Chapter III.
"First Hunt"


"IMPOSSIBLE"

     GAVAL climbed out of the BiB in the side building that CWAL used as a garage and swiped a few broken pieces of plastic and metal that was his stereo from his pants leg and new leather waistcoat.  Glancing down at his hand in the failing light of dusk he noted how there wasn't a scratch on his knuckles; not even so much as a break in the skin.  All of this was so unusual to him, especially the second occurrence of his new Rush out of thin air and his newfound temper...then there was the wierd color his eyes had exhibited.  Royal purple instead of cobalt blue.  He chalked it up to a simple new color for his new Rush as he strolled into the side entrance of CWAL HQ.

     Stepping over a pile of burnt beaver fur and rancid Cool-Whip GAVAL noticed a cadre of angry CWALers staring at him from across the room, most of them with their arms crossed.

     "Curb your woman!" shouted Morpher as his hand became a huge scolding three-foot-long version of itself, pointing at the Slayer accusingly.

     GAVAL's head tilted and he took off his sunglasses for only the second time that day.  "Zug?" he said playfully.

     "Rachel was here looking for you," said Darth Ninny meekly.  "She almost saw the Spectre hunt plans and weapons with your name all over them.  I have a feeling the large schematic that shows you ripping the teeth out of the Spectre's mouth one by one and pinching it's dental nerves with a silver-plated nut cracker might have been a dead getaway."

     GAVAL went paler than he already was and gulped so hard his fedora shook  He had assembled a small group of some of his trusted CWAL buddies to help him in the hunt and had prepared them with everything he knew about the Spectre for the evening's hunt; this being the first time the entire group would be assembled for a specific Plague-Sever hunt outing.

     "If you expect us to keep your being a Slayer again a secret, you're gonna have to do something about Rachel coming and going randomly throughout `GAVAL Dark Secret Central.'" Fron paced back and forth with his cattle prod in hand as if it were a king's scepter, flailing it back and forth and he lectured GAVAL tyrannically.  "I mean, she almost walked right through a pile of Lothos' undead Spam that was beating 00Chause at a game of Starcraft!  How would we explain that?  And what do we do if any of your Slayer buddies show up?  Did you even start to plan how you'd handle that?!"

     "Well, I was gonna tell Rachel soon...when I was ready...when I understood better..."

     "The last thing we need is a dozen angry Slayers bum-rushing our HQ to lynch you, and you KNOW they're gonna lynch you when they find out about what you've done in playing Slayer again without telling them!" cried Z.

     "Yeah, and what's the deal with `Sex and the City?'" cried Fjorxc.  "Sarah Jessica Parker isn't even all that hot!"  Everyone in the room grew quiet and stared at Fjorxc until Lothos stepped over one of Ninny's waffles and ushered the Cajun towards the LAN room.

     "I'm sure Gav's got it all figured out if we just give `im time to settle from his shopping spree.  In the meantime we all did a hell of a job covering up things this afternoon and we can all look forward to ripping the nipples off of that ridiculous Spectre this evening.  Right, comerades?!"

     "If we even find it..." muttered Shade who knew well that the Ambiguous Slayers' Guild  had reported only one sighting in over 4 months of looking for the Spectre themselves.

     "Not to worry!  The thing seems prone to ripping the throat out of our Slayer friend here and shouldn't have gone too far in the last couple weeks.  I bet it's real hungry and when I get ahold of it It'll be Spectre Flambe'!" cried Lothos as he pulled out a can of oven cleaner and lit it ablaze while spraying it in random arcs of blue pyrotechnics.  As he finished, he noticed everyone had stopped staring at Fjorxc and were now staring at the curtains which were ablaze.

     "NEWBIES!  Code 9!" said Fron routinely.  Seconds later 00Chause and Robo-Gerbil came running from under a trap door to the basement with CO2 extinguishers.

     The group slowly spread out to prepare for the evening's hunt as Lothos escorted GAVAL to Pez's laboratory, assuring him that Rachel and the Slayers were not suspecting of anything unusual on his part.

     "But I gotta tell ya Gav, you have been awful jumpy lately."

     "Wouldn't you be jumpy if a six-foot undead meat by product kept eating your pastry collection."

     "I can assure you Moe will be on his best behavior next time you bring home a pie, and Larry and Curly don't even like the stuff.  Nevertheless perhaps you should cut the group some slack regarding this Spectre hunt.  They've faced worse than him before, and you've picked a set of arse-kickers quite carefully.  They'll get `im for ya." The shaggy Kiwi nodded assuredly and pointed to a shelf in Pez's lab.

     As GAVAL frowned angrily and stared at the floor for a minute Lothos proudly jumped around the room and asked Pez if everything was ready.    GAVAL knew that sooner or later the truth about his dealings with Nighteye would surface around the ASG and already was regretting letting some of CWAL in on his being a Slayer again.  They didn't seem to find it as unusual or impossible as it really was, then again they hadn't seen what GAVAL did to his stereo out of a pointless fit of rage.  How would he explain what was going through his mind when he had found out what Plague-Sever had done to Nabob and Rae's task force?  How could he get them to understand that only someone who had been touched by that clicking phantom could ever understand how unsatiable its lust for the light within a Slayer was?  How could they see like he did that making a pact with even a lowlife like Nighteye was the only way?

     "...and this I had made specially for you!" bellowed Lothos excitedly.

     GAVAL snapped to attention and looked at a pile of what looked like either a collection of old junk or an arsenal of chaos.  "You mean the silver plated frying pan?"

     "No, silly!  That's mine, comrade!"

     "The net with garlic cloves tied at every mesh, that?"

     "Mine."

     "The cans of oven cleaner and matches?"

     "Mine."

     "The wire attached to a car battery, yes?"

     "Mine."

     "..."

     "It's so I can head-butt the Spectre with the equivalent to a fission-powered joy-buzzer.  Good for Electrical motivation.  Butt him into submission.  What are you grinning at?"

     "Submission butts."

     The two laughed annoyingly for a full thirty seconds.

     "So then, what DID you want to show me?"

     "This..."

     Leaning into a box filled to overflowing with rosary bead grenades and dynamite stakes Lothos pulled out a simple brown band with a small wire sticking out of it.  He snatched the fedora off GAVAL's head with lightning speed.  As GAVAL ran his hands through his hair Lothos turned his back to GAVAL and fidgeted with the brown wool hat for a minute, then turned around triumphantly, holding the hat by its round brim.

     "What did you do to my–"

     "Don't leave home without it.  And you NEVER go anywhere without that hat, I'd bloody well assume that I've got you covered."

     GAVAL adjusted his hat and felt curiously at the wire.  "Am I gonna get shocked if I touch this thing.

     "Nah...well...actually, I haven't tested it for that, but if it did that would be an unplanned benefit!  It's a radio, comrade!  If we're gonna be partners in eval slaying, I'd just assume we keep the bands of communication open!  Now you can listen in to all my colorful expletives when I'm shoving garlic bon-bons up Plague-Sever's arse!"

     "In that case you'd better show me how to turn it off!"

***

     Ten minutes Later a pile of weapons with Lothos legs the only part of him visible carrying them skipped out of the front door of CWAL HQ and into the BiB.  With eight people shoving themselves into an SUV made for four, plus an arsenal bigger than most third world countries, it was a tight fit, even with GAVAL putting down the rear seats and making the back of the Blazer like a truck bed.

     Pushing the butt of a shotgun out of her face Shade kicked the back of the driver's seat and grumbled out, "Where are we going and please tell me we'll get there soon?"

     "Downtown.  Suicide Slum in the core of the old warehouse district."

     Ninny frowned as he adjusted Shade who was sitting on his lap, "What makes you think the Spectre would hide out there of all places?  There's worse places in Irvine than that, and wouldn't he be looking for caves or something more natural."

     "That's where it last attacked, that's where we start looking for clues," answered the Cajun as he downshifted and swerved to avoid the slum area's street potholes.

     "Think we'll see any action?" asked Fjorxc as his helmet bumped into Fron's head.

     "Honestly?  No.  The thing's hard to find and the odds of us finding it on our first night out looking are slim to none.  There were vampires here that night too, though, so if any lingered, we need to be on the lookout for that."  GAVAL slowed the vehicles speed and looked out of the window carefully, looking for the area he had heard about in Slayer reports that he had downloaded off of the ASG's private server.

     "Then why on Aiur did we bring all this armament?  I think there's a crucifix poking me in the spleen."  Everyone looked at Lothos.

     "Can I help you people?!" asked Lothos grumpily.  "Besides, it should even more confound you that Protoss even HAVE spleens!"

     "Unless your crucifix can put out a few hundred thousand volts, I think I'll stick to my cattle prod, thank you very much," added Fron as he joined GAVAL in scanning the downtown area.

     GAVAL pulled the BiB to a stop and glanced up at a five story apartment building that looked condemned.  "Ah think this is it.  Z, I want you and Exile to keep a low profile in well-lit areas.  The last thing we need in this investigation is a panic reaction to alien invasion.  And Morpher, let's keep de appearance human-like this evening, shall we?"

     "What, like I had plans to walk around looking like the Tanzanian devil this evening?!"

     "At least he'd be familiar to someone on the street," quipped Z as he and the others poured out of the Blazer as if a dam had been broken.

     The alleyway was even more cluttered and damaged than it should have been, a telltale sign that there was a skirmish here recently.  The occasional pile of ash was scattered about in the area, and strange arcane graffiti lined the walls in a substance that looked too thick to be spray paint.

     "Yeah, this is the place.  Everybody spread out and look for a clue of some kind," instructed GAVAL.

     "What are we looking for exactly?" asked Shade as she stepped over an ash pile.

     "A clue of some kind," answered the other CWALers.

     "Right," frowned Shade as she cocked her crossbow.

     "What's with all the dust?" asked Darth Ninny as he grabbed a handful of the powdery substance and let it fall between the fingers of his gloves.

     "Vampire guts," grinned Lothos as he studied a burnt crate with a magnifying glass the size of a trash can lid.  Ninny frowned and backed away from the ashes while Fron and Fjorxc took steps back away from the ash piles around them.

     "I don't get it, Gav.  It looks like the Slayers WON this fight," observed Morpher as he counted the visible piles of ash.

     GAVAL turned from a brick wall near a darker ally and nodded, "They were...until IT showed up.  A Slayer I met in the Great Holy War named `Bob was here with a strike force of Slayers to deal with a vampire horde hiding out in this area.  They were spotted in this ally with their leader, somehow completely undetected by the Slayers.  That's never been done before.  We usually just feel when there's a vampire in the area, but these vampires were..."

     "Cloaked?" asked Exile.  As an ex Arbiter pilot, the Protoss warrior was well aware of the various types of stealth employed by creatures as cunning as nosferatu.

     "That's as good a description as any since we have no idea how they did it," nodded GAVAL as he continued his recounting of the report.  "Anyway, the Slayers jumped the vampires and managed to take almost all of them out as well as the leader...back here I think," he pointed to the smaller ally, "and just when it looked like the battle was over...that's when it showed up."

     "The Spectre?" asked Exile.

     "Yeah...a few of you were there last Halloween.  You saw how scared the survivors were after its first attack in New Orleans."

     "Pissed their pants, a couple of em," grinned Lothos as he dusted a Coke can for fingerprints.

     "Well, they might have if any of us had gotten out conscious," corrected the Cajun.

     "This thing makes you scared, right?" asked Shade.

     "It brings terror," corrected GAVAL again.  "That's all the survivors of this attack remember after it showed up.  Terror.  And death.  Up there is must be where Rae was killed."

     "It killed a girl Slayer too?  I thought Buffy was the only one?" asked Fjorxc.

     "There's a few of em out there," GAVAL said as he made his way into the dark ally.

     "I don't know if its your story or what, but I'm feeling pretty nervous right now," sighed Shade as she folded her arms.

     "Me too, " added Ninny.  "I feel jumpy.  Uppity."

     "Heh.  Uppity newbie," grinned Fron.

     "I'd give the odds of that thing showing up here again a million to one," promised the Slayer.  "I'm gonna check out where Nabob took out the leader.  You guys keep looking around for anything wierd."

     "Wierder than a bunch of undead ash and a downtown warzone?" asked Fron as he sat on a crate gave a jolt of electricity to a trash bin.

***

     As GAVAL walked his way down the ally, he reached into his leather waistcoat and pulled out a silver stake, going right passed the wooden ones.  Was he being paranoid, going for the heavy hardware or was he just being careful?

     The narrow ally was in chaos.  Every trash can in it was overturned, with the stink of weeks- old garbage stagnating the air.  Several cats scampered out of the ally past GAVAL's legs as he spotted a wooden stake laying on the ground, probably one of Bob's.  He noticed the tip was blunt and crack ran down the middle.  Looking up he spotted mortar missing from between two bricks on the wall of the alley.   The stake had missed its target and struck the wall.  The Reports had said the vampire called itself Soloman.  In this damp alley his ashes had already blown away to join the rest of the dust of the Earth.  GAVAL noticed a fire escape that led up to the roof and climbed his way to the top of the five story building to look for the place of Rae's final moment.  He hadn't known her, but she meant alot to `Bob, and the Cajun felt if he would do anything to help find her killer so he'd have to take a look.

     Walking across the roof and around various ventilation pipes and chimneys he came upon a spot unlike any other on the roof. It was clean.  Too clean.  The ASG was a little too good at covering up its mess.  Only a week before the spilt blood of a pureblooded warrior had surrounded the empty shell of one of the Guilds jewels, a Slayer named Rae who was killed by some manner of creature even the report didn't describe very clearly.  It wasn't the Spectre, though.  This killer was something else.  One of the vampires, perhaps?  The ASG probably wouldn't rest until it found out.


"MOUNTAIN KING GRUNG"
 

    GAVAL's time on the roof was disappointing.  There was no trace of evidence and no sign that there had ever even been a struggle on the condemned rooftop.  Just when he was about to take in the view on the opposite side of the roof, the Slayer heard a gunshot, followed by panicked screams from his friends.  "The CWALers...." he gasped as fear immediately welled up inside him.  What's going on down there?  He ran to the side of the building closest to their alley to get a better view of the situation.  Maybe they're just messing around...  Fear spawned terror.

     He caught sight of the group just as Fjorxc was hurled across the slum courtyard and into a pile of refuse, his helmet slamming into the wall.  Fjorxc's Walther PPK flew out of his now unconscious grasp and skidded to a halt at the feet of Fron who's head spun around as he tried to find the hidden attacker.  "Show yourself, coward!" cried Fron as he turned left and right, cattle prod extended.

     "What is it?!" cried Exile and Z as they approached the courtyard.  Before Fron could answer the ground slowly rumbled and Fron was thrown straight up into the air, landing on his side.  The wind was knocked out of him and he gasped for air.

     No...thought the Slayer as he looked around for the quickest way to join his comrades. No way....  Never this easy.  His options were few.  Either he ran back to the fire escape and climbed down, or he had to make like Nabob and use the Rush to leap down into the courtyard.

     "Lothos!  LOTHOS!  They're under attack!" cried GAVAL as he pinched the send button on the brim of his hat.  His radio message was met with a jolt of electricity on his ear and static.

     The rumbling increased.  It wasn't the rumble of motion but more than of sound.  He could feel the rumbling in his ears and in his gut as it shook the contents of his stomach.  It was like standing in the front row of a rock concert, but the noise was barely audible, oscillating below the threshold of human hearing.  Z and Exile, however, weren't human, and fell to their knees at the increase of the sound, grasping their heads as if they were about to explode.

     The Slayer gritted his teeth and tried to will the same power that came to him in his SUV earlier that day at the Mall.  He knew the power was there inside, but he just couldn't make it happen.  As he saw Z flail his tendril arm about trying to find the invisible assailant, a horrible clicking sound permeated the surrounding area and GAVAL staggered back.  He thought he heard the sound coming from behind him, from around him.  It was everywhere.  His breath steamed out of his mouth.  It was mid May and he could see his breath!  The cold dug into his bones and he thought his knees would buckle.  Got to help them.

     Shade and Ninny ran to help Z and Exile as a twisted, bony skeleton that looked half like a gargoyle and half like a fetal child quickly materialize, then go invisible again.  Indecision led to panic and GAVAL ran for the fire escape as the sound of battle and flashes of light erupted from the courtyard behind him.

     Ninny used the visible moment to ignite his light saber and charge the creature.  Slicing where he had seen Plague-Sever just seconds earlier, the saber left a trail of light that blinded the Exile and Z as they regained their composure and stood up.

     "Nothing!" cried Ninny as he looked around.  "Where is it?!"

     "Where is it?!" whispered Shade more to herself than anyone else as she aimed her crossbow around frantically.  It was suddenly very quiet.  Only a low rumbling continued.  Then there was a shriek that echoed more in their minds than anywhere else, flanging in and out as though the sound only half existed.  Then silence again save for the hum of Ninny's light saber.

     "Cold," said Exile as he ignited a psi blade.

     "VERY cold," frowned Z as he buttoned the top button of his Hawaiian shirt.  "I'll check on the canuks."

     The clicking resumed and everyone jumped at the sound.  Z paused before he could reach Fron and Fjorxc who were lying motionless.  Then it appeared, low and on the ground at Ninny's feet.  "THERE!" he cried, with lightning reflexes.  Ignoring the horrible skull-like image Plague Sever presented only momentarily, Darth Ninny sliced his light blade across the thing's lower jaw which was lined with crooked teeth.  The blade made no sound except its normal hum as it swung right through the Spectre.  Its head tilted to the side inquisitively just as it disappeared again and the clicking resumed.

     One of Shade's crossbow bolts flew right through the spot it had been.  The aim was perfect. The weapon was simply inappropriate.  It stuck into the pavement and vibrated slowly to a standstill.

     Silence again.  "This is SO annoying, frowned Ninny as he glanced around for something to attack."

     "We gotta get out of here," mumbled Morpher who came limping out of the alley GAVAL had disappeared into earlier.  ""The...things...and...the...alley...and...THE HORROR! THE HORROR!"

     "Let's just go!" cried Exile who's ears were leaking a blue fluid.  "My shields are gone and my head feels like it's in a vice..."

     GAVAL reached the bottom of the fire escape where he could see the alley again just in time to see Ninny's form quickly lift up off the ground and fly directly into Shade, Exile, Morpher, and Z, taking all five of them to the ground in one blow.  They all began screaming in terror as the clicking of teeth resumed once again.  Ninny was in a complete panic and had dropped his saber and waffle weapons as Shade tried to calm him down.  She too looked like she was about to lose control of her senses as blood trickled down her pale cheek.

     Then it happened.  Plague-Sever appeared right over his friends, with apparent intent to slay them when it stopped and turned directly towards GAVAL.  Its eye sockets had tiny beads of light in them as though its dark eyes were reflecting the dim light.  It was...looking...at him.  And then it was COMING for him.  It phased out as the cold GAVAL was experiencing seemed to increase to subarctic levels.  He felt the buttons on his jacket sting at their icy touch and suddenly wished he had worn more than a black T-shirt that day.  The Fear was the worst part though.  His knees were weak, his fingertips trembling.  The combination of apprehension and adrenaline left him feeling nauseous and vulnerable.

     The Cajun began backpedaling while drawing the silver stake from his belt where he had placed it to climb down the fire escape.  He had only faced the creature once before but this was definitely the longest it had been visible to his eyes.  It was as if the Spectre wanted him to see its crooked form floating towards him at a painstakingly slow pace with wispy tendrils of supernatural energy burning off its back like dry ice. You can't run from it forever.  This is why you broke the rules.  This is the moment you gave up a normal life for.  The conscience in him was strong and always kept him on the heroic path in times of crisis.  He knew he must attack, Rush or no Rush.  It continued to move his way, teeth clicking with a sound that was worse than fingernails on a chalk board.  The sound seemed to vibrate the Slayer's entire skeleton.  It was close enough and tangible enough now that he could see it's teeth as they clicked.  They were actually grinding against one another, gnashing and grinding.  He could even see the teeth give in and out if its underbitten jaw bone as if they could fall right out of its skull.  It was the most horrible thing he had ever seen in 8 years of evil slaying.

     Pulling the collar of his jacket up, GAVAL grabbed a gavel from his bandolier in his free hand and screamed as loud as his terrified voice could muster.  "EVAAAAAL!  AAAAAHHhhhh!"  He ran as fast as he could towards the creature cursing Nighteye for a Rush that only came whenever it damn well pleased.  Raising the stake as if in some insane joust he headed right for the terrible phantom aiming his stake for its head. Just as quick as he plunged the silver stake into its target, the target disappeared leaving only the cold, the fear, and the horrible clicking.

     The failed attack took everything out of the Slayer.  He simply was too terrified to move.  His mind kept thinking of horrible things, phobias of his childhood.  Spiders, tornadoes, that Thriller video.  All the things that left him running to his parents bed at night were circling in his mind and this thing, this Plague-Sever Spectre was worse than all of them.  He was doomed...

     "BOOOOGA!!"  Out of the dusk of evening jumped a leather clad sasquatch of a man with a grin from ear to ear and a voice that echoed above even the phantom's noises.  Turning to GAVAL he put his finger to that enormous grin and said, "SHHHHH!  We're hunting evahl!  Ehhheheheheheheh...."  Evidently Plague-Sever wasn't a fan of Elmer Fudd because Lothos' last moments of "eheheheheh" were met with the brick wall he had just been slammed into.  GAVAL, seeing this tried to gather his wits and get back up on his feet but they just wouldn't move.  Rotted carcases, festering corpuscles from disease, and the haunted house in the neighborhood he grew up in all whirled around in his mind.

     Lothos crouched for a moment beneath the cracked bricks he had just greeted, then looked up through dangling black hair and grinned again.  "Right," was all he said as he pulled out a shimmering bright frying pan coated in pure silver.  Leaping back towards the Spectre which remained visible, he swung the pan at the rate of three strikes per second at the creatures head, ribs, groin, ears, back, and face.  GAVAL's theory was thus proven incorrect as the pan went sailing to and fro through and around the phantom without making a single sound aside from the whistling of air.   The creature sighed an icy undead breath and bit into Lothos' shoulder, then flung him headlong into a trash banister.  The Zealander rose immediately from his throw and shrugged off a bleeding shoulder wound.  "That jacket was a gift, comrade.  Now I'm pissed."

     Dropping the pan he reached over his back and produced a large fishnet with garlic cloves hanging from it by the dozen.  With a scream Lothos threw the net over Plague-Sever and watched the net linger over it for a second before dropping to the ground as the Spectre went intangible.

     "Craters," mumbled GAVAL as he finally rose to his feet.  "Try the fire, Lothos!" he cried as he produced a vial of Holy Water from his bandolier.

     "FIRE!" roared the Kiwi as he whipped out a can of oven cleaner and a Zippo lighter.  "FIIIIRE!"  Blue and orange flames shot out of the can in every direction as Lothos aimed the can blindly in every direction until it ran out of pressure.  The clicking of teeth resumed with no apparent effects.

     "Wait until it's tangible, then we'll hit it together," mumbled GAVAL beneath his trembles.

     "Don't worry comrade, I think we've got it on the run!"  Lothos words ended in the thud of a ribcage being rammed.  He smashed into the opposing wall of his previous crash and fell onto the ground, shoulder bleeding more intensely.  "....and I think it just ran right into me," he coughed as he grabbed another can of oven cleaner from his pocket.

     "You okay?" asked GAVAL as he turned quickly left and right trying to find the source of the horrible clicking.

     "Tis but a flesh wound!" boasted Lothos as he stuffed Kleenex into his right nostril.

     "You're bleeding out of the other one," corrected GAVAL.

     "Preventive maintenance," explained Lothos as he wiped blood from his upper lip.

     "THERE!" Cried GAVAL as it appeared right before Lothos and reached for his head with its gaping jaw.

     Lothos screamed again as he lit up the lemon fresh spray and fired it directly into the creature.  GAVAL hurled three vials of holy water into the phantom's back and heard the vials break.  Triumphantly he screamed, "I GOT IT!" as the Spectre went intangible again.  Its breathing could be heard plainly and its heartbeat sounded a steady tempo over the clicking and rumbling.

     Wiping holy water, glass, and blood from his face Lothos shrugged and corrected the Cajun again.  "Well, you got SOMETHING.  That does it.  I'm just going to beat the thing's head in the old fashioned way!"  Dropping the can of oven cleaner and shrugging off his jacket, Lothos produced a staff of about two feet in length with an arcane crystal on the end.  It looked well-worn and ancient, like an antique movie prop found in some old store.  "Batter up!" he cried as he brought the magical Death Knight Staff back and swung it while doing his best impression of Marc McGuire.  The Spectre went intangible just before the object made contact with the full force of the New Zealander's swing.

     The creature became instantly fully visible and fell to the floor, the scratching sound of its bones striking the pavement.  In that moment it appeared to GAVAL as though it were some reanimated dinosaur skeleton, struggling to regain mobility.

     Lothos' eyes opened wide.  He looked at the staff he held as though seeing it for the first time and grinned devilishly at the new knowledge he had acquired.  Magical items hurt the blasted thing.

     The Spectre regained its composure instantly and leaped from the wet cement up at Lothos, carrying him high up into the alleyway almost three flights in seconds.  All the while Lothos was beating at the creatures rickety spine ignoring the crooked teeth that had dug into his other arm.  GAVAL watched them disappear into the night sky completely helpless at doing anything to stop Plague-Sever from stealing his friend's life.

     "Lothos!" cried the Cajun as he stared up into the sky.  Hearing no answer he looked around at his fallen friends, none of them moving except for the occasional involuntary shiver.  They were either held fast by fear or by their injuries.  GAVAL frantically thought about the items he wore and if any of them might allow him to defend the CWALers if the Spectre should return, but wasn't able to complete his thoughts as the limp body of Lothos came dropping on him silently like a half empty sack.

     "Lothos!  Talk to me!" he cried as he fumbled through the Kiwi's hair for a face and a sign of life.

     Slowly Lothos' eyes opened, glazed over, as they found GAVAL's own eyes.  "Did I get it?" he asked as he reached blindly for his dropped staff.  GAVAL started to answer when the clicking of teeth resumed, louder and more terrifying than ever.  He looked at Lothos and shook his head.  Lothos looked up at the sky and pointed a finger accusingly at where he assumed the Spectre was watching. "You cheating bastard!" he whispered as his eyes rolled back.

     GAVAL knew it was his turn as he felt a tug at the back of his jacket, then a nudge in the direction of the nearest wall.   He turned around and backpedaled, swinging his stake in the direction of the nudges, but made no contact as he was pushed back violently over and over until his back was to the wall.  Eval...

     Then the creature became fully visible one final time, it's knarled face only inches from GAVAL's.  He could feel the pulses of ectoplasmic energy flowing about the skeletal form of Plague-Sever as it hissed and breathed on him in chilled waves.  The Slayer felt his eyes water up from the frigid blasts of air.  His running nose had bits of ice in and around it.  The creature's teeth came within a centimeter of GAVAL's nose as slime dripped down onto the Wilson's leather waistcoast that only a few hour earlier the Cajun had been shopping for on a warm spring afternoon. Please Rush...why won't you Rush?!  He asked himself as his cheeks went numb and he prepared to surrender himself to a complete mana drain.  Death would surely follow shortly thereafter.  He cursed Nighteye to himself as he turned his head sideways to distance himself from Plague-Sever as his back was against an unyielding wall.  GAVAL closed his eyes tight. The power was there, but it was locked away...somehow he just couldn't  turn the key.  Where was the key?  What was the lock?  Was it this great fear he was overcome by?  How would he best a creature that inflicted fear as naturally as the sun emitted light or the sea caused things to become wet?
 
 

     That agony again... The life drain was the worst imaginable pain.  It was as if the wind were knocked out of you.  You couldn't breath. You couldn't blink.  Your soul itself was involuntarily regurgitated out of you as the Spectre reeled it in like a fisherman pulls in his catch.  At that point death was all one could wish for because even living with the memory of the type of soul raping that Plague-Sever was capable of was too much to bear.  But death would not come...

     In his mind GAVAL heard a scream of anger and frustration, then all was quiet.  Looking up into the sky with glazed eyes GAVAL saw the Spectre flying away, slowing, looking back on him almost confusedly, then flying away again into infinity.  Then unconsciousness came.  The overwhelming fear had pushed him to the point that his body could no longer tolerate the strain and fainting was the final involuntary response of a fallen and helpless Slayer in an encounter with natures version of the Anti-Slayer.

***

     Morpher's frowning face was the first thing he remembered after that moment.  "Ya know, I never even got a shot at the thing," the changeling said to Fron as GAVAL blinked his eyes and wondered where the Cherubs and Saint Peter were.  Maybe the deal with Nighteye lost me my promise to Heaven?  Maybe we're all in hell?  Maybe I've damned what's left of my soul?

     "Trust me, it wouldn't have mattered," muttered Fron as he glanced across the BiB's cab at GAVAL who had just rejoined the land of the living.  "Look who's up.  Took you long enough, Gav.  You don't even have a scratch on you!"

     "Which is more than the rest of us can say," complained Shade as she held an ice pack to a bruised forehead with a mark in the shape of Ninny's boot heel on it.

     "Lothos?" asked the Slayer.

     "He got the brunt of it.  Mu had to medevac him kicking and screaming about Plague-Sever's mother having a wooden leg with a kick stand, or Plague-Sever's father being the bastard child of a impotent goat."

         GAVAL nodded in relief and drew his knees to his chest, ashamed and humiliated at what had just happened.  Why didn't it kill him?  Why didn't the thing take his Rush and his life and then move on to its next victim?  Was GAVAL really that different?  Was what Nighteye did to him really that unappetizing to an eater of Purebloods?  Few words were spoken as Fjorxc drove them all home, unusually slow at ten over the speed limit.
 
 

Chapter IV.
"Changes"
 

    Considering that his current assignment, back-burner though it may have been, still involved infiltrating a formerly haunted tomb, it wasn't surprising that Nabob chose to go in during the daytime.  While not all undead creatures had the vampires' aversion to natural sunlight, enough of them did so as to make it substantially safer to try something risky while the sun was still shining happily out in the sky.

     Nabob allowed one of his arms to dangle out the driver's side window of the rental car as he sped eastwards down the highway leading away from the city of Innsbruck, Austria.  His blazer jacket flapped liberally about in the wind, and a pair of shades rested comfortably on his face.  The foothills of the Austrian Alps, lush green now that spring had arrived, flashed by at dangerous speeds, and, for the first time in quite a while, a feeling of peace crept through Nabob.  It felt foreign, as though it didn't belong in his troubled spirit.  All the same, he savored it, and was beginning to toy with the idea that perhaps Van had been right about needing a break from the action.

     Provided the action didn't follow him here, of course.

     The peaceful atmosphere felt out of place for several reasons.  The most obvious was the fact that Nabob did not associate Austria with peaceful feelings anymore, for the same reason he didn't associate Canada with peaceful feelings.  He had been on assignment in Austria, many years before, as part of a marginally successful attempt to put pressure on the local vampire blocs.  More importantly to his current frame of mind, it had been where he had met Rae.  Nabob had thought that returning to Austria would be like warily setting foot back into enemy territory.  Not only were there memories to contend with, but there were also a number of vampires whom he had made enemies of that would undoubtedly be well-pleased to learn of his return to the country.  The vampire extermination in Austria hadn't been quite effective enough to free him of all the enemies he had made in the process.

     Nonetheless, there was still some unshakable feeling that Nabob was now where he belonged.  It was that sense of relief one feels when leaving enemy territory, not when entering it.  Unless one happened to be a Maggottonian, of course, whom Nabob had a sneaking suspicion felt considerably better when wading into a potential battleground than when they were leaving one.

     Or maybe it was just the Austrian Alps in spring.  He had always been rather partial to these towering foothills as they came into bloom.

     The rental car flew past on the highway, well over the speed limit but still slow enough to avoid being pulled over by the Austrian equivalent of the highway patrol, provided that they were sober today.  It was a Volkswagon, somewhat new and flashy - if such a word could be applied to a VW - and likely costlier to rent than the ASG bookkeepers would have approved of.  To Nabob right now, though, that had been something of a virtue in a car, or at least one that was rented on a Guild credit card.

     He had left an unnecessarily large tip for the waitress at the diner he had eaten lunch at, too.

     In his mind, the map from the file in the Chimneysweep archives on this tomb was laid out and ready for him to scrutinize.  The place marked off on the map of Austria was about 40 miles to the east of Innsbruck, not far from the junction town of Nassereith.  If he kept up his current speed, he would be there in less than half an hour.  After that, there came the formidable task of trying to find, unearth, and investigate a tomb that, if all reports were accurate, had been undisturbed for nine centuries.

     "I wonder how they managed that," he murmured to himself, only half paying attention to the road.  The file in the Chimneysweep archives on the resting place of the remains of the ‘last' Plague Sever Spectre had been remarkably thin and sketchy.  Apparently it was an ancient, decrepit catacomb where priests and saints of old had once been brought for burial.  Nabob had to appreciate the irony.  The last creature that had been laid to rest in a tomb built for the pious was a monster of unspeakable evil.  Perhaps the saints of old had been spinning in their graves for the last thousand years, too.

     It took slightly longer than he expected, but with time he came across the proper intersection, where the Innsbruck highway met the small, dusty country road.  Nabob pulled off, the smooth freeway suddenly fading into astonishingly bumpy gravel-pit as he did so.  The Slayer gritted his teeth.  This brought back severe memories of Canada - and more particularly Alberta - which had more miles of gravel-pit back roads within its borders than any other country in the entire world, and very possibly than the rest of the world combined.

     Fortunately, that bumpy stretch of the journey was mercifully short.  No sooner had the highway disappeared out of sight amidst the foothills of the Austrian Alps than did a rocky cliff face appear, sloping out of the ground with all of the grace of violent tectonic movements.  He checked the map in his mind one last time.

     At last he was here.

     Parking the rented car off far on the shoulder of the country road, the Chimneysweep made the quick hike up to the cliff face.  The fresh, clean air of the Alps in the spring refreshed him after the long flight and car ride, and the breeze was pleasantly cool on his face.  Nabob breathed deeply, suddenly glad that he had come.

     The cliff face was fairly unremarkable, tall and broad, not unlike many others that were to be found in the foothills.  A few strands of half-finished graffiti adorned some sections of it, a modern touch that defaced five thousand years of natural development in the space of five minutes.  It frequently frightened Nabob that mankind now had the potential to destroy itself several times over in a space of time scarcely longer than that.  He was surprised that they hadn't done so already.

     Keeping those thoughts to himself, he quickly began to search the length of the cliff for anything resembling…well, a tomb.  Luck was with him that day, since it hadn't been well-concealed.  Then again, it scarcely needed to be.  Nabob had a feeling that the several-ton stone slab, propped up and partially embedded into the cliff, hadn't gotten there by accident.  Especially since it wasn't cut from the same rock as the cliff.

     "I guess one doesn't need subtle camouflage when one can move really fricking huge rocks," he said to himself, slipping his shades off and tucking them into his breast pocket, giving the slab a considerable look up and down.  It vaguely reminded him of all the Easter stories he had heard as a child, the ones about the rock that guarded Jesus' tomb being rolled away after three days.

     He gave it an experimental push.  Not only did it not budge at all, but he received the distinct impression that had it been an animate object, it would have laughed at him.

     "No chance in doing things the easy way, then.  Doubt I could move this even if I was Rushed."  His brow furrowed. "I doubt that even one of the Slayers Premiere could get this thing to roll aside…"

     Then he noticed something to the immediate right of the rock.

     Leaning closer, Nabob saw that a section of stone had been unnaturally smoothed out to serve as some sort of a marking post for the tomb.  Inscribed upon it was a chiseled rune that the Slayer couldn't even begin to recognize.  He ran his hand across it, half expecting something dramatic to happen.  Nothing did.  All the same, though, the symbol looked strangely familiar…

     Just before he could turn away from it, the memory returned to him.  He had seen it before, although only in passing.  He couldn't remember exactly where, but he clearly remembered seeing it likewise inscribed upon some ancient Slayer tome that he had once read.  An idea flashed through his mind, and from his bandoleer he drew his knife.

     Nabob grimaced as he ran the blade of his knife across his palm, drawing a thin red line that quickly expanded and began to trickle down his wrist.  Unpleasant memories of his encounter with the vampire Solomon nipped at the peripheries of his conscious mind, but the Chimneysweep quickly dismissed them.  There was more than one use for divine blood, as he had discovered that night, and it was his distinct hope that this situation might present yet another.

     The Slayers of old who had sealed this tomb had evidently been of like mind.  As he pressed his bloodied palm against the cold stone marker, Nabob could feel glimmering warmth start to radiate from the seal, a warmth that seemed to probe him with primal familiarity.  Glancing at the marker, he could see that it was actually glowing from within, strange as it might be for stone to glow, a convulsing, erratic light that seemed to emanate from a fire burning within the marker itself.  Then, abruptly, the light went dead, and the ground began to shake.  Stumbling backwards, Nabob caught sight of what was happening.

     The giant stone slap that had stood vigil over the tomb for a thousand years was, of its own arcane accord, rolling aside, revealing a descending stone staircase that disappeared into an almost supernatural gloom beneath the surface.

     Nabob looked down at his hand. "This stuff never ceases to amaze me."

     A quick check revealed that he was still alone.  A pair of cars had briskly made their way down the gravel-pit country road, but neither had stopped to investigate the parked Volkswagon or the whereabouts of its renter.  For this he was glad; things could get potentially messy in a hurry if a well-meaning local or curious sightseer stumbled down after him.  While it was true that anything down there had likely been dead for almost a millennia, Nabob still felt little urge to have civilians and innocents poking around anywhere near the remains of a Spectre.  Hell, truth be told, he himself had little urge to be poking around the remains of a Spectre, but such was life.  Closing the tomb behind him as he went down would be both inadvisable and nigh-impossible, so he would just have to pray that nobody else happened by while he was down there.

     It was actually quite a dilemma trying to decide whether to go down armed with a stake or with his Beretta in addition to his flashlight.  In the end, he decided on the handgun.  Not exactly traditional, but Nabob had little patience for impractical traditions anyway.  Firepower was more useful.

     With one last glance up at the sky and one final murmured prayer to the Divinity, Nabob began his descent.


"IN THE HALLS OF THE MOUNTAIN KING"

     The darkness engulfed him, and the beam of his flashlight seemed as but a slivering pinprick spearing through the hide of a colossal, inky black creature.  Chills swept through his body as he moved downwards, an unkind reminisce of his own encounter with the Plague Sever.  The finely-crafted stone walls seemed to trap the cold amidst them.

     "Not to worry about it, ‘Bob…" he said to himself, just loud enough to hear the reassuring echo. "Nothing's been alive down here for a thousand years.  Hell, nothing's been undead down here for a thousand years either!"  His own wry, forced laughter did nothing to make him feel better. "Oh God, what am I doing down here…"

     The only response was the uncomfortably loud shuffle of his boots on the dusty stone floor.

     It took ten minutes of cautious creeping down the tunnel stairwell before he reached the level ground of the catacombs themselves.  Nabob's flashlight darted across the walls, just short of frantically.  The air was totally still and heavy, undisturbed since long before the beginning of modern history.  The sheer depth of the silence and stillness around him was profoundly awe-inspiring.

     "The last people to breathe the air down here were the original Slayers," he said, voice echoing throughout the reaches of the dark tomb. "I suppose that means I'm in distinguished company."

     A quick survey of the branching catacombs revealed a rather large sanctum, one in which it would be remarkably easy to get lost in, even with a healthy intuitive compass.  The pitch darkness wouldn't help matters in the slightest.  As a precaution, he removed a flare from his bandoleer and struck the end of the rod, causing it to abruptly light up with hissing fire.  He placed it on the ground in the entryway, shielding his eyes from the glare as he did so.  It would take a while to burn itself out, and in the meantime its fiery glow would be visible from just about anywhere in the dark catacombs.

     In the light of the flare, he was able to better make out his immediate surroundings.  From the entrance room, corridors branched off in several directions.  Carved of stone in an inlet in the wall immediately facing the stairwell was a gothic bust of a pious-looking man, half-crumbled by the years.  It was probably Jesus Christ.

     "Latin markings…" Nabob murmured to himself as he glanced the statue over.  He knew a little Latin, and the inscription was indeed something to the effect of ‘Son of the Virgin, Son of the Lord'.  It was of little consequence save as an archaeological curiosity.  There were medieval treasures down here that most museum curators would weep openly just for the chance to see.  Intricate, ornate chiseling and carvings could be found on every wall, many murmuring cold, foreign praises to Jehovah.  Nabob glanced at them in only a cursory fashion.

     "Most of this predates the final defeat of the Spectre," he continued speaking to himself to stave off the impending silence. "Somehow I doubt that the Slayers who defeated the damn thing would stay around long enough to chisel a chronicle of their exploits on the walls, even if they did know that the next person down here would be a Slayer."

     All right, so reading inscriptions on walls and statues was a waste of good time.  It was high time to branch out a little.  In a deliberately systematic fashion, Nabob began to explore down the crypt's passages, hunting for any sign of the final battle against the great evil creature.  Fifteen minutes and three catacomb passages later, he had found nothing, and the flare's light was beginning to waver.  The only thing of any note was that while many of the hollow nooks meant to preserve the bodies of the pious were inhabited by long-dead skeletons, many more were empty, as though they had not yet been filled.  Obviously the tomb had still been receiving new guests when the Slayers sealed it once and for all.  Interesting…

     Although he didn't want to rush himself, Nabob still knew that time - and the light - were against him.  As such, he considered for a moment and then headed down the passageway closest to the statue of Christ, flashlight clutched solidly in one hand, his Beretta in the other.

     The gamble with his time paid off.  Instead of yet another claustrophobic catacomb hallway lined with nooks for the bodies, this passage led into a larger chamber filled with rows of ornate sarcophagi.

     "This must be the burial place for the archpious," he smirked, allowing his handheld light to roam the chamber liberally. "Nice to know that there's always been some sort of distinction."

     This room was particularly dusty, even though the air was just as still in there as anywhere else.  It was also especially cold, much to Nabob's discomfort, and he was fully prepared to turn about and leave when his foot set down upon something brittle with an enormous crack!

     Nabob glanced down to the crude stone floor. "What the hell…"

     Skull fragments.

     He knelt, taking a closer look.  Coarse and brittle, the skull had been shattered long ago.  Most of the pieces were fragmented, but the jawbone, still mostly intact, caught Nabob's eye.  Hardly squeamish, he picked it up from the ground and brushed it off, making a disgusted face as he did so.  A normal human jawbone this was not.  Twisted and misshapen, it scarcely looked humanoid at all.  Either its owner had gotten into a large number of unwinnable fights, or…

     Suddenly a memory flashed before Nabob's mind, and he flung the skull fragment away, as though even touching it might spread some dark cancer through his soul.  He had seen one like it before: that night - that horrible, surreal night - when Rae had died and his worst nightmares had taken shape.  Aiming high, squeezing his pistol's trigger, and, for a brief second, catching the illuminated glimpse of the malformed, skeletal being floating right before him.  The same jaw, or one similar enough, had been on that very creature.

     He had just touched the remains of a thousand-year dead Plague Sever Spectre.

     Shudders threatened to overwhelm his body as he slumped backwards, resting against a stone-crafted sarcophagus.  On this very spot, so many centuries ago…

     Nabob was distantly aware of the hiss and glow of the far-off flare finally extinguishing itself, but he could not bring himself to move from where he sat.  Chills danced along his spine, paralyzing him, and for a dreadful moment he fully expected to hear the tell-tale chattering of the Spectre, as though it would suddenly awaken to punish him for his trespasses.  The moment passed uneventfully, however.

     "Okay ‘Bob, deep breaths," he whispered. "Get a hold of yourself…get a grip…"

     Then, out of the corner of his eye, Nabob saw his flashlight beam strike a glint of metal, half-buried in the dust.  He forced himself to look.  There, placed in a strikingly deliberate fashion in the Plague Sever's cracked skull, was a dulled golden object, no bigger than the Chimneysweep's fist.  His eyes narrowed.  He didn't think that Spectres could wear jewelry, being generally incorporeal and all, but if this thing had belonged to the demon, he wouldn't want to be handling it too closely.

     Then again, he had just touched the remains of the Spectre itself.  What more did he have to lose?

     The light hit it from a different angle, revealing a flawless purple gem embedded into the gold, and a lengthy golden chair attached as well.  An amulet.  Nabob reached his trembling hand out, but stopped just short, trying to decide whether or not touching it, or even being anywhere near it, would be something that he regretted for the rest of his life.

     Only then did he hear the voice.

     Whether it was actually audible or a mental apparition he would wonder for the rest of his life.  Whatever the case was, though, he clearly heard it echoing through his mind - if not the catacomb hallways - soft and feminine, yet commanding and full of righteous authority.

     "Take it..."

     Nabob continued to simply sit there, arm partially extended, utterly dumbstruck.  This was not what he had been expecting when he had boarded the plane for Europe.

     "Who are you?" he called out into the darkness. "What is that thing?"

     "Take it."

     "But…"

     "Take it!"

     The last command carried with it an almost hypnotic authority; his hand shot forward, scarcely of its own accord, found the golden amulet, wrapped around it, and pulled it back to his breast.  Despite the chill of the air, the golden amulet was not cold.  Quite the contrary; as Nabob touch it, a surge of warmth raced through him, emanating from the glistening jeweled medallion.  It was a feeling strangely similar to what he had felt at the stone marker when opening this tomb.

     His fingers gently slid across the golden surface of the amulet as he studied it intently by the light of his flashlight.  The medallion was, for the most part, perfectly smooth in texture, as though it had been refined and forged only the day before, rather than having lay in a decrepit tomb for the past thousand years.  Disturbing the flawless surface was a small etching in the material on what appeared to be the exact center of the back of the amulet.  He turned it slowly in his hand, carefully wiping a millennia's accumulation of dust out from the etching's ridges.  It was a rune of some kind, carved into the amulet uncountable generations ago.

     And as Nabob bent close, squinting in the erratic light to get a better look at the arcane symbol, the glyph began to pulse with a deep crimson glow.

     Then there was a flash of radiant white light emanating from the amulet, and the Chimneysweep's world abruptly tumbled into the embrace of oblivion.

     "Remember…"

     He was moving…no, not me, everything else is moving.  Nabob's immediate surroundings blurred, then disintegrated into a stream of fragments surging past him.  Pieces of reality danced into a flurry of swirling, chaotic energy moving past him at the speed of thought.  The catacombs were left far behind as he was spun through the center of existence, turned inside out and back again, and then sent careening off through the brilliance of infinity…

     He wasn't certain how long his mind reeled like this for - seconds, minutes, or hours - but eventually the cyclic whirlwind of chaos burned away, and was replaced by an image, not quite clear, but vivid in a different way, as in a half-remembered dream or a feeling of déjà vu.  It was a cobblestone street, lined with old buildings built with an archaic, gothic flair.  Rain and mist obscured part of the scene, but it was easy to see the crowds of people moving through the foreground.  It could very well have been just about any street in the world.

     But it wasn't simply any street.  Familiarity washed over Nabob.  I've been there before.  He hurriedly rushed through the mental hallways of his mind searching for a matching geographical locale, and within seconds had it.  Vienna…not far from the city center…I used that street as a passage into the vampire nest at the city's heart when I was stationed there.  It was his old hunting ground, and as such conjured forth images of dead and dying vampires that served to bring a smile to his face.

     Whatever trace of gleeful memory that was to be found in the image, however, was not enough to counterbalance the sudden sorrow that struck him.  The last time that Nabob had seen this street, walked across these cobblestone tiles, gazed down upon the teeming mass of people there, he had been on assignment with Rae.

     Remorse was not given a chance to overwhelm him, though, as the scene abruptly changed, sharpening and closing on one of the individuals in the passing crowd for a brief second.  She was striking, beautiful in an exotic fashion, particularly for the distinctive Germanic people of Austria.  The very sight of her seemed somehow soothing and peaceful.  Her features, although partially obscured, were still strong and regal, complexion and facial features almost Asian, smooth as a teenage girl's, yet with the wisdom of an age-worn widow.  Shoulder-length streaks of black-brown hair melted across her neck and the collar of her leather jacket.  She looked almost out of place, and at the same time, very much as though she belonged right there in that crowd, and nowhere else…

     Before he even had time to truly focus upon her, though, she was gone, and the image faded into oblivion once more.  From beyond the broil of eternity, though, he now heard a voice, whispered and peaceful despite the chaos surrounding him and the chaos within him.

     "The breach must be healed…"

     "Who are you?" he tried to shout out in vain, only to find his own voice lost to him.

     "The chasm must be crossed…"

     Again, with a desperate, flashing ferocity, the scene on the street in Austria appeared before him, then the woman again, then back to nothingness.

     "Two worlds must be united…"

     Then, there came an enormous flash of light, engulfing all of his surroundings and causing the Chimneysweep to bring his arm up to shield his eyes from harm.

     "Or both will come to folly."

     The glare vanished, replaced by a much milder glow.  Carefully, Nabob opened his eyes.  The world had ceased its raucous descent through oblivion, it seemed.  Looking up gingerly, he found himself to be back in the catacombs, deep underground in the Austrian Alps.  While he had expected to be cloaked in darkness, however - he vaguely remembered the flare fizzling itself into nothingness whilst he had cowered at the long-dead Spectre's remains - now he found himself bathed in a soothing, warming light.  Looking down, he could see that he still clutched the jeweled amulet, and that the purple jewel itself was glowing brightly, shedding a violet glow across the worn stone of the catacombs.

     Experimentally, he shifted his hand around.  The light changed.  The amulet was not simply glowing in every direction, but was, instead, producing its light in a broad cone, not entirely unlike a flashlight.

     "This just keeps getting better…" he murmured, slowly pulling himself up off of the dusty floor, still clutching the amulet tightly.  With great care, he lifted it high and gently hung it around his own neck.  The light persisted, stretching out to illuminate the foreboding gloom before him.

     Half bemused, half shocked, the eerie, resounding words still pounding through his head, Nabob began to head through the passageways back towards the main entrance to the catacombs, the violet glow serving as his guide.  Before he left the dusty room where he had found the amulet, though, he mustered his courage and swept some of the ancient Spectre's remains into a specimen container.

     "Maybe the boys back at headquarters can get something out of this thing," he muttered, mostly to hear the reassuring sound of his own voice in the perpetual silence.  With that, he began his trip back topside.

     No sooner had he set cautious foot back up into the sunny afternoon's light than did the amulet's glow fade, silently dispersing as if it knew that it were no longer in need.  Also, behind him, the behemoth of a rock that had covered the tomb in the first place began to rumble once more, and, again of its own accord, slowly rolled itself back into place, sealing the catacombs for another thousand years to come.

     Nabob gingerly felt the amulet around his neck.  Then, in contemplative silence, he returned to his rented car.  It was still there, fortunately, not having been usurped by some passing opportunist.  The Slayer slowly unloaded the gear and specimen containers that he had been carrying with him, but, after some thought, decided to leave the amulet on, albeit tucked inside his shirt.  The words that he had heard after touching it still echoed in his mind.

     "Two worlds…" he whispered to himself. "Well, I suppose there's only one way to find out what it meant."

     When he went back onto the highway this time, it was in the direction of Vienna.
 

**********

"BOADICIA"

    It would be three days before GAVAL would even speak of the battle to any of his CWAL friends, and even then it took Lothos' continual prodding to get the Cajun to open up.  The fact that it was the most injured of his comrades to come to him about the "next move" seemed to bother GAVAL.   This was on top of the cross he was already bearing for freezing up and for not taking his shameful new Rush and putting it to some good use.

     "Sitting around won't amount to any use, chum, and you've hardly come out of your room since we got back," said Lothos from outside GAVAL's door.  He had torn the bandages the resident medic had placed on him as quickly as Mu could wrap his wounds.  Repeating the lines "I'll be fine" over and over as he tried to figure out where he went wrong with the Spectre was the theme of the last two days.  Finally Mu gave up and told Lothos' concerned house mates that "he'd be fine" when they asked why Lothos wasn't stitched up or on any medication for pain.

     Three raps at GAVAL's door was all Lothos had patience for.  Three raps and he was jig-sawing the hinges off the entrance and removing the door.

     "Could have used the window," GAVAL mumbled as he sat on an unfixed bed surrounded by pizza boxes in a t-shirt and dirty jeans.

     "Didn't wanna make a mess," quipped Lothos as he shook the sawdust and metal filings from his shaggy hair.

     "To what do I owe the pleasure?"

     "We've a Spectre to slay and it's been given bloody two days to go about its business and hide its tracks.  I think we've given it enough of a false sense of security by letting it beat the shyte out of us, then by cowering and licking our wounds for half a week.  So what's next?"

     "Next?  I don't know if dere is a next.  We went, we brought out some of our best, and we got trounced.  Ah went to pieces.  You're a walking chunk of open wounds, you. I  don't know what to do next."

     Lothos paused for a minute trying to think of a tactful way of asking a very sensitive question, then decided for the 600th time in his life that tact wasn't his thing.  "The Rush didn't help, did it?"

     GAVAL looked up at Lothos and froze for a minute.  Looking down again he reached for his new jacket.  "I'm going out for Pizza."

     Lothos wasn't going to let that happen.  Reaching down he quickly grabbed the door, put it back in place, removed his death mage staff, and heat welded the metal of the hinges to their previously sawed mountings in the door frame.  "Oh!  Lookie there!  I guess we're stuck in here until the guys can find a cutting torch!  Hmm...what to discuss to kill time?  How about why you didn't RUSH when the damned Spectre was making an horse d'ouvres out of me!  YEAH, THERE'S A TIMELY SUBJECT!"

     GAVAL froze for the second time in sixty seconds and glanced at the window contemplating a headfirst plummet.

     "I know it wasn't by choice, Gav.  I know you wanted to help, but I also know how your bloody...well...BLOOD works. You told us you fixed it but it didn't do a thing for you against that Spectre.  What are you hiding from us?  From ME?!  I took the bullet for you comerade and you still cant' talk to me about whatever the hell's going on?  I can understand keeping that you got the Rush a secret from your girlie which even I know is as deadly as microwaving nitroclycerine, but from what I can tell you don't even HAVE a Rush!"

     GAVAL was trapped and he knew it.  At that moment when Lothos intervened, even more compelling than the fear of sharing his secret was the agony of not sharing his dilemma with SOMEONE.  ANYONE.  Sighing he dropped back on the bed and threw his jacket into the wall, running his hands through his hair.  He mumbled something incoherently as Lothos craned his neck to understand.

     "Whazzah?"

     "I HAVE a Rush."

     "You do?"

     "Yes.  A Rush.  Not THE Rush.  Not the one the other Slayers have, but ah know it's there.  I feel it deep inside...I even used it a couple of times by accident when ah was mad, but the Spectre scared me too much and it wouldn't work.  I have a Rush. I do...."

     "Oh Gav..."  Lothos shook his head, more sawdust falling from it, and pulled a chair up to the corner of the bed so he could sit on it backwards.  "What did you do, comrade?  I wont' tell a soul, but it's killing you to talk about it, I know.  It's serious.  I know I don't do serious well, but I got ears, I do.  Just say it, man."

     Tired of the guilt and fear GAVAL spilled his story in every detail as if he had cracked under weeks of interrogation.  Nothing was kept secret.  The pact with Nighteye, the promise to duel him to the death, his reasoning for wanting to avenge the death of slayers and kill Plague-Sever, and why he couldn't tell the ASG what he had done.  All was shared..

     "...and supposedly this new Rush will get stronger every time I use it but ah can't make it work.  It's some kind of dark power.  Nighteye opened up the door dat allows mah blood to pool energy...but I think it might not be the same energy ah used to tap...I don't understand it an' ah can't use it...and I'm kinda scared of it.  It's done nothin' but bad things to me so far."

     Lothos looked GAVAL in the eye for almost a full minute as the Slayer waited for the lecture of his life on the stupidest of stupid decisions.  Lothos Rubbed his scruffy chin for a second then sat up on the chair and grinned from ear to ear.

     "COOL!"

     GAVAL's jaw dropped. "Cool?"

     "BLOODY AMAZING!  You're living the story of a lifetime!  You've got more potential power than all of CWAL put together and all you have to do is figure out how to use it!"

     "I do?"

     "Bloody hell yeah!  What you need is a Yoda!"

     "A Yoda?"

     "Yeah!  You need a Yoda to teach you how to use the Rush again!  The new improved bad ass Rush that makes you crush CD players with Cajuny Wrath!"

     "You know any Yoda's, cuz from what I figure, no Pureblood warrior of light has ever made mortal combat promising pacts with evil Sith agents of Diablo."

     "Let's have a vote!"  Lothos stood up and addressed an make-believe deligacy.  "The candidates before you are me, and me!  AllinfavorofmesayayeAYEallopposednaywell, thatsettlesit!  I'm your new teacher!"

     "But Lothos, you don't know ANYTHING about being a Slayer and Slayers don't even know how to hurt the Spectre, not dat we can use their help after what Ah've done!"

     "That is where you'd be wrong, comrade!  I present to you the facts!  Fact 1: You DO know how to use the Rush, and have probably known all along!  What was the only thing you had in common both times you went crazy strong and broke things uncontrollably?"

     GAVAL thought for a moment, then his eyes went wide.  "Ah was pissed.  DAMN pissed!"

     "You were damned pissed!  And if you can get that pissed about the radio not having a good song, then do you have any idea how much power things like New York Cabbies, Sephroth's dirty underwear, and revenge on the Spectre could produce in you?!  And why do you suppose you couldn't Rush when the Spectre tried to snack on you?"

     "I wasn't angry enough?"

     "I saw you, comrade, head spinning or not, you were shyting your breaches!  FEAR, MAN!  You were too scared to Rush!  Fear is the enemy!  Fear fear itself cuz it's what kept you mortal, friend!"  Lothos danced about the room excited about his deductive prowess.  "Now!  Fact Number 2:  We CAN hurt the Spectre!"

     "But we didn't even touch the thing!  Are you assuming my Rush will be the key?" asked the confused Cajun.

     Lothos grinned and raised an eyebrow, "That will be a big help, but what you're missing is the big clue we stumbled upon when I beat its brains in with this staff here!"

     GAVAL frowned, "magic..."

     "MAGIC!  MAGIC HURTS PLAGUE-SEVER!"

     "But we'd need so much magic to take out something that hard to find...our numbers are so few and I can't involve CWAL anymore after what happened..."

     "HENCE FACT NUMBER 3: We CAN use Slayers if we do it right and ask the right people!"

     "Lothos, if they find out what ah did and what's happened to me I'd become the most hunted Slayer Target since Count Vlad himself.  Dey can't know what Ah've done."

     "They don't have to!  We just go to the right people...Slayers you trust...tell them you got your Rush back through conventional means.  Tell them it just CAME back.  Once you figure out how to use it you can fake making it happen uncontrollably just like it does with other Slayers."

     "Dere's only one or two people I'd trust on this kind of mission."

     "So you build MORE people in the ASG that you'd trust!"

     "Build?!"

     "BUILD!  Young Slayer Trainees!  Tell them the great GAVAL is on a secret mission and needs to train them for taking out the ASG's greatest nemesis!  Then we throw magic items all over them, supplement their training with special Lothosian evil-smashing logic, and you've got yourself the bad-assest Spectre Slaying unit seen since men were wearing three foot wigs and makeup and fat women were considered hot!"

     GAVAL shook his head.  "If we do this, you realize Ah'd be digging myself into even deeper trouble with the ASG."

     "You gotta break a few omelets if you wanna make an egg, Gav.  Once you bring in Plague- Sever's head, all will be forgiven!"

     "But my own Slayer unit...that's almost...mut'ny."

     "It's just a new level of vigilantism the ASG probably has resorted to all along.  It's only till we catch the thing!"

     "Ah supposed I could trust Cabbott," thought the Cajun and he walked up to the window and gazed out at the wind blowing trees around a bit.  He dug into his pocket, popped a stick of Spearmint gum, and turned around to Lothos.  "Cabbott is into training now.  He'd know lots of young Slayers we could...employ."

     "Now you're thinking `damned the consequences' style!  And we'll deal with all the Nighteye bullshyte as it comes.  This will all work out!  It's a huge problem that calls for a huge solution!  Plus, I've been bored lately and need some kids to corrupt!  What do ya say?!"

     GAVAL looked back out the window and chewed on his gum slowly...for a minute he pictured Rachel's face and considered telling her everything now that the cat was out of the bag.  I miss you. I miss being happy.

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