It was dark. That was really nothing new, thought Joyce Summers with a bitter little smile; it had been dark every night for as long as she could remember. Every night throughout Time the sun had sunk out of sight, and the world had been plunged into darkness. It was one of the continuities that other people found so reassuring, so life-affirming. It was something that no man could change, that no scientific advancement was ever likely to alter - at least for the foreseeable future - and yet these days it disturbed her as never before. Even as a child, she did not remember being afraid of the dark.

But things were different now. She had reasons to be afraid; reasons to fear the night. Somewhere out in all that blackness and all that shadow she had a daughter who was destined to battle demons and monsters for the good of all mankind. Somewhere out there, in all that quiet emptiness, her beloved teenage daughter was probably even now fighting against some undead creature, assisted only by a handful of school friends and a slightly odd librarian. It was hard to accept that destiny had linked Buffy with a stranger; with a man that Joyce barely knew. Somehow it would have been so more easier to accept the whole Slayer business if it could have been Joyce herself who was the Watcher; Joyce who could accompany Buffy into battle. It would have been so much easier to accept if it had been Joyce that Buffy turned to in moments of crisis.

A pair of cats ran past the Summers house, disappearing into the shadows of the bushes across the way. Joyce watched them go, hardly registering their presence until they had vanished. She shivered. There had been something… something indefinable. A moment's chill perhaps, which had chased through her garden and then disappeared in the blink of an eye. She had thought, just for the briefest of moments, that she had heard a voice. She smiled to herself. She was letting all of this get to her. She had to stop. After all, Buffy had been fine for all of those long months when she had been the Slayer without her mother's knowledge; why should anything be different now? Turning around, she walked back through the door and closed it after her. Inside the house was brightly lit, warm and cheerful. She felt more at home there than she had in any other house throughout her life. What a terrible irony it was, that such a glorious sense of relaxation and peace should come from a town standing at the mouth of hell. In the midst of serenity she stood at the heart of chaos; and the only thing that kept the sanity alive was the unending struggle of a girl not yet turned eighteen.


"I am so tired." Letting out a yawn that looked as though it could easily have swallowed half of Sunnydale, Xander Harris rubbed his eyes with exaggerated relish and leaned back in the armchair he had appropriated moments before. "Can we cut morning classes for reasons of extended Slayage?"

"It's not that late, Xander." Perched on the arm of his chair, and looking contrastingly bright and cheerful, Willow Rosenberg leaned over to accept the mug of tea being offered to her. "Thanks Giles."

"My pleasure." The reclusive librarian of Sunnydale High, who was somehow managing to give the impression that he had spent the last three hours lost in a book rather than fighting vampires in the local graveyard, handed Xander another mug. "And it is that late. Later in fact."

"Thankyou." Xander grinned. "So, er, how about a note letting us off classes tomorrow morning? History, Geography, Chemistry…"

"Chemistry is the last class in the afternoon," Willow told him. He glared at her.

"Okay, thankyou to the timetable with legs. I was trying to avoid mentioning that." He sighed. "I'm too tired now for discussing the atomic numbers of assorted elements, and I just know I'll still be too tired tomorrow. Tomorrow, the day after - maybe for the rest of the year. A late night's Slaying can have far-reaching effects."

"Forget it, Xander. Something tells me we're not going to be missing any of our lessons this morning." Buffy Summers smirked up at the librarian as he handed her the final mug from his tray. "We're talking with Duty Guy. It's my sacred destiny to attend all my classes, and always have the reading done."

"Precisely." Sipping from his tea, Giles took up his customary position behind her chair. "Anyway, with - with things the way they are right now where Snyder is concerned, I really feel that we should avoid all possible forms of confrontation for - for at least the next, er… year or two." He smiled. "Although personally, having seen his sixteen year-old self recently, I feel less inclined to consider him a threat."

"Yeah. Less threat, more total no-brainer." Buffy grinned, remembering the unasked-for insight into the principal's awkward teenage years that they had all been a party to some weeks previously. It had been a frightening night when all of the adults of Sunnydale had regressed to their childhood personas, but in the case of Principal Snyder it had almost been a relief. He had previously gained a virtually inhuman reputation at the school, and to see the hopeless klutz he had been at their own age had destroyed a few demons. She yawned. "Sorry guys. Why do vampires have to keep such anti-social hours?"

"Well I'm sure not sure, but I think it's 'cause they explode in daylight." Willow smirked at her. "I guess we'd better get home or my mother's not going to let me out until my children graduate." She frowned. "Not that I'm thinking of having children at all - just yet, you know, I just--"

"We get the symbolism thing Will." Xander drank the last of his tea, enjoying the feeling of relaxation that it left spreading through him. Before he had fallen in with Buffy and Giles he had never drunk tea in his life, and now it had become something of a regular tradition in their little group. "Just what is the time anyway?"

"Half past one." Giles still did not look at all tired, which was just plain unfair to Xander's way of thinking. "Would you like me to run you all home?"

"Yeah, 'cause that wouldn't complicate matters at all." Willow put her now empty mug back on the tray. "See you tomorrow - er, today."

"Of course." He followed them to the door, somehow managing to be there before them in order to open it. Hardly had he turned the handle when two cats tumbled over the step and ran across the floor. They jumped onto the chair recently vacated by Xander, and sprawled across it as though perfectly at home.

"Cats." Buffy frowned. "You have cats?"

"Not exactly, no." Giles headed back to the chair, as though considering turfing the creatures out, then shrugged. "They've been coming here for the last two or three nights. They seem to know the place."

"Well they don't set my spider senses a-spinning, Kimosabi," Buffy told him, mixing her pop-culture references with ease. "If they're not undead, possessed or in any way spine-tingling, I guess they're just looking for a bowl of milk."

"Rather the conclusion I had come to myself." He shrugged. "I'll see you three in the morning. I have a new exercise I thought you might try, Buffy."

"Ooh, fun. You sure know how to excite a girl." She flashed him a brief wave. "Night."

"Goodnight." He closed the door, leaving them alone, and the threesome exchanged a grin. Winding up Giles was one of the great constants of their lives, but there were times when he refused to take the bait. Together they turned about to head for home, practising their parental-appeasement excuses on each other as they wandered through the darkened streets.


It was very late by the time Giles closed his books and began to think about going upstairs to bed. He had intended to spend half an hour glancing through his copy of Mantoni's Magic And Madness, and had been side-tracked by an after-note added in hand-written Sanskrit by some previous owner. He had only recently acquired the book, and had been unable to resist the temptation to translate. Given his limited - to say the least - grasp of the ancient Hindu language, it had taken rather longer than imagined before he finally put the book down and thought about getting some sleep. He glanced at the clock; half past three. Hard to believe that it was already two hours since he had bade the others a good night, and had thought about a (reasonably) early turn in. Even harder to believe that in another four hours he would have to be in the library, looking as though he had got a good night's sleep and was raring to go; not that there was any raring that needed doing. There were whole days at a time when nobody set foot in the library save for the assorted members of the Slayer's Circle; and Principal Snyder, who came by on a regular basis to see who he could find cutting classes.

Killing the yawn before it had time to begin, Giles threw his collection of books into a higgledy-piggledy pile on the nearest uncluttered surface - of which there did not seem to be too many just recently - and pulled off his glasses. He slung them on top of the pile of books, rubbing his eyes. He was tired. He needed sleep, but it had been eluding him for so long that he had almost forgotten what it felt like. His current state of restlessness was probably a nervous reaction to the fast-approaching eighteenth birthday of his Slayer, although it was hardly as if he were lacking in reasons for being tense and uneasy. Being kidnapped and tortured by a one-time friend who had recently murdered your girlfriend could do that to a person, he imagined; and the increasing sense of doom emanating from the Hellmouth did little to help. He stood up, heading for the lamp nearby to plunge everything into darkness, when he suddenly remembered the cats. They had been so quiet for the last two hours that he had forgotten all about them.

"What am I supposed to do with you?" he asked them, before realising that 'them' had apparently become 'it'. At some point during the night the cat population of the room had suffered a fifty percent decrease, and he couldn't for the life of him remember seeing the second animal leave. It had been a particularly attractive black one, he seemed to recall; the lucky black cat of myth, and traditional companion of so many comic book witches. He smiled at that. He had encountered witches before, and only a couple of them had possessed cats. He wasn't sure that either of them had been pure black ones. The one cat which remained - a lazy looking chocolate coloured creature with proud whiskers and a frisky tail - peered at him through half-closed, mischievous eyes. It did not seem inclined to consider going out for the night, so he elected to leave it where it was. He had put some milk down for them both just after his young friends had departed, and some was still left, so it was hardly as if they would go hungry before daybreak. On each of the previous nights they had stayed with him, both animals had been gone by the time that he came down for breakfast, and he imagined that it would be the same story tonight.

He was halfway up the stairs when he heard a knock at the door; a sharp, persistent tapping which startled him. Who was going to be calling at this time of the night? He frowned, wondering if it was really safe to answer, then dismissed the thought. The only person he could think of who might be looking for him was Buffy, and if she was coming at such a late hour it had to be serious. He hurried back down the stairs and opened the door.


"Uh, no. Sorry." The voice was female, deep and pleasant. He frowned, blinking uncertainly, and wished that he had put his glasses back on. "Um… actually my name is Jude."

"Oh, er… I…" He frowned again, looking from her to the street beyond, searching for potential threats or any signs of other likely dangers. It was dark, there was no moon, and a strange woman was knocking on his door at half past three in the morning. "Um… Rupert Giles. Can I help you?"

"I certainly hope so." She favoured him with a smile that was quite breathtaking. "I imagine that you'd rather not invite me in, but it is a little chilly out on the doorstep…"

"Oh. Yes, er…" He sighed. "Come on in."

"Thankyou." Her smile went a long way towards relaxing him, although he told himself firmly that her enchanting face had nothing to do with it. A pretty face was no confirmation of a pretty soul, after all. "You have a lovely place."

"Thankyou." He gestured to a chair, watching as she settled herself with the brown cat on her lap. It welcomed her happily, purring in a luxuriously lazy way that set his mind at ease. Animals knew people in a way that people themselves could never hope to understand, and if the cat was happy with her presence then so was he. He sat down opposite her, letting his eyes linger on the long black dress and the contrasting silver necklace. It sparkled to perfection against her rich black skin, and matched the equally bright shine of the charm bracelet on her right wrist. He saw a crucifix dangling amongst the other charms and relaxed still further. It was not complete proof of her honesty, but it was certainly a good start. "So, er… um… What can I do for you?"

Her eyes found his and held them, seeming to smirk teasingly at him. He tried to tell himself that he was still on his guard, and that he wasn't being increasingly bewitched by the most beautiful woman he had seen since-- He cut the thought off and managed a confused smile.

"I need your help." She looked away, momentarily distracted by an apparent unease. "I hate having to come to you like this; but it's not as if we're complete strangers."

"I really don't think we've ever met before." He frowned, suddenly at a loss. "Would, er, would you like some tea?"

"Thankyou, that would be lovely." She followed him into the kitchen area, watching as he set about boiling the kettle. "I'm sorry. I've made you nervous."

"Oh no, n-n-no, no not at all." The sentence came out at last, and she giggled in such a delightful way that he found himself smiling too. "I'm not nervous… exactly. I just… I have reason to be suspicious, that's all. In a place like this…"

"Yes, of course. The Hellmouth doesn't exactly promote good neighbourly feelings." She handed him the milk as he began to hunt for it. He frowned at her, accepting the milk but putting it aside straightaway.

"Who are you?"

"My name is Jude." She gave a little sigh, which seemed to set his spine a-tingling. "I'm a witch."

"Oh." He nodded, trying to keep a new frown from emerging on his forehead. "Um… Should - should I be worried? Er… any need to try to find a - a sword, or…" He looked about, but the only things that came immediately to hand were a carton of milk and a box of teabags. She giggled again.

"Or a teabag? I think I'm immune to them. Don't worry, Mr Giles, my reasons for being here aren't at all sinister. I really do need your help. You're the only person I could come to, the only person who might know enough to be of use to me, and the only one who would be likely to agree to help out. There aren't many people around here who would be inclined to believe what I have to say, and a good deal less who would actually know what needed to be done about it."

"Ah." He nodded, wondering whether to be flattered or flustered, and opted for the former. As usual the latter did not seem to be far behind. "Er… well - well I-I-I-I would have to know the full details and - and - and--" He frowned. "How did you know about me?"

"A friend told me." She took the mug of tea that he was offering her. "Thankyou. No offence, but I was getting a little tired of milk."

"Of… milk?" He was beginning to feel decidedly out of his depth, although there had to be worse places to flounder in than at this woman's feet. He tried to kill that particular thought, but seemed to be losing his battle against the rising tide of confusion - yet again. "Er… I…"

"Not that I don't appreciate a nice warm armchair to spend the night in." She shook her head, amused by his patented frown and gentle stammer. "It's all a part of my problem, and if you don't mind, I'd like to explain it all to you before daybreak. Unless you speak feline."

"Feline?" He stared at her, knowing that he was probably sounding extremely obtuse, and certain that he looked completely blank. He didn't care. "Are you, um… well I mean… are you - were you-?"

"The black cat you've been saying goodnight to for the last few days." She favoured him with another of her quite irresistible smiles. "You see why I need your help?"

"I, er, I can see why you might have one or two problems, yes." He reached for his glasses, realised that they were still in the other room with his books, and looked momentarily at a loss. His hands needed something to do. "Um… Just, er - just as a matter of interest, um… who exactly is the other other cat? Or - or is it just a cat?"

"Ah, yes." She turned away slightly, looking vaguely embarrassed. "I knew you'd ask me that. It's sort of the reason that I knew how to find you." She was looking apologetic now, which seemed to make her even more enchanting than ever. "You sort of know the other cat."

"I do?" He frowned, turning back towards the sitting room to where the cat should still have been lying in the chair. Instead he saw a tall, brown-haired man standing barely at arm's length from him, grinning insultingly with an all-too familiar charm.

"Yeah, you do," said Ethan Rayne, folding his arms by way of a challenge. "Hello, Ripper."


"Cats." Cordelia, looking from one to the other of the animals, frowned in the earliest stages of unease. "Er... cats have fur."

"As a rule, yes." Giles, who for some reason that none of the others could quite understand, appeared to be putting down saucers of tea and biscuits for his feline friends, glanced up at the girl in momentary distraction. "There, there are some types that have an essentially hairless look, but these ones have fur."

"Yeah." She eyed him with her usual 'There Is No Way You Could Understand Me And What I'm Going Through' expression, and flapped her hands as though drying her perfectly applied nail varnish. "Do you have any idea what cat hair can do to my ensemble here? I mean, if I get cat fur on this jacket, Neil Adams is just going to look totally the other way in Algebra Club."

"Algebra Club?" Buffy asked her, confused.

"Neil Adams?" Xander asked, at almost exactly the same time and in almost exactly the same tone of voice. Cordelia smiled at them both.

"You haven't seen him? The student Mathematics teacher? He's, like, six foot eleven, and he played basketball for the State three years ago." She smiled, clearly on Cloud Nine. "Of course, he's only going to be here till the end of the month, not that there's anybody else I care about right now."

"Oh. Good." Xander shook his head, turning away to roll his eyes at Willow. She giggled, clearly not in one of her more sympathetic moods.

"Well I think they're cute," she said, changing the subject with some ease. She picked up the black cat, stroking its proud and striking head. "Why'd you bring them in with you Giles?"

"Hmm? Er… well…" He smiled, watching rather nervously as Buffy began to caress the brown cat. It looked suspiciously as though it were loving every minute. "They seemed lonely, and I, er, I thought they might like a change of scenery. We've been having some problems with mice recently, and, er - I - I thought--" He broke off, catching the glare that the Ethan-cat was giving him. "I thought they might like the books."

"Yeah. So they can enter for the Cleverest Cat In The World Competition." Buffy held the brown cat out towards the black one. "I think they make kind of a cute couple though. Maybe we could be hearing the patter of tiny paws around here real soon."

"I don't think so." Grabbing the black cat rather suddenly, Giles glared at its brown companion, ignoring the raised eyebrows from around the room. "Er… I, er… Don't you lot have somewhere you should be?"

"It's lunch break, Giles. Do you listen to the bell?" Buffy sat down on the corner of the desk, amused by the way that the brown cat crawled into her lap. Giles gave it an immediate glare, but it seemed to be grinning back at him. She rather liked it. "You said there was some new exercise I should try."

"Oh! Yes, er… well I thought you could run some laps of the field. It's there to be used, Buffy. We might as well make the best of the facilities we have." He cradled the black cat in his arms, and relaxed at the sound of its deep, contented purring.

"Running laps?" She laughed. "Yeah, sure. Giles, is there something you're not telling us? Do you have some gorgeous woman hidden in the stacks?"

"Hmm?" He looked startled, and Xander grinned knowingly.

"Come on, G-Man. Tell all. We're pretty open-minded." He winced. "Unless it's Miss Grey from the Art Department, 'cause she's way gross. And I mean that in a polite, respectful, teacher-pupil way." Giles glared at him, his expression clearly showing what he thought of Miss Grey from the Art Department. Buffy smirked.

"Okay, we give up. Running laps is a great new exercise, and I would jump at the chance of trying it, if I hadn't already jumped at the chance about…" She glanced at her watch. "About a year and a half ago. Relax, Giles. Take deep breaths. Be as one with the Force." She smiled up at him. "That was my Obi Wan Kenobi line."

"Yes, thankyou. I got that one."

"Really?" She mimed writing on an imaginary notepad. "Takes note. Star Wars lines do not go above the Watcher's head." Giles eyed her with one of his patented glares. His confusion at the gang's pop-culture speak was just one of the many things that they liked to tease him about, although he didn't really see that it was his fault if he hadn't watched much TV since taking up his post. He remembered some of the shows from his own youth, but he hadn't watched much television back then, either. Something to do with living in a world of black magic and demonology he could only suppose. The only show that he could remember with any real clarity was Bagpuss, and it was hard to see any relevance that a show like that could have to life in the Hellmouth. He nearly smiled. He could almost see himself as Professor Yaffel, the bespectacled and very proper scholar who instructed all of the others; except for the part about turning into a carved wooden bookend whenever the cat in the corner fell asleep. He didn't have a beak, either, come to that. He sighed, finally accepting that he was not going to be getting much peace for a while, and set the cat down on the floor. It stood at his feet, rubbing itself against his ankles.

"I've been doing some research," he said. "About a new problem we have here in Sunnydale. A new, er… new menace."

"And you've been keeping this a secret?" Incensed Buffy stood up, leaving the Ethan-cat looking decidedly sulky. "Why? What's going on?"

"Well nothing - nothing, er… yet. I just wanted to be sure what we're dealing with first, that's all." He sighed. "They're enchanters. Wizards, I-I-I suppose, except that two of them are women. W-well when I say women, I mean, um… sort of women. More half women, half… well here, see for yourself." He pushed a book across the table to her, and she peered at an extraordinarily detailed, hand-drawn picture which took up most of one page. It showed six people, human from the waist up, with scaled and oily bodies beneath. There was something of the sea serpent about them, save for the dull green-grey of their skin, and the slime which oozed from between their scales. She winced.

"Ugh. Now that is gross. What are these things?"

"The um, the Circle of Agute. Six powerful magicians who are half human and half… serpent, sort of…" He trailed off, unable to quite find the words to accurately describe them. "They caused terror and chaos across half of the known world in the fifth century BC, and returned some thousand years later to renew their reign. They were, er b-banished by a very powerful Rabbi in 571AD, but some evidence exists to suggest that they returned. They may even have been responsible for the Great Plague in the seventeenth century, and - and even before that."

"Boy, nice guys." Xander glanced down at the book. "And now they're back? Here?"

"It would appear so, yes." Giles tapped on the picture with his finger. "What you see there is their true form; should you happen to encounter them it's more likely that they'll be disguised as humans. It seems that their encounter with the Rabbi drained them of a large proportion of their strength, and ever since then, their time on Earth has been strictly limited. I believe that they're here now because they think that the Hellmouth can give them back the power they lost before. They're seeking a rebirth; a-a-a new genesis as it were. We have to stop them."

"How?" It was more of a challenge than a question, and Giles looked up at Buffy even before the word had fully escaped from her lips. He shook his head slightly.

"I don't know. That's what I'm hoping to discover. My - my books are limited. There's very little information anywhere about the Circle. No Watcher ever seems to have encountered them, or - or at least, if they did, they didn't survive to, um, to write it up in the Journals. I don't really know where to begin. In - in fact I--"

"Hey guys!" Throwing open the door with an unusual display of strength, and cutting Giles off in mid-stutter, Oz sauntered into the room, looking as rumpled and as bright as ever. He glanced about. "Something up?"

"Hey!" Startled, Willow jumped aside, stung into action as the cat she had been petting stiffened and yowled in horror. It seemed to grow, fluffing its fur out as Oz approached. He gave it a careless grin.

"Cats! I love cats." He took a step towards the animals, but the brown one lashed its tail in final warning. Giles seized up the black animal as though determined to protect it, giving Oz a baleful stare.

"I think they detect your other personality," he commented pointedly. Oz smiled in sudden understanding.

"Yeah, sure. All the cats in the neighbourhood have been avoiding me since that started. I kinda thought it might be a werewolf thing." He sat down, just out of reach of the Ethan-cat's claws, and reached up to take Willow's hand. "So what's going on?"

"Er, I was just explaining…" Giles set the black cat down on the desk once again, and pushed the book over towards Oz. "Six demon sorcerers, very powerful. They're here to replenish their energy."

"How come he gets the edited version?" Seeing that his sense of humour was as usual not being appreciated, Xander turned to the black cat. It seemed to enjoy being rubbed between the ears, but he couldn't help noticing that it stared almost constantly at Giles. The Watcher glanced over as though feeling its eyes upon him, and offered it a distracted smile.

"Are you lot going to let me get some work done now?" he asked. The others looked at each other, apparently sharing an unspoken vote. Cordelia shrugged.

"I'm going. I have a life to live. I only came here because I wanted a book on Algebra. It's the one with the squiggly symbols, right? X = Y and all that?"

"Er… yes." Giles pointed, sending her on her way, his eyebrows raised. Clearly he was not going to bother commenting further on the subject. He couldn't help feeling extremely sorry for the student Maths teacher.

"What tipped you off about the Circle?" Willow asked, standing up and collecting her bag. Oz took it from her, and she gave him a grateful smile. He was often so quiet that it was almost possible to forget that he was present, but he never ceased to be thoughtful at just the right moments. "How'd you know about them?"

"I was informed. By… by someone." He closed the book he had been reading and put it back on top of a large pile. "I'll fill you in later if I find anything else. After school?"

"No can do. We have a late meet about the field trip next week." Buffy turned to go, her bag trailing on the ground behind her. "I'll probably see you tomorrow. Got three hundred tonnes of homework, and a principal who isn't housetrained breathing down my shoulder."

"I'll get on the Net soon as I'm home," Willow added, following Buffy to the door. "Maybe I can find something about the Circle. I've got loads of pretty cool links to real witchy stuff. Some neat spells that, um, that I won't be trying again real soon."

"Be careful," Giles told her, collecting up an armful of papers and heading towards his office. She smiled and waved at his retreating back, and by the time that he returned from the office they had gone. He breathed a sigh of relief and sat back down at his desk. The Jude-cat leapt into his lap, curling up as though perfectly at home. He stroked her head absently, glancing towards the next pile of books that he had to search through. Knowing his luck, the very volumes that he needed were those that the incensed members of MOO had so thoughtfully burnt for him recently.

"I still don't understand why you wouldn't let me tell them," he told the black cat. It blinked up at him and purred. "I - I mean I was hardly going to tell them about Ethan, but there's no reason why they shouldn't know that you're not proper cats." Ethan mewed at him, and he shunted one of the saucers of tea towards his old friend with his foot. Ethan looked from the tea back to Giles, and seemed to frown. Giles glared.

"If it's cold, that's hard luck. You should have drunk it ten minutes ago, instead of climbing all over Buffy. And don't pretend that you don't know what I'm talking about. You may be a cat right now, but I still know that look in your eyes." Ethan twitched his tail, pointedly ignoring the Watcher in order to begin laboriously washing his whiskers. Giles gave up and turned back to Jude.

"I've found some records of the spells of the Circle," he told her, flipping open the notebook he had closed rather suddenly when Buffy and the others had descended upon him. "It mentions revenge and punishment spells, but nothing about cats. Are you sure it was the Circle of Agute that did this to you?" Both cats eyed him disapprovingly, and he shrugged. "Just making sure. As far as I can tell, we have to break the Circle to break the spell. The incantations woven by the Six are very strong. They were never meant to be broken, either by mortals or by the Six themselves. Destroy the Six, destroy the spell." He sighed. "It's not going to be easy."

"I don't even want to know." Emerging from amongst the bookshelves with her hands held up in a gesture of surrender, Cordelia walked straight past the threesome and headed quickly towards the door. Giles groaned.


"I told you I don't want to know." She shook her head. "Just when I think maybe I've got a chance of getting a normal life back, I get left alone with Mr Cat." She shivered exaggeratedly. "One more subject for discussion with my therapist. I swear he's going to get a whole book - a whole series of books - just through talking to me. He might even get a TV show." Her voice trailed away as she left the library, and the Ethan-cat made a noise rather like suppressed laughter.

"If I think really hard, sometimes I can remember a time when my life was normal." Heaving a sigh, Giles turned back to his books. When you lived on the Hellmouth there was really no point in even thinking about a normal life. It would be easier to imagine living on Mars.


"We are the Six. We are the Circle of Agute." The tall, dark-haired man with the fathomless black eyes stared up at the map of Sunnydale which stood at the edge of the park. A large red arrow pointed to a square drawn in black ink, marking its point with a garish caption reading You Are Here! He frowned thoughtfully at it, impressed by the map's ability to know exactly where he was. "We have business here."

"The Powers are not going to help us, Ascar." Another man, a very tall, very thin individual with red hair that bordered on lurid, stepped up to peer at the map alongside his companion. "We're alone. That's why we're here."

"I know why we're here, Thalos." Ascar flashed the red-haired fellow an evil glare. "We came to win back the support of the Spirits. Being out of favour is no reason not to keep them informed." He pointed at another black square on the map. "There. That is where we wish to be."

"Sunnydale High School." A third member of the Circle, a tall, raven-haired woman with intense eyes of a particularly striking violet, frowned with displeasure. "Schools are full of children."

"Your grasp of the situation astounds me, Legolin." Ascar gave a soft growl, flashing rows of pointed teeth that betrayed his demonic side. "The Slayer is a child. If we are to win favour with the Spirits once again, we must sacrifice the Slayer. It is written."

"I hear she's pretty tough." Brilthor, the fourth of the six, ran a hand through his long blond hair. Nervousness showed in his eyes. "She turned back Angelus. He was the favoured of the Master."

"Pah. Vampires. All teeth and no brain." Thalos sounded deeply derisive. "She's the Vampire Slayer, let her slay vampires. Let her get in their way. We're something different."

"She dealt with the Judge too," Brilthor told him. Thalos growled, showing his own teeth just as Ascar had before. Brilthor flinched back, then curled a forefinger menacingly. A flame sparked from his finger nail, igniting the necklace of beads around Thalos' neck. The red-headed sorcerer screeched in rage and swatted at the flames to kill them.

"I'll get you for that you--" he began, but was silenced by a hand on his shoulder. The fifth of the group, a large, athletic woman named Duilwen, smiled at him in a seductive manner, and he grinned back. Brilthor rolled his eyes in frustration. Duilwen and Thalos had been flirting with each other for more than a thousand years, without anything ever coming of it. He had got sick of their young lovebirds act many centuries ago, and now felt rather inclined to throw up.

"When do we move on the Slayer?" Adurant, the youngest of the six and the only one who still possessed anything like the powers of their glory days, was clearly getting restless. "Tonight?"

"Not tonight. The moon has to be right for the sacrifice to work." Ascar clapped his hands together. "Come on. We have things to do."

"What about Jude?" It was Legolin who spoke, her voice stilted as though she had been trying to avoid the question. "She's here somewhere. You know she is."

"Of course we know it." Ascar glared into the middle distance. "If we run into her, we'll deal with her just like we did before. Only this time it'll be something a little more permanent than a revenge spell."

"We'll have the power to do a lot more." Duilwen smirked to herself, linking arms with Thalos to pull him away with her into the shadows. "It'll be just like the good old days."

"But with microwave ready meals and pop tarts," Brilthor shot back, unable to resist the slightest temptation to annoy his two arch-nemeses. "Just remember, the Slayer's no pushover. She dealt with Moloch, and she helped deal with Eyghon. She's not going to bend over backwards to let us level her town."

"Who's talking towns?" Thalos asked him. "Why not level the state? Or the country? Nobody would miss one little landmass."

"Just so long as you're going to wait till we're out of it before you send it into hell." Brilthor pushed past him, heading off into the night. "I've spent enough time there to last me the rest of eternity."

"And then some." Adurant rubbed his hands together, looking extraordinarily young and innocent for a half-demon magician who had first walked upon the Earth some seven thousand years previously. "I'm here to stay." He broke into a run, heading for the lights of the town that he could see around him. Ascar and Legolin, the oldest of the six, exchanged a look that spoke volumes, before following on behind the other four at a much more sedate pace. There were times when being part of a sworn Circle carried definite disadvantages.


"The lights were low, and all about the town the winds blew. Stars peered through city spires as eyes of children staring at--" The soft, relaxing voice of Jude broke off, and Giles blinked, startled by the sudden silence. He stared up into the mocking eyes of Ethan Rayne and groaned.

"What are you doing here?"

"You expect me to hide in the cellar and hunt mice all night?" Ethan threw himself into the nearest chair and folded his arms. "Go on with the story, Jude. It sounded rather sweet."

"I think we've had enough fiction for tonight." Jude laid a hand on Giles' shoulder, turning towards him and lowering her voice slightly. "We should probably get back to the research."

"I suppose." He took her hand for a moment, wondering if he would ever summon up the courage to kiss it, then sighed and rose to his feet. It had been so warm, relaxing back beside Jude, listening to her gentle voice intone the words. It was almost possible in such moments to forget all about Sunnydale and the vampires and the demons. Almost. "We've been through just about everything."

"There are still one or two books left. Don't give up just yet." She squeezed his hand, earning a smile. Ethan grimaced.

"You two are starting to drive me nuts. Maybe I would be better off down in the cellar with the mice."

"There isn't a cellar." Giles threw a book at him. "Forbes and Steinfeld, page two hundred and twelve through to seven hundred and twenty four. There's a whole section on Rabbi Leroyd, the chap who left the Circle in such a weakened state to start off with."

"Ooh, lucky me." Ethan held up a packet of cigarettes. "Mind if I smoke?"

"Only if you mean that literally." Giles took the cigarettes and tossed them into the bin in the corner of the room. "Smoke those in here and I'll turn you over to the Sunnydale Home For Stray Cats."

"You're a real spoilsport these days, you know that Ripper?" Ethan took the book he had been assigned and flicked through its pages. Clearly it had been written in some previous century, for the wording was heavy and circuitous to say the least. He groaned. "You got anything that was written in the last twenty years? In English preferably."

"Shut up and read the book, Ethan." Giles sat back down beside Jude, a book in either hand. She chose one, turning through the pages to pick a starting point at random. "The rest of us wouldn't even be in this mess if it wasn't for you, so start working."

"Hey? How'd this get to be my fault?" Suddenly indignant, Ethan rose back to his feet. "I don't remember being the one who commissioned the Circle back at the Dawn of Humanity or whenever it was. I'm just the poor sap who got turned into a cat. You're supposed to be nice to me. I'm a victim."

"Yeah, and I'm the Prince of Wales." Giles shook his head. "The Circle need a route back onto this Earth, Ethan. They have to be summoned. Are you honestly telling me it wasn't you who did that?"

"Well as a matter of fact--"

"Wait." Jude put her book aside and rose to her feet. "Giles, this isn't his fault. Not really. He didn't try to summon the Circle, he summoned me."

"You?" He stared up at her, lost for a moment in the intensity of her deep eyes. "Jude, I - I don't understand."

"I wouldn't expect you to." She looked pained. "Ethan, would you give us a moment alone?"

"My pleasure. Particularly if you're going to be getting even more dappy than before." To his credit Ethan took the book with him as he left, and Giles, his back turned to his old confederate, heard the sound of the other man's footsteps as he climbed the stairs to the bedroom.

"So what's going on?" Lowering his eyes, Giles stared at the floor, wondering what dreadful revelation was going to be the latest thing to blight his existence. He could sense Jude's sad smile, and for one, terrible moment thought that she was going to cry. He never knew what to do when that sort of thing happened. His training had always been in demons and monsters, not emotions and tears.

"Ethan summoned me. He had read the tales of my life, and I suppose he thought that I could offer him something. Power maybe. He seems to like the idea of that."

"He always has." Still not looking at her, Giles frowned, aware that his words seemed to be coming from a faraway place. "So… so where were you to need summoning?"

"I was born in 1412, and raised as the pupil of a magician who lived in my village." Her voice sounded troubled, and he hardly felt the touch of her hand on his shoulder. "He realised that my powers were rather greater than his own, and he sent me away to be taught by the Witches of Ferrer, in - well, it's called Madagascar now. Back then it had a different name. I learnt how to do things that other mortals could only dream of, but then the Circle of Agute was reborn on the Earth, and they came to Madagascar to steal our powers. I think they were trying to replenish their own through the abuse of ours, but it didn't work. In revenge they killed the other witches, but I escaped. I sent them back into the pits of hell, but they cast their spell on me before I could banish them completely. To escape having to live for the rest of my life as a cat, I sealed myself into oblivion. The spell that the Circle placed on me links us in ways that I never imagined, and when Ethan summoned me, the Circle was able to follow me here."

"So it is his fault." Giles shook his head. "I'll kill him."

"He's suffered for it. Summoning me brought the spell of the Circle upon himself. He's cursed by it just as I am." She shook her head. "Giles, I'm sorry. I should have told you, but - I just didn't know how to find the words. I didn't know if - if you would be able to accept it."

"Accept it?" He stood up, shaking his head, still not meeting her eyes. "You - you were born nearly six hundred years ago, you've been gone from this world for centuries. What happens when we break the Circle? Do - do you just carry on with your life here? Do you go back to being Jude the witch, like you were before they cursed you?"

"No, I don't. My life was over years ago. When we break the Circle, I go back to - to where I was before."

"I thought so." Slowly he sank back down into the chair, his head in his hands. "Staying here would be too easy, wouldn't it. Somebody might actually wind up being happy."


"Forget it." He looked up at her, their eyes meeting for the first time since she had made her revelation. She was shocked by the pain in his eyes, and it didn't help knowing that the look was mirrored in her own. "I'm sorry. I - I had no right to expect anything more of you. I - had no right to - to imagine that you would want to stay here anyway. Why - why would you? W-w-we've only just met, I-I-I-I don't know you."

"Giles." She smiled at him, sitting down on the arm of his chair, her hands on his shoulders. "I do want to stay here. But wanting and having are never the same, are they. It's nothing that either of us has any control over. We could leave the Circle intact, and stay together forever while the world crumbles into darkness and chaos, or--"

"I know." He managed a weak smile. "We have to do our duty, and help Buffy to find a way to end this. I have to destroy the Circle before it destroys Sunnydale, and I have to free you and Ethan from the curse, no matter what happens after that." His head lowered, for he was suddenly no longer able to hold her gaze. "Might we have a day or two first, before we do what's right?"

"I think we can manage that." She smiled at him, lifting his head so that he was looking at her again. "Except that the days don't really count, unless you want to spend them with a cat." He laughed at that, although the humour was weak.

"I like cats. Always did."

"I'm sure you don't like them that much." She leant back, relaxing against him. "But there's always the nights."

"We can send Ethan down to the cellar to catch mice," Giles agreed, enjoying the sensation of closeness. She laughed.

"I thought you said you didn't have a cellar?"

"I'll bloody dig one if I have to." He took her chin in his hand, tilting her face towards him, moving closer to it. Her smouldering eyes began to close - and as if on cue there was a loud rap at the door. The pair stared at each other, a guilty look beginning to show in their eyes. Jude giggled and Giles rolled his eyes.

"If that's Buffy I'll knock her block off, teenage girl or no."

"You wouldn't!"

"Chivalry has its limits." He grinned. "We could wait and see if she goes away."

"In my day the Watcher was a loyal and devoted servant of his Slayer." Jude was smirking at him in a teasing way that he found to be quite delightful. He gave a short laugh.

"In your day the Watcher didn't have a free-spirited child of the nineties to deal with." The knocking at the door grew louder and he sighed. "The odds are forever stacked against me."

"They've been stacked against me for six hundred years." They shared a brief, sad smile, a myriad unspoken sorrows and wishes passing between them; then he turned smartly on his heel and went to the door.

Buffy stood waiting for him, rocking on the balls of her feet, her arms folded. Behind her stood Xander and Willow, dressed in the sort of clothing that Giles had come to recognise as indicative of an evening at the Bronze. He stepped aside, gesturing for them to enter, and Buffy glared up at him.

"Really? I mean, I kinda like admiring the door handle. It's a pleasant view."

"Buffy…" He sighed, moving away to go back to Jude. "I'm sorry. I was a little… busy." The group, seeing the beautiful woman seated on the arm of one of the chairs stopped rather suddenly. Xander grinned.

"Are we interrupting anything?" he asked, a clear insinuation in his tone. Giles coughed and Jude grinned, rising to her feet.

"Not really. Nothing that we can't catch up on later, anyway." She smirked at the noticeable blush rising above the Watcher's collar. "I'm Jude. You must be…" She looked at them each in turn, making a guess. "Buffy, Willow and Xander. Right?"

"Okay… Do you make a habit of telling all your dinner guests about the school kids you hang out with?" Her tone filled with suspicion, Buffy shared a long stare with her Watcher. He shook his head.

"Buffy it's alright. I-I-I know that you've reason to be suspicious just recently, but, er, J-Jude is… is somewhat different."

"In what way?" Still threatening a confrontation, Buffy glanced over at the visitor. There was something in the dark eyes that she couldn't help wanting to like, and she saw, just as had Giles before, that the woman wore a silver crucifix on a charm bracelet around her wrist; but the suspicion was a part of her Slayer's instinct, and she could not deny it.

"In every way." Jude offered Buffy her hand by means of greeting. "I'm a witch; rather a powerful one actually. If you'd give me a moment to explain…"

"A witch?" Buffy shook the hand hesitantly. "Then I guess you're the person who warned Giles about this Circle of Adjy-thing?"

"Agute, and yes I am." Jude shrugged. "To give you the somewhat shortened version - if that's okay of course…"

"It's fine, and Giles take note," Xander interjected. Giles favoured him with a particularly withering stare. Willow giggled.

"Okay, well I first encountered the Circle in, um… I don't know exactly. About 1440? Somewhere about then." She shrugged. "I thwarted their plans, they got in my way, we had a mutual hatred thing. Ever since then we've been sort of locked together. I get summoned, they come along for the ride, and vice versa. I've been trying to stop them for centuries, but it's complicated. My effectiveness is somewhat… compromised… by a certain curse, and um, well they can't kill me running on half power as they are, so we're more or less stuck with each other. Every time we get brought back to Earth, something happens to send us back to the next dimension again, but this time it's different. This time we're in the Hellmouth." She shrugged. "The rules are always different here."

"Bummer." Xander sat down on the chair nearest to her, not bothering to hide the open desire in his eyes. Willow suppressed a smile. Usually his interests in other women bothered her deeply, but to see him staring at Jude was just comical. Even had she not been a good deal older than him and way out of his league, it could not have been clearer that her sights were not set on him at all. Her eyes had barely left Giles. It reminded Willow of something, but she couldn't quite remember what.

"You mentioned a curse," Buffy prompted, relaxing somewhat and sitting down herself. Jude nodded.

"A, er… minor inconvenience. You see, daylight hours are… sort of a problem for me."

"You're a cat." Willow startled even herself with her announcement, and she blinked. "I'm sorry. Did I say that aloud?"

"She's a cat?" Buffy looked from Willow to Jude, then back to Willow. Finally her eyes travelled to Giles. "A certain black cat?"

"Yes." He frowned, scratching his head. "She's, um, sh-she's a little sensitive about that, so c-c-could we possibly change the subject?"

"A cat." Xander leaned back in his chair, whistling. "Like Michelle Pfeiffer. Wow."

"Xander…" Buffy glared at him. "Okay, I can rationalise this. Being a cat's not like, say… being a rat." She frowned, and winced. "You don't have Amy on you, do you Will?"

"Amy's at home in her little cage." Willow grinned, suddenly remembering something. "She ate a nut right out of my hand this morning. I mean, I know she knows me and all, so it's really no big deal, but she's been in a major sulk ever since the last attempt to turn her back failed." She stopped suddenly, staring at Jude. "You don't, er, eat rats at all. Do you?"

"Willow!" Giles moved closer to Jude, but she laughed.

"It's okay. Um… as a rule, rats are not my favourite dish, no. Actually fried squid is, although I've been taking a vegetarian turn this time out. I'm big on whatever it was Giles cooked for tea. Herby green things with green things on the side."

"Okay." Willow nodded hard, clearly relieved. "Just checking."

"Yes, well." Shaking his head slightly, Giles settled himself into his usual position leaning on the back of Buffy's chair. "We have to talk, I suppose. About the Circle. Oh, unless… Why exactly did you come here tonight?"

"The Circle." Buffy twisted around slightly in her chair so that she could take in the whole group with her stare. "This guy came in the Bronze, and my bat-sensors shot off the scale. He gave me the wig so bad I was all wigged out." She shuddered exaggeratedly to illustrate her point. "He talked to some of the girls a few tables along, and… and I don't know. He was just weird. Then I figured it out!"

"Er… yes?" Giles prompted. She grinned at him.

"The book you showed me. The one with the picture of the Circle gang? Well this guy was one of them. Young, real good-looking. Kind of a flash dresser in a kind of a weird kind of a way." Whilst Giles attempted to unravel that particular sentence she focussed on Jude. "It wasn't fashionable gear. I mean, no way did the guy buy his outfit in a high street store. But it wasn't unfashionable either. It was…"

"Trend-setting," Willow offered. Buffy nodded.

"Yeah, I guess. Individual, but not geeky."

"Which is good?" Eyebrows raised to questioning level, Giles looked from one to the other of them. Willow nodded.

"It can be good, yes. It can also be bad of course, depending."

"Of course." He frowned, then cleared his throat. "Yes, well. So one of the Six is a… a what? A dancer? Or - or - or is he just a party animal?"

"Adurant." Jude folded her arms, staring off into space. "He's the young guy. Very good-looking. Not your average run-of-the-mill demon, but then what is? He just wants to hang out, meet the locals, have a ball. Ascar, the leader, will be handling all of the research and planning. He's probably glad to get Adurant out of his hair. The others could be anywhere. Fighting probably." She shook her head, smiling slightly. "For a society of demons joined by blood and ritual for something in the region of seven thousand years, they really aren't all that close. Quite the opposite in fact."

"In our favour?" Buffy asked. Jude frowned, hesitating before answering.

"Unlikely. They work rather well as a team, all things considered." She shrugged. "It's possible that if you kill Ascar first, the others will give up and go away, but then it's also possible that they'll rediscover that whole big undead loyalty thing, and destroy the world anyway."

"So what do we do to stop them? Where do we find them? They - they have to build up their energy again before they can destroy anything, right?" Willow looked vaguely nervous, as though expecting to be descended upon by the Six at any moment. "Do you suppose this guy Adurant knew who Buffy was in the Bronze?"

"Possibly." Jude frowned. "What you have to understand is that the Six have been trying to regenerate their powers for some fourteen hundred years. Each time they use a different plan. I'm getting rather good at second guessing them, but right now I'd have to say that I have no idea at all. It'll have to be something special… something suitable for the Hellmouth. Other than that…"

"Maybe I can help." Descending out of the loft like an unwelcome angel descending from Heaven, Ethan smiled around at the group. He held up the book that Giles had given him to read. "Are we all sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin."


"You…" Buffy rose to her feet, eyes blazing. "You little… I said if I ever saw you again I'd--"

"Yes, I know." Ethan smiled at her, his eyes vaguely dreamy. "You know, you really are quite lovely when you're angry."

"Ethan, shut up." His voice showing the early signs of anger, Giles stepped forward. "I warned you to stay out of my way."

"I can't believe you had him in your house." Buffy glared at her Watcher, her eyes showing a form of betrayal. "The guy's a little sneak. He tried to feed me to Eyghon, and he did that whole weird Halloween thing, and--"

"Let's not forget the chocolate," Xander interjected. "That little episode will stick with me with me forever." He gave a vague shudder.

"I was proud of the chocolate." Ethan looked slightly indignant. "That was a primo spell. It brought such unforeseen pleasures to the heart of Sunnydale."

"You could have got my mother killed," Buffy accused. "Anything could have happened the way she was behaving that night. I can't believe you'd have the gall to come back here now."

"Nothing was going to happen to your mother." Ethan smiled lasciviously. "Not with the Ripper looking after her." He stared knowingly at Giles, who looked away, coughed, and began to stutter.

"Yes, well. Um, I-I-I-I-I er, I… B-Buffy I think we should listen to Ethan. He - he - he does have, er, good reasons for wanting to help us with the Circle."

"He does, huh." The Slayer glared from one to the other of the old friends, then turned away. Ethan had just opened his mouth to speak again when she spun suddenly back to face him. "Really good reasons? Like cursing reasons? Like how-come-Giles-had-two-cats-before reasons?" She looked disgusted. "I had that cat on my lap. I was stroking it."

"Mmm." Ethan smiled at her beautifically, his eyes shining. "It was very nice. I enjoyed it immensely."

"This time I really am going to tear your head off." She stepped towards him, fists clenched, but Giles moved to intercept her.

"Buffy, not now. He's in my house. You - you'll just have to wait until this is over."

"Fine." She glared up at him, and he saw the anger in her eyes, regretting immediately that he had not told her a little more a good deal sooner. "I can wait."

"So can I." Ethan fluttered his eyelashes at her, and Giles, in the blink of an eye, had crossed the space between them. He grabbed Ethan by the shirt front and slammed him into the wall, leaning close to speak to him in a low, vicious whisper.

"If you don't leave her alone, Ethan, I swear by all the codes we used to live by that I'll show you just how right you were when you said the Ripper wasn't dead. Understand?"

"Giles?" Surprised by his sudden actions, although she had heard none of his words, Buffy took a step towards them. The Watcher released his nemesis, and Ethan straightened his clothes. There was the hint of a smile on his face, the Slayer thought, as though something for which he had long been searching had suddenly been found.

"Thankyou," he said, his voice showing faint annoyance. "Now, as I was saying…"

"You were going to let us in on what the Circle is here for," Buffy told him. He nodded.

"Yes, I was, wasn't I. Well the truth is, as we all well know, things work differently on the Hellmouth. Things come here, things work here, that would never work anywhere else." He smiled broadly, certain that he had their devoted attention. "Including sacrifice. Sacrificial rituals are amongst some of the most powerful known to man, or indeed to half-demon snakey-thing. Here on the Hellmouth they take on a whole new significance. According to what I've read, the most likely way for the Circle to get back their powers and kick off their latest World Domination, Destroy All Humanity game-plan, is to kill the Slayer. Sacrifice her to the general unpleasantries that dwell at the heart of Sunnydale." He glanced at his watch. "At, um… about half-past eleven tomorrow night."


Ascar, lead demon of the Circle of Agute, glanced up at a knock on his office door. He frowned at Duilwen as she peered around the doorframe.


"Just wondered what you were doing." She shrugged. "I'm bored, can I help?"

"No. You can go back out with the others and keep guard. Jude is here, and she's contacted the Watcher. We have to assume that he knows all our plans."

"Jude could never guess what we're up to." She sat on the corner of his desk. "The others have all gone. If they aren't keeping watch, why should I have to?"

"They've gone? Gone where?" He stood up, beginning to pace. "This is not a play outing I'm running here. Do they want to get their powers back or don't they?"

"I don't know." She shrugged. "I think they've been weak for so long they've forgotten how to be anything else." She ticked them off on her fingers as she listed their current whereabouts. "Er… Brilthor went to look round the shops. He said he was looking for a new coat. Thalos fancied a bite to eat, so he went to check out where all the vampires are. I suppose he thought he could join in a massacre or two. Er… Legolin went to the library. She wanted to get some plans of the town, said she wants to decide what to build here when we tear the place apart. And Adurant went to a night club. Said he liked the sound of the band… something about dingoes."

"Great." The lead demon stomped up and down the room a few more times. "That's it. I'm going to knock his teeth out. He knows I need him here. He knows he's the one who has to perform the ritual. Of all the six of us, of all the great and illustrious Circle, it had to be Adurant that managed to keep most of his powers. It couldn't have been me, oh no. God forbid that it should have been any one of us who had a brain and a sense of responsibility and attention to detail. No, it had to be Adurant, the only guy in the history of mankind and demons who's been eighteen for seven thousand years." He sat down rather suddenly. "I want him to scout for the Slayer, he wants to pick up girls in a night club."

"I'll scout for the Slayer," Duilwen offered. Ascar glared at her, and she lowered her eyes. "I think I'll go stand watch outside."

"You do that." Ascar shook his head, staring after his accomplice with a sour look on his face. As soon as she was gone he leant back and rested his feet on the table, looking up at the ceiling. No other demon had his problems. The only comfort he could gain from the whole experience was the thought that the Master, his ancient and hated enemy, had met his final demise so close to where he now sat. He smiled to himself at the image. Some days it was good to be a demon.


A lone figure stood outside Giles' house, gazing through the window at the figures inside. He could see the tall man with the glasses, whom he knew to be the Watcher, and he could see the beautiful woman called Jude, whom he had known for so many years. He let his eyes drift over the group. There were three others there too; the three young people that he had seen in the night club; the threesome that he had followed to the house. He watched them talk together, watched another man come into the room… Adurant frowned. He thought that he knew the man, although the memory was confused. It had something to do with the most recent summoning of Jude, he was sure. They argued then, for clearly the new arrival was not popular amongst the group. Finally they all sat down, staring at the floor, at each other, at the walls… Adurant pressed himself back into the bushes, waiting patiently as one of the group, the young man called Xander, went to the window and gazed out into the night. He was gone soon, returning to his restless pacing in the room. Adurant breathed a sigh of relief, although it had been easy for him to remain hidden. By the cut of the bushes, and the shape that some of them had been bent into, he got the impression that somebody hid there a lot, to peer in through this same window, and to watch the goings-on inside the room beyond. He thought that he could smell vampire, although he wasn't completely sure.

"So what do we do?" The closeness of Jude's voice surprised him, until he realised that Xander had opened the window when he had walked to it. Adurant could hear the conversation now, and listen to each voice. He heard Xander speak next.

"What do we do? We go round to wherever it is these things are hiding, and we stake 'em! That's not a tough question."

"Now - now Xander, we mustn't be rash." Adurant knew this to be the Watcher talking now, although the voice speaking the words of caution was that of a man hardly adverse to acting rashly himself. "I would suggest that we use the daylight hours to try to track down the Six, and - and then…" His voice trailed off. "Perhaps it would be best if we handled the situation, and Buffy stayed behind. That - that way we could ensure that she is nowhere near the demons when they need her for their sacrifice."

"Let you deal with them? No fear." Buffy's voice came from very close to the window, and Adurant stiffened at its sound. He pressed himself closer to the window, leaning near to hear every nuance of her words. "I'm the Slayer, if we can maybe not forget that."

"Buffy, we're hardly forgetting it. It's the reason you have to be kept elsewhere." Giles sounded emphatic, strong. "Ethan and I will deal with the Circle."

"We will?" Ethan asked. Giles shot him a look.

"Yes, we will. Jude can help."

"Absolutely." The witch went to his side and took his hand. "You kids stay out of it, it's for the best."

"And what if the Circle doesn't want to be dealt with?" Ethan did not sound at all impressed by this latest plan. "I mean, call me a coward if you want, but I'm not enthusiastic about the idea of being used as an ashtray by some nut of a demon who's been ripe for a rumble for the last fourteen hundred years."

"We'll handle it," Giles told him, his voice heavy with the hint of a threat. Adurant smiled. They wanted to protect the Slayer. They were close… so close. He rested his head against the brickwork, listening to the sounds of the night filling the break in the conversation. He heard the Slayer's voice again, and his heart leapt into his throat.

"I'll handle it. You can come, Giles. I'm not trying to stop you. But I'm not going to let you wander into the lion's den with nobody but Mr Slime here for company."

"Ouch," Ethan interjected. She glared at him, and he retreated with his hands raised.

"Alright Buffy. I - I suppose we can deal with this in the morning." Giles glanced towards the window. Dawn was close, and he wanted a chance to say a proper goodbye to Jude before she became a cat again. It would be a good many hours before he could look into her eyes once more, and see something within them beyond feline beauty and cunning. "It's, um, Saturday tomorrow, so we - we can't meet in the library. We'll meet… at the Bronze, say eight o'clock?"

"Huh?" Xander glanced at his watch. "Why don't we just skip the sleeping thing altogether? I mean, hey, it's pretty over-rated anyhow."

"Xander…" Willow took his arm, leading him towards the door. "It's okay, we'll see you at eight." With her old friend in tow she made to leave, glancing towards Buffy. "You coming?"

"Yeah, sure." Buffy looked back at the threesome remaining, staring in particular at Ethan. She would have rather enjoyed leaving him as a cat for the rest of his life, or at least to have settled back in a comfy chair to watch him morph. She knew the look in Giles' eyes, however, and nodded a farewell before leaving. It was only fair.

"I guess I'll… go hunt for mice in the cellar," Ethan mumbled, seeing the look which passed between Giles and Jude. "Catch you later. I'll be sleeping in a cardboard box someplace, with my tail between my legs."

"It'll be alright, Ethan." Giles spared him a moment's glance before turning back to Jude. She took his hand in hers and held it tightly.

"It hurts," she said softly.

"Turning into a cat?" His voice sounded confused, lost. She shook her head.

"No. Well, yes, but--"

"I get the message." He took her other hand, pulling her close, then took her into his arms and held her tightly, until he was left with nothing but the gentle purring of a small black cat. He laid her gently on a chair and went up the stairs to his bedroom. Left behind Jude stared after him, a look of infinite sorrow in her eyes; but it was a sorrow that had to remain detached, for there was nothing at all that she could do as a cat. He was such a difficult man to read, with everything so expertly wrapped up inside, but in her feline form she knew things that her animal senses told her - that the man now climbing the stairs was deeply unhappy, and that the solace he sought was far beyond his reach.


"So what do you think of Catwoman?" Xander blew out a long breath. "Boy, she can howl outside my bedroom window any day."

"Xander…" Rolling her eyes, Willow cast him a faintly disturbed look. "She's six hundred years older than you. Nearly seven hundred years older."

"So? She's a whole lot older than Giles too, and she was gazing at him like…" The only comparison which sprung to mind was 'like Buffy's mother was gazing at him during the Night of Ethan's Chocolate'. Somehow he didn't think that the Slayer would welcome that very much, so he changed the subject. "I wonder where that demon guy went. You don't think he'd have hurt anybody back at the Bronze do you?"

"If I'd thought that, I'd have found a way to deal with him then, instead of going to see Giles." Buffy shook her head. "He wasn't after trouble, just music and company. It must get pretty boring spending all that time trapped in another dimension, or wherever."

"Yeah. Sort of like spending the rest of your life as a rat." Willow stared at the ground. She still felt bad about the spell which had turned their friend Amy into a rodent, even though the girl had cast the spell herself. They had managed to break it when she had used much the same spell on Buffy, but this time it was infinitely more complicated.

"You can't get over that, can you." Buffy had to stop herself from smiling. It wasn't that she didn't feel sorry for Amy, but it was rather hard to keep up the sympathy for long, when watching her run around in her wheel, or munching on dried pet food. She glanced up, the thoughts ending as she realised that they had reached the point in the road where their pathways separated. "I guess I'll see you later."

"Not much later," Xander groused. Willow ignored him.

"Sure Buffy. And I'll say hi to Amy for you."

"Yeah, sure. Better not let her smell cat on you though, Will." Buffy turned away before she could see this latest thought register on Willow's sensitive face. She was still smiling as she strode away down the road, and the amusement lingered even after she heard footsteps following her. She wondered who it could be. Xander or Willow, with something that absolutely could not wait another four hours to be said? Angel, looking for a talk or just for some company? Or something else? She turned around, seeing an empty street stretching out before her. She frowned, then saw something moving. Okay, so it wasn't an entirely empty street. There was a guy in it, heading towards her. He was young and he was good-looking, and he was dressed in the sort of clothes that managed to be both dated and fashionable at once. It was a look that brought to mind Doctor Who, in his Paul McGann phase.

"What do you want?" She had a stake in her hand in seconds, moving easily into a battle-ready pose designed to warn off potential attackers. Adurant glanced from the stake to her face.

"You're the Slayer," he said, his tone unreadable.

"And you're likely to be the Slain, so back off." He shook his head.

"Staking me through the heart isn't the answer. You can't kill the members of the Circle that way."

"Yeah, 'cause I'm going to believe that." She shook her head. "All my enemies come and tell me how to kill them before battle begins. It's Hellmouth protocol."

"There's no need to be sarcastic." He moved towards her, hesitating when he was just an arm's length away. "You can try it if you like. Go ahead. Stake me."

"You're weird." All the same she made no attempt to attack him, and he showed no sign of wanting to hurt her. "Get back to wherever it is your friends are."

"I don't want to. They're boring." There was a look of unbridled anguish in his eyes as he looked at her. "Buffy… Can I call you Buffy?"

"You can call me anything, so long as it isn't your next meal."

"I don't eat people." He looked away. "I'm half-human. I can't be destroyed by sunlight, I don't eat people… I'm not a vampire."

"Big deal. I've totalled non-vampire creepy things before." She weighed the stake in her hand. "So are you going to tell me what it is that you want?"

"You mean apart from life? Apart from a normal existence in a normal street, with high school and dances and music?" He took a half-step forward. "Apart from a girl like you?"

"Okay, that's it. Humans I can take, vampires I can take or leave. But half-human things that turn into snakey slimy things with scales are way off base. Just keep your distance."

"I'm sorry." He turned away, presenting her suddenly with a perfect, easy target. Her instincts screamed at her to stake him, whether he had been telling the truth about it having an effect or not. "I guess I was wrong to come here."

"Wrong?" She grabbed his shoulder, spinning him about to face her. "Your buddies are out there somewhere planning how to sacrifice me to some demon kingpin, and you're here to talk about getting a date?"

"I didn't mean it that way." He lowered his hand over her own, and she was surprised by the warmth of his touch. Angel, for all his human soul and very real feelings for her, had always felt cold. It was who and what he was that made him that way. This thing was different. "I meant--"

"Forget it. Just go." She stepped away from him, backing off to a distance of several feet. "We'll consider this the courtesy call. You don't try to kill me, I won't try to kill you; but when I come after you all tomorrow night the gloves are off. If I see you, I will kill you. And I won't spare a second's thought about it."

"Of course." He lowered his eyes and for a second reminded her of Angel, when he had first begun to regain his strength after returning from hell, and they had realised that they could never be together again, for fear of what might happen. She began to take a step towards him, but stopped and changed it into another step back. His voice sounded heavy and yet strangely soft. "Forget that you saw me. Forget that I came after you. I - I will see you tomorrow night."

"You bet you will. It'll be the last thing you see." She experienced a moment's regret after speaking; almost sorry that she had uttered the words at all. She frowned. Adurant gave a small, sad nod and turned away.

"Tomorrow night, Slayer." He glanced up at the sky, which was now lit with the full glow of dawn. "Make that tonight. I - I just--" He hesitated. "If what must happen, happens… know that I will do what I have to do, but that I will do it with regret, not joy."

"Well that made a lot of sense." She watched him as he walked away, waiting until he had vanished into the distance before she turned about and resumed her journey home. Somehow she couldn't help thinking, as she lay down on her bed and let her head rest on the pillow, that a pair of half-demon eyes were still watching her. With her own eyes closed, she could not see that she was right; for standing at the window, half hidden by the shadows thrown by the wall, stood Adurant, his eyes gazing at her peaceful face. He watched her as she slept, smiling at the picture of relaxation and rest that he saw before him. In all his life - in all the seven thousand years of storming across the surface of the Earth - he did not think that he had ever seen anything so beautiful. And tomorrow night he had to kill her, with the minions of the Powers he was sworn to serve ready and waiting to drink her blood. His hand tightened into a fist, and he didn't notice when his pointed fingernails cut through the skin of his hand and drew blood of his own. The only thing that he noticed was the single tear beginning to roll down his cheek. All the tortures of hell had never drawn the strength from him as much as this brief moment looking upon the face of the sleeping girl; and all the years of frustration at his weakened powers did not quell his warrior's heart as much as the thought that she would soon be dead. Unable to bear the sorrow any longer, he moved from the window - and did not see Buffy's eyes snap open, as she turned her head to watch him walk away.


They wandered through Sunnydale for as long as there was daylight to guide them. Giles and Buffy took one end of town, and Xander and Willow the other, the latter pair pointedly keeping their distance from each other to the point of absurdity. It made Buffy smile to see them that way. When she was with them they were as close as ever, but as soon as there was any suggestion that they should spend some time alone they became awkward with each other's company. She wanted to laugh, but somehow laughing was impossible. Her head still spun from the conversation she had shared with Adurant. His closeness, his voice, the sorrow in his eyes… She wanted to feel sorry for him, but she could not bring herself to believe that it was not just some trick. Except… except that she knew he could have killed her. When she had fallen asleep, he had been watching her. He could have done anything, but he had merely watched. The thought made her shiver, and yet it was not just fear that traced cold fingers up her spine; it was something else.

"Are you alright Buffy?" Disturbed by her silence, Giles spoke up when she was least expecting it. She jumped.

"Hmm? Pardon?"

"I asked whether you were alright. You seem a tad… preoccupied."

"I guess I am." She kicked at a stone, letting it bounce across the street where it narrowly avoided a parked car. "Giles… how bad are these demons?"

"Bad enough to want to sacrifice you tonight." He smiled. "That does make them pretty bad."

"Yes, I know, but - well what I mean is, how bad are they - were they - with their powers up to full?"

"Ah." He shrugged. "Stories vary, accounts become altered. Word of mouth is notoriously unreliable, and - and of course very few people who actually met them survived the experience."

"So pretty bad, then, huh."

"Yes." He frowned, touching her gently on the shoulder to make her turn and face him. "Why?"

"I met one of them last night." She glanced away for a moment. "The guy from the Bronze - Adurant? He followed me home, and wanted a chat."

"He spoke to you? Well - well w-what about?"

"Stuff." She shrugged. "I liked him. I mean, I know as a rule demons can't be trusted much, but this guy was different. He was… sensitive."

"Sensitive?" Giles' frown had deepened. "He's a seven thousand year-old demon sorcerer who can morph into a snake at will. That - that really doesn't suggest great levels of sensitivity."

"So? Angel morphs into a creepy looking guy who drinks blood to stay alive. That doesn't mean--" She broke off. Wrong comparison. "Well you know what I mean. Appearances can be deceiving and all that. In LA, the school counsellor was an eight foot guy with a ring through his nose. I never met anybody more sensitive. You can't give Adurant a hard time 'cause - 'cause--"

"Because he's part of a Circle of madmen who live to destroy? Because he may have been at least partly responsible for the spread of the Great Plague throughout Europe? Because he destroyed all of Jude's people and left her with a curse that led her to seek a form of death as her only escape?" He sighed. "Buffy, he's a demon. More than that, he - he wants to kill you in order to restore his powers, so that he can destroy Sunnydale, the people in it - and possibly the rest of the world at the same time."

"I hear you." She gave a heavy sigh. "I guess we'd better find them, hadn't we."

"I guess." He smiled at her, giving her what he hoped was an encouraging pat on the back. "It'll all work out okay, Buffy. I promise."

"Yeah." She nodded rather too hard, and began to walk on. Giles stared after her. Somehow the fact that everything would work out okay was becoming the hardest thing of all to believe in. He wanted to go home to Jude to find the answers to some of his questions; to seek guidance and relaxation in the arms of the first person since Jenny Calendar that he had really, genuinely felt close to - and yet, if he went home now, all that he would find would be a pair of cats. Soon, if he and Buffy really did succeed in making everything okay, there would not be even that much. He would be left with nothing but another empty place in his heart, for Jude would be gone forever.


"The time is drawing near." Ascar had changed his office beyond all recognition, hanging the walls in thick black cloth bearing runes sewn in golden thread. Flaming candles stood on every available surface, their flickering, leaping light setting the dim air ablaze with fiery life. The bodies of two teenagers lay on the desk, their hands bound. They were the beginning; the offering to bring the attention of the Spirits upon the little gathering. Thalos had found them when he had been out looking for a meal, scouring the streets of Sunnydale for the scraps left by the vampires. Adurant might not have developed a taste for the blood of humanity, but his fellow Circle members were not so choosy.

"Where is the Slayer?" Duilwen asked, leaning close to Thalos. He smelt of the blood of the sacrificial victims, and it excited her to taste it in the air. It reminded her of the massacres and the carnage of their early days, before the cursed Rabbi had taken their strength and turned them into such shadows.

"She and her kind have been searching for us all day." Legolin laughed, toying with the sacrificial knife that Adurant would use to kill Buffy, when the appointed moment came. "They looked everywhere; except here."

"I hid it from them." Ascar sounded tired, for the concealment spell had taken a lot out of him. Soon he would have more than enough energy for such trivial tasks, and his body craved the power it had been prepared to expect. "They searched, but they did not see."

"Then how is she to know where we are, to come here for the sacrifice?" Brilthor suspected that he knew the answer, although he wasn't sure that he wanted to hear it. Kidnapping was not one of his most favourite hobbies. It was beneath him; a pastime for slobs like Thalos, or for over-enthusiastic snobs like Ascar and Legolin. His leader stared back at him, knowing full well what was going through the other demon's mind.

"She'll have to be brought here," he said coldly. "Her, and Jude… perhaps the others. You can bring them."

"On my own?"

"Don't be a fool." Thalos sounded sneering. "You couldn't kill a newly-undead vampire on your own. We can all go."

"I have to stay here, to prepare Adurant for the ceremonies." Ascar clapped his hands, rising to his feet. "You, the four of you. You go."

"Oh gee thanks." Brilthor, his voice heavy with sarcasm, turned away from the others to head towards the door. His long blond hair swung about behind him like a cloak; a faintly angelic curtain that shut him off from all of them, and from all of their plans. Ascar took him by the shoulders, pointed fingernails digging deep.

"We will do this, Brilthor. We will be born again. And when we are, you'll forget all of this stupidity that has come from our weakness. We will be invincible once again. We will be strong."

"Yes, of course we will." Brilthor pulled free, watching as his three fellow kidnappers morphed into their reptilian demon selves. It had been centuries since he had last assumed that shape. He had no desire to take it again now. It was so unlike all that he had become; and yet it was what he was, and what he could not help being. He closed his eyes and allowed the transformation to take place.

"On to the Slayer!" Duilwen cried, moving towards the door to take the lead. One by one the foursome left the room, until Ascar stood alone in its centre. He turned towards the shadows in the corner, and beckoned for Adurant.

"Come here. We still have preparations to make."

"Of course." Adurant moved forward slowly. As he reached the brightly-lit heart of the ritually decorated room, the flickering candles flames revealed him to be dressed in a long, black robe. The blood of the first two victims marked his forehead with ancient symbols, and his head was covered in a black hood decorated with runes in golden braiding. He turned his bright, young eyes to Ascar.

"We have to do this, don't we?" he asked. Ascar smiled.

"When the strength is within you again, you'll remember what it was like. You'll remember how it was for us, and you'll welcome it."

"I know." Adurant nodded, although he could not keep the worry and concern from his face. "I… I shan't let you down, Ascar. I know how much this means to you."

"Good." Ascar laid a hand on his shoulder. "Soon it will all be over, brother. You'll be happy then, and the Hellmouth will be ours. There will be no more Slayers here."

"Of course." Adurant closed his eyes and turned away. There were still ancient ceremonies to perform before the time of the sacrifice finally arrived.


The Watcher's house was full once again. Buffy had considered inviting everybody back to her place, to make the most of the Summers' hospitality now that her mother was in on the secret; but she had soon changed her mind. Giles had been very odd around her mother since the night of the truly weird candy, and she could hardly blame him. His youthful persona was decidedly different to the Giles they had all come to know so well - or to think that they all knew so well. She supposed she should be grateful that there was no other reason for their mutual case of nerves. At least she had interrupted them before they had gone further than mere kissing.

"I can't believe we didn't find them." Xander sounded frustrated and angry. "We looked everywhere. How many places beyond everywhere can there be?"

"Plenty, by the look of things." Grumpy and on-edge, Buffy curled up in her chair. Her eyes turned towards Giles, pacing restlessly by the window. "Any plans, Yoda?"

"Not really." He leant against the wall. "I can only assume that they'll come here for you; and if that's the case we must be ready for them."

"Adurant knows where I live." She looked afraid. "Giles, they won't hurt my mother…?"

"No. They don't have the time to set up an exchange demand." Jude laid a hand on her shoulder. "Your mother isn't a part of this, just as long as they don't win. If they do, nobody in Sunnydale will be safe." She turned her head away. "Nobody in the world will be."

"Precisely." Giles began to pace again. "We - we needn't worry. We have a fine supply of weapons here. We have swords, er… a-a mace or two, two or three crossbows..."

"Plus a crate of stakes in the kitchen," Xander interjected. He had found them earlier, when making drinks. They were hidden in a beer crate beneath the counter. Still, he thought; it was more interesting than the contents of his mother's kitchen.

"Yes, exactly." Giles gave a satisfied nod. "We should be fine." He halted his pacing and stood still, staring out of the wide open window into the darkness. "They'll be coming, but we'll be ready for them. Right?"

"Right." The voice was not that of any of his friends, and it came from outside the window. His first thought was Angel, but in the split-second available to him, he realised that it was not the voice of the vampire either. Stung into action by a burst of pure adrenalin, he seized the window and began to drag it down.

"Get the weapons!" He could hear Buffy moving about already, could hear the weapons chest being dragged open. Before him the window shook, a strength far greater than his own pulling against it, to keep it from closing. With a sudden, violent motion it tore free from his hands, slamming open with a force powerful enough to smash the pane. Glass showed down on him, and he took a step back. He was not quick enough. A pair of huge green-grey hands came through the window, grabbing him by the shoulders, jerking him off-balance. He heard Jude's lingering scream of alarm, and then he was yanked head first through the window and out into the night.

"Giles!" Willow sounded panic-stricken, but even in his current predicament he was confident enough to know that she would not lose her head. He could hear Buffy's voice as she distributed the weapons, and he willed her to hold her ground. Slimy reptilian hands passed him along a line, and he counted under his breath; four of them. Tough odds given their great strength. Their powers might be limited these days, but he knew enough about them to be sure that any one of them could give a Slayer a tough ride. He struggled, anxious to be with her, to help her in this latest fight.

"Keep still." The voice was low and guttural, and he felt his stomach lurch as he was heaved through the air. He slammed against the wall, the breath effectively knocked from his lungs.


"It'll hurt more than that if you don't keep quiet." He heard more noise; saw a flash of brilliant light that illuminated half the street. His neighbours would be wondering what on earth was going on; or at least they would have done, if it had not been for the extraordinary ability of Sunnydale residents to avoid seeing anything beyond their own front doors.

"Willow look out!" Xander, leaping aside to avoid the lightning bolt which had come from nowhere, tripped on the unconscious form of Ethan Rayne and half-fell into Willow's arms. "Keep back!"

"I'm trying to!" She fumbled with her crossbow, certain that she had once known how to use it, and equally certain that her hands no longer belonged to her. They felt more like the possessions of some other person, who was considerably more bumble-fingered than she. She struggled to pull back the string, aiming the bolt roughly towards the window.

"Over there!" Jude, turning towards a sound nearby, had spotted a movement by the front door. With a bellow of pure ferocity, a reptile creature burst into the room, its pointed teeth spitting sparks, and its long tongue lashing the air. Its two huge fists grabbed at Xander, hurling him across the room. He landed roughly, vaguely aware that Ethan lay unconscious nearby. Though dazed, he frowned. Surely he had tripped over the man just a few seconds ago, back over at the other side of the room? He realised that the older man was faking, and gave him a hard shake.

"Come on! We need your help!"

"Get lost, Harris." Before Xander's very eyes, Ethan turned into a cat, making a dash for the stairs. Xander stared after him, anger mixing with defeat in his blood. He turned back towards the battle, seeing Willow hanging limply in the grip of one of the demons. Buffy struggled in hand-to-hand combat against a second, and Jude was fighting a third. He made a split second decision, and hurled himself at the demon holding Willow. It seized him as though he were a rag doll, as light as air, its fingers gripping his throat. His head swum and his vision blurred.

"Xander?" Willow's voice was vague and confused, her eyes dazed and unfocussed. He could not turn his head towards her. He tried to speak to her, but without air he had no voice. Slowly he sunk into oblivion.

"Buffy!" Turning slightly away from her opponent, Jude grabbed at the sword she had been trying to master. It flew through the air and the Slayer caught it, swinging it with a smooth ease. Her lessons with Giles, and before that with Merrick, were as fresh in her mind as though she had become the Slayer just yesterday, and she moved with the weapon as if she had used it all her life. The demon growled.

"Nice trick, Slayer." It raised one hand, the slime between its scales glistening in the light. Buffy felt the sword in her hands grow hot.

"Ow." She tried to drop it, but suddenly found that she was unable to. It clung to her just as she had been clinging to it. It grew hotter and hotter, burning her hands, sending tentacles of pain through her fingers, her wrists, her arms. She felt her legs begin to buckle.

"Who's the Slayer now?" Its voice showing mirth, the demon reached out for her, taking her waist in one, long arm. She struggled, trying to beat on its chest with the burning sword. The monster's free hand grabbed her chin, and she caught a breath of the odour from its slime. It was sweet and sickly; a pungent aroma that made her head whirl. She coughed and tried to break free, but quite suddenly she could no longer make her limbs obey her.

"I think we're finished here." The demon fighting with Jude broke off the battle, backing away from her so fast that she almost began to think she had won; until she turned around and found that the other two demons stood behind her. She frowned. To surrender was hardly her style, but she could see little choice.

"Come with us," one of the demons demanded. She knew from its voice that it was Duilwen.

"No." She raised her hands, the fingers beginning to glow. "I still have my powers, demon. I can still fight you."

"Not all of us you can't." She felt a heavy, clawed hand descend on her shoulder. "Give in or die."

"I won't surrender." She pointed at the nearest demon, her eyes burning and blazing. "Leave this place."

"Who are you trying to kid." The deeply sarcastic voice came from behind her, where her former assailant still stood gripping her shoulder. Even before she had time to consider a response, a powerful blow swung from behind, connecting with her head. Her vision blurred and her body slumped.

"Mission accomplished," she heard Thalos say; then she was lifted up into the air and carried out of the window. Somewhere between there and the ground she lost consciousness, and the darkness she had known for so much of her life was ready and waiting to greet her.


Buffy awoke slowly, dimly aware that she was stiff and cold, and that there was a musty, unpleasant odour in the air. She groaned, her eyelids flickering, and then sat up. A thousand candle flames wobbled at her movements, and she blinked in surprise. The tableau of leaping, dancing light was most impressive, the shadows reaching from floor to ceiling in their struggles. They looked rather as though they were trying to escape from the room. She could sympathise with that entirely.

"Welcome, Slayer." She turned her head, seeing the six demons standing about the room. They were all in their human forms, although somehow she found that more frightening than when they were in their reptilian guise. At least as monsters they had an excuse for behaving like demons. Human evil, as she had once heard Giles say so eloquently, was infinitely more terrifying than that of monsters.

"Hello." She smiled at the Six, her eyes searching out Adurant from amongst them. He would not meet her gaze. He looked terrified, she thought, wondering what exactly it was that worried him so. He was the most undemonic demon she had met since Angel.

"You know why you are here?" Ascar asked her. She shrugged.

"Sacrifice. What else would I be doing on a Saturday night?"

"So long as you are prepared for your end." He moved towards her, his arms making strange movements, painting symbols in the air. She frowned at him.

"I think they used to do those moves in night clubs back in the seventies."

He eyed her with a look that was filled with ferocious intensity, and she managed a weak little smile in response.

"Where are my friends?"

"Your friends?" He smiled then, stepping back and gesturing into the shadows. Thalos and Duilwen moved to do his bidding, emerging back into the light with Jude and Giles. They were awake, although looking somewhat battered, and they were also unbound. Buffy raised her eyebrows and Giles frowned at her. The silent communication was unreliable, but Buffy took it to mean that he was working on something.

"Where are Xander and Willow?" she asked, trying to keep the worry from her voice. She didn't want the six Circle members to know that she was afraid of them.

"They're here somewhere. We were all brought here." Giles spoke as evenly as always, as though the man holding his arm was an old friend, and not an ancient and evil demon likely soon to kill him. Buffy nodded.

"Are they okay?"

"They're fine, yes." He smiled at her. The demon holding him laughed.

"They're fine for now. As soon as the Slayer is dead, and the Spirits we serve welcome us once again, you will all die. You will all become the next stage of the sacrifice. We will all drink deep."

"Charming." Giles' voice dripped with sarcasm, but clearly the Six had more important things on their minds than the Watcher. He and Jude were pushed aside.

"It is time to begin." Ascar stepped forward, a long knife in his hands. "Lie back, Slayer."

"So I'm supposed to help you sacrifice me?" She raised her eyebrows. "Not wanting to cause trouble, creepy guy, but I have a problem with that."

"Down!" He backhanded her across the face, and she fell back. His strength surprised her. She saw Giles struggle to come to her assistance, but her view was blocked by Adurant. He moved forward to take his place beside Ascar.

"Hello." Buffy stared up at him, staring intensely into the bright eyes above her. Adurant met her gaze this time, holding it for a moment. She thought that she saw a look in his eyes; a moment of great sorrow; then he looked towards his leader.

"Are the Spirits ready?" he asked. Ascar nodded.

"It is time." He handed the knife across, and Adurant gripped it tightly. He looked as though he were moving in a trance, his arms stiff and strangely robotic. Buffy watched with wide eyes as the demon drew the blade of the knife across the palms of his own hands. She heard him muttering all the while, words that meant nothing to her. The other demons joined in the chant, their voices rising and falling as waves of sound crashing about the room.

"We have to do something," Jude whispered, her eyes fixed on Ascar. The leader of the demons was beginning to sway backwards and forwards, his hands pressed together. Slowly he began to move them apart, and a great light hung in the air between them. Within the light, mists began to form and merge.

"The light… It's a portal?" Giles stared at the moving mists. He could see things taking shape within them; forms that began to gain substance. There were skeletal heads and twisting, writhing bodies.

"The Spirits. Ancient forces of darkness in a dimension between hell and Earth." Jude could not drag her eyes away from Ascar. "I… my powers are weak here. I can't use the spells I learnt."

"You know how to close the portal?" He turned his head to stare at her, but she was still gazing steadily at the leader of the Circle. He thought that he saw her head give a minuscule shake.

"I know how to prevent its opening, not how to close it once it's open. The only thing that I know of for sure that will do that, is to prevent the sacrifice. The Spirits will leave then."

"We have to destroy the demons." Giles felt his eyes drawn back to the activities around the desk. Buffy was struggling, fighting against some invisible force that prevented her from rising. Adurant was drawing the knife higher and higher into the air.

"There's no time." Jude was beginning to shake, her eyes bright with unshed tears. "Seconds, Giles. We only have seconds." Around them the chanting was reaching a crescendo, the demons holding them beginning to sway in tandem with Ascar at the centre of the room. Long tendrils of white light and mist broke free from the portal above the leader's head, reaching out into the room. One brushed across the top of Giles' head, and he shivered. It was intensely cold.

"We can't give up." He struggled, trying to pull free, counting on the demons to be too preoccupied to worry about him. Instead the one holding him tightened his grip, pulling the Watcher back into its embrace. He felt the dampness of it, aware that it had changed its form. It was a reptile creature again, and he could smell the sickly aroma of the slime between its scales. His head swam.

"No…" Desperate to avoid being overcome, he renewed his struggles. He could hear Buffy's voice now. She seemed to be appealing to the demon with the knife, talking to him of something that made no sense to the Watcher. He recognised the early sounds of panic in his Slayer's voice, and he struggled all the harder. She was beginning to fear the worst, and he knew that she was helpless.

"Hold on Buffy!" He knew the voice, although in his current state of confusion it did not quite connect. It drew his eyes, making his head turn towards it, seeking it out. Xander, his shirt torn and his head bloody, had burst into the room. He was unsteady on his feet, but he held a long chunk of wood in his hands. He advanced towards the activity in the centre of the gathering.

"Xander, get back!" Buffy sounded even more afraid now, more scared for her friends than she was for herself. Xander did not respond to her voice.

"Back off, ugly!" His voice sounded strained and tired, but as the nearest demon rushed towards him, he swung the wood in his hands and knocked it off balance. Giles felt like cheering. The demon struggled back to its feet again, rushing once more at its newest enemy - only to be felled like a tree by a blow from above. A heavy crate had come from nowhere, and as Giles turned his head to look up towards this latest ally, he saw the shadowy shape of a man running away through the gantry.

"Ethan!" Somehow the presence of his oldest friend - and greatest enemy - gave him a new strength. With all the power that he possessed within him, he dragged himself free of his captor's embrace. The creature roared, swiping at him with a great, clawed hand, but stopped as suddenly as if it had struck a glass wall. It struggled, a roar escaping its throat. Giles grinned, and Jude gave him a brief, preoccupied nod. Her powers might have been drained by the Circle's ceremony, but clearly she could still hold one of the demons at bay, albeit with difficulty.

"Giles!" He heard Xander's shout and turned towards the sound. A demon had grabbed the boy by the shirt front, lifting him high into the air. Willow was at his feet, beating on the creature's chest with her fists. Thalos, for that was the demon in question, was stuck half in and half out of his reptilian form, and the effect was quite bizarre.

"Hold on!" The Watcher raced towards them, surprised by how big the room now seemed to be. Before it had seemed small, an illusion caused by the candles. Now, as he struggled to go to the assistance of his friends, it seemed to take forever to cross the space between them.

"Enough of this!" Ascar's voice was filled with rage, cutting through the turmoil in the room with an authority born of so many thousands of years. Sparks flew from his eyes as he pointed towards Xander and Willow. "You! Return to your prison!" In a burst of flame, the pair disappeared. Giles froze, startled. He turned towards the lead demon, looking past him to the portal, which had now developed a life of its own. A vast network of misty tendrils had burst forth from within it, lashing the air with power and fury. Buffy was staring up at them, transfixed.

"The sacrifice will go on!" His voice booming, filled with the strength leant to him by the creatures in the portal, Ascar pointed at Giles. The tendrils of mist moved towards him, grabbing at his arms and his chest, lifting him into the air. He could not struggle.

"Now Adurant!" The words almost a scream, Ascar turned to his fellow demon. Adurant alone now held his human form, standing beside Buffy, the knife held high above his head. He stared down at the appointed sacrifice, staring into her face as he had done when she had slept before. He saw the same peace on her face, marred only slightly by the troubled thoughts that broke through her semi-hypnotised state. His arms shook.

"Now Adurant!" There was anger now in Ascar's voice. "It is the time! Now!" As if in answer Adurant trembled, the overly-tensed muscles in his arms shaking with suppressed force. He stared down, and just as though she were reading his thoughts, Buffy's eyes snapped open. She stared up at him, looking into his face, seeing sweat bead up unnoticed on his forehead. He stared back at her, eyes wild.

"Adurant, the time is here! You must complete the sacrifice!" Fury filling his voice, Ascar grabbed the other demon's hands, forcing them downwards. Buffy stared up at the knife. It flashed towards her, and still she could not move. Closer and closer it came, every tiny fraction of a second stretching out before her, so that the unimaginably fast descent seemed to last for hours… She stared, transfixed, her mouth and eyes wide, seeing the blade rush towards her chest.

"No!" With a force that surprised himself as much as it surprised Ascar, Adurant jerked backwards, falling away from the Slayer and landing heavily on the ground. The Circle leader shook himself free, disbelief showing in his eyes, as above him the portal wavered and weakened. The tendrils holding Giles split apart, dropping him heavily to the ground.

"Traitor!" Ascar made a grab for the knife, but Giles beat him to it, kicking it aside. It skimmed across the floor, vanishing into the shadows. In the corner of his eye, Giles saw Ethan grab at it, his suddenly pale hands closing about the hilt. Ascar growled.

"Fool. Pathetic, mortal fool." He rose up to his full height, towering above Giles, his hands reaching out for the Watcher's throat. Giles could not move aside in time, and he felt the huge, scaled fingers grasping at him, digging in. He struggled, but to no avail. His feet were lifted off the ground.

"Forgetting something, creep?" Leaping down from the desk, Buffy jumped over the prone form of Adurant, now seeming too shocked to make any move. She landed lightly beside Ascar, thrown slightly by his size but nonetheless determined. She grinned. "I can move, slime breath."

"I'll deal with you soon enough, Slayer." He threw Giles aside, sending him crashing into a heap near to Jude. The witch stared down at him, and he looked up at her eyes. They burned with a solid, intense blue light, and he gasped. She smiled at him.

"Break the circle." Her words were strained, coming from inside his head. He did not see her lips move. He frowned, uncertain exactly what she meant; until he saw the demon holding her beginning to rise into the air. The creature shrieked in sudden fear.

"Jude!" Another of the demons, seeing what she was doing, rushed towards her, and she raised one finger to point at him. He froze immediately, beginning to levitate, his hands and feet waving wildly in mid-air.

"Quickly Giles… Weakening the portal gave me a little more leverage… but I can't hold on forever…" Her voice sounded weak, as though she had little strength left. He stumbled to his feet, gazing up at her, seeing the pain beginning to contort her face. He glanced around. One of the demons was still unconscious from Ethan's attack. A second and a third were in Jude's control. Adurant still lay on the floor, and Ascar was fighting with Buffy. The Watcher was tempted to take a moment to watch his Slayer, and to see with pride how well she was handling herself. She had learnt from her earlier battle with one of the leader's minions, and she was not going to make the same mistakes twice. He frowned, turning his mind back to his own, more immediate problems. There was still one of the Circle left unaccounted for.

"Brilthor!" Ascar's voice, filled with rage, echoed about the room. "By all the Spirits damn you! Where are you?"

"Here." Brilthor, once more in human form, strode out of the shadows. The sacrificial knife was in one of his hands, the limp, unmoving form of Ethan Rayne in the other. Giles started forward, but the knife was at Ethan's throat in an instant. He froze, uncertain.

"Use the knife! We must have blood to keep the portal open!" Ascar, still locked in his battle with Buffy, lost precious ground as he spoke to his kin. Brilthor did not move.

"Damn you Brilthor! I said use the knife!" Ascar's voice was growing in pitch, rising higher and higher as his panic and fury became stronger. Brilthor weighed the knife in his hand, letting it spin in the air, then hurled it with all of its might. It hit the portal dead centre, and a scream of rage and pain came from the heart of the misty, light-filled gate. With a flash of fire that momentarily filled the room with heat, the portal vanished.

"No!" Ascar's voice, filled with pain, echoed about the room. "No!" He stepped away from Buffy, staring at Brilthor. "You'll die for this!"

"You can't kill me without hurting yourself. If I die the Circle breaks, and we all become mortal." Brilthor stepped back, the light from the candles illuminating his cascade of blond hair. It seemed to light it from within, lending him a bizarrely angelic appearance. "Is that what you want?"

"Damn you." Flame flickered at the edges of Ascar's mouth. "It's all over because of you. Because of you and Adurant."

"No." Struggling to his feet, and casting aside the last of the robes, Adurant faced Ascar with anger in his eyes. "It was all over centuries ago when that Rabbi sent us from the Earth. You should have let us die then. You should have let us live as mortals, and forget our creators, but you had to hang onto the past. I didn't want this. I didn't want it to end this way. But I won't have any part in the death of the Slayer. She is the future of the Hellmouth, not us."

"I'm going to kill you. I don't care if I spend the rest of eternity flaming in the depths of hell." Advancing towards the other demon, Ascar raised his hands into the air. Flames surrounded his hands as he began to cast a spell. Adurant lifted his own hands, a similar fire beginning to burn there. With sudden speed, the pair began to advance on each other, walking, then running, their motions blowing out those candles which were still lit, plunging the room into darkness.

"No more creepy stuff." Her voice heavy and determined, Buffy moved with her own, inherited speed. She caught up the sacrificial knife, using all of her energy in one, wild throw. The knife arced through the air, invisible in the darkness, and stuck, quivering, in the chest of Ascar. He screamed, his flaming fists beating the air. The fires around his hands spread quickly, engulfing his body, eating up his chest, his head, his legs. His screams grew louder and more intense.

"At last!" Her own voice suddenly powerful and strong, Jude leapt forward, the two demons she still held in the air moving with her. They fought against her spell, struggling desperately to break her hold, but were unable to tear themselves free. She hurled them into the flames. Their screams echoed madly, furiously; and then they were gone. There was silence.

"Well!" Breathing out a sigh of relief, Giles found his way to Buffy in the darkness. "Are you alright?"

"Fine." She smiled up at him, clearly tired and shaken. "Where are the others?"

"In the next room." Brilthor's voice sounded distant. "They're fine. They were to die at the feet of our masters, at the birth of the next world."

"Charming." Giles knelt beside Ethan, who seemed to be coming around. "Well everybody's favourite pussy cat seems to be alright." The words made him long to be with Jude, but he did not dare to call for her. In the darkness he could not yet see if she had gone. He almost hoped that she had.

"What happens now?" Buffy asked, using the last, dying embers of the three burnt demons to light a handful of candles. Brilthor gave a short, bitter laugh.

"We're mortal now," he said, his eyes travelling towards Legolin, who was just regaining consciousness. "You can do what you want with us."

"You saved my life." She shrugged. "That usually makes me feel pretty cool." She frowned at him. "Are you still sorcerers?"

"Our powers were as the Six. Now we have nothing. We don't even have the powers we had in our weakest days." Adurant was gazing longingly at her, the desire clear in his eyes. "I gave up everything for you."

"Yeah. It's appreciated." She shook her head. "Listen, don't think I'm not glad you like me so much, but…" She wasn't sure how to finish the sentence, and he smiled.

"I know. A seven thousand year-old demon who once laid waste to your planet isn't the kind of guy you want to date."

"I don't know." There was surprising levity in Giles' voice. "You should meet her last boyfriend." Buffy glared at him. Just recently the stiff and proper Watcher she had once found so frustrating had been changing before her eyes. Maybe it was her influence, or maybe it was just the real Rupert Giles coming out from behind the curtains. She was rather looking forward to seeing how far it would go.

"Just leave," she told Adurant, her voice taking in Brilthor as well. "Go somewhere. Anywhere. Just don't stay here."

"Sure." Adurant looked as though he wanted to take her hand, but instead he walked past her, heading for the door. She stared after him.

"Before you go…"

"What?" He didn't look at her. She smiled.

"Tomorrow night, at the Bronze. One dance."

"Just the one?" There was a teasing look in his eyes, the look of a man who was still only eighteen. He was good-looking, she thought with regret. She raised her eyebrows.

"Don't push it, buster."

"One dance." He smiled. "It's a date."

"And what of me." Staring at both Watcher and Slayer, Legolin had made it to her feet. "What if I don't want to lead a happy, mortal life?"

"No choice, sister." Buffy folded her arms. "You want to take on the Champ?"

"I want to feed you to the Hellmouth." Legolin moved forward, her hands outstretched, but a bolt from nowhere hit her in the back. She stumbled, her eyes widening in disbelief, then a flash of flame consumed her and she was gone. Giles and Buffy turned to look for the source of this latest assistance, and saw Jude walking into the circle of candlelight. She looked tired and drawn.

"Jude!" Giles went to her, catching her in his arms, but she pulled back, determined to stand alone. "I thought you'd gone."

"Not yet." She smiled at him, once more bewitching him with her beauty. "One last spell, to send another of my enemies before me."

"Thankyou." He lowered his eyes, suddenly finding it hard to look at her. "You assistance is… appreciated."

"Of course." With a very great effort she stepped forward, picking up the sacrificial knife from where it had fallen, at the heart of the ash that had once been Ascar, Duilwen and Thalos. As she held the knife, her hands began to glow. The blade caught the fire in her fingertips, glowing with a light all of its own, until it burst apart in a flash of fire, and turned into an ash as fine as powder. The hilt crumbled away, the last of it streaking her hands with its residue.

"Goodbye Giles." She stared at him, her eyes calling his. "It would have been fun."

"I - I don't know what--"

"Forget it." She smiled sadly. "If we hadn't done it, the world would have died. What sort of an exchange would that have been for a few more days together?"

"Enough. Maybe." He shook his head, moving towards her once again. "And no, I don't think I do believe that." She laughed, the sound like music to his ears.

"Next time, try to be born several hundred years earlier." It was his turn to laugh. He reached out his hand for hers.

"No. You try to make it several hundred years later. I do have a destiny that I'm supposed to be fulfilling."

"We all have a destiny to fulfil, Giles." Her fingertips brushed his. "And I guess we all have a desire that has to remain--" Before his eyes, her body burst apart, a shower of dust and ash raining down upon the room. He stared, panic-stricken, at the space where she had been, his lips moving soundlessly to finish her final sentence.

"Forever unfulfilled." His eyes closed. He wasn't even aware of Buffy's presence when she stepped up to place her hand on his shoulder. Neither one of them noticed as Ethan Rayne slipped quietly out of the door.


The school was reassuringly noisy on Monday morning, and reassuringly far removed from all that had gone on so near its walls on Saturday night. Buffy found Giles in the library as she had expected, deep in one of his books. He looked up as she approached.

"Good morning, Buffy."

"Hi G." She looked down at the book. "Anything unutterably exciting?"

"It's about a coven of witches who once dwelt on the island of Madagascar." He turned the book towards her, and she looked down at a simple line drawing of twelve women. One of them was unmistakably Jude.

"How did your date go with Adurant?" the Watcher asked, drawing her mind back to their present. She shrugged.

"Cool, except he makes puppy eyes at me worse than Xander used to." She smiled. "And just for the record, it's not Adurant anymore. It's Andrew."

"Oh." He nodded. "And what are his plans?"

"College. Abroad, he thinks. As far as he knows, he was born somewhere out east, and I think he'd like to try to find out what's there now. Brilthor is going with him." She frowned. "Giles… I'm sorry it couldn't have worked out the same way for you."

"It's alright Buffy."

"No it's not. I--" She sighed. "I liked her. I wanted it to work out."

"I wanted it to work out for you and Angel." He shrugged. "C'est la vie."

"Or maybe c'est la Slay." She sat down on the corner of the desk. "If you want to talk, I think we've got a lot to share here. Willow and Xander and I used to make jokes… what with robot demons and giant preying mantises and Inca mummies and vampires--" She broke off. "Is this just too depressing?"

"I appreciate the sentiment, Buffy." He smiled. "And the offer. But don't worry about me; you have more pressing concerns."

"That's right! Less than a week, and I turn eighteen. I get to think adultsville." She smirked at him. "You weren't meaning that though, were you."

"Er, well actually I was thinking History test second lesson." He gave a small smile. "Unless there's some other Buffy Summers whose timetable I have in my drawer?"

"No, that would be me." She jumped off the table. "I guess I'd better do the research thing." She shook her head. "No, what would be better would be for me to do the Willow thing. She's like my walking text book."

"Good luck," he told her, as she walked towards the door. She glanced back at him.

"Those sneaky little test demons will try to defeat me, but I shall return."

"I'll try to hold off the Hellmouth until then." He watched her as she left, waiting until the doors ceased to swing. He knew that she was still out there, standing in the corridor, wondering if he was going to be alright. He waited until he was sure that her footsteps had finally echoed away; then he picked up the book again and glanced at the open page.

"If you see Jenny," he whispered to the picture of Jude, "say hello." Then he closed the book and crossed the room with it, setting it firmly back into its place on the shelves. The room seemed awfully large and silent as he stood there, alone, his arms empty once again; but even in the midst of the silence he could hear footsteps outside the library, and the voices of students late for their lessons. It brought him from his reverie and turned him back once more to the work his life had prepared him for. There was no time for reflection, no sense in regret; but at least, occasionally, there was still a little time for desire. It was the single spark that tied the Watcher and the Slayer to the world of sanity of which they had both once been a part. It was the flame that gave them the strength to go on. He let his hand linger for a moment on the spine of the book he had just replaced; then he smiled and set off towards the stacks. The world had not ended, evil had not prevailed. When you lived on the Hellmouth, there was nothing else for which you could ask. And as he returned to his work, outside the school a car stood idling by the kerb. Ethan Rayne sat behind the wheel, his eyes fixed intently on the buildings, a small smile making his lips curl and his eyes shine.

"Until next time, Ripper," he said softly, and he gunned the engine. The car moved slowly away down the street, picking up speed as it went. Around him the sunlight blazed, and for the first time in days he could see it in his human form. He owed that to the Slayer and her friends, but he bore them no disabling thoughts of gratitude; after all, they had destroyed his plans both for Jude and for the Circle of Agute. Next time they met, the slate would have been wiped clean once again - in his eyes at least. And there would be a next time. He laughed. There would always be a next time. He slammed a cassette into the car's radio cassette player, and turned the volume up full. Bachman Turner Overdrive's You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet filled the car with its gloriously prophetic sound, and his grin grew even bigger. Some days, he just loved being bad.