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Monico Episode Seven: Sink or Swim

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  • Monico Episode Seven: Sink or Swim

    Episode Seven:
    Sink or Swim

    Disclaimer: All characters belong to me except for Oz, who belongs to Joss Whedon and sundry other bods.
    Feedback: Highly desirable, as always. Please let me know what works and what doesn't, where I'm going right and where I'm going wrong.

    Previously, in Tales from the Monico:

    Mike: "I just?I want to keep an eye on the place."
    Mat (shaking his head in mock dismay): "Can you say paranoia?"
    Mike: "Well, you explain it then. All the weird stuff that happens around that place."

    The gang fight off a roomful of vampires, then stand around staring warily at each other.

    Oz: "It's all about trust. That's why secrets are kept. You have to decide: do you trust these people to deal with the truth if you tell them? And, are you prepared to handle the rejection if they can't?"
    David: "It ends here. No more secrets."

    Oz: "I'll go first. My name is Daniel Osbourne, and I'm a werewolf? I don't change. Not any more. I can hold it in."
    Elli: "My name is Eleris Talvalin, and? I don't actually come from this world at all."
    Charlie: "My name is Charlie Stafford, and?I think I'm mostly just a perfectly normal person. Except that I can do, well, this." (She floats a table in the air.)

    Emma: "It's really creepy."
    David: "He's still Oz. Same guy he always was. And Elli is still Elli."
    Emma: "And Charlie is still Charlie. I know that. And it's still creepy."

    Oz: "Funny thing the other week. Met a girl called Linda, said she'd got my name from you."
    Mr Mainwaring: "Ah, yes. The sad little girl with the vampire problem. You didn't mind, did you?"
    : "Only I don't think fighting evil is necessarily one of my strengths."

    Elli shows Oz a newspaper report about a werewolf running loose in town.
    Oz: "It wasn't me."
    Elli: "I know that, idiot. I just thought you'd want to know."

    Elli: "What have you got against Mike and Mat? You get? jittery every time they're around."
    Oz: "Have you ever heard of the Initiative? ? It's the uniforms. I see them, and it's like ? just for a second, something inside me remembers. Waking up and seeing the soldiers, and?then the rest."

    Emma: "You think the hunter might come back here?"
    Elli: "He darted Oz for a reason. I can't see him giving up just because the first try didn't work."

    : "What happened?"
    Voice Over as images show: Oz getting darted with the drug, and just barely making it to the cellar before he changes. Mike opening the door and shooting when the werewolf jumps at him.
    Emma: "The hunter came back. He shot Oz through the window with one of those darty things?He got himself to the cellar before he changed."
    Charlie: "But then Mike came and shot him."

    Elli watches as the dead werewolf revives at moonrise.

    Elli: "I wasn't sure. But I hoped. I thought ? isn't it only silver that kills them?"




    "You've gotta admit, it's kinda freaky."

    "Yeah, okay," Mat gave in to his partner's badgering. "I've got to admit: it's kinda freaky. What I don't know is what you expect me to do about it. You know what would happen if we fronted at the station and said the word 'supernatural' in connection to a case? And if they thought we were serious about it? We'd be laughed out of the department!"

    "I know." Mike scowled at the pavement in front of their stationary patrol car, not meeting Mat's eyes.

    Mat sighed, and glanced sideways at the derelict warehouse they'd so recently vacated at high speed, the contents of which they'd agreed were so freaky. "A couple weeks ago we'd have thought we were crazy for thinking this could be for real."

    "Yeah, tell me about it," Mike grunted, looking discomfited. Mat could hardly blame him for that ? their recent discovery of actual supernatural events right here in the real world had come as a shock to them both. Or maybe the word 'shock' was too much of an understatement. But it had been far rougher on his partner, who'd been at the sharp end, as it were. Police training had not prepared them for anything like this.

    That memory brought Mat to an unwelcome conclusion about the case that was worrying them both so much, as he suddenly realised who might be able to offer some insight into their problem. "You know who'd be able to tell us for sure if this is for real," he suggested, cautiously.

    "No." Mike shook his head firmly. "We're not going to them. I can't."

    "Aw, come on, Mike," Mat protested. "We talked it all through with them. It was fine. They were all fine ? no hard feelings."

    "It's a case," Mike said, firmly. "We're not discussing a case with civilians."

    Mat understood how Mike felt, he really did ? their last visit to the Monico Coffee Bar had become so?dramatic, for want of a better word. It had irrevocably changed the way they looked at the world. It had also left Mike horribly shaken, appalled at his own actions and motivations.

    "You've shot people before," he said quietly, wondering even as he spoke just why he was attempting this conversation, again. They'd been through this before. For better or for worse, guns were part of every officer's daily life. They'd both been forced to kill in the line of duty, more than once ? it was always upsetting if you let yourself think about it, but even Mike didn't usually agonise over it like this.

    "Criminals," Mike replied, so softly Mat could barely hear him. "If I had to. Not perfectly innocent bystanders doing nothing wrong in their own homes."

    "You didn't know?" Mat broke off, frustrated.

    "I panicked," Mike confessed, turning to him. "I remembered the reports about animal attacks and I panicked."

    "You didn't know," Mat repeated firmly. "A wild animal jumped at you and you fired. Self defence. You didn't know it was Oz. There's no way you could've?"

    "God. Werewolves," Mike snorted, bitterly. "Who'd have believed it? And I shot the wrong one."


  • #2

    Part One


    Mike refused to go with Mat to the Monico to ask for advice about potentially supernaturally oriented events. The two police officers hadn't set foot in the caf? since that night, the night after Mike had shot and killed a wild animal that had turned out to be the Monico's barman, Oz. Who just happened to be a werewolf. Not the werewolf that had been running riot all over town, moreover ? that one had been killed by someone else entirely. No, the werewolf Mike had shot was completely innocent, minding his own business and safely locked up out of harm's way until Mike had blundered along and opened the door. Hence the funk he'd been in ever since.

    And then they'd gone back looking for answers the following night and found Oz alive once more, if not exactly well. Werewolves mostly only stay dead if the weapon is made of silver, they'd been told. Incredible.

    They'd stayed for a while and asked questions, which had been answered fairly openly, too, revealing some absolutely mind-blowing information about how the world really worked. And then they'd gone away, and hadn't gone back, and the longer they left it, the harder it was to just pop back in as if nothing had happened.

    Except that now there was this case, and they were stumped, and Mat didn't know who else to ask for advice. If it really was something supernatural, and not just kids messing around?Well, who else was likely to know about anything like that? Who else could he ask?

    Mat pushed the door open to go into the caf?, and then stopped dead. It had only been what ? two, three weeks? He hadn't expected to see Oz himself pottering around behind the bar, his red head gleaming in the afternoon light. Just how quickly could a werewolf recover from a fatal shooting?

    But it was too late to back out now. Oz had seen him, and he still needed advice.

    Mat took a deep breath and approached the bar, steeling himself for any potential reaction. It was impossible to tell from Oz's neutral expression how he felt about Mat's presence, and the officer was suddenly lost for words, unsure how to begin.

    "I, I didn't realise you were back at work," he began, weakly.

    "Oh, light duties only," Oz solemnly assured him. "I'm all about the quiet life these days."

    "I was hoping to speak to you," Mat explained. "Or, not so much you as one of the others. Any of you really, it didn't matter who, but one of you. Any one?" He trailed off as he realised that he was beginning to blather.

    "We are entirely interchangeable," Oz agreed.

    Mat could never tell if Oz was being serious or not. He had the best poker face he'd ever seen.

    "Everything okay?" David appeared behind Oz, his dark head looming almost a foot above the younger man. He gave Mat a cautious nod of greeting.

    "Everything's fine," Oz told him, regarding Mat steadily with impassive eyes.

    "Haven't seen you in here for a while," David remarked lightly, although his expression remained cautious. "Mike either. Almost think you were avoiding the place ? Shanei's taking it personally, you know."

    "Those two have had more fights than dates," Mat snorted, suddenly amused at the reminder of his partner's 'relationship' ? if you could call it that ? with the fiery waitress. The ice broken, he leaned on the bar and looked at the other two seriously. "I need some advice," he explained.

    "From us?" David asked, looking amazed.

    "From you, yes," Mat nodded. "Figured you'd be the ones to ask about this."

    "What's up?" asked a voice at his elbow. Turning to see who it was, he found Charlie standing beside him, looking at him curiously with expressive brown eyes. Her ginger curls looked slightly tamer today than usual, although a few wisps had escaped from a ponytail to frame her narrow face. He'd never really noticed before how pretty she was, but he'd been more than impressed by the fire of her temper the last time they met, even when it was directed at him. There were books, pens and notepads that could only be hers strewn all across a nearby table, and Mat wondered if David and Emma had ever considered charging her rent, if she spent every day studying here.

    "It's?" Already feeling uneasy and now further disarmed by Charlie's inquisitive gaze and Oz's calm, Mat hesitated, unsure how to explain the problem now that he'd started. It sounded so ridiculous to seriously suggest a supernatural angle ? even now he knew it was possible. But then, Oz was an actual werewolf, and Mat had seen Charlie throw a man across the room just by looking at him, which was a fairly awesome thing to be able to do ?it almost took his breath away just thinking about it. So they were hardly going to laugh at the suggestion, were they?

    "I need some advice," he admitted at last. "About a case. Something?supernatural. I think."

    There. He'd said it. And no one was laughing.

    "Is it a ghost?" David asked, perfectly serious. "We can do ghosts."

    Ghost was not an angle Mat had considered. He thought about it for a moment. "I don't think so," he decided. "Something?else."


    Earlier that day, Mat explained, he and Mike had gone to check out an abandoned warehouse after a passer-by reported strange noises and lights. The place had been deserted by the time they arrived, but they'd been puzzled by what they found inside: strange markings painted on the floor, painted with what they were fairly sure was actual blood, although whether human or animal was debatable. Animal bones and teeth had been carefully arranged around and inside the symbols, he explained, carefully sketching from memory on the back of a menu how it had all looked, and the ground all around them was scorched, the air unnaturally warm.

    All this was decidedly bizarre, but even so they might still have dismissed it as kids messing around playing at 'black magic', except that when Mat had tried to pick up one of the bones, it had given him what he described as a mild but painful electric shock ? although there were no live wires anywhere around. He'd promptly let go of the bone, and the whole ensemble had crackled, becoming almost alive with energy, and visibly so. Both cops had then beat a hasty retreat, and now had no idea what to do next. They couldn't report the incident ? not without looking and sounding like fools. The police on the whole were not famous for believing in real magic. But they were too worried about what they'd found to just let it lie without trying to find out more. It could be completely harmless ? but then again it might not.


    "So, honestly," Mat concluded. "I don't know exactly what it all was, but it was definitely not normal."

    "Sounds like a spell," Charlie suggested thoughtfully. "Maybe a summoning of some kind."

    "Summoning what?"

    Charlie looked at Oz to see if he had any thoughts to offer, and then shrugged. "Good question. And, knowing our luck, it probably has a horribly entertaining answer, too."

    Mat shuffled his feet, looking uncomfortable with such serious discussion of the supernatural. "Mike's waiting for me," he said. "Duty calls."

    "We can look into it," Oz suggested, picking up Mat's sketch and studying it thoughtfully.

    "Great," said Mat. "Call me if you find out anything."

    "Okay, and Mat," Charlie called after him.


    "Promise me you won't go back there until we've checked it out," she asked. "Just in case."


    It was kind of exciting, being consulted by the police about an actual case ? even if that consultation was top secret and completely off-the-record. It was still more than David would have ever considered possible a few months ago.

    It was also a little bit worrying. Exciting adventures were all very well, and David had had more of them during the last few months than he'd ever dreamed of, but those adventures had also taught him that in this crazy underworld of the supernatural excitement tended to go hand in hand with genuine danger. It really was real: maybe a bit too real at times.

    Seeing a friend transform into a vicious monster, get shot dead by the police, and then come back to life again had been a bit too much excitement, even for David. It was not an experience he particularly wanted to repeat, in any way, shape or form, and he knew that Emma was dead against getting involved in anything potentially dangerous again. Not if they could help it.

    But having the police come to them for help was a thrill, nonetheless. And actually being able to help would be even more of a thrill, surely...

    Mat hadn't hung around long, clearly relieved to have got it all off his chest and to have their agreement to look into it, but unwilling to discuss the matter in any great detail, and once he'd gone, they'd held a pow-wow of their own. Oz and Charlie both seemed to know a lot about this kind of thing, their breadth of knowledge leaving David in awe ? and feeling slightly redundant. But they agreed that further research was vital before they could draw any firm conclusions.

    "I'll ask around," Charlie suggested. "See if anyone's heard anything."

    "Ask around?" David asked, wondering how she knew where to even begin. "Ask who?"

    "I've been here a while now," was all she'd say, packing up her books ready to leave. "I know some people."

    With that, she headed out to see what she could unearth. Meanwhile, they'd agreed that Oz would sound out the Old Fella next door.

    "I mean, you've got that rapport with him, you can work that," said David. "Plus, he still kind of owes you for the whole vampire thing."

    With that settled, David called Shanei out of the kitchen to watch the caf? while he went out back to talk to Elli. Heading up through the studio into her loft, he cursed to himself when he almost tripped over a small tabby cat washing itself on the still-rickety wooden stairs. Cursing, he grabbed at the handrail, while the cat gave him a deeply reproachful look and moved a few steps lower where it continued grooming.

    "You shouldn't encourage that wretched thing," he complained as he made his way into the apartment, where Elli crouched in front of the grill watching some toast slowly turn brown, with operatic music softly playing in the background.

    "He's not doing any harm," she absent-mindedly chided, without looking up from her toast.

    "Apart from almost tripping me downstairs," David grumbled as he sat down on one of the straight-backed chairs at the table. "You know, if you came over to the caf? we could do that for you," he added.

    "Yes," she said. "And you'd charge me for it, too."

    "Well, we're running a business here, you know." David pointed out, leaning back in his chair. "We've just had a visitor," he told her.

    "Oh yes?" Elli glanced quizzically at him.

    "Mat," David continued.

    "Haven't seen him around for a while," Elli observed, switching the grill off and quickly popping the toast onto a plate, trying not to burn her fingers in the process.

    "He needs help," David explained.

    Elli chuckled as she spread butter on the toast. "No kidding. And he came here?"

    She listened curiously, munching her toast, as David relayed the story Mat had told them.

    "Symbols, bones and blood." Elli shook her head and sighed. "Nothing good can come of that."

    That was pretty much the same conclusion the others had come to.

    "But I think Oz would know more about that kind of thing than me," she continued, looking dubious. "Or Charlie ? she seems to know a fair amount, too."


    The Old Fella's antique shop next door to the Monico was closed, as usual.

    Oz decided to try the door anyway, and it opened. Taking that as an invitation to enter, he knocked and went in, carefully closing the door behind him and making his way to the back of the shop. Mr Mainwaring was in what seemed to be his customary position, slouched in a sagging, ancient armchair in front of a roaring wood fire, which was the last thing you'd expect to find in a store full of highly flammable objects. He was puffing contentedly away at his pipe, and gave Oz a reproachful look as he approached.

    "Can you not read, young man?"

    Having chosen to ignore the 'closed' sign, Oz also chose to ignore the question, which was clearly rhetorical.

    "I need some advice," he explained apologetically, getting straight to the point as usual.

    "Oh, I see," the Old Fella nodded amiably enough. "Tit for tat."

    "Something like that," Oz agreed. After all, the old man had had no compunction whatsoever about sending a girl with a vampire problem next door for Oz to deal with, without ever having even met Oz at that stage. A little advice was the least he could offer in return, although Oz had to wonder why he was letting himself get involved in this, after everything he'd said about wanting a quiet life and not taking on other people's problems. But Mat had been so worried and so clearly out of his depth, and Oz had always found it hard to say no when someone asked him for help. Plus, David in enthusiastic mode was contagious.

    "Very well," said the Old Fella. "Carry on."

    "Thanks." Oz found himself a stool and perched on the edge of it.

    Mr Mainwaring studied Mat's sketch and listened to Oz's tale in thoughtful silence, nodded, and then unfolded himself from his armchair and disappeared into the murky depths of the rooms behind the store proper. A few minutes passed before he reappeared, tottering beneath the weight of several large, dusty books that were clearly just as old as everything else in the store. Forgetting his light duties restriction still in force, Oz hurried to help him carry them, deciding that his initial evaluation of the place had been spot on ? Giles-heaven. Apparently it was time to hit research mode once again.

    "This isn't tremendously clear, is it?" the old man sniffed, squinting at the sketch again as he opened a book chosen seemingly at random. "Still, we shall we what we can come up with."

    Dusty old books that made him sneeze and were full of riddles. It really was like old times. The Old Fella's collection was by no means as extensive as Giles', but was still fairly impressive, and the two of them were industriously studying in companiable silence, when David and Elli came in to see how they were getting on.

    Mr Mainwaring sighed. "So none of you can read, then."

    "Barely a word," said Oz, turning another page.

    "And that's God's honest truth," David added, peering over Oz's shoulder at the book he was studying. He wrinkled his nose. "Is that even in English?"

    "Of a sort," the Old Fella assured him with a sniff. "Are you here to help, or to criticise the material?"

    "To help," Elli said, frowning at David as she found a chair to sit on and helped herself to one of the many books. "I'm sorry if we're disturbing you."

    "No, no," he assured her. "Not at all. You go right ahead, my dear."

    With that, apparently satisfied that his own help was no longer required, the old man leaned back in his armchair and instantly nodded off. David sighed, but followed the example set by the other two and settled in to read, pulling another stool over from the store proper to perch on.

    Research confirmed that Mike and Mat's discovery was almost certainly part of a demonic summoning spell, although the specific demon in question was difficult to pin down with only Mat's rough sketch to go on.

    "But someone's definitely out there summoning demons." Elli grumbled. "This world is just so much fun."

    "You're the one who chose to come here," David pointed out.

    "Who said it was my choice?" She scowled at him, glanced across to check that the Old Fella was still asleep and not listening, and returned her attention to her book.

    "Anything?" a new voice asked, and they all looked up to see Charlie, who'd come in without them noticing.

    "Hard to say," Oz admitted.

    "We're almost certain it's part of a demonic summoning ritual," Elli clarified. "But we can't find anything yet that looks like this main symbol." She squinted at Mat's drawing, looking frustrated. "Although, of course, that could have more to do with the drawing than the symbol itself, since none of us have actually seen the real thing. But it means we can't really verify anything."

    "How did you get on?" David asked Charlie. "Learn anything?"

    "Mostly just cryptic gunk," she admitted. "There's this guy I know called Norm. Well, no. Okay, actually, he's a demon."

    "You know a demon called Norm?" David asked, bemused.

    "He's really low-level," Charlie assured him. "Completely harmless. And very useful to know, usually. But all he'd tell me today is that there's a treasure hunter in town."

    "A treasure hunter?" David sounded dubious.

    Charlie shrugged. "Make of it what you will. Oh, and Shanei's screaming for you, David."

    "Yeah, I should get back to work before she hits me for another pay rise," David agreed, stretching the kinks out of his spine.

    "Take the books with you," the Old Fella piped up, opening one eye just a crack to peer at them: clearly not as fast asleep as they'd thought. "Oh, hello again, Charlotte," he added, opening his eyes fully and greeting the suddenly discomfited Charlie with amiable good humour.

    "Mr Mainwaring," she responded, politely, while David grinned and mouthed 'Charlotte?' at her. She kicked at his ankle and pulled a face, hastily gathering up an armful of books and heading for the door.



    • #3

      "We can hardly go to Mat and say 'we think someone's out there summoning demons, and apparently there's a treasure hunter in town'," said Charlie, dumping an armful of books onto a table in a secluded corner of the caf?. "What's he supposed to do about that? We don't even know what any of it means."

      "Don't know what what means?" Emma had arrived home from work, and eyed them all curiously.

      "We're police consultants now," David cheerfully told her, as he dropped his own burden onto the table.

      Emma blinked. "In what universe?"

      "This one. Mat wants our help with a case."

      Emma looked around at them all, puzzled. "Shall I go out and come back in again? Will you all make sense then?"

      "It isn't a police police case," Elli reassured her. "More something out of the ordinary that he wanted advice on."

      "Sounds ominous," Emma dubiously replied, glancing sideways at Oz. "Mat came here?"

      "Asking for help, yeah," David confirmed.

      "After avoiding us for weeks. And we've all decided to give him this help because??"

      "He needs it," Oz pointed out, quietly.

      "He's got a potential demon problem," Charlie elaborated. "That's not really something the police are set up to find out about."

      "But how is it our problem?" Emma frowned.

      "We know it's happening," Oz told her, simply. That was the only reason he'd been able to offer himself for getting involved, that and the fact that Mat had asked for help.

      "That makes it our problem," Elli agreed with a sigh. "Plus, we don't really think Mat can handle it himself. Or Mike. It's not their area of expertise. That's why they asked for help."

      Charlie nodded. "What they said."

      Emma sighed and sat down. "Here we go again. Just as long as they don't shoot anybody this time!"


      While David got back to work, Oz settled in to do some more research along with the girls, since he was supposed to be taking things easy still and reasoned that sitting around reading old books could definitely be considered on the easy side. Emma had been overwhelmingly mother-hen-ish toward him ever since the whole shooting thing had happened, which had been fair enough at first, when he'd been feeling so incredibly wobbly anyway, but there was only so long a guy could sit around doing nothing before boredom set in. So he'd persuaded David to let him go back to work, although so far that return was limited to a bit of pottering here and there and he was honest enough to admit to himself that he wasn't really up to much more than that yet.

      He still couldn't quite believe his bad luck lately ? he'd been endangered more this year than ever before in his life. Directly, that was. He was used to being indirectly threatened, what with having lived on the Hellmouth and all, but this year had been different. He kept finding himself in personal peril, and didn't like it one bit, although he supposed being the one having to be helped out was keeping him humble.

      That said he was still doing his best to not think about recent events, half suspecting, half simply paranoid that Emma and David might have asked him to leave after wolfing out in front of them and endangering them all, if it had not been for the serious injury that had once again brought out the mother in Emma. He'd scared them all pretty badly, he realised, and not just by going wolf. The death thing had been really extreme. Even Elli had fussed, which was scarily unlike her, since her general attitude had always seemed to be that if you could walk and talk, there couldn't be too much wrong with you.

      "Euch!" Emma pushed a book away from her, pulling a face at a picture of a particularly unpleasant demon. "That kind of thing actually exists?"

      "All these things exist." Charlie gestured wearily at the books strewn across the table. "In some form or other, or some dimension or other."

      "I think I preferred not knowing," said Emma. "How could anyone even begin to fight a thing like that?"

      Oz glanced at the picture she'd indicated, and recognised the demon at once. Olvikan: aka Mayor Wilkins in Giant Snake Mode. Now that brought back some memories, both good and bad. But even the good memories were kind of tinged with regret now. He and Willow had been so happy then, in spite of all the apocalypse.

      Which was a line of thought not good for pursuing, reminder as it was of how much he had lost.

      "We blew it up," he remarked lightly, focusing on demonic matters. Best not to dwell on what had gone wrong.

      All three women stared at him.

      "You did what?" Emma asked.

      Oz shrugged, remembering the frantic research the Scooby gang had invested into the thwarting of previous Ascensions. Amazing to think it was not even eighteen months ago, so much had happened since then. "Well, there weren't any volcanoes handy," he explained, in cryptic fashion.

      "You like blowing things up, don't you?" Charlie commented with an amused grin.

      "Passes the time," he replied, evenly.

      "This demon?" asked Emma, incredulously, tapping the picture in front of her.

      "That demon," he confirmed.

      "And when did all this happen?" she queried.

      "Graduation," he told her. "It was an eventful ceremony."

      "Sounds like," Elli agreed.

      Charlie pulled the book over to look at the picture, and read some of the text that accompanied it. Her eyes went wide. "Was it as big as it says here?"

      Oz nodded, remembering the Mayor's awesome transformation. Way to make an impression.

      "I can't believe you actually saw that thing," Emma said, her tone a mixture of amazement and dismay as she took the book back. "And killed it. It says it has the power to unleash Armageddon on earth! Almost nothing could stop it."

      "Well, it was a team effort," Oz explained, thinking back to that incredible day. Guided by the Slayer and her Watcher, the entire graduating class had taken on the super-demon and his minions and won, which ? only in Sunnydale. "Someone's always trying to end the world. Hasn't happened yet."

      "Hopefully the one we're looking for isn't quite so deadly," said Charlie. "But it's all relative, I suppose."

      Elli was studying Mat's drawing of the summoning spell site. "I'm still not sure all these are part of the same ritual."

      "Yeah, I thought that," Charlie agreed, moving closer to have another look at the drawing. "See those symbols there, around the outside ? I'm sure I've seen those before somewhere."

      "You don't remember where?" Elli asked, absent-mindedly fingering the unusual and very old-looking pendant she always wore. She varied most of her jewellery ? earrings, bracelets and nose-ring ? from day to day, but that pendant and an equally old and unusual ring were constant ? she never seemed to take them off.

      Charlie frowned at the drawing, trying hard to remember. "I think they're protection runes," she decided at last. "To stop anyone interfering with the rest of it."

      "Is that bad?" Emma asked, looking worried.

      "Not necessarily," said Elli. "But it would mean that the rest of the site is still active, if someone's gone to all the trouble of protecting it ? means they want to use it again. And that would be why Mat got such a shock when he tried to move one of the pieces. The protection spell kicked in."

      "Which kind of makes you wonder why they left it open like that in the first place," Charlie added, puzzled. "Anyone could find it and set it off, raise the alarm. That's really sloppy."

      "Like an amateur, you mean?" said David, who had come back over to see how they were getting on.

      "Hey, I think this is our guy," Oz suddenly remarked, as he turned another page and saw the symbol they were looking for. He reached across the table and snagged Mat's drawing to compare it to the image he'd found.

      Moving around behind him, David read the accompanying passage over his shoulder. "The fifty-eighth spirit is Amy*. Amy?" He chuckled, shaking his head in bewilderment as he continued. "He appeareth at first in a flame of fire?"

      "There's a demon called Amy?" Emma interrupted, bemused and disbelieving.

      Charlie wrinkled her nose. "My oldest niece is called Amy. I hope that's not a bad sign. But I think it's a different pronunciation for the demon."

      "It's also called Avnas," Oz observed, reading on. "'He betrays treasures preserved by spirits.'"

      "The treasure hunter!" David exclaimed in excitement.

      "It does sound like our guy," Elli agreed.

      "So we've found the demon. What do we do next?" Emma asked.

      "Find out as much as we can about it," suggested Elli.

      "And then compare notes with Mat," Charlie added.


      "The problem I'm having here," Elli slowly commented, after considerable research into the demon Avnas and how to summon, banish or, if you were really lucky, destroy it. "Is: the more I look at all this, the more I think it really isn't a police matter that we can just hand back over and say 'good luck.'"

      "Agreed," Oz reluctantly observed.

      "Demons and police ? never a good mix," Charlie nodded and sighed.

      "What's that supposed to mean?" Emma looked alarmed. "I thought we were just researching this for them. Can't we let them handle it?"

      "No," Elli shook her head. "I really don't think we can. They'd only go and get themselves killed or something."

      "Which would be terrible, but how is that any worse than us getting ourselves killed?" Emma protested. "At least they're paid to do this kind of stuff."

      "They aren't paid to do battle with demons," Charlie pointed out. " No one is ? or, almost no one ? that's the trouble. And they wouldn't know how to even begin." She sighed. "Why is it that the supernatural always seems to find certain people somehow?"

      "Just lucky, I guess," Oz remarked, inwardly reflecting that it was anything but.

      "Not what I'd call luck," Emma muttered.

      "That's the trouble with the world of the mystical," Charlie sighed. "Once you're in, it doesn't let go. And I've been in it most of my life."

      "Me too," said Elli, and Oz nodded. Not that he'd been in it quite that long, but he'd been up to his neck for a good while now with no way out in sight.

      "I've always known about this," Charlie continued, looking at Emma. "And I was always taught, when I was growing up, how to take precautions, and to always do what I could, if it was reasonably safe to do so. Because, honestly, how can you live with your conscience if someone dies because you turned a blind eye?"

      Oz knew exactly what she meant. During his months of travelling around the globe in search of a wolf-cure, he'd learned that although the concentration of demonic activity was hugely intense in Sunnydale, the town was hardly unique in having that activity. Vampires and demons, and all kinds of other nasties existed all over the world, spreading death and destruction wherever they went. And all over the world there were also people dedicated to fighting them, and to preventing that death and destruction. People who fought back, in ones, or twos, or in small groups, without any kind of special skills, or superpowers, or heroic destiny; people who simply knew what was out there and felt unable to stand back and quietly watch it happen. People who fought the good fight just because.

      But he'd never expected to become one of them, if only because at the time he'd been so totally focused on finding his cure and then getting back to Willow as fast as humanly possible. Or possibly werewolfly possible. He'd always expected to go back to Sunnydale, which had its very own Vampire Slayer. Fighting the good fight was so much easier when you had a Slayer, or ensouled vampire, or some other kind of Champion on your team.

      "Definite lack of superheroes in this town," he wryly remarked.

      "Quite," said Charlie. "But the world needs its small-scale white hats just as much as it needs superheroes. Maybe even more." She pulled a face. "San Francisco is quiet on that front most of the time, you know. But it does have its moments. And before now I've been mostly on my own and never knew what to do for the best. Because, at the end of the day, it's also important to know your own limits."

      "Well, I hate to say it," Emma admitted. "But I really think I've reached mine. I just don't think there's anything I can do, and I don't want to see anyone else getting killed. I'm sorry."

      She glanced sideways at Oz as she spoke, and he knew it was his shooting the other week she was mostly thinking about. They'd all been pretty shaken up by it. He'd been pretty shaken up by it, come to that.

      "Em's got a point," said David, looking troubled. "I mean, you know me: I always love to get stuck in. But now, after everything?I just, I kind of feel out of my depth in all this."

      "We all are," said Elli resting an elbow on the table and running her fingers through her hair with a tired sigh. "But the thing is, and I know it's a cliché, but when you're out of your depth you have two choices. You can either sink or swim. And that's the choice we have here. We can either let ourselves go under, and wait to see if this demon does start burning and killing all over the city, or we can at least have a go at 'swimming': find out if there's something we can do about it. And you never know. We might even make it."

      She regarded the worried looking Gibsons thoughtfully for a moment. "But if you want out, that's not a problem. It's your choice."



      • #4

        Part Two


        The following morning Oz found himself alone in the caf?, setting up ready to open while David puttered around out back. Emma had gone to work, determined not to get involved in matters demonic, and Elli had a class first thing but was planning to return as quickly as possible, while Charlie was due to arrive at any moment. Mat had agreed to drop by before opening to talk about the demon problem, and without that input there wasn't much more they could do, no matter how much research they put in.

        They'd ID'd the summoning ritual being used, and the why was fairly simple, since the demon could locate so-called 'treasure', which had to be the big draw. They'd also invested a fair amount of time into investigating ways of safely dismantling the spell and its protection runes, and methods for hopefully defeating the demon should it escape. But the next question was trickier: they now needed to figure out who was trying to summon the demon, and were reliant on Mike and Mat to tell them where.

        None of had been all that enthusiastic when they came to the conclusion that they couldn't just hand this back over to the M&Ms and wish them luck. They none of them had much stomach for a fight at the moment, but what choice did they have? Allowing the demon-summoning person to continue wasn't really an option, given how easily it could all go badly wrong, and Mike and Mat were worse than clueless about this kind of thing, more than out of their depth.

        Of course, this all put them back into the tricky arena of wondering exactly who had the right to decide and act on these things. It usually came down to a matter of conscience: if you knew in your heart something was wrong, and couldn't bring yourself to sit back and let it happen, well then like it or not it was up to you to do something about it.

        But, for once, having a problem of this nature to puzzle over was actually something of a relief, taking his mind off his own wolf issues, which had been preoccupying him rather more than usual lately. He hated that he'd wolfed out again, and in public too ? in front of his friends, putting them in danger as well as himself. And now he wasn't sure what to do about the next full moon, which was fast approaching. He'd changed twice now since he'd arrived in San Francisco, which was twice too often. It was too easy to blame it on outside influences. A head injury had led to his first transformation and a mystical drug had brought about the second ? both circumstances entirely beyond his control, and there was just no way he could guarantee that something like that wouldn't happen again, no matter how hard he tried.

        But if he went back to locking himself up every full moon, just in case, it would be like admitting that everything he'd worked for over the last year, destroying his relationship with Willow in the process, had been for nothing. And he really couldn't bear that. Carrying on as he was, keeping his control as tightly clamped as possible, was the only option he could see for himself, albeit an imperfect one. He just wasn't sure he was in any fit state at the moment to be able to achieve it in those crucial days when the call was strongest.

        Losing Willow and being cut off from the rest of his friends, and family, had been one hell of a price to pay for half a cure. He still hadn't found that practical long-term solution he'd been looking for since he left Sunnydale ? perhaps partly because he'd got into such a comfort zone here, but also because he no longer knew where to begin. Finding even the partial solution he now relied on had taken everything he had. Elli had somehow been able to prevent the change when he was first hit with that drug, whatever it was, but she'd made it clear that her being able to do so depended on his being able to do so, so to speak, and he couldn't expect her to always be around if he got into trouble again. She hadn't been when the hunter came along for the second time, and much badness had resulted.

        So, he didn't know what to do, which was why it was good to have a different problem to worry over for a while.

        A tapping at the door distracted him from his thoughts, and he glanced across to see Charlie peering at him through the shop door. She was early. Oz went over to unlock the door and let her in.

        "Morning, Oz," she cheerfully called as he opened the door to let her in, and locked it again after her. "Don't suppose the coffee's on yet, is it? And before you say it, yes, I know you aren't open yet. But I don't count. I'm gasping."

        A knock at the door for the second time that morning prevented Oz from replying.

        "Damn, they're early," complained Charlie as they turned to see both Mat and Mike hovering hesitantly outside the caf?.

        Mat they'd made the arrangements to meet with, but Mike was unexpected, and Oz suddenly felt unsure. Talking to Mat the previous day had been bad enough, but having to face Mike felt downright awkward. The last time they'd met he'd only just revived after the whole being shot dead thing, and as a result had been less than coherent. And since Mike had kept his distance ever since, he wasn't sure just where they stood with each other. How were you supposed to handle day-to-day interactions with the person who'd killed you?

        Seeing his hesitation, Charlie went over and opened the door to let the two officers in. Mat smiled warmly when he saw her, and then nodded a rather more uncomfortable greeting to Oz, while Mike followed him in looking like he would rather be anywhere but here.

        The four of them stood in embarrassed silence for a moment, shuffling their feet and avoiding one another's eyes. Then Charlie caught at Mat's arm.

        "Mat. Come and see what we've been finding out," she pointedly suggested, pulling him over to the table that was still heavily laden with all their books and research notes.

        With Charlie and Mat so studiedly giving them some space, Oz and Mike were left to actually talk, one on one, for the first time since the shooting if not ever. Mike slowly approached the counter, but seemed lost for words.

        Oz decided to get the ball rolling. "Hey."

        "Hey," Mike replied, awkwardly. "So, I'm, uh, I'm sorry I, uh, killed you."

        That was blunter than expected, and Oz for once couldn't think of anything suitably diversionary to say, which was his usual tactic for staving off awkwardness. But he'd had similar, although slightly less dramatic, conversations before, and realised that they were going to have to talk about this sooner or later. And sooner might be easier than later.

        "Well, I'm, I'm sorry I scared you."

        For a moment Mike looked like he might be about to protest that he hadn't been scared, but then he evidently remembered that he was talking to the guy he'd inadvertently, albeit quite deliberately, put a bullet through.

        "A-and you're okay now?" he asked.

        Oz nodded. "Oh yeah, I'm fine," he assured the older man.

        That wasn't completely true. He was actually kind of sore still at times, especially if he moved too quickly or tried to do too much. It had been not unlike breaking his ribs all over again, only a different kind of soreness. The made-out-of-cotton-wool feeling hadn't completely gone away yet either, and he got tired annoyingly easily still. His werewolf mojo apparently having taken exception to being shot dead it had therefore rather impressively jumped a disturbingly unnatural healing process several paces forward, and according to Elli's research the sheer scale of mystical energy involved in that process was the main reason for the ongoing woolliness he was feeling. It had been a huge drain on his resources and, frustratingly, it would take time to build those back up. Oz still didn't really know exactly how it had all worked, and he wasn't sure he wanted to. It was enough that it had. And mostly he was fine.

        With his fineness thus established an uneasy silence settled over them once more. Oz would have preferred to just forget the whole thing had happened, but that was never going to happen if people kept being ill at ease around him, as Mike so obviously was. Since he'd been the one who got shot, shouldn't he be the one who felt uncomfortable around his shooter, rather than the other way around? But on the other hand, he could sort of understand Mike's point of view, since he felt pretty much the same way himself about the fate of his fellow werewolf, Paul. And then, of course, on the days when he let himself remember it, there were still nagging issues around his much earlier Sunnydale based werewolf encounter and how that had turned out: one of his biggest ever failures, in so many ways?Guilt was an uncomfortable emotion to have to live with, whatever the cause.

        Charlie had clearly been discreetly listening in, and now took pity on them both, coming back over to rescue them from having to make any further conversation.

        "Can I have that coffee now please, Oz?" she asked, returning to the counter and hopping onto a stool next to Mike.

        Grateful for the distraction, Oz nodded and set about coffee making, while Charlie continued to chatter.

        "So tell me, guys," she remarked, apropos of nothing. "Do you ever think that your family are going psycho?"

        "Do I what?" asked Mike, bemused.

        Oz considered the question for a moment. "Individually or as a group?"

        "Any way," she replied, glancing at Mat with a half smile as he came to sit beside her. "I spoke to my sister Suzanne this morning."

        "I thought your sister was called Becky," said David, appearing from the kitchen and doing only a slight double take to see the others already there so early.

        "No, that's the other one," Charlie explained. "And, well remembered. But anyway, Su was saying that her and her husband have decided to up sticks and move to the Outer Hebrides. Apparently, they're going to start a whole new life catching lobsters for a living."

        "The outer where?" asked Mat, looking puzzled.

        "Hebrides. You never heard of the Outer Hebrides?" She shook her head at him in mock dismay. "Where were you when they were teaching geography? They're these tiny little islands off the north of Scotland, out in the wilds of nowhere."

        Oz was intrigued by the new life notion. "Can you catch lobsters for a living?" Now that was a career move he'd never considered.

        "Apparently they're going to try," Charlie grumbled. "They're both insane ? they've got two children under five and another one on the way, and they think now is the appropriate time to move to a windy little island. Does that sound crazy to you?"

        "It does, actually," David admitted.

        "I'm glad you think so," she sighed. "I was beginning to wonder if it was just me."

        "I hate to interrupt the tales of insanity," Mike put in, looking uncomfortable again. "But I thought we came here to talk about spooky things?"

        "We did," Mat agreed. "Charlie was just showing me what they've all found out."

        "Which is plenty," David confirmed, leading the way over to the newly designated research table.

        David was clearly still torn between on the one hand wanting to help combined with his natural enthusiasm at being consulted by the police like this, and, on the other, Emma's reluctance for either of them to be involved, not to mention his own misgivings. Nevertheless, he led the explanation of their research into the demonic summoning ritual and neatly summarised what they'd learned. "I think 'Amy' is a fantastic name for a demon," he enthused. "Almost as good as 'Norm'."

        "It's called Avnas," Charlie firmly corrected him, glancing at the sceptical expressions on Mike and Mat's faces.

        "Otherwise known as Amy, or however else you're supposed to pronounce it," he insisted.

        "Amy is my niece," said Charlie. "Avnas is a demon."

        "You really think someone is trying to summon a demon?" Mike queried, frowning at Mat's sketch of the spell layout. "Seriously?"

        Charlie nodded. "That's definitely what it looks like, based on what Mat told us, and the symbols he drew. Actually seeing the site would be a better way of telling if it's genuine or not, but I don't know if you'd be up for that. It's what's needed now."

        Mike shook his head. "Taking civilians out on investigation is not standard practice, no, and I'm still not convinced there's any need."

        "Hey, you asked us for help," Charlie pointed out, looking annoyed.

        "That was Mat, not me," Mike countered. "And we've only got your word for it that these things are real."

        "But you were the one who convinced me," Mat put in. "I just took it a step further and realised we needed help."

        "Next point," Oz interjected, breaking things up before a serious argument could develop. "Assuming we have got our facts straight. We need to look at the downside."

        "There's an upside?" Mat asked.

        "The upside is that it looks like the ritual he's using is controlled," Charlie told him. "So far. Which, according to these texts, means the demon remains contained ? it's only summoned in incorporeal form within the circle and can't break free and create havoc."

        "That's a good upside," Mat agreed.

        "And the downside?" Mike asked, frowning as though unconvinced, or maybe just unhappy still about having to work with them.

        "Like we said before," David took over, pleased at being able to display demonic knowledge, however newly acquired it was. "The demon knows all about how to find buried treasures."

        "What kind of treasure?" Mike asked dubiously, evidently not persuaded that buried treasure was much more of a real-life possibility than demons.

        "Details are sketchy," Charlie admitted. "And it depends, really, on what you define as 'treasure'."

        "But the point is that someone who knows the proper spells and incantations can get the demon to locate the treasure," David continued his explanation.

        "Good for them," Mat grumbled. "Half their luck."

        "That wasn't the downside," Oz told him.


        "The downside is that the demon Avnas is a great big fibber," Charlie explained. "What he really wants is his freedom, so unless the summoning person keeps him properly in check and forces him to tell the truth, he'll try all ways to persuade them to set him free. And he'll use the 'treasure' as a bribe, whether it really exists or not."

        "I'm guessing we don't want it to get free," Mat surmised.

        "You really don't," Oz agreed. According to every source they'd found on it, the appetites of the demon Avnas could be described as unpleasant at best. Children, it seemed, were its favourite, although any human would do when it was really hungry. And if it wasn't hungry, it tended to settle for general mayhem and slaughter.

        "We know it hasn't been released yet," Charlie continued. "Because there haven't been any reports of flamey carnage ? unless you know something we don't?"

        "No," Mat confirmed, frowning. "No flamey carnage to report."

        "Good to know," said David.

        "Yes, but this thing your guy's trying to summon is definitely dangerous," said Charlie.

        "Guy?" Mat queried.

        Charlie rolled her eyes at such pedantry. "Guy. Guyette. Gang. Whatever."

        "Reached any new conclusions?" a new voice called, and they all looked up to see Elli coming into the caf?.

        "Not yet," David admitted. "How was math?"

        "Impossible, as always," she sighed, turning to Oz. "I've got an assignment," she told him. "Don't suppose you can be free to look over it with me later?"

        Oz strongly suspected he was going to end up doing every math assignment for her.

        "Can we get back to the point?" Mike asked, sourly.

        "We don't know who the summoner is," Charlie obliged him. "Or how many tries he's had at it, or even if he's been back since you were last there. But we do know that what he's doing is dangerous. That's where we're at."

        "Yes, that was slack of us, wasn't it?" Elli commented, wrinkling her nose. "We should have checked out the site, in case he, she or it came back. If we'd known where it was, that is." She frowned at the two officers as she made that point, as they'd insisted on waiting till morning before having this meeting. "Since we didn't, that's what we need to find out."

        "You mean that's what we've got to find out," said Mike, pointedly indicating his partner and himself, excluding the others.

        Elli's eyebrows shot up. "Not that I have any great burning desire to go demon-hunting, but what were you planning to do if you found it?"

        "Have you ever seen a demon?" added Charlie, looking very serious. "What if it was already free before you got there? The guy's had all night to be talked into letting it go. What would you do then?"

        The looks on Mike and Mat's faces said they had no idea what they'd do in that situation ? how could they? They'd never had to investigate anything like this before. That was the main reason the others had decided they were going to have to see this through

        "Whether any of us likes it or not, you still need us," Elli concluded, quietly.

        "So it would help if we could work together and share information properly," Charlie agreed. "Did you check the site for clues before you ran out ? anything that would help work out who this summoning person is? 'Cause that would be the best place to start."

        "No," Mat admitted, looking sheepish.

        "And you call yourselves detectives," she sighed.

        "Hey, we wanted to find out what we were dealing with before we went back and dealt with it," Mike protested. "That's why we came to you."

        "That's why I came, at least." Mat glared at his partner.

        "Fair enough," said Oz, again hoping to defuse the tension in the room before it could boil over.

        "Well maybe you could start by letting us know where the place is," Elli suggested. "If taking us there with you is unacceptable to your police code, you don't even need to do that. If you tell us where to go, we can check it out ourselves and get back to you with an all clear or red alert. Would that be better?"

        The two officers exchanged troubled glances, clearly unsure what do to for the best.

        "Or, on the other hand," she applied a little more pressure. "I could just follow you around until you go back there, which you will, eventually. You'd never see me on your tails, either."

        Oz could quite believe that she was capable of doing just that ? he'd seen her in stealth mode, although she might find the mechanics of her bluff tricky to follow through on. However, the M&Ms clearly got the message that she wasn't kidding.

        "We're supposed to be on duty," Mike pointed out, but the look on his face said 'surrender'. "We can't have you all in the car if we get a call. There aren't enough seats, anyway."

        David looked morose. "I can't go anywhere. I have to open up. But my friend with the Lazarus complex over there has a van, so the others could follow you, if that helps."

        Mike's uncomfortable reaction to that mild reminder of recent events was hard to miss. He gave Oz a worried look. "Are you sure you're fit enough? I mean?"

        "Fit enough to play taxi driver," Oz assured him, before privately reminding himself that supposedly simple recon trips had a bad habit of turning out to be anything but. It would probably be a good idea to go prepared for the worst.

        "I wish I could go with you," David mournfully continued. "But Emma really didn't want me to. And with Sylvie blowing off work for the day and Shanei not on till five?"

        "You're stuck here anyway," Charlie sympathised. "Relax. It's a show you might be glad to miss."

        Mike and Mat looked at one another again and shrugged before nodding their resigned agreement.

        "Say 'hey' to Shanei for me," said Mike. "I was hoping she'd be here."

        "Will do," David agreed. "And hey ? don't do anything I'll be sorry I missed!"



        • #5

          "How did all this happen, huh?" Mike grumbled as he drove back to the warehouse. "I mean, how did a perfectly ordinary working week turn into such a freak show? And, more to the point, how did my nice, normal police career get so?so tangled up in this kind of thing? Yours too. A few weeks ago we didn't even know this side of the world existed."

          "But you were the one," Mat calmly reminded him. "You were the one who believed first."

          "I know," Mike continued, almost petulantly. "I know I was the one who wanted to know more, at first anyway. It's just?I can't get comfortable with it. This whole supernatural thing. It's all just so unnatural."

          "By definition, in fact," Mat agreed.

          "Plus, you know," Mike went on. "Taking civilians out on a case, even a case like this ? it really goes against the grain."

          And on top of all that, although he wasn't willing to admit it out loud, having Oz involved was making him twitchy. The guy didn't seem to be bearing him any kind of grudge about getting shot dead while in his wolf-form, but somehow that just made Mike feel worse. He wasn't used to having the people he shot come back to haunt him quite so literally, even if the shooting had happened as a result of a mistaken identity of sorts. He wondered if even one of those ghosts he hadn't believed in until recently might almost be better than the flesh and blood alternative, because it was just too weird and guilt inspiring.

          And he half suspected that Oz felt pretty much the same way about the weirdness aspect of it. He wasn't sure that helped, either.

          "Charlie thinks I'm an idiot, doesn't she?" Mat de-railed his train of thought completely with that unexpected query.

          "Probably," Mike agreed, wondering where this was coming from. He checked his mirror to make sure Oz's van was still behind them. "Aided and abetted by the fact that you not infrequently act like an idiot. Since when do you care what Charlie thinks about you?"

          "Since I don't know when," Mat replied, looking embarrassed. "Since now. I never really knew her before all this started, and now?"

          "Now you do, she thinks you're an idiot." Mike laughed, relieved to have a distraction from his thoughts. "I feel your pain."

          "What do I do?" Mat almost wailed, pulling his 'little boy lost' act.

          "Oh, I dunno, buddy," Mike told him, wearing his most innocent expression. "I think it could be a lost cause. What would you normally do?"

          "That's the trouble," Mat moaned. "She isn't like other girls ? I mean, you saw what she did to that hunter dude."

          By which he meant the telekinesis thing. Mike sighed as the conversation brought them straight back to considerations of weirdness and events he'd prefer not to remember. "Seems none of them are quite like other people," he wearily agreed.


          The warehouse looked entirely innocent from the outside. It was tempting to believe they'd just imagined the whole thing and brought everyone here on a wild goose chase.

          "Looks quiet enough," Mat observed, worriedly. Mike nodded, remembering that it had looked quiet enough last time they were here, as well ? right up to the moment Mat had bent to picked up that piece of bone, only for the shock it gave off to throw him off his feet and the whole thing to light up like a Christmas tree. No, he definitely hadn't imagined that. Nice though it would be to believe, this was no wild goose chase.

          "Looks quiet, yeah," Charlie agreed. "That doesn't always mean much."

          "The bones and stuff were inside on the upper level," said Mike. "But we need to go quietly, in case there's anyone here."

          He didn't miss Elli's very slight roll of the eyes and guessed he wasn't telling them anything they didn't already know. Did they do this kind of thing often, then? Working with civilians would be so much easier if he knew how much practical experience they actually had.

          "Not so easy to be stealthy in a crowd," Elli pointed out.

          "But how unlucky would we have to be for the guy to come back at the exact same time as us, anyway?" Mat wondered aloud. The others gave him sceptical looks.

          "You had to say it," Mike sighed, looking up at the disused building.

          "Doesn't matter if he's here or not," said Charlie, looking determined. "We can't leave this any longer, and we've brought everything we need, so we might as well just get on with it."

          As they headed in, Mike was pleased to note that all three civilians seemed quite capable of moving quickly and quietly enough not to raise the alarm if anyone was in the building conducting demon-raising activities. And then he realised he'd thought the phrase 'demon-raising' as if it were an everyday occurrence and was still mulling over the bizarreness of that as they reached the upper level and the corridor outside the large room where they'd found the odd symbols and bones.

          Of course, it had been too much to hope that they'd be able to simply wander in, look around, disarm the stuff and leave again without running into trouble. Coincidence simply wouldn't allow it, or maybe Mat had jinxed them. It turned out that they had chosen to come at the exact same time that the summoner was there.

          The man himself was entirely non-descript, Mike noted distantly as he stared through the Perspex window of the dividing wall, but it was hard to really get a good look at him since his attention was riveted to something else. It seemed the man was in the middle of a full-scale demon-summoning ritual: there was a circle of flames where the spell stuff was, and inside was another man, just a man. Except that his skin was sort of orange, and he had fire where his eyes should be...

          Behind him, Mike heard Mat give a strangled yelp, automatically reaching for his gun. And then, somehow, despite the wall separating them, the demon seemed somehow to hear and turned his fiery gaze directly upon the newcomers.

          Mike felt as if he was frozen to the spot. It all seemed to be happening almost in slow motion. He stood and stared as the demon raised his arm, as a ball of flames appeared in its hand, as it hurled the fireball toward them?

          And then he felt someone grabbing his arm and dragging him to the side, while a second body barrelled into his back, shoving him to the ground. A loud explosion tore through the air as they fell into a heap, just about out of scorching range.

          It took a moment for the senses to orient themselves once more. As he slowly regained his wits, Mike found himself lying on the floor all tangled up with Oz and Elli, and as they struggled to disentangle themselves and get back to their feet, he could only gaze in awe at the blackened edges of the jagged hole that had been blown in the wall. Further along the corridor, on the other side of the hole, Mat was helping Charlie to her feet, both looking as shocked and scared as he felt.

          Elli seemed to recover the fastest, swiftly regaining her feet and cautiously peering through the hole. She cursed at what she saw.

          "He's going!" she called urgently, giving chase without waiting to see if they were following.

          The pressing desire not to be upstaged by a civilian did wonders for Mike's state of mind. The demon was gone, he realised as he followed Elli into the room, and the summoner was indeed making a run for it. Mike cast a helpless look over his shoulder at Mat, shrugged, and then took off in pursuit of Elli, who, it seemed, could produce a rare turn of speed when she wanted to.

          The summoner had too much of a head start, however. Sprinting downstairs with Mat and Charlie hot on his heels, Mike caught up with Elli at a back entrance, where she was staring disconsolately at an empty yard and open gate.

          "He had a car," she explained, kicking at a stone. "How rude."

          "What kind of car?" Mike asked, automatically.

          She gave him a jaundiced look. "It was a car. A metal box with wheels. Do I look like the kind of person who could identify the make?"

          "Tell me you noticed the license plate," said Mat. "What colour it was, anything."

          Elli rolled her eyes at him. "It was dark blue," she said, twisting her arm around in an attempt to see the back of her own elbow. "And yes, I got the number." She frowned at a long scrape down the back of her arm, but made no further comment or fuss.

          Mat reached for his radio. "I can call it in for a vehicle check," he explained, taking her undamaged arm and steering her aside to take down the number.

          Oz caught up at that point having followed them downstairs at a much more sedate pace, leaving the chase to them. He was holding his side slightly and, with a sudden pang, Mike guiltily remembered that he was still recovering from a gunshot injury, which was apparently not quite as fine as he'd claimed.

          "You okay?" Charlie asked, frowning at him.

          Oz caught Mike's eye. "Guess I'm not ready to do the sprinting thing just yet," he said.

          "Emma's going to kill us," Charlie sighed. "You're supposed to be taking things easy."

          Oz simply nodded and changed the subject. "We lose him?"

          "We can trace the car," said Mike, grateful for the shift back to business.


          Oz wondered, sometimes, how other people managed. Because there was a whole world out there pretty much full of people, and as far as he could tell most of them seemed perfectly capable of living from day to day without ever having to worry about demons, vampires, werewolf hunters and so forth. Did they really not notice that stuff existed? Or was it more that that stuff tended not to happen around them so much, unless they were on the receiving end of it, in which case they tended not to live long enough to worry about it to any great extent. How was it that the weirdness kept finding its way straight to him?

          Was it just that once your eyes had been opened to this world it became impossible to ignore or explain away? Or was it more that certain people were somehow marked out by the supernatural, maybe just by knowing about it, that there was something about them that drew it to them as Charlie had suggested? If that was the case then he really was doomed to a life of this, because: werewolf. You couldn't get much more marked out by the supernatural than that.

          Maybe there really did come a point where, best intentions of normality notwithstanding, you just had to throw your hands in the air and admit that you were a fighter of evil, superhero leadership or not. The trouble was, although he had more confidence in his fighting abilities now than, say, a year ago, he didn't think simply being a werewolf was really that much of a qualification. But on the other hand, maybe three years of practical hands-on experience and research-based theoretical training was. Who got to decide these things? Shouldn't there be some kind of test? Because he was beginning to feel like he really was stuck with it, qualified or not. Maybe there was no escape. Maybe he should just count his blessings and be glad he wasn't alone.

          With the would-be demon summoner having made good his escape, they returned to the upper level to check out the site for anything that could help them find out exactly what he thought he was playing at and locate him before he could be talked into releasing the demon.

          "It looks different," said Mat, frowning at the mystical symbols and runes marked out across the floor. He very warily poked at one with the toe of his boot, and hurriedly jumped backwards when it crackled and flashed warning sparks at him.

          Charlie promptly whipped out the sketch Mat had drawn the day before and studied it, frowning, Elli peering over her shoulder.

          "He's changed some of the symbols," she confirmed.

          "Is that good or bad?" Mike asked.

          "We'd have to check the books to be sure," said Charlie. "But it can't possibly be good, can it? We aren't that lucky."

          "Definitely not good," Elli chimed in. "Because he shouldn't have been able to throw that fireball at us. Not with the way it was laid out yesterday, the spell wouldn't allow it. So he's already got more freedom."

          "Which is only a step away from being released completely," Charlie added, looking worried.

          Mike frowned. "But what does all that mean in layman's terms?"

          "Means we've got two problems," said Oz, leaning against the wall feeling tired.

          "Absolutely," Charlie sighed.

          "Two?" Mat looked nervous.

          Charlie nodded. "First, we've got to shut this lot down so he can't use it again if he comes back. And that means finding a way to break through all those protection runes he's got set up."

          "And the other one?"

          "If he's this close to setting the demon free," Elli took up the explanation. "Then he's not likely to just give up that easily. We're going to have to track him down before he sets up again somewhere else."

          So who wanted a quiet life? Really?



          • #6

            Part Three


            Having a couple of cops around had its uses. The police check on the would-be demon-summoner's car threw up a name, one Horace Kirschner, and also provided an address. And Kirschner himself, having departed so abruptly, had very handily left behind a selection of books and papers he'd been working from.

            Charlie took Mat and Mike down to the van to help fetch all the stuff they'd brought with them in anticipation of having to shut down the spell. As far as she could tell, the two officers seemed to be just about coping with all the supernatural madness, at least as well as could be expected, but she found it hard to judge, never having come to it new herself. She'd grown up with this knowledge.

            "No, we don't need that one," she told Mike, hefting one of the weightier books ? of course it would be the heaviest ones they needed. "If you could get that bag?cheers."

            She shifted the book in her arms as she spoke, trying to get a better purchase, and Mat promptly had an attack of chivalry and took it off her, but in such an absent-minded way it was impossible to come over all feminist about it even if she'd felt so inclined. She let him take it and picked up the stack of papers with all their research notes instead. Mike then led the way back upstairs, very quietly, while Mat made up for his partner's silence by chattering non-stop about nothing in particular.

            Of course, over and above the current demon situation, the gun issue was the main reason for Mike's moodiness ? it didn't take a genius or psych graduate to work that out. It was probably also at least part of the reason for Mat's nervous babble. Shooting someone dead and then having them come back to life was a hell of an introduction to the world of the mystical. But feeling sympathetic for how guilty Mike felt about it now didn't make it okay that it had happened in the first place, and Charlie was also still annoyed with Mat for reaching so automatically for his gun back upstairs when they first saw the demon. As if that could solve anything in this situation ? they'd bickered about it most of the way down to the van. He was cute, but?

            They returned upstairs to where Oz and Elli were sitting cross-legged on the floor sifting through Kirschner's papers. Charlie joined them as they tried to work out the best way to break through the protection runes to shut down the spell for good.

            "I think we've got everything we need," Charlie decided at last. "So now we just need to try it and see if it works. That's your department, isn't it, El?"

            She looked at Elli as she spoke, expecting the other girl to take over proceedings in her capacity as the only really magically inclined person present, but Elli seemed reluctant, frowning dubiously at the papers.

            "The magic that I do comes from inside me," she worriedly explained, glancing across the room to where Mike and Mat were pottering around, looking increasingly ill at ease, to make sure they couldn't hear. "Not from a book. You or Oz could do it just as easily. You both have access to the right kind of power."

            "Yeah, you know, I don't really feel so connected to any kind of power," Oz instantly protested, looking just as dubious.

            "But what's shape-changing, if not magical power?" Elli pointed out. "It may not be a magic you have any real control over, but it is a magic you're connected to. There's no reason you couldn't learn to use that, if you wanted to."

            Oz still looked unconvinced, and she sighed. "But probably not while you're still recovering. Okay. I'll do it. But you two can help."

            "Is this going to take much longer?" Mat asked, coming back over to join them. "We really need to get on this guy's tail if we don't want to lose him."

            "We need to finish this first," Charlie firmly told him, wishing there was a way to make them really understand the issues here instead of thinking purely in police terms.


            Disarming Kirschner's protection runes proved a relatively simple procedure in the end, despite Elli's reservations about attempting this-worldly magic out of a book. With the procedure safely performed without so much as a flicker of visible magical activity, the five of them stood and warily regarded the symbols, having no real way to know for sure whether the disarm had been successful or not. Even Elli, who usually had such an affinity for all things magical, seemed uncertain.

            Oz eventually settled the issue by picking up a lump of fallen masonry and throwing it at one of the bone-carved runes, successfully knocking it aside with no protection spell kicking in to prevent such a disturbance of the layout. "Guess that worked, then," he noted.

            Thoroughly dismantling the demon-summoning spell didn't take too much longer, and they were soon able to move onto the next step: tracking Kirschner down and finding a way to prevent him summoning Avnas again. They had two options there: checking out the address his car was registered to, and doing research into the man himself.

            Mike and Mat suggested splitting up, with the three civilians going back to Charlie's place to use her computer for further investigation, leaving them free to do their own thing. Hearing this suggestion, Elli caught Oz's eyes and then looked meaningfully over towards the officers. She had a point, Oz realised at once. Gung-ho, trigger-happy and completely non-demonically educated cops really shouldn't be left unsupervised under circumstances like this. They could get into all kinds of trouble. Sticking together would make the whole process slower, perhaps, but also safer. Hopefully.

            The general consensus was to travel as a pack, checking out Kirschner's home first and then making any further decisions from there. Apparently determined to stay in control of things as much as possible, Mike and Mat led the way in their patrol car while Oz followed in the van, the two girls with him.

            "I think they're doing okay, considering," mused Elli, watching the patrol car ahead of them. "Don't you think?"

            "Yeah," said Charlie. "Apart from the going straight for the guns at the first sign of trouble. Mat's only a notch above Mike for dumbassness on that score, as my friend Sook would say."

            "Nice Americanism," Oz quietly noted, hoping to distract her from the gun talk, which wasn't his favourite subject just at the moment.

            "It was, wasn't it?" Charlie cheerfully agreed. There was a moment of contemplative silence, before she spoke up again. "On the other hand, he is kind of cute, isn't he?"

            "Hmm?" Elli murmured, distracted from her cop watching by the non-sequiteur.


            "Oh." Elli glanced at her, looking amused. "Yes," she acknowledged. "Mat's very cute. He's got that Latin lover look going for him."

            "Don't tell me you hadn't noticed," said Charlie.

            Elli chuckled. "I'd noticed. I just wasn't commenting."

            Seeing Charlie looking at him, Oz realised she was waiting for him to offer an opinion. "Not really my type," he said, deadpan.

            Charlie looked at Elli again. "Well, what do you make of them then? The M&Ms?"

            Elli thought about it for a moment. "I think that," she said slowly. "The whole shooting Oz thing aside, Mike seems like a decent enough bloke. He thinks too much, but he's okay. And Mat's just like an overgrown puppy most of the time. How could anyone not like him? They're handling all this better than you'd expect for a couple of cops, although I think we should keep an eye on Mike. He looks most likely to crack right now. He thinks too much."

            "And they need to stop thinking like cops all the time," Charlie nodded. "Because it really isn't helping." She hesitated slightly before continuing. "What about David and Emma? They've been so freaked out by everything lately ? think they'll be okay?"

            "Skittishness is understandable," said Elli. "They're fine."

            "I hope so," Charlie agreed.

            "The wolf thing didn't help, did it?" Oz observed, quietly.

            "No, it didn't." Elli admitted. "But that was only part of a whole package they're having to adjust to. It isn't easy for them."

            "I kinda thought they might not want me around after that," he admitted, even more quietly.

            "Nah," Charlie firmly told him. "Getting shot won you the sympathy vote."

            "I really don't think they'd do that anyway," said Elli. "They're skittish, but not that skittish. Friendship still counts more."


            "They haven't called at all? Not even to say it was a huge false alarm?"

            Emma's arrival at the caf? on her afternoon break had disturbed David from his pacing around behind the counter and absolute lack of doing any real work, and her anxious questioning was only fuelling his own concern about their friends. Taking a back seat wasn't as easy as it sounded. He shook his head.

            "Not to say it was a false alarm," he confirmed. "And also not to say they've all been char-grilled by a huge fiery demon."

            "Don't say that," Emma protested, looking even more worried than ever.

            "You were the one who wanted us both to stay out of matters occult, Em," he pointed out.

            "I know," she worriedly admitted. "But it turns out that only works if everyone else stays out of it, as well. Sitting around waiting for news is worse than if we'd gone with them."


            Kirschner's place turned out to be entirely unremarkable: just a normal, respectable house in a normal, respectable neighbourhood. Apart from the fact that the house was deserted, with all the windows boarded up. The family had moved, a neighbour told them, after getting into financial difficulty. She couldn't tell say what that difficulty had involved, however, insisting that it was none of either her or their business.

            That line of inquiry might have been shut down, but the further research road was still open to them ? they needed to learn as much as they could about Kirschner, anything that could tell them where he might have gone and how they might find him before he could try his demon-summoning thing again.

            "We could always take a look inside," Elli suggested, far too casually, leaning against the van and looking back toward the house.

            Identical looks of horror crossed the faces of Mike and Mat.

            "You're actually serious, aren't you?" said Mike.

            Elli's eyes were dancing with mischief and delight at their reaction, but her response was a nonchalant shrug. "Well, we need to find clues, don't we?"

            "Ever heard of a search warrant?" asked Mat.

            "Sounds slow," she told him.

            "There are other avenues of investigation open to us," said Mike, severely.

            "And how long will that take?"

            "Good question," Charlie observed, perched on the hood of the patrol car. "Since I have classes tomorrow, and I'm meant to be going away at the weekend?"

            "Going anywhere fun?" asked Mat, far too easily distracted from the main point.

            "Well, I think so," she told him. "But it's a conference, so probably only my fellow history geeks would agree. But, all joking aside, I'm getting hungry, so I hope this doesn't take too much longer."

            "Well, you don't have to hang around," Mike pointed out. "You could go home and leave us to do our jobs."

            "And then see on the news tomorrow that you got flash fried by the demon? No thanks."

            "Nice to know you have so much faith in us," Mat remarked, dryly.

            "I have every confidence in your ability to do the police thing and find Kirschner eventually," said Charlie. "It's the demon Avnas that worries me. No, we'll keep at it for a bit longer. And Elli has a point about looking inside the house."

            "Or we could try a few more official avenues of inquiry," said Mike. "None of which involve breaking and entering."

            "I never said a word about breaking anything," Elli objected.

            "The computer thing might shed some light, too," Oz suggested. Charlie had already offered the use of the fast connection she had with her laptop back at the dorm.

            "Well seeing as you won't let me look in the house," said Elli. "We could probably manage the rest. If we do split up?"

            "By which you mean Mike and I split up," said Mat. "Since you don't trust us on our own."

            Elli nodded, not even attempting to deny it. "I could go with Mike," she said, cheerfully. "Since computers mean next to nothing to me, and I've never been in a police car. And Mat can go with Oz and Charlie to explore the computer angle."


            Mike and Mat argued, but then did exactly as Elli had suggested. Mike reluctantly took Elli off in the patrol car to do whatever it was he felt would shed some light on the case, while Mat ? possibly even more reluctantly, since he was meant to be on duty ? travelled in Oz's van across town to Charlie's dorm room and her computer.

            Since it was Charlie's computer, she took the lead, firing it up and starting the search, although not before making a beeline for the fridge and throwing together a hasty snack for them to pick at. Her laptop was just as fast as she'd claimed, but also proved to be unreliable, and Oz could feel his fingers twitching when she lost the connection and had to start all over again. Watching someone else labour over something he could do much faster was always frustrating.

            He didn't think he'd been fidgeting noticeably, but Charlie had clearly spotted something, as she suddenly turned to him. "Do you want to take over?" she asked, gesturing to the computer.

            Oz nodded. "I'll give it a go," he offered, sliding into the seat she'd vacated and letting his fingers dance across the keys. He might not be as into computers as Willow, but using them had always come easily to him, and he was soon thoroughly engrossed in the search, only half listening to Charlie and Mat's conversation as they chattered away behind him, neatly distracting one another from the task at hand yet again.

            "So what's happening with that band of yours, anyway?" Mat asked, leaning against the windowsill and nibbling at a sandwich.

            "Not much at the moment," Charlie admitted, pointedly adding, "We had to postpone what would have been our latest performance because of the guitarist being out of action."

            Oz could just picture the abashed look he guessed would be on Mat's face at that statement, and firmly didn't turn around to see, concentrating instead on what he was doing.

            "But you were there on the night we should have played," Charlie continued. "For a second, at least. I saw you put your head around the door just long enough to not buy anything or talk to anyone. Oz's old band came and did the gig instead."

            Dingoes night at the Monico had been fun, catching up with Devon and the rest of the guys. Of course, it would have been more fun if Oz had been in slightly better condition, but on the other hand, if he'd been in better condition they wouldn't've needed to draft in another band. With slightly more notice than he'd been give the last time Oz asked, Devon had jumped at the chance to come, play and hang out. And coming up with a line to feed him about the reason for Oz's incapacity hadn't been nearly as tricky as it might've been if he didn't already have so much experience at it. Devon had swallowed all kinds of garbage over the years to explain away zombies, vampires, werewolf issues and God only knew what else, and Oz had never managed to figure out if his old friend genuinely believed all the lame excuses, or if he was just indulging them all by pretending to believe and was enough of a Sunnydaler to not want to know the truth.

            Oz returned his attention to the computer as the search threw up a possible lead. "Here's something," he called out. "Firm he used to run."

            Their conversation abandoned, Mat and Charlie both hurried forward to examine the computer screen over his shoulder.



            • #7

              "So," Charlie summarised a little later, when they all re-grouped to pool their newly acquired information. "Kirschner's business went belly-up, he went bankrupt, and his wife walked out on him and took the kids with her."

              "And the new lover wants her to move overseas with him," Mike added.

              "He wants his old life back," Mat mused. "And this is how he's chosen to try and do it. A demon to provide him with instant wealth, which he thinks will win his family back."

              "And he's willing to sacrifice other people's children for it," Elli grumbled.

              "You're taking that part of this awful personal," Mat noted, eyeing her curiously.

              "Brings back bad memories," she muttered, scowling at the floor.

              "You've seen this demon before?" Mike asked, puzzled.

              "No." She shook her head, and hesitated slightly before carefully explaining. "It's more an association thing than a direct comparison. And I still think we need to see inside his house."

              "You think, or you know?" asked Oz, noting the swift change of subject.

              "Call it a hunch," was her cautious reply. "Since he hasn't gone back to the warehouse and we haven't been able to find any other place he might have gone. And the old family home is a symbol, isn't it, of what he's lost."


              Mike and Mat eventually gave in to the inevitable, returning with the other three to Kirschner's place with very bad grace and dire mutterings about losing their jobs if they carried on like this for much longer.

              This time, when they reached the house, they found Kirschner's car parked in the driveway.

              "I suppose you expect us to kick the door in, or something?" Mike grumbled, frowning at the boarded up windows.

              "Fun as that would be to watch," said Elli. "No. That won't be necessary. Wait here a moment."

              She disappeared around the side of the house, leaving the other four standing around wondering what exactly she was planning to do. Mike, Mat and Charlie all looked at Oz, as though expecting him to provide some kind of explanation. He shrugged. He had no idea what Elli was going to do.

              It turned out that what she was going to do was open the front door for them from the inside.

              Mike gaped. "How did you??"

              Elli shrugged. "There's always a way in," she said in a very low voice. "Keep quiet. He's here."

              Oz's nose told him she was right the moment he entered the house, although the smell of burning and of various kinds of incense ? and other, less pleasant, fragrants ? almost drowned out the scent of the very nervous man upstairs.

              "I think he's trying the spell again," Elli told them, urgently. "But we've got all his papers, so he'd have to be doing it from memory. That won't work!"

              Charlie looked alarmed. "If he gets it wrong?"

              "Kaboom," Oz murmured, grimly.

              "Can we stop him?" Mat asked, looking nervous.

              "We can try," said Charlie, heading determinedly for the stairs.

              In the middle of a large room that had probably once been the master bedroom, they found Kirschner frantically making adjustments to his makeshift runes and symbols, chanting away with a desperate note in his voice.

              How were you supposed to approach someone so obviously in the middle of a complete breakdown? Especially when that breakdown was taking the form of dangerous-demon-summoning. Oz wasn't sure, but thought that Mat's sudden shout of "Hey, what are you doing?" was probably not the best way to go about it.

              Startled, Kirschner broke off mid-chant, and looked up at them with the frozen expression of a deer caught in the headlights.

              "You can't stop me," he choked. "I need this. I have to?It's the only way to get them back."

              Before anyone could stop him, he threw another handful of incense into the mix already burning steadily at the centre of the circle. With a sound almost like a mini thunderclap, a ceiling-high wall of flames sprang up around the circle of runes and symbols, forcing them all to take a few steps back.

              As the flames died down slightly, leaving a circular scorch mark on the ceiling, the demon Avnas became visible standing at the centre of the ring, glowering with his eyes of flame. "Yes, what?" he boomed, testily.

              Out of the corner of his eye, Oz saw Elli taking a surreptitious step backward, into the sparse shelter provided by the partially closed door. She slid her backpack off her shoulder as she knelt to rummage through its contents, pulling out the notes they'd made on Avnas banishing and what was required to achieve it.

              Kirschner, meanwhile, had fallen to his knees before the demon.

              "My Lord," he implored. "I have called you here to beg your help. Grant me the bounty I deserve?"

              Avnas turned those fiery eyes upon the man. "You have summoned me before this time," he stated. "Tell me: what has changed since last we met? What reason do you give me for assisting you?"

              "Show me the treasure," Kirschner pleaded. "And I will set you free. And see!" He suddenly whirled around, gazing at the interlopers with fevered eyes. "You will have fresh meat, an instant meal!"

              "Uh-oh," Mike murmured, looking stricken and taking another step back, only to find a wall behind him.

              Seeing things rapidly getting out of hand, Oz joined Elli on the floor in the doorway, frantically gathering together the ingredients necessary for the spell to banish Avnas. If they were lucky.

              Avnas laughed. It was not a pleasant sound. "Show you treasure?" he boomed, sounding almost jovial now. "By all means. I will show you treasure beyond your wildest dreams."

              He waved a hand, and a wall of the room seemed to disappear, becoming a cavernous hole leading into a cave. The cave was piled high with the kind of treasure you'd read about in fairy tales, a real Aladdin's cave. And there was a dragon guarding it.

              Charlie dropped to her knees and started to help Oz and Elli with their frantic banishing spell preparations, as the dragon turned its head and seemed to take note of the tear in reality linking its cave to their house in San Francisco. It opened its mouth, sent a stream of flame rushing straight toward them?

              Laughing, Avnas waved his hand again and the apparition vanished as if it had never been there. He turned back to the stunned Kirschner, who was on his knees again.

              "No, no," Kirschner moaned, staring at the wall as if he could bring the treasure back just by willing it.

              "I have shown you treasure," said Avnas. "And I no longer need your assistance to gain my freedom."

              Still laughing horribly, the demon stepped forward, out of the circle, free. He almost casually tossed a fireball at Kirschner who collapsed, screaming and burning, and was gone within seconds. A sizeable scorch mark on the polished wood floor was all that remained.

              "Hurry, hurry," Charlie muttered, looking up sharply and springing to her feet at the repeated loud retorts of a gun. With Mike apparently frozen to the spot, Mat had whipped his gun out and was firing at the demon, over and over, with seemingly no effect whatsoever. The demon merely smiled, and laughed, and casually tossed another fireball at him.

              The fireball changed direction in mid air, deflected by Charlie into a corner where it went off with a bang. But she wasn't quite able to re-group in time to completely fend off the next fireball, flung almost instantly in her general direction. Only partially deflected, it caught her a glancing blow on the upper arm as it sailed over Oz's head and out into the corridor. Feeling the rush of hot air pass over him, Oz kept his head down and instinctively raised a hand to check that his hair hadn't caught alight.

              "Get down," Mat screamed at Mike, rushing over to examine Charlie's injured arm, only for her to first push him away, and then grab his arm and pull him to the ground, just in time to avoid another fireball, which took out half the wall just beyond them.

              "Got it," said Elli, who hadn't taken her eyes off her spell preparations throughout all of this.

              There wasn't time to test the stuff before they used it. Not with the demon tossing fireballs all around them. Rising from their half-sheltered spot behind the partially closed door, Oz and Elli each flung a handful of the herbs and incense they'd mixed at the demon and yelled out the words of the banishing ritual before it had time to notice what they were doing and fry them.

              With a howl of rage, Avnas was sucked back into the fiery ring of Kirschner's spell, and vanished, leaving only the flames behind.

              Oz sat down on the floor again and tried to catch his breath. Maybe it was a bit soon after his revival to be trying to do stuff like this.

              "Oh no you don't," said Elli, instantly hauling him back to his feet. "Not with the house on fire."

              With Mat still fussing over Charlie, she took the time to make sure Mike was also with them, as the five stumbled past the flames in the corridor, back down the stairs, and out into the road.

              Once outside the burning house, Mat took charge of proceedings completely, radioing in for the fire department and ambulance, steering anxious neighbours away, and fussing some more over Charlie's injured arm, although Charlie herself seemed more worried about the damage to her sweater than the arm itself.

              "Okay, that was closer than I'm comfortable with," she said, wincing as Mat examined the burn on her arm. "Ow, it's okay, Mat. Just leave it."

              "I want that looked at," he insisted, in a tone that brooked no refusal.

              While Mat bustled around getting things organised, Oz sat on the ground in a weary heap and watched the flames shooting from the window of what had once been a respectable family home. Mike sat down beside him with a hearty sigh, apparently quite happy to let his partner take charge and sort everything out. Elli, meanwhile, stood and gazed down the street at the burning house with the van and police car parked out front, and at the neighbours out in their gardens pointing and staring. Then she looked back at Oz.

              "If you give me your keys," she said, practically minded as always. "I think it might be a good idea to move your van before the fire trucks get here."


              Mike felt like he was dreaming.

              Maybe the whole of the last month had been a dream ? that would actually be kind of nice. He was an officer with the SFPD, and as such had until recently believed that he'd seen everything life had to offer. But this new world he'd been so unexpectedly thrust into was something else entirely, completely beyond anything he'd ever expected to have to deal with.

              And Oz and the others were acting like it was the most normal thing in the world.

              "I can't believe any of that really happened," he sighed, head in hands. "This kind of thing just doesn't happen. Not to people like us." He let out another deep breath, shaking his head. "Give me a good old-fashioned robbery or mugging, any day of the week."

              With both the van and the patrol car safely moved out of harm's way, Mat had taken Charlie over to the ambulance to have her burn examined and dressed, Elli with them, all talking busily. Mike had to wonder how his partner was managing to take all the craziness so much in his stride, unless he was just trying to impress Charlie still, in which case ? good luck to him. He glanced across at Oz, who was still sitting on the ground nearby looking tired.

              "So," he continued, incredulous. "Do you guys do this kind of thing a lot?"

              "Now and then," was Oz's non-committal reply, watching the fire fighters rather than paying attention to the conversation.

              Was that a yes or a no? Or neither?

              "Seems to me like that's more than often enough," said Mike.

              Oz glanced across at him, and elaborated very slightly. "Well, see, the thing is that we don't really have any superheroes lying around," he explained. "So we kind of just do what we can."

              "I think it's incredible," said Mike, thinking that all this mystical stuff was so far out there weren't really words to describe it. "I mean that you can do this stuff; that you know about this stuff. 'Cause, it's like, it isn't real."

              "Oh, there's nothing special about me," Oz solemnly assured him. "The others, maybe. But I'm just trying to get on with my life. Only?stuff keeps happening that I can't walk away from."

              Stuff keeps happening that I can't walk away from. Yeah, like getting shot dead by trigger-happy cops, except that he had ultimately walked away from that one, hadn't he, albeit not entirely unscathed. Mike knew Oz hadn't meant it that way, but still felt a sudden pang as weeks of guilt came crashing back down.

              "I killed you," he found himself saying, without really meaning to.

              Oz looked uncomfortable. "Yeah," he acknowledged. "But, not properly, 'cause ? here I am."

              "I know," said Mike. "But?" He couldn't go on. How were you supposed to talk about things like this?

              Oz looked at him with eyes full of understanding. "The other werewolf, Paul? He died because of me. Really died." He paused, and then softly added, "We've all done stuff we wish we could change."

              Elli's return prevented any further conversation along those lines. "We might want to think about making a move," she said. "We're starting to attract attention."

              Mike gazed dully at the action. "I should really be sorting all this out," he noted, remembering that he was meant to be on duty.

              "I think we've got it covered," said Mat, likewise returning to where they were sitting. "Come on, Mike," he continued, breezily. "Up and at 'em. We've got a believable excuse for all this to dream up before we get back to the station."

              He turned back to Charlie, her arm now in a sling with the burn neatly dressed. "Are you sure you're okay?"

              "I'm fine," she insisted. "The paramedic said I don't even need to go to the hospital. You get off, and then so can we. Just don't expect any of us to give you a formal statement."


              With Mike and Mat having returned to the relative sanity of their normal working lives, Elli drove the others back to the Monico in Oz's van. At the caf?, they found David and Emma waiting anxiously for their return.

              "I take it back," said Emma, the moment they walked in. "Everything I said about everything ? I take all of it back. Anything like this happens again, I want in."

              "Well, I sincerely hope nothing like this does happen again," Charlie told her, sitting down at the counter with a big sigh.

              Oz nodded. "Quiet life, and all that," he murmured, wondering just how likely any of them were to ever achieve that.

              "But if it does," Emma insisted. "I don't care any more if there isn't anything I can do, or if I don't know what I'm doing, or even how dangerous it might be. I'd rather be there with you than sitting at home worrying that maybe me being there to bash a baddy with my umbrella could have made all the difference."

              "Although you've obviously managed to survive without the umbrella assault division this time," David added. "I see damage, though. So sit yourselves down, I'll fix us some drinks, and then you can tell us all about it."


              David and Emma listened to the tale absolutely spellbound.

              "His eyes were that scary?" David asked, awed by their description of the demon Avnas.

              "His all of him was that scary," Charlie confirmed with a tiny shudder.

              "Wow," David breathed. "And I missed it."

              "For which you may be entirely grateful," was Charlie's scathing reply. Diving around dodging fireballs was not her preferred choice of daily activity.

              "And this treasure," said Emma, thoughtfully. "Was it really real?"

              "Who knows?" Elli shrugged.

              "I kinda got the impression it was the demon's idea of a joke," said Oz.

              "Some joke," said David with a grimace. "Give the guy a glimpse of what he wants most just before you fry him."

              Charlie wrinkled her nose. "That was really gruesome."

              "But look on the bright side," Oz remarked. When they all gave him their attention he smiled and nodded. "We made it."



              • #8



                The Old Fella's antique store was all locked up when Oz went over the next day to thank him for the loan of his books and ask if he wanted them back. Way to discourage pesky customers from walking in unannounced.

                They'd stored the books over at Elli's place for the time being, to get them out of the caf? until they could be returned, so Oz headed out back to update her. He found her in the studio, sitting cross-legged on a work surface with the odd stringed instrument he'd seen once before lying in her lap. She wasn't playing it, but sat staring into space looking glum.

                Oz hesitated just inside the door, wondering what was wrong, and whether or not asking would be a good move. She'd been in a funny mood all week.

                "So, I was meaning to ask," he finally said, deciding on a more oblique approach. "Where did you get that?"

                Elli started as if she hadn't noticed him coming in, looked blankly at him for a moment, and then glanced down at the instrument in her lap, connecting it to the question. "I brought it here with me," she told him, her voice and expression pensive. "It used to belong to someone I knew. He taught me to play it. And to shoot, but with arrows, not guns. We don't have those."

                She fell silent again, reflective, miserable almost. If the instrument came from her home world, then maybe whatever was bothering her now was connected to those issues also.

                "Everything okay?" Oz asked, coming fully into the studio and going over to her.

                "Yeah. It's just a bad day," she murmured. "Bad week." She shook her head, and sighed. "Bad mood, sorry. I'm marking an anniversary. It's been a year, since Stephen died."

                That explained a lot, and Oz didn't think there was really anything he could say that would help. He hesitated again, wondering if he should stay or go. She seemed more in a 'quiet company' place than a 'needed cheering up' place, but maybe she'd prefer aloneness to either.

                "Did you want something?" she asked, looking up at him again, her eyes encouraging him to distract her from her mood.

                "Oh. Yeah," he acknowledged, remembering why he'd come over. "The Old Fella's not receiving visitors right now, so I guess you'll have to hang onto the books a bit longer."

                Elli nodded, her eyes fixed to the floor. Then she let out a deep sigh, ran her hands over her face, turned, and gave him one of those searching looks, focusing on him once more.

                "I heard you talking to Mike yesterday," she told him. "I'm sorry, I wasn't trying to listen, but neither of you was being what you'd call discreet." She paused, becoming hesitant. "It still bothers you ? what happened with Paul? I mean, you know it wasn't your fault, right?"

                Taken aback by the sudden shift in the conversation, Oz wasn't sure what to say, how to answer ? his feelings about Paul's death and his part in it were still so confused. Conflicting emotions were never fun.

                "He died because of me," he said at last. "I mean, partly, at least. That's kind of a lot."

                "It is," Elli agreed. "I know you feel responsible. But?" She stopped, and that pensive look came back over her face.

                "Have you ever killed anyone yourself?" she murmured, distantly. "I mean directly, with your hands, and not including vampires and demons, because they really don't count."

                Veruca. It had been a year now, and the memory was still raw: the memory of anger, of desperation, and of emotional pain.

                "Not so much with my hands," he admitted, hesitantly. He hadn't been expecting quite such a serious conversation when he came over. "More with my teeth."


                "A werewolf," Oz explained. "She was trying to kill Willow?"

                He tailed off, remembering. It had been a long time since he allowed himself to really think about Willow and the badness thereof. Meeting Veruca had been the beginning of the end, in so many ways.

                "What happened?" Elli gently prompted.

                "We changed, we fought: I ripped her throat out," Oz stated baldly. Elli had a knack for getting him to talk about these things, and he'd never been able to figure out how she managed it.

                "One of the few instances in which a werewolf will stay dead other than the use of silver," Elli acknowledged. "But did you actually know that you were doing it at the time? Deliberately, I mean."

                Oz hesitated. There was a sort of blurring of the boundaries in that split second before the change, when the primal instincts and desires of the wolf overwhelmed the mind of the human. In theory, he supposed, that should mean the reverse was also true: that the rational intelligence of the human could take hold of the wolf in the pre-change-back moment, but he had no memory of any such thing. Although maybe that was because he was usually asleep when he changed back.

                "I knew I wanted to before I changed," he admitted.

                "But you weren't conscious of actually doing it." She looked him in the eyes, deadly serious. "Did you have a choice?"

                Had there been any alternative? Really? Oz knew deep down that there had been no other way to deal with Veruca at that stage ? she'd been way too far gone, consumed by animalistic desires and instincts to the point where her humanity was totally subsumed. He could only hope, and maybe pray to any god that might be listening, that he never went down that road himself.

                "No," he acknowledged.

                Elli nodded, the look in her eyes impossible to read. "Well, I have," she told him bluntly, and Oz felt his eyes going wide with surprise at this unexpected confession. "Killed, that is. Consciously. With these hands, and more than once. There's always guilt, and there's always regret, but sometimes you really don't have any other choice."

                Oz had no idea how to reply, and realised that the shock he was feeling must be showing on his face.

                Elli sighed deeply. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that. I'm just really tired."

                "Busy times," Oz agreed, still trying to absorb this new information.

                "That too," she wearily admitted. "But I didn't mean physically. "

                Oz sat down and gave her a quizzical look, wondering again where all this was coming from. "What are you tired of?"

                Elli was quiet for a moment, studying the instrument in her lap, and then looked across at him. "Living in limbo," she said, quietly.

                Both were silent for a moment, contemplative.

                Elli abruptly straightened, setting her instrument to one side. "Ignore me," she said in a brisk tone. "I'm just in a funny mood. You've caught me indulging in a homesick moment and I don't do that often." Sighing, she eyed him worriedly. "Oz, do you ever think about getting away from it all? Just for a few days?"

                Oz frowned slightly, wondering what she was getting at.

                Seeing the look on his face, Elli came straight out with what she meant. "I'd like us to hang out at full moon," she told him, watching him closely to see his reaction, her eyes full of both uncertainty for how he would react, and also determination to make him see things her way. "Just the two of us: someplace away from here."

                Oz considered her words from all possible angles, but came to a wolfy conclusion. "You're putting me into isolation."

                Elli hesitated slightly. "I wouldn't have phrased it quite like that," she said. "But yes, in a way, I suppose. I didn't want to insult your intelligence by trying to be subtle."

                Oz understood what she was getting at, and knew that in a way she was right, but pride still compelled him to object.

                "I don't need a babysitter," he protested, and was annoyed at himself for that automatic denial, knowing full well that she hadn't meant it that way, that she was trying to help in the only way she could think of ? and that, truth be told, it was entirely possible that he did.

                He was relieved that she didn't take offence, but calmly replied, "Yes, I know. But I think you do need a break. Recharge the batteries a bit. And I don't really have anything better to do. Except for that math assignment, and ? let's face it, we both know I'm not going to be the one who does that." She paused slightly before going on. "It's always easier to worry about someone else's problems rather than your own, you know. I was trying to imagine how I'd feel, if I were in your situation. I came to the conclusion that I'd probably be a little bit anxious."

                Oz had to acknowledge the truth of that. Repressing the wolf was hard work at the best of times, and these were far from being the best of times. He was way off peak condition, and it was taking so long to regain anything like full strength just for everyday things. How he was going to manage the approaching full moon, with everyone's eyes on him, had been worrying him more than a little.

                "So how do you feel about camping?" Elli asked, playing at being bright and cheerful.

                Oz gave her an enquiring look, unsure where this was leading.

                "Because apparently," she explained. "There are all these little beaches up the coast that no one ever goes to, and some fantastic driftwood gets washed up there at this time of year. It's great for working with, in my line of work, you know. But of course, I don't have any transport of my own?"

                "So, in fact, I'd be doing you a favour?"

                "Reciprocal," she said. "Win-win."

                Oz thought about it. He knew he couldn't go on indefinitely just living from full moon to full moon, but she was offering him an out, for this next month at least, while he was still healing. He decided to go with her suggestion, and put off the problem for another month.

                "Camping sounds like fun," he said, feeling a smile pull at the corners of his mouth. "Just for this month."


                ? J. Browning, February 2005

                *Note: if you run a google check on demons, you'll find that there really is one called Amy. Seriously ? check it out.
                ** The inspiration for Mike and Mat came from Sandoval's City ? Linda Chapple & Angela Field's Sons of Thunder fan-fic spin-off universe, which has sadly now disappeared from the web. A huge shame, as they had some fab stories.

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