The shriek caught Buffy in mid-reach for a handful of popcorn. Her “spidey senses” on instant alert, she quickly twisted her head around, and looked out the front window just as something large and white dropped down from the porch roof overhead and landed in the bushes.
“What the hell was that?” Xander barked, sitting up on his knees.
“I dunno,” Buffy frowned. Wiping her hands on her pants, she jumped to her feet. “But I’m going to find out.”
The others rose to peek out the curtained front window as Buffy made her way toward the weapons chest in the corner of the living room. She selected a short handled axe with a sturdy and sharply curved blade and hefted the weighty piece, deciding it would do just fine. With a bold stride she approached the front door, and throwing it open, stepped outside onto the porch to investigate the strange noise.
“Wait I’m comin’ with,” Xander announced.
Scrambling to his feet, the dark-haired youth scurried over to the still open chest. He quickly snatched up a broad machete-like blade, and hurrying to catch up with the slayer, stumbled out into the night on her heels. Willow jumped up to close the door behind the intrepid duo, and then returning to the window, joined the others in a nervous vigil, watching the pair through the curtains from the safety of the house.
Buffy made her way down the porch steps, her footsteps quiet and virtually undetectable to all but the sharpest ears. Xander followed right behind, his sneakers squeaking as he shuffled along, his heavy, rapid breathing warming the slayer’s exposed neck as he crowded in close to her back.
“What do you think it is?” Xander whispered. His voice rang unnaturally loud in the black night. Gripping his weapon tighter, he continued to shadow his petite blonde companion as she turned left, then slunk silently across the lawn, moving past the line of bushes that grew in front of the house.
“Seeing as it’s nearly Spring,” the slayer hissed back. “I think we can safely rule out a visit from Santa.”
“Right. So, this being Sunnydale, the land of the free-range demon and home of the Hellmouth, I guess that would then leave us with one obvious choice,” Xander quipped back rakishly. “The Easter Bunny’s early this year.”
From somewhere behind the foundation shrubbery ahead came a low, guttural groan. Freezing in her tracks, Buffy held up a hand, cautioning Xander for silence. He immediately complied, his own ears straining to pick up on whatever creature was out there, lurking in the dark. A brittle rustling in the bushes immediately alerted the duo. This was followed by the snap of several twigs, and a surly sounding grumble. Buffy pointed toward the corner of the house where several tall, thorny bushes grew together into in a formidable and rambling mass, and with an acknowledging nod, Xander raised his machete and advanced.
Inside the house, Dawn watched the two hunters fan out and flank their target. Standing on her toes, she tried to see beyond the obstacle of Anya’s shoulder, hoping to catch a glimpse of what was in the suspicious planting. Her need to use the bathroom had been momentarily forgotten, and she hopped up and down, craning her neck to discover what was going on outside.
“Did they find it?” she asked, excitement tinging her anxiety.
“They found something,” Willow replied. The red head pressed her cheek to the cool glass, and peered down at an angle into the bushes that Xander and Buffy had surrounded. “I can’t see what…oh, wait Look Down there ”
Four anxious faces fogged the window as they followed her pointing finger.
“It-it’s moving,” Tara keened, her hands nervously flying to her mouth. And indeed, a pale spectral was rising from behind the shrubbery, its ghostly form staggering side to side like a demented Frankenstein monster.
“Wow It’s big,” Anya announced. The creature stumbled about drunkenly, and as it moved toward Xander, her concern for her boyfriend quickly replaced any initial fascination. Frowning, she rapped her knuckles loudly on the window. “Hey You there You stay away from my Xander, do you hear?”
“What do you think you’re doing?” Grabbing the ex-demon’s hand, Willow silenced her insistent pounding on the glass.
“I’m distracting the monster,” Anya replied. Wrenching back her fist, she knocked on the glass pane again. “If I can get the monster’s attention and make it to look this way, then Xander and Buffy can sneak up on it from behind.”
“Right,” Willow huffed condescendingly. “That’s a great plan. Except for the part where the demon finds out we’re in here, and decides to attack us instead.”
“Oh.” Anya abruptly stopped her tapping, and with a contrite grin toward her companions, meekly slid her hand behind her back. “Sorry.”
“That thing can’t actually break in here and get us, can it?” Dawn queried anxiously.
“I’m sure Buffy would stop it before things got that far,” Tara replied, patting the distraught teen’s arm to comfort her. But the blonde Wiccan took a step backward anyway, and moved further away from the window. Her three companions immediately followed suit, putting several paces between them and the fragile barrier of glass serving as their only armor against the prowling beast outside.
Ignoring the ongoing drama inside the house, Buffy approached the shadow lurking within the bushes before her. It was well hidden by the tall shrubbery. She made out a patch of something pale through the thinner areas of twisted foliage. The outlined silhouette cast on the house behind told her beast looked man-shaped, possibly six foot or so in height. Its upper body had some kind of bulky appendages attached at the back. Or, at least she assumed it was the creature’s back. It was difficult to tell what with the way the thing reeled about so aimlessly.
Bracing herself, the slayer lifted her axe. She held it poised above her head, ready to pounce the moment the mysterious creature appeared. Xander’s machete flashed in the moonlight, prepared to do the same. Suddenly, the monster came springing out of the bushes, jumping at the two of them with a thunderous flap of wings. Xander yelled out a warning, and leapt aside, but she met the attack head on, swinging her axe, the curved blade singing out with menacing intimidation as it sliced through the air. The creature adroitly twisted, its lithe body managing to avoid the blade by scant inches. With an amazing move, it dove over her head, and somersaulted in a flip to land behind her in the moonlit yard.
Out in the open now, Buffy finally got a look at what she was fighting. Her first impression had been right. The demon was humanoid. Amazingly so, in fact. Even though it was presently down on all fours, its body seemed more suited to moving about on two legs, like a man. It had arms and a head, and other body parts similar to those of a human, and what appeared to be a very lean and well-toned figure. In fact, if she’d met him in a club, or at a party, she would have definitely relegated the handsome creature before her to the category of hunkdom. He leaned a little too much on the Fabio side for her personal tastes, perhaps. He had a long, tangled mane of hair that fell over his face, hiding it from clear view. And what with the constantly flapping of its wings, several other critical parts continued to remain an unseen mystery as well, though she could swear the thing was wearing a skirt made from some kind strangely shorn white animal fur.
The bird-beast scrambled to its feet, and Buffy woke from her contemplative stupor to launch an attack. She swiped her axe downward in a powerful arc, aiming for the thing’s skull, but it managed to skillfully deflected the blow with a strong forearm block. Immediately she came back, striking out with a roundhouse kick, and using her body’s spinning momentum to bring the axe blade around for another cut. Once again the creature fended off any serious damage, countering her blows with several deftly executed defensive maneuvers.
Frustrated, the slayer continued her assault. This time she used the handle of her weapon like a staff. Swinging the thick wood, she battered the creature in a vigorous rain of blows, finally connecting with a few solid hits. The demon snarled, its wings slapping around them both as they wrestled in close quarters, trading kick for kick, and exchanging vigorous body slams. It grappled with her for possession of the coveted axe, and dropping to the ground, Buffy pulled the beast with her. The move worked, catching the demon off its guard. With an upward thrust of both legs, the slayer slammed her heels into the demon’s unprotected stomach, tossing the thing up and over her head in a backward flip.
A pained protest punctuated the creature’s rough landing in the grass. Rolling to one side, Buffy quickly scuttled to her feet, but the demon refused to release its hold on her axe. Staggering to its feet, the demon twisted and writhed, dancing in a mirrored pantomime of her every move, as if it could anticipate exactly what she was going to do next.
Great, a telepathic bird-man, the slayer grumbled as she threw a punch. The demon effectively sidestepped her fist, and she felt a well-aimed wing swished dangerously close her face, the feathers practically tickling her cheek. Man, it’s like those things are an extra set of arms How unfair is that?
The creature’s supposed advantage became quickly unseated as Xander leaped into the thick of the fray. With his machete blade hacking at the air, he forced the beast to divide its attention between its assailants. The tide of battle finally turned in the slayer’s favor. She got in a good right upper cut, her fist landing firmly upon the creature’s jaw. A second blow connected with what felt like a nose, and with a wailing howl, the demon fell back, its hands finally releasing the axe as it protectively covered its battered face.
In that moment, Xander saw his opening. With a sword-like thrust, he jabbed his machete at the creature’s ribcage as it was folding its wings around its body. The blade pierced through the mass of feathers, and the demon loosed another heart wrenching caw. To the slayer’s surprise, and her companion’s as well, instead of striking back in retaliation, the bird-man simply abandoned its fight, giving up altogether. Dropping to its knees, it collapsed meekly at their feet, cowering before them in total surrender.
Not one to pass up such a well-presented opportunity, Buffy quickly stepped forward. Bringing the sharp curve of her axe to bear against the submissive creature’s throat, she pressed the blade threateningly to its throbbing jugular.
“If you’ve got a religion, I’d suggest you start praying,” the blonde smirked cattily. “And if you don’t, then your time’s up, bird boy.”
As she leaned her weight into the blade’s cutting edge, the thing gasped and threw up an arm, crying out in mortified panic.
“Buffy, please, wait ”
It had been the creature’s use of her name that initially stayed the slayer’s hand. The familiar accent continued her hesitation, telling her to hold back. Frowning, she stared down at the bird-man with his shaggy tresses and downy wings. She couldn’t see its face, but a strange premonition began to flow through her veins. With a gasp of shock, her eyes locked upon the ring the creature wore on its up thrust hand. It was the second time that day that she had fortuitously noticed the gold band with its black onyx stone, and once again she recognized the piece of jewelry for what it was. Or, rather, who it belonged to. The fact that she knew Giles had been wearing the ring when he went upstairs to shower meant one of two things. Either this creature had been lying in wait in her bathroom with the purpose of attacking the first person so that it could rob him of his jewelry before escaping through an upstairs window, which meant her Watcher was either unconscious or dead, or…
Lowering her axe, Buffy slowly leaned forward, bringing her face down to the creature’s eye level. Tentatively, she reached out her hand, and brushing aside the demon’s long, bedraggled hair, she gazed down into a pair of familiar green eyes. Her jaw dropped open, her mouth gaping in wonder.
“Oh, my God Giles?” she questioned her prisoner accusingly. “What happened to you?”