spell and fired the animal back across the planet to its underground home. "Good girl."

Settling down beside him, the girl stared at him with undisguised interest. "So what do we do now, Mr. Laeryn?"

"Hopefully, we don't wait for long," he murmured back. "I'm somewhat willing to believe our quarry will have been tracking us since we left the city, but if it is not, we may have to wait all night for it to realize we are out here."

"All night?" she repeated. "That'll be boring." Her eyes glowed suddenly. And literally. "Can we play Smite the Evil with Sharp Things?"

A short cantrip removed Crystal's luminescence. She'd been getting quite good at manipulating magic for effect lately… "…You've been talking to Gaval again."

"He gave me donuts with sprinkles," stated the girl solemnly, "so I helped him with his list of playmates."

Laeryn twisted the girl's youth-warped comment into sensibility – and realized it still didn't work for him. Instead he started to ask, "Why don't we try another game instead? Maybe one not involving stakes?" but he unexpectedly fell silent. Just audible over the soft breeze was the sound of many dice jostling together in a box. Stony-faced, the elf rose and looked off in that direction. "So early. Guests arrive when you least expect them." Our clearing must be as a deva in Acheron. "Crystal, you remember your role?"

"Yuppers!"

"Superb," he breathed. In the name of the Abyss, I'm trusting a seven year old. "Stay silent until then. After which… whether it hears you shouldn't matter a great deal."

Crystal's herd of summoned pets had gone silent. Faint, chilly winds bore down on the clearing, setting off primal urges and chilling their thoughts. Understanding lurked somewhere in them. This thing wending its way to the little field embraced their fear and pain as a fine meal, a thing to be savored for as long as possible before fully devoured. The more timid pawed nervously at the topsoil, inching to the forest edge in preparation for a mad dash away. And with every second, the chattering built, the last shadow of a long-dead race wafting on the wind of rage and pain and hate toward elf and girl.

Glacial spikes stabbed through Crystal's limbs, and Laeryn felt an instinctive tensing in his muscles. Krynnish elves despised undead. Laeryn held the unthinking revulsion as being wrong, for many undead were the same as they had been in life… but the body remembers much that the mind forgets. Given the merest loss of control, he would probably forget his goal – and dislike of excessive sorcery – and immolate half the forest to vaporize the abomination.

Louder yet, the mad jabbering blasted into Laeryn's ears. It couldn't be more than a hundred feet off, but the sound echoed… It bounced and flickered and vibrated around the trees and from the cliff, and it seemed the spectre might be anywhere around them. You should have done this in a field! he scolded himself, yet not harshly. The strange effect might be part of the sound itself. Or was it more than that? Were there more spectres? Was the noise a decoy, meant to draw him away from some other danger? Sephroth would not be above-

No. Sephroth hid himself hundreds of miles away. This had to be the spectre.

Hadn't it?

Crystal whimpered. Laeryn looked down at her pale and shivering features…

"'…throwing dreadful fear into them.'"

Gods' blood, I'm a fool.

Of course the damned thing would throw off an aura of terror. They all did that. Make the victim hesitate, he became yours. The same trick Kanyil had used in the vault, the mantra inscribed on his mantle, and here he was joyfully leaping right into its arms. I underestimated the humans, thought the bladesinger ruefully. They hadn't just panicked, they were being forced to feel fear.

He snatched Crystal's shoulder, jarring the girl. With a stammered gasp the child hopped away from his touch. She recovered her senses when she looked and saw his face. Keeping her voice low, "M-Mr. Laeryn? What's that noise?"

"Just the spectre," he told her, "so it'd be a good idea for you to cast your spell."

"I, uh, um…" Crystal sprang from foot to foot, reconsidering this whole idea. This wasn't fun, this was scary. It was worse than the nightmare with the giant oatmeal monster! Why were they sticking around here, anyway? There wasn't anything special about some dumb old spectre. Going home, that'd be good. Where it was warm and safe. Her bed…

Laeryn ran a hand across her arm. "The spell. You must learn to ignore this. Use your magic and leave the rest to me."

Crystal's lips shrunk into a thin pale line. Concentrating, she lifted twitching fingers and swept into the incantation. Faerie motes whirled out of the ground around her and gathered themselves at the tips of her fingers. Bright pink streamers flailed from her outstretched hands, plunging down into the woods and wreathing something deep within in a shower of energy – and overhead, a boot rocketed past on a tower of flame. When both lights faded, Laeryn caught a glimpse of a dark shadow slashing between tree trunks. Now we can see you. Can you see us?

It sidled into the field scattering wildlife before it in a thoughtless frenzy, a skeleton drifting a few feet from the flowers. Fracture lines broke the smoothness of its skull, dents and chinks covered its bones. A miasma of noxiousness tainted the air around it. Laeryn felt a literal chill joining the metaphysical cold spinning around them. Crystal crept behind him. This, then, is one of Earth's spectres. He eyed it thoughtfully as it lashed its head around, seeking its victims. …A right cruel bastard if I'm any judge.

He squatted and placed a quill to the writing tablet, quickly jotting down a summary of the appearance as the spectre locked its vacant eyes on the patch of flattened grass. With any luck, it would be seeing an image of himself and Crystal, sitting with backs to it, chanting something nonsensical but seemingly magical; a novitiate-level cantrip kept grass from jutting up through an illusionary leg. Crystal and him were cloaked; the origin of Crystal's spell of sight should have looked to be the illusion.
He hoped it hadn't heard the girl's chant.

Well, no reason to worry yet. He had a description of the creature's appearance. Now to test its combat prowess. He made a slight gesture with his hand. Pieces of the gloom along the forest edge detached and rippled toward the phantom.

They rose up around the spectre, three of them. Shadows summoned from his home's Negative Energy plane, they clawed at the foreign undead with claws of freezing nothingness. The spectre reared back, its vapors writhing furiously in its rage at the audacity of this food to set an ambush for it. And the wretched little live things hadn't even turned to face it! They would suffer for such an affront – a cold like they'd never feel alive. Its jaw sagged wide, and it belted out a mind-burning shriek of rage, pain, fear, torment. Crystal, leaning against the elf's back, convulsed.

Is she too young for this…? Laeryn rose as the shadows and spectre merged into a single roiling ball of gloom, a jabbering mass of ephemeral claws and unconfined hatred. The battling undead ricocheted around the clearing, shedding pieces of shadowstuff like crumbs. They blasted through the illusionary pair, obliterating the image and the cantrip holding the grass. Another bleat of fury cut the air to ribbons as the spectre saw the two in their true location, realized it had been fooled. Its efforts redoubled. Two of the shadows plummeted away in unison, their forms dissolving in true death. A swipe of a vicious claw blew away the third, and suddenly, shockingly, it floated alone in the air above.

Laeryn gave it an impressed look. Three shadows in ten seconds without a spot of apparent damage. He made a brief note on the paper, then stood up and fished a sliver of diamond from a pouch fixed to his tunic. Flicking it into the air, he made a complex gesture with the other hand. The blurring around them crackled and snapped into focus as a blue-green wall of energy. He drew his sword as a precaution – should the spectre prove able to punch through the shield, the situation would deteriorate very fast. It shouldn't. The incantation was drawn from Fistandantilus' tome and had been created especially to defeat the undead. For Laeryn there still remained a sliver of doubt; Fistandantilus had epitomized insanity and sadism. In any case, it would only last a few minutes. Best to hurry and take some more notes…

But before he could make a move, a flurry of tiny purple darts spat from behind him and out through the field. He looked down as Crystal, her skin bone-white. Her assault crashed through the spectre, cutting into the ribs. It screamed, and directed a hateful glare at the little insect, then flew straight for the shield. Laeryn said, "You probably could have avoided annoying it some more."

"B-but it's MEAN!" she shrieked, practically crying.

The spectre bellowed as its rebounded from the force wall. It directed a powerful blow against it, and was again rebuffed. "Crystal, there are far deadlier things on your world, let alone your unexplored planes. It cannot reach us, so use the time to master our sorcery in the grip of fear-" He came up short, haunted remorse laying a broadside across his mind. I use Kanyil's teachings on a child. How remorseless have I become?

Laeryn ran his hands through the golden strands trailing down his neck. "Crystal, we're leaving." The girl went limp, relieved. "I can finish this later. We'll get you back to your room and, I don't know, maybe fix you a mug of that hot chocolate you like…" Whatever it takes to drive this from your memory. He looked without, at the futilely thrashing beast. Could it sense that the shield was not a long-lived obstacle? It would stick around for a minute longer, no more, then the wrathful thing would be upon them. He again regretted the deterioration of his swordsmanship.

Waste not your life on regret, as the pixies say. Time to get out of here. Stretching his fingers, Laeryn began the intricate gestures of his spell. Tiny flickers ranged across the ward as its grip on reality slackened; the sight found itself exiled from the elf's mind. A short line of chanting twined itself around the spectre's hideous song, was repeated a few seconds later, and a flare of white eclipsed the clearing and the blue-green shield.

The light slipped away.

The spectre was still pounding on the wall five feet away.

Laeryn stepped back involuntarily. "How the- Oh, that worm-ridden son of a quasit! I knew this spell was too good a deal! Since when do undead guards block teleportation?" Traitorously, he remembered that some undead could throw magic as well as the living. Okay, it makes a little sense, but he could've written that in his damned book. So how to escape… Oh, by the Abyss, looks like we'll have to try the disaster plan.

We're still going to die.

"Mr. Laeryn, uh, this isn't my room."

"I'm aware of this, Crystal," he responded with forced calm, "so please do something useful and distract the stupid thing before the shield breaks!"

"How?"

"I don't know, fry it or something!"

"Skippy!" she yelled, raising her hands to the source of her torment. A stream of flowers exploded out of them.
Maybe it'll laugh too hard to kill us, Laeryn thought gloomily; the spectre, uncooperatively, roared again and pounded at the shield. The bladesinger jammed a hand into his pocket and withdrew a tiny diamond chunk; throwing it into the air, he made a wide circle with the other hand and outlined more runes within it. The shield flickered as a wall of transparent yellow superimposed itself over it. "That should be just enough…"

Crystal lashed out again, this time with a bolt of crackling lightning. The abomination shrugged it off with little effort; its shadowy features faded only slightly. Tough, too tough, can't just blitz it and hope it dies… Her hair lengthened a few inches in a wild surge, but Laeryn decided not to mention it just yet. Instead he returned to the reagent bags and came up with a tiny ball of sulfur and guano. "Old standby," he quipped with a grin, raising it for the spectre to see. "You see this, friend? You know what it is? Probably not. Too bad for you."

He pointed at the cracked cliff face, snapped a short command phrase.

The explosion rose above the trees, clawing for the stars.

**********
A quavering voice whispered, "It's dark."

"Yes, Crystal. That's what being buried under a cliff gets you." Laeryn saw the rivers of heat in her face slowing as she came to realize the collapsing precipice hadn't killed them.

"Why are we under here?"

"Back-up plan. I had the rock cut up like that so it would collapse more easily. I… made a guess, you might say, that if the rocks fell on us all the ambient magic floating around would keep it from realizing we were still alive under here, just like a single candle blends into a big chandelier." Truth be told, he was as shaken as the girl. The second spell he'd thrown up held off physical contact – why they weren't dead – but an incorporeal creature could flit through easily. He'd just wagered their lives on a guess. Thankfully, Crystal was too young to be angry… She'd actually inspired the plan with a youthfully curious question as to whether he'd ever knocked over a mountain. Too bad his hastily constructed shield had also channeled the blast around the spectre, leaving it unscathed but worried. He'd have liked to see it get scorched.

"That's why the big rockman hit the cliffs when we got here?"

"Correct." He'd had an earth elemental do the actual undermining of the rock formation. It had then melded into the ground, leaving only its head above ground. The boulder at the edge of the clearing. Laeryn could hear the summoned creature carving a path through the rubble to them. He considered it. No need to waste its presence. "Crystal, you wouldn't mind if it sat in your room tonight, would you?"

"Can I dress it up?" she gasped, awed by his generosity.

"I… suppose…" Laeryn exorcised thoughts of a twelve foot humanoid rock in a frilly dress. The elemental was wholly magical. Any spectral visitors in the night would have a nasty time with it.

"Yay!" The small cavern flashed briefly, destroying Laeryn's infravision. Something hissed and snapped tiny jaws. "Can I keep Mr. Fuzzles with me, too?"

"Leave the damned rat in Italy!"

"Aw…"

**********
Drained, Laeryn sank into his bed, savoring the feel of the sheets. The last night had managed to be an outright disaster in more ways than one and he just wanted to sit and think.

The poor girl. He hadn't had the right to do that to her. What had he been thinking, bringing a child along? Capable as she was, her spirit hadn't built the defenses needed to fight off an aura of terror of such magnitude. Would Crystal be feeling the trauma in the coming years? He hoped not. She could be resilient where it truly counted.

But what about me? I brought her in the first place. I didn't check the shield spell's notes thoroughly. He had discovered, to his shame, that Fistandantilus had indeed noted its restriction of teleportation. For the sake of a few scrolls that aren't even a guarantee. Dammit. Not next time. If I'm to try another observation, it will be with Kanyil and not a defenseless child.
He'd been by Aura's room earlier, to drop off the interesting scroll he'd picked up in the vaults. Laeryn couldn't imagine why something addressed specifically to her might be found in the slayers' archives, but she'd literally thrown him out of the room and slammed the door after unrolling it and starting to read. He rubbed his bruised shoulder. The woman was not in a mood to be trifled with. He laid odds that the scroll was from Zarkal. The crazed marble, for some reason, didn't like her. "Just another beautiful problem," he sighed. "I hope the damned spectre manages not to get killed before Kanyil returns"

It would continue feeding on slayers. That much was sure. Pain nibbled at the back of his mind. He wanted it alive, for the sake of increasing his magic. Yet… How many would die?

Bah. You've killed thousands in your life, and taken the spoils from their burned and hacked remains. If the slayers were a band of thieves in their hideout, would you be so reticent about their deaths? The voice was soft, calming, amiable.

No. But the slayers mean well. They at least try to destroy the devils in the dark.

So do you. When you have what you need, kill the spectre. Problem solved. A few dead humans are nothing to your, or I. What is seventy years beside a thousand?

The same.

You truly believe that.

I must, or I am a waste. Crystal is worth as much as any elf.

Don't let such feelings get the better of you, bladesinger. The two of us are always watching.

As I do to you, Sephroth.

Enjoy your reverie. Perhaps I'll spare you trouble tonight… I think this month will be just the beginning of them. The contact faded away.

One of these days he would remember to renew his mental wards before resting. No matter. The demon wouldn't have bothered to speak if he'd planned to try to kill him. Laeryn yanked the cover over himself and sank into dreams.
 
 

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Year of the Spectre, Episode I would fall here...
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Act of Darkness

by Nighteye

***Shadowlands***

(It is dark a dreary in the Shadowlands, and a soft acidic drizzle fills the air as thunder rumbles in the distance. Nighteye sits on a throne in the main hall of Shadowkeep, his citadel. So far the appearance of the Spectre had been very good. Even so, Nighteye kept thinking about the reports he'd recieved about a hunting party formed by Gaval against the Spectre...it was far too useful to be destroyed so soon. The Spectre had already given him an opportunity to snare Gaval into a duel...and it killed a lot of Slayers. The longer it lived, the more Slayers it could kill...and perhaps there were more things he could use it for.)
 

After a short while of considering, weighing the matter, Nighteye summoned a small group of demons. The demons looked a bit like kobolds, only taller, with red skin and small horns. Their arms and legs were thin, but their claws were sharp. More important, though, was their intelligence and stealth.

"Listen up," Nighteye said to them, "tonight you will go to a city called Irvine, on a mission of stealth."

"No killing?" one of the demons asked with a small hint of sadness.

"No...not without good reason, in any case. In Irvine, there's a powerful undead being known as the Plague Sever. I have an interest in keeping it alive...there is, however, also a small group of Slayers and CWALers hunting it. While the Sever is powerful, I sense they have a chance to defeat it...sooner or later. Your job will be to delay them as much as possible, by any means necessary; but do not confront them directly. You will find the equipment down the hall, as well as one of my servants that will provide you with more information about the Sever..."

The demons bowed as one, and spoke: "As you command, so it shall be, master."

When they turned to leave, Nighteye called out to them again: "Oh, one more thing. If you fail..." He didn't need to finish the sentence...

As the demons left the room, a dark figure entered the room and made a small bow.

"Ah, there you are at last", said Nighteye with an evil grin, "I trust the preparations for the 'experiment' are well underway?"

***Irvine***

(It is night. A small group of dark figures in trenchcoats, wearing hats that conceal their faces in shadow, walk onto a parking lot, keeping a low profile.)

"Is this the place?", one of the figure asked with the slightest hint of doubt in his voice.

"It is...the young Slayers are trained in that building over there", answered another.

"Allright, let's start with their mobility, then, shall we?" said the first figure as the others fanned out across the parking lot. While they stood watch, he walked towards the only van on the parking lot, a shoddy looking old blue minivan, covered with spots of rust and chips of paint falling off. This had to be one of theirs.

The figure took out a small device, and stuck it under the engine. He connected it to another small device that he attached to the front-wheels axis. With a clawed hand he then set the counter to 3000 rotations. Next hunt they'd get stranded a good distance away...and would probably have to turn back or proceed on foot. He grinned inwardly. This was fun. Not as nice as killing, but still...

"Hurry up, get out of there!" came an urgent whisper from one of his companions. He quickly got out from under the car and hid behind a car at the edge of the parking lot. 2 young Slayers were taking a stroll in the moonlight.

"What are they saying?" whispered one of the figures.
"Be silent, I can't hear!" came the urgent reply.

The 2 slayers stopped and looked in their direction. Had they heard anything? After a few moments the slayers continued walking. A few of the figures sighed with a bit of relief. That was a close call...and there lay much work ahead yet to be done...

Later that night they came upon a scene where the spectre had been feeding, an alley behind a sleazy bar in Irvine's Red-light District. Blood was smeared on the walls where bodies had been thrown against them, and there were 3 corpses as well. 2 had obviously been hookers, the 3rd must've been a customer. They dragged the corpses further into the back of an alley, and dumped them into a garbage container. Then they examined the blood-stains on the wall. Still fresh.

After quickly licking off most of the blood, they sprayed some graffiti over the spots where the blood-stains had been on the wall, made a mess by kicking over a few garbage bins, and poured a can of gasoline into the garbage container. Dropping in a match they hurried away, as the fire brigade would be quick to arrive. It would appear to be just another ordinary murder scene...

When Nighteye received the first report, he smiled an evil smile; things were going as planned...
 
 
 

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Year of the Spectre:

"And Death Shall Have No Dominion"

By Ravil
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        Most ships in the Canadian Dominion Starfleet were duranium white, proudly bearing their nation's colours, boldly lit by running lights and identification beacons. They served as the sentinels for the world's most advanced country, their markings the anthems of victories in half a dozen conflicts in the last four years. Each ship that took to the skies was as much a symbol of the indomitable nation as it was a defender of it.

        But not all Canadian vessels were mere defenders.

        And some Canadian vessels were as dark as the Void, coated in microdiffracted carbon to absorb all radiation that fell upon them.

        The C.M.S. Plains of Abraham was one such vessel, the latest in the Trudeau II-class, space black, on silent running over the Cassiar Mountains in northern British Columbia. The ship was little more than an armored tube with a fusion reactor and the integral atmospheric maneuvering nacelles. All interior luxuries had been stripped away, leaving a thoroughly Spartan warship that boasted as much firepower as one of the larger Borealis-class heavy cruisers. A detailed sensor suite gave the obsidian vessel a detailed awareness of the world around it – eyes in the darkness, so to speak. The Plains of Abraham had originally been the culmination of the Dominion's effort to harness first-strike capabilities against the United States given a renewed conflict between the two nations; a conflict that had yet to occur.

        In the meantime, however, there were always duties to be found elsewhere…

        The Plains of Abraham headed low towards a deep-cut valley in the Cassiar Mountains, its impulse engines glowing faintly, tuned to emit in the almost invisible ultraviolet instead of the visible blue spectrum. Much less efficient, but far less noticeable. Right now it was a necessary tradeoff.

        With practiced functionality the ship eased in over the designated part of the valley, its passive sensors sweeping across the mountainous terrain. It was past midnight, and the last rays of sunlight had long fled beyond the horizon. From the ground looking up the only sign of the Plains of Abraham was the periodic winking out, and reappearance, of the stars it passed, and the low throbbing hum of the sensor suite. A quick search of the valley located the mission objective, and with appropriate caution the warship glided towards it.

        The target was what had once been a compound, built from the same solid duranium materials as the Dominion Starfleet. Now it was an empty shell, twisted metal and dying dreams. Craters where weapon blasts had gone off freckled the mountain valley, and the fires that had raged through the compound for hours since the late evening were now reduced to smoldering heaps of molten metal. There were no life signs. Not anymore.

        The ship's bridge was likewise prepared for a silent running. Stripped-down and single-level, it was cramped only because of the extra ablative armor surrounding it. The main lights had been dimmed, as was the viewscreen to prevent stray radiation from leaking. Overhead light was now only in the red spectrum, denoting both the ship's running status and the more traditional Red Alert. The commander of the Plains of Abraham, one Captain Jennifer Raulin, leaned against the chair of the tactical operations officer, her voice hushed in an unnecessary whisper.

        "What do we have out there, ops?" Raulin asked, her voice betraying a slight Atlantic drawl.

        "Research Base Teslin, ma'am, or at least what's left of it. GPS confirms our position."

        The sensory display traced a grid over the decimated facility, highlighting the blast marks and the primary base modules that had been struck the hardest.

        "Casualties?"

        "No survivors, ma'am. Fifty-seven researchers."

        She took in a terse breath. There would be time for mourning later. For now… "Run a scan of the underground storage bunkers. Coordinates should be in the computer. Tell me what you find."

        A brief pause while the complex sensor system did its work. "Nothing. They've been looted."

        Damn. Fleet Command wasn't going to be happy. Valuable research had been going on at the Teslin Base. Evidently not enough precautions had been taken to safeguard the isolated facility. The ground-based phaser banks hadn't lasted more than fifty seconds. The armored buildings had been quick to go after that. A fractured signal had been received by a Dominion relay station on Vancouver Island, but it had been quickly suppressed. The assailant hadn't hung around for long enough to be identified by orbiting satellites, and thus the Plains of Abraham had been sent in to survey the scene of the attack – fully silenced, in case the aggressor was still in the area, hidden. Fleet Command back in Castle Cattleprod had its ideas as to whom the aggressor was, and every precaution was being taken to ensure the safety of this ship's crew.

         That did little to reassure Captain Raulin.

        "Burst signal back to the Fleet," she instructed the communications officer. " 'Base sacked and destroyed. Research components not present in wreckage.' "

        "Yes ma'am."

        "They won't be pleased about that," her first officer remarked bitterly. "Probably send us out after them for retrieval."

        Raulin gave him a sharp look. "And if they do we'll salute and do our damndest to bring everything back intact." There was no room for insubordination on this ship. Not tonight, and not ever on her watch. "Scan the compound sight again. What are the readings on the residual weapon fire?"

        "Sketchy, Captain. The entire area has been flooded with sensor ghosts. We are picking up some trace patterns synonymous with Plasma Shard weaponry, however."

        She tried to keep panic from her voice. "You're certain?"

        "Reasonably so, ma'am. We wouldn't know it if we weren't specifically looking for it, but we are, and it's there. 93% computer match with the records from the Phoenix."

        Raulin let out a slow, contemplative breath. This was what she had been dreading. It had been sheer speculation on the part of Command as to who had attacked Research Base Teslin. Now it was certain, and that dire certainty burnt the Captain more sharply than speculation ever could have.

        "Send another burst transmission back to base. 'Plasma Shards detected, presence of renegade vessel confirmed. Awaiting instructions.' "

        The communications officer suddenly half-turned in his seat, holding the earpiece to his head. "Captain, all frequencies are being jammed!"

        Before Raulin could say a word, the officer stationed at the tactical ops console turned as well. "Ma'am, there's something going on out there."

        "What?"

        "Main sensors have just flared," he replied, hands scurrying across the controls. "I can't get a clear reading. Something's bleeding sensor ghosts into this area like mad."

        "Maximum readiness on main weapons, standby on shields," she instructed. "Reeves, work on a way to punch through the communications channels. Con, back us away from Teslin Base slowly. Thirty k.p.h., no faster."

        The Plains of Abraham lurched slightly as it began to reverse, its invisible form slowly backing away from the ruins. The inertial dampers had been taken off-line to prevent radiation seepage.

        "Captain! Transmission coming through on all frequencies!"

        "Put it on. Passive listener mode."

        At first there was nothing. Then, a low, distant rumble, like the groan of a hundred suppressed voices, became audible over the bridge speakers. The moan built until it was almost overpowering, an eerie concerto of moans and decayed, unintelligible babble.

        "What are they saying?" Raulin whispered.

        "It's…Latin, ma'am…" the communications officer replied slowly, as though straining to follow. As he did, the color faded from his features. "They're…telling us that we're about to join them in Hell."

        Raulin stood, facing the front of the bridge – her bridge. "My God…"

        A voice, harsh and powerfully feminine, cut in over the distant moans.

        "I can see you out there, you know."

        Every panicked eye was on the Captain.

        "Can you see me?"

        "She's still here," the first officer said, quite unnecessarily. "We're dead already…"

        "Kill the primary sensors," Raulin ordered, voice unwavering. "Take them down to the lowest power and start scanning the area around us. Helm, change course to mark five three, increase speed to fifty k.p.h. Reeves, get that goddamn noise off of my speakers, and try to get through to…"

        "CAPTAIN! LOOK!"

        Her eyes slowly moved up to the main viewscreen, not entirely wanting to look, but knowing that she had a duty to.

        The picture from outside gleaned with light, not the inky blackness of the sub-Arctic midnight. A shimmering radiance had formed around one of the mountains, coating it in dancing, fiery illumination. There was no apparent source.

        "Unnatural…" Reeves murmured.

        What was more unnatural was what occurred next.

        The lights coalesced into a roughly circular formation, illuminating one entire side of the mountain facing both the remains of the Research Base and the C.M.S. Plains of Abraham herself. And then, within the exact centre of the ring, something began to move.

        Directly out of the mountain.

        Raulin gasped and nearly fell over, convinced that her eyes were, at last, betraying her. Something was stirring, pulling, dragging itself literally out of the mountain like an infant from its mother. Tendrils of the mountain – given an almost liquid appearance for their fluidity – streamed off of the object as it pulled away from its hiding place. There was no magical portal, no extra-dimensional door or pocket that it stepped through. It simply melted out of the side of the mountain, a shape that had gone down in history in the annals of the Dominion Starfleet, only to return to haunt the nation that it had served so well.

        Out of the mountain pulled the heinous, deformed vessel formerly known as the C.M.S. Canuck.

        "It's Fronette!" Raulin hollered hoarsely, ever horror story of the Battle of Mojave flashing before her eyes in that instant. "All weapon banks online! Get those shields…"

        A flash of intense light erupted on the viewscreen, and before a warning could be shouted by any of the crew the Plains of Abraham jolted violently, the explosive, magical Plasma Shards fired from the Canuck searing through its nigh-invisible hull. The Canadian warship bucked in place, knocked off of its axis and briefly engulfed in flames. No quarter was given, not this time around. The old starship, resurrected from its grave at the end of the Great Holy War and re-built with Dark Star Alliance technology and undead bio-matter, angled its odious chassis in, spraying the obsidian vessel with more destruction.

        Fate laughed cruelly.

        "All systems, full power!" the captain bellowed out over the impending shriek of the warning klaxons. "We need those shields up now, goddammit! Any extra power bleed to the weapons systems!"

        "Captain, we can't fight her alone!" the first officer protested.

        "This ship was built to fight, Alex, and I'll be damned if I'm going to turn tail to an upstart in an antiquated vessel! Phasers, fire at will!"

        The Canuck fired again on its first pass, catching the Plains of Abraham just above its port maneuvering thruster, nearly taking the nacelle off. Streams of molten duranium danced through the air. But Raulin had been right – her vessel had been designed with nothing but combat in mind. Emergency systems already engaging, it swung around painfully on its axis like a cripple shifting weight to his good leg. Long phaser blasts lanced forward, cutting across the Canuck only to be dissipated or absorbed by a deflector screen that had suddenly come into existence.

        "No damage, captain!"

        "Let's show her what're really packing, then. Arm quantum torpedoes for full-yield and bring us around!"

        The tactical operations officer's eyes nearly bulged out of his skull. "Captain? Full-yield?" A poorly-aimed quantum torpedo could result in an environmental catastrophe. The warheads carried the effective power of several nuclear devices in a concentrated form. Nobody had ever dared to set them for full-yield inside the Earth's atmosphere. Not until today.

        "I have full authorization from Emperor Fron herself!" she snapped. "Do it!"

        The D.S.A. Canuck sped past, preparing to come around for another go on its newfound nemesis. Wheeling about as quickly as its damaged thrusters would allow it to, though, the Plains of Abraham found its target first, a tempting shot at the backside of the unholy bio-vessel.

        "Fire at will!"

        The tactical officer had an itchier trigger finger than Raulin would have guessed. The Plains of Abraham shuddered – why the hell weren't the inertial dampers back online yet? – as one, two, then three flashes of brilliant blue light hurtled towards the renegade ship.

        In the blink of an eye the quantum torpedoes detonated, filling the viewscreen with a massive explosion. Both space and time, in the vicinity of the detonation, abruptly decided to fold in on one another, causing a violent kickback wave and secondary explosion that rammed the Canadian warship as well. For a handful of seconds the night sky over northern British Columbia was as bright – if not brighter – than the midday sun.

        But when the haze of the brilliant explosion faded, Raulin's worst suspicions were proved correct: the Canuck, now enhanced by untold bio-technologies and magic, was far stronger than it looked.

        "…"

        "N-No appreciable damage…" the first officer whispered, checking and re-checking his readout frantically.

        The blasphemous ship was now angled directly towards them again, its Plasma Shard launchers glowing with delicious anticipation of the kill. For that moment, though, it hesitated.

        "Incoming transmission, captain. From the Canuck."

        Raulin frantically glanced around her at the bridge crew. Helplessness strangled her words, despair her thoughts and actions. She was going to die. "What's…the status of our shields?"

        "They've short-circuited, ma'am. Engineering reports that the first blast brought down the primary generator, and that subsequent…"

        "Get them back, now. Reeves, open a channel. We'll stall for time."

        "There will be no stalling, Captain Raulin. Jennifer."

        She looked over at the communications console, but Reeves simply stared back in dismay. The channel wasn't open yet. The voice was coming from inside the ship's bridge.

        "Face death nobly, Jennifer. It's the only real adventure."

        "Fronette's opening fire again!" the warning came too little, and too late.

        The Plains of Abraham bucked wildly from the force of the Plasma Shards punching through its armored hull, slabs of molten duranium peeling wildly and falling to the valley below. More blasts shook the vessel to its core, and the mighty warship began to buckle. On the bridge, chaos bled through every console in the form of plasma fires and hydraulic fluids. Screams came from every throat, blood from every mouth. The creaking hull of the vessel spelled out the details of its final death knell.

        Captain Raulin lay on the floor, bleeding quietly to death. The bridge had been hit. Smoke was filling the cabin quickly. She would be dead soon, and none of it would ever matter.

        "Do me one last favour, Jennifer. Woman to woman."

        The bliss of unconsciousness refused to find her.

        "Some day, when you see your mighty Emperor Fron down there in Hell…"

        The viewscreen, smashed in places but still functional, displayed a final, horrific sight to those of the Canadian bridge crew who were still alive to see it. A swirling apparition had materialized outside, a gaping maw burning through the fabric of reality like blue flame through a piece of paper. It was opened wide to embrace the dying Plains of Abraham, and as Raulin stared into its maw she could see through to the other side, where the flames of perdition roared their welcome to her.

        "…Do let him know that I knew all along who was the stronger one."

        Raulin shut her eyes.

        Heard herself scream.

        Felt the gate to Hell close around her proud vessel.

        Saw the...

**********

        The Dominion relief force under the command of the C.M.S. Ipperwash arrived over the Cassiar Mountains the next morning. The damage was rapidly assessed and relayed, and the single, brief report from the C.M.S. Plains of Abraham was confirmed. Research Base Teslin was a total loss. Its personnel had been wiped out, and the research that they had been carrying out – research on the generation of magical negation fields – had been stolen or destroyed.

        All that was found of the Plains of Abraham were a few melted pieces of its hull plating. The ship was reported as lost with all hands.
 

******

The Wraith of Phasmus & Co. Part 1(YotS)

Posted by Phasmus & Co.
 

The catacombs under Irvine city hall... a resin slathered pit of toxic grayness, and primary office of Phasmus T. Tapefiend.

Phasmus narrowed his eyes cunningly as he leaned over a large tactical map of Irvine. It was his city. The living infestation would have to be dealt with eventually, but for now their existence remained justifiably profitable. The TapeFiend was content to manipulate the native population to his tactical and financial advantage... and to take them and make them his own as they came. Large sectors of Irvine's downtown industrial district were outlined in blue and green, denoting areas claimed by Blizzard Entertainment and Operation CWAL respectively. Smaller sectors denoted the territories of CWL, OEEP and similar groups. Small points of various colors dispersed across the map showed recorded positions of non-residential groups like COTS and the Ambiguous Slayers Guild. Despite all of the color present, most of the map was outlined in gray... the sectors of Irvine that were supposedly untainted by any extra-normal influences whatsoever, with the exception of being controlled by an undead mayor constructed of solid duct tape.

The TapeFiend directed his attention to the brown squares that represented Slayer activity throughout the city. They had been moving lately... There could be little question that the Slayers were up to something. Despite his city-wide information network Phasmus only had scant information on the nature of the situation. The Slayers had successfully kept the motivation for their activities infuriatingly... ambiguous.

The Slayers were greater cause for concern now than they would have been in the past. Gaval's influence with them had kept Phasmus relatively safe from their evil-vanquishing efforts. But now, with CWAL's resident former-Slayer no longer a factor in Slayer politics, it was just a matter of time before the ASG turned its attention to Phasmus & Co. Indeed, he had already learned that the Slayers were coordinating a relatively insignificant, but potentially profitable, political vendetta against him. Fortunately it had been a fairly simple matter to anticipate their next move... and adjust his security measures accordingly.

He narrowed his eyes and chuckled fiendishly. As fate would have it, the Slayers were already on their way.
 

Ten Slayers-Redneck marched through the Irvine sewers. Their standard armory of stakes and holy water had been replaced with back-mounted flame-throwers and solvent guns. Their most powerful weapon, however, was carried by their leader in a small, pie-stained briefcase. It was a city-government recall petition, with Phasmus's name on it.

As they trudged through the darkness the sewer-stench was gradually replaced by the bittersweet chemical odor of adhesive resin. They had passed from the Irvine sewer-system into the Phasmus & Co. Catacombs. Duct tape was hung from the cold stone walls and ceilings like the threads of a gargantuan spider. They hadn't encountered a single TapeFiend so far, and that had them worried. The mournful groaning that was typically encountered in the catacombs was absent. The only illumination came from their hand-held searchlights. The shadows of the dangling adhesive tendrils seemed to writhe around menacingly as the light passed by.

After passing through the catacombs for over a half-mile they came to a large steel door. It hissed open slowly, allowing a dim green light to filter out through the resin mist. The Slayers felt like they should start to rush, but they didn't. They remained on the cusp of rushing, a rare and not particularly comfortable state brought on by proximity to something that isn't quite undead. Phasmus was standing in front of them, grinning. The outer layer of his adhesive had been molded to look like an expensive pin-stripe suit.

"Good afternoon gentlemen." the TapeFiend nodded to the intruders politely.

The ten Slayers trained their respective anti-adhesive weapons on Phasmus's head. His smug grin vanished.

The lead-Slayer spoke, narrowing his eyes at the TapeFiend, "Listen, and listen good, Fiend."

"TAPE-fiend" Phasmus mumbled irritably.

The Slayer continued, "You're undead, evil, greedy, scum, Phas. The only reason you weren't burnt to a crisp on sight is the help you gave us in the GHW. As things stand... we'll leave you alone for now if you keep your fiendish little tendrils out of Irvine's business." His tone indicated that he would have preferred the 'burn to a crisp on sight' course of action.

Phasmus blinked and twitched, "So... You want me to drop my mayorship? Just like that? How interesting..."

The Slayer nodded, "Undead don't belong in politics." he paused and added contemptuously "Undead don't belong anywhere."

Phasmus sighed and beckoned to the Slayers at the door, "Come inside, please, and we will discuss the details of your proposal."

The Slayers scowled back and didn't budge. Phasmus smirked, "Come on, what are you afraid of? I'm outnumbered and outgunned... and I'm not going to bring the wrath of the ASG down on me by harming you, am I?"

He grinned fiendishly as the Slayers stepped forward. When the first three had entered the large cylindrical chamber, the steel door slid shut behind them with a low hiss. They spun around and tried to pull it open. The slayers on the other side reacted similarly. The door didn't budge.

The three slayers inside quickly turned and trained their weapons on Phasmus.

"Open the door!" barked the lead Slayer.

Phasmus didn't respond. He sat in a large resin-covered chair behind a huge stone desk, staring at the Slayers. A low clanking clattering sound came from the metal grating under their feet. This was followed by a rushing hiss. It was the sound of many hundreds of gallons of water moving rapidly.

The Slayers, wordlessly and in unison, fired their flame-throwers at Phasmus's head. Before the flames had a chance to incinerate their target the Slayers were swept off their feet by a torrent of cold, swirling water that welled up from the set of large grates that constituted the room's floor. They were knocked on their backs, and the flames of their weapons vanished with a hiss and a puff of steam. By the time they pulled themselves to their feet the water was waist deep and sill rising.

"Now," Phasmus said with twitch and a fiendish leer, "I trust you'll be in a somewhat more diplomatic frame of mind..."

The Slayers dropped their useless, soaked flame-throwers and quickly switched to their solvent-guns. Three streams of the noxious, solvent... concentrated Goo-B-Gone... were directed at the TapeFiend before he had a chance to move. The deadly amber fluid was washed away by the spray of the rising water before it had a chance to do any more damage than the flame-throwers.

Phasmus shook his head, scowling. The water began rising faster. Soon Phasmus' head was below the waterline, and the three slayers dropped their useless weapons and braced themselves against the wall to help stay afloat. The watertight steel door held firm.

After a few minutes, when there was just enough room for the Slayers heads to fit between the water and the ceiling, the water stopped rising. The only light came from the baleful green gaze of Phasmus; visible several feet below them, shining through the water like a pair of small green pool-lights. There was a muffled clanging sound from somewhere in the dark water below and more, dimmer, green eyes joined Phasmus's. The Slayers cringed as they felt multiple adhesive tendrils slithering around them, wrapping their feet and legs tightly. After they had been well secured, Phasmus's head bobbed to the surface of the water. It was still connected to his body below by a long tether of adhesive, but this wasn't obvious to his captives.

"Let us go you EVAAAHHLLL..." the lead-Slayer's cry was cut short as the tendrils around his legs dragged him below the surface of the water. He was returned to the surface a few moments later, coughing and sputtering.

Phasmus glowered, "Firstly, I am not evil. Secondly, you are in a position... unsuitable for giving orders."

One of the two Slayers floating in back asked quietly, "What are you going to do to us?"

"Well, that really depends on you." Phasmus replied in a calm, businesslike manner. "You are guilty of trespassing, assault, coercing a political officer, and attempted necrocide... I was rather hoping we could come to an agreement that was mutually preferable to pressing charges."

"Just let us go," the lead Slayer snarled, "and you might have enough time to hide before every available ASG agent in 100 miles comes down here and fries y'all!"

Phasmus shook his head, "No, no... That really is not an option. Though recording and distributing video of a massive Slayer force in action is tempting... I just don't think the 'Nationally Televised Slayer's Guild' sounds as good as the 'Ambiguous Slayer's Guild', do you?"

The Lead Slayer didn't respond for quite some time. Finally he said quietly, "You won't get away with it."

Phasmus raised the adhesive equivalent of an eyebrow, "Get away with what?"

"Murder." was the somber reply.

Phasmus blinked. "Pardon the cliche, but if I wanted you dead, you never would have made it this far. I tolerate Slayers. And there are very few other groups who I will permit to survive trespassing down here."

All three of the Slayers looked at Phasmus's head skeptically.

Phasmus sighed, "As I believe I made perfectly clear in the Great Holy War... the enemies of my enemies are profitable. That, of course, is not to say that I'm just going to let you leave without providing me with compensation..."

"Compensation for what?!" demanded one of one of the Slayers floating in the back.

"I already explained what laws you've broken. Additionally, your associates outside have already caused critical damage to two of my minions sent to detain them. And then there is the matter of..." there was a brief pause as an adhesive tendril wrenched the briefcase from the lead-Slayer's hand. "...your recall attempt."

"There's nothin' illegal about trying to get you thrown out of office!" cried the lead Slayer.

Phasmus glowered, "On the contrary, I stripped mayoral recall procedure from the city ordinances six months ago. The city employee who provided you with these documents made a very serious error. One that will not be repeated. Your pitiful attempt to remove me constitutes political subterfuge."

"What do you want?" the lead Slayer growled dejectedly.

"That's more like it." Phasmus grinned amiably, "Firstly, I need your contractual assurance that the ASG will not interfere with my affairs, without excellent justification. Secondly, a small force of vampires is operating out of the basement of 451 High Street. I want them slain. Finally... Information..."

"I can't promise anything about you being left alone..."

"You don't need to promise, you just need to sign."

"We know about the High Street vampires. They're on our to-vanquish list.."

"I want them re-dead within the week."

"What information?"

"Plague Sever."

Silence.

Phasmus sighed, "I know there is a powerful, unauthorized necromantic entity in my city. I know the ASG has been restructuring itself to account for the presence of the creature. I know it has killed several of you already. I know its name. What is it?"

There was a long pause, "I don't know."

Phasmus shook his head. The lead slayer heard two frantic, gurgling yelps behind him and turned just in time to see the heads of the two junior slayers pulled below the water.

"If you weren't a Slayer I would just liquidate you now. Trying to melt me is one thing, but withholding data pertinent to the efficient administration of my city constitutes opposition in the first degree. Your Slayer blood prevents that option, so I must resort to this admittedly childish course of..."

"Okay okay! Just let them back up..."

Phasmus's grin widened, "Good."

The two Slayers bobbed to the surface, gasping for air and coughing spastically at irregular intervals.

"I don't know much..." The lead Slayer began, "It's a specter. They were supposed to be extinct. We don't know how it got here, but it seems to be out for Slayer blood."

"Is that everything?" Phasmus asked slowly.

The lead slayer nodded.

"Everything?" Phasmus asked again, as the two junior slayers were pulled down so that their mouths were just above the waterline.

The lead Slayer sighed, "We think it's the same thing that got Gaval. That... made him normal."

Phasmus's eyes flashed like green flares, "Thank you for your assistance."

There was a grating shudder somewhere on the floor, muffled by the water. The green lights indicating the presence of other TapeFiends in the water below vanished under the grates and then the water began to drop. The Slayers were left drenched, standing on the floor in front of Phasmus a few moments later. There was no sign of their dropped weapons. A contract made of waterproof paper was sitting on Phasmus's desk, facing the Slayers.

"Just sign and you're free to go."

"What's it say...?" asked the lead Slayer, stepping forward slowly.

"Basically, you don't stab my back, I don't stab yours. Don't read the fine print. It's bad for your eyes to read in the dark, you know."

The Slayer sighed as Phasmus offered him an ooze-covered pen from one of his tendrils. He began to look over the contract, but a low growl from Phasmus reminded him that he had been made 'an offer he couldn't refuse'. The Slayer grabbed the pen and reluctantly signed the contract. Phasmus grabbed both the pen and the contract and slid them into one of the desk drawers. The chamber's steel door slid open with a hiss.

"It's been a pleasure doing business with you." Phasmus said politely to the Slayers, who were already halfway out the door. "And, when you deal with the High Street vampires... be sure to tell them Phasmus sent you."

The Slayers didn't respond. They were already busy unsticking from the walls the seven that had been left outside. There were the charred, half-melted remains to two TapeFiends lying on the floor, but no sign of the others that had survived to trap the intruders. The Slayers who had been stuck hadn't seen where their opponents had lurched off to, having been somewhat preoccupied at the time.

By the time they were finished the steel door had shut behind them. The ten Slayers, soaked with water and caustic adhesive ooze respectively, marched back to the surface in defeat. Only the Lead Slayer had an inkling of just how critical their defeat had been.
 

Back in his tank-office, Phasmus sat chuckling fiendishly. Everything was falling into place. In one fell swoop he had obtained a contractual agreement of non-interference from the ASG, along with assurance of the purgation of the last of High Street's potential opposition to development and, most importantly, he had learned the limitlessly profitable nature of the creature causing the stir in local Slayer activity. Data was what he needed now. Cold, hard, delicious facts. He quickly determined that his next course of action would be to contact Gaval... in a setting highly conducive to successful diplomatic interaction.
 
 
 

**********