Buffy, Ms. Calender, the Slayerettes and most of Sunnydale belong to their creator Joss Whedon, who I am imitating in the most sincere and profound admiration, without any hope for financial gain.... although I sure won't turn it down, if Joss feels like paying me! WB, Sandstone, and Mutant Enemy have some rights in here somewhere.
Major thank-you-kindly's to my betareaders: Lizbet, Perri and Dianne, who kept the grammar straight and went "hunh?" when I vagued things up.
Comments welcomed with enthusiasm! - CLK
I knew the situation had gotten seriously weird when the first thing to happen that morning was my computer crashing during my on-line Tarot reading.
Don't get me wrong. Usually I just check the position of the moon when I get up, to find out if it's a day to stay in bed or play the lottery. It's saved me a lot of headaches to know what kind of course the planets are following on any given day. But since I'm never awake until after the first cup of Jamaica Blue Mountain, I figure why force my brain to process information it's not ready for? Anything more complex, I almost always delay until after lunch. Early morning psychic readings are for people who like the sound of morning DJ's and dawn traffic.
Not that many citizens of Sunnydale are checking their horoscopes with a serious idea of what they mean. There are possibly six practicing Pagans in our little berg, and none of us are of the same Craft, and some of the others ignore horoscopic influences completely. Sunnydale may be in California, but it's a lot closer to L.A. than San Francisco, metaphysically speaking. At least, I used to think so. Now I think it might be a lot closer to somewhere.... hotter.
Anyway. Tarot cards, Runes, scrying---higher divination requires concentration and preparation, and at least a general idea of what you need to know. The only reason I did the reading as soon as I woke up that morning was because of the nightmare I'd had; one which I couldn't even remember once I was fully awake. Just the general feeling of impending doom, disaster, ruin.... And the Net had been acting so weird all week, that I was hoping an impromptu Q&A would shed some light on the dark vibes I was getting. Nothing like tapping into the mind of the God(ess) to get some answers.
So on the morning when my fears first crystallized I yawned, stumbled over to my PC, then called up the Astarte site on the Web. I selected the Queen of Swords for myself--- because let's face it, I may want to be the Empress, or the Priestess, but who has the time?---and asked the reader, "What does the day hold?" //Much too vague, Nikki,// I realized after I hit the ENTER button. There was no way the cards could give me a useful answer with that kind of query. The images on the screen flipped, coalesced, and then resolved into three cards. I gulped.
The Tower. The Chariot. Death. Or, in simpler terms: destruction. Opposing forces fighting it out. Major changes of life-altering proportions.
"Ohhhh, boy." Now, _that's_ a wake-up call. //Maybe I shouldn't have asked...//
Which was exactly when Henry spluttered, fizzed, then popped, and the monitor went boom in a wash of white snow. I stared at it for a full minute, knowing it couldn't be a coincidence, but without the faintest idea what I was supposed to do about it. Other than reboot Henry and say a prayer that the portents were mocking me.
Maybe they were. I certainly didn't expect anything like what started happening in Sunnydale after that....
Sunnydale High, Home of the Razorbacks, bastion of education, signer of my paychecks. Not exactly CalTech, but most of the time that's a good thing. As I drove up to the teacher's parking lot I gave thanks that my position as resident computer specialist was still low-key enough to allow me time to contemplate recent nasty developments on the Net, and the implications they contained.
Dave, Fritz, and Willow---my advanced class students---were probably already on-line and typing away, happy hackers all, possibly creating new ways to use on-line software or, in Fritz's case, become one with the software. Fritz needed a little more distance from the computers... like, say, a trip to Bermuda. I had to restrain the urge to tell him to go outside and play sometimes. It wouldn't have done any good. Dave, his partner in crime, seemed to have a better handle on how to balance his inner life and his outer life, but that just might have been Dave's easier-going personality. Anyone would look laid-back next to Fritz "Jacked-In" Desmond.
None of my students were going to be "geeks" if I could help it; there's no reason why they should be. Non-virtual life has value too. Fritz and Dave had a ways to go before they passed that part of my class, even though both of them were taking college computer design courses during the afternoon sessions.
Willow Rosenberg, on the other hand, was progressing nicely, although I couldn't really take credit for that.
"No, wait, I'm good at these," I heard as I approached the Lab. "Does it involve a midget and a block of ice?"
"We met on-line." My star female hacker---correction, star hacker, period---was logging onto her account with a big smile on her face, her eyes lit up as she glanced from the monitor to her friend.
"On line for what?" Her blonde companion asked, then followed her friend's smile to the computer, and blinked in surprise. "Oh!" The contrast between Buffy Summers and Willow was more than just that of different tastes in clothing, and Buffy's vivacious good looks compared to her friend's more restrained prettiness. Willow Rosenberg was a straight A student, a shy, quiet girl always on the verge of blushing in embarrassment or babbling with self-consciousness; and Buffy Summers had a reputation as a trouble-maker, as a possible gang member (//In Sunnydale?// I'd thought when I first heard the story), of having gotten kicked out of several schools and burning down the gym at the last place.
I suspected that like Willow, Buffy's image was only half-true. I'd seen Willow stick up for her friends despite her shyness, and from what I knew of her, Buffy was a loyal pal to Willow, and had never shown signs of being anything like the rumors painted her.
"Morning, kids. Buffy, are you supposed to be somewhere?" I asked, settling in behind my desk as I began leafing through printouts.
"No, I have a free."
"Cool. But this is lab time, so let's make it a nice short visit, okay?" As long as she wasn't getting in the others' way, I wasn't about to chase her out. She'd been good for Willow's self-image, from what I could see. And maybe Miss Rosenberg had had a good influence on her, too.
"Sure." She sat down next to Willow as the other girl squealed with delight.
"It's him!" The slim redhead was reading email, practically vibrating with excitement, and I grinned behind my paperwork. "He's so _sweet_!"
"He's a sweetie," Buffy agreed uncertainly.
"What should I write back?" Willow's online romance was only about a week old, and she was still in the first throes of excitement. I thought it was kind of cute, and a good ego-booster for her, even though it probably wouldn't come to anything in the real world. Unless.... I glanced at Dave, who _seemed_ oblivious to the exchange between Willow and Buffy. But it was hard to be sure, since he was hunched over his monitor so closely. //C'mon, Dave. If it's you, you're going to have to say something sometime....//
"Willow, I think that it's really great that you have this cool pen-pal and all," Buffy's careful words didn't disguise her doubtful tone, "but don't you think you're kinda rushing into this? You know what I mean?"
"I'm thinking of you too!" Willow exclaimed, still concentrating on her email correspondent. Then her shoulders slumped. "No. That's incredibly stupid!"
"Will. Down, girl!" Buffy took a deep breath, and continued on in a firm voice. "Let's focus here. What do you actually know about this guy?"
Willow turned a disappointed face to Buffy, drawing away a little. I frowned, only half-paying attention to the rest of their conversation. "Oh, see... I knew you'd react like this."
//Like the average person unfamiliar with email,// I mentally supplied. The odds of Willow actually getting to meet her email pal were fairly good, from what I could see; but then, the odds that she'd already met him, and he was too scared to come forward, were pretty high too. Either way, it wasn't the risk that Buffy probably thought it. I snorted, thinking of recent HARD COPY reports of on-line criminals and obsessive romances, and underscored an error on one of my students' assignments with extra force. //Trust the media to blow up one or two small incidents into Internet stalking... Goddess, why can't they emphasize the positive? It's that kind of journalism that has people like Rupert Giles so paranoid.//
Our resident librarian was a perfect example of the type of person who would never make use of Net resources except on pain of death. Or possibly worse. I'd gotten the impression during the book-scanning project the previous week that Mr. Giles would have happily withstood a firing squad, if it would have meant keeping his library free of my technical interference. Quiet, aloof, contained, conservative, distrustful of everything he didn't want to understand... it was really hard to argue with someone who refused to talk to you.
I'd tried to get our new Oxford-educated academic to actually _look_ at the computer scanning system, but he'd barely listened to me when I'd explained it, preferring to let me and the students do the work that he obviously considered a waste of time. Frustrating. There was so much more he could do with the new system, but he'd probably just let it sit there and go to waste....
I snagged my wandering thoughts away from this week's pet peeve, and refigured the numbers on Dave and Fritz's log-in time that week as Buffy and Willow were wrapping up their conversation.
"Well, no! He doesn't talk like someone who would have a hairy back." //What? How did you two get onto hairy backs as a topic of interest...?// "Anyways, that stuff doesn't matter when you really care about someone. I mean, maybe I'm not his ideal, either," Willow concluded softly. I hid a sympathetic smile, as Buffy quickly cut into her friend's temporary attack of insecurity with warm reassurance.
"Hey! I'm just trying to make sure he's good enough for you. That's all." Buffy's supportive grin lent weight to her words, and Willow grinned shyly and relaxed again. I smiled to myself, then finished totalling up the computer hours for Dave and Fritz and frowned, tapping the large number at the bottom of the page.
"Hey Fritz," I tried to gently get the attention of the computer sciences most devoted acolyte, despite the recurring urge to shake him out of his complacency. Fritz barely glanced up at me as I walked over to his monitor. "I'm looking at the logs here, and you and Dave are clocking a fairly scary amount of computer time."
"New project." Monosyllables and short sentences only for Mr. Desmond. Except when he was telling someone off.
"Ooooo. Will I be excited?" I teased, hoping for details.
"You'll die," Fritz responded, then returned to his project with complacent satisfaction. Someday, someone was going to jolt Fritz out of his smugness. I only wished I was going to be there to see it. Nodding carefully, I went back to my desk and paper grading, waving good-bye to Buffy as she bounced out of the room. Willow was back to mooning over her email, sighing happily as she composed another note.
At least one of my students was approaching reality with a wish for something more than unlimited Internet access. I shot a quick glance over at Dave, and smiled to myself. //Okay. Maybe two of them.//
"Ms. Calender, I'm freaking! You gotta help me," Trent Robey demanded, plunking his laptop down on my desk during my lunch hour. "My history paper is due in like, half an hour, and someone messed with it."
I swallowed the bite of sandwich in my mouth, put down the rest, and said, "Yes, by all means, come on in and request assistance, Trent."
"I'm sorry, but this is an emergency!" The junior was practically tearing his hair out, and he pointed at his Macintosh accusingly, his face contorted in panic. He'd taken a few of my computer classes the year before, and while no wizard had seemed to have a fairly good grasp of the basics. Whatever had been done would have to be fairly sophisticated to force him to ask a teacher for help. I nodded carefully to keep from upsetting him further, then found myself staring at the screen.
"'Nazi Germany as an Example of a Well-Ordered Society?'" I asked, glancing askance at the disgruntled student.
"This is not my paper! I wrote on why the Third Reich was inherently unstable! It's my midterm report, it's worth a third of my grade, you have to help me prove I didn't write this---"
"Calm down, okay? Let me just do a quick search---" I brought up the file index and paged down through the entries by date, finding what I suspected would be there. "See? Here it is. Somehow, it was converted into a temp file, and this paper replaced it at the same time. Luckily, whoever did this didn't bother to erase the original."
"It's still there?" Trent collapsed against my desk in relief. "Oh, man, thanks Ms. Calender. You've really saved my neck."
"Do you know who would want to do this to you? Or how? Did you download any information off the Net recently, and leave your account open?" I concealed my growing sense of dis-ease from Trent, not wanting to let him know how badly this had disturbed me. Someone had a really sick sense of humor --- a familiar sick sense of humor.
"No! I mean, I downloaded some stuff from the Holocaust Archives yesterday.... but that was it." He sighed, then grinned and took the laptop back. "I don't care how they did it, as long as it's fixed. Thanks again."
"Be more careful on those downloads next time," I cautioned. "Use the virus protection software. And change your passwords!" I called after him as he walked down the hall.
I slumped back into my chair, thinking furiously. For the second time that day, something within the high school had tampered with the on-line systems. I'd been called into Principal Snyder's office in between third and fourth periods in order to clean up his voice mail. It seemed that not only had someone changed the user password, making it impossible for Mr. Snyder to retrieve his mail, but that the outgoing greeting had been altered to an obscene proposition "for all you hot PTA mamas out there." The voice had sounded a lot like our new principal's, but going by how little humor he found in the situation, I was willing to bet that it wasn't his idea of an extremely complicated practical joke.
Chewing thoughtfully on my sandwich, I started making a list.
1) Online power surges during readings. 2) Altered research paper. 3) Tampered Audix messaging. 4) General online shutdowns for last week.
I tapped a pencil against the desk, thinking. //Bad juju. I don't like it. It feels... weird.// The complexity of the pranks and their bad-natured humor hinted at more than a virus, or one person getting into nearby systems. There was an active, malicious intelligence behind the attacks; someone with a nasty interest in Sunnydale High. Of course, the power surges and shutdowns couldn't be connected to the software pranks.
//I need a second opinion.// I tapped out a number on the phone, hoping my best friend and fellow local Pagan would be in. She wasn't in the same discipline, but if I was right about what was going on, she might be able to give me some perspective on the situation.
"Cameo's Psychic Health Store, for all your spiritual needs," chirped into my ear. "Today, we're running a special on protective spells and cleansing bath salts. What can I help you with?"
"Hi, it's Nikki, Cami."
"I know. Want some calming bubble beads?"
I laughed. "Maybe later. Listen, do you have time tomorrow to give me a reading after work?" Aside from the ginseng tea and beeswax candles, Cameo also did a very profitable business in Tarot card reading. Right at the moment, I didn't trust my own ability to pull up the information I wanted. Not without it coming back with three jokers on the screen, anyway.
"Sure. Are you positive you can wait that long?"
"What do you know that I don't?" I asked in concern.
"Just that you're surrounded by turmoil and conflict."
"I work at the high school, Cameo. I'm always surrounded by turmoil and conflict."
"Not like this." Cameo's usually happy, upbeat voice had scaled down into a strained version of itself. "I mean it, Nikki. I was going to call you tonight, if you hadn't called me first---you really ought to come over here as soon as you can---"
"Which is tomorrow. I've got a faculty meeting tonight. I'll see you right after school tomorrow, though. Okay?"
A huge dramatic sigh. "Okayyyyy. I guess it can wait. The signs are urgent but not catastrophic."
I rolled my eyes. "Thank you, Cameo, for your comfort in my time of trouble. I'll see you soon." I hung up the phone and stared at it moodily, then glanced around the room at the computer screens and shivered.
For a second, I'd gotten the weird sensation that someone was... watching me.
Thursday was a universally frustrating day. More on-line shutdowns, more students coming in with unforeseen technical problems; and more weirdness with no visible cause showing up all over the Net. I kept getting warnings from paranormal guru Brother Luca and several of my other cyberspace sources about widespread chaos across the world, all of it escalating in tandem to its own demented beat.
Since I couldn't do anything about that---or at least, I couldn't think of any action to take, and my brain-storming session with Cameo wasn't until later that evening---I decided to deal with a smaller scale non-problem just to make myself feel better. Dave and Fritz were up to something, and my curiosity had grown to where I didn't want to accept their evasive answers any longer. Besides, I was hoping for the chance to give Dave a little advice, or maybe point him in the right direction regarding Willow and her on-line romance. If Malcolm really was Dave, now was the time to reveal his identity. Of course, if he wasn't, then it was probably too late for him to do anything---assuming he even wanted to.
"So, the project is going well?" I casually asked Dave during the Advanced Programming Session he helped with after lunch.
"Project?" Dave's expression was hunted, his eyes rapidly flipping between me and the computer screen in front of him. "You know about that?"
"Sure." I smiled, trying to put him at ease. "Fritz explained the extra hours you guys were eating up. Is it connected to your internship?" I sat down on the edge of the computer desk, projecting as much approval and interest as I could. Dave really had a hard time articulating non-technical concepts, and tended to stress with little encouragement. "How is that going, by the way? You never did say who it was with."
"Great." He nodded earnestly, and swallowed hard, searching for words. "It's great. Very... complex. Multi-layered. I'm really happy there."
"Good." Dave stared back at me, seeming to have run out of words, so I prompted him. "The project? What is it?"
"Oh!" His pale eyes blinked rapidly, and he opened and shut his mouth several times. "It's... classified. We're getting into a totally new area. Completely. I'm not supposed to talk about it." Dave glanced from the monitor to me, then back again, clearly wishing I would drop the subject. "Ummmm... CRD is hoping to start up again, based on the new product." He smiled in relief, glad to have explained it to his own satisfaction, if not mine. "That's it. We can't tell you until after it's finished."
"Oh." Slightly disappointed, I shrugged philosophically. "Well, I hope you'll let me know the details when it's done. I'd love to hear about it."
"Sure! No problem." He bobbed his head in determination, still seeming nervous, and I smiled and went back to my desk, taking a few minutes to rearrange some papers before casually bringing up another subject of not-so-casual interest.
"Speaking of secrets... you wouldn't have any acquaintance with Willow's on-line boyfriend, would you?"
Dave's keyboard went clattering off the desktop as my question made him jerk in shock. "What? Why are you asking that?" His voice was sharp, guilty---and fearful.
"No reason, Dave," I soothed him. "I was just curious. Forget I asked---" //I wouldn't tell her, you silly kid. Relax!// I thought in amazment, studying his white, stricken face.
"It's not me," he said hastily, then added in a rush, "But I'm sure he's good guy. Willow likes him, and that's what's important, right?"
"Right." I blinked, crossing my arms over my chest as I stared at Dave. He was upset out of all proportion to my off-the-cuff inquiry. "Is there something bothering you? Something about this little romance of Willow's that I should know about?"
"No!" Dave responded explosively. He stood up and began gathering his books as the end-of-class bell rang. "I mean, I don't know anything. Anything at all. I gotta go---"
"Dave---" But he'd already rushed out the door ahead of the Beginning Students, his shoulders hunched and eyes averted as if afraid I'd drag him back into the room. I stared after him as the rest of the class filed out, trying to get a handle on what was going on with Dave. Something major, obviously; but what? Was it Willow and her penpal? Or was he just keyed up about the CRD project?
The room emptied, and I frowned. CRD, hunh? I should have heard if they were trying to start up production again, and I hadn't. Absently, I turned off all the computers, gathered up my papers and slowly made my way to the parking lot. When had CRD decided to make a comeback? The last I knew, they were completely bankrupt, the main designers working for Silicon Valley companies, the assets scattered to different debtholders. The more I thought about Dave the less I liked the implications of his and Fritz's little 'project'. And why had he freaked so badly when I asked him about Willow's Malcolm?
"Got any ideas of what you're going to ask about? 'Cause I'm telling you Nikki, the portents are so conflicting, we'll just get gloom and doom if you don't give me something to focus on," Cameo said doubtfully as she dimmed the lights and got out her cards. I lit a single large candle and made myself comfortable at the table. Cami's face looked pale in the unsteady light, either from tiredness or worry. It was late, and we'd analyzed the recent on-line and real life events at the school nearly to death before agreeing that I needed more information. Using the Web for a reading was no guarantee of true information right now; so we were doing it the old-fashioned way.
"Standard spread, I guess. Forces opposing, aiding, surrounding." I cut the cards, and gave them to Cameo as the reader. She nodded and cut them again, then I cut them, then she spread them out on the table, her small hands with their close-bitten nails flicking the cards down with the speed of long practice. I'd already picked out the card representing me - the Queen of Swords, whose weapons are thoughts and words - and it only took a minute for Cameo to go into a light trance and deal out the other nine cards. It's not quite witchcraft; it's just Cami. She's got a gift for getting answers, either from cards or people. Most of it is years of practice---and maybe the gods of chance just like to let her in on some secrets because she never tells any.
I turned over the three cards for the forces surrounding me, hoping it would clarify what the heck was going on. "Perfect. I got these yesterday morning," I said in frustration. Cameo leaned her chin on her hands, blowing a strand of blonde hair out of her eyes as she studied the triangle of Tower, Death, and Chariot. "Not much help there. Chaos, destruction, change... I knew this already."
"I don't like that this is the second time you've gotten them, though," Cami murmured. "Let's see what the forces opposing you are---" She flipped the triangle of cards over with a light sweep of her fingers, and I stared. Cameo stared. Then she looked at me, her eyes huge. "You're in biiiig trouble, girlfriend."
The Ace of Swords: pure mental power. The Emperor: the urge to rule, to control, to conquer. The Devil: sometimes good, sometimes bad, always concerning hidden secrets, urges, desires left uncontrolled. I heard Cameo swallow before she tentatively said, "Ummm, if this is what's opposing you, they're a lot more motivated and scary than you thought. If this is what's causing the shutdowns and rampant weirdness... it's not going to stop here. Someone is making it happen. Someone with a lot of juice."
I nodded grimly, then steeled myself and turned over the cards representing the forces on my side of the balance. "The Hierophant. Justice. The Page of Wands."
"That's a lot more specific. Do they ring any bells?" Cameo asked, gesturing to the faces on the cards. "You know the meanings as well as I do. The Teacher, Nemesis, and an apprentice knight. I always thought that version of Justice looked more like an amazon than she does in most decks..."
"No, no bells ringing...." I blinked, then grimaced. "Although..."
"Nothing. I just have my fellow teachers on the brain."
My friend grinned like a happy chipmunk. "Mr. Giles again, hunh?"
"What again? I mentioned him only one time tonight---" Cameo's smile widened, and I cursed under my breath, realizing I'd confirmed her guess. That's the price of letting off steam to your best friend; she gets to read your mind later. "Okay, so? The Hierophant's giving out knowledge from on high, he's usually secluded, yeah, it reminded me of Rupert. Big deal---"
"You know that might be right, though."
"Hunh?" I gasped, then chortled. "Rupert Giles is supposed to help me fight a malevolent force on the Internet? I don't think so. No. No, it's got to have another meaning." I sighed. "This is getting us nowhere. I need to _do_ something. I can't wait around until 'all is revealed'! So far no one's gotten hurt--- as far as I know. I'm positive this thing has an interest in Sunnydale High, there've been too many coincidences and accidents there. I'm on the spot, I can use that to my advantage---"
"You could narrow down where the problem is, maybe, and do a cleansing?" Cameo offered thoughtfully.
"Hmmmm." I narrowed my eyes, Cami's words giving me an idea. "That might be a start. And maybe a protection or two---"
"That'd be more helpful for the students than for the computers. I can get you some supplies." Cameo pushed her chair back, then trotted off to her store closet. "I'll be right back!"
I gazed down at the cards, then gathered them up, reshuffling them as I pondered my hypothetical allies. The Hierophant. Justice. Page of Wands... Dave? Nahhhh. Dave wasn't anything like the Page of Wands was supposed to be, changeable and quick, talkative and fiery. No. I slammed the cards down on the table in frustration.
A single card shot out of the deck, skimming across the table and flipping face-up when it hit the candle. Picking it up carefully, I felt a tingle up my spine, something I couldn't explain; a feeling of recognition. It was the Page of Cups; a young page stood in the forest, staring into a pool of water, beneath a drooping tree....
Friday dawned, and I woke from vague dreams that left a cold sheen of sweat on my skin, but no concrete memories behind. The feeling that today was important, and that events had telescoped into an immediate danger, was backed up by the day's horoscope: moon coming out of retrograde into Scorpio, a warning of madness, passions flaring out of control, and psychic awareness going haywire. //Great. More power to the enemy, whoever that is...//
Before I left for school I did two things; set the protections for the students I was most worried about---Dave, Fritz, and Willow---and cast a handful of bones on my laptop. It had remained off-line since before the previous week and was probably still uncorrupted from contact with the Net, so any reading from it should be trustworthy. The three candles I lit for my advanced students blazed bright but hazy, with a strange gold ring around Willow's, a relentless flickering of Dave's, and dark smoke rising from Fritz's. I tried not to interpret any signs from their glow; as long as the flames were alight, and as long as my students didn't come in direct contact with the force causing the mischief, they should be okay. Fears that it might already be too late were stifled and shoved in my sock drawer.
The runes, when cast, sent me speeding for my car keys and out the door, completely unwilling to stare at the video representations of the stones for very long.
//Hail. Thorn. Struggle. Destiny.//
Like the Tarot cards I'd flipped over, they represented dark forces closing in. The scary thing about the "struggle" stone was that it suggested that the conflict had to be won before the battle; that I had to go into it having learned some lesson, knowing how to win before engaging the enemy.
How could I do that, if I had no idea who the enemy was? Or what they wanted?
More problems awaited me at school. It looked like every major computer system had been tampered with, and most of the minor ones too. The shop class thermostat refused to fall below 93 degrees; meanwhile, the gym was set at a toasty 51. Both were on the main computer's environmental system. The cafeteria cash registers were ringing up $1000 purchases and giving $666 refunds; an order of 67 copies of the Necronomicon arrived at Principal Snyder's office with a computerized receipt; and the public address system took to playing spurts of Run D.M.C. and KISS during the dismissal bells.
Actually, I like Run D.M.C. But the rest of the faculty wasn't as amused.
The Necronomicon delivery was what tipped me off to the demonic nature of my enemy; it's a silly book, totally and completely unconnected with true demon-summoning, but it has the reputation required to strike fear into the hearts of P.T.A. and school board members. And from what I know about malevolent entities, it would appeal to someone with a... _perverse_ sense of humor. Principal Snyder's eyes bugged out several inches (okay, several inches more) when he saw what had been unloaded into his office during third period, inspiring him to strongly 'request' an audit of all school computer systems before the end of the day.
//Thanks a lot, whoever you are,// I grumped silently, checking over the school environmental systems program again, debugging as I went. //Enough nuisance junk that I can't find the source of the trouble--- there's got to be something! Some way to track you down, you diabolical little monster!// A mischief demon could wreak untold havoc without even trying, setting off several Rube Goldbergs of cascading mayhem at once. The news reports had confirmed what was happening on the way to work, with more break-ins and Network crashes all over the globe.
Maybe I could figure out where the problem wasn't, and work my way backward from there. I was convinced that whoever-it-was that was visiting from the Lower Depths of Bad Jokes had to have their stronghold in Sunnydale, and probably the high school. Somewhere in the school's system, there was a corner where an imp was giggling and planning new chaos while I tried to clean up the messes.
//Start with the only place that hasn't reported problems yet: the library.// I grimaced as I squared my shoulders in front of the sanctum sanctorum of Rupert Giles. //Possibly because our esteemed librarian hasn't looked at the system since it was installed...//
Giles was lecturing two of the students as I came in: "...not suggest that you illegally enter... the data into the file, so that the books would be listed by both the title and the author." Dressed in tweed and layers despite the California heat, he sounded self-conscious and guilty to me; and the looks that Buffy Summers and her friend Xander Harris exchanged when I spoke a moment later confirmed my gut instinct. //He's getting them to do all the record-keeping work for him! He's probably got Willow doing it too!//
Why they would do Giles' work for him was fairly easy to guess: given Buffy's reputation as a troublemaker, and Xander's equally widespread status as class goof, he was probably one of the only teachers in the entire school to cut them any slack. Which would have been admirable if he weren't using it as a way to wiggle out of working with the brand-new database I'd gone to so much trouble to install. Thoughts of the demon went right out the window as I slowly approached an adversary every bit as tenacious as the hypothetical demon inhabiting the Net.
"I just came by to check on the new database, make sure your cross-reference table isn't glitching... because I'm guessing _you_ haven't gone anywhere near it." I smiled sweetly at the librarian, who returned my sunny accusation with irritation flashing from behind his rimless spectacles.
"I'm still sorting through the chaos you left behind you," Giles retorted resentfully, as Xander and Buffy tried to hide identical expressions of guilt. I wondered how many classes he'd written excuse notes for in exchange for their help, then dismissed the question in favor of grilling them before they escaped.
"Hmmmm." I zeroed in on the students, pretending surprise. "You're here again? You kids really dig the library, don't you?"
"We're literary!" Buffy responded brightly with a determined smile.
Xander swallowed, his dark eyes hunted, then blurted out, "To read makes our speaking English good."
I choked back a giggle at his comment as Buffy's blue eyes widened in panic. "We'll be going now!" she jumped in, tugging on her friend's arm.
"We'll continue this discussion at another time," Giles stated in a significant manner, stuttering slightly as he emphasized the words, but his tone didn't seem to have any impact on Buffy, at least. Xander appeared to be still in shock from his own untimely comment.
"I think we're done," Buffy answered Giles in a firm voice, dragging Xander away, and muttering in an whisper that was obviously not meant to be overheard: "'To read makes our speaking English good?!'"
"I panicked, okay?" was his only response.
Giles had already distanced himself from me before the two students had exited the library. He thumbed through some of the over-sized folios, ignoring me completely, appearing oblivious of my continued presence.
I sat down at the computer and brought up the cross-reference table. "This will only take a minute. I just have to check the coding, we've been having some problems throughout the school---"
"Quite," Giles responded dryly, not even looking up from his book. "Do whatever is necessary as quickly as possible, Miss Calender. I need to complete today's research without outside interference."
I glared at him. How could a completely inoffensive sentence contain so much disdain? And how could a man who wasn't being an aggressive jerk seem to invite a smacking on the head with one of his books? I don't know how he does it; it's just a gift.
There's something about being overlooked that brings out the worst in me, especially when it's by a hidebound conservative like Giles. "Why, of course, Rupert." He stiffened at being called by his given name, and I chortled inwardly. I don't think he likes his first name... he always calls the rest of the faculty by their last names, and most of the teachers return the favor. I've never seen any reason to do so, since I happen to like my first name.
And okay, I'll admit it; I was a little gleeful at the opportunity to remind him that we were colleagues, and he couldn't dismiss me as easily as his students. "Far be it from me to show you an easier way to track down the information you're seeking. I'll just verify that everything's peachy-keen here, and leave you to do things the old-fashioned way. Sloooooow."
"Accomplishing tasks with deliberation guarantees they're being done correctly," Giles responded, sounding slightly nettled but still condescending. "I see no reason to complete sixteen new projects only to find that they must all be re-done in order to fix some 'computer error.'"
//Points to you.// I grimaced, some of my annoyance with Giles lessening as I thought of recent developments. The truth was, aside from his universal dislike for all computers, Rupert Giles was a more than adequate librarian; I don't know how he did keep all of the books organized prior to the computer system. Of course, I doubt he'd tell me if I asked....
I didn't dislike Giles personally. It was just his attitude that got to me. That head-in-the-sand, ignore-it-and-it'll-go-away reaction to computers is such an elitist position to take, especially from someone who I'd always suspected was one of the brighter members of Sunnydale's teaching staff. How could he possibly hang on to those preconceptions without even giving the new technology a chance?
"Frankly, I do not see the point of having this database, especially since the library possesses a complete card catalog, and an up-to-date periodical index---"
"Oh, you have got to be kidding me!"
"No, I am not," he peered at me over his glasses, that stuffy British voice becoming crisper by the moment. "All of the data has been present long before the invention of that calculating device---"
"Rupert, it is so much _easier_ for the students to access the library records using the database as it's set up now." I finished my double-check, pleased and angry to find that yes, it was fine; and no, Rupert Giles hadn't made a single modification to it in a week. //I know librarians who would _kill_ for a set-up like this, and he blows it off like it's an unwanted imposition on his domain....// I was starting to get steamed.
"I wasn't aware that we were here to make life easy for them." Giles closed his book and went on to another without looking up at me. "Surely we're here to force them to learn new things---"
"You're a snob." So, I lost it. Just a little. I wasn't yelling or anything, but he couldn't miss the fac that I was peeved.
"I am no such thing." Giles stood up and stalked away from his current stack of books sounding startled and defensive, which only made me happier, and set me off on a bigger tear.
"Oh, you're a big snob. You think knowledge should be kept in these carefully guarded repositories where only a handful of white guys can get at it!"
"Nonsense!" Amazingly, Rupert was actually responding to personal insults instead of ignoring me. I'd been sure that he'd stay patronizing and distant; but attacking his personality got a reaction that challenging his views didn't. "I simply don't subscribe to a knee-jerk assumption that because something is new it's better!"
Rupert was annoyed with me, but at least he wasn't blowing me off. You can reason with someone if they're willing to listen, and I finally had Giles' attention about something that really mattered to me. I can forgive a lot when I'm being given a chance to tell my side of a story. "This isn't a fad, Rupert. We're building a new society here."
I was so caught up in the specifics of the argument that I totally missed seeing what was coming. Rupert came back out of his office with the most intense expression I'd ever seen on him; more immediate attention and emotion than I'd had any clue he was capable of.
"Yes, a society in which human interaction is all but obsolete?" he challenged me, his voice stuttering a little again from high emotion. "A society where people can be completely manipulated by technology?" Giles looked very slightly ill, very, very angry, totally stubborn, and still civilized. "Well... thank you, I'll pass."
//Whoa.// You know how it is, when you realize you've made a big mistake about someone? I was blinking, just... floored. And now I couldn't give up on the fight when I'd finally made some connection to him, especially a deeply-felt one.
Of all the objections I'd thought Giles would have, I hadn't dreamed they'd be such humanistic, well-thought-out concerns about the effects of computers; especially from someone who avoided them like the plague. The cold, conservative, distant mental picture I'd had of Rupert Giles looked to be way, way off-base. //Have to keep him talking.// I couldn't for the life of me remember what my next point had been, so I settled for, "Well. I think you'll be very happy here with your musty old books." I tried to re-group and come up with a better comeback while perching on the table next to some of the new volumes and flipping through them idly, hoping for inspiration.
"These musty old books have a great deal more to say than any of your 'fabulous web pages'." Rupert was back to sounding resentful as he paged through some of the newer books; and the glare he sent me was full of dislike. Great.
"This one doesn't have a whole lot to say. What is it, like a diary?" I asked, not wanting him to walk away, needing to keep his attention. Even with such a lame distraction as a blank book; besides, I was genuinely curious---it was pretty old to have been kept untouched for as long as it had been.
I hate losing fights. Especially when I'm right. Especially when I finally find someone who's willing to fight back.
Giles frowned, seeming perplexed. "How odd." He blinked, gathering his dignity as he took the folio from me. "I haven't looked through all the new volumes.. umm... yet..." He flipped through it a moment, then closed the book and looked at the cover---and that was when I saw the worry and fear freeze his expression, his eyes fixed on the unfamiliar script on the front.
"What is it?"
I swear, he barely knew I was still in the room. "Nothing. A diary... yes. I imagine that's what it is." I stared at him, but Rupert completely missed it; he was already gone, and I continued to stare as he just turned away from me and walked toward his inner office, taking the book with him. "Well, it's been so nice talking with you." All the impassioned interest was gone, and his voice had become neutral, pleasant and polite again.
"We were fighting," I reminded him, caught between amusement and total confusion at his about-face.
"Must do it again sometime. Bye now," Giles called over his shoulder.
//What was that?// I stood gaping like an idiot at the door he'd retreated through, trying to figure out if Rupert just didn't like losing arguments, or if he'd been embarrassed, or if the book had reminded him of something he had to do, or.... //I don't believe this!//
I gave up in frustration, abruptly remembering that I'd had another purpose when I'd entered the library: to check on the reference table, and find some trace of the demon. I left the library with renewed purpose, and put all thoughts of Rupert Giles and his weird behavior out of my head... after some effort. //How could I be so wrong about him? Why did I buy into that uptight Brit routine, and totally miss the rest of it?... Later. Things to figure out later, Nikki. Now we have to deal with a demon.//
It got worse; the demon had gotten into the school medical files, and monkeyed with the allergy records. Two kids were down sick because of misapplied medication by the end of the day. Several parents were contacted, given false alarms about their kids, scared out of their minds for no reason when the phone system acted up again. And the Art Department had to be evacuated when the sprinkler system went off, ruining several months worth of the junior class's work and flooding the basement.
Worse, I couldn't find Dave, or Willow, or Fritz; I'd been too busy all day to have half a second to talk to them, maybe find out more about what they'd been doing the last week or so. I had a horrible suspicion that one of my students might have started this whole thing by accident. How, I had no idea; but it fit in with their strange behavior of the last few days... and the omens I didn't want to read in their candles.
By the time I got home that night I was exhausted. Henry V stubbornly refused to reboot, so I cast bones over and over again on the laptop.... getting darker and darker portents every time. I couldn't think of a damn thing to do. It was the most horrible, helpless feeling----
And then Dave's candle went out.
"Oh, no. No, please---" I tried to re-light it, but every time I did the wick would burn my fingers, and the smoke from Fritz's candle would smother the light... I sat down, sick at heart, unable to believe that what I was seeing could possibly be true. Willow's candle was slowly guttering in a non-existent breeze too, while Fritz's blazed higher and higher.... I ignored my ringing phone, swallowing back tears and anger. Putting out Fritz's candle wouldn't save Willow; it was just a symbol, as Dave's had been, until it was snuffed out. What was going on? //Goddess---// The answering machine finally kicked in.
"Miss Calender? Miss Calender, are you there? This is Mr Giles." I closed my eyes, listening to Rupert's cut-crystal accent with weary disinterest. "I'm afraid---I have an emergency on the computer here. It's... rather terribly urgent." I stood up slowly, blinking at the candlelight, remembering Cameo's cards: Hierophant. Justice. Page of Wands. //What if they were right?// Hope started to rise again as I listened to Rupert's voice. "Could you please come to the school as soon as you get this? I'll be in my office." A pause, then, with a note of desperation, "Please hurry."
The bones still said struggle, hail, destiny, thorn; maybe Giles had some of the answers I'd need, to cut through the hedge....
There was no sign of a worried Brit in the main stacks, but I could hear the radio in the office when I entered the library. I rapped lightly on the heavy oak door as I walked in. "Hi. I got your message. What's so urgent?"
Giles was at his desk, one lamp casting a dim glow around the stacks of papers and books, but he hurriedly stood and turned off the radio when I entered, leaning back against his desk and seeming flustered as I shut the door. "Ahhh... thank you for coming. Um... I need your help." I blinked both at the bald statement of fact and at the anxious, desperate manner in which he uttered it. No more pride here; Rupert was way too keyed up to care about either that or his professional image. His expression begged me for understanding as he stuttered on. "But before that, um... I need you to believe something that, um... you may not want to." It was almost painful to watch him try to work up the nerve to explain. "Uhhhmmm, something's got into the um... inside, ummm...." He visibly braced himself for my reaction, then blurted out, "There's a demon in the Internet."
"I know," I said, trying to calm him down with matter-of-fact acceptance of his statement. //The cards were right... and so was my first reaction. I should have trusted my gut instinct---//
"You already know ... Uhm. How exactly is that?" Stunned disbelief combined with defensiveness and something like fear to put Giles even more on edge than he'd been when I walked in. He was watching me like he was afraid I was going to attack, or laugh, or suddenly cast a spell; I'd have loved to know how he knew what was going on, but there wasn't time for that. I had to get him calm enough to explain the problem, and he wasn't going to until he believed that I believed him.
"C'mon, there've been portents for days. I mean, power surges, on-line shut-downs.... You should see the bones I've been casting." I sighed in frustration, wishing I'd shared my information with him two days ago, after the Tarot reading at Cameo's. "I knew this would happen sooner or later. I mean it's probably a mischief demon, you know, like Kelkor or---"
"It's Moloch." Giles' voice was very low as he turned away from me, his face hidden in the shadows.
"The Corrupter?" I felt like I'd taken a punch to the gut. Mischief demon? Was that what I'd thought this might be? That would've been a piece of cake compared to one of the oldest and most seductive diabolicols in the Netherworld. "Oh boy. I should've remembered, I just didn't---" //He's gotten to Fritz, and Dave, and maybe Willow,// I realized. //That's why they've been so weird---oh, God, oh Goddess---//
"You don't seem exactly surprised by all... Who are you?" The almost accusatory tone in which Rupert asked this had me blinking again, slightly amused and distracted from thoughts of Moloch.
"I teach computer science at the local high school," I reminded him. What, was he expecting me to be the Queen of Faerie?
"A profession that hardly lends itself to the casting of bones." Giles had backed into a corner was watching me narrowly, clearly not convinced that I was on his side yet. His face was hard to read, light reflecting off the lenses of his glasses and hiding his eyes.
I snorted. "Wrong and wrong, Snobby. You think the realm of the mystical is limited to ancient texts and relics? Did bad old Science make the magic go away?" A little laugh escaped me, part exasperation, part pity for his obtuseness. "The divine exists in cyberspace, same as out here."
"Are you a witch?" He leaned forward, the fear still present but mixed with fascination.
I shook my head. "I don't have that kind of power. Technopagan is the term." Shrugging, I smiled a very little bit, feeling self-conscious, watching his reaction carefully. It wasn't exactly the sort of thing I told everyone; I could just imagine Principal Snyder's reaction, if he knew. Hopefully Giles would keep it to himself. If he didn't weird out on me now, we might be able to get through this.... "There are more of us than you think."
Giles swallowed, and his face cleared into relief bordering on delight. "Well, umm, you can definitely help me. Uhm... what's in cyberspace at the moment is less than divine." He'd gathered up several books and was hurrying out into the main library, holding the door for me for a second then striding urgently over to the computer. "I have the binding rituals at hand, but I'm completely out of my idiom."
"Well, I can help. I think. Well, this is my first real--- Do you know how he got in?" I was feeling a little panicked as it hit me that we were about to do a real live major-league spellcasting against one of the Top Ten Demons Not to Invite to Dinner. //And where did he get binding rituals, anyway?// Something to freak about later, that Rupert Giles, who'd I'd pegged as a materialist skeptic without a second thought, not only believed in demons but knew how to banish them.
"He was ... scanned, I believe is the term." The dry tone wasn't insulting or combative, at least not when leavened with the ironic glance he shot me.
I rolled my eyes at the gibe, then asked, "And you want him back in the book?"
Before Giles could answer, the phone rang, and he turned to answer it before it rang a second time. "Buffy?" I blinked, trying to figure out why Buffy would be calling--and then my unarticulated question was answered before I completed it. "Willow?" //Dave. Fritz. Willow? What's happening---// "Where are you?" I booted up the computer, biting my lip to keep from interrupting. "Miss Calender and I are working to get Moloch off-line." A pause, and then Rupert hung up without saying good-bye, and hurried back over to my side.
"What's up with Buffy and Willow?" I asked, pulling up the chat program and checking to see if I was setting off any electronic trip wires. Nothing objected; which was good. Moloch was too cocky, or too inexperienced with some portions of cyberspace to have realized what could still be done to bind him.
"Willow's disappeared." My fingers froze on the keyboard at Rupert's strained tone, and I looked up to see him fighting to hide tense worry from me, and not succeeding very well. "Apparently Moloch has been masquerading as Malcolm, her on-line pen-pal---"
"Oh, no..." //She'll be devastated when she finds out... But what could have happened to her?//
Giles was still speaking, his voice sounding tight and unhappy. "Buffy and Xander are at CRD, where Fritz and ... Dave, were working. We believe Willow may be there, possibly against her will." He took off his glasses and polished them, then put them back on, gripping the back of my chair as his voice softened. "I should tell you---I'm very sorry to have to be the one to tell you... David is dead. Buffy found his body in the computer room less than an hour ago, which precipitated our search for Willow."
I stared numbly at the computer screen as it accessed the program I needed, feeling like I'd failed Dave somehow. Even knowing what I was up against didn't help. Moloch had been corrupting and killing for a millenia; Dave would be far from his first victim. But it still hurt to know that the fortune I'd guessed from Dave's flame was true; and that the shy kid with the brilliant insights was gone. "How?" I whispered.
"It's possible that one of the employees at CRD killed him... it looked like a suicide, but a rather unconvincing one." //Or Fritz? It would have been easier for him...// I wondered bleakly, remembering the hints he'd dropped that week as I could feel myself droop with grief and pain. The hand gripping the back of my chair was suddenly laid comfortingly on my shoulder, and I swallowed and nodded my understanding, strangely reassured by so small a gesture. I looked up at Rupert and forced a grim smile. At least neither of us were in this alone.
"Then we'd better get to work." I turned back to the computer, blinking hard. "We don't want Willow to be next, do we?"
"Exactly." He squeezed my shoulder briefly, then walked away, opening drawers in one of the cabinets and taking out several handfuls of white candles, along with two small butane lighters. I finished setting up the program, then moved to help him form the pattern we needed. I still had a lot of questions---like why Buffy and Xander were off trying to retrieve Willow; how they'd put the pieces together to form Moloch---but it didn't matter. I could feel the time slipping away from us as we placed the last of the candles and I returned to the computer. Willow, Buffy and Xander were counting on us. Explanations could wait.
"The first thing we have to do is form the Circle of Kayless. Right?"
"Circle... but there's only two of us. It's really more of a line." It really was a good thing that Giles had asked for my help. 'Out of his idiom' was, in this case, just another British understatement.
"You're not getting it, Rupert," I said patiently. "We have to form the Circle inside. I'm putting out a flash, I just hope enough of my group responds."
"Won't Moloch just shut you down?"
Valid question. But not one I wanted to think about. "I'm betting he won't notice until it's too late."
"Hoping and betting, is that what we're reduced to..." Rupert's tone was approaching despair. He was nearly frantic in a restrained, British way that I hadn't expected and couldn't blame him for; the fear in his face made me think of Willow again, and what Moloch usually did to those who disappointed or rejected him.
Anxiety made my voice a little sharper than I meant it to be. "You want to throw in praying? Be my guest."
Answers were coming back from my group, and I let out a silent breath of relief. Julio in Mexico City, Catherine in San Diego, Petra in Hawaii, Fox in Vancouver, and Kiki in Denver were all up and willing to enact the ceremony; more, they were willing to do it without asking why. //I love you guys... // I started the link to CRD and between my fellow Circle members, and set up the chat board. "Almost there."
"Couldn't you just upload a computer virus?" Giles asked hopefully.
//Giles, we have got to talk about a beginner's class for you...// "You've seen way too many movies." A couple more commands and squared my shoulders. "Okay, we're up. You read, I type. Ready?"
"Oh! Yes. I am..." He opened the book, and read the first phrase of the invocation. "By the power of the Divine; by the Essence of the Word; I command you."
Something - a sharpening of attention, or an intensifying of perception - immediately kicked in as I started to type. I could feel it, the magic, in a way I'd never felt or heard or sensed it before. With every word, it grew in strength, started to shape itself in the air around me, in Giles's voice, and became centered on the computer. I forced my fingers not to tremble as I fed the keyboard the commands while Rupert's voice continued.
"By the Power of the Circle of Kayless, I command you." Giles looked over my shoulder and diffidently pointed out, "That's Kayless with a K." I nodded and backspaced even as I frivolously wondered about Klingon connections to the underworld. //Later. Freaking is for later. Type, Nikki. Type.//
"Demon, come!" Maybe it was my imagination, or maybe it was the rising tide of magic, but Giles's voice was sounding clearer, more vivid by the second. I could actually feel the power building in the room as my group repeated the commands, and each time the librarian spoke a new phrase his confidence and sense of authority seemed to increase. It was more than a little scary; and if I hadn't been so busy typing, I would have been gaping at the new Giles in total awe-struck stupefication. "I command you!"
Tension crackling through the room, my fingers flying as fast as they could----hurry, hurry, hurry, have to save Willow, can't let her be lost like Dave, like Fritz, c'mon, c'mon, c'mon----
No one, no entity in this world, could refuse that command. I hit the ENTER key, and the gathering force exploded. A howling wind whipped through the library, and lights flickered on and off as an electronic scream--- unholy, inhuman, and terrifying--- rose from the computer, reaching an ear-shattering pitch as Giles joined me next to the terminal. "Whoa!" Sparks flew out of the monitor and smoke curled upward, with a smell that was stronger than that simply of fried circuitry. I gulped. //Damn. Now, that's what I call impressive....//
The power dissipated; the wind died down, the lights steadied, and the computer stayed very, very dead. "He's out of the Net. He's bound."
Giles picked up the old volume and paged through it, his face a study of worry and confusion. "He's not in the book."
Blinking, I joined him to stare at the blank pages. "He's not in the book." I shivered, glancing around the library, wondering what had gone wrong. "Where is he?" I only had to look in Giles's eyes to realize that he had no idea, either.
"I'm afraid..." Giles rubbed his eyes, took off his glasses again, then let out a long breath. "That it's now up to Buffy and Xander. And Willow." He looked at me bleakly, and slowly put the book down on the library table with shaky fingers.
Ten minutes after Moloch's last shriek had echoed through the library, Giles and I were still trying to figure out what to do next. Well, okay, so, it was more like fighting than actually trying to agree on anything. Rupert wanted to drive straight over to CRD and find the kids, while I was trying to persuade him that calling in the police would be a good idea about then. He would have left immediately if I hadn't been sitting on the car keys he was searching for; and I would have already notified the authorities, if Giles hadn't taken the receiver cord off the phone and stuffed it in his pocket.
When the phone finally rang, he had to fish the cord out of his jacket pocket and reconnect it, looking somewhat chagrined, before he could answer the call. "Yes?" His eyes closed and he smiled in relief, and I sagged bonelessly, not needing to hear anything more to know they were all okay. "Splendid. We're very glad to hear that. Is Willow...." He frowned, nodding, glanced at me and looked away, his lips setting into a resigned line, then said, "I think that is the best course of action. We'll wait for you here.... Yes. Tell Willow we're relieved she's well... Good-bye."
I ran trembling fingers through my hair, and smiled a little giddily at the librarian as he hung up the phone. "They're really okay?"
"I didn't get a great deal of information---Buffy tends to be rather minimalist in her phone conversation skills---but I gather that all three of them are out of danger, and Moloch has been neutralized, at least for the time being. Buffy will be here shortly to clear up the last details." Giles sank into one of the library chairs, weariness and the remnants of worry giving his face an unfocused expression. "Xander will be staying with Willow until her parents return from the theatre, as moral support. None of them were physically hurt, but I can't imagine that she's not... umm, upset."
"For starters," I commented, not having the energy to needle him any further. Poor Willow. She'd been so thrilled to have an admirer, and to have him turn out to be a demon... well, it was definitely going to mess with her head. I made a mental note to keep an eye on her for the next few days, possibly offer her some discreet moral support as the furor died down. Which reminded me of Dave; and all the grief to come for his parents when they found out he was dead. "Did any of you contact the police about Dave, yet?"
"Umm... no. We were rather busy---" Giles said apologetically.
"It's okay, I know, I wasn't criticizing," I interrupted, waving his explanation away. "I was just thinking that maybe I should be the one to call it in and deal with the police's questions. The students have been through enough already, and there's no reason why you would be looking for him. Where is he, again?" I swallowed hard, steeling myself for the sight of Dave's lifeless body.
"The computer lab. He's been hanged. We should probably wait until after Buffy has left before we call the authorities." Rupert shot me a grave look, then said quietly, "I'll go with you, and stay until the police arrive. There's no reason you should have to do this alone."
I opened my mouth to object, then nodded without speaking, grateful and surprised again by Giles's unexpected perception. I'd liked Dave; had hoped for good things for him... and now all those hopes had been cut off.
We didn't speak again until Buffy arrived, both of us withdrawing a little to try and deal with what had happened, I think. I know I was startled when the library doors were pushed open, to reveal Buffy Summers carrying what first appeared to be a metallic box.
"Whoa," I muttered when she dropped it on the table. It wasn't a box, it was a head; made of sheet metal, with wiring trailing from where the neck should be, and two flickering LED lights for eyes---and curling horns. "Is that what I think it is?"
"Good... heavens." Giles looked ill. "Moloch?"
"What's left of him," Buffy said, perching on the table next to the gruesome trophy. "He had the zomboids at CRD make him a robot body, and when you guys finished the ritual---you have absolutely awesome timing, did I mention that?---he got stuck in it. Didn't exactly make his day." She swung her legs nonchalantly, smiling at the two of us, much less bothered by the bizarre circumstances than either of the adults in the room, from what I could see.
"So how did you get the head?" I asked, my fingers reaching out toward it. I couldn't force myself to touch it; there was still something vaguely malevolent about that dead-eyed gaze.
"Well, he kinda lost it when he realized he was bound in the body, and not in cyberspace anymore. So he was trying to kill the three of us---" Giles made a sound of distress, halfway between a cough and groan, and Buffy swiftly turned to reassure him, shooting me an uncomfortable look in the process. "It's cool, Mr. Giles. Really! Nobody got hurt, and Willow even got in some good shots at him; remind me not to get her mad at _me_." She grinned, then grimaced at the head. "But he was so freaked that he didn't really look where he was punching, and when he was swinging at me he missed and hit a fuse box. Completely whacked out his circuits. You should've seen it, Giles, sparks and fireworks and the whole body just came apart like exploding Legos! It was great."
"I'm glad to hear it." Rupert crossed his arms, some of the stuffiness coming back into his manner; but it still couldn't disguise how relieved he was. I found myself grinning at him too, now that I knew his pompousity was at least partly an act. He hadn't even corrected Buffy's slip into the casual use of his last name; I guessed that he'd given up trying at some point in the past. "But perhaps you'll explain why you brought us the head?"
"It gave me the creeps." At the librarian's raised eyebrows, Buffy rolled her eyes, her voice becoming extremely patient. "Look, I didn't think bringing the whole body would be a good idea, and the voicebox was on the torso part, but... I was wondering..." She stared nervously at the android head sitting next to her. "I was wondering if he was still in there, maybe."
Giles blinked once, twice, then his gaze sharpened on the remains of Moloch. "Yes, of course. Excellent work, Buffy."
"Very excellent work," I added, impressed that she'd thought of it. "You're right. Since demons can't be destroyed---"
"No." The Brit was paging through his book of rituals again, his voice grim. "They can only be banished from our world, or bound. And since banishment takes considerably more power and knowledge than we have available to us, our only recourse is to bind him. At least until I can find a reliable banishing ceremony." He drew a deep breath of relief. "Yes. Quite. Now we can bind it back into the book."
"Are you sure that's a smart idea?"
"We can't leave it in this form, Miss Calender. I think you'll agree that there's still some risk---suppose one of his minions from CRD decided to try to reassemble him?"
"Good point," I murmured. I picked up one of the lighters and began lighting the candles again. We really didn't have any options. It wasn't the best solution, but it was better than leaving Moloch as a decorative doorstop. "What happened to all of them, anyway?"
"Well, Xander and I... kinda took care of some of them." I stared at Buffy's petite form, then remembered her reputation, and suddenly wondered exactly how much of it was only rumor. "They'll be waking up around now, I guess. But CRD's a mess, and with Moloch gone I don't think they'll know what to do right away." She looked at me for a second, then at Giles, and said tentatively, "Fritz, though... Willow said Moloch killed him, to make some point. She wasn't really clear about it, she was pretty shook up...."
I stared at the lifeless head, wishing I could inflict some pain on it, wishing that there was more I could do to exact justice. "Poor Fritz," I whispered. "Never had a clue about real life. I know he might have been the one to kill Dave, but..." I shook my head. "He never had a chance." I looked up to surprise an expression of sympathy on Rupert's face, and I forced a small smile. "How is Willow coping with this?"
"She'll be okay," Buffy said. "She's stronger than she looks, you know. And Xander's with her; he'll help her deal. I think she was feeling more humiliated that she got fooled by Malcolm than anything else. She was too mad to stay scared the whole time."
"Well, that's something."
"She had a very close call," Giles observed soberly. "But in time, she will recover. For now, we have to make certain that Moloch can't cause any future harm. I'll keep the book under lock and key in my office, until I can find an alternative." He rubbed at his eyes, looking exhausted. "We'll need to re-enact the binding ceremony---it's fortunate that you're here, Buffy. The Circle requires no less than three people to be effective, so I'm afraid you'll have to participate."
"Cool. Let's do it." Buffy was amazingly calm about all of this. I couldn't decide if it was teen-age resilience or innate strength of character, but I resolved never to underestimate Willow's friend again. She might not be passing all of her classes, but Buffy Summers kept cooler in a crisis in a way that you would expect of someone years older.
We formed the Circle of Kayless again, with Giles leading the ceremony as before. The magician qualities about Giles seemed more muted this time, but they were still there, jarring at all my preconceptions of him one more time. Power gathered in the room slowly, the candles flickered, the eyes of the head seemed to glow, the wind started screaming--- then ZAP!
Darkness abruptly rose from the metal cranium, swirling through the room briefly, until it was sucked into the book. As we watched, characters and then words were forming on the page... filling up the folio faster and faster, until all the candles went out simultaneously, and the wind died down. The chilling sense of presence was gone, utterly and completely. Giles shut the book very carefully, then collapsed against the table. "I'm glad that's over... it takes a lot out of one." His voice was husky with fatigue, and Buffy patted him on the shoulder.
"Get some rest, Giles. You too, Miss Calender. I'm going back over to Willow's. Call us there if anything comes up, okay?"
"Yes, of course. Thank you again, Buffy. Give Willow our regards."
Buffy was still energetic enough to nearly skip out of the library as she left. //Oh, to be young and bright and fearless.// I joined Giles at the table, feeling like I needed about twenty-four hours of sleep and a hot shower to feel human again. But there was still Dave's death to be dealt with, and all the police procedures that went with it. "What a night."
"Miss Calender, your help has been invaluable."
"No sweat." I patted him on the shoulder, as Buffy had done.
"Perhaps not. But I... I owe you an apology, I think, for my attitude earlier this week, and the most heartfelt thanks for your assistance in this matter." Giles really does have a sweet smile, especially when he's being sincere. "I can honestly say I couldn't have done it without you."
Shrugging, I smiled back, feeling really self-conscious with him looking at me like that. "You're welcome. Are you going to explain about how you knew what was going on?"
"Oh. Um...." Flustered again, Giles started stammering as he stood up, gathering some of the books together. "Well, you see, I recognized the book---"
"Could we discuss this at another time?" The genuinely worn expression and pleading tone wouldn't have put me off, if it weren't for the fact that I was too tired to pursue it. Besides. It's not like I'm not going to get it out of Rupert someday....
"Okay. Another time, when you're not so trashed."
"Indeed." He finished cleaning up the books, put the Moloch volume in his office, then locked the office doors and ushered me out of the library, turning off the lights as we exited... then we slowly turned to walk toward the computer lab.
The next day couldn't actually be called typical; there was a teacher's meeting to discuss Dave's "suicide" and the discovery of Fritz's body in a ditch just outside of town. Giles and I avoided looking each other in the eye as the details were discussed and theories put forth. Principal Snyder was predictably unhappy about all of it. I kept my mouth shut, except to mention that both had been working at CRD. A fire at their main research lab had destroyed half the site, and a handful of workers had disappeared at the same time. The police were as satisfied as they could be, having decided that Dave and Fritz had run across something illegal at the lab and were possibly killed because of it. I was glad that the police hadn't believed Dave's death was a suicide, either; at least his parents didn't have to cope with that kind of guilt.
The Net had settled down again, with only routine glitches and problems occurring since Moloch's binding. It was relief on a cosmic scale for me to realize that he was gone, to know he wasn't contaminating and corrupting other systems---and people. I'd called Cameo the night before, told her what had happened, then booted up Henry to find he was in perfect shape again. I had to explain some of what happened to my group, all of whom were praising me more than I deserved for helping rid the Net of the interloper.
Willow wasn't in lab that morning, but she did make it to her afternoon class, where she thanked me for helping out Mr. Giles with the "virus" in the library system. She didn't seem to want to talk about Malcolm/Moloch, or Dave, and I didn't push her. Seeing her sad eyes and muted enthusiasm gave me a pang of sympathy for her, and anger toward Moloch, even though he was still bound. I told her that if she wanted to talk, I'd be willing to listen, and she smiled shyly before shaking her head. I was glad to see Buffy and Xander waiting outside of class for her, obviously looking out for their friend, and hoped that time would erase most of the bad memories.
It wasn't until nearly the end of the day that I saw Giles alone again. "Well, look who's here." I smiled, pleased to see him hovering in my doorway. "Welcome to my world. You scared?" I asked challengingly, noting the nervous glances he kept shooting at the computers.
"I'm... remaining calm, thank you. I just wanted to return this." He held out one of my corkscrew dangles, smiling ironically, but without the former edge of combativeness that had been between us. "I found it among the new books, and naturally, I thought of you."
"Cool. Thanks." I took it and grinned at him, noticing that he seemed to have become a lot more attractive since the night before. Or maybe it was just that without the usual irritation he'd inspired, I could see what had always been there.
"Well, I'll see you anon." Giles started backing towards the door, mission accomplished, ready to escape.
"Can't get out of here fast enough, can you?"
He stopped, then sighed. "Truthfully? I'm even less anxious to be around computers than usual."
"Well, it was your book that started all the trouble, not a computer." Giles looked away, slightly rueful. I sharpened my attention on him, wanting a straight answer for once. "Honestly, what is it about them that bothers you so much?"
He pondered for a moment, then firmly said, "The smell."
"Computers don't smell, Rupert."
"I know." He took off his glasses, getting caught up in verbalizing his thoughts, stuttering a little with the same enthusiasm I'd surprised out of him when we'd talked about computers before. "Smell is one of the most powerful triggers to memory there is. A flower, or whiff of smoke, can bring up experiences long forgotten. Books smell.... Musty, and rich.... Knowledge gained from a computer has no texture, no context! It's there, and then it's gone." Giles grimaced, then shook his head with determination. "If it's to last, the getting of knowledge should be tangible. It should be... smelly."
I'd never noticed what a great voice he had before, either. "Well, you really are an old-fashioned boy, aren't you?"
He put his glasses back on, a little embarassed, but definitely amused, smiling at me wryly. "Well I don't dangle a corkscrew from my ear, if that's what you mean."
Okay, so I'm evil. Sue me.
"That's... not where I dangle it." I said with a completely straight face, then turned away to hide my smile.
Priceless. The look on his face, the glimpse I caught of it anyway, all British and stunned and fascinated... absolutely priceless.
Rupert can have whatever secrets he wants. But I'm just going to keep him wondering about mine....
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