Shadow and Substance

by Aadler
Copyright 1999

Like "Point of Focus", this story takes place in Season Three, after "Doppelgangland" but before "Graduation", and continues my interest in 'behind the scenes' events in Sunnydale. (Additionally, it follows my own story, "Come to My Window".) There are some familiar characters, but many things are not as they appear ...

Disclaimer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and related characters are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy Productions, and Twentieth Century Fox.

Part I

As always, her first thought on returning to consciousness was that she was cold. It generally took her a few seconds to come back to herself, to remember and understand, and sometimes she would try to hug herself against the cold; then she would find she had no arms, no body, no breath ... It was better when there was something to distract her, and awareness could seep into her without that moment of paralyzing terror. Tonight it was a guitar riff, the piercing chords catching her attention for the brief, vital interval of transition, and she settled into herself with a mental sigh that compounded pain, weariness and resignation.


There was no 'behind' in her current state, but her focus had been on the stage, and Nika's voice came from the opposite direction. In another moment she had the psychic integration that gave her the internal sense of a body, and she mentally 'turned' to where her friend stood. "I'm here," she said. "It's time, then?"

Nika nodded, keeping her face toward the stage and making it a motion that could have been a response to the music. "I know her normal routine now, and I've made such preparations as I could. It's really up to you. If you say yes, we can go tonight."

No one else could hear her; her voice was as much mental projection as actual vocalization, and directed specifically to Sandy. Masked by the noise of the band, it wouldn't have been even audible to a bystander, much less intelligible. Sandy's own speech was pure thought, and until recently only Nika could perceive it. "I don't need to think about it," she replied. "I'm ready."

The older woman turned and made her way toward the door, her movements effortlessly attuned to the shifts of the crowd so that she passed through it as easily as a seal sliding through water. Sandy drifted in her wake, unseen and intangible, and moments later they were together on the street outside. Away from the crush of living flesh, Sandy found it a simple matter to summon the necessary concentration, and her body shimmered into focus beneath the streetlights while Nika watched with critical approval. "Very quick," she said. "The first time you needed nearly half an hour to tune in, and you went transparent every time you tried to talk. Now you look perfectly normal, in barely ten seconds."

"You were right," Sandy told her. "It's all in how I think of myself. I still have to make the effort, but it's getting easier." She looked down. "Now if only I could think of myself in some other outfit ..."

"You look fine," Nika said brusquely. She was all but indifferent to appearance ... but then, Sandy thought, she could afford to be, striking as she was. Though she seemed to be in her early thirties, there was something ageless about her: probably because of her hair, pure white without hint of shading, plaited into thick braids that should have looked Native American but somehow evoked Renaissance Europe. Her eyebrows were similarly pale, her skin almost translucent, so that the crimson slash of lipstick made a startling contrast. Her outfits varied, the one constant being the ornate silver crucifix on a finely wrought chain around her neck ... and she wore sunglasses, indoors and out, with small round opaque blue lenses. Sandy had never seen Nika's eyes, and wondered sometimes if they were pink, and her friend an albino.

Her own persona was far more prosaic: black wraparound blouse, over a blue print skirt; dark blonde hair pulled back away from her face, with the inevitable stray wisps escaping at the front; gray eyes, wide and trusting and stupid. She had no reflection now, but that was how she had looked when she did a quick check in the mirror before going out, the night she was killed, so that was how her appearance manifested when she gave herself one.

She was pleased to see that she had matched Nika stride for stride while she let her thoughts run on. Maintaining the illusion of a physical body was coming more and more naturally, and the initial heartbreaking difficulty made her proud of what she had accomplished even if the need for it would soon be gone. "Where are we going?" she asked Nika. "Her place?"

"No," the older woman replied with ill-hid annoyance. "She was too careful for that, and she would have spotted me if I had tried to follow closer. But she makes the rounds of a small number of clubs, and the place we're headed is her favorite. It's a rare night she doesn't show, so we should be able to pick her up without much effort."

It took them over forty minutes to walk the required distance, and an attentive observer would have noted that only one set of heels echoed on the night sidewalks. They talked little, having made their plans weeks before and discussed them often; execution, now, would probably require adjustments as they proceeded, but the basic pattern was set. Sandy looked to her own dissolution without foreboding, the only pang concerning the loss of her association with Nika, the questions that remained unanswered. The woman's companionship had made all the difference between sanity and hopelessness, and yet she still knew almost nothing about her.

The time before their first meeting had been nightmare. Coalescing into consciousness every night at the same moment -- 10:14, the time of her death under the fangs of the red-haired vampiress in dominatrix leather -- she had endlessly run the same gauntlet of confusion, horror, memory, and sickening despair. Buffeted by the music, locked to the spot where her life had ended, fading with the dawn only to be 'reborn' the following night ... Worst of all, in the beginning, were those evenings she saw the girl who so frighteningly resembled her killer; but over time, unable to flee, she had observed enough finally to recognize that this was a totally different person. (And was it her imagination that the girl sometimes glanced her way with a little quizzical frown, as if she had almost seen --?)

Then came the night when the woman with thick white hair and hidden eyes had passed within arm's length of her place of bondage, paused, then turned back to survey the spot where she 'stood'. Sandy had watched, refusing to let herself hope, until, though the scarlet lips barely moved, the woman's words came clearly to her: "You're there, aren't you? I don't know how, but I can feel you."

Relief, and impalpable tears, and an end to the terrible loneliness. Nika had returned night after night, and in their near-silent communion Sandy had gradually learned how to expand the heretofore intractable limits of her existence: to move, using her friend as an anchor, from the place of her death; to resume the semblance of her old form; to make her voice heard, and -- lately -- her touch felt. Meager blessings, compared to all she had lost, but after weeks of unrelenting deprivation they were precious beyond measure.

She heard the first threads of music while they were half a block away, and as the distance diminished the sound became unmistakable. "Disco?" she asked Nika, incredulous.

"Oh, yes." The woman's lips quirked in the hint of an uncharacteristic smile. "Our girl is a regular Dancing Queen. I'd think she was brought over in the Seventies if I didn't know better."

Sandy grimaced. "I thought we just had to deal with plain old evil. You didn't mention disco."

Inside, the noise level really wasn't any worse than at the Bronze, though the music selection was abominable, and those patrons who had dressed to match the theme made a sight that was nearly stomach-turning; Sandy could only hope they knew how dreadful they looked and were treating it as a joke. She had seen tonight's target only once, fleetingly, so rather than scan the crowd she simply watched Nika. "Two tables over from the ladies' room," her friend told her, their internal communication easily undercutting the din. "The blonde with the velvet choker."

The one thus indicated didn't appear threatening; in fact, she looked seventeen and trying to seem older, dressed and made up in exaggerated Goth style, with dramatically overdone mascara and black lipstick. Her hair was a reddish gold rather than strictly blonde, and hung shoulder-length with little permed ringlets at the sides. She wore fingerless lace gloves, and her fingernails too were painted black. Excessive, Sandy thought, but nothing overtly sinister.

"How do we get her out?" she asked. Forget appearance, her trust in Nika superseded her own judgment by a sizable margin. As she spoke, the girl turned slightly to survey the milling crowd, and her teeth showed in a jarring grin; the expression was sassy and ironic, and she suddenly looked more punk than Goth, but still not frightening ...

"If I'm right," Nika said, "we'll be following her in just a few minutes." They watched together as their quarry stood and started across the teeming interior of the club. At a table across from the bar, a bespectacled young man in gleaming white Saturday Night Fever polyester stood in mute misery while two college-aged girls laughed freely, pointing at him and clutching one another in their hilarity. It was obvious that he had nerved himself to ask one of them to dance, and equally obvious that he would have welcomed death as an escape just now. In a lull in the music, their voices rang silvery and heartless ...

The Goth girl pulled at his elbow. "Okay, lover, you had your joke with these two," she announced in tones loud and amused and pitched to carry. "Now come on and dance, before you scare off their customers." The girls at the table had fallen silent to listen; now one of them turned pale, while high spots of color flamed on the cheeks of the other, and suddenly they were the object of the laughter that bubbled up around them.

"Well," Sandy remarked as the relieved young man was led out onto the dance floor. "She may be evil, but I didn't mind seeing that."

"She does have a crude kind of style," Nika agreed.

It got better. So neatly that Sandy wondered if the deejay too had observed the scene, and tailored his timing and selection to accommodate it, the music began just as the pair reached the floor: not another disco classic, but Exile's sultry, throbbing Kiss You All Over. The white-clad young man began to shift tentatively in the patterns of a modified box step ... and the Goth girl moved in instant response to his first motions, with a subtle exaggeration that somehow made it seem as if his movements were controlling hers. He caught it, too, and his steps and gestures became more assured as he settled into the dominant role she had assigned him.

She was unmistakably light-years beyond him in her skill as a dancer, but part of the cunning of her performance was that she didn't overshadow him; if she covered more distance, moved more elaborately, it was because he controlled and she was helpless but to obey, or so the illusion ran. Nor was she a reluctant puppet, but rather eagerly in his thrall. She undulated before him, she twined herself around him, she shuddered at his touch, every nuance of movement and glance and posture and expression crying that all she had to offer was his for the taking if he would please, please bless her by accepting it ... It was a breathtaking display of blistering sexuality and frantic need, and would have fallen to comic parody if the young man had allowed himself to strut; but he played it perfectly, responding with the offhand calm of one receiving his just due, which made the girl's seeming adulation all the more poignant and potent.

When she finally sagged in his arms as the music faded out, the two of them were met not with applause but with gaping silence. Sandy couldn't see her cue him, but he led the girl to the door, and she paused at the threshold to turn her face up to his, her eyes beseeching and her lips a-tremble with yearning and desire ...

"Whoa," someone breathed as the closing door cut off the two of them from view, and the interior of the club erupted in an excited babble of competing voices.

"When you told me she liked to keep a low profile," Sandy observed to her friend, "that wasn't the image that came to mind."

Nika shrugged. "She really does try, but sometimes she can't help showing off. That's how I spotted her in the first place." She started for the door. "At any rate, she's outside now. We'd best make this quick."

Sandy, at her elbow, asked, "Do you want me to scout?"

Nika paused at the door. "It's a good idea, but do it fast. We don't want to lose her."

Sandy stepped back into the shadows and let her body dissipate, then shifted through the closed door to the exterior of the club, immaterial and undetectable. The parking lot was empty, and she called mentally, < I don't see her, you'd better hurry -- >

She caught the movement as Nika emerged from the club, and had only a fraction of a second to blast, < Your left! > with all the force in her mind. Nika dropped instantly to one knee, shoulders and head bent low, and the Goth girl tripped over her and went flying, her rush turned into a tumble that became a roll, and she was back on her feet, eyes wolf-bright and blazing, and started for Nika again.

Nika's hand swept out, something curving from it in a glittering arc. The girl checked at the unfamiliar motion, and Nika twitched her arm sharply over, the silver line changing direction to loop around the girl's wrist. She jerked back with a harsh exclamation but Nika went with the pull, and a second twitch snared the girl's other hand. Wisps of steam rose from the trapped wrists, and the girl gasped, "Son of a bitch!"

Nika stood up as her captive yanked and strained at the glittering strand that leashed her, shoulders bunching and teeth bared. "Fighting it only makes it hurt more," she told the girl.

The reply was a guttural snarl, vampiric ridges rippling across the girl's features before her face settled back into human shape. It made little difference; her expression was feral and vicious. She glared at Nika, hissing, "This won't hold me forever."

Nika's voice was even. "It doesn't have to. It's only meant to keep you in one place." She reached inside the thigh-length open vest she wore and withdrew a Tec-9 semiautomatic pistol with a silencer the size of a beer can. "This is to make you listen."

The Goth girl let out a bark of laughter. "You think that'll stop me?"

"Yes, I do," Nika replied, calm and chilling. "Use your brain for a second. I've already shown that I know what you are and how to deal with you, whereas you don't have the least idea what you're facing."

The girl was silent for long seconds. Then she said, "You want to talk, get this thing off me. It burns, damn it!"

Holding the pistol steady in her right hand, Nika snapped a whorl into the line that ran to the girl, and it slid loose from the blistered wrists. The girl shook her hands, swearing under her breath. "How the hell did that ... sheez, those are crosses!"

"Hundreds of them," Nika agreed. "None over a quarter of an inch. It took me hours to braid them into the cord." The girl stared at her, eyes wary, and Nika went on conversationally, "As for why you couldn't break it, it's deep sea fishing line. Six hundred pound test strength."

"Wonderful," the girl said with obvious disgust. "I got the whole Hellmouth to party in, and I hafta run into MacGyver." She rubbed her wrists, studying Nika. "So what do you want from me?"

"What's your name?" Nika asked.

"Leila," the Goth girl replied after a long moment. "And I'll say it again: what do you want?"

"There's a ritual," Nika said. "Done properly, it confers power ... and more important, it opens the way to greater knowledge. You can help me complete it."

Leila guffawed. "Ritual? Get real. Witches don't carry machine pistols; you're a tech-head, not a chicken-chopper."

"Think of me as well rounded," Nika answered, an arctic note edging into her voice. "I don't expect you to take me on faith, however. You're one element of the ritual, or will be if you agree; here is another." She threw back her head and spoke a dozen words in a language Sandy didn't know.

All the same, it was her cue. Sandy willed herself back to form, materializing at a point equidistant from the other two. Trying to sound insolent and amused, she said, "You summoned me, O ambitious one?"

Nika kept her eyes on Sandy and the pistol on Leila. "Watch your tongue, Yrisande. What are the auspices for this night's enterprise?"

"You've got maybe three to one in your favor," Sandy said breezily, lips set in the mocking, contemptuous smile Nika had made her practice. She hooked a casual thumb at Leila. "I'd say seven to two, if you can get Vampirella to play along. And, hey -- call me Sandy."

"Don't think you can bait me into carelessness, Yrisande," Nika said coldly. "Your service to me has yet to run. Begone until I call on you again." With her free hand she made a complicated and meaningless gesture, and Sandy let herself fade back to incorporeality.

Leila tilted her head to one side, staring at the space where Sandy had appeared, and still invisibly waited. "Are you gonna try and tell me that was a demon?"

"No," Nika said. "Yrisande is an afreet, one of the lesser djinn. She's bound to me until her obligation has been fulfilled."

"Djinn?" Leila repeated doubtfully. "She looked like something from the Brady Bunch."

"Yrisande plays with her appearance, hoping to lull me into underestimating her." Nika dismissed the matter with a flick of her hand. "When the ritual is done, she and I can sever our association. Do you believe me now?"

Sandy watched, relaxed only because her formlessness could hold no tension. Leila had to think Nika had formidable allies and abilities, so it had been necessary to explain away Sandy's unthreatening appearance. If the vampire girl believed, the plan could proceed; if not, the alternate plan was more risky and less sure ...

Leila shrugged. "Okay, so you're Rambo and Sabrina rolled into one. Why should I play along? What's in it for me?"

Good. Good. "The ritual involves an ... adjustment of the balance between dark and light," Nika explained. "Your participation will facilitate that, because of the particular stellar alignment at the time of your creation --"

"How about that," Leila mused. "So there really was something to that St. Vigius stuff? I thought the Annoying One was just giving the troops a pep talk."

"The Night of St. Vigius is a primal focus for your world," Nika agreed smoothly. She returned the pistol to its place of concealment beneath the long vest and went on, "Through you I can access that focus. As a result I will gain insights into higher levels of awareness, control of certain potent spirits, and perhaps immortality. You, in turn, will be enabled to move freely in sunlight and, if I'm right, may be able to enter homes without invitation. Are those advantages worth your cooperation?"

Leila weighed the question, then favored Nika with that jarring grin. "What the hell, I might as well give it a shot. What do I do, put on garters and paint myself blue?" She laughed suddenly. "If we have to sacrifice any virgins, you might as well forget it, this is southern California."

Nika didn't seem to share the vampire girl's amusement. "We won't need virgins," she said. "But we will have to fight."

* * * * *

Part II

The shouting went on for nearly five minutes, though Nika never raised her voice, and Sandy began to wonder how long even the heavy music inside the club (she could feel the reverberations pulsing through the walls) would keep the patrons from noticing. Finally Nika interrupted the girl in mid-tirade. "You didn't strike me as the timid type," she said, a disdainful tilt to her lip. "Perhaps I came to the wrong person."

"I don't back down from anybody!" Leila snapped. "But that doesn't mean I'll stick my head in a meat grinder just to prove I've got the stones. This whole fricken town is in an underground war, and I cut myself out of it a long time ago. You think I wanta wind up in somebody's Dustbuster?"

"If you mean the Slayer and her coterie," Nika said, "we won't be going against them."

"Damn right we won't!" Leila gestured wildly. "Look, you're still missing the message: it's a war, and I'm not in it. I cruise, I party, I sip from a lotta people without leaving any drained corpses to mark a trail ... I've got my own routine, and everybody else can take their fiendish plots and their holy crusades --" She sneered at Nika "-- and their quests for higher knowledge, and stuff 'em all in the same septic tank."

"Colorfully put," Nika replied. "Still, look at the stakes: one night's work, and you never have to hide from the sun again. That's no poor bargain."

Leila glowered at the older woman for a long time, her face hard with suspicion and defiance. Then she seemed to relax a fraction, and her eyes narrowed in calculation. "So what kind of odds would we be looking at?"

Before Nika could answer, Sandy prompted, < Ask her about the boy, > and without hesitation Nika said, "Before we get started, what happened to the young man who left with you?"

Leila's eyes widened, and she blurted, "Oh, hell!" and dashed for the low shrubbery from which she had launched her first charge. Seconds later she emerged, carrying the lolling form with effortless strength.

"Did you feed from him?" Nika asked dispassionately.

"Nah, who had time?" Leila put the young man down in a sitting position and began to slap his cheeks lightly. "I mashed his carotids with my thumbs during that last big honkin' kiss, I wanted him tucked out of the way before you came out the door." She shot Nika an accusing glance. "I was gonna take you down fast, wake him up and send him on his way, and then settle down for a long talk with you. You threw me off with that Mister Wizard stuff, I purely forgot about him."

Sandy could feel Nika's annoyance, but just then the white-clad young man gasped and clutched at Leila, mumbling, "I didn't ... I was ..." His eyes came into focus, and he looked up at the two women. "What happened?"

"Search me, slick." Leila helped him to his feet. "I was just asking you where your car was, and all of a sudden you went down. Feeling okay?"

He blinked a few times and said, "Fuzzy, but ... I don't understand it, I wasn't drinking or anything, and I never ..." He looked to Leila again and visibly steadied himself. "I feel fine. So, what happens next?"

Leila sighed with theatrical regret. "Your luck was running pretty solid, gorgeous, but my girlfriend just reminded me I'm still infectious. Maybe we can hook up again in, oh, five and a half weeks?"

He glanced doubtfully from one woman to the other, and finally settled on a small, hesitant smile. "Maybe. I, uh, enjoyed the dance. Thank you."

They watched him start across the parking lot, testing each step for solidity, and Nika said, "So the exhibition you put on with him was just to draw me out?"

"Huh? No." Leila curled her lip. "That was to give those Barbie sluts a taste of how it felt. I spotted you about halfway through, you're pretty hard to miss." Sandy saw Nika's nostrils flare briefly, and the Goth girl laughed. "Come on, what do you expect? The hair, the lipstick, the little sunglasses ... and you move like you got theme music following you around. This was the third time I'd seen you in two weeks, and sure, I run into the same people a lot 'cause I keep going to the same clubs, but you were always a little too careful not to look my way."

"And on that basis you laid an ambush for me."

"Let's just say I wanted to see if you came out the door right after me." Leila gave the older woman a hard stare. "And you did, so don't look down your nose at me for being right. Now, a minute ago I asked what kind of opposition we'd be up against."

"Very well," Nika said. "We'll be raiding the headquarters of a minor demon called Torgash." She turned and started toward the street, still speaking, and after a moment Leila fell in beside her. "As of two nights ago there were eight others in his household: two human mercenaries, three vampires, one reptilian, and one who seems to be made of living marble." She shook her head. "The eighth person is a human female, apparently normal; she may be harmless, but for safety's sake we should assume she's a combatant."

"What kind of security they got?" Leila wanted to know.

"Next to nothing. A few elementary warning spells, I can counteract those without slowing down. Mostly this type just takes it for granted no one will attack them." Nika shrugged. "To be fair, they're seldom wrong."

"Okay," Leila said. "Now we come to weapons. Theirs and ours."

"Ours are my business," Nika replied. "I don't have time to train you in the use of my tools, and you won't need them if I've planned properly ... which I have. As for theirs: the nonhumans rely on physical force; one of the mercenaries carries an AR-15, the other an Uzi, both of which can hurt you but not do serious damage; and Torgash himself can generate ball lightning with an eight- to ten-yard range. I'll be handling him; the charge should be below your tolerances, but I see no point in taking chances."

"I'm all for not taking chances," Leila agreed. "So what's the deal with this Torgash? What makes him special?"

"Nothing. One of the elements in the ritual is the tears of a demon. Torgash is easy to find and relatively weak, so I picked him as the donor."

"That's something else," Leila said. "You keep mentioning these elements, and you said me and genie-girl were two of 'em. I want the full scoop."

"The larger spell is far too complicated for me to relate just now," Nika replied, "and I doubt you would understand it. The basic ingredients, however, are the tears of a demon, the breath of a spirit, earth from the grave of a mystic warrior, and blood of the consecrated unliving." She inclined her head toward Leila. "The last is you, as the time of your rebirth consecrated you to St. Vigius."

Leila gave Nika a gimlet look. "How much blood we talking about?"

"About a teaspoonful," Nika told her. "But it's the vital ingredient, the axis of the ritual, so I may have to try more than once. As you can see, it's in my interests to keep you safe in the meantime."

"Yeah, safe," Leila scoffed. "That's why I'm in on the raid."

"You're insurance," Nika said with some tartness. "I could do it without you, but that would leave me vulnerable to unforeseen circumstances. Your presence gives me an added resource to draw on, so that all eventualities are covered."

Leila nodded grudgingly. "Okay, it makes sense. And like you said, the payoff's worth the risk. So, what, we do a recon tonight, go over the plan, and then hit 'em tomorrow or the night after?"

"We go in tonight," Nika said without altering her stride. "It will be a year before the next time the astral alignment is this favorable."

"What?!!" Leila stopped dead in the street, and the other woman halted to face her. "Are you fricken nuts? I'm supposed to charge in with no plan, no prep, no weapons ... hell, I don't even know where we're going! This bites, lady. You think I'm some kind of toy tank you can just wind up and point in the right direction?"

Nika's voice was frigid. "First, you aren't supposed to charge in; as I said, I need you only to back me up. Second, I've done all the planning we'll need; your part in it will be to stay with me and follow instructions. Third, I had hoped to have more time to persuade you, but you proved more elusive than anticipated, so we go tonight or we don't go; if I must, I'll spend the next year finding another vampire with the right pedigree and building up his nerve to the point where he'll do what's necessary without whining. And fourth, you agreed freely to join this enterprise, so either shut up and fall in, or shut up and get out ... but either way, shut up."

The vampire girl stood absolutely motionless, and when she spoke it was with an atonal softness completely unlike her normal speech. "You got a funny way of talking somebody over to your side, lady."

"I'm not a people person," Nika told her. "I don't motivate those who lack motivation. You're in or you're not. Choose."

It could fall apart right here, Sandy realized, watching without happiness. Nika had ad-libbed nimbly, but this last turn was a crisis point. She could see the necessity; while most vampires were concerned with little beyond blood and cruelty, Leila clearly took a longer view, and her inquisitiveness -- unless checked, diverted, or buried by the spurious need for immediate action -- could pick holes in their story before their objective had been attained. All the same, a risk became no less potent for being unavoidable ...

The tension left Leila's stance, though her eyes remained hostile. "This better work the way you say it will," she told Nika, her tone casual and matter-of-fact, "or I'll rip your head off and see if I can punt it past the city limits."

"I'll take that as agreement," Nika answered with equal briskness. "Let's go, then."

"Not just yet," Leila said, and walked the few steps to the nearest litter bin. She unfastened the velvet choker from her throat, gathered her hair up, and used the choker to tie her hair into a brushy topknot, then pulled her dress off over her head and dropped it into the bin. Underneath she wore olive drab cargo shorts and a tank top in a camouflage pattern. A wide belt of black mesh fabric hung low around her waist; she removed it and slung it across her torso, diagonally from shoulder to hip. Sandy saw that the belt was a fair facsimile of a bandolier ... and then Leila removed three of the 'cartridges' from loops in the belt, twisted them open, and used them to draw broad vertical stripes down her face in black, green and brown.

She closed the paint sticks and replaced them in the cartridge loops, and the transformation was complete. It had taken, at most, thirty seconds. The Goth teenager had vanished, and a scowling urban guerilla stood in her place.

"Entertaining," Nika said. "How exactly is it supposed to help our efforts?"

"It doesn't," Leila replied. "Sure, it might spook the opposition a little to see somebody decked out for combat, but that's just gravy. Mainly this is for later; we leave anybody holding a grudge, they'll come looking for Camo Girl, not me."

"I see." Nika started down the sidewalk again, and again Leila fell in beside her. "You've used this outfit before, then."

Leila snorted. "No, and I won't use it again. The idea is to steer attention away from myself." She raised her hands and inspected the fingerless lace gloves. "Almost forgot these. The dress is no big deal, but I kind of like these." She pulled them off and tucked them into one of the thigh pockets of her shorts. "Okay," she announced. "You want to kick some demon ass, let's get to it."

* * * * *

< Clear ahead, > Sandy projected, and a moment later Nika came around the corner of the concrete passageway, beckoning Leila to follow. Tiny pieces of grit crunched under the soles of the women's shoes with a whispery tic-tic-tic, but no other sound marked their movement. Nika led Leila to the next intersection of corridors, then stopped and used one fingertip to trace on the printed diagram the next section to be scouted. < Got it, > Sandy told her silently, and drifted in the direction indicated. Twenty feet along she felt a faint undefined prickling at the threshold of her awareness, and reported back, < Warning spell at the juncture. Still no people. >

Nika came on, tossing pinches of powder from a small ziplock bag out ahead of herself and the vampire girl, all the while muttering in a language that sounded to Sandy vaguely Slavic. < You're past it, > Sandy informed her as they moved beyond the point where she had felt the boundary of the warning spell. Nika continued the protective chant for a few more steps, then resealed the baggie and stuck it back inside the heavy zippered carryall she had slung from one shoulder by the broad strap. Again the consultation of the diagram, again Sandy moved in advance to scout. It was a procedure designed to avoid informing Leila of the continued presence of a third member to their party. Playing it close to the chest, Nika had explained it to Sandy. Never letting the target know exactly what she was facing, preserving any slight advantage they might need.

When this evening's venture had first been proposed, weeks ago, Sandy had flatly refused on realizing the risks Nika would have to undertake. She had seen the face of evil, and died of it, and for her friend to brave similar perils, for her sake, was simply unthinkable. There had been arguments and counterproposals and negotiations, and through it all she had ruthlessly quelled her yearning for release. She would not sacrifice Nika. She would not allow it.

The turning point had come with the suggestion that the then-nameless vampire girl be recruited by deception to join their cause; after that it had all been a matter of details, of refining and clarifying a plan that had somehow become acceptable. Sandy worried sometimes that she had after all let her desires override her scruples, but Nika's own determination bolstered her. And it would be good to have it finally settled, to complete the process that should have ended the night of her murder.

Once Leila had resigned herself to Nika's uncompromising leadership, her complaints had ceased. During the walk from the dance club she had spoken only twice. The first time was to say, "I don't know how far we're going, but wouldn't it be quicker to drive?"

"Quicker, but not better," Nika said. "Earlier I mentioned the balance between dark and light; there are also other balances to be observed. As you said yourself, few people deliberately mix technology and the mystic arts, and they must be carefully proportioned. Use of an automobile, tonight ... well, it could be done, but it wouldn't be worth the measures I would have to take to compensate for such a significant shift toward the mechanical."

That satisfied Leila, and Sandy marveled at how effortlessly Nika could invent convincing detail. The truth was that, despite their practice, she still couldn't hold her link to Nika inside a moving vehicle; if they had tried to drive, she would have snapped back to the Bronze as automatically and helplessly as a yo-yo.

The second time was ten minutes later; again without preamble, Leila observed, "You said tonight was the right astrological alignment for this ritual of yours. Does that mean you already have the other ingredients?"

"No," Nika told her. "They all have to be gathered within the same sunset-to-dawn period. But we're doing the most difficult one first; the others will pose us no problem at all." This time it was the truth, at least as Sandy understood the plan, but again it was clear they would have to move quickly before the vampire girl's agile intelligence found a flaw in the scenario they had drawn for her.

Whatever was in her mind, she held her own counsel until they arrived at their destination. "I know this place," she said, looking around at the darkened structure. "Where do I know this place from?"

"It's the ice skating rink," Nika told her as she led the way to the far side. "It was only supposed to be closed for a few weeks for facilities upgrades, but that was four months ago. Torgash took the opportunity to set up headquarters in the maintenance tunnels."

Leila nodded. "Yeah, I think I heard about that on the news. The closing, I mean. Labor dispute with the contractors, everybody filing lawsuits, the whole nine yards. I've never been inside, never been here at all after dark, but I knew it looked familiar."

Stacks of construction materials had been left in a chain-link enclosure erected at the side of the building. Nika opened the padlock with a key she produced from a pocket of her vest, and Leila grunted in surprise. "That was slick. Where'd you snag the key?"

"I cut the lock last night, and replaced it with my own." Nika pulled the gate open and stepped inside. Drawing back a tarpaulin, she lifted the heavy equipment bag it had concealed. "I didn't want to carry this halfway across town, and I knew I would be either coming here with you tonight, or aborting until next year." She slung the bag and moved on to the side entrance. That door was locked as well.

"No key this time, huh?" Leila seemed pleased by the thought. "Want me to break it?"

"If it comes to that, but let me try something quieter first." Nika pulled colored chalks from a side pocket of the bag and began to draw an intricate pattern around the lock mechanism. Sandy, as planned, passed through the door and brought herself to solidity on the other side. She waited for the sharp tap of chalk that signaled the pattern was finished, then reached out to manually turn the locking bolt. By the time the two women came inside, she had returned to immateriality.

"You're just one surprise after another, aren't you?" Leila commented, sounding sour rather than impressed. All the same, Sandy was sure Nika's status had been reinforced, and more important, Leila kept uncertain as to the older woman's exact capabilities.

They had continued the deception with the long scouting advance, Nika making it appear that she was probing ahead with mystical senses rather than having an invisible companion take point. The warning spell just evaded had been the first, and Sandy was relieved to find that her disembodied state had detected it as easily as the similar spells Nika had provided for practice. In the meantime Nika had halted three times on the way in: twice to set compact plastique charges, produced from the equipment bag complete except for fusing, and once to draw elaborate runes on the walls and floor of a stretch of corridor which led to an access door. At that time she had given Leila a small red leather pouch, tightly bound with copper wire to a loop of braided cord, and said, "Wear that around your neck until we're outside again."

"What's it for?" Leila wanted to know, studying the artifact with suspicion.

"It ... blurs your outline, would be one way of putting it, so you can pass through the field I just set without triggering it."

"You're not wearing one," Leila observed accusingly.

"I don't have a demon inside me," Nika snapped back, and Leila let it go at that, though for an instant her eyes blazed amber.

Now they were here, and the diagram showed they were nearing the central area where they could begin to expect contact. Sandy let herself waft toward the next angle of corridor, guiding herself with the barest delicate touches of control, suddenly fearful, despite Nika's repeated assurances, that some part of her nature might be as detectable to those they sought as the sentry spell had been to her. At the turn she paused, hovering motionless for long seconds while she took in what lay beyond, forcing herself to register details. Then she relaxed control and let the link to Nika draw her back, unwilling to exercise any active motive impulse lest it somehow register to the enemy.

< Just past the turn, > she told Nika, and felt the tremor in her 'voice' even though there was no breath behind it. < Two of them, one is a vampire and I think the second is one of the two mercenaries, at least he has an Uzi on the bench beside him. He's facing the corridor, but he isn't paying any attention right now, he's ... well, if you can believe it, he and the vampire are playing Monopoly. >

Nika motioned Leila back, and the two women withdrew twenty feet, silent as shadows, until another bend of the corridor lay between them and the guards. Nika carefully drew back the zipper of the equipment bag and began to pull out supplies. She set up two thick candles, one black and one purple, twisted lines carved into the wax on their sides, and started them burning with a BIC lighter. She gave Leila a pair of swimmer's goggles and motioned to her to put them on; Leila complied with an ironic arching of her eyebrows but no words. She twisted open a cantaloupe-sized plastic oblong with a flat base, lit a greasy-looking gray wick in the flame of one of the candles, and set the oblong down as thick white smoke began to roll out of it. The last item was a radio-controlled model of a three-wheeled all-terrain vehicle; Nika aimed it toward the corridor down which they had retreated, stonily ignoring Leila's tiny snort of incredulity or scorn, and took up the control pad in steady fingers.

This was it. Twice now -- when she had given the go-ahead at the Bronze, and when Leila had agreed to join them -- Sandy had thought they were committed. She hadn't understood commitment; it wasn't when you made a decision, it was when you could no longer turn back. Once they took this next step, the last remaining chance to turn back would vanish.

She wanted to call it off. Nothing could hurt her, she was dead already, but Nika was vulnerable flesh to be torn by any mischance. She wanted to pull them away, to flee before the die was cast ... but the lure of freedom was too tempting, the yearning so long suppressed was too keen. She cursed herself for a weakling, hated herself for a false friend, and remained silent.

They were going to war.

* * * * *

[Note: The following chapter makes reference to facts that were first presented in Christina K's superb "Threnody for Fallen Warriors."]

* * * * *

Part III

With Sandy sending feedback from the guard post, Nika steered the ATV model to within ten feet before the sentries, arguing over the status of a rental property, noticed the miniature vehicle. Even then they seemed surprised rather than alarmed, but as the human reached unhurriedly for the Uzi, Sandy called < Now! > and Nika darted the machine the last few feet and triggered the flash-bang device secured in the seat.

Designed for antiterrorist units to stun the occupants of a room without killing possible hostages, the charge detonated with a concussion of light and sound but no shrapnel. Sandy was startled but not otherwise affected -- of course not, idiot, you don't have real ears or eyes -- but the two at the station were slammed to the concrete floor, clutching at their ears and howling into the echoes of the blast. The man fell against his weapon and snatched at it blindly, triggering a long burst; the vampire, a rawboned leather-clad figure with a graying ponytail, caught a row of slugs in the torso just as he was starting to regain his feet, and went down again with a string of choked curses.

Nika was inside the enclosure, kicking the mercenary across the jaw and firing three rounds from the Tec-9 into the vampire's chest. The silenced pistol made a heavy metallic chung! with each shot, the sound all but drowned out by the vampire's shrieks. Leila, appearing suddenly amid the carnage, shattered one of the chairs against a wall and stabbed a splintered fragment of wood through the sternum of the convulsing figure, stood back as he shuddered into acrid dust. She shook her head once, sneezed, and caught Nika staring at her.

"So I don't like vampires," she said angrily. "Take it up with my shrink." She pulled the Uzi from the slack fingers of the mercenary and checked the magazine. "Empty," she observed with sharp annoyance. "This doofus just had to hold down the trigger, didn't he?"

"Smash the weapon and come on," Nika commanded, already moving down the next corridor.

"Forget that, lady!" Leila slung the Uzi and started after her. "I've always wanted one of these things, I'll scrounge ammo later. Besides, it matches my outfit."

Sandy found to her alarm that the two women were moving too quickly for her now. < I can't scout at this speed, > she projected to Nika. < I can use the link to keep up, but I can't push ahead. >

"Just stay with me," Nika responded, eliciting an irritated glance from Leila.

Their next opposition, the one Nika had described as living marble, met them on the far side of a silent generator room. With his slender frame and the stylized representation of curls, he looked like an alternative version of Michelangelo's David, but he moved with the leisurely unstoppability of a rhino, blue-white hands gripping the elongated handle of an enormous broadsword. Nika backed away, digging into the equipment bag with one hand while she chanted softly (in Latin? the only word Sandy caught was 'Boreas', but it had the cadence of Latin). As she finished the chant her hand came out holding a small automobile-kit fire extinguisher, and she aimed the nozzle at the moving statue and squeezed the handle. A screaming jet of billowing vapor shot from the tiny canister with a force that actually rocked Nika backward, and the advancing figure slowed and ground to immobility, frost glittering on the marble limbs. Only the eyes moved in the rimed face, and Sandy used the respite to launch herself ahead again as the two women passed on either side of their frozen foe, Leila with a jeering, "Chill out, pigeon perch."

Sandy firmed the link and let Nika's movement keep her pushed to the forefront, reporting in clipped stream-of-consciousness -- < Clear. Clear. Tangle of pipes with lots of shadows. > (Nika tossed a flash-bang into that one, but the threatening cluster was empty) -- as they proceeded. Rounding the next corner, propelled by her friend's advance, Sandy called in sudden excitement, < Four of them, starting to run the other way! >, and behind her she heard Nika, too, break into a run.

The fugitives must have heard the pursuing footsteps, and realized they were caught in a long open stretch of corridor, because at a coughing command two of them turned back. Sandy had time to send, < Rear guard coming at you, one has an assault rifle! >, then the women came around the corner and the two parties were face to face.

Charging the invaders was a gray-brown lizard, five feet tall, with a stubby tail that balanced it on its hind legs and slender forearms with thin clawed fingers. It ran with a comical leg-rolling gait straight from an Australian documentary, but there was nothing laughable about the rows of teeth that gaped from the long-jawed face. Nika fired twice with the Tec-9 -- fired past the raptorlike attacker, Sandy saw with amazement -- and the man with the rifle (it looked like an M-16 to Sandy, though Nika had called it something else) threw himself into an evasive roll as bullets scored the wall next to him; then Nika said, "Here," tossed something toward Leila, and calmly stepped back around the corner.

"Holy crap!" Leila gasped, juggling at the nondescript object in her surprise. She got control of it a half-second before the lizard reached her, and sprayed a stream of mist into her assailant's face. The effect was instantaneous: he did a backward somersault, caromed off the opposite wall, and smacked into the floor, to thrash and scrabble at the concrete with frantic claws. Nika moved back into view; she had shed the equipment bag and now had a red velvet band strapped around either hand, a silvery hemisphere in each palm, and as the second mercenary took aim over his fallen comrade she stepped past Leila and slapped her hands together in front of her.

The hemispheres disintegrated against each other. There was a gigantic, intolerable squeak! of sonic force, and in the hands of the dumbfounded mercenary the rifle shivered into pieces, none larger than a nail file ...

... and a second vampire hurtled into Nika from behind, dashing her to the floor and raising high a long knife, crazily curved like a distorted machete.

No! Sandy went for him like a wildcat, clawing at his eyes, screaming emptily. She passed through him, she hadn't formed a body, she reached out in a frenzy of voiceless fear, snatching desperately for something ...

A roar of sensation assaulted her from a million infinite angles. Nika's prostrate figure snapped razor-sharp into her vision, air currents beat at her ears in titanic whispers, her arms thrummed with power. A deep vibration in her chest stopped as her astonishment aborted the shout that had started there; she could feel her lips peeled back from her teeth, her teeth, and the haft of the knife cold and hard in her fingers; and under it all, searing and molten and shocking, the rage, the hate ...

Pain slammed into her like a fist, and she fell backward, choking and tearing at her eyes, her eyes were on fire ... and then another wrenching dislocation, and she was dazedly watching Nika roll to her feet, slapping away the dust that coated her face and hair and clothes. "Thank you," Nika said faintly to Leila. "That was quick work."

"Not quick enough!" Leila snarled. "That leech came outta nowhere, he was ready to split your head open before I even knew he was there. You've got everything planned, oh sure, you've got everything under control ... well, let me tell you something, genius, I maced him and I staked him but I wasn't fast enough, you'd be lunchmeat right now if he hadn't just stopped where he was and sat there looking stupid! Now tell me again what hot stuff you are, how all this is just a cakewalk!"

"He tripped a paralysis spell," Nika spat back, and even Sandy could see she was shaken. "It's only good for a couple of seconds, but it serves as a last line of defense. I am in control." She took a step back to snatch up the equipment bag. "Now come on!"

She's lying again, Sandy realized with numb calm. I was inside him. I tried to grab him, to catch hold of whatever I could, and I possessed him. She let the link tow her behind Nika like a water skier as the two women raced after the fleeing trio ahead of them, her thoughts too awhirl for her to formulate motion.

They overhauled their quarry in seconds, and it was easy to see why. Nika had told Sandy what Torgash looked like, but words had failed to convey the effect. The demon resembled nothing so much as a hundred-pound hedgehog, in baggy shorts and a preposterous Hawaiian shirt; his legs were stubby and bowed, and at top speed he couldn't have outrun a four-year-old on a tricycle. The mercenary had vanished in one of several intervening turns, and Sandy worried briefly about a flanking ambush; but facing them now in bristling defiance was a human female not much taller than the shaggy figure behind her.

"Get back," she said, her voice cracking with raw fury. "Leave him alone. Who the hell are you people?" She had mousy hair and a splotchy complexion and was as thin as a sixth-grade boy, but she stood poised like a linebacker waiting for the snap. "Stay away from him, or ..."

"We mean him no permanent harm," Nika told her firmly. "And we don't want to hurt you at all. Stand aside and we can be done in less than a minute."

The girl only glared at her. Without warning her figure shifted and blurred, and in an instant a fully grown leopard crouched before them, to spring at the two women with a blood-chilling yowl of attack. Leila threw herself in one direction while Nika twisted aside in the other, firing the silenced pistol again and again. At least two bullets struck the leopard in mid-air; it landed, spun to spring again, fell to the floor as a foreleg gave way. It gathered itself, Nika steadied the pistol --

A ball of yellow-green light, neon-bright, crashed into the crouching feline figure, outlining it for a second in an eldritch halo. The leopard arched, jaws gaping wide, then sprawled senseless as the light faded.

Nika had spun to cover Torgash even as the glowing ball streaked past her, and the dwarfish demon waddled forward to stand before her. "You two steppin' apart, I couldn' get de bot' 'o' you," he said with hopeless venom. "You say you don' wanna hurt her, okay? So now she don' t'reaten you, okay?"

Of course, Sandy thought. A Cajun accent from a big hedgehog in a Hawaiian shirt. Just another Saturday night in Sunnydale. Torgash blinked at the two women with small, watery eyes. His voice was a reedy wheeze, which made the hate it carried all the more unsettling. "She dies, you die, you got it? I hunt you down if I have to sell myself in t'rall to de blackest fiends in de deepest pits, I swear it."

"She isn't dead already, so she'll probably live," Nika told him with neither sympathy nor coldness. "You'll need to get those bullets out of her as quickly as possible, though. In the meanwhile, I don't want to give you time to build up another charge, so ..." She reached inside her vest with her left hand, and pulled out an object shaped vaguely like an electric razor, leaning forward to press it against Torgash's side. There was a sizzling crackle of electricity, and the demon stiffened and collapsed.

"Keep watch while I take care of this," Nika ordered Leila, and bent over the supine body. "So far we've only killed vampires, and some of the others may have recovered and begun to look for us."

"What's with the bullets?" Leila asked, her eyes turned outward as Nika worked. "I heard the way the leather guy was screaming before I staked him, he didn't holler nearly that loud when he caught some of his buddy's slugs. And they seemed to be causing Catgirl some trouble, too."

"They're silver," Nika said. "Blessed by a priest. They won't actually kill a vampire, but they burn almost as much as holy water ... and they burn from the inside." She withdrew a perfume atomizer from the seemingly bottomless equipment bag and gave it a few squeezes above Torgash, letting the mist settle down over his face. "Apparently they work on were-people, too. Which is fortunate, since I didn't know I'd be facing one."

"Stop the presses," Leila murmured. "She's admitting there's something she doesn't know."

Nika took out a small medicine bottle with a bulb syringe, and began with delicate squeezes of the bulb to collect the moisture that gathered at the corners of Torgash's eyes. "I never claimed to know everything," she replied without looking up. "I said I planned for all recognized threats, with an extra margin for the unexpected. I'll admit I got lucky with the leopard woman, I should have maced her as soon as we were close enough."

"Shoulda, woulda, coulda." Leila shrugged disdainfully. "With all your tricks, you still needed me to yank your bacon off the burner."

"Yes, I did," Nika acknowledged. "You were part of my margin." She checked the fluid level in the bottle, and after two more collections at each eye she stood up. "Now we go."

They circled back around their original line of approach, Sandy using her new 'snowplow' technique to stay ahead of them, but they encountered no further opposition. As they rejoined the main corridor Nika said, "You kept the goggles on, good. I know you only need air when you speak, but be sure not to inhale while we go through the smoke."

The white haze had expanded to fill a thirty-foot segment of the underground halls, but was held in place by an invisible wall. The two women passed through the clouded section without slowing down; as they emerged on the other side, Leila waved away wisps of smoke that clung to her and drew a breath to say, "That itches something fierce. Garlic?"

"Garlic," Nika confirmed. "I modified a fumigation fogger, with a light confinement field to keep it from dissipating too soon. It was to cover our retreat if we were being chased."

Leila pushed the swim goggles up onto her forehead. "I can see how my kinfolk wouldn't much care for this, and why you had me cover my eyes. But what if it wasn't just vampires on our trail?"

"Then I'd set off the plastique charge in the junction box, and lead us out of here with night vision glasses." Nika glanced over at her companion. "Do you actually resent it that I've covered all eventualities?"

Leila muttered something that seemed to contain the words 'smart ass', but made no direct reply.

Minutes later they left the darkened rink building behind them, and Nika led the way to the next step on this night's journey. Sandy, pacing them, was struck by the recognition that Leila and Nika walked with the same rhythm and form. Despite Leila's earlier comment -- something about theme music, she couldn't remember the exact words -- the two women moved with an instinctual effortless economy that was nearly identical in them both. The grace of a dancer, Sandy thought, remembering the performance at the club, though Leila's was overlain with that streetfighter's swagger ... and of course, the slung Uzi had to make a difference, too.

They left the half-lit streets and entered the confines of a cemetery, threading a path through the scattered clusters of headstones. At the grave where they stopped at last, the stone bore no dates: only the single word KENDRA, and other lines beneath it in a smaller script.

"'Now cracks a noble heart,'" Leila read aloud. "'And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.' Sheez, that's from Hamlet. What was this guy, an English professor?"

"No," Nika said quietly, staring at the words carved into the stone. "But she was remembered by an English librarian." She knelt at the grave and began to spoon earth from it into a plastic vial with a snap-on top.

"This would be our mystic warrior, then," Leila observed.

"Probably the best example you could find," Nika agreed. "She was a Slayer. She didn't last long -- few of them do -- but she made a difference all the same. Drusilla killed her at the school, about a year ago."

Leila whistled, for once allowing herself to look impressed. "Woo, who'd'a' thought my old sire could keep enough ducks in a row to take down a Slayer? I knew Dru was bad news, but that's some deep chill."

Nika stood from the grave and turned to Leila with a small frown. "What are you talking about? Drusilla's not your sire."


"I cast the bones to determine your lineage while I was evaluating you as a candidate." Nika studied the vampire girl, eyes unreadable behind the blue lenses. "Your progenitor died -- well, ceased to exist -- almost four full months before Drusilla led the raid at the school. She isn't your sire."

"Then your bones are screwed up, sister!" Leila's voice was harsh, her eyes narrowed in inexplicable anger. "I'm tellin' you, I was there, she fastened on my throat like a fricken Doberman. You think I'd ever forget the last face I saw in my breathing life?"

"Did you drink any of her blood?" Nika asked.

"What are you, nuts?" Leila's expression showed something like disgust. "I was still human then, remember?"

"You've never actually spent time with other vampires, have you?" Nika shook her head in impatience. "It's a two-step process. The bite injects a precursor enzyme into the victim's system; that won't do anything by itself, but it sets the stage. If the vampire wants to bring that person across, he forces the victim to drink some of his blood. That activates the enzymes and sets the necrocellular process in motion: biology and demonology intertwined, the same way I use magic to supplement technology." She looked to Leila with the authority of total conviction. "Drusilla may have fed from you, even drained you to the edge of death, but whoever gave you his own blood was your sire."

Leila had listened with her face set in hard, stubborn lines, but after a few more moments she sighed and relaxed. "This feels ... weird," she said. "I mean, I wasn't exactly proud of being pupped by Dru, she makes Mommie Dearest look like Mother Teresa, but at least I knew where I stood, y'know? This is like ... like finding out you're adopted."

"At any rate, we have all we need now," Nika announced. "It's time to go to the place where the ritual will be carried out. We're well ahead of schedule; it's been a fruitful evening."

Yes, Sandy told herself as they started off again, the sharpest danger was past. The few remaining obstacles were miniscule in comparison to what they had already overcome. Only the finale was left.

It was almost too bad about Leila. But then, tonight's conclusion would give her exactly the same closure Sandy sought for herself. In the last analysis, they were doing the vampire girl a favor.

* * * * *

Part IV

A passing car honked at the two women, male whoops and whistles drifting out of the open windows as the taillights receded down the street. Leila laughed and called softly, "Come and get it, boys, I could use a drink about now."

"We don't have time for that," Nika reproved.

"Hey, all work and no play," Leila said, flashing the sassy grin Sandy had first noted at the dance club. Now that they were back out on well-lit city streets, the girl had wiped away most of the camouflage face paint; the faux-bandolier had been reversed again and cinched around her waist, and though she had declined either to discard the Uzi or to tuck it into Nika's equipment bag, she had covered it with a black plastic trash sack from one of the zippered side pockets. "We've had a pretty lively night, you oughtta loosen up some."

"Once we're finished," Nika told her, striding along the sidewalk.

"Stress kills," Leila commented lightly, and shook her head in mock disapproval. "You delivered on what you said, I'll give you that, but you're no damn fun to have around ... Y'know, I just realized, I don't know your name. You asked for mine, but you never gave me yours."

"I asked you as a test," Nika replied, still without a backward glance. "I wanted to see if you would tell the truth."

Leila gave her a black look. "Well, excuse the hell outta me. You hogtie me and hold me at gunpoint, and I'm supposed to trust you? I kept up my end once we had an agreement, so you got no call to act snotty. Now what's your damn name?"

After long seconds without reply, the older woman said, "Nika." The single word, no more.

"Mmh." Leila mulled on that. "Sounds Jap, but you don't look Asian."

Sandy didn't expect Nika to respond, but half a block later she said, "My grandfather used to call me Yannika. One of my cousins shortened it, and that stuck as a nickname. In college I even went by Nikki for awhile, but that never felt right. Too ... Americanized."

"So you got Old Country ties," Leila began, then broke off as Nika left the sidewalk and started across a brightly lit parking lot. "Oh, great," the vampire girl said, seeing their destination. "Now it's a hospital, huh? Where do we go next, Disneyland?"

"This is our last stop," Nika answered. "And it continues the same balancing process I've spoken of already: yin and yang, life and death, light and shadow, strife and healing." She came to a staff entrance at the side, and punched in a code at the keypad. "Whether or not you understand, this is the place where the ritual must be performed."

"Oh, sure," Leila said in a tone thick with sarcasm. "Nice and secluded, nobody'll notice us putting on black robes and gutting a coupla goats."

Nika led them down a short hall and used a key to unlock a door stenciled STORAGE C. This was an equipment room, Sandy saw, boxes of supplies against one wall and much of the remaining area occupied by folding wheelchairs, cylinders of compressed gas, IV poles, portable blood pressure monitors, and various other items. In the center of the room was one of the narrow wheeled beds used to transport patients to and from the operating rooms, and space for two more. Nika moved into the small open area, telling Leila, "Come on in and close the door," and began to look through her bag.

Leila pulled the door shut behind her and stood watching Nika ... and something in her stance, casual as it was, caught Sandy's attention. Nika was drawing on the floor with the colored chalks, a variation of the standard pentagram this time, and Sandy floated in front of the vampire girl, studying her face for some clue as to the cause of her unease. Leila's eyes were alert and speculative; Sandy could see no visible sign of malice, slyness or hostility, but still ...

Nika had finished the design on the floor, and started another a few feet away. "When I'm done with this I'll summon Yrisande," she told Leila. "We'll collect her breath in a spirit web, and that will be the last of the elements." She completed the second pentagram with quick, sure strokes, and straightened. "All set," she announced, moving to stand inside the first pentagram. "You step into that one, and we can begin."

Leila looked from Nika to the second pentagram, and said flatly, "I'll pass."

Nika's lips thinned, but her voice was even. "When I called Yrisande before, that was only a fifth-level summoning. For me to extract her breath, she'll have to manifest at the second level, only one away from being fully freed in this reality. Trust me, you want to be inside the protective circle when she appears."

"See, that's the problem," Leila told her. "I don't trust you. I've played along, trying to figure out your game, but I never kidded myself I could trust you. I only know two things for sure: one is, you've been lying to me from the get-go; and the other is, if you want me inside that thing, then that's where I don't wanta be."

"Very well," Nika said without inflection. She made no move that Sandy could see, but abruptly the small red pouch on the cord around Leila's neck -- the talisman Nika had given her in the corridors of Torgash's lair -- burst with a snapping sound and a puff of smoke that wreathed the vampire girl's head and shoulders. Leila lurched backward, choking and striking out blindly, bounced off one of the gas cylinders, and fell into the corner of the room, digging frantically at her eyes with knuckled fists. Nika was in motion at the same instant the pouch exploded, chanting rapidly under her breath; in a dozen quick chalk strokes she had drawn an arc from one wall to another in the corner where Leila thrashed and coughed, and reinforced it with symbols unfamiliar to Sandy. She stepped back as Leila pulled herself to her feet, eyes puffy and streaming tears, but showed no sign of retreating further.

Leila started for her with a silent snarl, and rebounded as if she had run into a crash net. "What the hell --?" She reached out, palms flat against an unseen barrier, following its boundaries and finding no gap. "Well, you just never run outta little gimmicks, do you?" she sneered.

"As I've said before, I make an effort to cover all eventualities." Nika moved back to the equipment bag and pulled open the zipper on an inner section. "For you to renege on the agreement was by no means the unlikeliest possibility I planned for."

"You're one to talk," Leila spat. "This whole business was one big scam to rope me in, you never planned to keep your part of the bargain."

"No, I didn't," Nika agreed. "It's a weakness of mine, breaking promises to demons from hell. If it makes you feel any better, I've made a resolution to stop doing that. After tonight."

"Yeah, right, that makes everything okay." Leila probed at the point where the invisible barrier met the concrete wall, again found no weakness. "So what's it gonna be? Torture?"

"No, that won't be necessary." Nika turned back to her captive, holding a propane torch and a bicyclist's squirt bottle. "I'll make it as quick as possible."

"Damn," Leila sighed. "Looks like you've got me cold, and me trying to be so careful and all." She shook her head with slow regret ... and then said suddenly, "Do you ever listen to disco?"

"Not when I can avoid it," Nika replied. She set down the squirt bottle and pulled the BIC lighter from the pocket of her vest.

"Yeah, I know what you mean. I can't stand the stuff myself, but I dance to it a lot, so I learn the songs whether I want to or not. There's this one been running through my head all night; total Seventies, I've got the tune down but I can't pull up the lyrics to save my life, and I just know it'd be perfect for this situation ..."

In what Sandy could only assume was some kind of reflexive courtesy, Nika had paused to let Leila finish what she was saying. Now the girl's face cleared, and she laughed. "Got it!" she said, and through that characteristic mocking grin she sang gaily, "I'm so excited, and I just can't hide it! I'm about to lose control and I think I like it --!"

Then she tore the trash sack free from the slung Uzi, and ripped out a chattering burst of fire.

* * * * *

Sandy wrenched the weapon upward with hands that fought her, the gunshots slamming at her ears like hammers. Something was wrong, this wasn't like the time before, she used her last thread of control to hurl the Uzi out of the enclosed corner and then was expelled from Leila's body with a force that dizzied her. She struggled for mental stability, and rotated her perspective to seek Nika. There, the woman was pulling herself back to her feet, from inside the vampire girl Sandy had caught a glimpse of her friend diving for cover. Nika had lost the sunglasses, Sandy saw ... and no, her eyes weren't pink after all, but dark and angry.

"Well," she said, studying the girl as if she were something from a sewer. "I wasn't the only one saving some aces, I see. Did you scavenge another magazine, or was the first one never actually empty?"

"Bite me, lady." Leila glared about her, face ugly with a fury she hadn't shown since the attack at the dance club. "Yeah, I snuck one by you. So? You been doing it to me all night long. Were you telling the truth about anything?"

"It's true that I need you for the ritual." Nika bent to retrieve the propane torch. "It just doesn't involve your continuing to exist."

"Yeah, big surprise, I -- damn!" It had taken Sandy several seconds to regain her equilibrium, and now Leila broke off to stare at the apparition that shimmered into visibility between the two women.

"Are you all right?" Sandy said anxiously to Nika. "I knew she was about to try something, I think I was going for her before she even had her hands on the gun, but she's so quick --"

"I'm fine," Nika assured her. "The containment field slowed the bullets ... and muffled the sound, too, fortunately. It, and your intervention, were enough." She regarded Sandy with a slight frown. "How did you do it, though? You've never been able to apply physical force without the visual semblance of physical form."

"That's not important just now." Sandy gestured toward Leila. "Look, there's something wrong here. I'm not sure we can go through with this."

"I'm with Jeannie," Leila said promptly. "All in favor of not toasting me, raise their hands." She raised her hand.

Nika ignored her. "This is only a minor interruption," she told Sandy. "All the necessary forces are in place, we can be done with it in just a few minutes."

"I know we can," Sandy acknowledged. "But maybe we shouldn't. It's ..." She shook her head. "Look, back in the tunnels when that vampire attacked you, I tried to drag him off even though I was still unformed, and I wound up, well, possessing him somehow. It surprised me, I froze long enough for her to stake him ... but the thing is, I had him. When I did the same thing with her just now, it was completely different, I could barely hang on long enough to throw away the Uzi. She's not like the others."

Nika looked toward Leila with stony eyes. "I'll admit she's shown more resourcefulness and determination than I would have expected, but that doesn't alter her essential nature. She's a vampire, for God's sake! She lives by draining the blood of the innocent; she destroys her own kind for a moment's advantage; she attacked me without even knowing who I was, and began gathering tools for a double-cross before our agreement was an hour old ..."

Leila snorted loudly from her corner prison. "Climb down off your high horse, sister! Sure, I have to feed to live, who doesn't? But I don't kill anybody to do it. As for setting up a switchback on you, well, you gave me reasons."

Sandy turned to face her. "What were your reasons? This may be important."

"Sure, why not?" Leila shrugged. "I mean, okay, she talks a good game, but sometimes her mouth was moving a little too quick for her brain to keep up, y'know? First off, I wasn't brought across on the Night of St. Vigius, it was two nights before that, so right off I knew she was feeding me a tall story. Couldn't think why, but there was something she didn't want me to know, right?

"Then there was you. No offense, sweetface, you gave it your best, but it just didn't ring true. I spend every night watching for likely targets, people I can charm and drink from and leave without a memory of it. I get to where I know the look ... and doll, you had that look. Whatever you were, it wasn't what she was trying to sell you for.

"Most of all, though, there's this ritual she's working on. One time she calls the things she needs 'ingredients', but the rest of the time it's 'elements'. Well, I may've ditched school when I came over to the night life, but when somebody keeps talking about four elements, I just have to think of the old classics: fire, water, earth, and air. So she wants the tears of a demon, fine, I can match that with water. Breath of a spirit, we got air. Earth from the grave, yadda-yadda, that's a gimme. But the blood of the consecrated unliving -- and that's supposed to be me, she says -- how can you get fire from that?"

Leila looked to Nika with grim insolence. "Maybe my blood's gonna be burnt on an altar, or maybe I'm just reading the whole deal wrong. But in my head I got a picture of me going up like a Roman candle, and something about that just don't appeal, if you get my drift. So yeah, I go along for the ride to see if I can get a better notion of what's coming down ... and yeah, I start working on a little surprise for if things get nasty."

It was too bewildering. Sandy had hoped for lies, excuses, a makeshift rationale for treachery, but this was ... convincing. Her expression must have shown the confusion she felt, for Nika stepped close to lock eyes with her, her voice hard and urgent. "What's bothering you? She's smarter than we expected, I already admitted as much, but it makes no difference. You're feeling pity for a creature that would sneer at the concept if she understood it. It was one of her kind that killed you and left you in this limbo, and she's another from the same mold, a murderous soulless parasite ..."

That was it. Sandy straightened with sudden realization. "No," she said. "No, she isn't. When I was inside the first vampire, I could feel the demon there; and he could feel me, but he couldn't break my hold. Leila has a demon, too, but that's not all, I couldn't stay inside because it was too crowded." She looked to Nika with perplexity and wonder. "She's in there, right alongside the demon. She has a soul, Nika. Don't ask me how, but she still has her own soul."

Leila was the first to break the blank silence that followed. "Get outta town. I mean, you're yanking my chain, right? No way am I like that wuss, Angel."

Nika's face spasmed at the words, and Sandy felt a jolt of astonishment. This wasn't the woman who had been her sole companion for weeks of support and planning. What was happening here, what was the matter? "Oh, you're exactly like him," Nika flung at Leila, her voice quivering with hate and loathing. "You're all the same, hiding underground like rats in the day, coming out at night to prey on the living. Passing for human, wearing human faces, ripping through people's lives like sharks mad with blood. I'll take no pleasure from killing you, just the sight of you makes me sick, but I won't shrink from it, either."

She looked back to Sandy, the scarlet lips hard with resolve. "It has to be done. She's the fourth element, the one for which there is no substitute. Even if you're right about her having a soul, that soul is locked here long after her earthly life ended, just as yours is. We complete the ritual, and you're both free. We have to carry this through."

Sandy stood mute, shaken and directionless without the anchor to which she had so long clung. They couldn't, this was all wrong now; but how to say it, how to make her see ...?

"Well, I'll be damned," Leila said.

Both women looked to her; there was a new note in her voice that commanded that kind of attention. She returned their gaze with a kind of relaxed amusement that held a disquieting assurance. "So that's how it is," she said genially. "I knew there had to be another kicker in there somewhere, but I sure as hell wasn't watching for this one."

"I don't know what you mean," Sandy said.

"No, you don't, do you? Makes sense; I mean, she ran a number on me from the first word she spoke to me, why shouldn't she be snowing you, too?"

"She's trying to confuse you," Nika told Sandy. "To come between us, set us against each other. She knows it's her only hope for survival."

"Absolutely," Leila agreed. "But this is the great part: I can do it by telling the truth. That's something your girlfriend --" She hooked a thumb at Nika. "-- hasn't got around to trying yet."

"Just say what you have to say," Sandy ordered her. "I'll decide for myself if it's true."

"Okay. So, look at this situation from my viewpoint. I'm stuck in a corner, I've thrown out my hole card and seen it trumped, and now my so-called partner is hauling out cooking equipment. I don't have a lot to work with, do I? But I used to watch a lot of slasher flicks, and I remember at the end of Halloween II where the psycho has the girl and the doc trapped in a storage room in the hospital -- gee golly, just like where we are now! -- and they start opening the valves on anesthesia tanks, just like this one." She patted the gas cylinder against which she had been casually leaning while her captors argued.

Nika stiffened, and Leila laughed. "That's right. In the movie they wind up blowing the psycho clear to hell. Odds don't look good for me living through something like that, but what do I have to lose? So I crack the valve without being too obvious about it, and wait for you to strike a light. The worst that can happen is I take you with me; not my first choice, but I'll settle for it.

"Then you two start to argue, and I figure my chances are getting better. This here --" She rapped the cylinder with her knuckles. "-- is nitrous oxide. I didn't know anybody used the stuff anymore, they may have stuck it back here years ago and just forgot about it, but it's what they call laughing gas. So while you two jaw at each other this stuff is building up in the room, and I start to hope Gadget Girl will suck down enough to pass out, or maybe just get goofy and make a mistake. And then I start to wonder how long it's gonna take, and then I start to tune in on her vitals so I can get some idea when would be a good time to try something ..."

Nika was frozen, white and staring, and Leila's laugh echoed harsh and ugly in the closed room. "You played it cool," she said to Nika. "By God, you're a cool one! You kept me off balance all night with one thing and another: that crucifix around your neck, the weapons and tricks, the story you spun, the way the delicate little tech-witch needed to recruit some undead muscle for backup ... Right under my nose all the time and I never saw it, you're that good. But then you start to mix it up with your girlfriend, and rag at me, and you lose your cool, and it's just you and what matters to you instead of the act, and you know something?"

Leila leaned forward until her face was almost against the barrier, and hissed, "You got so worked up, you forgot to keep breathing, bitch!"

* * * * *

Part V

It was impossible. It couldn't be true; and yet, one glance at Nika's stricken expression crushed all hope. "You're ... a vampire?" Sandy asked her in a small, stunned voice. "You're one of them?"

"No." Nika shook her head violently. "No, you have to believe me. I'm nothing like them."

"'Course not," Leila said cheerfully. "You're just a typical Nineties woman who needs a really high-protein diet, plus there's that little sun allergy thing." Her tone hardened. "You're not kidding anybody but yourself. Time to come out of the coffin, lady!"

Nika swiveled to face the girl in the corner, her eyes burning with a light that should have ignited the gas permeating the room's atmosphere. "I'm not like you. I live near a riding stable, I ... feed from the horses, different ones each night, never enough to hurt them. I don't take human blood, I never take human blood. I'm not like you."

"Horses, huh?" Leila shrugged. "I did a poodle once, just to shut him up; can't say I cared for the taste. But you really think that makes you any different? Blood is blood, where we get it doesn't really matter."

"You're a vampire," Sandy repeated numbly, oblivious to the byplay between the other two. "Oh, my God. All this time ... why didn't you tell me?"

Nika turned back to her, eyes imploring. "It would only have confused things," she insisted. "This is something that happened to me; it's not who I am, I won't let it be who I am." She gestured at Leila. "You say her soul stayed with her body somehow, cohabiting with the demon. Well, I don't have a demon at all. I'm nothing like her, but I am like you: you're the same person you were before you were killed, and so am I."

"You really are a piece of work," Leila scoffed. "No demon, huh? That's even better than 'I didn't inhale' -- easy to say, and impossible to settle either way. I can't wait to hear what makes you so special."

"It ... really is a little hard to understand," Sandy admitted, unwilling even now to show open doubt; and at the tiny flicker of hurt that flitted across Nika's face, she suddenly realized what Leila had clearly seen minutes ago, that in some way the power in the room had shifted to her. She struggled for calm, choosing her words. "How could something like that happen?"

"I can't say for sure," Nika told her. "There are several possible explanations, but I think the most likely one involves my past. While I was still ... living, I was briefly possessed by a demon who then left me for a different host. I think that may have somehow immunized me against subsequent infestation. Also, though I was killed by a vampire, I didn't die by draining; because of that, I had a longer incubation period before rising to ... this ... and that may have contributed to the cumulative effect."

"Watch it," Leila said. "When she starts using four-syllable words, it means she's thinking on her feet, and you're about to be taken for a ride."

"It's more than just words," Nika said; her face was a mask of hate for the vampire girl, but she spoke with rigid composure. "Soul or no, her flesh is profane, unholy, tainted by the creature that inhabits it. Mine isn't." Her fingers closed on the crucifix that hung around her neck, and she raised it to touch her lips, her forehead. "It doesn't burn me. There's no demon in me, so I can handle holy objects without harm. Let her try that."

"Give me a break." Leila's mouth twisted with scorn. "You got all kinds of reasons why you're different, you're special, you're not like the rest of us. Well, it don't wash. You got no pulse; you can't take a tan; air is just something you use for flapping your lips; and you need blood to live. That's the biggie, you have to drink blood to live. Whether or not you like it, we are the same. You may hate my guts -- and it's mutual, believe me -- but we're still sisters under the skin."

"I'm not your sister!" Nika screamed. Sandy stared, shocked, and even Leila seemed startled by this uncharacteristic show of passion. It took visible effort for Nika to regain control; she looked to Leila with savage intensity and added bitterly, "I'm your daughter."

Leila's, "Huh?" came out as a comical squeak. Sandy followed an instant later with a rather vacant, "What?"

"It was my own ancestry I was tracing when I cast the bones," Nika went on. "You were right, the ritual required that I have the ashes of the vampire who made me. It took me months to find you, but I've confirmed it with three other kinds of scrying. You're my sire."

Leila's face was the mirror of Sandy's own astonishment, supplanted a moment later by sickening despair as the implications sank in. "No fricken way," Leila was saying. "I never saw you before a coupla weeks ago. Hell, you heard me at the cemetery, I didn't even know how to make another vampire. You got the wrong girl."

Nika shook her head firmly. "I'm not wrong. I don't understand it myself; like you, I have no memory of our ever meeting before tonight, we didn't deal with one another even when you were a student. But the methods I used are more reliable than genetic testing, and they leave no room for doubt. My existence derives directly from yours."

Leila regarded her with a frown. "What do you mean, 'even when I was a student'? This has nothing to do ..." She broke off, her eyes widening. "Wait a minute, I do know you! Damn, I did my own makeover when I went AWOL from Spike's little army, and I still let yours throw me! You had dark hair then, and it was short, and you were always wearing earth tones -- you're that computer teacher all the guys were drooling for!"

"I used to be," Nika confirmed. "And you're the little sociopath who stabbed a horticulture teacher with pruning shears. You weren't in any of my classes, but I heard the story. So, does knowing my pre-mortem identity jog your memory?"

Leila was barely listening. "I still don't get it, though," she said, frowning to herself. "I only saw you the one time after I came across, and that was a big bust, anyway ..." She stopped. "Oh. Oh, hell."

"What is it?" Sandy asked.

"It was a week or so after Spike's raid on the school," Leila said. "I was still working out my routine; at first I just did drunks, and then I discovered I could lay a trance on them, to keep them from fighting me and to wipe their memory after I was finished. So, I tried it on people who were sober, and it worked fine, and I was able to branch out to a wider audience. I caught her in the school parking lot one night, hit her with the ol' whammy, and moved in for refreshments. She went under easy enough, but just as I broke the skin on her neck she came out of it and started to scream, and I slap a hand over her mouth and I'm thinking how did this happen and what am I gonna do about it?" Leila quirked an eyebrow in Nika's direction. "And while I was trying to decide on my next move ... she bit me."

"Of course," Nika said in sudden realization.

"Bit you?" Sandy repeated.

"Sunk her teeth into my hand and tried to tear off a chunk," Leila elaborated. "Startled the hell out of me, she's lucky I didn't wrap her around a light pole. I squeezed her neck until she passed out, and then I spent a minute or so adding layers to the trance until I was pretty sure she wouldn't be able to remember me. I didn't take another drink, though, I was still too shook up. I just booked."

"You took my blood," Nika said. "And I took yours. Tiny amounts, but it was enough. And because I didn't die, it just lay inside me like a cancer, and then when Angel killed me five months later ... So. So now I know."

"Yes," Sandy said. "Now we know." The bleakness of her tone brought Nika's eyes back to her, and she went on, "You lied to me. When you said we needed a particular vampire for the ritual, it made sense; I was killed by a vampire, and we couldn't find the one who did it, so I could understand how releasing my spirit would require finding a proper substitute. But it was your sire you wanted, you were hunting her before we ever met. This didn't have anything to do with me, did it? You just said that to get my help. I was another ... margin for you, an extra ace for you to play when you needed it." She longed to weep, but her eyes would produce no tears. "I believed in you, and you betrayed me."

Nika had gone paler than ever. "It was my only hope," she whispered. "This wasn't about revenge, or power. Don't you see, my situation is the same as yours: these monsters killed me but I'm still here, caught in a form I can't escape. Every attempt at a restoration spell for vampires has failed, because the demon's presence contaminates the body; but I had no demon, so if I could just acquire the vital elements ..."

"You used me," Sandy broke in. "You lied to me, played me for advantage. You convinced me it was okay to deceive Leila -- she wasn't human, she had no soul, promises don't count when they're made to a nonperson -- but in the end the monster here was you. I thought you were my friend, I trusted you. How could you do this to me?"

Nika had flinched at the words as if they were nails being driven into her. The icy calm, the imperious bearing were gone, and she wavered where she stood. "Don't," she pleaded. "Don't say that. I didn't want to hurt you, I never wanted to hurt you. But there was no other way, don't you see? I had a life, I had people who mattered to me and work that made a difference in the world and a man who loved me ... I wanted my life back." The tears that were denied to Sandy spilled from her eyes and down her cheeks. "I just wanted my life back!"

It was the wrong thing to say. A cry of anguish, resonating with Sandy's own need ... and it only intensified the betrayal, for Nika had used that yearning as a tool to manipulate her. "Don't speak to me," Sandy said to her. "Don't look at me. I never knew you. You don't exist."

Nika faced her for another moment, her expression frozen, and then it was as if something went out of the woman. Her legs gave out beneath her, and she sank to the floor and buried her face in her hands, sobbing. It was a pitiful sight; and Sandy, gazing down at her, felt nothing. Nothing at all.

She became conscious of Leila's eyes on her, and turned back to the vampire girl. "I'm ready for this all to be over," she said. "If I set you free now, will you just leave?"

Leila delivered another of those offhand shrugs. "Any beef I got with you comes from you helping to put me in here. Turn me loose, and it cancels out. As for her --" She inclined her head toward Nika. "-- I'd hate to walk out without giving her a good kick in the slats as I go by, just as a forget-me-not, but it isn't worth getting you pissed at me. Only ... can I keep the Uzi?"

Sandy found the discarded weapon and, after a moment's inspection, determined how to remove the magazine. She moved to the corner and used the toe of her 'shoe' to scrub through one of the chalk lines; Leila waved a hand through where the barrier had been and then, satisfied, stepped out. "Here," Sandy said, and tossed the Uzi to her; then, holding up the extracted magazine, "This stays."

"Ah, c'mon, be a sport," Leila said. "High-capacity mags are almost as hard to come by as full auto. If you wanta be careful, just thumb the bullets outta the top, I can always get more bullets."

Sandy complied with a sigh she didn't bother to voice, and Leila stepped back into the corner to retrieve the trash sack while Sandy expelled cartridges into her free hand. "Thanks, chief," Leila said as the magazine was passed over to her, and stuffed the completed weapon into the sack, which she rolled around its contents and tucked under her arm. At the door she looked back to Sandy and warned, "She comes after me again, I'll flush her ashes down the jane at Prism. You make sure she understands that." Sandy nodded acknowledgement, and the girl was gone.

Nika had ceased to weep, but still sat with eyes downcast. Sandy regarded her with a remote, uncomfortable distaste, and finally said, "I'll be leaving, too. There's nothing to keep me here."

"Wait," Nika said. Her voice sounded rusty, and it took her two attempts to regain her feet. "Don't go. Please."

Sandy went to the corner of the room and closed the valve on the gas cylinder. "We should let the door stand open for awhile so the gas can dissipate," she observed clinically; then, to Nika, "Why shouldn't I leave? This went too far. You can't make it right again."

"Just come with me," Nika said. "I can't ... ask you to trust me again, but there's something I need to show you."

Sandy was too weary in her soul to argue. Empty inside, she followed the older woman out of the room and down the hall to a bank of elevators. "I chose this place for a reason," Nika said as they rose to the next floor. She seemed to be having trouble forming the words. "It wasn't necessary for the ritual, I just wanted us to be nearby when it was done."

"What does it matter?" Sandy asked without heat. "It was all a sham, a confidence game."

"I used you," Nika agreed. "I lied to you as much as I did to her, but I kept telling myself this was here at the end." The elevator doors ding!ed and opened, and Nika stepped out and started down another hall, Sandy drifting behind her almost as listlessly as if she had returned to formlessness.

They stopped at a set of double doors with a plate that read 2 SOUTH, and Nika looked expectantly to her former friend. Sandy started to ask why they were here, and then she felt it: a tug, even more faint than the sensation of the sentry spell, but real all the same. She blinked, something inside her beginning to shift in response to the unseen force. "What is this?" she demanded.

"I used you," Nika said again. She seemed to have aged years, gaunt and haunted. "I knew about this almost from the beginning, I could have brought you here weeks ago, but I ... needed you." She looked away and said softly, "I know you can never forgive me, but maybe someday you won't hate me."

Sandy was unable to answer; the thing that held her had intensified monstrously within seconds, pulling at every particle of her existence. She tried to strengthen the link to Nika, or to let herself be drawn back to the Bronze, but those were bonds of steel and this was a hurricane, a black hole, massive and inexorable and overwhelming. "I'm sorry," she heard from an immense distance, and then she was snatched up by the current, form and voice and thought stripped away as she hurtled helplessly, not toward the light she had so long sought but into the shadows of the terrifying unknown.

* * * * *


Her eyes opened in the darkened room, and she lay silently without moving for almost a minute. Finally she said, "Who are we kidding? I know you're there, and you know I'm awake. Let's get on with this."

A dim figure crossed to the window and opened the blinds, washing the room with light from the poled lamps in the parking lot. She turned back to face the bed, and Sandy said, "Oh."

"Yeah." Leila perched on the arm of the bedside chair. "I had a feeling you were hoping for somebody else. You can forget it, she won't come."

"No, I suppose not." Sandy found the controls at the side and slowly tilted the bed up into semi-reclining position. "So why are you here, Leila?"

"Sheila," the girl corrected her. "Sorry, it was the best I could manage on the spur of the moment; I can lie as smooth as your gal-pal, but I can't make 'em up as quick. Next time I need an alias, I think I'll go with Megan."

"That works as well as anything else. But it doesn't answer my question."

"Why am I here, you mean? Part of it was, I just wanted to see for myself." Leila -- Sheila -- indicated the hospital room with a sweep of her hand. "You're not just big in local news, y'know. You made one of the L.A. affiliates, and somebody said CNN was taking a look."

Sandy sighed. "Yes, I know. 'Gang attack victim wakes after months in coma.' Everybody loves a happy ending."

Sheila grinned. "So are you happy?"

"Look at me." Sandy made a weak gesture. "My muscles are like spaghetti, there's an accumulation of skin oils in my hair that won't come out no matter how many times they shampoo, I have a bladder infection from the catheter and a bedsore on my hip -- and there's the pneumonia, that's why they moved me here from long-term care in the first place, but they caught it fast enough that I just feel like hell along with looking like hell -- I'm going to need all kinds of physical therapy to get me back on my feet, and my insurance is trying to set limits on what they'll cover ..." Sandy stopped, and smiled. "Yes, I'm happy. I didn't know it was possible to be so happy."

"Looks like your girlfriend came through for you after all," Sheila said cheerfully.

Sandy turned her face to the window, her own cheer vanishing. "All right, you've seen for yourself. Now, why else did you come?"

"Yeah." Sheila let out a long breath. "This whole business has been really weird, I'm still trying to make some sense of it, and you're about the only source I've got. You were playing it straight when you said I have a demon and a soul?"

"I could feel them both," Sandy confirmed. "I'm surprised you didn't already know."

"I never thought about it that much. I knew I didn't really like other vampires -- the ones that aren't idiots are pretty much psychotic -- and I've never gotten along with people, so what was there to notice? But all this other stuff makes me wonder ... Okay, you said you could feel the demon. So, what's he like?"

Sandy looked back to her visitor. In truth, there hadn't really been time to gather much more than general impressions; she had been busy, simultaneously fighting to steer the gun away from Nika and resisting the pressure that ultimately expelled her. Now she reached out without moving, letting her awareness settle delicately into the outer fringes of Sheila's consciousness, close enough to catch the currents of thought and emotion without making her presence known. "It was different from the demon I felt in the first vampire," she said, careful to keep her report in the past tense. "That one was all hate and violence, yours ... it's hard to explain, but there was a flavor of amusement about him. It was like he was enjoying himself, like he saw the world as a big theme park and he was content to take the rides as they came."

"Huh," Sheila said, sounding not entirely pleased. "So as far as demons go, I got a pretty wimpy one."

"I wouldn't put it quite that way," Sandy said. "I think if you were a terrorist or a serial rapist instead of a disco diva, your demon would enjoy that just as much. Right and wrong are meaningless to him, all that matter are sensation and experience. He's just willing to ... sip and savor, instead of gulping. About the way you describe yourself, when you come right down to it."

"It does sound familiar," Sheila admitted. "I guess that's all. Thanks." She moved back to the window and reached for the blinds.

"Leave them open," Sandy said. "I like to watch the sun come up."

Sheila shook her head. "Yeah, that must be nice." At the door she stopped and looked back. "You know, the reason your friend won't come is because she's ashamed. She hates herself for what she is and she hates herself for what she did to you. Didn't bother her a bit when I found her out, but when it was you that caught her, she just went to pieces. She cares what you think of her, which I guess means she cares about you."

Sandy tried to conceal her surprise. "You'll lose your bad-ass image if you're not careful."

The girl laughed. "Hey, I'd light her up and toast marshmallows over the fire. But I still owe you something, so I'm just saying: if you want to work things out with her, you'll have to hunt her up yourself, because she won't come to you. Take care, okay?"

When she was gone, Sandy looked back to the window, reflecting on the implications of Sheila's visit. The matter of Nika she deliberately set aside; she wasn't ready to go there, not yet. As for the rest ...

In the first hours after her 'miraculous' reawakening, she had found that her mind and body were no longer as firmly joined as they had been before the coma. Careful experimentation had shown that she could project her awareness without actually leaving her body (as if sight and hearing were simply rerouted, leaving other senses still bound to her physical self); wondering if she still had the ability to take control of another person, she had surreptitiously probed the hospital staff, and discovered that the light intrusion allowed her access to their thoughts. She still had yet to attempt an actual possession, but during her discreet assessment of Sheila's psyche, she had satisfied herself that she was mentally as strong as ever; stronger, now that she was no longer disembodied. In fact, having learned the contours of the girl's consciousness, she was confident that even Sheila's double-occupancy wouldn't stop her from seizing control if she so desired.

The next vampire that came at her was in for an ugly surprise. Vampire, mugger, amorous drunk, none of them could threaten her now. Some decisions were called for: should she stay in Sunnydale and lend her new abilities to the war from which Sheila had so contemptuously exempted herself? or go out and try to make a difference in the larger world? or simply build for herself a comfortable, secure future, far from the darkness that had held her for so long?

Decisions would have to be made, eventually. For now she settled back in the bed, basking in the discomfort and vulgarity and glory of being alive, and waited with quiet pleasure for the sun to rise.


* * * * *

Final note: Some people may theorize that this story was inspired, at least in part, by the narrative of Dianne DeSha's If You Could See Me Now. To which I say, you got no evidence, you can't prove nuthin'.

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