There was a very definite chill in the night air and it didn’t help that the ground around the pond was dank and damp. Buffy, Xander and Wesley walked the tree-lined embankment’s upper edge, their shadowy shapes weaving in and out of the overgrown brush. This was the blonde slayer’s third time searching the scene and she was actually able to recognize the various pieces of litter lying about, knowing exactly which cans were the most recent additions to the clutter scattered over landscape. Xander had quickly become bored with the seemingly fruitless hunt and was amusing himself by tossing small sticks into the pond and skipping rocks over its surface, trying to better his score from the previous night. Wesley, annoying true to character as always was enthusiastically scanning everything around him, obviously hopeful that he would discover something useful to their investigation that had been missed by everyone else up until then.

“You say this is the area where you had your encounter with the water spirit?” the Englishman asked, peering out over the placid pond. Except for a few small frogs trying to avoid Xander’s haphazard aim, nothing stirred in the water.

“One and the same,” Buffy replied and pointed to a thick choke of vegetation along the shoreline below. “That’s where the Littlest Mermaid turned tail on us and ran, or swam off.” Shivering as a cool breeze penetrated her jacket the teen rubbed her arms, trying to get warm. “I could sure go for a cup of hot chocolate about now,” she mused with a pointed glance in Wesley’s direction. Her voice took on a sharpened edge as she continued. “Giles usually brings a thermos with something hot to drink when we patrol on cold nights.”

“Yeah, but no one brought Giles,” Xander retorted and sent another flat stone flying. He counted the bounces across the water’s surface. “Woo-hoo! Five!” he announced, gleefully cheering for his accomplishment. “A new Sunnydale record!” He began to flap his arms, strutting about in a spirited victory dance that had Buffy grinning in spite of the cold.

“I admit I hadn’t anticipated the cool weather,” Wesley said by way of an apology to his companions. “This is California. However, next time I shall consult the weather reports before we set out and prepare accordingly. And as for Rupert,” he continued in a disapproving tone that was unmistakably tinged with bitterness. “I don’t consider it appropriate for someone of his age to be traipsing about at this late hour of the night. Eight year old boys belong home in bed where they can’t get into trouble.”

“Lighten up, Wesley,” Buffy huffed in complaint to the Watcher. “It’s not even ten o’clock. There are kids awake all over town watching TV right at this very moment. Lucky little twerps.” The last comment she added in an envious mumble that was directed at no one in particular.

Leaning against an old tree Buffy watched quietly as Wesley continued to cast about the undergrowth with his flashlight for evidence. The Englishman gradually made his way down the sloped bank to where Xander stood throwing his stones into the pond. Wesley’s intense concentration on his work reminded Buffy of Giles and the way he had searched this same area only the night before. The loose association of the two British Watchers turned her thoughts toward her librarian friend.

“Wesley,” she frowned, finally asking the question foremost on her mind. “Does Giles really have to go back to England?”

Wesley straightened, his gaze searching the water carefully for any sign of movement as he considered his reply. “The Council believes it prudent he return. They should know what is best.”

“Should?” The girl pouted, challenging his unintentional slip of the tongue. “Then you have doubts?”

“Doubts? Of course not,” Wesley answered, trying his best to sound convincing. He pretended to scan the shoreline, avoiding the slayer’s unwavering stare. “I am behind the Council’s decision completely. They have many years of wisdom and tradition to guide them in matters such as this. I have no reason to believe they aren’t acting in the best interests of everyone involved, including Rupert.”

“Couldn’t you put in a good word for Giles?” Buffy suggested, hoping to inspire sympathy or guilt in the Watcher. “Maybe they’ll let him stay if you said you needed him, you know, to help with research and stuff.”

“But we don’t need him,” Wesley responded curtly, his irritation boiling to the surface. “More to the point, I don’t need him. I’m as well trained in these matters as Rupert and can provide you with more than adequate guidance in the performance of your duties.” He hesitated briefly, his eyes registering momentary concern as he looked at his slayer. “You do believe that, don’t you, Buffy?”

“Oh, yeah, sure,” the teen nodded, dismissing his query with a matter-of-fact shrug. That wasn’t her worry. Buffy thought herself fairly independent as slayers went. There was a certain lack of interest on her part in the homework preparation for the job, but when it came to the actual down and dirty action getting physical with the enemy she could handle things on her own just fine. “Still,” she pressed the Englishman, attempting to niggle further at his conscience. “Wouldn’t it be nice having someone sharing the thankless burdens of your pressured Watcher workload? Think about it, Wes. With Giles around to pick up the slack you could take a day off once in a while, sleep in if you felt like it, even take a vacation. You’d be the absolute envy of all the other Watchers.”

“Tempting to be sure,” Wesley replied, amused by the girl’s not so subtle pleading. “But I have no intention of going against the Council’s orders. Not for any reason.” He spoke with a strong conviction, hoping to stress the firmness of his viewpoint on the issue. “I intend to keep my position as your Watcher for much longer than…”

“Than Giles?” Buffy finished for him. She glowered at the Brit, irked by the inference of his interrupted statement.

“I was going to say three years, but yes,” he retorted, facing the petulant teen. “Buffy, it’s unfortunate that events have taken the turn they have for Rupert. But in the end you and I will be better off for all of this. Oh, I realize that you will miss him for a while,” he said with a genuine attempt at sympathy. Buffy and Xander were both scowling at him and he doubted they understood the sagacity of his words. “But eventually you shall put this behind you and move on. There is so much we have yet to do here in Sunnydale. The Hellmouth isn’t going to close down simply because one of us must leave.”

“Yeah? We’d be happy to test that theory and have you go back instead,” Xander grumbled, coming to the absent Giles’ defense as Buffy glared coldly at the Brit. She was in total agreement with her schoolmate. But the teen’s belligerent attitudes only served to peeve the Englishman who frowned back darkly in return.

“This is not the time or place to debate these issues,” Wesley argued brusquely with a wave toward the pond. “Especially not when we have a malevolent water demon on the prowl somewhere out there. Difficult as it is, we must set aside personal differences in times such as these and concentrate on the real enemy. And I’m sure that if he were here Rupert would tell you the same. Having been a Watcher he would understand duty comes before all else.”

“Wesley, can’t you for once drop that tired sacred duty and responsibility crap and think like the rest of us in the real world?” she angrily confronted the man. “Don’t you see what this is doing to Giles? Not just this thing with him turning into a little kid again, but everything that’s happened, like the Council firing him. You taking his job. It’s killing him inside, Wes! Being a Watcher has been Giles’ entire life. You can’t separate him from his books and ship him off somewhere and say ‘okay, problem solved now’,” she said, her hands making appropriate quotation marks in the air for emphasis. “This Watcher stuff will be with Giles until he dies. It’s not just what he does. It’s what Giles is!” Her green eyes flashed with emotion as Buffy began to move toward Wesley, pausing to catch her breath before plunging on with her tirade. “And if your precious Watcher’s Council is so blind they can’t see that, then maybe you should tell them. Because if you won’t, Wesley, I will. And I’ll do it my way, up close and very personal!”

The slayer had maneuvered herself into the Watcher’s personal space as she finished her speech with a prominent display of clenched fists. In spite of the teen’s intimidating presence Wesley didn’t wilt or back away under the pressure of her implied threat. He stood his ground posturing haughtily with his head held high, staring at the petite young blonde with the boldness of righteous indignation.

“Uh, guys?” Xander had been listening to the pair argue when he noticed something move out in the water. There was a definite rippling spreading out from the pond’s center, the moon’s luminescence reflecting to highlight the pond’s undulating surface in a bull’s eye effect. Alerted by the tense tone in his voice Wesley and Buffy halted their discussion, their gazes following Xander’s pointing finger.

The water began to simmer and froth within the outwardly circling ripples as something bubbled just below the dark waters. Suddenly A head popped up from the foam. Xander and Buffy immediately recognized the girl from the other night. Tossing back her long wet tresses the mysterious swimmer lifted her face toward the moon, presenting a beautiful profile to her audience on shore. Even at that distance they could see her bucolic smile as she basked in the soft lunar illumination, letting the pale light wash over her glistening skin. It was almost as if she were absorbing the moon’s strength through its silvery gossamer rays.

“That’s her!” Buffy announced in a loud stage whisper, her argument with Wesley completely forgotten. She felt a familiar warning tingle inside her that said danger was nearby. “Wesley,” she smiled, nodding toward the Englishman. “Say hello to Xander’s friend, Ariel.”

“Hello, indeed!” Wesley reply was full of awed wonder as he observed the creature before them. She was swimming in slow leisurely circles, her body barely disturbing the water’s surface. Long hair of some indiscriminate pale color trailed behind her, fanning out over the water and glistening in the moonlight. The demon’s human guise was remarkably convincing, and deceptively cunning. It appeared to be no more than a beautiful slip of a young girl who’d come out for a refreshing dip in the pond, innocent and carefree, an inviting sight to behold.

Xander paced nervously at the shore’s edge. He was uncomfortably aware of the girl’s seductive charms as well as the subsequent consequences of someone who was unlucky enough to give in to them. Casting a wary eye toward the creature swimming in the pond he reminded himself this wasn’t just your average everyday variety of luscious Lorelei. This thing was dangerous, not to mention deadly. She had a list of victims at least a mile long with his own name already penciled in as the next possible addition to her collection of hapless paramours.

“Fascinating,” the Englishman remarked, his whispering voice hissing softly as he watched the creature gracefully dive under the water’s surface and stay submerged for several minutes. “She seems to be equally adept at breathing above the water as she does below. Simply fascinating!”

“Sounds like our Vulcan friend here has never seen a real live mermaid before,” Xander quipped with a glance back over his shoulder at his companions.

“I’m afraid I must confess that I haven’t at that,” the Englishman replied with uncharacteristic modesty. “Though technically she isn’t a mermaid. Not in the true sense of the word. Mermaids are reputedly saltwater creatures inhabiting the seas and oceans. This pond is fresh water.”

“Well, maybe by your standards it’s fresh,” Buffy muttered as she eyed a bit of rotting, scum-coated vegetation floating by. “What was it you called her? An Arugula?”

“A Rusalka,” Wesley corrected, sidling closer to the pond’s edge for a better view. “A water divinity common to Slavic lore. They were once thought to be the incarnation of drowned virgins, beautiful amphibious princesses if you will.” His stiff features softened, taking on a romantic glow as he related the creature’s tale for the teens. “In the spring they would leave their underwater world to dance in nearby fields under the light of a moon, garlands of flowers crowning their heads. Seeking love they walked the shores in search of mortal companionship, choosing the handsomest young men to be their consorts. Sadly, those unfortunates they brought back to live with them in their watery kingdom would drown, leaving the Rusalka doomed to remain alone forever, pining for love that would never be.”

Wesley heaved a sigh, obviously affected by the romantic notion of a beautiful girl in wait for her perfect prince. Buffy giggled, amused by the Watcher’s goofy expression while Xander grinned along with her. Realizing he was behaving with less than professional demeanor Wesley cleared his throat to cover his momentary embarrassment and regained some semblance of composure.

“Or so the legend goes,” the Watcher said, finishing his lecture on a lame note.

“Hear that, Xander?” Buffy teased her classmate. “You missed out on your chance to be The Freshwater Prince of Fullers Pond.”

“Thanks, but I’ll think I’ll skip the kiss of death thing and stick to being a toad,” the dark-haired teen jibed back. “Especially if it means I get to stay alive.”

“Yes, well, suffice it to say, the truth behind the fairy tale is usually less than appealing,” Wesley agreed, launching into another bout of educational sermonizing. “This particular water demon sucks the life breath out of its victims, leaving them very decidedly dead. And as you yourself have seen first hand, Xander, the Rusalka can be as cunning as she is alluring. Once entranced, her prey seldom manages to escape the power of her clutches. You’re a very lucky young man.”

“Note to self,” Xander responded in mock seriousness as he pantomimed writing in some imaginary notebook. “Play the Lotto.”

“That’s one sure fire way to end any lucky streak you might have going,” Buffy chuckled good-naturedly.

The Rusalka had finally resurfaced and was once again amusing herself by swimming in wide, lazy circles. Wesley stared at the girl-like creature, a giddy smile creeping across his face as he watched her splashing about joyously in the moonlight.

“Quite the fetching creature, isn’t she?” he murmured in an appreciative, hushed tone. The teens gave the Englishman an odd look. Wesley seemed hypnotized by the young nymph-like spirit, his eyes following her movements with very keen, un-Watcherly interest. “Yes, truly amazing. You wouldn’t think anything so beautiful would be capable of inflicting harm.”

“I’ve got a leather jacket at home that says different,” Buffy retorted sharply. She was not impressed by the creature’s human appearance. “But why take my word for it, Wes? We can drop by the morgue later and ask her last victim what he thinks.”

“Your point is well taken. We mustn’t allow her appearance to lull us into a sense of false security. These creatures can be quite deadly.”

“Now he tells us,” Buffy huffed sarcastically.

“So, how do we take her out?” Xander interjected, looking to the Watcher for an answer. “Stake? Silver bullet? Harpoon?”

Wesley was quiet. He seemed to be ruminating over the proposed question.

“In truth, there isn’t all that much written about how to kill a Rusalka,” he finally replied. “The cross is reputed to be a protective deterrent. There are circle magics that can be used to trap the beasts, for purposes of enslavement, but the spells are merely a temporary solution at best.”

“Wes, we don’t want from temporary,” the blonde slayer hissed in a derisive whisper. “We’re looking for something a little more permanent here, as in deceased. Dearly departed. Dead.”

“Well, the books didn’t say-” the Englishman started, but before he could finish his reply Xander had interrupted him.

“I think we can dispense with the cloak and dagger covert operations,” he informed the others, dropping any further pretense at whispering. “I think she knows we’re here.”

The trio turned toward the Rusalka. As Xander had indicated she was very much aware of them. Her eyes were locked in a direct, piercing stare, watching them curiously, without any sign of fear. After a few moments she began to swim toward the shoreline, her pale head slowly bobbing in and out of the water. Her movements were graceful and sinuous, her approach barely raising a wake as she glided silently across the pond. About twenty feet from the shoreline she came to a stop, treading water as she regarded the three with a sweet smile upon her pert lips.

“Okay, Wes,” Buffy said to her Watcher. “How do I reel her in?”

“It doesn’t appear she would intend to cooperate by coming ashore,” the Watcher frowned, nervously fiddling with the buttons of the suit jacket he wore. “You shall obviously have to go in after her. I would keep to the shallows as much as possible. The water may put her at a bit of an advantage.”

“Gee! It’s a good thing we brought you along,” Buffy snorted with a derisive roll of her eyes toward the Watcher. “I’d have never figured that one out?”

The Britisher regarded the young blonde with cool disdain, insulted by her flippant and disrespectful attitude. But Buffy was concentrating on her adversary, working out her plan of attack. She was too preoccupied to give any notice to Wesley. Several thoughts were running through the slayer’s head, among them the fact that the pond had been quite chilly when she had jumped in to rescue Xander the other night. She was not looking forward to another freezing dip in Swamp Lake.

“Okay, anything special I should know before I get my feet wet?” Buffy removed her jacket, tossing it on the ground at her feet. She mentally whipped herself for not asking Wesley to stop by her house so that she could pick up an extra set of dry clothes to change into later. It looked like tonight was going to be a wet instant replay of the previous evening.

“There is one thing that might bear considering,” Wesley replied, watching the girl ready herself to do battle against the water demon. “The Rusalka may be immortal.”

“That goes without saying,” Xander retorted, his wary eyes never leaving the girl in the pond. “She isn’t wearing a bathing suit.”

“I said immortal!” Wesley snapped back irritably. “Not immoral.”

The Watcher sighed, his patience worn thin. Could either of these two ever be serious, he asked himself. How did other Watchers deal with such impertinence? He would have to consult his journals to see if there were any helpful passages or insights concerning such behavior.

“As an immortal,” he continued, having recaptured his composure once again. “The Rusalka may not be susceptible to the methods one usually uses to dispatch a living being.”

“Always something to make it a little bit tougher,” Buffy retorted with a sour grumble.

Giving the demon girl one last look Buffy turned and walked back up the grassy bank toward the tree line where a weapons stash lay spread out on the ground. Wesley had brought an assortment of medieval arms from the library’s armament, and in addition Buffy had made the Brit stop off at a local sporting goods store for a few other items she claimed were essential. The Watcher finally discovered what his countryman had been alluding to when he’d asked after his banking references. The blonde teen had cruised through the store, gathering together the oddest collection of items, some of which Wesley couldn’t begin to imagine any possible use for. Sixty some dollars later they walked out of the shop, outfitted for what could only be described as a sportsman’s ultimate fishing expedition in Hell.

Hunkering down beside the stash of items they had carried down to the pond earlier Buffy rifled though the eclectic-looking array. There was a wicked looking fillet knife, its sharp ten-inch blade perfect for stabbing and gutting the largest of fish. Several spools of heavy weight steel test line, a variety suitable of deep-sea fishing and lengths of chain to bind the creature once it was captured were neatly coiled in separate piles. Wooden stakes, some heavy duty gaffing hooks, a fishing net with lead weights and a medieval-like bolas with metal chain traces connecting its three spiked heads added to the miscellaneous assemblage. A long bladed sword and two battle axes shined dangerously in the moonlight next to one of Buffy’s favorites, a deadly crossbow and its more than ample supply of projectile bolts.

“I do think you may have gone a bit overboard on supplies,” Wesley remarked, walking up behind the slayer to peer over her shoulder. “It’s all well and good to be prepared, but is all this really necessary?”

“We’ll find out soon enough,” the girl replied, selecting one of the bolts from the pile. She used its sharp point to pierce the plastic wrapping on a spool of line, which she then proceeded to carefully bind onto its opposite end. Wesley observed with rapt curiosity how she did the same to several of the other missiles, securing the line and laying each arrow out separately so that lines didn’t tangle. Buffy seemed to be improvising as she went along, fashioning unusual weapons out of the pieces of equipment at her disposal. She tied weights to the edges of the netting, strapped the gaffing hooks to either ends of a length of chain. Two sturdy branches of green wood from a nearby tree were sharpened to become spears. Soon the slayer had a complete arsenal of weapons before her to use against the demon.

As Buffy diligently double-checked each knot and tied binding she became aware of a faint sound echoing out over the pond behind her. The soft, melodious humming was instantly familiar and she jerked her head around to scan the water. The Rusalka girl was doing her singing thing and that could only mean badness.

Her gut tightening Buffy quickly loaded the crossbow with its specially prepared bolts as she glanced anxiously about her. Wesley was there, standing at her side, but she couldn’t see Xander. Not anywhere. He had disappeared. Grabbing her knife Buffy tucked it into the waist of her slacks. Scooping up several more of her weapons she shot upright and thrust the crossbow with its attached lines into a startled Wesley’s hands.

“Use this if you have to,” she told the Brit who fumbled to hold onto the weapon, juggling it with the flashlight he already held. Before he could recover his wits Buffy was off and running, heading straight toward the pond. She had located Xander near the water’s edge, wading through the thick reedy vegetation. She would have to hurry if she expected to catch up with him before he got in too deep.

Leaping down the bank the blonde landed in the shallows with a loud splash. Without breaking stride she charged through the water with its tangled mat of weeds, yelling instructions back over her shoulder at the Englishman on shore.

“Try not to tangle the line in the bow,” she warned to the Brit. “And whatever you do, don’t hit me!”

Wesley grunted, finally managing to grip his flashlight in one hand and get his weapon positioned in the other. He looked up as the petite blonde slayer dove into the pond below, her lithe form parting through the marshy vegetation to follow a recently cut path. It was several minutes before he came to the realization that Xander was gone. Directing his flashlight beam over the dark pond he searched the waters, looking for some movement other than Buffy’s frantic actions as she swam toward some distant target.

His light found the creature. Its features were starkly pale against the black stillness of the surrounding waters. A lilting serenade spilled forth from its open mouth, carrying back across the pool and echoing eerily in the night air. Shaking his head to dispel the entrancing sounds the Watcher swung his light first left, and then right, sweeping the beam in a wide arc. The spotlight caught a lone figure submerged waist high and slowly wading out into the pond’s depths. Wesley immediately knew it was the boy, Xander Harris.

Remorse instantly flooded the Watcher’s conscience. He never should have turned his back on the youth. His thoughtlessness had put the boy’s life in jeopardy. While he had been immersed in uselessly supervising Buffy’s weapons preparations the Rusalka had managed to lure Xander into the water, urging him into a dangerous situation with her hypnotic crooning. Now she had the teen in some sort of trance, the boy blindly stumbling toward her, oblivious to the impending threat of his predicament.

Her body wracked by shivers Buffy swam through the sedge grasses, swiftly closing the gap between herself and Xander. Her legs were beginning to feel numb from the cold water, her wet clothes and the added burden if the weapons she carried slowing her progress. She considered dropping the spear in her hand, but the sight of Xander’s dark head only a few feet away encouraged her to push on. Several strong strokes soon brought her within range and as she stretched out her fingertips, she clutched desperately at the sleeve of her friend’s jacket.

“Xander!” Buffy panted, spitting the tainted pond water from her mouth. “Xander, don’t listen to her!”

Buffy tightened her grip on Xander’s arm, trying to find some purchase for her feet in the slippery muck below. She pulled back and managed to stop Xander’s forward movement if only for a moment. The boy began to totter, thrown off balance by her insistent tugging and the shifting of the soft, decaying silt underfoot. Suddenly the boy went down, his head dipping under the water’s surface as he fell back against the slayer. The momentary interruption of the demon’s siren song was enough to allow the teen to awaken from his enchantment and he instinctively lashed out, arms flailing as he struggled to the surface again.

Sputtering and coughing Xander popped upright, staggering as he fought to regain his footing. With a shake of his head he flung his wet hair back from his face and did a quick assessment of his situation. He was standing waist deep in the pond, cold and wet, but thankfully very much alive. His head continued to echo with the fleeting and eerie strains of a demonic aria and realization quickly set in. Once again he had nearly become fish food. Slamming a fist down in the water he let out with an exasperated groan.

“Oh, man! Not again!” the anguished teen grumbled aloud. “Why do these things keep happening to me?”

Xander twisted his body around, trying to make out a landmark on shore that would help him get his bearings. An instinctual shudder crept up his spine, but it had nothing to do with the chill in the air. He couldn’t move. Someone was holding onto him. Or was that a something? But his dazed mind barely had time to finish formulating that thought before he was once again assaulted by the Rusalka’s insistent song. The creature’s voice penetrated his being, beckoning to him, telling him to forget his friends, ignore his surroundings. Suddenly nothing existed in his world but the music’s irrepressible lure. And it was only the slayer’s strong grasp on his sleeve that restrained Xander and kept him from follow the singing water demon deeper into the pond.

Buffy grunted as she wrestled with her friend and tried to maneuver him shoreward to safety. Her effort was hampered somewhat by the assortment of weapons she carried, but eventually she managed to drag Xander to a shallower area where she finally could get firmer footing. Throughout their retreat the creature continued to trill her song of enticement, her voice becoming shriller and louder as her prey moved further and further away.

An expression of vexation fell over the Rusalka’s beautiful features as it finally realized Buffy had stolen its prize yet again. Raising her eyes to the moon her throat erupted with an angry inhuman bellow. Gone was the melodious tune she had crooned so sweetly. Her rage was focussed into a keening cry, a venomous shriek that ripped across the pond, cutting the blackness of night like a knife as it ascended the upper ranges of the tonal scale. And as the scream reached its peak the girl shot upward, leaping several feet into the air amid an exploding fountain of spray. Then with a flash of silvery pale flesh she flipped and dove back into the dark water, disappearing from sight below a violent burble of foam crested waves.

Buffy felt her slayer instincts shift into immediate hyper-drive. Scanning the spot where the demon had vanished she searched the rippled waters for some sign of her vanished enemy. But the Rusalka was nowhere to be seen, a fact that made the blonde extremely nervous. The girl had pulled this same Houdini act the night before and nearly got the best of her. She wasn’t about to let that happen again.

Helped the drenched Xander to his unsteady feet Buffy gave her classmate a good shaking to awaken him. Without the girl’s song to bewitch him the boy came to his senses quickly, this time making a full recovery of all of his perceptive faculties. With a sheepish grin Xander regarded his savior, his hazel eyes communicating his heartfelt appreciation as he mumbled an obligatory thanks.

But Buffy was still worried about the Rusalka making another one of her unannounced appearances. Giving her friend a firm but encouraging nudge she nodded toward the shore, hinting that they should go. Xander immediately picked up on the urgency of the slayer’s wordless gesture and, with the blonde hovering protectively at his back, he turned and began sloshing his way through the shallows, heading for the safety of dry land.

Stuffing his flashlight into his jacket Wesley hurried down the bank to meet the two teens. Buffy handed the damp Xander over to her Watcher, leaving the man to tend to her friend as she turned her attentions back toward the pond. The Englishman accepted his responsibility without protest, ignoring Xander’s drenched condition and offering the boy his free shoulder upon which to lean.

Guiding the youth up the grassy slope Wesley staggered toward the tree line above. There he gently eased Xander toward the ground, watching with genuine concern as the boy sagged to his knees, overcome by a fit of wet coughing as he tried to clear his lungs of the last remaining traces of pond scum.

Satisfied that the teen wasn’t hurt Wesley looked back toward the water to see what his slayer was doing. Buffy was submerged waist deep just beyond the swath of marsh reeds, waiting with a spear in one hand and the net poised to throw in her other. The blonde was bent in a fighter’s crouch as she waded slowly forward, her head moving fluidly from side to side as she cast about in search of her invisible enemy.

Repositioning her feet carefully in the slippery silt below Buffy edged away from the cover of the tall water grasses. In her last encounter with the creature she had fought it in the tangles of marsh weeds near shore. This time she had decided to position herself out in the open water. There she could get a clear shot at anything that came her way. The tactic might leave her exposed, but it would also allow full use of her special arsenal of weapons. And any edge she could get at this point would be helpful.

The water was cold and an uncomfortable. Buffy clenched her teeth, stifling their chattering, her slayer senses fine-tuned to their limits. She knew the Rusalka was somewhere nearby. She could feel it. As her eye trailed over the mirrored surface of the pond she saw something moving past her in the dark water, stirring up a gentle current as it glided by. With a swift thrust Buffy attacked, jabbing her makeshift spear downward. But the sharpened tip had struck nothing solid.

Hefting her weapon Buffy waited for another chance. It came only seconds later. Something brushed against her, something alive. Suddenly she felt sharp claws ripping at her leg. She stabbed instinctively, aiming her spear at the fleeting pale shadow in the water. This time there was very definitely contact. The spear was wrenched free of her grip as it hit its target. There was a wild thrashing of water and the Rusalka broke the surface of the water in front of her, screeching like the demon that she was. Her beautiful features were twisted into a mask of savage animalistic fury as she glared at the blonde slayer, glaring at her with intensely evil intent.

Buffy saw that her spear had pierced the creature’s shoulder from the back, its angle of entry directing the point down into the ribcage below. In a normal person the wound would have punctured a lung, done some serious damage. But except for its enraged display the creature didn’t seem in the least bit incapacitated by the attack. The teen watched as the girl reached up and behind, clawing at the stick that protruded from her back. She snapped off its end and flung the broken piece aside with disdain. Her luminous green eyes flashed in the moonlight as the demon turned its attention toward the waiting slayer.

The Rusalka snarled and bared a mouthful of glistening sharp teeth. With a sweep of her arms she lunged out at Buffy, who met the movement with a high placed kick to the demon’s sternum. Knocking the creature backward into the water with a splash the teen lashed down at the waves with her freed hand. But the creature was already gone, having disappeared once more beneath the dark waters.

Immediately the blonde prepared herself for the wounded creature’s next charge. She was panting lightly, the adrenaline flowing freely through her body in anticipation of the Rusalka’s return. Buffy shifted her hold on the net in her hands, shaking out its folds, grasping the open mesh lightly by its corners. Sparing a brief glance toward the shore Buffy reassured herself that Xander had made it back all right. She saw that he was safe with Wesley. The pair was standing at the top of the bank, faces taut and registering concern that was visible even at that distance.

As Wesley trained his flashlight beam in her direction, Buffy was momentarily blinded by the round bright light as it bounced off the water's surface around her. Buffy felt her alertness intensify, and she anxiously searched the sparkling ripples for her demon quarry, concentrating beyond the distracting glimmer of the reflected illumination.

An eerie quiet fell over the pool. Nothing moved. Every duck, every frog had gone into hiding as if aware that something was about to happen. Even the fish had retreated to the pond’s other end, avoiding the seething creature that swam frantically beneath the dark waters. From within the pond’s depths began a quaking. The basin’s waters rippled outward in a rushing current, sweeping across the murky floor. Buffy felt the tremors beneath her cold feet as an undertow stirred the silted bottom and created waves that slapped at the shoreline. Her heart began to pound faster, her breath hissing sharply in anticipation. This wasn’t some earthquake that had made the ground beneath her feet vibrate and tremble. It was something supernatural, a warning that big trouble was on its way. Muscles tensed and quivering the teen readied herself for the attack she knew was on its way.

“Uh, did you just feel that?” Xander had been resting doubled over on the ground, but at the strange trembling he sat sharply upright, his complexion paling in shock. He glanced toward Wesley, who was speechless for the moment, his own apprehensions growing. With a nervous swallow Xander fought the wave of fear rising in his belly. “Something tells me that can’t be good,” he said to the Watcher.

“I’m afraid you may be correct,” Wesley replied in a tone that wavered shakily. There had been no mention of anything like this in the texts he had consulted. Rusalki were deadly to be sure. They were well known for cruelly drowning their hapless victims. But this appeared to be an aspect of their power that hadn’t been mentioned previously.

Wesley’s mind raced in panic, trying to find some reasoning behind what was happening. Perhaps mere mortal prey was so easily taken by the creatures that they had no need to display this particular surprising development, he thought to himself. Apparently Buffy’s slayer strength was a challenge for the Rusalka, forcing it to resort to a new form of attack. The Englishman could only speculate uneasily what that would be.

Bracing against the ground’s unnatural movements the blonde teen waited. The quaking died and the silence returned, blanketing the pond with its ominous weight. From somewhere in the distance Buffy could hear the sound of two people talking, their conversation carrying across the still waters and echoing like ghostly voices in the dark. The others seemed to have picked up on the noise as well, their expressions belying the creepy vibes they all seemed to be feeling at that moment.

Goosebumps tightened the flesh on Xander’s body as he shuddered in his damp clothing. He wasn’t ashamed to admit he was afraid. Okay, maybe not out loud, or to the man standing next to him. But he was willing to acknowledge that he had certain amount of trepidation, not to mention a healthy dose of panic on the rise. It was only his deep concern for Buffy’s safety that helped him set aside his fears and remain where he was on the chance that he might be needed at some crucial moment to help. Xander Harris might be a chickenhearted fool, but he was a loyal chickenhearted fool when it came to his friends.

The icy water encircled Buffy’s hips, numbing her lower torso as she waited for the creature to show itself. A minute passed, and then another. Her feet began to feel leaden, the chill penetrating her boots. She searched for any sign of life around her, but could see nothing in the murky blackness of the water except the moon’s bright reflection.

When the attack finally came it was hard, fast and seemingly out of nowhere. Buffy felt something slam her knees hard from behind, knocking both her legs out from under her at once. The teen went down with a violent splash, her net flying up into the air. One of the corners remained tangled in the crook of an outstretched finger and she quickly closed her fist around the tenuous purchase, rolling sideways in the water to avoid becoming entangled in her own snare.

Submerged in the frigid darkness Buffy began to thrash wildly, trying to find the pond’s bottom with her feet again. Something grabbed at her leg. Razor-like claws penetrated her clothing and boot, sinking into the fleshy of her calf. As the talons cut deeper into the muscle Buffy stifled the impulse to gasp. Her thoughts raced as she was swept along beneath the water, towed by the unseen creature in its flight. She was being drawn deeper out into the pond, away from the shore, away from any help she might need. She had to do something to stop this.

Kicking out with her free leg Buffy found the bottom of the pond and dug her foot into the thick muck. Mud and pieces of rotting debris swirled upward, clouding the water as her entrenched heel offered a dragging resistance against the creature’s pull. To her surprise the claws suddenly released their hold, tearing several nasty scratches along her leg and shredding her slacks into ribbons in the process. Wasting no time the teen struck out, righting herself and swimming upward toward a supply of much needed oxygen.

Buffy broke through to the water’s surface, her lungs sucking in air with a loud gasp. Bobbing lightly in the water she sought out the horizon. The shore was over fifty feet away. Realizing that she had to get back to the shallows if she expected to fight the Rusalka Buffy began to swim toward the spot of light she recognized as Wesley’s flashlight. Moving in the water wasn’t easy. Her arms felt dead from the penetrating chill that had set in and she paddled slowly, her hand dragging her net below. Her leg throbbed where the creature had left ten long scratches from mid-calf to the top of her boot and she idly wondered if she’d managed to ruin yet another pair of favorite footwear. She was definitely going to have to write a letter to the Watcher’s Council and set up some kind of clothing budget. As for her wounds, she would have to attend to them later. Hopefully her mother would never find out what had happened.

Buffy swam with a purposeful, steady rhythm until she finally could put both her feet down and touch the pond’s mushy bottom again. Wading now toward the shoreline her eyes continued to scour the pool around her. The elusive Rusalka was nowhere to be seen, lying in wait for another attack. Buffy kept herself on the alert, surveying her surroundings with great care, mindful of each little movement across the water that might hint at where her adversary lurked.

Breathing a grateful sigh Wesley felt almost giddy with relief as his light found the slayer splashing about in the shallows. Buffy was drenched to the skin, her blonde hair dripping rivulets as she slogged her way perpendicular to the shoreline. The teen looked absolutely miserable, but she was undrowned if not unharmed by her brief clash with the Rusalka. Wesley couldn’t help but notice she was slightly favoring one leg, her limp hinting at a possible injury. He made a mental note to ask her about that later. Luckily he kept a first-aide kit packed in his vehicle for just such emergencies.

The teen came to an abrupt halt, her neck snapping around to focus on something in the water behind her. Wesley tensed, watching as the girl began to walk cautiously, her hands shaking the twisted snarls out of the net she held. At almost the same instant Wesley and Xander saw the foaming roil of water to the girl’s left. They yelled out a warning, but Buffy had already sensed the danger and had turned to confront it. A pale shape broke up through the pond’s surface less than four feet away from the teen and she threw her net, letting it fly. The rope web unfurled and found its intended target, enveloping the Rusalka as it rose to its feet and stood upright before the slayer.

Buffy allowed herself the luxury of a smug grin. Her aim had been perfect. With the demon caught in her net she could attack without fear of its sharp nails doing any major damage. Withdrawing her knife from the waistband of her slacks she held it aloft, waiting for the opportune moment to plunge the blade into the creature’s heart. Then she would see just how immortal this thing really was.

The figure under the net unleashed a near deafening bellow of resentful anger. It was a sound so huge that it amazed Buffy as she wondered how it could have come from something with such a small body. But as she and the others watched it became shockingly apparent how the improbable noise was possible. For emerging up out of the pond, the net a mere veil over its head, was an enormous demonic beast.

As the Rusalka stretched to its full height it towered over the young slayer by at least three heads in length. Hand-like front limbs uncurled from beneath the net, ripping it into useless shreds with long, wickedly curved talons. From the creature’s skull radiated an impressive crest of webbed spines that framed its hideous face from ear to ear, or rather where the ears would have been if they had stuck out enough to be seen. A delicate feathery fringe of flesh fluttered from what appeared to be gills at the demon’s jaw, the decorative ruffling falling around its muscular shoulders much like hair. The impressively iridescent coloring of the thin wisps fairly rivaled the brilliance of a peacock’s tail in their range of hues. Smooth skin that was silvery and pale like the belly of a fish covered the rest of the visible portions of creature’s body, the minute scales glittering in the moon’s soft light. There was little resemblance between the form of the beautiful young girl the demon had first appeared as and this amphibious creature into which she had apparently transformed herself. Buffy found herself hoping that the thing would turn back into something a bit less intimidating to look at. That was when she saw the face hiding under the net and truly became grossed out.

As it tore away at the remains of its shroud the Rusalka revealed features that were only remotely humanoid. Buffy gazed up into eyes that were large, round and sickly luminous green. A gaping, fish-like maw filled with multiple rows of thin, pointed teeth opened, revealing the fleshy tube of a blue tainted tongue. Worst of all was the powerful smell that the beast exhumed as it exhaled, a scent reminiscent of rotting fish and the malodorous decay of death. It was almost enough to induce nausea and the blonde wrinkled her nose instinctively in protest, waving a hand at the air before her to clear it of the foul stench.

“Whoa baby!” the teen gagged, leaning back. “Someone need to fill you in on the important value of flossing and good dental hygiene!”

As if in response to the insult the beast let out a roar of rage, its mantled fringes quivering in a display that was obviously meant to frighten its prey into submissive defeat. Ejecting the tube-like appendage from its mouth Buffy quickly realized her first assumption as to its purpose had been a mistake. This thing was not the demon’s tongue. It writhed with a life of its own, snaking toward her from deep inside the Rusalka’s mouth where it looked as if it were a section of its throat turned inside out. Recoiling Buffy shuddered in disgust as the fleshy tentacle began to ooze a trail of frothy slime from its open tip, the mucous-like substance dripping into the pond to form an oily slick on the water’s surface. This was not at all what she had expected. But Buffy was the Slayer, and as such she didn’t give up easily. So with a swift forward thrust she delivered the blade of her knife into the creature’s exposed gut.

Its angry trumpet booming across the pond the beast slashed out in retaliation at the girl. But its arms were short and Buffy was small and fast. Leaning to one side she avoided the swipe of the dangerous curved claws then pulled her arm back, attempting to remove her knife from the Rusalka’s gut. But the weapon was stuck fast. It wouldn’t budge. This left the slayer with one weapon. Her body. Buffy fervently hoped it would be all that she needed.

The teen was experiencing increasing difficulty at getting around in the pond. Not only was the water’s temperature numbingly cold, but the added energy it took to simply push through the liquid made every movement that much more of a struggle. Buffy decided to steer the fight over toward a shallower area. There she could maneuver with greater dexterity. Slowly she began to back away. The Rusalka obligingly cooperated, following her step for step as she slowly sloshed closer toward the shoreline, retreating to where the water barely reached above her ankles. Coming to a stop the blonde teen made her stand against the oversized water demon.

“So, you think you’re the big fish in this pond?” she taunted the beast as it growled menacingly at her with a wet, rumbling noise. “Well, I don’t like it when some wanna be mermaid starts messing with my friends!”

Buffy launched herself at the demon, jumping with both feet. One kick ricocheted off the beast’s slimy chest, the other catching the Rusalka squarely in its teeth. The force of her momentum carried the slayer up and over in a complete flip that landed her in the shallows with a drenching splash. Immediately she crouched down low, going into a clockwise spin, her right leg extended outward. She side slammed the creature’s thigh, but the thing barely stumbled as it reached out to swat at her with its thin arms. She easily avoided the clumsy swipes, ducking and blocking each swing of the clawed hands. Then she struck out her own arm with an uppercut punch to the demon’s jaw, smacking the target over her head with a firm blow of her sharp knuckles.

Baring the glistening expanse of its formidable teeth the Rusalka threatened the girl with a wet growl. Its huge eyes glowed madly as it made a lunge for the slayer. The beast reached out to entrap her in its taloned embrace, but Buffy wasn’t in any mood for touchy-feely demon hugs. Withdrawing from the creature’s short-limbed range she danced lightly to one side as the demon made another grab. She whipped around in a roundhouse kick, her foot connecting with the creature at the small of its back. The Rusalka lurched off balance, toppling forward into the pond at the slayer’s feet. Buffy quickly grabbed hold of a slimy leg, and with a grunt she heaved the demon tail over head onto its back.

Thrashing its limbs wildly the creature raised waves of spray and foam to drenched the already soggy teenager. Buffy had discovered that the thing did indeed have a tail, a short and thickly muscled appendage that lashed the water into a muddy turmoil as the Rusalka attempted to right itself. Graceful and sinuous as the beast had been in its maidenly form, this fishy mutation moved with decidedly less mobility, at least when it was out of the water. But that was fine with Buffy, who was already considering how to work that bit of information to her advantage.

The struggling Rusalka managed to roll over at last, rising to its feet again. With a lumbering gait it charged at the girl. Buffy ran forward, meeting the assault with one of her own. At the instant prior to what seemed their inevitable collision she sprang forward, leaping into the air and grabbing hold of the creature’s feathery neck fringes. She threw the weight of her lower torso upward, executing a perfect handstand over the demon’s elevated shoulders. From that position she twisted her body a half turn around, gravity kicking in to pull her over and downward again. With legs stiffly angled, toes pointing to strike either side of the dorsal fan gracing the Rusalka’s hind side she let loose with two well placed kicks to the creature’s back. The demon shrieked in pain, and Buffy quickly dismounted as the beast fell beneath her, collapsing to its knees. But a sweeping arc of its arm at the last second caught her thigh, the claws once again drawing bloody rivulets from her flesh.

A burning ache shot through the scratches on Buffy’s leg. The water stung and she winced with the pain as she turned to confront the downed Rusalka. She watched as the creature howled in its agonized rage, rolling about in the shallow water, flinging slime and muck in every direction. The handle of her fillet knife was still protruding from the demon’s pale gut and what appeared to be blood was dripping from the imbedded blade’s entry point. Immortal or not the Rusalka was apparently able to feel the sensation of pain, a fact that the blonde slayer found to be encouraging. If it can hurt and bleed, she thought. And maybe it can be killed.

Seeing an opportunity to do some major damage Buffy lashed out with a kick, her foot catching the demon’s fragile cheekbone and smashing it with a sickening crack. Several additional blows to the monster’s head and shoulder followed, the Rusalka howling in protest at the continuing abuse, the brilliant hues of its mantle deepening in reciprocity with its growing rage. Lashing its stumpy tail the creature lurched to its hind feet, almost stumbling toward the teen, its large fish-mouth snapping and teeth gnashing the air as it made its next charge.

Buffy sidestepped the lumbering beast with relative ease as it came at her. But the graceful agility with which she made her escape was marred as she inadvertently stepped into a slick patch of pond muck. Suddenly her feet flew out from under her and she was unable to maintain her balance on the slippery, shifting layers of silt. She felt herself falling forward, arms flailing like a child’s pinwheel in the wind as she fought the loss of her equilibrium. But it was to no avail. She lost her battle to remain upright, hitting the water with a titanic belly flop, the impact sending waves splashing in every direction.

Choking on a mouthful of algae and slime Buffy lifted her head and tossed it with a jerk, flinging aside the rivulets of water running across her eyes that blinded her. She sensed rather than saw the presence looming menacingly over her, but before she could react the Rusalka was upon her, burying her smaller form beneath its hulking mass like a linebacker sacking a quarterback.

Buffy found herself in the uncomfortable position of being pinned beneath her foe. The demon’s heavy weight crushed the air from her lungs, flattening her stomach into the soft mud and forcing her face down into the foul fishy muck beneath her. Bits of rotting debris churned up by the fighting threatened the tightly closed line of her lips as she struggled, her lithe body writhing against beast’s mucid hold. Reaching her arms up behind her she struck out blindly, her fists pounding at any part of the Rulsaka they could find. She tried desperately to dislodge the oppressing bulk above her, squirming and twisting for all she was worth, her oxygen deprived lungs burning with each passing second. Wriggling a leg into position against the beast’s soft underbelly she kicked back with a forceful thrust, shoving the demon up and off of her just long enough that she could slip out from under its oppressing mass.

Raising her head from the water Buffy gasped as she took in a much-needed breath. She was shaking with cold and beginning to feel a bit winded, but she couldn’t afford the luxury of a rest just yet. As she staggered drunkenly to her feet and wiped the slime from her face the Rusalka rose before her, towering to its full height, its mantle trembling as it released a resounding bellow. From the peripheral of her muddied vision she saw something flash toward her. Buffy jerked back as the tongue thing shot from the beast’s gaping mouth, but not in before it struck a glancing blow to her shoulder. With its sharply barbed surface the appendage was like a rough rasp, ripping a raw abrasion where it had flicked against her flesh, depositing its slippery effluent on her muck encrusted shirt.

“Eewww!” Buffy wrinkled her nose, shuddering with revulsion at the sensation of having been slimed by smelly, monster spit. “That is sooo disgusting! Touch me with that thing again, and I’ll tie it in a knot and make you eat it, Cecil!”

Whether it had understood the girl’s words or her aggressive body language the creature responded to the challenge with a vicious swipe of its claws. Buffy dodged the attack, fending off another with a forearm block. She followed with several kicks, one to the demon’s middle and two in rapid succession to the beast’s solar plexus that sent it staggering backward. But no matter how hard or how often she hit the Rusalka, nothing she did seemed to slow it down. It took all the abuse she could dish out and kept coming back for more.

The whole Rusalka situation was beginning wear on Buffy’s limited patience. She was cold, wet and exhausted. Her hair was a rat’s nest full of pond scum and rotting weeds. Her clothing looked and smelled like she’d been rolling around in fish guts. And to top it all off she’d been slimed with disgusting monster spit. She was definitely not having one of her better nights. In fact, Buffy frowned thoughtfully. She’d just about had enough. It was time to put an end this once and for all.

From the safety of the grassy knoll Wesley and Xander had watched with anxious interest as the slayer battled the Rusalka. Every punch and kick was met with growing trepidation as the beast continued to attack with seemingly inexhaustible vigor. Buffy was a courageous fighter and had successfully faced many strong adversaries in the past, but this demon was exceedingly large and angry, a dangerous combination that was proving troublesome for the blonde teen. She had delivered quite a few disarming blows, any of which would have easily taken out a vampire foe, but the resilient beast merely roared and came back for yet another round of fighting. Wesley and Xander both wondered just how much more their companion could take. She was showing obvious signs of fatigue. Still it took them both by surprise when Buffy suddenly stopped in mid-battle, stepping back and dropping her defensive posture.

The Rusalka seemed just as stunned by its adversary’s abrupt reverse of tactics. Regarding the blonde with a suspicious fishy-eye the creature fell silent, cocking its mantled head to one side. Buffy stood motionless except for the tortured rise and fall of her heavy panting breaths, her gaze focussed intently upon the large beast before her. For several long moments the two enemies faced each other. Then the slayer turned away and calmly started walking toward the shoreline, her companions gaping at her in dumbfounded confusion.

Its luminous gaze following the girl’s retreat the Rusalka was just as puzzled as the two humans by the slayer’s unexpected behavior. But the momentarily peaceful interlude ended as with a thunderous roar the beast set out after its enemy once again, splashing through the shallows with deliberate purpose. Buffy could hear the beast closing in on her rapidly. She quickened her pace, breaking into a sluggish trot, keeping a few steps ahead of the pursuing Rusalka. She could feel its hulking presence, looming closer, shadowing her heels. The strong odor of its fish breath seemed worse than ever as the beast bore down upon her, snorting and gurgling wetly.

Up on shore Wesley and Xander gaped in shock as the slayer broke into a loping run. The demon galloped along in her wake, kicking up water as it plowed through the shallows only a foot or so behind the girl, its voice raised in an enraged clamor that echoed across the pond. It was not an encouraging sight. Snapping and snarling the aquatic monster clawed the air, its talon tipped fingers trying to catch the blonde in its deadly embrace. But Buffy kept herself one jump ahead of her pursuer, her expression devoid of any sign of panic in spite of her hasty flight.

But the pair on shore was definitely far from calm. Quaking knees and pounding pulse rates betrayed their growing terror as they watched Buffy run faster, her flight leading the Rusalka out of the water and straight toward the two of them.

“What-what is she doing?” Wesley squawked, his voice rising in shrill protest. Stumbling backward the Englishman crashed into Xander, the teen apparently as upset as he was by the slayer’s ill-directed avenue of escape.

“No, no, no, no, no!” Xander shouted, hands gesturing wildly to wave the girl off. But Buffy kept coming at them, her feet pounding through the shallows, the Rusalka splashing along in her footsteps. It seemed to Xander as if she was actually encouraging the beast to follow her, an alarming idea that the teen found nearly impossible to comprehend. Why would Buffy do something like that? Did she harbor some secret death wish, want them all to get killed?

“Oh-oh God!” Wesley gulped in open-mouthed horror, his knees buckling weakly as the danger approached closer and closer. “She-she can’t do that! She can’t-oh, my! Good heavens!”

Buffy was only twenty feet away and closing the distance between them with long, bounding strides. She hit the solid firmness of dry ground, her feet eating up the short expanse of gravelly beach and then scrambling up the sloped embankment. As she crested the grassy knoll the teen yelled something at the dumbstruck pair above her, but neither boy nor man could make out what she had said. They remained motionless as statues, frozen in their fear as they cowered before the onrushing danger.

“Shoot it! Shoot it!”

Buffy repeated her command, her frantic voice barely carrying above the raucous din of the Rusalka’s roar. Throwing herself at the embankment, she tore up the grassy slope, the demon’s hot breath steaming at her heels. She scrambled forward on all fours, hands ripping at the ground, nails clawing the dirt for purchase as she hauled herself up the steep incline. She didn’t dare look back. She didn’t have to. She knew the demon was right behind her.

Xander blinked, snapping out of his dazed torpor at last. He had suddenly realized what Buffy had been saying. Turning toward Wesley he grabbed the Watcher by his jacket lapels, giving the man a vigorous shake to awaken him from his stupefied inertia.

“She said shoot it!” the teen yelled at the Brit.

When Wesley failed to respond Xander moved to wrest the crossbow from him. But the Watcher’s fingers were locked tightly around his weapon and try as he might the teen couldn’t pry it loose from the man’s rigor mortis-like grip. As his panic rose, Xander renewed his efforts to lay claim to the only means of defense at hand, shouting angrily at the dazed Englishman.

“Let-me-have-it!” he grunted, tugging frantically with each word at the crossbow’s stock. “Wes-ley! Give-it-to-me! Now!”

Wesley was numb with shock, his mind overwhelmed by what he was seeing. The monster had chased the slayer up onto the shore, leaving its watery domain to follow its prey. This had not been in any of his books! There had been no indication that Rusalki were capable of such behavior. They were creatures bound to the water, simply couldn’t exist without it. How could his research have been so wrong?

But Buffy wasn’t concerned about texts and what they did or didn’t say about Rusalki. All that mattered to her was staying alive. And that was something she might not be for too much longer if Wesley didn’t come to his senses soon. Admittedly she was glad to be a modern woman. Strong, independent, able to think and do for herself. Still, she wasn’t too proud to ask for a little help now and then. And now was definitely a good time! Scurrying up to her companions she found them in what looked to be a compromising embrace, arms clinging to each other as they stared at her in terrified disbelief.

“Guys!” she pleaded, panting breathlessly as she stumbled forward. “You two can do the male bonding thing later. I need a little backup here!”

No sooner had she said the words then the Rusalka’s repulsive face appeared behind her over the knoll’s grassy crest. In a moment of sudden clarity Wesley remembered the weapon he held in his hands. As Buffy raced the last few steps, diving to the ground at the Brit’s feet, he swung the crossbow upward, taking aim as he pulled the trigger release. There was a satisfying whistle as the wooden arrow took flight, its trail of attached line whizzing over the blonde’s head and narrowly missing her as it sought out its target.

A shrill cry of pain told them Wesley’s aim had been true. The force of the projectile threw the creature over backward and it tumbled back down the slope, hitting the water below with a loud splash. Buffy rolled to one side, nimbly jumping to her feet as she made a grab at the steel string. The thin wire burned as it cut across her fingers, the Rusalka jerking hard at the other end of the tautly pulled line. Ignoring the pain she felt Buffy braced her feet, preparing for a tug of war battle with her powerful foe.

The creature struggled desperately, dragging the blonde teen closer to the slope’s edge as it twisted and thrashed in the water below. Wesley’s shot had imbedded the bolt into the Rusalka’s thick neck, wedging it firmly between bone and muscle. Digging her heels into the ground the slayer fought to control the maddened beast, acting as an anchor to keep it from escaping back into the deeper waters of the pond.

“Again, Wes!” Buffy commanded her Watcher. Her feet carved deep furrows in the grass as she began to haul in the impaled Rusalka like a fish caught on a hook. She glanced briefly toward the Englishman, making sure that he’d heard her. Wesley seemed a bit flustered, but hastily sent off another shot, this one piercing the creature’s upper thigh. Without further prompting Wesley loosed the final bolt, the projectile finding its target as the demon turned and exposed its back. With a howl of agonized torment the Rusalka twisted, writhing in the throes of a violent tantrum that churned the shallow waters into a muddy froth.

The demon was finally beginning to show signs that it was weakening. Perhaps it was succumbing to the damage of its multiple wounds, or maybe it was simply growing tired. Buffy didn’t know. She could only hope that Wesley had been wrong and the creature wasn’t immortal. The Rusalka certainly was capable of suffering. It clawed desperately at its wounded flesh, trying to remove the irritating sources of its many pains. Each rake of razor-sharp talons drew blood, but no matter how it scratched and twisted the tethered quarrels remained firmly fastened in place, their feathered tips protruding obscenely from the creature’s smooth scaled body.

Gathering the lines together in one hand Buffy held the wires well above the creature’s short-armed reach. One well-placed swipe was all it would take to slice through the bonds and free the beast. And the Rusalka had plenty of fight left in it, too. In spite of its numerous injuries the demon was slowly pulling the slayer along, slowly dragging her down the sloped embankment. It was all Buffy could do to just hang on.

“Xander!” Buffy shouted at her classmate above the Rusalka’s screeching cries. “Grab the lines! Tie them to a tree. Wesley? Get the chain!”

Xander jumped to do as asked, glad to finally have some essential part in the night’s activities. Snatching up the spools of fishing line he made several encircling passes around the trunk of a nearby stout tree, finishing off with a serious collection of knots to secure the wire permanently in place. When he was done he raised his arms in an all clear gesture, stepping aside to wait for his next order.

Gradually releasing her grip on the wires Buffy allowed the tree to take over the task of restraining the demon. She took a moment to inspect her hands, grimacing when she saw how the palms were sharply incised with lines of red blood from the biting cut of the thin filament. Next time she would remember to bring gloves. At least she hadn’t broken any fingernails, though she was in definitely in need of a good manicure.

Buffy realized her work wasn’t done yet. Not by a long shot. She may have snagged her fish and reeled it in, but the Rusalka was still very much alive and kicking, and fighting desperately to get loose. Advancing cautiously to the edge of the bank she gazed down at the valiantly struggling demon. It floundered clumsily in the shallows, gurgling as it flopped about, its movements further entangling it in the fishing line. The once vibrant colors in its mantle had paled, drooping dejectedly as the creature’s strength began to wane. Buffy almost felt sorry for the thing. Almost. She hadn’t forgotten how it tried to drown Xander or her.

Wesley approached and handed her the length of chain she had requested. Jumping down to where the Rusalka lay in the water Buffy advanced cautiously, taking care to avoid the beast’s claws as she moved closer. She used the hook to form a loop, darting in to slip the noose over the demon’s head. The creature snapped its jaws and lunged forward to attack, but she avoided the needle pointed teeth and successfully roped her quarry on the first try.

Working swiftly Buffy whipped the chain around the beast’s torso and gave it a jerk, pinning the demon’s arms to its sides. Ducking beneath the overhead strung wires she proceeded to circle her captive, winding the chain length around it several more turns. In less than a minute she had bound the Rusalka, rendering it essentially powerless, unable to escape. With a final flourishing gesture she hog-tied its ankles, toppling the beast onto its side and dragging its tethered carcass up onto the shore.

Seeing that she had the Rusalka completely under control Wesley and Xander eagerly clambered down the bank to join Buffy. The Watcher was fascinated by the demon, taking the opportunity to examine it from a discreet distance. Xander, however, regarded the chained Rusalka with obvious apprehension, not sure it was as helpless as it appeared.

“Nicely done!” Wesley praised his slayer cheerfully. “That should certainly hold the old girl.”

“So, what do we do with Moby Dick?” Buffy inquired, pushing some loose strands of wet hair from her face. She frowned, her fingers combing out a chunk of rotting vegetation. “We can’t just leave her here.”

“Yeah,” Xander agreed, staring down at the weakly thrashing monster. “You don’t want to be around when this load of sushi starts going bad. Peeee-yeww!” He held his nose against the odor permeating the air around the Rusalka. “Man, is she ever ripe!” Then he turned toward the blonde with a suspicious sniff. “At least, I think it’s her. I hate to be the one to have to tell you, Buffy, but you’re looking a little less than your usual dainty fresh self.”

“This from the guy wearing Eau de Pond Scum,” the girl quipped in return as she oggled her companion's damp clothing. But Buffy was feeling glad to be alive, too. Once again she had managed to conquered evil in typical, nick of time slayer style.

Xander grinned. They were quite the pair, he and Buffy, both dripping and slimed with fetid mud. In a sudden burst of emotional release, he reached out, and grabbing his classmate, drew her into a grateful and very soggy embrace.

“Thanks, Buff,” he said, his tone deep and warm with sincerity. Buffy accepted the hug for what it was, a show of closeness among friends who had risked life and limb together. She returned her classmate’s squeezing hold, the chains rattling in her hands as she threw her arms around Xander and sighed, glad that he had not been hurt.

After an awkward moment Xander became aware that Wesley was staring at them. Trying to appear cool and casual, he reluctantly released the blonde and stepped back, turning his self-effacing smile upon the Watcher. He had intended to cover his awkward embarrassment with one of his trademark flippant responses, but to his surprise he found the man actually beaming at him, his broad grin agreeable and devoid of its usual irritating smugness. It seemed that for once the Englishman was pleased with something other than himself. The light expression made him suddenly very human, almost likable for a change, and even Buffy found herself grinning back in grudging admiration at the gangly Brit.

“Nice shooting there, William Tell,” she announced, praising the older man.

“Uhm, yes, well…” Wesley blushed, humbled by the genuine compliment. He looked down at the crossbow in his arms, surprised himself at how well he had done. Struggling with his humility he finally managed to find his voice. “Thank you, Buffy. It was truly a demonstration of teamwork on all our behalf.”

“So, getting back to the Fish Called Wanda,” Buffy said, jerking her thumb toward the demon. “Any suggestions on how to finish her off, Wes?”

“That may prove something of a difficulty,” Wesley remarked, his frown deeply thoughtful. “The very definition of an immortal being is forever lasting, enduring, deathless.” The demon suddenly let loose a fierce growl, snapping its teeth at the Watcher. Wesley yipped excitedly and stumbled backward another step, nervously adjusting his tie as he fought to regain his composure. “Sh-she simply may not die.”

“Okay, so maybe knives and crossbows aren’t doing the job,” Buffy admitted. “But I don’t buy that immortal bit. She’s definitely hurting. And bleeding. Something’s gotta kill this thing.”

“Kill it? We don’t even know what keeps it alive,” Xander scoffed, looking at the beast with the knife and crossbow’s quarrels protruding from various points of its body. He glanced toward the Englishman to find Wesley gaping at him strangely. “What? What’d I say?” the boy asked defensively.

“You may just have something there,” Wesley responded, his mind seizing on a spark of logic in the boy’s words. “Like any living being, immortal or not, the Rusalka obviously feeds. It’s why she takes her victims. Deprived of her source of nourishment, she should eventually expire.”

“But Giles said she only comes around every seven years,” Buffy countered. “She’s must be finding munchies somewhere.”

“There are many examples in nature of creatures that go extended periods of time between feedings,” Wesley explained. “Snakes, for instance. And bears. After building up sufficient fat reserves they hibernate for months. The Rusalka may be just a bit more efficient.”

“Let me get this straight.” Xander ran a hand through his hair scratched the top of his head. “She does this Sleeping Beauty routine for seven years, wakes up when the spring fever alarm tells her it’s the special whatever alignment of the moons and stars and pigs out big time on whoever’s handy for about a month, then disappears for another serious seven year siesta under the big blue pond.”

“Uhmm,” Wesley hesitated, mentally translating Xander’s statement. “You seem to have grasped the basic fundamentals of the matter,” he finally answered the boy. “That is, if I understood you correctly. There are times where I truly wonder if we speak the same language.”

“Huh,” Xander frowned at the British Watcher, regarding him with what seemed serious concern. “Giles always says the same thing, usually right before he gets one of his sick headaches.” The teen arched an eyebrow, staring at the man intently. “You’re feeling okay, aren’t you, Wes?”

“Yes, yes. Perfectly fine, thank you,” the Watcher muttered, still trying to sort through the confusion of Xander’s words. Sighing he gave up on the effort at last, realizing it was an exercise in futility. He would never understand any of these American teenagers.

“I suggest that we take the Rusalka elsewhere to dispose of the body,” Wesley announced, switching back into complete Watcher mode. “I shall go and fetch the van. You wait here,” he said with a glance toward the recumbent Rusalka in its chain cocoon. “Keep an eye on things.”

The two teens watched Wesley climb the embankment. The Brit stopped long enough to gather up the weapons before taking off again, heading further up the slope toward the woodland path. As he disappeared among the thick of trees Xander turned toward his blonde companion.

“I hope he brought a camera with him,” he said to Buffy, his face breaking out in one of its patented zany Xander grins. “No one’s gonna believe us when we tell them about the one that didn’t get away.”

Buffy chuckled, gingerly easing herself to the ground. She stretched out her sore muscles, passing the time talking with Xander. The Rusalka wasn’t in any condition to give them trouble. Bound in its web of chains it seemed to have finally accepted its defeat, lying quietly on its side, its feathery gills barely stirring as it sank into a state of fading consciousness. By the time Wesley returned the beast’s eyes had become clouded over with the impending specter of its death, the silvery scales of its once glistening body having dried to a dull, pallid opaqueness.

Working as a team the three demon hunters dragged the heavy beast up the hill, hauling it over the rut strewn woodland path to where Wesley had left the van parked above. The next few minutes were filled with a great deal of grunting and gagging as they lifted the foul smelling carcass into the vehicle. Luckily no one heard them, and the trio eventually loaded the body onto a tarp the Englishman had placed on the floor to protect it. Wrapping the creature in the plastic shroud they shut the doors, crowding into the front seat together. By now they were all covered in slime and reeking of dead fish, including the Watcher in his formerly impeccable suit and tie, which was now an rumpled, sodden mass of muck stained material clinging to his lank frame.

But that evening had been a successful one for the three weary allies. Evil had been vanquished. Good had triumphed. And the quiet pond was once again a safe place for the people of Sunnydale to visit.

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