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'This is a very bad idea.'
'You've said that already.'
'Well, I'm saying it again.'
Clem and I crept towards the abandoned warehouse. Well, I crept. Clem kind of shuffled as quietly as he was able. The large orange sign on the warehouse read 'To Let'. It had been the same for as long as I had known this place existed. Apparently, so the school-yard gossip had it, potential tenants were discouraged by rumours that the previous occupants had been, well, eaten. The rent was cheap, but it wasn't that cheap.
'I just think we should have stayed at home,' Clem continued as we skirted the outside of the perimeter fence, 'where it's safe.'
'And what about those girls?' I said.
'Aw, jeez,' Clem complained, 'I don't want to see them hurt anymore than you do. But isn't this, like, a job for the Slayer?'
'Buffy's ' I paused, searching for the words. 'Buffy's not feeling herself today. So it's up to us. Unless you want to go back. I could probably do this by myself, you know.'
'No way,' Clem replied hurriedly. 'If Buffy found out I let you go in there alone she'd kill me. And whatever's in there isn't anything like a scary as big sister.'
'Let's go, then,' I said with a smile and we continued to search for a way inside.
To be honest, I didn't know how much help Clem was going to be. I mean, sure, he was a demon, but even with all those layers of loose flesh, he wasn't a particularly scary one. And he wouldn't even say boo to a goose. He was just too nice. In a good way. But he wasn't going to be much use in a fight. Still, he looked big and tough and maybe that would be enough to frighten off this whatever it was.
'Hey, what's this?'
I crouched down to examine the fence. Someone had cut a hole in it, just large enough for me to crawl through. Clem, on the other hand, was going to have major problems.
'I'll never fit through there,' he said, shaking his head and waggling his floppy ears. 'Uh uh. No way.'
'We don't have time to go looking for another way in,' I protested. 'Whatever's holding those girls could be doing nastiness to them right now.' (Assuming he hadn't already.)
'And that's exactly why you shouldn't go in there alone,' Clem insisted. 'Maybe we should wait until morning. It might look less scary then.'
'We don't have time,' I repeated.
'I won't let you go in there,' Clem insisted.
'And just how are you going to stop me?' I asked as I wriggled through the gap in the fence.
'Oh Dawn,' Clem wailed. 'This is bad. This is really bad. I can feel it.'
'Look, I'm only going to take a quick look round,' I assured him. 'Nothing dangerous, I promise. You'll have found another way inside by then.'
'I guess,' Clem said sceptically. To be honest, I doubted it too, but since when was that the point.
'See ya,' I called over my shoulder as I ran in the direction of the dark building.
The windows had been boarded up, but round the back someone had worked some of the boards loose. There was a pile of crates stacked against the wall and I used these to reach the opening and clamber inside.
I turned on my flashlight.
The warehouse looked empty. Space just stretched on and on as far as the beam of my flashlight would reach. A metal walkway ran round the sides of the room, high above the ground. I put my foot on one of the steps leading up.
I could hear a clattering sound from up above. Someone else was in hear with me.
I hurried up the stairs, wishing I had worn different shoes. The sound of my boots on the metal steps seemed to echo around the warehouse. I prayed that it was just my imagination.
I pulled a stake out of my jacket pocket.
'Who's there,' I called out, trying to sound braver than I felt. Not that I wasn't feeling brave. I was, like, totalling calm. Just like Buffy. Oh, all right, I was practically wetting myself.
'Dawn? Is that you?' a voice called back.
I shone the beam of the flashlight in the direction of the voice and, sure enough, there was Drew, crouched on the walkway. I quickly stuffed the stake beneath my jacket.
'Hey,' he complained as I shone the light in his eyes.
'Sorry,' I said, diverting it elsewhere.
'What are you doing here?' he asked as I squatted down next to him.
'I could ask you the same thing,' I replied.
'Hey, I've a right to be here,' Drew insisted.
'You've a right to go breaking into places in the middle of the night?' I asked.
'Like you can talk,' Drew retorted. 'Anyway, I'm here for the story.'
'Well, if you ask me, if looks like your story's up and left you,' I said.
'You think?' Drew said. 'Turn off that light and then take a look down there.'
I did as I was told and, as my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I was able to make out a faint green glow coming form a hole in the floor.
'What's that?' I asked.
'How the hell should I know?' Drew replied. 'But I know how to find out.'
'Drew, wait up,' I called after him as he hurried along the gantry. It creaked and groaned under his weight.
'Drew, I don't think this is such a good idea,' I began, but it was too late.
The section of walkway he was standing on gave way and Drew found himself tumbling to the ground.
He landed with a heavy thud.
I crawled gingerly to the edge of the hole.
'Drew,' I hissed. 'Are you okay?'
Please let him be okay, I prayed. Don't let him be another of my victims.
'It's my leg,' he called back. I think it's broken.'
'Don't move,' I told him. 'I'll get help.'
Cautiously, I inched my way along the walkway and back to the stairs. The old metal frame creaked in protest, but it held.
Had I somehow triggered the fall, I wondered. Sure, Drew would have been here even if I hadn't come along, but had I somehow jinxed him, the way I jinxed everyone else.
When I reached the ground, I was struck by just how much lighter it had become. I turned back and saw the green glow rising from the hole in the floor getting steadily brighter and brighter.
How could I have been so stupid? Of course, whatever was down that hole would have heard us. Buffy wouldn't have made that kind of mistake.
There was no time to get help. I had to get Drew out of the building like now.
I ran in the direction of the light, searching for him. I kept glancing from side to side in case I'd run past him in my haste. If I'd been looking where I was going then I might have seen the grey tentacle that snaked out of the hole. As it is, I didn't even realise it was there until it had wrapped itself around me and was dragging me down into the pit.
The light in the pit was provided by the glowing fungus coating the walls. At least, I thought it was fungus. Then I noticed a patch opposite me that was lumpier than the rest. And then the thing opened its eyes.
All right, I admit it, I screamed. Can we move on now?
I wasn't alone down in the pit. I counted all five of the missing girls down there with me.
'Did he grab you too?' one of the girls asked. I don't bother to reply since I felt the answer was pretty obvious.
'I was walking home from the Bronze,' another girl - Emily, I think - continued. 'What about you?'
'Well, er, actually I came her to rescue you,' I replied.
As one, the girls rolled their eyes.
'So what does he want?' I asked, gesturing to the blob stuck on the wall. 'It's not '
'Eww.' One of the girls wrinkled her nose. 'You're sick, do you know that.'
'It's nothing like that,' Emily explained. 'He just wants us to tell him stories.'
'Stories?' I asked.
'Stories,' a voice rumbled behind me.
I turned around. The fungus creature had opened its mouth and was addressing me.
'You will tell me a story,' it boomed.
'Um, I don't know any stories,' I protested.
A grey tentacle snaked out from the wall and coiled round me, pinning my arms to my sides and lifting me up off of the ground.
'You will tell me a story,' the fungus monster repeated.
So I did.
'Okay,' I began, 'once upon a time there lived a little red-haired girl. She was really, really smart, but she was like a total spaz when it came to anything sociable. No-one wanted to talk to her - or if they did it was only to call her geek, or worse - so the little girl was sad and lonely.'
'That's terrible,' the fungus monster complained.
'It gets better, I promise,' I said hurriedly. I didn't know what the monster did to narrators he didn't like, but I wasn't in a hurry to find out.
'Anyway, so there's like this sad and lonely girl,' I continued, 'but she's smart, see, and before too long she figures out that things in town aren't quite right. There are monsters and evil things lurking underground ready to pounce of the unwary.'
The fungus monster growled.
'Nothing like you, of course,' I amended hastily. 'I'm talking really vile, evil things. Terrible creatures with hearts that were blacker than black.'
(So I'm not a natural storyteller. I did warn him.)
'And the little girl,' I carried on, 'realising that her world was infested with these things decided she was going to do something about it. And it's not like she had to or anything. She wasn't chosen. She didn't have some mythical destiny. She just wanted to put things right. So the little girl worked long and hard and toiled late into the night studying the magic that she could use to fight these monsters. And when she was ready, she took her spells and started cleaning up the town.
'But you see, the strange thing was, the more she achieved the more she gained in confidence, and not just in her ability to battle the monsters. Oh no, she was growing as a person as well and before too long the little girl had transformed herself into a beautiful princess.'
'And did she get to marry a handsome prince?' the fungus creature asked eagerly.
'Well, they dated,' I explained, 'but it didn't work out. The beautiful princess, you see, was in love with another witch.'
The fungus creature's face contorted. If it had had a brow, then I would have said that it furrowed it. It didn't have a brow, so the overall effect was more than a little worrying.
'A male witch?' it asked. The idea was clearly bothering it.
Now, I know what you're thinking. I should have said, no, a female witch and they were both gay and that's just how it is. But there's a time and place to debate homosexuality and when you're suspended several feet above the ground, wrapped in the tentacles of a fungus monster that's holding a bunch of girls captive so they'll tell it stories well, it's just so not the right time and place.
So instead I said, 'It's your story. If you want a male witch, you can have a male witch.'
The fungus creature seemed to relax a bit at that and I breathed a sigh of relief.
'And did they live happily ever after?' he asked.
'Well, not exactly,' I said. 'I mean, it all went well for a while and the princess and the witch were very much in love. But then an evil warlock entered the kingdom. He wanted to take over, but the witch and the princess and their friends put an end to his villainous scheme.
'And so, in revenge, the warlock killed the witch.'
'No,' the fungus monster said.
'Yes,' I said.
'And did the princess go after the warlock and kill him?' the fungus monster asked.
'Yes, she did,' I replied, 'but in order to fight him she had to summon dark magic.'
The fungus monster's eyes were, quite literally, sticking out on stalks by this point.
'Yes, the evilest magics of the sort she had spent her life working so hard to destroy. And she killed the warlock, but the power corrupted her and turned her into a monster.'
'Yes,' I said. 'And she tried to destroy the kingdom.' ('No!') 'And her friends tried to stop her, but she was too powerful.' ('No!') 'And all seemed lost.' ('No!') 'But then one of her friends, he went to her and he pleaded with her. He didn't try to fight her, he just told her how much he loved her and begged her to come back. And somehow his words reached what little of the princess remained inside the monster. And with her last ounce of free will she tore herself apart and threw her spirit to the four winds.
'The kingdom was saved, but the princess was dead.'
There was a strange snuffling sound coming from the fungus creature. After a moment, I realised that it was crying.
'That's so sad,' it moaned. 'I don't like that story. I don't like it at all.'
'Sometimes that's just how the story works out,' I told him.
'But that's not fair,' the fungus creature complained. 'Stories should have happy endings. Those are the stories I like to listen to.'
'Me too,' I said quietly, 'but that's not the way life works.'
'Well, it should,' the fungus monster said petulantly.
'I'm sorry,' I said and I was surprised to find that I meant it.
'I just wanted to be entertained,' the fungus monster explained. 'It's so boring down here, stuck in a hole day in and day out. I just wanted to listen to some stories. Is that so wrong?'
'No, I guess not,' I replied.
'But I don't think I want to listen to any stories any more,' the fungus monster told me. 'Not if they're going to end like that.'
'I know what you mean,' I said softly as the fungus creature lowered me to the ground and release me.
The creature closed its eyes and the lower lip of its mouth was quivering. I found myself wanting to give it a hug, but how exactly do you hug a clump of fungus? And should it bother me that these questions keep cropping up in my life? This morning it would have done. This morning I'd been wondering what the point of it was, wondering why we had chosen a lifestyle which had killed our friend. But looking at the faces of the girls, all looking up at me for direction, it all came flooding back to me.
I knew why we did the things that we did.
Because it was right.
'Come on,' I said to the girls. 'Quickly, before he notices.'
I herded the girls up out of the pit. The walls weren't that steep and there were plenty of handholds. And the fungus creature seemed too caught up in its own thoughts to pay us much attention.
'Dawn!' Clem was standing at the entrance to the warehouse.
'Clem,' I called back. 'A little help over here.'
Clem bounded over to us in long loping strides.
'What the hell is that?' one of the girls exclaimed.
I rounded on her.
'Shut your mouth,' I snapped. 'How would you feel if we started making fun of the way you look. And believe me, we could.'
A couple of the girls giggled at that.
'Clem's got a a skin condition,' I lied. 'Deal with it.'
'Don't worry, it's not contagious,' Clem assured them.
'Yeah, like I'm getting close enough to find out,' one of the girls remarked.
I scowled, but let the matter drop. I had other things to worry about.
'Clem,' I said, 'can you give me a hand over here. We think his leg might be broken.'
'Stay here,' Clem said and hurried off outside.
'Drew, you still with us?' I asked.
'Well, I hurt like hell, so I guess I must be, yeah,' he replied.
'Cool. Listen, have you got your Gameboy with you?' I asked.
I gave Drew my most insistent look.
'Yeah, sure, never leave home without it.'
He fished it out of his pocket and handed it to me.
'Thanks,' I said. 'Back in a minute.'
'Hey,' Drew complained. 'What's going on.'
'Your big story,' I told him, gesturing to the formerly-missing girls. Then I clambered back down the hole.
'Look,' I said to the fungus creature, 'I'm sorry about, you know, how the story turned out.'
'Not your fault,' the creature said and sniffed. At least, it sounded like a sniff, but since the fungus monster didn't have a nose I wasn't entirely sure.
'I've got something for you,' I said, holding the Gameboy at arm's length, 'so you won't, like, be bored or anything.'
'That's nice of you,' the fungus creature said as it took the toy from me with a tentacle. 'No one's ever given me anything before. What does it do?'
'Well, first you have to turn it on,' I explained, showing it how to work it. Its eyes lit up as the screen burst into life and a big grin spread across its face.
'Well, I'll just be going then,' I said, backing away. But the fungus creature wasn't listening. Clearly Nintendo was far more interesting than girls. Men. What else was there to say?
Clem had improvised a splint from one of the crates and was binding it to Drew's leg as I emerged from the hole. His fingers were surprisingly dextrous.
'Well?' he asked me.
'Let's get out of here,' I told him.
'That's what I've been saying all night,' he said.
He scooped Drew up in his arms and headed for the door.
I folded my arms and looked at the five girls.
'Well?' I prompted.
They reached the exit before Clem did.
* * *
Later, we were walking back through the cemetery to Clem's place. We had found an all-night diner and were sharing a bucket of chicken wings between us.
'Sun's coming up,' Clem remarked, pointing to the lightening horizon.
'Good thing today's not a school day,' I replied.
'So, have you got to get back or shall we see if there are any cartoons on?' Clem asked.
'Cartoons sound good,' I confirmed as we stepped inside the crypt.
We stopped on the threshold.
There was a black shape sprawled in front of the TV.
'What are you doing here?' I demanded, reaching for my stake.
'What do you think I'm doing?' the figure shot back. 'I bloody live here?'
My jaw dropped open.
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