by E.Escher - 28th Sep 2017
It was the dead of night, and everything was quiet. Miki opened her eyes and looked around. Immediately, she knew that something wasn't right.
For starters, she'd gone to bed as usual, but now she was lying on her back in the middle of a field. There was no sign of her bed, or her room. Somehow she'd been transported to a strange place while she slept.
She wasn't as alarmed by this as you might have expected; it certainly wasn't the first time.
She was alarmed, however, when she could find no sign of Jack. She glanced this way and that, but her mentor, legal guardian and best friend was nowhere to be seen, and she felt a moment of keen loss before she remembered the lessons he'd drilled into her.
Assess your situation. Concentrate on what you have. Identify threats.
'Asses the situation…' she mused. 'Where am I? Lots of grass, so I'm in a field. Somewhere new. Doesn't seem familiar.'
With a slight frown, she let her magical senses adjust and felt the welcome tingle of a strong magical spoor. She tilted her head, sniffing the air instinctively as she tried to get a better field for the local magic. It didn't take long for her to ascertain the general direction of the source, and analyse the moralistic origin that seeped from the very soil.
Evil. Wherever she was, there was a massive source of evil power nearby.
'Awesome' she thought to herself. She wasn't a particularly powerful spellcaster, but she had an innate talent for tapping varied sources of magical energy, and evil magic was naturally easy to latch onto. By its nature it wanted to be used, providing an easy route to lure eager magicians into corruption.
Miki wasn't worried about being corrupted by dark magic; she wasn't like most young practitioners, taking their first nervous steps into darkness. Miki was a devil.
Her spade-tipped tail moved sinuously in the air as she sprung to her feet and checked herself over. She shook out her wings and glanced back to verify that they were unchanged. A quick tap at the forehead confirmed that her cute little horns were still in place. At just over an inch long, they weren't super-impressive, but she'd have felt weird without them.
As for clothes, she was wearing her favourite black dress and boots. All in all, everything seemed to be normal, which was a relief. Random magical teleportations tended to leave people naked if they were lucky, or missing limbs and facial features if things went wrong.
As a final test, just to check that everything was in order, she stretched out her magical awareness and grasped for her soul-bonded pitchfork. Her fingers closed around nothing, but she could sense the weapon's potential, just waiting on the other side of reality for her to summon it forth.
She wanted to test her other powers, but they could wait a little while. She was alive, intact, clothed, and had access to a weapon. She didn't seem to be in any immediate peril, so it was time to move out and find out where she was.
She felt a tiny tickle as she took her first step, and glanced down to see a second-order magical circle. It was a very minor manifestation, just some flattened grass and a ring of small stones. A teleportation spell would have required far more effort, suggesting that she had been sent here, rather than summoned. The big magic would have been performed at the other end.
Also, if she'd been summoned by somebody, they would have been somewhere around to greet her.
She turned a full circle and confirmed that nobody was standing just out of sight. That done, she thought back to her training, and quickly catalogued her situation.
She was in a field. It was dark. She was alone. She saw lights in the distance, and heard the faint sounds of motor vehicles, so she wasn't in the dark ages. There were also trees and woodland nearby, so she wasn't in some gloomy city, either. Her mentor, Jack, called the half-way places suburbs. That was cool. She could handle that.
But first she needed a den.
= = =
Xander burst into the library brandishing a newspaper. 'Have you guys heard anything about this?'
Giles rolled his eyes. 'The invention of movable type, or some article in particular?'
The newspaper flopped onto the table where Buffy and Willow leaned over for a look. 'Right here on the front page!'
'Of course,' muttered the Englishman, 'Heaven forbid you'd actually open the thing.'
Buffy scanned the headline, and yawned. 'The sporting goods robbery? That's not news, that was days ago.'
The boy grinned. 'Aha! And in fact, also, no.'
Willow met his gaze. 'This is a different store. The third one this week.'
'And every time the crooks have stolen gear for camping and hunting.'
Giles approached the table, frowning. 'That is somewhat odd. You're suggesting this is somehow related to the hellmouth?'
Buffy sighed. 'If it's odd and it's in Sunnydale, it's probably hellmouth-related. Unless the local girl scouts have gone feral and turned to crime, which... probably still hellmouth-related.'
Xander nodded enthusiastically. 'That's what I was thinking. Somebody wants to set up a base camp, and they don't want to pay for it.'
Willow slid her chair over to the computer. 'There's quite a few places where somebody could set up a small camp in secret. How many tents were stolen? That'd give us a clue to how many people we're looking for.'
'Assuming they're people.'
Buffy gave Giles a questioning look. 'Do demons camp out? I thought it was either caves or sewer tunnels for those guys.'
'It's possible, I suppose. I'll look into it. In the meantime, we should plot a patrol route that passes by likely hiding places. Mostly wooded areas, I imagine, away from the public.'
'That would also give them some shelter from the sun.' added Willow.
'I guess the graveyards and dark alleys must be too crowded,' grumbled the slayer. 'Now the monsters are hanging out in spooky forests.'
= = =
The following morning saw the group exchanging notes and ideas in the library.
'Any sign of our thief?' enquired Giles.
'Nah. Dusted a couple of fledgelings near the Bronze, but they didn't seem like the outdoors type. Not part of our mystery camping club.'
Willow nodded. 'Giles and I did the research thing.'
'Nuh-uh. All the common or garden variety demons instinctively head underground. It could be something really exotic or weird, but, well, there's a huge number of demon breeds in these books. Exotic and weird is a big category.'
Giles polished his glasses in frustration. 'I'm not sure we're on the right track at all. If our culprit likes camping, why didn't they bring camping equipment with them?'
'Or an RV?' piped up Xander.
'Maybe there's too much to carry,' suggested Willow. 'Or, or maybe they had a campsite somewhere else, and something happened and they had to leave it behind.'
Buffy seized on the tactical significance. 'So they're either not strong enough to carry their own gear for long distances, or possibly something has already kicked their asses and they're here to lick their wounds.' Depleted numbers of weak, injured demons sounded better than an organised cult.
= = =
The rest of the morning was dull and uneventful, which by Sunnydale standards was something of a blessing. Xander waited in line for lunch and overheard an interesting conversation:
'Did you hear about the robberies in the mall? Yeah? Well get this, somebody's robbed a building site, over on 8th street. That house that mysteriously collapsed last year? They're building a new one, but they've had to stop work because somebody's stolen a whole pile of stuff.'
He grabbed his food and hurried away to repeat the story for Willow and Buffy.
'Isn't that just the weirdest?' he commented.
Buffy seemed to agree. 'Okay, here's the plan. Xander, you go ask around at the building site. I'll go talk to Willy the Snitch. Willow, you help Giles with the books; it's possible somebody's going to build a temple or something, like for a ritual. Check the calendars, and then look for temple-building demons.'
Xander slurped his drink. 'What if there's nobody at the building site? For the asking of questions?'
Buffy frowned. 'Just take a look around, find some clues.'
'Clues. Got it.'
= = =
Mysteriously collapsing houses weren't super-common, even in Sunnydale, so Xander was able to get the address of the building site without too much hassle, and later that afternoon he made his way there to look for clues.
The place was pretty quiet when he arrived, with construction mostly halted due to missing materials. A few guys sat around the place, half-heartedly looking for something useful to do. The supervisor's pickup was parked on the driveway, and Xander gave a quiet 'yay' as he recognised the vehicle as belonging to a friend of his uncle Dave.
Xander smiled and wandered into the construction area. 'Hi Hank, remember me? Xander Harris?'
= = =
A few minutes later, Xander was all caught up on the gossip regarding the robbery. Hank had nothing better to do than chat, in fact, while the rest of the guys secured the site and ordered more materials.
'I can't figure it. The missing stuff is mostly structural timber, bunch of tarpaulins, some old woodworking tools, a couple of shovels. Damn bad timing too, we finished laying the foundations last week, turned up this morning to start building and somebody's cleared out the site.'
'I see more shovels over there. Replacements?'
'Nope, whoever it was, they just took the two new ones from storage and left these here.'
Xander frowned. Did that say something about their numbers, or the amount of digging they had planned?
'So they got into the storage unit?'
'Yeah. They broke in, helped themselves to a few things, and left the rest. Damn weird, if you ask me. Left a whole bunch of powertools, too. Useful stuff if you're making something, or valuable even if you're not. Weird.'
'Did the police say anything?'
'Meh.' Hank grumbled. 'They took a bunch of photos of the lock and some footprints, then cleared off.'
'Ooh, footprints! Can I take a look? Just curious.'
'Sure. Go ahead.' he pointed toward the dark shadow of the toolshed. 'See for yourself, and don't worry about contaminating the evidence.' He chuckled, and Xander strode over to check out the scene.
Sure enough, the damage done was pretty permanent: one of the thieves had left a trail of dainty bootprints across a patch of unset concrete. The prints clearly showed a boot with a raised heel, and they were small. Xander looked down at his own shoes and decided the prints either belonged to a girl or a child, or maybe both. Maybe a midget. The prints also had a weird symbol in the tread, and he considered coming back with some paper to do a rubbing for Giles. He instead took a long hard look at it until he figured he could probably reproduce it from memory.
It could be nothing, or it could be the clue that told them everything about the weird, tiny, camping and construction munchkins.
He then went to look at the storage unit, and grimaced at the dented metalwork. The corrugated sheeting was buckled and bent in a way that suggested someone, or something, had forced its way out. The door frame had bent outward until the latch mechanism no longer meshed, and the padlock had torn free of the hasp as the metal gave way.
Frowning at the damage, he took a step closer, holding out his hand toward the centre of the depression. Something didn't make sense. The thieves had found their way in, without damaging the door, and then smashed their way out. He crouched and ran his fingers over the dents. There was a well-defined impression of knuckles; much lower than he would have expected, from a hand far smaller than his own. Smaller even than Buffy's, which further confirmed his evil munchkin theory.
Still frowning to himself, he wandered back to Hank, who flashed a wry grin.
'Weird, huh? Cops say it was kids.'
'Kids on PCP?' Xander rolled his eyes. The police in Sunnydale really needed some new cover stories.
'Yeah. Is that what you kids are up to these days?'
'Not really, no.'
They spent a little while longer chatting about the planned house, until Xander noticed that the sun was beginning to set. Time to head home, the rest of the workmen had already cleared off. He made his excuses and left.
The park wasn't too far out of his way, so there was a chance he could meet up with Buffy and pass on his findings. She would probably be patrolling through there at some point. There were several wooded patches within and around the park, and while those within were too small for a campsite, some of the outer woods were deep and dark, theoretically perfect for a temporary evil base camp.
He could probably save her some time if he covered some of the ground himself. He was no slayer, but he could scout out some bushes and report the absence of a campsite easily enough.
Five minutes later, Xander clambered over a rusty railing and fought his way through some stringy shrubs. He kicked his way clear and pushed through the undergrowth until he found a clearing. Time to check for camping activity.
He checked around for footprints, or evidence of campers, but the only signs were some discarded candy wrappers. A sudden brainwave caused him to look up, in case the campers had built a network of treehouses, but the dark branches were empty.
And dark. It seemed obvious now, but he hadn't realised how creepy a dark forest would be once night started to fall. It was getting properly dark in here, and unless Buffy was within shrieking distance, he could be in real trouble.
He looked back over his shoulder, but the railing was nowhere in sight. He'd gotten turned around, and his best bet now was to push on as quickly as quietly as possible, and hope nothing toothy heard him.
Xander felt a blow against the back of his head, and everything went black.
= = =
Buffy met Willow outside the library, and they headed inside. Giles was waiting behind the counter, and put down the book he'd been studying.
'Ah, girls.' He removed his glasses and gave them a brief polish. 'I gather your information-gathering was unsuccessful?'
Buffy shook her head. 'Totally negative. No groups, no cults, no camping clubs within the general demonic community. Of course, if they're trying to stay out of sight, maybe they're avoiding other demons as well.'
'And you found nothing on your patrol?'
'I found some really icky fungus,' she offered. 'It was black and slimy and majorly of the eww, and I don't think those gloves are ever going to be clean again.'
'Ooh?' Willow was already reaching for the books. 'Was it a demonic fungus?'
'I don't think so, Wil. Just icky. Did you guys have any luck with the research?'
'I googled for similar thefts in nearby towns over the past six months, but I didn't find anything.' She trailed off, a little disappointed.
'Giles? Did the books shed any light on our mystery?'
'I'm afraid not. I looked into every prophecy I could find, and there seems to be nothing immediately relevant, especially nothing that would require a large group, or temple, or outdoor ritual. I've identified a few types of demon that build fairly conventional campsites, but they tend to travel in rampaging packs, and the tents are made from the hides of their victims.'
'Pretty sure I'd notice that,' deadpanned the slayer.
'Yes, quite. Our only other lead is the theft at the building site. Apparently the police have attributed the thefts to, and I quote, Children on PCP.'
'Children? Not the ever-present "Gangs"?'
'Forensic investigators found small footprints at the scene. The article followed up with a spokesperson blaming all society's woes on the youth of today, and a lack of respect for the rules. It was quite tedious.'
Willow creased her brow in thought. 'Small footprints? Did they mention a shoe-size in the article? Or any idea how young these children were?'
Buffy began to pace. 'I'm thinking either midget demons, or somebody turned a kid into a vampire, which is like, super-rare, right?'
Giles grimaced. 'Ah, yes, it's considered extremely poor form in vampire circles.'
'Midget demons it is, then. They've been kicked out of their old town, and decided to set up base in Sunnydale. I almost feel sorry for 'em.'
Willow tilted her head. 'I never realised Sunnydale PD had a forensics department.'
'Myeah, good thing we sent our own intrepid investigator for a look around.' Buffy glanced around, having just realised what was missing. 'Speaking of whom, where's Xander?'
Willow's eyes went wide. 'He didn't call round this morning, I assumed he'd come straight here.'
Both girls turned to Giles, who shook his head. 'He certainly hasn't been here, as far as I can tell.'
Willow gasped. 'What if something's happened to him?'
'Maybe he's been kidnapped by midget demons.' Buffy let out a sigh. 'That'd be just peachy.'