CHAPTER NINETEEN

As soon as they were safely away beyond the Watcher’s earshot, Buffy dropped her armload of weapons to the ground and turned on Angel.

“Can you believe that guy?” she snarled petulantly. Raking her fingers over her temples, she tugged at the blonde wisps of hair in frustration. “Oooo! I could just -”

The sentence went unfinished as she gnashed her teeth, her clenched fists tightening whitely her side.

“First training session we have, the guy’s going down. I don’t care how old he is. No more Little Miss Nice Slayer. Uh, uh! He’s definitely made the list. In fact, he’s at the top of the list. All by himself. With no one else.”

“Buffy,” Angel started, but the blonde vehemently cut him off before he could say more.

“No! I don’t want to hear it,” she argued.

“Hear what?” Angel asked. Adding his armaments to her untidy pile he frowned at the young teen. “You don’t even know what I was going to say.”

“It doesn’t matter what you were going to say,” she pouted, a hand poised churlishly on her hip. “It was the how you were going to say it. That voice or reason thing you do. It makes me think, and then I get all ‘full of guilt ridden’ because I sound so stupid and shallow, then the next thing you know I’m feeling sorry for whatever…” She shook her head, her blonde mane bouncing emphatically. “Nope! It’s not going to work this time. You can’t force me to listen,” she said, and covered both her ears to prove her words.

“Fine,” Angel replied, his voice calm, indifferent.

“I can’t hear you,” she protested in a sing-song as she rolled her gaze skyward, pretending to ignore him.

“And, you’re right,” he added, turning his face to look out over the pond and studying the movement of its water with keen interest.

“Dang right I am,” she grumbled. Stopping her charade, Buffy raised a quizzical eyebrow and slowly lowered her hands from her ears. “What was that?”

“I said,” Angel patiently repeated. “You’re right.”

“Yeah, I am,” the teen announced. But there was a tinge of doubt in her smug reply, followed by a wave of puzzlement. “About what, exactly, am I right?” she asked.

“About him,” Angel returned, nodding his head imperceptibly toward the Watcher standing on the ridge above them. “He’s narrow-minded, bigoted, cold and thoroughly honest. Where does the guy come off thinking he should tell the truth and let me know where I stand.”

Buffy stared at Angel. Suddenly, she threw her hands up in surrender, her sanctimonious anger dissolving.

“I’ll have you know, you just ruined a perfectly good conniption fit,” she announced with feigned disgruntlement to her boyfriend. “I could have gone on for at least another twenty minutes. Maybe more.”

“I know,” Angel said. The faintest of smiles curled at his otherwise emotionless features. Shaking her head, Buffy heaved a sigh of complete resignation as she sidled up to the vampire and slipped an arm around his waist.

“How do you do that? How can you make me feel sorry and see the good in someone I want to hate?”

“Buffy, you don’t hate Dodd.”

“I don’t?” There was sharp cynicism in the teen’s challenge.

“No,” Angel affirmed, hugging the teen against him. “You may not like him, or believe in the same things, but that doesn’t mean you hate him.” His voice was somber, compelling, and Buffy found herself listening attentively to his words. “A man’s got the right to have an opinion. Dodd’s just happens to be more conservative that most. He’s a hard core by-the-book kind of guy, a traditionalist. In his eyes evil is evil. It’s all black and white. If you want him to start seeing the world in shades of gray, you’re the one who’s going to have to show it to him.”

“Angel, the man doesn’t listen, he lectures,” she complained. “He’s nothing like Giles. Sure, sometimes Giles operates a little close to the rules, but he also knows when to bend them. Dodd doesn’t compromise on anything. He’s like, the self-appointed expert on everything. A real Watchers’ Watcher. He throws around Council decree like it’s been carved onto sacred stone tablets. How can I show someone with that kind of closed mind anything?”

“Give the man a chance,” the vampire gently admonished. “People change.”

“I guess you should know,” she quipped lightly in return, hugging him closer. “You’ve been around long enough to have seen a couple dozen generations or so go through it.”

Easing back from his embrace, the teen looked at her companion.

“You like this new guy then, huh?” she asked.

“Dodd?” Angel frowned and delivered his opinion without pretentious preamble. “Guy’s a dimwit.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Buffy chuckled in sarcastic response.

She would have said more, but Angel directed her attention toward the pond behind them. The Rusalka was there, treading water about twenty feet or so from the shore. She had been attracted by the sound of their voices. Ignoring the slayer entirely, she regarded her handsome male companion with a vague curiosity. With a coy smile, she flipped back her moist tresses and began to flirt shamelessly with the vampire.

“Pretty brazen, isn’t she,” Angel commented as he absently returned the demoness’ smile with a small waving gesture.

Taken in by the beauty’s coquetish advances he failed to notice the exasperated glare Buffy shot his way, or the irritated pout that accompanied it. What he did see, however, managed to unsettle his formerly unflappable composure for a moment.

“Uh, she’s, uhm, naked.” the vampire stammered, slightly shaken.

“Boy, can’t put one by on you, can they?” Buffy retorted with a forced snort of sarcasm.

Angel barely heard the come back. His eyes were glued to the boldly immodest Rusalka. She was paddling in a lazy circle, her fingertips teasing the water’s surface, flinging tiny droplets into the air where they would catch the moon’s illumination and sparkle like stars. It was a mesmerizing game, and the light, bubbling laughter it inspired in her was inviting, almost hypnotic. As she glided to a halt and turned to look back at him, the vampire became enthralled by the creature’s presence. He watched the Rusalka tilt back her head, a sly smile curving a very moist and inviting pair of lips, and as he stood enraptured by the sight of it all, she began to serenade him with an eerie, captivating cascade of tones.

Somewhere in his brain a warning sounded. Shaking his head, Angel managed to tune out the invasion of the demon’s entrancing powers for a minute or so, but the siren song soon became too much for even him. The magickal influence of its force wove past the mental barriers he had put up. With mind numbing control the music smashed through his brain, the spellbinding tonal clusters wrapping around every thought, layering them in lulling tendrils and shutting out all other realities but one, the need to go to the Rusalka’s voice wherever she might be.

Buffy observed with growing morbid fascination as Angel fought the allure of the demoness’ song. His initial resistance was encouraging, but it became quickly evident that his vampire nature did not render him immune to the Rusalka’s powers. As he stared vacantly out at the Svengali-like enchantress, succumbing to her spell, Buffy saw all trace of life and awareness drain from Angel’s eyes, leaving behind a glazed, corpse-like emptiness in his expression that she found painful to look at. A shudder crept its way up her back, her heart tightening in her chest as she turned away, unable to bear the sight of his frightening deadness.

A quiet sigh drew her eyes back. Angel blinked, and suddenly the hollowness that had deadened his gaze filled with life. Giving his head a shake, the vampire dispelled the haunting tones that had captured his mind, erecting a protective mental barrier against the music’s compelling message.

“You okay?” the slayer asked, concerned.

“Yeah, I think so,” he replied. Rubbing a hand over the nape of his neck Angle frowned. “That was some trip.”

“A regular bus ride on the Magical Mystery Tour,” the teen chided with a smile. Her expression hardened, and she grew serious. “You sure you’re up for this?”

“I’m ready,” Angel answered, a confident ring in his voice.

That was good enough for Buffy. She knew Angel, and trusted him explicitly. If he said he could do this, then she believed him. Satisfied, she bent down, picking up the length of chain from the pile at her feet. Then selecting two gaffe-like hooks and the roll of the fishing wire, she set about manufacturing herself a weapon. It was time to get down to business.

Shedding his duster Angel lay it aside, watching in fascination as the young blonde slayer used the steel line to secure a hook at either end of the chain. Next, the same line served to fasten a series of lead weights to the outer edges of the fishing net. Two simple designs, but he could appreciate the imagination it took to create the curious devises out of odd bits and pieces of hardware, and was anticipating seeing how each would perform when tested in real action.

As the teen wrapped the chain around her hips, Angel selected a weapon for himself from the armament stockpile. The voulge caught his eye. Hefting the long handled axe, he gave it a swing, testing its balance. Perfect. Buffy complemented her chains with the dirk knife, tucking the blade into her waistband. She offered him the netting, which he accepted, and then each of them added various extras from the remaining weapons lot, fixing them into their respective pockets and folds of clothing before turning to approach the water’s edge.

“Gotta say,” Buffy chortled, grinning at her pale skinned companion. “Never thought I’d get to take my vampire boyfriend to the beach,” she quipped.

“Not really big on all that sand and surf,” Angel confessed. Stepping forward, he cautiously waded out into the water. “It’s the curse of my fair Irish complexion. I sunburn very quickly.”

“I bet,” the teen mused, forging out into the shallows after him. “Still, I think you’d look hot in a pair of speedos.” Sliding a glance over toward the vampire, her eyes took on a dreamy longing. “Oh, yeah! I’d let you play Baywatch lifeguard and give me mouth to mouth any day.”

“You do know I can’t actually do that,” Angel somberly returned over his shoulder. “Vampire’s have no breath. When the Master left you to drown that time, it was Xander who -”

“I know, I know!” She sighed, shivering at the unpleasant memory Angel had dredged up. “Can’t a girl have an indecent fantasy without someone spoiling it with pesky little details?”

“Sorry,” the vampire apologized.

“You should be. Next vampire dream I have, Brad Pitt gets the staring role.”

They continued wading deeper, their banter falling silent as the pair closed in on the waiting Rusalka. The maidenly creature watched their approach with almost idle curiosity, as if unsure what to do. Prey seldom came at her with such purpose, and without the benefit of her musical prompting. The presence of the female aroused her suspicions. She obviously remembered their last encounter, and did not look happy to see the blonde slayer again. Paddling backward the Rusalka moved out into slightly deeper water, her wary eye never leaving the two humans as they advanced. She attempted a brief tonal interlude, trying to distract Angel, but the vampire steeled his thoughts against her enchantment. Frustrated, the pale creature suddenly lashed out, kicking up a cascading spray of froth as she released her vexation.

“Looks like your little number hit the bottom of the charts,” Buffy grinned, noting the annoyance the creature exhibited at Angel’s apparent immunity to her charms. “No one’s listening to that tune anymore.”

The Rusalka curled back a lip, a rumbling growl escaping her throat. She realized that Buffy had once again somehow stolen her prey. Turning her face up to the starry sky, the creature let out an angry, inhuman bellow. Gone was her melodious song. This was a raging, venomous shriek. The keening wail ripped across the pond’s calm surface, cutting into the blackness of the night like a blade. Her scream ascended the tonal scale, shooting upward into a range that bordered on physically painful to all who could hear it. Hanging in the air it grew increasingly louder, and shriller, warbling at an impossibly high pitch. Then it stopped. The echo lingered, piercing through consciousness itself as the beast suddenly leapt upward in an erupting fountain of white water, her lithe body a flash as it dove, disappearing into the violent burble she had raised.

Buffy’s slayer instincts shifted into immediate hyper-drive. She knew the Rusalka hadn’t given up. Scanning the pond she search for some sign of her vanished foe. The monster was no where to be seen, however, a fact that the teen greeted with some trepidation. She’d seen this Houdini bit the night before, and it had ended badly then. She wasn’t about to let some monster get the better of her again.

Clenching her teeth, Buffy stifled their chattering. The water was chilly, and as she tuned up her slayer radar, tying to hone in on her elusive target, she felt the cold penetrating her damp clothing. She could sense the Rusalka nearby. Her eye trailed over the pond’s mirrored surface, searching for any suspicious movement under the gently undulating ripples. And she saw it, just off to her right, a cresting wave coming toward her, which she quickly brought to Angel’s attention.

“I see it,” the vampire responded.

Holding aloft the voulge he twisted off the metal cap at its handle’s end to reveal a sharpened, spear-like tip. He took aim, and sent the weapon forward with a swift, powerful thrust. The point stabbed the glassy water, the shaft sinking deep. But he had hit nothing substantial, the long wooden bar remaining standing at an angle, buried within the pond’s soft muddy bottom.

Slogging forward Buffy reached out to retrieve the weapon. She pulled it out of the muck, creating a small trailing of silt that clouded the dark water. Hefting the spear, she waded slowly back toward Angel, trying not to disturb the murky waters any more than could be helped. As she drew close to the vampire she felt something brush up against her beneath the thigh-deep water. Something that was alive. And then fiery pain burned through her leg as the something attacked, its razor sharp claws slashing into her flesh.

Buffy bit back an involuntary scream. Hefting the voulge she reacted with blind intuition, driving the shaft downward into the waves around her. She felt the weapon strike something solid. A wild thrashing suddenly roiled the water beside her, and the Rusalka broke up through the surface, screeching like the demon that she was. Her beautiful features were twisted into a mask of savage, animalistic fury. With an accusing glare she turned on the slayer, her luminous eyes flashing as she released her malevolent rage upon the teen.

The shaft had penetrated the creature’s back, entering somewhere below the left shoulder blade. Buffy could see the pointed tip protruding from the Rusalka’s ribcage in front, telling her that the make-shift spear had probably passed through an organ or two as well. A raw wound surrounded the voulge’s shaft, and a rivulet of dark blood began to ooze from the opening, running down the Rusalka’s glistening belly to dribble into the water below. You can feel pain, Buffy thought, wincing at the sound of the creature’s protesting wail. And if you bleed, then you can probably be killed. So much for immortality.

As the slayer assessed her next move the demoness reached up behind to snap off the voulge’s protruding shaft. The thick wood broke like a brittle twig, the bladed business end of the weapon falling into the pond with a loud splash. Baring a mouthful of teeth the creature snarled menacingly. It appeared that the Rusalka was not in the least bit incapacitated by her injury, though Buffy concluded she was looking pretty pissed about the assault upon her personage.

The creature lunged toward her and Buffy met the attack with a high kick to the sternum area. Falling back a step the Rusalka made a retaliatory swipe of its clawed hand at her head, which the teen managed to duck and avoid. Another kick sent the demon tumbling backward into the water with a resounding splash. Immediately, Buffy jumped after it, drawing her knife and lashing down at the foaming waves. The Rusalka had quickly vanished, leaving the slayer standing in the frigid water, searching desperately for something to hit

“Fine, be that way!” Buffy snapped, pouting at her invisible enemy.

Balancing on her good leg she lifted the other partly out of the water to inspect the damage to her thigh. Five slashes ripped her pants open, revealing an equal number of gashes beneath.

“Demons,” the teen muttered bitterly. “They have absolutely no respect for fashion. Present company excluded,” she added, directing an apologetic smile toward Angel.

Lowering her leg back into the water Buffy grimaced at the stinging cold. Gradually the burning sensation lessened, replaced by a numb tingling that she could easily ignore. Casting a glance shoreward, the teen saw Dodd perched high on the embankment, crossbow in hand, his haughty gaze lording down on the scene below him. The Englishman hadn’t moved an inch during the attack, taking his role as a Watcher literally, as well as seriously, content to stand his guard at a safe distance and allowing her to do all the work.

An eerie quiet had fallen over the pond. Nothing was moving. Not human, not animal. Even the noisy peeping frogs had gone into hiding. Beneath the water the fish had migrated to the opposite end of the pool, retreating from the seething creature that swam among them with such frenzy, darting about on its erratic course, its killing instinct rousing with every passing moment.

Somewhere from within the pond’s depths an ominous quaking rumbled. It started with a gentle rippling of waves skimming out over the water’s surface, and quickly escalated to a shuddering current sweeping across the murky bottom. Buffy could feel the soft earth tremor beneath her cold feet, and one look at Angel told her he sensed the movement, too. Her heart quickened, pounding faster, her breath hissing sharply in anticipation. The earthquake swelled, and the ground vibrated, shivering in a supernatural portent. Big bad trouble was on its way.

Bracing against the ground’s unusual movement Buffy threw an uneasy eye toward Angel. The quaking died away, and the silence returned, blanketing the pond with its forbidding weight. In the peaceful interlude Buffy could hear voices, people talking somewhere off in the distance. The ghostly conversation echoed in the dark, carrying across the water, lending a surreal feeling to the events unfolding at the pond.

A minute passed. And then another. The icy water encircling her hips had numbed Buffy’s lower torso. Her feet felt like lead weights, and the wet chill penetrated her boots to freeze her toes. The teen found herself idly wondering how Angel was faring. As a vampire, his body didn’t generate any warmth of its own. The cold water was probably very uncomfortable for him, though he put on a brave face to the contrary.

A hissing roil of water began to bubble beside her. Angel noted the disturbance at the same instant, and as she spun around, he jumped forward, shaking the snarls out the netting he held. They waited, vampire and slayer, she with her knife, and he ready to ensnare their invisible enemy. A pale shape loomed upward, breaking through the water’s surface between them. Angel threw his net, the web-like mesh unfurling, soaring through the air in search of it target. The fabric opened its folds, dropping down to envelope the Rusalka as it rose from the pond to confront them.

Buffy smiled. Angel’s aim had been perfect. With the demoness caught in the net she raised her knife hand, and with a vengeful force brought the blade down, plunging it into the creature’s heart.

The figure huddled under the net unleashed a deafening roar. It was a huge sound. Buffy was amazed that something so delicate and small could produce such a big noise. As the Rusalka continued to stand, straightening to if full height, the teen discovered how the seemingly improbable bellow was possible. For emerging from the water, the net serving as a meager veil for its enormous head, was a hulking and statuesque beast like none she had ever seen. It towered over her petite form, dwarfing her by two or three heads in height. She watched in awe as the creature reached up with hand-like limbs to rip at the rope netting, shredding it into useless strands before her eyes. The strands fell away, revealing the transmuted Rusalka. An impressive crest of spines framed its hideous face, which was no longer human, but fish-like in appearance. There were no ears that she could see, but there was a delicate ruffling that fluttered over its gills, and long sinuous fringe that fell around its muscular shoulders like a flowing mane of hair. The thin wisps of flesh were a rainbow of iridescence, their color rivaling the brilliance of a peacock’s tail while the smooth, interlocking coat of scales that covered the bulk of the beast’s monumental frame glittered in pale, silvery splendor under the soft glowing light of the moon.

Buffy gaped as she stared at the monster standing before her. This thing bore little resemblance to the winsome, beautiful girl she’d seen earlier, yet she knew the two were one and the same. Large, bulging eyes glowed in a sickly hue of green. A hideous maw opened wide, showing off multiple rows of sharp, pointed teeth. From within its depths a tubular tongue lolled forth, slimy, and blue, and traced with tumescent veins. But the worst thing of all was the smell. The beast exhaled in her face, releasing an odor that was reminiscent of rotting fish and the decay of death. It was enough to induce nausea, and as her nose wrinkled in violent protest, Buffy waved a hand through the air, trying to fan away the foul, vile stench.

“Whoa! Someone needs a lesson on the importance of flossing after meals,” the teen gagged. “Never underestimate the benefits of good oral hygiene. It can mean more than just a pretty smile.”

The creature answered her quip with a thunderous roar, its mantle of fringe quivering with rage. It was a display meant to frighten its victims into submissive defeat, but Buffy didn’t back down, and instead stood in bold defiance, though the repulsive exhibit did bring on a grimace of apprehension from the blonde teen.

Ejecting its long tongue, the beast gurgled moistly. Buffy quickly discovered the tube-shaped appendage was more than a mere muscle to aid in articulation or eating. The organ writhed with a life of its own, snaking out toward her like a hollow tentacle, a froth of mucous-like slime oozing from the opening at its tip. The disgusting substance sloughed in thick sheets, dripping into the pond to form an oily slick on the water’s surface. As the tongue wriggled closer the teen shuddered in revulsion, flinching away from the trail of dribbling spittle.

Gathering her courage, Buffy ignored the queasy unease she felt, and with a swift forward thrust, delivered the point of her knife into the beast’s exposed belly. The blade stabbed deep, its penetrating force belying the power hidden with her small form. As the cutting edge sliced into its soft, pale flesh, the Rusalka trumpeted in anger, striking out with a swipe of a clawed hand. Ducking to one side the teen deftly avoided the curved talons, though not by much. She could feel the wind of the near miss touch her shoulder, lifting the light wisps of hair that had strayed from their coiffed place. Popping upright again, she grabbed at the knife handle, and attempted to remove it from the creature’s gut, but the weapon was stuck fast. It wouldn’t budge. The Rusalka was as upset by the calamitous predicament as she was, and vented its distemper with another bugle-like roar of outrage.

Bounding forward the beast attacked, its arms swinging wildly. Buffy leapt up and out of the water, propelling both feet at the demon’s substantial torso. One boot ricocheted off the smooth slippery chest, while her other slipped higher, catching the creature squarely in its toothy mouth. There was a loud crunch of bone as her heel made its connection. Continuing her momentum up and over, she executed a somersault flip, splashing down again in a fountain of spray. Drenched to the skin, she landed on her feet, and rearing back, poised to take on the next assault that came her way.

Angel beat her to the punch. And a kick, too. Coming at the Rusalka from behind, the vampire hit it with several backhanded slams and a strong heel to the kidney region. The beast was surprised by the rear attack. Twisting around, it confronted Angel’s flank offensive, and presented the slayer with the perfect opportunity to get in another blow. Throwing a swift, arcing uppercut to the demon’s exposed jaw line she sent it staggering backward. A small tidal wash inundated the teen as the Rusalka lurched forward, struggling to maintain its upright posture. With its huge fish eyes glowing madly, flashing warily from slayer to vampire and back, the demon glared menacingly at its enemies. Buffy could almost see the monster thinking, deciding which of them to go after. For the tick of a chest thudding heartbeat the fierce glower lingered upon her, and she knew who had won top spot on the creature’s list of victims to smite.

Her suspicion was confirmed a second later. The beast lashed out with a razor tipped hand. She answered with two successive punches to the sternum. Another hand swept over her head, this one passing close enough she felt the hooked talons cutting through her tangled tresses. Countering with a quick right, and then a left cross to the creature’s fishy face, she pummeled the beast about its head as it snapped its toothy jaws and snarled.

Maneuvering in the icy water was difficult, but the slayer danced in and out of the limited range of the Rusalka’s dangerously barbed reach. She dodged each lumbering swat until, in a moment of precarious footing, she slipped in the silted mud beneath her feet, and with her equilibrium compromised, fell hard and fast, plunging butt first into the pond.

She had just enough time to realize what was happening. Sucking in a deep breath, Buffy prepared for the water’s cold sting as it enveloped her body. To her astonishment there wasn’t any splash. Instead, she hung suspended, balanced horizontal over the pond’s surface, held aloft by some unseen force behind her. Angel. He had caught her only inches before splashdown. His grip on her shoulders was strong and firm, lending a perception of security as well as a helping hand.

“Thanks,” she said, and flashed a grateful smile at her rescuer.

That was all she had time to say. A raging bellow signaled the Rusalka was again on the offensive. Tightening his hold, Angel dragged the slayer out of harm’s way as the demoness advanced forward. Buffy kicked out, keeping up a steady staccato of heels thudding away at the creature’s belly as Angel retreated beyond the reach of its claws. Gathering her feet beneath her, Buffy sprang upright, leaping out of the vampire’s arms in a surging rush. Snapping into a ready stance she postured defiantly with legs spread apart, fists clasped into hard balls, and waited for her foe’s next onslaught.

The Rusalka charged, but as graceful as she had in her maidenly persona, her fishy mutation was sorely lacking in both speed and agility. She was all bluster and brawn, lumbering like a Frankenstein monster in an old B-movie. With a loud trumpet she came at the slayer and her vampire companion, crashing through the water, throwing waves of spray before her and soaking the already wet teen.

Buffy managed to block the arm the Rusalka swung at her, her knuckles grazing the knife handle that still protruded obscenely from its belly. Releasing a moist, rattling grunt the beast stuck back with a wild, backhanded blow. This time it was the slayer who was on the receiving end of a hit. The errant slap connected solidly with her right cheek. Overcome by a brief moment of blackness, she felt herself slip in the soft muck, her head snapping around as she fell into the Rusalka’s outstretched arms. Not a place she wanted to be.

Excruciating pain heralded the closing of the Rusalka’s gripping hooked talons around her upper arms. Gritting her teeth, Buffy heard the frightening crack of delicate bones. Fortunately, they were not hers. Angel had jumped into the battle and was vigorously mounting an attack. He kicked at the creature, pounding its body with his fists until the beast acknowledged his presence and was forced to defend itself. Releasing the slayer, the demon pushed her aside and leapt at the vampire. While Angel distracted the creature with a kick to its throat Buffy used the advantage of her close proximity to drive a heel into the Rusalka’s knee, forcing the limb to buckle under and fold. A brutal roundhouse kick from Angel to the floundering beast’s head sent it toppling face down into the shallows with a piteous howl that was quickly swallowed up beneath the murky waves.

A momentary hush fell over the pond. Buffy and Angel exchanged exhausted glances, but it was too early to start congratulating each other. In a sudden upsurge the beast resurfaced, and tackled the slayer with a full body slam that was worthy of any WWF wrestler. The demoness drug the teen down into the water, its hulking weight pressing down over her, burying her in the fine silt of the pond’s bottom. Buffy tasted a foul flood of algae enter her mouth as water filled her ears, her nose, trapping what little breath she had within her lungs. She resisted the urge to gulp in the fishy water, and instead struck out, fighting the crushing force that pinned her down, trying to throw it off her.

Pouncing on the scaly demon, Angel grabbed one of the bony spurs of her head crest, and using it as a handle, wrenched back the beast’s neck, rolling her over like a rodeo cowboy wrestling a calf to the ground. Scrambling in the slippery muck, the pair grappled in the roiling waves, the beast thrashing its tadpole-like tail. The thick stub smacked against Angel’s leg, the blow bruising in its strength, but he kept his grip, and finding a fleeting purchase in the mud, managed to lift the heavy beast a few inches. Ramming his knee into its ribs he drew a howl of pain. A one-handed chop to the creature’s gills abruptly silenced the cry, and he hammered a second blow for good measure, and then a third. But it wasn’t enough to free the teen who lay trapped beneath, and in a blood-thirsting rage, Angel willed his demonic side to emerge.

With a lionic growl the change swept over him. He felt his face vamp out in grotesque, monstrous ridges. His canines elongated, projecting from his snarling mouth in visible fangs. An animalistic fury ripped through his body, fueling his muscles with inhuman power, and in a burst of strength he hauled the Rusalka’s massive bulk from the water, tossing it aside with a voluminous splash.

Beneath the mud-tainted waters, Buffy suddenly found herself freed. Flailing her way upward, she burst to the surface, and clearing her mouth with a sputtering cough, gulped in a deep lung full of oxygen. Her body shivered, as much from the cold as from the panic she had felt during those seconds of eternity spent beneath the water. This wasn’t the first time she had nearly drowned. In fact, the first time she’d lived through a similar experience, she hadn’t actually lived through it. She’d died and had to be revived. But having survived one death didn’t make it any easier to go through it again. She might be the Chosen One, endowed with preternatural slayer strength and power, but she was also human. That meant she was just as susceptible to fear as the next person, and as such, she was feeling very unnerved by her near watery demise, a luxury she couldn’t afford to dwell upon at that moment.

Sweeping back her soggy blonde mane, Buffy blinked the mud from her eyes and cast about to get her bearings. In the distance she could see Dodd standing on the grassy knoll, watching the proceedings unfold with a cool, impersonal detachment. Looks like we can pretty much rule out any help from the British Light Brigade, she frowned. The fastidious Watcher still hadn’t moved, not even after all he had just witnessed. Probably doesn’t want to get his shoes wet, she grumbled. She and Angel were obviously on their own in this.

She turned around, looking for Angel. He stood a few feet away, all decked out in formal vampire face, his clothing soaked to the skin and clinging to his muscular body. Normally, she would have taken a few moments to admire the poster-worthy sight he presented, but the Rusalka remained on the loose and dangerous, so her fantasy life would have to wait on hold for a little longer.

She scanned for the beast, and found it wallowing drunkenly in the tangle of nearby marsh reeds. Angel’s vigorous assault had left it momentarily confused, but not injured. Shaking its head the Rusalka lurched to its feet, and craning its neck around to glare at the pair, bared its needle sharp teeth in a threatening growl.

“Is it just me,” the teen pouted, her breath coming in light pants from her intense exertions. “Or does she still seem kind of -”

“Indefatigable?” Angel finished.

“I was going for zippy, but, yeah,” she agreed. A warning snarl further punctuated her observation. “Plan A doesn’t look like it’s working to well. What say we move on to Plan B?”

“And that would be?”

Unwinding the chain from around her waist, Buffy began to play out several feet of the links in her hands. “Thought I might take up a new hobby. I hear fishing’s a pretty relaxing sport.”

Angel’s fangs glistened wickedly in the moonlight as he nodded. This was Buffy’s show. She was the one calling the shots. He was just Back Up Guy, ready to jump in and do his bit when needed, and judging by the menacing glower the Rusalka had leveled on them at that moment, it didn’t look like his wait would be a long one.

With the bulk of the chain now looped loosely across one palm, Buffy gave the tether’s other end a deft flip with her wrist, setting it in motion. She twirled the chain like a cowboy’s lariat, raising it over her head, and forcing Angel to crouch down to avoid the large hook that sailed dangerously close to his cranium. The chain sang as it sliced through the air, gaining power and momentum with every revolution. Buffy waited as the Rusalka shook its head, rattling its crest of spines in an ominous threat as its tail thrashed the water into frothy waves. Suddenly, the creature charged. With great leaps it barreled down upon her, splashing up foaming cascades of spray in all directions. A luminous ferocity burned in is evil green-eyed glower, and the demon was oblivious to all but its intended target as it bounded in exaggerated slow motion toward the petite blonde, trumpeting its hatred with ear-splitting volume.

She waited to the last possible moment before hurling the chain at the stampeding beast. The curved hook flew through the air, finding the monster’s thick neck and wrapping around it in a strangling hold. Claws slashing the creature continued thundering toward the teen, forcing Buffy to jump aside. She felt herself begin to slip, but once again Angel was there to rescue her, pulling her into his side, keeping her from going under in the powerful swell of the Rusalka’s passing wake. Her compromised balance secured by his steadier footing, she shot out a leg as the demon careened by. A simultaneous yank on the chain jerked the creature from its feet and sent it crashing into the water, but not before its tail had whipped out to take both slayer and vampire down with it in a muddy fountain of spray and weeds.

Tightening her grip, Buffy hung on with all her strength, drug along by the Rusalka’s wild thrashing. The demon twisted and wriggled like a fish caught on a hook, which she was. It was all Buffy could do just to keep her head above water. She could feel the chain slipping through her hands, the links slimed with pond algae and bits of rotting vegetation. In spite of her determined efforts the tether suddenly jerked free, and with an involuntary yelp of pain the teen stumbled backward into the water.

Angel reacted instantly, making a valiant lunge for the escaping line. But the Rusalka had already sensed its advantage, and with a lightening dive, disappeared into the dark water. Angel could only watch as the last links of the heavy chain were swallowed beneath the muddy shallows, and the creature swam off, quickly distancing herself from the soggy pair of demon hunters.

“So much for Plan B,” he frowned. Extending an arm to the slayer, he helped her to her feet. “Got a Plan C?”

“Give me a minute. I’m thinking,” Buffy replied.

“Better make that a short minute,” he returned, an urgency tinting his voice. He gestured across the pond where the Rusalka had resurfaced and was once again charging toward them in a tireless counter attack.

“Doesn’t she ever quit!” the teen groaned. Risking a glance toward shore she looked for Dodd. The Watcher had yet to move, to even lift a finger to help them. Heaving a resigned, dour grumble, she gave Angel’s damp sleeve a tug. “Come on.”

Breaking into a high stepping gallop, Buffy splashed off through the shallows on a course that would take her to shore. Hesitating, Angel flicked his gaze toward the Rusalka. In the years that he had known Buffy, battling evil alongside her, even fighting against her, he had learned that the young slayer was not one to give in so easily. Her decision to withdraw left him confused. But turning back, a closer look at the retreating girl quickly calmed his apprehension. She definitely had something in mind. He could sense it, see it in the poise and purpose of her very being. This was not some flight of panic. It was a tactical withdraw, part of a plan. He hoped it was a good plan, for the Rusalka was bearing down on them with an aggressive vengeance, its jaws snapping and claws rippling the air as it ran, and it was not a very encouraging sight.

Splashing in pursuit of the teen, he caught up with her in a few, easy strides. Falling in behind her, he loped along at her heels, matching her unhurried pace.

“This is your Plan C?” he inquired with a skeptically raised eyebrow. “Running away?”

But Buffy’s focus was concentrated intently upon the man standing above them on the embankment. “Since Mohammed won’t get off his high and mighty butt and take care of the mountain down here, we’re just gonna have to bring it on up to his lordship.”

Behind them the Rusalka unleashed a reverberating roar.

“It’s time I found of what kind of Watcher our Mr. Dodd really is,” she grumbled acidly in contempt. In an energetic burst of speed, Buffy streaked out ahead of Angel, and raced toward the shoreline.

On the grassy inclined knoll above Dodd had been watching the proceedings with keen interest. He had mentally filed away dozens of comments to jot down in his journal later, and a few more that he intended to broach with the slayer upon their return that evening. He had some serious reservations concerning her behavior, not to mention her questionable associations with civilians and vampires. For instance, after engaging the Rusalka in less than successful form, why was she now abandoning the battle? The creature obviously hadn’t been vanquished, and the slayer herself wasn’t mortally injured. There was no reason he could see to her suddenly taking flight from her duty. Even more disturbing was the direction of her hasty exodus. She was heading straight for him. What in heaven’s name could she be thinking? This was definitely a sign of improper training, no doubt the fault of her former Watcher. Or, perhaps, a death wish, for them both as her insane actions certainly seemed to belie her intent to take him along when the Rusalka eventually overtook her and attacked.

She was a few scant yards from the shoreline now and swiftly closing the distance between them, the vampire hot on her heels. Hitting the narrow stretch of beach she bounded across the loose gravel, throwing herself at the vertical incline, scrambling desperately upward on hands and feet. It took only precious seconds for her to scale to the knoll’s crest. As she flung herself over the top, Watcher and slayer locked anxious gazes from across a span of ground less than fifteen feet in distance.

Buffy was screaming something at him, but the earplugs he wore only allowed a muffled garble to pass, and even that was overpowered by the raucous bellowing emanating from below. The sound was deafening, and filled him with mounting trepidation, as did the scene that exploded upon his vision. As the slayer continued to scurry toward him the Rusalka’s hideous countenance popped up behind her, glassy green-eyed glare blazing with venomous blood lust, its gaping maw flashing needle sharp teeth that sent chills of terror racing through his being. But that wasn’t the worst of it. Shadowing the demoness was the vampire, Angel. With his face decked out in a monstrous deformed mask and menacing fangs it was a sight that filled the Watcher with dread and panic, and plunged his soul into the very depths of horror.

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