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Chapter Five - Us and Them

'So wh-what am I?'

Dawn still had her back to the door. Her questing hands had found the handle, but they had not turned it.

'Have you ever heard of a changeling?'

The voice – a woman's voice – had not come from the crow this time. Instead, it seemed to be coming from the mirror. Dawn risked looking away from the crow, but rather than its expected for reflection, the mirror showed a woman sitting in its place on the window-sill. Dawn glanced back at the window, but the crow was still there. She returned her attention to the woman in the mirror.

It was the eyes that struck her first, predatory and powerful. Dawn felt as if she was physically shrinking beneath the woman's stare. Beyond the eyes was a sharp-edged yet attractive face framed by straight black hair that fell to her waist. The hair was kept out of her eyes by a crown of ivy leaves. Her dress was green, pale at the halter round her throat, but dark green like holly at her ankles. The dress was hemmed with tiny leaves, golden as if touched by Fall. Similar leaves formed a spiral pattern running the length of her left arm.

'A changeling?' Dawn repeated. 'You mean like in Star Trek?'

The woman smiled and Dawn felt as if she was humouring her. She did not like it when Mom did it and she was not about to start liking it now.

'I do not understand the words,' the woman replied, 'but I suspect not. A changeling is one of the fairy-folk.'

'Fairies. Right.'

Jacqui at school was into fairies in a big way. She was forever doodling them in the margins of her textbooks. Dawn had visited her house once. Her room was full of paintings of tiny women with butterfly wings. Dawn had not been impressed.

'I take it that you do not believe in fairies,' the woman deduced.

Dawn shrugged. She released the door handle and her hands found a home just behind her hips.

'They're no less believable that some of the other things I've seen,' she explained. 'Don't worry, nobody's going to be dropping dead any time soon. I'm just not a big fan.'

'Oh,' the woman said, 'that is a pity.'

'Tinkerbell was okay,' Dawn hastily added. 'In that movie. You know, the one with Robin Williams.'

The woman was looking condescending again.

'I fear that we have become distracted,' she said. 'I was explaining changelings. It is not unknown for members of the fairy kingdom to…acquire…newborn human children. The practise is discouraged, but we thrive on entertainment and it is at least understandable that some of our number might wish to seek that entertainment elsewhere. Of course, nothing in this life – or any other - is free, and in place of the human child the fairies leave a youngster of their own, a changeling.'

'A bit like a cuckoo you mean,' Dawn said.

'Yes, perhaps a bit,' the woman agreed, 'but unlike the cuckoo chick, the changeling rarely survives. Most changelings are dead before they reach their third birthday.'

'That's horrible.'

The woman shrugged.

'It is the way of things. We are unsuited to this world and a prolonged stay can wither even the hardiest of us. But a few, a very few, can last beyond their third year. They can not only withstand this environment, but seem to thrive in it. Don't you, Dawn?'

'You mean I'm a…I…' Dawn's tongue was heavy and her mouth seemed unable to form words. Her hands were shaking so she buried them in her pockets.

'You can see it, can't you,' the woman said. 'You have known for a long time that you do not belong here. Now you know why. You are one of us, Dawn, and I am here to take you home.'

* * *

'What are these things?'

Buffy rolled to the left, narrowly a fist that smashed a hole through the window of the pet shop. A group of birds, woken by the sudden noise, began to cry out in alarm.

'Does it really matter?' Riley responded, diving between the legs of one monster as it swung a huge club through the space he had just occupied.

'Guess not,' Buffy admitted.

There were three of the monsters, each at least seven feet tall and probably closer to eight. They were hunch-backed and clad in matted animal furs. The grey-green skin was warty and oozing mucus. And they were not very friendly.

'Any bright ideas yet, Buffy,' Riley asked, rolling across the bonnet of a parked car in order to put the vehicle between him and the monster. 'Now would be a great time for a devastatingly cunning plan.'

'Sorry, I seem to be all out,' Buffy said, smashing the heel of her right hand into the jaw of the creature towering above her. 'Ow! What are these things made of?'

Buffy and Riley had just about given up on finding the creature that had saved Phoebe Donner and were circling back through town when they heard the commotion. These three things, whatever they were, had been tearing up the street in an apparently mindless act of destruction. The Sunnydale police force had taken one look and disappeared.

Which is exactly what we should have done, Riley thought. The car was not proving quite the obstacle he had hoped. The creature grunted as it picked the vehicle up. It raised it over its shoulder, roared and then hurled it. Riley dived to the ground and the car sailed over him and through the window of the jewellery store across the street. These things might not be very fast, but they had even Buffy beat in the brute force department.

'Buffy, I love a good fight as much as the next man,' Riley began, 'but now might be a good time to cut our losses and run. Buffy?'

He glanced up to find out why she was not answering. It might have had something to do with the hand wrapped around her throat. The creature she had been fighting had lifted her up off the ground and though she was pounding it with her fists and feet in an effort to get free her blows were getting weaker the longer she was deprived of air.

Riley clambered to his feet, looking around for inspiration. Ahead of him were the other two creatures, advancing slowly towards him. Behind him was the wrecked car, the trunk hanging open. Riley ran to the car and stuffed his hands inside. What I wouldn't give for Buffy's strength right now, he thought as he lifted the spare wheel out of the trunk.

'Hey, Ugly!' he shouted as he hefted the wheel two-handed and hurled it like a discus at the creature holding Buffy.

He had been aiming for its head, but he did not have the strength to throw it that far. The arc faltered early and the wheel fell, striking the monster in the small of its back with nothing like the force Riley had intended.

Nevertheless, it was enough.

The creature turned to face its assailant and, distracted, it loosened its hold on Buffy.

Suddenly able to breathe again, she gasped for whatever air she could.

'Forgotten about little ol' me?' she asked.

The creature turned its head back around.

Buffy jabbed both of her thumbs into its eyes. She dug deep, twisting her thumbs sideways and forcing the jelly out of its sockets.

Howling with pain, the creature stumbled backwards, releasing the girl. She landed cat-like on the tarmac.

'I'm through playing,' she said.

The pair advancing on Riley turned when they heard their brother's cry of pain. It was a mistake Riley was not going to pass up. Grabbing the tyre iron from the car's trunk he swung it up between the legs of the nearest monster. Hard. Its cry echoed its companion as it doubled over until its face was on a level with Riley's.

'Sorry, fella,' Riley said. 'But you heard the lady.'

He smashed the tyre iron across the creature's face.

The makeshift weapon folded like a paperclip.

The creature snarled and Riley backed away.

'Nice monster,' he said as he darted across the street to join Buffy.

'You just made him mad,' she said as Riley helped her to her feet.

'You think?' Riley commented. 'So how's this plan of yours coming along then?'

'Still working on it,' Buffy replied.

The two remaining monsters were advancing upon their position, drool trickling from their mouths and steaming where it struck the road.

'So,' Buffy began, 'which do you want? Tweedle-dum or Tweedle-dummer?'

'Lady's choice,' Riley replied.

'Well aren't you the gentleman? On three? One. Two.'

The monsters turned and fled.

'Huh? Did I blink and miss the bit where we saved the day?' Buffy asked. 'What happened?'

'Well, much as I'd like to say they reacted to your winning personality,' Riley said, 'I think it's got more to do with him over there. If he keeps this up you'll be out of a job.'

'I wish,' Buffy said as she watched the golden man striding down the street towards them. Buffy felt that his feet didn't quite touch the ground, but it was difficult to make out any more than a silhouette behind that glow.

'Um, Hi,' she began. 'Thanks for the help. Not that we needed it, but thanks anyway.'

'I seek the cauldron,' the golden man said.

'Well, everyone should have a hobby,' Buffy replied.

'You will tell me where it is.'

'Look, we'd love to help you an' all, but we've no idea what you're talking about,' Buffy confessed.

'If you refuse to tell me,' the golden one warned, 'then I shall be forced to tear the knowledge from you. By force if necessary.'

'Now hang on a minute,' Riley said, interposing himself between Buffy and the glowing man. 'She's told you she doesn't know where it is so why don't you just…'

The creature lunged forward, its hand striking Riley's chest. No, Buffy saw, his hand had passed through Riley's chest and disappeared deep into his torso.

'Now, where is the cauldron?' the golden man repeated.

And Riley began to scream.


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