CHAPTER TEN

Steering Giles down the twisted, narrow dirt track, Buffy followed closely behind the small librarian, guiding him through the thickly grown brush to the clearing below. It was treacherous walking in the dark, but they managed to make it without incident through the dark forest of undergrowth to the open, grassy area beyond the tree line. An eerie stillness filled the velvet night, lending an unnatural air to their surroundings, a portent that heralded unfavorable danger lying in wait nearby. Not even the moon’s silver glow penetrated the curtain of shadows gathering to surround them, the pale orb having been obscured by a sudden covering of clouds overhead.

“Xander?”

No one answered Buffy’s summons. The faint echo of her voice drifted out over the pond’s mirrored surface, the soft lap of water washing against the shoreline below the only other sound audible in the night. Buffy’s spider senses tingled, alerting her that something was very wrong, and reaching out she tugged on her Watcher’s shirt, drawing him to a stop as she took a moment to look around.

“This isn’t good,” she announced. Her grip tightened protectively on Giles’ shoulder. “Something’s not right here.”

Giles felt his heart quicken in alarm. The clouds momentarily thinned, the brilliant moonlight illuminating the slayer’s tense features. Buffy was scanning the scene, eyes darting from the tree line to the pond’s shore, searching for some sign of her missing classmate.

“Perhaps Xander went home,” Giles suggested. His childish voice rang out, disturbing the strange hush that had settled over the night.

“Then we’d have seen him. He’d have had to walk past us to get back through the park. He’s still here. Somewhere.”

Moving forward she led her Watcher down the grassy incline, her gaze sweeping the slope before her. Craning her neck, she twisted to look back over her shoulder toward the trees above them. Nothing stirred within the inky shadows, which should have been encouraging, but it wasn’t. After all, dead things didn’t move, and if Xander had been killed…

“Xander!”

Her voice took on more than a hint of urgency as she walked the embankment’s ridge, frantically raking the area for her friend. Giles had astutely picked up on her mounting panic, and he dogged her heels like an attached shadow, his nervous, shallow breathing drowning out any hope she had of hearing the faint cry of someone that might be lying nearby, weak and injured.

A movement in the pond caught Buffy’s eye. About twenty feet out from shore, just beyond the stand of tall cattail reeds something was wading through the shallow waters. No. Not something. Someone. And the familiar gangling form of that someone’s silhouette told her it was Xander.

She’d found him.

But it was too early to start with the celebrating. Xander wasn’t alone.

There was a girl in the water beside him. Pale skinned, the lithesome beauty had long, blonde hair that fanned out sinuously around her barely submerged shoulders as she swam at the boy’s side. For a fleeting moment jealously heated the slayer’s blood. Who was this girl? And what did she want with Xander? Admittedly, she was pretty. That was obvious even from a distance. Her comely features were chiseled and delicate, classic in their beauty. The girl’s mouth opened, and the laughter that spilled out was lilting, songlike, and strangely appealing. Xander seemed especially responsive to the gently inviting sound. In fact, he was way too interested, Buffy thought as she watched her classmate lean toward the swimming girl, his body lurching trance-like, following the nymph gliding just beyond his reach. Considering how ticked Cordelia had been earlier that evening, the teen knew her friend couldn’t afford to get into any more trouble. She was going to have to step in and save Xander from himself before he did something really stupid.

“Hey, Xander!” She yelled out across the pond. Xander acted as if he hadn’t heard her, but his pretty new friend had. The girl threw a brief, curious glance toward the shore, then dismissing Buffy, turned her attention back onto the boy. Her lips parted, and a gentle, alluring hum began to reverberate through the quiet night, the sound filling the air with its sweet, cloying tones.

Something about the girl’s voice disturbed Buffy. That she was singing was strange in and of itself, but the music, wordless and mesmerizing in its intensity, was enough to give her a case of the wiggins. Xander, however, was definitely enjoying the swimmer’s impromptu serenade, and paused in mid-step, entranced, as he listened to the exotic trilling.

“Boy, has he got it bad,” Buffy scowled. “If Cordelia ever finds out about this Xander is going to be in it so deep, he’ll need a front end loader to dig his way out.”

“You’re evaluation may prove more astute than you realize,” Giles noted. There

was a dark seriousness in his words that was beyond what Buffy thought the situation warranted. When she turned to look at her young Watcher, his expression was one of fretful concern. “I believe Xander is in a great deal of trouble even now. If I’m not mistaken, we may have found our demon.”

“Her?” Buffy scoffed, waving an arm toward the girl out in the pond. “That girl’s a demon? You’re joking, right?” Her snide smile faded as she saw Giles wasn’t laughing with her. “Okay, not joking. But…nah! I don’t buy it. I mean, look at her, Giles. She’s pretty. And definitely human looking. And…Oh! My! God!”

Buffy’s mouth dropped open. The girl in question had stood up. The upright posture she had assumed left the upper portion of her slim torso exposed, revealing something the blonde teen hadn’t noticed until that point. Xander’s new girlfriend was nude. Her long, wet cascades of hair were plastered against her body like a second skin, clinging shamelessly to her curvaceous figure. With his closer proximity Xander was getting a good eyeful of the fleshy display, though he didn’t seem nearly as uncomfortable as Buffy felt at the discovery of the skinny dipper’s secret.

The mystery girl, however, remained totally unconcerned by her naked condition. Her languid gaze was fixed boldly upon Xander, her arms spread outward in open invitation. She ignored her stunned audience on the shore above, smiling sweetly, flirting coyly with the teenaged boy. Taking a step backward, she beckoned to Xander, indicating that she wanted him to follow as she retreated. And all the while her voice never wavered, never ceased its irresistible song.

Buffy became uncomfortably aware of the librarian standing at her elbow. Glancing down at the small Brit she found the pale eyes behind his lenses opened wider than she would have thought possible. Giles was staring at the nude girl, his rapt concentration unblinking. As the seconds ticked by and he continued to gawk, she gave the librarian a firm nudge, breaking into his lascivious reverie.

“Wha-oh!” Giles cleared his throat, his cheeks warmly pink with embarrassment. Avoiding the slayer’s scornful glare, he cast his gaze downward, developing an unnatural interest in his sneakered feet as he attempted an air of indifference to cover his guilt at being caught in such a compromising activity. “Uhm, you-you were saying?”

Rolling her eyes with feminist disgust, Buffy frowned at her Watcher. “Still not seeing how she’s a demon, though I’m sure I could come up with few other choice terms to describe her.”

“Many species of demons are capable of shape shifting, assuming human form,” Giles explained. “Others are virtually indistinguishable in appearance from us in their natural form. They possess perfectly innocent…”

The teen snorted cynically at the reference to innocence, interrupting Giles train of thought. Flashing an annoyed pout, the librarian continued his lecture.

“Appearance alone isn’t always enough to identify a demon. Vampires seem quite human until the bloodlust comes upon them. And there are dozens of species equally adept at hiding their true visages from their prey.”

“Well, that babe ain’t hiding nothing,” Buffy wryly observed.

In spite of himself, Giles found his gaze wandering toward the subject under discussion. The teen shot another peeved glower his way, and the librarian smiled self-consciously, his eyes roaming skyward, seeking out anything that might serve as a distraction.

The question of the girl’s humanity had been raised, however. Buffy found herself contemplating the possibility that Giles was right. With that knowledge came a new perspective on Xander’s encounter. If the shapely Bohemian skinny dipper was out for more than just a breathtaking dip in the chilly waters, her friend was in big time danger.

“Demon Girl,” Buffy mused thoughtfully, her intuition already suspecting the worst. She watched the couple in the pond. The girl was splashing playfully, teasing Xander to come after her. “That means I get to kill her. How?”

“How?” Giles’ quizzical echo was not reassuring.

“That’s what I asked,” she frowned, cocking a suspicious eyebrow. “How do I kill her? Stake through the heart? Decapitation? Dismemberment?”

The librarian blinked owlishly over the glasses than had slid down his face to hang precariously on the end of his nose. “I-I don’t know.”

“What do you mean you don’t know?” She stared at the Brit. There was a discomforting panic in his eyes. Sensing that she was about to loose Xander’s only hope for survival, Buffy grabbed her small Watcher by his shoulders and gave him a firm shaking. “Don’t spaz out on me now. I need you, Giles. You have to tell me what to do.”

A soft whimpering answered her demand, and for a second Buffy thought Giles was going to cry again. But then the Brit pulled himself together. Taking a deep breath, he quelled whatever insecurities plagued him and found his voice.

“She’s most likely a Rusalka,” he said, his hesitation not yet inspiring the slayer to confidence. Or-or a Vodyanoi. Though, if I remember my slavic folklore, vodyanoi have green hair and tend to inhabit rivers and mill streams. It would be unlikely to find one in a pond.”

“Giles,” she chastised, speaking through anxiously gritted teeth. Xander was moving out into deeper water in pursuit of the retreating girl. “Make up your mind. I need an answer. Today.”

“Right.” Giles nodded, still vacillating uncertainly. “A Rusalka then. Yes, definitely a Rusalka.”

Suddenly the words came tripping off his tongue, the stream of information flowing freely from his memory.

“Her voice. She uses her voice, singing to her victims, enticing them into the water to drown them. Oh, dear Lord! Xander.” His gaze flew to the teen out in the pond where Xander was submerged to his waist and wading deeper with every step. “Buffy, Xander’s under the influence of an enchantment. He isn’t aware of the danger he’s in. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. We have to get him out there. Immediately! If we don’t, she’ll -”

He never finished his sentence. Buffy had sprung into action, charging down the steep bank. Hitting the shallow water with a noisy splash, the teen called out to her classmate’s name as she ran toward him, but the boy was oblivious to her screams, his attention fixated upon the nude girl. He saw nothing else, heard no sound but her siren song, his expression blank and eerily devoid of any awareness of the world around him.

The water was cold, the pond’s bottom slippery, a combination that slowed the slayer considerably. Sloshing through the field of marsh weeds, she broke out of the vegetation, striking out into the deeper water beyond. Xander was stumbling along, the strange girl leading him further from shore with every step, coaxing the boy along with her hypnotic aria. The boy’s progress was awkward, his movements ponderous and inhibited by the water’s heavy dragging influence. It didn’t take Buffy long to catch up. Wrapping her fingers around the loose sleeve of his jacket she set her feet firmly into the thick mud, dragging back on Xander’s arm, pulling him in the direction of the shore behind them.

But Xander was not being cooperative. Floundering in the chilly water he fought against the slayer, trying to throw off her hold. Buffy dug her heels in for better leverage, wresting with the boy. Her strength being the greater it was only a matter of moments before she overpowered the reluctant teen, physically forcing him to come with her as she trudged slowly back toward shallower waters.

Refusing to relinquish her prey, the Rusalka strategically countered the other girl’s power, and increasing the volume of her song, plied the spellbound boy with her magickal tones. Xander responded with renewed thrashing, but knowing that it was her friend’s life she was fighting for Buffy tightened her grip and continued walking, gradually putting several yards distance between herself and the Rusalka maiden.

Buffy was about to indulge in a moment of satisfied gloating when a keening wail suddenly sliced through the night air. The Rusalka had realized at last that she had lost her prey. Frustrated, the demoness vented her anger in the hollow cry. Her beautiful face took on a sinister cast, and she glared menacingly at the blonde that had stolen away her prize. Splashing the water around her, the creature whipped agitatedly back and forth in a spiteful tantrum, roiling the water into a foaming froth. She let loose with another furious shriek, and the inhuman sound pierced the darkness, its tortured scale reverberating over the pond’s black surface.

It was the second screech that broke the sway that the creature held over Xander. Jolting to his senses the boy looked around. He was confused, disoriented. The last thing he remembered was seeing a girl swimming in the pond. He had gone down to the shore to warn her that the pond was not a safe place to be, when the girl spotted him and began to laugh. Not an insulting laugh. More of a flirtatious tittering. Feeling strangely giddy, he had laughed, too. That was when she began to sing. The song was oddly entrancing. At that point everything went blank, and now here he was, cold and wet, and leaning toward irrational panic.

And he wasn’t was alone.

He could feel someone holding tightly onto his arm. Twisting around, Xander found himself looking into a welcomed face framed by a halo of blonde hair. Immediately, a relieved grin spread over his own features.

“Buffy!”

Through chattering teeth he attempted to force out a series of stilted syllables, hoping to find an explanation for what had happened to him. The slayer impatiently interrupted, however, and gave his arm an urgent tug.

“Questions later. Let’s get you out of here first.”

Xander heard the underlying immediacy that colored the brusque command. Nodding, he obediently fell into step with his friend, but few steps later he pulled up short.

“Wait!”

Buffy paused, turning to look at him with an expression that said she had not time for this.

“There’s a girl,” Xander told her. “She’s out here. In the water. We have to rescue her before the demon gets her.”

“You mean that demon?”

Buffy jerked her head back toward the Rusalka maiden. The creature was glaring venomously at the pair. It took a moment for Xander to make the connection between what he remembered and what his friend had just said. Realization eventually dawned, and the boy began to grasp how lucky he truly was.

“You said something about getting out of here?” he quipped nervously, cringing under the heat of the Rusalka’s wrathful stare.

Beating a hasty retreat the two teens sloshed their way shoreward, leaving the irate Rusalka behind. She didn’t seem interested in following them, but they kept their pace lively, putting as much distance as possible between them. Wading into the thick barrier of marsh reeds, Xander and Buffy forged through the damp vegetation, fighting the slimy grass that tangled their footsteps and slowed their progress.

Glancing toward shore, Xander saw the young librarian waiting for them on the embankment. Even at a distance it was obvious that Giles had been in some sort of altercation. His clothing was disheveled, his face streaked with dirt. Whatever had caused the damage, it didn’t look as though the young Brit had come out as the victor.

“I figured with the snit he was in Giles would put up a fight,” Xander observed. “But did you really have to clobber him that hard? There’s gotta be a slayer code of justice against that sort of thing. You know, like, might for right only. Or, never hit a kid wearing glasses.”

“I didn’t do that,” Buffy grumbled in indignant defense. Her classmate raised a skeptical eyebrow, his look indicating the librarian’s condition spoke for itself. Incensed, the slayer sputtered out a protest. “I would never hit Giles. Well,” she continued sheepishly. “There was that one time. Okay, okay! Twice. But I had a really good reason, both times. Anyway," she grumbled defensively. "That isn’t my personal handiwork.”

“Right,” the boy nodded, his expression still doubtful. “I suppose Giles got run over by a truck. I hear the traffic can get pretty brutal on those jogging paths.”

“Not a truck. A vampire,” Buffy explained. “Two, actually.” As Xander unexpectedly took a sideways lurch, she reached out, catching him before he toppled into the water. “This pair of creepies jumped us in the woods. One of them managed to get his grubby paws on Giles. Took him for a tumble. Poor little guy. Almost found out first hand what it’s like to be a fast food dinner. Shook him up pretty bad.”

“I can see that,” the boy grunted, chuckling. He was about to add another glib comment when Buffy put up a hand, signaling for a halt. Xander immediately complied, his pulse quickening as he saw the look of concentration on his companion’s face. “What is it?”

“I’m not sure.”

Xander’s mouth opened in a silent “Oh” as he contemplated the slayer’s statement. “Is that an ‘I’m not sure’ as in ‘I don’t know that I actually saw something’, or would that be more of a ‘I don’t know what I saw, but it sure didn’t look good’?”

The sharp glare Buffy threw him was not reassuring. Edging closer to her side, Xander followed the blonde’s gaze. Buffy was studying a small patch of open water among the reeds. Tilting his head, he peered down intently into the murky darkness, but all he could see was the moon’s pallid reflection.

Buffy’s demon radar was on red alert. A second later it became clear her suspicions weren’t unfounded. Flashing across the puddle before them was a pale, silvery shape. The ghostly form barely raised a ripple as it passed beneath the murky surface, slicing into the thick of vegetation beyond, its presence cutting a silent, parting swath through the rotting weeds that their eyes could follow.

It was like a scene from an old B-rated horror movie Xander remembered watching as a kid. You couldn’t see the actual monster, only where it had been, where it was going. He gaped in morbid fascination as the invisible force banked slowly left, then circled around in a wide arc, its direction shifting gradually to come back toward them again. With languid, undulating movements it came, the sedge grasses rustling as the parted, announcing the submerged shadow’s approach.

A shiver of anticipation surged through Buffy as she tracked the water shrouded force. Easing into a fighting stance, she raised her clenched fists, ready to strike out at the first opportunity or portion of the creature that presented itself to her. She wasn’t sure what to expect. Aside from the hypnotic music powers, to which she as slayer seemed to have special immunity, the demon girl could have any number of defenses. Super human strength. A venomous bite. Poison spines. Considering what she’d seen of it so far, that being a lot more that she’d cared to see what with the nudeness and all, the probability of poison s pines was likely a big, fat negative.

The Rusalka increased it speed, slicing agilely through the tall, tangled weeds. Fight or flight, Buffy thought. Her slayer instincts naturally tilted toward battle. It was her destiny, her duty to rid the world of monsters and baddies, to annihilate evil in all its forms. But in the back of her mind was a nagging thought, and she began to reconsider her options. She had to get Xander to shore before facing this Rusalka. Plus, there was Giles. Unconsciously, she ticked a glance shoreward. He was still there. Her little Watcher. He looked so young and lost, waiting, anxiously pacing at the pond’s edge. No, pummeling was not a major priority at that moment. She needed to get Giles home, alive and in one piece. Miss Chicken of the Sea was just going to have to wait her turn.

“Listen up,” she said, her tone commanding Xander’s full attention. “Here’s the plan.” The Rusalka was almost upon them. Only a few yards away now. “At my signal, run. Don’t look back. Don’t stop for anything. Got it?”

The boy nodded. “Got it, and can do.” An apprehensive grin flittered across his mouth. “And you?”

“I’ll be right behind you, don’t worry,” she promised. The Rusalka was nearly there. Her words fell out in a rushing tumble, fast and forceful as she tensed for the attack. “Just grab Giles and get him as far away from here as possible. Right…now!”

With a reinforcing shove she sent the teen on his way. Stumbling forward, Xander waded into the very thickest part of the overgrown weed patch. It was almost impossible running in the cold, waist-high water. His feet felt like lead blocks, his numbed legs refusing to respond on demand. The matted snarl of reed choking his path wasn’t any help either. But somehow he fought though the soggy barrier, his feet slipping and sliding in the slimy muck, his body careening drunkenly as he made his escape to the sounds of a skirmish erupting behind him.

Meeting the Rusalka’s initial charge with a well aimed boot heel, Buffy threw her weight into a forceful kick. She felt the satisfying solidity of an impact, her knee buckling as she deflected the creature from its head on crash course. Simultaneously, she struck her fist down at the frothy wake that cascaded up through the mantle of rotting vegetation. She saw something in the dark water. An eye. Cold, green and luminous, the malignant orb stared up at her, its hate penetrating the icy blackness. It was like looking at death, and the tiny hairs at the back of her neck stood on end as she jerked back, involuntarily recoiling from the Rusalka demon’s glare.

Her intuitive retreat proved a wise course of action. As she staggered backward the sharp sting of five razor claws bit into her thigh, cutting into her soft flesh. She cried out with a short, pained gasp, then kicking the demon she ripped free from its hooked talons, but not without sustaining damage to both herself and her clothing. Delivering a third successive kick, she decided she had made her point, and abandoning the fight, she made a bee-line dash for the shore, hurrying to catch up with her fleeing classmate. It took her less than a dozen steps to overtake her slower companion. Kicking into high gear she snagged hold of Xander’s elbow, pulling the hapless boy along in tow. Her assault on the Rusalka had bought them precious moments, but it was enough. With the creature on their tail and whipping through the forest of reeds behind them, they managed to gain ground, reaching the thinning boundary of the cattail patch several yards ahead of the Rusalka.

The watery thunder of frenzied flight roused Giles from his study of a school of small, wriggling tadpoles he’d discovered swimming among the gravel lined shallows. Glancing up from his aquatic observations the youthful Brit cast his flashlight beam over the dark pond, searching the noise’s source. It didn’t take long to find it. Buffy and Xander, their clothing drenched and dripping, sprinted hand in hand across the open shallows toward him. A welcomed smile of relief lit the librarian’s face upon seeing that his companions were unharmed. Excited, he headed out into the water to greet them, his flashlight’s spot bobbing across the water’s surface. As the pair rushed down upon him, running side by side, they suddenly parted ranks, each reaching out to grab one of his arms. Giles caught a brief glimpse of something thrashing through the vegetation, and then he was unceremoniously swept off his feet and dragged away by the escaping duo. Though he hadn’t gotten a clear look at what was pursuing them, he’d seen enough to appreciate the need for a speedy withdrawal. Fueled by a respectful surge of adrenaline, the youthful Watcher twisted around, joining his companions in their race, his short legs pumping along at a pace worthy of an Olympic athlete and matching stride for stride the older teens’ splashing steps.

By the time the trio hit the shore Giles had pulled into the lead. Pushing the Brit up the embankment before her, Buffy urged him toward higher ground and safety. Xander was clambering on hands and feet up the sharp incline, and he followed them over the grassy ridge, huffing and panting as they scurried for the tree line above. Crossing the yellow police tape barrier strung across the trees, the dark haired teen immediately collapsed to the ground in an exhausted heap like a runner crossing the finish line of a marathon. His clothing soaked, his body chilled from his swim, the teen shivered violently in the cool night air, gasping and panting as he tried to catch his breath. Buffy swung to a stop beside him, and turned to face the pond below, checking for signs of pursuit.

In the water below the Rusalka gave out an angry screech of defeat. Leaping up from the shallows it flipped in a graceful arc, diving back into the water with a tremendous splash. Turning from the shore, it swiftly swam toward the pond’s distant center, its spectral visage vanishing beneath the stygian water in a silent dive.

Her clothing dripping, Buffy picked a strand of rotting weed from her hair and flung its aside. The Rusalka wasn’t going to come after them. She was fairly sure of that. So, at least for the moment, they were safe. Sighing, she made a quick check on her companions. Xander sat on the ground, recovering from his watery adventure. He looked as wet and cold as she felt, his shirt and trousers clinging damply to his body, and bedecked with strands of slimy marsh grass. Her own outfit had faired no better. The hem of her leather jacket had been shredded, and there were five perfect slashes in her pant leg. Her hair was a tangled disaster, her makeup washed away, and to add insult to injury, her beautiful new boots were ruined. And she hadn’t even had the satisfaction of whomping the demon’s sorry little behind. It definitely was not one of her better nights. At least Giles was okay. He seemed no worse for the wear, his vampire experience not withstanding, and she took comfort in that fact, knowing that he was safe once again.

“You okay there, Xand?” Buffy smiled questioningly at her weary schoolmate.

“Yeah,” he replied. A sickly grimace crossed over his features. “I feel like I swallowed enough water to drain the pond, but I’ll live. Thanks,” he smiled, giving the girl an appreciative nod. “I owe you one.”

“No problemo.”

“What was that thing?” Xander asked. Grunting, he wrung out a saturated sleeve, allowing the water to drain on the grass at his feet.

“An Arugala,” the blonde returned, her own grooming efforts making little improvement on her soggy appearance.

“Rusalka,” Giles corrected, sending a mildly baneful glare at his slayer. “Though," he frowned, his mouth pursed thoughtfully. "I can’t for the life of me understand what she’s doing out here in this pond.”

“How about killing anyone she can get her slimy claws into,” Buffy grumbled in return. She poked a finger tentatively through one of the openings the creature had ripped in her pants. The wounds beneath were tender and still bleeding, though the flow of red had already begun to slow. “Xander was almost fish food fillet for Miss Back to Nature Girl. A couple more minutes and the Scooby Gang would have been shorter by one member.”

“Our lovely lady seemed rather off put at having been deprived of Xander’s company,” Giles noted drolly. A faint smile tugged impishly at his lips as he regarded the teen. “She was quite taken with you, though I can’t begin to imagine why.”

“Some guys just got it,” the older boy grinned in good-natured reply.

“Oh, yeah. You got it alright,” Buffy chided her classmate. “And I can smell it all the way over here.”

A light breeze had picked up. Buffy shivered in her damp clothing, and glanced over at Xander. “You ready to call it a night?”

Struggling to his feet the affable teen rubbed his cold numbed arms to encourage their circulation. Buffy turned toward her Watcher. Giles was gazing down over the now tranquil pond, his youthful features scrunched in deep reflection. For a moment she thought he was going to propose they stay and try to hunt the Rusalka, but the librarian simply let out a long sigh, removing his glasses to wipe at the water speckled lenses.

“I don’t suppose she’ll make another appearance tonight,” the Brit remarked pensively. “There isn’t much else we can do here.”

“I think our encounter with Aqua Girl has given her second thoughts,” Buffy said, echoing his sentiments. “She’s gone underground. Or underwater. Anyway, we won’t be seeing her face again any time soon. Or any other parts of her for that matter.

“That’s it then?” Xander looked from slayer to Watcher. “We bail?”

“We bail,” Buffy confirmed. “We’ll pick this up again tomorrow. I’ll show that wet floozy a thing or two. She’ll be sorry she was ever born. Maybe she was hatched. Spawned?” Frowning, she dismissed the confusion of information. “However she came into this world, I’m gonna take her out. I intend to make her pay though the gills for what she did to these slacks. Look at them. Ruined. I paid half a month’s allowance for these pants, and this was only the second time I got to wear them.”

“Well, for once this guy’s not going away and empty handed loser,” Xander announced smugly. Reaching into a sodden pocket he dug out the gold nugget he’d found earlier and proudly displayed it to the others. “This baby here is my one way ticket to financial freedom.”

“Hello!” Presented with the stone’s captivating glitter Giles’ face immediately came alive with a child’s archetypal curiosity. “What have we here? May I?”

Before Xander could open his mouth to give permission the Brit plucked the small rock from his hand. Casting his flashlight on the piece, Giles examined it with excruciating deliberation. The gleam of gold had caught Buffy’s interest as well, and she leaned in over Giles’ shoulder, her eyes lighting up with a glint that mirrored the nugget’s lustrous sparkle.

“Is that what I think it is?” she asked, trembling excitedly as she stared at the ore sample. “Is it -”

“A stylin’ new wardrobe? The latest in state or the art sound systems? The ultimate kick ass comic book collection?” Xander sighed, smitten by the overpowering seduction of his fantasy. “I’m thinkin’ car here. Something of Italian origin. With rich Corinthian leather seats.”

“I was going to say gold,” the slayer cheerfully chided her friend.

“Yeah, well, I guess it’s that, too,” Xander shrugged.

Absorbed in his assay, Giles ignored the teens, concentrating his full attention on the rock. The nugget was about the size of a robin’s egg, and made up of a conglomerate of multi-sided crystals that flashed enticingly in the moon’s wan luminescence. The metallic mass was rich yellow in color, with several of the cube shapes intersected by a thin vein of white quartz.

Pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose the Watcher frowned at the mineral sample. Dipping a hand into a pocket he drew out a handful of change and separated a penny from the collection before dumping the remainder of coins back into his trousers. Xander and Buffy looked on in mild amusement as the librarian proceeded to scratch the copper disk across the nugget’s irregular surface. Readjusting his spectacles, Giles brought the rock closer to his nose to survey the results of his test. Whatever he had expected to find didn’t appear to be there, so with a dismissive grunt he returned the penny to his pocket.

But Giles wasn’t finished. Searching another pocket he brought forth an impressive Swiss Army knife, and prying out one of the many blades, began to scrape at the rock. He struck the mineral several times. Finally, his efforts produced a tiny flaring spark. Satisfied, he snapped the blade back into place, and tucking the knife away in his pocket again, handed the nugget back over to a perplexed Xander.

“Where did you find this?” the Brit asked. Xander pointed to a spot down the shoreline. With an animated leap the young Watcher skittered down the sloped embankment, any thought of danger set aside in his investigative zeal.

Buffy, however, hadn’t forgotten about the demon. Casting a wary glance over the pond, she leaped effortlessly down onto the gravel beach, following Giles. The small Brit was squatting at the pond’s edge, his arms immersed to the elbows in the cool water. As he sifted his fingers through the mud, he studied the fine debris that he stirred up with all the intensity of a bird of prey focussing upon its potential dinner.

“Uh, Giles?” Hovering protectively over the librarian’s exposed back, Buffy kept a watchful eye on the pond. “I thought we had a consensus going here about, you know, going?” “Hmmm? Yes, right. As soon as…ahhh!”

The preoccupied Watcher suddenly let out with a triumphant crow. Lifting a small stone from the muck, he washed away its sludge coating and gave if a very careful scrutiny. There was nothing remarkable about its composition, and tossing it aside he returned to his search. One after another he culled potential pebbles from the soft slime, throwing them away as each failed to pass his inspection.

Buffy began to realize they weren’t going to be leaving anytime soon. Sighing, she directed a scathing glare toward Xander as he joined her on the beach.

“You couldn’t have waited ‘til we got home to show him that thing? We’ll be stuck here for hours now, thanks to you.”

“Greedy little guy, isn’t he?” Xander chuckled. He watched Giles pick through the gravel, oblivious to his audience or their comments. “You know, when Willow and I were kids there were all kinds of stories about some big gold stash being buried out here. This park used to be a mining camp or something back a hundred years or so ago. Rumor had it this old geezer, I can’t remember his name, anyway, this guy was supposed to have found a fortune in gold. We’re talkin’ filthy rich here. Nuggets comin’ out the wahzoo. Well, he was a little on the paranoid side, and didn’t trust anybody, especially the government, so instead of putting the gold in a bank he buried it out here. In this park somewhere. And then he died without telling anyone where it was.”

A smile broadened across Xander’s face as he reminisced. “Will and I used to have these big gold hunting expeditions. We’d spend hours out here, looking for buried treasure. I’d bring the peanut butter sandwiches and a shovel, and she’d have maps, a compass, and…Ooo! She’d bring those cookies, the ones with the marshmallow all covered in chocolate. We must’ve dug up half this park. It was like the Sunnydale version of a scavenger hunt for the Lost Treasure of the Sierra Madre, only without Bogey and the gang.”

“And you think that’s what we’ve found?” Buffy sniffed, pushing back a wet clump of hair. “Not to burst your bubble, Xand, but one shiny gold rock does not a treasure trove make.”

“How about two shiny gold rocks?” He directed her gaze to the librarian at their feet. In Giles open palm was a golden nugget.

“Oh, my God!”

Immediately Buffy was down on her knees beside her Watcher. Giles offered the stone to her, and she accepted the honor without pause, cradling the precious sample in both hands. Her face shining, she proudly showed the prize to Xander.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” she gushed, her cheeks flushed pink with excitement. “It’s so sparkly. And gold.”

Giles had returned to his quest in the mire. Within moments he found his second nugget. This one was more near the size of a healthy hen’s egg. Taking the stone, Buffy flourished it toward her classmate with a smug grin, her eyes glancing disdainfully at the smaller pebble he held.

“Giles’ is bigger than yours,” she bragged saucily, her head tossing with a scatter of water droplets.

Xander was searching for a smart comeback when the librarian’s explorations yielded yet another treasure. Buffy’s eyes widened with greed at seeing this new, larger nugget. Snatching it out of Giles’ hand she jumped up and began to do a joyous little dance on the beach.

“We’re going to be rich, rich, rich!” she giggled. Grabbing Xander, she gave the boy a soggy hug that made him grin. With a final, happy squeal she turned back to Giles. “So.” she said, clutching her booty to her chest. “How much do you think we can get for these?”

“From a collector?” Rising to his feet, Giles wiped a hand dry on the seat of his jeans. He had found yet another nodular stone, this one being considerably larger than any of his previous discoveries.

“I was thinking bank,” Buffy clarified. “You know, like for money. Cash value received.”

“Cash? Hmmm.” The Watcher frowned, considering the notion with serious thought. “I suppose they might fetch a few dollars. This one, slightly more,” he said, hefting the fist sized stone in his hand.

“A few dollars?” Xander snorted derisively at the small boy. “Giles, do you have any idea what gold goes for these days? The stuff is worth its weight in, well, gold. I mean, look at these babies. We’re talking mucho dinero.”

“This isn’t gold.”

Buffy and Xander stared at the Brit with expressions that said they had doubts about his sanity.

“What do you mean it isn’t gold,” Xander frowned. “What else could it be?”

“Iron disulfide.” At the teens’ confused looks Giles explained. “Pyrite. I’m sorry, Xander," the small Watcher gently sighed. But what you’ve found isn’t gold. It’s fool’s gold.”

“But, it’s so shiny, and…gold,” the older boy protested. His crestfallen face was a portrait of disbelief. “What if you’re wrong? There’s got to be some kind of test we can do, to see if it’s really real.”

“I suppose I could be mistaken,” the Brit retracted grudgingly. “I could run further tests. Determine the specific gravity, an accurate hardness and the like.”

“Fool’s gold?” Buffy opened her hands, staring down at the sparkly rocks in her possession. The multi-faceted surfaces glittered brightly in the moon’s soft light as she felt her hopes for a new wardrobe begin to dissolve in unrequited disappointment. “So, that would make this Foolers’ Pond with an ‘oo’, not a ‘u’,” the blonde surmised thoughtfully.

“Most likely, yes,” Giles replied, pleased that his slayer had managed to make the mental leap of assumption. “Over time geographical names often digress from their origins. People eventually forget distant historical associations. Ancestors fall out of favor. Spellings change. Names can become corrupted, sometimes bearing little connection to their former roots -”

He didn’t get a chance to finish his thought. As he stood at the pond’s edge, casually shifting his rock from palm to palm in a game of solitary catch, the water at his feet suddenly exploded upward in a wave of foaming effervescence. A trilling shriek blasted the night, and the Rusalka vaulted upright out of the water to tower over the small librarian, her hands outstretched in possessive menace. Dropping her rock collection, Buffy leapt forward, swooping her Watcher up into her arms and yanking him backward out of the Rusalka’s reach.

An astonished yelp bust out of the young Brit as the slayer’s strong embrace squeezed his middle. A flash of terror shot though him as he saw the Rusalka shed its aquatic arraignment, revealing its demonic form in all its nude glory. Clawed hands slashed out, missing his face by mere inches. He could hear their sharpness sing as they ripped the air, failing to connect and draw blood, but still near enough to send shivers up his spine. Buffy’s swift reflexes had saved him, and even as she swung him behind her hip, shielding him with her body, she beat back the demon from its lunging attack, all the while screaming instructions over her shoulder.

“Xander, take Giles. Get him out of here. Now!”

Swatting away a talon endowed hand, Buffy shot out a leg in a roundhouse kick. But it was awkward fighting with Giles dangling at her side. Even his slight weight threw off her balance, weakening the force of her blows. The Rusalka struck back with a vengeance, determined not to lose her prey to the blonde once again. Raising her song to a thunderous bellow, the sound dropped Xander in his tracks as he tried to take Giles away, leaving him stunned and helpless, and Buffy alone to defend her Watcher.

In a distressed voice that rivaled the Rusalka’s cries in volume, the young Brit was howling with panic. The creature had found a purchase, and was fighting Buffy for possession of the librarian. The battle between slayer and demon was a desperate tug of war, and the hapless Watcher the winner’s prize. It was a game Buffy couldn’t afford to loose. As the enraged monster snapped and screamed in its fury, the teen dug her heels into the gravel, and slowly backed up the sloped embankment behind her.

“No…you…can’t…have…him!” Buffy growled thought gritted teeth. The Rusalka pulled harder, dragging both slayer and Watcher toward the pond’s edge. Buffy could feel she was loosing ground again. Snarling, she cursed the demoness with gritted teeth. “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll get your stinky, fish fingers off my Watcher now.”

Her threats only incensed the beast. It’s piercing wails all but obliterated the blonde’s breathless grunts. The power struggle continued. Water splashed everywhere, spattering the combatants and the object of their struggles. Buffy cinched her arms tighter around Giles’ middle. As she wrestled to hang onto the little Brit, her gaze fell on the Rusalka’s clawed hands. That was when she realized it wasn’t Giles the beast had its grip on. It was his rock. The librarian had his tiny fingers wrapped around the large gold nugget, entwined within the Rusalka’s death-like vise, and was clinging to his treasure with the all the stubborn tenacity of a bulldog, refusing to let go. With a vigorous shake, Buffy tried to dislodge the boy from his prize.

“Giles! Let her have it. Give it to her. Just…let go!”

“Let go? Let go of wha – oh!”

Looking up, Giles saw at last what was the cause of his endangering predicament. With flustered chagrin he released his grip on the nugget. Immediately the Rusalka leapt back, her precious plunder clasped firmly to her breast. Trilling in victorious delight, the creature dove into the pond as the slayer and Watcher tumbled backward atop the comatose Xander.

Buffy scrambled to her feet, but the Rusalka was gone, and all that remained of her was the dying echo of her song, fading away on the night’s cool breeze. Heaving a grumbling sigh, the teen turned to confront her Watcher with an icy glare as she swept back her dripping hair.

“Sorry about that,” Giles apologized contritely. Buffy’s muttered reply was an inaudible curse.

“Did I miss something here?” Xander grunted from the ground. He rolled the small Brit off of him, and struggled to his feet. “Where’s demon girl?”

“How about we not stick around and find out,” Buffy suggested. Extending a hand down to the librarian, she helped him up and brushed off the latest accumulated layers of dirt. “Come on, Silas Marner. Let’s go home.”

With a weary nod Giles started up the grassy embankment. The two teens followed closely on his heels, and together the dripping trio scaled the steep incline, trudging past the yellow police tape barrier and entering the dense thicket beyond. Continuing up the winding, dirt track they arrived at the paved walkway above, and retracing their earlier walk, made their way back though the park, leaving behind a puddle-strewn wake and more than a few curious looks as they sloshed their way homeward at last.

Turn the Page Back to Chapter Nine | Back to the Title Page | Turn the Page to Chaper Eleven