Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Fun Factoids About Jhaeman's Detritus

The following information comes from Blogger and is all true, even though I have no explanation for most of it.

*  This audience for this blog is overwhelmingly German.  In terms of all-time page hits, surfers in Germany were # 1, by a massive 4-1 margin over the next closest country (the United States).  Indeed, the audience from Germany alone is more than the next nine countries combined on the list.  I have absolutely no idea why.

*  In the top 5 list of keywords that brought people here, all are variations of the blog's or my own name except for one:  "truth or dare".  Why would people searching "truth or dare" come here?  This one I actually do have an answer for: my review of Buffy the Vampire Slayer # 6 which includes the phrase "spooky truth or dare" next to a pic from the comic of Buffy and friends having a sleepover and playing the game.  Other popular reasons people come here are "buffy comics" (makes sense), "call of cthulhu character sheet" (which I've never placed on this blog), and "avengers unplugged" (I did write a capsule review of this some years back . . .).

*  The most popular all-time post is the Buffy one mentioned above; that's followed by another Buffy comic review (# 5), which I speculate is popular because it contains a picture of Buffy & Willow embracing along with a joke line "The scene that launched a thousand Buffy/Willow slash stories".  In short, there are a lot of people who come here looking for something quite particular and end up disappointed!  The third most popular post is a short story from the Clone Wars Campaign, A Brief Stint in the Great Beyond; it's a really good story (if I dare say so myself), but I have no idea why it's so popular compared to all of the others I've placed on the blog.  Spot # 4 is filled by my walkthrough of the first mission in the Torchwood online game, and the fifth by a discussion of the 1993 Hawkeye limited series.

* On a monthly basis, this blog averages between 1500 and 2500 hits.  Except for July 2013, when it had over 55,000!  Yet, not a single one of my ten most popular posts were placed online in or near this month.

* There are 1195 posts on this blog, and 349 non-spam comments.  Hey, a .292 batting average is okay for Major League Baseball . . .

* Finally, an update on whether I am still The World's Most Famous Jeremy Patrick:  no.  According to Google, I've fallen to # 2 behind someone who has a Facebook account.  Damn you Mark Zuckerberg!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Realms Toowoomba Session # 44 [RPG]

[19 Kythorn 1372 continued]

In the library of the Oracle's Circle, Mellia's research into magickal means of finding the Crown of Horns is largely unsuccessful; she finds references to the dangerous Contact Other Planes spell she already knew about, and reference to a powerful spell to discern the location of objects that requires one to have had the object in one's possession. In the evening, after dinner, she becomes woozy and starts to faint. Fortunately, Fargrim catches her. Mellia explains that she over-exerted herself teleporting the group such a great distance, and that she needs to be more cautious in the future.

That night, while sleeping, Fargrim has visions of Nesme besieged by legions of undead creatures led by a dark knight mounted on a flame-breathing horse. In the vision, walls of ice so high they almost block out the sun surround the city, keeping the invaders at bay.

[20 Kythorn 1372 (Summer Solstice)]

In Mirabar, Dolcetto explores the city. She's generally disappointed by the lack of scholarly resources available. She does find a book stall and picks up a small tome on geology before returning to her room to finish enchanting Fargrim's greataxe. When it's done, she heads to the north gate to await the promised arrival of her new travelling companions. Several heavily-laden carts of ore arrive from the city's mines, but there is no sign of the adventurers. Dolcetto returns to her inn, contemplating whether she should start looking for another group.

Near the Rauvin, Tunak spends another uneventful day at the campsite. Bettina is obviously growing impatient with the fact that, after disappearing suddenly, the others have still not returned (despite having left a note saying they would be back days ago).

At the Oracle's Circle, Mellia tells her companions that her research has been fruitless. In the hallway, she encounters Procul, and the sneering student threatens to summon the school's headmaster. Mellia decides to hurry her friends outside so she can cast the spell to teleport them back west. As she begins intoning the arcane syllables of the spell, however, a good-looking man in his late 30s, wearing wizard's robes, emerges from the forest. He stops up short when he sees Mellia, and calls her name. Flustered, Mellia tries to decide whether to continue or abort the spell; resolving to continue, she then can't decide whether the destination should be Mirabar or Tunak's campsite.

The indecision causes the spell to fail, and Mellia is forced to explain her presence at the tower to Gideon Stormcrowe, Headmaster of the Oracle's Circle. Mellia reluctantly introduces Markus, Cain, and Fargrim. She says they're friends she made in the course of the fieldwork for her research project. She's evasive when asked about her progress on the project, why she's returned to the tower, or how long she's planning on staying. Gideon is somewhat perturbed by Mellia's attitude, but secures a promise to have dinner together that evening to discuss matters further.

The four adventurers decide to walk into the forest so that they can converse in private. Mellia apologizes for her failed attempt to teleport them away, but promises to try again the next morning. Fargrim tells the others about his vision of what was happening in Nesme. The group feel that, once again, they are being scryed upon. Seconds later, the Red Wizard named Felix Ruul emerges from a magical portal, levitating almost twenty feet in the air. He instantly hurls a massive ball of flame at the group, snarling that Cain has brought this upon himself. He denounces the cleric's failure to travel to Nesme as ordered, saying the result has been the ascension of the Aurilite clergy into positions of leadership in the city. He states that he volunteered to bring Cain back to the Flaming Brazier in Bezantur for discipline and punishment, but that he hopes Cain will resist.

Two gargoyles perched on the roof of the Oracle's Circle immediately swoop down on Ruul, but their claws only scrape pieces of stone from the wizard's body, while an arrow shot by Markus shatters against an invisible barrier. Ruul starts his counter-attack, but Cain surprises him by agreeing to go with him. "It's the only way," he explains to the others. The other adventurers don't seem convinced, but do not actively try to persuade Cain otherwise. A disappointed Ruul flies down to where Cain is and teleports him away.

Afterwards, Mellia voices her frustration over losing Cain, saying that she blames herself for distracting him from his task. Fargrim is clearly angry as well, shattering furniture in the tower's library. But Markus seems to be the most dramatically affected, as he's taking to calling a bucket with a crude face carved into it "Cain." The three adventurers vow that they'll find a way to get Cain back.

While the two males travel into the forest to visit an old friend of Mellia's for a healing salve, Mellia has her promised dinner with Gideon. She tells him that Allia is staying with others at the moment, and asks for his help in retrieving Cain. He says that Thay is an incredibly dangerous, distant place, and that he could not in good conscience send one of his students there. He tries to contact Cain with a Sending spell, but it fails due to his lack of familiarity with the cleric. Mellia remains determined to rescue Cain, and decides that she may need an expert on religion to aid her interaction with the Kossuthian temple hierarchy: Dolcetto.

[21 Kythorn 1372]

In Mirabar, Dolcetto spends the day learning a new flame spell and posts a notice seeking other bands interested in finding information about Myrkul and the Crown of Horns. Before long, however, she's visited by Mellia, Fargrim, and Markus, as the adventurers teleported to the glade south of Mirabar earlier in the day. Dolcetto hands a pleased Fargrim the enchanted greataxe that continually glows and has dwarven runes engraved on it. Mellia tells Dolcetto about their desire to retrieve Cain. Dolcetto says she has heard of the Flaming Brazier, but that it is such a distance away that travelling there would take quite some time. Dolcetto says the primary centers for worship of Kossuth in Faerun are in Thay and Mulhorand, but she has heard of a small temple in Mulmaster. The group decide their best bet is to teleport to Tunak's campsite, and from there to travel overland to Silverymoon. In the Gem of the North, hopefully, they will find either a powerful spellcaster or a magical portal that will take them to Thay.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Wrath of Ashardalon Adventure # 5: The Closed Doors

It's been several months, but The Wife and I finally got a chance to play Wrath of Ashardalon again.  In "The Closed Doors", the heroes unwisely decide to investigate a section of the tunnels below Firestorm Peak that are mysteriously closed off.  The adventure makes use of the door tokens, which frankly are not particularly interesting.  Generally speaking, the heroes wander around until they reveal the Horrid Chamber Entrance tile, at which time they place a beholder (Gauth) and several additional monsters in the Horrid Chamber tiles.  The heroes win if they defeat Gauth and those new monsters.

The Wife and I had a strange experience with this adventure.  The first two times we tried it, we got massacred, and lost before we even unveiled the Horrid Chamber.  Those games were long and featured our heroes getting worn down by enemies and traps with seemingly little to be done about it.  We decided to tinker with our strategy just a little in the third game by using four heroes instead of five (by ditching the thief), and, inexplicably, cruised to an easy victory.  Not only did we reveal the Horrid Chamber while our heroes were all still in good shape, we defeated Gauth and the new monsters without even using a single Healing Surge.  I can't imagine using four heroes instead of five as having made such a big difference, as the game is designed to balance itself for the number of heroes used.  All I can point to for the easy win after the two crushing defeats is, perhaps, pure luck; we drew a lot of tiles with white triangles (no encounters), got some very good treasures, and were able to keep the monsters from ganging up on any one hero.

The next adventure looks quite fun, as it's a "campaign" of three mini-adventures strung together . . .

Vegan Police: March 2014

A month that started out okay, and then went downhill fast.  The Subway cookies will no longer be a problem, as Subway ended that deal.  The cheese pizza is a tough one to deal with because the pizza places in Toowoomba don't have pasta, and their cheese-less pizza is quite crappy; but the household loves pizza, and every other fast-food option is way too expensive.

Mar. 7:  Spinach & Feta Triangle

Mar. 9:  Garlic Aioli sauce

Mar. 11: Cheese Pizza

Various:  About a bazillion homemade sugar cookies

Various:  Subway cookies--cursed cheap meal deal!

Mar. 16: Cheese Pizza

March 19-20:  Chocolate, Mac & Cheese

Mar. 22:  Puddin, Subway cookie

Mar. 23:  Cheese pizza

Mar. 25:  Peppermint patties

Mar. 27: Cheese Pizza

Mar. 29:  Cheese Pizza

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Firestar (Ltd. 1985) [Comics]

I have only vague memories of the 1981-1983 Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends cartoon, which featured the new character of Firestar in place of the Human Torch due to licensing issues.  Firestar, whose real name was Angelica Jones, got her first canon appearance in the Marvel Universe in an issue of X-Men a few years later, immediately followed by a four-issue limited series to explain her origin.

My notes on Issue # 1 say "very good, despite DeFalco!"  I've always thought of Tom DeFalco as a bog-standard comics writer with mostly forgettable stories and villains, but this story worked really well.  We're introduced to thirteen year old Angelica Jones as she starts a new school because she, her father, and her grandmother just moved.  Angelica's first day goes well, until she meets a trio of fellow students who could be the inspiration for "Mean Girls."  There's some sort of weird ice-block carving competition that Angelica is extremely excited about.  Ice is limited (?), and the Mean Girls are so mean that Angelica has a true Carrie moment and starts releasing microwave radiation which damages the ice sculptures.  She runs home, terrified at the first release of her powers, and finds that her grandmother has had a heart attack and died!  The incidents are completely unrelated, but Angelica and her Dad are so despondent that they're easy prey for Emma Frost, who detected the mutant energies and offers Angelica a place at the Massachusetts Academy.  Xavier, monitoring Cerebro, arrives as well, but is minutes too late.  Angelica has already signed with Frost.

Issue # 2 fast-forwards four months, as Angelica undergoes training in the secret basement complex underneath Frost's Massachusetts Academy.  She has some run-ins with the Hellions, but Frost keeps her mostly away from that established team.  Frost gradually puts Angelica through various tests to gauge the extent of her power, while simultaneously subtly training her to fear the X-Men.  Frost's ultimate goal is revealed: she wants to craft Angelica into a super-assassin!  Meanwhile, Angelica is lonely and sad to be away from her father.  She finds solace in long rides on her favourite horse.  During a big dance, in which the kids (New Mutants) from Xavier's school are invited to attend as well, Frost manipulates things so that Angelica panics, sets fires to the stables, and kills her beloved horse.  It's all a bid to drive Angelica further and further into Frost's grasp by making her afraid to use her powers without further training.

Issue # 3 jumps forward again; Angelica is now 15.  Frost continues training sessions in her version of the Danger Room, but has the robotic enemies that pop up take the form of the X-Men.  Moreso, she gifts Angelica with a bracelet that causes fearful hallucinations.  One of Frost's guards charged with escorting Angelica and keeping watch over her, Randall Chase, starts to feel very protective of his charge.  Later, after a brief visit home doesn't go well because Angelica's dad is fearful of her new powers, Frost stages an attack at the airport to force Angelica to use her mutant powers and lash out.  Frost's ultimate plan is revealed: she intends to use Angelica as a weapon to kill the Black Queen!

Issue # 4 is set a year later.  Frost stages a purported assassination attempt by the Black Queen, in order to get Angelica to defend her and swear vengeance, which the girl does.  Frost and Sebastian Shaw, the Black King, finalize plans for their weapon to attack the Black Queen during a formal dance.  Randall Chase, however, figures out that his boss is manipulating Angelica and rushes to tell her the truth.  He's caught though (hard to betray a mind-reader!) and Frost tells Angelica that he's been murdered by the Black Queen.  In fact, Chase is alive but imprisoned.  On the night of the formal, he escapes, though badly wounded, and manages to tell Angelica, before dying, that Frost is her real enemy.  Enraged, Angelica attacks Frost and barely refrains from killing her; instead, she destroys the entire complex underneath the Massachusetts Academy and returns home to her father.

"Good stuff, well written!" my notes say.  I like the main character, I like the supporting cast, and as an origin story, it works quite well.  Frost is a great manipulator and someone you don't want for an enemy, and you could imagine Firestar getting involved with the New Mutants or X-Men for years of good stories.  From Wikipedia, it doesn't sound like she really appeared all that often after this, but for once I can honestly say something wasn't Tom DeFalco's fault.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Realms Toowoomba Session # 43 [RPG]

[18 Kythorn 1372 Continued]

At the campsite on the southern side of the River Rauvin, Tunak sees several barges navigating the fast flowing waters. When he heads off into the trees to dig a new latrine, he notices the skeletal remains of a body laying on a branch almost thirty feet in the air. The body's clothing has decayed into tatters, but one of its bony hands clutches a narrow metal tube, open on one end. Tunak is intrigued by the sight, but an obstacle lies in his path: a nest of unusual-looking wasps. Undeterred, he swings a rope over his head in a wide arc and tries to build up enough speed to loop it over the branch. He misses completely with his first attempt, but his second try fares even worse as he hits the wasps' nest!

The wasps immediately swarm over Tunak, stinging indiscriminately. Nauseated and burning with a strange poison that accompanied their stings, Tunak manages to stagger back towards the campsite and jump into the Rauvin. He swims safely under the chilly waters for several seconds and emerges some yards away. The swarm hovers for some time and then gradually returns to its nest. Tunak is safe, but the wasps have left a reminder of his narrow escape: a burning, swelling pustule on his face that will surely leave a scar.

Bettina prepares a herbal poultice for Tunak's cheek and proceeds to ask him several questions about Markus phrased in sailing metaphors. Tunak is completely stymied by the questions. The rest of his day and night pass uneventfully as he ponders how to bypass the wasps.

On her journey east towards Silverymoon, Cammy soon encounters a patrol of the Argent Legion, the Confederacy of the Silver Marches' joint military force. Cammy explains hir presence in the area, stating that zhe was on her way to rescue a woman named Sapphira Silverhue from orcs in Startop Mountain before learning that she had already been rescued! The commander of the patrol tasks four of his soldiers to escort Cammy the rest of the way, citing the dangers in the area. Later, the group encounter a fifth soldier whose horse had fallen lame. Cammy agrees to share hir mount with the soldier, whom zhe nicknames Lucky. As they continue their journey, Cammy sings a humorous song about a dragon and then the travellers rest for the night.

In Mirabar, the rock-coloured gnome caught eavesdropping by Mellia manages to wriggle free of her grasp. The gnome says he'll meet with her again at sunset and then disappears in broad daylight! Dolcetto continues speaking with Mellia and Fargrim. She says she hails from a desert land and that her pursuit of lost knowledge borders on obsession; thus, her fascination with the story of Myrkul and the legendary Crown of Horns. Mellia says she needs to talk to her companions before agreeing to share information and resources with Dolcetto, and arranges to meet with her later that day at the Sign of the Forgehammer.

Elsewhere in Mirabar, Markus and Cain journey towards the city's shrine to Tymora. Markus fails to persuade Cain that the cleric should wear a large floppy hat, but the swordsman does succeed in fitting a peacock helmet in the cleric's helm. The two pedestrians are forced to the side of the street for some moments by the passage of Lord Feldspar's carriage. The noble is said to be a hero for his recent successful return from slaying the Orc King Gorgosh despite the death of all but one of his retainers in the battle. At the shrine, the two travelers witness members of The Axe receiving blessings of good fortune for upcoming battles. Markus donates some coins and praises Tymora for the great luck that has come his way since taking up adventuring.

When Markus and Cain return to the spot where they had arranged to meet Mellia and Fargrim, their friends are nowhere to be seen as they've gone to the wrong place! Their friends' mistake proves costly for Markus and Cain, as they're questioned by a patrol after being seen loitering. When a promise that the adventurers' names can be found in the passage-books of those entering through the gates yesterday proves false, the two are detained and taken to the Hall of Sparkling Stones for interrogation. After a tedious round of questioning, they are released with a warning that teleporting in and out of Mirabar during a time of heightened tension with Luskan could be seen as a hostile act.

Mellia and Fargrim, thinking that Cain and Markus were the ones to have erred, return to the inn and find a somewhat cryptic note addressed to Mellia from the gnome they encountered earlier. Mellia decides to tell Fargrim about the strange phenomena she experienced while everyone slept during the night. Mellia says she felt a powerful force literally drag her spirit away from her body and hurl it through the night sky, across vast tracts of forest and mountain, until it came to rest in a large glass sphere on a pedestal. Mellia could see four other, similar spheres on nearby pedestals, each with a ghostly face inside. One of the faces seemed somewhat familiar, but she couldn't tell from where. The room was dimly lit, with stone floors and walls. At one end of the room were what Mellia at first took to be cleverly carved statues made of glass and set in life-like poses. One of the figures, however, was that of a young girl sleeping peacefully on a real bed: with horror, Mellia realized it was her daughter! When a mysterious cloaked sorcerer entered the room, he berated Mellia and the other spectral faces in the spheres for dithering and dawdling, and said that time was running out: if the sorcerer's enemies obtained the Crown of Horns before his agents did, all of their loved ones would be destroyed! To drive his point home, the sorcerer violently knocked over the glass-transformed wife of one of the spectral faces who, he said, had turned his attention away from finding the Horn and towards finding the sorcerer. The living statue shattered into thousands of pieces when it hit the ground, and the sorcerer threatened to do the same to any others who failed to bring him the Crown. When Mellia and the others' spirits were banished back to their bodies, she explains to Fargrim that she remembers seeing the spirit of a gnome flying alongside her--and that it looked just like the one she caught eavesdropping near the the fountain!

By the time her story has finished, Dolcetto has arrived at the inn as requested. When she pulls back her hood, it is clear her heritage includes extraplanar blood, as she has small horns. Fargrim asks Dolcetto if she can handle herself in a fight. Dolcetto says she primarily relies on magic, but when she does fight she relies on conjured allies. She goes on to say she has skill in crafting magical arms and armor, and arranges to work on a magic greataxe for Fargrim while the adventurers finish their errands in the city and elsewhere. Mellia and Fargrim agree that Dolcetto's presence could be useful in their journeys, and later arrange to meet her at sunset in two days' time.

When Mellia and Fargrim travel to the Hall of Sparkling Stones to inquire about their missing friends, they see Markus and Cain emerging from interrogation. Markus is quite angry at having been detained, and says he will never return to Mirabar again. The adventurers realize that they are being closely watched during the remainder of their time in the city. That night, Mellia meets with the mysterious gnome. Introducing himself as Wrex, the gnome says he knows that he and Mellia are looking for the same thing and they each have loved ones at stake. He says that he wanted to make contact with her so that they can share information, even though he suspects the cloaked sorcerer will only reward the first of his agents to bring him the Crown. The two agree that if they need to leave messages for each other, to do so at the North Gate with the codeword "Three-spotted Eastern Dragon."

After an evening spent making complicated travel plans, those in Mirabar rest for the night.

[19 Kythorn 1372]

Tunak enjoys a peaceful day attempting to fish with his quarterstaff.

Cammy, however, meets with great misfortune. As zhe and hir escorts prepare to break camp in the morning, an uncanny red fog inexplicably rolls through the area. In its wake, remains that had laid under the ground for unknown centuries animate and claw their way to the surface. The skeletal remnants of soldiers in battles long forgotten being to move again, as does the huge frame of a giant slain some ages ago while trying to cross the nearby river. Caught by surprise, Cammy and the soldiers are slow to respond. They decide to flee the area, but their escape is thwarted by the quickly advancing legion of undead. Miscommunication proves fatal: one of the soldiers mounts his steed and waits for Cammy to run over and climb up behind him, but Cammy is waiting for the soldier to ride past hir so zhe can leap on. The delay is only seconds, but it's enough time for the skeletal giant to smash the skulls of both Cammy and her beau "Lucky" with his ancient, rusted morningstar. Only a couple of the soldiers manage to escape the onslaught to carry word of the attack back to Silverymoon.

In Mirabar, Dolcetto spends the day beginning the process of laying enchantments on Fargrim's greataxe. The other adventurers journey a short distance south of the city to an isolated grove. From there, Mellia draws upon an extraordinary amount of magical energy and teleports the group hundreds of miles to a tower in the great forest of Cormanthor, thirty miles northeast of Essembra. This is the Oracle's Circle, a large round spire that serves as a school for divination and was Mellia's refuge before undertaking her current quest. Upon entering, Mellia is greeted warmly and enthusiastically by the school's cook. She exchanges barbed insults with a fellow student named Procul before leading her adventuring companions up to her room to drop off their gear. The room is full of children's toys, and the purpose of Mellia's visit is apparent: she seeks insight into the best way to recover the Crown of Horns and thus secure the release of her kidnapped daughter.

She begins by visiting Liliath the Spell-Wracked, a disfigured, somewhat-mad sorceress in a tower basement. Liliath tries to goad Mellia into serving as the conduit for a spell to reach extra-planar entities to ask about the Crown, but Mellia thinks the spell is too risky considering the limited information that can be gained. She decides to start researching in the tower's archives for another solution. Meanwhile, Markus has no difficulty persuading a student to identify the nature of some magical bolts he carries, and then he and Cain explore the area around the tower. Some children are unimpressed by Markus' aptitude in magic, but are quite excited by his display of swordplay.

Night begins to fall for the adventurers, now scattered around Faerun.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Hell Frozen Over: Chapter Eleven [BUFFY]

CHAPTER ELEVEN: FOUR YEARS AGO

“You had best come up with a right good reason why I shouldn’t have you killed now,” Spike growled. He pushed the wheelchair closer to the intruder. “You see, we expected your arrival after what happened to poor dear Cleo over there.” Spike nodded at the female vampire, who was nursing her arm.

His band of vampire underlings tensed in anticipation of a kill as they slowly encircled the man in the nowdirty trench coat. They were still wary after hearing Cleo’s story of what happened to Tomas and Albert, but knew that with their numbers, nothing, not even a Slayer, could hope to stand against them for long.

“I knew you would be here,” said the human, with a glance at Cleo, “and I have a proposition to make.” He looked around and realized that his plan had better work, or he really would end up dead. Like Maggie and Katie, he thought grimly. It was Saturday night, and he had followed one of the vampires into the tunnels, one of which emerged right into this “Spike’s” lair—an abandoned factory. It had grown progressively darker as he had delved into the catacombs, and now he doubted he could find his way out unaided.

“I know you hate Angel as much as I do,” Tintsman continued. “If you tell me where to find him, I will . . . end him.”

“Kill Angel?” Spike exclaimed, as if the human in front of him had made a great joke. “What a lovely thought. Unfortunately, better than you have tried. I should know—I’m one of them.” He looked down at his own crippled legs, injured in the collapse of the church when he had kidnapped Angel to revive his beloved Drusilla. His eyes rose and he carefully looked over the man standing in front of him. Spike was surprised to see that he didn’t show fear—or really much of any emotion at all. Spike knew that the man carried a surprising array of weaponry and was as physically strong as any vampire, but beyond that he was a mystery. Still, he reflected, if this fellow wants to kill Angel, who am I to stand in the way? Angel and his precious Slayer had been a thorn in Spike’s backside ever since coming to Sunnydale.

“What makes you think you can?” Spike said finally.

“I wounded him at his resting place. He ran from me there.”

“Well,” Spike said, impressed. “Perhaps we can come to an arrangement.”

Later, after the man had been escorted out of the factory, Spike wheeled himself into Dru’s bedroom. The bed was scarlet and canopied, while along the walls were hundreds of dolls, each with a black gag tied around its mouth. His lover sat at the edge of the bed, carefully drawing an ivory-handled comb through her long, dark hair with one hand while gazing intently at the small hand-mirror she held in her other hand. Dru got up as he entered and gave him a deep kiss—she was almost completely cured from the mystical disease she had been afflicted with.

“Please tell me it’s not true lovey,” she said. “Please don’t tell me he’s going to kill Angel. I was so hoping we would get to.” She pouted and spoke in an odd, lilting, almost childlike manner while fluttering her eyelashes.

“Don’t worry, my little bird,” Spike replied, stroking her arm “It will never happen. But until I’m better, anything that will keep Angel occupied can’t be all bad, now can it? And pet,” he said, gently taking the mirror from her hand, “your hair looks lovely—but I’ve told you about the mirror—you can’t see anything in them, remember?”

“Silly silly silly,” Dru recited, swaying back and forth to nonexistent music. “Of course I can’t see what’s in the mirror. But what’s in the mirror can see me—and I want everything to be just perfect.” She sat back on the bed and continued brushing her hair.

“Right,” Spike said hesitantly.

When he left her bedroom, he beckoned several of his followers forward.

“Follow him,” he instructed. “Discretely, mind you. Help him finish off Angel if he finds him, and then finish him. If he doesn’t find Angel, finish him off anyway. Either way, I don’t want him alive come sunrise.”

***

Hot tea sloshed out of the cup and onto the counter as Giles was startled by the tapping on his kitchen window. He looked up and saw Angel wearing a serious expression on the other side. Giles had not expected company, but in any event he assumed company would use the front door should they arrive. He leaned over and unlatched the window and pulled it up.

“Can I come in?” said Angel.

“Ah, sure. Of course,” said Giles, hesitating slightly. Once invited in, Angel could enter his home at any time. But Giles knew that if Angel had wanted to kill him, the vampire would have had hundreds of opportunities in the past several months. “I was just brewing a pot of tea. Would you care for some?” he asked as Angel climbed smoothly through the window.

“No thank you. I thought I had better try coming through here instead of the door,” he explained. “I think I’m being followed.”

“Come and let’s sit down,” said Giles, moving into the living room and pulling small piles of books with titles like Death Rituals of the Ancient Orient and Ten Simple Mistakes Every Summoner Makes off of the chairs and onto the floor. Small stacks of note cards and various file folders covered a table in the room. Saturday night was one of Giles’ favorites. Not because he enjoyed parties or barhopping like the younger inhabitants of Sunnydale, but because it allowed him an entire uninterrupted day to spend on his studies.

Angel quickly recounted what he had found in the cemetery and the subsequent attack at his apartment. “I’m not sure what to think,” he concluded. “My attacker was something like a hi-tech Slayer—but even stronger than Buffy or me. What I don’t understand is that it seemed to have some kind of personal grudge against me. He was human, though. I could tell from his scent.”

“And you’re sure you’ve never heard of this ‘Maggie and Katie’? Something dating from the time before your, ah, change, perhaps?”

“I . . . I don’t think so,” Angel’s faced looked pained as he tried to recall. “No, it couldn’t be. This man was only in his forties or fifties, and it’s been almost a century since I . . . changed.”

“Well, the weaponry and the outfit you describe are clearly his most distinctive characteristics. I’ll do some research and see what I can uncover—only this is more in Willow’s field than my own. Still, she showed me a few things on how to use the ah . . .” he fumbled for the word.

“Internet?”

“Precisely. I’ll head to the library and see if I can find anything.”

“There is something else,” warned Angel. “I’ve heard rumors that there’s a new presence in town—the vampiric kind. I’ll check into it and meet you back at the library.”

“Right. Be careful then. If something happens, Buffy will not be there to save you.”

“Yes. But at least she’s somewhere safe.”

***

Angel made his way cautiously along the wide streets of the warehouse district, where Willie the Snitch had told him the newcomers could be found. Unlike most places in Sunnydale on a Saturday night, the warehouse district was largely deserted. A thick San Francisco-like fog had rolled in, making it difficult to see very far in the distance. Occasionally a street light illuminated a small puddle of the darkness, but with so many large buildings any light was quickly obscured. Unlike light, however, sound carried easily and Angel quickly discerned voices nearby.

“He’ll be either at the house or at the school,” one of the voices said.

“How do we know?” another answered.

“Because he’s never anywhere else. At least that’s what the file says. Even on a Saturday night.” Angel edged along a building wall in a crouch and peeked around the corner. On the opposite side of the street was a long, low warehouse with its main loading doors pulled open. A black sedan sat in front of it, and a man in a business suit was conversing with a handful of other fellows in jumpsuits. Angel could tell that some of them, at least, were vampires just from the smell and the way they carried themselves. Giles will be at the school, he realized. If they’re going there for some reason, he may be in danger.

“What do we have here? A lurker, it looks like,” said a voice directly behind Angel.

He spun and saw two figures in blue jumpsuits standing just a few feet away. He silently cursed himself for being careless just as their faces contorted. His did the same, causing them to hesitate—but not for long. Angel’s opponents looked at each other and then simultaneously leapt for him with claws and fangs extended.

He ducked out of the way just in time, causing one of the vampires to smash into the wall with a loud thud. Angel stayed in a crouch as his leg lashed out, striking the other vampire in the back of the knees and sweeping it off of its feet. Angel stood up and spun around to meet the charge of the other vampire, who had already recovered. He managed to catch the vampire's wrists but the sheer force of the charge knocked them both to the ground. Angel landed on his back, still holding his attacker’s wrists, but that left his neck vulnerable to the vampire’s fangs—the pain was immense as the vampire tore a large chunk of flesh out of Angel’s neck. It wouldn’t kill him of course—few things could kill a vampire—but it still hurt like hell!

Just as the vampire was going in for another bite, Angel swung his head around hard and hit the vampire right in the nose with his forehead, stunning him. Angel took advantage of the opportunity to roll the vampire over, so he was now on top.

The forearm suddenly around his neck told him that the vampire he had swept off its feet earlier was back in the game. Angel knew he had to end this quickly before he was simply worn out. Still straddling one of the vampires, he grabbed the other’s arm and tugged forward, flipping the vampire over his shoulder. It landed hard on the concrete.

The other vampire, still bleeding from the nose and dazed, was helpless as Angel formed his fingers into a point and plunged it into its chest and grabbed its heart. He pulled it out, disgusted by what he had been forced to do, as both the heart and the vampire turned to ash.

All of this had transpired in just a few seconds, but it was enough time for the vampires and man he had watched earlier to be alerted. He saw the vampires heading in his direction, and decided that fighting four or five at the same time would not be a good idea.

When the other vampires reached the scene, they found only one of their companions and a pile of ash. Their mysterious attacker was nowhere to be found. Had they but looked up, they would have seen him about fifteen feet above the street, pressed against the wall and hanging onto a window ledge.

When they had returned safely to the warehouse, Wittingstone listened with displeasure as one of the vampires explained how he had been attacked by another vampire. Wittingstone sighed and shook his head. It was bound to happen sooner or later, he thought to himself. We’ll simply have to engage in some early practice runs. Hopefully, there will be still some targets left when the Brass arrive for the field demonstration next week. Wittingstone walked over to one of the crates and lifted its lid. He began handing out small rifles with drum magazines, pistols with small hose attachments, and silver, layered suits of body armor.

“You’ve all been trained in these,” he said as the vampires began donned the equipment. “The rifles fire wooden ‘bullets,’” he continued. “Holy water,” he said, holding up the small pistol and hose. “Watch out for overspray. And of course, the exoskeletons will increase your strength even beyond its current level.”

“Now I want these back in mint condition,” he said sternly. “Mr. Castillo will be displeased to find we’ve damaged his prototypes before the actual demonstration.”

***

Joyce pressed the doorbell one last time, before turning away disappointed. She held a small tin of homemade brownies in her hands, and had hoped to interest Mr. Giles in a quick snack and some  conversation. She was surprised he wasn’t home—according to Buffy, he was something of a homebody. It’s not that I’m attracted to him, she reflected, he’s far too bookish for that. But ever since Ted I’ve been spending far too many Saturday nights home alone. And it must be lonely to move from a whole different country to someplace like Sunnydale where you don’t know anybody.

She decided to try again tomorrow night and started walking down the path back to the street. She hoped he might tell her more about how Buffy had been doing in school. The girl was always reticent to talk about it. Still, Joyce was pleased that the girl had found something of a mentor in the librarian—any friends had to be better than those troublemakers she had been involved with at her last school, and having an ally on the faculty might help her stay in school longer if the Board of Education ever decided to expel her again.

Just as she reached the sidewalk, a black sedan pulled up and parked in front of the house. Joyce could see that a man in a dark suit was behind the wheel. He quickly opened the door and walked around the front of the car to stand a few feet in front of her.

“Good evening, ma’am,” he said. Joyce was past the point where it stung to be called “ma’m” as if she were middle-aged, but had not yet reached the point where she expected it as a sign of respect.

“Hello,” she nodded, and pointed back towards the house. “If you’re here to see Mr. Giles, I fear we’ve both missed him.” She was curious what sort of involvement Mr. Giles would have with someone like this on a Saturday night.

“Well that is disappointing,” Wittingstone said politely. “But I can always call again. I have very important business with him. Pleasant evening, then,” he finished, walking back to the car.

“The library,” he said to himself as soon as the door was shut. The sedan started up and rolled down the street.

Joyce headed home for another evening with the television as company. But at least I have fresh brownies to console myself with, she thought.

***

Giles tapped the “Delete” button with frustration. He wasn’t sure how it had happened, but slowly his screened had become filled with various windows advertising everything from home mortgage assistance and instant college degrees, to pictures that made him blush. The worst part was that he had no idea how to make them go away and return to his search screen. Infernal thing, he thought to himself. No one ever has to wonder how to close a book if its rubbish.

He pushed the keyboard away in frustration and walked over to the phone on the counter. He tried calling Jenny Calendar, but only got an answering machine. Pulling a small slip of paper out of his pocket, he dialed a different number. He hated to bother Willow on her and Buffy’s vacation, but if anyone could make sense of these dreadful computer problems, she could. The phone just started to ring when Giles heard the library doors open. He covered the speaker with one hand and turned towards them to say “I’ll be with you in just a moment, Angel” when he realized he wasn’t looking at Angel. Vampires, yes. Angel, no. Spike’s bunch, Giles realized, as the two advanced towards him.

“Arctic Ridge. This is Chad,” said a groggy voice from the receiver. Giles dropped the phone and backed up around the counter, placing it between him and the vampires. He knew that his friends were too far away to help him with this problem.

The vampires advanced slowly, and then leaped right on top of the counter. They had grown bored of following the other human around and decided to stop for a quick snack when they saw the library light on. Besides, this one looked like much easier prey than the other.

Giles continued to back away and then turned and sprinted for the doorway to a small room behind the counter. I wish I had participated in Buffy’s calisthenics instead of simply supervising them, he thought to himself, panting. He reached the doorway and shut it behind him, locking it just as his attackers reached the door. He knew it wouldn’t hold them for long. He ran to the shelves and began fumbling through the boxes. I know it has to be here somewhere.

A hand punched through the door, right above the handle and then fumbled to release the lock. It turned with a click and Giles turned around, his back against the wall. He aimed carefully and the crossbow bolt embedded itself in the vampire’s heart, causing the creature to disintegrate. Giles fumbled with another bolt, realizing he would never have it loaded in time. The vampire’s companion advanced with a smile, knowing it was going to enjoy this.

The sensation of his skin burning made him think otherwise. He growled out in anger and turned, catching the blast of water full in the chest. In just a few seconds, both he and his vampiric companion had disintegrated.

Giles, too, was covered by this spray of water. His tweed jacket was drenched, his glasses were knocked off his face, and his hair was in soggy disarray. He kneeled down and fumbled in the pooling water for his glasses, shaking water off of them as he put them back into place.

“You!” he exclaimed, seeing the figure that Angel had described so well.

“I . . . thought you might be one of them,” the figure said plainly, without apologizing.

“Ah, of course,” said Giles, squeezing water out of his jacket.

“You should be careful. I am told that another one will be here tonight. He is called Angel.”

“Angel?” Giles said, then decided to play along. “Yes. I’ve ah . . . heard of him. How exactly do you two know each other?” If he could find out what this fellow wanted with Angel, Giles hoped, he might be able to persuade him that he had the wrong man—or vampire.

“I am . . .” the figure hesitated, as if he could barely remember the answer to the question. “My name is Michael Tintsman. My wife and daughter were . . . killed on the orders of Angel. I’ve tracked him across the country. It’s taken me six months to find out where he is, but now I am close. He will be here tonight.”

“Ah, are you sure you have the right one?” Giles said. He knew it couldn’t be Angel, as Angel was with him and Buffy last year. And if he ever decided to start feasting on living prey again, he wouldn’t travel across the country to do it.

“Yes. His killers said so before they . . .” Michael closed his eyes in pain. It was clear to Giles that this man had never come to grips with his wife’s and daughter’s deaths. Instead, he had turned to revenge to keep from dealing with the real pain.

“And your ah, equipment?” Giles asked, more out of curiosity than anything.

“I . . .took them . . . from a project I used to work on for the government.” Michael knew, but did not say, that the Sunrise Project had been developed to track and hunt vampires, proof of whose existence they had finally been provided with by the project’s private contractor, Electrotech, Inc. The only problem was that the exoskeleton required the constant injection of adrenaline and other drugs into the wearer’s system in order to function. When studies consistently showed that the injections had negative effects on memory and emotional states, Michael had written the report recommending that it be canceled.

Giles sympathized with the man’s plight, but knew that Angel could not be to blame. He was attempting to come up with a believable story that would convince the man to leave Sunnydale and not return, when the subject of their conversation burst through the library doors, intending to warn Giles of an impending attack.

Michael could hardly believe what he saw, but he regained his composure quickly. “I won’t let you kill another innocent,” he whispered, placing himself between Giles and Angel.

Angel stopped short when he saw Michael there, but crashed back through the door when dozens of wooden darts flew at him. One of the darts struck him in the leg, while another broke the small pane of glass in one of the doors.

“Wait!” Giles shouted at Michael’s back. But it was to no avail. The hunter planned to follow the wounded Angel out into the hallway, and finish him off for good.